Saturday, August 14, 2010

No Reservations: FLESHBURN (1984)

I remember this coming out back in the day and being mesmerized by it’s amazing poster promising a wealth of exploitation value: cracked earth, firearms, nude women in bondage, Rambo-esque Indian domination and “a new kind of revenge from the author of DEATH WISH”! Whoa!! Tipper Gore notwithstanding, who wouldn’t want to see that? That’s gotta rock… right? I mean, you have Sonny Landham playing a Vietnam veteran who escapes from a mental asylum so he can kidnap the doctors who testified against him in court, set them loose in the middle of the desert and hunt them down, Indian style. Seriously, how could that not be awesome? Trust me, it’s not.

When it comes to drive-in exploitation flicks, there's a lot of stuff I dig, but one genre I am always down for is the Indian Revenge flick. Who better to root for takin’ it to the man than a Native American? While many minority groups have legitimate complaints of past oppression, bragging rights go to the folks who had their entire country taken away, were massacred in droves and were forced on to tiny parcels of land to commit suicide literally or via drug and alcohol abuse. Preachy, pretentious bullshit movies like BILLY JACK (1971) and it's horrendous sequels (yeah, I said it, they stink on ice) spend time patting themselves on the back for being socially conscious and avoid the raw catharsis of the good stuff like JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975) and THUNDER WARRIOR (1985). Admittedly these films owe their existence to BILLY JACK, but take the theme out of the realm of shrill and naive soapboxing and get into a more visceral area that can strike a chord on an emotional level.

Based on the Brian Garfield novel "Fear in a Handful of Dust" (the title taken from a T.S. Elliot poem), director George Gage, who hadn’t landed a gig since helming the 1978 trainwreck, SKATEBOARD: THE MOVIE, and his wife manage to turn what was probably a mediocre ‘70s beach novel into a tedious, ham-handed, unwatchable mess.

Indian Calvin Duggai (Sonny Landham) escapes from a mental asylum after having a ‘Nam flashback in which his CO demands that he fire a grenade launcher during a firefight. After hijacking a truck and rifle from a hunter, he visits each of the doctors who are all engaged in some sort of ridiculous conversation revealing that they have deep-seated personality flaws and social issues, and kidnaps them mid-breakdown. The first doctor, Jay (Robert Chimento), is the epitome of insecurity and self doubt complete with comb-over. While his wife, Shirley (Karen Carlson), is tryin’ to get some action while wearing a revealing swimsuit, Jay is more interested in his love affair with Jack and Pepsi. He also must be nurturing an OCD affliction as all of the Pepsi cans in his back yard and kitchen are facing the same way… directly at the audience. Weird, huh? While Jay and wife are discussing that the news report that Calvin escaped the asylum, guess who’s coming to dinner? Yep, Calvin casually walks in the kitchen door in complete post-modern Indian garb (big belt buckle, holster, blue jeans, plaid shirt and cowboy hat decorated with feathers). I guess he must have robbed a costume shop on the way over. He ties them up and throws them in the back of the truck and heads out to find his next victim.

His next victim is Sam (Steve Kanaly), a seemingly well adjusted guy who is kidnapped after having this isolated conversation (which is the only scene in which the ranger appears in):
Ranger Smyley: “Hey, that’s a nice old dog you got there, she got a name?”
Sam: “Oh, I dunno… I guess she used to.”
Ranger Smyley: “You know someone told me you were a doctor once, a psychiatrist. What’d you treat? Deaf people? Hahahahahaha!!”
Sam (to dog): “What's that ol' Smyley know anyhow, huh?”
What?! I haven’t witnessed a stranger conversation involving a dog since Joe D’Amato’s THE CRAWLERS (1990). Why do conversations with dogs always turn out totally bizarre in movies? Like David Berkowitz, my conversations with dogs are perfectly logical.

Again, Calvin just pops up out of nowhere, shoves a gun in Sam’s face and when asked “how did you find me?”, Calvin simply replies “it wasn’t hard” and we are off to the next victim! Our final victim is the most issue-plagued of the lot, Earl (Macon McCalman), a famous, but totally insecure, alcoholic, fat, bald guy who is also gay. If you are gay, that means you are extra wacko, apparently. Calvin and his peashooter barge in on Earl while he is guzzling a nice cabernet after cocktails and is babbling to himself in a mirror.
In a bizarre flashback in which characters are allegedly developed, Sam and Shirley run into each other at a swank ‘80s cocktail party where Jay flies into a jealous rage. Sam’s wife innocently asks “what was that all about?” to which Sam replies while snatching the glass out of her hand, “you’ve had too much to drink, we’re leaving!” Phew! Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to butcher the living shit out of a novel.

Calvin, now loaded up with bound and gagged quacks, takes them all out into the middle of the desert and dumps them telling them that they locked him up in the hospital according to the white man’s law, so now he is leaving them in the desert to “live by Indian laws” (which translates to: “so you can die while I hunt you down with Indian magic, suckers!”). When hurling Shirley out of the truck Calvin yells “barren women are filled with hate!” Ummmm, what? If I had to guess, I’d say this was another element from the novel that the Gage’s left in but forgot to connect to anything else. It’s as if they highlighted passages that they liked and didn’t realize that this wasn’t a book club meeting and most people watching the film wouldn’t have a freakin’ clue what the hell they were talking about.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should, because in the opening scrawl we are told Calvin’s backstory about how after arguing with four friends over Indian magic, he was imprisoned in a mental asylum for kidnapping them all and leaving them in the desert to die! Wtf? So basically it’s like watching a sequel that is rehashing the plot of the original, except there was no original and… dammit, that’s just fucking lame, man!

After this point, it’s just a handful of people bitching at each other in the middle of the desert for an hour plus. Sam falls back on his training as a forest ranger (which is vaguely referred to) to help everyone survive while they complain, throw tantrums and have emotional crises. For example the gay doctor who always claimed that religion was a mental crutch becomes a born-again Christian while suffering from a broken leg and hiding in a hole in the desert. Ugh! Make it stop! Occasionally we cut to Calvin putting on face paint or engaging in embarrassingly made-up looking “Indian rituals”, but mostly it’s the four leads bitching up a storm.

Some folks have pointed out that the film (and the book it was based on) is rather insulting to Indians by portraying the only one in the film as a superstitious loon who was rightfully imprisoned, while the white people are educated and come out on top. Granted Calvin is not a glamor role, but none of the characters in this movie are at all well-adjusted or even close to being likable. Yes, the white man does come out on top, but the audience sure as hell ain't rooting for them. Hell, even though Calvin was a total nutcase and completely in the wrong, I was pullin’ for him to off at least one of those whiny effete bastards before the end of the flick. Yes, in the end the doctors win and nobody dies, but by the time that happens, I promise, you won’t give two shits for anyone involved and will be praying, not for ROLLING THUNDER, but instead, for rolling credits.

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