Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sci-Fried Theater: THE SPIRITS OF JUPITER (1983)

I think I can speak for Will when I say that we here at VJ have a soft spot for the "Crazy Townie" sub-genre. It's sort of a post-apocalyptic scenario, but it's more localized. The-world's-gone-mad shrunk down to a single town, usually a "sleepy, little town" with erm, "simple" folk. This archetype can be found in films like John "Bud" Cardos' MUTANT (aka NIGHT SHADOWS, 1985), Nico Mastorakis' NIGHTMARE AT NOON (1988) and of course George Romero's THE CRAZIES (1973).

Sure, you can have films with towns full of zombies, psychos or marsupial werewolves, but it's not quite the same. There's something about docile, simple folk, the common clay of the new west, suddenly snapping and turning homicidal that is scarier than a zombie, which at first glance you know is bad news. Plus, unless you are watching a Claudio Fragasso flick, zombies don't pack heat.

The film begins with an utterly bewildering monologue about Jupiter being in the house of Aries and how "the great one hidden, long in shadows, will cool his sword in bloooooood!" Oh good, I was wondering what the hell this movie was all about. Thanks for clearing that up. Wait, what?! No time to ponder the deep insignificance of that speech that sounds like it should be prefacing an epic cut from an '80s German metal band, we have comic hijinx to attend to! And muddled political statements! And prophecies, and, uhhh... other stuff!

Big Jim Drill (executive producer Rex Cutter), the owner of a local mine located near the mile high CaƱon City, Colorado and a name most likely to be associated with a failed career in porn, seems to have an ongoing issue with the local police chief, Julius Switcher (James Aerni) who wants to shut down his mine due to the unproven fact that Jim has been using illegal aliens for labor. Jim feels like he's being unjustly persecuted, and he may have a point since his entire camp is made up of crackers so white that they would scare the shit out of the Holy Ghost. One can't help but wonder which border they are alleged to have sneaked over. The Swedish one?

Not helping things in the least, back in town, two of Big Jim's miners have gone half a bubble off plumb at Janey's Chile Wagon Restaurant, killing a diner and taking the waitress (Big Jim's sweetheart) hostage. While the police chief forms an elaborate plan of intricate tactics which basically involve running straight in and shooting anything that moves, Big Jim feels that he should go in and "talk" to them, avoiding any further loss of life. Clearly Big Jim is simply a sniveling, namby-pamby liberal under that sun-baked, red-neck exterior. The miners seem to feel that they are acting a bit crazy and that's good enough for Chief Switcher, who with the help of the entire police force, blow both of the miners full of bloody holes. One, unarmed and begging for mercy is shot repeatedly and finished off with a shotgun blast. When the local reporter accuses the Chief of murder, he casually brushes it off saying "eh, he was crazy." Oh, how I miss uncomplicated Colorado reasoning. Well, I guess we've established who the villain is.

This is, of course, the tip of the unbalanced iceberg. Jim quickly finds out that every man jack of his subterranean subordinates have come up a nugget short of a full load. How do we know they are crazy? They all walked off the job and packed into the bar and are whooping it up like a Friday night... and it's only Tuesday! It doesn't take long for the miners to come to the conclusion that Jim is just a major buzzkill and take after him with shovels. Well, Big Jim commenced to fighting, I wouldn't tell ya no lie. Not only does Big Jim pull his pistol, but he impales one with a fork-lift and splatters another with his airplane's propeller, prompting his manager to shout "you'll have to replace that man, Mr. Drill!" See? I told you there was comedy.

As it turns out this has become sort of a world-wide phenomena. According to radio reports the planets are shifting alignment causing an increase in gravity in much the same way that a full moon affects the tides and increases the paperwork of the local constabulary. Scientists say that those at high-altitude and animals will be affected the most. This is all confirmed by the local hobo Nestor, an effeminate little person in a top hat who is obsessed with coffee and insists on being called Nostradamus. Uhhhh... right. I don't think it's just the townies who've gone off their meds. Nest - sorry, Nostradamus is Jim's son's best friend and presumably because of this, he gives Jim a gold plate to keep under his hat. Things will become clearer... oh wait, that's a total lie. They won't.

Meanwhile the town has gone completely off the rails causing grown men to argue with trees, a boy to ride his bicycle upside down and Chief Swinger to occupy his time by taking off one of his boots and playing Russian roulette with his little piggies! The police force has started rounding up people crazy or not and marching them into the desert for execution, and manage to grab Big Jim's son and daughter. Big mistake. Jim then is attacked by his dog, fends off motorcycle raiders, escapes homicidal police and finds an underground bunker in which people are de-nutsified, all in the attempt to get his family back. Of course there is a positive message here. As the bow-tied, bunker-entrenched scientists explain, all war has stopped because "people are too crazy!"

Directed by Russell Kern (not to be confused with Richard Kern), who I have been unable to dig up any info on, except for an IMDb listing indicating that he made two other films, SPITTIN' IMAGE (1982) and POOLS OF ANGER (1992), this movie is all over the map. There are points in the film where it feels like a '70s family adventure film, at other points it's a comedy, then it's a bloody action movie, plus it's a science fiction film, there's some horror thrown in the mix and plenty of really awkward scenes involving an alleged brother and sister. All of this is set to the most awful pastiche of stock music this side of a Doris Wishman flick.

Sappy strings and comic noodling blare over the most inappropriate scenes possible. While it is somewhat amusing, it is unquestionably the biggest downside to the movie. Sure the movie is completely ludicrous and can't even follow it's own trail of logic crumbs, but it is a lot of fun and would be even more so with a cheap score from say Richard Band or even Chuck Cirino. It seems crazy for such an ambitious low-budget film to sport a helicopter vs. crop-duster chase scene, miss such an important element as music. To be fair Kern's ambition has its corners cut in predictable ways. For instance it is painfully apparent, even to a child from Detroit, that there is no motorcycle or policeman in the frame before, during or after an explosion that was supposed to have been a the result of an attack on a motorcycle cop. They also pull the time-honored flying-the-plane-behind-the-mountain-before-it-explodes trick. Sins that are easily forgiven, I say.

The frequently obscene overacting may be a bit hard to take at times, but all in all this movie packs in so much bull-in-a-china-shop insanity that it's hard not to like.

Our very own internet bounty hunter, Will Wilson, managed to track down co-producer Steve Flanigan who was gracious enough to chat with us about the film's distribution issues.

Flanigan and Kern made a hugely ambitious sci-fi/action/horror epic, shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm, for "less than the cost of a national commercial, at the time." Remember this movie has a helicopter, an airplane, several motorcycles, explosions, make up effects, choreographed fights and many shoot-outs. At this point the film was completely edited and finished with the exception of the audio tracks which needed some AR work and most importantly a musical score instead of the temp tracks.

The film was given three screenings in Hollywood to attract US distributors, with the intent "to trim the film and sweeten SFX, music and dialogue... with the cash from the initial overseas small market release." This is where things get interesting. The overseas distributor paid the producer's lawyer, who also held the 35mm negative, the $200,000 fee (which he claims was in fact $300k) and took a 1" master to New York where he proceeded to illegally screen it, forcing Flanigan to fly out to NYC and physically retrieve it. As if that wasn't bad enough, their lawyer suddenly dies and takes the money with him!

Following that, the pair had a successful screening at a Denver Sci-Fi convention and was picked up by Reel Movies for distribution here in the US, re-titling the film PLANET GONE MAD. It's amazing that in a time as recent as the late '80s, vendors would be skittish about certain types of genre films, but according to Flanigan "our lawyer told us it was banned in two territories, [as distributors were] afraid it would initiate riots."

Flanigan also mentioned that there is another version of the film that is not in distribution. "We recut the movie to really spoof the sci-fi genre... tighter better popcorn entertainment".

In my opinion, spoofing isn't necessary, this movie is a lot of fun on its own terms and works on the same level as films such as Steve Barkett's THE AFTERMATH (1982). If you are a fan of the genre, you should hunt down a copy for some great old-school late-night movie fun.

[07/26/23 Update] THE SPIRITS OF JUPITER has now been remastered and released digitally in its 80 minute version on Amazon. Unfortunately it is a butchered, horribly adulterated version with horrible editing, music and new digital effects that look like they were created in MS Paint. I hate to recommend gray market releases over a presumably legit one, but this should be avoided at all costs. 

Thanks to R.D. Francis for the heads up and you can read a great little interview with director Robert Kern on the B&S About Movies website

1 Reactions:

  1. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This sounds amazing.

    I will confess that I like the PLANET GONE MAD title a little better - SPIRITS OF JUPITER tells me nothing.


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