VIDEO ODDITIES, or VHS: Video House Safari
For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is heading down to the local video store - which for younger readers is an establishment that you can walk or drive to and rent Video Home System cassettes, also known as VHS tapes, and/or dvds from an actual person and take it back home (you gotta bring it back though) for your own entertainment purposes - and finding interesting movies I've never heard of. I'm basing my selection on the outrageous video boxes, the kind that helped us decide whether a movie looked like it was worth our time back in the days before the internet started telling us everything there was to know about every film before they're even released. Then I'm writing about them.
It's not nostalgic - it's just awesome.
#2: MICROWAVE MASSACRE (1983)
OR, John's Big Important Essay on the Use of Comedy in Horror Films
"Think of it as a cultural experience."
Mircowave Massacre's title works because I spent almost the entire ride home from the video store trying to figure out exactly how a microwave could massacre anybody. It's been used in movies as a weapon against Gremlins and terrorists on Navy battleships so we know it has the potential to be more than the inculpable domestic appliance we use to nuke our Spaghettio's (what, you boil them over a stove? Well excuse me Mr. Fancypants.) Their environmental threat has been exposed/exploited on the big screen: radioactive microwave rays are responsible for all the bridge-collapsing terror of The Core, and I'm pretty sure Al Gore hates them (though I'd have to check the documentary to see whether he specifically referred to the "microwave massacre of our nation.") But as for a more literal translation, could I expect a haunted microwave movie? It was released in a popular era for cautionary tales of mundane technology gone homicidal - The Lift, Electric Dreams, Le démon dans l'île, Pulse - so the concept of a household bedeviled by unexplained burns and "accidental" electrocutions whenever someone prepared a pop tart was not inconceivable.
But no, we're clearly dealing with cannibalism here. Unlike last entry's Dr. Butcher MD, the plot of Microwave Massacre is more or less adequately represented on its video cover (the microwave-to-human scale is completely accurate, as is the "Major Electric" label on top). Except rather than the rotting corpse of Joan Crawford in a bathrobe the hero of the film is construction worker Donald, a man in need of a great sandwich. His shrill wife only prepares "q-zine," which includes such "delly-caseys" as a 30-pound crab for lunch and dry veal for dinner. This naturally leads Donald to drink, which natrually leads to beating his wife to death with a giant salt shaker. Then he accidentally cooks her in her own giant microwave and accidentally - it's arduously set up - ends up snacking on her hand and kind of loving it. She's a "tummy turn-on" it turns out, and soon Donald is out on the town picking up various young women and inviting them home "for dinner."
It's funny that in my last Video Odditity I complained that we never see fat cannibals on screen, because this movie stars one. Played by Jackie Vernon, he looks and moves with the same kind of sluggish, defeated meekness with which he speaks (in fact he sounded familiar...really familiar. Where have I heard that voice before?) He hides out in a bar with his construction buddies. He blushes like a schoolboy at the young lady who technically lives next door but actually lives in a porno movie, servicing everyone from gas men to giant African witch doctors day and night (she even uses a vibrator as a garden tool...I guess to stimulate the soil?) And unlike the native Kitoans of Dr. Butcher, he has a practical way of preparing his meals: the refrigerator-sized Model X1-74A microwave oven with a feature that allows the simple cooking of edible human appendages.
The overall tone of the film is established in the transition from its first two shots. Ominous music fades into a shot of the massive titular tandoor, as intimidating as the witch's oven in Hansel and Gretel. A slow zoom in reveals a dried-out corpse inside. Then the beat picks up and we cut to this...
I'm instantly reminded of Roger Ebert's review of Blue Velvet. Ebert's criticism of that film (which he gave one-star, which is half a star less than he gave Blue Lagoon, one less than Blues Brothers 2000 and two less than he gave Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie*) is centered on an image from the beginning of David Lynch's dark comedy: a fireman hanging off the side of a truck waving at the camera. To him, this shot represented Lynch winking at the audience, assuring them that he was in on the joke and that nobody should take any of the intense, twisted events of the movie seriously. I strongly disagree with his interpretation of the shot, but here I think director Wayne Berwick is conveying a simple message: "Nah just kidding everybody, this isn't going to be an attempt at an actual movie. This is just us messing around, and if you're not too stuck up you can join us for the ride." Just in case it didn't come across, he emphasizes the message in the next scene by having this particular pair of breasts getting stuck in a hole in a fence for maximum comedic effect.
And the "comedy" doesn't end there. From every bad cannibal pun ever written ("I may have underestimated May's taste!") to an extended, reccurring gag involving a flaming construction worker, Microwave Massacre assaults its audience with a cadre of consciously bad jokes meant to sabotage the narrative and sap it of any kind of substance. The filmmakers don't think their story is worth telling, so they put all of their effort into letting us know that they know that. This isn't a very original story (although someone is credited with conceiving the original story) but it's not a hopeless one; it's not even one that has to be told straight-faced. Yet the filmmakers seem to think that 1) there is no way to blend comedy and horror in an accessible way that is both funny and unsettling and 2) since it's impossible for ANYONE to successfully accomplish this, the logical thing to do is to make the movie intentionally bad. When you start second-guessing your low budget horror film what you're left with is a self-conscious Roger Corman picture, and who wants to see that?
The idea of one human being eating another is so absurd I don't think it's ever been used seriously in a movie. As early as 1924 cannibals were a threat to the protagonist - but that protagonist was Buster Keaton, the film his hilarious and underrated The Navigator. It was used as a genuinely scary devise in George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead, but by the next film in the series he had to add a zombie pie fight to acknowledge the over-the-top gruesomeness of a society dominated by undiscriminating man-eaters. In the last thirty years it's been used as a central joke in Eating Raoul, Parents, Goremet: Zombie Chef from Hell, Delicatessen, Cannibal The Musical, Ravenous; the only modern instance I can think of cannibalism in a non-comedic context is 1993's Alive - and honestly, that may have been funnier than Microwave Massacre.
What is essential to understand in the use of comedy in a horror film is that it serves either to alleviate the hopelessness of a situation (in, say, a zombie apocalypse or wildfire infection type deal) or to accentuate the absurdity of a recognizably far-out premise (homicidal aliens, ancient spirit-devouring demons, mutant appendages - the holy-shit-did-that-poor-guy-just-melt-into-a-toilet?? Street Trash aspect). The latter is based on irreverance and is clearly what needed to be applied to Microwave Massacre, but instead the humor is just aiming for lowest possible quality to match what the filmmakers perceive to equal that of their "stupid" movie. I don't understand the humor of self-deprecation in film in general. "Look how shitty our movie is! You make fun, but really the joke's on you cuz we knew it all along didn't we guys? We made it bad on purpose!" Forgive me for saying it but that dog won't hunt, monsignor.
* He also gave Miami Blues two stars...he gave Mo' Better Blues three, but in my opinion Armitage's film was the mo' better Blues.
(continued on page 2 of "Video Oddities #2: Microwave Massacre")
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