or VHS: video house salvo


For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is tracking down interesting movies I've never heard of based on the ancient art of the "video box." For younger readers a "video" was an analog system used to record sound and images onto a continuous stream of waves that pre-dated dvd, Blu-Ray and HD streaming. You would take a trip to an establishment called a "video store" to rent these items from an actual person and take home for your own entertainment purposes (you had to bring it back to the store when you were done, though.)

I'm basing my selection on the outrageous boxes these "videos" came packaged in, 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 - simple as that. With the inevitable extinction of the video store it's become harder to find some of these more obscure titles, but the show must go on.

It's not nostalgic - it's just awesome.

dick maas, 1988

The perfect trifecta for a video box should be: 1) intriguing title, 2) good tagline and 3) provocative cover art. Very rarely does a VHS packaging achieve excellence in all three categories (one example: Dr. Butcher MD) although sometimes it only takes a really great tagline or insanely weird image to entice the potential viewer. But rarest of all is the title so awesome it sells the movie on its own. The history of this particular title takes me back to my college days, when the desire to find something weird and original meant crossing the Tappen Zee Bridge and navigating a ridiculous jumbling of downhill twists and turns to reach the riverside location of Rick's Piermont Pictures. The ingenious title - Funderburg placed it atop his "best" list next to Diplomaniacs and Twitch of the Death Nerve - would constantly tempt us to rent the video, but obscure oddities about cursed Aztec ceremonial cloaks and one-eyed mutant embryos that arouse sexual aggression in their owner always ended up winning the Great Movie Hunt. Circumstances put a halt to my regular visits to Rick's* yet the title always stuck with me, and a little over a year ago I tracked down a VHS copy with the intention of making it the ceremonial first film of this series. It kept getting pushed back, but at long last I'm ready to remove my finger from the hole in the dike and let the glory that is Amsterdamned flood the unsuspecting world.

"A psycho killer in Amsterdam's famed canals" is the opening pitch on the back of the box; seven words - including two adjectives to draw in lovers of the sensational and historic - that perfectly sum up the plot. And it's brilliantly conceived: a Dutch stalker using the Grachtengordel to navigate the city is like an Italian killer in Venice making a gondola his murderous vessel, or a homicidal Parisian choosing poisonous crepes as his weapon of choice from his base of operations in the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral. Best of all, it perfectly incorporates the city itself into the story. The only thing we know about the unidentified urban environment of Se7en is that it was rainy; even most Jack the Ripper movies add little to the geography of London beyond the prerequisite fog rising above the mandatory cobblestone streets. Having the murderer lurking beneath the surface of the dirty water that fills the city's concentric belts, four centuries worth of urban planning and architecture, is not only a great way to tie the murderer's grisly mission to the seedy underbelly of Amsterdam, it gives him an ominous omnipresence that I refer to as the "Vermin Factor." He's a manifestation of the collective dread that comes with living in a major city, where the more timid population fear they'll be lost in the hodgepodge of bodies - literally snatched right off the streets by some horrible being. Hence the helicopter shots at the beginning of the movie - shot on Amstercam - capturing the full view of one of the most spiraling and cluttered looking metropolises in Northwestern Europe. Next to the title on the video cover is a tagline that reflects the kind of urban anxiety one might find here: "Be glad you're afraid. It means you're still alive." The city is hell, and these are the Amsterdamned!

Not that the city is portrayed in a completely negative light: Dutch culture is all over the movie. There are constant shots of the Gothic architecture in the background and even a scene set at a Rembrandt exhibit (no mention of Anne Frank or Van Gogh, even though hiding and mutilation both play a big part in the movie.) For those of us who've never been, the film provides answers to pertinent questions such as, Are there mariachi bands in Holland? (Answer: yes.) I visited Holland as a kid, but all I know about the country and its people, based entirely on Paul Verhoeven movies, is that they like to have sex and be invaded by Germans (and possibly there are robocops?) So I appreciated all this attention to historical and cultural detail, which led me to believe what the names in the opening credits confirmed: Amsterdamned is a homebred Dutch production, so there's no Sam Mendes bullshit going on here - the people who made this movie know what they're talking about. Of course when they are talking, it's in dubbed English. But it's one of the better dubbing jobs I've seen, even though all the minor actors sound like Van Damme or Schwarzenegger and in at least one case a character appears to ask himself a question then answer it (interestingly, the radio is NOT dubbed into'd think that would be the easiest thing to do, but I guess what the person was saying on the radio wasn't important to the plot.) There are a few funny lines AD'ed into the movie, like a woman off-screen warning her date: "Don't ask me to go Dutch!"

Of course the profligate face of Amsterdam is also on open display: it's clear how disgustingly unsanitary the water is even without restaurateurs dumping their garbage, bullies dumping their victims and the killer dumping his bodies into the canals. To wit, the movie proper begins in the red light district. It's a scene right out of an Argento movie complete with M.O.S. dialogue: a working girl getting off the job for the night first suffers the indignity of being rudely propositioned by her cab driver, then the setback of being brutally stabbed to death and pulled off the sidewalk into the murky waters. The message is clear: ladies, do not spurn the advances of an obese hack - it's a scenario that will lead to your awful death. The next morning, a tour boat full of nuns and boy scouts are treated to a nasty additional site when it runs smack into the prostitute's corpse, hanging upside down from a bridge. The body trails blood across the Plexiglas sunroof, sending the passengers into a fit of horrified screams as the bloodied visage of the victim drags slowly across the glass surface over their heads. It's the calling card of the world's first fully licenced aquatic serial killer. You'd think he'd get a scary nickname like "The Canal Killer" or "The Frogman," but he's only listed in the credits as "Maniac." Come on, can't he at least be Aquamaniac?

The baffled authorities are forced to bring in the big guns, which brings us to our hero: grizzled cop Eric Visser. Looking sort of like young William Peterson in Manhunter crossed with Rufus Sewell, he's introduced in the bathtub, where he's apparently been soaking for over an hour (longer than most people tend to soak in the bath in the morning; he just can't wash the stink of the city off!) Cinema's ultimate grizzled cop moment is when Marion Cobretti uses a pair of scissors to cut himself the tip off a slice of cold pizza, and Visser has his own Cobretti moment when he steps barefoot into a bowl of cat food, sighs and groggily mutters "Good morning, Amsterdam." I admit it's kind of a weird thing to say: how does stepping in cat food symbolize the kind of shit that goes down in Amsterdam? Or does he just have a cat named Amsterdam? Either way I don't care, I'm into it. Visser's a single father, which reveals a sensitive side he shares with many an American badass (Matrix in Commando; McClane in Die Hard 4). He owns a cd player, which doesn't really say much about his character but threw me off since I assumed this movie was made in the mid-80s before that format really took hold. He's a near-alcoholic, rocks the sports coat, male perm and five o'clock shadow but nobody appreciates him: he thrawts a robbery attempt at the bakery by pushing the perp's face into a cake, but the ungrateful baker is just mad about the cake getting ruined. Clearly his Dirty Harry antics aren't welcome around here (this probably would have been a better part in the movie for him to say "Good morning, Amsterdam" but at least we now see the kind of shit this guy's got to look forward to when he wakes up in the morning.)

I ran "Visser" through the Dutch translator online - appropriately enough it means "fisherman." Visser's going fishing all right...for a killer. "They were collecting water samples," the coroner explains over the mutilated remains of two canal divers, victims #2 and #3. "They were the ones who ended up getting sampled," Visser quips in reply. So one-liners aren't his specialty, but the man is determined to put a stop to this murder spree. He's willing to do anything it takes to catch the killer, even if it means entering the seedy underworld of recreational diving. I found no mention of Dutch divers protesting in front of theaters showing Amsterdamned or turning up on set to make ambient sound-ruining noise like East Village homosexuals did during the production of Cruising, but who knows: maybe they were all underwater at the time and never heard that the film was being made and released. Because the divers we meet in Amsterdamned are either remorseless killers or preppy rich assholes who (it will later be revealed) shelter remorseless killers. The one exception is John, a river policeman who knew Visser back at the academy. They had a falling out over a girl Visser wooed away from his friend, but John has a good sense of humor about it now. And since it's revealed that the woman split shortly after giving birth to Visser's daughter, one has to assume it wasn't just some floozie for which Visser was willing to backstab his buddy: it was true love. So it's water under one of Amsterdam's many bridges, and the two men - who, even though Eric doesn't dive, have a playful competitive relationship like the guys in The Big Blue - team up to take down the salty serial killer.

The killer is crafty, and since he doesn't like candy there's nothing to hang an investigation on - the impenetrable waters wash away all evidence. A crazy old man turns himself in at the police station wearing a snorkel and nothing else. A random scene has two cops searching the canal but not finding the guy, although it made me think it would be funny if they did and the movie just ended right there without any of the main characters involved. The one time the cops have him spotted, he manages to trick them by letting his oxygen tank drift down the canal leading to a wild goose chase of the surfacing air bubbles that mark his presence. So conventional police methods aren't working, what about supernatural ones? Because Visser's daughter Anneke is dating some dork who looks just like Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids and fancies himself a psychic. He lays out a map of the city and tries to divinate where the murderer is; he drags Anneke down to a dock, where she belittles him and they leave just before a explosion of bubbles from behind them reveal that this nerd may have the gift after all. These characters don't really play a role in the movie apart from their role in this brief subplot - we never see them again after this - but they give the movie an extra bit of surrealism that helps make the whole tone more interesting.

John is the first to come scuba mask-to-scuba mask with the killer, but apparently only had two days til retirement because he doesn't resurface alive. His death is a bummer, but at least it results in the movie's piece de resistance, a hellacious speedboat chase with Visser navigating his way between the narrow passages in pursuit of the fleeing felon, jumping ramps, driving the boat on the sidewalk and pulling off other such daredevil maneuvers. The chase includes such hilarious hijinx as a rowing team's giant wooden coxless boat being split in two, a trailing cop car running into pipe organ and patrons of a waterfront eatery getting seriously splashed. At one point Visser gets knocked back by a wave and is forced to grab the docking rope and jet ski...behind his own unpiloted boat! This scene is followed by a foot chase in the sewers that ends with Eric taking a speargun arrow to shoulder and shooting the killer in the goggles before he can reload. It's an intense and near-iconic scene, which means that - in Holland at least - the answer to the question "what's that movie with the famous chase in the sewers?" is not necessarily always "The Third Man."

Speaking of cinematic influences, I have to take a minute to point out the many similarities to this film and Steven Spielberg's Jaws. In Amsterdamned we don't see the murderous water dweller until well past halfway mark (characters even argue whether they're dealing with a man or a monster) and several shots, such as the one that opens the movie, are from the killer's submerged POV. Most notable in this regard is the death of a girl in a two piece lounging in an inflatible raft: we see her from the killer's viewpoint underwater, then catch a glimpse of him through the transparent tube before the diver's knife penetrates it between the girl's legs like a shark fin. The killer also manages to sink a boat, and although he claims no dogs and no kids he and his impartial fishy forefather share the same amount of victims (if you include the dog in Jaws and don't count the killer taking his own life.) A diver scouring a sunken ship has a one-eyed corpse pop up in front of him; a patsy gets sent up for the murders initially (albeit a human patsy); there's no pressure to keep the "beaches" open, but tourism is up so the police are encouraged to find their man quickly. The heroes of Amsterdamned chase bubbles instead of barrels, but it's basically the same thing. I don't mind the parallels to the earlier movie - in fact I wish this one had taken a cue from Spielberg's film and captured more of the city-wide hysteria in the wake of the killings. While I don't remember there being any specific reason given for Visser not diving himself, Lonely Planet's Amsterdam city guide book mentions the movie briefly and claims it's about a "detective hampered by his fear of the water." If that were the case, he'd share his hydrophobic condition with Roy Scheider's Chief Brody.

Come to think of it, a fear of water would have been a believable motivation for Visser to meet the snooty psychiatrist who ultimately leads him to the killer. But I guess the movie felt it needed a more solid female character than the daughter, so he comes to the shrink thanks to his relationship with museum guide/diving enthusiast Laura, played by none other than Monique van de Ven from Turkish Delight and Katie Tippel (also the former Mrs. Jan de Bont.) Monique was good in those movies, but here she's something of an Amsterham, sneaking around the (possible) killer's house and screaming like a B-movie queen when he lunges at her from the water. I guess that's not really her fault with such a thankless role; she's fine in the normal scenes like where Eric takes her to a restaurant shaped like a windmill and tells her (unsarcastically) "I like to eat at the nicest restaurants" (it's a step up from cold pizza at any rate.) But mostly she's expected to make the most of silly suspense-building scenarios, trying to get a message to Eric in the hospital revealing that the killer must be her psychiatrist friend only to have it botched by the nurse's pen running out of ink (too bad she has no one else to call...seriously, is there no 911 in Holland?) The character, and these final scenes, don't really work too hard to redeem Visser's distrust of relationships; they're just meant to speed things along and unmask (literally) the Amsterdamned Aquamaniac.

Long story short: chemical company cover-up! Uranium hexaflouride poisoning! Deformed, irradiated killer! That's right - due to some kind of past corporate Amsterscam, it turns out all the evidence pointing to the psychiatrist have been red herrings and the actual killer is a Phantom of the Opera type who looks like the toxic waste guy from Robocop underneath his scuba gear. Disgruntled over his disfigurement, he's gone insane and decided to take it out on the innocent citizens of Amsterdam! Which is sad when you think about it, because his vengeance is clearly misguided - if those two divers earlier were indeed taking samples for an ongoing investigation against the chemical plant and not just setting up a bad pun for Visser, why would the killer want to make a sample of them? He should have offered to help gather samples, the three of them could have taken down the fat cats together. But as the doctor observes, "He's sick - so is society!" (nice backpedaling there fella.) Personally I love this development. It's like Argento's Phenomena - the identity of the killer is completely out of left field and his deformity makes him almost like an actual monster. After Visser pieces everything together, I wasn't sure what to expect: a big underwater finale with mini-subs a'la Thunderball? Visser gets over his alleged fear of water, wetsuits up and goes into canals after this half-human murderer? Nope, the movie pulls another fast one: no sooner is the maniac's horrible face revealed, he commits suicide by speargun. "His diving days are over," Visser proclaims in an undeserved moment of triumph when they discover him with a spear sticking out of his head (he ate the speargun!) On the one hand this is kind of disappointing: how many movies about a cop chasing a killer end with the killer offing himself before a final confrontation? Can you imagine a Lethal Weapon movie ending like that? They even changed the last scene of Fatal Attraction to avoid such an anti-climax. But then that's what sets Amsterdamned apart: its willingness to do something completely off the wall like that. I also kind of wish the murderous diver had more motivation: going after a hooker and a floozy on an inflatable tube seemed to suggest the killer wanted to purge the debauchery of urban living Taxi Driver-style, spreading the word that we are all truly amsterdamned. Instead that's all just implied; the guy may very well not even know the girl was a street walker when he selected her to be fish food.

Despite minor plot grievances, Amsterdamed rivals The Dead Pit as the most legitimately good movie I've watched for this series so far. It shares all the weird touches of entries like The Killing of Satan, but places them in a fairly conventional police thriller so that it ends resembling something totally different. It's the full package: a slasher movie with giallo influences and an action film that plays out like the Dutch version of The French Connection. There's comedy, romance, horror; the only thing it's missing is an eponymous end credits song...oh wait, it's not missing that at all! As Visser and Laura head into the sunset on a paddle boat, another bit of badass juxtaposition for Visser's character that would probably hurt his rep if anybody at the department saw him (he couldn't have at least been fishing with his woman tagging along like Statham at the end of Transporter 3?), the final titles are accompanied by rocking guitars and enthusiastic female vocalists belting out "Amsterdamned, Amsterdamned... Am-ster-damned!" There are about a dozen choruses of this that play over and over and only two verses, but the songwriter makes the most of them: "Somewhere in the black night...Shining...Eyes that follow your stride...Can you hear him breathing?" By far the most hard-to-hear and perplexing lyric "You can't hide from the monster reptile" (?) I played the end credits a few times and I'm pretty sure that's what they're saying: I suppose it's a reference to the killer's scaly wet suit? Either that or the band wasn't given a script while developing the song and just went with their gut. Their gut also told them to go with what sounds like a kazoo solo. To be fair, it's a rocking kazoo solo.

As the amazing theme song fades out, a text appears on the screen:

Eric Visser will return in...Amsterfucked!

No not really, but I wish the Dutch film society would seriously consider getting a sequel underway. How about Windmill-fated? A change in venue, Rotterdamned? A soccer tie-in, The Amsterdamned United? I guess it wouldn't be the same. 

(aka APPENDIX or what i learned later)

"Amsterdamned, the new Dutch thriller, is pretty much the movie equivalent of lint," wrote Washington Post staff writer Hal Hinson** in 1989. So the movie failed to make a "splash" in the states and was Amsterslammed by critics, but supposedly was something of a sensation in its native Holland. With the exodus of Paul Verhoeven to Hollywood in the early 80's, cinema of the Netherlands experienced a decline in general attendance and international credibility. Dick Maas, writer-director of Amsterdamned, was pretty much the only filmmaker enjoying mainstream success during this period. Although 1986's The Assault (also featuring Monica van de Ven) won the Academy Award for best foreign film, it was not nearly as commercially successful as Amsterdamned was in 1988. I was happy to learn that Maas, who also writes the music for all his own films, was the writer-director of The Lift (1983), one of the inanimate object horror movies I mentioned in my article on Microwave Massacre.

The Lift also starred Huub Stapel, a.k.a. Eric Visser. Though lacking the reputation of a Rutger Hauer or a Til Schweiger, Stapel has been a staple of Dutch cinema since the early 80's, starring in films like De schorpioen, Op hoop van zegen, De onfatsoenlijke vrouw and Oh Boy! He even journeyed overseas as Johnny Flodder in Flodder in Americka! (a sequel to 1986's Flodder - my guess the Dutch answer to Fletch*** - which in the late 90's was apparently turned into a tv series of the same name, but Stapel didn't play the lead in that - he just had an appearance in one episode.) His followup to Amsterdamned was a US-produced TV movie, The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank with Mary Steenburgen and Paul Scofield and, while it failed to help his stardom cross over to the states, he's still going strong today, appearing in four movies this year including Eep! and Smoorverliefd (Dutch version of "Seinfeld?") Stapel, Monique van de Ven, and Serge-Henri Valcke dubbed their own voices for the English language version of Amsterdamned.

The Flodder movies were also written, directed and scored by Dick Maas, who was subsequently involved with a Stapel-less third Flodder film. One of Maas' more recent movies was 1999's Do Not Disturb with William Hurt and Jennifer Tilly about a mute girl in Amsterdam who witnesses a murder and is forced to flee from the killers among the Dutch (not the Pennsylvania Dutch a'la Witness.) In 2001 he made an English language version of The Lift titled Down (or, more suggestively, The Shaft) which was the last movie Naomi Watts made before hitting it big with Mulholland Drive and Michael Ironside's follow-up to an appearance in the sixth straight-to-video Children of the Corn sequel.

The speedboat chase scene and other stunts were handled by coordinator Dickey Beer, known to Star Wars geeks as the guy who played Jabba's palace guard Barada in Return of the Jedi. The biggest star of the entire film may actually have been Vic Armstrong, who worked on the movie as a stuntman. Armstrong doubled for Harrison Ford in all three Indiana Jones movies, then went on to direct Dolph Lundgren's Army of One and, allegedly, the opening sequence of Terminator 2 (he's married to stuntwoman Wendy Leech, they have three stunt children together.) The whole speedboat chase is apparently one big homage to the speedboat chase in Puppet on a Chain, a 1971 movie**** about an American who travels to Amsterdam to break up gangs smuggling drugs out of the city; even the colors of the boats are the same as in that popular-in-Holland film. During the filming of the speedboat chase, the boat with Huub Stapel crashed into a wall, resulting in multiple injuries that took him out of shooting for three weeks (but since his character is laid up in the hospital, maybe this was good from a method acting standpoint?)

Finally, the infectious end credits song was written and performed by Loïs Lane, a Dutch girl group of Indo-Eurasian descent featuring sisters Monique and Suzanne Klenmann. In 1992 they recorded the album Precious with none other than Prince himself, which included the singles "Sex" and "Qualified," then joined him on his Nude tour (no confirmation on whether either of them is the sister who "don't wear no underwear" and "got a funny way of stoppin' the juice" in Dirty Mind's infamous ode to incest "Sister," but I'd like to think one of them is, even though it was written years before either vocalist would meet His Royal Badness.) As two performers harmonizing in the 80's, the Klenmanns were kind of the Dutch George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (or, Amster-Wham!) and have continued to perform their smash theme song in concerts as recently as the filming of this concert. Check out the moves these old girls got (sadly, I don't see a kazoo.)

While I'm on music: the first test compact disc was pressed in Hannover, Germany and the first cd manufactured was The Visitors by ABBA, a Swedish band. So I guess the whole CD phenomena must have taken hold much earlier overseas.

The city is actually not known for its serial killers, although a google search revealed a disturbing amount of famous American murderers born or raised in Amsterdam, New York. Thankfully none of them, so far as I know, were scuba certified.

Finally, here's a shot of Cafe Amsterdamned's risque neon sign:

~ 2010 ~
* I actually had to stop showing my face there once a certain unnamed person I went with all the time failed to return a certain unnamed video much to the ire of the management; my very association with this individual assured an unfriendly interrogation every time I stepped in the door. (I know it seems dumb to have the title of the movie remain anonymous, but people who know this individual would guess his identity based on the title of this particular movie.)
** "Almost everything in the picture is just right," Hinson wrote about Baby's Day Out in 1994.
*** Turns out it's a politically incorrect satire about "an anti-social, dysfunctional family who move to an affluent, upper class neighborhood as part of a social experiment which results in mayhem as the Flodder family refuses to adapt." "Flodder" is actually a Dutch word meaning blank cartridge, a reference to the Flodders looking dangerous and being noisy despite being rather harmless. Can we expect Meet the Flodders anytime soon?
**** Featuring Vladek Sheybal, a.k.a. Kronsteen in From Russia with Love. What is Amsterdam compared to Kronsteen?