It’s the end of October, or as I think of it, The Month of Halloween, so as streaming services seek to capitalize upon the seasonal theme with programming options such as “Netflix & …
It’s the end of October, or as I think of it, The Month of Halloween, so as streaming services seek to capitalize upon the seasonal theme with programming options such as “Netflix & Chills,” I’m going to recommend a trio of obscure (oc)cult classics that you can find by scrying the interwebs.
BABYLON FIELDS (unrated)
First up is a relatively recent cult classic that’s been floating around online ever since CBS rejected it as a TV series pilot in 2007.
In many ways, “Babylon Fields” plays out like a seriocomic, character-driven small-town drama with hints of dark humor, like David E. Kelley’s “Picket Fences,” which ran on CBS from 1992-96.
It even includes former “Picket Fences” star Kathy Baker among its exceptionally talented ensemble cast, which I suspect led CBS to consider “Babylon Fields” in 2007, only 11 years after “Picket Fences” went off the air.
But I can tell you exactly why CBS didn’t pick it up for a series order, which was all of the zombies, because AMC wouldn’t air the first episode of “The Walking Dead” until 2010, which made “Babylon Fields” three years too early for the pop culture zeitgeist.
In the town of Babylon, New York, widowed housewife Shirley Wunch (Kathy Baker) and her daughter Janine (Amber Tamblyn) return home from grocery shopping to find their abusive husband and father Ernie (Jamey Sheridan), back from the dead, literally mouldering in his old recliner, bellowing at them to fetch him some more beer.
This would be enough of a nightmare, except that the ghoulish Ernie Wunch is not the only dead person to dig themselves out of the ground that day.
Ernie’s old partner on the police force, now-chief Carl Tiptree (Ray Stevenson), receives an urgent call from his sister Martha, and when he arrives at her house, he finds her in the arms of his dead brother-in-law, Dick McCormick (Adam LeFevre).
“My prayers have been answered,” Martha says, “so why am I so afraid?”
Just as Ernie is as threatening as ever to his family, Dick is the same genial guy he was when he was alive, hugging his wife and earning his brother-in-law’s trust by recalling how he’d fixed Carl’s tuxedo pants with duct tape for his wedding (“Remember, our little secret?”), before urging him to go to the cemetery.
“This is happening,” Dick tells him.
What follows is an excellent exercise in building the haunting atmosphere of a waking dream, as Shirley and Janine flee their home to bunker down with Janine’s boyfriend and his survivalist family — the boyfriend’s dad is played with lunatic aplomb by David Patrick Kelly — while Carl contacts the police station and orders his officers to go into emergency lockdown protocol, at the same time that he heads to the cemetery to see if his wife Rebecca (Khrystyne Haje), with whom he had a troubled relationship, is among the resurrected.
The cemetery sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful and chilling all at once. Every grave is emptying, but no two people are reacting to their returns to life the same way. We see a little boy dancing and giggling, while a young woman bursts into heaving sobs for reasons that are never revealed, and an angry old man grabs Carl by his lapels, demanding to know what’s going on.
These are not “zombies” in the sense that we’ve become accustomed to since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. Their bodies are decayed, but they’re not mindless monsters. They’re people, just like us, and the existential horror, the unspoken question posed by “Babylon Fields,” is what happens to these formerly dead people, now that the world has moved on, and the places they once had in it are long since gone.
And yet, even as “Babylon Fields” shows some less-than-humane reactions of the living toward the dead — Carl has to help a priest (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) rescue a dead man from being beaten by his fellow churchgoers, as the man yells out helplessly, “I was a member of this parish! I gave regularly!” — there are signs of something more sinister under the surface, as when Ernie witnesses another man’s accidental death, and finds himself staring at the man’s bloody wound hungrily.
One of Janine’s old school friends, a dead boy named Mikey Bobkin (Eric Nelsen), approaches her on the street, still wearing the suit he was buried in, explaining that he’d gone to his parents’ old home, but another family was living there now.
“So … what do I do?” Mikey asks.
I still regret that “Babylon Fields” was not afforded a fuller opportunity to answer that question.
You’re not going to find the pilot for “Babylon Fields” on a licensed outlet, but it tends to float around online, on video sites ranging from YouTube to Vimeo and Dailymotion.
So, hey, how many of you movie buffs have seen the comedy-horror film about the mismatched traveling companions who head out on an extended road trip together to this out-of-the-way seedy strip bar, only it turns out all the strippers are vampires, and the most exotic stripper is the queen of all the vampires, and our heroes have to fight their way out to stay alive until daylight?
If you’re fans of writer-directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the answer is, “All of you,” because you’ve seen 1996’s “From Dusk Till Dawn,” but what I’m betting a good number of you didn’t know is that fellow writer-director Richard Wenk beat them to the punch a decade earlier, with 1986’s “Vamp.”
College roommates and best friends A.J. (Robert Rusler), a fast-talking scam artist, and Keith (Chris Makepeace), a wide-eyed romantic, are desperate to get out of the madhouse dorms, but to gain membership in the fraternity house of their choice, they have to bring a stripper back to campus.
The only other student they know with an available ride into town is insufferable rich nerd Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), who loans them one of his nine Cadillacs on the condition they bring him along.
The journey itself proves eventful, as the trio winds up on the sinister, neon-hued, rain-slicked streets of the big city after dark, crossing paths with a gang of albinos led by Snow (Billy Drago), before they finally reach the strip club headlined by Katrina (Grace Jones), whose modern art body paint and aggressively animalistic dance moves stun her audience of jaded drunkards into awed silence.
There will never be another Grace Jones. Future historians will struggle in vain to quantify her transgressive mystique. Singer, songwriter, supermodel, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor, she was deservedly the top-billed cast member of “Vamp,” and her character never once uttered a word.
The great thing about the two Denzel Washington “Equalizer” films is that the rest of the world now knows what a crackerjack screenwriter Richard Wenk is, but what you can’t fully appreciate, without seeing “Vamp,” is how atmospheric a director he is, because this entire film feels like a fever-induced nightmare, from the near-miss car accident that spins our traveling trio’s Cadillac around in an intersection like the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz,” to the mausoleum-like hotel and eerily lit sewers where Keith finds himself, due to his unfailingly, catastrophically bad luck.
Given how many members of the cast are horror movie veterans, it’s no wonder that every actor shines, from Sandy Baron (yes, Jack Klompus from “Seinfeld”) as Vic, the sleazy emcee of the strip club who waxes rhapsodic about the “class” of Las Vegas, even though he’s never been there, to the absolutely adorable Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle’s younger sister) as a cocktail waitress at the club, who claims to know Keith, even though he can’t remember ever having met her before.
So many clever ideas are hidden in the margins, from the strippers applying each other’s makeup in the dressing area, because they’re vampires and can’t check their own reflections in mirrors, to one of our heroes describing what it feels like, emotionally, to become a vampire, and to want to feed on the blood of his friend, in a heartfelt scene with disturbing parallels to Jeff Goldblum’s “insect politician” speech in David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” (also released in 1986, coincidentally).
Although “Vamp” openly aspires to be crassly exploitative, it’s deceptively well-made, with endearing characters and smartly constructed action sequences, ranging from a creatively conceived car (or rather truck) chase, to a lingering shot of Keith taking aim at a vampire with an archer’s bow, and pulling the string so tight that it draws blood from his fingers.
But make no mistake, like any 1980s film that’s rated “R” for nudity (among other things), “Vamp” works hard to earn that “R,” because that’s the sort of commitment to customer service that adolescent boys could expect from their tawdry schlock cinema in the Eighties.
“Vamp” is available to rent or own on Amazon Prime.
THE CHANGEOVER (PG-13)
The first time I read Margaret Mahy, it was 1986, I was 11 years old, and I’d just gotten a copy of the newly published “Aliens in the Family” from the Scholastic Book Fair.
I loved how Mahy was able to interweave the surreal and fantastical with the mundane and everyday, and even as an American pre-teen kid, I could perceive the authenticity of her portrayals of contemporary adolescence in her native New Zealand.
Needless to say, when I stumbled across Mahy’s 1984 supernatural romance novel, “The Changeover,” at a garage sale later that same year, I begged my parents to pick it up.
Readers of modern young adult literature will find familiar tropes in the tale of an ordinary working-class teenage girl who catches the eye of a brooding and mysterious older boy at her school, who turns out to be more than merely human, but what makes Mahy’s Laura Chant more appealing than Stephenie Meyer’s Bella Swan is that Laura has a full life outside of her spooky would-be boyfriend.
I only recently learned that “The Changeover” was made into a movie in 2017, and while fans of the novel will notice that significant aspects of its narrative have been altered to better suit the screen and the passage of 33 years since its publication, its essential spirit made it through intact.
Laura (played by Erana James) and her little brother Jacko (Benji Purchase) are ostensibly being raised by their single working mom Kate (Melanie Lynskey), but in truth, Laura serves as the surrogate mother for the family as a whole, and experiences eerie premonitions that only accentuate her sense of being old beyond her years.
The New Zealand suburb where they live is still recovering from earthquake damage, which Laura herself explicitly identifies as a metaphor for her broken home, in the wake of her father’s departure.
While Laura’s early warning sense for danger makes her leery of the attentions of dark-eyed classmate Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle (Nicholas Galitzine), it turns out that her alarms were being set off by a vagabond antiques dealer named Carmody Braque (an unnervingly gaunt Timothy Spall), who stakes a claim on Jacko’s soul by applying an ink stamp to his hand.
It turns out the real reason why Sorry was lurking around Laura was because he recognized her as a “sensitive,” with the potential to become a witch like himself, his sage and encouraging mother Miryam (Lucy Lawless, effortlessly great as always) and his graceful and nurturing grandmother Winter (Kate Harcourt, who perfectly matches the novel’s description of her character as resembling an elegant tortoise).
The Carlisle family figures out that Braque is a spiritual parasite, who feeds on children to extend his unnaturally long lifespan, but in order to save Jacko, Laura has to plumb her own unexplored depths, and claim her heritage as a witch.
In his 1965 novel “Dune,” Frank Herbert wrote, “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man — with human flesh,” and the strength of “The Changeover” lies in how Laura’s culminating vision quest, along with her preceding series of travails, force her to confront the uncomfortable reality that even the well-intentioned adults in her life are limited in how much they can help her.
Mahy was never especially subtle about “The Changeover” representing the transition from childhood innocence, and the dawning clarity of adult perception, but the movie makes this familiar metaphor intensely felt, through the barely contained fear of Erana James’ performance as Laura, and the viscerally predatory personality that Timothy Spall projects as the grasping, manipulative Braque.
It’s a shame that Mahy passed away in 2012, because I think she would have enjoyed seeing how this film did justice to Laura Chant.
“The Changeover” is available for rental on Amazon Prime and YouTube.