Amazon Women on the Moon
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise it’s regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie there. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils its potential.
Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers penned Kentucky Fried Movie. They’d moved on to bigger things by the time Amazon Women came about, and Landis script came courtesy of former Johnny Carson, and subsequently David Letterman, writers Michael Barrie and Jim Muholland. There was another of Kentucky’s crew along for the ride with Landis, however; producer Robert K. Weiss (who has continued to work with the Zuckers, up to and including the Scary Movie franchise) co-produced with Landis and co-directed. Weiss had tried his hand at second unit and music videos, but this was his first (and only) feature credit. Also contributing were Carl Gottlieb (Caveman, and writer on the first three Jaws movies) and Peter Horton (the Thirtysomething actor was married to Michelle Pfeiffer at the time; she agreed to appear on condition that Horton was allowed to direct a couple of skits). Oh, and most important of all: Joe Dante (who needs no introduction).
The film was originally to have been made on the Universal lot, but the employment of a non-union crew ended that plan. While the studio did end up distributing the picture, they clearly can’t have been that enthusiastic about it; it was finished in 1985 but went unreleased until 1987. Critics weren’t kind and audiences were indifferent; its afterlife was one of discovery on video – a medium which, in its full bloom at the time, the picture is devoted to commenting on, and which ages it more than any other aspect – and late-night TV.
But you don’t really hear about it picking up a vocal cult following; it’s too patchy for that kind of status. I’m devoted to a couple of sequences, but they hardly justify sitting through the whole movie. Frequently one’s mind wanders, hoping that the next sketch will be more engaging. Landis believes skit movies are virtually impossible to do successfully, citing Monty Python’s failure with The Meaning of Life. He considers them a barrage; individual sketches are fine but put them together and it’s too much. I can certainly see that argument, but it doesn’t address the quality of the material itself.
Structurally, Amazon Women is much more designed than Kentucky, which was cheerfully random in its targets. Amazon Women, based on spoofing TV shows, old movies and commercials, found its glue in the device of channel surfing; this was rendered complete with station breakdowns and characters reappearing or resurfacing in other sketches (most notably Lou Jacobi’s Murray, who is transported into a TV set and finds himself at the mercy of his wife’s remote control).
Arsenio Hall, in his first film role (not that he went on to appear in many more) plays a victim of household items successively imploding, exploding or impacting upon him. A can of drink soaks him, the sink disposal tries to eat him, he electrocutes himself, a video flies in his face, he gets flattened by a bookcase and the TV explodes. It’s fun, Arsenio’s likeably tortured, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Porn star Monique Gabrielle is a vacant “Pethouse” pet who wanders galleries (“Art is my life”), markets and goes to church. All in the buff. The main appeal is the pneumatic figure of Gabrielle, as this isn’t really funny; nudity only elicits laughs if the nudie person has a funny body (see Terry Jones in Monty Python). You forget to laugh if they’re attractive. It’s brief, though, and whoever is doing the narration (Gabrielle?) sounds uncannily like Derek Zoolander.
Murray in Videoland
(Robert K. Weiss)
Five years after Amazon Women limped into release, Peter Hyams’ Stay Tuned hit the big screen; a comedy about a couple who are sucked into the television set and traverse spoofs of various small screen landscapes/shows. You’d think there was huge potential in this, but neither are especially funny. Murray, resplendent in his vest and boxer shorts is zapped into a Huey Lewis & the News video, King Kong, a Bambi knock-off and (much to Murray’s delight) the Pethouse’s tub. Later, he pops up in the Amazon Women on the Moon spoof. Jacobi has a Dabney Coleman on-the-cheap quality (“Selma!”) but it’s all very literal and struggles to extract chuckles.
Griffin Dunne’s doctor repeatedly fails to bring Pfeiffer and Horton their new-born baby. Instead he appears nursing a Mr Potato Head, and then his own felt tipped hand. This one’s pretty good, mainly because Dunne’s performance is so wired he makes the material play whether it likes it or not. There’s a sprinkling of antic lines; “He’s got your eyes,” he tells Pfeiffer of the Mr Potato Head, and when he’s told the toy is disgusting he comments “Oh come on. They all look like this at first”. He also offers his “hand” baby to Pfeiffer (“Would you rather breastfeed him?”) You can see Landis going for Airplane!/Python energy, and he almost succeeds. I know he’s playing a character, but there’s what seems like a nice pop at the blandly leonine-maned Horton (“Thank God you took that assertiveness training course”).
Amazon Women on the Moon
(Robert K. Weiss)
This is the linking sketch, if you like; we return to it on two more occasions. There’s no doubting it picks up all the cheesy silliness of ’50s sci-fi B-movies, but it makes the mistake of being too accurate. You may as well watch the real thing. A trio of astronauts, one of whom has a pet monkey, land on the Moon (which has a breathable atmosphere) in the year 1980. The Captain (Steve Forrest) is your Leslie Nielsen type (that’s Forbidden Planet Leslie Nielsen, not that there’s much difference), Blackie (Robert Colbert) is bent on exploiting the planet’s financial possibilities (“I will not exploit other worlds for personal gain”), while Butch (Joey Travolta) is an idiot man-child. There are the kind of film and station breakdowns that Dante would exploit in Gremlins 2 and Matinee, but Weiss doesn’t have the Joe’s zest or energy as a director. Compare Mant! to this. You need a skit to be less static and dull than the movies it is spoofing or you engender boredom in the audience. Other touches include a “giant” lizard to battle and fantasy female icon Sybil Danning (“What are men good for?”) as the queen of the Amazons.
Short but shit. Joe Pantoliano promotes cuts of carpet as a new baldness cure.
Blacks Without Soul
Sublime, with the relentlessly upbeat David Alan Grier working his way through a raft of unlikely songs (Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree, Chim Chimney), in a fashion so unhip, he brings it all the way back round to cool. It’s baffling that someone as evidently talented as Grier isn’t a bigger name, and I’d be surprised if his cardigan-clad perkster wasn’t an inspiration for Carlton in Fresh Prince of Bel Air. BB King introduces us to the terrible plight of African Americans bereft of soul, with other members of the unfortunate club including Republican Party voters and a pimp who drives a Volvo station wagon.
The very-80s Horton directs the uber-80s Steve Guttenburg and the who-knows-why-she never-escaped-the-80s Rosanna Arquette in a humour-deaf skit about a blind date. Rosanna asks for Steve’s credit card and valid driver’s licence to request a compatibility check on him. If it is wasn’t so mirthless the one decent line (about lying that he is into sushi and Meryl Streep movies to get dates) might have worked. But it falls flat. It goes on a bit too.
Bullshit or Not?
Now this one’s my favourite, eclipsing even Blacks Without Soul. Henry Silva is delightfully grave as “Henry Silva”, the host of show investigating classic unsolved mysteries. Best of all, it stages reconstructions. So Silva walks down a cobbled street at night and picks up a newspaper blowing by. It reads, “JACK THE RIPPER STRIKES AGAIN!” And the question Silva poses is… was Jack the Ripper in fact the Loch Ness Monster (“Is it possible that Nessie murdered five street walkers before returning to Loch Ness?”)
His caveat, “Although this is a “Bullshit” re-enactment, it may have happened just this way” is marvellous. Everything about it, from the friendly/dodgy Nessie with a gleam in his/her eye, sporting a jaunty hat and cape (adorably fiendish!), to the hooker s/he propositions (“Oh my, you are a big one now”) is utter genius; Nessie trails the street walker round a corner to her ensuing screams of anguish; then Silva emerges from the same point seconds later.
Silva: Is this the way it happened? Was Jack the Ripper in fact a sixty-foot sea serpent from Scotland? Did I just take his job for a quick buck?
We see a brief clip from Silva introducing a dramatic recreation of the sinking of the Titanic later (in a bath tub, by the looks of it), but alas that’s it for Bullshit or Not?
Not quite fulfilling the promise of a spoof of Siskel & Ebert. Critic’s Corner finds Frankel (Al Lohman) & Herbert (Roger Barkley) presenting the show of the same name, in which they turn to “Real Life Reviews” subjecting the life of oafish husband and father Harvey Pitnik (Archie Hahn, who’d go on to appear in a series of Dante movies) to scrutiny. The premise is another that comes across like a reheated Python sketch; there’s the occasional good line (“They’re crucifying me,” complains Harvey. “He didn’t like Gandhi either,” replies his wife) but the idea isn’t strong enough (I liked the observation that Harvey’s poor excuse for a life is redeemed by its “Kafkaesque touches”). It’s one where Dante would have been best left untethered to make more from the film parodies (the review of a Swedish film titled all-too-believably, “The Winter of My Despondency”).
(Robert K. Weiss)
A spoof ad for titular foodstuff. Whacky fun-food, but not very funny. T.K. Carter (Nauls in The Thing) and composer Ira Newborn appear.
Roast Your Loved One
“This is a wake, so let’s have fun with it.” A sequel to Critic’s Corner, in which the wake of the former Harvey becomes a roast during which a number of lounge act comedians (Rip Taylor, Slappy White, Jackie Vernon, Henry Youngman, Charlie Callas, and TV star Steve Allen) compete to tell the funniest jokes at his expense. It probably helps if you know the faces (Allen’s the only one I’m familiar with) but when one of them utters the immortal, “Take my wife, please,” you know you’re in familiar territory. Dante regulars include Belinda Balaski (The Howling) as Harvey’s wife (who joins in the roasting) and Robert Picardo as the roast organiser.
Don “No Soul” Simmons
More from Grier, who’s so naturally funny this gets full marks (“So curl up by the fireside and listen to the music of this non-threatening showman”). There’s also an ad for “Down and Funky” Don, which is nothing of the sort.
(Robert K. Weiss)
They’re pirates who steal videos, geddit? Nice to see an early appearance of laserdiscs adorning the booty cabin, but it’s exactly as good as the title suggests. The captain’s (William Marshall) reaction to the FBI Warning did make me smile though (“Oh, I’m so scared!”)
Son of the Invisible Man
Joe Dante opined in an interview for Guilia D’Agnolo Vallan’s book on John Landis that he wasn’t first in line for the pick of the material. Otherwise, he’d have seized this black-and-white spoof of ’30s Universal horror fare. Given the beautiful job he did on Mant! I wish he had, although Gottlieb’s parody is very funny; he gets the mise-en-scène just right, and is blessed by the presence of Ed Begley Jr. as the title character. He believes his efforts to replicate his father’s invisible formula have proved successful, but is the only one who thinks so. That’s it. That’s the joke. But Gottlieb and Landis know not to linger, and the sight of naked Begley (funny naked!) prancing about to the weary resignation of others (“Ever see a shirt make a phone call?”, “Look ma, no hands!”) can’t help but raise a chuckle (“Being invisible is the best!”)
The Art Sale
I couldn’t even remember this one 24 hours after rewatching it! John Ingle advertises priceless museum art in the manner of a closing down sale. Yep.
First Lady of the Evening
(Robert K. Weiss)
Angel Tompkins plays a former hooker and now wife of the President of the United States who just can’t give up the old habits. Presented as an adaptation of Mills & Boon-style pulp romance (by Irving Sidney), this is one’s appropriately mock-sensational and torrid (“I’ll meet you in the Lincoln Room in five minutes”).
(Robert K. Weiss)
Comedy routines based on embarrassment at buying johnnies? Even inflating (ahem) the idea to absurd proportions (having crept in to the chemist’s to buy a pack, Matt Adler finds himself fronting a national advertising campaign) doesn’t help.
Landis takes the reverse route to Murray in Videoland, as the action bursts out of Marc McClure’s (Dave McFly in Back to the Future and Jimmy Olsen in the Reeve Superman films) TV set. But Landis successfully infuses it with his batshit crazy slapstick sensibility. He enlists Russ Meyer to rent McClure a video date (video, remember!) in which Corinne Wahl seduces him over the TV (as a precursor to his tit-filled Dream On, and following the course of most of his movies to that point, it should be unsurprising that Wahl’s knockers are in evidence and that McClure seems transfixed by the screen in a pre-masturbatory stupor). Then Andrew Dice Clay walks in on her, cops show up and in short order exit the TV to arrest McClure. It’s this part that works especially well, McClure diving behind his armchair amid a hail of gunfire.
A spoof of those ’50s public service infomercials, Carrie Fisher (who obviously got on well enough with Dante to reunite for The ’Burbs) seeks the counsel of doctor Paul Bartel (who appeared in Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard) when she contracts a “social disease”. Bartel just has to open his mouth to be funny (“Sit down, Mary Brown”), as the outtakes prove. Dante has a lot of fun exaggerating symptoms of STDs; Fisher’s husband walks into a wall (“My eyes!”) and a wolfman is found imprisoned in Bartel’s basement dungeon. As Bartel cautions, “Ah, today’s reckless youth. With your fast roadsters and your rumble seats”.
Worth investigating for the gems, with your finger on the fast-forward button (or take a look on YouTube; most of the segments can be found there). The pick of the bunch, unsurprisingly, come from Dante and Landis (Bullshit or Not?, Blacks Without Soul) but Gottlieb’s Son of the Invisible Man ranks with them. It’s not really all that surprising the movie languished on the shelf for a couple of years, but Amazon Women is far from the unmitigated disaster many branded it as at the time.
The deleted scenes
A great cast, but bereft of laughs. That would be Horton again. Landis noted, “he directed it like a dirge”. Robert Loggia, Ronny Cox and Bernie Casey persuade Wallace Langham (The Larry Sanders Show) to kill himself for propaganda purposes.
Peter Pan Theatre
This one should have made the theatrical cut. Wouldn’t any production be improved by wirework? So Jenny Agutter takes to the air in Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra. Best is Chekov on wires as Raye Birk’s Uncle Vanya flies about the stage.
The French Ventriloquist’s Dummy
The peculiar absence of Dick Miller is resolved (he’s in all Dante’s films). He appears as a ventriloquist who picks up the wrong dummy going through the airport baggage. The dummy only speaks French and does not do “cheap vaudeville jokes”. Fortunately, a member of the audience can help (“I happen to have an interpreter dummy with me”). Meanwhile, in Paris…
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.