I don't know anyone wretched, dull, joyless or mean-spirited enough that they would dislike Brett Piper's SHOCK-O-RAMA, and honestly, I hope I never do. Those who would throw their venom at this film seem like the type of folks who have lost their fun gene and can't stand to see anyone else have a good time. So, they make life miserable for everyone else. And I say to these people, stay in religion and politics where you belong and leave our entertainment alone. Because SHOCK-O-RAMA is something completely refreshing.
I've seen quite a few horror films lately. The PG-13 commercial end of the spectrum has been... well, horrible. Recently, it seems only the gutsiest of films has been very good. But I'm frankly burnt out on them. I enjoy bleak, overly-serious art as much as the next guy, but one can only take so much before he starts eyeing a bottle of sleeping pills. With SHOCK-O-RAMA, Brett Piper gives us back something that has been far too absent in recent films: fun.
I know I shouldn't be surprised that the film works better than other straight to video horror films. After all, Piper has been putting the "fun" back in "funeral" for many years. His recent marriage to POP Cinema (formerly e.i.) was perfect, as he created SCREAMING DEAD and BITE ME! Those films were decent entertainment, but SHOCK-O-RAMA is his greatest work.
What makes the film's success all the more unlikely is that its an anthology film. Very seldom are those films anything better than mixed bags. The fault of this is that in the short form, one or more of the assembles pieces feels flat, less thought out or frankly just not worthy of the rest of the film. Face it, the Zuni Fetish Doll is all we cared about from TRILOGY OF TERROR. The old Amicus films usually had one or two stinkers in the middle of vastly superior stories. Even TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE, which was based on the greatest anthology in modern history, had that unfortunate Speilberg-directed "Kick the Can" segment. Only SIN CITY (and some would argue 3 EXTREMES) has truly excelled in the format in recent years. With SHOCK-O-RAMA, they're all winners.
It is appropriate that the film is named after POP's growing horror label, since a fly-by-night straight-to-video studio very much in the Shock-O-Rama/Seduction vein is where we open. In fact, the framing device for SHOCK-O-RAMA is eerily and sadly prophetic. If you haven't heard by now, Misty Mundae, a seductive, funny and talented actress, has left POP Cinema and has branched out into other areas. Now, I'm a huge Mundae fan, so much so that I even named my dog after her. This is not a backhanded compliment, I love dogs and my dog is my favorite.
In Piper's film, Mundae plays Rebecca Raven, the number one draw for a B-movie company run by a sleazy producer. She grows sick and tired of the shoddy production values of the films she is in and even more annoyed that the studio banks more on her sex appeal than her acting talent.
This is a fearless role for Mundae/Brown. She comes off as a well-meaning but clearly fed up diva. In her rants, she chastises her fans, filmmakers, co-workers and producers. It is a hilarious bit of self-satire. Notice, I say "satire" and not "parody." See, it would be easy for her to just poke fun at herself and come off as completely unlikable. But Mundae always had more going on than that. She's the type of actress that could endear the viewer to her even while she is calling them names. She brings her concerns to her boss, Frank (Michael Thomas - DR. HORROR'S EROTIC HOUSE OF IDIOTS, THE GHOSTS OF ANGELA WEBB), who is already looking for a way to cut Raven loose. Her demands give the boss the excuse he was looking for to fire her. To add insult to injury, she is told that since the studio owns the name Rebecca Raven, she will have to return to her real, less glamorous name as she seeks to work outside the studio. This also mirrors real life as the name Misty Mundae is owned by POP and she has since been acting under her true name, Erin Brown (She has however been successful in her non-POP endeavors, impressing many with roles in various films, including SHADOW: DEAD RIOT, THE LOST and especially the excellent MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Sick Girl").
The segment even strangely addresses some of the controversies around Mundae. The question of whether she should have had breast enlargement surgery to further profits comes up, just as it did on some fan sites (the fans quickly shot any mention of this down), as is the notion of having another actress do films under the Rebecca Raven/Misty Mundae name (likewise, met under great protest). For the record, the filmmakers insist that it is just comedy and there was no intention to paint Mundae as a diva or POP head Michael Raso as a sleazeball. I have briefly corresponded with both in the past and I can say they are both very agreeable people. In other words, it's a joke folks.
Forced to reevaluate her life and career, Rebecca flees to an isolated cabin in the country to relax and gain perspective. Meanwhile, the sleazy producer is looking for his next big star. Proving himself as complex as any studio head, he is looking for someone who will do what she's told, work for cheap and show her tits whether the plot calls for it or not. His assistant shows him a film he made a few years back which becomes our first story.
In this story, a spaceship with a couple little - very little - green men crash lands on Earth. More specifically, they crash in the middle of a junkyard owned by two million time loser, Jedd Callahan (Rob Monkiewicz - SCREAMING DEAD, BITE ME!). The little aliens start shooting at him and he has to take refuge in his shed. Joining him is his ex (Caitlin Ross - HOTTIES, THE SEXY ADVENTURES OF VAN HELSING), who counts this latest problem as further proof that trouble follows Jedd wherever he goes.
More than any other in the anthology, this segment allows Piper to indulge in his love for homegrown special effects. Although working on a budget that wouldn't even pay for the catering on a Hollywood clunker like POSEIDON, Piper utilizes painted backdrops, miniatures, makeup effects and even some good old-fashioned stop motion animation to bring this extended standoff to life. Although this reviewer thought differently, it turns out there is almost no use of CGI in the whole film. It may be the most fun Piper has had with effects since his 1991 feature, A NYMPHOID BARBARIAN IN DINOSAUR HELL (a ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.-inspired film originally called DARK FORTRESS before Troma's unfortunate retitling). It's also worth noting that despite being charming in SCREAMING DEAD, Monkiewicz played things a little too straight there. Likewise in BITE ME!, he was a little too over the top. Here, Monkiewicz finally strikes the perfect balance between action hero and clown. Without him, the segment would not have been as successful.
Our second segment is actually a continuation of our main story as Mundae's Rebecca Raven character begins to relax in the countryside. She begins to calm down now that she is away from the limelight. As she inevitably disrobes in this film, she comments "It's so nice to get undressed without somebody filming it."
Unfortunately, as she is relaxing, she mistakenly awakens the corpse of a long-dead murderer and occult-enthusiast. Although Rebecca tried to get away from her on-screen persona, she realizes its the image she has made for herself that is the source of her strength and the only thing that will ensure her survival. As the zombie shambles towards her, she observes "He's a walking B-movie cliche. But hey, who knows more about B-movie cliches than us?" This moment is almost like a "thank you" to fans across the world.
This segment is all anyone could have hoped for. I mentioned earlier the ballsy move of Mundae playing a character so close to herself, or at least the perception of her. She continues to shine as her wide-eyed portrayal continues with hints of personal disclosure and a wonderful comedic flair. The segment runs just long enough, perfectly paced so its not in a rush but also doesn't overstay its welcome. And yes, Mundae fans will be happy to know that not only does she lose her robe in running from the zombie, Mundae also finally faces down the undead with a chainsaw. Think about how iconic that is for B-movie lovers for a second.
By now, we've already dealt with alien invasion, microscopic horrors, the living dead and alone in the woods horror. The third and final segment of the story in turn deals with psychological horror, mad scientists, gothic leanings, a sort of Lovecraftian terror and yes, the eroticism POP fans enjoy. The only segment with an on-screen title, "Lonely Are the Brain" (Har har, guys.) is another film Frank watches, looking for Rebecca Raven's replacement.
The setting is a research center filled with beautiful young girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Each of them is taking part in a scientific research project. They are given experimental drugs and put into a deep sleep. Once REM is achieved, their dreams are monitored by a bent scientist (Julian Wells - DR. JECKYLL AND MISTRESS HYDE, SIN SISTERS, SPIDERBABE) who resides in a mysterious lair while being guided by an otherworldly force.
When one of the girls (A.J. Khan - LORD OF THE G-STRINGS, SCREAMING DEAD, LUST IN SPACE) discovers that her sexually charged nightmares match several of the other girls, she does some investigating and uncovers an galactic conspiracy. Whatever Piper held back in the first hour of the film, he pulls out all the stops during this last story. It's funny, creepy, campy B-movie fun. Khan asserts herself well in the lead and Wells gives a decent if surprisingly subdued performance. I have long said that Julian Wells is one of the greatest actresses at Seduction/Shock-O-Rama and needs to be given an even higher profile in their camp. The entire segment gives equal creedence to nostalga and originality. The nightmare sequences are especially effective.
The horror industry, at least in its most public form, is in danger of eating its own tail. Most of the high-profile projects out there are remakes or retreads that take themselves way too seriously. To wit, most of them fail horribly. Just look at the recent remake of PULSE which was rebuilt by committee or Neil LaBute's blasphemous (no pun intended) remake of THE WICKER MAN in which forgotten English settlements returning to pagan roots was replaced by crazy women ruling a PLANET OF THE APES-style society off the coast of Washington. As we look to original entertainment, we should remember that for every SILENT HILL, there are three STAY ALIVEs.
For this reason, we should be happy for the independent companies. Our best recent entertainment has come from this camp, just as it always does when all seems lost in the realm of horror. I may champion the films of George Romero, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento. But honestly, I wouldn't be a genre fan without by near diefying of Roger Corman back in the day. Films like SHOCK-O-RAMA don't necessarily change the world, but they don't pretend like they will either. Piper's film is a heartfelt message to all of us, reassuring us that it's okay to relax and smile and reminding us of the reasons we enjoyed all those old B-movies to begin with.