The Film (2/5)
Jackie Vernon made a name for himself as a sort of nervy, put-upon sad sack stand-up – kind of a forlorn, downbeat version of Rodney Dangerfield. On Arrow’s strangely well-appointed new Blu-ray of Microwave Massacre, we learn that filmmakers actually courted Dangerfield for the role that went to Vernon. Dangerfield often barked that he got no respect – but he apparently had enough self-respect to price himself out of this schlocker from the heyday of VHS. In the end, it was probably for the best… or was it? Dangerfield’s energy/persona might have made this film a far more vicious viewing experience – but would that have been the right way to play this material? Tough call…
As constructed, the film seems to want to go for creaky/schticky ‘70s-style laughs – after a long, strange opening shot of a desiccated, decapitated head hanging out in a microwave, the film instantly switches gears to become the kind of thing where a woman with Zero Visible Panty Lines jiggles down the sidewalk under the entirety of the credits, only to inexplicably get her breasts stuck in a hole (after reacting to getting her ass smacked by some random dude) that has been inexplicably cut into the wooden fence on a construction site. She then kinda’ halfheartedly (and inexplicably) wiggles her boobs around in the aforementioned hole for what feels like fifteen minutes or so until they (yes, inexplicably) pop out of her top – which sends the dudes on the site scrambling to be the first to grope her. BENNY HILL would be offended – not least of all because he’d have probably been able to pull off a less hacky version of the gag…
It’s on the job site that we are intro’ed to Donald (Jackie Vernon), as he laments the fact that his lunch consists of a giant unshelled crab between two slices of bread. Vernon’s Donald is a take on his stand-up persona; life just kinda’ slaps him around, and he can’t even get the simple things right – like greasy comfort food, for example. Donald’s wife May (Claire Ginsberg) has gone all “foodie” – putting together haute/nouvelle dinner dishes while Donald pines for a bologna sammich. When he’s not whining to an unsympathetic barkeep at a sketchy looking bar, Donald is imagining killing his wife with a wakizashi (I kinda’ laughed at the idea that someone would have a Japanese short sword just hanging out at home. A katana I get – maybe even a desktop daito. But a wakizashi strains credibility). He has to settle for arguing with her at the dinner table instead. Feeling neglected, May tells Donald that, “Some men, you should know, still find me attractive.”
“How should I know them? I didn’t study at the BRAILLE INSTITUTE.”
The casts of Laugh-In AND Hee Haw just felt The Quickening.
At work the next day, after his wife suggests that the dog eats better than he does, Donald resorts to eating dog food (because stopping on the way to work for Burger Chef is OUT OF THE QUESTION). Something’s got to give – and it turns out it’s his wife’s precious new microwave (It’s a “Major Electric” – not as high up the chain of command as the leading national brand). A drunken Donald comes home to one fancy feast too many, and after a heated argument filled with bad puns and enough fourth wall-breaking to shame Norman Fell (like I said, this thing feels just like the ‘70s), he chokes – and beats – the life out of his wife.
He wakes up the next morning with no recollection of the night’s events – and when he discovers his dead wife (in the microwave, natch), Donald does what any normal person would: he decides to give the OTHER other white meat a try. Donald’s predilection for Long Pig consumes his life quicker than you can say “Eating Raoul” – and soon he’s picking up strays and inviting them to his place… for DINNER. Get it?!
That is basically the film’s central joke – but it’s not an utterly one-joke film - there are racist jokes, dick jokes, gay panic jokes – the film works hard to be offensive and stupid in the cheesiest possible fashion; if a woman in a nightgown is holding a cat in this movie, someone is going to comment on her “nice pussy.” A naked girl gets covered in mayonnaise – because why not? When a homeless discovers a severed hand in Donald’s garbage can, the jig’s not UP – the guy just scratches cratch with it. There’s a sight gag where it looks like a disco-chick is squatting to pee on her lawn. While there’s a stab at depravity every three minutes of the film’s 70-minute runtime, there is not a whole lot of gore – and the special-ed special effects are played for goofy laughs. At least one gag sorta’ reminded me of Peter Jackson’s Braindead/Dead Alive, so there’s that.
Watching this film for the first time since 1986 got me thinking: why were there so many films about cannibals in the ‘80s? And why does that sound like an alternate lyric to “The Rainbow Connection”…?
But seriously – Motel Hell, the aforementioned Eating Raoul, Raw Force, Texas Chainsaw 2, Parents – and that’s not even counting what was going on in Italy. Why did producers think eating people was at all an appetizing proposition?
Oh no – I’ve seen this movie one too many times…
You might think that this sort of film would kill a career, but a few crew members went on to better things:
Roberto Quezada was a gaffer on the film, and has since collaborated with the heroic Don Coscarelli on multiple films – he was a producer on Phantasm II.
Daryn Okada was a grip on Microwave Massacre, and has since become one of Hollywood’s most respected mainstream DPs. He shot the aforementioned Phantasm II, Black Sheep, Lake Placid, Mean Girls, and Jessica Bendinger’s Stick It. He also became the president of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Finally, camera operator Arledge Armenaki went on to full-fledged cinematographer on one of the most important films in the history of American cinema – Rudy Ray Moore’s Disco Godfather.
This transfer is pretty much magic. The materials must have been pristine, and the scan done with obsessive-compulsive care. You’ll wish that some actual classic cinema could look this good after a restoration and a 2K scan. Colors are vibrant and true-to-life, there’s very little wrong with the print – it doesn’t look at all like the film has been tampered with. There’s no noise reduction, no artificial sharpening – you could probably digitally project this disc theatrically and get a better cinematic experience than you’d have gotten during a theatrical release in the ‘80s… had the film received a theatrical release in the ‘80s.
On the disc, it is claimed that the commentary features director Wayne Berwick, but the commentary is actually a long form, seldom screen-synced gabfest with producer/co-writer (and disturbing cameo performer) Craig Muckler and B-filmmaker Mike Tristano that covers a lot of what goes into a ultra low-budget, run-and-gun filmmaking in L.A. Muckler is amiable (he chuckles at the film in “how/why the hell did we do that” fashion throughout), has a strong recollection of the period, and is prone to playing raconteur – which is totally welcome on something like this.
Arrow has also produced a very cool twenty-minute making-of featurette that gives the viewer a pretty good idea of why the film turned out the way it did. It seems Muckler had written a treatment that envisioned a far nastier piece of work, but production shortcomings – and the fact that people were having such a goofy time making the film – kind of reset the tone along the way. Even the grisly nature of Texas Chainsaw Massacre alum Robert Burns’s contributions to the production took a backseat to the comedy – which, it turns out, was ‘70s style-cheese precisely because the film was actually shot in 1978 and had a bit of a time finding distribution.
We get a trailer that doesn’t really help sell the film, an all-too-brief stills gallery, and a look at Muckler’s treatment via DVD-ROM. Finally, the film is subtitled for the hard of hearing.
In terms of packaging, we receive a nice booklet with a piece on the film from “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower, and reversible artwork featuring a Wes Benscoter painting that works hard to out gross-out the original key art.
Microwave Massacre has become a cult classic. I’m not part of that cult, but I love Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare, so the last thing I’m going to do here is throw stones. If you’re into this flick, this Arrow release is a must-own – and if you’re looking to get together with friends and watch something tastelessly batshit, Berwick’s flick will tide you over. I’ve not seen this film since VHS – but I remember how horrible it looked then, and this transfer obliterates all previous home video incarnations.