Not too long ago, in a frozen, forbidden land called Wisconsin, my colleague Keith Phipps created a feature called Films That Time Forgot as a way of channeling our shared bad-movie addiction to semi-productive ends. This feature isn't dead, necessarily: It's just circling the Earth in a government satellite alongside Walt Disney's brain, patiently awaiting the day fans riot in the streets demanding its return. Incidentally, when I was a kid, my dad told me that they called it "Disney On Ice" because they'd put skates on Disney's cryogenic chamber and roll his artificially preserved corpse around an ice rink for the public's amusement. If you ever wonder where I got my sense of humor, Harvey Rabin, Esquire, is to blame.
One of the more surreal aspects of doing Films That Time Forgot was seeking out the sleaziest, weirdest, most obscure films I could find. When buying potential entries at the local thrift store, I was always tempted to assure the mortified clerk checking me out that I was purchasing musty old videotapes of Slumber Party '57, S.K.A.N.K. Squad, and Malibu Bikini Car-Wash Massacre In 3-D for purely professional reasons.
It was easy to see why time had forgotten most of these films: They were terrible and dated (sometimes hilariously so, sometimes not), and they aspired to do little more than glean a few quick bucks out of the public's enduring appetite for violence, T&A;, and/or breakdancing. But every once in a while, I'd uncover a secret gem that burned itself indelibly into my imagination.
There was, for example, Death Drug, a hilarious 1978 anti-PCP blaxploitation cheapie that begins with an introduction where a seemingly stoned Philip Michael Thomas ambles around a pool hall and explains that he has played many, many roles in his long and distinguished career. Why, he's played everything from a slick-dressing cop to… Uh… He was in something else too, right? Maybe a Ralph Bakshi movie or something? But of all the timeless roles and classic characters Thomas has played, one part remains close to his heart: the role of a PCP-addled musician in Death Drug. Deep into his increasingly insane improvised rant, Thomas assures the audience that there will be people in their lives who'll offer them drugs that'll "get you so high, so high, man, you'll need a parachute to come down," but that this film should scare them straight.
Even without this introduction, Death Drug would qualify as the gold standard of ridiculous über-camp, but what makes it such a singular boondoggle is that it clumsily inserts a music video from Thomas' Reagan-era heyday into the middle of the action and expects audiences not to notice that the lead character has suddenly aged dramatically and is swanning his way through a music video even though the medium barely existed when the film was supposed to take place. To pad Death Drug out to feature-length, the film groans on for 15 minutes after its lead character's death with lazily assembled funeral "news coverage" (even though Thomas' character was just starting to make a name for himself) that was obviously shot in some dude's wood-paneled basement.
The only Film That Time Forgot that can compete with Death Drug for campy goodness is today's entry in My Year Of Flops, 1980's infamous The Apple, a disco fantasia on biblical themes from the director of Over The Top. (That title succinctly encapsulates its filmmakers' more-is-more aesthetic.) According to show-business legend, audiences at The Apple's Hollywood première were so horrified by it that they angrily hurled promotional copies of its soundtrack at the screen. Needless to say, the film was neither a critical nor a commercial success.
When it comes to the trippy cinema of excess of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the eternal question "What were they thinking?" can be replaced with "What were they smoking/snorting/ingesting/freebasing?" In the case of The Apple I'm sure an itemized list could be assembled at the end of filming: pounds of cocaine, tubs of LSD, a truckload full of PCP, disco biscuits aplenty, and enough amphetamines to kill an entire stable of horses.
The Apple severely tests the notion, popular in Hollywood throughout the '60s and '70s, that people on drugs would watch just about anything, up to and including test signals, old newsreels promoting war bonds, and Beatles musicals with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.
The Apple nakedly aspires to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a little 1984, Hair, and the book of Genesis thrown in for good measure. It's the story of Adam and Eve reborn as an intergalactic Dionysian sex musical, only much, much weirder. The film takes place in the faraway future of 1994 and focuses on a hopelessly whitebread couple (Catherine Mary Stewart and George Gilmour) straight outta Moose Jaw, Canada, so sickeningly wholesome that Donny & Marie would probably watch them perform and marvel "God, what a coupla pussies." When the duo's bland folk-rock stylings inexplicably win over the crowd at a Worldvision song contest, the hapless pair are wooed by a sinister music-world titan named "Mr. Boogalow" (Vladek Sheybal), who is literally the devil.
Sheybal ushers the pair into a seductive nighttime realm where sex is everywhere, temptation is omnipresent, elaborately choreographed Broadway-style production numbers are never more than a few minutes away, and singing, dancing troupers somehow manage to deliver the lyrics "Like the bleary-eyed baboon to an organ grinder's tune / Mankind screamies for whatever bits of dreamies / We might treat them to!" Stewart quickly falls for a beefcake Sheybal protégé (Alan Love) who woos her in a production number set in hell, with the immortal couplet "It's a natural, natural, natural desire / To meet an actual, actual, actual vampire!"
Having satiated her natural, natural, natural desires, Stewart can no longer go back to her vanilla life with Gilmour. She becomes the newest star in Sheybal's constellation, and delivers a patriotic ode to America that doubles as a harrowing depiction of our nation as a desperate meth addict. While surrounded by shirtless, leather-clad dancers who appear to be extras from Cruising, Stewart croons "America, of thee I sing / To get your fix you'll do anything! / America, your red, whites, and blues / are in our blood, we're strung out on you!" Also, "America, the land of the free / is shooting up with pure energy / and every day she has to take more speed! / America, the home of the brave / is popping pills to keep up the pace / and every day she cries out for more speed!"
Gilmour, meanwhile, sinks into a bleak depression. Sheybal has somehow become powerful enough that everyone in the United States is forced to wear a triangular sticker promoting his record label (Boogalow International Music, or BIM) and observe the "National BIM hour," a mandatory national-fitness program. Firefighters, leather-clad bikers, Coca-Cola bottlers, nuns, old people: All are forced to break into Broadway-style choreography during the National BIM hour.
Only The Apple has the audacity to dream up a future where a Lou Pearlman-like Svengali is as powerful as Josef Stalin, and disco's bleary hedonism not only survived the '70s, but grew in strength and power until it conquered the world. Feeling lost and adrift, Gilmour eventually falls in with a group of sitar-stroking, bearded cartoon counterculture types whom wizened leader Joss Ackland wistfully describes as "children of the '60s commonly known as hippies." Gilmour and Stewart are joyously reunited in time for a divine fellow in a sparkling white suit (also played by Ackland) to come down from heaven in a giant space car accompanied by video-game noises, and offer to whisk his children to a fantastical space paradise where Sheybal has no power.
The peculiar genius of The Apple is that every time it appears that the film cannot get any crazier, it ratchets up the weirdness to almost indescribable levels. It belongs to the curious subset of movies so all-consumingly druggy and surreal that they make audiences feel baked out of their minds even when they're stone-cold sober. The Apple is both the perfect mind-fuck to see while high (on life of course, this column in no way wishes to promote the disgusting, disgusting practice of consuming drugs) and a movie that makes drugs seem redundant and unnecessary.
I think everyone in the world should see The Apple. It should be taught not just in film classes, but in regular schools as well. It should replace the Bible and the Constitution as the immutable cornerstone of our civilization. The Apple uplifted my spirits, put a song in my heart, and completely validated my insatiable hunger to see an actual, actual, actual vampire by assuring me that such a seemingly sinful urge was simply a natural, natural, natural desire. The line for The Apple cult officially starts here. I humbly propose this as the ultimate midnight movie. I'd also like to agitate for a sequel dealing with Sheybal's rage at his arch-nemesis fleeing the planet and leaving him to rot in this sick, sad, unknowable world. I even have a title for it: The Apple Too: Apoplectic Boogalow. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success