Tuesday, May 11, 2021

THE SIDARIS PROJECT: MALIBU EXPRESS

Do you know how sometimes a film, or a series of films, comes to you when you need it most? That’s what happened to me with the Andy and Arlene Sidaris “Bullets, Bombs, and Babes” series (Note: Andy Sidaris is always noted as the auteur behind the Triple B series, but Arlene produced all but one of them and, as will be explored in this essay, contributed many elements to the films that I love). I have become consumed by these movies. They’re all I want to watch and all I want to think about because they make me feel so happy and alive. I also find myself reading everything that’s been written about the series online (much of it great, witty, and perceptive!), and noticing, for the first time in ages, that I feel like I have a lot to say about movies that hasn’t really been said. I think it might partly be because I’ve never seen these films overtly written about from the perspective of a gay man, a trauma survivor, somebody possibly in the middle of a mid-life crisis, and someone with a bizarre and very specific aesthetic sensibility. The movies speak to these personality traits in surprising ways. They are my long-lost muse.

Let me give you some personal context for this budding obsession. I have to be honest with you, I’ve been going through it. Ever since our previous President was elected life has been particularly terrifying, traumatic, and exhausting. As we all know, the last year, the pandemic, was the culmination. I know Andy and Arlene’s films have been so thrilling and cathartic for me because I’ve been trapped in my apartment like the children in Flowers in the Attic for a year, and they provide what one critic wisely called “virtual reality” tours of beautiful exotic lands ranging from Marina del Rey to Dallas to, especially, gorgeous Hawaii. Watching the Sidaris films is, truly, like going on a weird and wild vacation.

I’ve also been pondering making some significant changes in my life—I mentioned the mid-life crisis! Lately I’ve been feeling like choices I’ve made have been set in stone, and there is nowhere for me to go next. I’m working on it! And, ironically, this work has brought me back to when I was 11 or 12 years old and I also felt trapped, with a future that seemed unimaginable and impossible. At that age, late night cable movies were a major source of fantasy, escape, understanding, passion, and inspiration. It’s not surprising to me that at this moment, which feels emotionally similar in some ways, I’ve returned to them. But enough context and self-absorption! Let us dive in to the first entry in the “Triple B” series, Malibu Express (1985).

This is not the first movie written and directed by Andy Sidaris. He made Stacey (1973) and Seven (1979) after a long, and very successful, career revolutionizing TV sports. Malibu Express is basically a remake of Stacey, led by a male private detective instead of a woman. I’ve decided to begin with Malibu, the beginning of the iconic series that Andy and Arlene made under the auspices of their production company, Malibu Bay Films, because they mark Andy’s shift from a ‘70s exploitation aesthetic to the very different mid-‘80s and ‘90s exploitation aesthetic, which began in the waning days of drive-in movie theaters and grindhouses and found its biggest audience (including me) on VHS and late night cable. It is this particular aesthetic, so important and formative to me and my sensibility in my childhood, that has filled so many needs once again as I approach my 40th year. I should note, Malibu Express is the only Malibu Bay film that Arlene did not produce. She was working for MGM at the time, I believe as an executive and producer. 

Malibu Express follows the adventures of Cody Abilene (Darby Hinton, who began his career as a child star, most notably on the TV series Daniel Boone). He’s a wealthy private detective from Texas who lives on a yacht in Marina del Rey, called the Malibu Express. I am not going to dive deep into a plot summary because I don’t love extensive plot summaries in reviews, and anyway the plots in Sidaris movies are generally too hard to explain (when they can be understood!).  You just have to see and experience them. You have to do the work. Suffice it to say that Cody is approached by the fabulous Contessa Luciana (the stunning and perfect Sybil Danning), who hires him to go undercover at her friend Lady Lillian Chamberlain’s Bel Air mansion. She suspects that somebody at the house is participating in espionage with Russia, and needs to get to the bottom of it to save America. 

When Cody arrives at the house, he discovers that Lady Chamberlain’s family is glamorous yet dysfunctional: daughter Liza hates her sleazy husband. Nephew Stuart is secretly gay and a stunning and fierce drag queen. Stuart’s wife, Anita, is an asshole. 

Finally, butler/chauffeur Shane (played by Brett Clark and, like Darby, one of the hottest men in the Sidaris cannon) is sleeping with and blackmailing everyone. 

Just as Cody gets the lay of the land, Shane is murdered “Who Shot J.R.” style. Who did it, and what does this murder have to do with the Russians?! [SPOILER ALERT] Endless plot twists ensue, and, ultimately, Contessa Luciana is orchestrating everything.

While the plot of Malibu Express is exquisite, the joys of Sidaris films are, for me, in the details. So now, allow me to get less structured, dive into my notebook, and just tell you about the specific elements of this film that I love.

Cody Abilene: As I said, he’s just the hottest: the West coast love child of Steve Christie from Friday the 13th and young Sam Elliott. 

I love that Cody Abilene is a different kind of hero. He’s the ultimate himbo and he makes it look good. I wrote in my notebook: “He’s a bad racer, a bad shooter, a bad fighter, but a great lover.” On the Blu Ray audio commentary, Arlene Sidaris says “He’s very handsome, and he can’t do anything.” He reminds me of Jennifer in Valley of the Dolls, all he knows how to do is take off his clothes. I love when some bad guys confront Cody and his best friend/lover Beverly, a woman cop, in the shower. He points his gun Dirty Harry style and says “Go ahead, make my day,” and Beverly rolls her eyes and is like “Really?” 

But somehow Cody gets to the bottom of things anyway. I like this. For someone who sometimes feels weighted down with responsibility, his ability to get things done while being very lazy is somehow comforting (he even complains about all of the women who want to sleep with him! He’s tired!). Also, I love that in the movie he wears tight jeans and a cowboy hat, a suit, a bikini bathing suit, a towel, and, at several points, nothing, and always looks absolutely incredible. I love a man who can pull off versatile styles.  

The film’s Texas/LA aesthetic: Cody is a Texas boy living in Marina del Rey and his blending of South and West permeates the entire film. Even though my lineage is New York Jew I find this aesthetic intoxicating. Early in the film, Cody leaves his yacht and gets into his DeLorean while a country song called “I’m in Love with the Girl in the Centerfold” plays in the background, and I felt like Edith Piaf hearing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” for the first time in the (bad) movie La Vie En Rose. She screams “YES! THIS IS ME! IT IS MY SONG! IT IS MY LIFE!,” like she is breathing for the first time. That’s how I feel watching these films.

Sex and Nudity: Can we talk about sex and nudity? I assumed when I sat down to watch the Sidaris movies that the abundance of female nudity would feel sleazy and objectifying, but it doesn’t. In an interview with Sam Panico at B&S About Movies, Arlene Sidaris says "The women are beautiful, with bodies they are proud of. I am happy to help them show their pride." On the audio commentary for Malibu Express, she talks about how important it was to light them beautifully. Honestly, the endless scenes of women showing their breasts do seem somehow empowering because everybody seems to be having so much fun. 

At least some behind the scenes anecdotes suggest that my perception is not wrong. On The Plotaholics Podcast, Dona Speir, who is not in Malibu Express but who starred in seven Sidaris films, says that she had fun making the films and that she loved Andy and Arlene, who Dona calls "a feminist." On the same podcast, Arlene says she took pride in making sure the women performers were “protected." Dona Speir has been an outspoken critic of sexual abuse behind the scenes of the entertainment industry. In particular, she was one of the major figures in the horrific Bill Cosby lawsuit, and she currently works as a recovery coach for women sexual abuse and assault survivors. So, when Dona says that making the Triple B franchise was a positive, safe experience, I believe her. I feel fairly confident that skeevy, abusive things weren’t going on behind the scenes of the Triple B movies—which I can’t say for many mainstream entertainment industry products, exploitation or not!

My pleasure at the female nudity in Andy Sidaris films has made me reflect on my relationship, as a gay man, to female nudity in general. When I was 11 or 12 and became obsessed with late night cable/made for VHS films, I was obsessed with nudity. I was obsessed with breasts. I knew that I was gay then, and that my obsession was at least basically non-sexual. So what was it? I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I think I loved that women who revealed their breasts in movies were proudly displaying something that was arbitrarily forbidden by puritanical values (much like my sexual orientation). I associated their performances with the kind of work that Madonna was doing at the time. I had this poster on my bedroom wall! 

It bothered my parents. Did they object to the nudity or did they look at Madonna's breasts and subconsciously see my then-unbeknownst-to-them homosexuality?! We will never know! I'm not going to ask.

Why should breasts, or any anatomy, be concealed? Why shouldn’t movies show sex?! Western culture is so boring. There is a looooooooong discussion to be had about what female nudity means in American popular culture, its relationship to what happens on movie sets and real life gender dynamics, its relationship to capitalism (these movies were largely sold because of their nudity). There are endless articles, books, documentaries and video extras on these subjects. Forgive me for not getting into all of them here. Suffice it to say that I like that Malibu Bay films seem to celebrate female nudity in a fun, non-lecherous, and positive way, in front of and behind the camera (granted, I’d have to interview every actress involved to know if this was fully true).

I can also enjoy the female nudity in this movie because Sidaris’s camera doesn't forget to linger lovingly over some luscious man-butts! 

There’s an unusual amount of gender equity in these movies. In them, the gaze goes all sorts of ways. The men objectify the women, the women objectify the men, the men objectify the men. There’s a great scene where Contessa Luciana watches Cody swimming. 

Contessa Luciana, above all, complicates the usual late night cable gender dynamics and gazes in this film. She transcends all binaries, she is just power, beauty, and grandeur. Surprisingly, the movie's women share no sexual encounters or erotic gazes, which seems like a missed opportunity. I have a strong feeling that Contessa Luciana swings both ways. But the shifting gender dynamics in the film are refreshing. Which brings us to...

Sex: There’s a lot of it in this movie. Sidaris movies are known for their ridiculous sex scenes. I support sex scenes but also find most of them to be ridiculous. So why do I find the sex scenes in Andy Sidaris movies to be hot?  Again, I think it’s all about the feeling of fun and joy that they convey. I can’t cope with sex scenes that are very serious about how sexy they are. Let me be real with you for a second.  I experienced sex way too early, in an abusive context. This, in addition to my budding gayness, has made sexuality fraught for me for my entire life. When I started obsessively watching sexy movies on late night cable, I assumed that sex would lead to punishment if anyone found out I was having it. Indeed, I had only experienced sex itself as punishment at that time. My baseline for thinking and feeling about sex is dark and gothic. The sexual experiences I’ve had that are not like that, or that are like that in a consensual way, I consider corrective. At this point in my life, those types of encounters are normal. Until my mid-20s or so, they were extraordinary. Most of the late-night movies I loved in the early ‘90s were erotic thrillers and horror movies: Night Eyes and Inner Sanctum, in which Tanya Roberts uses sex to ruin people’s lives. Sorority House Massacre 2, where scantily clad sorority sisters are menaced by a guy with an enormous drill. The brilliant Heart of Midnight, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh inherits a haunted sex club which turns out to be the physical manifestation of a sexually abused adult’s interior life. Scissors, starring Sharon Stone as a beautiful, "sexually repressed" woman with a trauma history who gets raped in an elevator, resulting in her having a breakdown in a haunted apartment that she can’t leave. 

I love all of these movies. They presented and understood sex in the same way that I experienced and understood it. It was dangerous, it was scary, it entrapped you, it ruined lives and led to nervous breakdowns and other forms of emotional distress. My other favorite late-night movies were the Vice Academy films, which are also brilliant in their way—but they view sex as a joke (I mean, they are comedies). Also, while they have some incredible women characters, sometimes their perspectives on women’s sexuality seem sex negative (why do Didi and Holly need to arrest all of those poor prostitutes?!).  I wish that my early sexual experiences had been more like the sex in Andy Sidaris films, only gay.  And, if that were too much to ask, I at least wish that I had seen Andy’s films to view another possible version of sex.  Almost always, sex in Andy Sidaris films seems fun and cheerful. Everybody wants to have it—the women want to have it, the men want to have it, it’s a good thing!  It isn’t creepy. Also, the men often orally service the women (it’s mostly edited out, but you can tell it’s happening because of elegant editing, like in The Big Combo), which is hot.

I'm sure I also find the sex scenes in Sidaris films hot because they're just so '80s/early '90s. Soft porn sex of this period has a specific aesthetic, and I suspect that because my non-traumatic introduction to sex was through '80s and '90s soft porn (well, and Madonna), deep down I have a visceral connection to this look and feel. In my bones I think "that is sexy sex!" 

There is only one character who uses sex as a weapon in the film—Shane, the scheming butler. In one scene, he violently coerces Liza in the shower. She resists him—but she cannot resist him.  It’s sketchy. I also think it’s kind of hot, and I’m definitely identifying with Liza, and all of this probably has to do with trauma neurology. Maybe I’m pathologizing myself and I just think it’s hot and it’s okay, but this is an uncomfortable position to be in for a socially conscious gay man responding to an eroticized heterosexual rape scene. Can we admit that our relationships with sex and sex in media are complicated? But! But! Aside from illuminating the shadowy corners of my inner sexual world, this sequence interests me for other reasons. There’s a great exchange between Andy and Arlene Sidaris about it on the film’s Blu Ray commentary. 

Arlene: This was made before the days of “No means no.”

Andy: I couldn’t get away with this now, but we wanted to make him the bad guy. But he’s doing a little body work here and, after a minute, she kind of gets with the program.

Arlene: It’s politically incorrect.

Andy: Politically incorrect that she would be getting—

Arlene: I have to teach you everything.

Andy: I know it, Arlene, but you weren’t on this picture! 

Arlene: That’s right. 

I love this exchange because it’s further confirmation that Arlene was essential in contributing a more feminist sensibility to the later films. 

Also, It should be noted that Shane is the only person in the movie who is punished for having sex. And he isn’t punished because he’s having sex, he’s punished because he’s using sex as a weapon. I find this refreshing! Men need to get punished for this more!

::sigh of relief:: Alright that’s enough about sex for now. Let’s talk about architecture.

Architecture: From Cody's yacht, you can see the Marina City Club Condos in Marina Del Rey, CA. 

I am obsessed with these buildings. 

In my dreams, I live there, and none of the apartments have been renovated since 1982. As soon as I move in, I will be inside of the 1977 TV movie Terraces---about the glamorous yet struggling and ordinary denizens of an LA apartment complex (it seems like it may have been the pilot for a proto-Melrose Place TV series that never came to pass). In my fantasy, I will live inside it happily for the rest of my life, and it will be 1975-1980 forever. (You can read my friend Amanda Reyes' review of Terraces on her blog, Made for TV Mayhem).

I also love Andy and Arlene Sidaris’s house, which appears frequently in the series. In Malibu Express, it plays the abode of Contessa Luciana, which makes sense. Its chic, modernist, yet somehow tropical architecture aligns with her. I love a house with giant windows and tropical ferns, but I most love the Sidaris manse’s front doors: they are gigantic, they have tiki-esque patterning, and they have large knobs in the middle of each door. 

When we first meet Cody, he pulls up in front of a “hyper-modern” generic ‘80s office building. 

Throughout these essays, I will be pointing out recurring tropes in the Sidaris films that I find particularly thrilling. This, the generic ‘80s office building, is the first. I don’t know why, I love generic ‘80s office buildings, and find them comforting. They remind me of being a kid in my mom’s car driving around doing errands and seeing generic ‘80s office buildings everywhere. If, when I see a condominium, I assume that life inside is like a '70s TV movie soap opera, when I see a generic '80s office building, I imagine that life inside is a workplace sitcom about the behind the scenes antics at Vestron Video circa 1986 or a haven for the shady, sexy, glamorous yet oddly mundane dealings in a Sidaris film. I love these films so deeply because they literalize my fantasies and externalize my internal world. 

The domestic melodrama of it all: Even though all of the Sidaris movies have somewhat similar plots, I appreciate that they all pull from various genres. Malibu Express is sort of the outlier in the franchise—it’s more murder mystery than Bond-ish action film. But it also borrows heavily from domestic melodrama. Its journey into the exploits of the rich, glamorous, and corrupt is like catnip to me. Sidaris always created a bizarre and very tasty stew of whatever pop culture was hot when he made his films, and I assume that Malibu Express is partly inspired by Dallas and especially Dynasty, which was at peak hotness in 1985 (it also featured a chauffeur who was sleeping with the lady of the house—although not the ladies, plural, and the men! Andy improves on Dynasty, in this instance).  However, with Malibu Express’s more satirical bent, it also reminds me of one of my favorite subgenres: the ‘80s Beverly Hills family satire, which includes Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Maid to Order (1987), and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). 


Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989)

Guess what—Malibu Express was released before all of them!  So props to Andy for foreseeing a popular trend. However, while the film’s domestic elements call to mind these iconic ‘80s pop culture texts, they also go back further, to a higher brow place. Yes, friends, Malibu Express reminds me of Douglas Sirk’s Criterion-approved family tragedy Written on the Wind (indeed, Written on the Wind greatly influenced Dallas and Dynasty, so it makes sense). In one sequence, Cody is working out with his girlfriends at the gym (lots of fabulous Perfect-style aerobics scenes in the Sidaris oeuvre), and we cut back to the Chamberlain mansion, where Anita randomly does a crazy nude dance. It uncannily resembles Dorothy Malone’s famous “dance of death” from Written on the Wind, in a cheap and trashy way (I mean this as a compliment).  Like Anita, Dorothy’s character Marylee is the nasty woman of the house. Also like Anita, Marylee is in love with two kinda sorta gay men (her childhood best friend, played by Rock Hudson, and her brother, played by Robert Stack), and she gyrates wildly to release her sexual frustration, killing her father who has a heart attack on the stairs outside her bedroom. I love Malibu Express because Anita’s gyrations don’t kill anyone, and she isn’t punished for them (Marylee ends up alone caressing the statue of the oil derrick she inherits instead of getting a man)! Unlike Marylee’s dance, which is just bristling with symbolic and thematic meaning, Anita’s doesn’t seem to have any purpose at all—she just wants to gyrate, okay?! She dances like no one is watching and it’s inspiring.

Written on the Wind (1956)


The film’s thought-provoking representations of queerness: There’s a lot of queer stuff going on in this film. I might be deluding myself—but most of it doesn’t seem contemptuous. First, let’s talk about Stuart, Lillian Chamberlain’s son and nasty Anita’s husband. Cody tells us in voiceover that he seems “a little light in the loafers.” Do I have Stockholm Syndrome with America and/or is my love for Cody blocking me from objecting to this description? Maybe. The audience learns that Cody’s right when we see Stuart spying on Shane the butler from his bedroom, lusting after him while he struts across the hallway in a loose bathrobe after his assault of Liza. 

Later, Shane drives Stuart somewhere late at night in the family limo, and Cody follows them. In the limo, Stuart puts on makeup and Shane tells Stuart that he needs thousands of dollars to repay gambling debts. If Stuart doesn’t pony up, he will release pictures of them having sex and out him. Stuart basically says “I will not be blackmailed by you. I don’t give a shit.” It’s pretty impressive. By the time he emerges from the limo, to meet a friend at a club called “The Screaming Cockatoo,” he is, to quote Cody, “the most gorgeous woman! Wow!” 

I love that Cody is more impressed, and maybe attracted, than judgmental. Interestingly, in Stacey, Andy Sidaris’s first film from 1973 which Malibu Express basically remakes, this plot line exists in full, including a scene where the gay son tells the chauffeur that he refuses to be blackmailed, and is not afraid. However, in Stacey, Stuart is not a drag queen, he is more, I guess the words would be, normative and cis male performative. A spectrum of queer male identity exists throughout these films and, alhough in these instances the male characters are closeted, none of the queer men in Sidaris films are ashamed.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate Michael A. Andrews, who plays Stuart (I have heard them referred to using both “he” and “she” pronouns. In the absence of knowing the terms they used, I’ll just stick with “they/them.”). Andrews was a well-known drag performer, based in Houston, TX. The Our Community Roots website says they were “known for her impersonations of Ann-Margret.” They were elected Miss Gay America in 1976, and Miss Gay USA in 1986.  They also had a short but brilliant film career, appearing in the made for TV movie Murder Me, Murder You (1983) with Tanya Roberts and Stacy Keach, Avenging Angel (1986), the Sidaris masterpiece Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), the rehabilitated-by-Vinegar Syndrome-neo-noir Talking Walls (1987), and the obscure Sally Field/Michael Caine/Steve Guttenberg love triangle movie Surrender (1987). Talk about a flawless track record. Sadly, they passed away in 1989. Another great talent we have lost. Here is a beautiful video of Michael playing Ann-Margret, wearing the same outfit they wear in the film!

At the club, Stuart meets a friend, who dresses like a queen from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. The bottom of their face is covered with a veil, but they remove it to reveal a full mustache and beard.  

I suspect this is intended to be funny to a straight male audience, although I’m not sure. To me, Stuart’s friend just seems very Cockettes-esque, forward thinking, binary-breaking and fabulous.

Later, at a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-esque party at the Chamberlain house, Shane tries to blackmail Stuart, and again Stuart says “I told you you thieving bastard, I said no, and I meant it!”  Shane feebly calls him a faggot, and is murdered shortly thereafter. So let’s take the tally again. The rapist who is homophobic because he hates his own desires is the one person punished for his behavior in this film. 

But I still haven’t exhausted the amount of queer representation in Malibu Express! Cody is tormented by a family named The Buffingtons. The Buffingtons, I guess you could say, conform to the hick stereotype. Cody’s dad beat them at a drag race once upon a time, and they are determined to get their revenge by appearing out of nowhere repeatedly and demanding that Cody race their son. Cody always loses. The clan's matriarch is Doreen Buffington, who I assumed was a grand, heavily made-up lady in the tradition of Mimi, the character played by Kathy Kinney on The Drew Carey Show

I didn’t know, until listening to Andy and Arlene's commentary, that she is actually played by Busty O’Shea. Busty O’Shea was, at the time, a well-known drag performer in Los Angeles! Arlene remembers that they performed at a popular drag club. I did a little bit of digging, and I suspect she’s talking about La Cage Aux Folles, a club in Beverly Hills that was beloved by LA’s rich and famous. Arlene says “The Screaming Cockatoo” was based on that club, and I believe Michael A. Andrews also performed there. Check out this commercial. Look at the stars who hung out at La Cage Aux Folles!

A biography of actress Persis Khambatta (Star Trek-The Motion Picture) notes that Busty performed at La Cage at Khambatta’s birthday party in 1981, impersonating Dolly Parton singing the then current hit “9 to 5”! Busty seems to have vanished. The 2004 book Burlesque: Legendary Stars of the Stage ends with its author, Jane Briggeman, wondering what happened to a number of ''lost" performers, including O'Shea. Before I knew that Doreen Buffington was played by a once legendary drag queen who has disappeared, I wasn’t into the Buffingtons at all. They’re not very funny and they slow down the movie. But, knowing the identity of the actor playing Doreen, I find the character more interesting. It’s cool that Sidaris cast a drag performer as a cisgender woman. And even though Doreen is a comedic character, the movie doesn’t make a joke about her being played by a man in female drag. On the audio commentary, Andy says they didn’t intend for the audience to know Doreen was played by a drag performer: “That’s really a guy there with the sunglasses and the yellow dress on folks but you wouldn’t know it if we didn’t tell you that.” Props to Malibu Express for, perhaps unintentionally, providing a rare record of the work of this “lost” drag performer. What happened to them?! This is what I love about cinema. If you follow its strands, you don’t know what previously unknown-to-you parts of history you will find. The Sidaris films, and Malibu Express in particular, are filled with breadcrumbs.

In another scene, Cody randomly gets accosted by a bunch of body builders. One of them says “He’s a pretty boy, isn’t he?,” and his friend says “Why, you wanna fuck him?”  He responds, “Yeah, maybe.”  Now—I think maybe this is supposed to sound like a threat. But because of the infamous flat acting that permeates these films, it just comes across as, well, straightforward. Like, why wouldn’t he? Everyone else wants to. 

Hot men in bathrobes: Okay, I have to rewind a bit. Remember when we saw Stuart spying out the door as Shane peacocked around in a bathrobe? This is the first ever example of one of my favorite Sidaris tropes: hot, villainous men in bathrobes. I feel like this must have been a thing in the 1980s, because I have always had a fetish for exactly this image. 

As anyone who knows me has heard, the origin story of my gayness is the tingle I felt seeing Andy Garcia killing two home invaders while wearing a hairy-chest-baring red silk robe in the commercial for The Godfather Part III

I’ve always thought I was the only person who had a thing for men in bathrobes, but obviously somebody behind the scenes of Sidaris’s films had the same thing because this franchise features a lot of them. Shane looks hot in his bathrobe, but it’s the worst bathrobe in the series: faded peach terrycloth. Not very grand. The robes become more impressive as the series progresses and the villains become richer and more powerful! Naturally I’ll discuss them in future entries on the series.

Parties: Sorry, I have to rewind again just to point out that I love the parties in Andy Sidaris movies. Always lots of high ‘80s glamour to be found. 

The woman in the wheelchair, Lady Chamberlain, is played by Niki Dantine, wife of the handsome actor Helmut Dantine, who appeared in legendary films like Casablanca (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and War and Peace (1956). Befitting Hollywood royalty, she wears her own outfit and jewels! On the commentary Andy says they're probably worth more than the budget of the picture.

Sybil Danning shows up in another amazing, understated dress. 

Also, Arlene makes a cameo in this scene, the very height of L.A. glamour. I’m sure that’s her actual outfit. Don’t you miss when sequins were in?

Maid Marion: I also want to point out the Chamberlain family’s bizarre maid, called Maid Marion. She wears a curly blonde Lady Godiva wig and I kept expecting her to sing “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music.

Art Direction: I mean, there is so much to discuss regarding the art direction in the Sidaris canon. I could write an entire book on the art direction in Hard Ticket to Hawaii alone, and then another volume on Guns (1990). Sal Grasso was the production designer on Malibu, as well as the Sidaris films Seven and Hard Ticket to Hawaii. Before working with Andy, he was also the assistant to the producer of Frogs (1972) and the Associate Producer and Production Manager of Curtis Harrington’s The Killing Kind (1973). What a career! His last film was Hard Ticket, and I don’t know what happened to him after. I will do some digging because I suspect he has an interesting story. Andy and Arlene rave about him, describing him as both an artist (which is apparent) and tremendously resourceful. They tell a good story about how he pilfered a telephone operator station from Warner Brothers for a scene that takes place at a phone sex line! Every scene of Malibu Express has something to appreciate. Lady Chamberlain’s mansion is ‘80s LA perfection (Andy and Arlene say he achieved its look with basically some paint, a few pillows and random props). But I want to heap special praise on the Chamberlains’ beach house. It is an '80s LA lounge dream, with a jukebox and lots of 1985 video equipment. 

The beach house was the real Malibu Beach house of Andy and Arlene’s friend, a rich criminal attorney, so I wonder how much of the d├ęcor was actually his. Cody and his cop friend Beverly go to the beach house because they suspect it may contain a clue to Shane’s murder. But, once they get there, they can’t help having sex. During the act, Cody accidentally presses a button and a camcorder pops up. A ha! He tells Beverly that there are cameras everywhere, and he thinks this is where Shane recorded illicit documentation of his sex acts with the Chamberlain family. I appreciate that Cody immediately tells Beverly about the video equipment rather than taping their acts illicitly! He asks, “Want to make a home movie?” Consent! Of course, she does. 

Small Character Moments: As Cody gets closer to solving the mystery, the twists and secrets pile up, but I'm most drawn to a scene where Cody leaves a supermarket eating a candy bar. In V.O., he says: “I stopped at the grocery store to get a peanut brittle candy bar. I just need to think things through!”  Have I told you that I love Cody Abilene so much? I like that sometimes he just needs to stop at a store to get a candy bar to help him think. So relatable. I love bizarre little character details like this, which permeate Sidaris films. 

Man Hating: Cody finds a roll of film that might help him solve Shane’s murder. He brings it to his friend, a beautiful, busty film developer (these movies don’t have much body diversity, but you have to appreciate the fact that its many Playboy playmates are cast as women who have so many different kinds of jobs…).  He says “We need them fast. Doesn’t have to be good.”  She says “Fast, not good? Sounds like most men I know.” I like the man-hating in this film. The movie makes fun of the men as a species repeatedly but not women, which is good. And this is perhaps the least woman-empowerment-focused entry in the series!

Alright, now that I’ve outlined MOST of what I love about this film (there’s always more, the entry would be endless, I haven’t even spoken about the Regis and Joy Philbin cameo, or the film’s credits, which a woman with giant glasses and long red fingernails types on an ‘80s computer)... 


...we should wrap things up. I am sad to say the movie sags a little towards the end—there’s a lot of racing and chasing. There is one great scene where Cody’s friend June Khnockers (yes...), a busty, beautiful racecar driver, aims to seduce him by thrusting her breasts in his face while he tries to out-drive assassins in a helicopter. He’s like “Come on! Stop! I have to get away from this helicopter!” There’s another party scene where a bunch of douchey dads, friends of Liza’s husband, dance with random topless girls in front of neon lights. I’m not not into some of the douchey dads. 

Finally, Cody and Contessa Luciana give very long, Agatha Christie style explanations connecting Shane’s murder to the Russian espionage and revealing the identities of the big baddies. They reveal lots of surprises and double crosses. Also a self-destructing mask. At the end, Contessa Luciana proves to be the coolest of them all (no surprise) and everybody toasts champagne on the Malibu Express, beginning another Sidaris film tradition I love: the whole cast always toasts champagne at the end. It’s so civilized. In an '80s drive-in nudie action movie human connection was valued, now it feels like it isn't valued anywhere.

But there’s a problem…where is Stuart?! He’s the only one not on the boat?! I'll assume that he came out to his family, left Anita, and is performing full time at The Screaming Cockatoo. Good.

I’ve watched Malibu Express multiple times to prepare these thoughts, and it offers more and more every time. It keeps blooming like a rare, beautiful, complicated sequined flower. I feel like, with more in-depth research, I could actually write a book about Malibu Express—and this isn’t even the movie that made me fall in love with the Sidaris oeuvre! No, like many, I was converted by Hard Ticket of Hawaii, the next entry in the series. Hard Ticket is so rich with wonders that the very thought of writing about it overwhelms me. 

Nonetheless, I feel called.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Fighting Back With Your Dead: SUGAR HILL and Transgenerational Trauma

I am basking in the glow of finishing SUGAR HILL (1974) this morning.


It's the best and most radical blaxploitation horror film I've ever seen (I consider GANJA & HESS more of an underground film, but they're about tied in my affection).  Of course, it's underrated.

It's about a woman whose partner is murdered by white "business men" thug assholes just because the voodoo themed club he owns is successful, they want it for themselves, and he won't give it to them (an astute commentary on white people's vengeful jealousy of black people's success and how it leads to violence, presented more than four decades before GET OUT brought the topic to popular horror films for the SECOND time ever).


To get revenge, she consults her relative, voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, of "Mother Jefferson" fame!), to put a curse on them. Mama summons Baron Samedi, God of the undead (I think?) to resurrect an army of the zombies of slaves who died on the land (I don't know where the movie takes place, but it was shot in Texas).  One by one, the zombies kill the racist white capitalist assholes, who believe that they are entitled to take anything that they want regardless of the consequences to others just because they have attained arbitrary power. Sound like anyone we know?


This movie is crazy relevant now, obviously. It makes me wonder if it is time for the blaxploitation revenge film to make a comeback (I've always wanted to see a gay revenge film, too...DIRTY MARY?  I know).  I love how the best of these movies really get institutional racism, and the narrative structure usually involves the hero or heroine destroying all of the racist underlings on his or her way to cutting off the head at the top. They always show the protagonist going through a racist hierarchical system that permeates all of American culture. Given that somewhat problematic but largely brilliant movies like COFFY, FOXY BROWN, and SUGAR HILL were mostly written and directed by white men, they're surprisingly aware of how these things work. Phenomenal actors like Pam Grier, of course, contributed behind the scenes in the screenwriting process. And even if Marki Bey and Don Pedro Colley were just performing in SUGAR HILL, they add a tremendous amount of power and socio-political oomph (especially Colley, who lures men to their death by imitating subjugated black stereotypes in a brilliant performance that seems largely improvised).


Sugar's army of deceased slaves turned army hit men is, to me, incredibly profound. I cannot and would not try to speak from the perspective of the black experience.  But as a gay Jew I do know what it's like to have a large swath of entire generations that came before me annihilated by evil power systems. I know that, particularly as a gay man, there is something inside me that is empty and anchorless because of the generation of mentors, artists, lovers, friends, and political activists who were lost to AIDS and/or violence because the people who could have stopped it, to quote Vito Russo, "didn't give a shit." No exaggeration, it haunts me all the time. I know, at least from reading, that the shameful nightmare of American slavery and the perpetual violence left in its wake have left similar--if not the same--traumatic scars on the generations of black people who came after.

In SUGAR HILL, as in our own present day, the racist "business men" and their violent actions are the descendants of the slave trade and the institutional racism/violence that it emblematized just as Sugar and her deceased lover are the descendants of slavery and the survivors of its resulting traumas.


There is immense power in the visual of Sugar, with help from her elders, literally giving life back to deceased slaves and working with them to destroy a racist system that, unlike them, did not die.


One of the things that you lose when you've lost so many of your ancestors is all of the fighting that they could have done, the power in numbers that they created. The knowledge that as you grow into who you're going to be they would have your back as you would have their's. For one and a half hours, SUGAR HILL allows you to imagine what it would be like if death--the ultimate weapon of the oppressor--could not take that communal power away from you.  It's a fantasy--but maybe it offers instructive, productive lessons about turning the anger wrought by your culture's traumatic history into action; and maybe it helps impart the knowledge that even if those who came before you have died, you can draw on who they were to try and finish what they could not.

I found it uncannily timely that, over and over and over again, the white villains try to kill the zombies who come for them with guns. Guns--the product of the same corrupt capitalist system that gave birth to the movie's villains--become pathetic and useless when used against Sugar's zombies. I dream of a world in which white men's stupid, weak little guns have no power against a black person's history and the strength given them by their deceased ancestors. It's a beautiful vision, sad because it's only in the movies.

SUGAR HILL's only problem is that its horror utopian vision is, in its own weird way, so uplifting that it's hard to imagine anybody being scared by it except white oppressors who would never see it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SyFy Network's DARK MATTER recaps


One of my current gigs is writing recaps for the new SyFy Network series Dark Matters. I'm liking the show! You develop a weirdly intense intimacy with a series when you write recaps for it. I was away for a few weeks, so I didn't get to post the first four the day that SyFy posted them. Check them out now! You can also watch episodes of the series at SyFy.com.

Episode One Recap
Episode One Photo Recap

Episode Two Recap
Episode Two Photo Recap

Episode Three Recap
Episode Three Photo Recap

Episode Four Recap
Episode Four Photo Recap


Yay! Today's Chiller TV Friday 13 is on a subject that is very close to my heart: Creepy Canadian Classics! I passed my M.A. comprehensive exams question on transnational cinema because of Canadian horror movies, so I am eternally grateful to them. Note that you will not find any David Cronenberg movies or overt masterpieces like the original Prom Night here because I wanted to highlight the beautiful children hiding in the dark corners... Click on the link for more!