Saturday, April 04, 2009

SPELLCASTER

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THE TAGLINE

“His magic is evil… His spell is deadly… His power… complete.”

THE PLOT

Jackie, a poor waitress stuck in a go-nowhere life, is overjoyed to find herself one of the few lucky winners of an R-TV (Rock Television) reality-TV style contest, the goal of which is to search for a one million dollar check hidden in the castle of the reclusive Senor Diablo. Joining Jackie on the hunt are her brother Tom (who amazingly also won a spot despite there being millions of entrants), the drunken, fading rock star Cassandra Castle, and 5 other detestable human beings not worth naming here. Unfortunately, at least for the publicity hungry Cassandra, R-TV’s massive production crew of two people is killed in a mysterious car explosion, so the televised portion of the proceedings never get under way. However, unaware of the accident, and in dire need of cash, the gamesters begin the quest for the check anyway, oblivious to the fact that they are being watched by an unseen figure via crystal ball. One by one the hapless explorers are dispatched by supernatural means until only Jackie, Tom, and Cassandra are left to confront Adam Ant, the evil Spellcaster behind everything. Only then do they learn the true reason they have been brought to this castle of death and what the prize they’ve been competing for truly is.

THE POINT

How this blog made it to its third year without managing to review a single Charles Band movie is beyond me. Whether it be as director, writer, or producer, the man has been cranking out nickel and dime goodies (over 230 and counting) since the early 1970s. If you’ve trolled through a video outlet even once, then there’s no way you’ve escaped Band’s oeuvre. Laserblast, Ghoulies, Trancers, Puppet Master, Subspecies, and on and on, right up to the recently released The Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion of the Crust, they just keep filling the shelves. (And if you read this, then you know I didn’t make that last title up.) Yet despite his prodigious output, it wasn’t really until the mid-to-late 80s, when he was running first Empire Studios, then Full Moon Entertainment, that his movies began to have a distinctive Charles Band feel about them and a fan base developed based solely on his brand. Released in 1992, Spellcaster showed up right around the tip end of that golden age (Trancers III & Puppet Master 4 were already in production, so the newness was wearing off), but it still has certain elements which mark it as a Charles Band production from that era.

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To start with there’s the location. During this period exchange rates were fairly low, so lots of production companies actually found it cheaper to fly their actors over to various European countries rather than film in The States. Shot almost entirely on location at the 600+ year old Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Bracciano, Italy, Spellcaster has a ready made authentic old world set design that these kinds of movies could never afford otherwise. It’s just hard to go wrong with a place which has hosted the likes of Pope Sixtus IV, Charles VIII of France, AND the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, (okay, maybe you can go a bit wrong with that last one) and Spellcaster makes the most of it.

Along with a good setting, you could almost always count on the effects in one of Band’s movies from this time period. Now obviously you’re not going to find stuff on the level of ILM or WETA, but what you do get is often above average and imaginative. That’s because Band apparently works under the philosophy that if you have to choose between having good actors and having good monsters, it’s better to skimp on the on-screen talent. (And trust me, he does.) This may sound like it would make Spellcaster a bit tortuous to watch, but with an 83 minute running time, you don’t have to suffer through too much “acting” before the next creepy crawler shows up. And in Spellcaster they show up in surprising numbers. Among other things you get a groping zombie attack, a hand carved chair that eats the people who sit in it, a minotaur, a neon electric snake, some unidentified Ghoulies leftovers, and a were-pig. Yes, you read that right, a were-pig. Discussing the kinds of special effects he prefers, Band once explained that “it's all in the realm of fantasy. There's no slasher, there's nothing hopefully that reminds people too much of what horrible things are going on in the world today that you can catch on the news every night."

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Man-eating chairs and were-pigs aside, though, the movie is missing some things. Director Rafal Zielinski, who spent the 80s helming formulaic sex comedies like Screwballs, Loose Screws, & Screwball Hotel (notice a pattern?), doesn’t really seem to know what to do with a creature feature. Horror can live with a light heart, but it needs atmosphere flowing through its veins, and Spellcaster is pumping pretty dry in that department. In retrospect, Teen Wolf can challenge Spellcaster when it comes to atmosphere. (Maybe if the movie had been named Screwcaster, Zielinski would have put some effort into it.) But what’s missing even more than the atmosphere is Adam Ant. Given that he has top billing and is the only person to appear on the video cover, you’d think the 80s icon would have been given more screen time than the three or four minutes he’s in. Now hiring a recognizable name, paying them just enough to be on set for a few days, and then using them to promote the movie is an old B-movie trick, but Spellcaster takes it just about as far as it can go. Unless you count the near endless times you see his hands hovering over a crystal ball, Ant is in the movie for only one scene. One scene! And he’s the most enjoyable actor in the film!

Unfortunately, that’s not saying much, as it’s really pretty easy to be the most enjoyable actor in Spellcaster. Now, in fairness to the cast, it’s not necessarily their fault this time around. Most of them, Gail O’Grady in particular, would go on to do solid TV work after Spellcaster. But their parts as written aren’t so much people as they are walking talking character flaws who take stereotyping to an insulting international level. There’s Teri the all-American 24 hour tease. She’s so good she even manages to tease that segment of the audience  who rents these things looking for nudity by miraculously keeping everything covered through numerous showers and an attempted rape. Speaking of which, let’s not forget Tony the Italian guy, who radiates both perpetual horniness and perpetual greasiness in equal measures. His opposite is Myrna the insufferable gun toting, tweed breek wearing British snob. And, of course, there’s Yvette, the French girl. That’s it. Apparently the movie sees being French as a character flaw. But the worst of them all has to be Harlan the fat guy. Harlan is the kind of obese character you only find in movies, the kind who cleans his plate, then the plate of the person next to him, and then goes off in search of more plates. It’s pretty bad.

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But that’s probably done on purpose too. In keeping with Band’s lighthearted approach to things, most of his movies find it better to have the body count consist of repulsive a-holes rather than people you might really care about. And in the case of Spellcaster, just to make sure you know it’s only the bad people who are dying, the movie has most of them knocked off in some way related to their particular character flaw. The tease is trapped in a painting in which she will be forcefully assaulted by the minotaur for eternity. The Brit is shot with her own guns. The French girl I can’t remember, I guess she’s forced to stay French. And as for the fat guy, yep, you guessed it. Were-pig. The characters are such paper thin, over the top obnoxious sinners that by the time the devilish Adam Ant starts wiggling his fingers over the crystal ball and taking them out, you’re almost tempted to cheer him on. And why not? If Psalm 136 can hurl invectives at God’s enemies like “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”, then why shouldn’t we be able to celebrate when Spellcaster’s sleazy misogynistic Goombah gets tossed off a balcony to his rather squishy sounding death? Heck, some would even say it’s our Christian duty to desire for bad things to happen to bad people.

Way, way back in our review of Student Bodies, we discussed how Christians should avoid seeking to do harm to, or have revenge on, their enemies. But what about asking God to do it? Vengeance is His, sayeth Him, right? And, as evidenced by the above Psalm, the Bible is chock full of imprecatory petitions. Found mostly in the Psalms, but also scattered throughout the Old & New Testaments, imprecatory prayers, as defined by Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, are those in which the petitioner “pronounces a curse over the enemies of God and God's people, as when David prays, "May no one be left to show him kindness, may no one look after his orphans, may his family die out, its name disappear in one generation" (Psalm 109:12-13).” Sure, it’s strong stuff, especially considering society’s modern day aversion to “meaness”, but since it seems to have been okay for King David and St. Paul and those guys to pray to God this way, shouldn’t it be for us as well?

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Maybe. But the first thing to consider before we casually imprecate (sounds a bit dirty doesn’t it?) is that there seems to be little to no consensus on just what’s going on in these kinds of prayers. St. Augustine prefers to see them somewhat symbolically. Regarding Psalm 136, he asks, “What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are, who have to fight with inveterate lusts. When lust is born, before evil habit gives it strength against you, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But you fear, lest though dashed it die not; "Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ." 1 Corinthians 10:4” Modern theologians such as Erich Zenger and Linda M. Maloney take Augustine one step further. In their book A God of Vengeance?, the authors see the imprecatory psalms as poetic renderings in which “God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last thing left to suffering human beings.” Basically, they’re lamentations which act as sticky notes to remind us of social injustice. 

Now both of those theories are workable, but they don’t quite address what we’re trying to find out. One interpretation that gets us a little closer lies within the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the imprecatory Psalms. It puts forth the idea that they “are national anthems; they express a nation's wrath, not an individual's. Humility and meekness and forgiveness of foe are virtues in an individual; not necessarily so of a nation; by no means so of the Chosen Nation of Jahweh, the people who knew by revelation that Jahweh willed they should be a great nation and should put out their enemies from the land which he gave them.” While this nationalistic, bug picture approach is good, and works well with later imprecatory verses like those in the Book of Revelation, it still doesn’t give us a final answer as to whether or not its okay to pray to God to punish a specific individual because of some wrong we’ve seen them do. (And I really want the answer, because, you know, I’ve got a list.) But the introduction of the virtue of humility into the equation just might.

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Humility, as the Catechism reminds us, “is the foundation of prayer.” In order to stress this truth, Saint Benedict dedicated an entire chapter of the Rule he penned in order to aid in the establishing of religious communities to the attainment of that particular virtue. In it, he puts forth 12 steps one must go through in order to become truly humble. Now don’t worry, I know this review is overlong already, so we’re only going to take a quick look at step seven. But that isn’t necessarily something to be relieved over. According to Columba Stewart, OSB, in his book Prayer And Community: The Benedictine Tradition, it is Benedict’s seventh step of humility which “is the most wrenching for modern readers: ‘that one not only claims with the tongue to be inferior and worse than everyone else, but actually believes it with deep feeling of heart’ The kick comes in the succeeding words, borrowed from Psalm 22: ‘humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, “I am a worm and not a human being, cursed by others and rejected by people.”’… The key, as so often in the Rule, lies in tracking the biblical quotations which follow; “I was exalted but now am humbled and confused’ (Ps. 88:16, Latin) and ‘it is good that you have humbled me, so that I could learn you commandments’ (Ps. 119:71).”

You see the catch, of course. If we’re truly humble, especially by St. Benedict’s definition, then the first person we have to ask God to lay the smackdown on is the one and only person we know for certain is a dirty wretch… ourselves. And, as the Psalms point out, if by chance He does dash us against the rocks, then by all means we should be joyful about it, because we’ll know He did it so we could grow in wisdom and understanding. All in all, until we’ve got all our own kinks worked out (which should take a while considering what worms we are), it’s probably best to leave it up to God decide at what point the hammer should fall on others. He’s been around awhile, He’ll know when its time. Until then, it’s probably safer for our prayers for others to take the charitable route. Oddly enough, Spellcaster actually kind of ends on just this note. The newly sober Cassandra, who had arranged for the fate of all the nasty folk in the first place, has a change of heart, adopts a more humble non-rock star lifestyle, and strikes a new deal with Senor Diablo which frees all of the victims from their punishments. While this may not be as immediately satisfying as seeing someone turned into a were-pig for their sins, it at least leaves open the door for their possible redemption down the road. Except for the girl who’s French, I don’t know how she’s going to fix that.

THE STINGER

Senor Diablo, being a nasty guy, doesn’t just let everyone off the hook without getting something in return. So what’s his payoff? In the final scene we learn that Cassandra introduces Diablo to R-TV who gives him his own reality show in which he offers to let people compete on live TV for the chance to become a star with a recording contract… at a price, of course. In other words, the movie ends with Satan creating American Idol. I freakin’ knew it!

8 comments:

Scott W. said...

Excellent. And without any swipes at A-Ha! videos. :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Eegah,

I was going to answer your central question, but then I read the last paragraph and realized I couldn't possibly, wretched worm that I am. And let me tell you, typing with my nose is no picnic!

Smiter the Under-sub-worm-deacon

PaperSmyth said...

Wow... Truly going after the title of the blog!
Way to go! (And, yes, I have a list, too, but thank Heaven there are people like you to correct my misdirected dispositions.)

EegahInc said...

A-Ha! Would I lose any credibility if I admit I still like the song "The Sun Always Shines On TV"?

Of course, that song isn't quite true anymore is it? The TV is one of the things which seems to bring me people to add to my "list" everyday. If someone has a different take on "cursing" others, I'd like to hear it. I'll admit there's still a nasty little part of me that would like to have made the wrong call on this topic.

germangreek said...

Hate to burst your bubble, but I doubt you made the wrong call on this one. Remember the story Jesus told of the gardener: if you feel like life is poking at your roots with sharp implements, and throwing s ... uh, fertilizer ... on you, it's because God in His mercy is giving you time to be fruitful before something really bad happens.

EegahInc said...

Figures. Ah well, back to the confessional for me.

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EegahInc said...

Well, it just goes to show you how far we've come from the days of The Inquisition. Used to be we drowned witches, now a Catholic blog can get spam recommending their services.