May 19, 2015

Runaway Nightmare

I am not really a believer in the whole ‘so bad, it’s good’ designation when it comes to films as I find most Troma films to be completely worthless celluloid turds and I do not exactly have a hard-on for the more or less wholly worthless cinematic work of cross-dressing anti-auteur Ed wood, yet I would be lying if I did not admit there were certain gutter grade works, like the virtual entire oeuvre of Andy Milligan, the stop-motion-animation-based Lovecraftian horror of Equinox (1970), and John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse (1982), that demonstrates that celluloid art can sometimes come in even the most lowly and technically inept of forms. For example, I recently happened upon a little known genre-molesting cult item entitled Runaway Nightmare (1982) directed by Mike Cartel that I expected to be a typical highly disposable trash film dud, but it ultimately proved to be a sort of unsung masterpiece of aesthetically autistic lo-fi celluloid of the superlatively satirical yet equally phantasmagorical kind. Like any respectable cult film, Cartel’s flick has a background history as ludicrously labyrinthine as the film itself as a work that was expected to be shot over a three week period but was ultimately stretched to three years, only to be released without the director’s knowledge in an incomplete form on VHS as one of the first ‘straight-to-video’ films after the distributor subcontracted it to another distributor called All Seasons Video. To add insult to injury and then some, the distributor not only released the work without Cartel’s knowledge, but also spliced in random shot-on-VHS nude scenes in an absurdly conspicuous way worthy of alpha-smut-peddler Lloyd Kaufman. Luckily, in 2014 the original 35mm camera negative received 4K restoration and was released on DVD/Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome with the pointless titty scenes thankfully excised (though the scenes were included with the release as an extra feature). Shot under the Jean Harlow-esque working title Platinum Bombshell, Runaway Nightmare tells the marvelously moronic yet uniquely unpredictable tale of two dullard ‘worm farmers’ living in Death Valley (though the film was actually shot in the Mojave desert) who discover a buried alive blonde bombshell near their farm and then are subsequently kidnapped by a dope-and-occult-addled misandristic feminist cult, only to join said feminist cult and become involved in a total war against the mafia for a suitcase containing precious platinum. Like Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988) meets Werner Schroeter’s Manson-inspired masterpiece Willow Springs (1973) and Rudolf Thome’s kraut counterculture classic Rote Sonne (1970) aka Red Sun as set in an unhinged cinema universe not all that different from the one featured in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) where understated absurdist irony has a sort of highly addictive narcotizing effect on the viewer, Cartel’s undeniably singular piece of strangely charismatic celluloid quirk is one of those oh-so rare films that reminds me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Featuring a dopey duo that are like Abbott and Costello lost in time and high on tainted acid, Runaway Nightmare is a work that should fail hard in every way yet ultimately succeeds on so many bizarre and oftentimes subtextual levels that it makes one question whether auteur Cartel just had a number of happy artistic accidents while directing the film or if he is some sort of filmmaking genius who never made it past his formative years.

Opening with a 180-degree pan of the desert juxtaposed with a discordant yet bizarrely soothing minimalistic synthesizer-driven score, Runaway Nightmare then features a shot of a sign reading “Death Valley Insect Ranch” and then introduces the two main characters. While proud worm farmer Ralph (director Mike Cartel)—an unwittingly goofy fellow who, somewhat unfortunately, sounds like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Nicholas Cage, albeit more autistic—loves desert life and is fully content engaging in mindless target practice all day, his business partner and best friend Jason (Al Valletta) is growing tired of the farm and the arid setting, complaining to his comrade, “Jesus, alls I’m thinking about is getting away from all these insects. I wanna see some human faces again.” Rather magically, after complaining, “I’d like a little adventure…some excitement. I just wish something would happen, anything,” Jason gets exactly what he is looking for after he and Ralph spot some dubious dudes burying a coffin in the desert. Upon digging upon the fairly cheap looking coffin, Ralph and Jason are startled to find a living and breathing yet totally unconscious buxom blonde that bears a striking resemblance to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) era Jennifer Jason Leigh inside with the rather fitting name ‘Fate’ (played by Amsterdam-born Dutch-Indonesian model Seeska Vandenberg) who they decide to bring back to their house. Before the truly odd couple can call the cops and tell them of the curious case of the mystery girl that they dug up in the desert, Ralph and Jason’s ranch home is invaded by an all-female cult of ‘pussy power’ professing beauties with mostly big boobies who do not take too kindly to men, especially those that they believe have kidnapped one of their sisters. While Ralph and Jason insist on their innocence, the girls demand at gunpoint that they come with them, with one aggressively stating, “Move out or get carried out.” Naturally, Ralph and Jason reluctantly oblige the cunty girls of cult while petrified that they may get their balls blown off, or worse. 

When Ralph and Jason arrive at the feminist cult’s dimly lit yet strangely cozy desert compound, they continue to proclaim their innocence and are informed regarding their fate, “Hesperia will decide.” Indeed, the all-girl occult gang is lead by a big butch bitch named Hesperia (Cindy Donlan) and Ralph and Jason are finally introduced to her after the former unwittingly threatens her by stating, “get out of the way unless you want to be hurt” upon attempting to sneak out the front door to ostensibly “water the worms.” Ultimately, the two male prisoners are locked in a cellar when they are not being tortured by the blood-lusting she-bitches of the cult who rather enjoy threatening their much maligned male victims by waving knives at them while saying unintentionally hilarious things like, “I’m into bondage…and discipline” and “You’re gonna go through beautiful screams of pain and passion. You have no idea what you’re going to feel.” Luckily for Ralph and Jason, they are saved from being branded by a sadistic bitch with the fitting name Sadie (Debbie Poropat) by Hesperia who proclaims, “You broke the agreement. We live by the laws.” After defending her actions by absurdly stating “the voice told me to kill” like a convict attempting to dodge murder charges by pleading insanity, Sadie declares to her leader Hesperia, “I want to settle up with a duel” and the two deranged dames proceed to settle their dispute old west style in what is quite possibly the most impotent gun duel in cinema history. While “Sadie is apparently “the best there is with guns,” Hesperia gives her a “trick gun” that causes her head to get blown off during the duel. With queen bitch Sadie dead, things get a little less hectic at the feminist cathouse, with Jason even eventually developing Stockholm syndrome and remarking, “You know, I think I’m really beginning to get used to this place,” but Ralph does not agree, arguing, “You know it’s hard for me to get aroused when I keep seeing my life pass in front of me. Besides, some of those women have some pretty rugged girlfriends.” As the viewer soon finds out, while Jason is a semi-suave lady’s man with a voracious sexual appetite, Ralph is more or less a spiritual eunuch who would probably be a leader in the so-called men’s right movement were he living in contemporary times.

While imprisoned in the cellar of the cathouse, Ralph and Jason are informed by the cult’s token fat girl Clio (Ina Rose Fortman) that, despite the fact that most members of the group have a visceral hatred of men, they have been selected as candidates for membership in the all-girl gang. Indeed, Hesperia and her lethal ladies decided after fiddling with tarot cards that the two weaselly worm farmers might have what it takes to become lowly underlings in her chick cult. While Jason describes the entire ordeal as “one large wet dream” where they have found themselves “involved with a group of sex starved women,” Ralph continues to complain little a beta-bitch, as he refuses to succumb to capture-bonding. Before being made official members of the cult, the two men are forced to take a couple endurance tests, including being sexually defiled by two hyper horny bestial babes who clearly have not felt a purple-head monster inside their venerable monosyllables in a very, very long time. Of course, Ralph and Jason pass the less than trying tests and are told by Hesperia that “you will be with us in body and soul” and that they will receive all the “sacrifices and privileges” of membership. While the two must give all their personal possessions to the group, they will “get a share of all communal profits.” Indeed, aside from being a cult, the group is also involved in organized crime, including arms dealing and weapon transporting, and they want Ralph and Jason to help them exact revenge against a malevolent mafia group called the Syndicate that apparently double-crossed them by stealing a suitcase full of platinum from Fate and burying her in the desert.  Of course, things are much stranger than they seem.

As members of the gang Ralph and Jason are forced to do pointless things like move crates from one place to another for no reason like concentration camp prisoners following the orders of SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Otto Radomski, but it does not take long for the latter to receive carnal benefits, including being involved in various threesomes with different girls from around the house.  Indeed, like any semi-serious cult, so-called ‘free love’ and drugs are a regular occurrence at the cathouse.  Unfortunately, Ralph is not so lucky as the fat girl Clio incessantly mocks him by randomly yelling “bug farmers” and laughing obnoxiously to rub his curious choice of profession is his face, not to mention the fact that a butch bull dyke constantly threatens him by stating things to him like, “I’m gonna waste you” and “I’m gonna cut you up.” Indubitably, the most curious girl around the house is a pale-faced and black-haired Gothic babe named Vampiria (Alexis Alexander) who sometimes acts as a ‘living portrait’ when she is not attempting to scare Ralph by saying threatening things to him like,“Every man I’ve touched has died a violent death.” When a bodaciously bitchy butch babe named Pepper (Cheryl Gamson) attempts to get in Ralph’s pants by staring him directly in the eyes and declaring, “Hey, I’m trying to communicate. I’m into sunshine, awareness, good karma, vibes, and witchcraft. I’d like to mix our blood” and he tells her to go away because he is watching a show on a clearly broken black-and-white TV (!), she becomes so exceedingly enraged that she takes an axe and smashes the television to bits. While Ralph would love nothing more than to escape from the cult and go back to watering his worms, he still proves he is loyal to the girls by getting in a slapstick style brawl at a bar with New Romanticist style pinball machines after Jason saves one of the more big bosomed members of the gang from being harassed by a super sleazy Mestizo-like fellow. Although Ralph has not touched a single member of the gang, that does not stop latent lesbo Pepper from stating to him, “If you don’t stop molesting these girls I’ll see that you suffer before you die.” Indeed, when it comes to women, Ralph is completely and utterly hopeless as demonstrated by the fact that a seductive dame named Torchy (Jody Lee Olhav) licks a large chess piece during a game of chess like it’s a cock and says to him “It’s your move. You can take me,” but he does nothing but stare at her with a somewhat scared expression on his face, as if he has Castration anxiety and is afraid that she might suffer vagina dentata. In fact, Torchy makes another attempt to get Ralph to demonstrate his manhood while she is showering with a couple other girls, but all those gorgeous naked women somehow don’t get the protagonist’s blood going.

The only girl that Ralph demonstrates even the slightest affection towards is Fate, who reveals to him that Hesperia is really a spoiled rich girl and trust fund brat whose followers are nothing but a bunch of badly brainwashed fanatics that she easily manipulates for her own financial gain while pretending to be a spiritual guru of sorts. When Fate asks Ralph to runaway with her after they get revenge against the Syndicate, the protagonist seems somewhat interested but little does he realize that she is a two-faced bitch and psychopathic femme fatale with ugly ulterior motives that involve mass murder and treachery of the most heinous sort. When it finally comes time for the cult to seek revenge against the Syndicate so that they can get their priceless suitcase of platinum back, Hesperia assigns Ralph and Jason the job of being decoys. Ultimately, the cult successfully raids the Syndicate’s warehouse and gets the platinum even though Ralph causes an alarm to go off after botching breaking a window, but it does not take long for the mafia to strike back and attack the girl gang’s headquarters. When the Syndicate raids the cult’s home, a number of girls, including super chubby chick Clio, are killed in a gun battle, but most of the girls manage to escape via helicopter. Since they apparently cannot fit everyone on the helicopter, Jason and Ralph are left behind, with the former evading capture by hiding in a chimney and the latter soon being caught by the guido gangsters.

While in captivity at the Syndicates headquarters, Ralph conveniently finds a time-bomb lying around the building that he sets to go off when he goes under interrogation. When interrogated by the Syndicate’s leader Mr. X (played by the film's art director J. Christopher Senter), Ralph is informed, “You’re already dead…The question is, how early do you want to die?,” so the protagonist stalls until the time-bomb goes off by asking why they double-crossed the cult and he is somewhat startled to hear that it was actually Fate who double-crossed both groups and attempted to flee town by herself with the platinum. Right after Ralph cries “Oh, God” after wrongly assuming the time-bomb failed to detonate on time and Mr. X responds to him by saying, “There is no god. Nothing can save you now,” the explosive goes off and magically the protagonist is the only one that survives the blast. After becoming all discombobulated as a result of the large explosion, Ralph decides to call his prospective ladylove Fate and she informs him that most of the gang members are dead and that she needs to speak to him in private. Ultimately, Fate picks up Ralph in his own van and brags that she has double-crossed “everyone” and that she has “lost count” of how many people she has killed. While Fate predictably shoots Ralph with a powerful weapon that causes him to fly out of the van, he manages to survive because he is wearing a bulletproof vest that Hesperia had given him when the Syndicate raided the cult’s compound. Meanwhile, Fate attempts to open the suitcase full of platinum and is blown up in an extravagant explosion. As it turns out in a cute twist that seems to express the stupidity and lack of literacy of both organized crime groups, the suitcase was actually full of plutonium and not platinum.

When Ralph meets up with Jason and the surviving girls, he is quite happy to learn that his worms are as now as big as hamsters. On top of that, the girls declare him, Mr. Beta Bitch, their new leader, with one of them stating, seductively, “We’ll do anything you tell us to.”  Of course, instead of demanding hot sex, Ralph merely has the girls do odd jobs like getting him cold cans of Coke when he is engaging in target practice outside.  Notably, Ralph also reveals how resentful he is by psychologically torturing the girls that used to torture him by shooting bullets only a couple inches away from their heads.  In the end, Runaway Nightmare seems to come full-circle, with Ralph shooting his rifle from the same rock formation as he did at the beginning of the film, albeit this time he has the added bonus of ruling over a collective of sexy and big bosomed broads who slavishly do whatever he says, but the fun does not last long. Indeed, after Ralph and Jason find two dudes (one of which is played by director Cartel’s father, who also acted as the film's main financier under the pseudonym Eldon Short) dumping a barrel with a label reading “Danger – Nuclear Waste” at the very same place where Fate was buried at the beginning of the film, the film cuts to an epilogue that reveals regarding the characters' fate: “Hesperia lives in Marin County where she publishes a feminist news magazine. Members of a female desert cult were exposed to radiation and had to be quarantined. Side effects of all women included increased sexual appetite. Jason survived and was confined in the same room with the other females. Ralph developed a unique genetic disorder.”  In a second twist ending of sorts that surely demonstrates director Cartel's obsession with screwing with the viewer's expectations, Ralph is depicted transforming into a vampire and breaking free from a straitjacket while being held at a place somewhere in Nevada called the U.S. Government Radiological Research Facility. Of course, one can only hope that Ralph is more of a lady’s man in vampire form as he surely would make for an awfully pathetic bloodsucker if he sucks at seducing ladies.

Of course, it would probably interest certain cinephiles to know that Runaway Nightmare director Mike Cartel comes from a family of carnies and that the famous midway that his father owned, Crafts 20 Big Shows, was featured at the end of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers On A Train (1951), as well as the Godard favorite Some Came Running (1958) starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the Elvis Presley vehicle Roustabout (1964). While Cartel has never directed another film, he is apparently currently working on a documentary on carnivals. Aside from working as a film director, screenwriter, and actor, Cartel has also done stints as a soldier (he’s a Vietnam war veteran who who engaged in combat), reserve officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, owner and editor of a weekly newspaper (The Valley Vantage), and Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, thus making him not only the creator of one of the most patently preternatural motion pictures ever made, but also a filmmaker with one of the strangest and most eclectic employment histories. While Cartel once jokingly complained regarding Runaway Nightmare, “I'm still desperately fighting to make sure that this will not be the film I am remembered for,” it will indubitably be the single thing he will be best remembered for, which is certainly more than most people can say about their lives.  As demonstrated by the fact that he set up a website for the film, it seems that Cartel is finally able to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of his labor some 30+ years after he created the film, thus confirming the old truism that it is ‘better late than never.’

While I sincerely doubt that auteur Cartel was attempting to create anything resembling an experimental or avant-garde film, Runaway Nightmare is—for better or worse—an innately wayward cinematic work that is in a category that is all of its own as a sort of seductively satirical absurdist fever dream that surely makes the most of the deadly delirium that is associated with Death Valley. Undoubtedly, one of the most alluring aspects of the film is its heavy use of chiaroscuro, thus giving the work an absolutely alluring aesthetic that falls somewhere in between classic German expressionist cinema, Werner Schroeter's early high-camp masterpiece Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran, Leslie Megahey’s Sheridan Le Fanu adaptation Schalcken the Painter (1979), and Richard Elfman’s neo-vaudevillian cult classic Forbidden Zone (1980). It should also be noted that Runaway Nightmare is probably one of the most amazingly anti-climatic films ever made, as a cinematic work where anytime the viewer expects to see a salacious sex scene or grisly murder it abruptly cuts to another scene, hence why it was only to the detriment of the flick when it was released on VHS in the 1980s with random added shot-on-video nude scenes. Indeed, it might not make sense to modern viewers who are used to a cocktail of cheap and tasteless sex and violence, but one of the things that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat during Cartel’s film is their ultimately unfulfilled anticipation for unclad mammary glands, visceral mayhem, and ultra bloody murder. Certainly, Runaway Nightmare is one of those rather rare films where it has a totally original atmosphere and tone that can only be properly articulated to a person by actually watching it. In short, Cartel’s micro-budget high-kitsch masterpiece is a film that makes the viewer really contemplate about what the filmmaker was thinking when he was dreaming up such a superlatively strange celluloid beast. After all, Cartel could not look and seem more ordinary and banal if he tried, so one can only wonder how such an inexplicable work sprung from such a seemingly everyday type of fellow. Of course, in its depiction of a cult of killer chicks with big tits who take two goofy guys hostage, Runaway Nightmare seems like it was directed by a kindred spirit of Russ Meyer, albeit with more self-control and imagination. After all, there would not be much ‘meat’ left in a Meyer flick if all the unclad jumbo jugs were taken out, yet one of the greatest strengths of Cartel’s film is that it does not show a single bare nipple.

 Of course, one also cannot forget that Runaway Nightmare is probably the best satire on the rotten fruits of feminism and the so-called women's liberation movement since Paul Morrissey's Women in Revolt (1971).  Indeed, while absurdly goofy and seemingly hardly serious, the film casts the fairer sex in a distinctly dichotomous light where they are both feared yet fetishized, evil yet erotic, brutal yet beautiful, homicidal yet horny, cunning yet careless, and sadistic yet sweet, with protagonist Ralph symbolizing one extreme male perspective on women and his pal Jason symbolizing another.  Naturally, it is probably no coincidence that Jason becomes a total moron after he gives into his carnal cravings while Ralph manages to figure out that the woman who portrayed herself as the biggest victim is ultimately the most evil and predatory of femme fatales as a woman who slaughters her own sisters for financial gain.  In his pathological use of cinematic cock-teasing where he sets up a sexual scenario but never delivers the disrobed naughty bits, director Cartel manages to highlight the tricks of the trade when it comes to hypnotizing and, in turn, cuckolding men in a film that one might best describe as the ultimate work of ‘anti-exploitation’ disguised as pure exploitation trash. If you're looking for the best of psychotronic cinema, you probably cannot do better than Runaway Nightmare, which ultimately alleviates cinematic wackiness to a carefully cultivated art form that people seem to either love or love to hate (I fall into the former group).

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

I want to bugger and tit-fuck all the gorgeous sexy young girls in this film.

Tony Brubaker said...

I like the picture where the girls bum is showing through her see-through knickers.

Debbie Rochon said...

Ty E, when they said the slugs had become like hamsters did you mo-girl-tarily think of that Heather O`Rourke and JonBenet Ramsey obsessed pedo scum who used to pollute and infest this site ! ?, be honest.

Debbie Rochon said...

Ty E, heres something interesting to think about with regards to the type of movies that you like reveiwing on this site. In EVERY other area of life people ALWAYS go for the best thats available (cars, food, clothes, houses, ect) but not with movies for some strange rea-daughter, no, even though its obvious that the best the world has to offer is produced by Hollywood (most money, best special effects, ect) a lot of critics like yourself still insist on citing some obscure European art-house movie when asked what is the best movie ever made, when of course its obvious that Hollywood consistently makes the best and most entertaining films anywhere in the world. Like i said, when it comes to everything else people always go for the best that money can buy, but when it comes to movies they start getting very snobbish and highbrow and eletist even though its obvious that Hollywood movies are 1000 better than movies made anywhere else in the world. Maybe its because some people insist on deluding themselves that film is an art-form, which, of course, is totally absurd ! ! !.

Tony Brubaker said...

Why did you show the same picture twice of the hindu/asian looking bird ?, couldn`t you have shown a picture of a girl showing her bum instead ! ? (even if it didn`t appear in the movie ! ! !).

Debbie Rochon said...

Ty E, "The Hu-girl Centipede: Final Sequence" is apparently premiering at just two venues in the whole of North America today, will you and your bird be two of the very few people lucky enough to seek out those venues and experience what might well be the most hideously horrifying movie of all-time ! ?, i`ll be looking forward to your reveiw ! ! !.

Norbert Elysium said...

"TomorrowLand" is for woofters.

Tony Brubaker said...

Heres an idea Ty E, why not reveiw the new Poltergeist movie but punctuate it with pictures of Heather O`Rourke (rather than the new cast), the best of the old and the new, as it were.

Tony Brubaker said...

Fulci's "Zombie 3" (1988) has become a real cult favourite of mine lately because its a Heather O`Rourke movie in that it premiered in June of 1988 (at almost the same time as "Poltergeist III") and there-fore it must`ve been made sometime in late 1987 or very early 1988 when Heather was still alive, i love those movies from that period that i can watch and feel as though i`m bringing Heather back to life while i`m watching them.