Flickhead
Film Reviews
By Ray Young

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Weasels Rip My Flesh

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Nathan Schiff:

Three Shades of Red

  • Weasels Rip My Flesh
    Written, produced and directed by Nathan Schiff.
    With John Smihula, Fred Borges, Fred Dabby,
    Jody Kadish, Steven Kriete, Edward Schiff, and
    Jon Grossman. 67 minutes. Originally released in 1979.
    Available from Deep Discount DVD.

  • The Long Island Cannibal Massacre
    Written, produced and directed by Nathan Schiff.
    With John Smihula, Fred Borges, Michael Siegal,
    Paul Smihula, Richard Stone, Nancy Canberg,
    Judy Guerevich, Beverly Khazzam. 95 minutes.
    Originally released in 1980.
    Available from Deep Discount DVD.

  • They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore
    Written, produced and directed by Nathan Schiff.
    With John Smihula, Adam Berke, Mary Spadaro,
    Leanna Mangiarano, Matt Zagon, Maura Del Veccio,
    Lynn Campagna, Lisa Stanislaw, Edward Schiff, Joe Marzano,
    Ed Goldman. 70 minutes. Originally released in 1985.
    Available from Deep Discount DVD.

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        Not long ago, I was tuned to a radio talk show broadcast from Long Island, where the host asked the guest about a popular TV show, something he called “Chiz.”

        “Chiz?” asked the guest.
        “No, not Chiz,” replied the host. “Cheeze!”
        “Cheese?”
        “No! Y’ know, cheee’uhs!”
        It took a while, but the man was going on about Cheers. Long Island suffers from an anomaly of tongue, wherein the letter ‘R’ has been hardest hit, supplanted with either an intonation of ‘awe’ (‘car’ pronounced as ‘cawe’) or ‘uh’ (‘car’ as ‘cuh’). This curious vernacular, a hybrid of Italian ‘Brooklynese,’ diluted Hebrew, and shaped by a predominantly white trash culture with abbreviated educations, extends to other letters and idioms. In fact, the place itself is generally referred to as ‘lawn guy-lan.’
        A native of Long Island, filmmaker Nathan Schiff uses the area as his canvas, and though his films have seized the splendor of its beaches and forests and roadways, they’ve also been cast with nonprofessionals thick of accent. Newly released on DVD, a trio of his pictures are accompanied by interviews with Schiff, and in one of them he tells of how some viewers have been taken aback by the manner of the locals. But from where we sit, it’s their voices that could have one squirming.
        Made from bare bones, with a budget in the area of two-hundred dollars and the cast and crew working for nothing, Weasels Rip My Flesh is Schiff’s debut feature. It’s about an hour’s worth of structured mayhem shot on super-8mm, and the liberal minded may shrug off any notion of condemning the thing. How could you? Crude as it is, this movie — essentially a high school student’s homage to 60’s horror and science fiction — humbly accepts its shortcomings and carries on as if it were a real Hollywood production.
        Obedient to genre prerequisites and flying on the fumes of spirited determination, the picture is simultaneously ludicrous hokum and charming naďveté. Seventeen-years-old at the time he made it, Schiff displays an instinctive understanding of character, camera set-ups, editing and plot conventions, and gets a lot of mileage from a cast mixed of kids darting their eyes from the lens, and the game line readings of college-age thespians.
        Maneuvering around the technical potholes and limitations of super-8, the elaborate scenario concerns animals and people who’ve been crazed and mutated by extraterrestrial goo. In one of the DVD interviews, Schiff talks about his childhood Medifast style diet of horror movies on TV; the 1964 film, The Horror of Party Beach, that lowbrow chestnut of high camp, appears to have been particularly inspiring. Running the gamut from makeshift, five-and-dime special effects (that spaceship is a hoot), to an impeccable opening tracking shot that had one thinking of Antonioni, Weasels Rip My Flesh is clearly not the work of a neighborhood kid goofing around with his parents’ Bell & Howell.
        Image Entertainment should be commended for giving this and two other Schiff movies new digital transfers, clean sound, audio commentaries and interviews — a considerable gamble on a someone unknown to the mainstream. It’s doubtful, however, if viewers conditioned by gloss will be able to look beyond the aesthetic imperfections, amateur performances and nonexistent budgets. These pictures are undoubtedly the most ‘inde’ of ‘indies.’
        Image may be banking on the cult reputation of Schiff’s second film, The Long Island Cannibal Massacre. This tale of a modern day Burke-and-Hare who supply fresh-killed bodies to a lunatic who feeds them to his mutant cannibal father, is a surprising technical advance over the first film. From the marketing end, its gruesome imagery — gritty and entirely lacking polish — connected with a following for rough ‘gore films’ in the early 80’s, when Schiff and Cannibal Massacre gained a bit of notoriety from midnight screenings in Manhattan

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    Mulch ado — Beverly Khazzam getting mowed down in
    The Long Island Cannibal Massacre

        For that crowd, he certainly delivers. The build up and execution, as it were, of a harmless girl knocked unconscious and decapitated via lawnmower; and the exhausting chain saw removal of a man’s limbs bookend the picture. Carefully staged and rhythmically edited, both sequences have the hypnotic draw of a car accident. And in a combination of effective costuming and low-angle shots, a hooded, goggled mystery killer quickly establishes a menacing impression.

        In between, however, Cannibal Massacre is prone to biting off more than it can chew. Imbuing characters with a myriad of psychological defects, the scenario becomes a jumble of insanity. While this may have been the intent — to share the anarchy of genre staples such as The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) — Schiff, still under twenty, had yet to develop the ingenuity necessary to visually camouflage weaknesses in character and plot structure. Which is unfortunate, for there’s a father and son relationship in The Long Island Cannibal Massacre ripe for expansion and aching for psychoanalysis.
        Made after a five-year hiatus, They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore fuses the gory imagery with broad comedy. Shedding genre formula, Schiff’s story (hillbilly landscapers murder affluent northern Yuppies) is approached spontaneously and satirically. Chiding Ozark stereotypes and the gluttony and ostentation of the middle- and upper classes, the film works in surreal metaphors through deft comic timing and merciless overacting.
        Part of its spontaneity is in the casual flow to and from slapstick and inventive, illusory shock. In one scene with a pair of deliberately annoying teenage lovers in cardigan sweaters, the boy professes his love for her mind (though she has the personality of a turnip), and the killers swoop down for the kill. But rather than make due with just the toxic iconography and wanton violence that underline the earlier films, Schiff’s camera traces the slow maceration of her brain and body to their absolute disintegration, as the soundtrack echoes her repeated, shrill declarations of love. Sick, bizarre and funny, there’s an undeniable genius here; They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore is a tour de force of dark humor, and a very funny movie.
        From the beginning, Schiff found capable assist from the actors John Smihula and Fred Borges. The latter, who sometimes bears an eerie resemblance to porn star Ron Jeremy (sorry, Fred), is effective in both Weasels (featuring his unexpected, riotous death scene) and Cannibal Massacre, playing the heavy with a serene approach to psychosis. In all three films, John Smihula, efficient at hurdling the director’s periodic lines of bookish dialogue, alternates between playing a Clint Eastwood-style cop to the exaggerated yahoo of They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore. Of all the people who’ve worked with Schiff, Smihula’s seems the most productive collaboration.

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    Thoroughly over the top and very funny — Mary Spadaro and John Smihula in
    They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore

        Their magnum opus, however, is absent from the DVD series. Originally announced as part of the package, Vermilion Eyes (1991) was pulled at the last minute by Image Entertainment. When asked why, the company offered no specific reasons. Which is a mystery, for Vermilion Eyes is Schiff’s best film and an unmitigated masterpiece.

        Abandoning the restraints of linear narrative, it simply observes a man’s obsession with women and his gradual loss of purpose and identity. Playing the anonymous character, Smihula gives an excellent performance. (His shapeless personality concealed by a rigidly mannered appearance predicts Michael Douglas in Falling Down [1993] and Robin Williams in One Hour Photo [2002].) Watching as he photographs corpses at accidents and a suicide, the picture shares a superficial connection to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). But as it progresses, Vermilion Eyes extends beyond Powell. Merging reality with violent impulse and sexual fantasy, it evolves as a multi-tiered rumination on sex and sexual politics, media manipulation, alienation, isolation, and paralyzing fear.
        Unique and personal, it grieves over the loss of innocence, as if tapped directly from the id. Vermilion Eyes makes no concessions to anyone or any genre, and works out of bruised, frazzled emotion. The poetic, whirling, free style of its imagery is remarkably close in spirit to James Joyce. Budgetary limitations and the raw feel only compliment its sense of impending doom.
        It’s a film you have to view alone, without interruption. And when it’s over, you’re drained and violated. Vermilion Eyes is a dark, rare achievement, each and every existential frame of it doused in sorrow. Perhaps Image Entertainment chose not to release it because they realized the world just isn’t ready.
        It may never be.

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    Annie Titone and John Smihula in Vermilion Eyes.