Thursday, August 20, 2009

Movie Review: Weasels Rip My Flesh (1979)

Nathan Schiff
Nathan Schiff
John Smihula
Fred Borges
Steven Kriete

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I'm sitting here in my living room, staring at a blank screen, racking my embattled brain cells to find the words - or even the thoughts - to describe what I have just witnessed.

Remember when you were a kid and you and your friends would run around in the back yard making stupid noises pretending to be cops or soldiers or superheroes, fighting aliens with imaginary laser guns and suddenly - OH NO! - robots (or something) start appearing for no reason and one of your friends finds a magic dagger (which is really a clothes peg) that turns him into a monster who throws all the aliens to a pit of spikes that miraculously opens up nearby and then the robots all blow up because they cannot function without their alien overlords and then you steal the spaceship and fly it to Jupiter where you meet talking turd people? Or whatever.

Well, Weasels Rip My Flesh plays out like one of those crazy play-acting games. It looks and feels like one too - right down to the props (the director's sister's hair clasp standing in for a Venus probe), the effects (the thruster rockets represented by the camera zooming in on a table lamp with a fully visible power lead and shade), the costumes (the adolescent "mad scientist's" windbreaker jacket looks like it was bought for him by his mother) and locations (the "secret underground lair" looks to be a teenage basement-dweller's Dungeons & Dragons hangout).

The plot is an almost impenetrable mystery (we'll get to why in a minute), but here's what I think happened, your interpretation may differ:


A NASA probe lands on Venus - on a fiery landscape of crumpled black rice paper - and proceeds to take samples of a strange gelatinous gunk, using the latest in precision-engineered high-tech Tupperware. The two-foot-tall rocket returns to New Jersey, Earth and crashes into a muddy duck pond (or maybe it's the ocean...), where its dangerous extra-terrestrial specimens are found by a pair of badass 70s-style eight-year-olds. Ignoring the handwritten warning sign Sellotaped to the side of the Thermos fla... err... container, the boys crack it open and pour the radioactive contents down a hole in the mud in an attempt to flush out a rabid weasel that previously attacked them (?). The gloop oozes down into the critter's papery lair and causes the creature to mutate from something that looks like a chewed up piece of bubblegum into a huge, equally shapeless foam-rubber monster with paper teeth (I swear, half of the effects in this film were made from paper), which erupts from the ground and makes mincemeat of the boys before fleeing the scene.

Some time later, a motorist with a porno 'tache runs over the beast, severing one of its arms before it escapes into the undergrowth. Intrigued by the discovery of an unidentifiable mutated limb lying under his car, porno man picks it up and drives off with it - presumably so he can take it home and show it off to his friend (which is, of course, what people do when they find dead things on the road). When his friend, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ron Burgundy, shows up to gawp at it, the arm comes to life and kills them both.

Inspector Cameron, a badass cop with a face full of shaving cream, gets a call to investigate a wave of mysterious deaths. The trail leads Cameron and his wooden-faced partner, Detective Anderson, to a featureless patch of no-budget wasteland where they are accosted by gun toting "scientist" Dr. Sendam.

The Doc - who looks barely old enough to be in college, let alone hold a PhD - leads them down into his fiendish subterranean research facility which seems to consist of a seedy bed-sitting room ("This looks like some kind of laboratory!" exclaims Anderson, as he looks around at the crummy sofa and dirty coffee table), and proceeds to regail them with a nonsensical "villain speech", revealing that he has captured the monster and plans to use its radioactive blood in order to create an army of unkillable mutants with the ability to regenerate lost limbs.

From here, the rest of the movie seems to fly past in a weird stream of hypnagogic images and surreal illogic - the cops are drugged into unconsciousness and Anderson is injected with weasel blood, turning him into a terrifying, shirt-wearing monster with giant rubber paws. Cameron escapes from captivity and gets in a scuffle with Sendam involving a rake - the Doc gets shot in the back and retreats, before having his head smashed bloodily into a wall by the Anderson mutant. The cop then torches the lab. The mutant weasel also randomly appears and bites off one of the scientist's arms with its paper fangs. Somehow, despite being shot, beaten and mutilated, Sendam manages to escape back to the surface, with Cameron in pursuit.

The weasel returns once more, attacking the detective this time. All of a sudden, the Anderson-mutant storms onto the scene, rushing to Cameron's aid, like The Incredible Hulk's low rent cousin, and tears the weasel to bloody shreds, killing it (despite the fact that only a few minutes previously we established that the creature's limbs can regenerate independently of the body, but whatever...). Suddenly, the flames from the blazing laboratory burst up through the earth and consume Anderson and the weasel in a huge inferno.

Cameron finally catches up with Sendam on the muddy, muddy banks of New Jersey. However, before he can make an arrest, as the doctor backs into the water, the most unexpected and illogical event in the history of moving pictures takes place: a plastic shark erupts from the waves and tears off his remaining arm. Sendam finally gives up the ghost and collapses into the sea.

The End.

I hope you managed to follow that, reader. I didn't fully make sense of it myself until I sat down and wrote it all out, and to be honest I'm still not 100% sure that my interpretation fully matches what was intended. My description paints a much more fluid and coherent picture than do the actual images on screen. The confusing nature of the film has nothing to do with the laughably non-special effects, the non-acting or the surreal plot itself... this 'problem' is best illustrated using an example:

A moment ago I described the laboratory fire bursting up onto the surface and incinerating the mutants, but that's not what I literally saw happen with my eyes - I actually saw a pair of monsters wrestling around in the daytime, followed immediately by an abrupt jump-cut to a crude model-shot of what looked like a blackened, apocalyptic night landscape, with flames shooting up from between the rocks, and a small, obscure shape sizzling and wriggling around in the fire. This image is visually almost identical to the Venusian surface depicted earlier in the film. My instinctive impression, which is not surprising given the generally incoherent nature of everything else that happens in this film, was that Anderson had been suddenly and inexplicably transported back to the planet Venus and was destroyed by the inhospitable environment there.

It took a good minute of slack-jawed astonishment before I could bring myself to rewind the scene and figure out what actually (presumably) happened. Noticing some crude model trees in the scene, I realised that this was supposed to be the same piece of land on which the two mutants were duking it out.

You see, the lab fire was lit by Inspector Cameron about fifteen minutes previously, and the last we saw of it was a two-foot-wide flame melting the Doctor's specimen pods (an upturned ice-cube tray). It was such a brief, fleeting scene that it had actually slipped my mind that there had ever been a fire at all, and at no point in the interim is it ever established that the blaze has continued to burn, let alone spread throughout the entire facility and grow to such an awesome intensity that it can rip through the solid earth and reduce a superhuman monster to ashes in mere moments. Even after this event takes place, the detective and the doctor continue to run around on the same ugly patch of waste ground, with not a whiff of smoke or flame in sight, and no mention of the massive spectacle of fiery destruction supposedly taking place just out of shot.

This flagrant disregard for the most basic of narrative techniques, combined with the choppy editing and general absurdity, goes some way towards explaining the dreamlike atmosphere of the film and, in spite of everything, is probably what makes the film so damn watchable.

Imagine a picture made by a director who just happens to have never actually seen any movies himself; an imaginative mind feeling its way with nothing to go on but its own experimental creativity and ingenuity. The result would probably be a hilariously primitive, and yet - unconstrained by the influence of a hundred years of filmmaking tradition - incredibly strange and original motion picture bearing little resemblance to cinema as we know it. In other words, you'd get something a lot like Weasels. Schiff clearly set out to tell the story his way, completely oblivious (or indifferent) to the concepts of convention and style and genre. The question of whether or not this was an intentional choice is really moot, because it works - I couldn't take my eyes off it.

I suspect Schiff was a film buff who loved movies had zero knowledge of cinematic technique, and just pointed the camera at stuff in a way that looked cool to him, without any attempt to ape other filmmakers or follow a prescribed style. It may be technically inept, but that's raw cinema, baby. :D

I genuinely feel as if I have just watched a child's illogical dream spilled out onto 8mm film; a nightmarish stream of consciousness, a cavalcade of noise and fury and frighteningly sincere absurdity, flowing fresh from the mind of the young writer/director. Nathan Schiff was just sixteen years old when he scripted, produced and directed this, and on-screen you can really feel the giddy adolescent excitement and passion at going out and making a home-made feature film.

From a traditional filmmaking point of view, almost everything about Weasels Rip My Flesh is beyond terrible. But if you're willing to sit back with a beer, banishing from your mind every other movie you have ever seen, and let the free-wheeling images flow over you as a wave of unbridled, unadulterated youthful imagination, then it's impossible not to have a blast with this film.


Originally screened on an 8mm projector at neighbourhood parties held in the director's own back yard, the film (along with follow-up features The Long Island Cannibal Massacre, They Don't Cut the Grass Anymore and the mesmerizing Vermilion Eyes) was cammed onto VHS tape by Schiff himself in the early 1980s for the purposes of sharing among his friends. Bootleg copies eventually made their way onto the genre convention circuit and a minor cult following for his films gradually gained momentum in the horror underground. The film was finally given its first official public release by Image Entertainment, who turned it out as first in a package of three Schiff films in 2004. The DVD can now be picked up easily from most online movie retailers, including Amazon.

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