by Jason Coffman
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2011 has been a big year for tributes to past eras in film history— from the giallo-inspired surrealism of Amer to Martin Scorcese’s love letter to Georges Melies, Hugo. It should come as little surprise, then, that the lowbrow horror films that used to reign over the drive-ins of the American Midwest should get their moment in the sun, and what better way to pay homage than in the classic anthology format? Chillerama brings four indie horror directors together for a heartfelt, gross-out tribute to those drive-in films with low, low budgets and even lower standards of taste.
It’s the last night of business for America’s last drive-in. Theater owner Cecil Kaufman (Richard Riehle) decides to go out with a bang, screening four never-before-seen films from their only known existing prints. As the unsuspecting viewers are treated to world-premiere screenings of “Wadzilla,” “I Was a Teenage Werebear,” and “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein,” an outbreak of sex-crazed zombie-ism is being spread through tainted popcorn butter. While he preps the first film, Kaufman gives a surprisingly touching monologue on the loss of movie-going magic as a montage of film threading its way through the projector plays out on the screen. It’s a great moment, and it clearly shows that these guys love movies and definitely feel the loss of the drive-in culture.
Each of the films on Kaufman’s program is a short written and directed by a different filmmaker, mimicking a different style and era of horror and exploitation films. Adam Rifkin’s “Wadzilla” starts off the show with an impressively ludicrous bang. Rifkin himself plays Miles, a young man who finds himself being used as a guinea pig for a new sperm-enhancing drug that causes his sperm to grow to gargantuan proportions. “Wadzilla” looks a lot like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, less like a 1950s “giant monster” movie than a 1970s parody of one, complete with appropriate film grain and a stop-motion giant sperm monster created by the Chiodo Brothers. Rifkin is hilarious in the lead, but the whole cast is great, especially Ray Wise as Miles’s doctor.
Tim Sullivan’s “I Was a Teenage Werebear” is the weakest of the segments. Ostensibly a take-off on 1960s beach movies, “Werebear” is the story of Zac Efron lookalike Ricky (Sean Paul Lockhart), who finds himself drawn to leather-jacketed bad-boy Talon (Anton Troy). During a gym class wrestling match, Talon bites Ricky on the ass, turning him into a Werebear, which is exactly what it sounds like. When aroused, they turn into stout, hairy guys wearing a lot of leather. The premise isn’t bad, but the execution is lacking and the songs are mostly forgettable. Perhaps the biggest failing of “Werebear” is its lack of period stylings beyond some costumes— it just doesn’t look or feel anything like the films it is apparently trying to invoke.
Fortunately, after “Werebear” is perhaps the film’s strongest segment, Adam Green’s “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein.” Modeled after poverty row horror films of the 30s and 40s, “Diary” finds Hitler (Joel David Moore) discovering the Frank family in their attic hideout after Anne (Melinda Y. Cohen) finds the notebook of her evil ancestor and her father explains how they had to change their name to “Frank” from “Frankenstein.” Hitler and Eva Braun (Kristina Klebe) use the notebook to create a monster whom Hitler names Meshugganah (Kane Hodder). “Diary” is outrageous and hilarious, recalling Mel Brooks in his prime, and Joel David Moore is hysterical as Hitler, his fake German becoming more and more obvious as the film goes on.
The film concludes with Joe Lynch’s “Zom-B-Movie,” which explodes into an all-out zombie orgy of humping undead and brightly-colored fluids shooting everywhere. It’s an appropriately inappropriate finale for a film that revels in lowbrow humor and splatter, but like “Werebear” it doesn’t much look like the films it seems to be mimicking. However, for sheer gut-splashing ingenuity, it’s hard to beat, and the first-person camera during one sequence where a character is running through a drive-in full of zombies is pretty awesome.
Chillerama is packed with gross-out jokes, lo-fi special effects, outrageous and offensive humor, and more than its share of dick and poop jokes. It is also, somewhat unbelievably, a genuinely moving tribute to the magic of the drive-in and the ridiculous low-budget fare that kept people driving out to the movies every week to see what could possibly top the last Dusk-to-Dawn show. The film’s tagline promises Chillerama is “The Ultimate Midnight Movie,” and damned if it doesn’t very nearly deliver just that.
Image Entertainment released Chillerama on DVD and Blu-ray on 29 November 2011. Special features include video commentary with all four directors, deleted scenes for “Wadzilla,” “I Was a Teenage Werebear” and “Zom-B-Movie,” a making-of featurette on “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein,” trailers for “Wadzilla,” “I Was a Teenage Werebear,” and Chillerama, and interviews with the directors.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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