Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'll buy that for a dollar: Feeders & Among Us - Part I

I’ve remarked in the past upon the great extent to which my movie viewing habits are dictated by whatever dollar DVDs I’m able to find in my local junk shops. So I’ve decided to once again attempt to initiate one of my sporadically recurring features on the topic. The last time I attempted to do this was way back in May of last year, with my review of the hilariously dubbed Thai Wild-One-on-pachyderms saga Killer Elephants, so let’s hope that this time around I do a better job of keeping up with it.

Crate digging for cheapo public domain DVDs is one of my favorite forms of urban foraging, and, luckily for me, my neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission District, is ideal grounds for the pursuit. Amidst all of the mom and pop fish markets, panaderias, greasy spoon diners and taquerias, the ten block stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 26th is dotted on either side with junk and discount stores. Needless to say I am never wanting for tee-shirts and tube socks. And I’m proud to say that, thanks to one such establishment, I have a rolling carry-on bag that, despite what its $15 price tag might lead you to expect, has served me faithfully and sturdily for over six years. But most importantly for my purposes, what many of these shops offer is myriad opportunities for finding cut-rate discs boasting horrible, murky transfers of choppy TV prints of countless forgotten and disreputable movies.

My favorite spot for this activity was a large mom and pop junk store located in the shell of an old movie theater on the block of Mission between 22nd and 23rd. It has since relocated to a more nondescript location and been replaced at the original by a chain dollar store, which itself has a decent selection of two-fer kung fu discs and unsubtitled Mexican films.
This shop’s main area of business seemed to be the wholesale supply of cheap souvenirs to Chinatown gift shops, and in order to get at the stacks of cardboard boxes that housed its DVD selection, one often had to push aside piles of fake jade statuettes of the laughing Buddha and Chinese Opera VCDs. Once done, these boxes would often yield such treasures as horrific entries from Fred Williamson’s European years, of-dubious-provenance discs containing suspiciously well-mastered versions of Italian gialli, lesser but nonetheless satisfying American film noirs like Kansas City Confidential, and Spaghetti Westerns both classic, like Death Rides a Horse, and less so, as with the Ed “Cookie” Byrnes fronted Any Gun Can Play. All for a dollar!

By the way, while there are currently no functioning movie theaters on Mission Street, the facades of seemingly all of those that have come and gone over the years remain, repurposed as retail spaces, parking lots, etc. Ironically, it is only the one theater that I actually had a chance to attend during its years of operation, the cavernous New Mission, that remains shuttered. I have a vivid memory of my ill-fated attempt to watch The Company of Wolves there on Family Night, a monthly event that had more the air of a neighborhood block party than a night at the movies. One weekend morning a couple months back I saw a truckload of mattresses being loaded into it, so perhaps it’s now being used as a warehouse.

Anyway, aside from the thrill of the hunt, what I most like about dollar disc diving is how the combination of utterly random selection and negligible financial risk leads to me watching films that I wouldn’t have under other circumstances. Such is the case with the disc that I am reviewing in this installment, a double feature number containing the obscure horror/sci fi titles Feeders and Among Us.

I suspect that Feeders benefits from my relative lack of previous exposure to shot-on-video backyard horror films. I know that other writers on the internet have taken a more proactive approach to this subgenre, and have come away from it with an aversion bordering on toxic reaction. For myself, what encounters I have had with these type of films have been, as I suspect they are for most people, purely accidental. I can vaguely remember feelings of frustration and disappointment that I would have upon bringing a movie home from the video store back in the 80s, seduced by box art that promised classic B movie thrills, only to find something that, to my surprise, looked like someone’s home video of a visit to a charity haunted house – something that, to my mind, wasn’t a movie at all.

Of course, back then I had yet to develop the fine appreciation for outsider cinema that I have now, and I imagine that, had I attempted to watch Feeders then, it would have ended up, like those other mistakenly procured SOV films, being promptly ejected from the VCR and returned. However, given that I now come to it with a more, er, sophisticated sensibility, I was able to watch it not only in its entirety, but in one sitting no less. And I even enjoyed it. Sort of.

Both Feeders and Among Us are products of the Polonia brothers, a pair of movie mad twins from Wellsboro, PA who, starting in the late eighties, churned out a truly impressive number of homegrown genre efforts. Feeders, made in 1996, falls somewhat toward the earlier end of their oeuvre, and comes complete with all of the shortcomings you might expect in a novice effort of its type. For starters, the acting on the part of the amateur cast comes in every shade of bad, from hysterically overemphatic to disturbingly dead-eyed and listless. An awkwardly expletive-laden script (at one point, a forest ranger, seeing a flying saucer pass overhead, exclaims, “I hope it doesn’t burn the fucking forest down!”) does nothing to help matters, nor do the heavy regional accents of many involved, which had me constantly anticipating someone calling someone else a “jagoff”, even though, sadly, that never happened.

On the technical end we have the Feeders themselves, a race of marauding space aliens who are realized via immobile paper mache puppets that appear to have been built up over either half-inflated party balloons or crumpled up paper bags. These make their journey Earthward inside flying saucers that are rendered via the crudest, Colecovision style computer graphics imaginable. To be fair to the brothers, they do prove relatively competent in the areas of camera pointing and editing, and attempt to compensate for these aforementioned shortfalls with a generous amount of splatter.

The film centers upon two road tripping buddies, Bennett, a nerdy comic foil in a fetching shorts-and-tube-socks ensemble played by John Polonia himself, and Derek, played by co-director and fellow SOV auteur (see Woodchipper Massacre) Jon McBride. Unfortunately, the two men’s arrival in the picturesque town of Mansfield, PA coincides with that of a vanguard force of alien invaders, who have for some reason chosen the sleepy tourist spot as their first point of conquest. The reason for the invasion becomes clear once the aliens start in on the “feeding” referred to in the title, which involves a lot of sloppy chowing down on the various nonplussed looking actors, one of whom proves himself incapable of even playing a severed head convincingly.

Various confrontations and tense close calls follow, all played out in the non-descript front rooms and garages of those friends and family members of the Polonias who were at this point still tolerant enough of their movie-bug shenanigans to allow the use of their homes. Highlights include a very Shatner-esque moment for John Polonia in which he does battle with an alien duplicate of himself, and a 1970s style “downer” ending that sees McBride fall to his knees and tear at his hair histrionically as the beginning of Earth’s final days plays out before him.

At just over an hour, Feeders can at least be credited with not adding the sin of overstaying its welcome – that is, provided it had one in the first place – to its already considerable list of flaws. In fact, the film moves along at a nice clip, buoyed, no doubt, by the enthusiasm of its makers. The brothers are always throwing something at you, and if you decide to be a good sport and not let yourself get too up in arms over just how crappy that something invariably is, you might just have an okay time.

I noticed that Among Us, which was made in 2004, was singled out by a couple of IMDB commenters as being the best that brothers John and Mark Polonia had to offer, though each used heavily qualified language in setting that notion forth. I was interested in seeing what progress would be evident in the brothers’ style and technical ability eight years on from Feeders, which in itself is something of a compliment to Feeders – that, in its aftermath, I could look forward to watching another product of the same crew with anything other than dread, much less anything that could even be remotely described as “interest”.

To be continued…


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Oh, a cliffhanger. That's exciting.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

same bad-movie time, same bad-movie channel!

Todd said...

Yeah, see what I did there? Fact is I had not anticipated having quite so much to say on the topics of dollar dvds, derelict Mission Street theaters and the Polonia brothers, and had to break things up. Of course, now that it's all behind me its seems like it was inevitable.

A Sky Full of Stars said...

That was a great read! There's something to be said for "the thrill of the hunt" when it comes to foraging for bad movies. Only those who do it can truly understand. ;)

TheDoug said...

So, would it be unreasonable to speculate that there might be a DTV film out there entitled: IT CAME FROM THE DOLLAR STORE!!

Tars Tarkas said...

Some of those Mission Stores are a familiar site. Thrift Town is a common destination of my wife and I, and we usually visit some of the dollar stores nearby while running out the meters.

Todd said...

Yeah, good old Thrift Town. There's a new-ish dollars store across the street from there where I once found Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave, Fantasy Mission Force, Fury of the Silver Fox, and the one with the kung fu fighting gorillas whose name I can't recall right now all in one sweep. I then made the mistake of watching them all in very close chronological proximity.