Sunday, September 19, 2021

Munchies (1987)

Directed by:
Bettina (Tina) Hirsch

Once the Joe Dante-directed, Steven Spielberg-produced Gremlins took the box office by storm in 1984, the usual suspects were standing by waiting to cash in. First, there was producer Charles Band, who gave us GHOULIES (1985), which placed its mini-monsters into a Satanism plot almost as an afterthought, though they'd move more center stage in the sequels. Not content with that, Band also produced TROLL (1986) and has since spent most of the rest of his career making silly movies featuring diminutive killer dolls, monsters, mutants, gingerbread cookies, bongs and the like. Unlike most of the rest of these, CRITTERS (1986) and The Gate (1987) were major studio wide releases that did well in theaters and on home video and spawned sequels. There were plenty of cheaper, lower-grade films, as well, including Hobgoblins (1987), ELVES (1990) and Beasties (1991), plus a number of films usually left completely off of these lists because they're not American, like the Japanese GAKIDAMA (1985). In addition to that, you have dozens of movies that may not have been entirely centered around mini-monsters but still prominently featured them, like Spookies (1986), ROCK 'N' ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987) and SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA (1988). I really should try to make a definitive list of these one day!

Not be left out, because he's never left out, Roger Corman produced this particular knock-off. As was customary with him, he gave an up-and-coming new talent (ironically in this case, the editor of Gremlins) their first chance to direct a feature. And, as was also common for Corman, that person was a female. Corman is sometimes accused of being sexist because he insisted the exploitation films he backed include female nudity, but I've always found that criticism utter bullshit. This man was one of the only producers back then actually giving women the chance to direct. The nudity was included to sell certain genre films to drive-ins and (later) the cable and video markets but his critics seldom point out the he also produced plenty of films that featured no nudity or gore. This one, for instance, contains neither and happens to be rated PG. Not that this is in any way better than the ones that do. Quite the contrary!

Archaeologist Simon Watterman (Harvey Korman) and his alarmingly unfunny aspiring stand-up comedian son Paul (Charles Stratton) are exploring some ancient Incan ruins in Peru. Simon's there because of a theory he has that Machu Picchu had been secretly used as a control tower for alien spaceships (?!) While exploring a tomb, the two discover a pool of green glowing liquid plus a furry, smart, talkative and friendly little creature. After Paul gives it a chocolate bar, it willingly crawls into his duffel bag. They then fly back to the U. S. (see what happens if you try to get a munchie through airport security these days) and head back home to the desert town of Sweetwater. Simon goes away to a conference, entrusting Paul and his girlfriend Cindy (Nadine Van der Velde, who's also in Critters) with the creature. They feed it pork rinds, give it a Playboy Magazine to read, name him Arnold Ziffel (after the pig on Green Acres) and then shirk their responsibilities and retreat to the bedroom for some under-the-covers "sleazy teenage sex," which somehow includes a plastic laser gun and a giant inflatable hammer.

Living right next door is Simon's evil brother Cecil (also played by Korman, wearing a black afro wig), who spies on them with a telescope and has their home bugged (!) so he can listen in to all of their conversations. Even though Cecil is an entrepreneur who owns about 100 different businesses, he's desperate for his brother to sell him his property so he has a place to store 2,000 barrels of "America's greatest natural resource;" toxic waste. After overhearing a conversation about the creature, Cecil and "Dude" (Jon Stafford), his annoying, hacky sack-obsessed "burnt-out Santa Cruz Dead Head" stepson, break in and kidnap Arnold. "Dude" is left to babysit, which ends in him shooting the alien with a shotgun and cutting it in two with a knife (don't ask). What's left of Arnold then regenerates into another Arnold plus three more creatures, which don't quite possess the pleasant temperament of their predecessor. They do however come equipped with a steady stream of God awful one-liners.

After killing "Dude" by blasting Grateful Dead music through his headphones (?), the "munchies" steal his car, smoke cigarettes, blow an old woman's car up and flip off a bunch of bikers after running them off the road. After going after a couple of teen girls swimming in a lake, they invade an ice cream parlor run by Robert Picardo (who seriously seems out to lunch here) and Wendy Schall. From there it's off to the grand opening of "the world's first 36 hole miniature golf course," where they float around on balloons, go fishing, drink wine coolers, dress up as pirates and have a swordfight, pelt people with golf balls and chase all of the customers away. They ransack a video store (where we see posters for other Corman productions like Barbarian Queen and TNT Jackson) and cause other problems as Paul and Cindy, as well as Cecil, his airhead Tammy Faye-esque wife Melvis (Alix Elias) and a couple of cops, search for them.

I vividly remember this movie from my childhood and, like most kids my age, the VHS box featuring a munchie sipping a beer while looking up a young woman's dress was pretty much an insta-rent. Back then, I seriously doubt I noticed much else of what was going on here aside from the munchie action and the juvenile gags. However, looking at this through adult eyes I can now see this what for it truly is: A wannabe satire mocking faux patriotism and our self-serving capitalist society. In that regard, this is much more in the spirit of Gremlins, which found much of its humor turning a picture postcard small town into a battle zone, than any of the other rip-offs, which were perfectly content merely showing the creatures attacking and killing people.

Cecil's idea of recycling includes re-purposing toxic waste, unwanted meat scraps, asbestos (!) and Agent Orange (!!) into popular "all natural" snack foods. He fancies himself the poster boy for U. S. patriotism yet sells his "space chewie stix" to "the Russian Communauts" because NASA rejected him and "with the Commies, you just gotta cut 'em in for a percentage." Cecil also dabbles in political matters, derides special interest groups who threaten to slow industrialization and is a spokesman for the "Better Tomorrow Through Malls Committee." After Cindy watches one of Cecil's commercials, she smirks, "What a sleaze. I'm surprised he's not in Washington."

There's also a ridiculously obnoxious, pushy and USA-gushing young deputy (Charlie Phillips) who's obsessed with a potential "Commie takeover" by "Russkie spies." And there's an equally obnoxious bully of a restaurant manager who pushes around and belittles his all-dwarf kitchen staff. When one character points out the effects of pollution, another accuses her of spouting "anti-nuke propaganda." If you look at the art direction, from the oblivious Melvis' tacky pink palace to American flags being stuck in every nook and cranny of the film, you realize that's not a coincidence. And it's also no coincidence that most of the ignorant male characters have this exaggerated macho swagger about them nor an accident that the munchies choose a Clint Eastwood cowboy display to send flying through a video store window. I don't feel I'm exaggerating at all when I say this is by far the most ambitious of the Gremlins copies. There's a vein of social commentary running throughout this entire film, including making the munchies' entire instant gratification-based existence consist of junk food, booze, smokes and sex. They're like our own excesses being turned against us.

Sadly, none of the above makes this a good film. Just as the path to hell is paved with good intentions, the path to failed satire is paved with films that like to point out all of societies ills just for the sake of doing so and then stubbornly refusing to do anything of interest with the very things they've just brought to our attention. The dialogue is so bad that even seasoned comedians like Korman can't make their lines work and filling the film almost entirely with over-the-top cartoon characters is off-putting in the extreme. Instead of laughing at these people, we merely want to see them get killed as soon as humanly possible... and the movie even robs of that small pleasure!

There's also a mean-spirited streak that's at odds with how cutesy, self-aware (including multiple references to both Gremlins and E.T.) and "quirky" this film believes it is. The Cecil character degrades, slaps, punches, kicks, strangles and puts a gun to the head of his adopted son in scenes that I think are supposed to be funny but are merely depressing to sit through. As for why this couple even bothered to adopt him in the first place? Well, the mother coos, "I guess I just felt sorry for him cause he's so ugly and stupid" in her shrill voice. 

And then there are the scenes of violence directed toward the docile-at-first creature, like people slapping it, hitting it and picking it up and throwing it against a wall, which I think are also supposed to be funny. Yes, I know this is a rubber puppet we're talking about here. I just don't find allusions to animal abuse being used for cheap laughs particularly amusing and I doubt a single person who watched Gremlins sat there wanting to see Gizmo getting beaten up and mistreated prior to him spawning creatures. My issue is not with this content per se, it's with the fact the people who made this thought it was funny.

There's not much nice to say about the Robert Short-designed monsters either. They're utterly lifeless and personality-free and lack the mobility and facial expressions needed to make them look like anything other than rubber dolls getting yanked around by a string or thrown into frame by a probably embarrassed and likely-unpaid production assistant. I can't even bring myself to refer to these things as puppets as you can at least stick your hand up a puppet's ass and make it move in a more convincing manner than these things ever do.

Aside from co-directing a documentary about Vietnam, this was the only feature Hirsch ever directed. Probably (correctly) sensing her true talents lied elsewhere, she returned to editing; becoming the first female president of the American Cinema Editors (ACE) Association in 2000 and winning their Career Achievement Award in 2020. Prior to making this, she had edited a good number of other Corman films, including hits like Big Bad Mama (1974) and Death Race 2000 (1975). The cast also includes Ellen Albertini Dow, Lori Birdsong (Blood Salvage) and a completely wasted Paul Bartel, who shows up for the final scene and only has a couple of lines of dialogue.

After its limited theatrical run from Concorde, this was ushered out onto home video by MGM / UA. It also frequently played on cable TV for years and was popular enough to spawn two "sequels." Instead of taking the horror-comedy route the original does, Munchie (1991) and Munchie Strikes Back (1994) were unrelated Jim Wynorski kiddie movies featuring a different-looking monster voiced by Dom DeLuise. There was a DVD release from New Concorde Home Entertainment in 2004, followed by a 2018 Blu-ray release from Scream Factory.

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