Saturday, March 9, 2024

Banned (1989)

... aka: Banned: The Return of Teddy Homicide

Directed by:
Roberta Findlay

Findlay's stint in the dregs of New York exploitation was a pretty fascinating one. Not that the films were always that good, but what other woman at the time directed, wrote, produced, shot, lit, edited, did music and sound, operated the camera, composed scores, acted and had a hand in distributing their own films? I can't think of any. Findlay's career can basically be broken down into three distinct phases. The 60s saw lots of gritty soft-core / "roughie" films, often shot in black-and-white, sometimes quite interesting (at least by the low standards of that genre) and usually made in conjunction with her then-husband, Michael. That lasted until the two separated in the early 70s. Starting in 1974, Findlay began churning out dozens of hardcore sex films and racked up some unique credits there as well. When cheaply-shot porn videos began to dominate the adult market the following decade, she made the switch to R-rated horror and capped off her career with a string of low budget films that were well-distributed and profitable on home video. The last thing on anyone's mind was creating high art. It was all about making a quick buck by riding current trends. Once the money stopped rolling in, Roberta stopped making movies and settled into another line of work. It was just that simple.

Banned is the film that officially ended Findlay's two-and-a-half-decade long filmmaking career. She has referred to it as "garbage," "unreleasable" and "terrible" in various interviews and claims she was rushed into making it, had to settle for a subpar screenplay ("The script was awful!") and was uncomfortable with the subject matter. Not that being merely bad ever stopped something from making money in the past, but this was not only bad but also a difficult sell and distributors passed on it. Ads were run in Variety, but it was soon shelved and completely forgotten about. Findlay and her producing partner, Walter E. Sear, lost around 80K of their own money on the project, which prompted them both to throw in the towel and focus their energies elsewhere. It then sat unreleased for over 30 years (!) which automatically made the entire thing more enticing to cult movie aficionados, especially as people became more interested in Findlay's career.

Back in 1978, untalented, purple-haired Aussie (?) punk rocker Teddy Homicide (Neville Wells) went crazy, whipped out a machine gun, killed an entire studio full of engineers, musicians and groupies (plus a pizza delivery man) then ended it all by drowning himself in a toilet. Cut to present day, when a struggling, very confused-sounding NYC jazz / prog rock fusion band (!) called Banned is out performing for spare change on 42nd Street. Consisting of guitarist / Berkeley graduate Kent Travis (Dan Erickson), keyboardist / performance artist Chelsea Fontaine (Brent Trish Whitney), bassist and military vet Willie Jeffries (Roger Coleman) and former roadie turned drummer Serge (Fred Cabral), everyone involved is getting impatient waiting for their big break. After all, they've still got bills to pay, and their last attempt at a breakthrough album - "Stand and Deliver" - failed to do either and bombed.

Willie comes up with a possible solution to turn things around. His brother has recently purchased an old recording studio called Impulse. The band can work there to test out the soundproofing before the studio officially opens, and use the space to make another album plus gain some much needed publicity in the process. Publicity you say? Yes, Impulse was the site of the 1970s punk massacre, so this could boast of being the first album recorded there since.

Sid Biesenthal (Allen Lieb), executive from Banned's label Broken Records, thinks Kent is bringing the entire group down because of his insistence on being artsy and original over palatable and commercial. Willie's uncle, studio producer Rod Jeffries (Glen Mitchell), is assigned the difficult task of helping Banned come up with their first hit single and reigning in Kent's pretentious impulses. However, that plan goes out the window after Kent starts hearing voices coming from the toilet bowl and then finds himself possessed by the spirit of Teddy Homicide. Somehow that injects some much-needed appeal into the band despite them actually sounding even worse than they did before.

The new Kent acts in a kind of schizo manner where he's his usual mild-mannered pacifist self part of the time and the manic, screaming, giggling, hard-partying trouble-maker Teddy the rest of it. On stage, he goes into a fit, screaming profanities at the audience, which makes the place go wild and instantly turns on all of the ladies in the crowd. Though he's dating painter Rachel Fesperman (Amy Brentano), his newfound loss of inhibitions also means he feels free to make a move on Chelsea, who he's always had a crush on. When he takes her to lunch at an outdoor café, a group of Lebanese terrorists show up and start shooting everyone until Kent goes and gives them a pep talk, sending them over to Tavern on the Green instead (!)

This is mostly an obnoxious collection of "quirky" pseudo-comic scenes; a couple mildly amusing, most excruciating. The worst bit is when Kent takes his girlfriend home to visit his parents and his drunken, psychotic dad goes on a screaming rant that feels like it lasts an hour. The old Jewish record exec snorts some white powder made from "beef tissue" (?!) and periodically transforms into a muscular black man (Cecil Howsen). Once the Teddy persona starts fully taking over, Kent starts "terrorizing" Rachel by trashing their apartment, huffing chemicals, insisting on exhausting sex marathons and forcing her to go dancing late at night after she's had a long work day. The short, balding drummer is somehow irresistible to women and manages to bed half the female cast, including studio assistant Debbie (Jacqueline Price) and even Kent's teenage sister, Eileen (Cheryl Hendricks).

Rachel's gay brother Percival (Adam Fried) is a seminary school dropout turned plumber turned flamboyant TV evangelist who shows up at the end armed with a toilet plunger and Drano for the incredibly lame "exorcism" finale. There are also a few recurring gags like our protagonist repeatedly falling into open manholes, cops showing up a decade late to investigate crimes and a seemingly endless chase scene through Central Park with machine guns and a rocket launcher (!) While a lot of this is obviously strange, it's almost never funny.

Watching this, I felt truly bad for lead actor Erickson, who was previously seen in Findlay's dull and near-bloodless (despite the title) slasher Blood Sisters (1987), along with Brentano. He puts a lot of energy and enthusiasm into his performance, and is likeable and appealing when he gets to act normal, but is consistently undermined by terrible dialogue. Whitney also displays some genuine charisma as the keyboard player but she disappears from most of the last third of the film after a dispute with her possessed band mate. The film's failures are certainly not for lack of trying from the cast, though nearly everyone comes off poorly because they're asked to constantly mug for the cameras and wildly overact as if that's automatically going to be amusing. It's not. It's simply annoying and borderline intolerable.

There are production issues, especially with the editing and the audio, and though this was marketed as a horror-comedy, and utilizes many horror film tropes, the horror is almost nonexistent here. However, belying the director's past work in sexploitation, there's plentiful topless nudity from nearly all of the female cast, including a young Debbie Rochon in a minor early role as one of the groupies. Another sleazy touch is the drummer's bedroom, which is decorated with posters for Findlay porn films like Private School Girls and Shauna: Every Man's Fantasy.

I've read several differing accounts about this film's belated release. To my knowledge, Findlay never publicly expressed anything but contempt for the project and claims to have never wanted to release it, but that seems a little bit suspect considering she personally held on to a print of it for nearly three decades. I suppose she finally just stopped caring about potential embarrassment and made what little she could from this disaster. I've also read that, supposedly, Media Blasters had purchased the film from Findlay herself way back in the early 2010s. That's also a bit odd considering they didn't bother officially releasing it to Blu-ray until 2022. I'm sure there's an interesting story or two to tell here that I'm unaware of. Definitely not worth the wait in any case.

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