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Entries in Strangeland [1998] (1)

Tuesday
Jan042011

Strangeland (1998) Home Video Review

The Little Prince (Albert)

It’s impossible to know if I would have found Strangeland to be as funny in 1998 as I do today.  Set at the dawn of the Internet Age, it’s full of briefcase-sized laptops, staticky modems, and Web pages that load like tiles on a virtual Rubik’s Cube.  A character explains to a friend that “imming” is actually “IM-ing” (“It’s called an Instant Message.”), and another character—a cop, no less—unplugs his daughter’s computer because he can’t understand why pressing the monitor’s “Power” button won’t shut down the whole thing.  Is everyone who uses new technology in a movie doomed to come off as an utter doofus ten years later?

Or is the problem that Strangeland is simply a goofy, ham-handed movie?  Well, the first and last half-hours make a strong case for the latter, but that middle twenty is actually really interesting.  So you can’t just write this off as the vanity project of an aged rock star.

Did I mention that Twisted Sister front man Dee Snyder stars as a bodybuilding, body-mutilating Internet predator named Captain Howdy?  He meets teenage girls in chat rooms (denoted by the black Arial text on a plain white button that reads, “Chat Rooms”; how quaint!) and convinces them to party with him.  The problem is that Captain Howdy’s idea of a party is stringing people up on hooks and force-piercing them into looking like off-hours Hot Topic clerks.  He doesn’t kill them, though; he just keeps them locked up in one of those gnarly villain lairs lit by a thousand candles.

He makes the mistake of kidnapping the daughter of Grim ‘n Gritty detective Mike Gage (Kevin Gage; weird, huh?), who tracks Howdy down and brings him to justice.  That’s the interesting part I mentioned earlier.  Much like the third Austin Powers film, Strangeland makes a point of locking the bad guy up way earlier than you’d expect in a film like this.  At around the thirty-one-minute mark I decided against making a second pot of coffee, ‘cause the movie had perked my mind up just enough to be okay on its own for awhile.

Captain Howdy, aka Carleton Hendricks, is found innocent by reason of insanity and locked up in a mental hospital.  He’s released four years later, after having stopped dying his long hair Kool-Aid red and concealing his facial tattoos with makeup.  He also takes the piercings out and dons a classic nerd look for his new life of quiet book-reading.  With the help of heavy prescription drugs, Hendricks takes on the appearance of Trent Reznor by way of Emo Phillips, and I can’t tell which is scarier.

Anyway, upon his release, an angry mob led by a drunken, paranoid asshole breaks into Hendricks’s house, drives him to the woods and hangs him.  It’s a classic Freddy Krueger scenario; fitting, because the head of the mob is played by Robert Englund in full Southern-drawl, ham ‘n cheese mode.  Hendricks doesn’t die, though.  He pops back to consciousness after everyone heads home and is re-re-invented as Captain Howdy.  Thus begins an elaborate revenge montage and another kidnapping of detective Gage’s daughter.  This happens in the last half-hour, which is just as problematic and hilarious as the first.

I’m sure that when Snyder wrote the script, he imagined Strangeland as The Silence of the Lambs for the S&M crowd.  Indeed, Captain Howdy is Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter rolled into one hulking, cornball-aphorism-spouting lunatic who looooves him some dial-up.  The problem is that Dee Snyder is no Anthony Hopkins.  He’s not even Ted Levine, who at least had a naturally fucked up face and ultra-creepy voice going for him.  Listening to Snyder talk about primal piercing rituals and how normal people are the real freaks, you’re just as likely to think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy with a sinus infection as you are an intimidating madman.

Speaking of Ted Levine, one of the joys of this movie is playing “Spot the Celebrity Lookalike”.  Detective Gage looks like the perfect (imperfect?) cross between Levine and Stephen Baldwin, with the exaggerated, actorly mannerisms of a dinner-theatre James Dean.  His partner, detective Christian, looks like the long-lost Estevez sibling, Shemp, but is actually played by Brett Harrelson, Woody’s brother.

I’ll spend just a few words on how great it was to see a pre-Freaks-and-Geeks Linda Carellini as Gage’s daughter, Genevieve; specifically, how great it was to see her naked.  Yeah, that stupid, thirteen-year-old-boy part of my lizard brain is still very much active; if it makes you happy, I’ll tell you that the prurient thrill of seeing the actress without clothes was immediately undone by the fact that she had needles jammed in almost every square inch of flesh.

Where was I?  Oh, right, the end of the movie.  There’s a great showdown in Captain Howdy’s abandoned night club, and—not that this is really a spoiler, but please stop reading if you don’t want to know that Captain Howdy dies (whoops)—Gage traps the killer, stringing him up on his own ceiling hooks and setting him on fire.  It’s a truly special effect, watching a practically naked Dee Snyder gain about four-hundred pounds while swinging through the air; actually, the extra bulk is just a rubbery fat suit covered in flaming jelly, complete with poorly stenciled tattoos.  I challenge you to find a more comical criminal death in all of slasherdom than this fiery flesh pendulum.

Like I said, I don’t know if it’s ‘Net nostalgia or the ultra-low-rent quality of John Pieplow’s first and only feature film that had me glued to my monitor for eighty-two minutes this morning.  Whatever the case, if you can’t handle the raw intelligence of the Saw franchise, take a trip to Strangeland.  IM me when you get there.