Friday, September 24, 2010

Electra (1996)

Directed by Julian Grant
Starring Shannon Tweed, Joe Tabb, Katie Griffin
Rated R 
"I'm stimulating your erogenous zone, whilst probing your subconscious."

Shannon Tweed has been in some pretty oddball projects over the years; to say the least. That's probably a given when you've worked with Jim Wynorski or dated Gene Simmons (or been on Nash Bridges) but it's hard to imagine anything she's done topping Electra in terms of the sheer unlikeness of it ever being written, let alone filmed.

It's hard to imagine many films at all standing up to Electra in that regard, though. In the world of utterly questionable scripts, Electra is a class of its own. It's one of those films that really makes you wonder about the process that lead to its being made in the first place. But we'll come back to that in a second, because in order to understand the confusion, it's necessary to look quickly at the plot.
Electra revolves around a Captain America-like super power serum, and the evil wheelchair-bound billionaire Marcus Roach (Sten Eirik) who wants it. However, the only person who has the serum is Billy Duncan (Joe Tabb), the son of its late inventor, who lives with his step-mother, Lorna (Shannon Tweed). He's not likely to give it up easily, so Roach cooks up a plan: seeing as the serum is sexually transmittable, he'll use the bubbling sexual tension between step-mother and son and convince Lorna to have sex with Billy, thus passing the powers to Lorna, who can then pass them on to Roach. And that's pretty much it, in a nutshell.

Even if you manage to ignore the plot holes that come up simply from that summary (they can't just give him a handjob?) there's still so much that doesn't make sense. Most pressing is the restatement of our above question: how the hell did this film get made? And while I don't have an answer to that, there's a few observations to be made based on its crew, and some possibly dodgy conclusions to be drawn.

Firstly, this was the début film for writer Lou Aguilar, and I'm going to assume the script originated with him for that reason. Canadian Damian Lee (best known as the writer of Jesse Ventura vehicle Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe) polished the script or provided some kind of rewrite, and picked up an executive producer credit for his efforts (or maybe rewrote it as executive producer). Helder Goncalves worked as production accountant on Abraxas, but grabs a full producer credit on Electra. Also, Julian Grant made his début as both a director and producer on Electra - his only previous work in movies was as a second unit director.
Oh, and Ashok Amritraj was the film's executive producer, but he seemingly had some kind of open-chequebook policy in the '90s. A lot of awful films were made with his involvement (Battlefield Earth, for one) and funding, so he's altogether different.
Anyhow, that all probably seems like a lot of irrelevant crap, but after watching Electra it's hard to let go of those pesky questions, and the credits just seem to raise more. To wit: what made Aguilar think that the ideal premise for his first foray into movies was that of a woman trying to have sex with her step-son to gain super powers? What was it about that premise that attracted Grant so strongly that he wanted to produce the film, as well as direct it? Did Goncalves get dragged into this through his connection to Lee, or was it the other way around? Either way, why get involved at all? And how do you pitch a film about about a woman trying to have sex with her step-son to gain super powers to Amritraj?

Like I said, I don't have answers, just a lot of questions. I think you'll have to admit though: they're pretty reasonable questions. At least one of those people really, really pushed for this to be made. Just ponder that for a moment.

And then, just to add another layer of confusion to the mix, consider the fact that it's never entirely clear what the hell the film is trying to be - superhero action? Sexy comedy? Edge-of-your-seat thriller? It's far from softcore - there's nudity, but only waist up. Maybe it was an attempt to bring incest fetishism to a mainstream audience? Who knows. Perplexing stuff.

The film starts, as all good movies do, in a strip club. Karen ( Lara Daans) is doing some kind of thrusty chair-based striptease while Gina (Dyanne DiMarco) wanders around with a tray. After a while, she tells crowd member Ron Thatcher (Ronn Sarosiak) to meet her out back in ten minutes. Then has some trouble attempting to take her bra off before throwing it at him. He's already waiting when she comes out, and they have a conversation about Ron. He is, he says, from Rochester, and he sells computers. But it turns out that it's some kind of trap, and Karen beats him unconscious and he's dragged off by a van. Gina joins her outside and they smoke.

Ron's taken somewhere else in the city where he finds he's a prisoner of Roach, who looks really disturbingly like what would happen if John Lydon and John Lithgow somehow became one person. Not only is this creepy, but also distracting because it turns out that when you combine John Lydon and John Lithgow, the resulting creature has the hair of a balding mid-1970s-era Art Garfunkel with added '90s grunge rock greasiness.

Anyways, then Karen and Gina stab Ron with a syringe, and Roach and his scientist buddy Dr Bartholomew (Ed Sahely) watch. Frankly, it's probably easier just to show you the result than try and explain it:

So yeah, that happens. It's not really clear why they picked Ron - he was either so vital that Gina and Karen had to work undercover in a seedy bar to get him, or they just work there on the side. In any case, it's a pity to get rid of him so fast - Ron is far and away the most convincing piece of casting in the whole film. I look at him and his goatee and I think, 'That is a man who sells computers in Rochester'.

Roach almost has Bartholomew killed, because the damn guy still can't make the super power potion right, and Roach needs it to restore his legs. "Though the factory explosion left me a cripple," he says for no apparent reason, "what remains of me is still human." Okay, cool. Bartholomew responds directly to this by telling him about Dr Arthur Duncan, who's dead, but injected the serum he invented into his son Billy to cure his "rare form of anaemia".

Then Bartholomew goes on about a whole lot of other plot details, including: Arthur's first wife died of the same anaemia, and he married Lorna, "his worst student at Tech" who's "just a farm-girl". Also, Roach can't analyse Billy's blood because Arthur put a "failsafe toxin" in there, which sounds like a real thing. However, luckily, the "essence" of the serum can be sexually transmitted.

" is the key?" Roach asks, possibly rhetorically. "All we need is the right keyhole."

Of course, it's not going to be that easy - Billy swore to his father on his deathbed that he'd keep the serum secret, and part of that means no unprotected sex. Roach is going to need something to work with, so he strokes Gina's breast and tells her to put it under level one surveillance. So some guys go and do that while Lorna and Billy are out, and they do a super subtle job of it too.

But where are Billy and Lorna? Why, they're down the farm, wearing denim and cutting down things.

Also flirting strangely: Billy tells Lorna he thinks she's the prettiest woman in town in the middle of talking about his girlfriend, and calls her "ma" a lot. Then Lorna spends too long looking at Billy's pecs and a tree almost flattens her. Fortunately, Billy's super powers allow him to push her out of the way and they head home so Lorna can take a bath.

He stands at the open door, because she asks him to make sure she's okay, and then she grills him about his sex life and whether he uses protection. "I'm not ready," he whimpers. "That's nice Billy. Shouldn't do anything you're not ready for," she replies and takes her top off. Then she washes herself really thoroughly and Billy stands there and watches for a full minute before he finally gets uncomfortable and wanders off.

Just to add to the overall unsavouriness, Roach is watching the whole thing form his limo. "I think we've found her weakness," he chuckles, despite never having suggested he had any interest in her weaknesses, sexual or otherwise.

Billy's moping out on the porch alone for a while until a fully-clothed Lorna joins him. Billy explains that whole bath thing happened because the serum makes him feel powerful: "it makes me feel like I can do anything I want - even things I'm not supposed to want." Lorna doesn't quite get it, so she has to ask what he means. Eventually, they decide just to pretend the whole thing never happened and hug. Lorna has some kind of significant facial expression and the camera lingers on this for quite some time.

But while they're still busy hugging out their problems, Billy's girlfriend Mary Anne Parker (Katie Griffin) rocks up. She's got a new truck, and Billy is super excited to go for a ride. He heads inside briefly to put some clothes on, and Mary Anne and Lorna have a conversation. There's some small talk and searing glances, but then things get a little tense because Mary Anne's dad has the hots for Lorna, and Lorna's not really into that because all she wants is Billy.

Billy comes back and is apparently oblivious to any tension between the two whatsoever, even when Mary Anne shoots another searing glance at Lorna before driving off.

Roach, Karen and Gina are still driving around. They're getting close to the farm though, so Roach tells Karen to order in an assault team: "no guns". While she's busy on the phone, Roach asks Gina to "relax" him, so she gives him a blow job while humming 'Rock-a-bye Baby'.

Early the next day, Billy wakes up Lorna and tells her that they need to leave. "Why?" she asks.

"I don't know. There are men outside," Billy replies. He's got a plan despite not knowing what's going on, so Lorna heads for the hills while Billy stays around to fight some guys and also Gina. This goes on for some time, but even after Billy's knocked out Gina, Lorna is still being chased by a guy who runs like a moron. She tips, and he almost captures her, but then she kicks him in the shins and bashes his head in with a stone.

Billy's long gone by the time Gina shows up at the farm, and she's unhappy to find the place littered the the crumpled bodies of the assault team. "Where's the boy? Where is he?" she asks one, and then punches him in the stomach before he can answer. Then she breaks the neck of one of the others. Then, just to top it all off, she refuses to give Gina a helping hand up off the ground. Vicious.

Eventually, Lorna makes it to Mary Anne's house, where she collapses into the arms of Mr Parker (John Stoneham). And Billy hears his dead father narrate about using force or The Force or something while he also runs like a moron.

Then Billy uses his super powers to hip and shoulder a van off the road.

Pulling the driver from the wreck, he manages to find out that Roach has a lab five hours drive away. However, before he can act on that news, he's attacked by Karen, who does some backflips and fly kicks him in the head. That's not even close to enough to take out Billy though, and he uses his powers of tying knots really fast to secure her to the bottom of the van. "I'd love to, uh, stick around, but you look a little tied up," he quips before running off. Then Gina shows up and stares at Karen and they both sigh a lot.

Fortunately, Billy's loping idiot run takes him to the exact same road Mary Anne happens to be driving down, and they both escape to the safety of her dad's hunting shack. Mr Parker and Lorna aren't nearly as lucky: Parker's dimwitted helpers bring in Gina and Karen after finding them pretending to suffer car trouble. "You some kind of cheerleaders?" Mr Parker asks. "Yeah sure," Gina replies flatly.

Despite having spent the few minutes prior trying to seduce Lorna, Mr Parker invites them to show some of their cheers. Turns out, though, their cheers just involve killing Parker and his two helpers and then kidnapping Lorna.

Meanwhile, Billy and Mary Anne make out on a rug for a while until Billy freaks out, pushes her away and then explains the situation with the serum. "You might as well give me what you've got," Mary Anne suggests, but they're interrupted by a call from the police, who give them the bad news about Mr Parker. And boy are they angry, so they head off to find the lab.

Naturally, that's where Lorna is - strapped to what appears to be a horizontal crucifix. Roach tries for a while to get her to straight-up admit she desires Billy, but she's having none of it, so Roach flicks a switch and some lights flash a bit.

"What are you doing?" asks Lorna.

"Stimulating your erogenous zone, whilst probing your subconscious," comes the reply. Turns out that means he can create some kind of televised visualisation of her inner-most thoughts because, uh, computers. And what are her inner-most desires? To brutally murder Mary Anne with an axe and then force herself on Billy after pinning him to a tree with the same axe, naturally. "Admit it! Admit you want Billy inside you!" cries Roach.

Following her dramatic admission, she's then brainwashed by Gina and Karen through their use of a vibrator, or something.

While that's happening, Roach eats a handkerchief or maybe some underwear.

Billy and Mary Anne turn up soon after, but Mary Anne's left in the truck with one of Billy's super pills and instructions to "maybe one day" give it to someone she trusts. It doesn't take long for Billy to find Lorna, but he doesn't realise she's been brainwashed, leaving him open to the old "lick the face and stab the neck with a tranquilliser ring" trick.

When he wakes, he's on the same crucifix Lorna was, and Roach is right there next to him. "What did you do to my mother?" Billy yells.

"I helped define her as a woman," Roach sneers. "A difficult thing in our feminist age."

Mary Anne decides, for some reason, to attempt to run into the lab too, but gets caught before she even makes out of the parking lot. This just gives Roach one more piece of leverage, but it's still not enough - Billy would rather die! "If your mind won't cooperate," Roach says, "maybe your body will." So he treats Billy to three minutes of topless fondling between Gina and Karen. That's just the warm-up, though - Lorna, in leather fetish gear of her own now, is ready to indulge herself, at Roach's suggestion.

With all that ready to get underway, Roach decides it's time to get rid of Mary Anne, and he sends Gina and Karen to kill her. Unfortunately, he didn't notice her taking Billy's serum pill. The resulting fight sees Mary Anne rip out Gina's heart and throw it into Karen's mouth before putting Karen's head through a window. So that's pretty cool. "Heartless bitch," spits Mary Anne.

Back at the crucifix though, things are starting to get way out of hand. Firstly, it starts spinning, which is actually pretty nauseating. Then, Lorna forces herself upon Billy, but tells him that she's got a plan to get them out - he just needs to keep playing along. That is, needs to keep having sex with his step-mother on a spinning crucifix while an evil villain in a wheelchair watches. Sure, why not? But then this happens:

It was all a trick! And to make matters worse, because she's not anaemic, she's even stronger than Billy. So, leaving Billy tied up, she goes off to find Roach, in order to have sex with him so that he can also have super powers. First though, he's got a speech prepared: "For seven years, I've been less than a man; but you're more than a woman. Only you can restore my lower half and make me more than a man. Come - we'll be the Adam and Eve of a new superior race, and they'll worship you as their queen. You are no longer Lorna Duncan: you are Electra, my supreme seductress! Work your magic on me!" So they have awkward fully-clothed sex in a wheelchair.

But before they can finish, Mary Anne manages to rescue Billy and they both burst in, only to find that Electra can shoot lightning. Fortunately, Mary Anne can absorb it, so she challenges Electra to a fight while Billy chases after Roach.

What follows is fifteen minutes of mid-air catfighting, wheelchair flamethrowers, mind-controlled guns, shapeshifting, and a virtual-reality headset containing "billions of gigs of information". It's really quite a finale.

Electra is, of course, utterly bonkers. Gloriously and brilliantly though, in the way only a barely-competently made film can be. There's more ideas than anyone seems to have known what to do with, and a lot of them don't have a place anywhere near this movie. The ending, particularly, feels like everything was thrown at a wall, and left to see what would stick.

But it's rarely dull, which is a genuine accomplishment. Whether it's Joe Tabb's country-boy poker-faced portrayal of Billy, Dyanne DiMarco's hilariously dour performance as Gina, or Sten Eirik and his bizarre hair, there's always something to capture your attention. Hell, the whole movie is probably worth it just for the first few scenes with Billy and Lorna - the significant looks exchanged between the two are nothing short of amazing. You can almost see the gears working within the actors' respective heads in their attempt to figure out the kind of smouldering expression appropriate for step-mother and son to share.

As a result of those kinds of weird moments, the whole sorta-incest bit is often quite creepy; even by late night TV standards. It's probably not nearly as shocking as it thinks however, and the resulting combination of the acting, actors, half-arsed action and totally insane plot make for an unexpectedly watchable piece of trash action cinema.

- Alistair Wallis

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