Two Film Debuts: SCHLOCK (1973) and DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988)

Reviews by LL Soares

I recently checked out two new Blu-rays featuring the film debuts of directors John Landis and Jim Van Bebber. Landis is best known for directing such bonafide movie classics as ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and while he worked on other directors’ films previously, including as an assistant director, SCHLOCK (1973) was his first feature as a director.  Van Bebber, probably best known for the controversial feature THE MANSON FAMILY (1997), made his feature debut with the low-budget gang drama DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988). Both SCHLOCK and DEADBEAT are available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video in Collector’s Special Editions.

SCHLOCK is a horror comedy about a missing link who pops up out of a cave one day and goes on a killing spree. The movie is very silly for most of its run time, calling to mind such films as Landis’ THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) and John De Bello’s ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978), which was obviously influenced by it. There’s a conceited reporter, inept cops (led by Detective Sgt. Wino, played by Saul Kahan), and even a blind girl who thinks apeman Schlock is a dog and pets him and throws a stick for him to fetch (a very funny scene). There’s lots of limbs torn off bodies, but very little blood. Most of the humor is way over the top and broad, but there are some subtler scenes that work better, including one where Schlock accompanies a blind singer on the piano, that ends in a way you don’t expect. The plot is almost non-existent, and a lot of the humor is so corny that is elicits more groans than laughs, but it is what it is, the first movie by a very talented guy who would go on to make much better films. And, along with the groaners, there are a few big (and genuine) laughs to be had.

The most important thing about the film, aside from Landis’ debut, is that it’s also the film debut of makeup maestro Rick Baker, who gives us an apeman who looks pretty authentic. Back then, if you saw a gorilla in a movie, it was most obviously a guy in a clumsy suit, and it was really hard to suspend disbelief. The makeup in SCHLOCK is very impressive in comparison, and it was no surprise that Baker would go on to greatness (including doing the transformation scenes for Landis’ horror classic, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON eight years later). The man inside the SCHLOCK suit is none other than Landis himself, by the way, and the character of SCHLOCK is the whole reason to see this one.

SCHLOCK was another one of those movies that I remember seeing stills of in the magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND as a kid, but I never saw the movie. Thank you to Arrow Video for reissuing this film in a great new special Blu-ray edition!

***

Jim Van Bebber’s DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) is one of those movies I’d always heard about, but didn’t have a chance to see. It’s also been released in a new Special Edition from Arrow Video, and is a street gang movie, probably inspired by THE WARRIORS (1979), but made on a miniscule budget. One of the good things about the videotape boom in the 80s was that distributors always needed new content, so it gave more indie filmmakers a chance to make movies. DEADBEAT is raw, but has some things to recommend it.

It’s the story of two gangs in Dayton, Ohio, the Ravens and Spiders, who hate each other and get in street rumbles a lot, with members trying to kill each other. Goose (director Jim Van Bebber himself) is the leader of the Ravens and the closest thing this movie has to a hero. He’s not afraid of violence, but has a moral code, and loves his girlfriend Christie (Megan Murphy) a lot. Christie is a mystical hippie chick who keeps trying to get him to quit the gang, but he doesn’t listen. Eventually, she threatens to leave him if he doesn’t give up his violent ways, and he decides to choose her over the Ravens.

The Spiders are led by Danny (Paul Harper) a mean-ass thug who wants to be the king of the streets.

The Ravens are pretty much the top gang until Goose just walks away from it all. He cuts his ties with them and tries to make one last drug deal to have money so he and Christie can start a new life. While he’s gone, Danny sends two of his thugs to Goose’s apartment to eliminate him. Instead, they find Christie alone, and violent thug Bonecrusher (Marc Pitman) kills her. Goose gets back home and finds Christie dead. He is mortified and disposes of her body in a trash compactor (!).

Almost insane with grief and unable to turn to the Ravens, Goose hits rock bottom, breaking into the apartment of his father, a Vietnam veteran and drug addict who lives in squalor and almost kills Goose when he finds him.

Eventually, Goose goes back to the gang, but things have changed. Now Keith (Ric Walker), Goose’s former second-in-command, is running the Ravens, and has made a truce with the Spiders. Both gangs, now working together, are planning a big score, but Danny and the Spiders have some treachery planned, and a goal to wipe out the Ravens once and for all.

Despite the low budget and rawness of the film, my favorite thing about it is the performance of Van Bebber as Goose. I thought he was charismatic and sympathetic in the role, and easily the best character. I’m really surprised he hasn’t had a bigger career as an actor, and while he made a few movies after this as a director, I wish he’d made more.

If you’re a fan of gang movies and don’t have a problem with low-budgets, you should check this one out.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s