Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

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raiders_poster_1200_1777_81_sA recent Australian study found that the critical age for optimal childhood happiness, the age when we feel most protected yet most hopeful about the world, is 10. Thus, it stands to reason that the decade when one was that magic age would be deemed the “best” decade. Simple nostalgia dictates that.

This reviewer was 10 sometime during the 1980s. That alone reveals a huge bias when I say that the 80s was the best time to be a kid, but it doesn’t matter. There was just something about the 80s. Perhaps it was the fact that there was no Internet then, and the only cell phones were of the comically large ones Gordon Gecko employed in Wall Street (and all they did was make phone calls). Perhaps it’s the fact that the de facto parenting style then was “Let the kids do what they want as long as they’re accountable for their actions,” predating today’s overprotective, “let’s wrap ’em in bubble wrap lest they get hurt” helicopter parent. Whatever it was, kids of the 1980s knew how to have fun.

And lots of our fun revolved around our favorite movies. Without the state of the art simulations that are today’s most popular video games, we went outside and recreated our own favorite cinematic scenes and adventures. For me, it was gathering five or so friends and playing “Star Wars,” although before the fun could begin, it was invariably preceded by a “who was going to be the cooler-than-cool Han Solo as opposed to the more milquetoast Luke Skywalker” twenty minute argument. (And woe to the kid that was saddled with the part of Princess Leah). For me, it was Star Wars, but for Chris Strompolos, Eric Zaza and Jayson Lamb, it was Raiders of the Lost Arc.

The documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is essentially two narratives intertwined. The first, a bittersweet tale of a ragtag group of friends who were single-mindedly determined to shoot a scene-for-scene remake of Raiders of the Lost Arc (ROTLA), an effort encompassing seven summers of their young lives where they managed to recreate every scene save one. The second is the story of two of the boys, Chris and Eric, reuniting as adults to shoot that elusive last scene (the pivotal “plane” scene), thus consummating a dream that began when they were both 11. Of the two, the former story proves more compelling than the latter, although both resonate in their own respective ways.

raiders3_480_309-480x309Chris, raised by a single mother, came from a self-described dysfunctional family. He was a quiet and introspective child, prone to creating his fantasy worlds as a means of escaping from a harsher reality. After a single viewing of ROTLA, he knew he had to remake it and drew up incredibly detailed and accurate storyboards. Eric was a schoolmate and fellow ROTLA fan Chris met on the schoolbus. Chris played Indy and Eric portrayed Beloq. Soon, dope smoking Grateful Dead fan and very-amateur FX and pyro guy Jayson came on board, and Chris and Eric, with the assistance of  about a dozen other kids (some playing up to 40 parts), went about making their masterpiece.

When the film focuses on footage from and recollections of the shoot, it’s wonderful. Imbued with the hubristic sense of invincibility that only comes from being young, Scott and Eric went about their dream undaunted, even when a pyro effect gone awry almost  burned the Strompolos’ house to the ground and an ill-considered special effect sent Chris to the hospital. Both boys moms’ were extremely supportive and even helped out on set, or in the case of  Chris’s mom,  procuring the services of a fiberglass man to build the giant boulder which was so integral to getting the opening scene right.

As the boys grew older, they started to drift apart, as many a childhood friend does. Tensions over girls and perceived personality changes made the final summer of shooting (by this time, the boys were both in college) a tense and unpleasant experience. When all was said and done, seven summers of blood, sweat and toil resulted in a broken friendship and a simple videocassette of “Raiders: The Adaptation.”

raiders3But in docs such as this (see the exemplary Winnebago Man as another example) something always happens, and Raiders! is no exception. The cassette made the underground tape trading circuit and was shown to Eli Roth, who showed it to Harry Knowles, who played it at his annual 24-hour movie watching/birthday celebration Butt-Numb-a-Thon. It was a sensation and soon a sold-out screening of the fan film was held in Austin. Both Chris and Eric attended, not having seen one another in many a year, and a friendship was rekindled.

The second narrative is Chris and Eric, now grown and both with families of their own, attempting to finish what they started. They successfully Kickstarted the funding to shot the integral plane scene, and the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of getting it done. It also sharply contrasts the attitude of the kid vs. the adult. Jayson was asked to come back on board, but he wanted to do it as they did it as kids and blow up a miniature plane. Chris and Eric, on the other hand, wanted to go big and “get it right.” They spend thousands of dollars on a custom-built prop plane and hire a legit pyrotechnics man. It’s disheartening to see them stress and worry so much about perfection, especially when it’s contrasted with the can-do, “let’s get it done any way we can” spirit they possessed when they were kids.

raiders-doc-jpg-20160614There’s also (perhaps manufactured) drama regarding the possibility of Chris losing his corporate job if he asks for one more day off to be on the set, and elements of discord still remain among the two. Nonetheless, by the end, you can’t help but root for the two to succeed and pull of the culmination of a childhood dream.

Raiders! is a fascinating documentary, both as a gossamer remembrance of the carefree, “world-is-mine-for-the-taking” attitude of youth and as a look at how childhood friendships change and sometimes splinter as individuals change. While the narrative of the making of the original fan film is much more compelling than the narrative of finally shooting the climactic scene, both are needed to give context and subtext to the other.

Well worth the watch.

*** 1/2 (out of five)

Session 9

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In Silent Night, Bloody Night, a man inherits a home that used to be an insane asylum. The 1948 Olivia de Havilland film Snake Pit (name-checked in Session 9, whether intentionally or not) tells the tale of a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum and cannot remember how she got there. In the Rob Zombie take on John Carpenter’s Halloween, “The Shape” is confined to a state mental hospital — but not for long as it turns out. Good help is so hard to find.

These are four very disparate films, spanning 70 years of cinema history, which exploit the fears associated with mental illness and institutionalization in very different ways.

The killer who’s escaped from an insane asylum has become a cliche in the slasher world, and his presence is usually announced via some radio dispatch.

DanversHowever, it’s what’s inside the mental hospital that presents an interesting opportunity to depict an institutionalized horror, the very real frights associated with what in hindsight seem like barbaric practices when it came to treating people with mental illness.

This includes the infamous lobotomies and psychosurgeries popularized in the 1930s, referenced here in flashback, as Session 9 focuses on a five-member Massachusetts asbestos hazmat remediation team hired through a low-ball bid to clean up a shuttered asylum.

They’re a disparate crew that comprises Gordon, a lifer who’s involved in a serious domestic abuse situation on the home front; Mike, a Tufts law dropout; Hank, a lazy, combative schemer; Jeff, Gordon’s hired help and young nephew, and finally, Phil, a boozing malcontent.

the_chair_again_danvers_state_hospitalIt’s a pretty nifty conceit that director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) uses here, adding an extra dimension of fear as in addition to the horrors of the facility, the men in the “fiber business” face the real danger of asbestosis and pleura from exposure. It’s this very immediate health risk that made the non-supernatural bits of Chernobyl Diaries so terrifying. Whenever a mask is taken off or dust is kicked up, the danger is palpable.

Hank, the reluctant jobber, finds a stash of old coins , worth a fortune, and jewelry buried in a wall in the basement. He comes back to raid the place at night, and that is when he also comes upon one of the most terrifying objects in the annals of medicine, the orbitoclast, a surgical instrument used in lobotomies.

With word that Hank’s jumped ship for Miami with his new find, the rest of the crew try and make do, working around the clock to earn their big cash bonuses. But it’s when young Jeff happens upon a stupefied Hank in an asylum stairwell that Session 9 kicks into high gear.

Narrenturm_Vienna_1784

Vienna’s austere Narrenturm, or “Fool Tower,” constructed in 1784, under Emperor Joseph II.

The film stands apart as one of the most ruthless and jarring representations of bedlam ever committed to film, shot in Massachusetts at The Danvers State Hospital, also known as the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers*.

The facility is referenced in Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep, the Shadow Over Innsmouth and is a character unto itself; its decaying interior is a window into the horrors that took place, even if the structure was designed for maximum light and air exposure, part of the ill-fated “building-as-cure” movement that died to cost/maintenance issues.

Session 9’s verisimilitude is unmatched. The location shot is one that no creative designer could reproduce.

When the ghosts of Danvers are present, it adds a level of heartbreak and realism to the film. Metaphorical ghosts, that is. The residents of Danvers are very present, in tales the grounds’ security guard tells about deinstitutionalized patients returning to the grounds as they had nowhere to go and stories of repressed memory syndromes and sexual abuse. The most affecting moments come from a long-time resident with multiple personality disorder, Mary Hobbes’s voice, heard via a psychiatrist’s old reel-to-reel. Failed lawyer Mike becomes obsessed with interview footage chronicling her treatment, the course of which includes…Session 9.

It’s to the director’s credit…This is the kind of charged atmosphere that wouldn’t be present if ghosts were CG-depicted or if there was a psycho killer  lurking about.

Still, a needlessly gimmicky denouement and over-length keep it a smidge away from classic territory.

***1/2 (out of 5)

[*Shamefully, the sprawling building was mostly torn down in 2006, despite attempts by the town Historical Commission to file an application to have it registered in the US’ National Registry of Historic Places]

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