Black comedy

Taboo subjects, gallows humor and dark comedy.


Summer camps in these parts function as a dumping ground — parents unload their kids, and breathe a sigh of relief for a few months sans brats. Meatballs is a fairly accurate representation of the summer camp experience — the frequently awkward gender dynamics, raging hormones, idiotically competitive mandatory “fun,” and crappy food.

Summer camp in Southern Ontario was a mixed bag for the authors of this site. It was frequently a rewarding, eye-opening experience featuring all sorts of novel activities, from kayaking to sack races… However, there was a dark side too, especially if friends weren’t immediately made.

And the summer camp / prison similarities weren’t lost on us: In both, people are sent there against their will; there are fractured group dynamics; cliques are formed for self-preservation; lunch is a large, communal experience (with frequently bad food); authority figures are looked at askance; and there are strictly enforced curfews…

In the 1979 Ivan Reitman production that is Meatballs, we catch a small glimpse of the movie star Chicagoan Bill Murray would become. Here he’s Tripper, an aging wiseacre camp counselor who treats his job with as little earnestness as he can possibly muster, who openly mocks the kitchen mystery meat during his morning camp announcements.

He befriends loser/social outcast, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), a slight, effeminate wallflower who’s picked on by his Lord of the Flies fellow campers. Together, they play small-stakes card games (literally, for “peanuts”) and bond over long-distance running. All the while, Murray’s Tripper amuses his young pal with age-inappropriate jokes that’d be kiboshed in today’s era of hyper-sensitivity.

And like period kid movies, Meatballs features the usual assemblage of near-80s archetypes: jocks, hot girls, nerds, fatties, loners, etc.

Dueling camps (and their counselors/counselors-in-training) go at it for all the glory, Camp North Star (the relatable middle-class good-guys/gals) VS. Camp Mohawk (the stuck-up, attractive, older, richy-riches).

Ultimately, Rudy comes out of his shell to win it for our heroes.

Meatballs recedes when Murray’s not in the frame, but when he is…things come alive.

*** (out of 5)

[Listen to our podcast about Meatballs on the Really Awful Movies Podcast]

Spider Baby

spiderbabyposterA cheeky exploration of in/out-group dynamics, Spider Baby takes us into the decrepit Los Angeles estate of the Merrye family descendants, sterile genetic defectives suffering from a condition that makes them revert to atavistic, cannibal behavior.

This includes offing the poor local postie, slicing him to bits after trapping him in a web, but not before he’s made his final delivery: a legal disposition regarding a deed to the house.

It appears some distant relatives, siblings Emily and Peter, have designs on the Merrye estate and their sleazy lawyer, Schlocker, is trying to snare it for them, before they’re all ensnared.

And the legal case against their cousins, the home’s occupants, appears simple: they’re gown-clad stab-happy simpletons Elizabeth and Victoria, home-schooled teens with under-developed social skills who should be Wards of the State. They’re the girls the poster refers to who combine the “seductive innocence of Lolita” with the “savage hunger of a Black Widow.” Then there’s the bald mute pervert of a manservant (the wonderful Sid Haig), who travels about the house via dumbwaiter. And they’re all under the care of a mild-mannered chauffeur, Bruno, the incomparable Lon Chaney Jr.

Emily and Peter, their lawyer, and his assistant, are welcomed into the family home, a creepy creaky taxidermy abode, that has some of them looking for other accommodations.

spider_baby_stillIt’s a terrific setup, from the haunted house thunder narration of cousin Peter, to the wonderful introduction of Chaney driving a lumbering dark Duesenberg. 

Talky, shadowy and effortlessly charming, Spider Baby also happens to feature one of the better dining scenes in all horror, save for perhaps Dead Alive or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — but pretty great nonetheless — showcasing the family’s…how shall we put it? Unorthodox eating habits…

But ultimately, the film, shot in 1964, also showcases the versatility of writer/director Jack Hill, who’s also given us Death Ship, as well as some women-in-prison/blaxploitation 70s stalwarts like Coffy and The Big Doll House. The Hill/Sid Haig commentary is highly recommended.

***1/2 (out of 5)