Let’s face it, fangflick fans, when it comes to vampire films you’ve seen it all and more or less, haven’t you? Films about bloodsucking freaks come in all shapes and sizes, from signed for the deaf (Deafula) to psychosexually confused (Martin) to mullet-sporting eternal youth fantasy (The Lost Boys) to road trippy (Near Dark) to softcore erotica (Blood for Dracula) to German expressionist (Nosferatu), and on and on. Vampires have torn bloodlust-inducing pulsing aortas asunder in every configuration under the deathswimming voyeur full moon since Vampire of the Coast in 1909, the world’s first accredited nightbiter film. Everything’s already been done and you don’t know what you want, right?
How about A Midwestern punk horror comedy with a time capsule pop-punk soundtrack and members of the band Screeching Weasel in it, with the lead singer, Ben ‘Weasel’ Foster, playing a gay vampire?
Ah, got you there, didn’t I? Step right this way, no exit, too late to go back to the old-norms drac pack now…
I used to be a really big fan of the Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel, though I stopped listening to them years ago. They stopped existing to me when Ben Weasel got rid of guitarist John ‘Jughead’ Pierson from the band. But back in the early 90s, Ben Weasel had a column in sniffy purist punk mag Maximum Rocknroll, where he got his folly-laden jollies by basically crankily yanking cranks and abusing all and sundry for fun and low-rent controversy. The film I am discussing here was sold on VHS in the classifieds in the back of the inky-finger-smearing mag.
I contemplated getting the film back in 1990, when it came out, but the idea of buying it (can’t remember how much it sold for), then taking it through from Falkirk to Edinburgh (50 mile round trip) to get it converted it from NTSC to PAL (which I did with Day of the Dead in 1987, so I could have it uncut, but it ended up having a slightly jerky picture and greenish tinge to it, which put me off the procedure ever after) just ultimately made me forget about it.
Except…not really, as this review is obviously testament to. I very occasionally wondered over the years about the film, and finally found it on a punk torrents site (complete with bits where the sound and picture go fuzzy buzzy south, for that authentic VHS-viewing experience) a few years back. I always meant to write a review, but just never got round to it until now. Which, judging by the fact that I have had two separate members of Screeching Weasel who were in the film (not Ben Weasel himself) decline to talk to me about it, is probably something that the people in it would probably wish were still the case.
Still, it exists, it’s a time capsule, and has cinematic (well, videomatic – it’s shot on video) importance as such, if even as just a footnote in American genre cinema, punk music, or shitey fun films made on video by a load of pals goofing around. If worthless please-video-recorder-chew-the-fucking-tape-up camcorder-shot shit like 555 and Cannibal Campout and Nailgun Massacre can still (de)merit reviews to this day, and DVD releases and such, like gold-plating an old dried white crumbly dogturd, the least we can do is give this film a nod in passing. I’m going to talk about the whole thing by the way, so in the unlikely event you want to see it, and would go searching for it, I wouldn’t read this before seeing this. There, that’s my due diligence done, don’t whine to us like a load of sniffy Nicholas Winding Refn fans if you read something you didn’t want to.
True to middle class suburban American punk angst cliché mythology, Disgusteen (named after a song by Canadian punk band Teenage Head) presents us with the tale of Elizabeth Mammon (yes, like the Biblical word, deep), played by Jennifer Goetz, an obnoxious, entitled, spoiled suburban blonde cokehead teenage brat. Well, she’s meant to be a teen in the film, but looks to me to be in her early 20s. Anyway. She spends her days whining and sneering (“Jesus is a total dick!”) at her Catholic reformed alcoholic mother Marge (Cindy Jenkins) and sucking up to her oblivious bespectacled milquetoast dad Charles (Underdog Records head honcho F.R. Forster). Every time we see Charles he’s antsily rubbing at his legs and squirming in his chair, which makes us wonder if he has a drug habit of his own, though it’s probably just more performance anxiety nerves than itchy coke bugs. They’re a typical Northbrook (rich Chicago suburb) family, and you just don’t want to be anywhere near them or their Quaalude-hazed world.
I was told by somebody in it that the movie was partly inspired by John Waters films, which fits both the middle class religious rebellion angle and the fact that the characters all through the film seem to do nothing but scream at each other half the time. A real headache. What’s humourous about the ‘parents’ is that they are both also obviously in their 20s, wearing ‘grown-up’ clothes and glasses, as they probably couldn’t find anybody middle aged to spoil their future movie careers by being in this film. And by the way, I am not going to be too hard on this production. It is what it is (if they ever rerelease it, they can have the last five words for the cheesy retro VHS cover), video-shot fodder with the only things making it historically interesting being the general soundtrack, and the inclusion of Screeching Weasel in the film and behind the camera. It’s just friends and bandmates having fun, and copies were sold for a nominal fee, so it’s not like they thought they were making fucking Lawrence of Arabia or something.
After a shouting match about what she is going to do with her life after high school when she finishes, and about what she is up to when she goes out (her mother has her drugsnorter suspicions), Liz flounces out of the house theatrically with her boyfriend Steve (Greg Stillwell). She exemplifies everything wrong with the American middle class – obnoxious, greedy, materialistic, shallow, callow, stupid, hateful, blonde, bland, entitled-feeling and lapsed religious, and we can’t wait for something bad to happen to her. The couple head to a party, with her telling her preppy wankstain beau that she was only with him for his cash. Like mother like daughter; she drinks way too much and makes an arse of herself, crashing out in a bedroom on a bed.
Moments after she falls into blissful lights-out slumber, three dodgy punks arrives to crash the party and trash the place: gang leader Frankie (Ben Weasel), mohawk-sporting Erik (Derek Jasinski, putting in an an unserious, fun performance, who has a European-sounding accent I couldn’t quite place; I think Polish) and Spiro (Dan ‘Vapid’ Schafer, a Screeching Weasel member at the time). Frankie involves himself in a poker game while his two droog stooges wander round the house. They snatch Elizabeth from the bed and, always one to make a dramatic exit, Frankie stands on the poker table and slashes up his arm with a razor blade, ranting about being some sort of underworld god or such crap. And then they all stalk out into the night, Liz in over-shoulder-thrown-to-go tow, to the sounds of the excellent song Ashtray by Screeching Weasel.
This film was made in between the second and third SW albums, 1988’s Boogada Boogada Boogada and 1991’s My Brain Hurts, and the fun, keyboard-drenched unreleased Weasel-written title song Disgusteen(not a Teenage Head cover; owes much more of a sound-debt to Blitzkrieg Bop), by Weasel and Chicago punk band 8-Bark, sounds like the missing link between Boogada and Brain (the latter widely regarded as their best album – well, widely regarded as such by me, at least, so fuck it), clearly showing the excellent sonic direction Screeching Weasel was heading in at the time. But the use of Ashtray serves a dual purpose, in that we find out this gang of miscreants are known as the Ashtray Punx, living in a trashy punkhouse crashpad in Chicago, the Ashtray. The place is a real shithole, with empty beer bottles and fast food wrappers everywhere, the usual, the walls decorated with flyers for punk shows and bands from the era (and the soundtrack). Kind of reminded me of a couple of drink-and-drug-drenched, eh…dens of iniquity I used to frequent in my late teens/early 20s in Falkirk. Ah, the broken-into snack van late nights at Fraser’s hoose in Wallace Street, watching GG Allin bootleg vids and My Sweet Satan, where…wait a second…got somebody whispering in my ear here…okay, okay…sorry, can’t talk about those days until the statute of limitations is up. Chuckling here.
Waking up the next day, Elizabeth is less than happy to find herself at the Ashtray. She knows who the Ashtray Punx are: “You guys are the sleazebags who don’t take showers, and run around beating people up and stealing.” And she’s right in that, you can’t fault her for telling the truth. Frankie is less than civil to her. It’s funny watching this film over a quarter of a century after it was made. Ben Weasel just spits constant sneering venom and sarcastic vitriol in it, and you get the feeling that it wasn’t too far from the person he was at the time at around 22 years of age. Sample line, to Elizabeth: “You better learn to be a little more pleasant to us, or I’m gonna rip your fucking tongue out and cram it up your ass.” A real charmer. I am only mentioning it here because it’s impossible to look at the film without thinking about Weasel’s punk persona at the time (no idea what he’s like now, and no interest) and conflating the two, perhaps erroneously. He’s probably not a gay vampire in real life.
Suffice to say, Weasel’s character is just as obnoxious as Elizabeth. There’s not really a sympathetic character in the whole bunch, but that doesn’t matter, really. It’s basically a Screeching Weasel/Ben Weasel dog-and-pony show, and the bitter, acerbic Weasel tongue-lashing and pop-punk soundtrack are what you’re watching it for. You won’t be watching it by accident, and will know what you’re getting, so it won’t really surprise you. And if coke-blizzard-breath Elizabeth was pissed off at finding herself in a punkhouse, she’s even less impressed to find that Frankie has taken oral advantage of her as she slept, biting her neck to turn her into a haemoglobin-globule gulper. I’m sure we’ve all had that happen after drinking too much at parties, so we can all feel her pain, really. Right? Right. It’s a total bloody nightmare bastirt from start to finish.
Of course, as is usual in these sorts of undead capewearer capers (though there are no capes on display here; or even fangs, for that matter), Elizabeth doesn’t believe she’s a vamp tramp, until she finds out she can’t eat and is given blood to drink right from Frankie’s opened vein, in a scene straight out of Near Dark. I would say that that 1987 film, and The Lost Boys, are two definite main influence veins here. But Weasel is having fun trying to play with a few corpuscle-hustle conventions when he has Frankie explain undead life to the snotty brat, saying that they can go out during the day; that a stake through the heart won’t hurt them, that they can drink and smoke and snort everything they want, ad infinitum. Course, a lot of this loses its impact through simply being verbally explained in a show-don’t-tell medium, but if you have no budget what are you going to do? And then comes the oddest part of the film: Frankie says that he is gay, and was killed by some Alpha Male malady maker bloodsucker named Clark (Chicago punk band I.D. Under singer Douglas Ward, a proper hard-looking bastirt) in a gay-bashing incident, because Clark hates gay people and likes turning them into vampires.
(Let’s just take a wee step aside here. In 1991, Screeching Weasel put out the excellent Pervo Devo EP, which had, on the A side, one of the band’s best songs, I Wanna Be a Homosexual. The Shred of Dignity (a gay label, as I recall) 7” version of it I used to have had a spoken word intro by noted gay underground filmmaker Bruce LaBruce with a photo of Ben Weasel on the cover giving him a fake blowjob. The song was a comedic, caustic, waspish response to the equally hilarious 1989 Sloppy Seconds song I Don’t Wanna Be a Homosexual from their Destroyed album. Yes, I know, this is getting into esoteric punk minutiae, but I figure if you’re still reading this you’re either interested in punk, or a masochist, or gay, or any combo thereof; who knows. Either way, you won’t object.
In 1992 SW brought out a live EP, Happy, Horny, Gay and Sassy (I believe they were four of the seven dwarfs), the inside cover of which featured a hardcore shot of a man giving another man a blowjob. Ben Weasel also had a wee cameo in the 1994 LaBruce film Super 8 ½, where he pretended, for some reason, to have sex with the Canadian auteur. Now I don’t know why Weasel had his character Frankie as being gay in the film. He certainly doesn’t kiss or have any kind of sexual encounter with another man. With the stuff I just listed, I was just vaguely wondering if maybe Mr. Foster was going through some sort of sexually ambiguous stage, because that is certainly a lot of gay for somebody who’s not gay, or even just sexperimenting. I don’t know; you know what I mean. I am not homophobic, cos being so is just fucking stupid; it’s just a talking point, is all. The gay angle, coming from being during the height of the AIDS epidemic, is an odd riff but, knowing the acerbic, trolling-loving Weasel, it’s likely he just stuck it in to try and “shock the middle class/take it up your punk rock ass,” as he sang in Homosexual. It certainly doesn’t make any serious statement about being gay in the 90s, or gaybashing, or anything else homosexual-related, so let’s move on)
In a somewhat strange development, we find out that Spiro and Erik are actually not vampires, and just fanghags who hang around with Frankie. Spiro (in a fine, fun performance by Dan Schafer, who seems like he’s having a total fucking ball during the whole running time) comes on all jealous of Elizabeth because Frankie had said he would turn Spiro into a vampire first. It’s almost like a gay relationship hissy fit firespit spat, except there’s no mention of him being gay, and he really just seems to want to be a batmaniac. What’s funny about the punkhouse they’re in is that the floor is made of wood, no carpeting, and whenever somebody walks around on it the groaning creaking sound the wood makes is so damned loud that it literally drowns out schlocky expository dialogue, almost becoming a character in itself; when you couple it with a stereo that sometimes blasts punk music, some of the dialogue is impossible to hear. Somehow doubt the sound guy here, Mike Rafone, whoever (s)he might be, apart from a groan-worthy porn-name-level pun, went on to work in THX in Hollywood.
Things happen episodically. Often times the monotony-breaking-up scenes serve only to heighten the tedium. Worst culprit among are three scenes involving just a punk song playing, which come off as little more than terrible and uninteresting music videos. In the first music-spin interlude, the Ashtray Punx are having a basement show at their building (I went to a few of these in Chicago, including one at John Jughead’s house, for his now-defunct excellent acoustic pop-punk band Even in Blackouts, and they’re fun) and their neighbour shows up to complain about the noise. Erik smashes his arm in the front door, rips it off, and beats him to death with it. The arm looks so terrible and fake and cheesy you have to laugh. We then cut to several minutes of the Chicago punk band Dead Steelmill playing live in the basement, with one band member playing with a paper bag on his head, and members of the cast jumping around. The filming is basically of the low quality you would expect from 80s/90s VHS handheld camcorder recordings.
What makes this film useful is that, in some ways, it’s a documentary of some of the Chicago punk scene of the time, and its cross-fertilisation with bands from other areas of the country, as represented on the pretty decent soundtrack. The second music-video-alike scene shows Frankie and Erik in a playground in Des Plaines, a middle class Chicago suburb, playing on swings and roundabouts and such to the songBricks by Berkley, California band Crimpshrine (on Lookout! Records), a tune which owes more than a passing nod, bizarrely, to Take On Me by 80s Norwegian arsethrobs A-ha. A truly magical couple of minutes for those who like grown men in their 20s playing on children’s exercise equipment. Which does not include me, unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately. Would worry if it did.
The third and final piece of pulse-pounding exshitement (as Sean Connery might put it) breathlessly brings us a scene where Elizabeth and a young redheaded woman who hangs around the Ashtray Punx, Eva (Jeanette LeMons, who performs a brief topless dance wearing nipple pasties at one point), go shopping for several minutes to the boring song A Song About a Girl Who Went Shopping by Lookout! Records stalwarts The Mr. T Experience. These three scenes probably encompass about a good ten minutes of the film you could quite easily cut without losing anything at all. And seeing as how the film is only a mere 84 minutes long, that’s quite a lot of filler. Still, it’s a punk-based production, so what the hell and high water.
The playground scene leads onto a funny scene where a longhaired John Jughead puts in a cameo as an anarcho-vegan-reich-type punk. He just happens to be carrying some “hippiecore” punk zines with him to the local children’s playpark (he politically recruiting kids? Or more worrying undertones? Chuckling here) and tries to recruit Erik and Frankie to his cause, to much merriment and mockery. It’s funny. His concerns, from 1990, about animal rights and stuff like the effects of McDonald’s on the environment, though soundly having the pish ripped out of them, seem more prescient in retrospect. Still, every Screeching Weasel album has to have a song or two written by Ben Weasel antagonising leftie purist punks, so why should a film written, produced, edited, starring, and directed by the punk-scene-pugilist renaissance man be any different? Think he’s quite conservative in real life anyway. Spiro, castigated for eating a burger, howls at the “loudmouthed commie!” and the vampunx throw him onto the table where Elizabeth, clearly trying not to laugh, rips his heart out with her teeth in an off-screen effect, obscured by Erik’s head, that makes HG Lewis look like Tom Savini. The ‘special effects’ are by somebody named ‘Connie Lingus,’ if that tells you anything.
And it really tells you everything.
What else? Oh, eh…sorry, my brain is shutting down. The Weasel crew go over to Spiro’s mother’s house to nick some money from her. But she comes home unexpectedly and he is captured and locked in his bedroom, with his mother Alice going to have him committed. “When we get through with you we’re gonna make Manson and Gacy look like fucking babysitters!” Spiro howls madly at her. A true threat for the (r)ages. He manages to phone the Ashtray Punx and they call his mother and pretend he has died of an amphetamine overdose and is at the morgue awaiting identification, then go to his maw’s and break him out when she leaves. Alice and Charlie hire a mercenary out of the back pages of Rifle & Shots (whatever the fuck that is) mag to track down Elizabeth. The guy comes over, but out of nowhere Clark, the homosexual-hating vampire, pops up somehow and kills the real mercenary in the street outside before he can even meet the people who hired him. We don’t know how Clark knows anything about any of this. There is no way he could have. Fuck it.
Clark accepts the Liz-rescuing job and heads over to where the Ashtray Punx hang out. Frankie and Spiro go out to roll people at the bus station, a la William S Burroughs in his salad days, and the homosexual-hater Clark comes over, kills Erik and Eva, and snatches Elizabeth. He takes her back to her parents, who immediately throw some sedatives down her neck, which don’t affect her because she’s, well, dead. She calls over to Frankie, who has revived Erik and Eva from the dead by making them vampires (much to Spiro’s whiny, jealous, petulant annoyance again), to come over and have them save her from her parents. Which they do by liberating them from life in a scene reminiscent, to me, of Richard Kern’s uber-teen-angst anti-epic You Killed Me First. Inconveniently, Clark turns back up, has a brief fight with Frankie on the front lawn of Elizabeth’s house, is run over, then set on fire. A crap pile of rags looking nothing like a body burns in the street as the happy punk crew take off to the vampire paradise promised land of Oakland, California, in their zebraskin-coloured punkmobile.
Which will bring us back to doh!
So yeah, that pretty much covers it, pretty comprehensively – maybe too comprehensively. It’s just a sometimes-fun throwaway film, not to be taken seriously. There’s a few other scenes I didn’t mention, including one with a vomited-on pizza, Eva biting a guy’s cock off (it looks like real fellatio, though probably wasn’t), and another with a dildo sword fight (why? Why not?) that add nothing. I do believe that some of the parent-punk angst and anger in the film, including institutionalisation and drug addiction, mentioned in passing, was something Ben Weasel put in the film because he had been through it in his own life at very young age. But it’s no veiled biopic, or cathartic therapy vessel. It’s just stupid fun shit; nothing more, nothing less, more or less. A few more punk bands make an appearance on the soundtrack: Pink Lincolns, Blatz, Filth, The Lurkers. Catering is by Ashley’s Food Mart. A telly blares out a preacher all the time whose ministrations the Ashtray Punx are clearly rejecting. Never understood this because, in true punkhouse fashion, they should have been watching splatter/underground films and/or music videos. It’s all very middle class American religion-rebelling. Whatever. If you spend a few minutes trawling the net, I’m sure you can find the film, if you’re so inclined. If not, well, you’ve read anything and everything you need to know about it. So move along, nothing to see here, move along…