Hideous! (1997) ***˝
I talk a lot of shit about Full Moon Entertainment, and for the most part, the studio deserves it. But every once in a while they’ll surprise me; this is one of those times. I first learned about Hideous! from reading Andrew Borntreger’s review at badmovies.org, and I thought it sounded at least potentially like good, screwy fun. It took me quite some time to work up the nerve to give it a try (Charles Band’s track record makes me extremely reluctant to spend money on anything with his name on it and a release date after about 1992), but when I finally did so, I was not disappointed. Far from it. In fact, I’d say Hideous! is probably the best movie to bear the Full Moon imprint since The Pit and the Pendulum, edging out even the intriguing Dark Angel: The Ascent.
At a sewage treatment plant somewhere in what is absolutely not Romania, longtime employee and shift manager Martin (Andrew Johnston) is training two new guys in keeping one of the big tanks’ waste traps clear. While he’s at it, Martin regales the two newbies with tales of strange things he’s fished out of the traps over the years— money, a kilo of heroin, the diamond ring he rather sneakily gave to his fiancee for their engagement, even the occasional human fetus. He also says that once in a while, “we get things I don’t rightly know what they are.” As it happens, one of the new guys dredges up just such an unidentifiable— but obviously once living— thing that very morning. Martin, as shift manager, has the responsibility of dealing with the situation, but that doesn’t bother him one little bit. Like I said, Martin’s an old hand at this, and he long ago figured out a way to turn that responsibility to his advantage. Martin packs the thing from the tank on ice in a soda cooler, gets on the pay phone out in the parking lot, and places a call to Belinda Yost at International Medical Specimens, Inc.
Miss Yost (Tracie May) and her company have a network of contacts like Martin that may well span the entire globe. Martin and his ilk find unusual biological specimens and sell them to Yost, who then turns around and sells them again— not to hospitals, colleges, or museums, mind you, but to an underground subculture of fantastically wealthy folks who simply collect such things the way other people collect stamps or coins or rare books. One of Belinda’s best customers is an eccentric Spaniard named Dr. Emilio Lorca (Michael Citriniti, from Galactic Gigolo and Cemetery High). Lorca pays Yost a retainer fee— and a damn big one it is— to ensure that he gets first refusal on anything really interesting that the freak-peddler gets her hands on. Now normally that would mean that Lorca would be seeing Martin’s remarkable find before anybody else, but Yost has another idea in mind. She has a second regular customer, a rival of Lorca’s called Napoleon Lazar (Total Recall’s Mel Johnson Jr.), who is even richer than the doctor, but is nowhere near as shrewd a haggler. Belinda thinks the sewer freak will be right up Lazar’s alley, and she knows she’ll get a much better price for it if she goes to him instead of Lorca. And the price she has in mind is indeed awfully high: $650,000, plus a signed guarantee to buy another 250 grand worth of Yost’s merchandise every year for the next ten years.
The trouble with this plan is that Belinda’s secretary, Elvina Shaw (Rhonda Griffin, of The Creeps), despite her obviously limited intellect, is rather more scrupulous than her boss, and Elvina has been tapped by Lorca to make sure that Yost is upholding her end of their very expensive bargain. As soon as Belinda leaves the office to meet with Napoleon Lazar, Elvina calls Dr. Lorca to tell him that he was right to suspect treachery from Miss Yost. Lorca is steamed, but he’s not really sure there’s anything he can do about it. I mean, can you imagine suing for breach of contract over failure to grant right of first refusal in consideration of black-market pickled freaks? That’s where Lorca’s personal assistant, Sheila (Jacqueline Lovell, from Femalien and Head of the Family, who used to do hardcore porn under the name Sara St. James), comes in. She agrees with her boss that the world is full of dishonest, untrustworthy people, but her perspective on the matter is that if you can't beat ‘em, you may as well join ‘em. To that end, she and Lorca devise a plan for stealing the sewer freak from Lazar after he’s picked it up from Belinda Yost.
What the two of them come up with is an ambush at the mouth of the private road leading to Lazar’s mansion. Lorca watches by the side of the highway, and alerts Sheila by CB radio when he sees Lazar drive past. At that point, Sheila moves Lorca’s car into position blocking the driveway. When Lazar gets out of his vehicle to see what’s going on, Sheila pulls a gun on him, handcuffs him to a convenient tree, and then makes off with the contested specimen. That doesn’t begin to describe the full effect of this scene, however, which, in its details, is one of the strangest, most fucked-up things I’ve ever seen happen in a movie. You see, when Sheila mugs Napoleon, she’s wearing leather hot pants, a pair of Doc Martens, and a gorilla mask. That’s all. And it’s the dead of winter, and there’s snow on the ground. I can honestly say that the possibility of topless women in gorilla masks stealing medical curiosities from freak collectors at gunpoint by the side of the road is something I had never even considered previously...
Lazar isn’t the sort of man to take that lying down, however, and after he gets loose, he and Belinda Yost hire a private detective named Kantor (Gerard O’Donell) to get the purloined mutant back from Dr. Lorca. Elvina gets dragged along when Kantor tricks her into admitting that she was the one who originally tipped the doctor off, and the four of them are soon knocking at the door of Lorca’s castle (in what is absolutely not Romania!). The problem here is that, unbeknownst to anyone who has yet handled it, the specimen at the root of the conflict is alive, and when it is left alone with the rest of Lorca’s collection, it somehow brings the rest of the preserved oddities back to life, too. When Lorca finds his whole collection missing, he understandably assumes that Lazar and company are to blame, and he orders Sheila to activate the armored shutters that seal up all the doors and windows in the castle, trapping Lazar, Kantor, Yost, and Elvina inside. This also has the effect of spoiling the revived freaks’ escape attempt, and they are, if anything, even more upset about being locked in the castle than the normal humans are.
At first glance, Hideous! looks like just another in the long succession of Full Moon flicks about cute little monsters, designed more with an eye toward selling action figures than anything else. The Puppetmaster series is only the most conspicuous example of the phenomenon. There is a certain element of that in Hideous!, to be sure, but it can scarcely be said to be the sole point of the movie. Rather, the overriding sensibility at work in Hideous! is less traditional Full Moon than traditional Troma— with the important distinction that unlike your average Troma movie, Hideous! really is as funny as its creators think. The premise is so outlandish, after all, that it would be doing it a disservice to play it completely straight, but neither screenwriter Benjamin Carr nor director Charles Band (helming a picture aimed at adults under his own name for the first time since 1993) ever makes the fatal mistake of winking directly at the audience— a misstep that occurs in virtually every movie ever to bear the Troma label. Instead, the filmmakers here rely on the time-tested comedic technique of the straight man. Kantor is our stand-in among the characters, and his alarmed befuddlement in the face of the escalating craziness around him keeps the movie grounded in a way that would not have been possible if everybody in the film blithely accepted all the insane goings on. Again and again, Kantor attempts to act as the voice of reason, but nobody ever has much interest in listening to him.
The rest of the characters, meanwhile, form as colorful and flamboyant a rogue’s gallery of eccentrics and wackos as you could ask for. Some are merely stock types, like Belinda the money-hungry harpy and Elvina the dumb blonde, but Lorca, Sheila, and Lazar all have a little more depth to them. I like how Lorca, otherwise the stereotypical mad genius, is portrayed as being, behind the facade, so impractical and indecisive that he would be totally lost without Sheila, while Lazar, for all the effort he puts into appearing powerful and in control, is really little more than an overgrown kid, and a spoiled-rotten one at that. Sheila, for her part, is simply Sheila— as twisted an exaggeration of the conventional femme fatale henchwoman as any I’ve seen, but one who got her job through the absurdly prosaic means of answering an ad in the newspaper. Nearly every one of these characters cries out to be played to the hilt (the exception is Elvina, who would have benefited from something a little more subtle than the bottomless, poultry-like stupidity with which Rhonda Griffin invests her), and the cast comes through like few others have in the long and mostly sad history of Charles Band’s filmmaking career. Hideous! is a virtual textbook on overacting with style, and everyone involved displays such sharp comedic instincts that it’s a wonder nobody but Jacqueline Lovell has had much of a career, and that Lovell herself has spent most of her lengthy association with Band doing borderline-unwatchable softcore under the Torchlight Entertainment banner. Somebody get these people together for another project like Hideous!, and be quick about it!