Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April Apocalypse part III: Poodle-geddon

"I want an orderly nuclear holocaust."
-Robert Klein, Child of the Fifties

About ten years ago, I was taking a back road in to my former job when I came across a single police car blocking the way. Being a little-trafficked side street in an industrial complex, I was the first vehicle to encounter the roadblock. I knew better than to ask the lone officer manning the barricade what was going on (cops hate that question even more than "Do I smell bacon?" and are prone not to answer it) so instead, I asked if it was OK for me to turn around and exit the area. The officer, looking extremely put-upon, did not reply. Just then, two more cars rolled  up behind mine with both drivers giving the universal palms-to-heaven questioning gesture of 'what's going on?'. Since the cop next to me continued to stand like a statue hit by a curare dart, I began directing traffic by motioning the drivers to turn around and go back the way they had come. I followed suit and the cop never moved maintaining his perpetual 'why do I get stuck with the crap details?' demeanor. When I got to work, I found out there had been a hazmat containment situation in one of our neighboring industrial sites. The cop had set up his roadblock directly downwind of it. Smooth. The road he had blocked had a ninety degree turn further down where it intersected with a main thoroughfare, so he would have been safer blocking it there and subsequent traffic could not have even entered the area.
It was after this encounter that I realized there were incompetent law enforcement officers in the world. Make no mistake, I understood this prior to this incident in an intellectual way, but it's one thing to be cognitive that there is such a thing as the world's worst dentist, it's quite another to be sitting in his chair.

Nine motorists and passengers run into the same situation I did in Fredric Gadette's 1962 atomic scare movie, This Is Not a Test. The film takes place on a lightly traveled piece of highway in the hills of the fictional "Del Oro county" California. It begins with Deputy Sheriff Dan Colter receiving orders over the radio to set up a roadblock at a predesignated point. A group of characters soon coalesse there only to discover the end of the world is nigh. Deputy Dan, played by the unfortunately-named, Seamon Glass, looks much like a punch-drunk boxer in a Looney Tunes short and sounds like he founded the Steven Seagal school of broadcasting. The first two people to encounter the officer at the blockade are kindly grandpa/chicken rancher Jake Saunders (Thayer Roberts) and his pretty, adult granddaughter, Juney (Aubrey Martin). They cooperate with the Deputy and Grandpa Jake even helps out by laying down some highway flares.

The next couple to come along aren't nearly as cooperative as the Saunders owing to the massive amount of booze they seemed to have ingested. Actress Mary Morlas as Cheryl Hudson gives one of the most over-the-top drunk driving performances ever as she seems to take orgasmic delight in operating a vehicle under the influence. Her boyfriend, gambler Joe Baragi (played by character actor Michael Greene in his first role) is a slick talking hepcat who has just made a big score and thinks booze is also groovy daddy-o. You dig man? Deputy Dan has more than a little trouble keeping these two live wires corralled and sober.

Next up is wealthy, married couple, Sam and Karen Barnes (Norman Winston and Carol Kent). Sam is the rule-following, meek conservative, obsessive-compulsive type. Karen wears expensive clothes and carries a toy poodle named Timmy, but surprises by not adhering to the Lovey Howell stereotype. Also arriving at the roadblock is good-looking, young, easy going, trucker Al and the weird, semi-catatonic hitchhiker he's picked up, Clint. Last to arrive is a porkpie hat-wearing, scooter-driving, young man named Peter.

Initially, none of the characters know the reason they've been stopped. There is a nice little red herring plot point involving a wanted criminal that seems to explain the roadblock, but it turns out it's only a coincidence. As the real reason becomes apparent, a possible nuclear war, the deputy directs everyone to seek refuge. Obviously this doesn't sit well with many in the group who want to make a run for it instead. I don't want to spoil the ending but it is quite satisfying and surprising in more ways than one.

Technically, the film has problems mostly stemming from its low budget. The editing is somewhat choppy with parts of the movie confusing as a result. For example, the unintentionally comic, Conan O'Brien-type stare-down scene between Glass and the poodle near the end of the film made me laugh out loud, only to be horrified moments later when it's meaning became clear. The acting ranges from passable to non-existent. Thayer Roberts is decent as gramps but he, by far, had the most experience of anyone in the cast at the time. Sometimes the bad acting is distracting and goofy, as in Ron Starr's spastic, kamikaze, chicken attack, at other times it's an enjoyable hoot like Mary Morlas' drunk mugging. Overall though, most of the sub-par performing didn't take me out of the movie.
On the positive side, the concept is very solid, the characters distinctively enough drawn to easily differentiate them from one another and the film takes care of business in a very efficient 73 minutes. Yet there's still enough interaction and screen time that no one character gets lost in the shuffle. Scooter-riding Pete seems a bit too much of a plot convenience as he is just used to form the male half of a couple later on, but I liked the relationship that springs up between trucker Al and rich lady Karen which subsequently creates a little love triangle tension. Despite the somewhat low rent look of the film, I was impressed by how many of the scenes were more than adequately lit and didn't appear to be day-for-night filtered shots. In so many low budget films set at night, it's difficult to discern what's going on but that's not the case here as a lot of poor-man process illuminates the proceedings quite well. Another pleasant surprise was the Greig McRitchie score, which starts out big and brassy, but goes quiet and subtle soon after and remains so for the duration of the film. I really appreciated that he never felt the need to musically pound home the point with a lot of overdramatic stings. 

Finally, I wanted to point out the fascinating dichotomy between This Is Not A Test and another atomic scare film that was also made in 1962, Ray Milland's Panic in the Year Zero. In Milland's film, authority, in the guise of the military, is viewed as the heroic restorer of order even though they are more than a little bit responsible for the nuclear apocalypse in the first place. The policeman in This Is Not A Test also represents authority, but an officious, hidebound, misguided type of authority of the "Duck and Cover" school. The individuals who appear to fare best in this film, are the ones that defy authority and strike out on their own. This is a pretty revolutionary theme for a culture that was still relatively conformist at the time of the film's production and I wonder if it accounts, even in a small way, for it not being theatrically released. In any event, both This Is Not A Test and Panic in the Year Zero would make an excellent double-bill and indeed feel like different chapters in the same apocalyptic anthology.

Score 6.5/10

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