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Arts & Culture

Rants and Raves: LA Road Trip

George Wendt, Rachel Avery, and Jesse Merlin in "Re-Animator the Musical Songbook Performance" on December 16.
Mike B. Anderson
George Wendt, Rachel Avery, and Jesse Merlin in "Re-Animator the Musical Songbook Performance" on December 16.

Re-Animator, Buckaroo, and Dark Delicacies

I went up to LA for a weekend of movie related fun including a one-off performance of "Re-Animator the Musical" that was to die for. Damn you LA!

Being in San Diego and loving movies can sometimes be quite frustrating because just a little bit north of here there are fabulous movie events every single weekend. But this past weekend there was too much good stuff to resist, a holy trinity that involved "Re-Animator," "Buckaroo Banzai," and Terry Castle.

Not even a four-and-a-half hour drive from San Diego to LA could dampen my spirits about heading back to the Steve Allen Theater to see what was being called "Re-Animator the Musical Songbook Performance." "Re-Animator" is a cult classic 80s horror film directed by Stuart Gordon. Earlier this year I reported for NPR about the film's transition from film to stage musical. The play, which opened in March, was an absolute delight, proving how magical live theater can be when it engages the audience in some theatrical sleight of hand. Gordon found a way to bring the film's mix of gore and humor to the stage in such a smart fun way that it was irresistible. The limited run sold out and then kept getting extended until it finally closed in August.

But this past Friday the play was resurrected as a one night reunion in which the play would be performed like a radio drama -- no sets, no effects, just a reading and singing of the play. Once again, Gordon pulled off something magical. To open the performance he had Jeffrey Combs (Hebert West from the film version of "Re-Animator") come out to perform. He didn't perform anything from the play but rather something of his own creation. Combs, with a cowboy hat pulled way down over his face (almost to the point where you might question who was really under that brim), called himself a "hermit" musician and by that he meant he did it all my himself. It was great to see him, although it would have be fun to see him interact with the stage cast. That was the first bit of magic the night showed off.

Then the play began. The radio drama presentation reminded me of the old Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. There was a narrator on stage walking us through the stage directions and explaining the effects that were no longer in the show. Instead of blood being sprayed into the audience a squirt gun filled with water now stood in for the gore. It gave the performance and the play an energetic sense of fun. Plus the more informal presentation allowed the actors to have fun improvising and playing off of each other in wonderful ways. This performance will never be repeated or duplicated again, and it reminded me of how magical live theater is. Occasionally an actor fumbled a line (after all they hadn't performed it in months) but that only provided an opportunity for clever improvisation by someone else on stage.

The magic extended to the audience as well. It was like a family reunion both on stage and off. There was even another couple from San Diego who had also battled the 4-hour-plus traffic to be at this special performance. And many of my San Diego friends were upset that I had not given them a heads up about the show or they too would have made the trek. "Re-Animator" just has that cult appeal that makes people obsessive.

Kudos to the Steve Allen Theater for mounting this production, and to Stuart Gordon and company for creating something so vivid, fun, and clever. "Re-Animator the Musical" will be missed but I'm hoping that one day it will find its way down to San Diego.

Peter Weller leads the cast of "Buckaroo Banzai," an underrated gem from the 80s.
Twentieth Century Fox
Peter Weller leads the cast of "Buckaroo Banzai," an underrated gem from the 80s.

Immediately following "Re-Animator" my friends and I headed over to the New Beverly for the last night of Edgar Wright's "The Wright Stuff III." Wright (British director of "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," and "Scott Pilgrim") has turned the New Bev into his own giant living room where he shares films with the cinema faithful. This third film series was all about films he had not seen but felt he should have. The closing night midnight movie was "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension." This is a cult film that is near and dear to my heart. I raved about it in when it opened in 1984 and I was reviewing films for the La Jolla Light newspaper. I was enamored with its eclectic mix of genres and styles, its comic book sensibility, its smart casting, and its joyous Saturday morning serial energy. I had not seen it on the big screen, though, since it came out so this opportunity could not be missed. The film is underrated and is most deserving of getting the sequel that was promised at the end of "Across the 8th Dimension." This film never fails to put a smile on my face and just listening to the theme music can turn a bad day into a good one.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Trailer

I applaud Wright for doing these film series because it packs an art house (bringing much needed funds into the small business) and it resurrects old films on the big screen. Wright is a gracious and enthusiastic host for these events. His love for movies is genuine and infectious. The film started late (after 1am) but no one was complaining because it was a house full of fans -- fans of Buckaroo and of Wright. The film, which was so ahead of its time when it came out, held up beautifully and was not dated in the least. The performances, especially of John Lithgow as the mad Dr. Lizardo, are to be savored and enjoyed. All in all it was a wonderful evening... or morning, since we emerged from the theater at about 3:30am.

Terry Castle signing books at Dark Delicacies.
Beth Accomando
Terry Castle signing books at Dark Delicacies.

Later on Saturday, we rounded out our LA trip with a stop at Dark Delicacies Bookstore for a signing by Terry Castle, William Castle's daughter. Terry is keeping her father William alive through a series of books (young adult horror tales and books about her father's film work). Her father was a master film showman in the 50s and 60s. He produced horror films with such wonderful and memorable gimmicks as "PERCEPTO" and "EMERG-O." Terry, whom I interviewed, is a fabulous storyteller and takes such pleasure in keeping her father's films and memory alive. It was great to meet her in person at the Dark Delicacies Bookstore -- which is worth a trip to LA in and of itself.

So for at least one weekend I got my LA fix of movie related events. I wish San Diego could boast as much and draw similar crowds so I wouldn't have to leave town for events. We have a lot of good programming (and good people trying to draw crowds for film events) but nothing to compete with LA... at least not yet.