To borrow father’s phrase - “Back in my day, when I was a boy…” there was a subculture of boys who numbered among my closest friends who could run faster, climb trees with ease, do somersaults, and stay underwater for over a minute better than anyone. They were the ones you wanted around when there was trouble, because they were clever, glib, and knew went to stand and fight or when to run away. None were bad by nature. They weren’t malevolent, just irreverent, different, and as a result an enormous amount of fun. We were, as one of my dearest friends labelled it, budding “pirates and circus folk”. Our main literary staple was what parents considered the “trash” comic books.
During my pre-pubescence, there were two kinds of comic books – the mainstream comics – Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Fantastic Four, published DC Comics. All had heroes endowed with super powers and applied them for betterment of humankind. Then, there were the “trash” comics – EERIE, Tales of the Crypt, Tales of the Macabre, published by EC Comics. They were often quite violent and gory. Although my parents didn’t approve of comic books, they never really objected to the mainstream comic. As long as there was a steady staple of the classics-Twain, Stevenson, etc., an occasional copy of Superman was allowed. The trash comics, however, were always kept hidden in a shoe box, enjoyed only in the privacy of the covers with a flashlight while the rest of the house slept. Often, these comics had already been passed down. They were worn, the pages were tattered and disintegrating; some were even mended with Scotch tape, which peppered the appeal.
The great attraction of these comics were their structure. The main character was not a respectable hero intent on benefitting mankind. On the contrary the hero was usually a criminal, a bad ass, a nefarious bloke caught in a moral dilemma within an immoral environment. The stories seldom ended well. However, there was always the element of ironic justice. And, although the situations were extraordinarily exaggerated, the story line had a more realistic quality than the mainstream comics. It was like a fast food hamburger, something you didn’t eat often but once in a while just craved and devoured in bliss.
Contemporary cinema has its own version of the trash comic. This should not be confused with the films based on the mainstream comics, which with the development of computer graphics have flooded the market (Man of Steel, Batman, The Dark Knight, Spiderman, etc.) The trash film seldom hits the first run houses for a very long time. It has either a very short release or goes directly to television or DVD. It is a film, however, that has all the appeals of the trash comic that nourished my tribe of enfant terribles decades ago. The story line is simple. The hero is an antihero. The action is bathed in gory violence. The dialogue verges on the corny. It is rarely longer than 90-minutes. And, it reeks of testosterone. It’s only natural, that, at first, it appeals to a predominantly male audience. However, this film also has a heroine that is beautiful, tough and gutsy; it has consequently developed a growing audience among women. This is not a film that most admit to watching readily. In fact, it is like one of those old worn out sweatshirts that many of us keep hidden in the back drawer and wear only in the privacy of our home when no one is there. It is, however, despite social objection, an enormous amount of fun to watch, especially if you have the nature of a pirate or circus folk.
Two films that occasionally appear on late night television listings, that offer a fair taste of this genre, are Ghost Rider (2007), directed by Mark Steven Johnson, and Drive Crazy (2001) directed by Patrick Lassier. Both films, coincidentally, star Nicholas Cage, an actor with the befitting countenance of a man whose medication is just about to wear off.
The premise of Ghost Rider is the terms of a contract signed by John Blaze (appropriately named), a second generation motorcycle stunt rider, with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) at a crossroads. In order to save his father from a painful death from cancer, Blaze agrees to serve as Mephistopheles’s private bounty hunter. Ironically, the father dies performing a stunt. Blaze realizes that he has been tricked, nevertheless, the bargain has been sealed, and Blaze is doomed to fulfill the contract, which involves abandoning his childhood sweetheart (Eva Mendez), transforming into a fiery skeleton, and hunting down errant demons on a blazing motorcycle, armed with a fiery chain. It has all the elements of evil wrapped in a cloak of good. Seasoning the film is Sam Eliot as a former cowboy Ghost Rider who mentors Blaze in his new role as an angel of perdition. Eventually, Blaze becomes so proficient that he even outwits Mephistopheles himself. Who can possibly resist spending 90-minutes watching that?
The second film and, perhaps, even better, is Drive Angry, a tale about John Milton (Nicholas Cage, who bears the same name as the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost), a criminal, murderer, and thief who as his eternal punishment is condemned to watch the lives of those he affected from his cell in Hell. When he witnesses the brutal slaying of his daughter by a cultist leader, Jonah King (Billie Burke), and the abduction on his infant granddaughter. When he learns that King intends to sacrifice the infant to Satan, an act which ironically even Satan abhors. Milton escapes from Hell in a souped up car, armed with a demon-killer gun with which he intends to destroy King. Of course, escapes from Hell are not to be tolerated, therefore, to retrieve Milton back, the Devil dispatches his most capable hunter, the Accountant (William Fichtner). In his quest Milton rescues and then enlists Piper (Amber Heard) an attractive but tough barmaid who joins him in his mission. The film has impossible, improbable situations flavored with almost corny dialogue. Nevertheless, it leaves a rather satisfactory aftertaste in the palate of the viewer.
These films are not really recommended for children. Yet, both possess the elements of those trashy comics that entertained our secret as kid pirates and circus folk. They in their own way are irresistible. Within their plots the line between good and evil were vaguely drawn – much like contemporary geopolitics. However, unlike modern events they retain that sense of ironic justice which the trash comics provided. Consequently, lately, when these films appear in the listings, I find myself drawn in like the boy to his secret comic, never admitting until now that I watch them, often several times.
Let one thing be clear - I am not encouraging you to watch these films. However, if you as a kid did sneak those trash comics into your home as part of your secret cache; if you ever dreamt of being a pirate or swinging one-handed on a trapeze, you just might find them rather enjoyable – like an old worn out sweatshirt that is full of holes, or like a good old fashioned fast food burger.
And, bear in mind, dear reader, as always, this is only my opinion. If you have ever have the hunger for some good trash, hunt these films down, watch them, and judge for yourself.