The Rocket Files #2: It's all Down Twisted
Nothing was supposed to go wrong...
If ever there was a halcyon era for the B movie, it was the 1980s. Part of this boon was due, no doubt, to the advent of both home video and cable TV. Both avenues grew from available to a smaller part of the population (and in the case of video, for a higher price) in the 1970s to becoming massively accessible and more affordable by the end of the eighties. Suddenly films of all kinds, from big-budget Hollywood fodder to art house to adult and yes, B-movie cinema in general, were more widely available.
One particular director whose work blossomed during this age was one Albert Pyun. The man behind films ranging from the inventive Nemesis to the truly unique Radioactive Dreams, as well as the Jean Claude Van Damme classic Cyborg and the overlooked gem of Brainsmasher: A Love Story, is no doubt one of the most colorful of the era. His films, like 99% of genre films, might have been far from critical darlings, but he could never be rightfully accused of being boring. (Plus, when do critics ever know how to have some good, blood-on-the-knuckles and exuberant-spirit FUN?) In the wilds of the Pyun filmography is a nice slice of some neon-jungle noir with 1987's Down Twisted.
The film begins with introductory story title cards, a cinematic tactic usually reserved for science-fiction films (IE. Star Wars, Cafe Flesh, Space Mutiny, etc, etc). They inform us that a billionaire art collector named Alsandro Deltoid (Norbert Weissner) has hired six thieves to steal the “Crucible of San Lucas,” a religious artifact of intense rarity and value. Before we delve any further here, just take a moment to breathe in the character name of “Alsandro Deltoid.” It’s like a Max Headroom character created after exiting a K-hole and it is glorious.
The plan of the crime is to switch out the real deal with an identical facsimile with Deltoid possessing the Crucible, the criminals a few million dollars richer, and the para-military government of San Lucas none the wise. But storytelling rarely operates under the “things go smooth...the end!” school and soon we are ushered into one double cross after another. Also, did I mention that the main villain’s name is ALSANDRO DELTOID?
A man named Deltoid could only have a group of skilled criminals that stand out from the pack, including cool blonde Soames (Linda Kerridge, whom most horror fans will remember as Marilyn in Fade to Black) and platinum-haired new wave lizard Damalas (Thom Matthews.) Damalas, in particular, is nothing short of unforgettable, looking like the most sinister looking Patrick Nagel drawing come to life and the physical gravitas to back it up. After seeing Matthews play affable good guys like Freddy in Return of the Living Dead and then see him play this sociopathic, high-fashion reptile, you will get a whole new level of respect for the man.
Things backslide pretty quickly when the main thieves get double-crossed by the handsome-in-a-coke-dealer-kind-of-way Grady (Nicholas Guest, the man with a resume even more nuts than Pyun’s, including the video for Aerosmith's “Janie’s Got a Gun”). Grady soon discovers crossing Damalas and copy is a really, really bad idea and gets murdered in front of his girlfriend, Michelle (Trudy Dochterman), who flees the scene asap.
Unfortunately for part-time waitress and aspiring architect, Max (Carey Lowell), she’s roommates with Michelle, who is as beautiful as she is a weepy and simultaneously bitchy hot mess. Max gets roped into the deal, which leads to her seeing the sports car that her roommate was waiting in explode. Stumbling upon the scene is the tall drink of water named Reno (Charles Rocket) and that’s when you know things are going to get exponentially better upwards and onwards.
The two end up getting kidnapped by Damalas and company, waking up in the boat chartered for San Lucas. From there we learn that Reno is an attorney...or possibly a private investigator, with the only thing clear being that in this world, nothing or no one is necessarily as they seem. Soon, the pair are running from the local government police, who have assumed that they are smugglers and from the gang of thieves, all while the small island nation is getting ready for their annual festival. What unfurls is taut intrigue and two lead characters who are more nuanced and interesting than what would you find in an “A” type bigger budgeted Hollywood film.
Lowell is likable as the refreshingly smart and occasionally resourceful Max. She has a similar quality to Deborah Foreman, bringing both conventionally beautiful looks with a presence that contains both depth and warmth. She’s definitely at her most relatable here. Then there is the man, Charles Rocket.
For most of his career, Rocket often found a healthy amount of work, more often than not in supporting roles. Getting to see him play not only one of the main leads, but the heroic male of the pair is such a gem. We see Reno go from being a bit of a bumble to a man with a lot of shadows and strength. The former is reflected with the recurring gag being how badly he can handle a punch. Any kind of punch. It doesn’t matter if it is from a cement pillar, one of the baddies, or Max, which plays into Rocket’s natural strengths as a comedic actor, dating back to his time at Saturday Night Live. But we quickly see Reno break through cliched comic tropes and find out his history of being a past gun runner, among other things, which is a shift that Rocket pulls off beautifully. There are few actors that could as effortlessly pull off a character dynamic while bringing a sense of humanity to the role. Rocket was a multi-talented artist that could be many things for many roles; handsome, awkward, light, heavy, and always charismatic. He should have been given more leads while he was here, but this is one of the things that makes Down Twisted a bit of a cinematic gift. Bless Albert Pyun for having Rocket as Reno and for using him again a few years later for Brainsmasher.
The movie as a whole is really good. It’s not perfect, with the story taking some big chances on the audiences willingness not to ask too many questions, but realistically, that’s an accusation you could lob at the vast majority of blockbuster films. What Down Twisted does achieve is a quick-paced thriller that is quite stylish, featuring some stunning cinematography, courtesy of Walt Lloyd who would go on to work on Sex, Lies, & Videotape (1989) and Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993). Visually alone, Down Twisted is a film that is begging for a proper and remastered release for DVD/Blu Ray, especially since it hasn’t been in print since its release on VHS via Media Home Entertainment back in 1990.
According to a fairly hateful review of the film in the LA Times back in 1987, Pyun was inspired by, of all things, Robert Altman’s classic Raymond Chandler 1973 adaptation, The Long Goodbye. While that didn’t immediately feel apparent with either my first or subsequent viewings of the film, there was another noir classic that came to mind with the film’s climax. There are elements in the latter’s airport scene that definitely feel like an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s stone cold masterpiece, 1956’s The Killing. (As for that review, yikes. At one point the reviewer, Patrick Goldstein, refers to the film as “woeful.” Obviously, he hadn’t seen either Fraternity Vacation or Terms of Endearment.)
A strange thing about this film is that given that it was released in an era ripe with big explosions, big hair and bigger breasts, Down Twisted features zero nudity or sex, yet was still given an R rating. Even the violence used throughout is subdued, with any visible blood being minimal. There were certainly films with more violence and “bad” language that garnered a PG-13 rating. Then again, trying to apply rhyme and reason to the MPAA is akin to expecting genuine compassion and empathy from your garden variety political or religious leader. In other words, good luck and say goodbye to faith.
The soundtrack is a combination of the original score composed by Eric Allaman under the name of Berlin Game (which sounds likes a title for a never-made Albert Pyun movie) and a few select songs, including Oingo Boingo's “No One Lives Forever,” the Fine Young Cannibals’ cover of the Elvis Presley standard “Suspicious Minds,” and The Cruzados' fantastic “Flor de Mal.” Later on, the original soundtrack portion by Berlin Game would go on to be released on a limited edition soundtrack by Varese Saraband, which already puts it ahead of the film itself as far as more recent releases go. (And thank the musical and film gods for them!)
Down Twisted is a taut reward of a movie with two great leads and an end credits montage that is absolutely beautiful. Albert Pyun is an underrated director and Down Twisted is some sweet proof of this. It's fun, compelling, aesthetically striking, and sports an absolute aces cast who get to shine in ways that they didn't in “bigger” titles. You definitely wish that the group of Lowell, Matthews, Kerridge, and especially Rocket had been better utilized in a some of their other works. While it can be seen either via old VHS copies or, as of the time of this piece, YouTube, let's all hope that this and some of Pyun's other films get a solid and respectful release on both physical media and streaming.
Next, for The Rocket Files, we will be having a party. A TV Party.