Film

Smells Like Heavy Metal Poisoning: An Interview with Cinéaste Mike McPadden

Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is truth in human packaging. A beard is indeed present, bristly, with streaks of grey—suggesting wisdom in matters strange and arcane. I’ve seen McPadden in action as well, on-stage, during a performance by the Blue Ribbon Glee Club. He delivered a reminiscence of the punk documentary D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage, his routine punctuated by a encyclopedic panoply of pop and sleaze culture references. Color me impressed.

McPadden brings that same underground erudition—gained in googolplexes, grind houses, and before the entertainment center altar—to his two books, Heavy Metal Movies (2014) and the just-published Teen Movie Hell. Sometimes profane, sometimes risqué, sometimes wince-inducing, McPadden’s capsule reviews of famous and forgotten films, from classics to schlock, remain perceptive and entertaining.

The man’s work is also exactly what it says on the label. Heavy Metal Movies provides an unrelenting barrage (not exaggerating there) of critiques and synopses of movies he considers the most “metal”, whether through musicians as actors, onscreen performances, or a pervading tone or ethos of heavy metal rebellion, mayhem, and/or brutality. Teen Movie Hell, on the other hand, shows a kinder, gentler, nostalgic, but no less sharp edge, evaluating ’70s through ’90s films aimed at teens: from beach babe jiggle flicks and gross-out frat comedies to coming of age tearjerkers and the critically acclaimed (if now re-appraised) films of John Hughes.

Both books are fine examples of a neglected literary form: subjective film criticism directories. Before listicles, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB, movie-lovers depended on phone book-sized reference works packed with mini movie reviews, written by diligent nerds driven to preserve every last damn flick. When the cable and video boom happened and movies moved from the big to the little screen, such guides became indispensable companions for cinephiles. For McPadden himself it all began with his youthful acquisition of very un-metal movie critic Leonard Maltin’s ubiquitous TV Movie Guide. We talked about this, his books, trashy cult flicks, and the longer leashes our generation enjoyed when it came to seeing what must not be seen (mainly R-rated films). But first, I was curious about that McSobriquet…

So, like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, do you get sick of explaining your nickname? How did McBeardo come about?

The nickname is nothing. I don’t go by it in real life. It was a funny way to separate my name from a politician named Mike McPadden who was running for office and getting some attention online around the time Heavy Metal Movies came out

I came by it from Elle Quintana, a local music scene icon who managed my old band, Gays in the Military. One night she was behind the bar at the Big Horse, the club she booked, and mentioned she was constantly dealing with music “beardos—like YOU, McBeardo!”

Aha. So, if you don’t mind, how old are you? I was trying to get a better lock on when you were watching films at the theaters.

I’m 50. I was in high school from 1982 to 1986. which is the heart of the era covered in Teen Movie Hell.

I can always read your author bio, but tell me about yourself and your background in your own words. What brought you to writing these books?

Movies are the first things I remember loving above and beyond reason and always wanting to learn more about. The discovery of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies compendium in 1975 when I was 6 was a revelation. Despite what the title might indicate, it was a guide book to movies on tv, not made for TV 

It seemed to have a write-up on every movie ever made—and clearly there were at least a thousand little thumbnail reviews. That really astounded me. He also had a rating system—Four stars to “BOMB”. 

I came out of the womb drawn to monster movies, slapstick comedy, and lowbrow culture, so I caught on quick that the BOMB movies were for me. I went through the book, circled all the BOMBs, and then would scour the TV Guide every week to see if any of those movies were airing.

This is the mid-’70s. Years before VCRs. And I’m from Brooklyn, NY, where we didn’t get cable until 1986! It was also before the Reagan administration deregulated TV commercial limitations, so local stations filled their schedules with old movies. It was a nightmare for me, coincidentally, when I went to tune in to the WOR-TV Fright Night horror showcase at 1am on a Saturday as usual and home shopping was on. Infomercials followed fast, and that was the end of old, unpredictable, free movies.

Back to Maltin, for a minute. 

Sure thing.

In addition to the Maltin book, I obsessively scoured newspapers and magazines for movie knowledge and made scrapbooks. I was most fascinated by all the art films and exploitation movies and midnight movies playing over the bridge in Manhattan. The Medved Brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards—about the so-called worst films ever made—was a life-changer. I learned about Ed Wood and so did everybody else. The world really lit up for me forever, though, when I got the book Cult Movies by Danny Peary for Easter in 1982. From there, I jumped to Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and so on. I also discovered the mind-blowing, incredibly offensive grindhouse zine, The Gore Gazette.

I read your intros with their extensive accounts of your lifelong relationship with the cinema. Your family seemed pretty accommodating, plus your access to grindhouses was breathtaking. How did that come about? 

My family was not actually accommodating. Aside from conning my mother into letting me see Rocky Horror when I was 10, they were actually overprotective—which may or may not have completely backfired. I started sneaking into the grindhouses in high school. I attended Xavier High School on 16th Street in Manhattan—three subway stops away from 42nd Street. I’d ditch whenever possible, go uptown, and catch some bizarre non-sequitur double bill up there. Times were entirely different than they are now. 

Even though my parents were overprotective, when I was 13, in 1982, they said, “Okay, go take that subway train into Manhattan, go to school, then come home when you’re done.” It’s insane to imagine a kid doing that now when it’s like a sterilized playground. But back then, that was just how it was done.

How many movies do you think you averaged a week back then?

Oh, not that many. It wasn’t an every day thing. Maybe a few a month—three to five. They were cheap, like $1.99 sometimes, but I was still a kid who had to go to school. I watched far more movies on VHS, but the theatrical experience was extremely important to me. Looking back, I cannot believe nothing bad ever happened to me in those shit-pits. 

The big scam was to tell my mother I was going to Latin Tutoring on Saturdays and catch a triple feature. It’s nuts to think about. But these were movies I’d never have a chance to see anywhere else.

So, help me understand what makes for a heavy metal movie. You called 1984 a heavy metal movie. I don’t quite remember it that way (though I was 17 and I remember watching it, mostly baffled. I had the rejected Eurythmics soundtrack too). Enlighten me.

OK, for Heavy Metal Movies, the challenge was to cover films that captured or conveyed the “spirit” of heavy metal music and culture. Big Brother, totalitarianism, censorship, oppression, and the fight against that is supremely metal in its nature.

Which “heavy metal” movies stick out most for you?

In terms of what?

Oh, which ones come back to you, which can you watch repeatedly, which ones do you insist everyone else MUST see?

2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest film I’ve ever seen and it’s quintessentially metal. Spinal Tap is my favorite mainstream comedy. Planet of the Apes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—really, that’s just sort of a list of my favorite movies. I even managed to find a way to make my all-time favorite movie fit into HMMForbidden Zone from 1980. I cite Danny Elfman’s performance as Satan and the overall decadent subterranean milieu.

In terms of the most metal movies, I’d say Conan the Barbarian and The Wicker Man are right up there. And I love those two, as well. Metal in spirit

Excellent choices. I still remember thinking “What the hell?” while watching Forbidden Zone.

Me too—it felt like what I envisioned every time I closed my eyes. 

I recall telling my friends, who’d recommended it, “Hey…Wait…This is live-action Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, isn’t it?” All those weird Cab Calloway song cartoons.

Very much. Along with underground comic books of the ’60s.

Moving on to Teen Movie Hell…quite a switch in subjects, going from heavy metal to teen movies. What brought that about?

It doesn’t seem like such a huge leap to me—it’s all about adolescent lust for life and…well, just plain lust.

The actual jump was HMM leapfrogging over TMH back in 2011 when I started it. I had been wanting to write the complete guide to teen sex comedies since 1994, where I hatched the plan with my friend Aaron Lee at the Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand in Los Angeles. A version of Teen Movie Hell came very close to getting published by St. Martin’s in 1999, but at the 11th hour they shut the imprint it would have come out under, and laid off my editor. Then it just kind of got lost for while, but I never stopped sort of working on it. Heavy Metal Movies was my answer book to the brilliant Destroy All Movies: The Complete History of Punks on Film by Bryan Connolly and Zack Carlson. It proved successful enough that Bazillion Points, my publisher, decided to go ahead with Teen Movie Hell.

There’s a terrific 1994 book by William Paul titled Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy in which he posits that splatter horror and gross-out comedies are two sides of the same cultural coin. I agree, and I think my two books adhere to that notion.

True. Your tone switched though. TMH, while mentioning the sexy bits and raunchy comedy, gets a tiny bit sentimental in places. I liked your treatment of Last American Virgin, for example.

Heavy Metal Movies was written with heavy metal as the guiding force. Teen Movie Hell is more personal. These movies were MY movies—teenage stories that played out on screen during my actual teenage years.

I was prepared for mostly titillation and softcore flicks from TMH, but you cast a pretty wide net, from John Hughes’ flicks to the sleazier Animal House/Meatballs ripoff films. How did you decide what made the cut?

The book covers the cultural moment bookended by American Graffiti in 1973 and Dazed and Confused in 1993—two masterworks, with the former being an absolute work of genius and, yes, I really do wish the director had retired after that. I didn’t want to just cover “teen movies,” though—I was specifically interested in comedies. So in terms of criteria, each movie had to be made about teenagers with a teenage audience in mind to whom it was specifically targeted and marketed. The overall selling point of each movie could be summed up as: “Hey, kids! There’s a party raging here on screen and you’re invited! You just have to buy a ticket or take this box up to the video store counter!”

So that’s what connects a Disney film like Midnight Madness to the absolute obscene anarchy of King Frat.

You address  the happy memories as well as the post-#MeToo sins of Revenge of the Nerds. What other films have aged well and/or not so well? Hughes’ oeuvre seems to have a lot to answer for.

Revenge of the Nerds is the big one—high-tech surveillance voyeurism, sex by deception, revenge porn, all played for laughs. That and Sixteen Candles get the most guff, and understandably so. With Sixteen Candles, it’s about the scene where Jake “gives” his drunken, passed-out girlfriend to Farmer Ted to do what he will with her. I still think that Ted and the girlfriend actually just sleep and don’t have sex, but she wakes up thinking they did and loves him for it. It’s a jarring sight given our present and better understanding of things. 

Those have aged “poorly” so to speak because they were so beloved and perceived so differently on a mass scale for decades. 

The really offensive movies—like King Frat, Screwballs, and The Party Animal—were understood to be fucked up at the time, and that’s what drove the humor. I found them hilarious then and I still do because I know what’s on screen is wrong, whereas Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles definitely conveyed a message of: “This is how things SHOULD be.”

I love Hughes’ nasty, gnarly, borderline evil National Lampoon stories. I don’t love his reeducation camp movies which, essentially, gentrified the teen sex comedy genre.

Yeah, I remember discovering “My Penis” and “My Vagina” and the rest of his National Lampoon stories in the college library in the ’80s and thinking, “Wait…That John Hughes!?!”

Completely brilliant.

Seems like today’s teen movies are more geared toward horror than comedy. Or have I overlooked any post-2010 teen comedies? The most recent one I can recall is Superbad. Or is that more an homage to the old teen flicks? Or maybe I’m just old now. You touched on the parallels between horror and teen sex comedies, I know. Feel free to loop back.

I include a chapter in the back of TMH about 21st century retro-teen-sex comedies and my fantastically talented friend Katie Rife of AV Club contributed a chapter at the beginning titled “Modern Girls,” about the welcome arrival of female filmmakers directing female coming-of-age movies. Booksmart would be just the most recent example.

Theatrically now, there aren’t many teen comedies and certainly nothing like what was bombarding us in the Porky’s era. The closest thing now would be last year’s Blockers, which was a teen sex comedy from the parents’ point of view. And it was funny. 

The reason there aren’t teen sex comedies like the ones in the ’80s—and, in fact, what killed the genre—was that by the decade’s end, adolescent boys had easy access to hardcore pornography. I state in the first line of Teen Movie Hell that the book’s subject is “porno movies watered down for 13-year-olds.”

A few years into the home video revolution and 13-year-olds no longer had to settle for the watered-down stuff. That reality extends to all theatrical movies, which is why there is so little nudity and sex on the big screen any more. People want to watch that stuff at home. It used to be that they had to buy a ticket and see it in a theater. Now there’s the Internet, so forget it.

Whither Phoebe Cates by the pool? I just feel bad for today’s teens.

We don’t have “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” cultural moments like that anymore.

 

Mike McPadden will be talking about Teen Movie Hell at Quimby’s (1854 W North Ave) this Saturday, June 22, at 7pm. McPadden will present a multimedia history of teen cinema, followed by readings by him and several contributors. Both Heavy Metal Movies and Teen Movie Hell are available at Quimby’s or at the Bazillion Points web site.

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