(AKA A Cut Above, Hot Water) 1985, Starring Suzanne DeLaurentiis, Linda Singer, Jeremy Ratchford, Michael McKeever, Ken Roberts, Cotton Mather, Alanne Perry. Directed by Jim Hanley.
Review by Jonathan Culp
To not just honour — but also mimic — what director Jim Hanley's 1985 horror thriller Junior does best, let’s cut straight to the money, namely one of the greatest and most archetypal scenes in any Canadian film, a cinema event that belongs on Mount Canuxmore right alongside Louis Del Grande’s exploding head and Dan Monahan’s penis.
So, our co-protagonist KC (Suzanne DeLaurentis) is hot-rodding around the marina in her new customized jetboat, when she's suddenly and expectedly menaced by the hooting and cackling Junior (Jeremy Ratchford), the perpetual nemesis of her and her former cellmate Jo (Linda Singer). KC makes short work of him as usual, but then along come four redneck friends in their own motorboats, who shortly have her surrounded. So imperiled, she reacts as any normal person would — she removes her bikini top. This inspires still more hooting (as well as some excited ogling by the director of photography) — but not for long! Because, within a half dozen quick edits, KC has stuffed the bikini into a jar of gasoline, lit it on fire, and thrown the resulting Molotov cocktail into an enemy motorboat, causing its fiery demise. The remaining hick marine corps beat a hasty and indignant retreat, as KC threatens to light her bikini bottom on fire as well. The sequence ends as KC‘s boyfriend Bud (Michael McKeever) swims out to boatside, to dryly announce “...I’m here to rescue you.”
Oh, where to begin? In one compact gesture, this passage embodies all the ambitions, contradictions, and jaw-dropping successes of a uniquely brilliant Canuxploitation epic. The menacing rituals of rural manhood, the potential for violence behind the sexual gaze, slut shaming, above all the power of a community of women to reject and challenge these indignities on their own steam and terms; once you’ve watched the thing (and please do find it and watch it; you’ll be joining a select club), you can hardly deny that these fluidly interlocking themes run very close to Junior’s surface.
The complication is that the surface in question has got to be the most exuberantly tasteless display of classic exploitation values ever unleashed on a northern grindhouse. Foul-mouthed, sex-starved, overflowing with tits and ass and assault, lurching with crude insistence from incident to outrageous incident, this rare moment of full-on girl power bravado in 1980s Canadiana runs a fair risk of re-traumatizing the very underdogs it champions. Where such comparable trash classics as Death Weekend, American Nightmare and Blackout take a fair amount of pride in their cerebral attainments, Junior conjures the illusion of having been made by a marauding band of cretins.
But don’t get me wrong — they’re smart cretins, and self-aware, and moralists to boot. And in this, Junior may bring other, less linear analogues to mind, namely the confrontational strut of subcultural bards like Ice-T, Eminem and (speaking of cretins) the Ramones. And while we’re at it, why not bring in Russ Meyer, or even John Waters? The key commonality — gender aside, of course — is that these artists all couch their home truths in the kind of barbed and unmediated imagery the real-life analogues of their bizarro dramatis personae might understand. Yes, all of their heated engagements with "reality" can be reduced to a cartoon-like burlesque in the process, which is arguably their greatest artistic strength. Yes, their reach sometimes exceeds their grasp, but what a grand spectacle it is to watch them try.
Junior is a triumph for barely-employed director Jim Hanley, otherwise nonexistent screenwriter John Maxwell, visionary Cinepix executive producers John Dunning and Andre Link and, perhaps especially, secretly ubiquitous co-writer/producer Don Carmody. Having slaved in the obscure shadows of cinematic ill repute for decades, it is perhaps only fitting that Carmody’s very greatest personal contribution to our national cinema is itself as culturally disreputable — and as candidly tossed-off — as it is critically obscure.
As the movie begins, KC and Jo are completing a six-month sentence for soliciting, in what sure looks like Kingston Prison for Women. As the guard walks them out of their cell and down the hall, the women are regaled with salutations from their sisters in crime (“Yeah, they’re only thinkin’ about how to get a good fuck without fucking up and landing right back in here”) and admonitions from a crotchety offscreen judge who announces, “Believe me, there’s more to life than working the streets.” Cue theme song.
The film’s aesthetic agenda is established in dazzlingly short order, as we’re not halfway through the first post-credits establishing shot when their crazed ex-pimp careens around the corner in his convertible and the action begins. He proceeds to beat the shit out of KC and Jo for an uncomfortably long time, until KC seduces the guy to lean in close, only to grab the crucifix on his neck chain and shove it up his nose! As the pimp’s schnozz explodes in a blissfully unrealistic geyser of blood, the dynamic duo hop into the guy’s convertible and drive away to freedom...or at least to the gas station, where the attendant steals their keys and invites them to “take it out in trade.” Now it’s Jo’s turn. After the first of many lingering ass shots, she kneels down as though to offer a blow job — the better to shove the vile grease monkey into a tub full of slop. She stops by the cash box to collect the change owed her for the gas (and no more).
After yet another ogling interlude, featuring a married man in a station wagon, the duo are pulled over by the local Sheriff (Ken Roberts), decked out with a wide-brimmed hat, an unconvincing set of buck teeth, and an even more unconvincing Southern accent — all the less so considering that the backdrop is transparently some Quebec suburb. Judging their book by its cover (“We gotta get some civilian clothes,” KC declares sullenly), the Sheriff displays scant listening skills as he demands their immediate departure from town. And so the law has slotted them in the "slut" column just like the other guys; nowhere is safe.
Taking the cop’s edict literally, KC and Jo promptly rent a ramshackle old marina just outside of town, where they hope to find their boring redemption — “You can fix boat engines and I’ll open up a snack bar!” This marina is perhaps the most familiar performer in the movie, as it later provided Dunning/Link with the principal set for Meatballs 3, and turns up in Snake Eater as well. From this point, almost the entire film plays out at this single, economical location. They’ve found their refuge — but, as the first of many wide-and-creepy POV shots makes clear, they are not alone.
Shortly afterwards, another stylistic device asserts itself twice in a row: KC opens a hatch and screams, but it’s her own reflection in water; Jo falls through a rickety staircase into the lake, and spends a little too long under before breaking the surface with a wet t-shirt and a "ta-daaaa!" These fake-suspense moments are all over the place in Junior. A glowering guy walks slowly through a dark room brandishing a huge knife, only to finally crack a smile and ask, “Hungry?”; the ominous lurker outside the marina turns out to be to a cute dog; a menacing hand that appears on a light switch ends up being... a hand turning on the light. Legion and ludicrous, these passages serve their purpose nonetheless — to keep the audience on their toes; to keep good stuff happening at all times through passages that might otherwise be merely expository; and to reinforce the theme of deceptive appearances, to which we shall return.
On the very first night, KC and Jo's slumber is interrupted by a redneck piss-up outside their door, with one goon causing a particular disturbance as he picks up his shrieking date, humps her, swings her around, knocks over furniture, and puts her head through a window. After what we’ve seen so far, we expect the worst, but the girl’s satisfied giggles afterward indicate that she’s enjoying herself — another reversal. Which is reversed again in short order, as the goon then attempts to molest the terrified Jo while the girl admonishes her to "just enjoy it" — complex stuff. And with that we meet Junior, a sleeveless, hairless, muscle-bound, libidinous hick terror; he looks and acts like an overgrown infant wrestler. When Jo won’t put out, the boys punish her by dangling her by the ankles over a revving outboard motor, until KC saves the day with her handy shotgun. Only then do we see that their hateful Sheriff is also a member of the redneck party crew. After a few intimidating words, he leads his good old boys home, leaving the girls alone with their marina-gentrification project.
Traumatized by this display of resistance, Junior retreats to his own porch to consort with his beloved mute Mama — the first of several such conferences. “Do you want me to do something bad to ‘em, Mama?” Junior asks. But is this lout really just a puppet, a tool of larger social forces at play? This lingering thematic question doesn’t really come to mind at all as one processes that the mysteriously uncredited actor playing Mama is, quite obviously, some geek in a powder wig and granny glasses. Call it cheap if you like (as it certainly is), but it’s also a gift, the pivotal goodwill gesture of the film. In a movie with this much sexual antagonism, this overt and outrageous alienation device firmly reminds us that "it’s only a movie," so that we can keep enjoying ourselves as the punishing action unfolds. Also, it’s hilarious...a geek in a wig!
As the women begin their renovations, they find themselves visited again by Bud, one of the mellower rednecks from the party, who brings them unsolicited construction supplies in a gesture of goodwill they’re not initially inclined to appreciate. His “you could use a man about the house” rhetoric gets him less than nowhere, but as the gifts continue and Bud gains their trust, romance blossoms, and soon the slo-mo softcore shots of KC reclining nude on the deck give way to slo-mo softcore shots of Bud feeling her up. Meanwhile Jo falls in with Luke (stuntman Cotton Mather — yes, that’s his real name), a houseboat-dwelling botanist who can’t swim but plays a mean (and very badly overdubbed) acoustic guitar. In his handful of scenes, Luke is set up as the archetypal loner, the free individual living in balance with nature and all that. He’s also so stoic and unreadable that he’s almost a force of nature himself — especially when, in an ensuing houseboat invasion, Junior drags a sharp hook several inches through his hand and he doesn’t flinch.
Even more interesting than this familiar rebel is the more complex Bud, who must largely keep his good heart under wraps to "pass" with the boys. In fact, his complicating goodness embodies the thematic confusion between friend and foe — another nod to the surprising complexity beneath appearances. It also underlines the leap of faith it takes for these perpetually menaced women to engage with the opposite sex at all, a perceptive gesture for a buncha male exploitation filmmakers, and one that obliquely anticipates Louis C.K.’s more recent unpacking of rape culture (“Where are we going?” “To your death, statistically...”)
In the meantime, Jo has established her primary character trait out of left-field — she’s a chatty film buff. And so as KC burns leeches off her arms with a cigarette Jo recounts the parallel scene in The African Queen, and when Junior snorkels over to manhandle KC, Jo steals a trick from The Frogmen and blows out Junior’s ears with an underwater shotgun blast. Clearly, these two will not be reduced to damsels in distress. Therefore, with a resounding harmonica overture, we are now introduced to Sally (Alanne Perry), the human punching bag! She shrieks, she wails, she simpers, she cowers, she is allowed no more than four or five lines of dialogue tops. Ostensibly Junior’s "girl," she spends a lengthy first scene running away from him in abject terror, until she is rescued by the marina crew from a manically violent groping.
Afterwards, as the others joyously decorate their newly-renovated home, Sally sweeps the floor in inconsolable solitude, refuting Junior’s earlier “Fuck off! She likes it!” with a simple and sad “He raped me.” Their camaraderie — and the company of the aforementioned wayward dog, who is of course named Scruffy — help her partway out of her despondcy, but she remains fragile. When Junior drops by to shove Jo’s face into (yes) a dead fish stuffed full of worms, Sally can barely bring herself to smash a beer bottle over his head. This maneuver merely inspires Junior to bite the neck off another brew before strolling back to Mama — who by now has picked up a pair of binoculars to watch Junior’s terrorist antics, grinning orgasmically with her tongue hanging out.
Hanley and Carmody must have only been able to afford the animal trainer for a day, because Scruffy appears in about four shots before he’s flayed and hung in the doorway. But not before the poor pooch leads Sally to a random female corpse — cue scream! (The very same scream, incidentally, can be heard emanating from Samantha Eggar in A Name for Evil; a subsequent music cue was lifted whole from Count Floyd.) This catches the attention of our pal the sketchy Sheriff, who has been occasionally popping up in windows, waving his flashlight around, issuing random threats and innuendo, pulling back Jo’s bedsheet to look for ID, and other dubious law enforcement activities. Having been alerted to the girls’ gruesome discovery, he earnestly responds with the very best line in the movie: “It’s no big secret I don’t want you girls in my town, but until we solve this case of the dee-terioratin’ body, you’d best stick around.” Bud grimaces mutely as the law denigrates his “trash” girlfriends, and when KC acts wounded, his divided loyalties surface, admonishing her that “You’re always mouthing off — that may work in the big city, but you don’t make many friends like that around here!” Soon he will find out exactly what such friends are worth.
En route to the climax, Junior has “got an idea Mama — a real goody.” This idea turns out to involve slicing through the wall of poor punch-drunk Sally’s bedroom with a chainsaw, then chasing her around the marina, splintering walls, windows and furniture while delivering a monologue with content and delivery that is especially reminiscent of Eminem in full horror-show mode: “You don’t mind if I let myself in do you?...You can’t hide from Junior! He always finds you...are you ready you slut? Cause Junior’s coming!...That’s my blood bitch! Suck it now!” Running away, Sally stumbles over another female corpse — this one mummified. These women are pulling back the curtain on an ever-lengthening history of violence in which they are only the latest appalling episode.
While the physical danger and trauma are palpable, the violence of this sequence is almost entirely either verbal or implied. But violence it is, nonetheless, and so now we’re back to the unpredictable danger of the opening scenes — Mama or no Mama, the intervening layer of irony gives way to a queasy unease. The menace isn’t fun any more, and why should it be? And why should KC and Jo retain their sass as, one by one, their friends and allies meet their gruesome fates? Yes they do manage to trap Junior in a fishing net and give him a couple whacks with a 2x4, and yes there is a certain poetry to the way the allied factions of hickdom converge and destroy each other in the top secret tell-all climax — let’s just say that the theme of deceptive surfaces is not dishonored. Still, it is definitely sad that our heroes don’t have more franchise in the resolution. No longer their sassy, empowered selves, they can only sob and watch history unfold. But could that actually be the point? First of all they’re too sweet to pull off a revenge move, and secondly the film steadfastly refuses to paint Junior, at least, as a total monster. Yeah, it’s a little hard to appreciate this psychotic rapist as a victim, but by encouraging us to do so the filmmakers do properly refocus our attention on those who empower and exploit him, and it does allow them to pull off a bizarrely poignant denouement in the classic monster-movie mould.
And so as KC and Jo steer Luke’s houseboat into the sunset, the imperfections of the climax avoid sapping our good will. After all, for all its trashy truth value, Junior is finally about energy, vulgarity and spectacle, and these virtues do hold fast to the end. The dialogue still sounds like period-specific network TV with sharp edges; the direction still papers over its imperfections and missed opportunities by cutting as quickly as possible to the next outlandish set piece; the actors still inhabit this world with economical exuberance. And it remains almost unique among Canadian exploitation films in its audaciously lowbrow vitality.
Is it "culture"? Let them reach for their revolver. Does it reflect Canada to Canadians? You be the judge. Is it a near-masterpiece in a mode that doesn’t even believe in masterpieces? Bet your remote on it.