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Hysterical
(1983)
 

Director: Chris Bearde                           
Cast:
The Hudson Brothers, Bud Cort, Richard Kiel


There are still a lot of people who grew up in the '70s who, when asked about Leif Garrett or Randolph Mantooth, will still remember them and a lot of other pop culture icons of the era. But if you were to ask these same people about the Hudson brothers - Bill, Brett, and Mark - it will likely result in either a blank stare or a reply along the lines of, "The Hudson brothers? Knife in hand, Richard Kiel searches for his agent Yeah, I remember hearing something about them...uh...." Well, it goes without saying that the Hudson brothers were never quite able to reach even the kind of public acceptance and staying power of even Leif Garrett - which is odd, considering that before the inevitable breakup, they had the kind of success that many struggling comedians would kill for. They had their own TV show (The Hudson Brothers' Show), which ran in prime time, and they had The Hudson Brothers' Razzle Dazzle Show for the kids on Saturday morning. They even recorded some albums, and two of their singles ("Rendezvous" and "So You Are A Star") cracked into the top 40. One of the brothers not only managed to have sex with Goldie Hawn and Cindy Williams, during his time with the former he managed to make Almost Famous actress Kate Hudson.

Oh yes, they also made one theatrical feature - Hysterical, a spoof of horror films and the horror genre. Though unlike their accomplishments in the previous decade, it didn't get that much notice at the time of its release. Attendance was low, and the few critics who bothered to review it weren't very kind towards it. But since its theatrical release, the movie has slowly built a small cult of fans who have been pushing for a wider acceptance of the movie. (I personally witnessed this once at a video store, where a couple were bringing the video store's management to task for not stocking it.) In fact, today the Hudson brothers may be best known for this movie, rather than their other accomplishments that were greater at the time.

Since the movie was recently made available again (at least on DVD), it seemed a good time to review it. After all, I've always liked introducing a funny movie to someone who's never heard of it, and seeing them enjoy it. Plus, several years ago I had first watched the movie and I thought it was, well, hysterical, and I counted myself Bud Cort with the autopsy results - the patient died from watching the moviea member of this secret club. So I was all set to relive the fun when I rented the movie again for the purpose of reviewing it. But to my surprise, I had a different experience this time around. The film's wit and energy seemed to have largely been sapped away, the story was really dumb and poorly constructed (even for a comedy), and I was seeing more of a waste of talent - or limited talent - than actual talent onscreen. Yes, there were some very funny moments scattered along the way, though as the movie progressed it became clear that these were about the only moments I remembered from my last viewing of the movie. Was my mind playing tricks on me about how I felt about the movie the first time? I don't know, but at least this web site gives me an opportunity to create a detailed record about how I felt about Hysterical this time around.

After a prologue, the movie starts in New York, where we meet the best-selling trash novelist Frederic Lanzing (Bill), who tells us in his narration, "[I'm] a successful wealthy writer [and] there's something wrong! Though not with the wealthy part." Dissatisfied with both the books he writes and the critical lashing he's received, he decides to write The Great American Novel, moving to the Oregon coastal village of Cape Hellview ("Population: Strange", according to the welcome sign at the outskirts.) What he doesn't know is that the lighthouse he moves into is possessed by the hundred year-old ghost of Venecia (Julie Newmar), who is smitten by this stranger and puts forth a plan to possess him. Part of her plan involves the raising of the drowned corpse of her unfaithful late husband Captain Howdy (Kiel); this gets the attention of the local authority, and they call in famous scientist Dr. Paul Batton (Mark) and his assistant Fritz (Brett) to investigate. Though no one knows that Venecia has bigger plans in store for both Frederic and Hellview...

It's unusual that a self-proclaimed comedy team like the Hudson brothers (who wrote the screenplay along with a fourth writer), would, in their motion picture debut, spend so much onscreen time away from each other. To be more precise, Brett spends most of his scenes away from his brothers; they are only all together for about ten minutes after a third of the running time has gone by, then only team up again in the last twenty minutes. Though on closer examination, you kind of get a clue as to why they don't spend more time together. Bill's performance is mostly that of a straightMark and Brett watch their movie in horror (Are you seeing a pattern here?) man; he puts on a slightly bland facade for a lot of the movie, which does make a lot of his one-liners funnier than if they had been uttered in a comic fashion. Eventually his performance does become a little tiresome, and it's around that time when his characters starts acting goofy, which is really jarring after he's lulled us for so long. Not that he does it badly - it's just a surprise after acting differently for so long. He seems to come from a different movie than brothers Mark and Brett. Those two Hudsons on the other hand go for a more slapstick kind of humor. Occasionally their delivery is juvenile in the way a high school student might be in front of his peers during acting class, but even then they have an infectious delivery, putting a lot of energy in whatever they are doing, whether they are struggling with something or having a verbal battle.

Flawed as their performances may be, the Hudsons' performances are never actively awful at any time, and their acting is not to blame for the downfall of the movie. What is to blame, however, is their screenplay - to put it bluntly, this movie simply isn't very funny. Even if their performances were more consistently good, it would do very little for the absolutely lame gags that they've written for themselves. The kinds of humor that fall absolutely flat on the screen range from cartoon-like BOING! noises dubbed onto the soundtrack, to groan-inducing one-liners like when Frederic (hiding his identity) tells the girl he's attracted to, "I'm a ghost writer - my name is Casper." You have to sit through about ten painful gags to find one that's even remotely funny. It isn't just that the brothers had a hard time coming up with good material, but having a hard time exploiting it. You would think that having Richard Kiel in your cast would quickly give you a lot of ideas as to how to make fun of his bad guy image. But about the only thing they do with Kiel is play the theme from Jaws (get it?) as he stalks his victims. It's funny the first time, but after the fifth or so time... Not only is Kiel barely used, but Bud Cort, Newmar, and guest appearances by people like Keenan Wynn are equally wasted. Why go to the expense of hiring these people if you are not going to use them?

There are some funny moments scattered across the wreckage. The bored and despondent zombies Newmar conjures up were amusing with their repeated line, "What difference does it make?" Speaking of running gags, I also loved the parody of the "You're doomed!" bicyclist from the first Friday The 13th movies, who keeps popping up during the movie. And there were several throwaway moments that were a treat, like Bill does his half-hearted Groucho Marx impressionwhen John Larroquette is seen running the most awful harbor tour in the world. Though these and several other moments are humorous, at the same time you get a feeling that a lot of these gags aren't as funny as they could have been in a different context. Certainly a lot of the air is let out by the movie's cheapness; many of the sets and special effects (important, even for a horror spoof) look really bad, even when you take account of the year and that it was an independent production. Also to take account is the movie's willingness to stop everything in order to jam in a comic moment. For example, near the end of the movie there is a parody of The Exorcist that lasts several minutes. It has some funny moments, but it makes no difference to the characters or the conflict they were previously fighting against. In fact, the characters go to another room to perform the sequence, then exit it to continue where they left off.

Another distraction is whenever the movie goes out of its way to spoof non-horror movies, like Taxi Driver, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Chariots Of Fire. Even if these moments were funnier than they actually are, they would still feel out of place in this environment. This screenplay clearly wasn't thought out properly, and it's not just with the humor, but with the story itself. Even for a wacky comedy, you've got to have a story that makes some kind of sense. But throughout Hysterical I kept thinking of questions like: Why did Vencia wait for a hundred years before using her powers to get revenge against the citizens of Hellview? Why does she try to transform Frederic into a twin of Captain Howdy if she despised Captain Howdy? Why does the screenplay get the protagonists to encounter a big lighted sign advertising a carnival if they and no one else in the movie never actually go near this never-seen carnival? What the heck is going on during the climax? The biggest question, however, is: Did the backers of this movie actually think this was a funny movie? If the answer to that question is yes, I have one more question: Would someone give me their names and addresses so I'll be certain I will never have to encounter them?

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability of "The Best Of The Hudson Brothers" (CD)

See also: Backfire!, Good Times, Love At Stake

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