A few weeks back I was on vacation in Croatia when we literally stumbled across a strange shopfront in the middle of a tourist drag. It was called “Froggyland,” and it was billed as a “museum” dedicated to the work of an eccentric Hungarian taxidermist, who, according to the museum’s own poorly translated lore, had in 1910 completed his life’s work: a series of dioramas featuring frogs painstakingly posed as anthropomorphic humans in a variety of scenes.
There must’ve been a thousand frogs there, in all sizes, doing everything from gymnastics to pulling teeth. In one diorama, frogs played poker, and as we pointed at it, the museum’s clerk helpfully added, “Those real playing card.” I still have no idea what she meant by “real,” since the cards could fit on a fingertip.
Aside from the frogs themselves, the exhibit fired the imagination, picturing this hermetic Hungarian elbow deep in frog guts for years, possibly decades, ignoring his wife and kids, his life falling apart around him, all so he could produce the pre-World War I amphibious equivalent of Menswear Dog. And then there were the actual frogs, which, silly as they were, actually did represent a legitimate historical artifact, giving us a unique glimpse into what daily life was like in 1910. And all through the lens of low comedy made from dead animals.
That to me, is the magic of kitsch, and little did I know at the time how much the Froggyland experience would parallel the experience watching Drafthouse Films’ latest release, Dangerous Men (opening today in Austin before a nation-wide rollout). So the story goes, in 1979, a refugee Iranian filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and changed his name to “John S. Rad” began work on Dangerous Men, a low-budget exploitation action film that would take him 26 years to finish.
Dangerous Men‘s plot, refreshingly easy to follow, concerns a woman named Mina, whose fiancé is murdered by some bikers who tried to rape her on the beach. Mina goes on a kill-crazy revenge rampage, and she needn’t look far for deserving victims, since virtually every subsequent man she meets tries to rape her.
As with Froggyland, Dangerous Men has a sumptuous subtextual richness, where every time some pretty young woman with a horrific haircut takes her clothes off for this barely coherent movie you wonder what must’ve been going on in her life at that point. Did she answer a newspaper ad? How did she meet this strange Iranian, and what did he say to convince her to be in this? What did she think when she read the script? Was she really this bad an actress, or was she just rightly scared and confused?
Aside from the ineptness of the storytelling — sometimes dull, frequently hilarious, occasionally confusing — it’s also a portrait of a specific place and time, Los Angeles in the ’80s. Great storytelling has a way of being timeless, of existing unto itself, so that it becomes much more a piece of art than a piece of history. Bad storytelling, by contrast, can tell you a lot about the time it came from. Van Wilder, for instance, can tell you a lot more about 2002 than Adaptation. Dangerous Men, like lots of bad movies from bygone times, is this rich stew of not just clothes and cars and hairstyles and skylines, but also trends, social mores — the collective zeitgeist.
Then there are the ambiguous moments, where you wonder “Would this have made sense in 1983 or was it just as surreal then?” Like the flashback to when Mina gave her fiancé this lovingly crafted serving dish made of laminated seashells, including a sand dollar with googly eyes and a shell hat (bottom left corner):
Nothing says love like laminated shells to serve spaghetti on.
Happening in tandem with Mina’s murder rampage, her fiancé’s brother, a cop with eyebrows thicker than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thighs (and just as manicured), goes undercover at a biker bar (which is playing some rather incongruous smooth jazz over the sound system at the time). There, he manages to interrupt yet another attempted beach rape perpetrated by a bald biker. (I guess that’s just what bikers do). In a movie full of bad acting, including a police lieutenant who seems to be reading his lines live (and badly), the bikers are probably the most fascinating, a mixture of manufactured “evilness” and casually vulgar improvisation. “I’m gonna get that b*tch, man! Heh heh heh.” “Yo, Butch! Where da f*ck you at? Oh, there yar, ya mudderf*cker.”