by Jack Sommersby
Here comes an ingratiating little film that boasts a cheesy DVD cover yet delivers some decent-enough entertainment for that 'ol home-video-rental dollar.Brett Piper's Bite Me! begins with two low-rent dope dealers getting themselves killed in a fiery car wreck right before meeting their buyer, who's a go-between for the owner of a financially-challenged strip club called Go-Go Saurus, which boasts a fifty-foot statue of a Godzilla-like creature on the outside for all to see. Of course, it's easy to see why the place is cash-strapped: it employs only three strippers, and, though very pretty, each has a huge demerit in their corner. Crystal (Misty Mundae) is lethargic and nondescript in her on-stage act from having to do six shows a night. The near-sighted Trix (Erika Smith) keeps bumping into the stage pole without her eyeglasses. And Amber (Caitlan Ross) is so doped-out on grass that she falls asleep and starts snoring while she's on the pole. Their boss, Vivino (Michael R. Thomas), has zero sympathy and a fifty-thousand-dollar deed to pay off on the place in the next ten days to snide businesswoman Razzini (Julian Wells), while his main source of income -- the overpriced booze, naturally -- is being stymied by his bartender, Gina (Sylvianne Chebance), who's more concerned with flirting with the customers than filling the drink orders. Just your average everyday American tale, I know. But events take quite a turn when the go-between manages to take possession of one of the wooden crates full of government-manufactured hybrid maryjane from the crash and deliver it to the club, where Vivino stashes it in the basement. However, there's something else in the crate besides the wacky weed: an array of large, bloodthirsty, spider-like bugs that kill their victims or transform them into Brundlebugs or simply change their prey's behavior into the opposite of what it was before. Throw in goofy exterminator "Buzz" (Rob Monkiewicz), who's prone to taking normal, everyday spiders outside instead of killing them, and machismo-filled DEA agent Myles McCarthy (John Fedele), and you have yourself an incorrigible mix of a comedy chiller that's never boring, always entertaining, yet not as great as you want it to be.
"Bugs, Bugs, and More Bugs -- and a Nude Misty Mundae!"
Unlike most of the uncouthly-engineered, bombastic Troma productions, Bite Me! doesn't pound you on the head with over-the-top shenanigans every five seconds to garner and hold your attention. It has an appropriate respect for outlandish material -- it knows that an out-there story with characters who are eccentric yet believable are better at involving an audience than grating stereotypes, and that a gradual unfolding of that story draws us in on a more responsive level because we've been afforded ample time to get our bearings on the situations the characters are up against. Dishing out an array of consistent gross-out moments is certainly the preferred way at Troma, but after about twenty minutes it grows old, and you're left wondering if the rest is going to be dished out in the same in-your-face manner, which it usually is. Don't get the impression, though, that you're in for "tasteful" filmmaking for the tea-and crone crowd with Bite Me!; you're not. It's just that Brett Piper knows that comedy is best derived through character and incident, and not a concentration solely on the latter with the former needed only as human puppets. Oh, Piper certainly isn't above throwing in crowd-pleasing moments like someone telling the verbally-abusive Vivino, "This isn't over, Puss Nuts!", or having the gorgeous cult actress Mundae indulge in a prolonged, gratuitous nude shower scene where she battles one of the bugs with a towel and toilet plunger, or having Razzini described as a "cheesy blonde with the voice of a cheese grater". But Piper also demonstrates surprising degrees of discipline and control. He has an appreciation for individual sequences (that is, in getting something indicative of a point out of them, so they never come off as mere padding in between the "money shots"), a fine visual sense (especially the exterior matte shots of the Godzilla-like statue, and the appalling interior decor of the club -- which only someone as lovably obtuse as Vivino would view as classy), and loopy humor (like when Amber, stoned out of her mind on the newly-arrived weed, encounters the creatures and, instead of screaming, giggles because she thinks they're hallucinations).
I wish, though, that Piper had thought the creature aspect of his film through a bit more. I'm not asking for something as spectacularly dazzling as what Robert Rodriguez brought to his classic From Dusk Till Dawn (which involved vampires, rather than mutant bugs, running rampant throughout a strip club), but after all the build-up, when the bugs finally do launch their all-out assault on the club during the final fifteen minutes or so, it doesn't play out as fun as it should. The scenes in the first-half employ the bugs to good effect when it's just one of them attacking one character at a time in spaced-apart incidents -- Piper's use of stop-motion photography is wonderful and boasts more in the way of organic clarity than CGI would have -- but later in the game when the number of attacks multiply, Piper's staging isn't inventive enough and the pacing starts to wean. There's also no internal consistency in how the bugs affect their victims: we're not sure why they kill one, grotesquely metamorphose another, turn some into the opposites of their previous natures (Gina into a lesbian, Razzini into a no-holds-barred nympho -- neat ideas, mind you, but underdeveloped ones). But the biggest disappointment is not getting the most out of Crystal's winning transformation into a camouflage-, bandanna-wearing, butt-kicking heroine. Mundae is game enough an actress to seem to be paying homage to and spoofing Resident Evil's Milla Jovovich heroine, but Piper doesn't satisfactorily follow through with this. You just about want to slug Buzz for constantly holding Crystal back when she's revving to kick some bug butt; and when she's finally allowed to, all we're afforded seeing is her impaling only one with a sharp instrument.
What's truly unexpected about Bite Me! Is that, in light of its undeniably campy premise, it's most successful as a goofy little comedy with (mostly) incorrigible characters. Piper obviously loves actors, and they respond forth with (dare I say it?) nuanced performances that are energetic, fun to watch, and never veer into over-the-top burlesque -- they don't wear you out for the sole sake of hogging the limelight away from their co-stars. Excepting Fedele (who's a bit too spastic as the temperamental, coming-unglued Fed), the cast of mostly unknowns are a pleasure to spend time with, with Thomas and Mundae the standouts. Thomas takes what could have been a grating cliche -- that of a grouchy, always-griping, never-satisfied crook of a boss -- and turns him into a loveable creation: a guy who was probably big with the Mob back in the day but has since been reduced to running a two-bit operation out in the skirts of a town that probably isn't any more alluring. His sardonic wisecracks aimed at anyone with or within earshot, you feel, are the only things he has to take pleasure in; if he didn't constantly berate his girls, they'd wonder what on earth was wrong with him. Thomas basks in his juicy line readings, tossing one zinger off after another with the kind of crack comic timing that gets you jazzed up for more. He's a real pleasure. But the standout is Mundae (late of the atrocious Play-Mate of the Apes), who acts with such vivid assurdness that she effortlessly takes over the screen by natural authority and becomes its undisputable star. Yes, she's possessive of the kind of luscious body teens go through puberty for (her complete unselfconsciousness while in the nude makes her even more sexy), but she's also headstrong without ever italicizing it, direct without ever being crass, and appealing without begging for your sympathy. Bite Me!, despite its shortcomings, is certainly recommendable; Mundae on the other hand, sans any shortcomings, merit's a bona fide rave.If anything, it deserved a theatreical release a whole lot more than "Anaconda".
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originally posted: 11/19/06 18:12:05