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TCM Underground - December 2017
Remind Me


It's probably safe to say that very few filmmakers have a more diverse or playful filmography than Penelope Spheeris. A music video pioneer with an uncanny knack of finding the pulse of the burgeoning music scene in one decade after another, she burst onto the feature film scene in 1979 with the groundbreaking punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), which she followed with a flamboyant heavy metal-themed sequel in 1988 and a lesser seen third one in 1998. In cinematic pop culture terms she's best known for performing the remarkable task of turning a plotless Saturday Night Live skit into the blockbuster Wayne's World (1992), which led to a handful of lesser comedies throughout the '90s.

However, Spheeris also served as a chronicler of the American youth experience in narrative films in the 1980s with a trio of cult films about disaffected youth involved in varying levels of criminal behavior: Suburbia (1983), a Roger Corman-produced look at punk-loved kids left to their own devices in the middle class; The Boys Next Door (1985), a crime spree thriller about two high school grads gone very bad; and the lightest and most bizarre of the trilogy, Dudes (1987), starring Jon Cryer, Daniel Roebuck, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Dudes was the brainchild of writer Randall Jahnson (credited as "J. Randal Johnson"), a current screenwriting teacher who parlayed this, his first produced script, into writing such films as The Doors (1991) and The Mask of Zorro (1998), as well as two episodes of TV's Tales from the Crypt. "The dialogue was very realistic and true to contemporary kids' thinking," Spheeris said during promotional interviews for the film. "I know a lot about that because of the other films that I've done, and that's why I responded to it." Cryer was equally enthusiastic about the project, noting, "It's too bad they don't make very many westerns anymore because it's a lot of fun. I learned how to horseback ride and do chase scenes and got to shoot at people and get shot at. In movies, you always think 'He didn't even wince when he got shot,' but it takes a long time to set that stuff up! When those things blow off, they hurt! So you aren't automatically thinking about your performance. I only got shot once; I felt really sorry for people who had to get shot more times."

Once again drawing on the punk rock scene as the natural habitat of the three central friends in the film, Dudes plunges them into the world of the wild American West when they have a tragic run-in with some violent rednecks. What ensues is both comical, action-packed, and fueled by Spheeris' love of music, with a soundtrack including such disparate acts as Megadeth, W.A.S.P., The Vandals, Steve Vai, and Jane's Addiction.

Though best known today as the star of TV's Two and a Half Men, Cryer will always hold a place in the '80s movie firmament as Ducky in Pretty in Pink (1986). That breakthrough role led to his casting in a rapid succession of films, including the troubled Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Hiding Out (both 1987) and a comedic pairing with his most famous future co-star, Charlie Sheen, in Hot Shots! (1991). Still a busy actor as well, Roebuck, most recently seen in the series The Man in the High Castle, was cast on the strength of his performance in River's Edge (1986), and remains known today primarily for his TV roles, with the exception of a significant support appearance in The Fugitive (1993).

Almost impossible to market outside of the midnight movie crowd, Dudes can lay claim as the decade's only rockabilly punk western survival thriller comedy. You can trace its cinematic DNA back a bit with such counterculture oddities as Zachariah (1971), but the end result is unlike anything else out there and could have been sold successfully as a cult film in the making. Almost every fan of Dudes had to encounter it through its belated VHS release in the early 1990s, as it received only a handful of token theatrical screenings from distributor The Vista Organization (also known as New Century Vista Film Company). Very short-lived and financially troubled, the company started off strong with such films as The Stepfather, The Gate, and The Wraith in 1987, but it soon floundered with a string of misfires and ended up closing shop in 1989 after botching the releases of such sure things as Fright Night Part 2 and Lady in White in 1988. Dudes was actually one of two Cryer films released by Vista in 1987 along with another cable TV and VHS favorite, Morgan Stewart's Coming Home. Unfortunately Dudes befell the same fate as Spheeris's Western Civilization trilogy and remained out of public sight for decades on home video and television, but its return to the public is a cause for celebration as it allows people to enjoy a key entry in the career of a truly unique and fearless American filmmaker.

By Nathaniel Thompson



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