Movies I Have Never Seen #23: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)

What is it? What a time to be alive. The country was riveted by the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. The plucky cassette Walkman was in everyone’s home. We all woke up each day asking, “Where’s the beef?” And looming above it all, breakdancing fever burned through America like a raging inferno in those halcyon days of 1984, 39 years ago now. Not one, not two, but three movies dedicated to the dance sensation hit the big screens. First came Breakin’ in May, followed by competitor Beat Street in June, culminating in the December 1984 release of the Avengers: Endgame of poppin’ and lockin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. 

Breakin’ and its sequels joined a long line of teen-oriented dance movies from Beach Blanket Bingo to Bring It On to Step Up, all frothy pop culture trend-chasing at its height.  The first Breakin’ wraps up all its dance numbers around the story of rich white girl dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) who becomes friends with a couple of streetwise breakdancers, Ozone (“Shabba-Doo” Quinones) and Turbo (“Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers). For the sequel, the producers at Cannon Films turned to the time-worn concept of “puttin’ on a show,” as a beloved youth centre is being threatened by a cartoonish evil yuppie developer and the only way to save it is… with dance! The awkward yet oddly unforgettable title of Breakin’ 2 ensured it would endure in film history. But as a movie… well… 

Why I never saw it: Weirdly, I saw Breakin’ on the preferred medium, VHS tape, sometime during its original 1980s heyday, but about 30 seconds after it was released, Breakin’ 2 and its insane subtitle became a punchline. To see it would have been complicit in its very lameness. It got referred to in the title of a terrific documentary about the ‘80s delights of the parent film companyElectric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. More disturbing, because we can’t have nice things in this life, somehow the word ‘boogaloo’ got hijacked by a bunch of racist idiots, too. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Look – this is a ridiculous movie. With a title like that, how could it not be? But it’s kind of charming, too in a completely inane way. A gaudy, Hollywood snapshot of early hip-hop culture, it’s not quite as grounded in reality as the first Breakin’ (which was hardly a Bergman film by any means). Like most sequels it’s bigger, brasher and louder, immediately kicking off with a giant dance number where an entire multi-racial neighbourhood gyrates and dances down the streets, from construction workers to old ladies to traffic officers. Truly, Breakin’ 2 kind of defies words. It’s a movie one has to describe in YouTube clips:

It also features an utterly non-violent “breakdance battle” which might just be the greatest thing you’ll ever see: 

And that’s not even getting into the stunning ’80s fashions, the compelling bro-mance between its two leading men, the scene where young Boogaloo Shrimp is healed by the very power of dance, the entirely random puppet scene. I can’t pretend it’s a good movie by any means. The actors are all stiff and weirdly aware of the camera. The late “Shabba Doo” is a strangely charismatic awkward presence, eyeballing the camera with Brando-esque intensity, while Lucinda Dickey – who starred in both Breakin’ and the utterly magical Ninja III: The Domination and then vanished from screens – has a perky charm of her own, even if you don’t buy the reality of her “character” for a second. But you watch a movie like Breakin’ 2 for the dance numbers, and they’re elaborate, campy and colourful nonsense, and yet somehow, I smiled at every one of them. 

Worth seeing? Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is cheese through and through, of course. How could it not be? And yet, while it may seem like damning with faint praise, it’s got a good heart. Far more diverse than many movies of the time, it gently teases its very chaste interracial romance and fundamentally has a message of inclusiveness and acceptance, which I dig. There’s a place for this kind of airy escapism in cinema. Sure, you can pop it on the screen of your choice and laugh at it the entire time, at the fashions, the dance moves, the glorious camp of it all, but you know – for all its corporate synergy fad-hopping origins and essentially clumsy filmmaking, it’s weirdly sincere.

Somehow, watching one of these goofy teen movies where all the world’s problems can just be solved with silly dancing is a bit life-affirming. To quote the deeply profound lyrics of the soundtrack song, “When I’m dancin’ / It seems like everything’s all right / Everything’s all right / I believe in the beat.” There are worse things to believe in. 

Mummy dearest: Ranking Universal’s classic mummy movies

I love a mummy. Who doesn’t love their mummy? 

Mummy monster movies have always fascinated me, even if there’s never been a truly great mummy movie like there have been for Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. The very visual idea of a corpse wrapped in bandages touches on some kind of universal terror. They’re not zombies – they’re something kind of worse, caught forever in a sort of half-life. I dressed up as a mummy one year for Halloween wearing yellow pajamas that were draped in toilet paper. The paper unraveled after a few blocks, but I didn’t care. Mummies are cool, man. 

Universal Pictures brought the first mummy movies to the cinema, not too many years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb created a kind of Egypt-mania. But while Universal churned out five Mummy movies in the ’30s and ‘40s, they’ve never quite been regarded as classics like Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. Still, the first time I saw these movies years ago, there was something about them I liked.

As a “character,” the Mummy in the Universal movies is generally lacking, especially after the first Boris Karloff film. He’s mute, he shambles and lurches and somehow still manages to kill a lot of people despite only having one working arm and leg. But darn it, he just LOOKS great, with the iconic makeup by Frankenstein’s monster magician Jack Pierce, and there’s something I like about the idea of an ancient horror coming to life in modern America. While the Mummy is a somewhat blank canvas compared to flashier movie monsters, you can see a lot of his relentless stalking and silent menace in later killers like Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees. 

Most of the 1940s Mummy series is formulaic to a fault, and increasingly cheap, each one barely over an hour long. Yet I still enjoy them for what they are – pulpy monster stories that don’t demand too much of you, but you’ll be guaranteed to see some murderin’ mummy action and just enough moments to remind you of why the very idea of a mummy still creeps us out. 

The Mummy (1932)

The one that started it all, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s very different than you might think. On a high from Frankenstein, Boris Karloff stars as Egyptian high priest Imhotep, the “mummy” of the title, but he only actually appears wrapped up in linen for one brief scene. For the rest of the movie, the revived Imhotep is an eccentric yet apparently ordinary man, working as an Egyptian historian. Imhotep’s secret is that he’s searching for the reincarnation of his lost love, and hatching a millennia-old plot of revenge and lust. The Mummy is far more of a kind of Gothic horror than a monster movie, a gorgeously filmed slow burn with Karloff delivering one of his best performances as the creepy stalker Imhotep. It’s more of a ghost story, really. There’s only that brief proper mummy scene but throughout the film makeup mastermind Pierce gives Karloff a withered, haunting look. The Mummy is not quite scary, but genuinely disturbing and bitterly sad, the story of an eternal lost love. Karloff’s haunting eyes tell a story better than even the best makeup could, really. 

Rating: Four and a half pyramids (out of five)

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

The idea of movie “reboots” didn’t exist in 1940, really, but for all intents and purposes, Mummy’s Hand starts an entire new series of Mummy movies, introducing the ancient Kharis (Tom Tyler). The shuffling “mummy stereotype” that most of us first think of when we think of mummies begins here, in a gaudy B-movie that, while inferior to the arty drama of The Mummy, was actually lot more influential on the mummy image over the years. Thousands of years ago, Kharis attempted to bring his dead lover Princess Ananka back to life, but was caught by the temple priests and mummified alive for his crimes. Centuries later, a group of adventurers discover his tomb in Egypt and accidentally free him, and thus the murdery hijinks ensue. Much of the plot that animates the entire series starts here – an ancient order of cultish priests have guarded the mummy’s secrets for centuries and Kharis is kept alive by “tanna leaves” that rejuvenate him from his hibernation. Unfortunately the cool ideas at the heart of Mummy’s Hand are buried in sloppy execution, a slow plot, dated racial condescension towards the Egyptian people and far too much lame Abbott-and-Costello style comic relief with the highly annoying sidekick “Babe” (Wallace Ford). I rarely wanted a supporting character to be strangled by a mummy as much as I did “Babe.” While this one sets the template for the franchise, with an ever-returning Kharis wreaking vengeance in various ways, it’s a pretty dull monster movie, with sub-par Indiana Jones-style antics and no mummy action until well over halfway through. While Tyler’s reptilian Mummy is very creepy – with vivid blacked-out eyes, he’s a lot scarier than his successor Lon Chaney Jr would be – he gets very little screen time. 

Rating: Three pyramids 

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

Arguably, the best of the movies after the Karloff original, once you get past the pointlessly long 10-minute recap of the last movie at the beginning. For one thing, annoying Babe returns and is quickly killed off by the Mummy, who goes on a major revenge murder spree here. The story picks up 30 years after Mummy’s Hand, with the returned Mummy and his Egyptian sidekick (an excellent, feline Turhan Bey) now in America. They’re hanging out in a New England college town hunting down members of the expedition from Mummy’s Hand and wiping them out without mercy. I actually quite like them bringing the Mummy to America, where his old-world menace seems somehow more terrifying and disorienting. Having the Mummy stalk suburban streets is highly creepy. Nobody escapes the Mummy’s curse, these movies constantly remind us, and they actually live up to that claim by wiping out any survivors from previous movies quickly. It’s Lon Chaney Jr’s debut as the Mummy he would go on to play for three movies, but it’s hard to imagine a less thankless role for an actor. He’s mostly played as an unthinking weapon. Even Frankenstein’s monster could emote more, and Chaney reportedly hated the job (fun fact – the alcoholic Chaney reportedly gimmicked the mummy costume up so he could sip vodka all the day long). Despite its flaws, this feels like the platonic ideal of a Universal Mummy movie, and it’s got far more Mummy action than the first two in the series, and a spectacular fiery climax which is probably the best “boss battle” we get in these Mummy movies.

Rating: Four pyramids 

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

By Mummy No. 4, Universal’s mummy-mania started to unravel a bit. The by-now mandatory “ancient Egyptian priest passes on his duties” features the priest who died at the beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb! The best and most interesting bit is the idea of Kharis’ doomed lover Princess Ananka being reincarnated into the modern day, an idea first introduced in the Karloff Mummy and later used in the Hammer and Brendan Fraser Mummy franchises. Ever since The Mummy’s Ghost resurrected (sorry) the idea, if you’re doing a mummy story, you’ll probably fit reincarnation in there somewhere. Unfortunately, that plot is introduced in a movie that feels almost like a step-by-step remake of Mummy’s Tomb, with Kharis once again murdering his way around New England. The cast are uniformly forgettable except for John Carradine (in a bit of unfortunate brown-face) as the latest sinister Egyptian cult handler for Kharis, but Lon Chaney gets to emote a little bit more in the stifling Mummy makeup than usual. Also, there’s a cute dog. What lifts Ghost from total mediocrity is the bleakest ending of the entire series, where for once, the monster basically wins. The Mummy movies are all pulpy silliness, but the final scene where the monster and his doomed reincarnated love sink into quicksand always haunted me a little. Unfortunately, dead never means dead when you’re a mummy and there was one more to go… 

Rating: Three and a half pyramids

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

Churned out less than six months after Ghost, which has to be some kind of record. The Mummy’s Curse immediately gets off on the wrong foot by picking up 25 years after the last movie with the Mummy still lost in a swamp, except for some inexplicable reason instead of New England the setting is now a hackneyed cajun Louisiana filled with cringeworthy Black stereotypes. (A character actually says, twice, “The devil’s on the loose and he’s dancing with the mummy!”) A kind of hacky laziness dominates Curse, which with the slippery flexible timelines of the series should logically be set sometime around the year 1995. In addition to Kharis coming back, the reincarnated Princess Ananka also gets to rise from the dead in this one as an amnesiac – the best scene in the movie is when she rises, eerily, from the swamps. It’s one way the otherwise rote Curse breaks a bit from the formula. The leading man here is so colourless he’s almost transparent, and the entire movie feels like a rerun – once again, we get a lengthy exposition scene and flashback by those pesky inept Egyptian priests and once again we hear about the magic of tanna leaves, and for the third movie in a row a priest betrays the Mummy because he gets the hots for a girl. Poor Lon Chaney doesn’t even get to appear unmasked as Kharis in the flashback scene, because as part of the general cheapness old Tom Tyler footage from Mummy’s Hand is used again. Universal’s Mummy series was never Shakespeare, but by instalment number five all the life had been squeezed out of the premise, which actually ended pretty definitively in Mummy’s Ghost. It’s amazing how this one-armed, one-legged slow Mummy managed to strangle quite so many people during his run, though. 

Rating: Two pyramids

Was this the final blessed peace of the grave for the mummy? Well, Kharis was done, but mummies would return again and again, next in the rather daft Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy in 1955, and then with Hammer’s quite good Christopher Lee-starring The Mummy in 1959 and many other mummies in the years since. You can’t keep a good dead man down. 

Me and action figures: Can’t stop, won’t stop

I reckon if you’re living your best life, you never really outgrow the need for the occasional action figure. 

Let’s be clear at the start – I’m talking ACTION figures, which in my mind generally need to be anywhere from 3 to 12 inches tall, with moveable arms and legs, some cool accessories and colourful artwork on the packaging. I basically consider those hideous Funko Pop things an abomination of cutesy rubber-stamped design that’s eating up the toy aisle like some mutant blob, glutting the market to the point they’re an environmental disaster. I’m an action figure man, darn it, not a gaudy statue figure man. 

I was, of course, a part of the Star Wars generation, hoovering up those Kenner action figures from the moment I first got an allowance, buying random Rebel Commanders and Snowtroopers and Ewoks and having epic battles with them in trenches dug in the back yard. As I became a teenager, in a moment of utter insanity I sold most of my 40 or so vintage Star Wars figures at a family yard sale, hypnotised by the idea of getting money for my possessions without ever realising the possessions were kind of emotionally priceless treasures. I still miss my Rebel Commander with his limp little dangling scarf that looked like a piece of bacon.

I dabbled in other lines, even if Star Wars was my jam and I was kind of ageing out of some of the popular figure lines of the 80s. I really dug the DC Super Powers (and still have my Dr. Fate figure!) but didn’t care for the Marvel Secret Wars line with their dumb ‘secret shields’. I enjoyed the militaristic fantasy of G.I. Joe and the earliest Transformers toys (still wish I had that Soundwave, man) but was never into the cheap looking Masters of the Universe and too old for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Like most dudes, I grew older and action figures seemed uncool for a time; like most dudes, I got older still and became keen on recapturing my past by buying vintage action figures or ones that reminded me of them when I had a chance.

Decades on, there’s a tiny little dusty closet in the back of my brain that still idly dreams about the action figures I never had – the gold Cylon Commander from Battlestar: Galactica, the Clash of the Titans giant Kraken; the Super Powers Hawkman; the Return of the Jedi Sy Snootles and Rebo Band set I really wanted.

When my son was little, it was the perfect excuse for me to buy action figures more regularly – ones from Star Wars movies I never imagined would be released way back in the misty haze of the 1980s, ones from Marvel Universe movies I only dreamed about actually happening. (We still have a massive pile somewhere of Iron Man figures from Iron Man 2, when Hasbro released an insane flood of iron armor from Stealth Iron Man to Uber Driver Iron Man to Pizza Delivery Iron Man.) 

Then my son got older too and into his own things, but I still pick up the occasional action figure that we both enjoy looking at, and I often pop my head into the toy aisle at the store pretending I’m buying a birthday present or something for some kid instead of just eyeballing what’s new. 

You can easily go too far with these obsessions (or, as Elvis Costello put it, “in time you can turn these obsessions into careers”).

I’m not the guy with an entire room full of action figures in neat boxes. I’m an eclectic action figure collector, because I know a 50-something old man shouldn’t really be spending his mortgage money on dozens of action figures, so I’m a connoisseur. While I grew up on the smaller 3 3/4” figures, I do like the advances in action figure technology that have given us superbly elaborate and poseable 6” figures as a matter of course. I buy a few Marvel Legends figures with their excellent detail and obscure characters and a few of the Star Wars “black” series. I was obsessed with recreating the Empire Strikes Back bounty hunter scene and couldn’t find Zuckuss and 4-LOM for the longest of time, which is quite possibly the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever typed. 

You can spend an insane amount of money on action figures but I generally like to just buy on an occasional impulse; the most I’ve ever spent was $60 on a Marvel Legends Ghost Rider with flaming motorcycle figure that was just too damned cool to let some 10-year-old with sticky fingers at the Warehouse have it. I’m slowly collecting the great new Universal Monsters figures which are packed with accessories and detail; among my closet of regrets is that I never bought any of a brief 1980s line of Universal horror movie action figures by Remco so I’m determined to make up for lost time.

A couple of dozen action figures are gathered on shelves around my office, frozen forever in the act of fighting supervillains or waging rebellions. A set of nifty Tintin figurines; a Flaming Carrot action figure I’ve had for decades; a cheap lot of the excellent Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation line I got the boy for Christmas years ago.

I never dig trenches in the back yard with my action figures these days, but neither do I obsess over keeping them “mint on card.” I curate my little collection of plastic icons, probably as a way of reminding myself of the kid I once was, saving pennies for a Snowtrooper. 

But also, I still just think they look kind of cool. 

The inner demons and visions of Basil Wolverton

There’s nothing quite like the weird world of Basil Wolverton.

One of the great cartoonists of the 20th century, Wolverton’s distinctive vision is pretty unique. He could be silly and he could be scary, but most of all, his whole aesthetic vibe was vaguely disturbing. The New York Times called him “the Van Gogh of the gross-out.”

Wolverton did slapstick surreal humour and gritty, unsettling horror, as well as his oddball series of “heads” – staggeringly ugly, creepy little portraits that were like David Cronenberg nightmares. Some of them famously ended up on the covers of MAD and Plop

Yet this strange, exotic draftsman was actually a pretty conventional person in real life, quite religious and married to his high school sweetheart. It’s almost as if he was exorcising some hidden inner demons with some of his most distorted work.

Whether it was sci-fi, horror or humour comics, you’d never mistake a Basil Wolverton comic for someone else’s work. A couple of marvellous thick coffee table books by Greg Sadowski a few years back looked at Wolverton’s career and reprinted lots of his rare comics.

He was never “typical.” Even his earliest work like the Buck Rogers-esque Spacehawk felt like outsider art. On the surface they’re pretty standard 1940s spaceman adventures, but there’s a visceral weight to the drawings that makes them feel truly alien. A lot of golden age comics were hastily drawn, rough work, but Spacehawk still shines with its gruff leading man facing a never-ending horde of endlessly imaginative, goopy monsters. 

Wolverton also spent years doing screwball slapstick comics, packed with groan-worthy puns and wordplay and rubbery hijinks. I recently picked up a old reprint of some of his Powerhouse Pepper stuff, which is fantastic fun. Powerhouse is a kind of kinder, gentler version of Popeye who fumbles his way through a world of bullies and hucksters with an oblivious charm. There’s lots of silly wordplay and a general looseness (I’d love to see more of this rare work reprinted!) but there’s also some of Wolverton’s trademark shock such as this great sequence below (don’t worry, I’m sure that guy was OK). He brings the rubbery antic energy of Tex Avery cartoons to the still comics page. 

Horror comics were overflowing from the newsstands in the ‘50s but Wolverton’s works in the genre still have an in-your-face freaky quality that makes them stand out. On his covers for Weird Tales of the Future, boldly drawn monsters leap off the page with an intimate menace – if I was a kid reading these in 1953, I’d have had nightmares for years. The especially terrifying “Brain Bats of Venus” haunted entire generations of comic readers back then, I imagine. 

Later in his career, Wolverton actually became an ordained minister, and he combined his religious life and his comics life in very idiosyncratic drawings from the Bible which took all the fire and brimstone apocalyptic imagery usually smoothed out of biblical comics and rolls with it for all it’s worth. His portraits of the Book of Revelation and the foretold biblical apocalypse have a terrifying immediacy. 

And his famous “heads” portraits, which are just snarled, twisted and blackly humourous masses of fluid flesh – well, they’re still freaky today, the most deformed almost pornographic somehow, yet weirdly innocent, too. The heads were Wolverton “playing,” making flesh his medium. This mild, churchgoing man could haunt you with his dreams. 

The key to a lot of Wolverton’s visual style is the thick weight of his lines, I think, bold outlines and vivid shadows, combined with a painstakingly intense amount of stippled or speckled details. There’s an almost woodcut quality to his finest work. It doesn’t feel sketched on a page so much as it seems to be forged, raw, from some hidden universe just beneath our own. Wolverton’s distinctive comics DNA is hard to duplicate, although you can see some of his influence in the work of ‘Rat Fink’ Ed Roth, Peter Bagge or John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy. 

While comics boasted a lot of great artists in the classic era like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner and Steve Ditko, Basil Wolverton is the only one who seemed somehow haunted to me.

These things he drew were in him, rubbery and weird and sometimes holy and sometimes hellish, but he just had to get them out. Decades after his death, there’s still nobody quite like him in comics history.