Whether you call him “The Last of the Full-Grown Men,” “The Idol of Idle Youth,” or an electrifying roots-rocker with a talent for deadpan comedy, Webb Wilder is The Man! We of Team Bartilucci first discovered him in 1990; how fitting that we became his fans at the beginning of a brand new decade! It all started when I noticed a TV Guide
listing for A&E’s Shortstories
series, with its self-proclaimed “award-winning short films from around the world.” One of the shorts that day was a 1984 film, Webb Wilder, Private Eye, a.k.a The Saucer’s Reign,
written and directed by one Stephen Mims at the University of Mississippi, from a story by Mims and Robert Field. I’d never heard of it, but since I’m a sucker for any kind of detective story, and since Vinnie and I had some free time, we watched it. We were hooked from the very first scene. A lanky, bespectacled young man looks us viewers in the eye. He wears a hat looking like a fedora and a Stetson fell in love and had a baby. As he addresses us in the audience, he’s illuminated by beams of light, camera right, looking all film noir
-ish in glorious black-and-white. In a sepulchral yet hilarious deadpan Southern twang that brought to mind a thin young Southern-fried Alfred Hitchcock, he tells us viewers, “I’m like that Greek hobo with the limp. You know, the one who went from Hades to Yugo-Slovakia lookin’ for an honest man. Well, I got my own quest. What it is, is I’m lookin’ for the dishonest
man. I am — Webb Wilder, Private Eye.”
“Urgent,” it said. But it wasn’t the same “Urgent” as the one on all my bills…".
After a fast-paced, rockabilly-scored credit sequence in which we see Webb’s dance moves (kind of like an amazingly cool spastic dancing the Frug) and his skills at running up and down stairs while brandishing a gun, we slide on into the case of The Saucer’s Reign.
In voiceover like any noir film (parody) worth its salt, our hero is retained for “fifty bucks a day,” and opts to “drop…my current case,” after which we see Webb exiting a JC Penney in security guard garb. Webb’s off to Wakefield, Mississippi with his autographed Slim Whitman photo. His client is small-town postmaster Hiwayne Suggs (Roger Brinegar), who lives in “a one-chiropractor town that seemed peaceful enough. But an ant bed is peaceful till you step in it.”
Suggs is anxious for Webb to find his mysteriously missing wife, Pristene: “Space critters, Mr. Wilder! They abducted my Sweet Thing!” Webb studies a less-than-flattering photo of Pristene: “I didn’t think even Mars needed women that
bad. Pristene Suggs was unvoluptuous.” (I’m pretty sure the photo of Pristene, listed in the credits as “Herself,” is in fact a guy in drag, but you can never be sure in this unpredictable world!) Webb enlists space buff Homer Greenspan (Jimmy Daniels) to help him unravel this caper: “Homer had ‘science fair’ written all over him.” Once Hiwayne blabs on the tiny town’s party line that a UFO might be setting up light housekeeping in Wakefield, Webb and Homer find themselves wading through a sea of reporters, deception, and trailer trash as the abduction stories and media frenzy get even wilder than Webb’s last name.
|Stop! In the name of Webb!|
By the time it ended, we’d formed our own little Webb Wilder mini-cult around this loopy, compact little gem. We were especially impressed to see co-writer Robert Field (a.k.a.
R.S. Field) and Webb himself (formerly John Webb McMurray) composed and performed the film’s hard-rockin’ soundtrack. When A&E rebroadcast The Saucer’s Reign,
Vinnie and I recorded it strictly for our own amusement, and showed it to any pals we could rope into being a captive audience, turning them into Webb Wilder fans in the process. If I recall correctly, it also turned up on The USA Network’s Night Flight.
We thought that was the last we’d ever hear of our beloved Webb Wilder until my 29th
birthday in 1992. We were celebrating with friends at the Manhattan branch of the popular Chicago restaurant Ed Debevic’s
(anyone know if the NYC restaurant still exists?), including our pal Michael Gingold of Fangoria
fame (there’s my name-drop for the day :-)). Our longtime pals Elayne and Steve showed us a then-recent issue of Psychotronic Video
featuring a review of an album by Webb Wilder—the band!
Apparently, while The Saucer’s Reign
had been making the rounds of various TV anthology shows, Webb, R.S., and the rest of the band had formed a rockabilly group—or roots rock, as it’s called nowadays. In fact, they had just released their second album on the Zoo/Praxis label. However, John Webb McMurray had long since begun billing himself exclusively as Webb Wilder. Fine by me; after all, that’s how movie stars Gig Young and Anne Shirley got their stage names!
Before we went home that night, Vinnie and I popped into the Tower Records in Greenwich Village, and I left with two more birthday gifts: the Webb Wilder CDs Hybrid Vigor
(1989) and DooDad
(1991). Both were (and still are), the awesome, as we say at Team Bartilucci H.Q. We’re no music critics, but we know when a band can rock! Hybrid Vigor
includes “Hittin’ Where it Hurts” and Team Bartilucci’s favorite, “Human Cannonball.” Even better, at the time the band had just put out DooDad,
which included plenty of songs from their then-new movie, Horror Hayride (HH),
whose many kick-butt tracks included “
Tough it Out,” “Sittin’ Pretty,” and amazing cover versions of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Meanwhile, Zoo/Praxis’ video arm released Webb Wilder’s Corn Flicks
on VHS (c’mon, you remember VHS!),
giving us beaucoup bellylaughs for the buck with three short films, all set in the “swampadelic” South and directed by Steve Mims. Each story was framed by tongue-in-cheek advice to fans by either Webb or Ted Roddy,
of Ted Roddy and the Backwoods Hipsters, as Special Agent Travis Byrd, renowned for being “the knuckle end of the long arm of the law” and “cool as an October breeze.” Need I say Vinnie and I caught up on the Webb Wilder CDs we’d missed? (During the summer, “Poolside” from WW’s album It Came From Nashville
is in heavy rotation!)
gives us the delicious feeling that our man Webb is in the middle of a series of his hillbilly noir adventures. My favorite among these great shorts is Horror Hayride,
written by Field and Steve Mims. It’s set in Nashville—“Nash Vegas, if you will,” as Webb says in his inimitable voice-over. Mims and Field’s characters and the screenplay’s sly, slightly surreal wit won us over immediately. The film opens with an intriguingly foreboding farm scene that morphs into little Webb finding himself in a close encounter of the spaceman kind. No sooner is Webb startled awake from what turns out to be one of his recurring nightmares about flying saucers than the Governor of Tennessee (Dirk Van Allen) stops Webb’s "Economy with Dignity" tour bus, asking our hero to do him a solid. Seems the Governor’s lovely young daughter Kirsten (Cristina Cassin) has finally graduated from Peabody College, having taken eight years to earn a four-year degree (“Who’s counting?” Webb replies gallantly). Her first job out of school is supervising the state’s new Driver Ed film, also titled Horror Hayride.
The Guv wants to make sure the film will be “more relevant to modern rural teens. You know, the muscle-car, street-sign-shootin’ set.” Seems that Webb, “the only man who commands the respect of both reckless teens and the highway patrol,” helped put a rubber stamp truck-driving school out of business, and the Governor owes Webb one. Now he’ll owe Webb two as he agrees to help the Governor and Kirsten. After all, as Webb voiceovers in his pleasantly twangy tones, “The Guv was okay, for an authority figure.”
|"We don't do retail, do we, Billy C?"|
|“We’re gonna have to talk to Billy C.” *POW!*|
|Singin' songs, fightin' crime; all in a day's work for Webb Wilder and Ted Roddy!|
Webb has too much to dream (last night) after Briley slips him an LSD Mickey!
Kirsten’s honey is the enigmatic Briley Parkway (Bodie Plecas) the aspiring film director helming the Driver Ed flick, much to the disgruntlement of Mr. Fry, the apoplectic director of the Driver Ed program (Webb is a hoot as he does double duty as the unbilled Fry). Hiwayne, Parkway, Driver Ed films—Mims and Field have cars on the brain! Judging from Briley’s previous art-house opus, Slugtrail,
his vision as an auteur seems to be inspired by both Jean-Luc Godard and William Castle (including a decapitated model head). Webb likes Briley’s work, even if Travis doesn’t; as Webb says, “I gave it a thumb-up. Travis only offered a finger.” But why is Briley making secret visits to porno outfit Antebellum Skin, and why is Kirsten raiding her mama’s trust fund to give Briley $5,000 each week? And how are gospel singer Carlsbad Devereaux (Shane Caldwell) and Webb’s former flame, psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Slovine (Janette Friend-Harris), mixed up in all the “swampadelic, psychotronic” goings-on? Soon Webb and Travis are up to their drawls in trouble, fighting a murderous porno ring whose opuses include The South Will Rise Again
and Backstage at The Grand Old Orgy.
Along the way, Webb and Travis get to sing an ode to Elvis Presley, “If You Don’t Think Elvis was Number One, You’re Full of Number Two;” as Webb sternly reminds some punks during a party scene at Carlsbad’s palatial home, “If it wasn’t for fat dead ol’ Elvis, there wouldn’t’ve been a Jimi Hendrix or a Peter and Gabriel….” True to the “noir” part of HH’s
hillbilly noir, Webb also gets slugged, drugged, and loved as he rekindles his romance with the lovely “Doctor Barbara,” who tries to help Webb with those recurring flying saucer nightmares; I guess he never got over his first case!
|Webb's latest opus, Scattergun, at a Webb Fest near you!|
The rockin’ rhythms of Webb Wilder the Band work with the tongue-in-cheek detective plot perfectly. Co-writer/director Mims provides lots of atmosphere on a low budget (filming in Nashville helped), and the film’s black-and-white look is like Ansel Adams acting as DP for a Coen Brothers movie (except for one nifty color sequence after Webb is slipped some LSD). The characters take some pleasantly unexpected turns, with acting ranging from sublime (including Webb himself, natch) to amateurish, but that's part of the film’s charm.
The Chicago Tribune
called HH “Twin Peaks
with MTV thrown in the middle,” but this crazy little caper packs enough humor, plot, and action into its 36-minute running time to give David Lynch and company a run for their money. Being Southerners themselves, writers Field and Mims treat their characters with respect and affection, but they’re not afraid to poke wryly good-natured fun at themselves, as well as pretentious art movies, film noir
tropes, and the country-and-Western music biz (Webb: “In Music City, even ugly girls are good-lookin’.”). The witty dialogue sings like Webb himself, and everyone gets at least one show-stealing line, like in this scene between Webb and Travis when Webb comes to after being knocked out by Antebellem Skin henchman Ike (Charles Gunning of Miller’s Crossing
Travis: “So who adjusted your hat size?”
Webb: “Some greasy….I fell.”
Travis: “Right. Maybe next time you’ll trip on a damn .38.”
Webb: “Happens. I’m pretty clumsy.”
Travis: “Just tell me what you want on the tombstone. ‘Rock hard, sleep hard, wear glasses if you need ’em, and die stupid?’ ”
Webb & Dr. Barbara. This case is looking up—at Elvis!
The cast of low-key comic actors does a fine job with Mims and Field’s offbeat sense of humor, and the characters are more complex than you’d expect. Webb has an amazing knack for seeming tough and geeky at the same time (in a good way!) Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing Webb Wilder live in concert in our area for Musikfest, among other venues. Even all these years later, Webb and the guys keep rocking like nobody’s business, and Webb still has those Wilder-and-wonderful dance moves and that way-cool cavern-voiced delivery. Mims and Director of Photography Brian O’Kelley prove you don’t need a big budget to create atmosphere. HH
is shot in glorious black-and-white except for Webb’s LSD hallucination
, in psychedelic color with hilariously, endearingly cheesy ChromaKey F/X and color-wheel lighting, accompanied by WW's awesome cover version of The Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)." If you like deadpan comedy, Dragnet, Twin Peaks,
and rock ‘n’ roll Southern-style, I think you’re gonna love Horror Hayride!
|Aunt Hallie vs. "old nasty disease."|
comes the popular festival favorite Aunt Hallie (AH).
Written by Mims and Christopher Hammond, made in 1989 and getting acclaim at film festivals since 1991, AH
is a comedy for today’s disease-paranoid world. Roger Brinegar of The Saucer’s Reign
narrates this loopy spoof of brave disease-sufferers. The titular Aunt Hallie (Mary Gandy) finds a used condom on her lawn one day (*tsk!*
Don’t people have any respect for others’ property?) Convinced that touching the condom has infected her with “Old Nasty Disease,” Aunt Hallie stoically and with dignity tries to keep from infecting her long-suffering kin by going to such daft lengths as never touching things if she can possibly avoid them (wait’ll you see what she does just to get up out of a rocking chair), and burning silverware and china cups and dishes identified as hers with Dyno labels; is that recycling, the genteel Southern way? The expressions on Aunt Hallie’s long-suffering relatives’ faces throughout the films are priceless. AH
is one of the funniest stories of a self-styled martyr ever told, and well worth getting the DVD for, even if you’re not already a die-hard Webb Wilder fan!
Happily, all of these shorts and more of Steve Mims’ short films are now available on the DVD Webb Wilder’s Amazing B Picture Shorts.
WW’s latest film, Scattergun,
has been shown at Webb Wilder events; we live for the day it’ll be available on DVD, too. It also includes footage from Webb Fest 2006! Webb Wilder-mania starts here; won’t you help?
|Heed the words of Mr. Fry, kids: "Dismemberment is not cute!" |
For concert dates, DVDs, and other Webb Wilder-ness, check out the Webb site!
Vinnie Spins a Webb of his own
I have two aphorisms hanging up in my cubicle at work, Doc Savage’s Code
and the Webb Wilder Credo (see above). This offers far too much insight into my mindset and philosophy.
As The Wife has said already, Horror Hayride
gives you the impression that you’ve been dropped into the middle of a series of adventures, and you either pick it up as you go, or get left behind. It shares that feeling with a film about which I could (and have) go on about for hours, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.
Both films share a vibe of effortless cool, a bevy of mad characters, and a hero who can rock it with the best of them. No wonder that we tried for the longest time to write a fanfic crossover between the two.
The Saucer’s Reign is a solid laugh-fest with an amateurish air, but Horror Hayride shows what a couple years can do for a director and his actors. They had time to flesh out Webb’s history and character as well. In both stories, the cases that Webb takes on are right in line with the Nash-Vegas (if you will) mindset; Webb might be out of his league fighting Russian mobsters, but he’s right at home taking down a blue movie ring. Often, as The Three Amigos learned, it’s when you stray from the formula that things gang aft aglay.
Webb doesn’t come up North too often, but he visited our humble burg two years in a row recently, both at our big local summer event Musikfest
, and at the re-opening of a local public pool and park for July Fourth. He’s still the aforementioned Electrifying Artist, and well worth your time in either live, recorded, or cinematic form. Pick up on it.