Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Tuff Turf
Most of the films we profile here derive a lot of their cheesiness from their origins as cynical cash-grabs. Some, like Dune and Excalibur, are legitimate attempts to make something special with vast and difficult literary sources. Many are sequels which must obey the law of diminishing returns. And there’s Tuff Turf. No other cheesy film we’ve covered to date compares to it. The film is not based on a preexisting novel or even trend. Its closest cousin would be the juvenile delinquency films of the 1950s with a good measure of 1980s style smashed in. It might even seem like the most legitimate and heartfelt film we’ve profiled to date if not for the way it keeps changing into a different film.
Also, it features early lead performances from James Spader and Robert Downey Jr, who would re-team in Less Than Zero and Avengers: Age of Ultron; in which Spader gives voice to Downey’s id. In this film, though, Downey is coked up and ready to play several people’s ids.
The plot concerns one Morgan Hiller (Spader) a free-thinking and bright high school student whose antics got him expelled from “the most prestigious private school in the country.” The incident was apparently bad enough for his whole family to pick up stakes and move from Connecticut to Southern California’s famous San Fernando Valley. While his mother and older brother cling to some Yuppie pretensions, his dad drives a cab at night to make ends meet until he can get a California real estate license. It suggests the move was hasty and may have been connected to one of Morgan’s interest: vigilantism.
The night before his first day at public high school, Morgan roams the streets of Reseda and encounters a gang of toughs known as “The Tuffs.” He fails to stop them from shaking down a unfortunate schmoe, but he manages to cause enough confusion for one of the Tuffs to spray their leader Nick Hauser (Paul Mones) in the eyes with some spray paint. The next morning, Hauser spots Morgan and initiates his revenge by running over Morgan’s bike during lunch.
Now, you’ve seen movies and you might guess what happens next. But you would be wrong. Instead of retaliating or concocting some elaborate semester-long trap, Morgan goes to see the Jim Carroll Band. As it happens, Morgan’s new friend Jimmy (Downey) is sitting in for Carroll’s usual drummer, but Hauser, the Tuffs and Hauser’s chick Frankie (Kim Richards) are there as well. Then, something strange happens. Morgan gets an unwilling Frankie to dance and the whole movie turns into a musical for a brief moment. Angered by this, Hauser sends a goon to confront Morgan. He becomes Morgan’s dance partner instead.
The tone shifts again as Hauser and the goons accost Morgan outside the venue, take the keys to his car and go for a joy ride. When Jimmy helps Morgan up, he reveals that he doesn’t own a car. Hauser and his Tuff gets arrested for stealing the car Morgan stole earlier. Nonetheless, an unidentified Tuff puts a dead rat in Morgan’s locker.
Meanwhile, Jimmy steals one of the Tuff’s cars and picks up Morgan. When Morgan spots Frankie and another Tuff chick named Ronnie (Olivia Barash), he picks them up and the four proceed to invade a snobs vs. slobs movie at a Beverly Hills country club. Frankie starts to warm up to Morgan and the two split off from Jimmy and Ronnie. Frankie convinces Morgan to go to a 60’s themed night club where Jack Mack and the Heart Attack are playing. She proves to be dynamite on the dance floor and very interested in Morgan.
Oh, and then Hauser returns, assaulting both Frankie and Morgan at separate times and in different ways.
If it feels like the movie can’t decide what it wants to be, that’s part of the charm. Tuff Turf is an amazing example of tonal whiplash. Every five to ten minutes, the movie decides it wants to be something else: a musical, a teen comedy, a gritty inner city drama, a quirky look at love in the valley, an examination of abuse, Ordinary People, and even a thriller. It also features Spader singing:
But because of these shifts, strange things happen. Jimmy disappears for a good half-hour or so as the romance plot kicks in and Hauser’s taunting becomes physical. Jimmy reappears late in the film with a pair of Dobermans to aid Morgan in the final battle, but is otherwise gone. If one wants to be less than charitable to Downey, he is visibly coked to gills in several shots and you can’t help but wonder if that contributed to Jimmy absence in the second act.
Another strange thing is the way Morgan’s dad re-enters the film. Hauser and the other Tuffs attack him in another act of revenge, but soon learn he’s a better vigilante than Morgan. His father nearly gets the best of the Tuffs, but still ends up in the hospital with several gunshot wounds. And when Morgan gets to the hospital, you’re hard pressed to remember that just a half-hour ago, he was goofing off in Beverly Hills. Again, the movie plays fast and loose with its tone.
Nonetheless, it has a magic to it as it goes from things like the serious discussion of Frankie’s future to her full-tilt Jack Mack and the Heart Attack dance scene with little-to-no segue. Which makes it an especially appealing and energetic film; buoyed, of course, by the natural charms of Spader and Downey. I would not be surprised if large portions of the country club scene were improvised. Also Spader’s magnetism charges the way he relates to everyone in the film. In fact, it’s not hard to see that Hauser’s hatred for Morgan is just masking his disappointment that the guy isn’t into him. While that notion may not be text, there are several scenes where a nearly shirtless Hauser rubs his chest while discussing with particular anticipation the moment he “gets” Morgan.
Since the film is an underappreciated gem of cheese, little information on its creation can be found online. Director Fritz Kiersch’s intent is unknown. But that makes its wild changes in tone and the way the leads inform the scenes that much better. It’s hard to believe someone could intentionally make a movie like Tuff Turf, but I’d be the first to congratulate Kiersch if he could show me how it was done. Considering that he subsequently made Gor — a movie I might talk about some day — I’m inclined to believe he bumbled into making some of the finest cheese you will ever watch.
Tuff Turf is available for rent on iTunes and Amazon. It is also available in various double and triple feature DVD releases.