When push comes to shove, it must be hard being Satan. Let's just forget for the moment his being cast out of the cushiest of clubhouses – Heaven – and more or less left to live in his ex-boss's dingy, furnace-infested basement. Heat, dry or not, is a real pain in the piety, so it's no wonder that the fallen angel is a little cranky once in a while. Then there is the whole molten sulphur and baking brimstone principle. Kind of like living in a box of used kitty litter that is being gently warmed over a hibachi, the stench has got to be enough to curve even the most immortal of spines. So we can forgive Moloch for constantly wanting to take over Earth. After all, while it stinks of a billion bad cases of body odor mixed with a lot of frying animal grease, it's still better than the refried dog dung that's odorizing Hell.
Then there is the whole soul snatching deal. See, all God has to do is get his near-faithful into a local cathedral or house of worship, grab a couple saw bucks from them, and make with the incense based blessings, and he's got lines around the afterlife block. But the queue into Hades is a heck of a lot smaller – mostly celebrities and lapsed Catholics – but the backstage pass to this Sisyphean rock show is much harder to come by. You really have to screw up bad, mean it, and then continuously feed on that negative energy like a vampire at a hemophiliac's convention before you can even get on the waiting list for an Underworld invite. And then Jehovah is still sitting at the entrance (he can be two places at one time – he's in three persons, remember?) trying to con you out of an eternity of chaffing with that whole "death bed recanting" scam.
So the Devil has a right to be peeved. Ever since heavy metal went hair band, the number of numbskulled male teens giving up their ghost for the Prince of Darkness is a real rarity. And thanks to a dwindling attendance rate, organized religions are pulling out the stops to draw as many dopey devotees to their side as possible. It's no surprise then that old Beelzebubba would go to some pretty silly extremes to guarantee a fresh shipment of souls into his subterranean stink hole – even returning to Earth in the form of a tour guide. Yep, he will even lead a group of unsuspecting sightseers on a one way trip to eternal damnation if need be. Well, at least that's how director Mick Napier envisions things as part of his film, Fatty Drives the Bus. His Lucifer is mad as home, and he's not going to take it anymore. Nope, he will actively recruit. After all, it works for Scientology.
When Satan learns that one of his best operatives has cancelled an afternoon of soul stealing, he decides to handle the big snatching himself. Apparently, a bus full of Chicago tourists is going to crash, killing everyone onboard, and the man-goat wants to make sure that he's got them all signed, sealed and delivered for a fire and pitchfork afterlife. But it won't be easy. Everyone preparing to take the tour is a little bit...off. Chuck and Molly are a middle class couple who just want some alone time away from their annoying brood of boys. Mamie, and friend Bridget, are off for a day in the city, but the gals feel stifled by Lana, Mamie's addled adult daughter, who is tagging along, looking for love. Sam and Bud are a pair of country bumpkins who've never been in an urban setting, and the Zodsworths appear to be lost in their own reality. Throw in a depressed doctor and an overweight driver and you've got a recipe for mass transit mayhem. Oh yeah, and Jesus is tracking his Antichrist acquaintance, hoping to keep his essence swiping in check. In the battle between good and evil, Satan may drive a hard bargain, but when it comes to that Chi-town sightseeing company Cheap Ass Tours, Fatty Drives the Bus.
When one thinks about improvisational comedy - when they consider it at all - the same names pop into the brain: Second City, LA's the Groudlings, The Kids in the Hall...and that's about it. Indeed, aside from that famed Canadian/Chicago based buffoon factory, the realm of ad-lib lunacy has a very small scope. Certainly, there are other fine funny bones institutions churning out the chuckles while flying by the seat of their baggy pants and pantomiming without a script, but they have yet to produce the superstars who name check and champion such humble beginnings. One such unsung organization is the Annoyance Theater. While they have quite the Windy City reputation, and an ever-expanding fanbase, they are more or less unknown to the mainstream of popular culture.
Fatty Drives the Bus may not be the answer to their instant success, but it's a damn fine start. Utilizing a performance-ready premise that allows for maximum manipulation and modification, this somewhat silly story of the prankster Pitch trying to corral a few careless tourists, is an actual oddity for Troma. Over the course of its brief running time, this cracked heretical comedy offers no blood, zero breasts, and only the slightest semblance of a beast (in the form of the Devil's oatmeal pig face persona). Instead of terror, we get irony. In the place of scares, there is satire. The result is something a tad disquieting. One expects idiotic insanity laced with as many bodily fluids as possible from Lloyd Kaufman and his caravan of the craven. But instead, Fatty is a fine, if flawed lampoon, a movie that tries to say something salient about the human condition and essentially gets it about 2/3rds of the way right.
Fatty Drives the Bus (the original working title, That Darn Antichrist! was a LOT better) is actually a combination of two different types of comedy – observational or character driven humor, and conceptual or idea based absurdity. Looking at the bifurcated approaches taken to the individual characters in the story, you can see the jerky juxtaposition right away. On the side of observational are the stifling suburban couple Chuck and Molly, as well as the miserable mom Maime and her burden of an adult daughter Lana (their decidedly transvestite friend, the "beautiful Bridget" is another story all together). Any time they are on screen, the strangely subtle way the actors incorporate their personality clichés and hidden truths, joyful idiosyncrasies and overreaching archetypes is fascinating. Constantly bordering on the overdone and obvious, it's a credit to these performers that they find the telling truth inside their increasingly anarchic characters.
However, whenever the movie wanders over into conceptual territory, things just kind of dry up. The uber-eccentric couple, the Zodsworths, is a perfect example of this arid type of amusement. All their peculiarity feels preplanned, never once coming organically out of any manner of human ideal. Same goes for the depressed doctor who had hoped to cure some manner of joint disease. He has an entire subplot laden with potential (how the dachshunds he used for experimentation reacted to his treatments could have been priceless) but anything remotely interesting about him is quickly tossed aside for more depressing mini-monologues. We get a little too much of this in Fatty Drives the Bus: humor hampered by being noticeable and way too wacky. Especially when combined with the more restrained moments, and the perfectly observed routines, these mega-campy cutups tend to stick out like very sore thumbs.
This doesn't mean they're bad, mind you, just unsettling. They appear to barely fit into Fatty's more mild mannered mania. Or maybe it has something to do with the quality of the quipping. When Mike Monterastelli starts channeling his hormonally challenged Bridget (giving his supposed glamour gal a real edgy, goombah feel) it is absolutely hilarious. Even if the joke is rather one note, and he obviously appears to be very in on it, his strange she-male sure is sensational to listen to. The same applies to Scot Robinson's Satan/Tour Guide. Whether he's playing proudly pompous or decidedly disingenuous, this is another over the top performance that just keeps getting better as it goes on. Yes, there are scenes and situations that go nowhere (the country rube ripoff shtick is dumb) and the occasional missed moment (pray tell, why feature the pork fat fed bus driver in your title, and then ignore him for most of the movie?). But thanks to the rest of the ridiculousness, and the freshness of director Mick Napier's approach to the material, Fatty is a lot of fun.
Indeed, Napier is to be credited for successfully pulling off this kind of cinematic prank. Independent comedies, especially one's featuring unknowns looking to make a name for themselves, can often come across as insular exercises in dullness, or conversely, extremely awkward showcases to unfunny individuals deluded with their own weak wit. But thanks to his irreverent tone, his use of some skillful directorial tricks, and a seemingly endless stream of invention, he gets us through the ineffective moments with relative ease. Napier could use a little more shot ingenuity. The run and gun facets of the filmmaking obviously restricted his set ups, but did everything have to be offered in either a close-up or a master? There are also a couple of occasions where the natural lighting lets him down, rendering potentially potent scenes either way underlit or far too bright. Still, these are quibbles in what is a rather resplendent job behind the camera. Napier doesn't announce himself as some manner of new auteur, or experimental savant. Instead, he does what so few first time filmmakers can achieve – he makes a thoroughly professional, side-splitting movie from beginning to end.
And indeed, that's what Fatty Drives the Bus is. Forgetting the problems with some of the performances, and the odd dichotomy that exists between the observational and conceptual humor in the narrative, this is a consistently humorous film. Don't be put off by the first few minutes – the movie does indeed start off like a really lame horror film with a warehouse substituting for the fiery pits of Hades. But if you give it a moment, focus on the introduction of the tourists and listen to some of the sharp, insightful exchanges between the characters, you'll get into the man-goat groove and be thoroughly entertained by this improv farce. While it may not measure up to a similarly titled treasure from the good folks at Toxie's home port (that would be, of course, that 'why the f*ck is this not on DVD yet' delight known as Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid) it is still something unusual for us b-movie maniacs; an intermittently clever and creative comedy. Individuals intrigued by the unusual, or who want to see a heretofore unknown theater troupe traipsing the laugh fantastic will get a kick out of this bus trip. Others with more than just a mild curiosity should also consider taking a ride on this crazy Chicago excursion. You've nothing to lose, except your soul...or your normal sense of humor.
Offered in a faded, occasionally muddy 1.33:1 full screen transfer, Fatty Drives the Bus only rarely gives away its $40K budget. Mostly in the arena of production value and shot selection (as mentioned before) the otherwise decent image won't be winning any home reference quality awards in the near future. But this does not mean that the picture is bad. This isn't Down By Love, after all. No, Fatty Drives the Bus looks like a well-preserved, if not completely professional homemade movie that substitutes pure digital visual bliss with more meaningful cinematic invention. Flawed film quality and all, this is still a nice, ordinary DVD presentation.
They don't call Chicago the Windy City for nothing, and whenever Fatty Drives the Bus ventures out of doors for its scenes, the soundman apparently has a series of mini-strokes. The breeze blows over and above everything, all of it perfectly picked up by every microphone used. That is why you will hear a lot of ADR and editing clean up in Fatty's otherwise fine Dolby Digital Stereo presentation. While some of the dialogue gets distorted, and the middling music comes right out of a hackneyed Hammond organ you're grandmother would play ("Lady of Spain", indeed!), the aural attributes are still better than one expects from such a low budget romp.
Troma treats Fatty Drives the Bus with a basic bit of reverence, providing a nice assortment of bonus features for this DVD release. Those specifically aimed at the film include a nice, 20 minute making-of which lets us in, behind the scenes, during a few of the production components. We see the creation and filming of Hell, and Napier interacting with his cast and crew. There is some scene stealing both literally (permits? We don't need no stinking permits) and figuratively along Chicago streets and even a few outtakes showing footage left out of the film. While it's not as fastidious as say, a full blown cast and crew commentary (which, sadly, is one of the must-haves missing from this release), it does give us some insight into Fatty Drives the Bus's creation. The remainder of the Annoyance-oriented material consists of two trailers, and that's it.
Troma itself takes over for the rest of the added content, but aside from a weird-ass advertisement parody for a film called Teenage Cat Girls in Heat (now retitled Teenage Fat Girls Who Eat) and the usual merchandising material, the supplements are kind of sparse. And DAMMIT, Lloyd, no matter how fetching Debbie Rochon is, get RID of that by now lame as a limburger lugnut generic opening shitck. It is NO LONGER FUNNY!
Maybe one day, like the song says, the Devil will get his due (and hopefully he doesn't have to go down to Georgia to find it - that really shouldn't be wished on anyone). Maybe someone will come along and champion his evil empire as something more than a punishment for not being pious. It's possible...after all, somebody got the planet to embrace that walking stank sperm bank named Paris Hilton, and she is far more heinous than any 666 licking cursed crusader. But just like the continued conspiracy theorizing over the Da Vinci Code, and the constant desire of Bible Belt ministers to find the hidden subliminal messages on all of Uriah Heap's songs, Gawd and his salient son JC will be riding Satan's jock, hoping to catch him in one of those proverbial blunders and finally wipe him out of existence once and for all. Until that time, we can celebrate a small slice of Legion's more laugh-oriented side with Fatty Drives the Bus. While not a perfect comedy, it is still well worth a time or two around the block. And who knows, maybe it will help soften Satan's sullied image. You have to admit, that pissed off pixie does get a pretty bum rap.
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