(The following is my submission to The White Elephant Blog-a-Thon now playing at Silly Hats Only. Please check with Paul Clark throughout the day for a complete list of links to essays and an explanation of the guidelines as well.)
Some insomniacs rely on over-the-counter concoctions like Sominex to help them get a good night’s sleep when that goal, the reward for every man or woman after a long, hard day, remains elusive. Others rely on more potent, prescription-only chemical compounds to get the rest they need. But I’ve discovered a completely drug-free way to induce a state of blissful unconsciousness. One need only do as I have done six or seven times now, in as convincing a test sample situation as I would ever demand in order to invite and embrace a rapid descent into deep slumber. Over the past two weeks I have attempted, on seven different occasions, to watch Stewart Raffill’s Mannequin 2: On the Move (1991), the sequel the public apparentlydemanded to Michael Gottlieb’s seminal 1987 classic Mannequin, the story of a boy wearing a thin tie who insists on falling in love with a department-store dressmaker’s dummy which occasionally turns into Kim Cattrall. But my attempts were consistently thwarted, each one begun with the sincere hopes of hearty laughs and heartwarming romance, only to be sidetracked by the somnolent dustings of the Sandman within mere minutes of the conclusion of the movie’s opening credits.
Actually, the sensation was more like being jumped by a trio of Teutonic muscle-bound goons and thrown into a burlap sack laced with the gnarliest of gnarly sleep agents. But really, how the rest-deprived get to that state of rest and regenerative relaxation is beside the point, is it not? On each of those seven occasions I failed to make it beyond the introduction of Meshach Taylor, the only cast member to return from the first film to the follow-up, reprising his triumphant performance in the role of in-house African-American department store designer Hollywood Montrose, baby, the kind of out-ra-a-a-a-a-ageous (!) mincing stereotype that presumably had someone rolling in the aisles back in those fuzzily focused, VHS-dependent days when moviegoers were still as afraid of gays as they used to be (and kinda still were) of blacks. But on each of those nights following the first when I resumed the movie, I refused to start where I dropped off, largely because I couldn’t remember at exactly what point I had lost consciousness, but also because I refused to bring anything less than a cinephile’s integrity to my encounter with this holdover (last gasp) of ‘80s cotton-candy cinema. I absolutely would not accept not seeing Mannequin 2: On the Move with fresh eyes, from the very beginning to the very end, and if I fell asleep it meant starting all over again, from the opening scene.
The movie begins with a prologue-- “Once Upon a Time in the Kingdom of Hauptmann-Koenig,” a kind of jokey-sounding non-joke that perfectly sets the table for all the delights to come. The realm of Hauptmann-Koenig, which looks ever so much like the front nine at a posh golf course somewhere in the Midwest, is overseen by a mean old Queen (the royal sort, as interpreted by Cynthia Harris) who doesn’t want her handsome Prince William (Fright Night’s William Ragsdale) running off with his true love, a feisty young princess-type tart from another fiefdom (or commonwealth, or parish, or county, or whatever, man) named Jessie (Deadly Friend’s Kristy Swanson). After some derring-do involving William and a bunch of buff Bally’s refugees dressed as Vikings who apparently work for the state, the mean old Queen, in league with an evil sorcerer (Weekend at Bernie’s’s Terry Kiser), puts a curse on the princess. The evil sorcerer, who has designs on the princess himself, turns her— much to the horror of William and the puzzling indifference of a fiefdom (or, well, you know) full of citizens who are about 900 years removed from the development of plastics-- into a life-sized Barbie-doll-looking inanimate, the mannequin of the title, you see. It is the confusing curse of the sorcerer who, since he lusts after the princess himself, might reasonably have been expected to separate the young lovers in such a way that could hasten his own usurping of her toothy charms, that the princess shall be so altered for a thousand years or until such time as she is the recipient of true love’s kiss, or some equally generic balderdash. Plot specifics were already becoming fuzzy, even after seven exposures, and the credits hadn’t even begun to roll yet, yet the movie pulls a rabbit out of its hat here in that during this prologue it manages to effortlessly evoke the comic mastery and rugged period verisimilitude of Robin Hood: Men In Tights.
Cut to a thousand years later, in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania, where an exhibit of treasures from the long-ago-forgotten kingdom (or fiefdom-- whatever!) of Hauptmann-Koenig is about to go on display at a big department store where a young ringer for Prince William named Jason Williamson (I‘m sure he’s played by William Ragsdale too, but in my increasing grogginess I couldn’t be sure if it was Ragsdale, or perhaps Jonathan Silverman—or I guess it could have been Jon Cryer—Matthew Broderick and Michael J. Fox were, I think already too expensive by the time this movie was made, so I doubt it was them) is off to his first day on the job at said department store as assistant to the obnoxious store bigwig (Stuart Pankin, quietly underplaying as always). Ragsdale (or whoever) hopes to start on the bottom rung of the ladder and work his way up to some position of importance. He hits the road to work in his working-class but still kinda cool convertible Jeep, knocking back a donut with a Diet Pepsi chaser for breakfast, and if you haven’t already been hit with that warm feeling of familiarity spreading through your chest and breadbasket (not unlike the path of the insinuating toxin after a particularly serious spider bite), by the time the TV-style credits come zooming out at you (Oh, why couldn’t these have been in 3D?) and the Kenny Loggins-cum-Starship synth pop anthem kicks in (“I’ve got something to make, you see/And that somethin’ is me/ You’d better wake up!/ ‘Cause my time is comin’/ And I’m runnin’ all the way/ Wake up!/My engine’s hummin’/Burnin’ down that road to paradise/Wake up!”) you will be. You'll also know with death-like certainty that you’re deep inside an ‘80s romantic comedy leftover, a cultural culmination of tropes and styles and remnants of better movies so generic and artificial that it almost achieves its own kind of cultural significance, a signpost for the demise and plasticity of a pop culture decade ready to give itself over to oversized stocking caps and muttering, navel-gazing rockers from Seattle.
Bear with me at this point, because this is where I start to really get hazy, which is, I think, okay, because clearly the screenwriters (including original Mannequin scribe Edward Rugoff and, surprisingly, Cheers/Frasier alums Ken Levine and David Isaacs) aren’t concerned with logic or believability—this is a fizzy romantic confection; we barely care, and the kids sure aren’t gonna! The mannequin-ized princess ends up as part of the Hauptmann-Koenig display, apparently having been passed down as a royal heirloom, hard evidence of a history of suppression that could hardly speak well of the royal temper. It is at this point that we are introduced to Jason’s soon-to-be BFF, Hollywood Montrose, he of the designer dashiki, eyeglasses shaped like hairdressers’ scissors and a battery of saucy jokes meant to assure Middle America that homos are harmless but funny. (Going into a soldier crawl to escape a tight situation with Jason, Hollywood japes, “I learned this move from the Marines. They were looking for a few good men, and so was I!”) Terry Kiser, every bit Meshach Taylor’s equal in his ability to fill out a comic characterization in bold, gasp-inducing strokes, reappears as the evil Count Spretzle, the apparent reincarnation of the evil sorcerer, who follows the Hauptmann-Koenig collection to Philadelphia, his three Teutonic muscle-bound goons in tow. (So I didn’t hallucinate them!) Spretzle is determined, you see, to abscond with the princess mannequin, remove the necklace which contains the power of the curse from around her lovely neck, and have her as his own! (Sinister laughter is now reverberating, reverberating in my head! Make it stop!)
But it’s at this point that all seven times I’ve made a sincere effort to watch Mannequin 2: On the Move that I inevitably black out, cast from the artificial light of director’s Raffill’s penetrating vision of male-female relationships into the all-enveloping dreamscape of the unconscious. Its probably useful to remember that Raffill is the man who made such an indelible mark on cinema with his E.T. homage Mac and Me (1988), Tammy and the T-Rex (1994) starring Denise Richards and a pre-Fast and Furious Paul Walker (who would have made a fine Prince William), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and 1975’s four-wall family classic The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, where I first encountered the director’s singular talent. Therein may lie a clue as to the strange nocturnal visions I had every night after falling asleep to the synth waves of David McHugh’s unforgettable pop-tinged score (think Huey Lewis, only less gritty)—each and every night I dreamed that I stayed awake and finished the movie, and eerily enough each night the dream, with a few minor details here and there excepted, seemed very much the same all seven times. Jason is dumb enough to think a mannequin falling out of a truck into a river resembles a human being closely enough that he thinks nothing of diving in to save it/her, thus setting up a Splash-esque underwater encounter in which the mannequin— despite still wearing the cursed necklace—momentarily comes to life and winks at our hero. (This plot development is one of many that are so silly as to be only possible as the stuff of dreams, or nightmares.) By the time the mannequin is whisked away to the department store, at this point under the watchful eye of Jason and Hollywood, Jason is so enamored of the lifeless piece of plastic that he actually starts to make out with it. In my dream he pulls up short and, thank God, questions his own sanity for doing such a thing. (If this actually happened in the movie, it would have to be the screenwriters’ sanity that would be suspect.)
Then I remember the dream segueing into a hilarious parody of those ‘80s fish-out-of-water comedy romances (like Splash or even Pretty Woman) where the guy takes the girl around town in his ride so she can see all the sights and do all the things she’s never done. Why, in my dream this thousand-year-old princess gets to ride down the street in Jason’s convertible Jeep and stand up so she can go “Whoo!” to all the disbelieving passersby. Then they stop for a Philly cheese steak, because she’s never had food like this before—she’s so unfamiliar with the very act of eating that in my dream I actually have her accidentally eating part of the wrap the cheese steak is wrapped in! But then there’s the scene where they go out to a club where some more faux Huey Lewis is pumpin’, and after she teaches him how to dance to classical music, then they slow-dance to yet another ballad untouched by human hands, and it is at this point they fall in love, knowing nothing of chlamydia (or the "A" word) or of any Pennsylvania statutes barring the interspecies comingling of man and papier-mâché princess.
Fortunately, to keep the dream entertaining, and to make sure I know what I’m dreaming is a parody of the kind of bad ‘80s comedy I avoided like ptomaine back in the day, Count Spretzle, sporting a long hair dangling from a facial mole, and his trio of steroid-enhanced henchmen continue stumbling around the city in pursuit of the princess, whose mannequin-like shell was at one time stuffed with jewels that the evil count also hopes to recover along with the princess’s eternal servility. I remember half sitting up one night (I think I was sitting up) and thinking to myself, if the jewels were hidden inside her mannequin body, where do they go when she is constituted as a humanoid? Wouldn’t they most likely be lodged somewhere, say, in her lower intestine or some other inconvenient body cavity? (This would go a long way toward explaining the grimace Kristy Swanson passes off as an insipid grin.) I remember every night also dreaming of yet another wacky montage, this time intercutting the princess’s first encounter with a hot water bubble bath and Jason’s inept attempt to make breakfast—girls love their Calgon, and boys are idiots in the kitchen, as we all know. As she’s getting herself ready, she accidentally puts the necklace back on, returning her to a state of mannequin-osity, and even though Jason was the one who originally took the necklace off and facilitated her appearance as a frothy starlet, he’s not smart enough to repeat the process, so instead he frets and carries her about town during his workday, which makes for lots of funny comedy when he takes her to the coffee shop, etc., etc. (See, no actual movie would be this brain-dead, right? Thank God it was all just a dream.) This is followed by all manner of flailing about the city as Jason and the Princess fall into one tight spot after another—at one point they are rescued by Hollywood, who infiltrates the place where they are being held captive by Count Spretzle by dressing as—get this—Lou Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman! Soon the dream movie comes to a thrilling climax, as it did every night of seven that I had the dream, with a wild encounter in which Count Spretzle interrupts the department store fashion show and fights Jason to the death for the love of the princess. Guess which one of them gets turned into a mannequin himself before falling off the stage and shattering into a million pieces! Well, I’ll tell you, dreams are just like real Hollywood in some ways, and there’s just no way I’m going to allow the star of my dream, Michael J. F— I mean, William Ragsdale come to such an awful end!
So I’ve had these dreams for seven nights, and now here it was, the night before I was supposed to write a piece on Mannequin 2: On the Move for The White Elephant Blog-a-Thon, in which the participants submit the name of a movie they’d like to see someone else review, in exchange for being assigned one to review themselves. I can’t remember which movie I requested to be reviewed, largely because the shock of being assigned Mannequin 2: On the Move so misaligned my system that for a couple of weeks I kept returning to the e-mail to make sure I got the assignment right. Yep, I did. I got it right. The only thing was, I had less than 24 hours before the review was supposed to go to post, and I had only seen the first 15 minutes of the actual movie, plus whatever nightmares I had had of what the movie might actually be like, to go on—I hadn’t yet seen the actual film.
So I sat down last night and fired up the DVD, this time determined not to fall asleep. I refused any comfy chair or plush couch on which to sit and watch. I wanted to be as uncomfortable as possible, so I stuck the DVD in my laptop and held the computer while standing in my living room as the first oh-so-familiar 15 minutes played themselves out yet again. By the time Meshach Taylor makes his first appearance I was tired, but I was not yawning. I was going to do it this time! Tonight was my night to finally see Mannequin 2: On the Move in its entirety, without commercial interruption or that of the Sandman either.
Then a very special kind of horror began to dawn on me. There was the scene in which Jason jumps in the river to save the mannequin princess. Jesus! Just like my dream… And there that weird make-out scene where Jason tongues the lifeless doll and questions his sanity! The scenes, with the jeep, the cheese steak, the Huey Lewis club, the bathtub/breakfast montage, Meshach Taylor dressed as a mincing Sgt. Emil Foley, those goddamn Austrian Schwarzenegger wannabes, and Count Spretzle, complete with that disgusting hair—they were all in the movie, just as I’d dreamt them! Oh, no, I couldn’t be… No benevolent God in his kingdom would ever allow such an awful thing to transpire…
And yet it did. I realized that on the seven separate occasions I tried and (apparently) failed to sit through Mannequin 2: On the Move, the movie, rather than taking me into a true state of unconscious sleep, set me instead into a kind of waking torpor, a paralysis of nerves and brain activity not unlike the sensation of being exposed to neurological blocking agents that can in some instances simulate death. Being exposed to Mannequin 2: On the Move, in high-definition no less, was apparently more than my fragile system could handle, and the movie sent me into a simulation of total sensory failure. Unable to move or otherwise wrest myself from the movie’s icy grip, even though I thought I was unconscious and dreaming, I was actually watching the movie, helplessly, with no escape until the final credits. This must, I think, qualify as devotion to a blog-a-thon above and beyond the call of duty and I will be inquiring as to whether or not there might be some way for me to be officially recognized for my tribulations-- a medal, perhaps. I saw Mannequin 2: On the Move eight times in a span of two weeks and have so far lived to tell the tale. May this serve as a cautionary tale for those who might otherwise blithely dismiss this ‘80s style romantic confection as just another movie. No, it has powers; I think it might even have sentient intelligence, or perhaps body-altering capabilities. There’s something else going on here, and I’m completely afraid that I might soon find out what.
(The Mannequin 2: On the Move trailer even conveniently includes a few strains of Starship’s number-one hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from the first movie, you know, just to get you in the mood. Pure evil.)