Trek to Livermore? A double dose of classic Shatner arrives at the Vine in Livermore.

Getting Shatnered with Thrillville

Dennis Harvey May 20, 2010

It’s doubtful anyone would have guessed in the first decade or more of William Shatner’s career that he, among all the “rugged leading men” groomed by Hollywood in the late 1950s, would prove so enduring. Not even after the original TV run of Star Trek –which was, after all, only a modest success, finding its real fame after cancellation in never-ending reruns. Yet endure he has, not just as the now-iconic Captain Kirk but as a unique sort of elder showbiz statesman, one who is willing to be the butt of jokes because he’s in on them. While it’s long been rumored that his egotism alienated fellow Trek cast members (and that was amusingly spoofed in the movie Galaxy Quest), in recent years he’s taken nothing seriously, least of all himself. Who else would so willingly mock his own reputation as a ham and dubious singer by reciting Sarah Palin’s resignation speech as free verse on late-night TV, let alone by releasing an album called Has Been?

Somehow Shatner manages to make being a can’t-quit old fool who’ll do anything in public seem…cool. Ergo his annual celebration at that floating Bay Area temple of retro cool, Thrillville. This Thursday Livermore’s Vine Cinema hosts the 13-year-old institution’s latest Shatfest, an evening of worship toward all things Shatty, the cheesier the better.

Cheese certainly doesn’t get any riper than Impulse, a feature that flew well under the popular radar in 1974 but now has a cult following as possibly the sleaziest PG-rated movie ever. Of course its main selling point is offering up “Shatner at his Shatiest, playing a wacked-out serial killer wearing tank tops, bell bottoms and pimp hats. It’s just the ultimate Shat performance,” as Thrillville’s founder and host Will Viharo puts it.

Directed by lesser exploitation maestro William Grefe (The Hooked Generation, Death Curse of Tartu), Impulse is a bizarre psychological thriller in which Shatner plays Matt Stone, woman-hating gigolo and con man whose murderous rages are explained by your basic “Mom was a drunken whore” childhood-trauma flashbacks. Or as Viharo enthuses, “Imagine Captain Kirk at his most insanely intense, stoned out of his mind on some alien hallucinogenic, and beamed down to 1970s America, with murky memory implants and odd homicidal tendencies he can’t control.” As if that weren’t enough, Impulse gives him a world-class nemesis in child actress Kim Nicholas’s Tina, a monumentally bratty 12-year-old who works at driving her widowed mother crazy before realizing she’s got to save mom (and herself) from leisure-suited lounge lizard Matt’s clutches.

The night’s very special co-feature is 1968’s White Comanche, one of the many, many “spaghetti westerns” (this one actually Spanish rather than Italian) that fading or second-rung American stars made in Europe during the decade. A very faded Joseph Cotten gets top billing as a lawman–but the whole show is Shatner’s.

Nay, Shatner times two: “Halfbreed” twins, one a shirtless, peyote-addicted “savage” who spends most of his time robbing, raping and killing, the other a “civilized” sort who keeps getting almost-lynched for lookalike bro’s crimes. Needless to say, they do not get along. Viharo says this experience requires you to, “Imagine that same strung-out Kirk beamed down to the Old West and cloned,” waxing rhapsodic about the “inexplicable, incongruous jazzy soundtrack adding to the surrealism of it all.” As poorly made as it is politically incorrect, and with some howl-worthy dialogue, White Comanche seems to have virtually ended the directorial career of one Jose Briz Mendez.

Viharo obviously prefers his Shatner 100 percent proof, no chaser, the performances that can leave you on the floor in a puddle of laughter-induced tears. Comparing Boston Legal to either of these films is like comparing Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” to his earlier zombie gorefest Dead Alive. This is the real William Shatner to his diehard fans,” he says, “stripped of any pretense or respectability. Shatner unplugged, if you will.”

Fortunately, the Vine Cinema sells beer and wine to fortify viewers for the onslaught. In addition to hosting duties by Will “the Thrill” and his lovely other half “Tiki Goddess” Monica, the evening will feature Shatner shorts and a live performance by the “hilarious” Shatner Butt Girls, whose precise talents we can only guess at.

This surely will not be the end of Shatfest, now in its 10th year (or so–Viharo can’t quite recall). Among the sought-after related obscurities Will has on his wish list for future events is an episode of TV’s T.J. Hooker guest-starring “my old man, actor Robert Viharo.” Then there’s always the faint possibly The Shat himself might one day deign to attend.

“Shatheads have told me they told him about these screenings at conventions and fan events,” Will says. “His reaction was reportedly nonplussed and a bit bemused that his old skeletons are being dragged out of the closet and put on public display. I doubt the man has any shame about these films–or anything, for that matter. He’s completely distinctive, original, and confident.”