Friday, March 27, 2015

The Divine Enforcer

THE DIVINE ENFORCER, directed by Robert Rundle and released (presumably) directly to videocassette in 1992, is the world’s first psychic vigilante kung-fu priest movie! 

Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is over-the-moon deranged as the “Vampire of Los Angeles,” a serial killer who picks up prostitutes, removes their blood with a syringe, injects it into his arm, and keeps his victims’ skulls as trophies. He screams, rambles, rants, bugs his eyes, messes up his hair, takes off his shirt, flips the bird, and says dumb stuff like “You know what I mean, jellybean!” At one point, he looks at a mirror, yells, ties a shirt around his head, and takes a Polaroid of himself. I don’t know what the hell Stroud is doing, but it’s a sure thing he’s making it all up. It’s a remarkably terrible performance matched by a director who focuses on a skull shouting at Stroud to “kill the bitch” and “give me some blood.” 

Most of the actors have the excuse of being amateurs, but the experienced stars like Stroud have done better work elsewhere. Granted, they’re entirely on their own at the mercy of a foolish script, cheap sets, and incompetent direction. Erik Estrada (CHIPS) is hilariously miscast (his name is misspelled in the main titles) as a pipe-smoking monsignor, who lives in a suburban house with Father Thomas (top-billed Jan-Michael Vincent, whose script can be seen glued to the newspaper he’s holding), newcomer Father Daniel (Michael Foley, so wooden I think moss was growing on him), and their sexy dumb maid/landlady (?) Myrna (Judy Landers).

Daniel’s plan to clean up the crime-ridden streets is not through confession, but ass-kicking. Whenever he hears about ne’er-do-wells victimizing innocents, the director moves in close on Foley’s bugging eyes and slaps a red filter over the light to lead into Daniel’s imaginary dramatizations of what happened. Armed with throwing knives and a pistol with a cross engraved on the grip, Father Daniel goes into priest-fu mode, tossing off inept bon mots and punching out punks with laughable (for the audience) results. 

At least Stroud has the (slim) dignity of getting a character to play. A stupid, illogical character, but a character. Estrada and Vincent just sit around the kitchen table, while Jim Brown (SLAUGHTER) and Robert Z’Dar (SAMURAI COP) show up barely long enough to cheat one another in a drug deal. I doubt any of these guys worked more than one day in Rundle’s feeble attempt to fool videotape renters into grabbing this off the shelf. Every scene is slathered with monotonous underscoring that drowns out the dialogue. Not that these lines are worth hearing, but still… A stunningly incompetent action movie that deserves to be discovered by the “so bad it’s good” crowd.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Octagon

In just his fourth starring role, Chuck Norris plays Scott James, a martial arts superstar who retired from competition after seriously injuring an opponent. Now he just works out and hangs around the site of the latest big match with his karate pal A.J. (Art Hindle, who's got the feathered hair thing going big time).

Scott and A.J. attend a dance recital, and Scott, after meeting the lead dancer backstage, asks her to dinner. His plans for romance are foiled after he takes her back to her place to discover an army of ninja has slaughtered her entire family. During Scott's battle with them, the dancer dies. The next day, he meets sexy heiress Justine (Karen Carlson from THE STUDENT NURSES), who tries to trick him into hiring on as an assassin. She wants to whack a man named Seikura, who she believes murdered her father. Scott knows Seikura well—they grew up together in Japan as brothers, but Seikura was forced to leave after shaming their father.

There's much more going on in director Eric Karson's film, including a secret training base for ninja assassins run by Seikura in Central America, a crusty old mercenary with a hoop earring played by B-movie vet Lee Van Cleef (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and the "octagon" itself, which is never explained or showcased very well by Karson. It's actually an impressive set—an eight-sided obstacle course filled with blade-wielding ninja who leap out of every corner and behind every barrier.

Norris' climactic tangle in the octagon is the best scene in the movie, even if you hardly understand the plot to that point. It's possible Karson (OPPOSING FORCE) was aware of his story's pitfalls, since he in no way skimps on the action, throwing in several well-choreographed (by Chuck and his brother Aaron) karate battles, along with a few explosions, a car chase, some bullets, and even a burning man. Still, it's hard to take seriously an action film that tries to illustrate what's going through its hero's head by having Chuck dub his thoughts in a low whisper and playing them back with a laughable echo effect ("Seikura-ah-ah-ah...why-why-why-why? My brother-er-er-er-er.").

THE OCTAGON isn't one of Norris' best films, but it's well paced with lots of kung fu fighting and a cool score by Richard Halligan. Co-starring are Carol Bagdasarian, Tadashi Yamashita, Richard Norton, Kim Lankford, an unbilled Tracey Walter, Brian Tochi, stunt coordinator Aaron Norris, and Chuck's son Mike as Chuck's father in a flashback. You also might notice big Brian Libby, who later turned up in a much larger role in Norris' SILENT RAGE.

Paul Aaron, who receives story credit, was probably originally attached to direct, since he had just worked with Chuck on A FORCE OF ONE. Screenplay writer Leigh Chapman (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) had an interesting career, combining acting as "The Girl" in '60s television shows like THE MONKEES and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. with penning action-oriented scripts for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE WILD, WILD WEST.

Below is the original theatrical trailer for THE OCTAGON's 1980 release, digitally remastered for the recent Blu-ray.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Executioner #17, "Death Stalk"

DEATH STALK was Executioner creator Don Pendleton's return to the character after a brief contractual tiff with publisher Pinnacle. That led to 1973's SICILIAN SLAUGHTER, the series' 16th book, being written by William Crawford using the pseudonym Jim Peterson.

When Pendleton put out #17, 1974's JERSEY GUNS, he chose to ignore SICILIAN SLAUGHTER completely--it is said that he never even read it--and picked up where #15 left off. Unfortunately, that meant we never got an adventure involving Mr. Molto, the intriguing villain who popped up in the epilogue of SICILIAN SLAUGHTER.

A wounded Mack Bolan ends up in New Jersey, where he is found passed out and near death in a stream bed by Bruno, a medic who served under Bolan in Vietnam, and his younger sister Sara, nineteen years old and a widow, thanks to that damned war.

Despite their knowledge of what will happen to them if the mobsters searching for Bolan find him in their barn, the siblings are good people and nurse him back to health. Of course, both are eventually captured by gunsels working for Mike Talifero, returning from earlier Bolan adventures, and Bruno is turned into "turkey meat" (you don't want to know).

As he was wont to do, Pendleton often goes off-subject with ramblings about war and humanity that allowed him to express his worldview without having to mess with his characters (as opposed to Joseph Rosenberger, whose Death Merchant was just as crazy and racist as he was). Skip those chapters and enjoy the pages where Bolan mows down dozens of bad, bad guys without compunction. If nothing else, Pendleton knew how to tell an action story, and JERSEY GUNS does it as well as ever.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Terror Among Us

I suspect TERROR AMONG US began production as a sequel to executive producer David Gerber’s acclaimed POLICE STORY series.

The anthology, which ran five seasons on NBC and won an Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series, left the air in 1978, but survived through occasional TV-movies. TERROR AMONG US doesn’t fall under the POLICE STORY umbrella technically, but it’s produced by Gerber, stars Don Meredith (who appeared in eight POLICE STORYs), and features similar opening titles.

Certainly, Dallas Barnes and JoAnne Barnes’ teleplay about a serial rapist would have fit nicely into the POLICE STORY template, except it concentrates on the criminal instead of the cop. Delbert Ramsey (KNOTS LANDING's Ted Shackelford) is a convicted rapist on patrol who keeps getting busted on prowling and trespassing charges. Detective Tom Stockwell (Dandy Don) would love to send Ramsey back to the joint, but he faces resistance from bleeding-heart parole officer Paxton (SOAP’s Jennifer Salt) and ineffectual prosecutor Clayburn (Austin Stoker).

Director Paul Krasny (MANNIX) frequently cuts away from Stockwell’s attempts to make a case against Ramsey to scenes of five stewardesses living together in a swank bayside apartment, each with their own problem (one is aging out of her job, another is dating a married man, etc.). Eventually, the two plots intersect when Ramsey, on the run after committing a murder, takes the women hostage.

Sarah Purcell, who plays the stews’ “den mother,” was then a host of the NBC reality series REAL PEOPLE, a big hit. TERROR AMONG US feels padded, as if it really were a one-hour POLICE STORY stretched to feature length. While the attempt to humanize Ramsey’s victims is appreciated, their material is just not as interesting as the relationship between Stockwell and Paxton, who faces self-doubt about her job and her judgement after Ramsey begins his spree of terror. Meredith and Salt (later a producer of AMERICAN HORROR STORY) work well together, and more films about their partnership may have been interesting.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

You Only Live Twice

James Bond fakes his own death, disguises himself as a Japanese (unconvincingly, it should go without saying), hits a judo fighter with a couch, and blows up a volcano while dozens of extras in brightly colored jumpsuits shoot it out. Fun! And all in a tight 117 minutes with a Nancy Sinatra theme song to boot.

Sean Connery plays Bond for the fifth time in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. 007 goes to Japan to find out who is trying to instigate a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR by stealing their spacecraft. Fantasy writer Roald Dahl (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) loosely adapted Ian Fleming’s lightly plotted novel using elements from Harold Jack Bloom’s screenplay. Lucky for Bond, his Tokyo contacts are sexy Secret Service agents Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), as well as British expatriate Henderson (Charles Gray), who gets zapped minutes after meeting 007.

The culprit, of course, is SPECTRE and its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (bald Donald Pleasence with a white cat and a facial scar), who keeps a pool of piranha in his office for dealing with incompetent henchmen. His office, by the way, is in an enormous hollow volcano — an incredible set designed by Ken Adam on the 007 Stage backlot at Pinewood Studios. It’s one of the coolest sets ever built for a Bond movie and hosts the thrilling finale pitting Blofeld’s goons against Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka’s (Tetsuro Tamba) incredible ninja army.

The film’s other major setpiece involves LIttle Nellie, a miniature helicopter delivered by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and used by Bond to shoot four full-sized choppers out of the sky. On the minus side, Dahl’s screenplay often makes no sense (though a Japanese assassin’s method of silently killing a sleeping Bond is ingenious), including Bond’s Japanese disguise, which is as senseless as it is unbelievable. John Barry delivers another lush score for an entertaining big-budget spy flick that marked Connery’s swan song in the role — or so he believed at the time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Invasion: UFO


It was not uncommon for television studios to milk extra profits out of dead series by splicing together unrelated episodes and selling them into syndication as two-hour “movies.” Usually this was done as unobtrusively as possible by mashing together two one-hour episodes. In this case, ITC ripped footage from no fewer than six (!) episodes of the British science fiction series UFO, which doesn’t always make for comprehensible viewing.

UFO was the first series created by husband-and-wife producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson to star live actors. Their previous shows, most notably STINGRAY and THUNDERBIRDS, featured wooden marionettes on highly detailed miniature sets. Ed Bishop (PETS) starred in UFO as U.S. Air Force colonel Ed Straker, the commander of SHADO, a top-secret government agency hidden beneath a British film studio and on the Moon. From SHADO headquarters, Straker and his crew fought back against an alien race that threatened to invade Earth. UFO ran only one season and premiered in the U.K. and the U.S. in 1970.

In 1980, ten years after Straker first pitched SHADO to its financial backers, the organization captures its first alien. Humanoid, but with a green tint to its skin, the alien rapidly ages and dies, due to contact with Earth’s atmosphere, but not before SHADO learns it had undergone a series of human organ transplants. Straker pursues two other alien spacecraft, which look like metal tops: one into the forests of northern Canada and another deep underwater.

INVASION: UFO ignores the darker aspects of the series, which was not aimed principally at adults, in favor of space opera. It was released not just on television, but also on videocassette and laserdisc in America and other countries. Derek Meddings (MOONRAKER) supervised the visual effects, which are typically excellent. By the way, an alien ship is pronounced “you-foe,” not you-eff-oh.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Gemini Man: RIP Harve Bennett

Harve Bennett saved STAR TREK.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a big moneymaker for Paramount on its 1979 release, but it was not highly regarded by critics, general audiences, or the studio. So when Paramount decided to make another STAR TREK film, it cut the budget by almost 75 percent and hired television producer Bennett to keep costs under control.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, released in 1982, turned out to be one of the finest science fiction films ever made and a decent box office hit. Perhaps more importantly, it convinced Paramount that making STAR TREK movies was a viable franchise. If not for Bennett, who went on to produce STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, and STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER, there would have been no STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and all the spinoffs and films that series inspired.

Bennett's background was in television, where he produced THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, THE BIONIC WOMAN, SALVAGE I, THE MOD SQUAD, and THE INVISIBLE MAN. He won an Emmy for producing A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA, for which Leonard Nimoy was nominated as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special. Bennett also produced the outstanding RICH MAN, POOR MAN, which was nominated for 22 (!) Emmys, winning five.

And then there was GEMINI MAN.

After the David McCallum-starring THE INVISIBLE MAN flopped in 1975, NBC took another shot at H.G. Wells. Both THE INVISIBLE MAN and GEMINI MAN were about invisible secret agents working for a scientific thinktank, and Bennett and Steven Bochco (NYPD BLUE) produced them. THE INVISIBLE MAN lasted twelve one-hour episodes, but NBC cancelled GEMINI MAN after only five (eleven were filmed).

ALIAS SMITH AND JONES cowboy Ben Murphy starred as Sam Casey, a macho American agent first seen using a helicopter to fish for sharks. Macho. While diving to retrieve a Soviet satellite, Casey is caught in an explosion which renders him invisible. Luckily, his fellow INTERSECT agent, Abby Lawrence (Katherine Crawford), invents a super wristwatch that makes him visible again.

Obviously, an invisible secret agent gives INTERSECT boss Driscoll (Richard Dysart, later to work with Bochco on L.A. LAW) a major boner, so he convinces Casey to use his power to complete spy missions. By pressing a button on his watch, Casey can render himself invisible, but only for as much as fifteen minutes every 24 hours or else he’ll die. His clothes also disappear, and I wouldn’t spend much time pondering the science behind any of this.

Later syndicated as CODE NAME: MINUS ONE, the pilot, written by OUTER LIMITS creator Leslie Stevens, gives Casey a personal mission for his first as an invisible man: to find out who sabotaged his dive and caused the underwater explosion. Except for the 15-minute gimmick, GEMINI MAN is exactly the same show as THE INVISIBLE MAN, though Murphy’s laidback charisma is more appealing than McCallum’s more cerebral approach. Universal, which produced THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933, was more than capable of creating believable visual effects.

Harve Bennett died Wednesday, less than one week after Leonard Nimoy passed away. Bennett was 84 years old.

One last tidbit. Bennett narrated the opening of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN: "Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive."