Thursday, May 26, 2016

Schizoid (1980)

Who is the crazed scissors slasher hacking up the members of shrink Klaus Kinski’s (NOSFERATU) therapy group and mailing threatening notes to newspaper advice columnist Mariana Hill (BLOOD BEACH)? Is it Kinski’s deranged teenage daughter Donna Wilkes (ANGEL), who likes to dress in her dead mother’s clothes? Or Hill’s goofy ex-husband Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE)? Or creepy maintenance man Christopher Lloyd (on hiatus from TAXI)? Hell, it could be Kinski himself. Not only is he Klaus Kinski, but he’s also regularly schtupping at least two members of his group, including Hill. If you can believe the foxy Mariana Hill would have sex with Klaus Kinski, you’ll have no problem dealing with other offbeat stuff in the screenplay by director David Paulsen (SAVAGE WEEKEND).

SCHIZOID offers plenty of clues to the killer’s identity, as well as red herrings. What it doesn’t dish up is juicy gore (it was released the same year as FRIDAY THE 13TH) and a twist ending that fools anybody. Both Hill and Wilkes have brief nude scenes, if you’re into that (if you’re not, check out Wasson in GHOST STORY), and all the characters act weird.

Kinski is a flat-out weirdo — off-screen and usually on-screen — but there’s no denying his twitchy hamming is fun to watch. Here, his character smokes constantly, follows people around, and acts generally suspicious for no good reason, other than that’s just how Klaus Kinski is. The television-friendly cast also includes Joe Regalbuto (MURPHY BROWN) and Richard Herd (T.J. HOOKER) as cops, and Paulsen went on to produce, direct, and write DYNASTY, DALLAS, and KNOTS LANDING. The R-rated SCHIZOID was one of the first features produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus after taking over The Cannon Group in 1979.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Mean Season

One-and-done screenwriter Leon Piedmont adapted John Katzenbach’s fine 1982 suspense novel IN THE HEAT OF THE SUMMER for this Orion release. Kurt Russell, in the middle of more lighthearted fare like SWING SHIFT, THE BEST OF TIMES, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, stars as Miami newspaper reporter Malcolm Anderson, who’s feeling a bit burned out at work and considering a move to sedate Colorado with his schoolteacher girlfriend Christine (Mariel Hemingway). Then, The Big Story He’s Been Waiting For His Entire Career arrives in the form of a serial killer who calls Malcolm and provides sneak previews of his next murders.

Forming an uneasy alliance with police detectives Wilson (Richard Bradford) and Martinez (Andy Garcia) and a much easier one with the rest of the news media, Malcolm enjoys his new fame, even as it comes at the expense of the killer’s victims. While director Phillip Borsos (THE GREY FOX) and Piedmont are more interested in THE MEAN SEASON’s mainstream thriller elements than in digging into themes of fame and the struggle when the public’s right to know may conflict with public safety, the subtext is there, and Russell, Hemingway, and Richard Masur as Malcolm’s editor play it well.

THE MEAN SEASON takes liberties with Katzenbach’s novel at times, usually not to improve it. It makes sense that Borsos would want to gin up some action and suspense elements for his ending, but the constant false scares and cliches do the story no favors. Borsos demonstrates a keen sense of story and visuals, and his cast plays up to his standards. Russell isn’t afraid to let Malcolm shows some unlikable characteristics, and Hemingway does her best with an underwritten role of The Girlfriend. Richard Jordan (LOGAN’S RUN), who, like Borsos, died young, is mostly heard as a malevolent telephone voice as the seductive killer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trial By Terror

Is the Hildy Brooks who directed this suburban thriller from the JAKE SPEED writer/producer team of Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane the same person as the character actor Hildy Brooks from John Frankenheimer’s THE ICEMAN COMETH?

Whomever Brooks is, the direction of this dull and poorly paced picture stinks. Drink every time Martin Landau, who may be improvising some scenes, calls someone “my friend.” The cast isn’t the problem, nor is the basic story by Crawford, Lane, and Barbara Elaine Smith (FAMILY).

The first week in Greg (Crawford) and Karen (top-billed Kay Lenz) Armstrong’s new house sucks. Vandals keep striking, escalating from trashing cars and dumping trash in the yard to breaking and entering, which culminates in Greg blasting an intruder with a shotgun. Instead of amping up into a DEATH WISH clone, TRIAL BY TERROR opts for a CBS movie-of-the-week approach. That would have paired Lenz with Robert Foxworth and been directed by a pro who could have put some gloss on it.

Unfortunately, instead of action and violence, Brooks delivers weeping and chatter as the Armstrongs try to cope with taking a life and the civil suit the dead boy’s Hispanic mother files. None of this is dramatic or interesting. Landau shambles through the movie as a homicide cop named Jay Galen. He wears a cap in each scene, probably because the production was too cheap to spring for a new rug. He shares a pointless scene with Allen Garfield, who plays a prosecutor who threatens to bring Greg up on charges, but is never seen or heard from again.

Colleen Camp (THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS) also drops by as the cop girlfriend of one of Greg’s friends. You would think that character would be relevant in a movie about suburbanites being stalked by hoods, but she also disappears from the film early. We never even learn who the bad guys are, what they want, and why they would go to such an effort to hassle the Armstrongs. TRIAL BY TERROR is crummy even by Crawford and Lane’s low standards.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Bounty Killer

Director and co-writer Henry Saine is certainly up on his Robert Rodriguez movies. BOUNTY KILLER cribs from Rodriguez’s arch action pictures, primarily SIN CITY, GRINDHOUSE, and the MACHETE series, and melds a smidgen of social commentary into its futuristic setting. Saine and co-writers Jason Dodson and Colin Ebeling exhibit no shortage of enthusiasm, however, gleefully splashing one-liners, outrageous story turns, and gallons of CGI gore across the screen, whether they make sense or not.

In the not-too-distant future, America is a wasteland caused by big business. What government is left puts out a bounty on white collar criminals — dead or dead. The hunters who kill them are celebrities with colorful monikers like Mary Death (Christian Pitre) and Drifter (ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART 1’s Matthew Marsden). Okay, not that colorful. Trouble ensues when Drifter becomes a target for bounty killers, forcing him, Mary (his former protege and lover), and his fat “gun caddy” Jack (Bruce Vilanch lookalike Barak Hardley) to make his case to the council that runs the government — if he doesn’t get killed first.

Before BOUNTY KILLER was a three-week feature that received a brief theatrical release, it was a short film (also starring Pitre and Hardley), an animated short, and a comic book, all written by Dodson. Considering its derivative nature, the feature often feels original, basically because it’s genuinely witty and clever in spots (who woulda thought a sixer of PBR could be such valuable currency?). The action sequences are quite good when not marred by amateurish CGI and tedious gore.

As for the cast, Marsden is a pretty boy cipher. Pitre not only looks like a stripper, but she acts as well as one too. A pity, because more dynamic stars could have made BOUNTY KILLER an independent exploitation classic. Gary Busey (LETHAL WEAPON) is Buseyesque as a corporate assassin, Eve (BARBERSHOP) is a menacing gypsy in skull facepaint, Beverly D’Angelo (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION) is a weary barmaid at the Thirsty Beaver (!), and Kristanna Loken (TERMINATOR 3) is the baddie behind it all. An early sequence told through charmingly retro animation proves the perfect vehicle for explaining the film’s setting and backstory, and it’s difficult to dislike anything that features guys wearing jet packs.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tank

TANK ranks as a mere footnote in the career of director Marvin Chomsky, whose stellar career in television earned him nine Emmy nominations and four trophies for lofty projects like ROOTS, ATTICA, HOLOCAUST, and INSIDE THE THIRD REICH. In that context, it’s odd to see his name connected with this frothy action movie without a socially conscious bone in its body.

Chomsky is slumming here, and so is James Garner, who breezes through the starring role of Sergeant Major Zack Carey, who arrives at a Georgia base with his wife (Shirley Jones) and teenage son (C. Thomas Howell) for his final assignment before retiring to a fishing boat. An off-post incident with a pimp small-town deputy (James Cromwell) abusing prostitute Sara (Jenilee Harrison) puts Carey up against the local sheriff, the corrupt and racist Cyrus Buelton (G.D. Spradlin).

Did I mention Carey owns a fully restored and operational Sherman tank? Well, he does, and he uses it to bust Howell out of jail after the sheriff frames the boy on a drug charge. With Sara along as a passenger, the Carey men chug their way to the state line, where they can get a fair hearing, blowing up a few police cars along the way.

TANK is empty calories and uneven viewing. Lightweight scenes of Garner scaring away rednecks with his tank while wacky banjo music plays on the soundtrack mix uncomfortably with unpleasant scenes involving whippings and child abuse. TANK was originally rated R by the MPAA and successfully appealed to a PG (it’s the rare PG film to feature the word “fuckin’”). In its favor is Garner, who immediately gets the audience on his side through his natural charm and his portrayal of a career military man whose strong moral code butts up against a powerful immoral force.

Thinking about Dan Gordon’s (GOTCHA!) story too much is a danger, as TANK exists in an America where the Constitution must not exist (in the real world, Howell would be out of jail in a day). Whatever the film’s story problems, it’s difficult to resist James Garner driving around and smashing things with a tank.

Monday, May 09, 2016

First Blood

One of the most influential film franchises of the Eighties started with FIRST BLOOD, a tough, lean action picture far different in tone from its cartoonish sequels.

Based by screenwriters Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim (who previously worked together on the staff of the Judd Hirsch cop show DELVECCHIO) on a David Morrell novel, FIRST BLOOD tells an interesting story about John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, who considerably rewrote the script), a drifter, Green Beret, and Vietnam vet who just wants to buy breakfast and instead goes on to destroy an entire town.

Passing through Hope County, Washington on foot to visit an old Army buddy, Rambo is hassled and roughed up by Teasle (Brian Dennehy), the local sheriff, and his deputies. Wanting to avoid trouble, but tortured by flashbacks of his term in a POW camp, Rambo, after being pushed to the limit, explodes against his captors, knocking them about and escaping into the mountains, where he survives using his military training against seemingly hundreds of policemen and National Guardsmen.

It’s rarely discussed, but the performances in FIRST BLOOD are top-notch. Yes, the action is exceedingly well crafted by director Ted Kotcheff (NORTH DALLAS FORTY), the thick British Columbian locations are expertly shot by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (SOUTHERN COMFORT), and Jerry Goldsmith’s churning score ranks among his finest work. But it’s the acting that lends weight to the story’s implausibilities and lends sympathy to Rambo’s plight.

Stallone’s performance is mostly physical, of course, but his naturalistic acting in his first scene with the mother of his old friend shows Rambo as a quiet man, shy perhaps, but with a sense of humor. Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s former Army commander and, in effect, the film’s Dr. Frankenstein, was a last-minute replacement for Kirk Douglas, but is so authoritative and avuncular in the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

Kotcheff assembled some strong faces to play the cops too: Jack Starrett as the brutal deputy Galt (the only character who dies in the film), Bill McKinney (DELIVERANCE) as the head of the State Police, Chris Mulkey, Michael Talbott, and a young David Caruso (CSI: MIAMI).

But it’s Dennehy who captures acting honors, portraying Teasle as a complicated man, nominally the film’s villain, but not a bad guy. Yes, he’s stubborn, close-minded, arrogant, temperamental, and responsible for Rambo’s rampage, and when Trautman shows up to “rescue” Teasle’s men from Rambo, he treats the colonel with disdain. But Dennehy also shows shades of Teasle’s more sympathetic traits when the man comes to realize he’s in way over his head.

FIRST BLOOD was a hit in the fall of 1982, spending three straight weeks at number-one at the box office and reviving Stallone’s career, which needed a non-ROCKY hit. Rambo returned in two ludicrous though entertaining sequels during the ‘80s—RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III—followed by the more thoughtful and gorier RAMBO in 2008.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Take A Hard Ride

TAKE A HARD RIDE is an interesting melding of the blaxploitation and spaghetti western genres and the most “Hollywood” film of Italian director Antonio Margheriti’s long career.

Shot in the Canary Islands of Spain, TAKE A HARD RIDE assembles a great cast of aging Hollywood veterans and exciting young black movie stars to perform a script by HAWAII FIVE-0 writers Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig for release by 20th Century Fox. The title was probably chosen to remind the audience of the previous year’s THREE THE HARD WAY, the first film to team Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly.

Even with Margheriti and an Italian cinematographer behind the camera and composer Jerry Goldsmith delivering one of his experimental discordant scores, TAKE A HARD RIDE looks like a typical American western of the era. Honest cowboy Pike (Brown) gives his word to a dying rancher (Dana Andrews in a “guest appearance”) that he’ll deliver $86,000 to the old man’s family in Mexico. Pike’s journey is the worst-kept secret in the west with every nasty jasper and owlhoot in the desert out to hijack the money.

One is Tyree (Williamson), a sharp-dressed card sharp who offers to accompany Pike as far as the border, at which point all bets are off. Many more join the party. Some good, such as widow Catherine (Catherine Spaak) and mute kung fu Indian Kashtok (Kelly), but mostly mean, like bent sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan), thugs Skave (Robert Donner) and Dumper (Harry Carey Jr.), and especially hawk-nosed bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), who follows the party at a distance, waiting for the right time to pounce.

I wish I could report that TAKE A HARD RIDE is as entertaining as its cast, but I can’t. Making Kelly’s character a mute, leaving him unable to interact with his co-stars, removes some of the camaraderie among the three leads. Margheriti has a fine eye for desert action scenes, knowing just where to place the camera to take best advantage of the Canary Islands’ beautiful rocks and sand, but the non-action scenes can be a bit of a slog. Williamson later hired Brown and Kelly (and Richard Roundtree) to act with him in the unofficial THREE THE HARD WAY sequel ONE DOWN TWO TO GO.