Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Horror At 37,000 Feet

Busy episodic TV writer/producers Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan tapped out the teleplay for the CBS Movie of the Week THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET. Aired in 1973, this Movie of the Week directed by David Lowell Rich (THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79) enjoys a certain cult cachet four decades later. It’s gloriously silly with a ludicrous plot about a London-to-New York airliner transporting a haunted abbey, unconvincing special effects, and a name cast of ham-slicing stars that threatens to turn the film into a horror version of AIRPORT.

The first to succumb to both overwrought playing and the spooks haunting the aircraft is Jane Merrow (HANDS OF THE RIPPER), whose family has owned the abbey for centuries. She and her architect husband Roy Thinnes (THE INVADERS) are aboard a curiously underfilled flight along with bossy rich dude Buddy Ebsen (then on BARNABY JONES), self-loathing priest William Shatner and his companion Lynn Loring (BLACK NOON), model France Nuyen (who gets nothing to do), nutcase Tammy Grimes, physician Paul Winfield, and spaghetti western star Will Hutchins (SUGARFOOT), ludicrously decked out in ‘40s B-western wear—you know, like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef wore in Beverly Hills all the time.

At one point, the passengers try to disguise a child’s doll as a baby and offer it as sacrifice to whatever spirit is haunting the plane—a plan that works about as well as you would expect. HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is short enough to maintain a certain level of watchability while never becoming anything close to good. Shatner is the only star who seems comfortable with the campy dialogue, though it may be that he’s the only one with an actual character to play. Darleen Carr, H.M. Wynant, Brenda Benet, Russell Johnson, and Chuck Connors play the ship's crew.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tales From The Darkside: The Movie

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE may be the most obscure television series to spawn a feature film. One of many horror anthologies clogging late-night schedules in the late 1980s (see also: MONSTERS, FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES, et al.), TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE was notable because of the participation of George A. Romero, director of the classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, who served as executive producer and occasional writer on TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE.

Almost two years after the final DARKSIDE episode aired in syndication, Paramount released TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE featuring a screenplay by Romero and novelist Michael McDowell, who had written BEETLEJUICE in addition to some DARKSIDEs. Like Romero’s earlier (and better) film CREEPSHOW, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE was an anthology reminiscent of the twist-in-the-tail horror comic books published by M.C. Gaines’ EC in the 1950s.

The impetus for DARKSIDE’s three tales of terror is a little boy (Matthew Lawrence) caged by a cannibalistic housewife (Blondie bombshell Deborah Harry). To distract her from starting dinner, the boy tells her three stories from a book titled...TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE.

“Lot 249,” penned by McDowell from an Arthur Conan Doyle story, is noteworthy for its starring roles by Steve Buscemi (RESERVOIR DOGS) and soap opera actress Julianne Moore (SHORT CUTS), making her film debut. Buscemi plays a disgraced graduate student who uses a 3000-year-old mummy to get revenge against the rich snobs, played by Moore and Robert Sedgwick, who cheated him out of a scholarship. Christian Slater (KUFFS) plays Moore’s brother.

Not quite as interesting as the middling “Lot 249,” which has a cool KNB-created mummy going for it, is “Cat from Hell,” a Romero screenplay based on a Stephen King story that was intended for CREEPSHOW 2. Wealthy old sickie William Hickey (PRIZZI’S HONOR) offers hitman David Johansen (SCROOGED) $50,000 to kill...a cat, which Hickey believes is evil.

In time-honored tradition, director John Harrison (another TV veteran) saves the best story for last. “Lover’s Vow,” a McDowell original, is the only segment that is genuinely good, though the twist probably won’t come as a surprise. It stars James Remar (48 HRS.) as an artist who sees a gargoyle commit a murder. The gargoyle spares his life so long as he promises never to tell anyone what he saw. He eventually marries Rae Dawn Chong (THE BORROWER), and they raise children together. But how long can he keep the secret?

Aside from some nifty makeup effects credited to KNB (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN) and consultant Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), there’s little to recommend about TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE. It’s certainly better than CREEPSHOW 2 at least. It opened third at the box office behind megahits PRETTY WOMAN and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES in their second month of release. McDowell also wrote scripts for MONSTERS and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Verdict

Paul Newman earned his sixth Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in THE VERDICT as alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin, whose brass ring of a case brings him heartache, betrayal, and finally a renewed sense of purpose. Though THE VERDICT may well represent Newman’s finest dramatic performance in a career full of great performances, he somehow lost the Oscar to GANDHI’s Ben Kingsley (he finally won on his seventh try in 1987 for THE COLOR OF MONEY).

The first time we see Frank Galvin, he’s drinking raw eggs and beer and playing pinball alone in an empty Boston tavern on an early wintry morning. He’s had four cases in the last three years—lost ‘em all—and is reduced to handing out his business card to grieving widows in the condolence line at funerals (he scans the obituaries every day for potential new clients).

Down, drunk, and nearly out, Galvin is tossed a bone by his friend and mentor Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden). Young Deborah Ann Kaye was admitted to an expensive Catholic hospital to deliver her baby, but suffered permanent brain damage and a coma when she was given the wrong anesthetic by her doctors. The Archdiocese is willing to settle for $210,000 to avoid a scandal, but seeing Deborah alone, hooked to machines, in the hospital bed where she’ll spend the rest of her natural life, has kicked Galvin in the rear.

Finding his soul and realizing no one but him gives a damn about Deborah, Galvin turns down the money and, with only Mickey and his new lover Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to help, prepares to try his case against “the Prince of Darkness:” high-priced lawyer Edward Concannon (James Mason, another Oscar nominee), whose reputation and influence have gained him the obvious favor of Judge Hoyle (Milo O’Shea).

THE VERDICT, based by screenwriter David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) on a novel by Barry Reed, is less a courtroom drama than a stirring character study of a man given a second chance. He once had—and lost—a wife, money, respect, and a substantial law practice, but now spends his evenings buying drinks and telling jokes at the local Irish pub. Newman IS Frank Galvin, embodying his world-weariness and determination body and soul, and is always believable.

Director Sidney Lumet, another of THE VERDICT’s five Academy Award nominees, helms with a stark style that complements Newman’s performance perfectly, often shooting in one long take and placing the camera far across the room to accentuate Galvin’s loneliness and stacked odds against him. Lumet (DOG DAY AFTERNOON) isn’t afraid to use silence or flat lighting, and Johnny Mandel’s score is so effective, you won’t even know it’s there.

Between them, Newman and Lumet made dozens of landmark films (oddly, this is the only one they made together), and it’s a great tribute to say THE VERDICT is one of the best in each of their filmographies. The crack supporting cast also includes Edward Binns (from Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN), Lindsay Crouse, Joe Seneca, James Handy, Wesley Addy ,and Julie Bovasso. If you look closely, you’ll spot Bruce Willis as an uncredited courtroom extra. Lumet, Mamet also received an Oscar nod for his screenplay (as well as a Writers Guild Award), as did producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown for Best Picture.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Narrow Margin (1990)

Gene Hackman (an Oscar winner for THE FRENCH CONNECTION) and Anne Archer (an Oscar nominee for FATAL ATTRACTION) star in NARROW MARGIN, Carolco’s entertaining, fast-moving remake of Richard Fleischer’s 1952 B-picture that starred Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

Peter Hyams, who wrote, directed, and photographed this train picture, sometimes sacrifices logic for thrills, but the well-crafted action sequences, beautiful British Columbian scenery, and breezy performances make everything okay. Hey, who can resist an action thriller set on a train?

Archer is Carol Hunnicut, a divorcee on a blind date with an attorney (J.T. Walsh). While freshening up in the bathroom, she overhears two men (one of whom is an uncredited Harris Yulin) enter her date’s hotel room and shoot him in the head. She runs off and hides away in an isolated cabin way up in the Canadian mountains, but Assistant District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Hackman) finds her and tries to convince her to testify. Before he can, the cabin is shot up by two men in a helicopter, and the chase is on. James B. Sikking (OUTLAND) plays one of the assassins, and he and Hackman play a neat little game of cat-and-mouse: each knows whom the other is, but is playing it cool for appearance’s sake.

Like a lot of Hyams’ films, you’ll have to keep a healthy suspension of disbelief to enjoy NARROW MARGIN. Certainly nitpickers will have a field day with it, particularly Hackman’s amazing athleticism (though it is mentioned Caulfield was a Marine). Stunt work is impressive, and Hyams nails some amazing shots of his stars running, jumping, and grappling outside the train. A lightweight thriller, but one that’s good fun.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Blood Beast Of Monster Mountain

Most likely inspired by the massive box office success of Charles B. Pierce’s independently produced regional hit THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, showman Donn Davison (MOONSHINER’S WOMAN) bought a ten-year-old horror comedy and tried to pass it off to paying customers as something new. Originally titled THE LEGEND OF BLOOD MOUNTAIN, the newer version cuts scenes and splices in some new bits, including a pretty good country western ballad sung by Tim York that opens the film and explains the premise. Of course, none of Davison’s footage matches the stuff originally directed by Massey Cramer (THE FLORIDA CONNECTION), and I doubt anyone was fooled.

Davison even introduces the picture, billed as a “World Traveler, Lecturer and Psychic Investigator.” He stands in front of a very ‘70s wood-paneled wall and explains the Sasquatch legend. Explaining that he wants to mix true facts about Bigfoot with the fun story created by a screenwriter, Davison and his “Mobile Unit One” cut into the plot occasionally with dubious history lessons and (faked) man-on-the-street interviews about face-to-face encounters with Bigfoot. Davison wears sunglasses to hide that he’s reading cue cards, but his stiff recitations and insistence on single takes gives the game away.

To say that these segments fit awkwardly with the slapstick antics of goofy copy boy Bestoink Dooley (George Ellis) is the only thing understated about this picture. Dooley was a character played by Ellis as a horror-movie host on Atlanta television. It’s difficult to explain Dooley’s role in MONSTER MOUNTAIN (the on-screen title of this Davison version; I’m sure there are several) — it really must be seen to be believed — but, basically, bumbling Bestoink begs his boss at the newspaper to cover the news of bleeding rocks on Blood Mountain. The editor turns him down, and Bestoink goes home to sleep, where he has weird dreams, wakes up, does some half-hearted calisthenics, flosses, then leaves and drives around in his roadster. Presumably this is more thrilling than whatever Davison cut out.

Man-child Dooley (“Please, ladies, just call me Bestoink.”) dresses like Joe E. Ross with Shemp hair working blue in the Catskills and has the mental acuity of a post-stroke Fred Flintstone. Ellis exhibits no talent for comedy, and it’s unclear that he’s even trying to be funny. Popping up in a bikini for no reason is Erin Fleming, better known later as Groucho Marx’s controversial companion in the legendary comic’s later years. It’s good to see her, only because it breaks up an absurdly Ed Woodian conversation between Dooley and a geologist about rocks and creatures and whatall bullshit. The geologist and his family have a grouchy, crazy maid, even though all we see of their house is a cheap-looking shack of a living room. If it’s possible for a film to be boring and fascinating at the same time, here’s the poster child.

So what about the monster that’s murdering folks on Stone, rather, Blood Mountain? Ho ho, you didn’t trust Donn Davison, did you?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Released the same year that Sean Connery reprised the 007 role in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, OCTOPUSSY is not one of Roger Moore’s best Bond films. It suffers from a non-threatening villain, an uninteresting plot, and inappropriate humor — a standard of the Moore films. Bond dresses as both an ape and a clown, and if a Tarzan yell punctuating the suave agent’s swinging from vine to vine doesn’t make your eyes fall in shame, there’s no hope for you.

Screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser (THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Richard Maibaum (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), and executive producer Michael G. Wilson is not based on Ian Fleming’s “Octopussy,” though elements of the story appear. While investigating the murder of a 00 agent found clutching an expensive Faberge egg, James Bond (Moore) discovers a plot by Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Soviet general Orlov (BEVERLY HILLS COP heavy Steven Berkoff, who is hysterical here) to discredit the United States by exploding a nuclear bomb at an Air Force base in Germany.

Octopussy, by the way, is the name of a woman, played by Maud Adams (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), who operates a traveling circus and leads a band of sexy smugglers on the side. While OCTOPUSSY features a rich look and lush production values synonymous with the 007 series, John Glen’s direction is unusually sluggish. The action sequences lack verve, and what should have been a suspense highlight — Khan on an elephant pursuing Bond through a jungle — comes off as ridiculous with 007 dodging snakes, spiders, leeches, lions, and crocodiles. An exception is a sequence set aboard a train, which shows off some agile stuntwork.

Robert Brown replaced the late Bernard Lee as M. Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn appear as Miss Moneypenny and Q, respectively. John Barry again composed the score with Rita Coolidge performing the theme, “All Time High.” Though NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN had the advantage of a bigger opening day weekend (OCTOPUSSY opened at #2 behind RETURN OF THE JEDI), the Moore film ended up grossing more domestic bucks over all. Moore returned for one more — A VIEW TO A KILL — before handing off his Walther PPK to Timothy Dalton.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare in Chicago

For a 1964 episode of KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER titled “Once Upon a Savage Night,” Universal allowed producer/director Robert Altman (NASHVILLE) to film on location in Chicago. To justify the expense of taking the show off the backlot and shooting cinema verite-style on Kodak’s new high-speed 35mm color stock, Universal asked Altman to direct extra footage for a “movie” it could release in theaters overseas and in syndication.

Altman avoids the usual touristy spots and downtown Chicago glitz to showcase the stark Illinois winter and tollroads appropriate for writer David Moessinger’s (QUINCY, M.E.) crime drama, which takes place mostly at night. Based on William McGivern’s novella “Killer on the Turnpike,” NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO’s first half plays sans musical score to play up the realism. It isn’t until the episode turns into a manhunt that composer John Williams (STAR WARS) brings up the score to punctuate the suspense. It looks very little like a typical ‘60s television show and very much like the experimental cinema coming out of Europe. Some performers are obvious amateurs Altman picked up in Chicago, and the stars — talented as they are — were likely chosen because they could blend with the scenery.

Philip Abbott, who played Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s blandly efficient boss on THE FBI, uses that anonymous quality to good effect as “Georgie Porgie,” a serial killer strangling women in the Midwest. He’s already struck four times by the time the story picks him up in a small Indiana town just outside Chicago. After leaving his fifth victim sprawled in her own bed, Georgie quickly adds number six, whom he shockingly strangles during a makeout session in the front row of a crowded strip club. As if a deranged serial killer isn’t enough to keep cops Charles McGraw (THE NARROW MARGIN), Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS), and Ted Knight (THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) busy on a brisk night just before Christmas, they also have to contend with an Army convoy carrying nuclear weapons that’s making its way down the same tollway Abbott is on.

“Once Upon a Savage Night” was the second and last KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER directed by Altman, who was busy on other shows like COMBAT, BUS STOP, and THE LONG HOT SUMMER at the time. While I suspect the episode plays better at an hour (one scene in particular involving two waitresses and the boyfriend of one of them has nothing to do with the story and is obvious padding) than at 79 minutes, NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO is crisp suspense on par with another of Altman’s finest works of the 1960s, BUS STOP’s notorious “A Lion Walks Among Us” episode.