Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Swinging Barmaids

Despite the sexy title and an advertising campaign stating that the title maids enjoy “big tips” and let the “customer come first,” THE SWINGING BARMAIDS is actually a crime drama, albeit a skeevy one. From director Gus Trikonis and producer Ed Carlin, who also made NASHVILLE GIRL, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE STUDENT BODY, and THE EVIL together, this film was released by Premiere Releasing Organization as a follow-up to the similar THE MANHANDLERS and MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS.

Television guest star Bruce Watson (he was in the first STAR TREK ever telecast) tears into his role as misogynist serial killer Tom Brady (!), who travels across the country, donning (laughable) disguises and murdering (hot) cocktail waitresses. He also enjoys arranging their nude corpses and taking photos of them. Now in Los Angeles, his latest victims are the ladies of the Swing-A-Ling, where he scores a gig as a bouncer. Fresh meat includes Susie (Katie Saylor, star of TV’s FANTASTIC JOURNEY), Marie (Renie Radich, seen in THREE THE HARD WAY), and Jenny (Laura Hippe, a Scientologist who committed suicide in 1986). In charge of the case is police detective Harry White, played by the great drive-in star William Smith (BLACK SAMSON), who usually played the psycho in these types of films.

Brady’s scheme to work at the Ring-A-Ding, which is packed with sexy barmaids, is pretty clever, as it allows him to listen in on the girls’ plans to catch the killer. Undoubtedly, working two days on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and ADAM-12 episodes didn’t allow Watson to cut loose, so he takes advantage of the R rating and Griffith’s sleazebag character to engage in some bonkers acting. Watson really isn’t that good, but in the context of this film, he’s pretty great, particularly when he gets angry listening to the barmaids insult a killer he proudly claims is some sort of criminal mastermind.

Written by the often witty Charles B. Griffith (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), THE SWINGING BARMAIDS has a steady slew of crowdpleasingly graphic murders, some nudity, and clever dialogue, but the story could have used more work. Watson is first seen wearing an (obvious) fake blond wig and beard, yet witnesses describe him as having dark hair. Later, a witness tells White the suspect was driving a green Kawasaki, but the police bulletin asks officers to be on the lookout for a Honda.

Still, Trikonis delivers a decent body count and thoughtfully directs Watson to rip off the women’s tops before killing them. The actors appear to be doing most of their stunts. One victim is Dyanne Thorne, just before she became a drive-in queen as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Also appearing is bad comic Dick Yarmy, Don Adams’ lookalike brother, playing a bad comic. Motion Picture Marketing later released THE SWINGING BARMAIDS as EAGER BEAVERS.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Return Of Count Yorga

Robert Quarry became a short-lived horror movie star and an AIP contract player in the early 1970s on the basis of his two COUNT YORGA movies, which were shot on low budgets by director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) and producer Michael Macready. Macready’s father, well-known character actor George Macready (coming off a long run as bitter old town patriarch Martin Peyton on TV’s PEYTON PLACE), narrated COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and plays a professor in this sequel, his final film. George died in 1973.

Screenwriters Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder skip over any troublesome explanation of how Yorga (Quarry) and his scarred brute assistant Brudah (Edward Walsh) escaped clear deaths in VAMPIRE. Yorga, Brudah, and a harem of undead vamps in negligees move into a Bay Area mansion near an orphanage run by Reverend Thomas (Tom Toner). While attending an orphanage fundraiser, Yorga falls for a pretty young teacher, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley). That night, he sends his vampire harem to slaughter Cynthia’s family (yes, this was in theaters two years after the Manson murders) and bring her back to his place, where he hypnotizes her into believing she was the victim of a car crash. She soon comes to realize, however, she’s a prisoner of Count Yorga’s, rather than a guest, and seeks to escape, while her psychiatrist fiancĂ© (Roger Perry, who played a different hero in VAMPIRE) and a pair of comic relief cops attempt a rescue.

Although solidly directed by Kelljan, sharply photographed by Bill Butler (JAWS), and crisply edited by Fabien Tjordmann (an Emmy winner for STAR TREK), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA doesn’t quite work. The story by Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder (who also portrays a mute teacher in the film) is extremely thin—there’s a lot of wandering around labyrinthine hallways and through doorways—and some plotholes may have you scratching your head (like why don’t the cops use their crosses to fight off the vamps?). The parts that do work, however, work exceedingly well. The final third, which mainly consists of the rescue attempt, is scary and exciting, and Kelljan consistently spices the film with enough intriguing camera angles and directorial touches to add to the film’s visual luster.

Quarry is excellent as one of modern cinema’s great bloodsuckers—regal, intense, and witty. He starred in other horror films, such as THE DEATHMASTER, but was never as good in anything as he was as Count Yorga. Hartley is too old to play the ingĂ©nue, but is fine otherwise. Perry, a likable actor in many light television parts, pulls off the difficult task of making his underdeveloped character someone to root for. Comic actors Rudy DeLuca (a frequent Mel Brooks collaborator) and Craig T. Nelson (his film debut!) as the cops are fun, wisely finding the right level of humor without going too far. One wonders whether the movie might have been better without Perry and letting DeLuca and Nelson carry the heroics.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Prescription: Murder

When actor Peter Falk first donned Lieutenant Columbo’s rumpled raincoat for this Universal TV-movie in 1968, who could have known that he would still be wearing that same raincoat in 2003, when the last COLUMBO episode/movie aired.

Adapted by Richard Levinson and William Link from their own play, which starred character actor Thomas Mitchell as Columbo, PRESCRIPTION: MURDER sets the formula for nearly every Columbo adventure yet to come, most importantly by squaring the slovenly detective off against a real smoothie, his opposite in style, played perfectly by Gene Barry (BURKE’S LAW). Barry, who never made a return appearance to the COLUMBO-verse, is the quintessential Columbo villain—suave, urbane, cold, clever, and arrogant. In other words, the perfect foil for Falk, whose rumpled appearance, absentmindedness, short stature, and acute politeness masked an intelligence and an eye for details that always led to the killer’s demise.

Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Barry) thinks he’s committed the perfect murder. By strangling his wife Carol (Nina Foch) in their penthouse apartment and recruiting his young mistress, actress Joan Hudson (Katherine Justice), to pose as Carol during a staged argument that results in “Carol” refusing to accompany him on a flight to Acapulco, Flemming has a perfect alibi when his wife’s corpse is found a few days later. Witnesses saw Carol stalk off the airplane prior to takeoff, and the waters off the Mexican coast are ideal for dumping the expensive items “stolen” by the robber who will be blamed for Carol’s death. MURDER also sets the COLUMBO formula by showing the killer’s preparation and deed in great detail. Falk doesn’t enter until the second act, after Levinson and Link provide a good hard look at Flemming’s elaborate plan in which he appears to leave no clues to his guilt.

However, there is no such thing as the “perfect murder.” Columbo becomes a bit of a pest, stopping by Flemming’s home and office at all hours, asking questions that seem inconsequential until he has no doubt of the doctor’s guilt. The fun is in the cat-and-mouse aspect of Levinson and Link’s teleplay, where Columbo knows his adversary is guilty, and Flemming knows that Columbo knows, yet without proof, what can the detective do? The two parry with each other over bourbon, talking about hypothetical murders, Barry’s cool charm meshing with Falk’s puppy-dog determination. The actors have excellent chemistry, and the grudging respect that the two characters have for each other, even as one tries to jail the other for murder, is quite clear in the performances.

If there is a weakness, it would be in Richard Irving’s direction, which does a poor job of masking MURDER’s stage origins. Too many scenes consist of actors awkwardly standing together facing the camera, rather than each other, and the sets are built with only three walls, resulting in little variety to cinematographer Ray Rennahan’s camera angles. Falk still had not quite found his character. Columbo shouting and losing his temper, showy though it may be, would later be terribly out of character for the always-in-control sleuth he would become.

Even though PRESCRIPTION: MURDER was a ratings success, Universal didn’t make a follow-up for three years. 1971’s RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, guest-starring Lee Grant as a rare female COLUMBO killer, served as a backdoor pilot for the series, which took up one spoke of the NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE wheel for seven seasons, airing every month or so in 90- or 120-minute episodes. In 1989, COLUMBO returned to television as part of the ABC MYSTERY MOVIE on Saturday nights, along with Burt Reynolds as B.L. STRYKER, Telly Savalas as KOJAK, and others. COLUMBO was the only show to survive, as Falk continued making two-hour movies with the character through 2003’s COLUMBO LIKES THE NIGHTLIFE.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Rage

With slasher movies all the rage, Columbia enlisted chopsocky star Chuck Norris for this action-oriented horror film influenced by the Frankenstein legend. That director Michael Miller (JACKSON COUNTY JAIL) opens SILENT RAGE with a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot cribbed from HALLOWEEN’s iconic prologue can’t be a coincidence. Miller’s opening is an attention getter for sure, as hulking Brian Libby (THE OCTAGON) goes postal with an axe on his landlords, engages town sheriff Norris (FORCED VENGEANCE) in an exhaustive fight, snaps his handcuffs, kicks a police car door off its hinges, and finally collapses in a hail of bloody gunfire.

With Libby presumed dead, Norris can concentrate on making time with hospital administrator Toni Kalem (THE WANDERERS), whose shrink brother Ron Silver (TIMECOP) is working with scientists Steven Keats (THE GUMBALL RALLY) and William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) in an illegal life-rejuvenation experiment. Against Silver’s wishes, Keats injects Libby’s corpse with a full dose of their new drug, which brings the man back to life with the unfortunate side effect of turning him into an invulnerable killing machine. Basically, SILENT RAGE is CHUCK NORRIS MEETS FRANKENSTEIN with occasional karate fights.

Miller uses long takes, practical locations in the Dallas, Texas area, and interesting camera movement to inject life into the non-action scenes, which effectively builds suspense and realism, but also showcases Norris’ deficiencies as an actor. He looks uncomfortable in his love scenes with Kalem and the dialogue scenes with fat, stupid deputy Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE), which are played for lame comic relief. The screenplay by Joseph Fraley (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) has its fair share of inconsistencies, but excellent performances by Silver, Keats, and Finley provide dimension to their mad scientist roles that help paper over any holes.

While SILENT RAGE falls confidently into the horror/slasher genre, it works effectively as an action vehicle for Norris. The grueling climax between Chuck and the zombified Libby is a corker, but the film’s highlight is a midpoint barroom brawl between Norris and a couple dozen bikers. With more nudity and gore than expected in a Chuck Norris movie — Finley’s demise is especially grisly — SILENT RAGE checks all the exploitation boxes. Peter Bernstein (BOLERO) and Mark Goldenberg (TEEN WOLF TOO) compose a good score, though Miller mostly underscores the fight scenes with pure sound effects for maximum realism.

Oddly, Miller’s next film, also released in 1982, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CLASS REUNION, was a spoof of slasher movies. In a strange career turn, Miller moved into television and cranked out a series of romances based on the mushy novels of Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Norris did FORCED VENGEANCE next, though it was his later movies for Cannon that make him a household name.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Around The World Under The Sea

TV impresario Ivan Tors produced AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA for MGM, so it’s no surprise to see stars from his hit shows SEA HUNT (Lloyd Bridges), FLIPPER (Brian Kelly), and DAKTARI (Marshall Thompson). In addition, screenwriters Arthur Weiss and Art Arthur also penned scripts for those shows, as well as VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, making them perfectly suited for this dramatically inert hokum.

These are the continuing adventures of the Hydronaut, an atomic-powered submarine assigned to circumvent the Earth planting earthquake sensors on the ocean floor. In addition to Doctors Standish (Bridges), Mosby (Kelly), and Hillyard (Thompson), the ship carries Dr. Volker (David McCallum, then on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), crusty rabbit whisperer Stahl (Keenan Wynn), and Dr. Hanford (GOLDFINGER’s golden girl Shirley Eaton), whose rear end should receive separate billing, as often as director Andrew Marton (CRACK IN THE WORLD) points his camera at it.

Even though the characters are adults and professionals, the mere presence of a woman on the ship turns them into bickering juveniles, which doesn’t bode well for their survival chances against underwater volcanoes and deadly eels. Hell, McCallum (he and Wynn give the liveliest performances) drives the sub right into a damn rock wall because he’s so distracted by Eaton’s hotness.

Actually, the film’s biggest problem is its lack of suspense. Weiss and Arthur’s screenplay is heavy on talk, light on action, and Marton is unable to wring much excitement out of the few opportunities to do so. The thin characters and bright colors lead one to believe children were Tors’ prime audience for AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA. It has little for adults beyond the virtues of Miss Eaton and the novelty of Lloyd, still trim in tight shorts, skin-diving in color. Marton shot at Tors’ Miami studio with Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, both Black Lagoon creatures, on the crew.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Night Patrol

An unfunny comedy is the worst type of film, and NIGHT PATROL is the worst of that type of film. Tasteless, idiotic, foul, and witless, this R-rated abomination spins gags about urination, defecation, sperm banks, dope, homosexuality, blackface, rape, and “The Dyke Van Dick Show” that are so bad, even 12-year-olds will be offended. When you see a sign announcing a cockfight, you know you’re about to see two naked guys in an alley pounding their torsos together. Thank your lucky stars it’s only 85 minutes long.

Convicted of writing the screenplay are star Murray Langston, better known as THE GONG SHOW’s Unknown Comic (he wore a paper bag over his head and told deliberately awful jokes); William A. Levey, director of the execrable BLACKENSTEIN; pornographer Bill Osco (the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND); and Jackie Kong, Osco’s wife who also produced NIGHT PATROL with Osco and directed it. To her credit, Kong is one of a handful of Asian-American women to direct mainstream Hollywood features. That she was so bad at directing (THE BEING and BLOOD DINER are other Kong films) perhaps shouldn’t be held against her, but then again, she directed NIGHT PATROL.

The ostensible plot finds bumbling patrolman Melvin White (Langston) struggling to balance working the night shift and breaking into show business with his Unknown Comic standup act. Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS) grabs top billing as Melvin’s romantic interest Sue Perman (groan), GONG SHOW panelist Jaye P. Morgan is Melvin’s new agent, Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR) is Melvin’s womanizing new partner, Jack Riley (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) is Melvin’s shrink, and Billy Barty (UNDER THE RAINBOW) craps his dignity right down the bowl playing Melvin’s flatulent boss.

NIGHT PATROL’s strangest obsession is dubbing characters with incongruent voices, such as Pat Morita’s rape victim with a little girl’s voice. Oddly, Langston is dubbed by a different actor when wearing the Unknown Comic bag. The clumsy post-production shenanigans (some actors’ names are misspelled in the credits) and the (tame) bloopers that play at the end lead one to wonder if NIGHT PATROL was originally an Unknown Comic movie that was retooled as an ensemble piece that would rip off POLICE ACADEMY. It’s weird that anyone believed Langston and Paulsen posing as black pimps would be funnier.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jungle Moon Men (1955)

When producer Sam Katzman no longer owned the film rights to King Features’ Jungle Jim character, he just changed the name of the leading character played by Johnny Weissmuller to “Johnny Weissmuller” and kept churning out the movies. It didn’t affect Weissmuller’s performance at all nor probably Columbia’s box office profits. Katzman and serial director Charles S. Gould (THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD) shot JUNGLE MOON MEN in a week, and after thirteen Jungle Jim pictures (and one “Johnny Weissmuller”), the template was firmly established.

JUNGLE MOON MEN is as much H. Rider Haggard than it is Alex Raymond. Johnny (Weissmuller) agrees to guide Ellen Marsten (Jean Byron, later the mom on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), an Egyptologist, deep into the jungle to find a native tribe called the Baku. It just so happens that Nolimo (Michael Granger) approaches Johnny the same day to help him find his son Marro (Ben Chapman, one of the Creatures from the Black Lagoon), who has been kidnapped by the so-called “Moon Men,” who just happen to live in — wait for it — the Baku.

Ellen’s boyfriend Bob Prentice (Bill Henry) joins the expedition, while unscrupulous guide Santo (Myron Healey), whom Johnny hates, tags along behind in an effort to find diamonds he believes the Moon Men have. The Moon Men are pygmies, including Billy Curtis in not one of his most dignified roles (Weissmuller repels the whole tribe simply by lifting the kicking Curtis off the ground), and worship the sun-worshipping Oma (Helen Stanton), who captures the team and demands that Bob marry her and become her high priest.

People loved Johnny Weissmuller, which is the only reason the Jungle Jim series (which JUNGLE MOON MEN should be considered a part of) ran as long as it did. In fact, at the same time he was doing the “Johnny Weissmuller” films, he was also starring as Jungle Jim in a syndicated television series. I doubt the kids were confused. Nor will you be by JUNGLE MOON MEN’s simple story, which weaves elements of SHE into the jungle B-picture template. Performed and produced adequately enough for kiddie matinees, this was Johnny’s next-to-last feature before retiring.