Saturday, October 18, 2014

-30-


It's a little disappointing not to be covering NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL  HOUSE for the Jack Webb Blogathon. As you may know, director John Landis really wanted the DRAGNET star to play Dean Wormer in his 1978 comedy classic (and Kim Novak to play Wormer's wife!). He even met with Webb, who hadn't acted on-screen since a 1971 episode of the Don Adams police sitcom THE PARTNERS. It isn't clear whether Webb turned down the role, Universal rejected the notion, or both. At any rate, John Vernon (CHARLEY VARRICK) was hired to play Wormer and was terrific.

So, to a film that Webb did star in. Not only that, but he was also the director and producer of -30-, Webb's first film since DRAGNET went off the air in 1959 after 276 episodes (and many more on radio).

Webb takes Joe Friday to the big screen and a newspaper office in 1959's -30-, a simultaneously cynical and sentimental drama about reporters and editors pounding a beat, so to speak. And, boy, are they glib, at least according to screenwriter William Bowers (THE GUNFIGHTER), who can’t resist making the whole damn city room sound like a Hope & Crosby routine.

Led by night managing editor Sam Gatlin (Webb), the staff of a big-city newspaper working the 3pm-midnight shift tries to fill pages on what starts out as a slow night.

Before you know it, a lost three-year-old is wandering around the storm drains, rewrite woman Lady’s (Louise Lorimer) test pilot grandson is flying into danger, the boss’ influential friends are touring the newsroom, Gatlin frets over his wife's (HAZEL's Whitney Blake, later the co-creator of ONE DAY AT A TIME) decision to adopt a child, and city editor Jim Bathgate (William Conrad) is risking a buck on the sex of an Italian movie star’s new baby. All while a torrential thunderstorm rages.

Being a Jack Webb joint, the banter occasionally slows for a self-righteous monologue, but the dialogue is generally paced like a DRAGNET episode at 78 rpm. In fact, -30- rips by so quickly that, a minute after learning of a newsroom tragedy, Gatlin and Bathgate are making jokes again. As weird as it is to see Jack Webb laughing, he carries the picture well, and the blustering Conrad (CANNON) nearly steals it off Webb’s shoulders.

Joe Flynn (MCHALE’S NAVY), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Howard McNear (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), and David Nelson (THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET) are also on the paper’s staff. Webb directed one more feature before returning to television to produce G.E. TRUE, 77 SUNSET STRIP, TEMPLE HOUSTON, and a revamp of DRAGNET. Warner Brothers originally released -30- on a double bill with the Clint Walker western YELLOWSTONE KELLY.

This post is part of the Jack Webb Blogathon being hosted by The Hannibal 8. Make sure you drop by this weekend for plenty of wild Webbness.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pledge Night

If PLEDGE NIGHT holds any significance for anyone, it’s because of a brief role by Joey Belladonna, who at the time was the lead singer of Anthrax, the thrash metal band that also performed the film’s score. The directorial debut of Paul Ziller, who went on to a prolific career making awful movies with titles like SNAKEHEAD TERROR, ANDROID APOCALYPSE, and YETI: CURSE OF THE SNOW DEMON, this slasher movie plays like a less mature hybrid of REVENGE OF THE NERDS and SLAUGHTER HIGH.

Belladonna appears very briefly in a flashback as Sidney Snyder, a 1960s hippie (he doesn’t look like one) who dies in an acid bath during a hazing prank gone awry. In 1988, it’s Hell Week at Phi Epsilon Nu, where some dickweed frat guys humiliate their new pledges by making them pick up bing cherries with their ass cheeks and walk around with corn cobs tied to their cranks. These are just two of the interminable procession of tortures the freshmen endure for the sole purpose of becoming one of the douchebags making them do it.

Because producer/screenwriter Joyce Snyder was influenced by the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels — the ones where the gnarled Freddy would make quips after creative kills — the horror part of PLEDGE NIGHT follows no rules of logic or narrative structure (I didn’t say she understood the NIGHTMARE films). Suffice to say that Sid returns to life twenty years later with his face and body horribly disfigured (and a different actor in the role) and starts killing the pledges, their frat brothers, and their girlfriends (Sid makes sure their breasts are exposed first).

The acting is amateurish, and the characters unlikable and not worthy of rooting for (the exception being Todd Eastland, who is sympathetic as “townie” pledge Larry). PLEDGE NIGHT is a bad film by most units of measurement, but it also is not dull, often hilarious, and packed with bare breasts and surprisingly good special effects. The splatter is expertly created on what must have been less than a reasonable budget, most notably a shot of Sid emerging from the chest of a screaming freshman ALIEN-style.

Is PLEDGE NIGHT worth seeing? Heaven help me, for some of us, it is. The killer is absurd — “That’s for Spiro Agnew,” he says after twisting a guy’s head off, whatever that means — and the ending is beyond stupid. Even though you know how it’s going to end, you won’t be prepared for how inane it really is. But, well, gore, boobs, creative kills, and many laughs — at it, not with it. Filmed on the Rutgers University campus, if you can believe it.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Snorkel

Like the best COLUMBO episodes, THE SNORKEL opens with an elaborate, ingenious murder being committed by a cold, brilliant man.

Paul Decker (Peter Van Eyck) drugs his wife, plugs the cracks in the doors and windows, opens the gas jets operating the room’s lamps, and watches her succumb to the fumes while he sits calmly wearing a snorkel with rubber tubes that feed him fresh air from outdoors. The next morning, he crawls beneath the floorboards through a hidden trapdoor and listens to the investigating detective (Gregoire Aslan) and an official from the British consulate (William Franklyn) declare the death a suicide.

But Candy (Mandy Miller) knows better. She knows her stepfather Paul has murdered her mother, because she saw him murder her father years earlier. Nobody believed her then, and nobody, not even her governess Jean (Betta St. John), believes Paul is a murderer now.

Peter Myers and Jimmy Sangster’s tightly constructed screenplay turns into a bit of cat-and-mouse, as Candy starts to figure out how Paul, who claims to have been in another country at the time of the suicide and has the passport stamp to prove it, could have done the murder, and he realizes she’s beginning to figure it out.

The only Hammer film for both Van Eyck and director Guy Green, THE SNORKEL rests upon their more-than-capable work, wringing as much suspense as possible out of the concept (which was hatched by DR. NO actor Anthony Dawson). Van Eyck plays Decker like a real creep, particularly a scene in which he reads Candy a fake suicide note allegedly penned by her mother.

Unfortunately, Miller’s performance—the film’s most important—is not up to Van Eyck’s, and she seems a bit old for the role too. It isn’t a fatal misstep, however, and THE SNORKEL is a delightful thriller with a thoroughly hissable villain.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Time Walker

I knew TIME WALKER was trouble right from the opening credits, in which an earthquake causes a tomb to collapse—completely off-screen using sound effects. So we know from the start that TIME WALKER is cheap. Too bad it’s also boring. And beware of any film that ends with a “To Be Continued…”

Said earthquake revealed a sarcophagus in King Tut’s tomb that Professor Doug McCadden (Ben Murphy, one-half of ALIAS SMITH AND JONES) brings to his California university. Inside is what appears to be a 3000-year-old mummy covered in a mysterious green fungus. What it really is is a living extraterrestrial that escapes from its coffin and roams the university to retrieve five gems that a student stole from it and distributed to various students. That fungus is actually a nasty flesh-eating substance that kills almost instantly and creates a long list of coed corpses.

TIME WALKER is Tom Kennedy’s one and only film as a director. He isn’t untalented, and his handling of the mummy in motion—it glides across the surface—is ethereal. In fact, the mummy is really cool, and it may have been a mistake for Kennedy to keep it mostly off-screen. He seems to be paying homage to the sci-fi/horror films of the 1940s and 1950s—the mild PG-rated violence and nudity is another indicator—but perhaps giving the material a harder edge would also have provided some necessary pep.

Murphy, squeezing in a rare feature lead between high-profile television gigs (he co-starred in THE WINDS OF WAR not long afterward), is just fine in the hero role and well-matched by LUCAN’s Kevin Brophy as the dope who starts all the trouble and an ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 reunion between Austin Stoker (as a sympathetic doctor) and Darwin Joston (cop). Look for HOTEL's Shari Belafonte as that unusual campus combo of radio DJ and photojournalist.

There’s a lot to like in TIME WALKER, or at least a lot that could be liked, but Kennedy’s turgid pacing and a monster with no personality are the real killers. Nice score by Richard Band (RE-ANIMATOR). New World’s Roger Corman asked for ten minutes to be cut before he released it, and while the last thing TIME WALKER needs is more running time, it’s clear that a few subplots had to be jettisoned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Force 10 From Navarone

Seventeen years after THE GUNS OF NAVARONE was released to massive box office and seven Oscar nominations, its producer and screenwriter, Carl Foreman, finally managed to get the sequel into theaters. FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE, released by American International Pictures in 1978, is based somewhat on Alistair MacLean’s 1968 novel, which combines actions and characters from both the original film and his GUNS OF NAVARONE novel.

Playing mountain-climbing leader Mallory and demolitions man Miller are Robert Shaw (JAWS) and Edward Fox (PERFORMANCE), taking over for GUNS’ Gregory Peck and David Niven, who were considered too old to reprise their roles. Joining them is American colonel Barnsby (presumbly not the Australian Barnsby played briefly by Richard Harris in GUNS), who is played by Harrison Ford in his first action role after STAR WARS.

Mallory and Miller didn’t get along in GUNS, but FORCE 10 portrays them as good buddies, and Shaw and Fox have a nice chemistry that makes the friendship play. Their new mission is to sneak into Yugoslavia and assassinate a German spy named Nikolai (Franco Nero), who was believed to have been killed after he turned traitor during the Navarone caper.

To get into Yugoslavia, the two men join the humorless Barnsby, the leader of a commando team called Force 10 which is assigned to blow up a critical Nazi bridge. Most of Force 10 is killed getting in, leaving Barnsby, Miller, and Mallory with only Reynolds (STRANGE BREW’s Angus MacInnes) and Weaver (ROCKY’s Carl Weathers), who stowed away on Force 10’s plan after escaping from the MPs.

Unsurprisingly, the two missions are connected. And perhaps not so unsurprisingly, the story contains more than a few twists and doublecrosses. Richard “Jaws” Kiel and Barbara Bach reunite from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME to play Chetniks in cahoots with the Germans who take the Allied soldiers prisoner. With cinematographer Christopher Challis (THE DEEP) capturing some lovely images in Malta and Yugoslavia and director Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER) deftly handling the action, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE plays as a perfectly capable World War II meller, though nowhere near the classic adventure of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Guns Of Navarone

An exciting adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s best-selling 1957 novel, Columbia’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE is one of the adventure genre’s most important and influential movies. By ramping up the action, spectacle, special effects, and high-stakes peril, director J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR) and screenwriter Carl Foreman (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) anticipate what the even more popular James Bond films would become (keeping in mind that it wasn’t until the fourth film, THUNDERBALL, that the 007 productions got as big as NAVARONE in terms of its scope and big setpieces).

A 1961 release, NAVARONE was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won only for its special effects. It remains a high point of the men-on-a-mission movie and is happy to provide pure adventure and thrills without getting bogged down in non-essential plot points and characterization. It also provided novelist MacLean with a major boost. NAVARONE was among the first MacLean book to receive screen treatment (Universal also released THE SECRET WAYS in 1961, but I don’t know which film was produced or released first), and movies were made of over a dozen others well into the 1990s.

The premise is nearly bulletproof and would be copied by director Roger Corman (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and his producer brother Gene (TOBRUK) for their lower-key but still entertaining all-star potboiler THE SECRET INVASION in 1964. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE stars Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) as American captain Keith Mallory, an expert mountain climber handed a suicide mission by the Allied command.

Thompson sets up the story’s political background in a narrated prologue, but who cares about that? What’s important is Mallory’s assignment: infiltrating the island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea, scaling an unclimbable mountain cliff, and blowing up a pair of Nazi cannons. His team includes explosives expert David Niven (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS), engineer Stanley Baker (YESTERDAY’S ENEMY), military leader Anthony Quayle (TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE), and two Greeks: baby-faced killer James Darren (THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anthony Quinn (ZORBA THE GREEK), who hates Mallory.

It wouldn’t be a suicide mission, of course, if everyone made it back safely, and NAVARONE throws a lot of roadblocks at its heroes. I like Thompson’s no-nonsense approach. These men aren’t supermen nor are they armed with handy quips every time a Nazi meets a bullet. Many scenes of suspense are played without dialogue, which is the way that professionals going about a job of work would handle themselves. The cast handles the drama and the pyrotechnics with equal aplomb with the Oscar-winning miniatures, mattes, and explosions the biggest stars in the picture.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Avalanche

AVALANCHE was Roger Corman’s attempt to replicate the success of Irwin Allen’s big-budget disaster movies, such as THE TOWERING INFERNO and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Unfortunately, Corman and his executive producer Paul Rapp (THE CURIOUS FEMALE) were working on less than half the budget of Allen’s smash hits. Plus, the genre had pretty well run its course by the time New World released AVALANCHE in August 1978 (it also played at least twice on CBS, so no doubt Corman turned a profit).

Corman’s cost-cutting extended to its all-star cast. Whereas Irwin Allen’s THE SWARM, also released in 1978, boasted big names like Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland, and Henry Fonda among its cast, director Corey Allen (THUNDER AND LIGHTNING) had to make do with Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster, Jeanette Nolan, and Barry Primus — capable performers, for sure, but not among 1978’s most highly sought-after movie stars.

Two-time Oscar nominee Gavin Lambert (INSIDE DAISY CLOVER) took his name off the picture after director Allen reportedly futzed with his screenplay, and neither Hudson nor Farrow deigned to promote the movie when it came out. Corey Allen, with the help of second unit director Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR), did an okay job with the action sequences and stunts on a tight budget, but the visual effects from the studio of Gene Warren (an Oscar winner for THE TIME MACHINE) look phony and cheap. Irwin Allen made you believe a skyscraper was on fire and a cruise ship had capsized, but nobody watching AVALANCHE could possibly be convinced of a snowbound disaster (which didn’t stop Corman for recycling the effects in other movies).

The human characters are scarcely more convincing than the special effects. David Shelby (Hudson), who’s rich, bossy, and controlling, hopes to rekindle a romance with ex-wife Caroline (Farrow) by inviting her to the opening weekend of his swanky new ski resort in the Colorado mountains. She, on the other hand, is turned on by sensitive nature photographer Nick Thorne (Forster), who warns Shelby that his corner-cutting has made the mountain unstable and unsafe.

Guess who gets to say “I told ya so” when a private plane crashes into the mountain and causes the whole damn thing to tumble down upon Shelby’s lodge. The effects may be lame, but AVALANCHE at least delivers a high body count and some laughable scenes, including an exploding ambulance and two skiers whose foreplay consists entirely of snow-sporting jargon. Rock’s lascivious looks at a nubile temptress in his hot tub is his best acting in the movie.