Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ghost Story (1981)

Universal shelled out $225,000 for the rights to Peter Straub’s 1979 best seller. With the casting of four Golden Age movie stars in central roles, GHOST STORY must have freaked out geezers who paid to see a Fred Astaire movie and were inundated with R-rated gore and nudity (male and female). It did pretty good business, though, for a thoughtful, slow-burning horror movie released at the height of the slasher craze.

Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE) plays a young college professor who returns to his snowy New England hometown to attend the funeral of his twin brother, who fell naked from a window and splatted on the ground many floors below. Wasson’s father is the mayor (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., LITTLE CAESAR), who meets with his childhood friends Melvyn Douglas (NINOTCHKA), John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), and Fred Astaire (THE BAND WAGON) regularly to drink brandy and tell ghost stories.

All four have recently been suffering from nightmares, and Wasson comes to suspect it has something to do with a trauma they experienced together fifty years earlier. By the climax of the story adapted by CARRIE’s Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by John Irvin (THE DOGS OF WAR), only one of the old men is left alive to face the terror that has taken the lives of his three friends.

Stealing the picture from the veterans, which ain’t easy, is an ethereal and erotic performance by Alice Krige (in CHARIOTS OF FIRE the same year) in two roles that turn out to be more closely related than the characters realize until too late. While not a total success, due partially to limp pacing and subpar visual effects (though horror makeup by THE EXORCIST’s Dick Smith is superb), GHOST STORY capably sends an occasional shudder. Moody photography by the pioneering Jack Cardiff (SONS AND LOVERS) sets the proper atmosphere, aided by Philippe Sarde’s (TESS) score and one of Astaire’s finest non-musical performances.

Patricia Neal (HUD) co-stars as Astaire’s wife, and Jacqueline Brookes (LAST EMBRACE) is Douglas’ wife. Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks never appeared in another feature, and Douglas, who looks frail, died before the film was released in December 1981.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's Alive (1974)

Upon its initial 1974 release, IT’S ALIVE was a box office flop, due to what director/producer/writer Larry Cohen believed to be poor marketing. It made money overseas, however, and Cohen convinced new management at Warner Brothers to re-release the film in 1977 with a new campaign. Cohen was right, as IT’S ALIVE went on to gross millions against its original $500,000 budget. Two sequels followed, both directed by Cohen (BLACK CAESAR), and a 2008 remake, which nobody gives a damn about.

Unique and in questionable taste, IT’S ALIVE is certainly the best horror movie ever made about a mutant baby who crawls about killing people. Like FRANKENSTEIN and KING KONG, the monster is humanized in the storytelling and presented with sympathy, even while it’s slaughtering.

Intelligent screenwriting presents two sides of the issue. One faction, including Los Angeles law enforcement and the baby’s father (John P. Ryan with a strong dialed-down performance), wants to destroy the killer infant. Another, led by curious scientists (including LANCER patriarch Andrew Duggan) who want to study the phenomenon, wants the baby captured alive. So does its mother (Sharon Farrell), who doesn’t see her son as a monster, but merely a confused child looking for love from its creator, just like Frankenstein’s monster.

While the concept is campy on the surface, Cohen directs his actors to play it straight, resulting in genuine chills and thought-provoking themes of intolerance, ecology, and the power of the family unit. Opening scenes are filmed in a realistic documentary style. Perhaps that was done to help the audience accept not only the outlandish concept, but also the characters’ acceptance — nobody ever questions that a mutant baby killed a whole operating room of medical personnel.

Both Ryan (DEATH WISH 4) and Farrell (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) tended to ham performances, but are properly restrained here, which helps sell the premise (give Ryan extra credit for a hell of a Walter Brennan impression). Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) created the monster child, which is shown infrequently (probably a wise decision on Cohen’s part, though frustrating for the viewer), and Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO) composed the score. Ryan, Duggan, and Cohen regular James Dixon as a cop returned for the sequel, titled — what else — IT LIVES AGAIN.

Thursday, June 07, 2018


Enormously popular (the seventh biggest hit of 1979, snuggled between ALIEN and THE JERK) and influential (a lot of white ladies sported cornrows for awhile), the touching farce 10 boosted the career of star Dudley Moore (FOUL PLAY) and made leading lady Bo Derek (TARZAN THE APE MAN) an international superstar. The title refers to Derek’s beauty on scale of one to 10, and writer/director Blake Edwards didn’t have to work too hard to convince audiences it was true.

Moore, who replaced George Segal during shooting, is George Webber, a successful Hollywood songwriter having a midlife crisis at age 42. He spots a breathtakingly gorgeous woman (Derek, natch) and becomes so obsessed with her that he follows her on her Acapulco honeymoon just to be near her.

As played by Moore and written by Edwards (DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES), Webber’s emotional ennui is deeper than just a crush on a sexy young woman. Despite a steady partner, Sam Taylor, who is successful, talented, intelligent, and attractive (as is Julie Andrews, who plays Sam), not to mention his wealth and his four Academy Awards, George is unhappy, and his depression manifests as an obsession with sex.

But let’s not get too deep. 10 is also a film with a lot of trademark Edwards slapstick, played by Moore as well as Peter Sellers ever did, and silliness. Moore even drinks funny. One of the film’s most uproarious scenes finds an awkward Moore cringing through a terrible song (intentionally composed that way by Henry Mancini) performed by reverend Max Showalter (NIAGARA), while a doddering old blind woman shuffles around the room (and into a wall). One hilarious running gag has Moore constantly spying on his neighbor (Don Calfa) with a telescope, only to be frustrated by all the kinky sex going on over there.

The acting is terrific across the board. Moore is playing a basically unsympathetic character, but you can understand why a great woman like Sam would love him (Andrews’ performance helps in this regard as well). Robert Webber (S.O.B.) scores as George’s gay songwriting partner. Dee Wallace (CUJO) is poignant as George’s unsuccessful Mexican fling. Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD) practically steals the picture as a sympathetic bartender (“I’m 37. But I look 40.”).

And then there’s Bo, who certainly was no great shakes as an actress, but in the hands of a talented director, comes across very well. It’s tough to play, in effect, the sexiest woman in the world, someone so beautiful that it drives George almost literally mad with desire. 10 is probably the only time the young Bo Derek doesn’t come across as vapid (she once admitted to David Letterman she didn’t remember the name of her high school). But then she never worked with a director like Blake Edwards either.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Night Moves (1975)

Alan Sharp (ULZANA’S RAID), appropriately enough, wrote this sharp crime movie that ranks among the best private eye films of the 1970s. Sharp’s plot is fuzzy, but he and director Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE) are concerned with mood and characterization and playing around with the standard tropes of the detective genre. Actors in every important role receive something meaty to play, all the way down to Anthony Costello’s (WILL PENNY) snickering stuntman and the film director played by Edward Binns (12 ANGRY MEN), who has a great bar scene.

Director of photography Bruce Surtees (DIRTY HARRY) helps Penn establish the film’s grim tone, and, for character, who better than Gene Hackman to inhabit the burned-out soul of an idiosyncratic Los Angeles P.I. Comparisons to the works of novelist Ross Macdonald are accurate with Hackman’s Harry Moseby a close approximation of the weary Lew Archer — certainly more so than Paul Newman’s Archer (renamed Harper for two films).

Hackman’s wife Susan Clark (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is having an affair with crippled Harris Yulin (SCARFACE). Past-her-prime movie actress Janet Ward (THE ANDERSON TAPES) hires Hackman to go to the Florida Keys and fetch her runaway daughter, played by 16-year-old Melanie Griffith (WORKING GIRL). He finds her living with her former stepfather John Crawford (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) and Crawford’s earthy lady friend Jennifer Warren (THE INTRUDER WITHIN), to whom Hackman is instantly attracted.

It wouldn’t be a private eye yarn without a murder or two, and it wouldn’t be a Seventies thriller without an emotionally taxing climax and downbeat ending. Hackman is brilliant (what else is new) in this underrated picture that was mostly ignored by audiences during its original release. A young James Woods is strong as a Hollywood mechanic, and Ward — not a major name — lays it all out for the camera in a surprisingly humble performance.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Fury (1978)

Except for John Cassavetes exploding into a million gooey pieces, the highlight of THE FURY is Jim Belushi, working as an extra in a scene filmed along Chicago’s North Shore, wandering back and forth past the camera like a clever struggling actor trying to get some extra camera time. Silly pranks aside, THE FURY is a ridiculous but exciting supernatural thriller that glosses over its story inconsistencies (John Farris adapted his own 1976 novel) with camera pyrotechnics and slick Rick Baker makeup effects.

Cassavetes (FACES) plays an evil spy in charge of a government agency that kidnaps Americans with telekinetic powers to use as weapons against foreign powers. One of Cassavetes’ victims, teenage Andrew Stevens (10 TO MIDNIGHT), is the son of good spy Kirk Douglas (SPARTACUS), who wants him back. Director Brian DePalma’s follow-up to CARRIE carries some of the same themes, including a girls’ school where the students — including Hilary Thompson (NIGHTHAWKS), Melody Scott-Thomas (THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS), and Daryl Hannah (BLADE RUNNER) — torment a classmate (Amy Irving) with latent psychic powers.

THE FURY also shares with CARRIE, unfortunately, a penchant for lame lowbrow humor, including Dennis Franz (NYPD BLUE) as a dumb cop obsessed with his new car and Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) as the king of a ratty castle forced to give up his clothes to Douglas at gunpoint. Charles Durning (SHARKY’S MACHINE) and Carol Rossen (THE STEPFORD WIVES) play the directors of a special school for psychics that may or may not be a recruitment station for Cassavetes’ sinister agency.

As you may guess, the plot meanders between Irving’s new teachings and Douglas’ vengeful rescue mission with Douglas’ gal pal Carrie Snodgress (MURPHY’S LAW) as the connecting tissue. One memorable moment of mayhem is set at the defunct Old Chicago amusement park, which operated a mere five years, but is captured on film forever. John Williams (STAR WARS) delivers an expensive score that gives the outlandish plot a needed boost of credibility. While THE FURY would have benefitted by beefing up the sneering Cassavetes’ role, Douglas’ special brand of ham takes up the slack.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Enter The Dragon

The last film Bruce Lee completed in his lifetime — he died three months after the end of production — is by far his best. One of the greatest action movies of all time and certainly the greatest American martial arts film, ENTER THE DRAGON is enormous fun, a mixture of chopsocky and James Bond spyjinks. Released the month after Lee’s July 20, 1973 death at the age of 32, the Warner Brothers release was an immense hit and would have opened a lot of doors in Hollywood to Lee.

Written by Michael Allin (TRUCK TURNER) as a live-action comic book and directed with great energy by Robert Clouse (DARKER THAN AMBER), ENTER THE DRAGON is based around the tried-and-true premise of a martial arts tournament. British Intelligence urges Lee (Lee) to compete as a cover for his true mission: gather evidence against the tournament’s sponsor and owner of the private island upon which it is held. The authorities suspect wealthy Han (Shih Kien), a disgraced former member of Lee’s Shaolin temple, of kidnapping young women, addicting them to heroin, and selling them on the white slavery market.

Joining Lee on his mission, once they discover their host’s corruption, are two more competitors: war buddies Williams (Jim Kelly), on the run from racist cops, and Roper (John Saxon), who needs money to pay gambling debts to the Mob. Though Lee is initially hesitant to use his considerable martial arts ability as a crime fighter, the mission becomes a personal one when he learns his sister (Angela Mao) was a victim of Han’s chief bodyguard Oharra (Bob Wall) three years earlier.

While Clouse’s filmography boasts a handful of decent action movies, it is Lee, who choreographed the fight sequences, who deserves credit for ENTER THE DRAGON’s most exciting moments. The film features one of the most famous action climaxes of all time: a tour de force stalk-and-slash between Han, who wears a four-”fingered” claw on one hand, and Lee in a house of mirrors. Another great moment finds Lee taking on about fifty henchman in an underground corridor (one of them is Jackie Chan; he also fights in other scenes Bolo Yeung and Sammo Hung). Lee’s acting is good too. He’s relaxed and has good chemistry with Saxon (basically a co-lead, to Kelly’s chagrin). And while handing out praise, don’t neglect composer Lalo Schifrin (BULLITT), whose exotic score captures the flavor of Allin’s colorful story and Clouse’s spirited direction.

Before shooting ENTER THE DRAGON, Lee began directing a passion project, which he was unable to complete while alive. Clouse later took over direction using a Lee impersonator, and GAME OF DEATH was released in 1978. It is correctly regarded as an abomination, except for the few fight scenes featuring the real Lee, and is an unfortunate anticlimax to the screen icon’s legend. ENTER THE DRAGON is a masterpiece.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Nazis At The Center Of The Earth

The Asylum’s cheapjack ripoff of IRON SKY, though its story is different, likely because Asylum screenwriter Paul Bales (2010: MOBY DICK) couldn’t master the former film’s political satire and black humor. Instead, Bales packs his script with meanspirited violence and outrageous ideas right out of a Ziff-Davis comic book. No concept was too silly, too farfetched, or too insane to throw into NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Not one, including a robot Adolf Hitler, is more unbelievable than Jake Busey playing a scientist.

If only Bales and director Joseph Lawson (LORD OF THE ELVES) had the wit to make the most of their delightfully loony ideas. Or the filmmaking skills. Sure, they’re working on a low budget, but the acting and production values in NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH are on the same level as a VD scare film of the 1930s. That includes one-time indie queen Dominique Swain (LOLITA), whose acting talent has regressed more dramatically than the polar ice caps.

Swain plays one of two American scientists kidnapped in Antarctica, which Lawson — also the visual effects supervisor — depicts by placing his actors in front of a white wall on a white floor covered in corn flakes. Their abductors are Nazi stormtroopers, who take Swain and her colleague to an underground bunker, where none other than Dr. Josef Mengele (Christopher Karl Johnson) flays the colleague alive (this is actually an effectively gruesome effect).

When Swain and company don’t check in, station chief Busey (STARSHIP TROOPERS), who keeps reminding us that he’s been living in Antarctica for ten (!) years, takes some co-workers, who act like dumb college students, but are supposed to be the most brilliant minds in their fields, way way underground to find them. They eventually find a humongous underground chamber with sunlight and trees and dirt trails, coincidentally just like a typical park in southern California.

At least Lawson went outside for a day. Most of the comically bad long shots and establishing shots were created on a 1990s Amiga desktop with awkwardly jerky digital figures unconvincingly posing as real people. Come to think of it, all the CGI looks like that. It takes a special lack of talent to make a film this wretched that includes Nazi zombies, a sharp-shooting Mengele, nudity, SAW-style gore, an underground paradise, body switching, laser guns, a robot Hitler with a machine gun, and a plan to infect the Earth with a flesh-eating bacteria from a giant Nazi flying saucer.