Saturday, August 19, 2017

Howling II...Your Sister Is a Werewolf

Many films are bad, but few are as notoriously bad as HOWLING II...YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. From its dumb title to its dubious connection to the original (excellent) film to the famous closing credits that repeat Sybil Danning’s topless scene 17 times (!), HOWLING II is rightfully reviled for reasons that have little to do with the story, special effects, or acting, which are bad. It claims to be based on Gary Brander’s novel HOWLING II, but even though Brandner (who also wrote the novel THE HOWLING was based on) shares a screenplay credit with Robert Sarno (DECOY), it really has nothing to do with the book (nor did THE HOWLING).

Filmed primarily in Prague and Los Angeles, HOWLING II stars Christopher Lee from Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies as an investigator of the occult who appears at the funeral of L.A. television journalist Karen White, the character played by Dee Wallace in THE HOWLING. Lee tells Karen’s brother, played by former Captain America Reb Brown (who screams a lot — his trademark), and Karen’s colleague, Annie McEnroe (BEETLEJUICE), that the dead woman (Wallace did not reprise her role) is a werewolf. They tell Lee to go pound sand.

Eventually, they come around, though, and accompany Lee to Transylvania to help him take out a voluptuous 10,000-year-old werewolf queen named Stirba. Stirba is played by a game Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), who spends much of the film covered in fur, including a ridiculous three-way werewolf sex scene that has to be seen to be believed. Though he, of course, is not involved in the sex scene, Lee’s casting is of immense importance to HOWLING II, because he brings such a stern countenance and gravitas to the film that you believe he believes it.

The werewolves’ powers are poorly defined, like maybe director Philippe Mora (THE BEAST WITHIN) never heard of werewolves before. Danning can shoot animated rays from her fingertips that cause a man’s eyes to explode out of his head. Which is pretty sweet, but doesn’t belong in this movie. And it’s hardly the strangest thing to happen in HOWLING II, which plays like Mora throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

Little of it does, though nobody can argue that HOWLING II is boring. Certainly not a case to be made against a film where someone throws a midget through a window and impales him on an iron fence, and it — again — is not the weirdest thing that happens. Maybe it’s the ending where McEnroe and Brown ask a priest who looks like Neil Simon to come over for a drink.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Deadly Takeover aka Deadly Outbreak

One of many DIE HARD-influenced thrillers to flood the direct-to-video market during the 1990s, DEADLY TAKEOVER (also seen in some markets as DEADLY OUTBREAK) is a strong showcase for Jeff Speakman.

The kenpo expert dropped down to DTV after his two theatrical vehicles, THE PERFECT WEAPON and STREET KNIGHT, failed to light a spark under action audiences. He made THE EXPERT and this back to back for stuntman-turned-director Rick Avery, and there’s no doubt DEADLY TAKEOVER is the superior.

Terrorists led by calm-but-dangerous Ron Silver (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) invade a scientific facility in Tel Aviv, massacre everyone, and demand a canister of deadly toxin they can ransom for half a billion bucks. Unfortunately for Silver, the only survivors — scientist Rochelle Swanson (who receives a special Introducing credit, even though she had already appeared in several films like INDECENT BEHAVIOR II and SECRET GAMES 3), nerdy security man Idan Alterman, and U.S. embassy guard Speakman — have the canister. Now it’s DIE HARD with Speakman crawling around, picking off Silver’s men one at a time and talking smack to their boss over a stolen walkie-talkie.

Derivative for sure, but DEADLY TAKEOVER is also entertaining for unassuming action fans who enjoy humor with their broken glass, car explosions, gun battles, and kung fu. There’s also a lengthy car chase inside a building, which you don’t see every day. Speakman is pretty quick with a quip while dispatching the bad guys (“Your party stinks,” he tells Silver. “Not enough ice cream and way too many clowns.”), and would you believe Avery recycles GET SMART’s old “You’re leaning on my chest” gag? He also has a weird obsession with violence against testicles. After directing two 1995 releases, Avery went back to stunts on A-level films like THE DARK KNIGHT and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Great TV Episodes: One Riot, One Ranger

WALKER, TEXAS RANGER
"One Riot, One Ranger"
April 21, 1993
CBS
Writer: Leigh Chapman (as Louise McCarn)
Director: Virgil W. Vogel

Leigh Chapman, the former actress who penned several television episodes and films, including THE OCTAGON for Chuck Norris, wrote the pilot episode of Norris’ first series. A massive CBS hit for nine seasons, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER got off to an uneasy start. The studio, Cannon, went bankrupt after only three episodes had been completed, so CBS had to bankroll the series beginning with its second season.

The two-hour pilot effectively sets the premise, presenting Norris as Cordell Walker, a taciturn half-Native American and Texas Ranger who investigates a series of fatal bank robberies being masterminded by former CIA agent Marshall Teague (ROAD HOUSE). After his partner is killed during one of the robberies, Walker is reluctantly teamed with Clarence Gilyard Jr. (MATLOCK), a young college-educated Ranger who prefers to look before he leaps. In his off-hours, Norris protects a teenage circus performer who is being harassed by the three rednecks who raped her, which allows Chapman to awkwardly lay out Walker’s backstory. Turns out Walker, Texas Ranger and Batman have the same origin.

Credit veteran director Virgil W. Vogel (THE MOLE PEOPLE) for keeping the action moving quickly. With extra time and money lavished on a pilot, Vogel uses Dutch angles and slick camera moves to complement the many fights, chases, and shootouts, ensuring the series’ standing as one of network television’s most violent at the time. Vogel must have relished filming around Dallas-Fort Worth, which had not been seen much on television (DALLAS filmed in Los Angeles).

Sheree J. Wilson (FRATERNITY VACATION) plays beautiful Assistant D.A. Alex Cahill, Walker’s love interest (and eventual wife at the end of Season Eight); Floyd Red Crow Westerman (HIDALGO) is Walker’s Indian uncle Ray; and Gailard Sartain (HEE HAW) plays retired Ranger C.D. Barnes (he was replaced in the series by the older Noble Willingham). Teague played the heavy in six different WALKER episodes, including the 201st and final one in 2001. Released on VHS as ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977)

The second of three (to date) adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel about man messing around in God’s domain by scientifically changing animals into humans. First done as the horrific ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1932 and later as the troubled THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1996, this 1977 AIP film is better than its reputation. It isn’t scary, however, and the special makeup effects by John Chambers, Dan Striepeke, and Tom Burman are less believable than their landmark work on the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN) stars as Andrew Braddock, a sailor who is shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific. Living there is the mad Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), who experiments on animals while attempting to learn about heredity and find new methods of curing disease. Those experiments have resulted in his test animals mutating into creatures similar to humans that can think like humans. Richard Basehart (RAGE) stands out as their leader, the role played by Bela Lugosi in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

Braddock is, of course, horrified. When he protests too much, Moreau captures him and reverses his procedure in an attempt to regress Braddock into a savage. Braddock has also fallen in love with Moreau’s beautiful ward Maria (I, THE JURY femme fatale Barbara Carrera), who knows only life on the island. Carrera is vapid, but the Nicaraguan-born actress is gorgeous with an exotic look, which makes her perfect for her role as written by the GOIN’ SOUTH team of Al Ramrus and John Herman Shaner. York is quite good and sells the transformation scenes. Lancaster basically coasts on pure movie star charisma, and Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) is wasted as Moreau’s guilt-ridden assistant Montgomery.

Some of the editing is abrupt, perhaps signalling last-minute cutting by AIP. It is unclear in the final film whether Maria is one of Moreau’s test subjects. Of course, she originally was, but the shots that established it were removed before the film’s release by a studio nervous about any hints of bestiality. The excellent score by Laurence Rosenthal (ROOSTER COGBURN) uses strident strings and brass to create a soundscape reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s work on PLANET OF THE APES. Don Taylor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) directed the film in the Virgin Islands, but not particularly well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Foxy Brown

COFFY was a massive hit, so AIP quickly signed writer/director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) and star Pam Grier (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) to make a quasi-sequel. An excellent showcase for Grier’s talents, FOXY BROWN allows her to show off a sensitive side, primarily in scenes with Antonio Fargas (CLEOPATRA JONES) as her turncoat brother, as well as be strong and kick ass.

The erudite Hill may not have preferred working in exploitation, but he made this type of low-budget action movie as well as just about any director in the 1970s. He certainly deserves credit for developing Grier’s sassy screen persona (the two worked together four times, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE in the Philippines).

Kicking off with opening titles sending up the Bond movies, with a leather-clad, cleavage-baring Grier bumping and grinding along with Willie Hutch’s theme song, FOXY BROWN proves to be a slicker, sleazier picture than COFFY. Grier’s Foxy Brown is a tough, sexy, aggressive, independent, and intelligent woman set on revenge after kinky druglords, played by Peter Brown (RAPE SQUAD) and Kathryn Loder (the warden in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), murder her government agent boyfriend (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Terry Carter).

Highlights include a guy getting sliced up by an airplane propeller, Foxy and Juanita Brown (CAGED HEAT) smashing up a lesbian bar (“I got a black belt in bar stools!”), Foxy—while undercover as a prostitute—humiliating a crooked old white judge (Harry Holcombe), Sid Haig’s memorable cameo as a womanizing “airplane driver,” and the “pickle-jar” denouement, a typical example of Hill’s black humor. Hill even provides an extraneous fight scene just to give Bob Minor and his team of black stuntmen a chance to show off.

Loder, a New York stage actress who appeared in only three films, is terrible, but her strange acting style somehow suits Hill’s brash tone. Brown, formerly a regular with William Smith and Neville Brand on LAREDO, bounced between television guest heavies and exploitation films during the 1970s. Grier starred in more AIP movies before deservedly moving into the mainstream, including a guest shot on THE LOVE BOAT. Motown released Hutch’s score as a soundtrack album.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Cherry Falls

Despite a clever premise for a slasher movie, CHERRY FALLS never found a proper audience in the United States. Forced to endure severe cuts to receive an R rating from the MPAA, the film by director Geoffrey Wright (ROMPER STOMPER) bypassed theatrical distribution and made its American debut on — of all places — the USA cable channel. When it first hit DVD, it was on a double-feature disc with a John Ritter TV-movie called TERROR TRACT. A neat little thriller, CHERRY FALLS deserved better treatment, which it finally received as a Scream Factory Blu-ray in 2016.

Written by Ken Selden (WHITE LIES), CHERRY FALLS is set in picturesque Cherry Falls, Virginia, where someone is murdering teenagers. Well, not just any teenagers, just the virgins. To escape the killer’s wrath, the local high school students organize a sex party at an abandoned mansion to get everybody laid.

Meanwhile, one of the virgins, played by Brittany Murphy (CLUELESS), plays amateur sleuth after a close call with the serial killer, thanks to a large plastic shark in the chem lab. By combing through clues and winnowing away the red herrings, she discovers a shocking secret about her father, the local sheriff (THE TERMINATOR’s Michael Biehn), that may solve the mystery.

An interesting spin on the teenage “have sex and die” horror movies then popular in the wake of SCREAM’s massive success, CHERRY FALLS chugs along with clever direction and a game cast that prevent the lurid concept from coming across as tasteless. However, the cuts demanded by the MPAA including the nudity, as well as a gruesome murder seen in the existing picture only in subliminal flash cuts after the fact, remove much of the film’s guts. The film also suffers from a couple of egregious plot holes.

Still, CHERRY FALLS gets a lot of mileage out of the satire in Selden’s screenplay, Murphy’s eccentric turn as Nancy Drew, and Biehn, whose experience playing both heroes and heavies enhances his performance. Although censorship struggles kept Wright’s film out of American theaters, it did play successfully overseas. Wright landed the gig after David Lynch (THE ELEPHANT MAN) and George Armitage (GROSSE POINTE BLANK) turned it down (the studio wanted an arthouse director), but falling behind schedule and over budget and fighting with his cast and cinematographer (DON’T LOOK NOW’s Anthony Richmond, who did a fine job) didn’t endear him to the producers.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Gator

Burt Reynolds, at the time Hollywood’s most popular leading man, picked a safe project for his directing debut. GATOR was the sequel to WHITE LIGHTNING, a United Artists hit that introduced the character of fast-drivin’ good-ol’-boy moonshiner Gator McKlusky, who went undercover with the feds to bust corrupt sheriff Ned Beatty. In the GATOR screenplay once again penned by William W. Norton (BRANNIGAN), McKlusky has a crotchety old pap (John Steadman) and a precocious daughter (Lori Futch), which were meant to humanize his character, but instead make him softer.

Once again, Gator goes undercover to bust a Southern fried bad guy. This time, it’s his old school chum Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a crime boss who forces teenage girls into prostitution and burns down businesses that won’t pay protection. Reed, a country western musician known for crossover hits “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Amos Moses,” is surprisingly chilling as McCall, though later roles would lean on his natural upbeat cornpone charm.

GATOR’s tonal swings from dark violence to slapstick humor are difficult to catch up with, and the film’s length and flabby story make the sequel decidedly inferior to WHITE LIGHTNING. Reynolds has an eye for interesting visuals, despite an unfortunate infatuation with the zoom lens. He went on to direct THE END and SHARKY’S MACHINE, which exhibit more confidence.

The casting of Philadelphia talk show Mike Douglas as an ambitious governor is an interesting gamble that pays off. Jack Weston (THE FOUR SEASONS) is too silly as the federal agent who recruits Gator. Lauren Hutton is a television journalist who romances Gator in a relationship that is pure hokum. GATOR’s best relationship is between Burt and Hal Needham, the stunt coordinator who helped stage the opening speedboat chase (and came within a foot or so of being smushed by a jumping car). Charles Bernstein returns from WHITE LIGHTNING to compose an original score. Reed wrote and performed the cool theme song, “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky.”