Sunday, March 30, 2008

Shootout In The Pacific

THE MEXICO KILL, the fourth in Warner Books' Dirty Harry series, based, of course, on the character played by Clint Eastwood in several hit movies, may have been written by the same ghost writer who penned DEATH ON THE DOCKS, since it also doesn't have a complete grasp of the main character.

San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan is suspended after a shootout inside a disco that leaves one bad guy dead, but a few innocent bystanders badly injured. With nothing else to do, he takes a job for a millionaire acquaintance named Harold Keepnews, whose yacht was recently waylaid by drug-smuggling pirates on the way back from Mexico. Harry agrees to join the crew of Keepnews' new yacht and take it to Carangas, where he discovers the drug trade is being run by his old San Francisco foe, an ex-con named Father Nick.

THE MEXICO KILL has its share of mildly diverting shootouts and action scenes, but Dirty Harry comes across as glibber and more profane than he generally does in the movies. It's hard to imagine the Eastwood character hunting down sea pirates for the fun of it or allowing himself to be seduced by Keepnews' sexy young wife (although she does make it difficult to say no).

Six of the Dirty Harry novels were written by Ric Meyers, also under the Dane Hartman pseudonym (Dane Hartman=Dirty Harry, get it?), but this is not one of them.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

10-4 And Kill

Alex Jason is back in another screwy sci-fi saga that's barely recognizable as science fiction. In 1973's KILL CITY, #3 in Lancer's Enforcer series, Jason, inside his latest clone body (which lasts only three months before it breaks down and Jason has to be transferred into a new one), goes undercover inside the Patrol, a paramilitary vigilante group combing the streets of New York and other major cities, ostensibly to protect the public, but actually as the initial step of a takeover plot.

Alfred Lochner, Jason's archenemy who was briefly seen in THE ENFORCER and then mentioned in CALLING DOCTOR KILL, is setting himself up to take the organized crime pie away from the Mafia using a new weapon called a Suzy. First developed as a hand weapon, the Suzy forces anyone it's pointed at to commit suicide. The Patrol uses it to deal with muggers and other street vermin, but Lochner's plot to install fifty giant Suzies in major American cities, which would allow him to kill millions of people by barely lifting a finger, forces Jason to move quickly, before his current clone body melts away into an oozy blob of protoplasm.

After the jungle thrills of THE ENFORCER, the next two Enforcer books have been light on action, though not on sex nor racial barbs. At 220 pages, Andrew Sugar's book is longer than it needs to be, substituting padding for the lean storytelling this type of pulpy subject matter deserves. Jason uses a cool three-shots-and-done laser penlight device to blow off some heads, and the concept of the Suzy is a terrific McGuffin, though Sugar never tells us anything about its inventor, who is (we're told) killed off-screen.

One thing about the Enforcer books is that they consistently offer some of the most colorful, eye-catching covers in the men's adventure genre, even though nothing you see here actually occurs within KILL CITY's pages.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sleek, Ruthless, Cunning

MCCLOUD meets NAKIA is a good way to describe CAT TRAP, which is Pinnacle's third entry in its paperback series about Dakota, a Native American private eye. Using then-current television series to describe CAT TRAP is apt, because of its author, Gilbert Ralston.

Ralston was a veteran producer and writer of television series whose credits include ROUTE 66, BEN CASEY, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, I SPY, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK ("Who Mourns for Adonis?") and nearly every other important drama of the 1960s. In film, he penned the screenplays for the campy horror classic WILLARD and the brutally violent western THE HUNTING PARTY.

I'm not certain how much prose Ralston wrote, but CAT TRAP reads very much like a Universal television show, light on sex and violence and a waste of a potentially memorable villain. Also, in opposition to other Pinnacle action heroes, Dakota has a very large supporting cast—friends, an extended family and a lover who all appear to live in or around his Nevada home.

Two disparate heart attack victims are revealed to have been killed by a rare poison, and the killer is Guy Marten, a madman previously thought to have been killed in a house fire. A worshipper of Bastet, an ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Marten and Dakota would appear to be worthy adversaries for each other, except we never learn very much about Marten or his state of mind.

Perhaps Ralston originally intended Dakota to be the leading man of a TV pilot, but as a rough adventure hero, he doesn't quite cut it. Conventional plotting and characterizations take precedence over the action and sleaze factors, which barely exist.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Four Pound Brick

While "The Four Pound Brick" is not a bad episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES, it has to go down as something of a letdown, considering its pedigree. It was co-written by none other than Leigh Brackett, and considering that her screenwriting credits include such impressive detective films as THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE, one can hardly be blamed for expecting more than a typical plot that could have been used on nearly any private eye show of the period.

Jim (James Garner) is pressured by Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.) to look into the accidental death of a rookie cop named Dave Banning, whose mother Kate (Edith Atwater) is the widow of Rocky's old trucker pal. Brackett and co-writer Juanita Bartlett create several nice scenes for Garner and Beery, as Rocky, ashamed of his son's job, first tells Kate that Jimmy is a trucker who only does P.I. work "as a sideline," and then demands that Jim charge him his full rate for service.

On an all-night stakeout at "the Greek Theater" (actually the amphitheater at Universal Studios), Rockford witnesses Banning's partner, veteran officer Wilson (Paul Carr), taking what appears to be a payoff. Lt. Diehl (Tom Atkins) doesn't want to hear any of Rockford's accusations about Wilson and possibly Banning being on the take and tosses him out of the police station, where he is also threatened by uniformed cops. Whereas before Jim was willing to drop the case in order to save Kate from the news that her son may have been dirty, the cops' hostility makes it personal for the stubborn detective.

Much good work is turned in by the performers and crew, including some impressive night shooting that may have cut into the budget a bit. A welcome appearance by Stuart Margolin as Angel leads to some great comic bits, including a scene in which he and Rockford gather for some chili (with onions) and beer. In fact, the guest actors, except for Atwater, are underused in this episode, which is odd considering how good they are. William Watson and John Quade, who play gunsels (and have some funny dialogue when they kidnap Jim), possessed two of the best "bad guy" faces in Hollywood.

Brackett, whose writing career also included several science fiction novels (she was married to noted SF novelist and comic book author Edmond Hamilton) and John Wayne westerns, wrote just one more movie before dying of cancer in 1978. George Lucas hired her to pen THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but she died after completing the first draft. Although both she and Lawrence Kasdan share screenplay credit, it is said that little of Brackett's draft remains in the film.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark R.I.P.

Not much time for posting tonight, but I couldn't let the death of Richard Widmark pass by without comment. Although he never seemed to reach the heights of a Robert Mitchum or a Burt Lancaster, there's no question that Widmark was an A-level movie star and a heckuvan actor. He died yesterday at his Connecticut home at the age of 93, having been off the big screen since 1991's TRUE COLORS (which I suppose I need to see).

Many film fans have suggested Widmark for an honorary Academy Award for several years now, but the Academy sadly dragged its feet too long. He was nominated for an Oscar for his screen debut, 1947's KISS OF DEATH, which remains one of his best known performances. Other terrific Widmark movies you should look for on Netflix are PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, which was directed by Sam Fuller (Criterion put out a wonderful disc of this), JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (one of my favorite films), TIME LIMIT (directed by Karl Malden, it's not on DVD, but turns up on TCM occasionally), MADIGAN (which was spun off into a TV series that also starred Widmark), CHEYENNE AUTUMN, THE LAW AND JAKE WADE, TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, NO WAY OUT with Sidney Poitier, and many others.

Like many older leading men, Widmark eventually found himself playing a steady stream of authority figures in Hollywood genre offerings that were generally beneath him, but to which he added necessary class, including ROLLERCOASTER (in Sensurround!), THE SWARM (in which he manages to imbue his idiotic dialogue with a measure of believability), COMA and THE DOMINO PRINCIPAL.

Please read Widmark's New York Times obituary, and you'll learn about an interesting man whom we lost too early, even if he was 93.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Baretta Takes On A Kung Fu Killer

I have no doubt that when Ernie Anderson tells you that Baretta is going to be fighting a kung fu killer on Wednesday night, sandwiched between the Bionic Woman fighting Sasquatch and Charlie's Angels driving racecars, ratings go through the roof.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Murder and Manhunt in the Caribbean Jungle Lands

I don't know a damn thing about this movie, except for what you can see on this poster and that it was released in 1958. It isn't on DVD, probably was never on VHS, and won't be on television anytime soon (nor do I recall it ever being on TV).

Nope, MACHETE is just one of thousands of pictures churned out by Hollywood studios to fill one end of a double bill. All of its stars are dead, as are producer/director Kurt Neumann (who committed suicide in 1958) and screenwriter Carroll Young, so it's likely that neither anyone who was involved in MACHETE's production nor saw it theatrically back then are able to discuss it today. I'd be surprised if anyone still living who did manage to see it someplace, maybe on TV at 3:00am back in 1966, could remember anything about it.

I guess we're just left with this one-sheet to tide us over. A grinning Lee Van Cleef swinging a sharpened machete. Punching. A half-naked Mari Blanchard flinching from the rampaging approach of a crazed madman and his crimson-stained blade. And, oh, that swimming scene!

Don't ask me why, but I'm really curious about MACHETE.

By the way, I found that poster while searching for this one:

I'd buy a ticket to this right now if I could.

Mexican Connection

In 1974's BAJA BANDITOS, the Penetrator goes undercover in Mexico as playboy Winston T. Hackworth III. He's trying to get himself kidnapped by a criminal mastermind calling himself El Baron, who's snatching rich Americans (and one Israeli woman) and holding them inside an abandoned smelter. When he gets enough victims, he plans to issue one big ransom demand, thinking he can then use the money to buy Baja California and rule it. I know, crazy, right?

El Baron's number one man is a mulatto with the decidedly unintimidating moniker of Clyde Adams, though Clyde is something of a sadist with a penchant for cutting out people's intestines. The Penetrator does, indeed, get kidnapped, but teams up with a little boy to escape his captives, hold up inside a cave where dwells a nutty old goatherder, and assemble a ragtag army of local villagers to attack El Baron's contingent with homemade bows and arrows.

Not my favorite Penetrator novel, due to the fact that it's a little light on baroque violence and gadgetry. It's still well worth reading, as are all of the Penetrators I've enjoyed so far. BAJA BANDITOS was written by Mark K. Roberts using Pinnacle's house name of Lionel Derrick. He has also used the names Forrest Randolph (THE CONFEDERATE) and Patrick Lee (SIX-GUN SAMURAI). According to this site, Roberts was born in Tampa, Kansas in 1936, and, after getting out of the Army, became a filmmaker in Hollywood, writing, acting and doing stunts at Paramount and producing commercials for the Ford Motor Company.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It Was Somewhere In A Fairy Tale

With all the activity over the weekend, I was unable to properly commemorate William Shatner's birthday yesterday. The World's Greatest Living Actor turned 77 years old. Can ya believe it?

What better way to celebrate one more year of the One True Shat than this clip of Shatner performing Harry Chapin's "Taxi" on DINAH!, Dinah Shore's old daytime talk show. God, this is beautiful.

$250,000,000 Worth Of Death

Here's a rarity—a men's adventure hero who works within the law to fight crime. NARC, "#1 in a great new series," is John Bolt, an agent for America's D-3—the Department of Dangerous Drugs. As you can probably guess, Bolt hates drug pushers.

In this Lancer novel from 1973, Bolt goes to South America to extradite a dangerous French druglord named Antoine Georges Peray. In a firefight there, many agents are killed, and Peray suffers two gun wounds in his leg, thanks to Bolt. Back in the States, Bolt learns about an historic drug shipment—1000 pounds of pure heroin worth $250 million—the largest drug haul ever. Peray is working with a black Harlem dealer named St. James Livingston to bring the dope in, but after Peray's arrest and hospitalization, Livingston takes desperate measures to ensure the deal goes through, including snatching Peray's daughter and buying a D-3 agent.

Neither fanciful nor gritty, like a Death Merchant or Executioner novel, NARC is solid crime drama of the 1970s that one could easily see becoming a film along the lines of ACROSS 110TH STREET or CHARLEY VARRICK. Bolt is, of course, a Loner Whom No One, Not Even The Woman Who Loves Him, Dares Get Close To, and all we really learn about him in Robert Hawkes' book is that he's a badass who hates drugs. Which is also all we really need in this initial entry.

That's a pretty awesome shirt Bolt wears on the cover, though it doesn't seem to match his terse personality.

Friday, March 21, 2008

#500

This is my 500th post, since creating the new version of Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot here on Blogger. And to mark the occasion, enjoy a photo of Brent Musburger standing between Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Sea Of Blood

The Sharpshooter returns in BLOOD BATH, which is a book so badass that it needed an incredibly badass cover to hold it together. Seriously, will you look at that cover? That fact that it never happens in the book is no reason to not love it.

#3 in Leisure's Sharpshooter series is even better than HEAD CRUSHER, which is #7, but I read it first (it was the only Sharpshooter I had at the time). Even stretched out to 200 pages, BLOOD BATH is relentless in its violence and sleaze. The Sharpshooter is Johnny Rock, who was John Rocetti in HEAD CRUSHER, but is strangely John Roccoletti here. Former Green Beret in Vietnam, Rock swore to destroy the Mafia when he returned home to discover his family had been murdered by them. Johnny Rock doesn't give a shit about anything in the world, except killing Mafia bastards. And he does it a lot.

In BLOOD BATH, he strikes fear into New Jersey mobsters by systematically kidnapping people peripherally involved with them and then torturing or frightening information out of them. One of his victims is an innocent lover of a low-level mobster, a woman with no direct connection to the Mob, but Rock still snatches her, strips her, ties her up, feeds her, and periodically tosses a severed arm or leg from one of his murder victims into a nearby rat cage to gain a psychological edge.

Another kidnap victim is the hot wife of a particularly sadistic hitman, Alfredo Sordi. Rock demands that Sordi turn himself into the FBI, or his wife is dead, leading to a creepy scene where Rock handcuffs her to another mobster and then cuts him apart with an Uzi until she's lying there with the dude's bloody arm hanging from her wrist.

The Sharpshooter books were written, reportedly, by several different authors under the guise of "Bruno Rossi." Paul Hofrichter may have penned this one. Whoever it was must have also been writing Belmont Tower's Marksman books, because the name "Magellan" occasionally appears in lieu of "Rock". Way to go, editors.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Most Terrifying Motion Picture Of 1982

GREAT WHITE is something of a lost picture in the United States, although if you know the right people, you might get to see it. Italian director Enzo G. Castellari (1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) shot this blatant copy of JAWS (and JAWS 2) in Malta. In fact, GREAT WHITE is such a blatant ripoff that Universal actually sued Film Ventures International, its American distributor, for copyright infringement. The number of exploitation movies that ripped off JAWS during the late 1970s and early '80s is in the dozens, but for some reason, GREAT WHITE put a burr under someone's saddle at Universal. The suit was successful, and GREAT WHITE was pulled from theaters after just a few days. It was never released on VHS in the U.S., nor will it ever be on DVD. Is it worth making the effort to track down a bootleg copy or a foreign DVD? Eh, probably not, but maybe this trailer will help you make up your mind.


James Franciscus (BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) plays an author named Peter Benton (obviously a nod to JAWS author Peter Benchley) who teams up with Vic Morrow (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP) as a Scottish (!) seaman, when a gigantic great white shark begins terrorizing the Florida town of Port Harbor. The big Windsurfing Regatta is coming up, and even though one teen has already been chomped on, the mayor refuses to cancel. That leads to an amazing scene in which the shark plows through dozens of windsurfers like bowling pins, knocking them into the water one by one, culminating in a great moment where the shark somehow blasts a boat containing a male passenger about 20 feet into the air (he repeats this stunt later). The local butcher must have traded in his Pinto for a Rolls Royce that weekend, because half the people in town, including the mayor, some dumb teenagers, and an ambitious news team, use huge chunks of raw meat to lure the shark out into the open. For some reason, the cops and the Coast Guard never really get involved, leaving it up to the writer (why?) and sea captain to get the job done.


All of the scenes involving the (fake-looking) shark are pretty entertaining, but the dialogue and pacing are otherwise so bad that GREAT WHITE is a mixed bag. Whatever the shark is made from (foam?), it looks hilarious, leaping from the water with a single expression and roaring (!) as it takes a bite out of its human pursuers. The best scene finds the mayor dangling a side of beef from a helicopter to attract the shark. What he planned to do with it after he caught it, I don't know, but it's a moot point after the Great White yanks the chopper (like in JAWS 2) down into the ocean for a quick bite. GREAT WHITE's surface photography is very good, crisp and clean like an American production. However, the underwater scenes are too dark, making it difficult to sometimes make out what's happening, especially the drab climax (I had to rewind it and watch it again).


Franciscus ("Damn youuuuuuuu!") is fine in the lead, but Morrow's Scottish accent is all over the place--when he chooses to use it, that is. Both provide their own voices. Most of the Italian actors are dubbed, although, unusually for an Italian production, Castellari did record some sound live. The de Angelis Brothers provided the obtrusive score, including, I guess, the silly disco tune that plays over the opening title sequence of a guy windsurfing. Film Ventures International had earlier put out GRIZZLY, another JAWS ripoff with a big bear substituting for a shark. It has the same plot as both JAWS and GREAT WHITE. And PIRANHA. And…

Razor-Edge

SWITCHBLADE is one of the biggest literary rip-offs I've ever read. Imagine the story of a wealthy liberal New York City engineer named Bronson whose family is murdered by street punks and then becomes a vigilante, walking the streets at night, anonymously blasting the shit out of muggers and hoods. Published by Manor in 1975, one year after DEATH WISH with Charles Bronson became one of Hollywood's most popular and influential thrillers, SWITCHBLADE is the third in Manor's Bronson: Street Vigilante series.

Joseph Chadwick, writing as "Philip Rawls" this time, has certainly cleaned up Bronson's act from the first novel, BLIND RAGE. First off, the locale is now New York, rather than BLIND RAGE's Cincinnati (I guess Manor thought, hell, we're ripping off DEATH WISH anyway, might as well go all the way), but more importantly, Bronson is a little more thoughtful about whom he kills. Whereas he didn't mind in the first book if a few innocent bystanders got in his way, here he considers that he could never murder a cop, not even to save his own life. The 17-year-old lover Bronson picked up in BLIND RAGE is long gone, replaced by his sexy sister-in-law. He also isn't nearly as sadistic and doesn't torture anyone in SWITCHBLADE.

At nearly 200 pages, SWITCHBLADE is longer than most of these books and more conventional than most. It could have used more action, but one could certainly see the makings of a decent if not overly compelling film here. Obviously, we're supposed to picture Charles Bronson as the hero, and I wouldn't be surprised if Manor was hoping for some studio to option SWITCHBLADE as a possible Bronson vehicle. It's a good, quick read, though I wouldn't have minded seeing a subplot involving the spoiled young stepmother of one of Bronson's victims excised, which would have made the story leaner.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dare To Enter. Try To Leave.

If you're tired of seeing pretty teenagers getting killed in cheap horror movies, this movie just might be for you. If you're the type of horror fan who would get a big kick out of an animatronic 8-foot Phyllis Diller zombie, this one is definitely for you.

THE BONEYARD may or may not have played theatrically upon its 1991 release, but video is likely where almost everyone who has seen it. Potential viewers who have been scared off by its cast of LOVE BOAT guest stars or its silly video box art (which gives away the big surprise) are missing out on a real sleeper. Played decidedly with its tongue lodged deeply in its cheek, THE BONEYARD takes awhile to get going, but it really cooks once it does.

An overweight psychic (Deborah Rose), two cops (one played by top-billed Ed Nelson, a perennial TV guest star and SF-film actor going back to the 1950s), a hippie mortician (Norman Fell in a ponytail!), a young woman who attempted suicide, and Phyllis Diller (sans fright wig) are trapped in the basement of a rundown soon-to-be-demolished morgue, where they are chased by three zombie children. The kids were victims of an Asian serial killer who stripped them and stored them in his basement, where he fed them chunks of human flesh.

Don't worry about the plot making sense. Just enjoy the movie's energy and irreverence, particularly in its choice of monsters. The zombie makeup is outstanding and quite possibly the creepiest looking makeup you've ever seen in a movie nobody has heard of. The actors wearing it, be they little people or actual children, do a great job selling it too. Same goes for the larger monsters that arise near the end. It will be obvious by then that THE BONEYARD is not to be taken completely seriously, though the goofy monsters shouldn't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention. Old pro Nelson as a cop named Jersey Callum (a role originally intended for Clu Gulager, who also would have been great) finds just the perfect thickness of ham to match director James Cummins' screenplay, making this North Carolina creature feature a fun flick.

Hey, when you're the leading man, you've gotta play it up a bit if you don't want to get out-acted by Zombie Phyllis Diller.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Double Agent

The Death Merchant battles the KGB, unsurprisingly, in THE KGB FRAME, #12 in Pinnacle's long-running paperback series. After wiping out a few hundred mobsters in MANHATTAN WIPEOUT, Richard Camellion is relaxing on his private Texas range when a squad of eight CIA agents invades with assassination on their minds. Despite his name, the Death Merchant captures them after a big firefight, and learns that he has been tagged for assassination after an audiotape turns up at Langley that appears to expose him as a traitor.

In reality, KGB agent Rybak, in the United States posing as a reporter for Pravda, has engineered a frame-up using advanced audio technology that allows him to fake a recording without any tell-tale splices. Camellion, knowing he'll have to expose the frame in order to clear his name—and save his life—first invades the State Department building in Washington, D.C., disguised as an elderly man, to find a list of Soviets staying at the embassy in the archives, but Rybak anticipates the Death Merchant's plan and ambushes him.

More shootouts occur, including an invasion of the Death Merchant's New York City apartment, leading up to his climactic fight with Rybak atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. Credit author Joseph Rosenberger with this well paced action tale that reads cleanly and concisely in just a couple of hours. It also ends on an urgent note, as Rosenberger sets up the next Death Merchant adventure, which would be the awesome THE MATO GROSSO HORROR.

Keepers Of Death

The Butcher is back in this 1972 adventure, only the third in the series, and obviously published before Pinnacle started getting more creative with its cover art (it actually looks a lot like a Matt Helm cover). Bucher, the only man to leave the Mafia and live to tell about it, the Mafia's former head of East Coast operations who got a conscience and split, a ruthless killer who agreed to work for a secret government agency named White Hat as a way to repay the world for his evil deeds as a member of the Mob.

With a $250,000 bounty on his head, collectible by any gunsel who murders him, the Butcher trots the globe in KEEPERS OF DEATH on a White Hat assignment to find a East German scientist named Karl Phiefen, who defected to the U.S. to continue his work designing outer space vehicles, but has since gone missing, along with his 22-year-old daughter Klara, who may have been kidnapped from the Mexican university at which she's studying. The Butcher's path leads him first to a Tennessee commune, where the sex-mad hippies are growing marijuana for the Mafia. Impersonating a Mob hitman he killed in self-defense, Bucher follows a strange trail from Atlanta to Stockholm to Rome to New York back to the commune, as he tries to figure out what dope-smoking hippies, mob assassins and an East German scientist all have in common.

An entertaining novel with plenty of action, though the Butcher is absurdly irresistible to anyone in a skirt. Author Stuart Jason (or whomever) doesn't seem to be the most enlightened man on the subject of women's lib, particularly by 1972, though he was probably delivering what the target audience wanted. Still, the female characters seem like they stepped out of 1962.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Charlie Harris At Large

Tony Musante, who starred in executive producers Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins' previous TV series TOMA, is the guest star in this episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES, "Charlie Harris at Large." Written by the relatively inexperienced Zekial Marko, who also penned some TOMAs, "Charlie Harris" is an average episode at best, sprinkling several familiar ROCKFORD elements over a lukewarm story soufflé.

Harris (Musante), Rockford's former cellmate at San Quentin, is accused of murdering his rich older wife. On the lam from the cops, he calls Rockford (James Garner) and asks him to track down the woman who can alibi him: Linda Bannister (Diana Muldaur), the wife of a very wealthy man who would be embarrassed publicly if Linda's indiscretions were to be revealed.

"Charlie Harris" feels like a casserole of earlier ROCKFORD episodes. Jim is rousted by the cops and accused of murder, he's awakened in the middle of the night, there's a car chase, he fights with his client over money, he's threatened with death by a rich white man with heavy business connections. Strangely, he isn't beaten up, nor do Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.), Becker (Joe Santos) and Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), Jim's lawyer, play large roles. For that matter, Musante is mostly wasted as well, as Marko doesn't give Charlie much of a character. He doesn't even come across as suave enough to convince as the playboy he's supposed to be.

Directed by Russ Mayberry, "Charlie Harris" is entertaining enough, but strictly second-tier ROCKFORD FILES.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Residents Of Rockwell Falls Are Dying For You To Visit

POPULATION 436 is a perfect example of a film that I think many audiences would enjoy, if only they were aware of its existence. Sony released it directly to DVD in 2006, and since DTV movies are rarely marketed properly or reviewed by the mainstream media, most of them tend to sit unrented on the New Release shelf at Blockbuster, at least until all 74 copies of I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY are gone on a Friday evening.

It won't take you long to recognize this intriguing thriller as a riff on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." It also isn't surprising that it feels like an episode of THE X-FILES, considering it was directed in Canada by Michelle MacLaren, a former executive producer of that spooky series (POPULATION 436 is her only film to date). There isn't really enough story here to carry the entire running time (it would have been a terrific TWILIGHT ZONE), and even though the plot unfolds more slowly than I would prefer, MacLaren and writer Michael Kingston present a curious mystery with a spine-shivering underpinning of dread.

U.S. census taker Steve Cady (Jeremy Sisto, now a regular on LAW & ORDER as Jesse L. Martin's detective partner) enters the small town of Rockwell Falls to investigate why its population has remained at exactly 436 for more than 100 years. Everyone there is extremely nice and welcoming, and society doesn't seem to have progressed much further than the early 20th century. As I mentioned above, it won't take long to recognize the seeds of "The Lottery" here, but the town's mysterious secret runs deeper than that, and the appealing Sisto is very fine as the Everyman forced to discover it if he wants his life back.

The movie doesn't identify Rockwell Falls' precise location, and we don't get to see as much of the town as we would like (probably due to budgetary considerations, which must also be responsible for the shoddy and quite unnecessary visual effects). We learn enough to fear for Sisto when the time comes, however, as MacLaren delivers an appropriately (and surprisingly) bleak shocker. Apparently, two endings were filmed. The one used in the version I saw (on the Region 1 DVD) is a bummer, but the best choice, as the tag that follows makes no sense otherwise. You may get a kick out of seeing rocker Fred Durst in this, pretty good as a love-stricken deputy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mandom

Goddammit, if this isn't one of the most badass things I've ever seen in my life, I don't know what could be.

Where The Bloodletting Began

WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA is, I suppose, the granddaddy of contemporary action/adventure literature. In this classic Pinnacle Books paperback, a former aerospace engineer, Don Pendleton, created the character of Mack Bolan, a Vietnam War hero whose combat record earned him the nickname "The Executioner." Originally published in 1969, WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA went on to spawn hundreds of sequels, not just under the Executioner umbrella title, but also several spinoffs such as the Able Team and Phoenix Force books. I believe it's the only men's adventure series of the era still being published today, which says a helluva lot about the violent anti-hero Pendleton created nearly forty years ago.

Bolan's origin takes place just before the events of WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA, and is related in the prologue. Bolan receives an emergency leave to return from Vietnam to his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts for the funerals of his father, mother and teenage sister. Bolan's old-fashioned father, stressed to his emotional limit after his desperate debt to loan sharks has driven 17-year-old Cindy Bolan to prostitution to pay it off, snaps at home one evening, shooting Cindy, his wife, and their 14-year-old youngest son Johnny. Only Johnny survives to tell big brother Mack about the Mafia's influence on Pittsfield and the dope, prostitution, corruption, and greed that has infected the town since Bolan left for 'Nam.

Understanding that the Mafia is a more serious enemy to the American way of life than the Viet Cong ever could be, Bolan becomes a one-man army, infiltrating the local mob scene and using his expertise in all sorts of weaponry and hand-to-hand combat to destroy the scum that destroyed his family. The Executioner slices like a fucking hammer, a blunt instrument that pounds away at all levels from the lowly gun-toting hood to the white-haired Italian patriarch at the top. Using bullets, bombs and the well honed technique that made him one of America's greatest war heroes, Bolan needs only a few days to tear down the Pittsfield mob from the top, staying just a step ahead of the local cops the entire time.

WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA has become one of the most important adventure novels in American history. Less than five years after its original publication, Pinnacle had released it ten more times with at least eight million copies in existence. More importantly, the Executioner books spawned dozens of copycats, some of which were also published by Pinnacle. Long-running series such as the Butcher, the Death Merchant and the Penetrator, as well as books starring the Sharpshooter, the Marksman, the Lone Wolf, and others, would never have existed without the tremendous sales appeal of the Executioner.

Surprisingly, there has never been an Executioner movie, though several have been rumored. In the 1970s, Burt Reynolds reportedly was interested in playing Bolan (he would have been a good choice), and in the '80s, Sylvester Stallone may have had the rights. Today, it appears as though Sony has the film rights to the Executioner. The irony is that, undoubtedly, an Executioner movie would be accused of plagiarism by fans of the Marvel Comics hero The Punisher, who has been the subject of two films (and another on the way). Whether Marvel has ever admitted this, I don't know, but it's fairly clear that writer Gerry Conway, the Punisher's co-creator, was highly influenced by Pendleton's character, right down to the Punisher's origin, his War Wagon and his war journal, all of which came from Executioner novels.

Vs. The Black Widow

Anthony Nicholas Twin returns in RITUAL OF BLOOD, the sixth in Charter's bizarre TNT series of paperback adventures and the fifth I have read (THE DEVIL'S CLAW is what I need to complete my collection). If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that the TNT novels are the strangest I've ever read—bizarre fantasies that usually involve the hero negotiating his way through a kinky maze-like deathtrap using his superpowers. In TNT, journalist Twin was caught in a nuclear explosion that intensified his senses of touch, smell, sight and, uh, sex. Yep, he can sustain an erection for hours, hell, days even, which is the power that normally gets the most use in these novels.

Nothing in the earlier TNT novels can be taken seriously, which is why it's odd that RITUAL OF BLOOD is the most conventional I've read so far. Not conventional for regular adventure novels, but certainly so for a TNT. The six richest men in the world have disappeared and their bank accounts have been drained. All six recently married a beautiful woman, who has also since vanished. Yep, a black widow and her 7-foot bearded lesbian lover have masterminded a deadly plot to marry, kill, inherit, you know the drill.

Another billionaire enlists the aid of fussy Arnold Benedict to set a trap for the black widow, and of course Benedict's first thought is to recruit Twin to pose as a potential victim. Meanwhile, TNT is already on the case, as one of the victims was a good friend whose children were murdered in front of him.

I don't want to make RITUAL OF BLOOD sound too normal, as it does feature a bizarre maze hidden inside a Broadway museum in which Twin must navigate hallways slowly filling with fast-drying plaster, a sex scene on a bed of one-way glass dangling from a helicopter over the New York skyline, a climactic battle in and around a castle located in the Arizona desert, and TNT's battle with a family of inbred spider-men. So, yes, the aforementioned word "conventional" is relative, though it also accounts for RITUAL OF BLOOD being the least interesting TNT novel to date. It just isn't crazy enough.

As for whom author Doug Master is, no telling. I noticed in the indicia a line that reads "Translated by Victoria Reiter," so perhaps the TNT books were originally printed in a foreign language.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Survival Scam

No, this Pinnacle Books series has nothing to do with James Cameron's film. In fact, THE KILL SQUAD was published in 1983—one year before Cameron's THE TERMINATOR made Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the world's biggest movie stars.

Pinnacle's "Terminator" is Rod Gavin, an ex-CIA assassin who has retired to a quiet Colorado community where he hopes to permanently retreat from the killing and bloodshed that marked his former life. Of course, in these paperbacks, no assassin/'Nam vet/ex-Mafioso can ever escape his old life. Just when Gavin thinks he's out, they drag him back in—you know the drill.

In the third Terminator book, the first I've read, Gavin looks into the murder of a New York City assistant district attorney whom Gavin knew slightly from various CIA missions. It looks as though the brother of a young woman of Gavin's acquaintance is the murderer, though when he, his fiancé and the sister all turn up horribly tortured and murdered, Gavin gets involved. He ends up in Arkansas, where a team of international assassins have created a survivalist retreat, so they can blend in with the gun-toting local yokels. From there, the "kill squad"'s leader, Bruner, sends killers all over the world to commit murders with the ultimate goal to team with a Libyan hit squad to assassinate the President of the United States.

THE KILL SQUAD plays like a made-for-TV movie with little action and no sex. I can imagine budget-minded producers shooting this one in Vancouver with Bruce Boxleitner in the lead. The author, "Quinn," who may be Dennis Rodriguez, sets up a potential powerful finale with the Presidential assassination, but the kill squad never leaves Arkansas, as Bruner invites Gavin to join the survivalists, not knowing that he intends to do so his own way—guns a-blazin' in the middle of the night. Beyond an intriguing twist involving Bruner's identity, THE KILL SQUAD, while a quick, easy read, is too jumbled and detached from the action to provide many thrills.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Your Next Visit May Be Your Last

I bet you wouldn't expect to see an Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress like Lee Grant (SHAMPOO) headlining a Canadian slasher flick, but here she is. As Deborah Ballin, crusading TV journalist, Grant is attacked in her home by a misogynist psycho (the always intimidating Michael Ironside, who may have played the role before his star-making turn in SCANNERS, which was released first) who witnessed his mother throwing boiling water on his abusive father. Grant survives the attack and wakes up in County General Hospital under the care of nurse Sheila (Linda Purl).

Ironside's fixation on Grant lies in her highly publicized support of a woman who shot her husband in self-defense, but was found guilty by a jury anyway. So he continues his assault on her by stalking her in the hospital, where he manages to kill nurses, patients, security guards--just about everyone else in the building except for Grant. And when he grows weary of chasing Grant, he sets his sights on Purl, a single mother of two youngsters.

Sharp photography and an excellent score by Jonathan Goldsmith aren't enough to make up for the deficiencies in Brian Taggart's screenplay, which ensures that a huge metropolitan hospital will always be empty when Ironside makes his attacks and that the characters who enjoy sex will be among the dead. Also not helping is the world's most clueless police force that manages to always be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Receiving #2 billing behind Grant is none other than William Shatner, who is pretty much wasted as Grant's ineffectual boss and lover. However, the name cast and the creepy one-sheet were probably responsible for making VISITING HOURS a slight theatrical hit in the U.S. It actually debuted at #2, behind ROCKY III, Memorial Day weekend of 1982. One week later, when STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN debuted at #1 at the box office, VISITING HOURS was still #6, probably the last time Shatner was ever on nearly 3000 motion picture screens at the same time.

Ironside says very little in VISITING HOURS, but plays a very sick dude, whether snapping photos of his victims' last breaths or stalking around naked except for Grant's jewelry dangling from his neck, ears and nose. Fans of Canadian exploitation movies (or "canuxploitation") will recognize mustachioed Harvey Atkin (the put-upon camp counselor from MEATBALLS) and foxy Lenore Zann (also in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, MURDER BY PHONE and DEF-CON 4 around this time).

VISITING HOURS, sadly, is just not a very good movie, though Ironside and Grant really give it their all.

Am I The Killer?

Instead of a cheapjack men's adventure novel, I took a detour into something a bit more respectable. Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg are considered by many to be masters of thriller writing. Both men began publishing stories in the late 1960s and have worked in several different genres, occasionally behind pseudonyms. Malzberg, as "Mike Barry," wrote 14 quickies about the Lone Wolf between 1973 and 1975, one of which I reviewed here. Likewise, Pronzini has penned a ton of crime fiction, including Michael Shayne short stories under the Brett Halliday handle.

THE RUNNING OF BEASTS appears to be a fan favorite among the several novels Malzberg and Pronzini wrote together. It's light on action and thrills, preferring to mask its psychological terror behind a mystery involving a series of serial murders in the small town of Bloodstone, New York. Several women have been found stripped and murdered (though not raped) with a series of strange diamond-shaped marks carved into their inner thighs. The killer could be anyone; in fact, a New York City psychiatrist looking into the case believes that the killer, coined "The Ripper" by the media, may not even know he is.

This allows the authors to tell the story using the points of view of several different characters, all of whom are involved with the Ripper in one way or another. Valerie Broome is a big-city writer who has returned to her hometown of Bloodstone to do a magazine article about the crimes. Town constable Alex Keller and state policeman Daniel Smith are investigating the same killings, but their rivalry prevents them from working together. Young Jack Cross, a callow reporter for the local newspaper and scion of the town's wealthiest woman, plans to write a book about the case. Stephen Hook, an alcoholic ex-actor who plays the ponies, falls back inside the bottle after he discovers one of the bodies.

Pronzini and Malzberg do a decent job building suspense and keeping us guessing who the killer may be. THE RUNNING OF BEASTS is a cinematic story that would make for a good film, particularly the watery climax and the final shock (which may be one twist too many, but…). My 1976 Fawcett Crest paperback is a complete reprinting of the original hardcover version and boasts a vivid red cover.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sequels Nobody Asked For: White Noise 2

Early in 2005, Universal dumped into theaters WHITE NOISE, which was most notable for being Michael Keaton's first starring role in a theatrical release in nearly seven years. It wasn't very good (though it was a hit), but it must have caught someone's attention at the studio, because WHITE NOISE 2 quickly went into production in 2006. It came out just about everywhere but North America in 2007, and finally slid into a direct-to-DVD release in early 2008. Bringing together two genre favorites—Nathan Fillion of FIREFLY and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's sexy Starbuck, Katee Sackhoff—was a good ploy to lure science fiction fans, but they deserve a better vehicle than WHITE NOISE 2.

Three months after his wife and son are murdered seemingly randomly by a gunman (Craig Fairbrass) who then turns his weapon on himself, a grief-stricken Abe Dale (Fillion) attempts suicide. He survives, but his near-death experience has left him with the ability to know who is going to die. He uses his power to save them, including the pretty nurse (Sackhoff) who tended to him after his suicide attempt, but comes to learn that the people he saves, through some Satanic mumbo-jumbo, turn into mass murderers three days later. And—gulp!—he's starting to fall in love with the widowed Sackhoff.

Sloppy plotting and an implausible romance subplot sink this sequel shot in Vancouver. Fillion has a black friend/co-worker/partner (?) who pops up for exposition purposes from time to time, but we never learn anything about him or what their jobs are, and while I think both Fillion and Sackhoff are good here, their relationship doesn't ring even the least bit plausible to me. I didn't understand the "booga booga whooooo scaaaaary" 666 stuff (we see Fillion do some doodles, but aren't told what he's doing), and the movie's insistence at throwing a zombie spirit in our face every minute and a half--I guess to remind us that this movie is scaaaaaary whoooooooo--gets old after about 7 1/2 minutes. Patrick Lussier, a Wes Craven protégé whose directorial career to date consists solely of DTV sequels, including three DRACULA movies, stages one impressive setpiece involving a grand piano that could be favorably compared to Brian DePalma, so WHITE NOISE 2 is not completely without worth. Though it is without purpose.

Say Goodbye To Jennifer

Jackie Cooper, who guest-starred in the previous ROCKFORD FILES episode, "Claire," returned to the Universal lot to direct his third episode of the season. THE ROCKFORD FILES was not generally known for heavy dramatics, but "Say Goodbye to Jennifer" is one of the best acted episodes of the season. The final scene, played by James Garner in silence, is particularly touching and closes an atypically downbeat episode with a lump in its throat.

Writers Juanita Bartlett and Rudolph Borchert (working from creator Roy Huggins' story) do an excellent job filling in all the necessary backstory at the beginning, as fashion photographer John "Mitch" Micelli (Hector Elizondo) and his Korean War buddy Jim Rockford (Garner) spend about a minute setting up their relationship and that between Mitch and model Jennifer Ryburn (Pamela Hensley) in narration over home movies of Mitch and Jennifer. Jennifer, accused of killing her boyfriend Ricky Pont (Vince Cannon), disappears, but is found a few days later in the morgue, a victim of a car accident (sloppily depicted using stock footage of decade-old automobiles). Mitch, who was in love with Jennifer and obsessed with her, believes she's still alive, hiding out in Seattle, and urges Rockford, who's convinced of her death, to find her.

A white-haired Thayer David is a quietly menacing heavy in his single scene as Carl Birrell, an L.A. mobster who wants revenge against Pont's murderer and sends his goons (one of whom is portrayed by reliable character actor Len Lesser, now best known as SEINFELD's Uncle Leo) to lean on anyone who may know where Jennifer is hiding. The lovely Kate Woodville unfortunately has little to do as the coroner who signs Jennifer's death certificate, but gets better billing than Regis Cordic, who takes a few shots as the dentist who provides the model's records to confirm her death. In an episode pouring with drama, Ken Swofford adds a necessary light touch as a private eye whose help Rockford enlists in Seattle.

Elizondo, still a busy actor in films and television (CANE), was just coming off United Artists' successful suspenser THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, and later appeared in another ROCKFORD FILES as a supercop reminiscent of the then-hot Joseph Wambaugh. The sexy Hensley waggled tongues of teenage boys across the country as BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY's seductive Princess Ardala. She later married her MATT HOUSTON producer, E. Duke Vincent, and left the business.

A Spectacular Visual Adventure

The great Ernie Anderson introduces my all-time favorite movie, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, in its network television premiere. THE ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE was one of the TV's highest rated programs for many years, and was notable for its "slitscan" opening, which used visual effects technology Douglas Trumbull pioneered in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. With Anderson pumping in the excitement on top of ABC's visual flair and a great film to boot, there's little doubt RAIDERS scored high in the Nielsens that night.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Find Brunt Maxwell

When Dr. Heinrich Luckmann, an atomic scientist, is murdered in his Palo Alto laboratory, the Penetrator is on the case to find his assistant, a meek genius named Dr. Brunt Maxwell who is working on a special nuclear project that could threaten the world if its plans were to fall into the wrong hands. Whether Maxwell has been kidnapped or just hidden out of fear, no one knows, not even his wife, who is under constant guard by the FBI and beautiful NASA security officer Juliet Marshall.

THE SKYHIGH BETRAYERS, #28 in Pinnacle's popular Penetrator series, published in 1978, is fast-moving fun and a blast to read. Clearly penned with tongue in cheek, the story is no spoof, but takes delight in outrageous story points and characters. Chet Cunningham, writing as "Lionel Derrick," creates some interesting action sequences, such as a car chase punctuated by a phosphorous grenade, a knife battle between two hang glider pilots, and a climactic setpiece inside a mysterious abandoned carnival funhouse.

As the cover proclaims, SKYHIGH may be "as exciting as The Executioner," but don't go by the cool George Wilson cover painting. I don't know what outline Wilson was working from, but the novel sadly has no sharks or Chinese dudes with hatchets. The book is entertaining enough that I can safely say it doesn't need them either.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Hammer Is The Fucking Man

Happy birthday to one of the world's great badasses. Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is 70 today, but looks 50. Must be all those cigars.

I chatted on the phone one afternoon with Fred. John Riley and I were doing THE ONLY THING ON, and he mentioned that his friend Doug Bryan was a film editor in Dallas, and was then working on Williamson's new movie (STEELE'S LAW, I think). So John called Doug at work and said, "How's Fred?" "Fine, he's sitting right here, wanna talk to him?" So I rapped with The Hammer for ten minutes or so, partially about Super Bowl I and mostly about THREE THE HARD WAY and its "sequel" ONE DOWN TWO TO GO, which Fred claimed was the world leader in being stolen from video stores or something like that. A very charming fellow. He has an enormous ego, but rarely seems to get ripped for it. Probably because he's so charming and down to earth. Really, he had no reason to spend any time chatting on the phone with John and me, but it was great of him to say hello. Of course, he probably didn't mind listening to two white boys from Illinois tell him how badass he is.

If you need proof of Fred's awesomeness, check this out:




Yep, Fred is so badass, he even got to hang with Shatner in a STAR TREK episode.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cheerleaders Playing Twister?

Why didn't we ever make that happen? I'll have to ask John about that.

Here's the Carbondale Nightlife article about THE ONLY THING ON to which I alluded in this post last week. Chris Wissmann was the reporter (he may have been the Entertainment editor), and the piece ran the week of July 19, 1991, so THE ONLY THING ON must have only been on two or three weeks. I think I come off like somewhat of a noob, but, hey, I was young, on TV, and having fun. Enjoy. You should be able to click these images and make them large enough to read.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Name Is Mannix

MANNIX is finally coming to DVD.

I don't know what took CBS/Paramount so long to realize there's an audience for this show, but let's be thankful they finally did. What's really exciting about MANNIX: THE FIRST SEASON is that CBS/Paramount is assembling some cool extras for the set:

  • Commentary Tracks
    • "The Name Is Mannix" by Creator William Link
    • "Another Final Exit" by Mike Connors and Joseph Campanella
  • Audio Intros by Mike Connors on each Episode and on all Special Features
  • On-Camera Reunion with Mike Connors and Joseph Campanella
  • Mike Connors on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW
  • Clip from DIAGNOSIS: MURDER with Mike Connors playing "Mannix"

Considering the studio has included bupkis in the way of extras for the three MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE season sets it has released to date—and that series is way more visible today than is MANNIX—this is quite a surprise. And a very pleasant one.

MANNIX: THE FIRST SEASON hits DVD June 3.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Housewife Prostitution

Soon I'm going to have to compile a salute to Ernie Anderson, one of the all-time great voiceover artists who, I think, had a lot to do with ABC becoming the #1 network in the late 1970s and early 1980s. YouTube has a bunch of trailers and promos with Anderson narration, including this one for a made-for-TV movie called MONEY ON THE SIDE. It stars perennial TV cutie-pie Karen Valentine and star-to-be Jamie Lee Curtis, then known for her many horror movies, but soon to appear opposite Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in the smash TRADING PLACES.

Also in this spot is a promo for TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY, which was a very good period adventure created by Donald Bellisario and obviously influenced by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Bellisario had just been producing MAGNUM, P.I., and the MAGNUM influence is also present in GOLD MONKEY: handsome hero (Stephen Collins) in cool vehicle (Grumman Goose) based in an exotic location (South Seas, reproduced on the Universal backlot) who hangs out at his friend's bar (Monkey Bar). It was a fun, lighthearted adventure that sadly lasted just the one season. I have some not-good-quality bootleg episodes, but I understand Universal may soon be releasing the entire series on DVD in a few months. I'll be upgrading and I'll be back here urging you to do the same, particularly if you love RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or MAGNUM, P.I.

In any case...Mr. Ernie Anderson:

Admit it. Even though MONEY ON THE SIDE has to be hilariously awful, Anderson almost makes you want to tune in Wednesday for housewife prostitutes.