Friday, October 31, 2008

It Was 30 Years Ago Tonight

Another reason network television is so lame today. Where are the crappy Halloween movies? Here’s what you might have been watching exactly thirty years ago tonight.


I don’t remember STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, but it’s interesting in that it was directed by none other than Wes Craven. I’d be curious to know how Craven landed a network gig, because at that time, he was known only by hardcore horror fans for directing LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. While both films are distinguished by Craven’s skills for achieving on-screen suspense, I can’t imagine many network executives lining up in their cars at a Southern California drive-in to see them. Today, of course, it would be considered something of a coup to land Craven for a television directing gig. He did a few more TV-movies and some episodes of the 1980s remake of TWILIGHT ZONE, including two outstanding episodes, “Shatterday” with Bruce Willis and “Wordplay” with Robert Klein.

NBC, of course, played up THE EXORCIST in touting Linda Blair’s starring role in STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE. She had appeared in several highly rated TV-movies before 1978, such as SWEET HOSTAGE with Martin Sheen (which I clearly remember watching, but haven’t seen it since) and the notorious BORN INNOCENT. STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE was later retitled SUMMER OF FEAR and given a DVD release a few years ago (with a Craven audio commentary).

Linda Blair aside, it would be very difficult, just judging from these ads, to watch her movie over something called DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL, which, thankfully, is also on DVD. DEVIL DOG is one of the funniest made-for-TV horror films ever made, and it all boils down to Richard Crenna’s amazing line, “That damn dog tried to force me to stick my hand in the lawn mower!”

The same year the fine actor Crenna starred in THE EVIL, he made DEVIL DOG, which surprisingly appears to have been taken seriously by the men and women who made it. Like STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, DEVIL DOG was directed by a known horror director, Curtis Harrington (THE KILLING KIND). Unlike Wes Craven, however, Harrington had television experience with TV-movies like THE CAT CREATURE and THE DEAD DON’T DIE under his belt.

Crenna stars as Michael Barry, a typical suburban dad with a wife (Yvette Mimieux) and two kids who take in a new pup the same day the beloved household pet is run down by a hit-and-run driver. Little Lucky proves to be less than an angel after various Barry friends, employees, neighbors (and their animals) die mysteriously. Even the wife and kids start acting batty (it helps the movie that Harrington cast the unearthly siblings from the WITCH MOUNTAIN movies). What’s a beleaguered pop to do but climb an Ecuadorian mountain in search of a wizened old shaman (Victor Jory) who can reveal the only method of destroying the demon that possesses Crenna’s German shepherd?

The woeful animated visual effects that punctuate the limp climax would barely pass muster on ELECTRA WOMAN AND DYNAGIRL, but there’s probably no way to make a dog with glowing eyes wearing a South American Indian headdress scary anyway. You’ll admire Crenna, who survives this indignity with surprising grace, but the rest of DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL is a real howler.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Not Quite Hollywood

I can't wait to see NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, which is a new documentary about exploitation movies from Australia. The definitely NSFW trailer is here, and has me seriously jonesing to see some of this crap. Many of the films included here I have already seen, such as the amazing THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (where George Lazenby is set on fire) and the trashy TURKEY SHOOT (known in the U.S. as ESCAPE 2000 and contains one of cinema's greatest exploding bodies). I think there might be some STUNT ROCK in there too (I just noticed that Brian Trenchard-Smith directed all three films I just mentioned). As a genre, "Ozploitation" is seriously underrepresented on DVD in the United States, although ROAD GAMES and the Mad Max movies are easily available (and are also on display in NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD). Judging from what I've seen and what I've gleaned from the clips in this trailer, we definitely need more.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Once A Bloodsucker, Always A Bloodsucker

It isn’t until now that you’ve been able to really see SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT, which director Anthony Hickox (WAXWORK) made in Moab, Utah in 1988. Vestron unfortunately went down the tubes around that time, and SUNDOWN never received a proper theatrical release. Its VHS release and television showings made mincemeat of cinematographer Levie Isaacks’ work and Hickox’s staging, but getting to see it on Lionsgate’s Special Edition DVD reveals an amusing horror/comedy that has been very badly served by its rights owners to date.

SUNDOWN’s biggest problem is its large cast of characters and disparate storylines. It’s difficult to ascertain who the movie is about, and many plot threads are ultimately not connected as strongly as they should have been. The great Bruce Campbell, just off EVIL DEAD II, is Robert Van Helsing, who arrives in the desert town of Purgatory to find Count Mardulak (David Carradine), the vampire his great-grandfather stalked over a century before. What Van Helsing isn’t prepared for is facing an entire town of vampires, which gathered in Purgatory to keep them away from the tempting taste of human blood.

Also arriving in Purgatory is David Harrison (Jim Metzler), his wife Sarah (DALLAS’ Morgan Brittany) and their two daughters. David has come to rescue the town’s lone industry, which is a factory that manufactures artificial blood for medical use. Of course, it’s also Purgatory’s food supply, and between the plant being on the fritz and an unusually large assembly of people passing through, many townspeople are jonesing for the real red stuff.

Hickox also introduces a third plot thread, which pits Mardulak and his followers against enemy vampires ruled by Jefferson (John Ireland!), who wants to get out of Purgatory and take over the world using the human race as food. All three stories mix together uncomfortably, but the decent cast, occasional wit, lush scenery and Richard Stone’s majestic score make the end justify the means. Campbell is particularly funny in an Ash-like performance, and Carradine seems to be enjoying himself more than in some of the other B-movies he’s starred in.

Also appearing are the delectable Deborah Foreman (VALLEY GIRL), M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE), Maxwell Caulfield (GREASE 2), Dana Ashbrook (TWIN PEAKS), Elizabeth Gracen, Bert Remsen, Sunshine Parker, Buck Flower, Dabbs Greer and John Hancock, so you can imagine the delightful acting moments that occur. Ignore the pretentious title, as well as any preconceptions you may have gotten through its pervertedly pan-and-scanned tape and TV prints, and you may find that SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT is an appealing little movie ($2.5 million) with laughs and fun.

Michael Felsher moderates director Hickox and director of photography Isaacks in an entertaining audio commentary that doesn’t answer all the questions a fan of this movie may have (so is Vestron’s Dan Ireland related to actor John Ireland or not?), but most. Neither man had seen SUNDOWN since it was made, and they have a good time revisiting it and telling tales. Also included are individual on-screen interviews with Carradine (charming), Campbell (candid as usual, including some juicy Carradine gossip) and Walsh (avuncular). About six minutes of not terribly thrilling stills are included, as well as a handful of Lionsgate trailers. There’s no SUNDOWN trailer, but one may never have existed, since it didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mary Ellen

17 Mary Ellen
November 17, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Teleplay: Jimmy Sangster and Sidney Ellis and Michael Sloan
Story: Jimmy Sangster
Director: Frank P. Beascoechea

BJ AND THE BEAR's director of photography, Frank Beascoechea, picked a heck of an episode on which to make his debut as a director. They say you should avoid working with animals and children, so, of course, "Mary Ellen" has both. Not just Bear, the chimpanzee traveling companion of trucker BJ McKay (Greg Evigan), but also the title character herself, who just happens to be an elephant.

A veteran animal trainer (TV's Fish, Abe Vigoda) and his granddaughter (Marilyn Jones, who would join Linda Hamilton and Lorenzo Lamas on the primetime soap THE SECRETS OF MIDLAND HEIGHTS a year later) hire BJ to transport Mary Ellen and them to join a circus in Florida. Their journey, however, takes them through the county patrolled by BJ's archfoes, corrupt Sgt. Wiley (Slim Pickens) and the Fox (Conchata Ferrell), who are trying to keep their illegal moonshine cache a secret from their boss, the clueless Sheriff Masters (Richard Deacon). Mary Ellen's memory of Wiley feeding her popcorn laced with hot pepper years before sends her into a rampage that lands BJ behind bars and the elephant the target of every redneck with a rifle in the county.

Ah, the days when smalltown America could be captivated by an elephant. No show would put a performing elephant on the air these days, but again, there's a lot about BJ AND THE BEAR that doesn't appeal to today's network executives. Whether the series would appeal to a mainstream audience today is a debate for a different post.

Director Beascoechea delivers a solid episode with an eye-catching opening stunt and warm acting by Vigoda. Beascoechea continued to be a regular cinematographer on Glen A. Larson programs, such as SWORD OF JUSTICE, THE FALL GUY and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, though he only occasionally directed again. "Mary Ellen" was also the first BJ script by Jimmy Sangster, a British screenwriter who made his bones penning classic Hammer horror and adventure movies, such as THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. After he moved to Hollywood in the early 1970s to write for American television, Sangster worked consistently in the crime and fantasy genres, crafting imaginative episodes for series as diverse as WONDER WOMAN and CANNON, as well as made-for-TV movies.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wild World Of Mystery

Johnny Carson's decades-long reign as King of Late Night Television left a lot of competition eating his ratings dust.  CBS and ABC tried for years to counter-program talk shows of their own, but Les Crane, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, among others, were never strong enough to topple THE TONIGHT SHOW.  Eventually, the competing networks gave up on talk shows and looked for alternate programming that might lure an audience hungry for something new in late night.

In the mid-1970's, ABC developed an umbrella title, ABC'S WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT, an intriguing concept that juggled several different types of shows and specials in the 11:30 timeslot.  Among the various spokes in the WIDE WORLD wheel were talk shows hosted by Dick Cavett and Jack Paar; IN CONCERT, which featured live performances by popular rock acts; documentaries; profiles of Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor; comedy and variety specials; and even low-budget thrillers produced under the WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY banner.

According to ABC, more than 200 made-for-TV mystery movies were telecast during the 1973-1974 season alone.  To save on production costs, these cheapies were shot very quickly on videotape instead of 35mm film and ran only around 70 minutes.  Despite the small budgets and audiences, ABC attracted many popular television actors to star in these mysteries, which probably took only a few days to shoot:  Christopher George, Michael Parks, Julie Newmar, Meredith Baxter, John Vernon, John Astin, Claude Akins, Fritz Weaver, Anne Francis and Tim Matheson, just to name a few.  None of them ever air on television these days, and very few made it to home video.  Some of them may no longer exist, as it was common then for networks to erase videotaped programming so they could reuse the tapes, which is why many game shows and even the first ten years of THE TONIGHT SHOW no longer exist.

I think the WIDE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT concept is ready for a comeback. Surely I can't be the only one tired of the same old talk shows with the same monologue-desk bit-guest-musical number-guest-ad infinitum. Above are a few TV Guide ads that give you an idea of the movies ABC was offering opposite Carson back then. I've seen a couple WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY movies, but none listed above.

1974's NIGHTMARE AT 43 HILLCREST may be a typical example of the kind of simple though diverting entertainment the WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY offered.  It has a top cast and a decent teleplay.  If you can get past its soap-opera look, occasional technical flubs and one-take performances, it isn't a bad way to spend 65 minutes.  The Leydens, a typical American family, are forcibly awakened in the middle of the night by a group of gun-waving men who yank them out of bed, shout at them, and even smack father Greg (Jim Hutton, soon to be Ellery Queen) in the face.  No, they aren't burglars, but police detectives making a drug bust.  Unfortunately, they've made a mistake and raided the wrong house.  To cover up his gross error, lead detective Clarence Hartog (Peter Mark Richman) plants heroin and hauls the whole family, including teenage daughter Nancy, to jail.  The case looks open-and-shut.  The Leydens' attorney urges them to plea-bargain.  Greg refuses, even though long prison sentences seem certain.  The family's one hope is policeman Frank Linwood (John Karlen), who suspects Hartog's plan and risks his career to take his suspicions to the grand jury.

If you think the story is implausible, you should know that, in 2006, three Atlanta cops raided the wrong house and shot at a 92-year-old woman 39 times, killing her, and planted drugs in her house to cover up their mess.  A sad story, but one that lends some verisimilitude to this late-night melodrama, which serves up a very good performance by Karlen (later on CAGNEY & LACEY) and solid work by vets Richman and Hutton.  Director Lela Swift was virtually the only woman helming network television then, and earned her stripes on more than 500 episodes of DARK SHADOWS, the creation of NIGHTMARE AT 43 HILLCREST's executive producer Dan Curtis (John Karlen was a regular on DARK SHADOWS, as well).  Robert Cobert composed the sparse score, and the whole movie was taped on only a few small sets.

A year later, ABC aired the sci-fier ALIEN LOVER, which was also directed by Swift.  20-year-old Kate Mulgrew (STAR TREK: VOYAGER) made her television debut as Susan, a teenaged orphan who comes to live with her aunt and uncle (Susan Brown and Pernell Roberts) after two years in a sanitarium.  Feeling alone with no friends and nervous about her new living situation, Susan becomes friendly with Marc (John Ventantonio), a handsome young man who appears to her on a broken old TV set in the attic.  Marc claims to live in an alternate dimension adjacent to ours, and that his people are working on technology that will allow them to cross over.  Of course, no one in Susan's family believes her story about a boy who talks to her through a busted television set, and when the family cat is killed and Susan's cousin vanishes in quick succession, one begins to wonder whether Susan is having another mental breakdown. 

While the performances are professional enough (Mulgrew is particularly winsome here), the story is too slight for its 74-minute running time and isn't aided by a script that limits most of the action to two rooms.  We won't blame Swift for ABC's thin budget, but she and the writer have to take the hit for ALIEN LOVER's too-brief ending, which is both confusing and promising of something better to come.

King Of The Mafia

Bruno Rossi returns with another adventure of the bloodthirsty Sharpshooter in book #5 of Leisure's long-running series (at least fifteen of them). NIGHT OF THE ASSASSINS is Johnny Rock at his most unhinged. As I wrote in an earlier post, the Sharpshooter is the only men's adventure hero I've yet stumbled across who is absolutely psychotic, and NIGHT OF THE ASSASSINS is a great example of that. Rossi (reputedly Leonard Levinson) barely invents a plot for this novel, and is content to describe Rock roaming around Miami Beach blasting the shit out of mobsters. Sometimes he goes to elaborate lengths to plan a job, as when he obtains scuba equipment and swims out to a Mafia casino ship that he robs and then explodes. But sometimes he'll just be walking down a hotel corridor and shoot the first two guys who come along.

Rock, who became an Executioner wannabe after his family was murdered by the Mafia, isn't afraid of big fish, setting his sights on Vincent Pancaldo, the godfather of Miami and the last of several dozen corpses the Sharpshooter leaves in Florida. Blunt and lean with no filling, NIGHT OF THE ASSASSINS is as straightforward as the genre gets, leaving little room for arty flourishes or flowery exposition. Another thing I like about the Lancer Sharpshooter books is the covers, which are unfortunately unsigned, but definitely succeed in catching the reader's eye.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Run Joey Run

One of the most hilariously melodramatic pop hits of the 1970s was David Geddes' "Run Joey Run." Rock aficionados know that songs about dead teenagers used to be surprisingly popular with The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" and Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" being probably the most popular. I have no idea what made them so appealing to teenage (or younger) audiences, but these story-songs inevitably chronicled a young man or woman coming to grips with the horribly cruel death of his or her betrothed.

I had never seen Geddes' video for "Run Joey Run," which hit #5 in 1975. I am unable to embed the YouTube video, but you can watch it here. Like Dinning's Teen Angel, who was squashed by a rampaging locomotive while retrieving her boyfriend's class ring from a car stranded on the tracks (!), Geddes' heroine meets a similarly bloody and tragic demise. I suggest you spend the next three minutes in the loopy musical world of David Geddes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Two Young Girls In A Women's Prison

Only in the 1970s could a movie this downbeat and sleazy air on network television. Not only does NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY present a depressing and even frightening look at prison life (so much so that I have seen this film referred to as "horror"), but Vidmark Entertainment's home video version is one assembled for overseas theatrical release, which means extra scenes of depravity, profanity and full-frontal nudity have been added to what was already an intense viewing experience.

Two sweet college coeds--white Cathy (Deborah Raffin, later the lead in the FOUL PLAY TV series with Barry Bostwick) and black Diane (Lynne Moody)--are arrested on trumped-up charges in a small Mississippi town, where Diane is raped by the bigoted local sheriff (THE RIFLEMAN himself, Chuck Connors). Without benefit of an attorney, due process or even a phone call (the judge is the sheriff's cousin), the girls are tossed into the Badham County Farm, which is run by a pedophile rapist named Harry Dancer (Robert Reed!) and his main trusty, the cruel Greer (Tina “Ginger” Louise).

Racism and violence ran rampant behind the scenes, as the prisoners are segregated by color and given separate quarters, jobs and eating schedules. What were originally supposed to be 30-day sentences for Cathy and Diane eventually become more serious, as Dancer's high-placed political pals need more slave labor for their farms, and the girls realize that their only way out is escape or death.

Unlike, for instance, the women-in-prison pictures made by New World Pictures and directed by Jack Hill, NIGHTMARE is a joyless experience, preferring to heap physical and emotional distress upon its characters with little hope of rescue. Adding to the squirminess is the additional R-rated material, which range from a jarring insert of Lynne Moody's body double's bare breasts during the rape to lengthy scenes of inmates and guards (none of whom are played by the cast's major stars) stripping or being stripped, whipping or being whipped. These scenes were probably not directed by the talented veteran John Llewellyn Moxey (THE NIGHT STALKER), who definitely directed the network cut, as they are crudely blocked and quickly lensed, and would fit more cleanly into a Jesus Franco picture than during the dinner hour on ABC.

While not a "fun" film, NIGHTMARE is fascinating nonetheless, if only because of the recognizable television actors who surprisingly allow themselves to appear extremely unsympathetic, whether it's Connors ripping apart Moody's shirt or BRADY BUNCH dad Reed, who looks slimy in his white leisure suits and large, round white Afro, coercing a 15-year-old virgin into the sack. Raffin and Moody are very good at projecting the necessary desperation and vulnerability, although their behavior leading up to their arrest seems designed to making the audience feel as though they deserve what's coming to them, talking as they do about their various boyfriends and their independence. However, the deck is so stacked against them that you quickly get on their side. Perhaps it's too stacked--it's difficult to believe that everybody in town is content to go along with the conspiracy headed by Reed and Connors, which also reaches to the local mayor and even the governor's office.

Charles Bernstein (WHITE LIGHTNING) provides a masterful score, and it's hard to believe that a script this misogynistic was penned by a woman (Jo Heims, whose credits include PLAY MISTY FOR ME). Also appearing are Della Reese, whose performance was nominated for an Emmy (!), Fionnula Flanagan, Lana Wood, Ralph Bellamy and Denise Dillaway (THE CHEERLEADERS). Moxey shot in Mississippi, which provided some suitably rundown locations. Women-in-prison movies (WIPs) were extremely popular with drive-in audiences during the 1970s, including director Jack Hill’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE for executive producer Roger Corman. No network would air something like NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY today, but in the wild, un-PC ‘70s, it wasn’t surprising to see TV jumping on the bandwagon of any passing fad. A notorious episode of CHARLIE'S ANGELS ("Angels In Chains", which guest-starred Kim Basinger) and a remake of JACKSON COUNTY JAIL with the same director (Michael Miller) and star (Yvette Mimieux) are just two more examples of networks trying to capture the essence of one of exploitation cinema’s grimiest subgenres.

P.S. The first ten minutes of NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY are on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Neal Trek

Holy crap, Neal Adams draws STAR TREK! That's pretty much the coolest thing I've seen this week. This is the cover to one of those Power Records book/45 rpm record sets that were popular during the 1970s. You would listen to a STAR TREK adventure (with anonymous actors playing the characters) and follow along with the comic book.

It looks like the great Adams illustrated several covers for Power Records, as well as some of the interiors. This particular book contains a story, "The Time Stealers," that Adams also co-wrote with the popular Superman author Cary Bates. It, and every other STAR TREK comic book ever published, is available from GIT Corporation on this incredible DVD-ROM. I gotta have it. It includes the long Gold Key series, all the Marvel and DC series (including the movie adaptations), and several runs from independent publishers since.

Er, it's on my Amazon wish list, if you're charitable enough to click the link over on the sidebar to the right…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Big Thaw

I can't tell you much about Hawk Macrae. I only just one of the series, and I could find next to nothing about the character online. 1974's THE BLOOD OF ANGELS by Albert Barker gives enough backstory; Macrae (sic) is a half-Scotch/half-Indian movie star who specializes in westerns. He's also a private pilot with an Arizona ranch that sometimes serves as a film location, and he apparently sometimes engages in extracurricular adventures when he's not on set.

In #4 of the Curtis Book series, Hawk flies to Alaska to meet with wealthy Bryant T. Grindler, who's interested in bankrolling the actor's next film. He accompanies Grindler, as well as the tycoon's younger fiancé Liz and his secretary Marta, to a secluded mountain cabin hundreds of miles from civilization where they can discuss details and maybe get some hunting and fishing in.

The next day, the party is interrupted by Grindler's estranged daughter Pat, who has hooked up with a pair of American revolutionaries to pull dangerous pranks, including dropping a dye bomb on the Capitol dome that inadvertently caused the death of an Indian ambassador. Pat and her two male accomplices, Simon and violent 'Nam vet Kongo, have come to the cabin to hide from the authorities, turning Hawk's business vacation into something of a DESPERATE HOURS situation.

Barker's writing style is amiable, describing the weathered hero's action in distinctive but not overly elaborate first-person detail. The plot doesn't hold together well, as it seems Hawk has plenty of opportunity to get the drop on his foes if he had wanted to. Violence, sex and sleaze are at a minimum, but the Alaskan wilderness is an unusual setting, and the novel is an effective timewaster. I don't know the true identity of Barker—I naturally assume most men's adventure novelists used pen names (though I realize not all did)—but he cranks this one out in fine form.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Combat In The Caribbean

Fans of classic television may remember Paul Petersen as a Meeska-Mooska-Mouseketeer on the original MICKEY MOUSE CLUB or as Shelley Fabares' younger brother Jeff Stone on THE DONNA REED SHOW. After DONNA left ABC in 1966, Petersen, like many child actors, found himself typecast and struggled to find work. Jumping ahead a few years, the mod Petersen discovered a talent for writing. After first publishing a non-fiction book about auto racing, Petersen co-created Eric Saveman, whom he dubbed the Smuggler. Pocket Books paid Petersen $75,000 to write eight books about the Smuggler in 1973, and FOOLS OF THE TRADE was the second.

Not having read the first book of the series, I'm not certain how Saveman came to work for the ZED organization, but he is one of the agency's best operatives. From ZED's secret headquarters located below Patton Enterprises, an international conglomerate, General Victor Velasco sends Saveman on a mission to the Caribbean island of Inagua, where the brutal security chief, M'Bhutto, is torturing three ZED agents in his oceanside prison. The only one left alive is Joshua Kane, whom Eric is to rescue, as well as find out why the other agents were killed.

After the initial few chapters, which feel randomly slapped together with little purpose but to stretch the story to 160 pages, FOOLS OF THE TRADE comes together quite nicely as a swift little adventure. Early chapters appear to set up supporting characters and a red herring plot that are quickly disposed of, in favor of Saveman's trip to Inagua, where the island's only source of industry, a salt mine, is being sabotaged by mysterious foes who are killing the mine's executives.

Along the way, Saveman participates in two rather graphic sex scenes and a gold heist ripped off from an episode of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. More eye-raising than the sex are Petersen's shockingly gory torture scenes that are among the most brutal acts of violence I've ever read. At least they're imaginative, and they do establish M'Bhutto as a real bastard that earns his nasty death in the next-to-last chapter.

Joe Marchetti's cover is a nice touch, as it's obvious that author Petersen modeled his creation for the painting.

A Beretta In The Butt Beats A Butterfly In The Boot

A typically excessive melodrama from producer Joel Silver, 1991's RICOCHET is a real find for those who like to laugh at bad movies. It’s the kind of movie where John Lithgow can beat the crap out of wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and for a rematch in prison, the two men are wrapped with duct tape and heavy books for a gladiatorial-style fight using sharpened metal poles as swords. Later, Lithgow, who has escaped from prison to gain revenge against the cop who put him away, manages to somehow sneak into an exclusive hotel, drain its Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool, drain it, move furniture into it (!), and hold the cop hostage for several days while plying him with cocaine, heroin and hookers.

For the finale, the cop, unable to trust his family’s safety with the police (for no reason that I can discern), moves his wife and kids into a crackhouse run by his childhood friend Odessa (Ice-T), who undertakes a dangerous commando mission to help the cop win a deadly fistfight against Lithgow atop the Watts Towers. Everything is pumped up to the highest decibel, including Alan Silvestri’s high and mighty score and the explosive chest-bursting squibs that punctuate the gunfire.

As a rookie patrolman, Nick Styles (Denzel Washington) brought down assassin Earl Blake (Lithgow) during a carnival gunfight that was captured on an amateur home video. The notoriety of Blake’s capture catapulted Styles and his partner Larry Doyle (Kevin Pollak, who does his Shatner impression) to detective and eventually to the district attorney’s office, where eight years later, Styles is an assistant D.A. under Priscilla “The Hun” Brimleigh (former BIONIC WOMAN Lindsay Wagner) and Doyle is his investigator.

Blake spends those eight years obsessing about Styles, and finally engineers a hilariously implausible prison break that enables him to get his revenge. Instead of just killing Styles, he engineers an elaborately dumb plan to frame him as a child pornographer, an embezzler, an adulterer (Styles’ wife treats him like one after he tells her he was raped while under the influence) and a murderer.

Steven E. de Souza, the screenwriter, has a fertile imagination, to be sure, but Blake would have to exist in a pretty dim world to make Styles’ friends and family believe the B.S. he’s shoveling. De Souza and director Russell Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER) are trying to make a statement against the news media and its manipulation of innocent lives in pursuit of ratings, but any satire is washed away by the corny dialogue and violent excess, which are far funnier than the film’s intentional humor. The difference between the spoofery of THE NAKED GUN movies and the unintentional absurdity of RICOCHET is so thin, you couldn’t slip an index card between them (when a prison guard mocks Blake by asking him if he flossed before going to see the parole board, the madman answers, “Yeah, with your wife’s pubic hair.”).

Lithgow overplayed several baddies in equally stupid action movies during the early 1990s, including CLIFFHANGER and RAISING CAIN. As he grew older and moved into TV sitcoms, his acting became even less restrained, if you can believe it. Washington, in between Spike Lee movies MO’ BETTER BLUES and MALCOLM X, later did the similar but even worse serial-killer flick VIRTUOSITY opposite a then-unknown Russell Crowe.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Eyes Of Texas

16 The Eyes of Texas
November 10, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Glen A. Larson
Director: Bruce Bilson

Executive producer Larson wrote this backdoor pilot for a potential series called THE EYES OF TEXAS that would have starred Lorrie Mahaffey (HAPPY DAYS) and Rebecca Reynolds as two private-eyes-in-training working for a small Texas-based agency run by Roger C. Carmel. Even though the two detectives are literally unable to find New Orleans on a map, Carmel assigns them to find a gigolo (Peter Haskell) who is swindling older women of their life savings and sharing the dough with his gangster boss, played by the too-classy-for-this Raymond St. Jacques (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM). BJ (Greg Evigan) is dimmer than usual, first being used by the girls to squire them from one fancy N'awlins eatery to the next in search of Haskell, and then being convinced by them to help Haskell steal his latest mark's boat with the promise that the police have them under surveillance (they don't).

The girls try hard and they're certainly attractive enough, but the idea apparently didn't catch on with the networks. It doesn't work as a very good BJ AND THE BEAR either, as its content of action and laughs is lower than usual. Screen legend Anna Lee (BEDLAM) plays Haskell's victim, and Dick Yarmy (Don Adams' brother) manages to turn his two-minute bit into an effective little character arc.

For whatever reason, Larson was unable to let the idea for his CHARLIE'S ANGELS ripoff go. A couple of months later, he again used BJ to make a second EYES OF TEXAS pilot, replacing Mahaffey and Carmel with different actors. It didn't sell either.

Friday, October 17, 2008

White Man’s Town…Black Man’s Law

It's hard to imagine a time when you could drive past a movie theater and see the words "BOSS NIGGER" on the marquee—and referring to a PG-rated film, no less. Fred Williamson, who wrote, produced and starred in the film, admits the title was intended to be exploitative and draw attention to his likable but low-budget western. Since he had already starred in THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY and THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, which were blaxploitation hits for Paramount, it clearly didn't take the former football star known as The Hammer long to figure out how marketing could affect his box office grosses as much as, if not more than, the film's actual quality.

1975's BOSS NIGGER, which opens with an incredibly funky theme song performed by a singer credited only as Terrible Tom, could almost be another NIGGER CHARLEY sequel, as it again stars Fred as a big, handsome western hero, ready to bust up and shoot it out with anyone black, white or purple who gets in his way, and sidekick D'Urville Martin as his comic sidekick (this was the sixth film the two men made together; they went on to do three more). This time, the Hammer is Boss, a bounty hunter who rides into a very white small town and installs himself as sheriff, which upsets the racist townspeople, many of whom had never seen a black man before. Boss and Amos (Martin, later the director and co-star of the trash classic DOLEMITE) have really come to claim the huge reward on Jed Clayton (William Smith), whose vicious gang has the entire town, including the corrupt mayor (R.G. Armstrong), cowering in fear.

Almost as surprising as the film's title is its choice of director. Jack Arnold made his name at Universal-International during the 1950s, where he directed many science fiction films that became classics, such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and TARANTULA. Once non-genre fans look past the campy titles, they usually discover that Arnold's films were generally quite good, and their success ensured him a long career behind the camera.

However, by the time BOSS NIGGER rolled around, Arnold had been almost exclusively a television director, helming episodes of IT TAKES A THIEF, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, PETER GUNN, THE BRADY BUNCH and LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. He had previously collaborated on the unfortunately little-seen private-eye actioner BLACK EYE with Williamson, which is how Arnold came to also direct BOSS NIGGER.

What is obvious about the film is its short budget and shooting schedule. Almost every shot is a master or medium shot, which unfortunately hurts the supporting characters that are rarely given close-ups to help establish their characters. Noted character actor Bruce Gordon (THE UNTOUCHABLES), who plays a shopkeeper, is one who suffers this fate, as is Ben Zeller, who has a pivotal role as a blacksmith, but would be hard to identify without his blond beard.

Arnold does a good job keeping the film afloat, and its real weakness is Williamson's screenplay, which is full of holes and surprising shifts in tone that the movie doesn't earn. The performances are very good—Williamson's sense of humor about himself was always a great contrast with his good friend and blaxploitation rival, Jim Brown—with the chemistry between the Hammer and Martin filling in a lot of blanks about their characters and what they mean to one another. Smith, who had been Williamson's foe in HAMMER and had just made BLACK SAMSON for Warner Brothers, is just about the only actor who could believably go toe-to-toe physically with big Fred and make it look real.

Kit Parker Films has given BOSS NIGGER a welcome DVD release, the only mild caveat being that it has been retitled—on the box art and the menus only—BOSS, which is probably the title it was actually filmed as anyway. I don't believe BOSS NIGGER got a VHS release in the U.S., and a previous and possibly unauthorized DVD was severely cropped and censored, notably the word "nigger" being snipped out of the dialogue and the title song. The Kit Parker DVD has been approved by Williamson, who has added a brief statement to the film that stipulates, yes, the "N-word," as he puts it, is thrown around a lot, but you'll notice that everyone who calls me one regrets it later.

Kit Parker's print is complete and uncut in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with the original Dimension Films logo at the beginning. Considering the movie's rarity and inexpensive production, the print looks quite fine with appropriate audio. Williamson sits down for a lengthy interview, much of which is devoted to his football career, which I haven't seen him discuss much. Associate producer Myrl Schreibman (PARTS—THE CLONUS HORROR) talks about the movie in a separate interview, and also heads a short tribute to Jack Arnold, who was Schreibman's mentor (the two met while Arnold was producing Robert Wagner's IT TAKES A THIEF television series). The original BOSS NIGGER trailer is also included.

BOSS NIGGER isn't top-tier Fred Williamson, but it's better than most of the programmers the filmmaking pioneer directed himself. It's lively and witty with a good cast. Besides the frequent racial epithets, it lacks profanity, sex and bloodshed, which feels like an appropriate decision. While it obviously has something to say about race, it's ultimately an old-fashioned western about good guys and bad guys. And it has that great music, which was also released on a soundtrack album. I wonder how many of those are floating around out there.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

From Harlem To Hong Kong

I have all these old newspaper ads for movies and TV shows on my hard drive, so I might as well toss a few up occasionally. I didn't collect these myself, though I wish I had. Most of them, IIRC, came from the collections of Fred Adelman and Robert Richardson.

The death of Filipino filmmaker Cirio H. Santiago recently drew me to post the ad for BAMBOO GODS & IRON MEN, which played as a 1974 American International Pictures double feature with BATTLE OF THE AMAZONS. I haven't seen AMAZONS, which is an Italian production about an Army of female warriors and is probably quite bad, considering it was directed by the abysmal Alfonso Brescia.

Santiago, the legendary schlock director, was the producer of BAMBOO GODS & IRON MEN, which was directed by Cesar Gallardo. It's a fairly obscure hybrid of two of the 1970s' hottest film fads, blaxploitation and kung fu, that has never received any home video release in the U.S.  Big James Iglehart, memorable as the Ali-like boxer in Russ Meyer's BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, plays Cal Jefferson, an American boxer honeymooning with his wife (Shirley Washington) in Hong Kong.  He saves a mute Chinese straggler (Chiquito), dubbed "Charlie" by Cal, from drowning. To repay the debt, Charlie becomes the reluctant Cal's slave, and, not taking no for an answer, even follows the couple to Manila.

Meanwhile, a bald mobster is after a leather pouch containing a mystical substance that will help him rule the world. He believes the pouch is stashed inside a cheap sculpture the Jeffersons picked up as a souvenir in Hong Kong.  Much like the glowing briefcase in PULP FICTION, the pouch is merely a McGuffin to get the plot, such as it is, rolling.

I like this fun little movie that gets off to a hilarious start during its opening credits, which features slow-motion scenes of guys kicking the crap out of each other while a funky theme plays.  Iglehart and Washington have a charming and relaxed Nick-and-Nora chemistry between them, and the frequent comic relief doesn't come at the expense of the action, which is plentiful indeed.  It also doesn't overwhelm the comic book plot, which is reasonably resolved. 

Director Gallardo began his career as early as the late 1940s, if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, but was never as popular in the United States—or the Philippines, for that matter—as Santiago. In fact, Santiago directed James Iglehart the same year in SAVAGE!, a typical Santiago movie that substitutes gun-blazing action and gratuitous nude scenes for plot complexity or astute characterizations.

According to one source that I can't recall (it may be James Robert Parish's BLACK ACTION FILMS), Iglehart (who was sometimes billed as James Inglehart) played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, but a glance at the BASEBALL ENCYCLOPEDIA confirms that nobody named "Iglehart", "Inglehart" or "Igleheart" has ever played a single inning in the major leagues. He made just a handful of films, including three for Santiago, two for Russ Meyer and one for producer Jonathan Demme (ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME), but apparently vanished in the late '70s. I don't know whatever happened to Iglehart, but his shortlived drive-in career is worth a mention.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some May Pass The Test…God Help The Rest

Bless BCI for releasing this lesser-known horror flick on DVD, but I can't say it's worth the effort. A step down from the regional action flicks director Jimmy Huston had been making for Earl Owensby's North Carolina-based production company, FINAL EXAM, a Motion Picture Marketing production given a national release by Avco-Embassy in 1981, isn't even average for the low-rent slasher genre. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with making an R-rated slasher movie with less gore, sex and profanity than some PG films of the period, but it's got to have something extra to make up for a lack of visceral thrills. However, FINAL EXAM, working from Huston's screenplay, lacks any clever twists, tight plotting or even memorable performances that could have turned the film into some sort of classic.

It's the last week of the semester, and while most of Lanier College's student body have left for the holidays, a few guys and gals are sticking around to finish exams. Among them are brainy Final Girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), dumb jock Wildman (Ralph Brown), flirty Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), sweet Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch), horror-obsessed nerd Radish (Joel S. Rice) and BMOC Mark (John Fallon). While all the performances by the relatively inexperienced actors are earnest, they also fail to make much of an impact, and it can be difficult to differentiate the characters from each other.

Only Rice stands out, and that's only because of his miscasting, which asks us to accept this awkward, high-voiced and decidedly effete performer as the romantic lead. Scenes in which he attempts to flirt with Bagdadi's Courtney, while certainly intended to showcase Radish's clumsiness around women, come across as hilariously unbelievable.

At any rate, a bowlcutted killer (Timothy L. Raynor) in blue jeans and an Army jacket is wandering around campus killing people, and that's the extent of the story. Unfortunately, outside of a reasonably effective prologue, Huston holds back the killings, i.e. the only reason anyone is watching this movie, until just about the last 35 minutes. Until then, FINAL EXAM is a series of dumb frat-boy pranks and romantic longings. While Huston likely intended this chatty approach to engender the audience's identification with his characters, so their eventual murders would have more impact, it only makes the viewer impatient, since the actors aren't strong enough to earn our sympathy nor are they given any dramatic backstories.

The killings do eventually arrive and at a fairly decent pace, but, again defying genre conventions, are filmed in a tame fashion. Huston does occasionally show flair with the camera or in establishing a suspenseful moment, but his heart doesn't seem to have been in his work. FINAL EXAM was shot on real college campuses near Owensby's Shelby facility, and the old buildings provide some needed realism, as does Gary Scott's HALLOWEEN-aping score.

BCI has released FINAL EXAM on DVD with a few welcome bells and whistles. I would actually recommend skipping the film and going straight to the audio commentary, which reunites cast members Rice, Bagdadi and Willis-Burch under the helpful tutelage of New Beverly Cinema programmer (and unabashed FINAL EXAM fan) Julia Marchese and her superfluous sidekick, musician Deron Miller, who adds little of interest. Demonstrating how well the entire cast meshed personally on the set in 1980, the three actors have a good time together and provide good memories of the shoot's wheres, whens and whos. A track with Jimmy Huston, who appears to have been in touch with BCI, would have been preferable, but this track suffices. Each actor receives his or her own short interview, so we can see how they look today (let's face it—it's something we fans are always curious about). BCI also provides a trailer for FINAL EXAM and a handful of other exploitation films that either are or are likely going to be DVD releases.

As I said, FINAL EXAM isn't a very good movie, not even for a slasher flick (BCI hasn't done much to spruce up the print or audio tracks either, so it's little better than watching a mint VHS tape). Genre fans may want to check it out anyway, though I think you would receive more pleasure and certainly more value by watching it with the audio commentary.

Monday, October 13, 2008

How Do You Kill A Man That's A Machine?

Three years ago, I wrote a terrific post (if I do say so myself) about the shortlived television series BEYOND WESTWORLD, which ran very briefly on CBS in 1980. Above, you see the TV Guide ad for the premiere, and below you can watch the first couple of minutes and listen to Jerrold Immel's theme, which was probably the best thing about the series.

Actress Judith Chapman was replaced after the pilot with Connie Sellecca (THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), who appears in this episode along with her robot twin!

I'm surprised nobody has remade the original WESTWORLD film yet or at least found a way to revive BEYOND WESTWORLD, which had a good premise.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Jake Brand’s War

THE LIQUIDATOR by R.L. Brent is basically a less graphic copy of The Executioner. The hero, Jake Brand, is an angry Miami police detective whose cop father and attorney brother were murdered by the Mob. He becomes obsessed with destroying the empire of local gangster Leo Hester, but when Brand gets too close (and has managed to survive two murder attempts), Hester's superiors dispatch a fixer named Crosetti to get the job done. Crosetti arranges for Brand to be framed for murder, which sends the rogue cop away for five years. When Brand gets out, his mission is to destroy everyone who set him up.

I liked this book. It's not particularly violent or sleazy, but it moves well and never loses sight of its central purpose, which is to tell a basic story in a straightforward and relatively exciting fashion. Brand doesn't appear to be a complete automaton like many men's action heroes were, though Brent (probably not his real name; James Reasoner says he's Larry Powell) doesn't spend a lot of time on characterization and subtext.

Award Books published THE LIQUIDATOR early in 1974, and at least three Liquidator adventures soon followed. One thing interesting about this book is that it ends with Brand's mission not completely fulfilled. While he has dispatched a few of the targets involved with his incarceration, some Big Bads remain at large, giving the series a sense of continuity unusual to the genre. Will I read the next Liquidator book to see if he catches up to his foes? You bet.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lawd Have Mercy

For the first time, Steven Seagal takes sole writing credit, but don’t let that fool you into believing he held any personal feelings for KILL SWITCH, which just came out directly to DVD by First Look Pictures. If he ever had any passion for filmmaking, it is long gone now. Not only did he apparently fail to show up on the set to shoot his action scenes, but another actor dubs a lot of his dialogue using a hilariously unconvincing Southern accent almost as terrible as Seagal’s.

For example, in an interminable barroom brawl in which Seagal should have knocked out two chuckleheads in about four seconds, director Jeff F. King combines jittery, confusing shots of the star’s unconvincing stunt double and his opponents to random close-ups of Seagal taken from an earlier scene. Since the editors didn’t have enough footage to choose from, they use the same shot of Seagal several times, even though the actor is just standing around in it and not fighting at all.

As much blame as Seagal shoulders, his collaborators are equally poor. King has about as much business directing movies as I do piloting the space shuttle, and he and his editors couldn’t cobble together a wedding video competently, much less a complex action movie. In an effort to build suspense (or something), King cuts together the same shot of a villain being tossed out a window six straight times, believing, I suppose, that if one guy smashing glass is cool, doing it five more times will be totally freaking sweet. Ten seconds after Seagal graphically busts a guy’s teeth out while “curbing” him for information, the dude pops up with—you guessed it—a full set of pearly whites.

As a boy, Jacob King (Seagal) watched a man slash his twin brother’s throat during their birthday party. He thinks about this a lot, but it has no bearing on the story at all. Forty years later, he’s a Memphis homicide cop who says “Lawd have mercy” a lot. He and his black partner (who survives to the end!) are tracking two serial killers: one who uses astrology to plan his kills and another random redneck whom King captured once, but got out on a technicality, said technicality being King knocked the crap out of him and sent him smashing through KILL SWITCH’s infamous window.

King is so obsessed with catching the killers that he hilariously ignores the sexy young policewoman (Karyn Michelle Baltzer) who tries to seduce him while parading around his apartment half-nekkid. He actually pays more attention to the poor, green female FBI agent (Holly Dignard) following him and his partner around, though in today’s parlance, his hazing would be described as sexual harassment.

After about ninety minutes of watching boring fights and deciphering Seagal’s mumbling, the movie pulls one of the world’s biggest bullshit endings out of its rear end. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you make it that far, I guarantee you it will have you laughing. If I had been in a theater, I would have accused the projectionist of accidentally switching reels. As fucking idiotic as it is, it almost makes the rest of the movie worth watching. Actually, no, it doesn't.

Despite Seagal’s clumsy attempts at local color and the hiring of Stax/Volt legend Isaac Hayes in a one-day bit as a comic-relief coroner, KILL SWITCH never went anywhere near Memphis, lensing entirely in Vancouver. I think Seagal just had a wild hair to do a Southern accent.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Landau & Bain Sing

Obviously, neither Martin Landau nor Barbara Bain are great singers. Just as obviously, this clip from an Andy Williams variety show, circa 1970, plays as pretty corny today.

However, I don't know, there is something quite charming about it. Bain and Landau, who had co-starred together on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE just before this, were married, of course, and I believe that you can almost reach out and touch the sincere love they shared. The song is perfectly tailored to their fine acting skills, but some of what you see here, I think, is not acting at all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Underwater Wasteland

Joseph Rosenberger gets even more way out in his 17th Death Merchant novel, published by Pinnacle in 1976. In the previous book, INVASION OF THE CLONES, Mrs. Camellion's little boy Richard found himself in Africa, where he fought clones of himself created by a mad scientist in the employ of a psychotic dictator. THE ZEMLYA EXPEDITION opens with Camellion stowed away aboard a Soviet submarine, where his mission is to rescue a KGB scientist with a secret she will share only with the United States. After a typically brutal Rosenberger action sequence, the Death Merchant is captured and taken to an immense underwater city built by the Soviets beneath the Arctic Ocean.

Aside from counting the number of times Rosenberger uses the term "pig farmer" to describe a Russian, ZEMLYA is also notable for its political diatribes, including a long section where Camellion and his captor, KGB general Vershensky, lecture one another about government-sanctioned behavioral modification using what I presume to be actual Senate transcripts and magazine articles (ARGOSY, November 1975) to make their points. Rosenberger, judging from his writings, appears to have been far right-wing in his politics, which isn't unusual considering the genre he worked in (Don Pendleton and Ron Stillman are two other men's adventure writers with heavily conservative beliefs).

More importantly, Rosenberger loves his weaponry and longing descriptions of "pig farmers" being blown away. I've never read anyone who enjoyed killing his villains as much as Rosenberger does, as he goes into rich detail about the type of ammo used and the gore left behind. I'd say that his Death Merchant novels are about 50% action scenes; dare I say they might even have too much action?

I do love them though, not just for the outrageous action sequences in which Camellion singlehandedly kills hundreds of opponents, but also for Rosenberger's varied plots that are less predictable than most in the genre. And the books had great painted covers too that were usually consistent with the contents.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Faces Of Murder

MANNIX is one of television's great private eye shows. Running eight full seasons on CBS, the violent drama focused on Joe Mannix, an Armenian-American tough guy with loud sports jackets and a hard head who battled bad guys all over Los Angeles. Mannix was played by popular leading man Mike Connors, who worked his way up from Roger Corman movies like FIVE GUNS WEST and SWAMP WOMEN and the shortlived TV drama TIGHTROPE. Connors' film career wasn't exactly going full blazes (he was miscast in the limp spy spoof KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE) when he landed the MANNIX role in 1967.

Strangely, even though MANNIX premiered with an intriguing premise, it didn't become popular until it was stripped of everything that made it stand out among other private-eye series. The first season (now available on DVD and highly recommended) saw the individualistic Mannix working for an expensive agency called Intertect, where the two-fisted, old-fashioned dick contrasted with his clean-cut corporate colleagues and the fancy technology Intertect used in its investigations.

However, for Season 2, Intertect and its by-the-book leader Lew Wickersham (Joe Campanella) were out, and Mannix became a typical TV P.I. As series creator William Link says in his DVD commentary, if he and his late partner Richard Levinson had pitched this concept, they would have been thrown out of the office. On paper, there was nothing unusual about MANNIX now. He drove a convertible, had an office with a pretty secretary, Peggy Fair (played by black actress Gail Fisher, which was unusual for 1968), took cases he often wasn't paid for, ran into an unusually broad number of Army buddies and old flames, and generally solved cases by getting hit on the head and shooting back at the heavies.

The key, obviously, to MANNIX was not the concept, but Connors, its generally sturdy scripts and Desilu/Paramount's high production values. The memorable "checkerboard" main titles and Lalo Schifrin theme didn't hurt either. MANNIX ran 194 episodes, the last of which aired April 13, 1975. What's unusual is that Belmont Tower Books, which published four MANNIX tie-in novels, didn't do so until 1975, when the series was going off the air.

A different publisher released MANNIX, written by Michael Avallone, in 1968, which must not have been much of a seller for Belmont to wait seven more years to try again. All four Belmont novels are credited to J.T. MacCargo, obviously a pen name. It appears respected genre author Peter Rabe was MacCargo on two of them, but not the one that I read, #1, THE FACES OF MURDER.

I would have a hard time believing that any respected author would have written it, since it's not very good. Based on the sixth-season episode "The Faces of Murder" by Stanley Roberts (and directed by Jeffrey Hayden), the novelization finds Mannix terribly out of character and the dialogue spoken by everyone tongue-tieingly flip.

The startling premise has a young woman, Christina Hume (played by Susan Strasberg in the episode), hiring Mannix (Connors) to prove that she—not her brother Lucas (Fred Sadoff), who was arrested for it—is the murderer of a gangster named Gil Ryan (John Considine). The police, including Lt. Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), think the case is open and shut; a detective guarding Ryan heard the shots and entered the room to find the victim dead of gunshot wounds and Lucas standing over him with the smoking gun in his hand. Mannix reluctantly takes Christina's case, which leads him to a bribery scandal and a sleazy P.I. named Mel Faber (Woodrow Parfrey), who sets him up for an elevator hit.

156 pages, but with large type and wide borders, MacCargo probably didn't do very much to flesh out the teleplay, so I'm betting the book plays pretty much like the episode. The plot is a decent mystery, but the book doesn't feel very much like MANNIX. I'd be curious to read one of Rabe's tie-ins, however, which would almost have to be better than THE FACES OF MURDER.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Players

For the ten of you who have the Sleuth channel on your cable and for the three of you who actually know you have it, let me recommend PLAYERS, which just began another cycle of reruns. Like almost every other Dick Wolf-produced program without the words "law" and "order" in its title, PLAYERS didn't last very long, just a shortened season during 1997-98. NBC aired only 16 of the 18 episodes made, but Sleuth is now (again) airing all 18 in their original order. The pilot episode that establishes the series aired earlier this week, but PLAYERS is light on continuity, and you'll have no problem picking it up.

In a nutshell, Isaac "Ice" Gregory (rapper Ice-T), Alphonse Royo (Costas Mandylor) and Charlie O'Bannon (Frank John Hughes) are con artists who are paroled by the FBI on the condition that they use their fleecing skills to help the Bureau trap bad guys. Kept on a tight leash by their comely handler, Special Agent Christine Kowalski (Mia Korf), the guys go undercover in a variety of disguises and characters to trick bank robbers, kidnappers, extortionists, serial killers, etc. One of the best episodes, "Three of a Con" (all titles are puns using the word "con"), which was directed by Michael Vittes (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) from a teleplay by Randy Anderson and former comic book scribe Gerry Conway (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, among many other DC and Marvel titles), finds the boys enacting a tremendously complex sting operation to trap a paroled white collar criminal (Gregory Itzin, the wonderfully odious evil President on 24) into revealing where he hid the millions he scammed from his middle-class victims.

PLAYERS was a very light crime drama played for humor by a cast that gelled well together. Like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, another series that fundamentally relied on capers, the actors perform believably in the variety of roles called for in the scripts. They seem to like each other and their roles, and that chemistry keeps the energy high. PLAYERS seemed tailor-made for its early Friday night timeslot in the fall of '97, but was still yanked after just eleven episodes. It came back after February sweeps for another five apparently low-rated shows. Besides DATELINE NBC, the network had troubles programming hits on Friday nights, although it kept the struggling but critically acclaimed HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET for several (deserved) years.

PLAYERS is a very charming series that appears to be a conglomeration of similar ideas presented to Wolf, who also had NEW YORK UNDERCOVER running on Fox at the time. UNDERCOVER producer Reggie Rock Blythewood, Ice-T, former teen idol turned TV producer Shaun Cassidy (THE HARDY BOYS) and Wolf receive creator credit. What's odd is that PLAYERS is virtually identical in format to another Dick Wolf series that was quickly cancelled by NBC just four years earlier called SOUTH BEACH. Unfortunately, neither show caught on with audiences, but you can catch up with PLAYERS a decade later on Sleuth. Ice-T moved to another Dick Wolf show, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, and both Mandylor and Hughes have continued to have successful careers in television and motion pictures. Greg Yaitanes, who just won an Emmy for an episode of HOUSE, M.D., made his network directorial debut with PLAYERS, while other segments were directed by ROCK & ROLL HIGH SCHOOL's Allan Arkush and MACON COUNTY LINE's Richard Compton.