Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gun The Man Down

John Wayne produced the 1956 western GUN THE MAN DOWN for his Batjac Productions. Filmed after GUNSMOKE’s first season on CBS, GUN THE MAN DOWN was the last feature film of James Arness’ career, one of the first for 25-year-old Angie Dickinson, who receives an “Introducing” credit, and the first for director Andrew V. McLaglen, who had been an assistant director on several Wayne films.

Arness plays Remington Anderson, one of three bandits who rob a bank, during which a teller is shot. He’s wounded and left behind by his partners Rankin (Robert Wilke) and Farley (Don Megowan), who also take his girlfriend Janice (Dickinson) as a hostage. After recovering and serving a one-year prison sentence, Rem sets out for revenge, finding his fellow crooks—and Janice, who’s now shaking up with Rankin—in a small town presided over by avuncular sheriff Morton (Emile Meyer).

Story and screenplay by Sam Freedle and Burt Kennedy, respectively, are standard B-western stuff. McLaglen shot quickly without much money (the town is bereft of extras) and without much action to punctuate the limp cat-and-mouse shenanigans. Arness shows little in terms of big-screen charisma, though one can’t deny he’s one of TV’s greatest leading men. Also with Michael Emmet, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and Harry Carey Jr. as the deputy. I think everyone in the movie except Meyer guest-starred on GUNSMOKE at least once, and McLaglen directed 96 episodes.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Lollipop In My Glove Box

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, which was released in Europe in 1980, but not in the U.S. until 1983, is my first horror film directed by one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites, Lucio Fulci.

A priest commits suicide in Dunwich, Massachusetts at the same time psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) is working a séance in New York City. It shocks her into a coma, but everyone thinks she’s dead, and she’s buried in a coffin. Cigar-chomping reporter Peter Bell (THE RAT PATROL star Christopher George, slumming big time), snooping around the graveyard, hears Mary pounding on the lid of her coffin and rescues her.

Believe it or not, being buried alive is not the worst thing that happens to Mary. When the priest killed himself, he opened the gates of Hell and caused the dead to rise from their graves and put Fulci’s special effects crew to gruesome work. A girl pukes up her innards and rips her boyfriend’s brains out of his skull, maggots are mashed in another girl’s face, and, in the most notorious scene, a drill penetrates the head of the town perv (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who was often billed as John Morghen).

DAWN OF THE DEAD’s massive success in Europe made this and several other Italian gore films, many also directed by Lucio Fulci, inevitable. This one, at least, delivers the goods, and the special effects are as good as they are gory. Amazingly, George seems to be taking his only Italian horror film seriously, even with puffed rice masquerading as maggots glued to his face, and his performance is quite good.

Besides the special effects, there’s little reason to watch CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, but seeing as they’re the film’s raison d'être, I guess that’s reason enough. To his credit, Fulci does more than just splash blood on the screen; he’s skilled at milking suspense.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Finally, A Book On Jack Hill

Jack Hill is one of America's most interesting and creative filmmakers, though it's likely you haven't heard of him unless you're into stuff titled THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS. Although Hill hasn't directed a film since 1982's SORCERESS (which was cut by producer Roger Corman against Hill's will and may be the least "Hill-like" of his features), Scottish writer Calum Waddell's McFarland book about the man, JACK HILL: THE EXPLOITATION AND BLAXPLOITATION MASTER, FILM BY FILM, will give you a fresh look at his career and tell you where you should begin investigating his work.

Hill directed sixteen features between 1964 and 1982 and wrote a few more. Waddell covers them all in great depth, aided by Q&A sessions with Hill himself, whose remarkable memory for detail and unassuming manner are well known to those who have enjoyed his DVD commentary tracks.

Many of us Hill fans are well aware of the often fascinating production histories behind his more prominent features like his Pam Grier films COFFY and FOXY BROWN and the Quentin Tarantino favorite SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, but the juicy stuff here covers Hill's earlier work co-directing four Mexican horror films starring Boris Karloff (the horror master's last work) and a West German nudie called ME, A GROUPIE.

Waddell does a very good job describing the films (without wallowing in lengthy plot synopsies), providing pertinent background information, and occasionally giving us the points of view of those who worked on the films, including Hill's producing partner (and one-time girlfriend) Jane Schaffer and actresses Judy Brown (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) and Joanne Nail (SWITCHBLADE SISTERS), to name a few.

One niggling problem that runs through the book is Waddell's unease with the more politically incorrect material that runs through Hill's filmography. Drive-in pictures of the 1970s were usually filled with torture, rape, female nudity, and depraved violence. What made Hill such an interesting director is that he was able to integrate all these required ingredients (really, there's no way he would have been able to make these exploitation movies without including these elements), but add three-dimensional characters, political subtext, wit, style, and subversive humor. This is what made, for instance, pictures like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE stand out above most of the grimy women-in-prison films that quickly followed in the wake of Hill's success. Waddell appears to be quite uncomfortable with these exploitative elements, and there is an amusement factor to reading the author's apologetic questions to Hill about the rapes or bare breasts that populate his films and the director's responses along the lines of "No, I'm not ashamed of it" or "I abhor political correctness" or "Because I thought it was funny." Perhaps Waddell is too young to remember a time when trashy movies weren't afraid to be trashy.

These speedbumps aside, outside of Hill's DVD commentaries (of which he has done ten that I know), JACK HILL: THE EXPLOITATION AND BLAXPLOITATION MASTER, FILM BY FILM is the finest chronicle of the director's career that I know of and is highly recommended.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Culp On Cain’s Hundred

To remember Robert Culp, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 79, I watched two episodes of the shortlived TV series CAIN'S HUNDRED in which Culp guest-starred. More interesting is the fact that Culp also wrote one of them.

But first, a little information about CAIN'S HUNDRED. The NBC series debuted in the fall of 1961 with just one regular character: Nicholas Cain, played by actor Mark Richman (who later acted under the name Peter Mark Richman). Cain was a Syndicate attorney who decided to go straight after the murder of his fiancé. He joined the FBI as an agent, and dedicated himself to capturing America's top 100 mobsters.

Created by the bright Paul Monash, who later produced PEYTON PLACE and JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE before moving from television into motion pictures, CAIN'S HUNDRED was not successful. Much of the blame should fall on Richman, a dour leading man whose lack of humor and charisma extended to the rest of the show. The series contained little action, so if it's going to consist of white men standing around rooms and talking, it had better be good talk. It did draw terrific guest actors, such as Jack Klugman, Robert Duvall, Robert Blake, and David Janssen, and opened with a strong theme composed by Jerry Goldsmith, but it was just not a very good show.

It did, however, present Robert Culp with a screenwriting opportunity. At this point, he had only written one episode of TRACKDOWN, a one-season western in which Culp starred for Four Star Productions. The same year he appeared twice on CAIN'S HUNDRED, he also penned two teleplays for THE RIFLEMAN.

Culp's first appearance on CAIN'S HUNDRED was "The Plush Jungle," which aired January 2, 1962. It was written by Franklin Barton (later a producer of HAWAII FIVE-0) and directed by Alvin Ganzer.

Syndicate man Benjamin Riker (John Larch) sets his sights on Amalgamated World Transportation Company, which he believes will be perfect for his smuggling operations. To get the company, Riker sends his men (including Harry Dean Stanton) to strongarm Amalgamated's customers into taking their business elsewhere.

To help smooth the transition, Riker ingratiates himself with Amalgamated's vice president, Kurt Yoder (Culp in horm-rimmed glasses), who uses the opportunity to assert himself with his stern father Zales (Larry Gates), the president of Amalgamated. Culp is playing somewhat against type as a weak executive who is easily manipulated by the sinister Riker for his help in putting Riker's man on Amalgamated's board.

You'll notice I didn't mention Nicholas Cain in the previous synopsis. That's because he isn't much of a presence in the episode, and, in fact, may have less screen time than Culp does. Reportedly, the network and/or Paul Monash were becoming dissatisfied with Mark Richman's performance, and in some later episodes, Richman barely appears at all.

As for Culp, it's an interesting role that lets him play someone who isn't as confident as he usually played, but "The Plush Jungle" isn't terribly original or dramatically vivid. But his next CAIN'S HUNDRED segment gave him a juicier part.

Just three months after "The Plush Jungle," on April 3, 1962, Culp appeared in "The Swinger," for which he also provided the teleplay. Directed by Tom Gries, "The Swinger" stars Culp as nightclub singer Hank Shannon (who is unconvincingly doubled by Culp's friend Sammy Davis Jr., who also cameos). His old friend Nicholas Cain approaches Hank in Las Vegas to pump him for information about an upcoming summit of Syndicate men to be held at the home of Hank's friend Marcus Jackson (Bruce Gordon).

Now it's no surprise that Culp wrote a plum part for himself, but he also created a rich guest role for Gordon, who was famous at the time for playing Frank Nitti on THE UNTOUCHABLES. Jackson is another gangster, but one who has been beaten down by life, who has sacrificed his family obligations for the Mafia. Now, his wife is a vegetable in a hospital bed, and his 17-year-old daughter Lucinda (Zina Bethune, who would star on THE NURSES the following season), home from school for the holidays, despises him.

It's very strange to see Mark Richman relegated to third banana in his own series, but "The Swinger" is Culp's and Gordon's show all the way. Not only does Culp give himself plenty of the hip lingo he and Bill Cosby would sling around on I SPY, but he also gets to show off the fast draw he mastered on TRACKDOWN. Gries, later a two-time Emmy winner, lets the drama unfold in a lot of long takes. While, like "The Plush Jungle," there's no action, but a lot of talk, the dialogue is sharp and deep and sounds like it must have been fun for the actors.

Despite the creative success of "The Swinger," CAIN'S HUNDRED lasted only five more episodes. Richman went on to a long, successful career in television mostly, though occasionally in features; his tame spy flick AGENT FROM H.A.R.M. was mocked on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

Robert Culp, of course, became a household name as the co-star of I SPY, an actor in dozens of films and television shows, and the star and director of the underrated crime drama HICKEY AND BOGGS, which sadly never received a DVD release during Culp's lifetime. While his CAIN'S HUNDRED appearances are pretty much forgotten today, at least one of them, "The Swinger," played an important part in Culp's career.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

RIP, Robert Culp

The fine television and film actor Robert Culp has died at age 79, I'm sad to report.

Although Culp appeared in many films during his acting career of more than fifty years, it is television where he made his bones. Culp was a ubiquitous guest star on television dramas, most notably his three appearances on THE OUTER LIMITS, including the stunning "Demon With a Glass Hand," which was directed by Byron Haskin (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and written by Harlan Ellison. Almost as great as "Demon" is "Architects of Fear," in which Culp plays an American scientist who is transformed into a monster in order to fool the world's superpowers into coming together to fight a common enemy.

Culp was also a regular on the underrated western TRACKDOWN, the groundbreaking 1960s spy series I SPY, and the 1980s superhero takeoff THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO. He also appeared several times on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND as the father of Patricia Heaton's character.

In addition to acting, Culp was also an excellent screenwriter, penning episodes of THE RIFLEMAN, CAIN'S HUNDRED, TRACKDOWN, I SPY, and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO. For an excellent history of Culp's three-year run as the star of I SPY, track down (no pun intended) his audio commentaries on Image's I SPY DVDs, which are among the most detailed and candid histories of a television series I've encountered.

Culp also directed one film, and it's one of the best crime dramas ever made by a one-time director. 1972's HICKEY AND BOGGS reunited Culp with his I SPY co-star Bill Cosby as down-and-out private detectives looking for a missing girl and $400,000 from a botched bank robbery. It's a fascinating and downbeat story with terrific action sequences, including exciting shootouts in the L.A. Coliseum and the Dodger Stadium parking lot. It isn't easy to find today--it's never been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray--but fans of the private eye genre should keep an eye out for HICKEY AND BOGGS. MGM HD has aired a very nice hi-def print of it.

For more on Robert Culp, see this post on THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, this post on his 1981 TV-movie KILLJOY, and this post on the I SPY novels.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Murderer In A Million

Wrapping up my Chopper Cop reviews with the third and final book of the series. It also has the best title. Well, maybe the best title of all time: DYNAMITE MONSTER BOOGIE CONCERT.

It's actually an accurate title, as the book is set at a massive outdoor rock concert called Monster Boogie. Not only is it sure to be a dynamite show, but there's a strong indication some crazy bastard may actually try to dynamite it.

Our star is anti-establishment cop Terry Bunker, who, contrary to how he appears on Popular Library's covers, is a young, long-haired hippie and 'Nam vet who takes special cases for the California governor on his tricked-out motorcycle that boasts a shotgun strapped to its handlebars. Bunker is assigned to investigate threats against the upcoming Monster Boogie show from a crank who says he or she plans to blow the venue up.

Among the victims/suspects are a thinly veiled Grand Funk, an obvious Janis Joplin clone, and a Rolling Stones ripoff led by charismatic lead singer Paul Byrd. Writer Paul Ross (surely a house name created by Chopper Cop packager Lyle Kenyon Engle) throws in several action scenes and a little bit of sex; even Bunker gets into the act, spending the night before the concert inside a tent with a pair of curvy jailbait.

The book's best setpiece takes place after an unknown sniper busts into Bunker's place while he's making it with the Janis clone and tries to shoot him. The shooter escapes in a station wagon with a big head start, while Bunker leaps barefoot onto his chopper in pursuit. Ross' depiction of the hair-raising chase is one of the best car (or cycle) chases I've ever read, and I was cringing every time Bunker's bare foot slid across the asphalt.

This 1975 novel is a lively read. I don't know why Popular Library discontinued the series. They aren't groundbreaking books nor do they push any boundaries, but they're entertaining and refreshingly left-wing in their approach.

Happy Birthday, Bill

The greatest starship captain of all time is 79 today!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Coupla Things In Lieu Of A Real Post

Here are a couple of interesting blog posts you may want to check out.

The mysterious Arbogast on Film presents an interesting look at the 1955 science fiction picture CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN. Directed by hack Edward L. Cahn, penned by Curt Siodmak (THE WOLF MAN), and starring the steady Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is a pretty good sci-fi take on zombies that long predates George Romero's "creation" of the genre.

Also, over at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, ol' Groove unearths some obscure works of art from mostly uncredited pencilers in the DC Comics stable during the 1970s. See some really cool contents pages drawn especially for DC's awesome 100-Page Super Spectaculars.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Global Swarming

Sitting through direct-to-DVD or Sci-Fi Channel movies can be a real chore, but what makes the task worthwhile are those rare occasions when you find a real sleeper. Sometimes it’s something so junky that it makes you crack up incessantly (SHARK ATTACK 3), and occasionally you discover one truly well-made and exciting with moments of wit (FRANKENFISH). INFESTATION, recently released on DVD, is one of those nice surprises, the good kind.

It picks up at the beginning of Earth’s invasion by giant insects that knock everyone out and wrap them in cocoons. In a nice change of pace, the creatures’ origin is never explained and is thankfully not the result of an evil government conspiracy.

Cooper (FANBOYS’ Chris Marquette), a likable slacker, is the first to awaken, and joins up with a handful of survivors: father-and-son Albert (Wesley Thompson) and Hugo (E. Quincy Sloan), cute Sara (Brooke Nevin), and weather girl Cindy (Kinsey Packard). Discovering the big bugs are attracted to sound, the group makes its way on foot to the house of Cooper’s ex-military father Ethan (Ray Wise, recently excellent as the Devil on REAPER), who has a bomb shelter filled with supplies.

The group doesn’t reach Ethan’s intact, however. Some are killed, some are transformed into creepy person/bug hybrids (nice work by the visual effects department), and one is captured by the bugs and taken to their nest. The remaining survivors decide to head toward the nest to rescue their friend and destroy the insects.

Wise is great (I love the way he exclaims, “Candy!”, when he spies a police station armory) and having a tremendous amount of fun, maybe even as much fun as the audience is. INFESTATION is not a comedy per se, but there are plenty of funny bits that don’t hurt the integrity of the scares, but rather reinforce the film’s more serious moments. Director Kyle Rankin’s screenplay gives the characters more depth than usual, and there’s a real weight to the relationship between Marquette and Wise that raises the stakes. It helps that the CGI and practical effects are extremely well done for a film of this budget level, which makes the creatures genuinely scary foes (if, admittedly, lacking in personality).

Rankin, best known for his PROJECT GREENLIGHT film THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS, may be an exploitation filmmaker to keep an eye on. He has a nice sense of pacing, isn’t afraid to use gore and nudity without going overboard, and adds welcome humor to this creature feature. He also uses Ray Wise in his features, which is always a smart choice. Also with Linda Park (STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE), Todd Jensen, Diane Gaeta, Jim Cody Williams, and Deborah Geffner. Steven Gutheinz’s nice score sounds like an homage to Danny Elfman.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

RIP, Peter Graves

I'm sad to report tonight that actor Peter Graves has died at his California home, four days before his 84th birthday (MSNBC obit here).

Graves, the younger brother of GUNSMOKE star James Arness (the family name is Aurness), was a solid, dependable leading man in features and television who made his splash in Hollywood as the traitorous POW Price in Billy Wilder's wonderful STALAG 17. Throughout the 1950s, he worked his ass off in major films (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), schlocky sci-fi (Bert I. Gordon's BEGINNING OF THE END, Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, even Billy's brother W. Lee Wilder's KILLERS FROM SPACE), and in TV guest shots.

He starred in six television series--the westerns FURY and WHIPLASH; COURT MARTIAL; the classic MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and its 1980s comeback; and the documentary series BIOGRAPHY on A&E, which spawned a Phil Hartman parody on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE--as well as the epic miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. He also was surprisingly funny as the oblivious Captain Oveur in 1980's AIRPLANE!

What's interesting about Graves' AIRPLANE! turn is that he was reportedly bemused why Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams would want to cast him, an actor who had always acted in serious roles, in a comedy. Even while shooting AIRPLANE!, Graves was confused as to what the gag was, but like a professional, he pressed on. It wasn't until co-star Lloyd Bridges told him, "We're the joke, Peter," that he began to catch on, that it was the juxtaposition of familiar dramatic actors playing the material straight was what was funny.

Of course, it was that quality that made MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE the international sensation it became. Although Graves didn't join the '60s spy series until its second season, replacing Steven Hill (later the D.A. on LAW & ORDER) as the star, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE flourished under his steady presence. Because the plots and situations were frequently so outlandish, they needed to be grounded in some level of reality to make them plausible. While Graves was a limited actor, he was always a believable one, and he had a way of performing the most absurd material in such a way that the audience totally bought it. You can read some of my posts on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and Graves here.

It should also be noted that Graves dabbled in directing, helming one MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE segment and a 1966 episode of his brother's GUNSMOKE.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Two 'Fo Sho

Sho Kosugi, seen in last year’s NINJA ASSASSIN, became a brief exploitation star in the 1980s after a series of Cannon action flicks that included REVENGE OF THE NINJA and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, as well as the shortlived TV series THE MASTER, in which Kosugi played an evil ninja in pursuit of star Lee Van Cleef. At the height of his stardom, Kosugi teamed up with producer Don Van Atta and director Gordon Hessler to make two action pictures for Transworld Entertainment: RAGE OF HONOR and this one filmed in Houston, Texas.

Akira Saito (Kosugi) moves his wife (Donna Kei Benz) and two young sons (played by Sho’s real sons Shane and Kane Kosugi) from Tokyo to Houston, where they buy a restaurant and plan to live a normal life. It’s the same restaurant some corrupt cops have been using to store stolen merchandise in the back room. One of them swipes a priceless necklace (named after producer Van Atta) from their boss, Limehouse Willie (James Booth), who wants it back. He blames the Saitos, who know nothing about the criminal enterprise happening on their own property, and torments the family for its return.

The last thing anyone should do is mess around with the family of a ninja, and the pain Akira inflicts on Limehouse and his boys couldn’t happen to nicer guys. Booth (AVENGING FORCE), who also wrote the ludicrous screenplay, plays Limehouse like a real nasty bastard, and all of the villains are sadistic bigots who inflict violence on children, so there’s no doubt we’re on Sho’s side when it comes time to dispense vigilante justice.

The MPAA originally saddled PRAY FOR DEATH with an X rating, but Hessler and Transworld removed some of the more gruesome scenes to get an R. Although MGM has been pretty good about releasing uncut versions on DVD and the MGM HD cable channel, it appears the PRAY FOR DEATH running on MGM HD is the R-rated cut, judging from some rough editing in some scenes of violence. Unfortunately, the film could use the extra footage to spice up Hessler’s flat direction. The very long fight scene at the end between Kosugi and Booth is worth the wait with Sho dressed in a ninja suit of armor and Booth arming himself with tools ranging from an axe to a chainsaw.

In RAGE OF HONOR, released by Transworld two years later in 1987, Kosugi plays Shiro Tanaka, a federal narcotics agent working undercover in Buenos Aires to bring down a major drug operation run by the sadistic Havelock (Lewis Van Bergen). One night while Shiro is dining in a tuxedo at an elegant restaurant with his gorgeous American girlfriend Jennifer (Robin Evans), his partner is tortured and murdered by Havelock. Enraged at not only Havelock, but also his by-the-book boss Sterling (Gerry Gibson) who pulls him off the case, Shiro quits the agency and bolts to Argentina, where Havelock has also kidnapped both Jennifer and his pal Dick (Chip Lucia), leading to a one-man assault on Havelock’s jungle retreat.

Although Kosugi doesn’t wear his traditional ninja garb, he’s still the same old Sho, mowing down dozens of foes with his vast armory of edged weapons. Spikes, spears, shurikens, whatever—stand in Sho’s way, and prepare for a blade in your gut. Or forehead. Or neck. And sometimes Kosugi even kills the old-fashioned American way—with a good ol’ automatic pistol.

As directed by old pro Hessler, RAGE OF HONOR is very standard ‘80s action fare, lacking the outlandish absurdities of Kosugi’s more entertaining Cannon fodder. It does pick up in the second half after Kosugi begins his trail of vengeance, culminating in a climax that feels lifted from Chuck Norris’ CODE OF SILENCE. It also contains less dialogue for its star, whose mangling of the English language is in direct proportion to his stiff performance, and unfortunately Hessler hasn’t recruited a supporting cast strong enough to counterbalance Kosugi’s shortcomings.

Kosugi played opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in BLACK EAGLE and Rutger Hauer in BLIND FURY, but virtually disappeared from Hollywood movies to work in Japanese television and train performers in the martial arts. Fans were happy to see him return to the big screen with a solid supporting role in last year’s NINJA ASSASSIN.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chuck Norris

I celebrated Chuck Norris' 70th birthday by watching two of his films from--when else?--the '70s. In his second starring vehicle, 1978's GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, Chuck is right on the edge of drive-in stardom as John T. Booker (as the opening titles make clear), a retired Special Forces vet living a relaxed lifestyle as a graduate student/test driver (!) near San Francisco.

In Vietnam, his unit, the “Black Tigers,” is ambushed and left to die by the U.S. government on a mission to rescue American POWs from a prison camp. Five years later, a beautiful young woman named Margaret (Anne Archer), who claims to be a reporter, approaches him at work and starts asking questions about that classified mission. When his former squad members start getting bumped off one by one, Booker takes his revenge all the way to the source, corrupt new Secretary of State Conrad Morgan (James Franciscus).

Norris’ most overtly political vehicle to date deserves props for its complex and even slightly thought-provoking storyline, but suffers from Chuck’s presence. At this point in his career, Norris is not solid enough as an actor to carry a film with as little action as this one, a point plainly clear during a dialogue-heavy climax at Morgan’s home. The stunts, when they occur, are pretty good and cleanly directed by Post (MAGNUM FORCE), especially the famous one used in the trailer where Norris’ stunt double jumps through the windshield of a car, but the movie as a whole is flat and way too gabby, though not entirely unentertaining.

The supporting cast helps a lot. Franciscus makes for a silky antagonist, Archer is natural and lovely, Lloyd Haynes (ROOM 222) lends solid relief as Chuck’s old boss, and Dana Andrews (LAURA) provides a few poignant moments as Morgan’s assistant. Andrews, who looks unwell, is dubbed in one scene by Jonathan Harris (LOST IN SPACE), who receives special on-screen thanks. Jim Backus (GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) pops up in a very strange and out-of-place cameo as a doorman.

Mark Medoff, who co-wrote the screenplay, won a Tony two years later and an Oscar nomination eight years later for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. Max Franklin wrote the novelization. Here's the trailer:



Chuck's second of three films for American Cinema, 1979's A FORCE OF ONE, goes out on a limb by casting him as Matt Logan, a karate champion and owner of a Southern California karate school.

Narcotics detective Sam Dunne (Clu Gulager) consults Logan for assistance after his men are systematically murdered by a ninja who crushes their windpipes with his bare hands. Dunne’s surviving squad members, including the attractive Mandy Rust (Jennifer O’Neill, who gets top billing), begin training with Logan, so they can defend themselves against their mysterious foe. Logan joins the investigation when it appears that the killer may be a member of his close-knit martial-artist community.

Plotting and characterizations by screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) are strictly TV-level, as is the action, which consists of a few training sessions, a couple of bouts in the ring, a tame car chase, and some alleyway exchanging of kicks. The fine supporting cast helps pick up the slack in Paul Aaron’s direction and Norris’ quiet performance, though Chuck looks comfortable only in scenes where he’s teaching karate. Aaron seems to have favored a realistic approach in his directing, shooting with long lenses and letting his actors play loose with dialogue.

Also with Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Eric Laneuville, James Whitmore Jr., Aaron Norris, Clint Ritchie, Pepe Serna, Taylor Lacher, Charles Cyphers, and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, who appeared on Norris’ WALKER, TEXAS RANGER TV series many years later. Chuck and his brother Aaron served as fight choreographers. A FORCE OF ONE made pretty good dough at the box office for American Cinema, which financed the more successful Chuck vehicle THE OCTAGON in 1980. Like he did for GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, the great announcer Ernie Anderson voiced the theatrical trailer for A FORCE OF ONE:

Monday, March 08, 2010

Jay Vs. Dave

THE LATE SHIFT, which was made for HBO in 1996, could hardly be more timely as it is now. With Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien hogging news headlines in their struggle over NBC's THE TONIGHT SHOW, you may want to take a look back at the first time Leno found himself in competition for the TONIGHT SHOW throne. Then, it was against Johnny Carson's heir apparent David Letterman.

New York Times journalist Bill Carter and NIGHT CALL NURSES screenwriter George Armitage penned HBO's adaptation of Carter’s non-fiction book. The film was nominated for seven Emmys, including the screenplay, director Betty Thomas (THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE), and supporting actress Kathy Bates (MISERY) for her balls-out depiction of Helen Kushnick, the bulldoggish manager of comedian Jay Leno. THE LATE SHIFT is entertaining, well-paced, sometimes funny, always fascinating, and slightly cartoony, though hardly more so than the real-life story it dramatizes.

THE LATE SHIFT examines NBC’s passing of its TONIGHT SHOW torch from Carson to Leno, which forced its LATE NIGHT star Letterman to move to CBS and start a competing comedy show. John Michael Higgins (ALLY MCBEAL) nails Letterman’s self-loathing and acerbic wit pretty well, while Daniel Roebuck (LOST), buried under plastic makeup that makes him look more like the Burger King than anything human, plays Jay like an obedient puppy dog trapped under the heel of forceful Kushnick (who was livid with the way Carter portrayed her in his best seller).

Roebuck and Higgins are pretty good, considering how familiar we are with the stars they’re portraying, but acting honors go to Bates’ profane portrayal of the pushy Kushnick and to Treat Williams’ super-slick super-agent Michael Ovitz. Bob Balaban was the natural choice to play befuddled NBC executive Warren Littlefield, following his funny turn as a disguised Littlefield on SEINFELD.

The breezy supporting cast also includes Reni Santoni (DIRTY HARRY) as an unsympathetic John Agoglia, John Kapelos (THE BREAKFAST CLUB) as Letterman producer Robert Morton, Peter Jurasik, Ed Begley Jr., John Getz, Steven Gilborn, Lawrence Pressman, Penny Peyser, Sandra Bernhard, Nicholas Guest, Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE), and Rich Little as a caricature of Johnny Carson.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Give 'Em Hell, Malone

Why isn’t Thomas Jane a bigger star? He’s handsome, he does action very well, he has a sense of humor, and he’s a pretty good actor. And he’s perfectly cast as the title character in GIVE 'EM HELL MALONE, a hard-bitten, two-fisted, wisecracking, fedora-sporting ‘50s private eye in the 21st century.

On a job to retrieve a mysterious briefcase, Malone walks into a bloody setup and spends the rest of the film trying to dodge the colorful bad guys who also want the case. There’s “big bad black motherfucker” Boulder (Ving Rhames, who else?), a giggling psycho named Pencil ‘Stache (David Andriole), a Japanese schoolgirl calling herself Lollipop69 (Chris Yen), and creepy pyro Matchstick (Doug Hutchison in a total ripoff of Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT).

And of special note, the boss of all these baddies, a big time pimp named Whitmore, is played by TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. star Gregory Harrison! Reuniting with the director of RAZORBACK (yeah, you know, the Australian killer-pig flick), Harrison is engaging in what is by far the best role he ever had in a feature film.

Once you buy into the parallel and virtually cop-free universe, MALONE goes down fairly well. It’s often clever, but never gets caught up in its own cleverness. Malone is hilariously difficult to kill, and though Mulcahy (HIGHLANDER) threatens to push the hyper-stylized comic-book material too far over the top into self-parody, he always manages to stay on the right side of the line. Mulcahy, who has never been interested in story, and writer Mark Hosack even give Malone a comic-book origin story similar to that of the Punisher (who Jane also once played), but the movie never makes it clear (until the end) whether the story is true or just something Malone dreamed up to frighten criminals.

Spanish actress Elsa Pataky (SNAKES ON A PLANE) has the look, but not the acting chops as Evelyn, the femme fatale. French Stewart is funny as a nightclub crooner, and Eileen Ryan has a couple of nice scenes as Malone’s mother. The actors all seem to get the material and the tone, making GIVE ‘EM HELL MALONE one of Mulcahy’s most accomplished films.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Martians Are Coming, The Martians Are Coming

The Martians Are Coming, the Martians Are Coming
February 26, 1980
Music: Jimmie Haskell
Teleplay: Stephen Miller
Story: Tom Chehak and Stephen Miller
Director: James Sheldon

THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO has a close encounter of the third kind when Lobo (Claude Akins) and deputies Perkins (Mills Watson) and Birdie Hawkins (Brian Kerwin), along with three stripper pickpockets, return to Orly to find the townspeople gone. Perkins and two of the girls are kidnapped by humanoids in white spacesuits carrying laser pistols, who take them back to their spacecraft. Okay, not really, but it sorta looks that way. Think a Soviet satellite, some Commie spies, and a few familiar middle-aged character actors dressed like nincompoops.

Some very clumsy writing by staff writer Stephen Miller gets the characters out of town long enough for Orly to be abandoned in their absence, but one has to wonder why he even bothered. The plot, such as it is, seems as though it could have sustained the entire hour, and so little is done with the possibility of extraterrestrials in Orly that introducing the idea hardly seems worth the trouble. And there isn’t a single car stunt to be seen. What a ripoff. Three days before playing Birdie’s ex-fiancé Marla, actress Deborah Ryan showed up on BJ AND THE BEAR in the episode “The Girls of Hollywood High.” Suzanne Reed and Candy Brown play the other strippers. Ken Swofford and Bill Fletcher play the “spacemen.” John Kerry and Burr DeBenning are the enemy spies.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wanted: Mack Bolan

Something I find funny about Pinnacle's paperback series about Mack Bolan, the Executioner, is that I was exposed to them all the time when I was a kid, but never read them. The reason I was exposed to them (this is the funny part) is because my mother read them. She was a voracious reader, often staying up well into the night to munch sunflower seeds and read. A lot of what she read were Harlequin romances, which she would store in brown paper grocery bags and trade with her friends, but I also remember her reading Mack Bolan novels, and I have no idea why I never did, since I was also (and have always been) a huge reader.

But I have many of them now, and there are few better ways to entertain yourself alone for two hours or so. Author Don Pendleton, who quit the series after #38, knew how to tell a tough, quick, violent yarn, and without spending very many words on it, managed to give his characters some personality.

Book #14, SAN DIEGO SIEGE, published in 1972, is not structured a whole lot differently than earlier Executioner novels. Once again, Bolan enters a new city, assesses the Mafia's threat to that city, and sets about to cut the cancer out using firepower and guts.

The twist this time is that Bolan has help. Returning from 1969's DEATH SQUAD, in which Bolan reunited with some Vietnam buddies to extinguish a threat in Los Angeles, are the survivors of that adventure: scrounger Politician and electronics expert Gadgets. This time, they reunite to investigate the suspicious suicide of their former commander in 'Nam, Howlin' Harlan Winters, and what looks like his involvement with a San Diego mobster named Little Ben Lucasi.

Pendleton creates something of a mild mystery to go with the flavorful action and brisk pace, making SAN DIEGO SIEGE another entertaining Executioner entry. And, as always, you gotta love the painted cover, which is even semi-accurate for once.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Something Out There Is Carnivorous

Filmed in California in 1977, PLANET OF DINOSAURS by one-shot director James K. Shea is a labor of love made by science fiction fans for science fiction fans. Influenced by such important SF sources as STAR TREK, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, and PLANET OF THE APES and shot at legendary movie location Vazquez Rocks, PLANET OF DINOSAURS is a real treat for anyone interested in low-budget miniature and stop-motion effects.

Jim Aupperle and Stephen Czerkas, credited with special visual effects, also worked on FLESH GORDON and Filmation’s Saturday-morning SF series JASON OF STAR COMMAND; Aupperle still works on Hollywood effects films (DRAG ME TO HELL). Doug Beswick, who did the stop-motion, went on to THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, and EVIL DEAD II. Two-time Oscar nominee Jim Danforth (THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO) painted the mattes. Elsewhere, the credits are filled with names recognizable to exploitation fans: gaffer Paul Hipp (cinematographer on THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT), camera operator Ron Garcia (director of THE HOT BOX), prop man William Malone (director of CREATURE), editor Maria Lease (who acted in the notorious LOVE CAMP 7). Cinematographer Henning Schellerup directed a lot of Sunn Classics pictures. The point being the makers of this independent effort weren’t in it for the money, since there was none, but for the love of filmmaking, which greatly shows.

The acting is stilted at best and horrid at worst. The story is nothing special either: the crew and passengers of the spaceship Odyssey crashland on an Earth-like planet populated by dinosaurs. Armed with only four laser rifles, the men and women of the Odyssey, along with corporate VP Harvey Shane and his sexy secretary Derna Wylde, try to survive the arid environment with a bunch of hungry creatures that don’t like sharing. A macho battle of wills ensues between by-the-book captain Louie Lawless and pragmatic James Whitworth (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) on the proper method of fighting dinosaurs that is neatly wrapped up by the finale.

There’s too much wandering around the desert and chatting, but there’s also a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a stegosaurus, a nod to Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, and even a cool giant spider that terrorizes Pamela Bottaro. Dramatically inert but thrilling in its visual effects, PLANET OF DINOSAURS may not play for all tastes, but it’s a moderately effective slice of old-time pulp with love evident in every frame.

Cineworld Pictures, which handled mainly sex and kung fu pictures, released it theatrically with a PG rating in 1978. It later appeared on a no-frills full-frame Goodtimes DVD and a 20th (should have been 30th) Anniversary special edition disc on Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia label.