Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cover For Evil

The same year that Joe Haldeman published his lauded science fiction novel THE FOREVER WAR, two trashy pseudonymous paperbacks out of the same typewriter hit the shelves of drug stores, truck stops, and maybe even a few bookstores.

Packaged by Lyle Kenyon Engel and released by Pocket Books in January 1975, ATTAR'S REVENGE (cover by David Plourde) is an unusual mixture of science fiction and men's adventure. At 144 pages, it's lean and tough and offers plenty of action that wouldn't be out of place in a Penetrator pulp. However, its hero is more like the Man from Atlantis.

ATTAR'S REVENGE starts with an island off the coast of Australia where lies Aquatic Research Associates, Limited (or ARAL). Founded and operated by marine biologist Wallace Hamilton and funded by millionaire John Tucker, ARAL adopted a dozen half-breeds (so the children wouldn't become loyal to any one nation) and raised them to be great physical and mental whizzes, able to speak several languages and expert in all forms of combat. Hamilton also discovers a surgical method to transform two of them, now around twenty years of age, into water breathers, complete with gills.

Attar and his "sister" Essence undertake a mission for the CIA to destroy a Japanese criminal organization called the Black Lotus, which is polluting the Earth with drugs, prostitutes, illegal gambling, and assassinations for hire. Led by wheelchair-bound Yoshinobu Johnson, the Black Lotus is also into slaughtering dolphins for meat, which just won't do.

After Essence is killed by the Lotus during a commando raid in California, Attar goes all out for revenge, pledging to kill not just Johnson, but his five closest aides as well to ensure the Black Lotus is destroyed forever.

Besides the concept of an adventure hero with gills, ATTAR'S REVENGE has fun with another science fiction gimmick, which is that Attar can communicate telepathically with two dolphins, Sam and Lily, which follow him all over the globe and even save his life a couple of times.

ATTAR'S REVENGE is a lot of fun--bizarre and full of action. I like it a lot more than Haldeman apparently does. He wrote online:

And then there was the saga of Naked Came the Merman. The title comes from a book now mercifully forgotten, Naked Came the Stranger. A bunch of newspaper writers decided to fabricate a sleazy best-seller; they all got together for a long weekend and each wrote a chapter, and it worked.

I'd done two of the pseudonymous adventure novels for Lyle Kenyon Engel, which were about Attar the Merman, a guy who has gills and can talk telepathically to porpoises and whales. I just couldn't face writing a third one. So I threw this gauntlet out to my fellow workshoppers: I'd outlined the book, A Cold Place to Die, chapter by chapter. I'd pay a hundred dollars, against a pro ratum of future income, to anybody who would come over on Easter break and crank out a chapter.

They came, and I paid, and the result was a total disaster. I should have foreseen it. They were good writers, but they weren't experienced: they could only write in their own styles; I'd given them two Attar books to study, but they were incapable of pastiche. So I had ten wildly variant pieces of useless rough draft. I cobbled the book together, but it was pretty horrible. The series quietly closed after two installments.


Two months after ATTAR'S REVENGE, Attar the Merman returned in the second and last novel, WAR OF NERVES. While one can understand why the now-famous Haldeman, who won his first Hugo and Nebula awards for THE FOREVER WAR, would want to distance himself from cheap paperback originals, it's too bad Pocket Books didn't continue the series, because this first entry is pretty cool.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Blood Draws The Pack

French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, who had already directed remakes of THE HILLS HAVE EYES and MIRRORS, tackles a Joe Dante 1978 B-picture classic, this time in 3D. Aside from how gory and sleazy the nasty affair is, the most amazing part of Aja’s PIRANHA is cameos by Richard Dreyfuss (redonning his Matt Hooper duds to play the film’s first victim) and Christopher Lloyd, who may have only read the scenes they’re in.

It’s rare to see a major studio so gleefully release a film with as much bloody mayhem and unabashed nudity as PIRANHA has. Much of it is needlessly meanspirited, which takes some of the joy out of watching people mangled and chewed in two. The superb makeup effects by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero are stomach-churning re-creations of chewed-up limbs and faceless skulls. However, the CGI fish are a mite dodgy. For instance, it’s obvious Dreyfuss refused to get wet for his death scene, forcing Aja to use highly unconvincing visual effects to show the actor being drawn into a whirlpool and chomped to death.

Spring break at Lake Victoria, Arizona (though Aja shot at Lake Havasu). While Sheriff Forester (Elizabeth Shue getting top billing) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) are trying to keep the peace, sleazy producer Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell playing Girls Gone Wild entrepreneur Joe Francis, unless the lawyers are around, then he isn’t) and his party girls Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (porn actress Riley Steele) are roaming the lake shooting their next video. The sheriff’s teenage son Jake (Steven R. McQueen, the son of actor Chad and grandson of Steve McQueen) ditches babysitting duty to tag along on Jones’ yacht, but his fantasy of making out with Danni is harshed when Derrick invites Jake’s crush Kelly (GOSSIP GIRL’s Jessica Szohr) aboard too.

There’s also Adam Scott (PARTY DOWN) as an unlikely action hero, Sage Ryan and Brooklyn Proulx as endangered little kids, and, of course, TAXI eccentric Lloyd as a vaguely Doc Brownesque mad scientist. It all seems a little crowded—don’t forget the hundreds of swimsuit-clad extras gyrating everywhere—but more is the merrier when you’re crafting a bloody movie about hungry piranha and need a body count.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Death On Demand

I was not blown away by MILLION-DOLLAR MASSACRE, which was the fourth Warner Books novel in its Ninja Master series. Although it does finally get bloody in its second half, MILLION-DOLLAR MASSACRE features dull villains and less sleaze than the previous two books.

Ric Meyers, who has written comics, reference books (I still have his TV DETECTIVES from the early 1980s in my library), and many articles about Asian action movies, as well as novels, wrote this one under the Warner house name Wade Barker. It sends American ninja Brett Wallace to Atlantic City to find a teenage runaway. He finds the girl, a prostitute, dead--a victim of a war between mobsters John Testi and George Arrow. Brett infiltrates both sides as a hitman named Stillman, but the ruse doesn't work for long, and by the end of the book, nary a bad guy--or girl--is left standing.

Although MILLION-DOLLAR MASSACRE opens with an unsettling rape and mutilation of a bound young woman, Meyers basically eschews any sex angle this time. He does, thankfully, pile on the gore, as Wallace uses his ninja skills to rip people apart--sometimes literally. More Sonny Chiba than Sho Kosugi, Brett sure has a knack for mayhem.

At 173 pages, this 1982 entry could probably stand to lose twenty pages, though as it stands, outside of the violence, it's quite unmemorable.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Triptych Of Sci-Fi Classics

“Once they were men. Now they are crabs.” Allied Artists released ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, a fun 63-minute monster movie with one of cinema’s best titles. The 1957 release may be silly, but it has a good script by Charles B. Griffith, who also wrote director Roger Corman’s better-known quickies A BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and the earnest cast plays it with honesty.

A group of scientists, including rugged Hank Chapman (Russell Johnson, later the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND), visit the island site of atomic bomb tests to investigate the disappearance of an earlier scientific expedition. Wouldn’t ya know—and of course you would, just read the title—they were eaten by giant crabs? Even better, they’re Highlander giant crabs that take their victims’ Quickening by absorbing the memories and personalities of the brains they eat and taunting their next victims by speaking in the voices of their friends.

The science is, of course, ludicrous, and it would be a danger to take CRAB MONSTERS too seriously, no matter how bright its script may be. It’s fun to see Johnson stranded on an island and struggling to fix a radio seven years before GILLIGAN’s premiere, and the dopey-looking crabs, which were operated on a shoestring by actors Beach Dickerson and Ed Nelson, provide a goofy joy you’d have to be a monster-movie lover to understand.

Shot using familiar Southern California locations like Bronson Caverns and Leo Carrillo Beach and released on a double bill with Corman’s NOT OF THIS EARTH, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS is an entertaining little picture with laughs of the intentional and unintentional varieties. You probably already know if you’re the kind of person who enjoys fake-looking bigass crabs, so what more can I tell you?

ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS was the second half of a double bill with another Corman science fiction movie. Hefty Paul Birch stars in NOT OF THIS EARTH as Paul Johnson, a citizen of Davanna, a distant planet decimated by nuclear radiation. A character actor who played few leads, Birch is very good playing an alien being unfamiliar with Earth customs, yet intelligent enough to fake it pretty well. He also didn’t get along with Corman and walked off the picture during production (actor Dick Miller says it was because of Birch’s drinking). Lyle Latell, who receives screen credit, conspicuously doubled Birch in many scenes.

Johnson’s mission is to find out whether human blood is fit for Davannan consumption. The script by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) is an unusual sci-fi twist on vampire movies with Birch playing a decidedly blue-collar bloodsucker. Beverly Garland (IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) is Nadine, a nurse Johnson hires to tend to him at his home, where he uses a transporter to communicate telepathically with his world and send Earth blood samples home.

Johnson doesn’t literally suck blood. He uses a contraption housed in a metal briefcase to drain his victims’ blood and store it in transparent tubes. He’s one of cinema’s most interesting vampires, subverting most of the clichés that go along with the genre. After he’s through sucking his victims dry, he shoves the corpses into the cellar’s furnace.

Though it isn’t a comedy, NOT OF THIS EARTH is notable for its occasional dry humor. Its most famous scene may be Dick Miller’s cameo as a hipster vacuum cleaner salesman who falls prey to Johnson. Miller’s performance is the film’s liveliest, though he goes a little overboard when he does a double take straight into the camera just before he is killed. Another light moment finds Jonathan Haze, playing Johnson’s houseboy Jeremy, trying to sneak a peek at Nadine dressing and is slapped for his mischievousness. That Haze plays the scene for humor and not for sleaze’s sake provides some goodwill.

NOT OF THIS EARTH may be one of Corman’s favorite films, because he remade it three times: in 1988 and 1995 as NOT OF THIS EARTH and in 1999 as STAR PORTAL. The 1988 version directed by Jim Wynorski and starring Traci Lords as Nadine is extremely faithful to the original with the addition of nudity and more obvious humor; for instance, the three hobos lured to Johnson’s house in Corman’s film are topless prostitutes in the Wynorski version.

Just a few months after the Russians launched Sputnik I in 1957, Allied Artists had a timely science fiction quickie in theaters on a double bill with ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. WAR OF THE SATELLITES was reportedly written very fast by Lawrence Goldman (KRONOS) from a story by producers Irving Block and Jack Rabin, and Corman directed it in eight days (Corman claims Charles B. Griffith wrote the original screenplay). It has some good ideas, but it’s too talky and cheap to be very interesting. The casting of Corman repertory player Dick Miller as the leading man works pretty well. In fact, all of the actors (you can even see the director playing two roles) are quite good, considering the speed of production and Goldman’s slack screenplay.

WAR OF THE SATELLITES, like many sci-fi movies of the era, includes a soapy love triangle with the space operatics. Aliens are warning Earth to abandon its space program and destroying manned satellites that try to penetrate a mysterious barrier. Pol Van Ponder (Richard Devon), head of the Sigma rocket program, plans go up in the next satellite himself, along with right-hand man Dave Boyer (Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot). Dave is in love with Sybil, who is attracted to Van, who has no romantic interest in her. Before the launch, Van Ponder is killed by the aliens and replaced with an exact double that can split into two Van Ponders. The idea is to sabotage the mission, but the satellite goes up anyway.

The sets are spartan, but imaginatively conceived by art director Dan Haller, who uses arches without flats to extend corridors without seeing walls. Block and Rabin’s special effects are decent. Van Ponder’s duplications are created using routine split-screen, but some shots that incorporate miniatures, matte paintings, and live action are really nice. Shots of the satellites in space look chintzy though, because the models are too small to look believable.

Although it can’t be considered among the upper echelon of Corman’s work, WAR OF THE SATELLITES has enough going for it to make it worth watching once. For one thing, plenty of fan favorite Dick Miller, although his role as square-jawed hero doesn’t allow him to engage in the comic wiseguy stuff he does so well.

You can now own all three Corman pictures on Shout Factory’s new 2-DVD set celebrating the director’s Sci-Fi Classics. This Roger Corman’s Cult Classics set includes ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS and NOT ON THIS EARTH on one disc and WAR OF THE SATELLITES joining some choice extras on another. ATTACK and EARTH are presented in wonderful anamorphic 1.78:1 prints and appear to be uncut (ATTACK is taken from a British print), whereas SATELLITES is a full-frame presentation that looks quite good, but not as good as the others.

For ATTACK and EARTH, Shout Factory has provided audio commentary tracks with Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas, noted film experts and the authors of UNIVERSAL HORRORS. Weaver is excellent; he knows his stuff and is articulate and prepared. The Brunas brothers, not so much. In fact, right off the bat, Michael Brunas claims Russell Johnson is the narrator of ATTACK’s opening scene, but he isn’t. Weaver solo or with another expert who can speak interestingly would have been a better choice. The trio are still worth listening to, if only because of their enthusiasm and genuine love for the films. They don’t fawn though—they have fun giggling at the films’ sillier moments.

Also included separately from the films are the prologues added for television screenings. They were considered too short to air in 90-minute slots, so director Herbert L. Strock (I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN) pieced together prologues consisting of aimless stock footage and repeats of scenes to add a few minutes of running time. These prologues are patently absurd, but of historical interest.

No extras accompany WAR OF THE SATELLITES on Disc 2. However, Shout Factory has compiled a 35-minute featurette on Corman that consists of various talking heads discussing how awesome the producer/director is. And what a cast—everyone from Hollywood A-listers (composer James Horner, editor Mark Goldblatt), genre filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante), familiar actors (Peter Fonda, Harry Dean Stanton), ex-ingenues (Belinda Balaski, Cindy Weintraub), directors, special effects men, and even Corman himself. I didn’t learn anything new about the man, but it was nice to see the love for him.

Finally, you’ll have a blast with the Roger Corman trailer gallery—more than two dozen previews of films directed by Corman, including not just the three movies included on the DVD, but also THE INTRUDER (starring William Shatner), his Edgar Allan Poe pictures for AIP, the medium-budget World War II actioner THE SECRET INVASION, and FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, Corman’s last feature to date.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Your Vacation Is About To End

As a writer in Roger Corman’s stable during the 1950s and 1960s, Charles B. Griffith had no equal, penning instant classics like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, BUCKET OF BLOOD, THE WILD ANGELS, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, and many other adventure, horror, and science fiction melodramas with lurid titles. But he wasn’t a director. Outside of perhaps EAT MY DUST, none of the six movies he directed are highly regarded, and UP FROM THE DEPTHS is certainly one of the worst JAWS-inspired killer-fish rip-offs ever made.

Corman’s New World Pictures released this Philippines-lensed horror movie, produced by Cirio H. Santiago, with an ad campaign resembling that of PIRANHA. Like Joe Dante and John Sayles’ successful JAWS homage, UP FROM THE DEPTHS is supposed to be both scary and funny (Sam Bottoms’ credit is imposed over a shot of two hula girls’ gyrating asses). Screenplay credit goes to Alfred M. Sweeney, a pseudonym for Griffith and New World secretary Anne Dyer, who took a story credit on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.

UP FROM THE DEPTHS takes place at a Hawaiian resort where the tourists are being chomped to death by a prehistoric fish released by an underwater earthquake. The heroes are Greg (a heavily sideburned Sam Bottoms) and Earl (Virgil Frye), a pair of con artists swindling tourists, and Rachel (Susanne Reed, just off the canceled CODE R TV series), the hotel’s public relations director. They manage to destroy the monster with an admittedly clever and darkly funny method trying to earn hotel manager Forbes’ (the tall, bald Kedric Wolfe wearing a pink suit) reward for its head.

First and foremost, when describing UP FROM THE DEPTHS’ ineptness, is the monster. Effects soon-to-be-giants Chris Walas (THE FLY) and Robert Short (BEETLEJUICE) built the big fish, but it reportedly never worked right, so most of the attacks occur more or less offscreen with a lot of camera jiggling and some red dye splashed in front of the camera. What glimpses we do get of the twin-finned fish are lifeless and ludicrous and not to be taken seriously, even in this tedious comedy.

Occasionally a gag will work, and one can’t fault cinematographer Ricardo Remias’ (VAMPIRE HOOKERS) good-looking substitution of the Philippines for Hawaii. Denise Hayes (also in Griffith’s DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE) provides Corman’s nudity requirement for the R-rated picture. That’s about all the positive attributes one can muster for UP FROM THE DEPTHS, a boring, awkwardly dubbed, and indifferently performed horror comedy that’s never frightening and too rarely funny.

Eight years after producing UP FROM THE DEPTHS in his native Philippine Islands for Roger Corman, Cirio H. Santiago produced a rough remake and directed it as well. Both films even had similar ad campaigns. DEMON OF PARADISE is bad, but a slight improvement over DEPTHS. The only thing in its favor is that it has a more entertaining cheap monster, and you see more of it than director Charles B. Griffith showed of his prehistoric fish in DEPTHS. Both films had the same director of photography, Ricardo Remias, but DEMON OF PARADISE is a more dismal-looking picture, probably due to Santiago’s slipshod methods. One shot sees leading lady Kathryn Witt reacting with surprise to an actor firing a shotgun next to her ear in a blooper that made the final cut.

DEMON is set at a Hawaiian resort plagued by a scaly fish-man that’s killing the guests. Some rednecks trafficking in homemade dynamite (!) woke it up from hibernation, leaving it to sheriff Keefer (William Steis) and local herpetologist Annie Essex (Kathryn Witt, a long way from starring in CBS’ adventuring-stewardess drama FLYING HIGH) to destroy it. Unfortunately, there’s precious little monster-hunting or tourist-killing in the film, as Santiago prefers to pad the film with interminable subplots about a coke-snorting model and other uninteresting characters. Similar to the reward for the monster’s head the hotel offers in UP FROM THE DEPTHS, this film sends the guests on a silly hunt for the monster’s eggs.

The sea monster is played by a guy in a rubber costume, and it really doesn’t look too bad. Some imagination went into its design, and it looks more expensive than you might expect. However, Santiago doesn’t know what to do with the monster besides having it rear out of the water and wave its arm. The climax is kinda fun with lots of gunplay and an astonishing bit where the monster pulls a balsa helicopter out of the air. Santiago includes a bit of gore and nudity to attract undiscerning monster-movie fans looking for R-rated fun, but DEMON OF PARADISE is too dull to recommend.

Although I can think of no good reason you should buy it, UP FROM THE DEPTHS and DEMON OF PARADISE are available this week on one Shout Factory DVD. Part of the Roger Corman Cult Classics collection, the best you can say about the disc is that the prints look extremely good. I'd be surprised if these movies looked so good when they unspooled in theaters. Both are anamorphic 1.78:1 presentations with mono sound.

Shout Factory has included a few extras, the most entertaining of which is the (never before seen by me) trailer for FIRECRACKER, "the screen's first erotic kung fu classic" (!), that shows Jillian Kesner--"grand prize winner at the Black Belt Olympics" (Corman totally made that up)--running around in her underwear a lot. Hopefully, this means FIRECRACKER will be coming to DVD soon. It's a lot better than either film presented on this DVD.

Also included are trailers for HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, CAGED HEAT, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, and both films represented on the disc, as well as TV and radio spots for DEPTHS. Surprisingly, Shout Factory has included a new featurette, only a few minutes long, with Corman, Walas, and Short talking about UP FROM THE DEPTHS. It mostly concentrates on the special effects, and though it's slight, it's a welcome addition.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Swing With Bree

Jane Fonda won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing New York call girl Bree Daniels in director Alan J. Pakula's 1971 thriller KLUTE. Bree is a prostitute, but only until she can get her acting career started. She’s remarkably bright and takes pride in a job well done. Television writers Andy Lewis and David Lewis gave Fonda a script far beyond the MEDICAL CENTERs and VIRGINIANs that bought them houses and fed their kids, creating one of the star’s most fascinating characters and putting her in the middle of a thriller that doesn’t feel like one. I suspect the Lewis brothers penned a straight-on mystery that became less plot-oriented once Fonda signed on. The screenplay was nominated for just about every award for which it was eligible, but I wonder if there wasn’t some uncredited polishing going on.

One clue is the film’s title, as the movie really isn’t much about Klute. Donald Sutherland (just after M*A*S*H) plays a Pennsylvania small-town cop, John Klute, who goes to New York to investigate the disappearance of his best friend Tom, who appears to have been living a kinky second life. Klute’s only clue is a demented letter Tom wrote to Bree, so he taps her phone and tries to learn more about her. He discovers she has a murderous stalker, and he falls in love with her.

Midwestern character actor Charles Cioffi received the role of his lifetime in his film debut (he was also in SHAFT that year); he fell into television and played a lot of mobsters and cops. Roy Scheider, just before THE FRENCH CONNECTION, makes an impact as Bree’s former pimp. Jean Stapleton (ALL IN THE FAMILY), Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS), Rita Gam, and Dorothy Tristan as a doomed junkie are also good, and you can spot a pre-KOJAK Kevin Dobson as a bar extra and a pre-HILL STREET BLUES Veronica Hamel as a model. Harry Reems and Sylvester Stallone reportedly were extras too.

As a mystery, KLUTE isn’t much of one; well, it intentionally tips its hand early, and the climax is somewhat contrived. As previously noted, I don’t think Pakula cared much about the story, and even the suspenseful ending is more notable for its performances by Fonda and a mostly-heard-but-not-seen Cioffi than its violence or horror. KLUTE is a smart, slick film though, well-shot by Gordon Willis, who filmed New York City as well as anyone who ever lived (even if KLUTE mainly exists on soundstages), and scored by Michael Small.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Wrecking Crew

Quickly following DEATH OF A CITIZEN onto bookshelves was THE WRECKING CREW, the second Matt Helm adventure by Donald Hamilton. Also published in 1960, THE WRECKING CREW was used as the title of the fourth and final Matt Helm movie in 1969. Starring Dean Martin as Helm, the ridiculously tongue-in-cheek films had nothing to do with the hard-hitting novels.

On his first real mission for old boss Mac after his wife and kids left him, Helm poses as the photographer for a widowed journalist named Lou Taylor who is supposedly writing a magazine article on iron mining in northern Sweden. Lou's late husband, an investigative journalist, was murdered by a mysterious agent named Caselius while working on a story there. Helm's mission is simple enough: find Caselius and kill him.

Although THE WRECKING CREW offers a slight body count, it isn't about action, but the grim world of espionage. Interesting that Helm actually has two cover IDs in this one: a photographer and also an agent that's slightly over the hill and clumsy. Since Helm had been retired from the spy game for fifteen years before this mission, his enemies would expect him to have slowed down a step or two since his youth. Although he had trained physically and mentally for his "touch" of Caselius, pretending to be in less than tip-top shape allowed him to gain an advantage over an opponent who may underestimate him.

When the action happens, Hamilton frequently describes it as quick and ugly, leaving even those who look up to Helm to wonder if he's really some sort of heartless monster. Hamilton does a good job of describing Sweden and filling the plot with local color without becoming a dull travelogue, and his use of first-person narrative gives us a more complete picture of Helm than we usually get of spy heroes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

James Bond + Batman = ?

No pop culture icons were more popular in 1966 than Batman, then being played by Adam West in the nova-hit ABC television series, and James Bond, whom Sean Connery had played in four motion pictures to that point. Leave it to the Philippines film industry, thousands of miles from American or British copyright lawyers, to jump on to the Bond/Batman bandwagon and make a movie ripping both heroes off at the same time. Thus, JAMES BATMAN, in which Filipino actor Rodolfo Quizon, known to audiences as Dolphy, tackles both in a tour de force dual role.

Artemio Marquez isn’t much of a director, using too many static long takes and shooting the comedy from the other side of the soundstage so we can’t see the sight gags clearly. There’s also the problem of doing a parody of two characters who were already parodying themselves at that time. You can’t mock Adam West if he’s already beaten you to it. That doesn’t mean JAMES BATMAN can’t be fun. The many fight sequences are energetically staged and often use crazy camera angles to punctuate the action. It’s like Marquez didn’t care about the dialogue scenes and got them out of the way as quickly as possible so he could get to shooting the fun stuff.

The plot is straight-on pulpy fun: Batman and James Bond (and Robin, played by former child actor Boy Alano) are called to action to save the world from destruction by an international criminal cartel called CLAW, which includes a Fu Manchu guy who shoots rays from his fingers (and threatens the United Nations with a silent elderly sidekick played by a hilariously out-of-it extra) and the seductive Black Rose who mesmerizes her enemies with both force and her enticing cleavage. The Penguin is a cigar-smoking ham dressed like Mr. Peanut who chases a naked Bond on a beach.

The comedy isn’t especially funny—or, more likely, doesn’t translate that well to the Western world—though Dolphy has his charms in both roles, and the biggest laughs come through his interplay with Alano. Strangely, instead of a tuxedo, his James wears a loud plaid jacket that belies the character’s alleged suavity. Though there isn’t much dignity in dressing only in a palm leaf and getting bitten on the ass by a centipede.

JAMES BATMAN is broad, silly, extremely crudely produced, and haphazardly directed. It also happens to be a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood. The humor is in good spirits, though the jokes are dispensed with near the end, so JAMES BATMAN can climax with a heavy cacophony of zap rays and machine guns and karate kicks set to a Riddlesque jazz score that certainly owes royalties to Neil Hefti.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What If It Was Your Sister?

It was good to finally see an uncut letterboxed print of this R-rated 1976 United Artists film, which has never received a U.S. home video release. I had only seen TRACKDOWN on a battered TV print, which omits occasional profanity and approximately three minutes from two scenes of Karen Lamm being raped and battered (Lamm performs nudity in one). It's a better film than the censored version indicates, but still nothing special.

Big Jim Mitchum stars as Big Jim Calhoun, a Montana rancher who journeys to Los Angeles to find his teenage runaway sister Betsy (Karen Lamm, who was then married to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson). Mitchum didn’t have the charisma of his legendary father, but he sure looked and sounded a lot like Robert, and he could be used well in physical roles like this one. He’s certainly as notable a presence in TRACKDOWN as, say, Chuck Norris was in his earliest films.

Interestingly, director Richard T. Heffron (NEWMAN’S LAW) and writer Paul Edwards (HIGH BALLIN’), working from a story by BAD CHARLESTON CHARLIE’s Ivan Nagy, anticipate HARDCORE with its story of a morally straight man from the country navigating the sleaze of the big city to rescue an innocent teenage girl. HARDCORE is the better film, but TRACKDOWN is certainly an entertaining action-oriented version of the same story.

Betsy has it rough in Hollywood. A Latino street gang robs, kidnaps, rapes, drugs, and sells her into a stable of call girls owned by hood Johnny Dee (Vince Cannon). Classy madam Barbara (Anne Archer!) convinces the 17-year-old Betsy that prostitution is a blast, showering her with nice clothes and fancy parties with rock stars. Betsy almost buys it until one of Johnny’s pals gets rough with her on the job.

Meanwhile, Calhoun, getting nowhere with the cops, who can’t be bothered to look for one runaway blonde in a city teeming with them, crashes through the streets of Hollywood like an ox in a china shop. He eventually finds allies in sympathetic gangbanger Chucho (Erik Estrada!) and women’s shelter director Lynn (Cathy Lee Crosby!), who point which direction Calhoun should lay down the rough stuff.

The first half of TRACKDOWN moves a little slowly, while Heffron lays out the characters’ motivations, giving us a good look at the silky manner in which girls are lured into Dee’s sleazy operation. Once the relationships are clearly drawn, Heffron, a solid craftsman who moved freely between features (OUTLAW BLUES) and television (V: THE FINAL BATTLE), gets into the good stuff, staging a terrific shootout inside an elevator shaft and closing on a rousing desert chase. Crosby and Estrada are very good, though TRACKDOWN could have used a more formidable villain than Cannon.

You Can Hide, But You Can't Run

To paraphrase an old cliché from Saturday morning cartoons, the premise of the 2010 direct-to-DVD BURNING BRIGHT is crazy, but it just might work.

What’s surprising is to find television villain du jour Garret Dillahunt (DEADWOOD, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, BURN NOTICE, LIFE, and now a regular on the sitcom RAISING HOPE) popping up in a starring role. One would think he wouldn’t have time to act in DTV killer-tiger flicks when there’s always a CSI guest shot over the horizon, but I like to think he was just tickled enough by the plot to get involved.

College freshman Kelly (SORORITY ROW Final Girl Briana Evigan) and her autistic little brother Tom (Charlie Tahan) are trapped with a man-eating Bengal tiger inside a big ranch house during a hurricane. With all the doors and windows boarded up and internet and phones out, the enterprising Kelly, thankfully clad in just a flimsy tank top and tiny shorts—what better to hunt wildlife in?—has to use some real smarts to get outta this trap.

Oh, and it’s all because Kelly and Tom’s idiot stepfather (Dillahunt) stole Tom’s special-school money to buy a tiger for his safari ranch that you just know would never get off the ground.

The story is silly, but this isn’t one of those campy SyFy Channel fear flicks. Brooks and the screenplay by Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux play it straight, making Kelly a dependable heroine and the hungry cat a more-than-formidable adversary. The director claims only real tigers were used—no CGI—but Evigan, whose dad Greg Evigan played buddy to a chimp for three seasons on BJ AND THE BEAR, certainly never saw a tiger on set. Putting Evigan and a real tiger together in at least one shot would have given the cat-and-kids game some extra bite. Filmed in Florida, BURNING BRIGHT is an admirable sleeper that overcomes its schlocky concept.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Thursday, January 06, 2011

He's A Big Boy Now

EVILSPEAK, an independent CARRIE-inspired thriller set in a military academy, is perhaps best known for starring the ubiquitous Clint Howard. The juvenile star of the GENTLE BEN television series (which I faithfully watched in reruns every morning before grade school) and brother of Ron Howard, Clint followed up his iconic role as fast-talking scrounger Eaglebauer in New World's ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL with EVILSPEAK, in which he plays a very un-Eaglebauer loser.

Clint is Stanley Coopersmith, imaginatively dubbed Cooperdick by the bullies on his soccer team, an orphan who was placed in a military school after the death of his parents in an accident. Co-writer/director Eric Weston (HYENAS) goes to great lengths to establish Stanley as a real putz. He's clumsy, overweight, and tardy. Not only do the kids tease him, push him around, and pull his pants down (!), but so do the adults, including the soccer coach (Claude Earl Jones) who tries to get him kicked off the team, the colonel/principal (Charles Tyner) who spanks him, and even the reverend (Joseph Cortese) who doesn't punish the kids who steal Stanley's hat.

So when Cooperdick...uh, I mean, Coopersmith...finds in the chapel's (unusually huge) cellar a creepy old book of Satanic chants written by an exiled 14th-century Spanish monk—played by NIGHT COURT's Richard Moll, no less—you just know that black magic is going to contribute to his classmates' untimely demises. A sexy, naked blonde taking a shower is eaten by wild boar (!), a boy is set on fire, another has his heart ripped out, and—yes, indeed—heads do roll. Lots of them—perhaps the film's wittiest moment is a shock cut between a topless woman's decapitated head rolling off her shoulders and a soccer ball kicked through the air.

The trouble with EVILSPEAK is that the payoff is a long time coming. While the mayhem is definitely worth the wait, it takes about 75 minutes to get there, as Weston and Howard establish over and over again what a schlub Coopersmith is and how nasty his tormenters are. It's fun to watch, especially the drunken stylings of perpetual redneck R.G. Armstrong ("Cocksuckers!"), but more of a body count up front would have helped. Best of all, EVILSPEAK is a nice showcase for Clint Howard, who maybe never escaped the shadow of his older brother Ron (who was still on HAPPY DAYS at the time), but, then again, Ron never received a Lifetime Achievement honor on the MTV Movie Awards.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Chicks & Guns & Fire Trucks & Hookers & Drugs & Booze

Tom Hanks, whose energetic and likable comic performances as a regular on BOSOM BUDDIES and a guest star on FAMILY TIES had impressed Hollywood bigwigs, moved to the big screen when SPLASH and this raucous slob comedy were both released in 1984. SPLASH came out first, making it Hanks’ official leading-man debut, but I suspect he filmed BACHELOR PARTY first.

Penned by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, who wrote both POLICE ACADEMY and the similar MOVING VIOLATIONS next (Israel also directed the latter), from a story by Bob Israel (reportedly based on his own pre-wedding bash), BACHELOR PARTY focuses on groom-to-be Rick Gassko (Hanks), as he prepares to marry gorgeous heiress Debbie Thompson (Tawny Kitaen, making her official U.S. film debut; she made THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK-YAK first, but it didn’t play here until 1985).

Hanks is terrifically winning, and I doubt anyone was surprised he had a big-screen career. He gets more humor out of the screenplay than is actually in it, milking his lines to squeeze as much silliness out of them as possible. It’s hard not to get lost inside a film that features S&M hookers, a coke-snorting donkey, a suicidal partier who tries to slit his wrists with an electric razor, a male stripper named Nick the Dick serving up a peculiar hot dog, a Middle Eastern pimp, and lots of ‘80s white guy dancing.

Hanks gets good support from Adrian Zmed (then on T.J. HOOKER), William Tepper (DRIVE, HE SAID), Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA), Gary Grossman, and Barry Diamond as fellow partiers. They bounce off each other well, and help foil the schemes of Debbie’s ex Cole Whittier (Robert Prescott) to embarrass Rick and drive Debbie back to him. Israel and Proft actually co-wrote the direct-to-video sequel BACHELOR PARTY 2 in 2008, which hardly anyone has seen or will see.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Special Operator

March 1973 saw Pinnacle publishing PANIC IN PHILLY, the fifteenth Executioner novel written by Don Pendleton. It isn't anything special with its simple story and formulaic violence, but it's a good way to kill two hours.

For no real reason given in the narrative, Mack Bolan heads to Philadelphia to tackle Stefano Angeletti's crime family. Don Stefano wants to pass the family business along to his weak son Frank, but all the major capos know the wimp just isn't up to the job. While all this internal strife is going on, Bolan drops into town, blows up the Angeletti compound, then disguises himself as his own assassin to infiltrate the gang!

Like in VEGAS VENDETTA, the Executioner spends much of the novel as someone else: this time, Johnny Cavaretta, a hitman hired to take Bolan out. However, Mack gets to him first, kills him, disguises him as the Executioner, and then starts ordering the Angeletti gang around as Cavaretta.

Good action and some humor mark PANIC IN PHILLY is a decent timewaster in the Executioner series.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

422

422. That's the number of movies I watched in 2010. That’s only six more than I saw last year, but well below my all-time record of 588 in 2004, which I hope I never equal. Being unemployed the last 2 ½ months of the year meant an increase in movie-watching; otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it to 400. The number also doesn’t include all the television series on DVD I’ve been digging through this year, including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, and others.

Of the 422 movies I saw, I watched 248 of them for the first time. Here are my rules. As far as the count goes, only feature films count, no matter whether I saw them in a theater, DVD, VHS, or on TV.

• TV shows don't count, unless they were presented in a format resembling a feature film (for instance, the three pilot episodes of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, which aired as full-length made-for-TV movies)
• Made-for-TV movies count
• Documentaries count
• I didn't count short subjects or feature-length making-of documentaries included as DVD extras
• Movie serials and TV miniseries count as one long feature
• Multiple viewings each count as a separate movie

These are my rules. Your mileage may vary.

DVD: 262
HDTV: 58
Theater: 17
TV: 12
Blu-ray: 47
VHS: 8
Netflix Instant Streaming: 18

First film of 2010: THE PROFESSIONALS
Last film of 2010: STICK

From the 1930's: 1 (FIVE CAME BACK)
1940's: 4
1950's: 28
1960's: 37
1970's: 85
1980's: 132
1990's: 49
2000-2010: 86

Genres:
Action/Adventure: 118
Comedy: 48
Crime Drama: 21
Documentary: 12
Drama: 33
Fantasy: 4
Horror: 80
Musical: 3
Mystery: 8
Science Fiction: 48
Thriller: 37
Western: 10

Countries of origin:
Australia: 1
Canada: 7
Hong Kong: 5
Indonesia: 2
Italy: 24
Japan: 1 (MOTHRA)
Korea: 1 (A*P*E)
Philippines: 2
Spain: 5
Sweden: 2
Thailand: 2
Turkey: 1
United Kingdom: 4

Even though I stopped going to theaters regularly a few years ago, I still managed to see 32 2010 releases, mostly on cable or on DVD. Outside of January’s annual B-Fest at Northwestern University, I went to the theater only three times this year: THE EXPENDABLES, MACHETE, and SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD.

Most in one month:
January: 52
Least in one month:
April: 21

Films I saw more than once:
BLACK DYNAMITE
COMMANDO
FORBIDDEN WORLD
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR
PROM NIGHT
THE ROOM (3 times)

The most films in any one 24-hour period:
14, when I attended Northwestern University's annual B-Fest January 29–30

Some sequels:
THE DESCENT: PART 2
U.S. SEALS II: THE ULTIMATE FORCE
LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III
ONG BAK 2
TROLL 2
STRIPPED TO KILL II
ANOTHER 48 HRS.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR
CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN
FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING
PSYCHO II
IRON MAN II
THUNDER WARRIOR III
RAGE AND HONOR II: HOSTILE TAKEOVER
AMERICAN PIE PRESENTS THE BOOK OF LOVE

The original and its remake(s):
THE BLOB (1958) and THE BLOB (1988)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010)
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (2006), and WHEN A KILLER CALLS (2006)

5 Stars:
THE PROFESSIONALS
THE ROOM
DRIVE
EUROTRIP
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
TROLL 2
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
TANGO & CASH
ROBOCOP
LADY TERMINATOR
NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: AN ELM STREET LEGACY
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION
PIECES
GALAXY OF TERROR
FORBIDDEN WORLD
YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE
SEX DRIVE
STARCRASH
MACHETE
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR
SLEEPAWAY CAMP
RICH MAN, POOR MAN
RITUALS
PRESUMED INNOCENT

1 Star:
BEAR
CARNIVAL MACGIC
RADAR SECRET SERVICE
SUPERBEAST
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II
FUTURE FEAR
LORDS OF THE STREET
LAST RITES
THE LION HUNTERS
THEODORE REX
WHEN A KILLER CALLS
PURSUIT (1991)
CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN
WIZARDS OF THE DEMON SWORD
SCREAM (1983)
SODA CRACKER
THE WAR OF THE ROBOTS
SEXTETTE
FOUR RODE OUT

Recent Direct-to-Video or Barely Released Films You Haven’t Heard Of, But You Should See:
U.S. SEALS II: THE ULTIMATE FORCE
BLACK DYNAMITE
GIVE ‘EM HELL MALONE
WOMEN IN TROUBLE
INFESTATION
FRANKENFISH
BEST WORST MOVIE
BURNING BRIGHT
EYEBORGS
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION
SEX DRIVE

Burt Reynolds movies:
PHYSICAL EVIDENCE
MALONE
STICK

Bowery Boys movies:
HOT SHOTS
BLUES BUSTERS
ANGELS’ ALLEY

Documentaries you should see:
OUTRAGE
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
BEST WORST MOVIE

They Exist, and I Watched Them:
SEXTETTE
CAR CRASH
SHANTY TRAMP
THE CRIPPLED MASTERS
REPLI-KATE
WILLIAM SHATNER’S MYSTERIES OF THE GODS
GIRLS ON THE LOOSE
THE STUDENT TEACHERS
18 YEAR OLD VIRGIN
I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE
THE SEATTLE PILOTS: SHORT FLIGHT INTO HISTORY
THE SLAMMIN’ SALMON
THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE
THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY
MANDROID
CAPTAIN CELLULOID VS. THE FILM PIRATES
METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN
INVASION OF THE GIRL SNATCHERS
EYE SEE YOU
SECOND FIDDLE TO A STEEL GUITAR
THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN
ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE

My Top Ten of 2010:
MACHETE
NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: AN ELM STREET LEGACY
EASY A
THE CRAZIES
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
THE EXPENDABLES
BEST WORST MOVIE
KICK-ASS
EDGE OF DARKNESS
BURNING BRIGHT

My Bottom Five of 2010:
BEAR
COP OUT
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
THIRST
WILD THINGS FOURSOME

How many movies did you watch this year?