Friday, February 25, 2011

Enter At Your Own Risk

An excellent cast and some eye-popping action scenes highlight this Italian/Canadian crime drama filmed on location in Montreal in 1975. STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM showcases one of the best car chases ever performed onscreen (see below), thanks to the nimble second-unit direction of driver extraordinare Remy Julienne, who smashes, jumps, crushes, and squeals these steel junkers in every way imaginable. You never see this film mentioned when great movie car chases are listed, but it’s Top Five material unquestionably.

Police detective Tony Saitta (burly Stuart Whitman), whom we initially see blasting away a trio of bank robbers Dirty Harry-style, grows suspicious when his beautiful younger sister Louise (Carole Laure) dies unexpectedly. After exhuming the body, Saitta discovers she was poisoned, and his obsessive investigation targets George Tracer (Martin Landau), a middle-aged college physician who was having an extramarital affair with Louise. There are other suspects too in this whodunit penned by Vincenzo Mannino (GREAT WHITE) and Gianfranco Clerici (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), and, with his colleague Ned Matthews (John Saxon) in tow, Saitta punches, kicks, shoots, and drives his way through every lowlife scum in the city before discovering the killer’s shocking identity.

It’s always great to see veteran stars like Whitman, Saxon, and Landau bounce off of each other, but STRANGE SHADOWS’s real draw are the stunning action setpieces—not just that corker of a car chase, but also Whitman’s brutal kickfest with a trio of razor-wielding transvestites and a bank heist that opens the picture. In fact, Saitta’s hilarious singlemindedness in pursuit of his sister’s killer is equaled only by director Alberto de Martino’s determination to put action on the screen, no matter how absurd it may be. At least twice, Saitta gets involved in dangerous chases or fights, only to discover his opponent knows nothing about the case.

Oddly, the American distributor, American International, appears to have marketed STRANGE SHADOWS as a horror/mystery rather than the hard-driving crime thriller it really is. The poster focuses on Tisa Farrow’s blind music teacher character, which has very little to do with the story, and the American title is similar to those of the giallos directed by Dario Argento (BLAZING MAGNUMS, A SPECIAL MAGNUM FOR TONY SAITTA, and THE 44 SPECIALIST are among its alternate titles used outside North America).

I doubt horror fans will be disappointed—action lovers certainly won’t be—and de Martino (HOLOCAUST 2000) even tosses in some final-reel nudity to raise the film’s exploitation value up a notch. Titled SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM on the English-language print, it’s a strong, solid crime thriller.

Here's a look at that car chase. It isn't from the best-looking source, but as good as is available now, I suppose, since STRANGE SHADOWS isn't on a legit DVD yet, and the VHS is long out of print.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Havana Hit

Burt Wulff is back in the fifth of fourteen Lone Wolf novels penned by Barry Malzberg under the name Mike Barry. The Lone Wolf series is unusual for the men's adventure genre in that it actually comes to a definitive end, rather than just fading away. It's also one of the better written series in the genre.

Too bad HAVANA HIT isn't among the finer Lone Wolf entries. Very light on plot and action, this 1974 book from Berkley Medallion picks up with the valise of heroin Wulff picked up in Las Vegas in DESERT STALKER. The plane taking him back to New York is hijacked to Cuba, where the drugs fall into the hands of a psycho government official named Delgado, who hands them off to corrupt Intelligence head DiStasio, who plans to take the dope--a million bucks worth--to New York to sell.

Wulff, whose crusade against the mob stems from his fiance's death by overdose, enlists the reluctant aid of a 'Nam-vet helicopter pilot named Stevens to blast his way first into Delgado's office, then DiStasio's jungle estate. Although HAVANA HIT is not as exciting as previous Lone Wolf books, Malzberg creates an interesting relationship between the singleminded Wulff and the burned-out Stevens, who is a fully developed and sympathetic character whose fate is a powerful shock.

Wulff's first name was originally Burt, but was inexplicably changed to Martin in DESERT STALKER. Here, he's Martin on the inside, but still Burt on the back cover. Speaking of covers, the Lone Wolf books offer some of the most striking paperback covers, though this one painted by Mel Crair is incredibly misleading, since no women appear anywhere in the story.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Steven Seagal Is A Dangerous Man

What the hell—a halfway decent DTV Steven Seagal movie? Hey, I’m just as surprised as you are.

That A DANGEROUS MAN is one of Seagal's most watchable films in years is despite the fact that Seagal is as disinterested as ever. Rarely has a movie star been so bored by his job that it shows up in her performances. Many shots of Seagal are actually a body double, and a lot of his dialogue is dubbed by another actor trying to sound like him. If he ever took a step during a fight scene, it would be a miracle. All he does is stand in a spot and wave his arms around in quick cuts that try and fail to disguise his girth.

That’s all par for the course in a Steven Seagal movie. What sets A DANGEROUS MAN apart from most of its competition within Seagal’s DTV oeuvre is that it appears some care was taken in other respects to deliver a watchable action movie. Put a more interested (and interesting) star in it, and A DANGEROUS MAN could have really been something.

Seagal is Shane Daniels, a former military man who served six years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit (we never learn who did). His first night on the street, he witnesses two Chinese gang members killing a cop. He kills the killers and rescues a young Asian woman, Tia (Marlaina Mah), and a Russian guy, Sergey (Jesse Hatch), who talks like a McKenzie brother (A DANGEROUS MAN was shot in British Columbia). Pretty soon, Chinese drug dealers, Russian gangsters, and corrupt cops are involved with Shane and Tia and Sergey in a complicated plot that I didn’t fully catch or care about really.

Director Keoni Waxman (THE KEEPER) appears to share Seagal’s fetishes for hot Asian girls and brutal violence, which is maybe why A DANGEROUS MAN turned out as well as it did. Few action heroes have ever been as nasty as Seagal in delivering the wet stuff, pounding and grinding and stabbing his opponents until their faces look like Robert Davi lost a fight with a cheese grater. The fights and explosions work well enough for a Friday night rental and make A DANGEROUS MAN look impressive indeed compared to the rest of its star’s recent work.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Made His Blood Boil

David Toma was a real undercover police detective who wore outlandish disguises to capture drug dealers in Newark, New Jersey. Like Frank Serpico and "supercops" Greenberg and Hantz in New York City, Toma became something of a folk hero for his unorthodox style and incredibly successful arrest and conviction rates. Virulently opposed to any type of drug, even alcohol, Toma's exploits became so well known that ABC created a primetime crime drama for him.

TOMA starred Tony Musante as Toma, and even though it was a hit, Musante became disillusioned with the series and left after just one season. Not to be deterred, ABC cast Robert Blake to replace Musante and continued the show as BARETTA. For all intents and purposes, TOMA and BARETTA are the same show.

Toma also spawned a trio of men's adventure novels that don't exactly seem to be TV tie-ins. In fact, TOMA was long gone from the public airwaves by the time Dell published the third and last Toma novel, THE AFFAIR OF THE UNHAPPY HOOKER. Credited to David Toma and Jack Pearl, I suspect Toma had little to do with the book's creation, and Jack Pearl seems to be a nom de plume for Donald Bain, who is still cranking out TV-based mystery novels at the age of 75 with another MURDER, SHE WROTE book coming this fall.

Strangely, AFFAIR has next to nothing to do with any unhappy hooker, though one does appear late in the story as a peripheral character. It's a well-written tale featuring Toma undercover as a Mafioso named Augie Mara who infiltrates the Newark mob to nail some bigshots running dope and prostitutes. His partner is a sexy FBI agent named Nancy Stroud who poses as his moll.

Written in first person, as though this actually happened to Toma, the book is entertaining, though Toma's rants against drinking and drugging occasionally veer off into self-righteousness that's hard to take. I'm sure Toma had a healthy ego--in fact, it was probably necessary for him to pull off his many guises--but the fact that his fellow cops gush over him and his new partner is dying to seduce the happily married hero is a bit much. It's common for men's adventure heroes to be supermen, but Toma is an actual person, and as such, his piousness can be hard to take.

Still, I liked THE AFFAIR OF THE UNHAPPY HOOKER, and it's interesting to note that the face painted on the Dell cover is not that of actor Musante, but of Dave Toma himself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Torture By Ecstasy

Based solely on this first novel, I proclaim Pocket Book's the Baroness series as one of my favorite paperback series of the 1970s. It's fast-moving, sexy, violent, and downright weird--just the way I like 'em!

The Baroness is Penelope St. John-Orsini, the widow of both a secret agent and a car-racing baron who was left wealthy and bored after the deaths of her husbands. As "Coin," she works for the National Security Agency as a spy, using her cover as an internationally famous model and actress to travel all over the world solving cases.

Unusually for these series, the Baroness works with a team, all of whom are either models or photographers, including ex-Green Beret Dan Wharton, sexy Fiona, tough guy Eric, bombmaker Paul, master of disguise Yvette, Cherokee Joe Skytop, and Japanese Tom Sumo. She takes her orders from John Farnsworth, whose codename is Key.

Seven of the eight Baroness novels were released by Pocket in 1974. All are credited to Paul Kenyon, obviously a pen name, because the books were "produced" by packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who was also involved with the Chopper Cop and Blade series, to name a couple. According to Bradley Mengel's SERIAL VIGILANTES OF PAPERBACK FICTION, Engel founded Book Creations, Inc. in 1973, a company that conceived novels on spec, hired writers, then sold the books to various paperback publishers.

So. THE ECSTASY CONNECTION. Well, it's an odd duck. Basically, Penelope and her team are investigating some strange isolated incidents in which people are literally sexed to death. That is, one starves to death, because he was enjoying something so pleasurable that he wouldn't stop it to eat. A stage actress literally masturbates herself to death in front of a live audience.

It's all because of a drug created by Dr. Jolly, who works at the plush Hong Kong estate of the blubberous Petronius Sim, a gigantic and evil bastard who plans to addict the world's leaders to the drug so he can control them. In his employ are zombies with electric sockets in their heads into which Sim inserts plugs that stimulate their brains with uncontrollable pleasure or pain to keep them in line.

Kenyon's major setpiece is a real action doozy. The Baroness, investigating an orgy at a Mafia hangout in a loft, finds herself in the middle of a machine gun slaughter, because Sim has ordered the men to kill all witnesses to his drug's effects. After escaping immediate death by hiding in a pile of nude corpses, she manages to lead her pursuers through windows, over roofs, and all over the building sans weapons or even clothes, for that matter. It's an exciting action scene with an extra touch of oddball sleaze to put it over the top.

It should be said that the book's sex scenes are quite graphic--something of a "hard R" nature. Personally, I'm not turned on by sexy passages in a book and find these moments tedious. I usually skip over the 3- or 4-page sex scenes, but your mileage may vary. Just to warn you that you may be surprised by the Baroness' libido and Kenyon's lengthy descriptions of her many lovemaking marathons.

THE ECSTASY CONNECTION is a terrific adventure I can't recommend highly enough for readers interested in action of an unusual bent.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What's A Boomerang That Doesn't Come Back?

Elmore Leonard actually adapted his own novel for STICK, but was not happy with it after Universal demanded reshoots that pushed the release back several months (Leonard shares screenplay credit with SUDDEN IMPACT’s Joseph Stinson). I can’t say Universal deserves all the blame for STICK’s failure, because Burt Reynolds, who starred and also directed it, made several bad choices of his own, including allowing his own ego to demand that his character be smarter, worldlier, and handsomer than everyone else. And more egregiously, letting co-star Charles Durning wander around under a ridiculous orange wig.

Every time I see STICK, I really try to like it. Reynolds’ previous film as a director, SHARKY’S MACHINE, is an outstanding crime drama with crackling action scenes and several well-rounded characters. If only he had taken the same approach with STICK. Even though Reynolds is wearing his “serious” toupee in it, it still plays much more like CANNONBALL RUN II than SHARKY’S MACHINE. Scenes don’t hang together well, which could be the result of post-production finetuning. Alex Rocco pops in for one scene that doesn’t have anything to do with either the story or building Burt’s character, and Deanna Lund gets nice billing for a party scene, but doesn’t even get a line.

What’s most interesting about STICK is an astounding stunt by Dar Robinson that was one of the best ever filmed up to that time. Using a device he invented called a decelerator, Robinson, playing an albino assassin named Moke, did a freefall off a building ledge using wires to break his fall. This allowed Reynolds to aim the camera over the ledge and shoot Robinson’s fall without revealing an airbag on the ground. Today it wouldn’t matter, because any wires seen on camera can be removed digitally, but Robinson’s STICK fall was a big deal in 1985.

Ernest Stickney (Reynolds), just out of the pen after a seven-year sentence, accompanies his friend Rainy (Jose Perez) to deliver drug money from eccentric pusher Chucky (Durning) to nasty supplier Nestor (Castulo Guerra). It’s a setup, and Rainy is killed. Stick survives and gets in the middle of a struggle between Nestor, against whom Stick wants revenge for Rainy’s murder, and Chucky, who owes him $5000. He hides out as a chauffeur for wealthy Barry Braham (George Segal) and begins a romantic relationship with Barry’s financial advisor Kyle (Candice Bergen).

STICK starts out promisingly with some gritty photography, tough talk, and a good action piece in the swamp. Unfortunately, after that it falls into camp with Durning and Segal playing too far over the top and Reynolds doing some characteristic clowning. He probably felt that’s what his fans wanted, but the joking harms Stick’s integrity and waters down the suspense. Humor, of course, is fine in a thriller, but STICK’s is overly buffoonish.

The film isn’t a total disaster. It isn’t as good as it should have been, so it’s a disappointment, but Reynolds is talented enough in front of and behind the camera to keep it entertaining though awkward. It didn’t do much at the box office—in fact, Burt was already through as a marketable leading man, though he didn’t know it for a few more years.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Death Race

I'm not sure why, but the men who penned the twelve Dirty Harry novels for Warner Books took a delight in taking its leading man out of San Francisco, the city he patrolled as an Inspector for the SFPD with a .44 Magnum in his shoulder holster.

It wasn't a fish-out-of-water thing, because Harry Callahan was never much of a social being anyway and had little trouble fitting in. The one exception that I've read may be FAMILY SKELETONS, which sent Harry to Boston to visit relatives he never had time for before. Getting Callahan involved with a serial killer who may be targeting his niece was a nice way of giving a case a personal spin.

Which is not the case in Dirty Harry #7, MASSACRE AT RUSSIAN RIVER, published by Warner Books in July 1982. It's purely business as Harry is sent to a small town to help bust a ring of mountain men trafficking in marijuana. His distrust of authority is bad enough, but when he learns he's to work with a local narcotics officer named Turk who is vainglorious, incompetent, and maybe even crazy, Callahan starts to worry. Author Leslie Horvitz, using Warner's Dane Hartman pseudonym, creates some evocative action scenes--a mountaintop massacre staged in the mud and the rain and the wind of a major thunderstorm and a nighttime stalk through an old house with three murderous rednecks after Harry's ass are two of them.

At 220 pages, MASSACRE AT RUSSIAN RIVER seems padded--a sequence in which Harry trails someone back to San Francisco and ends up wanted by the DEA is extraneous and is, in fact, ignored at the end--but Horvitz has a good handle on the character, and it's easy to picture Clint Eastwood saying and doing the things Harry does in the book.

Boxoffice: February 13, 1978




Wednesday, February 02, 2011

If It Got Any Hotter, It Wouldn't Be Dancing

Can you believe two films about the lambada were released the same day? While Cannon’s Yoram Globus was putting out LAMBADA by BREAKIN’ director Joel Silberg on March 16, 1990, his cousin and former partner, Menahem Golan, was rolling out THE FORBIDDEN DANCE for his new company 21st Century.

By the time both films came out, nobody in the U.S. gave a damn about the shortlived dance fad anyway, and they both vanished almost as quickly as the lambada did. If anything about them is noteworthy, it’s their female leads: LAMBADA’s Melora Hardin, who went on to prime-time prominence in THE OFFICE, and this film’s Laura Harring, more than a decade before she got a boob job and landed her breakthrough leading role in David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

An Amazon princess named Nisa (Harring) and her hulking witchdoctor companion Joa (Sid Haig!) go to Los Angeles to prevent an evil oil company from bulldozing their native village in the Amazon. Joa gets tossed in the joint, and Nisa gets a job as a maid for wealthy racists. That gig doesn’t work out when the parents find out she went dancing with their layabout dance-obsessed son Jason (Jeff James), so she wanders over to cinema’s most ridiculous strip club/brothel. Billed as “Queen of the Amazon,” Nisa dances for about three people in this rinkydink joint until she gets into a hassle with Jason’s pals in paisley vests.

What it all boils down to is Jason and Nisa competing in a Kid Creole and the Coconuts dance contest so they can win first prize: an appearance on national television so they can preach a Save the Rain Forest message and, presumably, save Nisa’s village from getting torched by oil company mercenary Maxwell (Richard Lynch).

But THE FORBIDDEN DANCE is crazier than it sounds. Sid Haig playing air bongos. A bizarre safe-sex message. The pitiful acting and sets. Brazil portrayed like a 1950s Jungle Jim programmer. Gratuitous slo-mo window breaking. Jason’s hilarious fascination with dancing all night. And, Lord, Richard Lynch dancing the lambada.

Yes, it’s a terrible film, but perfectly watchable in the way only some dreadful films can be. Laura Harring is more than watchable—gorgeous and energetic even, though not exactly an acting powerhouse. She fares better than her blow-dried leading man, who’s unconvincing as a dancer and a lover. He appears as though THE FORBIDDEN DANCE was James’ only film—not a shocker. Also with Linden Chiles, Shannon Farnon, Angela Moya, Barbra Brighton, and the hit Kaoma song “Lambada,” which LAMBADA didn’t get the rights to.