Monday, March 21, 2011

The Education They Got Wasn't In Books

There is a MAD magazine movie out there??

True. MAD’s first—and only—foray into moviemaking was 1980's UP THE ACADEMY, a notorious slob comedy set in a Kansas military academy. Star Ron Leibman (THE SUPERCOPS) hated it so much, he took his name off the credits. So did MAD for that matter, which paid Warner Brothers $30,000 to remove all references to the publication from the posters and trailers and to edit out the brief appearances of a (creepy-looking) Alfred E. Newman in the film itself. Newman was reinstated for the film’s television, videocassette, and DVD releases, however.

Four juvenile delinquents—Mafia son Chooch (Karate Kid Ralph Macchio), black Ike (Wendell Brown), Arab Hash (Tommy Citera) and Midwesterner Oliver (Hutch Parker, billed as J. Hutchison)—are sent by their parents to the Weinberg Military Academy in Kansas, where they are abused by their sadistic instructor, Major Vaughn Leisman (Leibman). After Leisman takes photos of Oliver having sex with girlfriend Candy (scrumptious Stacey Nelkin from HALLOWEEN III) and threatens to blackmail his politician father with them, the boys plot their counterattack, while avoiding the prying eyes of the major’s fat spying nephew Rodney (Harry Teinowitz).

It’s hard to understand why Leibman was so embarrassed by the finished product. Although the frequent overdubbing, insert shots, plotholes, and optical zooms do indicate post-production troubles, most of the embarrassing stuff must have been in the script, and Leibman, who was in NORMA RAE the year before, obviously knew what he was getting into when he performed one S&M scene clad only in pink ladies’ underwear. He’s actually the film’s most spirited performer, getting all the best lines and pratfalls.

It’s hard to believe the script was actually penned by credited writers Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, whose wonderful television work—including THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and BUFFALO BILL—is light years ahead of this. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME’s glamorous Barbara Bach appears as a cleavage-bearing armaments teacher, and Tom Poston is out there as a swishy dance instructor. Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas and Leonard Frey (THE BOYS IN THE BAND) are surprisingly in this too.

Still, I have a soft spot for the good ol’ days of political incorrectness, when it was still okay for comedies to poke fun at abortion, sex, dope, religion, My Lai, homosexuals, blacks, Arabs, and flatulence, all targets of Robert Downey’s (PUTNEY SWOPE) scattershot direction. Besides Macchio, none of the young male leads went on to movie stardom, and I imagine a behind-the-scenes documentary of UP THE ACADEMY would be more interesting that the film itself. The rock soundtrack includes hits by Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Blondie, Cheap Trick, The Kinks, Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, The Babys, The Boomtown Rats, David Johansen, Sammy Hagar, Nick Lowe, and Pat Benatar.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Killer Cop

THE THRILL KILLERS plays more like an hour-long TV episode than a novel. Its thin plot pits macho lone-wolf detective Joe Blaze against a pair of rich, spoiled young medical interns who get their kicks raping and murdering pretty nurses. The level of violence and graphic sleaze is far above what you'd see on television, even now, but otherwise, there isn't much in this 1974 Belmont Tower novel to surprise you. Par for the course during this era of men's adventure novels, the criminals are captured but allowed to walk away clean in the improbably liberal courts demanded by the expectations of the literature, leaving it to Blaze to track down the rapists and kill them in cold blood. Spoiler?

Credited to one Robert Novak, THE THRILL KILLERS was written by Leonard Levinson (see the comments below), though some of the Joe Blaze novels may have actually been written by bestselling author Nelson DeMille, who doesn't admit to any of them on his website, not even the equally trashy Keller and Ryker cop novels credited to him. It is known that some of the Ryker books accidentally feature the name "Blaze" in their prose instead of "Ryker," meaning that they probably began as Super Cop Joe Blaze stories that were quickly rewritten to accomodate the new hero.

THE THRILL KILLERS is junky and trashy, but a good, quick read if you're in the mood for violent urban thrills.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Serpent in Paradise

I can't remember why I bought Ed Naha's THE PARADISE PLOT. I must have read about it somewhere, but while researching the novel online in preparation to write this, I couldn't find really anything about it. What I do know is that I was motivated some months back to buy a used copy very inexpensively on Amazon, and I'm glad I did.

THE PARADISE PLOT is a 340-page mixture of science fiction and murder mystery set a space station called Island One. Ten years earlier, it had been established as a self-sufficient mining colony, and is today regarded on an overpopulated Earth as something of a utopia. With the ten-year anniversary approaching, cynical journalist Harry Porter is chosen to take part in a junket traveling to Island One to write a series of puff pieces meant to reassure the United States government to keep funding the station.

However, just before arriving at Island One, Porter stumbles upon evidence of a murder committed there. His initial investigation indicates a coverup--neither the alleged victim nor the witness seem to have ever lived at Island One, according to official records--but when someone with strong psychic powers makes an attempt on Harry's life, the bulldogged burnout digs deeper, much to the chagrin of Island One's government.

Naha is a journeyman writer who has bounced around for several decades. Anyone with an interest in science fiction and/or horror has probably encountered Naha's work during his stint writing articles for Fangoria and Starlog, his book THE FILMS OF ROGER CORMAN: BRILLIANCE ON A BUDGET (which has been on my bookshelf since the 1980s), or the Traveler paperback adventure series he and John Shirley wrote under the name "D.B. Drumm."

Naha has also penned screenplays, film novelizations, non-fiction books on film, and much more. THE PARADISE PLOT and its followup novel THE SUICIDE PLAGUE came about just after his run at Starlog and Fangoria, according to his online interview with M.J. Simpson:

The Paradise Plot was published because I was pissed off. Future Life were having a series on what life on a space station would be like, on an L5 colony. Everyone was writing these little articles: everything's going to be fine, everything's going to be perfect, we're all going to kiss and hug and play Donovan records. So when it came for me to do the chapter, I was wondering what would happen if you had a loose cannon up there, like Ed Gein. Well, I was called into the publisher's office and they skinned me alive. It was like: how dare I have such a jaded, cynical attitude, blah blah blah? So I figured, 'Ah!'

"Then I went out one day with an editor from Bantam books who worked with Fred Pohl. I knew Fred, but I didn't know this lady, so we were just talking. We got lacquered and started complaining about attitudes: when people looked to the future, they were always expecting pie in the sky. I said people are people, so she said, 'Why don't you do up a little outline?' Now, at this point, apart from Sherlock Holmes, I had never read a mystery. So I went to a book store and I said, 'I'd like $30-worth of mystery novels'! They said, 'Do you want the good stuff, or The Crap That Sells?' so I said, 'Well, how about half and half?' I read a lot of crap, and then I fell in love with people I'd never read at that point in my life: Chandler, Hammett, and at that point Elmore Leonard wasn't known as a mystery writer but for his westerns. So someone said, 'You should check out Elmore Leonard. He's starting to write mysteries.'

“So I read all that stuff and thought, 'Yes, this is cool.' So I handed in this outline and they bought the outline and I got the book out. And it did well enough - or they felt sorry for me enough; I'm not sure which - that I did the second one.


I'd certainly like to read THE SUICIDE PLAGUE now, because THE PARADISE PLOT is a fun page-turner that effectively places a standard serial-killer plot into a futuristic setting. I'm not a fan of overly techy prose, and neither is Naha, who is very good at describing Island One and its society without making it seem so otherworldly that the story gets lost within.

Harry Porter is nothing special as a character--he's basically the same wisecracking sleuth seen in many a novel or television show; I reckon Mike Connors could have played him easily--but he's appealing, likable, and someone we like to follow along with. Naha provides Porter with a well-formed supporting cast to bounce off of, which also provides a warm body count and a nice array of murder suspects.

Published in 1980 by Bantam, THE PARADISE PLOT is an excellent sci-fi sleeper. Just judging from a Google search, it doesn't seem to be remembered very well (except by used bookdealers trying to sell it), but I believe fans of both murder mysteries and character-based science fiction would enjoy it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Took You So Long, Butt Crust?

“Don’t fuck with Jack Murphy!” That’s “Murphy’s Law,” and as you can imagine, it gets violated quite a lot, since strict adherence would surely result in the dullest Charles Bronson movie ever. MURPHY’S LAW, one in a long line of action movies Bronson made for Cannon during the 1980s, is also the least grim of the series, containing less sleaze and more humor than the rest.

You’ve seen Los Angeles police detective Jack Murphy (Bronson) before. He’s a burned-out alcoholic cop with a stripper ex-wife (43-year-old Angel Tompkins, who looks great in her topless scenes), a loyal partner (Robert F. Lyons, also with Bronson in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and a lieutenant who yells a lot and tells Murphy, “You look like shit!”

Murphy’s problems get a lot worse when he is arrested for the murder of his ex and her new boyfriend and handcuffed to an extremely foulmouthed teen car thief (Kathleen Wilhoite). He’s being framed by the unstable and recently paroled Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), who’s killing everyone she holds responsible for her prison stay and framing Murphy for the murders. Murphy, still attached to Wilhoite (ROAD HOUSE), escapes in an attempt to clear his name while staying one step ahead of both the law and a vengeful mob boss (Richard Romanus).

One thing’s for certain. MURPHY’S LAW must be the fastest-paced of Bronson’s Cannon oeuvre. A car smashes into a diner. A helicopter crashes into a barn (one populated with shotgun-wielding pot farmers, coincidentally enough). The body count is high. The bloody final confrontation takes place in Los Angeles’ famed Bradbury Building and finds Bronson deftly dodging crossbow bolts.

The sure-handed direction by Thompson, who worked with Bronson nine times, keeps your interest from flagging, but Bronson is more interesting than you might initially think. Murphy is shaded in gray, torturing himself night after night by watching his ex-wife stripping for “horny lowlifes” (“You know what you look like up there? A whooooooore!”), but smart enough—and tough enough—to battle his way out of enough jams to tax even the most intrepid alcoholic movie cop.

Wilhoite is a weakness—and a major one, since she’s on-screen more than anyone else besides Bronson. Unable to open her mouth without a string of juvenile curses like “snotrag” and “sperm count” emerging, Wilhoite struggles with a screenplay that makes her character not very likable and an absurd romantic interest for Bronson; the brief sexual banter between her and the 65-year-old Bronson is creepier than it is sweet.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Vendetta

THE KILLING MACHINE is the first of sixteen explosive novels about the violent exploits of the Sharpshooter. Before he was the Sharpshooter, Johnny Rock was Johnny Rocetti, who ran a clothing-design firm with his family. In this 1973 Leisure Books story, we learn Rock's origin: how his family was killed by the Mafia when they refused to throw in with the Mob. Bad enough Rock's father and mother were bombed to death, but when his brother, nephew, and sister are shot down by gangsters while leaving their parents' funeral, that's when Johnny snaps.

Forgoing his former life as Rocetti, Rock now lives only to kill. He meets Iris Toscano, who would return in a later book. A Mafia widow, she also despises the Syndicate and volunteers to spy for Johnny, learning from other Mob wives the whens and wheres of illegal transactions, information she passes along to the Sharpshooter so he can be there to kill.

The author is Peter McCurtin, who wrote tons of trashy novels under several different names and even worked as an editor for Belmont Towers for awhile. Several men penned Sharpshooter novels using the Bruno Rossi name, but McCurtin could be considered the creator of the series. Rock is actually called the Enforcer a few times in this book, so perhaps that was to be the character's original nickname?

THE KILLING MACHINE is not as crazy as some Sharpshooters to come. In future installments, Rock would become downright psychotic, living only to kill mobsters. Later novels also boasted amazingly lurid titles, like HEAD CRUSHER, MUZZLE BLAST, and SAVAGE SLAUGHTER, and juicy cover art to match. THE KILLING MACHINE is worth reading, if only to see how it all began for the Sharpshooter, but it isn't among the series' best.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Brutally Authentic!

As Bill Picard noted in a comment on an earlier post of mine, these early paperback originals written by (or just credited to) future bestselling author Nelson DeMille are a bibliographer's nightmare:

According to a note to the reader in the front of the late 80's reissues, DeMille wrote 6 books in the early 70's. The first 2 (The Sniper and The Hammer of God) were published by Norton and starred Ryker. The remaining 4 (The Smack Man, The Cannibal, Night of the Phoenix and Death Squad) were published by Manor Books and featured Detective Joe Keller. After Ryker's first two, the Ryker series continued: #3 The Terrorists, #4 The Agent of Death, #5 The Child Killer, #6 The Sadist. DeMille's name appears on #3 and #4, but DeMille has claimed he didn't write those and that he was paid to simply have his name kept on them. (#5 and #6 are credited to Edson T Hamill.) But here's where it gets confusing: Ryker #4, The Agent of Death, is almost a word-for-word rewrite of Night of the Phoenix, one of DeMille's Joe Keller books! It appears after in this case at least, he simply changed the names and sold the same book twice. So it wouldn't surprise me if Joe Blaze was yet another version of one of the books. A few final confusions: when the books were reissued in the early 90's by Pocket Books in the US and Grafton in the UK, they were rewritten yet again. Not only were the Keller ones changed to Ryker, but their locations were changed as well. The original books all took place around Columbus Circle and in midtown Manhattan, which at that time was seedy. By the early 90's it was tony, so they were rewritten to be in the East Village. DeMille's name appeared on the original books; it wasn't till the reissues that he became Jack Cannon so as not to confuse the fans of his popular stuff. I've read The Sniper, The Hammer of God (about a religious nut hacking up women he thinks are witches) and The Smack Man (about someone poisoning the heroin supply to kill junkies), and they've each gotten progressively worse.

DEATH SQUAD, #6 in Manor's Keller series, is actually pretty good, though still crude and rough around the edges. It isn't hard to ascertain where DeMille got the idea for the book, as MAGNUM FORCE, the second Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movie, had been a hit just two years before and had already been ripped off for television in THE DEATH SQUAD.

Keller, the dirtiest (as in nasty and violent, if not necessarily corrupt) detective on the force, goes into action when a large group of cops turn judge, jury, and executioner and start assassinating bad guys. Keller actually wouldn't mind so much if they were just killing crooks, but liberal judges and nosy honest policeman are also targets off the death squad, and that pisses Keller off.

A ludicrously high number of Keller's colleagues are members of the underground assassination squad, leaving his young partner Reuter the only person he can trust. DeMille comes up with some fairly good setpieces once Keller figures out what's going on, and there's some good suspense in scenes in which Keller has to hide in plain sight from his buddies on the force to stay alive. The death squad itself operates in delightful pulp-novel style from an abandoned subway tunnel and is led by a mysterious hooded man known only as The Chief. The Chief's true identity is clever, though not as much is done with this as could have been.

If you want action, DeMille delivers plenty of bloody shootouts and fights, and the body count is quite high. Maybe because the author had more of these junky novels under his belt by this time and was already eager to break out into more respectable thriller writing, DEATH SQUAD is more sophisticated than the lunkheaded Ryker and Joe Blaze cop novels DeMille also churned out around this time.

I've read only one other Keller novel, NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, but it was a Ryker novel titled THE ANGEL OF DEATH then. Yes, DeMille sold the same story twice to two separate publishers at the same time. Pretty sneaky, sis.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

He Is The Destroyer

John Hough, the director of Disney’s WITCH MOUNTAIN movies, also made INCUBUS, a sleazy Canadian horror movie based on a 1976 novel by Ray Russell, the screenwriter of X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES. About a rapist demon with a phallus the size of a man’s arm that splits apart its victims and bathes them in semen, the 1982 film is less graphic and much less involving than Russell’s book.

Set in the small town of Galen, INCUBUS stars John Cassavetes (HUSBANDS), who must have needed some quite bread to bankroll another independent feature, as Sam Cordell, Galen’s physician and coroner who is initially mystified by the brutal rapes and murders. So much discharge is left in and on the bodies that police chief Hank Walden (John Ireland) initially suspects a gang of rapists, although he can’t explain why the semen is colored red.

Also curious is local teen Tim (Duncan McIntosh), the boyfriend of Sam’s daughter Jenny (Erin Flannery). Tim has been experiencing grotesque nightmares and claiming after each one that another rape has taken place. How do Tim’s dreams connect to the incubus—the monstrous supernatural creature that exists to impregnate human women while they sleep? Helping Sam get to the bottom of the mystery is Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane), the editor of the town newspaper.

Most of this is also present in Russell’s novel. Cassavetes’ character is an amalgamation of two men from the book, but original to the movie is his interest in very young women. Sam, a widower, is reeling from the death of an 18-year-old girlfriend, and his first scene finds him peeking at his daughter stepping out of the shower. Cassavetes’ quirky performance is not an asset to the film. Though I presume he and director Hough believed it would fit nicely into the skeezy atmosphere, it makes Cordell a bit hard to take as the film’s hero.

INCUBUS is a somewhat entertaining if not completely fulfilling shocker. Hough, a horror vet (THE LEGEND OF HILL HOUSE), skillfully films the attacks as graphically as he can without going “too far” (although some may argue that he did), and he wisely keeps the creature off camera until the end. Hough provides enough style and pacing to balance out the flaws in George Franklin’s screenplay, which would have been better off sticking closer to the book. Franklin introduces plot threads that end up going nowhere, though Cassavetes’ glowering performance may be more to blame for the unevenness of the doctor’s character.

The monster suit by Les Edwards and Maureen Sweeney is pretty good and not used enough. Hough found some neat old locations in Guelph, Ontario in which to shoot, but another of INCUBUS’ weaknesses is that we don’t get to see much of the town or its people, and thus it feels a bit claustrophobic.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

And Soon The Darknesses

Producer Albert Fennell, writers Terry Nation and Brian Clemens, composer Laurie Johnson, and director Robert Fuest, all of whom worked together on the television series THE AVENGERS, collaborated on 1970’s AND SOON THE DARKNESS, a big-screen chiller produced with teeth-chattering aplomb.

As much as the script and direction, the film creates a sense of dread through sound…or the lack thereof. Johnson’s score is terrific, but Fuest also uses silence and quiet sound effects to evoke a nihilistic mood, and presenting occasional dialogue in unsubtitled French puts the audience on the same edge as the English-speaking protagonists.

Two attractive young birds, Jane (Pamela Franklin, later in FOOD OF THE GODS and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice), embark on a bicycling trip across the back roads of France. The brunette, Jane, intends to keep her carefully planned schedule, while blond Cathy grows bored and wants to dawdle and work on her tan by the side of the road. They separate after a brief tiff, but when Cathy doesn’t show up at the next town, Jane grows worried and goes looking for her. She meets Paul (Sandor Eles), a detective who agrees to help her find Cathy, though he neglects to tell her about the pretty young tourist who was recently raped and murdered along the same road.

Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) masterfully frames each shot for maximum tension, and Franklin, a former child star, is a marvelously vulnerable heroine. The climax isn’t perfect because of some deceptive acting I can’t get into here, but it’s exciting enough that you probably won’t think about it while it’s happening. AND SOON THE DARKNESS isn’t a Hammer movie, but could easily be mistaken for one. Clemens’ next two films were indeed for Hammer: DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER.

Forty years later, Anchor Bay Films decided to remake AND SOON THE DARKNESS with Amber Heard (ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE) and Odette Yustman (THE UNBORN) as the leads. Transplanting the terror from France to Argentina, the remake directed by Marcos Efron appears to go out of its way to undermine the suspense Clemens, Nation, and Fuest wrenched from the original premise.

Whereas the protagonists in the original film were alone on barren stretches of road populated only by a handful of people they couldn’t understand, the girls in Efron’s remake are in a town surrounded by solid citizens. Also deflating suspense is the opening shot, which graphically shows us a horrifying event Fuest was content to merely hint at later in his story.

Too lazy to bother with any mystery, the screenplay by Efron (making his feature debut) and Jennifer Derwingson features American teens Stephanie (Heard) and Ellie (Yustman) on a bicycling vacation in Argentina. After a night of drinking and flirting with men—well, it’s really vivacious Ellie doing the flirting while Stephanie frets—the two girls have an argument, resulting in the more responsible Stephanie leaving Ellie sunbathing near some woods. When Ellie doesn’t show up at a predetermined meeting place, Stephanie goes looking for her. The police aren’t interested in helping, but Michael (STAR TREK’s new Dr. McCoy, Karl Urban), another American, appears to be.

Efron has obviously seen the original film—he steals shots from it—but doesn’t understand why it works. Whereas Fuest plunged its Strangers into a Strange Land, Heard’s character comes across as falsely worldly (and able to beat up several men bigger and stronger than she), and Urban’s is just plumb unbelievable. The movie would like you to believe that Michael is involved in Ellie’s disappearance, but its insistence upon showing us Ellie’s kidnapping dispels that theory before Efron can even develop it. By revealing too much of its plot and falling back on standard xenophobic horror tropes, AND SOON THE DARKNESS is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

One Tough Apache

The last time I wrote about author John Whitlatch, I noted that nobody seemed to know very much about him. He wrote eleven paperback originals for Pocket Books between 1969 and 1976, all of them rugged adventures about rugged, manly dudes doing rugged, manly things.

Since my post, blogger Paul Bishop was able to find and chat with an old friend of Whitlatch's. It appears Whitlatch died of a brain tumor in 1981, which is also the last year he was published. Please go to Bish's Beat here to learn more about the enigmatic author.

As for Whitlatch's work, I recently finished STUNT MAN'S HOLIDAY, which is a sequel of sorts to FRANK T.'S PLAN. It revolves a supporting character from that book, Hollywood stuntman and full-blooded Apache Max Besh. More or less one long chase, STUNT MAN'S HOLIDAY teams Besh with obnoxious standup comic Les Rick (an obvious double for Don Rickles) on a two-man trek across the desert in pursuit of robbers who have kidnapped Rick's wife and stolen $6000 of Besh's Vegas winnings.

It's structured similarly to FRANK T.'S PLAN, which had pretty much the same plot, and allows Whitlatch to get in plenty of snipes at women and hippies, which he seems to hate equally. STUNT MAN'S HOLIDAY isn't action-packed, but it's always interesting, as Whitlatch shares many helpful tips on camping, tracking, horseback riding, etc. That's one reason Rick is along--to give Besh someone to teach manliness to and give Whitlatch the excuse to show off what he knows.

STUNT MAN'S HOLIDAY is also a mystery of sorts, and if you're paying attention, Whitlatch scatters clues along the sandy path (I wasn't, but in retrospect, it all makes sense). If you're into macho adventuring, John Whitlatch is a good author to follow.