Sunday, June 29, 2014

Never Take Sweets From A Stranger

Hammer Films, best known for producing low-brow comedies, action movies, and (of course) horror films, made a rare foray into mature drama with this adaptation of Roger Garis’ play THE PONY TRAP.

Titled NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER in the United Kingdom and given a more appropriately American retitling by Columbia Pictures, Cyril Frankel’s film, written for the screen by John Hunter (THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER), is a startling, engrossing, intelligent thriller about a monster more horrendous than any other Hammer brought to the screen.

The subject of NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, as can be surmised from its title, is child molestation. It’s important to note that nobody was making films about pedophilia in 1959, but Hammer sure did, despite James Carreras’ assertion that his company didn’t make “message films.”

Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) and his family move to a small Canadian town where he has been hired as the new principal at the local school. Their lives are almost immediately turned upside down after Peter and Sally’s (Gwen Watford) nine-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye) mentions that she and her friend Lucille (Estelle Brody) visited the elderly Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer), who asked the girls to strip naked and dance for him in exchange for candy.

Jean’s parents report the crime to the authorities and are shocked that police captain Hammond (Budd Knapp) suggests they drop the case. The rest of the town rises up against the Carters as well. Not because Jean’s accusations are false—everyone is well aware of the elder Olderberry’s perversions—but because the Olderberrys are rich and powerful and hold the town in its sway, no one is willing to risk the family’s wrath by joining the Carters’ cause.

Part suspense, part courtroom drama, and part social commentary, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER benefits mightily from Frankel’s sensitive direction, sharp camerawork by future director Freddie Francis (his first job for Hammer), and fine acting by a low-wattage cast, notably sweet little Faye (totally believable), MacDonald Parke as a sympathetic judge, and particularly Aylmer’s silent, creepy turn as a pathetic monster. It doesn’t hold back clear through from the evocative opening titles playing over a shot of a child’s swing right to the gut-punch of an ending. And even though the subject matter could easily have been exploited, Frankel tells a tasteful tale that must have astonished the few people who saw it in 1960. No one left the arthouse with a smile on his or her face.

Being a Hammer production, Black Park turns up as a woodsy location. Casting less-than-familiar faces makes the small-town characters more believable, though Allen (and his wonderfully redolent voice) did become something of a Hammer star (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). The film wasn’t a hit on either side of the Atlantic, but collected good reviews except from those critics predisposed to dislike Hammer no matter what.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy


Thank Mexico for one of cinema's great titles: WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY. The movie does have wrestling women and it does have an Aztec mummy.

Buxom lady wrestlers Loretta Venus (Lorena Velazquez) and Golden Ruby (Elizabeth Campbell) are back in this direct sequel to DOCTOR OF DOOM. It even recycles stock footage from DOCTOR OF DOOM, resulting in obvious continuity errors involving Velazquez’s changing hairstyles.

Also returning are Armando Silvestre and Chucho Salinas as Loretta’s and Ruby’s cop boyfriends. All four become embroiled in a deadly plot masterminded by an Oriental villain known as the Black Dragon (Mexican actor Ramon Bugarini), who’s leaving a trail of corpses in his pursuit of three pieces of a codex that legend says points toward a hidden Aztec treasure buried in the ruins. Guarding the treasure is a mummy that can transform into a vampire bat! Disappointingly, director Rene Cardona gives the mummy-bat less play than an amazing idea like that deserves.

Cardona and American distributor K. Gordon Murray’s trademark lunacy carries over from DOCTOR OF DOOM in its dialogue and fight scenes, but a wrestling match that goes on for what feels like forever and a mid-section flashback consisting of footage from an unrelated (bigger-budgeted) movie sink AZTEC MUMMY before it ever reaches its anticipated climax, which turns out to be not much of a battle at all. In other words, if you come to this movie looking for wrestling women to fight an Aztec mummy, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Favorite Son

Steve Sohmer, a former motion picture and television executive with Columbia and NBC, respectively, adapted his own excellent novel FAVORITE SON for a six-hour miniseries (approximately 250 minutes plus commercials) that aired on NBC (natch) at the end of October 1988. It earned an impressive Nielsen rating and was later cut down to just under two hours for an unwatchable videocassette release titled TARGET: FAVORITE SON that loses literally more than half its original footage.

Sohmer’s sprawling teleplay is extremely faithful to the book, even using dialogue pulled straight from the pages. The plot revolves around Terry Fallon (L.A. LAW’s Harry Hamlin), a handsome, charismatic first-term U.S. Senator from Texas, who is shot and wounded on live television during an assassination attempt on Octavio Martinez, the leader of the Contras in Nicaragua. A week away from the national convention (the party is unmentioned in the book and the film), President Sam Baker (James Whitmore) is sagging in the polls and is being pushed by party leaders to dump Vice President Dan Eastman (Mitchell Ryan) from the ticket and select Fallon, the country’s new golden boy, as his running mate.

Curiously, FBI head O’Brien (Kenneth McMillan) assigns only two men to investigate the Martinez murder: crusty, cynical, three-months-from-retirement Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) and his rookie partner David Ross (Lance Guest). Obviously, somebody somewhere doesn’t want the case solved—a reality the self-loathing Mancuso understands from the start—but the idealistic Ross is dedicated to it. That Martinez was injected with the AIDS virus while undergoing a physical at Walter Reed two days before his death is knowledge President Baker’s two most powerful allies, Chief of Staff Lou Brenner (John Mahoney) and CIA Director William Reiker (Ronny Cox), want to keep under wraps, but the unpredictable Mancuso (whose first name was Joe in the book) threatens to thwart their plans.

At the center of every subplot is Sally Crain (CROCODILE DUNDEE’s Linda Kozlowski, so perfectly cast I wouldn’t be surprised if Sohmer wrote the character for her), formerly a journalism student, a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, and now Fallon’s press aide and the Frankenstein who created him. She’s also his lover, despite the existence of Fallon’s invalid wife locked away in a Cleveland convent. It’s a tough role, due to the many faces Sally wears, and Kozlowski shines in what is undoubtedly the best part she ever had.

Sex, violence, betrayal, intrigue, power—the backbone of a salaciously entertaining political thriller is here. That it originally aired days before the 1988 Presidential election, which saw Dan Quayle vault into the Vice Presidency, adds some pop to the story (four years later, Quayle was almost pushed out of office before the 1992 convention, just as Dan Eastman is here).

Director Jeff Bleckner juggles the many storylines and speaking parts with great professionalism. Performances are strong with character parts perfectly tailored for the veteran actors who inhabit them. Loggia is outstanding in the miniseries’ sharpest arc. He’s such a scene-stealer that he was spun off into his own weekly series, MANCUSO, FBI, which earned him an Emmy nomination (Bleckner and FAVORITE SON cinematographer Bradford May directed episodes).



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Disembodied

Wow. Fans of Allison Hayes, who steamed up drive-in screens in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN and ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, shouldn’t miss this junky jungle thriller.

A specialist in “bad girl” roles, Hayes plays native woman Tonda in THE DISEMBODIED, an irresistible seductress who uses voodoo to torture her older husband, Dr. Metz (John E. Wengraf), and performs a hip-shaking dancing scene in a fetching two-piece sarong. “I can get any man I want,” she tells Metz’s loyal assistant Suba (Dean Fredericks, star of THE PHANTOM PLANET), right before she kisses him and then slaps his face.

Tonda’s timing is lousy, as every attempt to murder her hubby is implausibly interrupted. Well, plausibility is not THE DISEMBODIED’s strong suit, courtesy of the fumbling screenplay by Jack Townley, whose credits include CRASHING LAS VEGAS, Leo Gorcey’s last film with the Bowery Boys. The Metzes are unexpectedly visited by filmmakers Tom (top-billed Paul Burke) and Norman (Joel Marston), who arrive with the ailing body of their friend Joe (Robert Christopher), the victim of a lion attack.

Dr. Metz works his scientific magic on Joe, but Tonda’s magic is more powerful, using her power as a genuine voodoo queen to put Suba’s soul inside Joe’s body. As if she hasn’t caused enough trouble, Tonda also seduces Tom (it’s very difficult to say no to her) to convince him to take her away from the jungle. Her behavior is frustratingly erratic, though it seems to be the product of poor screenwriting, rather than an element of her character.

The film is only 66 minutes, so it isn’t a rough sit, just unmemorable. Director Walter Grauman’s style is of the point-and-shoot variety, which favors placing characters in the middle of the 1.85:1 frame and having them stand there. Every frame was shot indoors on a passable jungle soundstage, so don’t look to THE DISEMBODIED for any visual flair. With a silly script to work from, the hard work is left to the actors, who do the best they can, except for Hayes, who does even more.

Grauman (LADY IN A CAGE) made his directorial debut on THE DISEMBODIED. He directed just a handful of features, as he moved quickly into television after THE DISEMBODIED, helming more than one hundred Quinn Martin productions, in addition to many other episodes and TV-movies. He worked again with star Paul Burke, who was just coming off one television series (NOAH’S ARK) before immediately jumping into another (HARBORMASTER). Later starring roles in NAKED CITY and Quinn Martin’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (as a replacement for Robert Lansing) made him a shortlived household name.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Firefox

Clint Eastwood plays a vulnerable man of action in his first big special effects picture.

For the high-tech espionage thriller FIREFOX, a cross between THE IPCRESS FILE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, producer Eastwood hired John Dykstra, who had won an Academy Award for STAR WARS, to create the visual effects. Despite the film’s leisurely pace, overcomplicated storyline, and generally tepid reviews, FIREFOX opened at number-two at the box office (behind E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, which ranks number-one or two every weekend the summer of 1982) and became one of Clint’s biggest hits.

Craig Thomas wrote the 1977 novel upon which FIREFOX is based, and screenwriters Wendell Wellman and Alex Lasker must have had a heckuva battle whittling it to 135 minutes. One way was to jettison the training sequence, condensing three months into just a few minutes of screen time. Mitchell Gant (Eastwood), a ‘Nam vet and former POW suffering from PTSD, is recruited by the CIA and MI6 for a secret mission into the Soviet Union to steal a super-airplane called Firefox.

Firefox is not just faster than any other airplane and invisible to radar, but more spectacularly, it’s controlled by its pilot’s thoughts, allowing it to maneuver and fire its weapons instantaneously. The only American pilot capable of flying Firefox, due to his Russian mother who taught him fluency in the language, Gant infiltrates Moscow under a cover identity (then another, then another…) and, with the help of some Soviet sacrificial lambs, manages (finally) to reach the hangar containing the aircraft.


Eastwood hadn’t released a straight action vehicle since 1979’s ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, which may explain why audiences starved for one queued up to see one that isn’t very good. Bogged down in technobabble dialogue spoken by nondescript white character actors in a variety of accents, FIREFOX is too long and not terribly interesting. Eastwood the actor is fine, using Gant’s PTSD to reveal a vulnerable chink in his heroic persona, though his breakdowns are a little conveniently timed for melodramatic effect.

Eastwood the director, however, is not working to his star’s level, and neither are Dykstra’s visual effects. His company, Apogee, was experimenting with different ways to photograph models. Considering Eastwood was directing with his largest budget to date, the visual effects are just okay, but pale next to those in E.T., STAR TREK II, and the other major studio science fiction movies of 1982.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Maniac Cop 2 / Maniac Cop 3: Badge Of Silence

MANIAC COP, directed by William Lustig (VIGILANTE) and scripted by producer Larry Cohen (GOD TOLD ME TO), is a very good thriller, a clever blend of horror, action, and black humor. 1990's direct-to-video MANIAC COP 2 is the rare sequel that’s just as good, probably better than the original. Cohen and Lustig are back, as are Bruce Campbell (BURN NOTICE) and Laurene Landon (I, THE JURY), who play cop lovers, and—very importantly—stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, who had a higher budget this time to stage bigger stunts, bigger chases, and bigger crashes.

Supernatural psycho cop Matt Cordell (super-chin Robert Z’Dar), the scarfaced slaughterer last seen sinking to a water grave at the end of MANIAC COP, is unsurprisingly revived and ready to wipe out more innocent New Yorkers. He has a partner this time, Steven Turkell (Leo Rossi), a bearded serial killer who targets exotic dancers.

On the case are hardboiled detective Sean McKinney (Robert Davi, fresh off playing the Bond villain in LICENSE TO KILL) and police shrink Susan Riley (THE HIDDEN stripper Claudia Christian). The story expands a little on the Cordell backstory served up in dollops in the first movie, while concocting cool setpieces for Lustig and Razatos to create—one highlight being Riley handcuffed to a runaway car…from the outside of it.

Also back for this sequel are cinematographer James Lemmo (RELENTLESS) and composer Jay Chattaway (MISSING IN ACTION), who provide much-needed continuity to Lustig’s tale and help make Cohen’s $4.1 million budget look like triple the cost. The murders aren’t excessively gory, as the emphasis is on action, but they’re inventively staged for a good time.

Production problems led Lustig, who had helmed the first two MANIAC COPs, to quit during production of 1993's MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE and turn the reins over to producer Joel Soisson (later the director of direct-to-video PROPHECY, PULSE, and CHILDREN OF THE CORN sequels), who receives a credit for “Additional Scenes.” Thanks to producer Larry Cohen’s corpse-filled screenplay and the stellar work by stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, both of whom also worked on the earlier films, MANIAC COP 3 has some entertainment value, though it’s also clear the gimmick of an unstoppable killer cop had run its course.

The change in directors and the off-screen difficulties are evident in the obvious padding, including a silly dream sequence and extraneous dialogue given to unimportant supporting characters, and the use of stock footage to fill holes in the story (some shots from MANIAC COP are used for the third time!). Cohen’s plot is overly involved this time, bringing in a voodoo priest (Harris) to resurrect maniac Matt Cordell (Z’Dar again, though who else could play the role?) from the dead and send him out to kill more people.

Cordell has a purpose this time. Learning of a young police officer named Katie Sullivan (Gretchen Becker) who was shot during a robbery attempt that left her brain-dead and falsely accused of murder, the Maniac Cop sees her as a kindred soul and sets out to avenge her. Sullivan’s involvement brings Lieutenant Sean McKinney (Davi), the cop who chased Cordell in MANIAC COP 2, into the case.

That Razatos received a rare credit card during the opening titles (as he did in MANIAC COP 2) says much about his importance to this film. With an inferior story and draggy direction, the action and kill scenes have to be strong counterbalances and, fortunately for the film, they are. The car chase that climaxes the film, which features stuntman Andy Gill on fire for the entire length of the chase, is one of cinema’s most underrated.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Maniac Cop

"You have the right to remain silent...forever!" read the original tagline for MANIAC COP, a fast-moving action/horror flick with a subversive sense of humor.

It was written by Larry Cohen, who virtually created his own subgenre of witty monster pictures with independent hits like GOD TOLD ME TO, IT’S ALIVE, and the inimitable Q about a winged Aztec serpent that plucks bathing beauties off New York rooftops and carries them back to its lair in the Chrysler Building. Cohen screenplays have their own unique rhythm and humor, and MANIAC COP is no exception.

Cohen, who frequently directed his scripts, stuck to producing MANIAC COP and handed the directorial reins to William Lustig, who demonstrated a flair for gritty violence on MANIAC (which is marked by Tom Savini’s splashy gore effects and an off-kilter lead performance by TAXI DRIVER actor Joe Spinell) and VIGILANTE. Like Cohen, Lustig had a penchant for casting venerable cult actors with minor mainstream acceptance, but strong acting chops who knew how to go beyond the script to flesh out their characters.

White-haired Tom Atkins, who built his horror cred on THE FOG and the underrated HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, takes top billing as Frank McCrae, a lone wolf police detective investigating a series of brutal murders in New York City. Despite flack from the police commissioner (SHAFT’s Richard Roundtree) and his superior officer (William Smith, Arnold’s dad in CONAN THE BARBARIAN), McCrae steadfastly adheres to his theory that the killer, whom witnesses describe wearing a policeman’s uniform, is a cop, rather than someone in disguise.

His theory starts to bear weight when patrolman Jack Forrest (EVIL DEAD’s Bruce Campbell), whose wife is the latest victim, is arrested for being the Maniac Cop. However, Jack’s lover, vice cop Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon of Cohen’s I, THE JURY), was with Jack when his wife was murdered. Theresa convinces McCrae of Forrest’s innocence and teams up with the older cop to find the real killer.

Cohen’s script contains its fair share of offbeat touches and clever twists, which I won’t reveal. His villain is based in the classic tradition of the Phantom of the Opera and the Frankenstein monster. Matt Cordell, played by beefy, big-jawed Robert Z’Dar (TANGO & CASH), was a good but tough cop who was railroaded by the force into prison, where he was slashed by inmates and left for dead. Now physically scarred and mentally insane, Cordell walks the streets in search of vengeance against a city that betrayed him.

Z’Dar isn’t given much of a chance to act, but he’s imposing. Lustig and cinematographer James Lemmo (FEAR CITY) make the limited budget look bigger by using fluid camerawork, swift pacing, and relying on stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos to concoct some exceptional action sequences. Appearances by Sheree North, boxer Jake LaMotta, local folk hero Frank Pesce, and SPIDER-MAN director Sam Raimi add extra flair for cult-movie fans. James Glickenhaus, the writer and director of THE EXTERMINATOR, was the executive producer.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Gas House Kids "In Hollywood"

Monogram had the Bowery Boys, so that studio’s Poverty Row rival PRC created the Gas House Kids. It’s impossible to imagine a more blatant ripoff of the Bowery Boys, as well as a duller one. The four actors director Edward L. Cahn (CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN) and producer Sam Baerwitz cast in their low-budget comedy may have been skilled child actors, but as adults, they’re either obnoxious hams or they don’t register at all. One of them, Benny Bartlett, actually went on to become a Bowery Boy in a couple dozen films, but I bet you can’t remember anything he ever said or did in them.

In addition to Bartlett, who plays Orvie, the Gas House Kids are Rudy Wissler as Scat, former Our Ganger Tommy Bond as Chimp, and perhaps the most famous of all Little Rascals, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, as Alfie. He’s apparently the Huntz Hall of the kids, except he lacks comic timing, charisma, and any chemistry with his co-stars. Alfalfa turned twenty the year this film came out, and whatever ability he had as a child to tickle an audience had long disappeared.

Written by Robert E. Kent, a frequent Cahn collaborator, the script for THE GAS HOUSE KIDS “IN HOLLYWOOD” (no, I don’t know why the quotation marks are in the title) is reminiscent of the Bowery Boys’ and East Side Kids’ thin plots, except those programmers knew better than to stop the action and comedy so one of them (Wissler here) could croon a tune. Cahn, who directed both Bond and Switzer in Our Gang comedies, was probably a good choice to helm the picture, as he had a knack for making entertaining films on tight budgets and schedules.

Kent packs his script with plot, not a bad plan if you’re afraid to let your hacky cast carry the picture. It’s partially a haunted house movie, so you can bet one of the kids will see a hand with a knife reach through a secret panel that none of his friends will see. Alfie, Chimp, Orvie, and Scat, on their way to Hollywood to meet their favorite movie cop, Lance Carter (Michael Whalen), give a ride to mad scientist Crawford (Milton Parsons) and encounter the usual clich├ęs, including disappearing corpses, ghosts, gangsters, inept cops, floating skeletons, and hidden treasure.

IN HOLLYWOOD was the third and final Gas House Kids comedy for PRC, after THE GAS HOUSE KIDS and THE GAS HOUSE KIDS GO WEST (interesting that two of the three took the Kids out of their native New York). It’s unlikely anyone noticed that there weren’t any more, particularly when they could count on seeing a new Bowery Boys flick on a double bill every five months.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Escape From L.A.

John Carpenter’s sequel to 1981’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK assembles a darn good cast, but wastes it on a story that basically repeats the original film, right down to the duplication of certain scenes and dialogue. Instead of New York, snarling antihero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, who didn’t age much in fifteen years) hits Los Angeles, which was separated from the continental United States by a tremendous earthquake and is now—you got it—the shipping destination for the criminals, freaks, and malcontents deemed unworthy by the federal government.

As before, Plissken is captured, infected with a deadly virus that will kill him if he doesn’t complete his mission in time, and sent by prison warden Stacy Keach (FAT CITY) into L.A. to rescue—not the President—but the daughter of the fundamentalist Chief Executive (Cliff Robertson). Along the way, again just like in NEW YORK, Plissken meets a colorful bunch of weirdos played by a cult-movie lover’s dream cast: Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Michael Forbes, Pam Grier, Robert Carradine, Valeria Golino, and Bruce Campbell included.

The screenplay, credited to Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and Russell, not only copies the exact same story from NEW YORK, but also the structure, catchphrases, and nihilism, which played differently in 1996 than it did in 1981. Plissken also has to retrieve a McGuffin—a “black box”—like the cassette tape from NEW YORK. Unfortunately, what seemed fresh and funny and exciting the first time around plays like limp linguini this time.

Doubly frustrating are the visual effects, which cost several times the effects created by New World in the first picture, but somehow managed to come out abominably. A scene of Russell and Fonda surfing a monster wave (!) is one of the worst visual effects sequences I’ve ever seen and should not have been allowed to survive the final cut. Beyond the novelty of recognizing actors you love (Leland Orser, George Corraface, Peter Jason, and A.J. Langer are there too) and a surprising downbeat ending, there is nothing to recommend in ESCAPE FROM L.A. Even Russell, who produced with Hill, seems disinterested.