Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Turkey Shoot (1982) aka Escape 2000

This brutal Australian action movie was ravaged by critics Down Under who weren’t used to seeing such homegrown malice and gory mayhem on their screens. In the United States, more than ten minutes of violence were snipped out of the picture by New World Pictures before it hit theaters as the R-rated ESCAPE 2000. Many of those who worked it, including director Brian Trenchard-Smith (DEAD-END DRIVE-IN), appear embarrassed to have contributed to it. No doubt, TURKEY SHOOT is a mean-spirited picture and a lively variation on Richard Connell’s celebrated story “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Sadist Thatcher (Michael Craig, who was in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) is the cruel commander of a prison camp, where so-called “deviants”—those unwilling to conform to the government’s will—are sentenced to be “rehabilitated” through rape and torture. Among the newest inmates are Chris (ROMEO & JULIET’s Olivia Hussey), a beautiful innocent, and escape artist Paul (THE STUNT MAN’s Steve Railsback), whose antisocial behavior includes broadcasting messages of freedom over a pirate radio station. Paul, Chris, and three others are chosen for Thatcher’s personal “turkey shoot,” where they are released into the surrounding wilderness on foot to be hunted like game by the commandant’s bloodthirsty aristocrat friends.

Trenchard-Smith could have used a bigger budget (I like my explosions bigger and brighter than those engineered by special effects artist John Stears here), but TURKEY SHOOT is crazy, violent fun from beginning to end. All of the performers—from Hussey’s doe-in-headlights to Craig’s of-course-I-know-how-silly-this-is archness—seem to be working on different wavelengths, which is a somewhat fitting approach to this comic-book Utopia of the not-too-distant future. It’s easy to understand why critics were so eager to lay into it, since the director’s approach to the story’s violence shows no fear of excess—machetes split skulls, hands are lopped off, multiple arrows penetrate bodies, one casualty goes down as the most impressive exploding body I’ve ever seen. Trenchard-Smith claims TURKEY SHOOT to be a subtle form of black comedy, although I find it hilarious only in its over-the-top violence. But that’s good enough for me.

The terrible score is by Brian May (THE ROAD WARRIOR). Trenchard-Smith’s budget and shooting schedule were slashed by approximately one-third just days before principal photography. TURKEY SHOOT was titled BLOOD CAMP THATCHER in England, hoping no doubt to capitalize on the unpopularity of ultra-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Filmed in Queensland and in a Sydney park. 2014’s ELIMINATION GAME was an Australian remake with Dominic Purcell (PRISON BREAK) in the lead and former TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond as Thatcher.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Boys From Brazil

It seems crazy, looking back at THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, that the Academy nominated it for three Academy Awards. Based on a helluva page-turner by Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY), this “gripping, suspenseful drama” (per VARIETY) is an absurd conspiracy movie with a plot right outta Spy Smasher comic books. It’s deliciously good fun and features juicy leading roles for major movie stars Gregory Peck (MOBY DICK) and Laurence Olivier (MARATHON MAN), who picked up a Best Actor Oscar nod (film editor Robert Swink and composer Jerry Goldsmith earned the film’s other nominations).

Levin and screenwriter Heywood Gould (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) would have us believe that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (Peck, playing a rare villain) is alive and well in Paraguay, where he commands a sizable force of Third Reichers ready and willing to do anything to advance their cause. Mengele’s plan involves the assassinations of 94 civil service workers all over the world—all of whom are in their mid-60s with a younger wife and a son approaching his teens.

Mengele, who thinks long-term, created 94 clones of Adolf Hitler twelve years earlier and placed them with families that most closely duplicate the environment in which the real Hitler grew up. Well, of course the odds are in favor of one of them growing up to be the next Fuhrer, or so the bad doctor believes. Aging Nazi-hunter Lieberman (Olivier) discovers Mengele’s fiendish plot, takes it seriously when no one else does (including us), and follows the trail to Europe and finally a bloody farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Gould’s script follows Levin’s best seller closely, including its clunky dialogue (“You whacked-out maniac!”) and plot implausibilities. Peck seems to be having a good time, always clad in a white suit, over-emoting (“Shut up, you ugly bitch!”) and lip-smacking like Ming the Merciless. Never the most expressive of actors, he certainly goes to town here. Olivier, on the other hand, brings a great deal of sensitivity, intensity, warmth, and humor to his part. Neither Olivier nor Peck takes the pulpy material more seriously than it deserves, pitching their performances to the perfect level.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) had no problem luring name actors to sign on to the lunacy (“Who would believe such a preposterous story?” Lieberman asks), though that may be more due to Sir Lew Grade’s checkbook than any love for the material. James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) as a Nazi who chickens out on Mengele’s plan allows us to witness the joy of him trading silly German accents with Peck. Lilli Palmer and Uta Hagen are also along for the ride, as is a young Steve Guttenberg (POLICE ACADEMY), whose amateur sleuthing gets the plot rolling. More painful than funny is the horrible acting by young Jeremy Black, who is embarrassingly bush league, playing the clones. He must have been somebody’s nephew.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is ridiculous, of course, just like the novel, but its irresistible premise, professional pacing (Schaffner stages an elaborate killing just when you’re itching for one), and enjoyable hambone acting make it easy to swallow. Schaffner and Gould keep Levin’s climax, which is rather low-key by the standards of most thrillers. However, Peck, Olivier, and John Dehner as a racist Doberman trainer play it for black humor, leading to an unconventional close.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Enemy Territory

One of Empire Pictures’ rare gems, ENEMY TERRITORY is a low-budget thriller starring the unlikely action duo of Gary Frank, who played sensitive son Willie on TV’s FAMILY (he won an Emmy for it), and Ray Parker Jr., the guy who composed and performed the GHOSTBUSTERS song.

Produced right at Empire’s peak (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, ELIMINATORS, ZONE TROOPERS, and TRANCERS also hit theaters around this time), ENEMY TERRITORY features gritty cinematography by future director Ernest Dickerson (SURVIVING THE GAME), a smart script co-written by mystery novelist Stuart Kaminsky, and brisk direction by Empire house jack-of-all-trades Peter Manoogian (THE DUNGEONMASTER). Interestingly, its premise of an Everyman trapped in a skyscraper invaded by murderous gang members predates DIE HARD, though it seems likely the production was somewhat influenced by Roberta Findlay’s vicious TENEMENT.

Frank stars as a down-on-his-luck insurance agent named Barry who is sent to the decrepit Lincoln Towers in the projects to collect a policy on a 70-year-old woman. White people are, let’s say, discouraged from entering the area after dark, and it doesn’t take long for Barry to run afoul of the Vampires black street gang, Their leader, who calls himself The Count (CANDYMAN’s Tony Todd) and calls Barry “The Ghost,” dispatches the building’s security guard (Tiger Haynes, who is great), leaving Barry to fend for himself on an upper floor.

Thankfully, the Ghost rummages up a few allies, including telephone repairman Will (Parker), the elderly Elva Briggs (Frances Foster), her granddaughter Toni (Stacey Dash, now a Fox News presence), and Parker, a paranoid, crippled Vietnam vet played in a tricked-out wheelchair with vim and vigor by Jan-Michael Vincent in one of his strongest post-AIRWOLF roles.

If a thriller is only as strong as its villain, then props to Todd, who is frightening and believably psychotic without going over the top. An effectively grimy location contributes to the claustrophobic mood set by Manoogian, and Kaminsky and co-writer Bobby Liddell’s occasional drops of social commentary add weight without coming off as preachy. An atypical Empire film without monsters, aliens, time travel, or robots, ENEMY TERRITORY ranks among the shortlived studio’s finest accomplishments.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Airport '77

From top to bottom, this Universal disaster movie contains one of the most star-studded casts ever assembled. Too bad it’s for something this dopey. At 113 minutes, AIRPORT ‘77 gives most of the big names a scene or two of their own, and it gives Christopher Lee one of the best roles he ever had in a Hollywood movie.

The only connecting thread between Universal’s four AIRPORT movies — besides an air disaster, of course — is George Kennedy (COOL HAND LUKE) as good ol’ Joe Patroni, who may have been a good luck charm for executive producer Jennings Lang, but not so much for fictional airports. The screenplay by SKYWAY TO DEATH’s Michael Scheff and David Spector from a story by H.A.L. Craig (ANZIO) and Charles Kuenstle (THE ASTRONAUT) manages to combine three hot Seventies trends — disaster flicks, airplane hijackings, and the Bermuda Triangle — but remains all wet to the end, just like the cast.

Still, watching these actors go through these motions has entertainment value, and all are professional enough to give it their best. Top-billed Jack Lemmon (THE ODD COUPLE) is indeed quite good carrying the action as the captain of a private 747 owned by wealthy art collector James Stewart (HARVEY). Lemmon is flying Stewart’s pretty pictures from Washington, D.C. to Palm Beach, but three ne’er-do-wells hijack the jetliner, which crashes in the Caribbean and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Full of passengers in various stages of freakout, the plane remains intact, but for how long? Help from the U.S. Navy is on the way, but can Lemmon and engineer Darren McGavin (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER) keep everyone calm until then? Most of the fun comes in guessing who will survive the disaster based on their backstory. Black bartender (Robert Hooks) whose wife is expecting twins? Blind singer (Tom Sullivan) falling in love with a winsome passenger (Kathlee Quinlan)? Bitchy alcoholic (Lee Grant) having an affair with her husband’s young assistant (Gil Gerard)? Tune in and see! Also floating about: Brenda Vaccaro, Robert Foxworth, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Monte Markham, Michael Pataki, James Booth, Pamela Bellwood, Arlene Golonka, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Director Jerry Jameson’s other credits include SUPERDOME, THE DEADLY TOWER, and HURRICANE, making him the go-to guy for destruction and mayhem, but not on too big a scale. AIRPORT ‘77 feels less directed than assembled, though Jameson’s talent for keeping the trains running on time gives the film a watchable sheen. It somehow earned Oscar nominations for its unspectacular costumes and art direction. The special effects, stunts, and Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings are good. NBC added over an hour to the running time for AIRPORT ‘77’s network premiere in 1978.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Mummy And The Curse Of The Jackals

THE MUMMY AND THE CURSE OF THE JACKALS is a totally whack low-budget chiller as dorky as the title indicates. Star Anthony Eisley, who had one helluva 1969 (he also made THE MIGHTY GORGA and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN that year, and it’s a tossup as to which of the three films is the worst), later claimed 66-year-old director Oliver Drake was senile.

Eisley, who was a handsome, competent, likable leading man who gained fame as a suave private eye opposite Robert Conrad in the HAWAIIAN EYE television series, is miscast as archeologist David Barrie, the unhinged discoverer of two ancient Egyptian sarcophagi in a plane crash outside Las Vegas. He drags them back to his shack, where he falls uncomfortably in love with the 4000-years-dead Princess Akanna (Marliza Pons), who comes back to life and strikes David with a curse that turns him into a were-jackal during a full moon.

While Eisley’s stunt double in a ridiculous hairy jackal head stumbles around Vegas killing cops (Eisley said he was supposed to play the Jackal-Man, but talked his stuntman into it, and the director never knew the difference), the other sarcophagus reveals a hilariously fat mummy that waddles around like Fred Sanford and kills a stripper. Unpaid extras laugh as the mummy wanders the streets of Las Vegas—probably not the reaction Drake intended. Eventually, the two monsters meet in a climactic surf showdown that had me wondering what those moth-eaten costumes must have smelled like when wet.

Oh yeah, John Carradine shows up (of course he does) for a day and a quick buck for no reason the plot requires. Produced by the shortlived Vega International Pictures, MUMMY was never released theatrically and, according to Eisley, never finished. It stunk up a vault someplace until Academy Home Entertainment put it out on VHS in 1985 in a cropped, squeezed, murky-looking print. Drake, who bounced around Hollywood for decades as a writer and director of B-westerns and LASSIE episodes, had penned THE MUMMY’S CURSE for Universal in the 1940s. He went on to direct two sex films before retiring.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Elves

Well, it just stands to reason that Grizzly Adams would eventually star in a Christmas horror movie as a homeless Santa Claus fighting a Nazi elf. That’s right: elf. Despite the title, the cheapo producers of this Action International Pictures release didn’t hand out enough dough to make a bunch of elf puppets or body suits or animatronics, so we’re left to scream in terror at one frozen-faced elf doll. And though we’re treated to the sight of a stiff elf hand cutting the nads off a pervy, cokehead department-store Santa, ELVES still manages to be inept, joyless, and sadly lacking even a pinch of cinematic frankincense and myrrh.

Teenage Kirsten (Julie Austin) is as meanspirited as this movie, the kind of girl who wastes her break at her crummy waitressing job so she and her friends can “goof on Santa.” It’s hard to blame her for being unlikable, considering she’s trapped at home with a kid brother who spies on her showers, a mother (Deanna Lund) who drowns the family cat in the toilet, and a grandfather (Borah Silver) who is a Nazi. We’ll get to that soon enough.

Kirsten and her equally Christmas-hating friends throw a seance in the woods and — unbeknownst to the trio — unleash an elf from the grave. It follows Kirsten to work, where it slices up the afore-mentioned cokehead Santa, the first of the film’s bloody but inertly staged murders. Director Jeff Mandel (ROBO-C.H.I.C.) is no director, and his ridiculous-looking elf is no scary monster.

So, yeah, Grandfather is a Nazi, but he’s even worse than that (if that’s possible). He’s not just Kirsten’s grandfather, but also her father. He raped his daughter (Lund) when she was 16 and made her pregnant. During World War II, he and his colleagues genetically engineered the elf to breed with the virginal Kirsten 30 years later on Christmas Eve and create the Anti-Christ. That’s how I read it, though I can’t be to blame for Mandel’s incoherent screenplay and direction.

Back to Grizzly Adams aka star Dan Haggerty. He plays Mike McGavin, a homeless alcoholic ex-cop who wanders around with a carton of Camels in his coat pocket and takes over as the store Santa. Haggerty is charming enough that you believe he could have killed in this part if he wanted to, but he seems to be more focused on making sure his Camel stays lit than in emoting.

McGavin gets involved when, while sacking out in the rear of the store, he overhears Kirsten and her friends frolicking after hours, trying on lingerie while waiting on some boys to arrive. Instead of their dates, a couple of Nazis break in to collect Kirsten, leading to the world’s dullest after-hours gun battle.

Mandel’s incompetence goes beyond the inept special effects, incoherent plotting, and lackluster performances. Even the movie’s lone nude scene fails to adequately hide the face of Deanna Lund’s body double. Perhaps Mandel thought nobody would be looking at her face anyway (three years later, the fiftysomething Lund had no qualms popping her top for director Gary Graver’s tawdry thriller ROOTS OF EVIL).

The only thing in ELVES’ favor, aside from Haggerty, I suppose, is that it’s crazy, which means it’s unpredictable. The story makes no sense, so it’s impossible to guess where it’s going. I know “merging the virginal child/grandchild with a Nazi elf to impregnate her with the seed of a master race” wasn’t on my radar. So, crazy, yes, but also stupid, confusing, laughable, and — somehow — boring.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

To All A Goodnight

I love the title, but little else about this seasonal slasher directed by David Hess, the star of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and written by Alex Rebar, the star of THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. How inept is TO ALL A GOODNIGHT? It casts Jennifer Runyon as the plain, hideous girl who can’t get a date. It shows a killer screaming, “Diiiiiiiiie!” And it doesn’t know that AIRPLANE! put a capper on scenes of men slapping hysterical women and telling them to snap out of it.

Some bitchy sorority sisters and their equally dickish boyfriends, spending the night together in the sorority house while the rest of the campus is home for Christmas break, are stalked and slashed by a killer in a Santa suit. Two years earlier, a sorority sister accidentally fell off a balcony to her death, so obviously some kids must pay. Eventually, only the virgin (Jennifer Runyon) and the nerd (Forrest Swanson) are left to unmask the murderer. Is it Ralph the crazy Bible-thumping handyman? The canola-baking neighbor lady? The housemother? One of the students? The pilot of the private plane that brought the boys to campus played by porn legend Harry Reems?

The idea of a killer Santa Claus was still somewhat fresh at the time, though I don’t think Hess emphasizes the novelty as much as it deserves. As the Final Girl, Runyon gives her first motion picture her all, though she made a better impression later in GHOSTBUSTERS, UP THE CREEK, and CHARLES IN CHARGE, as well as one of the BRADY BUNCH reunions. Her acting is bad, but so is everyone else’s. Stan Samshak as a police chief wearing a loud sports jacket is laughably bad, particularly the scene in which he describes a victim’s prison record while cupping Runyon’s chin in his hand.

Shot in ten days around Loyola Marymount University and obviously inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, GOODNIGHT is not a good film, but it boasts an impressive body count and draws laughter with its absurd twist-upon-a-twist ending. Hess never directed another feature and probably didn’t deserve to based on his clunky handling of this one. The gore and skin content indicate Hess knew what his audience wanted. He just didn’t have the talent to parlay his knowledge into an exciting, interesting thriller.

Rocky

The story behind Sylvester Stallone’s star-making sleeper hit is well known. Struggling actor writes a kitchen sink drama about a third-rate Philadelphia boxer, refuses to sell it to a studio unless he can play the leading role, film gets made by producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler for United Artists, becomes the most popular release of 1976 and nominated for ten Academy Awards. ROCKY won three Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Picture in one of the strongest categories of all time. If you wanted to argue ROCKY isn’t as good as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, BOUND FOR GLORY, NETWORK, or TAXI DRIVER, you’d obviously have some strong points in your favor. But ROCKY is a great film.

Two of those Academy Award nominations went to Stallone for his screenplay and his performance as Rocky Balboa, a good man who believes hard work, determination, and a will to succeed are all you need to capture your dreams. And he’s right. First seen punching it up in smoke-filled rooms for forty bucks a fight away from his day job as a thumb-breaker for loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell), Rocky begins a tentative romance with shy pet-store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire) on the way to his big break. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the world’s heavyweight champion, agrees to give the unknown Balboa a shot at the title, so Rocky hires crusty Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who always believed Rocky had wasted his potential, to get him in shape.

ROCKY spawned six sequels, including 2015’s CREED, which featured Stallone in a supporting role as Rocky training Apollo’s illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) for the title. That audiences loved Sly and this character so much is no mystery. Americans love underdogs, sure, but Stallone’s heart and soul went into this picture. No matter how cartoonish or excessive the sequels got (Rocky buys a damn robot butler in ROCKY IV), Rocky’s underlying decency was always there. In addition to Stallone, Shire and Meredith also receiving Oscar nods for their acting, as did Burt Young, in the running for worst ever Oscar-nominated actor, for his mumbling and fumbling as Paulie, Rocky’s friend and Adrian’s brother. Somehow, the Academy overlooked Bill Conti’s iconic score, but not his theme song, “Gonna Fly Now.” Virtually the entire cast returned for ROCKY II with Stallone also directing in addition to writing and starring.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Star Trek, "Court Martial"

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the alt.tv.startrek.tos newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

COURT MARTIAL
Episode 20 of 80
February 2, 1967
Teleplay: Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos
Story: Don M. Mankiewicz
Director: Marc Daniels

“Court Martial” is one of the most dated STAR TREK episodes. After 25 years of LAW & ORDER shows, as well as series like L.A. LAW, THE PRACTICE, MURDER ONE, etc., we
know so much about how trials and the law work that it's hard to ignore the gaps in procedure in this episode. Plus it's not a very STAR TREK-y plot — it would work for just about any other action/adventure on TV. A series like STAR TREK deserves more imaginative plots and ideas, not standard courtroom drama. However, “Court Martial” is entertaining and features nice acting by the regular cast.

Joan Marshall, whose most interesting performance was under the name Jean Arless in William Castle’s HOMICIDAL, work in “Court Martial” as the attorney prosecuting Captain Kirk (William Shatner) seriously mars this episode. Her performance is stilted and unbelievable. She is beautiful and mature though, and I believe a younger Jim Kirk would fall for her. Richard Webb (CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) is too over-the-top, even for this series.

But Elisha Cook, Jr. as Kirk’s old-fashioned defense attorney is terrific (“Books, my young friend. Books!”). It has been said that he was hard for directors to work with as he advanced in age, because he wasn't able to remember his lines anymore and had to shoot them one at a time or read cue cards. He has some long speeches in this episode though, and appears to spout them off just fine.

The ship's quartermaster must hate Captain Kirk. Kirk's always getting his clothes torn up. He goes through more shirts...

The show's stunt players are almost always good, but why can't they find one who at least sort of kind of resembles William Shatner? You can spot these stuntmen a mile away...

What do they call it? A "white sound analyzer?”? To quote McCoy, "In a pig's eye!" That, my friends, is a common, everyday microphone.

Writer Don Mankiewicz’s father was Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote CITIZEN KANE with Orson Welles. Story editor Steven Carabatsos and producer Gene Coon polished Mankiewicz’s original script.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Werewolf Woman

Call me uncouth if you want, but any film that opens with a fully nude woman dancing maniacally inside a ring of fire? It has my attention.

Dimension released WEREWOLF WOMAN in the United States in 1976 as THE LEGEND OF THE WOLF WOMAN, and anyone looking for hearty portions of violence and sex is sure to be pleased with it.

French starlet Annik Borel, whose credits miraculously include both this and the sitcom THE ODD COUPLE, plays a dual role. She’s Daniela, a young woman emotionally damaged by a rape at age thirteen. She also plays her 18th century ancestor, the afore-mentioned nude dancer who was burned at the stake for being a werewolf. Daniela starts to believe she is also a werewolf with her first victim being her brother-in-law.

WEREWOLF WOMAN’s exploitation credentials, if you happened to walk into the movie late, are promptly validated in the scene where Daniela masturbates while spying on her sister Elena (Dagmar Lassander) and her brother-in-law Fabian having sex. Fabian follows Daniela outdoors, where she strips and seduces him before tearing his throat out with her teeth and letting his blood drip on her nude body. Director Rino di Silvestro (WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 7) may have few credits, but he seems to have made them count (in a scene in which Daniela freaks out in her hospital bed, di Silvestro makes sure her gown flips up to reveal her pubic hair).

Despite the string of bodies Daniela leaves behind, the film works hard to put the audience on her side. After two more sexual assaults (!) and the murder of her stuntman boyfriend (who appears to live in a fake western town), the tone shifts from horror to rape-revenge. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the increasingly feral Daniela as she tracks down her rapists and murders them. Frederick Stafford, the star of Hitchcock’s TOPAZ, must have wondered what his agent got him into as he indifferently plays the policeman on Daniela’s trail.