Saturday, August 19, 2017

Howling II...Your Sister Is a Werewolf

Many films are bad, but few are as notoriously bad as HOWLING II...YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. From its dumb title to its dubious connection to the original (excellent) film to the famous closing credits that repeat Sybil Danning’s topless scene 17 times (!), HOWLING II is rightfully reviled for reasons that have little to do with the story, special effects, or acting, which are bad. It claims to be based on Gary Brander’s novel HOWLING II, but even though Brandner (who also wrote the novel THE HOWLING was based on) shares a screenplay credit with Robert Sarno (DECOY), it really has nothing to do with the book (nor did THE HOWLING).

Filmed primarily in Prague and Los Angeles, HOWLING II stars Christopher Lee from Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies as an investigator of the occult who appears at the funeral of L.A. television journalist Karen White, the character played by Dee Wallace in THE HOWLING. Lee tells Karen’s brother, played by former Captain America Reb Brown (who screams a lot — his trademark), and Karen’s colleague, Annie McEnroe (BEETLEJUICE), that the dead woman (Wallace did not reprise her role) is a werewolf. They tell Lee to go pound sand.

Eventually, they come around, though, and accompany Lee to Transylvania to help him take out a voluptuous 10,000-year-old werewolf queen named Stirba. Stirba is played by a game Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), who spends much of the film covered in fur, including a ridiculous three-way werewolf sex scene that has to be seen to be believed. Though he, of course, is not involved in the sex scene, Lee’s casting is of immense importance to HOWLING II, because he brings such a stern countenance and gravitas to the film that you believe he believes it.

The werewolves’ powers are poorly defined, like maybe director Philippe Mora (THE BEAST WITHIN) never heard of werewolves before. Danning can shoot animated rays from her fingertips that cause a man’s eyes to explode out of his head. Which is pretty sweet, but doesn’t belong in this movie. And it’s hardly the strangest thing to happen in HOWLING II, which plays like Mora throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

Little of it does, though nobody can argue that HOWLING II is boring. Certainly not a case to be made against a film where someone throws a midget through a window and impales him on an iron fence, and it — again — is not the weirdest thing that happens. Maybe it’s the ending where McEnroe and Brown ask a priest who looks like Neil Simon to come over for a drink.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Deadly Takeover aka Deadly Outbreak

One of many DIE HARD-influenced thrillers to flood the direct-to-video market during the 1990s, DEADLY TAKEOVER (also seen in some markets as DEADLY OUTBREAK) is a strong showcase for Jeff Speakman.

The kenpo expert dropped down to DTV after his two theatrical vehicles, THE PERFECT WEAPON and STREET KNIGHT, failed to light a spark under action audiences. He made THE EXPERT and this back to back for stuntman-turned-director Rick Avery, and there’s no doubt DEADLY TAKEOVER is the superior.

Terrorists led by calm-but-dangerous Ron Silver (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) invade a scientific facility in Tel Aviv, massacre everyone, and demand a canister of deadly toxin they can ransom for half a billion bucks. Unfortunately for Silver, the only survivors — scientist Rochelle Swanson (who receives a special Introducing credit, even though she had already appeared in several films like INDECENT BEHAVIOR II and SECRET GAMES 3), nerdy security man Idan Alterman, and U.S. embassy guard Speakman — have the canister. Now it’s DIE HARD with Speakman crawling around, picking off Silver’s men one at a time and talking smack to their boss over a stolen walkie-talkie.

Derivative for sure, but DEADLY TAKEOVER is also entertaining for unassuming action fans who enjoy humor with their broken glass, car explosions, gun battles, and kung fu. There’s also a lengthy car chase inside a building, which you don’t see every day. Speakman is pretty quick with a quip while dispatching the bad guys (“Your party stinks,” he tells Silver. “Not enough ice cream and way too many clowns.”), and would you believe Avery recycles GET SMART’s old “You’re leaning on my chest” gag? He also has a weird obsession with violence against testicles. After directing two 1995 releases, Avery went back to stunts on A-level films like THE DARK KNIGHT and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Great TV Episodes: One Riot, One Ranger

WALKER, TEXAS RANGER
"One Riot, One Ranger"
April 21, 1993
CBS
Writer: Leigh Chapman (as Louise McCarn)
Director: Virgil W. Vogel

Leigh Chapman, the former actress who penned several television episodes and films, including THE OCTAGON for Chuck Norris, wrote the pilot episode of Norris’ first series. A massive CBS hit for nine seasons, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER got off to an uneasy start. The studio, Cannon, went bankrupt after only three episodes had been completed, so CBS had to bankroll the series beginning with its second season.

The two-hour pilot effectively sets the premise, presenting Norris as Cordell Walker, a taciturn half-Native American and Texas Ranger who investigates a series of fatal bank robberies being masterminded by former CIA agent Marshall Teague (ROAD HOUSE). After his partner is killed during one of the robberies, Walker is reluctantly teamed with Clarence Gilyard Jr. (MATLOCK), a young college-educated Ranger who prefers to look before he leaps. In his off-hours, Norris protects a teenage circus performer who is being harassed by the three rednecks who raped her, which allows Chapman to awkwardly lay out Walker’s backstory. Turns out Walker, Texas Ranger and Batman have the same origin.

Credit veteran director Virgil W. Vogel (THE MOLE PEOPLE) for keeping the action moving quickly. With extra time and money lavished on a pilot, Vogel uses Dutch angles and slick camera moves to complement the many fights, chases, and shootouts, ensuring the series’ standing as one of network television’s most violent at the time. Vogel must have relished filming around Dallas-Fort Worth, which had not been seen much on television (DALLAS filmed in Los Angeles).

Sheree J. Wilson (FRATERNITY VACATION) plays beautiful Assistant D.A. Alex Cahill, Walker’s love interest (and eventual wife at the end of Season Eight); Floyd Red Crow Westerman (HIDALGO) is Walker’s Indian uncle Ray; and Gailard Sartain (HEE HAW) plays retired Ranger C.D. Barnes (he was replaced in the series by the older Noble Willingham). Teague played the heavy in six different WALKER episodes, including the 201st and final one in 2001. Released on VHS as ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977)

The second of three (to date) adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel about man messing around in God’s domain by scientifically changing animals into humans. First done as the horrific ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1932 and later as the troubled THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1996, this 1977 AIP film is better than its reputation. It isn’t scary, however, and the special makeup effects by John Chambers, Dan Striepeke, and Tom Burman are less believable than their landmark work on the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN) stars as Andrew Braddock, a sailor who is shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific. Living there is the mad Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), who experiments on animals while attempting to learn about heredity and find new methods of curing disease. Those experiments have resulted in his test animals mutating into creatures similar to humans that can think like humans. Richard Basehart (RAGE) stands out as their leader, the role played by Bela Lugosi in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

Braddock is, of course, horrified. When he protests too much, Moreau captures him and reverses his procedure in an attempt to regress Braddock into a savage. Braddock has also fallen in love with Moreau’s beautiful ward Maria (I, THE JURY femme fatale Barbara Carrera), who knows only life on the island. Carrera is vapid, but the Nicaraguan-born actress is gorgeous with an exotic look, which makes her perfect for her role as written by the GOIN’ SOUTH team of Al Ramrus and John Herman Shaner. York is quite good and sells the transformation scenes. Lancaster basically coasts on pure movie star charisma, and Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) is wasted as Moreau’s guilt-ridden assistant Montgomery.

Some of the editing is abrupt, perhaps signalling last-minute cutting by AIP. It is unclear in the final film whether Maria is one of Moreau’s test subjects. Of course, she originally was, but the shots that established it were removed before the film’s release by a studio nervous about any hints of bestiality. The excellent score by Laurence Rosenthal (ROOSTER COGBURN) uses strident strings and brass to create a soundscape reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s work on PLANET OF THE APES. Don Taylor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) directed the film in the Virgin Islands, but not particularly well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Foxy Brown

COFFY was a massive hit, so AIP quickly signed writer/director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) and star Pam Grier (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) to make a quasi-sequel. An excellent showcase for Grier’s talents, FOXY BROWN allows her to show off a sensitive side, primarily in scenes with Antonio Fargas (CLEOPATRA JONES) as her turncoat brother, as well as be strong and kick ass.

The erudite Hill may not have preferred working in exploitation, but he made this type of low-budget action movie as well as just about any director in the 1970s. He certainly deserves credit for developing Grier’s sassy screen persona (the two worked together four times, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE in the Philippines).

Kicking off with opening titles sending up the Bond movies, with a leather-clad, cleavage-baring Grier bumping and grinding along with Willie Hutch’s theme song, FOXY BROWN proves to be a slicker, sleazier picture than COFFY. Grier’s Foxy Brown is a tough, sexy, aggressive, independent, and intelligent woman set on revenge after kinky druglords, played by Peter Brown (RAPE SQUAD) and Kathryn Loder (the warden in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), murder her government agent boyfriend (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Terry Carter).

Highlights include a guy getting sliced up by an airplane propeller, Foxy and Juanita Brown (CAGED HEAT) smashing up a lesbian bar (“I got a black belt in bar stools!”), Foxy—while undercover as a prostitute—humiliating a crooked old white judge (Harry Holcombe), Sid Haig’s memorable cameo as a womanizing “airplane driver,” and the “pickle-jar” denouement, a typical example of Hill’s black humor. Hill even provides an extraneous fight scene just to give Bob Minor and his team of black stuntmen a chance to show off.

Loder, a New York stage actress who appeared in only three films, is terrible, but her strange acting style somehow suits Hill’s brash tone. Brown, formerly a regular with William Smith and Neville Brand on LAREDO, bounced between television guest heavies and exploitation films during the 1970s. Grier starred in more AIP movies before deservedly moving into the mainstream, including a guest shot on THE LOVE BOAT. Motown released Hutch’s score as a soundtrack album.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Cherry Falls

Despite a clever premise for a slasher movie, CHERRY FALLS never found a proper audience in the United States. Forced to endure severe cuts to receive an R rating from the MPAA, the film by director Geoffrey Wright (ROMPER STOMPER) bypassed theatrical distribution and made its American debut on — of all places — the USA cable channel. When it first hit DVD, it was on a double-feature disc with a John Ritter TV-movie called TERROR TRACT. A neat little thriller, CHERRY FALLS deserved better treatment, which it finally received as a Scream Factory Blu-ray in 2016.

Written by Ken Selden (WHITE LIES), CHERRY FALLS is set in picturesque Cherry Falls, Virginia, where someone is murdering teenagers. Well, not just any teenagers, just the virgins. To escape the killer’s wrath, the local high school students organize a sex party at an abandoned mansion to get everybody laid.

Meanwhile, one of the virgins, played by Brittany Murphy (CLUELESS), plays amateur sleuth after a close call with the serial killer, thanks to a large plastic shark in the chem lab. By combing through clues and winnowing away the red herrings, she discovers a shocking secret about her father, the local sheriff (THE TERMINATOR’s Michael Biehn), that may solve the mystery.

An interesting spin on the teenage “have sex and die” horror movies then popular in the wake of SCREAM’s massive success, CHERRY FALLS chugs along with clever direction and a game cast that prevent the lurid concept from coming across as tasteless. However, the cuts demanded by the MPAA including the nudity, as well as a gruesome murder seen in the existing picture only in subliminal flash cuts after the fact, remove much of the film’s guts. The film also suffers from a couple of egregious plot holes.

Still, CHERRY FALLS gets a lot of mileage out of the satire in Selden’s screenplay, Murphy’s eccentric turn as Nancy Drew, and Biehn, whose experience playing both heroes and heavies enhances his performance. Although censorship struggles kept Wright’s film out of American theaters, it did play successfully overseas. Wright landed the gig after David Lynch (THE ELEPHANT MAN) and George Armitage (GROSSE POINTE BLANK) turned it down (the studio wanted an arthouse director), but falling behind schedule and over budget and fighting with his cast and cinematographer (DON’T LOOK NOW’s Anthony Richmond, who did a fine job) didn’t endear him to the producers.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Gator

Burt Reynolds, at the time Hollywood’s most popular leading man, picked a safe project for his directing debut. GATOR was the sequel to WHITE LIGHTNING, a United Artists hit that introduced the character of fast-drivin’ good-ol’-boy moonshiner Gator McKlusky, who went undercover with the feds to bust corrupt sheriff Ned Beatty. In the GATOR screenplay once again penned by William W. Norton (BRANNIGAN), McKlusky has a crotchety old pap (John Steadman) and a precocious daughter (Lori Futch), which were meant to humanize his character, but instead make him softer.

Once again, Gator goes undercover to bust a Southern fried bad guy. This time, it’s his old school chum Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a crime boss who forces teenage girls into prostitution and burns down businesses that won’t pay protection. Reed, a country western musician known for crossover hits “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Amos Moses,” is surprisingly chilling as McCall, though later roles would lean on his natural upbeat cornpone charm.

GATOR’s tonal swings from dark violence to slapstick humor are difficult to catch up with, and the film’s length and flabby story make the sequel decidedly inferior to WHITE LIGHTNING. Reynolds has an eye for interesting visuals, despite an unfortunate infatuation with the zoom lens. He went on to direct THE END and SHARKY’S MACHINE, which exhibit more confidence.

The casting of Philadelphia talk show Mike Douglas as an ambitious governor is an interesting gamble that pays off. Jack Weston (THE FOUR SEASONS) is too silly as the federal agent who recruits Gator. Lauren Hutton is a television journalist who romances Gator in a relationship that is pure hokum. GATOR’s best relationship is between Burt and Hal Needham, the stunt coordinator who helped stage the opening speedboat chase (and came within a foot or so of being smushed by a jumping car). Charles Bernstein returns from WHITE LIGHTNING to compose an original score. Reed wrote and performed the cool theme song, “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

White Lightning (1973)

“If you haven’t seen WHITE LIGHTNING, then you haven’t seen Burt Reynolds” cried the one-sheet for this entertaining action flick, which stars Reynolds as Arkansas moonshiner Gator McKlusky. Burt was on his way to becoming the biggest movie star in the U.S. after a decade and a half of TV westerns and cop shows, low-budget and little-seen potboilers, and even an Italian western, NAVAJO JOE, which failed to turn him into the next Clint Eastwood. It was DELIVERANCE, the terrifying adaptation of James Dickey’s best-seller, that turned Reynolds’ career around, and WHITE LIGHTNING was one of his first starring vehicles in its aftermath.

McKlusky, serving a five-year sentence for illegally transporting untaxed whiskey across state lines, is stunned to learn of the death of his younger brother Donnie, to whom Gator wasn’t especially close. Donnie was the first McKlusky to attend college, where he became involved in the protest scene, growing his hair and speaking out against government corruption. Unfortunately, he chose to protest in “the worst county in the world,” redneck Bogen County, Arkansas, which is run by the seemingly benign but actually iron-fisted Sheriff J.C. Connors (Burt’s DELIVERANCE costar Beatty), who has been taking kickbacks from moonshiners for years.

After an escape attempt fails, McKlusky agrees to work undercover for the federal government, getting a job running “shine” while taking notes on the “who’s,” “when’s,” and “where’s” of the illegal whiskey business—a mission that meets with great disapproval from Gator’s own parents, but the only way to bring Connors down. With the help of his outside contact Dude (Matt Clark), a reluctant ally whose broken probation forces him to aid McKlusky, Gator joins up with runner Roy (Bo Hopkins), whose sexy girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) takes a “shine” to the charismatic ex-con.

WHITE LIGHTNING is an excellent showcase for Reynolds. Not only does he get to take off his shirt and squeal tires like a good action star should, but he also shows he’s not just a pretty face with considerable charisma. In particular, a scene in which he eavesdrops on the conversation of a group of starry-eyed college students while internally reflecting on his relationship with his late brother, and another in which he learns the truth behind his brother’s death from a teen mother prove Reynolds’ mettle and the script’s surprising complexity.

The fine screenplay by William Norton (BIG BAD MAMA) is a hearty mix of car chases (executed by stunt coordinator Hal Needham), Gothic atmosphere, filial conflict, and even some social commentary. Director Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) keeps the story moving along at a steady pace, pulling every drop of Southern fried ambiance out of the appropriately grimy locations and assembling a top-notch supporting cast. Sargent also decided wisely to leave in the picture a Needham car stunt that didn’t go quite as planned.

Reynolds’ DELIVERANCE co-star Ned Beatty is too young to play a character who has been the sheriff of Bogen County since Matt Clark was a boy, but he also displays the perfect mix of old-fashioned manners and icy foreboding that makes Connors more than a Clifton James caricature. One can hardly go wrong with Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH) as a violent nut, and Diane Ladd (RAMBLING ROSE) pops up in a scene with daughter Laura Dern (WILD AT HEART). Quentin Tarantino repurposed segments of Charles Bernstein’s excellent score in KILL BILL and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Three years after WHITE LIGHTNING made a mint for United Artists, Reynolds made his directing debut on GATOR, the inferior sequel.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Two Evil Eyes

Originally intended as an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by horror legends George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN), TWO EVIL EYES is a 120-minute film featuring two hour-long stories by Romero and Argento only. To maintain a semblance of continuity, both segments were shot in Pittsburgh using much of the same crew, though considering the Poe tribute that opens the film, it would seem more appropriate to have made it in Baltimore.

In Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” Adrienne Barbeau — who worked previously with Carpenter (THE FOG), Craven (SWAMP THING), and Romero (CREEPSHOW) — stars as Jessica Valdemar, a bitchy trophy wife ready for her elderly husband to finally die so she can cash in. The wealthy Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) is being manipulated hypnotically by Jessica’s former lover, physician Dr. Hoffman (DARK JUSTICE vigilante Ramy Zada), into signing papers transferring his fortune to her. A ghost story of sorts, the segment turns supernatural when the old man’s soul begins haunting his scheming wife from some sort of limbo. E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS) plays Valdemar’s suspicious attorney. Romero’s anachronistic insistence upon the male characters wearing hats is an oddball choice.

Harvey Keitel (BAD LIEUTENANT) plays Rod Usher (!) in Argento’s “The Black Cat,” which is actually an amalgam of several Poe stories. Death-obsessed beret-sporting crime photographer Usher keeps killing things — cats, young women — and hiding them behind the wall in the closet. No amount of bricks can block the mysterious pounding and cat meows that haunt Usher all day and night. John Amos (DIE HARD 2) plays a cop named Legrand (taken from “The Gold Bug”) investigating the disappearance of Usher’s girlfriend (Madeleine Potter). Martin Balsam (PSYCHO) and Kim Hunter (PLANET OF THE APES) play suspicious neighbors.

Argento’s segment is the more stylish, driven by the director’s characteristic gonzo visual style, but also the duller of the two stories. Strangely, Keitel’s performance is a deadly contrast to Argento’s high-energy camera movements and Pino Donaggio’s glitzy score. He never seems to be into the material, and because he begins the story as an angry jerk, his character arc goes from A to B, rather than A to Z. Barbeau gives TWO EVIL EYES’ best performance in a role benefitting from scripter Romero’s multi-layered lead character. Frankly, neither story is particularly scary, with “Valdemar” tame in the violence and gore departments.

Even though TWO EVIL EYES was the only new horror film opening Halloween weekend of 1991, Taurus Entertainment had cold feet, distributing the film to just a handful of American theaters. Even Cannon’s wheezy Chuck Norris actioner THE HITMAN did better per-screen business than this horror film by two of the genre’s giants.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Hellhole

This sleazy cross between a slasher flick and a women-in-prison shocker should be more entertaining than it actually is, especially considering the screenplay is by CHAINED HEAT’s Aaron Butler. HELLHOLE has naked catfighting in the shower room; mad scientists performing illegal brain surgeries; a dungeon; nude women making out; Coleman-lantern-jawed Robert Z’Dar (MANIAC COP) sniffing poppers; and a ridiculous, out-of-control Ray Sharkey performance competing with a cast of actors with impeccable trash-movie resumes. But with a second writer credited with “additional story and new dialogue” and a third writer with “additional dialogue,” as well as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE cutter Bill Butler brought in as an “editorial consultant,” it’s likely HELLHOLE was indelicately cobbled together by too many cooks.

An obviously high Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER), who wears three different hair styles in his first three scenes, takes bad-acting honors as Silk, a sleazebag who kills a middle-aged woman and coerces her buxom daughter Susan (‘80s TV’s resident dumb blonde Judy Landers) off a ledge. The fall doesn’t kill her, which is good, but it turns her into an amnesiac, which is bad. Bad for Silk, because his boss Monroe (Martin Beck) wants some McGuffin papers Susan and her mother had hidden away. Monroe pulls strings to get Susan tossed into his private sanitarium for women.

Meanwhile, in what seems like a separate movie, suspicious orderly Ron Stevens (Richard Cox) snoops around “Hellhole,” where violent inmates are taken to be experimented on by gay necro Dr. Fletcher (DEATH RACE 2000’s Mary Woronov) and sexually repressed Dr. Dane (VIVA KNIEVEL’s Marjoe Gortner). These actors at least know how to spice up material that lays flat on the page, which is more than one can say for airhead Landers. Completely empty everywhere except inside her bra, Landers is a woeful heroine stuck inside a woeful story steered by woeful director Pierre de Moro (SAVANNAH SMILES).

While the prudish Landers stays clothed throughout, Russ Meyer’s ex Edy Williams (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), then in her forties, leads the parade of actresses willing to pop their tops (and bottoms) for a prestige product like HELLHOLE. Director de Moro also landed ILSA star Dyanne Thorne, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s Terry Moore, FROGS’ Lynn Borden, and SAVAGE STREETS’ Carole Ita White to add street cred to his sleaze flick. He was unable to rein in Sharkey, however, who plays the world’s most inept henchman. It’s no wonder he never found those papers.

If HELLHOLE holds any significance (dubious), it’s as the final feature film from executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, who released it to theaters under his Arkoff International Pictures banner. The legendary studio head formed American International Pictures with James Nicholson in the 1950s and made it one of Hollywood’s most successful independent companies before selling out to Filmways in 1979.