Sunday, April 15, 2018

Iron Sky

Concepts don’t really come any higher than this. IRON SKY posits that the Nazis fled Earth near the end of World War II and set up a secret base on the dark side of the Moon. Seventy years later, this lunar “Fourth Reich,” led by Führer Korzfleisch (Udo Kier) and his SS sidekick Adler (Götz Otto), is planning an invasion of Earth, but is surprised when an American space capsule lands nearby. Adler kills one astronaut and takes prisoner the other: an African-American named James Washington (Christopher Kirby).

Unfortunately for the Nazis, they can’t get their giant warship Götterdämmerung to work properly, as their computer technology is still rooted in the 1940s. Discovering Washington’s smartphone, Adler brainwashes Washington, bleaches his hair and skin white (!) to pass for a proper Aryan, and takes a flying saucer to Earth in order to meet U.S. president Sarah Palin (Stephanie Paul) and get more computer phones.

Director Timo Vuorensola plays this for comedy — perhaps wise considering the absurd premise. More than broad comedy, much of the humor is in the form of sharp political satire that doesn’t treat the United States with kid gloves. It’s no surprise the corporations that control film distribution in the United States stayed far away from IRON SKY, which isn’t shy about equating Nazi theology and contemporary right-wing rhetoric, as personified by the American president (who, to be fair, isn’t specifically named Palin, but come on…) and her vulgar campaign manager (Peta Sergeant).

Shot in several different countries on a low budget, reportedly around $10 million, IRON SKY doesn’t have the visual effects money to match its imaginative production design, which includes a moonbase shaped like a giant swastika. The actors are unafraid to tackle the silly concept and sharp anti-American humor head-on with special props going to the very funny Kirby and to top-billed Julia Dietze, who is charming as a Nazi teacher who uses an edited ten-minute cut of Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR to indoctrinate the base’s children.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Next Of Kin

If you can buy Patrick Swayze (following ROAD HOUSE), Liam Neeson (TAKEN), and Bill Paxton (TWISTER) as brothers, then you’ll probably be down for the rest of this Chicago crime drama about Kentucky hillbilly justice. If you can buy Andreas Katsulas (THE FUGITIVE) and Ben Stiller (STARSKY AND HUTCH) as father and son, then you’re pretty easy to please. Helen Hunt (MAD ABOUT YOU) is also here as Swayze’s wife, plus Adam Baldwin (CHUCK) and Michael J. Pollard (TANGO & CASH the same year!), which makes NEXT OF KIN pretty fascinating at times.

As crime drama and action/adventure, NEXT OF KIN is solid but routine with some nice chases and gunfights courtesy of English director John Irvin, who made the mediocre RAW DEAL with Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the stolid yet spooky GHOST STORY, and THE DOGS OF WAR, a violent adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel. Michael Jenning’s screenplay examines the different justice systems in play in Chicago, which is presented as “civilization,” basically, and the back hills of Kentucky, where the Gates family makes its home.

Most of them, at least. Brother Truman Gates (Swayze) left home for the Windy City, where he became a police detective with a pretty, sophisticated wife (Hunt) who plays violin. Youngest brother Gerald (Paxton) finally follows in Truman’s footsteps, but his arrival in Chicago is met with violence in the form of gunman Joey Rossellini (Baldwin) of mobster John Isabella’s (Katsulas) crime family.

Truman, a good cop, is dedicated to finding the murderer, but oldest brother Briar (Neeson) wants more: vengeance. Which gives NEXT OF KIN several different layers to play: brother vs. brother, old-fashioned revenge vs. the letter of the law, fish out of water. Irvin puts together a pretty good chase atop an L train, and the climactic cemetery shootout is laid out with precision and some thrills. NEXT OF KIN was not a hit, earning half of what ROAD HOUSE did at the domestic box office, but Swayze’s next film, GHOST, was an Oscar-winning monster smash.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Devil Within Her

Filmed as I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN and released by AIP in the U.S. as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, this tawdry EXORCIST ripoff compared itself to ROSEMARY’S BABY in its advertising. It’s much closer — in story, not quality — to IT’S ALIVE, as a former stripper played by THE BITCH’s Joan Collins gives birth to a murderous baby.

Back in her peeler days, Joan rebuffed the pawing of slavering dwarf George Claydon (BERSERK), so he put a hex on her first-born child out of revenge, as horny dwarfs are wont to do. On little Nicholas’ first day of life, he claws the hell out of his mother’s face, and soon escalates to shoving the nanny into the lake and bashing her head on a rock. When Joan says quite seriously, “I think my baby has been possessed by the Devil,” her stripper best friend Caroline Munro (AT THE EARTH’S CORE) continues stirring her tea calmly like they’re discussing baseball stats. Thankfully, an Italian nun played by Dame Eileen Atkins, DBE (EQUUS) is qualified to do exorcisms, but not until most of the cast is dead.

Peter Sasdy, who directed Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER, is unable to catapult this film past “laughable” to “frightening.” Did he really believe Collins periodically looking into the baby’s crib to find the dwarf’s face staring back at her would send chills up the audience’s spines?

English actor Ralph Bates (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) plays Joan’s husband with a shaky Italian accent (there’s no reason his character needs to be Italian). Stanley Price’s (SHOUT AT THE DEVIL) screenplay struggles with logic and coherency. Only Donald Pleasence (THE GREAT ESCAPE) as the doctor who delivers little Nicky sells the absurd dialogue as if he believes it. Also seen as THE MONSTER (somewhat accurate, if generic) and SHARON’S BABY (there is no character named Sharon in the film), THE DEVIL WITHIN HER is severely padded between campy death scenes, including a riveting sequence of Ralph Bates buying groceries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mortuary (1983)

The same year TV goody-goody Melissa Sue Anderson (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) sullied her image by acting in the slasher flick HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, WALTONS girl Mary McDonough played the heroine in this tame slasher. Less effective than the Anderson film (but blessed with a great trailer), MORTUARY suffers from typically clumsy direction by Howard Avedis (née Hikmet Avedis) and a lack of surprises. For example, the obvious red herring really is the killer (Avedis is so bad at concealing the killer’s identity that one wonders whether he is trying to), and a dopey witchcraft subplot is left unfulfilled.

MORTUARY is notable as the last (to be released) film appearance of Christopher George, an ex-Marine who found stardom on television as the leader of THE RAT PATROL and ended his career in a series of junky exploitation pictures, often co-starring with his wife Lynda Day George (a regular on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE). Lynda is also in MORTUARY, playing McDonough’s mother, while Christopher slums as a mortician who joins her in Satanic seances. Film Ventures International slowly rolled out MORTUARY to theaters during 1983 (it was filmed in the fall of 1981), and George died not long after the film’s Los Angeles release at the age of 52.

High school student McDonough continues to believe the swimming pool accident that killed her father one year ago was actually a murder. Neither her mother nor her boyfriend David Wallace (HUMONGOUS) believes her, though she has nightmares about the incident and sleepwalks into the pool on occasion. Also, nobody believes her cries after a knife-wielding creep in a black cape tries to slice her to pieces. Also in the cast: a young Bill Paxton (ALIENS), whose Texas accent is out of place here as Christopher George’s weirdo son who listens to Mozart and (literally) skips through the cemetery. Wallace is a drip, but the girls always had the best parts in these things.

The funeral home setting is ripe for a creepy thriller — and John Cacavas (HORROR EXPRESS) contributes a fine score — but Avedis (THE FIFTH FLOOR) and his partner/wife Marlene Schmidt (SCORCHY) were just not capable of writing, producing, and directing a film of great quality. When McDonough gets out of the pool after a midnight dip, the deck is already wet, meaning it was Take Two and Avedis was too lazy to either dry it off or have the actress emerge on the other side.

Not to completely bash Avedis, some of the stalking scenes manage to raise suspense, partially because the killer’s look is patterned after Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (why the killer dons such an elaborate guise is never addressed). The ludicrous ending was obviously inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, but it isn’t scary this time. GREEN ACRES’ Alvy Moore has a quick bit as Wallace’s father. McDonough appears to have been doubled in her nude scenes — don’t want any WALTONS fans to vapor-lock — but she did pop her top on down the road in a direct-to-video quickie called ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Game Of Death (1978)

GAME OF DEATH is exploitation at either its cheekiest or most tasteless. A personal project of Bruce Lee, GAME OF DEATH was left unfinished when director/writer/producer/star Lee died after making ENTER THE DRAGON. Out of either a tribute to the action footage Lee had already directed or a desperate effort to continue making money off the dead legend (take yer pick), Golden Harvest and ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse decided to fashion a new martial arts film around Lee’s fight scenes. Considering Clouse included news footage of Lee’s corpse inside his coffin in a scene of Lee’s character faking his death, it’s safe to believe respecting the icon’s dignity was not a top priority.

Actors Yuen Biao (WHEELS ON MEALS) and Kim Tai-jong (who played Lee’s ghost in NO RESPECT, NO SURRENDER) fake-Shemp Lee in the new footage shot by Clouse. Neither resembles Lee in the slightest, so Clouse films them from behind, in disguise, wearing sunglasses, or, in the film’s most ludicrous shot, in front of a mirror with a photo of Lee’s face taped to it!

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who fights Lee in perhaps the most memorable scene, refused to participate in Clouse’s film, so even he — at 7 feet 2 inches tall — is unconvincingly doubled. So, yes, basically, GAME OF DEATH is a ridiculous mess — Clouse even recycles the Lee/Chuck Norris fight from WAY OF THE DRAGON — but not an unwatchable one.

Though only ten minutes or so of the 100-minute running time features the actual Bruce Lee (not including occasional cutaways taken from some other movie), they are a terrific ten minutes with Lee, clad in that iconic yellow track suit, choreographing exciting fight scenes with Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Inosanto (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). Bob Wall and Sammo Hung fight each other for no other reason than to eat running time. Objectively, GAME OF DEATH is terrible, but it’s also hilarious if you’re in that mood (and there is no shame in openly mocking a cash grab this cynical). The last half hour, beginning with the motorcycle chase in the warehouse, is fun.

A Bondian John Barry (THUNDERBALL) score and opening title sequence (with a gambling theme, even though no gambling is in the movie) give Clouse’s film some respectability. So does the name supporting cast, including a drunk Gig Young (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY), who killed himself before this ever got into American theaters; stolid Hugh O’Brien (KILLER FORCE), who laughably kicks “Bruce”’s ass; Colleen Camp (APOCALYPSE NOW) in the girlfriend role; and Dean Jagger (VANISHING POINT) as the world’s most avuncular Mafia don.

Kill Or Be Killed

“The Greatest Hollywood Martial-Arts Movie Ever Made!” Actually a South African action picture lensed in South Africa in 1977, KILL OR BE KILLED was imported to America and given a successful ($30 million box office!) domestic release by Film Ventures International in 1980. By the end of that year, it was playing double bills with BREAKER! BREAKER!, Chuck Norris’ leading man debut.

Taking a cue from the Bond pictures and perhaps the men’s sweat magazines of the 1960s, KILL OR BE KILLED’s screenplay by C.F. Beyers-Boshoff involves Nazis, always an excellent screen antagonist. Karate master Steve Hunt (Ryan) is invited to participate in a martial arts tournament by a former Nazi general, Baron von Rudloff (Norman Coombes). The Baron’s opponent is a team led by wealthy Japanese benefactor Miyagi (Raymond Ho-Tong, the Asian Wally Cox), who defeated von Rudloff in a similar tournament forty years earlier, which led to the Nazi being humilated, stripped of his ran, and exiled.

Set mainly within von Rudloff’s desert compound (represented by an unconvincing miniature castle), the plot teams Hunt with cute karate colleague Olga (Charlotte Michelle, who has wonderful chemistry with Ryan), who becomes a convenient hostage when Hunt escapes from von Rudloff and is eventually coerced into throwing the championship match.

Though flagging in pace somewhat while von Rudloff’s midget sidekick Chico (Daniel DuPlessis) travels the world seeking fighters in various “humorous” asides, KILL OR BE KILLED is the real thing if you’re seeking authentic karate action. The actors are actual members of the Japan Karate Association (the South African branch), and the fight scenes were choreographed by well-known karate master Stan Schmidt. Instead of gymnastics and acrobatics, the fighting is mainly (except for Ryan’s signature back-flips) straight, no-frills karate, which may appeal to purists.

Rated PG with minimal sex and bloodshed, KILL OR BE KILLED was a breakthrough for South African star James Ryan, who reunited with director Ivan Hall for the slicker sequel KILL AND KILL AGAIN. Later Ryan action pictures include RAGE TO KILL and the notorious SPACE MUTINY, but none were better than the Hall films.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Kill And Kill Again

South African action star James Ryan returns in this humorous PG sequel to KILL OR BE KILLED as karate champion Steve Chase. Though the title has more kills than the film does, KILL AND KILL AGAIN is very well shot by returning director Ivan Hall and cinematographer Tai Krige, who spice up the action with inventive camera placements, unusual angles, and even a “bullet time” sequence decades before THE MATRIX.

In Sun City to compete in a martial arts tournament, Chase is recruited (for $5 million) by gorgeous blond Kandy Kane (Annaline Kriel) to rescue her father from the clutches of evil megalomaniac Marduk (Michael Mayer, stuck with one of cinema’s worst fake beards on his face), whose plan include extracting fuel from potatoes. Dr. Horatio Kane (John Ramsbottom), Kandy’s kidnapped father, has stumbled upon a mind-control drug, which Marduk uses to create an army of kung fu zombies ready to follow his commands in a bid to conquer the world.

Chase can’t tackle the kung fu zombies alone, so he contacts his buddies—former pro wrestler Gorilla (Ken Gampu), levitating Zen master Fly (Stan Schmidt), taciturn Gypsy Billy (Norman Robinson), and wacky Hotdog (Bill Flynn)—for help smashing Marduk’s stronghold. Cue a great assembling-the-squad sequence with Chase showing up just in time to see one of his buddies stumble into a skills-establishing kung fu fight.

Fast-moving chopsocky with a Bondian men’s adventure plot by John Crowther (THE EVIL THAT MEN DO) that doesn’t take itself seriously, KILL AND KILL AGAIN clearly inspired THE A-TEAM, right down to a huge black guy who hates flying and a wacky white dude who wears funny hats. Ryan, a handsome fellow who hates to button his shirt, is perfectly cast as a four-time world karate champion and leader of men, and it seems as though he and director Hall worked hard to make the fight scenes both exciting and realistic. Of course, Marduk delays killing Chase in order to describe his evil plan and show off his army of paunchy, balding kung fu warriors.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hangman (2017)

One could have fun, I suppose, debating whether HANGMAN, RIGHTEOUS KILL, or 88 MINUTES is the worst serial killer movie of Al Pacino’s career. No question playing that game would be more fun than watching HANGMAN, which is an unbelievable police procedural about a serial killer who — but why not? — uses the game of Hangman (remember from grade school?) to leave clues to his murders.

Pacino, 76 years old at the time of production and an embarrassing mess with his ludicrous hair plugs and lazy Southern accent swiped from the worst works of Steven Seagal, is a retired police detective lured back into duty when homicide dick Karl Urban (McCoy in the STAR TREK movies) discovers their badge numbers left behind at the scene of a murder (the numbers could mean anything, but go along with it). Teamed with an unconvincing Brittany Snow (from the PITCH PERFECT series) as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter (snicker), Pacino and Urban plod through the muddled plot as if they had never seen SE7EN.

They’re at the mercy of clumsy writing that not only makes them inept detectives (a suspect is able to attempt suicide because of their carelessness), they don’t even bother to solve the puzzle that the killer generously leaves behind. Half the time, Snow deciphers the clues and hands the solution to the professional detectives. At least the actors are brazen enough to telegraph their embarrassment. Pacino has one eye on his paycheck and the other on his AFI Life Achievement Award in fear someone will take it away.

If you don’t want to play the Pacino serial killer game, you can have some fun playing But How. But how did a train smash into a car without leaving any debris? But how did the killer summon a convenient truck to T-bone the cops pursuing him? But how did the cop, obsessed with finding his wife’s murderer, never notice the giant V carved into her chest? See? Fun!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hero And The Terror

Chuck Norris attempted to stretch a bit in his seventh starring vehicle for Cannon, playing a sensitive Los Angeles cop who freaks out during his daughter’s birth and suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome following his capture of a hulking serial killer nicknamed The Terror.

Don’t worry, fans: he’s no wimp. Chuck still ignores his partner’s suggestion to call for backup and beats the heck out of drug pushers at the docks. It was an admirable decision for Norris to play someone more vulnerable, and he bounces cleanly off Brynn Thayer (MATLOCK) as his pregnant girlfriend in their dramatic and romantic scenes together. It ain’t Ibsen, but Norris doesn’t embarrass himself either.

In case you’re getting the impression this is Norris’ BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, rest assured he is playing a cop and he is chasing a killer. His Danny O’Brien earned the nickname “Hero” after capturing the enormous sociopath Simon Moon (SUPERMAN II villain Jack O’Halloran). Several years later, Moon escapes from the mental hospital where he was sentenced and continues his killing of women, stashing the corpses in the attic of the historic Wiltern Theater (a real place on Wilshire Boulevard).

The action and procedural scenes are routinely scripted by Michael Blodgett (star of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!), who helped adapt his 1982 novel to the big screen, and Dennis Shryack (THE CAR). Norris and the supporting cast give the screenplay their all, though once again the charismatic Steve James (AVENGING FORCE) has much too little to do. Directing is William Tannen (FLASHPOINT), who gives the material his best shot. Like Norris’ SILENT RAGE, HERO plays at times like a horror film with Tannen milking the suspense.

HERO suffers from a lackluster Terror—Moon is a zero as a character—and a familiar story, but is worth a look-see for its domestic scenes and action sequences. Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Jeffrey Kramer (JAWS), Joe Guzaldo (CODE OF SILENCE), and Billy Drago (DELTA FORCE 2), interestingly cast against type as a shrink, build up the supporting cast. HERO was a major flop, finishing 12th behind rot like STEALING HOME and HOT TO TROT its opening weekend. Chuck made a couple more Cannon flicks, but he was already done as a box office draw.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Frankenstein Island

Names like Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and Al Adamson are often bandied about in discussions of awful filmmakers (and justifiably so), but Jerry Warren may have them all beat. The man behind THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD, MAN BEAST, and THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN finally hung up his viewfinder after FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND. Though produced around 1980, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND looks and feels like one of Warren’s junkheaps from the 1950s, except it’s in color (his only color feature, come to think of it).

It’s basically a remake of his TEENAGE ZOMBIES from 1959 with a premise stolen from Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. It stars the usual gang of idiots often cast in trash films of the era — Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Katherine Victor, Robert Clarke, Steve Brodie — but it’s odd to see perennial authority figure Andrew Duggan (IN LIKE FLINT) in what is probably the worst film of his career. At least he has the decency to look embarrassed. It says something about the other actors that they all may well have been in worse films than FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND.

Four hot-air balloonists (one looks like Peter Brady) crashland (off screen!) on a remote island populated with sexy Amazons in leopard-skin bikinis (no leopards are seen on the island). Whenever one of the men mentions his hometown or home state, he feel an intense pain in their left are. This is explained as sort of like telepathy. The doctor played by Clarke (HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) tells the kid not to use his arm for awhile, but try to keep it working.

The Amazons prepare a feast that looks suspiciously like sub sandwiches from Blimpie and do bong hits out of skulls (“There’s no question they’re into witchcraft,” says Clarke, who is watching a different movie). They are eventually revealed as descendants of space aliens, not that it makes any difference to the plot. Nothing that happens makes any difference.

Also on the island is Brodie (OUT OF THE PAST) as Jocko, a one-eyed pirate who laughs a lot (probably because Brodie is sloshed); Mitchell (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as Jayson, a crazed ship’s captain who babbles about Edgar Allan Poe (I suspect his performance is a lot of poor improvisation); Warren regular George Mitchell (HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH) as Dr. von Helsing, a sickly 200-year-old scientist performing immortality experiments; and Victor (THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN) as a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. Also roaming about: a race of mutant zombies wearing ladies’ sunglasses, stocking caps, and black turtlenecks. Of course, the Asian one knows kung fu.

Occasionally, Carradine as the ghost of Dr. Frankenstein is superimposed over the action to shout nonsense about “The Power! The Power!” The laboratory “set” is just furniture on a soundstage without flats. An ammo box painted pink is set dressing. When our heroes return to the island with the military (the uniforms are hilarious) after the lamest “action” finale you’ve ever seen (yes, the Frankenstein Monster shows up), there is, of course, no sign that anyone was ever there.

Utter dreck and Warren is solely to blame as the director, screenwriter, co-producer, editor, production designer, and music supervisor. One of the actors invested $90,000 in this film. No way he ever got it back.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Prime Target (1991)

David Heavener was not much a filmmaker, but he sure had a knack for assembling a cast. Despite a budget approximately equal to a truckful of Hostess Fruit Pies, Heavener stocked PRIME TARGET with a guest star from every Stephen J. Cannell show you ever saw.

In addition to starring in the picture and directing it (and composing and singing some dreadful songs), Heavener also served as PRIME TARGET’s producer and screenwriter, hence the name of his badass cop character being John Bloodstone! With a name like John Bloodstone, you aren’t going to grow up to be a gay waiter. Heavener’s John Bloodstone is — say it along with me — a lone wolf detective who lives like a slob, drinks a ton of beer, breaks all the rules, but gets results.

After rescuing a group of hostages by setting the bad guys in fire (!), John Bloodstone is chewed out for violating the killers’ civil rights and suspended (natch) by his jerk boss, police commissioner Garth (Andrew Robinson, DIRTY HARRY’s Scorpio), who literally waves The Book at him. With urging from FBI agent Harrington (Brady dad Robert Reed in his last movie), Garth immediately unsuspends John Bloodstone to give him a new assignment: transport mobster Marietta Copella (Tony Curtis!) to his court date.

Of course, some people don’t want Copella to get there, and you already know who they are. Cue a series of rote chases, fights, and shootouts in between MIDNIGHT RUN-style bickering between Heavener and Curtis (who is actually pretty good, running on pure charm).

Isaac Hayes (TRUCK TURNER) plays the police captain who says to Heavener, who is wearing a cowboy hat, a gun belt with a six-shooter, and a flamethrower (!), “I got the car you asked for. I don’t know what you have in mind, but I sure as hell hope it works.” Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) cameos as a terrorist whom Heavener shoots off the roof of a shed. Jenilee Harrison from THREE’S COMPANY goes topless as John Bloodstone’s wet-blanket wife. Hilariously, executive producer Gerald Milton gives himself a Special Appearance credit for his inept line readings as a banker ready to take John Bloodstone’s heavily mortgaged house. Heavener somehow got PRIME TARGET a theatrical release, so bully for him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

So Fine

Ryan O’Neal jumped directly from the New York City set of SO FINE to the Los Angeles set of PARTNERS, and rarely as any leading man been stuck in two comedies this offensively unfunny back to back. SO FINE earned its notoriety for its outlandish story gimmick, which is a new line of blue jeans with clear plastic butt cheeks, and the controversial one-sheet Warner Brothers devised. The talented Andrew Bergman, who wrote the brilliant THE IN-LAWS and collaborated with Mel Brooks and others on the BLAZING SADDLES screenplay, both penned and made his directing debut on SO FINE, which was a flop that didn’t stay long in theaters (O’Neal refused to plug it on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON).

The great Jack Warden (THE VERDICT) is wasted as a garment manufacturer on hard times and deep in debt to hulking gangster Richard Kiel (Jaws in the 007 movies). To get back the $1.5 million Warden owes him, Kiel kidnaps Warden’s son, an English professor played by O’Neal (THE MAIN EVENT), and forces him to run his dad’s company. Why he believes a complete neophyte can run a dress company is never addressed.

After starting an affair with Kiel’s wife (FLASH GORDON’s Mariangela Melato), O’Neal stumbles upon the idea that becomes the fashion industry’s new sensation, the assless jeans. The climax, much too leisurely paced for a farce, takes place at a cheap college production of OTELLO, which makes no logical sense in the film’s context and plays like an idea Bergman stuffed in a drawer years earlier. O’Neal is strangely sidelined during it, while Warden plays hero and Melato and Kiel discuss their failing marriage.

Whatever satire was present in Bergman’s screenplay is lost in his plodding direction, which translates to crass and unfunny (can you believe Richard Kiel in blackface?). Though O’Neal demonstrated wonderful comic chops in PAPER MOON and especially WHAT’S UP, DOC? (he’s recycling his milquetoast WASP persona here), he is lost in SO FINE’s desperate attempt at farce. Melato comes across as grotesque, rather than sexy, and Kiel was cast for his size, not his comic timing.

An occasional moment of wit slips through (“Moorish?”), such as the gloriously tacky So Fine television commercial (that no channel would ever run, but anyway). Mike Kellin (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) has a great scene where he explains the deaths of his past wives, but Fred Gwynne (MY COUSIN EDDIE) fails to make a stuffy professor funny. The score is by spaghetti western stalwart Ennio Morricone, of all people.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

Number three in producer J.J. Abrams’ ersatz series of CLOVERFIELD movies is more notable as a marketing gimmick than as a film. Even cast members were surprised the day of Super Bowl LII, when a trailer aired with an announcement that Netflix would premiere THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX immediately following the game.. Like the superior 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, PARADOX was an existing script that was jerry-rigged into a CLOVERFIELD movie during production, but with a less impressive result. Paramount somehow convinced Netflix to shell out $50 million for a film by director Julius Onah (THE GIRL IS IN TROUBLE) the studio knew was a dud it would have taken a bath on.

Mostly set in outer space aboard a space station, the film centers around an international seven-astronaut crew. Nearly two years into their mission to develop a particle accelerator to supply energy for a dying Earth, something finally happens, all of it bad. They lose Earth and gain a stowaway (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. heavy Elizabeth Debicki), a woman trapped behind a bulkhead and fused with the station’s internal circuitry. She claims to be one of the crew, though nobody has ever seen her before.

Other weird stuff happens. The Russian crew member (THE MARTIAN’s Aksel Hennie) burps up a gallon of worms in a scene stolen from ALIEN. Irish Chris O’Dowd (BRIDESMAIDS) loses an arm, which crawls around on its own and writes a message to cut open the dead Russian. The screenplay by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET) contains a lot of gobbledygook, but it seems as though the station has initiated some sort of jump through parallel universes. While the limp ALIEN retread plays out in space, “our” Earth is ripping off THE MIST, as a doctor and a child dodge giant monsters seen as silhouettes against the fog and smoke of a world under attack.

Aside from O’Dowd as comic relief (he’s the movie’s Dick Wesson character), all of this craziness is played absolutely straight, which is why it’s so boring. Uziel and Onah try to build sympathy for the character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (MISS SLOANE) with the revelation that her children, who died in a fire back home, are still alive in a different universe. It’s an intriguing idea, and Mbatha-Raw plays it very well, but Abrams’ zeal to turn the story into a CLOVERFIELD movie puts it on the back burner in favor of generic gotta-get-back-home theatrics mixed with crazed-gunman-killing-everyone-aboard nonsense.

Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo (SELMA) as the crew’s lone Americans take acting honors with Zhang Ziyi (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), John Ortiz (CARLITO’S WAY), and Daniel Bruhl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) rounding out the spacebound cast. A good-looking picture in terms of set design (lot of pretty colored lights), THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX also benefits from a strong musical score by Bear McCreary (THE BOY) that occasionally builds suspense where none exists in the script.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Black Sleep

THE BLACK SLEEP is not very good — United Artists played it on double bills with the superior THE CREEPING UNKNOWN — but horror fans have a soft spot for it because of its cast. Not that its horror icons are treated well. Not counting the silent footage Edward D. Wood Jr. spliced into PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE after the actor’s death, Bela Lugosi makes his final film appearance in THE BLACK SLEEP, but in a relatively minor part as a mute butler, meaning he is given no dialogue. He died a few weeks after the film was released.

Faring little better than Bela in the dignity department is Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN), also playing mute as a hulking idiot named Mongo. The star is Basil Rathbone (TALES OF TERROR), playing a once-respected surgeon trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor by kidnapping unwilling test subjects for experiments that leave them drooling mutants and locked up in his basement dungeon. He uses an Indian drug called “the Black Sleep” to simulate death in his guinea pigs. Rathbone’s performance is very good, finding sympathy buried in the John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) screenplay and playing it more subtly than a horror movie about drooling mutants would suggest.

Filmed at Ziv Studios on a $230,000 budget by director Reginald LeBorg (THE MUMMY’S GHOST), the picture also features John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as a raving nutcase, Akim Tamiroff (TOUCH OF EVIL) as Rathbone’s Gypsy assistant (a role intended for Peter Lorre, who priced himself out of it), and PLAN 9’s Tor Johnson as, what else, a monster. LeBorg shoots a remarkable scene (for the era) in which Rathbone and his new assistant Herbert Rudley (THE SILVER CHALICE) expose a patient’s brain and cut into it with clear fluid pouring out.

Despite its small budget, THE BLACK SLEEP is not a bad-looking picture, shot in black and white by Gordon Avil (KING DINOSAUR) on decent Ziv sets and given a nice Les Baxter (HOUSE OF USHER) score. It was Lugosi’s first picture after leaving rehab for his drug habit, and the producers milked it for a great deal of publicity. It must have worked, as THE BLACK SLEEP was a money maker that earned a theatrical re-release in 1963.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Astrologer (1976)

One-and-done director and star Craig Denney made this indescribable ego trip that never found full-blown national distribution, partially because he stuffed it with 1960s rock songs without bothering to license them. THE ASTROLOGER lurches from scene to scene without establishing shots, proper character introductions, or even storytelling purpose. One moment the title character is lined up with fellow inmates by a sweatbox in a Kenyan prison, being read the riot act by their jailer, and one cut later, he’s somewhere else entirely, rendering the guard’s threats of snakes and shooting on sight totally moot. A dinner scene is shown in slow motion with no dialogue. A fish-eye lens provides a tour of a bar restroom, complete with a close-up of the urinal. Story information is delivered via newspaper headlines...written in languages other than English.

Synopsizing the plot is both impossible and useless in describing how bonkers THE ASTROLOGER is. I could tell you that Denney plays Craig Marcus Alexander, a fake carnival mystic with big ambitions who marries Darrien (Darrien Earle, who has a Barbara Parkins thing going on), travels to Kenya to retrieve precious gems from ruins guarded by cobras, uses his new wealth to bankroll a new multimedia career in television and movies, makes front-page headlines everywhere as the world’s most famous astrologer, hires old friend Arthyr (Arthyr Chadbourne, a real-life astrologer, sadly swathed in fake gray hair and mustache makeup) to be his financial wizard, undertakes secret astrological missions for the U.S. Navy (!), tracks down Darrien, now a drunken whore in a rat-infested closet apartment, and brings her to his mansion before making her an international film star in Craig Alexander productions… I could tell you all that, but it would be a woefully incomplete account and wouldn’t move the needle one iota toward describing how truly crazy and incompetent THE ASTROLOGER is.

Denney is so far up his own rear end that he shows us scenes from Alexander’s film, also called THE ASTROLOGER (we learn it grossed $145 million!) and starring Alexander, while Alexander sits in a screening room with a smug yeah-I-got-this look on his face, the same look you know Denney had while screening his film. Florence Marly, the space vampire from QUEEN OF BLOOD, shows up in one scene playing an unlikely Oscar-nominated movie star as an ersatz lost Gabor sister. Remarkably, there appears to be some talent, as well as some money, involved. There are helicopter shots, crane shots, underwater shots, quite a few locations. The photography by Alan Gornick is quite good, really.

Up top, I described THE ASTROLOGER as indescribable, and please don’t make the mistake of thinking I have adequately described its pleasures. Though more technically accomplished than Ed Wood and more closely anchored to reality than Tommy Wiseau, Denney shares with those auteurs a unique eccentricity that manifests in their art. Despite the unlicensed songs by the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Tommy Edwards, and Conway Twitty, THE ASTROLOGER did screen on a few double bills in the late 1970s (it bears a Republic Pictures logo) and even received a home video release in Australia. It now lies with the American Genre Film Archive, which can only screen it theatrically because of music rights issues. Do not miss it. Oh, god, I forgot the cosmic mirror. Where the hell is Craig Denney today?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Johnny Dangerously

Michael Keaton was riding a creative high after brilliant performances in NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM when he took on this dud for director Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH). Luckily, Keaton rebounded a year later with GUNG HO and, after a couple of bombs, BEETLEJUICE, his terrific dramatic turn in CLEAN AND SOBER, and then BATMAN.

An odd premise for an BLAZING SADDLES-style spoof, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY is a spoof of 1930s gangster pictures with a screenplay credited to Harry Colomby (Keaton’s manager), Norman Steinberg (BLAZING SADDLES), and sitcom guys Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff (DIFF’RENT STROKES). Keaton is good gangster Dangerously, just trying to financially support his mother (Maureen Stapleton) and younger brother (Griffin Dunne). On the, er, opposite side of the law is mean rival Danny Vermin, played by SNL’s Joe Piscopo in his first big feature role. The only character anyone remembers is mob boss Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri from the Mel Brooks sitcom WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN), who swears in malapropisms like “fargin’ icehole.”

Audiences weren’t taken with JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, a box office flop that opened with just 65% of the per-screen gross of BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, which also premiered Christmas weekend of 1984. The flashback structure is weak, partially because it keeps Keaton and the other main players off-screen for much of the first act. Keaton is good and his co-stars work hard — too hard. You can see them scrambling for laughs at times. The toilet jokes push the then-new PG-13 rating to its limit (an extended gag about men with testicles the size of beach balls feels like someone is stomping on yours). Surprisingly, Dimitri’s hamming always gets laughs.

Marilu Henner (TAXI) is sexy as the love interest. Stapleton is awful as the cliched sweet old lady who curses and talks about getting laid, as if that joke was ever funny. Poor Glynnis O’Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE) is criminally wasted. Danny DeVito, just off ROMANCING THE STONE, is a crooked district attorney. Peter Boyle (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), Ron Carey (HIGH ANXIETY), and Dom DeLuise (BLAZING SADDLES) are here to remind you of Mel Brooks movies. Alan Hale from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND is an Irish cop, along with Ray Walston (from Heckerling’s FAST TIMES), Joe Flaherty (SCTV), Taylor Negron (THE LAST BOY SCOUT), and...Bob Eubanks? “Weird” Al Yankovic’s theme song is pretty good.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Three O'Clock High

First feature film by director Phil Joanou, who was something of a Spielberg protege, having directed two episodes of AMAZING STORIES before this. He directed only a handful of features, none of them spectacular, though his U2 concert film, RATTLE AND HUM, has an excellent reputation. THREE O’CLOCK HIGH is something of a cult comedy for those who saw it as teenagers in the 1980s, as it has a premise most can relate to.

Casey Siemaszko (STAND BY ME) stars as Jerry Mitchell, a wimpy teenager who accidentally antagonizes tough bully Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson, later the psycho in KINDERGARTEN COP), something of a legend around school. Buddy challenges poor Jerry to a fight after school, which becomes the talk of the school in no time, spurring Jerry to scramble a way out of avoiding a beating. Skipping school doesn’t work, framing Buddy for a crime is a no go, not even hiring a big kid to beat up Buddy (certainly a nod to MY BODYGUARD) can prevent Jerry’s destiny.

Written by Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi, veterans of Stephen J. Cannell shows like THE A-TEAM and HUNTER, and heavily rewritten by Joanou, the story is thin, but the film is somewhat amusing due to some pretty good jokes and the dizzying camerawork by Joanou and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, a visual whiz who went on to direct the ADDAMS FAMILY and MEN IN BLACK films. They even shoot looking up from the bottom of a washing machine.

THREE O’CLOCK HIGH is one of the decade’s most visually inventive comedies, and the cast plays the heightened reality at the perfect pitch. Siemaszko is appealing, Tyson is terrifying while giving off a complex vibe, Anne Ryan is the sweet and quirky platonic girlfriend. And who can forget Charles Macauley (BLACULA) as the Dean of Discipline, Mitch Pileggi (THE X-FILES) as the overly aggressive security guard, Caitlin O’Heaney (HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE) as a romantic English teacher, and especially the great ham John P. Ryan (AVENGING FORCE) as the principal who delivers the film’s best line.

Neither Universal nor executive producer Spielberg, who took his name off the credits, knew what to do with THREE O’CLOCK HIGH. Look at its one-sheet if you don’t believe me. The film couldn’t even outgross clunkers like SURRENDER and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME its opening weekend, though it is certainly better remembered today.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Return

Five years after starring in her third Peter Bogdanovich movie and four years after Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, here is Cybill Shepherd lurching her way through ludicrous sci-fi with director Greydon Clark (WITHOUT WARNING). Produced in 1980, THE RETURN couldn’t find a theatrical distributor, but its PG rating ensured it played frequently on HBO.

Two children and a middle-aged prospector have a close encounter with a hovering spaceship one evening in a small New Mexico town. Twenty-five years later, the little girl (Shepherd) is a scientist working in the big city for her wealthy father Raymond Burr (IRONSIDE), and the little boy (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the town’s deputy under sheriff Martin Landau (NORTH BY NORTHWEST). They meet again during Vincent’s investigation of a series of cattle mutilations, which may or may not (ha ha, no, it’s may) be connected to that long-ago spacecraft and the creepy prospector (Vincent Schiavelli, great as an assassin in TOMORROW NEVER DIES) who strangely hasn’t aged in the last 25 years.

Brothers Ken and Jim Wheat (PITCH BLACK) and Curtis Burch (JOYSTICKS) wrote the screenplay, which is kind of a mess, asking all sorts of potentially intriguing questions and refusing to answer most of them. The premise is strong, but the payoff is weak. What credibility the story has lies in its professional cast, particularly the portly Burr, whose gravitas brings the script’s spacy shenanigans down to earth. By all accounts a warm man, Burr didn’t often get to play that, and he’s a joy to watch in THE RETURN.

Landau’s lawman, who splashes beer on his donuts, is played for humor, but with enough humanity that his fate makes a slight impact on the audience. Neville Brand (EATEN ALIVE) is broad as usual, but manages some emotional depth as a local farmer whose cattle is destroyed. Shepherd, never a deep actress, is fine playing a challenging romantic role opposite Vincent (HOOPER), who is unsteady and unfocused due to his alcoholism. Director Clark is bad in a cameo as the first human victim of the cattle mutilators.

For a film that was produced quickly and inexpensively ($750,000 with $400,000 for cast salaries), the stunts are impressive, and the visual effects are pretty good. Clark uses familiar Southern California locations as a reasonable substitute for New Mexico, including the Paramount Ranch, Bronson Canyon, and little Piru, California.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Jigsaw (1968)

Universal remakes its own thriller MIRAGE, which was released a whopping three years earlier. The best explanation for this decision is that JIGSAW was intended as a made-for-TV movie, but was instead given a theatrical release, possibly because Michael J. Pollard, just nominated for a BONNIE AND CLYDE Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, is in it. Or maybe because of its drug theme, which may have been too controversial for NBC censors.

Producer Ranald MacDougall (MILDRED PIERCE) hides behind the pseudonym “Quentin Werty” as his screenplay credit, which also gives nods to Peter Stone’s MIRAGE screenplay and the original novel FALLEN ANGEL by Howard Fast. Ignore the theatrical one-sheet that gives the impression Pollard is JIGSAW’s star. He’s barely in it with leading men Bradford Dillman (PIRANHA) and Harry Guardino (KING OF KINGS) carrying MacDougall’s psychedelic storyline.

Dillman wakes up in a strange apartment with amnesia and a dead blonde in the bathtub. He finds private detective Guardino’s AAA Detective Agency in the Yellow Pages, and hires him to investigate. Of course, when the two men visit the scene of the crime, the broken mirror is repaired, the furniture is replaced, and the girl is gone.

The culprit, at least responsible for Dillman’s amnesia, is LSD, and the direction by James Goldstone (ROLLERCOASTER) is trippy as hell. He really goes for the arty cutting and camera angles, which definitely makes JIGSAW more visually exciting than most of Universal’s thrillers from that period. The edgy editing by Edward Biery (THE DON IS DEAD) keeps the viewer disoriented, echoing the Dillman character’s own confusion. The downside is the audience is equally confused, and the plot fails to hold one’s attention.

Dillman and Guardino are quite good and Guardino rarely better. Pat Hingle (HANG ‘EM HIGH) is Dillman’s suspicious co-worker, Hope Lange (THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) is Dillman’s confused girlfriend, Diana Hyland (THE CHASE) is Guardino’s wealthy girlfriend. Contract player Susan Saint James (KATE & ALLIE) is a secretary. Pollard is terrible as a dope dealer. James Doohan (STAR TREK) pops up in an unbilled role. Quincy Jones (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) did the music. Oddly enough, NBC, which originally rejected JIGSAW for prime time, did eventually air it a year later in 1969.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hell Night (1981)

Set during Pledge Week, four wannabe Greeks — Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS), Vincent Van Patten (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), Peter Barton (THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR), and Suki Goodwin — vow to spend the night inside a creepy old house where the master of the manor murdered his entire family twelve years earlier. Or did he? One of the children, a “gorked out” monster named Andrew, was never found, alive or dead.

While the four college students explore the mansion — and one another — during the overnight hours, some of their friends (one played by LUCAN star Kevin Brophy) sneak into the house to escalate a prank war meant to test the pledges’ mettle. And who else is in the house? Someone with a nifty penchant for murder in creative and gruesome ways. A fraternity brother taking the act too far? One of the pledges? Or is...gulp...Andrew still alive with a taste for slaughter?

Not to be confused with the inferior HAPPY HELL NIGHT (a depressing experience for Darren McGavin fans), HELL NIGHT was made during the slasher movie boom of the early 1980s, when almost every week theaters were packed with teenagers eager to see teenagers getting smashed, bashed, gashed, and slashed. Though the basic premise, courtesy of screenwriter Randy Feldman (TANGO & CASH), is derivative to say the least (it wasn’t original even when the East Side Kids were doing it), the film rises above it to register as one of the genre’s better entries. Skillful direction by Tom DeSimone (CHATTERBOX), evocative cinematography by Mac Ahlberg (RE-ANIMATOR), Feldman’s intelligent plotting and dialogue, and a likable cast of TVQ favorites work together to throw a few scares into the audience.

Relatively tame in the sex and gore departments, despite the R rating, HELL NIGHT is a good example of what can happen when filmmakers tackle horror tropes with a bit of ingenuity. Making the Hell Night party a costume party and setting the film in an old house with candelabras and no electricity gives the film a nice Gothic atmosphere. Another interesting touch is the gender-swapping of leads Blair and Barton: she’s a mechanic from a blue-collar neighborhood, and he’s the rich kid (but not a snob).

HELL NIGHT was the last film released by Compass International Pictures, the independent studio behind HALLOWEEN, with HALLOWEEN’s Irwin Yablans also sharing production duties with Bruce Cohn Curtis (THE SEDUCTION). Despite an admirable job creating suspense, DeSimone continued to bounce between gay pornography and R-rated exploitation movies after HELL NIGHT, which may not have been seen by enough people in 1981 to benefit the careers of anyone involved.

As good as HELL NIGHT is, it doesn’t quite reach the level of great. The lack of nudity and gore (DeSimone’s one major gore scene was censored and never restored to recent releases) does take a bit of excitement out of the film’s sails, and the killer isn’t developed as a character at all. Once the movie gets going, it really crackles along, but excising a few minutes from the first half wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die

Even more so than DARKMAN II: THE RETURN OF DURANT, this entertaining direct-to-video sequel focuses on the villain of the piece, rather than the mysterious superhero Darkman. Larry Drake was terrific as Durant in DARKMAN — smart, erudite, eccentric — but DARKMAN II turned him into a standard television heavy. In DARKMAN III, Jeff Fahey (THE LAWNMOWER MAN) chews a lot of scenery both as Peter Rooker, a nasty drug lord, and in scenes in which Rooker is impersonated by Darkman. Arnold Vosloo, back from DARKMAN II as Peyton Westlake, has less to do this time around.

Rooker and his unscrupulous lover Dr. Bridget Thorne (Darlanne Fluegel) kidnap Westlake and use his bodily fluids to fabricate a designer steroid that makes Rooker’s flunkies strong enough to take over the city. Westlake, who uses a self-developed synthetic skin to disguise his horrible burns, escapes and impersonates members of Rooker’s gang — and, of course, Rooker himself — in an effort to retrieve his formula. While disguised as Rooker, he becomes drawn to the criminal’s sequestered wife (Roxann Biggs-Dawson) and daughter (Alicia Panetta), who are ignored and later endangered by Rooker.

This sequel and DARKMAN II were shot back-to-back by director Bradford May on a reported $7 million budget, explaining the use of stock footage from previous films (inserts of Vosloo are cut into origin flashbacks to DARKMAN). Vosloo does a nice job in his limited screen time, but it’s Fahey who garners the lion’s share of the movie’s best lines and situations. More or less playing a dual role, Fahey and those big blue eyes hold the screen throughout while playing to the comic book crowd.

Unfortunately for Vosloo, because Westlake’s “power” requires many different actors to portray him, he has difficulty making an impression. Of course, he did in DARKMAN II as well, where he had a better opportunity to carry the film. The screenplay by Michael Colleary and Mike Werb — which plays like a first draft of their FACE/OFF — doesn’t give Rooker much of a personality, leaving it mainly to Fahey to make the heavy interesting, which he certainly does.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Darkman II: The Return Of Durant

Universal returned to the Darkman character created by Sam Raimi (EVIL DEAD) for two direct-to-video sequels shot back-to-back in Toronto by Bradford May (AMY FISHER: MY STORY). A cinematographer with experience directing episodic television and made-for-TV movies, May tackles his first feature with style, achieving a slick look, rapid pace, and quite a bit of fun and excitement. Liam Neeson was too big a star to return for DARKMAN II, but Larry Drake (L.A. LAW) wasn’t, even though his character was convincingly killed off at the end of the first movie. Hey, in comic books, nobody dies forever.

Arnold Vosloo (THE MUMMY) takes over as Peyton Westlake, who has been continuing his experiments in synthetic skin, financing them by ripping off drug pushers and arms dealers. His hope is to perfect the skin, which deteriorates after 99 minutes, so he can permanently restore his horribly scarred visage. Drake’s Robert Durant, back in town after three years in a coma, seeks revenge against archenemy Westlake.

He springs mad doctor Hathaway (Lawrence Dane) from an insane asylum and forces him to build a powerful laser weapon for use in his crime spree. More of a straight crime drama than Raimi’s original film, DARKMAN II suffers by excising the horror element that made Westlake such a sympathetic character.

Drake, by necessity, gets the best lines in the screenplay by Steven McKay (DIGGSTOWN) and makes more of an impact than Vosloo, who is rarely seen wearing the bandages and slouch hat that made the character so mysterious in DARKMAN. Kim Delaney, later an Emmy winner for NYPD BLUE, has a minor role as a television reporter who smokes a lot (and badly). Renee O’Connor, whom Raimi later hired to be Lucy Lawless’ sidekick on XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, also appears in support as the owner of a strip club where the dancers don’t strip (you can take the director out of television, but you can’t take the television out of the director).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Darkman

One of the most underrated superhero movies ever made, DARKMAN is also the most underrated film directed by Sam Raimi, helmer of the original EVIL DEAD and Spider-Man trilogies. Raimi created the Darkman character for Universal and shares screenplay credit with his ARMY OF DARKNESS collaborator (and brother) Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer (HARD TARGET), and OUT ON A LIMB’s Daniel and Joshua Goldin. Inspired more by the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, William Gibson’s The Shadow, and EC comic books of the 1950s than by mainstream superhero fare, Darkman has no superpowers per se, but uses his scientific genius to strike back against the criminal underworld.

In Raimi’s origin story, Darkman is Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist who is nearly burned to death in an attack by crime kingpin Durant (Larry Drake). Though believed to be dead, Westlake survives and uses his experimental synthetic flesh — which dissolves after 99 minutes — to both re-create his old face and create new ones, so he can infiltrate Durant’s organization (think Martin Landau in the old MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series). Based in a secret warehouse laboratory, Westlake seeks revenge against both Durant and Durant’s employer, corrupt real estate magnate Strack (Colin Friels), who uses Westlake’s attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) as a hostage.

The first big-budget studio film by Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, DARKMAN soars in large part because of Neeson, who suggests Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN, creating a sympathetic character while mostly swathed in bandages or trapped under layers of hideous makeup. Using gestures and his expressive eyes, Neeson delivers a compassionate portrait of a mad genius split between vengeance and self-pity.

Beyond the performances, Raimi’s direction of the action sequences (on a relatively low $16 million budget) and the makeup effects are well done with a dark comic flair (some of the visual effects are shaky). Danny Elfman, just coming off his pioneering work on BATMAN, produces a satisfying soundscape to punctuate the heroics. Not much of a hit — the R-rated adventure opened in first place, but was out of the Top Five in under a month — DARKMAN inspired two direct-to-video sequels (without Neeson or Raimi), as well as action figures, video games, comic books, and even an unsuccessful television pilot.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Yor, The Hunter From The Future

Look, I’m not going to argue that YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, which Columbia astonishingly released on over 1400 screens in the summer of 1983 (number one film that weekend: Rodney Dangerfield’s EASY MONEY!), fits any textbook definition of “good movie.” I will argue, however, that if you don’t enjoy every warped frame of YOR, you may have not a drop of joy running through your veins.

Filmed in Turkey (exteriors) and Rome (interiors) by director Antonio Margheriti, whose forays into science fiction run the gamut from ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE to WILD, WILD PLANET (part of his Gamma One series for MGM) and TREASURE ISLAND IN OUTER SPACE (!), YOR was originally a four-part miniseries made for Italian television. Columbia trimmed it to 88 minutes and put it in theaters the same week Universal premiered METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN! (YOR finished seventh at the box office opening weekend, METALSTORM eighth.)

Blond beefcake Reb Brown, then known best for playing Marvel Comics’ Captain America in two television movies, stars as the rugged Yor, a stone axe his only possession. While roaming the desert, he encounters middle-aged Pag (Luciano Pigozzi) and his scrumptious ward Kala (MOONRAKER’s Corinne Clery) as they are being attacked by a dinosaur. Yor fights the creature, kills it, chugs its blood, and becomes Pag and Kala’s protector, as they continue their journey together.

As a cut-down version of an (approximate) four-hour piece, YOR moves quickly like a Republic serial, putting its characters in one dangerous mess after another. Barbarians with blue skin whose leader sits on a skull-like throne, a giant bat that Yor uses as a hang glider (!), a snake pit, mummies and their lovely non-mummy queen (Ayshe Gul)...and robots with lasers.

Yes, I mean, the title gives it away, so why hide it? YOR is not set in the prehistoric past, but in a post-apocalyptic future. Yor is not Yor, but Galahad, who survived a spaceship crash and grew up alone in the wilderness. Obviously inspired as much by STAR WARS as by CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Margheriti eventually goes full sci-fi, introducing John Steiner (TENEBRAE) as the Overload, a Darth Vader imitator who plans to use his robot army to conquer the burned-out ball that is now Earth. Where there is an evil space overlord, there will be rebels, so Yor joins up and adapts quickly to laser guns, matter transporters, and spaceships.

Of course, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense (how could dinosaurs exist in the future?), even if the big twist comes as a pleasant surprise (the title notwithstanding). Bad movies are often just as entertaining — even more so — than good ones, and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE is as entertaining as they come. It moves quickly and is never boring. From the five-and-dime wigs to the loopy dialogue (“Stupid talking box!”) to Steiner’s creepy hamming as the black-armored space heavy to the delirious theme song (“Yor’s world!/He’s the man!”) composed by brothers Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, nothing in YOR is competent, yet everything somehow comes together.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Silk (1986)

Cec Verrell is the star of SILK and one of the few Roger Corman heroines to keep her top on (but how about that rockin' poster?). Corman was the executive producer of this cheapo action meller filmed by director Cirio H. Santiago, who made a lot of them. Laughably, the film is set in Hawaii, but aside from a handful of second unit shots, including Verrell strolling across the lawn of the Iolani Palace (better known to classic television fans as Five-O headquarters), Santiago shot SILK in the Philippines, fooling nobody.

The phony location shooting is hardly the worst part of SILK, which is a typically Santiagoan jam of poor sound, amateur-hour acting, and simple plotting with a healthy dose of sex and violence. Verrell is, of course, Silk, the sobriquet of Jenny Sleighton, the sexiest and baddest-ass cop on Oahu. Somehow she finds the time between blowing up cars and making out with fellow fuzz Bill McLaughlin (NAKED VENGEANCE) to delve into stabby rednecks with huge knives and the smuggling of gangsters into Hawaii from Asia.

That’s a lot of balls for screenwriter Frederick Bailey (FAST GUN) to toss at Santiago, who predictably fumbles them, resulting in a story that doesn’t seem to make sense. An unusual “characters created by” credit for one Claudine St. James accompanies Bailey’s and Santiago’s screenplay credit, though there seems to be no earlier Silk film or novel. Perhaps St. James wrote an unpublished book or unproduced screenplay that Corman optioned for a few shekels.

Verrell is beautiful, of course, but also believable as a tough cop with her hard look and slicked-back short hair. She looks and moves like an athlete, and does a few of her own stunts. Nothing really dangerous, but enough to establish herself as the character (more than can be said for Monique Gabrielle in the sequel, who couldn’t be less believable). Her acting is wooden as hell, but also arguably less important than her looks and athleticism in a Filipino action movie for Concorde Pictures.

Plenty of Santiago’s repertory company make it into the film, including Vic Diaz (FIRECRACKER), Henry Strzalkowski (FUTURE HUNTERS), Joseph Zucchero (ANGELFIST), and production designer Joe Mari Avellana (WHEELS OF FIRE), who plays Silk’s Japanese (!) colleague. It’s 1986, so Silk has her own theme song, belted out by an E.G. Daily soundalike. As mentioned above, Santiago made a 1989 sequel, predictably titled SILK 2, with Verrell replaced by Gabrielle (DEATHSTALKER II), who was more open-minded about doing nude scenes.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eye Of The Eagle II: Inside The Enemy

Carl Franklin, a busy television actor in guest shots and regular gigs on CARIBE and MCCLAIN’S LAW, found time in his schedule to study directing at the AFI Conservatory. Upon graduation, he hooked up with Concorde Pictures head Roger Corman, who hired Franklin to direct his first feature, which turned out to be EYE OF THE EAGLE II. It’s an improvement over EYE OF THE EAGLE in that it has an actual story — Franklin and Dan Gagliasso (NAM ANGELS) take screenplay credit — and first-time director Franklin cares about it.

Literally from the opening shots, it’s clear this is not Cirio Santiago churning out a bunch of shots to make a schedule. While Franklin certainly was shooting quickly to make a schedule, his camera is fluid and his actors appear rehearsed, and no doubt FULL METAL JACKET was a major influence on both the story and shooting style. The result is a strong example of Corman’s general rule that, as long as the requisite sex and violence elements are present and the production remains on time and budget, he will leave the director alone.

Todd Field, who ditched acting to become the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of IN THE BEDROOM and LITTLE CHILDREN, stars in this Vietnam War drama as the sole survivor of a massacre who is sort of rescued by a young Vietnamese woman played by Shirley Tesoro (THE FIGHTER). While he’s recuperating from his injuries, his corrupt commanding officer (Andy Wood, one of THE ANNIHILATORS) kidnaps Tesoro and turns her on to dope and prostitution.

Instead of a revenge movie, which might have been more interesting from an action aspect, Franklin makes Field a passive hero (and a more believable one) who rescues Tesoro and spends the rest of the film getting the hell out of Dodge with Wood and his flunkies right on their tale.

With executive producer Santiago, the director of EYE OF THE EAGLE, presumably keeping a close watch on Corman’s new protege, EYE OF THE EAGLE II is a fine debut for Franklin, who also nicely plays a supporting role as a go-along-to-get-along colonel. While giving his boss the exploitation elements desired (Tesoro does some scenes topless), Franklin turns in a more sensitive film than is usual for the genre. Field isn’t the most commanding leading man, though that plays in his favor to some extent, because his character is not supposed to be a superman like, for instance, star Brett Clark in EYE OF THE EAGLE.

Speaking of, there was an actual sequel to EYE OF THE EAGLE called BEHIND ENEMY LINES, in which Robert Patrick reprised his John Ransom character. Why that film wasn’t called EYE OF THE EAGLE II, only Roger Corman knows. After two more Corman movies, Franklin directed the acclaimed crime films ONE FALSE MOVE and DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, and earned an Emmy nomination for an episode of HOUSE OF CARDS, making him one of the few mainstream successes from Corman’s Concorde years.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Blood Of Dracula's Castle

Al Adamson had few skills as a filmmaker, but one of his good decisions was using Castle Ranch, an actual stone castle built near Lancaster, California in the 1920s, as a location for BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE. Thanks in part to the additional production value, Adamson’s eight-day wonder, well shot by Laszlo Kovacs (who did EASY RIDER the same year!), is one of his best, which is to say it’s coherent, not unwatchable, and probably won’t put you to sleep. That’s a big win by Adamson standards.

Gene Shane (HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS) stars as a wiseass fashion photographer who inherits the castle from a late uncle. He takes his model girlfriend Jennifer Bishop (THE MALTESE BIPPY) to look it over, intending to move into it when they get married. Trouble is, the present tenants, middle-aged Alex D’Arcy (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE) and Paula Raymond (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), don’t want to leave. Double trouble: they’re vampires who use butler John Carradine (THE ICE PIRATES), psycho Robert Dix (SATAN’S SADISTS), and mindless hulk Ray Young (BLUE SUNSHINE) to snatch young women and chain them in the cellar for use as a blood buffet. The dungeon is obviously a cheap plywood set at odds with the glamour of the real castle.

They may be in a cheap horror movie, but D’Arcy and Raymond play up their Old Hollywood allure in amusing performances. Dix’s character is so crazy that he takes the time — while being pursued by cops! — to drown a bikini girl he just happens to come across. Though it might have been a kick to see Carradine reprise his HOUSE OF DRACULA role, the fun that the veteran actors are having just hamming up screenwriter Rex Carlton’s (THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE) ridiculous dialogue is infectious to a point.

After all, it’s still an Al Adamson movie that opens with three minutes of Adamson regular Vicki Volante driving and walking while listening to the radio. Crown International released it in drive-ins on a double bill with NIGHTMARE IN WAX, which may be worse. Some prints have extra footage directed by Don Hulette (BREAKER BREAKER) in which Dix’s character is revealed as a werewolf. That must be a real howler.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ten From Your Show Of Shows

More than sixty years after YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS went off the air, it remains in the conversation when talk turns to the funniest television variety shows of all time. One indication of its high esteem is TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, a theatrically released film compiling ten of the series’ best sketches.

With a writing staff that included Neil Simon (THE ODD COUPLE), Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES), Mel Tolkin (ALL IN THE FAMILY), Danny Simon (THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW), and Carl Reiner (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS aired live for 90 minutes on Saturday nights from 1950 to 1954. It made stars of its four regulars — top dog Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Reiner — and won two Emmy Awards for Best Variety Program.

To learn why the show was so popular, TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS is an excellent starter package. Though the series was broadcast live every week from Manhattan, director/producer Max Liebman saved the kinescopes. Back when television networks were interested in their history, NBC would occasionally pull some clips for anniversary shows, but TEN provides the opportunity to see the series’ best sketches in their original form.

Picking a favorite is a tough call, but in the running are Coca’s jealous boyfriend Reiner tussling with innocent bystander (bysitter?) Caesar in a movie theater, leaving poor Sid confused, battered, and nearly naked; Caesar, Coca, Morris, and Reiner as figures on a rotating Bavarian clock that’s a textbook on comic timing; and a brilliant spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. That none of the actors broke while performing such hilarious material is a testament to their professionalism (in contrast, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE comics will break if someone crosses their eyes), but “From Here to Obscurity” pushes Coca to her limit.

Caesar and Coca weren’t friends off-stage, but they’re one of television’s great comedy teams, both with marvelously expressive faces and masters of verbal dexterity. After YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS left the air, Reiner and Morris followed Caesar to CAESAR’S HOUR, another live variety show on NBC, while Coca did the one-season THE IMOGENE COCA SHOW.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Getting Even (1986)

Edward Albert (GALAXY OF TERROR) as Lee Horsley stars as Tag Taggar, a millionaire industrialist, helicopter pilot, kung fu expert, and all-around badass with a mustache and Texas twang who in no way resembles Matt Houston. American Distribution Group got GETTING EVEN into some theaters in 1986, but more people saw it on cable and VHS. Unfortunately, no legitimate DVD exists, so this fine action movie remains highly underrated.

Tag infiltrates Afghanistan and rescues a cache of deadly nerve gas, which he brings back to his Dallas lab to study. The feds, in the shapely form of Tag’s former squeeze Paige (DALLAS sexpot Audrey Landers, miscast), wants the nerve gas. So does Tag’s competition: evil rancher Kenderson (the great Joe Don Baker from WALKING TALL), who steals the gas from Tag’s lab and ransoms it for $30 million or else he’ll dump it over downtown Dallas.

Excellent gore makeup, including a juicy face-melting, demonstrate the gas’ effects. Regular doses of intentional humor and impressive stunts lift this Texas production above the bar for independent action movies. The director is Dwight H. Little, who moved on to entertaining action films with bigger budgets, such as RAPID FIRE (Brandon Lee), MARKED FOR DEATH (Steven Seagal), and MURDER AT 1600 (Wesley Snipes), as well as a long career in episodic television (THE PRACTICE, BONES, PRISON BREAK).

GETTING EVEN must have impressed the producers of Little’s later movies, as it demonstrates an ability to put thrilling action sequences on film without a lot of money. With help from veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley (Shatner’s double on STAR TREK being just one of his many credits), Little stages some terrific shootouts, chases, explosions, dangerous helicopter stunts, and an impressive finale with Albert crawling around the outside of Reunion Tower. The score by Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3), reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s CAPRICORN ONE, is a tremendous asset.

Monday, January 01, 2018

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The best of four films (to date) inspired by Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel is the most faithful and the ultimate movie to curl up with on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The story is simple enough: a tsunami overturns a luxury cruise ship during a New Year’s part. The few survivors, mostly strangers to one another, have to work together to reach the “top” of the ship, which is above the surface of the ocean and, hopefully, where rescue crews will be waiting for them.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE influenced a decade or more of “disaster movies” — big-budget thrillers with all-star casts trying to survive a major calamity — though one could argue AIRPORT is the genre’s true father. In any case, Irwin Allen, who was then famous for science fiction television, such as LOST IN SPACE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, grabbed the football and ran with it, producing THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE SWARM, and WHEN TIME RAN OUT…, while other producers rolled out ROLLERCOASTER, TWO-MINUTE WARNING, THE HINDENBURG, EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, and three AIRPORT sequels, among other disaster flicks, in short order.

While Allen’s THE TOWERING INFERNO is arguably the best of the lot, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE isn’t far behind. Boasting an excellent cast, eight Academy Award nominations, two Oscars (including a special award for its groundbreaking visual effects), a hit theme song (“The Morning After”), and a simple premise given dramatic weight by heavyweight scenarists Stirling Silliphant (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) and Wendell Mayes (DEATH WISH), Allen’s pioneering feature holds up decades later. A sequel, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, followed, as did a made-for-television remake and a big-budget theatrical remake. Nobody remembers them fondly.

Gene Hackman, just off THE FRENCH CONNECTION, heads the excursion as a hip priest, who swears and wears turtlenecks, whose every decision is questioned by overbearing cop Ernest Borgnine (MARTY), who is insecure because his sexy younger wife (Stella Stevens) is an ex-prostitute. Melodramatic personal stories became a staple of the disaster genre. Thankfully THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE doesn’t get bogged down in minutes-killing flashbacks and soap opera antics, though the dialogue and some of the performances are awful.

Other survivors include middle-aged Jewish couple Shelley Winters (an Oscar nominee) and Jack Albertson (CHICO AND THE MAN), pretty teenager Pamela Sue Martin (THE LADY IN RED), waiter Roddy McDowall (CLEOPATRA), haberdasher Red Buttons (SAYONARA), and singer Carol Lynley (RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE). Trying to predict which stars make it to the end of the movie is part of the fun, as director Ronald Neame (METEOR — a notorious disaster-movie bomb) tosses all kinds of obstacles in their path. Why was there never a POSEIDON ADVENTURE video game?

The film’s highlight, aside from the astounding tsunami sequence involving dozens of stunts and thousands of gallons of water poured over the cast, is the portly Winters’ underwater swim of death, which is likely the scene that earned the two-time Oscar winner her fourth (and last) nomination (she lost to Eileen Heckart). John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score keeps the suspense high, and there’s fun in noticing Leslie Nielsen as the Poseidon’s captain, less than a decade before he spoofed the genre as the co-star of AIRPLANE!