Tuesday, December 05, 2023

X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

With more money for special effects, X (often given the off-screen subtitle THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES) could have been a science fiction classic. In one scene, leading character James Xavier looking with x-ray vision at a skyscraper is represented by a shot of a building under construction! As it stands, however, X ranks among director Roger Corman’s finest science fiction movies, anchored by a committed performance by Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND) and an acerbic dramatic turn by standup comedian Don Rickles (BEACH BLANKET BINGO). Plus, boy, what an ending.

Dr. Xavier (Milland) is carving new paths in optical research, but is in danger of losing the grant money necessary to continue. Out of desperation, he tests his new eyedrops on himself, and gains the ability to see through walls, book covers, clothing, anything. Unfortunately, as his powers grow, his human brain isn’t advanced enough to process the otherworldly information his eyes absorb, which leads to insanity. Instead of the scientific breakthrough Xavier intended, his new power turns him into a sideshow act. He hits the road after being falsely accused of murder and hides out in a traveling circus owned by the crooked Crane (Rickles).

Though AIP marketed X with an exploitative subtitle, it’s evident Corman took the film more seriously than that, turning out a mature, thoughtful sci-fi parable. Robert Dillon (FRENCH CONNECTION II) and Ray Russell (THE INCUBUS) wrote the screenplay, and while Corman must add bits of unnecessary padding to reach a scant 79-minute running time, the script is intelligent and ambitious — too ambitious for the visual effects department to reach.

Diana van der Vlis (THE SWIMMER), Harold J. Stone (later in Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), and John Hoyt (ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE) provide more than capable support, and Corman repertory players Jonathan Haze (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and Dick Miller (A BUCKET OF BLOOD) offer humor as hecklers of Xavier’s carny act. AIP released X on a double bill with Francis Ford Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Demon Seed

Four-time Academy Award nominee (and winner for DARLING) Julie Christie may have given the screen performance of her life in this literate and underrated science fiction movie with a daring premise. Based on a Dean Koontz novel, DEMON SEED is a computer-goes-rogue story in the tradition of COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT and hundreds of other films, stories, and television shows as far back as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. However, it’s directed so intelligently by Donald Cammell (PERFORMANCE) and given such visual and dramatic flourish that it plays like a true original.

Fritz Weaver (BLACK SUNDAY) co-stars as Alex Harris, a scientist developing an artificial intelligence called Proteus IV. Advanced enough to cure cancer, Proteus is advanced enough to want — and what it wants is Harris’ wife, Susan (Christie). Living alone after Harris’ obsession with Proteus broke up their marriage, Susan becomes trapped in her home by Proteus, which has taken control of the entire house with plans to impregnate Susan and live forever in human form.

The actors and the screenplay by Robert Jaffe (MOTEL HELL) and Roger O. Hirson (THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN) take the outrageous premise seriously — wisely so, as any hint of humor would blow the film apart. Though serious, the plot is also sloppy at times with a few annoying questions left unanswered (for instance, what happens to a car belonging to one of Susan’s visitors?) The special effects, particularly a snake-like tetrahedron that represents one of Proteus’ physical forms, are imaginative, and the orchestral score by Jerry Fielding (THE ENFORCER) is impressive.

Because DEMON SEED is basically a two-hander, it’s important that Christie play off an impressive foe, and she does — not just the mechanical effects representing Proteus, but also the uncredited Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), whose voice is perfectly menacing and controlling. Weaver is believable, Gerrit Graham (USED CARS) is an effective sacrificial lamb, and Berry Kroeger (BLOOD ALLEY) gets to be a good guy in his final film.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Scream (2022)

More than ten years after SCREAM 4 stank up American multiplexes, another sequel to Wes Craven’s influential 1996 slasher classic hit screens. Inexplicably given the same title as the original film, SCREAM brings back several original cast members, though not Craven, who died in 2015. 

Less a movie than a collection of “ho ho remember that” and “okay yeah I get it” fan service callbacks to earlier SCREAMs, SCREAM 5 even opens with a less scary retread of the first movie’s famous teaser with Drew Barrymore. This teen, Tara (Jenna Ortega), who is totally into “enhanced horror” like THE BABADOOK, survives the Ghostface attack, spurring her older sister Samantha (Melissa Barrera) and Sam’s boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) to return to Woodsboro, where Tara is hospitalized. 

While Sam conducts her own investigation into Tara’s precocious high school friends, former Woodsboro sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette, still accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s BROKEN ARROW cue), a survivor of previous Ghostface attacks, checks in with ex-wife Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), now a network television host, and Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who seems to have adjusted well to her past trauma, which includes shooting to death a close relative in SCREAM 4. 

While the veteran SCREAMers have grown comfortably in their roles, bringing authentic mileage to their characters, the newcomers are awkward and unconvincing, stricken by some awful dialogue by screenwriters James Vanderbilt (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) and Guy Busick (READY OR NOT), the worst of the SCREAM series. With Craven gone, SCREAM 5 is in the restless hands of co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, whose superior READY OR NOT is, oddly, more faithful to the mix of scares and smiles in the original film’s DNA than this dismal sequel. 

In the middle of the dull fan service and lazy plotting (the people of Woodsboro are remarkably incurious about police sirens blaring during the day in quiet residential neighborhoods) is Arquette’s remarkable performance, projecting human pain, loss, and regret in a movie that frankly doesn’t earn it. Long live Deputy Dewey.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Final Option

Right-wing propaganda masquerading as shoot-’em-up entertainment, this thriller was known as WHO DARES WINS upon its original British release, but was retitled THE FINAL OPTION for MGM’s U.S. release. It was not a hit in American theaters, but it played on HBO seemingly 70,000 times, despite its R rating, so somebody must have been watching it. It’s too long (125 minutes) and the political story is not terribly interesting, but when director Ian Sharp, who later directed second unit on GOLDENEYE, gets the opportunity to stage violent action, THE FINAL OPTION is impressive. If only there was more of it.

Based loosely on the Special Air Service’s 1980 raid on London’s Iran embassy, which had been hijacked by Arab terrorists, THE FINAL OPTION stars Judy Davis (A PASSAGE TO INDIA) as the leader of “The People’s Lobby,” a terrorist organization that takes over the home of the American ambassador to England (Don Fellows), who is hosting a dinner for Secretary of State Richard Widmark (COMA) and Army general Robert Webber (S.O.B.). All she wants is for the U.S. to blow up one of its Navy bases in Scotland. Fat chance, sister, with the SAS on the case!

The SAS’ secret weapon, luckily for them, is already in the house. Top-billed Lewis Collins (TV’s THE PROFESSIONALS) botched his undercover assignment to infiltrate the People’s Lobby, but Davis takes him along on the hostage-taking anyway, probably because he turns her on in the sack (anything for England, dear boy). Edward Woodward (THE WICKER MAN) is properly staunch as the SAS man who sends Collins on the mission, and horror fans may recognize Ingrid Pitt (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) as one of the terrorists (British television star John Duttine is another).

Collins was almost in OCTOPUSSY, but judging from his work in THE FINAL OPTION — his first lead in a feature — he would have been a Lazenbyesque James Bond. He’s okay in the fight scenes, but has little chemistry with Davis or the actress playing his wife and is generally lacking in color and charisma. That’s a problem with a thriller with so little action (Davis’ group doesn’t invade Fellows’ home until the third act) and so much dialogue. His mainstream film career never took off, nor did that of director Sharp, who went back to television.

Monday, May 10, 2021

She Devil

Scientists Dan Scott (Jack Kelly, who went from this to MAVERICK) and Richard Bach (Albert Dekker, who played mad scientist DR. CYCLOPS in 1940) live platonically with their elderly maid Hannah (Blossom Rock, Grandmama on THE ADDAMS FAMILY) in a mansion with a lab in Los Angeles. This may actually be the least believable element of SHE DEVIL, which 20th Century Fox released on its Regal Films label for exploitation movies as a co-feature with KRONOS.

Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “The Adaptive Ultimate” starred Zachary Scott and Peter Hensen when it was adapted as an episode of SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, Richard Derr and Lola Albright as a TALES OF TOMORROW, and Richard Hart as a STUDIO ONE. So it was already a well-worn tale on television when Carroll Young (JUNGLE JIM) and Kurt Neumann (THE FLY) adapted it for Regal. Dr. Scott believes he has created a serum that can cure all diseases, punctures, broken bones, and other ailments. He wants to test it on humans, but Dr. Bach isn’t sure that’s ethical.

However, one patient, Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), a terminal tuberculosis patient with no family, friends, or income, interests Bach, and he okays the injection of Scott’s serum. It works. She’s up and walking around Beverly Hills in no time, and the two doctors invite her to move in with them and Hannah. They don’t yet realize Kyra has also changed into a stone cold killer who can mentally change the color of her hair (director of photography Karl Struss achieves this without cutting or visual effects by using lens filters).

The worst of Neumann’s four science fiction films as a director, SHE DEVIL basically just plods along with Kyra vamping the men around her to get all the nice things she’s always dreamed of and poor lovesick sap Scott falling for her. It isn’t the fault of Blanchard (ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS), who looks smashing as a blonde and acts believably as a murderous trollop. It’s merely that the story’s stakes aren’t high enough. Kyra is dangerous, but she isn’t that dangerous. Bach and Scott don’t even kick her out of the house, and Scott remains in love with her even after she has killed two people.

Plus, SHE DEVIL is just sloppy. Neumann expects the audience to believe that just changing her hair color makes Kyra unrecognizable to others. When she forces her new husband (John Archer) to drive over a cliff, Neumann cuts to a stock shot of a car backing over the cliff. Blanchard made a few more movies and plenty of television episodes before dying of cancer in her 40s.

Friday, March 26, 2021

World Without End

Writer/director Edward Bernds was better known for comedies starring the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys, but he also made occasional forays into science fiction (SPACE MASTER X-7, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE). He directed WORLD WITHOUT END, a time travel adventure, for Allied Artists in Technicolor and CinemaScope. Despite the advanced technical specs, Bernds does little with the camera to provide visual excitement, and the scenes of the rocketship barreling through outer space are cribbed from Monogram’s earlier release FLIGHT TO MARS.

A flight from Mars opens WORLD WITHOUT END, as four astronauts played by Hugh Marlowe (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS), Rod Taylor (THE TIME MACHINE), Nelson Leigh (CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN), and Christopher Dark (SUDDENLY) return to the Iverson Ranch 500 years after they left it. Nuclear war has devastated the Earth’s surface, and the survivors, who are mainly hot young chicks in short skirts and middle-aged men jealous of the glamorous astronauts, live in an underground city. Apparently only Caucasians survived “the big blow.” Above live “mutates:” hideously deformed beasts who attack the astronauts on sight.

The opposite of sophisticated 1950s sci-fi like FORBIDDEN PLANET and THIS ISLAND EARTH, Bernds’ film is akin to MISSILE TO THE MOON, CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, and other silly films about stiff Earthmen stumbling onto futuristic civilizations populated by horny women looking for mates. It allows Australia native Taylor to use his natural accent, but the performances are stiff, and the actors playing the future Earthmen look silly in their costumes and skullcaps. Nothing is sillier than the foam spiders that “attack” our heroes in a cave.

Allied Artists released WORLD WITHOUT END on a double bill with INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN. Noted character actors Paul Brinegar (RAWHIDE) and Strother Martin (COOL HAND LUKE) are “underground people,” and Herb Vigran has lines in an early scene as a reporter. Considering the similarities between the two films, Rod Taylor must have felt deja vu when he starred in THE TIME MACHINE four years later.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Night School

The director of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG ended his career with the atrocious SEXTETTE (starring a stuffed Mae West) and this minor slasher movie filmed in Boston. Paramount released Ken Hughes' NIGHT SCHOOL on a double bill with the slasher spoof STUDENT BODIES, but you’d be hard-pressed to decide which film is funnier.

NIGHT SCHOOL is certainly the duller, and hardly anyone would remember it if not for its 24-year-old star, Rachel Ward, making her first feature. The English actress quickly appeared in SHARKY’S MACHINE and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID before THE THORN BIRDS, which aired on ABC a year and a half after NIGHT SCHOOL vanished from theaters, made her a brief household name.

Not much about her performance in NIGHT SCHOOL indicates success in Ward’s future, though she’s certainly beautiful (and isn’t shy about revealing her body). Producer Ruth Avergon also provided the screenplay about a mysterious killer in a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet who decapitates young women and deposits their heads in containers of water. Leonard Mann, usually the star of Italian thrillers (THE HUMANOID), plays the Boston detective in charge of the case. His main suspect is anthropology professor Drew Snyder (AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who is boffing his live-in teaching assistant (Ward).

Hughes, perhaps unsurprisingly for a filmmaker with British classics like CROMWELL and THE TRIAL OF OSCAR WILDE on his resume, seems unsuited for bloody horror and unwilling to get into it. Keeping the murders off-camera lowers the interest of horror fans, but NIGHT SCHOOL is too dull, stiffly acted, and light on characterization for more refined thriller fans. The only suspense is the revelation of the killer’s identity, but Avergon’s script provides too few suspects to make a real game of it. Ward made another cheap horror flick, THE FINAL TERROR, but it didn’t get released until after she was famous. Composer Brad Fiedel (THE TERMINATOR) and director of photography Mark Irwin (SCREAM) also went on to better things.