Thursday, April 19, 2007

Burt Topper, R.I.P.

Topper was an independent filmmaker who wrote, produced and/or directed more than a dozen drive-in movies over a 21-year period, beginning with WAR HERO and HELL SQUAD in 1958 and culminating with the odd science-fiction robot-dog comedy C.H.O.M.P.S. (a Hanna-Barbera production!) in 1979. He worked in a variety of genres, including two hot-rod dramas for American International Pictures (THUNDER ALLEY and FIREBALL 500) that starred "Beach Party" alumni Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and Fabian; the biker flick THE HARD RIDE; the awful SF space opera SPACE PROBE TAURUS; and the entertaining show-biz exploitation drama THE DAY THE LORD GOT BUSTED (aka SOUL HUSTLER), about which I wrote in this earlier post.

Topper's most entertaining film may be THE DEVIL'S 8, an obvious ripoff of THE DIRTY DOZEN, except with AIP footing the bill, Topper could afford only eight. Macho Christopher George (THE RAT PATROL) plays Faulkner, an undercover government agent who orchestrates the breakout of seven prisoners from a Southern chain gang. Instead of dashing to freedom, however, Faulkner herds the hoods directly to a waiting helicopter, which flies them to their new camp in moonshine country. There the rugged Faulkner offers them a deal: either help the Feds bring down a murderous bootleg liquor organization run by boss Burl (Ralph Meeker) in exchange for a pardon, or return to prison to serve out their life sentences. Among Faulkner's new partners are callow drunk Sonny (Fabian), bigoted mechanic Billy Joe (Tom Nardini), black Henry (Robert DoQui) and pacifist Chandler (Larry Bishop, later in KILL BILL, VOL. 2).

As with its father, the first half of THE DEVIL'S 8 details the group's training, as Faulkner plops them behind the wheels of some monstrous '50s cars to teach them the fine art of stunt driving. Eventually they prove their readiness, and sneak into Burl's county, where they hijack the crook's shipments and force him into a reluctant partnership. Their ace in the hole is Frank Davis (Kevin Hagen), a former employee of Burl's who wants revenge for the murder of his brother, which was perpetrated by Burl, but blamed on federal agents. Since Frank knows Burl, but not the location of his still, both sides engage in an uneasy rivalry until Faulkner is able to obtain enough evidence to make an arrest.

Some good action sequences and a fine cast make this AIP action picture worthwhile. George went on to a long career as a leading man in exploitation movies, setting the standard with his gravelly presence here, chewing nails and slapping faces to keep his Unruly Eight in line. Meeker has few peers when it comes to portraying slimy egocentric heavies (he played virtually the same role in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD nearly a decade later), and it's interesting to see both stars bounce off the supporting cast of familiar faces. A lot of gunplay, several explosions, some nice car stunts choreographed by Chuck Bail (who also takes a supporting role) and a bit of nudity add to the visceral thrills. The pace slacks somewhat in the middle of the picture, as Topper concentrates on expanding the character relationships, and the rear-screen effects to simulate the actors' driving is among the worst ever. Jerry Styner and Michael Lloyd provide the repetitive rock score, but stay tuned for the hilarious closing theme, which relates the origin of The Devil's 8 and was co-written by Mike Curb.

Burt Topper died this month at the age of 78. You can read his obit and see a recent photo of this unsung exploitation filmmaker at VARIETY's Web site.

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