Friday, May 30, 2008

You Won’t Be Seeing This On DVD

I'll say one thing about the makers of SKIN GAME, the 1971 comic western released by Warner Brothers, especially director Paul Bogart (ALL IN THE FAMILY), writers Richard Alan Simmons (COLUMBO) and Peter Stone (CHARADE), and star James Garner (whose Cherokee Productions made it)--they, to quote Dabney Coleman in DRAGNET, "got balls the size of church bells". It's a sure bet this movie would never get financed by a Hollywood studio today. That's right--it's a lighthearted comedy about slavery!

Despite the PG rating it earned from the MPAA in 1971, Turner Classic Movies aired it several years ago with a TV-14 for "racially sensitive material". That seems a bit harsh to me, for, despite its surprisingly candid look at slavery, it seems such an adult rating might cause viewers to shy away from a film that makes genuine points between the laughs. However, TCM does not appear to have run it since then, and I'm betting concerns about political correctness are the reason.

In the pre-Civil War West, white Quincy (Garner) and black Jason (Louis Gossett Jr.) are fast-talking conmen and friends who travel from small town to small town, working their perennial scam. Pretending to be a slave owner hard up for cash with his "yassuh, nossuh" property, Quincy pops into the local saloon or slave auction to sell Jason for a few hundred bucks, later to rescue him and split the dough. The two have quite a bankroll squirreled away in a Chicago bank, and Jason, whose role in the play is obviously more dangerous, is ready to retire. Quincy convinces his pal to do one last touch, an auction which could fetch up to $2000. Complications arise in the form of two women: Ginger (Susan Clark), another con artist wise to Quincy and Jason's masquerade, and Naomi (Brenda Sykes), a beautiful slave girl whom Jason wants Quincy to buy for him. The plot's more serious undertones kick in when Jason, who was born in New Jersey and has always been free, is actually forced into slavery on the plantation of the cruel Calloway (Andrew Duggan), leading to Quincy's months-long search for his friend.

SKIN GAME is marvelous, featuring fun performances by Garner and Gossett, who share a genuine warmth and chemistry on screen (Gossett later guested on Garner's ROCKFORD FILES series a couple of times), which makes the potentially incendiary plot easier to take. Both actors are given chances to shine on their own, and Gossett especially makes the most of them, able to use his natural charisma and intelligence to put his character on the same level as Garner's.

Not to say that SKIN GAME is watered down; there's a real edge to the racial humor. The N-word pops up almost as often as a Quentin Tarantino script, and, while I found it a bit unnerving, I have the feeling it was Bogart's intention. This is not HOGAN'S HEROES (a show I personally have no problem with) with bumbling slave owners--these are cruel, callous, arrogant men--but SKIN GAME finds just the right balance between social commentary and MAVERICK-style humor. It's no less thought-provoking than a Spike Lee film, but slicker and more entertaining than most.

Bogart's supporting cast is made up mainly of familiar TV faces, such as Edward Asner, Henry Jones, Neva Patterson, Parley Baer, Royal Dano, Juanita Moore, Dort Clark, George Wallace and Burt Mustin. Music by David Shire. Gossett actually returned as Jason three years later in the made-for-TV remake SIDEKICKS, with Larry Hagman replacing Garner. It was likely a pilot for a proposed series, but even in 1974 this sort of humor may have crossed a line few networks wanted to cross.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Judas Pig

After wiping out the Fraulein and her illegal sex operation based out of her Las Vegas casino called the Pink Pussy in BLOOD ON THE STRIP, the Penetrator heads to Washington, D.C. to prevent the assassination of the President in #3, 1974's CAPITOL HELL (heh).

Less than a month after assuming his new job, the President's Press Secretary is gunned down in his White House office by a sniper operating from a nearby hotel. The victim was a good friend of the Penetrator's, who flies his Beechcraft from his hidden California base to the nation's capital to look into the matter. There, he becomes acquainted with an exclusive private club called the Societe Internationale d'Elite (or SIE, pronounced see). The Penetrator suspects SIE may be involved with both the Press Secretary's killing and the Mafia, though it doesn't make sense to him that the mob would sanction a major political assassination.

CAPITOL HELL reads very much like an Executioner novel—no big surprise, as it was still early in the series, and Pinnacle was obviously trying to rip off the success of its own character. A little sex, a lot of violence, an intriguing, pulpy plot, and good pacing make this one of the better Penetrator novels I've read, though I have admittedly loved them all.

Funny though. For a guy who is supposedly such a mystery, three books into the series, it seems like half the country knows of Mark Hardin's identity as the Penetrator. Later novels establish that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been tracking the Penetrator for years with no leads, yet the end of CAPITOL HELL presents several people who know, at the very least, his name and description.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Deadly Cargo

05 Deadly Cargo
March 17, 1979
Music: William Broughton
Writer: Michael Sloan
Director: Cliff Bole

Good grief, how those purty girls do get BJ McKay (Greg Evigan) in all sorts of trouble. After overhearing BJ do the sensitive guy routine with a runaway little boy in a diner, Liz Chambers (Mary Louise Weller) hires him to drive her to Washington D.C., claiming she’s late for her sister’s wedding there. Actually, she has stolen a deadly virus from the laboratory where she works and is desperate to get it in front of a Senate subcommittee, so she can expose her dangerous boss (William Mims).

Joe Maross and Hal Frederick play a couple of cops who inadvertently become involved after Bear stows away in their squad car with Liz’s purse, which contains the virus canister. This eventually leads to the show’s big setpiece, in which BJ has to break into the car (at the sheriff’s station!) to retrieve the canister. Of course, he’s caught, and he and Liz lead several officers on a screeching chase in and around the station parking lot.

For the first time, Evigan receives screen credit for singing the BJ AND THE BEAR theme song. It’s on the same card as Broughton’s composer credit and creator Glen A. Larson’s for penning the theme.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shine On

03 Shine On
February 24, 1979
Music: William Broughton
Writer: Chris Lucky and Frank Lupo
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

Fans of '70s exploitation movies should get a kick out of "Shine On." They'll certainly be familiar with the guest actors, including the racktastic Kimberly Beck, familiar from MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH and as the Final Girl in FRIDAY THE 13TH–THE FINAL CHAPTER, and the wonderful Roberta Collins (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, DEATH RACE 2000). The episode also bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1977 drive-in hit MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, which has the same basic plot. I'm sure guest star Albert Salmi noticed the similarity; he was in MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS.

BJ (Greg Evigan) is kidnapped by three horny sisters (Beck, Collins and Janet Louise Johnson, then coming off ABC's NANCY DREW TV series), who force him to perform odd jobs around their farm until they can prepare their next batch of moonshine for delivery. With their dad (who's never seen) in the hospital waiting for a costly operation, the Smith sisters need to make their delivery and get paid pronto. Unfortunately, rival moonshiner Orville Rucker (Salmi) and his two dimwit sons (Dirk Blocker from BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP and DELIVERANCE's creepy hillbilly Bill McKinney) want the Smith's stash for themselves.

Semi mayhem is kept to somewhat of a minimum this time 'round, though it does figure in the stunt-filled finale, as the girls tear off Johnson's jeans and use them to make wicks for the "moonshine cocktails" they toss at Salmi's pursuing vehicle. Evigan likely had a good time kissing his leading ladies, and director Nyby keeps the show moving at a good clip. Nyby, the son of director Christian Nyby, who worked concurrently with his son on some of the same TV series, making cataloging their credits something of a mess, remained a busy helmer clear through the mid-2000s, directed several episodes of DIAGNOSIS: MURDER and most (if not all) of the Perry Mason TV-movies.

"Shine On" is one of writer Frank Lupo's earliest credits. He soon graduated to producer on THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO and went on to write and produce several other Stephen J. Cannell series, including THE A-TEAM and HUNTER (which he also created).

Justice In The Barrel Of A Gun

The .357 Vigilante series came late to Pinnacle's string of men's adventure series, the first book being published in 1985. This is one of the few from this genre that I actually read when it first came out. Strangely, even though I haven't ridden myself of too many books over the years, .357 VIGILANTE seems to be one of them, as my original copy doesn't appear to be here anymore. However, a recent eBay auction netted me all three in the series at a favorably low price.

Author Ian Ludlow is actually Lee Goldberg, who may be better known as a television writer who has worked pretty consistently since the 1980s on mystery series like SPENSER: FOR HIRE, THE COSBY MYSTERIES, DIAGNOSIS: MURDER, BAYWATCH, MARTIAL LAW, SEAQUEST DSV, BURKE'S LAW and MONK. He also keeps busy today writing tie-in novels based on some of those shows, but early in his career, he was cranking out these .357 Vigilante actioners.

The plot is not exactly original. Brett Macklin is a helicopter pilot and classic car renovator who goes into bloodthirsty action when his cop father is burned alive by Los Angeles street punks. The killers are set free on a bogus technicality, spurring the previously non-violent Macklin to hunt them with his dad's old .357 Magnum.

However, the story is more complicated than that, as more bodies begin falling in L.A., all of them belonging to Officer Macklin's friends. Not only does this political conspiracy involving a gubernatorial race place Brett's life in jeopardy, but he must also resist the efforts of his best friend, a police detective assigned to capture the vigilante killer, dubbed by the press "Mr. Jury."

Judging from Goldberg's TV credits, you can guess the type of story he delivers here. It's straightforward and clean without subtext, symbolism or suspense. Some of the dialogue could easily come out of David Hasselhoff's mouth, it's puerile enough. The book's also a bit long at 214 pages. But it's a good, brisk read with plenty of action and pop culture references to make it a slicked-up, dumbed-down PG-13 version of the Executioner.

Still Foxy At 59

Happy birthday to the awesome Pam Grier, still the only female action star in the history of motion pictures. Her 59th yesterday gives me the opportunity to post these cool one-sheets from some of her memorable movies.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack, R.I.P.

The fine producer and director Sydney Pollack, who won two Academy Awards and an Emmy, has died at age 73. I won't say too much more about his life and career; you can read his obituary here, which gives you all the details. Pollack was a dying breed: a master Hollywood craftsman who was capable of working in many different genres and telling an interesting story in an interesting manner. Pollack directed comedies (TOOTSIE), love stories (OUT OF AFRICA), political thrillers (THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR), period pieces (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?) and so on.

Before he was a film director, Pollack had a steady, stellar career in television, and it's unfortunate that, because studios are slow to give old TV shows a second chance, most of Pollack's best TV work is unavailable on DVD and probably always will be (such is the case with THE BOB HOPE CHRYSLER THEATER, a dramatic anthology that earned Pollack an Emmy for directing).

It's also worth noting that Pollack was also an extremely good actor, who was most recently seen as George Clooney's boss in MICHAEL CLAYTON. He replaced the fired Harvey Keitel in EYES WIDE SHUT, and is hilarious as Dustin Hoffman's harried agent in TOOTSIE, which Pollack also directed.

If you're interested in Netflixing some of Pollack's best work, let me recommend the wonderful ABSENCE OF MALICE (Paul Newman was really at the top of his game with this and Sidney Lumet's THE VERDICT a year later), TOOTSIE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and--what the heck--THE FIRM, which is a solid thriller based on a John Grisham novel. It's not my cup o' tea, but THE WAY WE WERE has been known to leave audiences weeping. In a good way.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Uccidere Ogni

In KILL TIME, #6 in Pinnacle's Butcher men's adventure series, we learn how the mysterious hero known only as Bucher received his name. Soon after he was born, he was dropped off on the doorstep of an orphanage in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the alcoholic reverend who ran the place named the baby after a 16th century German Protestant named Bucher. Just the one name—Bucher—went on Baby Bucher's birth certificate.

Bucher's assignment in 1973's KILL TIME seems simple enough: to ensure a son of one notorious Mafia family and the teenage daughter of a rival family marry, so that the two sides will have to stop killing one another. But, of course, the life of the Butcher is never that simple, as the assassin bounces back and forth between Atlanta and Guatemala when a secondary mission suddenly takes precedence.

KILL TIME may have been written by Michael Avallone, posing as Stuart Jason. If you're an avid reader at all, particularly of mysteries and crime stories, you've likely come across Avallone, even if you didn't know it, as he wrote under many different aliases (Stuart Jason was Pinnacle's house name for its Butcher books, and a handful of authors wrote them). Avallone wrote everything from sex novels to hard-boiled crime dramas (private eye Ed Noon was his creation) to kid's books to men's adventure to TV tie-ins starring The Partridge Family and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He even wrote the novelization of FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART 3! Avallone died in 1999, and was probably an interesting guy. Something of a hack, of course, as were most who toiled in the world of quickie trash paperbacks, but a fine craftsman nevertheless.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is It The Years Or The Mileage?

I've been avoiding writing about INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, because I didn't know really what I wanted to say about it. I attended the midnight showing on Wednesday evening, which should give you a good idea of how I was anticipating the movie. After all, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is my all-time favorite movie and has been since I saw it four times during the summer of 1981. I saw both sequels theatrically and several times since then. However, it's been awhile since I was as thoroughly disappointed by a movie as I was this one. Yes, I've seen worse movies—much, much worse—but I've been waiting nearly twenty years for a new Indiana Jones. It has its moments, and spending more time with Harrison Ford's enthusiastic archeologist Indiana Jones is always going to be some fun. But. Sigh. But, KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is just…a drag.

It's easy to assign blame to executive producer/co-writer George Lucas (who takes story credit with Jeff Nathanson; David Koepp wrote the screenplay), seeing as how he destroyed the STAR WARS legacy with three inadequate sequels, but Ford and Spielberg, who also had total script approval, deserve some too. Koepp's treatment feels like a Frankensteinian stitchwork of "cool scenes" from the many earlier scripts Lucas commissioned during the 2000s. Many scenes, which may have made sense in those scripts, play without context and without a point here, one example being Indy's accidental invasion of a Nevada nuclear test site, where he ludicrously survives an atomic bomb blast. As the button to a setpiece that integrates the surroundings into the action, this could have been fun, but as KOTCS plays, there's no reason for Indy to even be there.

I really don't want to spend much energy listing the reasons why KOTCS doesn't work, not as an action/adventure or as an Indiana Jones movie. I could talk about idiotic CGI gophers or the outlandish action scenes that bear more resemblance to Tom & Jerry cartoons than the 1940s Republic serials Spielberg and Lucas grew up with. Or the absurd decision to make Indy a deadbeat dad by introducing motorcycle tough Mutt Williams (a miscast Shia LeBeouf), who is sent by his mother, Marion (the welcome Karen Allen), Indy's flame from RAIDERS, to recruit Indy to rescue her from Russians after the titular skull.

Besides Ford, who still has a gleam in his eye that proves Indy's having a good time, no matter what pickle he's gotten himself into, Cate Blanchett is the only performer who appears to understand the pulp genre. As psychic KGB agent Irina Spalko, Blanchett decks herself out in a vaguely dominatrix uniform, complete with rapier, to knock Indy about. Janusz Kaminski's photography doesn't match the richness of Douglas Slocombe's on the original trilogy, and even the reliable John Williams seems to be sleepwalking, mostly recycling themes for the earlier pictures. Of course, this is necessary to some extent, but this is the first score for an Indiana Jones film that I didn't whistle upon leaving the theater.

While Lucas plans to continue making sequels with LeBeouf under Indy's trademark fedora (good luck with that, George; I expect Shia to be in ten years where Chris O'Donnell is now), I'd rather he didn't. I don't think I could take another heartbreak like this one.

Pistol Whipped

PISTOL WHIPPED is the latest Steven Seagal movie, which is already airing on USA cable just two months after its DVD premiere. If you've seen any of the 14 (!) movies Seagal has starred in over the past 5 (!) years—and you haven't (SUBMERGED? OUT OF REACH, anyone?)—you know that their homogenous titles and plots make them seem to be one long BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ of an epic. Though just any one of them, watched at random, can feel longer than BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ.

PISTOL WHIPPED isn't really one of Seagal's worst, but it earns the audience's wrath by having the indecency to waste the great character actor Lance Henriksen, starring opposite Seagal for the first time. Henriksen appears briefly in only three scenes that were obviously shot in the same day. As "The Old Man," Lance and his henchman, Blue (played by familiar LAW & ORDER guest star Paul Calderon), strongarm drunken, gambling-addicted, corrupt ex-cop Matt (Seagal) into working for them as an assassin. Since their targets are mobster scumbags, Matt doesn't appear to be too shaken up by his forced new career (Henriksen bought up all his gambling markers, worth more than $1 million; why the hell would these bookies keep giving him credit?), until the next subject to be whacked is Steve (Mark Eliot Wilson), Matt's former cop buddy who's now married to his MILFy ex-wife (OPEN WATER's Blanchard Ryan, who oughta be getting better offers than this).

As usual, Seagal demonstrates that he's about the laziest actor in film today (narrowly beating out Michael Madsen), although considering how many times he's made this same movie, I suppose it's unsurprising how bored he looks. At least he showed up at the dubbing studio to loop all his lines (some Seagal movies have unconvincing voice doubles dubbing occasional dialogue), though he still relies a lot on doubles to appear on camera while he sleeps or something in his trailer.

The action scenes, staged by Dutch director Roel Reine, are unimaginative and implausible, many of them consisting of guys in suits firing dozens of bullets from automatic weapons at point blank range and hitting nobody. J.D. Zeik's clunky script is frequently ludicrous beyond belief, as in the hilarious exposition that opens the film, where a priest tells Seagal (us, really) all about Seagal's wastrel lifestyle, which one would presume Steve knows already.

Strangely, considering he's a 57-year-old man who appears bloated, pasty and apathetic, hot young ladies continue to throw themselves at Seagal. Poor Renee Elise Goldsberry receives the Good Sport Award for making out with Seagal and pretending her character is having a good time. She even—no lie—has dialogue complimenting Seagal on how large his dick is. I wonder who wrote that line.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Odyssey of the Shady Truth

02 Odyssey of the Shady Truth
February 10, 1979
Music: Dick Halligan
Teleplay: Michael Realman and Michael Sloan
Story: Michael Realman
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

Four months after he was (seemingly) arrested by the U.S. Army on charges of white slavery, kidnapping and God knows what else in "The Foundlings," the two-hour BJ AND THE BEAR pilot, Elroy P. Lobo (Claude Akins), the corrupt sheriff of Orly County, is back on the job (without explanation) with a mad-on for concrete cowboy BJ (Greg Evigan). Lobo frames BJ on moonshining charges and tosses him into the Orly hoosegow, where he practically salivates with glee when thinking about the young trucker busting rocks on a chain gang for the next twenty years.

However, pretty Barbara Sue (Jo Ann Harris), feeling guilty over her role in BJ's capture, uses the semi (with Bear's help!) to rip the wall off the Orly jail and permit BJ and his equally innocent cellmates to escape. The rest of the episode plays out a lot like "The Foundlings," with Lobo and his men setting up roadblocks and helicopter searches all over the county in search of BJ's red-and-white Kenworth, which "ain't exactly inconspicuous."

"Odyssey of the Shady Truth" (the title refers to a barge that BJ uses during his escape) is clearly modeled after the 1978 smash hit SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, right down to the running gag involving the police cruiser driven by Lobo and his lunkheaded deputy, Perkins (Mills Watson), getting demolished piece-by-piece throughout the hour until only a roofless, doorless shell is left. Filling in for Sally Field is Jo Ann Harris, one of the sexiest actresses to populate prime time programming during the 1970s. In addition to regular gigs on the shortlived Quinn Martin crime drama MOST WANTED (Harris guest-starred on several QM series) and the sitcom DETECTIVE SCHOOL, Harris also toplined the fine exploitation drama RAPE SQUAD, directed by Bob Kelljan. Like far too many actresses of the '70s, Harris was a major talent who was sadly underutilized by Hollywood (one could also say the same of Roberta Collins, who appears in the next BJ AND THE BEAR episode).

Randi Oakes, soon to join the CHIPS squad and make a name of herself as a good sport on various BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS competitions, also appears as one of two New York City secretaries who are snatched by Lobo (the other is Susan Buckner, who vanished from films after a role in the fine Wes Craven chiller DEADLY BLESSING). Veteran Bill Williams, once a big star from the '50s series THE ADVENTURES OF KIT CARSON, looks familiar toting a shotgun in the episode, and James Griffith as Harris' uncle is known to anyone who watched TV during the '50s and '60s.

Love for LOBO

This month has been an incredibly busy time for me (more on that later), so I haven't been able to watch any more BJ AND THE BEAR/THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO episodes. I know how badly you're clamoring for them.

Until then, LOBO lover Hal Horn defends the NBC series and campaigns for a DVD release. His comparison to LOBO to his favorite show F TROOP is an apt one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

After 25 Years Of Independent Filmmaking, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman Is Still “Making Art”

During the early 2000s, I penned a pair of articles for MICRO-FILM, a locally produced zine edited in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois by Jason Pankoke. I didn't do as much writing for MICRO-FILM as either Jason or I would have liked, often due to my busy schedule. Besides the two articles, I also reviewed a few films on DVD. Interviews with actor Robert Forster and director Bert I. Gordon were originally intended for MICRO-FILM, but the zine's haphazard publishing schedule made the pieces out-of-date by the time they could have been published, and I eventually posted them at Mobius Home Video Forum, where I have served as a moderator for nearly a decade.

Since no one has had the opportunity to read these articles since they were originally published in MICRO-FILM, I thought it might be nice to make them available here. The following piece was included in MICRO-FILM #3, published November 2000. It's still on sale from Jason for just $3.50 and is of interest to anyone with a love for independent cinema.

"After 25 Years of Independent Filmmaking, Troma's Lloyd Kaufman Is Still 'Making Art'" was written as Kaufman's TERROR FIRMER was beginning to play theaters across the U.S. Admittedly not a Troma fan, I was nonetheless thrilled to chat over the telephone with Kaufman, who was a fantastic interview. Even though he was in Texas to show TERROR FIRMER at a film festival and was talking to me from his hotel room filled with festive visitors, he graciously chatted for nearly two hours. Even when I tried to give him a gracious way out of the conversation, he urged me to continue, telling me how much fun he was having. Pretty soon, our relationship transformed from interviewer/interviewee into a couple of guys talking about movies, politics and humor. One of these days, I'll have to transcribe the interview (what there is of it, as I ran out of tape about 90 minutes into it) and post it as a Q&A. For historic purposes, I have left the copy as it was originally written, so please forgive any outdated information.

It's a sure bet you've never seen anything quite like TERROR FIRMER before. New York City-based Troma Studios, one of the world's oldest and most successful independent movie companies, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with this outrageous post-modern ode to its own unique oeuvre and the sex, blood and slapstick that made them famous. Both slasher movie and satire, TERROR FIRMER combines NC-17-style mayhem with a social conscience that can easily be lost beneath the gore and scatological gags. For Lloyd Kaufman, its 54-year-old director, co-writer and co-star, as well as Troma's president, TERROR FIRMER is the zenith of his three decades in moviemaking.

The plot details the adventures of a low-budget film crew attempting to shoot a gory monster movie on the streets of New York, which can be a harrowing experience under normal circumstances, but becomes more so when the crew is being systematically and graphically slaughtered by a cross-dressing serial killer. The studio-within-the-film is called Troma, and it comes as no surprise that the screenplay was based upon Kaufman's autobiography, ALL I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FILMMAKING I LEARNED FROM THE TOXIC AVENGER. "I'm writing that book," Kaufman told me, "and it occurred to me that Troma's history and idealism might be the thesis around which to coagulate a Troma movie. And that's really how TERROR FIRMER began. It began from the germ of 'what is independent art?' And independent art, of course, is done by people who believe in it. That's what TERROR FIRMER is. A small group of young people who believe what they're saying."

Using his own experiences making cult classics like SQUEEZE PLAY!, CLASS OF NUKE 'EM HIGH and Troma's magnum opus, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Kaufman developed a treatment which he passed along to a pair of young screenwriters, Douglas Buck and Patrick Cassidy. "I had seen a short film that Doug had made, and it was brilliant. Really dark. Incredibly dark. I wrote a treatment and got him to do the first draft. And it was not funny enough. I had Patrick, and also there's another guy who works for us named Gabe Friedman (who's credited as TERROR FIRMER's supervising editor), and, with Doug Buck, we'd meet once a week at my home, and we basically brainstormed, and Patrick did a lot of the dark humor that you observe in the movie."

It's precisely that sort of "dark humor" that sets a Troma production apart from everyone else. TERROR FIRMER begins with a killer in a dress ripping a man's leg off and beating him to death with it, while a heavy-metal version of "Amazing Grace" cranks on the soundtrack, moves on to a screaming, bloody fetus being torn from a pregnant woman's stomach, and continues on a mad journey through nearly every bodily function and taboo subject one can imagine--from urination to the handicapped, full-frontal nudity to sex with a pickle, government conspiracies to hermaphrodites. According to Kaufman, few subjects are immune from Troma's vision. "We don't do anything we don't believe in. If it's something that in our hearts we can live peacefully, we will make the movie. As long as I believe in it, there's nothing that would stop me. I do not believe in doing a movie that makes Adolf Hitler into a good guy. I don't believe in it, so I wouldn't do it. As long as we--the Troma Team--believe in what we're doing, the sky's the limit, or," Kaufman chuckles, "lower. Hail Satan, as we say!"

Shot in approximately 30 days on a surprisingly low budget of $400,000, TERROR FIRMER gives every indication of being a more expensive film. The cinematography and editing are first-rate for a picture of this level, and much of the movie's quirkiness lies in the guerrilla-style tactics used by Kaufman and his crew to achieve the picture's most indelible images, including an obese man in a blindfold running naked through a crowded Times Square. "Our production manager, who was not exactly a tireless worker, somehow forgot to put on the permit that 'a naked man runs through Times Square'. It said 'man walks through Times Square'. Needless to say, the police were very angry, and, of course, I--being the boss--had to take the abuse. We got that first take, and they shut us down. They were genuinely pissed." A remarkable speeding car stunt is recycled from an earlier Troma production, and for the gory shot of a head being smashed beneath a car's tire? "A cantaloupe filled with hamburger, cranberry sauce, a little bit of food coloring and some Karo syrup," Kaufman laughs. "You can read about that in my book."

More ambitious than one might expect from a gorefest in which severed body parts are nearly as plentiful as lines of dialogue, TERROR FIRMER takes the time to develop an interesting love triangle among the film crew, involving nice-guy boom man Casey (Will Keenan, who also served as casting director and associate producer), obnoxious special-effects technician Jerry (Trent Haaga) and rookie production assistant Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle). The three leads appear to take their roles seriously, and infest the love story with a surprising level of intensity. Keenan is a Troma regular, having played the male lead in 1998's TROMEO AND JULIET. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Haaga, who had never appeared on film before. "Trent was a major Troma fan," Kaufman said, "and I met with him when his website did a chat with me, and he was unbelievably knowledgeable when it comes to Troma movies. When it came time to do TERROR FIRMER, Trent asked if he could perhaps have a walk-on part, and I said, 'Sure, fine. Why don't you come in and read?' And on the first day of auditions, we all knew--this is Jerry. This is the Troma freak."

The Seattle-born LaTourelle was a surprise choice as Jennifer, since, although Kaufman appreciates her acting skills, she isn't the "zaftig" type who normally appears in Troma productions. "Alyce is an amazingly talented actress. She's got an amazing sense of humor. Nobody expected me to pick her. You know, clearly her breasts are not the, uh, magnitude one would expect (in a Troma film), but I picked her because she was the best actress who came in and the funniest. I prefer small-breasted women, actually."

Ironically, the funniest performance is essayed by Kaufman himself, who is broadly hilarious as Larry Benjamin, the blind, befuddled director of the film-within-the-film. Whether pep-talking his crew with cheers of "Let's go make some art!" or obliviously splashing urine on nearby fornicators, Benjamin is really the heart and soul of TERROR FIRMER. Surprisingly, Kaufman regrets playing the role himself, which was done out of necessity. "We have a wealth of young new talent--you've got them lining up around the block--but older people are not that interested in working for free. So the people available to me in my age group were minimal. Quite frankly, I was a better actor that what the field exhibited. To me, it's purely playing myself as a caricature of myself. I wish I could have had an actor who would have given a little more depth to the character, but I was better than anyone else I could afford."

Kaufman, an outspoken and erudite man who can speak with intelligence and good humor on any number of subjects ranging from politics and literature to economics and the decline of American artistic standards, considers himself an artist, and seems surprised that the filmmaking Establishment (re: Hollywood) doesn't. "I take my movies very seriously. I do not take myself seriously. TERROR FIRMER took two years of my life. There are low-budget exploitation film directors who are interested in churning out the movies and making what is called 'schlock'. I don't make schlock. I make Troma movies, and there's a tremendous difference." Kaufman's films have been feted at various film festivals around the world, including Cannes, and in December, a retrospective of 14 Troma pictures will be highlighted at Anthology Film Archives, an organization dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of independent avant-garde cinema. His influence is being felt among mainstream filmmakers today. "The Farrelly Brothers, as talented as they may be, are doing what we did fifteen years ago. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently reviewed TERROR FIRMER, and said, 'Without Lloyd Kaufman, there would have been no THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.' If you've seen ME, MYSELF & IRENE, the Carvel shot was in SQUEEZE PLAY!, which we made in 1976."

According to Kaufman, TERROR FIRMER's theatrical response has been successful. It will hit video shelves in January on both VHS and DVD, with both the R-rated version and the unrated "Director's Cut" appearing on the DVD, along with three audio commentaries, a making-of documentary, trailers and more. Of course, that's assuming TERROR FIRMER ever receives an R from the MPAA. "It has been submitted numerous times, and they are doing their best to disembowel it. I hate them. They clearly are there to do the bidding of the giant conglomerates. They will give Disney (which owns Miramax, the studio that released SCARY MOVIE) an R rating for a movie that has a penis being shoved through somebody's head, but with TERROR FIRMER, we have to cut out vocabulary. You cannot imagine what they're making us do to get the R rating."

Next up for Troma will be CITIZEN TOXIE, the fourth adventure in the TOXIC AVENGER saga, which will premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. "Wait'll you see CITIZEN TOXIE!" Kaufman proclaims. "It's got time travel, a parallel universe, six different superheroes, car crashes, fighting, gunfights, machine guns--it's just unbelievable, and we've done it for under a half-million bucks". It will assuredly also contain the irreverence and undeniable appeal that keep the studio's fans--dubbed "Tromaniacs"--coming back for more, and sets Troma apart from every other moviemaking force in America today. Love it or hate it, a Troma film is like no other, thanks to the independent spirit of its guiding creative force, Lloyd Kaufman.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Death In The Spot

Kinky sex raises its head for the first time in the Executioner series, as Mack Bolan takes his firearms and fighting skills to Merry Olde England. After an adventure in France (presumably in #5, CONTINENTAL CONTRACT), Bolan stops off in England for a breather in ASSAULT ON SOHO, but is waylaid at the airport by mobsters out to collect the $250,000 bounty on his head. He's rescued by a young woman in a speedy car who somehow knows all about him and that he would be arriving that night.

She takes him back to the Museum de Sade, which appears to be a private club that caters to its members' most extreme sexual kinks and tortures. Disgustedly, Bolan leaves, only to plunge into his second firefight of the night. The Mafia that the Executioner had been pissing off from L.A. to Phoenix to Miami to Paris is now closing in on London with a gunsel named Nick Trigger leading the posse.

As usual, author Don Pendleton gives a healthy dose of sex, violence and sadism with a slight murder mystery thrown in as well, as Bolan looks to discover the killer of an old man tortured to death in one of the museum's more, uh, colorful devices.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Scream In The Hot Desert Air

The earliest Penetrator novel I have is #2, BLOOD ON THE STRIP, published by Pinnacle in 1973. And it's pretty badass, pitting the Penetrator against an evil bitch called the Fraulein. Through a corrupt talent agency called Starmaker, the Fraulein and her people lure young girls into the fold with promises of making them movie stars, and then drug them and "train" them in sundry sordid sexplay. One highlight finds Mark Hardin stumbling into a large dark warehouse where nude girls are caged during their training, which consists of the Fraulein's brutal henchmen raping them.

Hardin gets involved when the Fraulein's latest victim happens to be Sally Wilson, who is a friendly waitress at a diner he frequents. Sally's stubbornness leads to a nasty facial disfigurement, pissing off the Penetrator to the point where he flies his private plane to Las Vegas and penetrates the Fraulein's base of operations, a casino called the Pink Pussy.

Chet Cunningham (writing as Lionel Derrick) injects plenty of sleaze and violence into the story, including a couple of big building explosions. The kinky finale is an odd one, finding the Penetrator chasing his quarry literally into a snake pit. Great stuff, showing that Pinnacle had the Penetrator formula down pat from the beginning.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Voice Is My Passport. Verify Me.

Someone has written a darned good defense of 1992's SNEAKERS as "one of the more tragically overlooked films of the 1990s." And I heartily agree. SNEAKERS is one of my favorite movies, one that never fails to entertain me and one of the smartest movies I've ever seen. Sadly, it's too late now, but I used to say that, if I had the money to bankroll a sequel to any film ever made, I would make SNEAKERS 2.

I won't write much more about SNEAKERS, if only because "TK" at the Pajiba Web site has done such a fine job, even giving the wonderful Stephen Tobolowsky a shout-out, that I would merely be repetitious. SNEAKERS is a clever, witty, exciting adventure with a terrific all-star cast that you should Netflix as soon as possible.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Do Italians Make The Best Killer Croc Movies?

Judging from the trailer for 1989's KILLER CROCODILE...maybe!

"Anthony" Crenna is actually Richard Crenna, Jr., the son of the well-known film and television star. And what the heck is Van Johnson doing in this?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer—The 15-Years-Later Affair

During the early 2000s, I penned a pair of articles for MICRO-FILM, a locally produced zine edited in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois by Jason Pankoke. I didn't do as much writing for MICRO-FILM as either Jason or I would have liked, often due to my busy schedule. Besides the two articles, I also reviewed a few films on DVD. Interviews with actor Robert Forster and director Bert I. Gordon were originally intended for MICRO-FILM, but the zine's haphazard publishing schedule made the pieces out-of-date by the time they could have been published, and I eventually posted them at Mobius Home Video Forum, where I have served as a moderator for nearly a decade.

Since no one has had the opportunity to read these articles since they were originally published in MICRO-FILM, I thought it might be nice to make them available here. The following piece was included in MICRO-FILM #5, published June 2002. It's still on sale from Jason for just $3.50 and is of interest to anyone with a love for independent cinema. "HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER—The 15-Years-Later Affair" was a look back at the Illinois-lensed horror classic fifteen years after it was made (though it was more than that by the time the article was published). For historic purposes, I have left the copy as it was originally written, so please forgive any outdated information.

Many words have been used to describe HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER--intense, frightening, shocking, heartbreaking. No matter how one feels about the horror genre in general, there's no question that HENRY leaves its mark on all those who watch it. The lead character, a placid sociopath named Henry who leaves a squalid and bloody trail of corpses in his murderous wake, doesn't punctuate his kills with a groan-inducing series of one-liners like Freddy Krueger of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, nor is he a mindless, unstoppable killing machine like HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers. What makes Henry almost unique among horror movie icons is that he could--and does--exist in our own neighborhood. Henry could be the quiet neighbor next door. Or the mailman. Or the guy standing behind you in line at the convenience store. Even, as in the film, the exterminator ridding your home of rodents. HENRY is not a fun movie. But it is illuminating, fascinating and more than a little bit scary. It's also a stunning debut for those who made it, including its star Michael Rooker, producer Steven A. Jones and director John McNaughton.

The story of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER begins in 1985, when Waleed Ali, who owned a Chicago-based video distribution company called Maljack Productions, Inc. (perhaps better known as MPI), decided to make his own horror movie for MPI to distribute directly to home video, and gave McNaughton a $100,000 budget for his feature debut. McNaughton, a Chicago native who had directed a few low-budget documentaries for MPI, brought in Jones, a musician, designer and commercial animation director who had created MPI's logo. The two were inspired by a segment of ABC's 20/20 program about serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who claimed to have murdered as many as 300 people. Needing a writer, Jones brought in Richard Fire, with whom he had worked in Stuart Gordon's Organic Theater Company in Chicago.

Together, the threesome created the story of Henry, an illiterate ex-con who lives in a dingy apartment with a brutal prison buddy, Ottis, and Ottis' younger sister Becky, a former stripper fleeing from an abusive marriage. There is no plot; rather, HENRY merely displays the day-to-day existence of a man without feeling, perhaps without a soul. Henry feels no pain and no joy. He's incapable of emotion, although there is a glimmer in some of his quiet conversations with Becky. We see him go about his business very methodically, intelligently and, most frighteningly, cold-bloodedly.

To portray the tricky role of Henry, McNaughton and Jones chose an Alabama-born actor who had never before appeared in a film. "We were looking for that magic person for Henry," McNaughton told FANGORIA in 1991. "Then one day Jeff Segal, who did HENRY's makeup effects, brought Michael Rooker in. Michael was having a hard time working in Chicago theater. He was just too edgy. He was painting houses at the time. He basically came in as Henry, wearing the clothes he would wear in the movie--that jacket he wore was his own personal jacket. He was in character, and I thought, 'This is the guy! Oh, God, please let him be able to act!' As it turned out, he could act very well; he's extremely gifted." Although Rooker's performance may at first glance appear immobile, it's very clear that a lot is going on inside Henry, and Rooker does a stunning job of suggesting that inner turmoil.

35-year-old Tom Towles was chosen to play Ottis, and has remained loyal to his HENRY bosses. According to Jones, "Tommy was a member of the Organic Theater with Richard Fire, and had starred in many stage productions. We still try to find a place for him in all of our projects." Pretty Tracy Arnold nailed the role of Becky. "Tracy was another Organic person who auditioned for the role, " Jones says. "She was the first one to bolt for L.A. and she got some commercial work right away, then nothing. She's still on the west coast, but I don't believe she does much acting." It's hard to believe Arnold's career didn't flourish in Hollywood, since her turn as HENRY's only sympathetic character is equally as impressive as those of her two male co-stars.

Benefiting from a sharp, clinical directorial approach and three exceptional performances, HENRY is a great horror movie--truly disturbing and one of the most fascinating character studies of Evil ever filmed. As Rooker told the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS' Phantom of the Movies, "I didn't want to make Henry just this badass killer. I didn't want to play him 'big'. I wanted to play him as a person who'd been drained of almost all emotion...I think Henry reacts to situations...but Henry can also be very calculating. The first time I saw (HENRY), I came out with a real empty feeling in my gut...It's a very dark piece." McNaughton and Jones knew HENRY was a success on an artistic level right away, even if their financial benefactors didn't. "I wasn't so much surprised as gratified that the audiences felt something," Jones says. "When we left the first screening at Chicago's Music Box Theater, two women walked out ahead of John and I. One said, 'That was really great!' The other said, 'Whattaya mean it was great--it sucked!' That told me that something good was happening."

HENRY's most notorious scene involves Henry and Ottis videotaping their slaughter of an entire family in their victims' suburban living room, and then watching the tape at home in slow motion. The entire incident is seen only from the video camera's point of view, and it's one of cinema's most vivid examples of the senseless destruction of precious human life. Its filming was a raw experience for its participants. Jones relates, "The footage was actually shot by Michael Rooker, who then enters his own scene." Jones also confirms a shocking story that has long been rumored about this notorious scene. "The actress (Lisa Temple) who plays the wife required some kind of medical attention for a bit of a breakdown she suffered during filming. According to John, she's fine now!" The scene, which was partially improvised by Rooker and Towles, is grueling to watch, and perhaps more so when one realizes that the emotions of the woman being ravaged by Henry and Ottis are similar to those of the actress.

Although finished in the spring of 1986 after a 28-day shooting schedule and a final cost of $112,000 (the additional $12,000 was the cost of transferring the film negative to 1" videotape--no theatrical release was originally planned), HENRY sat on MPI's shelf for four years. Waleed Ali and his brother Malik, who owned MPI, were expecting a typical slasher film in the HALLOWEEN vein. "They didn't like it at all, so they gave up on it," says Jones. Chuck Parello, MPI's publicity director at the time, states succinctly, "I wasn't there when the Alis first saw the film, so I can't really say what they were thinking. But I don't think anything can prepare you for the impact of watching a film like HENRY for the first time, especially when it was being viewed in 1986, way before films and television became as violent as they are today. I suppose that the brothers may have expected something a little more conventional. This was their first time investing in the making of a feature film, and they were probably worried about making their money back, as most producers are apt to do." Tim Lucas, whose VIDEO WATCHDOG publication is perhaps the "bible" on science fiction, fantasy and horror films, says, "I had some connections at MPI Video while the film was in production, and for awhile afterwards, and I remember them sending me screeners dubbed over cassettes of HENRY a year or two before it was even released. The film would run out, and there would be the bathtub scene or whatever. They had no idea what they had, that the movie would be so well-received, and they actually had some fairly savvy film people working there at the time."

HENRY was also saddled with an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, and since the X was due to the movie's general tone, and not to any individual moments of sex or violence, there was no way to recut it for an R. So it sat quietly in MPI's vaults. McNaughton, Jones and Fire moved on to do THE BORROWER, a science fiction/horror movie starring Rae Dawn Chong as a detective chasing an alien that decapitates people and possesses their bodies that was eventually released directly to video by Cannon (Towles and Arnold also appear in supporting roles).

HENRY's story is just beginning, however. "I had been working at MPI for about a year when John and I started to talk about ways to get HENRY off the shelf," says Parello. "I started showing it to film critics I knew and arranged screenings of it in New York." Among the screenings was a film festival run by infamous performance artist Joe Coleman and his wife. That's where Elliot Stein of THE VILLAGE VOICE saw it. "He went on to call HENRY 'the best American film of the year'. Then Peter Travers wrote a rave in ROLLING STONE, and the ball started rolling from there." Noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE) saw a 16mm print of HENRY, and chose it to screen at 1989's Telluride Film Festival. With HENRY's word-of-mouth spreading every day, distributors started calling MPI with offers to release HENRY, and it eventually received a small city-by-city release with no MPAA rating attached. "It wasn't a huge financial success," says Parello, "but the release helped the film generate tons of publicity."

Enough to awaken the sensibilities of no less a Hollywood genius than Martin Scorsese, who marveled at the way HENRY's creators had made its title monster sympathetic. He hired McNaughton to direct MAD DOG AND GLORY, which Scorsese was producing. Executive producer and screenwriter Richard Price (CLOCKERS) told CHICAGO TRIBUNE MAGAZINE in 1993, "When Marty saw HENRY, he told me he thought it was the best debut of a director he's seen in ten years." McNaughton brought along Jones as co-producer and Parello as his assistant.

Although HENRY's primary benefactors had long since moved on to more lucrative pastures--Rooker had appeared in nearly ten features, including MISSISSIPPI BURNING and EIGHT MEN OUT, by the time HENRY received its 1990 release--HENRY's story wasn't yet over. Parello, who had graduated from promoting video releases at MPI to working on big studio movies with McNaughton, was getting the itch to direct. "I was running John and Steve's development company in Chicago, when I went back to my old bosses in Chicago to see if they were interested in making another film. I knew they would be interested in a HENRY sequel, because by then they had to have been enjoying the handsome profits that the film was generating. Making a sequel to one of the highest regarded scare pictures of all time would not have been my first choice of a project, but I knew that it would speak to MPI's bottom line, and they worshipped me at that company as 'the man who saved HENRY.' So I started to write a script that I hoped would be true to the original, and it wasn't until much later that I was asked to also direct the piece."

With the blessing of both McNaughton and Jones, Parello set about capturing lightning in a bottle twice. His first hurdle was landing Henry himself, Michael Rooker. "Michael would express interest in doing a HENRY sequel only when some other project had fallen through, although he would never admit that. When I became involved and it started to feel like a real movie might get made, he all of a sudden became very interested in doing it, but only if he could control everything. Michael's usually a very nice guy, but, like Henry, he has a dark side. I remember getting a nasty message from him on my answering machine where he cursed a blue streak because he didn't feel like he was getting his way. Then he sent his handlers in to negotiate his deal, and they were equally difficult. It seemed like they wanted Michael to get paid as much or more than he would make on some huge budget film, and that just wasn't possible on a film budgeted at $1,000,000. So ultimately the decision was made to hire Neil Giuntoli, which I liked because Michael would have never allowed me to direct him." Giuntoli played a major role in THE BORROWER as a rapist who stalks the cop played by Rae Dawn Chong. "It's interesting to me that people remark on Neil and Michael's physical resemblance. That was a nice bonus, but I cast Neil because he's a damned good actor, and I knew he could play a chilling psycho in his sleep."

Although less celebrated than its predecessor, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER 2 was released in 1996, and received several positive reviews from such sources as VIDEO WATCHDOG, FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL and THE NEW YORK TIMES. Parello then directed ED GEIN, which played the 2000 film festival circuit and starred Steve Railsback (THE STUNT MAN) as the notorious Wisconsin serial killer whose life reportedly served as Robert Bloch's inspiration for his novel PSYCHO. Railsback first gained fame as Charles Manson in the acclaimed '70s TV-movie HELTER SKELTER. "Steve is a great guy, very warm, unpretentious and down to earth. I think he could easily play other roles that don't require him to be evil or weird, but that's what Hollywood seems to expect from him."

Parello is currently working on a werewolf movie for Filmax International, an independent production company run by Brian Yuzna (RE-ANIMATOR). "ROMASANTA is the true story of a peddler who in 1852 in the North of Spain was tried for up to 12 murders and claimed he wasn't accountable for his actions because he was under the spell of an ancient family curse that turned him into a werewolf. It's an amazing story because it seems like it would have more likely taken place in medieval times, rather than in Spain 150 years ago. Barcelona is a wonderful city so I'm looking forward to spending a lot more time there. We'll be shooting there and in Gallicia, the part of Northern Spain where the story took place."

McNaughton and Jones have continued to work together on several Hollywood features, including WILD THINGS with Kevin Bacon and Neve Campbell (which became notorious for its onscreen menage a trois involving Campbell, Matt Dillon and Denise Richards). Surprisingly, they choose to remain based in Chicago. "John and I saw no reason to move west and become part of 'The Business'", says Jones. "We both thought, perhaps naively, that after our initial success, the projects would come our way. We were wrong on all counts, but we still got projects offered to us, although not as many as we would have liked. This is a roundabout way of saying that I never intended to be a 'Hollywood' filmmaker and that hasn't changed. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to get and work on any film projects from here. As a producer of films which have for the most part been more critical and artistic successes than financial ones, projects are not flying to my mailbox."

The duo's latest project, SPEAKING OF SEX with James Spader and Bill Murray, remains unreleased. "SPEAKING OF SEX is a much stranger story, more like the history of most of our other films. We made the film we intended to make, but the people who brought it to Studio Canal and got the $11 million for us to make it have been unable to find a distribution deal to their liking. It is a shame. We showed it at the Chicago International Film Festival to a sold-out crowd of 700 people who absolutely roared, then got a rave review in the Hollywood Reporter. The other producers refuse to communicate with John or me, so once again we have a good film in limbo."

Michael Rooker remains a busy working actor, appearing in more than thirty features since HENRY, including his most recent, REPLICANT, in which he co-stars with Jean-Claude Van Damme. All involved with HENRY have impressive resumes and undoubtedly more wonderful works of art to come, but it appears unlikely that any of them will produce one that clicks as strongly as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, one of the best horror films ever made.

The Foundlings

For the simple reason that nobody else is doing it, I plan to begin compiling episode guides and reviews here for BJ AND THE BEAR and THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO. Both TV series were medium-sized hits on NBC during the late 1970s and early 1980s when Fred Silverman was at the network helm, programming some of the dumbest and most tasteless shows you can imagine and plunging NBC to the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. My roundups of these two shows will likely follow the same basic format as the pieces I've done on WALKING TALL, THE ROCKFORD FILES and KAREN SISCO. I don't expect to see those page counts rip through the roof, but since I feel that every television series deserves some amount of love—and I know that somebody, somewhere, wants to know more about these shows—I'll periodically visit both BJ and LOBO right here.

If you're unfamiliar with BJ AND THE BEAR, its concept was pretty simple, really. Billie Joe McKay (Greg Evigan) was a chopper pilot in Vietnam who spent four months in a POW camp. Upon returning to the United States, BJ (the on-screen title uses no periods) used his Army salary to plop down a down payment on a brightly colored red-and-white Kenworth cab-over semi truck. Pledging that no one would ever again keep him cooped or locked up, BJ and his sidekick Bear, a chimpanzee dressed in a vest, shorts and funny hat and named after Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (!), drive around the country, hauling freight for $1.50 per mile, "no questions asked." As usual for this type of show, BJ rarely got paid for his work, and spent more time solving mysteries, helping strangers in trouble, and digging his way out of one scrape after another than actually hauling. This used to be a very common show conceit that sadly no longer exists. The opening titles for the series should give you some idea of what BJ AND THE BEAR is all about:

Series creator and executive producer Glen A. Larson, whose credits include KNIGHT RIDER and THE FALL GUY, is credited with penning the theme, which was performed by star Evigan. BJ's pilot, which aired in a 2-hour time slot on October 8, 1978, is titled "The Foundlings," and was later split into two 1-hour episodes in syndication.

Written by Larson and producer Christopher Crowe, who went on to produce NBC's shortlived SWORD OF JUSTICE that season, and directed by veteran Bruce Bilson (grandfather of THE O.C. cutie Rachel Bilson), "The Foundlings" is BJ's first brush with Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo, played gruffly by Claude Akins, an extremely popular character actor coming off his own shortlived cop show, NASHVILLE 99, in which he and country singer Jerry Reed (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) played detectives in the Music City.

Lobo would become so popular with either audiences or Silverman (or both) that he received his own spinoff series a year after the BJ pilot. I'll discuss THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO when I begin reviewing those episodes. What I have done is stagger the episodes of both BJ and LOBO in original airing order, as a way of examining the shows as they were originally seen on NBC.

One note about Lobo is that, when he became the hero of his own show, Akins portrayed him as a rogue and something of a scoundrel, but basically a good guy. That is a long way from "The Foundlings," in which he, as the sheriff of Orly County, seemingly located somewhere in the Southern United States, is operating a white slavery ring. He and his assistant Perkins (Mills Watson, who would later become Lobo's buffoonish deputy) kidnap teenage girls, beat them, and sexually abuse them before selling them to the highest bidder. One of the girls, Florence ("special guest star" Penny Peyser, just coming off THE TONY RANDALL SHOW and looking scrumptious in Daisy Duke shorts), leads the rest in an escape, and tricks BJ into hauling them across the county line in the back of his semi. When BJ finally discovers Florence's ruse, he agrees to help the girls, leading Lobo and his deputies on a wild cross-country chase past obstacles such as roadblocks, muddy roads and pneumonia.

2nd unit director John Peyser, normally a television director who also served as a producer on the pilot, is kept busy staging crashes and car explosions (and also the uncle of actress Penny, whose father Peter was then a U.S. Representative from New York), while Bilson attempts to stretch the thin story to feature length. "The Foundlings" would have worked better as an hour, but you can sort of see why 1978 viewers might have been drawn to it. Evigan, who had very little on-camera experience before landing the BJ lead, evinces an relaxed charm that makes his implausible character, a 'Nam vet truck driver who sings, plays guitar, and travels around the country in a red semi while talking to his pet monkey, easy to take. He and Penny Peyser, who usually played nice girls, do a lot of bickering early on, but surprisingly don't take the typical path toward falling in love, perhaps because of her assumed status as "broken goods."

"The Foundlings" ends with Sheriff Lobo arrested on white slavery charges, but a good villain is hard to keep down, and Akins returned just a few months later when BJ AND THE BEAR began its regular 3-season run on NBC. Other guest stars in the pilot are Harry Townes as a friendly doctor, Woodrow Parfrey as a befuddled storekeeper, Dennis Fimple as a dumb deputy and Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as an Army colonel who comes to BJ's rescue. One of the escaped girls—really, the only one we get to know anything about, besides Peyser—is played by Kristine DeBell, who was trying to live down playing the title role in Bill Osco and Bud Townsend's X-rated musical comedy ALICE IN WONDERLAND a couple of years earlier.

So, What Was It?

What was the book I used in last Friday's post? As you've probably already ascertained, it's something trashy: NIGHTMARE IN NEW YORK, #7 in Pinnacle's series of Executioner novels, written by Don Pendleton in 1971. Review coming soon.

For A Cop, He Has Style

Well, that's what the back cover blurb says, but, actually, Stryker is an ex-cop, and his style I could best characterize as "blunt." I don't know what happened in the first Stryker novel, but in #2, COP-KILL, published by Pinnacle in 1973, Colin MacGregor Stryker is pretty pissed off. Somewhere along the line, presumably in the previous novel, a thug named Kell killed Stryker's wife and blinded and crippled his six-year-old daughter using a car bomb. Stryker went after the hoods responsible and killed most of them, but made sure Kell went to prison to live out the rest of his life in misery. Because of the extra-legal methods he used to enact justice (or, rather, his version of justice), Stryker is kicked off the force and sentenced to six months in prison, where he loses weight, gains a tan (on a chain gang), and becomes stronger and meaner.

COP-KILL finds Stryker out of the joint and back to kicking bad-guy ass. Much as JACKIE BROWN would do later, author William Crawford plays a few games with time, presenting some scenes out of order and then showing them from different viewpoints (not saying this is original to JACKIE BROWN, just giving you an example). Crawford's weird episodic structure doesn't completely work for me. For instance, he builds up a hotshot young mobster named Johnny Cool early on, giving him a chapter or two to himself, establishing his character in a way that we naturally assume he's going to be Stryker's main foil. Except that he is quickly murdered—off-page!—and he and Stryker never even meet.

If you like brutality and cruelty in your crime heroes, then Stryker is your man. He really busts up some motherfuckers big time.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tagged By A Meme

My pal Richard Harland Smith over at Movie Morlocks tagged me with a meme this evening. It works like this:

1) Pick up the nearest book.
2) Open to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing...
5) Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Here's what I got:

"Yeah. I heard of this guy in Washington. They say he'll put your whole family away somewheres and give you twenty-four hour protection, for the rest of your life if he has to."

I wish I had a funnier page 123 handy, but that's the book that was nearest me. Can you guess it?

I sent this meme to friends with blogs, just as RHS suggested, so check them out today and see what they've come up with:

Neil Sarver's The Bleeding Tree

Matt Toler's Something Burning

Katie's Cheeseburger's Condiments

Mike Buras' Lakeside Park

Thursday, May 08, 2008

He Is The Great Pretender

Decoy #2, MOON OVER MIAMI, may have been the last of Signet's series. Whereas the first book, THE GREAT PRETENDER, found hero Nick Merlotti on assignment for the government in search of stolen heroin, MOON OVER MIAMI plays like a TV mystery. For no good reason, besides the fact that his confidante, the mysterious Mr. Waves, talks him into it, Merlotti investigates the murder of an elderly Miami woman, who was beaten to death inside her home. A young Latino, who refuses to provide an alibi for the time of the killing, is arrested and presumed guilty. Waves is convinced of his innocence; Merlotti, not so much, though he looks into it anyway.

Jim Deane's mystery reads pretty well, though one must admit not much happens. The big setpiece involves Merlotti's capture by a mobster who's only tangentially involved with the plot. Merlotti's preoccupation with sex, which smacks you in the face from the book's first awkward sentence, is distracting, especially when he becomes intimately involved with the 17-year-old high school "fuck goddess," Vicki Greystock, who is a witness putting the Latino suspect at the scene of the crime.

When it comes to whodunits, Deane is no Rex Stout, and when it comes to bang-bang action, he's no Don Pendleton, but you could do worse than this jumble. I don't believe there were any other Decoy books (Merlotti does no decoying in either), and it's not hard to figure why.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Season One of THE ROCKFORD FILES came to a close with "Roundabout," which was the next-to-last episode to film. Three days of shooting in Las Vegas enliven the story a bit, as does some good humor, some of it quite clever.

An insurance company hires Rockford (James Garner) to find a young woman named Nancy Wade (Jesse Welles), whose late mother left her a $10,000 inheritance. Jim pursues her to Vegas, where thugs working for mobster Robertson (Ron Rifkin) knock him out and steal the check. Nancy is a lounge singer locked into an iron-clad contract with Robertson, whose front is a record company, and he keeps her captive to ensure she doesn't escape.

Since Rockford left his Firebird in L.A., the episode's big car chase finds him behind the wheel of Nancy's green Volkswagen, using its small size to his advantage in shaking the heavies' bigass Cadillac. An even wittier chase, directed by Lou Antonio as a spin on the show's usual tire-screeching chases, has Rockford and Robertson huffing and puffing their way on foot from the top all the way to the bottom of Hoover Dam.

Writer Mitchell Lindeman, not a ROCKFORD regular, must have called in co-writer Edward J. Lakso for a polish, as the series' trademark character-based humor raises its head concerning Rockford's lunkheaded choice of "Geronimo" as a codeword to summon the cops. Even better is a clever in-joke in which Jim warns Nancy not to sign a five-year contract with annual renewal options—which is likely the deal Garner had with Warner Brothers in the 1950s that led to his groundbreaking lawsuit against the studio (which he won, getting him out of MAVERICK).

Saturday, May 03, 2008


The Death Merchant has himself tossed into a Jordanian prison, as VENGEANCE OF THE GOLDEN HAWK, #14 of Pinnacle's bloody paperback series, opens. The title organization is a PLO splinter group of Arab terrorists who want to destroy Israel. Their plan is to fire a missile containing a lethal nerve gas into Tel Aviv, which would result in the deaths of millions. Richard Camellion befriends three VGH members in the prison and takes them along when he escapes.

Around the halfway point, Camellion makes it to VGH headquarters, where he suspects head terrorists Faraq al-Khalid isn't convinced of his devotion to the cause, placing his life in great danger (which is pretty much every day for the Death Merchant). The final third consists of Camellion and two acquaintances scaling a hollowed-out mountain that hides the missile's launch pad. As usual, bodies fall left and right and the ammunition flies.

Considering Arab terrorists never go out of style as reliable foes in international adventure thrillers, 1976's VENGEANCE OF THE GOLDEN HAWK reads today like wish fulfillment. Substitute the name "Osama bin Laden" for "Faraq al-Khalid," and start wishing we had a real Death Merchant over there to kick some ass.

Friday, May 02, 2008

It’s A War

I don't care what anyone says. DEAD BANG is a good movie. It bombed when released theatrically in the spring of 1989, and Warner Brothers thinks so little of it that it released a pan-and-scan version of it on DVD. But I've always liked it. Its script confirms screenwriter Robert Foster's background as a TV writer (KNIGHT RIDER), and some scenes appear shortened or randomly inserted to the point of incomprehensibility (like all of Penelope Ann Miller's scenes), but DEAD BANG moves quickly and professionally through its provocative plot and offers star Don Johnson a nice opportunity to flash his musky charisma upon a larger canvas than MIAMI VICE.

Granted, Johnson's character, a Los Angeles detective named Jerry Beck, isn't exactly a Hollywood original. He dresses shabbily, drinks too much, is estranged from his family, and is so hungover on Christmas morning that he pukes on a suspect after an exhausting foot chase.

Beck, investigating the murder of a policeman by a liquor store holdup man, discovers his chief suspect is part of a dangerous gang of white supremacists and chases his prey all the way to Colorado. Teaming up with a black police chief (Tim Reid from WKRP IN CINCINNATI) and a so-straight-he-squeaks FBI agent (an atypically cast William Forsythe, who usually played violent psychopaths at that time), Beck pursues the suspect through a series of shootouts and wisecracks (funny ones too) before the mad right-wingers can mount a violent defense.

DEAD BANG, while not breaking any new ground in the crime drama genre, is an above-average thriller by action vet John Frankenheimer, who was as talented a director of thrillers as anyone who ever worked in Hollywood. The 1980s were not a good time, however, for the man who made THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and BLACK SUNDAY. His previous films of that decade, including Cannon's 52 PICK-UP, were also box office flops, and it wasn't until Frankenheimer began directing movies for cable TV in the '90s that his career received a well-deserved resurgence. Johnson's career as a movie star never did take off, but his television career remained hot, as his post-VICE cop series, NASH BRIDGES, enjoyed an even more successful run.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


I'll bet you didn't know Enos had his own show for a season.

The concept of ENOS is that Enos (Sonny Shroyer) arrested a dangerous criminal in Hazzard County and received a transfer to the Los Angeles police department, where he was partnered with a streetwise, jive-talking black cop (Samuel E. Wright) and drove his bosses crazy with his bumpkin personality and penchant for destroying police cars in his earnest pursuit of justice. It lasted the 1980-81 season, and when CBS canceled it, they moved Shroyer back to THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, where he resumed his role as Sheriff Rosco's deputy as though nothing had ever happened.

His Name’s Nolan

And Nolan is badass. Intended by his creator, Max Allan Collins, as a derivative of Donald Westlake's Parker (who was personified on film by Lee Marvin in the great POINT BLANK and by Mel Gibson in PAYBACK), Nolan (no first name) is a hard-bitten 50-year-old professional thief trying to get back on his feet after an enemy in the Mafia discovers the false name he's been using. Charlie, the Chicago Mafioso still holding a grudge after Nolan killed his brother fifteen years earlier, promises not to squeal on Nolan to the FBI for a fee of $100,000. The catch is that it has to be new money, not cash from Nolan's bank accounts, and he has one month to deliver. So, it's one last heist for Nolan. Since none of his former associates will work with him, now that he's on Charlie's shit list, he recruits a trio of idealistic twentysomethings, including a fresh-faced comic book collector named Jon, to pull an Iowa City bank job.

Nolan is a great character, intended by Collins as a mixture of "Parker and the Lee Van Cleef character in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE." Collins, who has since become a prolific and quite famous author of novels, adaptations, comic books and screenplays, was just 19 when he began the Nolan series with MOURN THE LIVING, which went unpublished. BAIT MONEY was first published—barely—in 1973, but it wasn't until Pinnacle bought Collins' Nolan manuscripts and put them out in paperback in 1981 that the book made any kind of splash. According to Collins, Pinnacle was looking for a property to replace Don Pendleton's Executioner, which had been sold to Harlequin.

MOURN THE LIVING finally came out in book form in 1999, and is the eighth in the Nolan series. I look forward to reading the rest of them, if they're as tightly delineated as BAIT MONEY, which crackles with believable dialogue, a clever plot (with an interesting twist near the end concerning Charlie) and the relationship between the loner Nolan and the comic book-loving Jon, obviously a Collins surrogate, even though BAIT MONEY doesn't read like a Mary Sue story.