Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Praise The Lord

The great television star Jack Lord, one of the baddest-ass cops ever, would have been 89 years old today. Aloha, Mr. McGarrett.

Here's something new to me. When AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE (which had already aired on CBS as a TWILIGHT ZONE episode) won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject, it was Jack Lord who accepted the trophy on behalf of the French filmmakers. Does anyone know why Lord received the honor? Did he have a relationship with the filmmakers?

Here's the clip:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The (Young) Cycle Girls

Two different magazine covers, two different years, two different titles--one movie. Peter Perry probably made a lot of money with this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Would A Man Frame Himself For Murder?

Or why would Michael Douglas waste his time in a movie this dumb?

Peter Hyams, once a crowdpleasing if critically lambasted maker of slick action movies like CAPRICORN ONE and TIMECOP (his BUSTING seriously deserves more recognition), scrapes the bottom of the creative barrel with this ludicrously mounted remake of a Fritz Lang noir. BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT played with little fanfare or advertising in just a few theaters earlier this year before its equally quiet DVD release this month.

C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe, DANGEROUS HOUSEWIVES), a stupid and unlikeable TV reporter (he’s not intended to be), tries to prove bigshot Shreveport district attorney Mark Hunter (a blond Michael Douglas, who starred in Hyams' THE STAR CHAMBER in 1984) is planting evidence to win convictions by framing himself for a murder. The idea is to have his unfunny comic relief partner (Joel David Moore) hold the exoneration evidence and then ambush Hunter with it after the D.A. forged the DNA proof against him. You can see the holes in this plan from Saturn.

Worse than Hyams’ clumsy plotting is his dialogue, particularly the sad romantic banter between C.J. and assistant D.A. Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), which is more Sach and Slip than Nick and Nora. There is absolutely no basis for C.J.’s belief in Hunter’s guilt; hence, no reason for the story to exist and no reason to make the film in the first place. And then there’s that surprise ending.

Douglas is fine, though not particularly engaged, and he’s not in it very much anyway. Metcalfe is a complete drip, and the pretty Tamblyn is wasted. The real shame is that Hyams doesn’t even know how to direct a good car chase anymore.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Black Man Ever Killed Like This!

Under any of its three titles, Louisville, Kentucky writer/director William Girdler’s most obscure feature is also one of his best (“best” being a relative term when dealing with Girdler). Drawing from DIRTY HARRY and the popular blaxploitation movies of the period, 1974's COMBAT COPS/THE ZEBRA KILLER/PANIC CITY plays loose with its plot, but offers some excellent performances and a properly sleazy atmosphere.

Louisville is under siege from a serial killer who calls himself “Mac” and leaves notes at every murder scene. His victims include an apartment of nurses who were strangled, sliced, disemboweled, and raped; a family of five blown up in their station wagon; and a cleaning lady pushed down a flight of stairs. Two homicide detectives, black Frank Savage (Austin Stoker, the lead in John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) and white Marty Wilson (assistant director Hugh Smith), investigate the bizarre slayings, which are being committed by a white man (James Pickett) wearing blackface and an Afro wig! If you thought Andy Robinson’s Scorpio Killer in DIRTY HARRY was despicable, wait ‘til you get a load of Pickett, who spews a sundry string of racial epithets and shows no remorse for any of his evil deeds, even to the point of telling one of his victims, post-mortem, that she’s an “ugly nigger.”

Girdler clearly had little money to spend (reportedly coming from Chicago investors, including DETROIT 9000 director Arthur Marks, who “presented” the film in its initial U.S. release), but puts it all on the screen, managing several good chase scenes and shootouts. Cinematography and sound are quite rough around the edges (some dialogue is rendered almost unintelligible and could have used some post-production sweetening), but Girdler’s script contains enough raw energy and humor to make up for the technical drawbacks.

The script’s weakness is its leading character. Frank Savage is a pretty dumb cop who fails to follow through on promising leads and reacts to his girlfriend’s kidnapping with the same nonchalance as you would notice a stray thread dangling from your blazer. It’s a testament to the charismatic Stoker that you remain in Savage’s corner, as he trades good-humored racial barbs with his white partner (“Why do you smoke those (cigars) anyway?” “Because cigarettes are white.”) and expresses rage at his enemy’s antagonistic bigotry.

The most surprising aspect of PANIC CITY--even more than its quality--is its PG rating. Originally filmed and released by Marks’ General Film Corporation as THE ZEBRA KILLER, it was later titled COMBAT COPS and handed a PG, despite its graphic portrayals of violence, rape, and racial language. The British print I watched was titled PANIC CITY, was released by Lancair Films, and carried a BBFC certificate of X.

To the best of my knowledge, PANIC CITY--under any of its titles--has never received an American home video release. That’s a shame, because it’s a feather in the cap of the late Girdler, who died tragically at age 30 and whose reputation as a filmmaker might be improved if word of this outrageously blunt thriller was spread.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Episode Guide: George Burns Comedy Week

89-year-old George Burns became the oldest person to host a prime-time television series when GEORGE BURNS COMEDY WEEK premiered on CBS in the fall of 1985. On paper, it sounded like a great concept: a weekly anthology of half-hour comedies hosted by Burns and executive-produced by Steve Martin and Carl Gottlieb, who first worked together as staff writers on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR in 1968.

Despite an impressive roster of talent both before and behind the camera, GEORGE BURNS COMEDY WEEK didn’t go. Perhaps the format was the problem, as anthologies were already a dead genre in 1985. Or maybe it was the fact it was following Flip Wilson’s dud sitcom CHARLIE AND COMPANY on Wednesday nights opposite DYNASTY, the year’s seventh-highest rated series, on ABC. At any rate, thirteen episodes and gone was GEORGE BURNS COMEDY WEEK, despite some damn fine episodes.

The cream of the crop were “Late for Dinner,” which established the series’ brand of absurdist humor; “The Couch,” which spawned a series of its own, the shortlived LEO & LIZ IN BEVERLY HILLS starring Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine; “Disaster at Buzz Creek,” a rare foray into episodic television by director John Landis (TRADING PLACES); “The Assignment: A Philip Flick Adventure,” a clever adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s classic short story “The Mission”; and “The Borrowing” with funny lead performances by adept ad-libbers Peter Bonerz (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) and Michael McKean (THIS IS SPINAL TAP).

Host: George Burns
Executive Producers: Steve Martin and Carl Gottlieb
Producers: George E. Crosby and Paul Perlove
Creative Consultant: Earl Pomerantz
Executive Story Editor: Pamela Pettler
Story Editor: David Axelrod
Associate Producers: Deborah Hwang and William Cairncross
Theme: Charles Fox, Claude Debussy
Music: Charles Fox, David Michael Frank, Ira Newborn, Ernest Gold, Jeff Barry, and Roger Steinman
Director of Photography: Ronald W. Browne
40 Share Productions Inc.
In association with

“The Dynamite Girl”
September 18, 1985
Guest Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Tim Matheson, Ruth Buzzi, Richard Libertini, Mason McCalman, Julie Payne

The only episode of GEORGE BURNS COMEDY WEEK I haven’t seen, so I’m relying on’s plot description: In the series premiere, an escaped mental patient (Catherine O'Hara) uses her pliable mind to react believably to any situation she confronts. When she's mistaken by a police lieutenant as a bomb expert, she proceeds to disarm the explosive.

“Home for Dinner”
September 25, 1985
Writer: Larry Levin & Jonathan Day
Director: Carl Gottlieb
Guest Cast: Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Frank Bonner, Greg Morris, Anne Lockhart, Joe Flaherty, Don Calfa, Jonathan Ward, Susan Powell, Vincent Bufano, Jeanette O’Connor, Merritt Yohnka, Renee Victor

Robert (Eugene Levy) tries to fit in with his new suburban neighbors by accompanying them on a weekend fishing trip. Boy, is he surprised to learn that the boys on the block are really commandos hunting a Latin American dictator (Don Calfa)!

“Death Benefits”
October 2, 1985
Writer: Amy Heckerling & Neal Israel
Story: Irving Newman
Director: Neal Israel
Guest Cast: Joe Piscopo, Deborah Harmon, Robert Klein, Arthur Rosenberg, Gary Riley, Ian Abercrombie, William Boyett, John Wesley, Robert Lussier, Richard Partlow, Pamela Bach, Lee Arnone, Georgie Paul, Twink Caplan, Billy Beck, Arlene Lorre, Ed McCready

After Lou (Joe Piscopo) is prematurely declared legally dead by a physician, he tries to collect his life insurance from the shyster agent (Robert Klein) who sold it to him.

“The Smiths”
October 9, 1985
Writer: James Berg & Stan Zimmerman
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Guest Cast: Martin Mull, Tess Harper, Ken Stovitz, Gigi Vorgan, Candy Azzara, Jon Cedar, Floyd Levine, Michael Ensign, Hank Rolike, Cameron Young, Jeffrey Alan Chandler, Terry Camilleri, Brian Thompson, Mark Burke, Eric Fleeks, Marc Levine, Melanie Gaffin, Randy Norton

A mob accountant (Martin Mull) is put into Witness Protection and is whisked away to Albuquerque, where he discovers not only his new identity as Donald Smith, but also his new wife (Tess Harper) and kids.

“The Couch”
October 16, 1985
Teleplay: Ed Scharlach
Story: Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb
Director: Steve Martin
Guest Cast: Harvey Korman, Valerie Perrine, Carrie Fisher, Bronson Pinchot, Michael Ensign, Michael McManus, Jay Robinson, Jack Heller, Fritz Feld, Ken Olfson, Susan Powell, Michael J. Pollard, Phil Rubenstein, Ivor Barry, John Findlater, Arnold Turner, Dick Patterson, Marlena Giovi, Greg Collins, Gracia Lee, Parker Whitman, Mark Steen

The misadventures of Leo (Harvey Korman) and Liz (Valerie Perrine) and the very expensive sofa they purchased for their daughter’s wedding. Spawned the shortlived sitcom LEO AND LIZ IN BEVERLY HILLS.

“Disaster at Buzz Creek”
October 23, 1985
Writer: Andy Breckman
Director: John Landis
Guest Cast: Don Rickles, Don Knotts, Fannie Flagg, Stephen Collins, Jack Blessing, Paul Brinegar, Lana Clarkson, Paul Barselou, Linda Hoy, Craig Berenson

A small town on the verge of bankruptcy fakes an earthquake in order to qualify for aid, but must outsmart a government inspector (Stephen Collins).

“The Assignment: A Philip Flick Adventure”
October 30, 1985
Teleplay: Bruce Jay Friedman
Story: Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Mission”
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Guest Cast: Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, James Avery, Severn Darden, Diane Salinger, Michael Ansara, Freddye Chapman, Louis de Farra, John Hamelin, Bernard Kuby, Milt Jamin, Brian Thompson

Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman adapts his celebrated short story “The Mission,” which appeared in the March 7, 1964 issue of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. A great white hunter (Elliott Gould) and his guide (Telly Savalas) set out into the African jungle to bag a very rare game animal.

“Dream, Dream, Dream”
November 6, 1985
Writer: David Simon
Director: John Fox
Guest Cast: Patrick Duffy, Colleen Camp, Geena Davis, Anthony Holland, Raymond Singer, Charles Fleischer, Beverly Hope Atkinson, Eve Brenner, Frank Birney, Kirk Wall, Bart Baker

An accountant (Patrick Duffy) escapes the drudgery of his life within his daydreams, where he has created and become fixated on his perfect woman (Geena Davis).

“Boris and Ivan in Las Vegas”
November 13, 1985
Story: Carl Gottlieb
Teleplay: Paul Perlove
Director: Carl Gottlieb
Guest Cast: Dave Thomas, Candy Clark, Bronson Pinchot, Vladimir Skomarowsky, Howard Witt, Len Lesser, Michael Rider, Danny Wells, Kimberly Ross, Adam Gregor, Harry Woolf, Mike Muscat, Bill Cort, Jim Doughan, Larry McCormick, Waldemar Kalinowski, Michael Yama

Two cosmonauts (Dave Thomas, Bronson Pinchot) crash their space capsule near Las Vegas and try to assimilate while dodging American soldiers and the KGB, which is disguised as a bowling team.

“The Honeybunnies”
November 27, 1985
Writer: David Cohen & Roger S.H. Schulman
Director: Peter Bonerz
Guest Cast: Howard Hesseman, Laraine Newman, David L. Lander, Casey Kasem, Sandy Baron, Joyce Little, Al Pugliese, Kat Sawyer-Young, Nick DeMauro, Merritt Olsen, Nicole Rosselle, Ted Pitsis, Charles Quertermous, Connie Danese, Renee Victor, Carol Androsky, Thomas Brunelle, Caroline Ducrocq, Anna Mathias, Robert Neuwirth, Jack Scalici, Paul Willson

A struggling playwright (Howard Hesseman) who can’t sell his depressing plays is embarrassed to find fame and fortune as the creator of a cutesy TV cartoon show.

“The Funniest Guy in the World”
December 4, 1985
Writer: Pamela Pettler
Director: John Korty
Guest Cast: Jack Gilford, Paul Reiser, Victoria Tennant, Peter MacPherson, Howard Allen, Gerry Bednob, Lois Bromfield, David Glickman, Darryl Sivad, Joey Villa, Bob Zany

A grumpy, rich old man (Jack Gilford) puts up $100,000 to anyone who can make him laugh. Along comes a nerdy crossword puzzle enthusiast (Paul Reiser) to try to charm the old man’s heart.

“Christmas Carol II: The Sequel”
December 11, 1985
Writer: Carl Gottlieb & David Axelrod
Director: Carl Gottlieb
Guest Cast: James Whitmore, Roddy McDowall, Samantha Eggar, Ed Begley Jr., James Widdoes, Conrad Janis, Carolyn Seymour, Paul Benedict, Severn Darden, Larry Hankin, Shawn Southwick, Dean Dittman, Bernard Kuby, Stuart Rogers, Jerry Supiran, Hy Pyke, Martin Clark, Signy Coleman

One year after his reformation on Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (James Whitmore) has become such a pushover that Bob Cratchit (Roddy McDowall) and the rest of the townspeople now take advantage of his generosity, requiring the spirits to return.

“The Borrowing”
December 25, 1985
Story: Merrill Markoe
Teleplay: Pamela Pettler
Director: Alan Myerson
Guest Cast: Peter Bonerz, Candy Azzara, Michael McKean, Florence Halop, Anna Mathias, Julia Jennings, John-Michael Williams

Two con artists (Peter Bonerz, Michael McKean) decide to try kidnapping to pick up a quick $100,000 ransom, but the victim (Candy Azzara) refuses to cooperate.

Here is a CBS promo for the premiere episode guest-starring SCTV's Catherine O'Hara:

Another CBS promo for “The Assignment: A Philip Flick Adventure”:

And a couple of minutes from "The Couch":

Brittany Murphy Dead at 32

CLUELESS co-star Brittany Murphy died this morning of an apparent heart attack at 32. You may know her better from SIN CITY, 8 MILE, or GIRL, INTERRUPTED.

My favorite film of hers is the little-known 1997 actioner DRIVE, which is most likely the best American action movie never to play theaters. She plays Deliverance Bodine, an adorable and slightly eccentric motel owner who helps stars Mark Dacascos and Kadeem Hardison battle bad guys during the fast-paced film's explosive second act.

Murphy was a decent actress in the right part, and was especially good opposite Eminem in the autobiographical 8 MILE.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Chuck Norris Meets Stan Lee

Ol' Groove over at Diversions of the Groovy Kind has a nifty post today about Chuck Norris' appearance in Marvel's black-and-white comic mag DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU #20 in 1975. This was before Chuck became a movie star. Though he had appeared in a handful of films, such as THE STUDENT TEACHERS and THE WAY OF THE DRAGON with Bruce Lee, at this point, the 35-year-old Norris was known as a karate tournament champion and a teacher.

Check out Ken Barr's cool Norris cover and frontispiece, as well as an interview with the pre-WALKER Chuck here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The House Of The Devil

I don’t know about you, but I would never set foot into a house occupied by creepy cult actors Tom Noonan (MANHUNTER) and Mary Woronov (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD), but I suppose college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), the charming protagonist of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, hasn’t seen as many horror movies as I have. And she certainly needs a few extra bucks more than I do, as she’s just rented a house from a friendly landlady (the calming Dee Wallace) and needs money for the first month’s rent.

Writer/director/editor Ti West (TRIGGER MAN) set his film in the early 1980s, partly for narrative reasons, I suspect (I can’t imagine a 21st century teen agreeing to go alone to a stranger’s house in the middle of the night), but also for mood, as West successfully apes the look and feel of scary movies from that era. The girls’ feathered hair and Samantha’s gigantic Walkman draw giggles, but West isn’t asking us to mock the Al Franken Decade. Rather, he wants us to get into the spirit of a movie that relies on old-fashioned suspense to chill its audience, not monsters or special effects.

So, Samantha, needing the money, agrees to an all-night babysitting gig at the large home of Mr. (Noonan) and Mrs. (Woronov) Ulman, which is located out in the boonies near a graveyard. Even though Ulman has lured her there under false pretenses—he says he wants Samantha to watch his unseen elderly mother, not a child--$400 for four hours work is too much to pass up.

Buildup is slow. West is content to let the audience stew for over an hour, watching Samantha explore the Ulmans’ big scary house, listening to bumps in the night and growing curious about what lies behind the locked door upstairs. The film’s transition from slow-building suspense to flat-out terror is a masterwork of editing, music (by Jeff Grace), production design, and some damn fine acting. The following fifteen minutes, it’s true, disappoint just a little bit, but it would be hard for any filmmaker to create a payoff equal to West’s windup.

West’s love for grindhouse cinema is obvious—in his remarkably faithful opening and closing titles, if nothing else—but THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL isn’t a Tarantino-y slobberfest where you spend as much time pointing out references as you do following the plot. As a re-creation of 1982 drive-in flicks, the film is successful. But as straight terror designed to keep you up tonight listening for noises in the attic, well, those bumps in the night you hear may just be your heart thumping.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An Animal In Every Woman

PETS is a talky production I don't like very much, but it’s essential viewing for fans of 1970s drive-in queen Candice Rialson. Not only is she prominently featured in this adaptation of three one-act plays penned by Richard Reich, but she almost always appears nude, topless, or scantily clad.

After teen runaway Bonnie (Rialson) escapes from her abusive brother, she teams up with angry black hustler Pat (Teri Guzman). The two broke ladies kidnap a middle-aged jogger, tie him up, and drop him off the side of the road with Bonnie guarding him, while Pat ransacks his house. Whether the roughing-up was worth it to the guy is up for discussion, as Bonnie forces the bound man to endure a—ahem—forced seduction.

She then moves on to a roadside fruit stand, where she meets lesbian artist Geraldine (Joan Blackman), who takes Bonnie back to her place and hires her as a live-in model. They begin an affair, which comes to a violent end after Bonnie, who still craves the one physical joy Geraldine can never provide, gets it on with a denim-wearing burglar.

Fleeing the scene, Bonnie hooks up with one of Geraldine’s clients, misogynist art collector Victor (Ed Bishop), who believes women exist only to fill his sexual and material needs. He keeps them—and a few wild animals—caged in his basement, where he sometimes whips and rapes them.

As a showcase for Rialson, PETS sort of works. She’s a very sexy screen presence, whether hitting the sack with a man or a woman, and even if director Raphael Nussbaum has difficulty keeping his stories on track, at least he’s wise enough to show off Rialson to great advantage. As exploitation cinema, PETS is a mess, despite the copious nudity. The lurid ad campaign, including a trailer built around Bishop’s kinky lifestyle and images of a nearly nude Rialson being whipped and crawling on all fours, doesn’t accurately reflect the real tone of the film: a pretentious affair featuring too much steak and not enough sizzle.

Even more surprising than seeing UFO star Bishop, a veteran of several Gerry & Sylvia Anderson productions in England, in his film is seeing Blackman, who twice played Elvis Presley’s female lead in the popular BLUE HAWAII and KID GALAHAD. Rialson received a special “Introducing” credit, even though she appeared in four other films released the same year. She made an impression on many a young man frequenting drive-ins, but was unable to make the big time and retired at decade's end. She married, raised a family, and sadly died in 2006 at the age of 54.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Last week, the actress Lynda Day George celebrated her 65th birthday. I commemorated the event by watching "Nerves," a sixth-season episode of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE that teamed Lynda with her late actor husband, Christopher George.

The Georges appeared together many times on television and in films, but "Nerves" was Christopher's only guest appearance on M:I, the series that employed Lynda as a regular for two seasons from 1971 to 1973. It casts Chris as Wendell Moyes, a psychotic mob enforcer who hijacks a canister of nerve gas and threatens to release it in Los Angeles unless his brother Cayman (Paul Stevens) is released from prison. What Moyes doesn't know is that Cayman has just died, leaving General Westerfield (Charles Bateman) unable to comply with Moyes' demands even if he wanted to.

The Impossible Missions Force, facing a tight deadline (the canister is defective and will begin to leak within two days), plants Casey (Lynda) as a prisoner named Lee Collins and stages a jailbreak involving her and Saretta Lane (Tyne Daly), a convicted murderess and Moyes' girlfriend. Saretta takes Casey to the warehouse where Wendell and his henchman Tully (Rafer Johnson) are hanging out. The gas isn't there, however, so IMF members Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus) disguise agent Bill (Peter Kilman) as Cayman with the hope that Wendell will bring the canister to the exchange.

While it's obvious the Georges were in love with one another, Christopher's performance suffers somewhat under the direction of Barry Crane, who was usually more interested in getting the footage shot as quickly and cheaply as possible than making a creative show. George plays the role too far over the top, and his extortion scheme hardly seems worth calling the IMF in. These agents have toppled governments and evil regimes all over the world, and a raving lunatic like Moyes could easily have been handled by the Mod Squad or Ironside.

Crane went to Griffith Park to shoot what looks to be one day of exteriors, including the often-photographed tunnel and the observatory for the guns-a-blazing climax (though the interior of the observatory is hilariously portrayed by a soundstage corridor with a globe in it).


Fans of early comic books will definitely want to check out SUPERMEN!: THE FIRST WAVE OF COMIC BOOK HEROES 1936-1941, which is edited by Greg Sedowski with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem. It's a lovingly restored collection of color stories featuring obscure and often bizarre characters from the halcyon days of the industry--a time when writers and artists we now recognize as pioneers were just as green as comic books themselves were.

Among the creators featured in SUPERMEN! are Bill Everett, Jack Cole, Gardner Fox, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, Ogden Whitney, Fred Guardineer, Irv Novick, Basil Wolverton, and Dick Briefer. Most of the characters you've probably never heard of, and have been so forgotten that their stories have fallen into the public domain.

Reading them today, however, it would be hard to forget the raw, pulpy joy of Cosmic Carson, the Flame, Marvelo, the bloodthirsty Comet, Spacehawk, Fantomah, and even Dirk the Demon! Some stories are better than others--the Eisner/Fine Flame tale is fantastic--and some are just downright insane, particularly Fletcher Hanks' Stardust the Super Wizard, which you have to read to believe (Fantagraphics has released two paperback collections of the obscure Hanks, who is something of the Ed Wood of comic books).

Also included are various covers and house ads to help sell the feeling of reading an actual comic book of the period. Highly recommended if read in small doses--a story or two at a time. Otherwise, your head may explode from all the astonishing illogic and sometimes brutal violence of these stories that were quickly produced and meant to be forgotten.

If you're interested, you can read interviews with Sadowski here, here, and here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

R.I.P. Gene Barry

The debonair Gene Barry died this week in California at the age of 90. You can read his New York Times obit here.

Barry was one of the few television actors to headline his own series in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '90s. He played Bat Masterson in the self-titled western from 1958 to 1961.

From there, he moved to BURKE'S LAW as a millionaire Beverly Hills police chief from 1963 to 1966 (in its last season, Barry's character became a spy, and the series was retitled AMOS BURKE, SECRET AGENT). Click here to see Barry and the delicious Michele Carey in the tag of an AMOS BURKE episode, along with its swingin' theme.

From 1968 to 1971, Barry was one of three leads, along with Tony Franciosa and Robert Stack, in Universal's 90-minute crime drama THE NAME OF THE GAME. He also went to England in 1972 to play THE ADVENTURER for one season.

Amazingly, Barry reprised his role as Amos Burke in the CBS revival of BURKE'S LAW in 1994, which lasted for a season. Barry was also a movie star, most prominently in the George Pal classic THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1951, and secured a Tony nomination for originating the role of Georges in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES on Broadway in 1984.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Boxoffice: 1975-1977

Here are some more fantastic movie ads from BOXOFFICE issues in 1975, 1976, and 1977.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning

Ten years and five months after the last STAR TREK episode aired on NBC, Paramount released the big-budget ($40 million) STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE in theaters on December 7, 1979—thirty years ago today. It almost didn't make it--the movie's post-production schedule was so rushed in order to meet the locked-in release date that it was never actually finished! There was no time for a sneak preview so Wise could engage in some final tweaking, and legend has it the print used for the Washington, D.C. premiere (on December 6) was rushed straight from the lab and was still wet.

ST:TMP gets off to a rousing start, as a trio of Klingon battle cruisers are zapped by a gigantic space cloud on a direct heading toward Earth. The upgraded U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins, later the dad on SEVENTH HEAVEN), is the only starship close enough to engage the cloud before it reaches Earth, but is still being rebuilt after eighteen months in drydock. The Enterprise's former captain, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), uses the mission as an excuse to wrestle command of the vessel away from Decker, leaving the younger officer on board as his first officer.

Reunited with much of his original crew, including irascible physician Dr. "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk and Co. set off in search of the cloud creature, which has now added space outpost Epsilon Nine to its destruction tote board. Along the way, the Enterprise picks up a surprise passenger--former science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), whose journey towards inner peace on his home planet of Vulcan has failed and who now joins his old friend Kirk.

Approaching the cloud outside the solar system, the Enterprise crew is stunned when new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a sensual bald alien from the Delta system, is abducted and then returned to the ship...but in another form. The entity, which calls itself "V'Ger", has sent a robot probe in the form of Ilia (in a fetching white minidress and lighted button on her throat) to the Enterprise to learn more about the carbon units inhabiting it. It appears V'Ger wants to meet its "Creator", and plans to wipe out Earth's population unless it gets some answers ("Answer?" asks Kirk. "I don't know the question.").

Although it was one of the most anticipated films ever released up to that time, the final result is a hit-or-miss affair. Seeing Kirk, Spock et al. on the big screen after a decade of syndicated reruns was a huge thrill for TREK fans, and the Oscar-nominated visual effects by John Dykstra (STAR WARS), Douglas Trumbull (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), Richard Yuricich (SILENT RUNNING) and several others are often poetic and awe-inspiring.

What doesn't work are the flat screenplay by Harold Livingston (THE HELL WITH HEROES), in which the cast is forced to spend too much time staring gape-mouthed at a blue screen, and the stodgy direction of Hollywood veteran Robert Wise (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), which doesn't breathe much life into the proceedings. Except for a Spock mindmeld (often overused as a deux es machina on the TV show), the original cast barely engage in the plot, and even during the colorful and even thought-provoking climax, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are left standing around watching others do all the work.

It's a tribute to the talent and imagination of composer Jerry Goldsmith that ST:TMP works as well as it does. His majestic score, capped by a heroic theme that was appropriated by producer Gene Roddenberry for the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION series, is not only one of his best, but one of the best scores ever written and performed for a SF film. Take, for instance, the extended sequence in which Kirk, riding in a shuttlecraft, sees his beloved Enterprise floating in space for the first time. Goldsmith's grand music cue can be construed as a love theme, and, combined with magnificent FX work and Shatner's reactions, the scene, although lengthy, is one of ST:TMP's best.

Paramount's 2-disc DVD set, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE--THE DIRECTOR'S EDITION gave Wise a chance to go back and revisit his penultimate film, fixing the problems he didn't have time to fix originally because of the tight post schedule.

NOTE: Paramount's recent Blu-ray release is not the Director's Edition, but rather the 1979 theatrical cut. One assumes the studio will be expecting Trek fans to double-dip in the near future…

The visual effects upgrades in the Director's Edition range from very good (the new wormhole explosion) to just okay (the spacewalk sequence contains a CGI bridge formed by lights). Wise also took the opportunity to cut a few instances of weak dialogue (Kirk's "Oh, my God" following the transporter accident is one) and tighten the pace. I didn't really feel that Wise's new cut was any improvement upon the original film, although he doesn't really harm it either. Since he isn't making changes just for the sake of it, but only to make the film he wanted but was unable to in 1979, I can tolerate Wise's indulgence (Wise passed away in 2005).

Not much remastering seems to have gone into restoring the print used for the DVD--portions still appear a bit fuzzy and a few scratches appear. It looks good in its 2.35:1 form though, and is more than matched by the powerful Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (there's also a Dolby Surround 2.0 option), which booms the Goldsmith score through your speakers. Included is an audio commentary chat by Wise, Goldsmith, Collins, Trumbull and Dykstra, as well as a text commentary by STAR TREK ENCYCLOPEDIA author Michael Okuda, which is pretty dry, but does occasionally reveal some interesting TREK tidbits.

Disc Two contains a trio of documentaries, which are slick but ultimately disappointing. ST:TMP had a long and frustrating pre-production period in which it was to be, at various times, a new TV series, a series of made-for-TV movies, a low-budget theatrical potboiler, and the big-budget epic that finally emerged. The documentaries sadly don't go into much detail, although there is some neat test footage of the proposed STAR TREK: PHASE II series that would have spearheaded a fourth Paramount-financed broadcast network (two decades before the now-defunct UPN). All the footage snipped by Wise for the Director's Edition has been retained as an extra, as well as footage inserted by ABC into its 1983 broadcast (including one notorious shot of Kirk floating away from the Enterprise airlock, clearly showing the rigging and girders of the unfinished set and even a crew member moving around in the back of the shot!). There are three trailers (some very cheesy electronic videogame-sounding music was used) and eight TV spots narrated by Orson Welles (Wise edited CITIZEN KANE) included. It's very odd to see how Paramount chose to market ST:TMP (not very well).

The DVD is a must for TREK fans. While it would have been nice to hear a commentary by the major cast members and to receive more candor in the documentaries concerning the production hassles, Paramount's release is a very nice package.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dangerously Funny

I've been a fan of the Smothers Brothers since at least high school, maybe junior high. I don't remember why I listened to them for the first time on LP. Probably because I was a television buff even then, and I had read about their turbulent 1960s variety show on CBS, THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR, from which they were eventually fired during their third season.

Color me surprised to find out that the Smothers Brothers' early record albums are nothing like their reputation as TV rebels. Before COMEDY HOUR went on the air as a midseason replacement in 1967, Tom and Dick Smothers did no political material at all. In fact, their clean-cut folk-styled act of comedy and music had its basis in old-school entertainment, and their idols were performers like Jack Benny and George Burns. Even though I no longer have a turntable, and I got rid of almost all my records years ago, I managed to hang on to the two or three Smothers Brothers albums I have.

It took me only a few days to tear through David Bianculli's new book DANGEROUSLY FUNNY: THE UNCENSORED STORY OF THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR. The 350-page-plus hardcover is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at Tom and Dick's groundbreaking television series, the passion that went into its creation, and the acrimony between Tommy and the CBS executives that regularly censored the show's satire. Sketches dealing with war, religion, even network protocol itself fell victim to the censors’ scissors during THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR’s three-season run, and one episode never aired at all.

Equally essential to fans of comedy and/or television history is the 2002 documentary SMOTHERED: THE CENSORSHIP STRUGGLES OF THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR, which plays as sort of a companion piece to DANGEROUSLY FUNNY, and, in fact, Bianculli is interviewed at length in the film. What’s great about SMOTHERED is the opportunity to see some of the infamous material that was banned from telecast, including Harry Belafonte’s extraordinary “Don’t Stop the Carnival” performed in front of news footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention; Joan Baez’s dedication of a song to her husband David Harris, then awaiting a prison sentence for draft evasion; and David Steinberg’s mock sermon that became the last straw for the network.

While the Smothers Brothers’—mainly Tommy’s, who was involved in every aspect of the show’s production—intractable opposition to network standards sometimes feels a little self-aggrandizing, it’s easy to understand their frustration, as network censors and executives were hesitant to explain the rules, leaving Tom and his writers adrift to craft material with little or no guidelines as to what topics were acceptable. Smothers even asked the network for a written policy outlining acceptable network standards, which he never received.

Writer/producer/director Maureen Muldaur wisely provides both sides of the story, giving CBS execs Perry Lafferty and Mike Dann plenty of exposure to relive their turbulent relationship with the brothers as they saw it. Surprisingly, neither is an ogre or a villain, and, in fact, both men liked the Smothers Brothers and their show. They appear to regret the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR’s ignominious cancelation (or “firing,” as Tommy still calls it) and their adversarial position in the breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in federal court by the Smothers Brothers (which the Smotherses won in 1973).

Why are DANGEROUSLY FUNNY and SMOTHERED important? Consider that, forty years after CBS threw the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR off the air for its eagerness to satirize important contemporary events, there still is nothing on network television that comes even close to approaching the Smothers Brothers’ level of relevance. That television has refused to evolve during that period is a frightening concept.

Here's an example of the Smothers Brothers' daring and sharp political humor: the controversial Belafonte bit that never aired on CBS:

Both the book and the documentary are recommended, as are the episodes of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR currently available on DVD. I can't say the same about FITZ & BONES (which gets maybe one sentence in the Bianculli book), but I'd watch it anyway if I could.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Ralph's Trek Is A Treat

Fans of classic television may get a big kick out of Ralph's Trek, which is a blog written by veteran director Ralph Senensky.

If you watched TV at all during the 1960s or 1970s, you had to have seen Senensky's credit on any of several dramatic shows, including STAR TREK, LOU GRANT, THE WALTONS, I SPY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE FUGITIVE, THE F.B.I., and many more. Although he's now 86 years old, Senensky appears to possess a remarkable memory, and each of his blog posts centers around a particular TV episode he helmed and his thoughts on the process, the cast and crew, etc. And since he worked during an era in which programs were more diverse and often more interesting, Senensky has a well-rounded resume to pull from. He made westerns, cop shows, spy adventures, space opera, fantasy, medical dramas, even the occasional sitcom--today's directors mostly do either comedy or drama, but hardly ever both.

Ralph's Trek is great stuff for anyone interested in the history of television and the nuts and bolts of its creation.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Saga Of The Victims

Skywald Publications was barely a blip on the comic book scene during the 1970s. Although something of a small cult is beginning to surround Skywald these days, the company lasted barely four years--their books cover-dated December 1970 to April 1975. Best described as a poor man's Warren, Skywald attempted to ape Warren's line of black-and-white horror mags with cheap-looking titles like SCREAM, NIGHTMARE, and PSYCHO, though its stories were far below the normal standards of Warren's CREEPY and EERIE (Skywald also did standard color comics for a couple of years, but let's stick with the horror books for now).

However, I must give major props to Skywald's magnum opus--by far the apex of its "Horror-Mood" line. A six-part serial written by Skywald editor Al Hewetson and drawn by Jesus Suso Rego debuted in SCREAM #6, the June 1974 issue. And what a stunner it was.

Called "The Saga of the Victims," the story arc featured Josey Forster and Anne Adams, sexy college students who returned to their Manhattan dorm after a double date, only to be kidnapped by monstrous mutants that carried them miles below the Earth's surface to a hooded sadist who threatened them with torture and degradation. The girls managed to escape to the surface, where they were immediately captured in separate plastic bags and hauled to the top of a skyscraper, where they met Horror itself, a ghastly being with no skin--just organs on the outside of its body.

And that was just the beginning of Anne and Josey's horrible ordeal. Over the next four installments (in SCREAM #7, 8, 9, and 11), the girls were captured by pirates, attacked by snakes, grabbed by pterodactyls, caught in the tendrils of a giant squid (that turned out to be a submarine piloted by a lone Nazi dwarf!), scalded by boiling water. And so on. One brutal situation after another challenging the girls' sanity and their desire to live.

In some ways, I can compare "The Saga of the Victims" to the TNT novels, in that Hewetson and Rego's stories presented one strange, sadistic trial after another with no backstory or exposition to get in the way. Smack from one brush with terror to the next. Hewetson once said his goal was to create a story in which nobody would be able to predict what would happen next, and I'm certain he succeeded. But what was the purpose of the girls' ordeal?

Readers never found out. Skywald folded before the sixth and final chapter could be published, and for 30 years, Josey and Anne's final fate was never revealed.

Thankfully, Headpress released THE COMPLETE SAGA OF THE VICTIMS in 2003, a trade paperback that collected the five chapters published in SCREAM and the never-before-seen finale, which was written by Hewetson and looks to have been laid out at least by Rego. I gotta say that this black-and-white collection is a helluva read. Hewetson's bleak tale is blisteringly paced and beautifully rendered by Rego, whose eye for beauty (Josey and Anne never look less than stunning, whether surviving a sandstorm or walking the plank of a pirate ship) easily matches his ability to create a mood of omniscient doom.

I've read a few other Skywald Horror-Mood stories and been less than impressed. But THE COMPLETE SAGA OF THE VICTIMS finds the company at its best with a story that can be mentioned in the same breath with Warren's elite.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Professor Russell Johnson's "My Ancestors Came Over On The Minnow" Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz

I have skipped Dennis Cozzalio's last few quizzes on his recommended Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog, because they're so intriguing and thoughtful that it's difficult to find the time to think about my answers. However, in the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I would tack my thinking cap on and tackle his latest. You can find my answers to previous quizzes here and here.

Please feel free to take the quiz yourself and leave your answers in the comments below and/or over on Dennis' site.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
FARGO. Even the laziest man in Los Angeles County can guess what my favorite is.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible?
THE NAKED PREY, which I saw many times on TV and VHS over the years. I was so pinwheeled to finally see it in its original aspect ratio on the Criterion DVD. It’s gotta be a great adventure on the big screen. I’ll also say STARCRASH, not because of seeing it on a big screen necessarily, but because it would be a fun experience with a crowd of hundreds of fans.

3) Japan or France?
Jet Jaguar’s home country of Japan.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
“If that’s a Bible, you read it. If not, you drop it.”—Dean Martin to Robert Mitchum in FIVE CARD STUD (may be paraphrased).

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s.
THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE. Just kidding. I don’t have an answer for this.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
Dennis Miller. How depressing what has happened to him.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
I have to go with Inspector Dreyfus’ slow descent into madness in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film?
Am I the only one who doesn’t like Lynch films? I’ll go with DUNE, which was so ugly, boring, and incomprehensible (the theater gave us a glossary to follow along with) that I’ve never forgotten it.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall?
I’m going with Hall, because he didn’t direct the execrable WINDOWS. On the basis of their cinematographical skills, they’re probably a tie.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
Blu-ray: Severin’s HARDWARE. Theaters: BOONDOCK SAINTS II (and I’ve never seen BOONDOCK SAINTS I).

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray?
My all-time favorite film: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. What is Paramount’s problem? Do they not like money??

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
The Deez!

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
I could make a very long list here, but Lance Henriksen is the first name that comes to mind. No matter what DTV dud it is, I will probably Netflix it if he’s in it.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
Can I say Thelma Ritter?

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
My mind is blank.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
Michael Craig’s dummy that is exploded by Steve Railback’s machine gun in TURKEY SHOOT/ESCAPE 2000 is one of the funniest death scenes ever.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it?
I’ve only walked out of a theater once in my life, and I didn’t even pay admission: COPS & ROBBERSONS.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
I always thought Johnson was a lightweight (THE CAINE MUTINY’s clear weakness), and Heflin is great with Glenn Ford in 3:10 TO YUMA.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
I think ENDANGERED SPECIES is the only Rudolph film I’ve seen, for some reason.

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
SICKO couldn’t possibly be more timely, but HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. still is as powerful as ever three decades later.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald?
I’ll go with Ann.

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
People tell me I look like a combination of Tom Cruise and Paul Newman. What?

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
I have avoided most of the current trend of so-called “torture porn” horror movies, including all Rob Zombie’s films (which may or may not qualify). Frankly, they don’t sound “fun” to me, and while I have little problem per se with horror movies that aren’t fun (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE comes to mind), life is too short to spend any of it intentionally seeking depression.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
The recent WIND CHILL was the first that came to mind, but MCCABE & MRS. MILLER did this the best.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Graham, because he was in USED CARS, where he performed the most amazing stunt I have ever seen in a film.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
Breaking the rules to include FREAKS AND GEEKS for the way the series portrayed its “freak” and “geek” characters realistically and sympathetically, but also its view of the Midwest, for once not being portrayed as populated by quaint rubes.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
Stuart Whitman bashing around Montreal in STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM is the greatest cinematic car chase that no one has seen.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film.
An all-chick THE THING (John Carpenter’s version) might be interesting.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
Rhoades is a terribly underrated ‘70s sexpot, but there’s only one 99.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be?
I would no sooner recommend a film be destroyed than a book be burned. Even Michael Bay’s and Andy Milligan’s films deserve to live and be seen by those who wish to.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
I won’t say I hated it before or love it now, but I have grown to appreciate the good stuff in Spielberg’s messy 1941: the special effects, the score, the stunning musical number, some of the performances, Mifune, Christopher Lee and Slim Pickens together.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls?
I have no opinion either way.

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
Being from a small Midwestern town, I certainly identify somewhat with the Cutters.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
Cars that explode incredibly easily. Sometimes they drive over a cliff and explode in midair!

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen?

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
Gene Hackman at the end of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE gets me every time.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate?
As previously noted, I wouldn’t want to take away any movie or anything else that brings others pleasure, but the cult that worships Jesus Franco as a competent filmmaker baffles me.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
No knock on Miss Carlson, but Caroline Munro is one of the five sexiest women who ever walked the Earth. Now if you had asked me to pick between Munro and Barbara Bouchet, I’d still be here deciding on Labor Day.

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director.
Wait, we’re back to de Toth again?

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending.
Carpenter’s THE THING.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
That so much exists on DVD and Blu-ray, films I never thought I would ever see when first learning about them in the pages of Michael Weldon’s essential THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM in 1983. How could I have know all those obscure slasher flicks and European genre classics would one day be so accessible?

50) George Kennedy or Alan North?
An unfair question, really. I have to go with Big George, although if I can only judge according to their respective work with Leslie Nielsen…I don’t know, Alan might get the nod.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fool With A Watermelon Grin

I read about this in Bill Simmons' new book THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL, and of course had to scurry straight to YouTube to see if I could find the clip in question. If you want to see a jackass Rick Barry put both feet in his mouth, one toe at a time, play-by-play man Gary Bender sweating like a madman (really, I think you can see the flopsweat), and Bill Russell so pissed off that smoke shoots out of his ears (really, I think...oh, never mind), then you need to see this clip of CBS' telecast of Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals. When is the last time you saw anybody this angry on live television?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mondo Mandingo

I love trashy paperbacks, and I love trashy movies, so it stands to reason that I would love my friend Paul Talbot's latest book from iUniverse. I really enjoyed Paul's previous book, BRONSON'S LOOSE: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS, which I wrote about here. But MONDO MANDINGO: THE FALCONHURST BOOKS AND FILMS is even better.

To quote the press release:

In 1957, the novel MANDINGO stunned readers with its lurid, unforgettable tale of Falconhurst -- a pre-Civil War slave-breeding plantation where unspeakable acts of sex and brutality took place everyday between the masters and slaves. Over the next three decades, MANDINGO sold millions of copies worldwide and spawned thirteen official sequel books as well as dozens of paperback imitators. The big-budget movie version of 1975 was one of the biggest hits of the year, as well as one of the most reviled films of all time.

Now, for the first time, the complete history of the bizarre MANDINGO phenomenon is told, including: the life of the eccentric author Kyle Onstott and the scandalous true stories that inspired him; the two writers who continued the Falconhurst series; and the background of the disastrous Broadway adaptation.

Believe me, everything you could ever want to know about the MANDINGO phenomenon is here. I was stunned to learn that Kyle Onstott, whose original MANDINGO novel sold millions of copies, was born and reared in the small town of DuQuoin, Illinois, home of the annual DuQuoin State Fair. I've been to DuQuoin many times, but have yet to see a Kyle Onstott statue there. The Chamber of Commerce needs to get on that.

MANDINGO led to more than a dozen followups that came out well into the 1980s, originally with Lance Horner as the author, and later Harry Whittington (not the same man whom Dick Cheney shot in the face) using the nom de plume Ashley Carter.

Talbot follows the evolution of the original MANDINGO characters in great detail throughout the rest of the Falconhurst books (named after the Louisiana plantation where the books are set), but he saves plenty of room to discuss the two films derived from the Onstott novel: 1975's MANDINGO and 1976's DRUM, which I recently reviewed here.

It's a tribute to Talbot that he was almost able to convince me that MANDINGO and DRUM are good movies, which they definitely are not, though they are incredibly entertaining if you're into bad movies. Talbot spoke to the directors of the two films, Richard Fleischer and Steve Carver (also interviewed in BRONSON'S LOOSE), star Ken Norton (yes, the boxer), and others involved in the movies, providing a candid behind-the-scenes look at two of the most controversial Hollywood films of the decade (and in the case of DRUM, one of the most troubled).

Talbot wraps up with a detailed examination of some of the "slavesploitation" ripoffs that followed MANDINGO, mostly coming out of Italy and Spain. And did you know that James Caan almost starred in a Broadway adaptation of MANDINGO?? Amazing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Assassin

As Bill Picard notes, cataloging the early works of best-selling author Nelson DeMille is no easy chore. In 1974 and 1975, DeMille wrote approximately six hard-boiled cop novels about an NYPD detective named Joe Ryker. Some of them bore his name, and some bore the pseudonym Jack Cannon as the author. Some were written about a cop named Joe Blaze and were credited to Robert Novak. Others were about a cop named Joe Keller! Some of the books were credited to Edson T. Hammill, who may have actually existed. And they were published and republished in later years under alternate titles.

Amazingly, THE AGENT OF DEATH, released by Leisure Books in 1974 as a Ryker title by DeMille, is virtually a word-for-word copy of a Joe Keller novel by DeMille called NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX published by Manor Books at the same time--just the character names are changed. Which means he obviously sold the same book to two different publishers simultaneously. And as quickly as these paperbacks were churned out and shipped to seedy bookstores and truckstops for rapid public consumption, it's possible the editors would never have known. I'm looking at both books right now, and it's a fabulous ripoff: Keller for Ryker, Johansson becomes Johnson, cops Lindly, Fischetti, and Spinelli become Liddy, Piscati, and Lentini. NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX opens, however, with a prologue set in Vietnam that AGENT OF DEATH doesn't have, making the latter's opening chapter heading of "New York City, the present" a bit odd.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is a typically shoddy Ryker adventure pitting the weary, hateful, bigoted cop against a CIA assassin named Falconer, a leper who's killing people in New York out of revenge for something that happened in Vietnam. Some of the murders are particularly chilling, such as a body left in a bathtub to be sucked dry by leeches and another man flayed and left on a rooftop to die of shock.

Ryker, who never met an authority figure he could respect, faces a formidable rival in Johanssen, another CIA operative who claims to want Falconer brought to justice, but Ryker doesn't trust the dude anymore than you will.

THE AGENT OF DEATH must have been written in a hurry. Strangely, one major event occurs entirely off-screen, a tragedy involving the death of a major character that happens between chapters and is vaguely referenced later. It's as though DeMille wrote it, but the editors ripped out ten pages to save space. Other chapters feel padded, making the book's pacing an odd experience.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is slightly more professional than the other Ryker books I've read, but not exactly high literature. I can't really recommend any of them, but they will do if you have 90 minutes to kill at the body shop or something.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fuse And The Explosion

It’s difficult to believe that MANDINGO is based on one of the most successful American pulp novels of the late 20th century. Kyle Onstott’s salacious 1957 novel spawned more than a dozen sequels, even more rip-offs, a shortlived Broadway play (co-starring Dennis Hopper!), and this Paramount feature that produced a sequel of its own. MANDINGO—the film—was almost unanimously reviled by the critical establishment. Even though it made a lot of money for the studio upon its 1975 release, Paramount was embarrassed by it, farming out the sequel, 1976’s DRUM, to United Artists and licensing the DVD rights to Legend Films, which put out a bare-bones disc in 2008.

I guess everyone involved thought they were making a thought-provoking expose of the American South of the late 19th century, but what MANDINGO really is is an exploitation movie, an often unintentionally hilarious one. James Mason is Warren Maxwell, the patriarch of an 1840s Louisiana plantation called Falconhurst. His lame son Hammond (Perry King) marries his niece Blanche (Susan George), though both can only find sexual pleasure elsewhere—Ham with black “bed wench” Ellen (Brenda Sykes) and Blanche with “fighting buck” Mede (boxer Ken Norton in his film debut). The sprawling nature of Onstott’s nearly-700-page novel was trimmed down by scripter Howard Wexler (SERPICO), but not the soap operatics or the rampant violence and sex. Few major Hollywood films of the era showcase as much male and female nudity as MANDINGO.

Picking out the film’s worst performance is difficult. It’s probably George’s humiliating histrionics, since the wooden Norton can hardly be blamed, and Mason is here purely for the paycheck. King is actually not bad with Wexler’s laughable dialogue, Sykes has some sensitive moments, Ji-Tu Cumbuka (A MAN CALLED SLOANE) is impressive as a defiant slave, but Susan George is pitiful.

Quentin Tarantino once said that MANDINGO and SHOWGIRLS were the only two “full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movies” made by major studios, though MANDINGO is too long and leisurely paced to be a proper grindhouse flick. It is terrible enough to be one though, chock full of terrible accents, laughable dialogue, outrageous plotting, and a tremendously sleazy finale that defines the word “overkill.” Fleischer’s direction is technically proficient, so MANDINGO looks like a real movie, which is what makes it such a jawdropper.

Set in 1860 Louisiana, DRUM is just as laughable as MANDINGO, but even more tasteless, if such a thing is possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could take these sordid soap opera antics seriously, but there’s little indication, outside of Warren Oates’ eccentric and possibly alcohol-fueled performance, that the cast, director Steve Carver (BIG BAD MAMA), or writer Norman Wexler are playing for camp.

Twenty years after he is born illegitimately to white prostitute Marianna (Isela Vega), who raised him with her black lesbian lover (Paula Kelly), Drum (Norton, back from MANDINGO, but as a different character) grows up to be a soft-spoken slave with a rock-hard pair of fists, who is called upon to bare-knuckle-box other slaves for his owner’s entertainment. After pummeling his friend Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) to a bloody pulp, the two are sold to a loudmouthed plantation owner named Hammond Maxwell (top-billed Oates playing Perry King’s role from MANDINGO) and taken to his elaborate plantation to work.

Maxwell is obnoxious and ignorant, but not overly cruel to his slaves—at least not in comparison to other slave owners, such as a demented homosexual Frenchman named Bernard (John Colicos) who keeps trying to kill Drum after the slave rejected his sexual advances. Although perhaps “overly cruel” has to be judged in context, since Maxwell does hang two of his slaves upside-down and naked and whip them as punishment for fighting, and threatens to castrate one for allegedly having sex with his spoiled teenage daughter (‘70s drive-in queen Rainbeaux Smith).

Whereas MANDINGO attempted to at least look like a respectable Hollywood production for propriety’s sake, DRUM has no such ambitions. Trash to its very core and filled to the brim with nudity, violence, wild dialogue, racial slurs, and terrible acting, DRUM is a terrific showcase for humiliated talented actors. Whether it’s Oates confirming to his “bed wench” (Pam Grier), “You knows I likes big titties,” or Kotto enduring the sexual teasing of potty-mouthed young Rainbeaux or Colicos rubbing Drum’s burly shoulders, lisping how much the young “buck” will “love it,” plenty of shame is available to go around, and I find this type of all-star ineptness enormously entertaining.

Norton is clearly not an actor, cast only because of his body and unfairly asked to carry a film, and Colicos’ lipsmacking, sadistic homosexual is the most offensive gay stereotype you can imagine. Grier (billed as “Pamela” Grier) was a pretty big star in AIP movies by this time and probably believed she was making a welcome leap into mainstream filmmaking, but DRUM gives her little screen time and nothing to do except bare her breasts.

John Vernon was one of many performers who were cut out of the film after producer Dino de Laurentiis fired original director Burt Kennedy and replaced him with exploitation filmmaker Carver, who had made THE ARENA in Italy with Grier. Kennedy filmed a lot of footage in Puerto Rico and New Orleans, but most of it was either dropped or reshot by Carver. Narration attempts to clear up some clunky exposition in the opening reel. It doesn't help. Probably nothing could.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's Kill Or Be Killed

Now available on DVD from Code Red is 1982's TRAPPED, an effective Canadian genre piece made in Georgia by William Fruet, the director of SEARCH AND DESTROY, FUNERAL HOME, SPASMS, and DEATH WEEKEND.

Fans of the fantastic Spanish/Italian character actor Henry Silva can't miss his juicy performance. Silva stars as backwoods Tennessee redneck Henry Chatwill, who catches his hotsy-totsy no-undie-wearing young wife in bed with another man. So Henry tars and feathers the man (literally) and then takes him out into the woods and bashes him in the head until he’s dead. Unfortunately, he lets four college students see him do it, and the chase is on. No points for guessing that the kid speechifying in class about pacifism will end up whooping some ass.

Silva is fantastically hammy, and Fruet and writer John Beaird (MY BLOODY VALENTINE) take the trouble to establish the rural setting and give the townspeople some dimension. The college students, unfortunately, don’t get the same attention and have little personality aside from Roger’s (Nicholas Campbell) stance on non-violence. Barbara Gordon, who is still a busy character actress in her native Canada, stands out as Henry’s sister, who decides the townspeople have enabled Henry’s violence for too long.

TRAPPED was also released as BAKER COUNTY, U.S.A. If Nicholas Campbell looks familiar to you, he eventually achieved CBC stardom on the hit crime drama DAVINCI’S INQUEST, which was successful enough to air in syndication in the United States.