Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Powder Keg Of Black Fury

SPAWN star Michael Jai White co-wrote and stars in BLACK DYNAMITE, just out on DVD and Blu-ray, an inspired parody of 1970s blaxploitation pictures that is nearly pitch-perfect in its attention to B-movie detail (or should that be attention to the frequent inattention by the often sloppy filmmakers who worked with low budgets and strict genre conventions).

The genre has been spoofed before, most notably in I’M GONNA GET YOU, SUCKA and UNDERCOVER BROTHER, both funny movies, but BLACK DYNAMITE goes even further in its slavish devotion to duplicating the look, the style, the outrageous plotting, and the sheer nerve of blaxploitation’s wildest endeavors. Director Scott Sanders (THICK AS THIEVES) even goes so far as to duplicate ‘70s-style smog over the Los Angeles skyline.

Plotting is predictably and hilariously all over the map. Suffice to say that Black Dynamite (White as Jim Brown, basically)—pimp, Vietnam vet, ex-CIA—gets violently involved when his younger brother Jimmy is murdered by mobsters. Teaming up with a beautiful neighborhood organizer (Salli Richardson, looking a lot like Pam Grier), black militants led by Phil Morris (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), and co-writer Byron Minns in a funny takeoff on Rudy Ray Moore, Black Dynamite bitchslaps all the pushers, pimps, and white mobsters in the neighborhood, following the trail of corruption all the way to The Man at the top. I wouldn't dream of giving away the surprises in the last half-hour of BLACK DYNAMITE.

Original scoring by Adrian Younge and songs lay the musical backdrop for Sanders’ delirously funny film, which is securely anchored by the talented White, who’s got the game, the voice, the excellent comic timing, and the kung fu skills to pull off this perfect parody. He really gets this character. One of my favorite gags is nearly imperceptible, during a righteous monologue by White where the boom microphone pops down into the frame, and the actor—just for a second—glances at it, as if to say, “Brutha, what is this shit?”

The game supporting cast includes Mike Starr, Arsenio Hall, Mikelti Williamson (currently on 24), John Salley, Bokeen Woodbine, Tommy Davidson, Richard Edson, Kevin Chapman, Buddy Lewis, Kym Whitley, Roger Yuen, Obba Babatunde, Miguel Nunez, Irwin Keyes, John Kerry, Tucker Smallwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Nicole Sullivan, and James McManus as The Man. I really want to see a BLACK DYNAMITE 2.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The World's Greatest Detective

Forget all that nonsense about the great literary detective Sherlock Holmes solving murders and outwitting Professor Moriarty. What we really want is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th-century sleuth fighting giant monsters! Leave it to The Asylum to confuse the next generation of movie renters who will find this on the shelf right next to the Robert Downey Jr. movie.

No joke—Holmes (Ben Syder, making his screen debut) and Watson (TORCHWOOD’s Gareth David-Lloyd) go up against a poorly rendered CGI kraken, dragon, and dinosaur in this ludicrous action picture from the director of SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL (!), Rachel Lee Goldenberg. No, wait, even better—not just monsters, but…robot monsters!

Inspector Lestrade (William Huw) brings in Holmes and Watson to investigate a shipwreck in the English Channel. The lone survivor claims he was the victim of a sea monster, but his claims are dismissed as delirious ravings. After a prostitute’s john is ripped apart in the East End by what witnesses claim to be a dinosaur, Holmes’ investigation leads him to a previously abandoned castle, where he and Watson encounter the film’s human villain: Thorpe (!) Holmes (Dominic Keating from STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE), Sherlock’s brother, Lestrade’s ex-partner who disappeared after being crippled by a robber’s bullet seven years earlier.

Thirsty for revenge, Thorpe built himself an Iron Man outfit that allows him to walk, a sex robot (!) to serve as his assistant, and his mechanical creatures that he ultimately plans to use to destroy London. I enjoyed the unusual (to say the least) science fiction concept, which is pure WILD WILD WEST, but in typical Asylum fashion, the studio is too cheap to really put it over.

If the climax of your movie is going to be an aerial dogfight between a propeller-driven hot air balloon and a fire-breathing mechanical dragon, you owe it to your audience to make it somewhat credible. The Asylum’s neglect, however, in the film’s visual effects and hideous brown digital photography are no help in selling the illusion. The acting is equally lifeless—Syder is probably the screen’s dullest Holmes—and the brainless screenplay is structured as a flashback in the form of a secret journal entry told by an old Watson to his young nurse, who unbelievably has never heard any such thing of London being trashed by a flying robot dragon. And you thought today’s youth was ignorant of history.

I can’t be too rough on SHERLOCK HOLMES, however, since I do admire its cheeky concept, and The Asylum does seem to be trying, for once, to make a worthwhile film (PRINCESS OF MARS shows the same misguided effort, though everyone walks through MEGAFAULT, for example). With more effort in casting, scripting, cinematography, and effects, it may have turned out rather well. With a cute ending that hints at a sequel, perhaps the studio will do better the second time around.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Strawberries Need Rain

I don’t know if I would have believed it if I hadn’t watched it with my own two eyes, but, yes, Larry Buchanan, the director of Texas-fried trash like ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS and MARS NEEDS WOMEN, really did make an artsy-fartsy ripoff of/tribute to Ingmar Bergman. Thankfully, some tasteful nudity by Buchanan’s leading lady, 1970s drive-in star Monica Gayle (left, in THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO), helps make 1970's STRAWBERRIES NEED RAIN palatable for general audiences.

Les Tremayne, best known to my generation as the avuncular Mentor to Michael Gray’s Billy Batson on the SHAZAM television series, is the Grim Reaper, who brings his scythe to the doorstep of a sweet teenager named Erika (Gayle). The poor thing has “never loved,” and convinces Death to give her one more day on Earth, which she uses to try to get laid. It’s apparently a lot more difficult than you would think for someone as hot as Monica Gayle to find a young man to take her virginity, but that’s how it goes in Buchananland.

First up is Franz (Terry Mace), the horny neighbor boy who spends his bedtime hours peering at naked centerfolds under his covers with a flashlight, but totally freaks when Erika climbs through his bedroom window and tries to give herself to him. Then there’s Bruno (Paul Bertoya), a callous hit-it-and-quit-it type who takes Erika up to the abandoned mill for a good time, but scares her off when his foreplay gets too rough. Finally, she is seduced by Mr. Sestrom (Gene Otis Shane), her former teacher who feeds her strawberries laced with champagne.

Gayle, whose most familiar role is probably the villainous Patch in Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, was an appealing actress whose earthy sexiness makes her particularly fascinating in STRAWBERRIES NEED RAIN. Not only does she play Erika at different ages, which shows a little bit of range unusual to actresses who starred in sexy pictures then, but she’s also extremely sympathetic—innocent but not na├»ve, in search of sex but neither aggressive nor crude. Her chats with Tremayne display a maturity Gayle rarely got to demonstrate on film.

STRAWBERRIES NEED RAIN may well be Buchanan’s best feature. While no one would actually mistake it for a Bergman film, as he reportedly claimed, it is interesting and dramatically sound, although he almost ruins everything with a silly final plot twist. The score and songs by Ray Martin are quite good. Buchanan regular Bill Thurman shows up unless you blink.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Girls On The Hollywood High

The Girls on the Hollywood High
February 23, 1980
Music: Stu Phillips
Story: Ron Friedman & Glen A. Larson
Teleplay: Glen A. Larson
Director: Bruce Bilson

Creator Larson tries once again to use BJ AND THE BEAR to launch a new pilot. "The Eyes of Texas" guest-starred Rebecca Reynolds and Lorrie Mahaffey as inexperienced private detectives Heather Fern and Carolyn Capodi working for a small Texas-based agency run by Morton Jarvis (Roger C. Carmel). In "The Girls on the Hollywood High," Reynolds is back as Heather, but the curvy Heather Thomas is now Carolyn, and their boss is a brassy woman (Morton Jarvis' widow!) played by Eve Arden (OUR MISS BROOKS).

Star Greg Evigan shows up barely long enough to hire Heather and Carolyn to fly to Los Angeles to find his missing sister Shauna (Deborah Ryan), who stumbled upon a scandalous death at the home of prominent entertainment attorney Hank Rogers (Craig Stevens). Heather and Carolyn's gumshoeing leads them to Rogers, as well as filmmaker Garrett Logan (Burr deBenning) and the shady Marty Franks (Lloyd Bochner), who also participated in the dead girl's coverup.

BJ AND THE BEAR fans were probably furious while sitting through this tepid BJ- and Bear-less mystery, even though Larson and Bilson try to make it up to them by providing a fine guest cast, which also includes Michael Pataki as Arden's assistant and John S. Ragin and Robert Ito as their QUINCY, M.E. characters.

Needless to say, there was no EYES OF TEXAS TV series, but Heather Thomas found stardom the following year in Larson's THE FALL GUY opposite Lee Majors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nobody Gives Arnold A Raw Deal

Arnold Schwarzenegger worked with THE DOGS OF WAR director John Irvin in 1986's RAW DEAL, a bloody action picture shot in Chicago and in producer Dino de Laurentiis’ home base of North Carolina. RAW DEAL is probably Arnold’s least-liked film of the ‘80s, and though it hits the requisite action beats and throws up plenty of stunts and shootouts, it plays a little flat. It’s also the picture where the Austrian star attempts to say, “He molested, murdered, and mutilated her.”

It doesn’t help that Schwarzenegger is miscast as something of a regular guy, Mark Kaminsky, who was kicked out of the FBI under pressure and now makes his living as the sheriff of a quiet North Carolina town, complete with a bitchy alcoholic wife (Blanche Baker). So he jumps at the chance to help his old FBI boss Harry Shannon (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER’s Darren McGavin) get back at the Chicago mob family of Luigi Patrovita (Sam Wanamaker), whose goons killed Shannon’s son.

With Arnold asked to do more acting in RAW DEAL than he had in his earlier films, Irvin wisely supported his star with a solid roster of character actors, none of whom are outstanding here (how can they with a drab screenplay concocted by four different writers?), but certainly take some of the load off Schwarzenegger’s shoulders. In addition to McGavin, who supplies pathos, and the silky Wanamaker, RAW DEAL offers Ed Lauter as a typically tough cop, Steven Hill as a rival gangster, Kathryn Harrold as a moll with another side to her, Paul Shenar and Robert Davi as gunsels, Joe Regalbuto as a crusading politician, and rough-faced Victor Argo even turns up wielding a rod in the violent opening.

One weakness of the script is its relative lack of motivation for Kaminsky to get involved. Although Shannon’s impetus for contacting him is the death of his son, he doesn’t send Mark on a revenge mission. In fact, it’s not clear what his job is. Sure, he’s to join Patrovita’s mob as a hired gunman (using the name Joey Brenner), but he doesn’t wear a wire or collect evidence to use in court, and he certainly isn’t trying to kill for revenge. When he finally wipes out all the bad guys in the bloody finale, one wonders why he didn’t do it an hour earlier.

It isn’t until the final reel that RAW DEAL finally kicks into gear. Up to then, Schwarzenegger had been something of a passive hero, so it’s a thrill to finally see him take charge. Too little, too late, but Schwarzenegger and Irvin are too proficient in the action genre to produce a total dud.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's Party

Arnold Schwarzenegger was approaching his peak as one of the 1980s’ preeminent action heroes when he made COMMANDO, a mindless, violent, and oh-so-fun bullet-and-blood-fest with the director of FIRESTARTER and ROLLER BOOGIE. It’s practically the epitome of old-school action, when stuntmen, not computers, did stunts, and if you needed your star to run from an explosion, he did it, not jump onto an airbag with a CGI explosion green-screened behind him. And one COMMANDO is worth more than a dozen TRANSPORTERs or FAST AND FURIOUSes in my book. It’s a B-picture alright, but with no padding, and it delivers exactly what it should.

Schwarzenegger was still green as an actor at this point, but who better at the time could have played retired Special Forces colonel John Matrix in a Joel Silver production? This time, it’s personal for Matrix when his daughter Jenny (future CHARMED cutie Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by Bennett (THE ROAD WARRIOR’s Vernon Wells), a psycho Matrix kicked out of the service years earlier, and Bennett’s new boss Arias (Dan Hedaya), a former Latin America dictator Matrix’s unit helped overthrow.

To get Jenny back, all Matrix has to do is assassinate the rightfully elected president of Arias’ former country and help him regain the palace. Ha! Why do that when he can demolish a mall, toss bad guys off a cliff, destroy a motel room, ram a bulldozer through a surplus store window, steal a seaplane, and roar and rip his way across L.A., always leaving behind a well-timed quip (“I let him go.”) and a trail of bodies? Rae Dawn Chong is charming in a tough and thankless role as an innocent bystander who becomes Arnold’s sidekick.

Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay is deliriously brainless (from a random map left at a fuel depot and a photograph tacked to a wall, Matrix can deduce precisely where Arias is holding his daughter), but who cares? We’re watching COMMANDO to see Schwarzenegger shoot a lot of guns and kill a bunch of bad guys, and director Mark Lester allows him to do just that. Armed with a Silver budget that buys plenty of explosives, blanks, and Jeeps to destroy, Lester and his experience in drive-in pictures manages to create a streamlined crowd-pleaser perfect for a brain on hold.

Lester assembled a nice supporting cast, including David Patrick Kelly (THE WARRIORS), Bill Duke (later in PREDATOR), Bill Paxton (with Arnold in THE TERMINATOR and TRUE LIES), Chelsea Field, Branscombe Richmond, Bob Minor, Michael Delano, and James Olson (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN) as Richard Crenna. James Horner recycles his one 1980s action score that’s virtually identical to his 48 HRS. If the mall where Schwarzenegger chases David Patrick Kelly looks familiar, yep, it’s the one used in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and CHOPPING MALL (but no longer exists in this form).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Serial Vigilantes Of Paperback Fiction

A book right up my alley, Bradley Mengel's new SERIAL VIGILANTES OF PAPERBACK FICTION is the reference source I've been looking for ever since I began writing about the men's adventure genre a few years ago. It isn't perfect:
  • At $45, it's too expensive
  • It provides zero critical insight
  • The cover is horrible
  • No photos, especially the often amazing paperback covers
However, I don't want to sound too harsh, because I mostly liked Mengel's guide, and there is a lot here to love for fans of the men's adventure genre. For one thing, as of now, it stands as the definitive guide on one of the literary world's least respected and least reported genres. To the best of my knowledge, both in book form and on the Internet, nothing covers men's adventure novels as thoroughly as this book.

Mengel has created the term "serial vigilante" to cover the genre, which is his right, but what that does is somewhat limit his scope of the book. It means he leaves out series featuring cop heroes, such as Nelson DeMille's Ryker, Keller, and Super Cop Joe Blaze books and Martin Cruz Smith's Kill Squad. A minor criticism, but I would have liked to learn more about those books as well.

Each character or group receives its own encyclopedic entry that describes the basic concept, provides the titles and publishing dates, and a nifty Behind the Scenes entry. Most importantly, Mengel identifies a large number of the authors working behind pseudonyms or house names, so if you ever wondered who wrote various Executioner or Killmaster books under Don Pendleton's or Nick Carter's names, respectively, this is the place.

For fans of the men's adventure genre, I have to join the chorus of fans and give SERIAL VIGILANTES OF PAPERBACK FICTION a thumbs-up.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Death Of A Citizen

I'm surprised it's taken me this long to write about Matt Helm. Unlike most of the series I have written about here, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books were a part of my literary diet when I was a kid. I started reading them when I was about 13 or 14, and have owned the first dozen or so paperbacks all that time. I don't think I have read any of them in over twenty years, but they have faithfully moved with me from house to dorm to trailer to apartment (many) to house in that time, ready for me when I was ready to tear into them again. I finally dug into Hamilton's first Helm novel, and it's just as great as I remember.

DEATH OF A CITIZEN was a Fawcett Gold Medal adventure published in 1960, which predates the men's adventure genre, but I'm including it anyway. Hero Matt Helm, an American spy, is much more in the Sam Durell mode than James Bond. Helm tells his stories in first person in a terse, tight, exciting style in which he approaches his duties as just a job. If he has to "make a touch," hey, it's just a job.

His first book finds Helm retired fifteen years after a distinguished war record operating in secret behind enemy lines. He's now married with three children, a cat, a nice adobe home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a lucrative career as a photographer and an author of western novels. Which all goes away lickety-split when a face from his past appears out of nowhere when he could have least expected it.

Tina, another agent with whom Matt teams on a treacherous mission in Europe during World War II, pops up in New Mexico one evening and blackmails him into accompanying her on her latest mission, which involves protecting an important atomic scientist (and friend of Matt's) from assassins, one of which Matt finds dead in the bathtub of his backyard studio.

DEATH OF A CITIZEN is not exactly action-packed, and Hamilton doesn't leave a trail of bodies in Helm's wake, but the violence that occurs is sudden, shocking, and in Helm's mind, absolutely necessary. By the time DEATH OF A CITIZEN has ended, Helm has pulled a shockingly quick 180 on his domestic life and has fallen back into his old ways. "Killing is my line," he says in a matter-of-fact way, which is the way Helm approaches everything.

If you were going to read any of the I have covered on this blog, I would suggest Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels are a great place to start.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

There Is No Time To Scream

Kudos to Scorpion Releasing for making 1980's THE SILENT SCREAM (the onscreen title) available in a Special Edition DVD, but it’s not really worth it. As was often the case with low-budget exploitation movies, the story behind its making is more interesting than THE SILENT SCREAM itself. It was a big hit, however—probably due to its exciting marketing campaign and its over-the-hill name stars—but commercial director Denny Harris never made another feature.

Four numbskull college students—including Dorothy Hamill-haircutted Scotty (Rebecca Balding, just fired from LOU GRANT)—move into a spooky old beachside mansion owned by the reclusive Mrs. Engels (Yvonne DeCarlo) and her creepy, bespectacled teen son Mason (Brad Rearden). After one of the youths is brutally stabbed to death on the beach, detective Paul (Cameron Mitchell) and his unlikely frizzy-headed partner Manny (Doritos pitchman Avery Schreiber) are summoned to the house to investigate. This plot is slightly different from what was originally shot, but Harris’ original film was deemed unreleaseable, and writer/producers Jim and Ken Wheat (PITCH BLACK) were brought in to supervise more than an hour of new footage.

While Mitchell is always a welcome sight in a cheap horror movie, his scenes exist only to stretch the running time to 87 minutes, since all he and Schreiber do is piece together a mystery we already know. As anyone who’s ever seen one of these movies can predict, the cops figure out what’s going on just in time to be too late for the bloody climax. Hell, their characters are only given first names, not last names or ranks, and Mitchell’s character has a different name in the credits (Sandy) than he’s called in the movie. Mitchell and TV comic Schreiber work pretty well together, the way old pros do when forced to tread water with mediocre material, and though their scenes are irrelevant to the plot, they aren’t unentertaining.

Besides the appearances of Mitchell, DeCarlo, and Steele (whose performance is completely silent), THE SILENT SCREAM doesn’t hold much interest for genre fans. The body count is relatively low, and only the first two killings contain any visceral thrills. The drippy male leads are too repugnant to root for, while belly-shirted Balding fails to impress as the heroine. To be applauded is composer Roger Kellaway, whose score believes it’s in a much classier movie, pounding away in an effort to fool us into thinking important stuff is happening onscreen.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Men Of Violence 2

Justin Marriott is back with another issue of MAN OF VIOLENCE. Like the first issue of his self-published fanzine, which I reviewed last July, it covers the lurid, often bloody men's adventure paperbacks of the 1970s, a genre of literature about which very little seems to be known or written.

#2 is very much like the first, including its deficits (lousy proofreading), but what's good is really good. I only wish the issue were longer, because I think Justin is beginning to scratch the surface with his articles.

Topics include Manor Books, a New York-based operation that published some of the genre's sleaziest series, including Kill Squad, Bronson (an incredibly obvious DEATH WISH ripoff), and Kung Fu starring Mace; Peter McCurtin's long running Marksman series; the western series Renegade starring Captain Gringo (!); a review of Bradley Mengel's new McFarland book SERIAL VIGILANTES OF PAPERBACK FICTION (which I'll also be reviewing soon); and more.

Best of all are all the (black-and-white) reproduced covers sprinkled across the pages. As good as the articles are, I think the best way to get a quick idea of what the men's adventure genre is all about is to glance at these action-packed covers, many of which were painted by comic book artists like Bob Larkin and Ken Barr.

You can learn more about MEN OF ACTION at Justin's Paperback Fanatic site.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Who Can Kill A Child?

If you make it through the first eight minutes of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, a 1976 Spanish horror movie by the Uruguayan director Narciso Ibanez Serrador, you should be good to go. The (too long) opening titles play over a documentary-style history lesson of dead children of the 20th century using real footage of wartime atrocities, including concentration camps. It’s a little much for what is ultimately a killer-kiddie flick (albeit a skillfully made one).

A British couple, medical biologist Tom (Lewis Fiander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing in Spain, decide to get away from the noise, the crowds, and the murdered bodies washing on shore to the island of Almanzora. They rent a boat and arrive on the island to discover no adults are living there and the children are really weird. Yep, the kids went gonzo and killed all the grups. And guess who’s next on the menu?

It isn’t explained what caused the children to become murderous, though there are hints of a supernatural or maybe even extraterrestrial threat. Probably influenced by THE BIRDS and surely VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (AIP released it in the U.S. as ISLAND OF THE DAMNED in 1978, shorn of all subtitles and the original title sequence), Serrador’s very good film is marked by tremendous locations, fine performances, taut direction, tasteful violence (relatively, considering the circumstances), and a bonechilling score. An interesting theme is the townspeople’s reluctance to protect themselves because of their innate inability to harm children, even at the expense of their own lives.

I can’t recommend WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? or its Dark Sky DVD highly enough, though I suggest you skip the opening credits, which are too grim and jarring for even this apocalyptic nightmare. I bet the child actors had a lot of fun making it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Only A Ninja Can Kill A Ninja

I think this is the first time I've ever seen the trailer for Cannon's 1984 action flick NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. For some reason, MGM has only gotten around to releasing the second Cannon ninja film, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, on DVD, and even though it was the uncut X-rated (for violence) version, it was released full-frame. However, MGM HD has aired a pristine widescreen print of ENTER THE NINJA, so perhaps a DVD release of it is in the near future.

In any case, enjoy the original theatrical trailer of NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, the best telephone lineswoman/aerobics instructor/ninja movie ever made:

Who’s The Sexiest Girl In The World?

Who's the Sexiest Girl in the World?
February 19, 1980
Music: Jimmie Haskell
Writer: Glen A. Larson
Director: Daniel Haller

We learn that Deputy Perkins (Mills Watson) is a Cincinnati Reds fan in this MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO episode written by the show's creator, Glen A. Larson. Playboy Playmate Candy Loving (January 1979) plays herself in this mistaken identity farce. The governor's aide (David Ruprecht) entrusts Deputy Birdie (Brian Kerwin) with the news that the chief executive's ladyfriend (Loving) is hiding out in Orly from someone sending her threatening letters. Meanwhile, physician Walter Taylor (William Daniels) and his lover Miss Smith (Lynne Marta) are also staying at the local hotel after murdering her husband. Naturally, the two deputies and Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins) mistake Miss Smith for Candy Loving, leading to pratfalls and Perkins in drag.

Loving was just about wrapping up her fifteen minutes of fame when this episode aired. Not just a Playmate, she had been selected as Playboy's special 25th Anniversary Playmate, beating out Dorothy Stratten, among others. As an actress, well, she's fine, I suppose. She's pretty and sweet, and the male audience probably enjoyed her aerobics scene. The comic bad guys on her tail are right out of the cartoons, sneaking into "her" room (actually occupied by Perkins—mustache and all—in disguise) to wrap a sack over her. Cydney Crampton as Perkins' jealous wife has a meaty part, as she tries to keep her husband away from the sexy guest.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Death-Germ Plot Menaces Millions

One of the strangest thrillers of the Red Scare era was both directed and production-designed by the legendary William Cameron Menzies, an Oscar-winning (GONE WITH THE WIND) art director who also occasionally wrote, produced, and performed second-unit duties. Rarely seen since its 1951 release, THE WHIP HAND is a lurid though fun slice of postwar paranoia.

Elliott Reid, an amiable sort better known for his work in light comedies, plays Matt Corbin, whom we first see fishing during a thunderstorm. It’s clear that thunder and lightning are all around him, yet when the torrential downpour begins, Corbin looks around him in surprised annoyance. When the clumsy oaf runs smack into a tree on his scurry back to his car, cutting his forehead, it becomes clear we might have trouble rooting for the big lug.

After taking a wrong turn and being rudely run off by a gun-toting security guard roaming the walls of a barbed-wire-surrounded estate in the wilderness, Corbin finally makes it into sleepy little Winnoga, Minnesota, one of those Hollywood small towns in which everyone acts suspiciously and strangers aren’t to be trusted. Landing a room for the night at the hotel owned by jovial Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr), Corbin is surprised to learn that Winnoga has become a ghost town after all the fish in the nearby lake died of a strange virus.

Thinking there might be a story in Winnoga--Corbin is a journalist for a LIFE-like magazine--he decides to stick around for a few days, much to the chagrin of Loomis; Dr. Koller (Edgar Barrier), the local physician who sewed up Corbin’s cut; Janet (top-billed Carla Balenda), the doctor’s pretty sister; and local goons Chick (Michael Steele) and Garr (Peter Brocco).

It soon becomes clear to Corbin that Winnoga houses a massive conspiracy, and, with Hardy Boys-like skill, begins investigating the mysterious guarded estate. Imagine his surprise when he discovers the lodge is headquartering a former Nazi scientist, Dr. Wilhelm Bucholtz (Otto Waldis), and Winnoga, with only a few exceptions (including Janet), is populated with Communist spies who plan to destroy the U.S. population with diabolical germ warfare being developed by Dr. Bucholtz. Unable to leave town and constantly spied upon by Commie eyes, Corbin fights to discover a way to contact his New York editor for help and to destroy the Commies’ plans for world domination.

Considering that THE WHIP HAND was a troubled production, it may be surprising that it turned out as well as it did. According to Bill Warren’s excellent KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES, it was originally made as THE MAN HE FOUND, and, instead of Bucholtz, the mysterious villain residing in the remote compound was none other than Adolf Hitler! RKO head Howard Hughes, after the film had been completed, decided to replace Hitler with a Communist threat, and ordered new scenes shot and old ones cut or restructured.

The skill of Menzies as a filmmaker is evident in that THE WHIP HAND doesn’t appear confusing or truncated, and the additional material flows quite nicely with the old. Although the final scenes more closely resemble a Dr. Doom comic book story in dialogue and approach than the noirish material before, THE WHIP HAND is a well-performed entertainment that works in spite of (or perhaps because of) its heavy-handed approach. Reid is a likable sort, although he plays Corbin as kind of a dolt, always (unwisely, it seems) talking trash to his opponents instead of staying cool. Burr is very good as the sinister innkeeper, who bounces between glaring evil and outgoing jocularity with alarming ease.

I may be displaying a shocking ignorance of history, but, not having lived during the Red Scare, I don’t know what a “whip hand” refers to.