Monday, May 31, 2010

An Age Of Fantasy And Magic

Jack Hill’s final film to date was not a happy experience. Executive producer Roger Corman fired him during post-production of SORCERESS, while shearing nearly 20 minutes out of the movie. Jim Wynorski received full screenplay credit, though Hill claims the entire screenplay is his alone. Hill keeps producer credit with “Brian Stuart,” the Christian names of Hill’s sons, named as the director.

Is SORCERESS worth the fuss? Hill doesn’t think so, but it’s actually a fun little movie with a sense of humor, although many of the laughs are unintentionally earned at the expense of Corman’s cheap special effects. At this point in New World Pictures’ history, Corman was extremely concerned with keeping costs down. In SORCERESS’ case, he shipped the production down to Mexico, and recycled James Horner’s score from BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (not for the first or the last time either). Somehow, though—maybe because of the novelty of starring 27-year-old twin Playmates Lynette and Leigh Harris, who often perform sans clothing—SORCERESS was a relative box-office success upon its 1982 release, though not enough to resuscitate Hill’s career.

A pair of sexy twins named Mira (Leigh Harris) and Mara (Lynette) grow up as boy warriors in the home of a couple who took them in as babies when their mother was murdered by evil ruler Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros). Years later, their adopted family is killed by Traigon’s goons, and it’s vengeance time for the twins, who discover they have breasts and can even feel the sensation when the other sister is having sex. Other characters include a goofy white-bread Deathstalker type, a Viking, a satyr in an amateurish mask, an army of ape slaves, a winged lion, skeleton zombies, and a floating woman’s head that shoots rays out of its eyes.

No, SORCERESS is not a good movie, and certainly one of Hill’s worst. But there does have some humor to go with its mindless action, as well as hot naked twins—always a plus. The story rarely makes any sense. Perhaps it did before Corman let his editors run roughshod over it, but the major plot point of everyone believing the Harris twins to be male really stretches credulity. If you have less than 80 minutes to kill, SORCERESS fits the bill though.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Paul Newman Is Harper

Ross Macdonald’s sardonic private eye Lew Archer came to the big screen for the first time in this entertaining romp penned by William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), who won an Edgar Award for the year’s best movie mystery. Paul Newman is at his most charming as gum-chomping Lew Harper, the character renamed, the story goes, because Newman was having a streak of good luck at the box office with “H” movies like HUD and THE HUSTLER. Goldman claims the name was changed because producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin bought the rights to Macdonald’s novel, but not the character of Archer.

Based on Macdonald’s 1949 novel THE MOVING TARGET, HARPER finds the titular dick on the trail of wealthy invalid Lauren Bacall’s (THE BIG SLEEP) missing husband. As these cases usually do, Harper’s investigation leads to a steady string of suspects, red herrings, and witnesses, including the missing man’s shimmying daughter Pamela Tiffin (STATE FAIR) in one of her best roles, callow pilot Robert Wagner (THE TOWERING INFERNO), lovesick attorney Arthur Hill (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), blowsy movie star Shelley Winters (LOLITA), her rat of a husband Robert Webber (S.O.B.), nightclub singer Julie Harris (THE HAUNTING), and colorful cult leader Strother Martin (SSSSS), whose scene was filmed at the same mountaintop temple used in THE STONE KILLER. Janet Leigh (PSYCHO) plays Harper’s estranged wife.

Goldman’s plot holds together pretty well, sending Harper from clue to clue and interview to interview with an occasional chase or smack on the head to break up the mystery. Though the story is typical MANNIX fare, Goldman’s slick dialogue (Bacall: “L.A. is the big league for religious nuts.” Newman: “That’s ‘cause there’s nothin’ to do at night.”) and Newman’s sly hamming deliver tremendous entertainment. Lew Harper is one of Newman’s best characterizations, one he visited a decade later in THE DROWNING POOL.

HARPER isn’t a violent film, but when director Jack Smight (DAMNATION ALLEY) portrays violence, it’s fast and rough and packs a punch. Goldman and Smight economically use the opening titles to establish Harper’s likable but down-and-out detective persona with character bits like stumbling out of bed and digging through yesterday’s trash to reuse old coffee grinds (Burt Reynolds copied this sequence when he played a private detective in SHAMUS).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Halt The Flow Of Time

I love that this deliriously nutty space opera is not only finally get a Region 1 DVD release, but also coming to Blu-ray! Very, very few films are more fun to watch than...STARCRASH!

Yep, that's David Hasselhoff co-starring with Marjoe Gortner, the very-much-slumming Christopher Plummer (who's clearly having a ball thinking about what he's going to do with his paycheck), and the scrumptious Caroline Munro.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Invasion of the Bee Girls

Why are the middle-aged men in a California town dying of heart attacks during sexual intercourse? Because the first victim worked for Brandt Industries, a local thinktank with a government contract, the Pentagon sends agent Neil Agar (William Smith) to investigate. 

Agar and the local law, Captain Peters (SWEET SUGAR’s Cliff Osmond), are flummoxed by the escalating body count, which he and Brandt scientist Julie Zorn (Victoria Vetri, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH) attribute to a race of insatiable bee women (!) led by the sublimely sexy mad scientist Susan Harris (luscious Anitra Ford, who was also in STACEY! the same year). 

Despite the title, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS isn’t campy, though the screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (his first) has humor. One suspects Meyer, who moved on to THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, TIME AFTER TIME, and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, and director Denis Sanders (ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS) may have been working at different levels (in fact, Meyer wanted to use a pseudonym as his screen credit). Most of the cast, particularly Ford, appear in tune with the screenplay’s tongue-in-cheek spirit and sexual politics, but the film plays the material straight more or less.

For instance, Smith, one of the screen’s great heavies (he was Falconetti on RICH MAN, POOR MAN), has occasionally convinced as a leading man, but he’s miscast here. Plodding after clues and romancing Vetri like the hero in a police procedural isn’t up Smith’s alley, and an incongruous rape scene feels wedged into the plot just to give Big Bill somebody to beat up. Sanders’ picture doesn’t really kick in until the third act, when we finally learn how Ford (then one of Bob Barker’s “beauties” on THE PRICE IS RIGHT) creates her “bee girls.” Looking unearthly in Foster Grants, Ford is a formidable and attractive foe for Smith.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Psyche The Russians!

MacFadden-Bartell released eleven Aquanauts adventures between 1970 and 1974. All were credited to Ken Stanton, who was actually the prolific Manning Lee Stokes, about whom you can learn more here.

In addition to the many mystery novels he wrote under his own name, beginning in 1945, Stokes also published men's adventure fiction in the John Eagle: Expeditor, Nick Carter, and Blade series, among others. The Aquanauts were packaged by Lyle Kenyon Engel, who was also responsible for the Chopper Cop books.

With that much experience, you can imagine the Aquanauts was a pretty solid series, and on the basis of the second novel, TEN SECONDS TO ZERO, from 1970, it was. I don't know if other books featured other Aquanauts, because there's only one in his book: William Martin, better known as Tiger Shark.

As a member of the United States' elite Secret Underwater Service, whose existence is known to only a handful of men, including the President, Tiger and his one-man sub KRAB are sent deep behind the Iron Curtain to find out how the Soviets are destroying American nuclear submarines. It turns out the only man who can really stop the attacks is a Russian scientist who wishes to defect to the West, but only if Tiger can break into the palace where the scientist's wife is behing held and bring her to safety.

Stokes creates some suspense in scenes of Tiger disarming underwater mines and the final assault, and adds a sexual touch in the hero's Bondian seduction of two strangers--very "love 'em and leave 'em." Neither the violence or sex is explicit, however, and TEN SECONDS TO ZERO, which gives nice supporting parts to Tiger's boss and to the U.S. President, could have been a fairly decent film too.

Friday, May 21, 2010

My Best Blog-A-Thon

If you've been looking for a good film blog to add to your RSS reader, be sure to stop by He Shot Cyrus. Today was Day 1 of El Gringo's My Best Blog-A-Thon, and I was honored to be asked to contribute. The idea is that "film bloggers from around the world have sent in the one post that best represents who they are, what they're trying to say, and what they can bring to the table."

To see which post I contributed, please click here. While you're there, check out some of the other blog posts and leave some comments to show the authors your appreciation.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Down And Still Down It Came

American International Pictures made so much money with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, studio heads Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff quickly hired director Roger Corman to film another Edgar Allan Poe story in 1961. Since "The Pit and the Pendulum" is only 6200 words in length, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson had to create the first two acts from scratch, saving the pit and the pendulum for the film’s climax.

John Kerr (SOUTH PACIFIC) plays a young Englishman, Francis Barnard (none of the cast speaks with British or Spanish accents), who arrives at the 16th-century castle of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) to pay his respects to his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), Medina’s wife. The don, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and the family doctor (Anthony Carbone) are evasive about the manner of Elizabeth’s death, so Francis demands to stick around and investigate.

Anyone who questions Corman’s directorial chops would sing a different tune upon watching PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Let’s face it—not a whole hell of a lot occurs in the film until very late, but Corman’s skillful blocking and gliding camera maintain the viewer’s interest amid the stiff performances and dialogue. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby uses distorted lenses and post-production tinting to add an otherworldliness to the flashback sequences, and art director Daniel Haller’s large, detailed sets provide production value the budget could not.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” was probably chosen because of its highly visual nature (Corman wanted to do “Masque of the Red Death,” which he later filmed in 1964), but stretching Poe’s story to 80 minutes is no easy task. Matheson turns the tale into an old-fashioned ghost story and provides Nicholas Medina with a mental imbalance that shows off Price’s gloriously florid excesses. The other actors, frankly, look amateurish in his presence.

The pendulum finally appears 69 minutes in, and it’s a spectacular example of production design, along with Haller’s set and the matte painting that gives it scale. PIT was also a success for AIP, and Corman directed six more Poe thrillers over the next four years.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crawling Up From The Depths

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, one of the better 1950s monster movies, stars 1940s cowboy star Tim Holt as Navy lieutenant John Twillinger, who battles giant prehistoric snails released from their Salton Sea slumber by an earthquake. Holt came out of retirement at age 39 to tackle the role, which is nothing special that John Agar or Richard Carlson couldn’t have played. He’s paunchy and looks well over forty, but handles the heroics well enough.

Laven (THE RACK), who also produced the film with his partners Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner at Gramercy Pictures, had more time and money than these pictures usually had, and uses them to create a good deal of suspense. Special effects man Augie Lohman built a full-size mollusk that’s surprisingly creepy considering what it is—a big snail puppet. Some of its victims are found shriveled up, due to being scared to death, and the skeletal makeup effects must have creeped out ‘50s audiences.

Pat Fielder (THE RETURN OF DRACULA) wrote the film from David Duncan’s story, and invests time in the supporting characters. When pretty Jody (Barbara Darrow, who looks quite fetching in her white swimsuit) has a brief argument with her mother, who disapproves of Jody’s sailor boyfriend, before going to the beach for a nighttime date, we know she’s going to be killed, but instead of just adding to the body count, her death means more to us because we’ve gotten to know her a bit. A stretch in the middle, especially a long scene where a scientist played by Hans Conried lectures middle-aged white guys about snails, drags, but Fielder’s script is intelligent and well structured.

Between monster fights, Twillinger romances secretary Gail McKenzie (Audrey Dalton), a widow and mother who still pines for her late husband, which engenders sympathy. Features Casey Adams, Harlan Warde, Jody McCrea, and one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of a Hollywood cliché that endures to this day: the nonchalant morgue attendant (Byron Kane) who eats lunch over the corpses in his care. Music by Heinz Roemheld. One of four Gramercy SF pictures written by Fielder and released by United Artists.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fear Runs Deeper: The Descent: Part 2

Jon Harris, who edited 2005’s THE DESCENT, does double duty as director and editor of Lionsgate’s thoroughly unnecessary sequel that takes place immediately following the U.S. ending of the original. It’s important to emphasize “the U.S. ending,” because most international prints had a different (and more satisfying) coda than what we got here in America.

THE DESCENT: PART 2 is based on a flimsy premise, that the local county Mounties would force the traumatized Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), the lone survivor of the first film, to take them back into the cave she escaped from to look for survivors. Instead of chick spelunkers, her companions this time include Sheriff Vaines (Gavan O’Herlihy, TV’s Chuck Cunningham in the flesh), his single-mother deputy Rios (Krysten Cummings), and a pair of married rescue workers with inexplicable British accents (the film is set in Appalachia, but was filmed in Scotland).

The plot is mainly a retread of THE DESCENT, but with worse lighting, worse makeup effects, worse scripting, a flagrant disregard for what made the first film so damn scary, and one of the stupidest twist endings in horror cinema. For a direct-to-video horror flick, though, PART 2 is not without merit. Harris occasionally manages to stir up a bloody good scare (two characters have to use a corpse to swing across a chasm), and the performers sell the claustrophobia, although the screenplay is less successful than THE DESCENT was at making its characters come alive so their deaths would have an emotional impact on us.

THE DESCENT is a pretty terrific horror film, one with an interesting concept, well-rounded characters, a spooky setting, and terrifying monsters. PART 2 is too much of a retread to be successful, but it’s edgy enough to make it worth a look, as long as you ignore the foolish ending.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rock 'N' Roll High School

Judging from ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, the first (along with SUBURBIA) of Shout Factory's new series of fifty (!) Roger Corman Cult Classics to hit DVD and/or Blu-ray, these New World drive-in movies are in great hands.

The new disc apparently includes all the extras from all previous LDs/DVDs, so I guess you can eBay your old disc off. This one has four (!) commentary tracks (two of them exclusive to this disc), three featurettes (including a Van Patten/Soles/Young reunion that is dishy and fun), radio spots, trailers, stills, and audio outtakes from the filmed Ramones concert. I listened to the new Arkush/Howard/Soles commentary, which was fun, but is heavy on Ramones info and trivia.

Oh, and the film looks marvelous, though some may be upset only the original mono track is present.

As for ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL itself, which New World and executive producer Corman released in 1979, boy, is it still a lotta fun!

Allan Arkush, whose first film for New World, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, was co-directed by Joe Dante (THE HOWLING), made his solo debut with this delightfully rebellious slice of Seventies teen spirit. Corman gave Arkush and producer Michael Finnell (PIRANHA) $300,000 and three weeks to shoot a rock-and-roll comedy about perky Ramones fanatic Riff Randell (P.J. Soles, just off HALLOWEEN), who skips school to camp out at the arena box office to buy tickets for their concert. Riff’s rival is stern principal Togar (Mary Woronov), who schemes to rid the entire high school of rock and roll. Meanwhile, fast-talking scrounger Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) works his magic to bring together dorky nice guy Tom (Vincent Van Patten) and Riff’s shy best friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young in her film debut).

Led by the enormously likable Soles, the cast is extremely charming and fun, but ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL’s highlight is definitely the New York punk band the Ramones, who are terrible actors, but fantastic musicians with the right goofy look and charm to fit perfectly into Arkush’s anarchic vision. He managed to compile a fantastic soundtrack including Paul McCartney & Wings, Nick Lowe, Fleetwood Mac, Devo, Alice Cooper, the Velvet Underground, and other top acts of the day, but the fantasy sequences and the big concert scene leave no doubt the Ramones are the musical stars of the picture.

The puns and sight gags are silly and kind of corny, though the absurdist humor anticipates AIRPLANE! a bit (Jerry Zucker directed some second unit), and manages a difficult balance of old-fashioned japery and cutting-edge material, such as the destruction of Vince Lombardi High School, which must have driven audiences wild in 1979. Also with the great Dick Miller, Paul Bartel (his and Woronov's roles were written for them), Loren Lester (HUNG), Daniel Davies, The Real Don Steele, Herb Braha, Grady Sutton, Rob Bottin as a giant mouse, and a motorcycle from DEATHSPORT. Arkush fell ill on the last day of shooting, so his pal Dante was enlisted to direct the gym-class musical number.

Other Corman productions to get the Shout Factory treatment include GALAXY OF TERROR, FORBIDDEN WORLD, DEATHSPORT, PIRANHA, THE EVIL, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, NOT OF THIS EARTH, and more. Collect them all!

Monday, May 10, 2010

One, Two, This DVD's Coming For You

Never let it be said that NEVER SLEEP AGAIN doesn’t take its subject seriously. The makers of HIS NAME WAS JASON: 30 YEARS OF FRIDAY THE 13TH tackle the 1980s second most popular horror franchise in this exhaustive four-hour (!) documentary that sits down with virtually every performer, every cinematographer, every composer, hell, seemingly every studio grip that ever swept a floor during the shooting of a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movie. The only obvious absences from NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM STREET LEGACY are big-shot actors Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette (MEDIUM).

Learn that David Warner was originally cast as Freddy Krueger, the rotating bedroom where Amanda Wyss is killed was later used in BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Heather Langenkamp’s boyfriend wrote the notorious Freddy nursery rhyme, FRIDAY THE 13TH director Sean Cunningham directed a few shots, and John Saxon gave director Wes Craven a choice of toupees for him to wear. And those are just tidbits from the original film. NEVER SLEEP AGAIN covers all eight NIGHTMAREs and the ill-fated FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES TV series.

One especially comes away with a great appreciation for the practical makeup and special effects artists who brought Freddy’s bizarre nightmares to life. Most of the NIGHTMAREs were filmed on low budgets and truncated schedules; in the case of NIGHTMARE 5, directed by Stephen Hopkins (GHOST IN THE DARKNESS), it was less than six months from the time Hopkins was hired to the release date. Unlike the equally popular FRIDAY THE 13TH series, which mostly ran concurrently with the NIGHTMARE movies, the New Line Cinema pictures were packed with unusual imagery and fantasy sequences that demanded a lot of special effects that were often created live on the set or using timely stop-motion animation.

Langenkamp, who starred in three movies, narrates. Delightful stop-motion intros to each segment and the film itself add to the pleasure of watching NEVER SLEEP AGAIN, which zips by a lot faster than you may expect a four-hour film to. Reunited cast members use the closing crawl to re-enact lines they spoke in the movies, which has to be a real kick for NIGHTMARE fans.

Once you finish the feature, you can move on to the set’s second disc for almost four hours of illuminating extras, including longer interviews with all the talking heads from the documentary. NEVER SLEEP AGAIN should be praised for its occasional candor, but some super-dishy material comes up in the interviews, including the actors’ remembrances of an affair that may or may not have occurred between actress Tuesday Knight and director Renny Harlin on NIGHTMARE 4. The 2010 remake isn’t mentioned in the feature, but it comes up in the extra interviews, mainly in a derogatory context.

Other extras include clips from Langenkamp’s documentary about NIGHTMARE fandom, I AM NANCY; featurettes on Freddy’s glove, the film’s rabid fanbase, the original NIGHTMARE locations, the lame NIGHTMARE video game, the Freddy comic books and tie-in novels, the films’ composers, and the poster art; a ten-minute montage of actors reciting their characters’ dialogue (some of this is seen in the feature’s closing crawl); and a trailer for the documentary.

Obviously, this is an essential disc for “Fred Heads,” as well as horror fans or anyone else curious about the making of one of the genre’s most lucrative franchises.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

My Chat With SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE Director Bob Bliss

SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! is one of the best low-budget thrillers I've seen that you haven't heard of. I hadn't heard of it myself before I came across it. It features no recognizable actors, was filmed far from the lights of Hollywood, and didn't even play theatrically in the United States. With this background, you can be forgiven for having never heard of SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE!, but once you've seen it, you won't forget it.

Filmed in the late 1970s as VENGEANCE, writer/director Bob Bliss' film was picked up in 1980 for foreign distribution by Manson International, who vividly branded it SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! Reminiscent of Wes Craven's brutal 1972 classic THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, it's a surprisingly raw slice of exploitation with a nasty streak and rousing action.

Four gunmen kidnap a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter around midnight. While Luke (Bob Elliott), the craziest of the gang, is left to guard the two women at their house, leader Mason (Walter Atamaniuk, who continues to work in Hollywood features as Walter Addison; he played Lee Iacocca in 2009's WATCHMEN, for instance) and the other two take the father to his jewelry store and force him to open his safe. The heist goes awry, and the gunmen snatch two college students leaving the Laundromat next door to use as hostages during their getaway.

Jenny (Sally Lockett), the granddaughter of a prominent state Senator, and Mark (Nicholas Jacquez), whom she had just met while doing her laundry, are taken hundreds of miles away to a remote cabin, where they are guarded by Dreyer (Robert Roudebush), while the others leave to send their ransom demand. The youths manage to escape, and the rest of the film is a thrilling and brutal chase through the harsh woods.

Rape, gore, chases, fights, full frontal nudity—all the makings of an exploitation classic are present, and it's a wonder why this film is so obscure. It runs just 92 minutes, and is packed with suspenseful and sick scenes that should have made SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! something of a classic. Even the musical score is more professional-sounding than similar low-budget regional fare; it's appropriate to the film's tone and spotted well.

Bliss didn't direct any other features, but this one is certainly not the work of an amateur. Scenes of the mother and teenage daughter being abused and murdered in their home pack a dirty punch, and Bliss' edit from the mother's open dead eye to a tray of diamonds, to name one moment, demonstrates real visual style.

Bliss is now a professional cartoonist in Kansas. I contacted him through his website, and he graciously consented to an interview over email. Big thanks to Bob Bliss for indulging my curiosity and providing the images for this article.

Q: Could you tell me a little about your life before you made VENGEANCE?

A: I majored in art at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. My dream was to be an animator, not in Hollywood or New York, but here in Kansas City, my hometown. There was a well-known industrial film company called Calvin Productions that had a complete animation department here in KC. That's where I applied after graduating. But the Vietnam War was raging, I was 1A, and I got drafted.

I joined the Navy, hopefully to stay out of Vietnam. I was fortunate to get to be an illustrator/draftsman in the Navy. I was up at Great Lakes, doing all the art for the entire 9th Naval District. Charts, flags, portraits, retirement cartoons, posters, etc. I also got a parttime job in North Chicago at an ad agency, doing commercial art. I had a bad back and got out after eighteen months, had a girlfriend by then up there, tried to get into animation in Chicago to no avail. Worked at the Waukegan News-Sun newspaper as a staff artist for a short time.

The girl and I broke up, I came back to KC, and tried Calvin again. No openings. Worked as the ad manager for a major drug company for eighteen months, laying out seventeen newspaper ads per week and drawing everything that they sold to put in the ads. They went out of business, so I tried Calvin again and got hired.

That's where I fell in love with live-action film. On weekends, some employees would borrow 16mm cameras from the company and shoot personal short films for fun. Tom Berenger [Editor's note: Berenger went on to act in major films like PLATOON] was an editor there at that time. I remember he acted in some (of the short films). I decided I wanted to make a movie. I quit Calvin after a year and a half. I got tired of drawing things over and over.

I started freelancing in 1972. I bought some equipment and shot some TV commercials, did some animation, a lot of commercial art, and started writing a feature script. I finally put together a budget, raised some money, but not enough for the feature. I told the small investors I'd either give them their money back, or use it to make a short film to promote the feature. They liked me and told me to go ahead. So I made a twenty-minute short film called MAYHEM IN THE MOVIES about how bullet hits work. I showed that film around and found an investor who loved it—and me—and gave me all the money for my feature, VENGEANCE.

Q: Where and when was VENGEANCE filmed? Can you tell me how many days it took and what the budget was?

A: I started everything in the late 1970s. It was all shot in and around Kansas City. I worked on it for a long time. I remember shooting some scenes in winter and then having to shoot them again in summer, so they'd match. You'll see some fall colors in some shots as well! Ha! We shot off and on, all the time. Most actors were students or college-affiliated, so they could work whenever. And they were paid. I finally finished it up in about '79.

Q: Where did the idea come from? Were you influenced by THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT?

A: The idea came solely out of my head. I think I'm very creative. Always made up stories. I've written other scripts and am working on some now. Never even saw LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, except the (2009) remake. I've always gone to lots of movies, usually see every one that comes to town. I have thousands in my own personal library. My folks took us to dinner and a double feature every weekend when I was a kid.

Q: I really like the music, which is uncredited. Is it an original score?

A: It's all canned music from Calvin's library. All my film was developed there, the work prints too. I edited it all at my studio, but Calvin conformed the A and B rolls, did the titles (exactly as I laid them out), and I sat with the sound/music editor all day, every day for about a month, while we mixed and added music.

Q: Could you tell me about the actors? Where did you find them, particularly your young leads Sally Lockett and Nicholas Jacquez?

A: All the actors were from the repertory theater at my college, University of Missouri-Kansas City, only because they were the best. I screen-tested probably fifty or sixty actors, all on Super 8 sound film. Sally was great! She reminded me of Sally Field. Nick wasn't my first choice. The investor, Bud Hastin, wanted him, so I relented. I'm sure glad I did! I think Nick was perfect! Walter Atamanuik, who played the bearded Mason, the ringleader, later moved to Hollywood, changed his name to Walter Addison, and has been in a lot of big films, including playing Lee Iacocca in WATCHMEN recently!

Q: How was VENGEANCE financed? Did the investors make their money back?

A: Bud Hastin, a Kansas City businessman, financed the whole thing up front. He was a very rich man I met through a camera store. We sold the international rights to VENGEANCE. He got back half of his investment the first week, thinking the U.S. rights would get the rest back, plus a profit. But the U.S. rights never completely panned out.

Q: VENGEANCE was released by Manson International. What can you tell me about their operation?

A: Manson bought the international rights. Later, Magnum Entertainment bought the U.S. rights, and put it out on video...40,000 copies. Manson called it SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE. Magnum kept the original title.

Q: How many countries was VENGEANCE released in?

A: It's played literally all over the world. I don't know the exact count, but I do know it played in Canada, Mexico, South America, Japan, the Middle East, England, all over Europe, etc. I have VHS copies from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. There are all kinds of internet sites that talk about it. Lots of good and interesting reviews. Several that want it out on DVD. Several pirated DVDs have come up on eBay by small producers, but I got them to stop. Hopefully I'll be putting one out in the future.

Q: Did VENGEANCE receive many reviews? Do you recall any or at least what their tone was?

A: Most have been very a kind of cultish classic. A 'dirty little favorite'.

Q: How many prints were struck? Do any still exist?

A: I don't know about 35mm prints. I know 40,000 VHS tapes were made by Magnum. I took it to Hollywood and had CFI blow it up to 35mm. Great quality! Francis Ford Coppola sat in on part of the timing sessions with me when I was at CFI. He was just starting his Zoetrope Studios across the street then. I have two 16mm prints and three 1200-foot reels of 35mm, which were rejects by CFI.

Q: What can you tell me about the marketing--the 1-sheet, publicity, personal appearances, etc.?

A: Manson did some printing of paper goods. They took it to the 1980 Milan Film Festival. I appeared on several local and regional TV shows talking about it. I have some copies of a couple. They'll be on the DVD if it works out.

Q: Are you still in touch with anyone from the film? What are they doing today?

A: The father, Leonard Belove, has passed away. The mother, Jane McMahon, I haven't been able to find. All the others I have and they've all agreed to do voiceover commentary on the DVD.

Q: Will VENGEANCE ever reach DVD or Blu-ray?

A: Hopefully. The U.S. copyright is tied up with 20th Century Fox, I believe. I had an investor last winter who wanted to finance a double DVD set with my commentary, the actors' commentary, the screen tests, my TV appearances, everything available. But in our researching of liability issues, we ran aground temporarily. It seems Manson was bought by Orion, who was bought by somebody else, and it seems to be in 20th Century Fox's vaults at the moment, awaiting cable. It's going to take a while to iron out.

Q: Why didn't you direct another feature?

A: I started to. My second script was built into a big Limited Partnership by some of Calvin's old producers and directors, with a bunch of big investors here in KC. They even ran a half-page ad in Variety in 1981, announcing to the world the starting date. But Paramount came to KC to film a Janet Dailey novel [the 1982 drama FOXFIRE LIGHT starring Leslie Nielsen] and most of those ex-Calvin people were hired to work on that film. My film fell by the wayside. I had gotten married in 1980, and was pursuing my art, trying to buy a house, etc., and was happy doing that.

But I'm bringing that script back to life, as it's become much more relevant in today's world, and I've got others as well. I really only plan on promoting my scripts...not 'making' the actual movies. 

Thank you again to Bob Bliss, who is today an award-winning artist and cartoonist in his native Kansas. Please see his website,, to learn more about him.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Dying To Keep A Secret

If you thought 1983’s THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW needed updating with cell phones, roofies, fake boobs, and sillier plotting, here's the 2009 remake SORORITY ROW.

Writer/director Mark Rosman’s original film was marketed as a slasher movie, but was really a cleverly structured, brightly acted play on DIABOLIQUE. Here, instead of following Rosman’s roadmap, director Stewart Hendler (WHISPER) cribs from something much less classy than DIABOLIQUE—namely I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER—resulting in fewer thrills, but more cute girls in panties.

Look out for the bitches of Theta Pi. A not-all-that-funny prank played on Garrett (Matt O’Leary), the cheating boyfriend of sorority sister Megan (THE HILLS’ Audrina Partridge), results in one of the sisters getting killed with a tire iron. The girls sweep the crime under the table, hiding the corpse in a nearby mineshaft. A few months later at graduation, the sisters receive a threatening text message from someone who seems to know their secret. They begin dying off, one by one, victims of a scary hooded figure waving around a—wait for it—bloody tire iron. But it’s a totally awesome ninja tire iron with blades that you can throw with accuracy.

One major difference from the original film is that all of the characters are unlikable, even the ones who aren’t supposed to be. We’re supposed to identify with nice girl (or at least less mean girl) Cassidy (Briana Evigan, whose father starred in BJ AND THE BEAR) and smart girl (aka less pretty one) Ellie (Rumer Willis, daughter of Bruce and Demi Moore). The nastiest of the mean girls, Jessica (Leah Pipes), is allowed to survive too long, way after we’ve wished her an especially grisly demise. Carrie Fisher plays the housemother and gets to ham it up with a shotgun near the end.

Credited as adapted from Rosman’s original screenplay SEVEN SISTERS (THE HOUSE’s working title and likely a way of avoiding paying somebody), SORORITY ROW is neither directed nor acted very well, but Hendler throws in some topless nudity (though none by the stars) and a generous body count with gory deaths. Slasher fans may enjoy the elaborate bloody killings, and I suppose the script isn’t really any worse than a lot of horror films of the 1980s that are highly regarded by fans. The third act is predicated on a group of college girls not having a single cell phone on them (pushing the movie into fantasy territory), the killer’s motivation is weak, and the coda is lame.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Double Dose Of Greydon Clark

Greydon Clark was an indistinguished if prolific filmmaker who hit his peak during the late 1970s and early 1980s with drive-in features like BLACK SHAMPOO, starring John Daniels as a womanizing hairdresser, and WITHOUT WARNING, a science fiction monster movie with an all-star B cast (Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Ralph Meeker, etc.) that probably influenced PREDATOR. Clark began his film career as an actor in Al Adamson movies (HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS) and moved up to writing and directing. VCI Entertainment celebrates his career with a new extras-laden DVD called GREYDON CLARK DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE that teams two of the director's '70s classics.

The better of the two films is THE BAD BUNCH, which was filmed in late 1972 and released in 1973. In this Mardi Rustam (EATEN ALIVE) production, which was also seen in theaters as TOM, THE BROTHERS, and NIGGER LOVER (also the title of its striking theme song, director/co-writer/star Clark walks a tightrope between social commentary and lurid blaxploitation.

THE BAD BUNCH was set and shot in Los Angeles, pretty much all on location (only two sets were built). Most of the performances aren’t anything close to polished, but Clark coaxes convincing acting from his supporting cast, and veteran character actors Jock Mahoney (TV's Range Rider and Yancy Derringer) and Aldo Ray (THE NAKED AND THE DEAD) are compelling as nasty racist cops. Jacqueline Cole, Clark’s wife, is appealing as his girlfriend, and sexploitation mainstay Bambi Allen, whose silicone breast enhancements would kill her the year after shooting this film, brightens up the sordid atmosphere with a pair of topless scenes.

Clark and Alvin L. Fast’s ragged screenplay casts the director as Vietnam vet Jim (Cole accidentally calls him “Tim” a couple of times), who tries to deliver a letter to the family of a black friend killed in combat, but comes into conflict with his buddy’s militant brother Makimba (Tom Johnigarn). Clark punctuates his grim ending with a quote by Dr. King lamenting tension between races. Also with Pamela Corbett, Fred Scott, Carl Craig, cheesy romantic montages, and a score by ‘60s garage rocker Ed Cobb (“Dirty Water”).

Shot in two weeks for $15,000, THE BAD BUNCH is crude but surprisingly affecting filmmaking. Clark and Johnigarn, who didn't have a lot of experience in front of the camera, are appealing leads in this downbeat, hard-hitting Nixon-era melodrama. Clark puts the movie into its proper context with an informative audio commentary on the VCI disc.

The other film is HI-RIDERS, filmed in 1977 and released by Dimension Pictures in 1978. Car nuts and action fans might have a good time with this breezy chase film shot in Southern California.

Good-time boy Mark (Darby Hinton, a child star in DANIEL BOONE who later played leads for Andy Sidaris) and his girlfriend (stuntwoman Diane Peterson) challenge Billy (Roger Hampton), a big dumb cheating palooka and member of the Hi-Riders car club, to a drag race. Billy loses and refuses to pay, even after losing a second race in front of witnesses, but Hi-Riders leader T.J. (William J. Beaudine) befriends Mark and invites the couple to drink with them at a local watering hole owned by sardonic Red (Neville Brand).

Clark’s screenplay is light on plot, but suffice to say that it involves a lot of drinking, partying, driving, and racing. After Billy and the son of the community’s richest man are killed in a race (while driving into a roadside storage shed marked “GASOLINE NO SMOKING”), the boy’s father, Mr. Lewis (Stephen McNally), puts out a contract on the Hi-Riders, offering $50,000 for their deaths.

Since every redneck with a pickup truck and a shotgun within 25 miles joins the posse, you wouldn’t think the $4000 apiece they’ll earn for committing a dozen murders would be worth the effort, but Mark, T.J., and their galpals spend the remainder of the running time dodging bullets and bashing bumpers.

HI-RIDERS is unfocused and sometimes dull with a story that doesn't always make sense (the young leads take a break from running for their lives to make out by a watering hole), but the chases and stunts are effective. In fact, stunt coordinator Vic Rivers was killed performing a car jump, and the film is dedicated to him. The jump, which went awry when the ramp collapsed, is in the movie and indeed looks spectacular.

Mel Ferrer gets top billing as a local sheriff, and Ralph Meeker plays his deputy. Dean Cundey, later to shoot the BACK TO THE FUTURE films and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, was the cinematographer. Clark returns for another audio commentary, as well as an on-camera interview. HI-RIDERS fans will delight in another on-camera interview with stars Hinton and Peterson, who have fun dishing about the movie.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Double Dose Of Fred Williamson

Kudos to Code Red for its recent release of two 1970s features directed by and starring Fred "The Hammer" Williamson as part of its Fred Williamson Signature Collection. Neither film is especially good, but both are watchable and surrounded by interesting extras that put the films in perspective.

The Hammer’s directorial debut, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, is mainly an exercise in bizarro casting. Would you believe Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES) as the son of Italian mobster Anthony Caruso? Or that Williamson and Stuart Whitman (THE COMANCHEROS) could have gone to high school at the same time? Me neither.

MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS is more ambitious, more interested in character, and features less action than Williamson’s later films would. Atlas Films marketed it as a standard black action picture, which it isn’t. It also isn’t very good, unless you like watching montages of Fred wandering around town.

One of four (!) Williamson-directed films released in 1976 casts Fred as a Vietnam vet unjustly discharged dishonorably and sent home to L.A., where he discovers his high-school football stardom and his Silver Star aren’t much help in getting a job or finding shelter. A gangster named Mario Ricconi (Whitman) tries to help, but Johnny wants no more to do with killing and ends up sweeping floors in a gas station. On the other hand, it’s hard to hold on to your dignity when you’re scrubbing toilets for $21 a month, and Johnny soon finds himself drawn into a Mob war between the Ricconis and the DaVinces.

Williamson’s film is very crude and clearly lensed on the cheap, but it aims higher than most of his oeuvre, creating a sadly believable existence for Johnny that culminates in a downer of an ending. He has a decent eye for camera angles and clever edits, often shooting with two cameras simultaneously, but there are serious problems with pacing and tone. There’s hardly any action until the second half, which is where Fred seems more at home, clad in a white turtleneck and gunning down the bad guys. The first dose of hilarious Fred fu comes 48 minutes against a couple of cops.

The foppish McDowall is miscast as a flower-loving drug dealer with a sexy mistress. “Special Guest Star” Elliott Gould (he and Williamson were in M*A*S*H together) pops up in a strange, brief, amusing, and improvised cameo as a hobo. The impressive supporting cast also included Jenny Sherman, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Phillips, Mike Henry, James Brown (THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN), Aaron Banks (who was Williamson’s karate teacher), and Leon Isaac Kennedy.

DEATH JOURNEY, also released in 1976, stars Fred as cheroot-smoking private dick Jesse Crowder in a clumsy, poorly acted action film released by Atlas Films. Since Williamson’s method of working quickly and inexpensively often involves filming long takes with multiple cameras, he really could have used more experienced and more colorful actors to help with the film’s pacing. Except for the action sequences, everyone moves much too slowly. A love scene ends on a long dissolve which shows the actors frozen in place waiting for the director to call action before they clink their glasses together.

MIDNIGHT RUN used the same plot a decade later. NYC district attorney Riley (Art Meier) hires Crowder to bring a government witness to the Big Apple from Los Angeles. Crowder’s package is Finley (Bernard Kuby), a short, fat, bald Mob accountant with the goods on gangster Jack Rosewald (Patrick McCullough). Planes, trains, automobiles, and buses, no matter the mode of transportation, Rosewald’s goons always know where Crowder is. It won’t be hard to figure out who the mole is.

Writer Abel Jones and Williamson make no attempt at characterization. Finley likes candy and whines a lot. Crowder kicks ass and sexes up ladies. Bad guys leap out of the shadows no matter where they are; it’s so ridiculous it resembles a side-scrolling arcade game. Anthony Shinault’s repetitive score doesn’t punctuate the action, it just plays. Even at just 78 minutes and location shooting across the country (including Palm Springs, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York), DEATH JOURNEY is painfully padded with scenes lingering seconds too long and another featuring two L.A. cops harassing Crowder for no reason that I could see.