Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bonnie's Kids

Every director who made an exploitation movie during the 1970s believes his work influenced Quentin Tarantino, but Arthur Marks, the screenwriter and director of BONNIE’S KIDS, has a strong case. From the tough, confident female protagonists to the bantering salt-and-pepper hitman team played by Alex Rocco (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) and Timothy Brown (Spearchucker Jones in the first season of M*A*S*H) to its nihilistic conclusion, Marks’ film bears a strong resemblance to Tarantino’s notable filmography. It’s also a very good crime meller with solid performances and a hard-nosed plot centered around two gorgeous young women.

The titular kids are 24-year-old Ellie (THE CANDY SNATCHERS’ Tiffany Bolling, whose PLAYBOY layout was played up in the film’s marketing) and 15-year-old Myra (Robin Mattson, still a major soap star four decades later). Both live with their mean, drunken widowed stepfather Charlie (veteran screen heavy Leo Gordon) in a small town where they drive the men crazy by wearing their skirts too high and undressing in front of open windows. Before the opening credits have rolled, Ellie has popped a couple of shotgun blasts in Charlie’s chest while he’s attempting to rape Myra, and the sisters are on their way to El Lay to look up their rich uncle Ben Seeman (Scott Brady).

Although they haven’t seen Ben in years, he offers to put them up at his spacious ranch, where trampy Myra puts the make on both studly stable boy Harry (Nicholas Cortland) and Ben’s horny young wife Diana (Lenore Stevens). Meanwhile, Ellie, running an errand for Uncle Ben, and dim-bulb private eye Larry Evans (Steve Sandor) become the targets of Ben’s intrepid hitmen Eddie (Rocco) and Digger (Brown).

The violence and sex quotients are relatively low (although both Bolling and Mattson appear topless), but the sleaze factor runs high with barely a likable character in the entire film. The men are perverted, mercenary, and brutal; the women selfish, manipulative, and pathetic. Marks’ crafty screenplay creates many colorful characters living outside the plot, like a small town sheriff (former Lone Ranger John Hart) and a tacky traveling gun salesman (THE MUSIC MAN’s Max Showalter), while also providing the stars, such as Sandor’s affable P.I., who gets smarter as the film moves along, with interesting pieces of business to sink their teeth into.

The cast handles the grimy dialogue and plot twists just fine, and Marks’ clean direction, Carson Whitsett’s driving score, and suitably cheesy locations (mainly around Palm Springs) ensure a steady pace. A young, longhaired Sharon Gless (CAGNEY & LACEY) makes her film debut as a coffee shop waitress (she was Marks’ secretary at the time). Marks’ General Film Corporation gave BONNIE’S KIDS a February 1973 release, where its strong story and detailed character work likely surprised drive-in audiences.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

Karen Silkwood worked for Kerr-McGee’s plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, where she was a union member whose job was to investigate health and safety hazards. She found many examples of company malfeasance, including employees who had been contaminated with plutonium, and testified about Kerr-McGee’s alleged negligence before the Atomic Energy Commission.

A few months later, Silkwood was inexplicably contaminated with abnormally high levels of plutonium, which she suspected was planted on her clothing and inside her home by Kerr-McGee. She compiled evidence against her employer, but was killed in a mysterious one-car accident driving home from a union meeting in 1974. The folder containing the evidence, which she had with her when she left the meeting, wasn’t found in the car, and physical evidence indicated she may have been intentionally run off the road.

Meryl Streep, a year after winning the Best Actress Academy Award for SOPHIE’S CHOICE, was nominated for another Oscar for playing Karen in 1983's SILKWOOD. Cher, also an Oscar nominee, portrays Karen’s lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker, and Kurt Russell is Karen’s boyfriend Drew Stephens, both of whom lived with Karen and worked with her at the Kerr-McGee plant.

All are remarkably good, as are the supporting actors, which include Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Tess Harper, Craig T. Nelson, Ron Silver, Charles Hallahan, Bruce McGill, M. Emmet Walsh, David Strathairn, and Josef Sommer. The performances aren’t flashy, nor should they be. What director Mike Nichols has accomplished is a realistic slice of blue-collar Americana that also happens to be a thriller pitting Everywoman against The Man.

To call it a thriller may be to promise something different than what SILKWOOD delivers. After all, we know how the movie ends before it’s even started, so the plot isn’t the thing. At times, Nichols doesn’t even seem interested in the plot, as it takes nearly an hour before the thriller elements start cooking.

No, it’s the people that Nichols and his writers, Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, are telling a story about. The director uses a lot of long takes that let the performers fully inhabit their roles. Some may have a problem with the pacing, but I was totally invested in the story. The more realistic the characters, the harder it hits when their problems occur. When Karen becomes more involved with union business, it affects her relationship with Drew.

The script’s only major flaw is that Karen’s conversion to activist feels too abrupt. I really like the way it portrays Kerr-McGee: not as out-and-out villains, although SILKWOOD leaves little doubt it’s covering up some bad stuff. McGill’s performance as Management is layered in a way that lets you interpret his moral character. Is he a bad guy, a corporate lackey, or just scared of losing his job?

There is a bad scene that undoubtedly didn’t occur in real life where Russell belts someone in the mouth, and the ending lays the schmaltz on rather thick, but otherwise, SILKWOOD is a heckuva picture that was nominated for five Oscars, including Director, Screenplay, and Film Editing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Treasure Of Nature Beach

The Treasure of Nature Beach
March 5, 1980
Music: Jimmie Haskell
Writer: Mark Jones
Director: Daniel Haller

Less than two weeks after showing up on BJ AND THE BEAR in “The Girls on the Hollywood High,” actresses Rebecca Reynolds and Heather Thomas (THE FALL GUY) made their first and only guest appearance on THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO. Series creator Glen A. Larson obviously had big dreams of getting the girls their own show, but this busted pilot fared just as well as the first two attempts (Reynolds teamed with Lorrie Mahaffey in the BJ episode “The Eyes of Texas”) did.

Private eyes Heather Fern (Reynolds) and Caroline Capote (Thomas), motivated by BJ McKay’s assurance that the lawman will do almost anything for money, come to Lobo (Claude Akins) with a scheme. For 20 percent of their take, Lobo will clear the local beach, Lost Cove (played by a process screen of ocean waves), of on-lookers while Caroline and her crew dig for a treasure of Spanish gold coins she claims is buried there. Of course, Perkins (Mills Watson) fumbles the job of clearing the bikini babes from the beach, arresting them for indecent exposure and spurring a nude protest that draws more attention to Lost Cove than ever before.

It’s all too good to be true, of course. Caroline and Heather are on an assignment to recover the treasure before it can be dug up by the couple who stole it in the Caribbean: Brian Delaney (Lewis Van Bergen) and Erika (Kathrine Baumann). Meanwhile, Birdie (Brian Kerwin) is in the dumps after he is confronted by an old flame, Susie (Jenny Neumann), who informs him that she’s pregnant with his baby. Birdie has no memory of getting anywhere near a bedroom with her the night of their high school reunion, but he’s a standup guy and willing to do the right thing with Susie.

For an episode short in car stunts (a good jump into a lake) and pratfalls (Perkins tumbles through the jail’s skylight), “The Treasure of Nature Beach” is still entertaining. Mark Jones, a former Hanna-Barbera writer who graduated to the LEPRECHAUN horror films, creates a plot-driven narrative that gives the guest stars enough to do, while still providing character moments for Kerwin (in a B-story unusual to SHERIFF LOBO) and Akins, whose Lobo may be avaricious, but still cares about his young deputy.

The episode also provides tantalizing clues as to Orly’s location: somewhere in Georgia on an ocean coastline where the Spanish treasure ships sailed. Well, that narrows it down.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

One, Two, Freddy's Coming For You

When Wes Craven teamed with New Line Cinema head honcho Robert Shaye to make 1984's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, neither could have predicted it would lead to not only the studio’s most successful film franchise ever, but also one of the genre’s most influential classics. And nobody could have guessed that its young leading man making his film debut, Johnny Depp, would become one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Credit should mainly go to writer/director Craven and actor Robert Englund, whose portrayal of boogeyman Freddy Krueger fluctuated over the years to match the films’ increasingly silly tone, but he played it straight and sinister the first time out the gate to create a terrifying monster.

Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who was burned to death by vigilante parents years earlier. Now, the teenagers of Elm Street, including nice girl Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), are haunted by nightmares in which they are terrorized by a horribly burned man in a green-and-red striped sweater, felt hat, and razor-sharp blades for fingers. Nancy is smackdab in the middle of the horror; her best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the first victim, and the bloody murders are investigated by her cop father (top-billed John Saxon). It’s also Nancy who realizes that Freddy can only get at them in their dreams, but how long can she stay awake?

Craven’s clever script goes beyond just creating a highly original villain. While gore and gruesome shocks are present, NIGHTMARE isn’t a slasher flick. Its theme of kids trying to stay awake to survive while their parents try to bury their ugly past in their subconscious is intriguing, though the erratic performances (Langenkamp is unpolished though likable, Saxon authoritative, Englund frightening in surprisingly little screen time, Ronee Blakley as Nancy's mom frankly terrible) prevent Craven from developing the subtext too far. NIGHTMARE is a film of rich imagery, bolstered by imaginative in-camera special effects created with more knowhow than money.

Ignore the PHANTASM-inspired ending imposed on Craven by Shaye. Langenkamp and Saxon both returned for the third and seventh movies. Rachel Talalay, the assistant production manager, worked her way up New Line’s ranks to producer and finally director of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Maniac Is Killing Strippers

It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman, first as the head of New World Pictures in the 1970s and ‘80s and later with Concorde/New Horizons in the late ‘80s and 1990s, loved to discover new directorial talent. But it has also been said that he especially liked to hire women directors because he could pay them less. I don’t know whether that part is true—no director got paid very much working for Roger—but it’s difficult to argue that any other Hollywood producer has given women more chances to write, produce, and/or direct films than Corman.

Katt Shea Ruben, a model and actress who had small roles in not-so-notable productions as HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS and BARBARIAN QUEEN, was 29 years old when she convinced Corman to let her, along with her husband Andy Ruben, make STRIPPED TO KILL, a grimy crime drama with an irresistibly lurid premise and, surprisingly, name stars. It not only made money for Concorde, but also landed some surprisingly approving reviews, leading the studio to hire Ruben to direct more of the same, including the inevitable STRIPPED TO KILL II, DANCE OF THE DAMNED (which combined stripping with vampirism), and STREETS, which basically remade STRIPPED TO KILL with streetwalkers instead of strippers.

Ruben later broke through to the mainstream with POISON IVY, a steamy thriller with Drew Barrymore as a cunning teen who seduces Tom Skerritt, but, outside of the major studio release THE RAGE: CARRIE 2, has been unable to carve out the directing career she probably deserves. Certainly she’s proven herself many times over most men being asked to direct the many insipid action, horror, and thriller films oozing out of Hollywood these days. No doubt—a Katt Shea (she has since divorced her husband) JONAH HEX would be more interesting than the sludge Warner Brothers actually released.

STRIPPED TO KILL may be about a serial killer of exotic dancers, but I’m not so sure Ruben isn’t more interested in the potential victims than in the cops and their investigation. She certainly spends an inordinate amount of screen time showing the various acts, which have nothing to do with the plot, but don’t play as exploitative either. The Rubens’ screenplay humanizes the women and is genuinely interested in them as people, not just objects of sex or plot. However, I think Ruben goes too far with the dancing. Perhaps she didn’t care about the story, but it could have used some extra time to develop.

At least the Rubens spent quality time on the murders, which aren’t gory (this isn’t a slasher movie), but are inventive, and the twist ending, which is confusing, but lively. Kay Lenz, whom you don’t expect to see in a stripper film, plays an L.A. detective, Cody Sheenan, who’s investigating the murder of a dancer who is pushed off a bridge, raped, and set on fire. Her partner, Heineman (Greg Evigan from BJ AND THE BEAR), convinces her to take a job performing at the Rock Bottom strip club, run by crusty Ray (THREE’S COMPANY’s Norman Fell), to investigate from the inside.

Having a decent cast always helps. Evigan and Lenz share an easy chemistry, though an uneasy romantic subplot between them feels shoehorned in. Ragged editing gives the impression some scenes weren’t shot, but the two stars manage to keep their scenes lively. Lenz, a two-time Emmy winner, is a very good actress—good enough she didn’t have to do Roger Corman movies at that stage of her career. She was certainly drawn to her character, a straight-laced cop who is unexpectedly drawn to a new seedier lifestyle. The writing isn’t up to her level, but Lenz is terrific anyway.

I don’t want to give the impression that STRIPPED TO KILL is any kind of lost classic, but it’s certainly one of the better Concorde movies in the great Corman tradition. It’s at heart a trashy drive-in movie, but made with a modicum of intelligence and respect for its audience that sets it above the rest of the Cinemax-at-1:30am crowd.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Heaven Help Those Who Cross

The Inquisitor series, published by Dell in the mid-1970s, is mostly interesting because of its author, Martin Cruz Smith, who wrote the paperbacks as "Simon Quinn."

The Pennsylvania-born Smith began his career in fiction penning men's adventure novels, including two Nick Carter books, but later gained well-deserved fame as the author of GORKY PARK, a thriller about a Moscow detective, Arkady Renko, solving the mystery of three faceless corpses found buried in a snowy park. Smith continues to write Renko mysteries to this day.

The Inquisitor was certainly one of the more unusual action heroes of the era. According to one Web site, he is described as "an Irish American lay brother of the Militia Christi, a tertiary branch of the Dominicans, working for the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome. Unmarried, and unbound by vows of celibacy, he is tough, aggressive, and violent..."

Yes, the Inquisitor, or Francis Xavier Killy (his real name), is basically an enforcer for the Catholic Church. In 1974's THE DEVIL IN KANSAS, Killy is first revealed serving two weeks of penance in a cold Vatican dungeon for the killings he performed during his previous mission for the Monsignor. His new assignment is to infiltrate a military college in Kansas where four foreign officers have recently gone missing. Posing as a Polish officer, Killy is eventually captured and brainwashed MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE-style by a Soviet mad scientist and his seductive wife.

The major setpiece, by far, comes near the middle of the book. Killy is ambushed during war games by a helicopter and four badass tanks playing for real. The Inquisitor's escape from this trap isn't exactly plausible, but it's fun, as is the rest of this 188-page thriller that doesn't let a few absurdities get in the way of enjoying it.

As Simon Quinn, Smith wrote five more Inquisitor novels in less than two years before finding mainstream success with NIGHTWING, a horror novel about killer bats that was filmed by Columbia in 1979. The film, which was directed by Arthur Hiller (THE IN-LAWS) and co-written by Smith, received dire reviews and unenthusiastic box office response.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

He Knows You're Alone

1980's HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE is a routine slasher shot on Staten Island that is really only of interest as Tom Hanks’ film debut.

Someone is murdering brides-to-be on the eve of their weddings. When Amy (Caitlin O’Heaney), whose cad of a fiancĂ© goes out of town for the weekend, appears to be the next victim, she turns to former flame Marvin (Don Scardino) for protection. In pursuit of the killer is obsessed detective Len Gamble (soap actor Lewis Arlt, struggling with a thankless part), whose fiancĂ© was the killer’s first target.

Unusually for a slasher, the killer’s identity is no mystery nor is the film structured like a whodunit. However, the killer (Tom Rolfing) also isn’t scary, and scripter Scott Parker (DIE LAUGHING) neglects to provide him much of a personality or presence. His deal is that he’s a cuckolded groom getting revenge on brides, but to fill the body count, Parker has him killing a bunch of people who aren’t brides.

Some horror fans will probably lament the absence of excess gore and nudity (the big effect is a very fake-looking head in an aquarium), as director Armand Mastroianni (CAMERON’S CLOSET) aims for suspense instead of slash. An effective pre-credit movie-theater stalking is one of his best scenes; SCREAM 2 ripped it off for its opening.

In addition to several other actors who went on to become familiar faces—Patsy Pease (DAYS OF OUR LIVES), James Rebhorn (CARLITO’S WAY), Steve James (AMERICAN NINJA), Paul Gleason (THE BREAKFAST CLUB)—Hanks appears briefly near the end as the date of a murder victim. He’s quite good, showcasing a light comic potential that would blossom on BOSOM BUDDIES, which premiered just a couple of months after HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE came out.

One of the more blatant HALLOWEEN rip-offs even apes John Carpenter’s famous theme in Alexander and Mark Peskanov’s musical score. Scardino (SQUIRM) turned to directing New York-based TV series like 30 ROCK and LAW & ORDER, while O’Heaney went on to TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Survival Isn't Just For The Living

Legendary horror director George A. Romero, who created the zombie horror genre with his groundbreaking 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, sets his sixth chapter off the Delaware coast on Plum Island, which is oddly populated only by members of warring Irish families.

In the new SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, now playing in theaters, on DVD, and on assorted high-definition digital cable channels (I saw it on HDNet Movies), the O’Flynns, led by patriarch Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), roam the island killing all the zombies, whereas Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) and his kin are dedicated to imprisoning the living dead until such time as they can be cured. Into their midst come National Guardsmen (Alan Van Sprang as the mercurial Sergeant Crockett appeared in Romero’s previous DIARY OF THE DEAD).

The zombies (called Deadheads here) are the least preposterous characters in the film, though the actors playing the living do a good job adding flavor to the familiar material. While SURVIVAL would have worked better with genre-friendly stars playing the leads (someone along the lines of Dennis Hopper in LAND OF THE DEAD), Canadian veterans Fitzpatrick and Welsh relish the chance to chew some scenery.

Romero directs with his trademark irony and wit (I like the Asian fisherman who fishes for zombie eyes), but it isn’t enough to defeat the fact that the zombie genre is played out. Romero shoots action well, and SURVIVAL may be the best looking of his DEAD films, but he brings nothing new to the table this time, and trading makeup mastery for cheap-looking CGI gore removes the fun of watching craftsmen at work from the equation. I haven’t seen DIARY OF THE DEAD, but SURVIVAL, slick as it is, is the weakest of the Romero DEADs.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Wild Things...Part 4?

Brand new from Sony Pictures: WILD THINGS FOURSOME!

At least the sniggering title of this low-rent third sequel to the underrated 1998 original (directed by HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER’s John McNaughton) pays off. I don’t know why I call it a sequel, because, just like WILD THINGS 2 and 3 (both written by FOURSOME director Andy Hurst), it’s really a remake. Same basic plot with new character names, worse acting, and more boobs.

The sucker is rich asshole Carson Wheetly (boy band singer Ashley Parker Angel), who’s cut off without a penny after his racecar driver dad Ted (Cameron Daddo) dies in a track accident. Making matters worse is the rape charge that lands Carson in jail. His accuser, girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks Brandi (Jillian Murray), wants $10 million to make the rape go away.

It isn’t spoiler territory to reveal that Carson isn’t really a sucker, but is in cahoots with Brandi, his girlfriend Rachel (Marnette Patterson), and Rachel’s best friend Linda (Jessie Nickson) to foil his father’s will, which leaves his inheritance in a trust until age thirty, and get some emergency cash. It seems no one else in the movie has seen the earlier WILD THINGs, because they’re completely fooled by this plan. Except perhaps the police detective (DUKES OF HAZZARD icon John Schneider) investigating both Ted’s crash and Brandi’s rape.

Or maybe Carson is a sucker. You know how twisty these WILD THINGS movies get. And lazy, because there isn’t a single twist in the plot by HAMMERHEAD writers Monty Featherstone (!) and Howard Zemski you won’t see coming. Even the most infuriating ones. Hurst populates his cast with young people who look great in bikinis (or less). Notice I didn’t use the word “actors.” To call the young cast actors would be to demean what real actors do.

On the other hand, Schneider as a cop with the cop-like name of Frank Walker doesn’t walk through his part or play it for camp. I wouldn’t say he’s taking the role seriously—he knows he’s doing WILD THINGS 4, for crying out loud—but he attempts to invest Walker with some humor and flair, and he’s definitely the most entertaining part of the film. Outside of the many scenes of hot girls kissing, of course. Not even a Duke boy can compete with that.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

America's Greatest Living Actor

My friend Chris Poggiali thinks he knows who it is. And he may not be wrong. See Chris' blog Temple of Schlock to find out.

Random TV Title: Buck Rogers In The 25th Century

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY lasted a mere season and a half on NBC, but the way fans fuss over it, you'd think it ran forever. Co-star Erin Gray, who played Spandex-clad warrior Wilma Deering, has a lot to do with the series' continued effect on fanboys, but also the show's humor, special effects, and Gil Gerard's charming performance as Captain William "Buck" Rogers.

The show had two major strikes against it heading into its second season. First, the series changed formats. Instead of Buck, Wilma, Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor), and Twiki (Felix Silla with the voice of Mel Blanc) battling space villains from their home base of New Chicago, Earth, the cast--and some newcomers--launched into outer space on a search mission similar to that of executive producer Glen A. Larson's earlier series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

The other setback was a writers strike that pushed back the 1980-81 fall season, so that BUCK ROGERS' second season didn't premiere until January 1981, nearly ten months after the last episode of Season 1.

Fans didn't take to the new format or cast members, and BUCK ROGERS was dead by April. Unfortunately, I can't find any clips of the series' opening titles online, but I can present this fan trailer for the series, which isn't bad at all.