Saturday, August 28, 2010

Little Darlings

So, which “little darling” at summer camp will lose her virginity first? Will it be tough girl from the projects Angel (Kristy McNichol) or rich kid Ferris (Tatum O’Neal)? All the standard tropes of summer camp movies are in 1980's LITTLE DARLINGS—skinny-dipping, joyriding, food fighting, prophylactic hunting—but this isn’t an exploitation movie. What sets LITTLE DARLINGS apart from the MEATBALLSes and the GORPs is that its protagonists are girls. And that’s all the difference in the world.

The humor isn’t mean-spirited, the objects of desire aren’t humiliated, and when one of the girls finally does have sex, it leaves a powerful emotional impact on her. Director Maxwell (GETTYSBURG) goes for verisimilitude in his casting by hiring actual teens (O’Neal and Matt Dillon were 15; McNichol 16) with natural acting talent. The stars were already Hollywood veterans by the time they filmed LITTLE DARLINGS, but they come across as real kids. McNichol, who played a similar tomboy-type to acclaim on TV’s FAMILY, is particularly strong in the more challenging of the leading roles. Also appearing are Cynthia Nixon (SEX AND THE CITY) in her film debut as a hippie chick, Krista Errickson (HELLO LARRY), Alexa Kanin, Abby Bluestone, Simone Schachter, and a scene-stealing butterball named Jenn Thompson (HARPER VALLEY PTA) who should have had a big career. All of these girls are very good and natural, although Errickson’s thankless role as the bitchy one forces her over the top on occasion.

Of course, looking at LITTLE DARLINGS today, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at O’Neal’s pursuit of counselor Armand Assante (who was then 29), a subplot that would never occur in a Paramount picture today, never mind the smoking and the revealing costumes. Kimi Peck, whose only produced screenplay this is, and Dalene Young (THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB) have a sharp ear for intelligent dialogue, which combines with the performances and Maxwell’s fluid direction to create a surprisingly sensitive drama. John Lennon, Blondie, Rickie Lee Jones, Supertramp, and other top recording artists perform on the soundtrack, and Charles Fox composed and conducted the score. Filmed in Georgia. NBC aired a wildly censored version in 1983.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Birdie's Hot Wheels

Birdie’s Hot Wheels
March 11, 1980
Music: John Andrew Tartaglia
Writer: Mark Fink
Director: James Sheldon

When Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins) takes a gander at Birdie’s (Brian Kerwin) souped-up new drag-racing car, his silver tongue convinces his deputy to hire him as his personal manager. For 25% of his winnings, of course. Birdie may not make it to the starting line, however, after Perkins (Mills Watson) leaves the keys in “Bye Bye Birdie” after a joyride, and the car is stolen by bank robbers who use it during a heist. With Birdie in jail awaiting trial, it’s up to Lobo to clear his deputy’s name.

“Birdie’s Hot Wheels” was the last of five MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO episodes directed by James Sheldon, whose television career began helming MISTER PEEPERS back in 1952. Sheldon continued working for another six years, climaxing with a SLEDGE HAMMER!, a series that parodied cop shows, in 1986. Veteran actor Morgan Woodward guest-stars as Lockwood, the sheriff of neighboring Marion County and a jealous rival of Lobo’s. Woodward was a good foil for Akins, and he returned to cause more trouble for Lobo in the series’ first-season finale. A much more attractive screen presence is Pat Klous, Birdie’s romantic interest in the episode, a shapely racer named C.R. Jameson. Klous had recently starred in FLYING HIGH, a drama about three adventurous stewardesses, and later joined the cast of THE LOVE BOAT as Lauren Tewes’ replacement.

For all the talking about racing, precious little is on the screen, outside of some stock footage that plays early in the episode. I don’t think Sheldon and the cast got anywhere near an actual speedway. The only original racing takes place in the Universal parking lot, where Birdie’s car is inexplicably parked. In other sloppiness, the boom microphone pops into the picture in a couple of shots.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Survival Is A Killer

I thought I'd follow up THE EXPENDABLES with another Sylvester Stallone thriller, the ill-fated EYE SEE YOU, which ended up basically going direct to video in 2002.

Jim Gillespie, whose I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER had been a huge hit, directed this adult-oriented serial killer flick in British Columbia during the winter and spring of 1999. It was called THE OUTPOST and then D-TOX. Universal then shelved it and eventually sold it to DEJ, which began playing it in early 2002 in almost every country except the United States.

Having become something of a legend, due to its strong cast and intriguing premise, D-TOX finally received a token domestic release in September 2002, when it was dumped unceremoniously into about fifty theaters in Michigan and Texas under the (awful) title EYE SEE YOU.

With a distribution history that troubled, a logical question would be, does EYE SEE YOU suck? The answer is no, definitely not. It isn't great, but it is a solid thriller with an outstanding cast, some gore, a neat premise, and solid work by Stallone as an emotionally wounded FBI agent named Jake Malloy.

Malloy’s prey is a serial killer who has slaughtered nine police officers in less than six months. After Jake’s fiancée Mary (STARSHIP TROOPERS' Dina Meyer) becomes the killer’s latest victim, because he bears a grudge against Jake for pursuing him, Malloy becomes an alcoholic and attempts suicide.

His friend Hendricks (ROC's Charles S. Dutton) convinces him to check into a very remote detox facility for law enforcement officers only, which is run by an ex-cop called Doc (Kris Kristofferson) and located deep in the snowbound Wyoming mountains. Also in residence there: the killer, who has taken the place of one of the patients and begins slaughtering Malloy’s new colleagues during a blizzard. The passel of victims includes Robert Patrick, Robert Prosky, Jeffrey Wright, and Tom Berenger.

Stallone’s status as a proven earner had taken a plunge with his previous few films, but EYE SEE YOU is certainly solid enough that it may have found an audience. It’s hard to believe Stallone’s name was such box-office poison that Universal didn’t want anything to do with EYE SEE YOU. It has its problems, but it's a nifty little movie that has trouble deciding whether it wants to be a horror movie or detective thriller.

Gillespie films a decent chase in the first act and creatively imagines the various creepy killings, though some extra gore might have helped add some zing. Stallone leads the ensemble of accomplished character actors, anchored by Patrick (TERMINATOR 2) as the obvious red herring. It’s always good to see Berenger (PLATOON), though he’s somewhat miscast as the outpost’s dopey handyman.

Gillespie has directed just one feature since EYE SEE YOU’s 1999 shoot, the little-seen horror picture VENOM. Stallone, on the other hand, made an amazing comeback by directing and starring in ROCKY BALBOA, RAMBO, and THE EXPENDABLES, which is currently America's most popular film.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Choose Your Weapon

Following the success of similar throwbacks ROCKY BALBOA and RAMBO (the third sequel to FIRST BLOOD), director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone created THE EXPENDABLES as an homage to the high-octane action pictures that kept him consistently atop the box office charts in the 1980s. Although he does overrelies on inadequate modern techniques like CGI blood squirts and shaky-cam editing, for the most part Stallone sticks to the basics, resulting in an enjoyable bone-crushing exercise in nostalgia with a body count.

It’s interesting that Stallone’s macho parade opened theatrically the same day as Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, which stars scrawny Michael Cera as a babyfaced slacker who fights the seven former suitors of his new girlfriend in elaborately staged martial arts battles. THE EXPENDABLES appears to have been made in direct response to the 2000s’ breed of action hero, who tend to be smaller, milder, and more introspective than Sly’s generation.

In addition to the 64-year-old ROCKY star, still looking fit in spite or because of his obvious facelifts and steroid-enhanced physique, THE EXPENDABLES marks the big-screen return of Stallone’s former ROCKY IV rival Dolph Lundgren, who shows off character actor chops as a drug-addled mercenary named Gunner that plays a big part in the storyline by Stallone and Dave Callaham (DOOM).

Gunner, Lee Christmas (second-billed Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (professional fighter Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and tattoo artist Tool (Mickey Rourke) are friends and members of a team of battle-hardened soldiers led by Stallone’s Barney Ross. Their easy banter makes it clear that these men have seen a lot of shit in their lifetimes, and despite Lee’s attempt at some kind of normal relationship with a woman named Lacy (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Charisma Carpenter), they’re resigned to the fact that they can only really be comfortable with one another.

The film’s most memorable scene contains no explosions or broken limbs at all. Just a short conversation that puts Stallone on the screen for the first time with fellow action icons Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger that is shrewdly designed by Sly to dump a load of exposition in a manner certain not to bore the audience.

Ross and his team hires on for a $5 million payday to invade the army-protected stronghold of a Latin American dictator, General Garza (DEXTER’s David Zayas), who is involved in a massive drug-running operation with rogue CIA agent James Munroe (a deliciously lip-smacking Eric Roberts). Ross and Christmas’ reconnaissance teams them with their contact, the beautiful Sandra (Mexican starlet Giselle Itie, making her English-language debut), whom they discover is Garza’s ashamed daughter.

The script isn’t much to get excited about, though it does contain a few nice touches. When Ross and Christmas meet Sandra, they see that she’s an accomplished artist. Later, we discover the general is also an artist, allowing the audience to imagine a backstory of father teaching daughter his passion and the countless hours they spent together, providing an emotional resonance to their current estrangement without beating the audience over the head with it. Dialogue is mainly curt declarative statements and one-liners, but you aren’t seeing THE EXPENDABLES for the talky stuff anyway. If your memories include Friday nights at the local theater watching COBRA or COMMANDO or INVASION U.S.A., THE EXPENDABLES is right up your alley.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

After The Oil Wars

Originally released as BATTLETRUCK (or at least reviewed in VARIETY under that title), WARLORDS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY is a New Zealand production that has basically the same plot as THE ROAD WARRIOR, but with less action, less money, and a lesser star. After promising to put up half the budget, Roger Corman eventually provided 30 percent of the film’s budget and left it to former documentary filmmaker Cokliss to find the rest.

American character actor James Wainwright (JIGSAW) is Straker, despotic leader of a band of raiders who conquer the land using a massive, invulnerable land cruiser armed with weaponry. Michael Beck, who flunked out of the movie star ranks after XANADU, MEGAFORCE, and this, is Hunter, a typical loner with a badass motorcycle that runs on methane created from chicken guano.

Straker’s struggle to communicate with his runaway daughter (Annie McEnroe) helps to humanize the character, and Wainwright does a good job carrying the picture. Cokliss’ action scenes are effective (Buddy Joe Hooker was the stunt coordinator and second unit director), but the movie needs more of them. Chris Menges (THE KILLING FIELDS) was Cokliss’ cinematographer, and future director Lee Tamahori (DIE ANOTHER DAY) was the boom operator. Also with Bruno Lawrence (THE QUIET EARTH), Randolph Powell (LOGAN’S RUN), and John Ratzenberger (CHEERS). Kevin Peak’s score is not good.

Shout Factory’s DVD teams it with the more entertaining DEATHSPORT, and gives it a second-feature treatment. Director Cokliss provides a dry audio commentary you won’t listen to more than once, and an okay still gallery completes the supplements. Shout Factory doesn’t even letterbox it, providing a decent-looking full-frame print bearing the American title, even though it’s called BATTLETRUCK on the box.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

No More Super Bowl

DEATHSPORT is a pseudo-sequel to New World’s very successful DEATH RACE 2000 that definitely falls beneath the heading of “Guilty Pleasure” (if you believe in that sort of thing). It contains a confusing plot, numerous lapses in logic and storytelling, cheap sets and props, and an absolute lack of (intentional) humor.

On the other hand, former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings (THE UNHOLY ROLLERS) has several nude scenes, lots of stuff blows up real good, heavy Richard Lynch (GOD TOLD ME TO) delivers a strong performance, and star David Carradine (also in DEATH RACE 2000) is almost always entertaining to watch. In fact, Carradine is often just as much fun in films he knows are terrible than in his truly good ones.

DEATHSPORT’s troubled production history starts with debuting writer/director Nicholas Niciphor, who was simply miscast as a Roger Corman filmmaker. The German graduate of USC’s film school not only had never seen a Corman movie before, but he had never even seen an exploitation movie! Based on a student film Niciphor made at USC, Corman hired the young man to rewrite and direct DEATHSPORT, but gave him only two weeks of preparation time before location shooting began in Southern California. Niciphor also didn’t get along with Carradine and Jennings (Carradine punched him and broke his nose, as longtime readers of Psychotronic Video will remember from the back-and-forth between actor and director in letter columns) either, and returned to Corman after principal photography with an unreleaseable mess.

Corman then hired Allan Arkush, the co-director (with Joe Dante) of HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, to go back on location with the temperamental stars (and even more temperamental motorcycles!) and film more inserts and action sequences in hopes of completing a somewhat comprehensible film. DEATHSPORT really isn’t that, but it does move along fairly quickly and dishes out enough nudity and violence to keep the audience from nodding off, at least.

In the post-apocalyptic future of the 30th century, Range Guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) wanders the desert mumbling platitudes like “must keep moving like sand in the wind” and battling Death Machine-riding soldiers—called Statesmen—led by black-clad Ankar Moor (Lynch). Death Machines are laser-firing motorcycles with silver-painted cardboard instrument panels that don’t look the least bit futuristic.

Oshay and another Guide, bikini-wearing Deneer (Jennings), are captured by the Statemen and sentenced to play Deathsport, a gladiator-style match in which they must battle an army of Death Machines while armed only with crystal-bladed swords. Escaping with a disgraced doctor (TATE star David McLean) and his whiny wimp son (Will Walker), Oshay and Deneer head for the domed paradisiacal city of Triton with Ankar Moor and his minions in hot pursuit.

The rough goings-on behind the scenes are evident on the screen—the introduction of plot threads (like an impending storm that threatens our heroes’ journey) that are quickly forgotten or ignored, a cycle chase through an “abandoned” fuel dump that features mysterious ramps and empty striped barrels that blow up for no reason, an inexplicable torture chamber involving dangling Christmas-tree lights, hastily-produced matte paintings (by Jack Rabin) that don’t look remotely believable. Carradine, although he doesn’t have a particularly muscular build, is a serviceable action hero, and pulls off the faux-Shakespearean no-contraction-using dialogue the best he can. Jennings was a better actress than most former models, and Lynch again uses his scarred countenance to good effect.

Jennings had a major cult following in exploitation films during the 1970s. Her career was sadly cut short by a fatal car accident along Pacific Coast Highway at age 29. Niciphor, who used “Henry Suso” as his screen credit, never directed another picture. Also with William Smithers, Jesse Vint (FORBIDDEN WORLD), H.B. Haggerty, and teenage Linnea Quigley as an extra. The maddening synth score by Andy Stein features not-very-impressive guitarwork by Jerry Garcia.

DEATHSPORT appeared letterboxed for the first time on home video on Shout Factory’s satisfactory DVD, which partnered it with BATTLETRUCK, a New Zealand ripoff off THE ROAD WARRIOR that Corman picked up and released theatrically in the U.S. as WARLORDS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. In addition to an entertaining and candid commentary track by Arkush and editor Larry Bock, the disc includes radio spots, trailers, and still galleries that make it an attractive package for Corman fans.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

They're Here. And They're Hungry

Roger Corman’s JAWS ripoff is an enjoyable slice of exploitation, thanks to a witty script by John Sayles (LONE STAR) and clever tongue-in-cheek direction by Joe Dante (THE HOWLING), making his solo debut after teaming with Allan Arkush (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to make HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD two years earlier.

Alcoholic outdoorsman Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and spunky skip-tracer Maggie (Heather Menzies) try to prevent the deadly title fish from attacking a summer camp and a vacation resort. What’s unusual about the plot is that the heroes are indirectly responsible for all the bloodshed and death. When Maggie and Grogan are poking around an abandoned Army base looking for a pair of missing teenagers, they drain a tank where, unbeknownst to them, dwell mutated piranha artificially developed by army scientist Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) for use as a weapon against the Viet Cong.

Many, many movies were made in the late 1970s to jump on the JAWS bandwagon featuring killer animals striking back against humans, often with an ecological theme, but PIRANHA is certainly one of the best of them. Dante and Sayles’ masterstroke was to play the story with wry humor, allowing the eccentric supporting cast to have fun spinning the usual clichés. Using subtle gags to offset the scares helps the more extreme scenes, such as a setpiece involving children at a summer camp being victimized by the razor-toothed fishies, go down more easily.

Dante loves genre actors and populated PIRANHA with great faces like Barbara Steele (BLACK SUNDAY), Bruce Gordon (THE UNTOUCHABLES), Dick Miller (A BUCKET OF BLOOD), Keenan Wynn, Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) and Paul Bartel, and balanced them with interesting and attractive young actors like Barry Brown (DAISY MILLER), Belinda Balaski (BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW), and Melody Scott Thomas, who went on to decades of starring in THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

Believe it or not, Peter Fonda was the original choice for Grogan, though Dillman carries the leading role just fine, and Eric Braeden (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT) actually shot some scenes in McCarthy’s role. Both actors dropped out, however, when they feared the special effects would look silly. Though you’d never mistake the effects for top-notch, they actually look pretty good. Some of Hollywood’s best effects artists, such as Phil Tippett (JURASSIC PARK), Rob Bottin (THE THING), and Chris Walas (THE FLY), worked on PIRANHA very early in their careers, and, aided by sharp cutting by editor Mark Goldblatt (THE TERMINATOR), turned out effective scary, gory stuff. Pino Donaggio (DRESSED TO KILL) composed and recorded the surprisingly lush score in Italy.

PIRANHA was a huge success. It was, up to that time, New World Pictures’ most profitable film, grossing more than $30 million worldwide and spawning a 1981 sequel (James Cameron’s directorial debut!), a 1995 remake with William Katt and Alexandra Paul in the Dillman and Menzies roles, and a bloody 2010 remake in 3D! Shout Factory gave Dante’s film a shiny DVD and Blu-ray release as part of its Roger Corman Cult Classics line, porting over the extras (including Dante’s commentary track with producer Jon Davison) from an earlier DVD and adding a few more, such as a new making-of documentary featuring Dante, Miller, Balaski, and others to talk about the film. Shout Factory also gave the print a nice touch-up and released it in letterbox form for the first time on home video. PIRANHA is one of New World’s finest productions and deserves a look by horror fans.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

They Hunt Human Women. Not For Killing. For Mating.

One of Roger Corman’s most notorious films features so much gratuitous sleaze that both its leading lady and its director publicly protested it and tried to get their names removed from the credits. Director Barbara Peeters (SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS) refused to shoot the extra scenes of gore, nudity, and intraspecies sexual assault Corman demanded, and the new footage directed by James Sbardellati (DEATHSTALKER) was so explicit that the cast freaked when they saw the film for the first time. Audiences loved New World’s gruesome homage to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, however, and the result of Corman’s post-production meddling is one of the studio’s most popular horror movies.

Scaly six-foot sea monsters terrorize a small California fishing community already rocked by racial tension between whites and Native Americans. An ecological storyline involving a new cannery coming to town and polluting the waters provides Corman’s patented social commentary that helps justify the incessant rapes, eviscerations, and explosions (the mutant sea monsters are the result of DNA experiments done on salmon to make them breed faster and larger). Doug McClure (an experienced monster-fighter in drek like WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS and THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT) toplines as married fisherman Jim Hill, who takes the lead in battling the horny buggers, along with Ann Turkel (RAVAGERS) as shapely scientist Susan Drake and a ranting, curly-haired Vic Morrow (COMBAT) as race-baiting cannery owner Hank Slattery.

Shot as BENEATH THE DARKNESS to fool the actors and crew into believing they were making a somewhat respectable movie, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP was released by United Artists overseas as MONSTER and spawned a 1996 remake. It’s a lurid film that certainly delivers the goods, particularly a rousing, fiery finale with enough breasts and spurting blood to stock a couple of creature features. And no sissy stuff with keeping the monsters hidden in the shadows either. These beasties are front and center, clearly played by men in rubber suits, but designed by Rob Bottin (THE THING) seamy, creepy style. Newcomer Mark Goldblatt (THE TERMINATOR) edits with tightly wound exuberance. James Horner’s jangly score adds a few jolts, and Peeters’ impressive truck explosion was recycled in many Corman pictures to come.

Cindy Weintraub (THE PROWLER), Anthony Pena, Lynne Theel (WITHOUT WARNING), Denise Galik (DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE), Hoke Howell, and Linda Shayne (SCREWBALLS) co-star. In addition to Horner, Bottin, and Goldblatt, production assistant Gale Anne Hurd also graduated to bigger, better Hollywood movies, including producing THE TERMINATOR. Electrician Rowdy Herrington went on to direct ROAD HOUSE. Shout Factory’s impressive DVD and Blu-ray release includes the international cut, which offers a few extra seconds of a brutal decapitation that was censored from New World’s U.S. release to get an R rating from the MPAA.

Perhaps more enticing to HUMANOIDS fans is Shout Factory’s inclusion of never-before-seen deleted footage of gore and nudity that was cut from the movie before its release, probably to meet Corman’s usual demand to keep the running time around 80 minutes. About seven minutes of mostly gratuitous gore and T&A unspool for your prurient delight. Other extras include a new making-of doc with plenty of talking heads, none of them Peeters or the main stars; an old Leonard Maltin chat with Corman; trailers; and a still gallery. Like Shout Factory’s GALAXY OF TERROR and FORBIDDEN WORLD discs, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP comes with reversible cover art, so you can display your disc with the foreign MONSTER art if you like.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Soul Of Nigger Charley

Paramount made enough dough from THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY to bring star Fred Williamson back for a sequel, this time directed by the original’s producer and co-writer, Larry G. Spangler. THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, one of four Williamson movies released in 1973, is a pretty good western and maybe even a little better than LEGEND.

A Confederate Army colonel called “Blanchard the Butcher” (a hateful Kevin Hagen) and his men, who refuse to accept the war is over, slaughters a small town and kidnaps the black citizens. Down in Mexico, Blanchard has set up a new community of Southern aristocracy that raids the poor and uses the blacks as slaves. Charley (Williamson), something of a folk hero after the events of LEGEND, partners with sidekick Toby (D’Urville Martin), Mexican bandit Sandoval (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), Herculean archer Ode (George Allen), beautiful but broken Elena (Denise Nicholas, on summer vacation from ROOM 222), and a ragtag bunch of former slaves to hijack $100,000 of Blanchard’s gold and free his captives.

For a first-time director, Spangler and his cinematographer Richard Glouner (an Emmy winner for COLUMBO) do a nice job stretching Paramount’s low budget to feature a decent look and plenty of bloody action. It’s still rough around the edges in terms of script and editing, but Williamson’s unique style of heroics and the frequent violence make SOUL something of a crowdpleaser. Charley brings out the best in Fred, since he’s a more vulnerable and more human character than the actor played in his later films. Lou Rawls performs two songs, and Don Costa composed and conducted the fine score.