Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers

Can you believe in HALLOWEEN 6 that Michael Myers is back in Haddonfield and still trying to kill all his relatives? Sure, you thought little Jamie Lloyd was the last of the Myers line in HALLOWEEN 4 and 5, but director Joe Chappelle (PHANTOMS) and screenwriter Daniel Farrands pulls more kin out of their rear ends in this notoriously troubled sequel that made barely a peep in theaters in 1995.

The victim of devastating test screenings, last-minute reshoots, and a screenplay that evolved drastically during the shoot (for the worse, some would say, including Donald Pleasence), the sixth HALLOWEEN movie was regarded as a mess by audiences (including me) who saw Dimension’s theatrical release. A few years later, the so-called Producer’s Cut started making the rounds among collectors and horror fans. This is most likely the version that was ripped heavily during the early test screenings. Could it have possibly been worse than what finally played in theaters after all the post-production tinkering?

Well, it has more Donald Pleasence, which is good. It has less gore, but also more scenes that fill out the characters and explain the plot better. The problem is the plot is so stupid and the formula so worn out that it appears little could have been done to make HALLOWEEN 6 palatable.

It also keeps the original ending that test audiences hated so much, which involved Michael being infected with an ancient Druid curse that caused him to murder his family members whenever a certain constellation called Thorn appeared in the sky. By killing his entire bloodline, he would prevent the total destruction of his tribe. Or something like that. The Producer’s Cut ending—or non-ending, as it were—is silly, confusing, and anti-climactic with mumbo-jumbo about sacrificial rituals and magic runestones that may leave you howling with laughter.

The reshoots, which did not involve Pleasence, who died in early 1995, basically said all the Druid stuff was nonsense to cover up the real conspiracy at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, which involved DNA experiments, cloning, and a plot to rule the world or some such. The theatrical cut will also likely have you cracking up.

It’s six years after HALLOWEEN 5, which left the world believing Michael and his niece Jamie were killed in an explosion at the Haddonfield police station. In fact, both were rescued by the Man in Black, who has since held Jamie (now played by J.C. Brandy after the Weinsteins wouldn’t pony up Danielle Harris’ fee) in captivity and made her pregnant. Her son is born the night before Halloween, and she manages to escape with her baby.

Michael catches her and leaves her for dead. He doesn’t find the infant, who falls into the hands of Tommy Doyle (Paul Rudd, who gets a special “Introducing” credit even though he had already appeared in CLUELESS), the little boy Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who doesn’t appear here) was babysitting when Michael went on his original killing spree seventeen years earlier. Michael, with the retired Dr. Loomis (75-year-old Pleasence) on his trail, returns to Haddonfield to not only murder Jamie’s baby, but also the new family living in the Myers house.

Veterans Kim Darby (TRUE GRIT) and Mitchell Ryan (MAGNUM FORCE) appear, as does Susan Swift, the young actress from AUDREY ROSE. Alan Howarth again composed the score, and Chappelle returned to Salt Lake City, where 4 and 5 were shot, for this sequel, though with so many interiors, it could have been filmed almost anywhere. HALLOWEEN 6 left the series so hopelessly screwed up that when HALLOWEEN H20 relaunched it on its twentieth anniversary, it brought back Jamie Lee Curtis as the now-alive Laurie Strode and ignored everything that had happened after HALLOWEEN II.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers / Halloween 5

Ten years after wiping out sixteen people on Halloween 1978 (seen in HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II; HALLOWEEN III did not involve the characters from the earlier films), “evil on two legs” serial killer Michael Myers (stuntman George P. Wilbur in the Myers mask) returns to Haddonville, Illinois to kill his last surviving relative in HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS.

Eight-year-old Jamie (future scream queen Danielle Harris in her film debut) is the daughter of the late Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the first two HALLOWEENs) and living with a foster family that includes older “sister” Rachel (Ellie Cornell).

It seems unlikely that the virginal Laurie would have borne a child right out of high school, and that’s hardly the most implausible aspect of Alan B. McElroy’s screenplay (he claims he wrote it in eleven days, and it shows). With the solid but unspectacular Dwight H. Little (MARKED FOR DEATH) at the helm, HALLOWEEN 4 is a decently constructed slasher movie shot on appropriately bleak Utah locations, but certainly inferior to the earlier pictures that bore the imprint of series creator John Carpenter.

Donald Pleasence is a joy as Dr. Sam Loomis, whose unhealthy pursuit of Myers has turned him almost as loony as his prey. The authorities don’t believe that Myers, awakened from a ten-year coma, could have possibly escaped custody and torn a murderous swath across the Midwest in search of Jamie. It’s understandable they would write Loomis off, considering Pleasence’s unhinged and enormously entertaining performance, but how could they know Myers is not only as strong as ever, but also powerful enough to push his thumb through a man’s skull.

Whether Little intentionally went for a blood-free approach to the terror or anticipated an MPAA backlash, HALLOWEEN 4’s violence occurs mainly off-screen, which may disappoint slasher fans. There’s little to distinguish the movie from most horror fare of the era, and as technically proficient as HALLOWEEN 4 may be, it’s perfectly forgettable. Also with Beau Starr, Michael Pataki, Sasha Jenson, Kathleen Kinmont, Karen Alston, and Leslie Rohland. Music by Alan Howarth. Executive producer Moustapha Akkad got the main cast members back a year later for HALLOWEEN 5.

Almost exactly one year after HALLOWEEN 4 did okay business in U.S. theaters, tiny Galaxy International Pictures had HALLOWEEN 5 unspooling with much the same cast. In lieu of H4’s Dwight Little’s meat-and-potatoes storytelling, French director Dominique Othenin-Girard (OMEN IV), an unusual choice, seemed to care little about logic with a scattershot approach to the material that doesn’t work.

Little Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), still hospitalized and speechless after the traumatic events exactly a year ago, now shares some sort of psychic link with her uncle Michael Myers (Don Shanks), which causes her to freak out whenever he kills. Othenin-Girard and his co-writers made the odd decision to rip off the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, not just by giving the heroine psychic powers, but also by setting part of the film at a wild party with drunk, horny teenagers and idiotic comic-relief cops (who even have their own “wacky” theme music).

Donald Pleasence was notoriously dismissive of HALLOWEEN 5, and it’s easy to see why. His character of unhinged psychiatrist Loomis has nothing new to do besides recite the same “he’s the boogeyman” dialogue as before, and the screenplay is certainly the worst of any HALLOWEEN he had done to date. Most maddening is a mysterious spurs-jangling Man in Black (also played by Shanks), who was intended by the director to be Michael’s twin brother (!), but ultimately plays deux es machina.

HALLOWEEN 5 has to be judged as a disappointment on any level, but compared with what was to come…well, let’s just say the HALLOWEEN franchise still had room to fall.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Queens Bench, Courtroom Seven

QB VII was not the first television miniseries—it appears THE BLUE KNIGHT, a four-hour telling of Joseph Wambaugh’s cop novel starring William Holden as Bumper Morgan, was—but it was the first under ABC’s NOVELS FOR TELEVISION banner and the most prestigious at the time. The six-and-a-half-hour QB VII, aired over two consecutive April nights in 1974, was nominated for thirteen Emmy Awards, winning six, and was so popular that it influenced the networks to adapt other highbrow literary works for the small screen, among them HOLOCAUST, ROOTS, and RICH MAN, POOR MAN.

Director Tom Gries (HELTER SKELTER) and screenwriter Edward Anhalt (BECKET) saw a juicy courtroom drama in Leon Uris’ 1970 semi-autobiographical novel about a libel trial between former Nazi concentration camp doctor Adam Kelno (Anthony Hopkins essaying the Polish physician) and Abraham Cady (Ben Gazzara), the journalist he accuses of smearing him in a novel. As had happened to Uris for a one-line mention in his 1960 novel EXODUS, Cady is sued in British court (Queen’s Bench Courtroom Seven, to be exact) for a throwaway line in his book that Kelno had conducted unethical experiments on prisoners in the concentration camps.

Anhalt squeezes Uris’ four-part structure into three. The first two follow the parallel lives of Cady and Kelno from the end of World War II until their meeting in QB VII in 1973. Part Three is the libel trial itself, which provides plenty of scenery-chewing opportunities for both Hopkins and Gazzara, as well as Robert Stephens and Anthony Quayle (who won an Emmy), who argue the case before Justice Gilroy (Jack Hawkins, already ravaged by the throat cancer that would kill him before QB VII aired and dubbed by Charles Gray).

With all the globe-trotting, movie stars in central roles, and chest-puffing score by Jerry Goldsmith providing glitz, what QB VII really boils down to is a simple conflict between two men that dredges up horrific memories many believe should stay buried. Almost unnoticed beneath the strong performances and literate teleplay is Gries’ direction, which tells the powerful story in a straightforward manner and never lets interest flag, despite the lengthy running time.

Also with Juliet Mills, Lee Remick, Leslie Caron, Dan O’Herlihy, John Gielgud, Anthony Andrews, Sam Jaffe, Kristoffer Tabori, Signe Hasso, Lana Wood, Julian Glover, Alan Napier, Robert Hutton, and Milo O’Shea. Mark Lenard narrates. Filmed in England, Belgium, Israel, and the U.S. Can you imagine a television network of today assembling a cast like this and traveling around the work to shoot an important literary work about the Holocaust?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

So Long, Danno

James MacArthur, the youthful actor forever known as “Danno” after eleven seasons on HAWAII FIVE-0, died today in Florida at age 72. The cause of death given was natural causes.

MacArthur was actually not originally cast as Danny Williams, the number-one sidekick to Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett. Tim O’Kelly (TARGETS) played Williams in the 1968 pilot episode, “Cocoon,” but MacArthur took over the role thereafter and stuck with the series until 1979. He left the show after its eleventh season, and FIVE-0 limped along one year without MacArthur until its 1980 cancellation.

HAWAII FIVE-0 would fit nicely with much of today’s network schedule, thirty years after it left CBS; in fact, a remake of the series premiered on CBS last month with Scott Caan (OCEAN’S ELEVEN), the son of movie star James, cast as Danno. FIVE-0’s emphasis on dynamic plots and exotic Hawaiian culture left little time for backstories, leaving it to the actors themselves to create strong characters through their performances.

Because of episodic television standards of the period, as well as—let’s face it—Jack Lord’s reported reticence to share the spotlight, FIVE-0’s supporting actors, which also over the years included Kam Fong as Chin Ho Kelly, Zulu as Kono, Herman Wedemeyer as Duke, and Al Harrington as Ben Kokua, received few opportunities to shine alone. Even MacArthur, an accomplished star of Disney movies and the scion of Hollywood royalty (his mother was Helen Hayes), rarely got an episode of his own.

Perhaps MacArthur’s finest performance as Danny Williams was in the third-season episode “Beautiful Screamer,” which aired December 2, 1970. Rarely seen since then, because it was not included with most syndicated packages until HAWAII FIVE-0 was digitally remastered in the 1990s, “Beautiful Screamer” provides one of the few cases to impact the Five-0 team on a personal level.

Two beautiful young women who are friends with each other are strangled to death. One of them is Danny’s girlfriend, Jane Michaels, played by a gorgeous Anne Archer, making one of her first TV appearances at age 23. The killer is Walter Gregson (Lloyd Bochner), a cold bastard who wants to murder his rich wife (a dishy Laraine Stephens) and strangles the other women to make it appear as though a psycho is on the loose.

Scripted by Stephen Kandel, an excellent writer with a gift for offbeat plotting, and directed by Tony Leader, “Beautiful Screamer” allows McGarrett to step aside and let Danno run the investigation. It’s certainly the most emotional acting MacArthur ever did on the series and a nice showcase for a somewhat stiff performer who must have relished the chance to play something with more meat to it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Good Football Coach Can Get Away With Murder

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, the first Hollywood film by French director Roger Vadim (BARBARELLA), is better known as the only feature written by STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry. No phasers or starships in this uneven black comic thriller with an outstanding cast of familiar actors and gorgeous women. It's now available as a DVD-R burned on demand from the Warner Archive, and as you can see in the scan to the left, mine is autographed by Angie Dickinson.

Rock Hudson is pretty much the most hetero mofo in the world playing Tiger McDrew, a high school football coach and guidance counselor who spends his free periods teaching the rumpy-pumpy to his stacked female students. He’s also something of a mentor to the team’s student manager, a 17-year-old virgin named Ponce Harper (John David Carson in his film debut) constantly plagued by uncontrollable erections.

In fact, it’s one of these stimulations—caused by his voomy new English teacher, Miss Smith (super-MILF Angie Dickinson at age forty)—that sends Ponce running out of class and into the boy’s bathroom, where he discovers a murdered coed (and “terrific little cheerleader”) in the next stall. This is the event that drives Roddenberry’s dual plots of McDrew pushing Miss Smith into a sexual relationship with Ponce (the poor kid never stands a chance against Dickinson and her Bill Theiss wardrobe), while State Police detective Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) investigates what has become a series of murders with the victims all beautiful high-school girls.

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is neither a great comedy nor a great thriller, but it certainly feels like a unique film. Its main problem is Hudson’s character, who is front and center, but not as developed as he should be. We know he has a gorgeous wife (TERMINAL ISLAND’s Barbara Leigh) and a daughter whom he seems to love, but more background would have been essential to understanding him better. Lalo Schfrin’s wry score and Vadim’s penchant for pushing his camera into every boob and buttock on the school campus set a dark tone that the film doesn’t fully capitalize on.

That isn’t to say the film isn’t entertaining, however, in its arch performances and early-‘70s eye candy. Roddenberry and Vadim were among Hollywood’s biggest horndogs, and that’s reflected in PRETTY MAID’s casting of some really stunning actresses, among them Brenda Sykes (MANDINGO), JoAnna Cameron (soon to send little boys’ hearts fluttering as TV’s Isis), Joy Bang (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), and, seen in the poster below, Margaret Markov (the blond WHITE MAMA, BLACK MAMA star who married Mark Damon).

Also with Roddy McDowall (great as the befuddled principal), Keenan Wynn as a bumbling sheriff, James Doohan (STAR TREK's Scotty) and William Campbell as Savalas’ detectives, June Fairchild, Amy Eccles, Gretchen Parsons, and Diane Sherry. Schifrin and Mike Curb wrote the gummy theme song, “Chilly Wind,” performed by the Osmonds. Roddenberry, then under contract to MGM, turned back to television and produced several unsold pilots, including GENESIS II, STRANGE NEW WORLD, and SPECTRE.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Episode Guide: Broken Badges

Stephen J. Cannell, who died in September at age 69, was one of television’s greatest writer/producers. Shows carrying his credit include THE ROCKFORD FILES, THE A-TEAM, HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK, ADAM-12, and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO.

But they weren’t all hits. Several Cannell series you may have never heard of, since they weren’t on the air very long, were released on DVD earlier this year in a box set called PRIME TIME CRIME: THE STEPHEN J. CANNELL COLLECTION. Included are all seven episodes of BROKEN BADGES, a series Cannell co-created with Randall Wallace, who went from this series to earning an Oscar nomination for penning the BRAVEHEART screenplay.

BROKEN BADGES fits nicely into the Cannell oeuvre with its theme of outsiders and misfits fighting crime and forming a tight family unit. Miguel Ferrer, just off a memorable role on TWIN PEAKS, starred as Beau Jack Bowman, a maverick New Orleans cop in trouble with his bosses after he drove a garbage truck through a house in pursuit of drug dealers. To get him out of their hair, the brass send Beau Jack to Bay City, California to extradite a prisoner and ends up joining a trio of mentally unstable detectives to capture a murderer.

Since no one wants to work with the three officers, all of whom have personality disorders that put them on the department’s restricted list, Bowman decides to stay in Bay City and work with them as part of a special squad. His new partners are Stanley Jones (Jay Johnson), a short ventriloquist (with a dummy dressed as a policeman) who becomes violent whenever anyone mentions his size; Toby Baker (Ernie Hudson), a depressed kleptomaniac; and J.J. “Bullets” Tingreedies (Eileen Davidson), an aggressive woman who’s addicted to danger. Also on the team is Dr. Priscilla Mather (Charlotte Lewis), a police psychiatrist whose job is to keep Bowman’s team out of trouble. Good luck.

BROKEN BADGES was not on CBS’ 1990-91 fall schedule, but was pressed into service when its eco-action series E.A.R.T.H. FORCE with Gil Gerard crumbled after just three weeks on the air. The network had no better luck with Cannell and Wallace’s series, which was quickly canceled after only four episodes (the same day as WISEGUY, another Cannell series). The remaining three shows were burned off by CBS the following June.

It’s no surprise BROKEN BADGES was a bust, as it never found the correct balance of humor and action. Ferrer and Hudson are really good, but Davidson forces the tough-chick stuff and standup comic Johnson (SOAP) is too silly to pull the cop stuff off. Another point in the series’ favor is its rollicking Cajun-flavored theme song penned by Mike Post.

Miguel Ferrer as Beau Jack Bowman
Eileen Davidson as Judith J. “Bullet” Tingreedies
Jay Johnson as Stanley Jones
Teresa Donahoe as Dr. Eleanor Hardwick (pilot only)
Charlotte Lewis as Priscilla Mather
Ernie Hudson as Toby Baker

Music: Mike Post, Velton Ray Bunch
Theme: Mike Post
Cinematographers: Cyrus Block, John S. Bartley
Art Directors: Graeme Murray (pilot only), Stephen Geaghan
Editors: Larry D. Lester (pilot only), Argyle Coe Nelson, Casey O’Rohrs (pilot only), Ron Spang, Albert J.J. Zuniga
Associate Producers: Bruce Golin, Alan Cassidy, Gary Skeen Hall
Supervising Producer: Jo Swerling Jr.
Co-Supervising Producer: Jack Bernstein
Producer: John Peter Kousakis (pilot only)
Producer: Joan Carson
Creator: Stephen J. Cannell & Randall Wallace
Executive Producers: Stephen J. Cannell & Randall Wallace
A Stephen J. Cannell Production
Filmed on location in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

“Pilot” (2 hours)
November 24, 1990
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell & Randall Wallace
Director: Kim Manners
Guest Cast: Ada Maris, Carlos Gomez, Tobin Bell, Richard Riehle, Forry Smith, Don S. Davis, Michael MacRae, Ismael (East) Carlo, Tim Neil, Gary Chalk, Leslie Carlson, Gerry Bean, Rosanna Iverson, Jessica Marlowe, Rob Roy, R. Nelson Brown, John Cuthbert, Adrien Dorval, Terry Barclay, Dwight Koss, Michael Rogers, Howard Kruschke, Richard Sargent, Rob Johnson, Barbara Constantine, Phil Hayes, Michael Tiernan, Peter Bibby, Maureen Wilson, Pat Bermel, Kehli O’Byrne, Michael A. Jackson, Mitch Kosterman, Allan Lysell, Rosanne Hopkins

Bowman extradites prisoner Frank Cardenas (Carlos Gomez) from New Orleans to Bay City to stand trial for the murder of his parents. He believes businessman Martin Valentine (Tobin Bell) framed the young man, but when the Bay City cops refuse the listen to Bowman, he recruits Bullet, Jones, and Baker to find proof of Frank’s innocence.

December 22, 1990
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell
Director: Kim Manners
Guest Cast: Don S. Davis, Diedrich Bader, Clint Carmichael, Garry Chalk, Alec Burden, Lyle Alzado, Robin Smith, Steve Oatway, Roger Crossley, Veronica Lorenz, John Tierney, Marcy Mellish, Lana Higgins, William MacDonald, Steve Adams, Sharlene Martin, Graeme Kingston, Bruce Corkum

When Toby is accused of murdering hood Tommy Moran (Lyle Alzado), Bullets goes undercover as a hostess at Moran’s club and Stanley befriends Tommy’s naïve son Chucky (Diedrich Bader) to find the real killer.

“Westside Stories”
December 1, 1990
Writer: Jack Bernstein
Director: James Whitmore Jr.
Guest Cast: David Naughton, Don S. Davis, Heidi Zeigler, Mary Jo Keenen, Peter Blackwood, Merrilyn Gann, Rebecca Toolan, Sandra Carpenter, Georgie Major, Paul Haddad

Our crazy cops infiltrate a hoity-toity country club to catch a cat burglar (David Naughton) who accidentally killed a man on his last job.

“Can I Get a Witness?”
June 20, 1991
Writer: Jack Bernstein
Director: David Nutter
Guest Cast: Andrew Hill Newman, Anne Betancourt, Don S. Davis, Jerry Wasserman, Jason Scott, Frank Ferrucci, Suki Kaiser, Jack Ammon, Dwight McFee, Lon Katzmann, Brent Chapman, Donna Carroll White, Pedro Salvin, Ahnee Boyce, Lenno Britos

Bowman and the team are assigned to transport a government witness, nerdy accountant Max (Andrew Hill Newman), back to Bay City, but a hit squad hired by Max’s druglord boss (Anne Betancourt) is right on their tail.

“Meet Your Matchmaker”
June 6, 1991
Writer: Jack Bernstein
Director: Tucker Gates
Guest Cast: Brian L. Green, Forry Smith, Garry Chalk, Paul Boretski, Tamsin Kelley, French Tickner, Larry Hill, Ellie Harvie, Glynis Davies, Norman Armour, Deryl Hayes, Terry Arrowsmith

Stanley joins a video dating service to smoke out a serial killer who’s bumping off the company’s clients.

December 8, 1990
Writer: Randall Wallace
Director: Jonathan Sanger
Guest Cast: Jamie Rose, Tim Neil, Jay Brazeau, Andrew Johnston, Brent Stait, Howard Jerome, Sharlene Martin, Claudio de Victor, Ken Budd, Alex Taylor, Celia Louise Martin

Beau Jack’s old partner (Tim Neil) arrives in Bay City, and warns the squad that Beau Jack may be the target of a sexy ex-cop (Jamie Rose) he sent to prison back in New Orleans.

“Argo the Venusian”
June 13, 1991
Writer: Randall Wallace
Director: Alan Cooke
Guest Cast: Forry Smith, Garry Chalk, Jano Frandsen, Elena Stiteler, James Kidnie, Sam Malkin, Andre Daniels, Terry King, Douglas Stewart

Beau Jack and the team come to the aid of a fellow cop (Forry Smith) who is accused of killing his secret girlfriend’s husband, a noted mobster.

See BROKEN BADGES' opening title sequence with Mike Post's cool Cajun theme song, which leads off this collection of TV themes from 1991:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who Is That Stubborn County Medical Examiner?

Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) and Jack Klugman (QUINCY, M.E.) are the celebrity panelists on an episode of PASSWORD PLUS with Allen Ludden. Watch the players' faces when they discover the solution to the puzzle is...Quincy! Well, all the players except for Klugman's partner, that is...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Garbage Never Leaves The Dump

Yes, kids, the star of ACCORDING TO JIM was once considered a major movie star. You could tell, because he changed his billing to the more serious “James” Belushi. His blue-collar charm is well-suited for 1987's THE PRINCIPAL, an exploitation take on LEAN ON ME obviously influenced by BEVERLY HILLS COP.

Belushi plays screw-up high school principal Rick Latimer, a tough but sensitive lug punished for messing up his ex-wife’s boyfriend’s sports car with a baseball bat by being assigned to the nastiest school in the district. The student body at Brendel High consists mainly of kids who have already been expelled from every other school in town and have settled into hopeless lives of truancy, drugs, vandalism, and misanthropy. What else they have in common is their fear of Victor Duncan (Michael Wright), the psycho SMOC (Scariest Man On Campus) who rules the school and finds a hard-headed enemy in Latimer, who decides to clean up his own life by cleaning up Brendel.

Director Christopher Cain (YOUNG GUNS) and writer Frank Deese (AMAZING STORIES) take their cue from BEVERLY HILLS COP in combining belly laughs with brutal violence. With Wright’s off-kilter performance providing the perfect balance for Belushi’s deftness with wisecracks and swinging fists, THE PRINCIPAL mostly pays off. Louis Gossett Jr. is mostly wasted as Belushi’s security guard sidekick, though he does have fun with his line readings, and Rae Dawn Chong (COMMANDO) shows up to look good and play the victim. Belushi moved up to co-star with Arnold Schwarzenegger in RED HEAT next.

Rupert Pupkin Speaks

I'm the guest blogger over at Brian Saur's Rupert Pupkin Speaks today. Please hop over to discover ten underrated horror films you should see this Halloween.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

More Late Movie

On August 25, 1982, the Richard Burton OMEN ripoff THE MEDUSA TOUCH aired on THE CBS LATE MOVIE. Not that this hammy British horror movie was ahead of its time or anything, but there is a scene (glimpsed briefly in this intro) of an airliner smashing into a skyscraper...

The Ultimate Driller Killer Thrillers

Roger Corman’s biggest attempt to break into the lucrative '80s slasher genre was the notorious THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, which is most notable for having a female director (Amy Jones went on to make THE RICH MAN'S WIFE with Halle Berry) and a female screenwriter (noted feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown). Brown’s script was greatly rewritten by Jones, and Brown had little to do with the final release, which is not very distinguishable from slashers made by male filmmakers.

A bunch of high school girls and some guys who want to lay them are stalked one evening by a madman (Michael Villella) who just escaped from a mental institution. Jones works a bit of suspense at the end, but, even by New World standards, this is not very good, even if it did spawn a few sequels, spinoffs, and loose remakes. Villella’s killer is dull, and the action is neither gory nor thrilling.

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has been lauded in some circles for its satire and feminist subtext, but I’m afraid I don’t see it. Yes, there is humor in the obvious sexual symbolism of the killer stalking his nubile, negligee-clad victims with an electric drill, but any under-the-surface elements are just barely there and unworthy of serious study.

What did capture my thought, however, was that this movie and its sequels (which played theaters after the slasher genre had waned) are the only slasher flicks Roger Corman ever made (and they’re so campy that it’s a stretch to call them horror). It seems odd that Corman, who definitely had his finger on the pulse of what was popular and what he could sell, never really jumped on the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher-movie bandwagon, outside of these movies.

It's possible the urbane Corman found the concept tasteless, I suppose, but it doesn't seem like a dozen dead teenagers would stand between him and making big bucks (and the fact that few slasher movies present material as tasteless as HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). Brinke Stevens is memorable as a victim attacked in the girls’ locker room. You can see ANDROID director Aaron Lipstadt, the film’s co-producer, pressed into service as an actor delivering pizza.

Sisters Courtney (a pre-WINGS Crystal Bernard) and Valerie (Cindy Eilbacher), who survived the original 1982 SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, are back in the first Concorde sequel, released as SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II in 1987. Valerie has gone mad and is living in a mental institution, while Courtney, who suffers from PTSD nightmares, has joined an all-girl band with her high school friends. The weekend of Courtney’s 17th birthday, she and her bandmates Amy (Kimberly McArthur), Sally (Heidi Kozak), and Sheila (Juliette Cummins) head to Sheila’s parents’ condo for an unsupervised weekend of rocking out and making out with Courtney’s studly new beau Matt (Patrick Lowe).

Everyone falls prey to a ridiculous ‘50s rocker killer dressed in black leather and carrying an electric guitar with a huge power drill into it. The screenplay by director Deborah Brock (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL FOREVER) makes no dramatic or logical sense, breaking up the narrative for a series of unwanted music videos and ludicrous dream sequences ripped off from the Freddy Krueger movies. Brock plays up the camp factor, so that there’s no tension or suspense, just a bunch of scenes of teenagers running around a condo screaming while the cackling killer chases them and spouts dumb one-liners.

Brock, who earned her spot in the director’s chair by working in post-production on earlier Roger Corman movies, went on to direct two more Concorde filmes, neither of which is thought of highly. Bernard had done a lot of TV and YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE before snaring the starring role in SPM II, and is pretty good in the role. Playmate McArthur is surprisingly good, and redhead Cummins (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING) supplies the requisite nudity. Musically, the film is impressive with the girl band providing some bouncy numbers and Richard Cox an imaginative score. Corman got SPM II into a few theaters, though many more people saw it on Embassy Home Entertainment’s VHS release.

Roger Corman managed to get SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III into a few 1990 theaters, but it’s unlikely it entertained many people there or on home video. Keeping consistent with the first two SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs, SPM III was written and directed by women who do little to distinguish it from any random slasher flick directed by a man.

Cute Malibu teen Jackie (Keely Christian) invites a few friends over for a party while her folks are out of town. Director Sally Mattison (her only film) and screenwriter Catherine Cyran (who wrote, produced, and/or directed two handfuls of Corman movies) set up red herrings with a creepy stranger in black (Yan Birch) who watches the teens play beach volleyball and Jackie’s bent neighbor (Michael Harris) who spies on the girls through his telescope.

SPM III is a marked improvement over its predecessor, if only because Mattison takes the thrills seriously and actually generates a bit of tension during her kills. The tone is much darker than the earlier movies, the deaths are grimmer and more brutal, and the killer has a solid motivation for his actions. SPM III is not a good movie, though it gets props for casting B queens Maria Ford and Hope Marie Carlton, but its doses of sex, violence, and mystery may surprise those who were unimpressed with the other SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs.

While none of the MASSACREs are very good films, considering Shout Factory has plastered its 2-disc Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD set with commentaries for each film, still galleries, trailers, and a one-hour documentary covering all three films, for the price, the set may be worth picking up. It's nice that many of those involved with the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs look back fondly on their experience (though not Crystal Bernard, of course), and directors Jones, Brock, and Mattison (who's now a Philadelphia attorney) are glad to talk about their films.

Most astonishing is the ageless Hope Marie Carlton, the Andy Sidaris B-movie vet who played one of the SPM III victims and barely looks a day over 30 in her interview on the documentary.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Scary On CBS

Way before David Letterman brought his late-night show to CBS--heck, even before LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was on NBC--the network filled the hours after the late local news with something called THE CBS LATE MOVIE. Often THE CBS LATE MOVIE was no movie at all, but rather reruns of old shows playing under that banner.

But sometimes a movie was involved, as you can see in this CBS LATE MOVIE opening from sometime in 1980. In keeping with the season, this episode had some spooky stuff. First, a 1974 episode of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER starring Darren McGavin as a sardonic spookchaser. Then, one of the scariest TV-movies ever made, Tom Gries' 1976 chiller HELTER SKELTER, a shuddering docudrama of the Charles Manson murder trial.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

No Man's Slave And No Man's Whore

Shout Factory is really cranking out the Roger Corman Cult Classics DVDs now. The latest, which is available only from the Shout Factory website, teams a pair of sword-and-sandal programmers that Corman produced in Argentina in the 1980s. The first was the final Corman film to go out under the New World Pictures banner, while the other feature was released by his Concorde Pictures.

THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS was intended to star Chuck Norris as KAIN OF DARK PLANET, but ended up being shot back-to-back with DEATHSTALKER, with which it shares sets. On a strange desert planet orbiting twin suns, a warrior named Kain (David Carradine, who played a warrior named Caine on TV’s KUNG FU) enters a tiny village ruled by two opposing tyrants: Zeg (Luke Askew) and Balcaz (William Marin). Both claim ownership of the town’s only well.

The village peasants live only for the few drops of water provided them by whichever ruler controls the water that day. Kain, thinking this process is not very fair, decides to pit both sides against each other, hiring out his sword to both surreptitiously and plotting against them until all the bad guys are dead.

The other half of the title is a bit of a cheat. The alleged sorceress is actually a princess, Naja (Maria Socas), who does precious little sorceressing. Actually none, but she does walk around naked a lot. A lot. As in always. Maybe Corman filmed in Argentina because it was easier to find actresses there willing to perform nudity. Socas, who was also in DEATHSTALKER II, is gorgeous, a good sport, and even willing to do stuntwork while nude. You can’t find actresses like that in Malibu.

THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS runs only 81 minutes, which is what it has going for it the most. Besides the laughable rubber monsters, the constant nudity, and the clumsy swordfighting, that is. Carradine isn’t trying very hard, but he is having a good time. Of course, I imagine it’s hard to be miserable when you’re pretending to mow down 200 Argentinean extras and staring at Maria Socas’ breasts all day.

Released to subpar box office in the spring of 1984, THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS was the last Corman production to be distributed by New World Pictures, which Corman had recently sold.

A year later, Corman created Concorde to release more junky films that were even cheaper than his New World output. One of those was BARBARIAN QUEEN, which is most notable for its statuesque star.

Anyone curious about the career of ‘80s B-movie queen Lana Clarkson, who was shot to death by pop music impresario Phil Spector in his Hollywood mansion in 2003, should start with BARBARIAN QUEEN.

As with CONAN THE BARBARIAN and a million other sword-and-sorcery movies, the titular Amethea (Clarkson) swears vengeance against the pillagers who wiped out her village and snatched her fiancé (Frank Zagarino). What else to do but grab a few warrior hotties, including Katt Shea (HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS) and Dawn Dunlap (FORBIDDEN WORLD), and storm the palace of the tyrannical king?

Aside from the sword-swinging violence and sweaty nude bodies, including Clarkson’s quite impressive one, there’s not much here, but with a running time of a mere 71 minutes (!), you don’t need much more. The highlight is definitely a bizarre torture sequence staged by director Hector Olivera (WIZARDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM) that straps a nude Clarkson to a rack with a dangling metal glove tickling her left nipple.

The 5’11” Clarkson was only about 22 years old when she made BARBARIAN QUEEN, and was such a stunning on-screen presence that she was asked to return in BARBARIAN QUEEN II. She’s quite likeable and good—beautiful, of course—handling the action scenes like a pro. Shea, who’s cute as the film’s comic sidekick, surprisingly became a prolific director, starting with Corman fare like STRIPPED TO KILL and advancing to studio features like THE RAGE: CARRIE 2.

Shout Factory did a bang-up job cleaning these two films up. Little care went into photographing them originally, but the anamorphic prints look terrific. Purists may have a problem with BARBARIAN QUEEN, which is shorn of about ten minutes of material, including gore and extra footage from the Clarkson torture sequences, that was visible in Vestron Video's long out-of-print VHS tape. However, the material is on the disc as a supplement.

No commentaries or documentaries, but trailers for several Corman productions are here, including those for THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS and BARBARIAN QUEEN. Might we see a BARBARIAN QUEEN II disc soon?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evil / Twice Dead

Shout Factory's latest in its way cool series of Roger Corman Cult Classics...well, neither film is a cult classic nor did Corman have a lot to do with them. But you could do a lot worse for a night of entertainment than watch THE EVIL and TWICE DEAD, both haunted house thrillers made a decade apart.

THE EVIL was one of director Gus Trikonis’ (THE SWINGING BARMAIDS) last feature films before entering a busy career in television. Released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1978 with an R rating, THE EVIL is a somewhat hokey haunted-house movie with ethereal spirits, floating people and objects, a thunderstorm, shutters that rattle in the night, a demonic dog, an invisible rapist, and other tried-and-true ghost-story gimmicks. It also piles up a decent body count using a cast of performers who should be quite familiar to fans of Crappy Movies.

The late Richard Crenna, a dependable leading man who bounced back and forth between television and features with aplomb and who starred in the laugh-tastic DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL the same year as THE EVIL, toplines as C.J. Arnold, a professor of psychology who rents a spooky old mansion as the site for his new drug rehabilitation center. In reality, Trikonis and producer Ed Carlin secured as their prime location a gorgeous 19th-century structure near Las Vegas, New Mexico called Montezuma Castle. It’s gigantic, dark, and creepy, giving Trikonis plenty of atmosphere to work with.

The place needs to be cleaned up, so C.J., along with his gorgeous wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet), recruits a small group of friends and students to spend the summer getting the place ready for business: physicist Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine) and his student/girlfriend Laurie (Mary Louise Weller, ANIMAL HOUSE); ex-junkie Felicia (Lynne Moody, one of the innocents sent to Robert Reed’s corrupt prison in NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY); pet lover Mary (Cassie Yates, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND); joker Pete (George O’Hanlon Jr., whose father was the voice of George Jetson); and handyman Dwight (Robert Viharo, star of BARE KNUCKLES).

Danger erupts almost immediately. Well, even before that, as a drunken handyman is incinerated by the furnace during the opening titles. After Crenna’s group arrives, all Hell—literally—breaks loose after C.J. accidentally unlocks a Doorway to Hell (where’s Lin Ye Tang when you need him?) hidden in the basement. The doors and shutters lock, the window glass becomes unbreakable, and there’s no way out of the house.

While agnostic C.J. tries to figure out a logical explanation for everything, various characters are murdered in creative ways—dog attack, electrocution, power saw, mud. Felicia is stripped to her underwear and battered about by an unseen force. Only Caroline has something resembling a clue, since she’s the only one who can see the ghost of the house’s previous resident as he shambles about.

Eventually, the survivors end up in the fog-filled basement pit, where they encounter none other than Satan himself (!), dressed in white and sitting atop a white throne in a white room (no black curtains) brimming with dry ice. You may be surprised to learn the Devil is fat and looks a lot like Victor Buono. Reportedly, some prints of THE EVIL are missing all Buono’s scenes, meaning, I guess, that Crenna and Pettet are able to slam the door to Hell and lock it without much of a hitch.

It’s true that the climax is a little silly, with Crenna forced to his knees in pain and Pettet leaping out of the fog to jam a pointy iron cross into the chest of a horned Buono, but, gee, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Ten years later, Corman released TWICE DEAD under his Concorde label. Whereas most low-budget horror was going directly to videocassette in 1988, Corman managed to squeeze TWICE DEAD--and his other films--into theaters, albeit regionally and rarely for more than a week or two.

The Cates family—dad Harry (Sam Melville from THE ROOKIES), mom Sylvia (Brooke Bundy from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels), son Scott (Tom Breznahan of THE BRAIN), and daughter Robin (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS’ lovely Jill Whitlow)—move into a spooky old house where an actor named Tyler Walker (HALLOWEEN 5’s Jonathan Chapin) committed suicide fifty years earlier.

Now, director Bert Dragin (SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE) and his co-writer Robert McDonnell could have taken this premise in fifty different directions, but I didn’t predict this one. Because Robin is the spitting image of Walker’s former lover, whose marriage to Harry’s uncle inspired the actor’s suicide, Walker’s spirit comes to life to kill a gang of extremely unmenacing punks who invade the Cates house one night while the parents are away.

This is a very slight thriller with some decent stunts and gore effects, though the plot doesn’t kick in until very late in the film. Chapin also plays one of the punks, which is an interesting idea. The script isn’t very good, and the intentional humor is lame. What’s unintentionally amusing is the flirty relationship between siblings Scott and Robin, probably because the cute performers were attracted to each other in real life.

I recognize the Cates’ house exterior from other low-budget movies, including Fred Olen Ray’s EVIL TOONS. Melville was a handsome, rugged guy similar to James Stacy (LANCER). He was occasionally playing the ex-husband of his ROOKIES co-star Kate Jackson in her SCARECROW AND MRS. KING series at the time TWICE DEAD was made, but died the year after its release at age 53.

Shout Factory produced the DVD with its usual aplomb, including a commentary track for each film. Walt Olsen moderates the tracks with his typical inanity, but the filmmakers involved do a decent job of providing information in an entertaining style. Trikonis, writer Donald Thompson, and cinematographer Mario DiLeo do the trick on THE EVIL; Trikonis knows his staff, but surprisingly knows little about THE EVIL's post-production and release. For TWICE DEAD, it's Dragin and Breznahan, both nice, smart guys, on the track, which is more entertaining than the film itself.

Other extras include theatrical and TV trailers for THE EVIL, trailers for other drive-in flicks (including THE TERROR WITHIN, an upcoming Roger Corman Cult Classic), and a new interview with Jill Whitlow, still dreamy in her 40s.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

No One Knows You're Up There

Believe it or not, writer/director Adam Green has not made the first chair-lift thriller. That would be the terrible 1978 made-for-TV SKI LIFT TO DEATH, and it’s safe to say Green has hurdled that bar by a wide margin.

The premise of FROZEN is terrific—three college students are stranded on a ski lift at night. Green’s wise decision to film it on an actual Utah mountain in the middle of winter, rather than try to fake it on a green-screen soundstage, will give you the shivers even in the comfort of your toasty living room.

Hey, what could happen to three pretty young people on a ski lift? Well, there’s frostbite, wolves, and pure panic, for starters. Green, whose direct-to-video slasher throwback HATCHET attracted enough admirers to spawn an unrated theatrically released sequel (HATCHET II, natch), knows how to milk the suspense for all its worth, including at least a couple of moments guaranteed to make you wince.

Surprisingly for a guy famous for slasher movies, FROZEN features hardly any gore and the most gruesome sequence is portrayed almost entirely with sound effects providing more terror than any on-camera staging could elicit. Editing by Ed Marx (JEEPERS CREEPERS) and scoring by Andy Garfield (HATCHET) are as proficient as Green’s direction.

I wish he had chosen a stronger cast though. Emma Bell (GRACIE) and Kevin Zegers (WRONG TURN) as a couple and Ashmore (X-MEN’s Iceman) as Zegers’ childhood friend and current third wheel are competent but not capable of sustaining a three-hander. However, with Green to guide them, they’re good enough, and so is FROZEN as a surprise sleeper.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Old School American Horror

Anyone who grew up reading Fangoria during the 1980s knows the name John Carl Buechler. Not only did he fabricate gut-churning makeup gore effects for horror movies like THE PREY, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, and FROM BEYOND, he also directed several, most notably FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD.

Now Buechler is back in the slasher movie biz, and Adam Green has him. Green’s first horror feature, the strikingly titled HATCHET, made enough racket among genre fans to earn him enough juice to get its 2010 sequel released in theaters without an MPAA rating.

HATCHET knows its inspirations, the lurid blood-soaked slasher movies of the ‘80s, quite well, and features a hideous murderer to rival Jason Voorhees himself. And I mean that quite literally, as Green has enlisted stuntman Kane Hodder, the only actor to play Jason in more than one FRIDAY THE 13TH movie (including Buechler’s), to portray HATCHET madman Victor Crowley, a malformed madman who really, really hates it when strangers enter his swamp.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that HATCHET is one of the best-acted and funniest slasher films ever made. The cast, anchored by gangly Joel Moore (BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT) as a just-dumped Everyman and Deon Richmond (SCREAM 3) as his jiveass best friend, are terrific playing characters whom, for once, you actually don’t want to see get dismembered. The actors are likable and appear to be having a good time with the humor in Green’s screenplay, which takes the meanspiritedness out of the murders.

The simple plot finds college students Moore and Richmond; middle-aged couple Patrika Darbo and Richard Riehle; amateur pornographer Joel Murray (more than twenty years after starring in MOVING VIOLATIONS) and models Joleigh Fioravanti and Mercedes McNab (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) providing the nudity; Asian Cajun tour guide Parry Shen; and mysterious beauty Tamara Feldman stranded in the Louisiana swamp where, legend has it, dwells Hodder’s Crowley, a combination of baghead Jason from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, the mutant from THE FUNHOUSE, and THE BURNING’s Cropsey.

Buechler’s practical gore effects are juicy and refreshingly free of CGI enhancement, and Green is quite good at setting up the scares, though the midnight swamp always appears a little too bright. The filmmakers also know their audience, who will enjoy not only the cameos by horror movie favorites Tony Todd (CANDYMAN), Robert Englund (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), Joshua Leonard (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), and even Buechler as the Crazy Ralph character, but also the kills that pay homage to the director’s favorite movies (Hodder pounds one victim Jason-style against a mausoleum with Adam Green’s name on it).

Sunday, October 03, 2010

There's Something About Mandy

As of this writing, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, a Texas-lensed throwback with a recognizable American star (Maxim cover girl Amber Heard of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and the STEPFATHER remake), has received neither a theatrical nor home video release in the United States. It isn’t the most original or the goriest horror movie I’ve seen lately, but it delivers some wit and quality shocks and deserves to be seen by more people.

(Note: ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE joins THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, TRICK ‘R’ TREAT, and FROZEN, to name just a few recent shockers that have had difficulties reaching the wide audience they deserve. Have studios lost their nerve or just their ability to recognize a potential moneymaking horror picture when they see one?)

Mandy Lane (Heard) is a high school junior, a Good Girl whose boobs grew over the summer, which found her a new group of friends, mainly narcissists and skanks, while leaving her previous best friend Emmet (TWILIGHT’s Michael Welch) wanting. One of her new posse, Red (Aaron Himelstein), invites her to join the gang at his family’s ranch house for a weekend of drinking, drugging, and, as far as the boys are concerned, popping Mandy’s cherry.

However, since director Jonathan Levine and writer Jacob Forman are making their feature debuts by mining ‘80s slasher movies and not teen sex comedies, instead of being publicly humiliated in their efforts to bed Amber, the boys (and the girls, for that matter) are killed. The killer’s identity isn’t much of a surprise, nor does Levine intend it to be, and MANDY LANE’s biggest problem is that the murders don’t happen quickly enough. The only two killings in the film’s first hour are, naturally, the couple that has sex.

Another failing is that none of the young characters are particularly sympathetic, though my guess is Levine and Forman intended this. By focusing on hang-ups typical of 21st century teenagers, such as body image, the filmmakers appear to be making a statement about disenchanted teens.

More important, Levine is nudging teen horror movies themselves. Not with his elbow in your ribs the way Wes Craven did in SCREAM—in fact, MANDY LANE exhibits startlingly little humor—but by taking one of the genre’s most popular clichés and spinning it sideways in a memorable third-act plot twist.

The film’s benefits outweigh the deficits however. Heard delivers a nicely shaded performance, and Anson Mount (co-star of Dick Wolf’s CONVICTION TV series) is ruggedly heroic as a hunky ranch hand. Much of the terror takes place outdoors during daylight, unusual for the genre, and is nicely shot by Darren Genet (KINGS). I also grinned at the witty Bobby Vinton song that concludes the picture. Gore is dished out conservatively, which may bum some horror fans, though Levine’s flagrant portrayal of drug use and sexuality better make the film’s point.

Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the former heads of Miramax, bought ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE in 2006, but sat on it after their GRINDHOUSE failed at the box office. A year later, The Weinstein Co. sold the film to Senator Entertaiment, which announced plans to release it domestically in early 2008. That never happened, and as of the fall of 2010, MANDY LANE is still unavailable in North America, though it has been seen in nearly every other market worldwide.


This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

The entire NBC run of UNSUB was only about eight one-hour episodes. It was produced by Stephen J. Cannell during the period in which he was shooting everything in Vancouver. The production values of Cannell's shows were never among TV's best in the first place, and the cinematography, sets, etc. looked even worse once he got to Canada. UNSUB was a relatively decent series, however, and quite unusual among Cannell's oeuvre.

UNSUB (the title stands for "Unknown Subject," as indicated in the ad seen here) is basically C.S.I. MEETS MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody at CBS remembered UNSUB, which aired quickly and quietly on NBC in 1989, when the original C.S.I.: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION was created. And if you're thinking that's a stretch, keep in mind another current CBS crime drama, COLD CASE, is an almost exact ripoff of a current Canadian cop show titled COLD SQUAD.

UNSUB starred David Soul, the STARSKY & HUTCH star who was still an in-demand television lead in 1989 (he had recently starred opposite Rock Hudson in the NBC miniseries WORLD WAR III), as the leader of an elite group of federal crimefighters who investigated serial killings all over the country. Among his supporting cast were the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE), seen left in the ad, as a crusty old ex-homicide cop, and Kent McCord (ADAM-12), to the right of Soul, as a forensic scientist. Kevin Spacey guest-starred in one episode, "Clean Slate," in a dual role as twin brothers, one "good" who was dying of cancer and one "bad" who was blowing people up. UNSUB's best outing is probably "And the Dead Shall Rise to Condemn Thee," in which the late Jason Bernard played a priest who may be involved in murder.

Surprisingly, UNSUB was recently released on DVD as part of PRIME TIME CRIME: THE STEPHEN J. CANNELL COLLECTION. For not much money, you can pick up the entire runs of four shortlived Cannell series: UNSUB, MISSING PERSONS, PALACE GUARD, and BROKEN BADGES. Plus, sample episodes from other Cannell shows including HUNTER, THE COMMISH (starring Michael Chiklis), THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, and SILK STALKINGS. It's definitely worth the price, and is a terrific Cannell starter set.

Random TV Title: Hawaii Five-0 '98

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

Before the current HAWAII FIVE-0 remake on CBS, Stephen J. Cannell tried one in 1998. The original series starring Jack Lord ran from 1968 to 1980, and CBS thought there still was some life left in the concept. So, the network hired Cannell and Kim LeMasters to write a pilot and shoot it in Hawaii.

Russell Wong (BLACK SASH) and Gary Busey (!) starred as the new heads of Five-0, who are tasked with finding the black-gloved assassin who took a shot at Danny "Danno" Williams (James MacArthur), who replaced the late Steve McGarrett (Lord) as the head of Five-0 and is now the governor of Hawaii. Also appearing, in a very nice touch, were the surviving actors of the original show, including Kam Fong (whose Chin Ho Kelly was killed off in Season 10, but what the hell), Zulu, Harry Endo, Moe Keale, and Herman Wedemeyer.

Bradford May (DARKMAN II and III) directed the pilot, and what I saw of it (only about half) was not too bad. The writing was a little stiff and old-fashioned, but the concept still held water, and Busey and Wong likely could have made it work.

For whatever reason, CBS didn't pick up the show, and the 1998 HAWAII FIVE-0 pilot never aired. The opening titles were a nice throwback to the original series, including a repeat of the famous shot of Lord standing on that hotel balcony. I don't know who rearranged Morton Stevens' classic theme, but I'm guessing it was Mike Post.

Random TV Title: Black Sheep Squadron

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

I'll take you back to World War II for BLACK SHEEP SQUADRON, which was originally entitled BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP. Robert Conrad (THE WILD WILD WEST) starred as real-life war hero Pappy Boyington, who led his ragtag squad of misfit bomber pilots into one mission after another, just so long as the ratings held up. Great supporting cast, and most of them went on to star in other shows.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Random TV Title: Hunter

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

I think 75% of the success of any Stephen J. Cannell series was casting. While he may not always have found the best actors, Cannell almost always found likable performers who meshed well on-camera. With his DIRTY HARRY copy, NBC's HUNTER, the producer wisely found a charming and incredibly beautiful counterpart to balance out the rough, gruff loner cop with a big gun.

Former football star Fred Dryer (who came thisclose to landing the lead in CHEERS) starred as badass L.A. cop Rick Hunter, and Stepfanie Kramer--for my money, the sexiest woman on television in those days--was his partner, the equally tough but soft Dee Dee McCall, nicknamed "The Brass Cupcake." HUNTER was a very violent show, and if you're a fan of flying bullets, flying cars, and flying punches, it was the show for you.

HUNTER ran seven seasons on NBC, and was so fondly remembered that the network brought it back in 2003. First, as a TV-movie, then as a regular weekly series! Unfortunately, NBC buried it in a tough timeslot, and it was quickly canceled after about three episodes. But Kramer still looked fab.

Random TV Title: The Greatest American Hero

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

Next to THE ROCKFORD FILES, this is probably my favorite Stephen J. Cannell series. Though when I recently rewatched the entire show via Anchor Bay's DVDs, I notice that the quality really started to drop midway through the second season. Perhaps the writing just couldn't keep up with the high concept?

Curly-haired William Katt (CARRIE) starred as mild-mannered L.A. high school teacher Ralph Hinkley, who became a (very) reluctant superhero when he and jingoistic FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) encountered a flying saucer that bestowed upon Ralph a red costume and cape. With Ralph's lawyer girlfriend Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) joining the team, the three teamed up to fight bank robbers, car thieves, arsonists, and occasionally a foreign spy or two.

It's a great premise (the pilot was nominated for a writing Emmy), and the three stars played the hell out of it. Particularly Culp, who is friggin' brilliant all the way through. Apparently he clashed at first with his younger co-stars, but the team had it out, and he, Katt, and Sellecca became friends, which shows in their on-screen chemistry.

THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO was a terrific series (at least for awhile) and one I'm amazed no one has remade yet. Its theme song by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer was performed by Joey Scarbury and shot all the way to #2 on the Billboard charts.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Random TV Title: Tenspeed & Brown Shoe

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

My Stephen J. Cannell tribute continues with one of the prolific producer's flops. Well, in the ratings, if not with critics, who loved this quirky crime drama. And it really operated under the same formula that made HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK a hit just a few years later: two talented leads with great chemistry solving crimes with action and humor. Ben Vereen, a terrific song-and-dance man just coming off ROOTS, and Jeff Goldblum were the stars. At the time, nobody knew who Goldblum was, and I suspect ABC viewers of 1979 just thought he was too weird to watch every week.

I think all the themes to Cannell's shows were composed by Mike Post or Post with Pete Carpenter.

Random TV Title: Hardcastle & McCormick

This is a rerun of a 2009 post in tribute to the late Stephen J. Cannell.

While it isn't the best show to boast Cannell's name as an executive producer, HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK may be the best example of his patented formula that led to a lot of hits. It boasts incredible chemistry between its leading actors, tons of squealing tires and daring car stunts, sharp production values, an over-reliance on clumsy insert shots, and a kickass theme song.

As you may have ascertained, H&C starred TV veteran Brian Keith (FAMILY AFFAIR) as a retired judge with a swanky Malibu estate and Daniel Hugh Kelly (CUJO) as a reformed car thief who teamed up to fight crime together as vigilantes. Many of Cannell's high concepts don't hold water if you think about them too long, but viewers were usually too involved with the action and humor.

When Season 2 started, The Powers That Be decided to dump the kickass "Drive" song and cut a new main title that focused on the relationship between Hardcastle and McCormick, rather than the action. Joey Scarbury, who had a massive Top 40 hit with the theme to THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO in 1981, was brought in to sing the new theme, "Back to Back."

The public was outraged (I know I was disappointed in the loss of "Drive"), and by the time the show's third and final season hit the ABC airwaves, the original song was back with still another main title that attempted a balance between the leads' friendship and the stunts.

Strangely, unlike most of Cannell's series, HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK is not yet available on DVD in the U.S., though there is a Canadian set offering all three seasons.

So Long, Stephen J. Cannell

One of television's great writer/producers has passed away.

Stephen J. Cannell, a name recognizable to anyone who watched prime-time television in the 1980s, died yesterday at his Pasadena, California home of complications of melanoma at the age of 69.

Some of the series created or co-created by Cannell: THE A-TEAM, HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK, THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, HUNTER, BARETTA, 21 JUMP STREET, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. And those are (some of) the hits! I'm leaving out shows that didn't go past a season or two (such as TENSPEED & BROWN SHOE, THE ROUSTERS, UNSUB, and STINGRAY) and earlier shows on which he worked as a staff writer, freelance writer, and/or story editor, like ADAM-12 and TOMA.

In other words, Cannell was damn good at his job, one of the best there has ever been. His work as a screenwriter was particularly strong with a strength for quirky dialogue and distinct characterization. Yes, many of his shows were formula TV, but that's what the networks were (and are) buying, and Cannell was among the best at it.

In tribute, I plan to rerun some old Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot posts I've written about Cannell and some of his shows. Although he had basically retired from television, Cannell was still an active novelist and had appeared occasionally as an actor on ABC's CASTLE.