Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mafia Death Trap

So here Robert Briganti is, just minding his own business, relaxing in the Maine woods with his elderly new friend Lem Perkins, when a couple of Mafia "pigs" take a potshot at him and accidentally kill Perkins instead. This makes Briganti, known among Mob circles as the Assassin, mad. Really mad. Mad enough to go to Boston and wipe out the local capo, Franco Toriello, and his entire organization.

So goes BOSTON BUST-OUT, the third and final Assassin paperback, all published by Dell in 1973. 1973 was also the year author Peter McCurtin began writing novels about the Marksman for Belmont Tower, and it's clear that the Assassin books were intended for the Marksman, as both characters have the same origin and the same bloody concept.

BOSTON is practically plotless: just a series of kidnaps, beatings, and shootings as Briganti kills his way through Toriello's entire family. Barely a hero by this point, Briganti even snatches the old man's young girlfriend, sleeps with her, and sends her back to Toriello with false information that he knows will kill her. Coldblooded mofo, that Assassin.

As these things go, BOSTON BUST-OUT isn't bad. It's maybe a little long at 192 pages, but it ain't exactly packed with a lot of big words. As entertaining as it is, it's easy to see why the Assassin didn't last. He isn't an original or terribly interesting character, and there's nothing about him that stands out among the Sharpshooters and the Marksmen and the Liquidators that were competing for eyeballs. Pretty good cover though, especially the blue background that makes the illustration really pop.

Monday, June 27, 2011

His True Story Can Be Told

Roger Corman produced this 20th Century Fox exploitation film that plays very loosely with the established facts of Al Capone’s life. 44-year-old Ben Gazzara plays 19-year-old Al Capone as the film begins, and when John Cassavetes (HUSBANDS) in a one-day cameo as Frankie Yale calls Gazzara “kid,” I dare you not to snicker. Corman and director Steve Carver, who previously made BIG BAD MAMA and THE ARENA for Corman’s New World Pictures, are more concerned with getting sex and violence on-screen as cheaply as possible, and as a titillating drive-in picture, CAPONE works pretty well.

The screenplay is by Howard Browne, a very fine novelist (THIN AIR) and TV writer (MAVERICK) who also penned Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, footage from which is recycled here. It rushes very quickly from Capone’s apprenticeship with Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino) in the Chicago mob through his arrest for income tax evasion and eventual death from syphilis. Carver makes plenty of stops for period car chases and bloody Tommy gun shootouts on the backlot streets that unconvincingly serve as Chicago. One early scene set in rural Joliet features the familiar dirt roads, brown grass, and mountainous terrain of the Fox Ranch (now Malibu Creek State Park).

Corman assembled a heckuva good cast, who seem more interested in their paychecks than the material. The acting is comically bad, particularly Gazzara’s hilariously unrestrained performance, complete with bulging cheeks and foot-long cigars. Sylvester Stallone (between THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH and DEATH RACE 2000) is Frank Nitti, who outlives Capone in this version. Susan Blakely, just prior to heating up the small screen in RICH MAN POOR MAN, is Capone’s mistress Iris Crawford. Also with Royal Dano, Frank Campanella, John Orchard, Martin Kove, John Davis Chandler, Carmen Argenziano, Robert Phillips, George Chandler, Beach Dickerson, and Dick Miller.

CAPONE is not part of Shout Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics series, apparently because it was made for Fox and not New World. Shout Factory, as usual, did a terrific job packaging the film for DVD, providing it in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Among the extras are two trailers, two television spots, and the trailer for THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE. Even better is the audio commentary with Nathaniel Thompson moderating Steve Carver. The director offers some nice stories involving the actors, such as the innovative ways in which good friends Guardino and Gazzara would try to upstage one another, and working on a tight four-week schedule and budget on soundstages and backlots at Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Paramount.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Somebody Had Bitch For Breakfast

The most frightening thing about MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID is knowing how many of its viewers are forty-year-old men sitting home in their underwear fast-forwarding to the Debbie Gibson/Tiffany catfight scene. The only reason this movie exists is because former teen pop singer Gibson (“Only in My Dreams”) had starred in The Asylum’s MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, and you know somebody at the studio or at SyFy thought, “Hey, wait a minute…what if we hired the other late-1980s teen singer, Tiffany (‘I Think We’re Alone Now’), to co-star in a sequel?”

Since both women had already posed nude for PLAYBOY, putting Tiffany and Debbie together in a cheap monster movie does, honestly, seems like a good way to attract eyeballs to SyFy on a Saturday evening. To little surprise, when MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID premiered on SyFy in January 2011, it drew more than 2.3 million viewers. That probably means we can expect Kylie Minogue to fight a giant Gila monster in the next Asylum sequel.

Debbie is Nikki Riley, an eco-terrorist who releases a bunch of pythons into the swamp, where they grow to massive size and start eating people. Tiffany is Terry O’Hara, a park ranger whose genius idea to fight the snakes is to feed steroids to the alligators, so they’ll grow to massive size and eat the snakes. How well do you think that plan works?

Both stars get to wear tiny shorts, sing on the soundtrack, and call each other “bitch” (many, many times). They’re also pathetic but game actresses who wink their way through the script’s in-jokes about their musical careers. No one is taking this movie seriously, particularly the visual effects supervisors, who crap out half-baked CGI work that looks like a six-year-old did it in Microsoft Paint and is less convincing than the Reptilicus puppet of the 1960s. Really, whoever created these effects should be embarrassed.

So should director Mary Lambert, who once was something of a big deal (PET SEMATARY), not that you would guess from her clumsy staging here. Surprisingly, veteran soap star A Martinez (SANTA BARBARA) is working hard to create a performance, and THE WEST WING’s Kathryn Joosten provides wry humor. Micky Dolenz, playing himself (!), is beyond being embarrassed by this point in his career. It was a nice surprise to see Kristen Wilson, the slinky host of Comedy Central’s ‘90s series STAND-UP STAND-UP, make an appearance. Griffith Park, the L.A. Arboretum, and Bronson Canyon play the Everglades.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Do-It-Yourself A-Bombs

The Death Merchant is as violently death-obsessed as ever in his 19th adventure: ARMAGEDDON, USA!, published by Pinnacle in Our Bicentennial Year 1976. Author Joseph Rosenberger, who actually wrote all of the Death Merchant novels without passing them off to ghosts, was one of men's adventure fiction's most idiosyncratic writers. Considering the lengthy passages of graphic gunplay and violence and the frequent proselytizing performed by his leading man, there's no mistaking a Rosenberger chapter for anyone else's.

ARMAGEDDON, USA! has a pretty good though not terribly original plot. A right-wing organization called The Sons and Daughters of the Stars and Stripes have hidden atomic bombs in three U.S. cities and promise to explode them unless the President resigns. Based near St. Louis, Missouri, Richard Camellion and his CIA team (which includes one woman) race against their deadline to track down the SDSS' leader, elderly nutbag H.G. Motts, and find out which cities are targeted for destruction. Rosenberg delivers a nice twist in the form of Motts' airtight backup plan involving goons hired to set off the bombs manually in case of government interference, but they think they're just exploding arson devices!

If you're read a Death Merchant novel or just my earlier reviews of Death Merchant novels, you're aware of Rosenberger's penchant for drawn-out action scenes that flamboyantly describe in almost fetishistic detail the number of ways the human body can be destroyed. ARMAGEDDON, USA! has more going on between the violent interludes than usual, including a couple of long dialogue scenes in which Camellion preaches anti-religion views presumably belonging to Rosenberger.

It has been said that Rosenberger was using the Death Merchant series to parody the simplistic action series dotting the literary landscape during the 1970s, such as Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan books, but I'm not buying it. If it's satire, it's too clever for me to pick up on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dirty Dolls Of Devil's Island

Roger Corman didn’t invent the women-in-prison genre, but there’s little doubt the three movies his New World Pictures released in 1971 and 1972 were influential. All three were filmed on location in the Philippines using sexy young unknowns looking for a big break. One of them, Pam Grier, who appeared in all three and made her film debut in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, parlayed their box office success into a career as the top female action star of the 1970s. This week, Shout Factory released the trio—THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and WOMEN IN CAGES—on a 2-DVD set as part of its amazing Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series.

THE BIG DOLL HOUSE was only the second film produced by New World and was an immediate smash. Director Jack Hill (COFFY), screenwriter Don Spencer (SWEET SUGAR), and executive producer Corman basically created the new style of women-in-prison picture with this fast-paced mixture of violence, nudity, feminism, and social commentary. Judy Brown (THE MANHANDLERS) has the leading role as red-haired Collier, who is tossed into a crummy cell in a prison in the Philippines along with brassy blonde Alcott (Roberta Collins), black lesbian Grear (Grier, who also performed the theme song), political prisoner Bodine (PETTICOAT JUNCTION’s Pat Woodell), and junkie Harrad (Brooke Mills). Food fights, shower scenes, fights, seductions, and kinky tortures abound until the prisoners finally bust out and get revenge against sadistic warden Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer) and loony head guard Lucian (Kathryn Loder).

Although the subject matter sounds grim, Hill directs with wit, using comic-book-style wipes between scenes and camping up the more violent material (no blood is seen) to take the sting out of it. The leading actresses are not just beautiful and willing to disrobe on camera, but they also appear to “get” what Hill is aiming for and adjust their performances accordingly. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is pure fantasy with many iconic scenes, lines (“Get it up or I’ll cut it off!”), and images (Brown in cutoffs firing a pair of burp guns from the hip) that inspired a whole slew of women’s prison pictures, including Hill’s pseudo-sequel, THE BIG BIRD CAGE.

By the time Corman and Hill got around to making the follow-up to DOLL HOUSE a year later, the market had been saturated with women’s prison movies that filled the screen with nudity and degradation. Hill’s solution was to send up the genre and pack even more humor into the movie than DOLL HOUSE had. Thus, the delightfully pulpy THE BIG BIRD CAGE.

Once again, beautiful women wearing very little clothing are imprisoned in a hellhole in the Philippines. Grier returns as a different character, Blossom, an armed robber who gets tossed into the clink with innocent bystander Terry (THE PRICE IS RIGHT model Anitra Ford), tough black Mickie (Carol Speed), wisecracking Bull (Teda Bracci), tall Karen (Karen McKevic), and sex-starved Carla, whom I believe was intended to be played by DOLL HOUSE’s Roberta Collins, but was instead essayed by blond Candice Roman, who looks and acts exactly like her. Sid Haig also returns from DOLL HOUSE as a revolutionary named Django who breaks his lover Blossom out of prison.

Given more money and more time for the sequel, Hill provides the fast-paced action and nudity the genre required, but with a few stylish twists. For instance, all the guards at the prison are gay men, which not only turns the cliché of lesbian prison matrons upside down, but also becomes a source of politically incorrect (but not tasteless) humor. The centerpiece of BIRD CAGE, however, is the title prop, an intriguing three-story contraption that ostensibly serves as a sugar mill, but is really more of a large visual gag.

During the year between the release of DOLL HOUSE and the production of BIRD CAGE, Corman contracted Filipino filmmaker Gerardo de Leon (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND) to make another women-in-prison quickie. Grier, who performed so well in DOLL HOUSE, starred as a ruthless gay prison matron named Alabama in WOMEN IN CAGES.

For this depraved drive-in movie, Corman cast Judy Brown and Roberta Collins from DOLL HOUSE as Grier’s co-stars, along with Jennifer Gan (NAKED ANGELS) as new fish Jeff. This simp is framed for heroin possession by her weasely pimp boyfriend and sent to Alabama’s jungle jail. Mess with Alabama, and you get sent to her “playpen,” where her methods of torture include whipping, a spinning wheel, and stone boots into which a naked inmate is strapped over a flaming brazier. As if Jeff doesn’t have it bad enough, one of her cellmates, junkie Stoke (Collins), has been hired by her weasely pimp boyfriend to kill her.

For sure, de Leon knows how to deliver the goods that drive-in audiences were looking for. WOMEN IN CAGES offers de rigueur amounts of nudity, catfights, brutality, and racial conflict. But it also lacks the humor of the Jack Hill duo, and because de Leon is a less insightful filmmaker than Hill (to be fair, almost everyone working in the genre was), WOMEN IN CAGES is much less interesting. Gan’s character is too dumb to root for, and the padded climax wears out its welcome.

Grier, although obviously beautiful with unbeatable screen presence, is miscast as the villain. She hadn’t developed enough as an actress by this point to stretch in a role that required more than her own natural charms. Collins handles a more dramatic role than she was used to just fine, but playing a part with no humor in it took a big arrow out of the talented comedienne’s thespian quiver. Top-billed Brown appears to be having a nice time with her tongue in her cheek.

There’s no faulting the look of the film, which appears yanked off the cover of a FOR MEN ONLY or MEN’S ACTION “sweat magazine” cover. Production design (the playpen is really fantastic) and photography are surprisingly imaginative. The musical score consists of recycled Les Baxter cues from previous Roger Corman features.

All three movies look better than they ever have on home video and probably as least as good as their theatrical releases. Both DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE, in addition to trailers and TV spots, port over Jack Hill’s audio commentaries from the earlier New Horizons DVDs, which are in every way inferior to the new Shout Factory discs.

The most important supplement is FROM MANILA WITH LOVE, a 50-minute documentary that covers DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE. It’s a delight, featuring nearly every important creative force from the two films, including Corman, Hill, producer Jane Schaffer (who has rarely, if ever, been interviewed about these movies, to the best of my knowledge), actors Ford, Roman, Bracci, Brown, and Haig, and writer James Gordon White (THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT), who apparently wrote the first draft of DOLL HOUSE and brought it to Hill before it was rewritten by Don Spencer, who receives sole screenplay credit. The late Roberta Collins also appears courtesy of earlier interview footage taken from an unknown source. Pam Grier, who reportedly wanted more remuneration than Shout Factory was able to provide for her participation, is noticeably absent.

It’s an old story by now, but one worth repeating. Shout Factory is doing a helluva job packaging its Roger Corman collection, and this edition featuring THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and WOMEN IN CAGES is no exception.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Going (Not Very) Berserk

SCTV stars John Candy, Joe Flaherty, and Eugene Levy made this scattershot Canadian comedy the same year Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas brought their Great White North characters to STRANGE BREW.

GOING BERSERK, which was written by Dana Olsen (THE ‘BURBS) and director David Steinberg (PATERNITY), would likely had been much funnier had it been penned by its stars, who each won two Emmys for writing SCTV NETWORK 90 shows. Perhaps it wasn’t developed specifically for Candy, Levy, and Flaherty, who look lost.

The closest that GOING BERSERK gets to reminding fans of SCTV is a pair of parodies that would have probably been rejected by the show: a kung fu spoof (a dead horse after KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE’s brilliant “A Fistful of Yen”) and a meanspirited updating of FATHER KNOWS BEST (that features Elinor Donahue!). At least these setpieces break up the hamfisted plot, which stars Candy as John Bourgignon, who runs an unsuccessful limousine service with his best pal Chick Leff (Flaherty).

John’s impending marriage to Nancy (THE WONDER YEARS’ Alley Mills), the daughter of presidential candidate Ed Reese (Pat Hingle), is endangered by Reese’s nemesis, religious cultist/con artist Sun Yi Day (Richard Libertini). Day concocts a plan to brainwash John using a playing card and writhing aerobicizers into assassinating his new father-in-law on his wedding day.

GOING BERSERK’s major failure is a paucity of scenes of the SCTV actors together. Levy is sadly underused as a sleazy filmmaker named Salvatore DiPasquale, who hounds John to convince Reese to let him film the wedding. Flaherty is wasted in a straight part; he’s awkwardly included in one scene in which he literally does nothing but watch Hingle and Levy. Director David Steinberg, a standup comic with a Second City background, became a prolific TV director, but his work here is bad. His timing is haphazard, and he stages some sight gags out of camera range.

Candy survived this flop, moving on to scene-stealing supporting parts in SPLASH and VOLUNTEERS that turned him into one of the 1980s’ top comedy stars. Levy, also funny in SPLASH, joined Christopher Guest’s repertory company and acted in the first eight (!) AMERICAN PIE comedies. Flaherty starred in the ‘90s sitcoms MANIAC MANSION and POLICE ACADEMY: THE SERIES.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blazing Fury

An earlier version of this review was posted here four years ago. With the Warner Archive's release of the film on DVD-R, I have updated and reposted it.

DARK OF THE SUN is one of the greatest action movies of the 1960s, maybe of all time. Released in 1968, it's a beautifully photographed and edited action picture with seminal tough-guy performances by Rod Taylor (THE BIRDS) and former football pro Jim Brown (THE DIRTY DOZEN). And until the Warner Archive recently put it out on DVD-R, few of us ever got a chance to see it looking its best in its theatrical 2.35:1 ratio. Never before released on home video, DARK OF THE SUN had aired a handful of times on Turner Classic Movies, but never looking as good as it does now.

The mission is succinctly set early on. The new president of war-torn Congo, Mwamini Ubi (Calvin Lockhart), hires Captain Bruce Curry (Taylor) to put together some men and a five-car train and take them on a journey to rescue some citizens and, oh, yes, liberate $25 million in uncut diamonds too, while he's there. Curry, who never met a mercenary job he wouldn't take if the money was right, recruits his friend Ruffo (Brown), a Congolese educated at USC, ex-Nazi captain Henlein (Peter Carsten, dubbed by Paul Frees) and his troops, and alcoholic physician Wreid (Kenneth More). Curry has just three days in which to complete his mission, partially because of the invading Simba force—African nationalists ripping a bloody swath across the country, slaughtering men, women, and children, cutting them into small pieces, and feeding them to their enemies.

Director Jack Cardiff was better known as an Oscar-winning cinematographer (BLACK NARCISSUS). He made fifteen films as a director (several with Rod Taylor), but DARK OF THE SUN is his magnum opus. Excitingly lensed in Jamaica, DARK OF THE SUN is fast-paced and loaded with rich dialogue penned by journeymen Adrian Spies (HAUSER’S MEMORY) and Ranald MacDougall (CLEOPATRA), who adapted a Wilbur Smith novel. It's just 100 minutes long, and I wouldn't be surprised if plenty was left on the cutting-room floor. Yvette Mimieux's (Taylor's co-star in THE TIME MACHINE) role as a widow rescued in the nick of time from rampaging Simbas comes across as perfunctory, and it seems that more could have been done with actor Olivier Despax’s role as a cowardly French soldier.

On the other hand, I wouldn't want Cardiff to have sacrificed any of the blistering action, including epic-looking raids, a chainsaw fight, Taylor bouncing his Jeep down a rocky stream in pursuit of an enemy on a raft, and particularly a suspenseful sequence in which Brown and Taylor infiltrate a grisly Simba celebration. DARK OF THE SUN is one of the toughest, most violent adventures of the 1960s. Blood flows freely, and Carsten’s Nazi shoots down two children in one of the film’s most shocking scenes. French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier, who rarely worked on English-language films, composed a marvelous score that effortlessly buttresses Cardiff's crisp direction.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

We Want Our Lungs To Be Pink When They Fry Us

By far, the most popular characters created for the long-running Canadian comedy series SCTV were the dimwitted Canucks Bob and Doug McKenzie played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Never seen without toques on their heads and beers in their hand, these two knuckleheads evolved from two-minute television sketches to a North American fad fueled by magazine covers, a platinum comedy album, and this silly movie based, believe it or not, on HAMLET.

STRANGE BREW sends Bob and Doug to the Elsinore brewery, where they try to con the company into giving them free beer to make up for the mouse they allegedly found in one of their empties. Instead, they stumble upon a sinister plot by Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow!) and Claude Elsinore (Paul Dooley) to drive Claude’s niece Pam (Lynne Griffin), the brewery’s new owner, insane and use the beer to dispense a mind-control drug that will allow Smith to rule the world.

Okay, eh, like, it’s a dopey idea played for maximum giggles by Thomas and Moranis, a couple’a hosers with keen comic timing honed over several years of playing these characters on television. Although the SCTV sketches were totally improvised, STRANGE BREW’s script lets the two men develop a relationship between the brothers that goes beyond beer and back bacon and makes them heroes to root for.

The absurdist opening with the McKenzie brothers attending the premiere of their film-within-a-film, a ridiculously cheap and inept science fiction thriller, prepares you for a different kind of movie that settles into something straighter (more or less) after the opening titles (and theme song composed and sung by Ian Thomas, Dave’s brother). Still, it nicely ties the film to the Great White North sketches and certainly gets STRANGE BREW off to a howling start.

One of the more quotable comedies of the 1980s, STRANGE BREW was written by Thomas and Moranis after MIRACLE MILE’s Steve de Jarnatt took a couple of swings at the screenplay. It’s not only unusual in that its two stars co-directed it, but also because it’s a rare film shot in Canada for a primarily American audience that’s also set there. Angus MacInnes (WITNESS), SCTV’s Mary Charlotte Wilcox, and NATIONAL LAMPOON contributor Brian McConnachie are also in it. Score by Charles Fox. Onscreen title: THE ADVENTURES OF BOB & DOUG MCKENZIE: STRANGE BREW.

Moranis and Thomas left SCTV, which was still airing 90-minute episodes on NBC, to make STRANGE BREW. Two months after MGM released STRANGE BREW, John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Joe Flaherty released another “SCTV movie,” GOING BERSERK, which was a flop (and also had Paul Dooley in it).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hippie Professor Faces Murder Rap

JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE was a very good but low-rated lawyer series that aired on ABC from 1967 to 1969. Carl Betz, formerly the doting husband and father on THE DONNA REED SHOW, played a flashier character in Clinton Judd, a flamboyant, high-priced Texas attorney who flew all over the country defending his clients in cases that either involved a lot of media coverage or a controversial issue or both.

Very likely based on F. Lee Bailey, Judd was no Perry Mason. He didn't win all his cases, and the show sometimes felt ripped from the headlines with episodes about race relations, abortion, draft dodging, migrant workers, and care of the mentally ill.

The TV show also spawned two tie-in paperback novels, both written by Lawrence Louis Goldman, a screenwriter with credits including two Roger Corman movies, the fine sci-fier KRONOS, and many television series, including JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE. Goldman's first JUDD novel is true to the series, sending Judd and his young associate Ben Caldwell (played on TV by Stephen Young) to Ben's alma mater of Commonwealth University to defend an elderly professor accused of murder.

Dr. Leland Michales (sic), an old liberal who had Ben in some philosophy classes during the younger man's college days, is conducting legal and university-sanctioned experiments with LSD, which include dosing volunteers and monitoring their actions. When the experiments begin to garner the school negative publicity, the administration demands that Michales quit his research and return the LSD. When he refuses, the school suspends him. But when a female student falls from the college's bell tower to her death while under the influence of acid, Michales is arrested on a murder charge.

While much of the dialogue sounds a little dated today--the way many books, movies, and TV shows from the 1960s do--it also sounds reel coming from the mouths of Commonwealth's college students. As in the series, Ben does most of the legwork, interviewing witnesses and tracking down leads, leaving the dramatic courtroom shenanigans to his mentor Judd. At 222 pages, Goldman has plenty of room to develop the characters and the mystery plot, and his experience working on the TV show lets him adapt the qualities that made it an Emmy- and Edgar-winning series to the page.

Even if you aren't familiar with JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE, Goldman's novel is still an absorbing mystery and highly recommended. Goldman's followup, THE SECRET LISTENERS, was also published by Paperback Library in 1968.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shock By Incredible Shock

During the 1950s, drive-ins were flooded with science fiction programmers about giant insects rampaging cities and eating people. Only one of them came from Great Britain.

THE COSMIC MONSTER, a relative obscurity today that recently made its Turner Classic Movies premiere, was based on a British television serial penned by silent-movie actress Rene Ray, who later adapted it for a novel. Distributors Corporation of America, probably best known for releasing Edward D. Wood Jr.’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, unleashed the feature version, written by Paul Ryder (THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE), stateside on a double bill with THE CRAWLING EYE. Both films starred blustery American actor Forrest Tucker (F TROOP), who also starred in Hammer’s THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN while in England.

Even if every other part clicked, THE COSMIC MONSTER’s dire direction by Gilbert Gunn (WINGS OF MYSTERY) would probably still sink it. Stodgily paced and woodenly performed by actors struggling to find something in their flat characters to accentuate (even the normally avuncular Tucker appears deflated), the picture plods along from one technobabble conversation to the next while the viewer awaits something resembling the shocks promised in its poster (“Every second your pulse pounds, they grow foot by incredible foot!”). There must have been a lot of disappointed viewers leaving the theater in 1958.

Mad scientist Laird (Alec Mango) and his sensible assistant Gil Graham (Tucker) are performing magnetic experiments. One accidentally tears a hole in the ionosphere, which causes cosmic rays to turn a hobo into a psycho killer and cause insects to grow larger than humans. It takes about an hour into this 75-minute movie for the melee between man and bug to get going, and even then the action is badly staged, shot, and edited with macro photography of normal insects acting as unconvincing special effects.

Martin Benson, memorable as Solo, the gangster that gets squashed inside a car in GOLDFINGER, plays Smith, an alien who speaks perfect English with a British accent (his people have been monitoring ours for years and even teaching their children about us). His performance is the best in the movie, though Smith plays like a deux es machina. Amazingly, when he tells Tucker about his extraterrestrial origins, the American unbelievably accepts the explanation without even an eyeblink.

THE COSMIC MONSTER is one of the rarest of ‘50s “big bug” movies and deservedly so. Aside from one cool shot of a creature eating the face off some poor schmuck, there’s little of interest in it, and Forrest Tucker seems uncomfortable in it.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Most Exciting Experience In A Woman's Life

Russ Meyer’s lone attempt at mainstream filmmaking was THE SEVEN MINUTES, an adaptation of Irving Wallace’s 1969 sudser. Meyer’s previous film for 20th Century Fox, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, made a lot of money and enticed the studio to hire him for something more down-to-earth. Fox still didn’t trust him, however. When Meyer replaced Richard Fleischer (THE BOSTON STRANGLER) as director, the studio cut the budget from $6 million to less than $2 million.

Despite its studio pedigree, THE SEVEN MINUTES is recognizably Meyerian with its quick cutting, spoofy musical score (by Stu Phillips), and sexually aggressive female characters. It’s also something of a mess, mostly because Meyer seems unsure whether or not to take the material seriously. Half the film is set in a courtroom, and the various cross-examinations arguing the merits of free speech versus censorship are sharply written by Richard Warren Lewis and portrayed. However, Meyer plays the other scenes for camp, and the jagged shifts in tone are annoying. Why should we bother to think about the issues when the director doesn’t seem to want us to?

Wayne Maunder, just coming off the western TV series CUSTER and LANCER, stars as Mike Barrett, an attorney hired by publisher Phil Sanford (Tom Selleck (!), who had been in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE) to defend a young bookstore manager who sold the police the popular novel THE SEVEN MINUTES, written by the late J.J. Jadway in 1935 and considered pornographic by some standards. Barrett’s case runs into real problems when a young man named Jerry Griffith (John Sarno) is busted on a rape charge and blames the book for his crime.

Meyer flooded his supporting cast with every old white character actor in town—Philip Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ron Randell, Lyle Bettger, John Carradine, Charles Drake, Stanley Adams, Olan Soule, Harold J. Stone, Jackie Gayle, Alex D’Arcy, Berry Kroeger, David Brian, Regis Cordic—added regular players Charles Napier, Stuart Lancaster, James Iglehart, and Edy Williams (his then-wife), and brought in Yvonne DeCarlo (THE DESERT HAWK) for a crowdpleasing cameo at the end. If nothing else, THE SEVEN MINUTES provides some enjoyment in watching the cast—you’ll also spot Marianne McAndrew, Jan Shutan and even Wolfman Jack!

Meyer’s fling with Hollywood suits didn’t take, though. He didn’t like THE SEVEN MINUTES, Wallace hated it, and audiences stayed away. So it was back back to the boobs-and-square-jaws route with BLACKSNAKE, which was also a flop, and the triumphant SUPERVIXENS.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Street Vigilante

STREETS OF BLOOD was the second in Manor Books' series about Bronson: Street Viglante; I've now read and reviewed all three of them. As you may have already guessed, they're heavily influenced by the 1974 film DEATH WISH, which starred Charles Bronson as a liberal New York architect who turns deadly vigilante when his family is attacked by street scum. I'm surprised Manor was able to dodge a lawsuit, the influence is so strong.

I suspect STREETS OF BLOOD was written by a different author than BLIND RAGE, though both are credited to Philip Rawls. Leonard Levinson, a longtime pulp writer who contributed to the Sharpshooter and Apache Wars series, among others, penned this one. In BLIND RAGE, the violence is more vulgar and graphic than the other books. Bronson has few qualms about knocking off innocent bystanders, and he has an affair with a teenage girl during his swath of vengeance.

STREETS OF BLOOD forgets all that. It's stated he hasn't been with a woman since his wife's murder two years previously, and Bronson is more compassionate in this book. He's still patrolling the streets of New York, killing muggers and rapists though. The body count is amusingly high, and Levinson keeps the action moving at a nice clip. Some conflict in the form of a cop named Jenkins who figures out Bronson's "night job" works well too.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

He's A High-Speed Disaster

Shout Factory continues its superlative Roger Corman's Cult Classics series with this 2-disc DVD containing two car-crash features starring Ron Howard, then the star of ABC's hit HAPPY DAYS.

How did New World Pictures head Corman get big-time TV star Howard to do a cheap drive-in movie? By promising the former child actor a chance to make his own movie, which became GRAND THEFT AUTO. EAT MY DUST, released in 1976, was written and directed by Charles B. Griffith, a terrific screenwriter who provided Corman with dark comic stories for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and BUCKET OF BLOOD, but fell miserably short in the films he directed. UP FROM THE DEPTHS and SMOKEY BITES THE DUST are woeful movies, but EAT MY DUST gets by on the strength of its charming actors and copious highway destruction.

Howard plays Hoover Niebold (Griffith loved to give his characters silly names), a girl-crazy teenager who steals a race car belonging to Big Bubba Jones (Dave Madden, the harried manager of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY) to impress snobbish blonde Darlene (TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.’s Christopher Norris, looking fine in yellow hotpants and white go-go boots). That’s all the impetus Griffith needs to smash a gaggle of police cruisers and stock cars in pursuit of Hoover and his friends. Warren Kemmerling acts properly harried as Hoover’s dad, the local sheriff, and Griffith peppers the narrative with sight gags and puns to break up the chases. Madden’s creative cursing (“Bull-double-dee-goddamn-loney”) and sneaky in-jokes referencing other Corman pictures are fun. Barbara Peeters, who went on to direct New World movies (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), directed the second unit, and actor Bill Paxton (ALIENS) was a set decorator.

Corman lived up to his word, and one year later, Howard, who would one day win an Academy Award for A BEAUTIFUL MIND, was directing his first film at the age of 22. Wanting to capitalize on the box-office success of EAT MY DUST, Corman asked Ron and his actor father Rance to write another screenplay with basically the same idea--a young couple on the run surrounded by car crashes.

Howard’s reputation for getting more bang for his bucks must have started on GRAND THEFT AUTO, as cars chase, crash, smash, and blow up with surprising regularity. He plays Sam Freeman, a poor youth engaged to be married to Paula Powers (fresh-faced Nancy Morgan), the daughter of snobbish gubernatorial candidate Bigby Powers (Barry Cahill). When Bigby opposes his daughter’s marriage—he’s already arranged her engagement to whiny polo player Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke)—Paula steals his Rolls Royce and makes a mad dash with Sam for Vegas to elope—a feat made more difficult by an army of pursuers after a $25,000 bounty offered by Bigby.

Reportedly filmed for $600,000, GRAND THEFT AUTO is decent drive-in fare with enough broad humor and car crashes to keep audiences awake. It isn’t particularly sophisticated, but it is quickly paced by Howard (who also penned the script with his actor father Rance) and sharply edited by Joe Dante, who was directing New World pictures himself (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Howard gets goofy supporting performances from his brother Clint and Peter Isacksen (the tall doofus from CPO SHARKEY) as a pair of hot-rodding idiots, Hoke Howell as a greedy minister, and TV mom Marion Ross (HAPPY DAYS) as a rich woman who wrestles a cop.

The funky score is by Peter Ivers, who never again worked in film before his murder six years later. Dante, producer Jon Davison (AIRPLANE!), second unit director Allan Arkush (ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), and unit production manager Michael Finnell (THE HOWLING) went on to work together several times in various combinations.

The Ron Howard double feature receives ace treatment from Shout Factory, putting them out in letterboxed presentations for the first time and drenching them with extras. For EAT MY DUST, Shout Factory produced a new interview with Howard and a new featurette on poster artist John Solie to go with a previously released making-of doc (starring Christopher Norris, editor Tina Hirsch, and cinematographer Eric Saarinen) and a short conversation between Corman and critic Leonard Maltin. GRAND THEFT AUTO contains two audio commentaries--Howard and Corman ported over from the old New Concorde DVD and a new one starring Dante, Arkush, Rance Howard, and second unit key grip Ben Haller. The other new extra is a short piece on Rance and Clint Howard, who also appears in both films. A Ron Howard/Corman conversation and a Corman/Maltin chat are carried over, and trailers for both movies are included.

Howard’s next directorial efforts were in television until breaking through with the hilarious NIGHT SHIFT in 1982. He more or less retired from acting then.