Monday, December 26, 2011

May The Source Be With You

It (sadly) never happens anymore, but television networks used to burn off their busted pilots during the summer. These were shows that the networks had paid for, but decided not to turn into a series. So, among a sea of reruns, movies, specials, and MONDAY NIGHT BASEBALL, it wouldn’t be that unusual to see one episode of a show that you would never see again. Since these were pilots the networks chose not to buy, it isn’t surprising that most of them weren’t very good, but, every once in awhile, you’d see something unusual.

On May 7, 1977, NBC filled a half-hour with a situation comedy pilot called QUARK. I don’t know what the ratings were for QUARK that night, but it undoubtedly wouldn’t have mattered to NBC anyway. They were just burning off inventory in a dead 30-minute time slot.

Eighteen days later, STAR WARS opened theatrically across the United States, and Hollywood would forever be changed. Among the more insignificant changes was QUARK’s status of busted pilot to regular series.

There is little doubt that QUARK never would have become a series if not for STAR WARS’ unprecedented box-office success. Science fiction had long been regarded as a dead genre, but after the summer of ‘77, sci-fi was everywhere--major studio blockbusters, low-budget independents, even TV shows. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1978, was the most obvious TV benefactor of STAR WARS’ success, but QUARK got there first.

“STAR TREK meets GET SMART” is a good way to describe QUARK. The pilot, as written by noted humorist Buck Henry (who also co-created GET SMART with Mel Brooks) and directed by 1776 helmer Peter H. Hunt, cast Richard Benjamin, a talented comic actor whose previous TV experience had been with wife Paula Prentiss in the critically acclaimed but low-rated sitcom HE & SHE, as Adam Quark, the commander of a small spaceship belonging to the United Galactic Sanitation Patrol. Yep, a garbage scow.

Among his crew were Gene/Jean, a “transmute” with both male and female chromosomes, portrayed by up-and-coming comic Tim Thomerson (TRANCERS); Betty and Betty (Cyb and Tricia Barnstable), a pair of sexy engineers, one of whom was a clone, although neither would cop to it; and Andy (Bobby Porter), a clunky-looking, cowardly robot that would turn on the crew in a second in order to save his metal hide.
When QUARK returned to NBC as a weekly series in February 1978, there was a new crew member: Ficus (Richard Kelton), the “Spock” of the cast, an unemotional plant (!) prone to pontification and long-winded explanations. The crew received its garbage pickup assignments from Quark’s boss, Otto Palindrome (heh), played by Conrad Janis (MORK & MINDY), and his boss, a giant floating cranium known only as The Head (Alan Caillou).

The pilot that aired in 1977 really isn’t very good. It’s less spoofy and less manic than the series that followed, despite its Buck Henry teleplay. Henry appears to have not been involved in the series, which received much acclaim from critics who adored its mixture of slapstick and wit. The writing staff obviously boned up on STAR TREK reruns, drawing many of their plots from that ‘60s series. In “The Old and the Beautiful,” Quark is stricken with a disease that prematurely ages him, much as the U.S.S. Enterprise crew did in the TREK episode “The Deadly Years.” TREK’s “Shore Leave” inspired “Goodbye, Palombus” (a spoof of Benjamin’s movie GOODBYE, COLUMBUS), where Quark and his crew investigate a paradise planet where whatever you wish for comes true.

The best episode is the first shot and aired after the pilot, “May the Source Be With You.” It ran one hour and managed to pack a bit of adventure into its comedy package. The universe is threatened by an evil race known as the Gorgon, and only Quark and his intergalactic garbagemen can stop them. Quark’s secret weapon is “The Source,” an omnipotent force that imbues him with mysterious powers. The problem is that the Source only works if Quark fully believes in it, but the Source’s absentmindedness and bumbling doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

The Head Gorgon was portrayed by the great Henry Silva, a charismatic actor who played hundreds of heavies in Hollywood, but I don’t recall him ever appearing in another sitcom. Projecting a perfect note of comic menace, Silva threatens the galaxy’s safety while wearing a silly helmet that may have gotten him the gig a year later as Killer Kane, Princess Ardala’s sinister chief of staff in BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY. “May the Source Be With You,” directed by veteran Hy Averback from a clever teleplay by Bruce Zacharias (REVENGE OF THE NERDS), is full of funny quips and nifty sight gags, as in the scene in which a blinded Quark must rely on the Source’s guidance to rescue Ficus from a pair of Gorgon torturers.

Another good episode is “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms,” a two-parter in which Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) guest-stars as Zargon the Malevolent, another evil dictator searching for a super-weapon with which to destroy the galaxy. His beautiful daughter (a pre-KNOTS LANDING Joan Van Ark) falls for Ficus, who schools her in an alien method of lovemaking (“Beebeebeebeeebeeeeebeeeee…”), and Gene and Andy disguise themselves as scientific lecturers.

The numbers weren’t there for QUARK, and NBC cancelled it after just nine episodes were shot. Except for occasional airings on the defunct Ha! cable network, which eventually merged with The Comedy Channel to form Comedy Central in the early 1990s, QUARK has not been seen on television since. However, the entire series is available on DVD, so sitcom fans shouldn’t pass up a chance to catch up with one of the 1970s’ most neglected series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BJ And The Seven Lady Truckers

BJ and the Seven Lady Truckers
January 13, 1981
Writer: Michael Sloan
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

Because of the 1980 Writers Guild strike, BJ AND THE BEAR didn’t open its third season until January 1981—nine and a half months after its second-season finale. Like THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO, BJ began the season with a major overhaul, adding a whopping eight new cast members and a new job for BJ (Greg Evigan). Only a big two-hour episode could contain all the new changes.

Now based in Los Angeles (saving the production crew from having to double L.A. for the Southern states), BJ McKay is trying to break into the independent trucking game in California. The trucking industry in that state is ruled with an iron fist by Trans Cal, a major company unopposed to using strongarm tactics to push out the competition, including stealing BJ’s truck as a warning and flattening BJ’s ‘Nam buddy Dave Chaffee (Neil Zevnik) in a hit-and-run.

To save Dave’s business, BJ recruits a team of sexy motorcycle stunt riders to haul a load from L.A. to San Francisco: fiery Callie (Linda McCullough), twin blondes Geri (Randi Brough) and Teri (Candi Brough), airhead Stacks (Judy Landers), con artist Samantha (Barbra Horan), surfer chick Cindy (Sherilyn Wolter), and black disc jockey Angie (Sheila DeWindt). Unfortunately, TransCal chairman Jason Willard (Jock Mahoney) has on his payroll corrupt Captain Rutherford T. Grant (Murray Hamilton), who uses the power of his office as head of a statewide crime-fighting task force to ruin BJ’s business.

With two hours of play with, writer Michael Sloan takes his time establishing the series’ new format and introducing us to Evigan’s new co-stars. Outside of the Brough twins and dumb blonde Landers, none of the other actresses are given much to work with outside of surface personality traits to help the audience tell them apart (outside of DeWindt, who’s merely identified by her skin color). Nyby stages a few decent chases and fights to keep the action moving right along, and Hamilton becomes BJ’s first fulltime villain, stepping into the shoes of previous actors like Claude Akins, Ed Lauter, and Richard Deacon who made occasional appearances as corrupt policemen giving McKay a hard time.

If NBC hadn’t been miserably mired in third place among the networks, it would not likely have renewed either BJ AND THE BEAR or LOBO for another season. Retooling both shows seems like a desperate attempt to retain viewers, but not even the promise of fourteen pert breasts every week could stop BJ from being cancelled in the spring.

The Girls With The Stolen Bodies

The Girls with the Stolen Bodies
January 6, 1981
Music: John Andrew Tartaglia
Story: Frank Lupo & Mark Jones
Teleplay: Mark Jones
Director: Dick Harwood

One problem with moving LOBO’s setting from rural Orly County to Atlanta is that it began to look like every other cop show on the air, especially because the series was filmed in Los Angeles. The opening of “The Girls with the Stolen Bodies” could have been from POLICE STORY. Two guys with shotguns rip off a liquor store. Lobo (Claude Akins) and Birdie (Brian Kerwin) are across the street having lunch when they hear shots. Like Starsky and Hutch, the two cops run to the rescue and apprehend the suspects—Birdie tackles one and Lobo shoots the other.

During the fracas, Perkins (Mills Watson) takes a round of buckshot in the tuchus and is admitted to Grady Memorial Hospital. While delivering a check to a corpse (don’t ask), he stumbles upon a sinister plot to induce comas in patients and harvest their organs. Yes, COMA is referenced, though not by name, as hospital administrator Smith (Richard Herd) fakes Perkins’ death and delivers his alleged ashes to Lobo and Perkins.

The second season’s second episode continues the formula set in the premiere. It still has lots of pretty girls in bikinis (guest star Sondra Currie is quite fetching) and slapstick, but the comedy is more subdued than in the first season, and the plot is more focused on its crime elements. Chief Carson (Nicolas Coster) and Hildy (Nell Carter) are still unreasonably hostile toward Lobo, though sexy cops Brandy (Tara Buckman) and Peaches (Amy Botwinick) are sympathetic.

Writer Mark Jones cut his teeth on Saturday morning fare like ARK II and THE ALL-NEW SUPER FRIENDS HOUR before transitioning into prime-time crime dramas. He later penned the horror film LEPRECHAUN, which was popular enough to spawn five sequels. THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY’s Dave Madden appears as a patient in the psychiatric ward where Smith has stashed Perkins.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Crash Course In Terror

What began as a commercially minded UCLA student film project ended up on theater and drive-in screens across North America—probably a big surprise to the arthouse-oriented classmates of co-directors and co-editors Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter.

The two pupils also co-wrote the screenplay with Stacey Giachino with Obrow producing and Carpenter as cinematographer. THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD was also the feature debut of composer Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3) and actress Daphne Zuniga, who did another slasher movie (THE INITIATION) before hitting it big in THE SURE THING, SPACEBALLS, and TV’s MELROSE PLACE.

It’s unlikely anyone involved with this 16mm horror movie shot under the title DEATH DORM could have predicted its eventual success on the big screen and home video, even though it is a decent work of suspense. It’s about a group of college students left on campus during Christmas break to clean a dormitory marked for demolition and a mysterious killer who bumps off the cast in violent ways. The film doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but Carpenter and Obrow do nice work establishing a suspenseful tone and developing the mystery. Crude sound recording let down the stiff performers, who are at least likable.

However, because it’s nothing more than a simple meat-and-potatoes slasher, it’s hard to recommend. Obrow and Carpenter present a decent body count with impressive gore makeup by Matthew Mungle (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA), but it comes with slack editing and few surprises. The killer’s identity is no big deal and his motivation weak. The directors and Giachino do furnish a wry downer of an ending, and if the rest of the film had contained some of its black comedy, it would have been better.

Originally seen in theaters as PRANKS—a clumsy title, seeing as there really are no pranks in the movie—the film was re-released as THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, which is not only accurate and evocative, but also harkens back to a more innocent time of Saturday matinee chillers. The Synapse Blu-ray/DVD presents Carpenter and Obrow’s original cut with the DEATH DORM title before it was shorn of gore to receive an R rating. Mungle’s most notorious special effect is a power drill ripping into a skull, which got the film on Great Britain’s Video Nasties list.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The People, Yes

TRESPASS is a 1969 political thriller written by an author who wrote a lot of good ones.

Fletcher Knebel, whose outstanding novels SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and VANISHED were turned into motion pictures, wrote TRESPASS for Doubleday (the paperback was released by Pocket Books). It's dated today, thank goodness, but it well captures the contentious relationships between races in America during the Vietnam War era. The plot feels exaggerated, looking back on it forty years later, but I bet it raised a lot of arm hairs on white readers in 1969.

Wealthy Tim and Liz Crawford return to their lavish New Jersey estate, Fairhill, after a Saturday night party to discover it has been hijacked by a handful of black revolutionaries led by the intelligent Ben Steele. Knebel leaves the reader as isolated as the Crawfords, who have two small children at home, for the first five chapters, as we discover Steele's purpose, which is to force Crawford to turn over his land as restitution for Crawford's father earning his fortune on the backs of black laborers.

Eventually, we discover Fairhill isn't the only mansion overrun by armed black men. There are five others, and no less than the President of the United States is aware of the mass hostage-taking. The blacks are members of a radical organization called the Blacks of February Twenty-first (B.O.F.), and taking over these homes is just the B.O.F.'s first step in its overthrow of White America.

In addition to crafting a good deal of suspense, Knebel astutely examines race relations, carefully creating three-dimensional white and black characters, humanizing the villains and tarnishing the so-called good guys. TRESPASS is mostly told through the eyes of Steele and Crawford with occasional cuts to the White House, where the liberal President faces the most stressful weekend of his career.

I don't think TRESPASS is as intriguing as VANISHED or SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, but it's a real corker at its best moments and tells a relevant story of suspense without violence or sleaze.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Let's Pop Some Tops

One of exploitation cinema’s most prolific filmmakers since the 1980s is the subject of this loving documentary. Jim Wynorski began his professional career working for Roger Corman in the marketing department of New World Pictures. He graduated to writing screenplays for Corman production like FORBIDDEN WORLD and SCREWBALLS and finally directed his first film, THE LOST EMPIRE, in 1984.

Since then, he has directed almost one hundred features, many of them softcore romps lensed in just a few days. POPATOPOLIS takes us behind the scenes of Wynorski’s 2005 opus THE WITCHES OF BREASTWICK, which appears to be amateurish trash far below the skill level of a director with more than two decades of experience. Of course, Wynorski’s zeal to shoot the entire feature in just three days on one basic location has more than a little to do with the film’s (lack of) quality.

As a backstage look at the making of a cheap softcore straight-to-cable flick, POPATOPOLIS is of interest, but as an examination of Wynorski’s career, not so much. You’ll learn little about the man’s personal life, except that he keeps DVDs and VHS tapes in his kitchen cupboards. About his directorial style, POPATOPOLIS director Clay Westervelt reveals that Wynorski is short-tempered, impatient, and a screamer on the set (which comes as no surprise to those who have seen Odette Springer’s documentary SOME NUDITY REQUIRED). Most of the talking head interviews are with the BREASTWICK cast and crew, which don’t give a well-rounded view of the man.

One exception is actress Julie K. Smith, who considers herself a Wynorski friend, but still finds herself often at war with him on the set. According to POPATOPOLIS, their clashes involve Smith’s desire for more time and more thought taken towards making the film better versus Wynorski’s desire to just get the damn thing done. Westervelt shows whose side he’s on by including a long scene of Smith stumbling over a simple line of dialogue, necessitating many takes while embarrassed cast and crew members look on.

Smith does bring up an important point that POPATOPOLIS touches on, but not as fully as it should. Which is that Wynorski, who did show ambition, a modicum of low-budget style, and a sense of humor in his early films, has sold out his desire to make quality films in order to pump out three-day sexploitation wonders using porn actresses and over-the-hill scream queens (many of BREASTWICK’s stars are around forty years old). Westervelt, who clearly worships the crusty Wynorski, is unwilling to delve more deeply into the filmmaker’s career choices, though that may have been a more interesting documentary.

Wynorski is—or, at least, was, earlier in his career—too talented to be churning out garbage like THE DEVIL WEARS NADA and THE BREASTFORD WIVES. So what happened? Did he lose the desire to make better movies? Is he just old and tired? Or does he really enjoy spending a weekend in the country filming THE WITCHES OF BREASTWICK. POPATOPOLIS never tells us.

Westervelt also chintzed out on the clips he chose to illustrate Wynorski’s resume. All look faded and grainy, as if taken from wrinkled old videocassettes, even though some of Wynorski’s films have recently been remastered and look great on DVD. Most tantalizing are the clips from THE LOST EMPIRE, which are presented in their original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio. Since the film, one of Wynorski’s best, is only available on a long-out-of-print pan-and-scan VHS tape from the 1980s, it’s a thrill to see widescreen footage, even though, like the rest of the clips, the video quality is tarnished.

Monday, December 05, 2011

It Hits With Slashing Fury

Big thanks go out to the anonymous Crane Shot reader who emailed me to say that this movie I wrote about more than three years ago was available on Netflix's streaming service. To the best of my knowledge, the 1958 melodrama MACHETE received no VHS or DVD release, though I imagine it played late at night in syndication back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Given its intriguing one-sheet and cast, I was curious to see MACHETE, and I'm glad I did. Kurt Neumann co-wrote, directed, and produced this ripe B-picture the same year he directed one of the best horror movies of the 1950s: THE FLY. When he died in August of 1958, MACHETE was the first of three Neumann films to be released posthumously. The guy worked a lot.

Emotions run high when Don Luis Montoya (DR. CYCLOPS himself, Albert Dekker) returns to his Puerto Rico sugar plantation with a new wife: platinum blond Jean (Mari Blanchard). They met on Montoya’s business trip to New York City and were married one week later. Montoya’s majordomo Bernardo (Juano Hernandez) is polite to Jean, but clearly skeptical concerning her motives. Housekeeper Rita (Ruth Cains) looks at her as a rival for the affections of Carlos (Carlos Rivas), Don Luis’ plantation master and adopted son.

Making his thoughts most plain is cousin Miguel (Lee Van Cleef), Luis’ only living blood relative, a snarling malcontent whom Montoya sends packing after he drunkenly attacks Carlos with a machete. Miguel is a real operator, though, and manages not only to talk his way back on to the plantation, but also into Carlos’ job after he convinces Luis that Carlos and Jean are having an affair.

The screenplay, co-written by Collier Young (JUNGLE JIM), is routine melodrama, but Neumann filmed MACHETE on an actual sugar plantation in Aguirre, Puerto Rico, which provides a visual edge. He and cinematographer Karl Struss (DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE) get a lot of local color out of the unusual exteriors to give the drama an extra note of realism. Scenes are connected by documentary-style footage of cane being harvested and transported.

Van Cleef is hilariously transparent as the conniving Miguel, who sure is good at making other people look stupid. Even after his earlier betrayals of Luis, he still manages to make not only his cousin, but also Jean and Carlos, believe he has their best interests at heart—even after making it obvious he wants the plantation for himself.

Neumann never gets a handle on Blanchard’s and Rivas’ characters, however. Jean’s chance run-in with a man she once knew back home teases us of her mysterious past, but this angle is dropped. We naturally assume—because of their quick courtship, Luis’ wealth, and the large age disparity between them—that her interest in Montoya is more avaricious than romantic in nature, but MACHETE never makes this clear, even after her (surprisingly easy) seduction of Carlos. Neumann’s ending indicates he believes Jean to be flawed, but I’m not certain the film merits that distinction. I think the fault lies mostly with Blanchard, who convinced me that Jean really did love Luis, no matter how the story played out, though I also think the afore-mentioned scene of Jean’s encounter did the actress no favors.

Despite its flaws, MACHETE is a potboiler of some interest. The actors are good, if appropriately overcooked, and the Puerto Rican locations give extra production value. The film was made independently under the production banner of J. Harold Odell (who also made the incredible THE FIEND OF DOPE ISLAND), and released through United Artists.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Random TV Title: Richie Brockelman, Private Eye

RICHIE BROCKELMAN, PRIVATE EYE was a very good crime drama that came and went with barely a peep in the spring of 1978. It could be quickly described as YOUNG JIM ROCKFORD, and it was created by ROCKFORD FILES executive producer Stephen J. Cannell and wunderkind Steven Bochco, who had already created and written for several dramas, but had not yet become "The Steven Bochco" of HILL STREET BLUES, L.A. LAW, and NYPD BLUE.

Brockelman first appeared in a 1976 TV-movie, THE MISSING TWENTY-FOUR HOURS, which was written by Cannell and Bochco and directed by Hy Averback (F TROOP). He was played by Dennis Dugan (NIGHT CALL NURSES), who was thirty years old, but looked 23. And that was the basic idea of the show--Brockelman was a private investigator whom nobody took seriously because he was so young.

Cannell liked the idea and the character (the ratings were okay, not great), so he brought Richie back for a two-hour ROCKFORD FILES called "The House on Willis Avenue." Cannell wrote it, and Averback again directed. Since Brockelman was written like a younger Jim Rockford--glib, quick-thinking, eager to avoid violence is possible--the character was a perfect fit in the Rockford universe, and Dugan and James Garner shared terrific chemistry.

"The House on Willis Avenue" also served as a second pilot of sorts, because RICHIE BROCKELMAN, PRIVATE EYE premiered on NBC just three weeks later as a spring replacement for THE ROCKFORD FILES. Ratings were pretty good in the ROCKFORD slot and also later during summer reruns, but apparently not quite good enough for NBC to bring RICHIE back for a second season.

Here's the opening from the fifth and final BROCKELMAN episode, "Escape from Caine Abel." It begins with a small bit of Brockelman welcoming Rockford back from his vacation, and you can see the chemistry between the two actors. Mike Post, Pete Carpenter, Stephen Geyer, and Herb Pederson wrote the Beach Boys-esque theme.

Although RICHIE BROCKELMAN, PRIVATE EYE was canceled after five episodes, Richie Brockelman appeared one more time. About a year after his series went off the air, Dugan guest-starred in another two-hour ROCKFORD FILES, "Never Send a Boy King to Do a Man's Job," about which I wrote here.

Dugan's ROCKFORD episodes are available on DVD, but the BROCKELMAN series, sadly, is not, nor is the original TV-movie.