Friday, March 30, 2012

Making A Mockery Of My Words, Man

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

4 Stars
Rated R
Running Time 1:47

AMERICAN MOVIE, which won a Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is one of the most entertaining documentaries in recent memory. Made by former Michael Moore (FAHRENHEIT 9/11) protégés Chris Smith and Sarah Price, AMERICAN MOVIE profiles Minnesota filmmaker Mark Borchardt, a thirtyish father of three still living with his parents whose biggest dream is to finish his homemade feature, NORTHWESTERN.

With no funding and little support from his family and friends, who mostly placate his requests for assistance with rolling eyes, Borchardt, a lanky fast-talker with a tendency to drink too much, makes a horror short, COVEN (pronounced “COH-ven”), in bits and pieces over a period of two years with the idea of making enough money selling it on video to finance NORTHWESTERN. The result is a sweet, hilarious, and even inspirational study of independent moviemaking at its grass-roots best.

The DVD props up the feature with a number of neat extras, my favorite being an alternate audio track featuring Smith, Price, Borchardt, and Mark’s zonked-out pal Mike Schank talking about the film and how it was made. Alternately informative and funny, it’s one of my all-time favorite audio commentaries.

Columbia/Tri-Star also sweetens the pot with a whopping 22 (!) deleted scenes, most of which run anywhere from 45 seconds to nearly three minutes. Many of them are quite entertaining, and were probably cut because of time restraints or pacing, since, unlike most deleted scenes that pop up as DVD extras, these are worthy of being included in the film itself.

Also, after hearing so much about COVEN and being tantalized by a number of clips during the film, it’s nice that the entire short has been included on the DVD (it’s much better than you’d expect). Trailers for AMERICAN MOVIE and four other independent features round out the package, one I highly recommend for potential filmmakers everywhere.

Monday, March 26, 2012

There Ye Go

One of NBC's biggest hits on the 1970s was MCCLOUD, an arm of THE NBC MYSTERY MOVIE that starred Dennis Weaver as Sam McCloud, a New Mexico marshal assigned to fight crime on the mean streets of New York City. Yes, it was a ripoff/spinoff of COOGAN'S BLUFF.

Rather than spend much time here on MCCLOUD, I'll point you towards J. Kingston Pierce's excellent article on the TV series. That will give me more time to discuss THE KILLING, the third of six tie-in paperbacks based on the show.

Written by David Wilson (which sounds like a pseudonym), THE KILLING adapts "Butch Cassidy Rides Again," the fourth-season opener penned by MCCLOUD executive producer Glen A. Larson. It's a fairly silly plot that makes McCloud, his partner Joe Broadhurst (Terry Carter), and their boss Peter Clifford (J.D. Cannon) look like boobs.

Wilson's book seems fairly close to the episode, though it has been quite awhile since I've seen it. A highlight of the novel is a catfight between McCloud's girlfriend and a female TV reporter named Samantha, and, since they were played on TV by Linda Evans (THE BIG VALLEY) and Stefanie Powers (HART TO HART), respectively, one would think I'd remember the show better.

Basically, McCloud and Broadhurst are held up by four elderly robbers dressed in Wild West garb. Later, the same "Wild Bunch" robs a train and then an armored car. Considering one of the crooks is played by Roger Davis (ALIAS SMITH AND JONES), it's clear some Universal old-man makeup was involved.

THE KILLING is very light reading and not exactly involving for mystery or action fans. MCCLOUD's scripts were not exactly heady either, but the show mainly coasted on the strength of Weaver's considerable charm. Obviously, that's missing from the book, which is left to survive solely on the strength of Larson's original story, which is weak.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Police Connection aka The Mad Bomber aka Detective Geronimo

Bert I. Gordon of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE fame was the director, producer, writer (from a story by HOSPITAL MASSACRE’s Marc Behm), and cinematographer for this hilarious crime drama originally distributed by Jerry Gross’ Cinemation. THE MAD BOMBER also saw release as DETECTIVE GERONIMO, CONFESSIONS OF A DIRTY COP, and THE POLICE CONNECTION, which I guess was supposed to trick ticketbuyers into believing it was a sequel to THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

No matter the title, THE MAD BOMBER is a sleazy gem with nudity, hilarious dialogue, and gore, including a stomach-churning burn victim. It boasts a surprisingly high-profile cast for such a grimy movie—not just the three stars, but also the TV-familiar faces in supporting roles, such as Ted Gehring, Hank Brandt, Christina Hart, Tom Hallick, Ted Gehring, Jack Garner, Del Monroe, and Royce Applegate.

Connors (from THE RIFLEMAN) is incredible as William Dorn, a crazy-looking cat with wire-frame glasses who’s muy uptight about his daughter’s death from a drug overdose. Everything you need to know about this psycho is revealed in the first scene, in which Dorn intimidates a littering pedestrian (“You’re a pig! Now, go back and pick up that trash!”). Gordon (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) shoots this opener from across the street, and I’m pretty sure the people in the background don’t know they’re watching a movie shoot.

To protest his daughter’s death, Dorn starts blowing up stuff in L.A. First, his daughter’s high school (a very effective slow-motion explosion), and then a mental hospital, where he’s seen by rapist George Fromley (Brand), who had just finished assaulting a mute girl. The ostensible hero is hulking cop Geronimo Minnelli (Edwards, TV’s BEN CASEY), but he comes across as crazy and violent as the criminals he’s pursuing. With an intense glower and tough-guy dialogue, Edwards seems a good match for the combined lunacy of Brand and Connors. By the way, the sight of the rough-looking Neville pleasuring himself while viewing 8mm porn loops is one unfortunately not soon forgotten.

Geronimo is a surly cop and not a particularly good one. After discovering Dorn’s identity, he doesn’t even research him in the police computer and only finds out through an old newspaper that Dorn has a record. Gordon’s strategy of making the mad bomber a more sympathetic character than the cop chasing him is effective, and Connors’ crazed performance is a big contributor. All three stars were very familiar from years on television, and I wonder whether 1973 audiences freaked out when seeing them in such a tawdry film.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Cobra Goddess Will Avenge Herself

Universal-International produced and released this agreeable horror movie in 1955. CULT OF THE COBRA plays pretty stodgily under the frumpy hand of B-movie director Francis D. Lyon (DESTINATION INNER SPACE), but it’s definitely worth viewing for its amazing cast of young contract players who went on to television stardom.

Richard Long (THE BIG VALLEY), Marshall Thompson (DAKTARI), David Janssen (THE FUGITIVE), William Reynolds (THE FBI), and Jack Kelly (MAVERICK) play G.I. buddies in Asia just after World War II. For kicks, they sneak into a snake-worshipping ceremony, but a sixth pal (James Dobson) does something stupid, one of the cultists is killed, and Dobson soon dies of a cobra bite. Weeks later, the five survivors return to New York City, where sad sack Thompson, who has just lost his girlfriend (Kathleen Hughes) to roommate Long, takes up with pretty new neighbor Faith Domergue. Who is a deadly snakewoman looking for revenge.

There was a time when the five male stars were on television constantly, either in prime-time series or in movies playing in late night, and watching their familiar faces earnestly learning their craft in the 20s and early 30s is great fun. So is the movie, by the way, particularly the first couple of reels in which Lyon and U-I’s production designers create a visually appealing backdrop for exotic adventure.

Once the action shifts to Greenwich Village, the film settles into a routine of actors being bumped off one by one, a slight precursor to a later generation’s slasher flicks. The men are unsurprisingly killed in reverse order of their billing, which throws cold water on the suspense. On the other hand, Lyon handles the shock scenes fairly well, and the sloe-eyed Domergue is perfectly cast as the mysterious femme, er, snake fatale. Universal released it on DVD as part of its Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection set, but it’s straight-up horror without a touch of science fiction.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Yes, Mr. President

CHINESE PUZZLE is said to be the first important novel in the Destroyer series created and written by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy.

Released by Pinnacle in March 1972 (during the Nixon Presidency), the third Remo Williams adventure is the one that begins to solidify the relationship between Remo, the ex-Newark police detective trained to be the ultimate martial artist, and Chiun, the ancient Korean warrior and master who becomes his trainer, mentor, and "little father."

CHINESE PUZZLE also provides some background to Chiun's character and, more interestingly, CURE itself. The only people in the world aware of CURE's existence are Remo, Chiun, their boss Harold Smith, and the President of the United States (well, and any previous living POTUS). CURE was created by Smith and John F. Kennedy as an illegal crimefighting force to be used when regular law enforcement wouldn't work. One of CHINESE PUZZLE's most interesting subplots involves what would happen if anyone else were to learn of CURE's existence, which would basically result in Smith's ordering Chiun to murder Remo, through a code transmitted to Chiun through Remo himself, and Smith's suicide.

Sapir and Murphy's plot, surprisingly, is weak. Perhaps they were more interested in building the characters and their world than in actually telling a story this time around. Basically, Remo and Chiun are ordered to find a Communist Chinese general who is gone missing in the United States. It's a task made more difficult because of the presence of the general's 22-year-old wife Mei Soong, whom the duo is also made to bodyguard during their investigation.

The political correctness flies in scenes between the Chinese-hating Chiun and the Korean-hating Mei Soong. But eyebrow-raising rhetoric won't surprise anyone with a couple of Destroyer novels already under their belt. CHINESE PUZZLE is a must-read for anyone interested in the Destroyer books.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

He Who Digs A Grave

CANNON opened its third season on CBS with a special two-hour episode filmed on location in the small town of Grass Valley in northern California. Based on David Delman’s 1973 novel, “He Who Digs a Grave” allowed executive producer Quinn Martin (THE UNTOUCHABLES) and producer Adrian Samish (THE F.B.I.) to splurge on production values and guest actors, most notably David Janssen.

A major television star with stints on the hit series RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE and THE FUGITIVE and one season on Jack Webb’s flop O’HARA: UNITED STATES TREASURY, Janssen was well above doing episodic guest shots by 1973. He hadn’t worked in that capacity since a 1963 NAKED CITY, and would do only one more—an episode of the anthology POLICE STORY—before his 1980 death. So getting Janssen to appear as a special guest star in “He Who Digs a Grave” was a real coup for Martin, who had also been the executive producer of THE FUGITIVE.

Stephen Kandel, one of the era’s most creative television writers, adapted Delman’s book for the small screen and remained quite faithful to it, keeping most of the plot points and character names intact. Of course, the teleplay’s major divergence is the role of Los Angeles private detective Frank Cannon, who obviously didn’t exist in Delman’s version (his character was a Jewish Manhattan cop named Jacob Horowitz). William Conrad, whose deep baritone and portly frame revealed his past as a leading man in radio dramas, became a surprise TV star as the urbane and intelligent Cannon, who is fondly remembered by mystery fans for his skills behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental, as well as in the kitchen.

Janssen plays Ian Kirk, an alcoholic writer who is arrested and charged with the murder of his wealthy young wife (Cathy Lee Crosby) and her even younger lover. Tossed into the slammer of a small town (Mercer, California) that mistrusts strangers and resents him for marrying into Irene’s well-regarded family, Kirk calls upon his old Army buddy Frank Cannon for help.

Kirk claims his wife left a suicide note at their house, but it isn’t found. Cannon, whom the townspeople also regard as a big-city instigator, is received hostilely at nearly every step of his investigation, right down to the mischievous brothers who own Mercer’s lone hotel (played by the historic Holbrooke Hotel). Like other small towns in mystery stories, Mercer has a lot of ugly secrets, and the town doesn’t want Cannon snooping around, especially to help Ian Kirk dodge a murder rap.

Richard Donner, who would soon graduate to big-budget features like THE OMEN and SUPERMAN, was the perfect choice to helm this episode. Taking advantage of Martin and Samish’s souped-up production values (it’s likely this season opener had a larger-than-usual budget) and the rich tapestry of characters and subplots developed in Kandel’s script, Donner moves the plot along at just the right pace. The action scenes, including a horse stampede and an interesting shootout in a picturesque river bed, flow well. The extra time accorded a two-parter allows the story to breathe a little in scenes that don’t advance the plot, but provide color and characterization (such as Cannon’s sparring with the hotel owners out to make the stranger’s stay as unpleasant as possible).

Janssen spends most of the show locked in a cell and projects the proper ambivalence. Barry Sullivan as the self-righteous sheriff, Tim O’Connor as Irene’s attorney, and Murray Hamilton as an impotent crack shot provide most of Cannon’s opposition, but the detective finds an important ally in town mayor Anne Baxter. Lee Purcell, Royal Dano, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Hogan, Lenore Kasdorf, Dabbs Greer, and Bill Quinn lend support.

In Delman's book, Baxter's character was the sheriff, not the mayor, and Sullivan's sheriff was her deputy. Kandel's biggest contribution was the addition of action scenes and an illegal cockfighting arena run by Armstrong. A year later, Kandel wrote a similar two-part HARRY O that took Janssen’s Harry Orwell to a small California town to investigate a friend’s murder.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Weather Or Not

THE POLE STAR SECRET is one of men's adventure fiction's all-time lamest copouts.

It was the 21st Death Merchant novel for Pinnacle. Published in 1977, it overpromises and way underdelivers. If there was such a thing as a TV brick for paperback novels, I would have heaved it.

First off, there's the Death Merchant's main mission. Acting on intel from two captured Russians, Richard Camellion leads a mission to the North Pole to find a Russian scientific base that's working on weather control experiments. This weather device is a McGuffin and never impacts the story.

More egregious is author Joseph Rosenberger's promise of...aliens. Not just aliens, but giants! A sequel of sorts to HELL IN HINDU LAND, which I haven't read, POLE STAR takes Camellion and his squad of Navy, CIA, and State Department personnel to a hidden land concealed miles beneath the North Pole. It's warm there with an artificial blue sun that measures thousands of feet in diameter. The underground island also contains a strange dome where, presumably, the aliens' secrets are held.

As with any other Death Merchant novel, pages are filled with graphic violence, as Rosenberger fits his anti-hero into one bloody gun battle after another. Okay, that's fine, because it's all building to the Death Merchant's men reaching the dome and uncovering its secrets.

Except they don't. About 2/3 in, Camellion reaches the dome, discovers it's surrounded by a force field, and says to the men, in effect, "Oh, well, we can't get in. Let's split and kill more Russians." Rosenberger never produces any aliens nor do we ever learn the origin of the underground world. That old writing tip, that if you produce a gun in the first act, you better fire it in the third? Rosenberger lives by his own rules.

The rest of POLE STAR is a bit anti-climactic, to say the least, with Camellion and the surviving crew of an American nuclear sub invading the Russian base and blowing it to bits. If you like absurd action stories, the Death Merchant novels are right up your alley, but it's impossible to not be disappointed in this tease.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Perfect Plant Food

PLEASE DON’T EAT MY MOTHER! falls into that odd strictly-Seventies category of sex film that’s too graphic for an R rating, but, lacking penetration shots, is not quite dirty enough to qualify as pornography. Executive producer Harry Novak (THE BOOBY TRAP) put it out through his Boxoffice International without an MPAA rating (which would unquestionably been an X). It’s an amazingly blatant softcore ripoff of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Perhaps Roger Corman ripped off so many people himself that he thought it would be hypocritical to go after Novak and writer/director Carl Monson (A SCREAM IN THE STREETS).

It’s always weird to see mainstream actors popping up in obscure sex films. Getting top billing is Buck Kartalian, a Mel Brooks lookalike and busy Hollywood actor in classics like PLANET OF THE APES and COOL HAND LUKE, as well as many television shows. Kartalian usually used a pseudonym in his perv movies for Novak and Monson, but didn’t try to hide his identity this time (many of MOTHER’s tech credits are pseudonymous, probably union workers fearing fines for working on this non-union production). He’s onscreen almost all the time, so it’s likely the biggest film role the character actor ever had. His performance is pretty good and sympathetic, considering. I think he looks a bit tickled at times.

Thankfully, we’re spared the sight of the hirsute Kartalian participating in any sex scenes. He plays Harry Fudd, a pervy half-Jewish virgin who spends his lunch hours watching couples have sex in a park. He shares a house with his overbearing mother (Lynn Lundgren), and his bedroom walls are plastered with nude centerfolds.

One day, Harry purchases a talking plant from a flaming gay proprietor (Art Hedberg) for a dollar. He becomes enamored with its female voice and personality and brings home flies and frogs for it to eat. As the plant grows taller and taller, it demands more sophisticated sustenance—such as dogs and, eventually, people. First goes mom (no surprise there), then a fat slob cop named O’Columbus, played by director Monson doing a terrible Peter Falk impression.

This is a very cheap production. Kartalian wears the same damn clothes in every scene, even though the movie takes place over a series of weeks. The hastily constructed plant looks ludicrous, though that can be overlooked in a comedy. Monson shoots the cardboard sets quickly from a paucity of camera angles. You can even see the grip truck parked on the front lawn of the house Monson used as the location for Harry’s place.

None of this mattered much to Novak, of course, and, if you’re watching a movie called PLEASE DON’T EAT MY MOTHER!, it probably won’t to you either. Monson’s film is witless and juvenile, even if there is some novelty value in a sex film about the relationship between a middle-aged virgin and a seven-foot plant. Novak also released it as THE HUNGRY PETS, SEXPOT SWINGERS, and probably more titles. Kartalian played a creepier version of Henry—wearing the same shirt and sweater—in a Novak short called THE VOYEUR.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

One Arm To Hold You


Thankfully, some poor sucker gave Phil Tucker, the director of ROBOT MONSTER, a few thousand shekels to make another science fiction movie. THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS never reaches the hysterical heights of Tucker’s earlier film—what could?—but the inept plotting, dialogue, score, and acting will still leave bad-movie fans melting in tears of laughter. Tucker even returns to ROBOT MONSTER HQ—Griffith Park’s Bronson Canyon—to lens the exteriors.

Aliens shaped like small balls of light arrive on Earth as part of an invasion force. They force a middle-aged couple into an auto accident and take over their bloody, busted bodies. The male, who calls itself Hauron (Jason Johnson), loses his left arm in the crash, but his companion Nadja (TEENAGE ZOMBIES’ Katherine Victor) promises to sew it back on. She does, but it’s torn off again by a dog and taken to a missile base, where General Hollister (Chuck Howard) stares at the obviously plastic appendage with amazement.

Tucker, without a studio backing him to say no, is surprisingly lurid in his storytelling. It’s obvious that Hauron and Nadja, who seem to despise one another, are enjoying making the sex in their new bodies, and when they kidnap a couple of teenagers (in part to harvest one for his arm and his chin!), Tucker lingers upon the aliens undressing them. The film is bloodier than most low-budget sci-fiers of the era too.

The teenage heroes are Tom (Scott Peters) and Sally (Linda Connell, the daughter of cinematographer W. Merle Connell), who work for Sally’s uncle, Dr. von Hoften (Billy Greene), a German scientist working with Hollister at the missile base. They’re also captured, though only Sally is stripped. Tom manages to escape briefly using the radium in his watch, but he’s quickly re-captured after telling the police his fantastic story. But will they believe him and come to his and Sally’s rescue?

This is likely the only movie in which invasion plans of aliens from outer space are repelled using a wristwatch, litmus paper, pig Latin, and those plastic inserts inside wallets that hold photographs. It’s also very cheap. All we see of the aliens’ spaceship is a wall about twelve feet long, and a pit of deadly bubbling liquid supposedly similar to Earth’s hydrogen (but not really) is represented by a tiny miniature. The launching missiles are government stock footage.

THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS is slightly more competent than ROBOT MONSTER, which isn’t saying much. The aliens’ plan to destroy American missiles makes little sense, nor does their act of transporting (somehow) their Earth prisoners to their home planet (including Tom’s now-armless and –chinless best pal). They don’t seem particularly bright either, smugly giving Tom all the scientific info he needs to plan his escape and, hilariously, accepting his explanation of his pig Latin code to Sally that it’s his special way of saying “I love you.”

Tucker didn’t direct again after THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS, though he stuck around the industry as an editor for two more decades. Although forgotten today except by the most dedicated fans of terrible movies, Tucker deserves to be considered in the same breath as Edward D. Wood, Jr. as a wretched director who made entertaining pictures on accident. Speaking of bad filmmakers, many reviewers, including Bill Warren in his esteemed KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!, claim Al Adamson (a much worse director than either Wood or Tucker) appears as an actor in THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS, but he does not.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

No Way Out

Subpar editing and sound mar this second feature by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of director Michael Mann of HEAT and THIEF fame, who served as producer here. TEXAS KILLING FIELDS barely squeaked into a few theaters in the fall of 2011—no doubt on the strength of producer Mann’s name—but without a cast of movie stars to carry the load of Don Ferrarone’s routine script, box office was dim.

Louisiana plays Texas City, Texas, where cops still use cassette tapes to record interrogations. Sensitive homicide detective Brian Haigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, THE RESIDENT) and his younger, brasher partner Mike Souder (AVATAR’s Sam Worthington) consider the murder of a teenage prostitute. A similar case pops up one county over, where Mike’s ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain, an Academy Award nominee for THE HELP) leads the investigation. Although it’s outside his and Mike’s jurisdiction, Brian can’t help looking into the case at Pam’s request, since both murders appear to be related.

It becomes clear the cops are after a serial killer who uses a remote bayou dubbed “The Killing Fields” by the locals to dump his victims. At times, TEXAS KILLING FIELDS resembles a straight procedural in CSI mode, and if Mann and Farrarone had stayed in that direction, it might have been a more successful film. However, Mann takes a lot of time away from the investigation to follow Anne (KICK-ASS’ Chloe Grace Moretz), the young daughter of a trashy mother (Sheryl Lee of TWIN PEAKS) who banishes her to walk the streets until her many “boyfriends” have gone home.

Moretz is quite good, as are Morgan and Chastain, but Haigh’s paternal relationship with Anne isn’t as interesting as Mann thinks it is. Following the mystery is tough because of Cindy Mollo’s editing, which often renders some scenes too long, others not long enough, and many out of order. Similarly, the recording of the actors’ slurry accents is unclear, which sometimes makes following plot points difficult. A third-act car chase is well handled. Jon Eyez, Jason Clarke (THE CHICAGO CODE), Stephen Graham (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), and Annabeth Gish (NIXON) add able support.