Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Factory

The copyright date on THE FACTORY is 2008. Warner Brothers released it straight to DVD in 2013. No film that the studio thinks is good or can make money sits on a shelf for five years. Of course, studio executives aren’t always right, and it’s possible a smart, exciting thriller could slip through the cracks, a genuinely good movie whose charms somehow eluded the men and women at Warners paid well to identify them.

Nope. They were right.

The basic premise by Aussie soap actors Morgan O’Neill and Paul Leyden strains credulity. Buffalo, New York is overrun by a three-year string of “sex murders,” yet the screenplay tells us that seven prostitutes have vanished during that time and no bodies have ever appeared. So how do investigating detective Mike Fletcher (John Cusack) and his partner Kelsey (DEXTER’s Jennifer Carpenter) know there even are sex murders or that one person is responsible? Maybe the victims left town or died some other way.

Maybe O’Neill, who also directed, and Leyden told them. Because, yeah, there is a creep in Buffalo kidnapping streetwalkers. And he’s into some sick stuff. Gary (Dallas Roberts, THE GOOD WIFE’s gay brother Owen) brainwashes his victims and impregnates them. The women are psychologically dependent on Gary—they call him “daddy”—and after he rapes them, he hangs them upside-down so “everything will flow properly.”

Mike’s obsession with his work (like every other movie cop) interferes with his family life with wife Shelly (LOST’s Sonya Walger), young son Jed (Vincent Messina), and rebellious teen daughter Abby (Mae Whitman, PARENTHOOD’s resident weeper who gets to whine and cry more here). It’s no surprise that Abby becomes Gary’s latest victim, snatched right off the street after an argument with her college-age boyfriend (Michael Trevino). The climax’s “shocking” twist isn’t even a surprise, given how clumsily O’Neill delivers early exposition that could exist only to telegraph a later shock.

Filmed in frigid Montreal, THE FACTORY succeeds at delivering a snowy atmosphere for O’Neill’s sordid story. Likely inspired by SAW, the filmmakers present seriously icky material without much style or creative thought. As is increasingly his habit, Cusack (THE NUMBERS STATION) seems detached and uninvolved, though the rest of the main players are okay. Carpenter is stuck with an especially silly role, and she earns kudos for making it halfway believable. THE FACTORY is stupid and poorly told, but just outlandish enough to prevent it from becoming boring.

The Numbers Station

John Cusack seems better suited for lighter fare like HOT TUB TIME MACHINE than this morose little-seen thriller that plays like a less absorbing THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and a less exciting ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. He probably could have Paul Rudd’s career if he wanted to, but maybe not smiling pays better.

At any rate, THE NUMBERS STATION saddles Cusack with the character name Emerson Kent and a sidekick in Malin Akerman (WATCHMEN) with whom he shares no chemistry. Kent is a burned-out CIA assassin sentenced to monitor duty—three days on, three days off—at an empty Naval base in Suffolk, England. His job is to protect cryptologist Katherine (Akerman), who shortwaves coded messages to CIA operatives in Europe. It’s boring duty that gives him plenty of time to flashback to the botched assignment that got him there.

Two months into the assignment, Kent and Katherine show up for work and are attacked by enemies who have breached the code and sent messages to “retire” fifteen American agents. While the mainly faceless foes try to drill through the heavy door separating the two sides, Kent has to figure out how to reverse the assassination order and, hopefully, save their own lives. Would you believe he slowly walks away from an exploding fireball?

Filmed in cold blue lighting on depressingly drab sets, THE NUMBERS STATION is an uninteresting two-hander with little of interest to say. F. Scott Frazier’s plotting reveals no major surprises, and his characters are right out of Bad Spy Movie 101. The story is basically a simple one, but director Kasper Barfoed makes it needlessly complex with flashbacks, babble about ciphers, and too many shots of people typing on keyboards. He also fails the basic task of familiarizing the audience with the film’s basic setting, so that when characters are running from room to room, we have an idea of where everyone is. With as much time as the movie spends in the bunker (virtually all of it), Barfoed should have made it a main character.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Trial Of Billy Jack

Only in the 1970s could THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK have been made, and only then could this pretentious, windy three-hour chore have been an enormous hit.

According to the film’s late producer, director, and star, Tom Laughlin, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82, TRIAL earned $30 million at the box office in just its first thirty days of national release, which would have made it easily the most successful film ever at that time. It isn’t a good film, but it’s certainly unforgettably unique with its occasional bursts of violence, strident yet sincere left-
wing politics, and frequent unintentional hilarity that you may at first believe to be parody until you realize Laughlin has no sense of humor.

Really, this is one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen. Kung fu Vietnam vet Billy Jack (Laughlin’s third time out after THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK) is serving a four-year prison stint for the events of BILLY JACK, and the pacifist Freedom School run by his platonic friend Jean (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real-life wife) is shot up by the National Guard! Most of the film is told by Jean in flashback form from her hospital bed, and Laughlin’s grisly staging of innocent children being slaughtered by Guardsman would never occur in a film today and certainly not with a PG rating!

Laughlin and Taylor have a lot of bones to pick, and they pick them all. Child abuse (a student plays guitar with a hook after an abusive parent cut his hand off in a fit of rage), government corruption, racists, the rights of Indians, police brutality—all are countered with folk singing and lots and lots of preaching. Upon Billy’s release, he explores his Native American half by experiencing hallucinations during a drug trip; slaps a construction worker, a hippie protestor, and Jesus Christ (!); and encounters his mystical, blue-painted double in the “Cave of the Dead.”

A virtually plotless film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK jumps from one social issue to the next, which means a potentially exciting subplot about Jean and Billy Jack organizing a search party into snowy mountains to rescue stranded Indians, who then go untreated at a “white” hospital, is truncated into five or six minutes. The acting is quite bad, though its natural amateurishness sometimes works in its favor (Laughlin leaves in a part where Teda Bracci blows a line, laughs it off, and repeats it correctly). Balancing the clumsy performances are technical values that are impressive for an independent vanity picture, such as Jack Marta’s overwhelming widescreen nature cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s score.

Laughlin dishes out a little of Billy Jack’s backstory, including an arresting flashback in which he witnesses a massacre of Vietnamese women and children by American soldiers, in this bizarre mixture of peacenik sincerity and exploitation. Billy returned one last time in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, which barely played theaters. CBS aired TRIAL in a three-hour prime-time slot in 1980 and again on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1984.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Occult Barrier Between Good And Evil

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.

Running Time 1:17
Directed by Mark Thomas McGee and Dennis Muren
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

EQUINOX (1970)
Running Time 1:22
Directed by Jack Woods
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

If you were a horror fan growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you were undoubtedly aware of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. A monthly magazine published by Warren, which also produced black-and-white magazine-sized comics like EERIE, CREEPY, and VAMPIRELLA, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND enchanted kids with wonderfully evocative articles and stills from science fiction, horror and fantasy movies past and present. Much of it was written by its editor, Forrest J Ackerman (sic), in an inimitable “punny” style that clicked with a young audience fixated on monster movies and special effects. It’s no exaggeration to say that FMoF influenced a generation of future filmmakers, and it’s likely culture-changing hits like STAR WARS may have never existed without it.

In 1965, a trio of young “monster kids” who had met through the FMoF classifieds decided to join forces and make a movie just like the ones they enjoyed watching on late-night TV. Greatly influenced by KING KONG and the special effects wizardry of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the three lads—Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, and David Allen—created THE EQUINOX…A JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERNATURAL on weekends over the course of two years on a budget of only $6500.

Muren is a name many genre fans recognize immediately. He’s an Oscar-winning visual effects technician whose credits include STAR WARS, E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK, and WAR OF THE WORLDS, just to name a handful. Muren was still a teenager when he co-directed his first movie, along with McGee (who went on to write several films for Roger Corman) and Allen, who, like Muren, became renowned for his work in visual effects, specializing in stop-motion animation.

Three years after THE EQUINOX was finally completed, Hollywood producer Jack H. Harris (THE BLOB) bought the picture and hired Jack Woods to write additional scenes and reassemble the cast to direct new footage. The result was titled simply EQUINOX, which played across the United States and found an extra life in TV syndication and home video. Criterion released it in a sumptuous 2-disc DVD that includes not only the theatrical cut, but also—for the first time ever—the original 77-minute version from before Harris and Woods got hold of it.

Both versions have slightly different storylines, but the basic premise remains the same. Four youths—David (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Vicki (Robin Christopher), and Jim (Frank Boers, Jr., who later changed his name to Frank Bonner and became famous as sleazy sales manager Herb Tarlek on WKRP IN CINCINNATI)—hiking through the woods to the cabin of Professor Waterman (fantasy author Fritz Leiber) encounter a crazy old man in a cave who hands them an ancient book. This tome opens a doorway between Earth and a haunted dimension that unleashes a bevy of murderous creatures against them, including a green giant, a Harryhausen-like “Taurus,” and a winged demon. The Woods/Harris version attempts to flesh out a story that doesn’t need it by adding a spooky park ranger, Mr. Asmodeus (Woods), who warns the kids away from the woods, but also takes the time to mesmerize and make out with the two girls in scenes that appear to exist solely for the actor/director’s gratification.

Neither EQUINOX is what I would call “good,” but both are interesting in terms of their admittedly crude special effects. It’s fun guessing how the budding filmmakers pulled off their ambitious vision without much money. A lot of it was done “in the camera” using forced perspective, mirrors, or matte paintings on glass that mingle perfectly with the real background. The paintings were done by another “monster kid,” Jim Danforth, who was already a Hollywood professional on films such as THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO. The stop-motion scenes were mostly directed by Allen using front and rear projection techniques that seem impossible on $6500. I particularly admire the cave set, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was basically a 40-foot cave wall constructed in Muren’s backyard, but, combined with exteriors filmed at Bronson Canyon and another Danforth matte painting, is indistinguishable from a real cave.

I’ve barely mentioned the performers, which is fair when discussing EQUINOX. It’s difficult to accurately measure their work, since EQUINOX was shot without sound using a 16mm Bolex camera, and the voices were post-dubbed later. The cast are inexperienced, but likable; it’s unsurprising that Bonner comes off best. The performances are definitely hurt by Woods’ recutting, which eliminates nearly all the character buildup and backstory, turning the protagonists into teenage ciphers, rather than people we become invested in.

EQUINOX is perhaps the unlikeliest member of the vaunted Criterion Collection, which, according to its Web site, is “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films“ and “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world.” I’m not certain EQUINOX qualifies on those counts, but there’s no denying the film’s impact on a select few individuals who went on to create some of Hollywood’s greatest fantasies.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Be Careful Which Way You Turn

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.

LOST (2005)
Rated R
Running Time 1:25
Directed by Darren Lemke
Stars Dean Cain

“Relaxed” isn’t a word anyone will use to describe LOST, which is a real low-budget gem that managed to eke out a short theatrical run before hitting video stores. Dean Cain has been one of Hollywood’s busiest and most dependable leading men since rising to stardom as the Man of Steel on ABC’s LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, sliding effortlessly between television parts and leading roles in independent genre films. LOST is a revelation, providing Cain with one of the juiciest roles of his career to date. Indeed, the edgy thriller is practically a one-man show.

Cain plays Jeremy Stanton, a Pasadena bank vice-president driving alone across the Nevada desert. He has only a few hours to reach an important destination--the small, insignificant town of Red Ridge--but his outdated road map and an outwardly stressed demeanor helps him to become lost. Only his cell phone, which the anxious yuppie uses to soothe his wife (Irina Bjorklund) and bark at an overly cheery Road-Aid operator (Ashley Scott), keeps him company (perhaps implausibly so, considering that the little bugger manages to consistently get a signal out in the middle of nowhere).

Writer/director Darren Lemke teases us early on with radio news stories about a $6.5 million California bank heist, and it’s inevitable that the crooks will cross Jeremy’s path. However, Lemke deftly dangles the how’s and the why’s before us in an assured manner atypical of a first-time director, carefully doling out plot twists that dangerously toy with our suspension of disbelief.

One reason we go along with it all--the biggest reason, really--is Cain, who isn’t afraid of appearing unsympathetic. Lemke is a little heavy on the symbolism, making it crystal clear to us many times over that Jeremy is not just literally lost on the highway, but has fallen off his moral path out of desperation. It’s obvious that Jeremy is not a particularly nice guy, but Cain’s multi-faceted performance draws us in to a point where we root for him to escape his inevitable doom.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Casting Roger Moore, then flying high as James Bond, as a whiskey-guzzling, woman-hating, cat-loving mercenary is a good idea. One of three times Andrew V. McLaglen directed Moore (also THE WILD GEESE and THE SEA WOLVES), FFOLKES isn’t packed with good ideas, but letting Moore send up his screen image sure is.

Jack Davies wrote the screenplay based on his novel ESTHER, RUTH & JENNIFER and added a good dose of humor, much of it embedded in the characters of Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (sic), Moore’s character, and the main heavy played by PSYCHO’s Anthony Perkins.

ffolkes gets the call after Perkins’ Lou Kramer and his associates hijack an oil platform in the North Sea and demand 25 million pounds from the British government to prevent them from blowing it up. The Brits, in the form of Admiral Brinsden (James Mason), recruit ffolkes and his private undersea army to sneak aboard the platform, nicknamed “Jennifer,” and take Kramer out.

Titled NORTH SEA HIJACK in the United Kingdom and (inexplicably) FFOLKES in the U.S., McLaglen’s thriller lacks the scale and excitement of his other collaborations with Moore, but his two leading men and Davies’ clever plotting keep it watchable.

Moore is having a ball as ffolkes (he likes cats and doesn’t like people who don’t), grumbling about women at sea, rude smokers, and people talking while he’s trying to concentrate on his needlepoint. John Richardson, who brought his effects know-how to the HARRY POTTER franchise, supervised the superb miniatures that sell the illusion of an oil platform under siege during a rainstorm.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Some Things Shouldn't Be Disturbed

A departure from the filmmakers who made popular G-rated Sunn Classics “docudramas” like IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK and THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY, as well as THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS for television. THE BOOGENS is an R-rated horror movie with some nudity and blood, though its slow-burn homage to old-fashioned monster movies of the 1950s lets it stand out from the more violent slasher films that filled screens in 1981.

THE BOOGENS’ screenplay by David O’Malley (FATAL INSTINCT) and GRIMM creator Jim Kouf (hiding behind his “Bob Hunt” pseudonym) is standard genre fare, but director James L. Conway (HANGAR 18) has a good grasp on the material and does a nice job establishing a creepy mood on a reasonable budget (an early crane shot of a woman entering the snowbound cabin where much of the movie takes place establishes the setting clearly and with little fuss). He also gets likable performances from the young foursome who anchors the subterranean thrills. Conway married one of them during production—leading lady Rebecca Balding.

Balding, who had recently starred in another horror film, SILENT SCREAM, and been fired during the first season of LOU GRANT (Linda Kelsey replaced her and went on to earn five Emmy nominations), takes top billing as Trish, a budding reporter who accompanies her school friend Jessica (SLEDGE HAMMER co-star Anne-Marie Martin, who married Michael Crichton and co-wrote TWISTER with him) to a mountain cabin near Silver City, Colorado.

Trish and Jessica’s weekend companions are Jessica’s constantly horny boyfriend Roger (Jeff Harlan) and his friend Mark (Fred McCarren), who are spending the winter helping experienced mining reps Brian (John Crawford) and Dan (Med Flory) open a long-abandoned mine that caved in seventy years earlier, sealing the fates of dozens of trapped workers and spawning decades of legends about what lurks within.

What lurks are toothy, tentacled amphibians with an appetite for flesh and a fresh batch of available prey, thanks to the dynamite that reopened the mine and—unbeknownst to the miners and their lady friends—tunnels that reach the cabin where our four heroes reside. Created and constructed by William Munns (THE BEASTMASTER) and Ken Horn (TOURIST TRAP), the so-called “boogens” are goofy little critters pretty much hidden off-camera until the climax. This is because the one boogen puppet didn’t work very well (and Conway didn’t like it), and the director was left to suggest a whole batch o’ boogens through editing.

THE BOOGENS earns credit for developing its young protagonists better than most horror pictures of the era. We come to like them (though your patience may run short with sex-starved comic Roger), and it hurts when they’re attacked. Conway uses his small cast and isolated setting to good claustrophobic effect, and casting established authority types Crawford (then known as the sheriff on THE WALTONS) and Flory provides a false sense of security.

Although its relatively soft approach clashed with the blood-soaked stalk-and-slash horror films that were popular in 1981, THE BOOGENS was a hit for Jensen Farley, its distributor. Director Conway left features for episodic television, directing series like SUPERNATURAL and 90210 well into the 21st century, while producer Charles E. Sellier continued the Sunn tradition of faith-based junk documentaries (but not before directing the controversial SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT for the 1984 Christmas season). THE BOOGENS filmed in Park City, Utah, where Sunn Classic was based.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


My disappointment at discovering a film called BLASTFIGHTER was not Italian post-apocalypse science fiction was quickly dispelled after the film’s first conversation, which is about an amazing new shotgun that fires bullets, rockets, darts, grenades…pretty much anything you can think of. Then when the banjo kid from DELIVERANCE pops up seven minutes in (not played by Martin Short), I knew what I was in for.

Nope, BLASTFIGHTER, released in the U.S. in 1985, isn't sci-fi, but is in fact a ripoff of FIRST BLOOD filmed by Italian director Lamberto Bava (DEMONS) in Clayton, Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains. BLASTFIGHTER may not be what I expected, but it’s still a typically crazy spaghetti actioner with weird dialogue and outrageous stunts.

Michael Sopkiw has been compared to James Dean—not because of his acting ability, but because he starred in four Italian action movies in quick succession and then vanished. One of them was BLASTFIGHTER, where he plays Tiger Sharp, a former Atlanta cop who spent eight years in the joint for killing his wife’s murderer. He returns to his mountain cabin, where he wants to be left alone, but drunken poachers who butcher wildlife for money keep messing with him. One of them is Wally (Stefano Mingardo), the younger brother of Tiger’s childhood friend Tom (George Eastman).

Eventually, Wally’s bloodlust escalates from killing deer to killing humans. That’s when Tiger pulls out his “blastfighter” and goes apeshit Rambo-style on every redneck in town. Many corpses and exploding cars ensue. Bava even introduces Tiger’s long-lost daughter Connie, though the casting of a twentysomething Valentina Forte against the thirty-year-old Sopkiw gives off confusing vibes. Sopkiw has a funny walk—real stiff-like, as if he were still uncomfortable being photographed—but he’s just fine as an action lead, throwing punches and leaping about like a real pro. BLASTFIGHTER delivers the goods.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Blood Beach

Great title, great tagline (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can't get to it!), but the film never lives up to either. Good cast too, including John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON), Otis Young (THE LAST DETAIL), Marianna Hill (HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER), and Burt Young (ROCKY).

The exception is, unfortunately, the star of the picture, David Huffman (LAST PLANE OUT), playing a beach cop named Harry Caulder who witnesses the disappearance of his elderly neighbor. After a few more beach attacks, including a teenage girl and a rapist (who looks like Chris Berman) whose crank is torn off, investigating cops Otis Young and Burt Young (playing a Chicagoan named Royko) start to believe the killer is some sort of monster that crawls beneath the Santa Monica Pier.

The screenplay by director Jeffrey Bloom (FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC) and producer Steven Nalevansky harkens back to the cheap monster flicks of the 1950s, but with humor and occasionally sharp dialogue. The Youngs are entertaining as bickering cops, and Saxon delivers a wry turn as their frustrated captain. He’s the authority figure that has to make you believe there really is a monster sucking people into the sand, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t. It’s a shame the movie isn’t up to the veteran actors’ level.

Frankly, BLOOD BEACH is boring. The creatures’ victims have to act like dimwits to get them out to the beach where they can be attacked, and since Bloom refrains from showing the monster until the very end (it looks like a rubber artichoke), they’re all killed in the same manner. Someone should have told Bloom that variety is the spice of life.

Fists Of Steel

If FISTS OF STEEL were just a little better or a little worse, it would stand as a trash-film classic. It has a lot of hilarious crazy stuff in it, including the most amazing ending in the history of American cinema.

Unfortunately, under the unsteady hand of producer/writer/director Jerry Schafer (LIKE IT IS), it lumbers through some of the worst-edited scenes I’ve ever seen. When someone drives away, Schafer shows them tipping the valet, getting in the car, starting it, and driving it all the way down the driveway. One scene’s only reason for existence is for two characters to agree to meet in a half hour, yet Schafer then cuts to their later meeting. Why the need for the earlier scene? The strangest editing choice is the disappearance of one of the main villains, who is sent to Managua to assassinate a character we’ve never seen and has no bearing on the plot.

The star is Carlos Palomino, the former WBC Welterweight Champion of the World who must have shot this not long after his ten-round loss to Roberto Duran sent him into retirement. Not a total acting amateur after guest spots on TV shows like HILL STREET BLUES and KNIGHT RIDER (where he played himself), Palomino stars as Carlos Diaz, a Vietnam vet with steel joints where his knuckles used to be (hence the title, which is literally true in this case). Schafer does less with this gimmick than you might expect, since the guys Carlos hits still manage to continue fighting a lot longer than I would after running into a fist of steel.

One of his ‘Nam buddies, George Breenberg (Sam Melville, a former star of THE ROOKIES), is now with the CIA and recruits Carlos for a dangerous mission in Hawaii. The target is a Middle Eastern assassin named Shogi, who is first seen dressed in a baseball uniform and smashing someone’s head with a wooden bat. Next, he dresses as a surgeon and uses a syringe to drop acid into a guy’s eyeball. Shogi is assisted by “beautiful Katrina” (Marianne Marks), who is supposed to be Russian, but looks Latina and speaks with a cartoony Natasha Fatale accent. She really enjoys killing, seems to get off on it (a crossbow bolt to the face is her specialty), and she’s the one who is mysteriously banished to Nicaragua. So I guess Katrina is still alive out there and available for use in the sequel.

Shogi is played by the great Henry Silva, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like SHARKY’S MACHINE, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and BRONX WARRIORS 2. Nobody in movies curses like Henry Silva, and as usual, he’s by far the most entertaining aspect of FISTS OF STEEL. He’s also the key to the amazing ending, which will blindside you with the same baseball bat Henry used on the guy at the beginning of the movie (though to be fair, Schafer does sort of foreshadow that something stupid this way comes).

Shogi’s murders to begin the movie are government agents, which is why Breenberg needs Carlos, a total amateur, to go undercover and get Shogi. Schafer’s plot makes no sense, as Shogi’s goons (which include BLACK SAMSON’s Rockne Tarkington and Robert Tessier) try to kill him almost as soon as Carlos hits Oahu. Meanwhile, he’s killing them back, and the whole plan would have been a lot easier if one side just walked up to the other and pulled a trigger. Less entertaining for us, but much easier for them.

Also working for Shogi is a nightclub singer alternately called Girl and Julie. I’ll just come right out and tell you that she’s played by Kenny Kerr, a man in drag (given special Introducing honors in the opening titles). This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s obvious from Kerr’s first appearance that she isn’t what she appears to be, which leaves you wondering whether or not we’re supposed to know what we know and whether the people in the movie are supposed to know. Well, no and no—it comes as a big surprise to Carlos when she finally whips off her wig and bra to lay some heavy kung fu moves on him, and Schafer stages it as a big reveal.

I hope I’ve made FISTS OF STEEL sound ridiculous (there’s even a Bond-villain scene where Silva orders the assassination of a traitor during a lavish dinner attended by lovely prostitutes), because it is. Oh, also Melville dresses in blackface as a hotel maid for no good reason I noticed. Nothing I’ve mentioned will prepare you for Schafer’s ending, which…just…ah, hell, you just gotta see it. I clapped when I saw it.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

They Don't Call Them That For Nothing

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.

Rated PG
Running Time 1:32
1974, Color (DeLuxe)

As the optimism and opulence of the flower-power Sixties crumbled seemingly overnight into the dubiosity and paranoia of the Watergate-era Seventies, Hollywood’s concept of what constituted a hero underwent enormous change. The white-hat virtuousness typified by John Wayne was out. Our new “good guys” were often barely more scrupulous as the heavies. Sure, popular fiction had always had its share of anti-heroes—Robin Hood, for instance—but the new breed didn’t necessarily care who they robbed, and they certainly didn’t give the loot away.

Heroes didn’t get much more “anti” than in DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, which overcame a meager plot and wafer-thin characters to become one of 20th Century Fox’s leading moneymakers of 1974. Compared to today’s bloated action blockbusters, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY almost seems like an anti-movie. No visual effects, no attempts to homogenize or sugarcoat its characters, not even a musical score designed to slather emotional keywords over the storyline. The only music heard are songs played over the credits and source music emanating from a car radio.

Directed by John Hough, a British TV vet (THE AVENGERS) who made a truckload of money for Fox with 1973’s efficient shocker THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY also has the distinction of being shot 100% “real.” Not an inch of film was shot using process photography, special effects, undercranking, or any other cinematic trick to make the car chases appear faster or more exciting. The supercharged automobiles and helicopters that squeal, burn, leap, and smash their way through DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s high-octane story traveled at speed of 100 mph or more, and were often driven by the movie’s star, Peter Fonda.

Fonda, who graduated to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors in films like ULEE’S GOLD (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) and THE LIMEY, was extremely popular at the time with young audiences, many of whom sported THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER posters on their wall. His gift was projecting a uniquely narcissistic type of cool, a way of telling the world—and, more apropos, The Man—to screw off, while still maintaining the audience’s trust. Even when Fonda was playing a Grade-A jackass, his fans responded in droves.

Fonda plays Larry Rayder, a disillusioned NASCAR driver who teams up with his alcoholic mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke, another graduate from AIP biker flicks), to rob a supermarket (Roddy McDowall plays the manager, unbilled) and outrace the cops to the border. You get the sense that, for Larry, the robbery isn’t so much about the dough, but about recapturing the exhilaration and danger he used to feel on the racetrack. They pull off a perfect heist, except for one thing: unwanted tag-along Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-nighter who forces herself along on the escape simply because she has nothing better to do.

In pursuit of the trio is trooper Everett Franklin, an obsessive, relentless lawman portrayed by COMBAT!’s Vic Morrow, who was almost exclusively a television actor, but with the power and magnetism of a film star. His performance is DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s best, in that Franklin is just as anti-establishment in his manner and dress as the rebels he’s chasing. His boss calls him on the carpet for sporting long hair and sideburns and refusing to carry a gun and a badge. Franklin may be the only “redneck sheriff” of the era not to despise hippies; after all, in many ways, he’s one of them. But he does hate lawbreakers, and there seems to be very little he won’t do to capture one.

That’s all the plot Hough needs to get this movie going. More than half of the 92-minute running time is dedicated to the spectacular car chases and stunts that made DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s reputation as one of the all-time great drive-in flicks. The realization that the leading actors are actually driving the cars at eye-blurring speeds gives the action a level of verisimilitude lacking in today’s CGI-laden features. An unintentional side-effect results from the shots of Morrow inside a helicopter that’s chasing Larry’s cherry ’69 Dodge Charger. The chopper is flying down tree-lined roads literally inches from the roof of the Charger, and it’s impossible not to watch these scenes, as thrilling as they are, and not be reminded of the part a helicopter played in Morrow’s tragic death in 1982.

I’d be remiss in discussing DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY without mentioning the nihilistic ending, which has become one of the most famous “twists” in cult cinema history and definitely played a major role in the film’s everlasting popularity among car buffs and “heads” looking for the Next Big Thing in Existential Cinema. What is Hough trying to say? Who cares, man? The car stunts are far out.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A Fire In The Sky

NBC produced and aired A FIRE IN THE SKY in 1978. Director Jerry Jameson filmed the three-hour (with commercials) all-star disaster thriller in Arizona. It earned Emmy nominations for its special effects and sound editing.

Scientists Joanna Miles (THE GLASS MENAGERIE) and Richard Crenna (FIRST BLOOD) discover a comet is headed toward Earth on a collision course with Phoenix, Arizona. President of the United States Andrew Duggan (BOURBON STREET BEAT) leaves the decision of whether or not to evacuate to Governor Nicolas Coster (LOBO). Rich white men, including insurance magnate Lloyd Bochner (DYNASTY), sit around the Governor’s office discussing the financial ramifications of evacuating the state and deciding it will be cheaper to keep quiet.

Television station owner Elizabeth Ashley (THE CARPETBAGGERS) wants to know what’s going on, so she assigns young reporter Maggie Wellman (THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT) to vamp the info out of newspaper editor David Dukes (THE WINDS OF WAR), who just happens to be Ashley’s husband. On the outskirts of the main story are scout leader Merlin Olsen (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE), taking his boys on a desert camping trip, and young lovers Michael Biehn (ALIENS) and Cindy Eilbacher’s plans to marry.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE author Paul Gallico developed the story, which was massaged into teleplay form by Michael Blankfort (THE CAINE MUTINY) and Dennis Nemec (MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY). It’s a good script with suspense and rich characters that manages to remain interesting all the way through, as tight editing keeps the pace up despite the picture’s excessive length.

Expertly anchored by Crenna, who makes the scientific talk sound believable, A FIRE IN THE SKY saves its destruction for the end, where decent special effects overcome pedestrian direction by Jameson (AIRPORT ’77). A FIRE IN THE SKY aired during November sweeps, several months before the similar-but-worse METEOR played in theaters.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Final Chapter In The Apes Saga

With director J. Lee Thompson, star Roddy McDowall, and writer Paul Dehn all reuniting from the superior CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, one could reasonably expect a much better film to result than 1973’s BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Perhaps the blame lies with husband-and-wife screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington, who turned Dehn’s story into a working screenplay, though it is reported that Dehn polished the Corringtons’ script, and the couple later disavowed much of the film, including the laughable final shot, which they blamed on Dehn.

Not that Thompson should be let off the hook, because his action scenes, which were so vibrant and nasty in CONQUEST, are pallid this time around. Trying to create an accurate timeline for the APES films is useless, but BATTLE mostly takes place maybe a couple of decades after CONQUEST, during which time the Earth was leveled by nuclear holocaust. Caesar (McDowall) leads a peaceful mixed community of apes and humans, but their communal way of life is threatened from within and without. Not only are General Aldo (Claude Akins) and his gorilla army plotting to overthrow Caesar, but also planning an attack is Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), who leads a race of post-nuke mutants left alive to forage beneath the ruins of the Forbidden City.

As opposed to the intelligent metaphor on race relations that Thompson and Dehn crafted in CONQUEST, this fifth APES film seems made for children with an overabundance of melodrama and simplified characterizations. Although McDowall is fine (if maybe somewhat bored) as Caesar and Austin Stoker (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) acts with authority as MacDonald (the brother of Hari Rhodes’ CONQUEST character), the acting is a mixed bag with Lew Ayres providing humor and warmth as the keeper of Ape City’s arms and Akins struggling with an underwritten one-note character. Darden and the other mutants are left with less than one note to play and mouthfuls of pompous dialogue.

Faced with underwhelming box office and probably little idea of where to take the series next, Fox turned to television, spinning off McDowall in a team-up with humans Ron Harper and James Naughton in the PLANET OF THE APES series, which only lasted thirteen weeks. Leonard Rosenman provides BATTLE with a serviceable score, and France Nuyen, Noah Keen, Richard Eastham, Bobby Porter, and Paul Stevens co-star.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Revolt Of The Apes

The most violent and incendiary of the four original APES sequels, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, released with a PG rating in 1972, is no less than a call to arms for the oppressed ape nation. Allowed a very low budget from 20th Century Fox (the lowest of any APE film), director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) took advantage of an intelligent Paul Dehn (GOLDFINGER) screenplay and cleverly redressed Century City locations to fashion a powerful film about slavery and insurrection.

Twenty years after the world’s only talking chimpanzee was left in the secret care of circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the now-adult Milo (top-billed Roddy McDowall, who is fantastic) is separated from his adoptive father and sold into slavery. A plague that killed all the world’s dogs and cats led people to adopt simians as pets, which evolved (devolved?) into training them to perform household chores and eventually using them as slave labor.

Now dubbed Caesar—his new owner, the tyrannical Governor Breck (Don Murray), leader of the totalitarian North American sector, allowed him to choose his own name—the highly intelligent chimp becomes fed up with the humans’ mistreatment and even physical torture of his species and organizes a rebellion, while simultaneously being hunted by Breck’s men.

The metaphors may not be subtle, but they are effective, particularly the casting of black actor Hari Rhodes (TROUBLE MAN) as Breck’s aide McDonald, the lone sympathetic (re: liberal) member of the cruel human member’s staff. Thompson and cinematographer Bruce Surtees shoot the action tight, probably to conceal the parts of the Century City locations that didn’t look futuristic. This gives the film a claustrophobic effect, and combined with the fire effects and ghostly lighting in the climax, turns McDowall’s Caesar into a demon straight out of Hell.

Fox junked Thompson’s original cut out of fear of garnering an R rating from the MPAA (and likely of rattling the cages of sedate moviegoers who wanted to forget the real race riots that raged across America just a few years earlier) and replaced the director’s ending with a more peaceful one (cobbled together sloppily in post-production). Thompson and Dehn’s original ending is much better, as Caesar inspires his followers not to lay down their arms, but to beat down their captors and spark a worldwide revolution.

The acting across the board is strong with McDowall, Montalban, and Rhodes taking top honors. Murray has a properly nasty way of throwing orders at his jackbooted police, and Severn Darden inspires squirms as Breck’s chief torturer. Also co-starring are Natalie Trundy (as a chimp this time), Lou Wagner, Gordon Jump, William Bryant, H.M. Wynant, and John Randolph (SECONDS). Tom Scott (UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT) delivers an uneasy (in the best possible sense) score with a dose of Goldsmith. BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES followed a year later.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shotgun Wedding

Low-rent LI’L ABNER retread is notable only because of its screenplay reportedly written by PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE auteur Edward D. Wood Jr., though a “Larry Lee” is credited. The plot and dialogue in the 1963 indie SHOTGUN WEDDING seem too coherent to be a Wood joint, but maybe the script was polished by producer/director Boris L. Petroff (ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO) and his wife Jane Mann (who takes story credit). By this time, Wood was well into his second career of writing sex-soaked paperback novels, but SHOTGUN WEDDING is decidedly lacking in sleaze and sin. It even has a fun musical number at a wedding.

It’s a soapy day in southern Mudcat Landing, population 47. Noted character actor J. Pat O’Malley gets top billing as Buford Anchors, a moonshiner and “river rat” who decides to marry his live-in companion, the vixenish brunette Melanie, played by the decidedly va-va-voomy Valerie Allen (PILLOW TALK), after she reveals that she’s pregnant. Despite the film’s light tone, most of the characters are really genial louts. Buford is blackmailing Melanie because he saw her shoot a circus strongman, and she hasn’t lit out of town because she can’t find the bundle Buford has hidden. She’s also having an affair with Buford’s Jethroesque son Chub (Peter Colt).

Meanwhile, Buford’s daughter Lucianne (Nan Peterson) is blackmailing Chub to stay quiet about the affair, another son (Rafe, played by Buzz Martin) is romancing sweet and stacked Honeybee (Jenny Maxwell), and her angry, uptight father Silas (Jackie Searl) and his omnipresent shotgun are dedicated to keeping his daughter unblemished. Best of all is ubiquitous character actor William Schallert (everything from THE PATTY DUKE SHOW to TRUE BLOOD) as a con artist posing as the local preacher, who recognizes Melanie from her carnival days (it’s implied she was a stripper) and demands a fee to keep her secret.

SHOTGUN WEDDING is so light, one fears it may blow away right in front of you. Petroff’s flat TV-like direction makes the film look as substantial as a PETTICOAT JUNCTION episode, and the humor is not quite at the same level. Surprisingly, for a film with Wood’s name attached to it, SHOTGUN WEDDING is professionally made (if obviously quite inexpensive) in Arizona with decent acting (Schallert is great) and a trio of beautiful women not always wearing a lot of clothes. It certainly belies its absurdly exploitative ad campaign, which promised a child bride, even though the film is as chaste as a Sixties sitcom.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stop The World

After the clones and aliens and Nazi terrors of previous Death Merchant novels, THE BUDAPEST ACTION's heavies are something of a comedown. Granted, the Russian and Hungarian military officers who are the Death Merchant's targets in this 1977 novel from Pinnacle are nasty, brutal, evil monsters, but still are less interesting than the giants from outer space promised in earlier books.

Richard Camellion--aka the Death Merchant--continues to be the most violent of all men's adventure "heroes," racking up another body count in the hundreds, as well as razing a whole damn castle. The Russians and the Hungarians are holding in Karolyi Castle a biochemist named Imre Maleter, who is creating a hallucinogen gas capable of affecting the entire population of a major city without hurting any infrastructure. Obviously, the CIA wants Maleter captured or dead and the gas formula destroyed. Who better to send than Camellion, who this time is teamed with a pipe-chomping CIA agent named Ray Merrit, who suspects, but doesn't know, that his partner is the fabled Death Merchant.

As usual, author Joseph Rosenberger has packed the book with page after page of graphic violence, never flinching to describe to the nth degree what tremendous damage a bullet or a bomb can inflict on a human body. While the Death Merchant novels are by far the most action-packed books I've ever read, too much of a good thing can become tedious, and the fortieth consecutive page of Camellion and his team mowing down AVO troopers gets a little old. The most interesting aspect of THE BUDAPEST ACTION is that Camellion and Merrit are teamed with a small army of priests who are seeking to bring down the Communist empire, and it's odd to read about priests machine-gunning people. Camellion himself is undercover as a priest named Father Krim.

All in all, typical Death Merchant blood-letting here. By the way, for more on Rosenberger, see the Glorious Trash blog, where Joe Kenney unearthed a long-lost interview with the author from a 1981 fanzine.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It Speaks For Itself

If Disney had made an R-rated comedy about a talking vagina, it would probably resemble CHATTERBOX. Despite its raunchy premise, the 1977 AIP release is a sweet, good-natured, old-fashioned (yes) nudie cutie with barely a smidgen of sleaze. As directed by Tom DeSimone, whose background was in pornography, CHATTERBOX would make a great double feature with the equally sweet THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL.

Candice Rialson, a bubbly, charismatic regular in 1970s drive-in features (such as HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS), plays Penny, a nice hairdresser who is astonished, as anyone would be, to discover one night while making love with her boyfriend Ted (Perry Bullington) that her That’s right. It talks. And not kindly either, insulting Ted’s sexual prowess, causing him to storm out of his relationship with Penny. It also sings. Quite well, in fact.

After “Virginia” causes a lesbian client (Arlene Martel) to come on to Penny and her boss (friggin’ Rip Taylor!) to yell at her, a harried Penny visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman, a BOB NEWHART SHOW semi-regular who had just acted in the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND), who sees in Virginia not a freak or a pervert, but a ticket to fame and fortune. Exploiting Penny’s hidden skill to the max, Dr. Pearl helps her become the world’s top singing sensation, cutting a hit record (“Wang Dang Doodle”), performing on television (a talk show hosted by Professor Irwin Corey!), appearing on the cover of TIME, and even making a minor celebrity of her sycophantic mother (ex-Honeymooner Jane Kean).

Although one would be tempted to believe a comedy about a singing sex organ would be reckless with the smut, the humor is about on the level of TV sitcom with a bit of slapstick mixed in. Even the way in which the action is blocked and scored seems to anticipate a laugh track. The sex scenes are relatively antiseptic, and although Rialson’s top half is often on display, “Virginia” is always discreetly covered or hidden from view, even when she’s talking on the telephone. Okay, so the constant punning (Virginia’s favorite TV show is, of course, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) is somewhat juvenile—the screenplay is credited to Mark Rosin (THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) and Norman Yamemoto (SAVAGE STREETS—but DeSimone manufactures a family-friendly approach that makes it easy to overlook its superficial flaws and admire its good-naturedness.

Much of the film’s success is due to its leading lady. 24-year-old Rialson appears in every scene and is completely up to the task of carrying a nutty concept on her Santa Monica-born shoulders. Fans of Rialson’s body, both in and out of her clothing, will exalt in her many topless scenes; her casual attitude towards the nudity helps deflect any feelings of exploitation. She brings a great vulnerability to Penny, which lends much needed weight to the farfetched story.

Oddly enough, Rialson never again appeared in a leading role, and, in fact, only a bit part in William Richert’s WINTER KILLS lie ahead in her career. It has been said that CHATTERBOX was her career-killer, that producers were leery of casting the star of a talking vagina movie in their filmes. Although her biggest parts were in low-budget drive-in movies, Rialson was an appealing screen presence and possessed a natural beauty and charm the equal of another California blonde who went on to mainstream success: Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not that I want to make CHATTERBOX out to be more than it really is. In the hands of a cruder filmmaker than DeSimone (ironic, I realize) or a less likable actress than Rialson, it would come off as offensive and stupid, rather than the surprisingly fluffy comedy that it is.

DeSimone went on to a pretty steady mainstream exploitation career, directing the Linda Blair slasher HELL NIGHT and the third ANGEL installment. Jonathan Demme’s regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shot CHATTERBOX, and several songs were contributed by none other than Neil Sedaka! Garry Shandling later made a movie about a humming penis, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, directed by Mike Nichols. It wasn’t a hit.

Monday, November 11, 2013

$1000 Against Death By Fright

Director/producer William Castle’s 1958 suspense film MACABRE opens with a narrator asking audience members to keep an eye on the person sitting next to them in case fear makes their neighbor uncontrollable. Lloyd’s of London offered a thousand-dollar insurance policy to anyone who died of fright while watching MACABRE. I doubt anyone collected, but Castle loved the idea so much that his name became synonymous with promotional gimmicks, such as the joy buzzers that zapped certain bums during showings of THE TINGLER and “Emergo”—nothing more than a plastic skeleton that scurried over the heads of those watching HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Oddly, MACABRE isn’t a horror movie, but a tale of straight suspense. A small town doctor (William Prince, better known for playing dozens of obsequious heavies on '70s television) is rocked when his little girl is kidnapped and buried alive somewhere with less than five hours of oxygen. Prince is carrying some secrets that have caused the townspeople not to trust him, including the mysterious recent deaths of his wife and his sister-in-law—both of whom were daughters of Jode Wetherby (Philip Tonge), the richest man in town. Also involved in the plot are Prince's nurse (Jacqueline Brooks), his fiance (Susan Morrow), and the nasty-seeming police chief (Jim Backus).

Castle’s films aren’t generally known for their visual flair, but MACABRE’s night sequences are bolstered by nice black-and-white photography by Carl Guthrie. If only the rest of the film was as good. Characters act with a startling lack of urgency, so if they don’t seem to care about saving the girl (whom we don’t know at all), why should we? Scripter Robb White (HOMICIDAL) waters down the excitement in other ways too, such as having the characters stop their frantic search to talk about their pasts, triggering flashbacks that slow the pace.

Based on the novel THE MARBLE FOREST by “Theo Durrant” (actually several mystery authors masquerading under a pseudonym), MACABRE’s twist ending may provide legitimate story reasons for its unusual structure and pacing, but they unfortunately detract, rather than add to the film’s appeal. Les Baxter’s playful score and the cast’s reliable thesping are worth a watch, however. Nice work by the supporting cast, including Christine White, Dorothy Morris, Jonathan Kidd, Ellen Corby, and THE TIME TUNNEL’s Robert Colbert in an unbilled part.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

No One Dictates To Bronson

Charles Bronson plays a retired assassin named Holland in THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, a bloody thriller shot in Mexico. Bronson made a lot of sleazy films during the 1980s, most of them directed by J. Lee Thompson (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), but few plumbed the depths of depravity that this film does.

Amid the bloodshed is a shotgun blast to the head, torture by battery cables attached to the genitals, Bronson twisting a baddie’s junk with both hands, and a man ravaged by dozens of pick-wielding miners as Thompson's camera lingers on the gory remains. However, the most harrowing scene contains no physical violence at all. To lure Bronson out of retirement from his cushy island retreat to kill a notorious torturer known as the Doctor (Joseph Maher), humanitarian physician Hector Lomelin (Jose Ferrer) plays him a videotape in which the madman’s victims describe in detail the physical horrors inflicted upon them. It’s harrowing stuff for a mainstream action film, but it sure gives the audience a reason to take Bronson’s side.

The Doctor's clients include Central American puppet regimes and the U.S. government, which allows Thompson and screenwriters David Lee Henry (ROAD HOUSE) and John Crowther (KILL AND KILL AGAIN) to examine the CIA's complicated relationship with Central America during the 1980s in the context of a Charles Bronson thriller. To get into Guatemala without raising suspicion, Bronson poses as a family man accompanied by his “wife” Rhiana (Theresa Saldana), the widow of Holland’s journalist friend who was a Doctor victim.

The plot, based on R. Lance Hill’s 1978 novel, doesn’t get much more complex than that, as Holland picks off the Doctor’s henchmen and then kidnaps the sadist’s similarly perverse sister (Antoinette Bower) to lure the Doctor into the open. The effete Maher (SISTER ACT) is an interesting choice as heavy, playing the Doctor with a dignified air, despite his casual sadism. Saldana is certainly sympathetic in her first feature since surviving a stalker's murder attempt. She struggles, though, with a poorly drawn character who berates Holland for being a cold-blooded killer, yet insists on accompanying him on his mission.

Tri-Star released THE EVIL THAT MEN DO in September 1984, where it debuted at #2 at the box office just behind the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin body-switch comedy ALL OF ME. Hard to believe there was much crossover between audiences that weekend. Except me, that is.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

That Boy Is Trouble, Pete

MONDAY MORNING FATHER isn't the most exciting of novels, but neither was ROOM 222, the television series upon which the book is based, the most exciting of shows.

Which is not a knock against ROOM 222, a thoughtful, interesting, and warm show about a Los Angeles high school. It ran four-and-a-half seasons on ABC, was nominated for several awards, and was created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, whose next series was THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. So clearly ROOM 222 was a show that delighted many people from network executives on down to folks watching their Zeniths after supper. But it was a very...quiet show.

And author William Johnston captured this very nicely in MONDAY MORNING FATHER, the second of six ROOM 222 tie-in novels, all written by Johnston. He captures the tone of the series and the voices of its characters (as delineated by a talented group of actors) perfectly. If the book has a major fault, it's the minor role handed to Alice Johnson, the plucky student teacher played by Karen Valentine. But Johnston's story of familiar discord is told so professionally that fans of ROOM 222 may not even notice.

This is a book written primarily for teenagers. The plot is bland, for sure, but it no doubt struck a chord with many readers during the turbulent Generation-Gap era in which it was published (1970). Pete Dixon (played in the series by the late Lloyd Haynes), Walt Whitman High's good-natured history teacher, is being followed around school by student Harmon Henry. Not in a stalker-ish way, but Harmon is really pushing some boundaries. He's having trouble at home with his widowed father, professional football star Ham Henry, and appears to be staking out Pete as his new dad.

While Pete and his girlfriend, guidance counselor Liz McIntire (Denise Nicholas), decide how to handle the separation between father and son, principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) offers comic relief by fantasizing about ditching the school scene to become a handyman or an ice cream salesman. Typical storylines for ROOM 222, and handled quite well by Johnston (with happy endings, of course).

I don't know what Johnston's television-watching habits were, but he had a real talent for tie-in writing and adapted many shows, including GET SMART, BEWITCHED, IRONSIDE, THEN CAME BRONSON, F TROOP, and THE MONKEES. To do this well, to capture the essence of these shows and reproduce them in book form in a way that feels familiar to their fans, is a tough job.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It Started As A Vacation

Here it is: the directorial debut of King of the World James Cameron, who earned the shot after a few years working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as a production designer, art director, visual effects technician, model maker, second unit director, and who knows what other odd jobs.

You would never know from watching 1981's PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING that the director’s next film would be something as brilliant as THE TERMINATOR, though to be fair, executive producer Ovidio Assonitis fired Cameron during post-production and cobbled the film together himself. I just wish the pompous Cameron still had the sense of humor to write a movie about man-eating fish that fly over the beach, glom onto the necks of unsuspecting tourists, and chomp away.

Yep, that’s right—these piranha have wings and can fly, though they look like cheap rubber props on sticks being batted against the faces of the game actors (not that the effects in Joe Dante’s wonderful PIRANHA were a lot better).

A diving instructor (top-billed Tricia O’Neil, who later had a small part in TITANIC), her horny student (the obnoxious Steve Marachuk), and the local police chief (the great Lance Henriksen) investigate when one of O’Neil’s students is munched to death off the coast of a Caribbean resort. The winged fishies are, of course, the result of the U.S. government tampering in God’s domain. Do the officials of the beachside hotel evacuate in order to avoid a panic? Ho ho, that’s a laugh.

Assonitis probably cast Henriksen, who previously starred in the producer’s THE VISITOR. He’s terrific as the male lead and worked for Cameron twice more in THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS. One hallmark of a Cameron joint is a strong female lead, and it’s O’Neil as the police chief’s estranged wife who carries the ball in PIRANHA PART TWO. She worked primarily in television, where she didn’t often land roles as good as this one, even if it is in a middling Italian horror film. The stars are better than PIRANHA PART TWO deserves (well, not Marachuk, who’s a lox), but the boobs, blood, laughable special effects, and Henriksen leaping from a toy helicopter offer a few thrills.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jaws Of Death

Just another JAWS ripoff out of Italy, THE GREAT ALLIGATOR aired five times on THE CBS LATE MOVIE, where it probably put a lot of night owls to sleep. It not only is bad, it’s even bad as far as movies about killer alligators go. Admittedly, the last twenty minutes or so build up an entertaining body count (and the best views of the schlocky effects work), but there isn’t much to enjoy until then.

THE GREAT ALLIGATOR, also seen overseas as THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER, has the same plot as the other JAWS rips: a really, really big ‘gator is eating the guests of Mel Ferrer’s new jungle resort. Photographer Claudio Cassinelli (SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) and hotel manager/anthropologist Bach (CAVEMAN) try to convince Mel (SCARAMOUCHE) to close the hotel and save the guests, but—pshaw—there’s money to be made. THE GREAT ALLIGATOR provides an unusual twist, however, in that the local natives (director Sergio Martino shot the movie in Sri Lanka) believe the monster gator is their god, which they call Kooma, and fight back with flaming arrows against the white heroes who want to kill it.

Because this story development calls for the delectable Bach to be captured, stripped, and trussed up by the river to act as a human sacrifice for Kooma, it must be considered a notch in the film’s favor. It’s also what convinces Ferrer to finally listen to Cassinelli’s cries for help, but it’s too late—Kooma tears through the hotel’s guest list like Raymond Burr at an Amish buffet.

Martino takes care to hide his stiff-as-a-board model alligator, but it still doesn’t fool anybody any more than the phony-looking miniatures do. For some reason, Richard Johnson (THE HAUNTING) cameos as a lunatic hermit priest whose character makes as little sense as his acting choices. A lot of the cast and crew worked on Martino’s ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN around the same time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dance, My Little Sex Bombs!

1964's KISS ME QUICK was the first film produced by Harry Novak, who founded Boxoffice International Pictures and flooded drive-ins and grindhouses with so-called “nudie-cuties” (light-hearted sex romps that often reached the rim of hard-X pornography without going over the edge) and “roughies” (which mixed harsh violence with sex). The cinematographer was the great Laszlo Kovacs, who went on to shoot EASY RIDER, SHAMPOO, and GHOSTBUSTERS, and KISS ME QUICK is probably the best-looking color nudie film ever made (not a high bar, admittedly). The story is dumb, but it achieves its goal of creating a passable reason to put dancing naked girls on-screen, and it’s surprisingly funny and clever (and probably written by director Peter Perry).

The (fake) credits are read by an unseen female narrator. A stacked blonde lies on a table and takes forever to get undressed. She’s under the influence of a sex machine built by the mad scientist Dr. Breedlove (Max Gardens), who looks like Peter Sellers in DR. STRANGELOVE and talks like Bela Lugosi. He orders three strippers to dance (I’m partial to the second blonde, but Perry’s favorite is Natasha, the brunette with the giant wig and ponytail).

The plot, such as it is, finally gets underway with the arrival of Sterilox (Frank Coe, inexplicably performing as Stan Laurel, but why not?), who transports from the Buttless Galaxy at the command of The Grand Glom to kidnap the perfect Earth woman and bring her back for breeding. The Frankenstein Monster, a female mummy (in a rubber mask), and Count Dracula appear in (awful) makeup that somehow eluded Universal’s lawyers. Occasionally, a skull turns to the camera and makes a non sequitur wisecrack in a Peter Lorre voice. The dialogue seems inspired by MAD, and Gardens, a Los Angeles burlesque theater owner who co-produced with Novak, delivers his with a real gleam in his eye.

The script for KISS ME QUICK must have looked more like a pamphlet, because the film is primarily devoted to various bump-and-grind sequences (“Dance! Dance, my little sex bombs!”), sometimes to soft piano music and sometimes to wild garage rock credited to a band called The Gallstones. My patience for nudie-cuties is pretty short, but KISS ME QUICK held my attention, thanks to Kovacs’ colorful photography and inventive angles and the thick layer of jokes (groaners they may be) spread over the dancing scenes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It Will Freeze Your Blood

Screenwriters Glenn Leopold and Neal Barbera, whose credits are mainly in Saturday morning cartoons, open THE PROWLER with a flashback to 1945, when a young couple was gruesomely slaughtered during the annual graduation dance, presumably by a returning G.I. upset over the girl’s “Dear John” letter.

Thirty-five years later, a string of similar serial killings occurs the same night as the first dance since the first murder. With Sheriff Fraser (Farley Granger, a long way from Hitchcock’s ROPE) out of town on a fishing trip, it falls on young deputy Mark (Christopher Goutman) and his girlfriend Pam (Vicky Dawson) to trap the killer before all of their friends turn up dead.

The psycho, played by first assistant director Peter Giuliano in a World War II uniform, helmet, and mask, dispatches his victims in juicy ways that allow gore guru Tom Savini to get creative with sharp instruments like pitchforks and bayonets. Leopold and Barbera introduce a whodunit element to the film that allows the audience to play along with the mystery and figure out which of the cast will be unmasked as the killer. Director Joseph Zito, who went on to work again with Savini on FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and RED SCORPION, does an okay job keeping the viewer guessing, but really should have injected more energy into the scenes where somebody isn’t being slaughtered.

One of dozens of early-‘80s slasher flicks inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE PROWLER is slightly more distinguished than most of the others due to the outstanding makeup effects designed and perpetrated by Savini, who did the same on FRIDAY THE 13TH. The splashier effects, of course, fell victim to the MPAA censors’ scissors, though the restored “X-rated” version released on DVD reveals Savini’s gore effects to be extremely gruesome and effective. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how Savini performed his “magic” (the jumping and gasping it inspires may throw you off your game). Because THE PROWLER is lethargically paced and indifferently acted, the kills provide the necessary visceral thrills.

The leads, Dawson and Goutman, spend most of their screen time tiptoeing through dark houses and dark cemeteries and are not distinctive. None of the other young actors are around long enough to make a mark, though you may recognize Thom Bray as the nerd detective on RIPTIDE and Cindy Weintraub from HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (where her character fared better). By 1981, it was not unusual for classic movie star Granger (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) to appear in trashy horror films, and he cashes an easy paycheck in this one. Another name from the ‘40s, Lawrence Tierney (DILLINGER), is a bizarre red herring.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Scream Yourself Into A State Of Shock

It’s important to note up front that the version of director Al Adamson's HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS that I watched is the Italian cut, 7 PER L’INFINITO CONTRO I MOSTRI SPAZIALI, which translates to 7 FOR INFINITY VS. THE SPACE MONSTERS. Whatever that means.

Originally a 1965 Filipino black-and-white movie called TAGANI, HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS is what Independent-International released in the U.S. in 1970 after Adamson bought TAGANI, spliced in stock shots from other movies, and added new footage filmed at Vasquez Rocks. The Italian cut is markedly different, dropping some scenes from HORROR, repeating shots, and swiping outer space footage from the British TV series UFO.

The plot is credited to Sue McNair, who is probably Adamson and/or producer Sam Sherman, and makes no sense. After Earth is besieged by a rash of vampire attacks (filmed in one night in an L.A. alley with the director playing one of the monsters), Dr. Rynning (John Carradine) and a four-person crew (despite the Italian title’s promise) fly a rocketship to a planet from which they believe the vampires came.

This part of the movie is tinted various colors to disguise the black-and-white origins of TAGANI. Adamson explains it away by explaining radiation is causing “color variations” in the planet’s atmosphere that makes everything appear monochromatic, and Sherman tried to claim in HORROR’s marketing it was filmed in a special process called Spectrum X!

Crewmen Bryce (Bruce Powers), Scott (Fred Meyers), Willy (Joey Benson), and Linda (Britt Semand) explore the planet on foot, leaving Rynning behind (probably because the frail Carradine was unable to shoot long hours in the arid California desert). They find dinosaurs (played by tinted footage from ONE MILLION B.C. and UNKNOWN ISLAND), lobster men, bat men, a tribe of cavemen, and beautiful Malian (Jennifer Bishop), the only Caucasian native, who joins the Earthmen. Meanwhile, Rynning shoots lasers at a bunch of spaceships because Al Adamson, that’s why. Missing from the Italian cut is a ridiculous sex scene between Robert Dix and Vicki Volante, playing American technicians back on Earth.

Choosing the worst film directed by Adamson, who never made a good one, is a difficult chore, but this one is in the running, even given the fact that he can’t be blamed for the repetitive space footage the Italian producers included. The story is ridiculous, the indoor sets and special effects cheap-looking, and the acting indifferent at best. If you’re watching to find out why and how those vampires in the prologue got to L.A., no satisfaction here. I-I released HORROR in the U.S. under many different titles, including VAMPIRE MEN OF THE LOST PLANET and SPACE MEN TO THE LOST PLANET, ensuring many years of confused drive-in audiences. Sherman claims Diane Keaton was a fan.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Space Travelers In A World That Time Forgot

Written and directed by Edward Bernds, a veteran of Blondie, Bowery Boys, and Three Stooges programmers, the 1961 release VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS can scarcely be called science fiction, because the science is ludicrous, even by era standards. It’s supposed to be an adaptation of Jules Verne’s OFF ON A COMET, but is really a remake of 1940’s ONE MILLION, B.C. and includes copious stock footage from it. I could tell you that there are no dragons in it, but you’ve already guessed that, haven’t you?

Filmed completely on soundstages in cheapo black-and-white (and forget that “Monstascope” nonsense proclaimed on the posters), VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS stars Cesare Danova (CLEOPATRA) and Sean McClory (CHEYENNE AUTUMN) as Frenchman Hector Servadac and Irishman Michael Denning, respectively, who traipse into the Algerian desert in 1881 to duel for a woman. At the count of ten, a fiery comet smashes into the Earth and transports the two men and the ground they’re standing on to its surface, where they encounter cavemen, an aggressive (and hilariously phony) giant spider, and several prehistoric creatures played by regular-sized animals in disguises on miniature sets. Much of the first act is McClory and Danova standing around with bored looks on their faces watching stock footage of fighting animals from ONE MILLION, B.C.

Fortunately for them (and us, to be truthful), they also find sexy cavebabes played by Danielle De Metz (in Bernds’ RETURN OF THE FLY) and Joan Staley (who has an eye-catching underwater swimming sequence) who like kissing and don’t speak English. I don’t think Bernds shot a foot of original special effects—even Rodan shows up—but if you don’t mind seeing all that ONE MILLION, B.C. action again, you gotta admit that VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS moves. Kids are probably the best audience for this rapidly paced piffle that buries supporting players I. Stanford Jolley, Gil Perkins, and Mike Lane, among others, under hairy makeup.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Slick. Suave. Gentle. Brutal. Wild.

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.

Directed by Mario Bava
Stars John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli, Terry-Thomas

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying that an audience will always root for a character, no matter how rotten he may be, as long as he is good at his job. That was reportedly his justification for casting Cary Grant as a cat burglar—and the hero—in TO CATCH A THIEF. The quote may be apocryphal, but it may explain the enormous popularity of the Italian comic book character Diabolik. As portrayed in Paramount‘s 1967 release, DANGER: DIABOLIK, Diabolik is a thief, a vandal, a murderer, and a cop killer. Quite frankly, he’s a terrorist. But he’s also a damn good one, and he performs with such √©lan that it’s difficult to resist the charms of Mario Bava’s pop art classic.

Two sisters from Milan, Angela and Luciana Giussani, created Diabolik in 1962 as a greedy, materialistic thief and killer who steals from the rich…and keeps it. Aided by his accomplice and lover, the scrumptious Eva Kant, Diabolik became so popular to Italian readers that a movie version of his exploits seemed like a natural progression, considering the immense popularity of fantasy films in Italy at the time. Dino de Laurentiis financed the Italian/French co-production and hired the great cinematographer and special effects artist Mario Bava to direct the film. A master of creating illusion on film using intricate lighting, inventive camera angles, and inexpensive, though effective, visual effects such as glass mattes and forced perspective, Bava had directed a handful of successful genre pictures, but this was his first film with a major studio budget.

The movie opens with Diabolik, portrayed by American actor John Phillip Law (BARBARELLA) in a skintight leather bodysuit and mask, playing the Italian cops for suckers and making off with a huge bundle of cash, which he takes to his enormous underground headquarters that makes the Batcave look like a tool shed. Who says crime doesn’t pay? There he makes love to the stunning Eva (Austrian sexpot Marisa Mell) on a bed covered with money and plans his next caper: the theft of a valuable emerald necklace as a birthday gift for Eva.

Meanwhile, police inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) makes a deal with mobster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi, just off playing the villainous Emilio Largo in THUNDERBALL) to take it easy on his illegal business dealings if he’ll capture Diabolik for him. As proof there are no limits to Diabolik’s treachery, the hero not only attempts to steal Italy’s entire gold supply, but he also blows up government facilities containing the country’s tax and financial records, in effect, bankrupting the country.

Bava directed DANGER: DIABOLIK for about 1/5 of the $2 million budget granted him by producer Dino de Laurentiis, but it still appears as though every penny of that $2 million is on the screen. Nearly every shot contains a visual treat, ranging from the spectacle of Diabolik’s massively complex, gleaming underground hideout, bursting with golden detail, to Mell’s eyepoppingly sexy wardrobe choices. The American BATMAN TV series, which premiered on ABC over a year before DANGER: DIABOLIK began production, appears to have been a great influence on Bava, who approximates that show’s trademark Dutch camera angles, multi-colored gas attacks, and propensity for marking the hero’s outlandish gadgets with elaborate labels. Ennio Morricone’s ear-jangling score punctuates the film’s playful mood and arresting action sequences with such precision that it’s perfect for a movie based on a comic book.

DIABOLIK also shares BATMAN’s tongue-in-cheek relationship with its audience, as we root for Diabolik to pull from his rear end another outrageous escape from the latest death trap. Most of us are predisposed to pull for the underdog anyway, and Bava stretches that allegiance as far as it will go, so far that Diabolik’s destruction of Italy’s economic infrastructure plays like a big joke, particularly when the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas) asks the citizenry to use the honor system to mail in their fair share of tax.

DANGER: DIABOLIK was not originally a hit in the United States, where it was likely viewed as either another spy spoof along the lines of the Matt Helm series or a ripoff of BATMAN. Surprisingly, the ‘60s counterculture doesn’t seem to have embraced Diabolik’s virulent anti-government stance, an important character trait that would certainly guarantee that the film couldn’t be produced today.

It is not a film about politics, however. DANGER: DIABOLIK is merely an adventure fantasy and a love story about a beautiful woman and a man who would do anything to please her. Even if he has to bankrupt all of Europe to do it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fighting For Your Rights In Her Satin Tights

When Lynda Carter became Wonder Woman, the DC Comics superhero was no stranger to the television airwaves. William Moulton Marston's 1941 creation had already been essayed by Cathy Lee Crosby (COACH) in a woeful pilot that ignored everything in the comic books, voiced by Shannon Farnon in the hit Saturday-morning cartoon  SUPERFRIENDS, and played for laughs in an unaired presentation film for BATMAN producer William Dozier by Ellie Wood Walker (THE NEW INTERNS). 

What sold the 1975 ABC pilot was most likely its star: a stacked six-foot brunette who not only looked dynamite in Wonder Woman’s red-white-and-blue threads, but also portrayed an earnestness and likability that clicked with audiences. The inexperienced Carter (whose biggest role to date was BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW, a drive-in flick in which she appeared topless) may not have been a great actress, but she was a great Wonder Woman. If only the series had offered her scripts to match.

The pilot, titled simply WONDER WOMAN and directed by TV stalwart Leonard Horn (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), aired in a 90-minute time slot more than five months before the series premiered. An origin story penned by Stanley Ralph Ross, who wrote for the 1960s BATMAN series, WONDER WOMAN (as the pilot movie is titled) can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or go all the way into camp territory. It’s cast and shot well, and the idea by Ross and producer Douglas S. Cramer (BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE) to set the series in its original World War II setting opens the series up to interesting story ideas.

Diana (Carter) is Princess of Paradise Island, a hidden land located in the Bermuda Triangle that is ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Cloris Leachman) and populated only by sexy immortal women. The first man any of them have seen is Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), a United States Air Force pilot who is shot down by a Nazi and parachutes to Paradise Island. Hippolyta holds an athletic competition to determine which Amazon will accompany a recuperated Trevor back to America and is disheartened to learn the winner is her daughter Diana in disguise.

With Steve still recuperating in a Washington, D.C. hospital, Diana uses her new Wonder Woman identity to thwart a Nazi plot to divebomb a secret air base on American soil. She susses out that Trevor’s secretary and girlfriend (Laraine Stevens) is actually a Fifth Columnist communicating Air Force secrets overseas to Colonel von Blasko (Kenneth Mars). Except for a slightly soggy middle act that turns Wonder Woman into a shortlived carnival attraction to earn money, Horn keeps the story moving right along and does a very nice job with the action scenes (even though he’s unable to disguise the fact that Stevens’ fight double is a man in drag).

The movie was a success, leading ABC to commission two episodes for the spring of 1976 and a (more or less) weekly series in the fall. Why ABC chose to schedule WONDER WOMAN irregularly is lost to the ages, I imagine, but after thirteen episodes, Cramer took the show to CBS, where it received a weekly berth and a setting change to the 1970s (with Waggoner playing Steve Trevor Jr.!).