Sunday, April 28, 2013

Great TV Episodes: City Of Passion

"City of Passion"
November 7, November 14 & November 21, 1987
Teleplay: Charlotte Huggins & Thomas Huggins (Part 1); Dallas L. Barnes (Part 2 & 3)
Based on the Novel by Dallas L. Barnes
Director: James Whitmore Jr.

HUNTER's magnum opus, the three-part "City of Passion," based on a novel by real-life police detective Dallas Barnes, aired early in the series' fourth season. But the series almost didn't make it that far.

Low ratings and massive pummeling by critics that labeled HUNTER a crude DIRTY HARRY ripoff nearly got the show cancelled during its first season in 1984. However, Brandon Tartikoff, then the head of NBC Entertainment, allowed the show to find its legs by moving it to a Saturday timeslot, where it became a ratings hit for the rest of the 1980s.

Fred Dryer, a former Los Angeles Ram who narrowly lost the leading role of Sam Malone on CHEERS to Ted Danson, starred as Rick Hunter, who very much was influenced by Clint Eastwood during the show's first season. He even had a throwaway catch phrase, "Works for me," which Dryer usually delivered after blasting a bad guy. Hunter was, as all great TV detectives are, a maverick cop who shot first, shouted "Freeze!" later, and never balked at destroying whatever public and private property he needed to in order to capture a criminal.

Knowing this wouldn't do on a weekly basis, series creator Stephen J. Cannell (THE ROCKFORD FILES) Frank Lupo gave Hunter a partner--a woman who could bring out Dryer's softer side on-screen. Stepfanie Kramer played Dee Dee McCall, who was vulnerable and sexy, but also tough enough to earn the nickname "The Brass Cupcake" from her colleagues on the force.

Despite a rotating cast of variably apoplectic commanding officers (including John Amos, John Shearin, James Whitmore Jr., and Bruce Davison, who all barked at Hunter for crashing another car until the calmer Charles Hallahan joined the regular cast in the third season), Hunter and McCall burned rubber and broke the rules to entertain audiences for seven seasons (except Kramer, who departed after six).

By the fourth season, HUNTER--while not exactly shying away from gun battles and car chases--had become a more mature series that was marked with humor, strong characters, and a charming platonic relationship between Hunter and McCall that was a triumph of Dryer and Kramer's personal chemistry. This upgraded approach was reflected in its elegiac opening titles (see below), and HUNTER finished in the Top 20 in the Nielsens that season for the first time. A perfect representation of the stories HUNTER was telling that year was the epic "City of Passion," the series' lone three-part episode.

"City of Passion"'s sprawling narrative is indicative of its literary origins. Married couple Charlotte Huggins (billed as Charlotte Clay) and Thomas Huggins, HUNTER's story editors (and kin to executive producer Roy Huggins), and Dallas L. Barnes adapted Barnes' novel for television and spun three intertwining tales in rich detail. The strongest story teams up Hunter and McCall with Sex Crimes detectives Kitty O'Hearn (Shelley Taylor Morgan, MALIBU EXPRESS) and Brad Navarro (CHIPS star Erik Estrada) to track down a serial rapist (Fred Coffin, HARD TO KILL) whose most recent attack culminated in murder. Notable for his size 14 feet, the rapist is tagged "Bigfoot" by the detectives and is clearly the creation of Barnes, who had earlier penned the unintentionally hilarious "Big Foot," also about a rapist nicknamed Bigfoot, for a 1982 T.J. HOOKER.

Meanwhile, Hunter pokes into the case of a teenage prostitute named Stacey (FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE's Lezlie Deane), who contacts police with a harrowing tale of being kidnapped by Satanists who performed a blood ritual on her friend. McCall's spare time involves a political clash with Commander Cain (Arthur Rosenberg), her boss Charlie Devane's (Hallahan) boss, who pulls heavy strings in an attempt to coerce Dee Dee into dropping solicitation charges against the Governor's father-in-law, Superior Court judge Warrick Unger (BRADY BUNCH dad Robert Reed, who spent much of his post-BRADY career playing scumbags). The manner in which these subplots intersect add layers of menace to both.

It also gives the stars meatier material to play than their usual cops-and-robbers shenanigans. For Kramer, "City of Passion" is a callback to the second-season two-parter "Rape & Revenge," in which McCall was raped in her home by a foreign government official with diplomatic immunity. In part two of "City of Passion," the Bigfoot Rapist attacks McCall in her home. She fights him off, but tells her physician (Rosemary Forsyth) that she won't report the attack because of the shame and ostracism she suffered from her colleagues the last time. Because she's refusing to report a felony, she declines to tell even Hunter about Bigfoot's attack in order to protect his career.

Barnes' novel, which I haven't read, must have provided the screenwriters and producers Stu Segall and Jo Swerling Jr. with enough material for three parts, because "City of Passion" doesn't feel padded. They called on James Whitmore Jr., HUNTER's most prolific director (with 23 one-hours), to helm the epic, and he came through with a strong effort. The episode lacks the series' usual action beats for the most part, but Whitmore engineers a good deal of suspense in the rape sequences, particularly the harrowing scene that opens part one. The Satanic rituals, overflowing with candles and blood and men in robes, could easily have looked laughable, but Whitmore (a semi-regular in HUNTER's first three seasons) has a strong handle on the material and films them as horror, rather than crime drama.

"City of Passion" was HUNTER's peak in quality, as well as chronology, as the three-parter aired as episodes 70, 71, and 72 of a 152-episode run. To say it was all downhill from there isn't fair, as HUNTER turned out several more good shows in its fourth, fifth, and sixth year. The seventh season was something of a mess with Darlanne Fluegel (TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) and then Lauren Lane (THE NANNY) failing to fill Kramer's high heels as Hunter's new partners.

The series managed to have an almost unprecedented appeal even more than a decade after it was cancelled. Three reunion movies led to a return of HUNTER on a weekly basis in 2003, again on Saturday nights on NBC. Backstage complications and NBC's inept promotion caused the new HUNTER to be cancelled after only three episodes, so it never got a chance to produce an epic to compete with "City of Passion."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Enter A World Of Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Spex, And Count Dante

If only this book had existed in 1979, it would have saved a lot of kids a lot of grief and their parents a lot of checks for 97 cents.

Remember all those tantalizing ads you saw in the comic books you read as a kid? Sell GRIT. See the bones in your hand with these X-ray glasses. Amaze your friends with this flying disc. 100-piece toy soldier set. Count Dante, the deadliest man alive! I never once sent away for any of these items, no matter how amazing they appeared in the ads. But I did always wonder about the kids who did and what they received. Thanks to author Kirk Demarais, we now know.

Through the magic of eBay and the examination of other people's collections, Demarais managed to get his hands on many of these items and published them in his book MAIL-ORDER MYSTERIES: REAL STUFF FROM OLD COMIC BOOK ADS! It's pretty much a must-read if you remember any of those ads, and it's laid out in a colorful, entertaining way that breezes by in a couple of hours at the most.

Who would have guessed that the famed Kryptonite Rock was not a green chunk of the planet Krypton that fell to Earth and contained the power to kill Superman, but was actually a regular old rock painted green? Okay, we all did (and I still wonder who was dumb enough to shell out $2.50 for that one), but I wasn't exactly sure what sending away for the X-Ray Spex, the life-size Moon Monster, the Spud Gun, the Trick Baseball, or the ever-present Sea Monkeys would actually bring you. Demarais' book is the best way I know, other than tracking down these objects yourself, to finding out.

Unsurprisingly, most of it is shit. The Flashing Eyes (cost: 50 cents) is merely a sloppily Xeroxed paper telling you how to place tin foil on your eyelids. The Life-Like Lady's Legs wouldn't fool a dog, much less the victim of the hilarious practical joke you wanted to play. The 7-11 Magic Dice might fool a dog, but not the pal you hoped to dupe into gambling away his lunch money. And the "working laser pistol?" Ha!

Still, some of Demarais' discoveries turned out to be not so bad after all, and it's fun turning the pages of MAIL-ORDER MYSTERIES to find out what was a ripoff and what wasn't. At the very least, it's a joy to relive these wonderful ads again, their purple copy and tantalizing illustrations designed to part little children with their allowance bringing back good memories. Or maybe I think they're good because I didn't blow a buck on the 7-foot Monster Ghost (a trash bag, a balloon, and fishing line).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Eyes Of Goldfoot Are Upon You

AIP must have figured beach movies were out and spy movies were in back in 1965, so it created a silly spy spoof for its contract star Vincent Price, best known then for the studio’s Edgar Allan Poe horror films he made with director Roger Corman.

In DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE (!), Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman (THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS) return from SKI PARTY, strangely enough playing characters with the same names, even though the script by Robert Kaufman and Elwood Ullman makes no attempt to tie the films together and, heck, the actors have switched characters anyway!

Price is great as Dr. Goldfoot (he wears golden genie shoes), but Norman Taurog’s trite direction lets him down. Goldfoot and his inept assistant Igor (the painfully unfunny Jack Mullaney of MY LIVING DOLL) shepherd a plot to create gorgeous bikini-clad robots and send them into the world to seduce wealthy men into signing over their fortunes to them. Bumbling secret agent Craig Gamble (Avalon) falls for one, Diane (played well by the delectable Susan Hart), who swindles playboy Todd Armstrong (Hickman).

Though not technically a Beach Party movie, most of GOLDFOOT’s cast will look familiar to fans. Regulars Salli Sachse, Patti Chandler, Sue Williams, Mary Hughes, Marianne Gaba, Luree and Laura Nicholson make up a good portion of Goldfoot’s robot army, as well as Deanna Lund (LAND OF THE GIANTS) and—believe it or not—a black woman (Issa Arnal) and an Asian (China Lee). Audiences probably also cheered the cheeky cameos by Annette Funicello, Harvey Lembeck, Aron Kincaid, and Deborah Walley. Goldfoot’s lair appears to be recycled sets from AIP’s horror films, adding another layer of fun for fans.

GOLDFOOT isn’t great, though it looks brilliant next to its execrable Italian-produced sequel, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, which teamed Price with a leadfooted Italian comedy duo. Outside of Price, who is a joy, BIKINI MACHINE doesn’t catch fire until Frankie and Dwayne invade Goldfoot’s lair in the third act. The closing credits (and a theater marquee) promise THE GIRL IN THE GLASS BIKINI, which came out as THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Terror In The Flesh

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 R
Running Time 1:34
Originally published September 19, 2003

What is it about CABIN FEVER that so many others see and I don’t? After seeing it at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Lionsgate Entertainment reportedly shelled out more dough (in the “high seven figures”) to distribute it than they had ever spent before. The hipsters at FILM THREAT and THE VILLAGE VOICE are going ga-ga over it without really explaining why director/producer/co-writer Eli Roth is “the real shit” or why the film “isn’t really horror” (which it obviously is). Even geek guru Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) has been quoted as calling it “brilliant.“ To paraphrase Carleton Young in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, perhaps this is a case where “when the hype becomes fact, print the hype.” Because the only thing “brilliant” about CABIN FEVER are the lights used to photograph the woody North Carolina locations.

Here’s the premise: five college students attempt to vacation at a remote cabin in the forest, only to encounter fear and death in a non-human form. What a great idea…when Sam Raimi created it in THE EVIL DEAD more than twenty years ago, when he also had the marvelously expressive Bruce Campbell to anchor the supernatural evil in some sort of relatable reality, instead of wimpy BOY MEETS WORLD castoff Rider Strong. On their way to the cabin, the five encounter several eccentric and possibly racist backwoods types at the general store, including blond-maned wolf boy Dennis, whose passion for pancakes is matched only by his tendency to bite strangers (the influence of David Lynch, for whom Roth worked). The other influences are there too: DELIVERANCE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE THING. CABIN FEVER feels as though Roth had a checklist of his favorite horror movies with him on the set and crossed off each title as he ripped off…uh, that is, paid homage to…it.

In so doing, Roth created perhaps the most unlikable cast in recent horror history. Our five protagonists include virginal Paul (Strong), who has a crush on chaste cocktease Karen (Jordan Ladd, Cheryl’s lookalike daughter); sex-crazed couple Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent); and gun-toting, beer-swigging lunk Bert (James DeBello). Each character acts exactly as you would expect them to act, given that their antecedents lie in so many other past horror movies with a teen slant. Why couldn’t the blonde Ladd play the horny girl and the brunette Vincent the virgin? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to make the slight Strong an obnoxious lout and the hulking DeBello the “sensitive one?”

Of course, this would require imagination, a trait decidedly lacking in Roth’s approach to material older than most of his cast. When I originally read Roth’s claims that CABIN FEVER was as much a comedy as a horror film, I anticipated he would be somehow satirizing in SCREAM-like fashion horror-movie clich├ęs. If he is, it’s the most subtle application of satire I’ve ever seen because I couldn’t find it. And I looked. Brother, did I look.

On their first night at the cabin, the youths are assaulted by a stranger covered in blood, the victim of a flesh-eating virus contaminating the forest. They chase the poor guy away, but his infectious influence remains behind. Which of the five will get sick next? How will the others react? If you’re guessing “sensitively,” “intelligently,” or “logically,” you must go directly to Movie Jail and forfeit 200 Junior Mints.

Let’s give the devilish Roth his due and acknowledge what CABIN FEVER does right. Scott Kevan’s cinematography is crisper than this low-budget movie probably deserves, imbuing the forest’s brown richness with a foreboding beauty. Nathan Barr, with the assistance of Lynch maestro Angelo Badalamente, provides a brooding musical soundscape punctuated by ominous fly-buzzing. The gooey makeup effects by KNB are suitably gruesome. And Giuseppe Andrews as a party-loving deputy contributes one of the funniest supporting performances of the year.

But it’s what Roth does wrong that sinks the picture. Even setting aside the massive plot holes that plague the ending (like why aren‘t more people affected by the virus?), it’s pretty clear that whatever ideas Roth had evaporate an hour or so into the picture, as he piles on one superfluous climax after another, presumably figuring that one will finally wrap things up in a suitably ironic fashion. Oh, and speaking of that. The final “twist” proves that Roth watches more than just horror movies. He has also seen DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends

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 1:37

Walt Disney’s first PG-rated feature is often confusing, childish, and scientifically laughable, and at the time of its original release, it was loudly bashed by critics. However, the movie also boasts outstanding sets and Oscar-nominated cinematography and visual effects, and, if you don’t think about it too much, is a lot of fun.

THE BLACK HOLE was Disney’s riskiest venture to date: a $20 million science-fiction epic combining philosophical themes about God and mankind’s search for a better existence with the company’s typically juvenile approach. Released just two weeks after STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, it seems to have been lost in the box-office shuffle, although it was considered one of Disney’s all-time biggest moneymakers.

An Earth exploration vessel, the Palomino, manned by Captain Robert Forster (JACKIE BROWN) and his crew—gung-ho first mate Joseph Bottoms (HOLOCAUST), twitchy scientist Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO), psychic Yvette Mimieux (THE TIME MACHINE), and cynical journalist Ernest Borgnine (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK)—encounters the Cygnus, a massive spaceship that was believed to have been lost 20 years earlier.

Its commander, legendary scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG’s Maximilian Schell), claims to be the only survivor. His ship is run by robots, including his ominous bodyguard Max, which has buzzsaws for hands. The Cygnus is perched just beyond an immense black hole. Reinhardt has invented a groundbreaking anti-gravity field that he believes will allow him to pass through the black hole safely and rule whatever universe lies on the other side. To do this, he needs the Palomino crew to guide him, whether they want to or not.

Basically a space-age remake of Disney’s classic 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA with Schell in the James Mason/Captain Nemo role, THE BLACK HOLE features enough colorful special effects and action to keep one entertained. Admittedly, the simple dialogue by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day and the token “cute” robots with painted-on square eyes, V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall) and Old B.O.B. (Slim Pickens), will probably annoy most adults, although they aren’t nearly as obnoxious as Jar Jar Binks. The familiar cast has done good work elsewhere, but there are no strong characters or meaty words in the script for them to get into, and as a result, the actors are left to their own unfettered devices.

The real reason to see THE BLACK HOLE is for its marvelous Victorian-style sets designed by Disney vet Peter Ellenshaw (who was also in charge of the miniatures) and the frequently stunning visual effects. Today’s audiences, used to cartoony CGI effects that are considered cutting-edge, may be surprised at the work on display here. Using matte paintings, models, animation, and even wirework, the Disney effects artists have created a real feast for the eyes (the colossal fireball blasting its way down a Cygnus corridor is very cool). John Barry’s outstanding orchestral score was the first to be recorded digitally.

THE BLACK HOLE originally came out during an exciting resurgence in filmed science-fiction which roughly lasted from 1977–1984, and was overlooked in favor of STAR WARS, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, BLADE RUNNER, THE TERMINATOR, and others. Although THE BLACK HOLE isn’t as good as any of those films, its old-fashioned visual thrills are too impressive to ignore.