Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Baby Born In Hell

Horror star Christopher Lee tried to film an adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s 1953 novel TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER for several years, and it turned out to be Hammer’s last horror picture of the 20th century. 

The film of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is surprisingly sleazy for a Hammer film with an on-camera murder of a newborn baby, a naked Lee (actually his longtime stunt double Eddie Powell) going doggie-style in an orgy, a bloody rubber puppet fetus crawling around, and the sexualization of young Nastassja Kinski (TESS), who performs a full-frontal nude scene at the age of fourteen.

In the film’s favor are its intriguing premise, strong production values (it was filmed mostly on location in Germany), good photography, and strong performances, particularly by Lee, who likely relished playing this character, and Denholm Elliott (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) as a weak-willed lapsed cultist.

Against the film, however, are a confusing screenplay credited to Christopher Wicking (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and John Peacock (but heavily rewritten during shooting by THE DUELLISTS’ Gerald Vaughan-Hughes), a miscast Richard Widmark (who seems reticent), and a terrible ending that gives every evidence of being improvised on the set by a director with his hands flung into the air.

Widmark is American John Verney, a horror writer living in London, who is caught up in a master plan by ex-communicated priest Father Michael (Lee) to baptize nun Catherine (Kinski, whose casting came at the behest of the German financiers) in the blood of a baby on her eighteenth birthday and bring to life a demon called Astaroth. Catherine’s father (Elliott) had signed her over to Michael’s Satanic cult when she was born, but has developed cold feet as she approaches Judgment Day and asks Verney the occult expert to save her.

TO THE DEVIL moves along well enough under the direction of Peter Sykes (DEMONS OF THE MIND), and with a better script might well have sent Hammer out with a bang; the studio’s next and last film (until being resurrected in the late 2000s) was the desultory Hitchcock remake THE LADY VANISHES.

Watch the trailer, and see what you think.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Circus Is Coming To Town

One of Hammer’s best horror films of the 1970s stars none of the studio’s familiar performers (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ralph Bates, Victoria Carlson, Michael Ripper et al.). While packed with more than its fair share of nudity and gore, it’s also very exciting and creates a few interesting twists on traditional vampire lore.

Like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 the same year, VAMPIRE CIRCUS gets off to a strong start with a bloody and pulse-pounding pre-credits sequence. When Professor Mueller (Laurence Payne) spots his younger wife Anna leading one of the village children into the castle of Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman), he organizes a lynch mob to storm the castle, rescue the child, and destroy Mitterhouse, who’s rumored to be not only a serial killer of children, but also a vampire. Mueller kills the Count, who curses the townspeople on his deathbed and swears to destroy the next generation of villagers.

Fifteen years later, it appears the Count’s prophecies have come true. The village is riddled with plague, and the King’s soldiers have cordoned it off. No one goes in or out, except a small traveling circus which somehow manages to break through the roadblock. Besides the gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) who appears to be running the show, the performers include a midget clown, male-and-female twin acrobats, a strongman played by David Prowse (STAR WARS’ Darth Vader), a tiger woman, and Emil (Anthony Corlan), who appears to be able to turn into a black panther. More bloody murders occur, as it becomes clear to the audience—if not to the villagers—that not only are the circus performers bloodsuckers, but also Emil is the cousin of Count Mitterhouse and plans to revive his kin’s corpse.

While VAMPIRE CIRCUS contains enough crosses, wooden stakes, and vampire bats to please purists, the “next generation” of horror fans certainly will find much to like. These vamps can float through the air, transform into cat creatures, and, of course, mesmerize the beautiful young women of the village. Dripping with unusual touches (like a very sexy dance involving a naked woman painted in tiger makeup), period style, and enough heavy dollops of sensuality and raw violence to push the “R” rating of the day, VAMPIRE CIRCUS makes Hammer’s Dracula series appear almost quaint. Even the Hammer films (such as THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) that were made later seem old-fashioned compared to this audacious entry. Director Robert Young bookends the film nicely with action setpieces that open and close the film, and his cast of veteran character actors, young leading men, and fetching ingĂ©nues perform flawlessly.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hard To Play God Doing Five To Life, Man

1972's THE CAREY TREATMENT was a job of work for Blake Edwards (THE PINK PANTHER), who neither wrote nor produced this medical thriller based on an early novel by Michael Crichton: the Edgar-winning A CASE OF NEED, which he wrote under the name Jeffery Hudson. No writer wanted to take credit for this film, because credited screenwriter James P. Bonner is actually the trio of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (HUD) and John D.F. Black (SHAFT). Edwards hated the film too. I like it, as swinging physician James Coburn (OUR MAN FLINT) bounces from clue to clue, suspect to suspect, hanging in there during the plot turns and chases.

Newly arrived in Boston for a new job as a pathologist at a swanky hospital, Dr. Peter Carey (Coburn) turns amateur sleuth after his friend and colleague David Tao (James Hong) is accused of killing a fifteen-year-old girl during an illegal abortion. He uncovers most of his leads through bullying and wisecracks, but Coburn is such a charming performer that he can get away with anything (to a wealthy, flirty housewife who claims she’s much too young to be the mother of her teenage stepdaughter, Coburn grins that Cheshire grin and laconically answers, “If you say so”).

Look, no one’s saying THE CAREY TREATMENT isn’t ludicrous—it sure as hell is, and it’s a little sloppy in the post-production department too (Edwards reportedly split or was fired after shooting was completed). It gives Coburn the opportunity to be groovy and hip and cool, which hardly any movie star did better. It also provides a good scene or two for its talented supporting actors, such as Pat Hingle (great in his initial volley with Coburn), Jennifer O'Neill, Dan O’Herlihy, Alex Dreier (also interesting in his single scene), Regis Toomey, Robert Mandan, John Hillerman, Ed Peck, and Michael Blodgett. Another indication Edwards left the project early: score by Roy Budd, not Henry Mancini.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Light Years Beyond Tomorrow

Can’t get enough crazy Italian science fiction like STARCRASH? Don't miss 1979's THE HUMANOID, one of many Italian ripoffs of STAR WARS to haunt movie theaters in the 1970s. A good-natured astronaut named Golob (7’4” Richard Kiel, in between Bond films) is transformed into a hulking, growling, mindless, indestructible “humanoid” by renegade scientist Kraspin (Arthur Kennedy). In the employ of malevolent dictator Graal (Ivan Rassimov), a megalomaniac garbed in black armor with plans to rule the galaxy, Kraspin plans to create an entire army of humanoid killing machines to aid in Graal’s conquest.

Luckily, Kraspin veers from Graal’s order to murder Earth’s leader, “Great Brother,” and sends Gorob to destroy pretty Barbara Gibson (MOONRAKER's Corinne Clery), who was responsible for the mad scientist’s exile to an insane asylum. Barbara and her “pupil,” a young Chinese boy named Tom-Tom (Marco Yeh), force the evil and hatred from Gorob’s mind, transforming him back into a gentle giant, albeit one who retains his super-strength and invulnerability. Joining forces with hot-shot warrior Nick (Leonard Mann), Barbara, Gorob, Tom-Tom, and Gorob’s robot dog Robodog (!) invade Graal’s planetary base and blow everything up in the name of justice and goodness.

Oh, yeah. When Kraspin isn’t fiddling with his humanoid “serum” or raving about revenge against Barbara, he’s killing topless women in a transparent iron maiden and draining their blood to keep Graal’s future queen, the busty Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach, who appeared with Kiel in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), eternally young.

THE HUMANOID is ridiculous, hilarious, and utterly unpredictable. Just when you think director Aldo Lado couldn't pull anything new out from under his hat, suddenly Graal starts firing blue blasts from his hands or heavenly angels with crossbows drop out of the sky at Tom-Tom’s command to pull the good guys out of a tough spot. It’s also fun laughing at the obvious STAR WARS riffs. Most of the characters are drawn directly from George Lucas’ movie (with Kiel playing the Chewbacca part), even though Antonio Margheriti’s visual effects pale next to their precursor. Heck, they pale next to the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.

Kiel probably never got top billing again, and does his best in another “monster” role. He isn’t a good enough actor to make Gorob very sympathetic, although he’s likable enough in his pre-humanoid scenes. Clery’s job is to be gorgeous, which she accomplishes quite well. As usual, the villains receive the bulk of the script’s color and meaty dialogue, and Kennedy and Rassimov leap into it like finely sliced ham. Ennio Morricone was tapped for the score, which lacks melody and sounds as though it were composed in a hurry—sort of like the special effects. Filmed in Rome as L’UMANOIDE, THE HUMANOID may not have received a U.S. theatrical release, as it didn’t receive an MPAA rating and doesn’t seem to have been reviewed by VARIETY.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Star Trek, "The Conscience Of The King"

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

Episode 13 out of 80
December 8, 1966
Writer: Barry Trivers
Director: Gerd Oswald

The U.S.S. Enterprise transports a Shakespearean repertory company, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) comes to suspect that its leader, Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss), may well be a notorious thought-dead dictator named Kodos the Executioner, whose past crimes include the slaughter of members of Kirk’s family.

The acting in this episode is among the best of the series. The confrontation between Moss and Shatner is absolutely riveting, and Barbara Anderson, who plays Moss’ psychotic daughter Lenore, is pretty terrific in a difficult role. Anderson moved on to regular roles on IRONSIDE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The byplay between DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy is great, and really does a lot to show the friendly yet adversarial relationship between Spock and McCoy. “Conscience” is an old-fashioned tale of revenge and murder, and there isn't much action in it, but the strong performances and clever script by Barry Trivers holds it together.

Again, Shatner shows his strength as a performer by making Kirk fallible and human without sacrificing any of his heroic qualities. It was rare for a '60s TV hero to suffer bouts of vengeance and obsession, yet Kirk often did, while still holding the audience's sympathy. This is a great actor and a great character.

McCoy must have still been drunk while making his medical log entry. Surely he could have figured that Riley would be able to hear his every word. Maybe he should lay off the "hard stuff" for a couple of days.

Director Gerd Oswald said in a FILMFAX interview that Shatner was a bit difficult to work with. I think "pain-in-the-ass" was the term Oswald used to describe Shatner. Not too surprising, considering what his costars have said about him since. Oswald did a ton of OUTER LIMITS episodes, and his feature film AGENT FROM H.A.R.M. was on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

Do phasers have safety features? Just wondering...

Joseph Mullendore's music is pretty good. I especially like the cue he wrote to accompany Kirk and Spock's search for the overloaded phaser. I don't recall if this turned up as a recurring cue, but it should have. Pretty suspenseful.

Kirk makes a direct reference to the "ship's theater" in this episode. I guess it seems likely that the Enterprise would have a theater (it doesn't seem to take up much space), but I wonder how often it gets used. You think the crew members have their own little theater group?

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Cutter

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 1:32
Rated R
Directed by Bill Tannen
Stars Chuck Norris, Joanna Pacula, Daniel Bernhardt, Bernie Kopell
Originally published March 31, 2006

35 years after memorably fighting Bruce Lee in the Rome Colosseum in RETURN OF THE DRAGON, Chuck Norris is as famous now as he ever has been. Conan O’Brien’s LATE NIGHT jabs at Norris’ long-running WALKER, TEXAS RANGER TV series and the spoofy list of “Chuck Norris Facts” that have been making the Internet rounds (“When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.”) have pulled the chopsocky star back into the national spotlight, five years after WALKER left the airwaves. Taking advantage of the new buzz, which reveals Norris as a man with a sense of humor, Nu Image has released the first major Chuck Norris film in a decade.

THE CUTTER was filmed in Spokane, Washington with director Bill Tannen, with whom Norris worked on HERO AND THE TERROR, an unexceptional serial-killer thriller that came near the end of the star’s exclusive contract with Cannon in the 1980’s. “Unexceptional” also describes THE CUTTER, which may have been made with Norris’ middle-aged WALKER target audience in mind, since only a couple of cast members appear to be under the age of forty.

The intriguing opening finds Dirk (played by Daniel Bernhardt, a Swiss Van Damme-lookalike who starred in three BLOODSPORT sequels), an assassin and master of disguise, swooping down to an archeological dig in the Sinai, murdering all the treasure hunters and swiping the priceless Breastplate of Aaron right off a dusty mummy’s chest. The breastplate is encrusted with perfect gems that must be cut into smaller pieces for sale on the black market. Dirk takes the stolen artifact to Spokane, where he kidnaps Isaac Teller (Bernie Kopell, “Doc” from THE LOVE BOAT), an elderly diamond cutter and Auschwitz survivor, and forces the old man to work his craft on the spectacular gems. Isaac resists, giving his niece Elizabeth (Joanna Pacula, GORKY PARK) time to hire John Shepherd (Norris), a private detective who specializes in kidnap cases.

Writer Bruce Haskett’s plot doesn’t grow much from there, stringing together a few mildly effective chases and fight scenes between easy-to-follow clues and investigative techniques familiar to Walker’s family-friendly audience. Shepherd is, of course, a “lone wolf” who doesn’t bow to authority, represented in THE CUTTER by Parks, an officious FBI agent played by Nu Image regular Todd Jensen. Marshall Teague, who played the heavy in both the first and last WALKER episodes, and LOIS & CLARK’s Tracy Scoggins (still shapely in her fifties) are friendly Spokane cops. Handsome Dean Cochran, the star of Nu Image’s SHARK ZONE and AIR MARSHAL, provides some light as a comic-relief lawyer. Executive producer Aaron Norris (Chuck’s brother) is a hitman. 80-year-old German character actor Curt Lowens (WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY) is a welcome sight. Lowens specialized in playing Nazis, and he does so again in THE CUTTER, adding dramatic weight to an otherwise unassuming action picture as Colonel Speerman, the officer who murdered Isaac’s family in Auschwitz and is the brains behind the current caper.

Chuck Norris was 65 when he shot THE CUTTER, and it’s to his disadvantage that he worked so hard in an unsuccessful attempt to look younger. Sporting a strangely colored hairpiece and what appears to be a surgically enhanced face, Norris now has looks to match his typically unnatural acting performance. It’s odd that he has not improved as an actor over the last three decades—one would think that doing anything everyday for thirty years would make you better at it—but his martial arts skills have also, understandably, deteriorated over time. Even with son Eric Norris, THE CUTTER’s stunt coordinator, looking out for the star’s best interests, it’s obvious that Chuck is being heavily doubled in the fight sequences.

With his looks, action skills, and acting ability fading, what’s next for Chuck Norris? I hate to say it, but if THE CUTTER is an indication of what Norris fans can expect, perhaps he should stop now. Not that THE CUTTER is awful—Tannen’s hackneyed direction does Barkett’s routine script no favors, but the movie is no worse than a typical WALKER episode. It certainly espouses WALKER’s (and Norris’) core American values of right over wrong. Old-fashioned, perhaps, but never out of style.

NOTE: The MPAA, in its infinite idiocy, has granted THE CUTTER an R rating for “violence.” This is a ridiculous decision with absolutely no merit. THE CUTTER is devoid of sex, nudity and gore and features very mild profanity and action scenes that could air uncut on network television. It’s a helluva lot less violent than many PG-13 movies, and is a perfect example of the influence that the major studios hold over the MPAA ratings board.