Sunday, June 30, 2013

10,000 Kids On 5,000 Beach Blankets

The first of American International’s enormously popular Beach Party series, unlike the rest, gives the biggest parts to adults.

In 1963's BEACH PARTY, middle-aged director William Asher, an Emmy winner and Malibu resident, and writer Lou Rusoff take the point of view of Robert Sutwell (LOVE THAT BOB Cummings), a bearded anthropologist, and his stacked assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone), who stake out the Malibu beaches and spy on local teenagers to study their sex habits. Future Beach Party pictures would, of course, concentrate on the teenagers—notably Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and Dolores/Dee Dee (Annette Funicello)—with adults in supporting roles as comic relief.

Frankie rents a beach house for the summer with ideas of sharing with Dolores, but she doesn’t trust her sex-mad boyfriend and invites all their friends to stay with them. Rusoff, who died tragically before BEACH PARTY was released, provides little more plot than this. Frankie and Dolores fight, try to make one another jealous, break up, and get back together. Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his clowny biker gang show up to make trouble. Lembeck goes all out for slapstick laughs, but his act would grow old in future films.

Slightly more realistic than later Beach Party entries—the kids smoke (pot?) and drink beer—BEACH PARTY coasts on its bouncy pop and rock tunes by Avalon, Funicello, and especially the awesome Dick Dale & The Deltones and its energetic, likable cast. Unfortunately, Oscar winner Malone (WRITTEN ON THE WIND) has too little to do, but Asher finds plenty of room for Morey Amsterdam as a beatnik bar owner, John Ashley (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND), Jody McCrea (as Deadhead), Andy Romano (UNDER SIEGE), and Hungarian hip-shaker Eva Six. Vincent Price (his upcoming THE HAUNTED PALACE is plugged) makes a cool cameo, and try to spot Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN) and Meredith MacRae (PETTICOAT JUNCTION).

BEACH PARTY is the first, but not the best, Beach Party movie, but it still provides a frothy good time. Asher, who directed five more, and producers James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff had a pretty good idea what made it work and did a good job duplicating the formula. Contrary to reports, Funicello does wear a two-piece swimsuit. Les Baxter composed the score. MUSCLE BEACH PARTY was next.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Deadly Spawn Are Coming

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 1:21
1983, Color, 16mm
Stars Tom DeFranco, Charles Hildebrand, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, and Richard Lee Porter

THE DEADLY SPAWN is homemade filmmaking at its most fun. It isn’t a great movie and certainly isn’t a great-looking movie. But it is a delightful example of what can happen when a group of friends with specialized filmmaking talents decide to band together and make the kind of movie they’d like to see.

Writer/director Douglas McKeown, special effects director John Dods, and executive producer Tim Hildebrand, well-known in fantasy circles for painting the iconic STAR WARS one-sheet with his twin brother Greg, teamed up every weekend for more than two years to shoot this labor of love, an entertaining low-budget homage to the creature features of the 1950s. Filming went on for so long that the camera is unable to disguise the growth spurt of its star, Charles Hildebrand (Tim’s son), who was eleven years old when production began and a gangly thirteen when he shot his final scenes.

A typical suburban New Jersey family awakens one rainy morning to discover alien spawn hatched from a crashed meteorite growing in their basement, chomping on everyone they encounter. Eleven-year-old Charles (Charles Hildebrand, in whose home much of THE DEADLY SPAWN was shot) is a misunderstood fan of monster movies who figures out how to stop the rampaging horde. Who says those late-night TV viewings of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON could serve no useful purpose?

Fortunately for us, Charles doesn’t get his brainstorm until after the aliens have eaten most of his household and some of his brother Pete's (Tom DeFranco) friends. The whole film takes place within the same day, and includes a memorable massacre of a houseful of middle-aged vegetarian women who accidentally chop one of the spawn up in a blender.

Dods’ cool monster attacks are the best reason to see THE DEADLY SPAWN. Ranging from shadowy cardboard puppets (literally) to a full-size creature with rubber cement dripping off its teeth, the spawn may never look completely realistic, but their low-tech impact packs more of a punch than a whole kettle of modern CGI effects. By creating all of the monsters entirely on the set and allowing the actors to interact directly with them, McKeown and Dods are able to inject extra tension into the scary scenes, unlike in today's horror films where actors normally are looking at a green screen.

It's also fun to watch THE DEADLY SPAWN just to figure out how the filmmakers managed some of the special effects. They effectively mix miniatures, rear projections, forced perspective, puppets, fire effects (accidentally, when the spawn caught on fire during the shot), and other techniques, making the feature something of a training film for budding low-budget filmmakers. It's frequently gory (the spawn biting the face off one of its victims is an astonishing triumph of makeup effects), but never gross or offensive, mainly due to the lighthearted tone and the backyard nature of the production.

Filmed in 16mm (which was blown up to 35mm for its brief theatrical run) on a budget ranging from $18,000-$28,000 (there are several reported figures), THE DEADLY SPAWN still manages to resemble a professional film, despite a couple of sloppy performances, an out-of-focus shot or two, and one shot where the cameraman sticks his fingers into the lens. Despite its amateur pedigree, THE DEADLY SPAWN did play theatrically in 1983 as RETURN OF THE ALIENS: THE DEADLY SPAWN, as distributor 21st Century tried to fool people into thinking it was a sequel to ALIEN.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bow To The Brilliance Of GetEven

One of the most astonishing ego trips of all time, GETEVEN (sic) is inept in every department, right down to its semantically confused title. I bet the food at the craft service table was crummy too.

Taking the blame is one-and-done amateur filmmaker John De Hart, a Los Angeles attorney who thought he was handsome, talented, and charismatic enough to carry an action movie. Boy, was he wrong. Not only does De Hart serve as producer, director, writer, and star of GETEVEN, he wrote himself three love scenes with naked former Playmate Pamela Jean Bryant (DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE) and jumped onto a phony-looking stage to sing an awful country-western song with all the passion and stage presence of Rockin’ Mel Slurrup.

It’s doubtful a finished script ever existed. Half the movie plays like poor improvisation and usually in excruciatingly long takes. It helps explain how De Hart convinced pros William Smith (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) and Wings Hauser (DEADLY FORCE) to sign on, since they didn’t have to spend time memorizing lines and working on characterization. Sets, costumes, sound, music, casting, and photography are the pits, but thankfully just bad enough to be hysterical under the right circumstances.

Normad (Smith) was a corrupt cop who framed partners Finney (Hauser) and Bodie (De Hart) as drug dealers and got them kicked off the force. A year later, Normad is a Superior Court judge (!) and the drug-dealing leader of a Satanic cult (!!) which once counted Bodie’s estranged girlfriend Cindy (Bryant) among its flock. Most of this backstory is not only shown (albeit on in a competent manner), but also redundantly recited by Bodie during some sunset soul-searching.

Eventually, after De Hart discovered he was making a vengeance flick with no action, no drama, and no structure, Normad gets around to sending his goons to kill Cindy, which sets Bodie off on a road to revenge (which is also an alternate title for GETEVEN). De Hart, so wooden he makes Jim Mitchum look like Ace Ventura, is a hilarious counterpart to the coked-out Hauser, who seems to be channeling Dennis Hopper’s APOCALYPSE NOW performance, rambling for minutes on end about nothing, inexplicably splashing fully clothed in a pool with two thonged beauties, and showing up at Bodie and Cindy’s wedding in an amazing orange suit.

It’s rare to see filmmaking this incompetent, and like a pearl within an oyster, it should be treasured. One of Normad’s thugs is played by an actor who was also in SAMURAI COP…and this is a step down.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kung Fu Girls On The Rampage

A story that could only have been told during the wild and wooly 1970s, WONDER WOMEN plays like a fake “book bonus” in a dogeared issues of FOR MEN ONLY. Combining riffs on James Bond and Fu Manchu with heavy dollops of sex, horror, and science fiction, director Robert O’Neil’s 1973 release is good-natured camp capped by a funky Carson Whitsett (BONNIE’S KIDS) score and a knowing performance by Nancy Kwan, a long way from Bill Holden and Suzie Wong.

Dr. Tsu (Kwan) is a brilliant surgeon with a private island fortress off the coast of the Philippines. Not satisfied with a mere medical career, she uses her all-girl army of kung fu fighters to kidnap the world’s greatest athletes, so she can transplant their body parts into wealthy old men. On the case: insurance investigator Mike Harber (played by producer Ross Hagen), who is hired by Lloyd’s of London to bring back a missing jai alai player.

Harber, for as much as he’s being paid (a continuity error makes it unclear), is pretty inept and plays no active part in the plot’s resolution. He takes a punch pretty well, though, and his cool personalized weapon, which is a sawed-off shotgun with a pistol grip, provides Harber’s characterization where the paucity of dialogue in Lou Whitehill’s screenplay can’t. Which is fine, because WONDER WOMEN movies. O’Neil (ANGEL) stretches his $110,000 budget far enough to create a pair of fine chase sequences and a number of fights and shootouts. Granted, the fight choreography, mainly involving weak-kicking women, is lame, but Hagen and stunt coordinator Erik Cord try to sell the action, and dressing the women in miniskirts and go-go boots forgive a lot.

Kwan (FLOWER DRUM SONG) really seems to be having a great time, as she slices into a brain while having a phone chat or extolling the merits of “brain sex,” a form of virtual reality that wears out poor Mike Harber. Her tongue slides seductively over Whitehill’s pulpy words, and her insouciant attitude towards the monstrous actions—literally, as she keeps her failed experiments, including an ape woman and a man with a light bulb jammed into his head, caged in the basement—plays nicely next to Hagen’s virile heroics.

Maria de Aragon (later to shoot second as Greedo in STAR WARS) and B-picture favorite Roberta Collins (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) chew scenery as rivals in Dr. Tsu’s army. The PG rating keeps the kinkiness to a minimum, though O’Neil still manages to squeeze a few nipples into the frame. Sid Haig (COFFY) has a ball playing against type as an urbane accountant, and Marilyn Joi (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE’s Cleopatra Schwartz) plays an uncredited cameo in an absurd and confusing epilogue foolishly shot in post-production by distributor Arthur Marks. WONDER WOMEN later appeared theatrically and on television as THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

Thank Fred Olen Ray and Retromedia for getting this obscure action picture (I had only seen it cropped and censored on Turner Network Television) onto a packed DVD. In addition to WONDER WOMEN at its theatrical ratio of 1.78:1, Ray moderates a technically clumsy but entertaining commentary track with director O'Neil, which unfortunately gets a bit "inside baseball" on occasion. Stuntman Cord drops by for a brief (and, again, technically clumsy) interview segment on the Special Features menu, which also offers trailers and TV spots, a radio ad, stills, deleted scenes that were added to WONDER WOMEN's international prints (they contain no nudity or exploitation, but serve to give the female characters much-needed character traits), Super 8 home movie footage taken on the set, and six minutes of Hagen starring as Mike Harber in a never-completed sequel.

If only Ray had taken as much care with the sloppy copy printed on the back cover.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Super Women Who Kissed And Killed

It's very easy to believe this 1952 horror movie is something I dreamed up in a sweaty, delirious haze. But, no, I took my temperature and my pulse, and I'm feeling fine. So MESA OF LOST WOMEN must be a real movie.

Quite probably one of the worst films I've ever seen, MESA OF LOST WOMEN plays like a jittery delight, an ethereal neverland where normal laws of logic and physics don't apply. A land of midgets and giant spiders, mad scientists and genteel psychopaths, where the women are stacked and the audience is stumped.

According to Bill Warren's essential KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES, MESA OF LOST WOMEN was produced in 1952, but not released in Los Angeles in 1956, during the period when the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. was flooding theaters with his peculiar style of cinematic ineptitude. MESA even feels like something Wood might have concocted on the back of a cocktail napkin in a dive on Sunset. In fact, the maddening musical score composed for the picture by Hoyt Curtin later turned up on the soundtrack of Wood's JAIL BAIT.

Once you've heard Curtin's repetitive Mexican-guitar-and-pounding-piano opus, you aren't likely to forget it, as it drowns the picture in a cacophony of noise that sounds as though it were performed by a pair of monkeys locked in a junior high school band room. An interesting footnote is that Curtin ended up at Hanna-Barbera, composing themes and scores for some of the most famous animated series in television history, including THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS, JONNY QUEST, and SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU?

MESA OF LOST WOMEN stars Jackie Coogan (that's right--Uncle Fester!) as Dr. Aranya ("That's Spanish for spider!"), a mad scientist living atop Mesa Zarpa, perched 600 feet above the Mexican desert. For some idiotic reason, Aranya is attempting to breed humans with spiders in order to create a master race to do his bidding. For an even more idiotic reason, the experiments transform the men into mute midgets, whereas the women become sexy Amazons with long fingernails. 

Aranya summons a fellow scientist, Masterson (Harmon Stevens), to his laboratory in order to share his secrets with the scientific community. The results drive Masterson mad, however, and he is sentenced to a mental hospital and lobotomized. Somehow, he escapes and shows up at a cantina, where Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) is performing a steamy spider dance. Masterson shoots her and kidnaps a millionaire, his golddigging fiancĂ©, his Chinese servant, and Masterson's male nurse. 

Masterson takes his captives to their airplane and forces pilot Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp) to fly them to Mesa Zarpa, where, uh, where not much happens, really. The nurse and the millionaire are killed (off-screen) by a giant spider, and the rest of the party ends up in Aranya's underground lab. Masterson recovers his sanity long enough to send Phillips and his new squeeze on their way safely, and then blow the lab all to hell, destroying Aranya's mad dream and himself in the process.

All of this happens in about 68 minutes and is actually more compressed than that. MESA opens with a prologue that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, showing Tarantella planting a kiss of death on an unassuming male victim and then incomprehensible narration written by co-director Herbert Tevos (who doesn't appear to have made another picture) and delivered by Lyle Talbot (JAIL BAIT), another reminder of the Wonderful World of Ed Wood. Talbot rambles deliciously about "hexapods" and the perils of Muerto Desert--"the desert of Death."

Although a handful of minor B-movie actors signed on to Tevos and co-director Ron Ormond's lunacy, including Allan Nixon (PREHISTORIC WOMAN) and Richard Travis (Lou Gehrig in THE BABE RUTH STORY), the only performer you're likely to recognize is Coogan, who later played the eccentric Uncle Fester on THE ADDAMS FAMILY. A famous child actor, Coogan had not yet made many waves in his adult career, except for starring in an obscure syndicated series with the unlikely title of COWBOY G-MEN. He doesn't appear to be enjoying MESA very much, basically walking through the (probably) two days he spent on the set. Sporting thick eyeglasses, a goatee, and a mole, he almost looks as though he's trying to hide, thankful for the house payment he was able to make that month because of his MESA paycheck. Coogan went on to appear in a couple of Albert Zugsmith productions, including the magnificent HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL as a drug kingpin, and even produced and directed an obscure espionage B-flick under his own Coogan Films banner before hitting it big opposite John Astin and Carolyn Jones on THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

Friday, June 07, 2013

.38 Magnum

His name is Stoner. Mark Stoner. He's a treasure hunter and a salvage expert based in Key West, but THE SATAN STONE, the second Stoner adventure penned by Ralph Hayes, is set in Africa.

Published by Manor in 1976, THE SATAN STONE starts out with a different character carrying the first two chapters. McMillan, a so-called partner at a South African diamond mine run by the fat, corrupt De Villiers, is cheated of his final payment. Hey, what can he do about it, seeing as De Villiers' vicious right-hand man Graaf has no qualms about torturing and killing anyone who even slightly threatens his boss.

So McMillan decides to steal the largest diamond he's ever seen. Easily a million-dollar gem. But there's no way to get it out past Graaf's security, so he stashes it beneath a bulldozer. McMillan avoids being killed by one of Graaf's men and makes it to Nairobi, where he runs across his old friend Mark Stoner. And eventually--with some fast talking--convinces Stoner to infiltrate De Villiers' camp and somehow emerge with the gigantic gem.

Air Force veteran Hayes does a nice job spinning this tough-guy yarn, which may remind one somewhat of the 1976 action film KILLER FORCE. The macho shenanigans and action sequences are rendered in an exciting manner, just like a pulpy short story out of a sweaty men's magazine. The climax finds Stoner stranded in the desert and pursued by some of De Villiers' men...who are slightly less dangerous than the pack of killer baboons who attack him!

I liked the one Hunter novel Hayes wrote, and this is a good one too. Hayes also wrote the Cominsec series and a few Nick Carter adventures.