Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fun Turned To Tragedy

It seems unlikely I'll read any more Kill Squad books. I was not exactly blown away by VOYAGE OF DEATH, and Manor's third Kill Squad book isn't much of an improvement.

Although the "heroes" of Mark Cruz's men's action series are San Diego cops, THE DEADLY MASSAGE (a great title, I admit) follows in the footsteps of VOYAGE OF DEATH by taking place outside the United States. Obviously based on THE MOD SQUAD, except the woman is Hispanic and the men are assholes, the Kill Squad is macho, misogynist white guy Chet Tabor; tough chick Maria Alvarez, who despises Chet's womanizing, but can't resist sleeping with him; and large black guy Grant Lincoln, who remains sexless to avoid intimidating the white truck drivers who bought these paperbacks off the racks in 1976.

The Kill Squad is supposed to be an elite unit, but Tabor is fuming that the brass is wasting his time by putting him and Lincoln undercover in a massage parlor to bust hookers. Instead, the two guys decide to take three of the girls home for a little five-way--free of charge, of course--but the booty call is interrupted by an attack by the establishment's bouncers, a car chase, and a shootout that leaves Alvarez' sedan at the bottom of the ocean, one of the hookers dead, and Tabor thirsting for vengeance.

Improbably, the squad convinces their boss to send them expenses-paid to Hong Kong to pursue the other two girls, who have been kidnapped as part of a sex slavery operation. DEADLY MASSAGE is mainly a solo Tabor book, being as he's the audience identification figure and all (despite the fact that he isn't very smart or pleasant). He gets to do most of the running, jumping, shooting, and killing, while leaving Lincoln to do the legwork. Kind of unfair, if you ask me. DEADLY MASSAGE isn't even as violent or as sleazy as you hope. Cruz does put two of the officers inside a nasty snake temple near the end, but he doesn't really pay it off well. The main villain, whose identity I won't reveal, even though you'll figure it out long before the final chapter, is disappointingly dispatched off-page.

The cover calls it "breathless, nail-biting action," but you know better once you realize Cruz's book is published by Manor, the low-rent company that also put out Nelson DeMille's equally squalid Keller series. Interestingly, Manor also published a pair of Death Squad books by Dan Streib that sure do read a helluva lot like the Kill Squad. Could Streib also be Mark Cruz? The cover of Death Squad #2 even looks a lot like a Kill Squad cover, but I imagine Manor commissioned several paintings at once and wanted them in a hurry.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Deadliest Weapon Of All

Except for the swamp-set car chase that rips through its first act, 1972's FEAR IS THE KEY is faithful to the Alistair MacLean novel that inspired it. But, oh, what a car chase.

Stunt pros Carey Loftin (DUEL) and Joie Chitwood (MR. NO LEGS) put the streets of Louisiana through one of the most underrated action sequences of the 1970s. Not just the streets, but the swamps and the beaches and even a strange country road made from wooden flats too. Likely added to the film only to capitalize on star Barry Newman’s recent turn in VANISHING POINT, the chase is its only major setpiece, as screenwriter Robert Carrington’s script settles into a cerebral groove that climaxes in one of the quieter—but no less effective—examples in the thriller genre.

Without giving much away, the chase is an integral (if not entirely plausible) part of a con by John Talbot (Newman), first seen listening over a shortwave radio to his family dying in a plane crash. Three years later, he’s arrested in a small town for brawling, but escapes custody, shoots a cop, and takes beautiful socialist Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) hostage. He eludes police capture (in the afore-mentioned chase), but is caught and pummeled by crooked ex-cop Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet), who turns Talbot over to Vyland (the great John Vernon), a business associate of Sarah’s father.

It doesn’t take long to realize Vyland has his own plans for Talbot that don’t involve turning him over to the cops, and the first of the film’s many plot surprises occurs around that time as well. Michael Tuchner, directing his second feature (after VILLAIN), handles suspense like a pro and even manages a few visual witticisms (starting a slow pan on Newman that ends on Newman entering the shot from the other end is cute). Ben Kingsley (GANDHI)—with hair—makes his film debut as Vyland’s pensive hitman.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

He'll Tear Apart A City

Director Robert Butler, whose credits lie mostly with television episodes (including the pilots for STAR TREK, BATMAN, HILL STREET BLUES, and MOONLIGHTING) and Disney movies, took over for Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE) during production of an R-rated adaptation of William P. McGivern’s 1975 novel NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER.

My memories of the book are short, but the script by Rick Natkin (THE BOYS IN COMPANY C) and William Norton Sr. (WHITE LIGHTNING) is ludicrous, throwing insane obstacles like a remarkably thin-skinned Latino gang and a hilariously unhinged corrupt cop (Dan Hedaya of BLOOD SIMPLE) into the path of its hero. Still, NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER is remarkably well-paced, exciting, and an eye-catching potpourri of rundown New York City locations. It was filmed during the summer of 1978, but not released by Columbia until 1980. In Canada, it came out as PURSUED.

The very intense Cliff Gorman (ANGEL) plays the heavy, Gus Soltic, a racist psycho who tries to get back at the rich people he blames for the demise of his Bronx neighborhood by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Marco St. John, recently seen in TREME). Unfortunately, he accidentally snatches the wrong girl: Kathy (Abby Bluestone, also in LITTLE RASCALS in 1980), the daughter of hairy ex-cop Sean Boyd. Bearded James Brolin, who turned his six-year supporting gig on MARCUS WELBY, M.D. into a short-lived career as a leading man in features (including THE CAR, CAPRICORN ONE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR), stars as Boyd and chases Gorman all over New York, smashing cars, endangering innocent lives, and angering half the NYPD.

The story is a riff on Ed McBain’s KING’S RANSOM without the moral conundrums, but with plenty of action and sleaze, and that’s okay too. The stunts are first-rate, and it's amazing that Furie, Butler, and the production staff were able to film so many dangerous chases in bustling Manhattan. You can see the actors inside the cars during some shots, and a lot of extras look to be in harm's way. No question, JUGGLER's sense of danger--real or not--adds to the excitement.

The directors draw colorful performances from THE GODFATHER’s Castellano as a put-upon detective, Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) as a funny Puerto Rican cab driver, Sully Boyar (FORT APACHE, THE BRONX) as a helpful doc catcher, and the lovely Julie Carmen (THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR) in her feature debut. Brolin’s own film career dissipated shortly after this, and he moved on to a lucrative run on HOTEL.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Slow Boy

The 1973 pilot movie for the hit NBC anthology POLICE STORY is usually referenced as “Slow Boy,” but “Stakeout” is the title on the print. Even Shout! Factory’s DVD liner notes call it “Slow Boy.” Maybe the title was changed for syndication.

At any rate, Vic Morrow (COMBAT!) stars as Joe LaFrieda, the leader of a special L.A.P.D. unit that goes after the most dangerous criminals. With boss Blodgett (Edward Asner, then on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) coordinating the effort, the unit’s target is the violent Slow Boy (Connors), whom the cops follow to an all-night grocery store. LaFrieda and partner Chick Torpi (John Bennett Perry, later to star in 240-ROBERT) bust Slow Boy when he attempts to stick up the joint and take a woman (Diane Baker) hostage. However, Slow Boy’s attorney (Michael Baseleon) manages to bail him out, leading LaFrieda to concoct a quasi-legal plan behind Blodgett’s back to get Slow Boy off the street.

Created by best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh (THE NEW CENTURIONS, a film based on his novel, is seen on a theater marquee) and written by E. Jack Neumann, STAKEOUT is at its best when it shows the cops without their public faces on, engaging in ribald humor and dealing with the fear and stress that comes with their job. LaFrieda is a policeman who became something of a Hollywood cliché—divorced, lonely, eating TV dinners in his apartment—but was a fresh depiction on television in 1973. Morrow is terrific—completely natural and believable. A brief moment where an informer tests his wire by shouting into his microphone and into LaFrieda’s earbud is played so real that you’d swear it was a real accident.

Neumann and director William A. Graham (THE DOOMSDAY FLIGHT) also draw strong performances from Morrow’s supporting cast, especially Asner (perfectly cast as an authority figure not unlike Lou Grant). Harry Guardino typically hams as an Italian detective with a distaste for black people, though he and Neumann interestingly refrain from portraying him as a bad person (though he does receive a comeuppance of sorts).

A hit on NBC in March of 1973, POLICE STORY returned in October as a weekly series that ran five seasons and earned several Emmy nominations. POLICE STORY was notable for amazing casts, and this one has James Luisi, Ina Balin, Sandy Baron, David Doyle, Taylor Lacher, Hal Williams, Kim Hamilton, Barbara Rhoades, Mel Scott, and KOJAK’s Kevin Dobson. Score by Jerry Goldsmith, who also composed the series theme.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dr. No

DR. NO is where it all began.

31-year-old Scotsman Sean Connery was a virtual unknown when producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman cast him as Ian Fleming’s Agent 007. The confidence he oozes while playing the coolest man in the world is matched by director Terence Young (who made two more Bonds); credited screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, and Berkeley Mather; composers Monty Norman and John Barry (whose orchestra plays Norman’s iconic 007 theme); and everyone else before and behind Ted Moore’s camera.

Almost everything you know about the Bond movies—the psychedelic main titles, Bond’s flirtation with secretary Moneypenny, exotic locations, “shaken, not stirred,” the gunbarrel opening, wry one-liners mixed with shocking violence—started here and continued right up until Daniel Craig took over the 007 role in 2008’s CASINO ROYALE.

The screenplay sticks fairly closely to Fleming’s 1958 novel, which would turn out to be the exception, rather than the rule. Bond, first seen playing chemin de fer in a London casino (where he identifies himself as “Bond. James Bond.” for the first time), is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent named Strangways.

Teaming up with CIA man Felix Leiter (the pre-FIVE-0 Jack Lord) and boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), Bond follows the clues to the Caribbean island of Crab Key, where he discovers a gorgeous bikini-clad beachcomber, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), and the fortress of Chinese supercriminal Doctor No (Joseph Wiseman, who “wisely” underplays megalomania), who plots to use radio beams to sabotage the United States’ space program.

Marked by Ken Adam’s gloriously futuristic set design and Peter Hunt’s taut editing (he would later direct some Bonds), DR. NO is splendid pulp that set the standard for Bonds to come. James isn’t yet an indestructible superhero (one wonders if he vomited in stress after a nocturnal run-in with a tarantula), and future films would grow bloat with little interest in plot cohesiveness. Due to budget limitations, Bond’s travails in No’s obstacle course are scaled down from the novel (no fight with a giant squid!), and, of course, Honey isn’t stripped nude and left to killer crabs (this level of luridness was unusual for Fleming).

United Artists released DR. NO in the U.S. in 1962, seven months after its London premiere.

Monday, July 08, 2013

The World’s Only Positive Review Of Friday the 13th Part VIII

I’m exaggerating, of course. But not by much. An explanation of Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot’s first guest post…

One of the film buffs I follow on Twitter is Brandon L. Summers (@84summers), and I took notice of a recent tweet in which he ranked 1988’s FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN as his favorite FRIDAY THE 13TH movie. I was surprised in that I don’t even know anyone who thinks JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is good, much less ranks it as the series’ best. Curious to learn what Brandon sees in the film that I certainly don’t, I asked him to write a defense of it, and when he asked if I would post it here, I certainly couldn’t say no.

What follows is Brandon’s spirited piece on the film. It has been slightly edited to fit into the blog’s format, but it is otherwise completely Brandon’s. If you would like to read my “side” of the story, my 2007 review of JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is here.

The Only Person in the World Who Likes JASON TAKES MANHATTAN: A Review of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII
By Brandon L. Summers

JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is my favorite of the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. If I had to rank them, it would be Part VIII at number one, hands down.

Not only is it a more brutal horror film than the seven preceding it, Part VIII feels more like a fantasy, which is to my speed. After Jason returned as a zombie in JASON LIVES: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI, the film dabbled more in supernatural elements. He was obviously dead and didn't just stalk his victims, he improbably appeared! His opponent in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD was a cute, scared psychic. In Part VIII, he shares a bond with cute haunted writer Rennie (Jensen Daggett), who sees visions of warped Boy Jason.

Of all his incarnations, I prefer squishy zombie Jason with the ribs showing, covered in algae, in tatters and with pale-white skin, dripping as he killed indiscriminately. (I like hulking Jason from FREDDY VS. JASON, too.) Because they have to get Jason on this cruise (a modest river ship, not the Carnivale or whatever) to eventually get him to New York, they show him climbing the ship's chain, but it announces a more aggressive Jason than seen before. And because he's obviously dead, he takes some serious damage later. A pen in the eye with a gush of blood, falling onto the third rail, chemicals in the face—it shows they're dealing with a true monster, not some mere man, but an unstoppable thing, which to me is more compelling in a horror-fantasy film.

The brave new setting is a benefit. The other seven are very formula. The teens are killed one by one while remaining oblivious, and in the end are discovered by the last girl who is then pursued, right? (In Part VI, older Tommy tried to warn people, but it didn't help change the structure.) And being on a ship filled with graduating teens, this film is way less blatant about bringing in fodder. No corporate paintball, no bystanders who just happen to be in the area. Everyone is onboard already, so it’s less intrusive, and you don't have to suspend your disbelief. It makes more sense and thus is more satisfying.

On a ship, it becomes evident far earlier that there are killings happening. And trapped, it becomes a fight for survival. That's not been done before! The teens, more than ever, work to find the unseen killer. Jason even shows new initiative as he works to sabotage the ship when he can. Plus, they bring back the classic trope of the hick prophet ("He's come back, and you're all gonna die!") who doubles as a red herring for the teens and two adults.

All of the teens here are really very pleasant, too. The teens in THE NEW BLOOD were especially boring, more like stereotypes. Usually in these films, they're escaping to party and have sex. Here, they're on a school trip and all like each other. There's one bitchy girl, Tamara (Sharlene Martin), sure, but she's not over-the-top at all. There's Rennie and her dog Toby, captain's son Sean (soap opera actor Scott Reeves), punk rocker J.J. (Saffron Henderson, who played Geena Davis in THE FLY II), video maker Wayne (Martin Cummings), and absolute sweetheart Eva (Kelly Hu). None of them are interested in sex or drugs (Tamara does cocaine, which is new, but there's not the usual beer and marijuana), and they're not even great friends. They only mutually care about surviving. This is unique among slasher films in general.

Because Jason is so ruthless and these teens are truly innocent, just fighting not to be killed, I cared more about their fates than I did with most of these films.

The film also dares to elicit pathos for Jason. In FRIDAY THE 13TH 2–4, he was angry his mother was killed. And in 6–7, he's angry he is killed. In this one, though, he is tragic. In Rennie's visions, you hear Boy Jason pleading from beyond, "Mommy, don't let me drown!" And when Rennie is captured and drugged by a gang (of the most Canadian Hispanics you'll ever see), he becomes a comic-book-style anti-hero, which appeals to me greatly. She fears the monster, but sees the little boy within. And when he dies by toxic waste flush, his tormented spirit is finally freed.

JASON TAKES MANHATTAN looks great. These films were getting slicker, more expensive. This one cost $5 million over the $2.8 million of Part VII. Jason looks awesome amid neon lights and pavement and glass. Enough forest and cabins and barns! Maybe something like Jason belongs in the woods, but appearing in a place more familiar to us makes him more inhuman, emphasizes that he's a monster. It's so unrealistic in its depiction of New York (especially in the clean, PC 21st century), with its toxic waste and cruddy docks and alleys, it adds to the feeling of fantasy. It's like ROBOCOP.

Jason gets some humorous bits, too. He's constantly looking around in confusion, on the ship or in city, but no less daunted and angrier for it. And the bits with the billboard and Jason spooking some teens by showing his face all amused me. Jason gets to have fun for once!

But if I've learned anything from horror fans, it's that the only thing that matters is "good kills." Not story nor acting nor production. And this one has good kills. A boy gets a hot stone in the belly, a girl is bludgeoned with electric guitar, an extremely cute girl is strangled to death in a disco. Jason goes wild, too! We see him drag a cop to his death, and shove the wicked principal into a vat of sludge. And the principal is also given some pathos. He's wrong and a jerk, but while he is unapologetic, he does see that he's hurt his niece, so when he pleads for his life, there's a little more than just another person getting stabbed. The film is also particularly bleak with the gang and Rennie being drugged and nearly raped.

One of the top moments of the series is when boxer Julius dares to fight him. No one has ever fought Jason! And he does well. You think he might even make it! But he tires, and this kill has impact because it is a real defeat. And then his head gets knocked off, which is funny.

I enjoy this film, but most of the criticisms toward it are legitimate. Not great acting; more about getting Jason to New York than being in New York, which is obviously Canada, except for some great Times Square exteriors; fun moments but no memorable dialogue; Rennie's visions probably don't make sense; no score by Harry Manfredini. The song at the end is good, but not as good as "He's Back! (The Man Behind the Mask)."

It is not cheap, though. And the title? If we are to judge films by their titles, then surely SORCERER is the worst film ever made!

And really, the worst of the series? In the next one, Jason becomes a hairless weasel that jumps into other bodies! Isn't that more outrageous than his just being on a ship? And JASON X is a sci-fi comedy, not a horror movie, and he gets "upgraded." Even if horror-monster-in-space is a great trope, isn't it more offensive that this is closer to LEXX or FARSCAPE than FRIDAY THE 13TH? Really, are you telling me the remake by Marcus Nispel and Michael Bay is better for being set in the woods, just killing teens (and with an elaborate series of tunnels)?

This film should be appreciated. It is the last true film of a series that was constantly innovative while always delivering. You got kills and thrills, but no two FRIDAY THE 13TH movies are exactly the same, whether it’s goofy 3D or little Corey Feldman or psychic teen. JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is a legitimate FRIDAY THE 13TH effort, and the last real Jason movie in 24 years. So don't hate, celebrate!

Thursday, July 04, 2013

A Pretty Ghoul In A Bikini

AIP pretty much wrapped up its Beach Party series in 1966 with the financially and creatively unsuccessful THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI. There isn’t a beach to be seen anywhere. In fact, all the action takes place in a haunted castle with a swimming pool.

After shooting was completed (early titles included THE GHOST IN THE GLASS BIKINI and BIKINI PARTY IN A HAUNTED HOUSE!), producers James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff considered the film unreleasable, so they hired Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) to work one day and Susan Hart (DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE) to do two weeks of wraparound segments and random nonsense that editor Ronnie Sinclair could insert (Sinclair may have also directed the reshoots). With AIP unable to convince Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello to sign up, the film was a bust, and the studio turned to auto racing for its next “Beach Party” picture, FIREBALL 500.

Karloff is Hiram Stokely, a corpse who can only get into Heaven by performing a good deed on Earth. Peering through a crystal ball (the ill Karloff films all of his scenes while sitting), he tries to prevent Chuck Phillips (Tommy Kirk, returning from PAJAMA PARTY) from being cheated out of his inheritance by sleazy lawyer Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone, who didn’t enjoy working with so many kids). Hart’s ghost randomly pops in to commit mischievous acts against Ripper and his comic sidekick Jesse White, returning from PAJAMA PARTY as J. Sinister Hulk.

Director Don Weis stumbles through the usual rock songs, slapstick, dancing, and goofy fun, and none of it cuts together very well. The fragmented production is quite evident and isn’t helped by the fact that, because of the nature of the visual effects, Hart had to wear an unflattering blond wig. Chuck tries to get frisky with sweet redhead Lili (actress Deborah Walley accidentally calls Kirk “John” once), while blond Goo Goo (Aron Kincaid, sorta playing the Jody McCrea role) falls under the spell of sinister redhead, uh, Sinestra, who’s played by the show-stopping Quinn O’Hara.

It was a good year for Nancy Sinatra, who had this, THE WILD ANGELS, and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” in 1966. Here, she sings “Geronimo,” backed by the Bobby Fuller Four. Also with Patsy Kelly, Francis X. Bushman, the annoying Piccola Pupa, Andy Romano, Bobbi Shaw, Benny Rubin (in a role clearly written for the late Buster Keaton), Luree Nicholson, Salli Sachse, Patti Chandler, and, of course, Harvey Lembeck, trotting out Eric Von Zipper for the last time.