Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sexy Twin Vampire Virgins

In 1971's TWINS OF EVIL, Hammer had the good fortune to land Playboy’s first twin Playmates. Maltese-born Madeleine and Mary Collinson’s busty talents are somehow overshadowed by Peter Cushing’s remarkably tense turn as a fanatical witch-hunter in 17th-century Europe. With steady direction by John Hough (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) and a bright, multi-leveled screenplay by Tudor Gates (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS), TWINS OF EVIL is more than just another “naked vampire” movie (Hammer’s previous vamp flick was LUST FOR A VAMPIRE).

Sisters Frieda (Madeleine) and Maria (Mary) are orphans sent to live with their Puritanical uncle Gustav Weil (Cushing) and their aunt Katy (Kathleen Byron). Unabashedly offended by his nieces’ cleavagy wardrobe and their decision to move on from mourning their two-month-dead parents, Weil spends his days and nights leading the Brotherhood, a band of sanctimonious Jesus freaks who capture sinning women and burn them as witches. But how will Weil’s convictions hold together when Frieda is vampirized by the decadent Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas)?

Despite a few glaring plot holes (like how damn many sexy young birds are in this village?), TWINS OF EVIL hangs together very well. Its sexual and religious themes are probed with intelligence and verve, and Cushing carries them with an excellent performance in which he occasionally lets a soupcon of self-doubt slip out of the monomaniacal Weil. Harry Robinson’s lush score is the cherry on top of this superlative Hammer horror.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

School For Assassins

SICILIAN SLAUGHTER is the infamous sixteenth book in the long-running (to this day) Executioner series. Don Pendleton, who created the Executioner in 1969, wrote the first 38 novels in the series. Except one.

Pendleton got into a tiff with Pinnacle Books, the publisher of the paperback series, around 1973 and refused to write any more books for them. Undeterred, Pinnacle commissioned an Executioner adventure from William Crawford, the writer of the Stryker books, and published SICILIAN SLAUGHTER under the generic name Jim Peterson.

What readers thought of this development in 1973, who knows. Did readers care that Pendleton's name wasn't on the cover or that the book was clearly written in another style? The Executioner books were enormously successful, but was anyone really paying close attention to junky men's paperbacks then?

Perhaps someone was, because Pendleton quickly came to terms with Pinnacle and churned out many more Executioners over the next few years. Today, fans of Mafia killer Mack Bolan appear outraged with SICILIAN SLAUGHTER. And it's true that it roams off-model. Bolan threatens the lives of innocents a few times, which he had never done--had, in fact, sworn not to do--in previous books, and he seduces a teenage girl who doesn't even speak English and leaves her behind to be brutalized by the hardmen chasing him.

Still, Crawford was a pro and a decent writer, and SICILIAN SLAUGHTER--character inconsistencies aside--is a decent page-turner.

It takes awhile for the plot to get moving, as Crawford opens the book by cleaning up some loose ends from PANIC IN PHILLY. He really accentuates the "man on the run" quality of the Mack Bolan character by sending him to a Mob doctor to get patched up. Some of Bolan's escapes border on Bond territory, eschewing Pendleton's more realistic spin on the character, as Bolan makes a hasty exit from a hospital and from an airplane by blasting the stewardess (actually on the Mafia's payroll) through the window!

Eventually, Mack gets to Sicily to cut the snake apart at the head. He finds that one of the Dons has built a training facility for soldiers whose sole purpose is to destroy Mack Bolan, who is estimated to have killed over a thousand mobsters! Crawford handles the action scenes fairly well, and if you can ignore that it isn't Pendleton, SICILIAN SLAUGHTER is effective.

The sad part: Crawford, perhaps not knowing whether he'd be writing the next entry too, sets up Executioner #17 by introducing a promising antagonist in the prologue. A mysterious figure referred to only as Mr. Molto is notified of Bolan's arrival in Algiers and expects him to come to Seattle. Molto is plugged in to some sort of heavy network, perhaps of a military bent. It isn't clear whether Mr. Molto is part of the Mafia, but he definitely is a guy who can take care of himself and looks forward to killing Bolan in Seattle. Of course, Pendleton chose to ignore SICILIAN SLAUGHTER in his books, so Mr. Molto was never referred to again, which is a shame.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Slams

Jonathan Kaplan (THE ACCUSED) began his directing career with two money-making sexploitation movies for Roger Corman and then moved on to 1973's THE SLAMS, a crisp action picture produced by Roger’s brother Gene Corman.

Kaplan was 25 years old and working with the mercurial football star Jim Brown, perfectly cast as Curtis Hook, who rips off $1.5 million in drug money from the Mob and stashes it on an abandoned boardwalk. Hook gets busted and sent to “The Slams,” a maximum security prison holding four times as many inmates as it was built to hold. Hook is content to do his one-to-five until he learns the boardwalk is due for demolition, forcing him to engineer a frantic escape.

Lean, brutal B-picture released by MGM is refreshingly free of subplots and extraneous backstories. Corruption and casual racism run rampant in a society populated solely by bad guys, most prominently watch commander Stambell (Roland "Bob" Harris), whose quest to get the money drives him to threaten Hook’s lady Iris (THE YOUNG LAWYERS’ Judy Pace). Richard Adams’ dialogue is tough and raw with no shortage of racial epithets. His prison escape is quite clever and expertly staged by Kaplan, whose confidence belies his tender age.

Also impressive is Kaplan’s eye for casting, which extends to the interesting faces of his weatherbeaten prisoners and to big Ted Cassidy (THE ADDAMS FAMILY’s Lurch), one of the few supporting actors who could stand a chance in a fight with Jim Brown. Andrew Davis, later a fine director himself (THE FUGITIVE), served as Kaplan’s cinematographer, and COOL BREEZE star Thalmus Rasulala receives an assistant director credit. Also with Paul Harris, Herbert Jefferson Jr. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), Quinn Redeker, John Lupton, Jan Merlin, Robert Phillips, Charles Cyphers (HALLOWEEN), Carmen Argenziano (THE HOT BOX), and—it’s a Jonathan Kaplan picture, after all—Dick Miller.

The same year, Brown starred in another prison picture for Gene Corman, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL’S ISLAND, which was also written by Richard Adams.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Survival Of The Swiftest

Based just on the Black Samurai and the Narc series, I feel comfortable anointing the late Marc Olden as one of the finest authors of action paperback originals of the 1970s. Click the above link to read reviews of his Narc novels. This post is about Olden's fifth Black Samurai book, THE INQUISITION, published by Signet Books in 1974.

I've mentioned in previous reviews of Olden's books that he has the rare gift of creating villains just as memorable and colorful as his heroes--in fact, often more so. The antagonist of THE INQUISITION is a vainglorious black terrorist who calls himself Dessalines, and he and his young revolutionaries (some of whom are white) have pulled off the crime of the century. Dessalines has kidnapped Mary Clarke, the college-bound daughter of William Baron Clarke, a two-term President of the United States, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, and the secret employer of Robert Sand, the Black Samurai.

Sand is the only American to be trained as a samurai in Japan under Master Konuma. And when Konuma and 22 of his students were murdered by Colonel Tolstoy's mercenaries, Sand made the crazed American terrorist (who also had plans to snatch Mary Clarke) pay with his life. Sand respects "the Baron" more than any other man in the world--black or white--and when Clarke's daughter is kidnapped, he has only a few days to investigate.

Dessalines never just kills his captives, however. No, he first judges them in a kangaroo court, as we see when he sentences a police officer to death by beheading at the hands of Dessalines' main enforcer, known only as Machete (guess why). He plans to "try" Mary Clarke as well, unless the Baron agrees in three days to turn himself into Dessalines' men and be tried for the crimes of being wealthy and white.

I like the way Olden manages to flesh out even the most minor of characters in just a few pages or even paragraphs. For instance, even though the two Secret Service men guarding Mary are murdered by Dessalines' men almost as soon as they're introduced, Olden looks into their heads and creates fully rounded personalities for both men, which makes their deaths more of a shock. THE INQUISITION's action scenes are terrifically rendered by Olden, and even though the terrible BLACK SAMURAI film wouldn't be produced for another two years, it's easy to picture the recently deceased star Jim Kelly playing Sand in your head.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Evil Comes In All Sizes

In 1989's PUPPETMASTER, four psychics show up at a palatial but empty hotel off the coast of northern California to pay homage to Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), a deceased colleague. One is a Yale professor, Alex Whitaker, played by MELVIN AND HOWARD’s Paul LeMat, whose giant head is especially accentuated by his crazy hair.

Fifty years earlier, the hotel played host to Andre Toulon (PRIZZI'S HONOR's William Hickey), an elderly puppet maker who committed suicide before he could be captured by Nazis. He left behind his special toys—animated puppets that move about, climb on furniture, and kill the psychics and skeleton hotel crew in various creative and bloody ways.

But not in very exciting ways, which is PUPPETMASTER’s big problem. It’s boring and very slowly paced by director David Schmoeller, who did a better job bringing mannequins to life in TOURIST TRAP. Schmoeller, who also wrote the film, seems unaware how unlikable his human characters are, wasting valuable screen time on uninteresting flashbacks and dream sequences that could have been given to David Allen’s unusual killer puppets. One appears to be a Japanese kabuki girl who regurgitates leeches. Even given the fantastic nature of the creations, that one doesn’t seem to hold water. Others include a fat puppet with a tiny pinhead that punches women in the face and a sublimely creepy white-faced doll with blades for hands. David Allen (THE HOWLING) uses a deft mixture of stop-motion animation and regular rod puppets with decent success.

It isn’t really until the last half-hour or so, when Schmoeller (THE SEDUCTION) finally gives the puppets (and Allen) license to go crazy, that PUPPETMASTER starts to get lively. Even then, it’s difficult to take the little fellas too seriously as threats, as illustrated during Irene Miracle’s repeated defense against the punching puppet by grabbing it and throwing it against the wall or down stairs.

Given a few exclusive theatrical playdates by executive producer Charles Band, PUPPETMASTER was the first of Band’s Full Moon productions to be released. As unworthy as it is, it has spawned ten (!) sequels, including one that Band has disowned: PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

And Then There Are Marriages

1973's GROUP MARRIAGE is among the lesser efforts of pioneering director Stephanie Rothman, who also made drive-in favorites like TERMINAL ISLAND, THE VELVET VAMPIRE, and THE STUDENT NURSES. This progressive romantic comedy puts three attractive couples into an unusual living arrangement. Car rental agent Chris (Aimee Eccles) and bumper sticker magnate Sander (Solomon Sturges), probation officer Dennis (Jeff Pomerantz) and decorator Jan (Victoria Vetri), and lifeguard Phil (Zack Taylor) and his ex-wife’s attorney Elaine (Claudia Jennings) move into a house together and share everything. As you can imagine, complications ensue, but nobody gets too hurt.

Written by Richard Walters and given a polish (or two) by Rothman and her producer/husband Charles S. Swartz, GROUP MARRIAGE is an exploitation spin on BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (marvel at the way they incorporate a trailer-friendly exploding car into the plot). While it lacks that film’s wit, its cornball jokes and attractive cast make GROUP MARRIAGE a painless romp that doesn’t take its subject matter too lightly. Rothman takes care to express the complicated relationships with sensitivity, and the requisite nudity and sex scenes are performed with taste.

Unfortunately, the acting is just so-so with Jennings and Sturges (also in Rothman’s next film, THE WORKING GIRLS) doing the best work. Rothman’s liberal casting of Eccles, the rare Asian actress to headline a film (then and now), pays off because her wooden performance is counterbalanced by her camera-ready confidence (watch as Rothman holds on Eccles’ face while the other cast members discuss Chris’ pregnancy). The score by Michael Andres, who also did Rothman’s THE WORKING GIRLS and TERMINAL ISLAND, is pleasant and features doses of a John Sebastian original song.