Friday, September 27, 2013

Slick. Suave. Gentle. Brutal. Wild.

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.

Directed by Mario Bava
Stars John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli, Terry-Thomas

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying that an audience will always root for a character, no matter how rotten he may be, as long as he is good at his job. That was reportedly his justification for casting Cary Grant as a cat burglar—and the hero—in TO CATCH A THIEF. The quote may be apocryphal, but it may explain the enormous popularity of the Italian comic book character Diabolik. As portrayed in Paramount‘s 1967 release, DANGER: DIABOLIK, Diabolik is a thief, a vandal, a murderer, and a cop killer. Quite frankly, he’s a terrorist. But he’s also a damn good one, and he performs with such √©lan that it’s difficult to resist the charms of Mario Bava’s pop art classic.

Two sisters from Milan, Angela and Luciana Giussani, created Diabolik in 1962 as a greedy, materialistic thief and killer who steals from the rich…and keeps it. Aided by his accomplice and lover, the scrumptious Eva Kant, Diabolik became so popular to Italian readers that a movie version of his exploits seemed like a natural progression, considering the immense popularity of fantasy films in Italy at the time. Dino de Laurentiis financed the Italian/French co-production and hired the great cinematographer and special effects artist Mario Bava to direct the film. A master of creating illusion on film using intricate lighting, inventive camera angles, and inexpensive, though effective, visual effects such as glass mattes and forced perspective, Bava had directed a handful of successful genre pictures, but this was his first film with a major studio budget.

The movie opens with Diabolik, portrayed by American actor John Phillip Law (BARBARELLA) in a skintight leather bodysuit and mask, playing the Italian cops for suckers and making off with a huge bundle of cash, which he takes to his enormous underground headquarters that makes the Batcave look like a tool shed. Who says crime doesn’t pay? There he makes love to the stunning Eva (Austrian sexpot Marisa Mell) on a bed covered with money and plans his next caper: the theft of a valuable emerald necklace as a birthday gift for Eva.

Meanwhile, police inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) makes a deal with mobster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi, just off playing the villainous Emilio Largo in THUNDERBALL) to take it easy on his illegal business dealings if he’ll capture Diabolik for him. As proof there are no limits to Diabolik’s treachery, the hero not only attempts to steal Italy’s entire gold supply, but he also blows up government facilities containing the country’s tax and financial records, in effect, bankrupting the country.

Bava directed DANGER: DIABOLIK for about 1/5 of the $2 million budget granted him by producer Dino de Laurentiis, but it still appears as though every penny of that $2 million is on the screen. Nearly every shot contains a visual treat, ranging from the spectacle of Diabolik’s massively complex, gleaming underground hideout, bursting with golden detail, to Mell’s eyepoppingly sexy wardrobe choices. The American BATMAN TV series, which premiered on ABC over a year before DANGER: DIABOLIK began production, appears to have been a great influence on Bava, who approximates that show’s trademark Dutch camera angles, multi-colored gas attacks, and propensity for marking the hero’s outlandish gadgets with elaborate labels. Ennio Morricone’s ear-jangling score punctuates the film’s playful mood and arresting action sequences with such precision that it’s perfect for a movie based on a comic book.

DIABOLIK also shares BATMAN’s tongue-in-cheek relationship with its audience, as we root for Diabolik to pull from his rear end another outrageous escape from the latest death trap. Most of us are predisposed to pull for the underdog anyway, and Bava stretches that allegiance as far as it will go, so far that Diabolik’s destruction of Italy’s economic infrastructure plays like a big joke, particularly when the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas) asks the citizenry to use the honor system to mail in their fair share of tax.

DANGER: DIABOLIK was not originally a hit in the United States, where it was likely viewed as either another spy spoof along the lines of the Matt Helm series or a ripoff of BATMAN. Surprisingly, the ‘60s counterculture doesn’t seem to have embraced Diabolik’s virulent anti-government stance, an important character trait that would certainly guarantee that the film couldn’t be produced today.

It is not a film about politics, however. DANGER: DIABOLIK is merely an adventure fantasy and a love story about a beautiful woman and a man who would do anything to please her. Even if he has to bankrupt all of Europe to do it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fighting For Your Rights In Her Satin Tights

When Lynda Carter became Wonder Woman, the DC Comics superhero was no stranger to the television airwaves. William Moulton Marston's 1941 creation had already been essayed by Cathy Lee Crosby (COACH) in a woeful pilot that ignored everything in the comic books, voiced by Shannon Farnon in the hit Saturday-morning cartoon  SUPERFRIENDS, and played for laughs in an unaired presentation film for BATMAN producer William Dozier by Ellie Wood Walker (THE NEW INTERNS). 

What sold the 1975 ABC pilot was most likely its star: a stacked six-foot brunette who not only looked dynamite in Wonder Woman’s red-white-and-blue threads, but also portrayed an earnestness and likability that clicked with audiences. The inexperienced Carter (whose biggest role to date was BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW, a drive-in flick in which she appeared topless) may not have been a great actress, but she was a great Wonder Woman. If only the series had offered her scripts to match.

The pilot, titled simply WONDER WOMAN and directed by TV stalwart Leonard Horn (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), aired in a 90-minute time slot more than five months before the series premiered. An origin story penned by Stanley Ralph Ross, who wrote for the 1960s BATMAN series, WONDER WOMAN (as the pilot movie is titled) can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or go all the way into camp territory. It’s cast and shot well, and the idea by Ross and producer Douglas S. Cramer (BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE) to set the series in its original World War II setting opens the series up to interesting story ideas.

Diana (Carter) is Princess of Paradise Island, a hidden land located in the Bermuda Triangle that is ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Cloris Leachman) and populated only by sexy immortal women. The first man any of them have seen is Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), a United States Air Force pilot who is shot down by a Nazi and parachutes to Paradise Island. Hippolyta holds an athletic competition to determine which Amazon will accompany a recuperated Trevor back to America and is disheartened to learn the winner is her daughter Diana in disguise.

With Steve still recuperating in a Washington, D.C. hospital, Diana uses her new Wonder Woman identity to thwart a Nazi plot to divebomb a secret air base on American soil. She susses out that Trevor’s secretary and girlfriend (Laraine Stevens) is actually a Fifth Columnist communicating Air Force secrets overseas to Colonel von Blasko (Kenneth Mars). Except for a slightly soggy middle act that turns Wonder Woman into a shortlived carnival attraction to earn money, Horn keeps the story moving right along and does a very nice job with the action scenes (even though he’s unable to disguise the fact that Stevens’ fight double is a man in drag).

The movie was a success, leading ABC to commission two episodes for the spring of 1976 and a (more or less) weekly series in the fall. Why ABC chose to schedule WONDER WOMAN irregularly is lost to the ages, I imagine, but after thirteen episodes, Cramer took the show to CBS, where it received a weekly berth and a setting change to the 1970s (with Waggoner playing Steve Trevor Jr.!).

Monday, September 09, 2013

Zombies Of The Ocean Deeps

One of the all-time great movie titles headlines an occasionally spooky horror set off the coast of western Africa. Produced for Columbia’s B unit by Sam Katzman, 1957's ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU suffers from a limited budget that prevents prolific director Edward L. Cahn (CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN) from exploiting writer Bernard Gordon’s (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCER) lurid premise to its fullest.

A salvage team bankrolled by irritable George Harrison (Joel Ashley), which includes stud diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) and Harrison’s hot-to-trot wife Mona (Allison Hayes, later in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN), arrives on the island of Mora Tau to cannibalize a sunken ship containing a fortune in diamonds. What they don’t know until they arrive at the stately seashore estate of elderly Mrs. Peters (Marjorie Eaton) and her innocent blond great-granddaughter Jan (Autumn Russell) is that the treasure is being guarded by zombies—the dead crewmen who went down with the ship sixty years ago and have killed all the fortune hunters who have pursued the diamonds ever since.

Shot mostly on the Columbia backlot and at the Los Angeles Arboretum (the Peters estate exterior is the Queen Anne Cottage, also seen on many TV shows like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and FANTASY ISLAND), MORA TAU moves along at a decent clip and serves up plenty of zombie action. Cahn films the zombies in a similar style as his CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, complete with chilling shots of bloodless bullet squibs tearing apart the zombies’ chests.

Katzman’s tightness with a buck harms the picture at times. The exterior of Harrison’s ship is clearly a set with a gray “sky” backdrop, and the underwater scenes are filmed on “dry” sets with the actors wearing soap bubble blowers on their diving suits and unconvincingly walking slowly to evince moving through water. Besides Hayes’ smoldering bitch of a performance, the acting is none too great and often, like Gordon’s dialogue, hilarious (I especially love the dumb crewman who forgets he has one flare left in his gun and throws the weapon at his zombie pursuer).

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Clean, Mean Go-Between

ST. IVES was the first of nine movies Charles Bronson made with director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE). It’s interesting that after a couple of decades of playing brutal heavies and other blue-collar types, many of his biggest movie star parts were as men of culture (DEATH WISH’s Paul Kersey was an architect, for instance. And a liberal!).

ST. IVES casts Bronson in the title role, a professional writer named Raymond St. Ives, who drives a Jaguar and sleeps in a bed lined with fancy books like ONIONHEAD. Wealthy hood Abner Procane (John Houseman from THE PAPER CHASE) hires St. Ives to ransom four leather-bound ledgers that were stolen from his safe. St. Ives shows up at the ransom site with $100,000, but nobody is there except a corpse in a clothes dryer. Instead of the quick payday he was hoping for, St. Ives becomes both a murder target and a murder suspect as more bodies begin dropping (literally). He does get to sleep with Jacqueline Bisset, which may make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

What's really cool about ST. IVES, in addition to the punchy Lalo Schifrin score, is the supporting cast. If you watched at least five movies made during the 1970s, you've seen most of the performers before. Harry Guardino (THE ENFORCER), Dana Elcar (MACGYVER), and Harris Yulin (NIGHT MOVES) play cops. Maximilian Schell gets "guest star" billing as a shrink. Michael Lerner (BARTON FINK) is a lawyer. Daniel J. Travanti (HILL STREET BLUES), Burr DeBenning, Val Bisoglio, Dick O'Neill, George Memmoli (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), Olan Soule, Robert Englund (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), Jeff Goldblum (also in Bronson’s DEATH WISH), and Elisha Cook Jr. are in it too.

ST. IVES may be less outrageous than the Bronson/Thompson collaborations for Cannon in the 1980s, but it still has some whoppers. As Bronson and Bisset prepare to get down to business, Thompson cuts away to fireworks (!), which are revealed to be part of the film Houseman is watching in his home theater. And some suspense is drained from a heist set at the Pickwick Drive-In once you realize the film being projected is the same short loop of a cattle stampede running over and over. How ST. IVES could be so sloppy in some details, yet just right in others (I love the downtown Los Angeles locations and the smoky cafeteria where St. Ives hangs out) is beyond me.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Third Dimension Is Terror

JAWS producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown’s original concept for the second JAWS sequel was a spoof entitled JAWS 3, PEOPLE 0, possibly to be directed by PIRANHA’s Joe Dante. Universal balked and settled for more of the same shark-bites-man mayhem, except this time it would be in 3D (“The third dimension is terror!”). The result, JAWS III, is probably as funny—albeit unintentionally so—as the original spoof idea would have been.

The 3D gimmick alone was responsible for its modest box office success in the summer of 1983, because JAWS III (theatrical title: JAWS 3-D) is a cheap-looking, dully plotted mess with indifferent performances and shoddy special effects. Hard to believe the great Richard Matheson (DUEL) had a hand in writing the screenplay (the story is credited to THE CANDY SNATCHERS’ Guerdon Trueblood, though it’s unclear if he had anything to do with JAWS III), though I suspect Universal executives and script polisher Carl Gottlieb (a veteran of JAWS and JAWS 2) are more responsible for the film’s lack of quality.

The story brings Mike Brody (a visibly disinterested Dennis Quaid), the son of Roy Scheider’s JAWS police chief, to Florida, where he works as an engineer at Calvin Bouchard’s (Lou Gossett Jr.) new Sea World park with his girlfriend, marine biologist Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong, who was also the female lead in HIGH ROAD TO CHINA that year). While his younger brother Sean (John Putch) is visiting for Sea World’s grand opening, the park is victimized by a 35-foot great white.

Universal’s choice of directing neophyte Joe Alves, the production designer on JAWS and JAWS 2, was one of many missteps that contributed to JAWS III’s failure to scare, thrill, or entertain. Gossett, who made this just after his Oscar-winning turn in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, is lousy, but he’s also the only actor with life to his performance. The killer shark looks like Styrofoam in many shots, and the blurry matte work and phony 3D effects make the Bruce the Shark on the Universal Studios tour look downright threatening. Universal was too cheap to bring back John Williams, so Brit Alan Parker (DEMPSEY & MAKEPEACE) contributed a forgettable score. As mentioned above, JAWS III was a hit, and JAWS: THE REVENGE followed.

Monday, September 02, 2013

When Is He Going To Strike Again?

Zodiac is perhaps the most infamous serial killer in American history. He terrorized the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, taunting police with a series of strange messages and ciphers and leaving citizens in a state of constant fear. Zodiac was never caught, and his identity remains unknown.

Amazingly, producer/director Tom Hanson (A TON OF GRASS GOES TO POT) made a low-budget exploitation movie in an effort to smoke out the real killer. He booked THE ZODIAC KILLER (or ZODIAC, as it was titled in 1971) into a San Francisco theater and set up stakeouts to identify the killer using handwriting samples of paying customers.

It’s unlikely Zodiac was anything like the sweaty, overacting suspects in Hanson’s film: Satan-worshipping mailman Jerry (Hal Reed) and bald misogynist Grover (Bob Jones). While Grover gets his kicks by donning an ill-fitting toupee and swinging all night with a bevy of delicious chicks (nothing in this film is less credible than Grover’s success with women), Jerry is content to stay at home with his pet rabbits (“Why are evil people allowed to live, when poor, innocent rabbits must die for no reason at all?”). One of the suspects is eliminated early, leaving the other to roam the city murdering complete strangers on a whim. He stabs a pair of lovers next to a lake, shoots a cabbie in the head, bops an old lady with a spare tire…

The dialogue by Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza is atrocious (“Nobody calls me a bald-headed bastard!”) and the acting even worse, though Hanson’s one-take direction does the performers no favors (Jones repeatedly blows his lines, and you can hear Hanson shout “Cut!” to end one scene). ZODIAC is funnier than it is frightening or thought-provoking. After the film’s San Francisco run, Hanson sold it to Audubon Films, which released it across the United States. Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter played by Robert Downey Jr. in David Fincher’s 2007 film ZODIAC, lent his name and endorsement to Hanson’s production.

For the ultimate in ZODIAC KILLER awesomeness, see Chris Poggiali's outta-sight interview with Tom Hanson at Temple of Schlock, and learn how Hanson and his fellow filmmakers set a trap to capture the real-life Zodiac Killer in a San Francisco movie theater!