Sunday, October 27, 2013

That Boy Is Trouble, Pete

MONDAY MORNING FATHER isn't the most exciting of novels, but neither was ROOM 222, the television series upon which the book is based, the most exciting of shows.

Which is not a knock against ROOM 222, a thoughtful, interesting, and warm show about a Los Angeles high school. It ran four-and-a-half seasons on ABC, was nominated for several awards, and was created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, whose next series was THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. So clearly ROOM 222 was a show that delighted many people from network executives on down to folks watching their Zeniths after supper. But it was a very...quiet show.

And author William Johnston captured this very nicely in MONDAY MORNING FATHER, the second of six ROOM 222 tie-in novels, all written by Johnston. He captures the tone of the series and the voices of its characters (as delineated by a talented group of actors) perfectly. If the book has a major fault, it's the minor role handed to Alice Johnson, the plucky student teacher played by Karen Valentine. But Johnston's story of familiar discord is told so professionally that fans of ROOM 222 may not even notice.

This is a book written primarily for teenagers. The plot is bland, for sure, but it no doubt struck a chord with many readers during the turbulent Generation-Gap era in which it was published (1970). Pete Dixon (played in the series by the late Lloyd Haynes), Walt Whitman High's good-natured history teacher, is being followed around school by student Harmon Henry. Not in a stalker-ish way, but Harmon is really pushing some boundaries. He's having trouble at home with his widowed father, professional football star Ham Henry, and appears to be staking out Pete as his new dad.

While Pete and his girlfriend, guidance counselor Liz McIntire (Denise Nicholas), decide how to handle the separation between father and son, principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) offers comic relief by fantasizing about ditching the school scene to become a handyman or an ice cream salesman. Typical storylines for ROOM 222, and handled quite well by Johnston (with happy endings, of course).

I don't know what Johnston's television-watching habits were, but he had a real talent for tie-in writing and adapted many shows, including GET SMART, BEWITCHED, IRONSIDE, THEN CAME BRONSON, F TROOP, and THE MONKEES. To do this well, to capture the essence of these shows and reproduce them in book form in a way that feels familiar to their fans, is a tough job.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It Started As A Vacation

Here it is: the directorial debut of King of the World James Cameron, who earned the shot after a few years working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as a production designer, art director, visual effects technician, model maker, second unit director, and who knows what other odd jobs.

You would never know from watching 1981's PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING that the director’s next film would be something as brilliant as THE TERMINATOR, though to be fair, executive producer Ovidio Assonitis fired Cameron during post-production and cobbled the film together himself. I just wish the pompous Cameron still had the sense of humor to write a movie about man-eating fish that fly over the beach, glom onto the necks of unsuspecting tourists, and chomp away.

Yep, that’s right—these piranha have wings and can fly, though they look like cheap rubber props on sticks being batted against the faces of the game actors (not that the effects in Joe Dante’s wonderful PIRANHA were a lot better).

A diving instructor (top-billed Tricia O’Neil, who later had a small part in TITANIC), her horny student (the obnoxious Steve Marachuk), and the local police chief (the great Lance Henriksen) investigate when one of O’Neil’s students is munched to death off the coast of a Caribbean resort. The winged fishies are, of course, the result of the U.S. government tampering in God’s domain. Do the officials of the beachside hotel evacuate in order to avoid a panic? Ho ho, that’s a laugh.

Assonitis probably cast Henriksen, who previously starred in the producer’s THE VISITOR. He’s terrific as the male lead and worked for Cameron twice more in THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS. One hallmark of a Cameron joint is a strong female lead, and it’s O’Neil as the police chief’s estranged wife who carries the ball in PIRANHA PART TWO. She worked primarily in television, where she didn’t often land roles as good as this one, even if it is in a middling Italian horror film. The stars are better than PIRANHA PART TWO deserves (well, not Marachuk, who’s a lox), but the boobs, blood, laughable special effects, and Henriksen leaping from a toy helicopter offer a few thrills.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jaws Of Death

Just another JAWS ripoff out of Italy, THE GREAT ALLIGATOR aired five times on THE CBS LATE MOVIE, where it probably put a lot of night owls to sleep. It not only is bad, it’s even bad as far as movies about killer alligators go. Admittedly, the last twenty minutes or so build up an entertaining body count (and the best views of the schlocky effects work), but there isn’t much to enjoy until then.

THE GREAT ALLIGATOR, also seen overseas as THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER, has the same plot as the other JAWS rips: a really, really big ‘gator is eating the guests of Mel Ferrer’s new jungle resort. Photographer Claudio Cassinelli (SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) and hotel manager/anthropologist Bach (CAVEMAN) try to convince Mel (SCARAMOUCHE) to close the hotel and save the guests, but—pshaw—there’s money to be made. THE GREAT ALLIGATOR provides an unusual twist, however, in that the local natives (director Sergio Martino shot the movie in Sri Lanka) believe the monster gator is their god, which they call Kooma, and fight back with flaming arrows against the white heroes who want to kill it.

Because this story development calls for the delectable Bach to be captured, stripped, and trussed up by the river to act as a human sacrifice for Kooma, it must be considered a notch in the film’s favor. It’s also what convinces Ferrer to finally listen to Cassinelli’s cries for help, but it’s too late—Kooma tears through the hotel’s guest list like Raymond Burr at an Amish buffet.

Martino takes care to hide his stiff-as-a-board model alligator, but it still doesn’t fool anybody any more than the phony-looking miniatures do. For some reason, Richard Johnson (THE HAUNTING) cameos as a lunatic hermit priest whose character makes as little sense as his acting choices. A lot of the cast and crew worked on Martino’s ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN around the same time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dance, My Little Sex Bombs!

1964's KISS ME QUICK was the first film produced by Harry Novak, who founded Boxoffice International Pictures and flooded drive-ins and grindhouses with so-called “nudie-cuties” (light-hearted sex romps that often reached the rim of hard-X pornography without going over the edge) and “roughies” (which mixed harsh violence with sex). The cinematographer was the great Laszlo Kovacs, who went on to shoot EASY RIDER, SHAMPOO, and GHOSTBUSTERS, and KISS ME QUICK is probably the best-looking color nudie film ever made (not a high bar, admittedly). The story is dumb, but it achieves its goal of creating a passable reason to put dancing naked girls on-screen, and it’s surprisingly funny and clever (and probably written by director Peter Perry).

The (fake) credits are read by an unseen female narrator. A stacked blonde lies on a table and takes forever to get undressed. She’s under the influence of a sex machine built by the mad scientist Dr. Breedlove (Max Gardens), who looks like Peter Sellers in DR. STRANGELOVE and talks like Bela Lugosi. He orders three strippers to dance (I’m partial to the second blonde, but Perry’s favorite is Natasha, the brunette with the giant wig and ponytail).

The plot, such as it is, finally gets underway with the arrival of Sterilox (Frank Coe, inexplicably performing as Stan Laurel, but why not?), who transports from the Buttless Galaxy at the command of The Grand Glom to kidnap the perfect Earth woman and bring her back for breeding. The Frankenstein Monster, a female mummy (in a rubber mask), and Count Dracula appear in (awful) makeup that somehow eluded Universal’s lawyers. Occasionally, a skull turns to the camera and makes a non sequitur wisecrack in a Peter Lorre voice. The dialogue seems inspired by MAD, and Gardens, a Los Angeles burlesque theater owner who co-produced with Novak, delivers his with a real gleam in his eye.

The script for KISS ME QUICK must have looked more like a pamphlet, because the film is primarily devoted to various bump-and-grind sequences (“Dance! Dance, my little sex bombs!”), sometimes to soft piano music and sometimes to wild garage rock credited to a band called The Gallstones. My patience for nudie-cuties is pretty short, but KISS ME QUICK held my attention, thanks to Kovacs’ colorful photography and inventive angles and the thick layer of jokes (groaners they may be) spread over the dancing scenes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It Will Freeze Your Blood

Screenwriters Glenn Leopold and Neal Barbera, whose credits are mainly in Saturday morning cartoons, open THE PROWLER with a flashback to 1945, when a young couple was gruesomely slaughtered during the annual graduation dance, presumably by a returning G.I. upset over the girl’s “Dear John” letter.

Thirty-five years later, a string of similar serial killings occurs the same night as the first dance since the first murder. With Sheriff Fraser (Farley Granger, a long way from Hitchcock’s ROPE) out of town on a fishing trip, it falls on young deputy Mark (Christopher Goutman) and his girlfriend Pam (Vicky Dawson) to trap the killer before all of their friends turn up dead.

The psycho, played by first assistant director Peter Giuliano in a World War II uniform, helmet, and mask, dispatches his victims in juicy ways that allow gore guru Tom Savini to get creative with sharp instruments like pitchforks and bayonets. Leopold and Barbera introduce a whodunit element to the film that allows the audience to play along with the mystery and figure out which of the cast will be unmasked as the killer. Director Joseph Zito, who went on to work again with Savini on FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and RED SCORPION, does an okay job keeping the viewer guessing, but really should have injected more energy into the scenes where somebody isn’t being slaughtered.

One of dozens of early-‘80s slasher flicks inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE PROWLER is slightly more distinguished than most of the others due to the outstanding makeup effects designed and perpetrated by Savini, who did the same on FRIDAY THE 13TH. The splashier effects, of course, fell victim to the MPAA censors’ scissors, though the restored “X-rated” version released on DVD reveals Savini’s gore effects to be extremely gruesome and effective. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how Savini performed his “magic” (the jumping and gasping it inspires may throw you off your game). Because THE PROWLER is lethargically paced and indifferently acted, the kills provide the necessary visceral thrills.

The leads, Dawson and Goutman, spend most of their screen time tiptoeing through dark houses and dark cemeteries and are not distinctive. None of the other young actors are around long enough to make a mark, though you may recognize Thom Bray as the nerd detective on RIPTIDE and Cindy Weintraub from HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (where her character fared better). By 1981, it was not unusual for classic movie star Granger (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) to appear in trashy horror films, and he cashes an easy paycheck in this one. Another name from the ‘40s, Lawrence Tierney (DILLINGER), is a bizarre red herring.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Scream Yourself Into A State Of Shock

It’s important to note up front that the version of director Al Adamson's HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS that I watched is the Italian cut, 7 PER L’INFINITO CONTRO I MOSTRI SPAZIALI, which translates to 7 FOR INFINITY VS. THE SPACE MONSTERS. Whatever that means.

Originally a 1965 Filipino black-and-white movie called TAGANI, HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS is what Independent-International released in the U.S. in 1970 after Adamson bought TAGANI, spliced in stock shots from other movies, and added new footage filmed at Vasquez Rocks. The Italian cut is markedly different, dropping some scenes from HORROR, repeating shots, and swiping outer space footage from the British TV series UFO.

The plot is credited to Sue McNair, who is probably Adamson and/or producer Sam Sherman, and makes no sense. After Earth is besieged by a rash of vampire attacks (filmed in one night in an L.A. alley with the director playing one of the monsters), Dr. Rynning (John Carradine) and a four-person crew (despite the Italian title’s promise) fly a rocketship to a planet from which they believe the vampires came.

This part of the movie is tinted various colors to disguise the black-and-white origins of TAGANI. Adamson explains it away by explaining radiation is causing “color variations” in the planet’s atmosphere that makes everything appear monochromatic, and Sherman tried to claim in HORROR’s marketing it was filmed in a special process called Spectrum X!

Crewmen Bryce (Bruce Powers), Scott (Fred Meyers), Willy (Joey Benson), and Linda (Britt Semand) explore the planet on foot, leaving Rynning behind (probably because the frail Carradine was unable to shoot long hours in the arid California desert). They find dinosaurs (played by tinted footage from ONE MILLION B.C. and UNKNOWN ISLAND), lobster men, bat men, a tribe of cavemen, and beautiful Malian (Jennifer Bishop), the only Caucasian native, who joins the Earthmen. Meanwhile, Rynning shoots lasers at a bunch of spaceships because Al Adamson, that’s why. Missing from the Italian cut is a ridiculous sex scene between Robert Dix and Vicki Volante, playing American technicians back on Earth.

Choosing the worst film directed by Adamson, who never made a good one, is a difficult chore, but this one is in the running, even given the fact that he can’t be blamed for the repetitive space footage the Italian producers included. The story is ridiculous, the indoor sets and special effects cheap-looking, and the acting indifferent at best. If you’re watching to find out why and how those vampires in the prologue got to L.A., no satisfaction here. I-I released HORROR in the U.S. under many different titles, including VAMPIRE MEN OF THE LOST PLANET and SPACE MEN TO THE LOST PLANET, ensuring many years of confused drive-in audiences. Sherman claims Diane Keaton was a fan.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Space Travelers In A World That Time Forgot

Written and directed by Edward Bernds, a veteran of Blondie, Bowery Boys, and Three Stooges programmers, the 1961 release VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS can scarcely be called science fiction, because the science is ludicrous, even by era standards. It’s supposed to be an adaptation of Jules Verne’s OFF ON A COMET, but is really a remake of 1940’s ONE MILLION, B.C. and includes copious stock footage from it. I could tell you that there are no dragons in it, but you’ve already guessed that, haven’t you?

Filmed completely on soundstages in cheapo black-and-white (and forget that “Monstascope” nonsense proclaimed on the posters), VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS stars Cesare Danova (CLEOPATRA) and Sean McClory (CHEYENNE AUTUMN) as Frenchman Hector Servadac and Irishman Michael Denning, respectively, who traipse into the Algerian desert in 1881 to duel for a woman. At the count of ten, a fiery comet smashes into the Earth and transports the two men and the ground they’re standing on to its surface, where they encounter cavemen, an aggressive (and hilariously phony) giant spider, and several prehistoric creatures played by regular-sized animals in disguises on miniature sets. Much of the first act is McClory and Danova standing around with bored looks on their faces watching stock footage of fighting animals from ONE MILLION, B.C.

Fortunately for them (and us, to be truthful), they also find sexy cavebabes played by Danielle De Metz (in Bernds’ RETURN OF THE FLY) and Joan Staley (who has an eye-catching underwater swimming sequence) who like kissing and don’t speak English. I don’t think Bernds shot a foot of original special effects—even Rodan shows up—but if you don’t mind seeing all that ONE MILLION, B.C. action again, you gotta admit that VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS moves. Kids are probably the best audience for this rapidly paced piffle that buries supporting players I. Stanford Jolley, Gil Perkins, and Mike Lane, among others, under hairy makeup.