Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Revolt Of The Apes

The most violent and incendiary of the four original APES sequels, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, released with a PG rating in 1972, is no less than a call to arms for the oppressed ape nation. Allowed a very low budget from 20th Century Fox (the lowest of any APE film), director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) took advantage of an intelligent Paul Dehn (GOLDFINGER) screenplay and cleverly redressed Century City locations to fashion a powerful film about slavery and insurrection.

Twenty years after the world’s only talking chimpanzee was left in the secret care of circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the now-adult Milo (top-billed Roddy McDowall, who is fantastic) is separated from his adoptive father and sold into slavery. A plague that killed all the world’s dogs and cats led people to adopt simians as pets, which evolved (devolved?) into training them to perform household chores and eventually using them as slave labor.

Now dubbed Caesar—his new owner, the tyrannical Governor Breck (Don Murray), leader of the totalitarian North American sector, allowed him to choose his own name—the highly intelligent chimp becomes fed up with the humans’ mistreatment and even physical torture of his species and organizes a rebellion, while simultaneously being hunted by Breck’s men.

The metaphors may not be subtle, but they are effective, particularly the casting of black actor Hari Rhodes (TROUBLE MAN) as Breck’s aide McDonald, the lone sympathetic (re: liberal) member of the cruel human member’s staff. Thompson and cinematographer Bruce Surtees shoot the action tight, probably to conceal the parts of the Century City locations that didn’t look futuristic. This gives the film a claustrophobic effect, and combined with the fire effects and ghostly lighting in the climax, turns McDowall’s Caesar into a demon straight out of Hell.

Fox junked Thompson’s original cut out of fear of garnering an R rating from the MPAA (and likely of rattling the cages of sedate moviegoers who wanted to forget the real race riots that raged across America just a few years earlier) and replaced the director’s ending with a more peaceful one (cobbled together sloppily in post-production). Thompson and Dehn’s original ending is much better, as Caesar inspires his followers not to lay down their arms, but to beat down their captors and spark a worldwide revolution.

The acting across the board is strong with McDowall, Montalban, and Rhodes taking top honors. Murray has a properly nasty way of throwing orders at his jackbooted police, and Severn Darden inspires squirms as Breck’s chief torturer. Also co-starring are Natalie Trundy (as a chimp this time), Lou Wagner, Gordon Jump, William Bryant, H.M. Wynant, and John Randolph (SECONDS). Tom Scott (UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT) delivers an uneasy (in the best possible sense) score with a dose of Goldsmith. BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES followed a year later.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shotgun Wedding

Low-rent LI’L ABNER retread is notable only because of its screenplay reportedly written by PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE auteur Edward D. Wood Jr., though a “Larry Lee” is credited. The plot and dialogue in the 1963 indie SHOTGUN WEDDING seem too coherent to be a Wood joint, but maybe the script was polished by producer/director Boris L. Petroff (ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO) and his wife Jane Mann (who takes story credit). By this time, Wood was well into his second career of writing sex-soaked paperback novels, but SHOTGUN WEDDING is decidedly lacking in sleaze and sin. It even has a fun musical number at a wedding.

It’s a soapy day in southern Mudcat Landing, population 47. Noted character actor J. Pat O’Malley gets top billing as Buford Anchors, a moonshiner and “river rat” who decides to marry his live-in companion, the vixenish brunette Melanie, played by the decidedly va-va-voomy Valerie Allen (PILLOW TALK), after she reveals that she’s pregnant. Despite the film’s light tone, most of the characters are really genial louts. Buford is blackmailing Melanie because he saw her shoot a circus strongman, and she hasn’t lit out of town because she can’t find the bundle Buford has hidden. She’s also having an affair with Buford’s Jethroesque son Chub (Peter Colt).

Meanwhile, Buford’s daughter Lucianne (Nan Peterson) is blackmailing Chub to stay quiet about the affair, another son (Rafe, played by Buzz Martin) is romancing sweet and stacked Honeybee (Jenny Maxwell), and her angry, uptight father Silas (Jackie Searl) and his omnipresent shotgun are dedicated to keeping his daughter unblemished. Best of all is ubiquitous character actor William Schallert (everything from THE PATTY DUKE SHOW to TRUE BLOOD) as a con artist posing as the local preacher, who recognizes Melanie from her carnival days (it’s implied she was a stripper) and demands a fee to keep her secret.

SHOTGUN WEDDING is so light, one fears it may blow away right in front of you. Petroff’s flat TV-like direction makes the film look as substantial as a PETTICOAT JUNCTION episode, and the humor is not quite at the same level. Surprisingly, for a film with Wood’s name attached to it, SHOTGUN WEDDING is professionally made (if obviously quite inexpensive) in Arizona with decent acting (Schallert is great) and a trio of beautiful women not always wearing a lot of clothes. It certainly belies its absurdly exploitative ad campaign, which promised a child bride, even though the film is as chaste as a Sixties sitcom.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stop The World

After the clones and aliens and Nazi terrors of previous Death Merchant novels, THE BUDAPEST ACTION's heavies are something of a comedown. Granted, the Russian and Hungarian military officers who are the Death Merchant's targets in this 1977 novel from Pinnacle are nasty, brutal, evil monsters, but still are less interesting than the giants from outer space promised in earlier books.

Richard Camellion--aka the Death Merchant--continues to be the most violent of all men's adventure "heroes," racking up another body count in the hundreds, as well as razing a whole damn castle. The Russians and the Hungarians are holding in Karolyi Castle a biochemist named Imre Maleter, who is creating a hallucinogen gas capable of affecting the entire population of a major city without hurting any infrastructure. Obviously, the CIA wants Maleter captured or dead and the gas formula destroyed. Who better to send than Camellion, who this time is teamed with a pipe-chomping CIA agent named Ray Merrit, who suspects, but doesn't know, that his partner is the fabled Death Merchant.

As usual, author Joseph Rosenberger has packed the book with page after page of graphic violence, never flinching to describe to the nth degree what tremendous damage a bullet or a bomb can inflict on a human body. While the Death Merchant novels are by far the most action-packed books I've ever read, too much of a good thing can become tedious, and the fortieth consecutive page of Camellion and his team mowing down AVO troopers gets a little old. The most interesting aspect of THE BUDAPEST ACTION is that Camellion and Merrit are teamed with a small army of priests who are seeking to bring down the Communist empire, and it's odd to read about priests machine-gunning people. Camellion himself is undercover as a priest named Father Krim.

All in all, typical Death Merchant blood-letting here. By the way, for more on Rosenberger, see the Glorious Trash blog, where Joe Kenney unearthed a long-lost interview with the author from a 1981 fanzine.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It Speaks For Itself

If Disney had made an R-rated comedy about a talking vagina, it would probably resemble CHATTERBOX. Despite its raunchy premise, the 1977 AIP release is a sweet, good-natured, old-fashioned (yes) nudie cutie with barely a smidgen of sleaze. As directed by Tom DeSimone, whose background was in pornography, CHATTERBOX would make a great double feature with the equally sweet THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL.

Candice Rialson, a bubbly, charismatic regular in 1970s drive-in features (such as HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS), plays Penny, a nice hairdresser who is astonished, as anyone would be, to discover one night while making love with her boyfriend Ted (Perry Bullington) that her That’s right. It talks. And not kindly either, insulting Ted’s sexual prowess, causing him to storm out of his relationship with Penny. It also sings. Quite well, in fact.

After “Virginia” causes a lesbian client (Arlene Martel) to come on to Penny and her boss (friggin’ Rip Taylor!) to yell at her, a harried Penny visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman, a BOB NEWHART SHOW semi-regular who had just acted in the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND), who sees in Virginia not a freak or a pervert, but a ticket to fame and fortune. Exploiting Penny’s hidden skill to the max, Dr. Pearl helps her become the world’s top singing sensation, cutting a hit record (“Wang Dang Doodle”), performing on television (a talk show hosted by Professor Irwin Corey!), appearing on the cover of TIME, and even making a minor celebrity of her sycophantic mother (ex-Honeymooner Jane Kean).

Although one would be tempted to believe a comedy about a singing sex organ would be reckless with the smut, the humor is about on the level of TV sitcom with a bit of slapstick mixed in. Even the way in which the action is blocked and scored seems to anticipate a laugh track. The sex scenes are relatively antiseptic, and although Rialson’s top half is often on display, “Virginia” is always discreetly covered or hidden from view, even when she’s talking on the telephone. Okay, so the constant punning (Virginia’s favorite TV show is, of course, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) is somewhat juvenile—the screenplay is credited to Mark Rosin (THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) and Norman Yamemoto (SAVAGE STREETS—but DeSimone manufactures a family-friendly approach that makes it easy to overlook its superficial flaws and admire its good-naturedness.

Much of the film’s success is due to its leading lady. 24-year-old Rialson appears in every scene and is completely up to the task of carrying a nutty concept on her Santa Monica-born shoulders. Fans of Rialson’s body, both in and out of her clothing, will exalt in her many topless scenes; her casual attitude towards the nudity helps deflect any feelings of exploitation. She brings a great vulnerability to Penny, which lends much needed weight to the farfetched story.

Oddly enough, Rialson never again appeared in a leading role, and, in fact, only a bit part in William Richert’s WINTER KILLS lie ahead in her career. It has been said that CHATTERBOX was her career-killer, that producers were leery of casting the star of a talking vagina movie in their filmes. Although her biggest parts were in low-budget drive-in movies, Rialson was an appealing screen presence and possessed a natural beauty and charm the equal of another California blonde who went on to mainstream success: Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not that I want to make CHATTERBOX out to be more than it really is. In the hands of a cruder filmmaker than DeSimone (ironic, I realize) or a less likable actress than Rialson, it would come off as offensive and stupid, rather than the surprisingly fluffy comedy that it is.

DeSimone went on to a pretty steady mainstream exploitation career, directing the Linda Blair slasher HELL NIGHT and the third ANGEL installment. Jonathan Demme’s regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shot CHATTERBOX, and several songs were contributed by none other than Neil Sedaka! Garry Shandling later made a movie about a humming penis, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, directed by Mike Nichols. It wasn’t a hit.

Monday, November 11, 2013

$1000 Against Death By Fright

Director/producer William Castle’s 1958 suspense film MACABRE opens with a narrator asking audience members to keep an eye on the person sitting next to them in case fear makes their neighbor uncontrollable. Lloyd’s of London offered a thousand-dollar insurance policy to anyone who died of fright while watching MACABRE. I doubt anyone collected, but Castle loved the idea so much that his name became synonymous with promotional gimmicks, such as the joy buzzers that zapped certain bums during showings of THE TINGLER and “Emergo”—nothing more than a plastic skeleton that scurried over the heads of those watching HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Oddly, MACABRE isn’t a horror movie, but a tale of straight suspense. A small town doctor (William Prince, better known for playing dozens of obsequious heavies on '70s television) is rocked when his little girl is kidnapped and buried alive somewhere with less than five hours of oxygen. Prince is carrying some secrets that have caused the townspeople not to trust him, including the mysterious recent deaths of his wife and his sister-in-law—both of whom were daughters of Jode Wetherby (Philip Tonge), the richest man in town. Also involved in the plot are Prince's nurse (Jacqueline Brooks), his fiance (Susan Morrow), and the nasty-seeming police chief (Jim Backus).

Castle’s films aren’t generally known for their visual flair, but MACABRE’s night sequences are bolstered by nice black-and-white photography by Carl Guthrie. If only the rest of the film was as good. Characters act with a startling lack of urgency, so if they don’t seem to care about saving the girl (whom we don’t know at all), why should we? Scripter Robb White (HOMICIDAL) waters down the excitement in other ways too, such as having the characters stop their frantic search to talk about their pasts, triggering flashbacks that slow the pace.

Based on the novel THE MARBLE FOREST by “Theo Durrant” (actually several mystery authors masquerading under a pseudonym), MACABRE’s twist ending may provide legitimate story reasons for its unusual structure and pacing, but they unfortunately detract, rather than add to the film’s appeal. Les Baxter’s playful score and the cast’s reliable thesping are worth a watch, however. Nice work by the supporting cast, including Christine White, Dorothy Morris, Jonathan Kidd, Ellen Corby, and THE TIME TUNNEL’s Robert Colbert in an unbilled part.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

No One Dictates To Bronson

Charles Bronson plays a retired assassin named Holland in THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, a bloody thriller shot in Mexico. Bronson made a lot of sleazy films during the 1980s, most of them directed by J. Lee Thompson (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), but few plumbed the depths of depravity that this film does.

Amid the bloodshed is a shotgun blast to the head, torture by battery cables attached to the genitals, Bronson twisting a baddie’s junk with both hands, and a man ravaged by dozens of pick-wielding miners as Thompson's camera lingers on the gory remains. However, the most harrowing scene contains no physical violence at all. To lure Bronson out of retirement from his cushy island retreat to kill a notorious torturer known as the Doctor (Joseph Maher), humanitarian physician Hector Lomelin (Jose Ferrer) plays him a videotape in which the madman’s victims describe in detail the physical horrors inflicted upon them. It’s harrowing stuff for a mainstream action film, but it sure gives the audience a reason to take Bronson’s side.

The Doctor's clients include Central American puppet regimes and the U.S. government, which allows Thompson and screenwriters David Lee Henry (ROAD HOUSE) and John Crowther (KILL AND KILL AGAIN) to examine the CIA's complicated relationship with Central America during the 1980s in the context of a Charles Bronson thriller. To get into Guatemala without raising suspicion, Bronson poses as a family man accompanied by his “wife” Rhiana (Theresa Saldana), the widow of Holland’s journalist friend who was a Doctor victim.

The plot, based on R. Lance Hill’s 1978 novel, doesn’t get much more complex than that, as Holland picks off the Doctor’s henchmen and then kidnaps the sadist’s similarly perverse sister (Antoinette Bower) to lure the Doctor into the open. The effete Maher (SISTER ACT) is an interesting choice as heavy, playing the Doctor with a dignified air, despite his casual sadism. Saldana is certainly sympathetic in her first feature since surviving a stalker's murder attempt. She struggles, though, with a poorly drawn character who berates Holland for being a cold-blooded killer, yet insists on accompanying him on his mission.

Tri-Star released THE EVIL THAT MEN DO in September 1984, where it debuted at #2 at the box office just behind the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin body-switch comedy ALL OF ME. Hard to believe there was much crossover between audiences that weekend. Except me, that is.