Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Factory

The copyright date on THE FACTORY is 2008. Warner Brothers released it straight to DVD in 2013. No film that the studio thinks is good or can make money sits on a shelf for five years. Of course, studio executives aren’t always right, and it’s possible a smart, exciting thriller could slip through the cracks, a genuinely good movie whose charms somehow eluded the men and women at Warners paid well to identify them.

Nope. They were right.

The basic premise by Aussie soap actors Morgan O’Neill and Paul Leyden strains credulity. Buffalo, New York is overrun by a three-year string of “sex murders,” yet the screenplay tells us that seven prostitutes have vanished during that time and no bodies have ever appeared. So how do investigating detective Mike Fletcher (John Cusack) and his partner Kelsey (DEXTER’s Jennifer Carpenter) know there even are sex murders or that one person is responsible? Maybe the victims left town or died some other way.

Maybe O’Neill, who also directed, and Leyden told them. Because, yeah, there is a creep in Buffalo kidnapping streetwalkers. And he’s into some sick stuff. Gary (Dallas Roberts, THE GOOD WIFE’s gay brother Owen) brainwashes his victims and impregnates them. The women are psychologically dependent on Gary—they call him “daddy”—and after he rapes them, he hangs them upside-down so “everything will flow properly.”

Mike’s obsession with his work (like every other movie cop) interferes with his family life with wife Shelly (LOST’s Sonya Walger), young son Jed (Vincent Messina), and rebellious teen daughter Abby (Mae Whitman, PARENTHOOD’s resident weeper who gets to whine and cry more here). It’s no surprise that Abby becomes Gary’s latest victim, snatched right off the street after an argument with her college-age boyfriend (Michael Trevino). The climax’s “shocking” twist isn’t even a surprise, given how clumsily O’Neill delivers early exposition that could exist only to telegraph a later shock.

Filmed in frigid Montreal, THE FACTORY succeeds at delivering a snowy atmosphere for O’Neill’s sordid story. Likely inspired by SAW, the filmmakers present seriously icky material without much style or creative thought. As is increasingly his habit, Cusack (THE NUMBERS STATION) seems detached and uninvolved, though the rest of the main players are okay. Carpenter is stuck with an especially silly role, and she earns kudos for making it halfway believable. THE FACTORY is stupid and poorly told, but just outlandish enough to prevent it from becoming boring.

The Numbers Station

John Cusack seems better suited for lighter fare like HOT TUB TIME MACHINE than this morose little-seen thriller that plays like a less absorbing THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and a less exciting ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. He probably could have Paul Rudd’s career if he wanted to, but maybe not smiling pays better.

At any rate, THE NUMBERS STATION saddles Cusack with the character name Emerson Kent and a sidekick in Malin Akerman (WATCHMEN) with whom he shares no chemistry. Kent is a burned-out CIA assassin sentenced to monitor duty—three days on, three days off—at an empty Naval base in Suffolk, England. His job is to protect cryptologist Katherine (Akerman), who shortwaves coded messages to CIA operatives in Europe. It’s boring duty that gives him plenty of time to flashback to the botched assignment that got him there.

Two months into the assignment, Kent and Katherine show up for work and are attacked by enemies who have breached the code and sent messages to “retire” fifteen American agents. While the mainly faceless foes try to drill through the heavy door separating the two sides, Kent has to figure out how to reverse the assassination order and, hopefully, save their own lives. Would you believe he slowly walks away from an exploding fireball?

Filmed in cold blue lighting on depressingly drab sets, THE NUMBERS STATION is an uninteresting two-hander with little of interest to say. F. Scott Frazier’s plotting reveals no major surprises, and his characters are right out of Bad Spy Movie 101. The story is basically a simple one, but director Kasper Barfoed makes it needlessly complex with flashbacks, babble about ciphers, and too many shots of people typing on keyboards. He also fails the basic task of familiarizing the audience with the film’s basic setting, so that when characters are running from room to room, we have an idea of where everyone is. With as much time as the movie spends in the bunker (virtually all of it), Barfoed should have made it a main character.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Trial Of Billy Jack

Only in the 1970s could THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK have been made, and only then could this pretentious, windy three-hour chore have been an enormous hit.

According to the film’s late producer, director, and star, Tom Laughlin, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82, TRIAL earned $30 million at the box office in just its first thirty days of national release, which would have made it easily the most successful film ever at that time. It isn’t a good film, but it’s certainly unforgettably unique with its occasional bursts of violence, strident yet sincere left-
wing politics, and frequent unintentional hilarity that you may at first believe to be parody until you realize Laughlin has no sense of humor.

Really, this is one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen. Kung fu Vietnam vet Billy Jack (Laughlin’s third time out after THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK) is serving a four-year prison stint for the events of BILLY JACK, and the pacifist Freedom School run by his platonic friend Jean (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real-life wife) is shot up by the National Guard! Most of the film is told by Jean in flashback form from her hospital bed, and Laughlin’s grisly staging of innocent children being slaughtered by Guardsman would never occur in a film today and certainly not with a PG rating!

Laughlin and Taylor have a lot of bones to pick, and they pick them all. Child abuse (a student plays guitar with a hook after an abusive parent cut his hand off in a fit of rage), government corruption, racists, the rights of Indians, police brutality—all are countered with folk singing and lots and lots of preaching. Upon Billy’s release, he explores his Native American half by experiencing hallucinations during a drug trip; slaps a construction worker, a hippie protestor, and Jesus Christ (!); and encounters his mystical, blue-painted double in the “Cave of the Dead.”

A virtually plotless film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK jumps from one social issue to the next, which means a potentially exciting subplot about Jean and Billy Jack organizing a search party into snowy mountains to rescue stranded Indians, who then go untreated at a “white” hospital, is truncated into five or six minutes. The acting is quite bad, though its natural amateurishness sometimes works in its favor (Laughlin leaves in a part where Teda Bracci blows a line, laughs it off, and repeats it correctly). Balancing the clumsy performances are technical values that are impressive for an independent vanity picture, such as Jack Marta’s overwhelming widescreen nature cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s score.

Laughlin dishes out a little of Billy Jack’s backstory, including an arresting flashback in which he witnesses a massacre of Vietnamese women and children by American soldiers, in this bizarre mixture of peacenik sincerity and exploitation. Billy returned one last time in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, which barely played theaters. CBS aired TRIAL in a three-hour prime-time slot in 1980 and again on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1984.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Occult Barrier Between Good And Evil

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.

Running Time 1:17
Directed by Mark Thomas McGee and Dennis Muren
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

EQUINOX (1970)
Running Time 1:22
Directed by Jack Woods
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

If you were a horror fan growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you were undoubtedly aware of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. A monthly magazine published by Warren, which also produced black-and-white magazine-sized comics like EERIE, CREEPY, and VAMPIRELLA, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND enchanted kids with wonderfully evocative articles and stills from science fiction, horror and fantasy movies past and present. Much of it was written by its editor, Forrest J Ackerman (sic), in an inimitable “punny” style that clicked with a young audience fixated on monster movies and special effects. It’s no exaggeration to say that FMoF influenced a generation of future filmmakers, and it’s likely culture-changing hits like STAR WARS may have never existed without it.

In 1965, a trio of young “monster kids” who had met through the FMoF classifieds decided to join forces and make a movie just like the ones they enjoyed watching on late-night TV. Greatly influenced by KING KONG and the special effects wizardry of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the three lads—Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, and David Allen—created THE EQUINOX…A JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERNATURAL on weekends over the course of two years on a budget of only $6500.

Muren is a name many genre fans recognize immediately. He’s an Oscar-winning visual effects technician whose credits include STAR WARS, E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK, and WAR OF THE WORLDS, just to name a handful. Muren was still a teenager when he co-directed his first movie, along with McGee (who went on to write several films for Roger Corman) and Allen, who, like Muren, became renowned for his work in visual effects, specializing in stop-motion animation.

Three years after THE EQUINOX was finally completed, Hollywood producer Jack H. Harris (THE BLOB) bought the picture and hired Jack Woods to write additional scenes and reassemble the cast to direct new footage. The result was titled simply EQUINOX, which played across the United States and found an extra life in TV syndication and home video. Criterion released it in a sumptuous 2-disc DVD that includes not only the theatrical cut, but also—for the first time ever—the original 77-minute version from before Harris and Woods got hold of it.

Both versions have slightly different storylines, but the basic premise remains the same. Four youths—David (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Vicki (Robin Christopher), and Jim (Frank Boers, Jr., who later changed his name to Frank Bonner and became famous as sleazy sales manager Herb Tarlek on WKRP IN CINCINNATI)—hiking through the woods to the cabin of Professor Waterman (fantasy author Fritz Leiber) encounter a crazy old man in a cave who hands them an ancient book. This tome opens a doorway between Earth and a haunted dimension that unleashes a bevy of murderous creatures against them, including a green giant, a Harryhausen-like “Taurus,” and a winged demon. The Woods/Harris version attempts to flesh out a story that doesn’t need it by adding a spooky park ranger, Mr. Asmodeus (Woods), who warns the kids away from the woods, but also takes the time to mesmerize and make out with the two girls in scenes that appear to exist solely for the actor/director’s gratification.

Neither EQUINOX is what I would call “good,” but both are interesting in terms of their admittedly crude special effects. It’s fun guessing how the budding filmmakers pulled off their ambitious vision without much money. A lot of it was done “in the camera” using forced perspective, mirrors, or matte paintings on glass that mingle perfectly with the real background. The paintings were done by another “monster kid,” Jim Danforth, who was already a Hollywood professional on films such as THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO. The stop-motion scenes were mostly directed by Allen using front and rear projection techniques that seem impossible on $6500. I particularly admire the cave set, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was basically a 40-foot cave wall constructed in Muren’s backyard, but, combined with exteriors filmed at Bronson Canyon and another Danforth matte painting, is indistinguishable from a real cave.

I’ve barely mentioned the performers, which is fair when discussing EQUINOX. It’s difficult to accurately measure their work, since EQUINOX was shot without sound using a 16mm Bolex camera, and the voices were post-dubbed later. The cast are inexperienced, but likable; it’s unsurprising that Bonner comes off best. The performances are definitely hurt by Woods’ recutting, which eliminates nearly all the character buildup and backstory, turning the protagonists into teenage ciphers, rather than people we become invested in.

EQUINOX is perhaps the unlikeliest member of the vaunted Criterion Collection, which, according to its Web site, is “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films“ and “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world.” I’m not certain EQUINOX qualifies on those counts, but there’s no denying the film’s impact on a select few individuals who went on to create some of Hollywood’s greatest fantasies.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Be Careful Which Way You Turn

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.

LOST (2005)
Rated R
Running Time 1:25
Directed by Darren Lemke
Stars Dean Cain

“Relaxed” isn’t a word anyone will use to describe LOST, which is a real low-budget gem that managed to eke out a short theatrical run before hitting video stores. Dean Cain has been one of Hollywood’s busiest and most dependable leading men since rising to stardom as the Man of Steel on ABC’s LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, sliding effortlessly between television parts and leading roles in independent genre films. LOST is a revelation, providing Cain with one of the juiciest roles of his career to date. Indeed, the edgy thriller is practically a one-man show.

Cain plays Jeremy Stanton, a Pasadena bank vice-president driving alone across the Nevada desert. He has only a few hours to reach an important destination--the small, insignificant town of Red Ridge--but his outdated road map and an outwardly stressed demeanor helps him to become lost. Only his cell phone, which the anxious yuppie uses to soothe his wife (Irina Bjorklund) and bark at an overly cheery Road-Aid operator (Ashley Scott), keeps him company (perhaps implausibly so, considering that the little bugger manages to consistently get a signal out in the middle of nowhere).

Writer/director Darren Lemke teases us early on with radio news stories about a $6.5 million California bank heist, and it’s inevitable that the crooks will cross Jeremy’s path. However, Lemke deftly dangles the how’s and the why’s before us in an assured manner atypical of a first-time director, carefully doling out plot twists that dangerously toy with our suspension of disbelief.

One reason we go along with it all--the biggest reason, really--is Cain, who isn’t afraid of appearing unsympathetic. Lemke is a little heavy on the symbolism, making it crystal clear to us many times over that Jeremy is not just literally lost on the highway, but has fallen off his moral path out of desperation. It’s obvious that Jeremy is not a particularly nice guy, but Cain’s multi-faceted performance draws us in to a point where we root for him to escape his inevitable doom.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Casting Roger Moore, then flying high as James Bond, as a whiskey-guzzling, woman-hating, cat-loving mercenary is a good idea. One of three times Andrew V. McLaglen directed Moore (also THE WILD GEESE and THE SEA WOLVES), FFOLKES isn’t packed with good ideas, but letting Moore send up his screen image sure is.

Jack Davies wrote the screenplay based on his novel ESTHER, RUTH & JENNIFER and added a good dose of humor, much of it embedded in the characters of Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (sic), Moore’s character, and the main heavy played by PSYCHO’s Anthony Perkins.

ffolkes gets the call after Perkins’ Lou Kramer and his associates hijack an oil platform in the North Sea and demand 25 million pounds from the British government to prevent them from blowing it up. The Brits, in the form of Admiral Brinsden (James Mason), recruit ffolkes and his private undersea army to sneak aboard the platform, nicknamed “Jennifer,” and take Kramer out.

Titled NORTH SEA HIJACK in the United Kingdom and (inexplicably) FFOLKES in the U.S., McLaglen’s thriller lacks the scale and excitement of his other collaborations with Moore, but his two leading men and Davies’ clever plotting keep it watchable.

Moore is having a ball as ffolkes (he likes cats and doesn’t like people who don’t), grumbling about women at sea, rude smokers, and people talking while he’s trying to concentrate on his needlepoint. John Richardson, who brought his effects know-how to the HARRY POTTER franchise, supervised the superb miniatures that sell the illusion of an oil platform under siege during a rainstorm.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Some Things Shouldn't Be Disturbed

A departure from the filmmakers who made popular G-rated Sunn Classics “docudramas” like IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK and THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY, as well as THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS for television. THE BOOGENS is an R-rated horror movie with some nudity and blood, though its slow-burn homage to old-fashioned monster movies of the 1950s lets it stand out from the more violent slasher films that filled screens in 1981.

THE BOOGENS’ screenplay by David O’Malley (FATAL INSTINCT) and GRIMM creator Jim Kouf (hiding behind his “Bob Hunt” pseudonym) is standard genre fare, but director James L. Conway (HANGAR 18) has a good grasp on the material and does a nice job establishing a creepy mood on a reasonable budget (an early crane shot of a woman entering the snowbound cabin where much of the movie takes place establishes the setting clearly and with little fuss). He also gets likable performances from the young foursome who anchors the subterranean thrills. Conway married one of them during production—leading lady Rebecca Balding.

Balding, who had recently starred in another horror film, SILENT SCREAM, and been fired during the first season of LOU GRANT (Linda Kelsey replaced her and went on to earn five Emmy nominations), takes top billing as Trish, a budding reporter who accompanies her school friend Jessica (SLEDGE HAMMER co-star Anne-Marie Martin, who married Michael Crichton and co-wrote TWISTER with him) to a mountain cabin near Silver City, Colorado.

Trish and Jessica’s weekend companions are Jessica’s constantly horny boyfriend Roger (Jeff Harlan) and his friend Mark (Fred McCarren), who are spending the winter helping experienced mining reps Brian (John Crawford) and Dan (Med Flory) open a long-abandoned mine that caved in seventy years earlier, sealing the fates of dozens of trapped workers and spawning decades of legends about what lurks within.

What lurks are toothy, tentacled amphibians with an appetite for flesh and a fresh batch of available prey, thanks to the dynamite that reopened the mine and—unbeknownst to the miners and their lady friends—tunnels that reach the cabin where our four heroes reside. Created and constructed by William Munns (THE BEASTMASTER) and Ken Horn (TOURIST TRAP), the so-called “boogens” are goofy little critters pretty much hidden off-camera until the climax. This is because the one boogen puppet didn’t work very well (and Conway didn’t like it), and the director was left to suggest a whole batch o’ boogens through editing.

THE BOOGENS earns credit for developing its young protagonists better than most horror pictures of the era. We come to like them (though your patience may run short with sex-starved comic Roger), and it hurts when they’re attacked. Conway uses his small cast and isolated setting to good claustrophobic effect, and casting established authority types Crawford (then known as the sheriff on THE WALTONS) and Flory provides a false sense of security.

Although its relatively soft approach clashed with the blood-soaked stalk-and-slash horror films that were popular in 1981, THE BOOGENS was a hit for Jensen Farley, its distributor. Director Conway left features for episodic television, directing series like SUPERNATURAL and 90210 well into the 21st century, while producer Charles E. Sellier continued the Sunn tradition of faith-based junk documentaries (but not before directing the controversial SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT for the 1984 Christmas season). THE BOOGENS filmed in Park City, Utah, where Sunn Classic was based.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


My disappointment at discovering a film called BLASTFIGHTER was not Italian post-apocalypse science fiction was quickly dispelled after the film’s first conversation, which is about an amazing new shotgun that fires bullets, rockets, darts, grenades…pretty much anything you can think of. Then when the banjo kid from DELIVERANCE pops up seven minutes in (not played by Martin Short), I knew what I was in for.

Nope, BLASTFIGHTER, released in the U.S. in 1985, isn't sci-fi, but is in fact a ripoff of FIRST BLOOD filmed by Italian director Lamberto Bava (DEMONS) in Clayton, Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains. BLASTFIGHTER may not be what I expected, but it’s still a typically crazy spaghetti actioner with weird dialogue and outrageous stunts.

Michael Sopkiw has been compared to James Dean—not because of his acting ability, but because he starred in four Italian action movies in quick succession and then vanished. One of them was BLASTFIGHTER, where he plays Tiger Sharp, a former Atlanta cop who spent eight years in the joint for killing his wife’s murderer. He returns to his mountain cabin, where he wants to be left alone, but drunken poachers who butcher wildlife for money keep messing with him. One of them is Wally (Stefano Mingardo), the younger brother of Tiger’s childhood friend Tom (George Eastman).

Eventually, Wally’s bloodlust escalates from killing deer to killing humans. That’s when Tiger pulls out his “blastfighter” and goes apeshit Rambo-style on every redneck in town. Many corpses and exploding cars ensue. Bava even introduces Tiger’s long-lost daughter Connie, though the casting of a twentysomething Valentina Forte against the thirty-year-old Sopkiw gives off confusing vibes. Sopkiw has a funny walk—real stiff-like, as if he were still uncomfortable being photographed—but he’s just fine as an action lead, throwing punches and leaping about like a real pro. BLASTFIGHTER delivers the goods.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Blood Beach

Great title, great tagline (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can't get to it!), but the film never lives up to either. Good cast too, including John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON), Otis Young (THE LAST DETAIL), Marianna Hill (HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER), and Burt Young (ROCKY).

The exception is, unfortunately, the star of the picture, David Huffman (LAST PLANE OUT), playing a beach cop named Harry Caulder who witnesses the disappearance of his elderly neighbor. After a few more beach attacks, including a teenage girl and a rapist (who looks like Chris Berman) whose crank is torn off, investigating cops Otis Young and Burt Young (playing a Chicagoan named Royko) start to believe the killer is some sort of monster that crawls beneath the Santa Monica Pier.

The screenplay by director Jeffrey Bloom (FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC) and producer Steven Nalevansky harkens back to the cheap monster flicks of the 1950s, but with humor and occasionally sharp dialogue. The Youngs are entertaining as bickering cops, and Saxon delivers a wry turn as their frustrated captain. He’s the authority figure that has to make you believe there really is a monster sucking people into the sand, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t. It’s a shame the movie isn’t up to the veteran actors’ level.

Frankly, BLOOD BEACH is boring. The creatures’ victims have to act like dimwits to get them out to the beach where they can be attacked, and since Bloom refrains from showing the monster until the very end (it looks like a rubber artichoke), they’re all killed in the same manner. Someone should have told Bloom that variety is the spice of life.

Fists Of Steel

If FISTS OF STEEL were just a little better or a little worse, it would stand as a trash-film classic. It has a lot of hilarious crazy stuff in it, including the most amazing ending in the history of American cinema.

Unfortunately, under the unsteady hand of producer/writer/director Jerry Schafer (LIKE IT IS), it lumbers through some of the worst-edited scenes I’ve ever seen. When someone drives away, Schafer shows them tipping the valet, getting in the car, starting it, and driving it all the way down the driveway. One scene’s only reason for existence is for two characters to agree to meet in a half hour, yet Schafer then cuts to their later meeting. Why the need for the earlier scene? The strangest editing choice is the disappearance of one of the main villains, who is sent to Managua to assassinate a character we’ve never seen and has no bearing on the plot.

The star is Carlos Palomino, the former WBC Welterweight Champion of the World who must have shot this not long after his ten-round loss to Roberto Duran sent him into retirement. Not a total acting amateur after guest spots on TV shows like HILL STREET BLUES and KNIGHT RIDER (where he played himself), Palomino stars as Carlos Diaz, a Vietnam vet with steel joints where his knuckles used to be (hence the title, which is literally true in this case). Schafer does less with this gimmick than you might expect, since the guys Carlos hits still manage to continue fighting a lot longer than I would after running into a fist of steel.

One of his ‘Nam buddies, George Breenberg (Sam Melville, a former star of THE ROOKIES), is now with the CIA and recruits Carlos for a dangerous mission in Hawaii. The target is a Middle Eastern assassin named Shogi, who is first seen dressed in a baseball uniform and smashing someone’s head with a wooden bat. Next, he dresses as a surgeon and uses a syringe to drop acid into a guy’s eyeball. Shogi is assisted by “beautiful Katrina” (Marianne Marks), who is supposed to be Russian, but looks Latina and speaks with a cartoony Natasha Fatale accent. She really enjoys killing, seems to get off on it (a crossbow bolt to the face is her specialty), and she’s the one who is mysteriously banished to Nicaragua. So I guess Katrina is still alive out there and available for use in the sequel.

Shogi is played by the great Henry Silva, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like SHARKY’S MACHINE, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and BRONX WARRIORS 2. Nobody in movies curses like Henry Silva, and as usual, he’s by far the most entertaining aspect of FISTS OF STEEL. He’s also the key to the amazing ending, which will blindside you with the same baseball bat Henry used on the guy at the beginning of the movie (though to be fair, Schafer does sort of foreshadow that something stupid this way comes).

Shogi’s murders to begin the movie are government agents, which is why Breenberg needs Carlos, a total amateur, to go undercover and get Shogi. Schafer’s plot makes no sense, as Shogi’s goons (which include BLACK SAMSON’s Rockne Tarkington and Robert Tessier) try to kill him almost as soon as Carlos hits Oahu. Meanwhile, he’s killing them back, and the whole plan would have been a lot easier if one side just walked up to the other and pulled a trigger. Less entertaining for us, but much easier for them.

Also working for Shogi is a nightclub singer alternately called Girl and Julie. I’ll just come right out and tell you that she’s played by Kenny Kerr, a man in drag (given special Introducing honors in the opening titles). This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s obvious from Kerr’s first appearance that she isn’t what she appears to be, which leaves you wondering whether or not we’re supposed to know what we know and whether the people in the movie are supposed to know. Well, no and no—it comes as a big surprise to Carlos when she finally whips off her wig and bra to lay some heavy kung fu moves on him, and Schafer stages it as a big reveal.

I hope I’ve made FISTS OF STEEL sound ridiculous (there’s even a Bond-villain scene where Silva orders the assassination of a traitor during a lavish dinner attended by lovely prostitutes), because it is. Oh, also Melville dresses in blackface as a hotel maid for no good reason I noticed. Nothing I’ve mentioned will prepare you for Schafer’s ending, which…just…ah, hell, you just gotta see it. I clapped when I saw it.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

They Don't Call Them That For Nothing

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.

Rated PG
Running Time 1:32
1974, Color (DeLuxe)

As the optimism and opulence of the flower-power Sixties crumbled seemingly overnight into the dubiosity and paranoia of the Watergate-era Seventies, Hollywood’s concept of what constituted a hero underwent enormous change. The white-hat virtuousness typified by John Wayne was out. Our new “good guys” were often barely more scrupulous as the heavies. Sure, popular fiction had always had its share of anti-heroes—Robin Hood, for instance—but the new breed didn’t necessarily care who they robbed, and they certainly didn’t give the loot away.

Heroes didn’t get much more “anti” than in DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, which overcame a meager plot and wafer-thin characters to become one of 20th Century Fox’s leading moneymakers of 1974. Compared to today’s bloated action blockbusters, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY almost seems like an anti-movie. No visual effects, no attempts to homogenize or sugarcoat its characters, not even a musical score designed to slather emotional keywords over the storyline. The only music heard are songs played over the credits and source music emanating from a car radio.

Directed by John Hough, a British TV vet (THE AVENGERS) who made a truckload of money for Fox with 1973’s efficient shocker THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY also has the distinction of being shot 100% “real.” Not an inch of film was shot using process photography, special effects, undercranking, or any other cinematic trick to make the car chases appear faster or more exciting. The supercharged automobiles and helicopters that squeal, burn, leap, and smash their way through DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s high-octane story traveled at speed of 100 mph or more, and were often driven by the movie’s star, Peter Fonda.

Fonda, who graduated to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors in films like ULEE’S GOLD (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) and THE LIMEY, was extremely popular at the time with young audiences, many of whom sported THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER posters on their wall. His gift was projecting a uniquely narcissistic type of cool, a way of telling the world—and, more apropos, The Man—to screw off, while still maintaining the audience’s trust. Even when Fonda was playing a Grade-A jackass, his fans responded in droves.

Fonda plays Larry Rayder, a disillusioned NASCAR driver who teams up with his alcoholic mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke, another graduate from AIP biker flicks), to rob a supermarket (Roddy McDowall plays the manager, unbilled) and outrace the cops to the border. You get the sense that, for Larry, the robbery isn’t so much about the dough, but about recapturing the exhilaration and danger he used to feel on the racetrack. They pull off a perfect heist, except for one thing: unwanted tag-along Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-nighter who forces herself along on the escape simply because she has nothing better to do.

In pursuit of the trio is trooper Everett Franklin, an obsessive, relentless lawman portrayed by COMBAT!’s Vic Morrow, who was almost exclusively a television actor, but with the power and magnetism of a film star. His performance is DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s best, in that Franklin is just as anti-establishment in his manner and dress as the rebels he’s chasing. His boss calls him on the carpet for sporting long hair and sideburns and refusing to carry a gun and a badge. Franklin may be the only “redneck sheriff” of the era not to despise hippies; after all, in many ways, he’s one of them. But he does hate lawbreakers, and there seems to be very little he won’t do to capture one.

That’s all the plot Hough needs to get this movie going. More than half of the 92-minute running time is dedicated to the spectacular car chases and stunts that made DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s reputation as one of the all-time great drive-in flicks. The realization that the leading actors are actually driving the cars at eye-blurring speeds gives the action a level of verisimilitude lacking in today’s CGI-laden features. An unintentional side-effect results from the shots of Morrow inside a helicopter that’s chasing Larry’s cherry ’69 Dodge Charger. The chopper is flying down tree-lined roads literally inches from the roof of the Charger, and it’s impossible not to watch these scenes, as thrilling as they are, and not be reminded of the part a helicopter played in Morrow’s tragic death in 1982.

I’d be remiss in discussing DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY without mentioning the nihilistic ending, which has become one of the most famous “twists” in cult cinema history and definitely played a major role in the film’s everlasting popularity among car buffs and “heads” looking for the Next Big Thing in Existential Cinema. What is Hough trying to say? Who cares, man? The car stunts are far out.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A Fire In The Sky

NBC produced and aired A FIRE IN THE SKY in 1978. Director Jerry Jameson filmed the three-hour (with commercials) all-star disaster thriller in Arizona. It earned Emmy nominations for its special effects and sound editing.

Scientists Joanna Miles (THE GLASS MENAGERIE) and Richard Crenna (FIRST BLOOD) discover a comet is headed toward Earth on a collision course with Phoenix, Arizona. President of the United States Andrew Duggan (BOURBON STREET BEAT) leaves the decision of whether or not to evacuate to Governor Nicolas Coster (LOBO). Rich white men, including insurance magnate Lloyd Bochner (DYNASTY), sit around the Governor’s office discussing the financial ramifications of evacuating the state and deciding it will be cheaper to keep quiet.

Television station owner Elizabeth Ashley (THE CARPETBAGGERS) wants to know what’s going on, so she assigns young reporter Maggie Wellman (THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT) to vamp the info out of newspaper editor David Dukes (THE WINDS OF WAR), who just happens to be Ashley’s husband. On the outskirts of the main story are scout leader Merlin Olsen (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE), taking his boys on a desert camping trip, and young lovers Michael Biehn (ALIENS) and Cindy Eilbacher’s plans to marry.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE author Paul Gallico developed the story, which was massaged into teleplay form by Michael Blankfort (THE CAINE MUTINY) and Dennis Nemec (MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY). It’s a good script with suspense and rich characters that manages to remain interesting all the way through, as tight editing keeps the pace up despite the picture’s excessive length.

Expertly anchored by Crenna, who makes the scientific talk sound believable, A FIRE IN THE SKY saves its destruction for the end, where decent special effects overcome pedestrian direction by Jameson (AIRPORT ’77). A FIRE IN THE SKY aired during November sweeps, several months before the similar-but-worse METEOR played in theaters.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Final Chapter In The Apes Saga

With director J. Lee Thompson, star Roddy McDowall, and writer Paul Dehn all reuniting from the superior CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, one could reasonably expect a much better film to result than 1973’s BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Perhaps the blame lies with husband-and-wife screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington, who turned Dehn’s story into a working screenplay, though it is reported that Dehn polished the Corringtons’ script, and the couple later disavowed much of the film, including the laughable final shot, which they blamed on Dehn.

Not that Thompson should be let off the hook, because his action scenes, which were so vibrant and nasty in CONQUEST, are pallid this time around. Trying to create an accurate timeline for the APES films is useless, but BATTLE mostly takes place maybe a couple of decades after CONQUEST, during which time the Earth was leveled by nuclear holocaust. Caesar (McDowall) leads a peaceful mixed community of apes and humans, but their communal way of life is threatened from within and without. Not only are General Aldo (Claude Akins) and his gorilla army plotting to overthrow Caesar, but also planning an attack is Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), who leads a race of post-nuke mutants left alive to forage beneath the ruins of the Forbidden City.

As opposed to the intelligent metaphor on race relations that Thompson and Dehn crafted in CONQUEST, this fifth APES film seems made for children with an overabundance of melodrama and simplified characterizations. Although McDowall is fine (if maybe somewhat bored) as Caesar and Austin Stoker (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) acts with authority as MacDonald (the brother of Hari Rhodes’ CONQUEST character), the acting is a mixed bag with Lew Ayres providing humor and warmth as the keeper of Ape City’s arms and Akins struggling with an underwritten one-note character. Darden and the other mutants are left with less than one note to play and mouthfuls of pompous dialogue.

Faced with underwhelming box office and probably little idea of where to take the series next, Fox turned to television, spinning off McDowall in a team-up with humans Ron Harper and James Naughton in the PLANET OF THE APES series, which only lasted thirteen weeks. Leonard Rosenman provides BATTLE with a serviceable score, and France Nuyen, Noah Keen, Richard Eastham, Bobby Porter, and Paul Stevens co-star.