Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tarzan The Magnificent

Paramount and producer Sy Weintraub brought back muscular Gordon Scott for one last Tarzan feature (Scott’s sixth), and it’s almost as good as the previous picture, the terrific TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE. A notable aspect of TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT is its casting of actor/stuntman Jock Mahoney (TV’s YANCY DERRINGER) as the main villain, because Mahoney would replace Scott as the jungle king in the next two Tarzan movies.

Director Robert Day (FIRST MAN INTO SPACE) and his co-writer Berne Giler (TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE) basically transplanted an old western plot into the East African jungle. The evil Banton family, led by patriarch Abel Banton (John Carradine, whose trip to Kenya to shoot this role was his first foray outside the United States), terrorize the local villages, robbing and killing the natives. Tarzan captures the oldest Banton brother, Coy (Mahoney), and has to take him on foot through the jungle to the authorities in Kairobi.

The journey would be difficult enough if Tarzan were just being pursued by Abel and his sons (minus one who died during Coy’s capture by Tarzan’s arrow). However, he is also forced to drag along five civilians with their own reasons for getting to Kairobi, including cowardly businessman Ames (Lionel Jeffries) and his wife Fay (Betta St. John, formerly Scott’s co-star in TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI), whose allegiance starts to shift from her husband to bad boy Coy.

The familiar story and a few extraneous characters drag MAGNIFICENT down a bit from the heights of GREATEST ADVENTURE, but the film still ranks among the best in the Tarzan canon. The Kenyan location shooting is a bonus, of course (some interiors were filmed at London’s Shepperton Studios), and Day, a former cameraman who cut his teeth directing horror and science fiction movies, has a nice eye for arresting visuals and sharp action. It’s hard to forgive Day, though, for the shots that clearly show Tarzan’s vine is attached to a zipline cable.

The film gets a nice boost from its actors. The great Carradine, who had a tendency to ham when not directed well, delivers a nuanced, even-keeled performance as the Banton-in-charge. Scott is better at the physical stuff than the dramatic, but he’s one of the screen’s better Tarzans (of course, he had some of the best material). He also matches up well with the rangy Mahoney, and their fight that ends the picture is exciting and well-cut. It is said that Sean Connery, who played a heavy in TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE, was approached by Weintraub and Day to play one of the Banton brothers, but was unavailable because he had just signed to star in a film called DR. NO.

Like the previous entry, TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT was designed to appeal to both adults and children, and the extra care shows. Paramount released it on a double bill with Jerry Lewis’ THE BELLBOY, so maybe it thought any Tarzan flick was merely kid stuff. Scott, whose acting career to date consisted solely of Tarzan features, went to Europe and starred in sword-and-sandal, spy, and western flicks until his retirement from acting in 1967.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Exhumed Films' Forgotten Film Festival 2014

It took me a week, but I'm finally getting around to writing about the Forgotten Film Festival, which was sponsored by Exhumed Films at Philadelphia's International House last Sunday.

The guys who make up Exhumed own an extensive collection of 35mm prints and trailers and used the Forgotten Film Fest to screen five pictures that, for the most part, have literally not been released anywhere since the 1970s. None of them are on DVD or Blu-ray or VHS, at least not in the United States, and at least two were thought to be lost films. It's quite possible the prints owned by Exhumed are the only ones that still exist for some of these movies, which made my road trip to Philly to see them literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Note: Big thanks to Chris Poggiali at Temple of Schlock for providing some research and images for this post. I have known Chris since his days as a regular at Mobius Home Video Forum, I have exchanged many emails and Facebook comments with him over the years, and it was a great pleasure to finally meet him in person.

If you know me well, you know I love trailers. Not the dull trailers created today from the same focus-grouped template, but the idiosyncratic previews of yesteryear. Each film at the festival was preceded by several trailers and film clips that helped build a real grindhouse atmosphere.

Before the day kicked off with SKATETOWN, U.S.A., we got to see an amazing Live Aid preview featuring the Mick Jagger/David Bowie video for "Dancing in the Street" (I love it), the Who performing "You Better You Bet," and trailers for HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS and ROLLER BOOGIE.

Fitting, because 1979's SKATETOWN, U.S.A. edges out ROLLER BOOGIE for the title of Greatest Roller Disco Movie Ever. Acts like Dave Mason (who performs in the film); the Jacksons; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Village People; Eddie Money; John Sebastian; Heatwave; and Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. are heard throughout the film, and SKATETOWN, U.S.A. definitely works as a fun, upbeat musical. As a comedy, it’s the pits, and as a competition movie, it somewhat predicts the BREAKIN’ movies, except all the dancing here is on roller skates.

Most of the casting falls into three categories: sitcom actors, standup comics, and musical acts, primarily Mason, who performs “Feelin’ Alright.” Whatever cult SKATETOWN has is primarily built upon the first category, which includes top-billed Scott Baio (HAPPY DAYS), Ron Palillo (Horshak from WELCOME BACK, KOTTER), a hot-pantsed-and-tube-topped Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady from THE BRADY BUNCH), David Landsberg (the nerdy Skulnik from C.P.O. SHARKEY), and LAUGH-IN’s Ruth Buzzi.

They participate in the plot, such as it is, which involves Baio and Greg Bradford (the two later worked on ZAPPED! together) competing in a roller disco dance competition against the absurd Ace Johnson (Patrick Swayze in his film debut) and his menacing gang of fey skaters. Like the Really Rottens, the Westside Wheelers will pull any dirty trick to ensure Ace wins the trophy.

Occasionally, director William A. Levey (BLACKENSTEIN) cuts away to let one of the comics do a bit, which without exception land with a thud, whether it’s frantic Bill Kirchenbauer as a war-damaged doctor, Vic Dunlop and Gary Mule Deer as clumsy concessionaires, old Leonard Barr, or Murray Langston, who plays both an unfunny drunk and the Unknown Comic. Flip Wilson also plays dual roles: Skatetown owner Harvey and (in Geraldine garb) Harvey’s mother (with little person Billy Barty as his father!).

It’s hard to describe SKATETOWN, U.S.A. as “good” in any honest sense of the word (McCormick wrote in her memoirs that cocaine was all over the set), but it’s a lively good time and difficult to dislike. The cutting is fast, so the bad comic bits go by quickly, and there’s fun in spotting all the cameos from Sydney Lassick to Dorothy Stratten to Bob Minor to Judy Landers to Joe E. Freaking Ross. The music is great, “disco sucks” or not, and everyone seems to be having a good time in pursuit of a bad movie.

Leading into 1974's SON OF DRACULA were trailers for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, THE HUNGER, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, and the boob-centric ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK. Anyone familiar with the late Harry Nilsson’s music, such as his NILSSON SCHMILSSON and SON OF SCHMILSSON albums, knows he was a man of wit and color. Which makes it all the more baffling that, as an actor, he was one of the dullest imaginable--as blank as could be. Nilsson’s soporific performance as Count Downe, the son of Count Dracula, is just one of many missteps in SON OF DRACULA, which was produced by Ringo Starr for Apple Films and barely released.

After the murder of Count Dracula in his coffin, Downe returns to London, where Merlin the Magician (Starr) is to prepare him to take over his father’s throne. Between songs, Downe decides he no longer wants to be an immortal bloodsucker, and asks Van Helsing (Dennis Price) to make him human so he can settle down with the comely Amber (Suzanna Leigh).

Most of the songs Nilsson performs are off his previous albums, but rock fans may enjoy the film’s only lively scene: the performance of the new “Daybreak,” in which The Who drummer Keith Moon, guitarist Peter Frampton, bassist Klaus Voorman, and Rolling Stones sax player Bobby Keys can be seen.

Other than this, SON OF DRACULA is a stone cold bore with Ringo’s dull playing maybe a notch above Nilsson’s. Freddie Jones does good work as Baron Frankenstein, the villain of the piece, but that’s about it. It’s no mystery why this film has stayed buried since the 1970s. The Exhumed print had a YOUNG DRACULA title card clumsily inserted into the opening titles. Obviously someone somewhere tried to pass the film off as a sequel to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

On to trailers for DRACULA BLOWS HIS COOL (a bad German movie with an actor wearing an unauthorized Superman T-shirt), HORROR OF DRACULA with THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE with GARDEN OF THE DEAD, and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. Then, Andy Milligan's BLOOD.

I haven’t seen them all (or even most), but BLOOD is easily the most coherent Andy Milligan film I’ve seen. It’s also the funniest and the most entertaining, for all the wrong reasons, naturally.

Filmed, of course, in Milligan’s rundown Staten Island house and set, of course, in the late 19th century, BLOOD tells the story of the Orlovsky family, who are actually Larry Talbot Jr. (Allan Berendt as the son of the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man) and Regina Dracula (Hope Stansbury as the daughter of Count Dracula). Helping the Orlovskys find a cure for their diseases of vampirism and lycanthropy are another married couple, Carrie (Patricia Gaul) and the legless Orlando, whom Michael Fischetti portrays hilariously by clomping about on his knees. They grow plants in the basement that produce blood (!) and make a sound like Milligan rubbing balloons, and any nosy villager dumb enough to creep about the Orlovsky home meets a gory fate (that also goes for the mouse that is slaughtered for Milligan’s camera).

Unlike other Milligans I’ve seen, BLOOD is not dull, despite its soap opera plotting, uneven (to say the least) performances, cheap props, claustrophobic sets, unconvincing period setting, awful makeup, and laughable dialogue. Come to think of it, instead of “despite,” I should have written “because of.” Bryanston Releasing, the company behind THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, also released BLOOD on a number of double bills during the 1970s.

Next up were trailers for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, DUNE (which made the David Lynch film look far more interesting than it is), ALIENS, and the underrated CRITTERS. None of them had anything to do with the next film, the very obscure MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS.

Alan Ormsby, who went on to a successful Hollywood career writing genre pictures like CAT PEOPLE, MY BODYGUARD, and PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY, made his directorial debut with this gender-bending comedy. Apparently shot in 1973 as THE GREAT MASQUERADE, it also carried such titles as AC/DC, THE AC/DC CAPER, ARTISTS AND MODELS BALL, and MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS, which was on the Exhumed Films print. Despite the many releases and many titles, I’d be surprised if many people have seen it.

The appealing Robert Perault (FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) stars as Dave Collins, a Miami police detective who is recruited by his bosses to shave his legs, don a dress, and enter a cruise-ship beauty contest to find out who has murdered the contest’s last three winners. Also on board are Dave’s wisecracking partner (Paul Cronin), some bickering mobsters (including KING FRAT’s John DiSanti), Dave’s suspicious girlfriend (who doesn’t know about his assignment), and Roberts Blossom (who starred in Ormsby’s next film, DERANGED) as the rich guy who owns the pageant and is Dave’s top suspect. Producer Jack McGowan pulled strings to get cameos by columnist Hy Gardner, comic team Lou Marsh & Tony Adams, Henny Youngman, and Johnny Weissmuller (!), who judges the contest and probably had no idea he was in an R-rated film with full frontal nudity.

About that. Ormsby originally shot a PG movie, but it appears as though McGowan filmed a handful of nude scenes later and inserted them. None of the main actors appear in scenes with nude women. Nudity or not, Ormsby’s film is a cute little picture. The script needed a couple more polishes, but it still contains a fair share of laughs and is performed competently by a likable cast, many of whom are native Floridians. Ormsby shot on a real cruise ship called S.S. Emerald Seas, hence the title. He’s better known for his horror films, which include the scripts for DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS.

Trailers for THE DEVIL’S RAIN (Shatner!), THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT, and MARK OF THE DEVIL 2 introduced the day's final feature, another obscurity, a 1968 softcore film called THE SATANIST.

Pat Barrington, the gorgeous and shapely star of essential Sixties nudie movies like AGONY OF LOVE, THE ACID EATERS, and ORGY OF THE DEAD, is the only performer I recognized in THE SATANIST, which bears no acting credits. It’s likely some or all of the technical credits are pseudonyms, though the unlikely monikered writer and director Zoltan G. Spencer may actually be a real person.

Shot in black-and-white without sync sound, THE SATANIST is basically a series of tame sex scenes held together by a slight plotline. A pipe-smoking writer and his wife move into a house where he can recover from a nervous breakdown. After spying on his sexy neighbor getting a greasy nude rubdown by a sexy nude friend, he has an erotic dream about the neighbor. He and his wife learn the neighbor and her friends practice witchcraft, and the couple attends a party that turns into an orgy. The End. Pretty much.

The women show their (impressive) breasts and buns, while the men not only stay dressed during sex, they even leave their shoes and socks on. My tolerance for the softcore genre is quite low. I rarely find the sex interesting or erotic, and there’s rarely anything else going on. Spencer at least hired attractive actresses, and Miss Barrington was definitely at the top of her field, so THE SATANIST at least has that going for it. Olympic International, which also put out classy titles like LOVE CAMP 7, THE LOVE ROBOTS, and MASSACRE FOR AN ORGY, released THE SATANIST to a few grindhouses and perhaps drive-ins, though it’s unlikely more than a half-dozen prints ever were struck.

Five films, about eight hours, followed by a chat with fellow film buffs Chris and Tim Mayer. Then, three hours back to D.C. and up early for work the next morning. A six-hour round trip to Philadelphia made for a long day, but a day well worth the effort.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Strike Force

Lane Slate (THE CAR) created STRIKE FORCE, a violent cop show about a special team of special cops that was only assigned to the most special cases, the sicker, the better. Slate thought up a real sicko for the 90-minute pilot, which aired on ABC in 1981: a nut who is using an axe to decapitate his victims. He strikes only on Tuesdays, and his six victims so far seem to be random choices, so it’s up to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Strike Force to find the connection and prevent number seven.

Slate’s teleplay leavens the grim storyline with humor and banter-filled dialogue (much of it of the racial, ethnic, and homophobic variety) among the cops, which are well-cast by executive producer Aaron Spelling and supervising producer E. Duke Vincent. Robert Stack (THE UNTOUCHABLES) is solid and stalwart, of course, Frank Murphy, recently divorced and the leader of solid family man Dorian Harewood (ROOTS: THE NEXT GENERATION), wiseguy Richard Romanus (THE SOPRANOS), rookie Michael Goodwin (THE DEAD POOL), and Trisha Noble (THE PRIVATE EYES), whose impressive bust is emphasized as often as possible by director Richard Lang.

By the way, Lang (HARRY O) does a very good job behind the camera, kicking off the pilot with an impressive pre-credits sequence showing the Strike Force blasting a pair of holdup men in sparkling slow motion. The television series was often criticized for its violent content (I loved it, of course), and Lang demonstrates right off the bat what kind of series STRIKE FORCE is going to be. The source of the serial axe killings is revealed in a chilling scene excellently performed by two guest actors that almost jumps genres from crime drama to horror.

A well-done pilot, but STRIKE FORCE had little chance of survival. ABC scheduled it against DALLAS, which was the highest-rated show in all of prime-time that season, and STRIKE FORCE was cancelled after twenty episodes. Dominic Frontiere composed the pulse-pounding theme.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure


The first Tarzan adventure aimed at adults since Johnny Weissmuller’s earliest days under the loincloth is also the best Tarzan film ever made. And it still would be even if it didn’t contain the novelty of Sean Connery in a pre-007 role as a nasty henchman. Director John Guillermin (THE TOWERING INFERNO) and producer Sy Weintraub took the company to eastern Africa, where Guillermin helmed one exciting action sequence after another, particularly a spectacularly brutal battle between Tarzan and the main heavy on a rock cliff.

Weintraub took over the film rights to Tarzan in 1958 and made some major changes to the character. The King of the Jungle now spoke like royalty, using proper English. No more “Me Tarzan” stuff. Jane and Boy were jettisoned, and Cheta appears only for a moment. Weintraub did keep Gordon Scott, who had already played Tarzan four times. The former lifeguard certainly looked the part, was believable in the action scenes, and acquitted himself nicely in the acting department. Of course, not much acting was needed, because the screenplay by Guillermin and Berne Giler (from a story by Les Crutchfield) moves like a jet from one suspense piece to the next.

Weintraub didn’t dispense with all the Tarzan tropes. Scott fights another rubber croc, and mismatched stock footage of animals and obvious rear projection mar the realism that Guillermin worked hard to maintain. Tarzan’s opponents are four diamond thieves who open the film disguised in blackface to infiltrate a native village and steal dynamite, killing two men in the process. All four—plus a sexy moll played by Sophia Loren-lookalike Scilla Gabel (you could slice potatoes on her cheekbones—are interesting foes given full personalities by the writers and actors.

Slade (Anthony Quayle), an old foe of Tarzan’s, is the leader. He’s the only member of the group who knows where the diamond mine is hidden. His gang includes, in addition to Gabel, expert gem cutter Kreiger (Niall MacGinnis, whose performance suggests Kreiger’s Nazi background), boat pilot Dino (Al Mulock, the first face seen in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and fun-loving O’Bannion, played cheerfully over-the-top by Connery. Tarzan chases the gang through a jungle stocked with pythons and tarantulas and quicksand, accompanied by smart, sexy, sharp-tongued pilot Angie, played by the gorgeous Sara Shane (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION), formerly an MGM contract player under her birth name of Elaine Sterling.

TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE was the first of the series to be released by Paramount after years at MGM and RKO. Paramount released it on a twin-bill with Jerry Lewis’ DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP, indicating the studio didn’t realize what a terrific film it had. Scott returned for one more Tarzan film, his sixth: TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Harper Valley P.T.A.

Too often are audiences in America’s heartland given short shrift by Hollywood filmmakers, who forget that not everybody lives in Los Angeles and New York. Perhaps that’s why it took a Midwesterner—a Cincinnati-based theater owner and booking agent named Phil Borack—to produce one of the most successful independent comedies of the 1970s by appealing directly to moviegoers in the middle of the country.

Filmed in tiny Lebanon, Ohio, which boasted a population of just under 10,000 at the time, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a lowbrow (to say the least) comedy based on Jeannie C. Riley’s Grammy-winning country-western single of 1968. Successful to the tune of number-one on almost every BILLBOARD chart it was eligible for, Riley’s hit (penned by Tom T. Hall) tells the story of Stella Johnson, a sexy woman derided by the hypocrites on the Harper Valley P.T.A. for wearing her dresses way too high and having too much fun for their liking. “Story songs” were popular at the time, and while “Harper Valley P.T.A.” has enough plot for a three-minute single, can it be stretched to a ninety-minute movie?

The answer is no, at least not in the hands of screenwriting team George Edwards and Barry Schneider, whose previous credit was the horror film RUBY, and television directors Ralph Senensky (STAR TREK) and Richard C. Bennett (THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.). But don’t think just because HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a bad movie that it didn’t hit the right chord with a lot of people. And I mean a lot.

Released to theaters independently by small distributor April Fool Productions, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. cost about a million bucks to make and grossed $25 million. Then, when it premiered on NBC in February 1980, it was the number-one show on television. Number. One. Ratings were so high and NBC’s schedule so dismal at the time that it was a no-brainer for network president Fred Silverman to turn HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. into a weekly series. And that was a hit too, at least for a time.

Barbara Eden (I DREAM OF JEANNIE), perfect casting as a woman whose most notorious trait is wearing miniskirts, stars in a rare feature turn as the song’s heroine, Stella Johnson, and the mother of Dee (AUDREY ROSE's Susan Swift). Eden’s Ohio accent is askew, but otherwise she’s fine as the town harlot whose worst crime seems to be singing and drinking beer (Hudepohl, naturally) with her best pal Alice (Nanette Fabray) during the day.

The recipient of a nasty letter from the local PTA threatening Dee’s expulsion if Mama doesn’t tone down her act, Stella tells all the members off at the monthly meeting, exposing all their peccadilloes, such as one’s alcoholism and another’s gambling problems. Not enough revenge for their rude behavior, Stella goes after each member in episodic fashion, pulling humiliating pranks on them, which at least gives us the John Fiedler nude scene we’ve always been waiting for.

Another gag, which involves smashing a trio of pink-painted elephants through the bedroom walls of town drunk Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR), got original director Senensky, who thought it was too dangerous, canned and replaced by the nondescript Bennett. The one PTA member to avoid Stella’s scorn is Will Newton, considered the town’s most eligible bachelor even though he’s played by Ronny Cox and not, I dunno, Lyle Waggoner.

Considering the film’s success in theaters and in prime time, it’s interesting to wonder how big the single-camera sitcom version of HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. could have been. It was initially planned as a one-hour comedy produced by THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Cy Chermak and would presumably have followed along that show’s lines (though likely without the car chases). A Writer’s Guild strike and pre-production tinkering eventually transformed it into a half-hour sitcom (with laugh track) produced by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’s Sherwood Schwartz.

When the series finally debuted in January 1981—not quite a year after the film’s blockbuster airing—it also became a rare hit for NBC. But a second-season title change to HARPER VALLEY, a new character played by THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO’s Mills Watson, and likely the end of a fad drove the series to cancellation after thirty episodes.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Asteroid Vs Earth

Like father, like son. The director of ASTEROID VS. EARTH, another ridiculous disaster movie from The Asylum, is Christopher Ray (billed here as Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray), whose father Fred Olen Ray began directing schlocky horror, action, and science fiction movies in the 1980s and amassed over one hundred film credits.

Most of Fred’s films aren’t very good, but at their best, they exhibited a zippy pace, a sense of humor and fun, and game cast members that read like a Who’s Who of out-of-work Turner Classic Movie actors. Suffice to say, ASTEROID VS. EARTH by Fred Olen Ray’s son exhibits none of these traits.

The screenplay by Adam Lipsius is certainly fiction, but there’s very little science in it. The plot revolves around a plan to explode nuclear weapons in certain spots under the Pacific Ocean that will cause massive earthquakes and move Earth out of its orbit and the path of a massive asteroid.

This brilliant plan is the brainchild of a bratty college kid (Charles Byun) who orders around an Army general played by Robert Davi (LICENSE TO KILL). I’m sure Davi felt silly enough with Steven Seagal’s swept-back toupee taped to his head, but to be standing in full dress uniform asking advice from a condescending kid about how to stop a rampaging asteroid...well, the check cleared, right?

As usual with these low-budget thrillers, the reach of the visual effects department far exceeds its grasp. The amateurish CGI in no way sells the film’s outlandish premise. Neither do the stars, which include WAYNE’S WORLD sexpot Tia Carerre as a deep-sea geophysicist and BAYWATCH’S Jason Brooks as the executive officer of a nuclear submarine sent to blast the tectonic plates.

Even the makeup is bad in this movie. The Fuller’s earth slapped on the crewmen’s faces makes them look like they were too lazy to shave, not dirty and sweaty.