Saturday, September 27, 2014

Time Walker

I knew TIME WALKER was trouble right from the opening credits, in which an earthquake causes a tomb to collapse—completely off-screen using sound effects. So we know from the start that TIME WALKER is cheap. Too bad it’s also boring. And beware of any film that ends with a “To Be Continued…”

Said earthquake revealed a sarcophagus in King Tut’s tomb that Professor Doug McCadden (Ben Murphy, one-half of ALIAS SMITH AND JONES) brings to his California university. Inside is what appears to be a 3000-year-old mummy covered in a mysterious green fungus. What it really is is a living extraterrestrial that escapes from its coffin and roams the university to retrieve five gems that a student stole from it and distributed to various students. That fungus is actually a nasty flesh-eating substance that kills almost instantly and creates a long list of coed corpses.

TIME WALKER is Tom Kennedy’s one and only film as a director. He isn’t untalented, and his handling of the mummy in motion—it glides across the surface—is ethereal. In fact, the mummy is really cool, and it may have been a mistake for Kennedy to keep it mostly off-screen. He seems to be paying homage to the sci-fi/horror films of the 1940s and 1950s—the mild PG-rated violence and nudity is another indicator—but perhaps giving the material a harder edge would also have provided some necessary pep.

Murphy, squeezing in a rare feature lead between high-profile television gigs (he co-starred in THE WINDS OF WAR not long afterward), is just fine in the hero role and well-matched by LUCAN’s Kevin Brophy as the dope who starts all the trouble and an ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 reunion between Austin Stoker (as a sympathetic doctor) and Darwin Joston (cop). Look for HOTEL's Shari Belafonte as that unusual campus combo of radio DJ and photojournalist.

There’s a lot to like in TIME WALKER, or at least a lot that could be liked, but Kennedy’s turgid pacing and a monster with no personality are the real killers. Nice score by Richard Band (RE-ANIMATOR). New World’s Roger Corman asked for ten minutes to be cut before he released it, and while the last thing TIME WALKER needs is more running time, it’s clear that a few subplots had to be jettisoned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Force 10 From Navarone

Seventeen years after THE GUNS OF NAVARONE was released to massive box office and seven Oscar nominations, its producer and screenwriter, Carl Foreman, finally managed to get the sequel into theaters. FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE, released by American International Pictures in 1978, is based somewhat on Alistair MacLean’s 1968 novel, which combines actions and characters from both the original film and his GUNS OF NAVARONE novel.

Playing mountain-climbing leader Mallory and demolitions man Miller are Robert Shaw (JAWS) and Edward Fox (PERFORMANCE), taking over for GUNS’ Gregory Peck and David Niven, who were considered too old to reprise their roles. Joining them is American colonel Barnsby (presumbly not the Australian Barnsby played briefly by Richard Harris in GUNS), who is played by Harrison Ford in his first action role after STAR WARS.

Mallory and Miller didn’t get along in GUNS, but FORCE 10 portrays them as good buddies, and Shaw and Fox have a nice chemistry that makes the friendship play. Their new mission is to sneak into Yugoslavia and assassinate a German spy named Nikolai (Franco Nero), who was believed to have been killed after he turned traitor during the Navarone caper.

To get into Yugoslavia, the two men join the humorless Barnsby, the leader of a commando team called Force 10 which is assigned to blow up a critical Nazi bridge. Most of Force 10 is killed getting in, leaving Barnsby, Miller, and Mallory with only Reynolds (STRANGE BREW’s Angus MacInnes) and Weaver (ROCKY’s Carl Weathers), who stowed away on Force 10’s plan after escaping from the MPs.

Unsurprisingly, the two missions are connected. And perhaps not so unsurprisingly, the story contains more than a few twists and doublecrosses. Richard “Jaws” Kiel and Barbara Bach reunite from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME to play Chetniks in cahoots with the Germans who take the Allied soldiers prisoner. With cinematographer Christopher Challis (THE DEEP) capturing some lovely images in Malta and Yugoslavia and director Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER) deftly handling the action, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE plays as a perfectly capable World War II meller, though nowhere near the classic adventure of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Guns Of Navarone

An exciting adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s best-selling 1957 novel, Columbia’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE is one of the adventure genre’s most important and influential movies. By ramping up the action, spectacle, special effects, and high-stakes peril, director J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR) and screenwriter Carl Foreman (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) anticipate what the even more popular James Bond films would become (keeping in mind that it wasn’t until the fourth film, THUNDERBALL, that the 007 productions got as big as NAVARONE in terms of its scope and big setpieces).

A 1961 release, NAVARONE was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won only for its special effects. It remains a high point of the men-on-a-mission movie and is happy to provide pure adventure and thrills without getting bogged down in non-essential plot points and characterization. It also provided novelist MacLean with a major boost. NAVARONE was among the first MacLean book to receive screen treatment (Universal also released THE SECRET WAYS in 1961, but I don’t know which film was produced or released first), and movies were made of over a dozen others well into the 1990s.

The premise is nearly bulletproof and would be copied by director Roger Corman (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and his producer brother Gene (TOBRUK) for their lower-key but still entertaining all-star potboiler THE SECRET INVASION in 1964. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE stars Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) as American captain Keith Mallory, an expert mountain climber handed a suicide mission by the Allied command.

Thompson sets up the story’s political background in a narrated prologue, but who cares about that? What’s important is Mallory’s assignment: infiltrating the island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea, scaling an unclimbable mountain cliff, and blowing up a pair of Nazi cannons. His team includes explosives expert David Niven (AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS), engineer Stanley Baker (YESTERDAY’S ENEMY), military leader Anthony Quayle (TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE), and two Greeks: baby-faced killer James Darren (THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anthony Quinn (ZORBA THE GREEK), who hates Mallory.

It wouldn’t be a suicide mission, of course, if everyone made it back safely, and NAVARONE throws a lot of roadblocks at its heroes. I like Thompson’s no-nonsense approach. These men aren’t supermen nor are they armed with handy quips every time a Nazi meets a bullet. Many scenes of suspense are played without dialogue, which is the way that professionals going about a job of work would handle themselves. The cast handles the drama and the pyrotechnics with equal aplomb with the Oscar-winning miniatures, mattes, and explosions the biggest stars in the picture.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


AVALANCHE was Roger Corman’s attempt to replicate the success of Irwin Allen’s big-budget disaster movies, such as THE TOWERING INFERNO and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Unfortunately, Corman and his executive producer Paul Rapp (THE CURIOUS FEMALE) were working on less than half the budget of Allen’s smash hits. Plus, the genre had pretty well run its course by the time New World released AVALANCHE in August 1978 (it also played at least twice on CBS, so no doubt Corman turned a profit).

Corman’s cost-cutting extended to its all-star cast. Whereas Irwin Allen’s THE SWARM, also released in 1978, boasted big names like Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland, and Henry Fonda among its cast, director Corey Allen (THUNDER AND LIGHTNING) had to make do with Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster, Jeanette Nolan, and Barry Primus — capable performers, for sure, but not among 1978’s most highly sought-after movie stars.

Two-time Oscar nominee Gavin Lambert (INSIDE DAISY CLOVER) took his name off the picture after director Allen reportedly futzed with his screenplay, and neither Hudson nor Farrow deigned to promote the movie when it came out. Corey Allen, with the help of second unit director Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR), did an okay job with the action sequences and stunts on a tight budget, but the visual effects from the studio of Gene Warren (an Oscar winner for THE TIME MACHINE) look phony and cheap. Irwin Allen made you believe a skyscraper was on fire and a cruise ship had capsized, but nobody watching AVALANCHE could possibly be convinced of a snowbound disaster (which didn’t stop Corman for recycling the effects in other movies).

The human characters are scarcely more convincing than the special effects. David Shelby (Hudson), who’s rich, bossy, and controlling, hopes to rekindle a romance with ex-wife Caroline (Farrow) by inviting her to the opening weekend of his swanky new ski resort in the Colorado mountains. She, on the other hand, is turned on by sensitive nature photographer Nick Thorne (Forster), who warns Shelby that his corner-cutting has made the mountain unstable and unsafe.

Guess who gets to say “I told ya so” when a private plane crashes into the mountain and causes the whole damn thing to tumble down upon Shelby’s lodge. The effects may be lame, but AVALANCHE at least delivers a high body count and some laughable scenes, including an exploding ambulance and two skiers whose foreplay consists entirely of snow-sporting jargon. Rock’s lascivious looks at a nubile temptress in his hot tub is his best acting in the movie.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Enemies Closer

Jean-Claude Van Damme was a highlight of THE EXPENDABLES 2, playing the main heavy, a villain named Vilain (heh). Working again with director Peter Hyams, who made TIMECOP and SUDDEN DEATH, the star seems to be having a blast hamming it up as ENEMIES CLOSER’s villain.

Now that Jean-Claude has been taking more self-deprecating roles in films like the comedic WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE and the semi-autobiographical JCVD, it will be exciting to discover what's in store for him as he moves further into the next stage of his career.

Van Damme, first seen in ENEMIES CLOSER wearing a Mountie uniform, sports a wild blond hairstyle and is prone to monologuing about veganism, geese, wild fruit, or nothing in particular. His loosey-goosey performance is by far the highlight of ENEMIES CLOSER. It may even be good enough on its own to make the film worth your while.

Van Damme isn’t the only reason to watch, however. The plot and dialogue are nothing original, but Hyams does well with the tried-and-true premise of two men who don’t like one another, but have to work together to survive against a common enemy.

Tom Everett Scott (THAT THING YOU DO!) plays a park ranger who moved to a remote station near the Canadian border to relax after a tough tour in Afghanistan. Orlando Jones (SLEEPY HOLLOW), one of handfuls of credited producers (as is '80s action king Joel Silver), shows up one night with a shotgun and a promise to kill Scott for supposedly abandoning his brother behind enemy lines.

Just before Jones can get his revenge, he’s interrupted by Van Damme, who appears on the island with a small army of gunmen to retrieve a small plane loaded with heroin that crashed nearby. From there, the film is a little bit DIE HARD, a little bit THE DEFIANT ONES, and a little bit fun.

Hyams, a terrific director of action in movies like CAPRICORN ONE, THE RELIC, THE PRESIDIO, and BUSTING, does a good job staging the fights. He also had expert assistance from his son, John Hyams, who edited ENEMIES CLOSER and has directed some fine direct-to-video pictures himself, including two UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequels starring Van Damme.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hercules And The Captive Women

HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN marks the film debut of Reg Park, an English bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe who owned a gymnasium in Johannesburg when producer Achille Piazzi tapped him to be the new Hercules.

Park looks a lot like Steve Reeves, of course, and handles the action sequences just as well. Maybe even better, since director Vittorio Cottafavi makes sure we can see Park doing some hairy stunts. Whether Park can act or not, who knows and who cares (all the actors are dubbed, as usual)?

Androcles (Ettore Manni), the king of Thebes, B.A. Baracuses a reluctant Hercules to bring him on a mission across the seas to find out who is threatening Greece. A storm smashes their ship, and Herc washes ashore on an island, where he fights an awesome lizard-man in a rubber suit (that can morph into a snake, a lion, and a vulture on wires) and rescues a girl (Laura Efrikian). She’s the daughter of Antinea (Fay Spain), the queen of Atlantis, who isn’t that happy to have Ismene returned to her.

Yep, Antinea is an evil queen who keeps trying to sacrifice Ismene, but our heroes keep rescuing the poor thing. Hercules discovers that nasty ol’ Antinea is using the blood of Uranus (just go with it) to transform Atlanteans into super-warriors she can use to conquer the world. Unfortunately, Uranus isn’t perfect—some of the men are instead turned into ugly mutants who are then tossed into a gravel pit to fight over raw meat.

It takes a reel for HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (there’s only one captive woman—Ismene) to get going, but once Herc reaches Atlantis, the action, Spain’s deliciously mean performance, and the spacious, imaginative sets are a lot of fun. A chariot race through a massive underground chamber is a blast, and the island’s ultimate destruction, though likely embellished with stock footage from another movie, generates big thrills. The lizard-man, actually a god named Proteus, looks phony as hell, but it’s fantastic.

Woolner Brothers bought the Italian production for American release. They cut some scenes, added a new title sequences and Gordon Zahler’s stock musical cues (including recognizable riffs from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON!), and released it in 1963, two years after it was a hit in Italy. How busy television actress Spain ended up in Rome doing a quickie pepla is a question for the ages.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Five Fingers Of Death

KING BOXER is nothing less than one of the two most important martial arts films of all time (ENTER THE DRAGON is the other). Under its American title of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, it was the first Hong Kong kung fu movie to receive a major theatrical release in the U.S.

Because American audiences had never seen anything like it before, KING BOXER made Warner Brothers millions of dollars at the box office and opened the door for other Hollywood studios to import low-budget action movies from Hong Kong, few of which were as skillfully made as KING BOXER, but often as profitable.

The story is simple enough, which probably helped American drive-in audiences follow it, and similar to many other Asian pictures that concentrated on bone-crunching action over plot.

Two rival martial arts schools, one good and one evil, are set to compete in an upcoming tournament. To better their chances of winning, pupils of the bad school ambush their rivals in an attempt to keep them from competing. Impatient hero Chao Chi-hao (Lo Lieh, who teamed with Lee Van Cleef in the Hong Kong/Italy kung fu western THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER) gains an advantage when he masters the unstoppable Iron Fist technique. You’ll know it when you see it, because his hand turns red and the soundtrack blares Quincy Jones’ theme from TV’s IRONSIDE!

If KING BOXER isn’t the greatest chopsocky flock Shaw Brothers ever produced, this “martial arts masterpiece,” to quote Warners’ trailer, sure as hell is up there. Terrific photography and music is just icing atop this delicious cake baked by director Jeong Chang-hwa (credited as Cheng Chang Ho in the United States). The action scenes are cartoonish in a good way, like when a fighter invades Chi-hao’s karate school and literally tosses opponents through the walls (or later when the same fighter is thrown through the trunk of a tree!). The fights are first-rate in this thrilling film, anchored by Lo’s charismatic turn.