Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hustler Squad

Does 1976's HUSTLER SQUAD match up to its incredible poster? Could any film?

Filipino actors posing as Japanese and a lack of period detail add to the hilarity of this silly action flick set in World War II. Basically THE DIRTY DOZEN with chicks (and only four of them to fit Crown International’s budget), HUSTLER SQUAD grasps its pervy premise with both hands and commits halfway, ignoring the sensual aspects. It’s set in Australia, but obviously filmed in the Philippine Islands, and the clothing, hairstyles, and language is strictly Seventies. Still, HUSTLER SQUAD is an entertaining drive-in picture that serves up plenty of pulpy action.

The Allied have sixty days to plan a stealth attack on an envoy of Japanese officers holding a strategic meeting at a whorehouse. Major Stonewell (John Ericson, best known as Honey West’s sidekick), who doesn’t really seem like an out-of-the-box thinker, recruits four women with little to lose, trains them to kill, and sends them into the brothel disguised as prostitutes. On the squad: salty hooker Cindy (Crystin Sinclaire in the Roberta Collins role), convicted killer Rose (Nory Wright), rape victim Sonya (Liza Lorena), and terminally ill nurse Anna (Johanna Raunio), in addition to Lieutenant West (Karen Ericson, billed in earlier productions as Karen Huston) and Paco (Ramon Ravilla), the lone survivor of the initial assault on the island containing the brothel.

Perhaps director Cesar Gallardo’s heart wasn’t in it, because even though the women spend most of their downtime bitching about needing to get laid, HUSTLER SQUAD is remarkably sexless. The director occasionally pops for a topless scene, but he emphasizes the men’s adventure aspect of the plot, putting the girls through extensive training and bookending the film with extended rat-a-tat shootouts against Japanese ground forces. A Japanese admiral is portrayed with intelligence and sensitivity, adding a dose of complexity to what is otherwise a simple actioner.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Missile To The Moon

In 1958, Hawaiian-born Richard Cunha made a quartet of science-fiction films that are legend among fans of bad movies. Cunha's filmography is strange, starting with these four films in the same year and ending with just two more credits spread across the early 1960's.

But with Cunha, quality--as in "lack of"--definitely wins out over quantity, as GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN, SHE DEMONS, FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, and MISSILE TO THE MOON have won legions of devoted fans, despite--or, I should say, because of--their incompetence.

Check out this plot for MISSILE TO THE MOON, as concocted by screenwriters H.E. Barrie and Vincent Forte. Middle-aged scientist Dirk (Michael Whalen) is pissed off when the government steps in to confiscate the rocketship he constructed with his partner Steve Dayton (Richard Travis), who seems content to slurp up bourbon with his fiancé June (Cathy Downs).

Determined not to allow his baby fall into the hands of the military, Dirk steps into the rocket, which is parked in his backyard, and discovers a pair of juvenile delinquents hiding out in it. Lon (Gary Clarke) and Gary (Tommy Cook) are prison escapees who go on the lam inside the ship, because Lon had read about it in the newspaper, and, hey, who the hell would look for escaped cons inside a nearby rocketship?

Dirk forces the pair to help him fly his ship, which also includes among its crew Steve and June, who become reluctant stowaways. Needless to say, the inside of this ship looks like it wouldn't drive a go-cart, much less a space vessel traveling to the moon. A stupid accident inside an asteroid belt kills Dirk, but the remaining foursome lands safely on the moon's surface, where they encounter large rock creatures that appear to be made from rubber and chase the landing party at an approximate speed of .15 miles per hour.

They hide inside a cave, where Steve discovers the atmosphere is breathable (!), so the party ditches their spacesuits, just in time to be captured by a society of sexy space honeys in skintight clothing. Most of them, especially the youngest and hottest, have never seen a man before, which raises the libidos of young Gary and Lon.

Meanwhile, the ladies' leader, the Leto (K.T. Stevens), wants to steal the rocket and bring all of the women to Earth. Her conniving assistant, Alpha (Nina Bara), wants to whack the Leto and become the new moon boss. She also wants a piece of the Stevester, which makes June so jealous that she accidentally gives up a vital piece of secret information in her green rage. Women.

MISSILE TO THE MOON is only about 75 minutes long, but still manages to include a pointless if sexy dance number, a giant spider called the Dark Creature that attacks June, a cache of priceless diamonds, a sizzling race across a fatally hot moon desert (!), another encounter with the "ooooo...scary" rock men, and a misogynist final scene. The special effects are particularly pathetic. In fact, the rocket landing on the moon's surface is depicted by running its takeoff from Earth in reverse. The problem with that is that the launching pad is plainly visible on a lunar surface where one shouldn't be. The sets are beyond cheap, the dialogue is ripe, the performances are undistinguished, and the credits proudly proclaim the presence of (alleged) international beauty contest winners, including Miss Illinois (yay), as Moon Girls.

The credits also hide the appearance of actress Leslie Parrish, who appeared in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and many other films and TV shows after MISSILE TO THE MOON. Parrish is billed using her real name of Marjorie Helen, just before she changed it to play the pivotal role of Daisy Mae in LI'L ABNER. Sci-fi fans will remember her as dishy Carolyn Palamas, the Enterprise lieutenant who fell in love with Greek god Apollo in the STAR TREK episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?"

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Horror Of Party Beach

It came billed as “The First Monster Horror Musical,” and it damn well might be. It’s got boys and girls in swimsuits frugging on a beach while a band of nerdy-looking white dudes in striped shirts play three-chord rock-’n’-roll. It also has an infestation of man-sized “sea zombies” that creep out of the ocean to munch on nubile female flesh. Add some bikers, a fistfight, wretched one-liners, and a romantic triangle, and you have THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, which remains, fifty years later, a unique cult oddity.

Dull Hank (John Scott) fights with his alcoholic girlfriend Tina (Marilyn Clarke) on their way to a beach party. “You ain’t seen livin’ ‘til you’ve seen Tina swing,” she says, as she leaps into the fray and shakes her moneymaker at leather-jacketed tough Mike (Agustin Mayor), who fights with Hank over the cheap little tease.

Meanwhile, some boaters dump into the ocean a barrel of radioactive waste, which pops open upon hitting the bottom and soaks a skull buried there. Via clumsy time-lapse photography, the skull transforms into…well, it’s hard to describe. Something like a slimy green sea monster with bulbous eyes and a dozen frankfurters sticking out of its throat. Whatever it is, it’s ahead of its time, because fifteen years before slasher movies established the rules for screen killing, the monster attacks the slutty girl first, ripping Tina to a bloody shred.

Director Del Tenney (I EAT YOUR SKIN) mixes lowbrow humor with the shocks, contributing groaners such as two boys watching a girl in a bikini shaking her pert ass, and one of them saying to the other, “That reminds me.  Did anyone bring hot dog buns?” That night, the monsters attack a slumber party where 22 girls wear nighties and have a pillow fight. Best. Movie. Ever. Unfortunately for them, my dream bash turns into a hootenanny, which causes the monsters to slaughter all the girls. Lesson #1:  sea zombies hate folk music.

With the local police befuddled (“You think it might be a wild shark?"), Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel), who pushes his daughter Elaine (Alice Lyon) to pursue Hank now that his girlfriend is out of the picture (dead), works to discover a method of destroying the monster horde. The Gavins’ superstitious black maid Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore) even gets into the matchmaking act, scolding Elaine for lying around the house moping the day after 22 of her friends were murdered and pushing her to get out of the house to have some fun.

With the Del-Aires thumping their Fender Jaguars and the ridiculous-looking “sea zombies” stalking the Eastern seaboard, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH remains a memorable movie, spawning an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 and a 1964 Warren comic book assembled by Russ Jones and comics legend Wally Wood.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Alley Cat

Los Angeles has a lot of rapists and a stunningly inept justice system. That was my takeaway from this low-budget exploitation item that weaves elements from DEATH WISH and VIGILANTE into the shapely form of star Karin Mani.

A troubled production that saw three different directors putting their hands into it (the “Edward Victor” directing credit is a pseudonym for Filipino filmmaker Ed Palmos, RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE co-star Al Valletta, and ALLEY CAT producer Victor Ordonez), the Film Ventures International release offers enough skin, fighting, and silly dialogue to leave drive-in audiences in joy.

The music score is canned library tracks, some of which were heard in BARNABY JONES episodes. Actors blow lines and look into the camera, plot points are forgotten, and coincidences substitute for drama. I wouldn’t want ALLEY CAT any different. Trouble seems to find poor Billie Clark (Mani) everywhere. First, she puts a beatdown on two dirtbags stealing the tires off her car parked in her driveway. They whine to their boss Phil (Michael Wayne, not the son of The Duke) about getting their butts kicked by a girl, so the three of them assault Billie’s grandparents outside a grocery store.

With her grandmother in the hospital, Billie goes jogging and stumbles upon those same two dirtbags raping a woman. She kicks their asses again, but her cop boyfriend’s corrupt partner tosses Billie in jail for trespassing and carrying a concealed weapon. She gets out of the clink, goes jogging again, and gets accosted by another rapist. She beats his ass too. After a corrupt judge sentences Billie for contempt while setting the rapists free, she is molested by her cellmate (spoiler: Billie beats her up). When Billie gets out of the joint because her boyfriend blackmailed the judge, she runs around the city beating up more rapists, including a fat, stupid drunk.

At least Billie is having tons of sex with Johnny (Robert Torti), the aforementioned ineffectual cop boyfriend, in between beating up bad guys and training for her black belt. Mani appears nude in many scenes, including what may be the longest and dumbest shower scene ever. Mani had a shortlived career in pictures (she had a decent supporting role in AVENGING ANGEL) before marrying a producer of rock videos and giving up the biz. She’s not great at either acting or fighting, but she’s good enough. It’s also a novelty to see an Asian woman beating up white guys in an American production.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Trapped (1949)

Tight Eagle-Lion crime drama from the director of ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, FOLLOW ME QUIETLY, and THE NARROW MARGIN. Former Universal contract star Barbara Payton and a pre-SEA HUNT Lloyd Bridges are the romantic leads in 1949's TRAPPED, though you have to sit through a logy, talky Treasury Department educational film before you get to anything resembling romance. Or drama or excitement, for that matter.

Hard to believe the assured Payton was only 21 when she shot TRAPPED, but then youths grew up faster then. Bridges is top-billed bad guy Tris Stewart, a convicted forger recruited by the feds to lead them to counterfeiter using his old plates. To protect his cover, the agents stage a fake prison escape, but then Stewart doublecrosses them by punching out Agent Foreman (Robert Karnes) and escaping for real.

But — surprise! — that’s a fake too, set up by the Treasury agents to ensure Stewart leads them to L.A., where he hooks up with his old gal Meg Dixon (Payton). Keeping an eye on things is Agent John Downey (John Hoyt), undercover as a hood who ingratiates himself with Meg.

Crafty plotting by George Zuckerman (BORDER INCIDENT) and Earl Felton (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA) and solid but not flashy direction by Richard Fleischer keep the actors plugging right along. Interesting to see screen heavy Hoyt playing a good guy and heroic Bridges as the hood. The two men (and their stunt doubles) perform a brutal seaside fight, and Fleischer stages the climactic shootout in a visually exciting trolley barn.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The G.I. Executioner aka Dragon Lady aka Wit's End

You may be better off knowing no G.I. executioner appears in the Troma release titled THE G.I. EXECUTIONER, but I doubt it really matters. An American production proudly shot in Singapore (as the opening titles state) by the director of BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, Joel M. Reed’s weird action picture has lots of female nudity, including from its three main actresses, and an unlikable and unlikely hero played by the balding Tom Keena.

Dave Dearborn (Keena) is a retired war correspondent running a nightclub on a Singapore junk. The film goes to great ends to show Dearborn as a stud, always sleeping with or being propositioned by some nubile bit actress. This could be to counter one of the film’s offbeat story points — that he once pretended to be gay and seduced a man to get a story.

Speaking of story, G.I. EXECUTIONER’s seems crazy complicated, but it may just be that Reed tells it in a confusing manner. That old girlfriend, Mai Lee Foon (Victoria Racimo, who advanced to a solid Hollywood career playing Latinas and Native Americans), is now dating a local mobster, who appears to be involved with a defecting Red Chinese scientist that the local authorities would like Dearborn to find. Why him, I don’t know. Dearborn’s earlier gay affair turns out to be an important plot element, ensuring that the film, as bad as it is, is not like any other spy adventure you’ve seen.

In addition to Racimo and some anonymous one-line amateurs, Janet Wood (Russ Meyer’s UP!) as Dearborn’s clingy lover and Angelique Pettyjohn (best known as green-haired Amazon Shahna in STAR TREK’s “The Gamesters of Triskelion”) as an enthusiastic stripper perform nude. This is relevant because the most interesting thing that happens in G.I. EXECUTIONER is Pettyjohn shooting a bad guy while starkers.

THE G.I. EXECUTIONER is the title Troma bestowed upon Reed’s film sometime after the New York-based Lloyd Kaufman-Michael Herz studio picked it up. It was first released in 1971 as both WIT’S END (also the title of the decent garage rock song by The Jason Garfield that opens the picture) and KISS KISS BANG BANG. It also played in the United States throughout the 1970s as DRAGON LADY, and was seen under the Troma label in theaters as late as 1980 or 1981 as WILD DRAGON LADY starring “Bruce Dragon-Lee” and “Jacky ‘Black Belt’ Chang.” I don't know who would have been more pissed off about this film playing ten years later: someone buying a ticket to WILD DRAGON LADY and getting this film or Victoria Racimo, then a regular on TV's THE CHISHOLMS.

Under any title, it’s a thoroughly inept film, but at least unusually so and not dull.

Note: thank you to Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock for THE G.I. EXECUTIONER's complex release information.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Bells aka Murder By Phone aka The Calling

New World Pictures cut about fifteen minutes out of this Canadian horror movie before releasing it in the United States in 1982 as THE CALLING and then MURDER BY PHONE. Shot in Toronto in 1980, BELLS didn’t play theaters in its native country and is one of the rare horror movies of the 1980s to have no cult following, despite its name director and stars.

BELLS relies on a silly gimmick that probably looked less outrageous during the horror boom of the early 1980s. A madman murders people by calling them on the telephone and using an electronic doohickey to send an electrical charge over the phone line. His victim shivers and shakes, blood pours from his eyes and ears, and the receiver explodes, flinging its holder through the air into a conveniently placed wall, window, or glass cabinet. Similar to the deaths in (the also Canadian) SCANNERS, except their heads don’t explore.

The murder scenes as directed by Michael Anderson (LOGAN’S RUN) are pretty cool. Repetitive, certainly, but cool. Richard Chamberlain (KING SOLOMON’S MINES) and John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), as well as composer John Barry (THUNDERBALL), provide class to the low-rent premise concocted by five different writers, including the team of Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, who also wrote THE CAR, THE GAUNTLET, and CODE OF SILENCE. The story is more mystery than horror and mixes an anti-corporate message with the murder scenes, which wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher flick.

What an odd change of pace for Chamberlain, who was just coming off the Emmy-winning hit SHOGUN (he reportedly signed on to BELLS to finance his house’s remodeling). He plays Nat Bridger, an ecology professor who turns gumshoe after a former student becomes the maniac’s first kill. Bridger is in Toronto for an environmentalist symposium — it’s nice to see a Canadian film actually set in that country — and Houseman plays Sidney Markowitz, Bridger’s former mentor, a consultant for the phone company.

Barry Morse (SPACE: 1999) is a “guest star,” as the billing goes, and fans of Canadian cult cinema will recognize Robin Gammill (RITUALS), Sara Botsford (DEADLY EYES), Gary Reineke (THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT), and Lenore Zann (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Botsford, playing an artist who becomes romantically involved with Bridger, has nice chemistry with Chamberlain. In a change of pace, her character doesn’t exist solely to be kidnapped or threatened by the killer.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is much too good of a title not to reuse, so here it is labeling a film that’s part sequel, part remake, and all better-than-you-might-expect.

Like the 1976 AIP release, which was directed by Charles B. Pierce and written by Earl E. Smith, this SUNDOWN is loosely based on the real-life Moonlight Murders, which plagued Texarkana for a few months in 1946. The serial killer, who was dubbed the Phantom Killer, was never caught, and Pierce made him the sack-headed villain of his tense thriller.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, both from the TV series GLEE (as is the film’s producer, AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s Ryan Murphy), tackle the same story by making Pierce’s film part of the narrative — Texarkana natives watch it at the drive-in every Halloween to commemorate the 1946 murders (which they really do). It’s now seventy years since the original murders, but Gomez-Rejon is also influenced by slasher movies, which didn’t exist when Pierce made his film.

The 2014 SUNDOWN isn’t about the 1946 murders, but a copycat killer who first strikes against teenager Jami (Addison Timlin, an assured Final GIrl) and her date Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) on Lovers Lane. The killer (Andy Abele), who wears a bag over his head, stabs Corey to death in a rage, but spares Jami.

More murders occur (including a restaging of the notorious “trombone kill” in the Pierce film), and Jami and an old classmate, Nick (Travis Tope), investigate, while the local sheriff (THE LONGEST YARD’s Ed Lauter), his deputy (Gary Cole, A SIMPLE PLAN), and Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales (BLACK-ISH star Anthony Anderson, basically playing the Ben Johnson role) more or less spin their wheels.

As is de rigueur these days, Gomez-Rejon ups the gore factor of the murders, which, in this case, doesn’t make them more horrifying than Pierce’s, but they are definitely brutal and well staged for maximum shock value and black humor. Two of them are set in a bizarre sign graveyard, two others seem to be influenced by the MY BLOODY VALENTINE remake, and the first demonstrates that Gomez-Rejon has definitely seen ZODIAC.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Lady In Cement

Old Blue Eyes’ sequel to TONY ROME hits many of the same beats, including an opening title sequence of Tony on his yacht, a script by Marvin H. Albert (who created the character in his novels), and a raven-haired leading lady (Raquel Welch in for Jill St. John). But LADY IN CEMENT isn’t exactly the same film. After all, Frank Sinatra didn’t fight a school of sharks in TONY ROME.

Sharks aren’t all Rome finds on his underwater search for sunken treasure. He also discovers the titular blonde, naked, feet wrapped in a concrete block, and a knife wound in her back. Rome reports the corpse to his cop pal Santini (Richard Conte, also returning from TONY ROME), but that isn’t the end of it. A menacing giant in a too-tight suit named Waldo Gronsky (Dan Blocker, seen watching BONANZA on TV in one shot) hires Rome to track down his missing lady friend. I wonder if the two women are connected.

LADY IN CEMENT takes itself less seriously than TONY ROME did, and the latter film wasn’t heavy drama. Sinatra’s wisecracks are pretty good (Albert was a terrific crime novelist), though most of the humor generates from Blocker, who has nice timing and knows how to use his size to great effect. Director Gordon Douglas (who worked with Frank on THE DETECTIVE and TONY ROME) shot the film in Miami Beach, but plods through it, failing to get the most out of his locations or his star. Sinatra was, of course, a fine actor when he wanted to be, but he didn’t want it as often as his fans wished.

The film’s portrayal of gay characters is typical for the era — uncomplimentary and mocking. What makes it worthy of note is Sinatra’s previous film, THE DETECTIVE, which was considered progressive in 1968 in its views of homosexuals. So it’s somewhat surprising to see Douglas and Sinatra take a step backwards in this regard.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Tony Rome

Nancy Sinatra belts the title tune penned by Lee Hazlewood, and Billy May delivers the jazzy score in TONY ROME, a cool-baby-cool private eye flick from 20th Century Fox.

Based on Marvin Albert’s paperback original MIAMI MAYHEM, Richard Breen’s screenplay puts private eye Rome (Frank Sinatra) on a Florida houseboat, where he’s pretty laidback about the cases he takes. Sounds a lot like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and I was surprised to learn Albert created Tony Rome four years before the first McGee novel was published.

A favor for his old partner (Bob Wilke, who lost that memorable knife fight with James Coburn in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) embroils Rome in a search for a missing brooch that fell off — or was taken from — its owner, Diana Pines (LOLITA's Sue Lyon), during a night that ended with her drunk and unconscious in a hotel room.

Mysterious strangers with chloroform also want the brooch, and so does an unknown gunman who shoots Wilke dead. More bodies fall and so do some of the red herrings, who include Diana’s wealthy father (PSYCHO's Simon Oakland), her stepmother (Gena Rowlands), her real mother (Jeanne Cooper), and her hotsy-totsy friend Ann Archer (Jill St. John).

Sinatra, who played cops or dicks in four of his last five movies (including the sequel, LADY IN CEMENT), plays it mostly straight in this somewhat square 1940s throwback to movies where private eyes talked tough, drank liquor, smoked too much, and caught passes thrown by gorgeous dames. He has good chemistry with both the knee-weakening St. John and Richard Conte (THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS) as Rome’s ally on the Miami Beach police force. Gordon Douglas directs with not style exactly, but he kept the cameras rolling in the right direction and got Frank off the set by 5:00 pm. Shooting in the Sunshine State and away from the Fox lot helps with the visuals.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers

One of director Fred Olen Ray’s most notorious movies, probably on the basis of its title (suggested by his Camp Motion Pictures bosses) and its inclusion on MAXIM’s list of Top 20 B-Movies, HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS is not as much fun as you hope.

Shot in fewer than six days on short ends and about $50,000, its thin plot loses steam less than an hour in. Since the whole thing runs only about 75 minutes, this is not as deadly a detriment as it seems, but the film never is as funny or clever as you’d like. All actresses, besides Ray’s then-wife Dawn Wildsmith, pop their tops (or more), and the watery blood looks just fake enough to give the gore scenes a properly light tone.

Co-writer T.L. Lankford (ARMED RESPONSE) gave the screenplay a noir flavor with Jay Richardson, a light leading man in a Bruce Campbell mode, essaying a seedy private eye named Jack Chandler, who is hired to find a runaway teen from Oxnard. He eventually finds her, Samantha (scream queen Linnea Quigley), stripping in a Hollywood bar, where sexy hookers Michelle Bauer and Esther Elise are picking up johns and cutting them apart with chainsaws. It’s all in service of their Aztec/Mayan/who-the-hell-knows God, who demands chainsaw sacrifices at the urging of The Master (TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE’s Gunnar Hansen).

Don’t bother keeping track of the story. HOOKERS is about moments, whether it’s Bauer’s enthusiastic nude butchering of a client (but not before covering her Elvis painting with a plastic cover to keep the gore off of it), Quigley’s famous Virgin Dance of the Double Chainsaws (which is not as sexy as it sounds), or Richardson’s constant wisecracks in the face of mortal danger. B-queens Bauer and Quigley were at the top of their fame at the time, and the late ‘80s was Ray’s best period too. Available on a Retromedia 20th Anniversary DVD with interviews, a trailer, a commentary (by Lankford and Ray, who does some of the industry’s more informative and entertaining), and other goodies, HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS is worth seeing to find out what the fuss is all about, but don’t expect any kind of classic.