Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare in Chicago

For a 1964 episode of KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER titled “Once Upon a Savage Night,” Universal allowed producer/director Robert Altman (NASHVILLE) to film on location in Chicago. To justify the expense of taking the show off the backlot and shooting cinema verite-style on Kodak’s new high-speed 35mm color stock, Universal asked Altman to direct extra footage for a “movie” it could release in theaters overseas and in syndication.

Altman avoids the usual touristy spots and downtown Chicago glitz to showcase the stark Illinois winter and tollroads appropriate for writer David Moessinger’s (QUINCY, M.E.) crime drama, which takes place mostly at night. Based on William McGivern’s novella “Killer on the Turnpike,” NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO’s first half plays sans musical score to play up the realism. It isn’t until the episode turns into a manhunt that composer John Williams (STAR WARS) brings up the score to punctuate the suspense. It looks very little like a typical ‘60s television show and very much like the experimental cinema coming out of Europe. Some performers are obvious amateurs Altman picked up in Chicago, and the stars — talented as they are — were likely chosen because they could blend with the scenery.

Philip Abbott, who played Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s blandly efficient boss on THE FBI, uses that anonymous quality to good effect as “Georgie Porgie,” a serial killer strangling women in the Midwest. He’s already struck four times by the time the story picks him up in a small Indiana town just outside Chicago. After leaving his fifth victim sprawled in her own bed, Georgie quickly adds number six, whom he shockingly strangles during a makeout session in the front row of a crowded strip club. As if a deranged serial killer isn’t enough to keep cops Charles McGraw (THE NARROW MARGIN), Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS), and Ted Knight (THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) busy on a brisk night just before Christmas, they also have to contend with an Army convoy carrying nuclear weapons that’s making its way down the same tollway Abbott is on.

“Once Upon a Savage Night” was the second and last KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER directed by Altman, who was busy on other shows like COMBAT, BUS STOP, and THE LONG HOT SUMMER at the time. While I suspect the episode plays better at an hour (one scene in particular involving two waitresses and the boyfriend of one of them has nothing to do with the story and is obvious padding) than at 79 minutes, NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO is crisp suspense on par with another of Altman’s finest works of the 1960s, BUS STOP’s notorious “A Lion Walks Among Us” episode.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Zebra Force

Character actor Joe Tornatore made his feature debut as a writer, producer, and director with this laughable crime drama with a delightfully daffy premise. A hideously scarred and mutilated Vietnam vet (Glenn Wilder) assembles a squad of white (“as ivory snow”) Army buddies to disguise themselves as black men and rob the Mafia. And I’m talking Rollin Hand disguises where black actors play the crooks in action, then Tornatore cuts to white actors pulling off their rubber masks. Takes nerve to ask the audience to buy into that, so give Tornatore credit. For an actor, though, Tornatore is unskilled in directing actors, as the performances in ZEBRA FORCE are inept.

Los Angeles capo Salvatore (Anthony Caruso) brings in hitman Carmine Longo (Tornatore regular Mike Lane) from Detroit and teams him with right-hand man Charlie DiSantis (Richard X. Slattery, whose trademark red hair is dyed black) to find the “black guys” pulling the heists. Even though the story by Tornatore (with Annette Lombardi credited with “additional scenes & dialogue”) is told from the mob’s point of view, we’re meant to root for Wilder’s gang, who keep the loot for themselves, but insist on flushing the stolen drugs down the toilet to prevent it from “ending up in some kid’s arm.” Between heists, they sit around playing cards and drinking RC cola and admiring Wilder’s genius.

But who cares about story? ZEBRA FORCE’s reason for existing is so Tornatore can show off car chases and gun violence, impressively conveyed in slow motion, all the better to let the audience coo at the crazy stunts. Charles Bernstein of WHITE LIGHTNING and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame performs a favor for Tornatore by delivering an energetic wacka-wacka musical score under the pseudonym Charles Alden. Tough guy actors Slattery (WALKING TALL), Rockne Tarkington (BLACK SAMSON), and Lane (STAY AWAY, JOE) growl pointless tough-guy dialogue between stunts. Best of all is ZEBRA FORCE’s climactic plot twist, which is clever, not at all plausible, and almost too good for a picture this cheap. Believe it or not, Tornatore made a sequel over a decade later with Lane returning as Carmine Longo.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Bubble

Arch Oboler directed, wrote, produced, and distributed this offbeat science fiction film in 3-D. He had earlier made BWANA DEVIL, the first 3-D movie in sound and in color, but the 3-D craze had long since dissipated by 1966. Ten years later, Oboler cut several minutes out of THE BUBBLE and re-released it as THE FANTASTIC INVASION OF PLANET EARTH, the title under which it played on television often in the 1970s and 1980s. By that time, star Michael Cole was famous from THE MOD SQUAD. Stephen King obviously saw it under one of the titles, as his UNDER THE DOME, which CBS later adapted as a weekly television series, shares similarities with THE BUBBLE’s premise.

Brash pilot Tony (Johnny Desmond) flies married couple Mark (Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) through a thunderstorm to a hospital where Catherine can deliver her baby. Tony lands in a small town that resembles a hodge-podge of random movie backlots, including an old western saloon complete with dancing girl and a New York City subway entrance that descends to nowhere. Strangely, the people all act like zombies, repeating the same phrases over and over, when they bother to speak at all. When Tony, Mark, Catherine, and baby boy try to leave town, they learn it’s covered by a mysterious clear dome. They’re trapped, but why and by whom?

Watching THE BUBBLE in 2-D is a peculiar experience. Oboler ignores no opportunity to shove something into the camera lens, though with variable results. A tray of beer bottles and glasses floating around the saloon is betrayed by the visible wires. Some floating rubber Halloween monster masks would probably still look silly in any D. The human element is as uneven as the effects. The main characters act like dolts, never asking the right questions and taking far too long to realize that the town is weird. Speaking Oboler’s repetitive dialogue doesn’t help the actors either.

THE BUBBLE has been compared to a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and certainly the plot would have been effective at a half hour. It isn’t at 91 minutes — at least not with Oboler at the helm — and it also doesn’t build to any satirical or metaphysical point. Nor does the climax pay off satisfactorily. It hardly pays off at all. Not enough to invest an hour and a half of your time in it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Invasion Of The Blood Farmers

Opening with a hilariously silly James Mason impersonator rambling about druids, this PG-rated regional horror (what glorious accents!) is dumb, but worth a look for fans of dumb movies. “Don’t eat before you see this show and you’ll have nothing to lose!!” read the ads for INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS, which also featured a striking photo of an overalls-clad farmer plunging a pitchfork into a screaming woman.

Nothing that occurs in the film is anywhere close to as thrilling as the ads or the delightfully lurid title, but few films could stack up to them. One-and-done director Ed Adlum, the producer and writer of SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (you gotta hand it to the guy — he had a knack for titles), filmed BLOOD FARMERS in rural New York using local (aka amateur) performers and crew.

So, yeah, back to the druids. They’re from outer space, and they’re trying to revive their dead queen, who rests in a glass coffin (the actress is lousy at holding her breath), with a special rare blood type. Their plan seems to be to kidnap random people from a small mountain town and drain their blood in hope it’s what they’re looking for. The townspeople wonder about all the missing people, but don’t spend much time looking for them. The only clue to the disappearances lies with “old Jim Carrey,” who lurches into the local saloon one afternoon and dies, covered in his own blood.

Local pathologist Roy Anderson (Norman Kelley, who must have scored top billing on the basis of his age, not his acting ability) and his assistant Don Tucker (Bruce Detrick) study some of “old Jim Carrey’s” blood and discover the blood cells expanded at such a rapid rate that the victim basically exploded. We soon meet the flowery Creton (Paul Craig Jennings), charged with sending his hillbilly minions out to capture blood givers, and watch goofy and not very scary scenes of victims convulsing while tubes gurgle and drain them.

One may wonder how a film with so much blood and shots of gurgling, convulsing victims could get a PG rating, even during a period in which the MPAA considered horror to be kid stuff. Adlum tricked the MPAA into giving him a PG rating and then reinstated the scenes he had to cut to avoid an R. Adlum obviously shot the movie in a hurry — a drinking game involving dialogue blown or stumbled over would leave the audience trashed pretty quickly — and the practical sets, costumes and effects feel believable if not exactly attractive.

The best thing one can say about INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS is that it isn’t boring, which isn’t the worst thing one can say about a movie. The acting is wretched (I kept waiting for Tanna Hunter as Roy’s daughter and Don’s girlfriend to utter a “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”), but Adlum isn’t untalented. The plot is weird, but capable of sustaining a good film with more means than Adlum and co-writer Ed Kelleher had to work with — $28,000 and a six-day schedule, according to Adlum.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Released the same year that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN became Warner Brothers’ top grosser of 1974, BUSTING helped pioneer the raucous “buddy cop” genre that combined ribald humor with bloody violence (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and the I SPY television series were also antecedents). Like FREEBIE, the feature directorial debut of writer Peter Hyams (2010) features two headstrong, foul-mouthed police detectives butting their heads against the System while breaking as many rules and destroying as much private and public property as possible.

Elliott Gould, fresh off THE LONG GOODBYE, in which he played a more laidback detective, plays Keneely, and Robert Blake (in a part originally intended for SUPER COP Ron Leibman), who played a motorcycle cop in ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, plays Farrel. The unkempt, authority-challenging plainclothes vice cops aren’t good at taking no for an answer as they set their sights on a drug-dealing pornographer played by Allen Garfield (THE CONVERSATION).

After high-placed figures in the Los Angeles police department force Keneely to lie on the witness stand to keep a gorgeous call girl (Cornelia Sharpe) out of jail, he and Farrel are punished for their insolence by getting assigned to stake out a park restroom for perverts. Frustrated by the obstacles standing between them and doing the job they were hired to do, the dicks use their free time after hours to nail Garfield -- a tough chore for cops who spend as much time dodging departmental incompetence and backstabbing as they do bullets and beatings from the bad guys.

The best buddy movies feature impeccable chemistry between their stars, and BUSTING is no exception. Though Hyams receives screenplay credit, much of Gould and Blake’s dialogue is improvised and often very funny. As a director, Hyams developed a knack for flashy, exciting if not necessarily logical action sequences, and the seeds of that skill are on display in BUSTING. The film’s highlight -- a late-night foot chase and shootout through downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market -- is a cacophony of violence, screams, innocent bystanders, and squibbed vegetables blasting in the air. Hyams films much of the scene in long takes, which adds realism and tension. His reliance on long dolly shots becomes repetitive eventually, but the Grand Central Market setpiece is superb.

A boisterous bouillabaisse of wild action, irreverence, and profanity (ensuring no studio will be mounting a faithful remake of BUSTING anytime soon), Hyams’ film is one of the 1970s’ most entertaining crime dramas. Strangely, Hyams followed this violent thriller with OUR TIME, a teen love story, but by the end of the decade had found his niche in fast-moving actioners like CAPRICORN ONE and THE STAR CHAMBER.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Indian Raid Indian Made

The main titles are painted on a nude woman taking a shower. Most of the names are fake anyway, though anyone who followed major league baseball in the 1970s will recognize Morganna. A professional stripper with reportedly 60-inch breasts, Morganna became famous for running onto the field during sporting events and kissing athletes. Among her targets were Pete Rose, George Brett, and Steve Garvey. Sure, these stunts got her arrested, but they also got her on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Before she made a name for herself as “The Kissing Bandit,” Morganna appeared in a handful of ‘60s softcore flicks, including INDIAN RAID INDIAN MADE, which billed her as “Morganna (The Wild One).” It’s nearly an hour before she shows up and another twenty minutes or so until she performs a wowza striptease number. It’s hard to believe anyone who paid to see this movie was awake to see it, however.

A dimwitted Harry Novak production for Boxoffice International, INDIAN RAID INDIAN MADE stars Chuck Davis as Harold, a secret agent assigned to break a moonshining ring at a “resort” that looks like a cheap motel. Not that he does any investigating. Not that he has any time, what with all the women throwing themselves at him in every scene. Davis and most of the cast also worked on director/writer Bob Favorite’s previous film RIVERBOAT MAMA, also for Novak. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall banjo, ukelele, and guitar music credited to Chuck Story, Joe Counts, and Art Schill, a Florida-based musician who played in a folk band called the Folksters.

Plot is less than incidental in these nudie flicks, which are generally a succession of not terribly attractive men and women coupling by rubbing and hugging each other. Nothing approaching the sexual act is depicted, and, of course, no penetration. The men leave their pants on half the time. Rarely does anything erotic occur in a Harry Novak film, but they were so cheaply produced, they couldn’t help but make a profit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

Following AMERICAN NINJA and AVENGING FORCE, action screen team Michael Dudikoff and Steve James are back in action in AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. The sequel is even better than the original AMERICAN NINJA, thanks to a more interesting villain: a drug kingpin named Leo the Lion played in a hammy performance by Gary Conway (LAND OF THE GIANTS).

The plot, credited to Conway and fellow actor James Booth (AVENGING FORCE), finds the Lion kidnapping U.S. Marines, cloning them, and creating a master race of ninja super-warriors. Army Rangers Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) and Curtis Jackson (James) are sent to the Caribbean (played by South Africa) to investigate the disappearances and meet Alicia Sanborn (Michelle Botes), whose scientist father was also kidnapped by the Lion and forced to take part in his captor’s DNA experiments.

Back in the director’s chair is Sam Firstenberg, who piloted Dudikoff and James through the action in AMERICAN NINJA and the great AVENGING FORCE, which came between the NINJAs. With the steady hands of editor Michael Duthie, second unit director BJ Davis, and fight coordinator Mike Stone lending assistance, Firstenberg ups the action quotient from the first NINJA, rarely letting more than a few minutes pass without a chase or protracted martial arts battle.

Dudikoff and James play well off each other, despite — or perhaps because of — their radically different acting and fighting styles. James’ part is wisely beefed up to make him more of an equal to Dudikoff rather than just the sidekick. And on a level by himself is Conway, who must have trouble typing the screenplay while rubbing his hands together in anticipation of saying the juicy monologues he wrote for himself. It’s an overly ripe performance by an actor who often looked stolid on-camera, but Conway is perfectly tuned in to the story’s comic book elements.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

American Ninja

One of Cannon’s most successful action films made a B-movie star of Michael Dudikoff and spawned a franchise. Dudikoff, who had bounced around Hollywood for several years without ever distinguishing himself (he’s one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY), stars in AMERICAN NINJA as Joe Armstrong, an amnesiac in the United States Army and stationed in the Philippines (where the film was shot). He rescues Patricia (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER victim Judie Aronson) from an army of ninja kidnappers, which angers the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) in the employ of gunrunner Ortega (Don Stewart).

Director Sam Firstenberg cut his action chops on REVENGE OF THE NINJA and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and teams up with stunt coordinator Steve Lambert and fight coordinator Mike Stone to create a steady stream of exciting chases, fights, and shootouts. With a nine-week shooting schedule and a decent stream of funds coming from Cannon, Firstenberg crafts an old-fashioned martial arts thriller that eschews the more lurid aspects of exploitation movies (there’s barely a drop of blood, despite a massive body count) to focus on clear-cut good-versus-evil tropes.

While AMERICAN NINJA certainly gave Dudikoff a big break, it also propelled the charismatic Steve James to a bigger profile. Cast as Joe Armstrong’s rival and eventual sidekick Curtis Jackson, James blends actual martial arts skills, a sense of humor, and a strong screen presence to create a heroic persona that, unfortunately, Hollywood never took advantage of. James played sidekick again to Dudikoff in AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, as well as AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT opposite David Bradley, but deserved to star in bigger pictures.

Written by the credited Paul De Mielche as a Chuck Norris vehicle (Norris decided to make INVASION U.S.A. instead), AMERICAN NINJA was almost released as AMERICAN WARRIOR (the trailer bears this title) before wiser heads prevailed. Four sequels followed with Dudikoff starring in the first and making a cameo in the third opposite Bradley.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Monster Of Piedras Blancas

Many a young horror fan’s imagination was stirred by stills from THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, which featured a scaly sea monster similar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon standing menacingly on a beach with a bloody decapitated human head in its hand. Pretty strong stuff for 1959 — Herschell Gordon Lewis wouldn’t invent the modern “gore” film until 1963’s BLOOD FEAST — and even the creature itself looked as though it could go toe-to-toe with the Gill Man. You have to put in the time to get rewarded though, as the Piedras Blancas monster doesn’t show up in full until late in the game.

Up to then, the film is something of a mystery with local sheriff Forrest Lucas (THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR) and doctor Les Tremayne (THE ANGRY RED PLANET) investigating corpses found on the beach with their heads missing and their blood drained. Shifty lighthouse keeper John Harmon (a regular in director Irvin Berwick’s films, such as HITCH-HIKE TO HELL) hates society and freaks out whenever anyone wanders along the beach, including his restless sexpot daughter Lucy (pinup girl Jeanne Carmen, the film’s best special effect). Well, duh, he knows what’s going on. In fact, he’s been feeding the monster meat scraps procured from storekeeper Frank Arvidson (THE 7TH COMMANDMENT), soon to be another man without a head.

Berwick and producer Jack Kevan were former Universal-International employees who formed a production company, VanWick, for which THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS was its only film. Kevan’s U-I job was in the makeup department, where he helped create the Gill Man, among other famous movie monsters. His Monster of Piedras Blancas is impressively ugly and mean-looking and probably scared a lot of kids.

H. Haile Chase, the writer and director of V.D. and PARADISIO, wrote this film. The story makes no sense. Why the monster rips off heads isn’t explained, for instance, not that this is a movie worth thinking about. Berwick’s direction is about as good as Chase’s screenplay, though he gets some mileage from the authentic California locations (surprisingly, he didn’t shoot in Piedras Blancas, but rather around Lompoc). Flubs in dialogue indicate Berwick didn’t do many second takes. The acting isn’t much either with the exception of the sonorously voiced Tremayne, who does his best to bring class to a picture titled THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Toy Soldiers (1984)

Released the same year as RED DAWN, the second and last film written and directed by David Fisher (LIAR’S MOON) is part of a teensploitation subgenre involving ordinary kids fighting back against terrorists. NIGHTFORCE, OUT OF CONTROL, and — believe it or not — a second film titled TOY SOLDIERS, unrelated to this one, fall into this category.

This TOY SOLDIERS is barely remembered today, but is notable as the film debut of actor Tim Robbins (BOB ROBERTS). Producer E. Darrell Hallenbeck had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career as a script supervisor, assistant director, production manager, and occasional television director, most notably on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Top-billed stars Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST) and Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES) lead a cast of young unknowns that not only boasts Robbins, but also Terri Garber (soon to explode on television in NORTH AND SOUTH and DYNASTY) and Tracy Scoggins (THE COLBYS).

So these obnoxious college students are screwing around on a yacht in Central America, and one of them gets hurt. Some of the kids try to take him to a hospital, but are kidnapped by Latino terrorists. Sarge (Miller), the yacht captain and an ex-Marine, tries to find them, but manages only to get away with one, Amy (Garber), the daughter of the yacht’s rich owner (Roger Cudney, evil Hofrax in BARBARIAN QUEEN II).

The U.S. government refuses to pay the $3 million ransom or even negotiate with the terrorists, so Amy gets the bright idea of recruiting her pothead butler (Willard Pugh), the friends who didn’t get captured (including Robbins and Larry Poindexter), Sarge, and Sarge’s war buddy Buck (Little) for a privately funded rescue mission. Their training includes jogging on the beach, referencing THE A-TEAM, and beating the shit out of watermelons. There’s a dumb scene in which a random psycho jumps Amy on the beach for no reason, and she has to drown him in the ocean. I guess she’s ready!

Miller and Little give this New World release more effort than it’s probably worth. Fisher and co-writer Walter Fox make zero effort to make the story anything but a fantasy. The cartoon villains have no personalities other than the basest lust and cruelty, and the kids reach their objective by freefalling 8,500 feet from an airplane. TOY SOLDIERS is dumb, which can be entertaining, but also dull, which never is. When their college classmates show up weeks later to rescue them, the hostages don’t seem the least bit surprised to see them, which is not even the hardest part of this movie to swallow. Some way cool explosions, though.

Planet Earth

STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry spent the 1970s producing one pilot after another, trying to get another series off the ground that would capture the science fiction audience’s imagination the way TREK did. He never did, at least until STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION premiered in syndication in 1987.

1973's GENESIS II was one of the pilots that didn’t sell, but believing the germ of a saleable idea was there, Roddenberry and STAR TREK producer Robert Justman made a sequel, 1974's PLANET EARTH, written by Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and directed by frequent TREK director Marc Daniels.

The biggest change in PLANET EARTH was the recasting of the lead: recognizable TV (THE BOLD ONES: THE NEW DOCTORS) and film (ENTER THE DRAGON) leading man John Saxon in for Alex Cord. Dylan Hunt (Saxon), a 20th century scientist placed in suspended animation and awakened in 2133 to a society ravaged by nuclear war, is now a functioning member of Pax, the only modern society left on Earth, and a leader of a science team concentrating on rebuilding civilization. Roddenberry, a former policeman and World War II pilot, was remarkably progressive in many ways, but notably not his view of women, which is reflected in PLANET EARTH’s plot.

To save the life of a Pax colleague, Hunt and his team—Harper Smythe (Janet Margolin), Isiah (Ted Cassidy), and psychic Baylock (Christopher Cary)—must find a physician who disappeared a year earlier. It’s rumored he was taken by a society of women that capture men to use as slaves and breeding stock. Hunt goes undercover as Harper-Smythe’s “dink” and is chosen to perform stud service on the community’s queen, Marg (Diana Muldaur). When the village is besieged by a savage band of “Kreegs,” the women stand by while the men fight and save them. Oh, Gene.

A step up from the darker, more dour GENESIS II, mainly due to Saxon’s virile, commanding performance as a Kirk-like leader and a lighter tone, PLANET EARTH is too similar to STAR TREK to stand on its own. Daniels handles the action scenes that bookend the film well. Again, the pilot didn’t sell, and the concept was drastically reworked for a third pilot, STRANGE NEW WORLD, also with Saxon.