Friday, December 30, 2016

Wolf Lake (1980)

It’s hard not to compare this outdoor thriller with Columbia’s OPEN SEASON, the Peter Fonda film. Both are obscure productions about middle-aged men on a hunting excursion into Canada who stalk a younger man and woman as prey. WOLF LAKE, written and directed by western veteran Burt Kennedy (SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF), is the better film with better defined characters and a more proficient layering of mood upon the action.

Rod Steiger (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), who never wore a toupee that didn’t look like a dust bunny swept from behind his basement’s water heater, plays a war veteran who brings along Marine buddies Richard Herd (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), Jerry Hardin (THE HOT SPOT), and Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS) on his annual vacation into the wilderness. Residing in the next cabin are bearded David Huffman (BLOOD BEACH) and his girlfriend Robin Mattson (BONNIE’S KIDS).

Put off by Huffman’s beard and the discovery that the young couple are living together and unmarried, the conservative Steiger, whose son died in Vietnam, blows off steam by giving the kids a hard time. But when he also learns Huffman is an Army deserter, the harassment grows meaner and uglier, pushing the pacifist Huffman into a STRAW DOGS scenario in which violence can only be countered with greater violence.

While WOLF LAKE, symbolically set in the bicentennial year of 1976, makes clear that Steiger and his buddies are the villains, Kennedy takes care to let both sides make their case. Huffman is no coward, but left Vietnam after witnessing horrific atrocities that made him question his and his country’s role in the war. Steiger, too often an unconvincing ham, is slightly more restrained than usual and completely believable as his rage boils over into psychosis.

Kennedy asks the audience to swallow a lot. Sure, Steiger’s character is tumbling into madness, but Hardin, Mantee, and Herd seem to be playing decent guys, and their sudden transformation into drooling rapists is hard to believe. Kennedy makes up for any minor plot discrepancies with a thrilling third act that finally lapses into cliche. Huffman, a drip of a leading man in BLOOD BEACH, is more effective here, easily holding his own with the blustery Steiger in their scenes together.

Open Season (1974)

Filmed in Spain, Italy, and England’s Pinewood Studios, this frustrating Spanish production is yet another riff on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It’s skillfully made by director Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB) and there’s no doubting the cast’s exploitation credentials, but OPEN SEASON never really comes together.

A major flaw is William Holden’s brief scene near the beginning. You know perfectly well Collinson didn’t fly in Holden for a minor role any actor could have played, so a part of your brain is constantly distracted “when is Holden coming back.” When he does return in what’s supposed to be a plot twist, you aren’t surprised at all.

Also known as THE RECON GAME, Collinson’s thriller stars Peter Fonda (EASY RIDER), John Philip Law (DANGER: DIABOLIK), and Richard Lynch (THE SEVEN-UPS) as childhood buddies and ‘Nam vets who get away from their suburban homes, families, and lifestyles for two weeks every year by taking a hunting trip deep into the Canadian forest. As younger men, they escaped prosecution on a gang rape and, ever since, have used their annual getaways to overindulge in liquor, women, and debauchery.

More disturbingly, these perpetually giggling sociopaths have become bored with hunting regular game, so have spiced up the sport by tracking people instead. This year’s victims are Cornelia Sharpe (BUSTING) and Alberto de Mendoza (HORROR EXPRESS), a couple cheating on their respective spouses. To its credit, OPEN SEASON portrays sadism in an interesting manner, casually and understated. While the kidnappers are cruel murderers, they aren’t slobbering monsters or bug-eyed psychos, which makes the quiet psychological terror they inflict on Sharpe and de Mendoza more chilling.

Too lethargic and chatty to work as proper exploitation, however, OPEN SEASON offers fine work by Lynch, who would tumble into heavy roles in low-budget pictures and episodic television that were below him, though he always gave his all. Writers Liz Charles-Williams and David Osborn, who adapted Osborn’s novel THE ALL-AMERICANS, also penned two ‘60s Bulldog Drummond thrillers. Their screenplay serves up too many questions that go unanswered, and the tacked-on finale (apparently only seen in some prints) is a cop out.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

The first movie ever made solely to address a perceived plot hole in a previous movie, ROGUE ONE is the eighth film in the STAR WARS universe and the second made by Disney. Marketed as a “standalone” film, it in fact is a direct prequel to the original STAR WARS that tells the story of the rebels who stole and delivered the Death Star blueprints that reveal a structural weakness that allows one well-placed torpedo to destroy the super-weapon. It’s safe to say sales of Felicity Jones (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2) and Diego Luna (BLOOD FATHER) action figures will never catch up with those of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, or Harrison Ford, as their star performances are lacking in chemistry and charisma and their characters are uninteresting. The same can be said for the movie’s story.

Considering the basic premise couldn’t be simpler — a band of rebels plan a break-in of Imperial headquarters to steal the Death Star plans and get them to safety — it’s a mystery why the plot credited to Chris Weitz (ANTZ) and MICHAEL CLAYTON’s Tony Gilroy (more on him in a moment) is so needlessly complicated. The first twenty minutes or so take place on five different planets, and the story becomes so jumbled that the names of the characters are easily missed. Director Gareth Edwards (GODZILLA) has a tough time keeping important story points clear, but what we do know is that Galactic Empire baddie Krennic (BLOODLINE’s Ben Mendelsohn, looking cool as hell in white duds with a cape) snatches engineer Galen Erso (CASINO ROYALE villain Mads Mikkelsen) and forces him to build a planet-killing device to be known as the Death Star.

Erso’s abandoned daughter Jyn (Jones) is recruited by the Rebels fifteen years later to accompany spy Cassian Andor (Luna) and find Galen (it’s unclear to me why they needed her), whom Cassian is secretly ordered to assassinate. Along for the ride are blind swordsman Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), bowman Baze Malbus (Joe Mari Avellana Lookalike Contest winner Wen Jiang), space pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and smartass robot K-2SO (voiced by SERENITY’s Alan Tudyk). Though K-2 is meant to be a fan favorite, it only left me wondering why these badass Imperial robots never showed up in “later” films — a plot hole more egregious than blowing up the Death Star with one torpedo.

Darth Vader (once again voiced by James Earl Jones, but not played by David Prowse) is here too, but more surprising are appearances by CGI-animated versions of Peter Cushing (who died in 1994) as Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The CGI Cushing is overall not good — the voice portrayal by actor Guy Henry is all wrong — but some shots from behind or as reflections in a window are passable. The CGI Leia is frankly awful, clearly unusable, so bad that a 1976 George Lucas would undoubtedly have sent the footage back to the effects team until they got it right. The worst special effects shot in STAR WARS is more convincing than that CGI Leia in 2016.

Perhaps some of the weaknesses of story and visual effects can be explained by the film’s hectic post-production, which involved Disney sending director Edwards to the bench in favor of Gilroy, who wrote and directed massive reshoots — so much so that ROGUE ONE’s original trailer looks almost like a different film. The film’s lengthy action climax, easily the best part, appears to be almost all Gilroy’s work. Gilroy can’t be blamed for the film’s casting — only Mendelsohn, Yen, and Jiang turn in good work, and Forest Whitaker (who may be wearing his BATTLEFIELD EARTH costume) is downright terrible — but his best writing and directing efforts weren’t enough to make ROGUE ONE a creative success.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

It! The Terror From Beyond Space

Scripted by respected science fiction author Jerome Bixby, who also provided classic teleplays for TWILIGHT ZONE (“It’s a Good Life”) and STAR TREK (“Mirror, Mirror”), IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE is often mentioned in discussions of ALIEN. And for good reason, as ALIEN’s plot and structure are basically identical to IT!, though it would be a stretch to call the more stylish and evocative ALIEN a ripoff.

One of the better films by quickie director Edward L. Cahn (six Cahn films were released in 1958, including IT!’s co-feature CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, also penned by Bixby), IT! uses its low budget well, and its special effects are surprisingly ambitious, such as shots of two astronauts walking outside their spaceship. The monster suit, worn by stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan, is menacing, despite a silly scowl permanently etched into its face.

Credit to Cahn and Bixby for not wasting time at the beginning (the entire film is only 69 minutes). An American rocket lifts off from Mars with a new passenger: the only survivor (DAKTARI’s Marshall Thompson) of a previous expedition. Thompson stands accused of murdering the other nine members of his team and is being brought back to Earth by commander Kim Spalding (THE TRUE STORY OF LYNN STUART) and his crew to stand trial.

Thompson claims his colleagues were murdered by some sort of monster, but nobody believes him. Until, of course, the stowaway creature starts bumping off the cast Agatha Christie-style. Bullets and grenades have little effect on its scaly epidermis (no fancy laser pistols for these blue-collar joes), and most of the astronauts are sucked dry of their bodily fluids before Thompson finally gets the idea to suffocate the dumb thing. He’s vindicated in the end, but if only they had listened to him earlier.

Shawn Smith (THE LAND UNKNOWN) and Ann Doran (RIOT IN JUVENILE PRISON) are aboard, but typical of ‘50s sci-fi movies, they clear the dishes from the dinner table and let the men shoot the guns and fight the creature, even though Doran is playing the ship’s doctor. Doran and Dabbs Greer (THE GREEN MILE) play a middle-aged married couple, which is unusual. Though the film was made quickly and inexpensively, some care was taken to give the characters personalities.

Paul Blaisdell, who designed and created monsters for many 1950s thrillers, such as Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD and DAY THE WORLD ENDED, also designed It, though Corrigan wore the costume. He usually played gorillas in movies, plus the suit didn’t fit him perfectly, so It is less agile than Cahn and Bixby intended. At least Cahn gave the audience what they came for, showing It in all its glory, for better or worse. By the way, Bixby loved ALIEN.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Graduation Day

Despite a couple of creative kills, GRADUATION DAY lays near the bottom of the slasher-movie barrel. Well, it has other pluses: genre stalwart Christopher George (THE EXTERMINATOR), future game show wheel-turner Vanna White in a bit part, a topless Linnea Quigley (SAVAGE STREETS), some genuinely amusing comic banter between principal Michael Pataki (NIGHT SHIFT) and his secretary E.J. Peaker (HELLO, DOLLY!), and gore effects created by a woman (THOR’s Jill Rockow), which was unusual at the time.

But despite all of those positive features, GRADUATION DAY is a graduation dud. A high-school track star dies of a blood clot just after breasting the tape in a big meet. The rest of her team gets killed off in various creative and bloody ways just before graduation. Director Herb Freed (TOMBOY) assembles a handful of red herrings, including the girl's Navy ensign sister (Patch McKenzie), her asshole track coach (George), her boyfriend (E. Danny Murphy), and the asshole principal (Pataki). Carmen Argenziano (THE HOT BOX) shows up late in the game as an investigating cop ("You look Lebanese.").

Freed, who also wrote the film with his wife Anne Marisse (HAUNTS), occasionally shows a flair for the material — one chase-and-kill sequence crosscut with rock band Felony playing the energetic “Gangster Rock” borders on greatness — but the killer, who dresses in a fencing mask and gray sweatsuit, is not menacing, and the murders lack suspense. Death by javelin football is pretty good though. George usually put in a solid effort in even the worst junk (PIECES), but he looks tired and annoyed here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Ten years after the first feature and six years after Fox cancelled the television series after nine seasons, THE X-FILES returned to the big screen with a moody thriller set in bleak, wintry West Virginia (but filmed in British Columbia). The FBI bring former agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) out of retirement to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent and the discovery of human body parts buried in the snow.

Again written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter, who also directed, the X-FILES sequel is short on spectacle — it has only one real action sequence — but long on grimness. In addition to its quietly intense dramatics, dreary setting, and heady discussions about science versus religion, the plot also includes a pedophile priest played by Billy Connolly (BOONDOCK SAINTS) who claims to have psychic visions of the FBI agent’s kidnapping. But does he really have supernatural abilities or is he actually a killer?

Something of an anti-blockbuster, despite its July release date, I WANT TO BELIEVE holds interest due to its creepy mood, well delineated by Carter, and the strong relationship between Mulder and Scully. Duchovny and Anderson are extremely good together, and they know their characters so well that watching them feels like being covered with a nice warm security blanket. Fan favorite Mitch Pileggi (SHOCKER) makes a late appearance as Walter Skinner, which is brief but well integrated into the story. Unfortunately, while Amanda Peet and Xzibit are fine, I guess, as FBI agents, one wonders why Carter didn’t bring back former regulars Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish in their roles.

Fox did the film a real disservice, releasing it one week after THE DARK KNIGHT and the same weekend as San Diego Comic Con. Unsurprisingly, I WANT TO BELIEVE opened in fourth place and was out of the top ten after two weekends. A fall or winter release would have been more appropriate for a film with with a built-in cult audience and virtually no mainstream appeal by 2008.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Chosen Survivors

Filmed at Mexico’s famous Churubusco Studios, CHOSEN SURVIVORS lacks necessary star power and an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere to match its underground setting. Its director, Sutton Roley (THE LONERS), worked almost exclusively in television, where he established a creative visual style that generally added oomph to the pedestrian plots he often worked with. That skill came in handy but to little effect on CHOSEN SURVIVORS, which sticks Roley with a cast of familiar television actors, nondescript sets, and not enough action to break up the puerile dialogue.

Ten Americans — including Jackie Cooper (SUPERMAN), Alex Cord (GENESIS II), Bradford Dillman (THE ENFORCER), Pedro Armendariz Jr. (LICENCE TO KILL), Diana Muldaur (MCQ), Lincoln Kilpatrick (FORTRESS), Barbara Babcock (THE BLACK MARBLE), and Gwenn Mitchell (SHAFT) — plus maintenance man Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN) are awakened in the middle of the night and whisked away to a secret underground lair. They witness the destruction of the world above them in a nuclear holocaust.

The computerized voice and image of real-life Los Angeles news anchor Kelly Lange explains that each of them has been selected by the government to survive the blast, that each has skills that will enable them to rebuild society after the nuclear fallout has subsided. What Lange doesn’t tell them — ‘cause nobody knew — is that a damn flock of vampire bats (!) have invaded their new home. Will these total strangers be able to get past their paranoia, shock, confusion, and claustrophobia to stave off the bloodsucking creatures, much less survive long enough to see daylight again?

As was Roley, producers Charles Fries (THE WORD) and Leon Benson (director of 95 SEA HUNT episodes) worked primarily in television, and their unfamiliarity with a larger scale may have contributed to CHOSEN SURVIVORS’ deficiencies in scope, stakes, and special effects. Writers Harry Spalding (SURF PARTY) and Joe Reb Moffly inadequately sell the premise that these particular characters should be chosen as America’s most promising (Cord, for instance, is a novelist), though the actors go through the paces with the typical professionalism that earned them two or three episodic guest shots per year. Roley digs deep into his bag of tricks (he’s big on shooting upward through glass tabletops), but is ineffective at delivering suspense. This Columbia release was Roley’s second and final feature assignment.

The X-Files (1998)

It’s very rare to see a television series turned into a big-screen feature with the same cast and crew and even more so for it to happen while the show is still on the air (only 1954’s DRAGNET and 1966’s BATMAN come to mind).

That’s how big an impact THE X-FILES had on audiences during its prime. In terms of ratings, longevity, and critical acclaim, it may well be the most successful science fiction series in network history, so 20th Century Fox was eager for creator Chris Carter to deliver a big-budget adventure with more scale, more special effects, and major guest stars.

Shot between the series’ fourth and fifth seasons, THE X-FILES was intended by Carter, co-writer Frank Spotnitz, and director Rob Bowman (all series veterans) to appeal to both rabid fans and those who had never seen the show. David Duchovny (CALIFORNICATION) is Fox Mulder, one of two FBI agents assigned to investigate cases involving the paranormal. As a boy, he witnessed his sister’s abduction by aliens and has devoted his life to learning the truth about extraterrestrials and the U.S. government’s attempt to cover up their existence. Gillian Anderson (HANNIBAL) is his partner, Dana Scully, a medical doctor whose original assignment was to debunk X-File cases, but learned through experience to accept Mulder’s far-out theories.

Released a few weeks after the fifth season finale, THE X-FILES picked up where that episode left off with Mulder and Scully removed from X-Files duty and assigned to terrorist detail in Dallas, Texas. The bombing of an office building and some nudging from paranoid OB-GYN Alvin Kurtzweil (Martin Landau) lead the agents to yet another sinister government plot involving aliens, an underground cave in north Texas, killer bees (!), and a deadly virus that could destroy all life on Earth. Basically, another Thursday for Mulder and Scully.

Bigger doesn’t always mean better, but THE X-FILES is just about as good as the best series episodes, adding visual style, location shooting, large-scale action scenes, and gooey makeup effects that couldn’t be created on a television budget. Anderson and Duchovny had fallen into a smart, sexy rhythm by this point, and the film’s extra running time lets the relationship between Mulder and Scully breathe a bit. The script is intelligent, complex, and suspenseful. The extra money also allowed composer Mark Snow an eighty-piece orchestra, which turned in a mature score to match the film’s epic nature.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Invisible Invaders

Hooboy, is this a turkey! Nuclear scientist Karol Noymann (John Carradine, who has very little screen time) blows himself up in his laboratory. His collegue Dr. Penner (Phillip Tonge, who died days after completing shooting) is stunned when Noymann comes a-knockin’ at the door the night of his funeral, a bit pasty-faced, but able to walk and talk.

Only he ain’t really Noymann. He’s actually an emissary for a group of aliens who have been spying on Earth from their hidden base on our moon. Oh yeah, and he’s really invisible and just using Noymann’s corpse as a vessel. And he has arrived in an invisible spaceship, which is a pathetic concept, but great on penny-pinching producer Robert E. Kent’s special effects budget. INVISIBLE INVADERS was produced in six days for $118,000.

Noymann gives Penner a message: the governments of Earth have 24 hours to surrender, or else his people will destroy us. Of course, Penner becomes a laughing stock—his own daughter Phyllis (Jean Byron, later on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW) and her sort-of boyfriend Dr. Lamont (Robert Hutton) barely believe him, and Earth’s leaders merely mock him.

Hopefully, Penner remembered to say “I told you so” when the invisible aliens begin reanimating the corpses of Earthlings and sending them shambling out to wreak all kinds of havoc, like crashing cars and planes and blowing lots of stuff up. Teaming up with no-nonsense Army Major Jay (John Agar, who else?), the Penners and Lamont barricade themselves in a bunker located in Bronson Caverns, while working against time to develop a method for stopping the invasion.

Carradine really got off easy, since he got to shoot all his scenes in a day and go home. Everyone else had to stick around for the seven or eight days it must have taken to film this dreck. Filled with somnabulent performances, mucho stock footage (some of which does contain nice miniature work—and the rolling car crash from THUNDER ROAD), non-existent special effects, and static direction by good ol’ Edward L. Cahn (CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN), INVISIBLE INVADERS fails to work on any level.

Although the fate of the whole world is in danger, we never see anything outside of Griffith Park, and the four protagonists have barely any contact with other living beings. Screenwriter Samuel Newman also penned THE GIANT CLAW — even worse than INVISIBLE INVADERS — and several Jungle Jim movies. Cahn and producer Robert E. Kent made 31 movies together, including THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, which played with INVISIBLE INVADERS on a United Artists double bill.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Five Man Army

If you’ve ever wondered what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would look like as an Italian western, here you go. The casting of Peter Graves as The Dutchman, the leader of an elite team of specialists who plans an elaborate, split-second scheme to rob a train, couldn’t have been coincidental. Graves even imitates a Mexican accent at one point. Not well, but he did accents badly on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE too.

An Italian production directed in Spain by American Don Taylor (ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES), THE FIVE MAN ARMY was penned by the unlikely screenwriting team of Marc Richards, whose career rested mainly in schlocky Saturday morning kids’ programs, and Dario Argento, the ‘70s maestro of horror who directed classics like TENEBRAE, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and DEEP RED. It’s a fun, weird mixture of spaghetti western and caper flick with a sturdy international cast.

During the Mexican Revolution, The Dutchman recruits explosives expert Augustus (James Daly, then starring on MEDICAL CENTER), burly Animal (Bud Spencer), master swordsman Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) and cocky young Luis (Nino Castelnuovo) to steal $500,000 in gold from a moving train guarded by Army soldiers and monitored at regular intervals along the track. Taylor touches all the tropes of the caper genre, the most fun being that no matter how well the plan is conceived, something is bound to go wrong, forcing the operatives to think on their feet.

Even with legendary composer Ennio Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) contributing a subpar (for him) score, THE FIVE MAN ARMY is good solid “men on a mission” filmmaking. Even so, the film drags in parts, despite some welcome humor, and could have used another polish in the editing room. What works perfectly, however, is the train sequence that comprises the third act. A masterpiece of editing and suspense, it’s likely the highlight of Taylor’s career behind the camera.

Credit to the actors for finding their characters with little help from the screenplay. Tamba (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) manages to win over the audience without dialogue, preferring to let his skull-splitting sword do his talking for him. Spencer (TRINITY IS MY NAME) uses his real voice for a change, and the dependable Daly wrings pathos out of his part with a twinkle in his eye that says a thousand words. Despite the movie’s dollops of nudity and gore, MGM released THE FIVE MAN ARMY on a 1970 double bill with the G-rated CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

I Escaped From Devil's Island

Sweat and sadism abound in this lean slice of pulp set in French Guiana in 1918. Every frame looks like a Mort Kunstler cover painting for STAG, and director William Witney and screenwriter Richard Adams (THE SLAMS) play up the machismo for maximum effect. Blood and beatings fill most scenes, though I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND manages to slow down long enough for star Jim Brown to play footsie with a randy Indian widow.

Brown (SLAUGHTER) stars as LeBras, an individualistic black prisoner forced to endure intense manual labor and daily beatings by the brutal guards, who are sanctioned by one-armed warden Marteau (Paul Richards). Fed up, LeBras escapes into the surf on a raft sewn together with animal skins. Along for the ride are gay couple Jo Jo (THE YOUNG REBELS star Rick Ely) and Dazzas (veteran TV heavy James Luisi) and Commie pacifist Devert (Christopher George), who starts the movie believing the prison’s harsh conditions can be tamed through words.

Brown is his typical tight-lipped self and carries most of the action, leaving it to George (THE RAT PATROL), playing against type as a political prisoner who abhors violence, to shore up the adventure trappings with a thin slab of social commentary. PAPILLON, which opened shortly after, was the obvious inspiration for this old-fashioned potboiler produced by brothers Roger and Gene Corman. It was one of the last features directed by William Witney, who made Republic’s best serials in the 1930s and ‘40s, including SPY SMASHER and THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL. The Acapulco-lensed adventure has serial-like pacing, introducing the escapees to a wild succession of obstacles in their flight from the titular island, including sharks, lepers, sex-crazed natives, and corrupt policemen. Backed by a pompous Les Baxter score, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL’S ISLAND plays just as crudely as its blunt title implies, and thank goodness for it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Man From Hong Kong

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is one of the least seen and most underrated action pictures of the 1970s. Golden Harvest co-financed this Hong Kong/Australian production shot in Sydney and Hong Kong. Brian Trenchard-Smith (DEAD END DRIVE-IN), who had primarily directed documentaries about stunt performers, brought in ace stuntmen Grant Page and Peter Armstrong, while Golden Harvest’s main contribution was leading man Jimmy Wang Yu, then known as Hong Kong’s Steve McQueen. THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is a crackling action flick demonstrating what would happen if a Chinese Dirty Harry traveled Down Under to shake up the bad guys.

Wang Yu is Hong Kong detective Fang Sing Leng, who arrives in Sydney to extradite a drug courier (played by a 22-year-old Sammo Hung), but stays in town to battle Mr. Big—a particularly nasty kingpin named Jack Wilton and portrayed by former 007 George Lazenby. Lazenby was no stranger to Hong Kong filmmaking, having starred with Angela Mao in Golden Harvest’s STONER, which didn’t play in the U.S. THE MAN FROM HONG KONG received only slightly more respect in America, playing dates under the 20th Century Fox label as THE DRAGON FLIES with Jigsaw’s “Sky High” as the theme song.

Trenchard-Smith really pours on the action setpieces (he has claimed only 18 minutes of dialogue are in the film, which sounds low, but his point is well taken). The action highlights include a kung fu battle atop the historical Ayers Rock, a lengthy chase and fight between Wang Yu and Page in a restaurant (watch for Page’s pants to split), and the climactic fight between Wang Yu and Lazenby that goes so far as to set a game George on fire! In addition to the wild action sequences, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG raises eyebrows in its love scenes, which pair Wang Yu with Caucasian actresses Rebecca Gilling and Rosalind Speirs. Rarely did Asian men and white women get it on in films, then or now. A treacly romantic montage featuring Deena Greene’s silly “A Man Is a Man Is a Man” is the film’s biggest drag, but it’s over fairly quickly and lets Wang Yu get back to the car chases and karate battles.

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is not exactly an actor’s picture, but Trenchard-Smith does well to surround Wang Yu, not a native English speaker (he’s dubbed on the soundtrack anyway), with solid veterans. Hugh Keays-Byrne (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) and Roger Ward (TURKEY SHOOT) carry much of the humor as cops working with Wang Yu. Frank Thring from BEN-HUR and KING OF KINGS plays a member of Lazenby’s organization. Reportedly, Trenchard-Smith and Wang Yu did not get on well, but they managed to create a fun action picture that has aged quite well and is more exciting than almost every American action picture that followed it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Night Of The Strangler

First off, there is no strangling at all in 1972's THE NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER, making this Howco International cheapie one of the all-time worst cheat titles. There’s plenty of killing—by gun, by knife, by snake, by razor—but I guess Houck didn’t think they made for snappy titles (his NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR gets one’s attention too). Howco also played it as ACE OF SPADES and IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH? in black neighborhoods.

Micky Dolenz, just five years after The Monkees were America’s #1 pop group, must have either spent all his millions in a hurry or wanted desperately to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor to appear in this.

Denise Robert (Susan McCullough) returns to her family home in New Orleans, where she breaks the news to her brothers, racist attorney Dan (James Ralston) and ‘Nam-vet florist Vance (Dolenz), that she’s dropping out of Vassar to marry the father of her unborn child, a black man named Jake.

Dan, furious, smacks her around, and hires a blond hippie hitman to shoot her fiancé in the back. A mysterious black-gloved killer dressed like the Scorpio Killer later drowns a distraught Denise in her bathtub and stages the scene to look like a suicide.

A year later, Dan prepares to marry Vance’s ex-girlfriend, and gets into a fight with Vance, who shows up at the wedding drunk. Jesse (Chuck Patterson), a black priest back in the parish after spending time in New York, befriends Vance and attempts to mend the bitterly divided Robert family. Somehow, I don’t think it’ll take.

NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is more murders, more race-baiting, more red herrings, and more confusion, as the story wavers across the screen like a drunk driver in a hailstorm. Houck spends too much time following a pair of buddy detectives (one is played by Harold Sylvester, who went on to Hollywood) who ultimately contribute nothing to the plot. I’ll give the movie points for the twist ending, which is amusing and more or less plays fair with the audience.

More of a murder mystery than the horror movie its title and ad campaign indicate, NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is kind of a mess with its low budget showing in its long master shots and tinny sound. To give it credit, it develops its mystery fairly cleverly through the story points Houck chooses to share — and what not to share. It’s a goofy movie, and it wouldn’t kill you to experience it, though it’s only a must-see for Monkees fans, who get to see Micky curse, fight, and sleep with a topless chick. It did nothing for Dolenz’s career, which progressed to Hanna-Barbera cartoon voices and LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Wheels Of Fire

One of approximately 1.5 zillion post-apocalyptic action movies shot in a gravel pit outside Manila by Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago (STRYKER), WHEELS OF FIRE is not dull, not sophisticated, and definitely not unfun. In fact, it’s practically wall-to-wall chases, fights, car crashes, explosions, and shootouts with some occasional nudity. You can’t say Santiago and Roger Corman, who released this film through his Concorde Pictures label, didn’t give drive-in audiences what they wanted. If the score credited to Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3) sounds familiar, you probably heard it in other Corman movies, including BARBARIAN QUEEN and WARRIORS OF THE LOST KINGDOM.

Gary Watkins, an actor with few credits on his resume (JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY being one of them), was almost certainly cast because of his resemblance to Mel Gibson. Dressed like Mad Max and driving a souped-up hot rod across the desert, Watkins’ Trace is forced to get personal with a bunch of bad guys in the employ of Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana), who kidnap his sister Arlie (PLAYBOY centerfold Lynda Wiesmeier), rip off her top, strap her to the hood of a car, and take her back to their hideout to be raped. Trace, understandably pissed, teams up with a psychic (Linda Grovenor, a helluva long way from DIE LAUGHING), a mercenary (Laura Banks), and a mute midget to waste as many underpaid and undertrained Filipino stuntmen and extras as possible in 81 minutes. And I haven’t even mentioned the tribe of underground albino mutants.

Going into a battle strapped with a flamethrower secured away in your muscle car is a good idea in general, but certainly when facing off against a guy named Scourge. Who knew Scourge would grow up to be one! Outside of Santiago regulars Avellana, Joseph Zucchero, and Henry Strzalkowski, none of the actors did much of note in front of the camera. Banks had a visible but silent role in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, Wiesmeier did some pin-up roles (like June Khnockers in MALIBU EXPRESS), and Grovenor said screw this and got the hell out of Hollywood. Frederick Bailey, who wrote and acted in a lot of Corman movies, penned the screenplay, which couldn’t have been more than 30 pages. The film also played theatrically as DESERT WARRIOR — not to be confused with another futuristic Filipino movie of the same title starring Lou Ferrigno.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Phoenician Entertainment and director Jim Wynorski (CHOPPING MALL) attempt an Irwin Allen-style disaster flick that is just unintentionally hilarious enough to be entertaining. A large cast of familiar faces and the amusement of spotting stock footage from other movies, which Wynorski uses in lieu of filming his own action scenes, provide much of the fun in ABLAZE.

John Bradley, who also played a fireman in Fox’s shortlived L.A. FIREFIGHTERS series, is Jack Thomas, a firefighter who gets laid up in the hospital after rescuing a young boy from a burning house. After an explosion at the nearby oil refinery owned by oily Wendell Mays (Tom Arnold!) plunges the city into flames, the hospital, also owned by Mays and anxious to keep patients with inadequate health plans from checking in, much to the consternation of compassionate doctor Jennifer Lewis (Amanda Pays), is overrun with burn victims.

Meanwhile, Jack’s estranged brother Andy (Larry Poindexter) also becomes a patient—a terminal one—when he’s injured while investigating unsafe conditions at the Mays refinery and in possession of evidence that will prove wrongdoing by Mays and the mayor. The conflagration eventually grows so massive that an impending firestorm causes the hospital’s evacuation, which is exacerbated by a pregnant woman giving birth and the firetrucks’ hoses not being long enough to reach the hospital doors (!), inducing the hospital’s staff and patients to run a gauntlet to safety.

Steve Latshaw’s screenplay is even more schizophrenic than I’ve described, frequently introducing gratuitous characters whose only value is to die on camera or match stock footage from other fire flicks. Second-billed Ice-T pops up during the precredits sequence for a car chase swiped from STRIKING DISTANCE that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA), in an uncharacteristic supporting role, is solid as Bradley’s second-in-command. TV vets Cathy Lee Crosby (THAT’S INCREDIBLE), Pat Harrington (ONE DAY AT A TIME), and Mary Jo Catlett (DIFF’RENT STROKES) are welcome sights in the hospital scenes, while a puffy Edward Albert (BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE) huffs on cue as the supercilious mayor. Aside from the STRIKING DISTANCE car chase, most of the stock footage is clearly from the 1979 Canadian feature CITY ON FIRE.

As usual in the Wynorskiverse, logic and common sense play second fiddle to wrapping on time and budget. The concept of the firemen’s hoses not being able to reach the hospital is screwy enough, but when you see the survivors running away from the building, which is said to be at the end of a cul-de-sac, the street looks like Brooklyn circa 1956 and not the urban backlot seen in the CITY ON FIRE footage. And I’m not sure what kind of law enforcement strategy sends a fireman and a lone detective on a stakeout to capture an arsonist in broad daylight. Ah, what’s the use?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eyes Of A Stranger

The novelty of perky LOVE BOAT cruise director Lauren Tewes and acclaimed actress and future Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh (THE HATEFUL EIGHT) in a trashy slasher movie is quickly overtaken by the believability of their performances. Leigh in particular, making her feature acting debut, delivers a strong performance with poise and courage as Tracy, a teenager who suffers from psychosomatic blindness and deafness since she was abducted and molested as a child. Tewes, in her only starring appearance in a feature, is top-billed in EYES OF A STRANGER as Jane Harris, a crusading television reporter in Miami.

When Warner Brothers released EYES OF A STRANGER theatrically in 1981, most of Tom Savini’s gory makeup effects had been excised to avoid an X rating. Screenwriter Ron Kurz (FRIDAY THE 13TH) and director Ken Wiederhorn (SHOCK WAVES) planned to make a thriller about a strangler. However, producers hired Savini just before production to provide blood and gore to capitalize on the slasher craze, so the killer played by John DiSanti (Wiederhorn’s KING FRAT) killed with a knife instead of his hands. Ironically, very little of Savini’s work made it to theaters after all.

Jane, who is investigating the slew of serial rapes and murders of young women in her role as a reporter, becomes personally involved when she accidentally discovers — or at least suspects — that one of her neighbors, Stanley Herbert (DiSanti), is the killer. The film isn’t a mystery: we know he’s the killer. Jane, not having seen REAR WINDOW, spies on Herbert, taunts him with threatening phone calls, and breaks into his apartment to search for evidence. Not a great plan when you have a blind, deaf, and mute little sister at home.

Kurz, who created the Jason Voorhees character in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, offers nothing new or substantive to the slasher genre in EYES OF A STRANGER. It actually bears a strong resemblance (accidentally) to SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!, the TV-movie John Carpenter directed after HALLOWEEN. Kurz and Wiederhorn, it seems, had their hearts set on a less graphic thriller, rather than a gory horror movie, and Savini’s makeup effects, impressive as they are, don’t fit the tone established by Wiederhorn. EYES OF A STRANGER looks more expensive than its sub-$1 million budget, Richard Einhorn’s (THE PROWLER) score adds some class, and DiSanti makes for a properly grubby and mysterious creep.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Ice Station Zebra

Alistair MacLean’s 1963 novel ICE STATION ZEBRA, set in the Arctic, was the inspiration for this big-budget MGM Cold War thriller, though scripter Douglas Heyes (writer of many excellent MAVERICK and TWILIGHT ZONE episodes) deviated often from it.

Known as Howard Hughes’ favorite movie, ICE STATION ZEBRA has garnered quite a following in the decades since its release, despite its stolid pacing and old-fashioned production values. It earned Academy Award nominations for its special effects and cinematography, and its legend stretches to TV’s BREAKING BAD, which named a fictional business after the film.

It’s hard to know who to trust in this paranoia-fueled espionage thriller. Except Rock Hudson, of course. You could always count on Rock Hudson. The Rock plays Captain Farraday, the commander of a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine who is assigned to investigate a tragedy at a British weather station. Though as Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) tells Farraday, rescuing survivors is not the reason for his mission — only the excuse.

The only man aboard the sub who does know the true mission is Jones (THE PRISONER star Patrick McGoohan), an eccentric British agent whose ally is a Soviet defector, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine). Also on board: Captain Anders (Jim Brown), a martinet who assumes command of Lieutenant Walker’s (Tony Bill) Marines. What are Marines doing aboard a Naval submarine on a rescue mission to a civilian science station? Farraday doesn’t know, and part of the film’s mystery is picking apart everyone’s motives and orders.

It’s usually satisfying to watch professionals perform a job well, and ICE STATION ZEBRA ticks off all the right boxes as it chugs turgidly along. The cast is tough enough, and the heroics are enhanced by Michel Legrand’s score. Heyes’ screenplay, however, based on a screen story by Harry Julian Fink (DIRTY HARRY), bears too little story to sustain the film’s epic length (which also includes an overture and an intermission), and you may be checking your watch during the eighty minutes that it takes director John Sturges (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) just to get to Ice Station Zebra.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween (2007)

If Rob Zombie had dropped trou on Hollywood Boulevard and plopped a steaming load on the negative of the original HALLOWEEN, it would not be less respectable of John Carpenter’s horror classic than this ersatz remake. It isn’t just that Zombie is poorly suited to the kind of white-knuckle terror the original film represents. It’s that he doesn’t understand HALLOWEEN or why it works. Zombie’s brand of horror is based in freak shows and trailer parks and crude language and being outrageous and explaining everything. Which can be a legitimate path to a good horror film, but it ain’t HALLOWEEN.

Of the many bad decisions writer/director Zombie makes, the most egregious is creating a backstory for Michael Myers. Instead of a little boy who inexplicably stabs his sister to death and is sent away to a mental hospital, from which he escapes and begins a killing spree, Zombie’s Michael Myers (played as a boy by Daeg Faerch) is the product of a white trash family with a stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), an abusive stepfather (William Forsythe), and a disrespectful sexpot sister (Hanna Hall). What Zombie doesn’t understand is that the unknown is always more frightening than the known. By changing Michael from a bogeyman — a supernatural personification of evil — to a bullied kid from a lower-class family, Zombie has missed the point.

After an interminable first half, in which Zombie goes so far as to explain why Michael Myers wears a mask, Michael finally escapes custody and heads back to Haddonfield, where he (6’9” Tyler Mane) stalks Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris, the star of HALLOWEEN 4 and 5), the daughter of local sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif). Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s shrink, follows. Strangely, much of this section plays as a shot-by-shot remake of the Carpenter film.

As a director, Zombie has few saving graces. One is an arresting visual style, which manifests in some scary shots of Michael in background stalking his prey. Another is a love of old character actors, which results in welcome cameos by Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY) and Dee Wallace (THE HOWLING) and Sybil Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) and Clint Howard (APOLLO 13) and Micky Dolenz (HEAD) and juicy supporting roles for McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and Dourif (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST). They don’t prevent HALLOWEEN from tasting unpleasant, but they help make it easier to swallow.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Magnetic Monster

Cost-averse producers have been using stock footage for decades to augment low-budget features, but rarely does a film exist solely because of stock footage. According to Curt Siodmak, credited with directing and co-writing the picture with producer Ivan Tors (FLIPPER), Tors came to him with ten minutes of spectacular footage from a 1934 German feature called GOLD and wanted to build a science fiction film around it.

Meant to be the first of a series about the fictional Office of Scientific Investigation (only RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG followed), THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was also the science fiction debut of star Richard Carlson, one of several actors, along with John Agar and Richard Denning, who would become synonymous with the genre during the 1950s. Other good Carlson films, besides THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, are CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.

Inspired by DRAGNET, the pilot for which was edited by MAGNETIC MONSTER editor Herbert L. Strock (more on him shortly), the film stars Carlson and King Donovan (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) as OSI agents (or “A-Men,” for atom) investigating an outbreak of magnetism in a Los Angeles hardware store. Their plodding inquiries lead to an elderly scientist played by Leonard Mudie (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), who has created a radioactive isotope that is killing him. Worse, the isotope feeds on its surroundings, growing rapidly and presenting a deadly danger to the entire world.

The expensive-looking GOLD footage is used in the climax to represent an underground Canadian facility where the isotope can be destroyed. While the special effects are impressive, the ending’s fantastic nature clashes with MAGNETIC MONSTER’s previous semi-documentary style, and the ludicrous wardrobe changes Carlson and Donovan endure to match the footage is distracting. Still, the tradeoff is acceptable, and the tightly paced production ends with excitement.

Siodmak, a writer of excellent genre pictures like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE WOLF MAN, was something of a washout as a director (not much of a cult for SKI FEVER and LOVE SLAVES OF THE AMAZON). According to editor Strock, Tors fired Siodmak after a few days of production and hired Strock, who was intimately familiar with the stock footage, to direct the film. While it is basically accepted that Strock directed without credit, supporting actor Michael Fox claims Siodmak was the director. What is for sure is that Tors later hired Strock to direct GOG, but we may never know the truth about THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

Perennial ninth bananas Byron Foulger and Billy Benedict play hardware store employees (the less said about the pathetic actress in their scenes, the better), Jerry Lewis fave Kathleen Freeman is a telephone operator, and a barely recognizable Strother Martin is an airplane co-pilot. Jean Byron (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW) is nice as Carlson’s pregnant wife. Tors’ insistence on scientific plausibility (not the same as accuracy) was successful and led to his creation of SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE, a syndicated anthology television series that focused on science over space opera.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Halloween: Resurrection

Absolutely the worst of the original eight HALLOWEEN pictures, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION only exists through a ridiculous cop-out opening that explains how masked killer Michael Myers could still be alive after having his head definitively removed from his body by Laurie Strode’s axe at the end of HALLOWEEN H20. I suppose attacking a later HALLOWEEN sequel for being ridiculous is beside the point (after all, H20 expected us to believe Michael was just roaming around supporting himself for twenty years before stalking Laurie again), but even the slightest attempt at intelligent logic would have been appreciated.

Sigh. So anyway, yeah, Michael is still alive, and so is his sister Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis for the fourth time), whose guilt from committing H20’s beheading has driven her to a psychiatric hospital. But not for long. Getting on to the main story, which couldn’t be dumber or more cynical, a bunch of college students plan to spend Halloween night inside Michael’s boyhood home in Haddonfield, Illinois and stream everything over the Internet. For the first time in the series, the audience is glad Michael hates teenagers and can’t wait for him to start knifing away.

Rick Rosenthal is the director. He also directed 1981’s HALLOWEEN II — the first series director to repeat — and he’s worse this time around (the first two kills suffer from terrible blocking). The desperate screenplay by Larry Brand (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and Sean Hood (who later wrote underperforming Hercules and Conan movies) gloms on to then-current fads that made RESURRECTION irrelevant fifteen minutes after it was released (“We’re gonna be bigger than THE OSBOURNES!”). Its disregard for history is shocking, particularly the fate of Curtis’ character. In her confrontation with Michael, she tries to pull off his mask, saying she has to be sure it’s really Michael under it, Rosenthal and the writers forgetting she’s never seen his face.

EDIT: I stand corrected (see comments below). Of course, Laurie briefly saw Michael's face in the original HALLOWEEN. This movie still stinks though.

Not a single character or scene is believable. The young victims couldn’t be more vapid. Some of the actors did more prominent work elsewhere: Bianca Kaijich on RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, Katee Sackhoff on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and 24, Sean Patrick Thomas in the BARBERSHOP movies, Thomas Ian Nicholas in AMERICAN PIE. Getting top billing is, of all people, Busta Rhymes, the rapper, who holds a heralded position in cinema history as the only actor (to date, I guess) to get into a kung fu fight with Michael Myers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

Dimension Films celebrated the 20th anniversary of John Carpenter’s horror classic with the seventh in the series, which is stupidly titled HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER. It takes place two decades after the events of HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II (which occurred the same night) and pretends HALLOWEENs 4, 5, and 6 (HALLOWEEN III was unrelated) never existed.

Influenced more by SCREAM than HALLOWEEN (SCREAM scribe Kevin Williamson was an executive producer), H20 gathers a group of sexy teenage television stars and knocks them off one at a time. It does have a secret weapon, however, which is the only reason to see H20: Jamie Lee Curtis, the star of HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II.

Curtis is quite good as Laurie Strode, who has changed her name, moved to California, married, divorced, reared a son (now 17), and served as headmistress at an exclusive prep school. She also suffers from PTSD twenty years after her serial killer brother, Michael Myers, was presumably burned to death. Ain’t she the surprised one when Michael appears out of nowhere to finish the job he started twenty years earlier: kill Laurie.

Josh Hartnett (PENNY DREADFUL) debuts as Laurie’s dick son and is horrible. Michelle Williams (DAWSON’S CREEK), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (NASH BRIDGES), LL Cool J (NCIS: LOS ANGELES), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (SNOWDEN) play victims. It’s fun to see PSYCHO star Janet Leigh — Curtis’ mother — in a horror film again, and Nancy Stephens returning as Loomis’ nurse from HALLOWEEN.

For horror fans, H20 is more miss than hit. Though the body count is decent, most of the murders occur off-screen, and the kills we do see are pretty tame in the gore department. Horror veteran Steve Miner, who began his directing career with two FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and HOUSE, fails to wring necessary suspense out of the contrived story, which unimaginatively plods along to the de rigueur mano-y-mano climax. John Ottman (X-MEN: APOCALYPSE) delivers a score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s memorable theme from the original film, but Dimension brought in SCREAM composer Marco Beltrami (who gets an “Additional Music by” credit) to remind the audience of the Wes Craven movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Rocketeer

Released by Disney two decades before superheroes were battling on big screens all over the world to boffo box office, this joyous adaptation of writer/artist Dave Stevens’ period piece stands as one of the best comic book movies ever made and most likely the most fun. Despite top-flight visual effects, an appealing script, likable stars, and plenty of breathtaking derring-do in the sky and on the ground, THE ROCKETEER was a major flop, opening in fourth place (behind vehicles for Kevin Costner, Billy Crystal, and Julia Roberts) and barely grossing its production budget.

Why didn’t audiences flock to THE ROCKETEER? A lack of movie stars, perhaps, though topliners Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly share terrific romantic chemistry and main heavy Timothy Dalton was just coming off two James Bond films. Maybe it was the 1930s setting, which didn’t hurt Indiana Jones any, but THE PHANTOM and THE SHADOW later in the ‘90s didn’t do business either. I guess at this point it doesn’t matter why THE ROCKETEER didn’t strike a chord with 1991 audiences, except the movie’s failure meant we didn’t get to see further adventures of Cliff Secord and his magnificent rocket pack. And that’s a damn shame.

Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, who did a wonderful job bringing DC Comics’ The Flash to the small screen, wrote the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER, graduating to Disney from the low-budget tongue-in-cheek adventures they made for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, such as ZONE TROOPERS and the excellent TRANCERS. Stevens, of course, had his own inspirations for the Rocketeer, most notably the Commando Cody character seen in Republic serials like KING OF THE ROCKETMEN.

Stevens’ love for old movies, in addition to that of DeMeo, Bilson, and director Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER), is captured not just in the film’s story and setting, but also its characters. Dalton, dashingly portraying a Nazi spy named Neville Sinclair, captures more than a pinch of Errol Flynn, whereas the object of Sinclair’s affections, Connelly’s sweet and innocent Jenny Blake, is an unabashed tribute to pinup queen Betty Page.

Cliff Secord (Campbell), a hotshot young stunt pilot, and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin, who is delightful) discover a rocket pack in their hangar. Adding a leather jacket and a bullet-shaped helmet to the ensemble, Cliff first dons the jets to rescue a pilot (Eddie Jones) in trouble, which creates headlines about a mysterious flying man. Soon, Cliff and Peevy become hunted by the FBI, gangsters (led by Paul Sorvino), and Sinclair, who kidnaps Jenny to exchange for the one-of-a-kind rocket pack, which, by the way, was invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn)!

State-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial LIght and Magic combine with Johnston’s old-style direction and a star-making performance by the luminous Connelly, not to mention a zeppelin, for a fun tale of adventure and good-hearted derring-do. Bilson and DeMeo give the story some humor to leaven the suspense, but not of the campy or cheap slapstick kind.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Phantasm: Ravager

Eighteen years after series creator Don Coscarelli unleashed the dull and disappointing PHANTASM: OBLIVION in video stores, he somehow has managed to convince theaters to carry the latest sequel. Latest and presumably last, considering star Angus Scrimm passed away in 2016, though you can never count a cash cow out.

And that’s all PHANTASM: RAVAGER, the fourth sequel to 1979’s dreamy sleeper PHANTASM, is. Proof is in its twist — an infuriating and incompetently considered insult to everyone who admired Coscarelli’s original vision and even some of the sequels that followed (particularly, the fun PHANTASM II, which enjoyed a higher budget thanks to Universal, which agreed to release it). Coscarelli didn’t direct RAVAGER, instead handing the reins to David Hartman. No, not that David Hartman (who wouldn’t have done a worse job), but the David Hartman who directed LASER FART. It seems Hartman brought the same je ne sais quoi that made LASER FART a sophisticated classic to the set of PHANTASM: RAVAGER.

No matter how rotten the film is, there’s no denying a certain thrill in seeing the original cast still together. Even Bill Thornbury, whose character was killed off in the first movie, has managed to hang around for sequel after sequel. He’s here (briefly) as Jody Pearson with A. Michael Baldwin (who missed PHANTASM II because Universal insisted on recasting his role with James LeGros) as his little brother Mike, Reggie Bannister as the world’s coolest ice cream man, and — of course — the skeletal Angus Scrimm as the demented and mysterious mortician and dwarf slaver known only as the Tall Man.

Describing plots is generally of little use when discussing a PHANTASM movie. The plots rarely make sense, and at any rate, the PHANTASM films are more about setting a mood and developing its characters than following a linear storyline. Writers Coscarelli and Hartman don’t even bother with a story and just create a series of nonsensical vignettes instead. Most of them involve Reggie fighting the Tall Man’s silver spheres (much less scary when they’re cartoons), including a nightmare scenario where giant balls shoot lasers at skyscrapers to demolish them.

Because the twist occurs early in the movie, it’s fair to share it here. PHANTASM: RAVAGER reveals that Reggie is a nursing home patient suffering from dementia, and all five films are in fact a story he has been telling his visiting friend Mike. While the film’s sloppy structure allows for the idea that maybe the Tall Man is real after all, and Reggie and Mike have spent almost forty years fighting him, Hartman and Coscarelli can’t have their cake and eat it too. To even suggest that the characters and adventures PHANTASM fans have fallen in love with never happened — that our heroes aren’t heroes — is a slap in the face. And a surprising one coming from Coscarelli, one of the horror genre’s most fan-friendly creators.

Beyond the movie’s insulting story, PHANTASM: RAVAGER is a mess. Aside from the always fun Bannister, the actors, who include Daniel Roebuck (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) as a ludicrous Bulgarian farmer, are bad, the digital photography is ugly, and the visual effects are worse than those in the first film produced in the 1970s. I’m assuming child laborers in Bangladesh created the numbingly bad CGI, including phony fire, phony muzzle flares, phony blood spatter, and embarrassingly phony spheres. Oh, and lasers. Heaven help us, the lasers.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Licence To Kill

Until 2006’s “reimagining” of the 007 franchise in CASINO ROYALE, LICENCE TO KILL (note the British spelling) was widely considered the most brutal and violent film of the series. The first PG-13 Bond movie offers a change-of-pace plot by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson that finds 007 (Timothy Dalton in his second and final Bond performance) resigning under protest from the British Secret Service and plotting revenge against Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), the South American druglord who fed Bond’s DEA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising his role from 1973’s LIVE AND LET DIE) to the sharks. Literally.

Some have referred to LICENCE TO KILL as a "Joel Silver Bond movie," and that's a good description, right down to the trendy choice of villain (Central American drug dealer), supporting cast of familiar American character actors (Don Stroud, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, Benicio Del Toro), and Michael Kamen as composer. It mostly eschews the elaborate gadgetry for which the Bond movies are well known, and although it’s a first-rate action movie, it doesn’t feel much like a James Bond adventure, despite Dalton’s tough, underrated performance.

John Glen, directing his fifth consecutive and final Bond movie, handles the special effects and stunts with aplomb — the tanker truck chase that ends the film is one of the Bond series’ finest action pieces. As mentioned above, LICENCE TO KILL doesn’t feel like a James Bond movie, but it’s one heck of an action/adventure film. While Davi and the actors playing his henchmen are strong, the Bond Girls are weak. Talisa Soto (VAMPIRELLA) is quite wooden in her role of Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe, and Carey Lowell, later a regular on LAW & ORDER, is not believable as a tough-talking CIA agent, though her short hairdo makes her a visual standout among Bond girls.

Robert Brown plays M for the last time. Same for Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny, though Eon and MGM kept Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, who has his most sizable part in LICENCE TO KILL, in subsequent pictures. Speaking of, LICENCE TO KILL was not a box office smash, and various creative, financial, and legal bugaboos prevented the next Bond film from being produced until 1994. Though Dalton’s 007 films were not highly regarded by fans at the time, his portrayal is closer to that of the popular Daniel Craig than any other Bond actor.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Fog (1980)

Exactly 100 years after the town was founded by six men who murdered a colony of lepers and stole their gold, the people of seaside Antonio Bay, California are being wiped out during a celebration led by the town’s mayor (Janet Leigh, the star of PSYCHO). A mysterious glowing fog envelops the town, resulting in the disappearance of the three occupants of a fishing boat.

Blue collar Tom Atkins (later in HALLOWEEN III) investigates the boat with Jamie Lee Curtis (also in TERROR TRAIN that year), a young hitchhiker with whom he had a one-night stand, and discovers one of the bodies with its eyes gouged out. Other murders plague the town—disc jockey Adrienne Barbeau’s son’s babysitter is another victim, as is an employee of the local weather station. Alcoholic priest Hal Holbrook (RITUALS) discovers the victims are the descendants of the six original town founders—of which his grandfather was the leader!

What could have been a horror classic is marred by an illogical and hokey script, which distracts with too many plotholes (Why do the victims appear to have been immersed in salt water for weeks rather than hours? Why does one of the victims briefly return to life long enough to stagger across the morgue? Why is it warm at night and cold during the daytime?). Director John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN) builds a lot of suspense and atmosphere—the radio station is located in a spooky lighthouse, which makes for an excellent location—and some of the scares will definitely make you bolt in your seat.

The veteran cast does a good job (Curtis fans will be disappointed by her relatively small and indifferently scripted role), and Carpenter’s musical score is one of his best. The killers, who have glowing eyes and drip with seaweed, are well-photographed by Dean Cundey. Despite the body count and frequent glimpses of sharp killing objects, not a drop of blood is spilled. Despite the weakness of the screenplay by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, THE FOG remains one of Carpenter’s best horrors.

John Houseman cleverly introduces the movie as an old man telling a ghost story to a group of children around a campfire, a terrific scene-setter for the terror that follows. Special makeup artist Rob Bottin and production designer/editor Tommy Lee Wallace have cameos, and Carpenter appears as a church caretaker. Many of the character names are in-jokey references to cast and crew members from HALLOWEEN, and the coroner is named after Vincent Price’s notorious early-’70s villain Dr. Phibes!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

One of the great American westerns, one chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and just a crackling good yarn with a strong cast, exciting action sequences, and an iconic Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Much of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s lasting success is due to its cast, many of whom became international movie stars, but at the time were familiar, solid character actors in television and movies. Steve McQueen was still on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE when THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN came out and was just two years removed from THE BLOB. Likewise, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn were very busy in episodic television, though Vaughn had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS a year earlier.

Of course, Yul Brynner was a major movie star with THE KING AND I, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SOLOMON AND SHEBA, and many other Hollywood productions on his resume, though THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was his first western. Bald, Russian, and not a tall man, Brynner would seem an unusual cowboy, but he carries the picture on both shoulders and later sent up his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN role as a robot gunslinger in WESTWORLD. Though Brynner and McQueen shared an uneasy alliance on the set, each threatening to upstage the other, their rivalry translated into a tight chemistry that serves the picture well, particularly in a standout suspense scene in which their characters agree to transport an Indian corpse to a cemetery against the wishes of bigoted townspeople.

The screenplay by CAT BALLOU’s Walter Newman and THE DONNA REED SHOW creator William Roberts is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. A tiny Mexican village is terrorized by bandits led by the colorful Calvera (the not exactly perfectly cast Eli Wallach), who threatens to return. Unable to defend themselves, the town recruits gunfighter Brynner to help. Brynner, in return, recruits six other gunmen — McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, Vaughn, Brad Dexter (HOUSE OF BAMBOO), and young Horst Buchholz (ONE, TWO, THREE) — to fight Calvera’s army against depressing odds.

At 128 minutes, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN allows time for each actor to breathe and expand their characters. Memorable are Bronson’s bonding with the Mexican children, as well as his amusing recruitment while chopping wood, Vaughn’s re-occurring PTSD, and Coburn’s withering knife fight against heavy Bob Wilke, in which you learn everything you need to know about Coburn’s character, even though the actor doesn’t utter a word.

Director John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) handled the expensive production with a sprawling, macho cast and complicated action scenes so well that executive producer Walter Mirisch and United Artists asked him to make THE GREAT ESCAPE for them three years later (McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn were in that one too). Three sequels followed (Brynner returned for the first one, RETURN OF THE SEVEN), as well as a CBS television series and an MGM remake starring Denzel Washington (GLORY).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Living Daylights

Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton (WUTHERING HEIGHTS) replaced Roger Moore as James Bond in this sprawling adventure filmed in Austria, Morocco, Gibraltar, Italy, England, and the United States. He’s tough, suave, rugged — a very good James Bond, if a little too serious. In addition to a makeover, 007 received a change in his promiscuous lifestyle, sleeping with only one woman in the first post-AIDS James Bond movie.

Bond veterans Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, along with John Glen, directing his fourth consecutive Bond flick, engineer THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS like true craftsmen. Bond is assigned to rescue Russian defector Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), and uncovers a Soviet plot to buy high-tech weapons from American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker, who returned to the Bond fold as a good guy in two Pierce Brosnan movies).

Robert Brown, who played M four times in the interim between Bernard Lee and Judi Dench, is back, as well as Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, Geoffrey Keen’s Ministry of Defence, and Walter Gotell’s General Gogol. The age-appropriate Caroline Bliss replaced Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, and John Terry (FULL METAL JACKET) is a dull Felix Leiter.

While the plot is something of a snoozer and Baker (WALKING TALL) is a weak villain — one never believes he’s clever or powerful enough to beat Bond — THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS offers two of the Bond series’ most entertaining action setpieces. Bond and a beautiful cellist (the vapid Maryam d’Abo) elude Russian soldiers in a tricked-out Aston Martin that becomes an outrigger (!) and then escape Czechoslovakia into Austria by sliding down a snowy mountain atop a cello case. Later, Bond fights a henchman while grasping netting dangling from the rear of a cargo plane in a breathtaking stunt sequence.

A vast improvement over Moore’s last two Bonds, thanks in part to a vibrant, younger star more convincing in action scenes, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS opened at #1 at the U.S. box office, as Bond films tend to. It was not a long-term financial success, however, nor was Dalton’s next Bond film, LICENSE TO KILL. John Barry delivered his last 007 score, which effectively mixes orchestral and electronic music, and collaborated uncomfortably with a-ha on the mediocre title song.

Doctor Mordrid

Somehow dodging a mountain of injunctions from attorneys for Marvel Comics, Full Moon Entertainment created a film about a sorcerer superhero that couldn’t be a bigger ripoff of Doctor Strange if Stan Lee had written it.

Created by artist Steve Ditko independent of Lee for a 1962 issue of STRANGE TALES, Doctor (Stephen) Strange is a caped practitioner of the mystical arts who lives in a Manhattan brownstone and battles the forces of evil using magical spells. Laughably “based on an original idea by Charles Band,” as the main titles state, Doctor Mordrid (RE-ANIMATOR’s Jeffrey Combs) is a caped practitioner of the mystical arts who owns a Manhattan apartment building with bickering Jewish neighbors.

Another tenant is Samantha Hunt (Yvette Nipar, saddled with an unflattering wardrobe), the NYPD’s resident occult consultant (!), who suspects something weird about Mordrid, who has been protecting New York City from evil for over a century. The sorcerer’s nemesis is Kabul (COBRA villain Brian Thompson), whose goal is the illegal collection of elements, including the Philosopher’s Stone, which he plans to use to release his followers from Hell and take over the world. Like Strange, Mordrid has the ability to project his astral form to the Metropolitan Museum for the final showdown with Kabul.

As was often the case with Full Moon productions, DOCTOR MORDRID seems conflicted about its target audience. It’s too juvenile and cheaply produced to appeal to adults, yet its R-rated profanity and sexual content make it inaccessible to children who might enjoy the fantastic story. Combs is quite good and believable, anchoring the film’s inherent silliness, though the supporting actors seem to have been cast for their reasonable day rates instead of talent. Fans of old-fashioned stop-motion effects will dig the dinosaur battle created by David Allen (ROBOT JOX). Father/son team Albert and Charles Band are credited with direction, though only one was on the set at any given time. The direction doesn’t match the opulence demanded by the subject matter, nor does the mostly setbound production. Despite the promise implied by the final scene, DOCTOR MORDRID II never happened.

Hawaii Five-0 #2, "Terror In The Sun"

Kudos to the rear-cover copywriter who praised the "sensational long-running CBS-TV series" for his prescience, as TERROR IN THE SUN, the second paperback tie-in novel, was published in September 1969 -- just as HAWAII FIVE-0 was beginning its second season. Of course, the series ran ten more for a total of 12 seasons on CBS, which was then the longest-running crime drama ever.

HAWAII FIVE-0 was a pretty great show for most of its run, combining Hawaii's naturally sun-kissed scenery with gritty crime plots and occasional doses of espionage. The first American television series to film entirely on location in Hawaii, FIVE-0 wasn't shy about shooting in grimy alleys and Honolulu slums, which other shows produced in the state refused to emulate. Jack Lord starred as Steve McGarrett, the straight-laced, uptight leader of a special state police force that reported only to the governor (Richard Denning). In 1969, when TERROR IN THE SUN was published, Lord's co-stars were James MacArthur as McGarrett's number two man, Danny Williams (affectionately called "Danno"), Kam Fong as Chinese detective Chin Ho Kelly, and Hawaiian native Zulu as Kono.

However, a major fault of Michael Avallone's FIVE-0 novel is the lack of teamwork so essential to the series. Danno, Chin Ho, and Kono are taken out of the story very early, making TERROR IN THE SUN virtually a McGarrett solo story. Avallone likely didn't see FIVE-0 during its first season, as he doesn't quite have the McGarrett character down. Though the character was still finding its way during its first season, it was well established that McGarrett didn't drink ("I don't use alcohol," he stated in one episode), didn't smoke, and didn't much fool around with women, particularly not the daughter of a man involved in an investigation and not during a case. All of which Avallone's McGarrett does, unconvincingly.

As for the story, an important British diplomat, Rogers Endore, has arrived on Oahu, and the governor orders Five-0 to bodyguard him. Despite McGarrett's protestations, the governor refuses to provide the cop with any information about Endore's stay -- why he's here or why he needs protecting. What we, the reader, know is that a notorious assassin named the Undertaker has been hired by bad forces in Vietnam to murder Endore. To make his job easier, the Undertaker has recruited six assassins, all from different countries, to take out McGarrett and his Five-0 team, leaving Endore unprotected. Unfortunately, a bigger band of screwups you've never seen, as every assassin bungles his assignment to some extent.

An easy read at 125 pages, TERROR IN THE SUN is amiable enough, so long as you don't let its latitudes with the television series bother you much. As a huge HAWAII FIVE-0 fan since high school, I found the differences annoying, particularly Avallone throwing "The Process" out the window by sidelining the sidekicks and giving the hero all the heavy lifting.

Friday, September 16, 2016


It’s surprising it took John Wayne until 1974 to play a cop. After BULLITT, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and DIRTY HARRY, urban crime dramas were the rage in Hollywood, but the Duke looked a lot more comfortable on horseback than he does squeezed behind the wheel of a ’73 Trans Am.

Wayne plays Lon McQ (McHugh?), a Seattle police detective looking for his partner’s killer. What he doesn’t know, but we do (in an aces prologue set during the opening titles), is that his partner, Stan Boyle (William Bryant), was dirty, so McQ starts harassing Manuel Santiago (the very Italian Al Lettieri of MR. MAJESTYK), a drug kingpin he and Boyle have been investigating.

The original screenplay by Lawrence Roman (SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE) is surprisingly cynical for a John Wayne film and portrays most of the Seattle Police Department as either corrupt or incompetent. Except for McQ, of course, who gives up his badge to flinty superior Eddie Albert (THE LONGEST YARD) after he’s taken off the case.

The direction by John Sturges (THE GREAT ESCAPE) is a little flabby and could have used some post-production tightening by editor William Ziegler (THE OMEGA MAN). However, his staging of the action sequences is darned good, the highlight being a climactic shootout and chase along a Moclips, Washington beach that includes an amazing Gary McLarty car roll.

Wayne is backed up by a solid supporting cast, including David Huddleston (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), James Watkins, Roger E. Mosley (MAGNUM, P.I.), Joe Tornatore, Richard Kelton, and Julie Adams (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON). Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score works, but sure sounds a helluva lot like David Shire’s memorable THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (which came out after MCQ).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn

“I’m getting too old for this stuff,” says Han Solo clone Rhodes (Tim Thomerson). Happily, the same doesn’t go for me. Producer/director Charles Band convinced Universal to pick up the tab for this ridiculous post-apocalypse saga released theatrically in 3D. The story by producer Alan J. Adler (who also worked on Band’s previous 3D movie, PARASITE) is incomprehensible, the visual effects shoddy, Mac Ahlberg’s cinematography murky, and the climax more anti- than climactic. Doesn’t mean I don’t have a blast watching METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN, which easily makes any list of top film titles of all time.

Dogen, who dresses like Max Rockatansky and is played by Jeffrey Byron (THE DUNGEONMASTER), an actor whose emoting is as plastic as his features, is a future cop on the trail of evil cult leader Jared-Syn (Mike Preston, who was actually in THE ROAD WARRIOR). He meets up with the hot but equally synthetic Dhyana (pre-fame Kelly Preston), whose prospector father (Larry Pennell) was murdered by Jared-Syn’s monstrous cyborg son Baal (R. David Smith). Byron and Preston are awful performers and a perfectly matched screen couple tossed into a ludicrous romance.

I’m not getting into METALSTORM’s story, because, frankly, I don’t understand it. Baal shoots green acid from his robot claw arm that causes its victims to hallucinate or slip into a dream state or alternative universe or something. Jared-Syn uses some mental powers to kidnap Dhyana and transport an electric monster to fight Dogen in a cave. Some futuristic Jeeps chase Dogen around the desert. Most of them blow up. NIGHT COURT’s Richard Moll plays a one-eyed nomad. Jared-Syn mumbles about lifeforces. Usually, the shots are in focus, but sometimes not.

It’s all nonsense, but I honestly don’t care. Tim Thomerson co-stars as Dogen’s sidekick Rhodes in the first of many adventures he would take with Charles Band. Then a standup comedian and actor in light comic film and television roles (JEKYLL & HYDE...TOGETHER AGAIN), Thomerson jumped from METALSTORM to full-fledged action star in Band’s TRANCERS and its sequels. Thomerson is a champion scene-stealer, contributing the film’s (intentional) comic relief and coming through with fists flying in Band’s action sequences.

METALSTORM has cool futuristic truck stunts and explosions and lasers and monsters and fantasy sequences and mutants and arm-ripping and tapping into the master crystal and Bronson Canyon and a fantastic Richard Band score and Kelly Preston looking good and Tim Thomerson being The Man and…well, I have to justify my fondness for the film somehow. Take away the credits, and METALSTORM barely runs 75 minutes and manages to deliver a complete non-ending ending that promises a sequel that never came. There is no metalstorm, whatever that would be, and Jared-Syn is not destroyed.