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.