Thursday, February 23, 2017

Attack Of The Puppet People

Bert I. Gordon’s specialty, if it can be called that, was making movies about animate objects that were either very large or very small. Hence, titles in Gordon’s filmography like VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, KING DINOSAUR, BEGINNING OF THE END (giant grasshoppers), EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (giant ants), FOOD OF THE GODS (giant chicken). And ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, which is not about puppets, but people shrunken to about six inches in height.

A kindly old dollmaker played by John Hoyt (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE) owns a three-room doll factory on the fifth floor of an office building. He’s the only employee of Dolls, Inc., except for new secretary June Kenney (EARTH VS. THE SPIDER), who is replacing the old secretary, who just disappeared. So did Hoyt’s mailman and several other people in Hoyt’s outer circle, not that the authorities ever noticed. Well, the title gives it away — Hoyt has learned how to shrink people and soon adds Kenney and doll salesman John Agar (TARANTULA) to his repertory company.

Of course, it’s typically silly “Mr. B.I.G.” shenanigans, though Hoyt works hard to create a sympathetic villain. Hilariously, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, Kenney deduces her boss turned Agar into a doll just because the doll looks like him. The fact that she’s right makes this plot point no less ridiculous. Gordon takes credit as director, producer, story writer (IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA’s George Worthing Yates wrote the screenplay), and technical effects supervisor.

Befitting a film at this budget level, the quality of the effects varies. Sometimes the simplest are the best — some shots of miniaturized people in glass tubes are actually 2D photographs, rather than actors and photographic effects. Agar and Kenney make out during THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN at a drive-in, and AIP released ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE on a double bill with Gordon’s sequel, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Man From Planet X

Cult director Edgar G. Ulmer (BLUEBEARD) shot THE MAN FROM PLANET X in just six days, and it had its premiere in San Francisco barely two months later. Screenwriters Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN) also produced it for their new company, and considering its $41,000 budget, THE MAN FROM PLANET X turned a profit rather quickly. It’s a decent science fiction film with interesting ideas let down by a subpar cast and slight production values.

Robert Clarke (THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) stars as an American reporter who travels to Scotland to investigate a new planet whose orbit will bring it dangerously close to Earth. He meets up with astronomer Raymond Bond (FLIGHT TO MARS), an old friend, as well as Bond’s daughter (Margaret Field) and morally dubious scientist William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), who wears an evil beard. Setting the film on a remote island allows Ulmer to keep the cast light, and these four characters encounter the titular creature.

Played by five-foot actor Pat Goldin (Dugan in the JIGGS AND MAGGIE series), the Man from Planet X has a long, immobile face, wears a bubble helmet that contains his air supply, and appears friendly and eager to make contact. Unfortunately, Schallert ruins First Contact for everyone, abusing the Man and spurring it to zombify the locals and use them as slave labor for an invasion of Earth. Nice job, dickweed.

Ulmer’s small budget was both a plus and a minus. On the positive side, in using his imagination to obscure the set-bound exteriors and miniatures with fog, Ulmer creates a moody Gothic atmosphere that occasionally makes the film look more expensive, not less. On the other hand, the paucity of supporting actors and extras — not to mention a town we never see — distracts from the alleged danger the Man from Planet X represents.

Venom (1981)

I’m just going to jump in and proclaim VENOM the greatest killer-snake movie of all time (I would not be surprised to learn about some crazy Asian snake flick that makes VENOM look as sedate as a Mitch Miller concert). Much of its value comes from its cast, which includes some of the acting profession’s most notorious troublemakers. You’d have to be nuts to cast Klaus Kinski (SCHIZOID), Oliver Reed (SITTING TARGET), Sterling Hayden (THE LONG GOODBYE), and Nicol Williamson (THE EXORCIST III) in the same movie. When original director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) was fired a few days into production, it may have saved his sanity.

Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU) was a rapid replacement for Hooper, but to his credit, none of VENOM’s backstage shenanigans show up on the screen. It’s a neat little thriller with a unsettling premise that should affect you whether you’re afraid of garter snakes or let your pet python crawl freely around your home. Kinski leads a band of kidnappers after the asthmatic grandson of wealthy hunter Hayden. Kinski’s conspirators include family chauffeur Reed and the boy’s nanny Susan George (MANDINGO), Kinski’s lover who uses her wiles to keep muscle-headed Reed toeing the line.

It goes to show no matter how intricate your plan, you can’t think of everything. Such as a black mamba, the world’s most vicious and poisonous snake, getting loose in the house. Hey, it could happen. With Williamson’s laconic police inspector and his men surrounding the house, the kidnappers, Hayden, snake expert Sarah Miles (RYAN’S DAUGHTER), and the boy are trapped inside with a killer that could literally be almost anywhere — inside the air vents, behind a curtain, hiding in a dark corner. Yikes.

For a last-minute director pulled from the ranks of British television, Haggard does a remarkable job keeping the suspense high and your rear end on the edge of your seat. VENOM is a very good thriller, thanks to its wily direction, stellar cast, and creepy cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (STAR WARS), who keeps the camera close to accentuate the claustrophobia that enhances the characters’ fear.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Untamed Youth/Born Reckless

Howard W. Koch, a very busy producer and director of B-movies (including FRANKENSTEIN 1970, VOODOO ISLAND, HOT CARS, and BIG HOUSE U.S.A.), signed megablonde Mamie Van Doren to a personal two-picture contract after being impressed by her work wearing a bathing suit in THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS. Both UNTAMED YOUTH and its followup, BORN RECKLESS, gave Van Doren top billing for the first time and allowed her to do what she did best, which was wriggle around in a tight dress while singing Les Baxter songs that sort of sounded like rock-and-roll.

To be fair, Van Doren may have been minimally talented, but what she did, she did extremely well, and it’s difficult to pull your eyes away from her. So pity poor Lori Nelson (DAY THE WORLD ENDED), who acquits herself just fine in UNTAMED YOUTH, but unfortunately barely registers standing next to the bullet-braed Van Doren. The two blondes play sisters who are busted by corrupt sheriff Robert Foulk (who played a nicer sheriff on LASSIE) on hitchhiking charges and sentenced by judge Lurene Tuttle (TV’s JULIA) to thirty days slave labor on a cotton plantation owned by LAWMAN’s John Russell (who turned up years later in Clint Eastwood’s PALE RIDER).

What we have is cinema’s first women-in-prison musical, as Van Doren or Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) as a prisoner named Bong bursts into family-friendly rock tunes on a moment’s notice. Even after a long, hard day picking cotton under a sweltering sun, these beatniks still have the energy after work to turn their dorm into a swinging dance party. Writer John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) does his best to make all this nonsense, including the revelation of Russell’s secret marriage to the much-older Tuttle, play as if it could actually happen, and fans of 1950s bombshells will also enjoy Yvonne Lime (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) and nudie model Jeanne Carmen (THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS) in the cast.
The busy Van Doren was married to bandleader Ray Anthony and doing a song-and-dance act in Las Vegas during her two-picture deal with director Koch. Unlike UNTAMED YOUTH, BORN RECKLESS plays straight — unfortunate, because drama is not what either Van Doren or co-star Jeff Richards does best.

Richard Landau’s repetitive horse-and-bull story follows saloon crooner Van Doren (with tight shirts and a cowboy hat perched precariously upon her peroxide hairdo) and cowboys Richards (who went from this to his own television series, JEFFERSON DRUM) and Arthur Hunnicutt (THE BIG SKY) from county to county competing in local rodeos. Like a living Bill Ward drawing, Van Doren draws catcalls just stepping into a room, which inevitably leads to some masher molesting her, Richards getting beaten up defending her honor, and Hunnicutt missing another steak dinner to retrieve the truck for a fast getaway.

Aside from the usually entertaining Hunnicutt, Koch’s film offers little of note. The drama isn’t interesting, the rodeo action is mostly stock footage, and the strident comic relief is over-scored by Buddy Bregman. Carol Ohmart (SPIDER BABY) shows up as Mamie’s competitor for the stiff Richards, but she doesn’t seem like the villain the film depicts her as. After BORN RECKLESS, Van Doren stopped working for Koch (for whom she made three pictures) and moved on to directors Edward L. Cahn and Albert Zugsmith to varying success.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cut And Run

Director Ruggero Deodato, whose CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST proved he was no slave to good taste, extended his wallow in gore and sleaze with this violent action picture set in the Amazon. Decapitations, rape, degradation, exploitation of Jonestown victims — it’s all here, folks, and the hell of it is that the action is so fast-paced that CUT AND RUN is a lot of fun if you aren’t squeamish about it. Amazingly, Deodato convinced a name cast of American actors to star in CUT AND RUN, and New World gave it a theatrical release in 1986.

American reporters Lisa Blount (just four years after AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN) and Leonard Mann (NIGHT SCHOOL) head to South America on a double mission: investigate a series of grisly drug-related Miami murders and find Willie Aames (EIGHT IS ENOUGH), the missing son of their editor Richard Bright (THE GODFATHER). The key to both goals is Richard Lynch (THE SEVEN-UPS), a Jonestown survivor who set himself up with an army of natives and right-hand man Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) to operate his own drug operation.

Karen Black (AIRPORT 1975) pops up as Blount’s boss, ER’s Eriq LaSalle is a pimp in a purple hat, Gabriele Tinti from the Emanuelle movies is a pilot, Eurotrash mainstay John Steiner (CALIGULA) receives the goriest death, and Deodato’s gorgeous teenage girlfriend Valentina Forte (BLASTFIGHTER) provides some of the film’s nudity.

The director’s zeal for brutality is so pronounced that he can’t help but kill some people twice, like when Berryman jams a long needle through a guy’s neck and then slices open his belly for a juicy shot of entrails drooping out or the guy hanging from a wooden door with a machete through his chest who gets a post-mortem machine-gun dessert from Steiner. You gotta love the enthusiasm. I’m guessing New World made no effort to clear Aames’ hilarious Mickey Mouse tank top with Disney.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The First Power

27-year-old Lou Diamond Phillips is ridiculously miscast as a badass Los Angeles homicide detective named Russell Logan, who is L.A.'s King of Serial Killer Tracking. Some baffling police work somehow leads Logan to the Pentagram Killer, Patrick Channing (hideous Jeff Kober, perfectly cast as a creepy bastard), who sacrifices his victims to the Devil and carves pentagrams in their chests.

An anonymous tipster warns Logan not to send Channing to the gas chamber (like an L.A. cop has anything to do with the decision). After the killer's execution, Logan's fellow detectives are systematically murdered in a manner identical to Channing’s victims, right down to the knife wounds on their chests. Reluctantly teaming with the phone caller, a beautiful red-haired psychic named Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), Logan slowly comes to realize that Channing has returned from Hell and is possessing human bodies to carry out his murderous vendetta.

What's really funny about Phillips' character is that, despite what the other characters tell us about him, he's really an inept cop. Nothing he does has any positive impact on his investigation or pursuit, even though we're supposed to identify with his lone wolf. When he captures Channing at the beginning, he runs out of bullets (and throws his gun at the villain!), then is stabbed several times in the stomach before help arrives to apprehend the killer. Logan gets his ass kicked by just about every opponent, including a ninja-like bag lady right out of a Ronny Yu movie who floats up to the cop's loft and perpetrates some kung fu on Lou's not-bad self.

Writer/director Robert Resnikoff, whose only film THE FIRST POWER is (I'm curious as to who he was and what happened to him), does have a knack for handling stunts and action scenes. The pacing is good, and the chases and action is brisk. There's a cool spinning car jump and crash, and a stuntman playing Channing leaps off a tall building, plunges several stories, lands on his feet, and runs off.

Between the silly plot, Logan's incompetence, and the lousy acting, THE FIRST POWER provides much to laugh at, especially a real howler of a climax. Did you know the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power keeps gigantic vats of boiling acid (!) in its basement? And be sure to drink every time Lou loses his gun. Drink twice when he gets kicked in the nuts. Resnikoff’s film is a lot funnier than ERNEST GOES TO JAIL, which opened the same weekend in 1990 and came in third at the box office. THE FIRST POWER was fourth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Perfect Weapon

Jeff Speakman was a victim of bad timing. By the time THE PERFECT WEAPON, Speakman’s first major film, came out in the spring of 1991, studios were beginning to phase out medium-budget martial-arts movies for theatrical release, unless your name was Jean-Claude Van Damme. The future was in low-budget actioners made for the video market, which is where Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Brian Bosworth, Jeff Wincott — even Chuck Norris — found themselves working during the 1990s.

And so did Speakman. Paramount may have been trying to groom its own Van Damme in the kenpo karate black belt, but THE PERFECT WEAPON opened in sixth place (well ahead of Richard Grieco’s IF LOOKS COULD KILL, at least), and Speakman’s next film two years later was for a dying Cannon. Speakman continued working in direct-to-video features, but not with prime scripts or directors. Behind-the-scenes whispers that Speakman could be difficult to work with probably didn’t help land good prospects either. THE PERFECT WEAPON, his only major theatrical production, remains Speakman’s best film.

Even so, THE PERFECT WEAPON is kind of a mess with KICKBOXER’s Mark DiSalle directing a routine screenplay by David Campbell Wilson (SUPERNOVA). Speakman’s romance with Mariska Hargitay (later an Emmy winner for LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT) was cut completely out of the picture, leaving the prominently billed Hargitay with zero dialogue. Also contributing unfortunately abbreviated performances are Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (PEARL HARBOR) and Clyde Kusatsu (IN THE LINE OF FIRE), indicating credited editor Wayne Wahrman (I AM LEGEND) may have taken a dislike to those two talented gentleman as well.

Speakman holds his own on-screen, considering he was hired for his impressive physical skills. Every action hero in television and movies now uses some sort of martial arts — usually faked through doubles and rat-tat-tat editing — but Speakman’s speed and agility as a screen fighter are the real deal, and DiSalle is smart enough to just point the camera and let his star do his thing.

Once you get past the dreary origin story that fills the opening reel, THE PERFECT WEAPON settles down as a perfectly acceptable action flick. Jeff Sanders (Speakman), long estranged from his father (Beau Starr) and brother (John Dye), both policemen, returns to Los Angeles’ “Koreatown,” where his mentor (Mako) is murdered by the Korean mob — specifically, the hulking Tanaka (Professor Toru Tanaka).

Deciding he’s the “perfect weapon” to avenge Mako, because his outsider status can open doors that the police can’t penetrate, Sanders kicks, punches, and smashes his way through a small Asian army to get to Yung (James Hong), the man at the top. With a Gary Chang score and Snap’s “The Power” laying a musical backdrop, THE PERFECT WEAPON surpasses its cheap look (“Koreatown” looks like a backlot) and narrative hiccups to deliver a surplus of authentically bone-crunching thrills.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Omen (1976)

If it had only featured one of cinema’s all-time great decapitations, THE OMEN would stand tall within the horror genre. But the film that put director Richard Donner on Hollywood’s A-list (he did SUPERMAN next) is more than just slick murder sequences.

Given a generous budget by 20th Century Fox and handed major movie stars Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and Lee Remick (ANATOMY OF A MURDER), Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer created a genuine horror classic that even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences blessed with two Oscar nominations (Jerry Goldsmith won for his iconic score). Likely influenced by — or at least given the green light because of — THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN was the fourth biggest hit of 1976 behind ROCKY, A STAR IS BORN, and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

THE OMEN is based on a nifty “what if” — what if your newborn baby was actually the Anti-Christ? That’s what happens to U.S. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck in a role Dick Van Dyke turned down!) when his and wife Katherine’s (Remick) son dies shortly after being born. Katherine doesn’t know, so Thorn agrees to secretly adopt a baby whose mother died during childbirth. It isn’t long — about five years — before unusual tragedies begin to occur around the Thorn family, notably little Damien’s nanny hanging herself at his birthday party (one of Donner’s great shocker scenes). Is Damien (Harvey Stephens) the son of Satan? Will Thorn have to destroy his son? Can he?

The director of BRONK and SARAH T.: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC seems an unusual choice to make a big-budget horror movie for a major studio, but Donner made the most of the opportunity. The story unfolds as a grim mystery with David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) turning in good work as a photographer who teams with Thorn to play detective. The murderous setpieces are staged with gruesome good taste, and Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning music establishes a sinister tone early and never lets go. Because THE OMEN keeps the supernatural horror within the realms of believability, its power remains potent decades after its original release. Many sequels, ripoffs, and an unloved 2006 remake followed.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Deadly Eyes

James Herbert, whose novel THE RATS was the basis for this horror movie released by Warner Brothers, called it “absolute rubbish.” For a movie that dressed dachshunds in rat costumes to create its “monsters,” DEADLY EYES acquits itself fairly well. The director, Robert Clouse, is better known for ENTER THE DRAGON and other action movies (clips from his GAME OF DEATH can be seen in a DEADLY EYES movie theater), but he also made THE PACK, a very good thriller about killer dogs against humans stranded on an island.

The star is Sam Groom, who played the eponymous POLICE SURGEON on the indefatigable syndicated television series of the 1970s. Miscast as an “exciting” man with “animal magnetism,” Groom plays Paul Harris, a high school teacher and basketball coach with the will to rebuff sexy cheerleader Trudy (THE NEST’s Lisa Langlois) when she tries to seduce him in the boys’ shower. But Harris has the hots for lady health inspector Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford) and becomes intimately involved in her job to exterminate the giant steroid-rage rats living in the sewers.

Clouse is ruthless when demonstrating the brutality of these animals — their first victim is a baby yanked from her high chair and dragged into the basement with only a bloody trail to indicate the child had ever existed. Another victim is beloved character actor Scatman Crothers (from Clouse’s BLACK BELT JONES), which really makes us good and mad. As silly as dressing dogs in rat costumes sounds, it’s actually fairly effective and more believable than the animatronics and hand puppets used in bloody closeups.

The screenplay by Charles Eglee (DEXTER) drags like hell in the middle with the soppy romance between Groom and Botsford and the annoyingly fickle Langlois’ crushes. Clouse knows how to build a setpiece, though, and DEADLY EYES is at its best when the rats go all out — tearing into a crowded movie theater or chowing down on upper-crust types on their way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The climax is weak, however, and early scenes involving Harris’ students are ultimately pointless. I doubt DEADLY EYES is the best killer-rat movie ever produced, but it certainly ain’t the worst.