Sunday, October 21, 2018

Halloween (2018)

There is a good movie to be made about a Laurie Strode who survived the attack on her and her friends on Halloween night of 1978 and used it to grow into a strong, positive adult who refused to let that night forever define her. Hollywood has never wanted to make that movie. Every time Jamie Lee Curtis has returned to play Laurie, the character is a “basket case” (as she calls herself in HALLOWEEN 2018 or H40) who has never been able to escape her past.

So it goes with H40, from PINEAPPLE EXPRESS director David Gordon Green and VICE PRINCIPALS writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, which ignores every other HALLOWEEN sequel. Exactly forty years after Michael Myers went on a killing spree in little Haddonfield, Illinois, he escapes custody during a prison transfer and — inexplicably — returns to Haddonfield to finish the job. Laurie is a paranoid, alcoholic, twice-divorced agoraphobe who has somehow gotten herself together well enough to construct a $10 million compound in the woods (no explanation is given as to how she accomplished this, nor how her high-security complex is so easy to infiltrate in the climax).

Laurie is estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who lives a normal middle-class life with her nice husband Ray (a welcome Toby Huss) and their daughter — Laurie’s granddaughter — Allyson (Matichak). Other characters include Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), Michael’s new shrink after the death of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence died in 1995); British podcasters Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) and Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall), doing a story on Myers; deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who reveals he was there the night Myers was first arrested (a potentially intriguing character point muffed by director Green); and various cannon fodder that includes Allyson’s high school friends. Few of these characters will survive to the closing crawl.

Which is another problem with H40 and probably its biggest: it isn’t scary. Though Green and his special effects crew have figured out how to mangle the human body — Michael has grown more creative as he has reached his 60s — the killings seem perfunctory with little suspense. A couple of sequences work, one of them a lengthy tracking shot that follows Michael into a house and back onto the sidewalk, leaving death in his wake. Most of the kill scenes are predictable, including the climax set inside Laurie’s House of Booby Traps that would leave Maxwell Smart salivating.

What’s good? Most of the acting, particularly Curtis, who embraces the badass gramma role and sells her obsession with Michael, even though the Green/Fradley/McBride script leaves her hanging. As well, Greer and Matichak are believable as Curtis’ relatives, though Karen’s impatience with her mother is also underwritten. John Carpenter, of all people, agreed to score the film, collaborating with his son (with Adrienne Barbeau) Cody and his godson Daniel Davies on a familiar soundscape that fails to paper over the egregious lapses in screenplay logic and lack of suspense in Green’s direction.

While H40 succeeds in leavening the shocks with dollops of intentional humor (the little toenail-clipping boy played by Jibrail Nantambu should star in the next sequel), the film is ultimately a depressing exercise undertaken by filmmakers who don’t understand the allure of Michael Myers or, even worse, the power of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Taking A Break...But Come See Me At Letterboxd

Hello, all.

Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot has been in service since the end of 2004, first on Tripod, then here at Blogger. Originally I blogged about a variety of subjects, including politics and events in my own life. The blog eventually shifted to books/television/film, but over the past couple of years, it has been strictly film, for the most part.

Because I post regular reviews over at Letterboxed, it has seemed like an extra burden to post both there and here, particularly since I update this blog much less frequently.

So for now, I'm going to take a break from Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot. Whether it ever resumes, I just can't say right now. I will leave it standing, in case you'd like to find any old writings. But if you are interested in my film reviews, please see me over at Letterboxd, where I post something about at least 95% of the movies that I see. You don't have to "join" Letterboxd to follow me, and you can easily add my Letterboxd RSS feed to your reader.

Thank all of your for reading and commenting over the years. I hope to see you again soon.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Night Slaves

Robert Specht (THE IMMORTAL) and Everett Chambers (COLUMBO) adapted Jerry Sohl’s 1965 Gold Medal novel NIGHT SLAVES, which was marketed as science fiction, but really isn’t. Specht and Chambers wisely dumped Sohl’s frustrating ending, but otherwise left the main plot intact. Clay (James Franciscus) and Marjorie (Lee Grant) Howard are an estranged married couple on vacation while Clay recuperates from a serious auto accident.

They visit a sleepy little town that seems normal enough. By day, at least, everybody is abnormally exhausted. At night, everyone turns into a zombie, files into trucks, and heads out of town. They always return by daylight, and nobody has any memory of the night before. Only Clay is unaffected, and nobody — especially Marjorie, who thinks the accident has scrambled Clay’s brain — believes his story.

Director Ted Post’s TWILIGHT ZONE experience came in handy when presenting NIGHT SLAVES’ off-kilter scenario of paranoia and the fear of losing one’s identity. Is Clay slipping into madness, as his wife fears, or is something spooky — and possibly otherworldly — happening in little Eldrid, California? Franciscus’ nicely modulated performance makes Clay a relatable protagonist, though the love story between Clay and a mysterious young woman played by Tisha Sterling (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is unbelievable with a treacly wrap-up (I didn’t buy it in the book either).

Sohl had no problem with the changed ending and spoke highly of the film in interviews. Shooting on the Warners backlot gives NIGHT SLAVES an artificiality that harms the story. Clay’s fear is based on not knowing what is real, but in an obviously fake western town, nothing is real. However, Post’s thoughtful unraveling of the mystery and Franciscus’ sympathetic performance work well enough to get NIGHT SLAVES past its shortcomings.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jagged Edge

Columbia released this solid courtroom thriller written by Joe Eszterhas, who was coming off hits FLASHDANCE and BLUE THUNDER (which he script-doctored without credit), and directed by Richard Marquand, who was still hot off RETURN OF THE JEDI. It opened at #2 at the box office (behind COMMANDO!), but stayed steady near the top of the charts for several weeks. It may be best remembered today for its surprise ending, which confused so many viewers that SISKEL & EBERT did a separate episode several weeks after their initial review in which Gene and Roger explained the killer’s reveal to their audience.

San Francisco publishing magnate Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) stands accused of slashing his wife to death in their bedroom and spelling “BITCH” on the wall in her blood. In fact, district attorney Krasny (Peter Coyote) and investigator Martin (Lance Henriksen) make no effort to look for another suspect. Forrester, of course, proclaims his innocence, and when he is arrested and formally charged, he appeals to defense attorney Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) to defend him in court.

Forrester is wealthy, charming, handsome — hell, he’s Jeff Bridges, right? — and the divorced Teddy finds herself doing with him things no attorney should be doing with her client. And she hates the sketchy Krasny, for whom she used to work and whose ethics-skating routine she knows well. Robert Loggia (BIG) earned an Academy Award nomination for playing Sam Ransom, Teddy’s crusty investigator (what other kind is there?) with an expletive for every sentence.

What worked in a courtroom thriller in 1985 doesn’t always hold water decades later, simply because we know more about the legal process and procedures. For the most part, JAGGED EDGE’s court shenanigans lack bite. Ransom is Teddy’s detective, but he doesn’t do a helluva lot of detecting. And, frankly, Teddy is kinda dumb, rarely missing an opportunity to violate common sense. Of course, Eszterhas (who went on to BASIC INSTINCT) and Marquand are manipulating their audience to deliver thrills — that’s their job — but by stacking the deck in their favor, they make it difficult to play along with them.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ghost Story (1981)

Universal shelled out $225,000 for the rights to Peter Straub’s 1979 best seller. With the casting of four Golden Age movie stars in central roles, GHOST STORY must have freaked out geezers who paid to see a Fred Astaire movie and were inundated with R-rated gore and nudity (male and female). It did pretty good business, though, for a thoughtful, slow-burning horror movie released at the height of the slasher craze.

Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE) plays a young college professor who returns to his snowy New England hometown to attend the funeral of his twin brother, who fell naked from a window and splatted on the ground many floors below. Wasson’s father is the mayor (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., LITTLE CAESAR), who meets with his childhood friends Melvyn Douglas (NINOTCHKA), John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), and Fred Astaire (THE BAND WAGON) regularly to drink brandy and tell ghost stories.

All four have recently been suffering from nightmares, and Wasson comes to suspect it has something to do with a trauma they experienced together fifty years earlier. By the climax of the story adapted by CARRIE’s Lawrence D. Cohen and directed by John Irvin (THE DOGS OF WAR), only one of the old men is left alive to face the terror that has taken the lives of his three friends.

Stealing the picture from the veterans, which ain’t easy, is an ethereal and erotic performance by Alice Krige (in CHARIOTS OF FIRE the same year) in two roles that turn out to be more closely related than the characters realize until too late. While not a total success, due partially to limp pacing and subpar visual effects (though horror makeup by THE EXORCIST’s Dick Smith is superb), GHOST STORY capably sends an occasional shudder. Moody photography by the pioneering Jack Cardiff (SONS AND LOVERS) sets the proper atmosphere, aided by Philippe Sarde’s (TESS) score and one of Astaire’s finest non-musical performances.

Patricia Neal (HUD) co-stars as Astaire’s wife, and Jacqueline Brookes (LAST EMBRACE) is Douglas’ wife. Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks never appeared in another feature, and Douglas, who looks frail, died before the film was released in December 1981.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's Alive (1974)

Upon its initial 1974 release, IT’S ALIVE was a box office flop, due to what director/producer/writer Larry Cohen believed to be poor marketing. It made money overseas, however, and Cohen convinced new management at Warner Brothers to re-release the film in 1977 with a new campaign. Cohen was right, as IT’S ALIVE went on to gross millions against its original $500,000 budget. Two sequels followed, both directed by Cohen (BLACK CAESAR), and a 2008 remake, which nobody gives a damn about.

Unique and in questionable taste, IT’S ALIVE is certainly the best horror movie ever made about a mutant baby who crawls about killing people. Like FRANKENSTEIN and KING KONG, the monster is humanized in the storytelling and presented with sympathy, even while it’s slaughtering.

Intelligent screenwriting presents two sides of the issue. One faction, including Los Angeles law enforcement and the baby’s father (John P. Ryan with a strong dialed-down performance), wants to destroy the killer infant. Another, led by curious scientists (including LANCER patriarch Andrew Duggan) who want to study the phenomenon, wants the baby captured alive. So does its mother (Sharon Farrell), who doesn’t see her son as a monster, but merely a confused child looking for love from its creator, just like Frankenstein’s monster.

While the concept is campy on the surface, Cohen directs his actors to play it straight, resulting in genuine chills and thought-provoking themes of intolerance, ecology, and the power of the family unit. Opening scenes are filmed in a realistic documentary style. Perhaps that was done to help the audience accept not only the outlandish concept, but also the characters’ acceptance — nobody ever questions that a mutant baby killed a whole operating room of medical personnel.

Both Ryan (DEATH WISH 4) and Farrell (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) tended to ham performances, but are properly restrained here, which helps sell the premise (give Ryan extra credit for a hell of a Walter Brennan impression). Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) created the monster child, which is shown infrequently (probably a wise decision on Cohen’s part, though frustrating for the viewer), and Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO) composed the score. Ryan, Duggan, and Cohen regular James Dixon as a cop returned for the sequel, titled — what else — IT LIVES AGAIN.

Thursday, June 07, 2018


Enormously popular (the seventh biggest hit of 1979, snuggled between ALIEN and THE JERK) and influential (a lot of white ladies sported cornrows for awhile), the touching farce 10 boosted the career of star Dudley Moore (FOUL PLAY) and made leading lady Bo Derek (TARZAN THE APE MAN) an international superstar. The title refers to Derek’s beauty on scale of one to 10, and writer/director Blake Edwards didn’t have to work too hard to convince audiences it was true.

Moore, who replaced George Segal during shooting, is George Webber, a successful Hollywood songwriter having a midlife crisis at age 42. He spots a breathtakingly gorgeous woman (Derek, natch) and becomes so obsessed with her that he follows her on her Acapulco honeymoon just to be near her.

As played by Moore and written by Edwards (DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES), Webber’s emotional ennui is deeper than just a crush on a sexy young woman. Despite a steady partner, Sam Taylor, who is successful, talented, intelligent, and attractive (as is Julie Andrews, who plays Sam), not to mention his wealth and his four Academy Awards, George is unhappy, and his depression manifests as an obsession with sex.

But let’s not get too deep. 10 is also a film with a lot of trademark Edwards slapstick, played by Moore as well as Peter Sellers ever did, and silliness. Moore even drinks funny. One of the film’s most uproarious scenes finds an awkward Moore cringing through a terrible song (intentionally composed that way by Henry Mancini) performed by reverend Max Showalter (NIAGARA), while a doddering old blind woman shuffles around the room (and into a wall). One hilarious running gag has Moore constantly spying on his neighbor (Don Calfa) with a telescope, only to be frustrated by all the kinky sex going on over there.

The acting is terrific across the board. Moore is playing a basically unsympathetic character, but you can understand why a great woman like Sam would love him (Andrews’ performance helps in this regard as well). Robert Webber (S.O.B.) scores as George’s gay songwriting partner. Dee Wallace (CUJO) is poignant as George’s unsuccessful Mexican fling. Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD) practically steals the picture as a sympathetic bartender (“I’m 37. But I look 40.”).

And then there’s Bo, who certainly was no great shakes as an actress, but in the hands of a talented director, comes across very well. It’s tough to play, in effect, the sexiest woman in the world, someone so beautiful that it drives George almost literally mad with desire. 10 is probably the only time the young Bo Derek doesn’t come across as vapid (she once admitted to David Letterman she didn’t remember the name of her high school). But then she never worked with a director like Blake Edwards either.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Night Moves (1975)

Alan Sharp (ULZANA’S RAID), appropriately enough, wrote this sharp crime movie that ranks among the best private eye films of the 1970s. Sharp’s plot is fuzzy, but he and director Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE) are concerned with mood and characterization and playing around with the standard tropes of the detective genre. Actors in every important role receive something meaty to play, all the way down to Anthony Costello’s (WILL PENNY) snickering stuntman and the film director played by Edward Binns (12 ANGRY MEN), who has a great bar scene.

Director of photography Bruce Surtees (DIRTY HARRY) helps Penn establish the film’s grim tone, and, for character, who better than Gene Hackman to inhabit the burned-out soul of an idiosyncratic Los Angeles P.I. Comparisons to the works of novelist Ross Macdonald are accurate with Hackman’s Harry Moseby a close approximation of the weary Lew Archer — certainly more so than Paul Newman’s Archer (renamed Harper for two films).

Hackman’s wife Susan Clark (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is having an affair with crippled Harris Yulin (SCARFACE). Past-her-prime movie actress Janet Ward (THE ANDERSON TAPES) hires Hackman to go to the Florida Keys and fetch her runaway daughter, played by 16-year-old Melanie Griffith (WORKING GIRL). He finds her living with her former stepfather John Crawford (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) and Crawford’s earthy lady friend Jennifer Warren (THE INTRUDER WITHIN), to whom Hackman is instantly attracted.

It wouldn’t be a private eye yarn without a murder or two, and it wouldn’t be a Seventies thriller without an emotionally taxing climax and downbeat ending. Hackman is brilliant (what else is new) in this underrated picture that was mostly ignored by audiences during its original release. A young James Woods is strong as a Hollywood mechanic, and Ward — not a major name — lays it all out for the camera in a surprisingly humble performance.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Fury (1978)

Except for John Cassavetes exploding into a million gooey pieces, the highlight of THE FURY is Jim Belushi, working as an extra in a scene filmed along Chicago’s North Shore, wandering back and forth past the camera like a clever struggling actor trying to get some extra camera time. Silly pranks aside, THE FURY is a ridiculous but exciting supernatural thriller that glosses over its story inconsistencies (John Farris adapted his own 1976 novel) with camera pyrotechnics and slick Rick Baker makeup effects.

Cassavetes (FACES) plays an evil spy in charge of a government agency that kidnaps Americans with telekinetic powers to use as weapons against foreign powers. One of Cassavetes’ victims, teenage Andrew Stevens (10 TO MIDNIGHT), is the son of good spy Kirk Douglas (SPARTACUS), who wants him back. Director Brian DePalma’s follow-up to CARRIE carries some of the same themes, including a girls’ school where the students — including Hilary Thompson (NIGHTHAWKS), Melody Scott-Thomas (THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS), and Daryl Hannah (BLADE RUNNER) — torment a classmate (Amy Irving) with latent psychic powers.

THE FURY also shares with CARRIE, unfortunately, a penchant for lame lowbrow humor, including Dennis Franz (NYPD BLUE) as a dumb cop obsessed with his new car and Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) as the king of a ratty castle forced to give up his clothes to Douglas at gunpoint. Charles Durning (SHARKY’S MACHINE) and Carol Rossen (THE STEPFORD WIVES) play the directors of a special school for psychics that may or may not be a recruitment station for Cassavetes’ sinister agency.

As you may guess, the plot meanders between Irving’s new teachings and Douglas’ vengeful rescue mission with Douglas’ gal pal Carrie Snodgress (MURPHY’S LAW) as the connecting tissue. One memorable moment of mayhem is set at the defunct Old Chicago amusement park, which operated a mere five years, but is captured on film forever. John Williams (STAR WARS) delivers an expensive score that gives the outlandish plot a needed boost of credibility. While THE FURY would have benefitted by beefing up the sneering Cassavetes’ role, Douglas’ special brand of ham takes up the slack.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Enter The Dragon

The last film Bruce Lee completed in his lifetime — he died three months after the end of production — is by far his best. One of the greatest action movies of all time and certainly the greatest American martial arts film, ENTER THE DRAGON is enormous fun, a mixture of chopsocky and James Bond spyjinks. Released the month after Lee’s July 20, 1973 death at the age of 32, the Warner Brothers release was an immense hit and would have opened a lot of doors in Hollywood to Lee.

Written by Michael Allin (TRUCK TURNER) as a live-action comic book and directed with great energy by Robert Clouse (DARKER THAN AMBER), ENTER THE DRAGON is based around the tried-and-true premise of a martial arts tournament. British Intelligence urges Lee (Lee) to compete as a cover for his true mission: gather evidence against the tournament’s sponsor and owner of the private island upon which it is held. The authorities suspect wealthy Han (Shih Kien), a disgraced former member of Lee’s Shaolin temple, of kidnapping young women, addicting them to heroin, and selling them on the white slavery market.

Joining Lee on his mission, once they discover their host’s corruption, are two more competitors: war buddies Williams (Jim Kelly), on the run from racist cops, and Roper (John Saxon), who needs money to pay gambling debts to the Mob. Though Lee is initially hesitant to use his considerable martial arts ability as a crime fighter, the mission becomes a personal one when he learns his sister (Angela Mao) was a victim of Han’s chief bodyguard Oharra (Bob Wall) three years earlier.

While Clouse’s filmography boasts a handful of decent action movies, it is Lee, who choreographed the fight sequences, who deserves credit for ENTER THE DRAGON’s most exciting moments. The film features one of the most famous action climaxes of all time: a tour de force stalk-and-slash between Han, who wears a four-”fingered” claw on one hand, and Lee in a house of mirrors. Another great moment finds Lee taking on about fifty henchman in an underground corridor (one of them is Jackie Chan; he also fights in other scenes Bolo Yeung and Sammo Hung). Lee’s acting is good too. He’s relaxed and has good chemistry with Saxon (basically a co-lead, to Kelly’s chagrin). And while handing out praise, don’t neglect composer Lalo Schifrin (BULLITT), whose exotic score captures the flavor of Allin’s colorful story and Clouse’s spirited direction.

Before shooting ENTER THE DRAGON, Lee began directing a passion project, which he was unable to complete while alive. Clouse later took over direction using a Lee impersonator, and GAME OF DEATH was released in 1978. It is correctly regarded as an abomination, except for the few fight scenes featuring the real Lee, and is an unfortunate anticlimax to the screen icon’s legend. ENTER THE DRAGON is a masterpiece.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Nazis At The Center Of The Earth

The Asylum’s cheapjack ripoff of IRON SKY, though its story is different, likely because Asylum screenwriter Paul Bales (2010: MOBY DICK) couldn’t master the former film’s political satire and black humor. Instead, Bales packs his script with meanspirited violence and outrageous ideas right out of a Ziff-Davis comic book. No concept was too silly, too farfetched, or too insane to throw into NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Not one, including a robot Adolf Hitler, is more unbelievable than Jake Busey playing a scientist.

If only Bales and director Joseph Lawson (LORD OF THE ELVES) had the wit to make the most of their delightfully loony ideas. Or the filmmaking skills. Sure, they’re working on a low budget, but the acting and production values in NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH are on the same level as a VD scare film of the 1930s. That includes one-time indie queen Dominique Swain (LOLITA), whose acting talent has regressed more dramatically than the polar ice caps.

Swain plays one of two American scientists kidnapped in Antarctica, which Lawson — also the visual effects supervisor — depicts by placing his actors in front of a white wall on a white floor covered in corn flakes. Their abductors are Nazi stormtroopers, who take Swain and her colleague to an underground bunker, where none other than Dr. Josef Mengele (Christopher Karl Johnson) flays the colleague alive (this is actually an effectively gruesome effect).

When Swain and company don’t check in, station chief Busey (STARSHIP TROOPERS), who keeps reminding us that he’s been living in Antarctica for ten (!) years, takes some co-workers, who act like dumb college students, but are supposed to be the most brilliant minds in their fields, way way underground to find them. They eventually find a humongous underground chamber with sunlight and trees and dirt trails, coincidentally just like a typical park in southern California.

At least Lawson went outside for a day. Most of the comically bad long shots and establishing shots were created on a 1990s Amiga desktop with awkwardly jerky digital figures unconvincingly posing as real people. Come to think of it, all the CGI looks like that. It takes a special lack of talent to make a film this wretched that includes Nazi zombies, a sharp-shooting Mengele, nudity, SAW-style gore, an underground paradise, body switching, laser guns, a robot Hitler with a machine gun, and a plan to infect the Earth with a flesh-eating bacteria from a giant Nazi flying saucer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969)

The years following THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s 1964 cancellation saw Rod Serling run the gamut from writing screenplays for Oscar-winning films (PLANET OF THE APES) to hosting game shows (THE LIAR’S CLUB). He returned to weekly television briefly as the creator of THE LONER, an interesting one-season western starring Lloyd Bridges, but the show more fondly remembered was his next: NIGHT GALLERY.

Though Serling unfortunately was much less involved in NIGHT GALLERY than he was on TWILIGHT ZONE, he introduced the segments and wrote several of them, including the astonishing “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” which was nominated for the Emmy as Outstanding Single Program. More importantly, he wrote the pilot that got NIGHT GALLERY on the air: a triptych of thrilling stories that not only convinced NBC to give the dramatic anthology a regular timeslot, but also gave 21-year-old Steven Spielberg his first job directing network television.

And what a job he did on “Eyes,” a boffo Serling segment with a wrenching twist ending straight out of TWILIGHT ZONE (or EC Comics) and one of Joan Crawford’s final performances. The Oscar winner (for MILDRED PIERCE) plays a nasty blind woman who buys the eyes of down-and-out gambler Tom Bosley (HAPPY DAYS), so she can see again, if only for a few hours. She blackmails doctor Barry Sullivan (THE IMMORTAL) into performing the surgery, but when her bandages come off...well, that would be telling.

Expertly directed by Spielberg, who got along with his temperamental star, “Eyes” is a delightful thriller, but it plays as a hammock between two other stories almost as good. Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN) directs Serling’s “The Cemetary,” which casts Roddy McDowall (CLEOPATRA) as the greedy nephew of invalid George Macready (PEYTON PLACE). He murders Macready for his money, but finds himself haunted by the old man from beyond the grave. Barry Shear (ACROSS 110TH STREET) directs Richard Kiley (LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR) in Serling’s “The Escape Route” as a Nazi war criminal hiding in South America who bumps into elderly Jew Sam Jaffe (BEN CASEY), who was a prisoner in Kiley’s concentration camp 25 years earlier.

Serling introduces each tale from a dark art gallery surrounded by paintings created by Jaroslav Gebr, who ran Universal’s Scenic Arts department (Tom Wright, who later became a television director, painted the art used in the series). Though Serling hosted and wrote all three stories, production duties were handed to William Sackheim (THE IN-LAWS). Billy Goldenberg (COLUMBO) composed the varied score for all three segments, plus the theme. The NIGHT GALLERY series premiered over a year later as part of NBC’s FOUR-IN-ONE umbrella (with MCCLOUD, THE PSYCHIATRIST, and SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT) and went weekly in its second season.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Open Fire

The fourth and final collaboration between star Jeff Wincott and director Kurt Anderson, OPEN FIRE follows the very good MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER, the excellent MISSION OF JUSTICE (which Anderson only produced), and the pretty decent MARTIAL OUTLAW. It’s one of a bajillion ripoffs of DIE HARD that cluttered video store shelves in the 1990s, but manages to rise above its derivative premise with Wincott’s likable leading performance and a steady series of exciting setpieces staged by Anderson and stunt coordinator Jeff Pruitt.

The target is Martinson Industries, a chemical plant run by Bob McNeil (Lee de Broux), whose son Alec (Wincott) happens to be an ex-FBI agent drummed out of the bureau and now working as a telephone lineman. Terrorists have invaded the plant and demand the release of their leader, Stein Kruger (Patrick Kilpatrick), which sounds nothing like Hans Gruber, from prison. The cops do release him and take him to the plant, but the terrorists prove untrustworthy (who coulda seen that coming?) and keep the hostages anyway.

To the rescue is Alec, whose offer of help is officially rebuffed by his old FBI boss Davis (MIDNIGHT CALLER cop Arthur Taxier), who is completely ineffectual in classic DIE HARD tradition. So he ziplines in anyway, says something witty, beats the hell out of a henchman, and begins a one-man assault on Kruger’s forces. Writer Thomas Ritz (MARTIAL OUTLAW) includes more plot about Kruger sabotaging the chemical tanks, but who cares when Wincott is punching through a full pitcher of beer to smash someone in the face? OPEN FIRE violates DIE HARD protocol by leaving the plant in the third act, but the climactic fight between Wincott and Kilpatrick is so good that I’ll allow it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Act Of Vengeance aka Rape Squad

Busy 1970s starlet Jo Ann Harris (THE BEGUILED) earned a deserved leading role in this uncomfortable thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation. RAPE SQUAD is quite good, though, with Harris believably vulnerable and confident and director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) steering the sex and violence with steady hands.

Harris plays a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (handsome Peter Brown, also a slug in FOXY BROWN that year), an egotist in a hockey mask and orange jumpsuit who forces women to sing the Christmas carol while he assaults them. The police, represented by detective Ross Elliott (INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN), are ineffective, so the victims organize a “rape squad”—a vigilante group with a 24-hour hotline dedicated to capturing rapists, mashers, perverts, pimps, and even obscene phone callers. They take karate lessons from diminutive Lada Edmund Jr. (SAVAGE!), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Newly empowered, Harris and her squad, which includes Connie Strickland (BLACK SAMSON), Lisa Moore (HARRAD SUMMER), Jennifer Lee Pryor (THE WILD PARTY), and Patricia Estrin (BABY BOOM), get down to business. They entrap sleazy club manager Tony Young (POLICEWOMEN) and beat up a street pimp caught smacking his girls around. Naturally, ol’ Jingle Bells discovers the women’s game plan to crush his jewels, and he plots a return match.

Like many exploitation movies of the era, RAPE SQUAD tries to have it both ways—to offer strong, independent female characters in control of their own lives, while still dishing out a healthy amount of nudity and violence against women. Rape scenes were frequently inserted into these films for their titillation value, as an excuse to provide its slobbering audience with a pair of bare breasts.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of watering down the crime and not providing a strong motivation for the heroines’ revenge. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps aware of this, co-writer David Kidd used the pseudonym “Betty Conklin,” as he did on Jack Hill’s THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, to counteract any criticism of misogyny. Kidd’s screenplay with H.R. Christian (BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA) does its best to portray its rape victims with a certain amount of sensitivity, while still paying strict attention to the studio’s (American International Pictures) commercial demands for boobs and blood.

Give Kelljan credit for handling the difficult material with aplomb, delivering a suspenseful and occasionally thoughtful thriller that may not have set the drive-ins on fire on first run. Originally released to theaters and reviewed in 1974 as ACT OF VENGEANCE, the film was re-released a year later as the more salacious RAPE SQUAD in a bid for attention.

Adding much to the film is Brown’s performance as the narcissistic rapist. Appearing in most of his scenes with his face covered by a hockey mask that predates the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, Brown is nasty, cutting off his victims’ clothing, brutalizing their breasts, and compelling them to sing aloud (why “Jingle Bells” is never explained) and compliment him on his “lovemaking” skills.

Harris, who began appearing regularly on TV in 1968, usually as a scheming vamp in episodic guest shots or as the lead in several unsold pilots (including the Jane Fonda role in a CAT BALLOU remake), gives an intelligent, sexy performance as Brown’s nemesis—a smart, self-sufficient small-business owner who risks her life and, in an unusual twist, the lives of her friends in her obsession with her attacker’s capture.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I Was A Teenage Frankenstein

Just a few months after AIP had I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF in theaters, producer Herman Cohen (HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM) pumped out this quick follow-up. I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a sequel, even though Whit Bissell returns from TEENAGE WEREWOLF as another mad scientist.

Bissell is actually playing Dr. Frankenstein, and he’s continuing his ancestor’s experiments in creating life from dead organs and flesh. He’s incredibly lucky. A car accident kills two teens right outside his front door, and a few days later, an entire high school track team is killed in a plane crash. The head, Frankenstein just chops off a necking boy. The body parts he doesn’t use he dumps in the alligator pit beneath his suburban mansion. His needy fiance Phyllis Coates (SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN) eventually discovers the hunky young monster (ripped Gary Conway, later to star in BURKE’S LAW and LAND OF THE GIANTS) hidden in the laboratory.

Whereas Michael Landon’s teen werewolf was a strong character and protagonist, Conway’s Frankenstein monster is a wooden cipher buried beneath Phillip Scheer’s comical makeup. Bissell’s arrogant performance gives TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN most of its entertainment value, making the most of writers Cohen and Aben Kandel’s ripe dialogue (“You have a civil tongue in your head. I know you have, I sewed it back myself.”). Unlike TEENAGE WEREWOLF, this film is pure schlock (Bissell, playing a Brit, makes no effort at an accent).

Director Herbert L. Strock shot the film at Ziv Studios, where he also made television shows like SEA HUNT, SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, and HIGHWAY PATROL in a similarly perfunctory manner. As a cool gimmick, the climax of this black-and-white film was shot in Eastmancolor. Cohen continued the unofficial AIP series with HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, which also had a color climax.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I Was A Teenage Werewolf

AIP released this excellent teen horror movie done no favors by its ten-cent title. After leading man Michael Landon became a big star on BONANZA and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, he gently mocked I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF on talk shows, but he also wasn’t embarrassed by it, nor should he have been. He even parodied it on HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN.

Landon, then 20 years old and a Method actor (he learned to loosen up as Little Joe), is quite good in his first starring role as a troubled teen who gets into a lot of fights. Landon plays him as a pretty good kid, but with serious anger management issues. To hopefully cure him of his violent tendencies, sympathetic cop Barney Phillips (THE SAND PEBBLES) and Landon’s girlfriend Yvonne Lime (DRAGSTRIP RIOT) suggest he see a shrink. Unfortunately, said shrink is played by Whit Bissell (THE TIME MACHINE), a mad scientist who turns Landon into a werewolf. Landon wears the makeup in every scene and does all his stunts.

Film editor Gene Fowler Jr. made his directing debut and delivers plenty of verve and style for a picture allegedly shot in six days on an $80,000 budget (TEENAGE WEREWOLF probably grossed 100 times its budget). The screenplay by producer Herman Cohen (KONGA) and Aben Kandel (TROG) not only gives Landon a strong character to play, but also Lime as a good girl who genuinely cares for Landon and ace character actor Malcolm Atterbury (THE BIRDS) as Landon’s widowed father who tries to teach his son to control his temper.

While the film’s view of teenagers is strictly from the perspective of the middle-aged director and writers, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF is intelligent and suspenseful. It also led to AIP follow-ups, including HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER and the inevitable I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, in which Bissell played basically the same character.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Iron Sky

Concepts don’t really come any higher than this. IRON SKY posits that the Nazis fled Earth near the end of World War II and set up a secret base on the dark side of the Moon. Seventy years later, this lunar “Fourth Reich,” led by Führer Korzfleisch (Udo Kier) and his SS sidekick Adler (Götz Otto), is planning an invasion of Earth, but is surprised when an American space capsule lands nearby. Adler kills one astronaut and takes prisoner the other: an African-American named James Washington (Christopher Kirby).

Unfortunately for the Nazis, they can’t get their giant warship Götterdämmerung to work properly, as their computer technology is still rooted in the 1940s. Discovering Washington’s smartphone, Adler brainwashes Washington, bleaches his hair and skin white (!) to pass for a proper Aryan, and takes a flying saucer to Earth in order to meet U.S. president Sarah Palin (Stephanie Paul) and get more computer phones.

Director Timo Vuorensola plays this for comedy — perhaps wise considering the absurd premise. More than broad comedy, much of the humor is in the form of sharp political satire that doesn’t treat the United States with kid gloves. It’s no surprise the corporations that control film distribution in the United States stayed far away from IRON SKY, which isn’t shy about equating Nazi theology and contemporary right-wing rhetoric, as personified by the American president (who, to be fair, isn’t specifically named Palin, but come on…) and her vulgar campaign manager (Peta Sergeant).

Shot in several different countries on a low budget, reportedly around $10 million, IRON SKY doesn’t have the visual effects money to match its imaginative production design, which includes a moonbase shaped like a giant swastika. The actors are unafraid to tackle the silly concept and sharp anti-American humor head-on with special props going to the very funny Kirby and to top-billed Julia Dietze, who is charming as a Nazi teacher who uses an edited ten-minute cut of Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR to indoctrinate the base’s children.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Next Of Kin

If you can buy Patrick Swayze (following ROAD HOUSE), Liam Neeson (TAKEN), and Bill Paxton (TWISTER) as brothers, then you’ll probably be down for the rest of this Chicago crime drama about Kentucky hillbilly justice. If you can buy Andreas Katsulas (THE FUGITIVE) and Ben Stiller (STARSKY AND HUTCH) as father and son, then you’re pretty easy to please. Helen Hunt (MAD ABOUT YOU) is also here as Swayze’s wife, plus Adam Baldwin (CHUCK) and Michael J. Pollard (TANGO & CASH the same year!), which makes NEXT OF KIN pretty fascinating at times.

As crime drama and action/adventure, NEXT OF KIN is solid but routine with some nice chases and gunfights courtesy of English director John Irvin, who made the mediocre RAW DEAL with Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the stolid yet spooky GHOST STORY, and THE DOGS OF WAR, a violent adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel. Michael Jenning’s screenplay examines the different justice systems in play in Chicago, which is presented as “civilization,” basically, and the back hills of Kentucky, where the Gates family makes its home.

Most of them, at least. Brother Truman Gates (Swayze) left home for the Windy City, where he became a police detective with a pretty, sophisticated wife (Hunt) who plays violin. Youngest brother Gerald (Paxton) finally follows in Truman’s footsteps, but his arrival in Chicago is met with violence in the form of gunman Joey Rossellini (Baldwin) of mobster John Isabella’s (Katsulas) crime family.

Truman, a good cop, is dedicated to finding the murderer, but oldest brother Briar (Neeson) wants more: vengeance. Which gives NEXT OF KIN several different layers to play: brother vs. brother, old-fashioned revenge vs. the letter of the law, fish out of water. Irvin puts together a pretty good chase atop an L train, and the climactic cemetery shootout is laid out with precision and some thrills. NEXT OF KIN was not a hit, earning half of what ROAD HOUSE did at the domestic box office, but Swayze’s next film, GHOST, was an Oscar-winning monster smash.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Devil Within Her

Filmed as I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN and released by AIP in the U.S. as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, this tawdry EXORCIST ripoff compared itself to ROSEMARY’S BABY in its advertising. It’s much closer — in story, not quality — to IT’S ALIVE, as a former stripper played by THE BITCH’s Joan Collins gives birth to a murderous baby.

Back in her peeler days, Joan rebuffed the pawing of slavering dwarf George Claydon (BERSERK), so he put a hex on her first-born child out of revenge, as horny dwarfs are wont to do. On little Nicholas’ first day of life, he claws the hell out of his mother’s face, and soon escalates to shoving the nanny into the lake and bashing her head on a rock. When Joan says quite seriously, “I think my baby has been possessed by the Devil,” her stripper best friend Caroline Munro (AT THE EARTH’S CORE) continues stirring her tea calmly like they’re discussing baseball stats. Thankfully, an Italian nun played by Dame Eileen Atkins, DBE (EQUUS) is qualified to do exorcisms, but not until most of the cast is dead.

Peter Sasdy, who directed Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER, is unable to catapult this film past “laughable” to “frightening.” Did he really believe Collins periodically looking into the baby’s crib to find the dwarf’s face staring back at her would send chills up the audience’s spines?

English actor Ralph Bates (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) plays Joan’s husband with a shaky Italian accent (there’s no reason his character needs to be Italian). Stanley Price’s (SHOUT AT THE DEVIL) screenplay struggles with logic and coherency. Only Donald Pleasence (THE GREAT ESCAPE) as the doctor who delivers little Nicky sells the absurd dialogue as if he believes it. Also seen as THE MONSTER (somewhat accurate, if generic) and SHARON’S BABY (there is no character named Sharon in the film), THE DEVIL WITHIN HER is severely padded between campy death scenes, including a riveting sequence of Ralph Bates buying groceries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mortuary (1983)

The same year TV goody-goody Melissa Sue Anderson (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) sullied her image by acting in the slasher flick HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, WALTONS girl Mary McDonough played the heroine in this tame slasher. Less effective than the Anderson film (but blessed with a great trailer), MORTUARY suffers from typically clumsy direction by Howard Avedis (née Hikmet Avedis) and a lack of surprises. For example, the obvious red herring really is the killer (Avedis is so bad at concealing the killer’s identity that one wonders whether he is trying to), and a dopey witchcraft subplot is left unfulfilled.

MORTUARY is notable as the last (to be released) film appearance of Christopher George, an ex-Marine who found stardom on television as the leader of THE RAT PATROL and ended his career in a series of junky exploitation pictures, often co-starring with his wife Lynda Day George (a regular on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE). Lynda is also in MORTUARY, playing McDonough’s mother, while Christopher slums as a mortician who joins her in Satanic seances. Film Ventures International slowly rolled out MORTUARY to theaters during 1983 (it was filmed in the fall of 1981), and George died not long after the film’s Los Angeles release at the age of 52.

High school student McDonough continues to believe the swimming pool accident that killed her father one year ago was actually a murder. Neither her mother nor her boyfriend David Wallace (HUMONGOUS) believes her, though she has nightmares about the incident and sleepwalks into the pool on occasion. Also, nobody believes her cries after a knife-wielding creep in a black cape tries to slice her to pieces. Also in the cast: a young Bill Paxton (ALIENS), whose Texas accent is out of place here as Christopher George’s weirdo son who listens to Mozart and (literally) skips through the cemetery. Wallace is a drip, but the girls always had the best parts in these things.

The funeral home setting is ripe for a creepy thriller — and John Cacavas (HORROR EXPRESS) contributes a fine score — but Avedis (THE FIFTH FLOOR) and his partner/wife Marlene Schmidt (SCORCHY) were just not capable of writing, producing, and directing a film of great quality. When McDonough gets out of the pool after a midnight dip, the deck is already wet, meaning it was Take Two and Avedis was too lazy to either dry it off or have the actress emerge on the other side.

Not to completely bash Avedis, some of the stalking scenes manage to raise suspense, partially because the killer’s look is patterned after Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (why the killer dons such an elaborate guise is never addressed). The ludicrous ending was obviously inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, but it isn’t scary this time. GREEN ACRES’ Alvy Moore has a quick bit as Wallace’s father. McDonough appears to have been doubled in her nude scenes — don’t want any WALTONS fans to vapor-lock — but she did pop her top on down the road in a direct-to-video quickie called ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Game Of Death (1978)

GAME OF DEATH is exploitation at either its cheekiest or most tasteless. A personal project of Bruce Lee, GAME OF DEATH was left unfinished when director/writer/producer/star Lee died after making ENTER THE DRAGON. Out of either a tribute to the action footage Lee had already directed or a desperate effort to continue making money off the dead legend (take yer pick), Golden Harvest and ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse decided to fashion a new martial arts film around Lee’s fight scenes. Considering Clouse included news footage of Lee’s corpse inside his coffin in a scene of Lee’s character faking his death, it’s safe to believe respecting the icon’s dignity was not a top priority.

Actors Yuen Biao (WHEELS ON MEALS) and Kim Tai-jong (who played Lee’s ghost in NO RESPECT, NO SURRENDER) fake-Shemp Lee in the new footage shot by Clouse. Neither resembles Lee in the slightest, so Clouse films them from behind, in disguise, wearing sunglasses, or, in the film’s most ludicrous shot, in front of a mirror with a photo of Lee’s face taped to it!

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who fights Lee in perhaps the most memorable scene, refused to participate in Clouse’s film, so even he — at 7 feet 2 inches tall — is unconvincingly doubled. So, yes, basically, GAME OF DEATH is a ridiculous mess — Clouse even recycles the Lee/Chuck Norris fight from WAY OF THE DRAGON — but not an unwatchable one.

Though only ten minutes or so of the 100-minute running time features the actual Bruce Lee (not including occasional cutaways taken from some other movie), they are a terrific ten minutes with Lee, clad in that iconic yellow track suit, choreographing exciting fight scenes with Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Inosanto (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). Bob Wall and Sammo Hung fight each other for no other reason than to eat running time. Objectively, GAME OF DEATH is terrible, but it’s also hilarious if you’re in that mood (and there is no shame in openly mocking a cash grab this cynical). The last half hour, beginning with the motorcycle chase in the warehouse, is fun.

A Bondian John Barry (THUNDERBALL) score and opening title sequence (with a gambling theme, even though no gambling is in the movie) give Clouse’s film some respectability. So does the name supporting cast, including a drunk Gig Young (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY), who killed himself before this ever got into American theaters; stolid Hugh O’Brien (KILLER FORCE), who laughably kicks “Bruce”’s ass; Colleen Camp (APOCALYPSE NOW) in the girlfriend role; and Dean Jagger (VANISHING POINT) as the world’s most avuncular Mafia don.

Kill Or Be Killed

“The Greatest Hollywood Martial-Arts Movie Ever Made!” Actually a South African action picture lensed in South Africa in 1977, KILL OR BE KILLED was imported to America and given a successful ($30 million box office!) domestic release by Film Ventures International in 1980. By the end of that year, it was playing double bills with BREAKER! BREAKER!, Chuck Norris’ leading man debut.

Taking a cue from the Bond pictures and perhaps the men’s sweat magazines of the 1960s, KILL OR BE KILLED’s screenplay by C.F. Beyers-Boshoff involves Nazis, always an excellent screen antagonist. Karate master Steve Hunt (Ryan) is invited to participate in a martial arts tournament by a former Nazi general, Baron von Rudloff (Norman Coombes). The Baron’s opponent is a team led by wealthy Japanese benefactor Miyagi (Raymond Ho-Tong, the Asian Wally Cox), who defeated von Rudloff in a similar tournament forty years earlier, which led to the Nazi being humilated, stripped of his ran, and exiled.

Set mainly within von Rudloff’s desert compound (represented by an unconvincing miniature castle), the plot teams Hunt with cute karate colleague Olga (Charlotte Michelle, who has wonderful chemistry with Ryan), who becomes a convenient hostage when Hunt escapes from von Rudloff and is eventually coerced into throwing the championship match.

Though flagging in pace somewhat while von Rudloff’s midget sidekick Chico (Daniel DuPlessis) travels the world seeking fighters in various “humorous” asides, KILL OR BE KILLED is the real thing if you’re seeking authentic karate action. The actors are actual members of the Japan Karate Association (the South African branch), and the fight scenes were choreographed by well-known karate master Stan Schmidt. Instead of gymnastics and acrobatics, the fighting is mainly (except for Ryan’s signature back-flips) straight, no-frills karate, which may appeal to purists.

Rated PG with minimal sex and bloodshed, KILL OR BE KILLED was a breakthrough for South African star James Ryan, who reunited with director Ivan Hall for the slicker sequel KILL AND KILL AGAIN. Later Ryan action pictures include RAGE TO KILL and the notorious SPACE MUTINY, but none were better than the Hall films.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Kill And Kill Again

South African action star James Ryan returns in this humorous PG sequel to KILL OR BE KILLED as karate champion Steve Chase. Though the title has more kills than the film does, KILL AND KILL AGAIN is very well shot by returning director Ivan Hall and cinematographer Tai Krige, who spice up the action with inventive camera placements, unusual angles, and even a “bullet time” sequence decades before THE MATRIX.

In Sun City to compete in a martial arts tournament, Chase is recruited (for $5 million) by gorgeous blond Kandy Kane (Annaline Kriel) to rescue her father from the clutches of evil megalomaniac Marduk (Michael Mayer, stuck with one of cinema’s worst fake beards on his face), whose plan include extracting fuel from potatoes. Dr. Horatio Kane (John Ramsbottom), Kandy’s kidnapped father, has stumbled upon a mind-control drug, which Marduk uses to create an army of kung fu zombies ready to follow his commands in a bid to conquer the world.

Chase can’t tackle the kung fu zombies alone, so he contacts his buddies—former pro wrestler Gorilla (Ken Gampu), levitating Zen master Fly (Stan Schmidt), taciturn Gypsy Billy (Norman Robinson), and wacky Hotdog (Bill Flynn)—for help smashing Marduk’s stronghold. Cue a great assembling-the-squad sequence with Chase showing up just in time to see one of his buddies stumble into a skills-establishing kung fu fight.

Fast-moving chopsocky with a Bondian men’s adventure plot by John Crowther (THE EVIL THAT MEN DO) that doesn’t take itself seriously, KILL AND KILL AGAIN clearly inspired THE A-TEAM, right down to a huge black guy who hates flying and a wacky white dude who wears funny hats. Ryan, a handsome fellow who hates to button his shirt, is perfectly cast as a four-time world karate champion and leader of men, and it seems as though he and director Hall worked hard to make the fight scenes both exciting and realistic. Of course, Marduk delays killing Chase in order to describe his evil plan and show off his army of paunchy, balding kung fu warriors.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hangman (2017)

One could have fun, I suppose, debating whether HANGMAN, RIGHTEOUS KILL, or 88 MINUTES is the worst serial killer movie of Al Pacino’s career. No question playing that game would be more fun than watching HANGMAN, which is an unbelievable police procedural about a serial killer who — but why not? — uses the game of Hangman (remember from grade school?) to leave clues to his murders.

Pacino, 76 years old at the time of production and an embarrassing mess with his ludicrous hair plugs and lazy Southern accent swiped from the worst works of Steven Seagal, is a retired police detective lured back into duty when homicide dick Karl Urban (McCoy in the STAR TREK movies) discovers their badge numbers left behind at the scene of a murder (the numbers could mean anything, but go along with it). Teamed with an unconvincing Brittany Snow (from the PITCH PERFECT series) as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter (snicker), Pacino and Urban plod through the muddled plot as if they had never seen SE7EN.

They’re at the mercy of clumsy writing that not only makes them inept detectives (a suspect is able to attempt suicide because of their carelessness), they don’t even bother to solve the puzzle that the killer generously leaves behind. Half the time, Snow deciphers the clues and hands the solution to the professional detectives. At least the actors are brazen enough to telegraph their embarrassment. Pacino has one eye on his paycheck and the other on his AFI Life Achievement Award in fear someone will take it away.

If you don’t want to play the Pacino serial killer game, you can have some fun playing But How. But how did a train smash into a car without leaving any debris? But how did the killer summon a convenient truck to T-bone the cops pursuing him? But how did the cop, obsessed with finding his wife’s murderer, never notice the giant V carved into her chest? See? Fun!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hero And The Terror

Chuck Norris attempted to stretch a bit in his seventh starring vehicle for Cannon, playing a sensitive Los Angeles cop who freaks out during his daughter’s birth and suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome following his capture of a hulking serial killer nicknamed The Terror.

Don’t worry, fans: he’s no wimp. Chuck still ignores his partner’s suggestion to call for backup and beats the heck out of drug pushers at the docks. It was an admirable decision for Norris to play someone more vulnerable, and he bounces cleanly off Brynn Thayer (MATLOCK) as his pregnant girlfriend in their dramatic and romantic scenes together. It ain’t Ibsen, but Norris doesn’t embarrass himself either.

In case you’re getting the impression this is Norris’ BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, rest assured he is playing a cop and he is chasing a killer. His Danny O’Brien earned the nickname “Hero” after capturing the enormous sociopath Simon Moon (SUPERMAN II villain Jack O’Halloran). Several years later, Moon escapes from the mental hospital where he was sentenced and continues his killing of women, stashing the corpses in the attic of the historic Wiltern Theater (a real place on Wilshire Boulevard).

The action and procedural scenes are routinely scripted by Michael Blodgett (star of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!), who helped adapt his 1982 novel to the big screen, and Dennis Shryack (THE CAR). Norris and the supporting cast give the screenplay their all, though once again the charismatic Steve James (AVENGING FORCE) has much too little to do. Directing is William Tannen (FLASHPOINT), who gives the material his best shot. Like Norris’ SILENT RAGE, HERO plays at times like a horror film with Tannen milking the suspense.

HERO suffers from a lackluster Terror—Moon is a zero as a character—and a familiar story, but is worth a look-see for its domestic scenes and action sequences. Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Jeffrey Kramer (JAWS), Joe Guzaldo (CODE OF SILENCE), and Billy Drago (DELTA FORCE 2), interestingly cast against type as a shrink, build up the supporting cast. HERO was a major flop, finishing 12th behind rot like STEALING HOME and HOT TO TROT its opening weekend. Chuck made a couple more Cannon flicks, but he was already done as a box office draw.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Frankenstein Island

Names like Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and Al Adamson are often bandied about in discussions of awful filmmakers (and justifiably so), but Jerry Warren may have them all beat. The man behind THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD, MAN BEAST, and THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN finally hung up his viewfinder after FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND. Though produced around 1980, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND looks and feels like one of Warren’s junkheaps from the 1950s, except it’s in color (his only color feature, come to think of it).

It’s basically a remake of his TEENAGE ZOMBIES from 1959 with a premise stolen from Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. It stars the usual gang of idiots often cast in trash films of the era — Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Katherine Victor, Robert Clarke, Steve Brodie — but it’s odd to see perennial authority figure Andrew Duggan (IN LIKE FLINT) in what is probably the worst film of his career. At least he has the decency to look embarrassed. It says something about the other actors that they all may well have been in worse films than FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND.

Four hot-air balloonists (one looks like Peter Brady) crashland (off screen!) on a remote island populated with sexy Amazons in leopard-skin bikinis (no leopards are seen on the island). Whenever one of the men mentions his hometown or home state, he feel an intense pain in their left are. This is explained as sort of like telepathy. The doctor played by Clarke (HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) tells the kid not to use his arm for awhile, but try to keep it working.

The Amazons prepare a feast that looks suspiciously like sub sandwiches from Blimpie and do bong hits out of skulls (“There’s no question they’re into witchcraft,” says Clarke, who is watching a different movie). They are eventually revealed as descendants of space aliens, not that it makes any difference to the plot. Nothing that happens makes any difference.

Also on the island is Brodie (OUT OF THE PAST) as Jocko, a one-eyed pirate who laughs a lot (probably because Brodie is sloshed); Mitchell (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as Jayson, a crazed ship’s captain who babbles about Edgar Allan Poe (I suspect his performance is a lot of poor improvisation); Warren regular George Mitchell (HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH) as Dr. von Helsing, a sickly 200-year-old scientist performing immortality experiments; and Victor (THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN) as a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. Also roaming about: a race of mutant zombies wearing ladies’ sunglasses, stocking caps, and black turtlenecks. Of course, the Asian one knows kung fu.

Occasionally, Carradine as the ghost of Dr. Frankenstein is superimposed over the action to shout nonsense about “The Power! The Power!” The laboratory “set” is just furniture on a soundstage without flats. An ammo box painted pink is set dressing. When our heroes return to the island with the military (the uniforms are hilarious) after the lamest “action” finale you’ve ever seen (yes, the Frankenstein Monster shows up), there is, of course, no sign that anyone was ever there.

Utter dreck and Warren is solely to blame as the director, screenwriter, co-producer, editor, production designer, and music supervisor. One of the actors invested $90,000 in this film. No way he ever got it back.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Prime Target (1991)

David Heavener was not much a filmmaker, but he sure had a knack for assembling a cast. Despite a budget approximately equal to a truckful of Hostess Fruit Pies, Heavener stocked PRIME TARGET with a guest star from every Stephen J. Cannell show you ever saw.

In addition to starring in the picture and directing it (and composing and singing some dreadful songs), Heavener also served as PRIME TARGET’s producer and screenwriter, hence the name of his badass cop character being John Bloodstone! With a name like John Bloodstone, you aren’t going to grow up to be a gay waiter. Heavener’s John Bloodstone is — say it along with me — a lone wolf detective who lives like a slob, drinks a ton of beer, breaks all the rules, but gets results.

After rescuing a group of hostages by setting the bad guys in fire (!), John Bloodstone is chewed out for violating the killers’ civil rights and suspended (natch) by his jerk boss, police commissioner Garth (Andrew Robinson, DIRTY HARRY’s Scorpio), who literally waves The Book at him. With urging from FBI agent Harrington (Brady dad Robert Reed in his last movie), Garth immediately unsuspends John Bloodstone to give him a new assignment: transport mobster Marietta Copella (Tony Curtis!) to his court date.

Of course, some people don’t want Copella to get there, and you already know who they are. Cue a series of rote chases, fights, and shootouts in between MIDNIGHT RUN-style bickering between Heavener and Curtis (who is actually pretty good, running on pure charm).

Isaac Hayes (TRUCK TURNER) plays the police captain who says to Heavener, who is wearing a cowboy hat, a gun belt with a six-shooter, and a flamethrower (!), “I got the car you asked for. I don’t know what you have in mind, but I sure as hell hope it works.” Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) cameos as a terrorist whom Heavener shoots off the roof of a shed. Jenilee Harrison from THREE’S COMPANY goes topless as John Bloodstone’s wet-blanket wife. Hilariously, executive producer Gerald Milton gives himself a Special Appearance credit for his inept line readings as a banker ready to take John Bloodstone’s heavily mortgaged house. Heavener somehow got PRIME TARGET a theatrical release, so bully for him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

So Fine

Ryan O’Neal jumped directly from the New York City set of SO FINE to the Los Angeles set of PARTNERS, and rarely as any leading man been stuck in two comedies this offensively unfunny back to back. SO FINE earned its notoriety for its outlandish story gimmick, which is a new line of blue jeans with clear plastic butt cheeks, and the controversial one-sheet Warner Brothers devised. The talented Andrew Bergman, who wrote the brilliant THE IN-LAWS and collaborated with Mel Brooks and others on the BLAZING SADDLES screenplay, both penned and made his directing debut on SO FINE, which was a flop that didn’t stay long in theaters (O’Neal refused to plug it on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON).

The great Jack Warden (THE VERDICT) is wasted as a garment manufacturer on hard times and deep in debt to hulking gangster Richard Kiel (Jaws in the 007 movies). To get back the $1.5 million Warden owes him, Kiel kidnaps Warden’s son, an English professor played by O’Neal (THE MAIN EVENT), and forces him to run his dad’s company. Why he believes a complete neophyte can run a dress company is never addressed.

After starting an affair with Kiel’s wife (FLASH GORDON’s Mariangela Melato), O’Neal stumbles upon the idea that becomes the fashion industry’s new sensation, the assless jeans. The climax, much too leisurely paced for a farce, takes place at a cheap college production of OTELLO, which makes no logical sense in the film’s context and plays like an idea Bergman stuffed in a drawer years earlier. O’Neal is strangely sidelined during it, while Warden plays hero and Melato and Kiel discuss their failing marriage.

Whatever satire was present in Bergman’s screenplay is lost in his plodding direction, which translates to crass and unfunny (can you believe Richard Kiel in blackface?). Though O’Neal demonstrated wonderful comic chops in PAPER MOON and especially WHAT’S UP, DOC? (he’s recycling his milquetoast WASP persona here), he is lost in SO FINE’s desperate attempt at farce. Melato comes across as grotesque, rather than sexy, and Kiel was cast for his size, not his comic timing.

An occasional moment of wit slips through (“Moorish?”), such as the gloriously tacky So Fine television commercial (that no channel would ever run, but anyway). Mike Kellin (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) has a great scene where he explains the deaths of his past wives, but Fred Gwynne (MY COUSIN EDDIE) fails to make a stuffy professor funny. The score is by spaghetti western stalwart Ennio Morricone, of all people.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

Number three in producer J.J. Abrams’ ersatz series of CLOVERFIELD movies is more notable as a marketing gimmick than as a film. Even cast members were surprised the day of Super Bowl LII, when a trailer aired with an announcement that Netflix would premiere THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX immediately following the game.. Like the superior 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, PARADOX was an existing script that was jerry-rigged into a CLOVERFIELD movie during production, but with a less impressive result. Paramount somehow convinced Netflix to shell out $50 million for a film by director Julius Onah (THE GIRL IS IN TROUBLE) the studio knew was a dud it would have taken a bath on.

Mostly set in outer space aboard a space station, the film centers around an international seven-astronaut crew. Nearly two years into their mission to develop a particle accelerator to supply energy for a dying Earth, something finally happens, all of it bad. They lose Earth and gain a stowaway (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. heavy Elizabeth Debicki), a woman trapped behind a bulkhead and fused with the station’s internal circuitry. She claims to be one of the crew, though nobody has ever seen her before.

Other weird stuff happens. The Russian crew member (THE MARTIAN’s Aksel Hennie) burps up a gallon of worms in a scene stolen from ALIEN. Irish Chris O’Dowd (BRIDESMAIDS) loses an arm, which crawls around on its own and writes a message to cut open the dead Russian. The screenplay by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET) contains a lot of gobbledygook, but it seems as though the station has initiated some sort of jump through parallel universes. While the limp ALIEN retread plays out in space, “our” Earth is ripping off THE MIST, as a doctor and a child dodge giant monsters seen as silhouettes against the fog and smoke of a world under attack.

Aside from O’Dowd as comic relief (he’s the movie’s Dick Wesson character), all of this craziness is played absolutely straight, which is why it’s so boring. Uziel and Onah try to build sympathy for the character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (MISS SLOANE) with the revelation that her children, who died in a fire back home, are still alive in a different universe. It’s an intriguing idea, and Mbatha-Raw plays it very well, but Abrams’ zeal to turn the story into a CLOVERFIELD movie puts it on the back burner in favor of generic gotta-get-back-home theatrics mixed with crazed-gunman-killing-everyone-aboard nonsense.

Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo (SELMA) as the crew’s lone Americans take acting honors with Zhang Ziyi (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), John Ortiz (CARLITO’S WAY), and Daniel Bruhl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) rounding out the spacebound cast. A good-looking picture in terms of set design (lot of pretty colored lights), THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX also benefits from a strong musical score by Bear McCreary (THE BOY) that occasionally builds suspense where none exists in the script.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Black Sleep

THE BLACK SLEEP is not very good — United Artists played it on double bills with the superior THE CREEPING UNKNOWN — but horror fans have a soft spot for it because of its cast. Not that its horror icons are treated well. Not counting the silent footage Edward D. Wood Jr. spliced into PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE after the actor’s death, Bela Lugosi makes his final film appearance in THE BLACK SLEEP, but in a relatively minor part as a mute butler, meaning he is given no dialogue. He died a few weeks after the film was released.

Faring little better than Bela in the dignity department is Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN), also playing mute as a hulking idiot named Mongo. The star is Basil Rathbone (TALES OF TERROR), playing a once-respected surgeon trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor by kidnapping unwilling test subjects for experiments that leave them drooling mutants and locked up in his basement dungeon. He uses an Indian drug called “the Black Sleep” to simulate death in his guinea pigs. Rathbone’s performance is very good, finding sympathy buried in the John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) screenplay and playing it more subtly than a horror movie about drooling mutants would suggest.

Filmed at Ziv Studios on a $230,000 budget by director Reginald LeBorg (THE MUMMY’S GHOST), the picture also features John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as a raving nutcase, Akim Tamiroff (TOUCH OF EVIL) as Rathbone’s Gypsy assistant (a role intended for Peter Lorre, who priced himself out of it), and PLAN 9’s Tor Johnson as, what else, a monster. LeBorg shoots a remarkable scene (for the era) in which Rathbone and his new assistant Herbert Rudley (THE SILVER CHALICE) expose a patient’s brain and cut into it with clear fluid pouring out.

Despite its small budget, THE BLACK SLEEP is not a bad-looking picture, shot in black and white by Gordon Avil (KING DINOSAUR) on decent Ziv sets and given a nice Les Baxter (HOUSE OF USHER) score. It was Lugosi’s first picture after leaving rehab for his drug habit, and the producers milked it for a great deal of publicity. It must have worked, as THE BLACK SLEEP was a money maker that earned a theatrical re-release in 1963.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Astrologer (1976)

One-and-done director and star Craig Denney made this indescribable ego trip that never found full-blown national distribution, partially because he stuffed it with 1960s rock songs without bothering to license them. THE ASTROLOGER lurches from scene to scene without establishing shots, proper character introductions, or even storytelling purpose. One moment the title character is lined up with fellow inmates by a sweatbox in a Kenyan prison, being read the riot act by their jailer, and one cut later, he’s somewhere else entirely, rendering the guard’s threats of snakes and shooting on sight totally moot. A dinner scene is shown in slow motion with no dialogue. A fish-eye lens provides a tour of a bar restroom, complete with a close-up of the urinal. Story information is delivered via newspaper headlines...written in languages other than English.

Synopsizing the plot is both impossible and useless in describing how bonkers THE ASTROLOGER is. I could tell you that Denney plays Craig Marcus Alexander, a fake carnival mystic with big ambitions who marries Darrien (Darrien Earle, who has a Barbara Parkins thing going on), travels to Kenya to retrieve precious gems from ruins guarded by cobras, uses his new wealth to bankroll a new multimedia career in television and movies, makes front-page headlines everywhere as the world’s most famous astrologer, hires old friend Arthyr (Arthyr Chadbourne, a real-life astrologer, sadly swathed in fake gray hair and mustache makeup) to be his financial wizard, undertakes secret astrological missions for the U.S. Navy (!), tracks down Darrien, now a drunken whore in a rat-infested closet apartment, and brings her to his mansion before making her an international film star in Craig Alexander productions… I could tell you all that, but it would be a woefully incomplete account and wouldn’t move the needle one iota toward describing how truly crazy and incompetent THE ASTROLOGER is.

Denney is so far up his own rear end that he shows us scenes from Alexander’s film, also called THE ASTROLOGER (we learn it grossed $145 million!) and starring Alexander, while Alexander sits in a screening room with a smug yeah-I-got-this look on his face, the same look you know Denney had while screening his film. Florence Marly, the space vampire from QUEEN OF BLOOD, shows up in one scene playing an unlikely Oscar-nominated movie star as an ersatz lost Gabor sister. Remarkably, there appears to be some talent, as well as some money, involved. There are helicopter shots, crane shots, underwater shots, quite a few locations. The photography by Alan Gornick is quite good, really.

Up top, I described THE ASTROLOGER as indescribable, and please don’t make the mistake of thinking I have adequately described its pleasures. Though more technically accomplished than Ed Wood and more closely anchored to reality than Tommy Wiseau, Denney shares with those auteurs a unique eccentricity that manifests in their art. Despite the unlicensed songs by the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Tommy Edwards, and Conway Twitty, THE ASTROLOGER did screen on a few double bills in the late 1970s (it bears a Republic Pictures logo) and even received a home video release in Australia. It now lies with the American Genre Film Archive, which can only screen it theatrically because of music rights issues. Do not miss it. Oh, god, I forgot the cosmic mirror. Where the hell is Craig Denney today?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Johnny Dangerously

Michael Keaton was riding a creative high after brilliant performances in NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM when he took on this dud for director Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH). Luckily, Keaton rebounded a year later with GUNG HO and, after a couple of bombs, BEETLEJUICE, his terrific dramatic turn in CLEAN AND SOBER, and then BATMAN.

An odd premise for an BLAZING SADDLES-style spoof, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY is a spoof of 1930s gangster pictures with a screenplay credited to Harry Colomby (Keaton’s manager), Norman Steinberg (BLAZING SADDLES), and sitcom guys Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff (DIFF’RENT STROKES). Keaton is good gangster Dangerously, just trying to financially support his mother (Maureen Stapleton) and younger brother (Griffin Dunne). On the, er, opposite side of the law is mean rival Danny Vermin, played by SNL’s Joe Piscopo in his first big feature role. The only character anyone remembers is mob boss Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri from the Mel Brooks sitcom WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN), who swears in malapropisms like “fargin’ icehole.”

Audiences weren’t taken with JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, a box office flop that opened with just 65% of the per-screen gross of BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, which also premiered Christmas weekend of 1984. The flashback structure is weak, partially because it keeps Keaton and the other main players off-screen for much of the first act. Keaton is good and his co-stars work hard — too hard. You can see them scrambling for laughs at times. The toilet jokes push the then-new PG-13 rating to its limit (an extended gag about men with testicles the size of beach balls feels like someone is stomping on yours). Surprisingly, Dimitri’s hamming always gets laughs.

Marilu Henner (TAXI) is sexy as the love interest. Stapleton is awful as the cliched sweet old lady who curses and talks about getting laid, as if that joke was ever funny. Poor Glynnis O’Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE) is criminally wasted. Danny DeVito, just off ROMANCING THE STONE, is a crooked district attorney. Peter Boyle (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), Ron Carey (HIGH ANXIETY), and Dom DeLuise (BLAZING SADDLES) are here to remind you of Mel Brooks movies. Alan Hale from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND is an Irish cop, along with Ray Walston (from Heckerling’s FAST TIMES), Joe Flaherty (SCTV), Taylor Negron (THE LAST BOY SCOUT), and...Bob Eubanks? “Weird” Al Yankovic’s theme song is pretty good.