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.