Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Final Option

Right-wing propaganda masquerading as shoot-’em-up entertainment, this thriller was known as WHO DARES WINS upon its original British release, but was retitled THE FINAL OPTION for MGM’s U.S. release. It was not a hit in American theaters, but it played on HBO seemingly 70,000 times, despite its R rating, so somebody must have been watching it. It’s too long (125 minutes) and the political story is not terribly interesting, but when director Ian Sharp, who later directed second unit on GOLDENEYE, gets the opportunity to stage violent action, THE FINAL OPTION is impressive. If only there was more of it.

Based loosely on the Special Air Service’s 1980 raid on London’s Iran embassy, which had been hijacked by Arab terrorists, THE FINAL OPTION stars Judy Davis (A PASSAGE TO INDIA) as the leader of “The People’s Lobby,” a terrorist organization that takes over the home of the American ambassador to England (Don Fellows), who is hosting a dinner for Secretary of State Richard Widmark (COMA) and Army general Robert Webber (S.O.B.). All she wants is for the U.S. to blow up one of its Navy bases in Scotland. Fat chance, sister, with the SAS on the case!

The SAS’ secret weapon, luckily for them, is already in the house. Top-billed Lewis Collins (TV’s THE PROFESSIONALS) botched his undercover assignment to infiltrate the People’s Lobby, but Davis takes him along on the hostage-taking anyway, probably because he turns her on in the sack (anything for England, dear boy). Edward Woodward (THE WICKER MAN) is properly staunch as the SAS man who sends Collins on the mission, and horror fans may recognize Ingrid Pitt (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) as one of the terrorists (British television star John Duttine is another).

Collins was almost in OCTOPUSSY, but judging from his work in THE FINAL OPTION — his first lead in a feature — he would have been a Lazenbyesque James Bond. He’s okay in the fight scenes, but has little chemistry with Davis or the actress playing his wife and is generally lacking in color and charisma. That’s a problem with a thriller with so little action (Davis’ group doesn’t invade Fellows’ home until the third act) and so much dialogue. His mainstream film career never took off, nor did that of director Sharp, who went back to television.

Monday, May 10, 2021

She Devil

Scientists Dan Scott (Jack Kelly, who went from this to MAVERICK) and Richard Bach (Albert Dekker, who played mad scientist DR. CYCLOPS in 1940) live platonically with their elderly maid Hannah (Blossom Rock, Grandmama on THE ADDAMS FAMILY) in a mansion with a lab in Los Angeles. This may actually be the least believable element of SHE DEVIL, which 20th Century Fox released on its Regal Films label for exploitation movies as a co-feature with KRONOS.

Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “The Adaptive Ultimate” starred Zachary Scott and Peter Hensen when it was adapted as an episode of SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, Richard Derr and Lola Albright as a TALES OF TOMORROW, and Richard Hart as a STUDIO ONE. So it was already a well-worn tale on television when Carroll Young (JUNGLE JIM) and Kurt Neumann (THE FLY) adapted it for Regal. Dr. Scott believes he has created a serum that can cure all diseases, punctures, broken bones, and other ailments. He wants to test it on humans, but Dr. Bach isn’t sure that’s ethical.

However, one patient, Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), a terminal tuberculosis patient with no family, friends, or income, interests Bach, and he okays the injection of Scott’s serum. It works. She’s up and walking around Beverly Hills in no time, and the two doctors invite her to move in with them and Hannah. They don’t yet realize Kyra has also changed into a stone cold killer who can mentally change the color of her hair (director of photography Karl Struss achieves this without cutting or visual effects by using lens filters).

The worst of Neumann’s four science fiction films as a director, SHE DEVIL basically just plods along with Kyra vamping the men around her to get all the nice things she’s always dreamed of and poor lovesick sap Scott falling for her. It isn’t the fault of Blanchard (ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS), who looks smashing as a blonde and acts believably as a murderous trollop. It’s merely that the story’s stakes aren’t high enough. Kyra is dangerous, but she isn’t that dangerous. Bach and Scott don’t even kick her out of the house, and Scott remains in love with her even after she has killed two people.

Plus, SHE DEVIL is just sloppy. Neumann expects the audience to believe that just changing her hair color makes Kyra unrecognizable to others. When she forces her new husband (John Archer) to drive over a cliff, Neumann cuts to a stock shot of a car backing over the cliff. Blanchard made a few more movies and plenty of television episodes before dying of cancer in her 40s.

Friday, March 26, 2021

World Without End

Writer/director Edward Bernds was better known for comedies starring the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys, but he also made occasional forays into science fiction (SPACE MASTER X-7, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE). He directed WORLD WITHOUT END, a time travel adventure, for Allied Artists in Technicolor and CinemaScope. Despite the advanced technical specs, Bernds does little with the camera to provide visual excitement, and the scenes of the rocketship barreling through outer space are cribbed from Monogram’s earlier release FLIGHT TO MARS.

A flight from Mars opens WORLD WITHOUT END, as four astronauts played by Hugh Marlowe (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS), Rod Taylor (THE TIME MACHINE), Nelson Leigh (CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN), and Christopher Dark (SUDDENLY) return to the Iverson Ranch 500 years after they left it. Nuclear war has devastated the Earth’s surface, and the survivors, who are mainly hot young chicks in short skirts and middle-aged men jealous of the glamorous astronauts, live in an underground city. Apparently only Caucasians survived “the big blow.” Above live “mutates:” hideously deformed beasts who attack the astronauts on sight.

The opposite of sophisticated 1950s sci-fi like FORBIDDEN PLANET and THIS ISLAND EARTH, Bernds’ film is akin to MISSILE TO THE MOON, CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, and other silly films about stiff Earthmen stumbling onto futuristic civilizations populated by horny women looking for mates. It allows Australia native Taylor to use his natural accent, but the performances are stiff, and the actors playing the future Earthmen look silly in their costumes and skullcaps. Nothing is sillier than the foam spiders that “attack” our heroes in a cave.

Allied Artists released WORLD WITHOUT END on a double bill with INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN. Noted character actors Paul Brinegar (RAWHIDE) and Strother Martin (COOL HAND LUKE) are “underground people,” and Herb Vigran has lines in an early scene as a reporter. Considering the similarities between the two films, Rod Taylor must have felt deja vu when he starred in THE TIME MACHINE four years later.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Night School

The director of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG ended his career with the atrocious SEXTETTE (starring a stuffed Mae West) and this minor slasher movie filmed in Boston. Paramount released Ken Hughes' NIGHT SCHOOL on a double bill with the slasher spoof STUDENT BODIES, but you’d be hard-pressed to decide which film is funnier.

NIGHT SCHOOL is certainly the duller, and hardly anyone would remember it if not for its 24-year-old star, Rachel Ward, making her first feature. The English actress quickly appeared in SHARKY’S MACHINE and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID before THE THORN BIRDS, which aired on ABC a year and a half after NIGHT SCHOOL vanished from theaters, made her a brief household name.

Not much about her performance in NIGHT SCHOOL indicates success in Ward’s future, though she’s certainly beautiful (and isn’t shy about revealing her body). Producer Ruth Avergon also provided the screenplay about a mysterious killer in a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet who decapitates young women and deposits their heads in containers of water. Leonard Mann, usually the star of Italian thrillers (THE HUMANOID), plays the Boston detective in charge of the case. His main suspect is anthropology professor Drew Snyder (AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who is boffing his live-in teaching assistant (Ward).

Hughes, perhaps unsurprisingly for a filmmaker with British classics like CROMWELL and THE TRIAL OF OSCAR WILDE on his resume, seems unsuited for bloody horror and unwilling to get into it. Keeping the murders off-camera lowers the interest of horror fans, but NIGHT SCHOOL is too dull, stiffly acted, and light on characterization for more refined thriller fans. The only suspense is the revelation of the killer’s identity, but Avergon’s script provides too few suspects to make a real game of it. Ward made another cheap horror flick, THE FINAL TERROR, but it didn’t get released until after she was famous. Composer Brad Fiedel (THE TERMINATOR) and director of photography Mark Irwin (SCREAM) also went on to better things.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Red Heat (1988)

Yes, Virginia, there once was a very small window of time in which husky comic actor Jim Belushi (THE PRINCIPAL) was not only a major Hollywood action star, but one who received equal billing with superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (COMMANDO). Both actors are cast according to type in RED HEAT, a raucous action comedy directed by the man who helped create the genre with 48 HRS.: Walter Hill. It opened at #1 (the same weekend BULL DURHAM and THE GREAT OUTDOORS opened), but was not one of Arnold’s biggest hits. But, hell, neither was THE TERMINATOR.

Schwarzenegger is Ivan Danko, a tight-lipped Moscow cop with a dangerous reputation for kicking bad guy ass, even naked in the snow. Belushi is Art Ritzik, a laidback slob and Chicago cop whose clowning rubs the ultra-serious Danko the wrong way. Their common goal is Viktor Rosta (ACTION JACKSON’s Ed O’Ross), a druglord who escapes Danko’s clutches in Russia, but ends up in Chicago. The two cops tear hell out of half the Windy City in pursuit of Rosta...if they don’t kill each other first!

Action fans eager for a chase or shootout every ten minutes and plenty of smart talk will find RED HEAT worthwhile. The story is more formulaic than might be expected from credited writers Hill, Harry Kleiner (BULLITT), and Troy Kennedy Martin (EDGE OF DARKNESS), but in the steady hands of action craftsman Hill, the film is fast, funny, foul-mouthed, and full of interesting character actors. Peter Boyle (TAXI DRIVER) has the thankless role of Belushi’s boss. Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX) shows up as an uptight cop, Gina Gershon (BOUND) is a dancer, Pruitt Taylor Vince (BEAUTIFUL GIRLS) is a hotel clerk, Brion James (BLADE RUNNER) is an informant, and Peter Jason (ARACHNOPHOBIA) is a television host.

In the grand tradition of Sean Connery playing an Irish cop in THE UNTOUCHABLES and a Spaniard in HIGHLANDER, Schwarzenegger makes no effort at a Russian accent. RED HEAT did, however, shoot one day in Moscow’s Red Square — the first American production to do so — so there’s novelty value in seeing Arnold there. If you watch a lot of action movies, you may recognize the bus chase, which the studio sold as stock footage to independent movies that couldn’t afford to shoot their own.