Saturday, January 20, 2018

Darkman

One of the most underrated superhero movies ever made, DARKMAN is also the most underrated film directed by Sam Raimi, helmer of the original EVIL DEAD and Spider-Man trilogies. Raimi created the Darkman character for Universal and shares screenplay credit with his ARMY OF DARKNESS collaborator (and brother) Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer (HARD TARGET), and OUT ON A LIMB’s Daniel and Joshua Goldin. Inspired more by the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, William Gibson’s The Shadow, and EC comic books of the 1950s than by mainstream superhero fare, Darkman has no superpowers per se, but uses his scientific genius to strike back against the criminal underworld.

In Raimi’s origin story, Darkman is Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist who is nearly burned to death in an attack by crime kingpin Durant (Larry Drake). Though believed to be dead, Westlake survives and uses his experimental synthetic flesh — which dissolves after 99 minutes — to both re-create his old face and create new ones, so he can infiltrate Durant’s organization (think Martin Landau in the old MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series). Based in a secret warehouse laboratory, Westlake seeks revenge against both Durant and Durant’s employer, corrupt real estate magnate Strack (Colin Friels), who uses Westlake’s attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) as a hostage.

The first big-budget studio film by Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, DARKMAN soars in large part because of Neeson, who suggests Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN, creating a sympathetic character while mostly swathed in bandages or trapped under layers of hideous makeup. Using gestures and his expressive eyes, Neeson delivers a compassionate portrait of a mad genius split between vengeance and self-pity.

Beyond the performances, Raimi’s direction of the action sequences (on a relatively low $16 million budget) and the makeup effects are well done with a dark comic flair (some of the visual effects are shaky). Danny Elfman, just coming off his pioneering work on BATMAN, produces a satisfying soundscape to punctuate the heroics. Not much of a hit — the R-rated adventure opened in first place, but was out of the Top Five in under a month — DARKMAN inspired two direct-to-video sequels (without Neeson or Raimi), as well as action figures, video games, comic books, and even an unsuccessful television pilot.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Yor, The Hunter From The Future

Look, I’m not going to argue that YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, which Columbia astonishingly released on over 1400 screens in the summer of 1983 (number one film that weekend: Rodney Dangerfield’s EASY MONEY!), fits any textbook definition of “good movie.” I will argue, however, that if you don’t enjoy every warped frame of YOR, you may have not a drop of joy running through your veins.

Filmed in Turkey (exteriors) and Rome (interiors) by director Antonio Margheriti, whose forays into science fiction run the gamut from ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE to WILD, WILD PLANET (part of his Gamma One series for MGM) and TREASURE ISLAND IN OUTER SPACE (!), YOR was originally a four-part miniseries made for Italian television. Columbia trimmed it to 88 minutes and put it in theaters the same week Universal premiered METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN! (YOR finished seventh at the box office opening weekend, METALSTORM eighth.)

Blond beefcake Reb Brown, then known best for playing Marvel Comics’ Captain America in two television movies, stars as the rugged Yor, a stone axe his only possession. While roaming the desert, he encounters middle-aged Pag (Luciano Pigozzi) and his scrumptious ward Kala (MOONRAKER’s Corinne Clery) as they are being attacked by a dinosaur. Yor fights the creature, kills it, chugs its blood, and becomes Pag and Kala’s protector, as they continue their journey together.

As a cut-down version of an (approximate) four-hour piece, YOR moves quickly like a Republic serial, putting its characters in one dangerous mess after another. Barbarians with blue skin whose leader sits on a skull-like throne, a giant bat that Yor uses as a hang glider (!), a snake pit, mummies and their lovely non-mummy queen (Ayshe Gul)...and robots with lasers.

Yes, I mean, the title gives it away, so why hide it? YOR is not set in the prehistoric past, but in a post-apocalyptic future. Yor is not Yor, but Galahad, who survived a spaceship crash and grew up alone in the wilderness. Obviously inspired as much by STAR WARS as by CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Margheriti eventually goes full sci-fi, introducing John Steiner (TENEBRAE) as the Overload, a Darth Vader imitator who plans to use his robot army to conquer the burned-out ball that is now Earth. Where there is an evil space overlord, there will be rebels, so Yor joins up and adapts quickly to laser guns, matter transporters, and spaceships.

Of course, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense (how could dinosaurs exist in the future?), even if the big twist comes as a pleasant surprise (the title notwithstanding). Bad movies are often just as entertaining — even more so — than good ones, and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE is as entertaining as they come. It moves quickly and is never boring. From the five-and-dime wigs to the loopy dialogue (“Stupid talking box!”) to Steiner’s creepy hamming as the black-armored space heavy to the delirious theme song (“Yor’s world!/He’s the man!”) composed by brothers Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, nothing in YOR is competent, yet everything somehow comes together.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Silk (1986)

Cec Verrell is the star of SILK and one of the few Roger Corman heroines to keep her top on (but how about that rockin' poster?). Corman was the executive producer of this cheapo action meller filmed by director Cirio H. Santiago, who made a lot of them. Laughably, the film is set in Hawaii, but aside from a handful of second unit shots, including Verrell strolling across the lawn of the Iolani Palace (better known to classic television fans as Five-O headquarters), Santiago shot SILK in the Philippines, fooling nobody.

The phony location shooting is hardly the worst part of SILK, which is a typically Santiagoan jam of poor sound, amateur-hour acting, and simple plotting with a healthy dose of sex and violence. Verrell is, of course, Silk, the sobriquet of Jenny Sleighton, the sexiest and baddest-ass cop on Oahu. Somehow she finds the time between blowing up cars and making out with fellow fuzz Bill McLaughlin (NAKED VENGEANCE) to delve into stabby rednecks with huge knives and the smuggling of gangsters into Hawaii from Asia.

That’s a lot of balls for screenwriter Frederick Bailey (FAST GUN) to toss at Santiago, who predictably fumbles them, resulting in a story that doesn’t seem to make sense. An unusual “characters created by” credit for one Claudine St. James accompanies Bailey’s and Santiago’s screenplay credit, though there seems to be no earlier Silk film or novel. Perhaps St. James wrote an unpublished book or unproduced screenplay that Corman optioned for a few shekels.

Verrell is beautiful, of course, but also believable as a tough cop with her hard look and slicked-back short hair. She looks and moves like an athlete, and does a few of her own stunts. Nothing really dangerous, but enough to establish herself as the character (more than can be said for Monique Gabrielle in the sequel, who couldn’t be less believable). Her acting is wooden as hell, but also arguably less important than her looks and athleticism in a Filipino action movie for Concorde Pictures.

Plenty of Santiago’s repertory company make it into the film, including Vic Diaz (FIRECRACKER), Henry Strzalkowski (FUTURE HUNTERS), Joseph Zucchero (ANGELFIST), and production designer Joe Mari Avellana (WHEELS OF FIRE), who plays Silk’s Japanese (!) colleague. It’s 1986, so Silk has her own theme song, belted out by an E.G. Daily soundalike. As mentioned above, Santiago made a 1989 sequel, predictably titled SILK 2, with Verrell replaced by Gabrielle (DEATHSTALKER II), who was more open-minded about doing nude scenes.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eye Of The Eagle II: Inside The Enemy

Carl Franklin, a busy television actor in guest shots and regular gigs on CARIBE and MCCLAIN’S LAW, found time in his schedule to study directing at the AFI Conservatory. Upon graduation, he hooked up with Concorde Pictures head Roger Corman, who hired Franklin to direct his first feature, which turned out to be EYE OF THE EAGLE II. It’s an improvement over EYE OF THE EAGLE in that it has an actual story — Franklin and Dan Gagliasso (NAM ANGELS) take screenplay credit — and first-time director Franklin cares about it.

Literally from the opening shots, it’s clear this is not Cirio Santiago churning out a bunch of shots to make a schedule. While Franklin certainly was shooting quickly to make a schedule, his camera is fluid and his actors appear rehearsed, and no doubt FULL METAL JACKET was a major influence on both the story and shooting style. The result is a strong example of Corman’s general rule that, as long as the requisite sex and violence elements are present and the production remains on time and budget, he will leave the director alone.

Todd Field, who ditched acting to become the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of IN THE BEDROOM and LITTLE CHILDREN, stars in this Vietnam War drama as the sole survivor of a massacre who is sort of rescued by a young Vietnamese woman played by Shirley Tesoro (THE FIGHTER). While he’s recuperating from his injuries, his corrupt commanding officer (Andy Wood, one of THE ANNIHILATORS) kidnaps Tesoro and turns her on to dope and prostitution.

Instead of a revenge movie, which might have been more interesting from an action aspect, Franklin makes Field a passive hero (and a more believable one) who rescues Tesoro and spends the rest of the film getting the hell out of Dodge with Wood and his flunkies right on their tale.

With executive producer Santiago, the director of EYE OF THE EAGLE, presumably keeping a close watch on Corman’s new protege, EYE OF THE EAGLE II is a fine debut for Franklin, who also nicely plays a supporting role as a go-along-to-get-along colonel. While giving his boss the exploitation elements desired (Tesoro does some scenes topless), Franklin turns in a more sensitive film than is usual for the genre. Field isn’t the most commanding leading man, though that plays in his favor to some extent, because his character is not supposed to be a superman like, for instance, star Brett Clark in EYE OF THE EAGLE.

Speaking of, there was an actual sequel to EYE OF THE EAGLE called BEHIND ENEMY LINES, in which Robert Patrick reprised his John Ransom character. Why that film wasn’t called EYE OF THE EAGLE II, only Roger Corman knows. After two more Corman movies, Franklin directed the acclaimed crime films ONE FALSE MOVE and DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, and earned an Emmy nomination for an episode of HOUSE OF CARDS, making him one of the few mainstream successes from Corman’s Concorde years.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Blood Of Dracula's Castle

Al Adamson had few skills as a filmmaker, but one of his good decisions was using Castle Ranch, an actual stone castle built near Lancaster, California in the 1920s, as a location for BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE. Thanks in part to the additional production value, Adamson’s eight-day wonder, well shot by Laszlo Kovacs (who did EASY RIDER the same year!), is one of his best, which is to say it’s coherent, not unwatchable, and probably won’t put you to sleep. That’s a big win by Adamson standards.

Gene Shane (HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS) stars as a wiseass fashion photographer who inherits the castle from a late uncle. He takes his model girlfriend Jennifer Bishop (THE MALTESE BIPPY) to look it over, intending to move into it when they get married. Trouble is, the present tenants, middle-aged Alex D’Arcy (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE) and Paula Raymond (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), don’t want to leave. Double trouble: they’re vampires who use butler John Carradine (THE ICE PIRATES), psycho Robert Dix (SATAN’S SADISTS), and mindless hulk Ray Young (BLUE SUNSHINE) to snatch young women and chain them in the cellar for use as a blood buffet. The dungeon is obviously a cheap plywood set at odds with the glamour of the real castle.

They may be in a cheap horror movie, but D’Arcy and Raymond play up their Old Hollywood allure in amusing performances. Dix’s character is so crazy that he takes the time — while being pursued by cops! — to drown a bikini girl he just happens to come across. Though it might have been a kick to see Carradine reprise his HOUSE OF DRACULA role, the fun that the veteran actors are having just hamming up screenwriter Rex Carlton’s (THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE) ridiculous dialogue is infectious to a point.

After all, it’s still an Al Adamson movie that opens with three minutes of Adamson regular Vicki Volante driving and walking while listening to the radio. Crown International released it in drive-ins on a double bill with NIGHTMARE IN WAX, which may be worse. Some prints have extra footage directed by Don Hulette (BREAKER BREAKER) in which Dix’s character is revealed as a werewolf. That must be a real howler.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ten From Your Show Of Shows

More than sixty years after YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS went off the air, it remains in the conversation when talk turns to the funniest television variety shows of all time. One indication of its high esteem is TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, a theatrically released film compiling ten of the series’ best sketches.

With a writing staff that included Neil Simon (THE ODD COUPLE), Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES), Mel Tolkin (ALL IN THE FAMILY), Danny Simon (THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW), and Carl Reiner (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS aired live for 90 minutes on Saturday nights from 1950 to 1954. It made stars of its four regulars — top dog Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Reiner — and won two Emmy Awards for Best Variety Program.

To learn why the show was so popular, TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS is an excellent starter package. Though the series was broadcast live every week from Manhattan, director/producer Max Liebman saved the kinescopes. Back when television networks were interested in their history, NBC would occasionally pull some clips for anniversary shows, but TEN provides the opportunity to see the series’ best sketches in their original form.

Picking a favorite is a tough call, but in the running are Coca’s jealous boyfriend Reiner tussling with innocent bystander (bysitter?) Caesar in a movie theater, leaving poor Sid confused, battered, and nearly naked; Caesar, Coca, Morris, and Reiner as figures on a rotating Bavarian clock that’s a textbook on comic timing; and a brilliant spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. That none of the actors broke while performing such hilarious material is a testament to their professionalism (in contrast, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE comics will break if someone crosses their eyes), but “From Here to Obscurity” pushes Coca to her limit.

Caesar and Coca weren’t friends off-stage, but they’re one of television’s great comedy teams, both with marvelously expressive faces and masters of verbal dexterity. After YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS left the air, Reiner and Morris followed Caesar to CAESAR’S HOUR, another live variety show on NBC, while Coca did the one-season THE IMOGENE COCA SHOW.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Getting Even (1986)

Edward Albert (GALAXY OF TERROR) as Lee Horsley stars as Tag Taggar, a millionaire industrialist, helicopter pilot, kung fu expert, and all-around badass with a mustache and Texas twang who in no way resembles Matt Houston. American Distribution Group got GETTING EVEN into some theaters in 1986, but more people saw it on cable and VHS. Unfortunately, no legitimate DVD exists, so this fine action movie remains highly underrated.

Tag infiltrates Afghanistan and rescues a cache of deadly nerve gas, which he brings back to his Dallas lab to study. The feds, in the shapely form of Tag’s former squeeze Paige (DALLAS sexpot Audrey Landers, miscast), wants the nerve gas. So does Tag’s competition: evil rancher Kenderson (the great Joe Don Baker from WALKING TALL), who steals the gas from Tag’s lab and ransoms it for $30 million or else he’ll dump it over downtown Dallas.

Excellent gore makeup, including a juicy face-melting, demonstrate the gas’ effects. Regular doses of intentional humor and impressive stunts lift this Texas production above the bar for independent action movies. The director is Dwight H. Little, who moved on to entertaining action films with bigger budgets, such as RAPID FIRE (Brandon Lee), MARKED FOR DEATH (Steven Seagal), and MURDER AT 1600 (Wesley Snipes), as well as a long career in episodic television (THE PRACTICE, BONES, PRISON BREAK).

GETTING EVEN must have impressed the producers of Little’s later movies, as it demonstrates an ability to put thrilling action sequences on film without a lot of money. With help from veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley (Shatner’s double on STAR TREK being just one of his many credits), Little stages some terrific shootouts, chases, explosions, dangerous helicopter stunts, and an impressive finale with Albert crawling around the outside of Reunion Tower. The score by Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3), reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s CAPRICORN ONE, is a tremendous asset.