Thursday, December 30, 2010

Game Plan For Disaster

As the cover of this Dell paperback indicates, take a dash of BLACK SUNDAY, add the "searing horror" of THE TOWERING INFERNO, and you get Barney Cohen's 1975 novel COLISEUM, which would have made a swell TV-movie starring David Janssen and David Birney.

I'm sure someone in Hollywood did read COLISEUM, because not only did SUPERDOME and MURDER AT THE WORLD SERIES soon become TV-movies about killers infiltrating major sporting events, in 1976, Universal released TWO-MINUTE WARNING, which has the exact same plot as COLISEUM. The Universal film was officially based on George LaFountaine's novel, which presumably also duplicates Cohen's plot. Or did the LaFountaine book come first? I'm not sure.

As you may have guessed, COLISEUM is about a sniper that attacks a 112,000-seat domed stadium on the first Sunday of the National Football League season. In tried-and-true disaster movie fashion, however, the action doesn't start until very late. Up to then, Cohen creates a bunch of different characters and provides us with their various backstories.

What's interesting is the details involving the day-to-day operation of a stadium that plays host to rock concerts, sporting events, and even a millionaire swami. Among the leading characters are publicity director Danny Haber, who is one of the men in charge of the operation; security chief Jason Stretcher; pro quarterback Bo Detwiler; and Mindy Haber, Danny's sister and Bo's lover.

Outside of Danny, most of the characters detailed in Cohen's novel have little to do with the plot, which opens with the sniper (his identity is meant to be a mystery that is revealed about halfway through) sneaking into the stadium a few days early to fire some test rounds. Once the action begins, it's surprisingly brutal, and I was surprised that Cohen doesn't just save the tragedy for white male victims.

Cohen, who moved from novels into screenwriting, maintains a steady pace and clearly was a baseball fan, sprinkling names like Terry Forster and Von Joshua into the narrative. Probably best known for penning the screenplay for FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER, Cohen later wrote a draft or two for Cannon's proposed SPIDER-MAN film, created the vampire-cop series FOREVER KNIGHT, and supervised scripts for the SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH TV series.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Is For Awesome

21-year-old Emma Stone is charming as hell in EASY A, which is its prime asset and also partially a problem.

Stone is playing Olive, an Ojai, California high school student who is supposed to be unpopular and unattractive. Of course, Olive is wonderful and sexy and funny and stretches the film’s premise into science fiction territory. But because Emma Stone, whom you may recall from SUPERBAD, is a terrifically appealing young actress in a real star-making performance, she gives you all the reason you need to watch the amusing EASY A.

Bert V. Royal’s plot targets Olive as the object of scurrilous rumors after she tells her best friend Rhiannon (BANDSLAM’s Aly Michalka, showing off Ojai High’s student body’s lone boob job) a fib about losing her virginity to a community college student named George. The story gets around, and soon the school’s male outcasts, including a fat, hairy guy and a gay student named Brandon (COUGAR TOWN’s Dan Byrd), are soliciting Olive to say she slept with them so they can improve their street cred. Amanda Bynes plays fundamentalist classmate Marianne—Olive’s chief rival—and GOSSIP GIRL’s Penn Badgley is the nice guy who doesn’t believe the rancid stories about Olive.

Royal’s dialogue is smart and catchy and the kind of words Diablo Cody wishes she could write. The cast clearly loves the script, which brings out the best and the glibbest in former MURDER ONE castmates Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s parents, Thomas Haden Church (SIDEWAYS) as her concerned English teacher, Lisa Kudrow (FRIENDS) as her adulterous guidance counselor, and Malcolm McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) as the principal. TV veteran Will Gluck (ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE) keeps the gags and words coming at a rat-a-tat pace. It seems weird that high school students would look down as piously on sexually active peers as EASY A’s do, but Gluck stays true to his cockeyed universe that pays homage to the popular teen movies of the 1980s without slavishly copying them.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Death At Its Ugliest

So who wrote DEATH RACE, the seventh in Pinnacle's men's adventure series about an ex-mobster called the Butcher? Some online sources claim prolific pulp author Michael Avallone, who certainly wrote some Butcher novels, also penned this 1973 entry, while Bradley Mengel's SERIAL VIGILANTES OF PAPERBACK FICTION credits DEATH RACE to Butcher creator James Dockery.

I'm inclined to go with Dockery, though DEATH RACE is not a very good novel. It sends Bucher, the former Mafia kingpin with a quarter-million-dollar bounty on his head, to Alaska to perform a mission for the super-secret government agency White Hat, for which he now operates as an agent codenamed Iceman. Unfortunately, it also saddles Bucher with a new Eskimo lover, Sonya Rostov, and most of the book is this badass mooning over her and even considering quitting White Hat to live with her in the cold and the ice and the snow.

It comes as no surprise that Sonya doesn't live to the end of the book, which motivates the Butcher to kick ass. The villain is Dr. Wan Fu, a criminal genius with--literally--two brains, one of which grows on the outside of his face like a hideous birthmark. His favorite game is to sic his killer canines on helpless victims.

DEATH RACE may have the lowest body count of any Butcher novel, which is depressing. It won't take long to read, but is probably not worth the effort.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Astro-Zombies

Las Vegas-based filmmaker Ted V. Mikels’ cult classic THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES has earned its spot on any list of all-time worst films, and I love that M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers (!) was involved in its screenplay and production. At least he put his name on it (he was just a somewhat recognizable TV guest star at the time), unlike his previous Mikels collaboration, DR. SEX, in which he billed himself as Juan Rogero. The opening titles play over footage of radio-control toy robots. I have no idea why. Just accept the fact of THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES.

Mikels’ film stretches across the horror, science fiction, and spy genres to present the story of mad doctor DeMarco (John Carradine, natch), furious after being sacked by the government. For revenge, he creates a zombie (played by an actor wearing an obvious rubber Halloween monster mask) from corpses and sends his mute hunchback assistant Franchot (William Bagdad) after more body parts. All the mutilation murders get the attention of CIA desk jockey Holman (veteran character actor Wendell Corey, who may not be entirely sober), as well as a bunch of Commie spies led by the alluring Satana (FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!'s alluring Tura Satana), whose cleavage and thigh-high skirts, as well as a revolver with a silencer (!), keep her boys in line.

THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES lurches madly back and forth from hilarious to stultifying, sometimes within the same scene. For instance, almost every Carradine scene finds the horror legend alone in his lab, reciting two pounds of senseless technobabble to Franchot and twisting knobs. Just when your eyelids have about closed (through no fault, I should say, of Carradine, who handles the turgid dialogue like a pro), Mikels cuts to the other side of the lab, where a sexy girl in a bikini lies strapped to a table. For absolutely no reason—nothing is done with her, and she is incidental to the plot.

Rogers claims some of THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES was filmed at Peter Falk’s house (!) and that he made a lot of money on it in drive-ins. Shot in six days (and Carradine was surely done within two), Mikels’ movie is a total mess with distracted actors and a nonsense plot. As rotten as it is, however, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (there’s only one astro-zombie until the last ninety seconds) remains eminently watchable and is certainly one of Mikels’ most entertaining pictures.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Deadly Game

I know. It's been a long time since I did a book review here. I had been laying off the trashy novels for awhile to catch up on other things, but now I'm back and starting the new reviews with a winner. And I must say I'm surprised it took Pinnacle fourteen novels for the Penetrator to rip off "The Most Dangerous Game."

First published in 1924, "The Most Dangerous Game" is a short story by Richard Connell and has probably been stolen for use in more novels, stories, movies, and television shows than any other. I believe only the 1932 feature THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and 1956's RUN FOR THE SUN are the only official film adaptations, but you've seen the central plot a hundred times: man and/or woman is captured by a crazy hunter who sets them loose in the jungle/desert/forest with a head start and then tracks them as game. For instance, in SURVIVING THE GAME, it was a homeless Ice-T who was the quarry of hunters including Gary Busey and Rutger Hauer. Even GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (!) did a MOST DANGEROUS GAME ripoff with great white hunter Rory Calhoun tracking Gilligan.

The 1976 novel MANKILL SPORT, written by Chet Cunningham under Pinnacle's house name of Lionel Derrick, pits Mark Hardin, the Penetrator, against a Detroit mobster named Johnny Utah who runs an operation in Canada in which he kidnaps people off the street, strips them naked, cages them, and systematically sends them off into the woods to be tracked and hunted like game by rich assholes.

Hardin allows himself to be captured to expose the operation from the inside, but Utah and his men get a lot more than they bargained for when they inadvertently snatched a victim who can fight back. Even without shoes and clothes, the Penetrator kicks some major ass. As he's not a total psycho, unlike some other men's adventure heroes, he tries to show some mercy for Utah, who then proves he isn't worthy of it.

MANKILL SPORT packs few surprises, but is still a compact, easy read that delivers a couple hours of thrills. It drags a bit at the beginning when it saddles Hardin with a romance with Joanna Tabler, an FBI agent he met in an earlier story. Hardin even gives horsey rides to some little kids! Bah, who wants a domesticated Penetrator?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Night Nurse #2


Once upon a time, kids, there were actually comic books that didn't have superheroes in them. You could find cowboys, spies, soldiers, barbarians, funny animals, teenagers, and sometimes just ordinary human beings with interesting stories to tell. It takes talent to write and draw those stories, however, and those people don't work in comic books anymore.

Not to make NIGHT NURSE out to be more than it was, which was a soap opera aimed at a young female audience. It's true--girls used to read comics too!

NIGHT NURSE was part of a plan by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Roy Thomas and publisher Stan Lee to create books for girls to read. None of the three, which also included SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL (covers by Jim Steranko) and CLAWS OF THE CAT, lasted more than a few months.

The Night Nurse was Linda Carter, who, in this issue, works with her roommate to prove that a doctor was the hit-and-run driver who killed a young woman. Written by Thomas' then-wife Jean and drawn old-timer Win Mortimer, NIGHT NURSE #2 from January 1973 was a rather typical issue--not terribly exciting next to the city-exploding storylines in other Marvel books, but certainly capable storytelling.

NIGHT NURSE was canceled after four issues, but Linda Carter was resurrected in Marvel storylines a few years ago and continues to exist in the company's universe.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Crazy Lady In Red

BIG BAD MAMA starring Angie Dickinson was an enormous hit for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures—the studio’s biggest to date—so it should come as little surprise that Corman had the similar CRAZY MAMA in theaters a year later. Somehow, he convinced Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) to star in it. Leachman was no past-her-prime matinee queen trying to hold on to old glory (as when Corman cast Shelley Winters in 1970’s BLOODY MAMA). She was extremely popular on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and in TV-movies, getting nominated for Emmys almost every year, and it’s a mystery why she chose to do a low-budget comic action programmer for drive-ins.

One guess is that she saw something in director Jonathan Demme that Corman did and the rest of the world soon would. Later the Oscar-winning director of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA, Demme broke into Hollywood the way many other filmmakers did—in Corman’s trenches at New World. After writing and/or producing the women-in-prison flicks THE HOT BOX and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, Demme made his directing debut with another one, CAGED HEAT, which garnered critical acclaim unusual to the genre. More importantly, it made New World money and influenced Corman to hire Demme to direct another violent melodrama with female leads: CRAZY MAMA.

With more humor and less sex and violence than BIG BAD MAMA, Demme’s film suffers from its lack of exploitation elements. The director and screenwriter Robert Thom (DEATH RACE 2000) are going for a screwball vibe in its attempt to parody 1950s kitsch, but instead they’ve created a lot of racket and wheel-spinning. A soundtrack packed with hit singles (“All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Money,” “Lollipop”) and Burma Shave spoofs are little substitution for wit.

Frustrated with the system after banker Albertson (Jim Backus) takes their California beauty shop, Melba (Leachman), her mother Sheba (Ann Sothern), and her pregnant daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) steal a car and head to Arkansas to buy back their long-ago-foreclosed farm. To get the money, they pull a series of robberies with the help of Cheryl’s meek boyfriend Shawn (Donny Most), 82-year-old Bertha (Marie Earle), greaser Snake (Bryan Englund, Leachman’s son), and gambling sheriff Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), who becomes Melba’s new Vegas husband.

Editors-turned-directors Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) and Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR) try to piece together a cohesive story, but too many plot points are lost in the cacophony (like John Aprea’s photographer character), and the postscript showing us the fates of the surviving characters feels like a copout.

Dick Miller, Sally Kirkland, Carmen Argenziano, Beach Dickerson, Clint Kimbrough (husband of co-writer Frances Doel), Will Sampson (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST), and Tisha Sterling, who plays a younger version of her real-life mother Sothern’s character, appear in support. You can also see Dennis Quaid making his (silent) film debut as a bellhop and THE WIND AND THE LION director John Milius as a bearded cop. Demme, who stepped into CRAZY MAMA after Shirley Clarke (THE COOL WORLD) dropped out, made a third film for Corman—the action picture FIGHTING MAD with Peter Fonda—though it was produced for 20th Century Fox.

A smart script by John Sayles (PASSION FISH), then a member of Roger Corman’s screenwriting stable, lends 1979's THE LADY IN RED some class. Pamela Sue Martin, then something of a name coming off the Nancy Drew TV series and a Playboy spread, stars as Polly Franklin, the young acquaintance of gangster John Dillinger who was by his side when he was shot down in Chicago in 1934.

In actuality, the “Lady in Red” was the moniker given to Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), the madam who informed the FBI of Dillinger’s whereabouts that day. I guess Corman or Sayles liked the title, though, and manipulated the narrative so that it pointed towards Polly. Martin is quite good as both the innocent who leaves a rough home life with her abusive, religious father to make it on her own in the city and as the confident prostitute who learns to toughen up behind bars. Despite her squeaky clean television image, she has no problem carrying this mature picture.

TV star Robert Conrad (then on BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP) has much less screen time than the film’s marketing lets on, but essays the notorious baddie Dillinger as a happy-go-lucky guy who looks like more of a hero than the Feds who blow him away. Director Lewis Teague, a New World editor directing his first film (he was fired during production of DIRTY O’NEIL) throws in plenty of action and nudity to occupy the drive-in crowd, while the good performances and occasional humor elevate the movie to one of New World’s classier releases.

THE LADY IN RED, shot in four weeks for under a half-million dollars, was not successful at the box office, however. In an attempt to find an audience, New World retitled the film GUNS, SIN & BATHTUB GIN (!) and put together a coarse trailer that must have included practically every nude scene and blood squib in the movie. The new campaign failed, and THE LADY IN RED, while surely a moneymaker, became a rare Corman misfire.

You can see both CRAZY MAMA and THE LADY IN RED on Shout Factory's latest Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD. All of CRAZY MAMA's supplements come from the old New Concorde DVD, over which the new disc is a great improvement. Demme and Corman provide an interesting commentary track--thankfully, the A-list director doesn't look down on his early exploitation work--and also shoot the shit in a sitdown interview also taken from the New Concorde disc. A theatrical trailer and some TV spots complete the CRAZY MAMA extras, as well as a poster gallery that includes THE LADY IN RED material.

Shout Factory has also included a couple of trailers, including its re-release spot as GUNS, SIN & BATHTUB GIN, for THE LADY IN RED, which gets two audio commentaries, both new. The first, teaming director Teague and co-star Robert Forster, who goes uncredited in a small role as a sympathetic hitman named Turk, is something of a disappointment. It really needs a moderator, since the two men have little to say about the film. It eventually goes out of sync, meaning they're talking about scenes we won't see for another couple of minutes, and they eventually just give up talking altogether. Much better is the second commentary pairing writer Sayles and producer Julie Corman. Sayles, a bright guy who did a lot of research into Dillinger, dominates the track so much one wonders whether Mrs. Corman gets a bit bored listening to him.

We also get trailers for other Corman flicks now or soon available on DVD: THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, BIG BAD MAMA, CAGED HEAT, and THE BIG BIRD CAGE.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

When Justice Fails

Gidget goes Charles Bronson in EYE FOR AN EYE, a rather heavy-handed thriller Paramount justifiably buried in its January ’96 graveyard.

Sally Field, playing a grieving mother who considers vigilantism in the wake of her daughter’s murder, is earnest enough and surrounded by a bravura cast, but the simplistic screenplay by the makers of THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE infects the production with a Lifetime Television mentality that lets the actors down. It doesn’t get off to a good start when a hysterical Field runs down the street with a phone in her hand screaming for someone to lend her a phone.

Karen (Field) and Mack McCann (Ed Harris) are traumatized after their teenage girl is murdered in their home. The police, represented by Sergeant DeNillo (played by Joe Mantegna as a mealy-mouthed wimp to suit the movie’s one-track agenda), find the killer, Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), but have to free him on a technicality. Because EYE FOR AN EYE can’t decide if it wants to be a mindless vigilante thriller or a serious examination of the issues, it stacks the deck to prevent the audience from thinking. Sutherland plays Doob as an evil, remorseless redneck, and the authorities are almost comically ineffectual in their efforts to jail him. He spits on the sidewalk, cackles while driving erratically, and even pours hot coffee on a stray mutt.

Ultimately, EYE FOR AN EYE doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions, putting Doob into a situation where Karen has no choice but to kill him. Perhaps the climax satisfies the audience’s desire to see a nasty villain dead, but it’s a dramatic copout that makes the preceding ninety minutes feel like a waste.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Big Bad DVD

All Wilma wants is the very best for her daughters. Isn’t that what all mothers want? And if it just so happens that she has to wave a Tommy gun around to get it, well, then, that’s just what she’ll do.

A middle-aged widow didn’t have many options in Depression-era Texas, not even one as feisty, as intelligent, and as beautiful as Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson). BIG BAD MAMA, as directed by Steve Carver (DRUM) and written by Frances Doel (DEATHSPORT) and William Norton (WHITE LIGHTNING), finds the fortyish mother scrounging to make a good life for her two teenagers. The oldest girl, Billie Jean (Susan Sennett, THE CANDY SNATCHERS), didn’t fall far from the tree, able to sass, smoke, screw, and shoot in her mama’s image. Younger Polly (Robbie Lee, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is still a little girl trapped in a burgeoning woman’s body, built for pleasure, but still reliant on a teddy bear for security.

The McClatchie women find themselves quickly on the move out of eastern Texas after their bootlegging business comes to a violent end. With a pair of bumbling G-men hot on their trail, Wilma schemes to take her family to California to start a new life, an honest one. Her plan doesn’t work out when Wilma, aghast at discovering her daughters performing an ersatz striptease for a bunch of drunken vets, pulls a pistol and robs the joint.

Rationalizing that “we need it more than they do,” Wilma escalates to bank robbery, using her luscious confederates as a distraction. One such heist is interrupted by Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt), who tries robbing the same bank at the same time and ends up sharing Wilma’s spoils as a member of her gang and as her lover. With Fred’s hotheaded attitude and skills with a machine gun, the McClatchies begin making a name for themselves, brashly knocking over more banks and even an oil field in broad daylight.

Roger Corman produced BIG BAD MAMA for his New World production company, which was perhaps the most exciting and most profitable independent Hollywood studios of the 1970s. One reason for New World’s success was Corman’s instinct for what an audience wanted to see: namely nudity and violence. BIG BAD MAMA certainly delivers on that front, serving up like clockwork a smorgasbord of bloody gun battles, car crashes, undraped females, and sweaty sex scenes. It has been said that Corman’s only rule for his directors was to deliver a “bump”—something exploitable—every ten minutes. Carver took Corman’s advice to heart and then some; BIG BAD MAMA is one of the company’s best-paced and most frenetic pictures.

However, what set New World movies apart from others playing at the drive-in were the social commentary and relevant human drama that often lurked beneath the surface. Dickinson, a ‘50s ingĂ©nue who would experience the biggest success of her long career in POLICE WOMAN a few months after BIG BAD MAMA’s premiere, plays Wilma ahead of her time as a fully emancipated woman who certainly didn’t need a man to complete her, but surely enjoyed the company of one when it suited her purpose. Women weren’t allowed to be openly sexual beings in 1933, when the movie is set, and that goes double for teenage girls. BIG BAD MAMA exploits that taboo by letting Skerritt’s character explore open relationships with all three McClatchie women.

The gang’s crime spree takes a turn with the arrival of Southern smoothie William J. Baxter (William Shatner), whom Wilma picks up during a racetrack heist. The money-grubbing weakling quickly replaces Fred as Wilma’s bed partner, freeing Diller to hop into the sack with Billie Jean first and then both girls simultaneously. The complex relationships among the five leading characters are quite unusual for a low-budget action movie of the period, endowing the sex and violence with a human element that forces you to care about the next car chase or shootout beyond whether it delivers viscerally or not.

The game cast is mostly responsible for the dramatic weight. Dickinson, at age 42, is a tremendous sport, not only agreeing to appear nude in several scenes (which undoubtedly contributed to the film’s box office), but performing much of her own stuntwork and deftly handling the responsibility of transforming Norton and Doel’s lead into a fully rounded woman. Both Skerritt and Shatner are able foils for Dickinson. Shatner’s post-Kirk image may have taken a slight beating, considering his amusing characterization of a weak-willed, mealy-mouthed card sharp, but the result was worth it. He’s a joy to watch, and so is BIG BAD MAMA, a ribaldly entertaining action/comedy that stands, out of literally hundreds of Roger Corman productions, among his most satisfying.

Wilma dies in the closing shot of BIG BAD MAMA, which didn’t stop Corman from reviving her thirteen years later. BIG BAD MAMA II isn’t a helluva lot different than the original, however. The screenplay by director Jim Wynorski (NOT OF THIS EARTH) and R.J. Robertson (FORBIDDEN WORLD) is more of a remake than a sequel.

Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson, still looking foxy in her 50s) is still robbing the rich with her two sexy underage daughters, played by TV good girls Danielle Brisebois (ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE) and Julie McCullough (GROWING PAINS). To provide the romance, again like the original, she recruits a young stud, Jordan Crawford (Jeff Yagher) and a crafty older journalist, Daryl Pearson (Robert Culp). Out for revenge against Morgan Crawford (Bruce Glover), the venal millionaire who stole her farm and murdered her husband, Wilma pulls her Thompson out of storage and goes on a violent rampage. Along for the ride and romancing Wilma in the process, Pearson smells Pulitzer and crafts his weekly column to promote Wilma as a heroine.

Wynorski keeps the action rolling along, but the production just isn’t as much fun the second time around. The sequel features less action, less nudity, and even less production value. Wynorski lets his typical sloppiness slip in on occasion—for instance, the mullets on the 1930s extras and the use of action footage pulled from the first BIG BAD MAMA. Dickinson doesn’t doff her clothes this time, but the choice of much younger body doubles to play Angie and Culp in the love scene is hilarious.

Both BIG BAD MAMAs are available from Shout Factory on a new Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD. It’s the third time the original has been on disc, although the first in its preferred 1.85:1 aspect ratio. BIG BAD MAMA II was a VHS and cable staple, but has never been on DVD before now. You can watch the films separately or as part of the “Grindhouse Experience” as a double feature with trailers and other bits.

Both films have been blessed with audio commentary tracks by their makers. Corman and Angie Dickinson’s track from the Buena Vista DVD is included here, along with a new commentary by director Carver and director of photography Bruce Logan. The hapless Walter Olsen moderates the track with his typical disdain for preparation. Director Wynorski goes solo on the BIG BAD MAMA II track, which was included on New Concorde’s 2002 DVD. He’s one of the few directors who can handle a feature-length commentary by himself, but he seems bored here. He’s certainly less candid than he can be, diplomatically discussing Robert Culp, an actor he has said publicly he hated.

Also ported over from the Buena Vista DVD is a short featurette on BIG BAD MAMA featuring Dickinson, Shatner, Corman, Carver, and the film’s writers, as well as Leonard Maltin interviews with Corman. Olsen sits Bruce Glover before a camera for a short interview. Also included are trailers for both films, as well as future Shout Factory releases CRAZY MAMA (a trailer I haven’t seen before that really pushes its 1950s setting), SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, and THE LADY IN RED.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Don Meredith On Police Woman

Everyone knows the late “Dandy” Don Meredith was a fine NFL quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, being named to the Pro Bowl three times and the NFL Player of the Year in 1966. Everyone also knows about Meredith’s career as a sportscaster, namely as one-third of the most popular football announcing teams of all time, joining Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell for many seasons on ABC’s MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. But what is mostly forgotten is Meredith’s brief career as an actor.

“The Danderoo,” as Cosell sometimes called him, left MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to join NBC. His three-year contract not only included calling NFL games with Curt Gowdy, but also acting in NBC TV series and movies. One of his first acting gigs under his new deal was in “The Loner,” POLICE WOMAN’s first-season finale.

POLICE WOMAN starred Angie Dickinson (RIO BRAVO) as Sgt. Pepper Anderson, an undercover Los Angeles police detective who worked for her platonic friend Sgt. Bill Crowley (Earl Holliman). A sexy mature actress, Dickinson was one of the first women to star in a one-hour police drama. Unlike the campy CHARLIE’S ANGELS, which came two years later, POLICE WOMAN was played straight with plenty of sex, violence, and adult storylines featuring white slavery, illegal adoptions, narcotics, serial killers, and lots of rapes. Under executive producer David Gerber, POLICE WOMAN was gritty, tough, and popular with audiences.

“The Loner” aired March 14, 1975. Burton Armus, later a staff writer on KOJAK, NYPD BLUE, and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, penned the teleplay, and ONE STEP BEYOND host/creator John Newland directed it. Meredith plays Turk Allison, a Texas-bred private eye hired to keep an eye on an important witness named Fred Blau (Pat Harrington, ONE DAY AT A TIME’s Schneider). After an assassination attempt at LAX that leaves one gunman dead, Blau splits, and the lone-wolf Allison teams with Pepper and a reluctant Crowley to find Blau before mobster Ace Briscoe (Neville Brand) does.

Meredith is amateurish and a bit stiff, but not without charisma, and the Southern-fried Allison may have been written for him. Gerber knew him well, having cast Meredith in several episodes of the anthology series POLICE STORY as Tony LoBianco’s partner. The Meredith/LoBianco shows were popular, but surprisingly never led to a regular series. 1976’s BANJO HACKETT was certainly an attempt at getting Meredith a weekly vehicle, but the pilot didn’t go.

Dandy Don returned to the MNF fold in 1977, but continued to act, most notable in the NBC movie UNDERCOVER WITH THE KKK, which starred Meredith as FBI agent Gary Rowe, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in the early 1960s. He left MNF for good in 1984 and pretty much retired from the public life, popping up for occasional acting jobs and rare NFL appearances.

Meredith died last night in Santa Fe, New Mexico after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. His Dallas Morning News obituary is here.

Mystery On The Orly Express

Mystery on the Orly Express
March 25, 1980
Music: John Andrew Tartaglia
Writer: Lloyd Turner
Director: Christian I. Nyby II

Sheriff Lobo (Claude Akins), deputies Perkins (Mills Watson) and Birdie (Brian Kerwin), and Lobo’s mother (Rosemary DeCamp) are riding the Amtrak in this MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO episode. It’s the last run of the Orly Express from St. Louis to Orly, and the officers are aboard to guard a $2.5 million diamond belonging to movie star Nicole Russo (Camilla Sparv). Also aboard is Birdie’s father (William Schallert), the mayor, who is teaming with Nicole to judge a beauty contest about the train.

Of course, the diamond disappears along the way, and there’s no shortage of suspects on the train. Is it pickpocket Francis (Arthur Batanides)? Insurance investigator Hemmings (Roger C. Carmel)? Chaperone Myra Kimberly (Ellen Travolta)? Or European jewel thief Medici (Cesare Danova)? Writer Lloyd Turner (GET SMART) deftly juggles several plots in this fast-moving episode that offers a nice guest cast and a solid mystery. Rhonda Shear, Jan Speck, Melanie Vincz, Debra Jo Fondren, and Shelley Johnson provide the eye candy as Miss Orly Magnolia Festival contestants.

If you guessed that Perkins would end up on top of the train at some point, you’ll be pleased to know it only takes about ten minutes.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The 18-Wheel Rip-Off

The 18-Wheel Rip-Off
March 22, 1980
Music: William Broughton
Story: Michael Sloan & Sidney Ellis
Teleplay: Michael Sloan
Director: Gil Bettman

How many corrupt sheriffs can BJ McKay (Greg Evigan) possibly run into? In this BJ AND THE BEAR episode, the cowboy trucker runs afoul of Sheriff Jackson Cordell (Charles Haid, soon to be Renko on HILL STREET BLUES), who wants revenge for BJ tossing his friend Sheriff McCandles (in “Silent Night, Unholy Night”) in the pokey. Cordell has rookie officer Tracy McBain (Wendy Phillips, a regular on EXECUTIVE SUITE and THE EDDIE CAPRA MYSTERIES) haul in BJ on a bogus charge, and then sends car thief Belford (Sean Garrison) steal BJ’s truck for crooked disco owner Mama (Gloria DeHaven). To get his semi back, BJ teams up with the innocent Tracy and his old Vietnam buddy Shades (Michael D. Roberts) to infiltrate Mama’s operation.

First-time director Gil Bettman (NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE) handles the stunt-heavy episode with a sure hand. Two impressive car chases and a cliffside fight at the climax keep action fans happy. Haid would seem to be perfect casting for a nasty small-town sheriff, but, despite an annoying catchphrase (“Thank you kindly.”), he doesn’t appear to be giving the part his all. Not only does BJ run across another evil sheriff, but he also encounters still another old war buddy. Maybe the writers were running out of ideas late in the season, because in the next aired episode—the second-season finale—McKay met up with still another pal from Nam!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Episode Guide: The Protectors

THE BOLD ONES was an interesting experiment on the part of NBC and Universal to do something different in episodic drama. The idea was to produce three different television series and rotate them in the same Sunday night timeslot. Premiering in the fall of 1969, THE BOLD ONES was successful enough for the network and studio to continue the strategy for most of the 1970s in FOUR-IN-ONE, THE NBC WEDNESDAY MYSTERY MOVIE, and—most famously—THE NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE, which gave us COLUMBO, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and MCCLOUD, among other shows.

THE BOLD ONES began with three rotating series: THE NEW DOCTORS starring E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS), John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON), and David Hartman (LUCAS TANNER); THE LAWYERS with Burl Ives, James Farentino (COOL MILLION), and Joseph Campanella (MANNIX); and the series written about here, THE PROTECTORS.

THE PROTECTORS was the least successful of the BOLD ONES ventures, lasting only six one-hour episodes following the pilot movie, DEADLOCK, which NBC aired in March 1969. Leslie Nielsen, who died November 28 at age 84, starred as Sam Danforth, the deputy police chief of San Sebastian, located in southern California. A politically conservative man who ran his force by the book, Danforth was brought in from Cleveland to clean up the city using modern police methods.

Danforth frequently clashed with Hari Rhodes (DAKTARI) as liberal district attorney William Washburn, who grew up in the San Sebastian ghetto. That Danforth was white and Washburn black played into the scripts’ attempts at relevancy. Rhodes passed away much too early in 1992 at age 59.

What’s perhaps most distinctive about THE PROTECTORS is its lack of a musical score. It’s an odd choice by executive producer Jack Laird (NIGHT GALLERY) and not an entirely successful one. The show seems slowly paced because of it, and while I suppose the choice was made to give the production more realism, it isn’t shot in such a way to suggest it. This strategy was abandoned in the final episode, which featured a rock score by Tom Scott.

An experimental fast-cutting style and cinematography by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond in the first episode create the series’ strong visual sense. Another intriguing element is the use of audio from a political call-in radio show during the opening and closing scenes that paralleled the theme of each episode.

Partway through THE PROTECTORS’ run, NBC reportedly changed the title to THE LAW ENFORCERS in an effort to pick up viewers. Although THE LAWYERS and THE NEW DOCTORS proved quite popular with Sunday-night viewers, THE PROTECTORS was a flop and was cancelled after six shows.

Its replacement for the 1969-70 season was THE SENATOR, the most critically acclaimed BOLD ONES segment, starring Hal Holbrook as an idealistic politician, but it also didn’t last more than one season. THE LAWYERS and THE NEW DOCTORS filled out THE BOLD ONES’ third season with THE NEW DOCTORS holding the reins alone the fourth and final season.

I haven’t seen the pilot of THE PROTECTORS, which was directed by Lamont Johnson (another 2010 casualty) and written by Chester Krumholz and Robert E. Thompson with a story by William Sackheim and Roland Wolpert, but I have seen the six regular episodes and compiled the following episode guide.


THE PROTECTORS
Leslie Nielsen as Sam Danforth
Hari Rhodes as William Washburn

Music: Tom Scott (final episode only)
THE BOLD ONES Theme: Robert Prince
Cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, Richard Batcheller, Richard C. Glouner
Art Director: Frank Arrigo, Alexander A. Mayer, Joseph Alves Jr.
Editors: Richard C. Meyer, Douglas Stewart, Thomas Scott, James Leicester
Associate Producer: Mark Rodgers
Producer: Jerrold Freedman
Creators: Roland Wolpert and William Sackheim
Executive Producer: Jack Laird
Filmed in Universal City, California at Universal Studios


“A Case of Good Whiskey at Christmas Time”
September 28, 1969
Teleplay: L.T. Bentwood and Betty Deveraux
Story: Robert I. Holt
Director: Robert Day
Guest Cast: Edward Andrews, Amy Thomson, Charles Drake, Lorraine Gary, Michael Bell, Frank Maxwell, Bart Carpinelli, Fabian Dean, Fred Williamson

Jack Sheehan (Charles Drake), a local politician suspected of accepting graft, is found floating in the harbor. Washburn and Danforth’s investigation of his murder uncovers corruption behind the construction of a low-income housing project.


“If I Should Wake Before I Die”
October 26, 1969
Teleplay: Adrian Spies
Story: Jerrold Freedman
Director: Daryl Duke
Guest Cast: Robert Drivas, Edmond O’Brien, Gene Evans, Milton Selzer, Len Wayland, Connie Kreski, Regis Cordic, Ron Stokes, Arthur Malet

Robert Drivas is excellent as Martin Sitomer, a Death Row prisoner who earns a new trial, causing Danforth to reopen the investigation that will provide a sympathetic Washburn with enough evidence to convict.


“Draw a Straight Man”
December 14, 1969
Writer: Sam Washington
Director: William Hale
Guest Cast: Michael Bell, Celeste Yarnall, Janine Gray, William Mims, Tom Reese, Peter Brocco, Charles Brewer, S. John Launer, Terence Garin, Bill Hickman

Washburn and Danforth are at odds when an elderly night watchman implicates two police officers in a robbery ring.


“The Carrier”
January 11, 1970
Teleplay: Mark Rodgers and Barry Trivers
Story: Paul Stein & Charles Watts
Director: Frank Arrigo
Guest Cast: Louise Sorel, Clifford David, Barbara Babcock, Frank Maxwell, Peter Mamakos, Mikel Angel, Joseph Perry, Carl Byrd, Walter Mathews, Carmen Zapata, Richard Dillon, Ira Angustain, Kurtis Laird

Danforth urgently seeks a Mexican-American boy and a man (Clifford David) who were exposed to a deadly virus that endangers the entire city. Directed by the series’ art director. Universal remade the teleplay as the KOJAK episode “A Wind from Corsica.”


“A Thing Not of God”
February 1, 1970
Teleplay: Mark Rodgers
Story: Harold Livingston and Mark Rodgers
Director: Jerrold Freedman
Guest Cast: Lynn Carlin, James Broderick, Lew Brown, Garry Walberg, Peter Brocco, Kenneth Kirk, Stuart Thomas, Carl Byrd

A priest (James Broderick) is attacked while protecting a young soldier (John Rubinstein) who’s thinking of deserting the Army.


“Memo from the Class of ‘76”
March 8, 1970
Teleplay: Ben Masselink
Story: Jerrold Freedman
Director: Daryl Duke
Guest Cast: Norma Crane, Billy Gray, Peter Hooten, Michael C. Gwynne, Claude Johnson, Danny Smaller, William Wintersole, Steve Pendleton, Carl Byrd, Richard Collier, Stuart Nisbet, S. John Launer, Matt Pelto, Fredricka Myers, Jack Bender, Don Lorbett, Cathe Cozzi

Danforth declares war on the local high school when several popular students are arrested for possessing marijuana. He has good reason to be worried when a new batch of acid is discovered to be deadly.


Here's an example of the main titles for THE BOLD ONES featuring the Robert Prince theme. However, it's from the second year after THE SENATOR had replaced THE PROTECTORS in the rotation:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Prom Night (1980)

Leslie Nielsen died yesterday in Florida at the age of 84. You can read his New York Times obituary here. His split careers as a dramatic and a comedic actor are well documented. From his U.S. television debut on STUDIO ONE through 1980, Nielsen was strictly known for drama, mainly in episodic television, though he also starred in the science fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and played the ill-fated ship's captain in the disaster film THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

His life changed, however, in 1980, when writer/directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker hired him, along with other drama stalwarts like Peter Graves (who also died in 2010), Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges, to act in AIRPLANE! The conceit that Nielsen could be hilarious while doing exactly the same style of acting he had been doing his whole career was brilliant, and led to his second career spoofing himself in generally crummy comedies: SPY HARD, SCARY MOVIE 4, STAN HELSING, REPOSSESSED, THE CREATURE WASN'T NICE, MR. MAGOO...

Of course, ABC's shortlived POLICE SQUAD, which earned Nielsen his first Emmy nomination, spawned THE NAKED GUN and its two sequels, which, along with AIRPLANE!, led his obituaries.

But did you know that Nielsen co-starred in two features released theatrically in July of 1980? One was AIRPLANE! The other was a dumb Canadian slasher flick that has endured just as long, spawning three sequels and a 2008 remake.

PROM NIGHT’s following is more likely due to its catchy title and star turn by Jamie Lee Curtis, rather than its own worth as a horror movie. Just 20 years old during filming, Curtis had already starred in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and would do TERROR TRAIN next.

Ten-year-old Robin Hammond is teased to death by four schoolmates, who panic and allow a local sex offender to be convicted for her murder. Six years later, the day of Alexander Hamilton High School’s prom, he escapes from custody and returns to town. That night, the four witnesses to Robin’s death, now teenagers, are harassed and stalked by an athletic masked killer dressed in black. Is there a connection?

Probably, though you’ll be kept guessing by the hilarious number of red herrings in the screenplay by William Gray and Robert Guza Jr., who also separately wrote other Canadian horror movies like CURTAINS, HUMONGOUS, and THE CHANGELING. David Cronenberg repertory player Robert Silverman (RABID) plays the school’s demented handyman. Curtis and Michael Tough play Robin’s teen siblings, and top-billed Nielsen is their father, the school principal. You may also recognize a blond Jeff Wincott (LAST MAN STANDING) and Anne-Marie Martin, billed as Eddie Benton, who went on to co-star in SLEDGE HAMMER! and co-write TWISTER with her late husband Michael Crichton.

An obvious ripoff of CARRIE, PROM NIGHT, for all its success, doesn’t really deliver the goods. No on-camera murders occur for the first hour, director Paul Lynch (BULLIES) stages the killings in a relatively bloodless manner (aside from a neat decapitation), there’s only a flash of nudity (the girls wear towels in the locker room), and the disco-filled soundtrack by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer earns snickers today.

Avco Embassy released PROM NIGHT in the U.S. to very good box office receipts of more than $14 million. Its popularity, along with that of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which was also released in the summer of 1980, played an enormous part in spurring the slasher genre that dominated the early 1980s.

Check out a pair of TV spots for PROM NIGHT, which misspell Nielsen's name, below:



Sunday, November 28, 2010

I'm The Bad Guy

Big names Morgan Freeman (INVICTUS) and John Cusack (CON AIR) and Freeman’s DRIVING MISS DAISY director Bruce Beresford went directly to DVD in THE CONTRACT, a Nu Image/Millennium thriller filmed mainly in Bulgaria.

Recently widowed high school gym coach Ray Keene (Cusack) and his surly teen delinquent-in-training son Chris (Jamie Anderson) are camping in the Washington wilderness when a stone killer drops into their midst. Big-time assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) escapes from custody, but is almost immediately recaptured by the Keenes, who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ray, whose desire to be a good influence on his son has him set on taking Frank in, tries to take Frank in, but he and his boy have Carden’s team, a pack of government-trained killers, on their trail.

It’s all fairly routine thriller stuff with the occasionally sloppy writing balanced by the charming performances by Cusack and the always avuncular Freeman, who gets all the funny lines. It’s heavily padded with unnecessary subplots, as if the concept of Everyman and Killer confined in the woods, old as it is, wasn’t interesting enough (it is).

While THE CONTRACT is nothing special (and that goes for the title too), it’s good enough to play theaters, and it’s likely Millennium’s finances had more to do with it bypassing U.S. theaters than its quality. THE CONTRACT is a passable 96 minutes with pretty scenery and solid acting by two stars who are always welcome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Best Worst Movie Ever Made Of All Time

Look out, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE! You have a new contender for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made, and it’s Italian director Claudio Fragasso’s insane TROLL 2, which barely eked out a U.S. video release in 1990.

Filmed in Utah with amateur American actors by a largely Italian crew that spoke little English, TROLL 2 has earned itself quite a cult following since the 2000s. This documentary—directed by the child star of TROLL 2, Michael Stevenson—examines the movie’s bizarre following and its impact on the lives of its performers two decades after it was made and promptly forgotten.

It comes as little surprise to learn that the people who made TROLL 2 are as eccentric as the film itself. Stevenson focuses BEST WORST MOVIE on the one-shot actor who played his father, George Hardy, who genially tromps around the country, attending screenings filled with fans who laugh uproariously at TROLL 2’s amateurish acting, writing, and special effects. The Alabama dentist shows what a good sport he is about TROLL 2’s reputation by constantly honoring fans’ request to quote his dialogue. And often quoting it even when nobody asks him to.

As comfortable as Hardy is with his notorious mark in cinematic history—indeed, he seems so eager to be the center of attention that he embraces his “stardom” with an enthusiasm that teeters into embarrassment—TROLL 2 director Fragasso comes across as confused and frustrated. He believes TROLL 2 is a good movie, and his temper flares occasionally when his cast disparages it.

Stevenson manages to track down almost every actor with a significant role, and it’s interesting to note the directions their lives have gone. Some, like Connie Young, who played the daughter with bad dancing skills, accept TROLL 2’s fandom calmly but with bemusement (though she still doesn’t list TROLL 2 on her acting resume). At the other extreme is Margo Prey, who played Stevenson’s mother and now appears to be a weird shut-in with an invalid mother.

I couldn’t decide whether BEST WORST MOVIE was crazy, depressing, or hilarious. It’s all three, really, at various times, and I suppose that’s fitting for a documentary about TROLL 2, as schizophrenic a movie as ever was made.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

That's Petro-CHELLI

Producer Brad Dexter (who acted in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE) originally planned to make a docudrama based on the sensational murder case of Ohio physician Sam Sheppard, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1954. Ten years later, Sheppard was granted a new trial, mainly because his first trial received so much publicity that it was believed the jury was tainted. At his new trial in 1966, represented by F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard was acquitted.

The Sam Sheppard murder case was obviously the inspiration for THE FUGITIVE, the television series with David Janssen as an Indiana physician convicted of killing his wife, but escaped custody and spent four seasons pursuing the one-armed man who really did the crime. Sheppard was later played on television by George Peppard (1975) and Peter Strauss (1998) in TV-movies.

Sheppard died in 1970, the same year Paramount released THE LAWYER, a brash courtroom drama that bore a great resemblance to the Sheppard case, but concentrated on the suspected killer’s attorney, rather than the Sheppard stand-in. Why Dexter and Furie decided not to dramatize the Sheppard case directly, I don’t know, though writers Furie and Harold Buchman certainly had more dramatic flexibility when crafting the screenplay.

Wilma Harrison (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) is beaten to death in her sleep, the recipient of 34 blows to the head. The detective in charge, Moran (Warren Kemmerling), arrests her husband, Dr. Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), who claims he was awakened to the sound of Wilma being murdered, but was knocked unconscious before he could see who did it. Harrison’s attorney is not F. Lee Bailey, but root-beer-guzzling Harvard grad Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman), who displays a flagrant regard for authority and traffic laws. Petrocelli drives a camper and lives in a mobile home with his wife Ruth (Diana Muldaur).

THE LAWYER’s small-town setting leads to some unusual moments, such as a coroner’s inquest staged at the grandstand of the local fairgrounds, complete with a jeering crowd and hot dog vendors. The carnival atmosphere that permeated the Sheppard case is faithfully duplicated by Furie, which really puts Harrison in a hole.

To give the mystery some variety and pacing, Furie and Buchman tell the story using flashbacks that may or may not represent what actually happened in the Harrison bedroom. Argyle Nelson’s sophisticated editing, as well as dollops of frank talk and nudity (THE LAWYER received an R rating from the MPAA), help provide the whodunit with extra tension. Harold Gould as the state’s attorney is excellent and a strong opponent for Newman. Furie stages most of his cross-examination of Colbert in one long take that shows off his performance.

Newman, a relative screen newcomer, became something of a cult actor for his car-chase performances in VANISHING POINT and FEAR IS THE KEY. Hotshot Tony Petrocelli fits Newman like one of those natty suits he wears, and the star brought the character to television in 1974 in the series PETROCELLI, which ran two seasons on NBC and earned Newman an Emmy nomination.

THE LAWYER was never released on VHS or DVD, so it has been difficult to see since its theatrical release. Thankfully, Paramount has made it available through Netflix instant streaming. The R-rated material is intact, but the print is full-frame.

Here is the opening title sequence to PETROCELLI with a shaggier-haired Newman and some footage from THE LAWYER:

Friday, November 12, 2010

You Must Be Dreaming

New Line Cinema’s second sequel to its smash horror hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was a crucial one, as it marked the transformation of its dream-weaving serial killer Freddy Krueger from terrifying screen villain to comical folk hero. With the addition of humor to the scares, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS became less frightening, but also more appealing to a mass audience, which began buying Freddy souvenirs and action figures.

It’s a step up from PART 2, in spite of the jumbled pre-production involving four screenwriters. Elm Street creator Wes Craven was invited to script Part Three with his partner Bruce Wagner (WILD PALMS), though it was heavily rewritten by Frank Darabont (later to direct THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE MIST) and the series’ new director, Chuck Russell, the DREAMSCAPE author making his debut behind the lens. The story offers more than a few imaginative setpieces and a definite surprise or two near the end.

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), returning from the original film, is an intern at an asylum, where she works with suicidal teenagers with nightmare disorders. From their symptoms, she recognizes them as victims of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and works with a skeptical Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) to prevent Freddy from attacking them through their dreams.

Patricia Arquette, later the star of MEDIUM, plays Kristin, Freddy’s main nemesis. A fatherless teen with latent psychic powers, Kristin is able to invite others to participate in her dreams. Only by calling together Nancy and the surviving teens into her latest nightmare do they have a chance to destroy Freddy.

Of course, the fantastic premise provides plenty of opportunities to showcase imaginative special effects, and Russell’s crew is more than up to the task. Kevin Yagher, Greg Cannom, and Mark Shostrom create the icky makeup effects, and Dream Quest Images and Doug Beswick handle the practical effects, which include a gigantic phallus-shaped “Freddy Snake” that swallows Kristin and a stop-motion Freddy marionette. Englund surprisingly has little screen time, but the script and cast keep him always in the forefront of the audience’s mind.

Brooke Bundy, Larry Fishburne (THE MATRIX), Nan Martin, and Priscilla Pointer add steady adult support to the young cast, helping to ground the fantasy in something tangible, as does John Saxon, returning as Nancy’s policeman father and the worse for wear. Jennifer Rubin (making her film debut; oddly, her next movie was BAD DREAMS!), Bradley Gregg, Ken Sagoes, Penelope Sudrow, and Ira Heiden are good as Arquette’s fellow patients. And, yes, that really is Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor making cameos.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My Interview With Video Watchdogger John Charles

Although John Charles and I have never met, we have been friends for just about a decade. We first became acquainted as members of and regular posters at Mobius Home Video Forum back around 1999 or so. Not long afterwards, we began corresponding through email and trading VHS tapes back and forth between Central Illinois and Ontario. Now, it's text messages and DVDs.

John is also Associate Editor of Video Watchdog (the latest issue carries his interview with dubbing specialist Ted Rusoff) and the author of the essential THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS, now in its second printing from McFarland. If he didn't cover it in the book, it's probably on his Hong Kong Digital website.

John is a bright, interesting guy—and I'm not just saying that because we have similar tastes in film! John and I conducted this interview via email.

Since you literally wrote the book on Hong Kong Cinema, I'm curious how a teenager in Canada in the 1980s got hooked on the genre. I'm guessing these films weren't easy to find.

Thanks for the kind words. Aside from the Shaw Brothers kung fu movies that ran in World Northal's Black Belt Theater TV packages, I didn't actually get into Hong Kong films until 1991. At the time, Erik Sulev was reviewing them for Video Watchdog and also selling dupes of the big HK titles through his label, White Dragon Video. Erik made these films sound incredible, as did a few other writers at the time. I figured it was likely hype, but I was intrigued enough to buy a copy of John Woo's THE KILLER from him (he was selling the extended Taiwanese version, though I didn't know that at the time). I watched THE KILLER...and then immediately watched it again. I was just intoxicated by the incredible action sequences, the unbridled but involving melodrama of the storyline, Woo's incredible directorial technique, and the charisma of Chow Yun-fat. I then bought A CHINESE GHOST STORY and ANGEL from Erik, and loved them almost as much.

I immediately wanted to see a ton of these movies, but didn't want to continue paying $30 or so for each of them, so I looked into renting tapes from local Chinese grocery stores. Once I overcame the communication barrier (which started with the inevitable "No, no, no English movies here!" after I stepped two feet into the video section), I found the tapes to be almost unwatchable. I had a laserdisc player by that point and knew from Erik and other guys in the Toronto zine community that HK laserdiscs were decent quality and pretty widely available, so I set about traveling back and forth from Toronto, renting 6 or 7 movies at a time in order to make the trips worthwhile.

Did you see any of Jackie Chan's movies then?

I had seen some of the Chan movies that had been released in English up to that point, though the only one I had seen theatrically was the infamous SNAKE FIST FIGHTER. When I started renting movies in Chinatown, I got caught up with Chan's back catalog, though it was tricky because the vast majority of Golden Harvest's movies were released on LD by a company called Star Entertainment and their transfers almost never had subtitles. So, if you wanted to see movies featuring Chan or other Golden Harvest stars, you had to rely on the old Cantonese tapes (which were invariably terrible and sometimes also lacked subtitles) or the Mandarin-dubbed Taiwanese tapes (which often had subs and were somewhat better quality, though usually only available as dupey bootlegs).

I know you saw most of the Cannon films theatrically in the 1980s, but were you also already a fan of other types of "psychotronic" movies?

Oh god, yeah, I was warped by this stuff from an early age. I remember getting very disapproving looks in Grade 6 during one of those "what did you do on the weekend?" discussions. Other kids discussed family trips, scouting and the like, while I talked about being amazed by ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE on WUTV's Sci-Fi Theater. Not really what our teacher was looking for, but I think he was getting used to my interests in life by that point. That was also the year that I met Dean Dawson and he introduced me to Famous Monsters of Filmland. Within months, I went from being a nearly straight A student to the low Cs and stayed in that range until university (where I finally got my act together and graduated with honors).

I'm guessing you had the same "I have seen God" reaction when you first ran across Michael Weldon's PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, a compendium of the sort of weird movies I loved and write-ups for a bunch more I'd never even heard of (INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS?! What the hell is that and where do I find a copy?). I figured Weldon probably wasn't making a living writing about these movies, but it was close enough to my idea of a dream job that I decided to try my hand at reviewing.

I was gonna ask you about the Weldon book. It came out when I was in high school. I was bowled over by the impressive range of movies. I liked sci-fi then. Not horror so much, though I was familiar with the Universal pictures that played on TV a lot. But the Weldon book described not just sci-fi and horror, but biker flicks and cannibal movies and weird stuff like Hugo Haas melodramas (which I've still never seen). And Weldon made them sound so enticing in just a paragraph or two. How could we have ever guessed we would someday see stuff like INCUBUS (1965) in our living rooms? I remember reading about Al Adamson and Larry Buchanan and Andy Milligan, these bottom-of-the-barrel filmmakers, and being so intrigued by Weldon's descriptions of their movies. And when I finally got to see them, they were just as terrible as I expected!

Yes, we are just unbelievably spoiled nowadays when it comes to obscure cinema. I didn't get a VCR until I was 16 (and was the only kid in high school to have one, which instantly boosted my cred), so prior to that, I would stay up late to see some probably cruddy low-budget horror movie because who knew if it would ever run again? Now, you can just go online and find most any movie you can think of for sale. Also, fansubbers have made a number of otherwise inaccessible foreign films easily obtainable in versions that English speakers can fully appreciate.

Even though they're often terrible and arguably not worth the effort, time, or expense we go to in order to see them, we still keep coming back. Why do you think that is? I've never seen GOODFELLAS or GONE WITH THE WIND, but I've seen about a dozen Al Adamson movies. There must be a reason for that.

I think there's a bit of cinematic archeologist in many bad film fans. Sure, many of these pictures are rubbish, but they're often incredibly unique and wonderfully peculiar. Anyone can stroll into work and talk about watching MAD MEN the night before, but I've managed to see the surviving footage from COMPASS ROSE, one of Andy Milligan's unfinished movies. Precious few people will care (or even know who the hell I'm talking about), but I like having that distinction.

I remember reading someone--it might have been Stephen King?--called it panning for gold. There is a certain thrill to plowing through a bunch of forgettable flicks hardly anyone has heard of and then finding that rare diamond in the rough. Either something surprisingly good (SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE, as obscure a good thriller as they come, is an example) or amazingly, hilariously bad. The fun is not just in unearthing it, but sharing it with other fans.

Did you write the book before or after you joined the Video Watchdog staff?

Yes, SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE is a good example of a movie I knew nothing about that turned out to be much better than expected.

Erik Sulev left VW after a few issues, so I took over the HK reviews from that point on, circa 1993. I started the book in earnest in 1997.

Okay, let's talk about VW first. You go way back with Tim and Donna Lucas almost to the beginning of the publication, right? Tell me how you got started there.

I became familiar with Tim's work through his Video Watchdog column in Gorezone. When he announced that he was starting his own magazine, I subscribed immediately. I knew that the Vestron unrated version of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was missing footage and had heard the Canadian CIC Video release was intact, so I tracked them both down, charted the differences, and sent that information in. My letter was published in issue #3 and I continued to send in write-ups on other video releases that also ended up in the Letters section. Tim eventually decided that I could write and knew my stuff, so he offered me a spot on staff. I took over the Canadian video reviews and made my debut in issue #12 with that cinematic milestone ABRAXAS, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. This was so long ago (1992), I actually typed the reviews out and mailed them in.

In the eighteen years that you've been on the VW staff, what are the most significant differences between genre movies then and now?

Well, around 1990, we really began to descend into a mire of cynically conceived and often poorly executed sequels, remakes, prequels, and imitations, with fewer and fewer genuinely original and exciting productions getting made and properly distributed. Now, 20 years later, the situation is essentially the same, only much worse.

On the one hand, thank God for foreign movies and old movies. Between those and titles I am eager to revisit, I will never run out of films to watch. However, part of me is still drawn to seeing movies on the big screen, even though the real gems are few and far between these days. The moviegoing experience has also never been better from a technical standpoint, but I can't remember a time when I felt less like being in the middle of a crowded theatre. That said, I still see 3-4 movies a month theatrically, and if I lived in Toronto and had easy access to great rep venues like The Bell Lightbox and The Bloor, it would probably be 10-12.

As you know, Hollywood has never been more cynical than it has been the last three or four years, seemingly remaking every horror picture in sight. Even less iconic films such as THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW and TERROR TRAIN have been jammed through the sausage maker to less than satisfactory results. That said, are there any genre movies you'd actually like to see remade? And why?

Remakes should only really happen if there is something about the current era that might lend new interest to an older storyline, or improved technology can better realize something that was beyond the budget of the older picture. I guess about the only saving grace to be found in the current avalanche of remakes is that many of these older movies were hardly sacred texts to begin with. I mean THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW? Last year's remake was rancid and actively annoyed me, but it hardly sullied the original in my eyes.

I wouldn't mind seeing someone take another shot at lesser pictures like FOOD OF THE GODS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, and the like, which have fun premises but didn't really come off. The little kid in me would love to see a big budget re-do of ROBOT JOX and some of the other Charles Band pictures that were too ambitious for their own good. I'd rather the genuinely good pictures simply be left up on the mantelpiece for us to continue admiring.

What are your duties as Associate Editor of Video Watchdog? Aside from the film reviews and occasional article.

I occasionally offer input on whether we should accept a certain feature and offer suggestions about how certain departments might be improved, but mainly I'm a proofreader. Each issue is usually read five times, with Tim doing the first read, then me, then him checking my corrections and making any others, me checking those and making any additional changes, and him doing the final check.

Why did you decide to write the Hong Kong Filmography book and how did you go about it?

I quickly grew to love these movies with a passion and was eager for more information. Unfortunately, almost without exception, English commentators writing about these movies clearly knew little or nothing about them and their personnel, with Tom Weisser's godawful Asian Cult Cinema book being the low point. There's just no excuse for that book, and it was what prompted me to write my own HK movie guide, a project I ended up spending 2 1/2 years on.

Sounds like you wrote it because it was the book you wanted to read and nobody else was writing it!

Essentially!

Why pick 1977 as a start date? It seems like so many seminal HK works came out before that date. For instance, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH aka KING BOXER, which is (and I know you'll correct me if I'm wrong) considered the first HK martial arts film to become an American mainstream hit.

McFarland wanted a time line that could be included in the title (which is on the wordy side; I would have been happy with just THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY 1977 - 1997) and given what movies were available to me, this two-decade span seemed like the best choice. In the years since then, the Shaw Brothers vault has opened up, and several hundred previously unavailable titles are now on the market. That is the one area where I think the book now falls a bit short, but I included as many Shaw titles as were available to me from 1997 to early 2000, when I submitted the manuscript, and went on to cover a few dozen more on my Hong Kong Digital website and in VW.

What are your favorite films covered in the book, and which one do you think has fallen under the radar, but deserves more attention?

Ten years down the line, my favorites are still the ones that really got me hooked on HK cinema: THE KILLER, A CHINESE GHOST STORY, DRUNKEN MASTER II, ROUGE, ASHES OF TIME, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, PROJECT A II, BULLET IN THE HEAD, PEKING OPERA BLUES, THE PRODIGAL SON, EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, THE FIVE VENOMS, and LEGENDARY WEAPONS ON CHINA.

Sleepers? Can't name just one. I really like PEOPLE'S HERO, a tense hold-up movie with a terrific central performance by Ti Lung. BET ON FIRE is a great example of the Hostess Movie, a popular '80s sub-genre where invariably beautiful young women in desperate straits try to survive the temptations of crime and drugs in the world of HK hostess bars; melodramatic trash, but strangely endearing and in the case of this film, admirably intense. DRAGON CHRONICLES: THE MAIDENS OF HEAVENLY MOUNTAIN is viewed by most as a colossal disappointment, but I love its odd, comic book inspired visuals and flagrantly hammy lead performances by Brigitte Lin and Gong Li; its stock with go up if a coherently subtitled version ever surfaces. POM POM AND HOT HOT is a raucous and very entertaining buddy cop comedy mixing sophomoric humor and the wildest gunplay this side of a John Woo movie. GUNMEN is a blatant imitation of Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES, but it has great, violent action and Kirk Wong's stylish direction to distinguish it. EDGE OF DARKNESS is a superior Triad/undercover cop movie directed by veteran stuntman Fung Hark-on that nobody seems to have seen, but is very efficient and satisfying. Those stand out for me.

What's next? Any more books down the pipe?

Nothing at the moment. I've spent the last few years catching up on all of the American, British and European movies that I missed while going HK crazy and spend most of my time now glued to Turner Classic Movies. So, maybe I will someday write a book on 1930s Old Dark House movies to go alongside your inevitable Bowery Boys tome.

Ha, right! Big thanks to John Charles. Be sure to pick up the current issue of Video Watchdog featuring John's interview with Ted Rusoff. John's book THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS is available in paperback on Amazon.

The Voice Of John Ashley

John Ashley was a Kansas City-born actor who broke into the movies in the late 1950s in a series of low-budget melodramas, such as MOTORCYCLE GANG, HOT ROD GANG, and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER. Handsome and blessed with a terrific speaking voice, Ashley eventually made his way to American International Pictures, where he co-starred with other young stars like Frankie Avalon and his wife Deborah Walley in frothy comedies like BIKINI BEACH and SERGEANT DEADHEAD.

Something of a self-starter who was probably getting bored with formulaic comedies and TV guest shots, Ashley went to the Philippines in 1968 to star in a series of cheap, colorful horror movies that became known as the Blood Island trilogy: BRIDES OF BLOOD, MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, and BEAST OF BLOOD. More importantly, he started producing them too, and cranked out several lurid horror pictures of independent distributors like Hemisphere Pictures and Roger Corman's New World Pictures. In fact, Ashley's BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT was the first film distributed to theaters by New World.

By the end of the 1970s, Ashley had retired from acting and become a full-time producer. One of his jobs was producing THE A-TEAM for Stephen J. Cannell, who remembered Ashley's acting career when it came time to create the opening titles for the series. Not only did Ashley supply the familiar A-TEAM narration (admit it--you know it by heart), but Cannell also tapped him to narrate the opening of HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK a year later.

In case you've always wondered who that voice was, here's John Ashley in THE A-TEAM and HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK:





Both themes were composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Welcome To Your New Nightmare

After eight films and a television series that brought in boffo box office for the studio, New Line turned its lucrative NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise over to uber-producer Michael Bay (TRANSFORMERS) and a music video director, Samuel Bayer, making his first feature film. Sounds like a terrible idea, and though this 2010 remake isn’t a good movie, it made back its bucks and more, and that’s all that counts in Hollywood.

I don’t think the filmmakers even understand horror movies. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET looks as though they watched other horror movies to see how they worked, but they didn’t watch any good ones—just the pallid remakes of them. Full of loud music stings, yellow-brown cinematography, and unimaginative setpieces, the remake even wastes what looks like a sound idea on paper: the casting of intense Jackie Earle Haley (WATCHMEN) as child killer-turned-dream invader Freddy Krueger.

Like the rest of the movie, Haley tries to get by on appearance alone, but doesn’t quite cut it. He lacks the energy and black humor that Robert Englund brought to the role. It’s true that Freddy became less scary in the later sequels when New Line started playing up the comedy to make him a more family-friendly serial killer, but in the original NIGHTMARE, Englund played the perfect balance of menace and joker—a psychopath who enjoyed his job. Haley has the look down and appears to be trying, but the script and direction are just going through the motions.

The story and even some of the setpieces are familiar. The teenagers on Elm Street are having trouble sleeping, because their nightmares are being invaded by a horribly mutilated madman in a slouch hat and striped sweater who threatens to murder them. When some of the kids die in apparent suicides, only Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara, star of the American remake of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) understands they’re being murdered in their dreams by Freddy Krueger.

While technically accomplished in many ways, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET suffers from a lack of imagination, humor, and verve. Its gloomy protagonists played by Mara and the equally somber Kyle Gallner fail to make us care about them, and Bayer and his writers aren’t good at making us care about anything else.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Let The Revenge Fit The Crime

The late Bob Kelljan was a very good director of low-budget action movies and television shows during the 1970s, in particular three vampire movies for American International Pictures—COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and its sequel, as well as SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (perhaps Kelljan became typecast in the genre, as he also helmed a STARSKY & HUTCH episode that guest-starred John Saxon as a killer who thought he was a vampire). One of his more obscure films is 1974's RAPE SQUAD, a sleazy thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation.

Familiar television guest star Jo Ann Harris (MOST WANTED) toplines as Linda, a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (Peter Brown), 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 Long (Ross Elliott), are ineffective, so the victims decide to 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 Tiny (Lada Edmund Jr.), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Soon, the newly empowered women are running all over L.A. at the drop of a dime, entrapping a sleazy club manager (Tony Young) with an eye for Harris’ curves in a see-through dress and beating a street pimp who smacks 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, particularly those from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures that teamed up three stewardesses, nurses, teachers, etc., 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 boobs.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of not providing the drama with 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 AIP’s 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. RAPE SQUAD was re-released in theaters as the less incendiary ACT OF VENGEANCE, which is also the title on the Thorn EMI/HBO videocassette print and the MGM print available for instant streaming from Netflix.

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, the handsome television star (LAREDO), who also played the heavy in AIP’s FOXY BROWN the same year, 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, a beautiful brunette 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. Jennifer Lee, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin, and Lisa Moore are strong as Harris’ fellow vigilantes.

Where RAPE SQUAD has really dated—for the best—is its portrayal of the authorities’ investigation. Statements are taken by male policeman who insinuate that the victim may have invited her attacker to rape her, and the medical examination is shown as a cold, sterile, clinically depressing exercise. Thankfully, laws have since been passed that make it easier and less embarrassing for a rape victim to report her crime. It would be interesting to see a contemporary remake. The elements for a commercial thriller are certainly there, especially the notion of five sexy young women kicking the asses of men, who all are depicted in RAPE SQUAD as being sexist thugs.

Now that other unheralded ‘70s drive-in flicks like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and BONNIE’S KIDS, both well-made, offbeat thrillers that were difficult to see for a long time, have been given lavish DVD releases, perhaps it’s time for RAPE SQUAD—likely under the ACT OF VENGEANCE title used on Netflix—to receive its just due on DVD.