Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Turkey Shoot (1982) aka Escape 2000

This brutal Australian action movie was ravaged by critics Down Under who weren’t used to seeing such homegrown malice and gory mayhem on their screens. In the United States, more than ten minutes of violence were snipped out of the picture by New World Pictures before it hit theaters as the R-rated ESCAPE 2000. Many of those who worked it, including director Brian Trenchard-Smith (DEAD-END DRIVE-IN), appear embarrassed to have contributed to it. No doubt, TURKEY SHOOT is a mean-spirited picture and a lively variation on Richard Connell’s celebrated story “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Sadist Thatcher (Michael Craig, who was in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) is the cruel commander of a prison camp, where so-called “deviants”—those unwilling to conform to the government’s will—are sentenced to be “rehabilitated” through rape and torture. Among the newest inmates are Chris (ROMEO & JULIET’s Olivia Hussey), a beautiful innocent, and escape artist Paul (THE STUNT MAN’s Steve Railsback), whose antisocial behavior includes broadcasting messages of freedom over a pirate radio station. Paul, Chris, and three others are chosen for Thatcher’s personal “turkey shoot,” where they are released into the surrounding wilderness on foot to be hunted like game by the commandant’s bloodthirsty aristocrat friends.

Trenchard-Smith could have used a bigger budget (I like my explosions bigger and brighter than those engineered by special effects artist John Stears here), but TURKEY SHOOT is crazy, violent fun from beginning to end. All of the performers—from Hussey’s doe-in-headlights to Craig’s of-course-I-know-how-silly-this-is archness—seem to be working on different wavelengths, which is a somewhat fitting approach to this comic-book Utopia of the not-too-distant future. It’s easy to understand why critics were so eager to lay into it, since the director’s approach to the story’s violence shows no fear of excess—machetes split skulls, hands are lopped off, multiple arrows penetrate bodies, one casualty goes down as the most impressive exploding body I’ve ever seen. Trenchard-Smith claims TURKEY SHOOT to be a subtle form of black comedy, although I find it hilarious only in its over-the-top violence. But that’s good enough for me.

The terrible score is by Brian May (THE ROAD WARRIOR). Trenchard-Smith’s budget and shooting schedule were slashed by approximately one-third just days before principal photography. TURKEY SHOOT was titled BLOOD CAMP THATCHER in England, hoping no doubt to capitalize on the unpopularity of ultra-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Filmed in Queensland and in a Sydney park. 2014’s ELIMINATION GAME was an Australian remake with Dominic Purcell (PRISON BREAK) in the lead and former TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond as Thatcher.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Boys From Brazil

It seems crazy, looking back at THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, that the Academy nominated it for three Academy Awards. Based on a helluva page-turner by Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY), this “gripping, suspenseful drama” (per VARIETY) is an absurd conspiracy movie with a plot right outta Spy Smasher comic books. It’s deliciously good fun and features juicy leading roles for major movie stars Gregory Peck (MOBY DICK) and Laurence Olivier (MARATHON MAN), who picked up a Best Actor Oscar nod (film editor Robert Swink and composer Jerry Goldsmith earned the film’s other nominations).

Levin and screenwriter Heywood Gould (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) would have us believe that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (Peck, playing a rare villain) is alive and well in Paraguay, where he commands a sizable force of Third Reichers ready and willing to do anything to advance their cause. Mengele’s plan involves the assassinations of 94 civil service workers all over the world—all of whom are in their mid-60s with a younger wife and a son approaching his teens.

Mengele, who thinks long-term, created 94 clones of Adolf Hitler twelve years earlier and placed them with families that most closely duplicate the environment in which the real Hitler grew up. Well, of course the odds are in favor of one of them growing up to be the next Fuhrer, or so the bad doctor believes. Aging Nazi-hunter Lieberman (Olivier) discovers Mengele’s fiendish plot, takes it seriously when no one else does (including us), and follows the trail to Europe and finally a bloody farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Gould’s script follows Levin’s best seller closely, including its clunky dialogue (“You whacked-out maniac!”) and plot implausibilities. Peck seems to be having a good time, always clad in a white suit, over-emoting (“Shut up, you ugly bitch!”) and lip-smacking like Ming the Merciless. Never the most expressive of actors, he certainly goes to town here. Olivier, on the other hand, brings a great deal of sensitivity, intensity, warmth, and humor to his part. Neither Olivier nor Peck takes the pulpy material more seriously than it deserves, pitching their performances to the perfect level.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) had no problem luring name actors to sign on to the lunacy (“Who would believe such a preposterous story?” Lieberman asks), though that may be more due to Sir Lew Grade’s checkbook than any love for the material. James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) as a Nazi who chickens out on Mengele’s plan allows us to witness the joy of him trading silly German accents with Peck. Lilli Palmer and Uta Hagen are also along for the ride, as is a young Steve Guttenberg (POLICE ACADEMY), whose amateur sleuthing gets the plot rolling. More painful than funny is the horrible acting by young Jeremy Black, who is embarrassingly bush league, playing the clones. He must have been somebody’s nephew.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is ridiculous, of course, just like the novel, but its irresistible premise, professional pacing (Schaffner stages an elaborate killing just when you’re itching for one), and enjoyable hambone acting make it easy to swallow. Schaffner and Gould keep Levin’s climax, which is rather low-key by the standards of most thrillers. However, Peck, Olivier, and John Dehner as a racist Doberman trainer play it for black humor, leading to an unconventional close.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Enemy Territory

One of Empire Pictures’ rare gems, ENEMY TERRITORY is a low-budget thriller starring the unlikely action duo of Gary Frank, who played sensitive son Willie on TV’s FAMILY (he won an Emmy for it), and Ray Parker Jr., the guy who composed and performed the GHOSTBUSTERS song.

Produced right at Empire’s peak (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, ELIMINATORS, ZONE TROOPERS, and TRANCERS also hit theaters around this time), ENEMY TERRITORY features gritty cinematography by future director Ernest Dickerson (SURVIVING THE GAME), a smart script co-written by mystery novelist Stuart Kaminsky, and brisk direction by Empire house jack-of-all-trades Peter Manoogian (THE DUNGEONMASTER). Interestingly, its premise of an Everyman trapped in a skyscraper invaded by murderous gang members predates DIE HARD, though it seems likely the production was somewhat influenced by Roberta Findlay’s vicious TENEMENT.

Frank stars as a down-on-his-luck insurance agent named Barry who is sent to the decrepit Lincoln Towers in the projects to collect a policy on a 70-year-old woman. White people are, let’s say, discouraged from entering the area after dark, and it doesn’t take long for Barry to run afoul of the Vampires black street gang, Their leader, who calls himself The Count (CANDYMAN’s Tony Todd) and calls Barry “The Ghost,” dispatches the building’s security guard (Tiger Haynes, who is great), leaving Barry to fend for himself on an upper floor.

Thankfully, the Ghost rummages up a few allies, including telephone repairman Will (Parker), the elderly Elva Briggs (Frances Foster), her granddaughter Toni (Stacey Dash, now a Fox News presence), and Parker, a paranoid, crippled Vietnam vet played in a tricked-out wheelchair with vim and vigor by Jan-Michael Vincent in one of his strongest post-AIRWOLF roles.

If a thriller is only as strong as its villain, then props to Todd, who is frightening and believably psychotic without going over the top. An effectively grimy location contributes to the claustrophobic mood set by Manoogian, and Kaminsky and co-writer Bobby Liddell’s occasional drops of social commentary add weight without coming off as preachy. An atypical Empire film without monsters, aliens, time travel, or robots, ENEMY TERRITORY ranks among the shortlived studio’s finest accomplishments.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Airport '77

From top to bottom, this Universal disaster movie contains one of the most star-studded casts ever assembled. Too bad it’s for something this dopey. At 113 minutes, AIRPORT ‘77 gives most of the big names a scene or two of their own, and it gives Christopher Lee one of the best roles he ever had in a Hollywood movie.

The only connecting thread between Universal’s four AIRPORT movies — besides an air disaster, of course — is George Kennedy (COOL HAND LUKE) as good ol’ Joe Patroni, who may have been a good luck charm for executive producer Jennings Lang, but not so much for fictional airports. The screenplay by SKYWAY TO DEATH’s Michael Scheff and David Spector from a story by H.A.L. Craig (ANZIO) and Charles Kuenstle (THE ASTRONAUT) manages to combine three hot Seventies trends — disaster flicks, airplane hijackings, and the Bermuda Triangle — but remains all wet to the end, just like the cast.

Still, watching these actors go through these motions has entertainment value, and all are professional enough to give it their best. Top-billed Jack Lemmon (THE ODD COUPLE) is indeed quite good carrying the action as the captain of a private 747 owned by wealthy art collector James Stewart (HARVEY). Lemmon is flying Stewart’s pretty pictures from Washington, D.C. to Palm Beach, but three ne’er-do-wells hijack the jetliner, which crashes in the Caribbean and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Full of passengers in various stages of freakout, the plane remains intact, but for how long? Help from the U.S. Navy is on the way, but can Lemmon and engineer Darren McGavin (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER) keep everyone calm until then? Most of the fun comes in guessing who will survive the disaster based on their backstory. Black bartender (Robert Hooks) whose wife is expecting twins? Blind singer (Tom Sullivan) falling in love with a winsome passenger (Kathlee Quinlan)? Bitchy alcoholic (Lee Grant) having an affair with her husband’s young assistant (Gil Gerard)? Tune in and see! Also floating about: Brenda Vaccaro, Robert Foxworth, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Monte Markham, Michael Pataki, James Booth, Pamela Bellwood, Arlene Golonka, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Director Jerry Jameson’s other credits include SUPERDOME, THE DEADLY TOWER, and HURRICANE, making him the go-to guy for destruction and mayhem, but not on too big a scale. AIRPORT ‘77 feels less directed than assembled, though Jameson’s talent for keeping the trains running on time gives the film a watchable sheen. It somehow earned Oscar nominations for its unspectacular costumes and art direction. The special effects, stunts, and Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings are good. NBC added over an hour to the running time for AIRPORT ‘77’s network premiere in 1978.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Mummy And The Curse Of The Jackals

THE MUMMY AND THE CURSE OF THE JACKALS is a totally whack low-budget chiller as dorky as the title indicates. Star Anthony Eisley, who had one helluva 1969 (he also made THE MIGHTY GORGA and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN that year, and it’s a tossup as to which of the three films is the worst), later claimed 66-year-old director Oliver Drake was senile.

Eisley, who was a handsome, competent, likable leading man who gained fame as a suave private eye opposite Robert Conrad in the HAWAIIAN EYE television series, is miscast as archeologist David Barrie, the unhinged discoverer of two ancient Egyptian sarcophagi in a plane crash outside Las Vegas. He drags them back to his shack, where he falls uncomfortably in love with the 4000-years-dead Princess Akanna (Marliza Pons), who comes back to life and strikes David with a curse that turns him into a were-jackal during a full moon.

While Eisley’s stunt double in a ridiculous hairy jackal head stumbles around Vegas killing cops (Eisley said he was supposed to play the Jackal-Man, but talked his stuntman into it, and the director never knew the difference), the other sarcophagus reveals a hilariously fat mummy that waddles around like Fred Sanford and kills a stripper. Unpaid extras laugh as the mummy wanders the streets of Las Vegas—probably not the reaction Drake intended. Eventually, the two monsters meet in a climactic surf showdown that had me wondering what those moth-eaten costumes must have smelled like when wet.

Oh yeah, John Carradine shows up (of course he does) for a day and a quick buck for no reason the plot requires. Produced by the shortlived Vega International Pictures, MUMMY was never released theatrically and, according to Eisley, never finished. It stunk up a vault someplace until Academy Home Entertainment put it out on VHS in 1985 in a cropped, squeezed, murky-looking print. Drake, who bounced around Hollywood for decades as a writer and director of B-westerns and LASSIE episodes, had penned THE MUMMY’S CURSE for Universal in the 1940s. He went on to direct two sex films before retiring.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Elves

Well, it just stands to reason that Grizzly Adams would eventually star in a Christmas horror movie as a homeless Santa Claus fighting a Nazi elf. That’s right: elf. Despite the title, the cheapo producers of this Action International Pictures release didn’t hand out enough dough to make a bunch of elf puppets or body suits or animatronics, so we’re left to scream in terror at one frozen-faced elf doll. And though we’re treated to the sight of a stiff elf hand cutting the nads off a pervy, cokehead department-store Santa, ELVES still manages to be inept, joyless, and sadly lacking even a pinch of cinematic frankincense and myrrh.

Teenage Kirsten (Julie Austin) is as meanspirited as this movie, the kind of girl who wastes her break at her crummy waitressing job so she and her friends can “goof on Santa.” It’s hard to blame her for being unlikable, considering she’s trapped at home with a kid brother who spies on her showers, a mother (Deanna Lund) who drowns the family cat in the toilet, and a grandfather (Borah Silver) who is a Nazi. We’ll get to that soon enough.

Kirsten and her equally Christmas-hating friends throw a seance in the woods and — unbeknownst to the trio — unleash an elf from the grave. It follows Kirsten to work, where it slices up the afore-mentioned cokehead Santa, the first of the film’s bloody but inertly staged murders. Director Jeff Mandel (ROBO-C.H.I.C.) is no director, and his ridiculous-looking elf is no scary monster.

So, yeah, Grandfather is a Nazi, but he’s even worse than that (if that’s possible). He’s not just Kirsten’s grandfather, but also her father. He raped his daughter (Lund) when she was 16 and made her pregnant. During World War II, he and his colleagues genetically engineered the elf to breed with the virginal Kirsten 30 years later on Christmas Eve and create the Anti-Christ. That’s how I read it, though I can’t be to blame for Mandel’s incoherent screenplay and direction.

Back to Grizzly Adams aka star Dan Haggerty. He plays Mike McGavin, a homeless alcoholic ex-cop who wanders around with a carton of Camels in his coat pocket and takes over as the store Santa. Haggerty is charming enough that you believe he could have killed in this part if he wanted to, but he seems to be more focused on making sure his Camel stays lit than in emoting.

McGavin gets involved when, while sacking out in the rear of the store, he overhears Kirsten and her friends frolicking after hours, trying on lingerie while waiting on some boys to arrive. Instead of their dates, a couple of Nazis break in to collect Kirsten, leading to the world’s dullest after-hours gun battle.

Mandel’s incompetence goes beyond the inept special effects, incoherent plotting, and lackluster performances. Even the movie’s lone nude scene fails to adequately hide the face of Deanna Lund’s body double. Perhaps Mandel thought nobody would be looking at her face anyway (three years later, the fiftysomething Lund had no qualms popping her top for director Gary Graver’s tawdry thriller ROOTS OF EVIL).

The only thing in ELVES’ favor, aside from Haggerty, I suppose, is that it’s crazy, which means it’s unpredictable. The story makes no sense, so it’s impossible to guess where it’s going. I know “merging the virginal child/grandchild with a Nazi elf to impregnate her with the seed of a master race” wasn’t on my radar. So, crazy, yes, but also stupid, confusing, laughable, and — somehow — boring.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

To All A Goodnight

I love the title, but little else about this seasonal slasher directed by David Hess, the star of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and written by Alex Rebar, the star of THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. How inept is TO ALL A GOODNIGHT? It casts Jennifer Runyon as the plain, hideous girl who can’t get a date. It shows a killer screaming, “Diiiiiiiiie!” And it doesn’t know that AIRPLANE! put a capper on scenes of men slapping hysterical women and telling them to snap out of it.

Some bitchy sorority sisters and their equally dickish boyfriends, spending the night together in the sorority house while the rest of the campus is home for Christmas break, are stalked and slashed by a killer in a Santa suit. Two years earlier, a sorority sister accidentally fell off a balcony to her death, so obviously some kids must pay. Eventually, only the virgin (Jennifer Runyon) and the nerd (Forrest Swanson) are left to unmask the murderer. Is it Ralph the crazy Bible-thumping handyman? The canola-baking neighbor lady? The housemother? One of the students? The pilot of the private plane that brought the boys to campus played by porn legend Harry Reems?

The idea of a killer Santa Claus was still somewhat fresh at the time, though I don’t think Hess emphasizes the novelty as much as it deserves. As the Final Girl, Runyon gives her first motion picture her all, though she made a better impression later in GHOSTBUSTERS, UP THE CREEK, and CHARLES IN CHARGE, as well as one of the BRADY BUNCH reunions. Her acting is bad, but so is everyone else’s. Stan Samshak as a police chief wearing a loud sports jacket is laughably bad, particularly the scene in which he describes a victim’s prison record while cupping Runyon’s chin in his hand.

Shot in ten days around Loyola Marymount University and obviously inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, GOODNIGHT is not a good film, but it boasts an impressive body count and draws laughter with its absurd twist-upon-a-twist ending. Hess never directed another feature and probably didn’t deserve to based on his clunky handling of this one. The gore and skin content indicate Hess knew what his audience wanted. He just didn’t have the talent to parlay his knowledge into an exciting, interesting thriller.

Rocky

The story behind Sylvester Stallone’s star-making sleeper hit is well known. Struggling actor writes a kitchen sink drama about a third-rate Philadelphia boxer, refuses to sell it to a studio unless he can play the leading role, film gets made by producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler for United Artists, becomes the most popular release of 1976 and nominated for ten Academy Awards. ROCKY won three Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Picture in one of the strongest categories of all time. If you wanted to argue ROCKY isn’t as good as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, BOUND FOR GLORY, NETWORK, or TAXI DRIVER, you’d obviously have some strong points in your favor. But ROCKY is a great film.

Two of those Academy Award nominations went to Stallone for his screenplay and his performance as Rocky Balboa, a good man who believes hard work, determination, and a will to succeed are all you need to capture your dreams. And he’s right. First seen punching it up in smoke-filled rooms for forty bucks a fight away from his day job as a thumb-breaker for loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell), Rocky begins a tentative romance with shy pet-store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire) on the way to his big break. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the world’s heavyweight champion, agrees to give the unknown Balboa a shot at the title, so Rocky hires crusty Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who always believed Rocky had wasted his potential, to get him in shape.

ROCKY spawned six sequels, including 2015’s CREED, which featured Stallone in a supporting role as Rocky training Apollo’s illegitimate son (Michael B. Jordan) for the title. That audiences loved Sly and this character so much is no mystery. Americans love underdogs, sure, but Stallone’s heart and soul went into this picture. No matter how cartoonish or excessive the sequels got (Rocky buys a damn robot butler in ROCKY IV), Rocky’s underlying decency was always there. In addition to Stallone, Shire and Meredith also receiving Oscar nods for their acting, as did Burt Young, in the running for worst ever Oscar-nominated actor, for his mumbling and fumbling as Paulie, Rocky’s friend and Adrian’s brother. Somehow, the Academy overlooked Bill Conti’s iconic score, but not his theme song, “Gonna Fly Now.” Virtually the entire cast returned for ROCKY II with Stallone also directing in addition to writing and starring.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Star Trek, "Court Martial"

Note: this post is one of a series of STAR TREK episode reviews originally written for the alt.tv.startrek.tos newsgroup. For more information, please read this post.

COURT MARTIAL
Episode 20 of 80
February 2, 1967
Teleplay: Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos
Story: Don M. Mankiewicz
Director: Marc Daniels

“Court Martial” is one of the most dated STAR TREK episodes. After 25 years of LAW & ORDER shows, as well as series like L.A. LAW, THE PRACTICE, MURDER ONE, etc., we
know so much about how trials and the law work that it's hard to ignore the gaps in procedure in this episode. Plus it's not a very STAR TREK-y plot — it would work for just about any other action/adventure on TV. A series like STAR TREK deserves more imaginative plots and ideas, not standard courtroom drama. However, “Court Martial” is entertaining and features nice acting by the regular cast.

Joan Marshall, whose most interesting performance was under the name Jean Arless in William Castle’s HOMICIDAL, work in “Court Martial” as the attorney prosecuting Captain Kirk (William Shatner) seriously mars this episode. Her performance is stilted and unbelievable. She is beautiful and mature though, and I believe a younger Jim Kirk would fall for her. Richard Webb (CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) is too over-the-top, even for this series.

But Elisha Cook, Jr. as Kirk’s old-fashioned defense attorney is terrific (“Books, my young friend. Books!”). It has been said that he was hard for directors to work with as he advanced in age, because he wasn't able to remember his lines anymore and had to shoot them one at a time or read cue cards. He has some long speeches in this episode though, and appears to spout them off just fine.

The ship's quartermaster must hate Captain Kirk. Kirk's always getting his clothes torn up. He goes through more shirts...

The show's stunt players are almost always good, but why can't they find one who at least sort of kind of resembles William Shatner? You can spot these stuntmen a mile away...

What do they call it? A "white sound analyzer?”? To quote McCoy, "In a pig's eye!" That, my friends, is a common, everyday microphone.

Writer Don Mankiewicz’s father was Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote CITIZEN KANE with Orson Welles. Story editor Steven Carabatsos and producer Gene Coon polished Mankiewicz’s original script.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Werewolf Woman

Call me uncouth if you want, but any film that opens with a fully nude woman dancing maniacally inside a ring of fire? It has my attention.

Dimension released WEREWOLF WOMAN in the United States in 1976 as THE LEGEND OF THE WOLF WOMAN, and anyone looking for hearty portions of violence and sex is sure to be pleased with it.

French starlet Annik Borel, whose credits miraculously include both this and the sitcom THE ODD COUPLE, plays a dual role. She’s Daniela, a young woman emotionally damaged by a rape at age thirteen. She also plays her 18th century ancestor, the afore-mentioned nude dancer who was burned at the stake for being a werewolf. Daniela starts to believe she is also a werewolf with her first victim being her brother-in-law.

WEREWOLF WOMAN’s exploitation credentials, if you happened to walk into the movie late, are promptly validated in the scene where Daniela masturbates while spying on her sister Elena (Dagmar Lassander) and her brother-in-law Fabian having sex. Fabian follows Daniela outdoors, where she strips and seduces him before tearing his throat out with her teeth and letting his blood drip on her nude body. Director Rino di Silvestro (WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 7) may have few credits, but he seems to have made them count (in a scene in which Daniela freaks out in her hospital bed, di Silvestro makes sure her gown flips up to reveal her pubic hair).

Despite the string of bodies Daniela leaves behind, the film works hard to put the audience on her side. After two more sexual assaults (!) and the murder of her stuntman boyfriend (who appears to live in a fake western town), the tone shifts from horror to rape-revenge. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the increasingly feral Daniela as she tracks down her rapists and murders them. Frederick Stafford, the star of Hitchcock’s TOPAZ, must have wondered what his agent got him into as he indifferently plays the policeman on Daniela’s trail.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Seven (1979)

AIP released what is probably the least personal film of director/producer Andy Sidaris’ career, his second. Whereas his first movie, STACEY!, was a straightforward action movie punctuated by occasional nude scenes, and his third, MALIBU EXPRESS, would further hone the mixture of “boobs, bullets, and bombs” that would make his 1980s softcore adventures staples of home video and cable television, SEVEN is an elaborate adventure boasting a reasonably professional cast, a sprawling storyline, and lush Hawaiian locations. Don’t worry though—it’s still a Sidaris movie, and that means plenty of gorgeous top-heavy women are on proud display, as well as corny jokes, an unnecessarily convoluted plot, and elaborate methods of murder. Sidaris liked the killer skateboarder and the sex doll so much that he repeated them in his HARD TICKET TO HAWAII.

Smith plays government agent Drew Savano, summoned to Hawaii to stop an army of seven assassins who plan to take over the state by murdering its political leaders. Drew’s plan is to recruit his own army of seven and assign each member his or her own enemy to kill during a tight half-hour window two days hence. Drew’s wildly disparate crew includes a sexy helicopter pilot, a redneck, a scientific genius, a karate expert, a jive-talking black guy, and a stand-up comic. Sidaris’ story also allows Sidaris the producer to pay Smith for only a few days work, since much screen time is handed over to each supporting character as they set up and enact their assassination plans. Smith (THE SWINGING BARMAIDS) probably says more dialogue via voiceover than on-screen.

The action scenes are typically Sidarisian, involving complex mechanical gadgetry and exotic vehicles, as well as plenty of exploding blood packets and a silly-funky musical score. Smith seems looser than usual, no doubt a result of a paid Hawaiian vacation (he stuck around to co-star with Jack Lord in HAWAII FIVE-O’s final season) and the presence of a pulchritudinous supporting cast of ladies, including Susan Kiger (ANGELS’ BRIGADE), Barbara Leigh (of Hammer’s never-to-be VAMPIRELLA), and Carol Needham. Originally intended by Sidaris to be a vehicle for Burt Reynolds, SEVEN received a script polish by television vet Bill Driskill (COLUMBO) and financing from independent producer Melvin Simon (THE STUNT MAN).

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Horror At 37,000 Feet

Busy episodic TV writer/producers Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan tapped out the teleplay for the CBS Movie of the Week THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET. Aired in 1973, this Movie of the Week directed by David Lowell Rich (THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT '79) enjoys a certain cult cachet four decades later. It’s gloriously silly with a ludicrous plot about a London-to-New York airliner transporting a haunted abbey, unconvincing special effects, and a name cast of ham-slicing stars that threatens to turn the film into a horror version of AIRPORT.

The first to succumb to both overwrought playing and the spooks haunting the aircraft is Jane Merrow (HANDS OF THE RIPPER), whose family has owned the abbey for centuries. She and her architect husband Roy Thinnes (THE INVADERS) are aboard a curiously underfilled flight along with bossy rich dude Buddy Ebsen (then on BARNABY JONES), self-loathing priest William Shatner and his companion Lynn Loring (BLACK NOON), model France Nuyen (who gets nothing to do), nutcase Tammy Grimes, physician Paul Winfield, and spaghetti western star Will Hutchins (SUGARFOOT), ludicrously decked out in ‘40s B-western wear—you know, like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef wore in Beverly Hills all the time.

At one point, the passengers try to disguise a child’s doll as a baby and offer it as sacrifice to whatever spirit is haunting the plane—a plan that works about as well as you would expect. HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is short enough to maintain a certain level of watchability while never becoming anything close to good. Shatner is the only star who seems comfortable with the campy dialogue, though it may be that he’s the only one with an actual character to play. Darleen Carr, H.M. Wynant, Brenda Benet, Russell Johnson, and Chuck Connors play the ship's crew.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tales From The Darkside: The Movie

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE may be the most obscure television series to spawn a feature film. One of many horror anthologies clogging late-night schedules in the late 1980s (see also: MONSTERS, FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES, et al.), TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE was notable because of the participation of George A. Romero, director of the classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, who served as executive producer and occasional writer on TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE.

Almost two years after the final DARKSIDE episode aired in syndication, Paramount released TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE featuring a screenplay by Romero and novelist Michael McDowell, who had written BEETLEJUICE in addition to some DARKSIDEs. Like Romero’s earlier (and better) film CREEPSHOW, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE was an anthology reminiscent of the twist-in-the-tail horror comic books published by M.C. Gaines’ EC in the 1950s.

The impetus for DARKSIDE’s three tales of terror is a little boy (Matthew Lawrence) caged by a cannibalistic housewife (Blondie bombshell Deborah Harry). To distract her from starting dinner, the boy tells her three stories from a book titled...TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE.

“Lot 249,” penned by McDowell from an Arthur Conan Doyle story, is noteworthy for its starring roles by Steve Buscemi (RESERVOIR DOGS) and soap opera actress Julianne Moore (SHORT CUTS), making her film debut. Buscemi plays a disgraced graduate student who uses a 3000-year-old mummy to get revenge against the rich snobs, played by Moore and Robert Sedgwick, who cheated him out of a scholarship. Christian Slater (KUFFS) plays Moore’s brother.

Not quite as interesting as the middling “Lot 249,” which has a cool KNB-created mummy going for it, is “Cat from Hell,” a Romero screenplay based on a Stephen King story that was intended for CREEPSHOW 2. Wealthy old sickie William Hickey (PRIZZI’S HONOR) offers hitman David Johansen (SCROOGED) $50,000 to kill...a cat, which Hickey believes is evil.

In time-honored tradition, director John Harrison (another TV veteran) saves the best story for last. “Lover’s Vow,” a McDowell original, is the only segment that is genuinely good, though the twist probably won’t come as a surprise. It stars James Remar (48 HRS.) as an artist who sees a gargoyle commit a murder. The gargoyle spares his life so long as he promises never to tell anyone what he saw. He eventually marries Rae Dawn Chong (THE BORROWER), and they raise children together. But how long can he keep the secret?

Aside from some nifty makeup effects credited to KNB (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN) and consultant Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), there’s little to recommend about TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE. It’s certainly better than CREEPSHOW 2 at least. It opened third at the box office behind megahits PRETTY WOMAN and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES in their second month of release. McDowell also wrote scripts for MONSTERS and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Verdict

Paul Newman earned his sixth Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in THE VERDICT as alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin, whose brass ring of a case brings him heartache, betrayal, and finally a renewed sense of purpose. Though THE VERDICT may well represent Newman’s finest dramatic performance in a career full of great performances, he somehow lost the Oscar to GANDHI’s Ben Kingsley (he finally won on his seventh try in 1987 for THE COLOR OF MONEY).

The first time we see Frank Galvin, he’s drinking raw eggs and beer and playing pinball alone in an empty Boston tavern on an early wintry morning. He’s had four cases in the last three years—lost ‘em all—and is reduced to handing out his business card to grieving widows in the condolence line at funerals (he scans the obituaries every day for potential new clients).

Down, drunk, and nearly out, Galvin is tossed a bone by his friend and mentor Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden). Young Deborah Ann Kaye was admitted to an expensive Catholic hospital to deliver her baby, but suffered permanent brain damage and a coma when she was given the wrong anesthetic by her doctors. The Archdiocese is willing to settle for $210,000 to avoid a scandal, but seeing Deborah alone, hooked to machines, in the hospital bed where she’ll spend the rest of her natural life, has kicked Galvin in the rear.

Finding his soul and realizing no one but him gives a damn about Deborah, Galvin turns down the money and, with only Mickey and his new lover Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to help, prepares to try his case against “the Prince of Darkness:” high-priced lawyer Edward Concannon (James Mason, another Oscar nominee), whose reputation and influence have gained him the obvious favor of Judge Hoyle (Milo O’Shea).

THE VERDICT, based by screenwriter David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) on a novel by Barry Reed, is less a courtroom drama than a stirring character study of a man given a second chance. He once had—and lost—a wife, money, respect, and a substantial law practice, but now spends his evenings buying drinks and telling jokes at the local Irish pub. Newman IS Frank Galvin, embodying his world-weariness and determination body and soul, and is always believable.

Director Sidney Lumet, another of THE VERDICT’s five Academy Award nominees, helms with a stark style that complements Newman’s performance perfectly, often shooting in one long take and placing the camera far across the room to accentuate Galvin’s loneliness and stacked odds against him. Lumet (DOG DAY AFTERNOON) isn’t afraid to use silence or flat lighting, and Johnny Mandel’s score is so effective, you won’t even know it’s there.

Between them, Newman and Lumet made dozens of landmark films (oddly, this is the only one they made together), and it’s a great tribute to say THE VERDICT is one of the best in each of their filmographies. The crack supporting cast also includes Edward Binns (from Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN), Lindsay Crouse, Joe Seneca, James Handy, Wesley Addy ,and Julie Bovasso. If you look closely, you’ll spot Bruce Willis as an uncredited courtroom extra. Lumet, Mamet also received an Oscar nod for his screenplay (as well as a Writers Guild Award), as did producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown for Best Picture.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Narrow Margin (1990)

Gene Hackman (an Oscar winner for THE FRENCH CONNECTION) and Anne Archer (an Oscar nominee for FATAL ATTRACTION) star in NARROW MARGIN, Carolco’s entertaining, fast-moving remake of Richard Fleischer’s 1952 B-picture that starred Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

Peter Hyams, who wrote, directed, and photographed this train picture, sometimes sacrifices logic for thrills, but the well-crafted action sequences, beautiful British Columbian scenery, and breezy performances make everything okay. Hey, who can resist an action thriller set on a train?

Archer is Carol Hunnicut, a divorcee on a blind date with an attorney (J.T. Walsh). While freshening up in the bathroom, she overhears two men (one of whom is an uncredited Harris Yulin) enter her date’s hotel room and shoot him in the head. She runs off and hides away in an isolated cabin way up in the Canadian mountains, but Assistant District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Hackman) finds her and tries to convince her to testify. Before he can, the cabin is shot up by two men in a helicopter, and the chase is on. James B. Sikking (OUTLAND) plays one of the assassins, and he and Hackman play a neat little game of cat-and-mouse: each knows whom the other is, but is playing it cool for appearance’s sake.

Like a lot of Hyams’ films, you’ll have to keep a healthy suspension of disbelief to enjoy NARROW MARGIN. Certainly nitpickers will have a field day with it, particularly Hackman’s amazing athleticism (though it is mentioned Caulfield was a Marine). Stunt work is impressive, and Hyams nails some amazing shots of his stars running, jumping, and grappling outside the train. A lightweight thriller, but one that’s good fun.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Blood Beast Of Monster Mountain

Most likely inspired by the massive box office success of Charles B. Pierce’s independently produced regional hit THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, showman Donn Davison (MOONSHINER’S WOMAN) bought a ten-year-old horror comedy and tried to pass it off to paying customers as something new. Originally titled THE LEGEND OF BLOOD MOUNTAIN, the newer version cuts scenes and splices in some new bits, including a pretty good country western ballad sung by Tim York that opens the film and explains the premise. Of course, none of Davison’s footage matches the stuff originally directed by Massey Cramer (THE FLORIDA CONNECTION), and I doubt anyone was fooled.

Davison even introduces the picture, billed as a “World Traveler, Lecturer and Psychic Investigator.” He stands in front of a very ‘70s wood-paneled wall and explains the Sasquatch legend. Explaining that he wants to mix true facts about Bigfoot with the fun story created by a screenwriter, Davison and his “Mobile Unit One” cut into the plot occasionally with dubious history lessons and (faked) man-on-the-street interviews about face-to-face encounters with Bigfoot. Davison wears sunglasses to hide that he’s reading cue cards, but his stiff recitations and insistence on single takes gives the game away.

To say that these segments fit awkwardly with the slapstick antics of goofy copy boy Bestoink Dooley (George Ellis) is the only thing understated about this picture. Dooley was a character played by Ellis as a horror-movie host on Atlanta television. It’s difficult to explain Dooley’s role in MONSTER MOUNTAIN (the on-screen title of this Davison version; I’m sure there are several) — it really must be seen to be believed — but, basically, bumbling Bestoink begs his boss at the newspaper to cover the news of bleeding rocks on Blood Mountain. The editor turns him down, and Bestoink goes home to sleep, where he has weird dreams, wakes up, does some half-hearted calisthenics, flosses, then leaves and drives around in his roadster. Presumably this is more thrilling than whatever Davison cut out.

Man-child Dooley (“Please, ladies, just call me Bestoink.”) dresses like Joe E. Ross with Shemp hair working blue in the Catskills and has the mental acuity of a post-stroke Fred Flintstone. Ellis exhibits no talent for comedy, and it’s unclear that he’s even trying to be funny. Popping up in a bikini for no reason is Erin Fleming, better known later as Groucho Marx’s controversial companion in the legendary comic’s later years. It’s good to see her, only because it breaks up an absurdly Ed Woodian conversation between Dooley and a geologist about rocks and creatures and whatall bullshit. The geologist and his family have a grouchy, crazy maid, even though all we see of their house is a cheap-looking shack of a living room. If it’s possible for a film to be boring and fascinating at the same time, here’s the poster child.

So what about the monster that’s murdering folks on Stone Mountain...er, rather, Blood Mountain? Ho ho, you didn’t trust Donn Davison, did you?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Octopussy

Released the same year that Sean Connery reprised the 007 role in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, OCTOPUSSY is not one of Roger Moore’s best Bond films. It suffers from a non-threatening villain, an uninteresting plot, and inappropriate humor — a standard of the Moore films. Bond dresses as both an ape and a clown, and if a Tarzan yell punctuating the suave agent’s swinging from vine to vine doesn’t make your eyes fall in shame, there’s no hope for you.

Screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser (THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Richard Maibaum (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), and executive producer Michael G. Wilson is not based on Ian Fleming’s “Octopussy,” though elements of the story appear. While investigating the murder of a 00 agent found clutching an expensive Faberge egg, James Bond (Moore) discovers a plot by Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Soviet general Orlov (BEVERLY HILLS COP heavy Steven Berkoff, who is hysterical here) to discredit the United States by exploding a nuclear bomb at an Air Force base in Germany.

Octopussy, by the way, is the name of a woman, played by Maud Adams (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), who operates a traveling circus and leads a band of sexy smugglers on the side. While OCTOPUSSY features a rich look and lush production values synonymous with the 007 series, John Glen’s direction is unusually sluggish. The action sequences lack verve, and what should have been a suspense highlight — Khan on an elephant pursuing Bond through a jungle — comes off as ridiculous with 007 dodging snakes, spiders, leeches, lions, and crocodiles. An exception is a sequence set aboard a train, which shows off some agile stuntwork.

Robert Brown replaced the late Bernard Lee as M. Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn appear as Miss Moneypenny and Q, respectively. John Barry again composed the score with Rita Coolidge performing the theme, “All Time High.” Though NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN had the advantage of a bigger opening day weekend (OCTOPUSSY opened at #2 behind RETURN OF THE JEDI), the Moore film ended up grossing more domestic bucks over all. Moore returned for one more — A VIEW TO A KILL — before handing off his Walther PPK to Timothy Dalton.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare in Chicago

For a 1964 episode of KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER titled “Once Upon a Savage Night,” Universal allowed producer/director Robert Altman (NASHVILLE) to film on location in Chicago. To justify the expense of taking the show off the backlot and shooting cinema verite-style on Kodak’s new high-speed 35mm color stock, Universal asked Altman to direct extra footage for a “movie” it could release in theaters overseas and in syndication.

Altman avoids the usual touristy spots and downtown Chicago glitz to showcase the stark Illinois winter and tollroads appropriate for writer David Moessinger’s (QUINCY, M.E.) crime drama, which takes place mostly at night. Based on William McGivern’s novella “Killer on the Turnpike,” NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO’s first half plays sans musical score to play up the realism. It isn’t until the episode turns into a manhunt that composer John Williams (STAR WARS) brings up the score to punctuate the suspense. It looks very little like a typical ‘60s television show and very much like the experimental cinema coming out of Europe. Some performers are obvious amateurs Altman picked up in Chicago, and the stars — talented as they are — were likely chosen because they could blend with the scenery.

Philip Abbott, who played Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s blandly efficient boss on THE FBI, uses that anonymous quality to good effect as “Georgie Porgie,” a serial killer strangling women in the Midwest. He’s already struck four times by the time the story picks him up in a small Indiana town just outside Chicago. After leaving his fifth victim sprawled in her own bed, Georgie quickly adds number six, whom he shockingly strangles during a makeout session in the front row of a crowded strip club. As if a deranged serial killer isn’t enough to keep cops Charles McGraw (THE NARROW MARGIN), Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS), and Ted Knight (THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) busy on a brisk night just before Christmas, they also have to contend with an Army convoy carrying nuclear weapons that’s making its way down the same tollway Abbott is on.

“Once Upon a Savage Night” was the second and last KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER directed by Altman, who was busy on other shows like COMBAT, BUS STOP, and THE LONG HOT SUMMER at the time. While I suspect the episode plays better at an hour (one scene in particular involving two waitresses and the boyfriend of one of them has nothing to do with the story and is obvious padding) than at 79 minutes, NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO is crisp suspense on par with another of Altman’s finest works of the 1960s, BUS STOP’s notorious “A Lion Walks Among Us” episode.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Zebra Force

Character actor Joe Tornatore made his feature debut as a writer, producer, and director with this laughable crime drama with a delightfully daffy premise. A hideously scarred and mutilated Vietnam vet (Glenn Wilder) assembles a squad of white (“as ivory snow”) Army buddies to disguise themselves as black men and rob the Mafia. And I’m talking Rollin Hand disguises where black actors play the crooks in action, then Tornatore cuts to white actors pulling off their rubber masks. Takes nerve to ask the audience to buy into that, so give Tornatore credit. For an actor, though, Tornatore is unskilled in directing actors, as the performances in ZEBRA FORCE are inept.

Los Angeles capo Salvatore (Anthony Caruso) brings in hitman Carmine Longo (Tornatore regular Mike Lane) from Detroit and teams him with right-hand man Charlie DiSantis (Richard X. Slattery, whose trademark red hair is dyed black) to find the “black guys” pulling the heists. Even though the story by Tornatore (with Annette Lombardi credited with “additional scenes & dialogue”) is told from the mob’s point of view, we’re meant to root for Wilder’s gang, who keep the loot for themselves, but insist on flushing the stolen drugs down the toilet to prevent it from “ending up in some kid’s arm.” Between heists, they sit around playing cards and drinking RC cola and admiring Wilder’s genius.

But who cares about story? ZEBRA FORCE’s reason for existing is so Tornatore can show off car chases and gun violence, impressively conveyed in slow motion, all the better to let the audience coo at the crazy stunts. Charles Bernstein of WHITE LIGHTNING and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame performs a favor for Tornatore by delivering an energetic wacka-wacka musical score under the pseudonym Charles Alden. Tough guy actors Slattery (WALKING TALL), Rockne Tarkington (BLACK SAMSON), and Lane (STAY AWAY, JOE) growl pointless tough-guy dialogue between stunts. Best of all is ZEBRA FORCE’s climactic plot twist, which is clever, not at all plausible, and almost too good for a picture this cheap. Believe it or not, Tornatore made a sequel over a decade later with Lane returning as Carmine Longo.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Bubble

Arch Oboler directed, wrote, produced, and distributed this offbeat science fiction film in 3-D. He had earlier made BWANA DEVIL, the first 3-D movie in sound and in color, but the 3-D craze had long since dissipated by 1966. Ten years later, Oboler cut several minutes out of THE BUBBLE and re-released it as THE FANTASTIC INVASION OF PLANET EARTH, the title under which it played on television often in the 1970s and 1980s. By that time, star Michael Cole was famous from THE MOD SQUAD. Stephen King obviously saw it under one of the titles, as his UNDER THE DOME, which CBS later adapted as a weekly television series, shares similarities with THE BUBBLE’s premise.

Brash pilot Tony (Johnny Desmond) flies married couple Mark (Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) through a thunderstorm to a hospital where Catherine can deliver her baby. Tony lands in a small town that resembles a hodge-podge of random movie backlots, including an old western saloon complete with dancing girl and a New York City subway entrance that descends to nowhere. Strangely, the people all act like zombies, repeating the same phrases over and over, when they bother to speak at all. When Tony, Mark, Catherine, and baby boy try to leave town, they learn it’s covered by a mysterious clear dome. They’re trapped, but why and by whom?

Watching THE BUBBLE in 2-D is a peculiar experience. Oboler ignores no opportunity to shove something into the camera lens, though with variable results. A tray of beer bottles and glasses floating around the saloon is betrayed by the visible wires. Some floating rubber Halloween monster masks would probably still look silly in any D. The human element is as uneven as the effects. The main characters act like dolts, never asking the right questions and taking far too long to realize that the town is weird. Speaking Oboler’s repetitive dialogue doesn’t help the actors either.

THE BUBBLE has been compared to a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and certainly the plot would have been effective at a half hour. It isn’t at 91 minutes — at least not with Oboler at the helm — and it also doesn’t build to any satirical or metaphysical point. Nor does the climax pay off satisfactorily. It hardly pays off at all. Not enough to invest an hour and a half of your time in it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Invasion Of The Blood Farmers

Opening with a hilariously silly James Mason impersonator rambling about druids, this PG-rated regional horror (what glorious accents!) is dumb, but worth a look for fans of dumb movies. “Don’t eat before you see this show and you’ll have nothing to lose!!” read the ads for INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS, which also featured a striking photo of an overalls-clad farmer plunging a pitchfork into a screaming woman.

Nothing that occurs in the film is anywhere close to as thrilling as the ads or the delightfully lurid title, but few films could stack up to them. One-and-done director Ed Adlum, the producer and writer of SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (you gotta hand it to the guy — he had a knack for titles), filmed BLOOD FARMERS in rural New York using local (aka amateur) performers and crew.

So, yeah, back to the druids. They’re from outer space, and they’re trying to revive their dead queen, who rests in a glass coffin (the actress is lousy at holding her breath), with a special rare blood type. Their plan seems to be to kidnap random people from a small mountain town and drain their blood in hope it’s what they’re looking for. The townspeople wonder about all the missing people, but don’t spend much time looking for them. The only clue to the disappearances lies with “old Jim Carrey,” who lurches into the local saloon one afternoon and dies, covered in his own blood.

Local pathologist Roy Anderson (Norman Kelley, who must have scored top billing on the basis of his age, not his acting ability) and his assistant Don Tucker (Bruce Detrick) study some of “old Jim Carrey’s” blood and discover the blood cells expanded at such a rapid rate that the victim basically exploded. We soon meet the flowery Creton (Paul Craig Jennings), charged with sending his hillbilly minions out to capture blood givers, and watch goofy and not very scary scenes of victims convulsing while tubes gurgle and drain them.

One may wonder how a film with so much blood and shots of gurgling, convulsing victims could get a PG rating, even during a period in which the MPAA considered horror to be kid stuff. Adlum tricked the MPAA into giving him a PG rating and then reinstated the scenes he had to cut to avoid an R. Adlum obviously shot the movie in a hurry — a drinking game involving dialogue blown or stumbled over would leave the audience trashed pretty quickly — and the practical sets, costumes and effects feel believable if not exactly attractive.

The best thing one can say about INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS is that it isn’t boring, which isn’t the worst thing one can say about a movie. The acting is wretched (I kept waiting for Tanna Hunter as Roy’s daughter and Don’s girlfriend to utter a “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”), but Adlum isn’t untalented. The plot is weird, but capable of sustaining a good film with more means than Adlum and co-writer Ed Kelleher had to work with — $28,000 and a six-day schedule, according to Adlum.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Busting

Released the same year that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN became Warner Brothers’ top grosser of 1974, BUSTING helped pioneer the raucous “buddy cop” genre that combined ribald humor with bloody violence (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and the I SPY television series were also antecedents). Like FREEBIE, the feature directorial debut of writer Peter Hyams (2010) features two headstrong, foul-mouthed police detectives butting their heads against the System while breaking as many rules and destroying as much private and public property as possible.

Elliott Gould, fresh off THE LONG GOODBYE, in which he played a more laidback detective, plays Keneely, and Robert Blake (in a part originally intended for SUPER COP Ron Leibman), who played a motorcycle cop in ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, plays Farrel. The unkempt, authority-challenging plainclothes vice cops aren’t good at taking no for an answer as they set their sights on a drug-dealing pornographer played by Allen Garfield (THE CONVERSATION).

After high-placed figures in the Los Angeles police department force Keneely to lie on the witness stand to keep a gorgeous call girl (Cornelia Sharpe) out of jail, he and Farrel are punished for their insolence by getting assigned to stake out a park restroom for perverts. Frustrated by the obstacles standing between them and doing the job they were hired to do, the dicks use their free time after hours to nail Garfield -- a tough chore for cops who spend as much time dodging departmental incompetence and backstabbing as they do bullets and beatings from the bad guys.

The best buddy movies feature impeccable chemistry between their stars, and BUSTING is no exception. Though Hyams receives screenplay credit, much of Gould and Blake’s dialogue is improvised and often very funny. As a director, Hyams developed a knack for flashy, exciting if not necessarily logical action sequences, and the seeds of that skill are on display in BUSTING. The film’s highlight -- a late-night foot chase and shootout through downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market -- is a cacophony of violence, screams, innocent bystanders, and squibbed vegetables blasting in the air. Hyams films much of the scene in long takes, which adds realism and tension. His reliance on long dolly shots becomes repetitive eventually, but the Grand Central Market setpiece is superb.

A boisterous bouillabaisse of wild action, irreverence, and profanity (ensuring no studio will be mounting a faithful remake of BUSTING anytime soon), Hyams’ film is one of the 1970s’ most entertaining crime dramas. Strangely, Hyams followed this violent thriller with OUR TIME, a teen love story, but by the end of the decade had found his niche in fast-moving actioners like CAPRICORN ONE and THE STAR CHAMBER.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Indian Raid Indian Made

The main titles are painted on a nude woman taking a shower. Most of the names are fake anyway, though anyone who followed major league baseball in the 1970s will recognize Morganna. A professional stripper with reportedly 60-inch breasts, Morganna became famous for running onto the field during sporting events and kissing athletes. Among her targets were Pete Rose, George Brett, and Steve Garvey. Sure, these stunts got her arrested, but they also got her on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Before she made a name for herself as “The Kissing Bandit,” Morganna appeared in a handful of ‘60s softcore flicks, including INDIAN RAID INDIAN MADE, which billed her as “Morganna (The Wild One).” It’s nearly an hour before she shows up and another twenty minutes or so until she performs a wowza striptease number. It’s hard to believe anyone who paid to see this movie was awake to see it, however.

A dimwitted Harry Novak production for Boxoffice International, INDIAN RAID INDIAN MADE stars Chuck Davis as Harold, a secret agent assigned to break a moonshining ring at a “resort” that looks like a cheap motel. Not that he does any investigating. Not that he has any time, what with all the women throwing themselves at him in every scene. Davis and most of the cast also worked on director/writer Bob Favorite’s previous film RIVERBOAT MAMA, also for Novak. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall banjo, ukelele, and guitar music credited to Chuck Story, Joe Counts, and Art Schill, a Florida-based musician who played in a folk band called the Folksters.

Plot is less than incidental in these nudie flicks, which are generally a succession of not terribly attractive men and women coupling by rubbing and hugging each other. Nothing approaching the sexual act is depicted, and, of course, no penetration. The men leave their pants on half the time. Rarely does anything erotic occur in a Harry Novak film, but they were so cheaply produced, they couldn’t help but make a profit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

Following AMERICAN NINJA and AVENGING FORCE, action screen team Michael Dudikoff and Steve James are back in action in AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION. The sequel is even better than the original AMERICAN NINJA, thanks to a more interesting villain: a drug kingpin named Leo the Lion played in a hammy performance by Gary Conway (LAND OF THE GIANTS).

The plot, credited to Conway and fellow actor James Booth (AVENGING FORCE), finds the Lion kidnapping U.S. Marines, cloning them, and creating a master race of ninja super-warriors. Army Rangers Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) and Curtis Jackson (James) are sent to the Caribbean (played by South Africa) to investigate the disappearances and meet Alicia Sanborn (Michelle Botes), whose scientist father was also kidnapped by the Lion and forced to take part in his captor’s DNA experiments.

Back in the director’s chair is Sam Firstenberg, who piloted Dudikoff and James through the action in AMERICAN NINJA and the great AVENGING FORCE, which came between the NINJAs. With the steady hands of editor Michael Duthie, second unit director BJ Davis, and fight coordinator Mike Stone lending assistance, Firstenberg ups the action quotient from the first NINJA, rarely letting more than a few minutes pass without a chase or protracted martial arts battle.

Dudikoff and James play well off each other, despite — or perhaps because of — their radically different acting and fighting styles. James’ part is wisely beefed up to make him more of an equal to Dudikoff rather than just the sidekick. And on a level by himself is Conway, who must have trouble typing the screenplay while rubbing his hands together in anticipation of saying the juicy monologues he wrote for himself. It’s an overly ripe performance by an actor who often looked stolid on-camera, but Conway is perfectly tuned in to the story’s comic book elements.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

American Ninja

One of Cannon’s most successful action films made a B-movie star of Michael Dudikoff and spawned a franchise. Dudikoff, who had bounced around Hollywood for several years without ever distinguishing himself (he’s one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY), stars in AMERICAN NINJA as Joe Armstrong, an amnesiac in the United States Army and stationed in the Philippines (where the film was shot). He rescues Patricia (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER victim Judie Aronson) from an army of ninja kidnappers, which angers the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) in the employ of gunrunner Ortega (Don Stewart).

Director Sam Firstenberg cut his action chops on REVENGE OF THE NINJA and NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and teams up with stunt coordinator Steve Lambert and fight coordinator Mike Stone to create a steady stream of exciting chases, fights, and shootouts. With a nine-week shooting schedule and a decent stream of funds coming from Cannon, Firstenberg crafts an old-fashioned martial arts thriller that eschews the more lurid aspects of exploitation movies (there’s barely a drop of blood, despite a massive body count) to focus on clear-cut good-versus-evil tropes.

While AMERICAN NINJA certainly gave Dudikoff a big break, it also propelled the charismatic Steve James to a bigger profile. Cast as Joe Armstrong’s rival and eventual sidekick Curtis Jackson, James blends actual martial arts skills, a sense of humor, and a strong screen presence to create a heroic persona that, unfortunately, Hollywood never took advantage of. James played sidekick again to Dudikoff in AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, as well as AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT opposite David Bradley, but deserved to star in bigger pictures.

Written by the credited Paul De Mielche as a Chuck Norris vehicle (Norris decided to make INVASION U.S.A. instead), AMERICAN NINJA was almost released as AMERICAN WARRIOR (the trailer bears this title) before wiser heads prevailed. Four sequels followed with Dudikoff starring in the first and making a cameo in the third opposite Bradley.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Monster Of Piedras Blancas

Many a young horror fan’s imagination was stirred by stills from THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, which featured a scaly sea monster similar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon standing menacingly on a beach with a bloody decapitated human head in its hand. Pretty strong stuff for 1959 — Herschell Gordon Lewis wouldn’t invent the modern “gore” film until 1963’s BLOOD FEAST — and even the creature itself looked as though it could go toe-to-toe with the Gill Man. You have to put in the time to get rewarded though, as the Piedras Blancas monster doesn’t show up in full until late in the game.

Up to then, the film is something of a mystery with local sheriff Forrest Lucas (THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR) and doctor Les Tremayne (THE ANGRY RED PLANET) investigating corpses found on the beach with their heads missing and their blood drained. Shifty lighthouse keeper John Harmon (a regular in director Irvin Berwick’s films, such as HITCH-HIKE TO HELL) hates society and freaks out whenever anyone wanders along the beach, including his restless sexpot daughter Lucy (pinup girl Jeanne Carmen, the film’s best special effect). Well, duh, he knows what’s going on. In fact, he’s been feeding the monster meat scraps procured from storekeeper Frank Arvidson (THE 7TH COMMANDMENT), soon to be another man without a head.

Berwick and producer Jack Kevan were former Universal-International employees who formed a production company, VanWick, for which THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS was its only film. Kevan’s U-I job was in the makeup department, where he helped create the Gill Man, among other famous movie monsters. His Monster of Piedras Blancas is impressively ugly and mean-looking and probably scared a lot of kids.

H. Haile Chase, the writer and director of V.D. and PARADISIO, wrote this film. The story makes no sense. Why the monster rips off heads isn’t explained, for instance, not that this is a movie worth thinking about. Berwick’s direction is about as good as Chase’s screenplay, though he gets some mileage from the authentic California locations (surprisingly, he didn’t shoot in Piedras Blancas, but rather around Lompoc). Flubs in dialogue indicate Berwick didn’t do many second takes. The acting isn’t much either with the exception of the sonorously voiced Tremayne, who does his best to bring class to a picture titled THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Toy Soldiers (1984)

Released the same year as RED DAWN, the second and last film written and directed by David Fisher (LIAR’S MOON) is part of a teensploitation subgenre involving ordinary kids fighting back against terrorists. NIGHTFORCE, OUT OF CONTROL, and — believe it or not — a second film titled TOY SOLDIERS, unrelated to this one, fall into this category.

This TOY SOLDIERS is barely remembered today, but is notable as the film debut of actor Tim Robbins (BOB ROBERTS). Producer E. Darrell Hallenbeck had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career as a script supervisor, assistant director, production manager, and occasional television director, most notably on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Top-billed stars Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST) and Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES) lead a cast of young unknowns that not only boasts Robbins, but also Terri Garber (soon to explode on television in NORTH AND SOUTH and DYNASTY) and Tracy Scoggins (THE COLBYS).

So these obnoxious college students are screwing around on a yacht in Central America, and one of them gets hurt. Some of the kids try to take him to a hospital, but are kidnapped by Latino terrorists. Sarge (Miller), the yacht captain and an ex-Marine, tries to find them, but manages only to get away with one, Amy (Garber), the daughter of the yacht’s rich owner (Roger Cudney, evil Hofrax in BARBARIAN QUEEN II).

The U.S. government refuses to pay the $3 million ransom or even negotiate with the terrorists, so Amy gets the bright idea of recruiting her pothead butler (Willard Pugh), the friends who didn’t get captured (including Robbins and Larry Poindexter), Sarge, and Sarge’s war buddy Buck (Little) for a privately funded rescue mission. Their training includes jogging on the beach, referencing THE A-TEAM, and beating the shit out of watermelons. There’s a dumb scene in which a random psycho jumps Amy on the beach for no reason, and she has to drown him in the ocean. I guess she’s ready!

Miller and Little give this New World release more effort than it’s probably worth. Fisher and co-writer Walter Fox make zero effort to make the story anything but a fantasy. The cartoon villains have no personalities other than the basest lust and cruelty, and the kids reach their objective by freefalling 8,500 feet from an airplane. TOY SOLDIERS is dumb, which can be entertaining, but also dull, which never is. When their college classmates show up weeks later to rescue them, the hostages don’t seem the least bit surprised to see them, which is not even the hardest part of this movie to swallow. Some way cool explosions, though.

Planet Earth

STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry spent the 1970s producing one pilot after another, trying to get another series off the ground that would capture the science fiction audience’s imagination the way TREK did. He never did, at least until STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION premiered in syndication in 1987.

1973's GENESIS II was one of the pilots that didn’t sell, but believing the germ of a saleable idea was there, Roddenberry and STAR TREK producer Robert Justman made a sequel, 1974's PLANET EARTH, written by Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and directed by frequent TREK director Marc Daniels.

The biggest change in PLANET EARTH was the recasting of the lead: recognizable TV (THE BOLD ONES: THE NEW DOCTORS) and film (ENTER THE DRAGON) leading man John Saxon in for Alex Cord. Dylan Hunt (Saxon), a 20th century scientist placed in suspended animation and awakened in 2133 to a society ravaged by nuclear war, is now a functioning member of Pax, the only modern society left on Earth, and a leader of a science team concentrating on rebuilding civilization. Roddenberry, a former policeman and World War II pilot, was remarkably progressive in many ways, but notably not his view of women, which is reflected in PLANET EARTH’s plot.

To save the life of a Pax colleague, Hunt and his team—Harper Smythe (Janet Margolin), Isiah (Ted Cassidy), and psychic Baylock (Christopher Cary)—must find a physician who disappeared a year earlier. It’s rumored he was taken by a society of women that capture men to use as slaves and breeding stock. Hunt goes undercover as Harper-Smythe’s “dink” and is chosen to perform stud service on the community’s queen, Marg (Diana Muldaur). When the village is besieged by a savage band of “Kreegs,” the women stand by while the men fight and save them. Oh, Gene.

A step up from the darker, more dour GENESIS II, mainly due to Saxon’s virile, commanding performance as a Kirk-like leader and a lighter tone, PLANET EARTH is too similar to STAR TREK to stand on its own. Daniels handles the action scenes that bookend the film well. Again, the pilot didn’t sell, and the concept was drastically reworked for a third pilot, STRANGE NEW WORLD, also with Saxon.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Expendables 3

The biggest EXPENDABLES to date really piles on the guest stars, including Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer, and — as the bad guy — Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, though it’s great to see these veterans trading quips and bullets, THE EXPENDABLES 3 suffers from its over-stuffed nature, as well as the crummy CGI (par for the course with a Millennium/Nu Image production) and a PG-13 rating. It’s nice to have Snipes (MURDER AT 1600) in his first major role since serving a prison sentence for tax evasion (used as an in-joke here), but the screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and the OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt jettisons him and most of the older cast members in favor of boring young new cast members.

After Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is wounded on a mission in Somalia, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) grounds his usual team members, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Doc (Snipes), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), as dinosaurs. Working with recruiter Bonaparte (Grammer), Barney puts together a new team that you won’t give a damn about with the possible exception of real-life fighter Rousey, the first female Expendable (director Patrick Hughes films her first fight scene in extreme close-up or long shot, so it could be anybody fighting). Banderas almost steals the picture as Galgo, a puppy dog who really, really wants to be an Expendable and sends Bonaparte a fake resume for the chance to impress Barney.

The Expendables’ target is the deliciously monikered Conrad Stonebanks, played to the hilt by Gibson, who doesn’t play for camp as he did the villain in MACHETE KILLS. Stonebanks is a former Expendable who betrayed the team and was believed to be dead. Now a wealthy arms dealer, Stonebanks is responsible for Caesar’s shooting, and Barney means to take him down. Unfortunately, his boss with the government, Drummer (Ford), orders Barney to take Stonebanks alive so he can be tried for war crimes. Obviously, that ain’t gonna happen.

The good news for the audience is that Barney’s new team of youngsters gets captured pretty quickly, forcing the original band to get back together. Schwarzenegger pops up on occasion in a reprise of his role from the first two pictures, as does Jet Li, who doesn’t even fight anybody. Hughes delivers a standard action picture with the requisite gun battles and stunts, though it would be nice if most of them had been created on the set and not by some nerd’s mouse clicks. Sloppiness abounds from the sight of European license plates on an Arizona car to the amateurish process photography behind the actors pretending to drive. You would think a $90 million production could afford to put Stallone and Grammer in an actual car on an actual road for an afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Beyond The Reach

One of the few ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK segments to receive a major Hollywood remake, 1974’s SAVAGES is a suspenseful desert thriller with a plum leading role for Andy Griffith as a sadistic rich hunter who stalks young guide Timothy Bottoms (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) in the scorching desert to cover up an accidental killing. A great premise inspired, obviously, by THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, it also forms the basis of BEYOND THE REACH, which cannily hands the Griffith role to a delightfully scenery-masticating Michael Douglas.

Like SAVAGES, BEYOND THE REACH is based on Robb White’s entertaining novel DEATHWATCH. SAVAGES was paced just perfectly at 72 minutes (LE MANS’ Lee H. Katzin directed it), but with twenty more minutes to fill for the big screen, director Jean-Baptiste LĂ©onetti pulls focus away from the deadly cat-and-mouse game to kill momentum with who-gives-a-turkey backstory about Douglas’ business deal and his guide’s flashbacks about his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) away at college.

Douglas, as established, is the rich hunter from Los Angeles. Named Madec, he arrives in a small desert town in a swank Mercedes looking for a guide to help him bag a bighorn sheep. The sheriff (a welcome Ronny Cox) recommends Ben (STONEWALL’s Jeremy Irvine). He and Madec get along okay in “the reach” (a particularly dangerous section of the Mojave) until Madec accidentally shoots an old prospector.

A weakness of both SAVAGES and BEYOND THE REACH is that the shooting is clearly an accident, albeit one caused by Madec’s reckless behavior. There would likely be little harm in notifying the authorities. But Madec doesn’t want to, and when Ben tries to follow his conscience, Madec strips him and sends him into the desert to die without water. A sadistic bastard, Madec follows Ben at a distance to watch the sun burn the poor kid to death.

With a maddeningly mundane title like BEYOND THE REACH, the film had zero chance to find an audience in theaters (what was wrong with SAVAGES or even DEATHWATCH?). Lionsgate didn’t even try, dumping it on a couple dozen screens and then off to VOD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the atrocious ending burns a lot of the goodwill earned by the suspenseful meat of the picture. Do yourself a favor, and stop watching when the movie fades to black.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Interns, "An Afternoon In The Fall"

THE INTERNS
“An Afternoon in the Fall”
October 9, 1970
Stars Broderick Crawford, Stephen Brooks, Christopher Stone, Hal Frederick, Elaine Giftos, Mike Farrell, Sandra Smith
Guest-starring William Devane, Albert Salmi, Brooke Bundy, Peggy McCay, Tom Hallick, Charles Shull, Richard Krisher, Jack Garner, Kathy Shawn, Joe Renteria
Music by Shorty Rogers
Executive-produced by Bob Claver
Produced by Charles Larson
Written by Mark Rodgers
Directed by Daniel Petrie

THE INTERNS was based on the 1963 film of the same title, a soapy Columbia release about young physicians that starred Cliff Robertson (CHARLY), Michael Callan (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND), James MacArthur (HAWAII FIVE-O), Stefanie Powers (HART TO HART), Buddy Ebsen (BARNABY JONES), and Telly Savalas (KOJAK). See if you can guess who plays the interns and who plays their concerned mentors.

THE INTERNS was followed in 1964 by THE NEW INTERNS (with some of the same cast) and in 1970 by this CBS series. Stephen Brooks, formerly of THE FBI, took top billing as Dr. Greg Pettit. Also starring were Christopher Stone (THE HOWLING) as Pooch, Hal Frederick as Cal (the lone black intern), Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H) and Elaine Giftos (THE STUDENT NURSES) as married Sam and Bobbe Marsh, Sandra Smith (STAR TREK’s “Turnabout Intruder”) as Lydia, and gruff Broderick Crawford (HIGHWAY PATROL) as Dr. Peter Goldstone, the benevolent god who looks over the interns.

The series lasted just one season of 24 episodes on Fridays opposite THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and THE BRADY BUNCH/NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, likely, at least in part, because there was little audiences hadn’t seen before in THE INTERNS. Also, viewers may have gotten burned out on the whole “good-looking young professionals with crusty mentors” scene during a fall season that also saw THE YOUNG LAWYERS and THE YOUNG REBELS debut, no doubt thanks to the success of THE MOD SQUAD.

“An Afternoon in the Fall” is interesting for at least one reason: a guest-starring turn by 30-year-old William Devane, who had hardly anything on his Hollywood resume outside of some N.Y.P.D. guest shots. Devane would become one of the decade’s busiest and most notable actors in films like ROLLING THUNDER, MARATHON MAN, and FAMILY PLOT. He earned Emmy nominations for THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER and FEAR ON TRIAL.

This INTERNS episode casts Devane as the dangerous William Hauser, whose fixation on his night-school teacher, Alice Vaughn (Peggy McCay), culminates in him shooting her twice. Sam saves her life in the operating table (a radio news report calling him “Simon Marsh” instigates a lot of good-natured kidding in the doctors’ lounge), but Osland (Albert Salmi), the cop on the case, is convinced Hauser will try to get to Alice in the hospital. Brooks, who worked with producer Charles Larson on THE FBI, gets the B-story, striking up a romance with a new nurse (Brooke Bundy) who moves into the Marshes’ apartment building.

The main plot by writer Mark Rodgers (POLICE STORY) is typical cop/hostage/psycho-killer machinations. By focusing on the suspense and potential violence, THE INTERNS and director Daniel Petrie (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) fail to deliver on the promise of the love story. Bundy’s Joy reveals a lot about herself in relatively little screen time. She’s new in Los Angeles, she seems uninterested in pursuing any romantic relationships, she’s divorced with a son that her ex-husband has full custody of. Just when it seems the character is beginning to go somewhere, the episode is over with Joy announcing she’s leaving town and the hospital, never to be seen on THE INTERNS again.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Death Hunt

One of the manliest movies ever made reunites Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson from THE DIRTY DOZEN, though the nature of the story means they don’t share much screen time together. Very loosely based on an actual Canadian manhunt of the 1930s between the Mounties and a trapper calling himself Albert Johnson, DEATH HUNT features a script by Mark Victor and Michael Grais, who graduated from TV cop shows to POLTERGEIST, and direction by former 007 editor and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE director Peter R. Hunt. Backing up Marvin and Bronson are a coterie of sharp supporting actors, including Andrew Stevens (who would work again with Bronson in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and POLICE WOMAN Angie Dickinson, whom Marvin romanced in POINT BLANK.

The real Johnson was probably less noble than Bronson’s portrayal. In DEATH HUNT, he rescues a bloody dog from a dogfight, handing the resistant owner (Ed Lauter) $200 in return. Hazel, the owner, tattles to local Mountie Millen (Marvin), who rightfully blows him off. Hazel and his buddies trek up to Johnson’s cabin in the Rockies to retrieve the mutt, and one of them is killed in the ensuing gunfight. Johnson was shooting in self-defense, but Millen has to get involved now that a man is dead.

Millen takes a straight-arrow Mountie (Stevens) and a tracker (Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers) as part of his posse to visit Johnson. Based on a misunderstanding, one of the Mounties starts another gunfight, which leaves several more men dead, Johnson on the run into some of the coldest and most treacherous terrain in North America, and Millen on his trail.

The screenplay is as good as it needs to be, though what little dialogue is in it is clever. Its great weakness is Marvin’s perfunctory and dull affair with Dickinson, whose role is really just a cameo. The premise of man battling both man and nature combined with the star power of Marvin and Bronson is strong enough on its own. With few words to say, Bronson handles the challenge of expressing emotion and character through his eyes and his action, while Marvin ably tackles his “man in command.”

Hunt’s terse direction is appropriate for the story he’s telling, and he doesn’t skimp on the bloody violence. While DEATH HUNT isn’t packed with action — it’s more a tale of suspense — the stunts seem treacherous, particularly when staged in the frozen tundra of Alberta, where DEATH HUNT was filmed. Score by Jerrold Immel is bold to match the film’s heightened tension. Believe it or not, Golden Harvest, a company best known for chopsocky, produced for 20th Century Fox.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lone Wolf #8: Los Angeles Holocaust

The Lone Wolf is back in the United States in the eighth edition of his Berkley Medallion paperback series. It appears as though I didn't review the previous title, PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE, but I definitely read it. You can find my reviews of the other books in the Lone Wolf men's paperback series here.

LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST is very light on plot and ends on something of a cliffhanger, as though it were a mediocre episode of a television series. It begins right where PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE left off with antihero Wulff aboard a hijacked helicopter returning to El Paso from Peru. With him, besides a frightened pilot, is a bag of smack -- millions of dollars worth of heroin. Well, first there's a flash-forward to Wulff in an L.A. hotel, and then a second chapter about a black cop named Evans who is killed during an undercover drug buy in Harlem. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST, but it helped author Mike Barry get to 192 pages. He barely has enough story as it is.

So Chapter Three shows Wulff's return from Peru, and then it's into the story proper. Here's the thing with Wulff: he's fucking crazy. Reportedly written by noted sci-fi author Barry Malzberg as a tongue-in-cheek rip of men's adventure novels, which he hated, the Lone Wolf series maintains continuity throughout its fourteen volumes, focusing on a doomed protagonist who loses a bit more sanity with each novel. It's noted in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST that he has killed literally hundreds of people, including a whole shipful in BAY PROWLER, so it's a little disappointing that Malzberg's body count is so low in this one.

Joining Wulff (briefly) on the West Coast is Williams, his former partner on the NYPD who was stabbed in CHICAGO SLAUGHTER. The young rookie's wounds have left him bitter, making him an easy convert to Wulff's cause: blasting the shit out of the Mafia. Williams leaves his nine-months-pregnant wife in New York, buys a U-Haul full of weapons from a Harlem priest, and drives to L.A., stopping only to kill a couple of random carjackers along a Nebraska interstate.

Wulff's ultimate goal is getting back to Chicago to kill a 72-year-old mob boss named Calabrese, who has a contract out on Wulff. The book is not only light on plot, but also on action sequences. Most pages are filled with introspection. If not Wulff in woe thinking about how shitty his life is, it's a hitman wondering how to both collect the bounty on Wulff and steal Wulff's heroin or Williams pondering his marriage, his job, his new partnership, the whole goddamn shitty society. You may have guessed -- this is a pretty bleak story in a pretty bleak series of novels.

The Lone Wolf books are fascinating, of course, thanks to Malzberg's prose, but they aren't as gritty or action-packed as their rivals on drugstore shelves -- which was probably Malzberg's point. LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST ends with the status quo intact: Calabrese is still pissed, Wulff is still pissed (and still has the smack), Williams is on his way back to New York without ever using any of the damn weaponry in the U-Haul!

Except for the cliffhanger, which puts Williams in jeopardy and Wulff on the phone, talking shit to Calabrese. It looks like the matchup is coming up...except the next book is titled MIAMI MARAUDER. So does Wulff make it to Chicago or not? I guess I'll find out.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Vigilante Force

Gene Corman, brother of Roger, was also a prolific producer of drive-in fare that was often a little classier than Roger’s with budgets a little higher. VIGILANTE FORCE, written and directed by George Armitage, who came up through the ranks at Roger’s New World Pictures on films like PRIVATE DUTY NURSES and DARKTOWN STRUTTERS, is a good movie, very well paced with plentiful action sequences and a dose of bicentennial satire.

The stars of this United Artists release are Jan-Michael Vincent (WHITE LINE FEVER) and Kris Kristofferson (CONVOY), who play battling brothers. Widower Ben Arnold (Vincent) is a tractor salesman in a rural Southern California community that is overrun by rowdy oil riggers and the violence, drunkenness, disorder, gambling, and murder that comes with them. The cops are ineffectual, so the town enlists Ben to recruit his brother Aaron (Kristofferson), a Vietnam veteran, to keep the peace.

Aaron brings his war buddies, including Viner (Shelly Novack, just off THE FBI), Beal (HALLOWEEN sheriff Charles Cyphers), and Selden (THE HOT BOX’s Carmen Argenziano), back to his home town. And, sure, the crime rate goes down. Sort of. Until Aaron and his boys decide to take over the town for themselves and operate their own crime ring. Can pacifist Ben talk some sense into his brother? In an exploitation movie aimed at drive-ins? What do you think?

VIGILANTE FORCE, despite an original screenplay by Armitage, boasts the exact plot of BUCKTOWN, released the year before by AIP (though probably a dozen B-westerns precede both films). It’s a solid premise that gives both Vincent and Kristofferson plenty to play dramatically and physically. Armitage presents it with great precision (Ben is making the town’s offer to Aaron within the first ten minutes) and an offbeat sensibility. Not only does he take care to create memorable characters and a believable and ultimately tragic relationship between brothers Ben and Aaron, but the violent climax involves an army of bank robbers dressed in colorful high school band uniforms! The stunts and fights are expertly staged throughout, but VIGILANTE FORCE also excels in its sensitive moments, such as Kristofferson’s haunting murder of a sympathetic character — an act that seals Aaron’s dark fate.