Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jungle Moon Men (1955)

When producer Sam Katzman no longer owned the film rights to King Features’ Jungle Jim character, he just changed the name of the leading character played by Johnny Weissmuller to “Johnny Weissmuller” and kept churning out the movies. It didn’t affect Weissmuller’s performance at all nor probably Columbia’s box office profits. Katzman and serial director Charles S. Gould (THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD) shot JUNGLE MOON MEN in a week, and after thirteen Jungle Jim pictures (and one “Johnny Weissmuller”), the template was firmly established.

JUNGLE MOON MEN is as much H. Rider Haggard than it is Alex Raymond. Johnny (Weissmuller) agrees to guide Ellen Marsten (Jean Byron, later the mom on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), an Egyptologist, deep into the jungle to find a native tribe called the Baku. It just so happens that Nolimo (Michael Granger) approaches Johnny the same day to help him find his son Marro (Ben Chapman, one of the Creatures from the Black Lagoon), who has been kidnapped by the so-called “Moon Men,” who just happen to live in — wait for it — the Baku.

Ellen’s boyfriend Bob Prentice (Bill Henry) joins the expedition, while unscrupulous guide Santo (Myron Healey), whom Johnny hates, tags along behind in an effort to find diamonds he believes the Moon Men have. The Moon Men are pygmies, including Billy Curtis in not one of his most dignified roles (Weissmuller repels the whole tribe simply by lifting the kicking Curtis off the ground), and worship the sun-worshipping Oma (Helen Stanton), who captures the team and demands that Bob marry her and become her high priest.

People loved Johnny Weissmuller, which is the only reason the Jungle Jim series (which JUNGLE MOON MEN should be considered a part of) ran as long as it did. In fact, at the same time he was doing the “Johnny Weissmuller” films, he was also starring as Jungle Jim in a syndicated television series. I doubt the kids were confused. Nor will you be by JUNGLE MOON MEN’s simple story, which weaves elements of SHE into the jungle B-picture template. Performed and produced adequately enough for kiddie matinees, this was Johnny’s next-to-last feature before retiring.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Four Color #819


Mickey Mouse took center stage in the 819th issue of Dell's perennial FOUR COLOR comic book. Cover-dated July 1957, the first story in WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE IN MAGIC LAND was written by George Crenshaw and drawn by Jack Bradbury, who does a nice job on this page.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charley Varrick

Part of Walter Matthau’s unofficial trilogy of crime dramas, which also includes THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, CHARLEY VARRICK is terrific. Matthau’s Varrick is a murderer and bank robber who sets up his partner to be tortured and killed by the Mafia and bangs a mobster’s secretary (Felicia Farr) two days after his wife (Jacqueline Scott) is shot to death in front of him. But I’ll be damned if you don’t like the guy anyway and root for him to successfully fake his death and escape with $765,000 in mob money.

Not that Charley expected such a haul. Knocking off a small-town New Mexico bank with his wife, their partner Harman (Andy Robinson, just off DIRTY HARRY), and another man who is killed at the scene, Charley expects a windfall of a few thousand dollars — not three-quarters of a million. He immediately figures out the bank must be a drop for dirty Syndicate money, and sure enough, Reno hood Maynard Boyle (the great John Vernon) arrives at the bank to find out what happened and enlist pipe-smoking assassin Molly (Joe Don Baker) to retrieve the cash. Norman Fell (BULLITT), Sheree North (THE SHOOTIST), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), and Benson Fong (OUR MAN FLINT) imbue their characters with the proper authority or pathos necessary to give them a history.

Matthau is the star, but Vernon is also wonderful in the way he dominates his scenes. One standout, set in a cow pasture, is a conversation in which Vernon explains to bank manager Woodrow Parfrey (also in DIRTY HARRY, as was Vernon) how their bosses will likely come after Parfrey “with pliers and a blowtorch.” It’s captured in a single take by director Don Siegel, who may have improvised another wonderful moment with Vernon pushing a little girl on a swing, basking for a few moments in the innocence of youth he lost long ago when he turned to a life of crime.

Don Siegel, the director of DIRTY HARRY (ah), also helmed CHARLEY VARRICK in his characteristic lean style with nary a wasted frame or movement. He and Michael Butler (JAWS 2), making his debut as a director of photography, capture the practical Nevada locations, sometimes with a sweeping crane to grab every detail. The taut script by Howard Rodman (COOGAN’S BLUFF) and Dean Riesner (DIRTY HARRY) is based on a novel by western author John Henry Reese, and the evocative score is composed by Lalo Schifrin (DIRTY HARRY).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ocean's Eleven (1960)

One of the coolest movies ever made, this all-star home movie was the first film to star the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra’s posse who spent more time drinking, singing, carousing, and playing golf than they did acting. The thin story is credited to four writers, including science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson (TWILIGHT ZONE) and KISS OF DEATH’s Charles Lederer, and was directed by Lewis Milestone, who won two Oscars during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

OCEAN’S ELEVEN is a caper flick about a plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously on New Year’s Eve. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) recruits ten members of his World War II paratroop unit to pull the caper, including just-in-from-Hawaii singer Sam Harmon (Dean Martin), garbage man Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.), and wealthy mama’s boy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford). Pace is not this movie’s greatest asset, and its first hour is basically just Ocean getting the whole gang together.

Danny is visited by his estranged wife (Angie Dickinson), who is cool to the idea of their reconciliation. Foster is dismayed by his mother’s impending sixth marriage to hood Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), upon learning he’s got “the Big Casino,” needs the loot from the caper to make sure his son is provided for after his death. Meanwhile, Martin and Davis sing, Sinatra and Lawford get messages, everyone wears V-neck sweaters, and characters stand around a lot just drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes patiently while waiting for their next line.

No question about it—OCEAN’S ELEVEN is as empty as Dino’s liquor cabinet on New Year’s Day, but it’s hard not to be seduced by the insouciant charms of the stars. After performing onstage in the evenings and partying ‘til the wee hours of the morning, the Pack wasn’t in the mood for much complexity in their film, so Milestone basically stands them in front of the set, points his camera in their direction, and gets it all in one—heck, maybe occasionally two—takes. Much of the dialogue seems gleaned from their nightclub act.

Strangely, the film doesn’t feel as freewheeling as other vanity shows—like, say, CANNONBALL RUN, which is loose and sloppy between car stunts and face-slappings. In contrast, OCEAN’S ELEVEN emits a laidback quality — fitting, considering its stars — but its technical proficiency works against it. A film this bright, colorful, and well-staged ought to have more to its core than boozy indifference.

However, OCEAN’S ELEVEN is difficult to dislike. The stars are almost always fun, especially when they’re screwing around together, and look at who’s backing them up: Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine, Red Skelton, George Raft, Norman Fell, Akim Tamiroff, Buddy Lester, Joan Staley, Pinky Lee, Hoot Gibson, even Henry Silva. The songs, like Davis’ “E-O-Eleven,” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen are catchy, and Dean’s “Ain’t That A Kick in the Head” is a jaunty classic (Steven Soderbergh, who directed the 2001 remake, used it in his ultracool crime flick OUT OF SIGHT). It all closes on a surprisingly downbeat twist, which, combined with a clever final shot, manages to leave you with a weightier taste than the movie probably earns. Ring-a-ding-ding.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Mask Of Fu Manchu

Boris Karloff may seem miscast to today’s eyes as Sax Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain, who first appeared in 1912’s THE MYSTERY OF DR. FU-MANCHU, but this marvelously campy (and sleazy) slice of pulp fiction is a terrific movie.

MGM spared little expense on this “A-picture,” showering THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with lavish sets, props, special effects, and production values. And because it was produced before studios paid much attention to the dreaded Motion PIcture Production Code, MASK rings with brutality, racism, jingoism, and overtones of sadomasochism. What a terrific adventure.

Karloff and Myrna Loy as Fu’s horny daughter Fah Lo See are so delightfully evil that MASK tends to suffer a bit when director Charles Brabin cuts away from their lair. Fu Manchu’s glee while torturing archaeologist Barton (Lawrence Grant) under a giant bell, rubbing grapes across the starved man’s lips and pouring salt water down his throat, ranks among Karloff’s best moments. And Loy’s sensual reaction to the hero, tied up, helpless, and shirtless, is quite unlike her fast-talking debutante in THE THIN MAN.

Fu kidnaps Barton to find out where Genghis Khan is buried. Legend has it that Genghis Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, when charged with electricity, will enable Fu Manchu to lead an army that will conquer the world. Out to find the tomb on the edge of the Gobi Desert before Fu can are Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), archaeologist Von Berg (Jean Hersholt — yes, the guy with the Oscar named after him), Barton’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), and her fiance Terry Granville (Charles Starrett, soon to be the Durango Kid).

Kenneth Strickfaden, who created the impressive futuristic electrical gizmos for FRANKENSTEIN, does the same here and even doubles Karloff in some shots. Much of the incendiary dialogue was censored for television broadcasts, but was later restored for home video. Unless you’re really squeamish, MASK’s mixture of hidden caves, secret doors, ripe dialogue, kinky torture, subversive sex, spiders and snakes, awesome death traps, and exotic locale should delight the adventure lover in you.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Heavy Metal

Influenced as much by Second City and National Lampoon as the comic magazine that bears its name, HEAVY METAL is a crude, loud, misogynist, and violent animated film for adults that is a rollicking good time. Yes, in the case of HEAVY METAL, those adjectives are positives.

Seemingly designed for midnight crowds under the influence, the R-rated science fiction fantasy boasts a rockin’ soundtrack that includes Devo, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and Sammy Hagar, who performs the title song. MEATBALLS writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum scripted an anthology based on HEAVY METAL stories and built around a deadly green orb called the Loc-Nar and voiced by a curiously Percy Rodriguez (PEYTON PLACE), who was voicing virtually every horror movie trailer at the time.

Segments include “Harry Canyon” with Richard Romanus (MEAN STREETS) as a futuristic noir cabbie, “Den” with John Candy (SPLASH) as a teenage nerd who is transformed into a muscular hero in an alternate universe (reminiscent of Jeffrey Lord’s Blade novels), “Captain Sternn” with Eugene Levy (AMERICAN PIE) as a lantern-jawed space jockey standing trial on a space station, “B-17” pitting World War II bombers against zombies, “”So Beautiful and So Dangerous” about a Pentagon secretary abducted by cokehead aliens Levy, Candy, and Harold Ramis (STRIPES), and the terrific “Taarna” (possibly an influence on AEON FLUX) about a beautiful Amazon who fights barbarians astride a flying dinosaur.

Comic book artist/writers Richard Corben, Angus McKie, Dan O’Bannon, and Berni Wrightson contributed some of the HEAVY METAL stories adapted by Goldberg and Blum. Ivan Reitman (GHOSTBUSTERS) produced the Columbia release in Montreal on a budget reported between $7.5 million and $10 million, and National Lampoon art director Michael Gross was the production designer. In addition to the hard rock songs, the thrilling score is composed by THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s Elmer Bernstein, giving the outrageous horror, sci-fi, and fantasy sequences — particularly “Taarna,” which has little dialogue — a rich soundscape to match. A limp sequel, HEAVY METAL 2000, built around pinup model Julie Strain, was produced years later.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Storm Trooper

Carol Alt once wore a bikini on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. She graduated to an undistinguished career in independent movies, both in Hollywood and in Italy, including this direct-to-video action movie directed by Jim Wynorski. And there’s no doubting it’s a Wynorski movie when the first scene is guys with guns running into L.A.’s Department of Water and Power — a Wynorski staple location.

Another way to identify STORM TROOPER as a Wynorski joint: the cast. Many of the director’s repertory company is here: John Terlesky (DEATHSTALKER II) as Guy With Shotgun, Ross Hagen (HARD BOUNTY) as Goon Driving Semi, Arthur Roberts (NOT OF THIS EARTH) as Evil General, Tim Abell (RAPTOR) as Douchebag Cop, Melissa Brasselle (RANGERS) as Butch Soldier, Jay Richardson (MUNCHIE) as Other Evil General. And the plot is similar to Wynorski’s THE ASSAULT (which Brasselle wrote).

Alt is an abused wife who kills afore-mentioned Douchebag Cop husband at exactly the same time an amnesiac arrives on her doorstep. Pursuing him are Roberts’ soldiers, which include Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), Rick Hill (DEATHSTALKER), and Corey Feldman (THE GOONIES) in an eyepatch. Alt and the amnesiac (John Laughlin) fight back while the dead husband lounges in the bathtub. It takes forever for Wynorski to reveal the big twist, which is that Laughlin is a robot.

Whatever. That Laughlin is a robot has no bearing on the story, which would have played out the same way if he were a whole man. This sloppiness runs throughout the production. Characters crash through windows with no glass in them. The ground shows no signs of a recent thunderstorm. Alt is saddled with memories of a dead son that have no impact on the plot or her arc. STORM TROOPER is unexceptional, though some will get a kick out of the cult actors, even the ones who are miscast.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Girl On The Run (1953)

This very cheap independent production gets off to a discouraging start, as the opening titles play over a still of a creepy clown while generic school-band music plays. However, if you stick with GIRL ON THE RUN, its weirder elements start to take effect, leading to an unusual, almost dream-like narrative that barely sustains its 64-minute running time. And Steve McQueen is in it.

The whole film takes place over one night in a single location: a small-town carnival. Traveling carnies may not have been as skeevy as GIRL ON THE RUN indicates, but it’s an appropriately grim setting for Joseph Lee and Arthur Beckhard’s murder tale. Richard Coogan, best known at the time as TV’s Captain Video on the DuMont network, stars as Bill Martin, a newspaper reporter accused to killing his editor, a man named Marsh, who was investigating allegations of vice at the carnival.

In keeping with normal B-movie pacing, Martin’s backstory is dispensed through early dialogue. Our first glimpse of the film’s hero is inside a dark tent, where he and his girlfriend Janet (Jacqueline Pettit) are hiding from both the cops and a local councilman named Reeves (Harry Bannister). Martin suspects Reeves and the carnival’s owner, a midget (!) named Blake (Charles Bollender), of pimping and, of course, Marsh’s murder.

So with the story already in motion when the film opens, it moves along pretty rapidly while still leaving room for local color — namely tantalizing views of the forbidden pleasures awaiting inside the adults-only tent. Whether the result of the low budget, desperate casting, or the filmmaker’s attention to realism, the hotsy-totsy burlesque dancers are a long way from Vegas showgirls. Dumpy, weary, hard-edged, and certainly not the girls next door, they’re alluring enough to entice the rubes, but with no question Blake’s rundown show is as far as they’ll ever get.

As for McQueen, he can be seen early in the picture testing his strength with a mallet, and then again a few minutes later squiring his date to the fortune teller’s tent as Coogan walks into frame.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Klansman

Paramount released this notoriously tasteless, inept, and unintentionally hilarious racial melodrama, but not proudly. Richard Burton, whose performance is terrible (producer Bill Shiffrin said Burton didn’t deserve to be paid), was so drunk during shooting that, years later, he had no memory of meeting co-star Lee Marvin, with whom he shares many scenes. Best of all is the stolid Burton’s clumsy karate fight with equally uncoordinated Cameron Mitchell, which remains funny no matter how many times you see it.

As with Paramount’s later release MANDINGO, THE KLANSMAN is based on a novel (this one by William Bradford Huie) and features major stars humiliating themselves in an overwrought stew of sleazy sex, violence, and racial epithets. The slurring Burton (CLEOPATRA) plays Breck Stancill, a rich liberal landowner who allows poor African-Americans to squat rent-free on his Alabama mountain. This pisses off the locals, many of whom, including the mayor (THE BIG LEBOWSKI’s David Huddleston), are members of the Ku Klux Klan. Trying to stay neutral in the heated confrontation between blacks fighting for their voting rights and whites trying to block them is local sheriff “Big Track” Bascomb (Marvin, who claimed he and Burton never received their full salary), who is kinda racist, but is willing to live and let live.

Samuel Fuller (VERBOTEN!) was the original writer and director before being replaced by Millard Kaufman (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) and Terence Young (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE), respectively, in those roles. It’s difficult to know who to blame for THE KLANSMAN’s most sordid moments, which include the castration of a black man wrongly accused of raping white Linda Evans (MITCHELL), Bascomb covering up racist deputy Butt Cut Cates’ (Mitchell) rape of black virgin Lola Falana (LADY COCOA), and O.J. Simpson (!) sneaking around and shooting the white men responsible for his friend’s murder. By the time Marvin has smeared the blood from Falana’s busted hymen across Mitchell’s face, you may be in the mood for a Silkwood shower.

One thing’s for sure: once you’ve seen THE KLANSMAN, you’ll never forget it. No movie with Lee Marvin mowing down the Ku Klux Klan with a machine gun can be all bad. The Staples Singers perform the opening song, and Shiffrin somehow convinced name actors to wallow in this mire, including THUNDERBALL’s Luciana Paluzzi (dubbed by Joanna Moore) laughably miscast as a small town police clerk named Trixie. She’s at least as convincing as Oroville, California’s performance as Atoka County, Alabama.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pink Cadillac

Any discussion about the worst film of Clint Eastwood’s career has to begin with PINK CADILLAC, Malpaso’s attempt at a comedy about white supremacy. Opening the same weekend as INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE certainly didn’t help at the box office, but PINK CADILLAC was deservedly a dud, debuting in fifth place and pretty much out of theaters a month later.

As mentioned above, PINK CADILLAC is a comedy about neo-Nazis, a tough feat for accomplished filmmakers, much less screenwriter John Eskow (AIR AMERICA) and director Buddy Van Horn (THE DEAD POOL), Eastwood’s longtime stunt double. Playing to his Philo Beddoe fan base, Eastwood plays Tommy Nowak, a bounty hunter who wears wacky disguises in pursuit of bail jumpers. His new assignment is dingey Lou Ann (Bernadette Peters, of all people), who steals her jerk ex-husband Roy’s (miscast Timothy Carhart) pink Cadillac, unaware that it contains dirty money belonging to Roy’s white supremacy group.

It would come to no surprise to learn Tommy Nowak was one of Eastwood’s favorite roles. The macho actor gets to pose as wacky morning zoo DJ, lisping redneck (pretty funny actually), and rodeo clown in pursuit of prey, never mind there must be ninety easier and less costly methods. No doubt he had more fun making PINK CADILLAC than anyone has watching it. The preppy-looking Carhart (THELMA & LOUISE) is the least convincing trailer-park-living redneck racist of all time, and Jim Carrey (also in Eastwood and Van Horn’s THE DEAD POOL) appears briefly as an Elvis impersonator. Unfunny, tasteless, and insanely long at 121 minutes, PINK CADILLAC runs out of gas early in its first act and sputters out quickly thereafter.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Count Yorga, Vampire aka The Loves Of Count Iorga, Vampire

The career of 44-year-old journeyman Robert Quarry received a major boost from COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, which led to a sequel and an AIP contract as the studio’s next big horror star. What was originally intended as a softcore sex flick by writer/director Bob Kelljan (RAPE SQUAD) and producer Michael Macready (TERROR AT THE RED WOLF INN) was re-edited and released as straight horror based on the belief that Quarry’s regal, sexy performance as a charismatic vampire would make the film a success. Some prints still bear the original title, THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, VAMPIRE, but the film is strictly PG fare.

After performing a seance for Donna (Donna Anders) and her friends, Count Yorga (Quarry) is driven home by Paul (Michael Murphy, later in Robert Altman films) and Erica (Judith Lang) in Paul’s van. After dropping off Yorga, the couple is stranded in the count’s driveway and spend the night there, where they are attacked. We see the assailant is Yorga, now pale and bearing fangs, but Paul doesn’t get a glimpse at him and Erica doesn’t remember anything. All she knows is that she has lost a lot of blood and bears two strange puncture wounds on her neck. Nobody apparently having heard of vampires, Erica’s physician, Dr. Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), advises her to eat a lot of steaks.

Only after Paul and his friend Mike (Macready, whose character actor father George contributed the opening narration) walk in on Erica chowing down on her pet cat instead of a juicy steak do they start to believe a vampire may be in their midst. Yorga, who has already taken Erica’s late mother (softcore actress Marsha Jordan) as one of his undead brides, kidnaps the weakened Erica as another, leaving it up to Mike and Jim to storm the Bulgarian count’s mansion on a rescue mission.

Quarry is excellent as Count Yorga — perhaps too good, as the bland but likable Perry, a reliable television actor, and his co-stars are not believable as formidable opponents, either physically or mentally. Placing an old-fashioned vampire story, usually told in a Gothic setting, in modern-day Los Angeles was a novelty at the time COUNT YORGA was released, and Quarry does a nice job straddling the contemporary and the Old World.

Spurred by the success of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, AIP not only commissioned a quick sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, but also a pair of films about Blacula, an African vampire played by William Marshall. Quarry also played a vampire in DEATHMASTER, and co-starred with AIP star Vincent Price (the two actors disliked one another) in two horror movies. Quarry died in 2009.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Sudden Impact

The only Dirty Harry movie directed by Clint Eastwood, SUDDEN IMPACT is the one in which Clint says “Go ahead...make my day” — a catchphrase that went so viral even President Reagan used it in a speech two years after the film came out. The film was a hit — it opened at number one at the box office, out-grossing the premiering SCARFACE (!) and CHRISTINE — and audiences openly cheered the violence.

Eastwood’s San Francisco police inspector, “Dirty Harry” Callahan, kills so many people in SUDDEN IMPACT that he is first suspended and then sent to a small California town to investigate a series of vigilante murders. The killer is a sympathetic one: Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), the victim of a gang rape years earlier that left her sister a catatonic and Jennifer out for revenge. A sympathetic villain, perhaps, but a weak one, as Locke isn’t a strong enough actress to project the proper represssed rage and, despite their long romantic relationship, she and Eastwood never had much on-screen chemistry.

The weak central plot in the screenplay by Joseph C. Stinson (STICK) actually works to SUDDEN IMPACT’s advantage. As a series of unrelated action setpieces, Eastwood’s film is a lot of fun. Bad guys with guns seem to pop up everywhere Harry goes, and he can’t even take vacation days without stumbling into a crime scene. Eastwood directs the chases and shootouts for maximum excitement, and Stinson (and possibly uncredited script polisher Dean Reisner) ensures Harry always has the perfect bon mot to punctuate each confrontation.

Scored by Lalo Schifrin (DIRTY HARRY), who lays down a killer cue to announce Harry’s arrival in the climax, SUDDEN IMPACT was the last Eastwood hit for almost a decade until UNFORGIVEN revitalized his career. Even the fifth and final Dirty Harry movie, THE DEAD POOL, despite featured roles for unknowns Jim Carrey (THE TRUMAN SHOW) and Liam Neeson (TAKEN), was a 1989 bomb.

Fire Maidens Of Outer Space

There’s something quaint about Cy Roth’s obvious pride concerning FIRE MAIDENS OF OUTER SPACE. Credited as the film’s director, producer, and writer (story and screenplay!), Roth’s name is given an ostentatious signature font in the opening titles, as if to mark the film definitively as Un Film De Cy Roth. What makes it so quaint is that FIRE MAIDENS OF OUTER SPACE is quite bad, mainly because of Roth’s direction, which is leaden, unimaginative, and devoid of adequate pacing. Roth directed two other films — military-themed B-pictures — that are forgotten today. Thanks to loyal science fiction fans, FIRE MAIDENS OF OUTER SPACE will always exist. Some of them don’t even mind that a “stone” wall wobbles when a tree branch is propped against it.

Anthony Dexter, the lead in Columbia’s VALENTINO, stars in this British production as an American scientist in charge of Expedition 13: a space flight to the newly discovered 13th moon of Jupiter, which amazingly looks like Earth. Like those classics MISSILE TO THE MOON and CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, Dexter and his men find a civilization of sexy women and one old dude (Owen Berry), the last of the original inhabitants of Atlantis, who left Earth to colonize space many years earlier. The so-called Fire Maidens, er, spend all day dancing near a flaming hearth. The only maidens we get to know are Berry’s daughter (Susan Shaw) and head dancer Jacqueline Curtis.

Oh, there’s also a creature, referred to only as “the creature.” Hammer makeup man Roy Ashton (THE MUMMY) created the creature’s look, which isn’t wildly convincing, but since Roth really only shows the creature in long shots (and it serves no purpose in the story, along with everything else), the makeup is okay. Despite the premise of astronauts meeting dancing girls and a monster in outer space, auteur Roth only has about 20 minutes of material in an 80-minute movie, so three out of every four scenes are padded with shots of people walking, sitting, dancing, staring, smoking — god, all the smoking — anything but telling a story.

Most of the visual effects are swiped from earlier films, including KING DINOSAUR and ROCKETSHIP X-M. No attempt is made to present its science with any degree of verisimilitude (“their gravitational laws and magnetic poles are contrary to ours” sounds like bullshit to me), and Roth’s direction is so sloppy that you can see British motorcars driving in the background of “the 13th moon.” Outside of Dexter — hardly a household name — the actors are obscure and were likely chosen for their low asking prices rather than their screen presence. Roth was no director, but judging from the massive product placement (TWA, Chesterfield, Coca-Cola, Longines…), he must have been a heck of a salesman.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Any Which Way You Can

Of course, Warner Brothers demanded a sequel when EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE became Clint Eastwood’s biggest box office smash to date, so here we are with ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN. To this day, the two films are Eastwood’s all-time most successful as an actor when grosses are adjusted for inflation, which is something when you think about the brilliant films in which he has starred. Also, I suspect it may hold the record for acts of violence in a PG film.

The screenplay by Stanford Sherman (KRULL) is not exactly outside the box nor should it be, I suppose. Bare-knuckles brawler Philo Beddoe (Clint) is back with most of the cast of the first film, including but not limited to scene-stealing Clyde the orangutan. Nazi bikers are still giving Philo a hard time, his pal Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and Orville’s cantankerous mother (Ruth Gordon) still has his back, and even the country singer who jilted him (Sondra Locke) is back (it’s easy to forget the first film ended on kind of a bummer). Hell, even the main titles are the same, except instead of Eddie Rabbitt, it’s Clint warbling a song with Ray Charles about being in Vietnam. And, of course, it all ends with another knockdown dragout punchfest between Clint and Tank Murdock surrogate Jack Wilson, played by ubiquitous movie badass William Smith (CONAN THE BARBARIAN).

This sequel has more of a story — something about gangsters kidnapping Philo’s lady friend to coerce him into one last fight — but what makes it really interesting is the relationship between Philo and Jack Wilson. Smith doesn’t play Wilson as a standard heavy, but a man with a strong moral code who respects and maybe likes his opponent. Their fight, directed by stuntman Buddy Van Horn (THE DEAD POOL) making his debut, is a real corker that doesn’t stop just because of Philo’s broken arm. ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN is smuttier than the first film with more Clyde and more low-hanging boob jokes (literally). It’s also dumber and weirdly compelling most of the time.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Every Which Way But Loose

Clint Eastwood was one of the world’s biggest movie stars and at the height of his fame when he made EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE against the advice of his Malpaso team. Clint’s first comedy, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE shocked critics to not only become his biggest box office hit to date, but his biggest hit ever when grosses are adjusted for inflation. It ain’t exactly Noel Coward, but the blue-collar antics of Clint’s bare-knuckles brawler Philo Beddoe and beer-swilling, bird-flipping orangutan Clyde struck gold in America’s heartland.

Writer Jeremy Joe Kronsberg (GOING APE!) sort of concocts a plot leading up to a match between Philo and the legendary Tank Murdock (Walter Barnes), but there’s a lot of cursing, infantile slapstick, weak double entendres, chases, drinking and driving, destruction of property, and punching of Nazi faces first. A surprising amount of screen time is given to Philo and his friends on a road trip where they camp out, get into fights, and sneak into a zoo to get Clyde laid.

Beddoe and Clyde live in Los Angeles next door to Philo’s best pal Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and Orville’s senile mother (Ruth Gordon). Philo, who can lift a car, makes extra money fighting in underground bare-knuckles bouts. He picks up country singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke, who bowls in tiny shorts) in a bar and makes out with her in his old Chevy pickup. He also beats up a Pacoima Nazi biker gang called the Black Widows, played by the ugliest character actors Clint could find. Basically, Philo Beddoe is awesome.

With Eastwood’s ace crew, including editors Ferris Webster and Joel Cox, assisting director James Fargo (THE ENFORCER), EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE looks and sounds more professional than its ragged storyline deserves. Gregory Walcott (PRIME CUT) and James McEachin (FUZZ) play corrupt cops on Philo’s tail, and Beverly D’Angelo (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION) gives Lewis a romance. Mel Tillis sings a couple of his big hits, and Eddie Rabbit’s title song went to number one on the country charts. Believe it or not, the sequel, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, is Eastwood’s second-biggest inflation-adjusted box office hit of all time.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

The Ghost And Mr. Chicken

Don Knotts is at his wound-up finest in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, his first film after leaving THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. He’s a cornucopia of fidgets and shakes that pushes his physical comedy skills to the limit. Even when he isn’t saying anything, Knotts is a delight to watch.

As written by GRIFFITH vets Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum and directed by the Griffith show’s Alan Rafkin, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is one of the most quotable comedies of its era: “Bang! Right on the head!”, “Mister Boob. That’s me. B-Double-O-B. Boob!”, “When you work with words, words are your work,” and, of course, “Attaboy, Luther!” Set in rural Rachel, Kansas, Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek, excitable typesetter at the local newspaper with dreams of becoming a reporter. Neither his editor (Dick Sargent, later the Fake Darrin on BEWITCHED) nor his reporter rival (Skip Homeier) takes him seriously, and Homeier isn‘t even particularly friendly, cutting Luther down like a grade school bully.

Luther’s big chance comes when he accepts a dare to spend the night in the creepy Simmons mansion, an abandoned old house rumored to be haunted since Old Man Simmons murdered his wife there 20 years previously and then committed suicide. Simmons’ nephew (Phil Ober) has returned to Rachel to demolish the place, but those plans are put on hold after Luther’s scoop the next day in which he describes encounters with hidden staircases, a pipe organ that plays by itself, and a portrait of the late Mrs. Simmons with bloody shears protruding from it.

Since you and I don’t believe in ghosts, it’s easy to guess that human hands might be behind Luther’s apparitions. The journey to the mystery’s solution is a pleasing one, particularly because of the delightful supporting cast Rafkin assembled. TV Land fanatics will undoubtedly smile at Reta Shaw, Charles Lane, Ellen (“Grandma Walton“) Corby, Robert Cornthwaite, Cliff Norton, and Burt Mustin, just to name a few. However, the movie's secret weapon is the amazing jazz score by Vic Mizzy, whose jaunty main theme is later rearranged as a spooky organ tune Luther hears in the mansion. It's hard to get the tune out of your head once you've heard it, and it‘s one of the finest comedic scores of the 1960s.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Attack Of The Puppet People

Bert I. Gordon’s specialty, if it can be called that, was making movies about animate objects that were either very large or very small. Hence, titles in Gordon’s filmography like VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, KING DINOSAUR, BEGINNING OF THE END (giant grasshoppers), EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (giant ants), FOOD OF THE GODS (giant chicken). And ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, which is not about puppets, but people shrunken to about six inches in height.

A kindly old dollmaker played by John Hoyt (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE) owns a three-room doll factory on the fifth floor of an office building. He’s the only employee of Dolls, Inc., except for new secretary June Kenney (EARTH VS. THE SPIDER), who is replacing the old secretary, who just disappeared. So did Hoyt’s mailman and several other people in Hoyt’s outer circle, not that the authorities ever noticed. Well, the title gives it away — Hoyt has learned how to shrink people and soon adds Kenney and doll salesman John Agar (TARANTULA) to his repertory company.

Of course, it’s typically silly “Mr. B.I.G.” shenanigans, though Hoyt works hard to create a sympathetic villain. Hilariously, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, Kenney deduces her boss turned Agar into a doll just because the doll looks like him. The fact that she’s right makes this plot point no less ridiculous. Gordon takes credit as director, producer, story writer (IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA’s George Worthing Yates wrote the screenplay), and technical effects supervisor.

Befitting a film at this budget level, the quality of the effects varies. Sometimes the simplest are the best — some shots of miniaturized people in glass tubes are actually 2D photographs, rather than actors and photographic effects. Agar and Kenney make out during THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN at a drive-in, and AIP released ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE on a double bill with Gordon’s sequel, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Venom (1981)

I’m just going to jump in and proclaim VENOM the greatest killer-snake movie of all time (I would not be surprised to learn about some crazy Asian snake flick that makes VENOM look as sedate as a Mitch Miller concert). Much of its value comes from its cast, which includes some of the acting profession’s most notorious troublemakers. You’d have to be nuts to cast Klaus Kinski (SCHIZOID), Oliver Reed (SITTING TARGET), Sterling Hayden (THE LONG GOODBYE), and Nicol Williamson (THE EXORCIST III) in the same movie. When original director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) was fired a few days into production, it may have saved his sanity.

Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU) was a rapid replacement for Hooper, but to his credit, none of VENOM’s backstage shenanigans show up on the screen. It’s a neat little thriller with a unsettling premise that should affect you whether you’re afraid of garter snakes or let your pet python crawl freely around your home. Kinski leads a band of kidnappers after the asthmatic grandson of wealthy hunter Hayden. Kinski’s conspirators include family chauffeur Reed and the boy’s nanny Susan George (MANDINGO), Kinski’s lover who uses her wiles to keep muscle-headed Reed toeing the line.

It goes to show no matter how intricate your plan, you can’t think of everything. Such as a black mamba, the world’s most vicious and poisonous snake, getting loose in the house. Hey, it could happen. With Williamson’s laconic police inspector and his men surrounding the house, the kidnappers, Hayden, snake expert Sarah Miles (RYAN’S DAUGHTER), and the boy are trapped inside with a killer that could literally be almost anywhere — inside the air vents, behind a curtain, hiding in a dark corner. Yikes.

For a last-minute director pulled from the ranks of British television, Haggard does a remarkable job keeping the suspense high and your rear end on the edge of your seat. VENOM is a very good thriller, thanks to its wily direction, stellar cast, and creepy cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (STAR WARS), who keeps the camera close to accentuate the claustrophobia that enhances the characters’ fear.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Untamed Youth/Born Reckless

Howard W. Koch, a very busy producer and director of B-movies (including FRANKENSTEIN 1970, VOODOO ISLAND, HOT CARS, and BIG HOUSE U.S.A.), signed megablonde Mamie Van Doren to a personal two-picture contract after being impressed by her work wearing a bathing suit in THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS. Both UNTAMED YOUTH and its followup, BORN RECKLESS, gave Van Doren top billing for the first time and allowed her to do what she did best, which was wriggle around in a tight dress while singing Les Baxter songs that sort of sounded like rock-and-roll.

To be fair, Van Doren may have been minimally talented, but what she did, she did extremely well, and it’s difficult to pull your eyes away from her. So pity poor Lori Nelson (DAY THE WORLD ENDED), who acquits herself just fine in UNTAMED YOUTH, but unfortunately barely registers standing next to the bullet-braed Van Doren. The two blondes play sisters who are busted by corrupt sheriff Robert Foulk (who played a nicer sheriff on LASSIE) on hitchhiking charges and sentenced by judge Lurene Tuttle (TV’s JULIA) to thirty days slave labor on a cotton plantation owned by LAWMAN’s John Russell (who turned up years later in Clint Eastwood’s PALE RIDER).

What we have is cinema’s first women-in-prison musical, as Van Doren or Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) as a prisoner named Bong bursts into family-friendly rock tunes on a moment’s notice. Even after a long, hard day picking cotton under a sweltering sun, these beatniks still have the energy after work to turn their dorm into a swinging dance party. Writer John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) does his best to make all this nonsense, including the revelation of Russell’s secret marriage to the much-older Tuttle, play as if it could actually happen, and fans of 1950s bombshells will also enjoy Yvonne Lime (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) and nudie model Jeanne Carmen (THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS) in the cast.
The busy Van Doren was married to bandleader Ray Anthony and doing a song-and-dance act in Las Vegas during her two-picture deal with director Koch. Unlike UNTAMED YOUTH, BORN RECKLESS plays straight — unfortunate, because drama is not what either Van Doren or co-star Jeff Richards does best.

Richard Landau’s repetitive horse-and-bull story follows saloon crooner Van Doren (with tight shirts and a cowboy hat perched precariously upon her peroxide hairdo) and cowboys Richards (who went from this to his own television series, JEFFERSON DRUM) and Arthur Hunnicutt (THE BIG SKY) from county to county competing in local rodeos. Like a living Bill Ward drawing, Van Doren draws catcalls just stepping into a room, which inevitably leads to some masher molesting her, Richards getting beaten up defending her honor, and Hunnicutt missing another steak dinner to retrieve the truck for a fast getaway.

Aside from the usually entertaining Hunnicutt, Koch’s film offers little of note. The drama isn’t interesting, the rodeo action is mostly stock footage, and the strident comic relief is over-scored by Buddy Bregman. Carol Ohmart (SPIDER BABY) shows up as Mamie’s competitor for the stiff Richards, but she doesn’t seem like the villain the film depicts her as. After BORN RECKLESS, Van Doren stopped working for Koch (for whom she made three pictures) and moved on to directors Edward L. Cahn and Albert Zugsmith to varying success.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The First Power

27-year-old Lou Diamond Phillips is ridiculously miscast as a badass Los Angeles homicide detective named Russell Logan, who is L.A.'s King of Serial Killer Tracking. Some baffling police work somehow leads Logan to the Pentagram Killer, Patrick Channing (hideous Jeff Kober, perfectly cast as a creepy bastard), who sacrifices his victims to the Devil and carves pentagrams in their chests.

An anonymous tipster warns Logan not to send Channing to the gas chamber (like an L.A. cop has anything to do with the decision). After the killer's execution, Logan's fellow detectives are systematically murdered in a manner identical to Channing’s victims, right down to the knife wounds on their chests. Reluctantly teaming with the phone caller, a beautiful red-haired psychic named Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), Logan slowly comes to realize that Channing has returned from Hell and is possessing human bodies to carry out his murderous vendetta.

What's really funny about Phillips' character is that, despite what the other characters tell us about him, he's really an inept cop. Nothing he does has any positive impact on his investigation or pursuit, even though we're supposed to identify with his lone wolf. When he captures Channing at the beginning, he runs out of bullets (and throws his gun at the villain!), then is stabbed several times in the stomach before help arrives to apprehend the killer. Logan gets his ass kicked by just about every opponent, including a ninja-like bag lady right out of a Ronny Yu movie who floats up to the cop's loft and perpetrates some kung fu on Lou's not-bad self.

Writer/director Robert Resnikoff, whose only film THE FIRST POWER is (I'm curious as to who he was and what happened to him), does have a knack for handling stunts and action scenes. The pacing is good, and the chases and action is brisk. There's a cool spinning car jump and crash, and a stuntman playing Channing leaps off a tall building, plunges several stories, lands on his feet, and runs off.

Between the silly plot, Logan's incompetence, and the lousy acting, THE FIRST POWER provides much to laugh at, especially a real howler of a climax. Did you know the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power keeps gigantic vats of boiling acid (!) in its basement? And be sure to drink every time Lou loses his gun. Drink twice when he gets kicked in the nuts. Resnikoff’s film is a lot funnier than ERNEST GOES TO JAIL, which opened the same weekend in 1990 and came in third at the box office. THE FIRST POWER was fourth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Perfect Weapon

Jeff Speakman was a victim of bad timing. By the time THE PERFECT WEAPON, Speakman’s first major film, came out in the spring of 1991, studios were beginning to phase out medium-budget martial-arts movies for theatrical release, unless your name was Jean-Claude Van Damme. The future was in low-budget actioners made for the video market, which is where Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Brian Bosworth, Jeff Wincott — even Chuck Norris — found themselves working during the 1990s.

And so did Speakman. Paramount may have been trying to groom its own Van Damme in the kenpo karate black belt, but THE PERFECT WEAPON opened in sixth place (well ahead of Richard Grieco’s IF LOOKS COULD KILL, at least), and Speakman’s next film two years later was for a dying Cannon. Speakman continued working in direct-to-video features, but not with prime scripts or directors. Behind-the-scenes whispers that Speakman could be difficult to work with probably didn’t help land good prospects either. THE PERFECT WEAPON, his only major theatrical production, remains Speakman’s best film.

Even so, THE PERFECT WEAPON is kind of a mess with KICKBOXER’s Mark DiSalle directing a routine screenplay by David Campbell Wilson (SUPERNOVA). Speakman’s romance with Mariska Hargitay (later an Emmy winner for LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT) was cut completely out of the picture, leaving the prominently billed Hargitay with zero dialogue. Also contributing unfortunately abbreviated performances are Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (PEARL HARBOR) and Clyde Kusatsu (IN THE LINE OF FIRE), indicating credited editor Wayne Wahrman (I AM LEGEND) may have taken a dislike to those two talented gentleman as well.

Speakman holds his own on-screen, considering he was hired for his impressive physical skills. Every action hero in television and movies now uses some sort of martial arts — usually faked through doubles and rat-tat-tat editing — but Speakman’s speed and agility as a screen fighter are the real deal, and DiSalle is smart enough to just point the camera and let his star do his thing.

Once you get past the dreary origin story that fills the opening reel, THE PERFECT WEAPON settles down as a perfectly acceptable action flick. Jeff Sanders (Speakman), long estranged from his father (Beau Starr) and brother (John Dye), both policemen, returns to Los Angeles’ “Koreatown,” where his mentor (Mako) is murdered by the Korean mob — specifically, the hulking Tanaka (Professor Toru Tanaka).

Deciding he’s the “perfect weapon” to avenge Mako, because his outsider status can open doors that the police can’t penetrate, Sanders kicks, punches, and smashes his way through a small Asian army to get to Yung (James Hong), the man at the top. With a Gary Chang score and Snap’s “The Power” laying a musical backdrop, THE PERFECT WEAPON surpasses its cheap look (“Koreatown” looks like a backlot) and narrative hiccups to deliver a surplus of authentically bone-crunching thrills.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Omen (1976)

If it had only featured one of cinema’s all-time great decapitations, THE OMEN would stand tall within the horror genre. But the film that put director Richard Donner on Hollywood’s A-list (he did SUPERMAN next) is more than just slick murder sequences.

Given a generous budget by 20th Century Fox and handed major movie stars Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and Lee Remick (ANATOMY OF A MURDER), Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer created a genuine horror classic that even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences blessed with two Oscar nominations (Jerry Goldsmith won for his iconic score). Likely influenced by — or at least given the green light because of — THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN was the fourth biggest hit of 1976 behind ROCKY, A STAR IS BORN, and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

THE OMEN is based on a nifty “what if” — what if your newborn baby was actually the Anti-Christ? That’s what happens to U.S. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck in a role Dick Van Dyke turned down!) when his and wife Katherine’s (Remick) son dies shortly after being born. Katherine doesn’t know, so Thorn agrees to secretly adopt a baby whose mother died during childbirth. It isn’t long — about five years — before unusual tragedies begin to occur around the Thorn family, notably little Damien’s nanny hanging herself at his birthday party (one of Donner’s great shocker scenes). Is Damien (Harvey Stephens) the son of Satan? Will Thorn have to destroy his son? Can he?

The director of BRONK and SARAH T.: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC seems an unusual choice to make a big-budget horror movie for a major studio, but Donner made the most of the opportunity. The story unfolds as a grim mystery with David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) turning in good work as a photographer who teams with Thorn to play detective. The murderous setpieces are staged with gruesome good taste, and Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning music establishes a sinister tone early and never lets go. Because THE OMEN keeps the supernatural horror within the realms of believability, its power remains potent decades after its original release. Many sequels, ripoffs, and an unloved 2006 remake followed.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Deadly Eyes

James Herbert, whose novel THE RATS was the basis for this horror movie released by Warner Brothers, called it “absolute rubbish.” For a movie that dressed dachshunds in rat costumes to create its “monsters,” DEADLY EYES acquits itself fairly well. The director, Robert Clouse, is better known for ENTER THE DRAGON and other action movies (clips from his GAME OF DEATH can be seen in a DEADLY EYES movie theater), but he also made THE PACK, a very good thriller about killer dogs against humans stranded on an island.

The star is Sam Groom, who played the eponymous POLICE SURGEON on the indefatigable syndicated television series of the 1970s. Miscast as an “exciting” man with “animal magnetism,” Groom plays Paul Harris, a high school teacher and basketball coach with the will to rebuff sexy cheerleader Trudy (THE NEST’s Lisa Langlois) when she tries to seduce him in the boys’ shower. But Harris has the hots for lady health inspector Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford) and becomes intimately involved in her job to exterminate the giant steroid-rage rats living in the sewers.

Clouse is ruthless when demonstrating the brutality of these animals — their first victim is a baby yanked from her high chair and dragged into the basement with only a bloody trail to indicate the child had ever existed. Another victim is beloved character actor Scatman Crothers (from Clouse’s BLACK BELT JONES), which really makes us good and mad. As silly as dressing dogs in rat costumes sounds, it’s actually fairly effective and more believable than the animatronics and hand puppets used in bloody closeups.

The screenplay by Charles Eglee (DEXTER) drags like hell in the middle with the soppy romance between Groom and Botsford and the annoyingly fickle Langlois’ crushes. Clouse knows how to build a setpiece, though, and DEADLY EYES is at its best when the rats go all out — tearing into a crowded movie theater or chowing down on upper-crust types on their way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The climax is weak, however, and early scenes involving Harris’ students are ultimately pointless. I doubt DEADLY EYES is the best killer-rat movie ever produced, but it certainly ain’t the worst.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Superman And The Mole-Men

Before George Reeves starred in the first season of the syndicated ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, Lippert Pictures produced this 58-minute feature that was later cut into a two-part episode, “The Unknown People.” SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN was not a pilot per se, but was a vehicle to release in theaters as publicity for the TV show, which premiered in 1952.

Reeves (RANCHO NOTORIOUS), who became a television star in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman, is terrific in it — confident, intelligent, tough, and compassionate. He’s almost matched by the feisty Phyllis Coates (PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO), who remains the screen’s pre-eminent Lois Lane.

Daily Planet reporters Kent (Reeves) and Lane (Coates) travel to little Silsby, home of the world’s deepest oil well, which drills more than six miles below the surface. Unfortunately, it has drilled a tunnel to the underground home of a race of “mole people”—phosphorescent midgets with hairy backs and big foreheads—who crawl to the surface and run around accidentally frightening humans to death. They may also be radioactive, spurring the hotheaded citizens, led by rabble-rousing bigot Luke Benson (Jeff Corey), to form a lynch mob to murder the strange creatures. Superman (Reeves in a padded suit) shows up in time to rescue the invaders and teach Silsby a lesson in tolerance.

Welcome exterior filming and a strong story — both of which the TV series generally lacked — as well as its short running time, help this minor science fiction film go down easily. Reeves doesn’t appear as Superman until the 24-minute mark and dominates from then on. Harry Thomas’ special mole man makeup is unconvincing. Discounting serials and cartoon shorts, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN was the first feature to star Superman or any other National Periodicals character. No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White in it though. Corey, ironically, was blacklisted in 1952 by people very much like Luke Benson.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Golden Gate Murders

He’s a cop. She’s a nun. Together, they solve a murder in THE GOLDEN GATE MURDERS, an entertaining made-for-TV crime drama that teams the distinguished British actress Susannah York (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?) with the crusty and busy television star David Janssen (THE FUGITIVE). The plot is typical cop-show stuff, but Janssen was never uninteresting on the small screen.

A priest (Regis Cordic) plummets over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Investigating is gruff, wisecracking police detective Paul Silver (Janssen), eight years on the graveyard shift, but temporarily switched by boss Tim O’Connor (BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY) to days. What seems like an open-and-shut case of suicide is exacerbated by the priest’s nurse, Sister Benecia (York), who is convinced he would never kill himself.

Because director Walter Grauman gives us glimpses of Cordic going over the side, we know he was murdered (the title also gives away the mystery), so while writer David Kinghorn (TWO FATHERS’ JUSTICE) sends the stars through their procedural paces, we derive pleasure from the chemistry between them. Of course, romance is out (or is it?), but the distinguished York brings out the best in the hilariously brusque Janssen, who probably isn’t ad-libbing, but is so natural in his line-readings that he sometimes appears to be. He wears sunglasses a lot, which may be to hide red eyes (he’s funny when shopping with York and nonchalantly filling his cart with liquor bottles, telling her, “I entertain a lot”).

The production is surprisingly cheap for a ‘70s TV-movie with Grauman shooting driving scenes against an unconvincing screen and bridge scenes on unconvincing sets. Janssen died a few months after CBS aired THE GOLDEN GATE MURDERS against Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Orioles and Angels.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Last Dinosaur

This American/Japanese co-production bypassed U.S. theaters for a premiere on ABC after a DONNY & MARIE episode. It’s the only film ever made with a hero named Masten Thrust Jr. I guess we have screenwriter William Overgard, best known for drawing the STEVE ROPER & MIKE NOMAD comic strip, to thank for that.

Basically a mixture of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Toho monster movies, and the Jock Mahoney adventure THE LAND UNKNOWN for Universal-International, THE LAST DINOSAUR sends wealthy white hunter Thrust (Richard Boone), journalist Frankie Banks (Joan Van Ark), scientist Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), geologist Chuck Wade (Steven Keats), and tracker Bunta (Lester Rackley) above the Arctic Circle, where they enter a tropical valley populated with dinosaurs beneath a volcano. The party becomes stranded there, and Thrust becomes obsessed with killing a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Boone, a great actor who became a television star on HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, is fascinating to watch for both the right and wrong reasons. He plays the heck out of the complex character Overgard created on the page, giving the misogynist, rundown, yet somehow heroic Thrust plenty of dimension. He’s also clearly plastered in some scenes — Boone was a notorious alcoholic — is cursed with an outrageous toupee, and fiddles with his false teeth once or twice. His romantic chemistry with the 27-years-younger Van Ark (KNOTS LANDING) is surprisingly effective.

The special effects work by the Japanese crew is, as usual, not terribly believable, but almost always fun and imaginative. The American producers were Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, well known for animated television specials like RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER and FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. They brought back Boone, Overgard, and co-director Tsugunobu Kotani for THE BUSHIDO BLADE, which turned out to be Boone’s last film (he died before its 1981 release).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Death Race 2050

Roger Corman remakes DEATH RACE 2000, a black comic action classic he produced for director Paul Bartel in 1975. Unlike the recent “remakes” (titled DEATH RACE, DEATH RACE 2, and DEATH RACE 3), DEATH RACE 2050 brings back the one thing everybody remembers about Bartel’s film, which is the conceit of earning points for every pedestrian who is run over and killed. Playing Frankenstein, the David Carradine role, for director G.J. Echternkamp (FRANK AND CINDY) and his co-writer Matt Yamashita (SHARKTOPUS VS. PTERACUDA) is the charmless Manu Bennett (THE HOBBIT).

There is also a touch of HUNGER GAMES in the picture, which is to be expected considering Corman’s fast-buck reputation. The most prominent evidence is Malcolm McDowell’s...shall we say, flamboyant?...turn as The Chairman, whom the actor plays as a combination of Caesar Flickerman and Donald Trump. He’s having more fun than anyone watching this movie. The only other actor whose performance rises above “competent” is soap star Marci Miller, who projects humor and sex appeal as Frankenstein’s partner without pressing it.

Though DEATH RACE 2050 goes so far as to repeat specific gags from the original film, everything about it is worse: acting, script, costumes, even the cars are less individualistic. Remarkably, the visual effects are worse. It’s unclear if the actors spent more than a day outside, since the whole race is created by technicians with mice. Exciting car stunts? Not here. CGI explosions and phony green-screen scenery outside the drivers’ windows? Plenty.

Occasionally, a joke will land, most of them as captions identifying the locations (learning the new Washington, D.C. was formerly called Dubai is a good one). The humor in Bartel’s film wasn’t subtle, but it was witty. Echternkamp abandons any pretense of wit in favor of broad jabs at easy targets, often culminating in a bloody body part falling from the sky. And Corman’s star falling along with it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Savage Beach

By the time he made SAVAGE BEACH, writer/director Andy Sidaris had his perfect formula for escapist adventure down pat: gorgeous women (always nude or scantily clad), handsome guys, Hawaiian beaches and palm trees, guns, gadgets, explosions, tongue-in-cheek humor, suggestive dialogue, and a slick production that belied its low budget.

Beginning with his third, MALIBU EXPRESS (a remake of STACEY, his first film), Sidaris’ movies flow across the same universe with characters and relatives of characters popping up from picture to picture. While casting actors to play the same characters in several films made sense in terms of continuity, Sidaris also had the confusing habit of bringing back actors to play different characters. So, for instance, John Aprea (MATT HOUSTON) would get killed off as the main heavy in PICASSO TRIGGER, but return as a good guy in SAVAGE BEACH.

SAVAGE BEACH marks the third screen teaming of Playmates Dona Speir (as Donna) and Hope Marie Carlton (as Taryn), undercover DEA agents posing as cargo pilots in Hawaii. Their assignment is to deliver emergency serum 1500 miles through a storm to sick children on an island in the South Pacific. On their return trip to Molokai (and just after putting the plane on autopilot so they can change out of their wet clothes), Donna and Taryn make a forced landing on an uncharted island.

Uncharted, but busy. Not only is it home to a Japanese soldier who believes World War II is still a thing (and killed Taryn’s father!), but also there lies a cache of Philippine gold stolen by the Japanese, which a bunch of guys — both good and bad — coincidentally picked this exact time to chase. As usual, Sidaris’ screenplay is ridiculously confusing, though one wants to give him the benefit of the doubt that the confusion is part of the joke. As is casting a pre-porn Teri Weigel (CHEERLEADER CAMP) as a political revolutionary.

Speir stuck around for more Sidaris flicks, but the adorable Carlton bolted, which was a blow to both her career (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III was no step up) and Sidaris’ followups. While neither starlet was believable as a government agent (nor were they supposed to be), they were both competent actresses with disparate personalities that meshed well. Sidaris found new partners for Speir, but none matched Carlton’s appeal.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Jigsaw Murders

Concorde actually got this crime cheapie into a few theaters. Star Chad Everett even plugged it and another Roger Corman production, HEROES STAND ALONE, on a segment of SUPER PASSWORD, though not using the current titles.

The film needed all the help it could get, even from daytime television audiences, because THE JIGSAW MURDERS is an uninspiring crime drama with laughable police procedure, unconvincing performances, and slackly directed action. Considering its subject matter, director Jag Mundhra (NIGHT EYES) would have been better off including more sleazy content, which would have been both appropriate and more entertaining.

Everett, a big shot on MEDICAL CENTER more than a decade earlier, is Joe DaVonzo, a drunken L.A. homicide detective estranged from his model daughter Kathy (BLAME IT ON RIO’s Michelle Johnson) because he disapproves of the nudie photos in her portfolio. He and his rookie partner Elliot Greenfield (soap star Michael Sabatino) are assigned a case involving a Jane Doe (played in photographs by Michelle Bauer) whose assorted body parts are popping up around town. With very little mystery to hook the audience, the cops soon discover her identity, which leads them to her suspected killer, a pervy photographer named Ace Mosley (Eli Rich). The killer’s motive and psychological profile are pretty shaky in Allen Ury’s screenplay, which concentrates on DaVonzo’s obsession with putting Mosley away and his return to the bottom of a bottle when his incompetence allows the psycho to go free.

Everett may have considered THE JIGSAW MURDERS a comeback vehicle, but the flimsy story lets him down. One can see why the veteran leading man would have been attracted to the role, which allows him to cry, crack jokes, act drunk, play domestic drama, and be a cool action star. Never a versatile performer, Everett comes off better than Rich (LOCK UP), whose over-the-top line readings indicate why his career never took off. Jag Mundhra’s sledgehammer direction reaches its peak with a hilariously overwrought crosscutting between a worked-up Everett, drinking and tossing his whiskey glass through his television screen, and Rich masturbating to slides of Michelle Bauer.

Besides Yaphet Kotto’s one day’s work as a jovial coroner who, yes, eats on the job and a brief bit by Brinke Stevens (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE) as a nude model, THE JIGSAW MURDERS presents little of interest. Not even jigsaw “murders,” as the damn movie only gives us one (the film was shot under the title JIGSAW). Not a great year for Chad Everett, as HEROES STAND ALONE received as little attention as THE JIGSAW MURDERS, if not less, and his ABC pilot, THUNDERBOAT ROW, failed to get picked up by the network.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fear City

The New York Knifer roams the scuzzy streets of the Big Apple, carving up strippers represented by talent agents Tom Berenger (PLATOON) and Jack Scalia, starring in his first film after mild success as a television leading man. Multiple cases of exotic dancers catching the blue flu coincide with news of their colleagues being butchered, and Berenger and Scalia may go broke unless bigoted cops Billy Dee Williams (LADY SINGS THE BLUES) and Daniel Faraldo (I, THE JURY) catch the killer. Finally, after Scalia is kung fu’ed by the serial killer and lapses into a coma, Berenger goes hunting with the backing of mobster Rossano Brazzi (SOUTH PACIFIC) and rival agent Jan Murray (WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR).

FEAR CITY sat on the shelf nearly 18 months after principal photography until independent distributor Chevy Chase Distribution (no connection to the actor) dropped it into theaters nationwide. Directed by Abel Ferrara, then known for pornography and violent horror movies, FEAR CITY features more sleaze, violence, and nudity than 20th Century Fox, which partially backed the production, was comfortable with. What Fox expected from a director with Ferrara’s resume may be lost to history, but there is little doubt he gave them just what he promised. FEAR CITY is strong stuff for sure, but it’s also a tough, gritty thriller with an excellent cast and an eye-opening view of 42nd Street in all its grindhouse glory.

Scalia, who starred in several television series, including the notorious TEQUILA & BONETTI, without any of them being a hit, shows off a modicum of big-screen charisma and easily holds his own opposite his more experienced co-lead. Berenger gets more to do, however, including pine for his ex-girlfriend, a bisexual stripper played by Melanie Griffith (also in the sexy BODY DOUBLE), who does love scenes with Rae Dawn Chong (TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE). Great mugs like Michael V. Gazzo (SUDDEN IMPACT) and Joe Santos (THE ROCKFORD FILES) appear, as do gorgeous women like Janet Julian (HUMONGOUS), Ola Ray (10 TO MIDNIGHT), and EXTREME PREJUDICE’s Maria Conchita Alonso in her U.S. film debut.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Laughing Policeman

Best known as a comedic character actor (he won an Oscar for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), Walter Matthau’s gruff, hangdog stage demeanor were perfectly suited to the tough, gritty milieu of urban cops and criminals, particularly when dark humor was involved. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE and CHARLEY VARRICK are ‘70s crime classics, but THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is no slouch. It’s an absorbing mystery directed by Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE) that offers an outstanding supporting cast for Matthau to play with. Robert Altman seems to have been an influence on Rosenberg, who amps the realism by casting actors who don’t look like movie stars and having them talk over each other.

Eight people are slaughtered on a San Francisco city bus by a black-gloved individual using a “grease gun.” Leading the investigation is Lieutenant Jake Martin (Matthau), who is nonplussed to discover one of the victims is his partner, Dave Evans, who was supposed to have been on vacation. A visit to Dave’s girlfriend Kay (Cathy Lee Crosby) reveals that Evans was secretly working one of Jake’s cold cases. Jake, who’s having problems at home (he and his wife sleep in separate rooms, and his 15-year-old son goes to porn theaters), is teamed up with a loquacious new partner, Leo Larsen, played charismatically by Bruce Dern (THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS).

Also in the cast are Lou Gossett Jr. (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN), Val Avery (BLACK CAESAR), Anthony Zerbe (HARRY O), Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER), Albert Paulsen (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING), Gregory Sierra (BARNEY MILLER), Clifton James (Sgt. Pepper in the 007 films), Paul Koslo (MR. MAJESTYK), and Leigh French (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR). The performances are quite good, particularly Gossett’s black sharpie, cool as a cucumber on the streets. Matthau’s taciturn mumbling and Dern’s motormouth charm is a winning combination.

Tom Rickman, later to write COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER and DEAD POETS SOCIETY, adapted one of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall’s Swedish police procedurals about detective Martin Beck. Rickman’s dialogue is very good, and he and Rosenberg do a decent job constructing a complicated plot without over-explaining it to the audience. The bus massacre that opens the picture is marvelously suspenseful, and Rosenberg’s handling of the other action sequences is equally tactful.

Monday, January 02, 2017

What I Watched and Read in 2016

I watched 332 movies last year, which is down from 2015's total of 350. I also read 99 books, just up from last year's total of 98. And I watched 677 television episodes, which is up from last year's 625. So basically, more television, fewer movies.

The best movies I saw for the first time last year (in no particular order):
THE EXECUTIONER PART II
A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH and THE ABSENT ONE
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
TREMORS
EX MACHINA
TRIANGLE
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991)
UNDER FIRE
YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST
THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)
BLOOD FATHER
TOUGH AND DEADLY
THE GHOST BREAKERS
SECONDS
SHADOW OF A DOUBT

Honorable Mentions:
THE REVENANT
BRIDGE OF SPIES
THE CONTENDER
NATIONAL LAMPOON: DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD
MOON
TURBO KID
THE NICE GUYS
SEEKING JUSTICE
FUGITIVE FAMILY
CLOSE RANGE
CAT BALLOU
HARD TARGET 2
THE NIGHT CALLER
THAT'S SEXPLOITATION!
PROJECT A
THE HOUSE OF FEAR
SABOTEUR
MITT
THE MAGNETIC MONSTER
BACK IN ACTION
WOLFCOP
CHRISTINE (2016)
ONE BODY TOO MANY
THE MAD EXECUTIONERS
HUSH (2016)
WOLF LAKE

Worst 2016 Releases (That I Saw):
SUICIDE SQUAD
I AM WRATH
PHANTASM: RAVAGER
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
GHOSTBUSTERS

Of the 99 books I read, 92 of them were first-time reads. A few recommendations by genre:
Crime Drama:
APRIL EVIL by John D. MacDonald
RECOIL by Brian Garfield
CATSPAW ORDEAL by Edward S. Aarons
CLANDESTINE by James Ellroy

Biography:
ARE YOU ANYBODY?: AN ACTOR'S LIFE by Bradford Dillman
QUIZMASTER: THE LIFE AND TIMES AND FUN AND GAMES OF BILL CULLEN by Adam Nedeff
HOPE: ENTERTAINER OF THE CENTURY by Richard Zoglin

Film/Television:
BRONSON'S LOOSE AGAIN!: ON THE SET WITH CHARLES BRONSON by Paul Talbot
THE CREATURE CHRONICLES: EXPLORING THE BLACK LAGOON TRILOGY by Tom Weaver
SHOOTING STAR by Maurice Zolotow
THAT'S NOT FUNNY, THAT'S SICK: THE NATIONAL LAMPOON AND THE COMEDY INSURGENTS WHO CAPTURED THE MAINSTREAM by Ellin Stein
THE COMEDIANS: DRUNKS, THIEVES, SCOUNDRELS AND THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN COMEDY by Kliph Nesteroff
THE FIFTY-YEAR MISSION: THE FIRST 25 YEARS by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman

Sports:
GOING LONG: THE WILD 10-YEAR SAGA OF THE RENEGADE AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE IN THE WORDS OF THOSE WHO LIVED IT by Jeff Miller
MAD DUCKS AND BEARS by George Plimpton

Some classic television series I sampled for the first time last year:
THE RANGE RIDER
CAPTAIN GALLANT OF THE FOREIGN LEGION
THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU
WHIRLYBIRDS
HONG KONG
RIPCORD
THE LLOYD BRIDGES SHOW
BRENNER
HEY LANDLORD!
EYE GUESS
THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR
DEATH VALLEY DAYS
SAYS WHO?
ALL ABOUT FACES
CHASE
MATT HELM
THE STARLAND VOCAL BAND SHOW
SIDEKICKS
LEGWORK
THE HIGHWAYMAN
THE MIND OF THE MARRIED MAN
LUCKY LOUIE

I finished binge-watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW near the end of the year. I'm currently working on LAW & ORDER (that should take me a couple of years at least) and BARNABY JONES (which goes down as smoothly as a glass of warm milk before bed).