Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hollywood Vice Squad

Your only opportunity to see milquetoast character actor Marvin Kaplan waving a dildo with his face on it. Director Penelope Spheeris, best known for her DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION rock documentaries (or maybe WAYNE’S WORLD!), took to the streets of Hollywood for this black comic cop flick with an all-star exploitation cast. Producer Sandy Howard also made VICE SQUAD, but this isn’t a sequel, despite its similar episodic structure.

The main throughline is a gender-switched HARDCORE with Trish Van Devere — wife of HARDCORE star George C. Scott — playing a Midwestern mother roaming Hollywood Boulevard in search of her runaway daughter. She doesn’t know her innocent little girl (Robin Wright in her film debut) is a coked-out whore under the thumb of pimp Frank Gorshin!

Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher (three years after RETURN OF THE JEDI) tries to bust some porno filmmakers, Evan Kim (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE) and Joey Travolta (CAR CRASH) fight a drag queen and a guy on angel dust, Ben Frank (DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE) and H.B. “Tigerman” Haggerty chase mob boss Robert Miano (DONNIE BRASCO), and Leon Isaac Kennedy (BODY AND SOUL) goes undercover as a white slaver. Top-billed Ronny Cox, probably wearing his BEVERLY HILLS COP wardrobe, is their captain.

HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD isn’t a straight comedy, though many of its chases and fight scenes are played for humor. Child pornography and white slavery aren’t naturally compatible with slapstick, and neither Spheeris nor writer James Docherty (T.J. HOOKER) have the confidence or experience to pull off the combination. Considering the ragged structure and Fisher’s diminished screen time, it’s likely Spheeris left a lot of footage behind in the editing room. Marquees for ROCKY IV, CLUE, and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES seen along Hollywood Boulevard indicate HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD was still shooting less than three months before it was in theaters!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Silent Fall

SILENT FALL, a thriller about an autistic boy who witnesses his parents’ bloody murders, is based around the most ridiculous, stupidest, straight out most insane gimmick I think I’ve ever seen in a studio feature set in the real world. It’s unimaginable that anyone involved with this movie, much less director Bruce Beresford, whose work includes DRIVING MISS DAISY and TENDER MERCIES, thought the audience would believe it.

While not giving away the mystery, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. It turns out that the little boy, Tim Warden (Ben Faulkner), only speaks in impressions. Not like the guy in your dorm who pulled back his hair and did a lame Jack Nicholson, but an absolutely perfect impression that would make Kevin Pollak weep with jealousy. Of course, it isn’t the young actor speaking the lines. Tim’s impressions are the work of talented sound editors, whom I hope had the good sense to crack up while putting words into Faulkner’s mouth.

SILENT FALL is about a murder case in a bucolic Maryland town. A couple is found slaughtered in their bedroom and survived by their teenage daughter Sylvie (Liv Tyler) and son Tim. The local sheriff (J.T. Walsh) calls in a reluctant psychiatrist, Jake Reiner (Richard Dreyfuss), to find out from Tim who the killer is. Reiner gave up treating kids a few years earlier after a boy died in his care and he was tried on a manslaughter charge, of which he was acquitted.

Reiner’s past actually has nothing to do with the story, just one of many misfires in the screenplay by the perpetually tonedeaf Akiva Goldsman (BATMAN & ROBIN). The plot culminates in one of the dumbest, most laughable climaxes ever, which has Dreyfuss both escape a ludicrous death trap and re-enact the murders with convenient narration by Tim. SILENT FALL is terrible, and that’s even before mentioning that it wastes both Linda Hamilton (THE TERMINATOR) and John Lithgow (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP) in nothing roles. Yes, it’s terrible, but I promise you will get a few bellylaughs out of it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Four Color #994

The great Dan Spiegle drew the splash of "Danger Dive," the second story in this SEA HUNT issue of Dell's FOUR COLOR. While it isn't the most exciting page in the world, Spiegle captures star Lloyd Bridges' likeness well, and it does (the writer is unidentified) tie into the hit television series well. It seems like most episodes started with Bridges' frogman Mike Nelson minding his own business just before trouble came calling.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Sweet Sugar

“Her machete isn’t her only weapon!” Movies about sexy women in jungle prisons were big biz in 1972, and Dimension Pictures’ first reaction to New World’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE was SWEET SUGAR. Filmed in Costa Rica by director Michel Levesque (WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS) from a script by THE BIG DOLL HOUSE’s Don Spencer, SWEET SUGAR has a real ace in the hole in the shapely form of star Phyllis Davis, who later became well known for her three seasons backing up private eye Robert Urich on ABC’s VEGA$.

A brassy mixture of intelligence, confidence, and rarely equalled sex appeal, Davis was the Mae West of 1970s exploitation. She played plenty of bit parts in television series like ADAM-12 and THE WILD WILD WEST and movies like THE BIG BOUNCE and Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (testing the sexploitation waters?), but her best roles by far were in SWEET SUGAR and another Dimension WIP (women-in-prison movie), TERMINAL ISLAND. The gloriously perverse SWEET SUGAR gives her the title role: Sugar Bowman, a stacked smartass hooker busted on a trumped-up pot charge who forgoes prison for a two-year stint cutting sugar cane on a Central American plantation.

Sugar not only runs afoul of rival inmate Simone (DETROIT 9000’s Ella Edwards) and brutal guard Burgos (pockmarked Cliff Osmond, memorable in THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but especially the psychotic warden, Doctor John (Angus Duncan), a perverted ascot-wearing physician who performs medical experiments on the prisoners. Of course, Sugar eventually leads a climactic revolt against authorities in a blizzard of bullets and explosions — these pictures generally stuck to a formula — but not before the requisite torture scenes, catfighting scenes, rape scenes, lesbian love scenes (scored with ‘60s lounge music), voodoo scenes (!) and, of course, shower scenes.

Though Spencer’s plot is standard as these things go, its dialogue (“I hope somebody hacks off your hambone!”) and tone are decidedly weird, which works to the film’s benefit. For instance, Doctor John sits on a throne sipping brandy while a woman dangles before him in a bamboo cage over a roaring fire. He hooks up female inmates to a cheap-looking machine (like a car battery charger) that measures their sex drive, and he punishes misbehavers with an army of horny pussycats! With the drive-in market glutted with WIPs, making SWEET SUGAR a bit goofy also makes it one of the genre’s most memorable vehicles. SWEET SUGAR was produced by Dimension’s husband-and-wife team of Charles S. Swartz and Stephanie Rothman, who directed Davis (and Tom Selleck) in TERMINAL ISLAND a year later.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Wonder Woman

DC Comics’ most famous female superhero, Wonder Woman, comes to the big screen in this mediocre adventure directed by MONSTER’s Patty Jenkins. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 and continuously published by DC since, Wonder Woman has previously been depicted on television — most notably by Lynda Carter in a 1970s series — and direct-to-video animated features. Technically, star Gal Gadot (FURIOUS SEVEN) cameoed as Wonder Woman in 2016’s BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, but this WONDER WOMAN is all her own.

Written by Allan Heinberg, a veteran of television soaps (PARTY OF FIVE, GREY’S ANATOMY), the plot plops Princess Diana into World War I, where she hooks up with dashing spy Steve Trevor (STAR TREK’s Chris Pine, game as the sidekick) and his flustery secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis as Hermione Baddeley) to fight the Germans. The plot is something something about poison gas developed by dull German villains Ludendorff (Danny Huston, likely the ninth or tenth name on the list of potential hires) and scarred scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya, doing her best with an undercooked role).

Because the action scenes are completely concocted by Dew-doing dudes with keyboards and mice, it’s impossible to say how well Gadot performs in them, but she looks great in the suit (an important first step for these pictures) and presents a believable, sincere, likable hero for which to root. Likewise Pine, turning in career best work in a period haircut few stars of his generation could pull off. He and Gadot are a charming couple that provide WONDER WOMAN with enough goodwill to partially forgive the dull parts, which is basically everything comic-booky. The climax is a confusing melange of cartoons shooting electricity at each other without explaining why or how.

Connie Nielsen (THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) and Robin Wright (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) appear as sisters Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope, respectively, who raise young Diana on Paradise Island, hidden from the world by an invisible shield that proves remarkably easy to penetrate. Early scenes of Diana training as an Amazon warrior are familiar, but well handled by Jenkins, as are all scenes between Gadot and Pine, as their characters not only fall in love, but also in mutual respect as both people and soldiers.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Sisterhood

Another post-apocalyptic action flick by prolific Philippines director Cirio H. Santiago (WHEELS OF FIRE), THE SISTERHOOD offers Cirio’s trademark brand of cheap action, even cheaper sets, and completely senseless scripting. It opens with a pair of women in a swordfight against a handful of male warriors, which is fine, until one of the women distracts her opponent by shooting beams from her eyes (!) and causing a rockslide. I don’t know about you, but if I could fire explosive beams from my eyes, I wouldn’t dirty my hands in close combat.

The chick with the eye beams is Alee (Rebecca Holden, the redhead from KNIGHT RIDER). She and her partner Vera (Barbara Hooper), who can use her hands for healing, belong to the Sisterhood, a free-ranging female group of warriors that ride across the wilderness fighting for peace. Though there’s something relaxing about Santiago’s familiar filmmaking (I swear he must have shot twenty pictures in this same damned rock quarry), this one rambles too much. Santiago’s action movies, though frequently inept, are rarely dull, but THE SISTERHOOD presents no new ideas and features too little action. It gets amusing near the end, after the Sisterhood finds a long-buried U.S. missile silo stocked with Soviet weapons and a Filipino attack vehicle, which the two are easily able to operate.

One of approximately one zillion cheap drive-in pictures Santiago churned out for U.S. release by Roger Corman, THE SISTERHOOD features a screenplay by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, who crapped out more scripts for Concorde, including HEROES STAND ALONE, THE TERROR WITHIN, DUNE WARRIORS, and SAIGON COMMANDOS. Taking into consideration that the difference between Santiago’s best film and his worst is very thin, THE SISTERHOOD definitely lays near the bottom of the pack. Bond girl Lynn-Holly Johnson (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) co-stars with charisma hole Chuck Wagner (AUTOMAN) as the chief heavy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Deadly Dreams

One of Roger Corman’s least heralded contributions to Hollywood is allowing women directors to make films just as cheap, exploitative, and dumb as male directors sometimes do. Kristine Peterson made her directing debut with this thriller released by Corman’s Concorde Pictures that focuses on the frequently sweaty bare torso of the supremely unlikable Mitchell Anderson (DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.).

Poor chain-smoking Anderson has a lot of nightmares about a killer with a shotgun and a wolf mask chasing him through the bleak woods. That this actually sorta happened to him when he was ten years old (the killer murdered his parents right in front of him) has made Anderson understandably neurotic.

His stoner pal Thom Babbes (also the film’s screenwriter) and his older brother Xander Berkeley (24) are fairly worthless, leaving him to turn to his new girlfriend Juliette Cummins (FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) when he needs to be talked down from another bad dream. Or are they dreams? Are Anderson’s visions of a wolf-masked killer actually real? Could somebody be trying to gaslight Anderson to get his inheritance? Is this an unimaginative direct-to-video thriller?

Anderson doesn’t seem to be into his sex scene with a topless Cummins, but maybe he’s just dizzy from Peterson spinning the bed around on a platform. That’s about as visually stylish as DEADLY DREAMS gets, despite a title that predicts fantasy. At least the dream sequences allow Peterson to kill her cast members over and over, though the gore factor barely tips into R territory. It also gives us 32 shots of Anderson sitting up in bed screaming. May as well get in all the cliches.

Frankly, there just isn’t much of a story here. With only four characters to play with — none of them likable — and a weak story, Peterson needs something to generate interest. A couple of outrageous third-act plot twists are a good start, but one is predictable (like really predictable) and the other is stupid. Cummins isn’t bad here, and she’s sexy as hell. Corman gave Peterson another chance to direct BODY CHEMISTRY, which was a major Concorde hit. Her biggest film was CRITTERS 3 for New Line.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Swinging Barmaids

Despite the sexy title and an advertising campaign stating that the title maids enjoy “big tips” and let the “customer come first,” THE SWINGING BARMAIDS is actually a crime drama, albeit a skeevy one. From director Gus Trikonis and producer Ed Carlin, who also made NASHVILLE GIRL, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE STUDENT BODY, and THE EVIL together, this film was released by Premiere Releasing Organization as a follow-up to the similar THE MANHANDLERS and MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS.

Television guest star Bruce Watson (he was in the first STAR TREK ever telecast) tears into his role as misogynist serial killer Tom Brady (!), who travels across the country, donning (laughable) disguises and murdering (hot) cocktail waitresses. He also enjoys arranging their nude corpses and taking photos of them. Now in Los Angeles, his latest victims are the ladies of the Swing-A-Ling, where he scores a gig as a bouncer. Fresh meat includes Susie (Katie Saylor, star of TV’s FANTASTIC JOURNEY), Marie (Renie Radich, seen in THREE THE HARD WAY), and Jenny (Laura Hippe, a Scientologist who committed suicide in 1986). In charge of the case is police detective Harry White, played by the great drive-in star William Smith (BLACK SAMSON), who usually played the psycho in these types of films.

Brady’s scheme to work at the Ring-A-Ding, which is packed with sexy barmaids, is pretty clever, as it allows him to listen in on the girls’ plans to catch the killer. Undoubtedly, working two days on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and ADAM-12 episodes didn’t allow Watson to cut loose, so he takes advantage of the R rating and Griffith’s sleazebag character to engage in some bonkers acting. Watson really isn’t that good, but in the context of this film, he’s pretty great, particularly when he gets angry listening to the barmaids insult a killer he proudly claims is some sort of criminal mastermind.

Written by the often witty Charles B. Griffith (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), THE SWINGING BARMAIDS has a steady slew of crowdpleasingly graphic murders, some nudity, and clever dialogue, but the story could have used more work. Watson is first seen wearing an (obvious) fake blond wig and beard, yet witnesses describe him as having dark hair. Later, a witness tells White the suspect was driving a green Kawasaki, but the police bulletin asks officers to be on the lookout for a Honda.

Still, Trikonis delivers a decent body count and thoughtfully directs Watson to rip off the women’s tops before killing them. The actors appear to be doing most of their stunts. One victim is Dyanne Thorne, just before she became a drive-in queen as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Also appearing is bad comic Dick Yarmy, Don Adams’ lookalike brother, playing a bad comic. Motion Picture Marketing later released THE SWINGING BARMAIDS as EAGER BEAVERS.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Return Of Count Yorga

Robert Quarry became a short-lived horror movie star and an AIP contract player in the early 1970s on the basis of his two COUNT YORGA movies, which were shot on low budgets by director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) and producer Michael Macready. Macready’s father, well-known character actor George Macready (coming off a long run as bitter old town patriarch Martin Peyton on TV’s PEYTON PLACE), narrated COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and plays a professor in this sequel, his final film. George died in 1973.

Screenwriters Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder skip over any troublesome explanation of how Yorga (Quarry) and his scarred brute assistant Brudah (Edward Walsh) escaped clear deaths in VAMPIRE. Yorga, Brudah, and a harem of undead vamps in negligees move into a Bay Area mansion near an orphanage run by Reverend Thomas (Tom Toner). While attending an orphanage fundraiser, Yorga falls for a pretty young teacher, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley). That night, he sends his vampire harem to slaughter Cynthia’s family (yes, this was in theaters two years after the Manson murders) and bring her back to his place, where he hypnotizes her into believing she was the victim of a car crash. She soon comes to realize, however, she’s a prisoner of Count Yorga’s, rather than a guest, and seeks to escape, while her psychiatrist fiancĂ© (Roger Perry, who played a different hero in VAMPIRE) and a pair of comic relief cops attempt a rescue.

Although solidly directed by Kelljan, sharply photographed by Bill Butler (JAWS), and crisply edited by Fabien Tjordmann (an Emmy winner for STAR TREK), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA doesn’t quite work. The story by Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder (who also portrays a mute teacher in the film) is extremely thin—there’s a lot of wandering around labyrinthine hallways and through doorways—and some plotholes may have you scratching your head (like why don’t the cops use their crosses to fight off the vamps?). The parts that do work, however, work exceedingly well. The final third, which mainly consists of the rescue attempt, is scary and exciting, and Kelljan consistently spices the film with enough intriguing camera angles and directorial touches to add to the film’s visual luster.

Quarry is excellent as one of modern cinema’s great bloodsuckers—regal, intense, and witty. He starred in other horror films, such as THE DEATHMASTER, but was never as good in anything as he was as Count Yorga. Hartley is too old to play the ingĂ©nue, but is fine otherwise. Perry, a likable actor in many light television parts, pulls off the difficult task of making his underdeveloped character someone to root for. Comic actors Rudy DeLuca (a frequent Mel Brooks collaborator) and Craig T. Nelson (his film debut!) as the cops are fun, wisely finding the right level of humor without going too far. One wonders whether the movie might have been better without Perry and letting DeLuca and Nelson carry the heroics.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Prescription: Murder

When actor Peter Falk first donned Lieutenant Columbo’s rumpled raincoat for this Universal TV-movie in 1968, who could have known that he would still be wearing that same raincoat in 2003, when the last COLUMBO episode/movie aired.

Adapted by Richard Levinson and William Link from their own play, which starred character actor Thomas Mitchell as Columbo, PRESCRIPTION: MURDER sets the formula for nearly every Columbo adventure yet to come, most importantly by squaring the slovenly detective off against a real smoothie, his opposite in style, played perfectly by Gene Barry (BURKE’S LAW). Barry, who never made a return appearance to the COLUMBO-verse, is the quintessential Columbo villain—suave, urbane, cold, clever, and arrogant. In other words, the perfect foil for Falk, whose rumpled appearance, absentmindedness, short stature, and acute politeness masked an intelligence and an eye for details that always led to the killer’s demise.

Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Barry) thinks he’s committed the perfect murder. By strangling his wife Carol (Nina Foch) in their penthouse apartment and recruiting his young mistress, actress Joan Hudson (Katherine Justice), to pose as Carol during a staged argument that results in “Carol” refusing to accompany him on a flight to Acapulco, Flemming has a perfect alibi when his wife’s corpse is found a few days later. Witnesses saw Carol stalk off the airplane prior to takeoff, and the waters off the Mexican coast are ideal for dumping the expensive items “stolen” by the robber who will be blamed for Carol’s death. MURDER also sets the COLUMBO formula by showing the killer’s preparation and deed in great detail. Falk doesn’t enter until the second act, after Levinson and Link provide a good hard look at Flemming’s elaborate plan in which he appears to leave no clues to his guilt.

However, there is no such thing as the “perfect murder.” Columbo becomes a bit of a pest, stopping by Flemming’s home and office at all hours, asking questions that seem inconsequential until he has no doubt of the doctor’s guilt. The fun is in the cat-and-mouse aspect of Levinson and Link’s teleplay, where Columbo knows his adversary is guilty, and Flemming knows that Columbo knows, yet without proof, what can the detective do? The two parry with each other over bourbon, talking about hypothetical murders, Barry’s cool charm meshing with Falk’s puppy-dog determination. The actors have excellent chemistry, and the grudging respect that the two characters have for each other, even as one tries to jail the other for murder, is quite clear in the performances.

If there is a weakness, it would be in Richard Irving’s direction, which does a poor job of masking MURDER’s stage origins. Too many scenes consist of actors awkwardly standing together facing the camera, rather than each other, and the sets are built with only three walls, resulting in little variety to cinematographer Ray Rennahan’s camera angles. Falk still had not quite found his character. Columbo shouting and losing his temper, showy though it may be, would later be terribly out of character for the always-in-control sleuth he would become.

Even though PRESCRIPTION: MURDER was a ratings success, Universal didn’t make a follow-up for three years. 1971’s RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, guest-starring Lee Grant as a rare female COLUMBO killer, served as a backdoor pilot for the series, which took up one spoke of the NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE wheel for seven seasons, airing every month or so in 90- or 120-minute episodes. In 1989, COLUMBO returned to television as part of the ABC MYSTERY MOVIE on Saturday nights, along with Burt Reynolds as B.L. STRYKER, Telly Savalas as KOJAK, and others. COLUMBO was the only show to survive, as Falk continued making two-hour movies with the character through 2003’s COLUMBO LIKES THE NIGHTLIFE.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Rage

With slasher movies all the rage, Columbia enlisted chopsocky star Chuck Norris for this action-oriented horror film influenced by the Frankenstein legend. That director Michael Miller (JACKSON COUNTY JAIL) opens SILENT RAGE with a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot cribbed from HALLOWEEN’s iconic prologue can’t be a coincidence. Miller’s opening is an attention getter for sure, as hulking Brian Libby (THE OCTAGON) goes postal with an axe on his landlords, engages town sheriff Norris (FORCED VENGEANCE) in an exhaustive fight, snaps his handcuffs, kicks a police car door off its hinges, and finally collapses in a hail of bloody gunfire.

With Libby presumed dead, Norris can concentrate on making time with hospital administrator Toni Kalem (THE WANDERERS), whose shrink brother Ron Silver (TIMECOP) is working with scientists Steven Keats (THE GUMBALL RALLY) and William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) in an illegal life-rejuvenation experiment. Against Silver’s wishes, Keats injects Libby’s corpse with a full dose of their new drug, which brings the man back to life with the unfortunate side effect of turning him into an invulnerable killing machine. Basically, SILENT RAGE is CHUCK NORRIS MEETS FRANKENSTEIN with occasional karate fights.

Miller uses long takes, practical locations in the Dallas, Texas area, and interesting camera movement to inject life into the non-action scenes, which effectively builds suspense and realism, but also showcases Norris’ deficiencies as an actor. He looks uncomfortable in his love scenes with Kalem and the dialogue scenes with fat, stupid deputy Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE), which are played for lame comic relief. The screenplay by Joseph Fraley (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) has its fair share of inconsistencies, but excellent performances by Silver, Keats, and Finley provide dimension to their mad scientist roles that help paper over any holes.

While SILENT RAGE falls confidently into the horror/slasher genre, it works effectively as an action vehicle for Norris. The grueling climax between Chuck and the zombified Libby is a corker, but the film’s highlight is a midpoint barroom brawl between Norris and a couple dozen bikers. With more nudity and gore than expected in a Chuck Norris movie — Finley’s demise is especially grisly — SILENT RAGE checks all the exploitation boxes. Peter Bernstein (BOLERO) and Mark Goldenberg (TEEN WOLF TOO) compose a good score, though Miller mostly underscores the fight scenes with pure sound effects for maximum realism.

Oddly, Miller’s next film, also released in 1982, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CLASS REUNION, was a spoof of slasher movies. In a strange career turn, Miller moved into television and cranked out a series of romances based on the mushy novels of Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Norris did FORCED VENGEANCE next, though it was his later movies for Cannon that make him a household name.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Around The World Under The Sea

TV impresario Ivan Tors produced AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA for MGM, so it’s no surprise to see stars from his hit shows SEA HUNT (Lloyd Bridges), FLIPPER (Brian Kelly), and DAKTARI (Marshall Thompson). In addition, screenwriters Arthur Weiss and Art Arthur also penned scripts for those shows, as well as VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, making them perfectly suited for this dramatically inert hokum.

These are the continuing adventures of the Hydronaut, an atomic-powered submarine assigned to circumvent the Earth planting earthquake sensors on the ocean floor. In addition to Doctors Standish (Bridges), Mosby (Kelly), and Hillyard (Thompson), the ship carries Dr. Volker (David McCallum, then on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), crusty rabbit whisperer Stahl (Keenan Wynn), and Dr. Hanford (GOLDFINGER’s golden girl Shirley Eaton), whose rear end should receive separate billing, as often as director Andrew Marton (CRACK IN THE WORLD) points his camera at it.

Even though the characters are adults and professionals, the mere presence of a woman on the ship turns them into bickering juveniles, which doesn’t bode well for their survival chances against underwater volcanoes and deadly eels. Hell, McCallum (he and Wynn give the liveliest performances) drives the sub right into a damn rock wall because he’s so distracted by Eaton’s hotness.

Actually, the film’s biggest problem is its lack of suspense. Weiss and Arthur’s screenplay is heavy on talk, light on action, and Marton is unable to wring much excitement out of the few opportunities to do so. The thin characters and bright colors lead one to believe children were Tors’ prime audience for AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA. It has little for adults beyond the virtues of Miss Eaton and the novelty of Lloyd, still trim in tight shorts, skin-diving in color. Marton shot at Tors’ Miami studio with Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, both Black Lagoon creatures, on the crew.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Night Patrol

An unfunny comedy is the worst type of film, and NIGHT PATROL is the worst of that type of film. Tasteless, idiotic, foul, and witless, this R-rated abomination spins gags about urination, defecation, sperm banks, dope, homosexuality, blackface, rape, and “The Dyke Van Dick Show” that are so bad, even 12-year-olds will be offended. When you see a sign announcing a cockfight, you know you’re about to see two naked guys in an alley pounding their torsos together. Thank your lucky stars it’s only 85 minutes long.

Convicted of writing the screenplay are star Murray Langston, better known as THE GONG SHOW’s Unknown Comic (he wore a paper bag over his head and told deliberately awful jokes); William A. Levey, director of the execrable BLACKENSTEIN; pornographer Bill Osco (the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND); and Jackie Kong, Osco’s wife who also produced NIGHT PATROL with Osco and directed it. To her credit, Kong is one of a handful of Asian-American women to direct mainstream Hollywood features. That she was so bad at directing (THE BEING and BLOOD DINER are other Kong films) perhaps shouldn’t be held against her, but then again, she directed NIGHT PATROL.

The ostensible plot finds bumbling patrolman Melvin White (Langston) struggling to balance working the night shift and breaking into show business with his Unknown Comic standup act. Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS) grabs top billing as Melvin’s romantic interest Sue Perman (groan), GONG SHOW panelist Jaye P. Morgan is Melvin’s new agent, Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR) is Melvin’s womanizing new partner, Jack Riley (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) is Melvin’s shrink, and Billy Barty (UNDER THE RAINBOW) craps his dignity right down the bowl playing Melvin’s flatulent boss.

NIGHT PATROL’s strangest obsession is dubbing characters with incongruent voices, such as Pat Morita’s rape victim with a little girl’s voice. Oddly, Langston is dubbed by a different actor when wearing the Unknown Comic bag. The clumsy post-production shenanigans (some actors’ names are misspelled in the credits) and the (tame) bloopers that play at the end lead one to wonder if NIGHT PATROL was originally an Unknown Comic movie that was retooled as an ensemble piece that would rip off POLICE ACADEMY. It’s weird that anyone believed Langston and Paulsen posing as black pimps would be funnier.

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.