Monday, September 25, 2017

Sworn To Justice

A change of pace for Cynthia Rothrock, SWORN TO JUSTICE casts the kung fu star as a woman with a normal job — a psychologist, albeit one who put herself through school as a martial arts instructor — and gives her emotional drama to play and a steamy sex scene, her first. Debuting director Paul Maslak cut his teeth as a fight coordinator on Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies for Roger Corman with writer/producers Neva Friedann and Robert Easter, who also helped create exploitation favorites THE TOOLBOX MURDERS and SUPERVAN.

Perhaps the only Rothrock movie ever to play at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, SWORN TO JUSTICE finds shrink Janna Dane (Rothrock) returning home one evening to find her sister and her nephew dead on the floor and three masked killers in the house. She fights them and flees by leaping off a balcony and letting some trees break her fall. Somehow, a bump on the head gives her psychic powers — confirmed by doctor Breitenheim (Walter Koenig with a comical German accent) — and decides to use them to track down the killers.

Meanwhile, Janna agrees to be an expert witness at the trial of a psycho cop killer (Brad Dourif), starts a romance with hunky publishers Nicholas (Kurt McKinney of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER), banters with blind newsstand owner Young (Mako!), and tries to stay ahead of the detective investigating her sister’s murder, Sergeant Briggs (Tony LoBianco), who figures into screenplay writer Easter’s dumb plot twist.

Also in the cast is Max Thayer, who starred with Rothrock in the awesome NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II. SWORN TO JUSTICE is not as good as their first teaming, though it’s certainly interesting for its supporting cast and for allowing Rothrock to be more feminine than usual between fight scenes. One exposition scene is played with Cynthia stripping down to her lingerie, bosom about to burst from her bra, while LoBianco sneaks a peek.

As if there wasn’t enough going on, Maslak also gives us a chop shop, an unrequited lesbian crush, and a villain keeping his dead brother’s fried corpse on display in his headquarters. Despite so much story, so much Rothrock bare skin, and so much campy acting by LoBianco, SWORN TO JUSTICE doesn’t rise to the top of the direct-to-video ranks, despite one legitimately terrific action scene in a garage.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trip With The Teacher

Crown International released this R-rated exploitation movie with a double entendre title. TRIP WITH THE TEACHER remains the only feature directed by Earl Barton, a songwriter and choreographer who worked with Elvis on HARUM SCARUM and with many other family friendly stars in television variety shows, including Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, and Edie Adams. Even though TRIP features a cast of sexy women, try taking your eyes off Zalman King as a sadistic biker who torments them.

A quirky leading man in the shortlived ABC series THE YOUNG LAWYERS and in little-seen independent pictures like THE SKI BUM and YOU’VE GOT TO WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU’LL LOSE THAT BEAT (!), King’s only direction from Barton appears to have been, “Chew the walls. And the floors and the ceilings and anything else not nailed down.” It’s an unhinged turn by either a great actor who believed TRIP WITH THE TEACHER was a ticket to big things and a bad actor who needed more guidance than Earl Barton could provide.

Plot by writer/director/producer Barton finds sexy schoolteacher Brenda Fogarty (FANTASM COMES AGAIN) on a field trip with four sexy students played by Cathy Worthington (Kenny Rogers’ THE GAMBLER telefilms), Dina Ousley (AMERICAN HOT WAX), Jill Voigt (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2), and Susie Russell. When their short bus breaks down in the Mojave Desert, King, his slightly less evil brother Robert Porter (THE KLANSMAN), and their new traveling companion Robert Gribbin (the serial killer in the hilarious HITCH HIKE TO HELL) waylay the group, kill the punchdrunk bus driver (Jack Driscoll), and take Fogarty and her students to an abandoned house for rape, torture, and humiliation.

A desert motorcycle chase between Porter and Gribben is the film’s major action piece, which is made more exciting by the impression that the actors are doing their own stunts over shaky ground (and actually crashing, a happy accident). TRIP is actually less sleazy than Barton’s premise would indicate, which spares the audience the discomfort of watching Fogarty play a rape scene (but not the brutalization leading up to it). Besides King and Fogarty, who is pretty decent for an actress specializing in softcore cinema, the players are adequate at best, but good enough that you feel sympathy for the good characters who die. The script doesn’t work well. The bikers have no guns and could easily be overpowered by the captors or unable to prevent them from escaping (granted, the girls would be on foot in the middle of the desert).

King later claimed TRIP was the worst film he ever did (debatable) and his favorite role. The budget was a mere $31,000, and the shooting schedule was 13 days. Certainly the laughable library score chosen from Igo Kantor's collection didn’t cost much. Barton wrote the catchy theme that is repeated ad nauseum. Crown certainly got its money’s worth out of TRIP, re-releasing it in theaters and on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray several times, often under different titles, including DEADLY FIELD TRIP. King gave up acting not many years later for a new career as a producer and director of erotic (R-rated) films, such as WILD ORCHID and TWO MOON JUNCTION, and Showtime’s RED SHOE DIARIES.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Security (2017)

United States marshals (or “U.S.A. Marshals,” as the Bulgarian costume designer hilariously stitched on their useless bulletproof vests) transporting a witness on a dark and stormy night are hijacked by heavily armed and remarkably organized bad guys. All are killed, but the witness, 10-year-old Katherine Mary de la Rocha, makes it on foot to a crappy shopping mall where new security guard Antonio Banderas (DESPERADO) is hating his first night on the job.

It’s impossible to describe the awful work done by the Bulgarian production designers who have never seen an American mall. It’s a third the size of even an average mall (it has to fit on a soundstage), is decorated in an eye-bleeding array of bright colors and phony blown-up stock images of grinning boobs, features stores selling mismatched clothing and furniture that nobody would buy, closes before 9:00 p.m., and somehow justifies the employment of five (!) full-time overnight guards. One is played by the gorgeous Gabriella Wright (THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED), and we all know how many sexy young women work the night shift as security in rundown malls.

In the grand tradition of POINT BLANK — nope, not that one, the straight-to-video one with Mickey Rourke — SECURITY becomes DIE HARD In A Mall when the weird-accented Ben Kingsley (SNEAKERS) shows up looking for the girl. Banderas’ boss (Liam McIntyre) is too dumb to know what’s going on, so Banderas, back in the U.S. a year after three tours in Afghanistan, takes charge. His plan basically involves his untrained and unarmed colleagues using found objects as makeshift weapons and using their knowledge of the janky mall’s geography to their advantage.

SECURITY is dumb as hell, but not so bad that a larger budget and a more talented cast and crew couldn’t have made this script work. Kingsley walks through his generic bad guy part (and no reason he shouldn’t, really), but Banderas, rocking a full beard, takes the film seriously enough to create the film’s only believable or sympathetic character. He also holds his own in a fight with Cung Le (DRAGON EYES). No superfluous flashbacks, no extraneous romantic subplot, just straight action with a few offbeat touches capably handled by director Alain Desrochers (BON COP BAD COP 2).

Monday, September 11, 2017

Poltergeist (1982)

If you ever need to spark a conversation among horror fans, ask them who directed POLTERGEIST. My guess: Tobe Hooper was on the set every day calling “action” and “cut” and providing some creative input, but directing under hands-on supervision by producer/screenwriter Steven Spielberg, who used his clout as the boss to overrule Hooper when he didn’t agree. Hooper, who had recently been fired from THE DARK and VENOM, directed POLTERGEIST like Christian I. Nyby directed THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Despite whatever backstage confusions duelling directors may have caused, the result is one helluva good spook show.

What happens when a typical middle-class family of five builds a house over an ancient burial ground? T-bones crawl across the kitchen counter. The old dead tree in the side yard snatches the pre-teen son. Chairs slide around the floor on their own. And five-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) is sucked through the television tube into the spirit world. Mom (JoBeth Williams), Dad (Craig T. Nelson), teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), and son (Oliver Robins) call in some non-comic ghostbusters (led by Beatrice Straight) to bust the poltergeists haunting the suburban home and rescue Carol Ann.

Occasionally gruesome for a PG film (Spielberg talked the MPAA down from an R), POLTERGEIST is the perfect family horror movie. Nobody dies or is seriously injured, and the actors do an outstanding job making the fantastic seem real. The characters act rationally and intelligently in the face of irrationality. The screenplay by Spielberg and collaborators Michael Grais and Mark Victor (MARKED FOR DEATH) is efficient, wasting no screen time on extraneous backstory and allowing the audience to fill in any necessary gaps. That it draws a great deal from Richard Matheson is obvious but unacknowledged.

POLTERGEIST opened the same weekend as STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but in third place, two slots behind TREK. It earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), as well as two sequels, a television series, and a 2015 remake that nobody remembers.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Somebody Killed Her Husband

After one season of CHARLIE’S ANGELS, Farrah Fawcett-Majors was the biggest star on television and decided to become a movie star. She left the ABC series and starred in three consecutive flops: SOMEBODY KILLED HER HUSBAND, SUNBURN, and SATURN 3 (something about “S”es, I guess). Then it was back to CHARLIE’S ANGELS guest shots and made-for-TV movies. But I suppose she had to try.

It doesn’t take long to discover why SOMEBODY KILLED HER HUSBAND, despite a screenplay by the great Reginald Rose (12 ANGRY MEN), is a failure. It’s a screwball comedy in which one of the romantic leads (guess which one?) has no flair for comedy and no chemistry with her leading man (whoops, gave it away). I wish I could have seen Rose’s face when director Lamont Johnson (SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE) told him Farrah Fawcett-Majors would be saying his dialogue.

Farrah meets aspiring author Jeff Bridges (FAT CITY) in the toy section at Macy’s. Even though she’s a wife and a mother, Bridges falls for her (duh, she looks like Farrah Fawcett-Majors), and it turns out she likes him too. Unfortunately, somebody kills her husband (sounds like a title), and she and he decide to hide the corpse and solve the mystery because they believe the cops will suspect them of the murder. Which is dumb, but funny movies have been built around dumber premises.

However, those movies didn’t have Farrah Fawcett-Majors, who has great hair, great teeth, a great body, but no discernible ability to play comedy, leading the charge. Thus, it’s left to Jeff Bridges, who is a fine comic actor, to pull double the weight, and it’s hardly fair to blame him for not being able to. He’s also playing an awkward oddball and kind of a creep, so he isn’t all that likable (fatal in a romantic comedy), and Johnson (also not experienced in comedy) lacks the right pacing for comedy or suspense.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Under Cover

If I were casting the leading role in a movie about a cop who goes undercover as a high school student, I probably would not hire someone with a receding hairline. Even if the cop’s boss (the dependable Carmen Argenziano) does mention that he’s bearded and balding, it doesn’t take the film off the hook. But that’s the way producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus rolled at Cannon.

After starring in Cannon’s DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, which was written by Scott Fields, John Stockwell convinced Golan and Globus to let him direct this one from a script by Fields. Stockwell went on to do bigger films like CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL and INTO THE BLUE, but he already seems like an assured director with UNDER COVER. Star David Neidorf (PLATOON) doesn’t look the part, nor is he a particularly charming lead, but it’s interesting that his character, named Sheffield Hauser (good grief), isn’t a badass cop and is awkward in his new assignment.

Hauser is actually just one of many young police officers working as narcs in high schools under the command of Sgt. Irwin Lee (Barry Corbin). Another is Tanille Laroux (Jennifer Jason Leigh, of all people), who works with Hauser in the guise of a braless fox. The case that brings Hauser and Laroux to school is a drug ring that killed Hauser’s partner on the Baltimore force.

You would expect UNDER COVER to be a lark, but despite its far-fetched premise and the presence of humor, Stockwell takes the case seriously. Some nudity and racial material give the story necessary weight, but not enough for a successful film. Give UNDER COVER credit for aiming higher than Cannon’s usual action trash.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Invaders From Mars (1986)

Cannon blessed director Tobe Hooper (POLTERGEIST) with a decent $12 million budget to do right by this colorful remake of the 1953 science fiction film INVADERS FROM MARS. It was one of the studio’s biggest flops, opening in seventh place (one of the films ahead of it: POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, which Hooper had nothing to do with) and contributing to Cannon’s eventual and inevitable downfall.

Certainly, Hooper and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had good intentions going in. A-list special effects artists John Dykstra (STAR WARS) and Stan Winston (THE TERMINATOR) were brought in to head departments. BLUE THUNDER’s Don Jakoby and ALIEN’s Dan O’Bannon (who also worked on BLUE THUNDER) wrote a screenplay that closely followed that of the original picture. Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE cameraman Daniel Pearl handled the director of photography duties. If only Hooper and company had been more diligent in casting.

By Cannon standards, $12 million was quite extravagant, though not quite enough to more than passably create the spaceships and aliens required by Jakoby and O’Bannon’s script. The film mainly suffers from a campy approach with arch performances by Karen Black (THE DAY OF THE LOCUST) and Louise Fletcher (BRAINSTORM) draining the suspense and terror from the premise. Granted, this approach plays fair with the ending, which copies that of the 1953 film, but it makes taking the film seriously a chore.

Likewise, the casting of Hunter Carson as the juvenile lead doesn’t work. The son of star Black and screenwriter L.M. Carson (PARIS, TEXAS), Carson is a subpar actor and unable to carry a film, as he must as one of the few “normal” characters. Nobody believes David (Carson) when he tells them a spaceship landed behind a hill in the backyard. Soon, his father (Timothy Bottoms), mother (Laraine Newman), teacher (Louise Fletcher as Dana Carvey), and even the local cops (one played by Jimmy Hunt, the kid from the original INVADERS FROM MARS) are acting logy and zombie-like.

The only person who believes David’s story is the school nurse, played by Carson’s mother. Granted, casting the eccentric cross-eyed Black as a normal human among a small town of weirdos is a crafty notion, but INVADERS FROM MARS is unable to make it work. Pacing is too leisurely during its first half, though the film becomes more interesting once things really get going with weird aliens and the military finally joining the picture. Sci-fi fans will enjoy the in-jokes, like Hooper’s LIFEFORCE playing on television and the school being named for William Cameron Menzies, the star of the original film.

James Karen (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) gives the film’s best performance as a cigar-chomping general who kicks some spaceman ass. INVADERS FROM MARS was the second in Hooper’s three-picture deal with Cannon. Though the creative success of LIFEFORCE, INVADERS, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 can be debated, none made money for Cannon, and Hooper’s career as a bankable filmmaker was basically over. His next film, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, came out four years later.

Las Vegas Hillbillys

It’s amazing that drive-in screens were able to support Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield in the same movie. Woolner Brothers didn’t get this cornpone country-western comedy into many theaters north of the Mason-Dixon line, if any.

Country Music Hall of Famer Ferlin Husky (SWAMP GIRL) stars as honest wood hauler Woody, who inherits a Vegas casino from his late uncle. He and pal Jeepers (Don Bowman) arrive in Vegas to discover the place is a real dump and $38,000 in debt to gangsters. How to square things with the creditors and get the joint in working condition? By throwing a country music jamboree with singing stars like Bill Anderson, Sonny James, Connie Smith, and Del Reeves.

While both Van Doren (BORN RECKLESS) and Mansfield (THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT) are in the film and sing a number apiece, they don’t appear in the same shot, which seems a shame (Van Doren later said their relationship was “standoffish”). A biker gang shows up to cause trouble, Richard “Jaws” Kiel shows up in a cowboy hat, and there’s a pie fight. Suffice to say, this film doesn’t go anywhere near Nevada. The casino exterior is a barn in the mountains of Tennessee. The music is pretty good though.

One of the cheapest films ever made, LAS VEGAS HILLBILLYS (sic) is less a film than a series of long static shots edited together of non-actors hesitantly reciting dialogue or lip-synching songs. In one of the few instances of director Arthur C. Pierce (WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET) moving the camera, a crew member is plainly seen removing a sheet of wood being used as a dolly track. Believe it or not, Husky, Bowman, and Joi Lansing (in Mamie’s role) returned in a sequel, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (sic).