Sunday, October 22, 2017

Waxwork / Waxwork II: Lost in Time

David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is great as the proprietor of a haunted wax museum in this mixture of THE MONSTER SQUAD and EVIL DEAD 2. Played as much for laughs as for chills, WAXWORK comes at you with a rocking score by Roger Bellon (THE UNHOLY) and a love for old horror movies sure to capture the fancy of genre fans.

Four college students — rich Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), demure Deborah Foreman (APRIL FOOL’S DAY), obnoxious Dana Ashbrook (TWIN PEAKS), and sexpot Michelle Johnson (THE JIGSAW MURDERS) — attend a secret midnight opening of a new wax museum on a residential street. The horrific exhibits show vampires, mummies, axe murders, and other monsters in bloody milieus. Lawyers prevented WAXWORK from including Jason Voorhees, so a joke about the substituted Phantom of the Opera falls flat.

The exhibits are actually alternate universes, where Ashbrook is bitten by a werewolf (John Rhys-Davies) and Johnson by a vampire (former Tarzan Miles O’Keeffe). A cop stumbles into an underground excavation and fights a mummy. Foreman, already a cult actress, is whipped by the Marquis de Sade (DEATH WARRANT heavy J. Kenneth Campbell) and loves it, which must have piqued the pants of a few ‘80s fanboys. It’s up to Galligan and Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS) as Roddy McDowall in FRIGHT NIGHT to prevent Warner’s murderous waxworks from releasing their evil into the world.

If you can get past the awful wigs and the tendency of the actors playing the wax figures to sway (gotta keep that camera moving, director Anthony Hickox), WAXWORKS is good-natured enough fun. The various makeup and gore effects are well done, considering the film’s $3 million budget. A black-and-white homage to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (shot in a day at Griffith Park) is perhaps the film’s most inspired vignette, and Johnson’s gore-drenched battle with vampire brides needed heavy trimming to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The incredible finale pits Macnee in his Captain Pike wheelchair and a senior citizen army, including Galligan’s butler (Lou Costello impersonator Joe Baker), in a violent free-for-all against Warner’s monsters. WAXWORK was the writing and directing debut of Hickox, whose father Douglas directed THEATER OF BLOOD. Anthony used many of WAXWORK’s cast members in his next film, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT (also quite good). WAXWORK was a bust in theaters, but did very well on home video, inspiring WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME as Hickox’s third feature.

Taking up exactly where WAXWORK left off, Galligan and WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON’s Monika Schnarre (an ineffective replacement for Deborah Foreman, who had broken up with writer/director Hickox) are pursued by a disembodied hand that escapes the burning wax museum and frames Schnarre for the murder of her stepfather. To clear her name, the two young lovers travel through time and stumble into homages to Hickox’s favorite horror movies, including ALIEN, FRANKENSTEIN, GODZILLA, THE EVIL DEAD, and DAWN OF THE DEAD.

None of it has anything to do with waxworks, though the sequel apes the episodic structure of WAXWORK. With a lower budget, but a more ambitious screenplay than WAXWORK, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME shows a few seams here and there, even if some moments play quite brilliantly. A faithful tribute to THE HAUNTING is filmed in black and white with Bruce Campbell (ARMY OF DARKNESS) turning in a sharp performance as a pipe-chomping ghost hunter.

Unfortunately, for the sequel, Hickox chose to amp up the comedy, which puts the delicate balance of humor and horror out of whack. WAXWORK II is just too silly, with the slapstick diluting the tension of scenes that should be scary. Thus, one never believes Galligan and Schnarre are in danger, and without characters to care about, the film is left with a series of violent vignettes with juvenile jokes.

One benefit for genre fans is the star cameos. In addition to Campbell, WAXWORK II offers Marina Sirtis (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) in fab ‘60s garb, Maxwell Caulfield (GREASE II), David Carradine (CIRCLE OF IRON), Juliet Mills (BEYOND THE DOOR), John Ireland (SPARTACUS) as the King of England (!), Alexander Godunov (DIE HARD), Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS), even Drew Barrymore if you look close enough. Unlike WAXWORK, which Vestron released to theaters, WAXWORK II went directly to VHS in 1992.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Better late than never, many BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you. I’m not so sure. The sequel to the 1982 film, which was mostly ignored upon its initial release, but has since become both a cult favorite and an influence on many science fiction filmmakers, is set thirty years later and brings back Harrison Ford, this time in a supporting role, as blade runner and replicant (?) Rick Deckard. If you like your sequels slow, dull, and longer than the origina, jump in with both feet. The screenplay by BLADE RUNNER’s Hampton Fancher and franchise newcomer Michael Green (GREEN LANTERN) starts as a typical but potentially intriguing murder mystery, then gives up on that approach to become a turgid retread of themes from the first movie.

Ryan Gosling (LA LA LAND) stars as K, who definitely is both a blade runner and a replicant. While “retiring” an older model replicant (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Dave Bautista in a cameo), K discovers what appear to be human bones buried in the yard. The 30-year-old remains are discovered to belong to a replicant that has given birth, something seemingly thought impossible. K’s boss (Robin Wright, following WONDER WOMAN with another curt authority figure) orders him to find the child (who would now be 30 years old) and kill it, as its discovery would destroy world balance (debatable, and anyway, a decision probably over Wright’s pay grade).

K’s path eventually leads to Deckard, now a grizzled old guy (which one would think would throw cold water over any “Deckard is a replicant” theories) hiding out in Las Vegas from goons hired by eccentric jillionaire Niander Wallace (terrible work by SUICIDE SQUAD’s Jared Leto), who somehow has a profitable replicant-building business and a 200-story office building despite having only two employees. One is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Sofia Boutella), a kung fu assassin assigned to find Deckard and bring him to Wallace’s compound (which she easily does through K’s stupidity).

A more interesting female character is Joi (Ana de Armas as Alicia Vikander), K’s sex hologram. It’s interesting that BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most human relationship is between replicant K and holographic Joi, and their scenes are the film’s best (and the only ones in which Gosling seems interested). Mostly though, this 164-minute slog by director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL) is a jumble of plot holes, plot contrivances (what’s the deal with the one-eyed replicant resistance leader?), circular dialogue, and smoke and mirrors storytelling that adds up to very little.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford stars as a “blade runner” named Rick Deckard in this influential science fiction film. Dramatically, this futuristic detective drama penned by Hampton Fancher (THE MIGHTY QUINN) and David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN) is a fizzle with simple plotting, slow pacing, and noticeable plot holes (the most notable being the number of prey assigned to Deckard to capture).

Visually, however, BLADE RUNNER inspired scores of films and television shows, thanks to the dreamy photography of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) and the grimy, lived-in Los Angeles of 2019 designed by Syd Mead and Oscar nominee Lawrence G. Paull (ROMANCING THE STONE). The Asian influence in Paull’s neon cityscape makes sense in a 1982 context, when we were afraid the Japanese were taking over the world, and BLADE RUNNER’s world of overpopulation and flying cars is fascinating and rich in detail (the film’s other Academy Award nomination was for its visual effects). If only it had a story and performances to match.

Ford, who made BLADE RUNNER between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, seems bored as Deckard, who is a detective assigned to track down and destroy renegade androids (called “replicants”) led by the nasty Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, good in a star-making performance). Running neck-and-neck with Ford in the somnambulism department is Sean Young (NO WAY OUT) as another replicant, Rachael, who not only attracts Deckard, but also inspires him to think deeply about his job and the definition of “human.” Director Ridley Scott (ALIEN) puts together a few memorable action scenes, including a clever fight between Deckard and an acrobatic pleasure model played by Daryl Hannah (KILL BILL) and a rainy fight-filled climax carried by Hauer’s charismatic turn.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, BLADE RUNNER’s reputation as a narrative mess is justified by the number of times it has been recut and re-released in various forms. At least five different cuts of BLADE RUNNER exist or have existed, including Scott’s “Director’s Cut” and Scott’s “Final Cut.” This review is based on the “Final Cut,” which — among other alterations — removes Ford’s droning Marlowe-style narration, which the actor reportedly hated and deliberately torpedoed during recording. It received a brief 2007 theatrical release and contains violence seen previously in overseas releases, but not in the U.S.

The 1982 theatrical release by Warner Brothers was unsuccessful with critics and the public. It opened the same weekend as THE THING and MEGAFORCE — two major bombs — and just behind E.T. in its third week atop the box office. BLADE RUNNER was out of the top ten three weeks later at a time when films sometimes stayed in theaters for months. BLADE RUNNER 2049 followed in 2017 with Ford reprising Deckard in support of Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) as a blade runner named K.

P.S. Deckard is not a replicant.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Great TV Episodes: 5

77 SUNSET STRIP
"5"
September 20 - October 18, 1963
ABC
Writer: Harry Essex
Producer and Director: William Conrad

77 SUNSET STRIP was one of television's most influential drama series of the late 1950s. Based loosely on the 1947 novel THE DOUBLE TAKE by Roy Huggins and the film GIRL ON THE RUN, written by Marion Hargrove (MAVERICK) and directed by Richard L. Bare (GREEN ACRES) from Huggins' story, 77 SUNSET STRIP was the first and likely the best of Warner Brothers' formula private eye shows for ABC.

Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (later Special Agent Lew Erskine for nine seasons on THE FBI) as Stu Bailey and Roger Smith (young Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) as Jeff Spencer, 77 SUNSET STRIP was set - duh - along Los Angeles' fabulous Sunset Boulevard. Working of a posh office at Number 77, Bailey and Spencer solved a number of way-out cases, sometimes with the aid of Kookie, the hip parking attendant working at Dean Martin's nightclub next door. Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, quickly became the show's breakout star and eventually joined Bailey and Smith as a full-fledged private eye.

The series was a smash hit, and ABC and Warner Brothers copied it ad nauseum. HAWAIIAN EYE starred Robert Conrad and Anthony Eisley in Hawaii, BOURBON STREET BEAT starred Richard Long and Andrew Duggan in New Orleans, SURFSIDE 6 starred Troy Donahue and Van Williams in Miami. Of course, none of these shows ever left the Warners backlot. And not all of the copies were private eye shows. THE ALASKANS with Roger Moore and Jeff York was set in Alaska during the 1890 gold rush. They all were basically the same show, to the point where scripts shot for, say, 77 SUNSET STRIP were recycled for another show two or three years later. Just erase the names "Stu" and "Jeff" and type in, say, "Sandy" and "Ken", and you have a "new" SURFSIDE 6 episode.

Ratings eventually waned until 77 was the only show left. To give its sixth season a kickstart, Warners gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (DRAGNET) and William Conrad (KLONDIKE, which was NBC's ripoff of THE ALASKANS) made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn't work -- the series was cancelled after 20 episodes -- it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm.

To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and I, THE JURY) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was "5," which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, "5" yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.

"5" opens arrestingly enough with a man dressed as the Devil run down by a car on a wet New York street. The man's brother, an antiquities dealer played by Burgess Meredith (BATMAN's Penguin), hires Bailey to right his sibling's wrongs. With police detective Richard Conte (OCEAN'S 11) working to solve the murder, Bailey's assignment is to take the dead brother's $9000 and "buy Andy's way into heaven" by making amends to those he has wronged over the years.

Essex's dialogue is tough and terse. Zimbalist narrates in first person like Phillip Marlowe. His path takes him to several of Andy's acquaintances, including storekeeper Ed Wynn (MARY POPPINS); finicky landlord Wally Cox (MR. PEEPERS); priest Herbert Marshall (THE FLY), who died a few months later; estranged wife Patricia Rainier (THE DAREDEVIL); angry stable boy William Shatner (STAR TREK); dancer Gene Nelson (OKLAHOMA!); poet Victor Buono (BATMAN's King Tut); and gypsy Peter Lorre (THE RAVEN). Zimbalist does a nice job playing annoyance around all these eccentrics. Even though Huggins was no longer involved with 77, Zimbalist's Bailey has a bit of James Garner's Jim Rockford in him (Huggins co-created THE ROCKFORD FILES with Stephen J. Cannell).

Eventually, Bailey strikes up a friendship with the mysterious blonde who has been following him around (played by THE MINI-SKIRT MOB's Diane McBain), Rainier is found murdered, and Conte puts Bailey on the hook for it. Essex's plot becomes sprawling from here, sending Bailey to Italy, the Netherlands (where he meets with monk Telly Savalas), Paris, and finally Tel Aviv before ending his quest back where he started in the Big Apple.

Conrad goes in for a lot of tight closeups, which is likely a Webb influence. In fact, each episode opens in an arresting fashion with each of that week's guest stars introducing themselves to the audience in tight closeup. Essex hasn't quite enough story for five parts, so Conrad pads "The Conclusion" with Bailey flashing back to various plot points.

As enormously popular as 77 SUNSET STRIP was in its heyday, nothing lasts forever. Webb and Conrad's experiment was a flop with viewers, and ABC cancelled the series before it could finish its sixth season. Everyone made out okay though. Webb brought DRAGNET back to weekly television a few years later, Conrad produced and directed films and starred in CANNON for five seasons, and Zimbalist launched a nine-season run on ABC's THE FBI in 1965.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Gerald's Game

Mike Flanagan, whose thrillers include the ambitious but mediocre OCULUS and the suspenseful HUSH, directed this straight-to-Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s novel GERALD’S GAME. Exceedingly well cast with Carla Gugino (WATCHMEN) and Bruce Greenwood (THIRTEEN DAYS) atop the bill, Flanagan’s film manages to maintain suspense most of the way, despite the inherent “unfilmability” of King’s story.

An attractive, well-to-do married couple go to their isolated country home for a romantic weekend. The marriage hasn’t been going great, and maybe they can rekindle something. After an expensive dinner, he pops a blue pill, she pops on a brand-new nightie, and they experiment with a sex game involving handcuffs and a rape fantasy. It doesn’t go well. He has a fatal heart attack, and she is left alone, handcuffed to the bed, no phone within reach.

A tour-de-force for Gugino in a role that demands a terrific actress to pull off, GERALD’S GAME is a sharp study of upper-class madness and guilt. Left alone, vulnerable, awaiting a slow death, Gugino’s character, Jessie, confronts her own troubled history via hallucinations in which she speaks not only to her husband Gerald (Greenwood), but also her own unbound double.

Greenwood is up to the task of keeping up with Gugino, and the housebound drama finds room for E.T.’s Henry Thomas and HUSH’s Kate Siegel as Gugino’s parents in flashbacks, as well as Carel Struycken — Lurch in the 1990s ADDAMS FAMILY movies — as...ah, but that would be telling. Flanagan favors long takes and a natural soundscape to heighten the verisimilitude of the scenes, though the score by the Newton Brothers is effective when heard.

Unfortunately, Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL) can’t sustain the high quality for the full 103 minutes. By remaining faithful to King’s novel, the filmmakers retain the author’s ending, which is at odds with the sophisticated psychological drama leading up to it. It’s unfortunate that Flanagan, who began thinking about making GERALD’S GAME since reading the book as a teenager, was too blind to recognize King’s anti-climax. A serious misstep, for sure, and not helped by the unconvincing makeup effects, but the previous 90 minutes are so strong that the drama earns a place in the upper echelon of films adapted from King properties.

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 publisher 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).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

I Know What You Did Last Summer

The solid success of SCREAM, a teen slasher picture that changed the way audiences looked at slasher pictures, led to a long line of copycats. Most were like I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER in that their creators believed SCREAM’s success had less to do with wit and originality than with casting pretty young actors from television and splashing around stage blood.

Columbia’s attempt to turn the Gorton’s fish stick man into a horror icon like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees boasted a screenplay by SCREAM’s Kevin Williamson, based on a Lois Duncan novel read by many kids in the 1970s, an attractive cast, and an arresting premise. Less successful in the acting and plotting categories, nevertheless, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER was a big hit, premiering at #1 at the box office and hanging there for three weeks.

July Fourth weekend in a seashore community. Teenage couples Jennifer Love Hewitt (THE TUXEDO) and Freddie Prinze Jr. (SHE’S ALL THAT) and Sarah Michelle Gellar (in SCREAM 2 the same year) and Ryan Phillippe (CRUEL INTENTIONS) are partying and romancing ahead of going their separate ways to college in the fall. On a curved road at night, they accidentally run over a man with their car. Believing him dead and afraid to report the accident to authorities, they dump the body in the ocean and swear never to speak of the incident again.

One year later, Hewitt receives a mysterious note in the mail: “I know what you did last summer.” Did the victim come back to exact vengeance? Was there a hidden witness to the accident? Or is the note’s author actually one of the group? Williamson’s handling of the mystery isn’t bad, as he sets up a line of red herrings, including Johnny Galecki (THE BIG BANG THEORY) as a nerd with a crush on Hewitt. The main characters and the actors playing them are vapid and unbelievable, but director Jim Gillespie (EYE SEE YOU) delivers some good shocks, and the photography by Denis Crossan (JOYRIDE) and score by John Debney (SPY KIDS) are aces.

Even though the story didn’t seem to have anywhere to go at film’s end, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER spawned a 1999 sequel, I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (natch), starring Hewitt and Prinze, as well as the 2006 DTV I’LL ALWAYS KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, which has nothing to do with the previous films. It can safely be ignored.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Howling II...Your Sister Is a Werewolf

Many films are bad, but few are as notoriously bad as HOWLING II...YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. From its dumb title to its dubious connection to the original (excellent) film to the famous closing credits that repeat Sybil Danning’s topless scene 17 times (!), HOWLING II is rightfully reviled for reasons that have little to do with the story, special effects, or acting, which are bad. It claims to be based on Gary Brander’s novel HOWLING II, but even though Brandner (who also wrote the novel THE HOWLING was based on) shares a screenplay credit with Robert Sarno (DECOY), it really has nothing to do with the book (nor did THE HOWLING).

Filmed primarily in Prague and Los Angeles, HOWLING II stars Christopher Lee from Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies as an investigator of the occult who appears at the funeral of L.A. television journalist Karen White, the character played by Dee Wallace in THE HOWLING. Lee tells Karen’s brother, played by former Captain America Reb Brown (who screams a lot — his trademark), and Karen’s colleague, Annie McEnroe (BEETLEJUICE), that the dead woman (Wallace did not reprise her role) is a werewolf. They tell Lee to go pound sand.

Eventually, they come around, though, and accompany Lee to Transylvania to help him take out a voluptuous 10,000-year-old werewolf queen named Stirba. Stirba is played by a game Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), who spends much of the film covered in fur, including a ridiculous three-way werewolf sex scene that has to be seen to be believed. Though he, of course, is not involved in the sex scene, Lee’s casting is of immense importance to HOWLING II, because he brings such a stern countenance and gravitas to the film that you believe he believes it.

The werewolves’ powers are poorly defined, like maybe director Philippe Mora (THE BEAST WITHIN) never heard of werewolves before. Danning can shoot animated rays from her fingertips that cause a man’s eyes to explode out of his head. Which is pretty sweet, but doesn’t belong in this movie. And it’s hardly the strangest thing to happen in HOWLING II, which plays like Mora throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

Little of it does, though nobody can argue that HOWLING II is boring. Certainly not a case to be made against a film where someone throws a midget through a window and impales him on an iron fence, and it — again — is not the weirdest thing that happens. Maybe it’s the ending where McEnroe and Brown ask a priest who looks like Neil Simon to come over for a drink.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Deadly Takeover aka Deadly Outbreak

One of many DIE HARD-influenced thrillers to flood the direct-to-video market during the 1990s, DEADLY TAKEOVER (also seen in some markets as DEADLY OUTBREAK) is a strong showcase for Jeff Speakman.

The kenpo expert dropped down to DTV after his two theatrical vehicles, THE PERFECT WEAPON and STREET KNIGHT, failed to light a spark under action audiences. He made THE EXPERT and this back to back for stuntman-turned-director Rick Avery, and there’s no doubt DEADLY TAKEOVER is the superior.

Terrorists led by calm-but-dangerous Ron Silver (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) invade a scientific facility in Tel Aviv, massacre everyone, and demand a canister of deadly toxin they can ransom for half a billion bucks. Unfortunately for Silver, the only survivors — scientist Rochelle Swanson (who receives a special Introducing credit, even though she had already appeared in several films like INDECENT BEHAVIOR II and SECRET GAMES 3), nerdy security man Idan Alterman, and U.S. embassy guard Speakman — have the canister. Now it’s DIE HARD with Speakman crawling around, picking off Silver’s men one at a time and talking smack to their boss over a stolen walkie-talkie.

Derivative for sure, but DEADLY TAKEOVER is also entertaining for unassuming action fans who enjoy humor with their broken glass, car explosions, gun battles, and kung fu. There’s also a lengthy car chase inside a building, which you don’t see every day. Speakman is pretty quick with a quip while dispatching the bad guys (“Your party stinks,” he tells Silver. “Not enough ice cream and way too many clowns.”), and would you believe Avery recycles GET SMART’s old “You’re leaning on my chest” gag? He also has a weird obsession with violence against testicles. After directing two 1995 releases, Avery went back to stunts on A-level films like THE DARK KNIGHT and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Great TV Episodes: One Riot, One Ranger

WALKER, TEXAS RANGER
"One Riot, One Ranger"
April 21, 1993
CBS
Writer: Leigh Chapman (as Louise McCarn)
Director: Virgil W. Vogel

Leigh Chapman, the former actress who penned several television episodes and films, including THE OCTAGON for Chuck Norris, wrote the pilot episode of Norris’ first series. A massive CBS hit for nine seasons, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER got off to an uneasy start. The studio, Cannon, went bankrupt after only three episodes had been completed, so CBS had to bankroll the series beginning with its second season.

The two-hour pilot effectively sets the premise, presenting Norris as Cordell Walker, a taciturn half-Native American and Texas Ranger who investigates a series of fatal bank robberies being masterminded by former CIA agent Marshall Teague (ROAD HOUSE). After his partner is killed during one of the robberies, Walker is reluctantly teamed with Clarence Gilyard Jr. (MATLOCK), a young college-educated Ranger who prefers to look before he leaps. In his off-hours, Norris protects a teenage circus performer who is being harassed by the three rednecks who raped her, which allows Chapman to awkwardly lay out Walker’s backstory. Turns out Walker, Texas Ranger and Batman have the same origin.

Credit veteran director Virgil W. Vogel (THE MOLE PEOPLE) for keeping the action moving quickly. With extra time and money lavished on a pilot, Vogel uses Dutch angles and slick camera moves to complement the many fights, chases, and shootouts, ensuring the series’ standing as one of network television’s most violent at the time. Vogel must have relished filming around Dallas-Fort Worth, which had not been seen much on television (DALLAS filmed in Los Angeles).

Sheree J. Wilson (FRATERNITY VACATION) plays beautiful Assistant D.A. Alex Cahill, Walker’s love interest (and eventual wife at the end of Season Eight); Floyd Red Crow Westerman (HIDALGO) is Walker’s Indian uncle Ray; and Gailard Sartain (HEE HAW) plays retired Ranger C.D. Barnes (he was replaced in the series by the older Noble Willingham). Teague played the heavy in six different WALKER episodes, including the 201st and final one in 2001. Released on VHS as ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977)

The second of three (to date) adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel about man messing around in God’s domain by scientifically changing animals into humans. First done as the horrific ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1932 and later as the troubled THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1996, this 1977 AIP film is better than its reputation. It isn’t scary, however, and the special makeup effects by John Chambers, Dan Striepeke, and Tom Burman are less believable than their landmark work on the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN) stars as Andrew Braddock, a sailor who is shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific. Living there is the mad Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), who experiments on animals while attempting to learn about heredity and find new methods of curing disease. Those experiments have resulted in his test animals mutating into creatures similar to humans that can think like humans. Richard Basehart (RAGE) stands out as their leader, the role played by Bela Lugosi in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

Braddock is, of course, horrified. When he protests too much, Moreau captures him and reverses his procedure in an attempt to regress Braddock into a savage. Braddock has also fallen in love with Moreau’s beautiful ward Maria (I, THE JURY femme fatale Barbara Carrera), who knows only life on the island. Carrera is vapid, but the Nicaraguan-born actress is gorgeous with an exotic look, which makes her perfect for her role as written by the GOIN’ SOUTH team of Al Ramrus and John Herman Shaner. York is quite good and sells the transformation scenes. Lancaster basically coasts on pure movie star charisma, and Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) is wasted as Moreau’s guilt-ridden assistant Montgomery.

Some of the editing is abrupt, perhaps signalling last-minute cutting by AIP. It is unclear in the final film whether Maria is one of Moreau’s test subjects. Of course, she originally was, but the shots that established it were removed before the film’s release by a studio nervous about any hints of bestiality. The excellent score by Laurence Rosenthal (ROOSTER COGBURN) uses strident strings and brass to create a soundscape reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s work on PLANET OF THE APES. Don Taylor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) directed the film in the Virgin Islands, but not particularly well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Foxy Brown

COFFY was a massive hit, so AIP quickly signed writer/director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) and star Pam Grier (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) to make a quasi-sequel. An excellent showcase for Grier’s talents, FOXY BROWN allows her to show off a sensitive side, primarily in scenes with Antonio Fargas (CLEOPATRA JONES) as her turncoat brother, as well as be strong and kick ass.

The erudite Hill may not have preferred working in exploitation, but he made this type of low-budget action movie as well as just about any director in the 1970s. He certainly deserves credit for developing Grier’s sassy screen persona (the two worked together four times, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE in the Philippines).

Kicking off with opening titles sending up the Bond movies, with a leather-clad, cleavage-baring Grier bumping and grinding along with Willie Hutch’s theme song, FOXY BROWN proves to be a slicker, sleazier picture than COFFY. Grier’s Foxy Brown is a tough, sexy, aggressive, independent, and intelligent woman set on revenge after kinky druglords, played by Peter Brown (RAPE SQUAD) and Kathryn Loder (the warden in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), murder her government agent boyfriend (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Terry Carter).

Highlights include a guy getting sliced up by an airplane propeller, Foxy and Juanita Brown (CAGED HEAT) smashing up a lesbian bar (“I got a black belt in bar stools!”), Foxy—while undercover as a prostitute—humiliating a crooked old white judge (Harry Holcombe), Sid Haig’s memorable cameo as a womanizing “airplane driver,” and the “pickle-jar” denouement, a typical example of Hill’s black humor. Hill even provides an extraneous fight scene just to give Bob Minor and his team of black stuntmen a chance to show off.

Loder, a New York stage actress who appeared in only three films, is terrible, but her strange acting style somehow suits Hill’s brash tone. Brown, formerly a regular with William Smith and Neville Brand on LAREDO, bounced between television guest heavies and exploitation films during the 1970s. Grier starred in more AIP movies before deservedly moving into the mainstream, including a guest shot on THE LOVE BOAT. Motown released Hutch’s score as a soundtrack album.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Cherry Falls

Despite a clever premise for a slasher movie, CHERRY FALLS never found a proper audience in the United States. Forced to endure severe cuts to receive an R rating from the MPAA, the film by director Geoffrey Wright (ROMPER STOMPER) bypassed theatrical distribution and made its American debut on — of all places — the USA cable channel. When it first hit DVD, it was on a double-feature disc with a John Ritter TV-movie called TERROR TRACT. A neat little thriller, CHERRY FALLS deserved better treatment, which it finally received as a Scream Factory Blu-ray in 2016.

Written by Ken Selden (WHITE LIES), CHERRY FALLS is set in picturesque Cherry Falls, Virginia, where someone is murdering teenagers. Well, not just any teenagers, just the virgins. To escape the killer’s wrath, the local high school students organize a sex party at an abandoned mansion to get everybody laid.

Meanwhile, one of the virgins, played by Brittany Murphy (CLUELESS), plays amateur sleuth after a close call with the serial killer, thanks to a large plastic shark in the chem lab. By combing through clues and winnowing away the red herrings, she discovers a shocking secret about her father, the local sheriff (THE TERMINATOR’s Michael Biehn), that may solve the mystery.

An interesting spin on the teenage “have sex and die” horror movies then popular in the wake of SCREAM’s massive success, CHERRY FALLS chugs along with clever direction and a game cast that prevent the lurid concept from coming across as tasteless. However, the cuts demanded by the MPAA including the nudity, as well as a gruesome murder seen in the existing picture only in subliminal flash cuts after the fact, remove much of the film’s guts. The film also suffers from a couple of egregious plot holes.

Still, CHERRY FALLS gets a lot of mileage out of the satire in Selden’s screenplay, Murphy’s eccentric turn as Nancy Drew, and Biehn, whose experience playing both heroes and heavies enhances his performance. Although censorship struggles kept Wright’s film out of American theaters, it did play successfully overseas. Wright landed the gig after David Lynch (THE ELEPHANT MAN) and George Armitage (GROSSE POINTE BLANK) turned it down (the studio wanted an arthouse director), but falling behind schedule and over budget and fighting with his cast and cinematographer (DON’T LOOK NOW’s Anthony Richmond, who did a fine job) didn’t endear him to the producers.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Gator

Burt Reynolds, at the time Hollywood’s most popular leading man, picked a safe project for his directing debut. GATOR was the sequel to WHITE LIGHTNING, a United Artists hit that introduced the character of fast-drivin’ good-ol’-boy moonshiner Gator McKlusky, who went undercover with the feds to bust corrupt sheriff Ned Beatty. In the GATOR screenplay once again penned by William W. Norton (BRANNIGAN), McKlusky has a crotchety old pap (John Steadman) and a precocious daughter (Lori Futch), which were meant to humanize his character, but instead make him softer.

Once again, Gator goes undercover to bust a Southern fried bad guy. This time, it’s his old school chum Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a crime boss who forces teenage girls into prostitution and burns down businesses that won’t pay protection. Reed, a country western musician known for crossover hits “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Amos Moses,” is surprisingly chilling as McCall, though later roles would lean on his natural upbeat cornpone charm.

GATOR’s tonal swings from dark violence to slapstick humor are difficult to catch up with, and the film’s length and flabby story make the sequel decidedly inferior to WHITE LIGHTNING. Reynolds has an eye for interesting visuals, despite an unfortunate infatuation with the zoom lens. He went on to direct THE END and SHARKY’S MACHINE, which exhibit more confidence.

The casting of Philadelphia talk show Mike Douglas as an ambitious governor is an interesting gamble that pays off. Jack Weston (THE FOUR SEASONS) is too silly as the federal agent who recruits Gator. Lauren Hutton is a television journalist who romances Gator in a relationship that is pure hokum. GATOR’s best relationship is between Burt and Hal Needham, the stunt coordinator who helped stage the opening speedboat chase (and came within a foot or so of being smushed by a jumping car). Charles Bernstein returns from WHITE LIGHTNING to compose an original score. Reed wrote and performed the cool theme song, “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

White Lightning (1973)

“If you haven’t seen WHITE LIGHTNING, then you haven’t seen Burt Reynolds” cried the one-sheet for this entertaining action flick, which stars Reynolds as Arkansas moonshiner Gator McKlusky. Burt was on his way to becoming the biggest movie star in the U.S. after a decade and a half of TV westerns and cop shows, low-budget and little-seen potboilers, and even an Italian western, NAVAJO JOE, which failed to turn him into the next Clint Eastwood. It was DELIVERANCE, the terrifying adaptation of James Dickey’s best-seller, that turned Reynolds’ career around, and WHITE LIGHTNING was one of his first starring vehicles in its aftermath.

McKlusky, serving a five-year sentence for illegally transporting untaxed whiskey across state lines, is stunned to learn of the death of his younger brother Donnie, to whom Gator wasn’t especially close. Donnie was the first McKlusky to attend college, where he became involved in the protest scene, growing his hair and speaking out against government corruption. Unfortunately, he chose to protest in “the worst county in the world,” redneck Bogen County, Arkansas, which is run by the seemingly benign but actually iron-fisted Sheriff J.C. Connors (Burt’s DELIVERANCE costar Beatty), who has been taking kickbacks from moonshiners for years.

After an escape attempt fails, McKlusky agrees to work undercover for the federal government, getting a job running “shine” while taking notes on the “who’s,” “when’s,” and “where’s” of the illegal whiskey business—a mission that meets with great disapproval from Gator’s own parents, but the only way to bring Connors down. With the help of his outside contact Dude (Matt Clark), a reluctant ally whose broken probation forces him to aid McKlusky, Gator joins up with runner Roy (Bo Hopkins), whose sexy girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) takes a “shine” to the charismatic ex-con.

WHITE LIGHTNING is an excellent showcase for Reynolds. Not only does he get to take off his shirt and squeal tires like a good action star should, but he also shows he’s not just a pretty face with considerable charisma. In particular, a scene in which he eavesdrops on the conversation of a group of starry-eyed college students while internally reflecting on his relationship with his late brother, and another in which he learns the truth behind his brother’s death from a teen mother prove Reynolds’ mettle and the script’s surprising complexity.

The fine screenplay by William Norton (BIG BAD MAMA) is a hearty mix of car chases (executed by stunt coordinator Hal Needham), Gothic atmosphere, filial conflict, and even some social commentary. Director Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) keeps the story moving along at a steady pace, pulling every drop of Southern fried ambiance out of the appropriately grimy locations and assembling a top-notch supporting cast. Sargent also decided wisely to leave in the picture a Needham car stunt that didn’t go quite as planned.

Reynolds’ DELIVERANCE co-star Ned Beatty is too young to play a character who has been the sheriff of Bogen County since Matt Clark was a boy, but he also displays the perfect mix of old-fashioned manners and icy foreboding that makes Connors more than a Clifton James caricature. One can hardly go wrong with Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH) as a violent nut, and Diane Ladd (RAMBLING ROSE) pops up in a scene with daughter Laura Dern (WILD AT HEART). Quentin Tarantino repurposed segments of Charles Bernstein’s excellent score in KILL BILL and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Three years after WHITE LIGHTNING made a mint for United Artists, Reynolds made his directing debut on GATOR, the inferior sequel.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Two Evil Eyes

Originally intended as an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by horror legends George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN), TWO EVIL EYES is a 120-minute film featuring two hour-long stories by Romero and Argento only. To maintain a semblance of continuity, both segments were shot in Pittsburgh using much of the same crew, though considering the Poe tribute that opens the film, it would seem more appropriate to have made it in Baltimore.

In Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” Adrienne Barbeau — who worked previously with Carpenter (THE FOG), Craven (SWAMP THING), and Romero (CREEPSHOW) — stars as Jessica Valdemar, a bitchy trophy wife ready for her elderly husband to finally die so she can cash in. The wealthy Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) is being manipulated hypnotically by Jessica’s former lover, physician Dr. Hoffman (DARK JUSTICE vigilante Ramy Zada), into signing papers transferring his fortune to her. A ghost story of sorts, the segment turns supernatural when the old man’s soul begins haunting his scheming wife from some sort of limbo. E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS) plays Valdemar’s suspicious attorney. Romero’s anachronistic insistence upon the male characters wearing hats is an oddball choice.

Harvey Keitel (BAD LIEUTENANT) plays Rod Usher (!) in Argento’s “The Black Cat,” which is actually an amalgam of several Poe stories. Death-obsessed beret-sporting crime photographer Usher keeps killing things — cats, young women — and hiding them behind the wall in the closet. No amount of bricks can block the mysterious pounding and cat meows that haunt Usher all day and night. John Amos (DIE HARD 2) plays a cop named Legrand (taken from “The Gold Bug”) investigating the disappearance of Usher’s girlfriend (Madeleine Potter). Martin Balsam (PSYCHO) and Kim Hunter (PLANET OF THE APES) play suspicious neighbors.

Argento’s segment is the more stylish, driven by the director’s characteristic gonzo visual style, but also the duller of the two stories. Strangely, Keitel’s performance is a deadly contrast to Argento’s high-energy camera movements and Pino Donaggio’s glitzy score. He never seems to be into the material, and because he begins the story as an angry jerk, his character arc goes from A to B, rather than A to Z. Barbeau gives TWO EVIL EYES’ best performance in a role benefitting from scripter Romero’s multi-layered lead character. Frankly, neither story is particularly scary, with “Valdemar” tame in the violence and gore departments.

Even though TWO EVIL EYES was the only new horror film opening Halloween weekend of 1991, Taurus Entertainment had cold feet, distributing the film to just a handful of American theaters. Even Cannon’s wheezy Chuck Norris actioner THE HITMAN did better per-screen business than this horror film by two of the genre’s giants.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Hellhole

This sleazy cross between a slasher flick and a women-in-prison shocker should be more entertaining than it actually is, especially considering the screenplay is by CHAINED HEAT’s Aaron Butler. HELLHOLE has naked catfighting in the shower room; mad scientists performing illegal brain surgeries; a dungeon; nude women making out; Coleman-lantern-jawed Robert Z’Dar (MANIAC COP) sniffing poppers; and a ridiculous, out-of-control Ray Sharkey performance competing with a cast of actors with impeccable trash-movie resumes. But with a second writer credited with “additional story and new dialogue” and a third writer with “additional dialogue,” as well as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE cutter Bill Butler brought in as an “editorial consultant,” it’s likely HELLHOLE was indelicately cobbled together by too many cooks.

An obviously high Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER), who wears three different hair styles in his first three scenes, takes bad-acting honors as Silk, a sleazebag who kills a middle-aged woman and coerces her buxom daughter Susan (‘80s TV’s resident dumb blonde Judy Landers) off a ledge. The fall doesn’t kill her, which is good, but it turns her into an amnesiac, which is bad. Bad for Silk, because his boss Monroe (Martin Beck) wants some McGuffin papers Susan and her mother had hidden away. Monroe pulls strings to get Susan tossed into his private sanitarium for women.

Meanwhile, in what seems like a separate movie, suspicious orderly Ron Stevens (Richard Cox) snoops around “Hellhole,” where violent inmates are taken to be experimented on by gay necro Dr. Fletcher (DEATH RACE 2000’s Mary Woronov) and sexually repressed Dr. Dane (VIVA KNIEVEL’s Marjoe Gortner). These actors at least know how to spice up material that lays flat on the page, which is more than one can say for airhead Landers. Completely empty everywhere except inside her bra, Landers is a woeful heroine stuck inside a woeful story steered by woeful director Pierre de Moro (SAVANNAH SMILES).

While the prudish Landers stays clothed throughout, Russ Meyer’s ex Edy Williams (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), then in her forties, leads the parade of actresses willing to pop their tops (and bottoms) for a prestige product like HELLHOLE. Director de Moro also landed ILSA star Dyanne Thorne, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s Terry Moore, FROGS’ Lynn Borden, and SAVAGE STREETS’ Carole Ita White to add street cred to his sleaze flick. He was unable to rein in Sharkey, however, who plays the world’s most inept henchman. It’s no wonder he never found those papers.

If HELLHOLE holds any significance (dubious), it’s as the final feature film from executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, who released it to theaters under his Arkoff International Pictures banner. The legendary studio head formed American International Pictures with James Nicholson in the 1950s and made it one of Hollywood’s most successful independent companies before selling out to Filmways in 1979.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Last Of The Finest

In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal came this cops-and-robbers thriller that attempted to draw the audience’s attention to the corruption and double-dealing that infects our national government. Directed by Scotsman John Mackenzie, whose THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is one of the great political crime dramas, THE LAST OF THE FINEST is enjoyable as a typical bang-bang action movie, but the extra subtext and social commentary give the film zest for more discerning audiences to mull over.

Tough Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD) leads an elite unit of Los Angeles cops on the edge who don’t always go by the book, but get results. You know the type: goofy Bill Paxton (ALIENS), sensitive Jeff Fahey (THE LAWNMOWER MAN), and egghead Joe Pantoliano (MIDNIGHT RUN). The night of a big drug bust, Dennehy’s boss (HARRY O’s old foil Henry Darrow, an expert in projecting both malevolence and benevolence) orders the team to wait for backup, warrants, and probable cause, but that’s for pantywaists. The bust goes bad — drug lord Michael C. Gwynne (THE TERMINAL MAN) torches the evidence during the shootout — and a later clash with Gwynne’s hired killer results in the death of one of Dennehy’s cops. Before the LAPD brass can suspend Dennehy, he quits the force and his loyal colleagues follow suit.

Only pantywaists stop investigating when they lose their badges, so Dennehy and his boys go after Gwynne and his “legitimate businessman” boss Guy Boyd (BODY DOUBLE) on their own time. Not only do they have to keep a major drug investigation hidden from the LAPD, FBI, and DEA, they also become targets after ripping off $22 million of Boyd’s blood money.

Though Fahey is miscast as a Latino, he, Pantoliano, and Paxton share a good chemistry and work well under Dennehy’s leadership. Mackenzie and his writers, including Roger Corman alumnus George Armitage (DARKTOWN STRUTTERS), hammer the political angle too sharply, but the actors sell it. The action scenes and stunts are also sharply portrayed. Originally titled STREET LEGAL and POINT OF IMPACT, THE LAST OF THE FINEST received a halfassed release from Orion in March 1990, when it opened in 14th place.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Crime Zone

Luis Llosa is perhaps Roger Corman’s least talked-about “find.” The Peruvian filmmaker followed this Concorde theatrical release to Hollywood, where he directed SNIPER, THE SPECIALIST, and ANACONDA with major stars.

Corman produced this cheap sci-fi action movie in Lima with top-billed David Carradine, who appears to have put more thought into his performance than he usually did at this point in his exploitation-movie career. The real stars, though, are Peter Nelson, formerly on THE PAPER CHASE, and Sherilyn Fenn (TWO MOON JUNCTION), who landed the role of Audrey Horne on TWIN PEAKS not long after CRIME ZONE opened in theaters. I’m guessing David Lynch wasn’t there opening night.

In the oppressive future, martial law has made major crimes almost extinct. It goes without saying that the government’s totalitarian reign has also mostly wiped out freedom and joy for the 99%. So much so that ex-cop Bone (Nelson) and hooker Helen (Fenn) want to escape to a legendary city where rule is more democratic. Shady Jason (Carradine) offers them the chance to join the 1%, but only if they perform a series of robberies for him first. Jason turns out to have a hidden motive for his recruitment of the two lovers, but it’s doubtful you’ll wait around long enough to discover what it is. It’s dumb anyway.

Murkily lensed by Cusi Barrio (HEROES STAND ALONE), CRIME ZONE is hard to see and hard to sit through, jammed with limited actors emoting on cheap sets. Corman produced it in Peru to take advantage of favorable exchange rates, not the exotic locations. Even the exterior scenes are shot on dark soundstages blandly decorated in smoke and neon. Scripter Daryl Haney (LORDS OF THE DEEP), who was both starring in and writing films for Concorde, created a dystopian world with few consistent rules, which makes it hard to care about what happens to the people who live in it.

On that note, the actors also make it difficult to care about their characters. Carradine is cagey and interesting, but Nelson is a boring dunce, Fenn is fiery but unlikable (though striking as a blonde), and Michael Shaner as Bone’s best pal is the same obnoxious dolt he was in other Corman features. Llosa directed three films for Corman and produced several others before getting his big break on SNIPER. He later returned to producing television shows in Peru.

CRIME ZONE stinks, but anyone who is drawn to see it because of its amazing poster gets a free pass from me.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

If the business plan was to deliver something longer, louder, and more violent than JOHN WICK, mission accomplished. And — surprise of surprises — CHAPTER 2 is better than JOHN WICK too.

After a stylishly violent prologue of retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves, so immobile he makes Bruce Willis look like Danny Kaye) retrieving his stolen muscle car from cartoonish Russian mobster Tarasov (cartoonish Swedish character actor Peter Stormare), director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad — both returning from JOHN WICK — get down to business.

Wick is drawn back into the assassination game by an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who needs John to whack his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). After initially refusing — and seeing his house destroyed — Wick takes the assignment, which leads to an Italian version of the assassin-friendly Continental hotel (run by Franco Nero!), a double cross, and a Dick Tracy rogue’s gallery of colorful killers riding Wick’s rear end.

Among the assassins seeking a $7 million bounty on Wick are a blond street musician with a pistol hidden in her violin, a huge Samoan, sexy mute Ares (Australian VJ Ruby Rose), and Gianna’s right hand Cassian (Common), whose casual shootout with silencers in a crowded subway station is a witty highlight. You would be amazed how many freelance hitmen are hanging around New York City.

CHAPTER 2 expands the fascinating universe created in the first film, one in which assassins live by a strict code, trade in their own special currency, and receive assignments via switchboard operators and 1940s typewriters. The world of John Wick is also beautifully photographed in rainbow hues like a four-color comic book. The fact of the matter is that JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is a better comic book movie than anything released by Marvel Films or DC to date, because Stahelski and Kolstad aren’t afraid to wallow in the genre’s inherent absurdities. John Wick is as much a superhero as Batman is, just with slightly less expensive tools.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dead Bang

One of the most underrated thrillers in the great director John Frankenheimer’s filmography casts Don Johnson, then hot off MIAMI VICE, as a real-life Los Angeles homicide cop named Jerry Beck. I highly doubt the real Beck, who retired from the LAPD in 1999, was much like the cop depicted in the DEAD BANG screenplay by Robert Foster (KNIGHT RIDER). Johnson’s Beck is a burnout, estranged from his family and co-workers, a poor dresser, lives in a crappy apartment, a drunk who is so hungover Christmas morning that he pukes on a suspect after an exhausting foot chase expertly staged by Frankenheimer and scored by Gary Chang (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU). He also gets into a lot of fights and shootouts — unquestionably more than the real Jerry Beck did.

On the other hand, cliche Beck may be, but Johnson brings much sympathy and charisma to the role. Adding to his very good star performance is veteran Frankenheimer (THE TRAIN), who breaks no new ground in the crime drama genre, but expertly enhances the tropes in successful pursuit of an above average action picture. Ticket buyers didn’t agree, ignoring DEAD BANG when it opened during a lazy March weekend in 1989 (it opened in fifth place and vanished from theaters in a hurry).

Investigating the murder of a policeman after an L.A. liquor store holdup, Beck chases his prey all the way to Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado (all resembling Alberta) when it’s revealed his chief suspect is a member of a white supremacist group based there. Teaming up with a black police chief (WKRP IN CINCINNATI DJ Tim Reid) and a so-straight-he-squeaks FBI agent (a cast-against-type William Forsythe), Beck lays down a series of wisecracks (“You don’t need a gun, Chief, just tell ‘em who you are!”) and shootouts to break up the deranged right-wingers before they can mount a violent defense.

Penelope Ann Miller (THE RELIC) stops by for a one-night stand with Johnson. Her appearance is enigmatically brief, though Miller’s unconvincing performance dissuades you from being disappointed. Bob Balaban (GOSFORD PARK) is rightfully officious as a parole officer pestered by Beck on Christmas morning, and Reid (also in Frankenheimer’s THE FOURTH WAR) brings warmth to a typical sidekick role. Everyone involved, particularly Johnson, Chang and Frankenheimer, works hard to elevate a routine cop meller to a crime thriller with humor, color, and excitement.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To The Limit

PM Entertainment produced very few sequels, but writer/director Raymond Martino brought back actor Joey Travolta (HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD) to reprise his role of ‘Nam vet turned vigilante Frank DaVinci from DAVINCI’S WAR. Sharing star billing with John’s less talented brother is an even less talented actor: Anna Nicole Smith, who bears the indignity of failing miserably in two direct-to-video action movies. In SKYSCRAPER, which reunited Smith and Martino with PM a year later, the former Playmate delivered what I believe to be the worst acting performance by a name actress in a professional Hollywood film ever. Now imagine that times two.

Smith’s acting is as natural as her breasts, which are the first part of her body we see in TO THE LIMIT, enjoying herself in a hot tub instead of getting dressed for DaVinci’s wedding. The only things she pushes to the limit in this movie are her bra and our patience. She never makes it to the wedding, as her boyfriend China Smith (Michael Nouri in a one-day cameo) is blown up in his car at the same time a hit team massacres DaVinci’s new wife (Rebecca Ferratti) on the church steps.

Three months later, DaVinci has mostly recovered from his wounds while hiding out from his attackers in Las Vegas. His support system is a bunch of stereotypical Italian goombah mobsters. Collette (Smith) is also hiding out from China’s killers, and she teams up with Frank in Vegas. LOU GRANT’s Jack Bannon plays the bad guy, a tattooed CIA spook named Jameson who giggles a lot, smokes opium, makes hot women whip him during sex, and shoots out his computer monitor.

Travolta, who was also the producer and co-writer, which explains his sex scenes with Smith, wears a New York Giants jacket, though I doubt he bothered to clear the NFL logos. Give Martino the lion’s share of the blame for TO THE LIMIT’s incompetence. The story is complicated and uninvolving, and direction and editing are sloppy (Aprea tells his boys, “I gotta job for you. You’re goin’ to L.A. right now,” and they walk off without knowing what the job is). Of course, being a PM production, the stuntwork is impressive, and so are Smith’s nude scenes. Which are, after all, the reason TO THE LIMIT exists at all.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

If He Hollers, Let Him Go!

The fine black actor Raymond St. Jacques, strong as cop Coffin Ed opposite Godfrey Cambridge in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, stars in another Chester Himes adaptation. The screenplay, however, written by producer/director Charles Martin (THE ONE MAN JURY), has nothing to do with Himes’ book, and the author is uncredited.

In this obscure Cinerama release, St. Jacques stars as a wrongfully escaped convict who is picked up by crafty Southerner Kevin McCarthy and taken to the mansion that McCarthy shares with his wealthy wife and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS co-star Dana Wynter. McCarthy blackmails St. Jacques into murdering Wynter in exchange for $10,000 and safe passage to Mexico. An honorable, erudite man who knows classical music, St. Jacques refuses, but is propelled by Martin’s overheated screenplay into a series of absurd plot twists and lurid complications good only for providing its cast reasons to overact.

Plainly shot by regular Quinn Martin cinematographer William Spencer (137 episodes of BARNABY JONES, 162 episodes of THE FBI, and an Emmy for TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH), IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO! plays like a particularly warped KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE episode with mild swearing and nudity. Indeed, singer Barbara McNair (CHANGE OF HABIT) makes a startling feature debut, performing on camera (and the opening theme song) and stripping down for a love scene with St. Jacques.

Aside from St. Jacques, who is his usual authoritative self, the acting is grade-A hambone all around. McCarthy is particularly crazed, but so is John Russell (LAWMAN) as the local sheriff, Arthur O’Connell (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) as a grandstanding prosecutor, Ann Prentiss (CAPTAIN NICE) as a farm girl who tries to capture St. Jacques, and Royal Dano (TEACHERS) as the father of a dead girl. The film’s biggest drawback is Martin’s flashbacks to St. Jacques’ arrest, trial, and conviction that fill in blanks we don’t really need filled. Martin claimed to have invested $1 million in the picture and chosen the provocative title for maximum exploitation.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dark Breed

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that director/producer Richard Donner and/or credited writers Jonathan Lemkin, Miles Millar, Alfred Gough, and Channing Gibson saw DARK BREED before beginning production on LETHAL WEAPON 4. Two of this PM Entertainment action picture’s eye-popping setpieces — one with two actors punching each other out in a house being transported on a flatbed truck along a busy highway and another that features the leading man being dragged on, again, a busy highway in a satellite dish by a van — were lifted verbatim for LW4, except Donner combined the two chases into one. One wonders whether DARK BREED director Richard Pepin and stunt coordinator Cole McKay should be flattered or furious.

For that matter, DARK BREED is probably about as good or better than the notoriously rushed LW4 on probably 1/70th of the budget. It isn’t quite on PM Entertainment’s A-list, but it’s a good B. Directed at a rapid clip, DARK BREED is a cheaply made monster movie that emphasizes action over logic, but when the action is this good, who cares about logic? Most of producers Pepin and Joseph Merhi’s money went to McKay’s stunt team for as many car stunts, candy glass, and fire gags as could be squeezed into the 92-minute running time.

Air Force captain Nick Saxon (Jack Scalia) is called to the scene when an American space shuttle crashlands off the Long Beach waterfront. Its six astronauts, including Saxon’s ex-wife Debbie (Donna W. Scott) and his best pal Joe (BREAKING BAD’s Jonathan Banks), have been invaded by alien parasites — purposely, as it turns out. Evil government honcho Cutter (Lance LeGault) sent the oblivious crew into space specifically to be invaded, so they could return to Earth, lay eggs, and be used by Cutter as unstoppable killing machines. And in less than two days, the slimy creatures will have matured enough to burst free of their puny human shells and begin destroying Earth.

Ignore the holes in Richard Preston Jr.’s (HOLOGRAM MAN) screenplay and dig the stylish stunts. Scalia carries the non-action scenes just as well, handling the obligatory character quirks, such as his attachment to an antique pocket watch, in a manner that lends a human touch to the gun battles and explosions, including PM’s signature vehicle-flipping-upside-down-through-a-fireball gag. Michael Taylor’s visual effects are okay, considering the budget, though it’s probably a smart move on Pepin’s part not to allow more than a glimpse of the man-in-a-suit title creature.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

I, the Jury

Though based on the most famous of Mickey Spillane’s many best-sellers, I, THE JURY is in no way a faithful adaptation. It is, however, a terrific action movie with great stunts, creative use of New York locations, and a fun Bill Conti (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) score. It was a troubled production — director Richard T. Heffron (FUTUREWORLD) replaced screenwriter Larry Cohen (BLACK CAESAR) a week into shooting — but I, THE JURY shows little sign of confusion. Except for its plot, which nobody has ever been able to understand.

One thing is for sure: the Mike Hammer played here by Armand Assante (PROPHECY) isn’t the Hammer of Spillane’s books. This Hammer doesn’t wear a hat or drink alcohol, but he does drive a Camaro and may be Italian. Jack Williams, a private detective who lost an arm saving Hammer’s life in Vietnam, is shot to death in a squalid hotel room. Despite an admonishment by his policeman friend Pat Chambers (Paul Sorvino) to “stay out of it,” Hammer begins tracking the killer.

Hammer’s investigation leads to a shady sex therapy clinic where men and women participate in orgies while doctors in lab coats stand around making notes on clipboards, a dilapidated summer camp where Hammer and his sexy and loyal secretary Velda (MANIAC COP’s Laurene Landon) are beset upon by machine gun-wielding government agents, a “Mama’s boy” psycho killer (Judson Scott, who was in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and his own television series, THE PHOENIX, that year) who dresses his female victims as redheads before stripping and mutilating them, a gunrunning New York mobster (comic Alan King), and a CIA plot to brainwash men into murdering suspected terrorists under the guise of a sex crime. Whew.

Needless to say, almost none of this overly complex story is faithful to Spillane’s text (Spillane’s infamous final scene does make the transition to film, however). Loaded to the brim with tawdry sex, ample amounts of female nudity (including twin Playmates Leigh and Lynette Harris), and explosive action sequences, I, THE JURY makes for a complicated if exciting ride, culminating in a country chase, shootout, and fist fight. Assante handles the action very well and possesses a nifty panache with a bon mot. Landon is an appropriately plucky and lovely Velda, and Barbara Carrera (NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) is unforgettable. Other actors who have portrayed Mike Hammer on film include Ralph Meeker, Darren McGavin, Biff Elliot, Stacy Keach, Kevin Dobson, Rob Estes, and even Spillane himself.