Friday, August 22, 2014

The Wild Party (1975)

          It’s difficult to decide which aspect of The Wild Party is more bizarre—the idea that costume-drama specialists Merchant Ivory Productions could ever make anything justifying the adjective “wild,” or the idea that a Merchant Ivory film was distributed by drive-in suppliers American International Pictures. Adding to the overall strangeness of the piece is the subject matter. Set in 1920s Hollywood, the film concerns a debauched soiree thrown by an overweight silent-movie comedian. And yet The Wild Party is not based on the real-life scandal involving Fatty Arbuckle, an overweight silent-movie comedian who was accused of rape and murder. Why anyone thought it wise to film a story that sorta-kinda resembled the notorious Arbuckle case is beyond understanding. In fact, it’s challenging to discern the reasons why The Wild Party exists. Instead of being provocative and rough and sexy, the picture is chaste and genteel and tame. So even though it’s a handsomely produced film that offers a colorful window into the culture of 1920s Hollywood, the movie is mechanical and sterile. Without blood pumping the veins of something like this, what’s the point?
          Based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March and written for the screen by Walter Marks (as opposed to Merchant Ivory’s usual scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), The Wild Party revolves around Jolly Grimm (James Coco), a man out of time. Although the industry has shifted to sound films, Jolly has invested most of his money in a new silent production, set to be his comeback after a five-year screen absence. To make matters worse, Jolly has grown distant from his sexy live-in mistress, Queenie (Raquel Welch). The comedian throws a huge party so he can present his new movie to studio heads, but as soon as the screening gets underway, it becomes clear no one is interested. Concurrently, Queenie becomes infatuated with a handsome party guest, Dale (Perry King). Eventually, the bash devolves into drunkenness, sex, and tragedy.
          Tonally, The Wild Party is a mess. At the beginning, Jolly’s writer friend, James (David Dukes), delivers rhymed voiceover to introduce the various characters, and James even speaks to the camera periodically. As this half-hearted trope fades away, the movie segues into unnecessarily long musical numbers, such as when Queenie performs a novelty number called “Singapore Sally” for the party guests. By the time The Wild Party ends, the filmmakers strive for some sort of bittersweet lyricism. These varied narrative elements don’t gel any better than the performances. Coco is robust and even somewhat poignant, but Welch is as amateurish as ever, despite looking magnificent in her Marcel Wave hairdo and slinky dresses. Among the supporting cast, artificiality and stiffness reign, though B-movie actress Tiffany Bolling tries to invest her role of a forsaken woman with pathos.

The Wild Party: FUNKY

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

          The degree to which French filmmaker Louis Malle was shaped by his childhood experiences during World War II did not become clear until he made the shattering semiautobiographical drama Au revoir, les enfants (1987). Yet Malle’s deeply conflicted feelings about the wartime behavior of his countrymen is fundamental to Lacombe, Lucien, generally considered one of the triumphant achievements of the director’s career. Presented in a clinical style, the drama depicts a French teenager who becomes an operative of the German police force—or, according to the label hung on such people by history, a “collaborator.” Like most of Malle’s films, Lacombe, Lucien avoids simple conclusions and interpretations, even though the script (by Malle and Claude Nedjar) provides distinct milestones along the title character’s spiritual descent. Fitting a filmmaker who smoothly transitioned back and forth between documentaries and fiction films, Malle simply shows a pattern of conduct to the audience, allowing viewers to parse the underlying pathology and the troubling sociopolitical implications.
          When the story begins, 18-year-old Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is adrift, working as a janitor at the local school in his hometown and lazily indulging his incipient sadism by killing birds with a slingshot. Eager to give his life focus but not passionately drawn in any particular direction, Lucien tries to join the French anti-Nazi underground, but he’s rebuffed for being too young. Shortly afterward, circumstances bring Lucien into the orbit of Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), a high-ranking operative of the local collaborator cell. Sensing Lucien’s susceptibility, Jean-Bernard shows off his opulent headquarters—a luxury hotel that the Germans have confiscated. Liquor, money, and women are made available to Lucien in exchange for revealing what he knows about the underground.
          Yet even after Lucien sees a neighbor tortured based on information Lucien provided, the impressionable young man allows himself to get pulled deeper into Jean-Bernard’s web. Eventually, a moral conflict emerges when Lucien is introduced to Mr. Horn (Holger Löwendier), a Jewish tailor whom Jean-Bernard uses as a personal clothier. Lucien is infatuated not only by Mr. Horn’s sophistication but also by the tailor’s beautiful daughter, France (Aurore Clément). For a time, Lucien becomes an even worse monster than Jean-Bernard, insinuating himself into the Horn family by gunpoint. Then, as the impending arrival of American troops raises pressure on Germans and collaborators, Lucien must decide which allegiances are most important to him.
          On the surface, Lacombe, Lucien is deceptively simplistic because Malle eschews melodrama. Underneath, the movie is complex, disturbing, provocative, and perverse. For instance, Malle has Blaise play the leading role almost completely without affect—Lucien never laughs or smiles until the final sequence—so Lucien is like a blank canvas upon which others project their wartime attitudes. Therefore, when a collaborator says, “War has its good sides, too,” Lucien seems to agree. Yet when Mr. Horn tells Lucien, “Somehow I can’t bring myself to completely despise you,” that makes sense, as well. Lucien is cruel because he was given an opportunity to be cruel, so the troubling notion is that the same person, given a different set of circumstances, could have gone in the opposite direction. This nuanced perspective runs opposite to the usual good-vs.-evil paradigms associated with World War II. Accordingly, even though Lacombe, Lucien is quite long at 138 minutes—and often slowly paced—it’s hard to imagine the film having the same intellectual heft without any of its delicate components.

Lacombe, Lucien: GROOVY

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Snow Job (1972)

          Today, the moment anyone gains fleeting notoriety—whether through scandal or sports or other means—the individual is likely to be offered opportunities within the reality-TV space. Back in day, however, people enjoying 15 minutes of fame were more likely to appear in movies. It was a different time, so anyone with a smidgen of celebrity could earn a shot at being a star. Take, for instance, French-born skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy, a dashing and handsome athlete who won three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics. Despite lacking acting experience (or acting skill), Killy was given a cinematic vehicle all his own, the heist thriller Snow Job. Designed to showcase Killy’s alpine abilities, the movie is set at a ski resort in the Italian Alps. Killy plays a ski instructor who decides to rob the resort, and his getaway plan involves an epic ski run (specifically, zooming along the cliff edges lining a huge glacier).
          Those who enjoy watching talented people navigate slopes will presumably enjoy the many scenes of Killy swishing and swooshing his way down awe-inducing mountainsides. Those who want more will be disappointed. While there’s a proper movie of sorts buttressing the ski scenes, the plot is trite in the extreme, the character development is nonexistent, and the acting is routine at best. In fact, the only performer who does much of anything interesting on camera (notwithstanding Killy’s skiing) is Vittorio De Sica, the famed Italian film director who also enjoyed a massive career as an actor. (Rest assured that De Sica did not direct Snow Job, and therefore can’t be held responsible for the thing.) Playing an insurance investigator who tracks down Killy’s character after the big robbery, De Sica is continental and exuberant whenever he appears, frequently laughing so broadly that he seems amused by private jokes of which the audience is unaware.
          De Sica’s zesty screen persona exists in inverse proportion to the narcolepsy that permeates every other aspect of the film. Costars Danièle Gaubert and Cifff Potts, playing the accomplices of Killy’s character, fail to make impressions, and every human being in the movie is overshadowed by the majesty of the locations that director George Englund showcases at each possible opportunity. As a travelogue, Snow Job is attractive and slick. As a movie, it’s so vapid that it barely exists. And as a launching pad for Killy’s big-screen career—well, seeing as how he never acted again, the appropriate phrase seems to be that it was all downhill after Snow Job.

Snow Job: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Baron Blood (1972)

More like Baron Boring. One of the lesser efforts from cult-fave Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, the cinematographer-turned-director who made the revered frightfest Black Sunday (1960) and the stylish crime picture Danger: Diabolik (1968), this numbingly dull horror flick concerns an aristocratic killer brought back to life. It says everything you need to know about Barron Blood that the resurrection doesn’t happen until 30 minutes of screen time have been wasted on chitty-chat, and that top-billed actor Joseph Cotten doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the film. Baron Blood is the sort of enervated genre picture that makes viewers wait (and wait and wait) for something to happen, then delivers so much less than expected. The movie takes place in Austria, where square-jawed American Peter (Antonio Cantafora) visits relatives following the completion of his master’s degree. It turns out Peter is a descendant of Baron Otto von Kleist, aka “Baron Blood,” who committed atrocities centuries ago before being cursed to oblivion by a witch. Peter hangs around the Kleist family castle, which is being converted into a hotel by architect Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer), then decides to read an incantation that—according to myth—will bring the murderous baron back to life. Why? Apparently, for no reason other than to propel the wheezy plot. Anyway, the Baron indeed returns, in the form of a ghoul with decaying skin. Complicating matters is the arrival of Alfred Becker (Cotten), a mysterious figure who buys the castle. Rest assured, there’s zero suspense about Becker’s true identity, so by the time he is revealed as Baron Blood in disguise, tedium has taken root. Although the storytelling of Baron Blood is terrible, the movie has moments of visual flair, since Bava was almost physically incapable of making a bad-looking film. Yet a few evocative lighting schemes and a handful of slick camera moves are hardly enough to sustain interest, especially when Cantafora and Sommer contribute such lifeless performances. (Cotten phones in a standard-issue scheming-villain turn.) Even the gore factor is paltry, despite Bava’s predilection for staging elaborate torture scenes.

Baron Blood: LAME

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Final Comedown (1972)

Social activism isn’t the first thing that springs to mind upon hearing the name Billy Dee Williams, but amid the many escapist movies and TV shows on his résumé are a handful of projects about racially charged issues. For instance, Williams coproduced and starred in The Final Comedown, a violent drama about a black-power revolutionary. Suffering from inconsistent acting, a meager budget, and sloppy storytelling, the movie doesn’t even remotely work. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place, politically speaking, because writer-director Oscar Williams constructs the narrative as an allegory expressing rage at the mistreatment of blacks in ’70s America. Alas, The Final Comedown doesn’t do justice to the subject matter; powerful films of the same era, including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), tackled similar material much more effectively. The Final Comedown begins with a disjoined montage juxtaposing a traumatic childhood experience, a confusingly staged shootout between police and revolutionaries, and random vignettes of prejudice and racism. The idea is to explain, in the course of a few minutes, how Johnny Johnson (Williams) was radicalized. At the end of the montage, Johnny gets hit with a bullet. Then, for the remainder of the movie, The Final Comedown cuts back and forth between Johnny’s struggle to survive his wound and semi-chronological flashbacks explaining the events leading to the shootout. The mosaic approach makes The Final Comedown hard to follow, a problem exacerbated by the film’s skimpy production values. (The filmmakers clearly envisioned an apocalyptic backdrop of streets filled with combat, but all they really show is a contained skirmish.) Supporting characters are underdeveloped, and the filmmakers occasionally undercut the overall serious tone by including such blaxploitation-style flourishes as a tediously overlong sex scene. Plus, subtlety is left far behind whenever the filmmakers try to hit a political note: “The system is destroying us,” Williams explains at one point, “so we have to fight, and some of us have got to die.” Or, as costar D’Urville Martin says succinctly in another scene: “White man—ain’t you a bitch with your shit.”

The Final Comedown: LAME

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)

Never mind the lurid title, which suggests that Mako: The Jaws of Death is one of the myriad low-budget rip-offs of Jaws (1975)—and never mind that the title is often shortened to The Jaws of Death. Even though it contains scenes of sharks eating people, this bizarre drive-in flick is primarily about a human character who acts as a sort of shark whisperer. Living in Florida, Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel) is the caretaker for a small community of sharks that swim the waters surrounding a remote island. Over the course of the story, several sleazy people try to exploit and/or kill Sonny’s finny friends, so he makes like a vigilante, doing such things as cutting the underwater fence that separates a swimming area from the open ocean and harpooning a bad guy in the face. Yet that’s not the strangest element of the story. While drinking in a dive bar (pun intended), Sonny ogles Karen (Jennifer Bishop), who does underwater dance routines behind plate glass that’s installed behind the bar. Later that evening, after saving Karen from would-be rapists, Sonny shows Karen his private shark grotto while revealing his origin story. It seems that years ago, Sonny escaped captivity on a Far East island by swimming through an inlet filled with sharks—at which point he was greeted by members of the “shark clan,” people who revere the “shark god.” Sonny was given a medallion that labels him a friend to all sharks, allowing him to safely commune with the beasts. Despite Sonny’s aquatic sensitively, he spends the entire first half of the movie making idiotic choices. He entrusts a pregnant shark to a shady aquarium proprietor, and he rents a male shark to Karen, whose nightclub-owner husband wants to integrate the animal into Karen’s act. Accordingly, the movie is half bleeding-heart drama about a good man who respects animals, and half Death Wish-style exploitation flick featuring elaborate kill scenes. All of this is set to the kind of grindingly repetitive music one might expect to encounter in a bad martial-arts movie. And watching onetime Oscar nominee Jaeckel play the material straight, as if the whole absurd enterprise isn’t just a waterlogged riff on the 1971 rodent epic Ben? That’s just sad.

Mako: The Jaws of Death: LAME

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Thieves (1977)

          During one of the best scenes in Thieves, the film adaptation of Herb Gardner’s seriocomic play about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, Sally Cramer (Marlo Thomas) attempts small talk with a would-be lover, quickly realizing how challenging it is to be cute and superficial after reaching adulthood. “I think men like young girls because their stories are shorter,” she quips. Moments later, Sally discovers that the man’s bedroom is located at the top of a ladder leading to a loft. “Jesus,” she exclaims, “it’s hard to make this look like an accident.” These snippets capture the sharp wit that makes Thieves worthwhile, despite the project’s muddy approach to storytelling, theme, and tone. Although Thieves effectively depicts the thousand slights that drive spouses apart, Gardner also burdens the piece with lyricism, metaphor, and whimsy, trying to parallel domestic issues with larger societal problems. For instance, the title has multiple meanings, referring not only to the actual robbers who prey upon the New York City apartment building where Sally lives her husband, but also to time, which steals people’s lives though the passage of hours, minutes, and seconds. The heady stuff feels artificial and pretentious, whereas the intimate material is crisp and humane.
          When the story begins, Sally and Martin (Charles Grodin) have reached a marital impasse. She’s an effervescent delight with a deep social conscience and a wild imagination, but he’s become a dull conformist preoccupied with money and propriety. More than a decade into their union, they’ve managed to argue themselves into the early stages of a divorce. During the brief separation that ensues, Sally trysts with a swinger (John McMartin) whom she met in Central Park, and Larry makes time with a sexy neighbor (Ann Wedgworth). Also woven into the story are vignettes featuring Sally’s loudmouthed father (Irwin Corey), the Cramers’ eavesdropping neighbor (Hector Elizondo), and a teenaged criminal (Larry Scott).
          The tone is erratic, with serious topics including abortion treated lightly while comparatively trite subjects including nostalgia are presented with operatic scope. Moreover, Gardner’s flights of fancy—both in terms of dialogue and plotting—add an element of stylized satire, which clashes with the realism of the scenes involving the Cramers’ spats. Music is another weak spot, because scenes are connected via chirpy flute compositions and nonsense ragtime songs. (VIPs Shel Silverstein and Jule Style penned the tunes.) All of these incompatible elements produces a lack of focus that detracts from the charm of the best dialogue, and from the skill of the performances. Grodin’s mixture of deadpan moments and emotional outbursts is modulated nicely, Thomas adds grown-up world-weariness to the sexy/spunky vibe she perfected on That Girl, and the supporting players lend diverse flavors. Incidentally, famed choreographer/director Bob Fosse plays a small part as a junkie who tries to rob Grodin’s character.

Thieves: FUNKY

Friday, August 15, 2014

Deranged (1974)

          Despite being one of American history’s most notorious serial killers, Ed Gein didn’t amass a huge body count, as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer did. Yet Gein’s desecration of corpses remains a subject of morbid fascination. Before actually killing people (he was convicted of two murders), Gein exhumed bodies and transformed them into home decorations, masks, and other items; he also propped corpses in chairs as if he believed he could communicate with them. When discovered by police in 1957, Gein’s Wisconsin home was the quintessential chamber of horrors. The long shadow that Gein has cast over popular culture began in 1959, when Robert Bloch published the novel Psycho, featuring a fictional killer inspired by Gein. Hitchcock’s legendary film adaptation of Bloch’s book followed a year later. Then, in 1974, two very different movies presented fictionalized versions of Gein. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre transformed Gein into the superhuman monster known as Leatherface, while the American-Canadian coproduction Deranged re-created the grisly highlights of Gein’s crime spree, changing the locations and names. Hooper’s movie is superior on every level excerpt for veracity, but Deranged is noteworthy as the most faithful telling of Gein’s tale up to the time of its release.
          Cowritten and codirected by Alan Ormsby, an eclectic film professional who later wrote the charming youth saga My Bodyguard (1982), Deranged is presented as a quasi-mockumentary. Reporter Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson) appears onscreen periodically to provide melodramatic commentary, and dramatic scenes are shot in an unglamorous style. When the movie begins, fiftysomething simpleton Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) sits at the deathbed of his beloved mother (Cosette Lee), a Bible-thumping loony who has convinced her son that all women are whores. (“The wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death!”) When she dies, Ezra descends into grief and madness, so a year later, he digs up Dear Old Mom’s corpse. Ezra studies taxidermy to help preserve the body, and then starts robbing graves for replacement parts. As he becomes more and more detached from reality, Ezra escalates to kidnapping and killing women, so by the end of his cycle, he’s a monster who walks around wearing a mask made of human skin, using a thigh bone to bang a drum made from a human stomach.
          Deranged isn’t particularly scary, but the gross-out factor is high, and it’s impossible not to get nervous when Ezra lures unsuspecting women into his lair. Excepting perhaps the grotesque makeup and production design, Blossom is the best thing about this inexpensive and sensationalistic project. Twitchy and wiry, Blossom had a long and relatively undistinguished career, occasionally landing great supporting roles (as in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz) in between bit parts. Throughout Deranged, he’s effectively off-kilter, bulging his eyes and pursing his lips in a disorienting way. And if his performance sometimes seems overwrought, one need merely remember how detached the real Gein grew from everyday human experience. Even though Deranged is way too gory and sleazy to pass muster as a real movie, the adherence to facts (more or less) gives it a smidgen more credibility than the average drive-in shocker.

Deranged: FUNKY

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Waterloo (1970)

          Making elaborate historical epics is often a lose-lose scenario. Not only do these films require such enormous budgets that a high degree of financial risk is involved, but the slightest deviations from historical facts can invoke the ire of experts. All it takes is a few highly vocal naysayers to endanger the success of a massive commercial enterprise. And here’s the kicker—even when filmmakers strive to get most of the important details right, there’s a hazard of losing the mainstream audience, because nobody buys a ticket on a Friday night to experience the equivalent of dry textbook. Given these realities, it’s no surprise that film history is filled with middling movies along the lines of Waterloo. Easily one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its original release (costing a reported $35 million), Waterloo failed at the box office, received zero Oscar nominations, and subsequently slid into quasi-obscurity. Ironic, then, that the picture depicts one of history’s most infamous military defeats.
          Set in 1815, the picture begins with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) being driven from power after enemy forces reduce his domain from all of Europe to just a small part of France. Napoleon accepts defeat bitterly, and then returns from exile less than a year later with a small army of 1,000 loyal soldiers. His attempt to regain power infuriates leaders across Europe during a period referred to by historians as “The Hundred Days.” This period culminates in the Battle of Waterloo, where British commander Arthur Wellesley (Christopher Plummer), otherwise known as the Duke of Wellington, pulverizes Napoleon’s insurgent forces. Nearly half the movie’s running time comprises the battle itself, including preparations, preliminary fights, and the ultimate clash.
          Produced by Dino de Laurentiis in one of his more dignified moments, Waterloo features truly awesome production values. According to the lore surrounding the film, 17,000 Russian soldiers were used as extras during principal photography in the Ukraine (subbing for Waterloo’s real location in Belgium). Wide vistas during fight scenes are spectacular, with columns of men trailing to the horizon, and it’s exhausting just to imagine how much work went into costuming, organizing, and training this many people. Cowriter/director Sergi Bondarchuk and his collaborators strove for accuracy in the areas of formations, techniques, uniforms, weapons, and such—so, from a technical standpoint, the combat scenes are nearly unassailable.
          However, the movie’s dramatic scenes are not as effective. Juicy story threads regarding the shifting allegiances of France’s Field Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) and the political machinations of French King Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) are undernourished, while a silly romantic subplot involving a British officer adds nothing to the narrative. The filmmakers try to parallel the psychological states of Napoleon and Wellington, but the gimmick never quite works; while Steiger contributes a characteristically overripe performance (envision lots of howling in pain), Plummer is chilly and remote. That said, the debonair Plummer is at his best when delivering such absurdly aristocratic lines as, “Commanders in battle have something better to do than shoot at each other.”
          Ultimately, Waterloo is an unsatisfactory hybrid. It’s not elevated enough to reach the level of cinematic literature (read: David Lean), and yet it’s too educational and mechanical to qualify as pulp entertainment. Even acknowledging that history buffs will find more to enjoy here than general audiences, it seems fair to say that Waterloo’s shortcomings are as prominent as its virtues.

Waterloo: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lucan (1977)

          Long ago, I stopped trying to understand why certain pop-culture artifacts have remained lodged in my cranium for decades. Instead, I just embrace my indiscriminate nostalgia. For example, I must have enjoyed watching episodes of a short-lived ’70s series called Lucan, about a boy who was raised by wolves, because I’ve remembered the damn thing for the ensuing 40-ish years. Having recently tracked down and the series’ feature-length pilot episode, I’m happy to report that it’s not awful, even if the reasons why Lucan never became a hit are plainly evident. The central notion of the show was simply too gentle and small. Picking up Lucan’s story after 10 years of living in civilization, the pilot introduces him as a Kwai Chang Caine-type nomad, helping people as he tries to understand the strange ways of modern man.
          Written by series creator Michael Zagor, the pilot begins with voice-over and newsreel footage explaining that Lucan was abandoned in a Minnesota forest by his parents at an early age. Then he lived with wolves during a decade of feral existence. Discovered by hunters at age 10, Lucan was entrusted to the care of kindly Dr. Hoagland (John Randolph), who taught the boy language and socialization. Yet Lucan retained many wild ways, including a nocturnal sleep cycle. When the story catches up to the present, Lucan, now 20, has grown eager to seek out his birth parents. Therefore, when Dr. Hoagland is hospitalized following a car accident, Lucan hits the road. In his first adventure, he gets a job on a construction site overseen by builder Larry MacElwaine (Ned Beatty). Lucan befriends Larry’s misfit daughter, Mickey (Stockard Channing), while becoming enemies with Larry’s hardass crew foreman, Gene Boone (William Jordan).
          In short order, Lucan battles with a vicious guard dog, defeats several motorcycle-riding assailants, teaches Mickey to respect herself, and uncovers corruption. At various points, he manifests his quasi-canine nature by making slight transformations—his eyes turn yellow, his unibrow thickens, and he starts growling and pouncing. Not quite a werewolf, but close. Benefiting from terrific guest stars and a plaintive musical score, the Lucan pilot episode is a bit slow but otherwise quite earnest and watchable. There are even glimmers of humor, as when Lucan says, “I’m always tired if I don’t get a good day’s sleep.” Furthermore, star Kevin Brophy is perfectly cast, thanks to his athleticism, sincerity, and slightly primitive-looking features. Still, there’s not much cause for excitement here, so it should be considered a minor victory that Lucan became a weekly series and lasted 10 regular episodes before retiring to the great wolf den in the sky.

Lucan: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Last Dinosaur (1977)

          While the folks at Rankin/Bass Productions are justifiably revered for having made several beloved holiday-themed TV specials—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), and so on—Rankin/Bass also collaborated periodically with Japanese companies to make monster movies. The results of these creative unions were not pretty. In addition to the abysmal King Kong Escapes (1967) and the bizarre The Bermuda Depths (1978), Rankin/Bass helped create The Last Dinosaur, a boring creature feature in the Edgar Rice Burroughs vein. Veteran big-screen tough guy Richard Boone, giving a performance so half-assed he seems like he never rehearsed a single line, stars as super-rich oilman and big-game hunter Maston Thrust. No, seriously. Maston Thrust. Whose last name is emblazoned on jets and underground boring vehicles that look like missiles. Yes, the man’s empire features countless giant phallic objects labeled Thrust.
          Anyway, Maston announces a spectacular new expedition because one of his oil-drilling teams accidentally discovered a hidden valley inhabited by a surviving T-Rex. After disingenuously pledging to study the creature rather than kill it, Thrust and his companions—including an intrepid photojournalist (Joan Van Ark), a mute African scout (Luther Rackley), and a square-jawed scientist (Steven Keats)—head to the dinosaur’s lair. Upon arrival, they discover many prehistoric beasties, as well as a tribe of primitive humans. The less said about the film’s dramatic scenes, the better, since the only thing worse than the acting is the patronizingly stupid writing. (“Maston, please, you’ve done all anyone could, and you’ve been magnificent,” Van Ark says breathlessly at one point. “But let the dinosaur go—it’s the last one!”) The monster scenes are no improvement. Actors in rubber suits flounce around elaborate scale-model sets of caves and jungles, with the leading players badly matted into the foreground.
          The Last Dinosaur is deeply dull, especially when Maury Lewis’ grating score pastiches together blues, jazz, and orchestral flavors into sonic sludge. Plus, God help us, there’s a theme song, performed by noted jazz crooner Nancy Wilson. Although released to cinemas in Japan, The Last Dinosaur originally reached American audiences as an ABC movie of the week in 1977. Whether the folks at Rankin/Bass originally envisioned a U.S. theatrical release is a mystery.

The Last Dinosaur: LAME

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rituals (1977)

          While the prospect of a Canadian thriller made in the Deliverance mode might not seem too tantalizing, there’s a lot to recommend about Rituals, which is occasionally marketed by the alternate title The Creeper. First and foremost, the movie stars the great Hal Holbrook, an actor of such sublime gifts that he’s able to make even the most outlandish material believable. Moreover, the picture is shot quite well, with director Peter Carter and cinematographer René Verzier emulating many of the visual tropes that cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond brought to Deliverance. Like the earlier film, Rituals features a carefully controlled color palette (lots of muted browns and greens), a long-lens aesthetic juxtaposing crisp foregrounds with soft backgrounds, and panoramic shots that convey the overwhelming size of the wilderness surrounding the characters. Adding to the Deliverance vibe is a horrific storyline about “civilized” men falling victim to backwoods crazies, albeit in the varied landscapes of Ontario instead of the thick Southern forests featured in Deliverance.
          In fact, had the filmmakers—including writer Ian Sutherland and producer/costar Lawrence Dane—generated a narrative equal to the picture’s technical proficiency, Rituals might be fondly remembered as a harrowing thrill ride. Alas, the script is repetitive, silly, and tedious, pitting underdeveloped leading characters against far-fetched opponents and culminating with a laughably overwrought finale. At the beginning of the story, five middle-aged doctors catch a seaplane to remote woodlands for a six-day fishing trip. Interpersonal tensions bubble under the surface until the initial weird occurrence—during the group’s first night, someone steals all of their boots. One of the men volunteers to hike to civilization and call for help, leaving the others behind. Then, in the usual way of these things, a tormentor starts tormenting. Eventually, things get gruesome, with one dude’s leg caught in a bear trap and another fellow’s decapitated human head impaled on a pike. There’s no Deliverance-style rape, but Rituals is more than sufficiently nasty.
          Meanwhile, skillful actors elevate the threadbare material. Dane, Robin Gammell, and Ken James offer highly competent work, making gallows humor and nervous tension feel real, while Holbrook’s signature style of world-weariness sets a grim mood for the whole enterprise. Holbrook also gets to embrace primitivism, Straw Dogs-style, during the ultraviolent climax. Holding the whole piece together—as much as possible, given the givens—is a genuinely creepy score by Hagood Hardy.

Rituals: FUNKY

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A*P*E (1976)

Say what you will about the schlocky monster flick A*P*E, but at least the damn thing gets right down to business. After a very brief introductory scene explaining that a 36-foot-high primate has been captured, drugged, and placed in the cargo hold of a large boat, the critter breaks free, causes the boat to explode, wrestles with a giant shark, and storms through a coastal village, sparking mass destruction. All of this, plus opening credits, takes less than 10 minutes. Boom! Sadly, it’s downhill from there, and it’s not as if the original altitude was high. Made to capitalize on the hype surrounding Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong (1976), this crapfest was shot in South Korea with American leading actors. It’s a truly wretched piece of work, presenting trite scenes of animal rampages and military responses without imagination or skill. (The effects in A*P*E wouldn’t pass muster in the worst ’70s Godzilla movie.) Yet A*P*E is weirdly compelling for a while—until boredom takes hold—simply because the tone is so peculiar. Actors perform most of their scenes casually, as if the appearance of a giant ape is not a cause for anxiety. During several sequences, the titular monster aimlessly frolics in the Korean countryside—even after military engagements, suggesting that the military somehow lost track of a 36-foot-high primate. In one memorably awful scene, a film director overseeing the work of the blonde starlet with whom the monster becomes infatuated advises the starlet’s male costar how to play a rough interaction: “Rape her gently.” (The would-be rape victim is portrayed by Joanna Kerns, appearing her under her given name, Joanna DeVarona; later in life, the wholesome-looking actress gained TV fame as the mom on the 1985-1992 sitcom Growing Pains.) And in perhaps A*P*E’s finest moment, when the monster gets riddled with bullets during the finale, the actor inside the ape suit appears to do a version of the funky chicken. Seriously, the death scene looks like a full-on dance number. Suffice to say that any desired tragic implications are hopelessly diluted.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Abby (1974)

          Lest there be any doubt, Abby is a truly awful movie—even given the low expectations set by the premise, since Abby is nothing but a shameless riff on The Exorcist (1973) featuring an all-black cast. The scares are nonexistent, the script is schlocky, and the special effects are pathetic. However, the movie has one minor saving grace: William Marshall, the stentorian-voiced actor who lent unexpected dignity to the role of Blacula in two cheesy horror movies, plays the exorcist in Abby. Marshall’s elegant presence isn’t nearly enough to make Abby respectable, but his appearance is sufficient to make the movie watchable, at least periodically. It’s also worth noting that Abby was directed by William Girdler, who later made a string of colorful horror flicks—Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and the completely insane supernatural epic The Manitou (1978). Abby isn’t as slick as the later films, but it’s just as brazen and zippy.
          The story, naturally, involves a young woman being possessed by a demon. Specifically, after Bishop Garnet Williams (Marshall) accidentally releases an evil god named “Eshu” while exploring in Nigeria, Eshu invades the body of Garnet’s daughter-in-law, Abby (Carol Speed), who lives back in the U.S. with Garnet’s son, Emmett (Terry Carter). Violence, vomiting, and vulgarity follow, until Garent returns from Africa for a supernatural showdown. Giving the material a blaxploitation vibe, cowriter/director Girdler features the wholesome Abby speaking in crude street slang while possessed—for instance, before kicking Emmett in the crotch, she squeals, “Shit, you ain’t got enough to satisfy me!” In another scene, Abby experiences an orgasm while handling a piece of raw chicken on a kitchen counter. (Make your own “finger-lickin’ good” jokes.)
          While it’s all exactly as derivative and silly and tacky as it sounds. Marshall does what he can to play the material straight, especially when he performs with Austin Stoker (Assault on Precinct 13), who plays Abby’s brother. Alas, neither Speed nor costar Terry Carter (a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica series) rise to the same level. Still, what’s not to like about a quasi-camp drive-in distraction that kicks off with Marshall releasing a demon by recklessly twisting the tiny wooden penis of a figurine that’s carved into the shell of wooden box? Safe to say Girdler harbored no illusions of making great art.


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Clown Murders (1976)

Whenever unimaginative people reach for clichés about Canadians to make jokes, somewhere amid the gags related to hockey and maple syrup is the old stereotype that Canadians are too polite for their own good. Buried within some stereotypes, however, are grains of truth—and that might explain why the Canadian-made horror flick The Clown Murders doesn’t even try to be frightening until nearly 30 minutes into the movie’s 90-minute running time. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that startling viewers too quickly would be rude. Anyway, The Clown Murders is barely a horror movie—it’s more of a kidnapping thriller with horrific elements during the finale. The story concerns four average guys who terrorize an acquaintance in order to pressure the man into signing a business deal. Since most of the movie takes place on Halloween, the dudes dress in clown costumes and kidnap their victim’s wife, then stash in a farmhouse. However, an escaped killer is prowling the area—dressed as a clown—so as relations among the four would-be criminals disintegrate, some of them fall victim to a psycho with an axe. Suffice to say, this is a highly misguided project. The first 30 minutes of the picture comprise gentle character development, which would be admirable in any other context, but which seems interminable here. Later, things get strange because the woman whom the friends kidnap turns out to be twisted; she plays mind games on her captors and even, inexplicably, seduces the quartet’s lone grossly overweight member. (Playing that character is Canadian comedian John Candy, in one of his earliest roles, but Candy isn’t given much room to be funny.) Once the movie finally gets around to actual murders, it’s very much a case of too little, too late. Plus, owing to the picture’s low budget, some of the nighttime scenes are so poorly photographed that it’s difficult to discern what’s happening onscreen. Had the filmmakers simply made a thriller about a doomed kidnapping, this could have been interesting—but the attempt to shift the material into full-on fright is a bust.

The Clown Murders: LAME

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Vampire Lovers (1970) & Lust for a Vampire (1971) & Twins of Evil (1971)

          J. Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, which predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a quarter-century, is credited with originating the popular lesbian-vampire archetype. Accordingly, the various film adaptations of Carmilla are filled with Sapphic eroticism. To date, the most noteworthy adaptations is The Vampire Lovers, a co-production of U.S. drive-in supplier American International Pictures and UK horror house Hammer Films. Starring the lovely European actress Ingrid Pitt, the sleek and titillating movie depicts the adventures of Mircalla Karnstein (Pitt), an Austrian vampire who drifts from one noble household to the next, using aliases to cover her tracks as she seduces nubile women and drains them of their blood. Meanwhile, heroes including the bereaved father (Peter Cushing) of one of Mircalla’s victims try to stop her killing spree.
          Directed by Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker, The Vampire Lovers tries to be equal parts horror show and romance. At one extreme, the movie features gory neck wounds and an onscreen decapitation. At the other extreme, The Vampire Lovers includes tender scenes of Mircalla cuddling and kissing her sexy paramours. Thanks to Pitt’s elegant presence, it’s possible to read the movie as a character study of a woman torn between animalistic urges and emotional desires—but whenever Baker cuts to leering scenes of topless women kissing, it becomes difficult to attribute The Vampire Lovers with lofty aspirations. After all, the picture includes such raunchy details as a dream sequence in which a young woman imagines a giant cat pressing its mouth to her nether regions. (Paging Dr. Freud!) Worse, the narrative runs out of gas about halfway through, and the acting is highly inconsistent, with pretty starlet Madeline Smith giving an especially vacuous performance.
          Nonetheless, the combination of blood and boobs proved attractive to audiences, so Vampire Lovers screenwriter Tudor Gates was hired to write a pair of follow-up features that are known among Hammer aficionados as the “Karnstein Trilogy.” The first sequel, Lust for a Vampire, is a simple romantic adventure revolving around the reincarnated Mircalla (played this time by Yutte Stensgaard). After being raised from the dead by cultish followers, Mircalla takes up residence at an exclusive finishing school for young women, catching the eye of author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson). Yet Mircalla hasn’t lost her taste for the ladies, because she also sleeps with one of her sexy classmates. Alas, her other appetites remain just as strong, so bodies start piling up in the countryside around the school. Despite the presence of several beautiful starlets and a generally salacious storyline, Lust for a Vampire is exceedingly dull, since the audience can’t play along with the narrative’s whodunit structure. Even the sexy stuff feels overly familiar, although Gates has fun with a key scene—Mircalla, who finds unholy pleasure in biting people, climaxes when her mortal lover goes down on her. (Oral-fixation alert!) Nothing in Lust for a Vampire feels frightening or new or urgent, so all that’s left to admire are the nubile ladies and the usual slick Hammer production values.
          Surprisingly, the series’ signature element of lesbian erotica is nearly absent from the final film, Twins of Evil, which is “noteworthy” for featuring real-life siblings Madeleine and Mary Collinson, the first identical twins to be named co-Playmates of the Month in Playboy, circa late 1970. Representing a slight improvement over Lust for a Vampire, the third “Karnstein” movie reintroduces Peter Cushing to the series, albeit playing a different role than the one he essayed in The Vampire Lovers. Here, he’s a devout puritan who becomes guardian to a pair of nieces (played by the Collinsons) when they are orphaned. One of the sisters falls victim to the charms of a male vampire, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas)., which triggers the usual drill of townsfolk hunting for vampires as the corpses accrue. The shortest of the “Karnstein” movies, Twins of Evil has the least to do with le Fanu’s source material. Cushing’s presence helps tremendously, as does the vigorous musical scoring by Henry Robertson, so Twins of Evil is mildly watchable despite long stretches of tedium. And of course, like all three of the “Karnstein” films, Twins of Evil relies on nudity as heavily as it relies on gore, so fans craving skin will find plenty to ogle.

The Vampire Lovers: FUNKY
Lust for a Vampire: LAME
Twins of Evil: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

King of the Grizzlies (1970)

          Despite bearing the “Walt Disney Productions” brand, as well as such Disney signatures as a cutesy musical score and a folksy narration track, King of the Grizzlies was actually made by companies including Robert Lawrence Productions, the entity that supervised principal photography in Western Canada. Disney then acquired the material and applied the finishing touches. The hodgepodge nature of the movie is evident throughout its running time, because documentary-style footage of bears and other animals is intercut with narrative scenes to create the illusion of a frontier myth come to life. Yet even though some bad dubbing and a few meandering sequences create narrative hiccups, King of the Grizzlies is basically passable, as far as Disney outdoor yarns go.
          Based on a novel by Ernest T. Seton, the picture tracks the life story of Mawb, a noble grizzly who overcomes hardship to become master of his realm. Early in the movie, Indian-born cattle-ranch foreman Moki (John Yesno) and his paleface employer, identified only as “The Colonel” (Chris Wiggins), encounter young Mawb and his ursine sibling, along with their mother, near the outer edges of the Colonel’s ranch. The Colonel kills mama bear and Mawb’s sibling, but only wounds Mawb. Later, Moki discovers the frightened young bear and delivers the animal to a safe place in the mountains, miles away from the ranch. As the years pass, Mawb grows stronger, surviving battles with mountain lions and wolverines, before eventually drifting back to the place where he was orphaned. This puts him back in the crosshairs of the Colonel.
          Will our hairy hero survive? Can Moki intercede on his behalf once more? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve never seen a Disney movie.
          Accepting that predictability is a given, King of the Grizzlies has plenty of redeeming values. The location photography is robust, with huge vistas of forests and lakes and mountains conveying the wonder of the wilderness. Furthermore, scenes of bears and other animals are wonderfully photographed, and the basic themes of bonding, compassion, and respect for nature are unassailable. Cornpone, sure, but unassailable nonetheless.

King of the Grizzlies: FUNKY