Sunday, August 20, 2017

Under Milk Wood (1972)

          Forgive a digression. Over the course of many years spent writing film criticism, I’ve held a number of different attitudes toward rating systems. Generally, I find them reductive and unhelpful except in aggregate, which is to say that only by combining multiple perspectives can one find useful short-take analysis. Then again, to say that the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes paradigm has shortcomings is to grossly understate things. So when it came time to apply a rubric to ’70s movies for this project, I was hesitant but ultimately decided some framework would be enjoyable for readers. If nothing else, looking at a spectrum of things I find disappointing or exemplary helps loyal readers compare their attitudes to my own, which in turn allows them to contextualize my appraisals of particular films. Yet any ratings system has special quirks, and mine is no exception. Take the “Funky” rating. In the broadest sense, this rating is given to a mediocre picture with more good elements than bad, hence the explanatory phrase accompanying the “Funky” rating: “You might dig it.”
          Under Milk Wood, a peculiar British film adapted from a 1950s radio play by Dylan Thomas, is a different kind of “Funky.” This time, it’s not so much that I found some things to enjoy—rather, it’s that I found some things to appreciate. For most of Under Milk Wood’s running time, I had no idea what was going on, couldn't figure out what X event had to do with Y event, and sometimes failed to penetrate the thick accents of the speakers. (Much of the piece comprises voiceover in tandem with evocative images, and all the participants employ or replicate Welsh accents.) Quite frequently, when I encounter a picture this befuddling, I label it “Freaky” because I believe others will find it just as bizarre. Not so here. Yes, casual viewers of Under Milk Wood are likely to have a reaction similar to mine—but attentive viewers, and certainly those conversant in British culture and Walsh’s literary oeuvre, will simply find the movie idiosyncratic. Flawed, perhaps, but more poetic than weird. Thus it would seem a disservice to label this film “Freaky,” as there’s nothing plainly disturbing or transgressive here, even though some scenes are kinky and provocative.
          If all of this seems like a laborious effort to avoid discussing the particulars of Under Milk Wood, fair enough. I could parrot interpretations that I gleaned from research, but the movie left me so cold I can’t offer much in the way of original insight. Presented in a dreamlike style, the story features disassociated vignettes of life in a Welsh fishing village. Themes of class and sex and madness and religion are explored. Famous actors including Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and Elizabeth Taylor appear, some for more screen time than others. There’s a fair bit of nudity, and even a threesome in a barn. In one scene, images of a man pumping his lover’s legs back and forth are intercut with images of the same man pumping draft-beer levers in a pub until fluid spews forth. Perhaps these images, and the accompanying lyrical voiceover, mean something. Perhaps they don’t. Similarly, maybe Under Milk Wood is pretentious nonsense. And maybe it isn’t. But, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to think about the movie a moment longer. Depending on your tastes, please consider yourselves sufficiently intrigued—or warned.

Under Milk Wood: FUNKY

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Criminally Insane (1975) & Satan’s Black Wedding (1976)

          Had its creator been able to express irony onscreen, the trash-cinema oddity Criminally Insane might have become a whimsical shocker bridging, say, the grotesque gore of Tobe Hooper and the wicked wit of John Waters. After all, the story concerns a morbidly obese killer whose victims’ only crime is getting between the killer and food—call it the ultimate snack attack. Despite warnings that Ethel (Priscilla Alden) still isn’t right in the head, her mother brings Ethel home to a small apartment after a stretch inside a mental institution. Then Mom makes the mistake of locking a pantry, the better to curb Ethel’s bingeing. To get the key to the pantry, Ethel stabs her mother to death with a kitchen knife. And so it goes from there. By the end of the story, Ethel has a guest room filled with rotting corpses, and in between murders she gorges herself on whole cakes and other huge servings of food. Considering he spent most of his career making porn, writer-director Nick Millard (billed here as “Nick Phillps”) does a fairly competent job of storytelling, even though his camerawork is ghastly and the performances by his no-name cast are mostly terrible. That said, Alden is so completely bereft of affect that she’s believable as a mindless eating/killing machine. Criminally Insane is cheap and and dull and short (running just 61 minutes), but the perverse premise helps explain why the movie has attracted a small cult following. Director and star reunited for Criminally Insane 2 (1987), and a new team generated the remake Crazy Fat Ethel (2016).
          Alas, any promise Millard showed of becoming a quirky schlock auteur dissipated with his next project after Criminal Insane, the wretched Satan’s Black Wedding. An incoherent supernatural thriller featuring exactly one passable scene, Satan’s Black Wedding follows Mark (Greg Braddock) through a quest to determine whether his sister committed suicide, as authorities suggest. We, the audience, know that she was compelled to slash her own wrists by a creepy priest, Father Daken (Ray Myles), who is also a Satanist and a vampire. As the movie progresses, Daken and those in his sway commit various gruesome murders while Mark learns that his late sister and a friend were writing a book about Satanism. How all the pieces hang together is never especially clear, since Millard’s discombobulated storytelling resembles a sleep-deprived stream of consciousness, and the way composer Roger Stein randomly plays piano, as if his hands intermittently spasm near the keyboard, doesn’t help. Eventually things resolve to that one competent scene, a finale during which Daken explains his twisted master plan. Too little, too late.
          FYI, Millard’s last ’70s effort, .357 Magnum, is purported to be a crime thriller; although the movie couldn’t be tracked down for this survey, reviews suggest it’s incrementally more palatable than the director’s other ’70s fare.

Criminally Insane: LAME
Satan’s Black Wedding: SQUARE

Friday, August 18, 2017

Creature from Black Lake (1976)

          Another swampy story about a backwoods monster with similarities to Sasquatch, Creature from Black Lake plods through a simplistic and somewhat uneventful storyline until climaxing with a passable action/suspense sequence. For devotees of Bigfoot cinema, one decent vignette of a hairy biped laying siege to a college student in a panel van might be worth the price of admission, especially since the sequence, which is set at night, has a measure of creepy atmosphere. For other viewers, watching the rest of the movie just to enjoy a few low-grade thrills won’t seem like a fair trade. In other words, proceed with caution. The picture begins well, with Joe Canton (Jack Elam) and his redneck buddy steering a canoe through a swamp until they glimpse a bizarre creature and flee, only to have the creature emerge suddenly from the water and pull Joe’s buddy below the surface. Then things slow down. In Chicago, students Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) and Rives (John David Carson) hear rumors about the monster menacing a community in Louisiana, so they embark on a research trip.
          While trying to find the much-discussed Joe Canton, the boys clash with a sheriff who doesn’t want his citizens riled up by rumors. Later, they hook up with two local girls and go camping with the girls in the hopes of getting lucky—only to endure an attack by the very monster they’re researching. Lest this give the impression the storyline is picking up speed, however, the whole business with the panel van happens during a subsequent confrontation. Although Creature from Black Lake is mostly drab from a cinematic perspective, cinematographer Dean Cundey—later to break big with Halloween (1978)—lends moodiness to nighttime scenes. The picture also benefits from the presence of familiar character actors Elam and Dub Taylor. Elam gets the meatiest bits, including a monologue about encountering boars slain by the creature, but there’s only so much one can do with dialogue along these lines: ‘If I hadn’t been drinkin’, I’d have blown his butt off!” Taylor does his usual angry-old-coot routine. As for the leads, they’re competent but milquetoast. All in all, this isn’t the worst guy-in-a-suit creature feature you’ll ever encounter, but it’s far from the best.

Creature from Black Lake: FUNKY

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Woman for All Men (1975)

A Woman for All Men boasts adequate production values and a few familiar faces, so it’s more palatable than the usual sexploitation trash. Yet the plotting is mindless, and the erotic content comprises topless shots of leading lady Judith Brown. She’s an attractive woman, but not so uniquely beguiling as to energize a plot driven by her character’s ability to drive men wild with desire. These remarks are not meant to denigrate Ms. Brown, but rather to say that it’s hard to figure how the makers of A Woman for All Men envisioned this picture satisfying the target audience for this sort of thing. As a mystery/suspense narrative, this flick doesn’t offer anything beyond the average TV show of the same period, and as a sexual thrill ride, it’s tame. Most of the action takes place at a beach house owned by construction magnate Walter (Keenan Wynn). His adult sons, self-involved jerks Steve (Andrew Robinson) and Paul (Peter Hooten), are rattled when Walter comes home one day with a decades-younger wife, Karen (Brown). What ensues is unsurprising. Sex-crazed Karen gets bored with Walter and seduces Steve. Then circumstances suggest that Walter has died. Karen and Steve conspire to seize as much of Walter’s estate as possible. Obstacles blocking those goals include Walter’s loyal housekeeper, Sarah (Lois Hall), and a cop (Alex Rocco) investigating Walter’s disappearance. There are worse movies of this type, but finding things to praise about A Woman for All Men is challenging. Among other problems, all the performances are forgettable—even watching the colorful Wynn play a blustery old lech only goes so far—so the beach house emerges as the only memorable character.

A Woman for All Men: LAME

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Elvis (1979)

          Predictably, a TV movie dramatizing Elvis Presley’s eventful life emerged not long after the King’s August 1977 death. In February 1979, ABC broadcast Elvis, starring former Disney child star Kurt Russell and directed by, of all people, John Carpenter, whose breakthrough film Halloween (1978) had been completed but not yet released at the time he shot this gun-for-hire project. A sanitized overview of the title character’s life through 1969, when Presley completed a major comeback by returning to the live concert stage, Elvis doesn’t reveal much that casual fans don’t already know about the subject matter—Elvis was sweet on his mama, Gladys (Shelley Winters); he fell hard for a young woman named Priscilla (Season Hubley); and he gave his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle), too much leeway—but the story unfolds smoothly.
          Key events depicted onscreen include Elvis’ childhood fixation on his stillborn twin brother, the singer’s excitement at scoring his first recording contract, Elvis’ bumpy transition to acting, and the King’s descent into isolation and paranoia once he reached unimaginable heights of fame. Because this project treats Presley’s image gingerly, there’s no Fat Elvis excess, and a scene of the King shooting a television is about as deep as the filmmakers go into depicting Presley’s eccentricities. Despite its homogenized vibe, the movie boasts an energetic, Emmy-nominated performance by Russell, whose boyish persona captures young Elvis’ aw-shucks appeal. That Russell mostly overcomes the distraction of the dark eyeliner he wears throughout the picture—as well as the inevitable problems of imitating Elvis’ iconic sneerin’-and-struttin’ persona—speaks well to the sincerity of his work.
          Acquitting himself fairly well, Carpenter complements the project’s workmanlike storytelling with a minimalistic shooting style, and whenever he lets fly with a lengthy master shot or a slick tracking move, he does a lot to maintain the flow of his actors’ performances. Most of the time, however, one must struggle to spot signs of Carpenter’s distinctive cinematic style. That said, it’s interesting to watch Elvis and realize how quickly Carpenter and Russell locked into each other’s frequencies, because just a short time later they embarked on a great run with Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
          Incidentally, this project was a family affair for Russell, because his dad, Whit Russell, plays Elvis’ father, and Russell later married his onscreen bride, Hubley. (They divorced in 1983.) As for the film’s accuracy, Priscilla Presley reportedly vetted the script, which might be why Elvis often feels like a hero-overcomes-adversity hagiography with musical numbers. (Instead of the vocals from Presley’s original recordings, singer Ronnie McDowell’s voice is heard on the soundtrack whenever Russell lip-syncs.) FYI, a truncated version of Elvis was released theatrically overseas, though the original two-and-a-half-hour cut that was broadcast on ABC is still widely available.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Slipping Into Darkness (1978)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) has many bastard offspring—seemingly innumerable low-rent filmmakers have repurposed the concept of a serial killer with mommy issues preying upon pretty girls. One such copycat picture is Slipping Into Darkness, which adds a halfhearted Vietnam-vet angle as a means of suggesting why the main character is such a menace. To be fair, writer-director Richard Cassidy nearly balances character development and nastiness during a stretch in the middle of the film’s running time. So while  Slipping into Darkness is too predictable and sluggish to generate real suspense, whenever Cassidy lingers on scenes of Grahame (Laszlo Papas) trying to connect with sexy coed Karen (Beverly Ross), he conveys a degree of empathy for Grahame’s social awkwardness without portraying Karen as standoffish. Alas, the material before and after this section is terrible. The movie gets off to a confusing start with scenes of Karen leaving the boonies to attend school in a big city. For no good reason, lots of time elapses before she takes a room in a boarding house operated by Mrs. Brewer (Belle Mitchell). The landlady’s son, Grahame, lives in a room down the hall from Karen, so he watches her through a peephole whenever she entertains male visitors. Things get more and more demented until, inevitably, Graham turns homicidal—but the plotting never works well enough to achieve the desired unsettling effect. It doesn’t help that Cassidy includes so many nudie shots of Ross that he seems like a voyeur. And even though Mitchell and Papas give somewhat offbeat performances (note the scene where she tells him not to buy any more cream donuts because they give her “the farts”), their work is insufficient compensation for the pointless narrative.

Slipping Into Darkness: LAME

Monday, August 14, 2017

Jenny (1970)

          Thanks to a one-night stand, small-town girl Jenny is pregnant. Confused and naïve, she moves to New York, hoping to figure things out at some undetermined point in the future. Then she has a meet-cute with Delano, a self-assured filmmaker who makes arty independent projects when he isn’t directing commercials for rent money. Turns out he’s got a problem, too. He’s eligible for the draft, and doesn't much like the idea of dying in Southeast Asia. After they spend some time together, Delano proposes a pragmatic suggestion: marriage. That way, her baby-to-be gets a father with a good income, and Delano gets a chance at persuading the government his domestic obligations preclude military service. Never mind that Delano has a girlfriend and zero romantic interest in sweet, sheltered Jenny. That’s the basic setup for Jenny, a slight but well-observed dramedy starring Marlo Thomas, then at the height of her success in the sitcom That Girl, and Alan Alda, a year before his own sitcom success with M*A*S*H. Both actors imbue their roles with nuance and sensitivity, and the direction and screenplay give them interesting emotional terrain to explore.
          In many ways, Jenny is a respectable character piece touching on weighty social issues. However, the film falls into two easy traps. First, it uses lightheartedness to wriggle out of tricky narrative situations, and second, it cops out with a fashionably ambiguous ending. The most ambitious elements of the picture demand serious treatment for the issues they raise, and the sincere work by the leading actors warrants a proper conclusion. That’s why watching Jenny is as frustrating as it is rewarding.
          Nonetheless, Thomas deepens a potentially simplistic role with real emotion, so we feel her character’s anguish at being used by Delano, even though she entered into the sham marriage fully aware of its parameters. Similarly, Alda does a fine job of playing a heel whose conscience nags at himAlda sketches the vivid picture of a sophisticate who has difficulty reconciling emotions and intellectualism. Also noteworthy is Vincent Gardenia, who appears as Jenny’s father in a brief but effective sequence. With a few simple moves of behavior and physical carriage, he speaks volumes about the Generation Gap, expressing the pain straight-laced parents felt watching their children experiment with new and untried social structures. There’s much to like here, not least being the imaginative camerawork by director George Bloomfield and cinematographer David L. Quaid. Ultimately, however, Jenny falters by not seeing its premise through.

Jenny: FUNKY

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Some of My Best Friends Are . . . (1971)

          A year after The Boys in the Band (1970) broke ground with its serious exploration of gay culture, representing a change from previous films in which homosexual characters were coded and/or marginalized, the low-budget ensemble piece Some of My Best Friends Are . . . explored similar terrain—with similar difficulty. Whereas The Boys in the Band was adapted from a well-regarded play and filmed by a promising new director (William Friedkin), Some of My Best Friends Are . . . was a screen original from first-time writer-director Mervyn Nelson, who only made one subsequent picture. His inexperience shows in every frame. The disparity in their technical polish aside, the films have interesting parallels. Some members of the LGBTQ community deride The Boys in the Band for over-the-top characterizations and a generalized theme of self-loathing, as if being gay is a curse. Some of My Best Friends Are . . . now plays gay film festivals somewhat regularly as a camp classic. Which is to say that if the folks behind either picture aspired to get early ’70s gay culture “right,” they were not fully successful—one project struck viewers as too heavy, and the other struck viewers as too silly. Seen today, The Boys in the Band is frustrating but intense and sharp, whereas Some of My Best Friends Are . . . is a bit of a mess.
          Set on New Year’s Eve in the Blue Jay Bar, a gay nightclub in Manhattan, the film tracks several gay men and their straight friends. In one poignant storyline, a nervous waiter named Phil (Nick De Noia) awaits the arrival of his blind date, Tim (Dick O’Neill), who believes Phil is a woman, since they’ve only met by phone. That storyline conveys something touching about the risks gay men in the early ’70s took when reaching outside their social circles for potential romantic partners, but De Noia’s cartoony performance diminishes the pathos. Far less interesting are scenes involving European ski instructor Michel (Uva Harden), who delivers this florid line in dubious English: “Facing death does not take courage—but two men making a life together does!” Again, right idea, wrong tone. And so it goes throughout the movie, which, incidentally, features three future TV stars. Gil Gerard, later to become Buck Rockers, plays a gay man who presents straight; Rue McLanahan, pre-Golden Girls, incarnates a clichéd “fag hag”; and Gary Sandy, a few years away from WKRP in Cincinatti, plays a hustler who experiences a major drug freakout. The other notable in the cast is Warhol-associated drag queen Candy Darling, who, no surprise, portrays a drag queen.

Some of My Best Friends Are . . . : FUNKY

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thunder Country (1974)

A sign that something’s rotten in Thunder Country appears during the opening credits. Mickey Rooney has top billing, even though his character only appears onscreen for about 10 minutes. The picture’s second-billed star, former Addams Family giant Ted Cassidy, plays the villain, so he’s onscreen throughout the picture, but he often trades screen time with a group of women. Because, as some of the film’s alternate titles suggest, this is a women-in-prison picture—except when it’s not. Also known as Cell Block Girls, Convict Women, Swamp Fever, and Women’s Prison Escape, this rotten flick cuts back and fourth between a quartet of female inmates and the exploits of a drug dealer, played by Cassidy. Threads converge after the women escape and seek refuge in a shack owned by a sweaty redneck in a Florida swamp, because the redneck has connections to the drug dealer’s operation. Eventually, the drug dealer and the fugitive ladies battle while authorities search the swamp, attempting to capture various crooks and escapees. As for Rooney, he plays a grimy shopkeeper forced by the women to escort them to the aforementioned swamp. Thunder Country is pointless sludge, lacking even the courage of its sleazy convictions; since the picture bears a PG rating, the lurid elements one normally expects from a women-in-prison picture are absent. There’s some fun to be had in watching the Artist Formerly Known as Lurch play a slick modern-day criminal, all stylish shades and tailored suits, but that novelty wears off quickly. Even the kick of watching gators prey upon people gets old. If anything about this movie sounds appealing to you, seek similar pleasures elsewhere and you’ll be glad for the decision.

Thunder Country: LAME

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cocaine Cowboys (1979)

With its strange mixture of crime, drugs, and music, Cocaine Cowboys has just enough weirdness to claim a small cult following. The picture was mostly shot in and around Andy Warhol’s beach house in Long Island, and Warhol plays himself in a few scenes. What’s more, the premise is a kick—under the leadership of a tough-guy manager, played by Jack Palance, the members of a rock band moonlight as drug smugglers. Had the filmmakers played up the connections between drugs and music, perhaps from a satirical perspective, this idea could have led somewhere. Alas, cowriter-director Ulli Lommel, who later became a prolific horror-movie hack, was not up to the task, so Cocaine Cowboys is clumsy, meandering, and shallow. At times, it’s only possible to tell characters apart based on what instrument they play or what pocket of the storyline they occupy. Briefly, the plot goes like this—after agreeing to complete one last job before ditching the drug trade forever, the band arranges for an air drop of $2 million worth of cocaine, then somehow loses the dope, triggering violent revenge from suppliers. Instead of creating tension, this set of circumstances has very little effect. The musicians hang out, record music, and shoot the breeze with Warhol, who prattles monotonously and snaps Polaroids. In the weirdest scene, one of the band’s associates woos a sexy maid into a tryst by claiming he knows the whereabouts of the cocaine, then compels the maid to service his fetish for being showered with baking powder. If you’re wondering about the title, the band (lead by real-life singer-songwriter Tom Sullivan) performs a downbeat number lamenting their status as “Cocaine Cowboys,” and some of the characters ride horses. Adventurous viewers might be able to tolerate long stretches of tedium in exchange for flashes of strangeness, but most folks will find Cocaine Cowboys irredeemably confusing and dull.

Cocaine Cowboys: LAME

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Wonder Women (1973)

          Ignore the title’s allusion to a certain Amazon princess. Rather than being wholesome empowerment, this flick is a grungy and slightly insane thriller with aspects of horror and science fiction. The title refers to a squad of lethal babes who serve at the pleasure of their mad-scientist employer, also a woman. Judged by any rational criteria, Wonder Women is thoroughly rotten, thanks to an idiotic plot, an overabundance of boring chase scenes, and other shortcomings. Consumed as a straight shot of grindhouse weirdness, Wonder Women is quite something. Here’s an attempt at synopsizing the loopy storyline. In the Philippines, evil Dr. Tsu (Nancy Kwan) tasks her babe squad with kidnapping top athletes, including a popular jai alai player. Dr. Tsu harvests the athletes’ organs and sells them to rich old clients who want to reclaim their vitality. An insurance company holding a policy on the jai alai player hires ex-cop Mike Harber (Ross Hagen) to find the missing athlete. After several run-ins with Dr. Hsu’s lissome agents, Mike gets brought to the doctor’s lair, where she tries to seduce him with a session of “brain sex.” (More on that shortly.) Will our intrepid hero escape the honey trap and return the kidnapped athletes to their rightful places in the world’s stadiums? And what’s the deal with the long sequence taking place at a cockfight?
          Wonder Women is really two movies in one. The stuff with Mike conducting his investigation comprises a standard thrilla-in-Manila potboiler, all chase scenes and fist fights and shootouts. The stuff with Dr. Hsu, photographed exclusively on soundstages, is trippy—with all the brightly colored backgrounds and tinfoil production design, Dr. Hsu’s world seems like the same one occupied by those weird aliens in Godzilla movies. Dr. Hsu even has a dungeon filled with survivors from experiments in crossbreeding men and animals. (Shades of Dr. Moreau.) As if all that weren’t enough, Wonder Women also features catfights, dart guns, karate, nude underwater ballet, Sid Haig wearing a puffy shirt, and Vic Diaz—corpulent and sweaty, just the way you like him—driving a cab. And then theres the brain-sex bit. In the movie’s wildest scene, Hagen and Kwan strap on helmets, sit next to each other, and moan and writhe uncontrollably while their cerebellums get carnal. It’s amazing they made it through the whole bit without laughing themselves silly. You won’t.

Wonder Women: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The No Mercy Man (1973)

          One of those disjoined drive-in flicks combining several lurid story elements without much care given to how they mesh, The No Mercy Man is a crime picture, a heist thriller, a revenge saga, and a Vietnam-vet tale. On the plus side, the picture has a slick look, marking the first feature credit for cinematographer Dean Cudney (later to collaborate with John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg). What’s more, lots of stuff happens, some of which is moderately exciting. On the minus side, characterizations are shallow at best, and the episodic nature of the script prevents the movie from gaining any real momentum until the final act. Still, there’s a reason why The No Mercy Man is yet another obscure B-movie that Quentin Tarantino admires—with its convoluted plotting, perverse villains, and scenes of everyday people under siege, it occupies his cinema-of-savagery wheelhouse. That being said, The No Mercy Man isn’t one of those gonzo grindhouse pictures overflowing with gore and sex, and in fact it’s relatively restrained.
          The plot concerns WWII veteran Mark Hand (Richard X. Slattery) and his extended family, who live together on a remote spread in Arizona. The day Mark’s son Ollie (Steve Sandor) is set to return from service in Vietnam, Mark’s wife goes to collect him from the airport, leaving Mark home with his nubile daughter. Vagabond criminal Prophet (Rockne Tarkington) and his twitchy sidekick, Dunn (Ron Thompson), attack the family’s house, but the assault gets interrupted by Ollie’s arrival. Although Mark tries to cajole Ollie into chasing the escaping hoodlums, Ollie is strangely reluctant, so Mark agrees to let police handle the matter. Meanwhile, Prophet and Dunn return to their home base of a traveling carnival, then make plans for their next criminal enterprise; the murky scheme involves stealing guns that Prophet spotted at Mark’s place, joining forces with a biker gang, and committing a brazen robbery. Woven into all of this whiplash-inducing plot material is a PTSD subplot, because Ollie returned from Vietnam with serious problems.
          A generous reading would suggest that cowriter-director Daniel Vance imagined a thematic parallel between Prophet, a natural-born killer, and Ollie, a trained killer. Alas, nothing in The No Mercy Man invites or justifies a generous reading. Some aspects of the film’s execution are satisfactory, including Don Vincent’s suspenseful scoring and most of the performances, but the story is a shapeless mess. It should also be noted that the film’s theme song—yes, it has a theme song—contains these highly questionable lyrics: “Love and lust are the same to him, like being raped by the devil!” Sorry, could you run that by me one more time?

The No Mercy Man: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

There Is No 13 (1974)

          In the abstract, There Is No 13 sounds like the ultimate lost classic of the New Hollywood era. Made on a limited budget but reflecting both artistic ingenuity and thematic ambition, the picture uses a surrealistic approach to explore the inner life of a soldier traumatized by experiences in Vietnam. The title refers to the soldier’s twelve sex partners, so the phrase “there is no thirteen” indicates his ambivalent feelings toward the future. Will he ever know love again? Has war ruined him for civilian life? Did Vietnam drive him insane? Yet, as happens with disappointing frequency when sifting through film history, one discovers upon watching There Is No 13 a massive gulf between the potential of the picture and the picture itself. Writer-director William Sachs, who spent most of his subsequent career making schlocky exploitation films (e.g., 1980’s abysmal sci-fi flick Galaxina), lacks the cinematic skill and intellectual dexterity to render the novelistic picture There Is No 13 so desperately wants to be, a combination of Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
          Instead of making a Grand Statement™ about war, Sachs offers an intermittently distracting compendium of hazily considered vignettes, without anywhere near a sufficient volume of connective tissue. Some moments are funny, some moments are sad, and some moments are weird, but the whole thing feels aimless and episodic. Worse, Sachs indulges in certain tropes that simply don’t work, such as a half-hearted motif featuring close-ups of mouths chewing food. One gets the impression Sachs wanted to skewer American consumerism as long as he was probing beneath the country’s sociocultural skin, but if so, he overreached.
          The figure at the center of the story is George Thomas (Mark Damon), ostensibly a new patient at a military hospital. He hallucinates an alternate (or remembered) reality in which he’s actually a filmmaker applying for work with a production company. In this thread, he considers a job offer to write a sexploitation-flick script, enjoys a tryst with an eccentric rich girl (Margaret Markov), and completes a tryout assignment for a hospital seeking instructional films. (The less said about his magnum opus, How to Fingerprint a Foot, the better.) Bracketing and interrupting this more-or-less linear narrative are weird interludes. A vaudeville-type comedy/music routine in a hospital hallway. A demonstration of the Moog synthesizer system in a barren field. Shots of people wandering through New York City as George’s snotty voiceover dismisses them as “pea-brains” driving “turds” (his nickname for cars).
          There’s a student-film quality to all of this, which makes sense given that There Is No 13 was Sachs’ first directorial effort after having served as a sort of cinematic repairman on previous films, including the acclaimed Joe (1970) and the not-so-acclaimed South of Hell Mountain (1971). Clearly, Sachs had a lot to say—and just as clearly, his desire to express himself exceeded his ability to do so.

There Is No 13: FUNKY

Monday, August 7, 2017

Class of ’74 (1972)

          Shapeless exploitation flick Class of ’74 comprises dippy dialogue, pathetic storytelling, and uneven acting, as well as the usual barrage of nudie shots and softcore humping. So why suggest, by use of the “Funky” rating, that Class of ’74 has redeeming values? Because, thanks to lots of “hip” conversations about sexual attitudes, the picture has minor value as a time capsule. Make no mistake, the film’s gender politics wilt upon close inspection, since the takeaway is that hot young coeds should use their bodies to land older men with money. Yet in the course of expressing retrograde ideas, Class of ’74 articulates aspects of social exploration that were intrinsic to the experience of being young in the early ’70s. An uptight girl tries a threesome. Ladies ask why America is so hung up on old ideas about age gaps and racial differences. And in one surprising sequence, several young people unload about their sexual histories, leading to the vignette of a gay man recalling the time he was molested by his high-school gym coach. If only because of that one scene, Class of ’74 differs from other skin flicks. Codirectors Mark Bing and Arthur Marks might not actually surpass the boundaries of softcore, but they jam into this dubious subgenre elements that can almost be described as thoughtful.
          Here’s the salacious storyline, a simple description of which should be sufficient for dispelling any impression that these remarks constitute praise. When her gal pals realize that leggy Gabriella (Barbara Mills) is sexually inexperienced, they conspire to hook her up with sex partners and sugar daddies. The process triggers a series of flashbacks, montages, and rap sessions delineating the sexual identities and proclivities of various characters. Among Gabriella’s gaggle of girlfriends, swaggering African-American babe Carla (Marki Bey) espouses a cynical get-it-while-you-can attitude; even-more-cynical redheaded beauty Maggie (Sondra Currie) describes how she uses men while trying to sleep her way to stardom; and most-cynical-of-all blonde hottie Heather (Pat Woodell) explains to Gabriella the virtues of screwing older, and often married, men with money. Every so often, Class of ’74 has a fleeting moment of insightfulness, but then it swerves back into the safe lane of drab sleaziness. In sum, Class of ’74 represents an interesting opportunity to learn what two male filmmakers thought (or hoped) young women were saying about sex back in the day.

Class of ’74: FUNKY

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Last Escape (1970)

          Strange as it may seem that old-fashioned World War II flicks were still unspooling in American theaters during the climax of the Vietnam War, the evidence is found in disposable flicks along the lines of Hell Boats, Underground, and this drab thriller starring Stuart Whitman, all of which were released in 1970. Brisk, handsomely produced, and watchable, The Last Escape quickly evaporates from the viewer’s memory. Whitman stars as Mitchell, an American spy who leads a collective of international covert agents during a mission to liberate a rocket scientist being forced to work for the Third Reich. All the usual complications arise. Mitchell’s American comrades die before reaching the mission’s rendezvous point, so Mitchell’s British counterpart challenges him for leadership over the mission. Upon liberating the scientist, the group’s path to freedom is complicated by the difficulty of moving extra people through hostile territory—the scientist demands that Mitchell’s team extract numerous family members and friends, rather than just key personnel—and by such practical issues as diminishing fuel supplies. The plot also includes trite romantic elements, as well as the inevitable barrage of chases, shootouts, and so forth.
          Appraised superficially, The Last Escape ticks most of the right boxes, and therefore should make for a satisfying—if undemanding—viewing experience. Alas, that appraisal leaves out the important considerations of depth and originality. The Last Escape has neither. The film’s characterizations are beyond perfunctory, so Whitman’s character is stoic, his love interest detects the sensitivity hiding behind the stoicism, the Nazis are odious, and the scientist represents moral complexity by demanding that Mitchell leaven his determination with compassion. Had this movie been an episode of some World War II-themed TV show or even some 80-minute programmer cranked out by a low-budget studio in the 1950s, the sketchy plotting might have been sufficient. For a proper feature released in 1970, not so much. That said, it’s not as if The Last Escape is intolerable. The picture contains long sequences without dialogue, and there’s something to be said for any movie with elements of pure cinema. Furthermore, once could do worse than hiring next-level scowler Whitman when casting the role of a tight-lipped tough guy.

The Last Escape: FUNKY

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Twilight People (1972)

A cheesy ripoff of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, this action/horror flick was wrought by the dubious brain trust of actor/producer Josh Ashley and director Eddie Romero, who made a number of lurid productions together in the Philippines, Romero’s native country. Like their many women-in-prison pictures, The Twilight People burns screen time on travelogue shots featuring people moving through jungles. The picture also bears the Ashley/Romero hallmarks of catfights, torture scenes, underground dungeons, and villains prone to grandiose monologues. In some of their other projects, Ashley and Romero hit the exploitation-movie sweet spot, conjuring just enough vivid sleaze to sustain 90 minutes of lizard-brain interest. Not so here. The Twilight People is episodic, goofy, and slow. Worse, the makeup FX for the story’s animal/human hybrids are pathetic—anyone who can’t deliver on the promise of the opening-credits phrase “Pam Grier as the Panther Woman” has some explaining to do. Ashley, all tight-lipped cynicism and tough-guy posturing, stars as Matt, a diver kidnapped by minions of Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay). He’s a loon who wants to help man evolve for life underwater and in outer space, hence the Panther Woman, the Antelope Man, the Bat Man, and so on. Matt was stolen for his ideal combination of intellect and physicality, because Dr. Gordon wants to use Matt’s DNA as an ingredient for his experiments. Matt tries to escape, improbably receiving help from Dr. Gordon’s hot daughter, Neva (Pat Woodell), so before long, the jungle chase begins. The only element of The Twilight People that works is the tension between Matt and Dr. Gordon’s hired gun, repressed homosexual Steinman (Jan Merlin), but it’s hard to take that trope, or anything about The Twilight People, seriously once Romero unleashes unintentionally hilarious shots of the Bat Man “flying” through the jungle.

The Twilight People: LAME

Friday, August 4, 2017

Soldier of Orange (1977)

          Offering a fresh perspective on the German occupation of Europe during World War II, as well as bracing elements of sex and violence, the epic-length melodrama Soldier of Orange ticks several noteworthy boxes in film history. At the time of its release, it was the most ambitious and expensive Dutch film ever made, earning such international accolades as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. The picture was a milestone in the career of co-writer/director Paul Verhoeven, and it brought notoriety to leading man Rutger Hauer. (He soon found his way to Hollywood, and Verhoeven wasn’t far behind.) Finally, because the picture looks at World War II through a Dutch prism, Soldier of Orange became a point of national pride, and was, in 1999, named the second-best Dutch film of the 20th century. Tellingly, the first-place winner in that ranking was Turkish Delight (1973), a provocative romantic film that marked the first Hauer/Verhoeven collaboration.
          Based on a biographical novel by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldier of Orange tells a complex story that sprawls across nearly a decade of Dutch history. Following a prologue, the movie proper begins at a college in the late 1930s, with ambitious fraternity pledge Erik (Hauer) experiencing brutal hazing at the hands of an older student, Guus (Jeroen Krabbé). Feeling guilty for his behavior, Guus helps Erik get through life, so their fates become entwined even as history nudges the Netherlands toward involvement in the war. The movie also tracks the lives of Alex (Derek de Lint) and Robby (Eddy Habbema), two other members of Erik’s collegiate social circle. Without getting mired in details, the gist is that Soldier of Orange follows the way different men react to the invasion of their country by German forces. Some collaborate, some resist, and some fall victim to the Third Reich.
          In one important episode, Dutch resistance operatives create a pirate radio network to communicate with Allied forces in England. In another, Erik and Guus flee the Netherlands by steam ship, then accept orders from their queen-in-exile, Wilhemina (Andrea Domburg), to return home for a dangerous covert mission. Several highly eroticized love stories get woven into the mix, notably a triangle revolving around a British military secretary (Susan Penhaligon). By turns, the movie features adolescent tomfoolery, exciting spycraft, horrific torture, sexy romantic interludes, and the psychological horror of countrymen turning against each other.
          Nearly everything that happens during the 149 fast-paced minutes of Soldier of Orange is interesting, though tracking all the names and places is challenging. As always, Verhoven’s filmmaking is emphatic and robust, so even though he’s a skillful storyteller, he sometimes plows so brazenly into complicated scenes that it’s tricky to remember who’s doing what to whom and why. It doesn’t help that some of minor characters are interchangeable, or that Verhoeven mostly portrays Nazis as one-dimensional monsters. Yet the strongest elements of Soldier of Orange are world-class. Production values, including re-creations of period costume and design, are impeccable. Hauer and Krabbé give performances that are, respectively, earnest and sly, so key moments are specific and vivid. And if Verhoeven occasionally succumbs to his lower impulses, with overlong scenes of carnality and carnage, that can be forgiven as a way of imprinting the piece with an authorial stamp.
          Whether a resounding theme emerges, however, is another matter; Soldier of Orange has so much of everything that it feels more like an informative miniseries than a purposeful drama. Perhaps that was the idea. Instead of making a Grand Statement about the Dutch experience of World War II, maybe Verhoeven and his collaborators meant to show as many dimensions as possible of that experience. They did so, in forceful and unusual ways.

Soldier of Orange: GROOVY