Monday, February 8, 2016

The Hazing (1977)



          A peculiar film that fuses elements of adolescent angst, black comedy, melodrama, and outright horror, The Hazing uses a fictional story to illustrate the dangers of frat boys terrorizing pledges. (Fraternity Row, a more serious film about the same subject, also came out in 1977.) In The Hazing, a naïve young athlete arrives at college and receives an invitation to join a fraternity, as does a nerdy egghead. As part of their initiation, the athlete and the egghead are driven to a forest atop a mountain, forced to strip down to jockstraps, and told to make their way down the mountain on foot or risk ejection from the frat. Yet partway through the journey, the egghead suffers an immobilizing injury, so the athlete runs for help. Upon returning to the scene, the athlete—accompanied by several fraternity brothers—discovers that the egghead died from exposure. The frat boys then persuade the athlete to help them cover up the death until they can fabricate evidence suggesting the egghead died in a skiing accident, thus absolving the fraternity of responsibility.
          This is a wild plot, and the filmmakers keep an interesting narrative ace up their collective sleeve, but of course the whole story is predicated on the athlete’s babe-in-the-woods demeanor. Does this work? Sort of. Star Jeff East, whose face will be familiar to ’70s-movie fans because he played teen Clark Kent in Superman (1978), conveys the requisite degree of provincial wonderment. Costar Charles Martin Smith effortlessly out-acts East while portraying the egghead, but that suits the story’s requirements; similarly, the various dudes playing fraternity brothers seem appropriately craven and entitled.
          Yet for all its craftiness (a twist ending awaits), The Hazing feels a bit like the filmmakers made up what they were doing as they went along. The characterizations are thin, the situations are obvious, and the plot mechanics are laborious. Therefore, by the time the all-important climax arrives, very little credibility has been developed, robbing the finale of its intended power. And whenever the movie detours, things get very awkward; the lovey-dovey romantic montage involving the athlete and his best gal feels wrong seeing as how it occurs at the point in the story when the athlete is helping to cover up something akin to a murder. Demonstrating that distributors didn’t know what to do with this picture any more than the filmmakers did, The Hazing was reissued as The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse, and the movie was exhibited both theatrically and on television. By any name, it’s an oddity. 

The Hazing: FUNKY

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Dirt Gang (1972)



More biker-flick trash about brawling, debauchery, and rape, The Dirt Gang presents all the clichés of a low-rent genre without any of the redeeming values found in the genre’s best pictures. Set to crappy, horn-driven rock music that sounds like it was recorded in 1962, rather than a decade later, The Dirt Gang depicts the violence that occurs when a group of bikers stumbles onto a movie company shooting in a western ghost town. Initially hassling the Hollywood folks for free food, the bikers then hold the movie company hostage, raping every woman in sight and beating the tar out of the one tough guy who dares to rebel against the bikers. Notwithstanding some backstory about how the tough guy used to be a biker himself, plus a subplot about the movie’s leading lady using sex to mollify the leader of the biker gang, that’s pretty much the whole narrative. The Dirt Gang is so enervated that a major narrative thread gets abandoned for no reason—during the first act, the bikers murder several cops, but after the bikers escape the crime scene, the incident is never mentioned again. Huh? Performances in The Dirt Gang range from serviceable to substandard. Sporting an eyepatch, Paul Carr invests the role of gang leader Monk with forgettable menace. Playing a loutish biker with a taste for parading around in his tighty-whiteys, B-movie stalwart Michael Pataki offers his usual mixture of growled vulgarities and silly movie-star impressions. Nominal leading man Michael Forest, as the tough guy, provides little except an imposing physique, although Jo Anne Meredith—playing the aging actress who employs her wiles for self-preservation—conveys an enjoyable hint of cynicism before her role becomes mere eye candy during a long nude scene. Fitting its title, The Dirt Gang is grungy enough to make the viewer want a shower.

The Dirt Gang: LAME

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Dionysus in ’69 (1970)


          Experimental theater being what it is, any document of this offbeat genre is sure to divide audiences. As such, something like Dionysus in ’69 can’t be appraised in only one way. Those with adventurous spirits and an eagerness to see postmodern rethinks of longstanding storytelling conventions will be able to appreciate Dionysus in ’69 as a form of artistic exploration. Concurrently, those who enjoy understanding what the hell they’re watching will lose patience quickly. Even those who seek out Dionysus in ’69 because of Brian De Palma’s involvement are likely to be confounded. The picture has a couple of significant connections to the director’s later work, but he didn’t conceive or singlehandedly helm the piece, at the execution is avant-garde in the extreme.
          Shot in 1968, while De Palma was a film student at NYU, the film captures a presentation by experimental-theater ensemble the Performance Group. Based on the ancient Euripides play, Dionysus in ’69 ostensibly tells the story of a conflict between gods, and layered upon the original text is a postmodern freakout written by William Arrowsmith. Actors strip down to jockstraps (or less) while creating sexualized tableaux onstage, up to and including a pair of lengthy and semi-explicit orgy scenes. In some scgments, actor William Finley (who plays both Dionysus and the role of actor William Finley) speaks in modern language, while his costar, Will Shepherd (who plays both Pentheus and the role of actor Will Shepherd), communicates largely in stilted "classical" vernacular. (FYI, Finley later starred in De Palma’s 1976 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise.) The live audience beholding the filmed performance of Dionysus in’69 becomes involved in the show, as well. Seated on the floor, in chairs, and on scaffolds surrounding the intimate performance space, audience members participate in dance scenes and receive dialogue and physical contact from the actors. All of this serves the familiar experimental-theater concept of transforming a play into an active experience rather than a passive one.
          De Palma, who shares an “a film by” credit with fellow NYU students Bruce Joel Rubin (later on Oscar winner for writing the 1990 hit Ghost) and Robert Fiore, employs one of his favorite cinematic devices, split-screen photography. Therefore, the entire 85-minute film comprises two angles of grungy-looking black-and-white images projected side-by-side. As with everything else about Dionysus in ’69, the split-screen effect is as headache-inducing as it is mind-expanding. Incidentally, Dionysus in ’69 received an X-rating during its original release, though its edgiest elements are full-frontal nudity, rough language, and simulated sex.

Dionysus in ’69: FUNKY

Friday, February 5, 2016

Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977)



Once you’ve come up with a title like Satan’s Cheerleaders, most of your work should be done. I mean, what’s so complicated about mixing devil worship with sexy teenagers? Based on the evidence of this misbegotten attempt at a comedy/horror hybrid, apparently the process is trickier than it seems, because director Greydon Clark and his collaborators botched the job. Beyond simply being amateurish, dumb, and tacky, Satan’s Cheerleaders doesn’t even have enough sex and violence to pass muster as a guilty pleasure. The story follows a quartet of horny cheerleaders and their goody-two-shoes coach, Ms. Johnson (Jacqueline Cole), through a series of adventures. Among other things, the cheerleaders make fun of a simple-minded janitor, Billy (Jack Kruschen). Later, when Ms. Johnson’s car breaks down while she’s driving the girls to a game, Billy comes along in his pickup truck, abducts the ladies, and announces his plans to rape all of them. Then he gets into yet another accident. After escaping from Billy, the ladies make their way to the home of a sheriff (John Ireland), unaware that he’s the leader of a devil-worshipping cult. Oh, and one of the cheerleaders, Patti (Kerry Sherman), discovers that she has magical powers. Not one moment of this flick is believable or suspenseful, because the acting is as atrocious as the writing, with stupidity guiding the behavior of all of the characters. Jokes fall flat in every scene, leering shots of scantily clad babes are distasteful, and supernatural moments are filmed so clumsily as to create narrative confusion. Sleaze-cinema fans should content themselves with enjoying the movie that the title Satan’s Cheerleaders conjures in their reptile brains, because it’s a damn sight better than this one.

Satan’s Cheerleaders: LAME

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Evil Roy Slade (1972)



          Something of a precursor to Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles (1974), this made-for-TV farce lampoons Wild West clichés by delivering jokes at a blistering pace. Alas, while Evil Roy Slade has strong elements, notably a cheerfully manic leading performance by John Astin of The Addams Family fame, the movie’s lukewarm one-liners, tepid running gags, and weak satirical concepts pale next to the outrageous brilliance (or brilliant outrageousness) of Blazing Saddles. That said, if you adjust your expectations appropriately, then Evil Roy Slade will provide you with 90-something minutes of rootin’-tootin’ silliness. After all, the project was written and produced by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, whose other collaborations included transforming Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple into one of the most memorable sitcoms of the ’70s. Sure, most of the jokes in Evil Roy Slade are goofy (“Somethin’s on my mind and it hurts my head!”), but there’s something to be said for letting stone-cold comedy professionals take the wheel and going along for the ride.
          Astin plays Evil Roy Slade, who was abandoned as an infant and then grew into a hateful criminal whose only friends are vultures. (As in, actual carrion-eating birds.) When Roy meets the lovely but wholesome Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin), he tries to go straight, taking a job at a store until his old compulsions drive him to rob again. Meanwhile, businessman Nelson Stoll (Mickey Rooney), the owner of a Western Union-type telegraph service that has been robbed countless times by Roy’s gang, determines to take Roy out permanently. Nelson hires a vain singing cowboy, Marshal Bing Bell (Dick Shawn), for the job. The gags fly furiously, ranging from the amusing to the groan-worthy. Bing Bell wears little bell earrings. Roy contemplates changing his name, with options including “Evil John Smith” and the like. During a montage sequence, the words “Time Passes” are superimposed on the screen. Much is made of Nelson’s “stumpy index finger,” which he wore out sending telegraph messages. You get the idea.
          Notwithstanding an unfortunate trope of homophobia (such were the times), most of Evil Roy Slade is harmless nonsense. Astin excels at this sort of high-octane craziness, Rooney attacks his cartoonish characterization vigorously, Shawn commits to his ridiculous role, and they’re abetted by comedy stalwarts including Milton Berle, Dom DeLuise, and Henry Gibson. If nothing else, Evil Roy Slade is superior on every level to Astin’s other comic western, the 1973 theatrical feature The Brothers O’Toole.

Evil Roy Slade: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tough (1974)



          Also known as Johnny Tough, this amateurish but well-meaning melodrama offers an adolescent riff of blaxploitation. Told from a kids’-eye view, the picture depicts obstacles that a young African-American boy named Johnny faces while trying to find himself. Johnny fights constantly with his mother, who is more interested in pursuing a career as an actress than she is in raising her son. Johnny vacillates between affection and antagonism with regard to his stepfather, who likes being a role model when things are smooth but resents the inconvenience when things are not. Johnny clashes frequently with his stern schoolteacher, an uptight white dude who seems to regard his mostly black students as animals who need to be herded from one place to the next. Johnny even gets into hassles with other kids, particularly during a harrowing early scene in which bullies stop just short of lynching Johnny’s best friend. In some ways, cowriter/director Horace Jackson makes interesting points by depicting Johnny as the product of a comfortable home rather than an impoverished ghetto; the gist is that Johnny experiences generic teen troubles in addition to difficulties stemming specifically from race.
          Yet Jackson’s approach is clumsy, heavy-handed, and unfocused. The teacher is a one-note villain. The mother is absurdly self-absorbed except for fleeting (and unconvincing) moments of compassion. The stepfather makes even less sense, because he’s stalwart in one scene, vile in the next. Worst of all is the presentation of the main character. Johnny has reason to be angry, what with his parents quarreling all the time and his teacher singling Johnny out for discipline, but Jackson fails to imbue Johnny with distinctive gifts or even noteworthy resilience. Attempting to tell a story about an average kid whose journey is a microcosm for bigger issues is all well and good, but Johnny comes across as too much of a cipher to command attention—a problem exacerbated by actor Dion Gossett’s forgettable screen persona. Still, Jackson has good intentions, even though his storytelling instincts are weak. In particular, Jackson nearly obliterates the credibility of the whole enterprise with a ridiculous ending that reeks of creative desperation.

Tough: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975)



          Raise your hand if you knew that two of the Dead End Kids, actors who rose to fame as juveniles in the 1930s, reunited as middle-aged adults in the ’70s to make a spoof of The Maltese Falcon noteworthy for its inclusion of bestiality, gore, and incest—even though the movie was released with a family-friendly PG rating. If you haven’t raised your hand yet, rest assured you’re not alone. The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery is among the least remembered big-studio releases of the ’70s, and with good reason. It’s awful. Worse, it’s the most frustrating kind of awful, because everyone involved in the picture has a measure of talent. Some of the acting is quite sly, so it’s depressing to watch skilled comic performers flail about in search of proper jokes. The camerawork by stone-cold pro Bill Butler (of Jaws and Rocky fame) is nuanced and slick. Furthermore, buried somewhere within the unsalvageable disaster of the script is a funny notion about a detective trying to solve a crime in a tiny town where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
          Star Gabriel Dell, a onetime Dead End Kid, plays Malcolm, a poultry engineer in a small desert town filled with farms and trailer parks. He dreams of bigger things, which is why he took a mail-order course to become a private investigator. In quick succession, Malcolm gets hired by several residents to solve seemingly unrelated mysteries. This leads him to discover that the town doctor (Will Geer) is a drug addict, his best friend’s wife (Nita Talbot) is a boozy nympho, local rich guy Big Daddy Jessup (Vincent Gardenia) appears to be screwing his own daughter (Anjanette Comer), and a party yet to be identified has a thing for goats and other animals.
          Dell, who cowrote the picture, plays everything straight, which is a bizarre choice given the simultaneously campy and gruesome nature of the situations—for example, the final shootout has more bloodshed than the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974). Subtle was not the way to go. Yet nothing, really, could have helped Manchu Eagle take flight. During the rare moments when the film isn’t utterly confusing, it’s deeply stupid. Not inspired, off-the-wall, Mel Brooks stupid, mind you, just plain childish and unfunny.
          Seeing as how four editors are credited, one suspects that Dell and cowriter/director Dean Hargrove had a hell of a time trying to wrangle this picture into releasable shape. They managed to compile an 80-minute trifle with a beginning and an ending, but what happens between those milestones is a whole lot of shapeless nonsense. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the other Dead End Kid in the cast is Huntz Hall, who plays a small role as an idiot deputy; he shares most of his scenes with another former child star, Jackie Coogan, who plays the town’s portly sheriff.

The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery: LAME

Monday, February 1, 2016

Nurse Sherri (1978)



The most interesting thing about this horror flick from schlockmeister Al Adamson—in fact, probably the only interesting thing—is the absurd number of alternate titles the picture has carried while worming its way through various distribution channels. We’re talking Beyond the Living, Hands of Death, Horror Hospital, Killer’s Curse, Terror Hospital, and the expanded moniker The Possession of Nurse Sherri. More creativity has gone into rebranding this clunker than went into making the movie itself. A dull compendium of clichés related to cults, demonic possession, mind control, sexy nurses, and other ’70s-cinema tropes—there’s even a dash of blaxploitation—Nurse Sherri concerns an RN who becomes possessed by the spirit of an evil cult leader. He uses her as an instrument of revenge, killing enemies as well as innocent bystanders. Yet huge swaths of Nurse Sherri are not horrific, because the storyline tracks the adventures of three attractive nurses. One has a sexual affair with a patient. One helps an athlete overcome the shock of becoming blind. As for Sherri, she makes time with a handsome doctor whenever she’s not offing people. (Despite the prominence of sex in the storyline, the onscreen content is quite chaste, meaning that Nurse Sherri doesn’t even make the grade as an exploitation flick.) By the standards of producer/director Adamson’s other movies, Nurse Sherri is fairly cogent and linear, although the acting and production values are as terrible as always. By any other standards, Nurse Sherri is laughably bad. The FX used to depict an ethereal figure menacing Sherri look as if they cost about $1.98. The dialogue scenes are clunky. (Sample line: “I’ll introduce you to the bliss that lies beyond the borders of hell!”) And the music, which sounds as if it was copped from prints of 1940s horror pictures, works overtime to inject Adamson’s lifeless footage with energy. 

Nurse Sherri: LAME

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Serpent’s Egg (1977)



          Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had such a consistent and singular voice that, generally speaking, even his misfires feel like attempts at scaling the same thematic mountain atop which he made his most important discoveries. Proving there’s an exception to every rule is The Serpent’s Egg, one of two English-language pictures that Bergman directed and the closest thing to a Hollywood movie that Bergman ever made. Disjointed, meandering, and stiff, the picture seems like one of Bergman’s signature psychological dramas until it evolves (or devolves) into a conspiracy thriller with a hint of science fiction. Worse, The Serpent’s Egg has elements that are highly derivative of Bob Fosse’s extraordinary musical Cabaret (1972), even though Bergman was usually an artist whom others emulated, not the other way around.
          Reading about the circumstances surrounding The Serpent’s Egg provides some illumination, since Bergman was a tax exile from Sweden at the time he collaborated on this picture with American star David Carradine and Italian producer Dino Di Laurentiis. Sometimes, less-than-ideal situations push artists toward unexpected creative breakthroughs. In this case, it seems adversity bested Bergman.
          In 1923 Germany, American circus acrobat Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) reels from the suicide of his brother and performing partner, finding himself adrift and nearly penniless in a foreign land at a time of growing anti-Semitism. Abel finds comfort by spending time with his brother’s ex-wife, dancehall performer Manuela (Liv Ullman), but fate appears to have chosen Abel for a punching bag. As he wrestles with depression, looks for work, and half-heartedly investigates his brother’s life and death, Abel has a number of strange and/or violent encounters until discovering a conspiracy involving medical experimentation. As in Cabaret, the idea is to foreshadow the evil looming over Germany in the years preceding World War II. Yet while Cabaret found a perfect set of characters and metaphors to illustrate the means by which a society succumbs to tyranny, Bergman flails about while looking for something to ground his slapped-together storyline.
          At his best, Bergman created believably complicated individuals and drilled down into their psyches—so to say that he’s out of his element staging fist fights and mad-doctor scenes is to offer a considerable understatement. Nonetheless, The Serpent’s Egg looks as exquisite as any other Bergman production, mostly because Bergman’s regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, creates remarkable atmosphere and texture. Furthermore, Bergman’s muse, Ullman, renders a committed performance despite playing a role that borders on the nonsensical. As for Carradine, he seems lost, with the script’s contrived scenarios and stilted dialogue precluding him from manifesting his usual naturalism.

The Serpent’s Egg: FUNKY

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fly Me (1973)



Although it was not produced by Roger Corman, the disjointed and distasteful drama/thriller Fly Me is similar to many exploitation flicks that Corman’s New World Pictures released in the early ’70s. Set in the Far East, the movie follows the format established by New World’s “sexy nurses” films—three attractive young women who share the same profession experience parallel adventures loaded with sex, danger, and more sex. Specifically, three stewardesses travel from L.A. to Hong Kong (even though the movie was shot in the Philippines). Wholesome blonde Toby (Pat Anderson) tries to date a man she met during her flight, even though her pushy mother (Naomi Stevens) tagged along to keep Toby virtuous. Boy-crazy Sherry (Lyllah Torene) sleeps with the wrong guy, ending up the captive of white slavers. And formidable Andrea (Lenore Kasdorf) balances romantic intrigue with martial-arts brawls until she, too, encounters the white slavers—while working alongside law-enforcement officials. Directed by prolific Filipino-cinema hack Cirio Santiago, Fly Me offers campy escapism in one scene, heavy drama during the next, and a steady stream of leering nude scenes. In fact, the movie opens with Toby stripping in the back of a taxicab while she changes into her flight-attendant uniform, even as the driver (played by B-movie stalwart Dick Miller) nearly crashes the car while ogling his nubile passenger. Later, Andrea gets into a martial-arts fight during which her blouse is conveniently ripped, revealing a see-through bra. And we haven’t even gotten to the bondage scenes. Fly Me is crass, dumb, and tedious all the way from takeoff to landing.

Fly Me: LAME

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sandcastles (1972)



          Here’s a strange one. Made for TV and shot on video, Sandcastles is a supernatural love story about a ghost who sorta-kinda returns from the dead to complete unfinished business, and sorta-kinda returns from the dead because in the final moments of his life, he met the woman of his dreams. Starring the impossibly young and pretty duo of Bonnie Bedelia and Jan-Michael Vincent, both of whom give wide-eyed performances full of vague longing, the movie has a truly strange feel because of its recording medium. Sandcastles inevitably suggests a daytime soap opera, especially when saccharine music bludgeons emotional scenes, and one gets the impression that certain scenes were filmed “live” with multiple cameras, rather than via conventional step-by-step, single-camera coverage.
          Furthermore, the plot is so contrived and overwrought that it’s a wonder significant people became involved. Vincent was already on his way to becoming a movie star when he made Sandcastles, and director Ted Post had already directed theatrical features including the Clint Eastwood western Hang ’Em High (1986) and the sci-fi sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Suffice to say, his work here lacks the vitality he displayed in those features.
          Set in northern California, the ridiculous plot of Sandcastles revolves around a restaurant called Papa Bear’s. The kindly owner, Alexis (Herschel Bernardi), is best friends with a dreamy young artist named Michael (Vincent), so Michael is aware that Papa Bear’s is in financial trouble. Alexis’ wife, Sarah (Mariette Hartley), encourages Alexis to ask regular customers for donations, and the plan succeeds. Michael is entrusted with taking checks to the bank, getting a cashier’s check for $20,000, and returning with the check. Somewhat inexplicably, Michael trades the cashier’s check for cash and starts running off with the money. Then he gets second thoughts and heads back to Papa Bear’s, hitching a ride with jackass salesman Frank (Gary Crosby).
          Yet just shy of Papa Bear’s, Frank gets into an accident with a car driven by young musician Jenna (Bedelia). Michael is thrown from Frank’s car, and Frank flees the scene. While Jenna comforts Michael as he dies, the two experience love at first sight. Alexis arrives at the scene just after Michael’s body is removed by authorities, so he takes in the distraught Jenna, unaware of her connection to his friend. Circumstances also leave Alexis with the impression that Michael has absconded with the $20,000. Jenna mopes around the beach near Papa Bear’s, where she meets Michael—whom she doesn’t recognize from the accident—and they share romantic encounters while Michael slowly realizes that he’s been resurrected in order to set things right at Papa Bear’s. And so it goes from there.
          Even describing the plot is exhausting, so you can imagine what a slog it is watching the thing. Still, Bedelia and Vincent are compelling because of the sweet innocence with which they play their absurd roles, and the whole project is so peculiar that it’s oddly fascinating. There aren’t many movies like Sandcastles—and that’s probably a good thing.

Sandcastles: FUNKY

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hollywood High (1976)



An abysmal sex comedy that’s basically porn without the courage of its convictions, Hollywood High depicts the exploits of four teenaged girls who spend all their time having sex, talking about sex, or teasing men who want to have sex with them. With their figures crammed into bikinis, crop tops, short shorts, or nothing at all, the starlets portraying these ladies giggle like morons, lifelessly recite lines of inane dialogue, or merely bounce up and down while director Patrick Wright’s camera circles and probes their curves. Watching Hollywood High is a bit like encountering one of those horrific infomercials that used to run on late-night TV for Girls Gone Wild videos. Hollywood High imagines a world in which pulchritudinous young women have nothing in their brains but lust, and relish displaying their bodies to any males in their immediate vicinity. Yuck. The “story” of the picture concerns the girls’ quest for a fresh place to make out with their boyfriends, since they’ve exhausted the possibilities of locker rooms, tents, vans, and so forth. Concurrently, the girls have adventures including a sexual encounter with a dwarf mechanic, a meet-cute with a Mae West-type aging movie star, and a food fight in a burger joint. Typical of this wretched flick is the scene in which one of the ladies responds to a ringing telephone by saying, “If that’s Charles Bronson, ask him if his tallywacker wants some poontang!” Oh, and a greasy-haired tough guy refers to himself as “Fenzie” and “The Fenz.” Shameless! Hollywood High delivers lots of sun and skin, accompanied by hopelessly generic rock music, but this movie is so gleefully exploitive that it probably constitutes some sort of cinematic sex crime.

Hollywood High: SQUARE

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Catch My Soul (1974)



          Mixing folk songs, religious allegories, Shakespeare, and show tunes, the unique musical Catch My Soul is an interesting attempt at . . . something. Originally presented on the London stage by writer/producer Jack Good, Catch My Soul was billed as “the rock Othello.”  Once Good and producer Richard M. Rosenbloom set out to make a film version, they hired folksinger Richie Havens to play the leading role, while retaining Lance LeGault from the original stage cast to portray the scheming Iago. Film actors Season Hubley and Susan Tyrell were added to the mix, along with singers Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett and Tony Joe White. Overseeing this eclectic cast was director Patrick McGoohan, better known as an actor in such projects as the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. This was his only feature as a director.
          Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the picture depicts the travails of an evangelist named Othello (Havens). While living with a commune alongside the demonic Iago, Othello falls in love with and marries the angelic Desdemona (Hubley). Iago, whom the film portrays as a manifestation of Lucifer, foments strife by making Othello believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Othello’s friend, Cassio (White). Betrayals, lies, recriminations, and tragedy ensue.
          Alternately titled Santa Fe Satan, this picture suffers from an overabundance of thematic ambition and a shortage of credibility. Jumping onto the ’60s/’70s bandwagon of meshing counterculture imagery with religious parables makes Catch My Soul feel heavy-handed from the first frame to the last, which neutralizes most of the subtleties of the underlying text. At the same time, the storytelling is fragmented, as if McGoohan was unable or unwilling to shoot scenes in proper continuity, and the acting is wildly uneven. Havens, appearing in his first dramatic role, has a quietly authoritative presence but seems awkward while delivering dialogue. Hubley and White barely register, and Tyrell lends her signature eccentricity to a role that ultimately feels inconsequential. (In making room for tunes, the filmmakers gutted Shakespeare’s text.) The film’s standout performance comes from the man who acclimated to his role onstage. For those who only know LeGault from his villainous role in the ’80s TV series The A-Team, watching him in Catch My Soul is startling. Not only can he sing, with a voice as low and dark as an icy wind howling through a cavern, but he’s lithe and loose, and his sleepy eyelids give his visage an otherworldly quality.
          Whereas the film’s tunes are forgettable—though each hits roughly the correct note of menace or longing or wonderment—the picture’s visual component is not. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, a three-time Oscar winner, shoots the hell out of Catch My Soul, whether he’s infusing desert scenes with scorching color or sculpting eerie nighttime images from creative juxtapositions of hot accent lights and ink-deep shadows. Although Catch My Soul doesn’t consistently command or reward the viewer’s attention, the virtues of certain elements ensure that every so often, something dynamic happens.

Catch My Soul: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Vampire Hookers (1978)



Cheaply made, ridiculous, and tacky, this comedy/horror hybrid contains a few entertainingly awful sequences, and in fact the whole picture verges on so-bad-it’s-good splendor. For instance, the title song, which is set to a zippy ’60s-rock groove, features the outrageous lyric, “Vampire hookers—blood is not all they suck!” While on shore leave in the Philippines, U.S. sailors meet prostitutes who lure the sailors, one by one, to a crypt. Turns out the ladies are vampires in the thrall of Richmond Reed (John Carradine), a centuries-old monster. Each time a sailor disappears, his friends search for him, eventually leading to a showdown. Instead of playing this scenario for thrills, screenwriter Howard R. Cohen and director Cirio H. Santiago opt for campy jokes. The vampire brides bitch about how their master never takes them anywhere. Carradine’s character whines that his ladies are too high-maintenance. The vampires’ half-human henchman, a dim-witted thug played by Filipino-cinema stalwart Vic Diaz, mopes because he wants to become a vampire, punctuating most of his remarks with flatulence. (In one scene, he stinks up his own coffin so badly that he gags.) Some of the actors try to make the comedy elements work, including amiable Texas-born character actor Trey Wilson, who later found a niche in the ensemble of Bull Durham (1987). Unfortunately, starlets were cast for their looks and their willingness to disrobe rather than for their talent, and Carradine was decades past his prime when he made this picture. Still, the truly bizarre stuff in Vampire Hookers makes an impression, like the running gag of debating whether Shakespeare was a vampire, or the aforementioned title song. Vampire Hookers also includes one of the most excessive sex scenes you’ll ever encounter outside of a porno, not because it’s graphic but because it goes on forever, with a particularly virile sailor servicing all three vampire brides for a good 10 minutes of screen time 

Vampire Hookers: LAME

Monday, January 25, 2016

Fantastic Planet (1973)



          An animated science-fiction saga made in France, Fantastic Planet applies a novelistic approach to a cinematic genre that often devolves into predictable action/adventure formulas. The weird narrative of Fantastic Planet sprawls over decades of time, includes a vast number of bizarre concepts, and resolves into an allegorical statement about the need for beings to overcome differences. There’s a hero of sorts, but the protagonist of Fantastic Planet is more of a window through which viewers can observe the strange world in which the story takes place. Although there are action scenes, the real focus of Fantastic Planet is the trippy stuff about astral projection, the behavior of godlike aliens, and the savagery of primitive human cultures. That all of this material gets crammed into a scant 72-minute running time reveals one of the picture’s key problems—characterization is largely an afterthought. Ideas rule in Fantastic Planet, placing the film squarely within the sphere of overly cerebral fantasy fiction. If you want a movie that makes you ponder unusual notions, this one fits the bill. But if you want a movie that touches you emotionally, expect to be disappointed or at least frustrated.
          Briefly, the picture takes place on a distant planet where giant aliens called Traags keep humans as pets—a fully grown man is no bigger than a Traags’ hand. One particular human, Terr, is adopted by a Traag child while Terr is an infant. The Traag child outfits Terr with a slave collar that restricts Terr’s movements. Because of a malfunction, the slave collar allows Terr to understand Traag language, making Terr more intelligent and sophisticated than the other humans on the planet. Once he reaches adulthood, Terr flees Traag society and encounters wild humans, assuming a leadership role and leading a rebellion. Other elements percolate in the story, notably a trope of Traags exiting their corporeal forms while meditating, but that’s the overall gist.
          Fantastic Planet has a peculiar look, because the filmmakers created stop motion from elaborate line drawings—somewhat in the vein of Terry Gilliam’s old Monty Python animations. This inevitably limits expressiveness, since there’s virtually no facial movement. Furthermore, some of the imagery is so odd as to be silly, like the bit during which two humans duel by strapping lizards to their chests and letting the lizards have at each other. Huh? Some of the concepts in Fantastic Planet are interesting, though many are trite staples of the sci-fi genre, and the story concludes in a fairly satisfactory manner. Nonetheless, one suspects it was the combination of the funk/lounge score and the wild visual aesthetic that earned Fantastic Planet a U.S. release, rather than the virtues of the storyline. Interestingly, the U.S. version has subtitles, even though replacing the voice cast with English-speaking actors would have a fairly easy task, seeing as how the dialogue isn’t synchronized to lip movements.

Fantastic Planet: FUNKY

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Magician of Lublin (1979)



          As evidenced by the dozens of horrible movies that he coproduced as a partner in Cannon Films, Menaham Golan was a filmmaker who believed in excess. Yet his directorial efforts prove that he possessed some small measure of skill, and that he occasionally gravitated toward worthwhile subject matter. In the war between the two halves of his cinematic identity, however, it seems the vulgarian always came out on top. Consider The Magician of Lublin, a film version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel. The cast includes Alan Arkin, Louise Fletcher, Lou Jacobi, Valerie Perrine, and Shelley Winters. The opulent production values include vivid re-creations of Poland circa the early 1900s. And the lofty storyline touches on anti-Semitism, greed, lust, and mysticism. Alas, virtually nothing in The Magician of Lublin works. Even when the occasional scene is moderately well-written, some directorial choice makes the moment feel false. And whenever Golan reaches for metaphor, he renders clumsy and grotesque melodrama. Seeing as how The Magician of Lublin is about a man capable of charming nearly everyone he meets, this is a spectacularly charmless movie.
          Arkin plays Yasha, an obnoxious magician trying to secure lucrative performance contracts even as he juggles multiple romantic entanglements. He keeps company with a whore (Perrine), maintains a sham marriage to a troubled woman (Maia Danziger), and dreams of running away with an aristocrat (Fletcher) who makes it plain she wants a rich husband because her daughter requires costly medical care. All the while, Yasha strings people along with promises of the great things he will do in the future. The storyline gets strange and tragic as the movie grinds through its 105 sluggish minutes, and it’s virtually impossible to care about anyone onscreen. Arkin’s character is an overbearing liar. Fletcher comes off like a zombie, generating zero chemistry with Arkin. Winters is in full harpy mode, spitting and squawking like she was zapped with a cattle prod before every take. Compounding the extremes of these performances, Golan bludgeons every scene with the same flat loudness, ensuring that the narrative lacks either a point of view or a sense of purpose. The Magician of Lublin is exhausting to watch, and the viewer is left with nothing of consequence after the experience.

The Magician of Lublin: LAME

Saturday, January 23, 2016

In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976)



          Another nonfiction winner from the folks at Sunn Classic Pictures—if by “winner” one means a ridiculous celebration of pseudoscience that presents hypotheses and rumors as if they’re stone-cold facts—In Search of Noah’s Ark explores various dubious claims that remnants of the Bible’s most famous ship rest atop Turkey’s Mount Ararat. While beardy host Brad Crandall describes “evidence” and theories with his persuasively stentorian voice, the filmmakers use documentary techniques, interviews, and stock footage to make their wildly unsupported claims seem credible. As with Sunn Classic’s docs about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, etc., the storytelling style is designed to excite the viewer’s imagination. First, the central premise is broken into units. Second, outlandish remarks and visuals “support” the veracity of each unit, with Crandall saying things like, “Now that’s impressive evidence.” Third, Crandall proceeds to the next unit, as if the previous item is no longer open to doubt. The guiding notion is that if X, Y, and Z are true, then the overarching premise (which comprises X+Y+Z) must also be true.
          In the ’70s, nobody shoveled bullshit quite as vigorously as Sunn Classics.
          In Search of Noah’s Ark begins with a cheaply rendered dramatization of the Noah story. To the accompaniment of Crandall’s narration, Noah receives commands from God, builds his ark despite scorn from neighbors, gathers two specimens of each living creature on Earth, and endures a catastrophic flood before opening his ark and repopulating the planet. The would-be comedic bits of a chimpanzee herding animals onto the ark are as underwhelming as the low-budget FX used to depict the ark floating across an endless ocean. After 25 minutes of this stuff, Crandall leads viewers into the meat of the picture. The presence of sediment in various global locations “proves” that water once covered the planet. The discovery of salt atop Mount Ararat “proves” the ocean once rose to the mountain’s peak. And so on. In one glorious bit, a scale model of the ark is set upon the waves of a laboratory tidal pool, demonstrating the seaworthiness of such a vessel. Wow.
          Eventually, the picture settles into its longest stretch, describing various expeditions to the top of Mount Ararat. Using photos, re-creations, and stock footage, the filmmakers relay eyewitness reports from folks who saw the ark atop the mountain. Fuzzy aerial photos and questionable analysis of wood samples further “corroborate” the findings. In Search of Noah’s Ark is as silly as it sounds, but the fun of these Sunn Classic explorations stems from embracing the “What if?” dimensions of the human experience. Setting aside the question of whether or not 1976 viewers took In Search of Noah’s Ark seriously, they showed up in droves to screenings—the picture grossed an astonishing $55 million, becoming one of the year’s most successful movies.

In Search of Noah's Ark: FUNKY

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dracula’s Dog (1978)



Dull and silly, Dracula’s Dog—sometimes known as Zoltan: Hound of Dracula—lives down to its ridiculous title. Although the film has a fair amount of visual polish given its shoestring budget, the script is so unrelentingly brainless that the movie elicits boredom more than any other reaction. In the goofy opening scene, Russian soldiers excavating a cave discover a crypt bearing the family name “Dracula,” and a coffin spills from the crypt. For no discernible reason, a soldier opens the coffin, discovers a figure with a stake through its heart, removes the stake, and then watches as the figure reconstitutes into a Doberman with vampire fangs. The dog kills the soldier, pulls another coffin from a crypt, and removes the stake from the figure in that coffin, reconstituting half-human/half-vampire henchman Veidt Smith (Reggie Nalder).. Instead of reviving their old master, Veidt and the dog decamp to Los Angeles, where they seek out Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), last survivor of the Dracula family line. Does any of this make sense? No, and neither does the “plan” of stealing Michael’s blood for some nefarious purpose. Much of the picture comprises drab scenes of Veidt watching Michael enjoy a camping trip with his family, and then telepathically commanding the dog to make mischief once the sun goes down each night. Even with the occasional scene of the dog chomping onto the neck of a human or another dog, this picture is numblingly boring, especially because the rinky-dink musical score is such an assault on the ears. Compounding these problems, it’s embarrassing to watch the great José Ferrer trudge through idiotic subplot scenes while portraying a Van Helsing-type pursuer.  

Dracula’s Dog: LAME

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Greaser’s Palace (1972)


          The story of Christ has provided artists with fertile subject matter for more than two millennia, with interpretations running the gamut from reverent to scandalous. In the ’60s and ’70s, progressive storytellers drew parallels between the Gospel and hippie-era counterculture (Jesus Christ Superstar, et al.). Others took even more license, like the folks behind the so-called “acid western” Greaser’s Palace. Directed by fringe-cinema luminary Robert Downey Sr., Greaser’s Place sets the Christ parable in an Old West milieu, though the picture features myriad anachronisms. The movie offers abundant sex and violence while portraying a Jesus surrogate as a flamboyantly dressed song-and-dance man with an overactive libido, but Downey’s shock-value tactics render middling results. Greaser’s Palace is a needlessly weird retelling of an enduring narrative, rather than a fully conceived and purposeful interpretation.
          The movie opens with a dancehall girl (played by the director’s wife, Elsie Downey) crooning a song about virginity to a roomful of lust-addled frontier types. Then a dude wearing a head-to-toe white sheet beneath a cowboy hat picks a fight with a young man, putting out a cigar on the young man’s chest. The young man is Lamy “Homo” Greaser (Michael Sullivan), son of the local overlord, Cholera Greaser (Luana Anders). As a result of his constant physical abuse, Larry dies. Around the same time, a mystery man wearing a zoot suit parachutes from an empty sky into an open field. He’s Jesse (Allan Arbus). Jesse comes across the dead Larry and resurrects him. Then Larry proclaims, “I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.” So begins a meandering tale pitting the messianic Jesse against the monstrous Greaser.
          Downey, who also wrote the script, ventures onto bizarre tangents, including a scene of a grubby-looking dude humping a doll. Oddly sexualized images, such as men wearing nuns’ habits or a Native American girl running around topless, pass through the movie without much in the way of explanation or justification. The movie’s tone is all over the place, sometimes frivolous and sometimes horrific, and Downey’s use of Biblical signifiers seems deliberately perverse. Jesse performs an old-timey musical number that climaxes with his manifestation of stigmata. In another scene, Jesse tracks down his talent agent, who wears a globular spaceman helmet and seems to represent the devil. The list of peculiar sights and sounds goes on, and, the director’s son, future movie star Robert Downey Jr., appears briefly. Thanks to Peter Powell’s elegant cinematography, much of which comprises supple long-lens imagery, Greaser’s Palace may be Downey’s best-looking film, and the overall technical execution is quite slick. Nonetheless, given the outlandishness of the enterprise, Greaser’s Palace is surprisingly boring to watch, and it leaves only the faintest of impressions in its wake.

Greaser’s Palace: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Something Short of Paradise (1979)



          Full disclosure: I hate romantic comedies. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but the rigid structure of the genre drives me batty. Boy meets girl, or vice versa. Contrived complications ensue. Subplots involving best friends chew up screen time, masking the absence of legitimate narrative tension. And then, after the usual interrupted wedding or mad rush across town (rainstorm optional), boy apologizes for past misdeeds and declares undying love for girl, or vice versa. Yawn. One can argue that action movies and horror flicks and thrillers are just as predictable, but at least exciting things happen in those genres. Too often, rom-coms are mealy-mouthed nonentities on the order of Something Short of Paradise.
          An inoffensive picture manufactured by skilled people, it’s not a total dud, and leading lady Susan Sarandon makes a few scenes watchable thanks to her unique combination of beauty, charm, intelligence, and strength. But, man, is the storyline mundane. Furthermore, rom-coms only work if both the boy and he girl are interesting to watch. With all due respect to his impressive career in stand-up comedy and TV directing, leading man David Steinberg is no match for Sarandon. Whereas she comes across as believable and complicated, he comes across as forgettable and whiny. If you care whether his character gets together with Sarandon’s, then you have a higher degree of tolerance for this type of crap than I do. Steinberg plays Harris, the manager of a New York City arthouse cinema. Sarandon plays Madeline, a wannabe novelist slumming as a reporter. Introduced by friends, they date briefly and then separate because Madeline is afraid of commitment. Later, they reconnect when Harris’ theater hosts a retrospective for a French actor (played by Jean-Pierre Aumont) whom Madeline is assigned to interview.
          Per the genre formula, the picture also includes tepid subplots about the main characters’ best friends (played by Joe Grifasi and Marilyn Sokol), as well as the protagonists’ futile attempts at dating other people. The dialogue is jokey but not actually funny, the situations are lightweight without achieving effervescence, and Steinberg’s bland screen persona dampens Sarandon’s powerful sex appeal. In the end, it’s all just mush, a lot of talky scenes in search of a unique narrative hook. As the risk of using a phrase as trite as this movie, Something Short of Paradise is for Sarandon fans only.

Something Short of Paradise: FUNKY