Friday, November 17, 2017

The Statue (1971)

          Turns out David Niven’s close encounter with a streaker during the 1974 Academy Awards broadcast wasn’t the only time when the exhibition of male anatomy caused him grief. A few years earlier, the debonair Brit starred in The Statue, a randy UK/US coproduction in which the public display of a phallus is pivotal to the plot. Very much a product of its historical moment, The Statue tries for scandalous laughs by exploring subject matter that could not be explicitly depicted onscreen at the time, therefore creating a sort of wink-wink/nudge-nudge relationship with the audience. And though time has dulled any edginess the picture once possessed, luckily The Statue has other virtues, not least of which is Niven’s smooth comic timing. So even though the movie is quite trivial—a fault not uncommon to sex comedies—it’s palatable and relatively harmless.
          At the beginning of the picture, uptight linguistics professor Alex Bolt (Niven) receives the Nobel Prize for his creation of Unispeak, an international language meant to bridge divides between nations. For convoluted reasons, the American government spends a large amount of money to commission a statue commemorating Alex’s accomplishment, and Alex’s hot-blooded sculptress wife, Rhonda (Virna Lisi), gets the job. But when Alex gets an eyeful of the work-in-progress, he’s shocked: Not only is the giant statue a likeness of Alex in the nude, but the genitals on the statue don’t resemble his own. Thus begins Alex’s fevered quest to identify the model Rhonda used for inspiration, since he presumes that man must be her lover. Probing household staff for the names of men who visited Rhonda while she was working on the statue, Alex contrives to see the men naked by attending a hippie musical, visiting a steambath, and so on. In one especially goofy sequence, Alex slips into a photo booth and snaps shots of his own manhood for evidence, alarming those standing near the photo booth.
          It’s tempting to say this material was beneath Niven, as well as costar Robert Vaughn, but the mischievous spirit of the thing comes through in scenes featuring Monty Python’s John Cleese as a friend of Niven’s character. Cleese lampoons the repression inherent to British culture while also skewering the anything-goes ethos of the ’70s. In its best moments, The Statue is ribald and smart; in its worst moments, the movie is puerile and silly. Whether the good outweighs the bad is very much a matter of taste, though it should be said the Cleese/Niven scenes are a cut above the rest of the picture.

The Statue: FUNKY

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Thirsty Dead (1974)

          When it begins, The Thirsty Dead seems like another sleazy American/Filipino coproduction about slavers abducting women for nefarious purposes—after all, the picture starts with a strip-club dance routine, then continues through assaults and a trek through a dangerous forest. Yet the picture takes a weird turn once the slavers and their hostages reach their destination, a remote city hidden inside a mountain. Wearing a powder-blue number that looks like a ladies’ nightgown, complemented by a giant metal necklace and a stiff-collared cape, Baru (John Considine) is the leader of a bizarre cult that occupies laughable sets reminiscent of the cheapest-looking alien planets from the original Star Trek series. Baru’s people elevate one of their new hostages, Laura (Jennifer Billingsley), to visiting-dignitary status because she sorta-kinda resembles a god whom the citizens worship. Taking the story even deeper into the fantasy-fiction realm, Laura discovers that the citizens drink the blood of various young women whom they abduct from the outside world, because nubile blood combined with a secret elixir creates a formula for immortality. Only some of the citizens are entitled to receive the elixir, however, so the castoffs of the secret society wither away in dungeons, aging until they die. Eventually, a revolution occurs as the powerless members of this secret society pursue revenge.
          Even with the loopy sci-fi concepts at the center of the storyline, The Thirsty Dead is boring, clichéd, and silly. The dialogue is stilted and the acting is worse, so the tacky costumes and sets are the least of the film’s problems, even though the narrative is basically coherent and the technical execution is passable. It’s also tricky to imagine the target audience for the picture. The Thirsty Dead has way too much bloodshed and cheesecake to qualify as family-friendly viewing, and yet the PG-rated picture isn’t rough enough for the grindhouse crowd. And even though the storyline might seem suitable for consumption by genre-flick nerds, The Thirsty Dead is way too stupid to properly stimulate anyone’s imagination. Having said all that, it seems imprudent to utterly dismiss the picture. Anything with ideas, no matter how idiotic they may be, has inherent merit, and the makers of The Thirsty Dead deserve minor credit for avoiding the ugly stereotype of portraying Pacific Islanders as primitive predators. Assigning vile behavior to fantasy characters isn’t much of an improvement, but at least it means The Thirsty Dead is not as numbingly racist as the usual American/Filipino fare of this era.

The Thirsty Dead: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Trader Horn (1973)

Showcasing nearly every jungle cliché in existence, the ’70s version of Trader Horn is the epitome of Hollywood fakery. Set in Africa but shot in Los Angeles, complete with a finale set at the same location used for the exterior of the Batcave in the ’60s Batman TV series, the picture expresses such dubious themes as the white savior, the shrewish woman who needs taming by a man, and the nobility of a maverick who makes his own rules. Decoding this film, one would assume that the path to world peace involves letting self-possessed white men make decisions for everyone. To say the film’s politics were behind the times when Trader Horn was released in 1973 is an understatement. Therefore it’s no surprise to learn that a previous biopic was made about the same real-life historical figure way back in 1931, when demeaning attitudes toward gender and race were even more commonplace in Hollywood. The historical figure in question is Alfred Aloysius “Trader” Horn (1861–1931), a white man who lived in Africa and made his living off ivory but also helped local citizens escape slavery. A complicated portrayal of his life would be fascinating. The 1973 version of Trader Horn is not. Rod Taylor, all macho posturing, plays Horn as a principled rascal who leads hunting parties but rages whenever animals or natives are needlessly endangered. As the story is set in the World War I era, Horn finds himself caught between British and German concerns while helping a party search for an elusive platinum mine and, eventually, aiding revolutionaries. Aside from the peculiar vignette of Taylor riding a zebra, there’s nothing here people haven’t seen in a zillion Tarzan pictures, and apparently the best location footage was repurposed from the 1931 version and juiced with color effects. Trader Horn zips along at a fast pace, so it’s not boring—but it’s so derivative and unevolved that it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

Trader Horn: LAME

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Date with a Kidnapper (1976)

          On a story level, Date with a Kidnapper—also known as Kidnapped Coed, among other titles—is the usual woman-hating sludge, a perverse male-power fantasy filled with sexual violence. Indeed, most viewers would do well to ignore the movie’s existence for just that reason. Yet for those who enjoy exploring the fringes of American cinema, there’s something here worth examining. Writer-director Frederick R. Friedel displays considerable visual imagination, often using small details to give scenes atmosphere and tension. Regarding the former, look at the way Friedel slides his camera past a spiderweb while rolling into a shot establishing the vibe of a decrepit barn. Regarding the latter, consider the movie’s inevitable rape scene, during which Friedel repeatedly cuts to closeups of a male character’s bloody wrists while he struggles against bonds, dramatizing the mans hopeless efforts to rescue his female companion.
          The dynamic of that particular scene is even more complicated than the preceding remarks suggest, because—as the film’s title suggests—Date with a Kidnapper is all about the peculiar relationship between a small-time crook and the college girl he abducts. In some scenes, he’s her tormentor, and in other scenes, he’s her protector. He is also, at regular intervals, emasculated by circumstance. He’s the guy tied to the chair during the rape, which is committed by other criminals. Even a first-year student in gender studies could spend hours unpacking the contradictory and demeaning images in this picture, such as the scene of the coed begging her kidnapper for sex. In most movies of this type, that archetypal moment is maddening and vile; here, it’s both of those things but also slightly unnerving, because Friedel does a fairly good job of giving the kidnapper emotional dimensions. (Example: We see him calling a nursing home to check in on his infirm mother.) To no one’s surprise, the coed isn’t nearly as well developed as a character, so she comes across as a device for expressing Friedel’s troublesome ideas about feminine sexuality.
          Parsing an exploitation flick for deeper meanings may seem absurd, but Date with a Kidnapper is made with sufficient skill to invite closer inspection. If it’s not quite a real movie, in terms of exceeding its grindhouse mandate, it comes close. And if Leslie Rivera’s turn as the coed is frustrating—lots of naked desire without real grounding in character—at least Jack Canon’s performance as the kidnapper is consistently surprising.

Date with a Kidnapper: FUNKY

Monday, November 13, 2017

Something for Everyone (1970)

          Turns out playing the conniving Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) isn’t the only great villainous turn in Angela Lansbury’s filmography. The beloved British actress, best known to many for the kindhearted characters she has played in later life, lends a gleefully craven quality to Something for Everyone, an obscure black comedy that marked the cinematic debut of the great Broadway director Harold Prince. Yet Lansbury’s character isn’t the true antagonist of this elegantly made picture—she’s an accomplice of sorts to an even greater monster, played by leading man Michael York. Together, they energize the film’s acidic commentary on the dark side of human nature.
          Set in Bavaria shortly after World War II, the picture opens on Konrad (York), a stranger who drifts into a small village with eyes on the nearby castle, which is occupied by Countess Herthe von Ornstein (Lansbury) and her small household staff. To be more specific, the Countess lives in a small residence on the castle grounds because her wealth has diminished so greatly she can’t afford to maintain the castle. Konrad charms and schemes his way into an audience with the Countess, eventually securing a job as a chauffeur. Meanwhile, he attracts romantic attention from Lotte (Jane Carr), the Countess’ unglamorous daughter; Helmuth (Anthony Higgins), the Countess’ closeted gay son; and Annaliese (Heidelinde Weis), a beautiful young heiress whose family travels through the village at an opportune moment.
          Determined to achieve social stature and wealth by whatever means necessary—while also indulging his considerable appetites—Konrad becomes Lotte’s adversary, Helmuth’s lover, and Annaliese’s fiancé. Yet only two people see the full scope of Konrad’s machinations, one of whom is the Countess. She’s amused and somewhat aroused by Konrad’s naked ambition, both complimenting and criticizing him by labeling Konrad “shameless, outrageous, and utterly immoral.” The Countess tacitly endorses Konrad’s plotting because she envisions various outcomes by which his success could also be her success.
          Based on a novel by Henry Kressing and nimbly adapted by screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, Something for Everyone benefits from magisterial presentation. In addition to luxuriant costuming and locations, the dexterous score by Broadway great Fred Kander amplifies the story’s caustic aspects. (Two years later, York starred in Bob Fosse’s astonishing movie Cabaret, based on the stage musical by Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.) Although York has the most screen time, Lansbury dominates with her gracefully disdainful presence, especially when spewing such world-weary lines as, “There are no men anymore—just facsimiles.” The movie goes to so many dark places that some viewers may find it distasteful, so it’s unsurprising that Something for Everyone was not a success during its original release and now remains, at best, a minor cult favorite. For those who enjoy the film’s very specific mixture of elements, however, Something for Everyone is lush homage to pure evil.

Something for Everyone: GROOVY

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mark of the Witch (1970)

As all cinemaniacs know, not every bad movie is created equal. Some steal time from viewers and offer nothing in return. Others, such as Mark of the Witch, present a more equitable bargain. Those willing to give this terrible movie 84 minutes of attention are rewarded with entertainingly cheesy performances, endless kitschy ’70s texture, and hilariously stupid storytelling. Mark of the Witch is that special kind of bad movie made by people who surely thought they were making a good movie. (Note that director Tom Moore gave up directing after this debut effort and embarked on a respectable career as a TV producer—he knew when to declare defeat.) Mark of the Witch opens in the 1600s, when a witch curses her accusers before getting hanged for heresy. Three centuries later, one of her tormentors’ descendants is a college professor who unwisely leads his students in a séance. The witch’s spirit enters the body of girl-next-door coed Jill (Anitra Walsh), who then—well, it’s hard to say exactly what she does. Instead of wreaking havoc, the witch politely asks for instructions about how to navigate the modern world, leading to a demonstration of how a coffee percolator works. At some point, Jill has a supernatural freakout while the witch inside her summons Satan, who apparently needs to see Jill’s breasts to know the witch is serious. Eventually, the teacher and Jill’s boyfriend perform what can only be described a s disco exorcism, complete with flashing lights and swirling camera moves. It’s all quite goofy, and for some reason the picture is mostly shot in the bright, flat lighting style of a TV sitcom. Yet there’s a certain sincerity here, as demonstrated by this unusual text in the opening credits: “Title rune written by Anitra Walsh.” From start to finish, Mark of the Witch is endearingly ridiculous.

Mark of the Witch: LAME

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Hitchhikers (1972)

Another odd exploitation movie from married filmmakers Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, The Hitchhikers mixes the distasteful little-girl-lost subgenre with the equally tawdry criminal-cult subgenre. Oh, and the movie also features an extended scene of a gruesome illegal abortion. On some level, perhaps the Sebastians thought they were engaging with serious social issues, and, indeed, some scenes in The Hitchhikers feel sincere. Yet the movie also contains catfights, topless shots, and vignettes of sexy girls standing on the sides of country roads and flashing their panties to get the attention of male drivers. Only the most sophisticated filmmakers can get away with blending exploitation-flick sensationalism with social-drama heaviosity, and the Sebastians have never been accused of demonstrating sophistication. The movie starts in the usual way, with a pretty young girl leaving home because some boy got her in trouble. Maggie (Misty Rowe) has the requisite ugly encounter with a trucker when a dude plies her with food and transportation before demanding sex and raping her when she refuses. Eventually, Maggie falls in with a group of hippies who reside in a ghost town—deliberate shades of the Manson family—and participates in their scheme of robbing men gullible enough to stop their cars when girls show a little skin. Painfully slow and thematically void, The Hitchhikers nearly holds the viewer’s attention simply because it seems as if the plot threads might eventually converge in an interesting way, but of course they never do.

The Hitchhikers: LAME

Friday, November 10, 2017

Where’s Willie? (1978)

          Wholesome family entertainment somewhat in the Disney style, low-budget action/comedy Where’s Willie? tracks the adventures of an eight-year-old computer genius during a time when computers were still novelties. The movie is drab and obvious and saccharine, but it’s also fairly imaginative, and, in a bumbling sort of way, it expresses the worthy theme of parents learning to recognize their children as individuals. So while most contemporary viewers would find this picture a tough sit thanks to the cutesy vibe and the weak leading performance by juvenile player Marc Gilpin, folks of a certain age might enjoy the film as a throwback to a simpler time. What’s more, although the onscreen gadgetry requires a significant suspension of disbelief, Where’s Willie? is more palatable than some actual Disney movies with similar themes because it doesn’t edge into ridiculous fantasy. (Translation: Nobody transforms into an animal or travels through time.)
          In generic small-town America, kindly Sheriff Charlie Wade (Henry Darrow) and his wife, Beth (Katherine Woodville), raise their son, Willie, who becomes more of a handful with each passing year. Thanks to his natural affinity for electronics, he constantly invents gadgets, some for practical purposes (e.g., a self-driving lawnmower) and some for pure boyish mischief. Willie confounds neighbors by messing with traffic lights, causing a huge traffic jam, and by tweaking the clocks at school, triggering an early dismissal of students. Willie’s parents try imposing discipline, but the boy misinterprets their reactions as a message his parents don’t want him, so he runs away, the first of many misadventures.
         Nothing in Where’s Willie? generates much in the way of narrative surprise, but of course that’s not really the point of a movie like this one. The idea is to reaffirm such concepts as family values, the importance of imagination, and the need for civic responsibility. It’s all quite vanilla, to the extreme that at one point during Willie’s prolonged absence from his hometown, a neighbor says to Charlie: “Everybody loves that boy in spite of his computer tricks.” It feels callous to criticize a movie of this sort unless it becomes sanctimonious or stupid, which Where’s Willie? never does. Accordingly, the fact that Where’s Willie? never becomes anything truly special seems almost irrelevant.

Where’s Willie?: FUNKY

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Terror at Red Wolf Inn (1972)

A common complaint about horror movies is that plots often hinge on stupid protagonists. Rarely will you encounter a character dumber than doomed coed Regina (Linda Gillen). One day, she receives a letter indicating that she won an all-expenses-paid vacation. Without telling anyone where she’s going, Regina boards a private plane for a trip to Red Wolf Inn, a beachside mansion where the only other guests are two other young women. The proprietors are friendly seniors Evelyn (Mary Jackson) and Henry (Arthur Space), who receive help from their handsome grandson, Baby John (John Neilson). Life at the Red Wolf Inn is dull but relaxing, marked by epic meals at which everyone eats till they’re nauseous. How many red flags does Regina ignore? Consider a moment she shares with Baby John on the beach. He spots a small shark in the tide, grabs the fish, and bashes it repeatedly against a log, yelling “Shark!” with each stroke. Finally he drops the dead fish onto the sand and punches it several times before turning to Regina and saying, “I think I love you.” Regina also overlooks the fact that Evelyn and Henry prevent her from peeking inside a giant walk-in refrigerator. If you can’t figure out that the proprietors are cannibals fattening up their victims, then you’ve never seen a horror movie. Yet the folks who made Terror at Red Wolf Inn seem to think they’re preparing the audience for a shocking surprise, because the movie is halfway over before the bloodshed begins. Although the picture benefits from imaginative cinematography, the music is anemic, the performances are uneven (Jackson and Space are enjoyably creepy, but the young ladies underwhelm), and the climax is ridiculous. Do yourself a favor and skip this meal.

Terror at Red Wolf Inn: LAME

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Love Butcher (1975)

Employing the familiar device of a killer with two personalities, low-budget horror flick The Love Butcher has enough campy elements that some scenes achieve a pleasant so-bad-it’s-good frisson. After all, it’s hard to completely dislike a picture in which a stud says to his latest conquest, “You’re going to make love to me. Satiate me. Fill me with nymphoid satisfaction. And then you’ll lie at the foot of my altar and adore my godly beauty.” James Lemp plays Caleb, a bald, semi-deformed gardener with Coke-bottle glasses and rotted teeth. He tends greens for middle-class families, methodically identifying where pretty housewives reside. Then he switches to his other identity, Lester, a hunk with a thick head of hair (courtesy of various wigs), to seduce and kill the housewives. Between murderous episodes, Caleb/Lester engages in weird one-sided arguments, his Caleb personality challenging Lester’s virility while Lester mocks Caleb’s ugliness. The Caleb disguise isn’t convincing, so every character who buys into the illusion seems like an idiot. Also coming across as dim are the folks investigating the murders, including cops and a reporter, because Caleb is obviously the common denominator at the crime scenes. Still, most folks don’t watch schlocky horror movies for logic, so it’s more damning that The Love Butcher fails to generate thrills. Blame the clumsy filmmaking and dopey script, as well as Lemp’s limp performance(s). In one scene, Lemp looks up and the film cuts to an insert of a cloudy daytime sky—even though the scene in question takes place at night. And during what’s supposed to be an emotional high point, the film repeatedly cuts to a painting of a dog for no apparent reason. Perhaps the editor was overcome with nymphoid satisfaction.

The Love Butcher: LAME

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Romance of a Horsethief (1971)

          One lesson every professional critic learns early is to compartmentalize personal reactions, because the way a critic responds to art should be just one component of a review. Just as important is consideration of intentions. Part of the critic’s job is to imagine how the people most sympathetic to the type of art in question might respond. Case in point: Romance of a Horsethief. I didn’t dig the movie, but I recognize how other people might. A multinational production set in early 20th-century Poland, the movie has a little bit of everything, because some scenes are adventurous, some are comedic, some are dramatic, and some, as the title promises, are romantic. The acting and production values are respectable, and there’s an appealing humanism to the way the film treats its characters. Yet the story is so diffuse that I couldn’t engage with the film on any meaningful level.
          The title character is Zanvill (Oliver Tobias), who steals horses alongside the older Kifke (Eli Wallach). They live in a small Jewish village. One day, regional military official Captain Stoloff (Yul Brynner) orders the seizure of all the village’s horses for military use. Doing so triggers intrigue and reprisals. Meanwhile, unrelated strife results from parents in the village trying to manage their kids’ love lives. Then wealthy Naomi (Jane Birkin) returns from travels abroad with ideas about rebelling against authority. Once all the storylines converge, Naomi’s dalliance with Zanvill escalates the conflict between villagers and Captain Stoloff’s troops into a mini-revolution.
          Tracking all the comings and goings of the plot is exhausting, and it’s no surprise Romance of a Horsethief was adapted from a novel. The book was penned by Joseph Opatoshu, whose son, the fine  actor David Opatoshu, wrote the script for this movie and plays a supporting role. It’s tempting to conjecture that he felt obligated to use everything his father created. Be that as it may, only some of what happens in Romance of a Horsethief is interesting, and it’s hard to tell whether the appeal stems entirely from the presence of charismatic actors. Not a single participant in this movie delivers exemplary work, though many—Brynner, Opatoshu, Wallach, costar Lainie Kazan—elevate individual scenes. That all of the Birkin-Tobias scenes fall flat says a lot, seeing as how they’re the movie’s least interesting performers. Viewers interested in the experiences of European Jews may find Romance of a Horsethief illuminating from a historical perspective, but viewers craving standard-issue period romance will be disappointed. While not a bad movie by any measure, Romance of a Horsethief is thoroughly underwhelming.

Romance of a Horsethief: FUNKY

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Incredible Sarah (1976)

          Not long after winning two Oscars for Best Actress in quick succession, Glenda Jackson agreed to star in a biopic about Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), often described as one of the greatest actress who ever lived. To be fair, Bernhardt led an eventful life suitable for cinematic treatment, but undoubtedly some folks interpreted Jackson’s assumption of the role as a tacit declaration that she considered herself Bernhardt’s equal or even her superior. Watching The Incredible Sarah today, however, one isn’t struck by any sense of Jackson indulging an artistic ego. Rather, one is struck by the overall mediocrity of the movie. Jackson is excellent, though perhaps not as transformative as one might have expected given the synchronicity between singer and song, metaphorically speaking. However, the film around her is formulaic and pedestrian. Nonetheless, a brisk script, competent supporting performances, and lush production values—in tandem with Jackson’s work—keep the film palatable.
          The Incredible Sarah begins with the title character as a young woman in Paris, making her first audition to the legendary Comédie-Française theater company. Right away, she stands out by reciting prose instead of playing a scene, so she earns a place in the company. Soon afterward, Sarah clashes with the company’s resident diva, Madame Nathalie (Margaret Courtenay), who insists on using blocking and line readings that have been in place for years. Sarah’s desire to reinterpret text leads to an onstage shoving match. And so it goes from there. During Sarah’s early years, her willfulness infuriates small-minded people and inspires true artists. She offends royalty, scandalizes her parents, and generally becomes a notorious figure. She also demonstrates eccentricity by keeping pet monkeys and napping in a coffin. Sarah’s love life proves as tumultuous as her temper proves volcanic, so the dramatic line of the picture involves the question of whether the public can forgive Sarah’s offstage extremes long enough to savor the magic she creates onstage.
          If there was any pointed parallel to be made between Bernhardt’s life and the difficulties of contemporary strong-minded actresses, the makers of The Incredible Sarah failed to recognize the opportunity. At its worst, the movie is a clichéd underdog story reducing Bernhardt to a collection of moods and quirkseven though the clarity of Jackson’s characterization elevates the picture, there’s only so much she can do. It’s an obvious remark to note that Jackson fans will enjoy The Incredible Sarah more than other viewers, so perhaps it’s more useful to note that fans of showbiz stories in general might enjoy the picture, even though it’s shallow and trite.

The Incredible Sarah: FUNKY

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Swinging Barmaids (1975)

          When collaborating with producer Roger Corman, writer Charles B. Griffith often infused B-movies with an offbeat brand of social satire. When operating beyond Corman’s influence, however, Griffith frequently succumbed to lesser impulses. And so it goes with The Swinging Barmaids, a befuddling exploitation flick revolving around sexy women who sling drinks at a joint called the Swing-a-Ling. The movie is perplexing because it has aspects of respectable filmmaking, inasmuch as nudity is kept to a minimum and lip service is paid to workplace issues. The barmaids fret about grabby customers and sore feet, and one barmaid notes that she’s been able to put her boyfriend through medical school by letting drunks objectify her. Yet The Swinging Barmaids—a misnomer of a title, since none of the women sleeps around—isn’t about the plight of put-upon women. It’s about a nutter who gets off by killing them and photographing their corpses.
          The Swinging Barmaids gets darker and darker as it goes along, which is saying a lot seeing as how the picture opens with an uncomfortably lengthy real-time sequence of a dude stalking and slaughtering a busty blonde. (This first victim is played by sex-movie queen Dyanne Thorne.) Once the plot gets moving, B-movie stalwart William Smith joins the mix as the lead police detective on the case, though he doesn’t do much of anything until the grim climax. Receiving most of the focus is curvy waitress Jenny (Laura Hippe), the one with the boyfriend in medical school. Griffith’s script gives Jenny a fair amount of dimension, at least compared to the non-people one normally encounters in this sort of picture, but Griffith’s efforts are not sufficient to create any sort of emotional involvement.
          In lieu of proper drama, the picture becomes a ticking-clock scenario while the killer works his way through other victims on his way to Jenny. Even scenes of the killer covertly interacting with the barmaids once he talks his way into a job as a bouncer at the Swing-a-Ling feel like filler between murders. Regarding those murders, they’re rendered in a fairly restrained fashion, excepting the nasty opening kill. So even though it would be a huge stretch to describe The Swinging Barmaids as worthwhile cinema, the picture isn’t as relentlessly hateful as the usual women-in-peril grindhouse offering.

The Swinging Barmaids: FUNKY

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Runaway, Runaway (1972)

          Given how attitudes toward the LGBTQI experience have changed for the better in the decades since this movie was made, it seems appropriate to offer two different reviews of Runaway, Runaway, sometimes known by the more succinct title The Runaway. From a 2017 perspective, the picture is problematic because it conveys a “straight is great” perspective. But from a 1972 perspective, the movie seems fairly sensitive. What’s more, I confess affinity for any film in which singular B-movie actor William Smith plays something other than a cretin. He’s only about the third-most-important character here, but he approaches a tricky role gently, adding a welcome nuance of evolved masculinity. To be clear, none of these remarks should suggest that Runaway, Runaway is something other than what it is, a low-budget melodrama with sensationalistic elements. The point is merely that it’s a better and more humane picture than it needed to be, despite trashy advertising materials suggesting something just shy of porn.
          After Ricki (Gilda  Texter) leaves her home in some ghastly Southwestern trash heap of a town, she hitches rides and gets abused and molested until meeting Frank (Smith), an East Coast private investigator traveling to California for work. He empathizes with her desire to find herself, and he never makes a pass at her because Ricki says she’s got a guy waiting for her in Los Angeles. Upon reaching L.A., Ricki searches for her boyfriend and falls in with various hippies until accepting an offer of lodging from Lorri (Rita Murray), a sophisticated prostitute. They embark on a hot-and-cold relationship that culminates with Ricki acquiescing to Lorri’s aggressive come-ons out of curiosity. How the story evolves from there further complicates the movie’s statements about gender identity.
          Writer-director Bickford Otis Webber, who never made another movie—instead embarking on a career as a Hollywood music editor—doesn’t evince any special cinematic skill here. Nonetheless, he approaches elements that might have been sleazy with taste, for instance shooting a scene of Lorri and Ricki frolicking nude on a beach from a distance with a long lens. And while the story’x conclusion hits the aforementioned “straight is great” note in a disturbingly definitive way, Bickford otherwise avoids judgmental rhetoric. So even though this is far too minor a film to merit a place in cinematic history, Runaway, Runaway is refreshingly open-minded in many of its particulars—from a 1972 perspective.

Runaway, Runaway: FUNKY

Friday, November 3, 2017

Maxie (1973)

Whatever happened behind the scenes of this oddity must be more interesting than what happens onscreen. Writer-director Paulmichel Mielche, who never made another fiction film, attracted some of the folks from Francis Ford Coppola’s filmmaking collective to work on his crew, and three respectable actors—Talia Shire, Vic Tayback, and Robert Walden—appear in the picture. Perhaps Mielche talked a good game about the picture he intended to make. Or perhaps some in the American Zoetrope crowd dug the idea of playing with exploitation-film elements. Whatever the case, Maxie—later sensationally but not inaccurately renamed The Butchers—is interminable. The story revolves around Maxie (K.T. Baumann), a young girl who cannot speak but helps make money for her small family by delivering newspapers. One day, she spots neighborhood butcher Smedke (Tayback) and his simple assistant, Finn (Walden), taking delivery of human corpses. Finn and Smedke spend the rest of the movie debating whether they should be worried about what Maxie saw. In a subplot, Shire plays a social worker eager to get Maxie into a speech-therapy program. Riddled with confusing transitions and pointless scenes, Maxie trudges along so slowly that it’s incorrect to describe the film as badly paced—it has no pace whatsoever. Shire and Walden play a few moments sincerely, and Tayback incarnates a stereotype loudly. But by the zillionth time Mielche cuts to weird shots of chickens and meat grinders, you’ll be more than ready for Maxie to end—that is, if you haven’t taken the wiser course of avoiding the movie entirely.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Joyride to Nowhere (1977)

Yet another entry in the seedy little-girl-lost genre that flowered in movies and TV during the late ’70s, Joyride to Nowhere hits the trifecta of rotten acting, rotten production values, and rotten storytelling, so the only viewers likely to enjoy this dreck are those who relish cinematic ineptitude and/or those who enjoy watching the degradation of young women. Curvy high-school girls Cindy (Sandy Alan) and Leah (Leslie Ackerman), both of whom sport terrible Farrah Fawcett hairstyles, leave their turbulent homes for an adventure on the road. First they have a comical encounter with Charlie (Len Lesser), a lecherous potato-chip salesman, and then they tangle with Tank (Mel Welles), a rotund mobster. (Lesser is mildly amusing; Welles is not.) After he plies them with drinks and expensive food, Tank brings the girls home expecting carnal payback, but they distract him long enough to steal one of his cars—which just happens to contain $2 million in cash. Had someone like Roger Corman produced Joyride to Nowhere, the getaway scene might have happened 15 minutes into the running time, transforming the rest of the picture into a zippy chase. Alas, the folks behind Joyride to Nowhere—including costar Welles, who helped write and direct the picture—overestimated the entertainment value of their predictable situations and vapid characters. There’s only so much fun to be had watching dumb people do dumb things. Oh, and good luck figuring out why Joyride to Nowhere stops dead for a lengthy muscle-car exhibition.

Joyride to Nowhere: LAME

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Stoolie (1972)

          Usually the presence of two directors in the credits for a movie is a sign of trouble, unless the directors are siblings or spouses, because it’s likely someone got fired partway through the process. Yet every so often, there’s a movie like The Stoolie, which bears no obvious traces of behind-the-scenes friction despite being helmed by John G. Avildsen and George Silano. (Best guess: Established filmmaker Avildsen replaced Silano, a cinematographer making his fiction directorial debut.) Anyway, The Stoolie includes the first starring role for stand-up comedian Jackie Mason, also the film’s executive producer. Although never a major screen star, he’s been a beloved figure on the comedy circuit for decades, and The Stoolie is a perfect vehicle for his deadpan shtick. It’s interesting to contemplate what path Mason’s career might have followed if The Stoolie had found an audience.
          He plays Roger Pitman, a low-rent criminal/informer in New York City. Normally, Roger gets paid by the NYPD to rat on fellow crooks, but one day he pulls a fast one—after swiping $7,500 in NYPD front money, Roger skips town for Miami. This doesn’t sit well with his handler, Sgt. Alex Brogan (Dan Frazer), who vows to track down Roger and recover the cash. But first Roger, to whom life has never been kind, enjoys a brief adventure. Hanging out at Miami nightclubs and resorts, he tries to score with ladies, most of whom tell him to drop dead, until he ends up in a diner next to the equally melancholy Sylvia (Babette New). An unlikely romance begins, though Roger is hesitant to explain his background. (“I don’t want to tell you too much about myself, he says. "I don’t want to lose you this early in the relationship.”) Eventually, Brogan discerns Roger’s whereabouts, and that’s when the story takes an unexpected turn.
          Grounded in solid character work and infused with low-key humor, The Stoolie isn’t for everyone’s taste. Some will find Roger too mopey, Sylvia too naïve, and Brogan too one-dimensional. All true. Yet for those who lock into the movie’s groove—which is really Mason’s groove, all “why does everything happen to me?” kvetching—The Stoolie is quite enjoyable. Some nasty things happen, some sweet things happen, and through it all, Roger struggles to grab whatever dignity and happiness he can. So while this movie is hardly on par with the great offbeat character studies of the ’70s, it at least communicates with roughly the same idiom as those films. And despite the split director credit, it also ranks alongside Avildsen’s most satisfying comedies. Go figure.

The Stoolie: GROOVY

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Savage Weekend (1979)

It’s hard to say which scene epitomizes Savage Weekend. Is it the moment when a woman gets aroused while pumping milk from a cow’s teats? Or is it the vignette of a gay man getting such a twisted thrill by watching straight people have sex that he grips barbed wire till his hands bleed? Although lots of vaguely provocative things happen in Savage Weekend, the movie as a whole is befuddling, dull, and even a little bit pretentious. Like most pictures with similar subject matter, Savage Weekend—also known as The Upstate Murders—contains many ugly episodes of violence against women, as well as a generally perverse fixation on brutality. Yet unlike, say, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), this flick isn’t made with sufficient aptitude to merit either close examination or righteous indignation. It’s just another hack job by folks who, conceivably, could have made something worthwhile if they’d pulled their minds out of the cinematic gutter. Oh, well. The plot involves a group of friends, all professional people well into adulthood, trekking from New York City to an upstate forest for a weekend getaway. As they play out various psychosexual dramas, a crazed killer with a penchant for weird masks murders them one by one. A generous viewer might say there’s novelty here, since the victims aren’t kids and one of the characters is gay, but such generosity seems wasted given that Savage Weekend is a shapeless compendium of gore and smut, none of it exciting to watch. But, hey, maybe you like the idea of seeing future Newhart star William Sanderson portray a rural psychotic. In that case, however,  youre better off watching him in 1977s race-relations potboiler Fight for Your Life, which is even sleazier and a whole lot more coherent.

Savage Weekend: LAME