Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: A*P*E (1976)

When I was a kid one on my most anticipated movies was the Dino De Laurentiis remake of KING KONG. I had heard the rumors - that there weren't going to be any dinosaurs in the film and that the much hyped forty foot tall mechanical Kong didn't work and would be replaced by a man in a suit. I didn't care. The 1933 original got regular rotation on one of our local UHF channels and I was a big fan. I couldn't wait to see what modern filmmaking technology could add to this great story. So great was my anticipation that when the South Korean KONG knockoff A*P*E came to my local theater a few months ahead of the remake I was the first in line. After all, it had two thing that even KING KONG didn't have: the giant gorilla fights a shark (cool!) and it was in 3D, back when it was a fun gimmick and not just an excuse to raise ticket prices.

The film doesn't waste any time getting to the ape action. At the film's start the thirty six foot gorilla has already been captured and thrown into the cargo hold of a ship en route to Disneyland (!) where's he's to be put on display. Within minutes he breaks free of his prison, has his wrestling match with the shark and makes his way towards a rural area outside of Seoul. The amiable ape then proceeds to try and make friends with everyone he meets, from a group of school children to a hang glider to the least convincing cow ever committed to film. All are terrified of his great size and he's about to take his toys and go home when he literally stumbles onto a film set where he crosses paths with American film goddess Marilyn Baker (Joanna DeVarona, aka Joanna Kerns of GROWING PAINS infamy). It's love at first sight and it looks like a happy ending for at least half of our star crossed couple until the army gives the order to shoot to kill, leading to a protracted (and surprisingly bloody) standoff between our hero and the military.

Obviously, the story doesn't stray too far from the KING KONG formula. Where it differs, however, is in the execution. While all three versions of KONG used the leading technology of the time to tell its story, A*P*E looks like a version of KONG filmed by children in their backyard in Super 8. The ape suit looks like it was made out of someone's old wool coat, saved from the garbage can by this production.An overwhelming aura of cheapness pervades the entire production. the scenes of "terrified" villages fleeing their homes feature literally dozens of people, many of them visibly giggling, and the toy cow that the ape interacts with has to be seen to be believed. For some reason, the ape is constantly swinging his arms over his head, like he's auditioning for an all gorilla production of Swan Lake. And then there's the 3D. As I (barely) remember, the 3D used in A*P*E's theatrical engagements wasn't any better or worse than other 3D films of the time. However, while watching it on television in 2D the attempts to simulate three dimensions are every bit as obvious and silly as you'd expect. No opportunity is spared to throw objects at the camera in order to make the little kids in the theater duck. On shot of the ape throwing a boulder at the screen is repeated at least four times. Still, you haven't truly lived until you've seen a giant gorilla flip the bird at a crashed helicopter in 3D.

Yet, for all its faults I still love this movie. The moron plotting, the nonexistent production values and the barely even trying direction all add up to something special, to me at least. Sure I'm laughing at the movie and not with it. I'm sure that the people who made this movie were laughing at it too.  After all, the thing wouldn't even exist except for the opportunity to cash in on the big budget remake. When it was originally released, Paramount forced A*P*E's distributor to put a disclaimer on the poster stating that it wasn't to be confused with KING KONG. I seriously doubt that anyone was confused. For all its similarities, A*P*E is its own thing. It's a perfect movie to watch with a few friends, have a few beers and stare in awestruck wonder at the ineptitude before you. 

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

Besides the gothic horror films that made them famous, Hammer Films dabbled in other genres with varying degrees of success including a series of psychological thrillers designed to capitalize on the success of PSYCHO in 1960.  Titles such as SCREAM OF FEAR, PARANOIAC, MANIAC and NIGHTMARE were all designed to exploit the memory of Hitchcock's film. Val Guest's STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!, the first of these films, was released only four months after PSYCHO's premiere in the US so it may be more a beneficiary of good timing rather than a conscious effort to exploit the earlier film. 

The film begins with professional race car driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) showing he may want to rethink his chosen profession by barely surviving a head-on collision en route to his honeymoon.  A year later Alan's still not quite over his brush with death so he and his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) decide to take a vacation in the South of France as a means of getting Alan to relax. It turns  out that Alan is afraid to have sex with Denise because of an overwhelming compulsion to strangle her to death afterwards.  Luckily, the couple meet a dedicated, cat-loving psychiatrist, Dr. Prade (Claude Dauphin), who is willing to work with Alan to rid him of his compulsion. All goes well until the morning when Denise disappears amid signs of a struggle and a box full of bloody surgical tools.

PSYCHO worked because Anthony Perkins was able to create audience sympathy for Norman Bates. Unfortunately Ronald Lewis is unable to make Alan Colby, as tortured as he is, into a halfway sympathetic character. As written, not only is he a potential murderer but he's also an arrogant hothead, constantly flying off the handle  at whoever he's interacting with at the moment and accusing them of thinking he's insane (which he certainly appears to be). This film could just as easily been called STOP ME BEFORE I ACT LIKE A JERK!  Also it doesn't help that the plot  revolves around him being an abusive husband (intentionally or not). After all, he doesn't want to kill anyone else, just Denise.

Still, the film does have its pleasures, chief among them the performance of Claude Dauphin as Dr. Prade. It's not to guess that his motives in the film might not be entirely altruistic but he still exudes a trustworthy, paternal quality that makes it a pleasure whenever he's onscreen. I also found the film depiction of psychiatry to be interesting. I was very amused when Prade lists lobotomy as a treatment option in his first session with Colby. Also very intense was the scene where Prade forces Colby to breath carbon dioxide in order to literally choke repressed memories out of him.

Val Guest contributed several classics to the Hammer Films canon both as a writer and director, including QUATERMASS 2 and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! may be minor Guest but it's still interesting enough to be recommended. It's dated somewhat and its twists aren't terribly difficult to see coming but it's still able to entertain as an example of a competently made B movie of the period. Just keep away from the carbon dioxide.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Lisztomania (1975)

Throughout his long career Ken Russell, who passed away on November 27 at age 84, showed a desire to elicit visceral reactions from his audience through his use of outrageous imagery, whether it be sexual, religious or surreal.  LISZTOMANIA is easily Russell's most visually extravagant film and to this day remains one of his most polarizing for viewers.

Advertised by its studio as the film that "Out Tommys TOMMY," LISZTOMANIA was Russell's followup to that box office hit.  It features TOMMY's very English leading man, The Who's Roger Daltrey, in a biopic of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Russell uses Daltrey to reimagine Liszt as the world's first pop star, complete with perm and outfits emblazoned with giant keyboards.  The film follows Liszt's dealings with his various mistresses and groupies, his romance with Princess Carolyn of Russia (Sara Kestelman) and his struggles to create great music.  However, the main focus of the film is Liszt's relationship with Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) which begins as a friendly professional rivalry and ends much more seriously when Wagner marries Liszt's daughter and his music begins to be used as propaganda espousing pro-German superiority.

Throughout the film Russell outdoes himself in terms of crazy visuals, most of which are informed by his love of pop culture. For instance, Wagner's nationalism eventually causes him to to transformed into a Nazi uniform wearing Frankenstein's monster, complete with a machine gun guitar. The film's sweetest sequence shows Liszt in domestic bliss with his wife, shown as a parody of THE GOLD RUSH complete with Liszt as the Little Tramp. And I would dearly have loved to be in the room when Russell explained to Warner Brothers executives the rationale behind the scene where Liszt returns from Heaven in a music-powered spaceship in order to defeat the Nazis.

Daltrey has since proven to be a capable enough actor in the right role but he's pretty much out of his element here. Like in TOMMY, he pretty much acts with his hair, tilting his head so it sways in the breeze at a tempo that corresponds to whatever emotion he's supposed to be feeling at the time. At least he's better than Ringo Starr, who cameos as the pope, complete with a eyepatch with a rhinestone cross sewn on it.

Obviously this kind of thing isn't going to be everyone's cup of classical tea. I'm not sure what value, if any, this film has as a biography.  I didn't learn a whole lot about Franz Liszt and I'm even hard pressed to remember any of his music from the film (the score is credited to Rick Wakeman "with assistance from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner"). In the film defense I'll say that I was never bored and was constantly amused at how Russell constantly managed to top himself with one insane sequence after another. Today's film industry simply won't allow another maverick like Ken Russell an that's really too bad. Like it or loath it, there's never been another film like LISZTOMANIA and there's not likely to be again.

For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

1974's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is one of my favorite films and I've always been amused by Hollywood's repeated attempts to turn it into a franchise. The original film is perfectly contained and doesn't lend itself to being part of a series, yet we've had three sequels, a remake, a prequel to the remake and next year we're promised yet another remake, this time in 3D. And we've had this odd beast, written and directed by Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the 1974 original.

This film, like most of the films in the series, positions itself as a direct sequel to the original and then proceeds to play like a combination of sequel and remake.  the plot involves Jenny (Renee Zellweger) who, along with a group of friends, gets stranded on the way home from the senior prom. They then run afoul of the first film's cannibal family, led by Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey).  From there, Henkel gives us variations on famous scenes from the original film including one of the victims being hung on a meathook, the family dinner scene and of course Jenny being chased by the murderous Leatherface, armed with his chainsaw. Henkel manages to put some strange spins on things, including having Leatherface be a crossdresser, something that was hinted at in the original and wisely discarded. There's also a headscratcher of a third act where Henkel introduces the idea of an Illuminati-like organization that has been controlling the family's activities for centuries. Really.

Shot independently as RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, this film sat on the shelf for several years due to its inability to secure a distributor and it became a popular item on the bootleg circuit. In the late 1990s the film suddenly became marketable after the rise to stardom of both Zellweger and McConaughey.  It was purchased by Sony, edited slightly and released via home video to a confused public. Actually, despite its penchant for going off the deep end, the movie is not bad.  It's well made and the leads are really quite good. There are rumors that Zellweger and/or McConaughey tried to halt the film's release but they have nothing to be ashamed of here. The problem with the film is its unsatisfyingly weird conclusion.

If you've never seen any of the CHAINSAW films and you're curious, well, see the original. But if you've seen the others you may owe it to yourself to check this one out as well. After all, most of the other films in this franchise aren't exactly classics and this one's not as bad as its reputation suggests, at least for most of the way. Did I mention that it gets weird?

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: I Don't Know Jack (2002)

Chris Leavens' I DON'T KNOW JACK is a warts and all documentay about the life of character actor and David Lynch regular Jack Nance.  Told through the eyes of his family and friends, it is a portrait of a man who allowed his talent to be consumed by his inner demons.

The film begins by showing Nance as a promising young actor in the late 1960s (when he almost nabbed leads in films such as IN COLD BLOOD and THE GRADUATE), to his big break in ERASERHEAD and finally his later years as a character actor in such project as TWIN PEAKS, MOTORAMA and, of course, MEATBALLS 4.  However, most of the documentary's running time is devoted to exploring Nance's alocholism, which surfaced early in his life and not only affected his career but also his personal relationships, such as his combative first marriage to Catherine Coulson (later a TWIN PEAKS co-star).  Through the interviews, an image emerges of Nance as an almost Jekyll and Hyde personality: warm and kind while sober but an absolute terror with a loud mouth and quick temper when he was drinking.

Some great stories emerge in the interviews, such as Nance not wanting to do ERASERHEAD until bonding with Lynch over a wooden roof rack that Lynch had built. Dennis Hopper tells how he tried to trick Nance into rehab during the filming of BLUE VELVET by telling him that they would slowly wean him off alcohol instead of forcing him to go cold turkey.  A casting director tells how Nance turned down a role in the film MIRACLE MILE because he had just gotten a job as a security guard and the film would conflict with his work schedule. the most touching part of the film deals with the suicide of Nance's second wife, Kelly Van Dyke while he was on location shooting MEATBALLS 4. Nance's belief that he had at least partly caused her to take her own life (they were talking on the phone when the line went dead due to an electrical storm) led him to resume drinking after several years of sobriety, a state of mind which probably led to his mysterious death in 1996, supposedly the result of a late night altercation outside a Los Angeles doughnut shop.

I DON'T KNOW JACK provides a revealing look at a tortured human being. I give the film a lot of credit for not shying away from Nance's dark side. It would have been very easy for this film to be nothing more than a whitewashed tribute to a fallen friend. By acknowledging his faults, Jack Nance emerges as a full blooded human being, one that is very obviously loved and missed by those he left behind.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Trancers (1985)

"Dry hair's for squids."
                   -- Jack Deth

Back in the 1980s, when VHS rentals were just beginning to take off, the direct to video shelf of your local video store earned a well deserved reputation as a place to avoid.  It quickly became a stop of last resort for all but the most adventurous renters, a dumping ground for unwatchable foreign horror movies, laugh-free comedies and Lorenzo Lamas action flicks.  However, every so often a movie would show up on the DTV shelf that actually had some entertainment value.  One of these was Charles Band's TRANCERS, a low budget riff on the previous year's THE TERMINATOR that managed to hide its lack of big action set pieces by substituting a clever script, good acting and quite a bit of humor.

Tim Thomerson stars as Jack Deth, a cop in 23rd century Lost Angeles, on the trail of arch villain Whistler (Michael Stefani).  Not only is Whistler one tough dude to catch, but he also has the ability to control the minds of weak willed people, creating an army of minions called Trancers who do his bidding. In order to evade capture, Whistler transports his consciousness back to 1985 Los Angeles where he plans to murder the ancestors of the council that controls the city in the 23rd century. Deth chases after him, embedding his consciousness in the body of his ancestor, conveniently also a cop who looks just like Jack. Aided by Leena (Helen Hunt) Jack chases Whistler while avoiding Trancer attacks and being forced to cope with life in 1985 L.A., not necessarily in that order.

The film's biggest asset is Thomerson, who had the good sense to play Jack Deth straight and let the comedy come from his interaction with the strange characters around him. Whether dealing with surfer dudes, sports cars or a great scene in a punk nightclub (which features an awesome hardcore version of "Jingle Bells"), Thomerson creates a terrific fish out of water character. Helen Hunt is also very likeable as Leena and I still think that this is some of the best work she's ever done. They're aided by a smarter than usual script which takes the time to include some character development that normally would have been left out of a film like this. The script's attention to detail go a long way towards masking the film's non-existent budget and bad (even by 1980s direct to video standards) special effects.

It's probably not going to change your life but there are certainly worse ways to spend 76 minutes than with this likeable little sci-fi flick.  Unfortunately, Charles Band was never one to let a good idea go to waste so he ran the concept into the ground with no less than five sequels (Hunt bailed after the third film, Thomerson lasted until the fifth). the sequels get progressively worse and, if possible, even cheaper looking. Thomerson even makes a late career appearance as Jack Deth in Band's 2006 EVIL BONG, which is something that just makes me cry. Ignore them and stick with the original.

For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Trick or Treat (1986)

Remember back in the 1980s when various fundamentalist groups and the PMRC were warning us about the evils of rock music? Specifically, that it was possible to embed satanic messages into the music that would only be audible if the record were to be played backwards? And remember how most of us thought how stupid that idea was and how we laughed at the folks who ruined their turntables trying to find hidden meanings in their Milli Vanilli records? Well, it turns out that the joke was on us because TRICK OR TREAT is the movie that proves that the rumors were ALL TRUE.

Marc Price stars as Eddie Weinbauer, aka Ragman, a bullied teen whose one comfort in life is his devotion to heavy metal music, particularly the music of Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), who had previously escaped Eddies dead end hometown to become a rock god. When Sammi dies in a hotel fire, a devastated Eddie is given an advance copy of Sammi's final album, charmingly titled Songs in the Key of Death.  However, when Eddie plays the album he not only hears some of the worst heavy metal ever produced but also personal messages from Sammi instructing Eddie to take deadly revenge on the classmates torturing him (including a pre-MELROSE PLACE Doug Savant as a mean jock).  Soon Sammi goes from possessing Eddie's stereo to inhabiting any electrical appliance, from drills to TVs to cars (I think he controls them through the radio).  It's all part of Sammi's master plan which is set to culminate with a radio broadcast of the album at midnight on Halloween.  At that time Sammi's going to do...something really bad.  It's never made very clear but it'll be pretty unpleasant, I'm sure.  In any case, it's up to Eddie to stop the broadcast before all hell breaks loose.

You may have noticed that the plot to this film doesn't make a lick of sense.  I'd even go so far as to say that there isn't one logical event that happens in the course of the film.  Normally, this would be an impediment to one's enjoyment of the film but in the case of TRICK OR TREAT just the opposite is true.  As boneheaded as this film is most of the time it's never less than enjoyable, even though the audience is usually laughing at the film instead of with it. It's impossible not to love scenes such as Eddie smashing his possessed stereo with a baseball bat, explaining to his befuddled mother that he "wanted a new one."  And in case there was any doubt that this movie is a fantasy, the script has the cutest girl in school inexplicably fall for our dork hero in possibly the least convincing romantic subplot of all time. To cap it off, there are brief cameos by Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne to appease the heavy metal fanbase this film was supposedly appealing to.  In Ozzy's case, his roughly two minutes of screen time playing a fundamentalist minister amply shows why he never managed to have a movie career.

It might have been possible to make an effective horror film around the phenomenon of backwards masking but this isn't it.  I have to think that the producers always intended this film to be tongue in cheek rather than a serious horror film. Otherwise, why hire Skippy from FAMILY TIES as the  world's least threatening metalhead and then give the film to AMERICAN GRAFFITI's own Terry the Toad, Charles Martin Smith, as his directorial debut? Plus, Sammi Curr is really nothing more than Freddy Krueger with leather and eyeliner. Still, despite the bad casting, the unsure direction and complete lack of logic, this movie is great fun.  Lower your expectations and enjoy the film on its own terms and you're sure to have a good time.

Interesting casting note: Eddie's best friend is played by Glen Morgan, who would soon give up acting and find greater success as a producer on such shows as THE X-FILES as well as films like FINAL DESTINATION and the WILLARD remake.  

For more overlooked films and TV visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Candy Tangerine Man (1975)

Ron Lewis (John Daniels) is a pillar of the African American community, a mild mannered businessman with a nice house in the San Fernando Valley, a beautiful wife and two loving kids.  But at night Ron travels to downtown L.A. and adopts his alter ego of the Baron, the most feared pimp on the Sunset Strip.  However, as Three Six Mafia was to teach us more than thirty years later, it's hard out there for a pimp.  His ladies are holding out on him, the mob doesn't want him trespassing on their turf, and he's being hounded by two racist cops who want him put out of commission for good.  It's up to Ron to engineer one last big score so he can put his Baron persona to rest permanently.

Thus begins Matt Cimber's THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN, one of the wildest and most entertaining of the short-lived blaxploitation genre.  Logic and believability were never essential components of blaxploitation films bu they were popular because they gave black audiences a chance to see themselves on screen in positions of power while they brought The Man to his knees (even though most of these films were made by white filmmakers, like this one).  However, by the mid 1970s the genre was running on fumes and many of the remaining films descended to the level of self parody.  CANDY TANGERINE MAN manages to straddle a very fine line between drama and comedy.  While Cimber throws in a few touches that clue the audience in to the ridiculousness of the premise (such as the Baron's car, which is equipped with retractable machine guns to more effectively dispose of his enemies), most of the film is played straight so we end up genuinely involved in the Baron's plight.

Most of the credit for the success of the film has to go to the committed, sympathetic performance of John Daniels.  The script doesn't do the film any favors in that is almost completely sidesteps the question of why a normal guy like Ron would choose to live a double life as a pimp.  However, Daniels manages to silently convey during his scenes at home that while he loves his family he feels stifled by suburban life and needs to live a more exciting existence.  Still, he chooses to become a pimp, a career choice not every audience member is going to be able to get behind.  The character does manage to show his moral center in a nicely played early scene where he attempts to buy an underage runaway from another pimp in order to put her on a bus back home.  As far as pimps go, he's one of the nicer ones.  He even gives his hookers the weekends off.

Cimber keeps the film moving at a good clip, never allowing it to overstay its welcome and giving it a genuine sense of period flavor.  This is surely helped by the "hookers and blades of the Sunset Strip," who are credited as playing themselves in the film, as well as a terrific score by the funk band Smoke.  CANDY TANGERINE MAN was a sizable hit in 1975 but has fallen into almost total obscurity since then.  A shame, since it's a classic of the genre and deserves to be discussed  along with better remembered entries like SHAFT and SUPERFLY.  Of course those films had major studios behind them while CANDY TANGERINE MAN was released by the now defunct Moonstone Entertainment.  It had a brief release on VHS in the mid 1980s but has since become very hard to see.  If you're at all interested in checking out a wild example of 1970s exploitation it's worth the effort to track down a copy.

For more overlooked films and TV visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Forbidden World (1982)

"If it is intelligent, have you thought about trying to communicate with it?"
That's about the stupidest damn idea I've heard all day.  No offense, Barb."

Let;s get one thing straight right way: Allan Holzman's FORBIDDEN WORLD is a work of pure genius. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is going to see  this mangy mutt of a science fiction thriller with a good friend back in 1982 in a theater along with five or six other unsuspecting moviegoers (on a double bill with Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE remake, of all things).  We knew we were in for a special experience right from the pre-credits sequence which consists of a flashforward montage of almost every bit of nudity and gore in the film followed by a space  battle made up almost entirely of stock footage from BATTLE BEYOND THE EARTH.  It was at this point that one of my fellow theatergoers, a gentleman sitting a few rows away from us, yelled in his loudest voice, "No wonder it's forbidden, it sucks!"

The film follows interstellar troubleshooter Mike Colby (b-movie veteran Jesse Vint), who is awakened from suspended animation along with his faithful droid companion SAM 104 to investigate some strange goings on at a scientific research station on the plant Xarbia.  It seems that one of their test subjects, Subject 20, has mutated into something angry and hungry.  It seems that Colby's unique view of interspecies relations ("If it moves and it's not one of ours, shoot it") is just the ticket to save the day before the station's crew becomes lunch.

FORBIDDEN WORLD was one of the last of producer Roger Corman's  attempts to cash in on the success of STAR WARS and ALIEN and in my opinion it's clearly the best.  It's missing the saccharin qualities of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and the pacing issues that plagued GALAXY OF TERROR.  FORBIDDEN WORLD is a lean mean little movie that realizes exactly how ridiculous and unoriginal it is without ever succumbing to the level of parody.  This may not have been intentional since reportedly Corman was unhappy with the amount of humor in the film and forced Holzman to remove almost all of it, the result being that scenes that may have once been played for laughs are now played completely straight, making them even funnier.

There's much to love in this movie including a genuinely good performance by the late Fox Harris as the station's chain-smoking, cancer-ridden head scientist.  Harris specialized in playing oddballs and would later turn up in another '80s classic, REPO MAN, playing the irradiated driver of the car that everyone in the film is chasing after.  Also of note is the final method of disposing of the monster.  I won't spoil it here but suffice it to say that you probably haven't seen anything quite like it before.  From it's nonsensical opening to the philosophical ramblings of SAM 104 ("They switch you off when life is good and switch you back on when they're up to their noses in life's bitter droppings") to the jaw-dropping, bloodsoaked finale, FORBIDDEN WORLD is a joy from start to finish.  I've seen this film more times than can possibly be healthy since that evening at the much missed College Theater in Swarthmore, PA.  I never get tired of it and it always puts a smile on my face when I'm up to my nose in life's bitter droppings.

For more overlooked films and video visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday'a Overlooked Films: Race With the Devil (1975)

One of the most popular tropes of 1970s action cinema was the fear of  leaving home and venturing into some of the more rural parts of the United States. It seemed that there was trouble just waiting to happen in every part of the country that wasn't lucky enough to be covered in concrete. In DELIVERANCE (1972) the vacationers no sooner get to their destination when they meet up with homicidal inbred hillbillies. In TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) it's homicidal inbred cannibal hillbillies. Jack Starrett's RACE WITH THE DEVIL tries to go them one better: The naive city folk leave town and are pursued by homicidal Satanists. They'll not only take your life but they'll have your soul, too!

Best friends and business partners Roger and Frank (Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) pack into a giant RV with their wives Kelly and Alice (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit) en route to a skiing vacation in Aspen. Of course to get there they need to travel through rural Texas.  As always happens in this type of film, things go south as soon as they turn off the main road in favor of a shortcut.  It's a shortcut, all right....a shortcut to Hell! While parked for the night, Roger and Frank witness a Satanic ritual a short distance away which culminates in a human sacrifice. When they realize that they've been seen, the cultists give chase to the the vacationers in order to silence them.

As is also typical of this genre, the film tries to ratchet up the paranoia level by having everyone the innocent outsiders meet be part of the Satanic conspiracy. As a result everyone in a several hundred mile stretch of rural Texas is tied into a vast Satanic network. Yeah, okay, I can buy that. What I can't quite accept is that the cultists didn't see a huge RV parked right next to their ritual site. I guess chronic myopia is a side effect of selling your soul to Satan. Anyway, the film does a decent enough job of giving the impression that someone is always looking over our heroe's shoulders. Fonda does a surprisingly good job of playing someone who's involved with something that's out of his depth (in a Dustin Hoffman in STRAW DOGS kind of way, except it's still Peter Fonda so lower your expectations a bit) but Warren Oates simply could not portray a wimpy outsider if his life depended on it. That's not a criticism. Oates is always a delight to watch but I still think that if he wanted he could have sent those pesky cultists straight to hell with a flick of his wrist.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL is an entertaining film but kind of a slow burn, with not a lot happening in the first half of the film. However, the second half is loaded with some amazing stunt work, the likes of which would probably all be done with CGI today.  One of the things I really love about movies from this era is trying to figure out how the various gags were achieved in a pre-CGI world.  This film was a staple on TV in the late '70s and early '80s and it's perfect fare for a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the best part is that you can watch it while you're safe at home.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Bonnie's Kids (1973)

One of the better drive-in features of the early 1970s, Arthur Mark's BONNIE'S KIDS shows that a decent script, professional actors and a sure hand behind the camera can result in a film that, while a disposable piece of exploitation at heart, can also be a solid piece of entertainment that holds up very well nearly forty years after it was made.

Ellie (Tiffany Bolling) and Myra (Robin Mattson) are two sisters living in a sleepy little town with their abusive stepfather, Charlie, after the death of their mother two years earlier. When Ellie catches Charlie assaulting Myra she kills him, hides his body and the two sisters head off to the Big City in search of their Uncle Ben, who runs a modeling agency which is really a front for the mob. At this point, the film separates the two sisters, giving them their own distinct storyline. Myra becomes the object of affection for Ben's latent lesbian wife, Diana, while Ben recruits Ellie as an unknowing courier of a suitcase full of mob money. When she realizes what she's carrying she splits with the money, only to be pursued by two enforcers (Alex Rocco and Tim Brown). Needless to say, this is an exploitation film from the 1970s so it's unlikely that either plotline will end happily.

Every step of the way BONNIE'S KIDS feels like it's a cut above the usual grindhouse fare of the period. In fact, it really doesn't feel like a grindhouse film at all. While Marks never passes up an opportunity for gratuitous nudity and bloodshed (including surprising nudity from Mattson, who was 16 when this film was made) the story is strong enough that it never feels like just a string of exploitation set pieces. Marks, who previously had been know mainly as a director for the PERRY MASON  TV series, shows a flair for action. the film is well paced and never drags throughout its 105 minutes. This is helped by its excellent cast which besides B-movie queen Bolling and future soap star Mattson includes solid performances by Rocco (whose connection to the previous years THE GODFATHER is played up in the film's trailer), Max Showalter and Sharon Gless in her film debut.

When people talk about the good old days of the 1970s exploitation film this is the kind of movie their talking about. As much as I love exploitation from that period I'll be the first to admit that more often than not the movies were just not very good. BONNIE'S KIDS is an exception (along with Bolling's other classic from 1973, THE CANDY SNATCHERS). It's a terrific movie for anyone looking for a fast paced crime thriller with just a pinch of sleaze thrown in for good measure. Check it out.

For more overlooked films go to Todd Mason's blog


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Wolfguy (1975)

One of the most enjoyable things about seeking out obscure movies is the pleasure of finding a film so totally crazy that it couldn't possibly exist, yet does. Such is the case with WOLFGUY, a berserk mix of action, horror and martial arts, and without a doubt one of the strangest (and rarest) films of Japanese cinema superstar Sonny Chiba's long career.

Chiba play "Wolf" Inugami, one of those only in the movies reporters where the stories come to him and very little reporting actually goes on. One night Inugami  is minding his own business when he stumbles across a man being hacked to death on a Tokyo street by what the police implausibly yet correctly call a "spectral slasher." ("It seems to be the only explanation."). It turns out that the man is a member of a rock group hired by his management to gang rape Miki, another of the management's acts, in order to derail her engagement to to the son of a conservative politician. Understandably, this leaves Miki angry, to say nothing of drug-addicted, infected with syphilis and working as a singer in a geisha-themed strip club (her songs about how she is destined to die insane don't exactly go over well with the clientele). It seems that Miki, in her rage, has learned to channel her inner animal (a tiger) and have it astrally attack those who have wronged her.Can Inugami help bring her peace and stop the killing?

It turns out he can because (wait for it) Inugami is the last of a pack of wolf people, the rest of whom were wiped out by a gang of villagers years before. While Chiba never turns into a werewolf per se (something that would have instantly elevated this movie to classic status), he is gifted with heightened senses and the ability to jump really high. However, before he can deal with Miki, Inugami will have to deal with a  clandestine government agency (the JCIA, of course) who want to use his blood to create super soldiers. Oh, and there are yakuzas too.

As far as I can tell, WOLFGUY has never been officially released on any home video format anywhere in the world. Information about it on the Internet is extremely scarce and I have no idea what the public's reaction to it was upon its release but Chiba looks noticeably uncomfortable throughout the film, like he's a bit embarrassed to to be there. That may say a bit about why the film is so rare and why there was never a WOLFGUY 2. That's a shame, since the movie is a lot of fun and I would have like to have seen the further adventures of Inugami. I would even have been happy to see an American remake of the material, starring, say, Jo Don Baker as Wolfguy. As it is, the film is only available on the gray market as a VHS recording taken from a 1993 Japanese TV broadcast. Still, any fan of Japanese exploitation cinema would be wise to seek it out. It's fast paced, bloody and has enough craziness it it for four movies. See it, if you can, and be amazed.

For more forgotten films visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Damnation Alley (1977)

I last saw Jack Smight's DAMNATION ALLEY when I was about fourteen years old when my parents took me to see it at the local drive-in (I believe it was the bottom half of a double bill with JAWS 2). I remember kind of liking it but my memory of the night is a bit hazy. Besides, I was fourteen and I pretty much liked everything I saw. It's even possible that I didn't even stay awake through the whole thing. So when Shout! Factory recently released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD (its first legit home video release since the VHS days) I figured it would be as good a time as any to revisit this mostly forgotten piece of my childhood.

The movie doesn't waste any time getting started. at a military outpost in New Mexico we're introduced to George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent, two Air Force officers who's job it is to launch nukes at the enemy in case of war. And wouldn't you know it - within minutes of the start of their shift a full fledged nuclear war breaks out. That's what happens when you trust Jan Michael Vincent with the bomb. Flash forward two years and America is a desolate wasteland. Radiation has caused the sky to turn a different color every five minutes and Vincent is forced to outrun packs of giant scorpions on his motorcycle. When the military base is destroyed due to someone smoking a bit too close to some dangerous chemicals, Peppard, Vincent and Paul Winfield decide to hit the road in a totally rad military RV decked out with all the options, including a missile launcher on the roof. The decide to head for Albany, possibly the last city in America, but first they'll have to drive through the war ravaged remains of the US highway system, otherwise know as Damnation Alley. Along the way they stop and pick up Dominique Sanda as a Las Vegas lounge singer whose career was rudely interrupted by the apocalypse and Jackie Earle Haley, as the kind of streetwise yet lovable kid that only exists in movies. Together they face killer cockroaches, hordes of mutated mountain men (if six people can be considered a horde) and unpredictable weather patterns as they head for an uncertain future in Albany. 

The thing that struck me about DAMNATION ALLEY this time around is how retro it feels. Not 1970s retro, which would make sense, but 1950s retro. It's very easy to imagine this film with Leslie Nielsen in the George Peppard role and Ricky Nelson subbing for Jan Michael Vincent. Everything about it screams 1950s Sci-Fi movie from the stoic performances and cheap looking special effects to the plot which shows a total disregard for logic or science. This is a world where radiation mutates animals but pretty much leaves humans alone. Speaking of radiation, no one has radiation sickness and there's no evidence of a nuclear winter. Not that any of this is necessarily a bad thing. It's obvious that the makers of this film were trying to make an exciting action film, not a docudrama about the horrors of nuclear war. Still, Roger Zelazny, whose novel this was based on, went on record as being very unhappy with this adaptation of his work and maybe this is part of the reason why.

DAMNATION ALLEY was shot in 1976 and was supposed to be 20th Century Fox's big holiday movie for that year. Due to problems related to completing the special effects it missed its release date and by the time it was finally released in October of 1977 it had been overshadowed by another Fox science fiction release, a little film called STAR WARS. This film has taken a lot of heat over the years from critics and audiences alike but I think its flaws are part of what gives it its charm. I found it to be an enjoyable (if very silly) little film. As long as your expectations are adjusted accordingly this perfectly fine escapist entertainment, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

For more overlooked films visit Todd Mason's blog.