Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: ...All the Marbles (1981)

With the recent passing of Peter Falk I decided to take a second look at this Robert Aldrich comedy about female tag team wrestlers, which I haven't seen since it made the rounds on cable in the early 1980s. The result was less of a rowdy comedy than I remembered and more of a character study of three desperate people.

The film doesn't try to reinvent the wheel with its plot. Harry Sears (Falk) is manager of the small time wrestling team known as the California Dolls, made up of Molly (Laurene Landon) and Harry's former lover, Iris (Vicki Frederick). We follow the Dolls as they travel from town to town, getting physically punished on a nightly basis while Harry struggles to get their meager pay from sleazy promoters. Eventually the Dolls are featured in a national wrestling magazine which leads them to an opportunity to take part in a nationally televised championship bout against their arch rivals, the Toledo Tigers. 

What I suspect this film gets right is the unglamorous portrayal of life on the road. Traveling from one small town to the next, living in motel rooms, eating nothing but fast food and getting beaten up for a living all for the sake of a $250 payday (which has to be split three ways) is very strongly conveyed. Also the humiliation the Dolls feel when they are contracted to wrestle in mud at a small town fair seems very real. These are obviously people with nowhere else to go. The wrestling scenes are brutal, especially the final match. Landon and Frederick went through intensive training for the film and it looks like some very real punishment was being inflicted in these scenes.

According to an IMDB message board post, Aldrich had the film taken away from him during post-production by MGM who recut it to emphasize the comedy. The original cut supposedly included several subplots that were either dropped or heavily modified including Molly's lesbianism and Harry and Iris' violent history. Looking at the film it's pretty easy to see where material was cut. For example, almost every character mentions what a terrible person Harry is but in the film he's pretty much the lovable scoundrel that became Falk's stock character in his post Columbo years. There are only two scenes that hint of a darker side to his character. One of those is played for laughs and the second (which I won't spoil) is pretty shocking considering that the film had been a fairly light comedy drama up to that point.

As it stands, this is an enjoyable film with a bit more substance than you'd expect. However, it's too bad if this is a compromised version of the film. This was Aldrich's last film and he deserved better for his swan song. Also, it sounds like the original cut added more layers to Falk's character which is probably what attracted him to the project in the first place. Still, there are worse ways to spend two hours. Watch it and be pleasantly surprised.

For more overlooked films visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Grizzly II: The Predator (1983)

"So, you got a problem with a little grizzly, huh?"
"It's not a little grizzly. It's a big grizzly."

David Sheldon's GRIZZLY II: THE PREDATOR, alternately known as GRIZZLY II: THE CONCERT and of course PREDATOR: THE CONCERT was a belated, in name only sequel to the 1976 film GRIZZLY, which was itself a blatant ripoff of JAWS. GRIZZLY II manages to be a ripoff of a ripoff, with another giant grizzly rampaging through another national park, only this time with thousands of people attending a large outdoor concert within the park acting as bear bait. This film would be completely forgotten today except for the fact that is was never fully finished  and also provided early acting jobs for George Clooney, Laura Dern and Charlie Sheen, making it a highly sought after collectable for fans of cinematic skeletons in the closet.

Park Ranger Nick Hollister (Steve Inwood) has his hands full when not only does he have to oversee the preparations for a massive outdoor rock concert designed to raise funds for the park. He finds himself further inconvenienced when a twenty foot tall grizzly decides to start eating the tourists. He gets little help from Director of Bear Management Samantha Owens (Deborah Raffin) who seems awfully reluctant to stop an innocent bear who, after all, is only following its instincts. He gets even less help from Park Superintendent Eileene Draygon (played by Louise Fletcher in what has to be the steepest career slide for an Oscar winner ever), who in true evil bureaucrat fashion tells him to deal with the problem quietly and without jeopardizing the revenue from the concert. Hollister hires Bouchard (John Rhys-Davies), a Quint-like hunter and together they head into the woods to track the "devil bear." Can Hollister destroy the bear before it crashes the concert as well as protect the virtue of his daughter (a pre-VALLEY GIRL Deborah Foreman) who is involved in a budding romance with the narcissistic, not entirely masculine concert headliner? No, probably not.

GRIZZLY II exists only in a workprint version, with incomplete scenes, a temp music track and only partially dubbed dialogue. The film was shot in Hungary in 1983 and most of principal photography was completed before the production was shut down due to lack of funds. Judging by what's onscreen it looks like most (but not all) of the scenes involving the principal actors were completed but except for some quick footage of a bear puppet during the climatic attack none of the bear footage was shot. As can be expected, this is an issue for a film calling itself GRIZZLY II as there are many scenes where characters are shown screaming and running from nothing and every attack scene ends prematurely while roars from a nonexistent bear play on the soundtrack. Instead of the bear, we're treated to many (many) scenes featuring the new wave musical acts playing at the concert. These acts are so bad you'll walk away from this film eternally grateful that the 1980s are over. In fact, early in the film Sheen, playing a hiker who is soon to become bear chow, mentions that he is on the way to a "great concert," proving that even in 1983 he was clinically insane. 

While GRIZZLY II is by no means a good film, getting to finally see it is a real treat.  For years this film was only rumored to exist and so it's great to at least be able to verify its existence. Plus, the movie is actually fun to watch. If this film had been released in 1983 it would barely rate a footnote today but, because of its rarity and the presence of so many name actors slumming their way through it, this movie has a camp value that's almost irresistable. I love it when supposedly lost films surface without warning and GRIZZLY II gives me hope that others are out there waiting to be found.If a movie like GRIZZLY II can show up out of nowhere after sitting in the back of someone's closet for a couple of decades maybe some of the more sought after missing tititle,  such as Jerry Lewis' notorious THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED, will be next.

Visit Todd Mason's blog for more overlooked films.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Love-Ins (1967)

Produced by prolific exploitation master Sam Katzman (ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK), THE LOVE-INS was one of the few films of its era to take a distinctly negative view of the hippie subculture. The 66 year old Katzman, his director, 59 year old Arthur Dreifuss, and 47 year old writer Hal Collins combined to make a movie about a subject that none of them understood, resulting in the REEFER MADNESS of 1960s cinema.

Jonathan Barnett (Richard Todd) is a Timothy Leary-esque university professor who resigns his position in protest when publication of the school underground newspaper is halted by the Dean and its publishers Larry (James MacArthur) and Patrica (Susan Oliver), are expelled. He appears on conservative broadcaster Joe Pyne's television program where he is grilled over his belief in the consciousness-raising properties of LSD. Pyne suggests that Barnett move to Haight Street where he can be closer to the freaks he so obviously loves. Barnett moves in with Larry, Patricia and about ten other people in a Haight Street apartment also housing Elliot (Mark Goddard), an in-name-only hippie who makes money by selling banana peels to the kids for five dollars and ounce and likes to make jokes about the stock market. He suggests to Barnett that there would be money to be made selling Barnett to the hippies as a new age guru. Soon Barnett is dressing in white robes and preaching his mantra of "Be More, Sense More, Love More." One night Patricia has a bad LSD trip where she becomes convinced that she is Alice in Wonderland, leading to a rediculous musical production number, the likes of which have absolutely no place in a movie like this. When Larry confronts Barnett over Patricia's somewhat dangerous yet totally embarassing trip, Barnett refuses to renounce the use of LSD which creates a schizm in the once-happy group.

The hippies in this film are treated like a separate species despite being the main characters in the film. There's an early scene where sightseers on a tour bus snap photos of the hippies on Haight Street like they were monkeys in a zoo. It's remarkably similar to a scene in John Water's MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970) where tourists pay to gawk at members of the counterculture, but where Waters was satirizing the attitudes of society towards those they perceive as different, Katzman and company are playing it completely straight. Also suspect is the film's depiction of drug use. LSD is the drug of choice and not only are the hippies high on it all the time but one hit and the characters in the film are either flailing about wildly on the lawn, jumping out of windows or becoming convinced that they've become Alice in Wonderland (I'm honestly not sure which is worse).

For a film that only runs 85 minutes there's a remarkable amount of padding. The scene where Barnett first arrives in town and observes the hippies doing their thing while obviously all stoned out of their minds seems to go on longer than the entire Summer of Love.  And then there's that Alice in Wonderland sequence. I give the filmmakers credit for wanting to do something different than the usual light show representing an LSD trip but this was a really crazy idea that should have never made it past the first draft of the screenplay. It stands as a classic "What were they thinking" moment and is easily the most memorable part of the film, although I'm sure not in the way anyone intended.

For all its faults (and they are legion) I still think the film should be seen not as a snapshot of the time it was made, but a snapshot of the attitudes of those that made it. It's a classic case of an established producer and a major studio (Columbia) teaming up to pander to and criticize its audience at the same time. The result may be somewhat offensive but it's never boring. It's like HAIR as written by Glenn Beck. Groovy.

See Todd Mason's blog for more overlooked films.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Vice Squad (1982)

Made during the last days of exploitation's golden age, Gary Sherman's VICE SQUAD is a strange animal. On one hand, it's easily as sleazy and disreputable as any of the exploitation classics that preceded it. This is a movie that doesn't let its plot get in the way of its need to wallow in sex, violence, car chases and just about any other type of antisocial behavior you can name. It was considered fairly strong stuff in 1982 and for good reason. But on the other hand, all that depravity is covered in a gloss that its predecessors from the 1970s never had. It has some recognizable actors giving good performances, professional camerawork and actual production values, all serving to help make the sleaze go down easier. In fact, it's so slick that by the time it's over you'll hardly notice that you've been wallowing in the mud for the past 97 minutes.
The plot is paper thin. Vice squad detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) coerces Hollywood hooker Princess (Season Hubley) into taking a part in a sting operation to take down sadistic pimp Ramrod (Wings Hauser) after Ramrod beats one of Princess' fellow call girls to death. Of course things don't go as planned and the cops spend the rest of the film chasing Ramrod before he can catch up with Princess and kill her as well. That's about it, really. Most of the film is spent watching Ramrod stalk his prey up and down Hollywood Boulevard, with the cops in hot pursuit. Director Gary Sherman keeps things moving at a good clip, allowing just enough character beats that we feel like we're watching real people instead of cardboard cutouts.
The real star of the show, however, is Wings Hauser. His portrayal of Ramrod, the Killer Pimp has become the stuff of legend and it's easy to see why. Hauser's maniacal method performance is really something to see. He's always had a penchant for overacting if not reigned in but he's let completely off the leash here and the results are truly scary. He's alternately charming and sadistic. In his first scene he beats a hooker (his "main lady," played by original MTV VJ Nina Blackwood) to the edge of death so we see what he's capable of. From that point on we understand why everyone else is afraid of him. It's a terrifying performance and in a just world Hauser would have received awards and lead roles instead of a career filled with parts in direct to video erotic thrillers. Season Hubley is also quite good as Princess, giving life to a part that could easily have been a cipher. She played a similar part three years earlier in Paul Schrader's HARDCORE and it's easy to see this as a continuation of that character. 
Anyone drawn to the subject matter will find a lot to like in VICE SQUAD. It's fast paced, exciting and shot with a professional polish that wasn't the norm for films of this ilk at the time. Plus, it not only has Wings Hauser in his best role but he sings the film's theme song, "Neon Slime," as well. What's not to love? It's interesting to note that one of this film's screenwriters was Robert Vincent O'Neill, who would go on to write and direct his own Hollywood hooker epic, ANGEL, two years later. 

For more overlooked films go here.