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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)

In 1977 Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson sold the film rights to his article "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," a eulogy of sorts for his longtime attorney and friend Oscar Acosta, who disappeared and was presumed dead in 1974. Since his much more famous FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS had had several aborted attempts at being filmed, Thompson was sure the movie would never be made and saw selling the rights as a way to get some quick cash. However, much to Thompson's displeasure, the film, which as its subtitle states, is "based on the twisted legend of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,"  was finally made in 1980 as the directorial debut of veteran producer Art Linson and starring Bill Murray as Thompson.

The film that finally got made is a highly fictionallized and exaggerated version of Thompson's life and career. It's virtually plotless, more a collection of scenes than a movie with a beginning, middle and end, yet the film's disjointed nature seems right considering its subject. The movie seems almost as stream of consciousness as Thompson's writing tended to be. Still, the film manages to hit most of the high points (if you'll pardon the pun) of Thompson's life. We start in 1968 with Thompson and Acosta (here named Carl Lazlo for legal reasons and played by Peter Boyle) covering the Super Bowl while making a shambles of their hotel and not bothering to stick around to actually watch the game. From there we move into a brief dramatization of some of the events from FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS before finishing up with Thompson covering Richard Nixon's 1972 Presidential campaign, end with a restroom confrontation with the candidate himself. Through it all Thompson is seen swilling bottles of Wild Turkey, swallowing handfuls of pills (apparently the blue ones are the most potent) and generally acting like a maniac to everyone who has the misfortune to cross his path.

Since the film has barely any structure the only thing holding it together is the performances of its stars. Murray spent quite a bit of time with Thompson researching his role and it shows. He crawls into Thompson's skin and gives a spot on impression of the doctor in his younger, madder days. Boyle gives an equally committed performance as Acosta/Lazlo, especially in a courtroom scene where he defends some kids arrested on a pot bust. As it's written, this role could easily have been played as a loudmouthed buffoon but Boyle gives him a genuine personality. The supporting performances are good as well, if a bit more thankless, especially Bruno Kirby as Thompson's long suffering editor at Blast magazine (subbing for Rolling Stone) and Rene Auberjonois, who has a funny cameo near the end of the film as "Harris from The Post."

Since this is a movie about the legend of Hunter Thompson (a legend he created and encouraged right up to his death) it doesn't tell the viewer a whole lot about the man. In fact, viewers without at least some background regarding who Thompson was will likely be totally confused as to why this guy merits having a movie made about him in the first place. We just see him do crazy things and sometimes he writes about them. There's never any sense of the impact that his writing had on people. Mostly we just wonder why he's not dead, what with all the drugs and alcohol constantly being poured into his system.

When Universal released WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM in 1980 it was a financial disaster and was quickly exiled to endless showings on pay cable. Apparently not one to learn a lesson, Universal tried again in 1998 when they finally produced the long gestating film version of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS which also failed to gain any traction at the box office. If they stick to their established timetable Universal should give it another shot sometime in 2016. I hope so. There's still a great film to be made based on Hunter Thompson's life. Until it gets made Thompson junkies like myself will have to content ourselves with this near miss.

For more overlooked films visit Todd Mason's blog.