Sunday, September 24, 2017

If Ever I See You Again (1978)



          After subjecting the world to the horrors of You Light Up My Life, both the sickly-sweet song of that name and the vapid romantic movie from which the song was derived, Joseph Brooks struck again with this spectacular misfire. For the previous project, Brooks served as producer, writer, composer, and director. For If Ever I See You Again, he also stepped in front of the camera to make his acting debut as the leading man in a big-budget motion picture. Whether hubristic or naïve, Brooks’ decision to cast himself ranks among the worst choices in mainstream filmmaking history, though it’s not as if a real performer could have elevated the laughable material. Everything about If Ever I See You Again is false, from the characters to the emotions to the plotting, so in a perverse way, Brooks’ lifeless performance adds just the right grace note. He plays Bob Morrison, a successful writer of TV-commercial jingles. Back in college, he romanced a quixotic woman named Jennifer, and today, now that he’s a widowed father of two, he’s feeling nostalgic. One fateful day, when Bob’s work takes him from New York to Los Angeles, he looks up Jennifer’s number and calls her. Surprised to hear from her old lover, Jennifer (Shelley Hack) invites him to visit her groovy beach house. And so begins their second attempt at an on-again/off-again relationship.
          Brooks is such a weak storyteller that he doesn’t even include the most obvious narrative obstacle, another man in Jennifer’s life. Accordingly, one gets the impression that she’s been sitting around for years waiting for Bob to call, even though she repeatedly pumps the brakes on their courtship. Jennifer is not a character so much as a vague object of desire, a problem exacerbated by former model Hack’s acting. Her work is as bogus and empty as Brooks’. While enduring some poorly made romantic movies, the audience struggles to care whether onscreen people will get together. While enduring If Ever I See You Again, you may find yourself struggling to care whether onscreen people exist. While every scene with Brooks and Hack is almost hypnotically bad, the rest of the picture is frustrating because of the technical skill on display—cinematography, editing, and the like are all aces here—and because vignettes depicting, say, ad-agency meetings and recording sessions have easygoing realism. Furthermore, it’s bizarre to encounter famous writers Jimmy Breslin and George Plimpton in supporting roles. On the fringes, If Ever I See You Again resembles a real movie—but where it matters, Brooks’ sophomore effort is astoundingly awful.

If Ever I See You Again: LAME

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Touch of Satan (1971)



Lest there be any confusion, low-budget horror flick The Touch of Satan isn’t worth seeing for any of the usual reasons—the pacing is dull, the story is stupid, and there’s nothing frightening about what happens onscreen, excepting perhaps two nasty scenes involving a pitchfork. So why not dismiss the picture out of hand? Because it looks so damn good. The Touch of Satan was an early credit for genius cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, later to achieve cinematic immortality with Blade Runner (1982). Oddly, by the time The Touch of Satan was released, Cronenweth had already notched a major credit, on Robert Altman’s offbeat Brewster McCloud (1970)—so it’s possible he shot this one first and that it sat on a shelf for a while. In any event, it’s possible to ignore everything else about The Touch of Satan and simply enjoy Cronenweth’s painterly lighting and supple camera movies. Particularly tasty is a beautiful and lengthy 360-degree dolly closeup meant to signify a character experiencing psychological torment. That said, there’s probably no avoiding a brief discussion of the plot. Soulful drifter Jodie (Michael Berry) stumbles onto a walnut farm, where he meets beguiling Melissa (Emby Mellay). Despite all the usual horror-flick warning signs, Jodie stupidly lingers. For instance, Jodie learns that Melissa is rumored to be a sorceress, hence her cheerful inquiry: “Would you like to see where I do my witchcraft?” Nonsensical mayhem (eventually) ensues, setting up a predictable twist ending. Excepting Cronenweth’s photography, this picture is so substandard that was the subject of an MST3K takedown, which should indicate whether satiating your curiosity about the early efforts of a great film artist is worth the trouble.

The Touch of Satan: LAME

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Delta Factor (1970)



Dopey intrigue adapted from a Mickey Spillane novel, which means viewers should brace themselves for lots of stereotypical dames and goons, The Delta Factor celebrates the crudest sort of machismo. Morgan (Christopher George) is a smooth-talking scoundrel who drives ladies mad with desire, and who grins his way through car chases, fistfights, shootouts, and the like. Naturally, he knows how to drive any vehicle, how to win any game of chance, and how to identify compatriots in any foreign locale. Some Spillane stories channel his fascination with masculine energy into tough parables about the elusiveness of moral clarity, but The Delta Factor plays like a goofy, 007-inflected male fantasy. Many scenes are laughable, whether they involve Morgan vanquishing some lady with his superhuman virility or Morgan defeating a horde of soldiers with his spectacular marksmanship. The idiotic narrative goes something like this—after escaping from jail and getting recaptured, Morgan is offered a reduced sentence in exchange for going to South America on behalf of the U.S. government and liberating a political prisoner. Keeping tabs on Morgan during his mission is a slinky Fed named Kim (Yvette Mimieux), and complicating the situation is Morgan’s plan to recover $40 million in missing cash, then flee. Lots of stuff happens in The Delta Factor, so it’s never boring, per se, but, man, is this picture silly. Character motivations run the gamut from inconsistent to trite, narrative logic is in short supply, and the production looks and feels cheap. (What’s with the color of Kim’s hair changing from scene to scene?) George has fun playing the living incarnation of male id, Mimieux rocks a bikini well, and the villains are suitably swarthy—but The Delta Factor is pathetic compared to the James Bond epics it so desperately tries to emulate.

The Delta Factor: LAME

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Josie’s Castle (1971)



          Set in mid-’60s San Diego, wobbly melodrama Josie’s Castle likely reflects a clash of intentions. On some levels, the picture represents a serious exploration of gender politics circa the Sexual Revolution, seeing as how the protagonist is a newly divorced young woman who drifts into a hip living situation by sharing quarters with two recently divorced dudes. Yet the picture is also an exercise in camp—one prominent supporting character is a flamboyantly gay man completing an MFA thesis film on masturbation. Furthermore, the movie aspires to be erotica, as demonstrated by the very first image: a silhouetted closeup of a man suckling a woman’s nipple. So even though Josie’s Castle is basically watchable and presents a few small insights into the risks of upsetting interpersonal norms, the movie is a mess in terms of narrative and tone.
          After leaving her husband, Josie (Holly Mascott) shacks up with Ken (George Takei) and Leonard (Tom Holland) in a ramshackle Victorian mansion. First the three enjoy a carefree life, savoring art and music while tooling around town on a bicycle built for two. Then things get heavy, because Josie and Leonard become a couple even as Leonard starts dealing drugs. Meanwhile odd man out Ken struggles to find meaning in his lonely existence. Colorful things happen, including a drugged-out orgy, a hostage situation, and trips to the zoo during which the gay filmmaker collects footage of a monkey pleasuring himself. All of this stuff occasions lofty chatter about emotional truth and throwing off the expectations of society. Weirdly, the dialogue gets bitchier and sharper as the story moves along, giving the sense that a more urbane writer finished what someone else had started.
         Be that as it may, the style of Josie’s Castle is all over the place. Sometimes the picture is sensitive, and sometimes it’s sensationalistic. Mostly, however, it’s just superficial, going for easy dramatic climaxes and cheap sardonic punch lines. In the end, the themes are so muddled that figuring out what the filmmakers meant to say is pointless. Yet somehow, Josie’s Castle feels worthy of a moment’s consideration, if only because it includes so many important signifiers. If nothing else, it’s odd to see a long-haired Takei, better known as Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, strutting around in tighty-whities while spewing with-it lines about personal fulfillment.

Josie’s Castle: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

So Evil, My Sister (1974)



Also known as Psycho Sisters and The Sibling, this would-be Hitchcockian thriller might have passed muster as a TV movie or an episode of, say, Night Gallery. Presented as a proper feature, it’s woefully insufficient. The characterizations are shallow, the story is far-fetched, and the suspense scenes are underwhelming. So while some of the acting meets baseline professional standards, the silly script undercuts the performances. After a jumbled opening sequence involving a car crash, a police chase, and the revelation of a murky criminal conspiracy, the story proper gets underway. Following the death of her husband, bereaved Brenda (Susan Strasberg) moves in with her sister, Millie (Faith Domergue). Recently released from a sanitarium, Millie has a prescription for anti-psychotic medication, and she slips her pills into Brenda’s meals, making it easier for her to gaslight Brenda. Turns out Millie wants Brenda declared insane so Millie can acquire wealth belonging to Brenda’s late husband. Also thrown into the mix is a simpleton handyman who menaces Brenda, a beach-bum stud who romances Brenda, and intrepid cops sniffing around the situation because they detect criminal activity. Bouncing between relatively grounded scenes of sibling rivalry and cartoonish horror-movie beats (hallucinatory visions of corpses, etc.), the flick trudges along pointlessly from one credibility-stretching plot twist to the next until the whole scenario feels ridiculous. Ultimately, So Evil, My Sister is noteworthy only as an early credit for both actor John Ashton and cinematographer Dean Cundey, even though Cundey’s work here bears none of the confident style one normally associates with his name.

So Evil, My Sister: LAME

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Goldenrod (1976)



          Arriving a few years after the rodeo-movie boom that included Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), this humble Canada/U.S. coproduction presents a clear storyline and fairly thoughtful character development. Also working in the picture’s favor are terrific locations, seeing as how events take place at rugged sites throughout Alberta. So in some important respects, Goldenrod—also known as Glory Days—is a commendable film with a humane sensibility and a naturalistic style. If only those things were enough to put it over. Alas, Goldenrod stumbles significantly in other areas. The plot is highly predictable, some of the scoring is so atrocious as to evoke elevator music, and one climactic sequence goes so dark that Goldenrod ceases to be family fare, representing a major miscalculation in terms of tone.
          Set in the early 1950s, the picture follows the adventures of cocksure rodeo star Jesse Gifford (Tony Lo Bianco). At first, he seems a man in full. Winner of Canada’s top prize for all-around cowboy, he lives in a custom trailer with his wife, Shirley (Gloria Carlin), and their two boys, both of whom idolize Jesse. Then things take a turn. Badly injured, Jesse has to quit the circuit for a season, which spins him into a long period of self-pity. Shirley leaves Jesse for a rival cowboy, Keno (Donnelly Rhodes), and even though Jesse inherits sole responsibility for raising his sons, he compounds his problems by drinking heavily. Eventually he enters the employ of an alcoholic dirt farmer, J.T. Jones (Donald Pleasence), before suffering the final indignity—his eldest son’s successful entrance into the rodeo game. The specifics of that aforementioned dark sequence are best left discovered by those who watch the picture, but suffice to say things get much worse before they show any promise of getting better.
          Lo Bianco, a swaggering Italian-American from Brooklyn, was an odd choice for the leading role, but he puts across the character’s machismo and stubbornness persuasively. And while his efforts at conveying pathos are a bit more forced, he eventually finds a sort of hammy soulfulness during Jesse’s moments of greatest anguish. Whereas the actors surrounding Lo Bianco mostly deliver adequate performances, Pleasence contributes his signature brand of bombastic eccentricity, a welcome counterpoint to the film’s otherwise straightforward approach. Incidentally, don’t look for much in the way of hot bronc-busting action in Goldenrod, because even more than some other rodeo movies, this one treats sports as a springboard for intimate character drama.

Goldenrod: FUNKY

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Thorn (1971)



Of historical interest exclusively because it contains Bette Midler’s first screen performance, The Thorn is a cheaply made and rather vulgar religious satire created at a moment when the world was rotten with counterculture takes on Biblical lore. In fact, one lame joke in The Thorn involves the narrator explaining that characters are singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” but the sound has been muted for legal reasons. Anyway, The Thorn comprises lots of quick-hit sketches presented with period dress and modern settings, so the material would have been more effective as a stage revue. On film, the nonexistent production values, point-and-shoot cinematography, and undisciplined narrative feel amateurish. Although some of the performances are enthusiastic and a handful of jokes are mildly amusing, the sum effect is dull and episodic. In the movie’s first act, Midler plays the Virgin Mary as a sexually curious young woman. A rabbi mounts her, and when she refers to his phallus as “grace,” he moans, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” You get the idea. Not every joke is raunchy, but all are designed to take the piss out of organized religion and/or other institutions. For instance, during a prologue God is played by a Harpo Marx lookalike, and at the end of the prologue, he pops his head into an MGM-style logo bearing the text “Metro-Golda-Meir.” Random gags of that sort permeate the film, but not in the fun hellzapoppin manner of a Mel Brooks comedy—the vibe is much more “Here’s some shit we thought was funny while he were toking.” The very first thing onscreen in The Thorn is a disclaimer warning those who are easily offended by jokes about the New Testament to leave the theater. A more conscientious version of the disclaimer would also have warned those who are annoyed by jokes that aren’t funny to leave. FYI, once Midler achieved fame as a recording star, this picture was reissued as The Divine Mr. J to play off the title of her debut album, The Divine Miss M (1972). Hopefully not many were snookered.

The Thorn: LAME

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Jokes My Folks Never Told Me (1978)



Among the few gags in the filthy sketch-comedy flick Jokes My Folks Never Told Me that are repeatable in somewhat polite company is this one—on their wedding night, a young husband notices that his wife is looking out the window during consummation, so he inquires why and she replies, “My mother said this would be the most beautiful night of my life, and I don’t want to miss a thing.” Yep, it’s a retrograde women-are-stupid joke, combined with carnality for an additional juvenile jolt. Here’s another one—an old man goes to a priest for help with erectile dysfunction, so the priest says, “Brother, I may be able to heal the sick, but I can’t raise the dead.” Dick joke? Check! Degrading portrayal of religion? Done! The makers of Jokes My Folks Never Told Me try to amuse and titillate with every frame of this movie’s 82 tiresome minutes, so of course a few zingers connect and a few shots of naked women provide cheap thrills. But, man, does this picture get old fast. The bestiality jokes. The homophobia. The misogyny. The objectification. And most of all, the unrelenting vulgarity. Consider this elaborate gag. A fellow enters a clinic that offers 36 pounds of weight loss in 12 or 24 hours. First he requests the cheap 24-hour option, so he’s put into a room with a beautiful topless girl wearing a sign that reads, “You catch me, you fuck me.” Excited, he trades up to the 12-hour option—a room where he’s trapped with a gorilla wearing a sign that reads, “I catch you, I fuck you.” Ugh. This sort of junk goes over gangbusters with 13-year-old boys and idiots of all ages, but it’s difficult to imagine any self-respecting viewer sitting through this barrage of bimbos, horndogs, rednecks, scumbags, and sketches so threadbare they wouldn’t make the 12:55 slot on the worst episode of Saturday Night Live.

Jokes My Folks Never Told Me: LAME

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Poor Albert & Little Annie (1972)



There is rarely a good reason to watch a grimy thriller about a psychopath who menaces women, because these pictures are usually dull, hateful, and repetitive. All of which is true about Poor Albert & Little Annie, better known by its deceptive but outrageous reissue title, I Dismember Mama. (The titular matriarch is neither sliced nor diced.) That said, Poor Albert & Little Annie has a distinct vibe that nearly makes the picture worthwhile as an extreme viewing experience. First off, the plot is so thin that very little happens, so each time director Paul Leder reaches a nasty sequence, he lingers for uncomfortable durations of time. The vignette of unhinged Albert (Zooey Hall) forcing a woman to strip and dance goes on forever, which gives the scene a queasy sort of verisimilitude. Similarly, the way the movie goes all the way down the rabbit hole of Albert’s perversion is disquieting—while the  film isn’t particularly gory, it’s deeply unpleasant from start to finish. The storyline begins with Albert bolting from a nuthouse. Then he shows up at his mother’s house with bad intentions. The unlucky occupants of the house are a housekeeper, Alice (Marlene Tracy), and her preteen daughter, Annie (Geri Reischi). Things don’t go well for Alice. Thereafter, Albert kidnaps Annie and becomes sexually preoccupied with her during a long day of frolicking in parks. The introduction of a hooker and a hotel room does not improve poor Annie’s situation. Suffering from bad acting, inappropriate music, and sluggish pacing, Poor Albert & Little Annie fails as a movie, but works, after a fashion, as a kinky mood piece. This is just the picture for folks who enjoy feeling rotten about humanity.

Poor Albert & Little Annie: LAME

Friday, September 15, 2017

Winds of Change (1979)



          Technically, the following remarks pertain not just to the 1979 release Winds of Change, but also to the 1978 release Metamorphoses, as they are two different versions of the same film. An American/Japanese coproduction, this obscure animated picture was first issued, under the title Metamorphoses, as a rock & roll head trip featuring tunes by Joan Baez and Mick Jagger, plus limited narration by familiar Hollywood voice actor Paul Frees. Accompanying the music are dramatizations of myths extrapolated from the writings of Ovid. By all reports, the original version had long nonverbal passages with magical creatures doing sparkly things. Think Fantasia (1940) for the stoner crowd. Metamorphoses tanked, so the picture was recut and the soundtrack was replaced. Out went Frees and the rockers, in came narration by Peter Ustinov and disco tunes, plus the new moniker Winds of Change.
          In Winds of Change, every little detail is explained to death, and Ustinov provides silly character voices for moments with implied synchronized dialogue. To get a sense of the weird tone this creates, consider the moment when a young adventurer stumbles upon the goddess Diana, then ogles her shapely naked backside while she bathes in a waterfall with help from flittering faeries. Upon discovering her unwanted visitor, Diana turns toward the camera and scowls while Ustinov says, “Hell hath no fury like a goddess being peeked at!” And that’s one of the more coherent moments. Later in the same scene, Ustinov voices Diana while she issues the following command: “Restless vegetation, turn into dragons!” All to the accompaniment of sexy guitars, thumping drumbeats, and relentless hi-hat snaps.
          If you buy into the vibe during early scenes, Winds of Change is pleasant enough to watch. Director Takashi, who also contributed to the script, gives the animation a relatively lush look, so while the images aren’t nearly as resplendent as those in classic Disney features, they’re certainly richer than, say, the average Hanna-Barbera product of the same period. The score has dancefloor snap, and some of the songs get cosmic (sample title: “Wandering Starchild”). As for the underlying material, stories about Medusa and Perseus and the like have endured with good reason, even if this treatment falls somewhere between infantilized and respectful. It’s also worth noting that the narration was written by radio legend Norman Corwin, so the language is not without virtue. Does it all add up to anything special? Not really. Nonetheless, Winds of Change is harmless and, given its foundation in the classics, mildly edifying.

Winds of Change: FUNKY

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dream No Evil (1970)



Filmmaker John Hayes often created B-movies that were spiced with interesting weirdness, such as the surrealistic thriller Dream No Evil, but it’s telling that he frequently returned to the safe harbor of directing porn. To put it bluntly, he was a hack. Which is why it’s frustrating to watch Dream No Evil, which has worthwhile elements but never quite clicks. The confusing story tracks Grace MacDonald (Brooke Mills), a sexy young woman warped by childhood trauma. Specifically, she was abandoned by her father and raised by the members of a church. As a sexy young adult, she travels the country with Reverend Paul Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki), participating in revival-meeting spectacles. It’s unclear why she doesn’t spend more time with her fiancé, Paul’s brother, and it’s unclear why she’s frigid. In any event, Paul’s hot for Grace. One day—please don’t ask for details—Grace encounters a pimp who moonlights as an undertaker, and he claims to have the corpse of Grace’s father in his workroom. He takes Grace there. Then her dad, Timothy MacDonald (Edmond O’Brien), rises from the dead and kills the pimp/undertaker. Later, Timothy plays an accordion and scowls while Grace dances for Paul, repeatedly flashing her panties at the preacher. As the title suggests, we’re meant to interpret these events as episodes from Grace’s dreams, but suffice to say Hayes lacks the skill necessary for putting across a persuasive combination of fantasy and reality. Weird stuff happens without much in the way of context or explanation or impact. So while Dream No Evil presents a lot of strangely lurid content, it’s hard to discern what purpose the content serves—and therefore nearly impossible to say whether Hayes achieved any thematic goals.

Dream No Evil: LAME

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Thirty Dangerous Seconds (1972)



          In the screenwriting world, it’s commonly understood that most weak scripts falter in the second act, because it’s easy to intrigue with a lively setup and to fabricate satisfactory endings by resolving things, whereas maintaining logic and momentum in between these milestones is the tricky part. Therefore it’s peculiar to encounter a movie along the lines of Thirty Dangerous Seconds, which starts poorly, hits its stride midway through, and stumbles again toward the end—a solid second act without benefit of good first and third acts is a rare thing. Anyway, Thirty Dangerous Seconds is a low-budget crime thriller shot in Oklahoma, with clumsy regional actors supporting imported Hollywood leads.
          Briefly, here’s the laborious setup. A down-on-his-luck geologist (Robert Lansing) robs an armored car, but at the very same moment, a trio of professional criminals attempts the very same crime. When the geologist gets the loot instead of the professionals, the professionals kidnap the geologist’s wife, then threaten her life unless the geologist surrenders the stolen money. Much of the picture depicts intrigue related to meet-ups between the geologist and either the crooks or random folks enlisted by the crooks to function as surrogates. Colorful characters include an actor playing a monk, a fellow dressed as a clown, and a little person on roller skates. In its best moments—very often just fleeting instants within otherwise problematic scenes—Thirty Dangerous Seconds is a sorta-clever, sorta-whimsical riff on crime-flick tropes. Lansing imbues early scenes with self-loathing before shifting to a kind of petty crankiness, yet this entertaining posturing ceases to make sense whenever the viewer remembers that the character’s beloved wife is in mortal danger.
          And that’s the problem with Thirty Dangerous Seconds overall: The elements don’t harmonize. In a better film of this type, such as a good Elmore Leonard adaptation, attitude and logic mesh organically. In Thirty Dangerous Seconds, the lighthearted stuff clashes with the nasty stuff, the criminal scheming defies recognizable human-behavior patterns, and so on. In short, Thirty Dangerous Seconds is an amateur-hour endeavor—but it also happens to feature a few decent throwaway jokes, like the shot of actors dressed as monks while reading Playboy. And, lest this point get overlooked, recall that bit with the little person on roller skates. In the absence of real cinematic quality, flashes of lively eccentricity count for something.

Thirty Dangerous Seconds: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Alabama’s Ghost (1973)



          Fairly late in the brief but jam-packed running time of the unclassifiable flick Alabama’s Ghost, the leading character—a nightclub stage manager-turned-superstar magician—loses his cool after surviving a bizarre attack by vampires, then runs into the comforting embrace of his mother, even though he’s a full-grown man. Upon reaching her, the fellow exclaims, “I’m freakin’ out, Mama!” You can’t blame the guy. In fact, chances are you’ll feel the same way after watching Alabama’s Ghost. Although it’s neither well-crafted nor particularly involving, Alabama’s Ghost is thoroughly weird. Consider the bizarre opening salvo. Newsreel-type footage lets us know that in the 1930s, a robot expert named Dr. Caligula was sent by Hitler to Calcutta with the goal of interviewing a famous magician known as the Great Carter about “zeta,” a mystical form of hashish. Say what now?
          Soon afterward, the story cuts ahead in time to an American nightclub where a band plays a creepy song called “Alabama’s Ghost” while the opening credits unfurl. Then we meet our protagonist (Christopher Brooks), a skinny dude working as the band’s stage manager. In a slapstick sequence (yes, really!), he operates a forklift and accidentally breaks open a wall beneath the club, revealing the Great Carter’s cache of costumes and props. Then he tracks down the Great Carter’s sister—or at least the guy in drag who claims to be the Great Carter’s sister. Oh, and at some point during this stretch, the protagonist learns that the Great Carter had “frog skin over his heart,” whatever that means. Using the dead magician’s costumes and props, our protagonist becomes the stage illusionist “Alabama, King of the Cosmos,” at which point the film shifts into a sort of “Devil and Daniel Webster” riff, with the protagonist corrupted by his unchecked ambition. Enter Otto Max (Steven Kent Brown), the talent rep with a vaguely Liverpudlian accent who takes control over Alabama’s skyrocketing career.    
          Despite being set in the ’30s, Alabama’s Ghost becomes more and more ’70s as it goes along, with the protagonist driving a bizarre car shaped like a piece of abstract art, canoodling with groupies, and experiencing what can only be called bad trips. Highlights during the second half of the picture include an extensive jazz-rock dance sequence, and an indescribable bit set in Africa featuring weird magical/tribal signifiers. Good luck discerning which material is meant to occur in “reality” and which occurs inside characters’ addled minds. Moreover, good luck figuring out much of anything regarding Alabama’s Ghost. Is it a blaxploitation joint for the midnight-movie crowd? A druggie picture with a hip music angle? A perverse throwback mixing images from different decades to achieve a bewildering effect? And what’s with all that Biblical stuff in the desert at the end, when the picture becomes an ultraviolent parable?
          Short of ingesting some of whatever the people who made this movie must have been putting into their systems, better to just groove on the movie’s strange rhythms and make of Alabama’s Ghost what you will. That is, if you can come up with any compelling reason to watch the picture in the first place.

Alabama’s Ghost: FREAKY

Monday, September 11, 2017

Human Experiments (1979)



          Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome,” in which hostages bond with their captors. I’ve discovered there’s a cinematic equivalent. If you dive deep enough into a dubious niche of movie history, circumstances may compel you to believe that your surroundings are tolerable. Commonly, this manifests as people making excuses for bad movies from favorite filmmakers. Uncommonly, this manifests as obsessive cinephiles making excuses for entire subsets of movies. Which brings us to Human Experiments, a universally derided mishmash of horror and women-in-prison elements. Had I encountered this movie at any other phase of my life, I likely would have found it cruel and exploitive. Yet because I watched Human Experiments late in the process of watching every ’70s movie, I graded the thing on a curve. So while I can plainly see that the flick is trashy and undisciplined, I can’t help but appreciate a certain kind of boldness. Writer-director Gregory Goodell commits to a grim storyline and follows that storyline into all sorts of unpleasant places. So even though the movie isn’t about anything, and even though it feels much longer than its brief running time, Human Experiments cannot be accused of meekness.
         Rachel Foster (Linda Haynes) is a nightclub singer who, though circumstances too convoluted to explain here, stumbles onto a murder scene. Arrested and convicted for killings she didn’t commit, Rachel falls into the care of Warden Weber (Mercedes Shirley) and demented prison shrink Dr. Hans Kline (Geoffrey Lewis). While Weber employs merciless rules to strip away Rachel’s rebelliousness, Dr. Kline uses her for strange experiments in transforming personalities. Long story short, this leads to scenes of Rachel discovering that fellow convicts have been brainwashed, and, eventually, to grotesque sequences of Rachel trying to escape through insect-filled catacombs beneath the prison. It’s all quite distasteful, from the leering nude scene accompanying Rachel’s arrival at prison to the surprising sequence in which her attempt at private self-pleasuring is rudely interrupted. And then there’s the bit during which B-movie stalwart Lewis, giving an oddly robotic performance, taunts an experiment subject with instructions to compliantly eat her “poe-tay-toes.” Human Experiments is too dumb and linear to seem trippy, per se, but it’s also sufficiently perverse and rangy to leave familiar exploitation-flick rhythms behind.

Human Experiments: FUNKY

Sunday, September 10, 2017

No Place to Hide (1970)



          First, a disclaimer—the following remarks pertain to a recut 1980s version of an original 1970 film, so it’s possible these reactions don’t apply to the earlier version. No Place to Hide first hit screens as a low-budget political thriller featuring then-unknown Sylvester Stallone in an important role. He plays a member of a Weather Underground-type group planning to bomb an office building as an act of radical anti-Vietnam War activism. The story intercuts his exploits with an investigation by FBI agents as well as scenes depicting the activities of other radicals. An ironic oh-the-humanity ending concludes the storyline, to the surprise of exactly no one. After Stallone scored with Rocky (1976), the picture was recut to focus on his participation and given the new title Rebel. Yet another reissue followed in 1990, with the material somehow reconfigured for laughs under the moniker A Man Called . . . Rainbo. If nothing else, the mutability of the material and the apparent failure of anyone involved in the first incarnation to protect the sanctity of the piece suggests that No Place to Hide, the original film, was lackluster.
          Certainly that adjective, and much stronger ones conveying disappointment, suit the ’80s version screened for this review. (Best guess—the rights holders reconfigured the material for home-video release, adding horrible mechanized music and low-rent electronic title cards.) On the plus side, Stallone brings his usual impassioned quality to his performance as anguished radical Jerry. On the minus side, he’s grossly miscast, which becomes painfully apparent during scenes of his character romancing a hippy-dippy girl who says things like this: “The deeper I reach, the more roads I take into the universe—my universe.” Unless you’re a Sly completist, chances are the only version worth tracking down is the warts-and-all ’70s original, and even in that circumstance, viewers shouldn’t expect much. FYI, No Place to Hide features Henry G. Sanders, respected by many for his naturalistic work in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), as the lead FBI agent. His work here is not impressive.

No Place to Hide: LAME

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Apache Blood (1975)



Nearly unwatchable because of narrative incoherence, this low-budget Western depicts the exploits of an Apache warrior seeking vengeance against deceitful and murderous U.S. soldiers. It also tracks the ordeal of a soldier left behind in the wilderness after a bear attack. If that second bit reminds you of Man in the Wilderness (1971) or The Revenant (2015), most likely that’s not a coincidence; the makers of Apache Blood probably encountered the same historical records that inspired the other films. Any tangential connection to real history, however, should not give the impression that Apache Blood—also known as Pursuit—is worth watching. While there may have been a passable action-adventure film somewhere in the raw footage, the assembled movie is a mess. Scenes start and stop abruptly, transitions don’t exist, and some of the production values, especially during the bear-attack scene, are laughable. Worse, the one thing that should give Apache Blood artistic merit, the choice to exclude dialogue from most scenes, helps render the picture incomprehensible. Who are the people onscreen? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Don’t get your hopes up about answering any of those questions, because even detecting the broad outlines of the story is challenging. Every so often, a scene makes sense for a few moments, as when the protagonist, “Yellow Shirt” (Ray Danton), sneaks up on a military encampment because a guard has fallen asleep—but then the flick devolves into awkwardly filmed action and the viewer’s sense of narrative direction disappears. Oh, and just for good measure, the film is littered with clichés, as in the scene of a U.S. soldier buried up to his head in desert sand while Native Americans charge at him on horseback. Presuming the picture’s overall goal was to counter the demeaning image of Indians as savages, trite scenes like that aren’t helpful.

Apache Blood: LAME

Friday, September 8, 2017

Blood Bath (1976)



Aping the style of horror anthologies from British production companies, this cheap and dull American compendium matches a forgettable framing device with equally uninteresting vignettes. In the framing sequences, a suave actor rumored to have made a deal with the devil for success in movies gathers several friends for dinner, and they swap spooky stories. Those stories comprise the vignettes. In the first story, a perfectionist murderer makes a deadly mistake while planting a time bomb. In the second story, a soul brother returns from the afterlife to haunt the usurious landlord who evicted him while the soul brother was a mortal. And in the third story, which feels as if it was airlifted in from an entirely different movie, a shifty martial-arts master exploits students by charging exorbitant fees for teaching a secret combat method. While there’s virtually nothing to recommend here, since Blood Bath is interminably boring for most of its running time, the sequence with the soul brother at least has some humor, as when the beleaguered ghost whines about all the paperwork he had to complete in Hell before receiving permission to haunt the landlord. The cast is strictly low-rent, though attentive viewers will spot a young Doris Roberts. As for nominal leading man Harve Presnell, who plays the movie star/dinner host, he enjoyed a respectable if unspectacular career on Broadway and in movies, often showcasing his rich singing voice. Arguably his best-known screen role was that of the aggrieved patriarch in Fargo (1996). One assumes that Presnell did not count among the highlights of his screen career the opening scene of this picture, during which his character marries a demon while the devil, portrayed by a dude wearing silly-looking horns on his forehead, stands nearby and cackles.

Blood Bath: LAME

Thursday, September 7, 2017

South of Hell Mountain (1971)



          At the risk of overstating this grimy picture’s virtues, South of Hell Mountain feels like a mixture of backwoods horror flicks and the idiosyncratic style of German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The backwoods stuff manifests in the main plot, about a group of rednecks who rob a mine, kill several people in the process, and seek refuge in a remote cabin populated only by a lonely woman and her long-suffering stepdaughter. The Herzog stuff manifests in the weird parallel storyline of a young woman suffering cruel indignities in a filthy asylum. The connection is that the mental patient is the aforementioned stepdaughter, so all the scenes taking place outside the asylum are flashbacks. Seeing as how South of Hell Mountain is a low-rent exploitation picture without any marquee names, expecting a satisfactory movie experience is unreasonable. Sure enough, the plot is mean and ugly, the acting is wildly uneven, and some scenes are bewildering. Yet South of Hell Mountain is a touch more interesting than the usual southern-discomfort fare, if only because it contains so many bizarre narrative and stylistic flourishes.
          The décor of the asylum suggests some wreck of a place in Eastern Europe—cracks on the wall, hay on the floor. Periodically, Sally (Anna Stuart) interacts not with other patients but with rats. That is, when she’s not receiving mental or physical abuse from her vile matron (Elsa Raven). Even the way the camera lingers on Sally’s vacant face evokes European art cinema. None of these remarks are intended to suggest that Herzog was an influence on South of Hell Mountain, as his work was mostly unknown in the U.S. at the time this picture was made; the point is simply to note an odd cinematic coincidence. Similarly, none of these remarks are meant to suggest that South of Hell Mountain is actually good. It’s not. But it is, however, peculiar. For instance, the movie’s tone becomes nonsensical when jubilant harmonica music accompanies a sexual-assault scene, and it’s startling that the filmmakers make direct allusions to Cinderella by having Sally do housework at the behest of an evil stepmother. South of Hell Mountain doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it is not timid, and that’s worth something.

South of Hell Mountain: FUNKY