Monday, October 31, 2016

1980 Week: The Fog

          Note: Settle in and enjoy a double-dose of 1980 titles for the next two weeks, beginning with a modern-classic horror picture just in time for Halloween . . .
          More than any other of the films he made during his peak period of the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, The Fog subsists on the special nocturnal vibe that only director John Carpenter could create. Filled with atmospheric shots of killers emerging from shadows, kicky effects depicting the influence of supernatural forces, and the pulsating rhythms of a great synthesizer score composed by Carpenter himself, The Fog is vibe personified. When the movie clicks, which happens a lot, the sheer mood of the thing is intoxicating. And every so often, the picture fulfills its raison d’etre by providing genuine scares. So even if the picture is ultimately quite disappointing, thanks to a anticlimactic ending and the failure to fully utilize a fantastic cast, The Fog is very much a part of the John Carpenter mythos. Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) are scarier, and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape from New York (1981) are more exciting, but The Fog comprises 89 minutes of pure Carpenter style.
          Set in a small town on the California coast, the picture opens with a creepy vignette of crusty senior Mr. Machen (John Houseman) reading a ghost story to kids sitting around a campfire on the beach at night. It seems that an otherworldly fog once crept over the waters near the town of Antonio Bay, claiming the lives an entire ship’s crew—and legend has it that 100 years later, the fog is due to return. That time, of course, is now. Its creepy context established, the picture then gets down to the business of introducing various characters doomed to face the fog: radio DJ and single mom Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), who broadcasts out of a decrepit old lighthouse; easygoing local Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and sexy hitchhiker Elizabeth Soiley (Jamie Lee Curtis), who become a couple while traveling together; uptight town official Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh); angst-ridden priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook); and so on.
          Carpenter and cowriter-producer Debra Hill never quite figure out how to manage the sprawling cast, because even though tasty glimmers of backstory and characterization appear here and there, individualization gets lost when people are transformed into potential victims during elaborate fight scenes. Similarly, the mythology behind the fog and its connections to Antonio Bay is both frustratingly unclear and overly simplistic. As a result, The Fog is much more a collection of cool scenes than a properly constructed narrative. That said, cool scenes are the coin of the realm in horror cinema, and The Fog is full of darkly entertaining passages. The eerie assault on a fishing boat. The tense race to save a child from a house that’s being smothered by the fog. The final siege on the lighthouse.
          Abetted by his best cinematographer, master of darkness Dean Cudney, Carpenter generates one menacing image after another, and he punctuates the film with his signature sardonic wit. Barbeau is great, especially considering she performs so many scenes alone (nothwithstanding wraithlike attackers), and it’s fun to spot so many players from previous Carpenter films: Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Curtis, Darwin Jostin, Nancy Loomis. (Carpenter missed an opportunity by keeping real-life mother and daughter Leigh, of Pyscho fame, and Curtis mostly separate, but their appearance in the same film is notable in a Trivial Pursuit sort of way.) The Fog was remade in 2005 amid a rash of new versions of Carpenter classics, and the remake was a critical bomb despite scoring at the box office. 


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

A fair argument could be made that applying critical standards of any sort to a picture called The Giant Spider Invasion is pointless, seeing as how the title is so ridiculous that only an equally ridiculous film could accompany the title. In that spirit, let’s dispel with the usual appraisal of whether The Giant Spider Invasion “works” in any traditional sense. Instead, let’s explore a more relevant topic: whether the movie is fun to watch. That depends. If you’re looking for a few chuckles, mostly at the expense of the filmmakers, then you could do worse than investing 84 minutes in The Giant Spider Invasion. Made in the tradition of the giant-monster flicks of the 1950s, the picture offers old-fashioned silliness with a few concessions to modernity, namely brief nudity and a little bit of gore. The movie’s distinguishing characteristics are its absurd special effects, since the oversized monster of the title is actually a set of flailing legs and a furry body strapped to car as it put-puts through various locations. On some level, The Giant Spider Invasion is endearingly terrible. The plot involves familiar hokum. A meteor falls into a field outside a small town, unleashing normal-sized but vicious spiders. They kill a few folks. Then a human-sized spider claims a victim. Finally, an arachnid the size of a house begins its rampage. All the while, two scientists try to halt the invasion. Envision all the usual clichés executed without energy or imagination, and you’re on target. Directed by one Bill Rebane, the picture relies on stock characters and trite dialogue, though flashes of something resembling wit appear. Gilligan’s Island star Alan Hale Jr. plays a sheriff, and his first line is “Hi, little buddy!” A bumpkin character maligns someone by saying, “You’re so dumb you wouldn’t know rabbit turds from Rice Krispies.” Not exactly Algonquin Round Table banter, but serviceable in this context. The Giant Spider Invasion is cheap, goofy, and shallow, but for insatiable creature-feature addicts, those aren’t necessarily negatives.

The Giant Spider Invasion: LAME

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Love & Anarchy (1973)

          Like her mentor Federico Fellini, Italian director Lina Wertmüller generally avoids understatement. Although technically brilliant and unrelentingly intense, her movies are often so loud, overbearing, and vulgar that it’s hard to sift the artistry from the assault. Plus, because she’s among the most deeply political filmmakers ever to achieve international fame, her pictures exist on literal and metaphorical levels, meaning that themes one discovers upon reflection add depth to what initially seem like undisciplined statements. In other words, it’s never prudent to dismiss a Wertmüller movie. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to actually enjoy a Wertmüller movie. So it is with Love & Anarchy, which I found almost interminable until the final act. Given the film’s rarified critical status, it’s possible that I’m either in the critical minority or that I just plain missed something important during the setup phase of the narrative. In any event, watching Love and Anarchy felt like having Wertmüller scream at me for two hours, even though I eventually found a grudging respect for the way the piece resolved.
          Wertmüller’s favorite leading man, Giancarlo Giannini, plays Antonio, a provincial type who travels to Rome during Mussolini’s reign. (Backstory: Antonio became radicalized when Mussolini’s thugs killed one of his friends, so he’s determined to assassinate Il Duce.) Giving the would-be killer sanctuary while he plans the murder is a prostitute name Salomé (Mariangela Melato). Telling fellow sex workers at a bordello that Antonio is her cousin, she lets Antonio stay in her chambers and even proffers carnal favors. The first two-thirds of Love and Anarchy follow romantic-comedy rhythms as the cynical Salomé falls for the guileless Antonio, even as he becomes enamored of another prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito). Eventually, the film catches fire because Antonio reveals that he’s terrified about trying to kill Mussolini, leading the women to passionately argue against Antonio throwing his life away on a likely futile assassination attempt.
          This material gives Wertmüller a fine dramatic vehicle for exploring the costs of idealism and the roles of individuals in oppressive times. Just as the film comes to life in its last stretch, Giannini’s performance crystallizes. His suave good looks buried behind huge freckles and wild red hair, Giannini spends the first two-thirds of the movie looking lost, his eyes bulging stupidly, but then we realize he’s simply been scared out of his wits the whole time. Why withhold that insight from the audience? Why waste time on Fellini-esque scenes at the bordello, replete with grotesque images of painted ladies? And why get so caught up in the romantic-triangle contrivance? Such are the mysteries of Wertmüller’s work.
          Dubious narrative choices notwithstanding, Love and Anarchy is gorgeous from a technical perspective, with Giuseppe Rotunno contributing characteristically vivid camerawork and a number of vibrant locations providing texture. Visual splendor aside, so much of what makes this movie hard to watch is contained in Melato’s performance. Her makeup is extreme, all bleached hair and pale skin, so she looks like a vampire, and she never stops talking or lowers her volume to less than a caterwaul. She incarnates all the extreme things that make Love & Anarchy challenging to endure, even though the film contains many provocative insights.

Love & Anarchy: FUNKY

Friday, October 28, 2016

Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

The product of a weirdly fraught production cycle, with creative differences leading to firings and recriminations, this tedious cartoon (with a few live-action sequences) has too much cutesiness and not enough heart. Based on Johnny Greulle’s famous stories about a pair of rag dolls with sweet personalities, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure bombards viewers with cloying voice performances, saccharine songs, and a huge number of uninteresting supporting characters. Beginning in a child’s room and then extending to various fantastical realms, the picture suggests what The Wizard of Oz (1939) might have been like had the filmmakers failed to imbue Dorothy Gale’s journey with meaning. Whereas in that film each new development advances the plot, in this movie, each new development underscores the forgettable nature of the protagonists. If Raggedy Ann and Andy have distinctive qualities in Greulle’s books, those qualities did not reach the screen intact. The gist of the piece is that seven-year-old Marcella (Claude Williams) gets a new doll for her birthday, a ornate French number called Babette. When Marcella leaves her playroom, a pirate toy called the Captain becomes aroused by Babette, breaks free from his snow-globe prison, and kidnaps the French doll. Raggedy Ann and Andy, the leaders of the toy community, make chase, eventually enlisting the aid of a sea monster that uses tickling as a combat technique. Also woven into the narrative are an obnoxious king and a redneck camel. As for the songs, they’re atrocious, with all due respect to composer Joe Raposo, who did lots of wonderful work for the Children’s Television Workship. (His credits include “Bein’ Green” and the Seseme Street theme song.) The tunes in Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure run the unpleasant gamut from brash vaudeville-type numbers to sugary ballads. The nonmusical scenes are just as bad. The film’s design style is lifeless, and Didi Conn gives a nails-on-chalkboard vocal performance as Raggedy Ann, each line delivery more sickeningly sweet than the preceding.

Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure: LAME

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

          Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Exploitive, grotesque, profane, and racist, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is among the most extreme movies featuring internationally famous actors, so it’s morbidly fascinating in the manner of, say, Caligula (1979), though it pales next to that infamous film’s excesses. Still, it’s impossible to classify The Mountain of the Cannibal God as restrained, seeing as how the picture includes shots of real animals getting slaughtered, as well as abundant over-the-top gore, a simulated scene of bestiality, and, for no particular reason, an unsimulated scene of a young woman—well, let’s just say she looks as if she’s enjoying herself. While it’s not a great shock to see Ursula Andress mixed up in a production like this one, since she spent much of the ’70s adding brazen sex appeal to dubious European productions, it’s jaw-dropping to watch Stacy Keach give a credible performance in between gory kills and nauseating shots of animal carnage.
            Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about The Mountain of the Cannibal God—released in the U.S. as Slave of the Cannibal God—is that it’s entertaining. Telling a simple story in a propulsive way, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is lean and suspenseful, and the score by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis is imaginatively terrifying. If the goal of pulpy cinema is to evoke visceral reactions, then The Mountain of the Cannibal God succeeds, shamelessly.
          The narrative is simple, a throwback to xenophobic jungle adventures of the 1930s. When her husband goes missing somewhere in the primitive wilds of New Guinea, Susan Stevenson (Andress) and her brother, Arthur (Antonio Marsina), hire scientist Professor Edward Foster (Keach) to lead a rescue expedition. Edward warns that the area where Susan’s husband disappeared is home to a tribe of cannibals, but Susan dismisses the admonition as silly superstition. Venturing into the jungle with native bearers, the searchers soon learn Edward was right, as cannibals kill the bearers one by one, often absconding with all or part of the bodies. Along the way, the searchers see horrific things, like a python devouring a cute little monkey or natives gutting a monitor lizard while it’s still alive. These scenes are real, and the camera lingers on every disgusting detail. Once the searchers reach the cannibals’ lair, the filmmakers crank up the cinematic volume, bombarding viewers with startling images of ritual sex and violence. Andress getting stripped naked and slathered with body paint is the least alarming of these visuals.
          On the most primal level, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is exciting, because it’s loaded with action sequences and sensationalistic visions, and the film’s technical polish is fairly impressive. On every other level, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is vile. Every nonwhite character in the movie is either a childlike idiot or a vicious monster, and seeing a white woman drives the entire cannibal tribe wild. In the picture’s wildest scene, cannibals mutilate and devour a dude, then celebrate with an orgy. Virtually every racist fear of indigenous peoples finds its way into the storyline, and the kicker is that we’re asked to root for a central character even after it is revealed that the character personifies the worst aspects of white entitlement. An entire Ph.D. thesis could be written about this film’s messaging related to gender and race, but for now, one word shall suffice. Odious.

The Mountain of the Cannibal God: FREAKY

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979)

There’s a germ of an interesting idea within this no-budget exploitation flick, that being the notion of what might happen if two serial killers crossed paths. Unfortunately, filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler (who used separate aliases for his writing and directing credits) brings exactly zero nuance and style to the task, so The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher quickly degrades to the grindhouse equivalent of, say, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), inasmuch as the picture tries to compensate for its shortcomings by offering two ghouls for the price of one. While the worst thing about the picture is unquestionably its sleaziness, seeing as how the strangler scenes involve a fully dressed middle-aged man murdering topless young women, the weirdest thing about the picture is its soundtrack. Steckler and his team either failed to record location sound or screwed up the process, because nearly all the dialogue in this picture appears as voiceover. Right from the first scene, when strangler Jonathan Click (Pierre Agostino) takes nudie pictures of a model before killing her, the audience hears his thoughts vocalized as narration. Faint snippets of dialogue appear periodically, though they’re not the sonic focus. The storytelling is just as slipshod. Between strangler scenes, Steckler cuts to the unseen slasher murdering hoboes with a switchblade, eventually revealing that she’s an attractive redhead (Carolyn Brandt). The murderers meet, with predictably bloody results. Although The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher is dull, repetitive, and tacky, some gonzo-cinema fans appreciate the flick for its almost surrealistic trashiness—the disorienting treatment of sound makes the picture feel different from, though not necessarily any better than, run-of-the-mill gorefests. For the most part, however, this one’s for cinematic masochists only.

The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher: LAME

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

No Way Back (1976)

          Graded on one very specific curve, this blaxploitation joint earns a passing grade, but just barely. The curve in question reflects the sad fact that most films directed by Fred Williamson are awful. Judged by any other standard, the picture would fare poorly. In any event, No Way Back is the second flick to star Williamson as private dick Jesse Crowder, following the character’s debut in Death Journey, which was released the same year. (Sources differ as to which flick came first, but since there’s no series continuity, pinpoint accuracy doesn’t really matter.) Hired from his home base in Los Angeles to track down a missing person in San Francisco, Jesse does his usual thing, seducing babes, smacking down bad guys, and smooth-talking informants. As per the norm for Williamson’s Po’ Boy Productions, the main order of the day isn’t telling a story so much as making Williamson look cool and virile, though whether clothing the star in a series of leisure suits with matching neck scarves actually accomplishes that goal is open to question. No Way Back is standard-issue schlock, a brainless action thriller with R&B jams on the soundtrack, but it’s redeemed by fun elements.
          The story, not that it matters much, involves a bank executive named Pickens (Charles Woolf), who swindles cash from his employers, then takes off with a sexy accomplice named Candy (Tracy Reed). Complicating matters, she actually works for a gangster named Bernie (Stack Pierce). Meanwhile, Pickens’ wife, Mildred (Virginia Gregg), searches for her husband with less than noble intentions. It’s the usual drill of double crosses and twists, with the resourceful Jesse caught in the middle. Where the picture makes up ground is in the realm of vibe. Soul singers the Dells provide smooth tunes for the soundtrack, Reed complements her beauty with respectable acting, and the high-octane scenes have a measure of novelty, as when Jesse literally rides to the rescue, on horseback, during the climax. There’s also a mildly amusing subplot involving a hustler played by the iconic TV host Don Cornelius. Is anything in No Way Back original or special? Not even close. Does the film lag so badly at times that it becomes almost narcotizing? You bet. But is No Way Back infinitely better than Death Journey? Affirmative. And given the incredibly low standards one must embrace when appraising the Po’ Boy Productions filmography, that faint praise earns No Way Back a halfhearted checkmark in the “win” column.

No Way Back: FUNKY

Monday, October 24, 2016

Till Death (1978)

Hardcore horror fans will get more out of this one than general viewers, because Till Death is a slow burn that’s all about ambiguity and mood. If you dig lingering shots of cars driving through fog and creepy implications of necrophilia, then Till Death might satisfy your expectations despite its low budget and threadbare storyline. If not, Till Death will seem boring and unsatisfying, the sort of thing better suited to a 30-minute vignette within an anthology flick. It’s not terrible, but it’s so padded and slow-moving that even the kicker at the ending fails to justify the slog. The picture opens with a tease, because Paul Ryan (Keith Atkinson) has a horrifying nightmare during which he’s trapped in a crypt with a corpse. When he wakes, it’s the day of his wedding to Anne (Belinda Balaski). The ceremony goes well, but then, while driving through fog on the way to their honeymoon, the couple has a terrible car accident. Anne dies. After recovering from the injuries he suffered in the crash, Paul slips into a deep depression, then demands to visit his wife’s burial place. He reaches the cemetery near closing time, and he passes out inside the crypt where Anne’s body rests. By the time he regains consciousness, workers have locked him inside, so Paul spends a long night with his wife’s remains. Explaining where the story goes from there would ruin what fun there is to be had watching Till Death, though no horror fan is likely to find the big plot twists surprising. Short on real scares and long on eeriness, Till Death suffers from more than just an unwisely stretched-out running time. Leading actors Atkinson and Balaski are mediocre at best, and it would have taken exemplary performances to create the desired romantic illusion. Worse, the production values are nearly nonexistent, with most of the budget seemingly spent on fog machines and a trained cat. The filmmakers get points for trying to make an atmospheric shocker instead of something more crude, but even calling Till Death a noble attempt requires extraordinary generosity.

Till Death: LAME

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972)

          Adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play and directed by Peter Medak, whose work here echoes the style of his fellow Englishman John Schlesinger, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg explores a profoundly depressing subject with a strange mixture of irreverence and solemnity. The story concerns a couple whose only child suffers from cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair, unable to communicate through gestures or words, and subject to occasional seizures, Jo (Elizabeth Robillard) is a virtual invalid and a source of never-ending anguish for her parents, schoolteacher Bri (Alan Bates) and housewife Sheila (Janet Suzman). Yet the first half of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is filled with levity, because Bri uses jokes and playacting to transcend the grim reality of his family’s everyday life. Medak takes this narrative trope even further by slipping into fantastical scenes, Bri’s tall tales made “real.”
          Sheila plays along with Bri’s escapism, though it’s plain she’s more focused on the here and now, and it soon emerges that she’s aware of a different set of fantasies that Bri entertains. He sometimes imagines himself murdering Jo so that he and his wife can be free of the burden she represents. The juxtaposition of dark and light elements makes the first hour of the picture a bit discombobulated, but things come together during a lengthy monologue that Sheila delivers close to the midpoint. She confesses to humoring her husband and further admits she’s as despondent about the family’s situation as Bri. What buoys her is faith and the optimism it inspires—she considers any life miraculous, and she believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Jo may someday improve.
          The second half of the picture isn’t much smoother than the first, because two dinner guests join Bri and Sheila, bringing the simmering debate about how to handle Jo to full boil. The wife, sickened by Jo’s pathetic state, advocates mercy killing, while the husband, a detached logician, equates that suggestion to the Third Reich’s Final Solution. It’s all very heavy, though on some level the story is about marriage as much as it’s about mortality; the central dramatic question explores whether two people can stay together if their viewpoints on the single most important topic that connects them are different.
          Alas, the various parts of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg clash as often as they cohere. Jumping between fantasies and realities was all the rage in the late ’60s, but the technique had lost its novelty by 1972, when this film was released. Additionally, Medak never seems clear whether the husband or the wife should occupy the center of the storyline. If it’s the husband’s story, then A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a bleak statement about a weak soul favoring comfort over compassion. If it’s the wife’s story, then it’s an equally bleak statement about the nurturers of the world suffering in silence. Either way, the movie is unpleasant to watch, and not every viewer will agree the harsh thematic takeaways justify the investment of time and tolerance the picture requires.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg: FUNKY

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Telephone Book (1971)

          Tempting as it is to call The Telephone Book highbrow smut, what with the film’s arty black-and-white cinematography and its peculiar collection of kinky characters, the film has many stretches that are indefensibly sleazy. For instance, an animated sequence features giant tongues probing between women’s legs. Rather than providing a frank look at human sexuality, The Telephone Book is a wannabe sex comedy that peripherally includes both artistry and a small measure of sensitivity. As such, The Telephone Book occupies a strange space between exploitation and legitimacy. Most serious movie fans will find the picture way too lurid and tacky, and chances are The Telephone Book lacks sufficient oomph to satisfy the heavy-breathing audience. As such, this film is best classified as an odd byproduct of the porn-chic period, during which “real” filmmakers engaged carnal themes in graphic (or semi-graphic) detail. The picture’s X-rating is appropriate because of wall-to-wall sexual content, although the rating suggests the film crosses lines that it actually does not.
          The premise blends elements of feminist self-actualization with traces of Penthouse Letters male fantasy. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) receives an obscene phone call so arousing that she falls in love with the voice on the other end of the phone, then demands his name so she can find him. He gives her the dubious-sounding appellation “John Smith.” Alice tracks down every John Smith in the Manhattan phone book, leading to encounters with various men. A fellow calling himself “Har Poon” (Barry Morse) invites Alice to join in a group-grope audition for a porno movie. An unnamed psychoanalyst (Roger C. Carmel) flashes Alice on the subway, then pays her to describe her sexual history. (In a somewhat clever bit, he rubs the money changer on his belt while she talks, spewing dimes all over the floor of a diner.) Eventually, Alice meets the John Smith who called her, and he wears a pig mask while providing, in exhaustive detail, the origin story that led him to find gratification only through aural contact. Interspersed with these encounters are “interviews” with obscene phone callers who explain their habits.
          As a viewing experience, The Telephone Book is disorienting. The visual style of the movie, excepting the animated sequence, is sophisticated, almost to a fault—rather than shooting conventional coverage, writer-director Nelson Lyon films the picture like a series of elegant still photos, all delicate light and meticulous composition. Leading lady Kennedy is so bubbly and warm she seems like Goldie Hawn, which has the effect of making the picture feel less overtly dirty. And several proper actors deliver interesting work in supporting roles, notably Carmel, William Hickey, and Dolph Sweet. (Jill Clayburgh, pre-fame, shows up in a couple of scenes as Alice’s best friend.) Still, how is one to reconcile the arty flourishes with the stag-reel stuff? And what is one to make of the fact that scenes featuring Smith in his pig mask have an almost Kubrickian level of creepiness, given the way moody black-and-white shadows accentuate the monstrous contours of the mask? Although there’s a lot to unpack in The Telephone Book, it’s open to question whether deep-thinking the picture is worth the bother.

The Telephone Book: FREAKY

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tunnel Vision (1976)

          Very much in the spirit of The Groove Tube (1974), this lowbrow comedy anthology uses a thin premise to connect a huge number of sketches, all of which are parodies of TV programming. The noteworthy cast includes John Candy; Chevy Chase; the team of Tom Davis and Al Franken; Joe Flaherty; Howard Hesseman; David L. Lander; Laraine Newman; William Schallert; Ron Silver; and Betty Thomas. (Most perform in just one sketch each, so some appear and disappear within a minute of screen time.) The premise is that in the year 1985, a Senate committee investigates TunnelVision, the country’s most popular TV channel and the beneficiary of a Supreme Court decision that outlawed censorship of TV broadcasts. The reason for the hearing is that the government blames TunnelVision’s debauched shows for a number of social ills, including the economy-depleting apathy of those who spend hours on end watching the channel instead of working. After a senator (Hesseman) grills a TunnelVision executive (Phil Proctor), those in attendance at the hearing are shown a condensed sampling of one day’s content from the controversial channel.
          At their worst, the sketches comprising this content are offensive—such as ad for the “National Faggot Shoot.” Others are merely crude, like the ad for proctology education. Some of the sketches fall flat simply because the jokes aren’t funny, including the ad for a product that allows people to consume great books in the form of pills. Most of the sketches suffer as much for brevity as they do for lack of real wit; the ideas are too lightweight to make an impact in 30 or 60 seconds. As for the extended scenes, about the best that writers Neal Israel (who also codirected) and Michael Mislove can conjure is “Ramon and Sonja,” a riff on All in the Family and/or The Honeymooners featuring the world’s most disgusting family. Two words: incest jokes.
          Tunnel Vision isn’t outright awful, inasmuch as the piece has a brisk pace, skilled actors, and some technical polish, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny, and the satire is hardly pointed. (This just in! Excessive TV watching is bad for you!) Furthermore, Tunnel Vision lacks a standout sketch—everything is equally underwhelming, resulting in monotony. An 80-minute cavalcade of bargain-basement jokes is hard to take, especially since so many similar films exist: The Groove Tube gets points for being the first flick made in this style, The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) is much funnier, and Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979) is much weirder.

Tunnel Vision: FUNKY

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thank You!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a quick hello to recent contributors Allen R., Jeffrey R., Paul M., Richard W., and William E. (As always, last names and geographical info have been withheld to spare these kindhearted folks from receiving troll solicitations.) Donations of any size are helpful to keeping Every ’70s Movie groovy, so thanks to these generous readers, and thanks in advance to any others who are able to help.

Grave of the Vampire (1972)

Enervated horror flick Grave of the Vampire has a solid premise and at least one memorably perverse scene, but the combination of lifeless dramaturgy and stiff acting renders the piece impotent. Here’s the premise. When two lovers sneak into a cemetery one evening, they happen upon the crypt of Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki), a rapist and murderer who rises from the dead because he’s actually an ancient vampire. (Never mind that he was electrocuted and buried, and never mind that his resurrection defies even the sketchy logic of monster movies.) Caleb rapes the woman, who subsequently gives birth to a child that she raises by nursing him with blood instead of milk. When the child reaches adulthood as James Eastman (William Smith), he tracks down Croft, who has assumed a new identity as a college professor specializing in vampirism. (Again, never mind.) James uses detective work and eventually a séance to confirm that Croft is the creature who violated his mother, then seeks vengeance. Excepting the clumsy mechanics of the storyline, the underlying notion is fun—a vampire begets a son, who then wants payback. As for that perverse scene, it involves James’ mother discovering his taste for plasma. She accidentally cuts her finger and drips blood onto her baby’s face. He laps up the stuff, so she slices open her breast and he suckles the wound. If only the rest of the picture had that much nerve. Pataki, usually cast in humorous or thuggish roles, is atrocious, employing a community-theater version of sophisticated diction and moving like he’s got a wooden board tied to his back. Smith, badly miscast, spends most of the picture sitting in chairs while seething, so his powerful physicality is mostly wasted. All in all, Grave of the Vampire plays like a bad episode of Dark Shadows.

Grave of the Vampire: LAME

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

She Came to the Valley (1979)

Made in roughly the same Texan locations where the historical events it depicts took place, She Came to the Valley dramatizes a mildly interesting episode from the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920. After a leg injury dashes their agricultural dreams in Oklahoma, Pat Westall (Dean Stockwell) and his wife, Willy Westall (Ronee Blakeley), relocate to the Rio Grande Valley on the advice of a mysterious friend, Bill Lester (Scott Glenn). This places the Westall family in the line of fire during battles between the American government and Mexican rebel Pancho Villa (Freddy Fender). Executed with more Hollywood panache, this material could have become something exciting and romantic, with the fearless Willy torn between her alcoholic husband and the valiant Bill, whom she discovers is a soldier in Villa’s army. Alas, cowriter, coproducer, and director Albert Band isn’t up to the task. Beyond merely looking awful, thanks to blotchy cinematography and nonexistent scene transitions, She Came to the Valley is hopelessly unfocused. Band and his collaborators seem unsure about what approach to take on the material, and they also seem unsure about which character occupies the center of the narrative. Willy seems the obvious choice, but for long stretches of screen time, she doesn’t do anything. Similarly, Bill disappears for extended periods, and when he’s onscreen, the character is mostly polite and soft-spoken. Not exactly the Bogart/Redford-type role this sort of material demands. The first hour of She Came to the Valley is borderline interminable, and even though the subsequent 30 minutes have some action because Villa leads a brazen nighttime raid, the excitement level remains depressingly low given how little viewers care about the characters. All the major performances are disappointing, too. Blakely and Glenn sleepwalk through their roles, Stockwell overacts, and Fender demonstrates why he was wise to focus on his music career.

She Came to the Valley: LAME

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970)

          Among the many charismatic figures who achieved notoriety in the late ’60s and early ’70s by popularizing alternatives to mainstream belief systems, few courted controversy as actively as Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and spent the next two decades preaching dark gospel from his home base in San Francisco. An expert at cultivating media attention, he cheerfully showcased the most sensationalistic aspects of his style of worship—nude women, ritual sex, sadomasochism—while arguing that Church of Satan principles are more intrinsically honest than ideals promulgated by conventional Judeo-Christian faiths. This documentary, which reached theaters with an X-rating, features footage of LaVey officiating a black mass, interspersed with man-on-the-street comments from neighbors, remarks from representatives of other religions, and sit-down interviews with LaVey.
          As a record of a noteworthy personage, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is valuable, though the filmmakers took such a kid-gloves approach that the movie sometimes feels like a recruitment video. As an entertainment experience, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is nearly a dud. The ritual scenes are repetitive and ridiculous, while the interview scenes are dull and flat. To the filmmakers’ credit—and, by extension, to LaVey’s—the ritual scenes aren’t juiced with over-the-top elements, so don’t expect suggestions of human sacrifices or anything truly horrific. Yet this restraint creates a viewing challenge, because it’s boring to watch LaVey proselytize at exhaustive length with no one challenging his dubious assertions.
          The ritual scenes, of course, are the real draw. LaVey officiates in a silly-looking costume, wearing a dark cape and a skullcap adorned with horns. Various female church members take turns sitting spread-eagled atop an altar, nude but for the strategically positioned skull prop they use for modesty. Chalices and knives get passed around while LaVey recites gobbledygook and leads chants. Snakes are integrated into the service at one point, and the “highlight” involves a dude climbing into a coffin with a compliant woman for some ritual humping. It’s basically a softcore sideshow, with a guy in a skull mask playing organ for accompaniment.
          During the interview scenes, LaVey explains that his version of Satanism is based on indulgence rather than abstinence, providing an alternative to the fear of punishment that defines Judeo-Christian faiths. This argument goes only so far, because LaVey can’t resist using shock-value anecdotes to make his points. For instance, he describes a man who found joy by increasing his number of daily masturbation sessions, trading the Christian notion of self-denial for the Satanist tenet of self-pleasure. As for the S&M angle, the film features a long and uninteresting scene of a woman whipping a man’s fleshy posterior. Presumably one reason for LaVey’s participation in the project was to show people that Satanists are harmless, and the film certainly makes the one black mass captured on camera seem relatively innocent. No one’s slitting open goats and drinking blood here. Still, it’s hard to reconcile LaVey’s mellow rap about shedding inhibitions with the traditional connotations of Satanism. Accordingly, the lack of journalistic scrutiny makes Satanis: The Devil’s Mass as deep as a puff piece on the evening news.
          FYI, this picture is not to be confused with another title released in the same year, Witchcraft ’70. Made by an Italian company, Witchcraft ’70 is another X-rated survey of Satanism, complete with appearances by LaVey, but it appears that much of Witchcraft ’70 was staged. Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is goofy, but it feels like the real deal.

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass: FUNKY

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jud (1971)

          Released fairly early in the cycle of movies about Vietnam vets wrestling with PTSD upon returning to America, Jud deserves some credit for tackling serious issues at the very moment they were gaining sociopolitical relevance. Unfortunately, writer-director Gunther Collins has more passion for his subject matter than he does cinematic skill or psychological insight, so Jud echoes its protagonist’s angst-ridden journey by flailing about in search of meaning. The title character brawls, mopes, and wanders, pushing away nearly everyone who tries to form an emotional connection with him, and he endures flashbacks to horrific moments from overseas combat. Collins does an adequate job of conveying his leading character’s anguished metal state. Yet Collins fails to build an actual story around the character, so events in Jud just sort of happen, without any sense of a narrative shape. Worse, the climactic moment, which involves the death of a supporting character, is extrinsic to Jud’s journey, because the doomed character had major psychological problems well before he crossed Jud’s path. A more unified approach to this sort of material would have tethered the narrative’s ultimate tragedy to Jud’s PTSD, thereby conveying a theme about war claiming victims even after soldiers leave the battlefield, somewhat in the vein of the classic WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). With its barrage of directionless ennui and empty lyricism, Jud is a jumble.
          Set in Los Angeles, the picture begins with Jud Carney (Joseph Kaufmann) renting an apartment in a small building run by busybody landlord Fred Hornkel (Norman Burton). Two tenants glom onto Jud immediately—lonely single lady Shirley (Alix Wyeth) and self-loathing closeted homosexual Bill (Robert Deman). Jud shuns both of them, gravitating to pretty girls for company, first Sunny (Claudia Jennings), with whom Jud trysts on the beach, and later Kathy (Bonnie Bittner), with whom Jud attempts to build a real relationship. Sometimes, Jud seems like he has everything together, as when he expertly prevents a used-car salesman from swindling him, and sometimes, he’s a hair-trigger menace, as when he beats a guy whose girlfriend resembles the woman who dumped Jud while he was in Vietnam. Despite smothering the film with plaintive folk songs, Collins never gives the audience a clue as to what they’re supposed to make of everything that happens onscreen. At the time of its release, perhaps Jud said something fresh about how the experiences of Vietnam veterans differed from those of servicemen in previous wars. Seen today, it’s sincere but inadvertently shallow, a near miss at best. For cult-movie fans, the main point of interest is presumably Jennings’ participation, as Jud was the first movie credit for the short-lived Playboy model-turned-actress.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Missiles of October (1974)

          The Cuban Missile Crisis has been dissected and explored to a level of granular detail by dramatists and historians and politicians ever since those harrowing events of October 1962 concluded, since it’s very likely that was the closest the world has ever come to thermonuclear war. Yet as this excellent made-for-TV drama underscores, the lasting lesson is not just how easily men of hostile intent nearly drove two nations into globally destructive conflict, but how skillfully men of conscience defused the situation. Historically, much of the credit for ending the crisis rightfully goes to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for a crucial strategy suggestion he made late in the game, but The Missiles of October conveys that the world was saved by the collective efforts of RFK, President John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, among many others. In today’s post-9/11 era of brinksmanship and escalation, the lessons in The Missiles of October are perhaps more important than ever.
          From an aesthetic perspective, The Missiles of October is highly unusual. Shot on videotape, it’s essentially a recording of a play, even though many cinematic flourishes are employed. (For instance, each act opens with a shot of a giant board bearing the show’s title and flags, with the camera zooming into the flag of the nation where the act’s first scene takes place.) Moreover, The Missiles of October is quite long, running two and a half hours even without commercials, so the storytelling is gradual, methodical, and specific. Viewers are taken all the way from the U.S. government’s first discovery that Russian missile bases are being assembled on the island nation of Cuba to the final resolution between the U.S., thrown into a defensive posture by the presence of missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and the U.S.S.R., desperate to save face even though surrender is the only sane option. A fantastic cast tells the story, with William Devane’s alternately contemplative and intense portrayal of JFK dominating. He’s matched almost perfectly with Martin Sheen, who plays RFK. Together, they sketch a believable family bond while also expressing the horrible stakes of the crisis in their pained faces.
          Whereas Devane and Sheen mimic the Kennedy brothers’ famous Boston accents, Howard Da Silva uses an unadorned American vocal style while playing Krushchev. In context, this choice works, because viewers aren’t distracted by dialect or subtitles while parsing the subtle moves that Krushchev made while maneuvering around Kremlin hawks to avoid disaster. Others familiar players in the cast are Ralph Bellamy, Dana Elcar, Michael Lerner, and Nehemiah Persoff, and character actor Thayer David provides occasional narration. Seen today, The Missiles of October might strike some viewers as aesthetically deficient, what with the grainy newsreel clips to illustrate military action and the use of minimalistic sets. Nonetheless, this film articulates the broad strokes of a key event in world history, as well as many of the most important nuances, with grace and power, eventually morphing from a docudrama to a taut thriller. The time one invests to watch The Missiles of October is rewarded handsomely.

The Missiles of October: GROOVY

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Red Alert (1977)

          Two years before the big-budget theatrical feature The China Syndrome dramatized the dangers of nuclear power plants, the excellent made-for-TV thriller Red Alert offered an even more sensationalized take on the subject. Based on a novel by Harold King and written for the screen by Sandor Stern, the picture takes place at a facility in Minnesota. An unexplained leak in the reactor’s coolant tank triggers alerts at “Proteus Central” in Colorado, the command center where bigwig Henry Stone (Ralph Waite) uses a massive computer system to monitor the nation’s nuclear plants. Distrusting reports from his subordinates at the Minnesota facility, Stone sends two security officers, Frank Brolen (William Devane) and Carl Wyche (Michael Brandon), to investigate. They learn that a crazed employee has placed small explosives throughout the Minnesota facility with the goal of triggering a fatal chain reaction. The suspense of the picture stems from efforts to locate and defuse all of the bombs, and also to identify the saboteur’s motive in case he’s part of a larger conspiracy. Complicating matters are the effects of the first explosion at the facility: The saboteur is among 14 workers trapped, and presumed dead, inside the plant’s highly contaminated containment facility, so he’s unavailable for interrogation. Adding another layer to the storyline is Carl’s concern for his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and their children, who live near the facility that’s on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown.
          Although the plotting of Red Alert is a bit contrived, relying on the sort of mad-bomber device one normally expects to encounter in an Airport movie, the dramatic and technical execution of the piece is terrific. Not only did the producers obtain impressive locations and utilize a sufficient degree of technical jargon to make the piece seem credible, but director William Hale’s imaginative camerawork accentuates claustrophobia and juices tension. He’s forever using objects in the foreground to frame faces, underscoring how the film’s characters are caught in a horrible situation. Hale also shoots action well, his camera movements designed with mathematical precision. One can feel the influence of Sidney Lumet, since the storytelling in Red Alert recalls the way Lumet put his not-entirely-dissimilar Fail-Safe (1964) across. The acting is fairly strong, too. Devane is equal parts macho and world-weary as a man tainted by tragedy, Brandon counters him with earnest sensitivity, and Waite plays heavily against type, suppressing his Waltons warmth to incarnate a dangerously cold-blooded autocrat. So even though Red Alert is mostly a well-made potboiler, the actors and filmmakers conjure enough believability to give the piece some teeth as a cautionary tale.

Red Alert: GROOVY

Friday, October 14, 2016

Every ’70s Movie Is Six Years Old!

As noted in my last message to readers, on the occasion of notching over 2.5 million page views in September, we’re not quite in the home stretch of Every ’70s Movie, but we’re getting there. Today marks six years of continuous publication, with a new review every day—I feel like my office should have a sign that reads “2,150 days without an accident”—so over 2,000 theatrical movies have been reviewed, plus a selection of TV movies from the ’70s and theatrical releases from 1980, the unofficial end of the decade’s cinematic output. This has been a wild journey so far, and I look forward to making additional interesting discoveries as I push toward seeing as many films as possible from my (hopefully) comprehensive list of movies released between Jan. 1, 1970, and Dec. 31, 1979. I have no illusions of finding absolutely everything, as some titles are genuinely lost, but if a flick is commercially available, streaming online, or obtainable through a reasonably accessible archive, it’s on my agenda. Which is where you, my dear readers, can help. The donations link on the home page is your means of supporting this grand (okay, mad) enterprise, because while creating Every ’70s Movie has always incurred minor expenses, costs are increasing as titles become more obscure. Every little bit helps make this project happen. Thanks, as always, to readers who have shown their support in the past, since even a $10 donation directly translates to new content. If you enjoy reading this blog on a regular basis, please consider lending a hand. I can’t make like PBS and offer a tote bag in return, but I can offer you my gratitude and my friendly advice to keep on keepin’ on!

Abduction (1975)

          Released a year after Patty Heart’s kidnapping made headlines, harsh thriller Abduction bears more than a few suspicious similarities to Hearst’s situation, even though the filmmakers use a disclaimer at the top of the picture to call the parallels coincidental, seeing as how Abduction was based upon a novel published in 1973. In the filmmakers’ meager defense, their storyline doesn’t include a bank robbery, and it plays out differently than Hearst’s real-life circumstances. However, the movie does concern an heiress named Patricia being taken by a group of political radicals and then drawn into their hive mind through psychosexual conditioning. Despite claims to the contrary, Abduction was made and marketed as a lurid riff on Hearst. The kicker: Abduction is a fairly solid movie, with an eerily restrained aesthetic, methodical storytelling, and satisfactory performances. Some may find the picture slow, an unavoidable problem for stories depicting extended periods of captivity, but viewers able to look past the picture’s exploitive nature will find something creepy and unsettling.
          Rather than being the daughter of a newspaper publisher, Patricia Prescott (Judith-Marie Bergan) is the offspring of a rich developer. She’s violently abducted by radicals under the command of Frank (Gregory Rosackis), an impassioned black radical determined to undermine the ruling class. In a hideout, Frank has a colleague videotape him raping Patricia. Then he sends the tape to her father (Leif Erickson), demanding that Mr. Prescott demolish a luxury building that, Frank says, represents capitalist oppression. As the film progresses, Mr. Prescott weighs the consequences of giving in to demands while Frank plays mind games with Patricia, eventually bringing her around to his way of thinking. Or so it seems. Director Joseph Zito and his collaborators do a passable job of tracking Patricia’s mental state, creating empathy for her predicament as well as ambiguity about whether she’s truly “converted” or whether she’s patronizing her captors.
          Particularly because the pacing is meditative, with extended camera takes and long periods that are bereft of scoring, a suitably oppressive mood takes hold, all the way to the intense ending. As an example of what the film does well, consider the recurring image of Mr. Prescott, sitting alone in his home office, staring at hostage videos of his daughter’s sexual violations, the harrowing frames seen in flickering reflections on his eyeglasses. Yikes. Sex, however, also contributes to Abduction’s biggest problem. Zito lingers so long on carnal scenes that Abduction has a leering quality, even though Zito emphasizes the horror, rather than the titillation, of such sequences. As one of Frank’s colleagues says to Patricia with chilling amiability: “It’s not you I want to hurt—I hope you remember that.”

Abduction: FUNKY

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Gang Wars (1976)

The best thing about this wretched hybrid of crime, horror, and martial arts is the name of the leading actor, because it’s hard to top “Warhawk Tanzania.” Incompetently cowritten (with four other people!) and directed by Barry Rosen, the flick opens in China circa 200 B.C., with fanatics performing a deadly ritual near a deep pit. Cut to the present, where Luke (Tanzania) is a martial-arts master in New York City. His student, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), gets into a hassle with Chinese gangsters in Manhattan before traveling, with Luke, to Hong Kong for advanced kung-fu training. Rodan stumbles onto the pit from the ritual and accidentally releases a demon, which follows him and Luke back to New York and sets up housekeeping in the city’s subway system. If you’re already confused, join the club. The demon starts murdering folks in the subway, which causes police to suspect gangsters are responsible and eventually leads detectives to Luke and Rodan. None of this makes any more sense onscreen than it does on paper, and Gang Wars—also known as Devil’s Express, hence the above poster—has production values commensurate to its storytelling. Scenes smash together without transitions, repetitive funk grooves make fight sequences feel tedious, and the filmmakers periodically replace production sound with voiceover, which merely adds to the overall awkwardness. The demon bits are ridiculous, culminating with Tanzania kung-fu fighting some dude in a rubber suit, and the highlight—as far as horror goes—is a vignette of a fellow ripping off his own skin while the demon possessing him breaks free. Too infrequently, glimmers of droll weirdness poke through the sludge. NYC freakazoid Brother Theodore plays a priest in one scene, and, in the most enjoyable moment, a crazed bag lady (Sarah Nyrick) harangues strangers on the subway before she’s attacked by the demon. You may find yourself wishing the movie was about the bag lady.

Gang Wars: LAME