Saturday, September 30, 2017

Deadbeat (1977)



Executed with more precision, Deadbeat could and should have come across as a youth-culture spin on Death Wish (1974), the quintessential urban-vigilante story about a man slaughtering criminals after loved ones were victimized. Alas, Deadbeat, also known as Avenged and Tomcats, can’t quite decide which path to travel, so the movie’s nearly halfway over before the main character begins his rampage. Moreover, the filmmakers linger on topless shots and stew in crude dialogue about sex, so there’s a vaguely pornographic quality to the picture. Add in the usual problems of vigilante pictures (namely the glorification of violence), and Deadbeat becomes a thoroughly distasteful experience, but not in a provocative way. Things get off to a sleazy start when four young thugs break into a remote diner, then rape and kill the only occupant, a pretty young waitress. Eventually, cops connect the thugs with the crime and arrest them. Later, the victim’s brother, Cullen (Chris Mulkey), watches in impotent horror as a legal SNAFU allows the thugs to escape punishment. This provokes Cullen to begin murdering the thugs one by one. Meanwhile, the local police chief, who happens to be the father of both Cullen and the dead girl, tracks the murders, soon realizing who must be responsible. The better version of this movie would have imbued Cullen with virtues unique to his age, putting generational ideas about law and order into conflict, but Cullen is such an old-fashioned character he could just as easily be in his 50s as his 20s. Therefore the slow-moving Deadbeat offers nothing but a weak recitation of grindhouse tropes.

Deadbeat: LAME

Friday, September 29, 2017

Skullduggery (1970)



          Before he found his groove playing macho rascals, Burt Reynolds made a slew of random movies and TV shows, none quite as random as Skullduggery. Even setting aside the misleading title, which suggests a con-man thriller or a pirate flick, this is a deeply weird science-fiction melodrama about missing-link primates, inter-species romance, and a courtroom showdown with echoes of the legendary Scopes trial. Yet the strangest aspect of all may be Reynolds’ character, who improbably evolves from a low-rent schemer into a passionate defender of the missing-link primates. Reynolds plays both aspects of the character well, but the shift from one to the other is as whiplash-inducing as every other bizarre thing that happens in Skullduggery.
          The picture opens with anthropologist Dr. Sybil Greame (Susan Clark) preparing to explore rough terrain in New Guinea. Local miscreants Douglas (Reynolds) and Otto (Roger C. Carmel) worm their way into the expedition for nefarious reasons. Upon reaching the jungle interior, the group encounters shaggy orange primates they refer to as the Tropi. Seeing how local cannibals mistreat the Tropi sparks sympathetic feelings from the previously callous Douglas and Otto. In fact, Otto impregnates one of the Tropi females. Highly contrived circumstances shift the action back to civilization, where Douglas uses the occasion of a Tropi tragedy to force a court trial that tests whether the Tropi shall be considered animals or people. It’s all quite outlandish and silly, even though everyone plays the material straight.
          Reading about this project, one learns that director Otto Preminger was involved at one point, though it’s safe to assume his version would have been much longer, with endless debates about morality and the nature of man. The strangeness imbuing the extant version suggests Preminger dodged a bullet. Not only are the ape suits worn by performers portraying Tropi characters unconvincing, but the notion of a sexual dalliance between a civilized man and a wild creature is distasteful. And whenever Skullduggery isn’t violating propriety, it’s violating logic. In some ways, Skullduggery is a train wreck, but somewhere inside this slipshod movie is a moralistic oddity yearning to be free. Adventurous viewers might be able to perceive glimmers of that better film through the muck of Skullduggery.

Skullduggery: FUNKY

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Teenage Tramp (1973)



Here’s a more accurate title for this grim exploitation flick: I Was a Teenage Cult Escapee. Although the picture indeed begins with trampy behavior, in the form of a young hitchhiker servicing the truck driver who gives her a ride, things take a turn soon afterward. A hippie chick fully aware of her sexual power, slinky blonde Kim (Alisha Fontaine) makes her way to the home of her wealthy older sister, Hillary (Robin Lane), with the goal of squeezing Hillary for money from their late parents’ estate. Hillary resists, assuming Kim will blow the money on wild adventures, then tries persuading Kim to sign up for college. Instead, Kim seduces Hillary’s boyfriend, Adam (Anthony Massena). Later, some of Kim’s old friends track her down. Turns out she fled a cult led by Maury (David Sawn), and when Maury gets an eyeful of Hillary’s posh house, he sets his mind to squeezing Hillary for cash. Debauchery and intrigue ensue, none of it the least bit convincing. Cheaply made and poorly acted, Teenage Tramp grinds through tedious scenes—one pointless sequence features nothing but Kim cavorting atop a pool float—and occasionally resolves into focused moments of character interplay. Some of these moments work well enough, but just as many fizzle. The sum effect is bewildering, partly because the characters are so unsympathetic. Even in scenes portraying Kim as a victim, Fontaine’s seen-it-all vibe undercuts the characterization; picture Faye Dunaway’s fast little sister, and you get the appropriate mental image. Anyway, while the final stretch of the picture is somewhat interesting simply because things get nihilistic, pointless darkness ultimately doesn’t command much more attention than the quality defining the rest of the picture, pointless licentiousness.

Teenage Tramp: LAME

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When the North Wind Blows (1974)



          Director Stewart Raffill spent the ’70s making sincere adventure movies with family-friendly themes. While it’s easy to slag these pictures as manipulative hokum, Rafill approached his material rigorously, capturing beautiful nature shots while conveying worthwhile notions of honor and individualism and loyalty. The worst of these pictures are cutesy and maudlin, but the best of them, including When the North Wind Blows, strive for the scope and weight of literature—so even though When the North Wind Blows never quite hits the target, it’s a respectable attempt. Furthermore, compared to other nature dramas released under the Sunn Classic Pictures banner during the Me Decade, When the North Wind Blows is unusual inasmuch as it’s not about Americans. Instead, it’s about Russians living near Siberia.
          Following a prologue that sets up one particular character as the narrator, the movie proper begins by introducing the relationship between Avakum (Henry Brandon), a reclusive mountain man, and Boris (Herbert Nelson), a shopkeeper in a small village. Once a year, Avakum descends from his hunting grounds in the high mountains to sell wares and buy supplies. Circumstances lead to a misunderstanding after the accidental death of a local boy, so villagers blame Avakum for the tragedy, turning him into a fugitive. The story follows his quest to survive in the mountains during a brutal winter, with predators including lions and tigers prowling around him, then shifts into melodramatic mode once Boris realizes that newly uncovered facts have exonerated his friend, necessitating a wilderness trek to deliver word of salvation.
          The humorless plot trudges along without much momentum, though Rafill generates some vivid episodes. When the North Wind Blows looks good, with rugged locations and terrific animal footage, but the characterizations are so thin that only very sympathetic viewers will form any emotional attachment to the people onscreen. It doesn’t help that the movie periodically drifts into pointless subplots, as when another mountain man (Dan Haggerty) recalls his magical encounter with a white tiger. Still, Rafill renders a fairly consistent mood, all hushed and wintry, while celebrating the iconoclastic nature of men willing to brave the elements if doing so removes them from the trivialities of civilization. When the North Wind Blows falls well short of the standards set by the similarly themed Jeremiah Johnson (1972), but folks who enjoyed that picture’s core values might find modest pleasures here.

When the North Wind Blows:  FUNKY

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Assault on Paradise (1977)



          Some intrepid soul could write an entire treatise on film distribution by analyzing the way this drab thriller was sold to the public. Not only has the picture been issued under several titles—Maniac!, The Ransom, The Town That Cried Terror—but the most prevalent poster art, extrapolated from the opening scene, suggests a serial-killer saga echoing Son of Sam, Zodiac, and other human monsters who prowled the streets of America’s cities during the ’70s. In truth, Assault on Paradise is quite different. The story concerns a deranged Native American who terrorizes the wealthiest residents of a resort community in Arizona, demanding payment as punishment for, presumably, the residents’ mistreatment of tribal land. Although the story includes a number of murders, only one fits the urban-psycho paradigm, because most of the killings involve a bow and arrow. What’s more, Assault on Paradise isn’t some grim character study of a sociopath. The protagonist is a tough-talking mercenary hired by the wealthy residents to kill the sociopath. Accordingly, most of the picture involves a chase across desert lands, with helicopters and Jeeps and motorcycles. Hardly what people were promised by sensationalistic advertising.
          The setting is Paradise, a small town where rich guys including William Whitaker (Stuart Whitman) lord over municipal employees. After an Indian named Victor (Paul Koslo) kills several people, he issues a demand for $1 million and threatens more carnage if he is not paid. Whitaker hires Nick McCormick (Oliver Reed) to find and terminate Victor. Nick then recruits a local tracker (Jim Mitchum) to guide him through rough terrain. The story also involves a TV reporter, Cindy (Deborah Raffin), who becomes romantically involved with Nick.
          Thanks to a genuinely terrible screenplay, long stretches of the movie are deadly boring, and virtually none of the onscreen behavior makes sense. Nick is supposed to be the height of cold-blooded efficiency, but he spends a lot of time drinking, hanging out, and screwing. The tracker is supposed to know the terrain perfectly, but he often throws up his hands and says he doesn’t know where to look next for Victor. And Victor is played by the decidedly Caucasian actor Paul Koslo—who, by the way, is blond. Directed with zero story sense by Richard Compton, who spent most of his career making second-rate television, Assault on Paradise is a slog to get through, despite the colorful cast and violent premise. The picture gets better in its second half, once the action gets going, and props are due to Don Ellis for the energy of his frenetic disco/jazz/rock score, but the number of scenes that simply don’t work is startling. Which begins to explain, perhaps, why desperate methods were employed to hype the picture.

Assault on Paradise: FUNKY

Monday, September 25, 2017

Angels (1976)



          Downtown NYC weirdness abounds in Angels, a darkly comic fantasy about recently deceased individuals tasked by God with killing mortals who possess the potential to become angels—although the movie’s premise is so outrageous it could have made for a fun drive-in flick, director Spencer Compton gets distracted at regular intervals by pretentious nonsense. In one scene, a man straightens a wire hanger, then shoves the entire apparatus down his throat like a sword swallower. In another bit, a gangly man wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and a gun belt presents his backside to the camera while sobbing uncontrollably. Still another vignette features a chase scene on roller skates, set to the accompaniment of disco music, during which the pursuers wear brightly colored pantyhose over their heads. And then there’s the scene of a video artist and his model girlfriend smoking a joint in bed while watching a deathbed recording of the artist’s father, a onetime actor lamenting that fate has denied him a final curtain call. 
          The movie begins with a barrage of confusing images. A shrill blonde woman and a biker venture onto the streets of New York. In Heaven, God (personified as a hip black man and played by David Bryant) greets a pair of newly dead mobsters, their clothes riddled with bloody bullet holes. God explains that He needs deadly emissaries on earth because the angel population has dwindled, or something like that. (Even for a fantasy, the logic is incomprehensible.) Then it’s back to the blonde and the biker, who get run over by a nun driving a Rolls-Royce. And so on.
          Angels is wildly undisciplined, with the style and tone fluctuating greatly from scene to scene, and the central plot gets cast aside repeatedly. What, for instance, does the vignette of the crying cowboy accosting someone with a dildo have to do with anything? And why does Compton linger so long on the deathbed recording, an indulgent stretch of over-acting that’s self-referentially about over-acting?
          In some ways, Angels epitomizes what many people hate about the downtown art scene, because the participating eccentrics seem to perceive their every utterance, no matter how asinine, to be art. Similarly, various attempts at satirizing Christian beliefs—such as transforming a nun into an assassin—feel like silly shock-value maneuvers instead of genuine provocation. It doesn’t help that Angels is cheap-looking and dull and pointless. Even the grungiest Andy Warhol productions have tangible themes, no matter how outré, so by comparison to other films that arose from the same environment, Angels comes across as sloppy and underdeveloped. Given how tedious the worst downtown movies are, that’s saying a lot, none of it complimentary.
          Perhaps the only point of interest for film fans is the presence of offbeat character actor Vincent Schiavelli (known for projects including 1990’s Ghost). He plays the cowboy, so that’s Schiavelli’s physique in the bizarre nude scene and that’s Schiavelli’s hand wiggling the dildo. Angels contains a host of images viewers will never encounter anywhere else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the images are worth seeing.

Angels: FREAKY

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