Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Black and White in Color (1976)

          Viewed from either a political or a technical perspective, Black and White in Color­­—a coproduction from France and the Ivory Coast that won its year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film—is highly impressive. The directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black and White in Color is a slick production with flawless costuming, photography, and production design, transporting viewers to West Africa circa 1915. Scenes inside dusty villages and military encampments are just as visually persuasive as scenes taking place on battlefields that sprawl from unforgiving plains to verdant jungles. Politically, the picture is just as strong, delivering a simple antiwar message by way of a quasi-farcical storyline about imperialist Europeans drawing unsuspecting Africans into pointless armed conflict. Yet there’s sometimes a gulf between ambitions and results. For all of its high-minded goals, Black and White and Color has significant shortcomings, worst of which is a tendency toward shallow characterizations. Annaud and his collaborators stuff the film with so many characters that none can be developed fully, so it’s hard to feel much emotional connection with the people onscreen, beyond normal sympathy for individuals mired in tragic circumstances. Given this weakness, Black and White in Color works better as a statement than as a story.
          The gist of the piece is that two European forts are situated in close proximity to each other, one occupied by French colonists and one occupied by Germans colonists. When French geologist Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser) receives a care package containing months-old newspapers, he and his Gallic colleagues learn their country is at war with Germany. Despite the fact that the conflagration has been underway for some time with no impact on their lives, some of the Frenchmen experience a surge of nationalism and resolve to attack the German fort. They recruit natives as soldiers, offering household trinkets as payment. Tragedy, predictably, ensues.
          While some of the satirical moments in Black and White and Color are relatively subtle, too many are obvious. In one scene, for instance, a French priest rides in a chair carried by several natives, who sing in their own language about Europeans striking them as obese and odiferous. Oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics, the priest declares, “Oh, how I love this song!” Annaud films everything beautifully, whether he’s using long lenses to capture documentary-style details during crowd scenes or staging a trench-warfare scene in a rainy jungle ravine to amplify the physical discomforts of combat situations. He also gets a few scenes just right, notably the long sequence of a Frenchman leading a group over a tiny stream and pretending it’s the Rhine. Of such delusions horrific jingoistic arrogance is born. Nonetheless, Black and White in Color grows repetitive soon after the “declaration of war,” and it was a miscalculation to avoid making any of the Africans major characters. Annaud conveys considerable anthropological curiosity with his shots of natives going about everyday activities, but he inadvertently relegates Africans to the status of second-class citizens, which is one of the very things he skewers his European characters for doing.

Black and White in Color: FUNKY

Monday, February 20, 2017

Fight for Your Life (1977)

          According to William Lusting, CEO of cult-movie distributor Blue Underground, the original negative for the racially charged exploitation flick Fight for Your Life fell victim to Hurricane Sandy while being stored in New Jersey, Seeing as how the movie depicts a vile racist terrorizing a black pastor, it’s tempting to wonder if the destruction of the print wasn’t so much an accident as a deliberate act of God. After all, Fight for Your Life contains so much cruel ignorance and senseless violence that one can imagine a vengeful deity smiting the negative. In any event, the picture survives in digital form, so anyone who wants to spend 80-siomething minutes watching a demented redneck and his accomplices gang-rape the pastors daughter, kill various innocent bystanders, and psychologically torture the clergyman can do so at their leisure. Fight for Your Life is relatively well made for a film of its type, and the movie benefits from vigorous performances. The picture is also of mild interest for genre-cinema fans because it contains one of William Sanderson’s few starring roles. Known for his work in movies (Blade Runner), dramatic television (Deadwood), and sitcoms (Newhart), he’s among the industry’s most versatile players, so he’s long since made artistic amends for appearing in this, his first big-screen project. Plus, truth be told, he’s pretty good in Fight for Your Life, in the sense that he’s utterly repugnant in every scene. Rarely will you be more eager for a character to die.
          The flick begins with Jessie Lee Kane (Sanderson) and two accomplices escaping from a prison-transport vehicle. Hewing to the familiar Desperate Hours formula, the filmmakers place an unlikely refuge in Jessie Lee’s path, because he stumbles across the home of African-American minister Ted Turner (Robert Judd). Jessie Lee and his thugs kill people who approach the house and torment those inside, beating the minister and committing the aforementioned sexual assault. The Turners grow more defiant as the hours drag on, so at one point Ted’s wheelchair-bound grandmother unloads on the gun-toting Jessie Lee: “I’ll tell you something, Mr. Poor White Trash—you ain’t nothing but what you got in your hand! Your pappy shoulda thought of that before he stuck it in your mammy!” Given the predictable plot, it’s only a matter of time before the Turners get the better of their attackers. Meanwhile, police officers chasing the fugitives piece clues together—will they arrive in time to rescue the Turners, or to prevent the Turners from exacting revenge? In lieu of imaginative plotting, Fight for Your Life has a passable degree of suspense and a nauseating amount of hatred. Not only does Jessie Lee constantly spew the n-word, but he bombards his hostages with every other emotional, physical, and verbal humiliation he can imagine.

Fight for Your Life: FUNKY

Sunday, February 19, 2017

That Certain Summer (1972)

          The significance of this intimate telefilm derives as much from historical context as from the events depicted onscreen, because That Certain Summer is considered the first made-for-TV movie to present homosexual characters as dignified protagonists. Seen today, the picture might strike some people as inconsequential, for while That Certain Summer tells the touching story of a man forced to tell his teenaged son about a profound lifestyle change, the picture lacks dramatic fireworks. Everyone treats everyone else with respect, more or less; no one goes for the jugular during moments of conflict; and the closest the story gets to addressing political issues are a few dialogue exchanges pertaining to the limited rights enjoyed by gay men in early-’70s America. Yet because the narrative takes place in the progressive enclave of San Francisco, That Certain Summer isn’t about the restrictions society places on people. Rather, it’s about the challenges people face when asking others to change their perceptions. Not coincidentally, that’s just what the film itself asked viewers to do by casting mainstream actors in leading roles.
          Hal Holbrook stars as Doug Salter, a contractor who divorced his wife three years ago. Eventually, we learn that he told his ex-wife, Janet (Hope Lange), about his bisexuality before they got married, and that she, like so many women of her generation, presumed she could ease Doug into a permanent heterosexual lifestyle by creating a loving and stable home. By the time their son, Nick (Scott Jacoby), reached adolescence, Doug realized that he needed to live his true identity as a gay man. In the years since the divorce, Doug built a new life with a younger lover, Gary McClain (Martin Sheen), and they moved in together. When the story begins, 14-year-old Nick arrives for an extended summer visit with his father, unaware of how deeply Doug’s life has changed. In fact, Nick—like so many children of divorce—holds onto the hope that his parents will reunite. This summer, however, Doug has resolved to integrate the two halves of his life by introducing Nick to Gary, even though Gary pretends to live elsewhere so Nick isn’t confronted by too many shocking revelations at once. Nonetheless, the sensitive youth puts the pieces together and runs away from his father’s house, riding a trolley through the city while Doug and Gary search for him. Inevitably, the story gravitates toward the moment when Doug must tell the whole truth, despite the painful changes it will bring to his relationship with Nick.
          Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for their work on mystery shows (they created Columbo and co-created Murder, She Wrote), display the same humanistic subtlety here they brought to other made-for-TV movies, including The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) and My Sweet Charlie (1970). Both of those pictures were directed by versatile craftsman Lamont Johnson, as was That Certain Summer. Fine script and direction notwithstanding, this is primarily an actor’s piece. Sheen channels the suppressed tension of a man trying not to make a difficult situation worse until he briefly flashes anger during a confrontation with his brother-in-law (Joe Don Baker, great in a cameo role). Jacoby is good, too, investing the mostly one-note role of a confused kid with palpable anguish.
          Holbrook commands the film, playing gentle notes of ambivalence and pride and regret as a man who masks his identity in professional settings and desperately wants to be truthful in private settings. As seen through the eyes of his character’s son, who has yet to form prejudices but nonetheless receives demeaning signals from society, Doug is not a hero but an everyman. The sheer ordinariness of his situation is what makes That Certain Summer so meaningful.

That Certain Summer: RIGHT ON

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Nicole (1978)

Some bad movies survive because they’re entertainingly inept, some endure because they belong to popular genres, and others remain as documents of early work by people who later became stars. And then there are movies like Nicole, also known as Crazed, which linger because of boobs. Specifically, lowbrow distributor Troma’s video marketing for Nicole accentuates the fact that supporting actress Catherine Bach, of The Dukes of Hazzard fame, does a topless scene. Yet those who seek Nicole for an erotic charge are in for a shock: Nicole is confusing, strange, and unpleasant. Leslie Caron stars as Nicole, an insane rich bitch who builds a surrogate family of sycophants. She toys with people, for instance compelling Bach’s character to get a nose job and then secretly redecorating the young woman’s apartment and replacing the young woman’s wardrobe. Nicole seems vaguely interested in having a lesbian affair with Bach’s character, and yet Nicole also seems to recruit a young male lover for the woman, and to recruit an age-appropriate male lover for herself. Or maybe some of these people have a threesome. You see, the problem with Nicole—okay, one of the problems—is that cowriter/director István Ventilla employs such a pretentious, splintered storytelling style that it’s often difficult to understand what’s happening. Moments get cut up and fragmented, audio is juxtaposed with picture in seemingly random patterns, and behavior is never explained. Case in point: The movie opens with an everyman (Ramon Bieri) discovering his wife in bed with another man and then killing both of them. Cut to the same man working as Nicole’s driver. How did they meet? Does she know what he did? Were the murders investigated? Who knows? Who cares? As a leading character, Nicole is one of those bizarre screenwriter inventions, a collection of perversions and tics without any psychological glue, so Caron is seductive and urbane in one scene, hysterical and violent in the next. As with all things Nicole, nothing about the performance makes sense, and very little of it is interesting to watch.

Nicole: LAME

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973)

          Casual fans who primarily know Peter Sellers from the Pink Panther movies may think his penultimate film, Being There (1979), represents Sellers’ only significant dramatic work, but of course that’s not the case—interspersed between his many comedies are a handful of serious films, though none captured the public’s attention the way Being There did. Among the actor’s lesser-known dramas is the UK production The Optimists of Nine Elms, released stateside with the abbreviated title The Optimists. Written and directed by Anthony Simmons, who based the script on his own novel and reportedly envisioned the movie as a starring vehicle for Buster Keaton, The Optimists of Nine Elms tells the bittersweet story of an ex-vaudeville performer, now eking out a sketchy living as a street performer. He befriends two latchkey kids, broadening their horizons by showing them more of London than the working-class slum where they live. He also teaches them life lessons of a sort, because he’s so disheartened with people that he directs all of his affection toward a scruffy pet: “You can forget all about humans,” he says. “You might as well take poison. But a dog’ll always be your friend.”
          As this remark suggests, The Optimists of Nine Elms is somewhat ironically titled. Yet because the movie is driven by twee musical scoring, features song-and-dance interludes, and ends on a sentimental note, it’s as if Simmons envisioned the movie as uplifting. (There’s a lot more Chaplin than Keaton in the film’s DNA.) Some will find the picture touching, but others will regard The Optimists of Nine Elms as dreary and dull.
          Sam (Sellers) lives in a hovel cluttered with broken-down showbiz paraphernalia. Every day, he treks to a busy street corner, puts on a flashy costume, and sings old-timey songs while his trained dog bops around with a cup for tips. Meanwhile, teenaged Liz (Donna Mullane) and her younger brother, Mark (John Chaffey), live nearby, mostly ignored by their dad, who works long hours, and their mom, who is preoccupied with housework. The kids stumble across Sam one day and become fascinated, eventually joining him on his daily outings. He’s kind some days and prickly on others, but he sees how badly the kids want a dog of their own and tries to help. In one of the film’s stranger scenes, he also takes the kids on a field trip to a pet cemetery. Fun! Sellers is okay here, wearing a prosthetic nose as he wobbles between lively and sullen; some viewers will find the spectacle of Sellers singing a toe-tapping version of “This Old Man” more interesting than others. As for the movie around him, it’s mostly quite gloomy, thanks to grimy locations and Mullane’s perpetually sour facial expressions, although the music—credited to Lionel Bart and the Beatles’ main man, George Martin—strives mightily to inject happiness.

The Optimists of Nine Elms: FUNKY

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Asylum of Satan (1972)

Mildly enjoyable in that familiar so-bad-it’s-good sort of way, schlocky supernatural thriller Asylum of Satan marked the directorial debut of William Girdler, whose later output includes the fabulously silly shockers Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1978). While this first effort lacks the gloss of those subsequent pictures, Asylum of Satan has Girdler’s usual attributes of far-out situations and zippy pacing. Put less gently, the movie is fast and stupid but without the compensatory quality of slick production values. The shaky premise goes something like this—after beautiful Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) suffers an emotional episode of some sort, her doctor inexplicably transfers her to an asylum run by Dr. Jason Specter (Charles Kissinger). Populated by zonked-out patients wearing white-hooded robes, the asylum is a staging ground for Specter’s weird medical experiments and torture sessions. For reasons that defy understanding, Specter occasionally kills patients in ridiculous ways, such as releasing a vicious snake into a swimming pool so it can kill a patient in the water, or trapping a woman in a room full of bugs. (The image of cheap-looking plastic bugs “moving” across the patient’s body by way of stop-motion animation is particularly laughable.) While Specter terrorizes Lucina, her boyfriend, Chris Duncan (Nick Jolley), tracks her down, only to get rebuffed when Dr. Specter somehow disguises his asylum as abandoned building. One idiotic scene follows another until the climax, when Dr. Specter reveals his ultimate goal of sacrificing Lucina to Lucifer, played by a woman wearing the least convincing devil costume in movie history. Crap-cinema connoisseurs will relish Asylum of Satan, but mere mortals are advised to steer clear. In fact, here’s the best part, just to save you the trouble: During his search for Lucina, Chris learns from a cop that Dr. Specter “was picked up several times for devil-worshipping.”

Asylum of Satan: LAME

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Black Starlet (1974)

          Telling the familiar story of a young woman degraded by the humiliating compromises she makes while pursuing Hollywood stardom, Black Starlet should be a disposable exploitation flick. The budget is low, the cast is unimpressive, and the exploitation quotient is high enough to become bothersome, with gratuitous nudity periodically distracting from the story. Yet Black Starlet meets and nearly exceeds the very low expectations set by its subject matter and title. Star Juanita Brown, who acted in a handful of ’70s drive-in flicks, grows into her role, becoming stronger as her character falls from hopefulness to cynicism. While certainly not a skillful performance, her work is committed enough to put the movie across. Similarly, director Chris Munger and his collaborators put sincere effort into making clichéd characters and scenes feel fresh. Everything in Black Starlet is rote on the conceptual level, from the sleazy agents and producers to the horrific scenes of men demanding sexual favors in exchange for career opportunities, but the way Munger lingers inside scenes—rather than speeding through them—allows a sense of unease to take root.
          Waking up one day next to a man she clearly regrets sleeping with, Clara (Brown) steps to a window and looks out at Los Angeles, then flashes back to events that led to her current situation. In her old life, despite having taken years of acting classes, she was a millworker going through a dull routine with a loser boyfriend prone to bar brawls. After one too many humiliating Saturday nights, she left him and made her way to Hollywood, where she got a job in a dry-cleaning shop while hustling for acting work. Enter Brisco (Eric Mason), a scumbag agent willing to trade his services for sex. He got Clara’s career started, but he also spread the word she was willing to oblige, leading her into the beds of one bottom-feeding producer after another. Ignoring good advice from the few kind souls she encountered in Los Angeles, including business manager Ben (Rockne Tarkington), Clara became “Carla,” a drugged-out, self-loathing, tempestuous diva.
          What makes Black Starlet more or less palatable are the moments wedged between exploitation-flick extremes. An early scene features Clara waiting on a street corner for a bus. After several men stop their cars to solicit her, presuming a black woman alone on the street must be a hooker, a motorcycle cop threatens to arrest her, so Clara jumps into the next man’s car just to get away from the cop. That man steals all of Clara’s money. Lesson learned. Later, in the dry-cleaning shop, Clara endures hectoring from her boss, Sam (Al Lewis), a cigar-chomping putz who refers to all his customers as “slobs” and obsessively yells: “Don’t press above the crotch!” Individually, each of these scenes is serviceable, but cumulatively, they give the vapid storyline a foundation in human reality.

Black Starlet: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Celebration at Big Sur (1971)

          Something of a footnote to Woodstock (1970), the classic documentary immortalizing the most famous musical happening of the ’60s, Celebration at Big Sur was filmed just weeks after the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, but it wasn’t released theatrically until almost two years later. Featuring several artists who also performed at Woodstock—plus a notable performer who did not, Joni Mitchell—Celebration at Big Sur is choppy and inconsistent, with interrupted songs, truncated versions of artists’ sets, and lots of peripheral nonsense comprising the picture’s brisk 83-minute running time. Despite a few musical highlights, the most interesting stretch of the picture involves vituperative Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young member Stephen Stills brawling with an obnoxious heckler. After the fight, Stills gets onstage and says how grateful he is that “some guys were there to love me out of it,” then adds, in words that seem like a parody of flower-child parlance, “We gotta just let it be, because it all will be how it’s gonna.” Whatever it takes to keep the vibe going, man. As for those musical highlights, Joan Baez delivers her usual professional renderings of tunes including “Sir Galahad,” Mitchell offers an ornate reading of “Woodstock,” CSNY churns through (part of) “Down by the River,” and Mitchell teams with David Crosby, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, and Stills for a zesty version of “Get Together.” Woodstock Lite, to be sure, but pleasant enough.
           Regarding this project’s backstory, from 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held on the grounds of the mind-expanding Esalen Institute, located on a scenic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The performances in Celebration at Big Sur were filmed in 1969. Hollywood comedy writer Carl Gottleib produced the picture, but he failed to provide a guiding aesthetic or theme—random vignettes capture everything from a pointless conversation with a local cop to shots of Crosby and Stills taking a nude sauna with other longhairs. One can’t help but get the sense of West Coast progressives desperately trying to get in on the Yasgur’s Farm action, even though the Big Sur event seems antiseptic and exclusive by comparison to Woodstock. And by the time the filmmakers try to jazz up the style of the picture with solarized double exposures while Mitchell adds a yodeling freakout to the end of “Woodstock,” the grasping for cultural relevance becomes almost painfully desperate. Celebration at Big Sur captures a moment, but other films—including not just Woodstock but also Monterey Pop (1968)—capture almost exactly the same moment much more effectively.

Celebration at Big Sur: FUNKY

Monday, February 13, 2017

Haunted (1977)

          Time for another so-bad-it’s-good wonderment. The misguided horror picture Haunted begins in the Old West, when corrupt palefaces sentence a Native American woman to death on charges of witchcraft. A century later, a weird family resides in a ghost town. Leading the family is loutish stepfather Andrew (Aldo Ray). He’s married to Michelle (Virginia Mayo), a blind widower who spends her time playing the same song over and over again on an organthat is, whenever she’s not vividly describing memories of the first time she had sex. Even though she’s only in her 50s, she’s portrayed as suffering from dementia, a source of great sadness for her two young-adult sons. Meanwhile, the phone company inexplicably installs a phone booth in the cemetery occupying the center of the ghost town. Andrew gets calls on this phone that transform him into a psychopath. Eventually, a mysterious redhead named Jennifer (Anne Michelle) wanders into town, and she may or may not be the reincarnation of the Native American witch from the prologue. Strange and unpleasant things happen, but life, more or less, goes on—Michelle’s sons proceed with plans to put her in an asylum, and her oldest son enjoys a sudden romance with Jennifer. Sort of. When he falters during a makeout session, she asks if he’s gay and he says he’s not sure.
          Virtually nothing in Haunted makes sense, but the movie is so catastrophically bad that it’s compelling to watch. For instance, the opening-credits scene features the Native American woman riding topless through the desert while Billy Vera over-emphatically sings the ridiculous song “Indian Woman” on the soundtrack (“She rides the waves of the curse she lives! Her hate keeps her going! She’ll never forgive!”). Throughout the movie, writer-director Michael A. DeGaetano’s dialogue is awkward, stilted, and weird, so the chatter regularly slips into self-parody. Upon Jennifer’s arrival, Michelle remarks, “We haven’t had any visitors since yesterday—it’s been years!” Even though the film’s production values are borderline adequate, nearly every scene has a massive flaw in continuity, dramaturgy, logic, or storytelling, if not all of the above. The music is especially egregious, with upbeat numbers during gruesome scenes and laughably rotten lyrics decorating original songs. (Brace yourself for the picture’s noxious love theme, “A Distant Time.”) Unsurprisingly, Haunted is a washout in terms of horror, because it’s too difficult to follow what’s happening to actually find any of the onscreen events frightening.

Haunted: LAME

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cannon (1971)

          Investigators with offbeat gimmicks were a staple of mystery fiction long before television came along, but by the ’70s, Hollywood had perfected the art of repackaging the same old whodunit storylines by featuring unusual protagonists. Columbo hid his wit behind a façade of simple-mindedness, McCloud was a cowpoke in the big city, Ironside was confined to a wheelchair, Kolchak solved paranormal mysteries, and so on. Yet some of these gimmicks were so threadbare as to be almost laughable. The most notable attribute of private investigator Frank Cannon, who fought crime during five seasons spanning 1971 to 1976 and returned for a 1980 telefilm, is girth. Yep, he’s big. Corpulent, fat, morbidly obese, rotund—take your pick. The character has other traits, but his size is a point of conversation from his first appearance forward. Thanks to smart scripting and a winning performance by star William Conrad, Cannon spends the enjoyable pilot movie that preceded his weekly series coming across as clever and dogged and resourceful. He even gets into brawls and foot chases. Characters remark on his weight, as does Cannon himself, but mostly he gets down to the tricky business of solving a murder and untangling a conspiracy. Particularly because this pilot has such a fine supporting cast of versatile character actors, it’s unsurprising the movie connected well enough with audiences to trigger a series. But, still, the sheer laziness of the whole enterprise—this one’s different, see, because he’s fat! There’s a reason they used to call TV a vast wasteland.
          One day, ex-cop Cannon gets a letter from Diana Langston (Vera Miles), the widow of an old friend. Traveling to the small desert town where she runs a motel, Cannon investigates the man’s death and gets stonewalled by local cops including Lt. Redfield (J.D. Cannon) and Deputy Magruder (Earl Holliman). Turns out the whole small town is under the thumb of crime boss Virgil Holley (Murray Hamilton), and things get even more complicated once Cannon discovers that Lt. Redfield’s sexy wife, Christie (Lynda Day George), has dangerous romantic ties outside her marriage. Despite several attempts on his life as well as threats of incarceration, Cannon helps Diana learn how and why her husband died, cleaning up Diana’s town in the process. Written by series creator Edward Hume, the Cannon pilot has the same qualities as other series from Quinn Martin Productions (The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco, etc.), notably crisp characterizations and strong visual interest, so even when the story gets garbled—a common trap for mystery shows—the action, locations, and performances command attention. (Also featured in the cast are Norman Alden, John Fiedler, Lawrence Pressman, Barry Sullivan, and Keenan Wynn.) Is the story about anything? No. And excepting a few twists, is the story genuinely fresh or surprising? No again. But detective shows are comfort food, and in that regard, Cannon is a hearty meal, suitable for the appetite of its protagonist.

Cannon: GROOVY

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Deserter (1971)

          Part spaghetti Western and part Dirty Dozen ripoff, this Italy/US/Yugoslavia coproduction has a serviceable premise, then loses its way thanks to a forgettable leading performance and an overly mechanical plot. Along the way, several colorful actors are subsumed by the overall mediocrity of the piece, delivering half-hearted interpretations of underdeveloped roles. Even the action highlights are ho-hum. Those who want nothing more from adventure pictures than a steady flow of death-defying bravery and tight-lipped macho posturing will be able to consume the picture like a serving of empty calories, but those who expect anything more will get bored fairly quickly. In the Wild West, U.S. Cavalry soldier Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) completes a fortnight-long patrol and discovers that while he was away, Apaches raided the outpost where he lives and killed his wife. Kaleb blames the death on his superior officer, Colonel Brown (Richard Crenna), so Kaleb tries to quit the service and devote his life to killing Apaches. When Brown refuses Kaleb’s resignation, Kaleb shoots the colonel and becomes a fugitive from military justice. Two years later, blustery General Miles (John Huston) arrives on the scene, demanding that Brown illegally cross the Mexican border to slaughter a band of Apache raiders. What’s more, Miles demands that Brown’s men bring Kaleb in from the wilderness, because during the intervening period, Kaleb has made good on his vengeance pledge by slaughtering Apaches heedlessly, thereby becoming the ideal man to lead the mission into Mexico.
          Once all the narrative pieces are in place, Kaleb finds himself supervising a band of soldiers, including Kaleb, who would just as soon kill the notorious deserter as kill Apaches. Among those playing soldiers are Ian Bannen, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Slim Pickens, and Woody Strode. (Naturally, Crenna’s character is along for the ride, too.) With this much talent at their disposal, producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Burt Kennedy should have been able to come up with something much more interesting than The Deserter, which is sometimes known as The Devil’s Backbone. Alas, the script is unrelentingly clichéd, predictable, and superficial, and the filmmakers miscalculated, badly, by casting Yugoslavian stud Fehmiu in the leading role. Just one year previous, Paramount tried to make Fehmiu into an international star by toplining him in the epic melodrama The Adventurers (1970), so this picture presumably represented the completion of a two-picture deal. A European equivalent to, say, James Franciscus, Fehmiu is suitably brooding and athletic, but he’s got the depth and range of a statue. With his performance creating a vacuum at the center of The Deserter, the movie is doomed to disappoint from its very first frames.

The Deserter: FUNKY

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mean Mother (1971)

As if his original productions weren’t bad enough, schlockmeister Al Adamson periodically repurposed old footage—from his own past films and from productions for which he acquired the rights—to swindle unsuspecting grindhouse audiences. Bogusly marketed as a brand-new blaxploitation picture, Mean Mother began its existence as Run for Your Life (1971), a Spanish-made adventure flick about a Vietnam deserter who becomes mired in various criminal enterprises. Adamson bought the movie, then shot about 30 minutes of new scenes featuring Dobie Gray, a singer who scored a pop hit the previous year with “Drift Away,” as a second deserter. (Squandering any tie-in opportunities, the singer is billed here as “Clifton Brown.”) Adamson spliced material from the two productions together and created a disjointed hybrid film. Mean Mother starts and ends with the new material, which has a quasi-blaxploitation feel if only because Gray and Marilyn Joi, the leading lady in his sequences, are both African-American. Every so often, Adamson cuts to the Spanish material, which has a totally different vibe. The new scenes are fast-paced and sleazy, whereas the European scenes are leisurely and slick. Tracking the storyline is pointless, though the overall gist has something to do with the deserters trying to raise enough money to leave Rome, where they landed after fleeing Southeast Asia, and relocate to Canada. There’s also some nonsense about drug deals and kidnappings, but, really, everything in the plot is an excuse to trigger fight scenes and sex scenes. Adamson satisfies low appetites with nudity and violence, but the deeply uninteresting Mean Mother disappoints in every other regard. As for Gray, the fact that he only notched one more screen credit—14 years after Mean Mother—correctly indicates that acting was not among his gifts.

Mean Mother: LAME

Thursday, February 9, 2017

You’ll Like My Mother (1972)

          In this outlandish but slick thriller, Patty Duke plays a young woman carrying the child of a man who recently died. She travels to rural Minnesota in the middle of a brutal winter to meet her late husband’s mother, who turns out to be a withholding monster living in a house full of horrors. Competently directed by the versatile Lamont Johnson and bolstered by skillful performances, You’ll Like My Mother is a cut above the usual shocker, in the sense that great care is taken with characterization and mood. Nonetheless, some of the genre’s usual problems manifest, notably the peculiar impression that the villain was sitting around waiting for an opportunity to torment someone. After all, since the mother of the title seems determined to preserve her weird circumstances, why not simply make her unwanted visitor go away? It’s the reverse of the old “why don’t they leave?” problem.
          Anyway, a very pregnant Francesca (Duke) treks to the home of Mrs. Kingsolving (Rosemary Murphy), expecting to find the warm embrace of a woman pleased by the arrival of a daughter-in-law and by the news of an impending grandchild. No such luck. Demeaning, harsh, and nearly deaf. Mrs. Kingsolving announces that she doesn’t believe Francesca was ever with her son, and that she has no intention of providing emotional or financial support. Concurrently, Mrs. Kingsolving introduces Francesca to Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen), whose existence was previously unknown to Francesca—she’s the mentally challenged sister of Francesca’s late husband. Contrivances ensue. Severe weather prevents Francesca from leaving the house on foot, and car trouble keeps Mrs. Kingsolving from driving Francesca to a nearby bus station. Then Mrs. Kingsolving drugs Francesca to keep her hostage, for reasons that are never especially clear, and Francesca pokes around the house to discover the existence of another sibling, Kenny (Richard Thomas). Thought by authorities to be missing, he’s a psycho killer whom Mrs. Kinsolving hides inside her house. As you might imagine, this spells trouble for Francesca and her soon-to-be-born child.
          Even though the plot of You’ll Like My Mother doesn’t work—too many convenient twists, too many slow passages—the movie has a strong mood. The juxtaposition of unforgiving weather inside and intolerable madness inside creates the desired sense of claustrophobia, and Francesca’s vulnerable condition triggers immediate audience sympathy. Duke doesn’t excel, precisely, but she imbues her performance with both compassion and toughness, so she sells the larky aspects of the storyline about as well as anyone could. The same is true of Murphy, who drips acid while wearing a condescending smile. Does it all go way over the top during the climax? Of course. But after too many quiet stretches, the comic-book violence of the final scenes gives the movie a much-needed shot of adrenaline.

You’ll Like My Mother: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Night Chase (1970)

          David Janssen, the king of the pained facial expression, plays a different sort of fugitive in Night Chase, a somewhat compelling thriller that anticipates the premise of the Tom Cruise movie Collateral (2004), but follows through on the premise with a story that makes a whole lot more sense. Running 95 minutes, long by ’70s-telefilm standards, Night Chase gets repetitive and slow at times, so viewers who enjoy seeing vintage footage of Southern California will get more out of the experience than others. That said, the script is clear and efficient, Jack Starrett’s direction sets an understated tone that suits the material, and costar Yaphet Kotto’s performance is so loose and vivid that he greatly elevates the material. Ultimately, Night Chase isn’t consequential in terms of social relevance or themes, so it’s just a disposable thriller with welcome aspects of humanism. Nonetheless, with so many pointlessly nihilistic thrillers out there, the compassion infusing Night Chase makes watching the picture mildly edifying. As in Collateral, the story gets underway when a mysterious white man flags down a black cab driver for a ride. Specifically, Adrian (Janssen) grabs a taxi from the Los Angeles International Airport after his flight gets cancelled. Ernie (Kotto) gets the fare, and he’s surprised when Adrian asks for a 200-mile ride to San Diego.
          Once the men are in close quarters, Ernie catches disturbing clues—blood on Adrian’s shirt, skittishness whenever police cars pass the cab. Eventually, it emerges that Adrian shot a man in Baltimore, and he’s on the way to Mexico, where he plans to use his gun again. The remaining details are best discovered as the story unfolds, but the gist is that Adrian feels tortured by not only what he’s already done but by what he’s contemplating doing next. Although saying that Janssen’s performance is infused with nuance would require considerable overstatement, he mimics anguish well, and his intensity is sufficiently persuasive that it’s believable when he makes everyone around him nervous. Kotto’s work exists on a different level. At the beginning of the picture, he conveys affability and world-weariness in equal measure, and as the story progresses, he hits notes of despair, heroism, and terror. Night Chase is yet another reminder of his incredible power and versatility. While the film is mostly a two-hander, Elisha Cook Jr., William Katt, and Victoria Vetri all do strong work in small supporting roles.

Night Chase: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

          The final film of revered Spanish director Luis Buñuel, and also one of his most accessible movies, That Obscure Object of Desire uses several playful storytelling devices while presenting the tale of an older man driven to distraction by his love for a mercurial young woman. Unlike the many May-December movies of the ’60s and ’70s that show middle-aged dudes sharing wisdom with nymphets who open their eyes to new ways of seeing, That Obscure Object of Desire gets after something more, well, obscure. Articulating some of Buñuel’s themes would require giving away the resolution of the story, but in general the picture conveys ideas about class, gender, propriety, and self-image, among many other things. Naturally, Buñuel includes two his favorite tropes, radical politics and surrealism, though they don't render the picture impenetrable, as happened with the director’s previous effort, The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Instead, politics and surrealism function like grace notes, adding ambiguity, complexity, and relevance to a story that’s already rich.
          It should also be noted that Buñuel plays a tricky game by accentuating the breathtaking beauty of two starlets, both of whom play the same role (more on that later). It’s as Buñuel hoped to simultaneously satirize older men who court young ladies and beguile the audience with images of nubile flesh. One can only imagine what feminist critics have discovered while dissecting this picture, which somehow manages to celebrate and demonize women in equal measure.
          The picture begins with a droll vignette. After sophisticated gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) boards a train, comely young Conchita (Carole Bouquet) boards a separate car. Matheiu pays an attendant to kick her off, and then Mathieu dumps a bucket of water on her head. The other passengers in his first-class car express shock at his behavior, so he offers to explain why humiliating the woman was preferable to his first impulse of killing her. Buñuel illustrates Mathieus story with extended flashbacks. After encountering Conchita for the first time in his own home, where she served briefly as a maid, Mathieu became obsessed with her, chasing Conchita across Europe, offering money to her mother as a sort of dowry, and eventually persuading Conchita to cohabitate. She drove Mathieu mad by repeatedly offering sexual favors, only to refuse them at the last moment. A final round of indignities led to the episode at the train station.
          Among the many peculiar things about That Obscure Object of Desire is the casting of the Conchita role. For no obvious narrative reason, Bouquet shares the role with the equally alluring Angelina Molina. In any given scene, the audience can’t predict which actress will appear, and sometimes, one actress replaces the other in the same scene, thanks to a convenient exit/entrance maneuver. It’s a typically whimsical touch on Buñuel’s part, forcing the audience to ask questions about identity and perception without providing any fodder for answers. The actresses radiate different types of sexiness, Bouqet icy and Molina sensual, so their collective effect on Rey’s character is more than believable. Still, he’s a tougher nut to crack, part worldly aesthete and part love-addled buffoon. These contradictions make his characterization consistent with Buñuel’s longstanding attitude toward the moneyed class. As to the question of whether That Obscure Object of Desire works, the answer is mostly yes. The movie is mysterious and sly and unpredictable, and the final gotcha moment says something bitterly funny about the ephemeral nature of life—after all the fuss, that’s how it ends? It’s a fitting final statement for Buñuel, frustrating and ridiculous and true all at once.

That Obscure Object of Desire: GROOVY

Monday, February 6, 2017

Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970) & Torture Dungeon (1970) & The Body Beneath (1970) & Guru, the Mad Monk (1970) & The Man With Two Heads (1972, US) & The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972) & Blood (1973)

A prolific independent filmmaker and theater professional best known for the low-budget exploitation movies he made from the late ’60s to the late ’80s, Andy Milligan was spectacularly devoid of cinematic talent. His shameless use of excessive gore ensured that he found outlets for much of his work on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits, his microscopic budgets kept him productive, and, in the years following his ’70s heyday, he developed a small cult following. A colorful and tragic life story contributes to his current infamous status, because the openly gay director enjoyed S&M, lived for a while in England, spent much of his working life operating out of grungy locations throughout Manhattan, and was a pauper at the time he died from AIDS. Viewed in the abstract, he’s a fascinating subject for further study.
Viewed up close, at least through the prism of his ’70s movies, not so much. Taken as camp, the features Milligan released from 1970 to 1978 might pass muster for purely ironic consumption. Taken at face value, they’re as bad as first-year student films, with dopey dialogue, incoherent storylines, pathetic production values, stilted acting, and terrible camerawork. Editing is a special problem, because scenes start and stop abruptly, continuity and screen direction are chaotic, and Milligan was consistently incapable of generating proper logic, momentum, and pacing. Yet perhaps Milligan’s most egregious cinematic offense is padding his movies with interminable melodrama. Characters in these flicks talk and talk and talk, bombarding each other with repetitious lines that exist on a level below the worst soap-opera chatter. Whenever someone gets a cleaver to the head—a favorite mode of killing in Milligan’s movies—it’s a relief because it means at least one character will shut the fuck up.
So why do some people find Milligan fascinating? According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan—as well as countless online tributes—Milligan was artist in extremis, using independent filmmaking as a form of therapy to work out psychosexual problems. The idea is that watching the incessant deviance, hatred, and violence in Milligan’s movies provides a window into a troubled soul. Fair enough. But since most of us will never find the time to watch all the films made by skilled filmmakers whose work sprang from complex psyches, why waste time parsing the output of someone without talent? Oh, well. To each their own.
After getting his movie career going with releases including The Degenerates (1967), The Filthy Five (1968), and Gutter Trash (1969)—one senses a theme—Milligan entered a new decade at full throttle, releasing five movies in 1970. The pace of his releases gives a good indication of the quality control, or lack thereof, defining Milligan’s output. Bloodthirsty Butchers offers a scuzzy take on the familiar story of Sweeney Todd, a fictional horror character whose exploits are set in Victorian England. As always, the so-called “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” kills customers, then gives the body parts to a baker who uses the human remains as ingredients in pies. Actors ranging from awful to merely mediocre recite florid dialogue in ugly locations amid garish lighting. Something nasty happens every so often, but the FX makeup is laughable. Attentive viewers may detect traces of Milligan’s S&M interests, though even the sex scenes suffer from amateurism; actors seem as if they’re giving each other airport-security pat-downs instead of heavy petting. The film’s most amusing moment involves someone peeling the crust off a pie and discovering a woman’s dismembered breast inside, nipple inexplicably erect.
Torture Dungeon finds Milligan loosely adapting Shakespeare, because the story is a riff on Richard III, with an English nobleman killing people ahead of him in line for the crown. Although he’s playing a duke, leading man Gerald Jacuzzo gives a performance best described as queeny, all bulging eyes, flamboyant gestures, and sing-song vocalizations. The following rant, uttered by the duke in a reflective moment, should suffice as a demonstration of Milligan’s problematic dialogue style. “Let me explain something to you, my dear. I live for pleasure. Only second to power, of course. And I’ll try anything. I’m not a homosexual. I’m not a heterosexual. I’m not asexual. I’m try-sexual. Yes, that’s it. I’ll try anything for pleasure.” Clumsy verbiage aside, you begin to see why some folks perceive deeper meanings in Milligan’s work, but it’s difficult to justify close readings of a 77-minute trash opus with people getting decapitated and impaled at regular intervals.
The Body Beneath is one of myriad vampire pictures in the Milligan oeuvre. (It’s also one of many flicks in which he brazenly steals elements from Bram Stoker, since the estate where most of the action takes place is called Carfax Abbey.) Compared to the director’s other pictures, The Body Beneath is relatively coherent and slick, telling the story of an undead priest who rules a family of vampires that procreates through incest and the use of love slaves. As the flick grinds through quasi-softcore sex scenes and the usual amateurish gore, two elements stand out, but not in a good way. The priest’s vampire brides often appear in ghoulish makeup, but the makeup is so cheap as to be silly rather than sinister—lots of blue gunk slathered across women’s faces. Milligan also goes wild with the old-timey effect of smearing Vaseline across a filter over the camera lens, thereby blurring the edges of the frame. That gets old fast. While The Body Beneath may be Milligan’s best ’70s flick, that’s not saying much.
            Presumably, Guru, The Mad Monk was inspired by movies including Witchfinder General (1968), the disturbing Vincent Price thriller about a monstrous man tasked with rooting out occultists. Like that picture, Guru, the Mad Monk concerns an evil official who uses his position for personal advantage. Specifically, the plot involves prison guard Carl, who falls for Nadja, a peasant woman unjustly accused of murder. Carl enlists the help of Father Guru (Neil Flanagan) and a witch named Olga, who contrives potions that allow Nadja to simulate death and thus escape imprisonment. For her part, Olga wants the prison guard to let her seize blood from freshly executed prisoners because she uses blood in rituals. Meanwhile, Father Guru wants political power of some sort. (The script is so inept that it’s not worth parsing.) In laughable scenes, Father Guru looks into mirrors and talks to himself, turning his head whenever the “voice” of an alternate personality takes control. Predictably, the movie’s gore is goofy. To suggest that someone’s eyes were impaled, Milligan cuts to props that look like ping-pong balls fused with chopsticks and slathered with ketchup. Oy.
            Milligan’s final 1970 release was the X-rated melodrama Nightbirds, a black-and-white picture about counterculture angst featuring lots of explicit sex (putting it beyond the scope of this survey). After disappearing from the marketplace for many years, Nightbirds resurfaced in the 2010s when hip Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn purchased and distributed an old 16mm print. His online remarks to the effect that family members and friends think he’s mad to champion Milligan make for interesting reading.
            Despite hitting screens just months after American-International’s The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971), Milligan’s first 1972 flick, The Man With Two Heads, does not depict a character with dual craniums. Rather, it’s a deranged take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal story “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” After about 20 minutes of dull chitty-chat, Dr. Jekyll (Denis DeMarne) finally transforms into “Danny Blood,” a De Sade-quoting brute who gets his kicks torturing a prostitute named April (Julia Stratton). In the film’s longest and most unpleasant scene, “Danny” punches and slaps April, forces her to crawl on the floor and bark like a dog, burns her face with a cigar, and stops just short of raping her, the better to prolong his twisted arousal. “You shouldn’t be allowed on the face of this earth!” He screams at her. “You’re scum! You’re the defecation of the slums of London!” Perhaps more than any other of Milligan’s ’70s films, The Man With Two Heads makes the persuasive case that Milligan used movies to process issues, but in this case, the issue seems to be unrelenting hatred for women. Until it devolves into bloody chaos during an incoherent scene combining an orgy and a killing spree, The Man With Two Heads is almost technically competent, and DeMarne’s leading performance isn’t bad. Thematically, however, The Man With Two Heads is vile.
The title of Milligan’s next opus—The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!—might be the best thing in his entire filmography, though one assumes Nicholas Winding Refn would argue the point. Alas, the movie doesn’t have the same vitality as the moniker, because it’s a painfully boring domestic drama concerning the horrid Mooney family. These 19th-century Brits spend all their time abusing each other physically and verbally; in one scene, repugnant protagonist Monica (Hope Stansbury) visits her mentally challenged brother, whom the family keeps locked in room filled with chickens, then pours hot wax on him and beats him with a broom. Eventually, Milligan gets around to introducing horror elements, with brief scenes of rats (some of which get killed on camera) and a wisp of lycanthropy (translation: a few actors wear hairy masks). Yet most of this interminable film comprises aimless familial nastiness.
            Nineteen seventy-three found Milligan broadening his cinematic horizons, after a fashion, because he did uncredited directing work on a porno film called Dragula—a gay spin on Stoker—and used his real name while making a skin show called Fleshpot on 42nd Street. (Like Nightbirds, both films fall outside this survey’s parameters.) Then it was back to gore for the succinctly titled Blood. Shot in and around the house where Milligan lived at the time of filming, this is low-budget schlock at its least impressive. The discombobulated plot involves a werewolf and Dracula’s daughter hiding out while the werewolf performs arcane scientific experiments. Also featured are amputees, bizarre servants, flesh-eating plants, and a prissy lawyer. Any improvements in technical areas that Milligan achieved while filming The Man With Two Heads seem to have evaporated before he shot Blood, which has nonsensical camera angles, out-of-focus shots, and pitiful sound quality. Milligan also takes the gimmick of killing animals onscreen to a nauseating extreme, because at one point an actress chops a mouse in half, then shoves the tail end into her mouth.
            Milligan’s ’70s output sputtered to a halt with Legacy of Blood, which, title notwithstanding, bears no relation to its immediate predecessor. Rather, Legacy of Blood is a loose remake of Milligan’s 1968 movie The Ghastly Ones. And here’s where things get confusing. Both The Ghastly Ones and Legacy of Blood steal the basic plot from The Cat and the Canary, a 1922 play that has been filmed, officially and unofficially, many times. (Premise: Relatives gather in a creepy house to compete for an inheritance, but a killer stalks them.) Among the other unauthorized versions of The Cat and the Canary is a 1971 movie with John Carradine, Blood Legacy a/k/a Legacy of Blood. Yep. Same title. Although Milligan’s Legacy of Blood was unavailable for review, reports from those who’ve seen the picture suggest it has all the usual flaws, from bad acting to incompetent filmmaking, with dialogue consuming most of the screen time.
On the topic of legacies, it’s disheartening to look at the scope of Milligan’s career and see how little he had to show for his work, the adoration of Nicholas Winding Refn notwithstanding. As of this writing, not one of Milligan’s ’70s movies has a rating above five (out of ten) stars on IMDb, and most online commentary about the man’s work focuses on his remarkable cinematic incompetence. (The same is even more true of his later output; Milligan made a handful of widely detested pictures in the ’80s and died in 1991.) As noted earlier, it’s not as if Milligan’s screen career set him up financially—exactly the opposite. One therefore hopes that he had more fun making his movies than most people have watching them, or at least found some measure of release from his psychosexual hangups.

Bloodthirsty Butchers: SQUARE
Torture Dungeon: SQUARE
The Body Beneath: LAME
Guru, the Mad Monk: SQUARE
The Man With Two Heads: FREAKY
The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!: SQUARE