Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Supersoul Brother (1978)

The best joke related to this rotten blaxploitation comedy is its alternate title, The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger, an edgy riff on The Six Million Dollar Man satirizing how black lives are valued in American society as compared to white lives. Had the filmmakers actually created a spoof about a bargain-basement bionic man, as some advertising materials suggest, Supersoul Brother could have been funny and provocative. Unfortunately, it’s just crude and stupid. Two criminals approach a scientist named “Dr. Dippy,” played incompetently by little person Peter Conrad, and pay him $6,000 to create a serum that grants invulnerability and super-strength. The catch is that the recipient of these powers will die a week after the serum is administered. The criminals grab a wino off the street, then provide him with a swank new pad and a maid who performs sexual services, promising financial rewards in exchange for receiving an injection of the doctor’s serum. (They don’t tell him about the whole impending-death thing.) The wino becomes super-powered and helps the crooks pull off a heist, but when the mad doctor’s pretty assistant tells him the truth, the wino rebels. All of this unfolds in some of the least attractive frames ever committed to celluloid. Director Rene Martinez Jr.’s camerawork is roughly equivalent to that found in amateur porn, all artless compositions and choppy edits and garish lighting. This presentation problem is exacerbated by dopey scatological dialogue and mindless sex jokes. (The insertion of a rectal thermometer is presented as a comic highlight.) Naturally, all of the performances are atrocious, though leading man “Wildman” Steve Gallon, a regional nightclub performer who appeared in a handful of terrible movies, has something that vaguely resembles swagger.

Supersoul Brother: LAME

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Night God Screamed (1971)

          If you’re able to accept that The Night God Screamed is essentially two different exploitation movies fused together by the presence of a shared protagonist, then you’ll be able to enjoy the picture for its sensationalistic pleasures. The first and far more interesting half of the flick concerns a Manson-eseque cult leader who presents himself to followers as a religious messiah, then leads his acolytes through criminal acts including murder. The second half concerns a babysitter and a houseful of teenagers getting terrorized by mysterious assailants. Holding the pieces together, more or less, is the character of Fanny Pierce (Jeanne Crain). In the first half, she’s the wife of a man who gets killed by the cultists, so her eyewitness testimony helps put the bogus messiah behind bars. In the second half, she’s the babysitter. Ostensibly, the connection is that the assailants in the siege portion of the picture may or may not be followers of the imprisoned cult leader, bedeviling Fanny for purposes of revenge. Both halves of the movie are basically adequate for their respective purposes, but the shift in style and tone from one to the other is jarring.
          The movie starts with a whopper of a scene, when cult leader Billy Joe Harlan (Michael Sugish) preaches to his flock during an outdoor baptism ceremony. “The heat won’t leave us alone,” he proclaims while addressing remarks to God up in the sky. “They want to bust us for being hooked on you!” Then Billy Joe compels an underling to drown a traitorous follower, “re-baptizing” her in the cult’s faith. Things stay just as kicky for the next 40 minutes or so. Billy Joe targets a traveling evangelist, Willis Pierce (Alex Nicol), who has a giant decorative cross that catches the cult leader’s fancy. Soon enough, Billy Joe compels his followers to ritualistically murder the evangelist. Later, after Billy Joe’s trial, Fanny accepts work babysitting some willful high-school kids, and the aforementioned siege begins. Top-billed star Crain, whose heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s, delivers a spaced-out performance that’s either effectively meek or weirdly dispassionate, while Sugish summons the requisite intensity for his role. Otherwise, the movie is routine in all aspects of its execution, so interest stems from the gonzo storytelling of the first half and the highly questionable twist endings—there are two of them—in the second half.

The Night God Screamed: FUNKY

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mr. No Legs (1979)

          Warped drive-in flicks on the order of Mr. No Legs demand two different types of reviews, one for rational viewers and one for seekers of the bizarre. The rational take on Mr. No Legs characterizes the picture as an atrocious action/thriller saga marred by bad acting, cheap production values, dumb scripting, and the wholly distasteful presentation of a double amputee as a sideshow freak. In other words, steer clear if you want your sanity to remain intact. However, if your bag is cinematic strangeness, then cook up some popcorn and grab your controlled substance of choice, because it’s party time. Everything about Mr. No Legs stimulates trash-cinema pleasure centers to the point of ecstasy. The plot is straight out of a dimwitted crime novel, with nearly every narrative event predicated on the complete stupidity of characters. The filmmaking operates at roughly the level of a vintage driver’s-ed movie, so everything’s basically in focus and in frame, but you can virtually hear the director calling for every stilted entrance and exit. And then there’s the whole business of the title character.
          In his one and only movie role, Ted Vollrath plays a mob enforcer who scoots around in a tricked-out wheelchair that has a double-barreled shotgun hidden inside each of the armrests, plus Japanese throwing stars affixed to the wheels. Whenever his weapons fail, he leaps from the chair to wallop opponents with karate. Yes, karate. In real life, Vollrath attained a black belt despite being legless. The jaw-dropping highlight of Mr. No Legs is an epic slow-motion scene during which Vollrath raises himself up by his arms and pummels a dude with his stumps, then hops onto the ground and squares off against the guy, Bruce Lee-style, though his arms barely reach the man’s belt. Vollrath’s athleticism is impressive, but if you aim your retinas at Mr. No Legs, you will inevitably find yourself asking what the hell you’re watching. The centerpiece of the picture is a bar brawl involving a catfight, a giddy little person, and a transvestite hooker. Oh, and that particular scene is a setup for yet another fight, during which a cop squares off against a hoodlum wielding a broadsword. A broadsword, mind you, that the hoodlum carries outside the bar and uses to attack the policeman’s Stingray. That’s the world of Mr. No Legs, where not even sportscars are safe from cruel and unusual punishment.
          Oddly, this deranged picture was made by people normally associated with wholesome entertainment: Director Ricou Browning and writer Jack Cowden cocreated the 1960s TV series Flipper, and Browning’s most iconic credit stems from his stunt performance as the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Insert your own jokes about how too much time spent underwater pickled Browning’s brain. Anyway, back to Mr. No LegsAmong the familiar actors wandering through this fever dream of a movie are John Agar, Lloyd Bochner, Richard Jaeckel, and Rance Howard (father to Clint and Ron). Each embarrasses himself at some point by delivering an idiotic line or rendering a nonsensical reaction shot. But wait, there’s more! At one point, the movie’s nominal hero, a detective named Andy—played by the perfectly named Ron Slinker, a doughy Rob Reiner lookalike—retires to his girlfriend’s place, which looks like Hugh Hefner’s crash pad. The bedroom features silk bedding that’s laid on the floor amid matching white-fur carpeting and comforters, complemented by furniture and wall decorations more suitable for a European castle. There’s a plot, too, but surely by now it’s clear that couldn’t matter less. Mr. No Legs. Come for the crass exploitation, stay for the bewildering madness.

Mr. No Legs: FREAKY

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mr. Horn (1979)

          A year before Steve McQueen’s biographical Western movie Tom Horn was released to theaters, an even more detailed recounting of the same historical figure’s life story premiered on television. Sprawling over three very long hours, Mr. Horn has a colorful backstory. Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman penned a script with an eye toward casting frequent collaborator Robert Redford in the leading role of a cowboy who captured Geronimo and enjoyed a celebrated career as a Pinkerton, only to be framed for murder by ranchers who hired him as a bounty hunter. Together with the right director, Goldman and Redford could easily have transformed this material into something complicated and mythic. Alas, Redford left the project, as did proposed director Sydney Pollack, so Goldman’s script became an orphan even as McQueen’s competing project gained steam. Hence the downgrade to the small screen, with David Carradine assuming the title role.
          Seeing as how the broadcast version of Mr. Horn is essentially two movies—a 90-minute saga depicting the hunt for Geronimo and a 90-minute saga depicting the intrigue with the ranchers—it’s hard to imagine how the project would have worked as a feature. Yet the episodic storytelling is far from the only problem here. Put bluntly, Goldman never gets a bead on the main character, who is depicted through interesting events rather than properly revelatory scenes. Nearly every major supporting character is defined more clearly than Tom Horn. And while it’s easy to imagine Redford imbuing the character’s ambiguities with more nuance than Carradine can muster, the protagonist is very close to being a cipher. That’s a monumental problem for a three-hour character study.
          It doesn’t help that Jack Starrett’s direction is routine at best, or that the supporting cast comprises second-rate players. Richard Widmark contributes the movie’s best work as Horn’s crusty/funny mentor, though one can only dream of what, say, Jimmy Stewart could have done with the role. As for leading lady Karen Black, saying she’s forgettable requires acknowledging that her role is hopelessly muddled—the picture’s love story simply doesn’t work. However, none of these remarks should create the impression that Mr. Horn is an abject failure. More accurately, it’s like the rough draft of something better. The bones of a classic yarn are visible, but the Geronimo portion feels aimless, and the rancher portion, which has more clarity but suffers from bad jumps in continuity and logic, feels like a completely separate movie. Nonetheless, patient viewers will discover small rewards in Mr. Horn, such as the protagonist’s remark about why bogus aspects of his reputation are useful: “The more they think I’ve done,” he says, “the less I have to do.”

Mr. Horn: FUNKY

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fools (1970)

          “Is there anything left but winning and losing in the world?” That question, posed by a fading actor to his decades-younger lover, epitomizes everything that’s interesting and ridiculous about Fools, a romantic melodrama starring the unlikely duo of Jason Robards and Katharine Ross. At first blush, the question sounds like a deep existential inquiry. On closer inspection, it’s pretentious. Both impressions are true, and both fit the movie as a whole. One of myriad late ’60s/early ’70s movies about older men discovering new ways of thinking by engaging in sexual affairs with young women, Fools strives to make a Grand Statement about the follies of human existence, only to tumble into a quagmire of clichés, half-developed notions, and easy contrivances. Yet Fools is strangely watchable, largely because of Robards’ innate charisma and Ross’ mesmerizing beauty. A charitable reading would say the casting alone saves the movie, because Robards incarnates the idea of a romantic poet gone to seed, while Ross represents the promise of youth. That reading, however, overlooks the movie’s dubious specifics.
          Set in San Francisco, Fools opens with Matthew South (Robards) hanging out in a park and behaving eccentrically. He somehow catches the attention of Anais Appleton (Ross), resulting in one of the least credible meet-cutes in movie history. The two embark on a long walkabout through San Francisco, with Matthew issuing fashionably anti-Establishment attitudes, as when he screams at passing cars: “This whole world is infested with machines!” Soon the couple find themselves in a quiet forest, where the following dialogue exchange ensues. Anais: “You’re still a child, Matthew.” Matthew: “Am I?” She replies with a meaningful look, and they kiss, sparking one of many airy montages set to twee folk music. The dialogue becomes even more absurd once the story introduces Anais’ husband, uptight lawyer David Appleton (Scott Hylands), who pays private investigators to follow her. At one point, David says to Anais, “You’re a woman.” She replies, “You’re a man—what does that mean?” Oy.
          Another layer of affectation stems from Matthew’s work, because he’s a Karloff-style actor in cheesy horror films. Presumably the idea was to express that life is an illusion, man, so we make the world we want—or something like that. At its most disjointed, the movie spins into pointless farce, plus a dream sequence and an oh-so-’70s tragic finale. In many ways, Fools epitomizes the ridiculous extremes of with-it late ’60s/early ’70s filmmaking, so it’s possible to consume the picture as an unintentional comedy. After all, Fools overflows with cutesy events, bogus emotion, stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Approached less cynically, the movie has virtues. It’s a handsome-looking picture that tries to engage in relevant ideas, and the acting is generally quite good. Ross, as usual, is more luminous than skilled, but she commands attention with her sincerity, and Robards, working his familiar A Thousand Clowns groove, was singularly adept at making wild-eyed dreamers seem appealing, as he does here.

Fools: FUNKY

Friday, March 17, 2017

Blackjack (1978)

Utterly forgettable but basically competent in its storytelling and technical execution, Blackjack tells the humdrum story of an ex-con staging an elaborate heist in Las Vegas with the help of several fellow criminals. Despite the presence of B-movie icon William Smith in a supporting role, always a shot in the arm for any project, Blackjack was doomed to fail the moment hopelessly bland actor Damu King was cast in the leading role. He’s sufficiently formidable to put across the visual concept of a badass crook out for a payoff and/or payback—one gets the vague sense of a revenge angle—but he’s not interesting to watch. Neither are his exploits, because movies about ripping off casinos in Vegas are nearly as old as Vegas itself. The story begins with Roy (King) exiting prison after having acquired and/or sharpened his blackjack skills behind bars—because, of course, most penologists encourage inmates to participate in high-stakes gambling during their incarceration. Roy organizes old allies for an ambitious scheme to rip off casinos that are operated by the mob, and word of the impending crime reaches Andy Mayfield (Smith), the top security guy at one of the mob’s casinos. He has some sort of history with Roy, though parsing the details isn’t worth the trouble. Andy joins forces with a fellow enforcer, Charles (played by Tony Burton, familiar to fans of the Rocky franchise as Apollo Creed’s corner man), and they strive to prevent Roy from pulling off the heist. Events churn toward the inevitable showdown between Andy and Roy. Whatever. It’s all so familiar and pointless and unimaginative as to be painfully boring, even with a soundtrack powered by slick R&B/funk music.

Blackjack: LAME

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Russian Roulette (1975)

          The only unique aspect of this Cold War espionage thriller is that it takes place in Vancouver and features an officer of the RCMP as its protagonist. In every other respect, it’s the usual murky stuff about conspiracies and double-crosses and last-minute efforts to prevent a politically charged assassination. Adapted by a cabal of screenwriters from a novel by Tom Ardies and directed in a perfunctory style by Lou Lombardo, previously an acclaimed film editor known for his work on pictures by Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah, Russian Roulette stars the appealing George Segal as the aforementioned RCMP officer. At the beginning of the movie, he’s on suspension, so a representative of the RCMP’s intelligence arm, Commander Petapiece (Denholm Elliot), offers a way back to active duty: Corporal Timothy Shaver (Segal) is to find and illegally detain an Eastern European named Henke (Val Avery), now living in exile in Vancouver. Only it turns out Russian operatives also want the man, so intrigue unfolds as various parties converge on Henke’s last known whereabouts. Before long, dead bodies accumulate and the intrepid Shaver discovers that Henke plans to kill a Soviet leader during an official visit to Canada. Also pulled into the escapade is Shaver’s on-again/off-again lover, Bogna (Cristina Raines).
          The first half of Russian Roulette is quite terrible, all confusing stakeout scenes and mystifying confrontations, because even though the setting of a gloomy winter in Western Canada lends visual interest, it’s virtually impossible to understand (or care) what the hell’s going on. Segal’s character is little more than a stereotype, the smartass cop who resents authority and wantonly breaks rules. The second half of the picture is markedly better, because once Russian Roulette resolves into a straightforward race-against-time thriller, Lombardo the skilled editor picks up the slack for Lombardo the inexperienced director. (Although Richard Marden is credited with cutting the picture, it’s likely Lombardo was never far away from the post-production process.) Almost by happenstance, Russian Roulette contains a couple of fairly good scenes, including the final action climax and the enjoyable throwaway bit during which the hero patiently explains to an old woman the complicated message he needs for her to convey by phone to authorities. Supporting actors including Avery, Elliot, and Richard Romanus do respectable work in nothing roles, but Raines flatlines as the female lead, and Segal’s innate charm can’t make up for the lack of an interesting story. At best, Russian Roulette is passable action/suspense slop. No wonder Lombardo returned to the editing room, directing only once more seven years later.

Russian Roulette: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Centerfold Girls (1974)

High and low narrative instincts collide with dismaying results in The Centerfold Girls, a misogynistic thriller about a psychopath preying on women who appear in nude magazine pictorials. The picture has a somewhat arty story structure, and the closing credits divide the film into “The First Story,” “The Second Story,” and “The Third Story.” Presumably this was the filmmakers’ workaround for the problem of killing off a protagonist every 30 minutes, since the psychopath (Andrew Prine) is mostly shown ogling nudie pictures and terrorizing his intended victims with phone calls prior to killing them. There’s even a touch of artiness to some of the actual filming, and The Centerfold Girls contains one very stylish kill—when the psychopath swipes a razor blade across a woman’s throat with terrific force, the resulting blood spray splatters across a windowpane positioned between the victim and the camera. Throughout its running time, The Centerfold Girls has a high level of technical polish, at least compared the usual woman-hating grindhouse fare. Having said all that, the movie is, at its core, clunky and ugly. The scenes with Prine create a modicum of continuity, but otherwise the picture flops from one meandering sequence to the next, burning screen time until the stalker music kicks in and the razor blade emerges again. At its most directionless, the picture drifts into a wholly separate storyline, with a nurse taking refuge in a mountain cabin only to get menaced by hippie cultists who rape her. Yet another unpleasant narrative detour involves a character played by B-movie regular Aldo Ray. Introduced as a Good Samaritan, the fellow is revealed as a would-be rapist who gets frustrated because his intended victim doesn’t put up enough of a fight. Ugh. Loaded with excessive bloodshed and gratuitous nudity, The Centerfold Girls is among the better-made films of its type—but there’s not much glory in being the best of a bad bunch.

The Centerfold Girls: LAME

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guess What We Learned in School Today? (1970)

          Though he later become synonymous with inspirational movies, thanks to his success with Rocky (1976) and The Karate Kid (1984), director John G. Avildsen dabbled in edgy sex comedies during the early ’70s, making this offbeat picture and the heinous Cry Uncle! (1971). Combining mockumentary and narrative elements, Guess What We Learned in School Today? ostensibly explores the impact of progressive sex education on the hypocritical residents of an uptight bedroom community. It’s the old satirical notion that folks who complain about sex are actually freaks at home. On some level, this sloppy and uneven movie’s politics are in the right place, since Avildsen and his collaborators portray open-minded intellectuals as forces for positive social change, while depicting hateful censors as villains who need their attitudes adjusted. The problem is how Avildsen and his collaborators express these ideas. Much of Guess What We Learned in School Today? comprises naughty vignettes with nudity and simulated sex, so there’s more than a little sensationalism sprinkled into the mix, and scenes of right-wingers getting their jollies are so perverse as to be cruel. Plus, it’s difficult to justify elements including the sexy, grown-up babysitter who nurtures a teenage boy’s nascent sexuality by reading him pornography while giving him handjobs. One suspects the filmmakers were trying to be outrageous, but more often than not, Guess What We Learned in School Today? is simply vulgar.
          The all-over-the-place storyline mostly follows three people. Roger (Richard Carballo) is a creepy cop who entraps women for solicitation arrests. Lance (Zachary Hains) is an insane ex-Marine who crusades against sex education, calling it a communist plot. And Dr. Lily Whitehorn (Yvonne McCall) is a sex educator with a clothing-optional institute. As various episodes unfold, Lily directly addresses the camera with remarks about the need for people to overcome inhibitions, while Lance and Roger engage in crazed antics. Lance has trouble getting it on with his wife until they convince a family friend to service their teenage son, at which point Lance mounts his wife from behind and drives her to climax while she watches her son have sex and moans her son’s name. Similarly, Roger seems averse to sex until a black transvestite goes down on him. You get the idea. Some of this is mildly interesting, but most of the camerawork is garish and ugly, the physical-comedy bits fall flat, and the satire is painfully obvious. Yet somehow, the picture develops a cumulative effect. The actors playing the rational characters are appealing (including a pair of attractive blondes who frequently appear topless), and, every so often, a throwaway scene gets the picture’s point across without lurid excess. The vignette of Lydia explaining the word “fuck” to schoolchildren accomplishes more than all the movie’s over-the-top carnal encounters put together.

Guess What We Learned in School Today?: FUNKY

Monday, March 13, 2017

Cat Murkil and the Silks (1976)

          This bizarre juvenile-delinquent melodrama tries to be several different things at once, causing regular instances of narrative whiplash as the picture shifts from a bummer character study to a moralistic cautionary tale to a violent exploitation flick. Yet the whole discombobulated experience is sufficiently lurid and zippy that the movie becomes enjoyable in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. For instance, the casting of fair-haired and slight actor David Kyle in the leading role is perplexing, since he’s about as intimidating as the average math-club nerd. The scene of his character squaring off against a trio of enormous African-American crooks decked out in ’70s pimp regalia—while they hassle teenagers on the grounds of their high school during class hours—can only be described as an unintentional comic highlight. Conversely, the scene during which Kyle’s character presses a gun to a woman’s crotch and then pulls the trigger is so extreme, especially compared to the rest of the film, that it rightly indicates the filmmakers didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Yet Cat Murkil and the Silks isn’t a mess, per se, because the characters behave consistently and the story makes sense. It’s a matter of taste. The folks behind the picture didn’t have any, so nearly every scene tips into self-parody.
          Eddie “Cat” Murkil (Kyle) is part of a teen gang called the Silks in modern-day Los Angeles. He’s a mixed-up kid who worships his older brother, Joey (Steve Bond), a former JD now serving time in jail. Eddie and the Silks are obnoxious small-time crooks whose idea of fun involves breaking into cars, partying with slutty girls, robbing stores, and rumbling with rival gangs. In other words, this movie’s idea of youth-run-wild behavior is laughably old-fashioned. The gist of the piece is that Eddie spins out of control after clashing with Joey, who warns his younger brother against a life of crime. Eddie kills the leader of his gang and usurps the command position, only to lead the Silks into disastrous clashes with a Latino gang. Hangups about sex lead Eddie further astray, because his attempts to make time with Joey’s hot wife culminate in tragedy. By the end of the picture, Eddie has become a full-blown psychopath, so one gets the feeling that the uptight filmmakers meant to portray youthful irreverence as the gateway drug for ultraviolent anarchy. Social-problem stridency combined with overwrought music and terrible acting—always good fodder for camp.

Cat Murkil and the Silks: FUNKY

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stranger in Our House (1978)

          As did his peers John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven made a pit stop in telefilms between his early independent efforts and his later success with big-budget movies. Yet while Carpenter made the respectable biopic Elvis (1979) and Hooper directed the passable Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot (also 1979), Craven marked time with this silly supernatural thriller starring Linda Blair. Reflecting none of the gonzo excess of his earlier pictures and none of the playful wit that made him famous in the ’80s and beyond, Stranger in Our House—also known as Summer of Fear—is wholly unimpressive from an artistic perspective. Yet because the movie is coherent and technically proficient, it demonstrated Craven’s ability to phone in a hack job as effectively as the next guy. Happily for horror-movie fans, Craven found his voice with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, blending the polished filmmaking he demonstrates here with the out-there qualities of his earliest endeavors while also introducing the crucial element of humor.
          Stranger in Our House revolves around the middle-class Bryant family, parents Carol and Tom plus kids Peter and Rachel (Blair). When Carol’s sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, the Bryants take in their newly orphaned niece, Julia Trent (Lee Purcell). She’s overtly wholesome, with her Ozarks accent and shy politeness, but Rachel spots trouble immediately, because—cliché alert!—an animal, specifically Rachel’s beloved horse, reacts badly to Julia’s presence. (As in all mediocre movies of this sort, nobody finds the animal’s reaction noteworthy except Rachel.) Things proceed very much according to formula. Julia steals Rachel’s boyfriend, Rachel finds weird artifacts among Julia’s belongings, and Rachel consults the neighborhood occult expert. (Wait, your neighborhood doesn’t have an occult expert?) Things move along at a fair clip, though nothing truly frightening or suspenseful happens. As for the acting, Blair is insufferably whiny, and Purcell’s adequate work gets undercut by the goofy final scenes.

Stranger in Our House: FUNKY

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hot Tomorrows (1977)

          Made as his MFA thesis film while Martin Brest studied at the American Film Institute, Hot Tomorrows has many of the silly hallmarks one associates with student films, such as an angst-ridden protagonist and pretentious flourishes reflecting the influence of classic European art cinema. However, the picture also demonstrates many of the things that Brest did so well in his subsequent Hollywood films of the ’70s and ’80s, notably offbeat characterizations and sly humor. (Let’s not talk about Brest’s dubious latter-day pictures, because if you’re a fan of 1992’s Scent of a Woman or 2003’s Gigli, we probably don’t share the same taste.) Shot in grungy black and white at unusual locations throughout Los Angeles, Hot Tomorrows is a dark comedy about a transplanted New Yorker trying to make it as a writer. Fixated on death, he spends a strange evening escorting a buddy from back home around the city, eventually landing in such unlikely places as a nightclub featuring weird performance artists and a mortuary that serves free coffee to the after-hours crowed. The plot also involves a cranky little person played by Hervé Villechaize and the life-sized figure of death—a skeleton in a black robe holding a scythe—that the protagonist uses for decoration in his living room. At various times, Hot Tomorrows is deep, funny, tragic, and weird.
          Michael (Ken Lerner) is a gloomy youth preoccupied with memories of his dead aunt, so he spends his time writing depressing stories and taking night classes exploring Eastern theories about death. Louis (Ray Sharkey), just in from the Bronx, isn’t having any of this. Protesting in his loud dese-dem-dose accent, Louis says it’s time to ditch the heavy stuff and party. Unfortunately, both guys are broke, so they best they can do is bum around town and hope to stumble into something fun. Michael takes his pal to a club called the Paradise, where a strange musical troupe (played by an early version of nerd-pop band Oingo Boingo) performs. At the club, Michael and Louis befriend fellow Bronx guy Tony (Victor Argo) and his diminutive friend Alberict (Villechaize). Peculiar misadventures ensue. Considering his inexperience at the time, Brest does a remarkable job pulling naturalistic performances from his cast and unifying them into a cohesive style. This movie’s at its best during simple scenes of people talking, whether they’re bonding or fighting, and this movie’s at its worst whenever Brest gets arty with flashbacks, musical numbers, and narration. As gifted as Brest is behind the camera, it’s telling that he’s only written two of his subsequent features, adapting the wonderful Going in Style (1979) from Edward Cannon’s story and crafting the not-so-wonderful Gigli by himself.

Hot Tomorrows: FUNKY

Friday, March 10, 2017

MIA: Rare '70s Movies

          With nearly seven years of cinematic exploration now in the rearview mirror, the adventure known as Every ’70s Movie is slowly but steadily nearing the finish line, simply because my list of titles yet to be reviewed is dwindling down to mostly comprise films that have fallen out of general distribution. Many of the remaining pictures have never been officially issued on any form of home video, most are rarely shown on television, and none, as yet, appears on legitimate streaming outlets. And that’s where you, dear readers, enter the conversation.
          Periodically through the next few months, I’ll share lists of titles that have proven elusive, but should definitely be reviewed if possible because of noteworthy elements—a familiar star or director, a major studio, what have you. So here’s my request. If you have or know of any pathways toward seeing these hard-to-find movies, please contact me either publicly through the comments function of this post or privately through the e-mail information in my profile. I will continue to search for these pictures, of course, but tracking some of them down has proven challenging. Therefore, any help is appreciated. With any luck, someone out there will recognize a title or two and be able to share a private DVD, a web link, a copy recorded off TV back in the day, or (shudder) a VHS copy the release details of which have escaped my notice. Thanks in advance for anything you can do! And with that, here’s my first list of missing movies . . .

Black Chariot (1971, US, with Bernie Casey)
Black Cream a/k/a Together for Days (1972, US, directed by Michael Schultz)
Boardwalk (1979, US, with Ruth Gordon)
Chandar, the Black Leopard of Ceylon (1972, US, Disney)
Coast to Coast (1980, US, with Robert Blake)
Country Music (1972, US, with Marty Robbins)
Countdown at Kusini a/k/a Cool Red (1976, US/Nigeria, with Ossie Davis)
The Divine Mr. J a/k/a The Thorn (1971, US, with Bette Midler)
The Double McGuffin (1979, US, directed by Joe Camp)
Hangup (1974, US, directed by Henry Hathaway)
The London Connection a/k/a The Omega Connection (1979, US, Disney)
Irish Whiskey Rebellion (1972, US, with William Devane)
Limbo (1972, US, with Kate Jackson)
Mackintosh and T.J. (1975, US, with Roy Rogers)
Mule Feathers (1977, US, cartoon featuring the voice of Don Knotts)
Sammy Stops the World (1978, US, with Sammy Davis Jr.)
The Sporting Club (1971, US, with Jack Warden)
Stand Up and Be Counted (1972, US, with Jacqueline Bisset)
Sudden Death (1977, US, with Robert Conrad)
Two People (1973, US, with Peter Fonda)

Mansion of the Doomed (1978)

          Fast-moving shocker Mansion of the Doomed has the shape of a classic mad-doctor movie from the ’30s or ’40s, though the gruesome makeup FX and shadowy cinematography are unquestionably modern. The simple story concerns Dr. Leonard Chaney (Richard Basehart), an eye surgeon who goes around the bend when his beloved adult daughter, Nancy (Trish Stewart), loses her sight in a car accident. Aided by his compliant wife, Katherine (Gloria Grahame), Dr. Chaney drugs Trish’s fiancé, Dan (Lance Henriksen), surgically removes Dan’s eyes, and places them into Nancy’s head so she can regain her vision. Dr. and Mrs. Chaney then lock Dan in their basement dungeon—because, really, doesn’t every good home in an affluent suburb have one of those? When Dan’s eyes fail, Dr. Chaney abducts a succession of people, repeatedly replacing the eyes in Nancy’s head while telling her that each time her vision fades and revives, it’s the result of some mysterious procedure he performed while she was anesthesized. You can figure out where it goes from there. The eyeless prisoners in the dungeon plot an escape, and Dr. Chaney becomes more and more reckless as his mental state deteriorates. Although Mansion of the Doomed is highly formulaic, it’s an enjoyable little thriller, more cartoonishly spooky than genuinely frightening.
          Plotwise, the film bears more than a little resemblance to French director Georges Franju's cult-favorite thriller Eyes Without a Face (1960), which concerns face transplants instead of eye transplants. Even the main setting of a mansion was lifted from the earlier picture. Mansion of the Doomed has energy, but it's a shameless enterprise on virtually every level.
          Hollywood veteran Basehart gives an entertainingly twitchy performance that’s forever verging on camp, and it’s a kick to see this early performance by Henriksen—later to become a cult-favorite star of fantasy-oriented films and television—even though he delivers most of his performance from behind a Stan Winston-designed makeup that obscures his eyes. Producer Charles Band applies his signature veneer of low-budget cheesiness, borrowing every stylistic trick he can from the Argento and De Palma playbooks with nary a trace of artistry, while director Michael Pataki (better known as a C-list Hollywood actor) powers through scenes with clumsy but relentless efficiency. There’s even a friendly nod to the sort of old-school fright flicks after which Mansion of the Doomed is patterned, since the main character’s name abbreviates to Dr. Len Chaney (read: Lon Chaney). All in all, a fun serving of empty calories for horror fanatics. FYI, this picture’s myriad alternate titles include Eyes of Dr. Chaney, House of Blood, Massacre Mansion, and The Terror of Dr. Chaney.

Mansion of the Doomed: FUNKY

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Bad Charleston Charlie (1973)

A rotten would-be farce about Depression-era criminals, Bad Charleston Charlie represents a failed attempt by actor Ross Hagen to create a star vehicle. In addition to playing the leading role, he cowrote the script (with Ivan Nagy, who directed) and produced the project. Set somewhere in the American heartland, the picture begins with Charlie Jacobs (Hagen) and his buddy Thad (Kelly Thordsen) quitting their jobs at a mine after one too many humiliating demands for payoffs from a corrupt union boss. Declaring their intent to become “important” people, they take inspiration from the exploits of Al Capone and begin careers as gangsters. Eventually, Charlie and his rapidly growing cadre of followers antagonize a corrupt local cop and the members of a KKK cell, so they find themselves with enemies on both sides of the law. Prostitution figures into the mix, as well, since Charlie makes most of his money peddling female flesh. Despite antiauthoritarian themes and high-spirited action, Bad Charleston Charlie is a world apart from the myriad similar films that Roger Corman produced in the ’60s and ’70s to draft off the success of Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Even the worst of Corman’s gangster pictures has a clearly defined narrative, but this flick just trundles from one pointless episode to the next, striving for a lighthearted tone but missing the mark because the characters are repugnant and the jokes aren’t funny. Not helping matters is Nagy’s horrendous camerawork; although he later became a serviceable hack making junk for TV and the straight-to-video market, he’s out of his depth throughout this project, which was his directorial debut. On the plus side, Hagen recruited a few decent actors to play supporting roles (watch for John Carradine as a drunken reporter), and Hagen’s buddy-comedy shtick with Thordsen almost works.

Bad Charleston Charlie: LAME

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Booby Trap (1970)

One of several ’70s movies about angry men from the World War II generation declaring war on hippies, this abysmal drive-in picture features the sensational premise of a psycho planning mass murder at a music festival. Suffice to say, cowriter-director Dwayne Avery hasn’t a clue how to realize the potential of this premise, and Booby Trap—befitting its title—spends more time on boring sex scenes than on suspenseful vignettes dramatizing the villain’s outrageous scheme to kill flower children. In fact, so much of the picture’s screen time gets chewed up on carnal encounters and strip scenes that Booby Trap ends up feeling a lot like a porno flick without the money shots, right down to the cheap production values and unforgivably bad acting. Anyway, unhinged Jack Brennan (Carl Monson) buys a cache of Claymore anti-personnel mines on the black market, then makes his way across the dusty American southwest to the location of a planned Woodstock-type event. Investigators tracking the stolen munitions follow clues, leading to the inevitable showdown between a lawman and the wannabe mass murderer. Beyond the rotten camerawork and sloppy sound recording, Booby Trap suffers from incompetent pacing. Early on, the movie is derailed by a pointless subplot when Jack picks up a hippie hitchhiker, sleeps with her, and kills her the next morning. Similarly, the movie stops dead close to the ending so the lawman chasing Jack can have his own sex scene. Is Booby Trap an action movie, softcore sleaze, or a thriller? Does anyone actually care enough to make that determination? Oh, well. If nothing else, it’s pleasant to ponder the potent potboiler a proper provocateur could have produced from this premise.

Booby Trap: LAME