Saturday, October 3, 2020

Death Line (1972)

          Rarely will genre-picture viewers encounter a harder tonal shift than the transition occurring around the 23-minute mark of UK horror show Death Line, released in the U.S. as Raw Meat. The opening stretch of the movie proceeds like a standard-issue thriller. After a well-dressed gentleman is killed by an unseen assailant in a London subway station, a young couple discovers his body and learns from his ID that he’s an important official. The couple solicits help from a nearby cop, but upon returning to the scene of the crime, the victim has vanished—thus making the couple suspects in the disappearance of a VIP. Thereafter, quirky Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) probes the lives of the couple, American Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Brit Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney). Then writer-director Gary Sherman abruptly cuts to secret catacombs adjoining the subway station, wherein a grotesque creature (Hugh Armstrong) tries feeding pieces of 

the gentleman’s body to another creature, who dies. Enter the world of “The Man,” last survivor of an inbred cannibal tribe evolved from survivors of a construction cave-in that occurred 80 years previous.

          From the moment Sherman introduces “The Man,” Death Line transforms into a depressing meditation on the nature of humanity. Lengthy and wordless scenes reveal aspects of The Man’s dismal existence. We see that he lovingly preserves the corpses of his dead companions, and that generations of mutations have rendered him animalistic, hence his taste for human flesh. Sherman approaches these scenes with a sort of tenderness, even though Death Line gets quite gory during moments of violence, as when The Man impales a victim. Meanwhile, Sherman tracks a melodrama aboveground, because Alex becomes cranky about getting roped into a police investigation, which has the effect of driving away Patricia, who finds Alex’s behavior to be callous. Scenes with Pleasence joking and sniffling as the persistent inspector lend much-needed humor, though the overall vibe is grim.

         It’s not hard to see why the picture has gained a small cult following over the years. While there are myriad misunderstood-monster movies, Death Line employs its subterranean metaphor to good effect while exploring the always-interesting idea that civilized man is never all that far removed from his origins as a savage animal. If one indulges Sherman’s outlandish premise, the suggestion that The Man is merely following his nature comes across with a smidge of emotional heft. And if certain elements of Death Line are bland (such as Ladd’s performance), there’s usually something interesting to compensate. Not only does Christopher Lee show up for an entertaining cameo, but Sherman’s camera captures a whole lot of ’70s kitsch, from Gurney’s shag haircut to loving glances at London’s seedy red-light district. Does it matter that Sherman can’t quite land his ending, which tries to be simultaneously horrific and poignant? Not really. Even with its flaws, Death Line is memorably bleak.

Death Line: FUNKY

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Limbo (1972)

          Early cinematic explorations of the Vietnam War largely focused on military action, draft dodgers, or the emotional lives of returning veterans. Limbo investigates the Vietnam era from a different angle by dramatizing the lives of three women whose husbands are MIA. Mary Kay (Kathleen Nolan) channels her anguish into antiwar activism. Sharon (Katherine Justice) hides behind a shield of unquestioning patriotism. And Sandy (Kate Jackson) finds herself caught between her obligations to an absent husband and the happiness offered by a new lover. In terms of narrative structure, Limbo is schematic to a fault, neatly assigning one set of emotions to each storyline, though there’s a bit of overlap since Mary Kay also takes a lover. Yet this heavy-handedness doesn’t completely obscure the sincerity of the endeavor—so even though Limbo feels like an earnest TV movie, it’s still a poignant take on a worthy subject.
          Notwithstanding a quick framing sequence, the picture begins on an Air Force base in Florida, when Sandy gets the news that her husband is MIA. After meeting Mary Kay and Sharon in a support group, Sandy moves in with the other women. Soap-style plotting ensues as Sandy gets courted by amiable gas-station attendant Alan (Russell Wiggins) and as Mary Kay succumbs to advances from a homely everyman named Phil (Stuart Margolin). The contrast between these storylines is the picture’s strongest element. Coloring the Sandy/Alan scenes is the fact that Sandy’s marriage was rocky before her husband departed for overseas service, so she doesn’t perceive her actions as a romantic betrayal. Conversely, because Mary Kay and Phil are older, their dalliance plays like a pragmatic means to an end—two adults dulling each other’s pain. All the while, Sharon becomes more and more judgmental of her friends, even as she resists acknowledging that the institutions to which she’s pledged herself—not just the Air Force but also the U.S. government—may not deserve her devotion. Running through the whole piece, of course, is profound ambiguity toward America’s involvement in Vietnam.
          Cowriter Joan Micklin Silver, later to become a significant director, based her original script on interviews with wives of MIA soldiers. She was rewritten by the experienced James Bridges, a storyteller whose humanism was often undercut by his perfunctory approach to plotting. The blend of their styles is not ideal; many scenes are so gentle and understated as to feel lifeless, while others awkwardly strive for impact by expressing sociopolitical angst through underwhelming speeches. Also working against the movie’s goals are bland staging by director Mark Robson, an impossibly square musical score, and several pedestrian performances. Nolan has a few believably impassioned moments, Justice connects when her character’s façade cracks, and Margolin’s squirrely energy brightens his scenes. Alas, leading lady Jackson captures the surfaces of her character’s plight but only hints at the depths—note the many shots of Jackson looking into the distance with wide eyes and a gaping mouth, as if she’s as lost in her performance as her character is lost in a sad life.

Limbo: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Explosion (1970)

          The building blocks of a passable draft-dodger melodrama can be found somewhere inside Explosion, an American/Canadian production released stateside in 1970, but flaws ranging from an inept script to a terrible leading performance doom the picture. In the Pacific Northwest during the Vietnam War, college-aged Alan (Gordon Thompson) broods over the recent death of his brother, who had designs on avoiding military service by sneaking into Canada. Even though Alan is protected from the draft by a student deferment, he’s as intent on fleeing to the Great White North as his late brother was. Why? Explosion never provides satisfying answers to such questions. For instance, why does Alan visit his brother’s grieving girlfriend, Doris (Michèle Chiocine), then beat her during an attempted rape? The best answer the movie can conjure is that Alan’s on, like, a heavy emotional trip, man. Eventually, Alan befriends a longhair named Richie (Don Stroud) and they travel to British Columbia, finding work at a lumber operation. Later, when the guys cross paths with a pair of cops while joyriding in a stolen car, Alan shoots the cops dead. Why doesn’t Richie run away? Add that one to the heap of unanswered questions.

          Following the cop sequence, the picture cross-cuts between scenes of the guys on the run and scenes of Alan’s shrink, Dr. Neal (Richard Conte), trying to find and rescue his patient. One imagines that cowriter/director Julies Bricken envisioned a parable about young people feeling disconnected from their country, but any hope of nuance died when Bricken characterized Alan as a one-note psychopath. Exacerbating the problem is a laughably stilted performance by Thompson, who later became a mainstay on soaps (notably Dynasty and Sunset Beach). Stroud, always a live-wire actor, does what he can playing a nonsensical role, but he’s not reason enough to watch the picture. Despite a few suspenseful moments, Explosion’s storyline is so erratic that one lighthearted interlude features a pillow fight. Seriously! On the opposite extreme, veteran composer Sol Kaplan’s score is painfully overwrought. And that’s Explosion—too much of everything the movie doesn’t need, too little of everything it does.

Explosion: LAME

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Outside In (1972)

          The draft-dodger drama Outside In starts off strong—first comes a tense border crossing during which Ollie Wilson (Darrell Larson) sneaks back into the U.S. from Canada, and then comes a funeral, during which Ollie barely evades capture by FBI agents while attending his father’s burial. Alas, the picture shifts into slow gear after the opening salvo, and the sedate quality of the storytelling undercuts the intensity of the subject matter. Still, Outside In is an earnest endeavor, and the fact that it was released three different times during the early ‘70s, each time with a different title, indicates that the picture’s backers recognized something exploitable (beyond costar Heather Menzies’ nude scenes, which are prominently teased on the original poster). For the curious, the picture’s other titles are the blunt Draft Dodger and the incrementally more imaginative Red, White and Busted.
          After his escape from FBI agents at the cemetary, Ollie visits old friend Bink (John Bill), who in turn connects Ollie with Chris (Menzies), the owner of a small beach house at which Ollie is given permission to crash while he’s in LA. Over the course of several leisurely days (or weeks—hard to tell), Ollie contemplates his next move. Weighing heavily on his mind are visits with another old friend, Bernard (Dennis Olivieri), who also dodged the draft but got caught and served time behind bars. Now angry, paranoid, and whacked out on pills, Bernard wastes his time working behind the counter at a porno store. Although Ollie finds his fugitive life depressing, Bernard’s example makes facing legal consequences seem horrific. Predictably, Ollie falls in love with Chris, who’s so mellow that she wanders around the house naked and reacts gracefully once she learns the truth about Ollie’s situation.
          Outside In ambles from one adequate scene to the next, losing what little momentum it has during flat romantic passages, and it feels as if some of the most potentially interesting scenes were never even contemplated by the filmmakers, much less attempted. Where’s the big confrontation between Ollie and his mother? And why did the filmmakers bother establishing friction between Ollie and his callous uncle, seeing as how that subplot never goes anywhere? Oh, well. The best material is the stuff with Bernard, because those scenes hit the main theme effectively—and because Oliveri’s performance is as fiery as Larsons is muted. FYI, many sources list character actor G.D. Spradlin as co-director of this picture, but his name appears nowhere on the credits. It’s possible that confusion arose because the same year this picture was released, Spradlin directed something called The Only Way Home, which shares a writer with Outside In.

Outside In: FUNKY

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Title List Updated

Greetings from the world of Every ’70s Movie with a brief housekeeping update. The lengthy title list that runs down the right side of this blog’s layout was recently updated, fixing a nettlesome issue that began a few years back when the listing functionality started behaving unpredictably. Hundreds of titles have been added to the list, so for those of you who enjoy checking the list to see what’s missing—or scanning the list for titles you’d like to investigate—the list should now include every movie that’s been reviewed on the blog. If you happen to encounter any broken links or discover a title thats been reviewed on the site but is somehow missing from the title list, please let me know and Ill try to address the issue ASAP. (Some general streamlining of the blog layout was also completed as part of the same updating process, though only the most obsessive of readers is likely to notice the changes.) Anyway, that’s it for the update, so now it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming—as has been the case since regular daily posting ended, watch for occasional new posts as previously unavailable titles cross my path and as time becomes available for me to write about them. Meantime, keep on keepin’ on!

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

American Tickler (1977)

In the years before and after Saturday Night Live’s debut, a number of low-budget movies either anticipated or mimicked the show’s format of comedy sketches satirizing mainstream media as well as society at large. Among the least of these endeavors is American Tickler, one of several raunchy comedies that Chuck Vincent directed while moonlighting from his day job as a pornographer. As always, the fact that Vincent demonstrates nominal skill makes watching American Tickler frustrating, because one senses that he could have occasionally rendered passable entertainment if he didn’t pander so shamelessly to the lowest common denominator. In any event, American Tickler combines a trivial recurring story with a whole bunch of throwaway gags. The recurring story involves several groups of people chasing after a treasure chest, and this element of the movie is exactly is forgettable as it sounds. Some of the sketches are truly vulgar, such as the one about New York being terrorized by a giant monster called “King Dong,” which is thankfully never shown. Equally dopey sketches include “The Happy Cooker,” about the erotic culinary adventures of one “Xaviera Collander,” and a PSA for “The National Pervert Foundation.” As did other comedy pieces of the same vintage, American Tickler also tries to make light of senseless murder, hence the bit in which a pre-SNL Joe Piscopo provides color commentary for a contest involving crazed snipers. Probably the best American Tickler has to offer is the game-show parody in which contestants wager the lives of their loved ones against mystery prizes, because at least that bit says something, however trite, about greed. There’s nothing special here, but as junk sketch comedy goes, the most watchable bits in American Tickler are roughly equivalent to the worst stuff SNL ever aired, so set your expectations appropriately.

American Tickler: LAME

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

          Easily one of the most famous unfinished movies in world-cinema history, Orson Welles’ elusive The Other Side of the Wind—filming for which spanned 1970 to 1976—finally entered public view, more or less, when producer Frank Marshall supervised assembly and post-production of Welles’ decades-old footage, leading to a 2018 debut at the Venice International Film Festival. (Marshall was also part of the original Wind crew.) While not exactly a proper completion of the project, since Welles died in 1985 without finishing so much as a rough cut, the Marshall-supervised approximation of Wind is now available for examination by any cinematic explorer with a Netflix password.
          Though it seems rather crass to discuss this unique artifact in such mundane terms, the question of whether Wind is worth watching depends entirely on who is asking. Those eager to discover some lost addition to Welles’ mainstream canon should pass without a moment’s hesistation. Those willing to burrow into the madness of a guess at the final form of an experimental film made in an improvisational manner by an artist prone to abandoning projects for reasons that confounded his collaborators should have a better idea of what to expect.
          First, the plot, such as it is. John Huston plays J.J. Hannaford, an aging director in the tough-guy mode eager to make a hip new picture full of intense sexual content and youthful angst. One evening, Hannaford assembles his social circle, plus lots of groupies and sycophants, for a work-in-progress screening. Welles shoots the Hannaford scenes with myriad angles, as if everyone at the party has a camera, and he occasionally cuts to more polished footage comprising Hannaford’s picture, the plot of which falls somewhere between cryptic and nonexistent. Sloshing through this soup of intriguing, lofty, and/or pretentious concepts are performances by Peter Bogdanovich, whose character has a twisted apprentice/mentor relationship with Hannfaord (shades of Bogdanovich’s real-life bond with Welles); Susan Strasberg, as a Pauline Kael-esque critic; Norman Foster, as a has-been actor reduced to serving as Hannfaord’s errand boy; and Oja Kodar, Welles’ real-life mistress, as the actress who stars in Hannford’s movie.
          As should be apparent by now, this is a whole lot to process, especially since Welles largely eschews conventional plotting mechanisms, forcing viewers to piece the “plot” together. It’s relatively easy to follow the broad strokes, but tracking subplots and the interrelationships of supporting characters is quite challenging. The Other Side of the Wind is so overstuffed that it’s hard for the viewer to separate what the film is trying to be from what the film actually is—the piece demands but only occasionally rewards close scrutiny.
          Every so often, a random character will drop a great line, as when someone explains to Hannaford that several acolytes fled: “Five of our best biographers just went over to Preminger!” Just as intermittently, the film locks into a spellbinding stretch—best of all, perhaps, is a long erotic sequence from the film within a film, permeated with so many psychedelic visual effects that it’s both a full-on freakout and a study in meticulous technique. The relationship between the Huston and Bogdanovich characters is poignant and weird, rendered effectively by both actor/directors. (One almost wishes Welles nixed his overbearing visual gimmickry during the characters’ sad falling-out scene.)
          Situated dead center in this whole bizarre enterprise is Kodar, who never delivers a line of dialogue and frequently performs without the encumberance of garments. Not only is there something unseemly about Welles crafting arty nude shots of his decades-younger girlfriend, but Kodar is not an especially compelling presence. Her centrality thus provides an apt metaphor representing the way in which Welles misdirected his attentions. His innate talents are evident throughout The Other Side of the Wind, but artistic discipline is wholly absent. In one scene, studio boss Max (Geoffrey Land) views some of Hannaford’s footage, then asks Billy—the errand boy played by Foster—what happens next. Billy’s sheepish reply? “I’m not really sure, Max.” And so it goes throughout this only fleetingly exhilarating glimpse into Welles’ voluptuous creativity.
          FYI, Netflix commissioned a feature-length documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of Welles’ movie. Although it leaves many key mysteries unsolved, the imaginatively assembled doc is essential viewing after experiencing The Other Side of the Wind.

The Other Side of the Wind: FUNKY

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dark August (1976)

          Clumsily rendered and woefully deficient in terms of actual thrills, rural horror picture Dark August nonetheless has primitive magnetism. Even as the juxtaposition of amateurish and professional performances generates weird tension, the interplay between restrained dramaturgy and sketchy technical execution lends Dark August a handmade quality. Every so often, a scene vibrates with persuasive naturalism, as when an encounter in the center of a small town gets captured by a meandering camera during a long take. Yet just as frequently, something misses the mark so badly as to approach camp, as when a witch recites line after laughable line of an interminable incantation. Even when it’s dull and/or silly, however, Dark August retains a consistently ominous vibe, because in lieu of big shocks, the picture submerges viewers into the troubled emotional state of the leading character. For that reason alone, Dark August withstands scrutiny better than most low-budget regional frightfests—whatever its shortcomings, the movie has thoughtful aspirations.
          J.J. Barry, a doughy character actor who slogged out a minor Hollywood career from 1969 to 1990, stars as Sal Devito, a big-city transplant trying to make a new life as an artist in tiny Stowe, Vermont. He has a loving girlfriend and some friends, but Sal is haunted because soon after his arrival in Stowe, he accidentally struck and killed a little girl with his car. Beset by nightmares, seizures, and visions, Sal becomes convinced that the little girl’s grandfather is bedeviling him, so Sal seeks help from a local mystic, Adrianna (Kim Hunter). Her quasi-Wiccan endeavors to aid Sal inadvertently make the situation worse. There are long stretches of inactivity in Dark August, and Barry is not an arresting presence, so the picture requires more patience than it should. Yet the use of real locations, the avoidance of obvious shock tactics, and the focus on Sal’s unraveling combines to create something like sincerity. Barry cowrote the script with his wife, Carolyne Barry (who costars under the pseudonym Carole Shelyne), and with Martin Goldman (who directs), so one gets the impression of filmmakers with limited talent putting forth their best efforts to make something worthwhile. They don’t get there, but they deserve praise for trying. An anxious score by William S. Fischer helps make the picture palatable, as does the professionalism of veteran performer Hunter, who has the thankless chore of reciting that lengthy incantation.

Dark August: FUNKY