Monday, January 16, 2023

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)



          An attempt at translating a classic fairy tale into a (somewhat) modern horror picture, the US/UK coproduction Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? falls considerably short of its ambitions, thanks in part to flat cinematography that robs the piece of necessary atmosphere but thanks mostly to an embarrassing star turn by Shelley Winters. With her bulging eyes, flailing movements, and shrill vocalizations, Winters exudes cartoonishness, and not in a good way. There’s no question an oversized performance might have been suitable, given that Winters’s role is a riff on the witch from the fable of Hansel and Gretel, but even an oversized performance requires discipline and vision to manifest coherently. Instead, Winters delivers such amateurish work that it seems she’s doing a blocking run-through rather than presenting a final rendering. Presumably much blame for this fatal flaw gets shared by director Curtis Harrington, whose approach to horror was never distinguished by good taste. One imagines he was after a degree of camp here, as with his preceding Winters collaboration, What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), but it all just seems so obvious and tacky.
          Set between World Wars in England, the picture concerns Rosie Forrest (Winters), an American former showgirl who is so insane that she keeps the rotting corpse of her dead daughter in the upstairs nursery of her mansion. Every Christmas, Rosie—who also goes by the nickname “Auntie Roo”—opens her home to a group of local orphans, so the movie also introduces viewers to siblings Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks). Through convoluted circumstances, the siblings end up convinced that “Auntie Roo” plans to cook and eat them, as per the Hansel and Gretel story that Christopher recites to Katy one night. Half the picture depicts how the kids develop this belief, and the other half dramatizes various escape attempts once they’re trapped in the mansion with Auntie Roo. Incidental characters adding little to the story include an unscrupulous butler (Michael Gothard) and a drunken medium (Ralph Richardson).
          As penned by a gaggle of writers including Hammer Films regular Jimmy Sangster, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?—released in the U.S. with the slightly abbreviated title Who Slew Auntie Roo?—is colorful but uninvolving, despite the mighty efforts of composer Kenneth V. Jones to add suspense. The appalling nature of Winters’s performance is but one of many shortcomings. While the sets are relatively lavish, shooting the whole picture on soundstages with harsh high-key lighting makes everything feel fake and unthreatening. Lester’s work in the second lead is perfunctory, revealing just how much skill director Carol Reed employed to make Lester seem vigorous in Oliver! (1968). And the logistics of the film’s second half are ridiculous—every would-be suspenseful sequence is predicated on someone doing something idiotic, such as overlooking an obvious warning or, on repeated occasions, rushing into danger to retrieve a teddy bear. The movie is quite dull until the final minutes, when the plot turns perverse by mirroring the gruesome conclusion of the Hansel and Gretel story.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?: FUNKY

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Story of a Woman (1970)



          According to actor Robert Stack, one of the perks Universal employed while persuading him to star in the series The Name of the Game was the opportunity to headline one theatrical feature a year. Hollywood being Hollywood, only one such feature materialized even tough Game ran for three seasons. Given the uninteresting nature of that one feature, however, things probably worked out for the best. Written and directed by Leonardo Bercovici—a studio-era talent who thrived in the 1940s, lost a decade to the anticommunist blacklist, and never fully rebuilt his career afterward—Story of a Woman is a laughably trite soap opera. One can only imagine how old-fashioned this seemed to audiences when it was released in 1970, especially since the picture was lensed while LBJ was still president (as evidenced by the president’s photo on the wall of a set representing a U.S. embassy).
          Stack’s involvement notwithstanding, the real star of the piece is Swedish actress (and frequent Bergman collaborator) Bibi Andersson. She plays Karin, a Swedish aspiring pianist who meets suave medical student Marco (James Farentino) in Rome. They enjoy a hot romance until Karin discovers that Marco is married. Heartbroken, Karin retreats to Sweden, where she eventually meets amiable American diplomat David (Stack). The couple marries and raises a daughter until, inevitably, David’s work brings the family to Rome, where Karin once again crosses paths with Marco. Nothing remotely surprising happens in Story of a Woman, and the narrative’s major would-be plot twist is so abrupt and convenient that it plays like a parody of melodrama instead of actual melodrama.
          Not much can be said about Bercovici’s directorial style, since his pacing is sluggish and his visuals have the flat quality of bad episodic television. The American/Italian coproduction also bears the hallmarks of an insufficient budget, thanks to stock-footage aerial shots and, in one scene, a distracting cut during a rear-projection shot that amusingly presages a jokey rear-projection scene in Airplane! (1980) featuring . . . Robert Stack. In lieu of cinematic and/or narrative interest, Story of a Woman offers little to entice the viewer except a plaintive score by John Williams. Farentino is genuinely terrible here, whispering whole swaths of dialogue and embarrassing himself while trying to convey overpowering emotion. Andersson, unsurprisingly, fares much better, but even though her scene work is consistently believable, she’s hamstrung by Bercovici’s enervated scripting. As for Stack, he’s way out of his element. Watchable whenever he plays intense characters, he’s as compelling as lint in the role of a sensitive everyman. 

Story of a Woman: FUNKY

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Le Magnifique (1973)



          How silly is Le Magnifique, a comedic French/Italian riff on the secret-agent genre? A description of the opening scene should answer that question. First, a man steps into a phone booth. Then villains in a helicopter use giant pincers to lift the booth. Next the villains drop the booth into open water, where it settles next to a cage containing a shark. Divers install a chute connecting the booth to the shark enclosure, then release the shark to attack the guy in the booth. A charitable reading of Le Magnifique would denote that scene as a droll satire on the absurdly baroque violence in secret-agent stories. A less charitable reading? Childish inanity. While Le Magnifique eventually manifests a secondary storyline that is more palatable than dopey spoofery, viewers have to power through lots of tomfoolery in order to enjoy stronger elements.
          Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as both Bob Saint-Clar, a lethal stud in the James Bond tradition, and François Merlin, the shlub who writes quickie novels about Bob Saint-Clar. The Bob storyline involves the usual battle against a ruthless nemesis with an army of henchmen. The other storyline tracks François’s growing disenchantment with his pulp-writer lifestyle, plus his involvement with beautiful neighbor Christine (Jacqueline Bisset). She’s working on a degree in sociology and she’s intrigued by the popularity of schlock novels. As the movie progresses, François uses an in-progress manuscript to lampoon aspects of his real life, so Christine becomes Bob’s adoring companion and François’s condescending publisher morphs into the villain who makes Bob’s life difficult. The most imaginative bits of Le Magnifique jump back and forth between the everyday world and the realm of François’s aspirational fantasies. Because the movie’s premise is that François knows his novels are ridiculous, there’s no limit to how outrageous Bob’s exploits can become. At various times, this results in over-the-top gore, leering shots of Bisset running in slow motion, and broad-comedy slapstick.
          Le Magnifique is the kind of lighthearted movie that tries to get by on density and pace—so many noisy things happen in such quick succession that viewers are discouraged from thinking too deeply about characterizations and narrative logic. This frenetic approach works occasionally, but the fantasy scenes get so goofy and repetitive they lose their charm more rapidly than the “real” scenes. Naturally, one’s tolerance for this sort of material depends on one’s familiarity with and/or affection toward the secret-agent genre (spoofs of which were hardly in short supply by the time Le Magnifique was made). Yet the picture boasts enough colorful production design and inviting location photography to provide a candy-coated veneer, and both leading actors understood the assignment. Bisset is dazzlingly pretty even as she struggles to surmount the degrading aspects of her role, and Belmondo has blast sending up his Mr. Cool image. Le Magnifique also has a solid behind-the-scenes pedigree: writers Philippe de Broca (who directed), Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and Francis Veber all earned Oscar nominations during their careers.
          FYI, this picture is only tangentially related to the prior Broca/Belmondo collaboration That Man from Rio (1964), another spoof of spy flicks; presumably Le Magnifique was retitled That Man from Acapulco in some markets to piggyback on goodwill toward the earlier movie.

Le Magnifique: FUNKY

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Have a Nice Weekend (1975)



Here’s the yawn-inducing plot of no-budget/no-name horror dud Have a Nice Weekend—several people visiting a remote island in the Northeast get preyed upon by a mysterious killer. Yep that’s it, notwithstanding superficial references to a Vietnam vet suffering PTSD, romantic partners sparring with each other, and other random elements. Even describing the people who appear onscreen as characters requires a flexible definition of that word, seeing as how the behavior in the movie ranges from idiotic to inexplicable. Much of the running time gets wasted on amateurish vignettes of folks walking through autumnal forests, exchanging inane chitty-chat, or both. Occasionally a murder happens, but it’s impossible to care about the victims, and the killer’s identity, when revealed, is wholly arbitrary. Yet Have a Nice Weekend contains exactly one so-bad-it’s-good sequence, during which the cast gathers around a corpse to spew vacuous dialogue. Here’s a sample. “I don’t know,” the first guy says, “this looks pretty serious.” The second guy replies: “He’s dead!” Then the first guy fires back: “I can see that he’s dead!” You get the idea. Were one to strain to find something praiseworthy, cinematographer Robert Ipcar frames a few pleasant angles of people surrounded by fall foliage, but multicolored leaves should not provide more interest than a body count. Weirdly, John Byrum has the lead writing credit on this embarrassment even though his other 1975 releases were the legit features Inserts (which he wrote and directed) and Mahogany (which he cowrote). Byrum appears to be the only Have a Nice Weekend participant to achieve much of note.

Have a Nice Weekend: LAME

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Teenager (1974)



          More admirable for what it attempts than for what it achieves, Teenager is not even remotely the movie suggested by its poster and title. Instead, this is a lurid but fairly serious-minded story about the risks an obsessive low-budget filmmaker takes while trying to capture onscreen realism. On a thematic level, Teenager is something of a precursor to Richard Rush’s outrageous The Stunt Man (1980), even though Teenager was made with a fraction of the cash and skill brought to bear on Rush’s epic. Providing another link between the pictures, Teenager follows the production of a biker flick helmed by a guy who resembles Roger Corman—the low-budget legend who worked alongside Rush in the biker-movie trenches at American International Pictures during the ’60s. As the preceding suggests, the more one knows about the cinema-history context surrounding Teenager, the more intriguing the film becomes. Considered out of context, it is much less appealing.
          The movie opens with Charlie (Joe Warfield) trying to film a car chase while steering a van down a cliffside road, leading to a fatal crash. Then Charlie narrates from beyond the grave, flashing back in time to explain how he met his dramatic fate. The journey begins when Charlie woos a female financier who demands sex in exchange for the $50,000 Charlie needs to shoot an exploitation flick about bikers harassing the residents of a small town. The gimmick is that Charlie doesn’t tell the residents what’s happening because he wants actors to spark “real” trouble for the benefit of Charlie’s camera. Eventually the teenager of the title gets involved when local 16-year-old Carey (Andrea Cagan) latches onto the film crew and starts sleeping with one of the actors. Soon afterward, a brawl inside a general store results in a death that forces Charlie to suspend production. The remainder of Teenager explores how far he’ll go to finish his movie.
          Although director/cowriter Gerald Seth Sindell and his crew generate amateurish-looking imagery, presumably because they were under budget/schedule restraints just like the characters in their movie, the storyline’s implications are sufficiently provocative to sustain a measure of interest. And while the script is not much more polished than the physical production, Sindell’s choice to cast a Corman lookalike in the leading role seems ingenious when viewed retrospectively—Teenager provides a twisted image of what happens when nervy filmmakers disregard danger and propriety while trying to generate exciting footage. Devotees of vintage cinema will find much to savor here, from shots of filmmakers operating Arri-S cameras to a glimpse at the façade of Rollins/Joffe Productions’ LA office, and so on. Yet it’s the thematic stuff that lands with the most impact. What is realism? What entitles artists to disrupt everyday life in order to indulge the creative process? Which sacrifices are justified, and which ones cross lines? Added to this mix are nuances related to the Generation Gap, because the clash between sexually precocious Carey and her uptight father has important narrative consequences.
          To be clear, Sindell’s reach exceeds his grasp in countless ways. The script is artless, the characterizations are serviceable, and the shooting style is so rudimentary that one longs for richer coverage and slicker editing. Moreover, the acting runs a dispiriting gamut from adequate to amateurish. In other words, it’s clear why Sindell’s only subsequent feature credit is the abysmal sex comedy H.O.T.S. (1979). That said, he was onto something here, as suggested by the picture’s alternate title, The Real Thing (also the name of a recurring theme song). It’s not common for a grungy flick centering bikers and jailbait to double as a conversation piece, but for those already fascinated by the topics explored here, there’s a lot worth unpacking.

Teenager: GROOVY

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Cheering Section (1977)



Only someone determined to consume every teen-sex comedy from the ’70s can muster a reason to endure Cheering Section, which is as unfunny as it is unsexy. Corey (Tom Leindeker) and Jeff (Greg D’Jah) are stars on their high school’s football team. Jeff has a steady thing with the sexually uninhibited Terry (Patricia Michelle), but Corey is stuck in a rut of meaningless hookups until he becomes infatuated with voluptuous new cheerleader Melanie (Rhonda Fox). Most of the film’s “plot” tracks Corey’s unsuccessful attempts to score with Melanie, an endeavor complicated by the fact that her father is the football team’s new coach. Name a dopey signifier found in countless similar movies of the same period, and a pathetic version of that signifier is present in Cheering Section. Bikini-clad cheerleaders washing cars to raise money? An alluring substitute teacher giving a sex-ed lecture? Pranks traded between opposing schools? A romantic dune-buggy ride? Multiple (off-camera) trysts in vans? Each of these elements gets stripped of its lizard-brain appeal thanks to maladroit execution—excepting attractive young actors, everything about Cheering Section is ugly, from the narrative to the jokes to the cinematography to the editing. Cheering Section is also relentlessly demeaning thanks to leering camera angles and Neanderthal “characterizations” such as the desperate young woman known by the moniker “Handjob.” Through most of its lifeless span, Cheering Section drives, in a lackadaisical way, toward the big moment when Melanie puts out, and, by extension, the curvy actress playing Melanie loses her clothes. That this moment never happens—the picture freeze-frames for closing credits just beforehand—affirms why virtually any other activity is a preferable way to spend 84 minutes.

Cheering Section: LAME

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Bride (1973)



          Passable only because it avoids some of the uglier excesses common to low-budget ’70s horror, The Bride boasts a clumsily effective first act, a painfully aimless middle stretch, and a conclusion predicated on an iffy twist ending. In other words, the movie might hook you before it bores you and eventually either amuses or annoys you. With that warning to the consumer out of the way, here are the particulars. Directed and co-written by Jean-Marie Pélissié, who never made another movie, The Bride concerns Barbara (Robin Strasser), a wealthy young woman dating David (Arthur Roberts), a cocksure dude who works for her father’s company. One day, Barbara confounds David by revealing that she commissioned the design and construction of a modern-architecture house in which she hopes to spend years of wedded bliss with David. Yet on their wedding day, David slips away from the reception for a tryst with his mistress. Upon discovering the infidelity, Barbara attacks David with a pair of scissors. And that’s when The Bride drifts off-track. What ensues is a poorly executed psychodrama during which David and his mistress get tormented by someone who may or may not be Barbara.
          Whereas many low-budget horror filmmakers realize the trick to circumventing anemic production values is to shoot most scenes outdoors and/or at night, the storyline of The Bride requires the majority of scenes to happen indoors, which accentuates the cheap quality of the camerawork and sets. Even worse, the storyline requires lots of scenes featuring just one actor (the person being tormented at any given moment), and the players in The Bride lack the magnetism needed to hold viewers’ attention. Not helping matters is the script’s reliance on repetitive moments and overextended wannabe suspense beats. Need it be mentioned that the filmmakers succumb to desperation by inserting a protracted dream sequence? The middle of the picture is rough going, and it’s not as if the beginning and end are strong. Nonetheless, the core of this piece offers something akin to a feminist statement (until that statement gets undercut by the twist ending), and some credit is due for the filmmakers’ restraint in terms of sex and gore. Anyway, someone felt this movie had exploitable elements because it was re-released under at least two alternate titles: The House That Cried Murder and Last House on Massacre Street.

The Bride: FUNKY

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Spiral Staircase (1975)



          Tolerable only because of midlevel star power and solid production values, this inert UK thriller squanders a workable premise thanks to shoddy scripting and a directorial approach that prioritizes baroque visuals over compelling dramaturgy. Nearly everything in The Spiral Staircase feels contrived and false, so only a handful of violent scenes have anything resembling energy. Yet the truly confounding aspect of this picture is that it should have worked, seeing as how it’s a remake of the respected 1946 movie starring Dorothy McGuire. (Other versions of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch include a pair of telefilms both titled The Spiral Staircase, one from 1964 starring Elizabeth Montgomery and one from 2000 starring Nicolette Sheridan.) The possibilities arising from a woman-in-peril story about a protagonist rendered mute by past trauma would seem to be nearly limitless, but this picture gets mired in dull domestic drama and presents suspense scenes with such clumsy obviousness that virtually no tension percolates. One is left with little to watch beyond leading lady Jacqueline Bisset’s beauty and costar Christopher Plummer’s unique brand of patrician haughtiness.
          Helen (Bisset), who lost the ability to speak after witnessing a tragedy, works as a caregiver for the elderly matriarch of a wealthy family that includes brothers Joe (Plummer) and Steven (John Phillip Law). Meanwhile, a local serial killer preys upon women with disabilities, triggering fear that Helen might be next on the hit list. Instead of focusing on that intrigue, screenwriters Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (wisely hiding behind a shared pseudonym) and director Peter Collinson lumber through aimless scenes about a drunk cook and a love triangle comprising the brothers plus comely secretary Blanche (Gayle Hunnicut). Most of this material is insipid, nonsensical, or both, and dopey sequences involving mysterious figures scuttling about in nighttime rain provide only brief reprieves from tedium. The Spiral Staircase finally gets down to business in the last 40 minutes or so, with attacks and chases and killings, though it’s pointless trying to track or understand the behavior of anyone onscreen. Still, Bisset is suitably alluring and Plummer is suitably pompous, so at least the movie delivers for fans of those actors. Similarly, Collinson and cinematographer Ken Hodges render lively compositions full of ominous foreground objects and shadowy background spaces, so The Spiral Staircase has the look of a passable shocker.

The Spiral Staircase: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Hard Knocks (1979)



          By the late ’70s, actor Michael Christian had spent a decade struggling to capitalize on the minor notoriety he gained from a recurring Peyton Place role—hence this would-be star vehicle, which the fading actor wrote and produced. Alas, the story he contrived was never likely to attain mainstream acceptance. You see, Christian cast himself as a Hollywood gigolo who freaks out after getting abused by a sadistic john, then flees to the countryside, where he befriends a kindly grandfather and a verging-on-womanhood teenager. The first half-hour of the movie is arrestingly sleazy, with disco music throbbing over montages filled with full-frontal nudity; the middle of the film is as gentle as a Disney picture; and the climax, featuring Christian’s character getting chased by trigger-happy cops, is overwrought B-movie pulp. The differing tonalities of the movie’s three sections clash so harshly that Hard Knocks—which has also been distributed as Hollywood Knight and Mid-Knight Rider—is a thoroughly confusing cinematic experience.

          When viewers meet him, Guy (Christian) is caught in a dangerous rut, turning tricks primarily for older female clients but occasionally getting beaten by men who don’t like how he earns his money. When an encounter with rich clients in Beverly Hills turns ugly, Guy loses his cool and beats one of the clients nearly to death, then skips town rather than face consequences. The fugitive gigolo finds shelter on a farm occupied by Jed (Keenan Wynn) and Jed’s granddaughter, Chris (Donna Wilkes). A kind of surrogate family takes shape until a bar brawl lands Guy in jail—which, in turn, leads the local sheriff to connect Guy with police reports about the Beverly Hills incident.

          Had a better writer polished the raw materials of Christian’s lurid storyline, something coherent might have resulted—because despite the overall clumsiness of this picture’s execution, there’s an interesting core pertaining to the malaise of a character who can’t decide whether he’s cheapened his soul beyond redemption. It’s also a bummer to report that Hard Knocks gets worse as it progresses. The last section is predicated on sketchy character motivations, and the middle section gets so dull that at one point the film stops dead for a “comical” montage of Christian and Wynn riding a sidecar motorcycle. Still, what makes Hard Knocks impossible to completely dismiss is that rough first section, released months before the immeasurably better American Gigolo (1980). The sex-work stretch of the picture is dark, grimy, and sad, powered by affectless voiceover and pulsing musical rhythms. As rendered by director/cinematographer David Worth, this stuff isn’t good filmmaking, per se, but it’s vividly grungy.


Hard Knocks: FUNKY


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Three Warriors (1977)



          Demonstrating that the contributions of a single artisan can improve even the shabbiest material, this Native American-themed outdoor adventure is disposable but for resplendent cinematography by the great Bruce Surtees, who imbues every shot with depth and weight, achieving especially beautiful results during lengthy sequences set in high-altitude forests. (There’s a reason Surtees was Clint Eastwood’s go-to DP for several years.) So even though Three Warriors presents an unrelentingly trite narrative, and despite director Kieth Merrill’s unsure way with actors, the movie is visually rewarding from its first frame to its last. Also worth noting, of course, is the filmmakers’ commitment to celebrating the Native American experience and to showcasing minority performers.
          The story revolves around Michael (McKee “Miko” RedWing), an Indian teenager who lives with his mother and siblings in Portland. The kids’ father died years earlier, a tragedy that hangs over the whole storyline. The family treks to their old home, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, for a visit with Grandfather (Charles White-Eagle), who is committed to living as traditionally as possible. Initially, Michael is angry and sullen about spending time in the country, but when Grandfather takes Michael on an outdoor journey that has perilous aspects, the boy learns to respect his heritage. Specifically, Grandfather buys Michael a seemingly lame horse, then guides Michael through nursing the animal back to health. Adding contrived tension is a subplot involving a poacher (Christopher Lloyd) who regularly invades Indian land to capture and slaughter wild mustangs. There’s also some comic-relief material involving a newly arrived park ranger (Randy Quaid) who struggles to bond with Native Americans.
          Everything that happens in Three Warriors is predictable, so the first half of the picture is slow going, especially because Michael is portrayed as such a petulant little twit that it’s unpleasant to watch his incessant tantrums. Yet once Michael’s transformation begins, Three Warriors shifts gears by focusing on lively shots of regal animals and magnificent locations. The sequence in which Michael captures an eagle’s feather (yes, that old cliché) is enjoyable because of its meticulous detail, and the final showdown with the poacher generates mild excitement. RedWing never made another movie and White-Eagle has a thin filmography, so that speaks to their limited skillsets. Quaid is somewhat appealing while Lloyd provides drab one-note villainy. In lieu of acting firepower, the movie has Surtees’ expert camerawork and the keen visual sense of director Merrill, best known for his Oscar-winning doc The Great American Cowboy (1974).

Three Warriors: FUNKY

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Stop! (1970)



          Years before he made the strange vampire saga Ganja & Hess (1973), multihyphenate Bill Gunn wrote and directed this arty meditation on identity, mortality, and sex. Made for Warner Bros. and slapped with an X rating, Gunn’s movie was either given scant distribution or completely shelved, depending on which reference material one consults. Whatever the particulars, Stop! largely disappeared after 1970, so as of this writing it’s only viewable through rare festival screenings and/or private copies. It should be noted that some of those private copies (including the one viewed for this post) feature edits imposed on the movie by Warner Bros., so it is conceivable that Gunn’s original version is substantially different.
          As for the Warner Bros. version, it’s beguiling, erotic, sad—and more than a little pretentious, given the obvious influence of European filmmakers then popular with the intelligentsia, notably Michelangelo Antonioni. When Stop! connects, the experience is hypnotic and unsettling. And when the movie doesn’t connect, it’s indulgent and needlessly opaque. The story begins with attractive young couple Michael (Edward Bell) and Lee (Linda Marsh) traveling from the U.S. to Puerto Rico because of a recent tragedy—Michael’s brother killed his wife and then himself. Over several sweaty days in San Juan, Michael and Lee navigate sexual bliss and marital strife while it becomes evident that Michael is nearly as tormented as his late sibling. When Michael and Lee encounter another couple, played by Marlene Clark and Richard Dow, new sexual complications ensue and the threat of violence is omnipresent.
          While Stop! is occasionally (and deliberately) cryptic, the film overflows with mood. Gunn and cinematographer Owen Roizman employ striking compositions, some quite melodramatic, so every shot feels like a piece of an art installation. The leading actors are all lean and pretty, allowing Gunn to use the angles and surfaces of the human body like colors in a painting, especially during atmospherically filmed sex scenes. (Despite the X rating, nothing explicit is shown.) Gunn also employs trippy editing techniques, from the predictable (languid montages set to ominous music) to the unpredictable (splices that render unclear who is having sex with whom). And while the dialogue can tend to be obvious and stilted (“I really think I love you—I don’t know”), Gunn renders several memorably weird moments of human interaction. The vignettes involving a prostitute are as humane as they are unflinching, and the scene during which Lee paints her husband’s toenails while he makes out with Clark’s character feels personal and real.
          Yet the test of a piece like Stop! is not its ability to command attention with glossy images and alluring flesh, but rather its ability to explore heavy concepts. A superficial reading of Stop! would interpret the title literally, thus positioning the picture as Gunn’s plea for people to transcend psychosexual gamesmanship. However it seems unlikely Gunn was after anything that reductive or tangible. Note, for instance, the centrality of mental illness and sexual identity. Does every story about a lost soul need to end with a definitive moment of self-discovery? Clues regarding the answer to that question may be found in the picture’s bold final shot, which won’t be spoiled here. Among other things, Stop! is a descent into the unknowable—so for some viewers, the final shot might seem like a cop-out, while for others, the image could be the perfect grace note. Perhaps the highest compliment one can offer Gunn’s little-seen debut is to call it a mosaic that reveals as much about the beholder as it does about itself.

Stop!: GROOVY

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws (1978)



          Here’s a peculiar one. About one-third of Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws is exactly what viewers might expect, a shameless riff on a certain Burt Reynolds blockbuster. There’s even a subplot about a woman running from the son of a vulgar sheriff. Yet the other two-thirds of Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws comprise an inept but sincere music-industry saga told from the perspective of someone with real-world experience. Jesse Lee Turner—the executive producer, cowriter, and star of this flick—enjoyed a minor novelty hit with the 1959 song “Little Space Girl” before his recording career sputtered. Presumably the goal of this enterprise was to get things going again, so the film features Turner performing several original songs.
          The picture opens in a tiny Texas town where ne’er-do-wells J.D. (Turner) and the Salt Flat Kid (Dennis Fimple) dream of showbiz success. J.D. is a singer-songwriter while the Kid is both J.D.’s accompanist and a ventriloquist. In jail after a bar brawl, the guys meet a fellow inmate who claims to be a music manager. Before he skips town, the “manager” scams cash from the guys and offers a business card they believe is their ticket to success. Off to Music City they go. Along the way they meet two ladies, one of whom is being pursued by Sheriff Leddy (Slim Pickens). The movie makes quick work of the ensuing Burt Reynolds-style high jinks before devoting much more screen time to the rigors of pursuing fame in Nashville. The guys hook up with a real manger, albeit a sketchy one, and they find allies in empathetic locals. Inevitably, the story climaxes with a make-or-break concert.
          Even though Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws is amateurish, the story is coherent, the leading actors are as enthusiastic as their characters, and the content is more or less family-friendly. In other words, the picture is wholly innocuous—except for some iffy flourishes. We’re talking a chase scene featuring “The William Tell Overture,” a major subplot (the girls and the sheriff) that completely disappears, and the truly bizarre spectacle of J.D.’s stage persona. While singing, Turner crouches and gyrates and twists as if he’s being electrocuted. Naturally, on-camera audiences pretend to be driven wild by his antics. Yet Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws—which has also been exhibited as Smokey and the Outlaw Women and J.D. and the Salt Flat Kid—is more of a curiosity than anything else inasmuch as it documents a stage in Turners odd trajectory. At some point after the movie faded from view, he shifted from entertainment to evangelism, though he eventually blended his interests by recording Christian albums. More recently, Turner has proselytized for the MAGA movement. 

Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws: FUNKY

Monday, August 1, 2022

Goodbye, Franklin High (1978)



          Rarely has a coming-of-age story featured stakes as preposterously low as those found in Goodbye, Franklin High, the story of a privileged young man trying to decide between a full-ride scholarship to Stanford and an invitation to join a field team for the Los Angeles Angels. Adding to the protagonist’s “difficulty” is a pretty girlfriend so committed to their relationship that she not only gifts him with sex on his 18th birthday, but forgives him for making a raunchy spectacle of himself by dancing with another girl at a party. One’s very soul cries for the anguish of Will Armer, a feather-haired California kid facing too many appealing choices. Sarcasm aside, it’s hard to generate real animus for Goodbye, Franklin High because the PG-rated melodrama eschews vulgar clichés associated with teen movies of the ’70s. Instead of giggling dopes who spend their days toking in vans and cruising for sex at the beach, the kids in this movie are comparatively grounded young adults trying to enjoy their last carefree days before assuming grownup responsibilities. And to cut writer Stu Krieger and director Mike MacFarland some slack, they try to confront Will with dilemmas beyond questions of his future plans.
          Will’s dad (William Windom) has a dangerous case of emphysema, and Will’s mom (Julie Adams) may be having an affair. Given these complications, Goodbye, Franklin High occasionally threatens to become a real movie instead of a trifle. That it never makes this leap is attributable equally to the shortcomings of Krieger, MacFarland, and leading man Lane Caudell. Giving a performance as deep as a Donny Osmond song, Caudell tries to express big-time anguish but never seems more upset than a kid whose ice-cream cone just fell on the ground. Caudell’s youthful costars—Darby Hinton, as Will’s buddy, and Ann Dusenberry, as Will’s girlfriend—render equally bland work, though one gets the sense this production lacked the resources for multiple takes. Screen veterans Adams and Windom achieve something closer to credibility, especially during a sequence in which the protagonist’s family addresses the rumored infidelity of Adams’s character.
          Featuring generic disco tracks during party scenes and several gentle singer-songwriter tunes penned and recorded by Caudell (who also had a short career in pop music), Goodbye, Franklin High is harmless and forgettable. Only through comparison with skeevier teen flicks of the same period do those adjectives become compliments. FYI, star Caudell, writer Krieger, and director MacFarland collaborated on another forgotten 1978 movie, the music-themed drama Hanging on a Star—which, like this picture, was released by short-lived company Cal-Am Productions.

Goodbye, Franklin High: FUNKY


Saturday, July 16, 2022

6 Million Views!


Hey there, groovy people! Checking in to say how gratifying it is that Every ’70s Movie continues to attract eyeballs four (!) years after daily posting concluded. Recently I’ve happened upon a few more obscure features, so reviews of those movies will get posted in the coming weeks, along with continued selections from the wild world of ’70s telefilms. Although theatrically released narrative features remain the focus of this blog, so many interesting—or at least entertaining—things happened on the small screen during the ’70s that it’s fun to explore that space now that my list of unseen ’70s theatrical features contains less than 500 movies, many of which seem to have disappeared from legitimate distribution. As always, if you’re aware of something that isn’t on this blog but should be, let me know via the comments, especially if you can suggest a non-bootleg viewing opportunity. The goal remains to get to as many of these things as I possibly can. Finally, regarding the factoid in this post’s headline, the count for lifetime views of Every ’70s Movie is now over 6 million. Wow! And if you can hear that particular number without thinking of Steve Austin and his bionic sound effects, then you’re a more sophisticated ’70s survivor than I am. Keep on keepin’ on! 


Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Sweet Creek County War (1979)



          While the threadbare premise of The Sweet Creek County War was never to be the foundation for singular entertainment, the script’s colorful dialogue and earnest characterizations could have become the building blocks for something highly watchable. Alas, J. Frank James elected to direct his own script instead of entrusting it to more capable hands, thus ensuring the end of a screen career that began just a few years earlier with the other low-budget Western that he wrote and directed, The Legend of Earl Durand (1974). James was not without skill as a screenwriter, but he was hopelessly inept as a director, so both of his films squandered their potential. Even the title of The Sweet Creek County War indicates how badly this piece suffers for anemic execution—although the title suggests a sweeping story about frontier conflict, the picture largely depicts varmints laying siege to a single cabin occupied by the three main characters. More like The Sweet Creek County Skirmish.
          As for those characters, they are retired lawman Judd (Richard Egan), aging outlaw George (Albert Salmi), and past-her-prime prostitute Firetop Alice (Nita Talbot). After Judd rescues George from a lynch mob, the men pool their resources to buy a ranch. Later, George drunkenly marries Firetop Alice and brings her back to the ranch, upsetting the dynamic of his friendship with Judd. Meanwhile, vicious developer Lucas (Robert J. Wilke), who wants the land on which the ranch is located, unleashes gunmen to intimidate  Judd and George. Also drifting through the story, somewhat inconsequentially, is a stuttering dope named “Jitters Pippen,” played by Slim Pickens. (Presumably Dub Taylor was unavailable and Strother Martin was too expensive.)
          The basic premise of The Sweet Creek County War appeared in countless previous Western movies and TV shows, so the picture’s only moderately individualistic elements are characterizations and the dialogue—and what these elements lack in originality, they offer in sincerity. James seems committed to exploring both an unusual friendship and the conflicted emotions of people who carry deep regrets. Accordingly, had James worked with a proper director, one imagines he could have minimized the script’s formulaic components and leaned into the poignant ones. In turn, improvements to the script and the participation of a competent filmmaker might have attracted relevant performers, no offence to the blandly competent Egan, Salmi, and Talbot. After all, acting isn’t the problem here. The most amateurish aspect of The Sweet Creek County War is unquestionably James’s artless shooting style.

The Sweet Creek County War: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Death Squad (1974)



          Minor telefilm The Death Squad shouldn’t merit any attention—the story is so compressed that it feels as if pieces are missing, and the basic premise appeared in the previous year’s hit Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. Yet good performances, especially Robert Forster’s emotionally committed turn in the leading role, make The Death Squad watchable. If nothing else, the picture provides a poignant reminder that something was lost when Forster’s career failed to gain momentum in his early years as a screen performer. While it’s true he was prone to robotic performances when saddled with sketchy material, moments in The Death Squad remind viewers what he could do when he tried. He’s more poignant here than the situation demands or deserves.
          Forster plays Eric Benoit, a cop tasked with identifying rogue officers responsible for vigilante killings of crooks who got off on technicalities. Although this setup prompts a handful of chases and shootouts, the main focus of The Death Squad is Benoit wrestling with divided loyalties. How deep a rot will he discover in his department? What happens when he learns that a cop who screwed him over in the past is part of the vigilante group? Will digging into the origins of the vigilante group reveal secrets that hit Benoit even more personally? To their credit, the makers of The Death Squad raise all of these questions—and to their shame, the makers of The Death Squad provide satisfactory answers to only a few of those questions. This is the sort of malnourished narrative in which the nominal female lead, played by Michelle Phillips, could have been excised from the storyline and her absence wouldn’t have been felt.
          Nonetheless, the stuff that works in The Death Squad is entertainingly melodramatic and pulpy. Claude Akins, who plays the heavy, provides a potent mixture of menace and swagger. Character actors including George Murdock, Dennis Patrick, Bert Remsen, and Kenneth Tobey lend color to small roles, while the great Melvyn Douglas classes up the joint by playing Benoit’s mentor in a few brief scenes. On the technical side, the picture benefits from unfussy camerawork and a rubbery jazz/funk score in the Lalo Schifrin mode (more shades of the Dirty Harry movies). Best of all, actors and filmmakers play the lurid material completely straight, so every so often a scene—usually involving Forster—provides a glimmer of the great Roger Corman drive-in thriller The Death Squad should have been. Ah, well. We’ll always have Akins.

The Death Squad: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974)



          The verbose title of this mildly spooky telefilm suggests a supernatural angle, but The Strange and Deadly Occurrence is really a crime thriller with horror-flick flourishes. Approached with the right mindset, the picture provides pleasantly undemanding distraction. Robert Stack, rendering the same sort of blandly American masculinity he brought to countless movie/TV endeavors before diversifying his brand with self-parody in Airplane! (1980), stars as Michael Rhodes, the head of a small family that moves in to a new home. Soon after Michael, his wife Christine (Vera Miles), and their daughter Melissa (Margaret Willock) take occupancy, peculiar things start to happen—power outages, weird noises, etc. The family also receives persistent visits from Dr. Wren (E.A. Sirianni), an odd fellow inexplicably determined to buy their house. Soon Michael grows to believe that Dr. Wren has something nefarious in mind, unaware that a bigger threat exists.
          Whereas slight narratives are often shortcomings in ’70s telefilms, less is more in this case because the focus is on atmosphere rather than intricate storytelling. Director John Llewellen Moxey and writers Sandor Stern and Lane Slate achieve adequate results while generating low-grade tension and dramatizing how the Rhodes family reacts to upsetting circumstances. The filmmakers also succeed in misdirection, allowing a third-act shift in the narrative to land with enjoyable impact. An effectively seedy performance by a familiar character actor is better discovered than described, given that his appearance is key to the third-act twist, but everyone who appears onscreen in The Strange and Deadly Occurrence understood the assignment. Costar L.Q. Jones is suitably condescending as a local lawman, Sirianni twitches well, Miles lends welcome muscle to her role, and Stack, as mentioned earlier, supplies exactly what he was hired to supply.
          Does The Strange and Deadly Occurrence suffer the usual flaws of dubious contrivances and characters who make conveniently stupid decisions? Of course. But if you’ve read this deep into the write-up of a ’70s made-for-TV thriller, then warnings about such flaws are unlikely to diminish your enthusiasm. Have at it.

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence: FUNKY


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Taste of Evil (1971)



          If a barrage of logic-bending plot twists, a handful of familiar actors, and pervasive woman-in-peril atmosphere are sufficient to hold your attention, then you’re the target audience for 1971’s A Taste of Evil, a distasteful but watchable telefilm starring two very different Barbaras, onetime Golden Age star Stanwyck and Peyton Place player Parkins. Rounding out the top-billed cast are Roddy McDowall, Arthur O’Connell, and William Windom, while the behind-the-scenes notables are prolific TV director John Llewellyn Moxey (whose career spanned 1955 to 1991) and writer Jimmy Sangster, best known for the entertainingly lurid Hammer horrors he wrote and/or directed. These folks’ assorted skillsets give A Taste of Evil a smidge more cinematic verve than the average telefilm, even though the picture is most assuredly schlock.
          In a bleak prologue, a 13-year-old girl is sexually assaulted on a sprawling estate. Cut to a decade later, when the now-grown Susan (Parkins) returns home from an overseas mental institution. She’s welcomed by her mother, Miriam (Stanwyck); her alcoholic stepfather, Harold (Windom); and the family’s simple-minded groundskeeper, John (O’Connell). Susan endures several bizarre episodes, seemingly getting chased through woods, discovering a corpse that disappears in the time it takes Susan to get help, and so on. Enter Dr. Lomas (McDowall), whom the family hires to help Susan navigate trauma. Per the Hitchcockian-psychological-thriller playbook, viewers are tasked with guessing whether Susan is unwell or being gaslit—and, if the latter is the case, by whom. To Sangster’s credit, this brief telefilm juggles so many plot elements that it’s possible to overlook major clues, especially because some of the twists, once revealed, are ludicrous. (Incidentally, this was Sangster’s second pass on the same narrative—A Taste of Evil recycles a premise he originated for the 1961 Hammer production Scream of Fear.)
          Stanwyck, ever the consummate professional, does her best to sell this hokum and therefore neither distinguishes nor embarrasses herself. Parkins’s take on PTSD is too glassy-eyed to register emotionally, so she’s more of a delivery device for Sangster’s yarn-spinning than a proper leading lady. And while the film largely squanders McDowall and Windom, O’Connell’s portrayal engenders a bit of empathy. Yet this is ultimately more of a writer’s piece than anything else, so it’s a shame Sangster didn’t bring his A-game; the characterizations are sketchy at best and much of the dialogue is clumsily expositional. Nonetheless, even though everything about A Taste of Evil will quickly evaporate from the viewer’s memory—save perhaps the queasy opening sequence—the flick is just cynical and nasty enough to provide a few kitschy kicks.

A Taste of Evil: FUNKY


Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Force of Evil (1977)



          Network appetites for TV movies in the ’70s were so insatiable that lots of recycled material hit the airwaves, hence this low-budget retread of the 1962 theatrical feature Cape Fear—which was more elaborately remade as a 1991 Scorsese/De Niro thriller. Starring Lloyd Bridges, The Force of Evil adds a vaguely supernatural element to the Cape Fear mix because the telefilm’s villain inexplicably survives multiple fatal attacks. Fans of slasher films might find this element moderately interesting since The Force of Evil predates such “unkillable killer” flicks as the following year’s Halloween, though the gore factor is zero and the intensity never rises above a simmer. It should also be noted that writer Robert Malcolm Young and director Richard Lang both enjoyed long careers generating hours upon hours of disposable television. In other words, expectations should be set appropriately low—but if your taste is such that the basic components of The Force of Evil capture your imagination, then you might find it diverting.
          Originally broadcast as a double-length episode of short-lived anthology series Tales of the Unexpected, this piece borrows the Cape Fear premise of a paroled criminal menacing the fellow whose testimony sent him to jail. (Neither the screenwriter of the 1962 movie nor the author of that film’s source novel is credited.) Specifically, in the bleak landscape of a California desert community, grinning psychopath Teddy Jakes (William Watson) terrorizes physician Yale Carrington (Bridges), who has a wife and two kids. At first, Yale feels confident about his ability to repel Teddy because Yale’s brother, Floyd (John Anderson), is the local sheriff. Alas, as in Cape Fear, the criminal studied law books in jail and therefore knows how far to push without incriminating himself. Nonetheless, things get fairly gruesome even before the first attempt on Teddy’s life—and then The Force of Evil kicks into gear by testing how violent Yale is willing to become in order to protect his family.
          The juxtaposition of Bridges’ somewhat restrained performance and Watson’s menacing swarthiness generates decent tension, as do several Hitchcock-style suspense scenes. Yet the movie’s strongest mojo emanates from dramatic camera angles rendered by cinematographer Paul Lohmann, whose impressive CV include Nashville and Trilogy of Terror (both 1975). Using deep focus and low angles, Lohmann takes Dan Curtis-style claustrophobic framing to almost satirical extremes. Oh, and one last point of interest for fans of a certain age—playing Bridges’ daughter is Eve Plumb, appearing between her tenures as a member of the Brady Bunch.

The Force of Evil: FUNKY


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Death of Me Yet (1971)



          Exploring a zippy premise from offbeat narrative angles, telefilm The Death of Me Yet is more a compendium of promising ideas than a fully realized dramatic statement, but an engaging leading performance and solid supporting turns help make the piece as palatable as it is befuddling. The movie is about a KGB sleeper agent living a seemingly normal life in California until circumstances cause him to question his allegiance to Mother Russia. While much the plot comprises the twisty thriller machinations one might expect, The Death of Me Yet dubiously centers a love story involving the sleeper agent and his unsuspecting American wife. The picture churns through narrative elements at an alarming pace, thus depriving major plot components of sufficient oxygen—so while The Death of Me Yet doesn’t quite work as either a thriller or a love story, it’s moderately watchable as an awkward mixture of these genres, especially because leading man Doug McClure does a respectable job of selling both styles.
          The movie opens with an attention-grabbing scene at a KGB facsimile of an average American town, which effectively dramatizes the notion of prepping sleepers. Then the protagonist, who goes by various names including Paul Towers (McClure), gets an assignment from his handler, Barnes (Richard Basehart), so it’s off to America. Cut to several years later, once Towers has established himself as a newspaper publisher married to an American woman (Rosemary Forsyth). Through convoluted circumstances, Towers takes a job working at a defense contractor, which lands him in the crosshairs of an FBI agent (Darren McGavin). Then, once it becomes clear the Soviets consider Towers a security risk, hes forced to consider switching sides.
          Based on a novel by Whit Masterson (the pen name for two writers who cranked out decades of pulpy books), The Death of Me Yet has enough story for a sprawling miniseries, so tracking every plot twist is more trouble than it’s worth. Yet many scenes within this briskly paced telefilm are potent, and McClure is casually compelling throughout. While hardly an adventurous or nuanced performer, he’s so comfortable onscreen that he gives even the most ridiculous story developments a veneer of credibility. It’s also effective that McGavin, as the FBI guy, conveys a far more menacing presence than Basehart, who plays his Russian counterpart—hardly the conventional approach.

The Death of Me Yet: FUNKY