Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Desperate Living (1977)

          With his fifth feature, trash auteur John Waters came close to a perfect synthesis of irreverent comedy, rebellious attitude, and vulgar excess. Like most of his early efforts, however, the movie has too much shock-value material for its own good. Everything is pitched so loudly, in terms of disgusting visuals and histrionic acting and vile behavior, that Desperate Living becomes monotonous despite its upbeat tone. And while nothing in Desperate Living surpasses the apex of Waters’ onscreen grotesquerie (that would be the indelible image of enormous drag queen Divine eating real dog feces in Waters’ 1972 opus Pink Flamingos), it’s not as if Desperate Living wants for transgressive signifiers.
          In no particular order, the movie features a babysitter who stuffs her young charge in a refrigerator; a close-up of an insect crawling out of someone’s rear end; a cop who makes women hand over their underwear so he can put the garments on himself; a disgusting matriarch who uses leather-clad dancing boys for sex slaves; an intercut scene that juxtaposes two energetic cunnilingus sessions (one gay, one straight); countless semi-explicit sex scenes featuring grossly overweight performers; and an incident of self-castration performed with scissors. Compared to everything else with which Waters bombards viewers, the big cannibalism scene at the end is tame. The thing about Waters, of course, is that he conveys such a strong sense of delirious joy while presenting outré images that he rarely seems mean-spirited, especially since the story of Desperate Living—as with most of Waters’ depraved narratives—celebrates freaks and skewers conformists. In fact, when it’s viewed as an over-top metaphor representing the beauty of inclusion and the evil of othering, Desperate Living is oddly inspirational.
          To that end, the movie is constructed like a fairy tale. When the adventure begins, neurotic housewife Peggy Gravel (Mike Stole) enlists her maid/nurse, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), for help in killing Peggy’s overbearing husband. Then Peggy and Grizelda escape to Mortville, a remote shantytown inhabited by deviants and weirdos. Ruling over Mortville is the domineering Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). As Peggy jockeys for position in Carlotta’s court, using insidious means to push likely successor Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce) out of the way, Grizelda joins with the “good” people of Mortville for a rebellion. Meanwhile, lots of screen time is devoted to the exploits of Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a bullish lesbian with a face full of sores who pursues a sex-change operation in order to wow her buxom girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay). Carnality, crime, and cruelty ensue. Waters, per his norm, exceeds the limits of good taste whenever possible, but he never loses sight of his underdogs-vs.-the-system theme. (It just happens that most of his underdogs are criminally insane.)
          More importantly, Desperate Living has moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity, making it perhaps the most entertaining of Waters’ early films. Consider the moment when Peggy goes ballistic upon receiving a wrong-number call: “How can you ever repay the 30 seconds you have stolen from my life?!! I hate you, your husband, and your relatives!!!” Desperate Living is foul, tacky, and wrong, but that’s why it’s a fitting denouement to the first phase of Waters’ outrageous career—starting with his next picture, the comparatively restrained Polyester (1981), Waters began a steady drift into the mainstream, eventually making a pair of PG-rated studio comedies before inching back into extreme material.

Desperate Living: FREAKY

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Johnny Firecloud (1975)

          Borrowing elements from Billy Jack (1971) and Death Wish (1974), this Native American-themed revenge flick is equal parts goofy and gory, but it’s also undeniably entertaining, in a trashy sort of way.
          The plot couldn’t be simpler. When he was younger, Native American Johnny Firecloud (Victor Mohica) used to cavort with a white woman, June (Christina Hart), whose father, Colby (Ralph Meeker), holds all the power in the small Southwestern town where they live. Now that he’s an angry adult who learned a few nasty tricks while serving in the military, Johnny spends all his time getting into hassles with the local sheriff, Jesse (David Canary), who does Colby’s bidding. But when Colby’s thugs accidentally kill Johnny’s grandfather, tribal chief White Eagle (Frank DeKova), all of Johnny’s rage explodes into a vigilante campaign. Johnny murders his victims in colorful ways, invoking clichés familiar from previous Hollywood depictions of Indians. He buries one fellow up to the neck in a desert and cuts off the fellow’s eyelids so he’ll go blind while he cooks in the sun. He ties another dude to a post and then ties a bag full of rattlesnakes around the dude’s head and torso. Naturally, one of the victims gets scalped.
          Johnny Firecloud is exactly the movie you’d expect, filled with overheated performances, slow-burn action scenes, and thunderous music cues underscoring money shots of carnage. There’s also a little sex thrown in for good measure, including—as per the norm for ’70s revenge pictures—a brutal rape scene. (Playing the rape victim is lovely Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather, best known as Marlon Brando’s controversial Oscar proxy.) Most of the elements in Johnny Firecloud are ordinary, but the sum effect is satisfying for fans of a certain type of sleazy cinema. The widescreen images are filled with robust colors, the pacing is strong, the storytelling is clear, and the violence is suitably excessive.
          While most of the acting is florid and/or robotic, with Hollywood veteran Meeker delivering a particularly tepid performance as a bad guy who stops just short of moustache-twirling, future soap-opera star Canary does respectable work in the picture’s most nuanced role. Playing the sheriff who wrestles with his conscience upon realizing the true scope of his employer’s evil, Canary registers a few decent moments of manly angst. Providing a counterpoint is frequently bare-chested leading man Mohica, who plays to the cheap seats whenever he gets the opportunity. Johnny Firecloud also features one of the oddest threats in ’70s cinema. At one point, a thug named Ned (Richard Kennedy) barks the following remark to Johnny: “One of these days, you and me are gonna tangle assholes!”

Johnny Firecloud: FUNKY

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Devil’s Widow (1970)

          Released in the U.S. under the deceptive moniker The Devil’s Widow, this strange thriller is a uniquely Celtic bit of business that was filmed and released in the UK as The Ballad of Tam Lin. Based on an old Scottish myth, which evolved over centuries of adaptations in literature and song, The Devil’s Window is the only movie directed by veteran actor Roddy McDowall. A gifted photographer, McDowall approached the task of making his first movie with predictable visual flair. However, he demonstrated zero affinity for storytelling. McDowall even did a poor job of modulating performances, because the acting in The Devil’s Widow runs the gamut from excellent (leading man Ian McShane) to mediocre (ingénue Stephanie Beacham) to terrible (top-billed star Ava Gardner). That said, perhaps something was lost in translation while the movie crossed the pond, because the behavior of the characters often seems inexplicable to American eyes. And when the picture transforms into a full-on supernatural horror show during the climax, the tonal shift is bewildering.
          The film begins at the sprawling Scottish estate of Michaela Cazaret (Gardner), a middle-aged woman of unclear national origin who populates her castle and its grounds with swinging young people. One of them is Tom Lynn (McShane), who is Michaela’s current lover despite being many years her junior. When Tom meets pretty and wholesome local girl Janet Ainsley (Beacham), daughter of the town vicar, he slips away from Michaela to begin a relationship with Janet. Michaela responds viciously, culminating in the final sequence wherein she uses drugs and/or enchantments to drive Tom mad. Throughout most of the picture, the nature of Michaela’s household is completely unclear; on the one hand, she seems to exert mind control over her young playthings, and yet on the other hand, Tom demonstrates free will. Similarly, the reasons behind Janet’s attraction to Tom are mysterious, especially when she realizes that Michaela is some sort of dragon lady with otherworldly powers.
         McDowall tries to mix cynical vignettes of world-weary party people with lyrical passages of young lovers shutting out the rest of the world, and the two elements clash. Moreover, the characterization of Michaela never makes sense. Is she crazy, magical, or just lonely? Gardner’s unfocused performance provides few clues. The Devil’s Widow looks lovely, thanks to intricate lighting by cinematographer Billy Williams, and McDowall deserves credit for trying a few interesting things, such as a scene comprising freeze frames and several weird effects during the finale. What all of it means, however, is anybody’s guess.

The Devil’s Widow: FUNKY

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Three the Hard Way (1974)

One of three features costarring blaxploitation luminaries Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, and Fred Williamson—the others are Take a Hard Ride (1975) and One Down, Two to Go (1982)—this muddled conspiracy thriller represents a missed opportunity on many levels. Not only does director Gordon Parks Jr. fail to exploit the action-hero possibilities created by the participation of his three stars, but the picture includes what should be the ultimate campy blaxploitation premise, only to botch the notion’s potential via confusing storytelling, dull pacing, and flat characterization. Bad guy Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson) creates a serum that, when introduced into the water supply of major cities, will kill every black person who consumes the serum. Yet instead of introducing this outlandish concept right at the beginning, thereby positioning the titular trio as African-American crusaders, the filmmakers take a good half-hour to get to the point. Worse, the characters played by Brown, Kelly, and Williamson don’t join forces until fairly late in the story, so Three the Hard Way feels less like a men-on-a-mission picture and more like a hodgepodge of scenes from three separate movies. The filmmakers also waste lots of time on nonsense, such as the very long sequence of Brown’s character producing a recording session for an R&B vocal group. And whenever Three the Hard Way tries to deliver the blaxploitation goods, the material feels half-hearted. For instance, the scene of martial artist Kelly fighting off something like a dozen armed assailants with his bare hands (and feet) is ridiculous, especially because Parks can’t muster camera angles that properly accentuate the action. (The haphazard shooting style makes the encounter feel like a run-through instead of a fully realized scene.) And then there’s the one truly bizarre sequence in the picture—at one point, the heroes recruit three motorcycle-riding babes to doff their tops and then interrogate a prisoner using some sort of sex torture. Like most everything else in Three the Hard Way, the scene is lurid but nonsensical.

Three the Hard Way: LAME

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Asylum (1972)

          One in a series of anthology horror films generated by UK company Amicus Productions, Asylum boasts a solid pedigree: The picture was written by Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame, and directed by Hammer Films veteran Roy Ward Baker. The picture also has a solid cast, with Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, and the elegant Charlotte Rampling. Like most similar Amicus movies—and, for that matter, like most anthology pictures in general—it’s wildly uneven. On the plus side, the framing story is stronger than usual, and the overall presentation is terrific, thanks to glossy cinematography and solid production values. On the minus side, two of the stories are deeply silly, even by the standards of tongue-in-cheek UK horror. Asylum has its minor pleasures, but it’s not to be taken the least bit seriously.
         In the framing story, earnest young psychiatrist Dr. Martin (Powell) shows up to interview for a job at a mental institution. While speaking with his would-be superior, Dr. Rutherford (Magee), Martin is given a challenge—he must identify which of the asylum’s patients is a former doctor, driven insane by dealing with the institution’s lunatics. If Dr. Martin identifies the right patient, he gets the job. Each visit with a patient occasions a flashback vignette with a gruesome twist ending. In “Frozen Fear,” Ruth (Parkins) describes being attached by dismembered body parts that move of their own volition. In “The Weird Tailor,” Bruno (Morse) recalls how a mystery man (Cushing) hired him to construct a magical suit of clothes. In “Lucy Comes to Stay,” Barbara (Rampling) explains that she was framed for murder by Lucy (Ekland), who may or may not be imaginary. And in “Mannikins of Horror,” Dr. Byron (Lom) reveals his hobby of creating tiny robots bearing lifelike faces modeled after his acquaintances.
          The bits with the homicidal body parts and the violent robots (you knew they’d get bloodthirsty, didn’t you?) are unavoidably goofy, even though all of the actors give gung-ho performances. Conversely, “Lucy Comes to Stay” is fairly credible, but Ekland and Rampling provide more glamour than talent, so “Lucy Comes to Stay” gets tedious after a while. Still, Amicus had this sort of thing down to a science, and cramming five stories into 88 minutes ensures a relatively brisk pace. Further, Bloch provides more than enough cheap thrills, and Baker casts the whole cartoonish enterprise in a warm glow thanks to his dignified pictorial style. So, while Asylum may not be particularly frightening, at least it’s bloody and colorful and energetic.

Asylum: FUNKY

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Night Full of Rain (1978)

          After achieving notoriety on the international-cinema circuit with pictures including Seven Beauties (1976), which resulted in her becoming the first woman nominated for an Oscar as Best Director, Lina Wertmüller made her first and last English-language feature, A Night Full of Rain. (Fitting her occasional proclivity for cumbersome monikers, the picture’s full title is actually The End of the World in Our Usual Bed on a Night Full of Rain.) Like much of Wertmüller’s work, the picture is overtly political, employing a romantic storyline and avant-garde flourishes to explore questions about whether people with different ideological beliefs can find interpersonal harmony.
          Wertmüller’s frequent leading man, Giancarlo Giannini, costars with Hollywood actress Candice Bergen. They portray spouses who represent opposing sides of the ’70s debate surrounding gender roles. Paolo (Giannini) is an Italian writer who lives off the largesse of relatives while trying to build a career, and Lizzy (Bergen), is his American-born wife. When the story begins, the couple have become estranged, so Wertmüller employs flashbacks—as well as commentary from the couple’s friends, who magically appear inside the couple’s apartment, like angels or ghosts—to describe the arc of Lizzy’s and Paolo’s courtship. The two met while Lizzy was traveling in Europe as a student. During a violent political demonstration, Lizzy intervened and was nearly mauled by a mob until Paolo rescued her. They subsequently embarked on a long and flirtatious argument, leading to a near-miss sexual encounter, before Lizzy returned to the U.S. Paolo followed her there and wooed her back to Italy, where they had a child together. Then tensions emanating from sociopolitical differences caused problems, because Lizzy is a liberal feminist hewing to the values of her materialistic upbringing, whereas Paolo is a chauvinistic communist.
          Wertmüller, who also wrote the picture, tackles heavy subjects passionately but clumsily, presenting stilted speeches instead of naturalistic dialogue, while also utilizing overwrought visual metaphors. For every sharp line that Wertmüller lands (“This house is just like Italy,” Bergen’s character complains, “It’s gorgeous and there’s no money to run it”), Wertmüller also drops a lead balloon (elsewhere in the picture, Bergen’s character asks, “Do you think about love as sentiment or eroticism?”). Furthermore, it’s not fun to watch Gianini incarnate a thug who mistreats his wife—in one ugly moment, Giannini’s character crows, “I rape you, but it will give you something exciting to tell your girlfriends in America!” Adding to the abrasive quality of the picture is an overly insistent jazz score by Roberto De Simone. On the plus side, Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is luminous, and Wertmüller’s blending of economics and gender is provocative. As for the acting, it’s hit-and-miss, with Bergen straining to match the naturalism of her costar. Ultimately, A Night Full of Rain is more of an intellectual experience than a visceral one, so the real value of the picture is found in the discussions it inspires.

A Night Full of Rain: FUNKY

Thursday, December 25, 2014

God Told Me To (1976)

          Quite possibly the strangest movie that Larry Cohen ever made—which is saying a lot, seeing as how Cohen’s filmography includes the 1974 killer-baby epic It’s Alive—this offbeat horror/sci-fi hybrid starts out like a lurid crime story, then evolves into something very different. Set in New York City, the picture begins when a crazed shooter named Harold (Sammy Williams) takes a perch on a water tower and then shoots more than a dozen strangers walking on the streets far below. Among police officers responding to the incident is Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), who climbs onto the water tower and tries to reason with the killer. When Peter asks why Harold started shooting, Harold says, “God told me to,” then jumps to his death. Peter is traumatized by the incident, partially because he’s a devout Catholic, and his aguish deepens when several other people go on killing sprees, all claiming that “God told me to.” (One of the murderers is played by future Taxi star Andy Kaufman.)
          Eventually, Peter’s investigation broadens to include inquiries into his own past, because Peter is an orphan who knows nothing about his biological parents. Concurrently, Peter angers higher-ups in the NYPD by going public with the “God told me to” angle; this revelation leads to riots among warring religious forces. Even after Peter gets suspended, he continues his investigation in an unofficial capacity, and he learns that “God,” in this particular case, might be a single messianic individual who compels followers to kill. Yet just when it seems writer-producer-director Cohen is headed down the road of exposing a Manson-type cult leader, God Told Me To takes a left turn into trippy territory. Peter meets “God,” an asexual vagrant who glows so brightly that his features can’t be discerned the first time he’s shown.
          This meeting leads Peter to find Elizabeth Mullin (Silva Sidney), who may or may not be “God’s” mother. Now living in a senior home, she recalls a horrific incident from the past, when she was taken aboard an alien spaceship and artificially inseminated. She gave up the resulting child, who grew up to be “God,” otherwise known as super-powered alien/human hermaphrodite Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch). Yes, hermaphrodite. To hammer this particular point home, Cohen provides a loving closeup of Bernard’s matched sex organs, which protrude from the side of his torso.
          None of this makes much sense, but it’s a fun ride, after a fashion, because it’s wild to see how far Cohen goes down the rabbit hole of his own imagination. What other film includes an alien abduction, a crazed sniper, an immaculate conception, an obsessed Catholic, a religious controversy, and a sex mutant? Plus, even if the deranged God Told Me To doesn’t “work” in any conventional fashion, the bizarre movie has vibe to spare thanks to a fantastically ominous musical score by Frank Cordell. Legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann scored Cohen’s previous film (the aforementioned It’s Alive), but Hermann died before working on Gold Told Me To. Cohen clearly guided Cordell toward mimicry, and, in fact, Cohen dedicated the picture to Herrmann. Emulating Herrmann’s propulsive musical style was a genius move, because Cordell’s dark and dense score lends Cohen’s phantasmagorical narrative a degree of macabre grandeur.

God Told Me To: FREAKY

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Love Machine (1971)

Lamenting the stupidity and trashiness of any movie derived from a book by Jacqueline Susann is redundant, since she and Harold Robbins were the titans of literary schlock during the ’60s and ’70s. Nonetheless, The Love Machine is hard to beat for sheer tackiness. Excepting such technical aspects as cinematography and editing, everything about the movie is embarrassingly bad. The acting is wooden, the dialogue is ridiculous, the plot twists are absurd, and the themes are sensationalistic. Even worse, because the storyline concerns a fast-rising TV executive whose proclivity for broadcasting junk is supposed to symbolize the triumph of the lowest common denominator, The Love Machine feels like an idiotic precursor to Network (1976). Clearly, the time was right for someone to make a sweeping statement about television, and Susann was not that person. John Phillip Law, the handsome but robotic actor who caught attention in Barbarella (1968), stars as Robin Stone, a beat reporter at the New York affiliate station of a fictional network. Judith Austin (Dyan Cannon), the trophy wife of the network’s aging owner, Gregory Austin (Robert Ryan), sees Robin on TV one night and falls in lust, so she convinces her husband to hire Robin. Inexplicably, Gregory grants Robin control over the whole news division. And when Gregory suffers a near-fatal heart attack, Judith uses her proxy powers to put Robin in charge of the entire network while Gregory recuperates. Meanwhile, Judith begins an affair with Robin, even though Robin’s also sleeping with a model named Amanda (Jodi Wexler), as well countless other women who succumb to his charms. This is pure jet-set fantasy, with the entire story predicated on Robin’s superhuman gifts for career advancement and sexual conquest. The movie is also a relic from an ugly time, because the subplot about fashion photographer Nelson (David Hemmings) is filled with clutch-the-pearls horror at the notion Nelson’s homosexual scheming might lure Robin into a gay tryst. Not one frame of The Love Machine feels authentic, and the entertainment value is painfully low. Only those craving a few so-bad-it’s-good snickers need investigate further.

The Love Machine: LAME

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Deathmaster (1972)

Presumably inspired by the public’s post-Manson fascination with messianic cult leaders, this ineffective but offbeat vampire flick stars Robert Quarry, late of the Count Yorga pictures, as a bloodsucker who beguiles a group of hippies by posing as a peace-and-love mystic. Wearing long hair, a goatee, flowing robes, and glittering medallions, Khorda (Quarry) appeals to his charges with smoothly intoned nonsense (e.g., “Life’s extension is nothing more than an approach to immortality”). Meanwhile, his wide-eyed fans spew dialogue littered with counterculture slang (e.g., “Hey, man, don’t split on us—we groove on what you’re saying”). All of this unfolds inside an old mansion nestled in the canyons above Los Angeles, which the hippies occupy as a commune. It takes forever to things to start happening—Quarry doesn’t bare his fangs until the 30-minute mark—and the characters opposing the vampire are unimpressive. One is a greasy biker whose mama falls under the count’s influence. Another is a meek local shopkeeper played by John Fiedler, better known as the voice of Piglet in various Winnie the Pooh cartoons and as emasculated therapy patient Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show. And then there’s Pico (Bill Ewing), the Native American commune member who, for no discernible reason, practices kung fu. Like the Yorga movies, The Deathmaster represents a queasy attempt at blending the atmospheric style of UK horror pictures with the trashier textures of American exploitation movies. As with the Yorga pictures, however, the crossbreeding doesn’t work—The Deathmaster is too idiotic to match the ersatz sophistication of a Hammer Films production, and it’s too restrained to work as a proper drive-in distraction. Much of the problem lies with Quarry’s performance, since he’s a smug actor with European affectations but without the natural poise of a Peter Cushing or a Vincent Price. Yet most of the blame must fall, naturally, on the filmmakers, who fail to generate sufficient narrative material to sustain even this picture’s meager 84 minutes.

The Deathmaster: LAME

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Walking Stick (1970)

          A tender love story that includes elements from the crime-thriller genre while remaining largely focused on subtle nuances of characterization, the British drama The Walking Stick was adapted from the novel of the same name by Winston Graham. Delicate beauty Samantha Eggar stars as Deborah Dainton, an insecure and uptight young professional woman who works as an assistant at a London auction house. Deborah uses a walking stick because one of her legs is slightly deformed after a childhood bout with polio. Still living with her parents, Deborah watches her gregarious sisters engage in romantic exploits, but feels resigned to a loveless existence. When she’s dragged to a party one evening, Deborah is approached by confident but self-deprecating artist Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings), who asks for a date and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, Deborah’s resistance weakens, and romance blooms. She moves into Leigh’s dingy flat, and he persuades her to walk without aid of the stick.
          Things take a disquieting turn, however, when Leigh reveals that he’s been asked by criminal acquaintances to get information from Deborah about the security at the auction house. Idle chatter soon becomes serious business, because Leigh says he’s determined to not only assist with but also participate in a planned robbery of the auction house. These circumstances force Deborah to investigate whether Leigh’s feelings are sincere, or whether he was using her all along.
          While the actual storyline of The Walking Stick is slight, elegant filmmaking and tender performances make the movie quite worthwhile. Eggar, who first gained international attention in The Collector (1965), fills her characterization of Deborah with interesting textures. At various times, Deborah is confrontational, meek, sensuous, and vulnerable. Similarly, Hemmings—best known for playing a philandering photographer in Blowup (1966)—gives equal attention to the fragile and tough aspects of his role. By the end of The Walking Stick, Leigh is revealed as a person whose psyche has sustained as much damage as Deborah’s, because his dreams of artistic glory are inhibited by the limitations of his talent.
          Director Eric Till and cinematographer Arthur Ibbertson shoot the movie beautifully, using imaginative angles during intimate scenes to suggest varying degrees of closeness and distance between characters; the way a key love scene is played almost entirely on Eggar’s face reflects the humanistic aesthetic that pervades the picture. Similarly, the filmmakers exploit exteriors well, capturing the ruggedness of life on a low-rent wharf while also celebrating the visual splendor of posh neighborhoods. Additionally, Stanley Myers’ evocative score energizes the supple rhythms of the acting, cinematography, and editing. The Walking Stick is a small movie in every sense, which means that some viewers might grow restless waiting for explosive plot developments. Yet for those willing to accept the film’s modest scope, a rewarding experience awaits.

The Walking Stick: GROOVY

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dynamite Chicken (1971)

Equal parts self-congratulatory and self-destructive, this noisy comedy/literature/music anthology was undoubtedly envisioned by its creators as a bracing attack on mainstream sensibilities. Luminaries including Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Richard Pryor, and Andy Warhol contributed sequences, with Pryor appearing onscreen the most frequently. In lieu of a proper overriding aesthetic, producer-director Ernest Pintoff merely assembles unrelated pieces into a sloppy collage. Long sequences of Dynamite Chicken comprise jump-cut montages of images, news headlines, performances, and photographs, accompanied by lofty allusions to censorship and freedom and rebellion—as well as leering shots of naked women. It says a lot about Dynamite Chicken that one of the participants is Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, one of history’s sleaziest pornographers; Goldstein’s inclusion proves that many important progressives of the ’60s and ’70s blurred the lines between fighting Establishment inhibitions and inflicting lowbrow tastes onto an unsuspecting public. Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine that Dynamite Chicken changed any minds during its original release—the piece is so abrasive that it simply represents true believers preaching to other true believers. After all, the film’s many laments about censorship ring hollow considering the presence of myriad full-frontal shots, since it’s not as if Dynamite Chicken was impacted by censorship. Anyway, Pryor delivers a few sharp lines, even though most of his material is skewed toward shock value (“I think the American flag would make a great douche bag cover”), and it’s interesting-ish to note contributions by future comedy notables Michael O’Donoghue and Fred Willard. Yet the non-appeal of Dynamite Chicken is summed up by a quick shot featuring a sound tech generating atonal feedback—this one’s all about sound and fury, signifying nothing. That is, unless a close-up of Lennon picking his toes is your idea of entertainment.

Dynamite Chicken: SQUARE

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Night Watch (1973)

          Old-fashioned save for a gory finale, this adequate little thriller is hampered by leading lady Elizabeth Taylor’s overwrought performance—even though, by the outrageous standards of her usual style, she’s comparatively restrained in this picture. The problem, of course, is that Taylor rarely portrayed recognizable human beings, instead incarnating dream girls and harpies and vamps. Since the storyline of Night Watch is predicated on Taylor’s ability to believably convey the way her character teeters on the edge between madness and sanity, Taylor’s shortcomings nearly scuttle the whole endeavor. Thankfully, director Brian G. Hutton and his collaborators present the story with confident pacing and photography, while composer John Cameron provides an eerie score laden with theremin flourishes straight out of some vintage ’50s shocker.
          Set in England (where the film was produced), Night Watch concerns Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), a troubled woman struggling through a shaky second marriage. Her first husband died under traumatic circumstances, and now Ellen is wed to John (Laurence Harvey), who may or may not be trysting with Ellen’s best friend, Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw). Already considered unhinged by everyone she knows, Ellen raises further worries about her mental state when she claims to have seen a murder committed in the house next door. This leads to all sorts of friction with Ellen’s neighbors and with the local police, who dig up gardens and search vacant houses while looking for clues that never materialize. Eventually, the story becomes a battle of wills between Ellen and John, because once John suggests that Ellen spend time in a sanitarium, she must prove her sanity in order to save her own freedom. Naturally, there’s a big twist toward the end of the picture.
          Most everything about Night Watch is executed at a fairly high level, from the general ambiance to the supporting performances, so Taylor’s acting is the only major weak spot. Furthermore, flashbacks to the time when Ellen’s first husband died are effectively gruesome, long scenes of characters probing mysterious hallways contain a measure of suspense, and the violent finale is exciting. As such, it’s wrong to categorize Night Watch as camp, since the leading lady’s flamboyance is the sole cartoonish element. Nonetheless, how much enjoyment each viewer can derive from Night Watch depends in large part upon each viewer’s Taylor tolerance.

Night Watch: FUNKY

Friday, December 19, 2014

Flap (1970)

It’s hard to imagine how or why the venerable British director Carol Reed became involved with this tone-deaf project, which on the one hand espouses a progressive political platform regarding the mistreatment of Native Americans, but on the other hand insults the very people it’s about by casting most of the principal roles with non-Indians. Reed was a versatile talent whose filmography spans the film-noir classic The Third Man (1949) to the Oscar-winning Dickensian musical Oliver! (1968), so it’s a gross understatement to say this picture exists outside his comfort zone. Similarly, the three main actors (Anthony Quinn, Tony Bill, and Claude Akins) are wildly, even offensively, miscast. The serviceable story concerns modern-day reservation Indians living in the American southwest and protesting the endless encroachment of the U.S. government onto tribal lands. Quinn stars as Flapping Eagle (“Flap” for short), de facto leader of a group of drunken misfits that also includes Eleven Snowflake (Bill) and Lobo Jackson (Akins). After being hassled by a local sheriff, the latest in a long series of racially charged incidents, Flap gets pissed (in both the American and British senses of the word) and starts a fight with construction workers that climaxes with an industrial vehicle getting driven off a cliff. Whereas Flap’s peers are inclined to take the heat for the demolished vehicle, even straining tribal funds to pay for damages, Flap transforms the event into the first spark of a revolution. He leads his borderline-inept accomplices through a series of crimes including the theft of an entire train. Had the picture stuck to the main storyline of Flap’s political activism, it might have been tolerable, even with the ridiculous casting. Alas, the filmmakers fumble with a subplot about Flap’s romance with a blowsy prostitute (Shelley Winters); the screechiness of the Quinn-Winters scenes, some of which include goofy hallucinations, is painful to endure. Adding to the film’s dissonance is a grating score by Marvin Hamlisch, which tries to be comical and folksy but also integrates pointless electronic beeps and whoops. Worst of all, the makers of Flap strive for a Big Statement with the tragic finale, thereby adding undeserved grandiosity to the list of the picture’s unseemly attributes.

Flap: LAME

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

          John Willard’s 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, which blends comedic and horrific elements while telling the story of would-be heirs trying to survive an evening in a spooky house, has enjoyed a long cinematic afterlife. The first screen adaptation was a 1929 silent picture, and two additional versions were filmed in between the silent movie and a successful 1939 remake starring Bob Hope. (The 1939 movie did so well that costars Hope and Paulette Godard reteamed for another funny/scary romp, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, which, incidentally, was among the inspirations for the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters.) By the time this 1978 version of the story was produced, social mores had changed considerably. As helmed by Radley Metzger—who spent most of the ’70s directing hardcore porn flicks—the 1978 Cat and the Canary is rougher than its predecessors, and, not coincidentally, a lot less charming.
          Whereas the Hope Cat and the Canary blends gentle suspense with lighthearted laughs, the 1978 Cat and the Canary tries to spruce up old material by adding gore, sex, and torture. Yet the underlying material is so fundamentally old-fashioned that it doesn’t gel with Hammer Films-style extremes. Instead of seeming bold and shocking, the 1978 Cat and the Canary comes across as desperate, disjointed, and even a bit vulgar. The movie is watchable, thanks to the fun storyline and a parade of familiar actors, but it does not improve upon its predecessors.
          Set in a grand English mansion, the story concerns a group of relatives who gather for the reading of a will. The deceased party is a rich eccentric named Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who attaches weird conditions to his bequests. After naming a sole beneficiary, the will states that if the beneficiary is ruled insane within 30 days, the fortune will pass to a successor. These conditions, naturally, prompt everyone but the initial beneficiary to attempt mischief. Adding to the macabre mix is a visit from a psychiatrist who says that a maniac recently escaped from a nearby mental hospital.
          When this storyline works, as in the Hope classic, the narrative is a ghoulish lark. In the hands of Metzger and his collaborators, the narrative is artificial and stilted. Worse, nearly all the humor is drained from the material by flat performances; only Hyde-White and pithy costar Wendy Hiller lock into the right jovial groove. Leading lady Carol Lynley is amateurish, leading man Michael Callan is forgettable, and costars Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey are merely ornamental. The X factor is Edward Fox, who camps it up after a plot twist reveals a new side of his character. Speaking of camp, this version of The Cat and the Canary has overt gay content (including a pair of lesbian characters), which adds a certain novelty.

The Cat and the Canary: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Priest’s Wife (1970)

          A dreary dramedy about a woman who tries to persuade a priest to leave the church so they can marry, The Priest’s Wife is undoubtedly more palatable in its original, Italian-language version. As released in the U.S., it’s dubbed into English, but it appears that producer Carlo Ponti—husband of leading lady Sophia Loren—had the actors mouth English-language takes to ensure a useable international cut. This has the effect of making The Priest’s Wife slicker than the average Italian film repackaged for stateside consumption, but glossy presentation can’t compensate for substandard narrative content. Among other problems, The Priest’s Wife moves with such leaden pacing and unearned gravitas that it’s as if the filmmakers thought they were the first people to depict a man of the cloth experiencing forbidden love. Worse, the movie never really goes anywhere, because nearly all of the screen time is consumed with repetitive scenes of the priest negotiating with his superiors while Loren’s character entreats him to pick up the pace. So, even though The Priest’s Wife is basically humane and sincere, it’s so thin as to barely exist.
          The movie starts off fairly well, with Valeria (Loren) instigating a car chase with her no-good boyfriend, whom she has just discovered is married to another woman. Valeria runs the guy off the road, bashes his car to bits, and then beats him about the head and body for good measure. After this effective introduction to a strong woman who won’t let a man rule her life, however, the movie does an about-face by showing Valeria contemplating suicide. She calls a suicide-prevention hotline and speaks with Don Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who offers life-affirming counsel. Ignoring his words, Valeria overdoes on pills but fails to kill herself. Upon recovery from her near-death experience, Valeria reaches out to Don Mario because she was infatuated by his voice on the phone—only to discover he’s a priest and therefore unavailable.
          None of this quite works. Valeria seems like she has multiple personalities because she’s a different woman in every scene, Don Mario’s interest in Valeria seems only to manifest once he realizes she’s voluptuous, and it’s unclear why Valeria was so impressed by someone who failed to do the one thing she asked of him. Beyond the logic problems, the picture gets stuck in a groove for most of its running time—The Priest’s Wife features a long series of bland courtship scenes, which are filled with play-acting (Don Mario tells people that Valeria is his sister) and slapstick. Yawn. That said, The Priest’s Wife has fine production values, and the Loren-Mastroianni duo is beloved by many. (The actors made nearly a dozen films together.) Beside fans of the stars, however, it’s tough to envision anyone succumbing to this movie’s meager charms.

The Priest’s Wife: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blood Sabbath (1972)

Yet another schlocky ’70s horror picture that attempts to blend hippies with Satanism, Blood Sabbath hits the crap-cinema trifecta: amateurish, boring, incoherent. Anthony Geary, later to find his pop-culture niche as long-running character Luke Spencer on the ABC soap General Hospital, stars as David, a confused Vietnam vet who wanders aimlessly through a forest until he’s nearly raped by a quartet of hippie chicks. Later, David meets the quasi-supernatural Yyalah (Susan Damante). She’s an earth spirit or wood nymph or something. David and Yyalah dig each other but can’t have sex, Yyalah says, because her kind dies upon mating with beings with souls. Naturally, this revelation prompts David to seek advice on how to discard his soul. He speaks to a priest who responds to David’s request with a temper tantrum, and then David chats up a witch whose coven conveniently knows how to perform soul-removal ceremonies. Seriously, this is the plot. Very little of what happens in Blood Sabbath makes sense, and the acting is abysmal. Compounding matters is the cheap costuming and hairstyling, which looks like it was done by technicians from a high-school drama club. The cinematography is competent, but that doesn’t count for much since the action occurring inside the pleasantly composed frames is disjoined and silly. For instance, the movie features countless scenes of topless and/or fully nude coven members dancing in the woods; one suspects the producers got a bulk discount by hiring the entire staff of a low-rent strip club. About the only mildly entertaining thing in the movie is the opening credit that promises an appearance by “Dyanne Thorne as Alotta, Queen of Witches.” Rest assured, however, that tame and fleeting scenes including the future star of the porn-ish Isla series are not reason enough to endure this misbegotten flick.

Blood Sabbath: SQUARE

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last of Sheila (1973)

          An oddity with a highbrow pedigree, this mystery/thriller boasts an eclectic cast of prominent actors and a labyrinthine plot that’s designed to be catnip for fans of games, puzzles, and riddles. Yet the most unique aspect of the film resides behind the camera: The Last of Sheila was written by actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim, representing the only feature-film writing credit for either man. Apparently the two were longtime friends who entertained their showbiz pals by arranging flamboyant scavenger hunts, so The Last of Sheila plays out like a hybrid of an Agatha Christie whodunit and a treasure hunt. Describing all the intricacies of the storyline would spoil the fun, but the broad strokes are as follows.
          Movie producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites several Hollywood friends to his yacht, which is named after his late wife, Sheila, who died under mysterious circumstances. Each of the friends wants something from Clinton, so he manipulates their greed for sporting purposes. The friends include Alice (Raquel Welch), a movie star whose relationship with her manager/husband, Anthony (Ian McShane), is rocky; Christine (Dyan Cannon), an ambitious talent agent; Philip (James Mason), a director whose career has lost momentum; and Tom (Richard Benjamin), a desperate screenwriter whose wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), hides a terrible secret. Employing his immense wealth, Clinton stages elaborate treasure hunts in each port of call, and he issues provocative clues related to his guests’ peccadillos.
         Superficially, this is a jet-set caper movie, so director Herbert Ross provides plenty of eye candy thanks to exotic European locations (as well as copious shots of Cannon and Welch in bikinis). On a deeper level—well, as deep as this deliberately vapid movie goes, anyway—The Last of Sheila explores that trusty old theme of the avarice that drives Hollywood. Everyone in the movie is out to screw everyone else, whether professionally, psychologically, or sexually. Some of the actors capture the bitchy spirit of the piece better than others. The standout is Cannon, playing a role inspired by legendary talent agent Sue Mengers (also the inspiration for 2013 Broadway show I’ll Eat You Last, starring Bette Midler). Whether she’s fretting about her weight, maneuvering for an optimal negotiating position, or sizing up potential sex partners, Cannon perfectly captures the omnivorous nature of Tinseltown players. Benjamin, Coburn, and Mason lend interesting colors, Hackett and McShane provide solid support, and Welch does a better job of keeping up with her costars than might be expected.
          Filled with betrayals and lies and schemes—as well as the occasional murder—The Last of Sheila is a bit windy at 120 minutes, and some viewers might find the final revelations too Byzantine. Nonetheless, if there’s such a thing as thinking-person’s trash, then The Last of Sheila is a prime example.

The Last of Sheila: GROOVY