Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pigs (1972)

Throughout film history, enterprising actors have become producers in order to generate highbrow showcases for their talents. Occasionally, however, thespians bereft of marquee names have taken the opposite tack of producing exploitation films, presumably because those are the only types of pictures for which they can raise the necessary capital. So it is with Pigs, one of the strangest vanity projects of the '70s. Actor Marc Lawrence, screen veteran known for supporting roles as gangsters and other such thuggish types, wrote, produced, and directed Pigs, and he even cast his daughter, Toni, in the leading role. It’s worth noting that Pigs is a gruesome horror movie about an insane farmer who feeds murder victims to swine—just the kind of subject matter most people explore while making home movies their kids. Although Pigs eventually provides the gutter-level thrills that viewers might expect, namely gory murder scenes and nasty (but not explicit) images of farm animals chomping on human flesh, there's virtually nothing to recommend in this equally vacuous and vulgar picture. Characterization and narrative tension are barely discernible, the acting runs the short gamut from perfunctory to substandard, and the long wait between "exciting" scenes make the picture's 80-minute running time feel much longer. Amid lots and lots of screaming, the movie also includes several truly ugly scenes, such as the one during which Toni Lawrence’s character castrates a would-be lover with a straight razor. (One can only imagine the therapy bills that arose from Marc Lawrence asking his daughter to play this scene.) Furthermore, to indicate how far removed Pigs is from recognizable human reality, consider this line of dialogue, spoken by the inept sheriff (Jesse Vint) tasked with investigating reports of bloodshed at the swine farm: "I don't think there's a law against turning dead people into pigs." Maybe not, but perhaps there should be a law against making movies like this one.

Pigs: LAME

Friday, February 27, 2015

Scorchy (1976)

          Confusing, dull, and ugly, the crime thriller Scorchy stars sexy actress/singer Connie Stevens as an FBI agent who works undercover as an international smuggler. The general thrust of the story is that the heroine's life becomes complicated once she learns that a wealthy acquaintance has become a smuggler, meaning that to catch a criminal she must betray a friend. Not exactly the freshest story. In fact, the only things separating Scorchy from the average TV movie of the same era are gory kills and topless shots. That said, lurid action movies have their low pleasures, so it's not as if a film of this type needs to accomplish much. Yet meeting even minimal expectations is more than the folks behind Scorchy can manage. The storyline is needlessly convoluted, as evidenced by the presence of at least three major villains; character development and recognizable human emotion are as absent from the script as basic logic; and the stop-and-start pacing makes Scorchy feel disorganized, episodic, and repetitive.
          For example, the movie stops dead halfway through its running time for an epic chase scene that involves characters pursing each other on foot, in a commuter train, on dune buggies, and finally on motorcycles, suggesting the filmmakers wrongly assumed that a big jolt of action would generate a few moments of interest. Alas, because the action is staged as clumsily as everything else in Scorchy, the chase scene does not have the desired effect. The movie’s banter is just as bad. After Stevens' character tells her supervisor that he should relax by saying, "You need a good blowjob," he cheerfully replies, "You're a fruitcake, you bitch." Stevens, who found her biggest success as a Las Vegas entertainer, is attractive but vapid, and the caliber of the supporting cast is reflected by the inclusion of future small-screen player Greg Evigan (BJ and the Bear), who made his big-screen debut with Scorchy. Only B-movie veteran William Smith, playing one of the many villains, delivers the kind of teeth-gnashing intensity one expects from this sort of slop. Adding insult to injury, some available prints of Scorchy feature a godawful synthesizer score that was added to the movie for its VHS release in the 1980s.

Scorchy: LAME

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wuthering Heights (1970)

          Despite its enduring stature as one of the most exquisite novels ever written, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) has yet to receive a definitive screen adaptation. If only by default, the most acclaimed version to date is a 1939 drama starring Laurence Olivier as brooding romantic antihero Heathcliff. Yet by dint of the era in which it was made, the Olivier movie is chaste, even though the level of implied sexual tension is high, so there was ample reason to revisit the material in the '70s, by which time restraints upon the depiction of taboo subjects had loosened. Ironically, however, pushing cinematic boundaries is not the defining characteristic of the 1970 Wuthering Heights, which was a rare venture into the world of highbrow cinema for B-movie specialists American International Pictures. Although Patrick Tilley's intelligent script both accentuates the lurid elements of Brontë's story and adds a few dark flourishes (such as intimations about Heathcliff's parentage), the movie is, by comparison to other pictures released at the same time, as restrained as the 1939 version was in its day.
          Making this stylistic choice even more surprising is the involvement of director Robert Fuest, who later made his name helming gory but visually inventive thrillers including The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Rather than running with the supernatural elements of Brontë's tale, Fuest and his collaborators offer a straight transposition of the novel, albeit with a handful of additions to and/or deletions from the original narrative. What emerges from this creative process is a movie that's perhaps a bit too respectable. The image-making, mood-setting, and storytelling are all exemplary, but leading actors Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton fail to generate the necessary romantic heat. Make no mistake, this isn't some uptight Masterpiece Theatre take on Brontë. Quite to the contrary, this Wuthering Heights is filled with betrayal and cruelty and heartbreak, often pitched at a high level of emotional intensity. The minor but important caveat is simply that the actors living inside Fuest's artfully composed frames don't reach the transcendent heights, no pun intended, to which they aspire.
          Still, there's a lot to admire here. The underlying story, of course, is remarkable—a twisted ordeal of capricious fate, overpowering love, and spiteful violence set against the metaphorically rich backdrop of remote estates dotting the hills and valleys of the English moors. Contributing fine elements to the movie are cinematographer John Coquillon, whose claustrophobic and crisp images capture the story's inherent fusion of danger and intimacy; composer Michelle Legrand, whose plaintive melodies speak for the characters' tortured souls; and title designer Maurice Binder, who sets the atmosphere perfectly with grim tableux of ragged peaks juxtaposed with overcast skies. Plus, even if Calder-Marshall and Dalton seem too controlled to get lost inside their animalistic characters, the performers look their parts thanks to unruly hair and wild eyes—the image of Cathy and Heathcliff as two halves of one otherworldly entity comes across clearly.

Wuthering Heights: GROOVY

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

End of the World (1977)

Given the popularity of disaster films in the ’70s, it was inevitable that some enterprising producer would make a movie about the apocalypse, and it was probably just as inevitable that the resulting film would be awful. Produced by grade-Z horror/sci-fi purveyor Charles Band, End of the World contains so many colorful elements that it should be a crap-cinema jamboree—the plot involves conspiracies, natural disasters, religion, and space aliens. Yet Band clearly held the purses strings tightly closed throughout production, so what viewers actually see are lots of interminable scenes featuring people talking about interesting things that are happening elsewhere. The opening scene includes a few weak pyrotechnic effects, and the finale showcases tacky sci-fi transportation effects that wouldn’t have passed muster on an episode of Star Trek. In between is an ocean of nothing. The plot, such as it is, concerns NASA scientist Andrew Boran (Kirk Scott), who detects weird signals beaming from somewhere on Earth into outer space. Meanwhile, news reports indicate a surge in natural disasters. Andrew and his wife, Sylvia (Sue Lyon), track the signal to a remote convent. Soon, Andrew and Sylvia discover that a priest named Father Pergado (Christopher Lee) is actually an alien in human disguise, and that he’s been sent to annihilate Earth lest the “disease” of humankind spread throughout the universe. All of the actors in the film (including the aforementioned plus big-screen veterans Lew Ayres, Macdonald Carey, and Dean Jagger) look bored, which is understandable, and not even the persistent bleeps and bloops of the tacky electronic score are enough to enliven the lethargic footage. Worst of all, End of the World isn’t so aggressively stupid that it achieves camp value. Instead, it’s just lazily stupid, raising the unanswerable question of why Band and his people bothered to waste time making this drivel.

End of the World: SQUARE

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Galileo (1974)

          Arguably the least compelling of the many high-minded films produced and/or distributed under the American Film Theatre banner, this dull adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play The Life of Galileo bombards the audience with eloquent scientific and theological debates without drawing viewers into the humanity of the story. It’s quite an accomplishment to make a bloodless film about a visionary who was persecuted as a heretic, but problems ranging from excessively arty cinematic flourishes to a overwrought leading performance consign Galileo to the realm of tedium almost from the first frames. Considering the damn thing runs 145 endless minutes, trying to find the redeeming values of Galileo is a chore, though such values do indeed exist. The film’s source material has an impressive history. After Brecht debuted his original German-language version, he collaborated with actor/director Charles Laughton on an English-language adaptation. The revered stage and film veteran Joseph Losey directed the first production of the English-language version, in 1947, and the play was revived in the 1950s before reaching the screen in 1974, again with Losey directing.
          Set in the time of the Inquisition, Galileo tells the real-life story of Galileo Galilei, a mathematician and astronomer who clashed with the Catholic Church by using telescopes to prove Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Rome persecuted Galileo because of the Catholic Church’s contention that man, made in God’s image, was the center of the universe. As Galileo unfolds, the conflict between the lead character and his religious opponents gets mired with socioeconomic issues, because Galileo needs patronage from the moneyed class in order to continue his endeavors, so the pressure to recant is powerful—even before agents of the Inquisition use torture to impose their will.
          All of this should be fascinating stuff, representing the eternal war between doctrine and logic, but Losey makes one stylistic misstep after another. The casting of Israeli actor Topol is the worst of these errors, because as evidenced in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Topol’s forte is portraying simple men with powerful emotions. Not only is his accent distracting, considering that nearly every other actor in the film is British, but Topol is too primal a creature to seem believable as one of history’s great intellectuals. The performance isn’t bad, per se, but it’s wrong for the context. Further distancing the viewer from the story is Losey’s use of a Greek Chorus comprising several high-voiced boys, who appear onscreen periodically to sing about the plot. Music becomes even more intrusive later, when the movie stops dead for an extended musical number during which a theatrical company within the story summarizes Galileo’s crisis in song. Several fine actors—including Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, and Michael Lonsdale—enliven supporting roles, and the production is generally quite polished and professional. Nonetheless, the lack of a beating heart at the center of the drama is a nearly fatal flaw.

Galileo: FUNKY

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cover Girl Models (1975)

          Ostensibly a thriller about beautiful American women mired in foreign intrigue, Cover Girl Models actually feels more like a dull melodrama about a horny photographer trying to score with his models, with an anemic subplot about Far East crime bubbling under the surface until the ludicrously contrived action finale. Like most exploitation films from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Cover Girl Models provides exactly the sort of cheap thrills that viewers might expect, including car chases and gunfights and nude scenes. Nonetheless, the picture is executed with so little imagination that it’s difficult to sustain even prurient interest, and the actress given the greatest prominence has the least screen presence of the three “cover girl models” mentioned in the title. The picture begins promisingly with a scene in Los Angeles, where acidic fashion editor Diane (Mary Woronov) instructs he-man photographer Mark (John Kramer) to escort three models to Hong Kong for a fashion show and a photo shoot. Unlike the rest of the picture, this one scene has a modicum of snap and wit. Then Cover Girl Models settles into its normal stultifying groove.
          Before leaving for his trip, Mark does a poolside shoot during which his mousy assistant, Mandy (Tara Strohmeler), accidentally gets doused, resulting in a wet T-shirt. Suddenly cognizant of her assets, Mark recruits her for the Hong Kong trip, along with busty and glamorous blondes Barbara (Pat Anderson) and Claire (Lindsay Bloom).  Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Mark spends his downtime trying to get his models naked on camera—since he moonlights for girlie magazines—and he romances whichever model seems the most amenable at any given time. Meanwhile, Asian criminal Kulik (Vic Diaz) takes advantage of the unsuspecting models by trying to hide illicit items in their luggage. Eventually, a suave Asian cop named Ray (Tony Ferrer) shows up to karate-chop bad guys and to protect the ladies from Kulik’s minions. The movie also features lots of slow-motion shots of ladies twirling in dresses. Yawn. With horrific lounge-style music undulating behind most scenes,  Cover Girl Models fails to generate excitement or novelty, except perhaps for one very strange line of dialogue: During a topless photo shoot, Mark tells Mandy that she’s wearing “the 49th-most luxurious g-string in the entire world.”

Cover Girl Models: LAME

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hollywood Man (1976)

          The basic narrative gimmick underlying Hollywood Man is terrific—a desperate filmmaker turns to the Mob for financing, only to have mobsters deliberately undermine his production because they want him to default so they own his entire life instead of just one movie. In fact, a similar concept appeared, probably by sheer coincidence, in Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty, which became the delightful 1995 comedy film of the same name. Anyway, Hollywood Man loses its way very quickly because the filmmakers get sidetracked with a boring subplot about friction between the enforcers hired by the mob to bedevil the indebted director. Moreover, characterization is not a strong suit in Hollywood Man, so even with charismatic B-movie titan William Smith playing the main role, it’s hard to get engrossed in what should be the story’s primary emotional journey. That said, the movie has some mildly entertaining high points, it moves along fairly well, and costar Don Stroud has a blast playing an arrogant stuntman.
          The picture starts in Hollywood, naturally, where actor/director Rafe Stoker (Smith) has invested $125,000 of his own money into a new biker movie, even though the genre—which made him a star—has mostly gone out of fashion. (There’s an element of autobiography here, since Smith, who cowrote and produced Hollywood Man, came up through biker movies.) The mogul who financed most of Rafe’s previous flicks refuses to give the director end money, instead referring Rafe to a mobster with deep pockets. Fully aware of the attendant dangers but desperate to complete his opus, Rafe offers his profit participation in other movies as collateral, thus motivating his benefactor to sabotage principal photography.
          Unfortunately, the makers of Hollywood Man, including veteran B-movie director Jack Starrett, lose focus once they introduce Harvey (Ray Giardin), an unhinged thug leading a team of brutal killers. In fact, the picture’s most dynamic scene—an epic slow-motion scene of Harvey slaughtering people on a beach with a machine gunhas very little impact on the main story. More relevant are fun behind-the-scenes bits, such as the vignette of Rafe debating with a stuntman over whether a shot of a bike jump is useable since the stuntman’s fake moustache came off partway through the gag. Hollywood Man isn’t a total loss, but it represents yet another missed opportunity to channel Smith’s animalistic intensity into a storyline as muscular as the actor himself.

Hollywood Man: FUNKY

Saturday, February 21, 2015

King Frat (1979)

A shameless rip-off of Animal House (1978) that outdoes the previous movie’s gross-out factor while giving only lip service to the antiestablishment attitude that gave Animal House its small measure of credibility, King Frat bludgeons viewers with 85 hyperactive minutes of scatological stupidity. Consider the atrocities of the opening-credits sequence. As the slobs of Pi Kappa Delta drive around in the fraternity’s official car—a hearse, natrually—the boys drink beer and moon everyone they encounter, culminating in the tender moment when J.J. “Gross-Out” Gumbroski (John DiSanti) breaks wind while mooning the nearby college president, who then drops dead of a heart attack. Instead of expressing concern for the fatality they just caused, the lads return to their frat house, thus completing the morning beer run. And so it goes from there. One of the Deltas is a Native American named Chief Latrine (Dan Chandler), of the Kissawang tribe. Yes, kiss-a-wang. Previous generations of Kissawangs helped name the school Yellowstream University, as Chief Latrine explains: “My ancestors pissed in the white man’s water for 50 years. White man never knew. Fucking dummies!” Can it get worse? Oh, yes, it can get worse. The centerpiece of the film is an epic farting contest from which “Gross-Out” is disqualified for the infraction of defecating in his pants while attempting to expel gas. There’s a running gag about a rival fraternity’s obsession with massive phalluses. A long scene features “Gross-Out” teaching a new frat brother how to induce vomiting, and “Gross-Out” demonstrates his technique by puking onto the active grill of a Chinese restaurant, where the cooks serve the frat boy’s regurgitated food to customers. There’s also a long sequence during which a dude wearing a gorilla suit is rushed to an emergency room because his persistent erection makes the young woman straddling him unable to detach herself. Even though cinematic history has proven there’s an audience for vulgar comedy, the makers of King Frat provide vulgarity without actual comedy. The kicker is that King Frat is filmed competently and that the storyline is clear (albeit outrageously derivative), so King Frat looks somewhat like a real movie even though the smell test reveals the truth.

King Frat: LAME

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

          After making a huge splash in the ’60s, thanks to Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), actress Julie Andrews mostly sat out the ’70s, appearing in just three movies that decade—all of which were directed by her husband, Blake Edwards. Interestingly, each of these pictures attempts to inject overt sexuality into Andrews’ wholesome image. Darling Lili (1970) overreaches by casting Andrews as a World War I femme fatale, and 1o (1979) boldly features Andrews as an aging beauty whose lover is tempted by a much younger woman. The role Andrews plays in The Tamarind Seed falls between these extremes, and the middle ground suits her talents well.
          Adapted by Edwards from a novel by Evelyn Anthony, The Tamarind Seed concerns average Englishwoman Judith Farrow (Andrews), who works as a secretary for an office of British Intelligence. While on vacation in the Caribbean, Judith is approached by suave Russian Feodor Sverdiov (Omar Sharif), who expresses romantic interest. Suspicious that he’s playing her for access to sensitive government information, Judith resists Feodor’s advances—only to have Feodor blithely admit that he was in fact tasked with seducing her. The twist, he says, is that he’s grown genuinely fond of her and wants to pursue a relationship despite the complications. Surprising herself, Judith accepts the overture and tries to make things work, even as spymasters from the UK and the USSR monitor the couple’s courtship as if it’s an ongoing international incident.
          Although the movie is ultimately a bit of a muddle, since Edwards can’t fully decide whether the film is a romance with an espionage backdrop or a spy story with a romantic backdrop, The Tamarind Seed has many virtues. The production is as lush as that of a 007 movie, right down to the participation of Bond regulars John Barry (composer) and Maurice Binder (title-sequence designer). Andrews gives a more credible turn as a cynical grown-up than you might expect, and it’s a startling to see Mary Poppins strolling around in a bikini. Sharif does his usual smug-stud routine, casually issuing such insulting lines as, “You don’t know how charming it is to meet an intelligent woman who does stupid things.”
          Better still, Edwards populates the supporting cast with fine actors including Dan O’Herlihy and Anthony Quayle, who do what they can to energize confusing subplots about double-crosses and moles and, surprisingly, an intelligence operative trying to keep his homosexuality secret. Quayle’s character sums up the whole distrustful milieu with a pithy monologue: “My line of business has taught me three things—no one’s to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”
          The Tamarind Seed gets mired in lots of repetitive material, from long scenes of Andrews and Sharif debating politics in exotic locations to quick vignettes during which high-ranking officials capriciously decide the fates of their underlings. It’s all quite sophisticated, but also sterile and, particularly in the realm of dialogue, pretentious. The movie is more rewarding than it is frustrating, but it’s a close call.

The Tamarind Seed: FUNKY

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

While it’s not as if the title Werewolves on Wheels raises expectations of superlative cinematic art, the very least the title promises is extensive footage of bikers turning into monsters. Alas, even that is more than the makers of this tedious flick can manage. Although the picture is photographed handsomely and benefits from brief interludes of eerie musical scoring, Werewolves on Wheels has such a thin storyline that long passages of the film comprise nothing but quasi-documentary footage of bikers hanging out, picking fights, and screwing their compliant female companions. Worse, lycanthropy is incidental to the narrative, since the principal drama—such as it is—stems from conflict between a motorcycle gang and the members of Satan-worshiping cult. After a dull first 20 minutes, during which viewers meet the interchangeable members of the gang, the story gains a smidgen of momentum once the bikers arrive at the weird temple occupied by the robe-wearing cultists. Led by a guru named “One” (portrayed by B-movie stalwart Severn Darden), the cultists ply the bikers with drugged bread and wine, then perform some weird ritual involving a sacrificed cat, a stolen hair, and the sexual violation of a girl from the biker gang. Once the bikers leave the temple, the ritual somehow has the effect of turning random bikers into werewolves, resulting in brief and unclear scenes of nocturnal monster attacks. (Although the movie is only 85 minutes long, the first werewolf doesn’t appear until nearly 40 minutes have elapsed.) Mistaking the murders for the direct handiwork of the cultists, lead biker Adam (Steve Oliver) leads his people on a revenge mission, only to have that endeavor subverted by a mass transformation of several bikers into canines. The climax of the film is an unexciting showdown around a campfire, during which the afflicted bikers wear silly hair masks and growl like children pretending to be monsters for Halloween. If anything of genuine interest happens in Werewolves on Wheels, it’s accidental and it passes quickly.

Werewolves on Wheels: LAME

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dixie Dynamite (1976)

          The rampaging-rednecks genre took a distaff turn in the mid-’70s, resulting in lowbrow pictures along the lines of Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976), ’Gator Bait (1974), and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976). Like the other members of its dubious cinematic breed, Dixie Dynamite grinds together various drive-in signifiers, resulting in a meandering string of chase scenes, explosions, leering glances at curvaceous bodies, and—because apparently no B-movie party is complete without one—a rape scene. While Dixie Dynamite has meager pleasures to stimulate the viewer’s reptile brain, expectations of good acting, meaningful storytelling, and social relevance should be set aside. Although Dixie Dynamite is far less exploitive than other pictures of the same ilk (since there’s barely any flesh on display), one should not form the impression that the filmmakers substituted substance for sleaze—erotic content is simply another item on the long list of things the film lacks. Oh, and don’t be fooled by Warren Oates’ top billing, because the grizzled veteran of myriad rough-and-tumble movies has perhaps 15 minutes of mostly inconsequential screen time.
          Rather than Oates, the picture spotlights forgettable starlets Jane Anne Johnstone and Kathy McHaley as, respectively, Dixie and Patsy Eldridge, the adult daughters of a moonshiner named Tom Eldridge (Mark Miller). When the picture begins, morally conflicted Sheriff Phil Marsh (Christopher George) escorts IRS agents to Tom’s homestead, where the agents try arresting Tom for tax evasion. Tom makes a run for it, and Phl’s overzealous deputy, Frank (Wes Bishop), opens fire on Tom’s car, causing an accident in which Tom is killed. Tom’s daughters, who were away from home at the time of the tragedy, initially respond by accepting help from family friend Mack (Warren Oates) and by seeking jobs. Yet local crime lord Dade McCrutchen (Stanley Adams) ensures the girls can’t catch a break. In fact, he’s out to displace every smalltime moonshiner in the county so he can gain a monopoly, and he was behind the IRS raid on the Eldridge place. Out of options, the Eldridge girls become robbers, distributing most of their loot to poor people, and they contrive a plan to get revenge on McCrutchen. Trigger-happy deputy Frank becomes a target as well, especially after he forces himself on Patsy.
          Even with colorful actors including R.G. Armstrong, George, and Oates in the cast, Dixie Dynamite fails to generate any real interest, though it’s borderline watchable thanks to an adequate number of action scenes. The movie even has some enjoyably ludicrous moments, such as the vignette of Oates’ character teaching the girls to ride motorcycles while a singer on the soundtrack croons, “There’ll be a sunshine highway if you’re going my way.” Also worth mentioning is the scene in which a villain gets launched into the air like a rocket when a bundle of dynamite explodes. Eagle-eyed viewers not lulled into submission by the general monotony of the movie might be able to spot Steve McQueen during a sequence depicting a dirt-bike race, because the actor plays an unbilled cameo.

Dixie Dynamite: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Grand Duel (1972)

          Squinty-eyed American actor Lee Van Cleef made so many spaghetti westerns in the ’60s and ’70s that the pictures are largely interchangeable. For instance, while The Grand Duel has its merits, it’s not memorable. The plot is the usual hokum about a righteous sheriff and a wrongly accused gunslinger, et cetera, and watching the movie is pleasant enough for fans of sweaty sagas about angry dudes killing each other in the desert. Furthermore, even though The Grand Duel lags considerably in the middle, the picture starts and ends well, and it provides a handful of exciting or at least vivid scenes along the way. Made in Europe in 1972 but not released in the U.S. until 1974, the picture—which is also known as The Big Showdown and Storm Rider—stars Van Cleef as Clayton, a lawman tracking down escaped convict Phillip Vermeer. (Phillip is played by handsome Italian actor Alberto Dentice, billed under the Americanized stage name “Peter O’Brien.”)
          Long story short, it seems Phillip was convicted of murdering a man known only as “Patriarch,” the overlord of a frontier town called Saxon City. Patriarch’s three sons, the Saxon Brothers, took over Saxon City after their father died, and the Saxon Brothers are convinced that Phillip was responsible for their father’s death. Clayton, however, claims to know for certain that Phillip is innocent, so after a long stretch during which it seems as if Clayton is either delivering Phillip to justice or planning to trade him for a bounty, a fragile alliance forms between the men. Meanwhile, thugs hired by the Saxons chase Clayton and Phillip through the barren wilderness until Phillip breaks from Clayton and returns to Saxon City so he can clear his name. Story-wise, nothing out of the ordinary.
          What gives The Grand Duel a modicum of zippy energy is the combination of predictable and unexpected elements. On the predictable side, Van Cleef commands attention with his man-of-few-words routine, making impossible gunshots and scaring people into retreat with his deadly stare and his vicious put-downs. Additionally, the picture has the usual spaghetti-western stylistic tropes—a histrionic score, grotesque-looking extras, wild zoom-in shots. On the unexpected side, the movie features an Old West spin on the ugly cliché of the gay psychopath, thanks to Klaus Grünberg’s gonzo performance as Adam Saxon. Wearing an all-white ensemble worthy of Truman Capote (picture a floppy hat and a flowing scarf), the Adam character seems genuinely perverse because he experiences orgasmic pleasure while mowing down a canyon full of innocent victims with a Gatling Gun. For better or worse, in the world of spaghetti westerns, wackadoodle intensity often represents an acceptable substitute for rational dramaturgy.

The Grand Duel: FUNKY

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Maids (1974)

          Another high-minded release from the American Film Theatre, this dark drama was adapted from a successful stage production with the cast and director intact, though the underlying material dates back to 1947, when French scribe Jean Genet premiered his stylized story about a notorious real-life murder that took place in 1930s France. The actual incident involved two sisters who killed the woman who employed them as maids. In Genet’s interpretation, Claire and Solange perceive their mistress as some sort of tormentor, so whenever the mistress is not in residence, the sisters act out elaborate murder fantasies, sometimes with Claire playing the overbearing employer and sometimes with Solange assuming the role. The idea, of course, is that the sisters are so twisted that the mistress (named only “Madame”) has become an unwitting target of their homicidal fixation. (Other cinematic takes on the real-life case have gone even further in terms of imagining pathologies for the murderesses; the elegant 1994 British film Sister My Sister adds the X factor of an incestuous sexual relationship.)
          The Maids stars the celebrated Glenda Jackson and the versatile Susannah York, with Vivien Merchant rounding out the principal cast as Madame. While Jackson unquestionably outguns York in terms of dramatic intensity and verbal dexterity, both leading actresses give strong performances that are filled with acid and angst. Better still, director Christopher Miles wraps the whole production in an aura of menace and paranoia. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s camera lingers close on the actresses while their characters describe ways of killing their perceived enemy, so the best parts of the picture have the malice and tension of a Hitchcock picture. Composer Laurie Johnson’s jittery score helps amplify the anxiety. The Maids also pushes boundaries of taste with scenes of Jackson whipping York and of Jackson spitting into the camera. The synthesis of Jackson’s fearlessness and the boldness of the film itself is The Maids’ biggest asset.
          Nonetheless, the unrelentingly artificial quality of the text, which manifests in baroque characterizations and hyper-articulate dialogue, renders the whole endeavor quite chilly and uninvolving. Especially once the storyline enters its weird final act, when director Miles cuts most tethers connecting the picture to recognizable reality, The Maids becomes an arty treatise on insanity rather than a compelling human drama. That said, the movie is made with unmistakable craftsmanship, the real-life story remains morbidly intriguing, and the performances, especially Jackson’s, are relentless.

The Maids: FUNKY

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975)

The second feature made by Jamaa Fanaka, who later found minor success with the sleazy boxing-behind-bars melodrama Penitentiary (1979) and its sequels, Welcome Home Brother Charles is an incoherent crime drama that has something to do with a black man getting railroaded by the corrupt legal system that’s controlled by racist white men. Although it feels like producer/writer/director Fanaka envisioned his movie as a shocking statement about race, perhaps along the lines of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Fanaka didn’t come close to emulating the political sophistication or the stylistic ferocity of Sweetback helmer Melvin Van Peebles. Instead, Fanaka created muddled scenes that feel both disassociated from each other and internally confusing, so it’s often hard to track what’s happening from moment to moment, let alone what’s happening in the overall story. Furthermore, Welcome Home Brother Charles is edited as badly as it’s shot, and the acting is almost wall-to-wall terrible, to the point where saying Welcome Home Brother Charles looks like a first-year student film would be an insult to first-year student films. In the broadest strokes, Charles Murray (Mario Monte) gets arrested on trumped-up charges, subjected to inhumane treatment by police officers (one of whom tries to castrate Charles with a knife), and used as a test subject by prison doctors who are conducting weird experiments. Once Charles leaves prison, he seeks revenge, which seems to largely comprise sleeping with the wives of his white oppressors. All of this drifts by in an ugly blur until the movie arrives at its single distinctive moment, a murder scene featuring one of the strangest weapons in movie history. As Charles stands over his next intended victim, sweat pouring down Charles’ pulsating forehead, a Graduate­-style through-the-legs shot reveals the appearance of Charles enormous phallus, which somehow moves like a tentacle across an entire room until it coils around the neck of the victim, choking the poor bastard to death. Too bad the title Shaft was already taken.

Welcome Home Brother Charles: SQUARE

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Love Me Deadly (1973)

          Necrophilia has not been a central focus in many Hollywood movies, so the exceptions to the rule are noteworthy no matter their quality or lack thereof. To its meager credit, the cheaply made horror flick Love Me Deadly presents its perverse bona fides right in the first scene, when tall blonde Lindsay (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) leans down into her father’s coffin and starts French-kissing Dead Old Dad’s unresponsive lips. What unfolds after that startling scene is a turgid melodrama in which Lindsay struggles to hide her fetish from an unsuspecting romantic suitor even as she’s invited to join a coven of crazies who not only get off on defiling corpses but also kill people to provide new playthings. In terms of story construction, Love Me Deadly isn’t terrible, inasmuch as it delivers the creepy goods and moves forward in a logical manner. Every other aspect of the picture, however, is substandard. The characterizations are paper-thin, the dialogue is stilted, and the performances are as stiff as the many corpses featured in the narrative. The fact that B-movie stalwart Christopher Stone delivers the most credible acting in the picture speaks volumes, since Stone comes across as a vacuous he-man in nearly any other context.
          Leading lady Wilcox almost sells a few moments of anguished shock, usually when her character is discovered doing something horrible, but she mostly wobbles between overwrought histrionics and zombified non-acting. Perhaps even weirder than the transgressive storyline is the presence of wholesome-looking leading man Lyle Waggoner, best known for lightweight work on TV’s The Carol Burnett Show and Wonder Woman. Wearing a swinger’s ensemble of leisure suits and scarves, he’s impossible to take seriously, even though it’s jarring to see him in a milieu suffused with sex and violence. (At one point, Waggoner’s character “charms” his lover by saying, “Anyone ever tell you what a hot, passionate broad you are?”) Love Me Deadly scores a few creep-factor points with scenes involving coven leader Fred (Timothy Scott), who uses his funeral home as a psychopathic playground, but the clumsiness of the storytelling and the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts from chipper romantic scenes to ghastly death tableaux mark Love Me Deadly as dead on arrival.

Love Me Deadly: LAME

Friday, February 13, 2015

I, Monster (1971)

          A competent but perfunctory adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this offering from second-rate UK horror manufacturers Amicus Productions reteams the formidable duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, beloved by generations of shock-cinema fans for their work with Hammer Films. Written for the screen (poorly) by Amicus stalwart Milton Subotsky, I, Monster changes the main characters’ names and jettisons nearly all of Stevenson’s ruminations on the nature of evil, thus delivering a highly generic series of laboratory scenes and murder vignettes over the course of 75 plodding minutes. Sometimes, less is less.
          Though by far the inferior actor of the top-billed duo, Lee gets the showy part, as “Dr. Marlowe” and “Mr. Blake.” Cushing, meanwhile, plays a gentleman named Utterson, who belongs to the same private club as Dr. Marlowe and conducts an investigation into several murders that eventually leads him to discover Dr. Marlowe’s horrible secret. For the benefit of the few people left on earth who remain unfamiliar with Stevenson’s deathless tale, the gist is that a scientist creates a serum that brings out the evil buried within every person, using himself as a subject and becoming a killer whenever he’s under the influence of the serum. Considering the movie’s brief running time, it takes a while for Subotsky and director Stephen Weeks to get to the good stuff; Marlowe doesn’t change for the first time until about 25 minutes into the movie. Furthermore, the Blake scenes are quite bland, even though Lee plays his character’s evil incarnation with bugged-out eyes and grubby makeup that’s unpleasant without seeming wholly unrealistic.
          On the plus side, the story gains momentum about halfway through, once Blake kills a child and thereby jacks up the movie’s overall intensity. While I, Monster ultimately feels more like a made-for-TV project than a proper feature—and while the change of character names seems pointless since Stevenson’s narrative survives largely intact—it’s always a kick to see Cushing and Lee share screen time. Better still, composer Carl Davis bathes the film in a sophisticated musical patina thanks to a dense orchestral score right out of the Masterpiece Theater playbook.

I, Monster: FUNKY

Thursday, February 12, 2015

WUSA (1970)

          An unholy mess with an amazing pedigree, WUSA was likely the result of good intentions. The movie seethes with idealism and indignation, so the sense that it’s about something important is inescapable. Unfortunately, the characters, dialogue, politics, and storyline are all so impossibly muddled and pretentious that it’s difficult to discern what’s actually happening onscreen, much less what any of it means. The movie is a bit like an op-ed screed written in haste during a supercharged news cycle, blasting accusations and invective without any discipline or focus. Paul Newman, who put the movie together with frequent producing partner John Foreman, stars as Rheinhardt, a radio DJ who shuffles into New Orleans looking to collect on a debt from a preacher named Farley (Laurence Harvey). There’s a vague sense that both men are con artists and/or drunks and/or gamblers, though clarity on these points is in short supply. Unable to wring much cash from Farley, Rheinhardt bums around the French Quarter and meets aging party girl Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), with whom he begins a half-hearted romance. Then Rheinhardt gets a job at talk-radio station WUSA.
          Enormous amounts of the film’s screen time are devoted to people either celebrating or criticizing the nature of WUSA’s broadcasts, but the speeches that Rheinhardt delivers on-air—as well as the monologues delivered by WUSA’s executive staff—are so cryptic that it’s hard to tell where the station falls on the political spectrum. Simply by dint of Newman’s offscreen politics, one must assume that WUSA is meant to represent the evils of the right wing. Anyway, the movie gets even more perplexing once viewers meet Rainey (Anthony Perkins), a weird character who lives next door to Rheinhardt and Geraldine. Rainey does some kind of door-to-door surveying of poor black neighborhoods, but his principal liaison to the African-American community, Clotho (Moses Gunn), acts as if he’s a pimp connecting Rainey with tricks—because, apparently, Rainey is a pawn in some grand conspiracy that’s related to WUSA. Suiting the bewildering storyline, the picture climaxes in a nonsensical riot sequence.
          WUSA’s discombobulated script is credited to Robert Stone, who later won the National Book Award for his novel Dog Soldiers (1975), which was adapted into the Nick Nolte movie Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978). The director of WUSA, Stuart Rosenberg, also did excellent work elsewhere, helming Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). On top of all that talent, WUSA features supporting turns by the fine actors Don Gordon, Pat Hingle, David Huddleston, Clifton James, Diane Ladd, and Cloris Leachman, as well as a rousing musical number by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Alas, whatever all these noteworthy people thought they were doing didn’t actually make it to the screen, because WUSA is virtually impenetrable.