Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979)

          Blending comedy, disco music, sex, and vampirism with some of the worst acting ever captured on film, Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula is entertainingly abysmal. Not a single frame of the movie works as intended, and that’s what makes watching Nocturna so perversely pleasurable. Cowritten and coproduced by Vietnamese belly-dancing star (!) Nai Bonet, who plays the leading role and spends a fair amount of screen time slathering her own nude body with bath oil, Nocturna is a vanity project gone terribly, terribly wrong.
          Sharing many elements with the George Hamilton comedy Love at First Bite (1979), which was filmed around the same time as Nocturna, this movie opens in Transylvania, where Dracula (John Carradine) encounters difficulty adjusting to disco-era society. Things have gotten so bad that parts of his castle have been opened to the public as a resort called Hotel Transylvania, which, naturally, includes a disco. Yet instead of following the famous bloodsucker’s adventures, as happens in Love at First Bite, this movie tracks the count’s lissome granddaughter, Nocturna (Bonet).
          While dancing in the disco with an American stud named Jimmy (Antony Hamilton), Nocturna discovers that she casts a reflection—quite a surprise for a vampire. Realizing that she becomes mortal on the dancefloor, Nocturna follows Jimmy to New York City, where she looks for a way to live as a human permanently. A peeved Dracula soon follows her, hoping to lure Nocturna back to the homeland.
          Nocturna is filled with cringe-inducing one-liners and puns, to say nothing of stupid scatological references. As Dracula muses at one point: “If I’m alive, why am I here, but if I’m dead, why do I have to wee-wee?” (Elsewhere, Dracula proclaims, “All the ladies would say I was hung like a walrus!”) Bonet is a spectacularly bad actress, smiling lifelessly through every scene as if she’s a Price Is Right model presenting a washer-dryer set, and her line deliveries are so empty that they’re unintentionally hilarious. Describing an ecstatic moment, she says “It loved it—it was fantastic” with all the energy of a postal worker explaining how much it will cost to mail an envelope.
          Similarly, Bonet’s dancing is dull and unimaginative, which becomes a considerable problem whenever the movie stops cold to watch her twirl repetitively across a dancefloor. Even the aforementioned nude scene has a strange quality, because it seems powered by exhibitionism rather than exploitation. Clearly, Bonet wanted the world’s attention just as badly as the world wanted to ignore her. Still, she did this to herself, so adventurous viewers can hate-watch Nocturna free of guilt.
          Plus, every so often, the germ of a real idea pokes through the smog of ineptitude. For instance, Nocturna hooks up with a gang of NYC vampires who bitch about modern problems, such as the trouble of finding victims whose blood isn’t tainted by processed food. This particular angle leads to a campy scene of a black vampire, dressed like a pimp, offering powdered blood—which prompts an affronted woman to say, “I’d rather suck than sniff any day.” Wow. To complete the effect, throw in a slumming Yvonne De Carlo, as Dracula’s old flame, a pulsing disco soundtrack featuring tunes by artists including Gloria Gaynor and Vickie Sue Robinson, and a supporting actor who does a solid Boris Karloff impersonation. Can a movie be amazing and atrocious at the same time? If the movie’s title is Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula, the answer is yes.

Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula: LAME

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Rabid (1977)

          In some respects, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg took a step backward with Rabid, the second of his myriad biological-horror sagas and his fourth theatrical feature overall. Whereas the director’s previous bio-horror picture, 1975’s Shivers a/k/a They Came from Within, is suffused with Cronenberg’s distinctively clinical approach, Rabid is more obviously derivative, borrowing stylistic and thematic tropes from sources including the work of American gore maven George A. Romero. Rabid also lacks Cronenberg’s usual storytelling sophistication, suffering from halfhearted characterization, as well as stop-and-start pacing. Nonetheless, Rabid is still a nasty jolt of sexualized violence, and better by far than the average drive-in schlock of the same era—even mediocre Cronenberg is basically worthwhile. Better still, the creative growth the director demonstrated with his next bio-horror story, 1979’s The Brood, was extraordinary; after that, he was off and running on an impressive streak that carried him all the way to the acclaimed Dead Ringers (1988).
          Like so many of Cronenberg’s movies, Rabid begins with experimental medicine. At the institute bearing his name, Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) employs chemically treated grafts to create quasi-artificial skin tissue during plastic surgery. When a young couple suffers a terrible motorcycle accident near the institute. Dr. Keloid employs his risky technique on badly wounded Rose (Marilyn Chambers). Upon awaking after surgery, Rose becomes a sort of mutant vampire, having grown a vagina-like orifice in her armpit that emits a probe capable of sucking blood from other people’s bodies. The movie’s title stems from a major subplot, in which the virus carried by Rose spreads to other victims, resulting in quarantines and other draconian responses by the government, recalling Romero’s The Crazies (1973).
          Whereas the best Cronenberg movies wrestle with profound ethical issues, Rabid is more of a traditional shocker in the Frankenstein mold—a doctor unwittingly transforms an innocent victim into a deadly monster that must be stopped. As such, there’s a lot of herky-jerky rhythm as the movie idles through dialogue scenes in between attacks. Rabid ultimately works, both in terms of shock value and suspense, but it’s not especially original or provocative, notwithstanding the aforementioned weird appendage. Among other problems, the music is generic and shrill, because Cronenberg had not yet begun his fruitful collaboration with composer Howard Shore, who bathed many of the director’s subsequent films with aural landscapes full of elegant dread. One more aspect of Rabid that’s worth noting is the presence of leading lady Chambers, appearing in her first mainstream movie after achieving fame in the porn blockbuster Behind the Green Door (1972). She’s fine here, and even affecting at times, though her frequent nude scenes indicate she was hired for her lack of inhibitions as much as for her acting talent.

Rabid: FUNKY

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Cheerleaders (1973) & The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) & Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976) & The Great American Girl Robbery (1979)

          American sex comedies don’t get much worse than The Cheerleaders, a witless slog just shy of outright porn. Coproduced, cowritten, and directed by a gentleman named Paul Glickler, this excruciatingly tacky flick concerns a gang of high-school cheerleaders who help their school’s team win games by screwing boys from opposing teams into mindless exhaustion. Thrown into this carnal mix is the mousy Jeannie (Stephanie Fondue), who believes the only way she can lose her virginity is to become a cheerleader. And if for some reason it wasn’t yet clear to viewers that this movie has nothing but sex on the brain, one of the central locations is the Beaver Car Wash. Featuring interchangeable actresses giving terrible performances, The Cheerleaders grinds through one salacious scenario after another—girls trading sexual favors for school privileges, a janitor watching ladies through a peephole while masturbating, lesbians making out while using exercise machines, an orgy, toe-sucking—while failing to generate anything resembling narrative interest or a proper joke. The movie is embarrassment for all involved, and thoroughly unpleasant to watch. Nonetheless, sex sells, so The Cheerleaders earned three sort-of sequels. Although some actors and behind-the-scenes participants recur in subsequent Cheerleaders movies, each picture tells a stand-alone narrative.
          The second flick, The Swinging Cheerleaders, improves tremendously on its predecessor, though it’s still mediocre at best. B-movie stalwart Jack Hill cowrote and directed The Swinging Cheerleaders, which has the benefit of actual characters, a logical plot, and some measure of restraint. The jokes are still weak, but the movie is brisk and coherent enough to sustain interest. Set at fictional Mesa College, the movie follows Kate (Jo Johnston), a counterculture-minded student journalist who goes undercover with a cheerleading squad in order to expose their sexual shenanigans. She soon learns to like and respect the cheerleaders, along the way uncovering a plot by administrators and alumni to fix football games in order to score big gambling prizes. It’s all very simplistic, but Hill manages to inject a tiny bit of humanity while also keeping peekaboo shots of naked girls to a minimum. Characters reveal dimensionality, the story turns in somewhat interesting ways, and themes ranging from conformity to duplicity to peer pressure are given lip service. Viewed in isolation, The Swinging Cheerleaders might seem little more than passable, but compared to the other Cheerleaders movies, it’s respectable.
          The third installment, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, returns to the skin-flick rhythms of the first picture. Once again set in a high school, Revenge depicts the antics of cheerleaders using mischief and sex to help their team win, even as crooked adults conspire to sell the school’s physical plant for profit. “Highlights” include a long vignette of people in a school cafeteria wigging out after the daily special gets dosed with pot, a cartoonish sequence of a gymnasium-shower orgy resulting in an tidal wave of soap bubbles, and a topless funk-music dance party. For good measure, the movie also features a young David Hasselhoff as a peripheral character named “Boner.” The sex scenes in Revenge are particularly grimy and realistic, such as the bit during which a young woman does something unmentionable to a young man while he’s working at the counter of an ice cream shop.
          Well after the producers should have let the Cheerleaders brand die, the series returned for a final entry originally titled The Great American Girl Robbery—but also exhibited as Cheerleaders’ Wild Weekend, among other titles. Eschewing the sex-comedy formula of the previous flicks, The Great American Girl Robbery is a hostage picture with the feel of a sleazy horror movie. Thugs hijack a bus containing three teams of high-school cheerleaders who are on their way to a competition. Once the girls are stashed in a remote cabin, the thugs call in to a radio show hosted by DJ “Joyful Jerome” (Leon Isaac Kennedy) in order to issue demands. While awaiting ransom payments, the thugs cajole the cheerleaders into performing a topless beauty pageant, which leads to the icky spectacle of a row of half-nude girls gyrating on a makeshift stage at gunpoint. There’s also a catfight and various scenes in which cheerleaders try to screw their way to freedom. Boring, cheap, and exploitive without being titillating, The Great American Girl Robbery finally managed to kill the franchise. Good riddance.

The Cheerleaders: LAME
The Swinging Cheerleaders: FUNKY
Revenge of the Cheerleaders: LAME
The Great American Girl Robbery: LAME

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Alien Factor (1978)

Exactly the sort of amateurish, boring, derivative, insipid junk that high-school sci-fi fans might throw together over the course of a weekend—and yet billed as legitimate work by grown-ups and given a tiny theatrical release, as well as an afterlife on home video—The Alien Factor lacks any recognizable redeeming values, except perhaps for the can-do spirit of incompetent Maryland filmmaker Don Dohler. Cobbling together family and friends, some of whom had gained meager skills in the realm of old-school special effects, Dohler managed to accrue enough terrible footage to assemble 90 minutes of sci-fi pabulum. Most of the familiar clichés are here. A monster makes its first appearance by interrupting young lovers who are making out in a car that’s parked out in the boonies. Police investigate bloody crimes, little suspecting that an alien from outer space is the culprit. A dogged reporter is the only person who figures out the truth. All the while, a short-sighted city official prevents the issuance of public warnings about the deadly menace, because he’s afraid that panic will impede his plans for commercial development. Employing visual tricks that already felt dated 20 years before The Alien Factor was made, Dohler and his collaborators depict monsters with cheap costumes, shoddy superimpositions, and stop-motion animation. Are the movie’s acting, dialogue, direction, and storytelling completely abysmal? Yes on all four counts. And does the movie conclude with an alien giving an endless speech about its motivations before the inevitable oh-the-humanity tragic ending? Once, again, the answer is yes. As to the question of whether The Alien Factor is worth anyone’s time, the response is the opposite.

The Alien Factor: SQUARE

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Santee (1973)

          An adequate Western elevated by the presence of genre vet Glenn Ford, who brings economy and gravitas to the title role despite being forced to play an endless string of clichéd scenes, Santee has an interesting place in the history of Hollywood’s engagement with emerging technologies. It was among the earliest theatrical features shot on video, even though it lacks such telltale traces as motion blurs and weak color reproduction. In fact, nothing about the picture’s handsome widescreen look betrays the format with which the images were captured. If nothing else, Santee serves to remind that at least in the realm of conventional narrative storytelling, the message usually matters more than the medium. In any event, Santee is ultimately no different than the average made-for-TV Western of the same vintage, but for a more luxurious running time and the absence of commercials. It’s comfort food for cowboy-cinema fans, and nothing more.
          The movie opens with wide-eyed young man Jody (Michael Burns) tracking down his father, who rides with a gang of rough men. Turns out they’re criminals. Jody accompanies his dad’s gang into the wilderness until a bounty hunter named Santee (Glenn Ford) kills the father and the rest of the gang, leaving only Jody alive. Jody swears vengeance, but Santee—who is portrayed as a saintly character despite his bloody profession—offers to provide Jody lodging at his ranch until Jody’s ready to get on with his life. Caught off-guard by the bounty hunter’s compassion, Jody accepts the hospitality and soon abandons his revenge mission while becoming a surrogate son to Santee and the bounty hunter’s wife, Valerie (Diana Wynter). The shadow of the gun looms large over these people, however, because eventually Jory and Santee must face an outlaw gang with ties to Santee’s past. All of this plays out like pure American cornpone, complete with Ford barking lines like, “Don’t tell me what my guts say!”
          Directed by the prolific Gary Nelson, who cranked out lots of meat-and-potatoes film and television during his long career, Santee goes down smoothly, despite the mechanical nature of the narrative. Characters change goals abruptly when doing so suits the storyline, exposition and motivations are explained too bluntly, and nothing remotely surprising happens until the suspenseful finale. Yet Ford keeps things interesting with his compelling take on noble stoicism, and it’s a kick to see Jay Silverheels—better known as “Tonto,” from the old Lone Ranger TV show—playing a significant supporting role. As it happens, Silverheels makes more of an impression than poor Burns, who spends most of the movie watching Ford with slack-jawed admiration, similarly to how supporting characters in John Wayne movies expend most of their energy deifying Wayne.

Santee: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thank You

Just a quick shout-out to the generous readers who've made donations recently. Thank you to Edward G., Michael H., Rogier B., Bill H., and William E. (Last names and geographical info withheld to spare these folks from receiving troll solicitations.) Donations are meaningful here at Every '70s Movie, because now that I'm deep into the back half of my title list, more resources are necessary to find obscure films. Speaking of which, since it's been a while since I shared stats--and since I've been doing an enormous amount of research lately to ensure that my title list is as comprehensive as possible--here's where things stand in terms of the grand, mad project I've undertaken. Give or take a few titles, approximately 2,700 movies meet the criteria for this blog. For those keeping score, I'm trying to watch and review every American-made fictional feature released in U.S. theaters from Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1979 (not counting porn, which I'm omitting entirely). Also included in that 2,700-title list are key documentaries and foreign films. In addition to the 2,700 titles, I'm looking at approximately 100 movies from 1980, as well as approximately 100 important made-for-TV movies from the '70s. Assuming that I'll discover a few more titles along the way that I've previously missed, the whole project should end up encompassing about 3,000 movies. In other words, you can see why every little bit of support helps! Thank you again to recent donors. Support is always welcome.

Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)

One of the ugliest movies ever made, in terms of both aesthetics and content, Bloodsucking Freaks is a celebration of gore, objectification, rape, and torture that was allegedly conceived as a satire of Grand Guignol-type splatter flicks. Whether some viewers find Bloodsucking Freaks amusing is a matter for therapists who will need to spend many years unraveling the issues those viewers have. For purposes of this space, it’s sufficient to say that Bloodsucking Freaks is so amateurish, gruesome, unfunny, and unpleasant that no rational person need ever give the picture a moment’s thought. The story concerns a psychopath named Sardu (Seamus O’Brien), who runs a “Theatre of the Macabre” in New York City. Sardu kidnaps women, hides them in a torture dungeon beneath his stage, and then mutilates them onstage during performances, often with the help of sadistic dwarf Ralphus (Louie de Jesus). Theatergoers unable to accept that what they’re seeing onstage is real help make Sardu’s show a cult hit until a critic gives the show a bad review, at which point Sardu and Ralphus make the critic the latest prisoner in the dungeon. Mayhem ensues. Listing a few of the atrocities in Bloodsucking Freaks should explain why this X-rated crapfest lacks anything resembling entertainment value. A woman’s hand is cut off, and then Ralphus gouges out her eyeball before eating the eyeball like an hard-boiled egg. A corpse is chopped into cutlets and served as a meal to naked women jailed in the dungeon. A woman’s teeth are yanked out, one by one, so a psychopathic dentist can orally rape the woman without fear of getting bitten. A woman’s skull is shaved, and then a man drills a hole in her skull so he can suck out the contents with a straw. All of this is rendered with cheap-looking photography, jumpy editing, silly acting, and substandard production values. It’s fair to assume that the filmmakers wanted Bloodsucking Freaks to be shocking. Instead, it’s boring and crude and pointless, noteworthy only for representing some absolute nadir in the American cinema’s long history of failing womankind.

Bloodsucking Freaks: SQUARE

Monday, May 25, 2015

20th Century Oz (1976)

          After decades in which producers largely abstained from adapating L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, presumably to avoid comparisons with the timeless MGM musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), the ’70s saw a handful of bold new interpretations. The most famous of these projects is the all-black musical The Wiz, which hit Broadway in 1975 before becoming a film in 1979, but a lesser-known spin on Baum’s fictional universe emerged from Down Under around the same time.
          Released in Australia in 1976 and the Unites States a year later, 20th Century Oz—which was originally titled Oz: A Rock n Roll Road Movie—mostly squanders the brilliant notion of placing Dorothy Gale’s story within a modern glam-rock context. Writer-director Chris Löfvén seems to run out of creative gas at regular intervals, as if the chore of replacing Baum’s fantastical characters with real-world avatars is just too much. Additionally, it occasionally seems as if Löfvén is riffing specifically off MGM’s movie, rather than the Baum source material, so segments of the story that should be energized by musical numbers are not. That’s because, despite the subtitle the film bore during its Australian release, 20th Century Oz is not precisely a musical. It’s a drama that contains a few scenes in which characters perform music.
          The other big shortcoming to Löfvén’s approach is that he failed to invent a memorable stand-in for the Wicked Witch of the West; as a result, the movie’s Dorothy spends a lot of time wandering around the Australian countryside without any real obstacles in her way, save for the elusive nature of the movie’s Wizard character. Nothing lacks momentum quite like a road movie without a narrative structure predicated on clearly defined dramatic conflict. On the plus side, the allusions to glam-rock culture work well, and some of the tunes featured in the background of the movie are memorable, even if they’re not fully integrated into the storytelling.
          At the beginning of the movie, Dorothy (Joy Dunstan) is a 16-year-old groupie looking for kicks. Hopping into a van with a band that she sees perform one evening, Dorothy gets knocked unconscious during a car accident. She emerges into a dream state where the band members personify other characters, and the dream-state Dorothy decides she must attend a concert by sexualized rock star The Wizard (Graham Matters). Instead of Glinda the Good Witch, Dorothy meets a gay clothier named Glin the Good Fairy (Robin Ramsaay), who provides Dorothy with magic red shoes.
          20th Century Oz is decidedly adult, with four-letter words and fleeting nudity. That aspect of the picture pays off with the film’s best image—Dorothy peels back a shower curtain to discover The Wizard without his stage makeup, thereby providing a clever riff on a moment from the MGM movie while also saying something about the artifice of glam-rock. Getting there requires slogging through a lot of drab scenes, and it’s hard to generate much rooting interest in Dunstant’s petulant characterization. That said, good luck getting the movie’s bouncy theme song, “Living in the Land of Oz,” out of your head.

20th Century Oz: FUNKY

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lisztomania (1975)

          With the possible exception of The Devils (1971), which employs provocative imagery while telling a meaningful story about historical persecution, the musical biopic Lisztomania is British director Ken Russell’s most outrageous movie—no small accomplishment. Lisztomania is also one of the weirdest big-budget films ever made, since it contains a man riding a giant phallus like it’s a bucking bronco, composer Richard Wagner reincarnated as a machine-gun-wielding hybrid of Frankenstein’s monster and Adolf Hitler, and a climactic battle in which composer Franz Liszt flies a fighter jet built from organ pipes that blast his music like guided missiles. Not exactly Amadeus.
          Based upon a real-life phenomenon that occurred during the career of 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, who reportedly drove audiences into something like the frenzied adoration later associated with 20th-century rock stars, Lisztomania opens in such a juvenile fashion that writer-director Russell makes it immediately clear he is uninterested in simply re-creating history. Liszt (Roger Daltrey) cavorts in bed with aristocrat Marie (Fiona Lewis), kissing her breasts in time with the clicks of a metronome. She repeatedly accelerates the metronome’s speed, so Liszt accelerates his smooching. Then Marie’s husband arrives, and a “comical” duel ensues, during which Liszt—clad only a s sheet he’s tied around his privates like a diaper—tries to evade the rapier with which the husband hopes to castrate Liszt. From camera angles to editing and music, the whole scene is designed to feel like a cartoon, setting the childish tone for everything that follows.
          In the course of telling a story that’s only vaguely connected to the real Lizzt’s experiences, Russell portrays Liszt as a debauched celebrity pandering to public appetites with performances that are beneath his talent, while also spending much of his private time bouncing from one woman’s bedroom to the next. Liszt’s sexual wanderings climax with a fantasy sequence during which Liszt grows the aforementioned Godzilla-sized erection—which, at one point, several women straddle simultaneously.
          As the movie drags on, the plot grows to similarly oversized proportions. On instructions from the Pope (played by Ringo Starr of the Beatles), Liszt is charged with luring his former colleague, Wagner (Paul Nicholas), back to Christianity. This doesn’t go well, because Wagner has become an evil scientist preoccupied with bringing the Norse god Thor (Rick Wakeman) to life, although Thor, for some reason, wears the costume associated with the version of the character appearing in Marvel Comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Sprinkled amid this nonsense are various scenes in which Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who and the star of Russell’s previous film, Tommy (released a few months earlier in 1975), sings original rock songs. There’s more, too, including a scene decorated with ceramic buttocks that issue smoke through their—you get the idea.
          One imagines that Russell had a grand old time generating concepts and then seeing if his production team could realize them without quitting in protest of his bad taste. Furthermore, actors play their roles with tremendous glee. However, the level of stupidity on display throughout Lisztomania is staggering. Whereas Russell’s best films are the work of a sophisticated provocateur, Lisztomania feels more like the bathroom-wall scratchings of a 13-year-old boy who giggles whenever the subject of sex is raised. Suffice to say, Russell’s lifelong devotion to classical music found more worthwhile expression elsewhere.

Lisztomania: FREAKY

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Street Law (1974)

          An Italian-made vigilante picture informed by the same zeitgeist that produced Death Wish—which hit U.S. screens only weeks before Street Law debuted in Europe—this nasty little movie has gained a minor cult following. It’s an exciting thriller with tremendous forward momentum, and leading man Franco Nero gives a relentless performance that approaches self-parody, especially because the film’s dialogue was shot in phonetic English and then dubbed during post-production. Other significant flaws include the perfunctory and sexist portrayal of the protagonist’s wife, a greasy musical score shot through with disco colorations, and a fetishistic portrayal of violence. Nonetheless, energy is energy, and Street Law has plenty of that. Accordingly, even though Street Law is so simplistic from a narrative and political perspective that it makes Death Wish seem subtle by comparison, the picture has a crude sort of visceral power that cannot be denied.
          When the movie opens, straight-laced engineer Carlo (Nero) visits a bank for a simple business transaction. Three armed robbers enter the bank, beating anyone who stands in their way, including Carlo. While making their getaway, the criminals abduct Carlo as a hostage, beating him even more along the way and forcing him to endure a terrifying car chase. Eventually, Carlo gets away, only to discover that the police have little hope of catching the crooks and that Carlo’s wife, Barbara (Barbara Bach), expects Carlo to move on with his life. Ashamed and humiliated at the way the criminals treated him, Carlo vows to find and kill his attackers. Yet instead of taking the Death Wish route of annihilating random thugs like they’re symptoms of a disease, Carlo gets methodical. He uses deception and surveillance to infiltrate the underworld, eventually identifying the bank robbers. Later, in a plot twist that strains credibility, Carlo bonds with a crook named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), who provides Carlo’s ultimate entrée into the world of the bank robbers.
          Street Law is almost a mood piece in the way it strings together larger sequences, some of which are aimless driving montages, and some of which are symphonies of suffering. Carlo gets his ass kicked repeatedly, somehow emerging more resolute each time. The movie offers very little in terms of characterization (Bach, for instance, is barely in the movie), and the whole narrative stems from the iffy notion that a man who won’t fight back isn’t a man. Still, some of Carlo’s resourceful moves are quite clever, and director Enzo Z. Castellari knows how to generate brutal excitement, so nearly every scene in Street Law feels as if it concludes with an exclamation point.

Street Law: FUNKY

Friday, May 22, 2015

Abar, the First Black Superman (1977)

          There’s a fascinating allegorical story about modern race relations buried somewhere inside the misguided blaxploitation/sci-fi adventure Abar, the First Black Superman, but sifting the good elements from the terrible ones requires considerable effort. While writer-producer James Smalley came up with a few provocative ideas, and generally displays a sound approach to characterization, his dialogue is clunky and he loses narrative focus at regular intervals. Smalley also picked the wrong creative partner in director Frank Packard; the incompetence with which Packard handles actors is dwarfed only by the incompetence with which he handles camerawork. Abar is shot in such a lifeless style, and edited so awkwardly, that it’s the definition of amateurish. And the acting? Except for leading man Tobar Mayo, who puts across an interesting combination of charisma, intensity, looseness, and swagger, the players in Abar deliver almost unremittingly ghastly work. Making matters worse, the movie was clearly shot on such a tight budget that extra takes were considered a luxury, so some scenes contain distracting flubs and pauses. All of which is a long way of saying that expectations for Abar should be adjusted accordingly.
          The story revolves around black scientist Dr. Kincade (J. Walter Smith), who moves into a white neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Met with vicious racism, which manifests as protests and violence, Dr. Kincade insists on staying put so he can make a point about the resilience of African-Americans. Abar (Mayo), a bald activist associated with a group called the Black Front of Unity, shows up one day to help dispel protestors in front of Dr. Kincade’s house. Dr. Kincade subsequently hires Abar as a bodyguard, despite their philosophical differences. Abar’s all about bringing black intellectuals back to the ghetto, while Dr. Kincade prioritizes assimilation. This stuff hums along fairly well, excepting a silly dream/flashback/whatever to the Wild West era, until about 30 minutes before the movie is over, at which point Dr. Kincade gives Abar a serum that activates Abar’s latent psychic powers. Abar uses his new abilities to right wrongs, earning a reputation as a public menace in the process. This stretch is confusing and odd. Nonetheless, the scrappy appeal of Abar, The First Black Superman is captured by the moment when Abar introduces himself to Dr. Kincade: “How do you do? John Abar, crusader.” In scene after scene, Abar lets you know where it’s at, man.

Abar, the First Black Superman: FUNKY

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shatter (1974)

          Even though it’s not particularly entertaining or memorable, the violent thriller Shatter ticks a few interesting boxes in terms of film-history trivia. The only action movie released by UK’s Hammer Film Productions in the ’70s, Shatter was the second of two projects that Hammer coproduced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Productions, the reigning champions of martial-arts cinema during that era. The other Hammer/Shaw picture was the very strange Dracula flick The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, which mixes bloodsuckers and martial artists to bewildering effect. Somewhat similarly, Shatter is a straightforward pursuit/revenge story that simply happens to include lots of martial-arts scenes because the narrative unfolds primarily in Hong Kong. Additionally, Shatter was the final Hammer project to feature the great Peter Cushing, a staple in the company’s monster and sci-fi offerings since the 1950s. A final bit of trivia worth mentioning is that Shatter was the last film directed by Michael Carreras, a second-generation Hammer executive who occasionally helmed films for the company. Carreras took over production of Shatter after the project’s original director, American low-budget filmmaker Monte Hellman, was fired.
          Given this rich context, it would be pleasurable to report that Shatter is a zippy shot of escapism. Alas, it’s forgettable and turgid, with anemic performances and interchangeable supporting characters. A grumpy and tired-looking Stuart Whitman stars as Shatter, an assassin hired by mysterious entities to kill an African dictator. This first event is presented with a certain amount of kicky style, because Shatter uses a gun disguised as a camera. Traveling from Africa to Hong Kong in order to collect payment, Shatter soon learns that he’s been double-crossed by international power broker Hans Leber (Anton Diffring). Shatter also gets into a hassle with UK government operative Paul Rattwood (Cushing). Hiding in dingy hotels and scouring nightclubs for clues about the conspiracy in which he’s become entwined, Shatter eventually joins forces with martial artist Tai Pah (Ti Lung), which occasions scenes in which Shatter throws punches while Tai throws kicks. Innumerable other movies explore similar material more effectively, such as the Joe Don Baker romp Golden Needles and the Robert Mitchum thriller The Yakuza (both released, like Shatter, in 1974). Therefore, Shatter represents a weak attempt at entering the post-Enter the Dragon chop-socky sweepstakes—as well as an odd and disappointing chapter in the Hammer saga. 

Shatter: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Delicate Balance (1973)

          Fun fact: When screenwriter Ernest Lehman earned an Oscar nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which was adapted from Edward Albee’s play of the same name, Albee was not amused. He lamented that all Lehman did was “typing” because the film incorporated so much text from the play. Perhaps that’s why Albee wrote the screenplays for the next two film adaptations of his own work, both of which were basically direct transpositions from stage to screen. Following the made-for-TV Zoo Story (1964), Albee helped bring his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Delicate Balance to movie theaters. Produced for the American Film Theatre and starring the venerable Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance offers more suburban angst in the mode of Virginia Woolf. From start to finish, the movie is filled with sophisticated people unleashing fusillades of extravagant language to attack each other’s psyches. And while A Delicate Balance lacks the wow factor that Virginia Woolf achieved onscreen, it’s still a ferocious rumination on the anxieties of people whose luxurious lifestyles allow them to wallow in their entitled misery.
          Director Tony Richardson films the piece simply, letting his camera roam through the interiors of a grand house but often simply locking the camera down while masterful actors burn through lengthy exchanges and monologues. Albee’s verbal style is deliberately literary here, for even though he uses false starts and incomplete sentences to great effect, most of the play comprises perfectly crafted grammar tinged with sad poetry. As the character Claire remarks at one point, “We submerge our truths and have our sunsets on troubled waters.” Not exactly casual chit-chat.
          Hepburn and the great British actor Paul Scofield play Agnes and Tobias, wealthy New Englanders in late middle age. As bitter and caustic as they are with each other, Agnes and Tobias descend into outright hostility whenever they engage with their current houseguest, Claire (Kate Reid), Agnes’ alcoholic sister. Things get even worse when the couple’s best friends, neighbors Edna (Betsy Blair) and Harry (Joseph Cotten) show up unexpectedly one evening and announce they’re moving in with Agnes and Tobias because some unidentified fear has made their own home seem terrifying. And then Agnes and Tobias’ 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Lee Remick), arrives following the end of her fourth marriage, adding another set of emotional and psychological problems to the mix.
          A Delicate Balance explores many themes, including alienation, betrayal, detachment from reality, and the façades people create in order to tolerate life’s disappointments and indignities. Heavy drinking plays a role, as well. Characters talk about “silent, sad, disgusted love” and the “plague” that personal problems represent when introduced into new environments. Albee tackles this subject matter on a largely metaphorical level, with characters assaulting not just each other but also the qualities they represent. As Agnes says to Tobias in a particularly shrewish moment, “Rid yourself of the harridan—then you can run your mission, take out sainthood papers.”
          Whether all this gets to be a bit much is a matter of taste, though the quality of the piece is beyond reproach. Hepburn, Reid, and Remick incarnate the paradox of powerful women who make dubious life choices, while Cotten and Scofield portray emasculated men desperately trying to assert themselves. And while watching 133 minutes of humorless vitriol is not precisely fun, Albee’s extraordinary language and his keen insights make the experience rewarding intellectually, if perhaps not viscerally.

A Delicate Balance: GROOVY

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Strawberry Statement (1970)

          Arguably the hippest of several fiction films that dealt with unrest among American college students during the Vietnam era, The Strawberry Statement has not aged especially well. Presented in a freewheeling style and revolving around a protagonist who kinda-sorta shifts from noninvolvement to radicalism, the movie has plenty of attitude and style. Moreover, the way the filmmakers link activism with sex says something interesting about horny dilettantes worming their way into the realm of politically committed youths. Yet by failing to predicate the story on real issues (the motivation for the film’s major protest is a fictional urban-development issue), and by failing to place a true radical at the center of the story, The Strawberry Statement ends up conveying an experience that’s tangential to the chaos pervading American campuses in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
          Set in and around a fictional San Francisco college, the picture stars Bruce Davison as Simon, an apathetic student who digs having a good time, but mostly thinks about grades and post-graduation career opportunities. When he meets an attractive radical named Linda (Kim Darby), Simon slips into the activist community as a way of making time with her. Later, when Linda is away from school for an extended period, Simon dallies with another activist hottie, and he allows the misperception to spread that he was beaten by police during a demonstration. This naturally gets Simon into Linda’s good graces once she returns to school, so the new couple splits their time between radicalism and romance, though Simon remains only marginally interested in actual politics. Finally, events at a major demonstration force Simon to definitively choose a side in the us-vs.-them conflict.
          Based on a book by James Simon Kunen, which documented real-life student unrest at Columbia University, The Strawberry Statement is openly sympathetic with student demonstrators, often portraying cops as faceless paramilitary goons. The most appealing grown-up in the movie is a shopkeeper (James Coco) who happily gives groceries to the radicals so long as they let him pretend he’s being robbed, thus enabling him to file a bogus insurance claim. In fact, scenes with ironic humor often work best in The Strawberry Statement. One hopes, for instance, that the following line was written with a wink: “I’m only 20, so I’ll give the country one more chance.” Other strong elements include the soundtrack, featuring tunes by CSNY and other rock acts, and the visual style, with fisheye lenses and offbeat upside-down camera angles used to accentuate disorientation. Does it all come together for a cohesive expression of a singular theme? Not really. But does The Strawberry Statement’s shambolic structure capture something about a wild time? Yes.

The Strawberry Statement: FUNKY

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Baron (1977)

          Nominally a blaxploitation flick—albeit one that was released well after the blaxploitation craze had peaked—The Baron is really more of a character study about a movie-industry hustler. It’s not the most sophisticated picture, and the story lags during the middle, but there’s just enough credibility, novelty, and seediness to make The Baron somewhat interesting. Calvin Lockhart, a Bahamaian actor whose crisp speaking style and rigid bearing create an aristocratic comportment, stars as Jason, a headstrong actor/director/producer trying to assemble financing for his latest project. (We’re shown a snippet of the in-progress movie, which stars Jason as the swaggering multimillionaire adventurer “Baron Wolfgang von Trips.”) When Jason’s primary financier announces that a studio wants to buy the underlying literary property—but also wants to replace Jason as actor, producer, and director—Jason is crushed. Later, when the backer dies in an accident, Jason realizes that he’s responsible for money the backer borrowed from a gangster named Joey (Richard Lynch).
          Desperate for cash, Jason initially reaches out to a drug dealer nicknamed “The Cokeman” (Charles McGregor), and then he consents to becoming a live-in gigolo for an aging society dame played by old-Hollywood star Joan Blondell. Suffice to say, Jason’s moves don’t sit well with his girlfriend, Caroline (Marlene Clark), who struggles to understand why he can’t let go of his cinematic dreams and simply live a normal life.
          The Baron suffers from logy pacing, a problem exacerbated by sleepy music (jazz great Gil Scott-Heron contributed to the score). Additionally, Lockhart is so straight-laced that he’s not the right guy to play a fast-talking schemer descending into an abyss of humiliation and lies. That said, Lynch makes a terrific bad guy, oozing oily charm as he insinuates himself into Jason’s life, and Blondell hints at the pathos of a lonely woman who must purchase companionship. Yet the most interesting aspect of the story is actually the one that gets the least attention. As in the earlier B-movie Hollywood Man (1976), the notion of a filmmaker getting bankrolled by the Mob creates all sorts of interesting possibilities. Yet The Baron’s cowriter and director, Philip Fenty, explores virtually none of them. Nonetheless, The Baron pulls things together for its final act, thanks to a memorable last confrontation between Jason and Joey and an offbeat chase scene.

The Baron: FUNKY

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Stroszek (1977)

          Not much in Werner Herzog’s early filmography suggests a strong sense of humor—his breakthrough movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), is a harrowing saga involving incest, madness, murder, and obsession—but Stroszek is probably as close as the filmmaker ever came to making an outright comedy. To be clear, Stroszek is very much a Herzog film, because the storyline is bleak, fatalistic, and tragic. However, there’s a strong sense of irony and satire running through the picture, and Stroszek offers a skewed outsider’s vision of rural America, since most of the picture was shot in Wisconsin. The strangeness one often associates with Herzog’s movies is present, as well. For example, poultry plays a major role in the final scenes.
          Stroszek opens in Berlin, with the release from prison of simple-minded Bruno Stroszek (played by real-life artist/musician Bruno S.). After receiving a long speech from the prison warden about how Bruno needs to avoid booze because excessive drinking gets him into trouble, Bruno happily exits the prison—carrying his accordion and trumpet—and walks into a nearby establishment called “Beer Heaven.” Picking up the pieces of his old life, Bruno reconnects with elderly eccentric Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and friendly prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). Together, they form a surrogate family, even though each is basically a loser. After Eva gets roughed up one too many times by her pimp, the trio relocates to America, where Mr. Scheitz’ nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinksi), operates a low-rent auto garage in the boonies. While Bruno works for Clayton and Eva works as a waitress, the Germans pursue their version of the American Dream, even buying a large mobile home. Alas, their spending outpaces their income, so domestic strife emerges.
          On every possible level, Stroszek is both exactly what it appears to be—a simplistic travelogue performed by nonactors—and so much more. Herzog’s use of untrained performers creates an oddly credible vibe, because the behavior of the people onscreen is so peculiar that it rings true. Haven’t we all met people who seem out of sync with the rest of the world, as if they take commands from voices only they can hear? Similarly, the straightforward narrative, which is almost completely bereft of plot twists, has the mundane quality of real life. Things just happen. And, this being a Herzog film, most of those things are disorienting and/or disappointing.
          Leading man Bruno S., a former mental patient in real life, doesn’t really act, per se; rather, he simply exists on camera, delivering his singular mix of childlike enthusiasm and deep-seated ennui. In one scene, he makes a sculpture from what appear to be Lincoln Longs, then says, “Eva, I have constructed a schematic representation of how Bruno feels when they’re gently closing all the doors to him.” Indeed, the myriad scenes in which life removes the character’s sense of security are unexpectedly moving. By the time this film’s offbeat protagonist responds to a series of setbacks by making his escape with a frozen turkey as a traveling companion, he becomes something of a hero, even though his predicament is a direct result of drunkenness. To cite a metaphor that will only make sense after seeing Stroszek, we’re all just chickens dancing our way to oblivion.
          Herzog has expressed his nihilistic worldview more powerfully in other films, but he’s rarely done so with a tonality so closely approaching warmth.

Stroszek: GROOVY