Monday, August 31, 2015

Scalpel (1977)

          Originally titled False Face and later rechristened Scalpel, this cheaply made thriller has a humdinger of a premise that’s delivered with a psychosexual kick. In many ways, the picture evokes the Hitchcockian suspense movies that Brian De Palma made in the same era, especially Obsession (1976), although the makers of Scalpel can’t muster anything approaching De Palma’s big-budget polish or his visual sophistication. Scalpel is watchable simply because the story is so outrageous and perverse, and the film’s two leads—Judith Chapman and Robert Lansing—commit wholeheartedly to the transgressive nature of the material. So even if Scalpel feels schlocky at times, it’s a mildly diverting journey into darkness.
          Lansing plays Dr. Phillip Reynolds, a plastic surgeon in the Deep South who has suffered a number of personal tragedies. His wife drowned, and soon afterward, his adult daughter disappeared. (Viewers soon learn that Phillip murdered his adulterous bride, as well as her lover, and that his daughter fled with good reason.) One evening, Phillip nearly drives over a woman who’s been left for dead in a city street by an assailant who beat her so badly her face was almost completely destroyed. Concurrently, Phillip learns that his father’s estate has been left in its entirety to Phillip’s missing daughter. Thus Phillip contrives a wild scheme to transform “Jane Doe’s” face into a re-creation of his daughter’s face. Phillip brings “Jane” into his confidence, promising her half of the $5 million estate if she pretends to be the elusive Heather Reynolds. Naturally, she agrees—and unnaturally, the two become lovers, since the sight of his daughter’s face drives Phillip mad with desire. Yikes! It’s giving nothing away to say that things get complicated when the real Heather resurfaces, since that twist is preordained by the premise, but writer-director John Grissmer has fun working with predictable narrative elements.
          Lansing blends qualities of psychosis and self-loathing into his characterization, while Chapman does an okay job of contrasting bad-girl “Jane” with good-girl Heather—both the “real” Heather and the character whom “Jane” portrays before things get messy. Composer Robert Colbert wisely borrows musical tropes from the Bernard Hermann playbook, since Hermann scored the De Palma and Hitchcock movies after which Scalpel was patterned, so even though the music in Scalpel is derivative, at least it’s selectively derivative. Overall, there’s just enough gore and humor and sex on display to justify Scalpel’s existence, and 0ne could do worse when looking for an obscure example of twisted ’70s horror.

Scalpel: FUNKY

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Win, Place or Steal (1974)

A comedy without laughs that’s also a heist movie without suspense, Win, Place or Steal contains virtually nothing of merit, except perhaps for a soundtrack filled with jovial country tunes performed by actor/singe Tim McIntire, who does not appear on camera. Pity those who do. The charmless trio of Alex Karras, Dean Stockwell, and Russ Tamblyn play losers who steal a betting machine from a racetrack as part of a scheme to manufacture winning tickets after races have already been run. Unfortunately, all three leading characters are repellant. Karras plays a lumbering dolt, Stockwell incarnates a lazy philanderer, and Tamblyn portrays an angry drunk. (Actors Scatman Crothers and Harry Dean Stanton show up in tiny roles, briefly elevating the piss-poor material.) Stockwell and Tamblyn employ think Noo Yawk accents, so when they share scenes—and they share lots of scenes—their self-centered whining is highly abrasive. It doesn’t help that the script, cowritten by the film’s director, Richard Bailey, is crude and witless. At one point, either Stockwell or Tamblyn makes the following remark about Karras’ character: “That Frank is so horny he’d screw the crack of dawn!” Elsewhere in this painful slog of a movie, onetime M*A*S*H actor McLean Stevenson shows up for a cameo as a queeny insurance-company executive. To cut the filmmakers some slack, it’s possible that the currently available versions of Win, Place or Steal—likely derived from an ’80s VHS release—don’t accurately reproduce the way the picture looked during its original release. Therefore, emphasizing the fact that it’s nearly impossible to parse the visuals during the very long nocturnal heist sequence might be unfair. Nonetheless, the audio in this sequence tells the same damning tale as all of the cinematic information tells elsewhere in Win, Place or Steal. The jokes just aren’t there. On the plus side, fans of the leading actors will undoubtedly find the experience of watching Win, Place or Steal more tolerable than others, and McIntire’s numerous songs have a certain rustic appeal.

Win, Place or Steal: LAME

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ride in a Pink Car (1974)

          Standard stuff about a tough guy who returns to his Southern hometown only to get into hassles with hotheaded provincial types, Ride in a Pink Car offers little of interest except for those determined to witness the whole spectrum of violent-redneck cinema. From the far-fetched shootouts to the lengthy car chases, Ride in a Pink Car contains nothing but adequately staged versions of things we’ve all seen before in slicker and more imaginative movies. This is passable escapism, but just barely. Square-jawed Glenn Corbett stars as Gid Barker, who has been absent without explanation for two years from the Florida town where he was raised. A man of few words, Gid vaguely attributes his absence to military service. Anyway, Gid tries to pick up where he left off with his ex, who married someone else while Gid was gone, and then he tracks down another former girlfriend for some heavy petting and reminiscing. Annoyed that he turned her on with no intention of consummating their flirtation, the former girlfriend tells her simple-minded husband, Buck (Minor Mustain), that Gid made a pass at her. Buck responds by picking a fight with Gid. After Buck pulls a gun, Gid nabs the pistol and stupidly tries to teach Buck a lesson by pulling the trigger, believing the gun to be empty. Surprise! Gid kills Buck, thereby making a mortal enemy of Buck’s macho father, Jeff Richman (Morgan Woodward).  Stealing a pink car from a traveling eccentric, Gid makes a run for it, eventually collecting his ex and a Native American buddy, Rain Eagle (Erni Benet), to join him on the road. Jeff and his cronies make chase, leading to car crashes and, eventually, a bloody showdown.
          All of this is just as insipid as it sounds. If cowriter/director Robert J. Emery meant to position Gid as some sort of wronged everyman fighting against a cruel system, he missed the mark completely—Gid comes across as an impulsive asshole unwilling to face the consequences of his reckless actions. That said, Emery portrays Jeff as something even worse, a bloodthirsty vigilante eager to murder Gid in the name of Jeff’s martyred idiot of a son. Whatever. Violent-redneck movies are generally fueled by pulpy sensationalism instead of genuine narrative logic, so thoughtful storytelling is a rarity in the genre. Even by those dubious standards, however, Ride in a Pink Car is shoddy. The characters are unlikable, the situations are unbelievable, and the thrills are meager. At least Woodward gives a zesty performance as the main villain, his icy eyes exploding from a pockmarked and tanned face surrounded by a cloud of white hair. Whenever he’s on screen, especially during the overheated finale, Ride in a Pink Car feels like a proper deep-fried exploitation flick.

Ride in a Pink Car: FUNKY

Friday, August 28, 2015

Sidewinder 1 (1977)

          A passable dirt-bike adventure about which it’s difficult to generate strong feelings, Sidewinder 1 is neither heinous nor special. It’s in color, it contains some of the elements that one normally encounters in action movies, and it runs about 90 minutes. Fans who dig shots of motorcycles zooming over hills and through puddles will find a few distractions, and there’s a linear story in place, albeit a perfunctory one. Additionally, some of the actors in the picture will be familiar to those who’ve seen a lot of ’70s and ’80s B-movies and/or schlocky television from the same era. In sum, Sidewinder 1 exists, and that’s about as praiseworthy a remark as one can make. Michal Parks, grumpy and taciturn as always, stars as competitive rider J.M. Wyatt, whose career opportunities have dwindled because of his age and his attitude. J.M. receives an overture from businessman Packard Gentry (Alex Cord), who wishes to create and market a new motorcycle called the Sidewinder 1, employing J.M. as his spokesman and test driver. J.M. agrees to the deal, but only if he gets an ownership stake and permission to redesign the prototype.
          Concurrently, Packard hires a support team including a second driver, hotheaded Digger (Marjoe Gortner), and everybody clashes with Packard’s sister, Chris (Susan Howard), who regards the Sidewinder 1 as a frivolous investment. Complications ensue. None of them is particularly interesting, and because the movie’s budget was obviously meager, the big stunts that are meant to punctuate the action aren’t all that big. (At its worst, the movie includes a shot of a character screaming in a freeze-frame while sound effects imply the horrific crash the filmmakers didn’t have the means to capture on camera.) Every so often, a character tosses off a salty line (one racer says to another, “When the gate drops, the bullshit stops, bucko”), and there’s a strong cheese factor thanks to the original songs on the soundtrack, which are performed by future “I Love a Rainy Night” country/pop star Eddie Rabbit. Still, it’s hard to get past the acting triad of Cord, who tries too hard; Gortner, who tries way too hard; and Parks, who doesn’t try hard enough. Their respective qualities of incompetence and/or indifference suit this cheaply made and mindlessly conceived picture’s utterly generic vibe.

Sidewinder 1: FUNKY

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Carnival of Blood (1970)

If nothing else, the rotten horror picture Carnival of Blood has one of the strangest opening salvos you’ll ever encounter. Dialogue scenes featuring two equally unpleasant couples are intercut with the peculiar image of a woman’s head emerging through a hole in some sort of velvet table cover. While a song plays on the soundtrack and credits appear, the woman recites dialogue that isn’t heard. The onslaught concludes with a quick shot of someone else’s head getting chopped in half with a cleaver. Say what? Once the story kicks in, it doesn’t make much more sense than the credits sequence. While a murder spree unfolds on the Coney Island boardwalk, ambitious assistant district attorney Dan (Martin Barolsky) enlists his fiancée, Laura (Judith Resnick), to act as bait for the killer so he can make his career by solving the case. Because, as we all know, DA’s and homicide detectives have exactly the same job. As the confusing and turgid Dan/Laura storyline plays out, incompetent writer-director Leonard Kirtman also shows the goings-on at a particular Coney Island carnival booth, where unassuming Tom (Earle Edgerton) works alongside his deformed and mentally underdeveloped assistant, Gimpy (played by future Rocky costar Burt Young, billed here as “John Harris”). The movie shifts awkwardly between the investigation, cheaply rendered gore scenes (lots of plucking entrails from victims’ bodies), and tiresome vignettes set at the booth, where Tom and Gimpy serve odious customers like the woman who demands free throws and unearned prizes. A good half of this wretched movie is out of focus and/or underexposed, and even the material that’s photographed correctly is boring or distasteful or both. At times, the flick nears that special so-bad-it’s-good place, simply because every single aspect of Carnival of Blood is pathetic. But if the best a movie can offer is Burt Young wearing tacky makeup and acting like a violent imbecile, how good can the experience get, whether taken ironically or straight?

Carnival of Blood: SQUARE

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lepke (1975)

          Pulpy but shallow, the gangster biopic Lepke lacks a distinctive point of view. A compendium of episodes tracking the career of Jewish mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter—played with generic intensity by Tony Curtis—the picture was produced and directed by Menaham Golan, who later found his groove as a producer of glossy action pictures. While Lepke is probably the slickest movie that Golan ever directed, it feels artificial from beginning to end, and it has nothing to say about its subject matter. Thanks to solid production values, a steady stream of violent episodes, and the surprising presence of iconic funnyman Milton Berle in a dramatic supporting role, Lepke is never less than watchable. However, it makes very little impact while unspooling and disappears from the viewer’s memory immediately afterward. Opening in 1923 and covering events through 1944, when Lepke was executed for his crimes, the picture depicts Lepke as a tough street kid who channels his anger at the world into violence, and then discovers that ruthlessness leads to career advancement in the underworld. Lepke eventually teams withand breaks fromfellow gangster “Lucky” Luciano (Vic Tayback) before helping to form the infamous organization known as Murder Incorporated. In addition to depicting Lepke’s criminal activities, the picture explores his relationship with Bernice Meyer (Anjanette Comer), the daughter of Orthodox businessman Mr. Meyer (Berle). Another component of the story is Lepke’s friendship with lawyer Robert Kane (Michael Callan), who eventually joins the Justice Department.
          A few of the picture’s episodes are mildly interesting. In one scene, Lepke dispatches a subordinate to the Far East in order to collect heroin. In another scene, Lepke has a tryst that Golan and cinematographer Andrew Davis (who later became the director of such outstanding action pictures as 1993’s The Fugitive) stage sexily, with light streaming through windows. And the bit with Berle negotiating for his daughter’s hand in marriage is somewhat droll, thanks to the way Berle channels his legendary comic timing into a crisp sort of dramatic tension. Yet most of Lepke is painfully unimaginative. During a climactic action sequence, for instance, a shootout in a movie theater is intercut with black-and-white gangster action on the movie screen. And thanks to distractingly clean costumes and sanitized sets, much of the gangster material recalls the old Star Trek episode in which the crew of the Enterprise beams down to a planet where society is modeled after Earth’s Depression-era gangster culture. (Adding to the unhelpful visual association, Lepke costar Tayback appeared in that particular Trek episode.) While Curtis scores a few points during his character’s darkest interludes, summoning the edge that he brought to his fine work in The Boston Strangler (1968), his performance is middling overall—just like the movie surrounding him.

Lepke: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Racquet (1979)

An ugly riff on Shampoo (1975) substituting professional tennis for hairdressing while stealing many of the earlier film’s plot elements, Racquet was one of a handful of star vehicles for Bert Convy, a quintessential ’70s personality who acted in dodgy movies and schlocky TV series before finding his niche hosting game shows. (To be fair, he was terrific as the leader of an est-type program in the 1977 football comedy Semi-Tough.) In the thoroughly rotten Racquet, Convy stars as Tommy Everett, an aging tennis pro who moonlights as a gigolo for the rich ladies of Beverly Hills. Dreaming of becoming a business owner, Tommy tries to talk his wealthiest patron, Leslie (Edie Adams), into bankrolling the purchase of a house with a massive court where Tommy can provide private lessons. Meanwhile, Tommy reunites with an old flame, Monica (Lynda Day George), and stupidly romances Leslie’s teenaged daughter, Melissa (Katherine Moffat)—shades of the Shampoo storyline involving Warren Beatty and Carrie Fisher. Racquet compares poorly to Shampoo, since Racquet emulates the earlier film’s raunchiness without any of the sophistication that made Shampoo relevant. Typical of Racquet is a grotesque scene of Leslie humping Tommy while screaming about his “bionic peeper,” or the equally distasteful scene of Leslie’s husband, Arthur (played by TV-comedy icon Phil Silvers), requesting that Leslie act out his Thanksgiving-themed sex fantasy. (“Will you make turkey sounds for me? Gobble-gobble when we climax?”) The love story between Monica and Tommy is riddled with vapid clichés, including an endless romantic montage set to a dreary ballad, and the subplot about Tommy’s sexy roommate, Bambi (Tanya Roberts), is as pointless as the braying Bobby Riggs cameo and the goofy discotheque scene. Giving credit where it’s due, Convy looks credible as a tennis player and he uses all of his meager powers in a failed attempt to put this godawful material across.

Racquet: LAME

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bad (1977)

          The full title of this picture is Andy Warhol’s Bad, and although the possessive phrasing reflects artist/provocateur Warhol’s role as the film’s producer, the title could also be interpreted as a sentence: Andy Warhol Is Bad. Given that this movie, like so many other Warhol productions, was designed to offend everyday people and to delight nonconformists, Andy Warhol Is Bad seems like a fair statement. After all, the picture’s most memorable scene, and easily one of the most deliberately repulsive images Warhol’s troupe ever captured on film, involves a depraved woman tossing her infant out a high-rise window. The baby cascades through the air before hitting the sidewalk headfirst with an impact so catastrophic that blood and viscera splatter onto bystanders. The scene, it should be noted, is played for laughs. You see, Bad is a social satire of sorts, presenting the worst people imaginable without any editorial commentary—a sitcom about scumbags, if you will.
          Director Jed Johnson, working with Warhol’s biggest-ever production budget and benefitting from the presence of several legitimate Hollywood actors, gives the piece a much more polished look than the average Warhol scuzzfest. Nonetheless, the material—and more importantly the attitude—is just as punk as everything else Warhol made in the ’70s.
          Bad concerns Hazel Aiken (Carroll Baker), a middle-aged woman who runs an electrolysis business out of her home in the suburbs of New York City. Yet Hazel’s real income stems from a murder-for-hire business that she operates on the side. Hazel’s clients are horrific people who give absurd reasons for wanting their enemies killed. One slob of a woman, Estelle (Brigid Berlin), wants a neighbor’s dog murdered because the neighbor had the temerity to say that Estelle looks ugly in shorts. Another customer wants her autistic son murdered because the boy is an inconvenience. And so on. Hazel never does the killings herself, enlisting hustlers and junkies. The main drama of the movie, such as it is, stems from Hazel’s tense relationship with L.T. (Perry King), the first man Hazel has ever hired to complete an assignment. A slovenly drug addict, L.T. loafs around Hazel’s house until she’s so sick of him that she sprinkles broken glass on the floor the minute she sees him walking around barefoot. Hazel also employs a pair of loudmouthed prostitutes who burn down a movie theater for kicks one evening, killing 14 people. And then there’s Mary (Susan Tyrrell), Hazel’s simple-minded daughter-in-law; Hazel spends inordinate amounts of time telling Mary that Hazel’s son will never return to be with his dowdy wife and their ugly infant son. Because Hazel is a bad person, get it? The movie’s called Bad, remember?
          Even though it’s relatively slick, and even though some of the performances are tasty—Baker opts for a dryly funny spin on viciousness—Bad is so excessive, nasty, and obvious that the central joke takes a while to coalesce, and then almost immediately loses its potency thanks to endless repetition. Is it fun to watch a craven woman crush a man beneath the hydraulic lift in a garage, and then cut off his finger for a souvenir? Despite the glimmer of hope peeking through the grim final scenes, Bad is an exhibition of ugly primal urges, and the picture’s sense of humor is juvenile and perverse. The movie imagines an alternate universe without conscience, inhibitions, and morality, so watching Bad is a bit like listening to someone hit the same gloomy notes on a piano’s lower register over and over again for 105 slow-moving minutes.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979)

          A bad movie that somehow manages to command attention for most of its running time, at least for viewers susceptible to the charms of vintage cautionary sci-fi tales, Parts: The Clonus Horror deals with the sensationalistic subject of black-market organ trading, with the concept of cloning thrown in for good measure. In many ways, the story is incredibly silly, and the movie suffers from generic direction, mediocre acting, and rotten dialogue. Yet the film’s basic contrivance, of a hidden colony populated by clones whose overlords harvest the clones for organs, is colorful and loopy. Moreover, the picture has abundant late-’70s flavor, a couple of memorably gruesome scenes, and fleeting appearances by familiar actors. All told, Parts: The Clonus Horror is roughly the equivalent of a tasty made-for-TV sci-fi thriller.
          After a perfunctory bit set in the outside world that introduces U.S. presidential candidate Jeff Knight (Peter Graves), the picture shifts focus to a remote installation called Clonus, where simple-minded young people enjoy a controlled but peaceful existence under the supervision of friendly Dr. Jameson (Dick Sargent). One of the young people, fresh-faced Richard (Tim Donnelly), senses that all is not right in Clonus, so he begins a covert investigation. Echoing the ’70s sci-fi classic Logan’s Run (1976), Parts shows how overlords who create an idyllic lie are asking for trouble. Instead of the “renewal” concept in Logan’s Run, the baddies behind Clonus tell residents that once they complete their educations, they will be sent to “America,” which the villains portray as a magical place where everyone is happy and healthy. In reality, villains sedate and then murder residents who “graduate” from Clonus, harvesting their organs for use by the people from whose DNA the clones were created. Naturally, presidential candidate Knight is one of the visionaries behind Clonus, a megalomaniac with dreams of living forever thanks to a steady supply of replacement “parts.”
          Revealing the story’s twists does not perform a disservice to Parts: The Clonus Horror, since the film has zero suspense, instead generating minor thrills during chase scenes and/or horrific operating-room vignettes. The plotting is weak, with Richard effortlessly discovering important clues, and once Richard reaches the outside world, he immediately stumbles onto people with close connections to the conspiracy. The name actors in the cast do what they can with bargain-basement dialogue, thereby treating viewers to the spectacle of grizzled Kennan Wynn awkwardly issuing hippie-era lingo: “Hey, fella—looks like you’ve been through some really heavy scenes!” Sorry, Keenan—you Wynn some, you lose some. Interestingly, even though Parts seems to borrow liberally from Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), the makers of Parts cried foul upon the release of the Michael Bay picture The Island (2005), suing for copyright infringement and winning a private settlement.

Parts: The Clonus Horror: FUNKY

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Honey Britches (1971)

From a purist’s perspective, the movie Honey Britches doesn’t exist anymore. The low-budget crime/horror picture was produced and released in 1971 before falling into obscurity. Then, in the mid-’80s, schlockmeister Fred Olen Ray bought the movie, shot one new scene (more on that later), and recut the picture, selling the resulting atrocity to Z-movie distributor Troma Entertainment. Since that time, Troma has exhibited the re-edited flick under various titles, including Demented Death Farm Massacre. Yet it’s not as if some minor classic was lost in the process. Based upon the available evidence, Honey Britches was, is, and always will be awful. The movie concerns four criminals who escape New York with $1 million worth of stolen diamonds, then run out of gas in the rural south. After hiding their getaway car, the quartet walks to a farm operated by dim-witted religious nut Harlan P. Craven (George Ellis). An overweight slob in middle age, Harlan is married to a curvaceous young woman named Reba Sue (Ashley Brooke), whom Harlan bought from Reba Sue’s father in order to settle a debt of “almost $200.” What ensues between the country folk and the criminals is a Desperate Hours-type hostage situation punctuated with betrayal, lust, and murder. Featuring endless scenes about nothing and spellbindingly bad acting, Honey Britches (judging from the original scenes that remain intact) is exploitation cinema for the lobotomized, offering only a few nudie shots and some laughably cheap-looking gore as compensation for insufferable tedium. Fred Olen Ray’s ’80s additions are feeble. In addition to oppressive horror scoring that Ray uses to juice dull scenes of people wandering around the woods, the ’80s version features a frail John Carradine (who filmed his bit near the end of his life) reading perhaps three minutes of “ironic” commentary from cue cards. Carradine’s single shot is spliced into the movie at erratic intervals.

Honey Britches: SQUARE

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Ultimate Thrill (1974)

          There’s a great pulp idea at the heart of The Ultimate Thrill, although the potential of the idea is almost completely neutralized by bad writing, one-dimensional acting, and tedious skiing scenes. Patient B-movie fans might enjoy trudging through the boring bits in order to reach the sensationalistic high points, but even those viewers are sure to be underwhelmed. Suffice to say, the title of this picture promises much more than the movie actually delivers, even though the title refers to the kick that the story’s villain gets out of killing people. And that’s where the great pulp idea comes into play—the villain, a super-wealthy businessman, uses his beautiful wife to lure unsuspecting young men to his ski chalet, and then he hunts them down and murders them, using the pretense of being an aggrieved husband as his justification. Chances are the story would have worked in an erotic-thriller sort of way had the filmmakers added in one more element—the bad guy getting a psychosexual charge by actually watching young men sleep with his wife. However, The Ultimate Thrill is so ineptly written and directed that expecting the film to provide a fully rendered narrative concept is unreasonable. At most, this picture offers a kinky premise, some attractive shots of snow-covered mountains, and a few surprisingly nasty instances of violence.
          Set in the posh resort town of Vale, Colorado, The Ultimate Thrill concerns Roland (Eric Braeden), a powerful and wealthy stud with a porn moustache and a private helicopter. Roland’s long-suffering wife is blonde hottie Michele (Britt Ekland). In the first act of the movie, Roland abandons Michele long enough for wannabe seducer Tom (Michael Blodgett) to make the scene. Then Roland returns and boots Tom from his house, telling the young man to flee on skis. Roland follows in his helicopter, leading to the gory but silly scene of Tom skiing off a cliff—and smashing face-first into the passenger-side window of the helicopter, leaving a mess of blood and viscera in his wake. Roland finishes Tom off in somewhat spectacular fashion. The remainder of the movie concerns Michele’s entanglement with a writer, Joe (Barry Brown), and the inevitable showdown between Joe and Roland. At one point, a hang-glider becomes involved. Directed by the prolific Emmy winner Robert Butler, who spent most of his journeyman career in episodic TV, The Ultimate Thrill is competent in terms of visuals, but anemic from the perspective of character and story. The dialogue is trite, many scenes feel padded, and the performances are robotic. Worse, the picture includes the ugly cliché of a female character submitting to rape because she interprets the assault as an act of misguided passion. Yuck.

The Ultimate Thrill: FUNKY

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

          Designed to transform NBA hero Julius “Dr. J.” Erving into a movie star, the tepid comedy The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh weaves astrology, basketball, disco, and surrogate fatherhood into a dubious underdog story. Erving, who wisely never made another movie after this project revealed his inability to act, stars as Moses Guthrie, the high-priced marquee player of a (fictional) team called the Pittsburgh Pythons. The Pythons endure an epic losing streak until the team’s precocious towel boy, Tyrone Millman (James Bond III), seeks advice from a psychic named Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing). Tyrone and Mona contrive the bizarre idea of replacing all the players on the Pythons with new athletes who share Moses’ aquatic star sign. Therefore, after an open tryout that attracts hordes of wanna-bes and weirdos, the Pythons are renamed “The Pittsburgh Pisces.” Then Moses leads the new ragtag group through a predictable but implausible winning streak.
          If the preceding description makes you suspect that The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh lacks dramatic conflict, then you’ve guessed the movie’s main problem—rather than a proper story, it’s a flat and repetitive series of vignettes featuring people accomplishing impossible things with marginal effort, although the smooth soundtrack by celebrated Philly-soul writer/producer Thom Bell gives the onscreen silliness a thumping backbeat. Every so often, the movie latches onto something good, especially during the exciting sequence of a scrappy Pisces player nicknamed “Setshot” (Jack Kehoe) forcing opposing players to foul him so he can score points with free throws. Mostly, however, the movie squanders the talents of people including character actors Michael V. Gazzo, Nicholas Pryor, and M. Emmett Walsh, comedy icons Flip Wilson and Jonathan Winters, and Harlem Globetrotters star Meadowlark Lemon. Only Debbie Allen, who plays a small role as a raunchy fan, makes much of an impression.
          Reflecting the absence of an interesting main storyline, lots of time is wasted on servicing boring, one-dimensional characterizations (a Native American player is named “Winston Running Hawk”), and the love story between Moses and Tyrone’s sister, Toby (Margaret Avery), is pathetic because Erving can’t muster the illusion of human connection. In fact, Erving’s most soulful scene involves him shooting basket after basket in an outdoor court at night while Avery watches him in awe. At its worst, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is merely a showcase for spectacle. Before the climactic game, the Los Angeles Lakers (including Kareem Abdul Jabar) enter the arena through a laser/smoke tunnel, and the Pisces descend from a hot-air balloon while wearing silver-lame uniforms. R&B group the Spinners serenades both teams. Oh, well. At least there’s lots of dunking and passing on the court, with real ’70s athletes sprinkled throughout the cast, and the game scenes are photographed relatively well.

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

Allegedly based upon true events, the ugly serial-killer flick The Toolbox Murders mixes three things the world didn’t need to see: overly detailed and lengthy murder scenes, tawdry sexual scenarios including a long vignette of a young woman masturbating before she’s slaughtered with a nail gun, and a showy performance by the familiar character actor Cameron Mitchell. Also featured are interminably long dialogue scenes, plus weak supporting performances by inconsequential actors. Part of a vile tradition of movies seemingly made about, by, and for men who savor the notion of brutalizing attractive women, The Toolbox Murders has undoubtedly curried some favor among horror fans because the gore is fairly extreme. However, uless you enjoy watching people get burned, drilled, hammered, and stabbed, you should give The Toolbox Murders a wide berth. Set in dreary sections of southern California, the picture opens with several ghastly murders, during which a mystery figure carrying a metal toolbox kills women with instruments from inside the toolbox. Director Dennis Donnelly lingers on homicide, savoring images of, say, a bloody drillbit bearing chunks of viscera. Yuck. Then the story proper, such as it is, begins. A dippy teenager named Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin) reacts with fright to the news of murders in her neighborhood, only to realize she’s the next victim—sort of. Laurie gets abducted by a doughy landlord named Vance (Mitchell), who went crazy after his own daughter died. Vance binds and gags Laurie in his home, pretending she’s his dead daughter, even as clues suggest that someone other than Vance is the toolbox murderer. Meanwhile, Laurie’s brother, Joey (Nicholas Beauvy), searches for his sister because the police assigned to the case prove incompetent. Toward the late middle of the picture, Vance delivers several weepy monologues to his captive, and Mitchell is spectacularly bad in these scenes; watching him croon “Motherless Child” is cringe-worthy. Amateurish, dull, and gruesome, The Toolbox Murders somehow made enough of an impression to earn a remake directed by Tobe Hooper, Toolbox Murders (2004).

The Toolbox Murders: LAME

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Diamonds (1975)

          A dreary heist thriller noteworthy for its eclectic cast and for having been coproduced by American and Israeli companies, Diamonds comprises 108 very long minutes of anonymous people doing inconsequential things. Even with four big-name actors playing the leading roles, the picture is a chore to watch and offers no special rewards at the end of the journey. Only those deeply interested in the careers of the stars and/or those determined to see every heist movie ever made need bother. It’s not hard to determine where the blame for this picture’s lifelessness should fall, since producer/director Menahem Golan spent most of his career making schlocky movies for the international market; although he occasionally produced (or executive produced) a quality picture, nearly everything that Golan directed was substandard. Diamonds, therefore, is par for the course. The great Robert Shaw, clearly participating only for the paycheck, stars in dual roles, and Golan’s reliance on the old gimmick of one actor playing twins is not a good omen. Shaw’s main role is that of Charles Hodgson, a British millionaire with the resources and time to indulge in dangerous hobbies. For instance, in one early scene Charles stages a private martial-arts exhibition, fighting against his mustachioed brother, Earl Hodgson. The siblings often take their competitiveness to ridiculous extremes, hence the movie’s silly storyline.
          Charles recruits career criminal Archie (Richard Roundtree)—as well as Archie’s sexy girlfriend, Sally (Barbara Hershey)—to help him rob millions of dollars worth of diamonds from a vault in Tel Aviv. Once Archie, Charles, and Sally reach the Middle East, they separate in order to prepare different components of their robbery scheme. This middle section of the picture, which comprises a good hour of running time, is deadly boring. About the only interesting sequences involve Charles trying to avoid an obnoxious American tourist, Zelda (Shelley Winters). Myriad scenes occur without any of the top-billed actors present, because interchangeable Israeli actors play cops and guards and thugs in dull vignettes. Worse, Hershey virtually disappears from the movie for a solid 40 minutes. Toward the end, Golan rallies for a proper break-in/escape sequence, which allows Roundtree and Shaw to share a few intense scenes filled with the kind of clear dramatic conflict that’s missing from the rest of the picture. Ultimately, however, the picture is a slow crawl toward a predictable ending. For viewers who enjoy napping during movies, Diamonds is passable. For everyone else, only disappointment and tedium await.

Diamonds: FUNKY

Monday, August 17, 2015

Speedtrap (1977)

          Action-packed nonsense about an insurance investigator chasing a resourceful car thief, Speedtrap stars the jovial Joe Don Baker and features several noteworthy supporting players, plus oodles of ’70s trash-cinema texture. We’re talking artless photography, cheesy original songs, ghastly fashions, synthesizer-infused background music, and enough vehicular mayhem to fill a dozen Burt Reynolds movies. The characterizations are vapid, the story runs the gamut from stupid to trite to unbelievable, and the whole thing lumbers along for an unnecessarily long 113 minutes. In sum, if you take your ’70s exploitation flicks with a dollop of anarchy and a pinch of kitsch, Speedtrap might be your, well, speed. When the story begins, cops are baffled by a series of brazen car thefts, because the criminal uses a gadget to start car engines by remote, then steers them clear of prying eyes before hopping behind the wheel for high-speed getaways. Enter Pete Novick (Baker), a swaggering PI with adversaries and buddies throughout the police force. In particular, Pete shares a semi-romantic bond with a uniformed cop nicknamed “Nifty” Nolan (Tyne Daly). But never mind that, because like most of the story elements in Speedtrap, the relationship with Nolan is of little consequence throughout most of the film’s running time.
          After the usual predictable clashes with police-department boss Captain Hogan (Morgan Woodward), Pete chases a few cars to no avail before enlisting the aid of his buddy, ace mechanic Billy (Richard Jaeckel). Meanwhile, the mysterious thief pisses off a gangster named Spillano (Robert Loggia) by stealing a car containing a suitcase full of drugs. More car chases ensue, leading to a series of goofy plot twists during the final act. The scene-to-scene continuity of Speedtrap doesn’t merit attention, and in fact the overall palatability of the movie is dependent upon each viewer’s tolerance for repetitive car-chase sequences. On the plus side, the action is virtually incessant, zesty actors spew campy dialogue during the rare occasions when the movie slows down, and Baker makes the whole thing feel like a party by wearing a shit-eating grin in virtually every scene. Watching Speedtrap will almost certainly cost you a few hundred brain cells, but if you dig what this ridiculous movie is selling, that might be a fair trade.

Speedtrap: FUNKY

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Littlest Horse Thieves (1976)

          Unusual among ’70s live-action pictures from Walt Disney Productions in that the film is British from top to bottom, devoid of physical comedy, and quite serious in tone, The Littlest Horse Thieves is a warm period drama about English youngsters who cross class-system lines in order to champion endangered ponies. Although the story has a certain inherently sentimental quality, it doesn’t play out in a cloying way. In fact, the picture occasionally recalls John Ford’s classic saga of Welsh miners, How Green Was My Valley (1941), even though The Littlest Horse Thieves occupies the familiar Disneyfied parallel universe in which good things always happen to good people, even if tragedy occasionally forces kids to learn valuable life lessons.
          Set in Yorkshire in the early 1900s, the story concerns a coalmine in which “pit ponies” are used to transport raw product from tunnels to an elevator. The ponies live underground permanently, and the preteen children of miners often sneak into the tunnels so they can help care for the animals. When a new manager is hired for the mine, he determines that using mechanized conveyances instead of ponies would increase productivity and profit. Naturally, when the kids learn their beloved ponies are likely be slaughtered after retirement, they contrive to kidnap the animals—but that’s only half the story. This being a Disney picture, the second half of the narrative involves adults rallying to the children’s cause, culminating in an overly convenient crisis that forces everyone involved to recognize what’s truly important.
          Even though it’s filmed in rich color, The Littlest Horse Thieves—which was released in the UK as Escape from the Dark—feels incredibly old-fashioned. The horn-driven score occasionally sounds as if it’s being channeled through rickety old speakers, and the presence of noted British actor Alistair Sim, best known for playing Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, connects the picture to an earlier era of cinema. Yet none of this is bad. Quite to the contrary, the musty feel of The Littlest Horse Thieves gives the picture a certain mythological quality, like it’s a tale from a storybook sprung to life. And because the real stars of the picture are not the wide-eyed child actors but rather the ponies who “portray” the long-suffering service animals, key scenes radiate simple honesty: Watching a pony relegated to life in lightless caverns is enough to tug at all but the most tightly wound heartstrings.

The Littlest Horse Thieves: FUNKY

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Teenage Seductress (1975)

Amateurish sleaze about a young woman who seeks revenge on her absentee father by tricking him into an incestuous tryst, Teenage Seductress is a weird hybrid of domestic drama and gutter-level sexploitation. Thanks to its barrage of bad acting, cheap-looking cinematography, and clumsy storytelling, the picture has the texture of a low-budget porno flick. Yet the movie includes only two brief nude scenes, and there’s a lot more talk about screwing than there is actual screwing, with most of the screen time consumed by meandering dialogue scenes and such exciting actions as driving around the countryside and putting away groceries. Shot in Taos, New Mexico, the picture showcases a fair amount of local color, particularly during a party scene in which artists and hippies, like, hang out and, like, smoke and, like, do their thing, man. The picture’s leading lady is cult-favorite starlet Sondra Currie, whose sisters are ’70s rockers Cherie Currie (of the Runaways) and Marie Currie. Sondra Currie is quite inept here, conveying neither intensity nor purpose while depicting her character’s pursuit of a demented goal. (On the plus side, she musters some zing when delivering the climactic line: “I’m gonna fuck you, Father, like you fucked me!”) Costar Chris Warfield, as the unsuspecting father/lover, fares somewhat better, sketching a portrait of a middle-aged artist who’s clueless about the wreckage that he’s left in his wake. Less meritorious are Warfield’s behind-the-camera contributions, since he cowrote the anemic script and provided the film’s direction, if that’s the right term for storytelling utterly devoid of intention and perspective. Excepting devotees of Currie’s screen work, it’s hard to imagine anyone digging the experience of watching Teenage Seductress, even with the bizarre scene in which the face of the heroine’s dead mother is superimposed over a showerhead while the mother hectors her troubled offspring.

Teenage Seductress: LAME

Friday, August 14, 2015

The American Friend (1977)

          German director Wim Wenders tends toward a certain voluptuousness in his storytelling, so even though his narratives are often quite intimate—exploring the emotional lives of small groups of characters—he’s prone to meandering scenes and slow pacing. Yet because Wenders also has a distinct visual style and a novelist’s instinct for using behavior to reveal character, the more-is-more approach often leads to fascinating results. The American Friend is a good example. Based on one of Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed “Ripley” novels, The American Friend is nominally a thriller about art forgery, double-crosses, murders, and other such intrigue. As seen through Wenders’ unique prism, The American Friend is also a meditation on friendship, loss, and the need to value life as it happens instead of waiting for whatever’s coming down the road. The synthesis between the movie’s high and low instincts is not perfect, but cinematic artistry and thematic ambition elevate the piece far above the plane of mere pulp.
          The story is convoluted, so a brief rundown of key elements should be sufficient to hint at the content. In America, con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) acquires paintings by an artist who faked his own death in order to increase the value of his work. After traveling to Germany, Tom sells the paintings in an auction. Tangentially connected to this scheme is German everyman Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), an art restorer whose skills have diminished because of health problems. Jonathan now makes his living by framing artwork, and Tom is one of his clients. When Tom is asked by gangsters to find an expendable person who can commit a murder, Tom suggests Jonathan for the job. (Tom picks Jonathan as a patsy because of a social slight, taking petty vindictiveness to the extreme.) Initially, Jonathan refuses to kill for money—but after receiving a grim prognosis from his doctor, Jonathan accepts the job, hoping to provide for his wife and child. Little does Jonathan suspect that Tom pressured Jonathan’s doctor to exaggerate the gravity of his patient’s prognosis. Eventually, Jonathan and Tom form an unlikely friendship, which complicates the situation in peculiar ways.
         Shot by longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, The American Friend is gorgeous to behold. Mostly employing static frames that evoke the aesthetics of still photography, Müller turns the streets of Hamburg, New York, Paris and other cities into canvases, painting with light and shadows to give the film equal measures of beauty and grit. And even if the pure suspense elements are merely serviceable—an altercation on a moving train feels like watered-down Hitchcock—Wenders’ odd little touches keep the picture humane and idiosyncratic and spontaneous. For instance, Wenders cast three real-life movie directors (Gérard Blain, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray) in supporting roles. In sum, The American Friend is not a potboiler, even though that label could be applied to the source material. Rather, the film asks questions about what might happen if everyday people somehow became embroiled in outrageous schemes. With Ganz providing vulnerability and Hopper representing the opposite end of the human spectrum, The American Friend is an offbeat character study masquerading as a genre picture.

The American Friend: GROOVY