Sunday, December 31, 2017

Bare Knuckles (1977)

          A grimy action picture with elements of horror, Bare Knuckles edges into so-bad-it’s-good terrain almost from the first frames, during which funk guitars and twisting synthesizer notes congeal over poorly shot views of a city at night. Then, once the story begins, shoddy filmmaking and stupid plotting merge into crap-cinema bliss. Zachary Kane (Robert Viharo) is a badass bounty hunter with a porn-star perm who spends his downtime playing the flute and practicing karate. When Zachary hears about a big reward for the capture of a psychopath who’s been murdering women all across town, he begins his search. That is, after hooking up with beautiful socialite Jennifer (Sherry Jackson). How do they meet? While picking up dinner at Pizza Hut, Zachary spots Jennifer, who is wearing a fur coat, quarreling with her asshole boyfriend, so he tells the guy to take a hike and then plies Jennifer with a slice of sausage-and-mushroom pie. Faster than you can say “acid reflux,” the movie cuts to Jennifer climbing out of Zachary’s bed with his shirt over her body for modesty. Hilariously bad pillow talk ensues. Lest this detail get overlooked, remember she wore a fur coat to a date at Pizza Hut.
          Things get even sillier once the movie introduces the killer, Richard Devlin (Michael Heit). He’s a compact trust-fund kid, recently released from a mental institution, who dresses up on a BDSM-style leather outfit to attack women, and he has the strange habit of hissing like a cat. (Lots of hissing occurs during Richard’s martial-arts practices with his butler/sensei, because doesnt every good household have one of those?) And then there’s Richard’s mother, a drunken rich bitch who seems oblivious to the ways in which her own depravity exacerbates her kid’s mental illness. When she tries to curtail his homicidal hobby, Richard replies as follows: “You will go on as everything was—Sunday brunch and sex orgies, just like always, won’t you, Mother?” After which he French-kisses her. Bare Knuckles isn’t one of those go-for-broke bad movies where one insane thing after another happens; rather, it’s a laughably wrongheaded attempt at making drive-in pulp. That someone thought any of this would work is amazing.
          Incidentally, Bare Knuckles may be the worst-looking movie ever shot by celebrated cinematographer Dean Cundey—not only are some shots out of focus, but half the footage looks like it got fogged in the lab.

Bare Knuckles: FUNKY

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Passover Plot (1975)

          Although the book upon which it’s based was published a decade earlier, The Passover Plot fits nicely into the mid-’70s zeitgeist by combining a conspiracy theory with pseudoscientific theorizing about the life of Christ. Because, hey, in a time preoccupied by Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Zapruder film, why not make a buck by challenging the belief system that gives meaning to millions of lives? The kicker is that for most of its running time, The Passover Plot offers a fairly reverent depiction of the Gospel, because the wild conspiracy theory that gives the picture its name doesn’t surface until the final scenes. The movie’s first hour is quite dull, a problem exacerbated by leading man Zalman King’s weird performance as Jesus, but once the filmmakers start tweaking Biblical lore, things get interesting. A couple of scenes even have a bit of emotional heft, though of course any remarks about The Passover Plot should be couched with acknowledgements that some viewers may find the entire picture heretical and/or offensive.
          The basis for this movie was a popular book by Hugh J. Schonfield, whose research led him to believe that Christ was not divine. Specifically, Schonfield claimed that while on the cross, Christ was given a drug that simulated death by slowing his heart, allowing apostles to claim his “body” and arrange a sighting of the “resurrected” Christ before he died from his wounds. Rather than a miracle worker, Schonfield suggested that Christ was a heroic revolutionary skilled at manipulating public opinion. Getting to this controversial material faster would’ve improved The Passover Plot greatly.
         That said, some stuff works even in the dull stretches. Donald Pleasence lends surprising poise to his turn as Pontius Pilate, eschewing his normal eccentricity; Scott Wilson gives a poignant performance as Judas; and Dan Hedaya is similarly touching as a conflicted apostle. (The movie employs Jewish names for characters, so Jesus is Yeshua, Judas is Judah, and so on.) Far more problematic is King, who channels palpable intensity but generally stares ahead vacantly in most scenes like he’s a model in a Calvin Klein commercial. Things get worse when he pours on the gas, especially during a ridiculous screaming scene. His acting, which runs the gamut from bland to terrible, greatly diminishes the film.
          On the other hand, the great composer Alex North contributes some majestic music, and cinematographer Adam Greenberg conjures a few beautiful lighting schemes. Like most problematic movies, The Passover Plot is neither entirely a failure nor entirely a success, and each viewer will have a different opinion about whether the good outweighs the bad. For this viewer, the picture was nearly redeemed by a compelling final act, though I confess partiality to Hedaya, Pleasence, and Wilson. If you seek out The Passover Plot, proceed with caution—and skepticism.

The Passover Plot: FUNKY

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wild Riders (1971)

Vile trash about soulless bikers brutalizing women, Wild Riders is unwatchable except for a few bizarre scenes featuring the great character actor Alex Rocco, who plays the film’s second lead. His offbeat behavioral choices give vitality to a handful of moments, as when his character freaks out because he thinks a woman has compared his appearance to that of an unsightly sculpture—watching Rocco scream, “Do I look like this shitty frog?” is about as close to enjoyable as Wild Riders gets. The film opens with Pete (Arell Blanton) and Stick (Rocco) molesting and murdering a young girl, whose body they leave strapped to a tree. Turns out she was Pete’s lady until she dallied with a black guy, which was enough to turn Pete homicidal. The killing gets Pete and Stick ejected from their gang, so they cruise the California highways looking for their next thrill, eventually discovering a house occupied by two women. Pete seduces one of them while Rocco rapes the other—as in, these actions happen simultaneously in adjoining rooms. Eventually the home invasion degrades even further, with the bikers murdering a neighbor who stops by to hit on the women. Later still, the bikers terrorize the homeowner, a classical musician married to one of the ladies. If cowriter/director Richard Kanter envisioned some sort of edgy close-quarters thriller, he missed the mark—especially during the gory, over-the-top climax, Wild Riders is a hateful mixture of softcore and ultraviolence.

Wild Riders: LAME

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Run for the Roses (1977)

          Made somewhat in the Disney mode but nowhere near as imaginative or slick as films from the Mouse House, modestly budgeted sports saga Run for the Roses has many of the problems that plague subpar family films. The storyline is manipulative and predictable, as if younger viewers are too simple to track real plotting; the syrupy moments are plentiful, as when a little boy prays to the accompaniment of weepy guitar/harmonica music; and the themes are skewed toward a pandering vision of people always rising to their better nature. That said, proficient Hollywood actors play important supporting roles, giving key scenes the illusion of emotional weight, and extensive location photography provides a helpful sense of place, especially during scenes set at the Kentucky Derby. So while none would ever contend that Run for the Roses rises to the level of, say, The Black Stallion (1979), it’s a harmless tale espousing wholesome values. The notion that being selfless is its own reward may not resonate with what most of us encounter in everyday reality, but it’s a hopeful sentiment to put across—as is the idea of being compassionate toward animals.
          Rich widow Clarissa Stewart (Vera Miles) owns a horse farm in Kentucky, but always comes up short in the Derby. Concurrently, she clashes with her adult nephew, Jim (Sam Groom), a ne’er-do-well whom she hopes might one day take over the family business. Jim is friendly with Clarissa’s horse trainer, Charlie (Stuart Whitman), who lives on the Stewart farm with his Puerto Rican wife and her young son, Juanito (Panchito Gómez). One night, a mare gives birth to a lame foal sired by a horse that came in second in the Derby. After Clarissa orders the foal destroyed, Juanito begs for mercy and Clarissa gives him the animal on a whim. Overjoyed, he names the horse “Royal Champion” and raises it to adulthood. Then Juanito’s buddy Flash (Teddy Wilson), a friendly African-American guy who works on the farm, agrees to bankroll surgery on the horse’s bad leg It’s not difficult to guess what happens next—the minute Clarissa realizes Royal Champion has racing potential, she angles to retake possession.
          Were it not for the presence of Miles, Whitman, and Wilson in their roles, Run for the Roses would be quite tedious to watch. As is, scenes featuring only Gómez and the horse are slow going, since Gómez is a typical pose-and-pout Hollywood child actor. Yet Miles is so formidable, Whitman is so imposing, and Wilson is so likeable that they sell their characterizations as hard as they can. (Groom and ingénue Lisa Eilbacher, who plays his love interest, lend little more than earnestness and youthful attractiveness.) Although getting through Run for the Roses requires overlooking lots of problems, from clunky exposition to graceless photography, the picture is so innocuous and kindhearted as to be mostly palatable.

Run for the Roses: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Summerdog (1977)

The low-budget family flick Summerdog is so noxious that it manages to reflect poorly on independent filmmaking, comedy, children’s movies, and animal-centric cinema. Featuring a no-name cast, with future character actress/voice artist Estelle Harris the only notable participant, the movie suffers from dumb scripting, heinously bad acting, and shameless attempts at emotional manipulation. The pathos works about as well as the jokes, which are played so broadly as to make the viewer feel embarrassed for everyone involved in making Summerdog. (Picture lots of eye-rolling and head-tilts to sell every punch line, as well as ghastly music underscoring every would-be emotional climax) One summer, New York City history teacher Peter Norman (James Congdon) takes his family to a remote part of New England for a few months in nature. While there, Peter’s son, Adam (Oliver Zabriskie), rescues a stray dog from a raccoon trap, naming the dog “Hobo.” Naturally, the whole family falls for the dog, even skeptical matriarch Carol (Elizabeth Eisenman). As Peter says to her at one point, “Don’t tell me Hobo is worming his way into your little heart, too!” The family spends an eventful summer, including many clashes with a psychotic neighbor, before returning home to a cramped apartment, where their landlords insist no animals are allowed. Conveniently, Hobo helps the Normans reveal that the landlords are crooks, so . . . whatever. It’s all so predictable and saccharine and vapid that Summerdog quickly becomes intolerable. So who cares whether this was a sincere endeavor on the part of the filmmakers or, just as likely, a cynical effort to chase the success of Benji (1974)? Rotten is rotten, no matter the particulars.

Summerdog: LAME

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Kashmiri Run (1970)

          Mostly available for viewing by way of a chopped-up print that was dumped onto home video in the ’80s, The Kashmiri Run, also known as Tibetana, was part of Pernell Roberts’ unsuccessful run at movie stardom following his departure from the huge TV hit Bonanza in 1965. Although The Kashmiri Run is shoddy, with a murky script and questionable supporting performances, the film provides Roberts with a good showcase as an international rogue somewhat in the Humphrey Bogart mold. A sarcastic American stranded in Tibet, Gregory Nelson (Roberts) makes a deal to escort another foreigner to the Indian border following China’s invasion of Tibet. Over the course of various misadventures, Gregory reveals the heroism beneath his gruff exterior, and just as predictably, he falls in love with the beautiful woman he’s agreed to rescue. The feeblest moments of The Kashmiri Run include dopey physical comedy accentuated by cringe-inducing music, but the strongest scenes put Roberts’ he-man charm front and center.
          Near the beginning of the turgid plot, Gregory consorts with a corrupt local mayor, learning that a British geologist resides in the mayor’s village. Gregory convinces the mayor that the geologist’s patrons will seek revenge if anything befalls their man—thus Gregory contrives to escort James Fleming to safety. Alas, James, who has fallen ill, dies soon after Gregory arrives. His pretty widow, whom Gregory nicknames “Hank” (Alexandra Bastedo), refuses to believe there’s impending trouble with the Chinese, so Gregory gets her drunk and slips her out of town, beginning an odyssey through bandit territory. Accompanying them are Tibetan helpers including Gregory’s common-law wife, who also has several Tibetan husbands. “Hank” is suitably aghast at the primitivism, but Gregory’s bravery and masculinity wear down her resistance. (Feminists beware—it’s that kind of picture.)
          Tracking the plot of The Kashmiri Run isn’t the easiest task, and hardly worth the trouble. After all, the film is derivative, sexist, periodically stupid, and unattractive, with flat photography and grungy locations. (The picture was shot in Spain.) Nonetheless, it’s possible to watch The Kashmiri Run and imagine how Roberts might have excelled with better material in the same vein. He’s quite watchable, even when the movie isn’t—so those willing to search for fragments of acceptable movie embedded within the sludge of The Kashmiri Run might find some enjoyment.

The Kashmiri Run: FUNKY

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971)

          More than a year before TV viewers began visiting Walton’s Mountain on a weekly basis, the adventures of America’s favorite Depression-era family reached the small screen with The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. Adapted from the writing of Earl Hamner Jr., as was the subsequent 1972–1981 series The Waltons, the movie has a slightly different cast from the weekly series but the same nostalgic warmth. Among the actors who debuted characterizations here that continued through the weekly series is leading man Richard Thomas, who plays elder son John Boy. (The series’ much-parodied trope of all the characters saying “good night” to each other before the closing credits emerges fully formed in this first installment.) While the overarching theme of familial love and devout spirituality shielding poor people from the hardships of the outside world might strike some viewers as too sickly-sweet wholesome, the execution of this fine telefilm is sufficiently humorous, lively, and specific to make The Homecoming: A Christmas Story abundantly appealing. 
          The Homecoming: A Christmas Story is all about setting the stage for an uplifting climax, but Hamner—who wrote the script—and director Fielder Cook are so rigorous in how they pursue narrative goals that the ending feels sturdy instead of manipulative. The simple premise is that the large Walton family, living in rural Virginia, awaits the return of patriarch John Walton (Andrew Duggan), who has been forced to take a job 50 miles away and can only get home on weekends. Matriarch Olivia Walton (Patricia Neal) struggles to provide for the couple’s many children, some of whom are nearing adulthood and some of whom still anxiously await Santa. Various complications make Olivia’s task formidable. Money is too tight for extravagant gifts, and the means by which neighbors make ends meet test Olivia’s strict religious beliefs, so she’s vexed when John Boy accepts favors from a pair of biddies who sell bootleg liquor.
          Most vignettes involve humor, an emotional sucker punch of some sort, and the learning of a lesson—as when the older kids feed Bible verses to their younger siblings during a contest with Christmas gifts as a prize. Some scenes explore passages in life, such as the sequence of teenaged Mary Ellen asking John Boy about dating and kissing. Much of the plot revolves around John Boy’s awkward assumption of a surrogate-father role, a situation complicated by his secret desire to become a writer.
          All of this stuff pays off quite well, even if Hamner occasionally betrays a weakness for cutesy scripting. At his best, he channels homespun pragmatism through Olivia’s dialogue (“Santa Claus is poor this year, just like everyone else”), and his management of a huge number of speaking roles is impressive. All in all, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story provides either a satisfying one-and-done entertainment or, for those so inclined, a charming gateway into the world of the Waltons. FYI, neither Duggan nor Neal returned for the series, with their roles assumed by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, while beloved vaudeville star Edgar Bergen’s role in the pilot film as Grandfather Walton later went to Will Geer.

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story: GROOVY

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Journey Into Fear (1975)

          Featuring a random assortment of familiar faces, this Canadian production offers a pedestrian new adaptation of a 1940 spy novel previously adapted for the screen in 1943 by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. The 1975 version of Journey Into Fear is pleasant enough to watch, but because it’s almost all plot, those who don’t lock into the storyline early are likely to get bored during long exposition and/or suspense scenes featuring leading man Sam Waterston. Although he does credible work, the only fun sequences in Journey Into Fear are those with costars Donald Pleasence and Vincent Price. Pleasence combines his characteristic fidgety energy with a campy Turkish accent, while Price, taking a welcome break from playing cartoonish ghouls, lends sophistication to the role of a cold-blooded pragmatist.
          The murky plot involves geologist Graham (Waterston) visiting Turkey to explore oil resources, even as nefarious characters repeatedly try to kill him. Local cop Col. Haki (Joseph Wiseman) tells Graham he can’t leave Turkey until a criminal investigation related to one of the attempted murders is resolved, so before long Graham gets enmeshed with sketchy characters including the nervous Kuvelti (Pleasence) and the obsequious Kupelkin (Zero Mostel). Graham also begins a romance with French singer Josette (Yvette Mimieux) before finally meeting his main adversary, the suave Dervos (Price). That this brief synopsis excludes significant characters played by Ian McShane and Shelley Winters indicates both how overstuffed the storyline is and how many different types of acting are on display. Cohesion is not the order of the day.
          Appearing fairly early in his long screen career, Waterston performs with considerable authority, but because his role is so underwritten, Waterston often blends into the scenery. (One wishes Mimieux, chirping in a bad French accent, did the same.) While McShane is suitably menacing in a mostly wordless role, only Pleasence and Price bring real flair—the very quality that made the Welles/Cotten version enjoyable. It’s especially pleasurable to watch Price play someone closer to the sophisticate he was offscreen, though the villainous nature of his character keeps the role on-brand.

Journey Into Fear: FUNKY

Saturday, December 23, 2017

3.5 Million Page Views!

As Every ’70s Movie concludes its final full year of regular reviews, it’s heartening to report that traffic remains strong, so much so that yet another milestone has been reached—earlier today, this blog’s lifetime tally surpassed 3.5 million page views. As always, I’m tremendously grateful for the loyalty of regular readers and for the welome visits from folks who discover the blog in their travels through the Interwebs. Thanks to generous donations given recently, I’ve been able to view a fair number of previously unattainable movies, hence some of the obscure titles readers have noticed on the blog in the last few weeks. (The hard-to-find sequel Harrad Summer, posted earlier today, eluded me for years.) More curios are coming your way soon, including the never-released-on-video Two People, with Peter Fonda and Lindsay Wagner. Putting my eyes on that one was a direct result of donations, so thank you! (To paraphrase all the nonprofits who bombard us with requests during the holidays, please consider Every ’70s Movie in your year-end giving—every little bit helps in a tangible way.) Even with seven years of continuous daily posting in the rear-view mirror, the fun isn’t over just yet. Expect two or three more months of daily posting before this project runs its course—and watch for updates in the new year on possible future evolutions of this project. Meantime, as always, keep on keepin’ on!

Harrad Summer (1974)

          Adapted from a provocative novel, The Harrad Experiment (1973) depicted a fictional college where two professors paired random coeds into romantic couples with a goal of helping young people shake off societal hangups about sex. Despite dippy scripting, the movie did well enough to prompt a sequel, and the folks behind the follow-up came up with a sensible premise: After a year of free love on campus, what happens when the kids participating in the Harrad Experiment go home to their families over the summer? Don Johnson and Bruno Kirby, the male leads of the first film, declined to appear in the sequel and their roles were recast, but Victoria Thompson and Laurie Walters, the female leads, returned to play their original characters.
          Written in a surprisingly intelligent style by Mort Thaw and Steve Zacharias, Harrad Summer uses an episodic structure—the kids are instructed to keep journals, so the film is divided into four “journal entries,” each one ostensibly told from the perspective of one character. This device doesn’t entirely work, but it was a good try. Similarly, the sociocultural stance of the picture makes sense. By depicting the families of the four students, the filmmakers get to explore four different attitudes toward human sexuality. One boy’s parents are simple immigrants who can’t wrap their heads around free love, and one girl’s father is a rich prick driven mad by the notion that some young stud has sullied his daughter. The picture also gets heavy into gender issues, with the guys from the Harrad Experiment having affairs while their female counterparts gravitate toward monogamy.
          For those concerned with the movies plot, Stanley (Robert Reiser, in for Johnson) swings with a hometown girlfriend after feeling restrained by fidelity on campus; Henry (Doran, in for Kirby) feels queasy after fooling around and also clashes with his businessman father (Bill Dana); sexy Beth (Thompson) reconnects with a photographer for whom she used to model; and plain Sheila (Walters) finds herself torn between her affection for Stanley and her need for self-respect. The most amusing and/or poignant scenes involve Henry, hapless with women and nervous around adults. Also worth mentioning are comedy bits involving Dana, as Henry’s overbearing father, because even with a bit too much melodramatic eye-rolling, Dana contributes the film’s most skilled performance. Harrad Summer also has a more lively spectrum of locations than the first film, venturing into a a crowded factory, a noisy county fair, a dingy motel, a stately mansion, and other places. Naturally, the subject matter allows the filmmakers to include a fair amount of nudity, as in an amusing scene of square adults disrobing by a pool while trying to emulate their kids' uninhibited grooviness.
          Quite a bit of what happens in Harrad Summer is sensitive and thoughtful, and the cast mostly delivers proficient work. (Doran is the standout among the kids.) Had director Steven Hilliard Stern and his collaborators kept things brisk and tight, Harrad Summer might have exceeded its mediocre predecessor in quality. Alas, the sequel drags on and on, sprawling over a needlessly long-winded 103 minutes. (Fortunately, the filmmakers regroup for a satisfying final stretch.) In its best moments, Harrad Summer nearly justifies its existence—but whenever the movie stumbles, it grinds pointlessly through been-there/done-that plot machinations.

Harrad Summer: FUNKY

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tender Loving Care (1973)

Although most of his sexy-nurse flicks were released through New World Pictures, Roger Corman issued Tender Loving Care through one of his other entities, Filmgroup. Like its New World counterparts, Tender Loving Care follows the private and professional adventures of three young women who room together while working at the same hospital. Yet while the New World sexy-nurse movies had glimmers of style as well as pretentions to social relevance, Tender Loving Care is written, photographed, and acted in the rudimentary fashion of a porno movie, telling a stupidly melodramatic story that climaxes with a ridiculous explosion of violence. Naturally, each of the three ladies has a showcase sex scene, and of course there’s a rape sequence. That said, does Tender Loving Care have any redeeming qualities? Depends how you define that notion. The liveliest scenes involve minor cult-fave actor George “Buck” Flower, appearing here clean-shaven instead of with his usual frontier-coot drag. He plays a demented orderly whose sexual violation of a nurse involves lots of creepy ad-libs about which nipple she wants him to pinch next. Just as frequent Corman collaborator Dick Miller added a welcome blast of energy to some of the New World nurse movies, Flower enlivens brief stretches of Tender Loving Care with compelling weirdness. The movie also has ’70s texture to burn, including a long sequence of a hot R&B band playing in a pimped-out nightclub. Speaking of ’70s texture, this review should not omit the dirt-bike rider who brings a girl back to his swingin’ bachelor pad so she can writhe on his waterbed while he sucks her toes.

Tender Loving Care: LAME

Thursday, December 21, 2017

When the Line Goes Through (1973)

          Soon after collaborating on the intimate Civil War drama No Drums, No Bugles (1972), actor Martin Sheen and writer-director Clyde Ware reteamed for this offbeat modern-day piece, which is primarily a drama but also has elements of whimsical comedy. In addition to sharing some of the same storytelling problems that plagued the previous Sheen/Ware collaboration, When the Line Goes Through suffers from bizarre narrative elements, a hideous musical score, and tonal dissonance. It’s far less satisfying as a viewing experience than No Drums, No Bugles—and the preceding film was not fantastic. Nonetheless, certain qualities slightly redeem When the Line Goes Through. First, West Virginia native Ware brings authenticity to his explorations of Southern identity, so the honesty of his writing ameliorates his lack of skill. Second, a recurring device of ironic cutaways, wherein visuals reveal the truth behind a character’s verbal lies, adds dimension. Third, Sheen is always a pleasure to watch, no matter the circumstances.
          The movie opens by establishing Bluff Jackson (Sheen) as a drifter making his way from the Southwest to the backwoods of West Virginia, where he stumbles onto a remote house occupied by three people. Twentysomething sisters Mayme (Davey Davison) and Rayme (Beverly Washburn) care for their aging great-grandfather (Jim Boles), whom they claim is a 130-year-old Civil War veteran who fought on both sides of that conflict. Bluff spends several days at the house, romancing both sisters while spinning tale tales about his past to impress the sheltered women, who have never explored the world beyond their property. (Never mind the question of where they get groceries.)
          Although Ware never seems quite sure what he’s after—beyond the basic notion of putting a worldly swindler together with impressionable rubes—watching the filmmaker struggle to find a storyline is not completely uninteresting. He comes up with a few effective devices, such as having the sisters wear identical dresses so Bluff has difficulty telling them apart, and the sexual heat between Bluff and the sisters adds tension. It helps that the movie is very short, running about 77 minutes. That said, When the Line Goes Through is not for everyone—in fact, most viewers are likely to find the movie confusing and dull and frustrating. (Again: that awful, awful music.) Yet if nothing else, When the Line Goes Through is that rare beast, a truly handmade cinematic relic, almost outsider art. Viewed unfavorably, it’s a botched attempt at something profound. Viewed generously, it’s a strange little exercise in personal expression.

When the Line Goes Through: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dr. Minx (1975)

Notorious for her carnal abandon in onetime husband Russ Meyer’s movies and for cavorting naked at Cannes, Z-lister Edy Williams earned what appears to have been her first and last starring role outside adult films with this sloppy comedy/drama/thriller hybrid. Her mesmerizingly bad performance is the only reason to watch the movie, and it’s especially fun to watch her share the screen with B-movie icon William Smith. In other contexts, Smith’s acting often seems limited, but when performing alongside Williams, he seems like a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Anyway, Williams plays Dr. Carol Evans, a physician who recently conspired with her lover, Gus (Smith), to kill her rich husband for a $500,000 inheritance. When Gus begins blackmailing her, Dr. Evans seduces a young motorcycle-accident patient named Brian (Randy Boone), hoping he’ll help her kill Gus. Written and directed by bottom-feeding sexploitation guy Hikmet Avedis, Dr. Minx seems unsure which path to follow. Sometimes it’s a bargain-basement riff on Double Indemnity (1944), sometimes it’s a sex comedy, and sometimes it tries to play scenes straight—despite Williams delivering most of her dialogue in a Marilyn Monroe coo while her low-cut dresses fight a losing battle to contain her breasts. Especially weird is a subplot about Brian’s buddy, David (Harvey Jason), becoming an amateur sleuth. The subplot culminates with David imitating Peter Falk’s Columbo character in one scene, rumpled raincoat and all. Excepting those who find visions of a disrobed Williams captivating, only viewers who savor inept cinema will truly enjoy Dr. Minx.

Dr. Minx: LAME

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rooster: Spurs of Death! (1977)

          Perhaps no factoid gives a better sense of how strange American cinema got in the ’70s than this—the decade produced at least three movies about cockfighting, the illegal sport in which chickens kill each other while gamblers cheer the pointless bloodshed. First came Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974), a periodically mesmerizing character piece starring the great Warren Oates. Then came Fowl Play a/k/a Supercock (1975), a low-rent comedy with Ross Hagen. And closing out the cycle was Rooster, later given the sensationally extended title Rooster: Spurs of Death! Deliberately or otherwise, this third film combines elements of its predecessors, making for a strange viewing experience. Rooster wobbles between earnest drama and lighthearted comedy, so it’s a sort of deranged rural epic even though it’s only 91 minutes long. The only reasonable reaction one can muster after the movie runs its course is confusion.
          When respected sportsman Kink (Jeff Corey) announces a match with a big purse, perennially unlucky trainer Stoke (Gene Bicknell) conjures a scheme—he’ll enter his impressionable son, Wyatt (Vincent Van Patten), as a contestant, hoping that people will bet big against the young man, unaware that he’s secretly trained for years to achieve cockfighting glory. In one subplot, Stoke’s long-suffering wife (Ruda Lee) rekindles her courtship with a wealthy gambler (Ty Hardin) who wants to marry her. In another subplot, a slutty Southern belle (Amy Johnston) teases men including a volatile little person named Chicken (Tommy Madden). And in yet another subplot, Wyatt reconnects with a high-school buddy (Kristine DeBell) who’s now working in a brothel.
          You begin to see where the whole “epic” notion enters the conversation, because it’s worth reiterating that Rooster runs just 91 minutes—with this many characters and storylines, everything is handled superficially, and transitions between different narrative threads are sketchy. As a case in point, the scenes between the wife and the gambler are fairly intelligent, but vignettes of Stoke tooling down country roads with Wyatt and their mute African-American pal Billy (Charles Fort) seem extracted from a Burt Reynolds picture. The road scenes even have their own theme song, featuring the lyrics, “Here we come from far away, bringing with us the death on wings!”
          Yet it’s impossible to dismiss Rooster as pure drive-in trash. Firstly, there’s the aforementioned kaleidoscopic quality, all jarring rhythms and wrong notes. Secondly, some scenes have a demented sort of artistry. In particular, the vignettes with Corey—a fine character actor—radiate weird heartland poetry, as when Corey’s character holds a barnful of cockfighters rapt with quasi-Biblical speechifying. Similarly, scenes in which characters praise the nobility of cockfighting are inherently perverse. And just as Hellman did in Cockfighter, director Brice Mack employs slow-motion during cockfights, complementing balletic shots of battling birds with discordant music to create an eerie effect.
          Some intrepid soul should try programming a double feature of this picture and the equally inappropriate Mr. No Legs (1978) just to see if any viewers can endure the whole program.

Rooster: Spurs of Death!: FREAKY

Monday, December 18, 2017

Ice (1970)

          While it’s probable that the microbudgeted political-action movie Ice received only a tiny theatrical release back in the day, it nonetheless qualifies as a minor historical artifact. Ice represents a very specific sort of political cinema—call it “notes from the underground.” Just as the film was plainly designed to energize receptive audiences with precious little hope of converting skeptics, the movie holds minor appeal when appraised with modern sensibilities. Those on the far left will be more sympathetic to the attitudes and grungy style of the picture, while those in the center and on the right are more likely to find watching Ice pointless. After all, the 130-minute drama is a black-and-white experimental piece that occasionally features text passages and culminates with a crude sequence using children’s toys and miniature sets to express overt statements about power structures in society.
          Reduced to its simplest level, the plot is about a consortium of revolutionary groups trying to align their agendas for combined action against the Establishment during the time of the Vietnam War. Much of the film comprises long debates among young people with clashing ideas regarding how best to trigger social change, so there’s an interesting trope about freedom-of-speech warriors airing grievances so openly they can’t agree on anything. A little of this material, however, goes a long way—and there’s a lot of this material.
          Also featured are brief vignettes of violence inflicted upon activists. Some of these scenes are vicious, as when thugs perform some sort of genital mutilation on a male activist; although that moment isn’t explicit, it unfolds, painfully, in real time. And then there are bits that tick the requisite ’70s-freakshow box, like the sequence of experimental-theater players crawling around a stage while wearing pig masks. It’s not fair to say that Ice is impenetrable, since writer-director Robert Kramer’s political stance is obvious from start to finish. But there’s pronounced dissonance between accessible scenes of humans interacting and clumsy stretches featuring representative imagery. Particularly dubious is the aforementioned final scene, during which a toy-sized nuclear missile humps a robot toy bearing the label “Ruling Class.”


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Savage Wild (1970)

         During the late ’60s and early ’70s, naturalist Gordon Eastman served as actor, cinematographer, director, and/or producer while making several pictures about life in Wyoming and the Yukon. Some were marketed as documentaries and some were sold as fiction films, but if The Savage Wild is any indication, Eastman favored a hybrid style in which he fabricated scenes he wasn’t able to capture organically. Clearly, Eastman possessed some skill and tenacity, because The Savage Wild contains competently shot vignettes of animals frolicking in wilderness. Just as clearly, however, he lacked a distinctive point of view. In its dullest moments, The Savage Wild plays like an anemic imitation of countless similar pictures from Disney. And in its most exciting moments, of which there are precious few, The Savage Wild comes across like a shameless knockoff of Farley Mowat’s 1963 book Never Cry Wolf. (The real screen adaptation of Never Cry Wolf, released in 1983 by Disney, is one of the greatest outdoor films of all time.)
          Dragging along for 103 harmless but tiresome minutes, The Savage Wild mostly records Eastman’s attempts to raise wolf pups in captivity for vaguely scientific reasons. Over the course of the movie, he captures, nurtures, and releases two sets of wolves, occasioning lots of aww-inducing scenes of cute puppies growling and playing. Clumsily grafted onto the picture are badly acted dramatic scenes in which Eastman clashes with a professional wolf hunter, though the implied threat the hunter poses to the pups never materializes. Much of the film features post-production sound layered onto silent footage, so if you find Eastman’s narration dull, your patience will be tested. However, if the occasional glimpse of caribou coupling sounds interesting, The Savage Wild is for you. FYI, the other movies comprising Eastman’s quasi-fictional oeuvre are Never Look Back (1973) and Free as the Wind (1974), while his pure documentaries are High, Wild and Free (1968) and Trail of the Wild (1974).

The Savage Wild: FUNKY

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975)

          Like George Romero’s disturbing Martin (1978), this low-budget shocker is a vampire movie without vampires. Starring the elegantly pretty Cristina Ferrare, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary has as many weaknesses as it does strengths. On the positive side, the movie is mildly erotic and mildly spooky, with slick photography and evocative locations. On the minus side, the acting is sterile, the pacing is far too slow, and director Juan López Moctezuma lacks the breadth of visual imagination needed to put something like this across. Some viewers will lose interest partway through Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary because so much time elapses between exciting scenes, and it’s true that much of Ferrare’s appeal stems from her fashion-model beauty. Just as her performance suggests a world of emotional experience rather than properly expressing those emotions, the movie as a whole feels like a rough draft. Nonetheless, the film travels an interesting path by forcing viewers to ask whether the lead character is a supernatural monster or merely disturbed.
          Set in Mexico, the picture follows the travels of a painter named Mary (Ferrare), who has a nasty habit of murdering the men and women she meets. Specifically, she seduces them, weakens them with spiked drinks, then removes a hairpin and punctures their throats so she can drink their blood. Yet Mary feels conflicted about what she does, and she’s haunted by visions/memories of the mystery man (John Carradine) who triggered her murderous impulses. The particulars of the plot are neither clear nor significant, but the gist is that Mary falls for Ben (David Young) and tries to end her lethal cycle so she can be with him. Meanwhile, the mystery man chases Mary across Mexico, setting the stage for a final confrontation.
          In its best moments, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary has something approaching an art-movie vibe. For instance, a long lesbian seduction scene features mirrors, striking costumes, and deliberate pacing. In its worst moments, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary feels like drive-in schlock. One crude sequence features Mary writhing atop a lover/victim while the camera pointlessly cuts back and forth between Mary’s face and objects d’art around the room. Carradine’s appearance is especially problematic. In most scenes, his character is obviously portrayed by a stunt double. Moreover, the costuming of Carradine’s character recalls that of the old pulp character the Shadow, right down to the high collars and wide-brimmed hat. In sum, those who avoid this movie aren’t missing much—but those who give it a chance will discover an offbeat experience.

Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary: FUNKY