Thursday, August 31, 2017

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)

          While undoubtedly perceived as bold—perhaps even shocking—during its original release, the prison drama Fortune and Man’s Eyes has aged in complicated ways. Not only have decades of subsequent films and television shows expanded the cultural conversation about rape behind bars (the main focus of this film’s narrative), but attitudes toward the gay experience in general have changed. It’s therefore tricky to appraise Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which exists somewhere between a museum piece, reflective of outdated perspectives, and a sociocultural artifact, capturing viewpoints midway through an important transformation. Is this picture sensationalistic trash, forefronting sexual abuse as a means of getting attention? Or is it a serious study of male psychology, using the framework of prison violence as a means of exploring broader issues? Different viewers will read the picture in different ways, so perhaps it’s best to simply say that Fortune and Men’s Eyes is committed, disciplined, and intense. Whatever ambitions the film fails to realize, it’s not for lack of trying. After all, the narrative was developed and reshaped many times while John Herbert wrote the 1967 stage play of the same name, from which this film was adapted. Herbert penned the screenplay and Harvey Hart directed.
          Set almost entirely behind bars, the film tracks the journey of Smitty (Wendell Burton), a young—and, not unimportantly, straight—man imprisoned for the first time. Despite trying to keep distance from fellow inmates, Smitty becomes a target for his cellmate, Rocky (Zooey Hall), who demands sex in exchange for protection, or else “you’re gonna spread for the whole cellblock.” Sex is the dominant currency in this film’s prison culture, so in one horrific scene, an inmate is methodically gang-raped while nearly the entire prison population—inclusive of cons and guards—listens to his agonized whimpering. Notwithstanding various subplots, particularly the adventures of a drag performer named Queenie (Michael Greer), the core of Fortune and Men’s Eyes involves Smitty’s response to Rocky’s abuse. In the broadest strokes, the film is about how prison changes Smitty from a relative innocent to something very different. 
          The film’s performances are mostly strong, though some actors play characters far removed from everyday human reality, and Hart’s camerawork is often quite imaginative, especially in terms of metaphorically confining actors behind out-of-focus objects. As for Herbert’s dialogue, it runs the gamut from realistic to stylized, and ideas are expressed clearly. So in terms of appraisal, it’s back to the nature of the piece. Is Fortune and Men’s Eyes exploitive? And if so, is it exploitive for a worthy purpose? That those answers feel elusive may be reason enough to advise wariness.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sign of Aquarius (1970)

In the spirit of starting with a compliment, it’s novel that Sign of Aquarius examines the counterculture as it manifested in the Midwest rather than coastal cities, which received most of the attention in flicks about hippies. Made in Cleveland, Sign of Aquarius explores the dynamics in a commune whose participants distribute pamphlets and join political demonstrations. Had director Robert J. Emery and his collaborators stuck to the verité approach that distinguishes scenes of hippies interacting with everyday citizens in downtown Cleveland, the picture would have made for a better time capsule. Alas, the filmmakers tried to integrate clashes with police, race relations, and romantic melodrama, none of which is handled particularly well, and the combination of mediocre acting and stilted writing gets tiresome. Plus, by 1970, moviegoers had already encountered plenty of flicks with dialogue like this: “It’s not the ultimate way of life, but it’s a good one if it’s what you want.” (Similarly, the opening-titles song features a singer warbling about kids who “don’t dig being classified by society’s game.”) The meandering plot revolves around debauched commune leader Sonny (Paul Elliot), while most of the political stuff is carried by Mousie (Jim Coursar), an activist African-American. (He frets about the Man quite a bit.) Some elements are pointlessly lurid, such as a blood-ritual sequence that was added when the film was reissued, bogusly, as a blaxploitation joint with the moniker Ghetto Freaks. Other elements are pointlessly heavy-handed, notably the over-the-top climax. About the only stuff that resonates is procedural material showing how the commune survives, such as the vignette of kids passing the same bus passes back and forth so they can steal rides on public transportation. More of that sort of thing would have gone a long way.

Sign of Aquarius: LAME

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975)

After Bruce Lee died, shameless producers exploited his likeness and name in every way imaginable, whether that involved repurposing footage from unfinished projects, giving similar-sounding stage names to random performers, or, as in the case of this wretched flick, constructing entire plots around the circumstances of Lee’s death. A mindless Hong Kong/US coproduction, The Black Dragon’s Revenge stars formidable African-American martial artist Ron Van Clief as a kung-fu fighter hired to investigate Lee’s demise. Never mind trying to figure out the identity of the fellow who hires him, or why that fellow is willing to spend $100,000 on the investigation, because the storytelling here is so wretched that very little of what happens onscreen makes sense. In any event, once Van Clief’s character gets to Hong Kong, he hooks up with an old buddy, a white martial artist played by Charles Bonet, and they playfully spar before joining forces. Apparently Bonet’s character is a military veteran who lingered in the Far East after his service in Vietnam concluded. Eventually, the dudes begin prowling through Hong Kong and tussling with various nefarious types, including a villain who yanks eyes from sockets, and a villainess who lobs snakes. Van Clief cuts an impressive figure, and he seems quite skilled with all the chopping and kicking and whatnot, but there’s nothing to enjoy here beyond martial-arts exhibitions, because the movie is confusing, disjointed, and schlocky. FYI, Van Clief made several other pictures in Hong Kong—perhaps they were better showcases for his talents.

The Black Dragon’s Revenge: LAME

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Death Collector (1976)

          While it hardly qualifies as an essential entry in the ’70s crime-cinema canon, low-budget indie The Death Collector—more widely distributed under the title Family Enforcer—gets the dirty job done. Set amid the ambition, betrayal, and violence of New York City goodfellas, the movie borrows a bit of Francis Coppola’s novelistic style, as well as a bit of Martin Scorsese’s gritty swagger. In other words, there are many good reasons why The Death Collector didn’t create major career opportunities for its writer-director, Ralph De Vito. Although his work here is basically competent, the picture is so derivative (and so plainly juiced by editing-room fixes) that it falls well short of being an impressive cinematic debut. In fact, but for the presence of one supporting actor, it’s probable The Death Collector would have slipped into oblivion long ago.
          Joe Pesci, later to find stardom as a tough guy in Scorsese pictures, plays his first significant film role here as a hoodlum in the protagonist’s orbit. His performance is more inventive and vital than anything else onscreen, and during one memorable bit, when his character pelts an effeminate lounge singer with peanuts for the crime of playing “Beautiful Dreamer,” Pesci presages his many onscreen outbursts of cheerful psychosis. Alas, Pesci’s character is a relatively small part of the mix, and the actor at the center of The Death Collector is far less interesting to watch.
          Joe Cortese, affecting a stiff De Niro Lite quality, stars as Jerry, an ex-con who uses old Mafia connections while starting a new career as a debt collector. As the movie progresses, he evolves from a generic thug to a slick crook with a briefcase and a suit. Unsurprisingly, he makes enemies, so midway through the story he’s shot and nearly killed—but, of course, he survives to seek revenge. Although the plot is pedestrian, De Vito deserves some credit for creating Scorsese-esque authenticity during scenes of thugs hanging out in bars and restaurants and the like. Nonetheless, if there’s a compelling reason for watching The Death Collector, beyond enjoying Pesci’s work, that reason is not immediately apparent on first viewing.

The Death Collector: FUNKY

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Strawberries Need Rain (1970)

          If it’s possible to imagine an existential fable crossed with a sexploitation flick, Strawberries Need Rain is just such a cinematic experience. Some sequences represent attempts at lyricism, though the would-be visual poetry is mitigated by clumsy acting and slipshod technical execution. Meanwhile, other sequences are unapologetically prurient—leading lady Monica Gayle’s breasts receive so much screen time they nearly qualify as supporting characters. More than anything, Strawberries Need Rain comes across as endearingly pretentious. There’s a certain handmade quality to the piece, no matter how enervated the storyline, how leaden the pacing, and how silly the depiction of death as a walking-and-talking character. By the time the silly twist ending comes around, Strawberries Need Rain attains the vibe of a well-intentioned student film, albeit one with an extraordinary number of topless shots.
          The picture starts out in a goofy fashion, with the character representing death—an old dude dressed in black, carrying a scythe, and known as The Reaper (Les Tremayne)—speaking directly to the camera while he wanders through a graveyard. “It is sad to topple a bud before it flowers,” he mopes, “but such is my task.” Cut to Erika (Gayle) skinny-dipping in a watering hole while a neighbor boy spies on her through nearby bushes. If the intention was to visually align Erika’s sexuality with her vitality, fair enough. Later, The Reaper attacks Erika, but she fights back with logic: Because she was thought dead for an entire day during her infancy, Erika claims that she’s owed one more day of life. The Reaper agrees. Again, fair enough.
          Thereafter, Strawberries Need Rain begins a steady slide downward, because Erika spends the rest of the movie trying to get laid, the notion being that she doesn’t want to end her mortal existence without knowing physical pleasure. First she tries seducing the voyeuristic neighbor boy, but he’s so intimidated that he can’t make it past foreplay. Next Erika encounters a biker who can’t get off unless he’s committing rape. The nature of the guy with whom she’s finally able to do the deed, and what happens after, provides what little surprise Strawberries Need Rain has to offer. Burdened with many long and repetitive montages, thos picture will test the patience of most viewers. But if Don Quixote references, harpsichord music, and lingering looks at a nubile starlet stimulate your pleasure centers, this one’s for you.

Strawberries Need Rain: FUNKY

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Gentle Savage (1973)

          Basically a riff on Billy Jack (1971) without the hippy-dippy speechifying and pretentions to political significance, Gentle Savage stars B-movie muscleman William Smith as “Camper” John Allen, an impoverished Native American who stumbles into a hassle with racist white people. Cheaply made and tonally inconsistent, the picture is little more than a brisk drive-in distraction, and the angsty leading role of pushes Smith’s limited acting abilities past their limits. What’s more, cowriter/director Sean MacGregor demonstrates only borderline competence, so the characterizations are stereotypical, the escalation of violence is predictable, and the oh-the-humanity pathos permeating the piece is trite. Yet taken for what it is, Gentle Savage (sometimes marketed as Camper John, hence the above poster) more or less gets the mindless job done. Naturally, those predisposed toward grooving on Smith’s singular screen persona, all growling primitivism and sinewy intensity, will get more out of the experience than others—even though his big crying scene is dodgy, Smith is interesting to watch whenever he expresses simplistic moods of anger, lust, and rebellion.
          John’s trouble begins one night at a dive bar, where hot-to-trot white girl Betsy Schaeffer (C.J. Hincks) propositions him. Initially refusing her advances, since he’s got a wife and kid at home, John unwisely accepts her offer of cash in exchange for a ride home on his motorcycle. Upon reaching her place, Betsy yanks John into bed, but then Betsy’s racist father, Kent (Kevin Hagen), arrives in time to swear vengeance against the escaping John. Later, Kent rapes his daughter and blames the crime on John, setting up a fugitive situation that enflames simmering racial tensions. Most of what follows is straightforward, excepting perhaps the “comedy” bits during which two white cops are stranded in the desert wearing nothing but underwear. Still, Gentle Savage hits the required notes of civil unrest, horrific violence, and martyrdom. Those seeking a race-relations drama with depth and relevance will be disappointed, but those seeking a straight shot of action-infused melodrama might find the picture adequate.

Gentle Savage: FUNKY

Friday, August 25, 2017

Did Baby Shoot Her Sugardaddy? (1972)

Low-budget slop with elements of crime and sexploitation, plus a few anemic attempts at humor, Did Baby Shoot Her Sugardaddy? packs nearly all of its appeal into a memorable title. To be fair, the picture has a hint of the kinkiness the moniker suggests, what with a mother/daughter seduction team and a transvestite hostess welcoming guests to a Mafia-operated brothel. Yet Jean Van Hearn proves inept as both writer and director, the cheap production values suit the clumsy storytelling, and the picture gets bogged down with interminable scenes of strippers grinding away onstage. Simply as a relief from tedium, the best moment is a nonsensical sequence during which a cop interrogates a stripper until she opens a closet, and out staggers a giant hoodlum who groans and stretches his arms like Frankenstein’s monster—thus triggering a brawl accompanied by sassy go-go music. It’s an idiotic sequence, but at least it’s something. The confusing story revolves around a missing briefcase containing $1 million in Mob money. A cop, who either works for the Mob or the police or both, gets tasked with investigating whether a dead gangster’s sexy wife, Yvonne, or her equally alluring daughter, Baby, murdered the gangster to steal his money, and whether the women know of the money’s whereabouts. Somehow this leads to the cop sleeping with Yvonne while Baby secretly takes pictures of the encounter. And so on. At its most discombobulated, Did Baby Shoot Her Sugardaddy? edges into horror, thanks to a scene of Yvonne seducing a dude while her husband’s corpse rots under a nearby bed. Long story short, this one’s to be avoided except by connoisseurs of crap.

Did Baby Shoot Her Sugardaddy?: LAME

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Frasier, the Sensuous Lion (1973)

          Stories about shy young men receiving lessons in love from aging lotharios are fairly commonplace, and so too are stories about humans gaining deeper understandings about life by bonding with animals. Blending these archetypal narratives was a strange idea, but that’s what happens in Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, sometimes more timidly titled Frasier, the Loveable Lion. The plot revolves around a meek zoologist who becomes friends with an aging African lion. The animal has two remarkable qualities. First, he maintains extraordinary virility despite being the equivalent of an 80-year-old man, and second, he can telepathically communicate with the zookeeper. Somehow, the plot also involves a mobster with (implied) erectile dysfunction, a pair of bumbling hit men, and a public craze during which media reports about Frasier inspire countless Americans of a certain age to get frisky. You might begin to wonder if Frasier, the Sensuous Lion is an outrageous satire, but excepting one pointless f-bomb, it’s a tame picture with a PG rating. Because, hey, isn’t a lighthearted movie about a jungle cat with a preternaturally potent phallus suitable for viewers of nearly all ages?
          Marvin Feldman (Michael Callan) is a 34-year-old zoology professor who still lives with his domineering Jewish mother. He’s thrilled to receive an invitation to work at a nature preserve in Southern California, so he schleps his luggage and his pet bird across the country to begin his new adventure. Upon reaching California, Marvin inexplicably requests and receives permission to take a lion cub back to his hotel room. Somehow, this isn’t a red flag for his new coworkers. The next morning, Marvin is shocked that the cub trashed his hotel room while Marvin slept. Again, Marvin is a zoologist; one imagines he didn’t receive great marks in animal-behavior classes. Soon Marvin is assigned to study Frasier, patriarch of a pride with seven lionesses, all of whom Frasier satisfies regularly.
          Once they’re alone, Frasier begins transmitting messages into Marvin’s mind, explaining in voiceover (performed by Victor Jory) that he has special mental powers. Frasier talks about other things, too—and talks and talks and talks. He jokes about lions eating Christians in ancient Rome, he rhapsodizes about his first love (“her fur was the texture of spun gold”), and he whines about insatiable lionesses. Eventually Marvin’s coworkers learn about his “conversations” with the big cat, and word leaks to the press. As Frasier achieves stardom, seemingly every character in the story becomes sex-crazed. The preserve’s hot secretary, Minerva (Lori Saunders), warns tough-guy game warden Bill (Malachi Throne) not to watch Frasier in action, because doing makes Bill horny. Another preserve worker, Allison (Katherine Justice), becomes amorous around Marvin. A mobster sends hoods to kidnap Marvin so the mobster can learn the “secret” of Frasier’s virility. All of this is played straight, with nobody questioning the idea of fetishizing an animal’s sex lifein one scene, a geezer flashes his Frasier T-shirt as a means of communicating to his nurse that he got laid the night before.
          Frasier, the Sensuous Lion is the sort of odd movie that raises vexing questions. Who thought this was a good idea? Did no one realize the project was in poor taste? Who was the intended audience? And here’s the kicker. This movie was based on a true story. There really was a Frasier at a preserve in Laguna Hills circa 1972, and he really did get busy with the ladies. In fact, before this film was released, the big cat’s exploits were celebrated in a song called “Frasier (The Sensuous Lion)” by jazz great Sarah Vaughan. Don’t ask why—it was the ’70s, man.

Frasier, the Sensuous Lion: FREAKY

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Garden of the Dead (1972)

Had director John Hayes and his collaborators plunged deeper into the inherent weirdness of their story, Garden of the Dead could have become a trash-cinema masterpiece, because the narrative involves zombies addicted to huffing formaldehyde. Unfortunately, Hayes and Co. played Garden of the Dead straight, so conventional execution clashes with the goofy premise. Not helping matters are limp performances by a no-name cast. Some fright-flick fans might be able to groove on Garden of the Dead for its slavish adherence to zombie-cinema clichés and for the handful of scenes that tip into camp, but most viewers will find the picture dumb, flat, and slight. The action starts at prison work camp, where studly Paul Johnson (Marland Proctor) is among the inmates. His pretty young wife, Carol (Susan Charney), visits one day, and viewers get the general sense he might have been wrongly convicted. In any event, Paul and several other prisoners amuse themselves by huffing formaldehyde. (Never mind the way guards fail to notice the convicts periodically disappearing into a shed where chemicals are stored.) When Paul and his cronies stage an unsuccessful prison break, the evil warden punishes them by leaving the inmates stranded in a remote wooded area. Zombies emerge from the ground, killing the crooks and transforming them into the undead. Now zombified, Paul and his pals attack Carol’s Winnebago, then chase her when she drives to the prison for help. The monsters attack the prison, abruptly switching their motivation from menacing Carol to getting more of that sweet, sweet formaldehyde. Whatever. Creatures lay siege, would-be victims fight back with shotguns, and so on. Excepting the weird but woefully underdeveloped drug angle, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

Garden of the Dead: LAME

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

43: The Richard Petty Story (1972)

          At the time this biopic about NASCAR’s winningest driver was made, stock-car racing hadn’t yet vaulted from regional popularity in the South to nationwide notoriety. (Races didn’t find their way to national television until a few years later.) That might explain why only meager resources were brought to bear on this project, for which producers likely expected only limited exhibition opportunities. All of which is a polite way of saying that 43: The Richard Petty Story, which sorta-kinda stars Petty as himself, is a cheap-looking quickie with a dopey script, juiced only slightly by the inclusion of footage from real NASCAR races. It’s not much of a tribute to a sport’s reigning champ, but one gets the impression that no one involved took the project seriously, excepting of course Petty himself. As to the remark about him “sorta-kinda” starring, chances are the producers quickly realized that Petty had zero acting talent and not much more charisma, hence relegating him to a minor supporting role despite the presence of his name in the title. Much more screen time is devoted to seasoned actor Darren McGavin, who plays Petty’s father.
          The flick opens with a simple framing device. After Richard wipes out in a race, his father, Lee Petty (McGavin), gathers with family members at a hospital to await news of Richard’s condition. This triggers memories of the time when Lee stumbled into a career as a stock-car racer during the sport’s early days. Specifically, Lee tried to buy a car from a redneck, only to get trapped in the car—alongside young Richard—while the redneck, a moonshine runner, sped down country roads to avoid capture by police. Exposure to fast cars, combined with other circumstances (such as the family home burning down), prompted Lee to become a racer, albeit one prone to costly wipeouts and fierce competitiveness. Eventually, Richard joined the family trade, and in one scene Lee berates officials into changing the results of a race awarding Richard’s win to Lee. If there was an interesting drama, or even a lively comedy, to be found in this material, the folks behind 43: The Richard Petty Story missed those opportunities. Beyond its minor historical interest and the lively textures of McGavin’s performance, the movie comprises 83 minutes of noisy nonsense. Whether or not the title alone gets your motor running should provide  a good indication of how much you’ll enjoy the film.

43: The Richard Petty Story: FUNKY

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Blazer Girls (1975)

After an initial theatrical run under its original title, The Blazer Girls, this cringe-worthy sex comedy hit screens again with an even more salacious moniker, Naughty Schoolgirls. By any name, the flick is quite dull, despite a few weak jokes derived from the story’s private-school setting. The plot concerns a group of nubile students who want to purchase a new bell for their beloved school. While that might seem innocuous, wait for the kicker—to raise money, the young ladies sell sexual favors. Oh, well. Things get off to an almost-promising start when an alluring literature teacher gets her students’ motors running with racy poetry, which acknowledges that the young ladies have brains. Later, girls complain about their limited financial opportunities, to the maudlin accompaniment of electric-piano noodling on the soundtrack. More elements like these would have given The Blazer Girls a welcome measure of humanity. Instead, sleaze rules. A running gag about a freaky security guard culminates with the fellow getting caught ripping the panties off a student. Another running gag, about a desperately horny male teacher, lampoons the dude’s failure to perform after agreeing to pay for sex. Despite its focus on carnality, The Blazer Girls is tame by the standards of other mid-’70s sexploitation romps. (For instance, there’s only one extended scene of people grinding away, and it’s played for romance instead of pure titillation.) Watching The Blazer Girls, it seems as if director Jean-Paul Scardino and his collaborators might have started the process with aspirations to making something respectable. Whether they lowered their sights because creating a real movie proved challenging, or because the money people wanted something closer to softcore, doesn’t really matter. The end result is a movie not worth anyone’s time.

The Blazer Girls: LAME

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Under Milk Wood (1972)

          Forgive a digression. Over the course of many years spent writing film criticism, I’ve held a number of different attitudes toward rating systems. Generally, I find them reductive and unhelpful except in aggregate, which is to say that only by combining multiple perspectives can one find useful short-take analysis. Then again, to say that the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes paradigm has shortcomings is to grossly understate things. So when it came time to apply a rubric to ’70s movies for this project, I was hesitant but ultimately decided some framework would be enjoyable for readers. If nothing else, looking at a spectrum of things I find disappointing or exemplary helps loyal readers compare their attitudes to my own, which in turn allows them to contextualize my appraisals of particular films. Yet any ratings system has special quirks, and mine is no exception. Take the “Funky” rating. In the broadest sense, this rating is given to a mediocre picture with more good elements than bad, hence the explanatory phrase accompanying the “Funky” rating: “You might dig it.”
          Under Milk Wood, a peculiar British film adapted from a 1950s radio play by Dylan Thomas, is a different kind of “Funky.” This time, it’s not so much that I found some things to enjoy—rather, it’s that I found some things to appreciate. For most of Under Milk Wood’s running time, I had no idea what was going on, couldn't figure out what X event had to do with Y event, and sometimes failed to penetrate the thick accents of the speakers. (Much of the piece comprises voiceover in tandem with evocative images, and all the participants employ or replicate Welsh accents.) Quite frequently, when I encounter a picture this befuddling, I label it “Freaky” because I believe others will find it just as bizarre. Not so here. Yes, casual viewers of Under Milk Wood are likely to have a reaction similar to mine—but attentive viewers, and certainly those conversant in British culture and Thomas’ literary oeuvre, will simply find the movie idiosyncratic. Flawed, perhaps, but more poetic than weird. Thus it would seem a disservice to label this film “Freaky,” as there’s nothing plainly disturbing or transgressive here, even though some scenes are kinky and provocative.
          If all of this seems like a laborious effort to avoid discussing the particulars of Under Milk Wood, fair enough. I could parrot interpretations that I gleaned from research, but the movie left me so cold I can’t offer much in the way of original insight. Presented in a dreamlike style, the story features disassociated vignettes of life in a Welsh fishing village. Themes of class and sex and madness and religion are explored. Famous actors including Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and Elizabeth Taylor appear, some for more screen time than others. There’s a fair bit of nudity, and even a threesome in a barn. In one scene, images of a man pumping his lover’s legs back and forth are intercut with images of the same man pumping draft-beer levers in a pub until fluid spews forth. Perhaps these images, and the accompanying lyrical voiceover, mean something. Perhaps they don’t. Similarly, maybe Under Milk Wood is pretentious nonsense. And maybe it isn’t. But, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to think about the movie a moment longer. Depending on your tastes, please consider yourselves sufficiently intrigued—or warned.

Under Milk Wood: FUNKY

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Criminally Insane (1975) & Satan’s Black Wedding (1976)

          Had its creator been able to express irony onscreen, the trash-cinema oddity Criminally Insane might have become a whimsical shocker bridging, say, the grotesque gore of Tobe Hooper and the wicked wit of John Waters. After all, the story concerns a morbidly obese killer whose victims’ only crime is getting between the killer and food—call it the ultimate snack attack. Despite warnings that Ethel (Priscilla Alden) still isn’t right in the head, her mother brings Ethel home to a small apartment after a stretch inside a mental institution. Then Mom makes the mistake of locking a pantry, the better to curb Ethel’s bingeing. To get the key to the pantry, Ethel stabs her mother to death with a kitchen knife. And so it goes from there. By the end of the story, Ethel has a guest room filled with rotting corpses, and in between murders she gorges herself on whole cakes and other huge servings of food. Considering he spent most of his career making porn, writer-director Nick Millard (billed here as “Nick Phillps”) does a fairly competent job of storytelling, even though his camerawork is ghastly and the performances by his no-name cast are mostly terrible. That said, Alden is so completely bereft of affect that she’s believable as a mindless eating/killing machine. Criminally Insane is cheap and and dull and short (running just 61 minutes), but the perverse premise helps explain why the movie has attracted a small cult following. Director and star reunited for Criminally Insane 2 (1987), and a new team generated the remake Crazy Fat Ethel (2016).
          Alas, any promise Millard showed of becoming a quirky schlock auteur dissipated with his next project after Criminal Insane, the wretched Satan’s Black Wedding. An incoherent supernatural thriller featuring exactly one passable scene, Satan’s Black Wedding follows Mark (Greg Braddock) through a quest to determine whether his sister committed suicide, as authorities suggest. We, the audience, know that she was compelled to slash her own wrists by a creepy priest, Father Daken (Ray Myles), who is also a Satanist and a vampire. As the movie progresses, Daken and those in his sway commit various gruesome murders while Mark learns that his late sister and a friend were writing a book about Satanism. How all the pieces hang together is never especially clear, since Millard’s discombobulated storytelling resembles a sleep-deprived stream of consciousness, and the way composer Roger Stein randomly plays piano, as if his hands intermittently spasm near the keyboard, doesn’t help. Eventually things resolve to that one competent scene, a finale during which Daken explains his twisted master plan. Too little, too late.
          FYI, Millard’s last ’70s effort, .357 Magnum, is purported to be a crime thriller; although the movie couldn’t be tracked down for this survey, reviews suggest it’s incrementally more palatable than the director’s other ’70s fare.

Criminally Insane: LAME
Satan’s Black Wedding: SQUARE

Friday, August 18, 2017

Creature from Black Lake (1976)

          Another swampy story about a backwoods monster with similarities to Sasquatch, Creature from Black Lake plods through a simplistic and somewhat uneventful storyline until climaxing with a passable action/suspense sequence. For devotees of Bigfoot cinema, one decent vignette of a hairy biped laying siege to a college student in a panel van might be worth the price of admission, especially since the sequence, which is set at night, has a measure of creepy atmosphere. For other viewers, watching the rest of the movie just to enjoy a few low-grade thrills won’t seem like a fair trade. In other words, proceed with caution. The picture begins well, with Joe Canton (Jack Elam) and his redneck buddy steering a canoe through a swamp until they glimpse a bizarre creature and flee, only to have the creature emerge suddenly from the water and pull Joe’s buddy below the surface. Then things slow down. In Chicago, students Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) and Rives (John David Carson) hear rumors about the monster menacing a community in Louisiana, so they embark on a research trip.
          While trying to find the much-discussed Joe Canton, the boys clash with a sheriff who doesn’t want his citizens riled up by rumors. Later, they hook up with two local girls and go camping with the girls in the hopes of getting lucky—only to endure an attack by the very monster they’re researching. Lest this give the impression the storyline is picking up speed, however, the whole business with the panel van happens during a subsequent confrontation. Although Creature from Black Lake is mostly drab from a cinematic perspective, cinematographer Dean Cundey—later to break big with Halloween (1978)—lends moodiness to nighttime scenes. The picture also benefits from the presence of familiar character actors Elam and Dub Taylor. Elam gets the meatiest bits, including a monologue about encountering boars slain by the creature, but there’s only so much one can do with dialogue along these lines: ‘If I hadn’t been drinkin’, I’d have blown his butt off!” Taylor does his usual angry-old-coot routine. As for the leads, they’re competent but milquetoast. All in all, this isn’t the worst guy-in-a-suit creature feature you’ll ever encounter, but it’s far from the best.

Creature from Black Lake: FUNKY

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Woman for All Men (1975)

A Woman for All Men boasts adequate production values and a few familiar faces, so it’s more palatable than the usual sexploitation trash. Yet the plotting is mindless, and the erotic content comprises topless shots of leading lady Judith Brown. She’s an attractive woman, but not so uniquely beguiling as to energize a plot driven by her character’s ability to drive men wild with desire. These remarks are not meant to denigrate Ms. Brown, but rather to say that it’s hard to figure how the makers of A Woman for All Men envisioned this picture satisfying the target audience for this sort of thing. As a mystery/suspense narrative, this flick doesn’t offer anything beyond the average TV show of the same period, and as a sexual thrill ride, it’s tame. Most of the action takes place at a beach house owned by construction magnate Walter (Keenan Wynn). His adult sons, self-involved jerks Steve (Andrew Robinson) and Paul (Peter Hooten), are rattled when Walter comes home one day with a decades-younger wife, Karen (Brown). What ensues is unsurprising. Sex-crazed Karen gets bored with Walter and seduces Steve. Then circumstances suggest that Walter has died. Karen and Steve conspire to seize as much of Walter’s estate as possible. Obstacles blocking those goals include Walter’s loyal housekeeper, Sarah (Lois Hall), and a cop (Alex Rocco) investigating Walter’s disappearance. There are worse movies of this type, but finding things to praise about A Woman for All Men is challenging. Among other problems, all the performances are forgettable—even watching the colorful Wynn play a blustery old lech only goes so far—so the beach house emerges as the only memorable character.

A Woman for All Men: LAME

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Elvis (1979)

          Predictably, a TV movie dramatizing Elvis Presley’s eventful life emerged not long after the King’s August 1977 death. In February 1979, ABC broadcast Elvis, starring former Disney child star Kurt Russell and directed by, of all people, John Carpenter, whose breakthrough film Halloween (1978) had been completed but not yet released at the time he shot this gun-for-hire project. A sanitized overview of the title character’s life through 1969, when Presley completed a major comeback by returning to the live concert stage, Elvis doesn’t reveal much that casual fans don’t already know about the subject matter—Elvis was sweet on his mama, Gladys (Shelley Winters); he fell hard for a young woman named Priscilla (Season Hubley); and he gave his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Pat Hingle), too much leeway—but the story unfolds smoothly.
          Key events depicted onscreen include Elvis’ childhood fixation on his stillborn twin brother, the singer’s excitement at scoring his first recording contract, Elvis’ bumpy transition to acting, and the King’s descent into isolation and paranoia once he reached unimaginable heights of fame. Because this project treats Presley’s image gingerly, there’s no Fat Elvis excess, and a scene of the King shooting a television is about as deep as the filmmakers go into depicting Presley’s eccentricities. Despite its homogenized vibe, the movie boasts an energetic, Emmy-nominated performance by Russell, whose boyish persona captures young Elvis’ aw-shucks appeal. That Russell mostly overcomes the distraction of the dark eyeliner he wears throughout the picture—as well as the inevitable problems of imitating Elvis’ iconic sneerin’-and-struttin’ persona—speaks well to the sincerity of his work.
          Acquitting himself fairly well, Carpenter complements the project’s workmanlike storytelling with a minimalistic shooting style, and whenever he lets fly with a lengthy master shot or a slick tracking move, he does a lot to maintain the flow of his actors’ performances. Most of the time, however, one must struggle to spot signs of Carpenter’s distinctive cinematic style. That said, it’s interesting to watch Elvis and realize how quickly Carpenter and Russell locked into each other’s frequencies, because just a short time later they embarked on a great run with Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
          Incidentally, this project was a family affair for Russell, because his dad, Whit Russell, plays Elvis’ father, and Russell later married his onscreen bride, Hubley. (They divorced in 1983.) As for the film’s accuracy, Priscilla Presley reportedly vetted the script, which might be why Elvis often feels like a hero-overcomes-adversity hagiography with musical numbers. (Instead of the vocals from Presley’s original recordings, singer Ronnie McDowell’s voice is heard on the soundtrack whenever Russell lip-syncs.) FYI, a truncated version of Elvis was released theatrically overseas, though the original two-and-a-half-hour cut that was broadcast on ABC is still widely available.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Slipping Into Darkness (1978)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) has many bastard offspring—seemingly innumerable low-rent filmmakers have repurposed the concept of a serial killer with mommy issues preying upon pretty girls. One such copycat picture is Slipping Into Darkness, which adds a halfhearted Vietnam-vet angle as a means of suggesting why the main character is such a menace. To be fair, writer-director Richard Cassidy nearly balances character development and nastiness during a stretch in the middle of the film’s running time. So while  Slipping into Darkness is too predictable and sluggish to generate real suspense, whenever Cassidy lingers on scenes of Grahame (Laszlo Papas) trying to connect with sexy coed Karen (Beverly Ross), he conveys a degree of empathy for Grahame’s social awkwardness without portraying Karen as standoffish. Alas, the material before and after this section is terrible. The movie gets off to a confusing start with scenes of Karen leaving the boonies to attend school in a big city. For no good reason, lots of time elapses before she takes a room in a boarding house operated by Mrs. Brewer (Belle Mitchell). The landlady’s son, Grahame, lives in a room down the hall from Karen, so he watches her through a peephole whenever she entertains male visitors. Things get more and more demented until, inevitably, Graham turns homicidal—but the plotting never works well enough to achieve the desired unsettling effect. It doesn’t help that Cassidy includes so many nudie shots of Ross that he seems like a voyeur. And even though Mitchell and Papas give somewhat offbeat performances (note the scene where she tells him not to buy any more cream donuts because they give her “the farts”), their work is insufficient compensation for the pointless narrative.

Slipping Into Darkness: LAME

Monday, August 14, 2017

Jenny (1970)

          Thanks to a one-night stand, small-town girl Jenny is pregnant. Confused and naïve, she moves to New York, hoping to figure things out at some undetermined point in the future. Then she has a meet-cute with Delano, a self-assured filmmaker who makes arty independent projects when he isn’t directing commercials for rent money. Turns out he’s got a problem, too. He’s eligible for the draft, and doesn't much like the idea of dying in Southeast Asia. After they spend some time together, Delano proposes a pragmatic suggestion: marriage. That way, her baby-to-be gets a father with a good income, and Delano gets a chance at persuading the government his domestic obligations preclude military service. Never mind that Delano has a girlfriend and zero romantic interest in sweet, sheltered Jenny. That’s the basic setup for Jenny, a slight but well-observed dramedy starring Marlo Thomas, then at the height of her success in the sitcom That Girl, and Alan Alda, a year before his own sitcom success with M*A*S*H. Both actors imbue their roles with nuance and sensitivity, and the direction and screenplay give them interesting emotional terrain to explore.
          In many ways, Jenny is a respectable character piece touching on weighty social issues. However, the film falls into two easy traps. First, it uses lightheartedness to wriggle out of tricky narrative situations, and second, it cops out with a fashionably ambiguous ending. The most ambitious elements of the picture demand serious treatment for the issues they raise, and the sincere work by the leading actors warrants a proper conclusion. That’s why watching Jenny is as frustrating as it is rewarding.
          Nonetheless, Thomas deepens a potentially simplistic role with real emotion, so we feel her character’s anguish at being used by Delano, even though she entered into the sham marriage fully aware of its parameters. Similarly, Alda does a fine job of playing a heel whose conscience nags at himAlda sketches the vivid picture of a sophisticate who has difficulty reconciling emotions and intellectualism. Also noteworthy is Vincent Gardenia, who appears as Jenny’s father in a brief but effective sequence. With a few simple moves of behavior and physical carriage, he speaks volumes about the Generation Gap, expressing the pain straight-laced parents felt watching their children experiment with new and untried social structures. There’s much to like here, not least being the imaginative camerawork by director George Bloomfield and cinematographer David L. Quaid. Ultimately, however, Jenny falters by not seeing its premise through.

Jenny: FUNKY