Thursday, November 30, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973)

          Despite a storyline that devolves from muddy to nonsensical, the mystery/horror flick Happy Mother’s Day, Love George is moderately interesting to watch because of its colorful cast, and also because it qualifies as a minor cinematic footnote: This is the only fictional feature directed by actor Darren McGavin. Although he doesn’t appear in the film, those who do include Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Patricia Neal, and McGvin’s costar from Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Simon Oakland. Some are able to find more clarity in the material than others, with Howard’s characterization suffering the worst ill effects of the dodgy storytelling, but each actor has at least a vivid moment or two. How these moments coalesce doesn’t matter all that much, because by the time Happy Mother’s Day, Love George reaches its absurd climax, so many bizarre and inexplicable things have happened that believability, logic, and suspense have evoporated. Depending on one’s level of involvement with the viewing experience, the final stretch of the picture is likely to trigger either amusement or bewilderment. Nonetheless, getting there isn’t the worst experience.
          In a small town on the Northeastern coast, young drifter Johnny Hanson (Howard) shows up one day asking questions about the past. Turns out his mother is greasy-spoon proprietress Rhonda (Leachman), who gave him up years previous, an action to which Rhonda’s domineering sister, Cara (Neal), was party. At the same time Johnny dredges up old secrets, local cop Roy (Oakland) investigates a series of unsolved murders, tagging Johnny as a suspect. There’s also some weird business with Johnny’s cousin, Celia (Tessa Dahl), who sports a British accent and takes Johnny as a lover. Oh, and singer/actor Bobby Darin is in here, too, playing Rhonda’s husband.
          The movie has solid production values and some fine location photography, but the inept storytelling renders nearly all the commendable elements moot. For instance, even though Neal is forceful as a bitchy and delusional matriarch, the contours of her relationships with other people are mostly perplexing. Furthermore, the third-act switch from twisted domestic intrigue to Edgar Allan Poe-style horror is whiplash-inducing. Yet with so many talented people participating, including screenwriter Robert Clouse (later the director of several enjoyable genre pictures), it’s tempting to examine this misfire and ponder what the original intentions might have been. Surely, at some point, rational people thought this piece would work.

Happy Mother’s Day, Love George: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Shadow of Chikara (1977)

          A low-budget adventure/horror flick set in the American South right after the Civil War, The Shadow of Chikara is pleasant enough to watch for fans of ’70s drive-in junk, because it features a handful of familiar actors as well as a slew of wild narrative concepts. Like so many films of the same type, however, The Shadow of Chikara illustrates the gulf between conception and execution. On paper, the plot sounds creepy and eventful, but on film, the storyline is pointless and vapid. For much of the running time, nothing really happens, and the ending is so inconsequential that even calling the finale a disappointment requires exaggeration. That said, the movie avoids some obvious traps in that it’s neither punishingly stupid nor punishingly ugly. If you dig the notion of folks grimacing and growling while sporting period costumes and trudging through dirty forests, then you’ll have an acceptable experience watching this picture. If you expect more, this one’s not for you.
          During the final days of the Civil War, Confederate soldier Wishbone Cutter (Joe Don Baker) consoles a dying comrade, Virgil Caine (Slim Pickens), who shares the location of a cave in which a cache of diamonds is hidden. After returning home to discover that his wife left him for a Yankee, Wishbone becomes a nomad determined to find the diamonds, so he assembles a crew including a geologist (Ted Neeley), an Indian guide (John N. Houck Jr.), and a woman (Sondra Locke), the latter of whom Wishbone rescues from rapists. The group heads to an Arkansas mountain supposedly guarded by the spirit of a giant demon bird, and, predictably, bad things happen—causing Wishbone and his people to question whether they’re bedeviled by locals protecting a treasure or beset by supernatural forces.
          The mild allure of this piece is likely apparent in the preceding description. For instance, if hearing that Joe Don Baker plays a dude named Wishbone Cutter doesn’t pique your interest, then you and I don’t groove on the same things. Hell, Baker even plays the role with mutton-chop sideburns. Baker is best during moments of macho posturing, though the picture allows him to clumsily express sensitivity now and then. Pickens lends kitsch value, though he’s only in the movie very briefly, and it’s novel to see Neeley in his first sizable nonmusical role after scoring in the stage and screen versions of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Shadow of Chikara: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Knife for the Ladies (1974)

Despite my usual aversion to movies about violence against women, I wanted to like A Knife for the Ladies because of its novelty, seeing as how it’s a serial-killer saga set in the Old West. Alas, the toxic combination of sluggish pacing and stupid plot twists makes the picture tedious and unsatisfying. Oh, well. Set in a small town somewhere in the Southwestern frontier, the picture follows two men as they investigate a series of mysterious killings. Jarrod (Jack Elam) is the local sheriff, a surly tough guy convinced he’s capable of keeping order all by his lonesome, and Burns (Jeff Cooper) is some sort of traveling specialist whom town officials hire because they think Jarrod isn’t up to the task. The movie’s rhythm is painfully predictable—in between gloomy scenes of a mystery figure slashing women, Jarrod and Burns engage in a pointless pissing match that distracts them from their investigative work. All of this unfolds on the same types of prefab locations used for a zillion cowboy shows, so even though the film’s production values and technical execution are fine, A Knife for the Ladies lacks authenticity in the same measure that it lacks suspense. The nature of the acting doesn’t help matters. Elam is restrained to a fault—the movie could use his customary over-the-top saltiness—and Cooper is genuinely terrible, a mannequin with a bad perm. Although costar Ruth Roman lends some energy to her scenes as the town’s grand dame, she unfortunately resides within the subplot that renders A Knife for the Ladies ridiculous during its final act, when the picture awkwardly transforms from a detective thriller to a campy horror show.

A Knife for the Ladies: LAME

Monday, November 27, 2017

Scream Bloody Murder (1973)

One imagines the creators of this unpleasant horror flick compiling a laundry list of repellent scenes, then stringing together a storyline that could support all of those scenes, no matter how sketchy the narrative connections. Scream Bloody Murder, also known as The Captive Female, begins with a weird, gauzy vignette on a farm. A little boy climbs onto a tractor, runs over a man (presumably his father), then falls off the tractor and recoils when the machine crushes one of the boy’s hands. Years later, adult Matthew (Fred Holbert), who has a hook in place of his missing hand, exits the mental hospital where he’s spent the intervening years, then travels home to surprise his mother, who has remarried. Seeing her with another man drives Matthew mad, so he kills them. Hitting the road, Matthew travels with a young couple until they become affectionate with each other, at which point he kills them, too. Never mind the filmmakers’ failure to explain why seeing people in love triggers Matthew’s psychosis. Eventually, Matthew makes his way to a California beach town, where he becomes obsessed with Vera (Leigh Mitchell), an artist who moonlights as a prostitute. Through circumstances too involved to describe here, he takes her captive inside a mansion, leading to kinky psychodrama—as in Matthew walking Vera on a leash, and so on. Most of Scream Bloody Murder is grubby and sluggish, but a few scenes, particularly the very end, have a modicum of style. Ultimately, one hopes the filmmakers got all the darkness out of their systems—it’s sobering to imagine how much damage this level of hatred toward women could have done if channeled in other directions. FYI, this picture is not to be confused with the 1974 release Scream Bloody Murder (a/k/a My Brother Has Bad Dreams).

Scream Bloody Murder: LAME

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Family Honor (1973)

          A quick glance at the marketing materials and synopsis for Family Honor gives the impression that it must be low-budget sludge exploiting the popularity of The Godfather (1971), and to a certain degree that’s true—Family Honor is a violent story about Italian-Americans seeking justice outside the law. Yet instead of depicting a clan of criminals, Family Honor is about a young policeman urged by his mother and older brother to kill the corrupt cop suspected of murdering the policeman’s father seven years previous. This makes for a somewhat interesting comingling of narrative elements, just as the grubby authenticity of the dialogue and locations leans a bit more toward Scorsese than Coppola, even though Scorsese’s first mob movie, Mean Streets, came out the same year as Family Honor and therefore couldn’t have been an influence.
          In any event, Family Honor is a relatively serious piece of work. It doesn’t realize all of its ambitions, but it’s not as disposable as one might think. Part of what makes Family Honor moderately interesting is the exact same thing that neutralizes its efficacy as a thriller—the story meanders into gloomy subplots that more closely resemble character-driven drama than suspenseful pulp. Unfortunately, the filmmakers lack the skill to weave these two types of storytelling together, so whenever Family Honor gets intimate, the story stops dead; similarly, whenever the movie gets exciting, it becomes frustratingly superficial. The action stuff, of course, is predictable—chases and shootouts, with lots of gory gun hits. The dramatic stuff is less formulaic. In between scenes of arguing with his family about the ethics of eye-for-an-eye vengeance, Joe (Anthony Page) helps a female junkie deal with her habit, engaging in long conversations with her about their respective problems. (Fair warning: The junkie storyline includes a lengthy closeup of a needle penetrating scarred flesh.)
          Leading man Anthony, with his gaunt frame, hollowed-out eyes, and Fu Manchu moustache, cuts a sorta-striking figure, though he seems more suited to the background of a crime flick than the foreground. Perhaps because Anthony lacks charisma, the viewer’s attention gravitates elsewhere—for instance to the flashes of tasty dialogue. (“There’s no proof what Regatti done it, but he done it!”) In sum, your receptivity to Family Honor depends entirely on your tolerance for luxuriating in New York City seediness circa the early ’70s. If nothing else, the movie gives that in abundance.

Family Honor: FUNKY

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Severed Arm (1973)

A low-budget horror flick with anemic morality-tale elements, The Severed Arm is less about dismemberment than it is about cannibalism, because even though the topic of consuming human flesh dominates only one scene, the ghastly concept informs the whole storyline. At the beginning of the picture, a dude sneaks into a morgue, hacks an arm off a corpse, and sends the arm in the mail to Jeff Ashton (David S. Cannon). Instead of calling the police, Jeff brings the arm to his friend, Dr. Ray Sanders (John Crawford), triggering a flashback to something that happened five years previous. While exploring a cave with several buddies, Jeff, Ray, and the others were trapped by a cave-in. After two weeks without supplies, they drew straws to see who would sacrifice part of his body so the others could eat. Back in the present, Jeff and Ray determine that someone else who survived the ordeal must be tormenting them, so they enlist the help of policeman Sgt. Mark Richards (Paul Carr), another member of the doomed cave exploration. Although quite substandard in terms of technical execution, The Severed Arm gets the job done as a simple-minded riff on classic Edgar Allan Poe-type themes. Yet stupid excesses at the beginning and end of the narrative undercut the fleeting moments that work. The whole business of sending an arm in the mail is outrageous, and the dual-twist-ending finale stretches believability even further. It’s not impossible to imagine roughly the same material inspiring a decent episode of Night Gallery or the like, but stretched to feature length and juiced with silly attempts at big-screen portentousness, this plot quickly collapses in on itself.

The Severed Arm: LAME

Friday, November 24, 2017

Preacherman (1971)

          Porno director Albert T. Viola went legit, more or less, with this R-rated sex comedy about a con man who dresses as a preacher in order to woo gullible young women into bed. Preacherman offers satire of the most simplistic type, lampooning hicks too stupid to recognize obvious scams, backwoods babes too horny to reject odious advances, and country folk too narcotized by Bible verses to recognize bogus religiosity. Viola wears multiple hats, because in addition to cowriting, producing, and directing, he plays the lead role under a brazen alias: “Starring Amos Huxley as Himself.” Although he never acted or directed again following this picture and its sequel, Preacherman Meets Widderwoman (1973), Viola’s performance in Precherman is adequate. He seems confident while spewing Gospel-inflected bullshit, and his delight while frolicking with down-home honeys seems genuine. To Viola’s mild credit, he keeps the movie’s skin quotient to a minimum, so one doesn’t get the impression he made the picture as a means of getting his jollies.
          In the opening sequence, Amos gets run out of town by a sheriff who catches the ersatz clergyman sleeping with the sheriff’s daughter. Then we meet Mary Lou (Ilene Kristen), a dimwitted country girl who services four local brothers on a regular basis, apparently because she’s too idiotically compliant to draw the line between friendliness and fornication. Amos wanders onto Mary Lou’s farm and convinces her long-suffering father he can save the young woman’s soul. Specifically, Amos claims that Mary Lou should await nightly visitations from “The Angel Leroy,” who is of course an aroused Amos. Slow-moving and uninspired high jinks ensue. Made for the undemanding drive-in crowd, Preacherman delivers a low-octane shot of ribald mischief. Other movies with similar themes are more overtly crude, and the storyline is clear, so it’s not entirely surprising that Preacherman was successful enough to trigger a follow-up. Alas, Preacherman Meets Widderwoman, in which Amos duels with a distaff hustler, could not be tracked down for review.

Preacherman: FUNKY

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mission to Glory: A True Story (1977)

          Bad news first—this low-budget biopic about a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who served a parish spreading from northwestern Mexico to southern Arizona and Baja California assumes the moral certainty of his crusade, meaning that all the natives whom the leading character encounters are depicted as savages in desperate need of Christian salvation. Worse, Mission to Glory: A True Story suffers from atrocious storytelling by writer-director Ken Kennedy, who employs clunky blocking and inert camerawork while steering a cast heavy with Hollywood C-listers through their paces. So in addition to being culturally dubious, the film is about as cinematically lifeless as anything you’ll ever encounter. And now the good news—for all of its faults, Mission to Glory: A True Story conveys an interesting narrative, albeit one very likely exaggerated and twisted from the historical events depicted onscreen. Surely it must have taken a unique individual to endure craven political machinations, internal strife among indigenous populations, and near-constant physical danger while trying to better the lives of others. Taken as a tribute to the man whom Kennedy imagines the real Father Kino might have been, the picture feels almost noble.
          According to voiceover at the beginning of the picture, Father Kino spent more than two decades building 19 ranches and 24 missions, suggesting he was spectacularly effective at spreading the gospel while traveling across desert terrain on horseback. At various times Kino clashes with the church, hostile tribes, and violent Spanish soldiers, meeting all adversaries with humility and resolve. Does the hagiographic portrayal stretch credulity? Of course. And does the parade of familiar character actors (Michal Ansara, Aldo Ray, Cesar Romero) add to the overall sense of fakery? Sure. (Playing the leading role, in an inconsequential performance, is 1950s Hollywood stud Richard Egan, quite a bit past his prime.) Yet Mission to Glory has a few vivid-ish moments amid the hokey music, one-dimensional characterizations, and predictable plot twists. Ricardo Montalban, of all people, gives the film’s best performance, an entertaining cameo as a savvy military official. Presumably persons of faith were and are the target audience for this piece, meaning they’re the folks most likely to overlook the picture’s massive shortcomings. For others, Mission to Glory might work best as well-meaning kitsch.

Mission to Glory: A True Story: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Beast of the Yellow Night (1971)

Like many other exploitation-flick purveyors, actor/producer John Ashley and writer/director Eddie Romero worked in bulk during the ’60s and ’70s, banging out a slew of crappy pictures about monsters, women in prison, and other lurid topics. Some are palatable, but many are like Beast of the Yellow Night, an interminable horror saga about a fellow who turns into a creature at night. This idiotic picture is sort of a Jekyll-and-Hyde story, sort of a Satan-worship yarn, and sort of a werewolf tale, but mostly it’s just confusing and dull and silly. Opening in 1946, the film establishes that Ashley’s character (who goes by various names), once made a deal with the devil, as personified by portly Filipino-cinema stalwart Vic Diaz wearing a loincloth. Upon sealing the deal by consuming human flesh, Ashley gained the ability/curse to transport his soul into new bodies over the course of several decades. (In “present-day” scenes, the host body has the same face as the Ashley character’s original body.) Then there’s the whole shape-shifter bit. Nightfall causes Ashley’s character to transform into a were-beast of some kind, though the makeup effects are so shoddy that Ashley looks as if he slathered his face with green-tinted cottage cheese and a bit too much eyeliner. Given the dopey storyline, Ashley and Romero would have been wise to bombard the audience with thrills-and-chills scenes, but instead anemic stalking bits are interspersed with laughably pretentious dialogue exchanges about the nature of existence. There’s a reason people don’t gravitate to Ashley/Romero movies for deep thoughts.

Beast of the Yellow Night: LAME

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Meateater (1979)

Movie buffs of a certain age might enjoy one aspect of The Meateater, an otherwise laughably bad low-budget horror flick. The picture is a shameless riff on The Phantom of the Opera set in a movie theater, so scene after scene features views of vintage concession stands, projection equipment, theatrical interiors, and the like. Sitting through 85 minutes of dull stupidity is a high price to pay for revisiting the experience of going to the movies in the late ’70s, but, hey, you do what you’ve gotta do when you need a fix. Middle-aged shoe salesman Mitford Webster (Peter Spitzer) changes his family’s life by purchasing a defunct cinema in a small town, then throwing all of the family’s financial resources into restarting the business. What he doesn’t know is that a mysterious creep (Arch Jouboulian) lurks inside the building’s secret spaces, and that the creep has twisted personal reasons for ensuring the theater doesn’t succeed. Weird accidents ensue, some of which result in deaths, so slovenly detective Lt. Wombat (Joe Marino) begins an investigation. You know how it goes from there—the creep fixates on Mitford’s teenage daughter, it takes ages for people to interpret obvious clues as to what’s really happening, and so on. Some scenes of the creep prowling through shadows and eating rats (hence the title) are unpleasant, but nothing here is genuinely frightening or suspenseful. Worse, the acting is terrible. Oh, and scenes of Mitford hanging out with his family are stunningly square—not only do they sing the “Oscar Mayer Weiner” song for kicks, but Mitford exclusively programs a nature documentary so as not to offend a community once scandalized by showings of Carnal Knowledge (1971).

The Meateater: LAME

Monday, November 20, 2017

All the Young Wives (1973)

          Despite being hampered by amateurish direction and a low budget, All the Young Wives is an acceptable romantic melodrama thanks to committed performances, which lend a small measure of emotional authenticity. Moreover, because the filmmakers focus on feelings instead of sex, the picture avoids the trap it could easily have fallen into, which is becoming the cinematic equivalent of a Harlequin romance. To be clear, there’s nothing surprising in the storyline, and the pacing is deadly precisely because the narrative is so formulaic and predictable. Nonetheless, the most important scenes are performed sincerely, and the filmmakers do an adequate job of making the villain so loathsome that it’s pleasurable waiting for and witnessing his inevitable comeuppance. The movie also provides an odd cinematic footnote, because director William Diehl Jr., who only made one other film, later became a novelist specializing in crime stories—books he wrote were adapted into the Burt Reynolds thriller Sharky’s Machine (1981) and the Richard Gere-Edward Norton hit Primal Fear (1996). Go figure.
         The storyline of All the Young Wives couldn’t be simpler. Big Jim (Gerald Richards) is a middle-aged rich guy who covets the sexy wives of his younger employees, often pressuring the women into trysts by threatening their husbands’ livelihoods. Meanwhile, Big Jim ignores his own sexy young wife, Melody (Linda Cook), whom he treats like a possession rather than a spouse. This naturally leads her to seek affection elsewhere, hence her dalliance with horse trainer Sam (Edmund Genest), who works for one of Big Jim’s businesses. As noted earlier, nothing unusual arises from these fraught dynamics, so those looking for a fresh take on the way men and women relate to each other will find All the Young Wives interminable. In fact, this flick is really only palatable for ’70s addicts eager to explore the decade’s most obscure cinematic offerings, since it’s mildly interesting to encounter respectable performances from completely unfamiliar actors. Better still, the movie improves as it goes along, so once the storyline resolves into a battle between Big Jim and Sam, with the tormented Melody caught between them, a few scenes manifest proper intensity.

All the Young Wives: FUNKY

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Savage Intruder (1970)

Released toward the end of the “hagsploitation” cycle that began with Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), this shabby horror flick uses the familiar device of a deranged ex-movie star living out a twisted retirement in a Hollywood mansion, so any resemblance to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is purely intentional. Suffice to say this flick falls well short of Wilder’s masterpiece—and even Aldrich’s camp classic. Cheap, discombobulated, and tacky, Savage intruder can’t decide whether it’s a blood-and-guts shocker, a bummer melodrama, or a hip commentary on showbiz. The gist is that fallen star Katharine Packard (Miriam Hopkins) suffers delusions of resuming her career, even as a killer stalks the Hollywood hills, targeting middle-aged women. Enter Vic Valance (John David Garfield), a slick-talking stud who becomes part of Katherine’s household staff. Naturally, he’s the killer, so the ending is a foregone conclusion. In lieu of mystery, the movie has weirdness, both in terms of over-the-top dismemberment scenes and psyched-out sequences. Vic endures surreal flashback/hallucination bits, all gauzy compositions and harlequin-patterned tunnels. As for poor Katharine, she ends up at debauched parties. During one, she’s approached by a drug-dealing dwarf whom she brushes off by saying, “No thank you—the only trips I take are to Europe.” Lest you get the idea she’s an innocent, Katherine gets drunk while participating in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, lamenting that Hollywood Boulevard was preferable before “all these hoodlums and queers” arrived. Although Savage Intruder is not scary, some viewers might get a mild buzz by huffing the movie’s derivative campiness.

Savage Intruder: LAME

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Dark Side of Tomorrow (1970)

The same year that mainstream Hollywood explored the experiences of gay men in The Boys and the Band, independent producer Harry Novak, a prolific pornographer, issued The Dark Side of Tomorrow, a wannabe-serious look at the experiences of gay women. While the coincidence of timing is noteworthy, the films otherwise share nothing in common. Essentially a skin flick disguised as a social-issue melodrama, The Dark Side of Tomorrow equates homosexuality with immorality, insomuch as the leading characters become reckless philanderers after their first brushes with Sapphic sexuality. Except for the harshly lit nude scenes and a few cultural signifiers (dope-smoking hippies, earth-tone décor, etc.), the picture feels like it comes from the 1950s, and not in a good way. Anyway, Denise (Elizabeth Plum) and Adria (Alisa Courtney) are unhappily married to withholding men, so one day they go to lunch at a happening café and spot two lesbians canoodling. Shocked but titillated, Denise and Adria talk about lesbianism ad nauseam until finally succumbing to curiosity. Bliss ensues. Then Adria becomes a full-on swinger by adding more dudes to her sex life. Adria digs handsome actor Jim (John Aprea), but Denise gets jealous—that is, until she makes out with a random chick on a pool table. Despite the eventful storyline, The Dark Side of Tomorrow is quite dull, thanks to iffy acting, spotty camerawork, and vapid dialogue. It’s hard to take the movie seriously when a depressed Denise walks along a beach—and happens onto a hippie band playing a bummer song inches away from crashing waves. In a more sure-handed movie, that moment  might have played as camp; here, it’s just clumsy and obvious.

The Dark Side of Tomorrow: LAME

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Statue (1971)

          Turns out David Niven’s close encounter with a streaker during the 1974 Academy Awards broadcast wasn’t the only time when the exhibition of male anatomy caused him grief. A few years earlier, the debonair Brit starred in The Statue, a randy UK/US coproduction in which the public display of a phallus is pivotal to the plot. Very much a product of its historical moment, The Statue tries for scandalous laughs by exploring subject matter that could not be explicitly depicted onscreen at the time, therefore creating a sort of wink-wink/nudge-nudge relationship with the audience. And though time has dulled any edginess the picture once possessed, luckily The Statue has other virtues, not least of which is Niven’s smooth comic timing. So even though the movie is quite trivial—a fault not uncommon to sex comedies—it’s palatable and relatively harmless.
          At the beginning of the picture, uptight linguistics professor Alex Bolt (Niven) receives the Nobel Prize for his creation of Unispeak, an international language meant to bridge divides between nations. For convoluted reasons, the American government spends a large amount of money to commission a statue commemorating Alex’s accomplishment, and Alex’s hot-blooded sculptress wife, Rhonda (Virna Lisi), gets the job. But when Alex gets an eyeful of the work-in-progress, he’s shocked: Not only is the giant statue a likeness of Alex in the nude, but the genitals on the statue don’t resemble his own. Thus begins Alex’s fevered quest to identify the model Rhonda used for inspiration, since he presumes that man must be her lover. Probing household staff for the names of men who visited Rhonda while she was working on the statue, Alex contrives to see the men naked by attending a hippie musical, visiting a steambath, and so on. In one especially goofy sequence, Alex slips into a photo booth and snaps shots of his own manhood for evidence, alarming those standing near the photo booth.
          It’s tempting to say this material was beneath Niven, as well as costar Robert Vaughn, but the mischievous spirit of the thing comes through in scenes featuring Monty Python’s John Cleese as a friend of Niven’s character. Cleese lampoons the repression inherent to British culture while also skewering the anything-goes ethos of the ’70s. In its best moments, The Statue is ribald and smart; in its worst moments, the movie is puerile and silly. Whether the good outweighs the bad is very much a matter of taste, though it should be said the Cleese/Niven scenes are a cut above the rest of the picture.

The Statue: FUNKY

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Thirsty Dead (1974)

          When it begins, The Thirsty Dead seems like another sleazy American/Filipino coproduction about slavers abducting women for nefarious purposes—after all, the picture starts with a strip-club dance routine, then continues through assaults and a trek through a dangerous forest. Yet the picture takes a weird turn once the slavers and their hostages reach their destination, a remote city hidden inside a mountain. Wearing a powder-blue number that looks like a ladies’ nightgown, complemented by a giant metal necklace and a stiff-collared cape, Baru (John Considine) is the leader of a bizarre cult that occupies laughable sets reminiscent of the cheapest-looking alien planets from the original Star Trek series. Baru’s people elevate one of their new hostages, Laura (Jennifer Billingsley), to visiting-dignitary status because she sorta-kinda resembles a god whom the citizens worship. Taking the story even deeper into the fantasy-fiction realm, Laura discovers that the citizens drink the blood of various young women whom they abduct from the outside world, because nubile blood combined with a secret elixir creates a formula for immortality. Only some of the citizens are entitled to receive the elixir, however, so the castoffs of the secret society wither away in dungeons, aging until they die. Eventually, a revolution occurs as the powerless members of this secret society pursue revenge.
          Even with the loopy sci-fi concepts at the center of the storyline, The Thirsty Dead is boring, clichéd, and silly. The dialogue is stilted and the acting is worse, so the tacky costumes and sets are the least of the film’s problems, even though the narrative is basically coherent and the technical execution is passable. It’s also tricky to imagine the target audience for the picture. The Thirsty Dead has way too much bloodshed and cheesecake to qualify as family-friendly viewing, and yet the PG-rated picture isn’t rough enough for the grindhouse crowd. And even though the storyline might seem suitable for consumption by genre-flick nerds, The Thirsty Dead is way too stupid to properly stimulate anyone’s imagination. Having said all that, it seems imprudent to utterly dismiss the picture. Anything with ideas, no matter how idiotic they may be, has inherent merit, and the makers of The Thirsty Dead deserve minor credit for avoiding the ugly stereotype of portraying Pacific Islanders as primitive predators. Assigning vile behavior to fantasy characters isn’t much of an improvement, but at least it means The Thirsty Dead is not as numbingly racist as the usual American/Filipino fare of this era.

The Thirsty Dead: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Trader Horn (1973)

Showcasing nearly every jungle cliché in existence, the ’70s version of Trader Horn is the epitome of Hollywood fakery. Set in Africa but shot in Los Angeles, complete with a finale set at the same location used for the exterior of the Batcave in the ’60s Batman TV series, the picture expresses such dubious themes as the white savior, the shrewish woman who needs taming by a man, and the nobility of a maverick who makes his own rules. Decoding this film, one would assume that the path to world peace involves letting self-possessed white men make decisions for everyone. To say the film’s politics were behind the times when Trader Horn was released in 1973 is an understatement. Therefore it’s no surprise to learn that a previous biopic was made about the same real-life historical figure way back in 1931, when demeaning attitudes toward gender and race were even more commonplace in Hollywood. The historical figure in question is Alfred Aloysius “Trader” Horn (1861–1931), a white man who lived in Africa and made his living off ivory but also helped local citizens escape slavery. A complicated portrayal of his life would be fascinating. The 1973 version of Trader Horn is not. Rod Taylor, all macho posturing, plays Horn as a principled rascal who leads hunting parties but rages whenever animals or natives are needlessly endangered. As the story is set in the World War I era, Horn finds himself caught between British and German concerns while helping a party search for an elusive platinum mine and, eventually, aiding revolutionaries. Aside from the peculiar vignette of Taylor riding a zebra, there’s nothing here people haven’t seen in a zillion Tarzan pictures, and apparently the best location footage was repurposed from the 1931 version and juiced with color effects. Trader Horn zips along at a fast pace, so it’s not boring—but it’s so derivative and unevolved that it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

Trader Horn: LAME

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Date with a Kidnapper (1976)

          On a story level, Date with a Kidnapper—also known as Kidnapped Coed, among other titles—is the usual woman-hating sludge, a perverse male-power fantasy filled with sexual violence. Indeed, most viewers would do well to ignore the movie’s existence for just that reason. Yet for those who enjoy exploring the fringes of American cinema, there’s something here worth examining. Writer-director Frederick R. Friedel displays considerable visual imagination, often using small details to give scenes atmosphere and tension. Regarding the former, look at the way Friedel slides his camera past a spiderweb while rolling into a shot establishing the vibe of a decrepit barn. Regarding the latter, consider the movie’s inevitable rape scene, during which Friedel repeatedly cuts to closeups of a male character’s bloody wrists while he struggles against bonds, dramatizing the mans hopeless efforts to rescue his female companion.
          The dynamic of that particular scene is even more complicated than the preceding remarks suggest, because—as the film’s title suggests—Date with a Kidnapper is all about the peculiar relationship between a small-time crook and the college girl he abducts. In some scenes, he’s her tormentor, and in other scenes, he’s her protector. He is also, at regular intervals, emasculated by circumstance. He’s the guy tied to the chair during the rape, which is committed by other criminals. Even a first-year student in gender studies could spend hours unpacking the contradictory and demeaning images in this picture, such as the scene of the coed begging her kidnapper for sex. In most movies of this type, that archetypal moment is maddening and vile; here, it’s both of those things but also slightly unnerving, because Friedel does a fairly good job of giving the kidnapper emotional dimensions. (Example: We see him calling a nursing home to check in on his infirm mother.) To no one’s surprise, the coed isn’t nearly as well developed as a character, so she comes across as a device for expressing Friedel’s troublesome ideas about feminine sexuality.
          Parsing an exploitation flick for deeper meanings may seem absurd, but Date with a Kidnapper is made with sufficient skill to invite closer inspection. If it’s not quite a real movie, in terms of exceeding its grindhouse mandate, it comes close. And if Leslie Rivera’s turn as the coed is frustrating—lots of naked desire without real grounding in character—at least Jack Canon’s performance as the kidnapper is consistently surprising.

Date with a Kidnapper: FUNKY

Monday, November 13, 2017

Something for Everyone (1970)

          Turns out playing the conniving Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) isn’t the only great villainous turn in Angela Lansbury’s filmography. The beloved British actress, best known to many for the kindhearted characters she has played in later life, lends a gleefully craven quality to Something for Everyone, an obscure black comedy that marked the cinematic debut of the great Broadway director Harold Prince. Yet Lansbury’s character isn’t the true antagonist of this elegantly made picture—she’s an accomplice of sorts to an even greater monster, played by leading man Michael York. Together, they energize the film’s acidic commentary on the dark side of human nature.
          Set in Bavaria shortly after World War II, the picture opens on Konrad (York), a stranger who drifts into a small village with eyes on the nearby castle, which is occupied by Countess Herthe von Ornstein (Lansbury) and her small household staff. To be more specific, the Countess lives in a small residence on the castle grounds because her wealth has diminished so greatly she can’t afford to maintain the castle. Konrad charms and schemes his way into an audience with the Countess, eventually securing a job as a chauffeur. Meanwhile, he attracts romantic attention from Lotte (Jane Carr), the Countess’ unglamorous daughter; Helmuth (Anthony Higgins), the Countess’ closeted gay son; and Annaliese (Heidelinde Weis), a beautiful young heiress whose family travels through the village at an opportune moment.
          Determined to achieve social stature and wealth by whatever means necessary—while also indulging his considerable appetites—Konrad becomes Lotte’s adversary, Helmuth’s lover, and Annaliese’s fiancé. Yet only two people see the full scope of Konrad’s machinations, one of whom is the Countess. She’s amused and somewhat aroused by Konrad’s naked ambition, both complimenting and criticizing him by labeling Konrad “shameless, outrageous, and utterly immoral.” The Countess tacitly endorses Konrad’s plotting because she envisions various outcomes by which his success could also be her success.
          Based on a novel by Henry Kressing and nimbly adapted by screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, Something for Everyone benefits from magisterial presentation. In addition to luxuriant costuming and locations, the dexterous score by Broadway great John Kander amplifies the story’s caustic aspects. (Two years later, York starred in Bob Fosse’s astonishing movie Cabaret, based on the stage musical by Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.) Although York has the most screen time, Lansbury dominates with her gracefully disdainful presence, especially when spewing such world-weary lines as, “There are no men anymore—just facsimiles.” The movie goes to so many dark places that some viewers may find it distasteful, so it’s unsurprising that Something for Everyone was not a success during its original release and now remains, at best, a minor cult favorite. For those who enjoy the film’s very specific mixture of elements, however, Something for Everyone is lush homage to pure evil.

Something for Everyone: GROOVY