Monday, December 9, 2019

The Pyramid (1976)

          Regional productions comprise a fascinating subsection of ’70s cinema, because these may well be the most truly independent narrative features of the era. After all, making a movie untethered to traditional distribution channels gives filmmakers license to express themselves as freely as their budgets, schedules, and talents will allow. It is in this context that one can most generously consider The Pyramid, a peculiar exploration of hippie-era spirituality created by writer/director Gary Kent. (His other credits, scattered across American cinema from the 1950s to the present, include such highlights as portraying “Rapist #1” in Al Adamson’s 1972 schlockfest Angels’ Wild Women.)
          Competently if not dazzingly photographed, The Pyramid concerns a Dallas-based TV reporter who embarks on an existential odyssey. After witnessing one tragedy too many and getting fired for mouthing off to his boss (and wasting company resources on personal projects not suitable for broadcast), the reporter turns inward, exploring group therapy, the healing qualities of making it with a sexy vegetarian babe, and the magical powers of objects shaped like pyramids. Kent’s meandering movie also manages to address Kirlian photography, telepathic messages transmitted from space, and a Hollywood starlet who wants you to understand that she just filmed a nude scene, thank you very much, not a sex scene.
          Clearly, Kent had a lot on his mind—some of it quite interesting, some of it less so—but just as clearly, he lacked the discipline required to distill his thoughts into a propulsive story. As a result, protagonist Chris Lowe (C.W. Brown) wanders aimlessly from one episode to the next, raging at the machine whenever he encounters proof that the system is rigged against freethinkers or underdogs or whomever else he decides to champion. Meanwhile, Chris’ buddy LaMoine Peabody (Ira Hawkins), an ambitious on-air personality, rises through the ranks at a local TV station even though, in his private life, he abuses his girlfriend and harbors self-destructive impulses. What do all of these things have to do with each other? If Kent had a good answer to that question, he didn’t embed it into The Pyramid.
          Every so often, Kent hits a nice groove, whether it’s with a gentle scene of characters getting in touch with their feelings or a satirical scene about the film industry. (In one lively bit, Chris tries to sell an earnest documentary to an exhibitor who only wants pictures with “broads and music.”) Yet the lack of any discernible narrative plan makes it hard to hook into Chris’ story or, for that matter, any other aspect of The Pyramid excepting a few vivid sequences. Still, The Pyramid seems sincere, even when it traffics in such clichés as the bearded mystic who intones profundities (e.g., “You must die before you live”). So, while The Pyramid is nowhere near the transcendent experience that Kent presumably envisioned, it has some truthful moments, and it presents a few ideas worth pondering.

The Pyramid: FUNKY

Saturday, November 2, 2019

4.5 Million Page Views!

Once again, salutations from the world beyond Every ’70s Movie! Although the pace of posts has greatly slowed in recent months, primarily because it’s getting more and more difficult to lay my eyeballs on content I haven’t seen before, it is mightily gratifying that readers continue to check out the blog. Yesterday, viewership reached another big milestone: Every ’70s Movie has now received more than 4.5 million page views. Thank you! As always, if you know how to track down films that have not yet appeared on the blog, please share your information with me. (Use the direct-message function if the video source needs to remain private.) To remind everyone of the parameters, the main focus of the blog is American produced (or co-produced) narrative movies that were commercially released in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1979. I also occasionally review notable documentaries, foreign films, and telefilms, but the goal in this late stage of the project is to focus on theatrical features that have thus far escaped my grasp. To check whether a movie has appeared on the blog, I recommend using the search box located in the upper left-hand side of the home page, because the title list running along the right-hand side of the home page is overdue for an update. (If all goes well, I will tackle that project during the coming holiday season.) Thanks for reading, thanks in advance for your help finding missing titles, and keep on keepin’ on!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Glass Houses (1972)

          Offering a scandalous twist on the already-lurid genre of cross-generational love stories, Glass Houses imagines a scenario wherein a middle-aged patriarch’s infidelity arouses the sexual curiosity of his 19-year-old daughter. Although Glass Houses doesn’t follow this premise to its logical conclusion, the clear implication is that something highly inappropriate may soon happen. This naturally raises the question of why the filmmakers felt compelled to tell this story. Did they mean to suggest that a man who sleeps with a woman young enough to be his daughter may also be tempted to sleep with his actual daughter? And since the adulterer’s wife eventually takes a lover of her own, do the filmmakers mean to say that a man who starts down the road of violating sexual propriety should not be surprised when others in his household do the same? Glass Houses is too shallow to provide satisfying answers to these questions, but it’s not accurate to describe the picture as mere sensationalistic provocation. Some measure of thought went into the film, as did some measure of cinematic craftsmanship.
          Victor (Bernard Barrow) runs a board-game company with his business partner, Ted (Phillip Pine). Victor is married to Adele (Ann Summers), and their daughter is Kim (Deirdre Lenihan). Victor’s mistress is a beautiful young model named Jean (Jennifer O’Neill). Kim is hip to Victor’s dalliances, but she doesn’t know the specifics until one fateful weekend. At Jean’s behest, Victor accompanies her to the “Institute of Encounter Awareness,” which is just as hippy-dippy as it sounds. While there, Victor stumbles across his business partner, Ted, who brought his own much-younger lover to the Institute. She is Kim, Victor’s daughter. (Side note: A lengthy sex scene with Ted and Kim is both the movies most perceptive vignette and its most unpleasant.) Although neither Kim nor Jean freak out upon discovering the seedy connections between characters, squaresville Victor has trouble processing everything.
          Not much else happens in Glass Houses, excepting Adele’s unglamorous tryst with a lecherous author, so most of the drama hangs on shots of Barrow and/or Pine looking perplexed about modern attitudes toward sex. (Adultery? Fine! Progressive morality? Hey, just a minute!) Directed and co-written by prolific TV director Alexander Singer, Glass Houses reflects the hypocricy of its male characters, inasmuch as the camera often lingers on young female flesh. That being said, Singer and his collaborators seem legitimately concerned with examining societal changes, even if they fall short of providing fresh insights. The same is true of the picture’s artistic elements, because the tricky cross-cutting used in certain scenes feels awfully familiar given how prevalent that style was in social dramas of the late ’60s.   

Glass Houses: FUNKY

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Cherry Hill High (1977)

I will leave to someone else the task of determining which movie was the first to feature a plot about groups of teenagers competing to be the first to lose their virginity. Suffice to say that’s the storyline of Cherry Hill High, in which the competitors are five sexy high-school girls on a summertime bike trip supervised by an adult female chaperone with a permissive attitude toward teen sexuality. (She also digs getting it on in a vat of grapes, but never mind that.) Allegedly a comedy, Cherry Hill High creates one elaborate deflowering vignette for each of the teenagers. Some of these vignettes are mildly imaginative, some are grotesque, and some are both. And while the picture is photographed in a more or less competent manner, the combination of crude dialogue, tacky situations, and weak acting affirms the picture’s status as medium-grade softcore. In other words, it’s all about lingering looks at young female flesh, presented in the context of a male fantasy about sex-crazed girls. Not only do the ladies in the movie spend nearly all their shared onscreen time talking about how horny they are, but the picture even features a girl-on-girl scene designed very much for the male gaze. None of this is surprising or unusual given the climate of late-’70s teen-sex movies, but then again, nothing about Cherry Hill High is surprising or unusual. The picture is brisk and watchable (depending upon one’s tolerance for sleaze), and it delivers exactly what it promises. So if you dig the idea of one girl losing it underwater while a nearby shark goes crazy when her body releases blood, or the idea of another girl making it with a guy in a chicken suit on a Price Is Right-type game show, then this is the low-budget smutfest you never knew you wanted to see.

Cherry Hill High: LAME

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Help Me . . . I’m Possessed (1974)

This low-budget shocker’s working title, Nightmare at Blood Castle, suits the mysoginistic content better than the moniker used during a brief theatrical release, since demonic possession may well be the only horror cliché not on display here. Presented somewhat in the Herschell Gordon Lewis style, only with slightly more competent camerawork, Help Me . . . I’m Possessed tells the unbelievable and uninteresting story of a mad doctor, Arthur Blackwood (Bill Greer), performing vile experiments in the dungeon of his castle. Assisting Dr. Blackwood is the requisite thuggish hunchback, Karl (Pierre Agostino). It’s never completely clear what Dr. Blackwood hopes to accomplish, how he finances his activities, or how he has thus far escaped close scrutiny from law enforccment. After all, Dr. Blackwood kills so many “patients” that Karl has a method of dismembering bodies so they can fit into small trunks for disposal. The flick also includes standard-issue subplots about the doctor’s mentally challenged sister, Melanie (Lynne Marta), and a cop (Pepper Davis) who snoops ineptly despite obvious clues of wrongdoing being visible everywhere. Still, Help Me . . . I’m Possessed has a certain watchability (by psychotronic-cinema standards), thanks to florid quasi-Biblical speeches, vigorous bad acting, and extreme vignettes (e.g., a woman getting locked into a coffin with a poisonous snake). Help Me . . . I’m Possessed is bottom-feeding crap, but compared to myriad other execrable films fitting that same description, this one is relatively brisk and eventful.

Help Me . . . I’m Possessed: LAME

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Embassy (1972)

          Watching the political thriller Embassy is frustrating not just because the picture is mediocre, but also because it wouldn’t have taken much to elevate the piece above mediocrity. The source material for this British production, a novel by Stephen Coulter, provides a solid premise—the arrival of a Russian defector at the U.S. embassy in Beirut sparks an international incident. As scripted by William Fairchild and directed by Gordon Hessler, Embassy is blandly photographed, drably paced, and filled with performances as uninspired as the corresponding characterizations are unimaginative. Yet it’s easy to imagine a crackerjack version of the same basic storyline with, say, Sidney Lumet at the helm, abetted by an edgier screenwriter. Even without that level of behind-the-scenes firepower, Embassy has a few credible moments, mostly thanks to leading man Richard Roundtree (appearing in one of his first projects after becoming a star with 1971’s Shaft) and supporting player Max von Sydow, who portrays the defector. Roundtree’s appealing swagger smooths over some of the movie’s rough spots, and von Sydow gives a genuinely multidimensional performance.
          Alas, too much time gets wasted on nonsense. Roundtree plays a mid-level diplomat who shares responsibility for the safety of von Sydow’s character, but the movie also gives Roundtree a drab romantic subplot that adds nothing. Similarly, perfunctory acting by Ray Milland (as the pragmatic ambassador), Broderick Crawford (as a security officer at the embassy), and Chuck Connors (as a KGB enforcer) diminishes the experience. Especially when combined with Hessler’s lifeless shooting style, watching actors who are past their best days give paycheck performances makes Embassy feel like a disposable TV movie, notwithstanding impressive production values acquired while shooting on location in the Middle East. As to the question of whether Embassy has anything meaningful to say, the answer is sorta-yes and sorta-no. The movie isn’t a completely vacuous potboiler, but most of its cynical assertions about the morality of political expediency are trite. Embassy only really sparks when von Sydow’s character talks about his reasons for defecting, and when the same character snaps after too many days in captivity.

Embassy: FUNKY

Thursday, May 23, 2019

My Brother Has Bad Dreams (1972)

Set in Florida, this dull low-budget horror flick tracks Karl (Nick Kleinholz III), a twisted young man who lives with his older sister, Anna (Marlena Lustik). Fifteen years previous, Karl saw Dad murder Mom, and he’s never been the same. Today, he drifts in and out of reality, sometimes believing that his mother is still alive, and he indulges problematic fetishes, such as sleeping with store-display mannequins and pleasuring himself whever he catches a glimpse of his sister naked. Inexplicably, Anna refuses to have Karl institutionalized, even though he has violent outbursts, as when he demolishes a mannequin with a fireplace poker. Enter Tony (Paul Vincent), a motorcycle-riding drifter whom Karl meets one day at a secluded beach. After skinny-dipping together (don’t bother reading into this scene, since subtext is far beyond writer-director Robert J. Emery’s grasp), the men return to Karl’s home, where, predictably, Tony gets it on with Anna. Just as predictably, this sends Karl over the edge. Whatever. It’s all quite boring and trite until the final scene. (Is it necessary to provide a spoiler alert for a movie very few people will ever want to see?) Following the inevitable bloodbath, Karl drives Tony’s motorcycle down a bridge while wearing a mannequin strapped to his back. Then he parks the bike, tosses the mannequin into the water, slashes his wrist, and dives into the water—at which point several sharks (!!!) appear to chomp on Karl in bloody freeze-frames during the closing credits. If you’re willing to slog through 90 minutes of bilge for a few moments of almost-memorable weirdness, add this to your watchlist. Incidentally, this film was originally released as Scream Bloody Murder, which is also the most common title of an unrelated low-budget horror picture released the following year.

My Brother Has Bad Dreams: LAME

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The California Kid (1974)

          Never mind that the “kid” of the title is played by a 34-year-old Martin Sheen, because if that kind of logical disconnect ruins your viewing experiences, then you probably don’t have much of an appetite for dopey TV movies from the ’70s, and The California Kid will strike you as a non-starter. Flip side, if you’re willing to lower your standards in order to enjoy 74 minutes of formulaic escapism, then prepare yourself for an enjoyable fast-food snack brimming with empty calories. Hot-rod driver Michael McCord (Sheen) blows into the small town of Clarksberg, where Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) is so mad for speed-limit enforcement that he occasionally pushes reckless drivers’ cars over a cliff in treacherous canyon terrain. One of Sheriff Roy’s victims was Michael’s kid brother, so Michael has come to Clarksberg in search of truth and, if necessary, frontier justice. That’s the entire plot, notwithstanding an anemic love story pairing Michael with seen-it-all waitress Maggie (played by lissome singer-turned-actress Michelle Phillips).
          Written and directed, respectively, by longtime TV professionals Richard Compton and Richard T. Heffron, The California Kid is competent but graceless, and the movie’s lack of character development is laughable, especially when the filmmakers try for angsty gravitas in the final act. Had the project not landed so many interesting actors (Stuart Margolin and Nick Nolte show up in supporting roles), it’s safe to assume that The California Kid would have been unbearably vapid. As is, the thing moves along at a more sluggish pace than you might imagine, given the high-octane subject matter, but Sheen is consistently watchable. He’s particularly compelling in moments when he glares at Morrow, the heat of his character’s rage smoldering from beneath a menacingly scrunched brow. And just when it seems that Morrow has phoned in a one-dimensional portrayal, the revelation of his character’s backstory—combined with a single scene in a dusty backyard—adds something like nuance. So even though one can’t help but wish this thing grew up to become the Roger Corman-esque thrill ride it so clearly wants to, The California Kid has its simplistic charms.

The California Kid: FUNKY

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Steel Arena (1973)

The debut films of prolific directors have a certain innate appeal, because it’s always interesting to see where a noteworthy filmmaker’s journey began. In the case of Mark L. Lester, whose subsequent affronts to cinematic quality include Roller Boogie (1979) and Firestarter (1984), watching his first feature-length project, Steel Arena, is illuminating albeit unsurprising. Very quickly, one notes baseline technical competence and even occasional evidence of visual style. Yet just as quickly, one marvels at laughable ineptitude with regard to acting, characterization, logic, and storytelling. Lester, who began his film career making documentaries, apparently befriended a group of low-rent daredevils who toured the south, then persuaded the daredevils to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Never mind that none of them could act, or that the “story” Lester imposed upon them is a flimsy frame connecting lengthy vignettes of demolition-derby carnage. One can almost feel the film straining every time Lester tries to add dramatic weight with a tragic moment, especially because most of the film is utterly bereft of interpersonal conflict. Nonetheless, Steel Arena offers plenty of guilty-pleasure signifiers common to vintage southern drive-in schlock—there’s a corpulent redneck sheriff, a car chase involving moonshine, a busty waitress with a thirst for adventure, and a hilariously overlong sequence in which people bitch about mosquito bites. Through it all, leading man Dusty Russell, sort of playing himself, manages to avoid forming a single facial expression. The cars he crashes give more convincing performances.

Steel Arena: LAME