Monday, December 27, 2021

The Adventures of Frontier Fremont (1975)

          A year after they scored a box-office hit with The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, star Dan Haggerty and the same behind-the-scenes team reconvened for The Adventures of Frontier Fremont, which rehashes elements from the previous film. Once again, the story concerns a man who ventures into the wilderness of the American West circa the mid-1800s, and once again, the narrative focuses on the main character’s special relationships with animals. As always, Haggerty seems as if he was born for playing this type of role, not only because he cuts a formidable figure with his bulky frame and glorious mane of golden hair, but because he began his film career as an animal handler. Few actors look as comfortable interacting with frontier critters as Haggerty did. Where Frontier Fremont differs from Grizzly Adams is that it’s closer to being a proper movie. Grizzly Adams didn’t feature synchronized dialogue, so the piece was awkwardly smothered with folksy voiceover. In Frontier Fremont, viewers actually get to hear Haggerty and his fellow cast members speak. The presentation of conventional scenes makes Frontier Fremont flow more smoothly than its predecessor, even though the filmmakers can’t help but include folksy voiceover here and there.
         To call the movie’s story slight would require exaggeration. Jacob Fremont (Haggerty) departs civilization because living in the wilderness promises new experiences. On his way to the frontier, he meets a grumpy mountain man (Denver Pyle), who subsequently becomes a minor recurring character and also provides the aforementioned narration. Jacob’s odyssey follows a predictable course. He loses his supplies in an accident, so he must learn to live off the land. He befriends various animals, including a bear cub and a wolf cub, thus becoming a surrogate parent to furry foundlings. He clashes with hunters who encroach upon terrain that Jacob becomes determined to protect. Over time, Jacob evolves from an adventurer to a woodland messiah, inspiring awed reactions from white men and Native Americans alike.
          All of this is cloying hogwash, of course. Pyle’s character says things like “Holy jumpin’ squirrel fish!” and “Well, I’ll be kicked and dragged through a bucket of lard!” Haggerty and Pyle sing a cutesy song during a cabin-building montage. Adorable baby animals frolic. Panoramic shots capture magnificent scenery. It’s the same formula that made the Grizzly Adams movie a hit, and it’s the same formula that permeated the ensuing Grizzly Adams TV series (again starring Haggerty), which ran from early 1977 to late 1978. If you like ogling nature and don’t mind cornpone sentimentality, all of this stuff works for you. If not, none of it does.

The Adventures of Frontier Fremont: FUNKY

Monday, December 20, 2021

Memory of Us (1974)

          The quintessential figure of a woman who has everything and yet has nothing, Betty (Ellen Geer) is a housewife with a successful husband, Brad (Jon Cypher), healthy kids, and a spacious home. Alas, Betty knows that Brad has a mistress, which makes Betty feel so unmoored that she rents a hotel room in which she can privately explore hobbies, such as photography. It’s Betty’s way of starting a new life without destroying her old one. Meanwhile, voicever reveals what’s going through Betty’s mind, such as questions she wishes she could ask her husband: “Why can’t we look at each other anymore? Why can’t we be tender? Do you tell as many lies to me as I do to you?” All of this should indicate the overly earnest vibe of Memory of Us, a low-budget character study starring and written by Ellen Geer, daughter of familiar movie/TV actor Will Geer. Although Memory of Us speaks to issues that were important in the mid-’70s zeitgeist, such as shifting family dynamics during the time of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, the movie is so plainspoken and unambitious that it feels like a slight telefilm rather than a theatrical feature.

          One problem is that while Ellen Geer is unquestionably a serious actress, she lacks magnetism. Another problem is the aforementioned voiceover, which functions as a narrative crutch—rather than providing insights that viewers wouldn’t be able to glean from dramatic context, the voiceover affirms things viewers already know, thereby giving the whole enterprise a plodding quality. Only two elements of the storyline have any real inventiveness. The business of renting a hotel room as a private getaway lends metaphorical interest, and a sequence in which Betty hires a hitchhiker to pose as her lover suggests dangerous possibilities. Predictably, however, those possibilities never lead to anything. And that’s the biggest problem with this well-meaning but wholly forgettable movie—the storyline is forever on the verge of going somewhere powerful, but it always pumps the brakes before things get heavy. To paraphrase the title of another women’s picture released the same year, Memory of Us might as well have been titled Betty Is Thinking of Not Living Here Anymore.

          Incidentally, Memory of Us was the second Ellen Geer-scripted feature issued by small-time distributor Cinema Financial in 1974—the family film Silence, with Will Geer in the leading role, came out a month earlier. To date, these are the only two films Ellen Geer has written.

Memory of Us: FUNKY

Monday, December 13, 2021

Delirium (1979)

Is Delirium a conspiracy thriller disguished as a slasher flick? Or is it a provocative story about PTSD and vigilante justice rendered inert by clumsy execution? Or is it just a hot mess resulting from filmmakers jamming as many genre-movie signifiers as possible into one production? The answer to each of these questions is “yes,” but Delirium is less than the sum of its parts. An amateurish low-budget endeavor filmed in St. Louis, Delirium toggles between craven exploitation-flick sleaze and laughable attempts at thematic heaviosity. It’s possible to follow what’s happening, and the picture rarely wants for narrative events, so it’s not unwatchable. However there’s no good reason for most viewers to endure the movie’s 85 minutes—those eager to find hidden pulp-fiction gems should try digging elsewhere. Nonetheless, here are the details for bold souls who can’t be dissuaded. After a young woman is impaled in her apartment, stalwart policeman Larry (Terry TenBroek) questions the victim’s pretty roommate, Susan (Debi Chaney), for clues about the killer’s identity. Concurrently, the film tracks the killer, Charlie (Nick Panouzis), as his rampage continues. Viewers learn that Charlie is an unhinged Vietnam vet associated with a cabal that kills criminals who get off on technicalities. Realizing that Charlie has gone rogue by murdering innocents, the conspriators try to neutralize him before he leads cops to their lair. In competent hands, some of this material might have worked (see 1983’s The Star Chamber), but everything about Delirium is rushed and sloppy, from the anemic acting to the ridiculous use of St. Louis as stand-in for Vietnam during flashbacks. Worse, the presence of grindhouse extremes—unpleasnant scenes of women getting slaughtered—makes the movie’s nods to postwar anguish feel like crass add-ons.

Delirium: LAME

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Astrologer (1975)

          It’s time to leave the real world behind and venture into the alternate universe created by a gentleman named Craig Denney, whose single contribution to the history of cinema is a mesmerizingly terrible paranormal parable called The Astrologer, of which he was both director and star. In this movie, Denney—perhaps best described as George Hamilton’s doughy little brother—plays a man whose adventures captivate the entire world, and whose mystical abilities far surpass those of normal people. Yes, The Astrologer is a cinematic ego trip of spectacular proportions. Denney’s moviemaking suggests the desperate groping of a film student who thinks he’s a once-in-a-lifetime genius even though he has trouble grasping fundamentals. Yet what really distinguishes The Astrologer is the insane ambition of the narrative, credited to screenwriter Dorothy June Pidgeon. (Like Denney, she never did anything else in the picture business.) Despite running less than 90 minutes, The Astrologer packs enough plot for a David Lean epic.
          This movie goes terribly wrong right from the start, after which problems metastasize at a staggering pace. Running through some high points should give a sense of The Astrologer’s deep weirdness. In a prologue, we meet the title character as a youth picking pockets in Long Beach, California, until he’s jailed for vandalizing police cars. (Establishing the movie’s nonsensical pattern, no reason is ever given for why he committed the crime.) Cut to a few years later, when grown-up Craig (Denney) has become as a bogus psychic. He gives a Zodiacal reading to a woman named Darrien (Darrien Earle), during which he pronounces “Libra” as lie-bra, not lee-bra. (Apparently referencing a dictionary was beyond Denney’s powers.) Craig shacks up with Darrien, but she leaves because he can’t generate steady income, so, naturally, Craig befriends an oil executive who wants to get into the diamond-smuggling business. Cut to Craig in a Kenyan prison after getting caught smuggling. Random violence ensues—such as a shooting punctuated by cartoon blood dripping down the screen—before viewers get treated to a snake-attack sequence set to thundering classical music by Gustav Holst.
         Next comes a vignette of someone drowning in quicksand, followed by a lengthy sequence of Craig working on a sailing vessel to the accompaniment of the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon.” (As in nearly the whole eight-minute song.) Craig lands in the tropics, where he arranges to sell diamonds to Dietrich (Joe Kaye). Who’s Dietrich, you ask? He’s the corrupt cop who abused Craig in Kenya, obviously. Stop asking silly questions! (Important sidenote: Kaye’s performance is endearingly terrible, especially when he describes a nettlesome female character by saying, “Basically she’s just another guttersnipe—I’ll deal with her accordingly.”) Enriched with $2 million from the diamond sale, Craig returns to California and makes a film titled The Astrologer starring himself. It’s at this point Denney’s movie enters metatextual-freakout territory. The film-within-a-film is a huge success, turning Craig into both a media mogul and a celebrity spiritualist, so he simultaneously produces TV shows and helps the U.S. military by making psychic predictions. In his spare time, Craig tracks down his old girlfriend Darrien, which triggers florid melodrama straight out of a daytime soap.
          Appraised conventionally, The Astrologer is such an amateurish endeavor that it doesn’t merit a moment’s thought. Viewed through the proper psychotronic prism, however, The Astrologer is ceaselessly delightful. The acting is wooden. The writing is clueless. The directing is even more so. The production values are hilariously cheap. And in scene after scene, storytelling choices are totally confounding. During a trippy sex-club vignette, the camera repeatedly cuts to a shot of a urinal. During a crucial conversation sequence, the soundtrack omits dialogue in favor of a bombastic Procul Harum song. And in a final grace note, the credits announce that The Astrologer was filmed in—wait for it—Astravision. Perhaps that’s as good a word as any for how disoriented you’ll feel after absorbing the singular experience that is The Astrologer.
          It’s not a movie, man. It’s a vision. An astravision.

The Astrologer: FREAKY