Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Sweet Creek County War (1979)

          While the threadbare premise of The Sweet Creek County War was never to be the foundation for singular entertainment, the script’s colorful dialogue and earnest characterizations could have become the building blocks for something highly watchable. Alas, J. Frank James elected to direct his own script instead of entrusting it to more capable hands, thus ensuring the end of a screen career that began just a few years earlier with the other low-budget Western that he wrote and directed, The Legend of Earl Durand (1974). James was not without skill as a screenwriter, but he was hopelessly inept as a director, so both of his films squandered their potential. Even the title of The Sweet Creek County War indicates how badly this piece suffers for anemic execution—although the title suggests a sweeping story about frontier conflict, the picture largely depicts varmints laying siege to a single cabin occupied by the three main characters. More like The Sweet Creek County Skirmish.
          As for those characters, they are retired lawman Judd (Richard Egan), aging outlaw George (Albert Salmi), and past-her-prime prostitute Firetop Alice (Nita Talbot). After Judd rescues George from a lynch mob, the men pool their resources to buy a ranch. Later, George drunkenly marries Firetop Alice and brings her back to the ranch, upsetting the dynamic of his friendship with Judd. Meanwhile, vicious developer Lucas (Robert J. Wilke), who wants the land on which the ranch is located, unleashes gunmen to intimidate  Judd and George. Also drifting through the story, somewhat inconsequentially, is a stuttering dope named “Jitters Pippen,” played by Slim Pickens. (Presumably Dub Taylor was unavailable and Strother Martin was too expensive.)
          The basic premise of The Sweet Creek County War appeared in countless previous Western movies and TV shows, so the picture’s only moderately individualistic elements are characterizations and the dialogue—and what these elements lack in originality, they offer in sincerity. James seems committed to exploring both an unusual friendship and the conflicted emotions of people who carry deep regrets. Accordingly, had James worked with a proper director, one imagines he could have minimized the script’s formulaic components and leaned into the poignant ones. In turn, improvements to the script and the participation of a competent filmmaker might have attracted relevant performers, no offence to the blandly competent Egan, Salmi, and Talbot. After all, acting isn’t the problem here. The most amateurish aspect of The Sweet Creek County War is unquestionably James’s artless shooting style.

The Sweet Creek County War: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Death Squad (1974)

          Minor telefilm The Death Squad shouldn’t merit any attention—the story is so compressed that it feels as if pieces are missing, and the basic premise appeared in the previous year’s hit Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. Yet good performances, especially Robert Forster’s emotionally committed turn in the leading role, make The Death Squad watchable. If nothing else, the picture provides a poignant reminder that something was lost when Forster’s career failed to gain momentum in his early years as a screen performer. While it’s true he was prone to robotic performances when saddled with sketchy material, moments in The Death Squad remind viewers what he could do when he tried. He’s more poignant here than the situation demands or deserves.
          Forster plays Eric Benoit, a cop tasked with identifying rogue officers responsible for vigilante killings of crooks who got off on technicalities. Although this setup prompts a handful of chases and shootouts, the main focus of The Death Squad is Benoit wrestling with divided loyalties. How deep a rot will he discover in his department? What happens when he learns that a cop who screwed him over in the past is part of the vigilante group? Will digging into the origins of the vigilante group reveal secrets that hit Benoit even more personally? To their credit, the makers of The Death Squad raise all of these questions—and to their shame, the makers of The Death Squad provide satisfactory answers to only a few of those questions. This is the sort of malnourished narrative in which the nominal female lead, played by Michelle Phillips, could have been excised from the storyline and her absence wouldn’t have been felt.
          Nonetheless, the stuff that works in The Death Squad is entertainingly melodramatic and pulpy. Claude Akins, who plays the heavy, provides a potent mixture of menace and swagger. Character actors including George Murdock, Dennis Patrick, Bert Remsen, and Kenneth Tobey lend color to small roles, while the great Melvyn Douglas classes up the joint by playing Benoit’s mentor in a few brief scenes. On the technical side, the picture benefits from unfussy camerawork and a rubbery jazz/funk score in the Lalo Schifrin mode (more shades of the Dirty Harry movies). Best of all, actors and filmmakers play the lurid material completely straight, so every so often a scene—usually involving Forster—provides a glimmer of the great Roger Corman drive-in thriller The Death Squad should have been. Ah, well. We’ll always have Akins.

The Death Squad: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974)

          The verbose title of this mildly spooky telefilm suggests a supernatural angle, but The Strange and Deadly Occurrence is really a crime thriller with horror-flick flourishes. Approached with the right mindset, the picture provides pleasantly undemanding distraction. Robert Stack, rendering the same sort of blandly American masculinity he brought to countless movie/TV endeavors before diversifying his brand with self-parody in Airplane! (1980), stars as Michael Rhodes, the head of a small family that moves in to a new home. Soon after Michael, his wife Christine (Vera Miles), and their daughter Melissa (Margaret Willock) take occupancy, peculiar things start to happen—power outages, weird noises, etc. The family also receives persistent visits from Dr. Wren (E.A. Sirianni), an odd fellow inexplicably determined to buy their house. Soon Michael grows to believe that Dr. Wren has something nefarious in mind, unaware that a bigger threat exists.
          Whereas slight narratives are often shortcomings in ’70s telefilms, less is more in this case because the focus is on atmosphere rather than intricate storytelling. Director John Llewellen Moxey and writers Sandor Stern and Lane Slate achieve adequate results while generating low-grade tension and dramatizing how the Rhodes family reacts to upsetting circumstances. The filmmakers also succeed in misdirection, allowing a third-act shift in the narrative to land with enjoyable impact. An effectively seedy performance by a familiar character actor is better discovered than described, given that his appearance is key to the third-act twist, but everyone who appears onscreen in The Strange and Deadly Occurrence understood the assignment. Costar L.Q. Jones is suitably condescending as a local lawman, Sirianni twitches well, Miles lends welcome muscle to her role, and Stack, as mentioned earlier, supplies exactly what he was hired to supply.
          Does The Strange and Deadly Occurrence suffer the usual flaws of dubious contrivances and characters who make conveniently stupid decisions? Of course. But if you’ve read this deep into the write-up of a ’70s made-for-TV thriller, then warnings about such flaws are unlikely to diminish your enthusiasm. Have at it.

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Taste of Evil (1971)

          If a barrage of logic-bending plot twists, a handful of familiar actors, and pervasive woman-in-peril atmosphere are sufficient to hold your attention, then you’re the target audience for 1971’s A Taste of Evil, a distasteful but watchable telefilm starring two very different Barbaras, onetime Golden Age star Stanwyck and Peyton Place player Parkins. Rounding out the top-billed cast are Roddy McDowall, Arthur O’Connell, and William Windom, while the behind-the-scenes notables are prolific TV director John Llewellyn Moxey (whose career spanned 1955 to 1991) and writer Jimmy Sangster, best known for the entertainingly lurid Hammer horrors he wrote and/or directed. These folks’ assorted skillsets give A Taste of Evil a smidge more cinematic verve than the average telefilm, even though the picture is most assuredly schlock.
          In a bleak prologue, a 13-year-old girl is sexually assaulted on a sprawling estate. Cut to a decade later, when the now-grown Susan (Parkins) returns home from an overseas mental institution. She’s welcomed by her mother, Miriam (Stanwyck); her alcoholic stepfather, Harold (Windom); and the family’s simple-minded groundskeeper, John (O’Connell). Susan endures several bizarre episodes, seemingly getting chased through woods, discovering a corpse that disappears in the time it takes Susan to get help, and so on. Enter Dr. Lomas (McDowall), whom the family hires to help Susan navigate trauma. Per the Hitchcockian-psychological-thriller playbook, viewers are tasked with guessing whether Susan is unwell or being gaslit—and, if the latter is the case, by whom. To Sangster’s credit, this brief telefilm juggles so many plot elements that it’s possible to overlook major clues, especially because some of the twists, once revealed, are ludicrous. (Incidentally, this was Sangster’s second pass on the same narrative—A Taste of Evil recycles a premise he originated for the 1961 Hammer production Scream of Fear.)
          Stanwyck, ever the consummate professional, does her best to sell this hokum and therefore neither distinguishes nor embarrasses herself. Parkins’s take on PTSD is too glassy-eyed to register emotionally, so she’s more of a delivery device for Sangster’s yarn-spinning than a proper leading lady. And while the film largely squanders McDowall and Windom, O’Connell’s portrayal engenders a bit of empathy. Yet this is ultimately more of a writer’s piece than anything else, so it’s a shame Sangster didn’t bring his A-game; the characterizations are sketchy at best and much of the dialogue is clumsily expositional. Nonetheless, even though everything about A Taste of Evil will quickly evaporate from the viewer’s memory—save perhaps the queasy opening sequence—the flick is just cynical and nasty enough to provide a few kitschy kicks.

A Taste of Evil: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Force of Evil (1977)

          Network appetites for TV movies in the ’70s were so insatiable that lots of recycled material hit the airwaves, hence this low-budget retread of the 1962 theatrical feature Cape Fear—which was more elaborately remade as a 1991 Scorsese/De Niro thriller. Starring Lloyd Bridges, The Force of Evil adds a vaguely supernatural element to the Cape Fear mix because the telefilm’s villain inexplicably survives multiple fatal attacks. Fans of slasher films might find this element moderately interesting since The Force of Evil predates such “unkillable killer” flicks as the following year’s Halloween, though the gore factor is zero and the intensity never rises above a simmer. It should also be noted that writer Robert Malcolm Young and director Richard Lang both enjoyed long careers generating hours upon hours of disposable television. In other words, expectations should be set appropriately low—but if your taste is such that the basic components of The Force of Evil capture your imagination, then you might find it diverting.
          Originally broadcast as a double-length episode of short-lived anthology series Tales of the Unexpected, this piece borrows the Cape Fear premise of a paroled criminal menacing the fellow whose testimony sent him to jail. (Neither the screenwriter of the 1962 movie nor the author of that film’s source novel is credited.) Specifically, in the bleak landscape of a California desert community, grinning psychopath Teddy Jakes (William Watson) terrorizes physician Yale Carrington (Bridges), who has a wife and two kids. At first, Yale feels confident about his ability to repel Teddy because Yale’s brother, Floyd (John Anderson), is the local sheriff. Alas, as in Cape Fear, the criminal studied law books in jail and therefore knows how far to push without incriminating himself. Nonetheless, things get fairly gruesome even before the first attempt on Teddy’s life—and then The Force of Evil kicks into gear by testing how violent Yale is willing to become in order to protect his family.
          The juxtaposition of Bridges’ somewhat restrained performance and Watson’s menacing swarthiness generates decent tension, as do several Hitchcock-style suspense scenes. Yet the movie’s strongest mojo emanates from dramatic camera angles rendered by cinematographer Paul Lohmann, whose impressive CV include Nashville and Trilogy of Terror (both 1975). Using deep focus and low angles, Lohmann takes Dan Curtis-style claustrophobic framing to almost satirical extremes. Oh, and one last point of interest for fans of a certain age—playing Bridges’ daughter is Eve Plumb, appearing between her tenures as a member of the Brady Bunch.

The Force of Evil: FUNKY