Friday, December 31, 2010

The Poseidon Adventure (1971) & Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)


          For some reason, I’ve always remembered a remark that Will Smith made around the time he broke through as a big-screen star with 1994’s Independence Day: When asked how he got so much mileage out of so little screen time, Smith explained that he studied Ernest Borgnine’s performance in The Poseidon Adventure because of how vigorously Borgnine attacked every scene. Smith was onto something, because even though Irwin Allen’s production of The Poseidon Adventure deserves its reputation as one of the cheesiest movies of the ’70s, it’s undeniably compelling for the same reason that Borgnine’s supporting performance is effective—the picture will do anything to get a reaction. Based on a novel by Paul Gallico, the story about a luxury liner turned upside down by a giant rogue wave is silly, because it presumes that the liner can stay afloat long enough for survivors to seek rescue through a hole in the bottom of the hull, but the movie is jam-packed with action, melodrama, romance, schmaltz, and spectacle. What’s not to like about unpretentious hokum that intercuts shots of gussied-up New Year’s Eve revelers singing “Auld Lang Syne” with vignettes of the ship’s stoic captain (Leslie Nielsen!) watching watery doom approach a few decks above their heads? Perfecting the disaster-movie template established by Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure offers a slapdash ensemble of familiar faces romping through one overwrought crisis after another. In sheer paycheck-cashing mode, Gene Hackman plays the hero of the piece, a swaggering priest who rediscovers his purpose in life by leading a band of hearty survivors to possible salvation; his performance is so faux-intense that it’s embarrassing and thrilling at the same time. Lending campy gravitas are Borgnine and other showbiz veterans, including Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, and the flamboyantly buoyant Shelley Winters (“In the water, I’m a very skinny lady!”). Meanwhile, Carol Lynley, Pamela Sue Martin, and Stella Stevens shriek their lungs out in various states of soggy undress.
          The soap-opera storylines are drab, like the one about marital strife between a crass cop (Borgnine) and an ex-hooker (Stevens), but the fun of the picture is watching broadly sketched caricatures clash with each other against a backdrop of death and devastation. Allen spent a bundle on massive sets that could be flipped upside down and flooded, so what’s happening onscreen feels real because the actors actually got soaked, and drowning is such a universal phobia that it’s impossible not to sympathize with the characters’ anxiety. On top of everything, there’s a sky-high kitsch factor, especially when Lynley lip-syncs the movie’s atrocious but Oscar-winning theme song “The Morning After”—so whether you embrace the flick for its legit thrills or its unintentional humor, The Poseidon Adventure is a great ride.
          Allen reprised the story several years later, when his career was faltering; the sleep-inducing Beyond the Poseidon Adventure stars a bored Michael Caine as a sea captain who tries to salvage loot from wreck of the Poseidon shortly after the last moments of the original movie. Peter Boyle, Sally Field, and Jack Warden join the festivities, with Karl Malden playing Caine’s salty sidekick and Telly Savalas portraying the main villain. Unfortunately, the direction and script are so lifeless that even the colorful cast isn’t enough to keep the sequel afloatBeyond the Poseidon Adventure is a grade-Z heist picture that merely happens to take place on an abandoned boat.

The Poseidon Adventure: GROOVY
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure: LAME

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)


Though nominally the last entry in Hammer’s mummy series, this turgid thriller doesn’t feature the series’ usual imagery—instead of a fellow shuffling along in head-to-toe bandages, this one’s about an ancient Egyptian princess whose spirit possesses a modern-day Englishwoman. Adapted from a Bram Stoker novel called The Jewel of the Seven Stars, the picture has atmosphere to spare but very little narrative momentum. Most of the characters are bewitched or conspirators, so nobody does much of anything to stop a series of murders; as a result, bad things happen without noticeable dramatic impact. The filmmaking team also insists upon visually consistent deaths even when the visuals don’t suit the circumstances—all the murder victims die by having their throats ripped open, including the unfortunate gentleman who falls backward through glass doors. Um, his throat got cut how? Logic and physics were never of paramount importance in Hammer productions, of course, and the movie delivers the requisite elements: heaving bosoms, supernatural claptrap, Technicolor gore. But it’s all rather tedious, because none of the performers attack their roles with the vigor one gets in better Hammer flicks. (Peter Cushing, who left the production when his wife died and was replaced with journeyman actor Andrew Keir, is sorely missed.) Long-limbed leading lady Valerie Leon is striking, especially when prancing about in low-cut nightgowns, but she’s utterly vapid, and among the supporting cast only peripheral freakazoids register. A pervy-looking doctor who wears gigantic Marcello Mastroianni sunglasses at night appears in a few scenes, and toward the end of the picture an effeminate man with painted nails shows up briefly without explanation. One keeps hoping for moments as gruesome as the opening, which features a disembodied hand crawling through the Egyptian desert, but by the time this discombobulated movie cuts to the same static shot of a glistening sarcophagus for the umpteenth time, the whole enterprise has become thoroughly dull.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb: LAME

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Food of the Gods (1976)


Writer/director Bert I. Gordon, an inexplicably durable special-effects guru whose big claim to fame is having made campy Cold War-era junk along the lines of The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), hit a strange sort of career high with The Food of the Gods, a wretched riff on an H.G. Wells novel bearing the more florid title The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Mostly dispatching with tricky stuff like the whole “how it came to Earth” part, Gordon focuses on the idea of mysterious grub that causes creatures to grow to monstrous proportions. You know the flick’s in trouble when the first overgrown critters Gordon puts onscreen are giant chickens. Making things even weirder, in some shots the feathered fiends are portrayed by actors wearing oversized chicken masks. And while you’d think the bit with the giant rats would at least be creepy, by that point Gordon has sunk to using shots of real-life rats interacting with scaled-down props like a tiny VW Beetle. So if viewers can’t even relish the grotesquery of giant rats eating people without getting distracted by shoddy FX, then what’s the point of sitting through this abomination? Some fleeting distraction from the ridiculousness is offered by the verdant British Columbia locations, but it’s as depressing to watch studio-era great Ida Lupino slum her way through this tripe as it is to that realize leading man Marjoe Gortner is starring in exactly the level of movie his talent merits. If you’re the sort of viewer who enjoys watching awful movies and discovering unintentional laughs, feel free to take a bite of The Food of the Gods, but if doing so triggers your gag reflex instead of tickling your funny bone, don’t say you weren’t warned.

The Food of the Gods: SQUARE

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) & The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)


          Standard Disney live-action fare about cute youngsters getting into mischief, The Apple Dumpling Gang features skillful support from grown-up players Bill Bixby, Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Harry Morgan, and Slim Pickens. The Old West story concerns three young orphans whose varmint uncle dumps them into the care of an irresponsible gambler (Bill Bixby), who in turn tries to dump the kids onto someone else until the moppets discover gold in a mine belonging to their family. When assorted disreputable types try to rip off the gold, seeing the children endangered causes Bixby to grow a conscience. Television icons Conway and Knotts are the main attraction, working as a comedy duo for the first time, and they’re comfortably amusing even though their slapstick antics as a pair of inept outlaws are contrived and silly (typical bit: trying to steal a ladder from a firehouse and slamming the ladder into everything in sight). Earnest, old-fashioned, and beyond predictable, The Apple Dumpling Gang moves along at a pleasant clip, despite cloying music and rickety process shots, so the movie is innocuous entertainment for very young viewers; grown-ups should be able to swallow everything except perhaps the requisite warm fuzzies at the end and the cutesy theme song.
          Bixby and the kids were jettisoned for the sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, in which Conway and Knotts try to go straight but end up running afoul of the army, a crazed sheriff, and a criminal gang, causing destructive mayhem along the way. The sequel’s storyline is a patchwork of Western clichés—the climax is a train robbery—so neither Conway’s deadpan delivery nor Knotts’ bug-eyed crankiness is enough to liven up the proceedings. And the less said about the scene they play in drag, the better. Harry Morgan returns in a different role than he played in the first movie, while Tim Matheson, Jack Elam, and Kenneth Mars add color to the cast. The overstuffed plot and the depiction of the “heroes” as complete morons makes the sequel far less palatable than its predecessor, but as a small mercy for those who take the plunge, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again runs its forgettable course in a mere 88 minutes.

The Apple Dumpling Gang: FUNKY
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again: LAME

Monday, December 27, 2010

Daughters of Satan (1972)


Daughters of Satan is almost certainly the only movie about an American art expert who moves to Manila with his high-strung wife, buys a creepy old painting featuring a woman who looks like the missus, discovers that he’s the descendant of some dude who killed a bunch of witches a few centuries ago, and fails to notice clues like the creepy Rottweiler that shows up at his house or the dagger-wielding crazies who chase him through the streets before he finally realizes that his wife is the descendant of one of his ancestor’s victims, meaning his days are numbered. Oh, and the Man Who Would Be Magnum, Tom Selleck, is the hero, playing this no-budget garbage straight even though diving into the gonzo spirit of the thing might have delivered more interesting results. If the movie wasn’t weighted down by so many boring stretches of characters wandering around doing nothing, it would qualify as a so-bad-it’s-good disaster, because Selleck’s the only performer with any clue about delivering dialogue, and because the so-called plot charts the outer reaches of narrative stupidity. As it is, some moments in Daughters of Satan come close to sublime awfulness. I’m fond of the scenes featuring the high priestess of “the Manila Assembly of Lucifer” cavorting around in a purple leotard with flames embroidered over her lady’s business, and there’s something rad about the creepy little shirtless mortician who scolds Selleck by saying, “You’re not allowed in here, this is the make-up room of the dead.” (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Daughters of Satan: LAME

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Brannigan (1975)


Killing time between the elegiac Westerns that comprised the final statements of his epic career, John Wayne ambled through this routine thriller about a swaggering American cop set loose on the streets of London, playing the sort of trigger-happy rogue that Clint Eastwood incarnated so much more effectively during the same period in his Dirty Harry flicks. Cast properly, the movie could have boasted a terrific culture-clash tension, but with Wayne in the role, the main character doesn’t make much sense: The actor is far too old to play a dangerous man of action, and his flirtatious interplay with an attractive British copper (Judy Geeson) has a dirty-old-uncle quality, even though the film addresses their age difference. A bigger problem is that despite lots of talk about how reckless Lieutenant Jim Brannigan is, everything he does in the picture is fairly reasonable—he wrecks a good deal of public property, but it’s all in the service of getting killers off the streets. As a result, the idea that Scotland Yard is incensed by his activities never rings true, and the film makes “bobbies” look like boobs, which fits Brannigan into Wayne’s jingoistic filmography but doesn’t do much for the film’s credibility. While the movie drags throughout its laborious 111-minute running time, the underlying premise of Brannigan chasing a U.S. crook who’s hiding out in Europe is solid. Less sturdy is the subplot about an assassin hired to take out Brannigan, because the allegedly frightening killer makes a number of absurdly amateurish attempts on the hero’s life. Instead of rigging elaborate booby traps, why not just shoot the son of a bitch? Costar Richard Attenborough is drab as Wayne’s U.K. counterpart, who does little except get flustered by Brannigan’s bravado, and John Vernon isn’t given nearly enough screen time as the slimy American gangster Brannigan is trying to capture. By the time the film lurches into a ridiculously protracted showdown between Brannigan and the hapless assassin, logic and momentum have been completely trumped by sloppy direction and by Wayne’s enervated grandstanding.

Brannigan: LAME

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scrooge (1970)


          Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, producers created ever more lavish productions while vainly trying to re-create the box office magic of The Sound of Music (1965), resulting in a string of bloated musicals that nearly bankrupted the Hollywood studios. Yet while it’s tempting to paint all of these projects with the same brush, especially since key films like Dr. Dolittle (1967) are indeed quite awful, some of these megabudget musicals are actually watchable. Scrooge is a good example. As the title suggests, it’s a tune-laden take on Charles Dickens’ indestructible story “A Christmas Carol,” and the perfection of Dickens’ narrative goes a long way toward explaining why Scrooge is rewarding: Even when the movie succumbs to excess, the underlying story is so strong that it’s easy to get swept up in the narrative. Albert Finney gives an energetic performance in the title role, looking like he’s thrilled to step away from the demands of being a leading man and submerge himself into painstaking character work as literature’s favorite curmudgeon. In the film’s many nonmusical scenes, he’s appropriately disagreeable and tortured, and in the musical vignettes, it doesn’t really matter that he can’t sing; Finney expresses himself in an idiosyncratic fashion that fits his character, and more often than not he gets support from a chorus and/or a duet partner.
          Director Ronald Neame, a former cinematographer whose best films are light comedies, delivers the story of skinflint Scrooge learning the true meaning of Christmas with a heavy serving of Victorian atmosphere, thanks to opulent sets and playful special effects. It doesn’t hurt that he recruited Alec Guiness, the star of his acclaimed ’50s movies The Horse’s Mouth and Tunes of Glory, to contribute a memorably overwrought performance as the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley. The film’s original songs, by Dr. Dolittle composer Leslie Bricusse, are mostly twee and forgettable, but they move the film along well enough, and the Oscar-nominated standout, “Thank You Very Much,” exists somewhere on the border between catchy and insidious. (In other words, you’ll be humming it for days afterward—it’s the gift that keeps on giving.) While Scrooge is far from the best filmed version of Dickens’ tale, it’s a great-looking film that spares no expense in terms of production values, and Finney’s Golden Globe-winning star turn is one of the most engaged and unusual performances of his eclectic career. Plus, since I’ve got a little Grinch blood running through my veins, it warms my two-sizes-too-small heart when Scrooge warbles a tune titled “I Hate People.” Preach on, brother Ebenezer—and Merry Christmas!

Scrooge: FUNKY

Friday, December 24, 2010

Badlands (1973)


          Cinematic poetry is hard to achieve in narrative films, because the normal grinding work of developing plots inevitably requires the inclusion of perfunctory elements that make pure artistic expression difficult. As a result, even the best movies enter the poetic realm for only a few minutes at a time. One notable exception to this rule, however, is writer-director Terrence Malick. His scripts are so spare, and his visuals are so elegant, that poetry is the only word that really describes his style. This was never truer than with his directorial debut, Badlands, which has occupied a treasured place among my very favorite films since I first watched it at film school. In fact, Badlands is one of the few movies that I wish I made, not just because the end result is so quietly overwhelming, but because of the sense I get that making the picture was a rarified experience involving like-minded artists helping Malick express something unique. Even though Badlands is a violent crime story, it’s also a  sensitive statement about directionless youths in the American heartland; few films balance savagery and soulfulness with this much grace.
          Malick’s script is a fictionalized take on the real-life odyssey of Charles Starkweather, who murdered 11 people during a 1958 trek across Nebraska and Wyoming, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend. Badlands changes the names and locations, so instead of a docudrama it’s a meditation on the intersection between American wanderlust and the unknowable darkness in the human soul. Martin Sheen plays Kit Caruthers, a handsome but unstable garbage collector living in late-’50s South Dakota. When he meets sheltered teenager Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), his latent psychosis and fascination with James Dean’s live-fast-die-young mythology prompt Kit to embark upon a murderous odyssey with Holly as his hapless traveling companion. From the first scene, Malick creates an otherworldly mood, with airy musical compositions, Spacek’s plainspoken narration, and startling audiovisual juxtapositions communicating the idea that Badlands exists somewhere in the limbo between dreams and reality—when Kit and Holly camp out in a remote forest partway through the killing spree, it really does seem as if they’ve escaped the normal world for someplace else.
          Sheen is remarkable in a performance that sits comfortably alongside his acclaimed work in Apocalypse Now (1979); not only does he convincingly play a man far younger than Sheen was during production, but he believably personifies the idea of an twitchy loner who can’t find the right outlets for his angst, charisma, and curiosity. Spacek is unforgettable in a difficult role, because Holly is in some respects the blank slate upon which the audience projects its reactions—it’s to her great credit that we accept her wonderment at Kit’s force of personality, and her slow realization of the horror she’s witnessing. Invaluable ’70s character actors Ramon Bieri and Warren Oates appear in supporting roles, each contributing gritty texture and bringing out different colors in the leads’ performances.
          Although Malick’s subsequent career has produced some of the most beautiful images in American film, he has yet to recapture the focus he demonstrated with Badlands, and that’s part of why it’s the consummate example of his poetic approach: For an intoxicating hour and a half, Malick matches his filmmaking artistry with narrative economy in a gorgeous film without a single wasted frame.

Badlands: OUTTA SIGHT

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Capricorn One (1978)


Peter Hyams’ loopy conspiracy thriller has the American government faking a Mars landing to score political points, a storyline so ’70s it almost hurts. The outrageous concept is rich with visual and narrative potential, only some of which writer-director Hyams mines in his entertaining but inconsistent narrative. The main problem with the movie is also its main contrivance: After participating in the hoax, three astronauts learn that the government expects them to crash during their spaceship’s staged return to terra firma, because they’ve got to disappear for real in order to sell the illusion. Quick question No. 1: If the astronauts can’t be trusted, then how can the dozens of technicians involved in mounting the conspiracy be trusted? Quick question No. 2: How does a crash landing give the government the PR win they’re seeking by staging a fake Mars landing in the first place? Don’t look for answers, because logic takes a backseat to pulpy fun as plot twists slam into place so quickly they cause cinematic whiplash. The bits depicting the actual fabrication of the Mars landing are colorful, but oddly enough a long sequence of leading man James Brolin trapped in the deserts of the American Southwest is more vivid. Hal Holbrook shines as the main conspirator, delivering an epic monologue toward the beginning of the picture that lays out the particulars of the plot; with his mesmerizing scowl and lilting voice, Holbrook’s one of the few actors who can make that many minutes of unbroken speech compelling. Elliot Gould plays a combination Woodward and Bernstein as the intrepid reporter who tracks the case, doing his amiable bumbling-schnook routine, and the endangered astronauts at the heart of the story are portrayed by a truly eclectic trio: Brolin, O.J. Simpson, and Sam Waterston. They’re so mismatched that they represent of sliding scale of American acting, from Simpson’s cheerful incompetence to Brolin’s vapid professionalism to Waterston’s earnest skillfulness. Ace character players James B. Sikking and Robert Walden are in the mix too, as is Telly Savalas in a gonzo cameo that adds gleeful absurdity to the climax.

Capricorn One: GROOVY

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Damnation Alley (1977)


According to Hollywood lore, the fine folks at Twentieth Century-Fox originally thought Damnation Alley, based on a novel by journeyman genre writer Roger Zelzany, was going to be their big sci-fi hit for 1977, so they pumped more marketing money into this old-school cheapie than they did into that strange little movie George Lucas was shooting in England about some character called Luke Skywalker. Suffice it to say there was a course correction when Star Wars opened on May 25, so by the time Damnation hit theaters on October 21, it had already been rendered obsolete in almost every conceivable way by Lucas’ space opera. Looking at Damnation in the context of Hollywood history is about the only way to generate interest in the thing, which would have been passable as a pilot for one of those cheesy sci-fi shows that thrived on Saturday-morning TV in the ’70s, but doesn’t remotely make the grade as a theatrical feature. The plot is the usual post-apocalyptic hooey, with a gaggle of survivors traversing irradiated terrain in a pimped-out Winnebago while avoiding things like overabundant and/or oversized bugs. The effects are clunky in a sorta-endearing fashion (the scorching red skies are pretty cool), but the action and characterizations are utilitarian at best. The only real appeal, aside from the kitsch factor germane to all crappy ’70s sci-fi, is in watching the colorful B-grade cast: George Peppard, showing a glimmer of A-Team things to come, leads an RV filled with Jackie Earle Haley, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dominique Sanda, and Paul Winfield. All fun personalities, all badly underused here. Still, it’s impossible to hate a movie that features Peppard barking lines like this one into his CB: “Tanner, this is Denton. This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. Repeat, killer cockroaches!”

Damnation Alley: LAME

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cleopatra Jones (1973) & Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)


          One of those bad movies that sounds fabulous in the abstract but disintegrates upon close inspection, Cleopatra Jones stars statuesque ex-model Tamara Dobson as an ass-kicking secret agent, sort of a soul-sister James Bond, but the cult-fave blaxploitation flick can’t surmount the fact that Dobson’s one of the worst actors ever to step in front of a camera. Her line readings are excruciating, and she’s so robotic that she drains the life out of every scene in which she appears—which is a problem, since she’s in nearly every scene. Dobson cuts an impressive figure, of course, with her attractive look and towering stature, so it’s easy to see the sort of comic-book entertainment the filmmakers were trying to create: an escapist fantasy about a glamorous urban superhero taking a break from her jet-set lifestyle to help out her hometown peeps. Had the title role been cast more effectively, Cleopatra Jones could have lived up to its memorable title. Still, the always-entertaining Bernie Casey makes the picture somewhat watchable thanks to his charismatic performance as Cleo’s community-activist boyfriend; this is one of those with-it ’70s pictures in which the aloof protagonist is constantly criticized for not supporting street-level social change, so we’re supposed to be thrilled when Cleo’s consciousness expands. The plot about foreign smack infesting the ghetto moves along quickly enough, and there’s lots of violence, but the shortcomings of the woman playing Cleopatra Jones are pretty fatal for a movie called Cleopatra Jones. So while the standard-issue blaxploitation flava is present and accounted for (ginormous Afros, pimptastic clothes, wakka-wakka tunes) the only really memorable element of the picture is a demented performance by villainess Shelley Winters, working a weird psycho-lesbian groove as Cleo’s smack-dealing nemesis, “Mommy.”
          The original movie did well enough to spawn a sequel, the even more fabulously titled Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, with Stella Stevens taking over the villainess role as someone called Bianca Javin, a.k.a. the Dragon Lady. While still quite awful, the sequel is a slight improvement over its predecessor, because Dobson is both less central to the plot and a bit more comfortable onscreen; the addition of goofy elements like extended kung-fu fights and a campy supporting turn by future Three’s Company guy Normal Fell increase watchability as well. Neither of these movies is essential, so unless you’re a Dobson fan or a blaxploitation completist, viewing the second movie is probably the best way to satiate whatever Cleopatra Jones curiosity you might have. (Casino of Gold: Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Cleopatra Jones: LAME
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold: FUNKY

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Almost Perfect Affair (1979)


There’s a reason audiences don’t generally embrace movies about movies, and An Almost Perfect Affair provides an almost perfect example: The lead character is a spoiled brat oblivious to the fact that he wastes once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, making him so deeply unsympathetic that the film itself is unpalatable. The oh-so-precious plot concerns Hal (Keith Carradine), an earnest young director who self-financed a movie about the execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. So before the story even gets underway, Hal seems like an elitist twit, throwing away money that would seem like a fortune to normal people on a downer subject unlikely to lure mass audiences. In the hope of selling his self-proclaimed masterpiece to a distributor, Hal hops on a plane to the Cannes Film Festival, only to have his movie seized at customs. He then meets a married Italian woman (Monica Vitti), who not only helps with his customs problems but hops into bed with him. So on top of being a foolhardy snob, Hal’s also an irresponsible cad, and yet we’re supposed to feel sympathy while he mopes around France in between trysts with Vitti. This gets at the other reason why audiences generally don’t embrace movies about movies; more often than not, movies about movies aren’t really about movies, but rather about the whiny angst of petulant filmmakers. Yawn. In this particular instance, Carradine’s down-home charm is not enough to surmount the narcissistic aspect of his character, and Vitti is yet another European starlet hampered by a thick accent and a vapidly decorative role. Venerable comedy helmer Michael Ritchie directed this flop, which commenced his fall from grace after a hot streak that included The Candidate (1972) and The Bad News Bears (1976).

An Almost Perfect Affair: LAME

Sunday, December 19, 2010

American Graffiti (1973) & More American Graffiti (1979)




          The most relatable picture in his entire filmography, American Graffiti offers an engaging riff on a formative period in George Lucas’ life, when being a kid on the verge of adulthood meant cruising for chicks in a great car on a cool California evening. The fact that Lucas once conceived and directed a story this full of believable characters makes it frustrating that so many of his latter-day projects lack recognizable humanity; it seems that once he departed for a galaxy far, far away, he never returned. Yet that frustration somehow deepens the resonance of American Graffiti, because just as the story captures a fleeting moment in the lives of its characters, the movie captures a fleeting moment in the life of its creator. Utilizing an innovative editing style in which brisk vignettes are interwoven to the accompaniment of a dense soundtrack comprising familiar vintage pop tunes, Lucas confounded his Universal Studios financiers but thrilled early-’70s moviegoers by conjuring the cinematic equivalent of switching the dial on a car radio. As soon as any given scene makes its statement, Lucas jumps to the next high point, repeating the adrenalized cycle until it’s time to call it a night.
          Set in Lucas’ hometown of Modesto circa 1962, American Graffiti follows the adventures of four recent high school graduates trying to figure out the next steps in their lives. They interact with a constellation of friends and strangers during a hectic night of romance, sex, vandalism, and vehicular excess. Some of the characters and relationships have more impact than others, but the various threads mesh comfortably and amplify each other. For instance, the melodramatic saga of Steve (Ron Howard) and his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) resonates with the obsessive quest by Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) to find a mysterious dreamgirl (Suzanne Somers). Moody greaser John (Paul Le Mat) and tough-guy drag racer Bob (Harrison Ford) add danger, while precocious Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) and hapless Terry (Charles Martin Smith) add humor. With wall-to-wall tunes expressing the characters’ raging hormones, Lucas weaves a quilt of adolescent angst and teen longing that simultaneously debunks and romanticizes the historical moment immediately preceding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a testament to Lucas’ craft that audiences fell in love with the exuberant surface of the movie despite the gloom bubbling underneath. The picture’s success did remarkable things for nearly everyone involved, helping Howard land the lead in the blockbuster sitcom Happy Days (1974–1984) and giving Lucas the box-office mojo to make Star Wars (1977).
          More American Graffiti is a very different type of film. Written and directed by Bill L. Norton under Lucas’ supervision, the picture explores what happened to several characters after the events of the first film. Howard, Le Mat, Smith, and Williams reprise their roles, and Ford makes a brief appearance. (Dreyfuss is notably absent.) A dark, experimental, and provocative examination of the tumultuous years spanning 1964 to 1967, More American Graffiti would have been nervy as a stand-alone film, so it’s outright ballsy as a major-studio sequel to a crowd-pleaser. Norton follows three storylines, giving each a distinctive look. Scenes with Howard and Williams are shot conventionally, accentuating the everyday misery of a couple drifting apart. Scenes with Smith’s character in Vietnam are shot on grainy 16mm with a boxy aspect ratio (even though the rest of the picture is widescreen). Trippiest of all are scenes with Candy Clark (whose character in the first picture was relatively minor); set in hippy-dippy San Francisco, these sequences use wild split-screen techniques. LeMat’s character appears in an extended flashback to which Norton frequently returns, like the chorus of a pop song. Tackling antiwar protests, draft dodgers, drug culture, women’s liberation, and other topics, the film is a too-deliberate survey of ’60s signifiers. That said, More American Graffiti has integrity to spare, bringing the shadows that hid beneath the first movie’s shiny surface to the foreground.

American Graffiti: RIGHT ON
More American Graffiti: FUNKY

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Drum (1976)


A quasi-sequel to the trashy hit Mandingo (1975), Drum has a doozy of a plot. New Orleans madam Marianna (Isela Vega) gets pregnant by a slave, so she pretends the resulting child, Drum, is that of her servant/lesbian lover. Twenty years later, muscle-bound Drum (Ken Norton) is a slave in Marianna’s whorehouse, where unsavory customer DeMarigny (John Colicos) forces him to brawl with another slave, Blaise (Yaphet Kotto), because DeMarigny gets off on sweaty black men. When Drum violently rebuffs DeMarigny’s sexual advances, Marianna protects her son from reprisal by selling Drum (and Blaise) to Hammond (Warren Oates), who runs a stud farm for breeding slaves. Hammond’s got headaches with his shrewish fiancée, Augusta (Fiona Lewis), who wants to reform her crass husband, and his horny daughter, Sophie (Cheryl Smith), who can’t keep her hands off male slaves. When Hammond discovers that Blaise dallied with his daughter, he threatens castration, so Blaise leads a bloody revolt. As the movie speeds toward its violent finale, there are countless nude scenes, brawls, and whippings, plus utterances of the n-word in every conceivable context. The trouble with critiquing a movie like Drum is that even though it’s awful because of its incessant bad taste, it’s entertaining for the same reason. Appraised solely as overwrought melodrama, Drum is a rousing success: Even while cringing at the movie’s political incorrectness, it’s hard to deny the guilty-pleasure value of a flick in which Norton utters the line “No white man could ever love you like I will!” Norton, an ex-boxer who also starred in Mandingo, looks great but can’t act, so others handle the heavy lifting—Oates is gleefully disgusting, Kotto gives the picture’s best performance with his signature intensity, and Colicos is spellbindingly terrible, matching campy mannerisms with a ridiculous French accent. It should come as no surprise that Dino de Laurentiis produced this lowbrow spectacle, which boasts one outrageous moment after another; watch for the bit during the boxing match when Norton pulls a Mike Tyson and chews on Kotto’s ear.

Drum: FUNKY

Friday, December 17, 2010

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)


          A film that sounds more interesting than it actually is, The King of Marvin Gardens features a convergence of several of the most important players in ’70s cinema. The cast includes Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, and Jack Nicholson; New Hollywood mainstay Bob Rafelson co-wrote the story and directed; and acclaimed cinematographer László Kovács shot the picture. The narrative also seems like it should hit the sweet spot of early-’70s ennui, with Dern playing Jason Stabler, a small-time Atlantic City schemer who tries to rope his reluctant brother, David (Nicholson), into helping him put together some sort of casino/resort enterprise, much to the chagrin of Jason’s boss, mid-level gangster Luther (Scatman Crothers).
          But right from the beginning of the picture, pretentious opacity rules: The first scene features David performing a grimly nostalgic monologue for his late-night radio show about David and his brother watching their overbearing grandfather die, and the next scene reveals that the grandfather is very much alive. Presumably the idea was to establish a milieu exploring the gap between dreams and reality, but the film never comes into sharper focus than the opening sequence, so it’s a struggle to follow basic threads like what exactly Jason wants to accomplish and why he’s constantly accompanied by an unhinged middle-aged beauty named Sally (Burstyn) and her adult stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). In lieu of clarity, the movie presents gifted actors generating unusual dynamics, but the performances are inhibited by the film’s murkiness.
          Nicholson is muted to a fault, communicating his character’s lost quality by seeming lost himself, and Burstyn is uncharacteristically screechy, as if she’s flailing for some legitimate character motivation the script can’t provide. Dern comes off best, effectively personifying a huckster of limited ability but unlimited ambition, and it’s a shame that his fine performance appears in such a disappointing film. Kovács’ impeccable photography provides an unvarnished travelogue through the ghost-town streets of early-’70s Atlantic City, and it’s impressive that the film doesn’t have any musical scoring; to Rafelson’s credit, the focus is entirely on acting. The King of Marvin Gardens is very much of its moment, so now that time has deprived the movie of its currency as a counterpoint to the staid cinema of the studio era, it’s simply a clinical exercise in affected New Hollywood style.

The King of Marvin Gardens: FUNKY

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lola (1970)


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s this movie from 1970 starring Charles Bronson as an American porno novelist living in London whose affair with a 16-year-old girl gets him kicked out of England, so the lovers make a go at marriage once they relocate to the U.S. Oh, and the movie’s directed by Richard Donner, the fella behind such manly-man romps as Lethal Weapon, The Omen, and Superman. You didn’t stop me. Guess you haven’t heard this one after all. Not a big surprise. Lola rates pretty high on the obscurity scale, probably because Bronson fans don’t savor watching the actor whom an Italian critic once famously dubbed “Il Brute” doing the whole sensitive-artist thing. It also doesn’t help that the version currently available on DVD bears the pointless alternate title Twinky, and features a print that looks like it was processed through intestinal secretions instead of photochemical solutions. Still, the movie’s far from awful, even if it belongs to a pervy subgenre depicting with-it older dudes nailing precocious young women (Breezy, Lolita, Petulia, etc.). It’s a kick to see Bronson playing an articulate adult instead of a gun-toting troglodyte, and Donner moves the thing along at a killer pace (most scenes feature some sort of movement, with characters climbing up and down ladders or stairs, and so on); the director also employs mod gimmicks like flash cuts to transition between scenes. The supporting cast is enjoyable, especially Trevor Howard as Lola’s lecherous granddad, and playing Lola is Susan George, a year away from her memorable performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Since she was actually 19-ish when she made the picture, I suppose it’s kosher to remark that she’s awfully sexy in her little schoolgirl outfits, even if her character whines more or less constantly. Lola boasts some of the most ear-splittingly awful music ever used in movies, and at least one priceless line of dialogue: “I make one uncool move with a nutty 16-year-old kid, and suddenly my whole world is turned upside down.” In my book, listening to Bronson chew his way through vintage hipster talk like that is a sure sign that one has discovered a truly watchable cinematic oddity.

Lola: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) & Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)


          Special-effects legend Ray Harryhausen, adored by fantasy fans for the lovingly crafted creatures he brought to herky-jerky life through stop-motion animation, first dramatized the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), a charming classic known for an extended duel between Sinbad and a sword-wielding skeleton. Years later, he returned to the character with less impressive results for a pair of cheaply produced mid-’70s romps featuring juvenile stories, outdated effects, and wooden acting. Golden Voyage stars the attractive but dull duo of Barbarella stud John Phillip Law (as Sinbad) and future 007 nemesis Caroline Munro (as the hero’s slave/love interest), but Munro’s cleavage gives a better performance than either actor does. The monsters are equally generic, including a centaur and a six-armed living statue, so the movie drags along joylessly.
          By any critical standard, Eye of the Tiger is even shoddier than its predecessor, but outrageously stupid elements make it a minor sort of camp classic. In an epic feat of miscasting, the hero is played Patrick Wayne—because who better to play an Arabic adventurer than the real-life son of John “The Duke” Wayne? On the plus side, a sexy young Jane Seymour is one of two women accompanying Sinbad, and the creatures in the film are so random (a minotaur, a saber-tooth tiger, even a giant walrus) that parts of the movie play like an acid trip. Both of these flicks are borderline awful, but Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is a cut above in terms of unintentionally amusing cheesiness.
          With all due respect to anyone who considers either of these movies treasured artifacts from childhood, the venerable Harryhausen’s day had long since passed by the time he made these movies, as proven definitively by the critical drubbing of his last endeavor as a producer and FX supervisor, the campy but enjoyable Clash of the Titans (1981); that film’s box office success, devoted fan base, and durability on television honor Harryhausen’s legacy better than either of the ’70s Sinbad stinkers.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad: LAME
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rocky (1976) & Rocky II (1979)


          In many respects, cinema history has not been kind to Rocky, the feel-good hit that turned Sylvester Stallone into a superstar and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. The film’s detractors dismiss Rocky as pandering hokum, and Stallone has been dogged for years by rumors that he didn’t really write the script. Further resentment is fueled by the fact that Rocky won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976, defeating such acclaimed competitors as Network and Taxi Driver. And of course the film’s biggest impediments are the many gratuitous sequels that cheapen the Rocky brand. Yet when the muck is pushed aside, one quickly rediscovers a gem of a movie, which isn’t so much pandering as old-fashioned. The story follows low-rent boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who supports his going-nowhere pugilistic career by working as a muscleman for a Philadelphia gangster, even though Rocky’s too inherently decent to inflict much damage on his employer’s enemies. A simple soul with zero self-esteem, Rocky’s in love with a meek pet-shop clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire), whose brother is foul-tempered drunk Paulie (Burt Young). The other key figure in Rocky’s life is a crusty manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who doesn’t think Rocky will ever amount to anything. But when the reigning heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), agrees to a publicity-stunt fight in which he’ll give a “nobody” a shot at the title, Rocky’s life changes overnight.
         Yet Rocky isn’t so much about boxing as it is about a small man learning his value in the world, so the filmmakers employ time-tested storytelling gimmicks to put viewers squarely in the underdog hero’s corner. The narrative’s pervasive optimism is leavened by a gritty visual style, courtesy of director John G. Avildsen, who uses working-class neighborhoods and other evocative locations to create a tangible sense of place, so in its best moments Rocky has a level of docudrama realism that sells the contrived storyline. Avildsen also created the definitive sports-training montage, often imitated but never matched—Rocky at the top of the steps! Stallone’s ambition infuses his performance, from the intensity of the boxing scenes to the sweetness of the romantic interludes, and the whole cast meshes perfectly, like the players in a well-oiled stage play. Bill Conti’s thrilling music, especially the horn-driven main theme and the exciting song “Gonna Fly Now,” kicks everything up to epic level, and Rocky boasts one of the all-time great movie endings.
          Three years after the first film became a blockbuster, Stallone starred in, wrote, and directed the first of many unnecessary sequels. Rocky II is the most irritating installment in the series, because shameless crowd-pleaser Stallone undercuts the impact of the original movie with a trite denouement that essentially erases the climax of the previous film. Rocky II features all of the principal players from the first movie, and it’s made with adequate skill, but it’s a hollow echo at best. What’s more, the next two sequels, both released in the ’80s, dispatched with credibility in favor of super-sized entertainment, so Rocky II represents the juncture at which the series enters guilty-pleasure territory.

Rocky: OUTTA SIGHT
Rocky II: FUNKY

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)


A bad movie that comes perilously close to being a half-decent movie, Kingdom of the Spiders delivers a story that makes sense, a campy lead performance, and lots of creepy-crawly mayhem. William Shatner stars as Dr. Robert “Rack” Hansen, an amiable veterinarian living in a dusty armpit of a small town in Arizona. When livestock start falling prey to spider bites, Hansen and bug expert Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) realize that excessive use of pesticides has destroyed natural food sources for local arachnids, and sparked a nasty evolutionary cycle producing millions of aggressive bugs with extra-potent venom. The narrative follows the standard B-movie rulebook, right down to the idiot mayor who only cares about the impending county fair, so every beloved element of creature-feature hokum is included. The picture evades total ridiculousness, however, because the spiders aren’t given weird powers or proportions; they’re dangerous simply because they’re hungry and plentiful. Gross-outs arrive courtesy of icky spider attacks and also via random weirdness like the scene in which a character played by Altovise Davis (Sammy Davis Jr.’s spouse in real life) shoots herself in the hand while aiming at a predatory insect. Shatner is more casual than usual but still watchably goofy, with his comically overconfident swagger and awkward line deliveies, plus there’s great fun to be had watching him scamper around spider-infested locations; he skips girlishly to avoid stepping on bugs and daintily swats his hands to wipe them off his body. Adding further unintentional comedy are the warbly country song that plays over the credits and the cheerfully florid dialogue: “This is our house, and no damn spiders are gonna run us out!” Better still, the last twenty minutes or so deliver legit B-movie excitement, and the ending doesn’t take the expected route.

Kingdom of the Spiders: FUNKY

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hickey & Boggs (1972)


          Screenwriter Walter Hill arrived in a big way with the release of 1972’s The Getaway, a Sam Peckinpah hit starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, but his actual cinematic debut slipped in below the radar just months before The Getaway opened. Directed by and starring Robert Culp, Hickey & Boggs is an early example of the black cop/white cop buddy-movie formula that became ubiquitous after the release of 48 Hrs. (1982), which was directed by none other than Walter Hill. Costarring Culp’s old I Spy sparring partner Bill Cosby, Hickey & Boggs represents Hill’s spare screenwriting style at its most extreme; the characters are enigmatic figures only vaguely differentiated from each other, so they collectively form a vision of a violent, unforgiving universe in which personal identity is irrelevant since everyone’s headed for oblivion sooner rather than later. Still, the glimmers of character that peek through the opaque storytelling are intriguing, especially the nonjudgmental assertions that Culp’s character is gay.
          The plot concerns two pathetic private detectives (Culp and Cosby) who are hired to find a missing girl. The case, naturally, leads them to a bigger mystery. What’s really at stake is a pile of money that was stolen from a bank in Pittsburgh, but who stole the money, how it arrived in L.A. (where the movie takes place), and who’s scheming to get the money is never explained particularly well. Fortunately, the actual narrative takes a backseat to ice-cold attitude. The picture showcases not only the casual dynamic between Culp and Cosby, but also the fact that Culp had more to offer than his career’s worth of middling credits suggests. Onscreen, he’s a cynical rogue with an offbeat approach to delivering dialogue, and behind the camera, he seems interested in combining macho minimalism with unusual character work. Had Hickey & Boggs connected with audiences, it might have opened interesting doors for Culp as a filmmaker, but it’s unsurprising that neither critics nor viewers latched onto a film so cryptic that it plays out like a depressing inside joke.
          Some of Culp’s directorial choices are downright bewildering, like his frequently employed technique of connecting scenes without establishing shots or other transitions, which jars viewers’ sense of place; similarly, he often fixes his camera on minor details during scenes, forgetting to show major actions that would help provide clarity. Still, this is individualistic stuff, even if, ultimately, Hicky & Boggs is hard to follow and even harder to connect with on emotional level. It’s also worth mentioning, by the way, that several established and/or up-and-coming character players show up in the cast: Watch for Rosalind Cash, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter, Robert Mandan, Michael Moriarty, Isabel Sanford, and even a young James Woods. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Hickey & Boggs: FUNKY

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Suzanne (1973)


          The popular arts of the late ’60s and early ’70s were filled with hippy-dippy freakouts made by plugged-in youths who perceived themselves as explorers charting the outer edges of human consciousness, often aided by mind-altering party favors. And that’s about the only way to contextualize the impenetrable drama Suzanne. Jared Martin plays an insufferably self-important movie director whose newest project has something to do with Christ mythology, and he finds inspiration when he meets a moon-eyed blonde named Suzanne (Sondra Locke). Inexplicably drawn to her pompous new suitor, Suzanne dumps artist Leo (Paul Sand), a fragile soul who’s clearly one angst-ridden episode away from a nervous breakdown. The main thread of the movie concerns the director’s preparations to impale Suzanne with real nails so his crucifixion scene has the desired impact, but the movie also follows Leo’s descent into madness, and the hapless efforts of an Establishment newspaper columnist (Gene Barry) to investigate what sorta vibes the counterculture kids are groovin’ to these days.
          If any of these particulars make Suzanne sound interesting, be warned that the “story” is presented in weird, disassociated vignettes punctuated by arty montages of things like people in clown makeup dancing around in trippy fisheye-lens shots. By the time this movie was released in 1973, more interesting filmmakers had been doing this sort of thing for several years, so Suzanne was already a relic with its narrative opacity and obnoxiously collegiate dialogue. (Sample Suzanne chatter: “You are beauty. I need to stay away from you. It’s not anything you did, it’s just I don’t know what I do with what you are.”) The movie gets points for seeing its pretentious premise all the way through to the gruesome conclusion, and Suzanne also provides a load of interesting Hollywood footnotes: It was inspired by the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne,” which appears several times on the soundtrack; Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman was a script consultant (even though the script ain’t too tidy, man); Performance editor Frank Mazzola assembled the montages; and the cast includes Richard Dreyfuss and future Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris.
          In case you’re wondering how a movie this strange gets made, Suzanne writer-director Michael Barry’s dad is actor Gene Barry, who played TV’s Bat Masterson in the ’50s; Papa Berry executive-produced (read: financed) the flick in addition to costarring.

Suzanne: LAME

Friday, December 10, 2010

Apocalypse Now (1979)


          One of the definitive cinematic statements of the ’70s, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War drama is indulgent, pretentious, and undisciplined, but the film’s narrative excesses perfectly match its theme of men driven mad by an insane world. Famously adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness by gonzo screenwriter John Milius, then rewritten by Coppola and sprinkled with evocative narration by Michael Herr, the harrowing movie follows the journey of military assassin Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), sent by his U.S. Army masters to take out a rogue Green Beret, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has established an ultraviolent fiefdom in Cambodia. The irony of the Army condemning one of its own killing machines for being too bloodthirsty is just part of the film’s crazy-quilt statement about the obscenity of war in general and that of the Vietnam conflict in particular; even though the narrative wanders into many strange places along the way, it always returns to the maddening central idea that murder is acceptable as long as it’s done according to plan.
          Moving away from the classicism of his early-’70s triumphs and entering a vibrant period of expressionist experimentation, Coppola oversees a string of bold and inspired sequences, many of which have become iconic. The opening salvo, with hallucinatory intercutting of jungle imagery and a sweaty Saigon hotel room while the Doors’ menacing song “The End” plays on the soundtrack, goes beyond masterful and enters the realm of tweaked genius. And how many scenes in other movies match the audacity of the helicopter attack scored with Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries”? The film’s dialogue is just as vivid, from “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” to “The horror, the horror.” Sheen is extraordinary, channeling his intensity and remarkable speaking voice into a performance of perverse majesty, while supporting players Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper match him with crystalline personifications of two different brands of lunacy. Famously overpaid and uncooperative costar Brando gives Coppola fragments of brilliance that the director stitches into something weirdly affecting, and the fact that Brando’s performance works is a testament to the heroic efforts of a team of editors including longtime Coppola collaborator Walter Murch.
          Speaking of behind-the-camera participants, it would be criminal not to sing the praises of Vittorio Storaro’s luminous photography, which somehow captures not only the heat but also the suffocating humidity of the jungle. Actors Timothy Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, and G.D. Spradlin all contribute immeasurably as well, and Harrison Ford pops up for a bit part. After consuming the powerful 153-minute original version, consider exploring the fascinating (and even more indulgent) 202-minute extended cut titled Apocalypse Now Redux, and by all means seek out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, possibly the most illuminating behind-the-scenes documentary ever made.

Apocalypse Now: OUTTA SIGHT

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) & Scars of Dracula (1970) & Dracula AD 1972 (1972) & The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) & The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)


          By the mid-’60s, a dreary formula was in place for Hammer Films’ long-running Dracula series: Each movie contrived a laborious new mechanism for resurrecting the titular bloodsucker (Christopher Lee), and each movie ended with Drac suffering an elaborate demise. As the series progressed, Lee’s characterization became more robotic, and the filler scenes depicting various supporting characters became more tedious. By the time the ’70s arrived, even Hammer’s lush Victorian-era costumes and locations felt stale. As a result, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a routine but well-photographed entry notable only for introducing Satan worship into the series, although comic actor Roy Kinnear enlivens a few early scenes. The movie takes forever to get started (an hour passes before Drac bites his first neck), and the formula of blood, cleavage, and Gothic atmosphere is overly familiar; furthermore, Dracula’s overreliance on henchmen makes him seem more like a Bond villain than a legendary monster.
          Scars of Dracula features more of the same, but instead of Satan worship, the story pays rudimentary homage to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel with scenes of an unfortunate European fellow imprisoned in Drac’s castle. Reflecting how dry the creative well was at this point, the opening scene depicts a bat reviving Dracula by drooling blood onto the count’s bones. Really? Although Lee spends more time onscreen than usual in this entry, Scars of Dracula is one of Hammer’s shoddiest productions, complete with fake bats that wouldn’t pass muster in a student film.
          After a two-year hiatus, Hammer shook up the formula with Dracula AD 1972, which resurrects Dracula in present-day England, and the always-entertaining Peter Cushing returned to the series for the first time in 12 years, playing Lorimer Van Helsing, a descendant of the count’s old nemesis. The movie retains a bit of Gothic flavor by giving Dracula an abandoned old church as a lair, but most of the story takes place in the London youth scene, so lots of with-it kids party in tacky early-’70s fashions (leading lady Stephanie Beacham rocks a fierce mullet hairstyle). Campy dialogue, kitschy musical interludes, and slick camerawork make Dracula AD 1972 a guilty pleasure, and watch for raven-haired cult-favorite starlet Caroline Munro in an early role. It should also be noted that Beachams mesmerizing cleavage is such a focal point in Dracula AD 1972 that her breasts shouldve gotten special billing; this movie may represent the apex of Hammer leering, which is saying a lot.
          Hammer continued its new modern-day continuity with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, a Cushing-Lee romp enlivened by the presence of costar Freddie Jones, who plays a twitchy Satanist/scientist, and future Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, taking over Beacham’s role as a Van Helsing descendant. The movie boasts an energetic score (proto-disco funk passages, lots of stabbing horns), plus slickly atmospheric wide-lens photography. There are even a couple of genuine jolts (rare in any Hammer flick), like a slo-mo attack on Lumley by several distaff vampires. The fact that the first hour of the movie plays out like an occult-themed conspiracy thriller sets the stage nicely for Lee’s dominance in the last twenty minutes; for once, Lee gets to do more than lunge at people and recoil from crosses, and he seems energized. Satanic Rites is easily the best thriller of this batch, even though it’s barely a Dracula movie in the classic sense.
          In 1974, Hammer’s Dracula series reached a bizarre conclusion with the kung fu epic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a joint effort from Hammer and chop-socky specialists the Shaw Brothers. In two brief scenes, John Forbes-Robertson unimpressively stands in for the absent Lee as Dracula, while a tired-looking Cushing reprises his Van Helsing shtick for the whole dreary flick. Boring nonsense about noble Chinese martial artists engaged in brawls and swordplay against decaying vampire ghouls in ornate gold masks, 7 Vampires is the series’ absolute nadir. Plus, who knew Dracula spoke fluent Chinese?

Taste the Blood of Dracula: LAME
Scars of Dracula: LAME
Dracula AD 1972: FUNKY
The Satanic Rites of Dracula: FUNKY
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: SQUARE

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

You Can’t Win ’Em All (1970)


Boasting upbeat leading performances and impressive production values, this action flick set in turbulent post-World War I Turkey has everything going for it except a coherent story. Charles Bronson and Tony Curtis star as a mercenary and a mystery man, respectively, and their personas mesh fairly well; Bronson plays up his lighter side and Curtis goes tougher than usual, so they meet somewhere in the middle. If only their entertaining buddy-movie dynamic was supported by a better script. The narrative is murky at best, with underdeveloped characters pursuing the myriad new goals and motivations that are introduced in almost every scene, so from moment to moment it’s impossible to tell if the heroes are after justice, money, revolution, women, or just escape. After a broadly comedic opening involving a boat heist and a bar brawl, the movie drags on through one ineffectively expositional scene after another, laying pipe for a story that never congeals. Worse, all the cumbersome plotting limits the screen time shared by Bronson and Curtis, so they don’t get as many extended scenes together as they should. For a good stretch of the movie, charismatic Turkish actor Fikret Hakan gets to do more interesting stuff than either of the leads, because his role as an opportunistic military officer is so much more clearly defined. The movie gets a little more watchable in the last half-hour, when the big combat scenes and a series of double-crosses kick in, but even with grandiose visuals like two airplanes dive-bombing an army encampment, everything feels inconsequential because the story gives viewers nothing solid to grasp. In fact, the movie is such a muddle that one wonders if the title was the producers’ way of apologizing.

You Can’ t Win ’Em All: LAME