Monday, June 30, 2014

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)

          Despite bearing a title that would have worked better for a Disney movie—and despite including monster makeup that also would have worked better for a Disney movie, since the titular monster looks a bit like The Shaggy D.A.—this low-budget thriller is a passable creature feature. In fact, the storyline hews quite closely to the classic formula established by Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941), complete with father-son tension and a strong element of inevitable tragedy. So even though The Boy Who Cried Werewolf is incredibly gentle by horror standards, it features a dollop of angst, humorous flourishes, and a solid body count.
          Set primarily in a lakeside forest somewhere in the western U.S., presumably California, the movie tracks the adventures of young Richie Bridgestone (Scott Sealey), whose parents are going through a divorce. One weekend, Richie goes camping with his father, kind-hearted Robert Bridgestone (Kerwin Matthews), and the duo encounters a werewolf while walking along a country road at night. Robert kills the attacker, but receives a nasty bite on the arm. Once the dead werewolf transforms back into a man, Robert tries to convince himself he merely imagined the lycanthropy. However, Richie becomes infatuated with the idea that his father defeated a monster, describing the event to everyone who will listen. Eventually, a shrink assesses Richie and suggests that Robert and his son should return to the woods so Richie can learn werewolves don’t truly exist. Naturally, that’s when Robert starts to get hairy during full moons. Most of the picture comprises suspense scenes of Robert committing murders while in wolf mode—and then wrestling with the consequences once daylight arrives.
          Screenwriter Bob Homel and director Nathan Juran do an okay job of contriving situations wherein Richie is kept free from danger, and the filmmakers also get decent mileage out of the most colorful people occupying the forest at the same time as the Bridgestones—a Jesus cult led by a motor-mouthed hippie named Brother Christopher. (Screenwriter Homel pulls double-duty playing this character, and he’s fairly entertaining; in his best moment, he encourages Robert to fight off his werewolfism by chanting, “Kill it, freak it out, rip it out!”) The Boy Who Cried Werewolf eventually becomes formulaic and repetitive, but the filmmakers wisely play the material straight, letting campiness emerge naturally from the extremely familiar scenario. FYI, there appears to be no connection between this picture and a 2010 telefilm bearing the same name, which was made for kid-TV powerhouse Nickelodeon.

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: FUNKY

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Black Gunn (1972)

          Despite tasty dialogue and a virile performance by leading man Jim Brown, the blaxploitation actioner Black Gunn is never more than mediocre. The plot introduces a number of exciting elements that should create friction, such as a war between a black-power activist group and Italian mobsters, but cowriter/director Robert Hatford-Davis focuses too heavily on dialogue, relegating action scenes to the periphery of the movie. Further, Hartford-Davis and his collaborators can’t figure out how to utilize important characters—so, for instance, costar Martin Landau barely appears in the film even though he’s ostensibly the main villain, hence his second billing after Brown. All in all, the movie is watchable, but just barely. Set in Los Angeles, Black Gunn kicks off with an armed robbery at a secret mob office. Invaders steal cash and incriminating ledgers. The robbery was executed by soldiers of the Black Action Group (BAG), one of whom is a young man named Scott (Herbert Jefferson Jr.), and Scott asks his older brother, nightclub proprietor Gunn (Brown), to stash the ledgers. Soon afterward, Gunn finds himself caught in the middle of the aforementioned war. Also thrown into the mix are policemen who are investigating BAG’s activities and trying to take down the mob.
          All of this should play out smoothly, providing a steady stream of chases and fights and shootouts, but Hartford-Davis lets the film go slack during long interludes of quasi-casual conversation. On the plus side, some of the dialogue is hip and snide, with Brown and costar Bernie Casey—who plays a BAG operative—coming off especially well whenever they spew insults and threats. (Leading lady Brenda Sykes is wasted as badly as Landau, while Bruce Glover—who plays a sadistic mob enforcer—has some amusingly over-the-top moments even though his characterization is largely pedestrian.) It’s worth noting that as blaxploitation movies go, Black Gunn is restrained in the area of presenting African-American stereotypes, since most of the black characters in the movie seem resourceful and tough. The problem, of course, is that restraint is not the quality viewers generally seek from blaxploitation movies. So by the time Black Gunn busts out the heavy artillery for a perfunctory shoot-’em-up finale, it’s very much a case of too little, too late.

Black Gunn: FUNKY

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Gimme Shelter (1970)

          Providing a great moment of pop-culture symmetry, the two 1969 rock concerts that epitomized the apex and nadir of the ’60s, respectively speaking, both inspired essential documentaries that were released in 1970. Michael Wadleigh’s epic Woodstock joyfully depicts “three days of peace and music,” and the Maysles Brothers’ incisive Gimme Shelter tracks events leading to a tragedy during the Rolling Stones’ notorious outdoor show at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway. If Woodstock represents the dream of the ’60s, Gimme Shelter represents the nightmare. On every level, the Maysles’ film comprises sober introspection about costly mistakes.
          For instance, one of the picture’s slickest touches is a recurring device of Stones front man Mick Jagger watching footage from the in-progress movie while seated near an editing table. This trope leads, inexorably, to the chilling moment when Jagger reviews images of a Hell’s Angel scuffling with a concertgoer who subsequently died from stab wounds. Although the actual stabbing isn’t visible on camera, the implications of the images are unmistakable—the Stones and their representatives hired bikers with a reputation for violence to handle security at the free show, which drew an audience estimated at 300,000 people, so bloodshed was inevitable. Thus, the climactic moment of Gimme Shelter provides a perfect metaphor representing why the idealism of the ’60s flower children was never meant to last. Harmony, alas, is not humanity’s strong suit.
          Directed by Albert and David Maysles (with Charlotte Zerwin), Gimme Shelter is structured like a forensic report. Opening with Jagger in the editing room, the film reaches backwards for episodes from the Stones tour that preceded the Altamont show, as well as conversations between flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli (who repped he band) and the proprietors of potential venues. The Stones are shown performing numbers at shows prior to Altamont, particularly in New York City, although the early musical highlight is an outrageously suggestive performance by opening act Tina Turner. (“It’s nice to have a chick occasionally,” Jagger obnoxiously remarks.)
          Gimme Shelter truly comes alive, however, once the party reaches San Fransisco. Footage of roadies prepping a makeshift stage, and of fans smoking and tripping their way to bliss before the show starts, illustrate the groovy scene the Stones originally envisioned. After the Hell’s Angels show up—expecting to be paid with all the beer they can drink—things deteriorate rapidly. Warm-up sets by the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Jefferson Airplane are interrupted when overzealous Angels start fights with fans and musicians, even clocking Airplane singer Marty Balin while he performs. “Both sides keep temporarily fucking up,” the Airplane’s Grace Slick says from the stage. “Let’s not keep fucking up.” And yet the violence continues, even as the Stones try to play, ironically enough, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The last 45 minutes of Gimme Shelter, comprising the lead-up to the stabling and the violent act itself, are mesmerizing.
          And then it’s all over, with a last freeze frame of Jagger’s inscrutable expression once he stands up from the editing table, having seen enough.

Gimme Shelter: RIGHT ON

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Borrowers (1973)

          The best children’s fables operate on the same wavelength as a kids’ imaginations, with such grown-up considerations as consequence and logic taking a backseat to magic, possibility, and wonder—plus, of course, love, which children need in such great abundance that they often invent imaginary providers. Consider the preceding to be context for remarks about The Borrowers, a made-for-TV movie that represents the first filmed adaptation of a beloved novel by Mary Norton, who also wrote the novel that became Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Starring Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame as the patriarch of a magical family, The Borrowers is far from perfect. Two key performances by juvenile actors are vapid, the special effects are old-fashioned and rickety, and the movie includes unnecessary montages set to fruity ballads. Nonetheless, the best parts of The Borrowers are so charming—and the underlying message about imagination and understanding is so worthwhile—that it’s easy to forgive the picture its faults.
          Set in Victorian England, The Borrowers takes place almost entirely in a stately mansion. The lady of the house is Sophy (Dame Judith Anderson), a bedridden aristocrat who spends her days self-medicating with wine. Attending to Sophy’s needs are a crotchety groundskeeper (Barnard Hughes) and a stern housekeeper (Beatrice Straight). Living beneath their feet is the miniscule Clock family: Pod (Albert); his wife, Homily (Tammy Grimes); and their daughter, Arrietty (Karen Pearson). The last in a long line of teeny-tiny “borrowers,” they get by on household items that Pod purloins during expeditions into the house. The only full-sized human aware of the Clock family’s existence is Sophy, but she’s convinced the little people are delusions brought on by her drunkenness. Accordingly, everything’s copacetic until Sophy becomes the temporary guardian of a preteen boy (Dennis Larson). Once the Boy (that’s his character name) spots Pod stealing a miniature cup and saucer from a dollhouse, the Boy sets in motion events that could spell doom for the “borrowers.” However, once the Boy befriends Arrietty, he becomes the Clock family’s champion instead of the family’s tormentor.
          Compensating for the flatness of the performances by Larson and Pearson, Albert is endearing, Anderson is amusing, and Grimes is warm, while Hughes and Straight provide gentle villainy. Further, Jay Presson Allen’s teleplay follows a delightful path as the Clock family wriggles free of trouble, and the values that Pod represents—as compared to the fearfulness and small-mindedness of the story’s normal-sized grown-ups—comprise a lovely message for young viewers. Therefore, it’s no surprise The Borrowers won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming. Fitting the proportions of its protagonist, The Borrowers is a small gem.

The Borrowers: GROOVY

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jennifer (1978)

          Like any successful horror movie, the campy Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976) inspired more than its share of imitators. And while many Carrie rip-offs were made for television, the shameless copy Jennifer received a proper theatrical release. Echoing many key points of the plot from King’s novel, Jennifer concerns a put-upon teenager who wrestles with ostracism at school and religious oppression at home, all the while suppressing a supernatural power that could turn deadly if unleashed. Cowriter/producer Steve Kravitz is so blatant about copying Carrie that he includes doppelgangers for the previous film’s most important characters: The Bible-thumping mom in Carrie becomes a Bible-thumping dad in Jennifer, the kind-hearted female gym coach in Carrie becomes a kind-hearted male teacher in Jennifer, and the mean-girl tormentor in Carrie becomes—a mean-girl tormenter in Jennifer. About the only significant deviation that Kravitz provides is the nature of the title character’s special gift. Whereas Carrie uses telekinesis, Jennifer has some vaguely defined ability to control and/or magically generate snakes.
          Beyond employing a recycled storyline, Jennifer also suffers from a paucity of narrative events—the movie is nearly halfway over before the first supernatural occurrence. As such, viewers checking out Jennifer should lower their expectations considerably. Having said all that, Jennifer has a fun nocturnal vibe, leading lady Lisa Pelikan offers an appealing combination of fragile beauty and hidden strength, and the movie’s finale is a slice of kitschy-’70s heaven thanks to the rampant overuse of haze filters and star filters.
          When the movie begins, West Virginia-born Jennifer Baylor (Pelikan) tries to balance responsibilities at home and at school while living in a cosmopolitan metropolis. She’s the primary caretaker for her aging father, Luke Baylor (Jeff Corey), an alcoholic widower who runs a pet store. Concurrently, she’s a scholarship student (read: charity case) at a haughty private school. Rich bitch Sandra Tremayne (Amy Johnson) puts Jennifer in her crosshairs because hunky teacher Jeff Reed (Bert Convy) takes a shine to Jennifer. Torment ensues and revenge follows. The middle of the movie is a bit of a slog, since Amy’s abuse of Jennifer pales next to the emotional torture featured in Carrie, but all of the actors in Jennifer contribute valiant work. (Nina Foch is especially good as the private school’s ice-queen administrator, whose philosophy is that “the rich are always right.”) The movie benefits tremendously from a robust score by Porter Jordan, which climaxes with a flamboyant passage putting a prog-rock spin on traditional Phantom of the Opera cues. And if Jennifer is ultimately little more than derivative and silly, it’s useful to remember that the cartoonish and salacious Carrie didn’t set the bar for cinematic quality particularly high.

Jennifer: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975)

          Tackling the hot-button issue of racial profiling by police officers, and also dramatizing the social ill of cops closing ranks at the expense of morality, Cornbread, Earl and Me adds an interesting panel to the quilt of ’70s African-American cinema. Dramatic, heartfelt, and impassioned, the movie aspires to be deeply moving, but the filmmakers’ shortcomings limit the heights to which the film ascends. Ultimately, Cornbread, Earl and Me is more respectable than wonderful. Nonetheless, seeing as how it was made at a time when most Hollywood films about the black experience were presented through the demeaning stereotypes of blaxploitation, Cornbread, Earl and Me deserves credit for approaching its subject matter with compassion and respect.
          The title refers to three friends living in the inner city. Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton (Jamaal Wilkes) is an award-winning high-school basketball player who’s about to leave for college and, presumably, a glorious career in the NBA. Two of Cornbread’s biggest fans are neighborhood youths Earl Carter (Tierre Turner) and Wilford Robinson (Larry Fishburne). One tragic day, Cornbread inadvertently runs into the path of two policemen, Atkins (Bernie Casey) and Golich (Vince Martorano), who are pursuing a black suspect. Mistaking Cornbread for the suspect, the cops shoot the basketball player to death. In the aftermath, Cornbread’s hardworking parents, Sam (Stack Pierce) and Leona (Madge Sinclair), hire attorney Benjamin Blackwell (Moses Gunn) to sue the city for wrongful death. The police department responds with intimidation and threats. At one point, thuggish Sgt. Danaher (Stefan Gierasch) actually hits young Wilford, who saw the event happen, and warns Wilford’s mom, Sarah (Rosalind Cash), that her welfare checks will be suspended if Wilford testifies against the police. Caught in the middle of the crisis is Atkins, a black cop who grew up in the same neighborhood where Cornbread was killed.
          Although the plot, which was extrapolated from a novel by Ronald Fair, is quite schematic, Cornbread, Earl and Me works fairly well as a narrative. Atkins and Cornbread represent different pathways for escaping poverty, so the various compromises associated with racial assimilation are addressed. Similarly, Wilford’s family represents the pressures felt by those who need government support to survive, yet must occasionally bite the hand that feeds. Overall, the film effectively illustrates the mixture of deprivation, fear, hope, and sacrifice that permeates the existence of inner-city residents who try to live honorably in a world filled with dishonorable people. And if the ending is a bit tidy, offering something closer to wish-fulfillment than to reality, then it’s possible to look at Cornbread, Earl and Me as a hopeful urban fable. The picture also benefits from strong work by such veterans as Cash, Gunn, and Sinclair—as well as an endearing performance by relative newcomer Fishburne, who was in his early teens when he shot the picture.

Cornbread, Earl and Me: GROOVY

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

House (1977)

          How insane is the Japanese comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid House? Consider the following scene, which is fairly typical of the movie’s tone. When a schoolgirl named Melody goes to fetch water from a well, she accidentally draws up a decapitated human head that’s hidden in the well. Then the head, which is somehow alive, smiles at Melody, dances in midair, bites Melody’s ass, exclaims “Oh my, that’s tasty,” and vomits a geyser of blood. Need more convincing? How about the throwaway scene featuring a bear working behind the counter at a restaurant, complete with a bandana around its head, or the epic sequence in which a piano eats a young woman, her limbs shooting out of every hole in the instrument while animated lighting strikes and sparkle patterns appear onscreen?
          Even by the standards of an era in which filmmakers went to gonzo extremes on a regular basis, House is easily one of the craziest movies of the ’70s. It’s so strange, in fact, that trying to determine whether House is any good serves no purpose. The movie exists within a deranged parallel universe all its own, so normal critical standards do not apply. Coproduced and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who based the story on ideas provided by his preteen daughter Chigumi Obayashi, House was apparently a major commercial success in its native country. Nonetheless, the movie was rarely seen in the U.S. until 2009, when it found a welcome reception among fans of bizarre cinema. Inexplicably, it even rated a DVD release by the arthouse afficianadoes at the Criterion Collection, but whether House actually qualifies as art is a highly subjective matter. While it’s unquestionably arresting and individualistic, it’s also primitive and silly and even a bit vulgar.
          In any event, House begins with two Japanese schoolgirl friends, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) and Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), celebrating the last day of classes before summer vacation. Right from the start, the style of House is deliberately odd. Herky-jerky editing and stylized optical effects distort time, overtly false backdrops distort place, and the transformation of nearly all dialogue into sing-song chirping distorts tone. Amid the loopy flourishes, the movie introduces a meager element of psychodrama when Gorgeous returns home to her father, a professional film composer, and is confronted by her new stepmother. It seems Gorgeous’ mother died several years ago, so she’s dealing with abandonment issues. After this ominous but relatively inconsequential scene, Gorgeous joins Fantasy and several other schoolgirls—all bearing such silly names as Kung Fu, Prof, and Sweet—for a train ride to the countryside home of Gorgeous’ aunt (Yoko Minamida). Alas, Auntie’s demonic house proceeds to consume the girls, one by one, in outrageous ways—it’s the usual descent from fairy-tale happiness to nightmarish violence, only with a truly unique approach to pacing, tonality, and visuals.
          Obayashi throws a little bit of everything at the audience throughout the 88 jam-packed minutes that comprise House. Among other things, the movie includes animated sequences, gore, martial arts, musical numbers, and nudity. And homicidal seaweed. And a tender, English-language soft-rock ballad that plays over the closing credits—which scroll across a cartoon tongue leading to a cartoon version of Auntie’s house. Abandon all hope of sanity, ye who enter here.


Monday, June 23, 2014

A Touch of Class (1973)

          Despite receiving considerable acclaim during its original release—including an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—the tart romantic comedy A Touch of Class has not aged well. The leading performances by Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her work) and George Segal are entertaining, and cowriter/director Melvin Frank orchestrates battle-of-the-sexes repartee efficiently. The problem is that the social values represented by the film reflect a peculiar transitional moment between the Bad Old Days of rampant male chauvinism and the era of women’s liberation. Accordingly, Segal’s character spends the entire movie treating Jackson’s character like garbage, and yet the audience is expected to accept two things as true—firstly, that Segal’s character is sympathetic as a put-upon male trying to satisfy his normal sex drive, and secondly, that Jackson’s character is enlightened because she has an affair with a married man in order to avoid the complications of an emotional entanglement.
          Similar scenarios powered many romantic films that were made before mainstream culture reflected more sophisticated understandings of the female experience—for instance, the Marilyn Monroe favorite The Seven Year Itch (1955)—but the way A Touch of Class tries to blend antiquated attitudes with fresh ideas simply doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work anymore. Having said all that, some viewers might find things to enjoy in the picture simply because of strong performances and occasional flashes of wit.
          Segal stars as George Blackburn, an American businessman living in London. He’s married with kids, but indulges in frequent extramarital affairs. George meets the elegant and self-confident Vickie Allessio (Jackson), a divorcée who works in the fashion industry, and proposes an affair. She accepts, fully aware of George’s situation, but insists on a suitable setting. George then arranges a romantic trip to Spain, and a comedy of errors ensues. Predictably, the lovers develop feelings for each other in between farcical scenes of George throwing out his back during sex and/or Vicki trying not to arouse the suspicions of George’s friend Walter (Paul Sorvino), who conveniently happens to be in Spain at the same time as George and Vicki.
          Even though Frank has a good light touch for everything from physical to verbal comedy, he can’t help but come off as a second-rate Billy Wilder, and the choice to situate George as a hapless hero—instead of an outright heel—betrays an unattractive perspective on gender relations. Plus, for all of her character’s protestations about being a strong modern woman, Jackson ends up seeming shrill and submissive simply because she spends so much time arguing and making accommodations for the boorish behavior of the Segal character. FYI, most of the film’s principals—Frank, Jackson, Segal, and Sorvino—reteamed in 1979 for another romantic comedy, Lost and Found, which enjoyed a far less impressive commercial and critical reception than its predecessor.

A Touch of Class: FUNKY

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

          A lesser effort from Hammer Films featuring the company’s usual posh production values but lacking a lively storyline, this UK thriller imagines that Jack the Ripper’s young daughter was traumatized by seeing the Ripper commit a murder, then grew up to become a psycho just like Daddy. As lurid premises go, this one isn’t bad, but the execution of Hands of the Ripper is so predictable and sleepy that not much excitement in generated. Set in Victorian England, naturally, the movie begins with a prologue during which Jack murders his missus in front of preteen Anna, then skips ahead several years. Now a young woman, Anna (Angharad Rees) lives with a con-artist medium who treats Anna like a slave. One evening, Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter), an aristocrat with an interest in the burgeoning science of psychiatry, visits the medium and meets Anna. Soon, kindly “Dr. John” takes Anna into his home because he’s curious about her fragile mental state—and because he knows that she might have committed murder. As the film drags on, Anna’s homicidal impulses produce a succession of corpses, so even as Dr. John seeks to diagnose Anna’s sickness, he becomes complicit by hiding a criminal from law-enforcement officials.
          It’s unclear why director Peter Sasdy and his collaborators shunned the most obvious narrative opportunity—the idea of Anna and her caretaker falling in love—but since that element is not present, it’s difficult to understand why Dr. John keeps mum. Similarly, the main gimmick of Anna’s characterization—the notion that her murderous rages are triggered by seeing light reflected off jewels—feels arbitrary and convenient. Had the script by L.W. Davidson and Edward Spencer Shew plugged some of these plot holes, Hands of the Ripper might have joined the ranks of the most imaginative Hammer releases. Instead, the movie is a slog featuring relatively anonymous actors, and the most laudatory element is probably the rich musical score by Christopher Gunning. On the plus side, the film contains most of the requisite elements for a killer-on-the-loose thriller, such as various parties conspiring to capture and/or expose Anna, and the violent scenes are sufficiently gruesome. Nontheless, the strongest reaction that Hands of the Ripper inspires is disappointment at unrealized potential.

Hands of the Ripper: FUNKY

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Where the Lilies Bloom (1974)

          Representing a rare theatrical effort by prolific TV writer Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of the wholesome TV series The Waltons (1971-1981), this gentle family drama concerns four children who struggle to preserve their tenuous lifestyle in the Great Smokey Mountains after becoming orphans. While the picture suffers from problems that bedevil many family films, such as contrived comic-relief sequences and a kid-gloves approach to interpersonal conflict, the movie benefits from rich atmosphere and unquestionable sincerity. Shot on location and infused with local color (Carolina schoolchildren served as extras), the movie builds on strengths including Urs Furrer’s painterly cinematography and the persuasive rhythms of Hamner’s dialogue. (In voiceover, the 14-year-old protagonist laments that stress has transformed her into a “pinched-faced crone,” then observes that “something had flown out of my brothers and sisters” after a tragedy.) In its best moments, Where the Lilies Bloom—which was based on a novel by Bill and Vera Cleaver—approaches the sort of poetic Americana that permeates good country songs. The pleasures of the film are small, to be sure, but they feel genuine.
          When Where the Lilies Bloom begins, middle-aged widower Roy Luther (Rance Howard) tries to provide for his four children even though he’s rapidly dying from a respiratory ailment. Sensing the end is near, Roy Luther entrusts his second-oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), with taking charge of the family. Roy Luther’s oldest child, Devola (Jan Smithers), is deemed inappropriate for the job because she’s a daydreamer and because she has romantic designs on Roy Luther’s mortal enemy, Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton). A redneck schemer whose family is closer to middle class than Roy Luther’s dirt-poor clan, Kiser seized ownership of Roy Luther’s land by paying back taxes. Worse, he wants to marry the pretty Devola. But since Roy Luther forbids that from happening, Mary Call feels obligated to block the union even after Roy Luther’s death.
          The middle of the picture, during which the family tries to hide the fact of their father’s passing from prying neighbors, covers fairly standard family-movie terrain. Similarly, comedic sequences involving a runaway car and the use of cooked onions as a cure for pneumonia lose their novelty quickly. Nonetheless, endearing performances and the dense textures of the location photography offer ample compensation. Gholson is believably tough and vulnerable, anchoring the film well, and Stanton makes a strong opposite number as a varmint who slowly reveals aspects of decency. And if Smithers (who later found fame on WKRP in Cincinnati) doesn’t make much of an impression, she’s cast effectively for physical type—as are Matthew Burill and Helen Harmon, who play Mary Call’s other siblings. (Howard, who plays Roy Luther, is the real-life father of actor-director Ron Howard.) Perhaps the strongest element of Where the Lilies Bloom is the heartfelt and unsentimental ending, which complicates the protagonist’s viewpoint in a meaningful fashion.

Where the Lilies Bloom: GROOVY

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sugar Hill (1974)

          Had a stronger actress been cast in the lead role—here’s looking at you, Pam Grier—Sugar Hill could have gained notoriety as one of the most enjoyably silly byproducts of the blaxploitation genre, because the storyline about a tough African-American chick employing an army of zombies to exact revenge upon mobsters is a hoot and a half. When Sugar Hill cooks, which isn’t terribly often, the movie musters a modicum of genuine style. The zombies in particular have strong visual appeal, black men and women decked out in ghoulish body makeup, freaky silver eyeballs, and headdresses made out of cobwebs and dirt. Also helping Sugar Hill along is the fact that the plot is so wonderfully simple. Whereas myriad ’70s exploitation flicks got stuck in the quicksand of unnecessarily convoluted narrative, Sugar Hill is mostly wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
          Yet even with these commendable elements, the movie is merely okay. Just as leading lady Marki Bey lacks Grier’s signature sass, first-time director Paul Maslansky—who only helmed one film during a long career as a producer—can’t match the gonzo cinematic attack of, say, frequent Grier collaborator Jack Hill. At its worst, Sugar Hill feels inert even though the scenario alone should be enough to guarantee vivaciousness.
          Set in the American south (presumably New Orleans or thereabouts), the picture begins with gunmen threatening and then killing Langston (Larry Don Johnson), the proprietor of a nightclub. The thugs work for crime boss Morgan (Robert Quarry), who has designs on the establishment. Langston’s lady, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Bey), knows who was behind the murder, but can’t provide proof to policemen including her ex-boyfriend, Detective Valentine (Richard Lawson). Frustrated, Sugar visits voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), who invokes a demon called Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley). Enter the zombie army, which Samedi raises on Sugar’s behalf. Backed by her undead muscle, Sugar annihilates Morgan’s men one by one in a series of campy/creepy death scenarios. (For example, she feeds a Caucasian thug to feral pigs trained to eat garbage, then says, “I hope they like white trash.”)
          Bey is more than sufficiently sexy as she struts in her low-cut jumpsuit, but she can’t quite muster the zing needed for the script’s juiciest lines. Similarly, Quarry—perhaps best known for starring in the Count Yorga vampire pictures—gives a performance that’s adequate at best. Still, Sugar Hill is photographed fairly well, with lots of ominous shadows, and Colley’s cartoonish turn as the Baron is enjoyable. Also, while Sugar Hill is just fine on its won, the movie would make a fantastic double-feature with J.D.’s Revenge (1976), another blaxploitation joint with a supernatural angle.

Sugar Hill: FUNKY

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Death of Richie (1977)

          “Ripped from the headlines” TV movies have gotten a bad rap over the years—and deservedly so. After all, most such projects combine sensationalism and superficiality to create stupidity. Yet the law of averages ensures that some timely telefilms are bound to be worthwhile. One example is The Death of Richie, the respectable dramatization of a grim real-life incident during which a suburban father shot his own teenaged son to death. Like so many hand-wringing TV dramas of the ’70s, The Death of Richie illustrates the plight of parents whose teenagers become drug addicts. Doe-eyed ’70s dreamboat Robby Benson stars as Richie Werner, the oldest of two sons in a middle-class American family. Much to the chagrin of his repressed parents, George (Ben Gazzara) and Carol (Eileen Brennan), Richie runs with a gang of dropouts who abuse booze, grass, and pills. Tortured by shyness and upset by his inability to score with girls, Richie even builds a hidden room inside the Werner home, converting a crawlspace into a drug lair complete with blacklight posters and a strobe lamp.
          Once Richie starts getting into trouble with the law, George intervenes by helping Richie get a job, and Carol joins a support group for parents in similar situations. Yet none of the family’s efforts impede Richie’s downward spiral. Eventually, violent clashes occur, with Richie threatening his father at one point by brandishing a pair of scissors. The parents seek an order of protection, deepening the schism with their son, and the tension culminates during a deadly showdown in the family basement.
          In addition to smooth direction by small-screen workhorse Paul Wendkos, The Death of Richie benefits from methodical storytelling. Cause-and-effect relationships between events are clear, so the dissipation of Richie’s mental state is tethered to the frustration his parents feel as they exhaust options for fixing their problem. Benson employs his signature sensitivity to convey the angst of a young man who can’t connect with other people, and Gazzara gives uncharacteristically nuanced work as a man struggling to expand his emotional vocabulary. (Like costars Charles Fleischer and Clint Howard, Brennan gets stuck with one of the film’s underwritten supporting roles.) The Death of Richie gets a bit long-winded at times, and someone should have stopped Benson from doing cutesy movie-star impressions during a lighthearted scene. Generally speaking, however, this is tough stuff made with sincerity and thoughtfulness, sort of a nihilistic alternative to the wholesome Afterschool Special approach.

The Death of Richie: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Prime Cut (1972)

          If appraised solely for its attitude, style, and tone, Prime Cut would easily qualify as one of the best crime films of the ’70s. A Midwestern noir set primarily on a cattle ranch and the surrounding area—think county fairs and wheat fields—the movie boasts crisp low-angle cinematography, offbeat situations, rough violence, and tasty performances by actors including Gene Hackman, Lee Marvin, and Sissy Spacek. It’s hard to think of another action picture that features a hay-bailing machine as a potential murder weapon—or one that features a scene of a mob enforcer getting chopped up and packaged as a tube of sausages. Yet for all the things Prime Cut does well, the movie fails in the most important regard. The script is an absolute mess, with murky characters pursuing unclear goals based upon perplexing motivations.
          The narrative is so poorly constructed, in fact, that it’s often difficult to enjoy the movie’s amazing moment-to-moment texture. One gets the sense that director Michael Ritchie and his collaborators wanted to present a movie so cryptic and hard-boiled that it was devoid of clichés and easy explanations. If that was the goal, they succeeded. Yet the filmmakers sacrificed clarity on the altar of cinematic style. Having said all that, Prime Cut is pretty damn badass whenever it locks into a groove.
          The principal focus of the story is a Midwestern gangster nicknamed “Mary Ann” (Hackman), who has decided to cut ties with his former bosses in the Chicago underworld. Running a dugs-and-prostitution ring out of his cattle ranch, Mary Ann has become a beloved community leader thanks to his largesse and a feared opponent thanks to his cruelty—he’s the proverbial big fish in a small town. After several operatives have failed to rein in Mary Ann’s reckless behavior, Chicago bosses send hired gun Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) to set Mary Ann straight. Immediately upon his arrival at Mary Ann’s place, Nick takes possession of Poppy (Spacek), a teenager whom Mary Ann’s goons have kidnapped and drugged for sale as a sex slave. That’s where the story goes off the rails. Instead of focusing on his mission, Nick spends a lot of time hanging out at his hotel, wining and dining Poppy (even though he seems not to have any sexual interest in her), and articulating vague plans for giving Mary Ann a hard time. Meanwhile, Mary Ann picks off Nick’s men with apparent ease.
          Much of what happens during the movie’s lugubrious middle section is interesting simply because of novelty—for instance, the shootout during a county fair—but the story gets particularly aimless whenever Spacek is on screen. Thus, when the movie finally trundles into a bloody final showdown at Mary Ann’s place, the dramatic stakes have become so dissipated that it’s hard to care what happens.
          Amazingly, the three leads manage to give interesting performances despite the script’s shortcomings. Marvin blends humor and a dash of romanticism into his signature ice-cold persona, so he’s frequently riveting. Hackman essays one of his most monstrous villains, and he’s terrific in small moments like the bit during which he capriciously buys a child’s pet cow and sends the animal to the slaughterhouse. Spacek struggles to figure out what purpose she serves in the movie, because at one moment she’s eye candy (Spacek performs a long sequence wearing a see-through dress), and at the next moment she’s the film’s soul (demonstrating anguish at the abuse of women). Even though all of this is quite perplexing, one is unlikely to find a better-acted or better-looking mess of an action flick.

Prime Cut: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Grissom Gang (1971)

          Few filmographies are quite as confusing as that of Robert Aldrich, a prolific producer-director who made a handful of stone classics, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), but also made the occasional picture that missed the mark so widely it seemed as if it was helmed by a beginner instead of a veteran. The Grissom Gang, for instance, is an absurdly long melodrama about a simplistic story that could have been presented with 40 minutes less screen time, and the movie is utterly bewildering from a tonal perspective. Is it a comedy, a drama, or a thriller? And what’s with the musical numbers?
          One of myriad post-Bonnie and Clyde gangster pictures set during the Depression, the movie concerns a group of Midwestern thugs who kidnap an heiress for ransom. Although slow-witted and violent-tempered Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson) is ostensibly the leader of the group, the real power behind the gang is his monster of a mother, Ma Grissom (Irene Dailey). So when Slim takes a liking to the heiress, Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby), Ma endangers the whole group by agreeing to a change in plans. Instead of killing the girl after collecting ransom, thereby protecting the anonymity of the crooks, Ma “gives” Barbara to Slim as a playmate. Then, once Barbara figures out that Slim is the only person keeping her alive, she feigns affection—only to later develop genuine feelings for her brutal lummox of a captor. Sprinkled in between scenes of infighting among the gang members are vignettes that advance tedious subplots involving Dave Fenner (Robert Lansing), a private detective hired to act on behalf of the heiress’ rich father, and Anne Borg (Connie Stevens), a showgirl who dates one of the gang members.
          In terms of on-set execution, The Grissong Gang isn’t bad. Aldrich generates tension with lots of sweaty close-ups, and the actors give intense performances. (Wilson does the best work in the film, though he frequently lapses into cartoonishness, and Darby seems out of her depth in nearly every scene.) The big problem has to do with the way Aldrich assembled the material that he gathered. In addition to retaining way too much footage—the movie seems to drag on forever—Aldrich commissioned a bouncy score that suggests he envisioned The Grissom Gang as light entertainment. Because, really, what says “light entertainment” more than myriad onscreen killings, an attempted rape or two, and the sweet scene of Slim threatening to murder his mom with a switchblade?
          The Grissom Gang has its fans, who undoubtedly appreciate the overall malevolence of the piece and the tasty work of supporting players including Matt Clark and Ralph Waite, but nearly everything that Aldrich attempts to do with the movie was accomplished more gracefully in some other film by some other director. So, while The Grissom Gang isn’t a disaster, per se, it’s a long way from being compelling, original, or satisfying.

The Grissom Gang: FUNKY

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Deadly Trap (1971)

          Despite starring three Americans and featuring a primarily English-language soundtrack, the murky thriller The Deadly Trap is actually a French film, directed and cowritten by noted Gallic auteur René Clément. Conceived, designed, and marketed in the vein of a Hitchcock thriller, the piece has tension and a measure of cinematic style, but so much information is withheld from the audience for so long that the experience of watching The Deadly Trap is often more befuddling than it is beguiling. Faye Dunaway and Frank Langella star as Jill and Philippe, a married American couple living in Paris with their two small children. Right from the start, the circumstances of the main characters’ lives are unclear. It seems that Philippe has an innocuous office job at the present, and that he belonged to a shady criminal organization in the past. At the moment the story begins, the organization wants Philippe to do one more job for them. (The nature of the task is never revealed.) Meanwhile, Jill and Philippe are experiencing marital difficulties, which are compounded by Jill’s deteriorating mental state—she having inexplicable memory problems, and may or may not be subject to paranoid fantasies of Philippe being unfaithful. (Again, whether she’s actually unwell or not is never revealed.) There’s also some murky business involving the couple’s sexy neighbor, Cynthia (Barbara Parkins), who’s a little too interested in their affairs.
          Throughout the first half of the movie, Jill repeatedly endangers her children (even getting into a car accident), with her irresponsibility reaching its apex when she loses sight of the kids while walking through the streets of Paris one afternoon. Police officers, led by the dogged Commissaire Chameille (Raymond Gérôme), become involved, but they’re unsure whether the children were kidnapped by strangers or harmed by their (possibly) unstable mother. The second half of the picture holds together fairly well thanks to the innate suspense of a missing-children scenario, but getting to the good stuff requires slogging through a lot of vague scenes in which Dunaway and Langella feign intensity for unknown reasons. In fact, it’s a testament to the skill of both actors that their performances feel artful and emotional even though they must have been as perplexed by the script as viewers are by the resulting movie. Beyond the solid acting, The Deadly Trap benefits from abundant location photography, snappy editing, and taut music. In sum, The Deadly Trap feels, looks, and sounds like an excellent thriller, even if the narrative raises infinitely more questions than it answers—and not in a good way.

The Deadly Trap: FUNKY

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Barn of the Naked Dead (1974)

          Originally titled Nightmare Circus and then rechristened Terror Circus, this horror flick truly deserves its final moniker, The Barn of the Naked Dead, not so much because the title accurately describes the movie’s content—it does not—but because the title captures the film’s sordid aesthetic. Taking the ’70s trope of misogynistic killers to an absurd extreme, the picture introduces a character who kidnaps women, chains them inside a barn, calls them “animals,” and trains them to perform circus tricks. Whenever one of the women gets out of line, the psycho punishes her with a whip or by leaving the woman alone with a hungry lion or a lethal snake. Even though modern history has proven that men who treat women this horribly exist in reality, it’s one thing to make a thoughtful drama about the monsters in our midst (e.g., The Boston Strangler or Helter Skelter), and it’s another thing to transform the flailing of pretty girls into drive-in entertainment. Further, it’s galling to learn that The Barn of the Naked Dead was cowritten and directed by Alan Rudolph (under a pseudonym) early in his career. After all, once he blossomed under Robert Altman’s tutelage, Rudolph made a series of offbeat indie films with strong female protagonists—atonement for participating in this project, perhaps?
          Anyway, the plot is painfully simple. When three showgirls experience car trouble while crossing the desert on the way to a gig in Las Vegas, handsome stranger Andre (Andrew Prine) offers to drive them to his house, where they can use a phone to call for help. Once there, the showgirls discover a barn full of captive women, and they’re added to the prison population at gunpoint. Eventually, the lead showgirl, Simone (Manuela Thiess), gets Andre’s attention because she reminds him of his long-dead mother. This precipitates lots of dialogue scenes about Andre’s abandonment issues. However, it’s hard to take the character stuff seriously since The Barn of the Naked Dead also includes a killer mutant who is horribly scarred from radiation poisoning. Adding to the overall unpleasantness is a dissonant score by Tommy Vig, which waffles between repetitive go-go grooves and sharp atonal stings. As for leading man Prine, he doesn’t come close to elevating the material, instead offering a mundane screamy-twitchy turn in the familiar Anthony Perkins style.

The Barn of the Naked Dead: LAME