Thursday, August 25, 2016

#2,184. Women Behind Bars (1975)

Directed By: Jess Franco

Starring: Lina Romay, Martine Stedil, Roger Darton

AKA: The oriignal title of the film was Diamonds to Hell

Trivia: William Berger was originally considered to play the warden

A women in prison flick directed by the late, great Jess Franco? We know what to expect from this 1975 movie, don’t we?

Actually, we don’t.

Surprisingly, Women Behind Bars doesn’t fulfill our expectations, giving us only brief glimpses of exploitative goodness in favor of a convoluted plot about stolen diamonds that, as presented, is not the least bit interesting. In the end, this film doesn’t take advantage of its main setting nearly enough; the story might just as easily have taken place in a country club.

Shirley Fields (Lina Romay) is serving a six-year prison sentence for shooting her boyfriend, a crime she claims was committed in a moment of jealous rage (after learning he had been unfaithful). But most people believe there’s more to it than that, especially since her now-deceased beau had just stolen a fortune in diamonds! In an effort to track down the missing stones, insurance agent Milton Warren (Roger Darton), whose company had insured the diamonds, travels to the south of France to interview Ms. Fields, who is being held in a prison run by the vicious warden Carlo de Bries (Ronald Weiss). Not to be outdone, warden de Bries is also after the priceless stones, and has his girlfriend Martine (Martine Stedil) pose as a prisoner in order to win Shirley’s trust. But Shirley Fields is no fool, and before the movie is over she’ll have gotten the upper hand on more than a few of her adversaries.

Women Behind Bars does offer a few of the scenes you’d expect to find in a ‘70s women in prison movie. Due to the extreme heat, all of the girls sleep in the raw, and following a poorly-staged fight in the yard one prisoner is beaten with a whip. Most shocking of all, though, is the sequence where the warden, trying to get Shirley to reveal where she’s hidden the diamonds, hooks an electroshock machine to her vagina and switches it on. These elements, as well as a clumsy lesbian scene, are all we get. For the remainder of the film, Women Behind Bars focuses on the two parties’ attempt to find the diamonds, and because it’s all presented so haphazardly, we simply don’t give a damn.

Franco obviously intended for Women Behind Bars to be something more than your run-of-the-mill prison nudie film, hoping instead to make a crime thriller with only a smattering of sex. Alas, in the end, he fails to deliver either one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

#2,183. Lips of Blood (1975)

Directed By: Jean Rollin

Starring: Jean-Loup Philippe, Annie Belle, Natalie Perrey

AKA: "The working title of this film was Jennifer"

Trivia: All of the cemetery scenes in this film were shot without permits

Director Jean Rollin held his 1975 film Lips of Blood in high regard, and has said that he felt its script was the best he’d ever written. Even when the movie was compromised by production issues (a financier pulled out at the last minute, meaning the 5-week shooting schedule Rollin initially prepared had to be cut to three weeks), the director still believed the final film turned out well enough, and I tend to agree with him. Along with the standard “Rollin touches” scattered throughout, Lips of Blood builds a mystery that will keep you guessing right up to the end.

At a party to launch a new brand of perfume, Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) spots an advertisement that features the ruins of an old castle. All at once, a long-suppressed childhood memory resurfaces; twenty years earlier, a young Frederic (played in flashbacks by Rollin’s own son, Serge) spent an entire night in these very ruins in the company of a 16-year-old girl named Jennifer (Annie Belle). Intrigued, Frederic attempts to track down this old building, only to find his efforts thwarted at every turn by persons unknown. Who is trying to prevent Frederic from learning the secret of the castle, and, more importantly, why?

Lips of Blood has many of the elements we’ve come to expect from a Jean Rollin film: great locales (especially the castle, which gets creepier as the movie progresses), nudity and blood (four scantily-clad female vampires, including a set of twins played by Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel, terrorize the locals), and a deliberate, often slow pace that may prove frustrating to some viewers (large chunks of the movie are dedicated to watching characters wander from one point to the next, often in silence). What sets Lips of Blood apart, however, is its central mystery; who is the girl in the castle, and why are people conspiring to keep Frederic from figuring out the truth (even his mother, played by Natalie Perrey, is working against him)?

The intrigue begins in the opening scene (two caskets are deposited into the bowels of the castle, one containing a person who is still alive when the lid is nailed shut) and doesn’t let up until the final reveal. This, combined with its tale of female vampires who roam the countryside looking for victims, makes Lips of Blood a horror movie that’s as absorbing as it is eerie.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#2,182. Time After Time (1979)

Directed By: Nicholas Meyer

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner

Tag line: "H.G. Wells races through time to catch Jack the Ripper!"

Trivia: The studio had wanted Richard Dreyfuss for the role of H.G. Wells

What would happen if Jack the Ripper, one of the 19th century’s most notorious figures, made his way to a 20th century city? That’s the basic set-up of writer / director Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 sci-fi / thriller Time After Time, a movie with a cast that’s as impressive as its premise.

The film opens in London, 1893. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is hosting a dinner party for some of the city’s most influential men, including his good friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner). His reason for bringing them all together is to reveal his newest invention: a time machine! Using the sun’s power, this time machine can transport a person to either the past or future, moving at a speed of 2 years per minute. He’s even installed a safety feature, in case the rider is injured during the trip; unless a key is inserted into the controls, the machine will eventually return to the previous time period from which it left. With this machine, Wells hopes to travel to the future, when he’s convinced mankind will have eliminated war, disease, and hunger.

It’s then that the party is interrupted by the police looking for none other than Jack the Ripper, who, after years of silence, has struck again, killing a prostitute only a few blocks away. Conducting a routine search of all the houses in the area, the authorities soon turn up evidence that proves Dr. Stevenson himself is the infamous Ripper! When he’s nowhere to be found, it’s assumed that Stevenson somehow slipped away right after the cops arrived. It isn’t until everyone has gone home that Wells discovers what really happened: Stevenson stole his time machine, and has leaped forward to the year 1979. Feeling responsible for turning a madman loose on Utopia, Wells follows him to the future, where, thanks to a display of his work that’s touring the world, the inventor ends up in San Francisco (the time machine is part of the traveling exhibit).

Though disappointed to learn that mankind is every bit as imperfect in the future as they were in the past, Wells sets to work looking for Stevenson, and with the help of pretty banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who exchanged some of Stevenson’s British pounds for dollars a few days earlier, Wells manages to find his old friend. Naturally, Stevenson refuses to go back to 1893 with him, and what’s more demands that Wells give him the key that will prevent the time machine from returning to its point of origin (“I can’t have you following me through history” he says to Wells). Stevenson does escape once again, but not with the key, and over the course of the next several days picks up where he left off in 1893 by murdering a handful of prostitutes. As he does so, Wells, who has become romantically involved with Amy Robbins, continues to search for his old friend, who he knows will not leave 1979 without the key. The question is, how many people have to die before Jack the Ripper can be brought to justice?

Time After Time gets off to a great start with a handful of scenes set in 1893, the first of which has the Ripper murdering his most recent victim in a back alley (in a cool twist, Meyer gives us a first-person view of the action, as if we’re looking through the Ripper’s eyes). Equally as good is Wells’ dinner party, when the famed writer / inventor discovers that his friend and chess partner is actually one of history’s most violent killers. Best of all, though, is the scene in which Wells leaves 1893 behind and takes off for the future, a sequence that features both interesting special effects and a unique way to mark the passage of time (by way of audio snippets from some of the 20th century’s biggest events, including the two World Wars and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

Once in San Francisco, Time After Time branches off in a number of directions, following Wells as he tries to find Stevenson while at the same time acclimating himself to 1979 (via the standard “fish out of water” scenes). As if that wasn’t enough, Wells also kicks off a romance with Amy Robbins, a flighty but loyal young woman who fell for the dashing Englishman the moment he walked into her bank. Though this love story seemingly pops out of nowhere, both McDowell and Steenburgen do their part to make it as believable as possible (they have a good chemistry together). In addition, the movie tags along with Stevenson as he murders one woman after another and also tries to get the key for the time machine away from Wells. While the tension of the opening scenes does dwindle a bit during the movie’s midsection (when Meyer and company focus primarily on the love affair between H.G. and Amy), it picks up again in the last half hour, when Wells and Stevenson face off against each other one final time (most of this end sequence will have you on the edge of your seat).

McDowell and Warner are exceptional as the former pals who become mortal enemies, and their scenes together have a real energy to them (their first confrontation, in a room at the Hyatt Regency, results in several memorable moments, not the least of which has Stevenson switching on the TV and showing Wells that the Utopia he dreamed of never happened, and likely never will). Equally as strong is Steenburgen, who finds herself drawn into a situation she can hardly believe. In fact, the only thing about Time After Time that rubbed me the wrong way was its score. It’s not that Miklós Rózsa (who handled the music for such award-winning films as The Thief of Bagdad and Ben-Hur) did a bad job; on the contrary, the music is quite good. Unfortunately, Meyer overuses it, putting it in scenes that would have been better served with silence while blasting the score in others, often so loud that it’s a distraction.

Still, thanks to its fascinating tale of time travel and the performances of its three stars, Time After Time is a movie that’s well worth checking out.

Monday, August 22, 2016

#2,181. Hollywood Boulevard (1976)

Directed By: Allan Arkush, Joe Dante

Starring: Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Candice Rialson

Tag line: "The street where starlets are made!"

Trivia: Dick Miller's character is named for his character in 1959's A Bucket of Blood

The story goes that, at some point in 1976, producer Jon Davidson made a wager with Roger Corman that he could turn out the cheapest movie New World Pictures ever produced. So Corman gave Davidson $60,000 and a 10-day shooting schedule (5 days less than most other pictures) to make what turned out to be Hollywood Boulevard, a comedy that throws everything at you but the kitchen sink (only because the kitchen sink wasn’t in the budget)!

Believing she has what it takes to be a movie star, Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson) makes the long journey from Indiana to Hollywood, California, where she hooks up with talent agent Walter Paisley (Dick Miller). As luck would have it, Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle”) was in the market for a new stunt woman, and before she knows what hit her, Candy is performing a death-defying car crash in the newest movie by producer P.G. (Richard Doran) and director Erich Von Leppe (Paul Bartel). While on-set, she also meets screenwriter Patrick Hobby (Jeffrey Kramer), with whom she becomes romantically involved.

Impressed by her tenacity, P.G. and Von Leppe cast Candy in their next picture, an action film set in the Philippines. While Miracle’s current star Mary McQueen (Mary Woronov) isn’t exactly happy to have her around, Candy does manage to befriend some of her other cast mates, including former roller derby star Bobbi Quackenbush (Rita George). Over the next few months, Candy and Bobbi are featured in a number of movies, but just when it appears as if things are going their way, a homicidal maniac turn up and starts hacking actresses to pieces. And by the looks of it, this killer has no intention of stopping until every young starlet is dead!

Co-directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante (both making their debut behind the camera), Hollywood Boulevard was. Indeed, a very low budget affair, but gets around its lack of funds by incorporating scenes from other Corman-produced films, including The Terror, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Big Bird Cage, The Unholy Rollers, and Death Race 2000. As a result, the film has more than its share of excitement (a gun battle lifted from The Big Bird Cage is featured prominently, as are a few of the more intense moments in Death Race 2000). That said, Hollywood Boulevard’s best scenes are the ones shot specifically for it. Her first day in Hollywood, Candy is duped by a couple of bank robbers into thinking she’s been cast in a new motion picture (in reality, they just needed a getaway driver for their newest caper); and Dick Miller rattles off plenty of funny lines throughout the movie (when a producer calls looking for a bearded lady, Miller tells one of his male clients to “go out and get some tits”).

Not everything flows smoothly in Hollywood Boulevard; an extended sequence set at a drive-in theater runs on far too long, and the serial killer angle feels out of place in what had been up to that point a comedy. But if it’s low-budget ‘70s fare you’re after, and like your movies on the sleazy side (in what is the film’s most bizarre scene, P.G. has one of his subordinates spray down some wannabe actresses, all wearing white T-shirts, with a hose, giving him a good look at their “assets”), then Hollywood Boulevard should be the next stop on your cinematic journey.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

#2,180. Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy (2010)

Directed By: Aubrey Powell

Starring: Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones

Tag line: "Like Handel.. only funnier."

Trivia: This movie was filmed during the show's only European performance at the Royal Albert Hall

Life’s a piece of shit… when you look at it” – Line form the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

As much as I love Holy Grail, I’ve always considered 1979’s Life of Brian to be Monty Python’s best film. Written by Python alum Eric Idle and conductor / composer John Du Prez, Not the Messiah: He’s a Very Naughty Boy is billed as a “musical oratorio” based on Life of Brian, and is an often funny, very entertaining, and quite unusual take on the story.

Performed live at the Royal Albert Hall on October 23, 2009 (to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), Not the Messiah: He’s a Very Naughty Boy features Idle himself and a quartet of professional singers, all backed by the BBC Orchestra and chorus. A spoof of Handel’s Messiah oratorio, Not the Messiah re-tells the tale of Brian (a role played by Tenor William Ferguson), the son of a Jew named Mandy (Mezzo Rosalind Plowright) and a Roman soldier, who lived during the time of Christ. Born in a manger, Brian grew to adulthood, joined a revolutionary group (The People’s Front of Judea) led by an anti-Roman fanatic named Reg (Bass Christopher Purvis); fell in love with fellow militant Judith (Soprano Shannon Mercer), and, after being mistaken for the Messiah, was crucified as a traitor to Rome.

With some of the other Pythons popping up occasionally, most notably Michael Palin (in drag), who acts as narrator, Not the Messiah combines a number of musical styles (Doo-wop, folk, classical, and even mariachi) to relate Brian’s story, taking us from the dawn of time (and the beginning of organized religion) through to a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, easily the most popular Python song ever written. Though they play it straight, everyone on-stage is clearly enjoying themselves, as is the audience in attendance. All of the arrangements are good, but my favorites include “Chaos and Confusion” (the opening number, which gets things off to an exciting start), “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” (the re-enactment of a very funny scene from the movie), “Individuals” (A Bob Dylan spoof, complete with harmonicas), and “The Final Song” (a melancholy tune in which Brian accepts his fate and prepares to die on the cross).

With Idle sometimes reciting lines of dialogue lifted directly from Life of Brian, as well as Michael Palin’s impromptu rendition of “The Lumberjack Song” (which also features Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes), Not the Messiah is a fun combination of old and new, taking what had been a hilarious motion picture and transforming it into a musical extravaganza.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

#2,179. Friday Foster (1975)

Directed By: Arthur Marks

Starring: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge

Tag line: "Wham! Bam! Here comes Pam!"

Trivia: This movie was based on a newspaper comic strip that debuted January 18, 1970

A photographer for Glance magazine, Friday Foster (Pam Grier) is sent to the airport on New Year’s Eve to snap some pictures of millionaire Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala), who is flying in on his private jet. But instead of a few secret photos for the gossip column, Friday witnesses an assassination attempt, during which Tarr is shot in the shoulder. A day later, Friday’s good friend Cleve (Tierre Turner), a professional model, is stabbed in the back while working a fashion show, and before dying tells Friday about a secret organization with the codename “Black Widow”, which was also behind the attempt on Tarr’s life. Figuring she now knows too much, one of the assassins from the airport (Carl Weathers) pays Friday a visit, but misses his chance to finish her off.

Pulled into the middle of a dangerous situation, Friday takes matters into her own hands, and, with the help of Private Investigator Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto), uses her guile, as well as her body, to learn everything she can about Black Widow. Some believe U.S. Senator Hart (Paul Benjamin) is the man in charge of this terrorist organization, while others are convinced Tarr himself is the ringleader, and that the airport shooting was staged to take the heat off of him. Which of the two is behind this string of recent killings, or is someone else responsible for the violence? With Friday Foster on the case, you can be damn sure she’ll find out sooner or later!

Directed by Arthur Marks and based on a popular comic strip, Friday Foster is a bit different from previous Pam Grier vehicles (Coffy, Foxy Brown) in that its lead isn’t out for revenge. And while Friday definitely has guts, she doesn’t get in on the action nearly as much as the actress’s other characters have in the past, relying instead on her cohorts (mostly Colt Hawkins) to handle the heavy stuff (when the assassin breaks into her apartment to kill her, Friday, who was in the shower at the time, throws on a towel and runs out the front door). But make no mistake: Friday Foster is tough-as-nails (she crashes a swanky dinner party to confront Senator Hart, and over the course of the movie steals a few vehicles, including a hearse). What’s more, Friday is drop-dead sexy, and willing to go the “extra mile” to get the information she needs.

As for the supporting cast, it’s positively gargantuan. Aside from Kotto (Alien, Live and Let Die), Rasulala (Blacula, Bucktown), Benjamin (Do the Right Thing), and Weathers (Rocky, Predator), Friday Foster co-stars Eartha Kitt (Catwoman in the ‘60s Batman series) as a high-profile fashion designer; Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining) as a horny Reverend; Ted Lange (Isaac the Bartender in the ‘70s program The Love Boat) as a pimp who showers Friday with gifts; Godfrey Cambridge (Watermelon Man, Cotton Comes to Harlem) as an effeminate inside man; and Jim Backus (Thurston Howell in Gilligan’s Island) as the mysterious Enos Griffith, a man with considerable influence in Washington, D.C, All deliver fine performances, but credit must also be given to director Marks, who did an outstanding job balancing his large cast, as well as the film’s complex story of power and deceit. With so much going on, it would have been easy to get lost along the way, but thanks to Marks’ steady hand I had no problem whatsoever following this movie.

Yet as good as Marks and the other actors are, Friday Foster belongs to Pam Grier, who once again shows the world that a woman can be tough and sexy at the same time.

Friday, August 19, 2016

#2,178. She-Wolf of London (1946)

Directed By: Jean Yarbrough

Starring: Don Porter, June Lockhart, Sara Haden


Trivia: Filming on this movie completed on Christmas Eve, 1945

I’m not a big fan of 1935’s Werewolf of London (the first Hollywood movie to feature a werewolf), but compared to 1946’s She-Wolf of London, that earlier film is a horror masterpiece!

Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is engaged to be married to brash young lawyer Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). In fact, their wedding is only a week away, but instead of picking out a dress, poor Phyllis is wrestling with the “Allenby Curse”, which, according to legend, has been turning members of the Allenby clan into werewolves for generations.

Despite the reassurances of her Aunt Martha (Sara Haden) and cousin Carol (Jan Wiley), both of whom tell her that the curse is balderdash, Phyllis is sure she’s responsible for a string of murders that occurred in in a nearby park (in each case, the victim was mauled to death), and as a result has shut herself off from the rest of the world. Is Phyllis actually a werewolf, or is someone else the killer?

The cast of She-Wolf of London isn’t the issue; the performances are fine (I enjoyed seeing June Lockhart in an early role, before she, Dr. Smith, and the Robot got themselves Lost in Space). No, what She-Wolf of London lacks is tension, frights, and suspense of any kind. The few murders that do occur happen off-screen (even a later kill, set on a foggy evening, fails to generate a single ounce of excitement), and we never once get a good look at the so-called werewolf. She-Wolf of London doesn’t even work as a mystery; I figured out what was really going on in the first 20 minutes of the film, and I’m fairly certain you’ll do the same.

With no thrills or scares to speak of, She-Wolf of London fizzles right out of the gate, and never recovers. Though it runs for only 61 minutes, I guarantee it will feel like one of the longest hours you ever spent watching a movie.