Thursday, May 25, 2017

#2,358. Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Directed By: Marino Girolami

Starring: Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Delli Colli, Sherry Buchanan

Tag line: "Not for the faint-hearted..."

Trivia: Was re-edited for U.S. release as Doctor Butcher, M.D.

Whoever came up with the title Zombie Holocaust for this 1980 film was selling it short; yes, there are zombies, but they don’t appear until well after the movie’s halfway point. Before that, it’s a straight-up cannibal flick, with a group of New Yorkers traveling to an exotic locale to track down the remnants of an ancient tribe of man-eaters. There are even elements of a mad scientist story thrown in for good measure (in the U.S., the movie was re-cut and released as Doctor Butcher, M.D.). Once you get a look at the living dead, though, you realize that Zombie Holocaust was heavily influenced by Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (which was released a year earlier), and clearly the filmmakers were trying to cash in on that movie’s success.

Yet despite its jam-packed storyline and a few intriguing scenes, Zombie Holocaust isn’t quite the film that Fulci’s masterpiece is.

Someone has been stealing body parts from the cadavers at a New York City hospital, and Dr. Lori Ridgeway (Alessandra Delli Colli), a physician and amateur anthropologist, wants to know who is responsible. As it turns out, the guilty party is an orderly named Toran (Turam Quibo), who was born and raised in the Maluka Island region of Southeast Asia. After comparing notes with Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch), an official with the city’s Health Department, Lori discovers that dozens of corpse mutilations have been reported all over the city in recent weeks, and, in each case, those committing these crimes (Toran included) bear the markings of a cannibal tribe that originated in the Maluka Peninsula.

To get to the bottom of this bizarre turn of events, Lori and Peter head to Southeast Asia, where along with Peter’s assistant George Harper (Peter O’Neal) and reporter Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan), who tagged along on the trip, they consult with Dr. Obrero (Donald O’Brien), a scientist and longtime resident of the region. With Dr. Obrero’s trusty sidekick Molotto (Dakar) as their guide, Lori, Peter, and the others set sail for the Maluka Islands, unaware of the dangers that await them once they arrive.

As mentioned above, Zombie Holocaust is, for most of its runtime, a cannibal film; when Lori and her associate Dr. Drydock (Walter Patriarca) catch Toran in the act, he is in the process of eating a heart he’d just removed form a corpse’s chest, and later on, when Lori and the others are making their way across an island, they’re attacked by a primitive tribe that slices open one of the group’s Asian assistants and makes a snack out of his intestines. As for the zombies, they resemble the living dead in Fulci’s Zombie, but unlike their counterparts in that 1979 film, they don’t feast on human flesh (in fact, these zombies don’t do much of anything).

As for the special effects in Zombie Holocaust, they’re a mixed bag. The zombies themselves look good enough (at least in the face; for the most part, their bodies have no make-up whatsoever), and the gore / splatter effects are above average. Less impressive, though, is the scene in which Toran, after being cornered by Lori and Dr. Drydock, commits suicide by leaping out a window and plunging several stories to his death (the mannequin that stands in for Toran loses an arm when it hits the ground). I also had some issues with the film’s final act (the “mad scientist” portion of its tale), which left me with more questions than answers.

Yet what really annoyed me were the zombies themselves, which were far too docile (they have more in common with the zombies in the ‘30s classic White Zombie than they do the walking dead of the post-Romero period). In a movie titled Zombie Holocaust, you’d think that the zombies would have been a bit more integral to the story. Instead, they’re its weakest element.

Overall, I’d say that Zombie Holocaust was a good movie, but with a few tweaks here and there, it probably would have been a better one.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

#2,357. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage

Line from the film: "Look, I'm nobody's favorite"

Trivia: Director Tony Richardson married star Michael Redgrave's daughter, Vanessa Redgrave, shortly after filming ended

Running has always been a big thing in our family. Especially running away from the police

The above quote comes courtesy of the lead character in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a 1962 movie that, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning before it, is considered part of the British New Wave movement that stretched from 1959 to 1963. But in addition to the realism that helped define this particular era of UK filmmaking, director Tony Richardson also tosses a few cinematic bells and whistles into the mix, which he uses to enhance the movie’s central theme of isolation while also kicking the energy level up a notch.

After stealing money from a local bakery, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is sent to Ruxton Towers, a youth detention center. Though something of a loner, Colin soon impresses the facility’s Governor (played by Michael Redgrave) with his athletic prowess. Seeing him as Ruxton’s best chance to win the Challenge Cup in the long-distance race against Renley (a nearby boarding school that caters to the upper-class), the Governor orders that Colin be given special privileges. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his fellow inmates, especially Stacey (Philip Martin), the Governor’s previous favorite. But the question remains: has the rebellious Colin actually changed his ways, or is he simply biding his time?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner marked the big-screen debut of actor Tom Courtenay, who, like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, makes for a convincing angry young man, disillusioned with the world around him and looking for a way out of it. Though definitely strong in those scenes set in Ruxton, where Colin’s increasingly cordial relationship with the Governor makes him something of an outcast among his peers, Courtenay shines during the movie’s “flashback” sequences, moments where we’re shown his unhappy home life (following his father’s death, Colin’s mother, played by Avis Bunnage, went on a shopping spree with the $500 she got from her husband’s insurance policy) as well as his budding relationship with Audrey (Topsy Jane), who was as anxious as Colin to escape her lower-class lifestyle. These glimpses into the recent past reveal a lot about Colin, and Courtenay’s often understated approach to the role proved just enough to gain our sympathy, yet also made Colin something of an enigma, a young man we can relate to even when we’re not sure what’s really on his mind.

Much like Karel Reisz did with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Richardson shot The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner entirely on-location, giving the film a realistic vibe. But it’s those moments where the director allows his creative juices to flow that the movie’s energy is kicked up a notch. During a “flashback” scene in which Colin and his pal Mike (James Bolam) steal a car, the action speeds up, as if it was lifted straight out of a Mack Sennett/ Keystone Kops comedy short; and an early practice race at Ruxton is presented almost entirely in POV, from Colin’s perspective (we watch as he catches up to, then passes an obviously frustrated Stacey).

With its working-class mentality and cinema verite style, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner still comes across as very realistic, but it’s the added flare that Tony Richardson provides from time to time that makes it special.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#2,356. The Entertainer (1960)

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey

Tag line: "As the applause grew fainter ... As the spotlight grew dimmer ... His women were younger!"

Trivia: Roger Livesey plays Laurence Olivier's father in this film, yet was less than one year older than Olivier in real-life

The show must go on”. It’s an adage as old as show business itself, yet for Archie Rice, the lead character in the 1960 film The Entertainer, it’s more than a motto. For him, being on-stage is synonymous with being alive. It’s when he steps behind the curtain and faces reality that Archie Rice gets himself into trouble.

Archie (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, reprising the role he made famous on-stage) is a comic well past his prime, telling stale jokes in a dilapidated Lancashire theater to audiences that get smaller by the day. Still, Archie remains optimistic, and is busy trying to put together a new show he’s convinced will be a smash hit. His long-suffering wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) is at her wit’s end; not only is she afraid that Archie, already up to his ears in debt, will end up in jail, but the couple’s son Mick (Albert Finney), a soldier in the army, has just been taken prisoner while fighting in the Suez. Archie’s father, Billy (Roger Livesey), who lives with them in their tiny apartment, was himself a well-known performer in his day, and Archie’s and Phoebe’s other son Frank (Alan Bates) manages things behind-the-scenes for his father, doing his best to ensure the shows, however pitiful, run as smoothly as they possibly can.

Into this domesticated nightmare comes Jean (Joan Plowright), Archie’s daughter from a previous marriage. Leaving her fiance Graham (Daniel Massey) behind in London, Jean travels to Lancashire to spend a weekend with the family, only to discover her father, a notorious womanizer, has cooked up a scheme that threatens to tear their world apart. While serving as emcee for a local beauty pageant, Archie meets, and then seduces the runner-up, 20-year-old beauty Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field), by promising to make her the headliner of his next production. He then cozies up to Tina’s well-to-do parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge) in the hope they will finance their daughter’s big debut. Archie is so keen on the idea that he actually considers divorcing Phoebe so he can marry the much younger Tina! Jean, the only member of the Rice family who knows what’s going on, tries desperately to talk her father out of it, but for Archie, there’s more than love involved; this move could finally make him a star, something that has eluded him his entire life.

Will Archie actually go through with his devious plan, or will fate somehow intervene?

Produced during the early days of the British New Wave, The Entertainer was shot (for the most part) on-location, bringing a sense of realism to many of its scenes (the beauty pageant is set entirely outdoors, and later in the film, Jean and Archie enjoy a picnic while perched on a hill that overlooks a seaside amusement pier). The Entertainer also marked the screen debuts of Albert Finney (he has one brief scene early on), Alan Bates, and Joan Plowright (who, a year later, would become Mrs. Laurence Olivier); and was only the second feature film directed by Tony Richardson (the first being Look Back in Anger, released a year earlier). In addition, Brenda de Banzie delivers a searing performance as Archie’s mostly inebriated, yet dutiful wife Phoebe, while Roger Livesey is superb as Billy, Archie’s lovable father who, back in the day, achieved a level of stardom that his son has never known.

But The Entertainer is Archie Rice’s story, and contains what is, hands down, one of Sir Laurence’s all-time best performances. Even when he isn’t standing in front of a microphone, Olivier’s Archie is always “on”, telling jokes to his family, his friends at the pub, and pretty much anyone who will listen to him. Life does sometimes throw off his timing, like when he receives the telegram informing him that Mick was taken prisoner, but Archie always manages to put his troubles aside, even the ones that he himself creates (having already declared bankruptcy, Archie must now rely on Phoebe to sign the checks that they don’t have the money to cover). Throughout The Entertainer, Archie Leach is a cad of the highest order, a womanizer and a beggar who puts his own needs, his own ambitions, ahead of everybody else’s. And yet he’s so damn charismatic that you can’t help but like the guy; whether belting out his signature tune “Why Should I Care?” or cracking jokes that were old twenty years ago, Archie always manages to convince those around him that he’s as adorable in real life as he is on stage. The truth, however, is that Archie Rice is going down for the count, and uses humor to forget his worries. We get the feeling throughout the movie that if Archie ever stopped laughing, he’d probably break down and cry.

As engrossing as it is tragic, The Entertainer is an exceptional motion picture, featuring a world-class actor at the top of his game.

Friday, May 19, 2017

#2,355. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Directed By: Arthur Crabtree

Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow

Tag line: "It Actually Puts YOU In The Picture - Can You Stand It?"

Trivia: This was the first American International release to be in color, and was also their first Cinemascope movie

It starts innocently enough; a delivery man drops off a package for Gail (Dorinda Stevens), a single woman living in a London apartment building. There’s no return address on the box, and no note of any kind to indicate who sent it. Gail’s roommate, Peggy (Malou Pantera), teases her, saying it must be from an anonymous admirer. Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Excited, Gail rushes to the window to try them out. A few seconds later, she lets out a scream. A horrified Peggy looks on as Gail covers her eyes with her hands, blood pouring through her fingers. Gail then falls over dead, and we notice that the binoculars (lying next to her) now have two large, blood-stained spikes in its back lenses, which jutted out moments after Gail raised her new gift up to her eyes.

The violence in this opening sequence proved unsettling for a good many people. After seeing the movie in a Times Square theater, photographer Diane Arbus was so shaken by this scene that she snuck a camera into a later showing and snapped a picture of the screen the moment actress Dorinda Stevens covered her eyes (This snapshot is still part of the Diane Arbus collection, and is titled “Screaming Woman with Blood on her Hands”). But as you’ll discover while watching 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum, this is but one of several gruesome deaths featured throughout the film.

Poor Gail was actually the third young woman murdered in the past two weeks, and Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) of Scotland Yard, who has taken charge of the investigation, still has no idea who the killer is, or what his motives are. As if the case wasn’t difficult enough, a series of sensationalized newspaper articles pertaining to the killings, written by Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), have whipped the public into a frenzy. What the police don’t realize, though, is that Bancroft is much more than an interested bystander in this sorry state of affairs; he’s the responsible party! To gain publicity for his work, Bancroft has hypnotized his valet, Rick (Graham Curnow), and, arming him with a variety of weapons he’s collected over the years, sends the young man out into the streets with instructions to kill. Thus far, Bancroft’s murderous plan has gone off without a hitch, but with the police doubling their efforts to try and prevent further slayings, it may only be a matter of time before his entire scheme comes crashing down around him.

Michael Gough is at his slimy best as Bancroft, the arrogant writer who not only reports the news but also creates it; and actress June Cunningham has a small but memorable role as Joan, a prostitute that Bancroft visits regularly. Yet what makes Horrors of the Black Museum so… well, horrific, are its murder sequences, with Rick (who, while under hypnosis, undergoes a physical change that makes him look more like a monster than a man) employing a variety of weapons to finish off his victims. While the binoculars from the opening are, without a doubt, the most ghastly of the bunch, there’s also a decapitation that’s pretty shocking (mostly because we don’t see it coming).

As with many older movies, the violence in Horrors of the Black Museum may seem tame by modern standards; we never actually see any of the kills take place, and quite a bit of time passes between each murder (though Michael Gough’s boisterous performance ensures that even the movie’s bloodless scenes are fun to watch). But compared to other films released around the same time, it’s easy to see why Horrors of the Black Museum caused such an uproar.

And don’t be surprised if its opening scene comes rushing back to you the next time you’re holding a pair of binoculars.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

#2,354. Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

Directed By: Ralph Thomas

Starring: Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina

Tag line: "For Hire: Deadly Weapons! - Blonde, Brunette, Redhead"

Trivia: In a later interview, director Ralph Thomas said that the movie was made with the intention of kicking off a TV series

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, World War One veteran and self-proclaimed adventurer, is a fictional character created in 1920 by British author H.C. McNelle, and like most popular literary heroes he eventually made his way from the printed page to the big screen (the earliest movie to feature the character, the appropriately titled Bulldog Drummond, was released in 1922). Deadlier Than the Male was the 22nd Bulldog Drummond film, but the first produced in the post-James Bond era. Hoping to duplicate the cinematic success of Ian Fleming’s super spy, the creative minds behind this 1967 movie decided to give ‘ole Hugh Drummond a makeover, taking what had been a rough and rugged adventurer and transforming him into a suave ladies’ man whose skills as an investigator would give 007 himself a run for his money.

Two oil company executives have died under mysterious circumstances, and Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), am Insurance claims investigator for Lloyds of London, wants to know what happened to them. While Drummond is busy piecing together clues, several more businessmen turn up dead, and it isn’t long before he himself becomes a target. To Drummond’s surprise, a pair of gorgeous female assassins, Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina), are responsible for all of the murders thus far, and with the help of his nephew Robert (Steve Carlson), Drummond learns that the girls’ next intended victim is King Fedra of Akmatan (Zia Mohyeddin), an old college chum of Robert’s who, at present, is vacationing on his yacht in the Mediterranean Sea. Should Fedra die, the world’s oil supply will be controlled by only a handful of men. The question is: which of these powerful magnates hired Irma and Penelope to do his dirty work for him?

Released less than two years after Thunderball (and a few months before You Only Live Twice), Deadlier Than the Male is a straight-up Bond clone, borrowing many of the elements that made the 007 series popular with its fans. In addition to an exciting pre-title sequence (where we witness the death of the first executive, who is killed on his private jet) and a very “bond-esque” theme song (performed by The Walker Brothers), Deadlier Than the Male has plenty of action, some nifty gadgets (though the coolest, including a bullet-laced cigar and a life-sized computerized chess board, belong not to Drummond, but the criminals), and a highly-skilled hero who never loses his cool (as Drummond, Richard Johnson pulls off the seemingly-impossible task of making an insurance investigator as cunning and debonair as one of her Majesty’s top agents). And like all Bond films, Deadlier Than the Male is chock full of attractive women (Sommer and Koscina may just be the most beautiful assassin team in cinematic history).

The movie does falter a bit in the final act (the chief villain’s identity is revealed far too soon, forcing the filmmakers to put him in more scenes than they should have), but as Bond-inspired pictures go, Deadlier Than the Male is the most entertaining I’ve ever seen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#2,353. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Directed By: Karel Reisz

Starring: Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts

Tag line: "Saturday night you have your fling at life...and Sunday morning you face up to it!"

Trivia: Albert Finney learned to use a lathe during filming

Right around the time that Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were shaking things up in France, the UK film industry was experiencing a “New Wave” of its own. Taking a page from their French counterparts, filmmakers like Tony Richardson, Lindsey Anderson, and a handful of others (many of whom were already movie critics and documentarians) put the focus squarely on working class Britain, a group that had been roundly ignored up to that point. Released in 1960, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stands as a shining example of the British New Wave movement, and is the film that introduced audiences to a 23-year-old actor by the name of Albert Finney.

Arthur Seaton (Finney) spends his weekdays working as a machinist in a dingy Nottingham factory, and his weekends living life to its fullest. Come Saturday, you’ll usually find him getting drunk at the local pub or fishing in a nearby stream with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington). If not, then you can be sure Arthur is out and about with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), a married woman he’s been seeing for some time. The whole situation is a bit dicey; Brenda’s husband, Jack (Bryan Pringle), is a co-worker of Arthur’s, and the two lovers must go to great lengths to ensure that their illicit affair remains a secret.

Then, at a pub one afternoon, fate throws a monkey wrench into the works when Arthur meets the beautiful Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), with whom he falls instantly in love. As if that’s not enough, Brenda drops a bombshell that threatens to tear his world apart: she’s pregnant with Arthur’s child! Hoping to avoid a scandal, Brenda decides abortion is her best option, and Arthur promises to help her out any way he can. But will his continued involvement with Brenda destroy any future he might have with Doreen?

Like many films of the British New Wave, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning boasts an almost documentary-like feel; director Karel Reisz shot the majority of the movie in and around Nottingham (the very first scene is set inside the factory where Arthur works, while the opening credits play over images of him riding his bike through the streets). By relying on actual locations as opposed to a studio soundstage, Reisz infused the film with a gritty realism that, from start to finish, enhanced its blue-collar mentality.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also made Albert Finney a star, and the actor did his part to make the role of Arthur Seaton a memorable one. “What I’m out for is a good time” Arthur says during the opening narration, and this is how he approaches life throughout the entire film. He drinks heavily, stands up to the older generation (his nosy neighbor Mrs. Bull, played by Edna Morris, is a regular target of his aggression), and has no qualms about being seen in public with a married woman (Arthur genuinely cares for Brenda, yet we get the feeling it’s the dangerous nature of their relationship that really appeals to him). Though he’s clearly an angry young man, we nonetheless identify with Arthur’s desire to break free of the monotony of his working-class existence, and Finney’s lively, heartfelt performance is the reason why.

Upon its release, the BBFC saddled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with an “X” rating, due mostly to the film’s unapologetic depiction of abortion and extramarital sex. The movie-going public, however, saw things differently; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a box-office hit, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that, like their compatriots in France, UK audiences were ready for a change.

And thanks to Karel Reisz and his pals, a change is exactly what they got.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

#2,352. The Working Girls (1974)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Sarah Kennedy, Laurie Rose, Mark Thomas

Tagline: "They'll do anything for money!"

Trivia: Cassandra Peterson plays a stripper in this film, years before being cast as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

One look at the poster for writer/director Stephanie Rothman’s The Working Girls and you know what you’re getting, right? That’s what I thought, anyway. But the truth of the matter is this 1974 film isn’t jam-packed with nudity and sex, as its promotional material suggests. In fact, aside from a risqué moment or two, it isn’t a sex comedy at all.

So what is it then? Damned if I know. I just finished watching The Working Girls and I’m still trying to figure it out!

The Working Girls follows the exploits of three roommates living in an apartment in Los Angeles. Honey (Sarah Kennedy) recently arrived in town and is desperately looking for a job. Jill (Lynne Guthrie) was lucky enough to find employment working as a waitress at a strip club, a position that will open more doors for her than she ever thought possible. Denise (Laurie Rose), who manages the building where the three of them live, is an artist by trade, painting signs for various customers. Denise’s relationship with Mike (Ken Del Conte), a street guitarist Honey brought home, seems to be going well, but Mike is hiding a dangerous secret, one that could get him and his three new friends in hot water with some very bad people.

At least the tagline for The Working Girls is correct: these ladies will do anything for money! At one point, Honey is contracted by an elderly woman (Mary Beth Hughes) to kill her husband; and later on, she’s hired by Vernon (Solomon Sturges), a millionaire, to be his constant companion (in a non-sexual way). As for Jill, she goes from being a waitress at the strip club to one of its headline performers (Jill’s strip routine makes her the only member of the main cast to appear in the nude). As if this promotion wasn’t enough, Jill is eventually asked to run the place when the club’s owner Sidney (Eugene Elman) decides to take a vacation!

The Working Girls has its share of romance as well; aside from Denise’s and Mike’s relationship, Jill meets, then falls in love with, a mobster named Nick (Mark Thomas).In addition, actress Cassandra Peterson, years away from becoming her alter ego, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, makes an early screen appearance as Katya, the stripper who teaches Jill the ropes. But despite its plethora of characters and a handful of engaging situations, The Working Girls is a movie that, for the most part, just kind of coasts from scene to scene. It’s not particularly funny, and rarely catches our attention long enough to leave an impression.