Thursday, March 23, 2017

#2,325. Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Directed By: Bruce Kessler

Starring: Andrew Prine, Brenda Scott, George Paulsin

Tag line: "The Evil Spirit Must Choose Evil!"

Trivia: Some of the female extras in the black mass sequence were actual practicing witches

My name is Simon. I live in a storm drain. When it rains, most people go in. But I go out. Some people call me a warlock, but I really am one of the few true magicians”.

This is our introduction to Simon (Andrew Prine), a most unique individual. See, Simon claims to be an honest-to-goodness magician, with power over good and evil. While out and about one evening he’s picked up by the cops and arrested for vagrancy, and while in jail meets fellow prisoner Turk (George Paulsin), a young man who will, over time, become Simon’s closest friend. Shortly after the two are releasedl, Turk introduces Simon to Hercules (Gerald York), a well-respected socialite; and Linda (Brenda Scott), the pretty daughter of the city’s District Attorney (Norman Burton).

At one of Hercules’ patented soirees, Simon wows the crowd with a series of parlor tricks. But when Colin (Angus Duncan) stiffs him by writing a bad check, Simon demonstrates to a skeptical Hercules just how deep his powers run, putting a curse on Colin that takes effect rather quickly. The truth of the matter is that Simon really does control the dark forces, and believes himself a God. To leave his earthly existence behind, Simon has been trying (for several lifetimes, according to him) to open a portal through which he will cross into another realm, taking his place among the immortals. 

Alas, the law and some corrupt politicians, including Linda’s father, are conspiring to put Simon in jail for good. Bringing these powerful people to their knees would be a challenge for any other man. But for Simon, it should be a piece of cake!

Andrew Prine is one of those actors you may not know by name, but have probably seen in a number of movies and TV shows (I thought he was strong in 1974's The Centerfold Girls, and he’s appeared on television in everything from Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color to Freddy’s Nightmares). As the lead in Simon, King of the Witches, he shows us just how talented he truly is, creating a character who is so utterly fascinating that, much like his buddy Turk, we want to know more about him. Prine is both funny and charming in the party sequence, where Simon reads tarot cards and tries to sell some of his trinkets, but it’s the various scenes in which he is performing hexes and spells that the actor really struts his stuff; the curse he puts on Colin is incredibly potent, as is the love spell he casts for Turk, who longs to romance a married woman. Best of all, though, is a later scene in which Simon and Turk visit a witches coven, where the Queen (Ultra Violet) is in the midst of conducting a ceremony (Simon thinks the whole thing is nonsense, and his reaction to it all leads to one of the film’s funnier moments).

The script was written by Robert Phippeny, who was himself a practicing Warlock, and his insight into this strange and mystical world helped the movie immeasurably. That said, I would categorize Simon, King of the Witches as “horror light” (in an interview Prine himself said neither he nor director Bruce Kessler set out to make a horror film). There are moments that definitely cross the line into the macabre; after each incantation, Simon is hounded by a malevolent spirit in the form of a floating orb, and there’s a freaky psychedelic sequence towards the end that looks as if it was lifted straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Simon, King of the Witches is not the kind of movie that will scare the pants off of you. Instead, it’s a clever, engaging, and sometimes hilarious motion picture about the black arts, and I for one enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#2,324. Something's Gonna Live (2010)

Directed By: Daniel Raim

Starring: Robert F. Boyle, Henry Bumstead, Conrad L. Hall

Tag line: "Conversations with Six Great Hollywood Cinema Artists"

Trivia: This movie premiered in August 2010 at the Cinema Village in New York City

A series of shorter interviews pieced together to make a feature-length film, director Daniel Raim’s Something’s Gonna Live is a love letter to classic Hollywood, reuniting six artists who, during their decades-long collaborations within the studio system, helped turn out some of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

It was in 1997 that Daniel Raim first met Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest, Cape Fear, Fiddler on the Roof), a former Hollywood Art Director / Production Designer who, at that time, was teaching a class at the AFI Conservatory. Over the course of the next several years, Raim and his documentary crew followed Boyle around, tagging along as he toured the Paramount Studio lot with fellow Art Directors Albert Nozaki (The Ten Commandments, 1953’s War of the Worlds) and Henry Bumstead (Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting). All three were hired by Paramount in the early ‘30s, and spent decades working side-by-side (Nozaki, a Japanese-American, was sent to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and for years lived in the Midwest, only to return to Paramount and his old buddies once the war ended).

In addition, Something’s Gonna Live joined Boyle and Storyboard Artist Harold Michelson (Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, The Graduate) as they paid a visit to the California locations where Alfred Hitchcock shot his classic horror film The Birds (Boyle handled that movie’s Production Design, while Michelson drew hundreds of storyboards for Hitchcock). In the remaining two segments, Boyle shoots the breeze with a pair of noted cinematographers: Haskell Wexler (In the Heat of the Night, Medium Cool) and Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, Road to Perdition). Boyle and Hall even attend a screening of 1967’s In Cold Blood, on which they collaborated.

With plenty of stories flying around, not to mention the odd movie clip thrown in from time to time, Something’s Gonna Live pays tribute to the Hollywood of yesteryear, which each of its six featured artists refer to as the “good old days”, before computers took special effects to a whole new level. That’s not to say these men are against the modern methods of filmmaking; Boyle and Michelson agree that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved computer graphics (he was always looking for fresh and exciting ways to tell stories). But all of those interviewed also talk of the relationships that developed during their time together, something they feel is missing from Hollywood nowadays, and for them, camaraderie was what it was all about.

Yet what makes Raim’s film so invaluable is the fact it’s a living, breathing history of a bygone era, told by people who were there. All six of these men are no longer with us (Boyle, Nozaki, Bumstead, Michelson and Hall died before this film was released, whereas Haskell Wexler passed on back in 2015), and that alone makes this motion picture one that should be treasured. Whether you love movies or are interested in learning more about the old studio system, Something’s Gonna Live is a documentary you’re sure to enjoy.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

#2,323. The Girl in Room 2A (1974)

Directed By: William Rose

Starring: Daniela Giordano, Angelo Infanti, John Scanlon

Tag line: "A bold look at the bizarre world of abnormal sexual behavior!"

Trivia: Lead Actress Daniela Giordano won the Miss Italy pageant in 1966, and was runner-up in 1967 for Miss Europe

At first glance, you might think The Girl in Room 2A, a 1974 film directed by William Rose, is a typical Italian shocker, a la Bloody Pit of Horror, with scantily-clad beauties being subjected to all forms of torture by a sadistic thug in a red mask. That’s what I thought, anyway, when I sat down to watch this movie. But aside from a few scenes of brutality and a smattering of naked flesh, The Girl in Room 2A is an engaging mystery / thriller, with likable lead characters who do their damnedest to try and figure out why every girl that stays in room 2A ends up dead.

After serving two weeks in a women’s prison on a minor drug charge, Margaret (Daniela Girodano) is set free, and as part of her rehabilitation, case worker Alicia (Rosalba Neri) gets her a room at a local boarding house. The landlady, Mrs. Grant (Giovanna Galletti), lives alone with her son Frank (Angelo Infanti), and both seem anxious to make their new tenant feel right at home. But there’s something about the whole situation that doesn’t sit right with Margaret, and she starts having nightmares about a person in a red mask entering her room and watching her as she sleeps.

It isn’t until Margaret meets Jack (John Scanlon), however, that she begins to believe her life is in great danger. A while back, Jack’s sister stayed in the very room that Margaret now occupies, and while there she supposedly committed suicide. Jack believes his sister would never take her own life, and that she was the victim of foul play. Together, he and Margaret dig into the Grant’s past, eventually discovering they’re part of a strict religious organization run by a man named Drees (Raf Vallone), who preaches that only through physical pain can your sins be cleansed.

And it’s likely that Margaret is the next “sinner” they intend to save!

There is both violence and nudity in The Girl in Room 2A, often occurring in the same scene (those who are kidnapped by Drees’s group are stripped naked, then whipped). But it’s the film’s story that ultimately grabs our attention, thanks in large part to lead actress (and former Miss Italy) Daniela Giordano, who is quite convincing (not to mention very sympathetic) as a distraught young woman trying to get her life back on track. Yet as good as Ms. Girodano is on her own, The Girl in Room 2A is even better when John Scanlon’s Jack enters the picture. He and Giordano have a great chemistry together, and their characters' attempts to delve into the strange happenings at the Grant house make for some very tense moments.

Though more of a mystery than a horror film, The Girl in Room 2A has a lot in common with the Giallo pictures of this time period, and will, on occasion, send a shiver up your spine. In addition, several scenes (mostly towards the end) cross the line into seedier territory. But with its intriguing story and talented cast, The Girl in Room 2A offers audiences a bit more than they’ll find in the average ‘70s exploitation flick.

Friday, March 17, 2017

#2,322. The Devil's Sword (1984)

Directed By: Ratno Timoer

Starring: Barry Prima, Gudi Sintara, Advent Bangun

Tag line: "Sex, Savagery, and Mystical Martial Arts. An Astounding Voyage into the Unknown"

Trivia: In France this film was released as Queen of the Crocodiles

Moments after popping in the DVD for 1984’s The Devil’s Sword and hitting the ‘play’ button, I found myself mesmerized by the colorful, almost psychedelic logo of Rapi Films, the company behind this movie’s production. Struck with a sudden desire to know more about Rapi, I hit ‘pause’, sat down at my laptop, and did a quick Google search. 

Founded in 1968, Rapi is an Indonesian production house that, over the years, has turned out a large number of exploitation and horror titles, a few of which achieved international success (primarily those released in the 1980s). Today, Rapi focuses more on television, but still make the odd feature film from time to time (their Wikipedia page, which may not have been updated in a while, lists 2011’s My Blackberry Girlfriend as their most recent movie).

I can’t remember the last time a company’s logo inspired such curiosity, and it had me chomping at the bit to see what other treasures were hidden inside The Devil’s Sword. As it turns out, there were too many to count!

The warrior hero Mandala (Barry Prima) is sent on a mission to find the fabled Devil’s Sword. He must hurry, though, because four arch-criminals are also looking for it, one of whom, Banyujaga (Advent Bangun), plans to turn the sword over to the insatiable Crocodile Queen (Gudhi Sintara), the ruler of an underground realm who collects husbands on the side (she has about 8 of them). Mandala realizes that if the sword falls into the wrong hands, it could mean the end of the world. But is he strong enough to defeat his enemies, or will Banyujaga and the Crocodile Queen win out in the end?

This is just scratching the surface of what happens over the course of The Devil’s Sword, a wild and raucous sword and sorcery / martial arts mash-up the likes of which I have never seen before. Even by ‘80s fantasy standards, this movie is batshit crazy (there are sequences so incredibly insane that, by comparison, they make 1982’s Conan the Barbarian look like Kramer vs. Kramer). Take, for instance, the film’s main subplot: the Crocodile Queen’s abduction of a groom on his wedding day. He was about to marry a local Princess (Enny Christina), but the Queen ordered Banyujaga to visit the village, stop the ceremony, and retrieve the groom by any means necessary.

Anxious to please his Queen, Banyujaga hops on the nearest rock and rides it across the sky (yes, the rock flies) until he reaches his destination. Naturally, the villagers try to stop him from completing his mission, leading to a major battle in which a good many people lose their heads (literally). Then, just when you think it can’t get any crazier, a half-dozen crocodile men, the Queen’s personal minions, leap out of the dust to help Banyujaga! Combining martial arts and magic with Z-grade special effects, this entire sequence is gloriously bizarre, and sets the stage perfectly for the madness yet to come.

Jam-packed with mythical heroes, evil witches, magical weapons (including one that was obviously inspired by Master of the Flying Guillotine), and even a little sex (like I said, the Crocodile Queen is insatiable), The Devil’s Sword is guaranteed to blow your mind.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

#2,321. Lady Terminator (1989)

Directed By: H. Tjut Djalil

Starring: Barbara Anne Constable, Christopher J. Hart, Claudia Angelique Rademaker

Tag line: "She Mates... Then She Terminates"

Trivia: On video in the U.S., this film was released as Shooting Star

Here’s an awesome bit of ‘80s Indonesian sleaze! A violent, nudity-packed action / fantasy flick that steals entire scenes from 1984’s The Terminator, Lady Terminator is cinematic insanity at its absolute best.

The story begins a hundred years in the past, when the evil Queen of the South Sea ruled her kingdom with an iron vagina; when a lover wasn’t satisfying her, the Queen would unleash a snake that lived inside her love nest, which would castrate the poor guy before he knew what hit him. The Queen met her match, however, when she made love to Elias, who managed to grab the snake before it could strike. In a fit of rage, the Queen vowed that, in 100 years, she would take her revenge on Elias’s great-granddaughter. Shortly after, she disappeared into the sea.

Cut to modern day (otherwise known as the late ‘80s). Anthropology student Tania (Barbara Anne Constable) is writing her thesis on the legend of the Queen of the South Sea, and convinces a ship’s captain to take her to the spot where the Queen vanished all those years ago. Once she gets her scuba gear working, Tania dives to the bottom of the sea, where, instead of uncovering ancient artifacts, she is attacked and possessed by the Queen’s evil spirit.

Picking up where she left off a century ago, the Queen uses Tania’s body to kill three men (by having sex with them), then sets to work trying to locate Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker), a famous rock star and Elias’s only living descendant. The Queen eventually tracks Erica down, but her attempt to kill the unsuspecting girl are thwarted by Max (Christopher J. Hart), an American cop living and working in Indonesia.

Impervious to bullets and even fire, the Queen pursues Erica relentlessly, forcing Max and his police buddies to do whatever is necessary to stay one step ahead of this psychotic sovereign. Should they slow down, even for a second, Erica will surely die.

With gobs of gory violence (including one very disturbing scene involving an eyeball), a rocking ‘80s dance tune (performed by co-star Claudia Angelique Rademaker), and a villainess who kills men by having sex with them, Lady Terminator is a tasty slice of ‘80s cheese that only gets better with age. Sure, the dialogue is outrageous (when the ship’s captain calls her “Lady”, an angry Tania replies “I’m no lady. I’m an anthropologist!”) and the special effects (which consist mostly of green lightning) are lame, but this only adds to the fun of it all.

As for the key performance in the film, Barbara Anne Constable overacts early on when she’s still Tania, but is a total bad-ass once the Queen takes control of her, shooting up everything from a dance club to a police precinct in her single-minded attempt to get Erica (the possessed Tania is merciless as well, executing every wounded cop she comes across during her attack on the police station). In addition to its ultra-violent shootouts, Lady Terminator features some intense car chases, almost all of which end with an explosion.

As its title would suggest, Lady Terminator owes a lot to The Terminator. Much like that film, it’s almost impossible to kill the main baddie (Tania/the Queen is shot about 200 times, but keeps on comin’); and the melee at the precinct kicks off with the Queen driving a car straight through the front door (like Arnold did in the 1984 film). But odds are you won’t mind the many scenes that blatantly rip off James Cameron’s sci-fi / action classic. You’ll be having too much fun with Lady Terminator to even care.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

#2,320. Tony Rome (1967)

Directed By: Gordon Douglas

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Jill St. John, Richard Conte

Tag line: "The action is so fast... it's a wonder Tony Rome stays alive... and single!"

Trivia: The character Tony Rome appeared in three novels by Marvin H. Albert in the early 1960s

I’m a fan of Frank Sinatra’s music (my favorite being “Summer Wind”, probably because it figured so prominently in The Pope of Greenwich Village), but it’s his movies I really enjoy. In fact, taking into account his superb performances in The Man with the Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate and From Here to Eternity, I’d say he was almost as good an actor as he was a singer (I said “almost”). While I wouldn’t rank his turn as the title character in 1967’s Tony Rome among his best (it wouldn’t even make the top five), the movie itself is a slick crime / mystery that keeps you guessing ‘til the very end.

Private investigator (and compulsive gambler) Tony Rome (Sinatra) is hired by his old partner Turpin (Robert J. Wilke) to give a drunken young heiress named Diana Pines (Sue Lyon) a ride home (she was barely conscious when she checked into the hotel where Turpin now works, and both he and the manager are anxious to avoid any scandal). Tony agrees, but soon after dropping her off, the young lady’s father, real estate tycoon Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland) hires Tony to find out what’s bothering his daughter. Tony isn’t on the job for more than a few hours, however, when he’s visited by a couple of thugs, demanding that he return Diane’s diamond pin (which, apparently, went missing while she was drunk). Tony says he doesn’t have it, but the two guys knock him out and ransack his place anyway.

Things get even more interesting when Diane herself shows up at Tony’s houseboat the next morning, asking for her pin; and later that day Kosterman’s second wife (and Diane’s step-mother) Rita (Gena Rowlands) also inquires about her step-daughter’s missing jewelry. Tony’s suspicions that there’s more to this case than a diamond pin are confirmed when he swings by his office and finds Turpin’s dead body lying on the floor! Now a murder suspect, Tony has to keep his old pal police Lt. Dave Santini (Richard Conte) off his back as he tries to figure out who killed Turpin, and how (if at all) his death is linked to the Kosterman’s jewelry woes.

Accompanied by pretty divorcee Ann Archer (Jill St. John), Tony visits some of Miami’s seediest clubs looking for clues. But no matter how many rocks he turns over, he can’t seem to find that one worm he’s looking for.

As I mentioned above, Sinatra’s performance in Tony Rome isn’t one of his strongest; the fire he displayed in earlier films like From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate is missing here. Still, he has an undeniable charisma, and his street-smart attitude convinces us his character is the perfect guy to tackle such a complex case. The supporting cast fares a bit better than its star, especially Jill St. John (as the voluptuous love interest Ann Archer) and Simon Oakland (whose Rudy Kosterman is as naïve as he is powerful). Also good in a brief role is Jeanne Cooper as the alcoholic Lorna, Diane’s real mother; while the always-reliable Richard Conte gives the films lead the one ally he can fully trust.

But what really impressed me was how the movie’s plot twisted and turned in so many directions, pitting Tony against some very unusual characters (including a stripper and her live-in girlfriend) as he attempts to solve a case that gets more perplexing with each passing scene. And thanks to its smart script (written by Richard L. Breen, based on the novel Miami Mayhem by Marvin H. Albert), never once did I find Tony Rome confusing or hard to follow. 

So, while it may not be Frank Sinatra’s best film, Tony Rome definitely ranks up there with Bullitt, Harper, Blow-Up, and In the Heat of the Night as one of the late ‘60s most intriguing crime mysteries.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#2,319. Hitchcock / Truffaut (2016)

Directed By: Kent Jones

Starring: Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, David Fincher

Tag line: "The Greatest Story Hitchcock Ever Told"

Trivia: Kent Jones went over 27 hours of recorded material from the Hitchcok Truffaut interview

Initially published in 1966, Hitchcock / Truffaut was one of the first movie-related books I ever owned (I picked it up when I was in high school), and to this day I still occasionally thumb through its pages. Featuring a series of interviews that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock (Truffaut’s friend Helen Scott acted as translator), the book is an exhaustive examination of Hitchcock’s career, from the silent era through to his later Hollywood films, and is today considered an invaluable resource for filmmakers and fans alike.

Hitchcock / Truffaut, a 2016 documentary directed by Kent Jones, takes us behind-the-scenes of the writing of this great book, with audio clips of the actual interviews and still photographs of the two men seated at a table, picking apart what is arguably the single most impressive body of work in cinematic history.

This alone would be enough to capture the heart of every die-hard movie buff. But by delving into its subject matter even further, inviting modern-day filmmakers to offer their take on Hitchcock’s career while also giving us a brief history of both the men who made this book a reality, Hitchcock / Truffaut also has something for the casual fan, and is the perfect starting point for younger cinephiles who may not be familiar with the Master of Suspense or his filmography.

In addition, director Jones throws in a few tidbits about Truffaut’s early directorial efforts, with clips from such classics as The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, reminding us that, along with penning such an essential book, Francois Truffaut was an extraordinary filmmaker in his own right.

Among the directors who discuss Hitchcock, including how his movies influenced their own work, are such modern-day masters as David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater. But they do more than just praise Hitchcock; they take part in a lengthy analysis of some of the great director’s best-known films, like Vertigo and Psycho. By doing so, Hitchcock / Truffaut proves itself to be more than a companion piece to a classic book; it is also a world-class documentary that takes us beyond the margins, giving us more than we hoped for.