Friday, September 30, 2016

#2,207. 99 Women (1969)

Directed By: Jess Franco

Starring: Maria Schell, Luciana Paluzzi, Mercedes McCambridge

Tag line: "Whisper to your friends you saw it!"

Trivia: Italian cult horror film director Bruno Mattei was hired to shoot 20 minutes of additional hardcore footage, which was then added to a 1974 French x-rated re-release

Now this is more like it!

After being let down by his 1975 flick Women Behind Bars, Jess Franco won me over with 99 Women, a chicks in prison film with a solid cast and a story featuring enough twists and turns to keep you entertained.

Though likely innocent of any crime, Marie (Maria Rohn) is shipped off to a penal colony situated on a remote island, where she is referred to only as “Prisoner #98”. Known as “The Castle of Death”, this women’s-only penitentiary is run by Warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), whose harsh approach to law and order has caused the deaths of several inmates. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that the local Governor (Herbert Lom), who also abuses his power by making the prisoners have sex with him, has warned Diaz to tone it down a little, before the Prison Board is forced to get involved.

Alas, one of the Island’s other new arrivals, Inmate #99 (Elisa Montes), dies her first night there, and as a result psychologist Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell) is sent in to investigate Diaz and her methods. Caroll insists that the prisoners be treated with more respect, but for Marie and Natalie, aka #97 (Luciana Paluzzi), it’s too little too late. With the help of fellow convict Rosalie (Valentina Godoy), Marie and #97 manage to escape, but is there truly a way off this island, or is it only a matter of time before they’re back in their cells?

Neither 99 Women nor Women Behind Bars is heavy in the skin department (most of the nude scenes in 99 Women are shot in extreme close-up, making it difficult to see anything). What sets the two films apart is the way they approach the material; while Women Behind Bars is both complex and boring, 99 Women is always engaging, thanks in large part to its impressive cast. McCambridge is over-the-top and damned entertaining as the fanatical Diaz, while Maria Schell is more subdued but equally as effective as the sympathetic observer trying to make a difference (the animosity that develops between their characters adds yet another layer of drama to what is already a tension-heavy motion picture).

As the lone male in the main cast, Herbert Lom delivers a sleazy as hell performance as the Governor who occasionally has his way with the women prisoners; one scene in particular, where he leers at Marie and #76 (Rosalba Neri) as they get it on with each other, is downright creepy. As for the inmates, they’re also well-portrayed, especially Maria Rohn as Marie, who wins our sympathy the moment we meet her.

In addition, 99 Women offers up some exciting sequences, including a couple of fight scenes and an escape that has its share of heart-pounding moments (like when the escapees find themselves face-to-face with the horny convicts from the men’s prison on the other side of the island). More than a good Jess Franco movie, 99 Women is just plain good, and ranks alongside Count Dracula and Venus in Furs as one the director’s better outings.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

#2,206. Orca (1977)

Directed By: Michael Anderson

Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson

Tag line: "Terror just beneath the surface"

Trivia: Richard Harris performed his own stunts for the movie

The opening ten minutes or so of 1977’s Orca are exceptional, and get the movie off to a great start. Following the credits, we meet the title creatures (two of them, to be exact), who seem to be enjoying each other’s company as they swim along. While this is happening, researcher Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), in full scuba gear, is underwater collecting samples. Suddenly, a great white shark appears, causing her to hide.

Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his fishing boat: Novak (Keenan Wynn), Annie (Bo Derek) and Paul (Peter Hooten); spot the shark’s dorsal fin jutting out of the water, and rush forward to capture it (an aquarium will pay them top dollar for a live shark). Dr. Bedford’s assistant Ken (Robert Carradine), who was waiting in a raft for her to return, warns Captain Nolan (armed with a spear gun) that there’s a diver down below.

As a result, Nolan’s first shot misses, and he screams at Dr. Bedford (now on the raft with Ken) for costing him money. The excitement continues when Ken accidentally falls into the water, causing the shark to swim towards him. Just then, an Orca (aka a Killer Whale) darts in and devours the great white, saving Ken and proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are the most dangerous creature in the sea.

This opening has it all: an introduction to the main characters (human and otherwise), beautiful underwater photography, plenty of action, and some high drama. We’re even given a taste of Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score.

It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to these first 10 minutes. In fact, the remaining 82 minutes of Orca suck.

Impressed by what he saw, Nolan decides to switch things up and capture a killer whale instead. Dr. Bedford warns him that Orcas are unique: they have only one mate for life, and, unlike other aquatic creatures, are protective of their young. Still, Nolan presses on, and during his first encounter with a school of killer whales he inadvertently spears a female (he just missed the male, nicking its fin). What’s more, when he wrestles the enormous whale onto his boat he discovers it’s pregnant! Neither mother nor child survives, and a repentant Nolan drops the carcasses into the sea before sheepishly making his way back to dry land.

Yet the ordeal is far from over. By murdering both its mate and child, Nolan has incited the wrath of a particularly ruthless Killer Whale, which will not rest until it has had its revenge. Nolan initially scoffs at the notion that a whale is now hunting him, and ignores the pleas of both Dr. Bradford and Umilak (Will Sampson), a local Native, to take the threat seriously. But before long, Nolan realizes this whale means business, and decides to meet it, mono-et-mono, on the open sea…

Though listed as a horror film, Orca is more likely to make you chuckle, especially when the whale puts its “plan” into motion. For starters, it drives away all the fish, causing the other fisherman to turn on Nolan and his crew (this Orca has obviously studied human behavior, and knows that hitting a fella in the wallet is the best way to piss him off); and at one point the whale stares down Nolan as he’s standing on a pier. As if all that wasn’t ridiculous enough, this very clever (and amazingly agile) whale even manages to cause a pretty big explosion on dry land (I won’t bother explaining how it does this. I doubt you’d believe me if I did). Yet as bad as these scenes are, they pale in comparison to the final showdown, which is also too absurd for words.

Not even the film’s usually-reliable cast can save it. Richard Harris’ Nolan, with his over-the-top Irish brogue and refusal to accept facts that are as plain as the nose on his face, is annoying as hell; and I have no idea why Will Sampson’s character is even in this movie (in most scenes, his Umilak shows up out of the blue, pontificates a little, then immediately disappears. It isn’t until the end that he gets directly involved, and when the chips are down he’s so incredibly ineffective that it actually made me laugh out loud).

It’s quite possible that, as Dr. Bedford says, killer whales are “without challenge the most powerful animals on the globe”, but based on what I saw in Orca, I’d take a great white shark over them every day of the week!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

#2,205. Nun of That (2009)

Directed By: Richard Griffin

Starring: Sarah Nicklin, Alexandra Cipolla, Shanette Wilson

Tag line: "A blast for you and a blasphemy!"

Trivia: Per the actors and director, the club used as the central location for heaven was freezing cold

I suppose, as a lifelong Catholic, I should be appalled by Richard Griffin’s 2009 film Nun of That. But I’m not. In fact, I loved every minute of this over-the-top, gore-fueled exploitation throwback! 

The Order of the Black Habits, a covert religious organization that converts nuns into assassins, has declared war on organized crime. When one of their own, Sister Envy (Irina Peligrad), is shot dead in a strip club (after killing a dozen or so mobsters), the Order must recruit a new member to take her place, and turns its attention towards Sister Kelly (Sarah Nicklin), whose bad tamper has gotten her into a world of trouble with her current Mother Superior (Scream Queen extraordinaire Debbie Rochon). The only problem is, for her to be properly trained, Sister Kelly has to be sent to Heaven, which is exactly where she goes when fellow nuns Sister Lust (Shanette Wilson), Sister Pride (Alexandra Cipolla), and Sister Gluttony (Ruth Sullivan) surprise her in a dark alley and put a bullet in her chest.

After being introduced to her guardian angel Oscar (Luis Brandon Aponte) as well as Jesus Christ himself (Michael Reed), Sister Kelly begins her training, which includes a lesson in martial arts conducted by Gandhi (John Joseph Gomes) and a speech delivered by Moses (Michael Bilow) about the “loopholes” one might find when studying the Commandments. Now ready for action, Sister Kelly is shipped back to earth with a new name (Sister Wrath) and a mission: to seek out and destroy Momma Rizzo (Rich Tretheway), leader of the local mob. With the help of her compatriots, Sisters Lust, Pride, and Gluttony, Sister Wrath gets down to business, but as she’ll soon discover, Momma Rizzo has a few tricks left up her sleeve, and one very pissed off Jewish hitman named Viper Goldstein (David Lavallee Jr.) on speed-dial. Will Sister Wrath complete her divine task, or will she wind up back in heaven sooner than she thinks?

Nun of That is packed to its breaking point with exploitation goodness, most of which is as funny as it is shocking. The highlights include the opening shootout, in which Sister Envy, after performing a striptease, pulls an Uzi from under her skirt and starts blasting every gangster in sight. Equally as violent is the scene where Sister Kelly, on her way to her new “assignment”, is nearly raped by a trio of punks (George W. Aldrich II, A.J. Paratore and Nathan A. Quattrini), who quickly learn that they picked on the wrong nun. Also fun (and fairly bloody) is a late sequence set at a sisters-only club known as the “Bar Nun”, where the women act more like bikers than brides of Christ. Yet the movie’s most outrageously entertaining moment comes when Sister Kelly first arrives in heaven, at which point Jesus launches into a techno-fueled song and dance routine! I also liked how writer / director Griffin named several characters after cult filmmakers, including gangster Richie Corbucci (Brandon Luis Aponte) and Father O’Bannon (Nolan Kerr).

A low-budget picture, Nun of That does suffer (albeit slightly) from less-than-stellar CG effects (gunshots, blood spatters, etc). On the plus side, though, is the film’s strong cast, which does an exceptional job. Sarah Nicklin makes for a convincing bad-ass, and Shanette Wilson’s Sister Lust delivers some of the movie’s best lines (her “prayer” asking God to send her a man is priceless). Michael Reed (in a dual role as both Jesus and the Devil), Rich Tretheway (in drag, playing Momma Rizzo) and David Lavallee Jr. (as Viper Goldstein) are also excellent. These performances, combined with a steady stream of balls-out action, loads of “WTF” moments, and a cameo by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (as the Pope) helped make Nun of That one of the more enjoyable viewing experiences I’ve had in a while.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#2,204. Mata Hari (1985)

Directed By: Curtis Harrington

Starring: Sylvia Kristel, Christopher Cazenove, Oliver Tobias

Tag line: "A dangerous lover. A treacherous spy. A beautiful seductress"

Trivia: This movie was the final theatrical feature film directed by Curtis Harrington

I continue my trek through the Cannon Films archives with 1985’s Mata Hari, starring Sylvia Kristel as the infamous World War One-era spy / seductress who, during her brief career in espionage, was alleged to have gathered secrets for both the French and German Armies. With Miss Kristel (better known for her roles in the Emmanuelle series) as the lead, it’s no surprise that Mata Hari features lots of nudity and a smattering of softcore sex. Unfortunately, not even a steady stream of naked flesh will be enough to keep you awake through this snooze fest.

An entertainer by trade, Mata Hari, a.k.a. Lady MacLeod (due to her brief marriage to a Dutch military officer) strikes up a friendship with two men she meets in a Paris museum: German Karl von Bayerling (Christopher Casenove) and Frenchman Georges Ladoux (Oliver Tobias). Both will fall in love with the beautiful dancer, but when war breaks out Karl and Ladoux find themselves fighting on opposite sides. Several months later, while traveling by train to Berlin, Mata Hari is accused of murdering a German agent (he was actually killed by an assassin while making love to her) and she's taken into custody. During her interrogation, however, Karl (now a Captain in the army) intercedes on Mata Hari’s behalf, and soon after the two become lovers.

It’s through Karl that Mata Hari meets Fraulein Doktor (Gaye Brown), a psychologist who specializes in espionage. Eventually, Mata Hari, spurred on by Fraulein Doktor, agrees to spy for the Germans. Once back in Paris, however, she has a rendezvous with Ladoux, who convinces her to also report on German activity. Torn between her loyalty to two countries and her love for two soldiers, Mata Hari uses her sexual power over men to learn their secrets, all the while knowing that it won’t be long before one side or the other uncovers the truth about her.

Director Curtis Harrington wastes no time whatsoever in Mata Hari; the opening sequence, a flashback set in Java, features a topless Kristel performing a native dance (which is odd, seeing as all the other dancers are fully clothed), and by the 10 minute mark we witness the first of several sex scenes (the tryst on the Berlin-bound train that landed Mata Hari in hot water). But that’s just a taste of what’s to come. Over the course of Mata Hari, Kristel will sleep with members of both sexes, masturbate in bed (while a peeping tom watches through a keyhole), and attend an orgy, where she gets into a bare-breasted swordfight with a woman who accused the beautiful spy of stealing her man!

The nudity aside, Mata Hari is a stone cold bore, failing as both a historical drama (due in large part to Kristel’s lackluster performance) and a spy thriller (on more than one occasion we lose track of which side Mata Hari is working for at that moment, and those scenes in which she is engaged in espionage aren’t the least bit exciting). Even a brief battle sequence, where Mata Hari is being escorted behind enemy lines, doesn’t amount to very much.

So, if the prospect of seeing Sylvia Kristel in her birthday suit is all you require, then Mata Hari won’t disappoint. But if you need something more than that, I’d recommend checking out 1931’s Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. It’s not nearly as erotic as this film, and to be fair is far from Garbo’s best work, but it’s still better than this mess.

Monday, September 26, 2016

#2,203. Breakin' (1984)

Directed By: Joel Silberg

Starring: Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers

Tag line: "Push it to Pop it! Rock it to Lock it! Break it to Make it!"

Trivia: Though uncredited, Jean Claude Van Damme made his first big-screen appearance in this film (as an onlooker at a dance rally)

After watching the excellent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, I was anxious to once again check out some of that studio’s more popular offerings, many of which I haven’t seen in years. Directed by Joel Silberg, 1984’s Breakin' was one of Cannon’s most successful releases (its 1st week, Breakin’ actually outgrossed John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, which debuted at the same time), and, what’s more, supposedly launched the decade’s breakdancing craze. I remembered liking this film when I first saw it, but is it actually a good movie, or simply good by Cannon’s standards?

Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) loves to dance, but her dreams of becoming a famous jazz dancer are all but dashed when she refuses the advances of her slimy instructor, Franco (Ben Lokey). Fortunately, her friend Adam (Phineas Newborn III) had recently introduced Kelly to two street dancers: Ozone (Adolfo 'Shabba Doo' Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael 'Boogaloo Shrimp' Chambers). Despite having no experience as a breakdancer, Kelly decides she wants to dedicate her life to learning these amazing moves, and with the help of Ozone and Turbo she’s soon catching on. She even manages to impress her agent, James (Christopher McDonald, in an early screen role), who thinks he can get Kelly, Ozone and Turbo entered in an upcoming dance competition. But will her new partners agree to perform in front of judges, especially ones who have no idea what street dancing is all about?

Even in the ‘80s, the basic premise of Breakin’ was nothing new: its story of talented kids beating the odds to make it big had been done before (1980’s Fame leaps immediately to mind). In addition, the film fails to dot all its “I”s and cross all its “T”s (we’re led to believe early on that Kelly’s agent James is infatuated with her, but neither this nor Ozone’s perceived fear of competition are ever fully explored). What Breakin’ does have, though, is lots of dancing, some of which is extraordinary. The two dance-offs where Ozone and Turbo face off against Electro Shock (Bruno “Pop & Taco” Falcon, Timothy “Poppin’ Pete” Solomon, and Ana “Lollipop” Sanchez) are entertaining as hell, but the film’s best number starts innocently enough, with Turbo sweeping the sidewalk with a broom (a sequence so packed with energy that I had to watch it twice).

Throw in the big-screen debut of Ice-T (as.. you guessed it… a rapper at a dance club), and you have an ‘80s movie that, while definitely dated, is still a hell of a lot of fun

Sunday, September 25, 2016

#2,202. All Monsters Attack (1969)

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Machiko Naka, Tomonori Yazaki

Line from the film: "Godzilla says that I should learn to fight my own battles"

Trivia: Director Ishirô Honda intended the movie to have a somber ending, but was forced to add a more cheerful final sequence

You would think that a Godzilla / Kaiju movie directed by the great Ishirô Honda would be reason to celebrate. Alas, you would be wrong. Instead of the giant monster goodness we’ve come to expect from Toho studios, which, by 1969, had been producing these films for 15 years (starting with 1954’s Gojira), we get, with All Monsters Attack, a morality lesson geared towards young kids.

Now, that alone isn’t enough to sink the picture; Godzilla has always been popular with the kiddies, so building a story around a youngster who turns to giant monsters to solve his problems must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But combine this with the fact that it also borrows most of its fight scenes from earlier films, and you have a movie sure to disappoint even the series’ most die-hard fans.

Left alone most afternoons while his parents are off working, 10-year-old Ichirô (Tomonori Yazaki) passes the time by imagining himself on Monster Island, where he comes face to face with his all-time favorite creature, Godzilla, while also forming a strong friendship with Godzilla’s son Minira (played by Little Man Machen, with the voice provided by Midori Uchiyama). It seems that Ichirô and Minira have the same problem: neither one is particularly good at standing up to bullies. But Ichirô will have a chance to prove his bravery when a pair of bank robbers (Sachio Sakai and Kazuo Suzuki), on the run from the law, kidnap the boy out of fear that he may turn them in (walking through an abandoned building, Ichirô found a driver’s license belonging to one of the crooks, and put it in his pocket). Can the lessons he learned on Monster Island actually help Ichirô in the real world, giving him the strength to take on the lawbreaking duo, or will the thieves get away scot-free?

From the moment its annoying theme song began (“Kaiju Machi”, sung by its young star Tomonori Yazaki), I had a bad feeling about All Monsters Attack, and it didn’t improve much once the film got rolling. My first issue was how the movie handled its monster scenes; unlike most Kaiju flicks, All Monsters Attack takes place in a world where giant monsters are imaginary (Ichirô only encounters them in his dreams). Also, I wasn’t a big fan of Minira, the pint-sized Godzilla offspring who befriends the lead character (the scenes with Minira and Godzilla, as well as Minira’s big fight with the cat-faced Gabara, were ridiculously cloying). As for the giant monster battles, they’re entertaining even if they aren’t new (footage was lifted from 1966’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and ‘67s King Kong Escapes, among others).

The basic lesson of standing up for yourself is timeless (Ichirô is bullied by kids at school, a problem that’s just as prevalent today), and the Monster Island sequences are, for the most part, fun to watch (the exceptions being when Minira joins the fracas). But even if modern youngsters do get a kick out of All Monsters Attack, its general silliness will surely have their parents rolling their eyes through much of the movie.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

#2,201. Creepshow 2 (1987)

Directed By: Michael Gornick

Starring: George Kennedy, Lois Chiles, Domenick John

Tag line: "Good to the last gasp!"

Trivia: One of the segments dropped from this film eventually appeared in 1990's Tales From the Darkside: The Movie)

Like the original Creepshow, Creepshow 2 features the combined talents of two horror titans, George Romero and Stephen King (only this time, instead of directing, Romero’s involvement was limited to writing the screenplay. King provided the original stories, and Michael Gornick was in the director’s chair). And while this latter entry isn’t quite the classic the first film was, it offers a few tense moments that, at the very least, keep things interesting.

With three stories this time instead of five (two were dropped for budgetary reasons, one of which, Cat From Hell, turned up in 1990’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), Creepshow 2 kicks things off with Old Chief Woodn’head, in which kindly shopkeeper Ray Spruce (George Kennedy) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Lamour) are robbed at gunpoint by Sam Whitemoon (Holt McCallanny) and his pals Andy (Don Harvey) and “Fatstuff” (David Holbrook). Sam is a Native American who’s grown weary of living in his dusty, dying western town, and is headed to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a movie star. The original plan was to load up on food and take all the money Ray and Martha had in the cash register, but when a tragic accident occurs, it awakens a creature that had been dormant for years, one that won’t quit until it’s had its revenge on the three would-be crooks.

Next up is The Raft, about a group of friends: Deke (Paul Satterfield), Randy (Daniel Beer), Rachel (Page Hannah), and Laverne (Jeremy Green), who, for kicks, drive to a remote lake and go for a swim. Seeing as its autumn, the water is damn cold, but the real problem arises when the four make their way out to a wooden raft, which is floating in the middle of the lake. It’s then that Randy notices what looks to be an oil slick, which is skimming the water’s surface and heading directly towards them. Only it isn’t oil; in fact, whatever it is, it’s very much alive. And what’s more, it’s hungry!

The final tale, The Hitch-Hiker, introduces us to Annie (Lois Chiles), who, following an evening of adultery with a handsome gigolo (David Beecroft), heads home to her rich husband, fearful that, if she arrives too late, he’ll begin asking questions. As it turns out, though, thinking up an alibi will be the least of Annie’s worries; after dropping her cigarette in the front seat of her car, Annie loses control and accidentally runs over a hitch-hiker (Tom Wright), killing him instantly. In a panic, she drives off just before several other motorists (including a truck driver played by Stephen King himself) arrive on the scene. Fearful that her conscience won’t allow her to forget this terrible ordeal, Annie soon discovers that fate has a way of catching up with you, resulting in a night of terror she won’t soon forget.

Tying the three segments together is an animated framing story, narrated by the “Creep” (voiced by Joe Silver), in which a young boy (Domenick John), while riding his bike back from the post office, is harassed by a gang of bullies, who learn, far too late, that it isn’t wise to pick on someone much smaller, and a lot smarter, than yourself.

I did enjoy, to varying degrees, all three of the main sequences in Creepshow 2. While not particularly frightening, Chief Woodn’head featured some damn fine kill scenes, as well a handful of strong actors (Kennedy and Lamour are predictably good, but it’s Holt McCallanny as the very pissed off Sam Whitemoon who steals the show). Despite some mediocre performances, The Raft did manage to turn the terror dial up a click or two, thanks in large part to its very mysterious “monster”. And like any decent anthology, Creepshow 2 saved the best for last: from the moment Annie runs over that poor guy trying to hitch a ride, The Hitch-Hiker kicks it into high gear, with a few jarring jump scares and some impressive gore (even though Tom Savini was on-hand, playing the “live” version of the Creep, the effects were instead handled by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, among others). The film’s lone weakness is its framing story, which, with its sub-par animation and less-than-stellar plotline, never really amounts to much.

1982's Creepshow is my all-time favorite horror anthology, and I’m happy to report that, even though it’s a step down from the awesomeness of the original, Creepshow 2 has its charms as well.