Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#2,154. The Deadly Spawn (1983)

Directed By: Douglas McKeown

Starring: Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter

Tag line: "They're here and they're hungry"

Trivia: Gene Simmons of the band 'KISS' currently owns the prop of a severed head that appears in the movie

If there was a Hall of Fame for micro-budget monster movies, 1983’s The Deadly Spawn would be one of its first inductees. A fast-paced, gore-fueled sci-fi / horror flick about carnivorous creatures from outer space, this film is fun with a capital “F”.

It all begins one night when a meteor comes crashing down to earth. Two campers (Andrew Michaels and John Arndt), who witnessed the event, decide to investigate, only to be attacked and killed by a man-eating, worm-like creature with enormous teeth. From there, this otherworldly monster makes its way to a nearby home, where it crawls into its basement through an open window. The next morning, the owners of the house, Sam (James Brewster) and Barb (Elissa Neil), rise early, and quickly become the alien’s newest victims.

The rest of the house’s occupants, which includes the couple’s two sons Pete (Tom DeFranco) and Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), as well as Aunt Millie (Ethel Michelson) and Uncle Herb (John Schmerling), who are visiting for a few days, wake up later and assume Sam and Barb got an early start on their planned day trip. It isn’t until young Charles goes down in the basement that the truth is discovered. What’s more, the creature spawned during the night, resulting in hundreds of smaller worms that are every bit as hungry as their “mother”!

While Charles, who also happens to be a fan of monster movies, continues to search the basement for clues, life goes on as usual upstairs. Pete, a college student, invites his classmates Ellen (Jean Tafler), Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), and Kathy (Karen Tighe) over for a study date, while Aunt Millie heads to her mother Bunny’s (Judith Mayes) house to help her prepare for a luncheon. It won’t be long, though, before each of them encounters the new “babies”, which seem to be multiplying by the hour. The question is: can they be stopped?

The Deadly Spawn moves along at a brisk pace (its hour and a half runtime flies by), and the performances are better than what you’d find in most low-budget horror movies (the scenes with Pete and his classmates are especially good). Best of all, though, are the special effects, which were overseen by John Dods. The creature, with its gaping mouth and hundreds of teeth, reminded me of those monsters you’d find in ‘50s sci-fi films, while the “baby” aliens took on several forms (they start as wiggling little worms, and grow from there). In addition, there were several very convincing gore scenes. When Charles is in the basement, he spots his mother’s severed head, slowly being devoured by the baby aliens; and later on, Bunny’s luncheon is interrupted by dozens of these otherworldly tykes, one of which attaches itself to her head!

With all of its elements coming together so wonderfully, The Deadly Spawn stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished with a little bit of money and a whole lot of imagination

Monday, July 25, 2016

#2,153. Satan's Sadists (1969)

Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: Russ Tamblyn, Scott Brady, John 'Bud' Cardos

Tag line: "MOTORCYCLE Maniacs on Wheels -- BREEZY RIDERS Roaring to HELL!"

Trivia: This film was shot at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, CA, at the same time that Charles Manson and his "family" were living there

Any gang that names itself after the Prince of Darkness has quite a reputation to live up to, and in this film’s very first scene we meet a group of bikers who appear to be up to the challenge. While out riding, the gang comes across a couple making out in the woods. Grabbing hold of the guy, they force him to watch as several of their number rape his date. Soon after, the couple, now unconscious (or perhaps dead), is placed in the front seat of their car. Booze is poured over their lips (to give the impression they’ve been drinking), and the car is then pushed over a cliff, breaking apart on the rocks below (if the man and women weren’t already dead, they sure are now).

And with that, Al Adamson’s 1969 biker flick Satan’s Sadists is off and running!

With Anchor (Russ Tamblyn) as their leader, the Satans, which also includes Firewater (John Cardos), Muscle (William Bonner), Romeo (Bobby Clark), Acid (Greydon Clark), Willie (Robert Dix), and Anchor’s main squeeze Gina (Regina Carrol), wreak havoc on the highways of the American Southwest, terrorizing any innocent people they meet along the way. Stopping at a roadside diner, the Satans harass a pretty waitress named Tracy (Jackie Taylor), and then turn their attentions towards Nora (Evelyn Frank), the middle-aged wife of Charlie Baldwin (Scott Brady), a cop on a much-needed vacation. To keep the gang at bay, Charlie pulls a gun, but is quickly subdued by Firewater. Another patron, former Marine Johnny (Gary Kent),is knocked cold when he tries to intervene, at which point Anchor leads the Baldwins, as well as Lew (Kent Taylor), who owns the restaurant, outside for a little “fun”, leaving Muscle and Romeo behind to keep an eye on Johnny and Tracy.

Realizing their lives are in danger, a now-conscious Johnny gets the jump on Muscle and Romeo, then, along with Tracy, sneaks out of the restaurant. They then hop into Tracy’s dune buggy and drive away as fast as they can, causing the remaining Satans to give chase. When the dune buggy breaks down in the middle of the desert, Johnny and Tracy head into the nearby hills, in the hopes the rocky terrain will prevent the gang from following on their bikes. Thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse, with Johnny and Tracy doing whatever is necessary to avoid the Satans, who have vowed to keep up the search until they’re found. But with Anchor growing more sadistic by the minute, there’s a good chance the Satans will self-destruct before they can track down their prey.

Filled to its breaking point with violence, Satan’s Sadists is a disturbing, yet ultimately engaging mix of the biker and horror genres, featuring a handful of characters you love to hate. Chief among them is Russ Tamblyn’s Anchor, who, in the early scenes, hangs in the background, quietly watching the other members of his gang while at the same time ignoring Gina, who is obviously in love with him. That all changes the moment Anchor discovers that Charlie Baldwin is a cop. In what is a truly surreal moment, Anchor (holding a gun) chastises the career policeman (and, indeed, all cops) for harassing members of the “Love Generation”, college kids and hippies whose only crime is “growing their hair long, smoking a little grass and getting high” and “writing poetry in the sand”. This dramatic speech is then followed by what might be the film’s most troubling bit of violence, and from then on, Anchor is completely unhinged.

Both Firewater and Gina try talking sense to Anchor, telling him to give up the chase for Charlie and Tracy, but he won’t listen, resulting in even more scenes of shocking brutality. A former Oscar nominee (for 1957’s Peyton Place), Tamblyn is perhaps best known for his performance as Riff in the 1961 award-winning film adaptation of West Side Story, as well as appearances in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, How the West Was Won, and The Haunting. While I wouldn’t rate his turn as Anchor in Satan’s Sadists as one of his all-time best, Tamblyn is nonetheless chilling in the part, providing the movie with what proves to be a very menacing antagonist.

I haven’t yet seen all of Al Adamson’s films, but of the ones I have watched (including Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Brain of Blood, and Cinderella 2000), Satan’s Sadists is far and away the finest of the bunch. As scandalous as it is entertaining, Satan’s Sadists ranks right up there with Easy Rider, The Wild Angels, and Hells Angels on Wheels as one of the best biker movies of the 1960s.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

#2,152. Brave (2012)

Directed By: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson

Tag line: "Change your fate"

Trivia: This is the first Pixar film set entirely in the historic past

From Snow White to Mulan, Disney’s animation department has turned out its share of well-realized female characters. With 2012’s Brave, the gang at Pixar threw their hat into the Princess ring with a lively, energetic red-head named Merida, and, while the movie surrounding her isn’t one of the studio’s best, watching this feisty Scot do her thing is reason enough to see it.

The setting is Scotland, in Medieval times. Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), daughter of Lord Fergus (Billy Connolly) and his wife Elinor (Emma Thompson), is about to learn the identity of her future husband; as tradition dictates, the eldest son of each clan will compete against one another in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. But even as the various clans assemble outside, the young girl announces she has no desire to be tied down, and demands that she be allowed to choose her own path through life. Elinor, who has been trying her best to turn Merida into a proper young woman, will have none of it, and remains as determined as ever to end her daughter’s tomboy ways.

Following a quarrel between the two, Merida angrily rides off into the woods, where, as fate would have it, she meets a witch (Julie Walters) claiming to possess special powers. Merida wants nothing more than to alter her fate, so the witch hands her an enchanted piece of cake, which she claims will do just that. But, instead of altering Elinor’s strict adherence to tradition, the cake transforms her into a huge black bear! Now, Merida must race against time to change her mother back before the spell becomes permanent.

Whereas most Pixar movies feature original, highly imaginative plotlines, Brave comes across as ordinary (especially in the film’s second half, which, while exciting at times, feels like your standard, run-of-the-mill adventure yarn). And even though I enjoyed Billy Connolly’s take on Fergus, most of the remaining male characters (i.e. - the clan leaders and their sons) weren’t particularly interesting (though kids might get a kick out of Merida’s ornery younger brothers, a set of triplets who also eat the cake and become bear cubs).

But what saves the movie from drifting into mediocrity is the character of Merida, a headstrong Scottish Princess who thumbs her nose at tradition to do as she pleases. In what is easily my favorite scene, the three suitors are competing against each other in an archery contest when Merida, ignoring her mother’s pleas, grabs her bow, rushes onto the field, and announces, quite defiantly, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand” (see if you can guess who wins). While her temper does occasionally get the better of her (she tears an important family tapestry during an argument with Elinor), Merida remains the most appealing individual in Brave, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother gives the film all the heart it needs.

There are other aspects of Brave that work quite well, including its depiction of ancient Scotland (the animation is, start to finish, beautiful) and its score (I’m a sucker for Celtic music, which is featured throughout the film). Yet it’s Brave’s lead character that stands tallest. If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be exactly like Merida.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

#2,151. Picture Snatcher (1933)

Directed By: Lloyd Bacon

Starring: James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Patricia Ellis

Tag line: "His camera takes 'em from love nests to Page One before they can bat an eye---or put on a negligee!"

Trivia: The role of Allison was designed as a comeback part for Alice White

Here’s a nifty little pre-code gem for you: a 1933 comedy / drama starring James Cagney as a former mobster turned newspaper photographer, who discovers his new career is as shady and dangerous as his old one.

Gangland leader Danny Kean (Cagney) has just been released from Sing Sing, but instead of continuing his life of crime, he tells his cronies, including second-in-command jerry “The Mug” (Ralf Harolde) that he’s going legit. From there, he contacts newspaper editor J.R. McLean (Ralph Bellamy), who offered to give Danny a job once he got out of prison. Despite his lack of experience, Danny is hired to be a photographer for the Graphic News, a tabloid publication that specializes in gossip and controversy. 

It isn’t long before Danny becomes a valued member of the Graphic News team, and even though he has to occasionally dodge the advances of flirtatious co-worker Allison (Alice White), who happens to be McLean’s main squeeze, Danny is happy to finally put his criminal past behind him. Still, his job requires him to “stretch” the law from time to time, which puts him at odds with the cops, notably Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert Emmett O’Conner), the father of his steady girlfriend, journalism student Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis). Can Danny win over Pat’s domineering father, or will the love of his life slip through his fingers?

As directed by Lloyd Bacon, Picture Snatcher is a thrill-a-minute, a fast-paced motion picture that contains one pulse-pounding sequence after another. Danny’s first assignment for the Graphic News pits him against a heavily-armed fireman (G. Pat Collins) who, the night before, responded to a blaze in his own apartment, where he found the charred remains of his wife and her lover! Angry and embarrassed, this fireman has been taking potshots at all reporters who’ve come knocking. Thinking on his feet, Danny not only gets the picture, but sees it plastered all over the front page in the next day’s edition! Another sequence has Danny sneaking a camera in to a death row execution, taking an illegal snapshot of a female prisoner the moment she’s electrocuted (this was inspired by a real-life 1928 incident in Chicago, where a reporter, the camera tied to his ankle, photographed murderess Ruth Snyder while she was strapped to the chair). From there, Picture Snatcher features fistfights, car chases, shoot-outs, and, of course, James Cagney, who is himself a formidable force of nature in this film.

The Public Enemy may have made James Cagney a star, but it was roles like Danny in Picture Snatcher that kept him on top, taking his tough-guy persona and peppering it with a splash of comedy. Rattling off dialogue at a rapid-fire pace, Cagney continually makes us laugh, whether he’s duping the cuckolded fireman (telling him he’s an insurance adjuster come to inspect the damages) or putting the frisky Allison in her place (like Mae Clarke before her, poor Alice White gets knocked around a little). Setting aside his nice guy image, Bellamy also shines as the alcoholic editor who takes a chance on Danny (a late scene where a drunken McLean walks in on Danny and Allison is a definite highlight).

Throw in a few loose women (Alice White is especially alluring) and some not-too-subtle sexual innuendo, and you have a rollicking motion picture that thumbed its nose at the censors while also giving audiences of the day exactly what they wanted.

Friday, July 22, 2016

#2,150. Will Penny (1967)

Directed By: Tom Gries

Starring: Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence

Tag line: "The Brute in Everyman Was Also in Him - And the Love and the Violence"

Trivia: First credited role in a theatrical film for Lee Majors.

In movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and El-Cid, Charlton Heston played larger-than-life characters whose courage and strength inspired those around them. In Will Penny, a 1967 western written and directed by Tom Gries, he portrays a different sort of character altogether, a simple cowboy who has spent his entire life in the saddle, and doesn’t know how to live any other way.

Having just finished a cattle run for boss Anse Howard (G.D. Spradlin), 50-year-old cowhand Will Penny (Heston) finds himself in need of a job. Tagging along with fellow cowboys Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), Will sets off in search of work, hoping to secure a position before the cold weather sets in. Along the way, the trio gets into an altercation with a preacher named Quint (Donald Pleasance), who is traveling with his adult sons Rafe (Brice Dern), Romulus (Matt Clark) and Rufus (Gene Rutherford). During the melee, Will shoots Rufus dead, and a grief-stricken Quint vows to one day take his revenge on the aging cowboy.

Saying goodbye to Blue and Dutchy, Will pays a visit to the Flat Iron Ranch, and is hired by the foreman (Ben Johnson) to be one of the company’s new line riders, keeping an eye on a remote section of the ranch during the upcoming winter. But when he arrives at his new cabin, Will finds a woman named Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett), who, along with her son Horace (Jon Gries), has already moved in. Abandoned by their guide, who was hired by Catherine’s husband to lead them westward, the two have nowhere else to go.

Instead of kicking them out immediately, Will allows them to stay while he’s out riding the line. Unfortunately, during his travels, Will once again encounters Quint and his sons, who beat him up and leave him for dead. Somehow making his way back to the cabin, Will is cared for by Catherine, who treats his wounds and nurses him back to health. As thanks, Will lets her and Horace stay for the winter, during which he experiences something he never has before: family life. Over time, Will and Catherine develop feelings for one another, but does he have it in him to settle down, or is it too late?

What sets Will Penny apart from most screen westerns is the realistic way it depicts the life of a cowboy. Unlike most western heroes, Will Penny is not a sheriff or even a gunslinger; he’s a hired hand, and like the rest of us worries when he’s out of work. Even more revealing are the scenes in which Will interacts with Catherine and Horace. Accustomed to being alone, Will is suddenly living with two other people, and it’s a difficult adjustment for him. Even the simple things most of us take for granted are a challenge; In one of the film’s more poignant scenes, Catherine tries to teach Will a Christmas song, so that he can join in the next time she and Horace are singing (to her amazement, he doesn’t know a single carol). Over time, he and Catherine develop feelings for one another, which leads to even more complications (Will has a hard enough time providing for himself, let alone a small family). Though excellent throughout the entire film, Heston is particularly superb in these scenes, capturing the shyness and uncertainly of a man out of his element who believes he’s too old to change his ways.

There are a handful of action scenes scattered throughout Will Penny, not the least of which is its exciting finale. But despite the occasional thrill, the movie is more a character study than it is a traditional western, and thanks to the fine work of its’s star (with an assist from an intelligent, realistic script), it’s a memorable one at that.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

#2,149. Lady in White (1988)

Directed By: Frank LaLoggia

Starring: Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco

Tag line: "The year is 1962. The place is Willowpoint Falls. Nobody talks about what happened in the school cloakroom 10 years ago. Now, in the dead of night, Frankie Scarlatti is going to find out why"

Trivia: Lukas Haas and Katherine Helmond were both nominated for a Saturn Award in 1990

When I think of horror films that are geared towards kids, the ones that usually leap to mind are The Monster Squad, The Gate, Gremlins, and even Poltergeist. Going forward, I’ll be adding Lady in White to that list as well. A 1988 ghost tale written and directed by Frank LaLoggia. Lady in White will give the young’uns goosebumps, and packs enough of a wallop to keep their parents watching along with them.

We travel back to 1962, to the sleepy community of Willowpoint Falls. Like most kids in the area, young Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) comes from a good home; he lives with his widowed dad (Alex Rocco), his grandparents (Renata Vanni and Angelo Bertolini), and his older brother Geno (Jason Presson). Stopping in from time to time to also pay Frankie a visit is Uncle Phil (Len Cariou), his father’s best friend, who was all but adopted into the clan years earlier when his parents passed away. Yet, while things seem pretty normal on the surface in this quaint small town, a darkness hangs over the citizens of Willowpoint Falls in the form of a serial killer who, over the past decade or so, has murdered 10 children. Nobody knows who this psychopath is, or, worse still, when he will strike next.

But seeing as its Halloween, Frankie isn’t concerning himself with such things; he’s busy enjoying his class’s Halloween party, and is looking forward to trick or treating later on. Unfortunately, two of his classmates play a practical joke on Frankie by locking him in the school’s cloakroom, with the intention of leaving him there all night lone. Frankie’s anger and disappointment, soon turns to terror, however, when, on the stroke of ten, the ghost of Melissa Ann Montgomery (Joelle Jacobi), the killer’s first victim, appears in the cloakroom, re-enacting the night she was murdered (she was killed in that very room). Moments later, the door is kicked open, and a man walks in. All at once, Frankie realizes he’s face-to-face with the killer! Luckily for the young boy, his dad, who had been out looking for him, scared the man off (he was strangling Frankie at the time). The police immediately arrest the school’s custodian, an African American man named Harold Williams (Henry Harris), who they found sleeping in the basement. But is he really guilty?

As for Frankie, he continues to receive visits from his new ghostly friend Melissa, who is anxious to reunite with the spirit of her deceased mother, the legendary Lady in White, who every night roams the cliffs by the ocean, looking for her beloved daughter. Frankie does his best to help Melissa, and while doing so makes a startling discovery that could prove the cops have the wrong man in custody.

From early on, you can tell Lady in White was intended for a younger audience. Along with some corny humor (most involving the grandfather’s attempts to hide his smoking from his wife), the story is told primarily from Frankie’s perspective (we spend a good deal of time in the classroom with him, and listen in as he reads one of his monster stories aloud). Yet even with its kid-centric sensibilities, this is a decent horror film, with more than its share of creepy scenes (the entire cloakroom sequence is truly frightening). The movie also touches on some of the racial inequalities that were present back then (the town’s sheriff, played by Tom Bower, tells Frankie’s dad that even if Harold Williams isn’t the killer, he’s the perfect scapegoat because “he’s black”). At times, the comedy is a bit overdone, and, what’s more, I was able to figure out who the real killer was before the halfway point. Fortunately, these weaknesses aren’t nearly enough to ruin your enjoyment of the film.

Of course, what constituted a “children’s movie” in the ‘80s is much different than what many would consider acceptable today. Aside from some mild profanity (the worst word, if memory serves, is “asshole”), the film’s horror elements could be a little more intense than what modern kids are used to, especially the cloakroom scene (the finale is also pretty strong). So please keep that in mind when deciding whether or not Lady in White is suitable for your child. 

But if you think your son or daughter can handle it, show them Lady in White, and while you’re at it, watch it yourself. Neither of you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

#2,148. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Directed By: Sam Wanamaker

Starring: Patrick Wayne, Jane Seymour, Taryn Power

Tag line: "New!! Sinbad's Boldest And Most Daring Adventure!"

Trivia: After the live action filming was done, it took animator Ray Harryhausen almost 1½ years to do the animation

The third and final chapter in the Sinbad Trilogy, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was released in 1977, the same summer that another fantasy film known as Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) hit the scene. While Star Wars represented a leap forward in movie special effects, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger relied on stop-motion animation, which had been in use since the days of silent pictures. Fortunately, the man responsible for creating Sinbad’s effects was Ray Harryhausen, who, despite specializing in such a time-honored process, always found a way to make it seem fresh.

Sinbad (played this time around by Patrick Wayne) has come to the port city of Charak to pay a visit to his good friend Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas) and his sister, Princess Farah (Jane Seymour), who also happens to be the famous sailor’s girlfriend. Arriving several days after the scheduled coronation of Kassim as Caliph, Sinbad assumes the Prince is now the city’s new ruler. But thanks to the evil witch Zenobia (Margaret Whiting), step-mother to the Prince and Princess, the coronation was never completed. It is Zenobia’s wish that her own son Rafi (Kurt Christian) be made Caliph, so as the crown was about to be put on Kassim’s head, she used her magic to turn the Prince into a baboon!

With nowhere else to turn, Princess Farah begs Sinbad to help her brother. To this end, Sinbad gathers up his crew (as well as Kassim and Farah) and sets sail for the Greek island of Casgar, rumored home of the brilliant alchemist Melanthius (Patrick Troughton). Though unable to break Zenobia’s spell himself, Melanthius, who lives alone with his daughter Dione (Taryn Power), recommends they brave the icy waters of the North to visit the remains of the once-great city of Hyperborea, where an advanced race known as the Arimaspi resided. It’s Melanthius’ belief that the town’s sacred temple may house the secret to changing Kassim back to his former self. With time slipping away (if Kassim isn’t made Caliph by the seventh full moon, Rafi will be crowned instead), the group heads north, sailing as quickly as they possibly can. What they don’t realize, however, is Zenobia and Rafi, along with their mechanical servant the Minotaun, are following close behind, and intend to reach the Temple of Hyperborea before our heroes do.

As with many of Harryhausen’s previous films (including the first two Sinbad movies, 7th Voyage and Golden Voyage), the best moments in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger feature his stop-motion magic. We get a few original creations, like the Minotaun (for the close-up scenes, actor Peter Mayhew, AKA Chewbacca in the Star Wars films, dons the Minotaun suit) and the Troglodyte, an ancestor of mankind’s that is several stories tall. Yet some of Harryhausen’s most impressive work involves not mythical creatures, but real-life ones; the animation he provides for the baboon version of Kassim is among his finest of all-time (there are moments when you believe you’re watching a real animal). And while Sinbad and his crew’s fight with the giant Walrus isn’t particularly exciting, the final battle, in which the Troglodyte squares off against a Sabretooth Tiger, is thrilling as hell.

But along with the animation, I also enjoyed the adventure at the hear5t of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Sure, the story itself isn’t original (there are scenes that feel as if they were lifted from earlier fantasy films), but it still managed to hold my undivided attention. In some of Harryhausen’s lesser movies, I found myself waiting impatiently for the animated sequences, and didn’t care as much about the quest at the heart of it all (Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one example). This was not the case with this Eye of the Tiger. With the ushering in of high-tech computer graphics, its tale of swordplay and ancient magic may seem antiquated to some, but I had a great time watching this movie.

In fact, I’m kinda sad that Harryhausen didn’t have a fourth Sinbad film in him.