Monday, August 29, 2016

#2,188. Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Directed By: Bob Kelljan

Starring: Robert Quarry, Roger Perry, Michael Murphy

Tag line: "Tall, Dark, And Deadly"

Trivia: The movie was originally conceived as a low-budget soft-core porno movie

Hoping to get in touch with her recently deceased mother, Donna (Donna Anders), along with her boyfriend Michael (Michael MacReady), invites over the mysterious Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), an immigrant from Bulgaria and her late mother’s boyfriend, to perform a séance. With the couple’s friends Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judy Lang) looking on, the Count begins the séance, only to be interrupted by an out-of-control Donna, who shouts and screams bloody murder until the Count finally puts her under hypnosis. Once the ceremony ends, Paul and Erica give Count Yorga a lift home, and afterwards find themselves stranded in his driveway when their van breaks down. Deciding to spend the night right where they are, the two are eventually attacked by an unseen assailant, who knocks Paul unconscious and bites Erica on the neck, draining a good bit of her blood.

The next morning, Erica is treated by Dr. Hayes (Roger Perry), a good friend of the group’s whose specialty is blood research. When a test reveals some strange bacteria in Erica’s bloodstream, Dr. Hayes comes to the reluctant conclusion that she was bitten by Count Yorga, who is most likely a vampire. His initial attempt to convince Paul and Michael of this fact doesn’t go well, but later that night, when Erica disappears from her bed, Paul calls Michael and tells him he’s driving out to the Count’s mansion to look for her. When neither Paul nor Erica can be found, Michael and Donna, along with Dr. Hayes, pay a visit to the Count, and attempt to keep him talking until sunrise, to see if he is, indeed, a vampire (the Count, growing restless, excuses himself minutes before the sun comes up). Now certain of Count Yorga’s true nature, Dr. Hayes and Michael make plans to visit him during the day (when he’s asleep) and, if possible, end his reign of terror. But what they don’t know is the Count has also set his sights on Donna, and intends to add her to his collection of vampiric bride. 

In essence a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula updated for a 1970’s audience, writer / director Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire is a nice mix of old and new, maintaining the original story’s gothic feel while at the same time adding some blood and even a little sex (suggested, anyway.. there’s no nudity in the film whatsoever). As the title character, Robert Quarry continues the fine work of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee by making the Count a dashing, yet extremely dangerous man (when Paul arrives at the mansion to search for Erica, we find out just how dangerous the Count is). 

With Dr. Hayes, who’s well portrayed by Roger Perry, Count Yorga, Vampire also has its own version of Van Helsing (though he’s not as familiar with the dark arts as his more famous counterpart, Dr. Hayes does know enough to make him a serious threat to Yorga’s well-being); and the Count’s brides (Marsha Jordan, Deborah Darnell) also make an appearance, looking every bit as feral as the ladies in Hammer’s Dracula series. Count Yorga even has an evil henchman, the deformed Brudah (Edward Walsh), who at one point gets too familiar with one of the ladies.

Featuring some effective jump scares, a few shocking moments (including one unforgettable scene with a kitten), and a sinister performance by Robert Quarry in the title role, Count Yorga, Vampire proves to be one of the better Dracula adaptations, not to mention an excellent reminder of just how spooky this time-honored story can be when told by the right people.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

#2,187. The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977)

Directed By: John Leone

Starring: Henry Fonda, Eileen Brennan, Austin Pendleton

Tag line: "You're in for the ride of a lifetime!"

Trivia: Diana House, who plays a prostitute in this film, was the Playboy Playmate of the Month for January 1976

Looking at the DVD cover for The Great Smokey Roadblock, you’d think the movie was a madcap road comedy, which, I suppose, it is.. in a way. But thanks to the fine cast headed up by Henry Fonda, this 1977 film offers a bit more besides.

John Howard (Fonda), known as Elegant John to his friends and admirers, was one of the most reliable truckers to ever hit the open road (in 40 years, he never missed a deadline). Unfortunately, time and cancer have caught up with Elegant John, whose most recent address has been a hospital bed. Before he dies, John wants to make one last cross-country run. So, after breaking out of the hospital and stealing back his truck (it had been repossessed by the bank), John sets off looking for work. Along the way, he picks up Beebo Crozier (a young Robert Englund), a former soldier who is heading to Gainesville, Florida. Yet, even with his new assistant, Elegant John can’t seem to find anyone willing to take a chance on him (it doesn’t help matters that an all-points bulletin has been sent to every policeman from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with orders to arrest John on-sight for grand theft auto).

But just when it looked as if John might not get his final run, his old pal / longtime girlfriend Penelope (Eileen Brennan) comes to the rescue. A Madame who has been ordered out of town by the cops, Penelope and her six hookers (played by Susan Sarandon, Diana House, Melanie Mayron, Mews Small, Leigh French, and Valerie Curtin) pack up their belongings, jump into the back of Elegant John’s truck, and set off for North Carolina, where the ladies hope to set up shop once again. Despite the fact he’s a wanted man, John is determined to finish his run and keep his professional reputation intact. But will his illness catch up with him before he reaches the end of the line?

Most of the comedy in The Great Smokey Roadblock (also released as The Last of the Cowboys) comes courtesy of the bizarre characters that John and his “cargo” meet during their long journey, including a former radio DJ (John Byner); a pot-smoking lunatic (Austin Pendleton); and a small-town sheriff hoping to get his name in the papers (Dub Taylor). The movie is also interesting in that it gives us an early look at both Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City, Bull Durham), whose characters eventually fall in love with each other; and WKRP in Cincinnati alum Gary Sandy appears in a few scenes as an arrogant cowboy who harrasses Elegant John every chance he gets. Rounding out the supporting cast is the always-reliable Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin, Jeepers Creepers) as John’s main squeeze, Valerie Curtin (All the President’s Men, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) as the hooker with a bad attitude, and former Playboy Playmate Diana House, the lone member of Ms. Penelope’s entourage who shows a little skin (aside from one very brief sex scene and some coarse language, The Great Smokey Roadblock is a fairly inoffensive film).

Along with the laughs, The Great Smokey Roadblock offers a bit of drama and even a little pathos, thanks in large part to Henry Fonda, who plays it straight the entire way. From start to finish, his Elegant John is a stand-up guy, willing to help others in their time of need, and in one dramatic scene we see how far his illness has progressed, and how painful his condition has become. He may have broken the law at the outset (by stealing back his truck), but he’s such a likable fella that we root like hell for him to make it. The Great Smokey Roadblock does have its share of laughs (Byner and Pendleton, who don’t turn up until the final third of the movie, are pretty damn funny), but thanks to Henry Fonda, it also gives audiences a folk hero they’re sure to admire.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

#2,186. Midnight Express (1978)

Directed By: Alan Parker

Starring: Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Randy Quaid

Tag line: "A story of triumph"

Trivia: According to his book, Brad Davis had a drug problem of his own while promoting this film

After making his feature film debut with 1976's Bugsy Malone, a kid-centric musical comedy in which child gangsters shoot each other with whipped cream, director Alan Parker did a complete 180 by following it up with 1978’s Midnight Express, a searing drama about a young American serving time in a Turkish prison, where he is subjected to the worst kind of treatment imaginable. 

As a one-two punch on a director’s filmography, it doesn’t get much different that that!

Inspired by a true story, Midnight Express stars Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, a twentysomething American who, in 1970, was arrested at the Istanbul airport for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish out of the country. Sent to Sağmalcılar Prison to await trial, Billy soon befriends other westerners, including Jimmy (Randy Quaid), Max (John Hurt), and Erich (Norbert Weisser). They tell Billy not to trust anyone, especially fellow prisoner Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), who receives money from the brutal warden Hamidou (Paul L. Smith) in exchange for information.

At his trial, with his father (Mike Kellin) by his side, Billy is given 4 years for possession and immediately returned to Sağmalcılar to begin serving his sentence. While the prospect of spending 4 years behind bars in Turkey isn’t an attractive one, Billy’s father reminds him it could have been worse (the prosecutor was pushing for a life sentence, the penalty for smuggling). 

Heeding his father’s advice to keep his head down and obey the rules, Billy is, in many ways, a model prisoner. Then the unthinkable happens: with only 54 days remaining on his sentence, Billy is re-tried (at the prosecutor’s insistence) and given an additional 30 years! 

Now at his wit’s end, Billy joins Jimmy and Max in a failed escape attempt, and even does time in the camp’s sanitarium, where he slowly begins to unravel. Billy’s longtime girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle) urges him to try another escape and, if possible, cross the border into Greece. But with his psyche shattered, it’s more likely Billy will die in prison before he'll ever be a free man again.

Brad Davis is nothing short of remarkable as Billy Hayes, delivering a performance that is as powerful as it is heartbreaking (particularly in the later scenes, when his sanity slips away); and the supporting cast is exceptional, especially John Hurt (as the drug-addicted Max), Randy Quaid (playing the only other American in the prison), and Paul L. Smith (like Billy and the others, we come to loathe warden Hamidou, whose chosen form of torture is to smack prisoners on the soles of their feet with a club). 

Also standing tall are director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone, who throughout the film generate what at times is an unbearable level of tension. The opening sequence with Billy at the airport is nerve-racking (his trip through the security line is accentuated by the sound of his beating heart, which gets faster each time he’s in danger of being found out); and many of the prison scenes are hard to watch, the most disturbing of which comes late in the film, when Billy, in a fit of rage, violently attacks a fellow prisoner. 

All this, combined with its realistic setting (the movie was shot on the island of Malta, with a military fort that dates back to the 14th century standing in for the prison) helps transform Midnight Express into a harrowing motion picture experience.

The film has been criticized over the years for its inaccuracies (the ending differs greatly from what actually occurred) and anti-Turk storyline (in 2007, the real Billy Hayes apologized to the Turkish people for how his book, and subsequently this film, portrayed them), and while these accusations do have some merit (the negative portrayal of Turks does go a bit far), they don’t detract from the movie's overall power. 

Tough and unflinching, Midnight Express hits you like a punch to the gut, and it will take some time for you to recover from it. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

#2,185. Papillon (1973)

Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory

Tag line: "For Papillon survival was not enough .... he had to be free"

Trivia: The prison was actually a set constructed in Falmouth, Jamaica and ran 800 feet (244 meters) in length

In 1931, petty thief Henri Charrière was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a pimp named Roland Le Petit. Though he adamantly denied any involvement in the crime, Charrière was shipped off to a penal colony in French Guiana, and while there attempted to escape several times.

Papillon, the 1973 award-winning film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Steve McQueen, is a dramatized account of Charrière’s harrowing adventure, and thanks to the immense talents of those involved the movie more than does his story justice.

As the film begins, Charrière (McQueen), known to his fellow inmates as “Papillon” (due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest), is on his way to a place called Devil’s Island, a prison facility so far removed from civilization that escape is damn near impossible. But that’s not going to discourage Papillon, who is bound and determined to break out the first chance he gets. 

To raise funds for his initial attempt at freedom, he acts as bodyguard for Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a notorious counterfeiter who - like many others - is hiding a nice sum of cash in his body cavity. Over the years, Papillon would make several attempts to escape, only to be caught each time and thrown in solitary confinement. Yet try as they might, the authorities could never break Papillon’s spirit, or his overwhelming desire to be free, and regardless of how many times he failed, Papillon never gave up.

As he did three years earlier with Patton, director Franklin J. Schaffner brings an epic sensibility to Papillon, and many of the film’s sequences are large in scope; the initial scenes, during which Papillon, Dega, and dozens of other prisoners are marching through the streets on their way to the docks, where ships are waiting to carry them to French Guiana, is impressively handled; and the prison set itself (constructed in Falmouth, Jamaica) was massive (over 800 feet in length). Yet, much as he did in Patton, Schaffner never loses track of the story’s human element, and while Papillon is, indeed, a “big” film, it’s also an extremely personal account of one man’s continued efforts to gain his freedom.

As Papillon, Steve McQueen delivers what may be his best screen performance. Now, I understand the weight of that statement, especially when you consider his fine work in movies like Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, and plenty of others. But in Papillon, he takes things a step further by abandoning the “McQueen persona” so prevalent in many of his other roles. Certainly, McQueen was one of his generation’s top actors, but he was also a big star, and in some of his greatest performances he brought a little of himself to the part. Whether portraying Frank Bullitt or Junior Bonner, you always knew it was Steve McQueen.

Papillon is another matter entirely. Though playing a man every bit as tough as some of his previous characters, McQueen allows Papillon’s vulnerabilities to shine through as well, more so than I’d ever seen him do before; the entire sequence in which Papillon is in solitary confinement, his sanity slowly slipping away, is the best piece of acting McQueen ever turned in. There may undoubtedly be traces of that McQueen Persona scattered throughout Papillon, but it’s also the closest he ever came to disappearing into a role.

In addition to the extraordinary work of its director and star, Papillon features a strong performance by Dustin Hoffman as the smart and wily Dega, who uses his money and influence to help Papillon whenever he can. And though you probably won’t recognize him under the layers of make-up, keep an eye out for Anthony Zerbe, who has a brief yet memorable appearance as the leader of a leper colony. 

All this, combined with the movie’s stunning cinematography and the wonderful score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, helped make Papillon one of the 1970's best screen adventures.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

#2,184. Women Behind Bars (1975)

Directed By: Jess Franco

Starring: Lina Romay, Martine Stedil, Roger Darton

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

Trivia: William Berger was originally considered to play the warden

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

Actually, we don’t.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

#2,183. Lips of Blood (1975)

Directed By: Jean Rollin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#2,182. Time After Time (1979)

Directed By: Nicholas Meyer

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner

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

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

What would happen if Jack the Ripper, one of the 19th century’s most notorious killers, was loose on the streets of a 20th century city? That’s the basic set-up of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 sci-fi / thriller Time After Time, a movie with a cast every bit as impressive as that premise.

The film opens in London, 1893. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is hosting a dinner party for some of the city’s most influential men, including his good friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner). His reason for bringing them all together? To unveil his newest invention: a time machine! 

Using the sun’s power, this time machine can transport a person to either the past or future, moving at a speed of 2 years per minute. Wells has even installed a safety feature, in case the rider is injured during the trip; unless a key is inserted into the controls, the machine will immediately return to the previous time period. With this machine, Wells hopes to travel to the future, by which point he believes mankind will have eliminated war, disease, and hunger.

The party is eventually interrupted by the police, who are looking for none other than Jack the Ripper! It seems that, after years of silence, the Ripper has struck again, killing a prostitute a few blocks away. Conducting a routine search of all the houses in the area, the authorities soon turn up evidence that Dr. Stevenson himself is the infamous Ripper. 

When he’s nowhere to be found, it's assumed that Stevenson somehow slipped away right after the cops arrived. It isn’t until everyone has gone home that Wells discovers what really happened: Stevenson stole his time machine, and leapt forward to the year 1979 (that's what the controls say, anyway, when the machine reappears; without the key, it eventually returned to 1893). 

Feeling responsible for turning a madman loose on "Utopia", Wells follows Stevenson to 1979, where, because a display of his work is touring the world (which includes the time machine), the inventor ends up in San Francisco.

Though at first disappointed to learn that mankind is every bit as imperfect in the future as they were in the past, Wells nonetheless sets to work looking for Stevenson, and with the help of pretty banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who exchanged some of Stevenson’s British pounds for dollars a few days earlier, Wells manages to track down his old friend. 

Naturally, Stevenson refuses to go back to 1893, and what’s more demands that Wells give him the key to the time machine (“I can’t have you following me through history” he says to Wells). 

Stevenson once again manages to give Wells the slip (but without the key), and over the course of the next several days picks up where he left off in 1893 by murdering a handful of prostitutes. Wells, who has become romantically involved with Amy Robbins, continues to search for Stevenson, who he knows will not leave 1979 without the key. The question is: how many more people have to die before Jack the Ripper will finally be brought to justice?

Time After Time gets off to a great start with its handful of scenes set in 1893, the first of which has the Ripper murdering a call girl in a back alley (in a cool twist, Meyer gives us a first-person perspective of the action, as if we’re looking through the Ripper’s eyes). Equally as good is Wells’ dinner party, when the famed writer / inventor discovers that his friend and chess partner is actually one of history’s most infamous killers. Best of all, though, is the scene where Wells leaves 1893 behind and takes off for the future, a sequence that features cool special effects and a unique way to mark the passage of time.

Once in San Francisco, Time After Time branches off in a number of directions, following Wells as he tries to find Stevenson while at the same time acclimating himself to America in1979 (via the standard “fish out of water” scenes). As if he wasn't busy enough, Wells also kicks off a romance with Amy Robbins, a flighty but loyal young woman who fell for the dashing Englishman the moment he walked into her bank. Though this love story seemingly pops out of nowhere, both McDowell and Steenburgen do their part to make it as believable as possible (they have a good chemistry together). 

In addition, Time After Time tags along with Stevenson as he kicks off another murder spree while also trying to get the key from Wells. The tension of its opening scenes does dwindle a bit by the movie’s midsection (when Meyer and company focus primarily on the love affair between Wells and Amy), but it picks up again in the last half hour, when Wells and Stevenson face off against each other one final time (most of this ending will drag you to the edge of your seat).

McDowell and Warner are exceptional as the former pals who become mortal enemies, and their scenes together have a real energy to them (their first 20th century confrontation, in a room at the Hyatt Regency, results in several memorable moments, not the least of which has Stevenson switching on the nightly news and showing Wells that the "Utopia" he dreamed of never happened). Equally as strong is Steenburgen, who finds herself drawn into a situation she can hardly believe. 

In fact, there was only thing about Time After Time that rubbed me the wrong way, and that was its score. It’s not that Miklós Rózsa (who handled the music for such award-winning films as The Thief of Bagdad and Ben-Hur) did a bad job; on the contrary, the music is quite good. But the filmmakers rely too heavily on it, throwing it into scenes that would have been better served with silence (there are also times when it's way too loud, making it more of a distraction than anything).

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

#2,181. Hollywood Boulevard (1976)

Directed By: Allan Arkush, Joe Dante

Starring: Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Candice Rialson

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

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

The story goes that, in 1976, producer Jon Davidson wagered Roger Corman that he could turn out the cheapest movie Corman's New World Pictures ever produced. So the renowned schlockmeister gave Davidson $60,000 and a 10-day shooting schedule (5 days less than most other pictures) to make what turned out to be Hollywood Boulevard, a comedy that throws everything at you but the kitchen sink.

Probably because the sink wasn’t in the budget!

Convinced she has what it takes to be a movie star, Indiana native Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson) makes her way to Hollywood, where she hooks up with talent agent Walter Paisley (Dick Miller). As luck would have it, Miracle Pictures (their slogan: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle”) needs a new stuntwoman, and before she knows what's hit her, Candy is performing a death-defying car crash in the newest movie from producer P.G. (Richard Doran) and director Erich Von Leppe (Paul Bartel). While on-set, she also meets screenwriter Patrick Hobby (Jeffrey Kramer), with whom she will become romantically involved.

Impressed with her tenacity, P.G. and Von Leppe cast Candy in their next picture, an action film set in the Philippines. Miracle’s current star Mary McQueen (Mary Woronov) isn’t thrilled to have her around, but Candy does befriend some of her other castmates, including former roller derby star Bobbi Quackenbush (Rita George). Over the next several months, Candy and Bobbi are featured in a number of movies.

But Candy's luck may have just run out. it seems a homicidal maniac is loose in L.A., and has already hacked a few fledgling starlets to death. By the looks of it, this killer has no intention of stopping until every young actress in Hollywood is dead!

Co-directed by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante (both making their debuts behind the scenes), Hollywood Boulevard was, indeed, a very low budget affair. Tp save money, Davidson and his team incorporated moments from other Corman-produced films, including The Terror, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Big Bird Cage, The Unholy Rollers, and Death Race 2000. Thanks to this approach, the film has its share of excitement; a gun battle lifted from The Big Bird Cage is featured prominently, as are a few of the more intense sequences in Death Race 2000.

That said, the best scenes in Hollywood Boulevard were shot specifically for the movie. On Candy's first day in Hollywood, she is duped by a couple of bank robbers into thinking she's been cast in a new motion picture (actually, they needed her as a getaway driver for their newest caper); and Dick Miller rattles off one funny line after another (when a producer calls looking for a bearded lady, Miller's character tells one of his male clients to “go out and get some tits”).

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

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

Directed By: Aubrey Powell

Starring: Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones

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

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

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

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

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

With some of the other Pythons popping up occasionally, most notably Michael Palin (in drag), who acts as narrator, Not the Messiah combines a number of musical styles (Doo-wop, folk, classical, and even mariachi) to relate Brian’s story, taking us from the dawn of time (and the beginning of organized religion) through to a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, easily the most popular Python song ever written. 

Though they play it straight, everyone on-stage is clearly enjoying themselves, as is the audience in attendance. All of the arrangements are good, but my favorites include “Chaos and Confusion” (the opening number, which gets things off to an exciting start), “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” (the re-enactment of a very funny scene from the movie), “Individuals” (A Bob Dylan spoof, complete with harmonicas), and “The Final Song” (a melancholy tune in which Brian accepts his fate and prepares to die on the cross).

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

#2,179. Friday Foster (1975)

Directed By: Arthur Marks

Starring: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

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

Directed By: Jean Yarbrough

Starring: Don Porter, June Lockhart, Sara Haden


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

#2,177. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart

Tag line: "The saga of America's dirty faced kids... And the breaks that life won't give them!"

Trivia: This film was banned outright in Denmark, China, Poland, Finland, and parts of Canada and Switzerland

In my write up of Yankee Doodle Dandy, I mentioned how my father once videotaped a trio of James Cagney movies, which played late one evening on a local Philadelphia UHF station. Well, a Phillies baseball game that was broadcast right before them went longer than anticipated, and while it wasn’t an issue for either White Heat or The Fighting 69th, which recorded in their entirety, Michael Curtiz’s 1938 crime drama Angels With Dirty Faces was incomplete; I sat through the entire movie one day only to learn that the tape (which had been on a timer) stopped recording before the film was over! In total, 10 minutes were lopped off of the ending, and those who have seen the film know how deeply dramatic its finale is. 

For months afterwards, I thumbed through the TV Guide looking for this movie, hoping it would replay at some point. It wasn’t until years later that I finally caught the film's ending, yet even without its climatic moments, I knew that Angels With Dirty Faces was a bona-fide classic.

Two teenagers, Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke) and Jerry Connolly (William Tracy), get into some hot water one day at a railway yard, and are chased by the police. Jerry manages to slip away, but Rocky is caught and soon after sentenced to reform school. Fifteen years later, Rocky (now played by Cagney), who has drifted in and out of jail most his life, is one of the city’s most notorious gangsters, while Jerry (Pat O’Brien) straightened himself out and became a Catholic priest. Yet try as he might, Father Connolly is unable to control the city’s most troubled young men, some of whom (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall and Bernard Punsly, aka The “Dead End Kids) idolize Rocky and his criminal ways. 

Rocky does what he can to help Father Connolly out, but at the same time is trying to recover the $100,000 that his shifty attorney, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), swindled from him years earlier. With the help of Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan), who Rocky has grown quite fond of, Father Connolly tries to steer his old pal towards the straight and narrow, all the while hoping the young men in Rocky’s “gang” will learn for themselves that crime doesn’t always pay.

Angels With Dirty Faces is a perfect storm of Hollywood creativity, starting with its director, Michael Curtiz, who by that point had already helmed Doctor X, Captain Blood, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the opening scene of this film, Curtiz skillfully moves his camera through a 1920s-era New York neighborhood, capturing the hustle and bustle of a city street brimming with activity (he’ll repeat this same shot a while later, when the action jumps 15 years into the future, showing the passage of time while also revealing not much has changed on this particular block). Story-wise, Angels With Dirty Faces glides along at a brisk pace, introducing several new characters (like Mac Keefer, Frazier’s business associate played by George Bancroft) who do their part to keep things moving.

The film features a number of fine young actors, starting with The Dead End Kids (in later years they would become the Bowery Boys), who, as we eventually discover, are much better at picking a man’s pocket than they are at playing basketball. In addition, William Tracy does a good job as a teenage Father Connolly, but it’s Frankie Burke, doing a spot-on impression of James Cagney, who steals the early moments of the film; watching him, you would swear he was somehow related to the legendary actor. Still, as strong as Burke is, there’s nothing like the real thing, and Cagney delivers yet another stellar performance as a criminal you can’t help but like (his scenes with the Dead End Kids are funny and, at times, even touching). The supporting players, including Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan, are no slouches themselves, but it is Cagney’s charismatic turn that gives the film its energy.

When it comes to James Cagney’s filmography, Angels With Dirty Faces isn’t discussed nearly as often as The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy or White Heat, but it should be. With so much going for it, Angels With Dirty Faces is not only an excellent motion picture; it’s one of its star’s all-time best.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

#2,176. ...And God Created Woman (1956)

Directed By: Roger Vadim

Starring: Brigitte Bardot, Curd Jürgens, Jean-Louis Trintignant

Tag line: "...but the devil invented Brigitte Bardot!"

Trivia: Was condemned by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency

Brigitte Bardot, in what is arguably the most stunning screen debut in cinematic history…

I was all ready to lead off my review of the 1956 French picture ...And God Created Woman with the above sentence. But then I did a little research, and to my surprise, this drama / romance was not Bardot’s first film. Not by a longshot. In fact, she had made well over a dozen movies across the previous four years! Easily one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, it’s hard to believe it took so long for her to be noticed. But it’s true; ...And God Created Woman is the film that turned Bardot into a superstar, and its success had as much to do with director Roger Vadim's stylistic choices as it did the lead actress's magnetic charisma.

Juliette (Bardot) is an 18-year-old orphan living with her sponsors, the Morins (Jane Marken and Paul Faivre), on the island of St. Tropez. A free spirit, Juliette enjoys walking around in her bare feet and listening to music. Rumor has it she also likes the company of men, and is reputed to be a girl of loose morals. Yet, despite her reputation, she has several high-profile suitors trying to woo her, including business tycoon Eric Carradine (Curd Jurgens) and Antoine (Christian Marquand), who, with his two brothers Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Christian (Georges Poujouly) operates a small dockside business. For years, Juliette has been in love with Antoine, and is heartbroken when he promises to bring her to the city with him, only to leave her high and dry when the time comes.

Things take a critical turn when Mrs. Morin, tired of the gossip surrounding her young tenant, contacts the orphanage where Juliette grew up and tells them that she’s sending her back. Anxious to keep her in the area, Eric Carradine tries to convince Antoine to marry Juliette, but Antione refuses. To everyone’s surprise, Antione’s shy brother Michel (who, like many men in the area, has a crush on Juliette) instead proposes to the carefree young girl. Not wanting to return to the orphanage, Juliette accepts, and the two are quickly married. Over time, Juliette develops feelings for her new husband, but her love for Antoine remains as strong as ever. Can Michel tame his new wife, or will her unbridled passions get the better of her?

From the moment she first appears, laying naked on her stomach in the Morins’ back yard (a shot that Godard would duplicate for the opening of his 1963 film Contempt), Brigette Bardot grabs our undivided attention and never lets it go. Yes, she’s gorgeous, but it’s more than that; Bardot displays a screen presence in ...And God Created Woman that goes beyond physical beauty. Her portrayal of Juliette, a happy-go-lucky young woman in love with a man who doesn’t return her feelings, has a hint of sadness to it, as if she was looking for something in life, but had no idea what it was. When she marries the kindly Michel, we hope that she has the strength and foresight to abandon her promiscuous ways, but at the same time realize she most likely will not. Bardot conveys Juliette’s fun-loving attitude quite well, but also brings the character’s weaknesses to the surface, and over the course of the movie we both pity and despise her in equal doses.

Bardot’s performance, combined with her legendary beauty, played its part in making ...And God Created Woman an international hit, but ibut then so did director Roger Vadim. From the opening shot of Bardot’s nude bottom, Vadim frames the actress (who he was dating at the time) in a manner that takes full advantage of her sex appeal (late in the film, when Juliette is dancing the mambo in a dingy bar, Vadim even focuses for a short time on her legs). Throughout the movie, Vadim frames the actress in a way that ensures she’s the focal point of every scene, and we cannot take our eyes off of her.

...And God Created Woman was shot on-location in St. Tropez, an exquisite locale filled with bright sunshine, magnificent beaches, and a wonderful view of the sea. It’s truly a spectacular place, and throughout the movie we get to see most of its natural beauty. But only when Bardot isn’t on-screen; when she is, even St. Tropez must play second fiddle.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

#2,175. Vampyres (1974)

Directed By: José Larraz

Starring: Marianne Morris, Anulka, Murray Brown

Tag line: "They shared the pleasures of the flesh, and the horrors of the grave!"

Trivia: he screenplay is credited to director José Ramón Larraz's wife Diana, though she didn't write a word of it (she was used to fill the required British production quota)

Based on its poster art alone, I went into director José Larraz’s Vampyres thinking it would be a run-of-the-mill ‘70s lesbian vampire flick, with a whole lot of sex and not much blood. The pre-title scene, however, showed some promise: yes, it had a couple of naked women making love, but after a minute or so, someone strolls into the room and shoots them both dead, resulting in a sequence with equal doses of violence and erotica. Of course, time would tell if this scene was typical of the rest of the movie or just an anomaly, but at least my hopes were high.

Surprisingly, once the credits are over, the two women featured in this shock-filled opening: Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka), are alive and well, wandering country roads and luring men to their crumbling English mansion for the night. None of the men last for very long; before the sun comes up, these ladies, who are now (or maybe always were) vampires, kill the poor guys and feast on their blood. They then put the bodies back into their cars and make it appear as if they died in an accident.

One potential victim, however, named Ted (Murray Brown), impresses Fran with his tenacity as a lover, and she decides to keep him around for a few days. After his first night there, a weakened Ted stumbles to a nearby caravan, where a married couple, John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner), are vacationing. They treat a nasty wound on his arm (Fran did drink a little of Ted’s blood), and Ted then promptly returns to the mansion. John doesn’t think much of it, but Harriet, who has noticed strange things occurring in the area at night, wants to know what’s going on, and sets out to investigate. Will Harriet stumble on the truth, or will Fran and Miriam stop her before she does?

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of nudity in Vampyres, as well as a couple of sex scenes that, though not graphic, are fairly intense. And while the bloodshed isn’t nearly as plentiful, those sequences that do feature violence get very messy before they’re through. The night after Fran welcomes Ted into the mansion, Miriam snares young Rupert (Karl Lanchbury), and takes him to a different room. Later on, just when it looked as if Fran was about to break down and kill Ted, she instead wanders into the hall, where she spots Miriam with blood all over her face. They both re-enter Miriam’s room and find Rupert in a pretty bad state (I’m sure you can guess what happens from that point on). In addition to this encounter, the last 10 minutes of Vampyres is all about the violence, and the blood does flow freely.

Shot on-location at Oakley Court in Berkshire, which also served as a central location for several Hammer films, including The Curse of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula (not to mention such ‘70s fare as Girly and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Vampyres has a gothic feel to it that works to the movie’s advantage (a neighboring cemetery, looking fairly ragged, adds to the ambiance). And while I was hoping there would be a bit more violence (until the finale, the killings are few and far between), as lesbian vampire movies go, Vampyres is, indeed, one of the bloodiest I’ve seen.

Monday, August 15, 2016

#2,174. After.Life (2009)

Directed By: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Starring: Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long

Tag line: "How do you save yourself when you're already dead?"

Trivia: Alfred Molina was originally cast as Eliot but was replaced by Liam Neeson

What does it mean to be dead? 

That’s the question at the heart of writer / director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s 2009 film After.Life, a horror / mystery that occasionally misses the mark, but still gives you plenty to think about.

Following a fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), school teacher Anna (Christina Ricci) hops into her car and speeds away. Moments after she departs, Anna is involved in a terrible car accident, and is pronounced dead before she reaches the hospital. 

Her body is transferred to the local funeral home, which is owned and operated by Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). As it turns out, Eliot is especially suited for his job; he can talk to the deceased! 

As he tends to Anna’s body, she seemingly wakes up, asking what has happened to her. Eliot informs her that she’s dead. Naturally, Anna doesn’t believe him, and over the course of several days she attempts to escape from the morgue, all the while wondering why she doesn’t have a pulse, and can no longer feel pain.

As Anna struggles with her situation, a grief-stricken Paul is just as unwilling to accept that the woman he loves is gone forever. When Eliot prevents him from seeing Anna’s body (because he isn’t family), Paul does everything he can, including going to the police, to gain access to the morgue, all the while experiencing visions of Anna that lead him to believe she may be reaching out for help. 

Is Anna truly gone, or is she simply being held against her will?

The story is an intriguing one: a man who can communicate with the recently deceased trying to convince a young woman that her time on this earth is at an end. It’s a fascinating enough topic on its own, but After.Life gives us a bit more as well by building a mystery to go along with it: is Anna actually dead (we get our answer well before the finale)? While the pace of the movie is definitely on the slow side (the majority of the film is set inside the morgue, and is dialogue heavy), the premise alone was enough to keep my interest piqued for the duration.

Unfortunately, a side story involving Jack (Chandler Canterbury), one of Anna’s students and a young boy who seems to share Eliot’s connection with the dead, left some loose ends that undermined its effectiveness. For instance, there are allusions early on that Jack is being bullied at school (Anna enters her classroom one morning and finds two kids pushing him around). Is he an outcast because of what Eliot would call his “gift”? Worse still are the scenes between Jack and his mother, who we only ever see from the back (she spends all of her time in front of the television). Because this mother / son relationship is never fully explored (is his mom dead, or merely wasting her life?), any sort of deeper meaning we’re expected to take from it (including how it might figure into the dilemma that Anna is facing) falls by the wayside.

As for the performances, they may not be career-bests for either Ricci or Neeson, but what might be perceived as their “passionless” turns do, in fact, fit their characters to a "T" (Ricci’s Anna is a depressed young woman dealing with her own demise, and Neeson conveys both the underlying warmth and the emotional detachment one would expect to find in a funeral director). 

Still, the best of the bunch is Justin Long as Paul, the grieving boyfriend whose insistence that Anna is alive could very well be his way of coping with guilt (he is, after all, the reason she drove away that fateful night), but there might also be more to it than that (his visions of Anna have him wondering if she’s really dead).

Obviously, I can’t reveal the final twist in After.Life, but I can tell you that it caused me to think a little about my own life and whether or not I’m living it to the fullest. This is something most people contemplate at one point or another, especially when dealing with the death of a relative or even a casual acquaintance; when my time comes, will I be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished? 

The tragic reality is that many would answer “no”. That’s my answer right now, anyway. So what am I going to do about it?

It’s not often a movie, especially a flawed one, will inspire such reflection, but that’s the effect After.Life had on me. And since I’m fairly certain that’s what Wojtowicz-Vosloo was aiming for, I’d have to say that, even with its failings, After.Life gets its point across rather well.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

#2,173. General Idi Amin Dada (1974)

Directed By: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Golda Meir

Line from the film: "I come from a very poor family. I wanted to tell you this"

Trivia: Many events in the film were staged by Amin himself

The story goes that about a year after the release of Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada, Amin himself, the ruler of Uganda and the film's main subject, received word from his “agents” in Britain that audiences were laughing at the movie, as if it were a comedy. Concerned by this, Amin had these so-called agents transcribe the film and send him their notes. He then contacted Schroeder and asked him to cut about two and a half minutes out of the movie. Naturally, Schroeder refused. So Amin gathered up all of the French citizens living in Uganda, placed them in a hotel, and gave them Schroeder’s home phone number, telling them that if they wanted to return to their homes, they’d have to “persuade” the director to obey his wishes. Having spent a few weeks with Amin, Schroeder knew what he was capable of, and figured it would only be a matter of time before the Ugandan leader started executing his prisoners. So the scenes were cut out.

It was with strong-arm tactics such as these that Amin, an Army General and former heavyweight boxing champion, ascended to power in 1971, overthrowing President Obote in a bloody coup (Obote was out of the country at the time). During his 8-year reign (from 1971 to 1979), Amin expelled all Asian workers, in some cases handing their businesses over to Ugandans; and in a show of solidarity with fellow Muslims in the Middle East threw out the Israelis as well, giving their embassy to the Palestinians.

To solidify his position, Amin tried to win favor with other world leaders (in a note to Nixon, Amin called the American President his “dear brother” and wished him a speedy recovery from the Watergate affair), and talked openly of war with Israel. A giant of a man (he stood 6 ft. 4 inches tall, and weighed well over 300 pounds), Amin also believed that a show of strength was always the best course of action, and in February of 1972 organized 12 public executions to rid himself of several opponents. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Ugandans were killed during his time in power, including doctors and former Gov’t officials. One year after Amin and his troops invaded Tanzania (in 1978), the Tanzanians carried out a counter-invasion, and along with Anti-Amin factions working within Uganda forced Amin to flee to Libya. He lived the rest of his days in exile, mostly as a guest in Saudi Arabia, before finally dying in 2003.

General Idi Amin Dada was shot on-location in Uganda a few years after Amin first took control.

I’m not sure which two and a half minutes of the film Amin objected to (they have since been added back in), but to be honest they couldn’t have been any worse than the 90 or so that seemingly didn’t bother him. From start to finish, General Idi Amin Dada makes its central figure look like a fool. Amin delivers several speeches throughout the movie, addressing everyone from government ministers to villagers, and each time his style is the same: self-promotion followed by his belief in strength above all else (in the first speech we’re privy to, Amin brags about how fast a runner he was during his rugby playing days). He boasts incessantly when on-screen, and claims to hold sway over wild animals (while on a boat, Amin spots a crocodile on the banks of the river and says he’ll make it move. When the croc doesn’t respond to his claps, Amin says it must be “sleeping”).

Amin actively participates in several events during the film, at one point playing alongside a band with his accordion (to be fair, he was quite good with the instrument), and even wins a swim meet (though it was clear his opponents were holding back). In what may be the film’s most outlandish segment, the Ugandan leader talks of invading the Golan heights in Israel, and stages a mock battle for the camera to show off his strategy (somehow, he believed he’d accomplish this feat with a couple of tanks, two planes, a helicopter, and a few dozen troops).

You will definitely find plenty to laugh about in General Idi Amin Dada, though it’s not really a laughing matter, because despite being something of a buffoon, Amin was also a brutal dictator, ready to strike his opponents down with whatever force he deemed necessary. At one point during General Idi Amin Dada, Amin, addressing the members of his government, chastises the Minister of Foreign Affairs for not being honest with him. This minister, who was in attendance, looks pretty nervous as a result, and rightly so; two weeks later, they would fish his corpse out of a river. 

If nothing else, General Idi Amin Dada stands as a testament to what happens when someone unfit to govern gains control of a country. It can sometimes lead to comedy, but it’s the tragedy of it all that history will remember.