Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#2,356. The Entertainer (1960)

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

Directed By: Arthur Crabtree

Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

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

Directed By: Ralph Thomas

Starring: Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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

Directed By: Karel Reisz

Starring: Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts

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

Trivia: Albert Finney learned to use a lathe during filming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

#2,352. The Working Girls (1974)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Sarah Kennedy, Laurie Rose, Mark Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

#2,351. The Cossacks (1928)

Directed By: George W. Hill

Starring: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Ernest Torrence

Tag line: "Stirring romance, hard riding, desperate fighting with the Cossacks playing their game of war and chivalry"

Trivia: The film was originally to have been directed by Viktor Tourjansky, but it took such a long time getting the script together that he moved on to another project.

The story of actor John Gilbert is a tragic one. A star during the silent era whose popularity rivaled that of Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert had a tempestuous relationship with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (the two allegedly detested one another), and as a result, he was assigned to a series of low-grade pictures. By the time he completed his 6-film contract with MGM, Gilbert was all but forgotten by the movie-going public. Greta Garbo, who was once engaged to Gilbert, tried to rescue his career by getting him a role in 1933’s Queen Christina, but it was too late. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, John Gilbert died of a heart attack at the age of 36 on January 9, 1936.

To see him in 1928’s The Cossacks is to realize just how talented John Gilbert was, and while the movie itself hasn’t aged well, its star shines brightly throughout it.

For the Cossacks of Southern Russia, life hasn’t changed in centuries: the women still stay home and work while the men ride into battle against their enemy, the Turks. It is said that all true Cossack men love the smell of blood, the glory of war, but Lukashka (Gilbert), the son of the Cossack Chieftain Ivan (Ernest Torrence), sees things differently, and would rather stay with the women then fight with the men.

Lukashka’s views make him very unpopular, and even his childhood sweetheart Maryana (Renée Adorée) wants nothing to do with him anymore. A free spirit, Lukashka doesn’t mind the constant barrage of insults. That is, until the night two drunken Cossacks grab him, put him in a ladies dress, and tie him to a pole in the village square. Taunted by the women (including Maryana), an embarrassed Lukashka is eventually set free, and still fuming over the incident he gets into a fistfight with his father, then helps track down a group of Turkish prisoners trying to escape (during the ensuing chase, he kills his first man).

Hailed as a hero for his role in recapturing the prisoners, Lukashka (realizing he does, indeed, enjoy the thrill of battle) goes on to become the bravest warrior of them all. Yet despite his new outlook, he refuses to forgive Maryana for turning against him. Then, fate intervenes; while Lukashka and the other men are off fighting the Turks, Prince Olenin Stieshneff (Nils Asher), the son of the Czar, pays a visit to the Cossack village. Instructed by his father to marry a Cossack girl, the Prince sets his sights on the beautiful Maryana. At first, she rebuffs the Prince’s advances, but when Lukashka once again scorns her, a humiliated Maryana agrees to the marriage, all the while hoping her true love will eventually come to his senses.

Even for a movie made in 1928, The Cossacks seems terribly old-fashioned; as the film opens, Ivan and his men are returning home from war. To celebrate their victory, they head straight to the local bar and drink as much vodka as they can get their hands on. The debauchery is interrupted, however, by the ringing of the church’s bells, at which point the men stop the party in its tracks and head outside, kneeling down on one knee until the bells stop clanging (because, as we’re reminded several times throughout the movie, “above all, there is God”). In addition, there are aspects of the story, especially early on, that won’t sit well with modern viewers. Lukashka is called a “woman-man” for refusing to fight, and his disgruntled father declares that he doesn’t have a son (“I have a daughter with a fine nose”, he says). Some of the insults tossed at Lukashka don’t even make sense; when he tries to cozy up to Maryana in a field, she pushes him away, calling him a “chewer of sunflower seeds”!

Its questionable dialogue aside, The Cossacks is, at times, a thrilling adventure film, and features a number of memorable scenes (including a torture sequence towards the end that’s hard to watch). Rising above it all, though, is star John Gilbert; whether playing a pacifist or a fierce soldier, Gilbert’s charismatic performance ensures that his Lukashka is always the movie’s most interesting character, and we root for him even when he seems to have lost his way (at one point, Lukashka tries to hurt Maryana, who is anxious to win him back, by kissing a Gypsy woman in front of her).

Without John Gilbert, The Cossacks still would have been a mildly diverting adventure. With him, it became something more substantial, and serves as a reminder of what it was that Hollywood lost when John Gilbert was allowed to fade away.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#2,350. The Corpse Grinders (1971)

Directed By: Ted V. Mikels

Starring: Sean Kenney, Monika Kelly, Sanford Mitchell

Tag line: "the Corpse Grinders Turn bones and flesh into screaming, savage blood death!"

Trivia: The writer of this film, Joseph Cranston, is the father of Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston

When it came to dreaming up enticing film titles, writer/director Ted V. Mikels was an absolute master. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie called The Black Klansman, Ten Violent Women, or Astro-Zombies? Even if the films themselves weren’t all that impressive (I wasn’t a fan of his 1966 flick Blood Orgy of the She-Devils), Mikels sure as hell knew how to get your attention, and most of the time it worked to his advantage.

Take, for example, The Corpse Grinders; in an interview conducted by author John McCarty for the book The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking, Mikels claimed this 1971 film cost around $47,000 to produce and took in over $3 million at the box office! As for its quality, I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Corpse Grinders a “good” movie, but it definitely kept me entertained.

The Lotus Cat Food Company, owned and operated by Landau (Sanford Mitchell) and his partner Maltby (J, Byron Foster), has found a way to save thousands of dollars in production costs: instead of the typical ingredients, they use nothing but the finest human corpses to make their cat food! Aided by the ill-tempered Caleb (Warren Bell), whose job as a cemetery caretaker provides them with all the dead bodies they can handle; and with the help of their trusty corpse-grinding machine, Landau and Maltby have cornered the pet food market, and are pulling in more money than they ever dreamed possible.

There’s only one problem: their cat food is turning even the most docile kittens into carnivorous beasts with a taste for human flesh! With dozens of attacks reported already, Dr. Howard Glass (Sean Kenney), who was himself nearly mauled to death by a cat belonging to his nurse/girlfriend Angie Robinson (Monika Kelly), begins to wonder if there’s a connection between Lotus’ cat food and the violent behavior of local felines. Together with Angie, Dr. Glass decides to look into the matter. But the closer he gets to uncovering the truth, the more dangerous his investigation becomes.

I’m not sure what percentage of its $47,000 budget was dedicated to building sets and props for The Corpse Grinders, but I’m guessing it wasn’t much; the entire Lotus factory looks like a dank basement (including the main office that Landau and Maltby share), and the “hospital” where Dr. Glass and Angie work is nothing more than a room in somebody’s house. As for the film’s main attraction, aka the dreaded corpse grinding machine, it may not look like much (according to Mikels, it was made out of plywood), but it gets the job done; bodies (underwear and all) go in one end, and a disgusting meat mixture comes out the other (The Corpse Grinders won’t be the most frightening horror film you’ll ever see, but the image of this ground meat pouring from the machine is sure to turn your stomach).

While most of the acting in The Corpse Grinders is less than stellar, both Sanford Mitchell (as the increasingly maniacal Landau) and Sean Kenney (whose Dr. Glass is the hero of the story) do, on occasion, manage to rise above the others; and there are enough oddball moments scattered throughout the film to keep things interesting (no explanation is given as to why Caleb’s wife, played by Ann Noble, walks around with a baby doll, treating it like it was a real child).

In the end, I didn’t enjoy The Corpse Grinders quite enough to seek out its sequels; the direct-to-video The Corpse Grinders II, released in 2000, was also written and directed by Mikels (an entirely different crew took the reins for 2012’s The Corpse Grinders III). But as “so-bad-its-good” movies go, The Corpse Grinders is, at the very least, unique, and this alone makes me happy that I saw it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

#2,349. The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

Directed By: Mary Harron

Starring: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer

Tag line: "The Pin-Up Sensation That Shocked The Nation"

Trivia: Hugh M. Hefner, a good friend of Bettie's, held a private screening of this movie for Bettie Page and a small group of friends

She was called “The Queen of Curves” and “Miss Pinup Girl of the World”. Bettie Page, a Tennessee native who found success as a model in 1950’s New York, appeared in photos that were as scandalous as they were sensational. Though tame today, many of the BDSM pictorials and 16mm films that Page was featured in were deemed pornographic at the time, leading to an investigation by a Senate Committee into the negative effects such photos were having on the youth of America. Yet despite all the controversy surrounding her, Page’s popularity never waned (she was even one of Playboy magazine’s earliest centerfolds).

The Notorious Bettie Page, the exceptional 2005 biopic written and directed by Mary Herron, stylishly delves into the life (both public and private) of Bettie Page while also celebrating the vivacious spirit that turned a God-fearing girl from Nashville into one of the era’s most recognizable sex symbols.

As she waits to testify at a Committee hearing headed up by Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) reflects on her life, from her early days in Nashville and her failed marriage to college football star Billy Neal (Norman Reedus) to the events that brought her to New York City, where she hoped to make a fresh start.

It was while strolling on the beach at Coney Island one sunny afternoon that Bettie met Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll). An NYPD officer and part-time photographer, Tibbs convinced Bettie to take up modeling, and before long she was posing for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor), whose bondage-themed photos were pulling in a small fortune. In addition to working for the Klaws, Bettie also posed for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), a Florida-based photographer whose nude pictorials appeared in magazines across the country.

Page and her entire profession came under scrutiny in the late ‘50s when the Feds launched an investigation to determine the legality of bondage photos. But by then she'd already had enough, and in 1959 Bettie Page became a born-again Christian, and would never again take her clothes off in front of a camera.

Along with her striking resemblance to the title character, Gretchen Mol delivers a fantastic performance as Bettie Page, who, despite her unfortunate past (aside from her marriage to the abusive Billy Neal, there are hints that a teenage Bettie was molested by her father), was always upbeat, and in full control of her own image (during one outdoor photo session she wows a novice photographer by happily agreeing to pose for him in the nude). In addition, writer/director Mary Herron’s bold decision to shoot The Notorious Bettie Page in black and white proved a stroke of genius, and gave the finished product the look and feel of a movie from the era in which its story is set (even the brief splashes of color, including all of the film’s Florida sequences, look as if they were shot in ‘50s-era Technicolor).

With its fine supporting cast (especially Jared Harris as the slightly odd John Willie, a business associate of the Klaws’), exceptional sets and costumes, and the often seamless manner in which period stock footage is incorporated into the movie, The Notorious Bettie Page is, without a doubt, an impressive biopic. But it’s the combined talents of Mol and Herron, not to mention the film’s fascinating main subject, that make it unforgettable.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

#2,348. Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Directed By: George Sidney

Starring: Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova

Tag line: "It's that "go-go" guy and that "bye-bye" gal in the fun capital of the world!"

Trivia: Some theatres chose to bill Ann-Margret above Elvis due to her popularity at the time

The first time I heard the name Elvis Presley was on the day he died.

It was August of 1977, and we had just moved into a new house. My father, returning home after running some errands, told my mother that he heard on the radio Elvis was dead. I had no idea who this person was, yet I could tell by the looks on their faces he was someone pretty important. My mom dug out her original 45 single of “Hard Headed Woman”, but it was an album she bought a few days later, featuring all of Elvis’s number one hits ("Hound Dog", "Love Me Tender", "Jailhouse Rock", and a slew of others) that finally introduced me to the King of Rock and Roll.

It was around this time that I also saw my first Elvis movie, Love Me Tender, though I only watched half of it. Over the years, I would catch bits and pieces of other Presley vehicles, including Jailhouse Rock and 1969’s Change of Habit (which co-starred Mary Tyler Moore), but it wasn’t until today that I finally sat through an entire Elvis Presley film, and I have to say that Viva Las Vegas was much better than I was expecting it to be.

Race car driver (and part-time singer) Lucky Johnson (Elvis) travels from Los Angeles to Nevada to enter his vehicle in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. There’s only one problem: his car doesn’t have an engine! In an effort to purchase one in time for the race, Lucky wins a small fortune at the Flamingo Casino, only to lose the cash a short while later. Unable to pay his hotel bill, Lucky and his chief mechanic Shorty (Nicky Blair) are forced to work as waiters at the Flamingo, giving Lucky plenty of chances to sweep the hotel’s pretty swimming instructor, Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), off her feet. Unfortunately, Italian Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), the European racing champion, also has his eye on Rusty. And what’s more, the Count tells Lucky that he has every intention of finishing first in the upcoming race. Will Lucky win the girl’s heart and the Grand Prix, or is he destined to be the runner-up in both?

Elvis Presley still ranks as one of the most influential rock and roll artists of all-time, but even his most ardent supporters would agree he was (at best) a mediocre actor. In the 1983 book Rating the Movie Stars, which was published by the folks at Consumer Guide magazine, writer Joel Hirschhorn called Presley’s films “a series of silly, tailor-made vehicles”, adding that his fans didn’t seem to mind “his total lack of talent as an actor”. While I’m certainly no expert on Presley’s movie career (in fact, I’m a novice), Hirschhorn’s statement strikes me as being a bit harsh.

In Viva Las Vegas, at least, Elvis proved himself a competent comedic performer (a late scene in which he intentionally ruins the Count’s dinner date with Rusty has some funny moments), and he and co-star Ann-Margret had great chemistry together (according to the tabloids, their romance continued even when the cameras weren’t rolling). And, of course, Elvis is given several opportunities to do what he did best, belting out such memorable tunes as the title number, “Come On, Everybody”, and a spirited cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”.

That said, I don’t consider Elvis Presley the true star of Viva Las Vegas; in almost every scene in which they appear together, he’s upstaged by Ann-Margret. Fresh off of her star-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie, Ann-Margret lights up the screen as Rusty. Her very first scene is as enticing as they come (she strolls into the garage where Lucky and The Count are hanging out, wearing tight white shorts and an equally sexy red top), and her dance routine at the school auditorium is an absolute show-stopper. In addition, the film’s best song (in my opinion, anyway), is “The Lady Loves Me”, which Elvis and Ann-Margret perform as a duet, and while Elvis does manage to hold his own in the acting department, it’s clear that, even at this early stage of her career, Ann-Margret was a much better actor than the King of Rock and Roll.

Viva Las Vegas was certainly not perfect; the film dragged (badly) in the middle, and the tumultuous nature of Lucky’s and Rusty’s relationship was maddening at times (she loved him one moment, couldn’t stand him the next). But as a lighthearted vehicle for both Elvis and Ann-Margret, Viva Las Vegas is a breezy bit of cinematic fun.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

#2,347. The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)

Directed By: Matthew Robbins

Starring: Helen Slater, Christian Slater, Keith Gordon

Tag line: "The last thing she ever expected was to become a hero"

Trivia: A dance rave sequence was filmed, but cut from the final finished version of the movie

The Legend of Billie Jean is a teenager’s fantasy. Well, an ‘80s-era teenager, anyway; there’s a good chance that kids nowadays will roll their eyes at some of what happens in this movie. And it's not just the youngsters who'll have issues with it, either (my eyes were rolling quite a bit as well). 

That's not to say this 1985 film is a total dud. In fact, there were things about it that I really liked. But for the most part, The Legend of Billie Jean was pretty damn silly.

Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater) and her younger brother Binx (Christian Slater) live with their mother (Mona Lee Fultz) in a trailer park in Corpus Christi, Texas. They are harassed on a daily basis by Hubie (Barry Tubb) and his pals, who go so far as to steal Binx’s beloved moped and vandalize it. In a fit of rage, Binx runs off to get his revenge, causing a concerned Billie Jean to head straight to the police. Though sympathetic, Det. Ringwald (Peter Coyote) says there’s not much he can do at this point and tells Billie Jean to go home and wait for her brother.

But when Binx returns battered and bloody, Billie Jean decides enough is enough, and confronts Hubie’s father, store owner Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), demanding that he pay to repair her brother’s moped. Instead of helping, Mr. Pyatt tries to rape Billie Jean, resulting in a confrontation during which Binx pulls a gun and fires it. Now wanted criminals, Billie Jean and Binx hit the road along with their friends Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardley Smith), with plans to leave Corpus Christi once and for all.

But something happens when the local media gets hold of the story. While the adults in town want to see the siblings locked away for good, the kids of Corpus Christi take an instant liking to Billie Jean and begin to idolize her. Their standing as cult heroes is further solidified when, one evening, Billie Jean, Binx, and the others break into a mansion belonging to Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a wannabe filmmaker and the son of the State’s District Attorney (Dean Stockwell). Instead of turning them in, Lloyd agrees to become their “hostage”, and during their travels together he shoots video of Billie Jean, which is then delivered to various news organizations in Corpus Christi. In the videos, Billie Jean says she only wants justice, and for Mr. Pyatt to pay for the damages to Binx’s moped. But will Billie Jean get what she’s after, or will she and the others end up in jail for a very, very long time?

The best thing about The Legend of Billie Jean is its cast. Helen Slater brings a genuine likability to Billie Jean, giving the movie a hero you can root for; and a 15-year-old Christian Slater (making his big-screen debut) is equally good as her hot-headed younger brother. Along with the two Slaters (despite playing siblings here, they are not related in real life), Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa in The Simpsons) is memorable as the boisterous Putter, who joins Billie Jean and Binx on their adventure; and Keith Gordon, playing their friend and hostage Lloyd, proves that the exceptional work he did in Dressed to Kill and Christine was no fluke. As for the adults, Richard Bradford is awesome as the villain (I really wanted to punch his character, Mr Pyatt, who is a slimeball in almost every scene), but the best performance is delivered by Peter Coyote as Det. Ringwald, the kindly cop tasked with bringing the young fugitives to justice.

In addition to the cast, The Legend of Billie Jean has a kick-ass ‘80s soundtrack, headed up by Pat Benatar's “Invincible” (the film’s official theme song); and director Matthew Robbins handles the initial scenes (the moped’s destruction and Billie Jean’s attempt to collect the repair money) quite well, getting the movie off to a great start.

It’s the second half of The Legend of Billie Jean where things begin to fall apart. I had no problem with the movie making Billie Jean a sort of folk hero, but instead of taking this aspect of the story and using it as social commentary (misunderstood youth lashing out) or even a criticism of the media’s role in glorifying lawbreakers (a la Natural Born Killers), the filmmakers give us a series of absurd scenes that transform Billie Jean into a bonafide superhero! In what is easily the movie's most ridiculous sequence, Billie Jean is led by a group of kids (that she never met before) to the house of a young boy who is being abused by his alcoholic father. What does Billie Jean do? She marches into the house and confronts the father, demanding that he let the son leave with her! Intended to be inspirational, this scene was so heavy-handed that it actually made me chuckle. And while most motion pictures, to one degree or another, require a suspension of disbelief, The Legend of Billie Jean wants us to stick our collective heads in the sand, accepting that its lead character can interact with every kid in Corpus Christi (who crowd around her by the dozen) while at the same time avoiding the police, who are out in force looking for her.

I give Robbins and the screenwriters (Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner) points for their earnest attempt to make The Legend of Billie Jean a Bonnie and Clyde for the younger generation, and had I seen this movie in 1985 I probably would’ve loved it; being a teenager myself at the time, its message of youthful rebellion would have undoubtedly won me over. But I’m well past fitting into this film’s ideal demographic, and my adult sensibilities wouldn’t allow me to ignore its weaknesses, no matter how hard I tried.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

#2,346. Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Directed By: Cedric Gibbons

Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Neil Hamilton

Tag line: "Johnny Weismuller is back again!"

Trivia: The "African" elephants were actually Indian elephants fitted with prosthetic tusks and ears

A sequel to the immensely popular Tarzan the Ape Man and the second in the Johnny Weissmuller / Tarzan series, 1934’s Tarzan and his Mate contained as much action and excitement as its predecessor while, at the same time, giving pre-code audiences a few extra thrills they probably weren’t expecting.

A year has passed since Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) disappeared into the jungle with her new beau, Tarzan (Weissmuller). Yet try as he might to forget her, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), a former business partner of Jane’s father, is still very much in love with her, and is planning another expedition to the elephant graveyard in part to try and talk Jane into returning to civilization. Harry is joined this time around by his old friend Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh), an aristocrat who is flat broke, and is hoping to retrieve enough ivory from the graveyard to rebuild his fortune.

Soon after their journey begins, Harry and Martin do indeed meet up with Tarzan and Jane, and to Harry’s disappointment, Jane says she has never been happier, and is quite content to spend the rest of her days at Tarzan’s side. The expedition is further complicated when Tarzan, who is guiding the two explorers to the elephant graveyard, tells Harry and Martin that under no circumstances are they to remove any ivory from this sacred spot. But Martin has come too far to go home empty-handed, and concocts a plan that, if successful, will get Tarzan out of the way once and for all.

Like Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and his Mate is jam-packed with action; before their initial encounter with Tarzan and Jane, Harry and Martin chase down fellow explorers Pierce (William Stack) and Van Ness (Desmond Roberts), who stole the map Harry made during his excursion to the elephant graveyard a year earlier. Harry and Martin do eventually recover the map, only to find themselves immediately surrounded by a bloodthirsty tribe of cannibals! The excitement continues once Tarzan and Jane show up, with Weissmuller’s Tarzan again fighting off lions and crocodiles in an effort to keep Jane safe; and a late run-in with another hostile tribe results in what is easily the film’s most intense battle sequence (which, before it’s over, will pull gorillas, lions, and even a few elephants into the fracas).

Along with the action, Tarzan and His Mate features a number of risqué moments that likely had the censors seeing red. Martin, who is also infatuated with Jane, makes several aggressive passes at her and at one point stares at Jane’s nude silhouette (while she’s in a tent trying on clothes). Yet the movie’s most erotic sequence comes a bit later, when Tarzan and a completely naked Jane perform what appears to be an underwater ballet. Though tastefully shot by director Cedric Gibbons, this scene nonetheless drags on longer than it should have, and we see much more than Jane’s silhouette as she and Tarzan playfully swim in circles (these nude scenes were handled not by O’Sullivan, but her underwater stand-in, Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim).

As you might imagine, this brief bit of nudity didn’t go unnoticed; Joseph Breen, the P.R. director for the MPPDA, refused to give Tarzan and His Mate a seal of approval because it showed a girl “completely in the nude”, and within a few weeks of its release, an order was sent out that all prints of the film had to excise this scene prior to any further public exhibition (for the DVD, this sequence was edited back into the movie).

Without its more suggestive elements, Tarzan and his Mate is still a rip-roaring action film, and one of the best sequels ever made. With them, it stands as a shining example of just how far pre-code Hollywood was willing to push the envelope. Either way, it’s well worth seeking out, and together with Tarzan the Ape Man would make for one hell of an afternoon double feature.

Friday, April 28, 2017

#2,345. The Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969)

Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: John Carradine, Paula Raymond, Alex D'Arcy


Trivia: The introductory sequence was shot at Marineland, located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County

At this point, I know what to expect from an Al Adamson film; along with their shoddy production values, his movies usually feature actors and actresses who aren’t quite up to snuff. Like most of the director’s flicks, 1969’s The Blood of Dracula’s Castle was produced on a shoestring budget, and as a result the set pieces and make-up effects fall well short of the mark. This time out, though, Adamson was able to assemble a decent stable of actors, all of whom do their best to make The Blood of Dracula’s Castle a tolerable motion picture.

I’d even go so far as to say I had a good time watching it.

The Count (Alex D’Arcy) and Countess Townsend (Paula Raymond), aka Dracula and his bride, are centuries-old vampires, and for the past 60 years have been living in a California castle with their longtime butler George (John Carradine) and a deformed mute servant named Mango (Ray Young). To satisfy the Townsend’s thirst for blood, Mango roams the countryside, capturing nubile young women and dragging them to the castle, where George chains them to the wall and, each night, draws blood from them. Thus far, this set-up has worked well for the Count and Countess, and they welcome the recent news that another of their faithful servants, the handsome but psychopathic Johnny (Robert Dix), has just escaped from prison and is on his way back to them.

But the good times might be coming to an end sooner than they think. It seems that the owner of the castle the Townsend’s call home has died, and left the property to his estranged nephew, Glenn (Gene Otis Shayne), a fashion photographer engaged to be married to his voluptuous model, Liz (Jennifer Bishop). The Townsends’ attempts to reach an agreement with Glenn fail to generate any results, and before long the new owner announces that he and Liz intend to move into the castle as soon as possible (meaning the Count and Countess must go). As Glenn will discover, however, the Townsends and their domestic staff are an ornery bunch, and they have no intention of leaving the premises peacefully.

John Carradine, a Hollywood veteran who spent his later years dabbling in low-budget schlock, is predictably solid as George, the moon-worshiping butler whose chief job is to draw the blood that keeps his employers alive; and Robert Dix proves he can play a psychopath as well as anyone (his Johnny even turns into a werewolf some nights when the moon is full, an aspect of the story that, for some bizarre reason, is never fully explained). The real stars of The Blood of Dracula’s Castle, though, are Alex D’Arcy and Paula Raymond, who, by bringing an air of sophistication to the Count and Countess Townsend, single-handedly transform the film into a dark comedy. While introducing themselves to Ann (Vicki Volante), the newest addition to their plasma supply chain, the Townsends reveal to the frightened young lady that they’re vampires, and they need her blood to stay alive. Ann, of course, scoffs at the notion that these two are, in reality, the living dead. “Well, I know we may seem to be a novelty”, the Countess replies matter-of-factly, “but there are a few of us left”. Acting at all times like a pair of rich snobs on their way to a high-society ball, D’Arcy and Raymond are genuinely funny, and the scenes in which they appear are, without question, the film’s strongest.

Its cast aside, The Blood of Dracula’s Castle features a threadbare storyline that runs out of steam at about the halfway point (even a sacrifice to the Moon God falls flat), and the make-up used to depict Mango’s deformity looks like it’s always about to slide off his face. Thanks to D’Arcy and Raymond, however, this particular Al Adamson monster flick has its moments.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

#2,344. The Hearse (1980)

Directed By: George Bowers

Starring: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux

Tag line: "There is a door between life and death and now, that door is open!"

Trivia: William Bleich originally devised this movie as a more teen-oriented slasher outing when he was first hired to write the script

The Hearse, a 1980 horror film, harkens back to an earlier time when a haunted house and a creepy mystery were all that was required to give an audience a good scare. Unfortunately, director George Bowers and his crew forgot that one basic element that even a classically-styled horror movie can’t do without: imagination. From start to finish, The Hearse is a routine fright flick, and never once does it bring anything new to the table.

In need of a change, recently divorced schoolteacher Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) decides to spend the summer at a country house that belonged to her late Aunt, who died 30 years earlier under bizarre circumstances. The house has been abandoned for decades, and Pritchard (Joseph Cotton), the lawyer who handled the aunt’s will, was hoping to buy it from Jane’s family. Needless to say, he’s none too happy that Jane is suddenly interested in the old place, and does what he can to discourage her from staying. 

But Pritchard isn’t the only one in town who treats her badly; aside from Paul (Perry Lang), a lovestruck teenager Jane hires to work as her handyman, the rest of the townsfolk want nothing to do with their newest resident, especially when they discover whose house she's living in.

According to local legend, Jane’s aunt spent her final days romancing a man who worshiped Satan, and in so doing made an unholy pact with the devil. Jane dismisses these stories as rumor and innuendo, but after a while begins to experience some strange phenomena of her own, including a black hearse that follows her wherever she goes. Things improve temporarily for Jane when she meets Tom Sullivan (David Gautreaux), with whom she falls in love. But is Tom really who he claims to be, or does he know more about the house’s history than he’s letting on?

Trish Van Devere delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed Jane, who won’t let anyone or anything (living or otherwise) run her out of town, and Perry Lang is also good as the young man who develops a crush on her. In addition, The Hearse marked the big-screen debut of Christopher McDonald (Requiem for a Dream. Happy Gilmore), who plays one of Paul’s friends, and while I can’t find him listed anywhere in the credits, I’m 99% certain that Dennis Quaid makes a cameo appearance in the film (as a repairman who is on-screen for about 10 seconds). As for Joseph Cotten, the role of Pritchard won’t be remembered as one of his finest screen portrayals, but it’s always fun to see him in this sort of movie.

Alas, try as they might, the cast of The Hearse can’t save it from the throes of mediocrity; the scares are of the generic variety (banging doors, quick glimpses of a ghost in a mirror, etc.), and while Jane is, indeed, a determined, strong-minded woman, she also isn’t very bright (she doesn’t go to the police when someone breaks into her house one evening). Yet the film’s worst aspect is its central mystery, which is anything but mysterious. In fact, it’s as predictable as they come, making the “big reveal” at the end a major disappointment.

Even in 1980, when slasher films were all the rage, it was still possible to make a decent haunted house movie; The Changeling (which also co-starred Van Devere, playing opposite her real-life husband George C. Scott) was released that year and is a damn scary motion picture. But then, The Changeling wasn’t afraid to try something new, whereas The Hearse gives us nothing we haven’t seen before.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

#2,343. Fairy Tales (1978)

Directed By: Harry Tampa

Starring: Don Sparks, Sy Richardson, Irwin Corey

Tag line: "A lusty, rowdy spoof of all your favorite fairy tales!"

Trivia: Martha Reeves was apparently unaware that she was appearing in an adult film, until she took members of her church to see it.

Fresh off the success of Cinderella in 1977, Charles Band and company again threw their hat into the adult arena with Fairy Tales, a 1978 musical sex spoof that takes aim at a number of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

The Prince (Don Sparks) has just turned 21, and the entire kingdom expects him to produce an heir. But there’s a problem: the Prince is a virgin, and says the only girl who enflames his passion is Beauty (Linnea Quigley), who he’s never actually met! Still, the law is quite clear on this matter, and if the Prince doesn’t find a mate by the middle of the week, he must forfeit his claim to the throne.

So, it’s off to the far-away land of make-believe, where the Prince strikes out with Bo-Peep (Angela Aames) and doesn’t find a single girl who tickles his fancy at the brothel co-owned by Gussie Gander (Brenda Fogarty), aka the madam who lives in a shoe, and her pimp Sirus (Cy Richardson). Not even an encounter with the perpetually horny King Cole (Bob Leslie) can inspire the Prince to take his predicament more seriously. But Sirus and Gussie have one more surprise hidden up their sleeves, and if it’s successful, this story will surely have a happy ending.

A handful of familiar faces turns up throughout Fairy Tales, including Cy Richardson (the Fairy Godmother in Band’s Cinderella) as the pimp Sirus; Angelo Rossitto (the diminutive actor who portrayed “Master” in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) as Otto, co-sheriff of the territory; and Linnea Quigley (in her screen debut) as Beauty, the only girl the Prince has the hots for.

Along with its talented cast, Fairy Tales features some decent musical numbers. The opening song, a hilarious tune titled “Been a Virgin Too Long”, is performed by a trio of royal physicians (Irwin Corey, Robert Harris, and Simmy Bow) who urge the Prince to go out and find a wife; and while Snow White (Anne Gaybis), one of Gussie’s best “girls”, is busy belting out a song, her seven dwarfs join in on the act, tearing off Snow White’s clothes as she parades around the room! In addition, there’s a BDSM-themed ditty that owes more than a little to the Andrew Sisters; and Motown sensation Martha Reeves even shows up to sing a catchy disco tune. Fairy Tales also has its share of humor, with plenty of one-liners that hit the mark (while leading the Prince into the brothel / shoe, Sirus tells him it is “The place where Pinocchio got his first nose job”).

Not all of the musical numbers are entertaining (Bo-Peep’s song, which she performs moments after meeting the Prince, was like nails on a chalkboard for me), and despite its short runtime the movie still drags in spots (especially the late scenes involving King Cole). But odds are that, if you enjoyed Cinderella, you’ll probably get a kick out of Fairy Tales, too.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#2,342. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke

Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Neil Hamilton

Tag line: "He Knew Only The Law Of The Jungle...To Seize What He Wanted"

Trivia: Clark Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan, but was deemed too much of an unknown to play the ape man

Tarzan has been a popular cinematic hero since the days of silent movies, and in my lifetime alone there have been a number of films featuring Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous jungle dweller. The year 1981 saw the release of John Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (starring his wife, Bo Derek, as Jane); and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hit theaters in 1984. Even Disney threw their hat into the ring with an exceptional 1999 animated musical/adventure, and in 2016 Alexander Skarsgård played the title role in The Legend of Tarzan.

But for those of us who love the classics, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan, and 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man marked the first of many times he would portray this iconic character.

Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) has made the long journey from England to Africa to visit her father James (C. Aubrey Smith), who owns a trading post that borders the jungle. But while Jane is busy taking in the rustic beauty of her new surroundings, dear old dad is trying to raise enough cash to leave Africa once and for all, and with the help of his business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), he’s concocted a scheme that will net more money than he’s ever had before. In short, James and Harry are undertaking an expedition to find the fabled Elephant Graveyard, a place that, if it exists, will surely house enough ivory to make both of them extremely rich. Against the wishes of Harry and her father, Jane decides to tag along, and together the trio (as well as a handful of servants and guides) make their way deep into the jungle.

Many dangers lie ahead of them, including snakes and crocodiles, but one thing they didn’t expect to find was Tarzan (Weissmuller), who, despite his obvious European lineage, lives among the creatures of the jungle, unable to speak or understand a word of English. Swinging through the trees from vine to vine, Tarzan abducts Jane (the first white woman he’s ever seen) and carries her back to his treetop home. As James and Harry search frantically for her, Jane tries to communicate with her captor, and over time she and Tarzan develop feelings for one another, but is love enough to keep them together, or will their differences ultimately force them apart?

Tarzan the Ape Man is a top-notch adventure movie; even before the title character hits the screen, there’s excitement aplenty (while traveling down the river on makeshift rafts, Jane and her companions encounter angry hippos and hungry crocodiles; and a walk along the side of s sheer cliff nearly costs Jane her life). Once the Ape Man himself enters the picture, the action kicks into high gear, with Tarzan and his pet chimp Cheeta dodging a steady stream of ravenous jungle cats (director Van Dyke recruited a number of real animals for the film, though Tarzan’s ape “family” was mostly men in suits).

Weissmuller may not have been the most charismatic actor ever to play Tarzan, but physically he was perfect for the role (a world-class swimmer, he won gold medals at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics), and O’Sullivan delivers a spirited performance as Jane (carrying the scenes she shares with Weissmuller on her own). But as well-realized as these two characters are, even they take a back seat to the film’s numerous action scenes, all of which are flawlessly staged (the final sequence, when Tarzan must save Jane and the others from a violent pygmy tribe, is as thrilling as it gets).

The first in what would be a long-running series (12 movies in all), Tarzan the Ape Man is arguably the best adventure film to come out of Hollywood during the pre-code era, and one of the greatest of all-time.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#2,341. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Directed By: Gene Wilder

Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman

Line from the film: "Is this rotten or wonderfully brave?"

Trivia: Apparently, Gene Wilder asked Mel Brooks to direct this picture. Brooks declined, stating that he would find it difficult to direct a screenplay that wasn't his own

Fresh off of Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder wrote and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, a 1975 comedy that co-starred a trio of Mel Brooks regulars (Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise). Brooks himself even lent his voice to the production (he utters one line, spoken off-screen, when a character walks through a wrong door). 

Unfortunately, the “Brooks Touch” could only take this film so far; intended as a spoof of a classic mystery, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is funny in parts, but doesn’t match the sustained hilarity of Mel Brooks’ best work, making it a hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits).

A secret document that Queen Victoria (Susan Field) entrusted to the British Foreign Minister, Redcliff (John Le Mesurier), has been stolen. Instead of tackling the theft himself, renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) passes the case to his younger brother Sigerson (Wilder), who he hasn’t seen in years. To assist his brother, Sherlock hires Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker (Feldman), a Scotland Yard detective with a photographic sense of hearing, and together Sacker and Sigerson begin looking for clues, knowing full well that if the document falls into the wrong hands, it will plunge England into a costly war.

Sigerson’s first break in the case comes when actress Jenny Hill (Kahn) pays him a visit. Though she’s clearly a pathological liar, the younger Holmes gathers enough information from Ms. Hill to discover that the document is currently in the hands of Opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (Dom DeLuise), who intends to sell it to none other than Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis Dr. Moriarty (Leo McKern)! Despite the fact he cannot trust her, Sigerson soon falls in love with Ms. Hill, and is determined to protect her at all costs. But how does she figure into this bizarre case? Further still, can Sigerson and Sgt. Sacker retrieve the document before Moriarty turns it over to a foreign power?

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother does have some very funny moments, including Sigerson’s first meeting with Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn, always a gifted comedienne, is especially good throughout the movie); as well as  Moriarty’s initial attempt to buy the document from Gambetti (DeLuise is so deliciously over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh at his antics). In addition, there’s a horse-drawn carriage chase that has a great payoff, but it’s the big opera scene towards the end that is the film’s most uproarious sequence (Gambetti translated an Italian opera into English, putting his own unique spin on the story, and the result is positively hilarious).

But with its straightforward approach to its central mystery (which is never as well-defined as it should be), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother doesn’t really work as a spoof (aside from a clever bit at the beginning, Sherlock Holmes and his illustrious sidekick Dr. Watson, played by Thorley Walters, are hardly in the movie at all), and many of the jokes fall flat (a ballroom dance scene late in the film, set moments after Sigerson and Sacker have escaped a deadly trap, drags on a bit too long to be fully effective).

I hate to dismiss the film completely, in part because I remember loving it as a kid (I recorded a sanitized version off of network TV in the ‘80s, so this is actually the first time I’ve seen the movie in its unedited form), but if it’s laughs you’re after, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is only fitfully successful at delivering them.