Thursday, December 14, 2017

#2,476. The Sister in Law (1974)

Directed By: Joseph Ruben

Starring: John Savage, Will MacMillan, Anne Saxon

Tag line: "She Kept It All In The Family!"

Trivia: John Savage who starred as the principle lead in this film also provided much of the music. He wrote and performed three original songs for the film

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Crown International (an independent studio that had been around since 1959) released an array of exploitation films, from teen comedies (Malibu Beach, Weekend Pass) to horror flicks (The Crater Lake Monster, The Hearse) and a few that straddled the line between the two (1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf). 

At first glance, writer / director Joseph Ruben’s 1974 movie The Sister in Law has all the makings of a typical Crown International picture; there’s plenty of nudity, as well as a handful of spicy sex scenes. But unlike many of the company’s other offerings, The Sister in Law is a searing drama, relating the often intriguing tale of a family that’s coming apart at the seams. 

After spending a year or so hitchhiking across America, Robert Strong (John Savage) returns home to discover that his sister in law Joanna (Anne Saxon), the wife of his older brother Edward (Will MacMillan), has moved in with his parents (Jack Cooper and Jan DeCarlo). According to Joanna, Edward shacked up with a younger woman and intends to file for a divorce. Yet as unusual as Joanna’s current living arrangements are, things take an even stranger turn when she and Robert hop into bed together! 

Robert does manage to hide their affair from the rest of the family, including Edward, whose writing career has hit a snag. In fact, Edward needs money so badly that he’s even agreed to become a bag man for a local gangster. Unfortunately, the mob wants Edward to make a pick-up in Canada the very weekend that he’s flying to California, where he hopes to land a job as a screenwriter. So, Robert agrees to take his brother’s place, and accompanied by Edward’s new girlfriend Deborah (Meredith Baer), he makes his way north to the pick-up location, not realizing until it’s too late that the contents of the package he’s transporting could change his and Edward’s lives forever. 

John Savage (in one of his earlier roles) and Will MacMillan are both excellent as the brothers with differing ideals; Robert is a free spirit who doesn’t have many worldly possessions (he took very little along with him on his tour of the U.S.A.), while his brother, who until recently was a successful author, wants nothing more than to maintain the luxurious lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to, so much so that its forced him to work for some very shady characters. 

In addition, a fierce sibling rivalry between the two brothers occasionally rears its ugly head (a friendly game of basketball in the pool eventually turns violent), especially when it comes to the women in Edward’s life. Even though he plans to divorce Joanna, Edward would be none too happy to learn that Robert is now sleeping with her (their sex scenes are easily the film’s steamiest moments), and it’s obvious early on that Joanna (played so well by Anne Saxon) only seduced Robert to get back at Edward. During their trip to Canada, Robert even has a fling with Deborah! Clearly, the brothers have their issues, and we see just how poisonous their relationship has become when Edward sends the unsuspecting Robert to Canada, never telling him what it is he’s supposed to pick up. 

The Sister In Law does have its share of exploitative scenes (at one point, Joanna and Deborah get into a catfight, during which they both fall into the pool), but with its folksy soundtrack (with music performed by Savage himself) and an ending that will shock the hell out of you, The Sister In Law proves to be much more than a trashy skin flick, and odds are you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Friday, December 8, 2017

#2,475. Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Tag line: "Your Eyes...Your Ears...Your Senses...Will Be Overwhelmed"

Trivia: Shortly after filming began, director Terrence Malick tossed out the script, relying instead on the improvisation of the actors

As I mentioned in my write-up of Medium Cool, I had taken several mass media courses in college, all geared towards video production (which, at that point in the early ‘90s, was where the jobs were). Yet, despite its focus, the instructor dedicated three consecutive classes to the art of film. The first week we watched and discussed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and in the second we got a chance to analyze Hitchcock’s Psycho

Being a movie fan, I had seen both of these before, but the third week’s film, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, was new to me. 

A period piece that whisks us back to the early days of the 20th century, Days of Heaven is one of the most striking motion pictures I’ve ever seen, and it continues to rank among my favorites of all-time, a position its held since that first viewing all those years ago. 

The year is 1916. Following a violent confrontation with his boss, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (Richard Gere) hops the next train out of town, taking with him his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his adolescent sister Linda (Linda Manz). The train carries the trio all the way to the Texas panhandle, where Bill and Abby get jobs (alongside hundreds of immigrants) harvesting the fields of a rich farmer (played by Sam Shepard). 

To avoid any controversy, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, a lie that works to their advantage when the Farmer, who Bill learns is dying of an unknown illness, falls in love with Abby. Hoping to get his hands on the farmer’s wealth when he passes away, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer, thus setting herself up to be his sole heir. 

But as the months drag on, the farmer’s health seems to improve, and Bill finds himself on the outside looking in when Abby begins to develop feelings for her new husband. 

Most movies, especially those as visually stunning as Days of Heaven, have no need of a narrator; the images speak for themselves. Yet the narration provided by young star Linda Manz is one of thIS film’s best features. Along with sharing a few of her thoughts on its various characters, Manz’s Linda is often as observant as Malick’s camera, commenting on things that don’t necessarily forward the plot, but add to the film’s reflective tone (“Nobody’s perfect”, Linda says at one point in her thick New York accent. “There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you”). 

Yet what truly makes Days of Heaven such a noteworthy motion picture is its gorgeous cinematography (handled by both Nestor Almendros and an uncredited Haskell Wexler) as well as Malick’s keen sense of what makes a particular image so interesting (in one of the documentaries presented on the Blu-Ray, we’re told that Malick didn’t really follow a shot plan, choosing instead to film whatever caught his eye). 

Days of Heaven does offer a few memorable moments, such as the locust infestation that threatens to ruin the farmer’s crop; and the fire that spreads out of control when he and the workers try to drive these pesky insects away. But the movie is at its best when, as with the narration, the visuals don’t serve the story (some of the long shots of the workers toiling in the fields are positively breathtaking). 

With its emphasis on imagery over dialogue and story, Days of Heaven may seem overly pretentious to some viewers. For me, though, its visuals were more than enough to hold my attention; you could lift just about any frame from this film and hang it on your wall. Days of Heaven is arthouse cinema at its most engaging.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#2,474. The Devil's Candy (2015)

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Tag line: "He Will Slither into your Soul"

Trivia: Came in 3rd place for Best Feature at the 2016 Sheffield Horror Film Festival

I first saw director Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy earlier this year, and was beyond impressed. It was a deeply troubling horror film that delved into some dark areas, all the while centering on a very likable young family. I knew then that the movie was special, and when I finally picked up the Blu-Ray a few months later I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it again. 

But something quite unexpected happened during that subsequent viewing. Even though I knew exactly what was coming, The Devil’s Candy still managed to disturb me more the second time than it did initially. In fact, there was a moment when I had to stop the movie and collect my thoughts, which I didn’t even consider doing the first time I watched it. 

It was a unique experience for me; I’ve been frightened by films before, but I can’t remember another one that scared me more the second time around, and the fact that The Devil’s Candy did so is a tribute to both its director and his excellent cast. 

Despite their money troubles, the Hellman family: struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry); his wife Astrid (Shari Appleby); and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), just moved into their dream house, a beautiful Texas residence that’s well off the beaten path. There’s even an old barn out back, which Jesse transforms into an art studio. And while Zooey is somewhat apprehensive about attending a brand new school, the Hellmans are confident they’ll be happy in their home for many years to come. 

But the house has a dark history; Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a mentally backward man whose family once owned the dwelling, used to say he heard voices coming from behind his bedroom wall, and one night those voices told him to murder his parents. Because their deaths were ruled an accident, Ray Smilie is still a free man, and catches the Hellmans off-guard when he shows up on their front porch one evening, asking is he can move back into his old room. Though he feels sorry for Ray, Jesse refuses to let him inside. 

And it’s a good thing, too, because the voices continue to haunt Ray Smilie, telling him to do terrible things to children, and convincing him that he should now set his sights on young Zooey! 

As for Jesse, he, too, has started hearing the voices, which speak to him through his artwork. In a trance one afternoon, Jesse even paints a picture that suggests Zooey is in great danger. 

Can Jesse protect his daughter from Ray Smilie, or has Zooey’s fate already been determined by a force greater than all of them? 

So why did The Devil’s Candy upset me more the second time than the first? The answer is simple: I cared about the Hellman clan, so much so that I didn’t want to see them go through what I knew was coming. From the beginning, it’s obvious the Hellmans are a tight-knit family, and that Jesse and Zooey in particular share a special bond with one another. Ethan Embry was the perfect choice to play Jesse, the well-meaning father who passed his passion for heavy metal music on to his daughter, and Kiara Glasco is equally good as Zooey, who, thanks to her upbringing, is a thoughtful, intelligent young woman. Shari Appleby is also convincing as Astrid, who, though she doesn’t share the same interests as Jesse and Zooey, is a loving mother, but it’s the relationship between father and daughter that pulls us in and makes us fear the evil we know is coming for them. 

Yet despite the horrific things he does throughout the movie (including one very traumatic sequence involving the abduction of a young boy), we realize early on that Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Ray Smilie is as much a victim as any other character in this film. We meet Ray in the first scene, a flashback to the night he murdered his parents. To drown out the voices that are filling his head with terrible thoughts, Ray stands in his darkened bedroom, playing his Flying V electric guitar as loudly as he can. Ray wants the voices to go away, and has no desire to carry out their orders (he even says as much to his potential victims), but his simplistic nature has made it impossible for him to fight the demon controlling his mind. Vince has always been an underrated actor, and in The Devil’s Candy he manages to make us feel sorry for a character that more than once transforms into a monster before our very eyes. 

With The Devil’s Candy, writer / director Sean Byrne has crafter a singular motion picture, and thanks to his steady hand and the excellent performances turned in by his cast the movie loses none of its effectiveness from one viewing to the next. There are instances when familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt, but in the case of The Devil’s Candy it only manages to stir up dread.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

#2,473. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Line from the film: "We belong to two opposing sides. If we meet again... one of us will have to die"

Trivia:  Yimou Zhang chose world famous opera diva Kathleen Battle to sing the theme song for this film

As a follow-up to his 2002 film Hero, director Zhang Yimou once again delved into the martial arts genre with House of Flying Daggers, a motion picture every bit as exciting – and just as beautiful – as its predecessor. 

In 9th century China, towards the end of the Teng Dynasty, a rebel organization known as the Flying Daggers is attempting to overthrow the corrupt provincial government. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express), a member of the local police force, is ordered by his Captain (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) to go undercover and win the trust of Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a blind dancing girl recently taken into custody. Both Jin and the Captain are convinced Mei is, in fact, the daughter of the recently-deceased leader of the Flying Daggers, and it’s their hope that she will lead them straight to the group’s secret headquarters. 

After “helping” Mei escape, Jin (who tells her his name is “The Wind”) follows her deep into the wilderness, doing his best to steer clear of the government troops that are trailing close behind. But during their adventure, Jin and Mei develop feelings for one another, causing Jin to question his loyalties; should he continue with his mission, or protect the woman he now loves? 

In my write-up of Hero, I called it “an all-out attack on the senses” and “an amazing barrage of sights and sounds that never seems to end”. The same can be said for House of Flying Daggers. This movie is incredible; a visual smorgasbord that features one stunning scene after another. Early on, we’re treated to the “Echo Game”, a colorful, wonderfully choreographed sequence in which the Police Captain challenges Mei to a very unusual contest. Equally as good is a later scene set in a bamboo forest, where Jin and Mei battle the government troops attacking them from high atop the trees. 

These are but two of the many extraordinary sequences to be found in House of Flying Daggers, and thanks to the combined efforts of director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, and the movie’s excellent special effects crew, the action-oriented scenes are both thrilling and visually awe-inspiring. 

While the story itself (which centers on the love affair that develops between its two leads) may not be as grand in scope as the one told in Hero, director Yimou and his writers throw a few unexpected plot twists into the mix to keep things interesting. This, along with its mind-blowing imagery and exceptional fight scenes, makes House of Flying Daggers, like Hero before it, an astounding cinematic achievement that is not to be missed.

Friday, December 1, 2017

#2,472. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray

Tag line: "His life is fantastic... his wife is fantastic... his neighbors, not so fantastic"

Trivia: Altogether, 535 puppets were made for the film (Mr. Fox had 17 different styles alone)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful rarity; a kid-friendly animated adventure that is unlike any movie director Wes Anderson ever made before, yet still bears the unmistakable markings of a Wes Anderson film. 

After learning that his beloved wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a notorious chicken thief, vows to find a new line of work. 

Several years pass. Mr. Fox is now a well-respected (if somewhat obscure) newspaper columnist, and his young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is proving to be a handful (Ash is not only a bit odd, but he seldom does what he’s told). When informed that his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) will be coming to stay with them for a while, Mr. Fox decides to move his family into a bigger, above-ground home, one that overlooks three prestigious poultry farms owned and operated by Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon). 

Itching to return to his life of crime, Mr. Fox teams up with his new handyman Kylie the Possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and raids the trio of farms adjacent to his property. But Boggis, Bunce, and especially Bean are not to be trifled with, and the three join forces in an attempt to rid themselves of a very pesky Fox. 

Will Mr. Fox win out in the end, or are his thieving days behind him for good? 

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that the entire family can enjoy, with a colorful lead character (handled wonderfully by the always-reliable George Clooney) whose various adventures will have you laughing from the edge of your seat. Along with being both funny and exciting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also touching in its own way (the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash offers a few heartwarming moments). In addition to its thematic elements, the stop-motion animation is superb, and there are scenes within the film that are truly unforgettable (the best of which features an underground feast that’s interrupted by a river of apple cider). 

Yet as good a piece of family entertainment as this movie is, what struck me while I was watching Fantastic Mr. Fox was how Wes Anderson’s signature style shined through in just about every scene. We see it in an early flashback, when the Foxes break into a Squab farm moments before Mrs. Fox announces that she’s pregnant. Following the two as they sneak around the farm, the scene has a familiar energy to it, fueled in part by Anderson’s choice of music ("Heroes & Villains" by the Beach Boys, which plays during the entire sequence). We’ve seen stylized moments like this before in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and because of this we recognize the “Anderson touch” almost immediately. 

In addition, many of the director’s regulars lend their voices to the movie, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (as Badger, Mr. Fox’s accountant), Willem Dafoe (as a rat hired to guard Bean’s valuable supply of apple cider), and Michael Gambon. We’re even treated to one of Anderson’s patented montage sequences (narrated by Bill Murray) in which we’re introduced to the film’s three evil farmers. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography, but there’s no mistaking that it is, indeed, a Wes Anderson picture.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#2,471. Salon Kitty (1976)

Directed By: Tinto Brass

Starring: Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, Teresa Ann Savoy

Tag line: "Nazi Germany, 1939. Depraved. Decadent. Damned"

Trivia: Richard Crenna was originally cast as Cliff but left during the filming and was replaced by John Ireland

Directed by Tinto Brass (who a few years later would helm the extremely controversial Caligula), Salon Kitty is a cross between an erotic exploitation flick and an historical drama, relating the tale of an actual WWII-era brothel and filling it with enough nudity and sex to keep the grindhouse crowd entertained. 

Though she runs the most prestigious whorehouse in all of Germany, Madame Kitty (Ingrid Thulin) is informed by Nazi S.S. officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) that her entire operation is being moved to a new location. What’s more, she’s been ordered to dismiss her current prostitutes and replace them with women loyal to the Socialist Party. Wallenberg tells Kitty that her new and improved “Salon” will cater to the most important men in Germany, but in reality the S.S. is using the brothel to gather information on so-called “loyal” Nazis; the girls have all been trained in espionage, and there are microphones and recording devices planted throughout the building. 

Kitty, who has no idea what Wallenberg and his associates are up to, does her best to turn this new brothel into a lucrative business, only to discover the truth when Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), one of Wallenberg’s hand-selected prostitutes, falls in love with German pilot Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu). Reiter, who also has feelings for Margherita, tells her that he’s fed up with the war and the Nazis, and he intends to defect to the other side as soon as possible. When Margherita learns a short while later that the S.S. had her beloved Hans executed as a traitor, she and Madame Kitty concoct a scheme that, if successful, will take down Wallenberg and his entire covert operation. 

When initially released in the U.S., Salon Kitty was saddled with an ‘X’ by the MPAA, and it’s a rating the movie certainly deserves; though it shies away from depicting hardcore sex acts, the film Is jam-packed with graphic nudity (both male and female) and features moments involving group sex, forced lesbianism (Wallenberg, who also has his eye on Margherita, orders her at one point to cozy up to his wife Herta, played by Tina Aumont), masturbation, and other acts of perversion (in what is easily one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, a Nazi officer tells a prostitute to put a penis-shaped loaf of bread between her legs, and then he performs fellatio on it). In addition to all the debauchery, Salon Kitty also has a sequence set inside a real-life slaughterhouse that’s tough to watch (in it, a pig has its throat cut before it’s butchered on-screen). 

But thanks to the fine work turned in by its cast, not to mention some well-realized sets and costumes, Salon Kitty proves to be more than just another sex-fueled exploitation film. Helmut Berger is perfect as the shifty Wallenberg, an ambitious officer who intends to use the information gathered at Kitty’s to advance his own career; and Ingrid Thulin (who appeared in a number of Ingmar Bergman classics, including Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers) is equally strong as Kitty, the Madame who wants only to bring some joy to those who need it most. The performances, coupled with a well-realized romantic subplot (Savoy and Fehmiu are convincing as the naïve lovers), help Salon Kitty rise above the usual erotic fare. 

The only issue I had with Salon Kitty was its running time; the movie (in its original, uncut version) is about 133 minutes, and even with its plethora of exploitative elements it was, at times, a chore to sit through it. But with Tinto Brass and company going to great lengths to recreate the period in stunning detail, even the slower scenes are visually interesting; and if you feel you can tolerate an historical piece that’s chock full of adult content, then Salon Kitty may just be the film for you.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

#2,470. Any Which Way You Can (1980)

Directed By: Buddy Van Horn

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis

Tag line: "Faster, funnier and wilder. It'll knock you out"

Trivia: The orangutan who played Clyde in this film was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage two weeks after the film wrapped

This 1980 follow-up isn’t so much a movie as it is a continuation of the party that was Every Which Way but Loose, and with practically every member of the original cast on-hand once again, it’s damn entertaining to boot. 

New York mobster James Beekman (Barry Guardino) is trying to set up a fight for Hank Wilson (William Smith), the undisputed bare-knuckle champ of the East Coast. Unfortunately, Wilson’s reputation precedes him; his last match ended when he killed his opponent! Still, Beekman is determined to find a challenger worthy of taking on his champion, and eventually settles on California native Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood), who has yet to lose a fight. 

Offered $10,000 in advance, Beddoe agrees to square off against Wilson, only to change his mind when his nearest and dearest, including longtime manager Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), his landlady Ma (Ruth Gordon), and girlfriend Lynn Taylor-Halsey (Sondra Locke), beg him to call it off. Even Philo’s pet Orangutan Clyde wants him to cancel it. 

But as Philo will soon discover, the mob can be very persistent; to force his hand, they kidnap Lynn and promise Philo that, if he doesn’t fight, he’ll never see her alive again. To save the love of his life, and with a lot of people across the country betting on him to win, Philo feels he must go through with it, but worries that he and Wilson, who have since become good friends, may not put on the kind of show that Beekman and his associates are expecting. 

Any Which Way You Can has more of a story than its predecessor, but like the 1978 original this movie is at its best when focusing on its characters. Geoffrey Lewis returns as Orville, and Ruth Gordon’s Ma is just as cantankerous this time around (she even manages to land herself a boyfriend). Despite how they left things in Every Which Way but Loose, Sondra Locke’s Lynn Taylor-Halsey is also back, rekindling her romance with Philo. Then, of course, there’s Clyde the Orangutan, who has his share of funny scenes (the best being when he trashes a car driven by Beekman’s right-hand man). Though played by a different primate (Mabis, the orangutan in Every Which Way but Loose, had matured, making him dangerous to work with), Clyde is just as entertaining as ever. 

Along with the main cast, the Black Widow biker gang, led by the always-frustrated Chollo (John Quade), are still trying to even the score with Philo Beddoe (their run-in with a road tarring vehicle leads to some of the movie’s biggest laughs). Even the gambler, Beekman, has a memorable introduction (when first we meet him, he’s bet big bucks on his pet rattlesnake, which is locked in a life-or-death struggle with a mongoose). In one of the film’s most interesting twists, Philo and his soon-to-be opponent in the fight, Jack Wilson, become friends (each man saves the others’ life at different points in the movie); and we even spend some time with a few of the high-rollers betting on Philo, like Texas millionaire Zack Tupper (Barry Corbin) and mob boss Tony Paoli Sr. (Al Ruscio), whose $1 million bet makes Beekman more than a little nervous. 

Then there’s the music, with the opening tune “Beers to You” (a duet by Ray Charles and star Clint Eastwood) establishing the film’s party-like atmosphere right from the get-go. And like Every Which Way but Loose, Any Which Way You Can features cameos by a few legendary musicians, such as Fats Domino and Glen Campbell, both of whom also perform. Even Clyde gets his own song this time around (“The Orangutan Hall of Fame”, sung by Cliff Crofford). As with the first film, its country music soundtrack fits Any Which Way You Can to a T. 

Thanks to cable television, I actually saw Any Which Way You Can before Every Which Way but Loose, and while there were a couple of minor plot points that I wasn’t up to speed on (I didn’t know why there was so much tension between Philo and Lynn in the early scenes), I had no problem at all keeping up with this 1980 sequel, which has plenty of action (the fight that closes out the film is epic), lots of laughs, and even a little romance (just about every main character, including Clyde, lands a significant other). 

Any Which Way You Can definitely stuck close to the formula established in the first movie, but at least it was a formula that worked.

Friday, November 24, 2017

#2,469. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee

Tag line: "Recourse to evil runs rampant against the laws of human restraint"

Trivia: Fanny Osbourne was the name of Robert Louis Stevenson's real life fiancée

Having already impressed me with his penchant for arthouse debauchery in The Beast and Behind Convent Walls, I was eager to see director Walerian Borowczyk‘s 1981 film The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. And as it was with the other two movies, I was not disappointed. 

Noted scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) is engaged to be married to the lovely Ms. Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), and some of the most important people in London have been invited to a dinner party celebrating their impending nuptials. Among those in attendance are General William Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee) and his beautiful daughter Charlotte (Agnès Daems); The Rev. Donald Regan Guest (Clément Harari); Mr and Mrs. Enfield (Eugene Braun Monk, Catherine Cost) and their teenage daughter Victoria (Magali Noaro); and Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), Dr. Jekyll’s mentor and a first-class surgeon. 

What none of them realizes is that another guest will also be joining them: Mr. Edward Hyde (played by Gérard Zalcberg), Dr. Jekyll’s volatile, over-stimulated alter-ego. The result of one of Dr. Jekyll’s experiments, Mr. Hyde occasionally takes over Jekyll’s body, raping and killing every young woman he comes across (soon after Mr. Hyde makes his first “appearance”, the dinner guests begin to die in grisly fashion). 

Hoping to ensure that her fiance is safe, Fanny sneaks into Henry Jekyll’s lab and, while there, learns the truth about his connection to Mr. Hyde. Can Fanny marry a man who is unable to control the darkness in his soul, or does she have a few demons of her own that will make her the ideal wife for both Jekyll and Hyde? 

Using Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic tale as a starting point, Borowczyk adds his own unique spin to the story (Fanny Osbourne was not in the novel; in reality, this was the name of Stevenson’s real-life wife, an adventurous woman whose tenacity impressed Borowczyk). And in so doing, the director creates a motion picture that is both perfectly refined (the various discussions that occur during the party, including a rather tense debate between Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon on the merits of metaphysical science, are well-scripted) and undeniably grotesque (the movie opens with the attempted rape and murder of an adolescent girl on the streets of London; and a scene in which Dr. Lanyon inspects the remains of a female guest, whose genitals were butchered beyond recognition by Hyde, proves difficult to watch). 

Still, even with its more extreme elements (which includes Hyde raping one of the male dinner guests), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is more subtle – more restrained - than either The Beast or Behind Convent Walls. That is in no way a slight on this 1981 movie; as I already pointed out, it has its lewder moments. But the fact that Borowczyk also manages to engage his audience with dialogue and an appreciation of the arts (along with a dance routine performed by Victoria, there’s a painting that sparks a spirited conversation among the guests) is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. 

Make no mistake: The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Miss Osbourne will shock, and occasionally appall, you. But it will also stimulate your mind, and do so quite brilliantly.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

#2,468. Kull the Conqueror (1997)

Directed By: John Nicoletta

Starring: Kevin Sorbo, Tia Carrere, Thomas Ian Griffith

Tag line: "Courage Conquerors All"

Trivia: While practicing for the fight scenes, Kevin Sorbo nicked himself with a dull-bladed prop sword. At his request, producers gave him a rubber sword

I’m a proud fan of ‘80s fantasy / adventures (Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits), even the silly ones (like Krull and The Sword and the Sorcerer), and I always have a great time whenever I watch these films. 

Kull the Conqueror, however, is a ‘90s fantasy adventure, and I didn’t find it nearly as entertaining as its ‘80s counterparts. 

Having just defeated Borna (Sven-Ole Thorsen), the near-crazed King of Acheron, in a battle to the death, the barbarian Kull (Kevin Sorbo) inherits the King’s crown, and becomes the new ruler of the land. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the rightful heirs, including the warrior prince Taligero (Thomas Ian Griffith), who plots openly to dispose of Kull as soon as possible. To this end, Taligero and the others conspire with Enaros (Edward Tudor Pool), a wizard whose mastery of ancient magic allows him to raise the 2,000-year-old demon witch Akivasha (Tia Carrere) from the dead, in the hopes she can help them destroy Kull once and for all. 

Though he has developed feelings for Zareta (Karina Lombard), a palace slave who can see into the future, Kull quickly falls under Akivasha’s spell, and after a hastily-arranged wedding ceremony he declares her his queen. 

Does the mighty Kull possess the strength to eventually resist the evil Akivasha, or will she use her vast powers to transform Acheron into a hell on earth?

One of the many issues I had with Kull the Conqueror was its hard rock soundtrack, which, though not prevalent throughout the entire movie, doesn’t quite fit the scenes in which it is employed (like the opening sequence, when Kull is trying to prove he’s worthy of joining Taligaro’s honor guard). With its lackluster costumes, bland set pieces, and shoddy special FX, Kull the Conqueror also has a made-for-TV feel about it, a la Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (starring Kevin Sorbo) or Xena: Princess Warrior, both of which were popular shows at the time this film was produced. In addition, the world created for Kull the Conqueror isn’t all that impressive. Nor, for that matter, is it’s mythology; Enaros conjures up Akivasha far too easily, and she, in turn, wins Kull’s affections moments after the two first meet. As a result, the movie’s more fantastical scenes have no real weight to them. 

The cast does a decent job; while he doesn’t have the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Kevin Sorbo fits the part of Kull well enough, and isn’t the worst lead actor I’ve ever seen. As for the chief baddie, Tia Carrere delivers a spirited performance as Akivasha, the demon who becomes a Queen. Unfortunately, none of the film’s characters (including these two) are as defined as they could have been, giving us zero reason to care about a single one of them. 

In all fairness, the ‘90s did produce a few effective fantasy / adventures (I enjoyed 1995’s Jumanji), but thanks to its myriad of problems, Kull the Conqueror was not one of them

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

#2,467. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Directed By: Albert Lewin

Starring: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed

Tag line: "Why did women talk about Dorian Gray in whispers?"

Trivia: The movie is black and white except for four times when Dorian Gray's picture is shown in color

I sent my soul through the Invisible 
Some letter in that after-life to spell; 
And by and by my soul returned to me, 
And answered ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell’ 
      - The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 

The above quote appears at both the beginning and the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Written and directed by Albert Lewin, this 1945 film was based on a novel by noted playwright Oscar Wilde, and focuses on the duality of man’s nature - the good and evil that is inside each and every one of us. Only in the case of this movie’s lead character, he has somehow managed to isolate his darker side, and does not suffer the guilt of his terrible actions. 

Yet a reminder of his crimes and indiscretions haunts him daily, and as a result, what at first seemed like a blessing to him quickly became it a curse. 

The story opens in London, 1886. Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a 22-year-old aristocrat, is posing for a portrait of himself, which his good friend, artist Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), is painting. On the day that the picture is to be finished, the pair is visited by the always-sarcastic Lord Henry Wotten (George Sanders), who, noting the beauty of the portrait, complimented Gray on his appearance, telling him that he should enjoy life while he is young. Suddenly struck with the notion that his youthful exuberance will eventually fade, Dorian Gray wishes to never grow old, saying he would be willing to sacrifice anything, even his soul, if he could remain young forever. 

It isn’t until later on that Dorian realizes his wish has been granted; despite the passage of several years, his body has not aged. Instead, the picture of himself that Basil painted grows older in his place. But more than showing his true age, this portrait also serves as a reflection of Dorian’s soul, becoming uglier with each of his misdeeds. 

As Dorian lives the life of a scoundrel, breaking the heart of singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) before agreeing to marry Basil’s niece Gladys (Dona Reed), his painted image continues to morph and deform, growing more grotesque as the years drag on. Try as he might, Dorian cannot ignore the ghastliness of his portrait, and wonders if there’s still time to fix the wrongs he’s done. 

Hurd Hatfield is perfectly convincing as the title character, transforming from a naïve young gentleman at the outset into a hardened shell of a man who cares only about his own pleasures. Yet despite his continued debauchery, Dorian is always aware of what he’s become, and occasionally expresses a desire (however briefly) to change his ways. As good as Hatfield is, though, the best performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray is delivered by George Sanders, whose Lord Wotten is directly responsible for Dorian’s shameful shenanigans. It’s he who convinces Dorian that youth is to be treasured, and life lived to its fullest, without regret or remorse (“I like persons better than principles”, Wotten says at one point, “and persons with no principles better than anything at all”). Dorian Gray may be the monster of this story, but Lord Wotten created him, and Sanders is so deliciously hedonistic in the role that, as bad an influence as he is, you can’t help but admire his character’s impudence. 

In addition to its talented cast, The Picture of Dorian Gray features several chilling scenes, all of which center on the portrait of its lead character. Soon after putting Sibyl Vane’s virtue to the test (a move instigated, of course, by Lord Wotten), Dorian decides to break off their romance, and sends her a damning letter, calling her character into question and saying they will never see each other again. Shortly after this letter has been delivered, Dorian notices a slight change in the picture’s facial expression, a sneer on the lips that gives it a harder edge. As Dorian’s actions become more questionable, his likeness alters until, at last, it is beyond hideous. Though shot in black and white, director Lewin does, on several occasions, show us Dorian’s portrait in full-blown color, making its monstrosities all the more unsettling. 

A morality tale about the effect that evil has on our psyche, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more disturbing films to emerge from 1940’s Hollywood, and is a truly thought-provoking motion picture.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

#2,466. Every Which Way But Loose (1978)

Directed By: James Fargo

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis

Tag line: "Clint Eastwood will turn you Every Which Way But Loose"

Trivia: Sondra Locke learned that she was pregnant just as production was wrapping up (at Eastwood's request, she had an abortion)

According to the DVD notes for Every Which Way but Loose, not many people believed in this 1978 action / comedy. Neither his agents nor his production team felt it was a good fit for star Clint Eastwood, and once the film was finished, Warner Brothers, who financed its production, didn’t know what to make of it. 

Yet, despite the naysayers, Every Which Way but Loose was a smash hit, fetching $85 million overall at the U.S. Box Office (it was, up to that time, Clint Eastwood’s biggest financial success). 

And once you see the movie, you’ll understand its appeal; Every Which Way but Loose is flat-out fun! 

Truck driver / bare-knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) shares a small house in the San Fernando Valley with his best friend / manager Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), a cantankerous old woman he lovingly calls “Ma” (Ruth Gordon), and his pet orangutan, Clyde. Philo’s penchant for fisticuffs sometimes lands him in hot water, and the only thing that seems to calm him down is some good, old-fashioned country music. In fact, one country singer in particular, Lynn Taylor-Halsey (Sondra Locke), has even managed to capture his heart. 

Lynn plans to open a club in her native Denver, and Philo does what he can to help her raise money for it. Their relationship seems to be heating up, but Lynn is afraid that her live-in boyfriend, who she no longer has feelings for, will somehow get in the way of their happiness. Then, one day, Lynn disappears, and Philo suspects that her boyfriend dragged her back to Denver in the hopes of keeping them apart. So, joined by Orville and Clyde, Philo climbs into his pick-up truck and heads to Colorado. 

But will he end up reconnecting with Lynn, or was their love never meant to be? 

Despite what the above synopsis might lead you to believe, Every Which Way but Loose centers more on its characters than it does any straightforward storyline. Over the course of the film, Philo Beddoe, who’s never lost a bare-knuckle fight, has a few run-ins with members of the hapless Black Widows biker gang, whose leader, Cholla (John Quade), vows revenge (mostly because Philo, after whooping the various bikers’ asses, steals their motorcycles and sells them off). In addition, a barroom brawl causes some friction between Philo and local policeman Putnam (Gregory Walcott), who, while off-duty, was on the receiving end of one of Philo’s patented punches. Both Putnam and the Black Widows are so anxious to get back at Mr. Beddoe that they follow him all the way to Denver! 

But Philo Beddoe isn’t the only character in Every Which Way but Loose, and its supporting cast proves every bit as fascinating as its lead. Orville, well-played by Geoffrey Lewis, sets up Philo’s bare-knuckle contests (which he does whenever the duo is in need of some quick cash), and even manages to arrange a fight between Philo and his idol, Tank Murdoch (portrayed by former NFL player Walt Barnes). Ruth Gordon’s “Ma” isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and is especially critical of Clyde, who steals her Oreo cookies and “craps” all over the place. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, we discover that Ma is also pretty handy with a shotgun (much to the Black Widows’ chagrin). 

Also turning up in a supporting role is Beverly D’Angelo as Echo, a fruit stand employee who falls for Orville and tags along on the trip to Denver. And then there’s Clyde the Orangutan, who Philo treats as if he was a human being (at one point, he breaks into the zoo and “finds” a date for Clyde). Manis, who played Clyde, had tons of personality, and was as important to the film’s success as any of his co-stars. 

Normally, I’m not a fan of country music, but I have to admit that the soundtrack for Every Which Way but Loose fits the movie perfectly. Eddie Rabbitt’s title song went on to become a hit after the film’s release, and the various songs that Sondra Locke performs are equally as strong. There are even cameo appearances by such Country/Western artists as Charlie Rich and Mel Tillis (both of whom contribute a couple tunes of their own). 

So, while it may not feature much of a story (Philo’s romance with Lynn is as close as the movie gets to a plot), its colorful characters, catchy music, and plethora of funny scenes are enough to ensure that, almost 40 years later, Every Which Way but Loose is a rollicking good time.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

#2,465. Angel Unchained (1970)

Directed By: Lee Madden

Starring: Don Stroud, Luke Askew, Larry Bishop

Tag line: "HATE WAS THE CHAIN THAT LINKED THEM TOGETHER! God Help the One Who Broke It!"

Trivia:  A soundtrack recording was released in 1970 on American International records featuring music composed and sung by Randy Sparks

Angel Unchained, a 1970 flick released by AIP, has one hell of a pre-title sequence! 

The Nomads chapter of the Exiles Motorcycle Club is hanging out at an amusement park, lazily enjoying the kiddie rides. Before long, a rival gang shows up, and within moments the two groups are engaged in an all-out brawl. The melee soon spreads over the entire park; a few guys are fighting each other on the rollercoaster while one biker chases another on the merry-go-round. The cops eventually turn up, causing everyone to scatter, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts! 

This little scrap proved to be the final straw for Angel (Don Stroud), the vice-president of the Nomads. After talking things over with club president (and his best friend) Pilot (Larry Bishop), Angel resigns his post and heads out on his own. 

During his travels, Angel helps a couple of hippies who are being harassed by a bigoted gas station attendant. The hippies, one of whom is named Merilee (Tyne Daly), invite Angel back to their commune, where he’s told he can stay as long as he likes by Jonathan (Luke Askew), their leader. Unfortunately, the locals just won’t leave the hippies alone, and stage an attack on the commune. While trying to stop them, Angel stabs one of the attackers with a pitchfork, and in a fit of rage the locals give Jonathan and his followers until the end of the week to clear out, or face the consequences. 

In an effort to keep his commune together, Jonathan asks Angel to talk to his old biker gang, in the hopes they’ll teach his group how to fight for themselves (and maybe even stick around long enough to scare away the locals). Though reluctant to do so, Angel rides off and finds Pilot and the others, who agree to accompany him back to the commune. 

But as Angel feared, the bikers take over the place, and the hippies begin to wonder if there will be anything left of their beloved home when the locals return. 

Directed by Lee Madden, Angel Unchained is equal parts The Wild Angels and The Magnificent Seven, with a dash of Easy Rider thrown in for good measure. This may seem like an odd combination, but Madden and the film’s writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin manage to make it work, and even throw a little humor in along the way. Soon after they arrive at the commune, a few of the bikers, including Magician (T. Max Graham) and Shotgun (Bill McKinney), get their hands on some “special” cookies made by the “Injun” (Pedro Regas), an aging Native American who manufactures his own hallucinogenic drugs. Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say the Injun’s concoction affects the bikers in a very... unusual way (we’re even treated to a bizarre, but of so funny fantasy sequence, which Magician and the others experience as a result of eating the cookies). 

That said, Angel Unchained is at its best when the action kicks up a notch, and the final showdown between the locals (who drive dune buggies, of all things) and the hippies / bikers is packed with plenty of drama and excitement. 

Angel Unchained certainly isn’t perfect; it drags a bit at times (especially early on, before Pilot and the Nomads turn up at the commune); and the relationship that develops between the bikers and the hippies isn’t explored as well as it could have been (Pilot and company go from mocking their hosts one minute to defending them the next, and we’re never quite sure why). But thanks to a handful of well-staged action scenes and a memorable cameo by Aldo Ray (as a laid-back sheriff), Angel Unchained is, at the very least, an entertaining watch.

#2,464. Lolly Madonna XXX (1973)

Directed By: Richard C. Sarafian

Starring: Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges

Tag line: "A simple prank... a game...nobody won"

Trivia: The movie was filmed in rural Union County, Tennessee

Here’s an interesting discovery: Lolly-Madonna XXX (aka Fire in the Meadow), a film directed by Richard C. Sarafian (Vanishing Point) that features one hell of a cast. Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan portray the patriarchs of two feuding clans, and among the actors playing their sons are Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Gary Busey, Ed Lauter and Randy Quaid. In addition, this 1973 movie marked the big-screen debut of actress Season Hubley (Vice Squad), who, along with her male compatriots, does her part to make Lolly-Madonna XXX an unforgettable motion picture experience. 

A minor squabble between two families over a tract of land, which Pap Gutshall (Ryan) bought at an auction despite the claims made by his neighbor, Laben Feather (Steiger), that it belongs to him, intensifies when a couple of the Feather boys, Thrush (Wilson) and Hawk (Lauter), drive out to the bus stop and kidnap a woman they believe to be “Lolly Madonna”, the alleged fiance of Ludie Gutshall (Kiel Martin). 

What the Feathers don’t know is that “Lolly Madonna” doesn’t even exist; she was invented by the Gutshalls in an attempt to lure the Feathers away from their moonshine still (which is where they’re holding several pigs they swiped from Pap Gutshall). While the Feather sons were out fetching Lolly Madonna, the Gutshall boys, Ludie, Villum (Paul Koslo) and Zeb (Busey), retrieved one of the pigs and, as a bonus, took some time out to bust up the Feather’s beloved still. 

The girl the Feathers actually kidnapped is Roonie Gill (Hubley), a young woman on her way to the big city to start a new life. Yet despite Roonie’s assertions that she’s not Lolly Madonna, Laben Feather refuses to believe her, and decides to hold her for ransom, hoping he can force Pap Gutshall to return his tract of land. During her stay at the Feather homestead, Roonie meets Labem’s wife Chickie (Katherine Squire), his other sons Skylar (Timothy Scott) and Finch (Quaid), and the Feather’s youngest boy, Zach (Bridges), a widower who takes it upon himself to watch over the family’s “guest”. 

As the days drag on, Zach and Roonie begin to develop feelings for one another, but with the tensions mounting between the Feathers and the Gutshalls, both families realize that this little dispute of theirs won’t end until blood has been spilled. 

Lolly-Madonna XXX doesn’t waste any time; the feud between the Feathers and the Gutshalls is already underway when the movie begins. Early on, it seems as if the two clans are just trying to get under each other’s skin, with Ludie and Zeb Gutshall breaking up the Feather’s moonshine still as they attempt to steal back the pigs. But with emotions running high on both sides, we know it won’t be long before the disagreement escalates, and when it does, people will surely start to die. Based on a novel by Sue Grafton (who also penned the screenplay), Lolly-Madonna XXX doesn’t shy away from the violence inherent in its story, which takes the occasional detour into some very dark areas. 

That said, Lolly-Madonna XXX does have its quieter moments as well; though she’s being held against her will, Roonie falls in love with Zack, who we discover had been married before (his wife Lyda Jo, portrayed in flashbacks by Kathy Watts, was killed in a tragic accident, one that caused a rift to develop between Laben and his oldest son Thrush). There’s even a bit of tenderness that immediately follows one of the film’s most disturbing scenes: Pap Gutshall’s wife Elspeth (Tresa Hughes) does her best to comfort the couple’s only daughter (Joan Goodfellow) after she’s been raped by two of the Feather boys. 

By the time the feud turns violent, we know both families intimately, and we’re as horrified as Roonie is when the bullets start to fly. Each and every member of this film’s cast is in top form, and all are given ample screen time to flesh out their characters as best they can. 

Shot on-location in Tennessee, Lolly-Madonna XXX is a gorgeous motion picture; cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop does a fine job capturing the area’s natural beauty. But it’s the performances turned in by its all-star cast, coupled with Sue Grafton’s searing script, which will stay with you long after this movie is over.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

#2,463. The Screaming Skull (1958)

Directed By: Alex Nicol

Starring: John Hudson, Peggy Webber, Russ Conway

Tag line: "WARNING!... This Ghost Will Haunt You Forever!"

Trivia: Though it is never credited, the film is based on Francis Marion Crawford's classic 1905 horror story of the same title

The Screaming Skull, a 1958 low-budget horror film, opens with a gimmick worthy of William Castle himself. 

A small set is decorated with flowers, and there’s a coffin smack-dab in the middle of it. A narrator then chimes in:

The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror”, he says. “Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an undesired effect. It may kill you. Therefore, its producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull”. 

With that, the coffin opens, revealing a sign inside that reads “Reserved for you”. 

Well, despite this cryptic warning, I did survive my viewing of The Screaming Skull, and while it isn’t scary enough to give you heart palpitations, there are one or two moments towards the end that, at the very least, might make your pulse race a bit. 

Newlyweds Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni (Peggy Webber) have just arrived at Eric’s spacious country estate, where he once lived with his first wife Marion. Marion, it seems, died tragically a while back, and though Eric initially thought his heart perished with her, he found love again with Jenni, a kindly if somewhat timid heiress with a history of mental illness. 

Her personal demons aside, Jenni is determined to be happy, and even tries to make friends with simple-minded gardener Mickey (played by director Alex Nicol), who was very close with Eric’s first wife. 

But the longer they stay in the house, the more convinced Jenni becomes that something otherworldly is trying to scare her away. Is Marion tormenting Jenni from beyond the grave, upset that another woman has taken her place? Is Mickey causing all the chaos in an effort to keep Marion’s memory alive? Or is Jenni simply losing her mind? 

It takes a while for the real scares in The Screaming Skull to kick in (early on, the most frightening things that occur are a few bumps in the night, and a scene in which Jenni finds a portrait of Marion, which appeared suddenly in an upstairs room). In fact, I was able to figure out who was putting poor Jenni through the ringer well before the movie’s intense climax (I’m not bragging; odds are you’ll solve the riddle as easily as I did). 

What I can’t quite settle on is whether or not the film’s wild ending justifies its mundane build-up. The early scenes aren’t entirely devoid of thrills, but then the finale isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as that of Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp (for as slow as most of the movie is, though, the ending of The Screaming Skull is admittedly kinda cool). 

Ultimately, I’d say The Screaming Skull is worth checking out once (it’s a little more than an hour long, so the time commitment will be minimal). Just don’t expect to be blown away.

#2,462. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

Directed By: John Landis

Starring: Evan C. Kim, Bong Soo Han, Bill Bixby

Tag line: "This movie is totally out of control!"

Trivia: This movie inspired German Director Uwe Boll to make his feature film debut, German Fried Movie

Directed by John Landis and written by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the creative minds behind 1980’s Airplane), The Kentucky Fried Movie is a mishmash of bawdy, often crude media-related skits that are guaranteed to make you laugh. 

With everything from commercials (including one for a headache relief medicine starring Bill Bixby) to movie trailers (the best, and most outlandish, being the preview for Catholic High School Girls in Trouble); and morning news shows (during a segment for A.M. Today, the host and a few others are attacked by an angry, somewhat embarrassed gorilla) to educational films (you won't believe how many things are made out of Zinc Oxide), The Kentucky Fried Movie is a collection of short films designed to tickle your funny bone. There’s even a “full-length” feature: A Fistful of Yen, which borrows heavily from both the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz

Some familiar faces pop up occasionally; along with Bill Bixby, there are cameo appearances by Donald Sutherland (in the trailer for the disaster film That’s Armageddon), Henry Gibson (presenting the extremely tasteless, but oh-so hilarious commercial “The United Appeal for the Dead”), and George Lazenby (another cast member of That’s Armageddon). Fans of Airplane will spot funnyman Stephen Stucker (aka Johnny in the 1980 comedy) as a court stenographer during the black-and-white docudrama Courtroom (which also features Tony Dow, reprising his role as Wally from the old Leave it to Beaver TV series); and the trio of writers responsible for The Kentucky Fried Movie turn up once or twice as well, most notably as technicians in the final segment Eyewitness News, where they get an eyeful of more than they bargained for! 

Landis would go on to make another film much like The Kentucky Fried Movie: 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon. Of the two, though, I think I prefer The Kentucky Fried Movie. Both films have their moments, but this 1977 offering pushes the envelope a lot further, and much more often, than Amazon Women on the Moon, resulting in a motion picture that’s likely to offend a large portion of its audience. 

But even if The Kentucky Fried Movie does make you cringe a few times, odds are you won’t notice because you’ll be laughing too hard.

#2,461. Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Directed By: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly

Tag line: "When the Texas Plains Ran With Blood and Black Gold!"

Trivia: Co-star Nedrick Young wrote much of the script, but b/c he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he was not credited for it

Anyone who is a fan of western movies loves a good showdown scene, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as unusual as what transpires in 1958’s Terror in a Texas Town

A hired killer, dressed in black, stands at the end of the street while his opponent, the film’s hero, walks towards him, followed by just about every honest man in town. We know right away that a showdown is coming, only the hero isn’t packing a traditional sidearm. No, he’s carrying a whaling spear! 

You heard me right… a whaling spear, and that little surprise is one of several elements that helps lift this otherwise humdrum western to a whole different level.

The hero is George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), a Swedish sailor who traveled to Prairie City, Texas, to live with his father Sven (Ted Stanhope), owner of a small farm just outside of town. Unfortunately, George arrived a few days too late; his father was recently gunned down by Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), an outlaw employed by wealthy landowner Mr. McNeil (Sebastian Cabot). 

McNeil hopes to “persuade” the farmers and settlers to move away as quickly as possible (McNeil claims he has a grant proving he owns the entire area, and he wants every man, woman, and child gone before they realize how much oil is flowing beneath their feet). Most of the locals have been living there for 20 years or more, and refuse to budge, which is where Johnny Crale fits into the picture. As a warning to everyone else, McNeil had Johnny shoot Sven dead, a cold-blooded murder witnessed by Hansen’s nearest neighbor Jose Mirada (Victor Millan) and Mirada’s young son Pepe (Eugene Mazzola). 

Still, despite what’s happened, George Hansen has made it known that he intends to stick around a while; having sent money to his father each and every month, George now feels the property is as much his as it was Sven’s. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with McNeil or Johnny Crale, but will George be forced to face them on his own, or will the other farmers finally band together and fight McNeil and his team of killers? 

From a stylistic standpoint, Terror in a Texas Town has the look and feel of a TV movie, with basic set-ups and not much camera movement (immediately after making this film, its director, Joseph H. Lewis, would spend the remainder of his career working in television). Story-wise, it also treads in familiar territory (greedy land grabs, hired guns, revenge, etc), but what distinguishes this 1958 film from others of its ilk are its characters, some of whom are incredibly dark. 

Even the love interests have an edge to them; Johnny’s live-in girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly) lets Johnny walk all over her, absorbing the verbal abuse he heaps upon her day and night, not because she loves him, but because being around someone like Johnny gives her a feeling of superiority, something she has yet to experience with any other person she’s ever met. Even McNeil doesn’t really like Johnny, keeping him around only to finish the job that needs doing (the various meetings between the two so-called “partners” are some of the film’s most contentious moments). As for Johnny himself (played wonderfully by Nedrick Young), we sense that his spirit died a long time ago. Now he’s just going through the motions, killing dispassionately without a care in the world, which makes him the most frightening character in the entire movie. 

On the other side of the coin, Sterling Hayden is perfectly believable as the strong-willed George (though he faces Johnny with a whale spear, we never feel as if George is at a disadvantage), and Ted Stanhope shines in his brief appearance as George’s equally determined father. In a film where everything else seems routine, the characters that inhabit Terror in a Texas Town are anything but, and it is thanks of them that this movie is so damned engrossing.

#2,460. Sugar Hill (1974)

Directed By: Paul Maslansky

Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley

Tag line: "She's sweet as sugar... with a voodoo army of the undead!"

Trivia: The "Voodoo Museum and Research History" building is in fact, the Heights Branch of the Houston Public Library

‘70s Blaxploitation with a supernatural bent, director Paul Maslansky’s Sugar Hill merges the story of a lover’s quest for revenge with voodoo and zombies, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying crime / horror flick. 

Club owner Langston (Larry Don Johnson) refuses to sell his business to mob boss Morgan (Robert Quarry). So, Morgan decides to eliminate Langston once and for all, sending his goons, including Tank Watson (Rick Hagood), O’Brien (Ed Geldart), and Fabulous (Charles Robinson), to kill him in the parking lot of his own club. 

Distraught by the death of her lover, Langston’s fiancée Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) vows to take revenge on his killers, and asks Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), an elderly voodoo priestess, for help. Though reluctant at first to assist a ‘non-believer’, Mama Maitresse eventually agrees, and summons the voodoo God Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who in turn allows Sugar Hill to command his army of the undead. With dozens of immortal zombies at her disposal, Sugar Hill starts picking off Morgan’s men, one-by-one, all the while dodging questions from police detective (and her former boyfriend) Valentine (Richard Lawson), who with each new murder becomes increasingly convinced that an unnatural force is at work, and that Sugar Hill is somehow at the center of it all. 

Like Coffy and Foxy Brown, Sugar Hill sets up the revenge portion of its story in the early going, showing us Langston’s run-in with Morgan’s gang, followed almost immediately by his murder (the scene ends with Sugar Hill cradling Langston’s dead body and sobbing uncontrollably). 

But the moment that Zara Cully’s Mama Maitresse conjures up Baron Samedi, Sugar Hill takes a turn towards the bizarre, and the stranger the movie gets, the more interesting it becomes; the film's best scene is when Baron Samedi orders his zombie followers to rise from their graves. Also pretty cool are the ingenious ways that Sugar Hill and the zombies finish off Morgan’s men, each one facing a particularly gruesome end (one is fed to some very hungry pigs, and another is forced, via a voodoo ritual, to commit suicide with a dagger). 

Though the supporting performances are hit and miss, both Marki Bey (as Sugar Hill) and Don Pedro Colley (as the always-exuberant Baron Samedi) are excellent in their respective roles; and the look of the zombies themselves is darn creepy (especially their silver eyes). Toss in a not-too-convincing-but-still-kinda-hot catfight between Sugar Hill and Morgan’s busty girlfriend Celeste (Betty Anne Rees) and a final showdown in the swamps that will make your skin crawl, and you have a Blaxploitation / Horror mash-up that’s sure to entertain.