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 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

Tagline: "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 even go to the police when someone breaks into her house). 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) - Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s

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 uttered one line, spoken off-screen, when a minor character walked through the wrong door). 

Unfortunately, the “Brooks Touch” could only take this film so far. Intended as a spoof of a classic Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is funny in spurts, but doesn’t match the sustained hilarity of such Mel Brooks classics as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, making it a hit and miss affair.

A secret document that Queen Victoria (Susan Field) herself entrusted to British Foreign Minister Redcliff (John Le Mesurier) has been stolen. Instead of tackling this case himself, renowned sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) passes it on to his arrogant yet highly intelligent younger brother Sigerson (Wilder), who he hasn't spoken to in years. 

To assist Sigerson during his investigation, Sherlock hires Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker (Feldman), a Scotland Yard detective with a photographic sense of hearing. Together Sacker and Sigerson begin searching for clues, knowing full well that if the document falls into the wrong hands, it could 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)! 

Though he cannot trust her, Sigerson eventually falls in love with Ms. Hill, and vows to protect her to the end. But how does she really figure into this bizarre case? And can Sigerson and Sacker retrieve the document before Moriarty turns it over to a foreign power?

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother does feature a handful of very funny moments, including Sigerson’s first meeting with Jenny Hill (A gifted comedienne, Madeline Kahn is especially good throughout this 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 chuckle at his antics). There’s also a horse-drawn carriage chase that has a great payoff, but it's the big opera scene towards the end that is undoubtedly the film’s most uproarious sequence (Gambetti has translated an Italian opera into English, putting his own unique spin on the story, and the result is positively hilarious).

Alas, with a straightforward approach to the central mystery - which is never as well-defined as it should be - The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother ultimately doesn’t work as a spoof. Even more disappointing is the fact that, aside from a clever bit at the beginning, Sherlock Holmes and his illustrious sidekick Dr. Watson (Thorley Walters) are hardly in the movie at all. And while there are laughs to be had, plenty of jokes and sight gags fall flat; a ballroom dance scene late in the film, set moments after Sigerson and Sacker have escaped a deadly trap, drags on far 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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

#2,340. Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Directed By: Mel Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri, Paul Muller

Tag line: "Only The Monster She Made Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires!"

Trivia: Rob Zombie sampled a line from this film for his song "Living Dead Girl"

After years of medical training, Tania Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri) returns to her ancestral home, eager to assist her father, the Baron (Joseph Cotten), in his most recent experiment. With the help of his crippled friend (and longtime lab assistant) Charles (Paul Muller), the Baron is ready to show the world that, under the right circumstances, dead tissue can be reanimated. Using cadavers that he purchased from Lynch (Herbert Fux), a professional grave robber, the Baron does, indeed, build a man out of spare parts and bring him to life. Unfortunately, his creation is a hideous monster (Peter Whiteman) that, after murdering the Baron, escapes into the nearby woods.

Distraught over the death of her father, yet at the same time anxious to prove his theories were correct, Nadia sets to work creating a “man” of her own. Learning from the Baron’s mistakes, she intends to use the body of a handsome, backward farm boy named Thomas (Marino Masé) and the brain of her father’s longtime assistant, Charles! But as Nadia toils in the laboratory, The Baron’s monster is busy roaming the countryside, killing villagers and capturing the attention of Constable Harris (Mickey Hargitay). As Harris probes into this very strange case, Nadia draws closer to finishing her grand experiment, but will she actually succeed where her father failed, or is her “man” destined to be as unstable as the monster that is now terrorizing the locals?

In the handful of films I’ve seen her in (Jess Franco’s 99 Women, Fernando DiLeo’s Slaughter Hotel), Italian-born actress Rosalba Neri was relegated to supporting roles. In 1971’s Lady Frankenstein, however, she plays Nadia, the lead, and is quite believable as a woman of science hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps. Along with Ms. Neri, Lady Frankenstein co-stars Mickey Hargitay, who, with appearances in Bloody Pit of Horror and Black Magic Rites, was himself no stranger to the cinema’s seedier side, while Joseph Cotten plays the Baron with plenty of gusto, portraying a man of science whose research sets the entire story in motion. Despite an impressive Hollywood track record, which includes Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Shadow of a Doubt, Mr. Cotten was also an integral part of the Vincent Price vehicle The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and was effective as a scientist (and Barbara Bach’s father) in 1979’s Island of the Fishmen

With a cast like this, you might expect Lady Frankenstein to be just another sleazy European flick, and while it does have a smattering of nudity and a few genuine shocks, this 1971 movie has more in common with Hammer Studio’s classic horror films (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula) than it does the standard ‘70s exploitation fare.

For one, the set pieces are superb; the lab in which both of the Frankensteins perform their experiments looks as if it was lifted straight out of a 1930’s Universal film, while the castle that serves as their ancestral home is as eerie as it is extravagant. In addition to its sets, Lady Frankenstein relied on several actual locations to move its story along (its exterior scenes reminded me, in a way, of Jean Rollin, who was himself a master at incorporating real locales into his movies).

Lady Frankenstein does have its weaknesses, chief among them the make-up effects (the Baron’s monster, with its protruding eye and scarred face, isn’t as creepy as it could have been). But with its gothic sensibilities, better-than-average production design, and unique approach to the time-honored story of man acting as God, Lady Frankenstein is a step or two above the typical Eurosleaze flick.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

#2,339. White Slave (1985)

Directed By: Mario Gariazzo

Starring: Elvire Audray, Will Gonzales, Dick Campbell

Tag line: "Only one thing kept her alive"

Trivia: This is the first of two movies that adopted the alternate title of Cannibal Holocaust 2

White Slave, a 1985 horror / adventure set in the jungles of South America, was released under a number of different titles, including Amazonia and, in a few European markets, Cannibal Holocaust 2, a blatant attempt to cash in on the notoriety of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. While there are, indeed, similarities between this movie and Deodato’s notorious film, White Slave doesn’t contain nearly as many shocks as Cannibal Holocaust, and at times is even a little dull.

Fresh out of boarding school, teenager Catherine Miles (Elvire Audray) decides to spend the summer at the South American rubber plantation owned and operated by her parents. To celebrate her arrival, Catherine’s father takes the family (including Catherine’s Aunt and Uncle) on a boat trip down the Amazon River. The good times are cut short, however, when the group is attacked by what appears to be a tribe of headhunters. Temporarily paralyzed by a poisonous dart, Catherine is eventually taken prisoner, and forced to watch as Umukai (Will Gonzales), a jungle warrior, beheads her mother and father.

Dragged to the headhunter’s village, Catherine is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who claims her as his wife. This doesn’t sit well with Umukai, who has fallen in love with Catherine, and he challenges her new husband to a fight to the death. Umukai is victorious, and over the course of several months tries to win Catherine’s heart. Because of his role in her parents’ demise, Catherine has sworn she will never submit to Umukai, and does everything she can to escape. But was Umukai actually the one who murdered her mother and father, or were they killed by someone else?

In addition to their similar settings (the jungles of South America), Cannibal Holocaust and White Slave are both presented as if they were documentaries; a large chunk of White Slave takes place inside a courtroom, where Catherine, months after her captivity has ended, is standing trial for murder (to explain this further would constitute a spoiler). But with its story of a white person being integrated into a primitive tribe, White Slave has more in common with 1972’s Man from Deep River, the Umberto Lenzi movie that’s credited with kicking off the cannibal subgenre, than it does Cannibal Holocaust

Unfortunately, White Slave has a few too many scenes set in the headhunters’ village, and after a while Catherine’s ordeal begins to lose its potency. Worse still, there are sequences that are downright boring. And while Cannibal Holocaust did a decent job showing how “civilized” people could be more barbaric than so-called “savages”, White Slave’s attempts to do the same fail to hit the mark (a late scene involving a pair of hunters in a helicopter is anything but subtle).

As with most cannibal films from this era, White Slave has its share of extreme content (Elvire Audray is topless during her entire stay with the natives, and the scene in which Catherine’s parents are beheaded is appropriately gruesome), and even features a couple of animal deaths (unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, the jungle creatures in White Slave are killed not by humans, but by other animals). The movie is also quite beautiful, taking full advantage of its picturesque setting. In the end, though, White Slave is too lethargically paced to be effective, and even with its handful of exciting moments is never as interesting as its predecessors.

Friday, April 14, 2017

#2,338. The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Directed By: Whit Stillman

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman

Tag line: "History is made at night"

Trivia: The disco seen in the movie was actually an old movie theater being renovated in Jersey City, New Jersey

The third in a trilogy, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is nonetheless the only Whit Stillman film I’ve seen thus far (this movie, as well as 1990’s Metropolitan and 1994's Barcelona, make up what has been deemed the writer / director’s “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” series). And based on what Stillman accomplished with this movie, which features complex, well-rounded characters that are not nearly as mature as they think, it looks as if I’ve been missing out on something special.

By day, college graduates Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) work as proofreaders for a prestigious New York publishing company. But when the sun goes down, these two best friends head to New York’s hottest nightclub, where disco music fills the air and many of the city’s most eligible bachelors hang out. Alice, in particular, has the hots for two guys: Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer who recently separated from his longtime girlfriend; and Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), a junior executive at an advertising firm.

Part of Jimmy’s job (as least how he sees it) is to usher his company’s clients to the nightclub and show them a good time. Yet even though he’s friends with Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club’s managers, Jimmy has been barred by the owner, Bernie (David Thornton), who dislikes people in advertising. Realizing his pal could lose his job, Des continues to sneak Jimmy into the club but learns he himself may be unemployed soon when Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant District Attorney, tells Des that Bernie and his nightclub are being investigated for tax evasion and other illegal activities.

Set in the early 1980s, The Last Days of Disco has a great soundtrack that includes some of the period’s biggest hits (“Le Freak” by Chic, “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, and that perennial disco classic, Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife”), and as a result the nightclub scenes have an undeniable energy. But more than a simple homage to a bygone era, The Last Days of Disco is an engrossing character study, throwing the spotlight on a group of well-to-do people who are ultimately very selfish.

Chloe Sevigny delivers an incredibly nuanced performance as Alice, the most down-to-earth of the bunch, who often wonders (along with the rest of us) why she remains friends with the shallow, occasionally cruel Charlotte (much of the so-called “advice” that Charlotte gives Alice, from how to talk to guys to what books they should recommend at work, usually leads to disaster). From early on, it’s clear that Charlotte, played quite well by Beckinsale (in her first American role), is jealous of Alice’s potential, and we sense from the get-go that their friendship isn’t going to last.

Not to be outdone, the male characters in The Last Days of Disco are every bit as self-serving as Charlotte. Tom does eventually hook up with Alice, only to spring the news that he’s reuniting with his girlfriend (but not before giving Alice a going-away present: a venereal disease). Jimmy, who lives in fear of being fired, has no problem putting his buddy Des’s job in jeopardy; at one point, Jimmy and two of his clients don Halloween costumes and sneak into the club. As for Des, he’s a drug addict who dumps women by telling them he’s gay, and while he’s clearly intelligent (his opinions on “Yuppies”, or “Young, upwardly-mobile professionals”, are thought-provoking), he’s also an habitual liar, and has been known to do some very stupid things (he rarely hides the fact he’s using drugs). Josh, who suffered a mental breakdown a few years prior, is more mature than the other guys, yet fails to act when he develops feelings for Alice, choosing instead to sit back and watch as she dates a series of men (including a brief tryst with Des) who aren’t good for her.

Their foibles aside, each and every character in The Last Days of Disco is fascinating in their own right, but most of what makes them so is Stillman’s clever, witty dialogue. Whether it’s Charlotte giving Alice more bad advice, or a debate on the merits (or lack thereof) of Disney’s animated film Lady and the Tramp, Stillman manages to convince us that even the most loathsome, self-absorbed individual can have something interesting to say, 

Across the board, the performances in The Last Days of Disco are top-notch, but it’s Stillman’s script that brings these flawed men and women so convincingly to life.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

#2,337. Terror in the Aisles (1984)

Directed By: Andrew J. Kuehn

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Nancy Allen

Tag line: "It's only a movie, but it's more than enough"

Trivia: The producers had to edit the film in order to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, despite the fact that none of the films featured had received a rating higher than R when they were initially released

As you watch the screen, your heart begins to beat faster. There’s a fluttering in the pit of your stomach. Your throat is dry, your palms damp. Suddenly a chill runs down your spine. You clutch the person next to you

You tell yourself it’s only a movie

Produced in 1984, Terror in the Aisles is a documentary that centers on the horror genre, and features clips from some of the finest fright movies ever made.

Hosted by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen (both of whom spend the entire film in a crowded movie theater), Terror in the Aisles covers the gamut, traveling back in time to the early days of horror with scenes from The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein, 1958’s The Fly and Psycho, while also throwing a spotlight on what in 1984 were the genre’s most recent entries (Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween 2, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, and Firestarter). In addition to the scares, Terror in the Aisles takes a long, hard look at thrillers; there’s an interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he discusses the difference between “shock” and “suspense”, as well as clips from such award-winning thrillers as Midnight Express, Klute and Marathon Man

From start to finish, Terror in the Aisles is a loving tribute to cinematic horror, but I have to admit that I was baffled by some of the movies that director Andrew J. Kuehn and his team chose to include. As mentioned above, there’s an extended sequence dedicated to thrillers that focuses primarily on three films: Marathon Man, Nighthawks (a 1981 crime/drama starring Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer) and the underrated Vice Squad. I enjoyed this segment, even if it did feel out of place in a horror documentary, but what really left me scratching my head was the inclusion of a brief scene from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (and a romantic one at that)!

Also perplexing was the choice of movies used to fill each segment. At one point, Pleasance waxes poetic about the role that Satan has played in a variety of horror films, which is immediately followed by clips from what I consider the “Big Three” of devil films, namely Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen). But in addition, this segment featured scenes from Jaws, Carrie, and even John Carpenter’s The Thing, all classics in their own right, but in no way Satanic in nature.

Yet as confusing as its segments could be, what bothered me most were some of the clips that the filmmakers selected. In short, they spoil a good number of horror classics, highlighting the final scenes from such movies as Psycho, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, ’78’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween 2, and David Cronenberg’s Scanners, just to name a few. Normally, a movie like Terror in the Aisles would be the perfect film to show a new fan of the genre, as a means of introducing him or her to some of horror’s most time-honored motion pictures, but with so many spoilers crammed into its 84-minutes, I’d recommend that novices avoid this documentary completely.

For the rest of us, though, Terror in the Aisles is an entertaining love letter to the best of what horror has to offer, and even with its flaws I found it to be a refreshing, fun-filled walk down memory lane.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

#2,336. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Line from the film: "On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month"

Trivia: The actors snorted crushed B vitamins for scenes that involved cocaine

Even at age 70, director Martin Scorsese can turn out a hip, stylish motion picture, which is exactly what he did with 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Based on actual events, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the 1980’s was an up-and-coming stockbroker, eager to make his way on Wall Street. Unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the market crash of October 19, 1987, and as a result, his career was seemingly over before it began.

To make ends meet, Jordan accepted a job at a small Long Island brokerage that specialized in penny stocks, and soon made enough money there to go out on his own. Partnering with his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Jordan hired old friends and trained them in the fine art of selling penny stocks to rich suckers. Within a few years, Jordan Belfort was back on Wall Street, and his company, Stratton Oakmont, was raking in millions.

Unfortunately, Jordan's rapid success went straight to his head; he and his co-workers regularly invited prostitutes up to the office, and Jordan began experimenting with every drug imaginable, from Quaaludes to cocaine. He divorced his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) to marry supermodel Naomi (Margot Robbie), and the wild parties he threw on his custom yacht would have made a college fraternity blush. 

Before long, all of New York was talking about Jordan Belfort, and his meteoric rise caught the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who dug deep into Stratton Oakmont’s business practices in an effort to put Jordan and his team behind bars for many, many years.

Jordan’s father, Max (Rob Reiner), who also acted as his business manager, begged Jordan to make a deal with the feds that would keep him out of prison. But Jordan Belfort wasn’t about to go quietly into the night, and it would take a series of scandals to bring his reign as “The Wolf of Wall Street” to a catastrophic end.

As with many of Scorsese’s best works, The Wolf of Wall Street has its share of unforgettable scenes. An early sequence where Jordan demonstrates to Donnie and the others how to unload a worthless stock on a wealthy client is as funny as it is distasteful, and a speech Jordan delivers to his employees late in the movie, in which he was to announce his retirement only to change his mind midway through, was dramatic enough to bring a tear to my eye. 

Yet, for my money, the film’s single greatest (and funniest) sequence has Jordan and Donnie taking outdated Quaaludes by the handful, only to discover later on (and at a very inopportune time) that the pills they believed lost their potency simply had a delayed effect.

From top to bottom, the cast of The Wolf of Wall Street is superb; DiCaprio received a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Jordan Belfort (and, in my opinion, he should have won it), while Jonah Hill breathes enough life into Donnie to take what is essentially a scuzzball character and make him a bit more palpable. In addition, Margot Robbie is effectively sexy as Naomi, the woman who stood by Jordan through the ups and downs, while Rob Reiner steals a scene or two as Max, the sole voice of reason in Jordan Belfort’s otherwise chaotic life. 

Yet the true star of The Wolf of Wall Street is its director, whose patented, highly-stylized approach to the material (swooping cameras, slow-motion, engaging narration, etc.) helped make The Wolf of Wall Street the best movie I’ve seen this decade.

Of course, Martin Scorsese is no stranger to greatness; in each of the previous four decades, he managed to turn out at least one masterpiece. In the ‘70s, it was Taxi Driver, then just as the ‘80s were getting underway he hit us with Raging Bull. Throw in Goodfellas (which kicked off the ‘90s) and The Departed (the 2006 movie that finally netted him an Academy Award), and you have what is already one hell of a filmography.

It’s way too early to close the books on Scorsese in the 2010’s. But even if he fails to deliver at his normal level from here on out, at least he gave us The Wolf of Wall Street, and in so doing has continued what was already a truly remarkable streak.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

#2,335. The Final Destination (2009)

Directed By: David R. Ellis

Starring: Nick Zano, Krista Allen, Andrew Fiscella

Tag line: "Just because you know it's happening, doesn't mean you'll see it coming"

Trivia: This is the only Final Destination movie with a sex scene

The fourth movie in the Final Destination series, 2009’s The Final Destination gives us more of the same, only this time the filmmakers felt that showing the deaths and dismemberments in 3-D would be a good idea. It wasn’t, and along with the obligatory shots of things flying towards the screen, The Final Destination features piss-poor CGI and kill scenes that are more ridiculous than they are creative.

A day at the races quickly turns into a nightmare when a violent crash sends vehicles and debris flying into the crowd. Fortunately, a handful of people are able to avoid the disaster when Nick (Bobby Campo), who was attending the race with girlfriend Lori (Shantel VanSanten) and their pals Hunt (Nick Zano) and Janet (Haley Webb), has a premonition of the carnage to come.

But in the days that follow, as the four friends and the others, including a security guard (Mykelti Williamson), a young mother of two (Krista Allen), and a heavy-drinking racist (Justin Welborn) contemplate what might have happened if Nick hadn’t seen the future, death starts catching up with them, and one by one the survivors meet a grisly end.

Nick, who’s continuing premonitions show him bits and pieces of each recurring death, teams up with Lori to try to break the cycle, hoping that, if they save one person from the grim reaper, the rest will be spared. Of course, knowing when and where death will come knocking, and who the next victim will be, isn’t going to be easy, but it’s the only chance they have to stay alive.

As with the three previous films in the series, The Final Destination wastes no time at all, and within the first 10 minutes or so we’re treated to all sorts of bloody violence (courtesy of everything from collapsing walls to engines that fly through the air). The problem is that every kill is rendered via CG, and because the budget didn’t allow for tens of millions of dollars to do it right, there’s not a single death that looks convincing.

Yet what ultimately sinks the film is its convoluted kill scenes. The first three movies had their share of ludicrous kills, but in The Final Destination director David R. Ellis and his team took just about every death sequence five steps too far, setting them up with needless shots (shaky ceiling fans, spilling gas cans, etc) and then making them so outrageously complex that a few actually made me laugh (the first “post-race” kill, which involves a tow truck, is bizarre enough, but compared to what follows it’s downright subtle!)

As silly as they could be at times, I enjoyed the series’ first three movies, but The Final Destination proved to be a major disappointment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

#2,334. Ladyhawke (1985)

Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer

Tag line: "A Magical Mystical Adventure"

Trivia: Rutger Hauer doesn't appear until 15 minutes into the film

Director Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke qualifies as yet another entry in the already-crowded genre of ‘80s fantasy, only this time it’s not magic, dragons, or barbarians that take center stage, but a good old-fashioned love story.

After escaping from the prison at Aquila (and thus avoiding his date with the hangman), pickpocket Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) travels the countryside, all the while dodging the guards that the Bishop (John Wood) has sent to recapture him. Things look bleak for Gaston when Marquet (Ken Hutchinson), the leader of the guard, finally catches up with him in a small village. It's at this point that Etainne Navarre (Rutger Hauer) intervenes, fighting off Marquet and his men and in the process freeing Gaston from their clutches. A former Captain of the Guard, Navarre is on his way back to Aquila to kill the Bishop, and Gaston (as thanks for saving his life) agrees to act as his squire. During the journey, Gaston notices that Navarre is especially fond of his pet hawk, which never leaves his side.

As the sun begins to set, the two men settle down in an old barn for the night, and as the hours pass, Gaston, unable to sleep, decides to go for a walk. To his horror, he’s attacked by a ferocious wolf, which chases him back to the barn. In a panic, Gaston calls for Navarre, who is nowhere to be found. Instead, a beautiful woman emerges from the darkness, and, to Gaston’s surprise, she quiets the wolf simply by talking to it. Her name is Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), and try as he might, Gaston is unable to find out where she came from.

By sunrise the next morning, Isabeau is gone. Navarre, meanwhile, has returned, and is more resolute than ever to carry out his mission.

What is the connection between Isabeau and Navarre? Why does one disappear during the day and the other at night? Why is Navarre so anxious to kill the Bishop? A perplexed Gaston cannot answer these questions, but remains confident that all will be revealed when he and his mysterious companions finally reach Aquila. 

I probably could have taken this synopsis a bit further, but those who have seen Ladyhawke will understand why I didn't (and everyone who has yet to experience it will be glad I held back).

What I can discuss, though, are the performances. Matthew Broderick is quite good as Gaston, who, along with serving as the comic relief in a number of scenes (his run-in with Marquet is as humorous as it is exciting), proves to be the perfect companion for both Navarre and Isabeau, ready to stand and fight alongside them when the need arises. In addition to Broderick, Leo McKern plays Father Imperius, a priest looking to correct a mistake he made years earlier; and John Wood is deliciously evil as the egomaniacal Bishop, a man of God who occasionally resorts to black magic to get his way. That said, it's Hauer and Pfieffer, both pitch-perfect in their respective roles, who give the film its romantic edge, playing a man and woman dealing with a terrible curse and doing everything they can to end their suffering. It's their story that drives the movie forward and we the audience are drawn into it completely.

Ladyhawke is, indeed, a solid fantasy film (director Donner uses special FX sparingly, relying more on camera tricks to bring this mystical world to life) and also works well as an adventure (I especially liked the scene in which three of the Bishop’s guards storm Father Imperius’ Monastery looking for Gaston and Navarre). But like Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride,, first and foremost, a love story (albeit an unorthodox one), and its romantic moments are sure to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

#2,333. Night Shift (1982)

Directed By: Ron Howard

Starring: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long

Tag line: "The oldest profession in a new-look comedy"

Trivia: Kevin Costner plays Frat Boy #1 in what was only his second film role ever

I must have seen Night Shift twenty times on cable TV in the '80s, and it always made me laugh. An early comedy by director Ron Howard, Night Shift also gave Michael Keaton his first major film role, and the young actor definitely made the most of it! 

New York City morgue employee Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) is one of life’s losers. Pushed around by his weight obsessed fiancée (Gina Hecht), Chuck has also just been demoted to the night shift, putting up no fight at all when his boss’s nephew (Bobby DiCicco) is given his old position. 

To make matters worse, Chuck has to train a new partner: loud-mouth Bill Blazejowski (Keaton), whose incessant chatter and harebrained schemes turn the normally peaceful morgue into a madhouse.

As Chuck soon discovers, though, he’s not the only one with problems. Sexy prostitute Belinda (Shelley Long), who lives in the apartment next to his, recently lost her longtime pimp (Julius LeFlore), who was murdered by a pair of thugs (Radja Dhola and Richard Belzer). As a result, she and many other “ladies of the evening” have nobody to protect them. 

Chuck makes the mistake of telling Bill about Belinda’s situation, leading the self-proclaimed “idea man” to suggest that he and Chuck fill the void left by the pimp’s demise. 

In short, Bill proposes they turn the morgue into an escort service! 

As outlandish as this idea sounds, Chuck (who is falling in love with Belinda) goes along with it, and before long the two partners are making a boatload of money. But while Bill is having the time of his life, Chuck is a bundle of nerves, worrying about what might happen when the law finally catches up with them.

Henry Winkler, better known to audiences as “The Fonz” in the ‘70s sitcom Happy Days, sheds his ultra-cool persona to play Chuck, a timid, painfully shy underdog who, in spite of his many phobias, is a likable guy. Shelley Long, a year or so away from her breakout role as barmaid Diane in Cheers, is equally effective as the hooker who steals Chuck’s heart, and the scenes in which Winkler and Long appear together are among the movie’s best. 

I also have to give some props to director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who took what could have easily been a sleazy, exploitative story about pimps and prostitutes and turned it into a funny, occasionally endearing motion picture.

But from the moment he steps on-screen, his Walkman blasting The Rolling Stones’ "Jumpin’ Jack Flash", Night Shift belongs to Michael Keaton. As the often frantic Bill Blazejowski, a guy with so many ideas that he has to carry around a tape recorder to remember them all, Keaton is flat-out hilarious, making us laugh at his antics while at the same time infusing the character with enough warmth and humanity to ensure he’s the perfect friend for someone like Chuck.

Michael Keaton went on to have a stellar career after Night Shift, starring in such movies as Beetlejuice, 1989’s Batman, and, more recently, a pair of Best Picture winners (Birdman and Spotlight). If you want to see the film that started him on his way, then this ‘80s comedy gem should be the very next one you watch.