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 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.

Bottom line: it's not a movie for everyone, but if you've been on the lookout for an historical piece that’s chock full of adult content, then Salon Kitty should be the very next film you watch!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

Directed By: Buddy Van Horn

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis

Tagline: "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 motion picture 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 the bout. 

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 as cantankerous as ever (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, the 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 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

Already impressed with his arthouse debauchery in both 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 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 soon be joining them: Mr. Edward Hyde (played by Gérard Zalcberg), Dr. Jekyll’s volatile, over-stimulated alter-ego. An unfortunate side effect of one of Jekyll’s experiments, Mr. Hyde occasionally takes over Jekyll’s body, raping and killing every young woman he encounters. Moments after Mr. Hyde makes his first “appearance”, dinner guests begin to die in grisly fashion.

Worried about her beloved, Fanny sneaks into Jekyll’s lab and, while there, learns the truth about his connection to Mr. Hyde. Will Fanny marry a man who cannot control the darkness of 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. For instance, 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 the director. With these changes, Borowczyk created 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, was difficult to watch).

Still, even with its more extreme elements (which includes Hyde also 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, which, as mentioned, has its lewder moments. But the fact that Borowczyk also manages to engage his audience through 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 movies. 

Kull the Conqueror, however, is a ‘90s fantasy / adventure, and isn't as entertaining as its ‘80s counterparts. 

After defeating 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 seeks the help of Enaros (Edward Tudor Pool), a wizard whose mastery of ancient magic allows him to raise a 2,000-year-old demon witch named Akivasha (Tia Carrere) from the dead, in the hopes she will destroy Kull once and for all. 

Though he has developed feelings for palace slave / soothsayer Zareta (Karina Lombard), Kull nonetheless 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 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; though not prevalent throughout the entire movie, it 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 with 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 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 quarantine 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 becomes a curse. 

London, 1886. Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a 22-year-old aristocrat, is posing for a portrait, 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 good looks 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 portrait 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 indiscretions. 

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 morphs and deforms, growing more grotesque as the years drag on. Try as he might, Dorian cannot ignore the ghastliness of his portrait, and wonders if it's time to repent his evil ways. 

Hurd Hatfield is perfectly cast as the title character, transforming from a naïve young gentleman at the outset into a hardened shell of a man who, as the years progress, cares only about his own pleasures. Yet despite his continued debauchery, Dorian is always aware of what he has become, and at several intervals throughout the film expresses a desire (however briefly) to change. 

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 that life must be 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 (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 sinister, his painted 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 most 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 (which 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 eventually 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 tells Philo she's afraid that her live-in boyfriend, who she no longer has feelings for, might somehow get in the way of their happiness. 

Then, one day, Lynn disappears, and Philo suspects that her boyfriend dragged her back to Denver. So, joined by Orville and Clyde, Philo hops into his pick-up truck and heads to Colorado. 

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 on him (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 the supporting cast proves every bit as interesting as its lead. Orville, well-played by Geoffrey Lewis, is responsible for setting up Philo’s bare-knuckle contests (which he does whenever they're in need of some quick cash), and at one point 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. 

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's a human being (Philo even breaks into the zoo to find 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 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, toe-tapping music, and plethora of funny scenes are enough to ensure that - even 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 has one hell of a pre-title sequence:

The Nomads chapter of the Exiles Motorcycle Club is hanging out at an amusement park, enjoying the kiddie rides. Their fun is interrupted when a rival gang shows up, and within moments there's an all-out brawl. The melee spreads throughout the park; a few guys are fighting 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 proves 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 and sets out on his own.

Not long after, he helps a couple of hippies who are being harassed by a bigoted gas station attendant, and to show their gratitude, the two hippies - one of whom is named Merilee (Tyne Daly) - take Angel back to their commune, where he’s invited to stay as long as he likes by Jonathan (Luke Askew), their leader

Unfortunately, the locals just won’t leave the hippies alone, and attack the commune. While trying to intercede, Angel stabs one of the attackers with a pitchfork. In a fit of anger, the locals then give Jonathan and his followers until the end of the week to clear out, or face the consequences.

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 defend themselves and maybe even stick around long enough to scare away the locals. Reluctant to do so, Angel nonetheless 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 fighting starts.

A 1970 biker flick 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. At first glance, this may seem like an odd combination, but Madden and the film’s writer Jeffrey Alan Fiskin manage to make it work. They even throw a little humor into the mix; 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 treated to a bizarre - but oh so funny - fantasy sequence).

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 invade the commune); and the relationship that develops between the bikers and the hippies isn’t explored as well as it could be (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 claims made by his neighbor, Laben Feather (Steiger), that it belonged 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 insistence 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 develop feelings for one another, but with the tensions mounting between the Feathers and the Gutshalls, both families slowly 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 opens. 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 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, and 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 flying. 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. 

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, that 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

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

A coffin sits in the middle of a small room, which is decorated with flowers. A few seconds pass, and then a narrator chimes in:

The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror”, the narrator 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, as you can see, I did survive my viewing of The Screaming Skull, and while it wasn’t quite scary enough to give me heart palpitations, there were one or two moments towards the end that, at the very least, made my 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 believed his heart perished with her, he found love again with Jenni, a kindly if somewhat timid heiress with a history of mental problems. 

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 to Eric’s first wife. But the longer the couple stays 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? Is Mickey causing all the chaos in an effort to keep Marion’s memory alive? Or is Jenni simply losing her mind? 

Admittedly, it takes some time for the scares in The Screaming Skull to kick in (early on, the most frightening thing that happens - aside from a few bumps in the night - is when Jenni stumbles upon a portrait of Marion, which appeared suddenly in an upstairs room). Even the mystery surrounding the newlyweds isn't all that impressive; I was able to figure out who was putting poor Jenni through the ringer well before the movie’s intense climax rolled around (I’m not bragging; odds are you’ll solve this riddle as easily as I did). 

What I can’t quite settle on is whether or not the film’s wild ending makes up for the banality that went before it. As mentioned above, the early scenes aren’t entirely devoid of thrills, but at the same time the finale isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as, say, that of Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp (for as slow as most of The Screaming Skull is, though, the ending is kinda cool). 

Ultimately, I’d say this black and white frightfest is worth checking out once (it’s a little more than an hour long, so the time commitment is minimal). But, despite the warning issued at the beginning of the movie, don't expect The Screaming Skull to blow you 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 much further, and 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 will barely notice because you'll be laughing so 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

Even the most casual fans of western movies love a good showdown scene, but very few are as unusual as what transpires during a key moment in 1958’s Terror in a Texas Town

A hired killer, dressed in black, stands at the end of a street while his opponent, the film’s hero, walks towards him, followed closely 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 this little surprise is one of several elements that helps lift an 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 enters 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 to 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, spent 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, a few of which are incredibly dark. 

Even the love interest has an edge to her. 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. As for McNeil, he doesn’t really like Johnny, either; he keeps 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 and 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 (even when he faces Johnny with a whaling spear, we never once feel that 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 to 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 nightclub 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 (they carry out the execution in the parking lot of Langston's club). 

Saddened and angered 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 comes 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). 

While the supporting performances are mostly 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.

#2,459. Popcorn (1991)

Directed By: Mark Herrier

Starring: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace

Tag line: "Buy a bag, go home in a box"

Trivia: Director Alan Ormsby was replaced after three weeks of principal photography by Mark Herrier

As a film fan, I can’t help but love 1991’s Popcorn. A late addition to the slasher genre that also dips its toes into supernatural waters, Popcorn pays tribute to the great William Castle, and even has a few familiar faces among its supporting cast. 

Throw in a rollicking reggae soundtrack (the entire film was shot in Jamaica) and you have a movie that, even when it isn’t perfect, is a hell of a lot of fun.

To raise money for their fledgling film club, a group of college students follow the advice of senior member Toby (Tom Villard) and host their very own horror movie festival. 

After renting the theater (which was weeks away from being demolished), the students, aided by master showman Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Walston), begin their preparations, knowing full well that the only way they can make the selected movies (a trio of 3rd-rate sci-fi / horror films from the ‘50s and ‘60s) more appealing is by employing some William Castle-style gimmickry (electric buzzers in the seats, odor pellets released through an air duct, etc). 

Yet what starts as a good, wholesome bit of merriment quickly takes a dark turn when Toby discovers a short film stashed among Dr. Mnesyne’s props. The movie, made over 20 years earlier by cult leader / killer Lanyard Gates (Matt Falls), aka “The Possessor”, contains images eerily similar to those that fellow student Maggie (Jill Schoelen) has been experiencing in a recent string of nightmares. 

While Maggie herself finds it all terribly exciting (she’s convinced her warped dreams have the makings of a great horror flick), her mother Suzanne (Dee Wallace) is more than a little worried, and tries to convince her daughter to forget about the festival and leave town altogether. 

What is Maggie’s connection to “The Possessor”, and is she truly in as much danger as her mother believes? The answers to these questions will eventually be revealed, but not before plenty of blood has been spilled. 

With its tale of a murderous cult leader who allegedly rose from the dead, Popcorn offers viewers a few supernatural-inspired thrills (the best of which occurs when Dee Wallace’s Suzanne visits a darkened movie theater alone, prepared to do battle with “The Possessor”). In addition, the kill scenes (which, admittedly, are more creative than gory) harken back to the slashers that were in vogue some 10 years earlier. 

Yet, for me, the strongest sequences in Popcorn are the “films within a film”, snippets from those movies shown during the festival, including Mosquito (a take on the giant bug flicks of the 1950’s), The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, and The Stench, a Japanese import that relies on a gimmick similar to Odorama. All are cheesy as hell (Mosquito stars a flying bug that is obviously moving by way of a wire), but that cheesiness only adds to the enjoyment of these movies, and I found myself wishing these three mock films actually existed. 

Along with Ray Walston and Dee Wallace, Popcorn also features Tony Roberts in the role of Mr. Davis, the teacher who helps Toby, Maggie and the others get their horror festival off the ground. As for the students themselves, they are competently portrayed, and most of the movie’s humor is a direct result of their shenanigans (especially good are Elliott Hurst as the wheelchair-bound Leon and Ivette Solar as Joanie, who is secretly in love with Toby). 

And while I can definitely see it grating on the nerves of some viewers, I really enjoyed the reggae soundtrack, particularly the two songs performed by Ossie D. and Stevie G. (a cover of “Saturday Night at the Movies” and a tune titled “Scary Scary Movies”, written for this film). 

Popcorn did have its share of production woes. When the initial director Alan Ornsby fell behind schedule, he was dropped in favor of Mark Herrier (some of Ornsby’s work, primarily the three “films with a film”, did make the final cut); and Amy O’Neill, the actress originally cast to play Maggie, was replaced midway through by Jill Schoelen (meaning several scenes had to be re-shot). 

Yet while neither of these changes had an adverse effect on the film, the movie’s main plot ("the Possessor" looking for revenge) never gels as it should, and the big twist at the end is revealed way too early (which takes the edge off of it). 

But with so many other things working in its favor, Popcorn proved to be one of the more entertaining horror movies to emerge from the first half of the ‘90s.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

#2,458. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978)

Directed By: John Barry

Starring: Tony Curtis, Jackie Earle Haley, Tomisaburô Wakayama

Tag line: "They never met an adult they couldn't drive crazy"

Trivia: This film was followed by a 1979 CBS-TV series

Remember the story I told about my first trip to a drive-in theater? 

Probably not, but as a reminder check out my reviews of Jaws 2 and Rollercoaster, which was the double feature that night way back in 1978. 

The only other thing I recall about that particular evening was the trailer for The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, which, if memory serves, played during the intermission between the two movies. It dawned on me recently that I’d never actually seen this 3rd entry in the Bad News Bears series, and that maybe I should rectify this oversight as soon as possible. 

Well, today was the day, and to be honest I should have quit while I was ahead with the trailer; The Bad News Bears Go to Japan sucks. 

When it’s reported that the United States is refusing to send a little league team to Japan to face a collection of that country’s all-stars, the hapless Bears, led by their captain Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), decide to take up the challenge. Unfortunately, the Bears don’t have enough money to make the trip, nor is there an adult willing to chaperone them during their stay in Tokyo. 

Enter Henry Lazar (Tony Curtis), a talent agent / swindler who owes money to every bookie in town. Convinced that he can talk a major U.S. network into covering the game, Lazar has each member of the Bears sign a contract, then packs the team up and flies them to Japan. Of course, setting the Bad News Bears loose on foreign soil does have its consequences, but Lazar, who is determined to make a boatload of cash, vows to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the game goes off without a hitch. 

Part of what made the original The Bad News Bears a surprise hit was its collection of child actors, whose foul language and crass behavior was good for a few laughs. Even The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training - the middle film in this “trilogy” - realized this on some level (though it didn’t pull it off as well as the first movie). In The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, however, the Bears are rarely more than background characters in their own movie, with most of the story instead centering on Tony Curtis’s Lazar. We tag along with Lazar to a martial arts championship bout (which gets completely out of hand, and not in a funny way) as well as the live broadcast of a Japanese TV variety show, which features the kids from the opposing team, along with their coach, Shimizu (Tomisaburô Wakayama, star of the Lone Wolf and Cub / Shogun Assassin series of movies), belting out a couple of songs. In each of these sequences, and many others, the Bears are given very little to do. 

This approach might have worked had Tony Curtis delivered even a halfway decent performance. But he didn’t. In fact, he was terrible; in every scene, Curtis was trying way too hard to be funny, rattling off silly one-liners and going over-the-top as his character continually attempted to hustle the Japanese team, an American television network, and even the Bears themselves into believing he knew what he’s doing. Lazar, who is only interested in making a few bucks, is a pretty nasty person, actually, and we don’t believe for a minute that any parent would let him take their child halfway around the world. Tony Curtis was certainly not a bad actor (he was good in Spartacus and The Vikings, and superb in The Defiant Ones and Sweet Smell of Success), but you wouldn’t know it from the crappy performance he delivers here. 

There are other problems with The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, including a romantic subplot between Kelly and a teenage geisha / musician named Akira (Hatsune Ishihara) that’s crowbarred into the narrative; scenes that end suddenly, with no resolution; and racially insensitive remarks uttered by the Bears early in the film (though, thankfully, the slurs were kept to a minimum, and one of the story’s better aspects was the friendship that developed between the team and their Japanese rivals). Worst of all, though, is the amazingly uncomfortable scene in which Lazar tries to explain to 6-year-old Mustapha (Scoody Thornton) what goes on inside a Japanese massage parlor! 

Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I did have high hopes going into The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, mostly because Michael Ritchie, the director of the original film, was back for this 3rd installment, acting as producer (it was directed by John Barry). Alas, not even a guy as talented as Ritchie could save this mess. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan is a muddled, unfunny piece of dreck, and should be avoided.

#2,457. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness

Tag line: "Spectacle! Passions! Savagery!"

Trivia: Alec Guinness admitted that he never saw more than twenty minutes of the completed film

Having already produced such epics as El Cid, King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, Samuel Bronston next turned his attention to ancient Rome, and his 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire is a grand, sweeping, monster of a movie, with enormous set pieces, thousands of extras, and action aplenty.

The year is 180 A.D. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is in the north, leading his armies against a fierce band of Germanic invaders. Old and in failing health, Marcus knows his days are numbered, and decides to name his successor. But instead of selecting his son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) to follow him, Marcus chooses Livius (Stephen Boyd), his most trusted General, to be the next Roman Emperor.

But Livius, who is close friends with Commodus, has no interest in ruling such a vast empire. Though urged to accept by Lucilla (Sophia Loren) - his lover and Marcus’s only daughter - Livius instead steps aside, allowing Commodus to succeed his father (Marcus is poisoned and dies before he can sign the official document naming Livius his heir). 

Alas, where Marcus Aurelius was a man of peace, his son Commodus, who spends the majority of his free time training with gladiators, rules the empire with an iron fist, doubling all taxes and promising to deal harshly with those who oppose him. Realizing that his friend has become a tyrant, Livius, with the help of Marcus Aurelius’ former advisor Timonides (James Mason), defies Commodus by showing mercy to the Germanic tribes of Ballomar (John Ireland), who were recently defeated in battle. Angered by his actions, Commodus banishes Livius, only to recall him a short while later when the Eastern provinces rise up against Rome. 

Will Livius do as Commodus asks and crush the rebellion, or will he instead join forces with Lucilla, who wants nothing more than to see her brother deposed? 

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator is set in this exact time period, and features many of the same characters (oddly enough, Richard Harris refused the role of Commodus in this 1964 film, only to play the young Emperor’s father, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator). 

Being something of a history buff, I’ve always enjoyed The Fall of the Roman Empire (sure, it’s not 100% accurate, but what movie is?). The opening sequences, which feature Marcus Aurelius and the Roman forces fighting the Germanic tribes in the snow-covered North, are wonderfully realized (you practically feel the chill in the air whenever the wind howls), and the various battle scenes scattered throughout the movie are equally exciting, especially the Battle of the Four Armies that occurs late in the film. 

The real spectacle, though, is the immense Roman Forum, which, if some sources are to be believed, was the single largest set ever constructed up to that time (it measured 1312 x 754 feet, or 400 x 230 meters). 

As for the performances, most are exceptional; the only one that rubs me the wrong way is Stephen Boyd’s portrayal of Livius. He’s certainly not terrible in the role, and based on his turn as the villainous Messala in Ben-Hur he obviously had a knack for playing larger-then-life figures. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, however, Boyd comes across as flat, and the early love scenes between Livius and Lucilla have zero energy (to be fair, the chemistry between the two does improve as the movie progresses). 

It's not like Boyd hurts the film, but the best moments (aside from the battles) are those that feature either Alec Guinness or Christopher Plummer, both of whom are in top form. Guinness is especially strong as the aging Marcus Aurelius, and when his character dies, we, like the Romans, mourn the loss of a great man. 

Much like 1963’s Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire was a late entry in the historical epic subgenre, and while the movie itself was a box office bomb (rumor has it producer Samuel Bronston declared bankruptcy as a result of this film), it’s still a massively entertaining motion picture, and a shining example of Hollywood at its decadent best.