Thursday, October 6, 2022

#2,829. Lifeforce (1985)

 





1985’s sci-fi / horror mash-up Lifeforce has two distinct personalities, blending the complex, near indecipherable tale of an apocalypse (one anchored in ancient mythos) with a straight-up exploitation flick filled to its breaking point with violence, nudity, and sexual deviancy. How else can one describe a film about a spaceship harboring the vampires of legend that also contains a scene in which Steve Railsback makes out with Patrick Stewart?

Lifeforce is simultaneously clever and ridiculous, frightening and goofy, and right out of the gate, as we watch the opening credits, we are given an inkling of what’s to come. Along with being directed by Hooper, the mastermind behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist, Lifeforce also features music by Henry Mancini, whose subtle work for such classic motion pictures as The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s here give way to a bombastic, over-the-top score performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, we learn that Lifeforce was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who penned Alien and directed Return of the Living Dead.

All of these revelations are trumped, however, the moment we realize Lifeforce was released by Cannon Films and produced by Golan and Globus, the very men who unleashed Jean-Claude Van Damme, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Superman IV: Quest for Peace on an unsuspecting public.

Is it any wonder that Lifeforce is such a muddled yet glorious marriage of good and bad?

The story opens in the dark recesses of space. Colonel Tom Carlsen (Railsback), commander of the shuttle Churchill, and his crew discover, quite by accident, an enormous alien vessel that is hiding in Halley’s Comet. Carlson and a few others set out to explore this strange ship, and find it is harboring three naked humanoid life forms in suspended animation. Strangely drawn to the female humanoid (played by Mathilda May), Carlsen decides to bring the three back to the Churchill for further examination.

At some point during their return voyage, mission control in London loses contact with the Churchill, which has mysteriously drifted into earth’s orbit. A team is sent to investigate, and are horrified to discover that a fire has ravaged the Churchill, killing everyone on board with the exception of the three humanoid specimens.

Brought down to earth to be studied, the female subject eventually wakes up and sucks the life energy from one of the guards, reducing him to an emaciated corpse in a matter of seconds. The humanoids, it turns out, are actually vampires, and within two hours all who fall victim to these alien creatures will themselves awaken, and search frantically for another’s life force to sustain them.

The female vampire eventually escapes from the research facility, and it falls to Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), police detective Colin Caine (Peter Firth), and Col. Carlsen (who survived the destruction of the Churchill by launching an escape pod) to track her down before she can turn anyone else into a vampire.

It’s a complex storyline, no doubt, but that’s actually just scratching the surface; there’s a lot more going on here than what I’ve described above, and it wasn’t long before I was scratching my head, trying in vain to keep up with the story’s many twists and turns, all leading to a final act in which the British military, operating under martial law, is sent in to quell the escalating apocalypse.

Yet as confusing as it all could be, never once did I lose interest in Lifeforce; Hooper and company have somehow managed to make the chaos so engrossing that I was poised on the edge of my seat throughout.

The cast does a decent job, with Mathilda May making the biggest impression, in part because she spends 90% of the movie completely nude. In addition to Miss May’s vampiric alien, Lifeforce explores themes of sexuality, occasionally crossing into dark territory. One scene in particular, where Carlsen and Caine are interrogating a nurse (played by Nancy Paul) who had a run-in with the vampire, features elements of masochism and voyeurism that make it especially tough to watch. Still, as exploitative as the nudity and sex can be at times, it gels perfectly with the story at hand.

The film’s effects are also a mixed bag. The sci-fi special effects, from the spaceship to the bursts of light that represent escaping energy forces, range from cheesy as hell to cheesy as all hell, but the make-up and creature design that brings the vampire’s victims to life (they essentially look like walking corpses) is damn impressive.

Even the opening scene in space combines the amazing (the discovery of the ship) with the dreadful (the dialogue and effects), and gives one the impression right out of the gate that Lifeforce is somehow going to be an odd mixture of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Yet during this most recent viewing, I enjoyed the movie more than I ever had before. In fact, I fell head-over-heels in love with Lifeforce! I loved its strengths as well as its weaknesses, its grand ambitions and its dismal failures. It is a mess, but it is a wonderfully entertaining mess, and I adored every single minute of it!

It may raise a few eyebrows, and convince some of you that I am in dire need of psychiatric help, but I give Lifeforce an enthusiastic rating of 9.75 out of 10!









Wednesday, October 5, 2022

#2,828. Return of the Living Dead, Part II (1988)

 





Not so much a sequel to 1985’s Return of the Living Dead as it is a film set in the same universe, Return of the Living Dead Part II once again stars James Karen and Thom Mathews, only this time around they’re playing two completely different characters: Ed (Karen) and Joey (Mathews), a pair of grave-robbers who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Earlier in the day, pre-teen Jesse (Michael Kenworthy) was trying to give neighborhood bullies Billy (Thor Van LIngen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan) the slip when he stumbled upon an unopened barrel of Trioxin, a chemical that brings the dead back to life. Fearing the worst, Jesse runs home and attempts to contact the military. He even warns his sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlein) and the cable repair man Tom (Dana Ashbrook) that danger is afoot.

Billy and Johnny, however, are curious, and open the barrel, releasing the Trioxin into the air. The fumes drift into a nearby cemetery, where Ed, Joey, and Joey’s girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder), are busy collecting body parts. All at once, the dead are alive again, looking for fresh brains to snack on, and it’s up to Jesse, Lucy, Tom, and their neighbor Dr. Mandel (Phil Bruns) to find a way to stop the zombie onslaught.

Writer / director Ken Wiederhorn favors comedy over scares throughout Return of the Living Dead Part II, with both James Karen (as the incredibly nervous Ed) and Phil Bruns (as the often clueless Doc Mandel) generating most of the laughs. Not to be outdone, the zombies also get in on the fun; the Tar Man from the original Return of the Living Dead (once again played by Allan Trautman) makes a brief appearance here as well, though it’s the severed head with the southern drawl (“Get that damn screwdriver out of my head!”) and the Michael Jackson zombie (who shows up right at the end) that steal the show.

In addition, Return of the Living Dead Part II boasts a handful of exciting sequences, culminating with a finale set at the local power plant that, despite a few sub-par special effects, ends the movie on a high note.

Those who enjoyed Return of the Living Dead will find plenty to like about this sequel, and while it may not deliver as many scares as the original, it’s a worthy follow-up all the same.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Tuesday, October 4, 2022

#2,827. Willy's Wonderland (2021)

 





Nicolas Cage doesn’t utter a word in 2021’s Willy’s Wonderland. Aside from the occasional grunt (usually after polishing off a can of Punch soda), Mr. Cage is silent throughout this movie. Yet in his eyes, and through his actions, we see the Nic Cage we’ve come to know and love over the years. The intense Nic Cage. “Crazy” Nic Cage. And it’s to screenwriter G.O. Parsons’ and director Kevin Lewis’s credit that the movie itself is just as insane as its lead actor.

With all four of his tires flat, a Loner (Cage) finds himself stranded in the small town of Hayesville, Nevada. To help pay for the repairs, he agrees to work as the night janitor of Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family entertainment center owned by local businessman Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz).

But what the Loner doesn’t know is that the eight animatronic mascots of Willy’s, including Arty Alligator (Christopher Bradley), Ozzie Ostrich (B.J. Guyer and Abel Arias), Siren Sara (Jessica Graves), and Willy himself (Jiri Stanek), are alive. What’s more, they’re thirsty for blood!

Legend has it that, years ago, a group of serial killers worked at Willy’s, and would lure families into the back room with the promise of cake and presents, then slaughter these unsuspecting victims in brutal fashion. Realizing the authorities were closing in, the killers performed a Satanic ritual that transferred their consciousness into Willy’s robotic animal band, and with the help of the complicit locals, including Tex and even the sheriff (Beth Grant), travelers passing through town have been offered as sacrifices to the evil animatronics on a regular basis.

The Loner was to be their newest prey, but with the help of teenager Liv (Emily Tosta), whose parents were killed at Willy’s Wonderland years earlier, he instead takes the fight to Willy and his pals. But can he and his new friend survive the night?

Nicolas Cage is at his badass best as the silent Loner who not only cleans Willy’s from top to bottom, but also decimates its animatronic mascots. After wiping the graffiti and grime off the walls and toilets in the men’s room, the Loner slaughters Gus Gorilla (Billy Bussey and Mark Gagliardi) in a manner you won’t soon forget.

Of course, not all of the blood spilled in Willy’s Wonderland flows from the “lovable” animals; Liv initially brings pals Aaron (Christian Del Grosso), Chris (Kai Kadlec), Kathy (Caylee Cowan), Bob (Terayle Hall), and Dan (Jonathan Mercedes) along to rescue the Loner, only to see each one mauled to death, starting with Aaron, who is run through with a sword wielded by Willy’s buddy Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson).

This all sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Willy’s Wonderland is batshit crazy from start to finish, and more than once the action and violence go way over the top. But if you turn yourself over to it completely, I’m betting you’ll have as much fun watching this bizarre little movie as I did.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Monday, October 3, 2022

#2,826. The Reckoning (2020)

 





Director Neil Marshall, the man behind such genre favorites as Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and Doomsday, travels back to 17th century England with his 2020 horror film The Reckoning to spin a tale of pestilence and witchcraft.

When her plague-infected husband Joseph (Joe Anderson) takes his own life, young mother Grace (Charlotte Kirk) finds herself at the whim of their treacherous landlord, Pendleton (Steve Waddington), who tries to pressure Grace into having sex with him. When she refuses, Pendleton accuses Grace of witchcraft and sends for England’s most notorious with hunter, Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), to question her.

Awaiting Moorcroft’s arrival, Grace is thrown into prison, and while there begins to experience visions of both her dead husband and Lucifer himself (Ian Whyte), who tries to convince a frail Grace that it would be in her best interest to turn her immortal soul over to him.

The Reckoning benefits from a convincing re-creation of the time period, when England was in the throes of the black plague, and Marshall and his team do a fine job conveying the dirt, grime, and disease that was prevalent during this dark era of history.

As for the cast, Charlotte Kirk looks far too glamourous (her hair and make-up are always pristine, making her one of the least convincing “prisoners” to ever inhabit a dank jail cell), but both Sean Pertwee (as the holy man who sees witches everywhere) and his assistant, the badly deformed Ursula (Suzanne Magowan), are convincing as the film’s heavies. And while Marshall and company take a modern approach to the story, making Grace seem more like a feminist crusader than a victim of religious persecution, the scenes in which she is tortured by Moorcroft and Ursula are nonetheless tough to watch.

Unfortunately, The Reckoning has one major failing: the scenes in which Grace encounters Satan. They go absolutely nowhere. I was hoping these sequences might figure into the story somehow, with Satan taking a more active role in Grace’s plight. Being accused of witchcraft was an immediate death sentence in those days, so why not have Grace and the Devil actually enter into an agreement? But it wasn’t to be, and instead we’re left with an ill-advised modern take on a troubling period of history, and a movie that looks a lot better than it plays.
Rating: 5 out of 10









Sunday, October 2, 2022

#2,825. Murder-Rock (1984)

 





Lucio Fulci’s Murder-Rock is a well-shot murder mystery that features several interesting twists. Unfortunately, a few sub-par dance routines are also thrown into the mix, making this 1984 giallo something of a dated oddity.

Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos) runs the Arts for the Living Center, a prestigious dance academy in the heart of New York City. With the help of her choreographer Margie (Geretta Marie Fields), Candice pushes her dancers to succeed at all costs, and her quest for perfection pays off when several talent scouts decide to pay the academy a visit.

Unfortunately, it’s around this same time that some of the studio’s best dancers turn up dead, all stabbed through the heart with a long hairpin needle. Police Lt. Borgas (Cosimo Cinieri) launches an investigation into these killings, and believes the murderer is someone closely associated with the dance studio.

Candice, however, thinks the killer might be someone else entirely: a man who has been haunting her dreams. To her surprise, she sees this same man on a billboard and manages to track him down. His name is George Webb (Ray Lovelock), and despite her initial fears, Candice soon finds herself falling in love with this mysterious model. But is George the killer, or is it someone else entirely?

As a giallo, Murder-Rock is more "hit" than "miss". The first victim, Susan (Angela Lemerman), is killed in the locker room late one night, and while the murder isn’t particularly violent by Fulci’s standards, it’s disturbing nonetheless. Murder-Rock also features some great cinematography; the film was shot on-location in New York, showing the city in the dead of winter and giving it a life of its own, and the scene where the police are wheeling Susan’s body out of the studio is particularly memorable (cinematographer Guiseppe Pinoni attached the camera to the gurney, so that we can see the faces of all of the victim’s friends and associates, who are crying as her body passes them).

Like most giallos, Fulci fills Murder-Rock with potential killers, and shifts the focus from one to the other as the story progresses, with Lovelock’s George as the central suspect. As for the film’s ultimate reveal, it proved not only intriguing but also managed to catch me completely off-guard!

Alas, Murder-Rock also features some dance routines, which have a decent energy (some of them anyway), but more often than not slow down the pace of the film. And with many of these numbers clearly influenced by Flashdance (right down to the music written by Keith Emerson and performed by Doreen Chanter), they also date the movie badly.

My recommendation: watch Murder-Rock for the giallo, and fast forward through the dancing.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10









Saturday, October 1, 2022

#2,824. Children of the Corn (1984)

 





In a world where The Shining, Misery, Salem’s Lot, Carrie, and even Stand By Me exist, I doubt there are many people who would point to 1984’s Children of the Corn as the best of the Stephen King adaptations. Yet the movie, flawed though it may be, has elements that make it a worthy entry in the famed author’s cinematic canon.

Directed by Fritz Kiersch, Children of the Corn tells the story of Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton), who, following a traffic accident in rural Nebraska, discover that a young boy named Joseph (Jonas Marlowe) has been murdered. Hoping to alert the authorities, they make their way to the small farming town of Gatlin, only to find that every adult has mysteriously disappeared.

As it turns out, a 12-year-old preacher named Isaac (John Franklin) convinced the children of Gatlin to murder their parents as well as anyone over the age of 18. Aided by his henchman Malachai (Courtney Gains), Isaac orders the other kids to hunt down “The Outlanders” (Burt and Vicky), who will be offered as a sacrifice later that evening to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” of corn.

But with the help of Job (Robby Kiger) and Sarah (Anne Marie McAvoy) - a young brother and sister who have thus far managed to evade Isaac and the others - Burt and Vicky may just find a way to not only outwit the murderous tykes, but end their reign of terror once and for all.

Without a doubt, the strongest aspect of Children of the Corn is its cast. Both Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton (who later that same year would shoot to stardom as Sarah Conner in James Cameron’s The Terminator) make for likable leads, and we root like hell for them to find a way out of this very unusual predicament. Yet the film’s most impressive performances are delivered by John Franklin, who is absolutely menacing in the role of Isaac (Franklin, who suffers from a growth hormone deficiency, was actually in his mid-20s when the film was shot), and Courtney Gains as the even more dangerous Malachai; the scene where he is dragging Vicky through town, trying to convince Burt to come out of hiding, is positively chilling.

Where the film suffers is in the special effects department. Even by 1984 standards, the effects are weak, and as a result the final confrontation between good and evil, set late at night in a cornfield, is more laughable than it is frightening. In addition, the opening sequence, where the kids take over the town, feels rushed and ineffective (apparently, several scenes depicting additional violence against the adults were cut).

But while Children of the Corn may have its issues, the movie’s strengths are impressive enough to make it worth the while of King enthusiasts and fans of 1980s horror alike.
Rating: 7 out of 10









Thursday, September 29, 2022

#2,823. Saturday the 14th (1981) - Paula Prentiss Triple Feature

 





I spent an inordinate amount of time as a kid thumbing through TV Week, the local television guide that arrived every Sunday with the newspaper. Along with program listings, this modest publication provided star ratings for all the movies set to play that week. I distinctly recall the critic for TV Week awarded 1981’s Saturday the 14th a single star (out of 4), and didn’t have kind things to say in his or her 2-sentence blurb.

I didn’t pay that rating much notice, because this same publication also gave Caddyshack a single star, and in my mind that was a masterpiece. So, when it finally played, my 12-year-old self watched Saturday the 14th, confident it would be an amazing horror comedy.

I mention all this because, while I can remember TV Week’s rating of the film, I retained absolutely nothing from that initial viewing of Saturday the 14th. I mean, nothing! So, this recent watch was like seeing it for the first time.

And twice is enough. I now know why I couldn’t remember the movie; my brain was blocking it out!

That’s a bit harsh, actually; Saturday the 14th is a PG-level spoof with a few moments that work. Alas, there are many, many more that do not.

After inheriting a house from his late uncle, John Hyatt (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Mary (Benjamin’s real-life spouse, Paula Prentiss) pack up their belongings and two kids - teenager Debbie (Kari Michaelson) and pre-teen Billy (Kevin Brando) - and move into their new home. Never mind that it’s old, dusty, and dilapidated. As the realtor (Carole Androsky) tells them, it’s a “fixer-upper”.

But the house is more than just falling apart; it’s cursed! That first night, Billy finds an old book, titled the “Book of Evil”, and opens it, unwittingly releasing into the world a number of monsters, all now roaming feeling throughout the house.

This book, which is 300 years old, is also coveted by a number of others, including a vampire couple (Jeffrey Tambor and Nancy Lee Andrews) and an exterminator named Van Helsing (Severn Darden), who warns the Hyatts that if the monsters aren’t put back in the book by midnight on Saturday the 14th, it will mean the end of the world.

Produced by Julie Corman (wife of Roger) and written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, Saturday the 14th tries its damnedest to make us laugh, tossing out jokes, sight gags, and one-liners at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, about 80-90% of them fall flat. In one early scene, the vampire couple is checking out the house in the hope of buying it. Making conversation, the realtor asks if they have children. “As often as we can”, is Jeffrey Tambor’s response.

Some of the performances are also lacking. Richard Benjamin’s John is a clueless patriarch who tries to find a silver lining in any dark cloud, yet the actor seems bored with it all, as does the normally reliable Jeffrey Tambor. Faring slightly better are Paula Prentiss, whose Mary receives a bite from a vampire and slowly begins to transform (a storyline that had potential, but is inexplicably dropped in the last act) and Severn Darden as the low-key expert of the supernatural (most of the film’s bigger laughs come courtesy of his character). I also thought the monsters looked decent enough. Not great, mind you, but decent, especially the Gill Man, which first appears in a bathtub, easily the film’s most impressive scene.

The sophomoric humor that runs rampant throughout Saturday the 14th might appeal to younger viewers, and is harmless enough that it won’t give them nightmares. But don’t expect their sides to be splitting either.
Rating: 4 out of 10









Tuesday, September 27, 2022

#2,822. What's New Pussycat (1965) - Paula Prentiss Triple Featuire

 





A sex comedy written by Woody Allen (his first produced screenplay), What’s New Pussycat is a ‘60s film through and through. It is painfully dated. But at times it is also very, very funny.

Fashion editor Michael James (Peter O’Toole) is the most sought-after playboy in all of Paris. Women throw themselves at him, and more often than not Michael is only too happy to oblige his admirers. But Michael has a problem: he is deeply in love with Carole (Romy Schneider), and wants desperately to stay faithful to her.

To this end, he seeks the help of noted psychiatrist Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers), who is having romantic problems of his own. Shunning his overbearing wife (Edra Gale), Dr. Fassbender flirts openly with Renee Lefevre (Capucine), one of his patients. Unfortunately for the good doctor, Renee has fallen under Michael’s spell, as has stripper Liz Bien (Paula Prentiss), who attempts to kill herself every time Michael rejects her.

Surrounded by amorous beauties, Michael is fighting an uphill battle. But when Carole begins dating Victor (Woody Allen), a jealous Michael comes to the realization that he may finally be ready to settle down.

From its flashy costumes to its misogynistic leanings, What’s New Pussycat plays like a relic from the past, with moments that will undoubtedly make modern audiences cringe. While recounting his earliest sexual experiences, Michael talks of an affair he had with his teacher, Miss Marks (Barbara Somers), which we witness during a brief flashback. “Michael, this can’t work”, Miss Marks says as she and Michael embrace, “I’m 34 and you’re 12”.

And yet, for some reason, I did enjoy What’s New Pussycat. It has an energy that is infectious, building and building from one bizarre scene to the next. Michael attends one of Dr. Fassbender’s group sessions, which quickly (and hilariously) devolves into chaos, but this is nothing compared to what happens later on, when all of the characters meet up (most by chance) at a Chateau, then try to outrun the police (who have been called to restore order) by jumping into go-carts and taking off down the street! There’s even a scene in which pretty blonde Rita (Ursula Andress) parachutes into Michael’s car as it is speeding down the highway. And keep an eye out for Richard Burton, who makes a cameo as himself (he shares the screen for about 15 seconds with O’Toole, who co-starred with Burton a few years prior in Becket).

In addition to the film’s unbridled anarchy, writer Allen occasionally pays homage to a handful of cinematic classics. A scene set by a river, featuring Allen and Sellers, harkens back to a similar moment in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights; and there is a dream sequence that looks as if it was lifted straight out of Fellini’s 8 ½!

Filled to its breaking point with slapstick, one-liners, sexual innuendo, and gobs of male chauvinism (Michael calls every pretty woman he meets “pussycat” because it's easier than remembering their name), What’s New Pussycat will not be for everyone. And while I can’t blame you if it rubs you the wrong way, don’t hate me just because I thought it was a blast.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10









Sunday, September 25, 2022

#2,821. Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) - Paula Prentiss Triple Feature

 





Nobody talks like the characters in a Neil Simon production. I’ve never met anyone as quick-witted as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple or even Ira Parks in Seems Like Old Times. Yet Simon infuses his characters with enough personality that we have no problem believing they are 100% genuine.

Such is the case with Barney Cashman, the focal point of 1972’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Played to perfection by Alan Arkin, Barney leads a humdrum life. A middle-aged businessman (he owns a Seafood restaurant in New York City) with a wife and kids, Barney feels as if he’s missing out on all the excitement, and decides to have an affair.

Using his mother’s apartment (she spends every Tuesday volunteering at Mount Sanai Hospital), he will, over the course of several weeks, invite three separate women - customer Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), pretty stranger Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss), and his wife’s friend Jeanette Fisher (Renée Taylor), whose husband cheats on her regularly - to join him for an afternoon tryst. Alas, none go according to plan, leaving Barney to wonder if he’s really the cheating type, or if he’s just unlucky.

Arkin is in top form as Barney, who, despite being a successful restauranteur, comes across as one of life’s losers. The scenes sandwiched between his ”romantic” encounters feature Barney waking up in the morning, driving to work, and dealing with employees. Throughout these moments, he maintains a running internal monologue, lamenting his ordinary existence. “I could rob a bank, nobody would look up”, he says to himself at one point.

Unfortunately, his attempts to break the routine and live a little prove equally unfulfilling. Sally Kellerman’s Elaine is there for sex and nothing more, but the inexperienced Barney feels they should spend some time getting to know one another. Bobbi Michele, played by the always reliable Paula Prentiss, is a flighty actress whose mood changes from happy to angry and back to happy again without a moment’s notice; while family friend Jeanette is depressed, and knows a little too much about Barney and his wife for comfort. All three women are as sharp and funny as Barney, and their give-and-take with him will have you in stitches.

So while I may have never met anyone as quick-witted as Oscar Madison, Ira Parks, or Barney Cashman, I feel as if I’ve known dozens just like them. And that is the magic of Neil Simon.
Rating: 8 out of 10








Friday, September 23, 2022

#2,820. Brotherhood of Death (1976) - Brotherhood Triple Feature

 





I went into 1976’s Brotherhood of Death knowing that its cast featured a number of professional football players. Producer Ron Goldman (who also came up with the story) was friends with a handful of Washington Redskins, and convinced them to appear in his movie.

It was a good idea, using non-actors who nonetheless had some notoriety, but I admit, when I heard this, it tempered my expectations and didn’t give me much hope for the film.

Turns out I was both wrong and pleasantly surprised. The performances, by actors and football players alike, ranged from serviceable to good, but the characters and story grabbed me right from the get-go and held my attention throughout, leading up to a final showdown that absolutely blew me away.

After a run-in with a local KKK member (Ron David), Raymond Moffat (Roy Jefferson), his brother Junior (Haskell V. Anderson III), and their friend Ned (Le Tari), leave the town of Kincaid behind and enlist in the army. All three are shipped off to Vietnam, where they’re taught by their commanding officer, Capt. Quinn (Mike Bass), how to avoid the deadly traps set by the Viet Cong.

When their tour of duty ends, the three return to Kincaid, only to find things haven’t improved much for the black community. Initially, Raymond and the others, spurred on by their Baptist preacher (Ed Heath), rely on legal means to bring about change, convincing every African American in Kincaid to register to vote. But when the KKK, led by Harold Turner (Rick Ellis), resorts to threats and even violence to keep the status quo, Raymond, Junior and Ned decide it’s time to hit back… and hard!

Of the three main leads in Brotherhood of Death, only Roy Jefferson was a pro football player, and while his performance isn’t quite as strong as either Anderson’s or Tari’s, he certainly isn’t bad, and is especially believable in the last act, when things get rough.

There are elements of the story that also work well, and carry Brotherhood of Death above your typical exploitation film. The entire sequence involving the vote, where Raymond, Junior and the others are trying to bring about change the legal way, getting every black citizen in town to vote the racists out, was handled well, and had me rooting like hell for them (even if the results were a foregone conclusion).

But while Brotherhood of Death occasionally dabbles in loftier areas, the ending, a fight to the finish between our heroes (using their army training to their advantage) and the bigots, is 100% exploitation goodness, and is as satisfying as they come.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Wednesday, September 21, 2022

#2,819. The Brotherhood of Satan (1971) - Brotherhood Triple Feature

 





Shots of a wind-up army tank - a child’s toy - are interspersed with close-ups of a car being demolished by what we’re led to believe is an actual tank. We never see the destruction; from off-screen, we hear the occupants of said car, first their shock and confusion, then their agonizing screams as the vehicle is crushed with them inside. The chaos eventually subsides, and a young boy walks away from the carnage, strolling a short distance until he is met by three other children.

These are the opening images of 1971’s The Brotherhood of Satan, a horror film that ignores traditional narrative as it weaves the story of a Satanic cult and the mayhem it unleashes on a small desert community.

Widower Ben Holden (Charles Bateman) is driving down a secluded road with his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl) and girlfriend Nicky (Anha Capri) when he happens upon the wreckage from the opening scene. Racing to the nearby town of Hillsboro to alert the police, Ben is instead assaulted by the sheriff, Pete (L.Q. Jones), and other locals. It seems that Hillsboro has been inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world for days now, during which time dozens of citizens were brutally murdered and a number of kids have gone missing. With Ben’s help, Sheriff Pete, his deputy Tobey (Alvy Moore), and kindly Doc Duncan (Strother Martin) try to figure out what’s happening in this normally peaceful town.

What none of them realize is a coven of Satan-worshipping witches has descended upon Hillsboro, and are luring the town’s children to a dilapidated mansion, where, in a few days’ time, they will participate in an ancient ritual. And the leader of this cult is none other than Doc Duncan himself!

Directed by Bernard McEveety and written by William Welch (credited) and L.Q. Jones (uncredited), The Brotherhood of Satan is a bizarre motion picture that, as its story unfolds, raises more questions than it answers. Yet I found myself drawn into it, and the weirder the movie got, the more intrigued I became.

And believe me, this movie gets plenty weird! While at home one evening reading from the bible, Hillsboro resident Ed Meadows and his wife Mildred are attacked and killed by their daughter’s doll; and the scene where the witches, all of whom are senior citizens, initially gather features both head-scratching dialogue and the brutal slaying of one of their number, Dame Alice (Helene Winston). The murder of Dame Alice is shocking in that it seemingly comes out of left field, with only a faint explanation of who this person was, and why they were killed. Then there’s Nicky’s peculiar dream, tinted in red and littered with dead bodies, that randomly pops up in the final act.

Yet as unusual as it all is, I never once believed the events unfolding in The Brotherhood of Satan were as random as they seemed. I trusted that every odd image, every fantastic killing, every random interaction between two characters was another piece of a puzzle, and regardless of how long it would take to piece it all together, I was in it for the long haul.

It took two viewings (both in the same night) of The Brotherhood of Satan for me to decide whether or not my faith in the filmmakers was justified. Happily, it was, but that’s not to imply the movie is perfect. The scene with the doll-turned-killer has a handful of unintentionally funny moments, and tonally the film never really comes together, teetering between arthouse and exploitation without fully embracing either. But its unique approach, coupled with an unforgettably creepy final scene (that also featured a twist I didn’t see coming the first time through) do their part to make The Brotherhood of Satan a unique addition to the late ‘60s / early ‘70s Satanic craze, ranking alongside The Devil Rides Out and Rosemary’s Baby as one of the subgenre’s most unforgettable entries.
Rating: 8 out of 10









Monday, September 19, 2022

#2,818. The Brotherhood (1968) - Brotherhood Triple Feature

 





Released four years before The Godfather, director Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood is a mafia / crime film in which a mob boss’s loyalties and sense of honor force him to choose between his current associates and the tradition he holds so dear.

As the film opens, Frank Ginetta (Kirk Douglas) is hiding out in Sicily. When he hears that an American has arrived by plane, Frank assumes it’s an assassin sent to kill him. To his delight, it’s actually his kid brother Vincent (Alex Cord), paying a surprise visit. Frank is thrilled to see his brother, but Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) worries that Vincent may have another reason for turning up out of the blue.

It’s at this point The Brotherhood flashes back a few years, to when Frank was one of the top men in New York’s crime syndicate. Vincent, fresh out of the military, marries Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of Frank’s longtime friend Dominick Bertolo (Luther Adler). Though he has a bright future ahead of him, Vincent tells Frank that he would like nothing more than to join him in the family “business”.

But times have changed since their father was a Mafia Don. Organized crime now operates like a corporation, with Frank, Dominick, and fellow bosses Egan (Murray Hamilton), Levin (Alan Hewitt), and Rotherman (Val Avery) functioning as a committee that oversees all aspects of the criminal underworld. Despite this new way of doing things, Frank maintains a close friendship with his father’s old associates, and continues to mourn his father, who was shot to death years earlier.

Frank finds himself in hot water when he refuses to go along with a new venture supported by the rest of the committee; even Vincent is convinced his brother is making a mistake. It’s around this same time that Frank learns the identity of the traitor responsible for his father’s murder, setting in motion a chain of events that will force the embattled mob boss into hiding in Sicily.

Kirk Douglas delivers a bravura performance as Frank, a modern crime boss who every now and again still resorts to the “old” way of doing things. At the start of the New York flashback, two of Frank’s men drag a guy to an abandoned lot and shoot him dead. They then put a dead canary in their victim's mouth, telling the world he was a snitch. The supporting cast is solid as well, especially Cord as Frank’s argumentative brother. But The Brotherhood is Douglas’s film from start to finish, and he definitely delivers, giving us in Frank a complex character who realizes times have changed, yet is reluctant to let go of a past that means so much to him.

Along with Douglas’ performance, The Brotherhood makes great use of its locations, both in Sicily and New York, and Ritt’s solid direction keeps this dialogue-heavy tale moving along at a brisk pace. Ritt and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino also keep the bloodshed to a minimum, though the moments that do feature violence are effective (especially shocking is the scene in which Frank finally avenges his father’s death).

Those expecting another Godfather will likely be disappointed. This movie has neither the scope nor the grandeur of Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece. But if you’re a fan of organized crime flicks, The Brotherhood should be the next movie you watch.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10









Saturday, September 17, 2022

#2,817. Black Mama White Mama (1973) - Eddie Romero Triple Feature

 





The first 20 minutes of Eddie Romero’s Black Mama White Mama play like your average women in prison flick. There are catfights, an extended shower scene, and a lesbian guard (Lynn Borden) who gets her jollies peering at the girls through a peephole.

Then, without warning, the story veers off in an exciting new direction.

Two of the prison’s most recent arrivals, prostitute Lee Daniels (Pam Grier) and revolutionary Karen Brent (Margaret Markov), are being transferred to a facility in Manila, where they’re to be questioned by government officials. Lee’ pimp, Vic (Vic Diaz), is a ruthless prick, and the authorities want to put him away for good; whereas Karen might hold the key to crushing the rebellion once and for all.

Handcuffed together, Lee and Karen are loaded onto a bus and sent on their way. But once on the road, Karen’s compatriots, led by Ernesto (Zaldy Zshornack), launch a surprise attack to free her, and in the confusion she and Lee slip away, spending the next several days hiding in the jungle.

Ordered by his superiors to recapture the duo as soon as possible, Captain Cruz (Eddie Garcia) of the Manila police force enlists the help of bounty hunter Ruben (the great Sid Haig) and his thugs to track down the escaped prisoners. As for Lee and Karen, who are still shackled to one another, they stay on the move, narrowly avoiding the law, the bounty hunters, the revolutionaries, and Vic’s cronies (who want to retrieve a briefcase full of cash that Lee swiped) every step of the way.

That’s a lot of story to cram into an 86 minute film, yet director Romero and his writer H.R. Christian (whose screenplay was based on a story by Joe Viola and Jonathan Demme) somehow make it work, keeping the movie flowing at a solid pace while at the same time giving weight to each and every character. Grier and Markov are strong as the escapees who have no choice but to team up, a la Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in 1958’s The Defiant Ones (which also featured escaped prisoners handcuffed together). But unlike that earlier movie (and despite this film's title), race is never an issue between the two leads. Though they start out as adversaries (while in prison, they get into a fight and are thrown in “the oven” as punishment), Lee and Karen are never really enemies. They just have different goals: Karen wants to return to her friends in the revolution, while Lee’s intention is to get off the island as quickly as possible with the money she stole from Vic. The camaraderie between the two builds over time, and comes across as 100% genuine.

Also good is Sid Haig as the cowboy vigilante. His character is a hard-ass, but he’s also responsible for most of the film’s laughs, like when he’s cavorting with a subordinate’s two daughters as the poor guy sits in the next room, hearing everything that’s going on behind the closed door. In addition, Black Mama White Mama is an impressive action film, with a handful of memorable gunfights, as well as a solid thriller.

So while it may have started off as a run-of-the-mill prison flick, Black Mama White Mama ultimately proved, in true Eddie Romero fashion, it was a lot more than that.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Thursday, September 15, 2022

#2,816. The Twilight People (1972) - Eddie Romero Triple Feature

 





The Twilight People is Eddie Romero’s take on The Island of Dr. Moreau. What’s more, it’s a great version of that story, ranking alongside 1932’s Island of Lost Souls as one of my favorite interpretations of H.G. Wells’ classic novel.

While diving off the coast of a tropical island, Matt Farrell (John Ashley) is kidnapped by Steinman (Jan Merlin), the henchman of scientist Dr. Gordon (Charles Macauley). For years now, Dr. Gordon has been conducting a series of bizarre experiments, crossing humans with animals in an effort to create a “super race”.

Gordon intends to use Farrell as his next experiment, but when his daughter / assistant Neva (Pat Woodell) falls in love with the prisoner, she and Farrell team up to free Dr. Gordon’s “specimens” and, with them in tow, attempt to make their way off the island.

Despite its meager budget and reputation as a grindhouse classic, The Twilight People offers a lot more than simple exploitative goodness. For one, as mentioned above, it’s a damn fine take on Wells’ novel, and director Romero dedicates a fair portion of screen time to building the personalities and relationships of his characters. Whether it be Farrell’s love affair with Neva or his mano-et-mano showdowns with the dangerous Steinman, we get to know our heroes (and villains) well enough to be completely invested in what happens to them.

Then there are Dr. Gordon’s “experiments”, the part human – part animal hybrids who join Matt and Neva on their journey to freedom. Primo the Ape Man (Kim Ramos), Kuzman the Antelope Man (Ken Metcalf) and Lupa the Wolf Woman (Mona Moreno) all get a chance to shine, but Ayessa the Panther Woman, played by the always amazing Pam Grier, is a definite standout. Never uttering a word save some growls, Grier does a fine job making us both fear and admire her character, and though she appeared in The Twilight People a year before her star-making turn as the title character in Jack Hill’s Coffy, Grier’s screen presence is just as strong.

That said, nobody… not even the great Pam Grier… can draw attention away from Darmo the Bat Man, played by Tony Gosalvez. Sporting wings that don’t look very impressive, Darmo spends the early portion of the escape perched in a tree, acting as lookout. The more I saw Darmo, the more I wanted to see him fly. Or at least try to fly. Then, towards the end of the film, I got my wish, and I was blown the hell away! Not that Darmo’s flights are particularly convincing; they aren’t (the effects are shoddy at best). But that doesn’t make these sequences any less awesome, and the final shot of the movie is one I guarantee you will never forget

A lot happens in The Twilight People, not the least of which is Eddie Romero solidifying his reputation as a first-rate storyteller, but it’s Darmo the Bat Man who ultimately steals the whole damn show!
Rating: 8 out of 10









Tuesday, September 13, 2022

#2,815. Brides of Blood (1968) - Eddie Romero Triple Feature

 





Brides of Blood was the second entry in Filipino producer / director Eddie Romero’s Blood Island series (though not a direct sequel to its predecessor, 1959’s Terror is a Man, this movie is set on the same island as that earlier film). Featuring enough blood and skin to keep the drive-in crowds happy, Brides of Blood may, on the surface, look like a schlocky, exploitative monster movie, but there’s more to it than that.

Three Americans: research scientist Dr. Henderson (Kent Taylor); his beautiful but neglected wife Carla (Beverly Powers, credited as “Beverly Hills”); and young Peace Corps volunteer Jim Farrell (John Ashley) make their way to a secluded tropical island. Jim, who wants to help the locals better their quality of life, hooks up with the pretty Alma (Eva Darren), who, along with her grandfather Arcadio (Andres Centenera), is the only native who speaks English.

Dr. Henderson is there to study the effect that nearby atomic testing may have had on the indigenous flora and fauna, and finds more than he bargained for when, the moment the sun goes down, even the trees seemingly spring to life! Invited to stay in the spacious mansion of Esteban Powers (Mario Montenegro), a Spaniard who moved to the area years earlier with his now-deceased wife, the Hendersons come to realize there’s more danger on this island than they ever realized.

As Dr. Henderson is busy collecting specimens, Jim makes a horrifying discovery: a fierce humanoid monster also calls the island home! The natives, who act as if this creature is a God, sacrifice their young women to it in a bizarre nighttime ritual, and when Alma is selected to be the monster’s next victim, Jim has no choice but to get involved!

A low-budget horror film (co-directors Romero and Gerardo de Leon shot the movie for about $75,000), the effects in Brides of Blood aren’t the best. The scenes in which the trees come to life, grabbing at anyone who passes by, are sometimes more humorous than scary (the branches and roots are clearly controlled by strings), and the monster itself is bulky and awkward (though, in the final act, once we find out what’s going on, there is a damned impressive transformation scene).

When it comes to the “mystery” surrounding the monster, it isn’t much of a mystery at all. I had it figured out in the first act, and if I can do it, you’ll have no problem piecing it together. As for the blood (which even spurts from cut branches and vines) and boobs (the village sacrifices are stripped down before being tied to a post), it’s about the level you’d expect in a movie of this ilk, and there’s even a native dance in the finale that’s as sexually suggestive as they come.

Yet, thanks to its well-developed characters, Brides of Blood rises above both its budgetary limitations and exploitative elements to deliver something much more substantial. Dr. Henderson and his wife Carla could have easily been your average, run-of-the-mill miserable couple; he the work-obsessed scientist who ignores his wife, she the sexually frustrated spouse who sleeps around. There’s even a troubling rape scene early on, in which Carla tries to fight off an amorous crewman on the ship (who she flirted with earlier in front of her husband), only to happily succumb to the attack the moment this crewman gets rough with her. But Romero and de Leon, as well as writer Cesar Amigo, include a handful of more intimate scenes between the Hendersons, in which we see exactly why poor Carla Henderson acts out. At one point, she tries to seduce her husband, who is fast asleep in bed next to her, and no matter how hard she tries, he will not wake up!.

Also well-handled is the romance that blossoms between Jim and Alma, and we even learn a little about Esteban, and why he ended up on the island. By rounding out its characters in such a way, aided in large part by the exemplary performances of its cast, Brides of Blood pulls us in, then keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering how it will all play out in the end.

And for a film that, going in, you assume will be nothing more than a schlocky monster movie, making us care as much as we do is no small feat!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10









Sunday, September 11, 2022

#2,814. Rembrandt (1936) - Alexander Korda Triple Feature

 





In the seventeenth century, Holland was a world power, her ships carried treasure to Amsterdam from all parts of the earth. But her proudest glory was the son of a miller from Leyden, Rembrandt von Rifn, the greatest painter that has ever lived. He dies in obscurity, his belongings worth no more than a few shillings. Today, no millionaire is worth the money the works of Rembrandt would realise, if ever offered for sale”.

Charles Laughton fascinates me. His performances in such movies as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Island of Lost Souls, 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Witness for the Prosecution, and Spartacus made him seem larger than life. Even his sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter, proved extraordinary.

Directed by Alexander Korda, 1936’s Rembrandt takes full advantage of its star’s natural charisma, to the point that even when the story becomes routine and predictable, Laughton single-handedly rescues it from mediocrity.

Despondent over the untimely death of his beloved wife (and muse) Saskia, renowned artist Rembrandt von Rifn (Laughton) suffers a series of financial disasters. His longtime housekeeper and new lover Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence), who assisted in the raising of Rembrandt’s son Titus (played as an adult by John Bryning), tries to persuade the stubborn artist to seek a commission from the Prince. Rembrandt, however, finds himself drawn to the beggars and the homeless, seeing in them a nobility he feels is sorely lacking in the aristocracy.

Rembrandt further angers Geertje when he tosses her aside, falling in love instead with the new household maid Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester). Though shunned by creditors and eventually even the church, Rembrandt and Hendrickje live simple lives, and are happy, even if their time together may prove shorter than they realize.

As with The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Rise of Catherine the Great, Korda and his team did a remarkable job recreating both the time (the 17th century) and place (Holland) in which Rembrandt is set, with wonderfully realized costumes and set pieces. Yet as great as the movie looks, it is Laughton who, from start to finish, commands our attention. Whether sullen and depressed over the loss of his beloved wife Saskia (who, even when alive, never appears on-screen) or defiantly challenging the upper class (one of his paintings, commissioned by the Civic Guard, is ridiculed for not being austere enough), Laughton’s Rembrandt remains a fascinating character. The story does occasionally tread in familiar territory (the struggling artist not respected by his peers, love conquering all, etc), yet Laughton rises above the banality, delivering a series of monologues - on everything from Solomon to love - that garner our undivided attention.

Laughton’s performance, coupled with Korda’s eye for detail and some well-staged scenes (the near-silent sequence in which Rembrandt is first attracted to Geertje has a sexual energy that is palpable), helped lift Rembrandt above the standard biopic, transforming it into something much more substantial.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10








Friday, September 9, 2022

#2,813. The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) - Alexander Korda Triple Feature

 





Having approached the stories of Henry VIII and Catherine the Great with pomp and solemnity, Alexander Korda ventures into romantic comedy territory with 1934’s The Private Life of Don Juan, with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. playing the legendary lothario.

The aging Don Juan (Fairbanks), who is rumored to have seduced as many as 900 women in a three-year span, has returned, incognito, to Seville. It isn’t long, though, before every frustrated housewife in town knows of his arrival, starting with Don Juan’s own wife of five years, Dona Delores (Benita Hume), who has purchased her husband’s debts and is threatening to have him thrown in jail if he doesn’t visit her.

To make matters worse, young Rodrigo (Barry MacKay) idolizes Don Juan, and spent most of the previous night pretending to be his aging hero, climbing onto balconies and kissing every woman that welcomed his advances. When Rodrigo, posing as Don Juan, seduces Carmen (Joan Gardner), her jealous husband, Don Alfredo (Gibson Gowland), bursts in and kills Rodrigo in a swordfight. With everyone now believing Don Juan is dead, the real Don Juan, aided by his chief advisor Leporello (Melville Cooper), attends his own funeral, then heads out of town.

Settling in a small village for some much-needed rest, Don Juan lays low, living under an assumed name, and is amused when he learns a best-selling book about his exploits, titled The Private Life of Don Juan, has been published. But when the infamous lover finally comes out of hiding and returns to Seville, he has a hard time convincing anyone, even the beautiful dancer Antonita (Merle Oberon), who he seduced just months earlier, that he is the real Don Juan!

In his last starring role, Douglas Fairbanks, despite showing his age (he was in his 50s when this movie was made), is near perfect as the notorious lover who longs for peace and quiet. Handling the physical demands of the role with ease (leaping from balconies and jumping over railings), he also proves himself quite adept at comedy. The scene in which Don Juan and Leporello attend his “funeral”, watching with amusement as dozens of women he never met weep openly for him, is quite funny. And whenever Don Juan applies his “trade”, attempting to seduce a woman, he uses the exact same lines on each and every one of them!

Equally good are Melville Cooper as the doting assistant who offers sound advice (that Don Juan rarely follows); and the lovely Merle Oberon as 19-year-old Antonita, an ambitious dancer who relishes the fact she was, in all likelihood, Don Juan’s final tryst before he was "struck down".

The dialogue is often witty, the set pieces are impressive, and the energetic pace that Korda maintains throughout ensures his audience will never be bored. As much as I love Alexander Korda’s more straightforward (if not historically accurate) biopics, The Private Life of Don Juan shows the filmmaker also had a great sense of humor.
Rating: 9 out of 10









Wednesday, September 7, 2022

#2,812. The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) - Alexander Korda Triple Feature

 





Empress Catherine II, born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, ascending to power following the overthrow of her husband, the Emperor Peter III, who reigned a mere 6 months before being deposed. Produced by Alexander Korda, who a year earlier brought the superb The Private Life of Henry VIII to the screen, 1934’s The Rise of Catherine the Great is a highly dramatized but entirely effective account of Catherine’s turbulent path to the throne.

Russia, 1745. Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika of Prussia, who would adopt the name Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner), arrives at the court of Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) to meet her future husband, the Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr), Elizabeth’s nephew and heir to the Russian throne. Though he initially rejects this arranged marriage, Peter has a change of heart when he meets the shy but beautiful Catherine.

Alas, their relationship would be rocky from the start. Peter refuses to spend their wedding night with his new bride, and over the course of several years will have a number of affairs, all the while hoping and praying that his elderly aunt will die, making him Emperor of all Russia. As for Catherine, she grows very close to the Empress, from whom she learns how to be a strong, just ruler.

When Elizabeth dies, Peter becomes Emperor, yet his volatile behavior angers both the military and members of the court, all of whom press Catherine to overthrow her husband and become Empress in his stead.

Directed by Paul Czinner (with an uncredited assist from Korda), The Rise of Catherine the Great is an ambitious, elaborate motion picture, with wonderful costumes and grand set pieces that bring both the time (the mid-18th century) and place (the Russian Imperial court) vibrantly to life. But like The Private Life of Henry VIII, this 1934 film focuses more on the plight of its title character than the pomp and majesty of its setting. Elisabeth Bergner delivers a solid performance as Catherine, conveying first her naivete as a young bride-to-be and, eventually, her strength and intelligence. When Peter first takes power, he issues a decree banishing many of his late aunt’s supporters to Siberia, a declaration that Catherine, using guile, convinces him to withdraw.

Yet as good as Bergner is, she is overshadowed at all times by both Robson as the strong-willed Elisabeth (their scenes together are superb) and Fairbanks Jr. as the impulsive, unstable Peter. Upon hearing that his aunt Elizabeth was on death’s door, Peter lets out a cheer, shocking members of the court, and later on has Catherine banished from her room in the palace, all the while carrying on an affair with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. Whereas Bergner and Robson manage to win over the audience, Fairbanks is, for most of the film’s running time, the villain of the piece, and like her advisors, we pull for Catherine to issue the order placing her husband under arrest.

It may not be as factual an account as Korda and his team would lead us to believe (there’s a terrific scene in which Catherine makes Peter jealous by falsely claiming she has had lovers, though history tells us the real Catherine had more than her share of dalliances), but The Rise of Catherine the Great works perfectly as a dramatic telling of its title character’s early years, and is presented with such bravura that we are fully engrossed from the first scene to the last.
Rating: 9 out of 10









Monday, September 5, 2022

#2,811. One on One (1977) - Robby Benson in the 1970s

 





With a screenplay written by star Robby Benson and his father, Jerry Segal, 1977’s One on One is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers sports film. Yet its tried and true formula, a gifted athlete overcoming the odds to prove what he’s capable of, is presented here with such warmth and sincerity that you’re hooked early on, and rooting like hell for its lead as the story unfolds.

Gifted teen basketball player Henry Steele (Benson) is recruited by coach Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin) of Western University to play college ball. Leaving his small Colorado town behind, Henry heads to Los Angeles, where he enjoys the perks that go hand-in-hand with being a star athlete, including a cushy job, free room and board, and regular tutoring sessions with senior Janet Hays (Annette O’Toole), who does what she can to ensure Henry passes all of his courses.

But Henry’s showboating eventually lands him in hot water with coach Smith, to the point that he is asked to surrender his scholarship and voluntarily leave school. When Henry refuses, it kicks off a battle of wills between himself and coach Smith that grows uglier by the day. Despite the adversity, Henry is determined to remain at Western University, all the while hoping for another chance to prove himself on the court.

Benson, a talented basketball player in his own right, is absolutely convincing as both the star athlete and the yokel completely out of his element. His first day in Los Angeles, Henry is robbed by a hitchhiker (played by a young Melanie Griffith), then propositioned by coach Smith’s pretty secretary, B.J. Rudolph (Gail Strickland). Characters such as Henry, with their “aw shucks” innocence and small-town naïveté, are a dime a dozen in movies like One on One, yet Benson handles the role perfectly, winning us over at the beginning and keeping us on his side right up to the (admittedly predictable) finale.

O’Toole is also quite good as the tutor who has a problem with athletes that coast through college, only to fall in love with Henry when his back is against the wall; and G.D. Spradlin makes for a formidable foe, pulling every string possible, ethical or otherwise, to force Henry to quit.

Based on the above, I wouldn’t blame you if you think One on One is the kind of movie you’ve seen a hundred times before. You probably have. But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you let familiarity keep you away from this heartwarming motion picture. One on One may not be original, but it’s damn good all the same!
Rating: 8 out of 10









Saturday, September 3, 2022

#2,810. Ode to Billy Joe (1976) - Robby Benson in the 1970s

 





It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day”.

Inspired by Bobby Gentry’s hit 1960s tune of the same name, producer / director Max Baer’s Ode to Billy Joe is the sweet, incredibly dramatic tale of a young girl longing to be a woman, and the events that propelled her into adulthood far too early.

It’s 1953 in rural Mississippi. 15-year old Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O’Connor) crosses the Tallahatchie bridge every day while walking home from school, and more often than not her childhood friend Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) is there waiting for her. It seems Billy Joe, who works at the sawmill with Bobbi’s older brother James (Terence Goodman), has developed quite a crush on Bobbie Lee, and does his best to win her affections

Though she plays coy, Bobbie Lee has feelings for Billy Joe as well. Her father (Sandy McPeak), however, thinks she’s too young to start dating boys. As Bobbie Lee is doing her best to convince her dad that she’s a woman, Billy Joe has an experience that changes his life, and may spell the end of his relationship with Bobbie Lee before it ever begins.

Benson delivers a convincing performance as the title character, from the exuberance and frustration of young love to the high drama of a drunken escapade that rocks his character’s world. Yet Ode to Billy Joe isn’t so much Billy Joe’s story as it is Bobbie Lee’s, and Glynnis O’Connor positively shines as the anxious teen out to prove to her father and mother (Joan Hotchkis) that she’s grown up, and ready for all that life in Mississippi has to offer. O’Connor and Benson, who also played a romantic duo a few years earlier in Arthur Barron’s Jeremy, have a palpable chemistry, and their scenes together are both sweet and touching (at least until the final act, when drama and tragedy take center stage). Yet it’s those moments when Bobbie Lee is confiding in her mother, or challenging her father, that are truly magical. Also turning up in a supporting role is James Best, as the proprietor of the local sawmill.

Shot on-location in Mississippi’s LeFlore and Tallahatchie counties, Ode to Billy Joe benefits from the local flavor that Baer and his team conjure up throughout the movie. The Tallahatchie Bridge is dilapidated, but has plenty of personality, and we get a real sense of the entire community as the story unfolds. There’s even a dramatic early sequence set on the fabled bridge, where Bobbie Lee’s father has a run-in with some drunk hillbillies trying to cross from the other side.

Those familiar with Bobby Gentry’s hit song already know that this story will end badly; Billy Joe McAllister will kill himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie bridge. But while the song tells us the “what”, the movie answers the “why”. Why did Billy Joe commit suicide? As a fan of the song, I had my theories prior to seeing the movie (one of which is the same assumption everyone in town makes), but I have to give kudos to writer Herman Raucher, who, with the twist he conceived, brought a poignancy to Billy’s suicide and the immediate aftermath.

An effective coming-of-age tale as well as a stirring tragedy, Ode to Billy Joe is a movie that will haunt you for days.
Rating: 9 out of 10









Thursday, September 1, 2022

#2,809. Jeremy (1973) - Robby Benson in the 1970s

 





It was in my review of 1955’s East of Eden that I first mentioned the book Rating the Movie Stars, published in the early ‘80s by Consumers Guide. This book rates the performances - on a film-by-film basis - of all the major stars, then, using a weighted average, assigns a score for each and every actor. Using a scale of zero (for awful) to four (excellent), Rating the Movie Stars mostly got it right, with actors like Bette Davis, James Cagney, and the like scoring very highly. But it got it wrong sometimes as well; Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors of all-time, has a paltry 2.55 score (though, to be fair, it was his later performances that brought his average down).

Another actor the book unfairly maligned is Robby Benson. With a rating of 2.10 out of 4, the editors of Consumers Guide felt that Benson was too “boyish and gangling for his own good”. They were just as rough on his performance in 1973’s Jeremy, in which he played the title character, saying Benson “wallowed in his self-conscious charm”. I find this critique particularly puzzling, seeing as, in Jeremy, both he and co-star Glynnis O’Connor (making her screen debut) were essentially playing themselves!

An exemplary student and a damn good basketball player, teenager Jeremy Jones (Benson) is also shy, and has a hard time expressing himself. His music teacher (Leonardo Cimino) tells Jeremy that, although the young man is a talented cellist, he doesn’t “feel” the music; he simply imitates it, and that is preventing Jeremy from being a great musician.

But Jeremy gets an unexpected lesson in life and love when he falls for new student Susan Rollins (O’Connor), whose family recently moved to New York City. Coerced by his good friend Ralph (Len Bari) to ask Susan out on a date, Jeremy finds that she is just as quiet and introverted as he is. It isn’t long before the two are head-over-heels in love, but when Susan’s father (Ned Wilson) receives a new job offer, it may spell the end of their brief but very passionate affair.

Shot on 16mm in New York City, Jeremy has an almost documentary-like feel to it, and writer / director Arthur Barron does his part to keep things “real” by taking a very direct approach to the material. That’s not to imply the film is static or devoid of style; in one energetic scene, when Jeremy is running through the streets to arrange a “chance” meeting with Susan, the camera follows behind, sprinting right along with him. But Barron allows his characters, not cinematic bells and whistles, to drive the story forward, and both Benson and O’Connor manage to do just that.

Their scenes together are sweet, taking the awkwardness of first love and watching it evolve into something special. For one of their first dates, Jeremy takes Susan to the horse track (though he doesn’t bet, Jeremy is a master handicapper, and can predict the winner of any race), where they watch the jockeys and horses during their morning workouts. It’s here that we notice Jeremy and Susan are suddenly more comfortable in each other’s company, and their time together from that point on (including a tastefully-shot love scene) only strengthens the bond between them. Benson and O’Connor have a great chemistry (aided by the fact the two actually fell in love while making this movie), and are perfectly believable at all stages of their character’s budding relationship.

A delightful motion picture and a touching romance, Jeremy is also proof-positive that Rating the Movie Stars somehow missed the boat on Robby Benson.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10