Saturday, July 29, 2023

#2,920. Ride the Pink Horse (1947) - Random Musings


Some of the most fascinating cinematic discoveries I’ve made the past few years have been film noirs (or is it films noir?). Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder, and the John Stahl technicolor marvel Leave Her to Heaven. And that’s not the half of it. There have been plenty of others, movies that opened my eyes to an entire era, a style of filmmaking and storytelling that, when done right, can be hypnotic.

And now I can add Ride the Pink Horse to this already impressive list.

Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, Ride the Pink Horse opens with its lead character, Gagin (Montgomery), stepping off a bus into the small New Mexico town of San Pablo. A yearly festival, which draws large crowds to the area, is set to begin that very night, but this isn’t what’s brought Gagin to San Pablo. He is there to see Frank Hugo (Fred Clark). Gagin, a WWII veteran with a less-than-friendly demeanor, has something he thinks Hugo wants and might pay handsomely to get.

In short, Gagin intends to blackmail the powerful Hugo, who was a VIP in Washington during the war. FBI Agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) intercepts Gagin before his meeting with Hugo, and tells him that the feds have been building a case against Hugo for years. Without knowing the particulars of his visit, Retz tries to coerce Gagin into cooperating him, but to no avail. Not even Hugo’s pretty, seemingly sympathetic girlfriend Marjorie (Andrea King) can convince Gagin to leave well enough alone, or at least protect himself from Hugo’s hired guns.

In fact, the only people who truly help Gagin out of a few tough spots are locals of San Pablo, including the young Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who sensed Gagin was in danger the moment she met him; and Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who operates a child’s merry-go-round and gives Gagin a place to stay when every hotel in town is booked solid.

And if he’s to have any chance of leaving San Pablo alive, Gagin may need even more help from his two new friends.

Montgomery delivers a solid performance as the cocky, no-nonsense Gagin, a guy we don’t particularly like in the first act. He is rude to Pila even when she helps him, and knocks out Hugo’s personal secretary Jonathan (Richard Gaines) when he tells the rude and obnoxious Gagin that Mr. Hugo is not in his hotel room, and that he cannot wait for him there. In the opening scenes, we aren’t even sure if Gagin is the hero or the villain of Ride the Pink Horse, and Montgomery’s approach to the role is what keeps us guessing.

But it’s Robert Montgomery’s work behind the camera that is even more spellbinding.

The film’s first scene, where Gagin arrives at the San Pablo bus depot, is an uninterrupted shot that runs for several minutes, in which we see him pull a gun from his luggage, place a piece of paper in a locker, then hide the locker’s key somewhere in the depot before walking out into the streets. The film will feature several flawlessly executed long takes, designed to either build the mystery (why is Gagin there?) or the tension (which becomes even more intense once we discover the reason for his visit).

Kudos also to both Hendrix and Gomez as the locals who do what they can to protect a stranger that, truth be told, didn’t give a damn about either one when he first met them. As for the story, it has enough twists and turns to keep us tuned in, and features one hell of a nerve-racking ending.

Ride the Pink Horse, like many of the film noirs (films noir) I mentioned above, is brilliant through and through. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 22, 2023

#2,919. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Kirsten Dunst Film Festival,


In the grand tradition of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous is a mockumentary about a small-town beauty pageant that everyone in this particular community believes is the biggest event of the year.

A documentary crew has just arrived in Mount Rose, Minnesota, to make a film about the town’s American Teen Princess Pageant. The host of the event, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), herself a former Teen Princess, is hard at work organizing the competition. This year’s pageant is particularly special to Gladys because her daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), now 17, is eligible to compete. Everyone in Mount Rose is convinced the pageant will be fixed, and that Becky, whose father (Sam McMurray) also owns the most lucrative business in town, is a shoe-in to be the next Teen Princess.

But she will have some competition this year. Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who is the nicest, most popular girl in school, is the local favorite, and dreams of following in the footsteps of her hero, news broadcaster Diane Sawyer, who also got her start winning a beauty pageant. Then there’s Leslie Miller (Amy Adams), a cheerleader who isn’t shy about showing off her body (especially to her boyfriend, the captain of the wrestling team). With such a wide range of lovely and popular young women, it's anyone’s guess as to who will be the winner.

That is, until some unfortunate “accidents” befall a number of contestants. Apparently, someone in Mount Rose is willing to go to great lengths, possibly even murder, to ensure their choice will be crowned this year’s Teen Princess!

Like Guest has done in his best movies (and even a few of his marginal ones), director Michael Patrick Jann and screenwriter Lona Williams make the bizarre characters of Drop Dead Gorgeous seem perfectly normal. Amber intends to do a tap routine during the pageant’s talent section, and practices while at work, dancing around as she applies make-up to the recently deceased at the local funeral home. Becky is a driven young woman who is also president of the local gun club, a position she recently inherited when the previous president (and pageant contestant) Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman) was killed in a mysterious tractor explosion. Each and every character has their quirks. Amber lives in a trailer park with her mother Annette (Ellen Barkin), a beer-swilling chain smoker who does her neighbor’s hair on the side. When Annette walks in on the documentary crew interviewing Amber, she gives her daughter some advice: “If they ask you to take your top off, make sure you get the money first”.

Kirstie Alley is perfectly cast as the pageant’s organizer, Gladys, a woman who loves Jesus and America, and isn’t afraid to put down anyone who doesn’t. Equally good in supporting roles are Mindy Sterling as Iris, Gladys’s assistant; Matt Malloy as one of the judges, doing his best to hide his pedophilic tendencies; and Allison Janney as Annette’s oversexed best friend.

Each and every character in Drop Dead Gorgeous is quirky, some to the point of being disturbing (especially Natt Malloy), and all have that “Minnesota Nice” persona, talking as if they would have been right at home in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Yet as strange as everyone in Mount Rose seems, and as funny a black comedy as Drop Dead Gorgeous is (things get especially dark once the pageant is underway), the audience does, much like with Guest’s films, form a genuine connection with its characters as the story progresses.

We know it is all played for laughs, and the movie gets plenty of them (a visual gag involving an explosion, a beer can, and Annette Atkins’ hand proved hysterical). But there is a humanity here as well, and I think it comes through in both the writing and the performances. You will definitely laugh at Drop Dead Gorgeous, but you may also shed a tear or two.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, July 15, 2023

#2,918. Six String Samurai (1998) - Random Musings


The setting is an alternate timeline of U.S. history, a post-apocalyptic American West left decimated when the country was bombed and invaded by the Russians in 1957. In this new society, the city of Las Vegas, renamed “Lost Vegas”, stands as the nation’s cultural center.

Or its new capital. Or maybe it’s just the only metropolitan area that remains. We’re never quite sure.

Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll who was also crowned the King of Lost Vegas, an honor he held for the last 40 years, has died, and a call goes out for a new king to take his place.

Directed by Lance Mungia, Six String Samurai is a highly stylized version of The Buddy Holly Story nestled within a world that is a cross between 1979’s The Warriors, every Mad Max movie ever made, and Japan’s Lone Wolf and Cub series.

OK, it’s a lot less The Buddy Holly Story than it is the other three, but the lead character, played by Jeffrey Falcon (who co-wrote the script with Mungia), is unmistakably based on Holly, the singer / songwriter who, before his untimely death in 1959, hit the rock charts with such early classics as “That’ll Be the Day”, “Maybe Baby” and “Peggy Sue”.

After rescuing a boy (Justin McGuire) whose mother was killed by marauders, Buddy, armed with a guitar that doubles as a sheath for his samurai sword, sets off for Lost Vegas to claim his place as the city’s next King. The boy, now alone, follows Buddy, and try as he might, the rocker / warrior can’t seem to shake the youngster.

Six String Samurai is a fast, frantic, funny movie that admittedly suffers on occasion from so-so action sequences. I wasn’t always a fan of how Buddy’s fights were shot, and even less of a fan of their haphazard editing. More than once, these showdowns, which should have been the film’s most exciting, felt less energetic than the rest of the movie.

Still, there’s a ton of imagination on display here, with Falcon giving off an Eastwood / Man with No Name vibe as Buddy; and the movie is jam-packed with characters and locales that are as engaging as they are unpredictable. You never quite know what is going to happen next in this movie. Every time our hero enters another territory, he is besieged by new, often more dangerous enemies, the deadliest being Death in a Top Hat (Stephane Gauger) and his band of heavy metal rockers, who are hot on Buddy’s trail throughout the film. To make matters worse, Buddy is constantly rescuing the boy from one predicament after another. Though, to be fair, sometimes it’s the boy who is doing the rescuing!

A western / action / comedy / sci-fi / adventure, Six String Samurai is never boring. Not for a minute. It is clever, it is hip, and I really enjoyed it
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 8, 2023

#2,917. Murder Weapon (1989) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


Linnea Quigley both produced and starred in 1989’s Murder Weapon, the bafflingly silly story of two mafia princesses, Dawn (Quigley) and Amy (Karen Russell), who, after being released from a psychiatric ward for committing a murder years earlier, throw a party and invite all of their former boyfriends.

And from the looks of it, the two got around.

Among the attendees are Kevin (Stephen steward), Eric (Michael Jacobs Jr.), Cary (Allen First), and Billy (Richard Sebastian), as well as a handful of others. At first, things seem to be going well for the guys, a few of whom even rekindle their romance with the recovering beauties. Things go south quickly, however, when someone goes on a killing spree.

A horror / thriller directed by David DeCoteau (credited, as he was in Deadly Embrace, as Ellen Cabot), Murder Weapon gets off to a decent start, a flashback to when Dawn walked in on Amy having sex with her boyfriend. Not wanting to be left out, Dawn lured the unsuspecting guy into the shower, where she stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife, the very killing that put both girls in an asylum.

The film also does a fine job presenting the girls’ psychiatric sessions. Dawn is under the care of Dr. Gram (Lenny Rose), who proves something of a deviant himself, while Amy talks things over with the wise Dr. Randolph (Lyle Waggoner, who gets top billing). These sessions have an almost dreamlike quality to them, and both actresses are strong in what prove to be dialogue-heavy scenes.

Things get a bit… strange, however, once the party with the former boyfriends begins. At least 7-8 guys turn up, all of whom have a history with one of the girls, yet there is never any animosity between them. And none question why they are there in the first place! It just seems a little too bizarre of a guest list not to have raised any suspicions.

As expected, both Russell and especially Quigley spend a fair amount of time in the raw, and the kill scenes range from clunky to pretty damn impressive (there’s one in a basement with an axe that is especially gruesome). Also, in a fun nod to Quigley’s Nightmare Sisters, her co-stars from that film, Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens, appear briefly via a clip from the movie, which some of the guys are watching on TV as their fellow guests are getting lucky with the girls.

Ultimately, Murder Weapon proved more entertaining, or at least more interesting, than its synopsis would lead you to believe. It’s not a masterpiece, or at times even a good movie, but it’s far from a waste of 81 minutes.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Saturday, July 1, 2023

#2,916. Night of the Demons (1988) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


When it comes to horror films set during the Halloween season, a number of great titles leap immediately to mind. There’s John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween and its plethora of sequels and remakes (yes, even Halloween III: Season of the Witch). And in 1981, we were treated to both Hell Night and the exceptional TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

The new millennium has kept the seasonal ball rolling with Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Trick ‘r’ Treat from 2007, and, more recently, The Houses October Built and Hell House LLC.

Another title that deserves its place of honor among the October elite is director Kevin Tenney’s 1988 classic Night of the Demons. A low-budget horror film (it reportedly cost $1.2 million to produce), Night of the Demons is an amazingly entertaining fright flick, and with its awesome make-up effects and some truly memorable scenes, it’s no mystery why the film has achieved cult status.

It’s Halloween night, and teen recluse Angela (Amelia Kinkade), with the help of her promiscuous friend Suzanne (Linnea Quigley), is throwing a party for a few of her classmates. The venue is Hull House, an abandoned mortuary in the middle of nowhere that, according to legend, has a rather ominous history.

Among those attending Angela’s party are Judy (Cathy Podewell) and her new boyfriend Jay (Lance Fenton); their friends Max (Philip Tanzini) and Frannie (Jill Terashita); and Helen (Allison Barron), Rodger (Alvin Alexis), and the obnoxious Stooge (Hal Havins). Rounding out the attendees is Judy’s former boyfriend Sal (Billy Gallo), who crashes the festivities.

Along with the music, food, and booze, Angela thinks it would be a hoot if they held a séance to contact the spirits that supposedly roam the grounds of Hull House. But instead of conjuring up a few innocent ghosts, she and the others awaken an evil force that, before the night is out, will possess more than one of the revelers, and slaughter a few others.

Written by Joe Augustyn, Night of the Demons is an absolute blast, a fright flick that moves along at a brisk pace (especially once the demons make their presence known) and features a number of awesome jump scares. Tenney and his crew make the most of their limited funds; Hull House, with its dark rooms, decaying hallways, and the odd abandoned coffin, is one creepy locale, and the creature effects are outstanding (especially the possessed teens, whose yellow eyes and sharp teeth are the stuff of nightmares).

As for the performances, most range from decent to mediocre, with Amelia Kinkade stealing the show as Angela, who at one point even wows us with her dance moves (my favorite scene in the movie).

So, while 1978’s Halloween may be the granddaddy of them all, Night of the Demons should also be required viewing for horror fans once October rolls around.
Rating: 9 out of 10