Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Venom (1981)

I’m just going to jump in and proclaim VENOM the greatest killer-snake movie of all time (I would not be surprised to learn about some crazy Asian snake flick that makes VENOM look as sedate as a Mitch Miller concert). Much of its value comes from its cast, which includes some of the acting profession’s most notorious troublemakers. You’d have to be nuts to cast Klaus Kinski (SCHIZOID), Oliver Reed (SITTING TARGET), Sterling Hayden (THE LONG GOODBYE), and Nicol Williamson (THE EXORCIST III) in the same movie. When original director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) was fired a few days into production, it may have saved his sanity.

Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU) was a rapid replacement for Hooper, but to his credit, none of VENOM’s backstage shenanigans show up on the screen. It’s a neat little thriller with a unsettling premise that should affect you whether you’re afraid of garter snakes or let your pet python crawl freely around your home. Kinski leads a band of kidnappers after the asthmatic grandson of wealthy hunter Hayden. Kinski’s conspirators include family chauffeur Reed and the boy’s nanny Susan George (MANDINGO), Kinski’s lover who uses her wiles to keep muscle-headed Reed toeing the line.

It goes to show no matter how intricate your plan, you can’t think of everything. Such as a black mamba, the world’s most vicious and poisonous snake, getting loose in the house. Hey, it could happen. With Williamson’s laconic police inspector and his men surrounding the house, the kidnappers, Hayden, snake expert Sarah Miles (RYAN’S DAUGHTER), and the boy are trapped inside with a killer that could literally be almost anywhere — inside the air vents, behind a curtain, hiding in a dark corner. Yikes.

For a last-minute director pulled from the ranks of British television, Haggard does a remarkable job keeping the suspense high and your rear end on the edge of your seat. VENOM is a very good thriller, thanks to its wily direction, stellar cast, and creepy cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (STAR WARS), who keeps the camera close to accentuate the claustrophobia that enhances the characters’ fear.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Untamed Youth/Born Reckless

Howard W. Koch, a very busy producer and director of B-movies (including FRANKENSTEIN 1970, VOODOO ISLAND, HOT CARS, and BIG HOUSE U.S.A.), signed megablonde Mamie Van Doren to a personal two-picture contract after being impressed by her work wearing a bathing suit in THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS. Both UNTAMED YOUTH and its followup, BORN RECKLESS, gave Van Doren top billing for the first time and allowed her to do what she did best, which was wriggle around in a tight dress while singing Les Baxter songs that sort of sounded like rock-and-roll.

To be fair, Van Doren may have been minimally talented, but what she did, she did extremely well, and it’s difficult to pull your eyes away from her. So pity poor Lori Nelson (DAY THE WORLD ENDED), who acquits herself just fine in UNTAMED YOUTH, but unfortunately barely registers standing next to the bullet-braed Van Doren. The two blondes play sisters who are busted by corrupt sheriff Robert Foulk (who played a nicer sheriff on LASSIE) on hitchhiking charges and sentenced by judge Lurene Tuttle (TV’s JULIA) to thirty days slave labor on a cotton plantation owned by LAWMAN’s John Russell (who turned up years later in Clint Eastwood’s PALE RIDER).

What we have is cinema’s first women-in-prison musical, as Van Doren or Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) as a prisoner named Bong bursts into family-friendly rock tunes on a moment’s notice. Even after a long, hard day picking cotton under a sweltering sun, these beatniks still have the energy after work to turn their dorm into a swinging dance party. Writer John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) does his best to make all this nonsense, including the revelation of Russell’s secret marriage to the much-older Tuttle, play as if it could actually happen, and fans of 1950s bombshells will also enjoy Yvonne Lime (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) and nudie model Jeanne Carmen (THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS) in the cast.
The busy Van Doren was married to bandleader Ray Anthony and doing a song-and-dance act in Las Vegas during her two-picture deal with director Koch. Unlike UNTAMED YOUTH, BORN RECKLESS plays straight — unfortunate, because drama is not what either Van Doren or co-star Jeff Richards does best.

Richard Landau’s repetitive horse-and-bull story follows saloon crooner Van Doren (with tight shirts and a cowboy hat perched precariously upon her peroxide hairdo) and cowboys Richards (who went from this to his own television series, JEFFERSON DRUM) and Arthur Hunnicutt (THE BIG SKY) from county to county competing in local rodeos. Like a living Bill Ward drawing, Van Doren draws catcalls just stepping into a room, which inevitably leads to some masher molesting her, Richards getting beaten up defending her honor, and Hunnicutt missing another steak dinner to retrieve the truck for a fast getaway.

Aside from the usually entertaining Hunnicutt, Koch’s film offers little of note. The drama isn’t interesting, the rodeo action is mostly stock footage, and the strident comic relief is over-scored by Buddy Bregman. Carol Ohmart (SPIDER BABY) shows up as Mamie’s competitor for the stiff Richards, but she doesn’t seem like the villain the film depicts her as. After BORN RECKLESS, Van Doren stopped working for Koch (for whom she made three pictures) and moved on to directors Edward L. Cahn and Albert Zugsmith to varying success.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The First Power

27-year-old Lou Diamond Phillips is ridiculously miscast as a badass Los Angeles homicide detective named Russell Logan, who is L.A.'s King of Serial Killer Tracking. Some baffling police work somehow leads Logan to the Pentagram Killer, Patrick Channing (hideous Jeff Kober, perfectly cast as a creepy bastard), who sacrifices his victims to the Devil and carves pentagrams in their chests.

An anonymous tipster warns Logan not to send Channing to the gas chamber (like an L.A. cop has anything to do with the decision). After the killer's execution, Logan's fellow detectives are systematically murdered in a manner identical to Channing’s victims, right down to the knife wounds on their chests. Reluctantly teaming with the phone caller, a beautiful red-haired psychic named Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), Logan slowly comes to realize that Channing has returned from Hell and is possessing human bodies to carry out his murderous vendetta.

What's really funny about Phillips' character is that, despite what the other characters tell us about him, he's really an inept cop. Nothing he does has any positive impact on his investigation or pursuit, even though we're supposed to identify with his lone wolf. When he captures Channing at the beginning, he runs out of bullets (and throws his gun at the villain!), then is stabbed several times in the stomach before help arrives to apprehend the killer. Logan gets his ass kicked by just about every opponent, including a ninja-like bag lady right out of a Ronny Yu movie who floats up to the cop's loft and perpetrates some kung fu on Lou's not-bad self.

Writer/director Robert Resnikoff, whose only film THE FIRST POWER is (I'm curious as to who he was and what happened to him), does have a knack for handling stunts and action scenes. The pacing is good, and the chases and action is brisk. There's a cool spinning car jump and crash, and a stuntman playing Channing leaps off a tall building, plunges several stories, lands on his feet, and runs off.

Between the silly plot, Logan's incompetence, and the lousy acting, THE FIRST POWER provides much to laugh at, especially a real howler of a climax. Did you know the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power keeps gigantic vats of boiling acid (!) in its basement? And be sure to drink every time Lou loses his gun. Drink twice when he gets kicked in the nuts. Resnikoff’s film is a lot funnier than ERNEST GOES TO JAIL, which opened the same weekend in 1990 and came in third at the box office. THE FIRST POWER was fourth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Perfect Weapon

Jeff Speakman was a victim of bad timing. By the time THE PERFECT WEAPON, Speakman’s first major film, came out in the spring of 1991, studios were beginning to phase out medium-budget martial-arts movies for theatrical release, unless your name was Jean-Claude Van Damme. The future was in low-budget actioners made for the video market, which is where Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Brian Bosworth, Jeff Wincott — even Chuck Norris — found themselves working during the 1990s.

And so did Speakman. Paramount may have been trying to groom its own Van Damme in the kenpo karate black belt, but THE PERFECT WEAPON opened in sixth place (well ahead of Richard Grieco’s IF LOOKS COULD KILL, at least), and Speakman’s next film two years later was for a dying Cannon. Speakman continued working in direct-to-video features, but not with prime scripts or directors. Behind-the-scenes whispers that Speakman could be difficult to work with probably didn’t help land good prospects either. THE PERFECT WEAPON, his only major theatrical production, remains Speakman’s best film.

Even so, THE PERFECT WEAPON is kind of a mess with KICKBOXER’s Mark DiSalle directing a routine screenplay by David Campbell Wilson (SUPERNOVA). Speakman’s romance with Mariska Hargitay (later an Emmy winner for LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT) was cut completely out of the picture, leaving the prominently billed Hargitay with zero dialogue. Also contributing unfortunately abbreviated performances are Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (PEARL HARBOR) and Clyde Kusatsu (IN THE LINE OF FIRE), indicating credited editor Wayne Wahrman (I AM LEGEND) may have taken a dislike to those two talented gentleman as well.

Speakman holds his own on-screen, considering he was hired for his impressive physical skills. Every action hero in television and movies now uses some sort of martial arts — usually faked through doubles and rat-tat-tat editing — but Speakman’s speed and agility as a screen fighter are the real deal, and DiSalle is smart enough to just point the camera and let his star do his thing.

Once you get past the dreary origin story that fills the opening reel, THE PERFECT WEAPON settles down as a perfectly acceptable action flick. Jeff Sanders (Speakman), long estranged from his father (Beau Starr) and brother (John Dye), both policemen, returns to Los Angeles’ “Koreatown,” where his mentor (Mako) is murdered by the Korean mob — specifically, the hulking Tanaka (Professor Toru Tanaka).

Deciding he’s the “perfect weapon” to avenge Mako, because his outsider status can open doors that the police can’t penetrate, Sanders kicks, punches, and smashes his way through a small Asian army to get to Yung (James Hong), the man at the top. With a Gary Chang score and Snap’s “The Power” laying a musical backdrop, THE PERFECT WEAPON surpasses its cheap look (“Koreatown” looks like a backlot) and narrative hiccups to deliver a surplus of authentically bone-crunching thrills.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Omen (1976)

If it had only featured one of cinema’s all-time great decapitations, THE OMEN would stand tall within the horror genre. But the film that put director Richard Donner on Hollywood’s A-list (he did SUPERMAN next) is more than just slick murder sequences.

Given a generous budget by 20th Century Fox and handed major movie stars Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and Lee Remick (ANATOMY OF A MURDER), Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer created a genuine horror classic that even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences blessed with two Oscar nominations (Jerry Goldsmith won for his iconic score). Likely influenced by — or at least given the green light because of — THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN was the fourth biggest hit of 1976 behind ROCKY, A STAR IS BORN, and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

THE OMEN is based on a nifty “what if” — what if your newborn baby was actually the Anti-Christ? That’s what happens to U.S. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck in a role Dick Van Dyke turned down!) when his and wife Katherine’s (Remick) son dies shortly after being born. Katherine doesn’t know, so Thorn agrees to secretly adopt a baby whose mother died during childbirth. It isn’t long — about five years — before unusual tragedies begin to occur around the Thorn family, notably little Damien’s nanny hanging herself at his birthday party (one of Donner’s great shocker scenes). Is Damien (Harvey Stephens) the son of Satan? Will Thorn have to destroy his son? Can he?

The director of BRONK and SARAH T.: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC seems an unusual choice to make a big-budget horror movie for a major studio, but Donner made the most of the opportunity. The story unfolds as a grim mystery with David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) turning in good work as a photographer who teams with Thorn to play detective. The murderous setpieces are staged with gruesome good taste, and Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning music establishes a sinister tone early and never lets go. Because THE OMEN keeps the supernatural horror within the realms of believability, its power remains potent decades after its original release. Many sequels, ripoffs, and an unloved 2006 remake followed.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Deadly Eyes

James Herbert, whose novel THE RATS was the basis for this horror movie released by Warner Brothers, called it “absolute rubbish.” For a movie that dressed dachshunds in rat costumes to create its “monsters,” DEADLY EYES acquits itself fairly well. The director, Robert Clouse, is better known for ENTER THE DRAGON and other action movies (clips from his GAME OF DEATH can be seen in a DEADLY EYES movie theater), but he also made THE PACK, a very good thriller about killer dogs against humans stranded on an island.

The star is Sam Groom, who played the eponymous POLICE SURGEON on the indefatigable syndicated television series of the 1970s. Miscast as an “exciting” man with “animal magnetism,” Groom plays Paul Harris, a high school teacher and basketball coach with the will to rebuff sexy cheerleader Trudy (THE NEST’s Lisa Langlois) when she tries to seduce him in the boys’ shower. But Harris has the hots for lady health inspector Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford) and becomes intimately involved in her job to exterminate the giant steroid-rage rats living in the sewers.

Clouse is ruthless when demonstrating the brutality of these animals — their first victim is a baby yanked from her high chair and dragged into the basement with only a bloody trail to indicate the child had ever existed. Another victim is beloved character actor Scatman Crothers (from Clouse’s BLACK BELT JONES), which really makes us good and mad. As silly as dressing dogs in rat costumes sounds, it’s actually fairly effective and more believable than the animatronics and hand puppets used in bloody closeups.

The screenplay by Charles Eglee (DEXTER) drags like hell in the middle with the soppy romance between Groom and Botsford and the annoyingly fickle Langlois’ crushes. Clouse knows how to build a setpiece, though, and DEADLY EYES is at its best when the rats go all out — tearing into a crowded movie theater or chowing down on upper-crust types on their way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The climax is weak, however, and early scenes involving Harris’ students are ultimately pointless. I doubt DEADLY EYES is the best killer-rat movie ever produced, but it certainly ain’t the worst.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Superman And The Mole-Men

Before George Reeves starred in the first season of the syndicated ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, Lippert Pictures produced this 58-minute feature that was later cut into a two-part episode, “The Unknown People.” SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN was not a pilot per se, but was a vehicle to release in theaters as publicity for the TV show, which premiered in 1952.

Reeves (RANCHO NOTORIOUS), who became a television star in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman, is terrific in it — confident, intelligent, tough, and compassionate. He’s almost matched by the feisty Phyllis Coates (PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO), who remains the screen’s pre-eminent Lois Lane.

Daily Planet reporters Kent (Reeves) and Lane (Coates) travel to little Silsby, home of the world’s deepest oil well, which drills more than six miles below the surface. Unfortunately, it has drilled a tunnel to the underground home of a race of “mole people”—phosphorescent midgets with hairy backs and big foreheads—who crawl to the surface and run around accidentally frightening humans to death. They may also be radioactive, spurring the hotheaded citizens, led by rabble-rousing bigot Luke Benson (Jeff Corey), to form a lynch mob to murder the strange creatures. Superman (Reeves in a padded suit) shows up in time to rescue the invaders and teach Silsby a lesson in tolerance.

Welcome exterior filming and a strong story — both of which the TV series generally lacked — as well as its short running time, help this minor science fiction film go down easily. Reeves doesn’t appear as Superman until the 24-minute mark and dominates from then on. Harry Thomas’ special mole man makeup is unconvincing. Discounting serials and cartoon shorts, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN was the first feature to star Superman or any other National Periodicals character. No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White in it though. Corey, ironically, was blacklisted in 1952 by people very much like Luke Benson.