Saturday, December 03, 2016

I Escaped From Devil's Island

Sweat and sadism abound in this lean slice of pulp set in French Guiana in 1918. Every frame looks like a Mort Kunstler cover painting for STAG, and director William Witney and screenwriter Richard Adams (THE SLAMS) play up the machismo for maximum effect. Blood and beatings fill most scenes, though I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND manages to slow down long enough for star Jim Brown to play footsie with a randy Indian widow.

Brown (SLAUGHTER) stars as LeBras, an individualistic black prisoner forced to endure intense manual labor and daily beatings by the brutal guards, who are sanctioned by one-armed warden Marteau (Paul Richards). Fed up, LeBras escapes into the surf on a raft sewn together with animal skins. Along for the ride are gay couple Jo Jo (THE YOUNG REBELS star Rick Ely) and Dazzas (veteran TV heavy James Luisi) and Commie pacifist Devert (Christopher George), who starts the movie believing the prison’s harsh conditions can be tamed through words.

Brown is his typical tight-lipped self and carries most of the action, leaving it to George (THE RAT PATROL), playing against type as a political prisoner who abhors violence, to shore up the adventure trappings with a thin slab of social commentary. PAPILLON, which opened shortly after, was the obvious inspiration for this old-fashioned potboiler produced by brothers Roger and Gene Corman. It was one of the last features directed by William Witney, who made Republic’s best serials in the 1930s and ‘40s, including SPY SMASHER and THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL. The Acapulco-lensed adventure has serial-like pacing, introducing the escapees to a wild succession of obstacles in their flight from the titular island, including sharks, lepers, sex-crazed natives, and corrupt policemen. Backed by a pompous Les Baxter score, I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL’S ISLAND plays just as crudely as its blunt title implies, and thank goodness for it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Man From Hong Kong

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is one of the least seen and most underrated action pictures of the 1970s. Golden Harvest co-financed this Hong Kong/Australian production shot in Sydney and Hong Kong. Brian Trenchard-Smith (DEAD END DRIVE-IN), who had primarily directed documentaries about stunt performers, brought in ace stuntmen Grant Page and Peter Armstrong, while Golden Harvest’s main contribution was leading man Jimmy Wang Yu, then known as Hong Kong’s Steve McQueen. THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is a crackling action flick demonstrating what would happen if a Chinese Dirty Harry traveled Down Under to shake up the bad guys.

Wang Yu is Hong Kong detective Fang Sing Leng, who arrives in Sydney to extradite a drug courier (played by a 22-year-old Sammo Hung), but stays in town to battle Mr. Big—a particularly nasty kingpin named Jack Wilton and portrayed by former 007 George Lazenby. Lazenby was no stranger to Hong Kong filmmaking, having starred with Angela Mao in Golden Harvest’s STONER, which didn’t play in the U.S. THE MAN FROM HONG KONG received only slightly more respect in America, playing dates under the 20th Century Fox label as THE DRAGON FLIES with Jigsaw’s “Sky High” as the theme song.

Trenchard-Smith really pours on the action setpieces (he has claimed only 18 minutes of dialogue are in the film, which sounds low, but his point is well taken). The action highlights include a kung fu battle atop the historical Ayers Rock, a lengthy chase and fight between Wang Yu and Page in a restaurant (watch for Page’s pants to split), and the climactic fight between Wang Yu and Lazenby that goes so far as to set a game George on fire! In addition to the wild action sequences, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG raises eyebrows in its love scenes, which pair Wang Yu with Caucasian actresses Rebecca Gilling and Rosalind Speirs. Rarely did Asian men and white women get it on in films, then or now. A treacly romantic montage featuring Deena Greene’s silly “A Man Is a Man Is a Man” is the film’s biggest drag, but it’s over fairly quickly and lets Wang Yu get back to the car chases and karate battles.

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG is not exactly an actor’s picture, but Trenchard-Smith does well to surround Wang Yu, not a native English speaker (he’s dubbed on the soundtrack anyway), with solid veterans. Hugh Keays-Byrne (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) and Roger Ward (TURKEY SHOOT) carry much of the humor as cops working with Wang Yu. Frank Thring from BEN-HUR and KING OF KINGS plays a member of Lazenby’s organization. Reportedly, Trenchard-Smith and Wang Yu did not get on well, but they managed to create a fun action picture that has aged quite well and is more exciting than almost every American action picture that followed it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Night Of The Strangler

First off, there is no strangling at all in 1972's THE NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER, making this Howco International cheapie one of the all-time worst cheat titles. There’s plenty of killing—by gun, by knife, by snake, by razor—but I guess Houck didn’t think they made for snappy titles (his NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR gets one’s attention too). Howco also played it as ACE OF SPADES and IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH? in black neighborhoods.

Micky Dolenz, just five years after The Monkees were America’s #1 pop group, must have either spent all his millions in a hurry or wanted desperately to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor to appear in this.

Denise Robert (Susan McCullough) returns to her family home in New Orleans, where she breaks the news to her brothers, racist attorney Dan (James Ralston) and ‘Nam-vet florist Vance (Dolenz), that she’s dropping out of Vassar to marry the father of her unborn child, a black man named Jake.

Dan, furious, smacks her around, and hires a blond hippie hitman to shoot her fiancé in the back. A mysterious black-gloved killer dressed like the Scorpio Killer later drowns a distraught Denise in her bathtub and stages the scene to look like a suicide.

A year later, Dan prepares to marry Vance’s ex-girlfriend, and gets into a fight with Vance, who shows up at the wedding drunk. Jesse (Chuck Patterson), a black priest back in the parish after spending time in New York, befriends Vance and attempts to mend the bitterly divided Robert family. Somehow, I don’t think it’ll take.


NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is more murders, more race-baiting, more red herrings, and more confusion, as the story wavers across the screen like a drunk driver in a hailstorm. Houck spends too much time following a pair of buddy detectives (one is played by Harold Sylvester, who went on to Hollywood) who ultimately contribute nothing to the plot. I’ll give the movie points for the twist ending, which is amusing and more or less plays fair with the audience.

More of a murder mystery than the horror movie its title and ad campaign indicate, NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is kind of a mess with its low budget showing in its long master shots and tinny sound. To give it credit, it develops its mystery fairly cleverly through the story points Houck chooses to share — and what not to share. It’s a goofy movie, and it wouldn’t kill you to experience it, though it’s only a must-see for Monkees fans, who get to see Micky curse, fight, and sleep with a topless chick. It did nothing for Dolenz’s career, which progressed to Hanna-Barbera cartoon voices and LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Wheels Of Fire

One of approximately 1.5 zillion post-apocalyptic action movies shot in a gravel pit outside Manila by Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago (STRYKER), WHEELS OF FIRE is not dull, not sophisticated, and definitely not unfun. In fact, it’s practically wall-to-wall chases, fights, car crashes, explosions, and shootouts with some occasional nudity. You can’t say Santiago and Roger Corman, who released this film through his Concorde Pictures label, didn’t give drive-in audiences what they wanted. If the score credited to Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3) sounds familiar, you probably heard it in other Corman movies, including BARBARIAN QUEEN and WARRIORS OF THE LOST KINGDOM.

Gary Watkins, an actor with few credits on his resume (JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY being one of them), was almost certainly cast because of his resemblance to Mel Gibson. Dressed like Mad Max and driving a souped-up hot rod across the desert, Watkins’ Trace is forced to get personal with a bunch of bad guys in the employ of Scourge (Joe Mari Avellana), who kidnap his sister Arlie (PLAYBOY centerfold Lynda Wiesmeier), rip off her top, strap her to the hood of a car, and take her back to their hideout to be raped. Trace, understandably pissed, teams up with a psychic (Linda Grovenor, a helluva long way from DIE LAUGHING), a mercenary (Laura Banks), and a mute midget to waste as many underpaid and undertrained Filipino stuntmen and extras as possible in 81 minutes. And I haven’t even mentioned the tribe of underground albino mutants.

Going into a battle strapped with a flamethrower secured away in your muscle car is a good idea in general, but certainly when facing off against a guy named Scourge. Who knew Scourge would grow up to be one! Outside of Santiago regulars Avellana, Joseph Zucchero, and Henry Strzalkowski, none of the actors did much of note in front of the camera. Banks had a visible but silent role in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, Wiesmeier did some pin-up roles (like June Khnockers in MALIBU EXPRESS), and Grovenor said screw this and got the hell out of Hollywood. Frederick Bailey, who wrote and acted in a lot of Corman movies, penned the screenplay, which couldn’t have been more than 30 pages. The film also played theatrically as DESERT WARRIOR — not to be confused with another futuristic Filipino movie of the same title starring Lou Ferrigno.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ablaze

Phoenician Entertainment and director Jim Wynorski (CHOPPING MALL) attempt an Irwin Allen-style disaster flick that is just unintentionally hilarious enough to be entertaining. A large cast of familiar faces and the amusement of spotting stock footage from other movies, which Wynorski uses in lieu of filming his own action scenes, provide much of the fun in ABLAZE.

John Bradley, who also played a fireman in Fox’s shortlived L.A. FIREFIGHTERS series, is Jack Thomas, a firefighter who gets laid up in the hospital after rescuing a young boy from a burning house. After an explosion at the nearby oil refinery owned by oily Wendell Mays (Tom Arnold!) plunges the city into flames, the hospital, also owned by Mays and anxious to keep patients with inadequate health plans from checking in, much to the consternation of compassionate doctor Jennifer Lewis (Amanda Pays), is overrun with burn victims.

Meanwhile, Jack’s estranged brother Andy (Larry Poindexter) also becomes a patient—a terminal one—when he’s injured while investigating unsafe conditions at the Mays refinery and in possession of evidence that will prove wrongdoing by Mays and the mayor. The conflagration eventually grows so massive that an impending firestorm causes the hospital’s evacuation, which is exacerbated by a pregnant woman giving birth and the firetrucks’ hoses not being long enough to reach the hospital doors (!), inducing the hospital’s staff and patients to run a gauntlet to safety.

Steve Latshaw’s screenplay is even more schizophrenic than I’ve described, frequently introducing gratuitous characters whose only value is to die on camera or match stock footage from other fire flicks. Second-billed Ice-T pops up during the precredits sequence for a car chase swiped from STRIKING DISTANCE that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA), in an uncharacteristic supporting role, is solid as Bradley’s second-in-command. TV vets Cathy Lee Crosby (THAT’S INCREDIBLE), Pat Harrington (ONE DAY AT A TIME), and Mary Jo Catlett (DIFF’RENT STROKES) are welcome sights in the hospital scenes, while a puffy Edward Albert (BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE) huffs on cue as the supercilious mayor. Aside from the STRIKING DISTANCE car chase, most of the stock footage is clearly from the 1979 Canadian feature CITY ON FIRE.

As usual in the Wynorskiverse, logic and common sense play second fiddle to wrapping on time and budget. The concept of the firemen’s hoses not being able to reach the hospital is screwy enough, but when you see the survivors running away from the building, which is said to be at the end of a cul-de-sac, the street looks like Brooklyn circa 1956 and not the urban backlot seen in the CITY ON FIRE footage. And I’m not sure what kind of law enforcement strategy sends a fireman and a lone detective on a stakeout to capture an arsonist in broad daylight. Ah, what’s the use?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eyes Of A Stranger

The novelty of perky LOVE BOAT cruise director Lauren Tewes and acclaimed actress and future Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh (THE HATEFUL EIGHT) in a trashy slasher movie is quickly overtaken by the believability of their performances. Leigh in particular, making her feature acting debut, delivers a strong performance with poise and courage as Tracy, a teenager who suffers from psychosomatic blindness and deafness since she was abducted and molested as a child. Tewes, in her only starring appearance in a feature, is top-billed in EYES OF A STRANGER as Jane Harris, a crusading television reporter in Miami.

When Warner Brothers released EYES OF A STRANGER theatrically in 1981, most of Tom Savini’s gory makeup effects had been excised to avoid an X rating. Screenwriter Ron Kurz (FRIDAY THE 13TH) and director Ken Wiederhorn (SHOCK WAVES) planned to make a thriller about a strangler. However, producers hired Savini just before production to provide blood and gore to capitalize on the slasher craze, so the killer played by John DiSanti (Wiederhorn’s KING FRAT) killed with a knife instead of his hands. Ironically, very little of Savini’s work made it to theaters after all.

Jane, who is investigating the slew of serial rapes and murders of young women in her role as a reporter, becomes personally involved when she accidentally discovers — or at least suspects — that one of her neighbors, Stanley Herbert (DiSanti), is the killer. The film isn’t a mystery: we know he’s the killer. Jane, not having seen REAR WINDOW, spies on Herbert, taunts him with threatening phone calls, and breaks into his apartment to search for evidence. Not a great plan when you have a blind, deaf, and mute little sister at home.

Kurz, who created the Jason Voorhees character in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, offers nothing new or substantive to the slasher genre in EYES OF A STRANGER. It actually bears a strong resemblance (accidentally) to SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!, the TV-movie John Carpenter directed after HALLOWEEN. Kurz and Wiederhorn, it seems, had their hearts set on a less graphic thriller, rather than a gory horror movie, and Savini’s makeup effects, impressive as they are, don’t fit the tone established by Wiederhorn. EYES OF A STRANGER looks more expensive than its sub-$1 million budget, Richard Einhorn’s (THE PROWLER) score adds some class, and DiSanti makes for a properly grubby and mysterious creep.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Ice Station Zebra

Alistair MacLean’s 1963 novel ICE STATION ZEBRA, set in the Arctic, was the inspiration for this big-budget MGM Cold War thriller, though scripter Douglas Heyes (writer of many excellent MAVERICK and TWILIGHT ZONE episodes) deviated often from it.

Known as Howard Hughes’ favorite movie, ICE STATION ZEBRA has garnered quite a following in the decades since its release, despite its stolid pacing and old-fashioned production values. It earned Academy Award nominations for its special effects and cinematography, and its legend stretches to TV’s BREAKING BAD, which named a fictional business after the film.

It’s hard to know who to trust in this paranoia-fueled espionage thriller. Except Rock Hudson, of course. You could always count on Rock Hudson. The Rock plays Captain Farraday, the commander of a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine who is assigned to investigate a tragedy at a British weather station. Though as Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) tells Farraday, rescuing survivors is not the reason for his mission — only the excuse.

The only man aboard the sub who does know the true mission is Jones (THE PRISONER star Patrick McGoohan), an eccentric British agent whose ally is a Soviet defector, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine). Also on board: Captain Anders (Jim Brown), a martinet who assumes command of Lieutenant Walker’s (Tony Bill) Marines. What are Marines doing aboard a Naval submarine on a rescue mission to a civilian science station? Farraday doesn’t know, and part of the film’s mystery is picking apart everyone’s motives and orders.

It’s usually satisfying to watch professionals perform a job well, and ICE STATION ZEBRA ticks off all the right boxes as it chugs turgidly along. The cast is tough enough, and the heroics are enhanced by Michel Legrand’s score. Heyes’ screenplay, however, based on a screen story by Harry Julian Fink (DIRTY HARRY), bears too little story to sustain the film’s epic length (which also includes an overture and an intermission), and you may be checking your watch during the eighty minutes that it takes director John Sturges (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) just to get to Ice Station Zebra.