Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I Was A Teenage Frankenstein

Just a few months after AIP had I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF in theaters, producer Herman Cohen (HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM) pumped out this quick follow-up. I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a sequel, even though Whit Bissell returns from TEENAGE WEREWOLF as another mad scientist.

Bissell is actually playing Dr. Frankenstein, and he’s continuing his ancestor’s experiments in creating life from dead organs and flesh. He’s incredibly lucky. A car accident kills two teens right outside his front door, and a few days later, an entire high school track team is killed in a plane crash. The head, Frankenstein just chops off a necking boy. The body parts he doesn’t use he dumps in the alligator pit beneath his suburban mansion. His needy fiance Phyllis Coates (SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN) eventually discovers the hunky young monster (ripped Gary Conway, later to star in BURKE’S LAW and LAND OF THE GIANTS) hidden in the laboratory.

Whereas Michael Landon’s teen werewolf was a strong character and protagonist, Conway’s Frankenstein monster is a wooden cipher buried beneath Phillip Scheer’s comical makeup. Bissell’s arrogant performance gives TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN most of its entertainment value, making the most of writers Cohen and Aben Kandel’s ripe dialogue (“You have a civil tongue in your head. I know you have, I sewed it back myself.”). Unlike TEENAGE WEREWOLF, this film is pure schlock (Bissell, playing a Brit, makes no effort at an accent).

Director Herbert L. Strock shot the film at Ziv Studios, where he also made television shows like SEA HUNT, SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, and HIGHWAY PATROL in a similarly perfunctory manner. As a cool gimmick, the climax of this black-and-white film was shot in Eastmancolor. Cohen continued the unofficial AIP series with HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, which also had a color climax.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I Was A Teenage Werewolf

AIP released this excellent teen horror movie done no favors by its ten-cent title. After leading man Michael Landon became a big star on BONANZA and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, he gently mocked I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF on talk shows, but he also wasn’t embarrassed by it, nor should he have been. He even parodied it on HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN.

Landon, then 20 years old and a Method actor (he learned to loosen up as Little Joe), is quite good in his first starring role as a troubled teen who gets into a lot of fights. Landon plays him as a pretty good kid, but with serious anger management issues. To hopefully cure him of his violent tendencies, sympathetic cop Barney Phillips (THE SAND PEBBLES) and Landon’s girlfriend Yvonne Lime (DRAGSTRIP RIOT) suggest he see a shrink. Unfortunately, said shrink is played by Whit Bissell (THE TIME MACHINE), a mad scientist who turns Landon into a werewolf. Landon wears the makeup in every scene and does all his stunts.

Film editor Gene Fowler Jr. made his directing debut and delivers plenty of verve and style for a picture allegedly shot in six days on an $80,000 budget (TEENAGE WEREWOLF probably grossed 100 times its budget). The screenplay by producer Herman Cohen (KONGA) and Aben Kandel (TROG) not only gives Landon a strong character to play, but also Lime as a good girl who genuinely cares for Landon and ace character actor Malcolm Atterbury (THE BIRDS) as Landon’s widowed father who tries to teach his son to control his temper.

While the film’s view of teenagers is strictly from the perspective of the middle-aged director and writers, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF is intelligent and suspenseful. It also led to AIP follow-ups, including HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER and the inevitable I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, in which Bissell played basically the same character.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Iron Sky

Concepts don’t really come any higher than this. IRON SKY posits that the Nazis fled Earth near the end of World War II and set up a secret base on the dark side of the Moon. Seventy years later, this lunar “Fourth Reich,” led by Führer Korzfleisch (Udo Kier) and his SS sidekick Adler (Götz Otto), is planning an invasion of Earth, but is surprised when an American space capsule lands nearby. Adler kills one astronaut and takes prisoner the other: an African-American named James Washington (Christopher Kirby).

Unfortunately for the Nazis, they can’t get their giant warship Götterdämmerung to work properly, as their computer technology is still rooted in the 1940s. Discovering Washington’s smartphone, Adler brainwashes Washington, bleaches his hair and skin white (!) to pass for a proper Aryan, and takes a flying saucer to Earth in order to meet U.S. president Sarah Palin (Stephanie Paul) and get more computer phones.

Director Timo Vuorensola plays this for comedy — perhaps wise considering the absurd premise. More than broad comedy, much of the humor is in the form of sharp political satire that doesn’t treat the United States with kid gloves. It’s no surprise the corporations that control film distribution in the United States stayed far away from IRON SKY, which isn’t shy about equating Nazi theology and contemporary right-wing rhetoric, as personified by the American president (who, to be fair, isn’t specifically named Palin, but come on…) and her vulgar campaign manager (Peta Sergeant).

Shot in several different countries on a low budget, reportedly around $10 million, IRON SKY doesn’t have the visual effects money to match its imaginative production design, which includes a moonbase shaped like a giant swastika. The actors are unafraid to tackle the silly concept and sharp anti-American humor head-on with special props going to the very funny Kirby and to top-billed Julia Dietze, who is charming as a Nazi teacher who uses an edited ten-minute cut of Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR to indoctrinate the base’s children.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Next Of Kin

If you can buy Patrick Swayze (following ROAD HOUSE), Liam Neeson (TAKEN), and Bill Paxton (TWISTER) as brothers, then you’ll probably be down for the rest of this Chicago crime drama about Kentucky hillbilly justice. If you can buy Andreas Katsulas (THE FUGITIVE) and Ben Stiller (STARSKY AND HUTCH) as father and son, then you’re pretty easy to please. Helen Hunt (MAD ABOUT YOU) is also here as Swayze’s wife, plus Adam Baldwin (CHUCK) and Michael J. Pollard (TANGO & CASH the same year!), which makes NEXT OF KIN pretty fascinating at times.

As crime drama and action/adventure, NEXT OF KIN is solid but routine with some nice chases and gunfights courtesy of English director John Irvin, who made the mediocre RAW DEAL with Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the stolid yet spooky GHOST STORY, and THE DOGS OF WAR, a violent adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel. Michael Jenning’s screenplay examines the different justice systems in play in Chicago, which is presented as “civilization,” basically, and the back hills of Kentucky, where the Gates family makes its home.

Most of them, at least. Brother Truman Gates (Swayze) left home for the Windy City, where he became a police detective with a pretty, sophisticated wife (Hunt) who plays violin. Youngest brother Gerald (Paxton) finally follows in Truman’s footsteps, but his arrival in Chicago is met with violence in the form of gunman Joey Rossellini (Baldwin) of mobster John Isabella’s (Katsulas) crime family.

Truman, a good cop, is dedicated to finding the murderer, but oldest brother Briar (Neeson) wants more: vengeance. Which gives NEXT OF KIN several different layers to play: brother vs. brother, old-fashioned revenge vs. the letter of the law, fish out of water. Irvin puts together a pretty good chase atop an L train, and the climactic cemetery shootout is laid out with precision and some thrills. NEXT OF KIN was not a hit, earning half of what ROAD HOUSE did at the domestic box office, but Swayze’s next film, GHOST, was an Oscar-winning monster smash.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Devil Within Her

Filmed as I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN and released by AIP in the U.S. as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, this tawdry EXORCIST ripoff compared itself to ROSEMARY’S BABY in its advertising. It’s much closer — in story, not quality — to IT’S ALIVE, as a former stripper played by THE BITCH’s Joan Collins gives birth to a murderous baby.

Back in her peeler days, Joan rebuffed the pawing of slavering dwarf George Claydon (BERSERK), so he put a hex on her first-born child out of revenge, as horny dwarfs are wont to do. On little Nicholas’ first day of life, he claws the hell out of his mother’s face, and soon escalates to shoving the nanny into the lake and bashing her head on a rock. When Joan says quite seriously, “I think my baby has been possessed by the Devil,” her stripper best friend Caroline Munro (AT THE EARTH’S CORE) continues stirring her tea calmly like they’re discussing baseball stats. Thankfully, an Italian nun played by Dame Eileen Atkins, DBE (EQUUS) is qualified to do exorcisms, but not until most of the cast is dead.

Peter Sasdy, who directed Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER, is unable to catapult this film past “laughable” to “frightening.” Did he really believe Collins periodically looking into the baby’s crib to find the dwarf’s face staring back at her would send chills up the audience’s spines?

English actor Ralph Bates (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) plays Joan’s husband with a shaky Italian accent (there’s no reason his character needs to be Italian). Stanley Price’s (SHOUT AT THE DEVIL) screenplay struggles with logic and coherency. Only Donald Pleasence (THE GREAT ESCAPE) as the doctor who delivers little Nicky sells the absurd dialogue as if he believes it. Also seen as THE MONSTER (somewhat accurate, if generic) and SHARON’S BABY (there is no character named Sharon in the film), THE DEVIL WITHIN HER is severely padded between campy death scenes, including a riveting sequence of Ralph Bates buying groceries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mortuary (1983)

The same year TV goody-goody Melissa Sue Anderson (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) sullied her image by acting in the slasher flick HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, WALTONS girl Mary McDonough played the heroine in this tame slasher. Less effective than the Anderson film (but blessed with a great trailer), MORTUARY suffers from typically clumsy direction by Howard Avedis (née Hikmet Avedis) and a lack of surprises. For example, the obvious red herring really is the killer (Avedis is so bad at concealing the killer’s identity that one wonders whether he is trying to), and a dopey witchcraft subplot is left unfulfilled.

MORTUARY is notable as the last (to be released) film appearance of Christopher George, an ex-Marine who found stardom on television as the leader of THE RAT PATROL and ended his career in a series of junky exploitation pictures, often co-starring with his wife Lynda Day George (a regular on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE). Lynda is also in MORTUARY, playing McDonough’s mother, while Christopher slums as a mortician who joins her in Satanic seances. Film Ventures International slowly rolled out MORTUARY to theaters during 1983 (it was filmed in the fall of 1981), and George died not long after the film’s Los Angeles release at the age of 52.

High school student McDonough continues to believe the swimming pool accident that killed her father one year ago was actually a murder. Neither her mother nor her boyfriend David Wallace (HUMONGOUS) believes her, though she has nightmares about the incident and sleepwalks into the pool on occasion. Also, nobody believes her cries after a knife-wielding creep in a black cape tries to slice her to pieces. Also in the cast: a young Bill Paxton (ALIENS), whose Texas accent is out of place here as Christopher George’s weirdo son who listens to Mozart and (literally) skips through the cemetery. Wallace is a drip, but the girls always had the best parts in these things.

The funeral home setting is ripe for a creepy thriller — and John Cacavas (HORROR EXPRESS) contributes a fine score — but Avedis (THE FIFTH FLOOR) and his partner/wife Marlene Schmidt (SCORCHY) were just not capable of writing, producing, and directing a film of great quality. When McDonough gets out of the pool after a midnight dip, the deck is already wet, meaning it was Take Two and Avedis was too lazy to either dry it off or have the actress emerge on the other side.

Not to completely bash Avedis, some of the stalking scenes manage to raise suspense, partially because the killer’s look is patterned after Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (why the killer dons such an elaborate guise is never addressed). The ludicrous ending was obviously inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, but it isn’t scary this time. GREEN ACRES’ Alvy Moore has a quick bit as Wallace’s father. McDonough appears to have been doubled in her nude scenes — don’t want any WALTONS fans to vapor-lock — but she did pop her top on down the road in a direct-to-video quickie called ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Game Of Death (1978)

GAME OF DEATH is exploitation at either its cheekiest or most tasteless. A personal project of Bruce Lee, GAME OF DEATH was left unfinished when director/writer/producer/star Lee died after making ENTER THE DRAGON. Out of either a tribute to the action footage Lee had already directed or a desperate effort to continue making money off the dead legend (take yer pick), Golden Harvest and ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse decided to fashion a new martial arts film around Lee’s fight scenes. Considering Clouse included news footage of Lee’s corpse inside his coffin in a scene of Lee’s character faking his death, it’s safe to believe respecting the icon’s dignity was not a top priority.

Actors Yuen Biao (WHEELS ON MEALS) and Kim Tai-jong (who played Lee’s ghost in NO RESPECT, NO SURRENDER) fake-Shemp Lee in the new footage shot by Clouse. Neither resembles Lee in the slightest, so Clouse films them from behind, in disguise, wearing sunglasses, or, in the film’s most ludicrous shot, in front of a mirror with a photo of Lee’s face taped to it!

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who fights Lee in perhaps the most memorable scene, refused to participate in Clouse’s film, so even he — at 7 feet 2 inches tall — is unconvincingly doubled. So, yes, basically, GAME OF DEATH is a ridiculous mess — Clouse even recycles the Lee/Chuck Norris fight from WAY OF THE DRAGON — but not an unwatchable one.

Though only ten minutes or so of the 100-minute running time features the actual Bruce Lee (not including occasional cutaways taken from some other movie), they are a terrific ten minutes with Lee, clad in that iconic yellow track suit, choreographing exciting fight scenes with Abdul-Jabbar and Dan Inosanto (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). Bob Wall and Sammo Hung fight each other for no other reason than to eat running time. Objectively, GAME OF DEATH is terrible, but it’s also hilarious if you’re in that mood (and there is no shame in openly mocking a cash grab this cynical). The last half hour, beginning with the motorcycle chase in the warehouse, is fun.

A Bondian John Barry (THUNDERBALL) score and opening title sequence (with a gambling theme, even though no gambling is in the movie) give Clouse’s film some respectability. So does the name supporting cast, including a drunk Gig Young (THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY), who killed himself before this ever got into American theaters; stolid Hugh O’Brien (KILLER FORCE), who laughably kicks “Bruce”’s ass; Colleen Camp (APOCALYPSE NOW) in the girlfriend role; and Dean Jagger (VANISHING POINT) as the world’s most avuncular Mafia don.

Kill Or Be Killed

“The Greatest Hollywood Martial-Arts Movie Ever Made!” Actually a South African action picture lensed in South Africa in 1977, KILL OR BE KILLED was imported to America and given a successful ($30 million box office!) domestic release by Film Ventures International in 1980. By the end of that year, it was playing double bills with BREAKER! BREAKER!, Chuck Norris’ leading man debut.

Taking a cue from the Bond pictures and perhaps the men’s sweat magazines of the 1960s, KILL OR BE KILLED’s screenplay by C.F. Beyers-Boshoff involves Nazis, always an excellent screen antagonist. Karate master Steve Hunt (Ryan) is invited to participate in a martial arts tournament by a former Nazi general, Baron von Rudloff (Norman Coombes). The Baron’s opponent is a team led by wealthy Japanese benefactor Miyagi (Raymond Ho-Tong, the Asian Wally Cox), who defeated von Rudloff in a similar tournament forty years earlier, which led to the Nazi being humilated, stripped of his ran, and exiled.

Set mainly within von Rudloff’s desert compound (represented by an unconvincing miniature castle), the plot teams Hunt with cute karate colleague Olga (Charlotte Michelle, who has wonderful chemistry with Ryan), who becomes a convenient hostage when Hunt escapes from von Rudloff and is eventually coerced into throwing the championship match.

Though flagging in pace somewhat while von Rudloff’s midget sidekick Chico (Daniel DuPlessis) travels the world seeking fighters in various “humorous” asides, KILL OR BE KILLED is the real thing if you’re seeking authentic karate action. The actors are actual members of the Japan Karate Association (the South African branch), and the fight scenes were choreographed by well-known karate master Stan Schmidt. Instead of gymnastics and acrobatics, the fighting is mainly (except for Ryan’s signature back-flips) straight, no-frills karate, which may appeal to purists.

Rated PG with minimal sex and bloodshed, KILL OR BE KILLED was a breakthrough for South African star James Ryan, who reunited with director Ivan Hall for the slicker sequel KILL AND KILL AGAIN. Later Ryan action pictures include RAGE TO KILL and the notorious SPACE MUTINY, but none were better than the Hall films.