Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Monster Of Piedras Blancas

Many a young horror fan’s imagination was stirred by stills from THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, which featured a scaly sea monster similar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon standing menacingly on a beach with a bloody decapitated human head in its hand. Pretty strong stuff for 1959 — Herschell Gordon Lewis wouldn’t invent the modern “gore” film until 1963’s BLOOD FEAST — and even the creature itself looked as though it could go toe-to-toe with the Gill Man. You have to put in the time to get rewarded though, as the Piedras Blancas monster doesn’t show up in full until late in the game.

Up to then, the film is something of a mystery with local sheriff Forrest Lucas (THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR) and doctor Les Tremayne (THE ANGRY RED PLANET) investigating corpses found on the beach with their heads missing and their blood drained. Shifty lighthouse keeper John Harmon (a regular in director Irvin Berwick’s films, such as HITCH-HIKE TO HELL) hates society and freaks out whenever anyone wanders along the beach, including his restless sexpot daughter Lucy (pinup girl Jeanne Carmen, the film’s best special effect). Well, duh, he knows what’s going on. In fact, he’s been feeding the monster meat scraps procured from storekeeper Frank Arvidson (THE 7TH COMMANDMENT), soon to be another man without a head.

Berwick and producer Jack Kevan were former Universal-International employees who formed a production company, VanWick, for which THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS was its only film. Kevan’s U-I job was in the makeup department, where he helped create the Gill Man, among other famous movie monsters. His Monster of Piedras Blancas is impressively ugly and mean-looking and probably scared a lot of kids.

H. Haile Chase, the writer and director of V.D. and PARADISIO, wrote this film. The story makes no sense. Why the monster rips off heads isn’t explained, for instance, not that this is a movie worth thinking about. Berwick’s direction is about as good as Chase’s screenplay, though he gets some mileage from the authentic California locations (surprisingly, he didn’t shoot in Piedras Blancas, but rather around Lompoc). Flubs in dialogue indicate Berwick didn’t do many second takes. The acting isn’t much either with the exception of the sonorously voiced Tremayne, who does his best to bring class to a picture titled THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Toy Soldiers (1984)

Released the same year as RED DAWN, the second and last film written and directed by David Fisher (LIAR’S MOON) is part of a teensploitation subgenre involving ordinary kids fighting back against terrorists. NIGHTFORCE, OUT OF CONTROL, and — believe it or not — a second film titled TOY SOLDIERS, unrelated to this one, fall into this category.

This TOY SOLDIERS is barely remembered today, but is notable as the film debut of actor Tim Robbins (BOB ROBERTS). Producer E. Darrell Hallenbeck had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career as a script supervisor, assistant director, production manager, and occasional television director, most notably on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Top-billed stars Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST) and Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES) lead a cast of young unknowns that not only boasts Robbins, but also Terri Garber (soon to explode on television in NORTH AND SOUTH and DYNASTY) and Tracy Scoggins (THE COLBYS).

So these obnoxious college students are screwing around on a yacht in Central America, and one of them gets hurt. Some of the kids try to take him to a hospital, but are kidnapped by Latino terrorists. Sarge (Miller), the yacht captain and an ex-Marine, tries to find them, but manages only to get away with one, Amy (Garber), the daughter of the yacht’s rich owner (Roger Cudney, evil Hofrax in BARBARIAN QUEEN II).

The U.S. government refuses to pay the $3 million ransom or even negotiate with the terrorists, so Amy gets the bright idea of recruiting her pothead butler (Willard Pugh), the friends who didn’t get captured (including Robbins and Larry Poindexter), Sarge, and Sarge’s war buddy Buck (Little) for a privately funded rescue mission. Their training includes jogging on the beach, referencing THE A-TEAM, and beating the shit out of watermelons. There’s a dumb scene in which a random psycho jumps Amy on the beach for no reason, and she has to drown him in the ocean. I guess she’s ready!

Miller and Little give this New World release more effort than it’s probably worth. Fisher and co-writer Walter Fox make zero effort to make the story anything but a fantasy. The cartoon villains have no personalities other than the basest lust and cruelty, and the kids reach their objective by freefalling 8,500 feet from an airplane. TOY SOLDIERS is dumb, which can be entertaining, but also dull, which never is. When their college classmates show up weeks later to rescue them, the hostages don’t seem the least bit surprised to see them, which is not even the hardest part of this movie to swallow. Some way cool explosions, though.

Planet Earth

STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry spent the 1970s producing one pilot after another, trying to get another series off the ground that would capture the science fiction audience’s imagination the way TREK did. He never did, at least until STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION premiered in syndication in 1987.

1973's GENESIS II was one of the pilots that didn’t sell, but believing the germ of a saleable idea was there, Roddenberry and STAR TREK producer Robert Justman made a sequel, 1974's PLANET EARTH, written by Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and directed by frequent TREK director Marc Daniels.

The biggest change in PLANET EARTH was the recasting of the lead: recognizable TV (THE BOLD ONES: THE NEW DOCTORS) and film (ENTER THE DRAGON) leading man John Saxon in for Alex Cord. Dylan Hunt (Saxon), a 20th century scientist placed in suspended animation and awakened in 2133 to a society ravaged by nuclear war, is now a functioning member of Pax, the only modern society left on Earth, and a leader of a science team concentrating on rebuilding civilization. Roddenberry, a former policeman and World War II pilot, was remarkably progressive in many ways, but notably not his view of women, which is reflected in PLANET EARTH’s plot.

To save the life of a Pax colleague, Hunt and his team—Harper Smythe (Janet Margolin), Isiah (Ted Cassidy), and psychic Baylock (Christopher Cary)—must find a physician who disappeared a year earlier. It’s rumored he was taken by a society of women that capture men to use as slaves and breeding stock. Hunt goes undercover as Harper-Smythe’s “dink” and is chosen to perform stud service on the community’s queen, Marg (Diana Muldaur). When the village is besieged by a savage band of “Kreegs,” the women stand by while the men fight and save them. Oh, Gene.

A step up from the darker, more dour GENESIS II, mainly due to Saxon’s virile, commanding performance as a Kirk-like leader and a lighter tone, PLANET EARTH is too similar to STAR TREK to stand on its own. Daniels handles the action scenes that bookend the film well. Again, the pilot didn’t sell, and the concept was drastically reworked for a third pilot, STRANGE NEW WORLD, also with Saxon.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Expendables 3

The biggest EXPENDABLES to date really piles on the guest stars, including Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer, and — as the bad guy — Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, though it’s great to see these veterans trading quips and bullets, THE EXPENDABLES 3 suffers from its over-stuffed nature, as well as the crummy CGI (par for the course with a Millennium/Nu Image production) and a PG-13 rating. It’s nice to have Snipes (MURDER AT 1600) in his first major role since serving a prison sentence for tax evasion (used as an in-joke here), but the screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and the OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt jettisons him and most of the older cast members in favor of boring young new cast members.

After Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is wounded on a mission in Somalia, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) grounds his usual team members, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Doc (Snipes), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), as dinosaurs. Working with recruiter Bonaparte (Grammer), Barney puts together a new team that you won’t give a damn about with the possible exception of real-life fighter Rousey, the first female Expendable (director Patrick Hughes films her first fight scene in extreme close-up or long shot, so it could be anybody fighting). Banderas almost steals the picture as Galgo, a puppy dog who really, really wants to be an Expendable and sends Bonaparte a fake resume for the chance to impress Barney.

The Expendables’ target is the deliciously monikered Conrad Stonebanks, played to the hilt by Gibson, who doesn’t play for camp as he did the villain in MACHETE KILLS. Stonebanks is a former Expendable who betrayed the team and was believed to be dead. Now a wealthy arms dealer, Stonebanks is responsible for Caesar’s shooting, and Barney means to take him down. Unfortunately, his boss with the government, Drummer (Ford), orders Barney to take Stonebanks alive so he can be tried for war crimes. Obviously, that ain’t gonna happen.

The good news for the audience is that Barney’s new team of youngsters gets captured pretty quickly, forcing the original band to get back together. Schwarzenegger pops up on occasion in a reprise of his role from the first two pictures, as does Jet Li, who doesn’t even fight anybody. Hughes delivers a standard action picture with the requisite gun battles and stunts, though it would be nice if most of them had been created on the set and not by some nerd’s mouse clicks. Sloppiness abounds from the sight of European license plates on an Arizona car to the amateurish process photography behind the actors pretending to drive. You would think a $90 million production could afford to put Stallone and Grammer in an actual car on an actual road for an afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Beyond The Reach

One of the few ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK segments to receive a major Hollywood remake, 1974’s SAVAGES is a suspenseful desert thriller with a plum leading role for Andy Griffith as a sadistic rich hunter who stalks young guide Timothy Bottoms (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) in the scorching desert to cover up an accidental killing. A great premise inspired, obviously, by THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, it also forms the basis of BEYOND THE REACH, which cannily hands the Griffith role to a delightfully scenery-masticating Michael Douglas.

Like SAVAGES, BEYOND THE REACH is based on Robb White’s entertaining novel DEATHWATCH. SAVAGES was paced just perfectly at 72 minutes (LE MANS’ Lee H. Katzin directed it), but with twenty more minutes to fill for the big screen, director Jean-Baptiste LĂ©onetti pulls focus away from the deadly cat-and-mouse game to kill momentum with who-gives-a-turkey backstory about Douglas’ business deal and his guide’s flashbacks about his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) away at college.

Douglas, as established, is the rich hunter from Los Angeles. Named Madec, he arrives in a small desert town in a swank Mercedes looking for a guide to help him bag a bighorn sheep. The sheriff (a welcome Ronny Cox) recommends Ben (STONEWALL’s Jeremy Irvine). He and Madec get along okay in “the reach” (a particularly dangerous section of the Mojave) until Madec accidentally shoots an old prospector.

A weakness of both SAVAGES and BEYOND THE REACH is that the shooting is clearly an accident, albeit one caused by Madec’s reckless behavior. There would likely be little harm in notifying the authorities. But Madec doesn’t want to, and when Ben tries to follow his conscience, Madec strips him and sends him into the desert to die without water. A sadistic bastard, Madec follows Ben at a distance to watch the sun burn the poor kid to death.

With a maddeningly mundane title like BEYOND THE REACH, the film had zero chance to find an audience in theaters (what was wrong with SAVAGES or even DEATHWATCH?). Lionsgate didn’t even try, dumping it on a couple dozen screens and then off to VOD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the atrocious ending burns a lot of the goodwill earned by the suspenseful meat of the picture. Do yourself a favor, and stop watching when the movie fades to black.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Interns, "An Afternoon In The Fall"

“An Afternoon in the Fall”
October 9, 1970
Stars Broderick Crawford, Stephen Brooks, Christopher Stone, Hal Frederick, Elaine Giftos, Mike Farrell, Sandra Smith
Guest-starring William Devane, Albert Salmi, Brooke Bundy, Peggy McCay, Tom Hallick, Charles Shull, Richard Krisher, Jack Garner, Kathy Shawn, Joe Renteria
Music by Shorty Rogers
Executive-produced by Bob Claver
Produced by Charles Larson
Written by Mark Rodgers
Directed by Daniel Petrie

THE INTERNS was based on the 1963 film of the same title, a soapy Columbia release about young physicians that starred Cliff Robertson (CHARLY), Michael Callan (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND), James MacArthur (HAWAII FIVE-O), Stefanie Powers (HART TO HART), Buddy Ebsen (BARNABY JONES), and Telly Savalas (KOJAK). See if you can guess who plays the interns and who plays their concerned mentors.

THE INTERNS was followed in 1964 by THE NEW INTERNS (with some of the same cast) and in 1970 by this CBS series. Stephen Brooks, formerly of THE FBI, took top billing as Dr. Greg Pettit. Also starring were Christopher Stone (THE HOWLING) as Pooch, Hal Frederick as Cal (the lone black intern), Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H) and Elaine Giftos (THE STUDENT NURSES) as married Sam and Bobbe Marsh, Sandra Smith (STAR TREK’s “Turnabout Intruder”) as Lydia, and gruff Broderick Crawford (HIGHWAY PATROL) as Dr. Peter Goldstone, the benevolent god who looks over the interns.

The series lasted just one season of 24 episodes on Fridays opposite THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and THE BRADY BUNCH/NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, likely, at least in part, because there was little audiences hadn’t seen before in THE INTERNS. Also, viewers may have gotten burned out on the whole “good-looking young professionals with crusty mentors” scene during a fall season that also saw THE YOUNG LAWYERS and THE YOUNG REBELS debut, no doubt thanks to the success of THE MOD SQUAD.

“An Afternoon in the Fall” is interesting for at least one reason: a guest-starring turn by 30-year-old William Devane, who had hardly anything on his Hollywood resume outside of some N.Y.P.D. guest shots. Devane would become one of the decade’s busiest and most notable actors in films like ROLLING THUNDER, MARATHON MAN, and FAMILY PLOT. He earned Emmy nominations for THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER and FEAR ON TRIAL.

This INTERNS episode casts Devane as the dangerous William Hauser, whose fixation on his night-school teacher, Alice Vaughn (Peggy McCay), culminates in him shooting her twice. Sam saves her life in the operating table (a radio news report calling him “Simon Marsh” instigates a lot of good-natured kidding in the doctors’ lounge), but Osland (Albert Salmi), the cop on the case, is convinced Hauser will try to get to Alice in the hospital. Brooks, who worked with producer Charles Larson on THE FBI, gets the B-story, striking up a romance with a new nurse (Brooke Bundy) who moves into the Marshes’ apartment building.

The main plot by writer Mark Rodgers (POLICE STORY) is typical cop/hostage/psycho-killer machinations. By focusing on the suspense and potential violence, THE INTERNS and director Daniel Petrie (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) fail to deliver on the promise of the love story. Bundy’s Joy reveals a lot about herself in relatively little screen time. She’s new in Los Angeles, she seems uninterested in pursuing any romantic relationships, she’s divorced with a son that her ex-husband has full custody of. Just when it seems the character is beginning to go somewhere, the episode is over with Joy announcing she’s leaving town and the hospital, never to be seen on THE INTERNS again.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Death Hunt

One of the manliest movies ever made reunites Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson from THE DIRTY DOZEN, though the nature of the story means they don’t share much screen time together. Very loosely based on an actual Canadian manhunt of the 1930s between the Mounties and a trapper calling himself Albert Johnson, DEATH HUNT features a script by Mark Victor and Michael Grais, who graduated from TV cop shows to POLTERGEIST, and direction by former 007 editor and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE director Peter R. Hunt. Backing up Marvin and Bronson are a coterie of sharp supporting actors, including Andrew Stevens (who would work again with Bronson in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and POLICE WOMAN Angie Dickinson, whom Marvin romanced in POINT BLANK.

The real Johnson was probably less noble than Bronson’s portrayal. In DEATH HUNT, he rescues a bloody dog from a dogfight, handing the resistant owner (Ed Lauter) $200 in return. Hazel, the owner, tattles to local Mountie Millen (Marvin), who rightfully blows him off. Hazel and his buddies trek up to Johnson’s cabin in the Rockies to retrieve the mutt, and one of them is killed in the ensuing gunfight. Johnson was shooting in self-defense, but Millen has to get involved now that a man is dead.

Millen takes a straight-arrow Mountie (Stevens) and a tracker (Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers) as part of his posse to visit Johnson. Based on a misunderstanding, one of the Mounties starts another gunfight, which leaves several more men dead, Johnson on the run into some of the coldest and most treacherous terrain in North America, and Millen on his trail.

The screenplay is as good as it needs to be, though what little dialogue is in it is clever. Its great weakness is Marvin’s perfunctory and dull affair with Dickinson, whose role is really just a cameo. The premise of man battling both man and nature combined with the star power of Marvin and Bronson is strong enough on its own. With few words to say, Bronson handles the challenge of expressing emotion and character through his eyes and his action, while Marvin ably tackles his “man in command.”

Hunt’s terse direction is appropriate for the story he’s telling, and he doesn’t skimp on the bloody violence. While DEATH HUNT isn’t packed with action — it’s more a tale of suspense — the stunts seem treacherous, particularly when staged in the frozen tundra of Alberta, where DEATH HUNT was filmed. Score by Jerrold Immel is bold to match the film’s heightened tension. Believe it or not, Golden Harvest, a company best known for chopsocky, produced for 20th Century Fox.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Los Angeles Holocaust

The Lone Wolf is back in the United States in the eighth edition of his Berkley Medallion paperback series. It appears as though I didn't review the previous title, PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE, but I definitely read it. You can find my reviews of the other books in the Lone Wolf men's paperback series here.

LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST is very light on plot and ends on something of a cliffhanger, as though it were a mediocre episode of a television series. It begins right where PERUVIAN NIGHTMARE left off with antihero Wulff aboard a hijacked helicopter returning to El Paso from Peru. With him, besides a frightened pilot, is a bag of smack -- millions of dollars worth of heroin. Well, first there's a flash-forward to Wulff in an L.A. hotel, and then a second chapter about a black cop named Evans who is killed during an undercover drug buy in Harlem. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST, but it helped author Mike Barry get to 192 pages. He barely has enough story as it is.

So Chapter Three shows Wulff's return from Peru, and then it's into the story proper. Here's the thing with Wulff: he's fucking crazy. Reportedly written by noted sci-fi author Barry Malzberg as a tongue-in-cheek rip of men's adventure novels, which he hated, the Lone Wolf series maintains continuity throughout its fourteen volumes, focusing on a doomed protagonist who loses a bit more sanity with each novel. It's noted in LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST that he has killed literally hundreds of people, including a whole shipful in BAY PROWLER, so it's a little disappointing that Malzberg's body count is so low in this one.

Joining Wulff (briefly) on the West Coast is Williams, his former partner on the NYPD who was stabbed in CHICAGO SLAUGHTER. The young rookie's wounds have left him bitter, making him an easy convert to Wulff's cause: blasting the shit out of the Mafia. Williams leaves his nine-months-pregnant wife in New York, buys a U-Haul full of weapons from a Harlem priest, and drives to L.A., stopping only to kill a couple of random carjackers along a Nebraska interstate.

Wulff's ultimate goal is getting back to Chicago to kill a 72-year-old mob boss named Calabrese, who has a contract out on Wulff. The book is not only light on plot, but also on action sequences. Most pages are filled with introspection. If not Wulff in woe thinking about how shitty his life is, it's a hitman wondering how to both collect the bounty on Wulff and steal Wulff's heroin or Williams pondering his marriage, his job, his new partnership, the whole goddamn shitty society. You may have guessed -- this is a pretty bleak story in a pretty bleak series of novels.

The Lone Wolf books are fascinating, of course, thanks to Malzberg's prose, but they aren't as gritty or action-packed as their rivals on drugstore shelves -- which was probably Malzberg's point. LOS ANGELES HOLOCAUST ends with the status quo intact: Calabrese is still pissed, Wulff is still pissed (and still has the smack), Williams is on his way back to New York without ever using any of the damn weaponry in the U-Haul!

Except for the cliffhanger, which puts Williams in jeopardy and Wulff on the phone, talking shit to Calabrese. It looks like the matchup is coming up...except the next book is titled MIAMI MARAUDER. So does Wulff make it to Chicago or not? I guess I'll find out.