Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween Havoc: DEATHMOON (1978)

Dammit Bruce! Look man, you made that cool little flick, SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES, back in ’71, and I’ve been giving you breaks ever since. C’mon now, I know you can do it buddy, I have confidence in you, don’t let me down… Awwww, fuck!

Bruce Kessler is man responsible for one episode of every single damn TV show made from 1966 to 1997. Including stuff like “Kolchak”, “CHiPs”, “The Fall Guy”, “MacGuyver” and even five episodes of “Renegade”. He also made a few features and TV movies. SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES was his crowning achievement to be sure. You had Andrew Prine as a laid-back “modern” spellcaster who lives in a stormdrain and uses his magic to hustle rich folks and in a very strange and awkward scene help a teenage boy with his… uhhhh… priapism. This is why I always see his name and say “oh cool! A Bruce Kessler flick”, but since I’ve seen a few of his other films, really, deep down, I know, there will be nothing cool about it.

Executive business guy (I don’t think they ever really mention what exactly he does other than make “business deals”), Jason Palmer (Robert Foxworth), wakes up in a panic every night after having a nightmare about a South seas pagan ritual, complete with leering tiki, that is broken up by the local missionaries. He visits his doctor, who’s professional opinion is “don’t worry about it! Especially if you can’t remember what it was all about.” The doc writes him a prescription and when Jason opens it, surprisingly it is totally legible and reads “take a vacation”. Brother, I sure hope you aren’t working off your deductible.

On the way out of the doctor’s office, Jason runs across a travel poster for Hawaii. Beaches, sun-sets, hot chicks in grass skirts and… the evil tiki face from Jason’s nightmares! Who hired that ad agency? So that clinches it, Jason is off to Hawaii for some much needed rest and relaxation. Rolling into his erm… “luxury” accommodations, Jason sees – you got it, that same crazy tiki head! What are the odds? Man, they must sucker in all the tourists with that one.

Hey, now that we’re in Hawaii, it’s time to lay on the Don Ho kitsch, right? No way, sucker! It’s time for cheap, cheap, cheap padding out of the monofilamental plot. Jason walks around the hotel grounds in a long-sleeve red hoodie and what appears to be baby blue BVDs (wtf?), he flirts with stewardesses who are looking to put the “lay” in layover. He eyes the ladies, the ladies eye him, and the reviewer starts to nod off. Looking to inject some sort of excitement into this banal tranquility, writer George Schenck introduces a subplot about the hotel detective and resident stud, Rick (Joe Penny), who is hot on the trail of a hotel thief. Or rather cold on the trail, since he doesn’t have a freakin’ clue who it is and spends most of his time providing his “services” for the perpetually horny stewardesses, who have the room next to Jason. Of course you can't really blame him, who would suspect that the hotel thief is the 6'2" 300lb cigar smoker who can sprint like Jesse Owens?

Luxury accommodation provided by CBS
Jason, on the prowl in more ways than one, romances a corporate VP, Barbara (Diane May), of some unspecified industry, and amazingly continues to find him a hot commodity, in spite of his constant panic attacks that cause him to disappear into the night. In another amazing coincidence, this apparently is a special Hawaiian lunar cycle that includes a full week of full moons! Oddly, Jason’s new BFF doesn’t even make the connection that the guy she’s mooning over always seems to have a panicky disappearing act right before someone is brutally murdered at the hotel. I should take a moment to point out that we know they are brutally murdered because the police tell us that the victim was “torn apart” and they’ve seen nothing like it since “those shark attacks last year” while standing next to a perfectly intact corpse, in a completely bloodless crime scene! Actually the best dialogue is in a totally incidental cut-away in which a teen-age boy and girl are walking along the beach and the girl mopes “I'll never enjoy myself with all those fish swimming around in there.” Obviously this is the kind of girl you want to take to a parking lot.

As it turns out, Jason’s great grandfather was a missionary ‘round these parts, who put the almighty kaibosh on a pagan wolf-thing ritual that involved a lot of dancing, drumming, and really not much else. Dancing and drumming? Yep, they’re sinners and sinners need to be smited, right? Mid-smite, the missionary is cursed by the presumably evil host of the evening’s festivities. We know this because while roaming about the island in their rented VW Thing (seriously, that’s what you rent when you are on vacation?), they find an old church and in the church find a photograph of Jason’s grandfather, the sinner-smiter himself, on display in a glass case! Both Jason and Barb are completely blasé about the whole thing, registering not even the slightest bit of surprise. In addition to that, the live show that the hotel is putting on is the very same forbidden ritual! According to the programme at all of the tables, the ritual is the dance of the Ileoha-Kaputiki (wasn’t that a Mario Brothers character?) and it has never been performed since the late 1800’s when the participants were attacked by a group of missionaries. The programme goes on to say (no joke) that a curse was placed on the “descendants of the defilers!” Jason and Barb? Still not impressed.

As one would expect from a TV movie shot in on location in Kaua'i, Jason and Barbara do a lot of sight-seeing while the plot winds down to its predictable conclusion. The downside is that this is merely padding a story that could easily fill a 30 minute slot. The even downer side is that Kessler and company do almost absolutely nothing to exploit their locations and the setting. Everything is shot very tight and static. A close shot of Jason and Barb enjoying a sunset. A close shot of Jason and Barb on a beach. There’s only one big panoramic shot, and that is of a highway in the middle of someplace green! I’m guessing that they assumed everyone would be watching on a 13-inch, analog CRT TV, that may well have been black & white (ours was until the ‘80s rolled around), but still that’s no excuse not to wallow in some tiki lounge acts or hell, how about some more of that native superstition hooey that you were promising to throw at us? The closest we get to it is a bit where Jason and Barb go to a ramshackle village (which surprisingly gives us a brief glimpse of the real Hawaii) and visits an antique shop in which the proprietor couldn’t give less of a shit about the stuff he’s selling and snidely condescends about the native beliefs. When Jason and Barb leave, Jason asks why she didn’t buy anything and Barb says “all those Hawaiian souvenirs are made in the Philippines.” How fast do you think the tourism board put a stop payment on that check to the producers?

DEATHMOON could have, and probably should have, been made into an episode of “The Loveboat” or even “Fantasy Island”. We have the usual cast of TV actors, doing a basic TV show job in their parts. Joe Penny is no Jack Lord, that’s for sure. He literally runs into the wolfman while chasing down the hotel thief and it takes him another day and another murder to think that maybe, possibly, perhaps, that wolf guy might actually be the one tearing up the guests! What a crazy idea! He, of course, tells this to the cop on the case (Dolph Sweet doing a fine job as usual), and to back this up tells him that the local witch verified his theory (which goes over like a fart in church). Debralee Scott is the main nympho skygirl and really should have stuck to “Match Game”, though there is nothing wrong with her performance in a thinly scripted bit part. The golden turkey would have to go to Diane May whose style of acting is demonstrated by packing in as many facial expressions into a single reaction as possible. Subtle she is not. In spite of that, the most heinous thing about this movie, aside from the only action in the film being jaws wagging, is the world’s most nerve-shredding musical score by veteran TV composer Paul Chihara. Chihara is a man who started his career rather promisingly with DEATH RACE 2000 (1975), before a meteoric descent into mediocrity. The score for DEATHMOON is like a combination of JAWS (1975), overlaid with piercing, screeching synth that can only be described as a combination of nails on a chalkboard and a cat being eviscerated. I was ready to throw something at my speakers before the opening credits were over, and I still had another 80 minutes to go!

So Mr. Kessler, it has come to this. I’m sorry, but I can see now that SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES was a fluke and you are sir are no longer welcome in my home. Well, at least until I find a copy of the short lived “Freebie and the Bean” TV series… dammit.

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