Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' April 2012 Viewings

My movie viewing habits go one of two ways: Either I am watching a whole bunch of movies that don't have a single thing in common or I binge on a favorite type of movie, waking up in the morning with foreign accents sloshing around in my brain like beer in a college student's guts. Australian cinema has been a drug of choice, but they, before the advent of the internet(s), were hard to come by. Even harder for a monolingual American to track down are films from Sweden and The Netherlands. Gud förbjude you actually want to see something not designed for export out of Scandinavia. If they in fact are exported out, they will never see the light of day here in the US, instead Hollywood buys the rights to remake the film or just rips it off. How may people in a US multiplex are going to know anyway? Hollywood has done a great job of building a wall to keep out those damn cinematic immigrants who are stealing our entertainment jobs! Sadly it's not just our milk that's homogenized. Ok, rant over. Here's a few of the Swedish films that I've been obsessing over, and so as not to bludgeon you like a viking raider with Nordic cinema, I've thrown in some others as well.

ROSEANNA (1993): Superb third entry in a series of six Swedish made for TV movies based on Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s famous Martin Beck novels, with Gösta Ekman as Beck. When a woman’s body is fished out of the river without a single clue, Martin Beck is assigned to the case. Since the case is proving especially difficult, the insufferable Gunvald (Rolf Lassgård, flawlessly cast) is transferred over to assist in setting a trap for the killer. I know that was probably the most generic Leonard Maltin-ish plot synopsis ever, but it’s almost impossible to synopsize the twisting plot and character interplay of a good Beck movie. Not only that, but if you are the least bit interested in the genre, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Ekman has a good take on Beck, but Lassgård steals the movie as Gunvald and in spite of the TV pedigree and a few flatly directed family scenes, the cinematography verges on giallo-esque at times and the suspense is wound nice and tight. Some folks have complained about the American-style ending where everything is wrapped up and not left open, as the Swede’s seem to love, but it’s probably the only thing that rings as Americanized. As Will mentioned via e-mail, if it had been an American film, there would have been a subplot about conflict at home over his devotion to the job and have some loud shouting matches about procedure between Beck and Gunvald. Meh, leave that for the new kids like Kjell Sundvall.

ZERO TOLERANCE (1999): So, let me get this straight. You can work on films like ANIMAL PROTECTOR (1988) and WAR DOG (1987), both of which I really enjoy, and ten years later someone will hand you a check to make a big, splashy, slick police thriller that three years later is ripped off by Hollywood for the new version of THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002)? Goddamn, only in Sweden! Anders Nilsson, you have come a long way, baby. Gotthenburg cop Johan Falk (Jakob Eklund) attempts to foil what appears to be a simple jewelry store robbery on Christmas Eve. The robbery turns into a bloodbath and after finally tracking down the surviving robber, the tables are turned and Johan Falk finds himself being hunted. The cops want to make an example of him for his alleged abuse of power and the criminal underworld has a bounty on his head. Mad as hell, but cool as a gurka, Falk must use his wits and police training to survive and bring in the killer. Yeah, nothing totally earthshakingly original in the plot department, but the execution is dead on target with Eklund so well cast that he went on to play the character in no less than eight sequels from 2001 to 2009 and in a TV series starting this year. Also well cast is Peter Andersson as Falk’s nemesis Leo Gaut. Andersson, who you may remember from the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series (that I still haven’t gotten around to watching), plays a conniving criminal in silk, but shows a range of emotion and subtlety that isn’t usually required for these kinds of roles. Certainly not if it was produced in the US. Damn Anders, look at you go. Sadly, while the rest of the planet appears to be hooked on Falk, it still hasn't seen the light of day here in the US, in spite of the demand being high enough for people to watch it off of YouTube in it's entirety. Followed by two outstanding sequels and two series' of six films each.
The German dubbed trailer:

THE HUNTERS (1996): Slick and technically solid Swedish thriller from director Kjell Sundvall, about a Stockholm cop, Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgard), who, after recovering from being shot during a robbery, decides to move back to his rural home town and live with his brother whose life hasn’t gone so well. Arriving in the middle of a years-long wave of organized reindeer poaching, he finds out quickly that poaching can turn to murder and in a town where everyone is related, you can’t even trust the cops. The acting is great, particularly Lassgard, and the production values are high, but in the end, the script goes exactly where you think it will, much like a Hollywood film. You find out who the poachers are in the first 15 minutes and when they start feeling the pressure, everyone does exactly what you think they will, straight through to the end. It’s a little bit of a letdown considering the fine pedigree of Swedish crime thrillers, but this is considered a classic by many and is extremely popular in Sweden, so perhaps your mileage may vary.

THE HUNTERS 2 (2011): aka FALSE TRAIL. Looking every day of the 15 years that have passed, Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgard), is given a no choice by his CO to head out to his small home town once again to help with a missing persons investigation that turns out to be a gristly murder of a young woman. Could one of the local police be involved? It’s a Swedish thriller, so you know what the answer to that is. While the first film played with familiar American-style back-woods thriller elements, this sequel steers straight in Martin Beck / Kurt Wallander territory with excellent results aside from some rather clunky ties to the original (so the brother who couldn’t get laid with a sack of coke and a fistful of hundreds had a kid that nobody knew about in the original film? Whaaaa?). It feels as if a script with a similar setting was rewritten to link the two films, and it may have been, but fortunately it’s just a few scenes, mostly in the beginning. It still feels a bit American in spots with lots of emotion running rampant, explosive confrontations, hot button issues, a clumsy numeral instead of a new title (a Swedish film, with a numbered sequel?) and a poster that implies nothing but a rehash with more hunters. Aside from those minor gripes, it’s a gripping, more traditional Swedish thriller with fantastic cinematography and a subtle score that really ratchets up the tension without being overbearing.

THE ST. PAULI HOURLY HOTEL (1970): Rolf Olsen’s sleazy police thriller centered around a murder in a hotel for hookers. Hamburg police commissioner Canisius (Curd Jürgens) is forced to work the streets of St. Pauli due to a shortage of beat cops and finds himself investigating a stabbing. Of course, the whole pretension of this being a police thriller revolves around the sleazy activities of the hotel patrons. Strung out junkies, brawling queers, nude voyeurs, cheating spouses, thieving hookers, costume fetishes, drunken businessmen, anal deskclerks and even the most laughable squad-car crash ever committed to celluloid. Oh, and let’s not forget the completely gratuitous subplot about the commissioner’s son requiring a heart operation after getting beat up by the cops at a political demonstration. Clearly this was added because someone had some stock surgery footage lying around and felt there just wasn’t enough exploitation value in the film already. Erwin Halletz provides the bizarrely cheery Henry Mancini-esque score, which kind of makes it feel like an R-rated ‘70s TV show. Not the brilliantly nasty gut-punch that Olsen’s masterpiece BLOODY FRIDAY (1972) provided only a few years later, but definitely entertaining, if you are in the right frame of mind.

HOLLYWOOD BABYLON (1971): Kenneth Anger’s legendary book of half-truths is adapted into a soft-core pseudo-documentary during the decade in which the book was pulled by the publisher. Compromised of at least 50% public domain newsreel footage and silent movie clips, with at most 50% fumbling and silly reenactments, this is something that you will either find hilarious or boring. The monotone narration will take you back to the days of grade-school science films, but on the other hand you do have Uschi Digard playing Marlene Detrich and Marland Proctor as silent film star Wally Reid! Fortunately only one of them gets naked. From Fatty Arbuckle’s alleged accidental homicide, Wally Reid’s drunken parties, Marlene Detrich’s lesbian affairs, Rudolph Valentino’s voyeurism, Charlie Chaplin’s penchant for under-age girls, and so on, it’s minorly amusing, but could have been so much better by losing the “documentary” angle and simply making a full-blown softcore anthology.

CORMAN’S WORLD (2011): Probably the most feather-weight, uninformative modern documentary I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never seen a Roger Corman film and only know who he is because Quentin Tarantino said he was awesome, this is for you! Several big names are interviewed and they all say the same thing: "Roger gave me my first job, I owe everything to Roger, thank you Roger". Very true and quite remarkable, but uhhhh... yeah, we knew that coming in. Plus, for some reason anybody who makes a documentary or audio commentary for anything made pre-1990, Eli Roth turns up to babble pointlessly about how great whatever the thing is that was made before his birth that he has no insight into. If you really want to see a docu on Corman, watch MACHETTE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (2010). It may not reach the dizzying heights of awesomeness that Mark Hartley achieved with NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008), and it really only covers his Philippine co-productions, but you will get far more out of it than this wannabe VH1 special.

PRISONER OF RIO (1988): Decidedly one-sided, highly fictionalized account of the kidnapping of Ronnie Biggs, England’s most famous train robber, or to be honest, England’s most famous criminal outside of Jack the Ripper. The funny thing of it is, Biggs had an incredibly small role in the 1963 crime and wasn’t even part of the actual robbery, but that fact as well as many others are swiftly cast aside in this lightweight, but thoroughly entertaining thriller. Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski and Biggs himself, take the bullet points of Biggs’ life after moving from Australia to Brazil in 1970 and lightly scramble them, garnish with cheese and serve them up in the context of the 1981 kidnapping attempt by the British government. In a nutshell, the head of a secret section of the British government, Commissioner Ingram (Desmond Llewelyn) gets a wild hair to finally put The Crown's biggest embarrassment behind bars. The plan? Officer Jack McFarland (Steven Berkoff, in an amalgamation of two real life characters), posing as a reporter with the help of Ingram’s son Clive Ingram (Peter Firth), will lure Biggs (Paul Freeman) on to a British Navy ship as a publicity stunt by offering him a massive wad of cash. Of course Biggs thinks this is an incredibly stupid idea. This leaves McFarland and Ingram to hatch a plot to have him kidnapped by some local thugs, and hold him in an unused mansion of a local crime lord until they can smuggle him aboard the ship.
In spite of the fact that the plot is a pretty loose recounting of real events, the cast is nothing short of superb with Freeman being surprisingly good at portraying the freewheeling, gregarious Biggs and Florinda Bolkan even shows up as Stella (or in real life, Raimunda de Castro) the mother of Ronnie's Rio-born son Michael. Majewski, who co-wrote the scrip with Biggs, uses some great camera work without being overly-expressionistic to evoke a sense of paranoia and tension in some scenes, but gets a little carried away with long scenes of Rio's carnival nightlife in others. On the one hand, I would have loved to see more of Biggs’ history included (such as his collaboration with the Sex Pistols in the same year) and maybe even a more factual account, but on the other hand, what you have is a solidly entertaining, well made movie with a great cast. Also, you gotta love Biggs’ cameo, shamelessly mugging, during the beginning of the movie.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Prison Prescription: PENITENTIARY II (1982) & PENITENTIARY III (1987)

Earlier this month, pioneer black director Jamaa Fanaka passed away. His status as a pioneer comes mostly from his being in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black U.C.L.A. film students in the early 1970s, and from his early independent exploitation flicks.  He started out with WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975), a horror film about a black prisoner who murders those who conspired to put him in jail with his, uh, rather large penis.  Such social commentary!  He followed that with EMMA MAE (aka BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE, 1976), but Fanaka really struck gold with his next film, PENITENTIARY (1979).  Focusing on the plight of falsely imprisoned boxer Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), the film became a surprise hit at the box office over 1979 and 1980.

Reading about Fanaka’s death, I suddenly realized that I’d been aware of the man since probably my early teens when I saw a PENITIARY flick on the video store shelves, but I’d never actually seen any of the 6 feature films he made.  I decided to rectify that and gave the two PENITENTIARY sequels a viewing.  After watching the second one, I talked with Tom about it via email and came to the same conclusion as him.  I’d built these films up in my head (thanks to some great posters on the boxes) and heard so much about how gritty and tough that they were, that I was ultimately let down by how subpar they were.  I went in expecting ROCKY (1976) mixed with BRUTE FORCE (1947).  What I got was ROCKY by way of Rudy Ray Moore.

PENITENTIARY II (1982) opens with a ridiculously long opening crawl a la STAR WARS (1977) that brings us up on the plight of “Too Sweet” Gordone.  Having been released on early parole due to beating Jesse “The Bull” Amos in a prison boxing match, Gordone is supposed to work for a year at the boxing gym owned by the warden’s brother. Wait a sec, this movie is called PENITENTIARY and takes place in the free world?  Um, okay.  Gordone wants nothing to do with the brutal sport of boxing though, so he takes a job as a roller skating messenger and begins a relationship with Clarisse (Eugenia Wright). He also gets to live rent free with his lawyer sister (Peggy Blow) and her husband (Glynn Turman).  Everything seems to be going right for the ex-con and we can't have that happening.

Ah, the 1980s! A simpler time.

Of course, you just know his world is going to be turned upside down and it is courtesy of escaped con “Half Dead” Johnson (Ernie Hudson, taking over for Badja Djola in part 1). No joke, that crawl mentions how “Half Dead” has become obsessed with “Too Sweet” after he refused his “amorous advances” while in prison and got the crap beat out of him.  It sounds like our villain has a bad case of Battered Cellmate Syndrome.  The night Martel and Clarisse are going to get it on, “Half Dead” sneaks in and rapes and kills her in the bathroom that is 5 feet away from our hero (the sound of the shower was supposed to cover this brutal murder?).  “Too Sweet” finds his sweetie dead and proceeds to beat “Half Dead” half to death.  Wait, wouldn’t that mean he was fully dead?  Well, he beats him bad enough that when the cops show up he is arrested and barely living “Half Dead” (shouldn’t he be 99 and 44/100% dead?) is taken to the hospital.

"Thanks for the ride, lady."
(If you get that, you're awesome)
Anyway, “Too Sweet” gets off on self defense thanks to his sister (the trial is never shown) and decides there is only one thing he can do avenge the murder of his girl.  He must train boxing again to become a champion and he will start by fighting Jesse “The Bull” Amos again…in prison!  Haha, I knew we’d get some a penitentiary in here.  Wait a sec…Gordone’s brilliant plan for revenge is to get back into the boxing world and beat up a guy he already defeated?  What? That shows a lot about Fanaka’s script writing skills.  So “Too Sweet” starts training under the tutelage of Mr. T (billed as “himself”) and his old prison friend/trainer “Seldom Seen” (Malik Carter).  Meanwhile, “Half Dead” has escaped from the hospital thanks to his two bumbling buddies, Do Dirty and Simp.  Gotta give the movie credit, they do have amazing nicknames.  Believe it or not, the prison match is going to be nationally televised (in a room with about 75 people) and “Too Sweet” gets his ass whooped.  So this sets up a rematch that happens 15 minutes later (with no additional training scenes) to close out the film.

Truth be told, PENITENTIARY II is pretty cheap and cheesy stuff. I had to laugh at the Box Office review that called it “probably the clumsiest, shoddiest movie ever from a major distributor” (MGM/UA released this sequel theatrically). Fanaka has very little concept of how to present a realistic portrayal of something as simple as real-life.  You'll laugh at some bits (like when Mr. T’s sparring partner whips out a straight razor in the ring; where did he hide that and how can he pull it out so easily while wearing boxing gloves) and shake your head at others (like the aforementioned way they work a prison into the film; apparently you can do boxing shows on national TV from inside prison with real announcers and prisoners can gamble while one con constantly plays the saxophone). To match the nonsensical plotting, Fanaka just has completely random shit in here, like Mr. T showing up at the boxing matches dressed as a genie with a magic lamp that emits purple smoke.  This interesting character turn is never explained! There is a creepy angle exploited early on with Half Dead’s fixation on his prey (he literally rapes and kills Gordone's girl while stabbing her with a knife and calling out his “Too Sweet” name), but that is dropped as the villain becomes as comical as his sidekicks. Look for the scene where he smears potato salad on his girlfriend’s face and then lustfully licks it off.  Also look for Rudy Ray Moore in a cameo and Tony Cox as a gambling con who propositions ladies from under the ring.  The worst thing is the boxing matches are terrible.  Now I’m not expecting a ROCKY style fight here, but these guys look 3 weight classes apart, swing wildly and puke up gallons of blood when getting beaten down.  To the film’s credit, it may be inept and chaotic, but it is never boring.

Five years later, Fanaka and Kennedy returned with PENITENTIARY III (1987), which got funded by Cannon Films. I’m pretty sure the pitch meetings went something like this.

Fanaka: “So we have this prison boxing sequel…”
Globus: “Okay, here’s a check for $3 million.”
Golan: “Where the hell are the sandwiches we ordered?”

This sequel wastes little time setting up the plot as “Too Sweet” Gordone is boxing his friend El Cid in what appears to be a small conference room with, again, 75 spectators. Unbeknownst to our champ, someone slips a drug called valadine (?) into his water and he goes nutzo, killing his buddy in the ring.  Naturally, he gets sent up the river for three years (again, no court room scene) and heads to the pen in a paddy wagon with a prisoner kid playing a saxophone.  Jesus, what is with the saxophones, Jamaa? Anyway, the sax player, a white kid named Roscoe (Steve Antin), recognizes “Too Sweet” and informs him that, wouldn’t you know it, a big boxing tournament is coming up in the prison they are heading to. Yeah, it is one of those kinds of movies.

The way things work in this prison is that there are two boxing teams that face off.  One is run by the warden (Ric Mancini) and the other is run by the real boss of this joint, gangster Serenghetti (Anthony Geary, looking like a Tobin Bell in SAW impersonator).  This guy has so much power that he has his own lavish cell, a cross dressing courtesan who does his nails, and his own French chef (really!).  Gordone politely refuses offers from both gentlemen to be on their respective teams because “he is done with boxing” (yeah right). This is a bad move on his part as Serenghetti orders The Midnight Thud (Raymond Kessler, who wrestled professionally as The Haiti Kid) to be released to kill Gordone.  Who (or what) is The Midnight Thud?  He is a black midget who is locked in a dank cell in the prison basement who smokes crack while watching endless 16mm porn loops.  Really!

Amazingly (or not), “Too Sweet” defeats The Midnight Thud in a hilarious fight scene that goes on and on and on.  His punishment is he is taken down to the cellar and given electric shock treatment. Naturally, he becomes a vegetable but he manages to get it together when Roscoe, who is now in the tournament, asks him to train him. Oh man, this kid has no idea what he is in for. The night of his fight, “Too Sweet” is distracted while having sex with a female boxer on the card (“They call me Sugar, because I love the sugar cane” WHAT?) that he doesn’t know Roscoe’s fight has been moved up.  Roscoe takes a hellacious beating by one of Serenghetti’s men (Danny Trejo) hopped up on that super juice. When Gordone sees what has happened, he can do the only thing he knows to rectify this situation. That’s right – he challenges Serenghetti’s top man, Hugo (the deliciously named Magic Schwarz), to a fight.  And not just any old fight, this is going to be a no holds barred fight!  “Too Sweet” then gets the unlikeliest ally in…THE MIDNIGHT THUD! Thud, whose real name is Jessup, decides “crack is whack” and sobers up to start training “Too Sweet” for his revenge match (no joke, Thud’s teeth go from rotten green to pearly white in one scene during his transformation from crackhead to sensei).  He teaches “Too Sweet” that it is all about “Guts! Guts! Guts! Guts!” and, of course, he whoops dat ass in the finale.  And he better win given the shorts he chooses to wear in the final fight (see right).

"Too Sweet" died for our sins
For those who found PENITENTIARY II jus too damn realistic, Fanaka offers this off-the-wall trilogy closer that might be the most absurd prison flick after the classic ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990).  Of course, you know something is going to be messed up when you have a white kid named Roscoe in it. Fanaka’s attempts to capture brutal reality of prison life are again negated by scenes like Serenghetti having his own personal French chef complete with toque pushing his cart past prisoners and by characters like The Midnight Thud, whose grunts sound like the came from the same foley team who handled The Toxic Avenger’s sounds. That character is goofy enough, but to have him suddenly morph into the mystical trainer role is hilarious.  I guess you have to admire Fanaka’s absurdist tendencies, even if they were born out of ineptitude.  He is after all a filmmaker who gave his wife 5th billing in the opening credits, despite her only having one scene. Fanaka was obviously going for some religious parables here, but it is pretty heavy handed (the final fight has “Too Sweet” punched into a wall that leaves his bloody imprint Jesus-on-the-cross style and Serenghetti says, “Crucify him!”).  The only surprise here is that the warden character actually turns out to be a nice guy.  I didn’t see that coming.  But, as the warden says to Serenghetti, “You know what your problem is?  You’ve seen too many bad prison pictures.”  You can say that again.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The XXX-Factor: CABARET SIN (1987)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cine M.I.A. #3: SON OF DRACULA (1974)

I'll pretty much watch anything with Richard Starkey in it. Not because I'm one of those disturbingly obsessive Beatles fans (believe me, I'm not), but for two reasons: Out of The Beatles, he was the only one who was as unpretentious as you can get with every finger encrusted with giant jewelry and he apparently took enough acid to give himself enough of a unique perspective that in a band who wrote some admittedly strange, drug-induced songs, his was the one that caused scratches on record players around the world. I'm sure he, being the celebrity that he was, he was probably buried in scripts and it’s fascinating to wonder what he was offered that he actually turned down. Some of his choices are quite fascinating: A homeless man, adopted by Peter Sellers to aid him playing elaborate practical jokes on a jaded, materialistic society in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969); the sadistic, immature, obsessive younger brother of the villain in Tony Anthony's masterpiece BLINDMAN (1971); a white bearded Merlin the Magician... Err, wait… what? Yes, that's right, this is the film in which Starr plays an ethically unstable Merlin the Magician, complete with white hair and beard and a costume that looks like it was made for him by his mom for Halloween when he was 8 years old. And he says things like "you are all my children, Baron Von Frankenstein". And he's helping out Dracula. Well, dracula's son, actually... who is also a musician. Wait, hang on, I'll start again…

In the 1800's in Transylvania, Dracula is put to the stake. Or rather the stake is put to him, much to the delight of a dwarf, who turns out to be Baron Frankenstein's assistant (Skip Martin). When trusted ally Merlin (Ringo Starr) arrives to survey the damage, he finds that one of Dracula's brides is pregnant and will give birth to the son of Dracula in 100 years time. No rush on getting those booties knitted, I guess. Cut to modern day (well, the '70s) and a hearse is carrying a coffin across the Chunnel. After stopping to fill up on gas, the inhabitant of the coffin decides to fill up on something redder and puts the bite on the gas pump girl and her boyfriend. All that travelling sure works up the appetite.

As it turns out Dracula's son Count Downe (the ironically reclusive Harry Nilsson) is due to be crowned King of the Underworld in a ceremony in London that will make him the ruler of all of the monsters. What sort of bureaucracy that entails, we are not told. What we are told is that in the 72 hours prior to his crowning, he is extremely vulnerable. To what exactly, we are not told either. While waiting for the ceremony, we get a lot of scenes that seem to be just random events to help pad the film to feature length. For instance, Count Downe foils a completely random attack by a werewolf on a widow by stabbing him in the sholder with his cane sword. Ok, so Dracula's son carries a silver cane sword so he can settle disputes over prey. Sure, I'll go with that. In another scene he looks into a record shop window that is sporting a full Harry Nilsson display (yes, we got it already), and then heads to a local bar where he has a drink (yes, Dracula's son drinks alcohol), and jumps up on stage to jam with the band. If you are one of those Nilsson fans who sought out this film because of him, no doubt this will be mesmerizing as he barely did any live performances and the musicians he plays with at a couple points in the film include Peter Frampton, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Leon Russell, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Klaus Voormann. Of course, that is probably all you will take away from this experience. For those who come at it from the angle of the monsters and the cast, the musical interludes (including a lengthy piano ballad before bed) will be a constant irritation. One film, multiple ways to be annoyed!

Note to self:
Never shoot billiards with a sorcerer.
While Merlin, who is into astrology and shoots a mean game of billiards, studies the stars for the exact moment when the Count should be crowned, Dracula Jr. is having a moment of crisis. He doesn't want to be king of the underworld. He wants to be human and to love like humans do. No, really. That is the main plot here, the son of Dracula just wants love. Displaying an uncanny sense of unintentional irony, the Count declares “it’s rather dull.” Indeed, Harry, indeed. To affect his descision, the Count decides to work with Baron Frankenstein (Freddie Jones chewing the scenery with abandon), who has a plan to help him become human, but stay immortal. Sounds great, right? Merlin is hip to Frank's jive, and knows that Dr. Frankenstein just wants to kill the Count and steal the crown for himself! To provide an alternative, Merlin brings in a wheelchair-bound Professor Van Helsing (Dennis Price), who looks like he should be hawking his secret chicken recipe with 11 herbs and spices. Van Helsing will use his degree in psychology (yeah, you heard me, he is a psychologist), an advanced radiation machine and some dippy hippy advice such as "the power of human love must be given to you," to help the Count become human. Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

If only this ad had something to do with the movie.

If there is anything more amusing than a cinematic train-wreck, it's a cinematic train-wreck that happens to be a vanity project as well. Actually, I may be misusing the word "amusing". Maybe I meant "grueling". Directed by industry veteran Freddie Francis, I can only imagine that he was dipping into Nilsson's private stash because this film feels in places like it's one step up from a David "The Rock" Nelson production. The camerawork is pedestrian at best, scenes go on for way too long, the musical cues sound like a tune-up session, and Nilsson acts more like a morose, love-sick zombie than a legendary vampire, delivering his dialogue as if dosed to the gills on thorazine. Come to think of it, knowing the reputation of Nilsson and friends, he was probably dosed to the gills on a lot of things. Actually, you'd have to be to make this movie! To make matters worse, the script is a mess, without any actual jokes to make it a comedy, it relies on the constant droning of hippie rhetoric about love being all that you need, which wears thin really fast. The end of the film with Nilsson and his love Amber (Professor Van Helsing’s assistant, Suzanna Leigh) on a farm with the sun setting in the background reeks of those cheesy TV commercials for CD collections with titles like “Love Forever” that can be had for five easy payment installments of $9.99 a month and always featured someone's, if not Harry's, cover of Badfinger's "Without You". If it weren't for the cloyingly saccharine thrust of the last hour of the movie, this would be a masterpiece of fromage. Erm, when I say "masterpiece", what I mean to say is that, it would be much more fun to sit through. Well, maybe "fun" is overstating it a bit. It would just be easier to sit through.

Written by Jennifer Jayne, whose only other writing credit is the lackluster Amicus anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), with the intent to make it a David Bowie vehicle, it is amazing that this film got made, let alone attracted Nilsson and Starr. But then again, that’s why I like Starr’s filmography. He doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a great movie or one that is doomed from the start. If it’s completely off the wall, of if merely the character he gets to play is eccentric as hell, he’ll sign up. It's not like he needs the paycheck!

Completed in ’72, co-producer Starr found that he couldn’t get anyone to pick up the film for distribution. Reportedly after cracking a window to clear out the pot smoke, he realized that the comedy they had made wasn't very funny. Starr had contacted Graham Chapman to re-write and re-dub the dialogue in an effort to add jokes, but said in an interview that "it makes even less sense now". This version has never been shown to the public. After a year and a half, he finally got a US distributor, Cinemation Industries (who released all manner of exploitation classics from Earl Owensby to Jimmy Wang Yu), to pick it up for a brief run in the States, with a world premier in Atlanta. According to those who remember, the run lasted about a week. According to, Ringo said this of the US release: "In America, the movie only played towns that had one cinema, because if it had two no matter what was on down the road, they'd all go down there!"

To this day, the film has never been released on video anywhere, on any format. Some speculate that it is because of Apple films (who had held up the US video releases of the John Lennon championed Alexandro Jodorowski films EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN), some think that it might be the music rights and still others believe it is just because it's crap. Nilsson himself never really let go of it and before he passed was reportedly bringing VHS copies of the film to screen at Beatlefest. Apparently the version he screened was missing the ending and he offered to explain to the audience what had happened at the end of the movie. Now if that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is.

A sequel? Thank you sir, may I have another?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cine M.I.A.#2: SAVAGE HARVEST (1981)

As our “missing in U.S. home video action” category continues to grow, chances are you’ll see more independent flicks featured than studio fare.  It’s just a matter of economics as the studios had greater resources to get their films out there, especially when the home video market took off.  After all, it was in the best interests of the various major studios to get as much of their product on the shelves as possible.  This is particularly true when it came to the more popular genre fare like action, horror and sci-fi films.  So it is really strange to find an action-horror film from a major studio in the 1980s still unreleased on home video here.  Yet that is the case with 20th Century Fox’s 1981 theatrical release SAVAGE HARVEST.

Born in the “nature gone amuck” wake left by the blockbuster JAWS (1975), SAVAGE HARVEST tells the story of an American family – Derek, his wife Maggie and her kids from an earlier marriage – living in Kenya, Africa during a five-year drought that is driving the animals mad.  Soon the poor family is being terrorized by a pride of vicious lions (who only kill the help, of course) that surrounds and traps them in their house.  Casey, a safari guide and Maggie’s ex-husband, must use his smarts to save his family and this involves turning their cherished Mercedes Benz into a moving cage that can escort them safely away from this NIGHT OF THE LIVING LIONS scenario.  Ah, white folk problems circa the early 80s.  Here's a clip to give you a taste:

SAVAGE HARVEST was a relatively medium-sized film with a budget quoted as being $5.2 million.  Filming took place in the summer of 1980, mostly in Brazil and two weeks in Kenya, where the locals were apparently angered that all of the animals were imported from The Gentle Jungle based in Colton, California.  Director Robert L. Collins was a TV veteran and this was only his second theatrical feature. (Curiously, his theatrical feature previous to this one was WALK PROUD [1979], a Latino gang flick headlined by Robby Benson (!).  The film is also M.I.A. on home video and we’ll get to it one day.)  The script was by Collins and Robert Blees, another TV vet; based on a story by Ken Noyle and Ralph Helfer, a renowned animal trainer in Hollywood going back to the 1950s and owner of the aforementioned Gentle Jungle.  The film benefitted from the casting of the hot-off-of-ALIEN Tom Skerritt as the hero guide and the bizarre casting of Michelle Philips from The Mamas and The Papas as his wife (according to reports, Melinda Dillon was originally cast in the role). Of course, the real stars were the lions trained to menace our leads:

The film aimed for box office bucks with a “this could happen to you” tagline that cried “based on a true incident” on the posters.  While locating a story about a white American family that escapes some wild beasts by fortifying their Mercedes Benz proved rather hard, an educated stab in the dark is that the story may come from the infamous (and reportedly faked) “tourist eaten by lions while his family watches” footage originally found in the Italian Mondo documentary ULTIME GRIDA DALLA SAVANA (aka SAVAGE MAN, SAVAGE BEAST; 1975).

Two films about man-eaters! 

Alas, the film did poorly when it debuted in New York and Los Angeles in late May 1981.  Variety reported that it opened on 6 screens in L.A. and did an abysmal $4,000 take at those theaters its first weekend.  Reviews were just as middling as well, with one review praising the work by the lions more than the leads.  Variety offering this gem: “Skerritt has the good sense to mumble most of his banal lines.”  (According to this IMDb post, Skerritt was at the Lincoln Center for a screening of ALIEN in 2010 and when someone brought up the film in the Q&A session afterward, he initially didn’t remember it and then said, “Oh…God.”)

Pittsburgh Press, June 6, 1980:

Box Office review, July 1980:

The film was quickly off screens and hit heavy rotation on HBO the following year.  What it never hit was domestic home video, which is surprising given the number of crazed animal films that did get released.  One possible theory for its non-release is the soundtrack.  One scene has Skerritt trying to calm his kids down and they sing two songs by The Beatles.  Perhaps music rights issues are holding it up a release here?  It has appeared on VHS in places like the UK and Japan and in 2010 it had a rare airing on MGMHD.  Yet to this day it is still M.I.A. on U.S. home video.