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!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Superham Cinema: CHAMELEONS (1989)

Television has always had a love/hate relationship with comic books. They want to make money off of the tie-in with a product that has a built-in audience, but after the campy antics of the 1966 "Batman" show, they just never really liked the idea of having superhero stuff in their superhero shows. "The Incredible Hulk" (1978) was a mesmerizing show to kids of the '70s, but looking back on it now, it's mostly Bruce Banner trying to cope with life and running from town to town trying to escape his alternate persona. The Hulk makes an appearance once per episode to get Banner out of a jam - such as the threat of some swingers trying to take advantage of a drunken Mariette Hartley (who is quite literally asking for it) in "The Bride of the Incredible Hulk" (1978), but it's not really about Hulk. The failed 1978 pilot for a "Doctor Strange" series went so far as to pretty much dump everything from the comic books except for the fact that Strange is a doctor (though not a surgeon) and occasionally dresses up in an outfit so cheap that he would be laughed out of Comicon.

The 1980s were a rough time for comics as a whole, but TV execs thought that maybe they could bring back the superhero successes of the '70s. It didn't hurt that they could get the rights to these characters for less than a cup of coffee at Spago's. But what if you didn't have to pay a thin dime and come up with your own superheroes? Glen A. Larson, the creator of seemingly everything cool on television in the '70s and '80s, did just that. Putting aside the debatable superhero status of "The Six-Million Dollar Man", Larson started with the short lived "Manimal" in 1983. The premise of the show was of a crimefighter (Simon McCorkindale) who transforms into a variety of wild animals. It wasn't the greatest show ever, but it did get points for originality and the fact that it was a complete pain to shoot as it involved real animals. Larson moved on to another short-lived series with the TRON (1982) inspired "Automan" (1983). Here Desi Arnaz Jr. teams up with a computer created Automan (Chuck Wagner) to bust crime in their high-tech Lamborghini Countach. Larson had a much bigger success with the iconic "Knight Rider" (1982-1986) series which made it mandatory that a tricked-out supercar had to make some sort of appearance in his shows.

Filching an idea from the instant classic comic "The Watchmen" (1986), the pilot kicks off with the death of the hero. Jason Carr (Stewart Granger), the wealthy, eccentric owner of The Los Angeles Post, is secretly a nocturnal crimefighter by the name of The Paraclete of Justice. When presumably not taking naps and medication, Carr rides around town in a motorcycle sidecar with his sidekick Ryan, aka Captain Chamelon (Marcus Gilbert). His arch nemesis is a super-secret organization of evil, known as The Inner Circle, who have enlisted the help of a Hollywood madam to slip him a toxic injection after being captured by corrupt police officers.

As it turns out his two granddaughters, Jessica (Mary Bergman), a deputy DA and Shelly (Crystal Bernard), a southern belle who likes to check herself into a sanitarium and pretend to be a doctor, have been left his entire fortune including a super-secret journal that contains his nocturnal exploits and the names of the members of The Inner Circle. The cops are, of course, on the take and are attempting to get the journal by fair means or mostly foul. Also interested in getting the journal is Ryan who is quit possibly the most undynamic of superheroes in the history of the medium. When Shelly catches him trying to be invisible while getting into Carr's safe he finds he must give her an explanation. He asks her how Carr died (presumably he doesn't get cable in his batcave), which leads to this exchange:
Shelly: "He died of a heart attack."
Ryan: "No. He died in bed with some sleazy hooker!"
Shelly: "He died in bed with some sleazy hooker?!"
Ryan: "That's what the authorities think, but I don't believe it because he was with me!"
Shelly: "My grandfather was in bed with you? That's even more disgusting!"

I'm guessing you may have noticed that this is in fact a comedy superhero show, much like "The Greatest American Hero" (1983), except with fewer smashed windows. Adding to Shelly's cheerful misery is the sleazy managing editor of the paper Philip (Richard Burgi), who is desperately trying to take over the empire, even if that means cheating on his conniving girlfriend. Quickly Shelly discovers that grandfather had a superhero cave with a prototype computerized car named... wait for it... Car-meleon (named so because one of its functions is to change its color at the press of a button). At this point she decides that something must be done about the evil organization, but only if she is in charge. Erm, hijinx ensue.

Crystal Bernard may be best remembered, at least by me, for SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987), is surprisingly likable as a slightly ditzy, rich girl and she delivers her snappy dialogue with great timing and could have easily carried the show. On the other hand, we have Marcus Gilbert who is so completely leaden that he frequently looks as if he stumbled on to the set off the street and is trying to figure out what this "acting" thing is off the cuff. Occasionally it seems as if he could be replaced with a cardboard cut-out and no one would be the wiser. At least until he attempted to speak a line - of which he fortunately has few.

As you may know, or have already guessed, this pilot never cleared the runway. First off, as goofy as it is, I think it really works to a certain extent. It has a post-"Watchmen", pre-"Powers" sort of intentional cartoonishness about it that substitutes the complex drama with freewheeling comedy. That is not to say that we don't get a big explosion filled chase sequence at the end, no, no. Glenn knows his target audience and he knows damn well that they want big boom. Perhaps the superhero action was to be saved for the series as it clearly is setting it up. The final scene has the main characters making a pact to fight evil, implying that they will form some sort of super team. With a solid supporting cast (including John Standing, George Murdock, Tiny Lister, Terry Kiser, Roger Davis and more), in spite of the flaws (Gilbert), I think this would have mad a great series if it had come out the early '80s, before comics discovered their adult audience. In '89, comic books had been picking up steam with serious, mature content for several years. A caped comedy was definitely out of fashion.

Aside from Gilbert's egregious affront to bad TV actors everywhere, the pilot is a lot of fun. You could criticize the Car-meleon as being a K.I.T.T. knock-off that looks far too much like a modified '89 Ford Taurus station wagon, but it's presented more as a satire than Larson carbon copying his biggest hit. In one scene where all of our heroes are packed into Car-meleon and are being assaulted by machine gun fire, they attempt to activate the defense systems which can only be accessed by answering a detailed questionnaire about the details of the situation. This is funny in and of itself, but it also does a nice job sending up the cliche that Larson popularized. In this day and age of oppressively melodramatic comic book films that insist on playing out with more pathos than a Greek tragedy, some goofy superhero satire is a nice way to wipe away the tears after discovering that Batman has gone off his Prozac... again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Listomania: Thomas' Summer Blizzard of Odd 2015

THE STRANGE SON OF THE SHERIFF (1982): For those of us who live for weird westerns, this Mexican oddity may not be one of the most outlandish, but it certainly lives up to its title.

Set in (as the title card tells us) "West 1890", cold-hearted, iron-fisted Sheriff Jackson (Eric del Castillo) must deliver his own son during an eclipse because the local doctor died of the plague and the doc in the closest town (Mario Almada) has the entire population dying on him. To the sheriff's horror, his son is born deformed. The sheriff keeps his son chained up in a room for seven years until the doctor that refused to help deliver the child comes into town. As it turns out the child is conjoined twins who the sheriff has named "Fred-Eric" (or Frederick). Blaming the doctor for his misfortune, he orders him at gunpoint to separate the twins in spite of the dangers of losing one. Eric dies during the operation and Fred is brought up on his own. The only catch is that Fred is convinced that Eric is still with them and responsible for some odd events, even taking the vengeful father of a hanged son to his grave. A grave on which the sheriff refused to place a cross. This discovery lands the sheriff in court where he is tried for the murder of his son. And this is only the halfway point! Eric's ghost torments people and generally causes a ruckus, occasionally possessing Fred.

Director Fernando DurĂ¡n Rojas, a veteran of over 100 Mexican films, is clearly hampered by a low budget that mainly went into a few bits of cel animation and a set that shakes like an earthquake hit it during some of the supernatural sequences. For the most part he delivers workman-like direction, but occasionally throws in a good, atmospheric shot. Regardless of the technical aspect, if you are looking for strange, this it definitely is. The story is surprisingly unpredictable veering at one point into a courtroom drama before centering its focus back on the supernatural. One of the interesting things about it is Rojas' harsh portrayal of the sheriff hanging a 19 year-old boy in the beginning of the film. The crowd watching the event are clearly shocked and saddened by the event, which is an unusual stance to take in a Western. Usually the concept of a sheriff is rather polarized. The law is right, unless the sheriff is evil in which case justice must be meted out. Here the sheriff is not so much evil, but rather unyielding and selfish, which he realizes before he dies. La Vengadora herself, Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, shows up for a small but important role as the headmistress of an orphanage. Not a classic by any means, but it is an interesting horror/western oddity.

NEZULLA THE RAT MONSTER (2002): What? You've never heard of this one? Me neither, and there is a reason for that. Direct to video Japanese efforts can be hit or miss. A whole lot of miss if the modern goofy/gore shot on video outings aren't your thing. This semi-throwback to the "trapped in a building with a monster" subgenre of the '80s sure seems like a great idea, but writer-director Kanta Tagawa's one and done effort is everything that is wrong with Japanese DTV in 90 minutes.

A group of "American" soldiers, who look oddly Japanese and speak English phonetically, meet up with a Japanese scientist at an abandoned American research lab (in Japan) that is believed to be ground zero for a virus that makes people look like they have plastic novelty vomit stuck to their faces. While the soldiers throw temper-tantrums and generally behave like bratty two-year-olds, they suddenly come to discover that one of their ranks, a catty Japanese woman (who is supposedly American, never speaks English and likes to laugh at her own evilness) is on her own mission. She being the only one who knows about the mutant rat. Apparently the rest of the soldiers have been briefed that they are hunting down regular lab animals. This begs the question, why did they feel it was necessary to bring crates of heavy ordinance?

Apparently the virus that was created in the lab mutated one of the lab rats into an eight foot tall, bipedal reject from a '70s kaiju film, complete with head that waggles side-to-side while it waddles after helpless victims. This actually sounds better than it really is. The bulk of the movie, in addition to the arguing soldiers and a lone noble Japanese warrior who is proudly hunting the monster with a sword, staring death in the face, concerns an angst-ridden doctor who is being forced to intern the afflicted populace and is unable to treat the victims due to military quarantine rules and is secretly in love with his nurse who is secretly in love with him. Oh, the fucking pathos.

I can't fault the movie for putting all of its budget into the monster, but the abandoned building location wears thin fast when you have minimal monster scenes and all of the attacks happen either off screen or just have an actor stand with the monster behind them appearing to give the character a shoulder massage. Apparently they couldn't afford to rent expensive prop weapons either because in an early scene we discover that the crazy traitor has filled their heavy ordinance boxes with wooden logs! Again, why even have them in the first place? This squarely falls under the heading "missed opportunity" and it kind of feels like this label wouldn't bother those involved.

RED EAGLE (2010): Just like America has Batman, Thailand has a vigilante superhero in Red Eagle. Spanning decades of novels, TV and movies, this is the modern updating of the mythos from Wisit Sasanatieng, director of the pop-art western TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER (2000).

While a politician has turned into a nuke loving dictator after running as an anti-nuke liberal, a vigilante known as The Red Eagle has been brutally annihilating members of the underworld. None of this comfy, cozy tying the crims up for the cops. Nope, Red Eagle has no problem shooting and chopping up over a dozen thugs during a drug deal gone awry. Leaving his calling card at every bloodbath, the cops (a mismatched thai and sikh) are conflicted about whether he should be given a medal or arrested. When Red turns his sights on sorting out two-faced politicians who are involved in unconscionable deeds such as child prostitution and nuclear energy, the pressure is on to nail him. Meanwhile the largest underworld syndicate in the world, the Matulee, who wear demonic masks to hide their identities and have developed a serum that injects flesh-eating nanobots into the victims bloodstream, decide that they have had enough of The Red Eagle and get their own masked assassin The Black Devil.

The film definitely takes a hit for quite a bit of painfully bad CG effects and a script that throws so much at the wall that only those who know the original novels, TV shows and movies will get all of the seemingly random bits of imagery, dialogue and character moments, that just seem poorly fleshed out to the rest of us. On the other hand, there is none of this winky, intentionally campy crap that we have to put up with in so many modern genre movies. It's dark, bloody, fast paced and completely comicbook loony. There is so much straight-faced absurdity taken directly from comic book tradition, that it seems a little cartoony at first. Once you settle into the groove you can enjoy the amusing comic book cliches such as a plucky female reporter is the love interest and the only one who knows Red Eagle's identity, and a sequence where someone took the time to freeze a time-bomb in a block of ice prior to a showdown in an ice-house! That's what comic book villains do, it's not like they have real jobs. Oddly the film ends with a "to be continued" which five years later, it sadly still hasn't been.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Newsploitation: Who Own Box Office Town?

It seems you couldn't go two feet online without spotting a MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) post a few weeks back.

Enthusiasm was at an all-time high and it was refreshing to see George Miller, a director now in his 70s, return to the action genre and show the kids how it is still done.  Perhaps the wildest thing for me when I saw the film theatrically is how easily the man slipped right back onto his bike (chrome and covered with spikes, no doubt) and created a entry that slid right into place in his post-apocalyptic universe.  Not easy since Miller had gone on to a celebrated and diverse career that saw him doing everything from dramas to family films.  It is even more astounding because we are now officially 30 years removed from the most recent entry, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), which came out on July 10, 1985 in the United States.

With MAD MAX 2 (or THE ROAD WARRIOR as it was known here) being a huge financial success worldwide, it was expected that Miller would be a hot commodity courted by Hollywood.  He made the leap quickly by helming the final (and best) segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983).  Just before that anthology debuted in the U.S., Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy announced in early June 1983 that they would indeed bring the world MAD MAX 3 and that it would begin filming in Australia in May 1984.  Unfortunately, tragedy stuck very early into pre-production as Kennedy was killed when the helicopter he was piloting while doing location scouting for the film crashed (his passenger a 15-year-old family friend survived).  He was only 33 at the time of his death and left behind a filmography that included several Aussie mini-series and the excellent THE LAST OF THE KNUCKLEMEN (1977) alongside the first two Max films.  Miller was reluctant to move on with the production, but opted to do so and included a co-director - George Ogilvie, who had directed episodes of THE DISMISSAL (1983) along with Miller, Philip Noyce, and Carl Schultz - to help handle the film.

Production was delayed for several months in 1984 and officially began filming in September 1984 (Variety headline on September 7, 1984: "MAD MAX 3 production rolls with usual veil of secrecy").  The film was afforded a $12 million budget (in Australian dollars), making it the biggest Aussie film up to that point.  Perhaps the biggest surprise about the film was the casting of Tina Turner as the female lead.   Turner had a phenomenal 1984 as her comeback album Private Dancer had done extremely well when released in May 1984, topping out at no. 3 in the U.S. charts and offering the no. 1 single "What's Love Got to Do with It?"  Casting the at-the-time 44 year old singer may have drawn some crooked looks, but it as a wonderful choice by Miller and reinforces the craziness and surrealness of his post-apoc world.  It also remains probably one of the best non-music related acting debuts by a musician of all-time (Turner had previous been in TOMMY [1975] and SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND [1978]).  Filming lasted for several months and Miller and his production crew created one of the most vivid landscapes with Bartertown.  The only hiccup came in February 1985 when the Australian Guild of Screen Composers filed a complaint with the Prime Minister because of Miller using Maurice Jarre for the score.

Amazingly, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME came out in the U.S. before it was released in Australia.  It opened on a Wednesday and was the highest performing new release that weekend - topping SILVERADO and EXPLORERS - with a haul of $14,138,119.  Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to top the box office as it came in second place to the previous week's champ, BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).  It ended its run in the U.S. with a total of $36,230,219.  Not a blockbuster by any standards, but enough to make it the highest grossing Max film up to that point.  Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is that it spawned a hit single with Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero" song.  Now how many violent post-apocalyptic films can lay claim to that?  Miller made his full length Hollywood debut after this with THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987).  The biggest beneficiary of the film's release, however, was its leading man.  Believe it or not, prior to this film Mel Gibson was only a cult actor and - gasp! - a bit of a critical darling.  After this film, he secured his first big time Hollywood action leading role in LETHAL WEAPON (1987) and things were never the same after that.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Canadian Invasion: THRILLKILL (1984)

Back in the '80s there was a point early on when I discovered that the trashy movies that I had been enjoying were - gasp! - foreign! At the time I felt that the Canadians were trying to pass themselves off as a wannabe America. Clearly they were living in our mighty shadow. I mean, they didn't have to pay to see doctors, they didn't have world-shaking political scandals and nobody gots shot in shopping malls. What kind of country is that, I ask you? Their movies were constantly pretending to be American which I felt was a little duplicitous. Not only are they suffering from an inferiority complex, but they are sneaky too!

Of course, in time I realized that they were making movies that would pander to a specific demographic in order to make wads of cash, and honestly, there is nothing more American than that. I also realized that in many respects their carefree, tax-shelter exploitation movies were not only imaginative and interesting, but in many ways more creative and interesting than many American films during an era that thrived on exploitation.

In addition, Canadian exploitation films have their own vibe. The way the filmstock looks, the framing of shots, the rather minimalist soundtracks, the generally low-key acting, all gave the films a feel of their own. While Americans were re-discovering their love of twisty thrillers in the late '80s and early '90s, the sneaky Canucks beat us to the punch with many low-budget crime outings such as Jorge Montesi's BIRDS OF PREY (1985) and this fun techno trip, THRILLKILL, which dares not only to exploit the crime thriller genre, but stuffs in patently gratuitous computer and video game themes.

Carly Kendall (Diana Reis) is a chain-smoking video game programmer who has been using her massive black computer terminal to create her latest game "Thrillkill" for a faceless company run by a slimy French businessman Caspar (Frank Moore). Apparently while making the game, she is also hacking into global banks and snatching thousands of dollars from each one and hiding it in a secret account.

Just before her game is to be released, she hides all of the evidence in a password locked file hidden within the game, withdraws all of the money and makes plans to spend the rest of her days south of the equator. Unfortunately for her, Caspar has figured out her plans and with the help of a couple of ruthless henchmen, go after her to get the money.

In the interest of keeping things spoiler free, I'm not going to get into too much detail about the plot, but I will say that paragraph above is genuinely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many twists and double-crosses that the only part of the film that doesn't have a twist is pretty much the last two minutes. It's pretty impressive on any level.

In addition to the sleazy boss, there is Frank Gillette (Robin Ward, who comes off as a poor man's Leo Rossi) a sleazy detective who is way too interested in the location of the missing money. Apparently he is supposed to be a charming girl-getter. How does he get girls? Oh that's easy, he shows up at the all-female "health place" (a "gym" in modern parlance) where Carly's sister Bobbie is working out and delivers one of the best flirty exchanges since SAMURAI COP (1991):
Bobbie: "Do you get all your dates this way or does tear gas work faster?"
Frank: "Well, tear gas is more effective, but usually they take one look at my nightstick and they come quietly."
Wait, what? If you are going for sleazy innuendo, I'm pretty sure "quietly" is not not the way girls want to be coming. I don't know, maybe I've just dated the wrong kind of girls.

After this exchange she bends to his masculine will and allows him to take her out to a hot dog place for some footlong franks, which he suggestively refers to as "teeny weenies". He says this about five times, just in case it didn't sink in the first four. Seriously dude, if you are going to use slimy come-on lines, you don't want to use the word "teeny". He also eats her dog and drinks her soda. This guy is supa fly!

The computer game element is another one of those things where it is clear the filmmakers know about computers and video games from what other people told them second hand and just made shit up based on that. Not only does the computer talk to Carly, but after Carly has a cryptic telephone call with her boss, the computer/monolith tells her "we are watching you". A few minutes later when the paranoia starts setting in it says "do you like playing games? You have one minute to find me before I find you". Also, it has the capacity to play live-action video based games in which the player must navigate movie theater corridors using what appears to be a STAR WARS toy blaster to shoot on-screen assailants. Seemingly inspired by the 1974 live action arcade game "Wild Gunman" (not to be confused with the 1984 Nintendo pixel-based reworking of the same name), the filmmakers obviously felt, 10 years later, that the public would pay big bucks and fill an entire room with technology just to have that experience at home.

Adding to the general exploitation of the '80s arcade revolution are frequent settings in which games could be seen and heard in the background. During one suspenseful scene in a bar, you can hear the 1982 William's classic "Sinistar" roar "run coward!" on the soundtrack. These scenes also have some almost subliminal edits of video game screens with games such as the 1980 Amstar classic "Phoenix". One great scene has a victim being stalked by a killer in a dark arcade. If that doesn't say '80s, nothing does.

Probably more importantly, directors Anthony D'Andrea and Anthony Kramreither, deeply saturate the film with '80s imagery; teased hair, gold chains, digital watches, women in leotards, fast food, geometric designs, lots of night photography. Additionally, they go all in on the '80s noir cinematography and even have a shot of a security guard reading Mickey Spillane.

Interestingly this is D'Andrea's single writing credit while working as an editor. While the theme of a computer game thriller bears some curious similarities to CLOAK AND DAGGER of the same year, for a first timer, the script is surprisingly well executed. It's a shame that this didn't lead to other work as a writer, I would love to see how his work evolved into future projects, in the same way that Jorge Montesi essentially remade his own SENTIMENTAL REASONS (1981) into the superior BIRDS OF PREY. Kramreither directed a few other films, including the drive-in comedy ALL IN GOOD TASTE (1983), which had an early appearance by a 23rd billed Jim Carrey, but spent his post THRILLKILL career, producing and dabbling in acting.

In the end, I am really only left with only one question:

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Newsploitation: Bryanston makin' it rain!

Shark! Shark! Shark!  That is pretty much all you’ll hear this weekend from entertainment sites as they celebrate the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975).  Now don’t get us wrong, we love that monster shark opus (after all, it begat Bruno Mattei’s CRUEL JAWS [1995]), but we probably can’t say anything about it that hasn’t been said before.  So let’s take the time to acknowledge another birthday for a film that was brave enough to go hoof-to-fin with that blockbuster.  Yes, today also marks the 40th anniversary of release of the Satanic shocker THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975).

Ol’ Beelzebub was always a go to evil figure for filmmakers and Satanism was big business again in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s thanks mostly to ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE EXORCIST (1973).  Producer Sandy Howard must have had his finger on the pulse as the first mention of THE DEVIL’S RAIN as a potential project of his came in a December 5, 1973 issue of Variety, a few weeks before the aforementioned EXORCIST caused a phenomenon in the United States.  The worldwide tallies for that film must have certainly influenced the shady distributor Bryanston Pictures to announce in June 1974 that they were going to finance and distribute the picture with Howard.  Headed by the mafia-connected Peraino family, Bryanston had made bank on the X-rated features DEEP THROAT (1972) and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (1973) and were looking to expand their horizons (they would score their first massive mainstream hit in late ’74 with Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE).  Seriously, if you’re making a film about a deal with the devil who better to fund the film than the mob?  In the press release the script was credited to Gabe Essoe and Jim Ashton.  By the time the film was in production, a third screenwriter, Gerald Hopman, was also credited.

The fall of 1974 saw the momentum pick up on the project.  On October 25 it was announced that Robert Fuest signed on as director.  Hailing from the UK, Fuest certainly had the credentials at this point to do a satanic shocker as he had previously helmed AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970) and the two DR. PHIBES films with Vincent Price. November saw announcements of the supporting actors signed including Eddie Albert and Keenan Wynn.  On December 19, it was announced that William Shatner had been signed for a lead role.  December also saw producers Jim Cullen and Mike Glick head to Mexico to scout locations in Mexico City and Durango.  Also announced in this blurb was mention of the casting of a Broadway actor in his first film role; some dude named John Travolta.  The production was scheduled to begin on January 27, 1975. Early in the new year on January 3 the company announced their final casting acquisition – Ernest Borgnine had been signed to play the head of the cult.  And to ensure authenticity on the subject matter, they hired occultist and Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey to be the “technical advisor.”  The production shot for five weeks on a budget of approximately $1.5 million and wrapped filming on March 3, coming in just one day over schedule.  The most amazing thing is on April 29 it was listed in Variety that the film had secured a PG rating.  So the turn around was just a few weeks.  Gotta love the old independents that could get a flick from start-to-screen in five months.

Since it came out in the ‘70s and that was a billion years ago, there is a lot of confusion online about when this film first came out.  You’ll see July 1975, August 1975, and October 1975.  Truth is Bryanston got the film in theaters regionally and the first area THE DEVIL’S RAIN unspooled for paying audiences was in theaters in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri on June 20, 1975.  Bryanston was so impressed by the film’s success that they took out advertisements in Variety and Box Office magazine crowing about the haul during the first five days.  Unfortunately for them, they were gobbled up as the melting minions proved no match for Spielberg’s shark.  The company again took out an ad in Variety in August 1975 boasting about the film having made $8,735,000 in its first 45 days of release.  The sound you hear is Bruce the Shark yawning (JAWS had made over $100 million – an all-time record in those days – by that point).  Regardless, THE DEVIL’S RAIN still found its audience and is considered somewhat of a classic of the genre today.  It is definitely the world’s best melting Satanists film of all-time.

JAWS leaves THE DEVIL'S RAIN in its wake:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Defective Detectives: CONCRETE COWBOYS (1979)

Much like football stars turned actors, county music stars make for some entertaining filmmaking in the '70s and early '80s. I'm not saying they are great actors, but like football stars, they may only be good for one chord, but it's usually a highly entertaining one. Oddly, this rule of thumb does not extend to basketball stars and rock stars - though I make an exception for Gene Simmons because he picked some interesting films to be in, if you can get past the fact that he is a conceited, pompous, fan-gouging, nut-bar. Err.. what was I talking about? Oh yeah, country music stars.

Take Kris Kristofferson, probably the best example of country singer turned actor, playing memorable characters in everything from the obvious choice of western (1973s PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID) to the surprising choice of neo-noir (1985s TROUBLE IN MIND). While the subject is wide open for debate, for my money Jerry Reed runs a close second.

Reed, a Georgia born epitome of a suthun' good ol' boy, dropped out of high school and signed his first recording deal at 17 years old. Like so many others he suffered a string of flops before he moved to Nashville and made a name for himself - with a stint in the army in between. He was given a boost by the legendary Chet Atkins and became a star in the '60s, even doing some pickin' on Elvis' 1968 comeback album in which he covers Reed's own "Guitar Man". So what would be the next step in his career? Movies of course!

Reed kicked off his silver-screen career with the under-appreciated Burt Reynolds outing W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS (1975). Even though he had been writing music for TV shows and movies since the mid-'60s, he never appeared in something until then. After a slight misstep, stretching his range by playing the villain in GATOR (1976 - and I'm not dissin' the movie, just saying), Reed stuck with the charming, happy-go-lucky, bullshittin', wisecrackin', beer-drinkin', fist-fightin' redneck persona that according to some was not really much of an act.

In 1979  Reed took the next logical step as an actor and moved into the world of the small screen with none other than the mustache man himself, Tom Selleck.

Spanning only a mere eight episodes (including the movie), the pilot for the series CONCRETE COWBOYS starred Reed and Selleck as a couple of country bumpkins from the wilds of Montana. The pair are attempting to get to Hollywood via their thumbs with J.D. (Reed) lookin' to "drink all the beer and love all the women," while Will (Selleck) is content with spending his free time reading encyclopedias. After getting in a brawl over a rigged poker game and tearing down the entire auto shop on the heads of the crooked sheriff and his boys, the modern cowboys hop a freight train. Next stop Hollywood! ...or not.

Finding themselves in Nashville, J.D. calls up a guy named Lonnie (Randy Powell of DALLAS fame) that he met once while blind drunk. As luck would have it, Lonnie is going out of town on business, but invites the boys to stay at his condo and drive his car while he's away. All they have to do in return is pick up a package for him. As it turns out Lonnie's car is a '73 Corvette C3 rag-top and his condo is a swinger pad with all of the amenities including a CCTV in the bedroom. J.D. marvels at it all saying "lookit that couch, it'll take you all week to sit on it."

Of course things get complicated quickly after they pick up the brown-paper parcel from a bus station locker and a shady character starts following them. Adding to the intrigue, a woman named Kate (Morgan Fairchild) shows up looking for Lonnie, who she believes to be a private investigator, to look into the disappearance of her sister Carla, who is presumed dead. Will wants nothing to do with it, but J.D. lights up when Kate hands them one thousand dollars to look into it. Says Will, "we ain't detectives!" To which J.D. replies, "neither is Jack Lord or Buddy Epson!" Can't argue with that logic.

So begins their trek to discover what happened to Carla by interviewing a number of characters around Nashville, each with their own story about their perception of the woman who may have been a conniving manipulator hell-bent on being a star, or another beautiful belle being eaten alive by the big city. Yes, it's a Southern-fried gumshoe outing with shades of RASHOMON (1950) and COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (1980). Say what you will, but I got cashmoney that says you've never run across that high concept before.

During their investigations, they visit a country wax museum run by The King of Country Music Roy Acuff, meet up with Ray Stevens and Barbara Mandrell at the original Alleycat Club, get shot at, crash into a police station, get into a fist fight at a floating craps game, get thrown in jail, get chased out of the Opryland Hotel, put the moves on an aging cathouse madam and finally end up following the trail to (fictional) country music star Woody Stone (Claude Akins).

Directed by Burt Kennedy, who seems tailor made for the project, and written by celebrated Hammer Horror veteran Jimmy Sangster, who moved into TV during the '70s dabbling in redneck television with the likes of his other country TV mystery movie THE MUSIC CITY MURDERS (1979). this pilot really shouldn't be as surprisingly entertaining as it is considering all of the talent on board. Unfortunately for Reed, Selleck decided to move on to other projects (including MAGNUM P.I. in 1980) with Geoffrey Scott and his mustache (of DARK SHADOWS fame) taking over the role of Will, to the disappointment of all concerned.

In spite of Selleck struggling with his southern twang and seemingly attempting to impersonate Burt Reynolds' signature laugh, he made a great straight man for Reed's fast and loose charmer. The series lasted only seven episodes, which is a shame as it should have been a hit given the pilot that got the ball rolling. The episodes, to my knowledge, have never been released on video, except for one that was packaged with the pilot on VHS as RAMBIN MAN and RAMBLIN MAN 2. The retitling of the pilot as RAMBLIN MAN was released several times by different companies sporting cover art that seemed to want to eschew the fact that Jerry Reed was top billed and one even including the image of a black Porche for no apparent reason than to give the impression that it might be some sort of MAGNUM P.I. spin-off that everyone seems to have missed. Though, if that is the case, wouldn't you put, I don't know, maybe a red Ferrari on the cover? Eh, details, details.

While this signaled the end of Reed's TV acting career, it certainly isn't a failure in anything other than ratings terms. Matter of fact, it is better than your average TV pilot with plenty of on-screen talent and another of Reed's catchy theme songs (this one being "Breakin' Loose") that, like so many, doesn't seem to have ever been released. Don't feel too bad for Reed though, as 1981 saw his return to the big screen as a hit man in the Robin Williams and Walter Matthau team up THE SURVIVORS (1981). What? No, I don't know what you are talking about. There is no such thing as SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 3.