Friday, May 18, 2018

Nazis At The Center Of The Earth

The Asylum’s cheapjack ripoff of IRON SKY, though its story is different, likely because Asylum screenwriter Paul Bales (2010: MOBY DICK) couldn’t master the former film’s political satire and black humor. Instead, Bales packs his script with meanspirited violence and outrageous ideas right out of a Ziff-Davis comic book. No concept was too silly, too farfetched, or too insane to throw into NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Not one, including a robot Adolf Hitler, is more unbelievable than Jake Busey playing a scientist.

If only Bales and director Joseph Lawson (LORD OF THE ELVES) had the wit to make the most of their delightfully loony ideas. Or the filmmaking skills. Sure, they’re working on a low budget, but the acting and production values in NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH are on the same level as a VD scare film of the 1930s. That includes one-time indie queen Dominique Swain (LOLITA), whose acting talent has regressed more dramatically than the polar ice caps.

Swain plays one of two American scientists kidnapped in Antarctica, which Lawson — also the visual effects supervisor — depicts by placing his actors in front of a white wall on a white floor covered in corn flakes. Their abductors are Nazi stormtroopers, who take Swain and her colleague to an underground bunker, where none other than Dr. Josef Mengele (Christopher Karl Johnson) flays the colleague alive (this is actually an effectively gruesome effect).

When Swain and company don’t check in, station chief Busey (STARSHIP TROOPERS), who keeps reminding us that he’s been living in Antarctica for ten (!) years, takes some co-workers, who act like dumb college students, but are supposed to be the most brilliant minds in their fields, way way underground to find them. They eventually find a humongous underground chamber with sunlight and trees and dirt trails, coincidentally just like a typical park in southern California.

At least Lawson went outside for a day. Most of the comically bad long shots and establishing shots were created on a 1990s Amiga desktop with awkwardly jerky digital figures unconvincingly posing as real people. Come to think of it, all the CGI looks like that. It takes a special lack of talent to make a film this wretched that includes Nazi zombies, a sharp-shooting Mengele, nudity, SAW-style gore, an underground paradise, body switching, laser guns, a robot Hitler with a machine gun, and a plan to infect the Earth with a flesh-eating bacteria from a giant Nazi flying saucer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969)

The years following THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s 1964 cancellation saw Rod Serling run the gamut from writing screenplays for Oscar-winning films (PLANET OF THE APES) to hosting game shows (THE LIAR’S CLUB). He returned to weekly television briefly as the creator of THE LONER, an interesting one-season western starring Lloyd Bridges, but the show more fondly remembered was his next: NIGHT GALLERY.

Though Serling unfortunately was much less involved in NIGHT GALLERY than he was on TWILIGHT ZONE, he introduced the segments and wrote several of them, including the astonishing “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” which was nominated for the Emmy as Outstanding Single Program. More importantly, he wrote the pilot that got NIGHT GALLERY on the air: a triptych of thrilling stories that not only convinced NBC to give the dramatic anthology a regular timeslot, but also gave 21-year-old Steven Spielberg his first job directing network television.

And what a job he did on “Eyes,” a boffo Serling segment with a wrenching twist ending straight out of TWILIGHT ZONE (or EC Comics) and one of Joan Crawford’s final performances. The Oscar winner (for MILDRED PIERCE) plays a nasty blind woman who buys the eyes of down-and-out gambler Tom Bosley (HAPPY DAYS), so she can see again, if only for a few hours. She blackmails doctor Barry Sullivan (THE IMMORTAL) into performing the surgery, but when her bandages come off...well, that would be telling.

Expertly directed by Spielberg, who got along with his temperamental star, “Eyes” is a delightful thriller, but it plays as a hammock between two other stories almost as good. Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN) directs Serling’s “The Cemetary,” which casts Roddy McDowall (CLEOPATRA) as the greedy nephew of invalid George Macready (PEYTON PLACE). He murders Macready for his money, but finds himself haunted by the old man from beyond the grave. Barry Shear (ACROSS 110TH STREET) directs Richard Kiley (LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR) in Serling’s “The Escape Route” as a Nazi war criminal hiding in South America who bumps into elderly Jew Sam Jaffe (BEN CASEY), who was a prisoner in Kiley’s concentration camp 25 years earlier.

Serling introduces each tale from a dark art gallery surrounded by paintings created by Jaroslav Gebr, who ran Universal’s Scenic Arts department (Tom Wright, who later became a television director, painted the art used in the series). Though Serling hosted and wrote all three stories, production duties were handed to William Sackheim (THE IN-LAWS). Billy Goldenberg (COLUMBO) composed the varied score for all three segments, plus the theme. The NIGHT GALLERY series premiered over a year later as part of NBC’s FOUR-IN-ONE umbrella (with MCCLOUD, THE PSYCHIATRIST, and SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT) and went weekly in its second season.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Open Fire

The fourth and final collaboration between star Jeff Wincott and director Kurt Anderson, OPEN FIRE follows the very good MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER, the excellent MISSION OF JUSTICE (which Anderson only produced), and the pretty decent MARTIAL OUTLAW. It’s one of a bajillion ripoffs of DIE HARD that cluttered video store shelves in the 1990s, but manages to rise above its derivative premise with Wincott’s likable leading performance and a steady series of exciting setpieces staged by Anderson and stunt coordinator Jeff Pruitt.

The target is Martinson Industries, a chemical plant run by Bob McNeil (Lee de Broux), whose son Alec (Wincott) happens to be an ex-FBI agent drummed out of the bureau and now working as a telephone lineman. Terrorists have invaded the plant and demand the release of their leader, Stein Kruger (Patrick Kilpatrick), which sounds nothing like Hans Gruber, from prison. The cops do release him and take him to the plant, but the terrorists prove untrustworthy (who coulda seen that coming?) and keep the hostages anyway.

To the rescue is Alec, whose offer of help is officially rebuffed by his old FBI boss Davis (MIDNIGHT CALLER cop Arthur Taxier), who is completely ineffectual in classic DIE HARD tradition. So he ziplines in anyway, says something witty, beats the hell out of a henchman, and begins a one-man assault on Kruger’s forces. Writer Thomas Ritz (MARTIAL OUTLAW) includes more plot about Kruger sabotaging the chemical tanks, but who cares when Wincott is punching through a full pitcher of beer to smash someone in the face? OPEN FIRE violates DIE HARD protocol by leaving the plant in the third act, but the climactic fight between Wincott and Kilpatrick is so good that I’ll allow it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Act Of Vengeance aka Rape Squad

Busy 1970s starlet Jo Ann Harris (THE BEGUILED) earned a deserved leading role in this uncomfortable thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation. RAPE SQUAD is quite good, though, with Harris believably vulnerable and confident and director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) steering the sex and violence with steady hands.

Harris plays a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (handsome Peter Brown, also a slug in FOXY BROWN that year), an egotist in a hockey mask and orange jumpsuit who forces women to sing the Christmas carol while he assaults them. The police, represented by detective Ross Elliott (INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN), are ineffective, so the victims organize a “rape squad”—a vigilante group with a 24-hour hotline dedicated to capturing rapists, mashers, perverts, pimps, and even obscene phone callers. They take karate lessons from diminutive Lada Edmund Jr. (SAVAGE!), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Newly empowered, Harris and her squad, which includes Connie Strickland (BLACK SAMSON), Lisa Moore (HARRAD SUMMER), Jennifer Lee Pryor (THE WILD PARTY), and Patricia Estrin (BABY BOOM), get down to business. They entrap sleazy club manager Tony Young (POLICEWOMEN) and beat up a street pimp caught smacking his girls around. Naturally, ol’ Jingle Bells discovers the women’s game plan to crush his jewels, and he plots a return match.

Like many exploitation movies of the era, RAPE SQUAD tries to have it both ways—to offer strong, independent female characters in control of their own lives, while still dishing out a healthy amount of nudity and violence against women. Rape scenes were frequently inserted into these films for their titillation value, as an excuse to provide its slobbering audience with a pair of bare breasts.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of watering down the crime and not providing a strong motivation for the heroines’ revenge. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps aware of this, co-writer David Kidd used the pseudonym “Betty Conklin,” as he did on Jack Hill’s THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, to counteract any criticism of misogyny. Kidd’s screenplay with H.R. Christian (BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA) does its best to portray its rape victims with a certain amount of sensitivity, while still paying strict attention to the studio’s (American International Pictures) commercial demands for boobs and blood.

Give Kelljan credit for handling the difficult material with aplomb, delivering a suspenseful and occasionally thoughtful thriller that may not have set the drive-ins on fire on first run. Originally released to theaters and reviewed in 1974 as ACT OF VENGEANCE, the film was re-released a year later as the more salacious RAPE SQUAD in a bid for attention.

Adding much to the film is Brown’s performance as the narcissistic rapist. Appearing in most of his scenes with his face covered by a hockey mask that predates the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, Brown is nasty, cutting off his victims’ clothing, brutalizing their breasts, and compelling them to sing aloud (why “Jingle Bells” is never explained) and compliment him on his “lovemaking” skills.

Harris, who began appearing regularly on TV in 1968, usually as a scheming vamp in episodic guest shots or as the lead in several unsold pilots (including the Jane Fonda role in a CAT BALLOU remake), gives an intelligent, sexy performance as Brown’s nemesis—a smart, self-sufficient small-business owner who risks her life and, in an unusual twist, the lives of her friends in her obsession with her attacker’s capture.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I Was A Teenage Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I Was A Teenage Werewolf

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Iron Sky

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

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

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

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