Thursday, February 15, 2018

Frankenstein Island

Names like Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and Al Adamson are often bandied about in discussions of awful filmmakers (and justifiably so), but Jerry Warren may have them all beat. The man behind THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD, MAN BEAST, and THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN finally hung up his viewfinder after FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND. Though produced around 1980, FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND looks and feels like one of Warren’s junkheaps from the 1950s, except it’s in color (his only color feature, come to think of it).

It’s basically a remake of his TEENAGE ZOMBIES from 1959 with a premise stolen from Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. It stars the usual gang of idiots often cast in trash films of the era — Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine, Katherine Victor, Robert Clarke, Steve Brodie — but it’s odd to see perennial authority figure Andrew Duggan (IN LIKE FLINT) in what is probably the worst film of his career. At least he has the decency to look embarrassed. It says something about the other actors that they all may well have been in worse films than FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND.

Four hot-air balloonists (one looks like Peter Brady) crashland (off screen!) on a remote island populated with sexy Amazons in leopard-skin bikinis (no leopards are seen on the island). Whenever one of the men mentions his hometown or home state, he feel an intense pain in their left are. This is explained as sort of like telepathy. The doctor played by Clarke (HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) tells the kid not to use his arm for awhile, but try to keep it working.

The Amazons prepare a feast that looks suspiciously like sub sandwiches from Blimpie and do bong hits out of skulls (“There’s no question they’re into witchcraft,” says Clarke, who is watching a different movie). They are eventually revealed as descendants of space aliens, not that it makes any difference to the plot. Nothing that happens makes any difference.

Also on the island is Brodie (OUT OF THE PAST) as Jocko, a one-eyed pirate who laughs a lot (probably because Brodie is sloshed); Mitchell (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as Jayson, a crazed ship’s captain who babbles about Edgar Allan Poe (I suspect his performance is a lot of poor improvisation); Warren regular George Mitchell (HOUSE OF THE BLACK DEATH) as Dr. von Helsing, a sickly 200-year-old scientist performing immortality experiments; and Victor (THE WILD WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN) as a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. Also roaming about: a race of mutant zombies wearing ladies’ sunglasses, stocking caps, and black turtlenecks. Of course, the Asian one knows kung fu.

Occasionally, Carradine as the ghost of Dr. Frankenstein is superimposed over the action to shout nonsense about “The Power! The Power!” The laboratory “set” is just furniture on a soundstage without flats. An ammo box painted pink is set dressing. When our heroes return to the island with the military (the uniforms are hilarious) after the lamest “action” finale you’ve ever seen (yes, the Frankenstein Monster shows up), there is, of course, no sign that anyone was ever there.

Utter dreck and Warren is solely to blame as the director, screenwriter, co-producer, editor, production designer, and music supervisor. One of the actors invested $90,000 in this film. No way he ever got it back.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Prime Target (1991)

David Heavener was not much a filmmaker, but he sure had a knack for assembling a cast. Despite a budget approximately equal to a truckful of Hostess Fruit Pies, Heavener stocked PRIME TARGET with a guest star from every Stephen J. Cannell show you ever saw.

In addition to starring in the picture and directing it (and composing and singing some dreadful songs), Heavener also served as PRIME TARGET’s producer and screenwriter, hence the name of his badass cop character being John Bloodstone! With a name like John Bloodstone, you aren’t going to grow up to be a gay waiter. Heavener’s John Bloodstone is — say it along with me — a lone wolf detective who lives like a slob, drinks a ton of beer, breaks all the rules, but gets results.

After rescuing a group of hostages by setting the bad guys in fire (!), John Bloodstone is chewed out for violating the killers’ civil rights and suspended (natch) by his jerk boss, police commissioner Garth (Andrew Robinson, DIRTY HARRY’s Scorpio), who literally waves The Book at him. With urging from FBI agent Harrington (Brady dad Robert Reed in his last movie), Garth immediately unsuspends John Bloodstone to give him a new assignment: transport mobster Marietta Copella (Tony Curtis!) to his court date.

Of course, some people don’t want Copella to get there, and you already know who they are. Cue a series of rote chases, fights, and shootouts in between MIDNIGHT RUN-style bickering between Heavener and Curtis (who is actually pretty good, running on pure charm).

Isaac Hayes (TRUCK TURNER) plays the police captain who says to Heavener, who is wearing a cowboy hat, a gun belt with a six-shooter, and a flamethrower (!), “I got the car you asked for. I don’t know what you have in mind, but I sure as hell hope it works.” Don Stroud (COOGAN’S BLUFF) cameos as a terrorist whom Heavener shoots off the roof of a shed. Jenilee Harrison from THREE’S COMPANY goes topless as John Bloodstone’s wet-blanket wife. Hilariously, executive producer Gerald Milton gives himself a Special Appearance credit for his inept line readings as a banker ready to take John Bloodstone’s heavily mortgaged house. Heavener somehow got PRIME TARGET a theatrical release, so bully for him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

So Fine

Ryan O’Neal jumped directly from the New York City set of SO FINE to the Los Angeles set of PARTNERS, and rarely as any leading man been stuck in two comedies this offensively unfunny back to back. SO FINE earned its notoriety for its outlandish story gimmick, which is a new line of blue jeans with clear plastic butt cheeks, and the controversial one-sheet Warner Brothers devised. The talented Andrew Bergman, who wrote the brilliant THE IN-LAWS and collaborated with Mel Brooks and others on the BLAZING SADDLES screenplay, both penned and made his directing debut on SO FINE, which was a flop that didn’t stay long in theaters (O’Neal refused to plug it on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON).

The great Jack Warden (THE VERDICT) is wasted as a garment manufacturer on hard times and deep in debt to hulking gangster Richard Kiel (Jaws in the 007 movies). To get back the $1.5 million Warden owes him, Kiel kidnaps Warden’s son, an English professor played by O’Neal (THE MAIN EVENT), and forces him to run his dad’s company. Why he believes a complete neophyte can run a dress company is never addressed.

After starting an affair with Kiel’s wife (FLASH GORDON’s Mariangela Melato), O’Neal stumbles upon the idea that becomes the fashion industry’s new sensation, the assless jeans. The climax, much too leisurely paced for a farce, takes place at a cheap college production of OTELLO, which makes no logical sense in the film’s context and plays like an idea Bergman stuffed in a drawer years earlier. O’Neal is strangely sidelined during it, while Warden plays hero and Melato and Kiel discuss their failing marriage.

Whatever satire was present in Bergman’s screenplay is lost in his plodding direction, which translates to crass and unfunny (can you believe Richard Kiel in blackface?). Though O’Neal demonstrated wonderful comic chops in PAPER MOON and especially WHAT’S UP, DOC? (he’s recycling his milquetoast WASP persona here), he is lost in SO FINE’s desperate attempt at farce. Melato comes across as grotesque, rather than sexy, and Kiel was cast for his size, not his comic timing.

An occasional moment of wit slips through (“Moorish?”), such as the gloriously tacky So Fine television commercial (that no channel would ever run, but anyway). Mike Kellin (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) has a great scene where he explains the deaths of his past wives, but Fred Gwynne (MY COUSIN EDDIE) fails to make a stuffy professor funny. The score is by spaghetti western stalwart Ennio Morricone, of all people.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

Number three in producer J.J. Abrams’ ersatz series of CLOVERFIELD movies is more notable as a marketing gimmick than as a film. Even cast members were surprised the day of Super Bowl LII, when a trailer aired with an announcement that Netflix would premiere THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX immediately following the game.. Like the superior 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, PARADOX was an existing script that was jerry-rigged into a CLOVERFIELD movie during production, but with a less impressive result. Paramount somehow convinced Netflix to shell out $50 million for a film by director Julius Onah (THE GIRL IS IN TROUBLE) the studio knew was a dud it would have taken a bath on.

Mostly set in outer space aboard a space station, the film centers around an international seven-astronaut crew. Nearly two years into their mission to develop a particle accelerator to supply energy for a dying Earth, something finally happens, all of it bad. They lose Earth and gain a stowaway (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. heavy Elizabeth Debicki), a woman trapped behind a bulkhead and fused with the station’s internal circuitry. She claims to be one of the crew, though nobody has ever seen her before.

Other weird stuff happens. The Russian crew member (THE MARTIAN’s Aksel Hennie) burps up a gallon of worms in a scene stolen from ALIEN. Irish Chris O’Dowd (BRIDESMAIDS) loses an arm, which crawls around on its own and writes a message to cut open the dead Russian. The screenplay by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET) contains a lot of gobbledygook, but it seems as though the station has initiated some sort of jump through parallel universes. While the limp ALIEN retread plays out in space, “our” Earth is ripping off THE MIST, as a doctor and a child dodge giant monsters seen as silhouettes against the fog and smoke of a world under attack.

Aside from O’Dowd as comic relief (he’s the movie’s Dick Wesson character), all of this craziness is played absolutely straight, which is why it’s so boring. Uziel and Onah try to build sympathy for the character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (MISS SLOANE) with the revelation that her children, who died in a fire back home, are still alive in a different universe. It’s an intriguing idea, and Mbatha-Raw plays it very well, but Abrams’ zeal to turn the story into a CLOVERFIELD movie puts it on the back burner in favor of generic gotta-get-back-home theatrics mixed with crazed-gunman-killing-everyone-aboard nonsense.

Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo (SELMA) as the crew’s lone Americans take acting honors with Zhang Ziyi (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), John Ortiz (CARLITO’S WAY), and Daniel Bruhl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) rounding out the spacebound cast. A good-looking picture in terms of set design (lot of pretty colored lights), THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX also benefits from a strong musical score by Bear McCreary (THE BOY) that occasionally builds suspense where none exists in the script.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Black Sleep

THE BLACK SLEEP is not very good — United Artists played it on double bills with the superior THE CREEPING UNKNOWN — but horror fans have a soft spot for it because of its cast. Not that its horror icons are treated well. Not counting the silent footage Edward D. Wood Jr. spliced into PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE after the actor’s death, Bela Lugosi makes his final film appearance in THE BLACK SLEEP, but in a relatively minor part as a mute butler, meaning he is given no dialogue. He died a few weeks after the film was released.

Faring little better than Bela in the dignity department is Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN), also playing mute as a hulking idiot named Mongo. The star is Basil Rathbone (TALES OF TERROR), playing a once-respected surgeon trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor by kidnapping unwilling test subjects for experiments that leave them drooling mutants and locked up in his basement dungeon. He uses an Indian drug called “the Black Sleep” to simulate death in his guinea pigs. Rathbone’s performance is very good, finding sympathy buried in the John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) screenplay and playing it more subtly than a horror movie about drooling mutants would suggest.

Filmed at Ziv Studios on a $230,000 budget by director Reginald LeBorg (THE MUMMY’S GHOST), the picture also features John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as a raving nutcase, Akim Tamiroff (TOUCH OF EVIL) as Rathbone’s Gypsy assistant (a role intended for Peter Lorre, who priced himself out of it), and PLAN 9’s Tor Johnson as, what else, a monster. LeBorg shoots a remarkable scene (for the era) in which Rathbone and his new assistant Herbert Rudley (THE SILVER CHALICE) expose a patient’s brain and cut into it with clear fluid pouring out.

Despite its small budget, THE BLACK SLEEP is not a bad-looking picture, shot in black and white by Gordon Avil (KING DINOSAUR) on decent Ziv sets and given a nice Les Baxter (HOUSE OF USHER) score. It was Lugosi’s first picture after leaving rehab for his drug habit, and the producers milked it for a great deal of publicity. It must have worked, as THE BLACK SLEEP was a money maker that earned a theatrical re-release in 1963.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Astrologer (1976)

One-and-done director and star Craig Denney made this indescribable ego trip that never found full-blown national distribution, partially because he stuffed it with 1960s rock songs without bothering to license them. THE ASTROLOGER lurches from scene to scene without establishing shots, proper character introductions, or even storytelling purpose. One moment the title character is lined up with fellow inmates by a sweatbox in a Kenyan prison, being read the riot act by their jailer, and one cut later, he’s somewhere else entirely, rendering the guard’s threats of snakes and shooting on sight totally moot. A dinner scene is shown in slow motion with no dialogue. A fish-eye lens provides a tour of a bar restroom, complete with a close-up of the urinal. Story information is delivered via newspaper headlines...written in languages other than English.

Synopsizing the plot is both impossible and useless in describing how bonkers THE ASTROLOGER is. I could tell you that Denney plays Craig Marcus Alexander, a fake carnival mystic with big ambitions who marries Darrien (Darrien Earle, who has a Barbara Parkins thing going on), travels to Kenya to retrieve precious gems from ruins guarded by cobras, uses his new wealth to bankroll a new multimedia career in television and movies, makes front-page headlines everywhere as the world’s most famous astrologer, hires old friend Arthyr (Arthyr Chadbourne, a real-life astrologer, sadly swathed in fake gray hair and mustache makeup) to be his financial wizard, undertakes secret astrological missions for the U.S. Navy (!), tracks down Darrien, now a drunken whore in a rat-infested closet apartment, and brings her to his mansion before making her an international film star in Craig Alexander productions… I could tell you all that, but it would be a woefully incomplete account and wouldn’t move the needle one iota toward describing how truly crazy and incompetent THE ASTROLOGER is.

Denney is so far up his own rear end that he shows us scenes from Alexander’s film, also called THE ASTROLOGER (we learn it grossed $145 million!) and starring Alexander, while Alexander sits in a screening room with a smug yeah-I-got-this look on his face, the same look you know Denney had while screening his film. Florence Marly, the space vampire from QUEEN OF BLOOD, shows up in one scene playing an unlikely Oscar-nominated movie star as an ersatz lost Gabor sister. Remarkably, there appears to be some talent, as well as some money, involved. There are helicopter shots, crane shots, underwater shots, quite a few locations. The photography by Alan Gornick is quite good, really.

Up top, I described THE ASTROLOGER as indescribable, and please don’t make the mistake of thinking I have adequately described its pleasures. Though more technically accomplished than Ed Wood and more closely anchored to reality than Tommy Wiseau, Denney shares with those auteurs a unique eccentricity that manifests in their art. Despite the unlicensed songs by the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Tommy Edwards, and Conway Twitty, THE ASTROLOGER did screen on a few double bills in the late 1970s (it bears a Republic Pictures logo) and even received a home video release in Australia. It now lies with the American Genre Film Archive, which can only screen it theatrically because of music rights issues. Do not miss it. Oh, god, I forgot the cosmic mirror. Where the hell is Craig Denney today?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Johnny Dangerously

Michael Keaton was riding a creative high after brilliant performances in NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM when he took on this dud for director Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH). Luckily, Keaton rebounded a year later with GUNG HO and, after a couple of bombs, BEETLEJUICE, his terrific dramatic turn in CLEAN AND SOBER, and then BATMAN.

An odd premise for an BLAZING SADDLES-style spoof, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY is a spoof of 1930s gangster pictures with a screenplay credited to Harry Colomby (Keaton’s manager), Norman Steinberg (BLAZING SADDLES), and sitcom guys Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff (DIFF’RENT STROKES). Keaton is good gangster Dangerously, just trying to financially support his mother (Maureen Stapleton) and younger brother (Griffin Dunne). On the, er, opposite side of the law is mean rival Danny Vermin, played by SNL’s Joe Piscopo in his first big feature role. The only character anyone remembers is mob boss Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri from the Mel Brooks sitcom WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN), who swears in malapropisms like “fargin’ icehole.”

Audiences weren’t taken with JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, a box office flop that opened with just 65% of the per-screen gross of BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, which also premiered Christmas weekend of 1984. The flashback structure is weak, partially because it keeps Keaton and the other main players off-screen for much of the first act. Keaton is good and his co-stars work hard — too hard. You can see them scrambling for laughs at times. The toilet jokes push the then-new PG-13 rating to its limit (an extended gag about men with testicles the size of beach balls feels like someone is stomping on yours). Surprisingly, Dimitri’s hamming always gets laughs.

Marilu Henner (TAXI) is sexy as the love interest. Stapleton is awful as the cliched sweet old lady who curses and talks about getting laid, as if that joke was ever funny. Poor Glynnis O’Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE) is criminally wasted. Danny DeVito, just off ROMANCING THE STONE, is a crooked district attorney. Peter Boyle (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), Ron Carey (HIGH ANXIETY), and Dom DeLuise (BLAZING SADDLES) are here to remind you of Mel Brooks movies. Alan Hale from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND is an Irish cop, along with Ray Walston (from Heckerling’s FAST TIMES), Joe Flaherty (SCTV), Taylor Negron (THE LAST BOY SCOUT), and...Bob Eubanks? “Weird” Al Yankovic’s theme song is pretty good.