Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Silent Stranger aka The Stranger In Japan

MGM released the Italian westerns A STRANGER IN TOWN and THE STRANGER RETURNS in the United States in 1967 to good box office. Good enough for the studio to order another sequel from producer Allen Klein, the controversial manager of the Beatles, and producer/writer/star Tony Anthony. Perhaps judging that the eccentricities of the two previous films helped them stand out among the glut of spaghetti westerns filling drive-ins, Anthony, Klein, and director Luigi Vanzi doubled down, sending Anthony’s anti-hero The Stranger to Japan.

As an unconscious tribute to both the Japanese setting and The Stranger’s debt to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, THE SILENT STRANGER is a riff on YOJIMBO, which also inspired the plot of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. The Stranger shoots down some bandits attacking a young Japanese man. The dying youth hands him a scroll and begs him to deliver it to Japan, where he will be paid $20,000. Once The Stranger gets there, he finds two opposing factions laying claim to the scroll, which is worth one million U.S. dollars, and plays each against the other to ensure his own hide survives. A nearsighted but nasty American (Lloyd Battista) is aligned with one side and against The Stranger too.

Plagued with stormy weather, Vanzi uses the Japanese setting to strong effect, as it provides a unique backdrop for the typical spaghetti trappings (swords replace guns in some action scenes). MGM’s generous budget allowed for more extras, elaborate sets, and another evocative Stelvio Cipriani score. The typhoons may have been a frustrating problem for Vanzi and Anthony, but the rain looks great on film. If the filmmakers’ intent was to do something original in a well-worn genre, they succeeded, while still providing crowd-pleasing scoops of violence. Anthony is a stiff performer, but he gives the amoral Stranger an underdog quality that puts the audience on his side.

Though lensed in Japan in 1968, legal wranglings and studio politics prevented MGM from releasing it in America until 1975, by which time who gave a damn about spaghetti westerns or Tony Anthony. Cut (sometimes awkwardly) to achieve a PG rating, THE SILENT STRANGER popped up under several titles, including THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, SAMURAI ON A HORSE, and THE HORSEMAN AND THE SAMURAI. In the meantime, Anthony and Battista teamed up again as rivals in BLINDMAN, which co-starred Klein’s client Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandit.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Stranger Returns

Star Tony Anthony, who also contributed the story, returns—just like the title says—in this sequel to A STRANGER IN TOWN. Like the first film, THE STRANGER RETURNS was released in the U.S. by MGM in 1968, just four months after the original. While influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns with Clint Eastwood, director Luigi Vanzi and Anthony add more humor and vulnerability to the leading character (he uses a pink parasol to keep the sun’s rays at bay), making him easy to root for, even when he’s acting like a scoundrel.

The Stranger poses as a murdered postal inspector to track a large gang of bandits led by the vicious En Plein (Dan Vadis, then a European star from many muscleman epics). The killers dry-gulched a stagecoach crew and made off with the entire rig, thought to be carrying a strongbox filled with gold. In actuality, the stagecoach is made of gold, which is a heckuva target for The Stranger and his nose for money. The bounty hunter teams up with a batty old preacher (Marco Guglielmi) with a pocketful of fireworks, who provides The Stranger with a super-cool weapon: a rotating four-barreled shotgun!

Starting with Stelvio Cipriani’s awesome score, THE STRANGER RETURNS is the most consistently entertaining of the four-film STRANGER series. Vanzi shoots the violent climax with some wit, as The Stranger invades the bandits’ town and blows them away one at a time. As usual, he takes plenty of physical punishment before laying some smack down on the baddies, who are well led by the sneering Vadis, somewhat leaner than his days making Italian sword-and-sandal pictures like SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS and HERCULES THE INVINCIBLE. Interesting is the unearthly vibe Vanzi and Cipriani provide for the golden stagecoach, really playing up its status as an oddball plot point.

Anthony moved on to THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, but legal problems kept it out of the United States until 1975, by which time spaghetti westerns were passé. However, he made another Italian western during that time, BLINDMAN with Ringo Starr, and teamed up again with Ringo (as producer) for the unusual COMETOGETHER, which had nothing to do with the Beatles.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Stranger In Town

West Virginia-born Tony Anthony (née Roger Pettito) was a struggling actor in bit parts before he moved to Europe and found great success as the star of several so-called “spaghetti westerns”—Italian productions usually filmed on Roman soundstages and in the Spanish desert. A STRANGER IN TOWN, which was actually shot entirely in Italy, received a major theatrical release in the U.S. in 1968 by MGM and made enough money worldwide to bring Anthony back for three sequels.

The plot is simple and a bit reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which is no coincidence. A Bounty Hunter With No Name (aka The Stranger, played by Anthony) rides into the tiny Mexican village of Cerro Gordo, where he ingratiates himself with bandits led by Aguila (Frank Wolff), who plans to impersonate Mexican soldiers and hijack two sacks of gold from the United States Army. The heist is successful, but a doublecross and a nearly fatal beating set up the blood-soaked climax staged by director Luigi Vanzi (THE STRANGER RETURNS) on the Cinecitta backlot. There is hardly any dialogue, and it’s ironic that one of the sequels — a chattier film than this one — was titled THE SILENT STRANGER.

Though an odd choice for a western anti-hero — he isn’t particularly charismatic, but he pulls off grubby well — Anthony somehow manages to be likable, even while doing unsavory acts on-screen. He’s good with self-effacing humor (granted, not so much in A STRANGER IN TOWN than in the sequels), and plays the underdog well, which likely explains his popularity. Certainly A STRANGER IN TOWN lacks the typical Hollywood gloss, even though it was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein.

Sergio Leone not only influenced the plot, credited to Warren Garfield (THE HIGH CHAPARRAL) and Giuseppe Mangione (SUGAR COLT), but also Vanzi’s deliberate pacing. Anthony slowly wanders the town of Cerro Gordo (“fat hill” — also a small town in downstate Illinois), but when the action comes, it’s exciting and well choreographed. Benedetto Ghiglia’s oddball score isn’t exactly what you would call melodic, but it fits Vanzi’s weird vibe, and you’ll be humming the theme out of repetition, if not affection.

Anthony had a strong hand in his movie career, contributing the story for his next movie, THE STRANGER RETURNS, and producing and writing THE SILENT STRANGER, an unusual western set in Japan that didn’t see release in the United States until 1975. Anthony also served as producer and star of BLINDMAN (a spaghetti western riff on Japan’s popular Zatoichi character) and COMIN’ AT YA!, a 3D western that was a surprise hit and kicked off a mini-resurgence of 3D cheapies (such as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and JAWS 3-D) in 1982. Also in there was GET MEAN, the fourth and final Stranger story.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Keep

The second film directed by Michael Mann is also his most obscure, sandwiched between the very good THIEF (1981) and MANHUNTER (1986). THE KEEP is Mann’s lone horror film, and is based on a best seller by F. Paul Wilson, who disliked Mann’s film as much as most audiences and critics did. A troubled production plagued by reshoots, cost overruns, and Mann’s indecision, THE KEEP was a flop for Paramount. Everyone seems to like the Tangerine Dream score though.

Nazis commanded by Jurgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT) occupy a keep located in the Carpathians in 1941. The caretaker (W. Morgan Sheppard) warns Prochnow that nobody spends the night inside the keep, which is protected by 108 nickel crosses embedded in its stone walls. Prochnow ignores the caretaker’s warnings, but notes the walls appear to be constructed to keep something in, not prevent someone from entering. Several Germans are killed, and cruel SS man Gabriel Byrne (MILLER’S CROSSING) arrives to take command and murder some villagers in retaliation.

Byrne brings in Jewish professor Ian McKellen (X-MEN) and McKellen’s daughter Alberta Watson (THE SOLDIER) from a concentration camp to investigate. Periodically, screenwriter/director Mann cuts to top-billed Scott Glenn (THE RIGHT STUFF) riding a motorcycle. More Germans are killed, including two who are attempting to rape Watson. She’s rescued by what appears to be a talking eight-foot skull-faced Golem with glowing eyes that is surrounded by smoke.

Perhaps Mann’s original three-hour version made sense, but Paramount’s mandated 96-minute cut is frankly incomprehensible. This is best illustrated in the scene in which Glenn arrives in the village, doesn’t identify himself or his reasons for coming, and one scene later is on the floor in an acrobatic both-sides-sitting-up sex scene with Watson. Surely, Mann shot some footage of Glenn and Watson actually, you know, interacting before making love, which otherwise makes no sense in context.

Though THE KEEP flails in its storytelling and acting (this may be McKellen’s only poor screen performance), it is nonetheless watchable. The Welsh locations and sets designed on London soundstages are striking, and who can resist Scott Glenn and a monster in a rubber suit shooting animated death rays at each other? As pretentious as it is choppy and packed with too many shots of people wandering around in slow motion, THE KEEP is an interesting failure and an unusual anomaly in Michael Mann’s filmography.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Drive (1998)

About as close to a rock-'em-sock-'em Asian action movie as a low-budget American production can get, DRIVE is one of the greatest American martial-arts films ever made. The startling fight sequences staged by director Steve Wang (THE GUYVER) and his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto's Alpha Stunt team are unlike any you’ve seen staged outside of Hong Kong. Presented with grace, humor, and sharp visual wit, DRIVE is a terrific film.

So why haven't you heard of it? The producers took DRIVE away from Wang in post-production, cut several minutes out of it (mostly character stuff that adds humanity to the fighting scenes), commissioned a new electronic score, and bypassed a theatrical release, dumping it straight to cable, VHS, and DVD in 1998. While both the 99-minute U.S. version and Wang's longer original 112-minute cut are wonderful films, the perfect version would be somewhere in between lengthwise and use the more conventional score that Wang commissioned.

DRIVE is set in the near future and stars Mark Dacascos (archvillain Wo Fat on the HAWAII FIVE-0 remake) as Toby Wong, a Chinese man running from his former employers in Hong Kong, the Leung Corporation, which implanted a "bio-engine" into his chest which gives him enhanced speed, strength, and fighting ability. However, he doesn't want it—he was an unwilling experiment—and is journeying to Los Angeles to sell the implant to Leung's main competitor.

On Toby's trail are Leung's squad of assassins, led by Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson, memorable as a comic heavy on THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.), who are assigned to stop him from reaching L.A. without killing him, since their employer wants the bio-engine in one piece. After escaping a pair of attacks in San Francisco, Toby makes the unlikely acquaintance of Malik Brody (A DIFFERENT WORLD's Kadeem Hardison), a divorced, unemployed songwriter who would rather be almost anywhere but handcuffed to a kung-fu-fighting stranger while bullets, rockets, and explosions whiz past his head.

Toby and Malik run into constant trouble, setting the stage for a series of well-executed martial-arts battles, including one pitting Dacascos against several guys armed with cattle prods and another set in a tacky neon desert bar with an outer space theme, complete with giant rocket ship. Although DRIVE cost only around $4 million, the miniatures and pyrotechnics are skillfully rendered, and the non-stop action is a certain crowd-pleaser.

Dacascos does most of his acting with his feet and fists, but he's a solid leading man, while Hardison, at first difficult to take as a typical wisecracking, loudmouthed comic-relief sidekick, grows on you by the end, where he proves he can pull his own weight. Pyper-Ferguson hams it up well enough to distract you from the fact that his stunt double doesn't look a lot like him. Brittany Murphy (DON'T SAY A WORD) is goofy as a brain-dead teenage nympho with the unlikely name of Deliverance Bodine and the hots for Hardison.

Filmed around Lancaster, California as ROAD TO RUIN, DRIVE is an energetic breath of fresh air in the direct-to-video action realm, and shouldn't be overlooked just because it wasn't deemed "good" enough to play in theaters.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Devil's Partner

Ed Nelson, who went on to play nice guy doctor Mike Rossi on TV’s PEYTON PLACE for five years, plays two roles in this independent horror movie. First, he’s crusty old Pete Jenson, a rotten jackass who makes a deal with the Devil and then drops dead. Then, Nelson shows up as Jensen’s nephew, Nick Richards, who arrives in a small desert town to clean up his uncle’s affair.

Almost immediately, bad things start happening to people, like the kindly gentleman who is poisoned by goat’s milk, the drunk (Byron Foulger) who is trampled by a horse, and handsome gas station owner David Simpson (ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER star Richard Crane), who is disfigured when attacked by his dog. When an embittered David grows apart from his sweet girlfriend Nell (Jean Allison), Nick starts moving in. Of course, the twist will come as no surprise, and DEVIL’S PARTNER has little point beyond a series of sinister accidents and the befuddled investigating of the local sheriff (Spencer Carlisle) and town doc (Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan).

Penned by one-and-done screenwriter Laura Jean Mathews and actor Stanley Clemens, who replaced Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys movies after Gorcey retired, DEVIL’S PARTNER was directed by Charles R. Rondeau. After making four low-budget features, Rondeau permanently left features for television and made hundreds of episodes of shows ranging from BATMAN to BJ AND THE BEAR. His television work is undistinguished, but he probably cared more about this film, which is competently directed and occasionally chilling.

Nelson, who played dozens of heavies in episodic guest shots, is convincingly menacing and friendly, whichever the scene calls for. He got a nice “And Introducing” credit, even though he had already acted in several films, some for Roger Corman. Speaking of, Filmgroup, an independent company owned by producer brothers Gene and Roger Corman, released DEVIL’S PARTNER in 1961 — three years after it was made — to play on a double bill with CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, which Roger directed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Superman (1978)

Though Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic book creation had been seen on film many times before — in serials, in cartoons, in George Reeve’s iconic television portrayal — for the first time, Superman was exciting, relatable, and believable. In SUPERMAN, directed by THE OMEN’s Richard Donner, you finally believed a man can fly.

Warner Brothers’ epic blockbuster, which ran more than three hours in its 1981 ABC prime-time airing, boasts a screenplay by five Hollywood heavyweights — Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), married team David (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and Leslie Newman, novelist Mario Puzo (THE GODFATHER), and Tom Mankiewicz (LIVE AND LET DIE), whose father Joseph wrote and directed ALL ABOUT EVE. The film mostly soars on the star-making performance of unknown Christopher Reeve, whose boyish charm encapsulates the false milquetoast bumbling of Clark Kent and the witty confidence of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

While SUPERMAN suffers from juvenile comic relief and weak plotting — mostly due to producer Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler’s choice to shoot it and its sequel simultaneously, which led to furious reshooting and re-editing to get SUPERMAN into theaters before SUPERMAN II was finished — it’s a glorious adventure film with Oscar-winning visual effects and an outstanding Oscar-nominated score by John Williams that ranks with STAR WARS as the finest of his career.

Donner lets the film unfold at a comfortable pace, beginning on the planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) place their baby boy Kal-El into a rocket and shoot him to Earth just before their home explodes. Found by Kansas farmers Jonathan (an affecting Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) and adopted as their son Clark, Kal (played as a teenager by Jeff East) is reared with Midwestern values. As a young adult, Reeve’s Clark moves to Metropolis and joins the staff of the Daily Planet, working alongside aggressive reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and copy boy Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) for martinet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper).

It takes awhile for the plot to kick in after Donner’s successful scene-setting and world-building, but he thankfully has the nimble acting skills of the great Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) to introduce it. Hackman’s delightfully sinister Lex Luthor’s plan to become a rich man involves destroying California with a nuclear missile, which will make his previously worthless desert property the United States’ new West Coast. Aiding Luthor are bumbling assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and sexy moll Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), whose conscience will be Luthor’s downfall.

A massive box office hit — forty years later, it still ranked among the Top 50 domestic grosses of all time — and beloved by audiences of all ages, thanks in no small measure to Reeve’s relatable Superman and the remarkable flying effects, SUPERMAN led to three sequels starring Reeve, as well as the spinoff SUPERGIRL, which starred Helen Slater (THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) as Superman’s Kryptonian cousin. Since 1987’s abysmal SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, Hollywood has brought Superman to life several times on the small and large screens, but never with the same sense of wonder and excitement as Donner’s 1978 classic.

The Slave Market Of Mucar

Until I found this paperback in a Chicago used book store, I had no idea a series of prose novels starring Lee Falk's legendary comic strip hero The Phantom even existed. It turns out Avon published fifteen Phantom novels from 1972 to 1975. Falk himself wrote five of them with ghosts (who didn't receive cover credit) penning the remaining ten.

The second book, THE SLAVE MARKET OF MUCAR, was written by Basil Copper, whose career includes a lot of horror and crime fiction. It isn't an original story. Falk originally wrote "The Slave Market of Mucar" as a story arc in the daily newspaper strip that Sy Barry was then drawing. As a matter of fact, "Mucar" was Barry's debut on the PHANTOM strip. It ran 25 weeks in newspapers across the U.S. from August 21st, 1961 to February 10th, 1962. So it probably seemed fresh to readers when Avon presented it in prose form in 1972.

The Phantom is summoned to Bengalla by the local Jungle Patrol commander, Colonel Weeks. It seems dozens of prisoners have recently escaped (in smaller bunches) from the local prison run by Warden Saldan. Not only have none been recaptured, but none have ever been seen again. Weeks' attempt to place an undercover man, Slingsby, in the prison backfires, and Saldan is uncooperative. Well, of course. Because he and his chief guard, Larsen, are tricking the prisoners into escaping, only to recapture them immediately and transport them to Mucar to be sold as slaves. Surprisingly, there's a large market for male slaves, though you would think females would be more valuable. Or perhaps Falk didn't want to get into anything so sordid.

The Phantom (also the star of a 1996 film starring Billy Zane) recruits Slingsby as backup, along with his pet wolf Devil, who gets an incredibly heroic showdown against a pair of nasty mastiffs. The Phantom goes undercover in the Mucar slave market (mask and all) to rescue the latest batch of prisoners and seal Saldan's fate, which he does with a masterful sting operation worth of the IMF.

Copper's writing isn't flashy, but it's great storytelling. I suspect he didn't deviate much from the original Falk/Barry storyline, delivering a straightforward story of desert heroics and adventure. The Phantom doesn't come off as a fully rounded character, though with 35 years of history behind him at the time this book was published, perhaps it was expected that most readers would be familiar with the character. A lot of what we learn about the Phantom is through the eyes of Slingsby and Weeks, who considering The Ghost Who Walks something of a demigod.

Avon's painted cover is pretty great.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Last Embrace

Jonathan Demme (MELVIN AND HOWARD) directed this Niagara Falls-set thriller in the Hitchcock mold. It even has a chase up a bell tower like VERTIGO. Roy Scheider (JAWS) stars, and he is terrific, but his co-star Janet Margolin (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) is even better in a difficult role well-written by David Shaber (THE WARRIORS). Margolin died of cancer in 1993 — she was only 50 — and was one of many actresses of her generation who were talented, pretty, offbeat, and never received their rightful due.

Scheider plays an American spy who suffered a breakdown after the murder of his wife and spent three months in a sanitarium. He grows ever more suspicious and paranoid, first when his employers refuse to assign him a new mission, later when he receives a note written in Hebrew signed by the “Avenger of Blood.” He thinks the government may be trying to kill him, and maybe it is. Shaber’s plot, based on a Murray Teigh Bloom novel, is complex in tried-and-true spy-movie fashion, and many characters are not whom they seem. Margolin, a graduate student who moved into Scheider’s apartment while he was away, could be one of them.

Intended as an homage to thrillers of the 1940s, LAST EMBRACE is at least as interested in the romance between Scheider and Margolin as it is the spy plot, and despite a significant age difference, the actors are believable. Charles Napier, who usually only had great roles in Russ Meyer (SUPERVIXENS) and Demme (HANDLE WITH CARE) pictures, makes a strong impression as Scheider’s brother-in-law and would-be assassin. Other wonderful character actors — John Glover (52 PICK-UP), Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Joe Spinell (TAXI DRIVER), Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER), David Margulies (GHOSTBUSTERS) — contribute to Demme’s mysterious vibe.

If you get tired of keeping track of the plot’s many puzzle pieces, enjoy the visuals by Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (PHILADELPHIA), who keeps the camera moving almost constantly. Napier’s tailing of Scheider in Central Park and later in a cemetery are directed with visual wit, and an elegiac shot of Scheider slumped on a bench at sunset with the New York City skyline in the background says more than one thousand words. And let’s not forget the tense finale with what Vincent Canby called “yellow penguins.” Miklos Rozsa, who scored SPELLBOUND for Hitchcock, does the same here for Demme in the great tradition of Bernard Herrmann.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Babysitter (2017)

What do you do when you’re 12 years old, and the hot babysitter you’re in love with who really gets you turns out to be a blood-drinking Satan worshipper? Hey, we’ve all been there, and now it’s time for young Cole (Judah Lewis) to figure it out for himself in THE BABYSITTER, a new film now streaming on Netflix.

It sucks when you think you’re old enough to stay alone while Mom (Leslie Bibb) and Dad (Ken Marino) are gone for the weekend. But you could do worse than Bee (Samara Weaving), who watches BILLY JACK with you and thinks you’re cool for a kid, staying with you. Until she invites some friends over to jam knives into a nerd’s head and guzzle his blood. No, you cannot really do a whole helluva lot worse.

A gore-soaked horror picture with humor directed by, of all people, McG, demoted from big-time action pictures (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, TERMINATOR SALVATION) to low-budget straight-to-Netflix fare, THE BABYSITTER is the germ of a good idea written by Brian Duffield (INSURGENT), but the screenplay needed more work. When Cole has the chance to escape, he runs upstairs instead of the open front door next to him. And I’m to believe a police car with flashing cherries parked outside a suburban house at midnight, not to mention screams, explosions, and gunshots, wouldn’t attract even one neighbor’s attention? The killers don’t even draw the curtains before murdering three people.

Some of THE BABYSITTER is funny — a lot of it coming from the narcissistic stud played by Robbie Amell (THE DUFF) — and some of the kill scenes are cleverly conceived. How much of it trips your trigger will depend on your tolerance for McG’s more juvenile instincts. Both Lewis and Weaving do a nice job establishing their characters’ friendship, which is key to selling their conflict later, as silly as it is.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Last Of Sheila

This intricate and wicked tale of gamesmanship and murder is the brainchild of composer Stephen Sondheim (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) and PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins, who loved puzzles and mysteries and decided to write one. THE LAST OF SHEILA is a true delight for mystery fans that is played with great wit by an all-star cast.

One year after his wife Sheila was killed in a hit-and-run accident, wealthy film producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites six of his Hollywood friends to spend a week on his yacht in the South of France. He suspects one of them of being Sheila’s murderer, and arranges an elaborate game designed to reveal his or her identity.

Each of the six is given a “secret”—an informer, a shoplifter, a homosexual, etc. The object is for each player to discover everyone else’s secret, one per night, in a series of dress-up hide-and-seek scenarios, including one in a spooky abandoned abbey. It doesn’t take long for some of the players to deduce Clinton’s ultimate goal, and when he is also murdered, the pieces slowly begin to snap together.

The six players are down-and-out screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Philip (James Mason), a lowly director of TV commercials; wisecracking talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon); and starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her shady manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane). All have something to hide, secrets that become exposed in the manner of a classic Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, as the Hollywood sophisticates pour themselves drinks and react to news that would shock a normal person with an urbane elan.

Of course, one key to a successful mystery is that the pieces must logically fit together with a bare minimum of holes (if any), and Sondheim and Perkins have their plot wrapped pretty tightly. Clues are dropped with regular rapidity — even the damn title is a clue — so THE LAST OF SHEILA is as much a game as it is a film. Herbert Ross (THE TURNING POINT) directs his stars with a light touch in the south of France, with only Welch’s usual stiffness out of place among heavyweights like Coburn and Mason.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Severed Arm

THE SEVERED ARM is a gruesome horror film that anticipates many more famous slasher pics, such as HALLOWEEN (with its use of killer POV shots), FRIDAY THE 13TH (individuals picked off one by one by a madman waving a sharp object), and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS ("the caller is inside the house"). I'm not saying those films were influenced by THE SEVERED ARM or director Thomas Alderman (COED DORM) invented these genre staples, but their presence does add interest.

Six men are trapped inside a cave. Three weeks pass without any of them eating a speck of food, and their water supply has just dried up. Associate producer David G. Cannon, playing a television writer, suggests they draw lots and the winners amputate and eat one of the loser's limbs to stay alive. Ray Dannis (THE CORPSE GRINDERS) is the unlucky loser, and he goes mad as a result. The other five men tell the authorities Dannis’ arm was crushed in the cave-in and had to be amputated to save his life.

Five years later, back in civilization, Cannon, detective Paul Carr (TRUCK STOP WOMEN), disc jockey Marvin Kaplan (IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD), contractor Vince Martorano (THE CANDY SNATCHERS), and physician John Crawford (THE ENFORCER) are stalked by a killer with a hatchet. Is it the same person who hacked the arm off a corpse and mailed it to Cannon? Has Dannis left the mental hospital to gain revenge on the men who drove him there?

Top-billed Deborah Walley (BEACH BLANKET BINGO) plays Dannis’ daughter, who teams up with Cannon and Carr to find the killer before he finds them first. Though Walley doesn’t believe her father could be a murderer, she is game to serve as bait to help the men capture him...or whomever. Though shot on a low budget, THE SEVERED ARM is a decent little thriller, thanks to Alderman’s capable handling of the camera and the gruesome premise. Cannon, whose screen credits are scant, isn’t strong enough to play the co-lead, but as a whole, the ensemble plays well enough. The cast is good enough to convince you they would embrace cannibalism, which is vital in selling the plot.

THE SEVERED ARM is never quite as lurid as its title suggests — it has little gore, despite the R rating. While it doesn’t waste film with extraneous material, it also has little else to offer besides stalk-and-chop scenes, as Carr’s investigation has little heft. The electronic score by Phillan Bishop (MESSIAH OF EVIL) is effective, and Alderman manages to build to an effectively sick climax. Writer Marc B. Ray (SCREAM BLOODY MURDER) sold producer Gary Adelman the story for $100! Walley, a former Gidget and star of AIP Beach Party movies, made BENJI a year later and then basically retired from acting at age 33.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Sidney Lumet (SERPICO) directed this lavishly cast and produced mystery based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It was an enormous hit in both the United States and Great Britain and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Ingrid Bergman’s turn as the devout Scandinavian Greta Ohlsson (her third Oscar after GASLIGHT and ANASTASIA). Albert Finney (SHOOT THE MOON) has the plum role of Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, first seen in print in 1920.

One of several passengers traveling about the Orient Express from Istanbul to London, Poirot takes charge when one of them, a retired American businessman named Ratchett (Richard Widmark), is murdered in his bed. A classic locked room mystery — Ratchett’s door is chained from the inside — Poirot sets about solving it through interviews with the suspects, who include young couple Michael York (THE THREE MUSKETEERS) and Jacqueline Bisset (THE DEEP), military man Sean Connery (DR. NO), Ratchett’s mother-obsessed male secretary Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO) and butler John Gielgud (ARTHUR), loud American Lauren Bacall (KEY LARGO), and teacher Vanessa Redgrave (JULIA), among others.

To say more about the story would be criminal, though many of the passengers have a remarkable connection to a horrible crime committed five years earlier, when a little girl was kidnapped from her Long Island home and later murdered. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Paul Dehn (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD) plays fair with the clues, though the movie’s pleasures come as much from the juicy performances as the plot. The actors play to the rafters, as fitting the heightened storyline, with Finney’s flashy Oscar-nominated Poirot a total joy. Other nominations went to Tony Walton’s costumes, Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s original score.

Christie saw the film and liked it, which was not often the case with adaptations of her work. CBS did a television version with Alfred Molina (BOOGIE NIGHTS) as Poirot in 2001, and Kenneth Branagh (HENRY V) directed and starred in a big-budget theatrical remake in 2017.

Friday, November 03, 2017

An Eye For An Eye (1981)

Released by Avco Embassy in 1981, AN EYE FOR AN EYE is one of Chuck Norris’ better pre-Cannon outings. It makes good use of its star’s unique skills set by staging several exciting fight scenes and surrounding Norris with a very capable supporting cast. Best of all is its climax, which leans into James Bond territory for a budget-busting shootout between cops and bad guys on the lawn of a swanky hillside estate. Outside of the finale, director Steve Carver (Norris’ LONE WOLF MCQUADE) doesn’t use San Francisco to its fullest, oddly enough.

Norris was churning out a film a year at the time, progressively adding scale and more accomplished co-stars in a consistent bid for mainstream success. He was still known primarily as a martial artist or “chopsocky” star when AN EYE FOR AN EYE came out, but by the time he struck gold at Cannon, he was just as likely to use an Uzi as his feet.

San Francisco cop Sean Kane (Norris) watches his partner Dave Pierce (Terry Kiser, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) get murdered in an ambush. Dave’s girlfriend Heather, a television reporter (the very good Rosalind Chao, still acting on television three decades later), is killed by the same gang. Quitting the force under pressure from his boss (SHAFT’s Richard Roundtree, adding class to a stereotypical role), Kane goes about tracking down Dave’s killer on his own.

Kane finds support from his martial arts instructor James (THE SAND PEBBLES’ Mako), as well as Heather (Maggie Cooper), Linda’s co-worker at the TV station. The criminal conspiracy surrounding Dave’s death leads all the way to Linda and Heather’s boss: Morgan Canfield (the great Christopher Lee), the head of a global heroin smuggling ring.

It gives little away to reveal Canfield as the mysterious druglord — hell, he’s played by Christopher Lee, isn’t he? Though the plotting by writers William Gray (PROM NIGHT) and James Bruner (MISSING IN ACTION) is typical television crime drama fare, the story is strong enough to hold together Carver’s action scenes and give the fine supporting cast something to do. Mako is entertaining in a comic relief role, Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING) is reliably solid in another cliché cop part, and Mel Novak and Stuart Pankin are colorful criminals. The exception is TV actress Cooper (SPACE ACADEMY), who’s wooden despite her special “Introducing” billing and just as awkward in the romantic scenes as Norris is.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jigsaw (2017)

JIGSAW is exactly what a SAW VIII released seven years after the previous film should be. It breaks no new ground, delivers what a SAW fan expects, and reboots the series slightly while staying faithful to the tone, look, style, and layered storytelling synonymous with the SAW universe.

Set ten years after the death of imaginative serial killer John Kramer aka “Jigsaw” (which happened in SAW III, believe it or not), the film directed by SAW newcomers Michael and Peter Spierig (WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT) finds police detectives Callum Keith Rennie (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) and Cle Bennett (HARVARD MAN) baffled by a new series of grisly murders identical to those committed by Jigsaw a decade earlier. Conducting their own investigation are coroner Matt Passmore (THE GLADES), a veteran of the war in Iraq, and his assistant Hannah Emily Anderson (LOVE OF MY LIFE), whose passionate hobby is the Jigsaw murders.

Meanwhile, five strangers awaken inside a barn in a basic reprise of SAW V’s central plot. All five have committed some type of transgression to which Jigsaw demands a confession in order to go free or “win” the game. Because it’s a SAW movie, the victims are too dumb to just come clean, and are thusly slashed, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated in various complex Jigsaw traps.

Those familiar with the SAW series’ time-jumping tendencies may be ahead of JIGSAW, particularly the mystery of how John Kramer (played again by Tobin Bell) could still be alive ten years later. Providing much needed continuity are editor Kevin Greutert, who edited SAW I-V and directed VI and VII, and composer Charlie Clouser, whose familiar theme adds a sting to the climax. While no game changer, JIGSAW is a competent mystery that delivers familiar gore effects and a repetitive story that holds up until you get to the parking lot. And for an eighth SAW movie, that’s good enough.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Happy Death Day

Bitchy sorority chick Jessica Rothe (LA LA LAND) wakes up in some boy’s dorm room after a drunken night of partying. On her Walk of Shame back to her sorority house, she encounters young lovers interrupted by lawn sprinklers, an earnest student asking for signatures on a global warming petition, exhausted frat pledges, an anxious young man wondering why she hasn’t returned his texts. She gets home, shares barbs with snooty sorority sister Rachel Matthews, is rude to roommate Ruby Modine (SHAMELESS). She meets up with older professor Charles Aitken (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), with whom she is trysting. She blows off the lunch her father planned for her birthday. She is not a pleasant person. On her way to a party that night, she is ambushed by someone wearing a creepy baby mask who slashes her to death. And then she wakes up, back in the boy’s dorm, to live the day all over again.

Yes, someone — director Christopher Landon (from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies) and comic book writer Scott Lobdell, to be exact — has made a slasher movie out of GROUNDHOG DAY, the 1992 Bill Murray comedy about an unpleasant television weatherman who learns to be a better person by reliving the same day over and over again. Which is also what happens to Tree, the character played by Rothe, a self-centered college student still reeling from her mother’s death three years earlier. Once Tree understands what is happening to her, she turns Nancy Drew, marking up a list of possible suspects and investigating them to find out which one hates her badly enough to want to hack her to pieces.

That HAPPY DEATH DAY works at all is due to the sharp performance by Rothe, who looks like Heather Graham, but with demonstrably more range. Rothe is in every scene, and is required to play frightened, paranoid, sexy, sassy, romantic, confident, bitchy, intelligent, and straight-ahead action heroine badass as Tree unravels what’s happening to her and enacts her plans for survival. One clever twist is that Tree begins to feel the physical toll of the many times she has been murdered. Although her day resets every time she dies, her body doesn’t, and her X-rays show lingering traces of abuse. This “nine lives” plot point as a “clock” to build suspense is pretty much ignored, not to the film’s favor.

Israel Broussard (THE BLING RING) as the first person Tree sees every morning is one of several red herrings the film delivers, though you probably won’t struggle to solve the mystery. While the film is capably handled by director Landon (son of BONANZA star Michael Landon), who shot it as a PG-13, the denouement is a downer, as the killer’s motive for murder is a sketchy one. Wisely, Landon and Lobdell dispense with an explanation for Tree’s repeating day, as none is needed and any provided would likely be silly and distracting. Of course, the “why” isn’t important. What is important are the lessons Tree learns — the hard way, unfortunately — and the changes she makes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!

The original SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT trilogy concludes — not that anyone realized at the time there was one. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III was directed by, of all people, cult icon Monte Hellman, whose credits include TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, the Hammer crime drama SHATTER, and the two independent Jack Nicholson westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND. Remarkably, Hellman managed to get the film written, shot, edited, and playing film festivals within about four months. But what else would you expect from the director of BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE?

Mad doc Richard Beymer (a long way from WEST SIDE STORY) is performing experiments with blind psychic Samantha Scully (BEST OF THE BEST) in hopes she will be able to contact comatose Ricky Caldwell (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s Bill Moseley). In a coma since being shot by cops at the end of the second movie, Ricky lays on a gurney with his brain exposed inside a clear dome attached to his head. Scully has occasional flashes of Ricky’s subconscious, which allows Hellman to recycle footage from the previous films (while cutting around Tara Buckman’s bare breasts).

Scully, her brother Eric DaRe (TWIN PEAKS), and DaRe’s new girlfriend Laura Harring (MULHOLLAND DRIVE), whom Scully for no reason hates on first sight, head to Piru, California to spend Christmas Eve with her grandmother Elizabeth Hoffman (SISTERS). Coincidentally, Ricky wakes up, kills a drunk Santa inexplicably roaming the hospital halls, and not only heads to Piru, but gets there first! Nobody seems to notice a barefoot man in a hospital gown and a clear plastic dome encasing a bloody brain walking on the 101. Hellman must intend this as satire or black comedy, but it just plays like he is stupid.

While THE TERROR, a public domain horror movie starring Hellman’s old buddy Nicholson, plays on television, Dr. Beymer and cop Robert Culp (THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO) follow a trail of murdered corpses to Piru in hopes of finding Ricky before Ricky finds Scully. Hellman, Rex Weiner (THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE), and Arthur Gorson (SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4) are responsible for the very thin story, which not only has just a skeleton plot, but also fails to enhance its characters. Though one can see Moseley trying to project something to engender sympathy for Ricky, the screenplay doesn’t back him up, and the actor frankly looks ludicrous in his “Spock’s Brain” helmet.

While Moseley, Beymer, and Culp (the only actor appearing to have a good time) are solid, the younger actors are horrid. Samantha Scully is attractive, but a blank slate as an actress. Because the writers made her character unlikable, despite her blindness, it takes a stronger performer than Scully to make the audience care about what happens to her. Even when Harring is being strangled by Moseley, Scully reacts as if she’s reciting her grocery list. Harring delivers the film’s requisite nudity, and DaRe is weak and unbelievable.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III doesn’t even register as a slasher movie, as the kill scenes are lacking in both suspense and gore. I think the blood may be ketchup. Someone must have taken the tape home from the video store (I admit — I did), because the series continued, despite this film’s dismal quality. With the Ricky Caldwell story finally put to bed, Part 4, released one year later, took the franchise in a new direction with a plot unrelated to the first three films.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Waxwork / Waxwork II: Lost in Time

David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is great as the proprietor of a haunted wax museum in this mixture of THE MONSTER SQUAD and EVIL DEAD 2. Played as much for laughs as for chills, WAXWORK comes at you with a rocking score by Roger Bellon (THE UNHOLY) and a love for old horror movies sure to capture the fancy of genre fans.

Four college students — rich Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), demure Deborah Foreman (APRIL FOOL’S DAY), obnoxious Dana Ashbrook (TWIN PEAKS), and sexpot Michelle Johnson (THE JIGSAW MURDERS) — attend a secret midnight opening of a new wax museum on a residential street. The horrific exhibits show vampires, mummies, axe murders, and other monsters in bloody milieus. Lawyers prevented WAXWORK from including Jason Voorhees, so a joke about the substituted Phantom of the Opera falls flat.

The exhibits are actually alternate universes, where Ashbrook is bitten by a werewolf (John Rhys-Davies) and Johnson by a vampire (former Tarzan Miles O’Keeffe). A cop stumbles into an underground excavation and fights a mummy. Foreman, already a cult actress, is whipped by the Marquis de Sade (DEATH WARRANT heavy J. Kenneth Campbell) and loves it, which must have piqued the pants of a few ‘80s fanboys. It’s up to Galligan and Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS) as Roddy McDowall in FRIGHT NIGHT to prevent Warner’s murderous waxworks from releasing their evil into the world.

If you can get past the awful wigs and the tendency of the actors playing the wax figures to sway (gotta keep that camera moving, director Anthony Hickox), WAXWORKS is good-natured enough fun. The various makeup and gore effects are well done, considering the film’s $3 million budget. A black-and-white homage to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (shot in a day at Griffith Park) is perhaps the film’s most inspired vignette, and Johnson’s gore-drenched battle with vampire brides needed heavy trimming to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The incredible finale pits Macnee in his Captain Pike wheelchair and a senior citizen army, including Galligan’s butler (Lou Costello impersonator Joe Baker), in a violent free-for-all against Warner’s monsters. WAXWORK was the writing and directing debut of Hickox, whose father Douglas directed THEATER OF BLOOD. Anthony used many of WAXWORK’s cast members in his next film, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT (also quite good). WAXWORK was a bust in theaters, but did very well on home video, inspiring WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME as Hickox’s third feature.

Taking up exactly where WAXWORK left off, Galligan and WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON’s Monika Schnarre (an ineffective replacement for Deborah Foreman, who had broken up with writer/director Hickox) are pursued by a disembodied hand that escapes the burning wax museum and frames Schnarre for the murder of her stepfather. To clear her name, the two young lovers travel through time and stumble into homages to Hickox’s favorite horror movies, including ALIEN, FRANKENSTEIN, GODZILLA, THE EVIL DEAD, and DAWN OF THE DEAD.

None of it has anything to do with waxworks, though the sequel apes the episodic structure of WAXWORK. With a lower budget, but a more ambitious screenplay than WAXWORK, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME shows a few seams here and there, even if some moments play quite brilliantly. A faithful tribute to THE HAUNTING is filmed in black and white with Bruce Campbell (ARMY OF DARKNESS) turning in a sharp performance as a pipe-chomping ghost hunter.

Unfortunately, for the sequel, Hickox chose to amp up the comedy, which puts the delicate balance of humor and horror out of whack. WAXWORK II is just too silly, with the slapstick diluting the tension of scenes that should be scary. Thus, one never believes Galligan and Schnarre are in danger, and without characters to care about, the film is left with a series of violent vignettes with juvenile jokes.

One benefit for genre fans is the star cameos. In addition to Campbell, WAXWORK II offers Marina Sirtis (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) in fab ‘60s garb, Maxwell Caulfield (GREASE II), David Carradine (CIRCLE OF IRON), Juliet Mills (BEYOND THE DOOR), John Ireland (SPARTACUS) as the King of England (!), Alexander Godunov (DIE HARD), Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS), even Drew Barrymore if you look close enough. Unlike WAXWORK, which Vestron released to theaters, WAXWORK II went directly to VHS in 1992.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Better late than never, many BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you. I’m not so sure. The sequel to the 1982 film, which was mostly ignored upon its initial release, but has since become both a cult favorite and an influence on many science fiction filmmakers, is set thirty years later and brings back Harrison Ford, this time in a supporting role, as blade runner and replicant (?) Rick Deckard. If you like your sequels slow, dull, and longer than the origina, jump in with both feet. The screenplay by BLADE RUNNER’s Hampton Fancher and franchise newcomer Michael Green (GREEN LANTERN) starts as a typical but potentially intriguing murder mystery, then gives up on that approach to become a turgid retread of themes from the first movie.

Ryan Gosling (LA LA LAND) stars as K, who definitely is both a blade runner and a replicant. While “retiring” an older model replicant (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Dave Bautista in a cameo), K discovers what appear to be human bones buried in the yard. The 30-year-old remains are discovered to belong to a replicant that has given birth, something seemingly thought impossible. K’s boss (Robin Wright, following WONDER WOMAN with another curt authority figure) orders him to find the child (who would now be 30 years old) and kill it, as its discovery would destroy world balance (debatable, and anyway, a decision probably over Wright’s pay grade).

K’s path eventually leads to Deckard, now a grizzled old guy (which one would think would throw cold water over any “Deckard is a replicant” theories) hiding out in Las Vegas from goons hired by eccentric jillionaire Niander Wallace (terrible work by SUICIDE SQUAD’s Jared Leto), who somehow has a profitable replicant-building business and a 200-story office building despite having only two employees. One is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Sofia Boutella), a kung fu assassin assigned to find Deckard and bring him to Wallace’s compound (which she easily does through K’s stupidity).

A more interesting female character is Joi (Ana de Armas as Alicia Vikander), K’s sex hologram. It’s interesting that BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most human relationship is between replicant K and holographic Joi, and their scenes are the film’s best (and the only ones in which Gosling seems interested). Mostly though, this 164-minute slog by director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL) is a jumble of plot holes, plot contrivances (what’s the deal with the one-eyed replicant resistance leader?), circular dialogue, and smoke and mirrors storytelling that adds up to very little.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford stars as a “blade runner” named Rick Deckard in this influential science fiction film. Dramatically, this futuristic detective drama penned by Hampton Fancher (THE MIGHTY QUINN) and David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN) is a fizzle with simple plotting, slow pacing, and noticeable plot holes (the most notable being the number of prey assigned to Deckard to capture).

Visually, however, BLADE RUNNER inspired scores of films and television shows, thanks to the dreamy photography of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) and the grimy, lived-in Los Angeles of 2019 designed by Syd Mead and Oscar nominee Lawrence G. Paull (ROMANCING THE STONE). The Asian influence in Paull’s neon cityscape makes sense in a 1982 context, when we were afraid the Japanese were taking over the world, and BLADE RUNNER’s world of overpopulation and flying cars is fascinating and rich in detail (the film’s other Academy Award nomination was for its visual effects). If only it had a story and performances to match.

Ford, who made BLADE RUNNER between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, seems bored as Deckard, who is a detective assigned to track down and destroy renegade androids (called “replicants”) led by the nasty Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, good in a star-making performance). Running neck-and-neck with Ford in the somnambulism department is Sean Young (NO WAY OUT) as another replicant, Rachael, who not only attracts Deckard, but also inspires him to think deeply about his job and the definition of “human.” Director Ridley Scott (ALIEN) puts together a few memorable action scenes, including a clever fight between Deckard and an acrobatic pleasure model played by Daryl Hannah (KILL BILL) and a rainy fight-filled climax carried by Hauer’s charismatic turn.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, BLADE RUNNER’s reputation as a narrative mess is justified by the number of times it has been recut and re-released in various forms. At least five different cuts of BLADE RUNNER exist or have existed, including Scott’s “Director’s Cut” and Scott’s “Final Cut.” This review is based on the “Final Cut,” which — among other alterations — removes Ford’s droning Marlowe-style narration, which the actor reportedly hated and deliberately torpedoed during recording. It received a brief 2007 theatrical release and contains violence seen previously in overseas releases, but not in the U.S.

The 1982 theatrical release by Warner Brothers was unsuccessful with critics and the public. It opened the same weekend as THE THING and MEGAFORCE — two major bombs — and just behind E.T. in its third week atop the box office. BLADE RUNNER was out of the top ten three weeks later at a time when films sometimes stayed in theaters for months. BLADE RUNNER 2049 followed in 2017 with Ford reprising Deckard in support of Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) as a blade runner named K.

P.S. Deckard is not a replicant.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Great TV Episodes: 5

77 SUNSET STRIP
"5"
September 20 - October 18, 1963
ABC
Writer: Harry Essex
Producer and Director: William Conrad

77 SUNSET STRIP was one of television's most influential drama series of the late 1950s. Based loosely on the 1947 novel THE DOUBLE TAKE by Roy Huggins and the film GIRL ON THE RUN, written by Marion Hargrove (MAVERICK) and directed by Richard L. Bare (GREEN ACRES) from Huggins' story, 77 SUNSET STRIP was the first and likely the best of Warner Brothers' formula private eye shows for ABC.

Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (later Special Agent Lew Erskine for nine seasons on THE FBI) as Stu Bailey and Roger Smith (young Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) as Jeff Spencer, 77 SUNSET STRIP was set - duh - along Los Angeles' fabulous Sunset Boulevard. Working of a posh office at Number 77, Bailey and Spencer solved a number of way-out cases, sometimes with the aid of Kookie, the hip parking attendant working at Dean Martin's nightclub next door. Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, quickly became the show's breakout star and eventually joined Bailey and Smith as a full-fledged private eye.

The series was a smash hit, and ABC and Warner Brothers copied it ad nauseum. HAWAIIAN EYE starred Robert Conrad and Anthony Eisley in Hawaii, BOURBON STREET BEAT starred Richard Long and Andrew Duggan in New Orleans, SURFSIDE 6 starred Troy Donahue and Van Williams in Miami. Of course, none of these shows ever left the Warners backlot. And not all of the copies were private eye shows. THE ALASKANS with Roger Moore and Jeff York was set in Alaska during the 1890 gold rush. They all were basically the same show, to the point where scripts shot for, say, 77 SUNSET STRIP were recycled for another show two or three years later. Just erase the names "Stu" and "Jeff" and type in, say, "Sandy" and "Ken", and you have a "new" SURFSIDE 6 episode.

Ratings eventually waned until 77 was the only show left. To give its sixth season a kickstart, Warners gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (DRAGNET) and William Conrad (KLONDIKE, which was NBC's ripoff of THE ALASKANS) made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn't work -- the series was cancelled after 20 episodes -- it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm.

To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and I, THE JURY) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was "5," which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, "5" yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.

"5" opens arrestingly enough with a man dressed as the Devil run down by a car on a wet New York street. The man's brother, an antiquities dealer played by Burgess Meredith (BATMAN's Penguin), hires Bailey to right his sibling's wrongs. With police detective Richard Conte (OCEAN'S 11) working to solve the murder, Bailey's assignment is to take the dead brother's $9000 and "buy Andy's way into heaven" by making amends to those he has wronged over the years.

Essex's dialogue is tough and terse. Zimbalist narrates in first person like Phillip Marlowe. His path takes him to several of Andy's acquaintances, including storekeeper Ed Wynn (MARY POPPINS); finicky landlord Wally Cox (MR. PEEPERS); priest Herbert Marshall (THE FLY), who died a few months later; estranged wife Patricia Rainier (THE DAREDEVIL); angry stable boy William Shatner (STAR TREK); dancer Gene Nelson (OKLAHOMA!); poet Victor Buono (BATMAN's King Tut); and gypsy Peter Lorre (THE RAVEN). Zimbalist does a nice job playing annoyance around all these eccentrics. Even though Huggins was no longer involved with 77, Zimbalist's Bailey has a bit of James Garner's Jim Rockford in him (Huggins co-created THE ROCKFORD FILES with Stephen J. Cannell).

Eventually, Bailey strikes up a friendship with the mysterious blonde who has been following him around (played by THE MINI-SKIRT MOB's Diane McBain), Rainier is found murdered, and Conte puts Bailey on the hook for it. Essex's plot becomes sprawling from here, sending Bailey to Italy, the Netherlands (where he meets with monk Telly Savalas), Paris, and finally Tel Aviv before ending his quest back where he started in the Big Apple.

Conrad goes in for a lot of tight closeups, which is likely a Webb influence. In fact, each episode opens in an arresting fashion with each of that week's guest stars introducing themselves to the audience in tight closeup. Essex hasn't quite enough story for five parts, so Conrad pads "The Conclusion" with Bailey flashing back to various plot points.

As enormously popular as 77 SUNSET STRIP was in its heyday, nothing lasts forever. Webb and Conrad's experiment was a flop with viewers, and ABC cancelled the series before it could finish its sixth season. Everyone made out okay though. Webb brought DRAGNET back to weekly television a few years later, Conrad produced and directed films and starred in CANNON for five seasons, and Zimbalist launched a nine-season run on ABC's THE FBI in 1965.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Gerald's Game

Mike Flanagan, whose thrillers include the ambitious but mediocre OCULUS and the suspenseful HUSH, directed this straight-to-Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s novel GERALD’S GAME. Exceedingly well cast with Carla Gugino (WATCHMEN) and Bruce Greenwood (THIRTEEN DAYS) atop the bill, Flanagan’s film manages to maintain suspense most of the way, despite the inherent “unfilmability” of King’s story.

An attractive, well-to-do married couple go to their isolated country home for a romantic weekend. The marriage hasn’t been going great, and maybe they can rekindle something. After an expensive dinner, he pops a blue pill, she pops on a brand-new nightie, and they experiment with a sex game involving handcuffs and a rape fantasy. It doesn’t go well. He has a fatal heart attack, and she is left alone, handcuffed to the bed, no phone within reach.

A tour-de-force for Gugino in a role that demands a terrific actress to pull off, GERALD’S GAME is a sharp study of upper-class madness and guilt. Left alone, vulnerable, awaiting a slow death, Gugino’s character, Jessie, confronts her own troubled history via hallucinations in which she speaks not only to her husband Gerald (Greenwood), but also her own unbound double.

Greenwood is up to the task of keeping up with Gugino, and the housebound drama finds room for E.T.’s Henry Thomas and HUSH’s Kate Siegel as Gugino’s parents in flashbacks, as well as Carel Struycken — Lurch in the 1990s ADDAMS FAMILY movies — as...ah, but that would be telling. Flanagan favors long takes and a natural soundscape to heighten the verisimilitude of the scenes, though the score by the Newton Brothers is effective when heard.

Unfortunately, Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL) can’t sustain the high quality for the full 103 minutes. By remaining faithful to King’s novel, the filmmakers retain the author’s ending, which is at odds with the sophisticated psychological drama leading up to it. It’s unfortunate that Flanagan, who began thinking about making GERALD’S GAME since reading the book as a teenager, was too blind to recognize King’s anti-climax. A serious misstep, for sure, and not helped by the unconvincing makeup effects, but the previous 90 minutes are so strong that the drama earns a place in the upper echelon of films adapted from King properties.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sworn To Justice

A change of pace for Cynthia Rothrock, SWORN TO JUSTICE casts the kung fu star as a woman with a normal job — a psychologist, albeit one who put herself through school as a martial arts instructor — and gives her emotional drama to play and a steamy sex scene, her first. Debuting director Paul Maslak cut his teeth as a fight coordinator on Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies for Roger Corman with writer/producers Neva Friedann and Robert Easter, who also helped create exploitation favorites THE TOOLBOX MURDERS and SUPERVAN.

Perhaps the only Rothrock movie ever to play at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, SWORN TO JUSTICE finds shrink Janna Dane (Rothrock) returning home one evening to find her sister and her nephew dead on the floor and three masked killers in the house. She fights them and flees by leaping off a balcony and letting some trees break her fall. Somehow, a bump on the head gives her psychic powers — confirmed by doctor Breitenheim (Walter Koenig with a comical German accent) — and decides to use them to track down the killers.

Meanwhile, Janna agrees to be an expert witness at the trial of a psycho cop killer (Brad Dourif), starts a romance with hunky publisher Nicholas (Kurt McKinney of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER), banters with blind newsstand owner Young (Mako!), and tries to stay ahead of the detective investigating her sister’s murder, Sergeant Briggs (Tony LoBianco), who figures into screenplay writer Easter’s dumb plot twist.

Also in the cast is Max Thayer, who starred with Rothrock in the awesome NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II. SWORN TO JUSTICE is not as good as their first teaming, though it’s certainly interesting for its supporting cast and for allowing Rothrock to be more feminine than usual between fight scenes. One exposition scene is played with Cynthia stripping down to her lingerie, bosom about to burst from her bra, while LoBianco sneaks a peek.

As if there wasn’t enough going on, Maslak also gives us a chop shop, an unrequited lesbian crush, and a villain keeping his dead brother’s fried corpse on display in his headquarters. Despite so much story, so much Rothrock bare skin, and so much campy acting by LoBianco, SWORN TO JUSTICE doesn’t rise to the top of the direct-to-video ranks, despite one legitimately terrific action scene in a garage.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trip With The Teacher

Crown International released this R-rated exploitation movie with a double entendre title. TRIP WITH THE TEACHER remains the only feature directed by Earl Barton, a songwriter and choreographer who worked with Elvis on HARUM SCARUM and with many other family friendly stars in television variety shows, including Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, and Edie Adams. Even though TRIP features a cast of sexy women, try taking your eyes off Zalman King as a sadistic biker who torments them.

A quirky leading man in the shortlived ABC series THE YOUNG LAWYERS and in little-seen independent pictures like THE SKI BUM and YOU’VE GOT TO WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU’LL LOSE THAT BEAT (!), King’s only direction from Barton appears to have been, “Chew the walls. And the floors and the ceilings and anything else not nailed down.” It’s an unhinged turn by either a great actor who believed TRIP WITH THE TEACHER was a ticket to big things and a bad actor who needed more guidance than Earl Barton could provide.

Plot by writer/director/producer Barton finds sexy schoolteacher Brenda Fogarty (FANTASM COMES AGAIN) on a field trip with four sexy students played by Cathy Worthington (Kenny Rogers’ THE GAMBLER telefilms), Dina Ousley (AMERICAN HOT WAX), Jill Voigt (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2), and Susie Russell. When their short bus breaks down in the Mojave Desert, King, his slightly less evil brother Robert Porter (THE KLANSMAN), and their new traveling companion Robert Gribbin (the serial killer in the hilarious HITCH HIKE TO HELL) waylay the group, kill the punchdrunk bus driver (Jack Driscoll), and take Fogarty and her students to an abandoned house for rape, torture, and humiliation.

A desert motorcycle chase between Porter and Gribben is the film’s major action piece, which is made more exciting by the impression that the actors are doing their own stunts over shaky ground (and actually crashing, a happy accident). TRIP is actually less sleazy than Barton’s premise would indicate, which spares the audience the discomfort of watching Fogarty play a rape scene (but not the brutalization leading up to it). Besides King and Fogarty, who is pretty decent for an actress specializing in softcore cinema, the players are adequate at best, but good enough that you feel sympathy for the good characters who die. The script doesn’t work well. The bikers have no guns and could easily be overpowered by the captors or unable to prevent them from escaping (granted, the girls would be on foot in the middle of the desert).

King later claimed TRIP was the worst film he ever did (debatable) and his favorite role. The budget was a mere $31,000, and the shooting schedule was 13 days. Certainly the laughable library score chosen from Igo Kantor's collection didn’t cost much. Barton wrote the catchy theme that is repeated ad nauseum. Crown certainly got its money’s worth out of TRIP, re-releasing it in theaters and on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray several times, often under different titles, including DEADLY FIELD TRIP. King gave up acting not many years later for a new career as a producer and director of erotic (R-rated) films, such as WILD ORCHID and TWO MOON JUNCTION, and Showtime’s RED SHOE DIARIES.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Security (2017)

United States marshals (or “U.S.A. Marshals,” as the Bulgarian costume designer hilariously stitched on their useless bulletproof vests) transporting a witness on a dark and stormy night are hijacked by heavily armed and remarkably organized bad guys. All are killed, but the witness, 10-year-old Katherine Mary de la Rocha, makes it on foot to a crappy shopping mall where new security guard Antonio Banderas (DESPERADO) is hating his first night on the job.

It’s impossible to describe the awful work done by the Bulgarian production designers who have never seen an American mall. It’s a third the size of even an average mall (it has to fit on a soundstage), is decorated in an eye-bleeding array of bright colors and phony blown-up stock images of grinning boobs, features stores selling mismatched clothing and furniture that nobody would buy, closes before 9:00 p.m., and somehow justifies the employment of five (!) full-time overnight guards. One is played by the gorgeous Gabriella Wright (THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED), and we all know how many sexy young women work the night shift as security in rundown malls.

In the grand tradition of POINT BLANK — nope, not that one, the straight-to-video one with Mickey Rourke — SECURITY becomes DIE HARD In A Mall when the weird-accented Ben Kingsley (SNEAKERS) shows up looking for the girl. Banderas’ boss (Liam McIntyre) is too dumb to know what’s going on, so Banderas, back in the U.S. a year after three tours in Afghanistan, takes charge. His plan basically involves his untrained and unarmed colleagues using found objects as makeshift weapons and using their knowledge of the janky mall’s geography to their advantage.

SECURITY is dumb as hell, but not so bad that a larger budget and a more talented cast and crew couldn’t have made this script work. Kingsley walks through his generic bad guy part (and no reason he shouldn’t, really), but Banderas, rocking a full beard, takes the film seriously enough to create the film’s only believable or sympathetic character. He also holds his own in a fight with Cung Le (DRAGON EYES). No superfluous flashbacks, no extraneous romantic subplot, just straight action with a few offbeat touches capably handled by director Alain Desrochers (BON COP BAD COP 2).

Monday, September 11, 2017

Poltergeist (1982)

If you ever need to spark a conversation among horror fans, ask them who directed POLTERGEIST. My guess: Tobe Hooper was on the set every day calling “action” and “cut” and providing some creative input, but directing under hands-on supervision by producer/screenwriter Steven Spielberg, who used his clout as the boss to overrule Hooper when he didn’t agree. Hooper, who had recently been fired from THE DARK and VENOM, directed POLTERGEIST like Christian I. Nyby directed THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Despite whatever backstage confusions duelling directors may have caused, the result is one helluva good spook show.

What happens when a typical middle-class family of five builds a house over an ancient burial ground? T-bones crawl across the kitchen counter. The old dead tree in the side yard snatches the pre-teen son. Chairs slide around the floor on their own. And five-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) is sucked through the television tube into the spirit world. Mom (JoBeth Williams), Dad (Craig T. Nelson), teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), and son (Oliver Robins) call in some non-comic ghostbusters (led by Beatrice Straight) to bust the poltergeists haunting the suburban home and rescue Carol Ann.

Occasionally gruesome for a PG film (Spielberg talked the MPAA down from an R), POLTERGEIST is the perfect family horror movie. Nobody dies or is seriously injured, and the actors do an outstanding job making the fantastic seem real. The characters act rationally and intelligently in the face of irrationality. The screenplay by Spielberg and collaborators Michael Grais and Mark Victor (MARKED FOR DEATH) is efficient, wasting no screen time on extraneous backstory and allowing the audience to fill in any necessary gaps. That it draws a great deal from Richard Matheson is obvious but unacknowledged.

POLTERGEIST opened the same weekend as STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but in third place, two slots behind TREK. It earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), as well as two sequels, a television series, and a 2015 remake that nobody remembers.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Somebody Killed Her Husband

After one season of CHARLIE’S ANGELS, Farrah Fawcett-Majors was the biggest star on television and decided to become a movie star. She left the ABC series and starred in three consecutive flops: SOMEBODY KILLED HER HUSBAND, SUNBURN, and SATURN 3 (something about “S”es, I guess). Then it was back to CHARLIE’S ANGELS guest shots and made-for-TV movies. But I suppose she had to try.

It doesn’t take long to discover why SOMEBODY KILLED HER HUSBAND, despite a screenplay by the great Reginald Rose (12 ANGRY MEN), is a failure. It’s a screwball comedy in which one of the romantic leads (guess which one?) has no flair for comedy and no chemistry with her leading man (whoops, gave it away). I wish I could have seen Rose’s face when director Lamont Johnson (SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE) told him Farrah Fawcett-Majors would be saying his dialogue.

Farrah meets aspiring author Jeff Bridges (FAT CITY) in the toy section at Macy’s. Even though she’s a wife and a mother, Bridges falls for her (duh, she looks like Farrah Fawcett-Majors), and it turns out she likes him too. Unfortunately, somebody kills her husband (sounds like a title), and she and he decide to hide the corpse and solve the mystery because they believe the cops will suspect them of the murder. Which is dumb, but funny movies have been built around dumber premises.

However, those movies didn’t have Farrah Fawcett-Majors, who has great hair, great teeth, a great body, but no discernible ability to play comedy, leading the charge. Thus, it’s left to Jeff Bridges, who is a fine comic actor, to pull double the weight, and it’s hardly fair to blame him for not being able to. He’s also playing an awkward oddball and kind of a creep, so he isn’t all that likable (fatal in a romantic comedy), and Johnson (also not experienced in comedy) lacks the right pacing for comedy or suspense.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Under Cover

If I were casting the leading role in a movie about a cop who goes undercover as a high school student, I probably would not hire someone with a receding hairline. Even if the cop’s boss (the dependable Carmen Argenziano) does mention that he’s bearded and balding, it doesn’t take the film off the hook. But that’s the way producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus rolled at Cannon.

After starring in Cannon’s DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, which was written by Scott Fields, John Stockwell convinced Golan and Globus to let him direct this one from a script by Fields. Stockwell went on to do bigger films like CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL and INTO THE BLUE, but he already seems like an assured director with UNDER COVER. Star David Neidorf (PLATOON) doesn’t look the part, nor is he a particularly charming lead, but it’s interesting that his character, named Sheffield Hauser (good grief), isn’t a badass cop and is awkward in his new assignment.

Hauser is actually just one of many young police officers working as narcs in high schools under the command of Sgt. Irwin Lee (Barry Corbin). Another is Tanille Laroux (Jennifer Jason Leigh, of all people), who works with Hauser in the guise of a braless fox. The case that brings Hauser and Laroux to school is a drug ring that killed Hauser’s partner on the Baltimore force.

You would expect UNDER COVER to be a lark, but despite its far-fetched premise and the presence of humor, Stockwell takes the case seriously. Some nudity and racial material give the story necessary weight, but not enough for a successful film. Give UNDER COVER credit for aiming higher than Cannon’s usual action trash.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Invaders From Mars (1986)

Cannon blessed director Tobe Hooper (POLTERGEIST) with a decent $12 million budget to do right by this colorful remake of the 1953 science fiction film INVADERS FROM MARS. It was one of the studio’s biggest flops, opening in seventh place (one of the films ahead of it: POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, which Hooper had nothing to do with) and contributing to Cannon’s eventual and inevitable downfall.

Certainly, Hooper and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had good intentions going in. A-list special effects artists John Dykstra (STAR WARS) and Stan Winston (THE TERMINATOR) were brought in to head departments. BLUE THUNDER’s Don Jakoby and ALIEN’s Dan O’Bannon (who also worked on BLUE THUNDER) wrote a screenplay that closely followed that of the original picture. Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE cameraman Daniel Pearl handled the director of photography duties. If only Hooper and company had been more diligent in casting.

By Cannon standards, $12 million was quite extravagant, though not quite enough to more than passably create the spaceships and aliens required by Jakoby and O’Bannon’s script. The film mainly suffers from a campy approach with arch performances by Karen Black (THE DAY OF THE LOCUST) and Louise Fletcher (BRAINSTORM) draining the suspense and terror from the premise. Granted, this approach plays fair with the ending, which copies that of the 1953 film, but it makes taking the film seriously a chore.

Likewise, the casting of Hunter Carson as the juvenile lead doesn’t work. The son of star Black and screenwriter L.M. Carson (PARIS, TEXAS), Carson is a subpar actor and unable to carry a film, as he must as one of the few “normal” characters. Nobody believes David (Carson) when he tells them a spaceship landed behind a hill in the backyard. Soon, his father (Timothy Bottoms), mother (Laraine Newman), teacher (Louise Fletcher as Dana Carvey), and even the local cops (one played by Jimmy Hunt, the kid from the original INVADERS FROM MARS) are acting logy and zombie-like.

The only person who believes David’s story is the school nurse, played by Carson’s mother. Granted, casting the eccentric cross-eyed Black as a normal human among a small town of weirdos is a crafty notion, but INVADERS FROM MARS is unable to make it work. Pacing is too leisurely during its first half, though the film becomes more interesting once things really get going with weird aliens and the military finally joining the picture. Sci-fi fans will enjoy the in-jokes, like Hooper’s LIFEFORCE playing on television and the school being named for William Cameron Menzies, the star of the original film.

James Karen (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) gives the film’s best performance as a cigar-chomping general who kicks some spaceman ass. INVADERS FROM MARS was the second in Hooper’s three-picture deal with Cannon. Though the creative success of LIFEFORCE, INVADERS, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 can be debated, none made money for Cannon, and Hooper’s career as a bankable filmmaker was basically over. His next film, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, came out four years later.

Las Vegas Hillbillys

It’s amazing that drive-in screens were able to support Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield in the same movie. Woolner Brothers didn’t get this cornpone country-western comedy into many theaters north of the Mason-Dixon line, if any.

Country Music Hall of Famer Ferlin Husky (SWAMP GIRL) stars as honest wood hauler Woody, who inherits a Vegas casino from his late uncle. He and pal Jeepers (Don Bowman) arrive in Vegas to discover the place is a real dump and $38,000 in debt to gangsters. How to square things with the creditors and get the joint in working condition? By throwing a country music jamboree with singing stars like Bill Anderson, Sonny James, Connie Smith, and Del Reeves.

While both Van Doren (BORN RECKLESS) and Mansfield (THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT) are in the film and sing a number apiece, they don’t appear in the same shot, which seems a shame (Van Doren later said their relationship was “standoffish”). A biker gang shows up to cause trouble, Richard “Jaws” Kiel shows up in a cowboy hat, and there’s a pie fight. Suffice to say, this film doesn’t go anywhere near Nevada. The casino exterior is a barn in the mountains of Tennessee. The music is pretty good though.

One of the cheapest films ever made, LAS VEGAS HILLBILLYS (sic) is less a film than a series of long static shots edited together of non-actors hesitantly reciting dialogue or lip-synching songs. In one of the few instances of director Arthur C. Pierce (WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET) moving the camera, a crew member is plainly seen removing a sheet of wood being used as a dolly track. Believe it or not, Husky, Bowman, and Joi Lansing (in Mamie’s role) returned in a sequel, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (sic).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

I Know What You Did Last Summer

The solid success of SCREAM, a teen slasher picture that changed the way audiences looked at slasher pictures, led to a long line of copycats. Most were like I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER in that their creators believed SCREAM’s success had less to do with wit and originality than with casting pretty young actors from television and splashing around stage blood.

Columbia’s attempt to turn the Gorton’s fish stick man into a horror icon like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees boasted a screenplay by SCREAM’s Kevin Williamson, based on a Lois Duncan novel read by many kids in the 1970s, an attractive cast, and an arresting premise. Less successful in the acting and plotting categories, nevertheless, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER was a big hit, premiering at #1 at the box office and hanging there for three weeks.

July Fourth weekend in a seashore community. Teenage couples Jennifer Love Hewitt (THE TUXEDO) and Freddie Prinze Jr. (SHE’S ALL THAT) and Sarah Michelle Gellar (in SCREAM 2 the same year) and Ryan Phillippe (CRUEL INTENTIONS) are partying and romancing ahead of going their separate ways to college in the fall. On a curved road at night, they accidentally run over a man with their car. Believing him dead and afraid to report the accident to authorities, they dump the body in the ocean and swear never to speak of the incident again.

One year later, Hewitt receives a mysterious note in the mail: “I know what you did last summer.” Did the victim come back to exact vengeance? Was there a hidden witness to the accident? Or is the note’s author actually one of the group? Williamson’s handling of the mystery isn’t bad, as he sets up a line of red herrings, including Johnny Galecki (THE BIG BANG THEORY) as a nerd with a crush on Hewitt. The main characters and the actors playing them are vapid and unbelievable, but director Jim Gillespie (EYE SEE YOU) delivers some good shocks, and the photography by Denis Crossan (JOYRIDE) and score by John Debney (SPY KIDS) are aces.

Even though the story didn’t seem to have anywhere to go at film’s end, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER spawned a 1999 sequel, I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (natch), starring Hewitt and Prinze, as well as the 2006 DTV I’LL ALWAYS KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, which has nothing to do with the previous films. It can safely be ignored.