Monday, May 22, 2017

The Return Of Count Yorga

Robert Quarry became a short-lived horror movie star and an AIP contract player in the early 1970s on the basis of his two COUNT YORGA movies, which were shot on low budgets by director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) and producer Michael Macready. Macready’s father, well-known character actor George Macready (coming off a long run as bitter old town patriarch Martin Peyton on TV’s PEYTON PLACE), narrated COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and plays a professor in this sequel, his final film. George died in 1973.

Screenwriters Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder skip over any troublesome explanation of how Yorga (Quarry) and his scarred brute assistant Brudah (Edward Walsh) escaped clear deaths in VAMPIRE. Yorga, Brudah, and a harem of undead vamps in negligees move into a Bay Area mansion near an orphanage run by Reverend Thomas (Tom Toner). While attending an orphanage fundraiser, Yorga falls for a pretty young teacher, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley). That night, he sends his vampire harem to slaughter Cynthia’s family (yes, this was in theaters two years after the Manson murders) and bring her back to his place, where he hypnotizes her into believing she was the victim of a car crash. She soon comes to realize, however, she’s a prisoner of Count Yorga’s, rather than a guest, and seeks to escape, while her psychiatrist fiancĂ© (Roger Perry, who played a different hero in VAMPIRE) and a pair of comic relief cops attempt a rescue.

Although solidly directed by Kelljan, sharply photographed by Bill Butler (JAWS), and crisply edited by Fabien Tjordmann (an Emmy winner for STAR TREK), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA doesn’t quite work. The story by Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder (who also portrays a mute teacher in the film) is extremely thin—there’s a lot of wandering around labyrinthine hallways and through doorways—and some plotholes may have you scratching your head (like why don’t the cops use their crosses to fight off the vamps?). The parts that do work, however, work exceedingly well. The final third, which mainly consists of the rescue attempt, is scary and exciting, and Kelljan consistently spices the film with enough intriguing camera angles and directorial touches to add to the film’s visual luster.

Quarry is excellent as one of modern cinema’s great bloodsuckers—regal, intense, and witty. He starred in other horror films, such as THE DEATHMASTER, but was never as good in anything as he was as Count Yorga. Hartley is too old to play the ingĂ©nue, but is fine otherwise. Perry, a likable actor in many light television parts, pulls off the difficult task of making his underdeveloped character someone to root for. Comic actors Rudy DeLuca (a frequent Mel Brooks collaborator) and Craig T. Nelson (his film debut!) as the cops are fun, wisely finding the right level of humor without going too far. One wonders whether the movie might have been better without Perry and letting DeLuca and Nelson carry the heroics.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Prescription: Murder

When actor Peter Falk first donned Lieutenant Columbo’s rumpled raincoat for this Universal TV-movie in 1968, who could have known that he would still be wearing that same raincoat in 2003, when the last COLUMBO episode/movie aired.

Adapted by Richard Levinson and William Link from their own play, which starred character actor Thomas Mitchell as Columbo, PRESCRIPTION: MURDER sets the formula for nearly every Columbo adventure yet to come, most importantly by squaring the slovenly detective off against a real smoothie, his opposite in style, played perfectly by Gene Barry (BURKE’S LAW). Barry, who never made a return appearance to the COLUMBO-verse, is the quintessential Columbo villain—suave, urbane, cold, clever, and arrogant. In other words, the perfect foil for Falk, whose rumpled appearance, absentmindedness, short stature, and acute politeness masked an intelligence and an eye for details that always led to the killer’s demise.

Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Barry) thinks he’s committed the perfect murder. By strangling his wife Carol (Nina Foch) in their penthouse apartment and recruiting his young mistress, actress Joan Hudson (Katherine Justice), to pose as Carol during a staged argument that results in “Carol” refusing to accompany him on a flight to Acapulco, Flemming has a perfect alibi when his wife’s corpse is found a few days later. Witnesses saw Carol stalk off the airplane prior to takeoff, and the waters off the Mexican coast are ideal for dumping the expensive items “stolen” by the robber who will be blamed for Carol’s death. MURDER also sets the COLUMBO formula by showing the killer’s preparation and deed in great detail. Falk doesn’t enter until the second act, after Levinson and Link provide a good hard look at Flemming’s elaborate plan in which he appears to leave no clues to his guilt.

However, there is no such thing as the “perfect murder.” Columbo becomes a bit of a pest, stopping by Flemming’s home and office at all hours, asking questions that seem inconsequential until he has no doubt of the doctor’s guilt. The fun is in the cat-and-mouse aspect of Levinson and Link’s teleplay, where Columbo knows his adversary is guilty, and Flemming knows that Columbo knows, yet without proof, what can the detective do? The two parry with each other over bourbon, talking about hypothetical murders, Barry’s cool charm meshing with Falk’s puppy-dog determination. The actors have excellent chemistry, and the grudging respect that the two characters have for each other, even as one tries to jail the other for murder, is quite clear in the performances.

If there is a weakness, it would be in Richard Irving’s direction, which does a poor job of masking MURDER’s stage origins. Too many scenes consist of actors awkwardly standing together facing the camera, rather than each other, and the sets are built with only three walls, resulting in little variety to cinematographer Ray Rennahan’s camera angles. Falk still had not quite found his character. Columbo shouting and losing his temper, showy though it may be, would later be terribly out of character for the always-in-control sleuth he would become.

Even though PRESCRIPTION: MURDER was a ratings success, Universal didn’t make a follow-up for three years. 1971’s RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, guest-starring Lee Grant as a rare female COLUMBO killer, served as a backdoor pilot for the series, which took up one spoke of the NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE wheel for seven seasons, airing every month or so in 90- or 120-minute episodes. In 1989, COLUMBO returned to television as part of the ABC MYSTERY MOVIE on Saturday nights, along with Burt Reynolds as B.L. STRYKER, Telly Savalas as KOJAK, and others. COLUMBO was the only show to survive, as Falk continued making two-hour movies with the character through 2003’s COLUMBO LIKES THE NIGHTLIFE.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Rage

With slasher movies all the rage, Columbia enlisted chopsocky star Chuck Norris for this action-oriented horror film influenced by the Frankenstein legend. That director Michael Miller (JACKSON COUNTY JAIL) opens SILENT RAGE with a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot cribbed from HALLOWEEN’s iconic prologue can’t be a coincidence. Miller’s opening is an attention getter for sure, as hulking Brian Libby (THE OCTAGON) goes postal with an axe on his landlords, engages town sheriff Norris (FORCED VENGEANCE) in an exhaustive fight, snaps his handcuffs, kicks a police car door off its hinges, and finally collapses in a hail of bloody gunfire.

With Libby presumed dead, Norris can concentrate on making time with hospital administrator Toni Kalem (THE WANDERERS), whose shrink brother Ron Silver (TIMECOP) is working with scientists Steven Keats (THE GUMBALL RALLY) and William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) in an illegal life-rejuvenation experiment. Against Silver’s wishes, Keats injects Libby’s corpse with a full dose of their new drug, which brings the man back to life with the unfortunate side effect of turning him into an invulnerable killing machine. Basically, SILENT RAGE is CHUCK NORRIS MEETS FRANKENSTEIN with occasional karate fights.

Miller uses long takes, practical locations in the Dallas, Texas area, and interesting camera movement to inject life into the non-action scenes, which effectively builds suspense and realism, but also showcases Norris’ deficiencies as an actor. He looks uncomfortable in his love scenes with Kalem and the dialogue scenes with fat, stupid deputy Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE), which are played for lame comic relief. The screenplay by Joseph Fraley (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) has its fair share of inconsistencies, but excellent performances by Silver, Keats, and Finley provide dimension to their mad scientist roles that help paper over any holes.

While SILENT RAGE falls confidently into the horror/slasher genre, it works effectively as an action vehicle for Norris. The grueling climax between Chuck and the zombified Libby is a corker, but the film’s highlight is a midpoint barroom brawl between Norris and a couple dozen bikers. With more nudity and gore than expected in a Chuck Norris movie — Finley’s demise is especially grisly — SILENT RAGE checks all the exploitation boxes. Peter Bernstein (BOLERO) and Mark Goldenberg (TEEN WOLF TOO) compose a good score, though Miller mostly underscores the fight scenes with pure sound effects for maximum realism.

Oddly, Miller’s next film, also released in 1982, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CLASS REUNION, was a spoof of slasher movies. In a strange career turn, Miller moved into television and cranked out a series of romances based on the mushy novels of Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Norris did FORCED VENGEANCE next, though it was his later movies for Cannon that make him a household name.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Around The World Under The Sea

TV impresario Ivan Tors produced AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA for MGM, so it’s no surprise to see stars from his hit shows SEA HUNT (Lloyd Bridges), FLIPPER (Brian Kelly), and DAKTARI (Marshall Thompson). In addition, screenwriters Arthur Weiss and Art Arthur also penned scripts for those shows, as well as VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, making them perfectly suited for this dramatically inert hokum.

These are the continuing adventures of the Hydronaut, an atomic-powered submarine assigned to circumvent the Earth planting earthquake sensors on the ocean floor. In addition to Doctors Standish (Bridges), Mosby (Kelly), and Hillyard (Thompson), the ship carries Dr. Volker (David McCallum, then on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), crusty rabbit whisperer Stahl (Keenan Wynn), and Dr. Hanford (GOLDFINGER’s golden girl Shirley Eaton), whose rear end should receive separate billing, as often as director Andrew Marton (CRACK IN THE WORLD) points his camera at it.

Even though the characters are adults and professionals, the mere presence of a woman on the ship turns them into bickering juveniles, which doesn’t bode well for their survival chances against underwater volcanoes and deadly eels. Hell, McCallum (he and Wynn give the liveliest performances) drives the sub right into a damn rock wall because he’s so distracted by Eaton’s hotness.

Actually, the film’s biggest problem is its lack of suspense. Weiss and Arthur’s screenplay is heavy on talk, light on action, and Marton is unable to wring much excitement out of the few opportunities to do so. The thin characters and bright colors lead one to believe children were Tors’ prime audience for AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA. It has little for adults beyond the virtues of Miss Eaton and the novelty of Lloyd, still trim in tight shorts, skin-diving in color. Marton shot at Tors’ Miami studio with Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, both Black Lagoon creatures, on the crew.