Friday, December 27, 2013

December Quick Picks and Pans

No Blade of Grass (1970) Cornel Wilde’s cautionary, unflinching eco-disaster tale seems as plausible now as it did 40-plus years ago.  Wilde produced, co-wrote and directed this bleak vision (adapted from a novel by John Christopher) of a world that has collapsed upon itself, due to global famine, disease and pollution.  It’s all pretty grim stuff, depicting a world populated by roving motorcycle gangs, rogue soldiers and bandits, and wholesale murder and rape are the order of the day.  A small group of people band together, led by former soldier John Custance (Nigel Davenport) to survive at any cost.  The story plays a bit like Mad Max without Max.  Instead of a savior who stands up amidst the rubble and chaos, we witness regular individuals attempting to survive in an intolerable situation.  The story gets heavy handed at times, but the message is clear: if society continues on its present trajectory, the outcome depicted in this film, or something like it, is inevitable.  It’s a sobering glimpse into a possible future that none of us will hopefully ever experience.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Streaming (through Warner Archive Collection)

Christmas Evil (aka: You Better Watch Out; Terror in Toyland) (1980) This holiday-themed oddity written and directed by Lewis Jackson was marketed as a slasher flick, but it’s really more of a character study.  In the film’s prologue, young Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) witnesses his mom having sex with Santa Claus (presumably his father), and is scarred for life.  Present-day Harry works in a toy factory, and his entire home is full of various Christmas paraphernalia.  He drives around in a van (of the Francis Dolarhyde/Jame Gumb variety), singing Christmas tunes and keeping track of the neighborhood kids with a “naughty” and “nice” list.  Not very much goes on.  Harry spends most of the movie being creepy, while plotting to reward those who have been good, and punish those who have wronged him.  It’s worth sitting through this movie, however, for the WTF ending.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) This train wreck of a movie provides incontrovertible proof that Gene Rodenberry lost his mind after Star Trek was cancelled.  Directed by Roger Vadim, from a Rodenberry script, it’s gleefully misogynistic in a way that only an early 70s product could be.  A high school guidance counselor, Tiger (Rock Hudson), with a Madonna-whore complex beds every attractive student he can get his hands on, while maintaining the front of an idyllic marriage.  Trouble is, the same students are dying off, and local authorities fail to make any connections.  It’s twisted and wrong, yet oddly compelling.   Pretty Maids All in a Row features an impressive supporting cast, including Telly Savalas as a police detective, Roddy McDowell as a befuddled principal and Angie Dickinson as an amorous high school teacher.  Is it a shrewd black comedy or misguided sex farce?  You be the judge. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Streaming (through Warner Archive Collection)

 World Without End (1956) This would-be sci-fi epic suffers from a hackneyed story and substandard special effects (compared to its contemporary, Forbidden Planet).  Four 20th century astronauts (including Hugh Marlowe and Rod Taylor) on a mission to Mars take a detour when their spacecraft flies into a space/time rift that catapults them 500 years into the future.  The crew returns to a very different Earth, transformed by global atomic war.  Savage mutants (called “mutates” in the film) rule the surface, while a peaceful culture ekes out a comfortable (male-centric) existence underground.  One of the film’s conceits is that it takes 20th century explorers to identify what’s wrong with the society – according to Marlowe’s character John Borden, the men of this time lack “guts.”  With its simplistic story and cardboard characters, the whole affair plays out like a lesser Star Trek episodes. Watch for some unintentional humor with cheap looking giant spiders and a one of the astronauts referring to the cyclopean surface dwellers as “one-eyed monsters.”  If you’re a 50s sci-fi completist like me, you might want to check it out.  Everyone else should proceed with caution.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Streaming (through Warner Archive Collection)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Once Over Twice: Night of the Creeps

(1986) Written and directed by Fred Dekker; Starring: Jason Lively, Tom Atkins, Steve Marshall and Jill Whitlow; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

Detective Cameron: I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.

Sorority Sister: What's the bad news?

Detective Cameron: They're dead.

Source: IMDB

I was a bit of a latecomer to Night of the Creeps. Despite being the perfect target age when it was released, I didn’t see it until much later.  Meanwhile, the film had built up a considerable reputation as a cult favorite over the years, a coveted treasure on aging VHS copies. When Night of the Creeps finally became available on DVD, it earned the distinction of being one of the very few titles I’ve purchased, sight unseen.  I was happy to discover, for once, it lived up to the hype. 

First-time director Fred Dekker (who also wrote the script) provides a winning combination of scares and comedy – a winking ode to the B sci-fi movies he grew up with and a post-modern scare flick. In the opening scene, the crew of an alien spacecraft try in vain to contain an experiment gone awry. Their experiment winds up on Earth circa 1959 (in black and white), and finds its way into a human host. The story picks up in the present day; at least the candy-colored present day of 1986.

Jason Lively* and Steve Marshall play geeky college student Chris and his obnoxious pal J.C. Chris is obsessed with pretty co-ed Cynthia (Jill Whitlow), so he and J.C. concoct a scheme to get closer to her by joining a fraternity.** Their misguided attempt to make good on their fraternity pledge results in inadvertently awakening a frozen body, and unleashing malevolent creatures that turn people into zombies.

* In order to elicit the proper reaction from Lively in a scene requiring strong emotions, Dekker placed several pictures of war atrocities around the dorm room set.

** The effects team, including K.N.B. Effects Group mavens Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, served double duty in roles as frat boys. Their future K.N.B. partner, Greg Nicotero, also appeared in an uncredited role.

Detective Ray Cameron (played with gusto by underrated character actor Tom Atkins) spends his booze-soaked nights wallowing in regret. As a rookie cop he witnessed his ex-girlfriend getting chopped to pieces by an ax-wielding escaped mental patient, and he’s never been able to move beyond that pivotal event. He skirts the line between funny and sad, as a man steeped in misery, masking his pain with a blasé outlook and acerbic tone. Atkins owns every scene he’s in, with memorable catch phrases (“Thrill me”) and a world-weary demeanor. Detective Cameron comes straight out of a film noir. His hard-drinking, hardboiled demeanor belongs to a different era (As if to reinforce the point, Cameron drives around in a vintage Mercury sedan). 

Night of the Creeps is packed to the gills with quotable lines. In the DVD commentary, Dekker stated that he consciously parodied the 80s action flick tradition of a hero with an arsenal of “stupid” one-liners. Atkins gamely rises to the challenge (“It’s Miller Time”). Dekker inserted numerous references to genre filmmakers with the fictional Corman University,*** and character names such as Cynthia Cronenberg, Sgt. Raimi and Detective Landis. Roger Corman regular Dick Miller also makes a brief appearance as Walt (an obvious nod to Walter Paisley).

*** Three Los Angeles area colleges stood in for the Corman University campus: UCLA, USC, and my alma mater, Cal State University Northridge.

Night of the Creeps is that rare beast: a horror comedy that manages to handle both elements effectively.  The film’s anemic performance at the box office belied its staying power as a perennial cult favorite. It’s too bad that Fred Dekker hasn’t had more opportunities to prove his worth as a filmmaker. Following the one-two punch of his first two films, he stumbled with Robocop 3, but if anyone deserves a second chance it’s Dekker. His unique contribution to the horror genre is sorely missed. With equal doses of fun and terror, Night of the Creeps proves horror doesn’t always have to take itself too seriously to be effective.

**** Watch for “Go Monster Squad!” scrawled on a bathroom window, a nod to his equally entertaining follow-up to Night of the Creeps.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Blog Update: Japan-uary III

You might have noticed the content on my blog has slowed down a bit.  Chalk it off to holiday blues, watching a slew of mediocre flicks that defy critique, a general malaise, or what have you, but things are about to pick up in a hurry.  You see, there’s one thing that only happens once a year that I can’t help but get excited about… You can keep Christmas and New Year’s Day, because Japan-uary III, my latest month-long tribute to cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun, is almost upon us.   

It’s another opportunity to discuss some of my favorite films, and hopefully discover some new favorites along the way.  Join me, as I take an honest, albeit uncultured look at the works of Kurosawa, Ôtomo, Miike, Kawasaki, and many others throughout January.  One month of the year isn’t nearly enough to explore the output from a country that consistently produces some of the most compelling (and beguiling) film the cinematic world has to offer, but fear not – I suspect Japan-uary IV is an inevitability.

As always, stay tuned…

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rasputin: The Mad Monk

(1966) Directed by Don Sharp; Written by: Anthony Hinds; Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco and Francis Matthews; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“Healer and rapist, peasant and seer, Rasputin was a legendary enigma, a real actor’s part, one of the best I had.” – Christopher Lee (from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)

When I think of Rasputin: the Mad Monk, the imagery that first springs to mind is from vintage commercials which (in a William Castle-esque vein) touted free Rasputin beards for all attendees of the film.  Although I wasn’t around when the movie premiered, it’s fun to picture what it must have been like to be among the audience, sporting a cheesy Rasputin beard, watching the film, along with the second flick on the double bill, The Reptile.  Admittedly, I’d still love to have one of the fake beards, but alas, I have to be content with my own, considerably shorter, real version.  But I digress…

Hammer’s take on the Rasputin story, filmed on many of the same sets as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, represented a welcome departure for Christopher Lee from his typical horror roles.  While budget-conscious Hammer frequently recycled set pieces from one movie to another, Rasputin: The Mad Monk does a nice job of convincing us we’re witnessing a different time and place, apart from the production company’s other period films.  On the other hand, the prevalence of Cockney accents in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg is never explained. We scarcely notice, however, thanks to convincing costumes, solid acting from a talented cast, and the skillful redressing of familiar sets with new props.

Christopher Lee is outstanding in his role as the enigmatic mystic Grigori Rasputin, a man with the power to heal, but a propensity towards creating mayhem.  He appears suitably imposing with his tall frame, long scraggly hair and flowing beard.  While the script took many liberties with the historical elements, Lee took pains to ensure his performance retained the basic integrity of the real-life Rasputin, through extensive research.*   He presents Rasputin as an individual with many contradictions: a holy man with a gift for healing, a womanizer, and a ruthless schemer. He’s a demon to some, and a savior to others.  Lee was quick to note in his DVD commentary, however, that Rasputin was widely regarded by the commoners as a hero, and believed his reputation as a healer was founded in reality.  One indisputable fact about Rasputin, which Lee masterfully illustrates, was his propensity for making people bend to his will.  The peasant-born Rasputin finds a way to win the good graces of the Russian aristocracy through Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady in waiting to the Empress, whom he uses for his own purposes.  She’s merely a means to an end, to discard when she can serve no further purpose.  He debases her, but somehow she’s drawn to him by the sheer force of his magnetic presence.

* Lee was fascinated by the subject from an early age.  As a young boy he was introduced to two of the five co-conspirators who had plotted to kill Rasputin.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk fudges with the historical facts, not by laziness on the part of the filmmakers, but by design.  According to Lee many details in the script were changed at the last minute, primarily due to legal considerations.  Prince Felix Yusupoff (alternatively, Yousoupoff or Yusupov, depending on which authority you believe), one of Rasputin’s assassins, served as a consultant, insisting on the omission or alteration of characters, as well as the specifics regarding Rasputin’s death.  The real story behind Rasputin’s death (which included poisoning, shooting, beating and drowning) is far stranger than his comparatively prosaic demise in the film. 

It’s too bad the finished result is a bit slight, compared to the historical events that inspired it.  The 91-minute running time seems all too brief for a story of this magnitude, lacking the epic sweep that the source material demands, but Lee’s stellar performance, which ranks among his best, steals the show.  The concessions made to Prince Yusupoff caused the filmmakers to pull their punches, resulting in a good but not quite great film.  Faults aside, Rasputin: The Mad Monk stands as an underrated Hammer effort, bolstered by Lee’s spirited portrayal of one of history’s most misunderstood individuals.