Sunday, May 28, 2017

May Quick Picks and Pans – Exploitation Month

Black Belt Jones (1974) Director Robert Clouse’s follow-up to Enter the Dragon is a real hoot, starring Jim Kelly (who also appeared in Enter the Dragon) as the kick-ass, take-no- prisoners title character. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, working with the cops to take down a powerful mafia don. When the crime lord’s goons rough up and accidentally kill Black Belt Jones’ mentor, Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers), you know there’s going to be hell to pay. Byrd’s estranged daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry) shows up, to join in on the chop-socky action. Kelly strikes the right balance between charisma and conceit, to keep us engaged throughout. Black Belt Jones is full of fast-paced, high-energy fight scenes from start to finish, leading up to an inventive soap suds-infused climax in a truck wash. Check it out!

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (aka: They Call Her One Eye) (1973) This might just be the consummate grindhouse flick, with its combination of sleaze, sex, blood and revenge. Christina Lindberg plays Frigga, a young woman who was left mute after a traumatic childhood incident. She misses her bus into town, and unwisely accepts a ride from Tony, a con man posing as a business traveler. He separates Frigga from her family, gets her hooked on heroin and puts her to work as a prostitute. When Frigga shuns one of her customers, Tony gouges her eye out (Not so fun fact: a real cadaver was used for the scene).

The second half of the movie concerns Frigga plotting to get even with Tony and the other people who destroyed her life. We witness her training in karate, shooting and driving, which leads to the film’s satisfying conclusion. Thriller is marred by some gratuitous hardcore sex scenes (depending on which version you see), and it’s definitely not for the squeamish, but it really delivers the goods. It’s Swedesploitation at its finest.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) Director Bob Kelljan’s quickie follow-up to the surprisingly entertaining Blaxploitation horror Blacula never quite reaches the levels of its predecessor, but it’s mildly entertaining. Mamuwalde, the titular vampire, is revived through black magic, unleashing his wrath once more. He’s torn between his bloodsucking ways and trying to lift the centuries-old curse. Pam Grier co-stars as Lisa Fortier, a voodoo practitioner who attempts to help. Nothing seems quite as novel as the first time around, and the production seems even cheaper than the last (most of the story is confined to one house), but Marshall gives it his all in the main role.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

 Caged Heat (1974) With so many women-behind-bars flicks preceding it to form a template, Caged Heat probably could have written itself, but producer Roger Corman had an ace up his sleeve with writer/director Jonathan Demme. Demme brought a personal touch to the story, humanizing the prisoners, despite the requisite T&A shots that the sub-genre demanded. Cult film icon Barbara Steele is good as the repressed Superintendent McQueen, who preaches a policy of tough love for the inmates. Warren Miller is suitably creepy as the warped psychiatrist Dr. Randolph. Caged Heat never quite rises above the clichés and conventions of women behind bars movies, but gives us a little bit more to chew on.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Multiple Maniacs (1970) Produced on a budget of $5,000, John Waters’ second feature film leaves no stone unturned in its quest to offend. Shot around his native Baltimore on 16 mm black & white reversal stock, Multiple Maniacs captures a moment in time for Waters and his Dreamland crew, satirizing religion, the Manson murders, arthouse sex flick and hippies. Lady Divine and Mr. David (played by Waters regulars Divine and David Lochary) run a traveling sideshow, the Cavalcade of Perversion, which is nothing more than a front to rob middle-class suburbanites. I can’t say this is a “good” movie in any sense of the word, but for better or worse, it held my attention (think of it as a dress rehearsal for Waters’ next movie, Pink Flamingos). Even if it left me scratching my head on more than a few occasions (Divine is raped by a giant lobster), you have to applaud Waters for his chutzpah (be sure to listen to his articulate and funny commentary on the Criterion disc).

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) On the surface, there’s nothing particularly special about this western, with its clichéd story about a puppet sheriff caught in a feud between two factions,* but I’d wager you’ve never seen anything quite like it. The Terror of Tiny Town stars a cast comprised entirely of little people, billed as “Jed Buell’s Midgets” (as if they were his personal property). You’ll probably wonder why someone felt this one-note gimmick was enough to sell tickets, but thanks to the 62-minute running time, you won’t have much time to be bored.

 * Watch for the bandits with an endless supply of bullets (“Did I fire 50 shots or only five?”).

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Cannibal Girls (1973) Director Ivan Reitman’s Canuxploitation cheapie keeps its narrative tongue firmly planted in its proverbial cheek. Cannibal Girls’ biggest claim to fame was its “warning bell” that would sound in the theater when something of an “especially erotic or gruesome nature” would appear on the screen. Oh, promises, promises. Pre-SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin star as newlyweds vacationing in a small town outside Toronto. Somehow, their lives become intertwined with an urban legend about three women in a farmhouse who lure lonely men to their doom. In the DVD interview, Reitman confided that he and his crew weren’t working from a complete script, and it shows. The plot, if it could be called that, is uneven at best, but the film has its moments. The best scene involves Ronald Ulrich as the Reverend Alex St. John, a shifty backwoods restaurant proprietor, who spins morbid stories about the establishment’s history. Levy and Martin also have good chemistry together, but the movie just doesn’t quite gel. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, nor scary enough to be a credible horror film.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Wizard of Gore (1970) A more apt title for this Herschell Gordon Lewis film could have been The Wizard of Bore. Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) runs a show that requires audience participation for his macabre illusions. The only trouble is, the volunteers end up dead several hours later. Sherry Carson (played by Judy Cler in her only film role) hosts a local TV show, and her newspaper reporter boyfriend Jack (Wayne Ratay) discover there’s more to Montag’s story than meets the eye.

Lewis seemed to have cribbed the plot from a shampoo bottle (the “lather, rinse, repeat” part), with its drawn out set-up and repetitive torture scenes. When Jack balks at having to go back to watch Montag’s show, all I could think was, Yeah, I’m right with ya, pal.”
Compared to the movies from the director’s “Blood Trilogy,” the killer has no apparent motive. In Blood Feast, Fuad Ramses killed to fulfill an ancient Egyptian prophecy. In 2,000 Maniacs, a small Southern town came to life (sort of like a homicidal redneck version of Brigadoon) to wreak vengeance on visitors from the north. Hell, even Adam Sorg, the tortured artist in Color Me Blood Red was motivated by the promise of notoriety. Montag just kills because he can. I give the film brownie points for its half-assed attempts at being mind-bending, but it doesn’t redeem it from eliciting yawns.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Man from Hong Kong

(1975) Written and directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith; Starring: Yu Wang, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward and Rosalind Speirs; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“It’s a convention for these kind of movies that five or six guys will attack the hero and he’ll just punch each of them in turn, then they’ll all get up again, and the trick is not to have people apparently waiting their turn too long.” – Brian Trenchard-Smith (from the DVD commentary)

Exploitation Month continues with a special category of film peculiar to the land down under, Ozploitation. If you want a quick and dirty primer on the weird and wild world of Australian exploitation, I heartily recommend the amazing documentary Not Quite Hollywood. One of the filmmakers featured in the documentary, Brian Trenchard-Smith,* helped define the new wave of Aussie exploitation cinema with his brand of explosive, take-no-prisoners filmmaking, starting with The Man from Hong Kong (aka: Dragon Flies). The Australian-Hong Kong (Golden Harvest) co-production, made on a budget of approximately $550,000 (Australian), manages to do a whole lot with very little. Of course, anyone familiar with the Golden Harvest martial arts films know they’re in for a golden harvest of whoop-ass, and boy does The Man from Hong Kong deliver.

* You owe it to yourself to seek out Trenchard-Smith’s fun and insightful trailer commentaries on Trailers from Hell. Each one is a mini-seminar in low budget filmmaking.

With Ayers Rock as a distinctive backdrop, two cops (played by Trenchard-Smith regular Roger Ward and Hugh Keays-Byrne)* track down and apprehend a drug runner (played by a 22-year-old Sammo Hung). In the space of a few minutes, we’re treated to an elaborate fight scene on top of the Australian landmark, and a fiery (literally) car chase sequence.** When the Aussie cops discover their suspect doesn’t speak English, they call in an overseas police inspector (Yu Wang) for help, thus providing our title.

* Fun fact: Ward and Keys-Byrne both appeared as opposite sides of the law in Mad Max (1979). Of course, the latter actor is probably best known for his role in the sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, as Immortan Joe.

** Another Fun fact: In the ensuing explosion, a car door flies off toward the camera. In his DVD commentary, Trenchard-Smith noted that the door missed the crew by only a couple of feet.

The Man from Hong Kong unabashedly displays its influences, with a strong James Bond vibe running throughout. It’s a master stroke of casting that the villain is played by none other than one-time 007 George Lazenby. Lazenby seems to enjoy his role as the ruthless kingpin, Jack Wilton, who controls an extensive network of drug and prostitution rings. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but not above stacking the deck in his favor.

As a protagonist, Fang Sing Leng (Yu Wang) is lacking, just slightly less amoral than Wilton. He’s equally misogynistic, and almost sociopathic in his thirst for vengeance (arguably the same deficits lobbed at the character’s famous British counterpart). One of his sexual conquests, Angelica (Rebecca Gilling), nurses him back to health, and enjoys a brief, torrid romance (told through an obligatory cheesy montage), only to be discarded when she’s no longer essential to the plot. Then again, it’s easy to argue Fang Sing Leng’s casual violence and sexism is a conscious effort to simultaneously spoof the modern action hero archetype and pay homage to the genre.

The Man from Hong Kong has enough over-the-top stunts and supercharged action scenes for ten other movies. Action’s the main attraction, with one spectacular sequence after another: the aforementioned opening scene, hang gliding over Hong Kong and Sydney, an octane-fueled car chase, and our hero taking on an entire karate dojo.* Fans of Aussie action flicks will likely recognize actor/stuntman Grant Page** as an assassin (he also appeared in Road Games, which was covered here a couple of months back). Page provided many of the stunts, doubling for Jimmy Wang Yu in a climbing scene (without a harness), and the film’s hang gliding sequences.

* Watch for the director in a cameo, appearing as the karate studio manager. He gets beaten up and thrown through a glass window by Yu Wang, and for good measure, is beaten up again on the roof of an elevator. Trenchard-Smith remarked that his star didn’t pull his punches in their scenes together, a likely byproduct of their often contentious working relationship.

** Page suffered a wardrobe malfunction in a restaurant fight scene, splitting his pants. It didn’t deter Grant or the crew from continuing to film the scene.

Not all of the movie’s elements have aged well, with some casual racism and xenophobic remarks. The dialogue hits a low point when one of the white policemen cracks a “yellow peril” joke. Nevertheless, you have to give the film credit where it’s due, with an attempt to tip the scales in the favor of the hero. Trenchard-Smith stated that he wanted to make a statement of sorts by staging love scenes between an Asian man and Caucasian woman, something that was against the grain for movies from this era.

As an action flick, The Man from Hong Kong is beyond reproach, boasting excellent fight scenes, fast-paced car chases and a stellar cast. It’s just a shame some of the previously noted trespasses bring it down a notch. With only a few reservations, however, this Bond-on-a-budget movie does a damn fine job of keeping us entertained.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cinematic Dregs: Nude on the Moon

(1960) Directed by Doris Wishman (credited as Raymond Phelan); Written by Raymond Phelan   and Doris Wishman; Starring: Marietta, William Mayer and Lester Brown;
Available on DVD

Rating: *½

“Don’t you understand? I’m in love. For the first time in my life, I care for someone. It’s strange, but it’s wonderful.” – Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown)


Time sure flies in the movie blogging world (Are we having fun yet?). It’s been nearly a year since my previous edition of Cinematic Dregs, and what better choice for my exploration of cinema’s worst, than Nude on the Moon,* from infamous cheapie Florida-based sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman? Ms. Wishman started out with the “nudie cuties” (including today’s specimen), which were strictly look-but-don’t-touch affairs between the characters, and eventually graduated to the “roughies,” featuring graphic sex and violence (such as Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell). When the “roughie” became passé, Wishman and her contemporaries branched out into horror and hardcore sex films – but I’m jumping ahead. Nude on the Moon belongs to a more innocent time, when audiences (consisting predominantly of lonely men, I’d wager) didn’t expect much more than a little jiggling flesh. By these admittedly low standards, Nude on the Moon delivers – sort of. As Michael Weldon pointed out in his Pyschotronic Video Guide, the film’s title is a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate title would have been Topless on the Moon, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

* Because I must have a masochistic streak, I asked my dear Twitter followers to help me decide which film I would inflict upon myself for Exploitation Month.

 Sometimes, a rocket is just a rocket.

The paper-thin plot concerns two scientists, Professor Nichols (William Mayer) and Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown) who decide they don’t need any stinkin’ NASA, and plan a DIY moon mission. Nichols wants his colleague to settle down, but Huntley is all work, proclaiming, “science is my life, and nothing else” (It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to guess the moon won’t be the only heavenly body that attracts his attention before the movie’s over.). Thanks to a convenient $3 million* inheritance, the scientists build their own rocket and arrive safely on the lunar surface, which looks an awful lot like Florida. They proceed to record their observations, and by “record their observations,” I mean ogle various moon women (Or moon people, or whatever the heck they call ‘em. My brain hurts.) cavorting about their “moon” compound. And that’s about it, for two thirds of the movie. Although it’s a scant 70 minutes, you’d swear you were watching a four-hour extended cut.** If nothing else, Wishman vindicates Einstein’s theory that time is relative to the observer.

* Quite a bargain, considering NASA’s Apollo program cost $25.4 billion in 1973 dollars.

** Note: No such cut exists. If it does, I don’t want to know about it, because it would almost certainly violate the Geneva Convention guidelines regarding torture.

The first third of the film isn’t any better, consisting of boring conversations between the two scientists. In a half-assed nod to scientific accuracy, we’re treated to a serious discussion about the temperature range on the moon, but I wonder why they bothered at all. Considering everything that follows, all bets are off. Wishman and her crew spared every expense to ensure any shred of veracity was eliminated. When the two scientists board their rocket, it’s obviously just a conventional airplane. The frolicking moon denizens sport a set of antennae on a head band, which resemble a first grade craft project. The space suits worn by the two men look like they were cobbled together from a dime store. They communicate to each other through radios, although their helmets are open to the air.

Nude on the Moon’s one claim to fame is that it was shot at the famous Coral Castle near Miami, Florida, a remarkable assortment of enormous sculptures, created by one man over the course of 28 years. Alas, the story behind the monument’s construction, long shrouded in mystery, would have been much more compelling than anything in this movie.

It helps to have the proper perspective when watching Nude on the Moon, although that probably won’t stop you from experiencing crippling boredom. It’s the product of a bygone era when watching nearly naked women frolic in a natural setting was more than enough for the early ‘60s trenchcoat crowd to get their jollies. Nothing like it was being produced by the major film companies of the time, so for those who actually paid admission, it was the proverbial forbidden fruit. As a modern-day film watching experience, however, it’s an exercise in tedium. Your enjoyment depends largely on how much kitsch you can stand. Those looking for the more prurient aspects will probably be disappointed.