Monday, December 28, 2020


Rollercoaster Poster

(1977) Directed by James Goldstone; Written by Richard Levinson and William Link; Story by Sanford Sheldon, Richard Levinson and William Link; Suggested by a story by Tommy Cook; Starring: George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino and Susan Strasberg; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

"The shot is this…The camera is in a helicopter, flying directly in front of a speeding roller coaster. The roller coaster goes up, down, around – so does the helicopter. Then, suddenly, the helicopter peels off to one side. For one sickening instant, the audience thinks the roller coaster has jumped the rails. Then we cut to another camera and we see that everybody is still OK." – James Goldstone (excerpted from 1976 interview with Roger Ebert)

“Just don’t underestimate him. He’s rigged two accidents in two parks 2,000 miles apart, in one week without leaving a trace. That means a working knowledge of structural engineering, demolition, and probably electronics. You’re not dealing with some nut with a bomb on a plane.” – Harry Calder (George Segal)

Ocean View Park

The word “rollercoaster” has a polarizing effect on people, evoking feelings of utter joy or abject disdain and terror. As a lifelong rollercoaster enthusiast, you can surmise which camp I fall into. There’s something about the rhythmic clickety-clack of the lift chain, the pungent smell of the wheel grease, and the screams of the riders that gets my serotonin flowing. The trip downhill is merely icing on the adrenaline-laced cake, as the perceived dangers give way to exhilaration. Produced by Jennings Lang (responsible for Earthquake, and three of the four Airport movies), Rollercoaster capitalized on the thrills of this enduring amusement park attraction, while exploiting the perils. Filming on a budget of $9 million, James Goldstone shot on location at three amusement parks (more on this in a moment),* capturing the sights and sounds** of the thrill ride experience.

* Fun Fact #1: According to original story writer Tommy Cook, the filmmakers made a list of potential amusement parks to film in, but several parks declined due to the negative implications. I suppose the management for the parks that participated figured no publicity was bad publicity.

** Fun Fact #2: This was the third film released in Sensurround after 1974’s Earthquake, and 1976’s Midway, utilizing a sound system developed by Universal and Cerwin-Vega. The process exploited low-frequency audio effects (likely rattling a few fillings in the process), using powerful subwoofers to enhance the action.

Coaster Crash

A fun-filled evening at Ocean Park ends in tragedy when a rollercoaster train careens off the track, leaving a pile of bodies in the wreckage. Enter safety inspector Harry Calder (George Segal), who suspects there’s something more than mechanical failure behind the accident. His suspicions are reinforced, days later, when fire breaks out in an attraction at Wonderworld in Pittsburgh. Soon, he becomes unwittingly linked to the incidents after he receives phone calls from the mystery bomber. Calder becomes a pawn, thrown between the assailant and the FBI. Meanwhile, the warped mastermind behind the bombings tracks their every move, staying one step ahead.

Magic Mountain Revolution

One of Rollercoaster’s charms is that it provides a snapshot of three amusement parks in all their mid-70s glory, starting with Ocean View Park* in Norfolk, Virginia, Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, and Magic Mountain,** located just outside Los Angeles County, in Valencia, California. I suspect that Wonderland, a fictitious fourth park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stood in for the historical Kennywood (not featured in the movie). On a personal note, Magic Mountain’s Revolution was my introduction to the big leagues, with regard to rollercoasters. At the tender age of eight, instigated by my oldest brother (10½ years my senior), I graduated from kiddie coasters to the “white knuckle” rides, and never looked back. But the Magic Mountain connections don’t end there, folks. My aforementioned brother worked a summer at the park in the mid-‘70s, followed by me, 10 years later. But I digress…

* Fun Fact #3: Sadly, the 1929 vintage rollercoaster The Rocket, featured in the film’s opening, shut down in 1978, and was demolished in 1979. Thankfully, however, you can still enjoy rides on the Rebel Yell (Re-named “Racer 75”) and the Revolution (now known as the “New Revolution”).

** Fun Fact #4: Before Six Flags acquired Magic Mountain in 1979, installing the ubiquitous Looney Tunes characters, the once privately owned park employed their own mascots, including trolls and a wizard (both of which make brief cameos in the movie).

George Segal

Unlike many disaster movies from the era, Rollercoaster doesn’t waste a lot of time with a boring soap opera subplot. Instead, the film focuses on its flawed but relatable protagonist. In his introductory scene, the recently divorced Harry tries and fails to kick his smoking habit. When he’s not working, he tries to make time for his amiable girlfriend Fran (Susan Strasberg) while not alienating his teenage daughter Tracy (played by a very young Helen Hunt). He’s more than competent at his job, but excels at irritating his boss, Simon Davenport (Henry Fonda),* and manages to be a  thorn in the side of unflappable FBI agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark). The nonconformist square-peg-in-a-round hole trope is nothing new, but Segal makes the character his own, adding a much-needed splash of levity to an otherwise deadpan film.

* In one exchange, Davenport attempts to dress down Harry by telling him, “It’s your mouth. You never want to fit in.” Harry promptly retorts, “It depends where you want it fitted and what you want to put, Sy.”

Timothy Bottoms

 The film received some criticism when it was released, because we never learn about the origins of Timothy Bottoms’ character (listed in the credits as “Young Man). In one scene, he hits all the targets at a midway shooting gallery, leading the carnie running the game to peg him as ex-military. As originally written in Tommy Cook’s treatment, the bomber was a demolitions expert who had trouble finding employment after he left the army. In this instance, a little ambiguity about the character’s motivation goes a long way, leaving things open to speculation. As a grinning sociopath with a boy-next-door appearance, we see everything we need to know about him. Any additional details would be window dressing.

Widmark & Segal

The weakest spot of the film threatens to derail (pardon the pun) the authenticity established by filming in the three real-life parks. The second incident takes place (mostly offscreen) at the fictitious Wonderworld park in Pittsburgh, leaving me to speculate that the filmmakers couldn’t secure the rights to shoot at Kennywood. Instead, we’re left with what appear to be a few hastily prepared signs and some emergency vehicles. As much as I enjoyed the trip through memory lane,* the third act, at Magic Mountain, could have benefited from some editing to ratchet up the tension. While Rollercoaster isn’t perfect, it remains my favorite 1970s disaster movie. Despite the main thrust of the premise, the takeaway isn’t that amusement parks are inherently dangerous places to visit (as my mom always warned me), but they’re a lot of fun. Rollercoaster successfully captures the excitement of being there, along with the bewildering sensory overload, sensations of the rides, and overindulgence in junk food. Now, you can enjoy it from the comfort and safety of your living room, without the overpriced ticket prices, crowds or pandemic concerns. So, fasten your seatbelts, roll down your lap bar, and remember to keep all limbs inside the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop.

* Fun Fact #5: Fans of the influential rock band Sparks will undoubtedly enjoy their appearance in the latter part of the film. While Sparks were not exactly a household name in their native U.S., they went on to wider acclaim overseas. Yours truly saw them perform at (you guessed it) Magic Mountain in the early ‘80s, and much like the venerable Revolution, they’re still chugging along after all these decades.

Sources for this article: “Interview with James Goldstone and Jennings Lang,” by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times; Interview with Writer Tommy Cook (DVD extra)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Short Take: Crack in the World

Crack in the World Poster

 (1965) Directed by Andrew Marton; Written by Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet; Story by Jon Manchip White; Starring: Dana Andrews, Janette Scott, Kieron Moore and Alexander Knox; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“Someone once said, if a man had a chance to spend his life fishing, making love and watching things grow, and didn’t choose to do it, he was mad. I made that choice a long time ago.” – Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews)

Crack in the world

Some of my fondest childhood memories involved watching movies depicting worldwide cataclysmic events – the more hopeless, the better (yeah, I was a weird kid). I was inexplicably drawn to these depictions of unbridled hubris and its consequences, often accompanied by a mad dash to set things right. One of my TV mainstays was Crack in the World, a B-actioner with A-level ambitions. Like many films of its kind, it was a cautionary tale, reminding us there were some things that humankind shouldn’t tamper with. In this case, we should have listened.

Project Inner Space

Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews), head of Project Inner Space,* leading an international team of scientists,** stands on the brink of a monumental scientific breakthrough. His plan: to pierce the Earth’s mantle*** with the aid of a missile carrying a 10-megaton thermonuclear device, to access the magma, a source of virtually limitless power. Fellow scientist Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) doesn’t think this is such a great idea, theorizing the mantle, already weakened by nuclear testing around the globe, would shatter and tear the Earth apart. Guess who’s right? Naturally, the governing authorities permit Sorenson to proceed with his project. Initially, Rampion is forced to eat his words; that is, until Sorenson’s team starts observing tangible signs that the planet is about to crumble into bits, with a vast undersea rift, massive earthquakes and tidal waves (Nope, the world’s biggest tube of Crazy Glue isn’t going to fix this). When asked if the world will come to an end, he matter-of-factly replies, “The world as we know it, yes. As a cloud of astral dust, it will continue to move within the solar system” (Talk about putting a positive spin on a terrible situation). At this point, Rampion takes charge, in a last-ditch effort to find a way to repair the damage before it’s too late. 

* Fun Fact: Crack in the World was filmed in Spain, standing in for the East African country of Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania). 

** And by “international,” I mean there’s a token smattering of non-Caucasian researchers. If they’re lucky, they get a line or two of dialogue. 

*** Another Fun Fact: The deepest hole on earth is the KolaSuperdeep Borehole, located in the Russian Arctic Circle, at 40,230 feet (or 12.2 km), which is about a third of the way to the Earth’s mantle. Drilling ceased in 1992, when the project ran out of money.


Love triangle

Crack in the World relies on a time-worn love triangle subplot, with Dr. Sorenson’s wife, Maggie (Janette Scott) at its apex. It’s too bad Sorenson, who wants to be right above all else, is more in love with himself than anyone else. She talks about starting a family, but he has other things on his mind, concealing the fact that he’s stricken with an unspecified terminal illness. Meanwhile, Rampion still holds a torch for her, and she hasn’t exactly shaken him from her system, either. As Sorenson pushes her away, she finds herself torn between Sorenson and slightly less self-aggrandizing narcissist Rampion. In typical pre-70s style, Maggie’s work is overshadowed by her male colleagues, and she becomes little more than another pretty face, with her self-value tied to whichever man she’s attached to.


Despite some obvious matte paintings and visible matte lines, the special effects are quite good for the time; much better, by comparison than the similarly themed, CGI-laden Earth-in-peril film, The Core (2003), made almost 40 years later. The effects, which also utilize miniatures and stock footage, integrate fairly well with the action. While the film spends too much time with a love triangle subplot that no one cares about and some primeval sexual politics, the scenes of planetary peril more than make up for any deficits. To its credit, Crack in the World doesn’t spend a lot of time proselytizing about tampering with nature, and the ending provides a nice surprise. It’s the kind of movie that seems extinct today, delivering scope and spectacle on a modest budget. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Fly the Unfriendly Skies: The Airport Movies



During a time when global travel is inadvisable or outright restricted, most of us can only dream about flying off to exotic, faraway locations, let alone enjoying frivolous travel within our own country. Back in the weird and wacky 1970s, Hollywood set its sights on every conceivable sort of calamity as a potential cash cow. One of the most enduring relics from this era were the Airport movies. Over the course of the decade-long series, four installments, each more audacious than the former, graced the silver screen. They were products of their time in the best and worst ways, featuring ridiculous feats of heroism, an expansive cast of recognizable faces from old and (then) new Hollywood, and quotable dialogue. On the other hand, the Airport movies reflected some aspects of a previous decade best left behind, with borderline racist comments, rampant workplace sexism, and atrocious fashions. Watching the Airport movies, we’re at once reminded of the rewards of travel and its inherent dangers. Considering the string of disasters depicted in these films, however, we’re reminded, on second thought, we’re probably better off staying home.

Airport Poster


(1970) Written and directed by George Seaton; Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey; Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton; Available on Blu ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“It’s an old-fashioned, formula entertainment. It’s not art, it’s fun.” – Producer Ross Hunter (from 1986 L.A. Times interview by Dennis Hunt)


Airport general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is having a rough night at (the fictional) Lincoln International. After spending a few too many long days at the office, managing crisis after crisis, his marriage to stuffy, waspish Cindy (Dana Wynter) is on the skids. He’s testing the bounds of his relationship with his assistant Tanya (Jean Seberg), while she ponders transferring to another position. Meanwhile, following the worst snowstorm in years, the airport is in danger of operations screeching to a halt, as Bakersfeld’s ground crew struggle to keep the runways clear with limited equipment. And if that isn’t enough, he’s faced with a public relations nightmare as a group of angry homeowners protest the noisy flyovers by airliners.

But that’s not all, folks…


Enter Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest a philandering pilot who’s coming to grips with the fact that his stewardess girlfriend Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset) is pregnant. Fold into this complicated batter Ada Quonsett, a plucky little old lady (Helen Hayes), with a talent for sneaking on flights. As Bakersfeld soon learns, the serial stowaway has more than a few tricks in her arsenal to elude unsuspecting airport officials (Who needs frequent flyer miles when you have her dubious skill set?). We’re also introduced to unflappable chief mechanic Joe Patroni, played with zeal by George Kennedy (Get used to that character, folks, because he provides a thread of continuity between the first movie and the sequels). Snow plows be damned, he’s determined to free a stranded 707,* if he has to do it himself. Oh, and last but not least (in what’s arguably the focal point of the film), down-on-his-luck ex-demolitionist, Guerrero (Van Heflin), takes the idea of bringing his work home with him just a smidge too seriously, boarding a 707 bound for Rome (flown by Vernon). Armed with a bomb and a flight insurance policy worth more than 200 grand, he intends to detonate the aircraft over the ocean, where there’ll be no traceable evidence.  

* Fun Fact #1: Petroni makes a point that the aircraft in question costs $8 million (or about $54 million in 2020 dollars), a lofty sum in 1970. For comparison, a new Boeing 787 will set you back about $170 million.


Much like many of the big American cars that came out of that era, Airport is a clunky, inefficient machine with more style than substance. It takes half the movie to arrive at the main conflict (Arguably 30-45 minutes could have been cut from the film, and no one would have complained). Also, Airport suffers from an abundance of split screens. What begins as a cute little stylistic flourish is repeated ad nauseum, to the point where you’ll be prompted to scream, “Enough already!” To his credit, writer/director George Seaton keeps multiple threads of Airport’s convoluted soap opera story going. Despite its myriad flaws, this ungainly bird somehow stays up in the air.

Airport 1975

Airport 1975

(1974) Directed by Jack Smight; Written by Don Ingalls; Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey; Starring: Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, Sid Cesar and Erik Estrada; Available on Blu ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Climb baby, climb.” – Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston)

Airport 1975

The Boeing 747 was a really big deal, in more ways than one when it entered service in 1970. You didn’t have to be an aviation enthusiast to appreciate its distinctive double-decker shape, massive proportions and luxurious amenities, which ushered in a new era of air travel. It’s therefore no surprise that the 747 should be the star of Airport 1975 (released in 1974). Disaster strikes (quite literally) when the airliner is diverted from L.A. to Salt Lake City, and the pilot (Dana Andrews) of a small private plane suffers a heart attack mid-flight. His craft collides with the huge passenger jet, leaving a gaping hole in the cockpit. In the blink of an eye, the number of personnel qualified to operate the plane drops to zero after the co-pilot is sucked out, the pilot (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is blinded by shrapnel, and the navigator (Erik Estrada) is killed by wreckage. All seems hopeless until intrepid stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) is forced to take the controls, with the help of ground control.

Airport 1975

Since this is an Airport movie, expect the requisite all-star cast, including Gloria Swanson, in her final film appearance, playing herself. Myrna Loy plays an alcoholic elderly lady. Sid Caesar appears as a chatterbox passenger, and Jerry Stiller spends most of the picture asleep while chaos reigns around him. In one scene that will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with a certain famous parody flick, see Helen Reddy as a singing, guitar-playing nun, entertaining Janice Abbott (Linda Blair), a sick kid awaiting a kidney transplant. George Kennedy is back as the irascible Joe Petroni, now a VP of operations for the fictional Columbia airlines. This time, there’s more at stake, with his wife and son, Joe Jr., aboard the damaged 747.

Airport 1975

No ‘70s disaster film would be complete without Charlton Heston (1974 was a busy year for Heston, who also appeared in Earthquake the same year) as ace flight instructor (and Pryor’s ex-boyfriend) Alan Murdock. He attempts a dangerous gambit by rappelling via helicopter to the damaged cockpit. Will he reach the cockpit in time, thus preventing an imminent tragedy? Will Murdock and Pryor patch up their relationship? I think you can guess the outcome, although the movie never addresses how the last-minute diversion to Salt Lake City affects poor Janice and her transplant. While the script conditions us to accept Murdock as the default hero, Nancy doesn’t get nearly enough credit for keeping the jumbo jet in the skies and preventing a passenger riot when they learn about the sudden shortage of pilots onboard. It’s difficult, nigh impossible, for modern viewers to imagine this film before Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams had the last word on airplane disaster flicks with their parody to end all parodies, Airplane! (1980), but that shouldn’t dissuade you from booking a ticket on Airport 1975.


Airport 77

Airport ‘77

(1977) Directed by Jerry Jameson; Written by Michael Scheff and David Spector; Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey; Starring: James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, Brenda Vaccaro, Joseph Cotten, Christopher Lee, Darren McGavin, Kathleen Quinlan and George Kennedy; Available on Blu ray and DVD

Rating: ***

Karen Wallace (Lee Grant): “If I weren’t such a sinner how would you look like such a saint? Isn’t that why we’re together? If it isn’t, tell me, and I’ll stop acting like an idiot.”

Martin Wallace (Christopher Lee): “Why should I, my dear? You’re so proficient at it.”

Airport 77

The third installment of the durable series takes things up another notch with the most unlikely premise to date: a hijacked 747 sinks in the Bermuda Triangle. This time around, the filmmakers do away with any pretense that we give a hoot about the airport-based drama, concentrating solely on the aviation disaster. Family, friends and press are invited to a gala event hosted by billionaire Philip Stevens (James Stewart) on his island estate. The guests board Stevens’ private 747, loaded with priceless artwork, bound for his new museum. But evil-doings are afoot, as an organized ring of thieves conspire to rob the plane of its valuable cargo, and strand the passengers and crew on an island. Soon after they take control of the plane (with the passengers and crew incapacitated), their plans go awry when a wingtip smacks into an offshore oil derrick, subsequently causing the plane to careen into the ocean. Somehow, the jumbo jet remains miraculously intact after hitting the water, retaining its structural integrity even while it sinks.* Any semblance of credulity is stretched to the breaking point as the survivors are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, pondering their respective fates. Call me skeptical, but I doubt Boeing ever considered the viability of one of their aircraft doubling as a submersible.

* Fun Fact #2: Visitors to Universal Studios in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (including Yours Truly) were treated to an attraction, Screen Test Theatre, where a few lucky audience members could participate in their own version of Airport ’77, and take home a copy for posterity.

Airport 77

Jack Lemmon is fine as stalwart pilot Don Gallagher, who risks life and limb (including learning how to scuba dive with Navy frogmen) to save the passengers. George Kennedy is back, reprising his role as Petroni (now employed by Stevens), although his character isn’t given much to do in this outing. In one brief scene, we learn that he’s been tasked to provide technical assistance to the U.S. Navy in their search and rescue operation. Expect the usual assortment of old and new Hollywood in the supporting cast. Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten lend some old-school class to the production. Darren McGavin lends his gruff but lovable persona as operations manager Stan Buchek (a name that suspiciously sounds like Kolchak). Christopher Lee, playing a non-villainous role for a change, appears as oceanographer Martin Wallace. His selfless efforts helping humankind with undersea research are contrasted with his selfish wife Karen (Lee Grant), who uses booze as an excuse for her terrible, entitled behavior (Hmm… Perhaps she was the original template for the “Karen” meme?). Blind piano player Steve (played by Tom Sullivan) sings the non-hit “Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder” (I’m sure the producers were looking for another “The Morning After,” but you’ll probably forget it as soon as it’s over).

Airport 77

Much like its predecessors, Airport ‘77 has more than its share of clunky elements, with plenty of plot holes and unresolved threads. It suffers from what seem to be excessive cuts – we don’t know enough about the characters and their relationships to care. Also, in several establishing shots, it appears that the nose of the jumbo jet is dangerously close to the precipice of a continental shelf, but nothing much is made of this. But undeveloped characters and missed opportunities aside, there’s something compelling in the premise, spurred by the 9-year-old inside us all, who asks “What if an airliner was stuck underwater?”* My suggestion? Make sure your chair is a reclined position while keeping your brain in standby mode, and enjoy a glass or two of your favorite beverage.

* Fun Fact #3: So, what does a commercial pilot think about such an unlikely scenario? Don’t count on it. Read more here.  

Airport 79

The Concorde: Airport 79

(1979) Directed by: David Lowell Rich; Written by Eric Roth; Story by Jennings Lang; Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey Starring: Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, George Kennedy, Sylvia Kristel, Eddie Albert, Bibi Andersson, Charo, John Davidson, Martha Raye and Jimmie Walker; Available on Blu ray and DVD

Rating: **

Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel): “You pilots are such... men.”

Capt. Joe Patroni (George Kennedy): “They don't call it the cockpit for nothing, honey.”

Airport 79

While notorious for many reasons, the 1970s also heralded some aviation milestones. The Concorde, one of the most ambitious (and ostentatious) examples of commercial aviation first flew in the late ‘60s, but didn’t enter service until 1976. The supersonic airliner, instantly recognizable for its sleek shape and delta wing configuration, was the vehicle of choice for the select few wealthy enough to afford a ticket. It was a symbol of excess that proved what was possible, if not particularly necessary. The same sentiment goes for this third and final sequel to Airport.

Airport 79

This time around, the filmmakers attempted to inject some intrigue into the mix, with a plot about corrupt arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) and his TV news reporter girlfriend, Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), who stumbles on documents proving that he participated in illegal arms trafficking. Now she’s become a target as Harrison, willing to go o any lengths to keep her silent, schemes to shoot down her plane.

Airport 79

Once again, George Kennedy appears as the series’ common thread, Joe Patroni. I may have lamented the fact that Kennedy was under-utilized in the previous film, but I was wrong – oh, so wrong. The filmmakers somehow forgot (or hoped that audiences forgot) Petroni was a flight mechanic by trade (the first film made a point of stating that he only had clearance to taxi aircraft), but we’re suddenly expected to believe he’s a seasoned pilot, qualified to fly one of the most advanced airliners ever built. Throw in a steamy love scene no one asked for, add enough toxic masculinity for ten movies, and watch any good will he fostered in the first and subsequent films fly out the window. Patroni’s French co-pilot, played by Alain Delon (probably wishing he was still doing films for Jean-Pierre Melville), mainly reacts to his brash American counterpart, while cavorting with comely flight attendant Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel). Sadly, flight engineer Peter O'Neill (David Warner) isn’t given much to do.

Airport 79

The passengers are played by the usual odd assortment of has-beens and marginal celebrities, reduced to lame comic moments. Eddie Albert plays Eli Sands, the wealthy owner of the airline that operates the sole American Concorde. Jimmie Walker spends some quality time with his saxophone, Martha Raye contends with her irritable bowels, and Margarita (played by Charo, the “Cuchi Cuchi girl and frequent Love Boat guest star), attempts to smuggle her chihuahua onboard.

(There are a few spoilers ahead, but I suspect most folks won’t care). What follows are a series of mind-numbing plot holes big enough to fly a fleet of Concordes through. Harrison attempts to shoot down the supersonic airliner with an experimental surface-to-air missile, but Petroni’s flying skills save the day. With his plans thwarted, Harrison deploys a hired gun in a fighter jet, equipped with heat-seeking missiles. Before the French military can intercept the rogue plane, Petroni puts the Concorde through some acrobatic evasive maneuvers, while shooting flares out of an open cockpit window, all presumably at supersonic speed (at this point, the filmmakers must have decided to eschew anything remotely plausible). Petroni’s damaged craft is forced to make an emergency landing in Paris, but it doesn’t stop there, dear reader. After the big kerfuffle in the sky, which in the real world would have certainly spurred a massive international investigation, and likely grounded the aircraft for an unspecified time, the Concorde is tidied up and departs for the final leg of the journey to Moscow. In a last-ditch attempt to down the airliner, Harrison arranges a phony maintenance man to sabotage a cargo door so it will open mid-flight, resulting in rapid decompression. Said maintenance man is caught by authorities after giving chase on the runway, with cash spilling out of his suit. Pop quiz – If you were in a position of authority would you A), Immediately order the Concorde back to the airport, or B) Allow it go on its merry way? If you chose “B,” congratulations! You unnecessarily endangered the lives of everyone aboard, leaving the crew to attempt a crash landing in the Swiss Alps.

Airport 79

 Produced for a middling $13 million, this was the most expensive of the Airport films, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any evidence on screen, with some truly awful special effects on display (considering this was the same year as Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Moonraker, it’s inexcusable). Airport ’79 turned out to be a disaster in more ways than one, with poor reviews and tepid box office performance. It’s hard to say much in the defense of this albatross, which brought the decade-long series to such an inauspicious end, but hey, we had a few laughs along the way, right? 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

November Quick Picks and Pans


Scarlet Street poster

Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang’s cynical noir drama is as bleak as they come, taking us to the darkest corners of human nature. Edward G. Robinson stars as Christopher Cross, a meek, middle-aged bank teller stuck in a loveless marriage to a domineering widow (Rosalind Ivan). His life takes a turn for the worse when he falls for a scheming young woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett). With the urging of her abusive grifter boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty takes credit for Christopher’s artwork, garnering the success he could never attain. The film is anchored by Robinson’s heartbreaking performance as a man who only wants to be loved and desired by a beautiful woman. It’s a Faustian bargain with no upside, as he sinks into a ruinous abyss, trading away his reputation at work and talent as an artist.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy

Death of a Cyclist Poster

Death of a Cyclist (aka: Muerte de un Ciclista) (1955) This Spanish noir from writer/director Juan Antonio Bardem ponders the futility of running away from one’s guilt. Juan (Alberto Closas) is a college professor, having an affair with the dean’s wife, Maria (played with icy conviction by Lucia Bosè). When they hit and run a bicyclist (who subsequently dies from his injuries), they conspire to keep things quiet. Juan’s personal and professional life goes downhill, as the incident gnaws away at his conscience. But while Juan wrestles with the ramifications, Maria remains determined to suppress the truth. Bardem’s morality tale painfully illustrates how one terrible event can change someone’s life forever, and how culpability isn’t necessarily an inherent human trait.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Crystal Eyes Poster

Crystal Eyes (aka: Mirada de Cristal) (2017) This Argentinian pseudo-giallo from writer/directors Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano is a fun ’80s retro-tinged throwback, replete with big hair and neon colors. After the accidental death of a top model, several of her cohorts vie for her coveted spot. Unfortunately for them, they don’t realize that a psychopath (wearing a disturbing mannequin mask) lurks in the wings to pick them off, one by one. The filmmakers accomplish a lot on what appears to be a microscopic budget (as long as you don’t scrutinize the sketchy makeup and old creepy mansion that looks suspiciously like a dollhouse), with some nice visuals and splashes of color (recalling Argento’s Suspiria). Sure, it’s nothing you haven’t already seen before, but it’s easy to appreciate the affection for the genre in every scene.

Rating: ***. Available on Tubi

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats Poster

 The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974) Nine self-absorbed people are invited to an old theater and subsequently locked inside for the night with a homicidal madman. I think you can guess where it goes from there. Director/co-writer Giuseppe Bennati’s giallo is moderately entertaining with the requisite kills and sexual hijinks, as long as you don’t spend much time questioning the logic of the characters. Instead of banding together against a common antagonist, they continue to bicker and split up. Although the performances are nothing special, the true star of this thriller is the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano, built in 1884, which provides some visual flair to the proceedings.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (PAL region 0) and Amazon Prime

The Pyjama Girl Case Poster

The Pyjama Girl Case (1978) This not-quite-a-giallo Italian murder mystery (shot in Australia) starts on a promising note, with a body discovered on the beach. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Ray Milland, whose agent obviously wasn’t turning down any offers at this point, is good as a retired police detective volunteering on the case, but he's not in the film nearly enough. The story chronicles the events leading up to the murder, and director/writer Flavio Mogherini doesn’t spare any of the sleazy details in the process. His movie favors wallowing in exploitive and voyeuristic sequences (a scene where a group of people ogle a nude corpse is especially off-putting), when it would have benefitted from tension and pathos.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


(1944) Directed by Otto Preminger; Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt; Based on the novel by Vera Caspary; Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

 Rating: ****

 “You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” – Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) to Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews)

“…I feel certain that the reason people responded as they do to that melody in the picture and on its own is that it’s about love, specifically about that yearning particular to unrequited love.” – Composer David Raksin, regarding Laura’s theme (from DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer)

All of us have probably met someone at some point who has an intoxicating effect on everyone he or she encounters. Their influence is so strong they can drive people to do things that would otherwise be considered unconscionable. One case in point is the title character from Otto Preminger’s noir classic, Laura, played by Gene Tierney. The film illustrates how such unbridled infatuation can become deadly. 

Laura followed a rocky road to production, as Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox set out to adapt Vera Caspary’s original story.* The screenplay went through several rewrites, with an initial draft by Jay Dratler. Ring Lardner Jr. was brought in for a re-write, with Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt giving the script a final polish. The casting also went through several permutations. According to the L.A. Times, Eva Gabor was once attached to the project as Laura Hunt** Several names were reportedly considered for Waldo Lydecker, including George Saunders, George Raft, and Laird Cregar (Zanuck’s pick). John Hodiak (also a favorite of Zanuck’s) was earmarked for the role of Lieutenant Mark McPherson, before Dana Andrews petitioned to fill the detective’s shoes. Reginald Gardiner was considered for Shelby Carpenter, before the role eventually went to Vincent Price. After several individuals passed on directing the film, Rouben Mamoulian was hired to take the helm, but was replaced by producer Otto Preminger after just 18 days of shooting.***

 * Fun Fact #1: Laura started as a serialized story in 1942, Ring Twice for Laura, before being compiled into a novel. The story was subsequently developed into a Broadway play, although the film version surfaced first, in 1944. Better late than never, the play eventually made its debut in 1947.  

** Fun Fact #2: Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role, but was replaced by Tierney when she failed to show up for filming. 

*** Fun Fact #3: Various stories abound about Mamoulian’s departure from the film: Did Mamoulian quit or was he fired? Well, it depends on whose version of events you accept.  One account attests that Mamoulian resigned after Preminger’s continued interference. According to Preminger, however, producer Zanuck was unhappy with Mamoulian’s progress on the movie. But according to Dana Andrews, Mamoulian wanted his Detective McPherson to be more intellectual, rather than the everyman in the final cut. Whichever version you prefer, Zanuck seemed to be the common denominator.


In the opening scene, we learn that the title character has been found dead in her apartment from an apparent shotgun blast to her face. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), an intrepid police detective, interviews the people who knew her best, narrowing down the list of suspects. He creates a composite of the woman at the center of the controversy, and her love triangle between wealthy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and younger suitor, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). As McPherson’s investigation approaches the truth, the tensions between the characters increase, and as we soon discover, not everything is as it appears.

Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s older gentleman friend, is the paragon of sophistication. He’s pompous and erudite, with an acerbic tongue. He possesses a singular penchant for eviscerating his foes with nothing but his wits and a poison pen. Yet in his dark, seemingly impenetrable heart, he reserves a soft spot for Laura. A flashback scene, illustrates how their first meeting doesn’t go so well, when she attempts to obtain his endorsement for an advertising campaign. He soon does an about face, apologizing for his abruptness. Through all the bluster and cynicism, Waldo is a hopeless romantic, vulnerable to Laura’s formidable charms.

The prime suspect is Laura’s ne'er-do-well fiancé Shelby Carpenter, a spineless would-be playboy with more moxie than money. Although he’s engaged to Laura, he doesn’t have the same level of dedication as Lydecker. When he’s not wooing her, he’s either cavorting with a young poster model, or frequently seen in the company of Laura’s wealthy (and significantly older) aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As portrayed by Price, he’s an opportunist, going wherever the wind blows.

 Lt. McPherson, is all business on the outside, but it’s apparent he’s probably been hurt more than a few times before. He refers to women as “dames,” much to the chagrin of Lydecker. The more he learns about Laura, the more he’s bewitched by her presence, and drawn to the mystery that surrounds her. One of his little personality quirks is his little handheld dexterity game with tiny ball bearings. While the game helps him concentrate, it’s clear that his real game is chess, playing one individual against the other to ferret out the killer. Despite Mamoulian’s dismissal from the film, his vision of depicting the cerebral side of McPherson still remains. We can practically see the gears inside McPherson’s head turning, as he works out the puzzle of the murder case.

Gene Tierney plays it cool as the enigmatic Laura Hunt. Either by accident or design, she plays the men against each other, exposing their relative weaknesses. Like a human Rorschach test, she’s every man’s dream, fulfilling their desires and appearing to them as anything they want her to be. Laura’s portrait figures prominently in many scenes throughout the film (including the first and last), taking on a life of its own. Its ubiquitous presence signifies her mesmerizing effect on the three male characters. Likewise, Laura’s theme, composed by David Riksin,* serves in a similar capacity, creating a haunting undertone and conveying the tantalizing effect of Laura as love unobtainable, love lost and love renewed.

* Fun Fact #4: Before Riksin was hired to create the score, composers Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann were approached, but passed on the film.

Laura isn’t about labyrinthine plotting (although there’s a nifty twist midway through the film), organized crime syndicates, or fight scenes. Instead, it’s a dialogue-driven character study, as one man attempts to determine what would bring a peaceful person to commit murder. As we gradually learn about the characters, we see what makes them tick – particularly what ticks them off. Despite the behind-the-scenes friction of the production, what appears on screen is nothing short of captivating. It’s a potent piece of alchemy, illustrating where romance and treachery intersect. By the film’s conclusion, we’ve all succumbed to Laura’s spell.

Source for this article: DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer                      

Monday, November 2, 2020

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2020

Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) (2017) In this surprising film by Brazilian writer/director team Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a young well-to-do pregnant woman hires Clara (Isabél Zuaa) as a personal assistant/nanny. Clara soon finds that her employer has some unusual nocturnal habits, which provide some clues about her unborn child. Good Manners holds its cards close to its chest, taking time to establish the main characters before delving into the more fantastical elements of the second half. The filmmakers employ a blend of visual styles and tones (including some brief musical interludes), weaving its tale of unselfish love and personal sacrifice. As in many werewolf movies (the creature is brought to life through a skillful combination of animatronics and CGI), there’s a tragic, fatalistic streak that runs throughout, about the immutability of changing one’s nature. It’s better not to know too much about this film going in, instead allowing the melancholy story to unfold.

 Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Kanopy


Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) “Horror Times,” a YouTube-style channel exploring the most haunted places on earth, sets its sights on an abandoned mental hospital (where multiple unexplained deaths occurred), considered one of the most haunted places on Earth. In an effort to get 1 million viewers, the host/show director Ha-Joon (Ha-Joon Wi) stacks the deck by staging some paranormal occurrences. He didn’t consider, however, that the restless spirits in the place would create their own disturbances for his team of investigators. Soon, Ha-Joon and the other team members are in a desperate struggle for their sanity and their lives. Director/co-writer Beom-sik Jeong’s found footage horror movie starts out light in tone, getting progressively tense as it approaches a grim conclusion. While, the individual components of the film are nothing new, it’s an intense experience that provides some genuine scares. See it before the inevitable American remake.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Popcorn (1991) This playful, affectionate ode to B-horror flicks and William Castle-esque gimmicks prefigures Joe Dante’s Matinee (1994) by a few years.  Ray Walston appears (in a cameo role) as Dr. Mnesyne, movie memorabilia collector extraordinaire. He provides vintage props for a group of college film students staging a movie marathon fundraiser. Unfortunately for the students, a homicidal maniac has other plans, as he lurks about the old movie house, picking off people one by one. As we soon discover, the killer has a vested interest in Maggie (Jill Schoelen), one of the student organizers. Popcorn never takes itself too seriously, seemingly anticipating the many self-referential horror films that followed in its wake. Some of the most enjoyable elements in the film are the “let’s put on a show” aesthetic, as well as the clever ‘50s-style parodies within the movie (which would make great features by themselves).

 Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Veerana (1988) This energetic film from purveyors of Bollywood horror, Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay, pushed the boundaries of what Indian censors would allow (it would probably be a PG in the States). After the succubus Nakita (Roy Kamal) is destroyed, an evil sorcerer (Rajesh Vivek) attempts to resurrect her spirit, placing a curse on a local family. He plans to bring her back through the family’s daughter Jasmine (Jasmin). The possessed young woman follows in Nakita’s footsteps, luring naïve men to their doom. Of course, there’s plenty of time for song and dance numbers, which have little to do with the plot, and pad out the running time. But fear not, dear reader; you never have to wait too long before something else occurs. There’s more going on in the opening credits sequence than most other movies. Veerana has something for everyone, with action, drama, suspense, romance, horror, gore, music and (bad) comedy.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (included in The Bollywood Horror Collection, Volume 2)

Hex (aka: Xie) (1980) In this demonic horror, Shaw Brothers style, a loutish, alcoholic man conspires with his mistress (posing as a servant) to scare his ailing wife to death. All goes as planned, until his deceased wife returns to punish the two lovers. Director/co-writer Chih-Hung Kuei’s film has several jarring tonal shifts, in which the drama with the abusive husband suddenly lapses into comedy. Also, if some of the musical cues sound suspiciously familiar, your ears aren’t deceiving you (some snippets of the soundtrack appear to have been lifted from Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture). It’s difficult to have sympathy for the unscrupulous couple’s dilemma, but it sets up the film’s most memorable final sequence, when a Taoist shaman attempts to exorcise the spell. Filled with style and detailed sets, it’s well worth a look, if you can find a copy.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2/3)


The Living Corpse (aka: Zinda Laash) (1967) Here’s a rarity, a Pakistani retelling of Dracula, thought lost for decades. Luckily for us, it’s been restored for future generations to enjoy. A mad scientist (Rehan) develops an elixir of life and tests it on himself. From that point onward, the movie more or less follows Bram Stoker’s story (albeit in a modern-day setting), as he becomes a bloodthirsty vampire. The filmmakers were obviously taking notes from Hammer’s version, rather than the Universal film, with Rehan’s more visceral take on the vampire. When he makes his entrance, walking down a staircase, it’s easy to imagine Christopher Lee following the same steps. On the other hand, The Living Corpse has some touches Stoker and Hammer never thought of, including several jaunty song and dance numbers (Also, the opening credits sequence inexplicably uses “La Cucaracha.”). In this version, the antagonist doesn’t transform into a bat. Instead of a ghostly carriage, he traverses point A to point B in a car. If you can accept the creaky set design and sillier aspects, it’s a fun repurposing of Stoker’s enduring character, worthy of re-discovery.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Even the Wind is Afraid (aka: Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo) (1968) In this gothic Mexican supernatural mystery from writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada, Claudia (Alicia Bonet), a girl at an exclusive prep school is haunted by the ghost of a former student who died under mysterious circumstances. Much to her dismay, she has a tough time convincing her fellow classmates (all of whom are portrayed by actresses in their 20s) or the stern headmistress (Marga López). Only the elderly groundskeeper Diego (Rafael Llamas, with fake gray hair) seems to believe her. It’s rather slow-paced but there are some tense scenes throughout, and an impromptu strip-tease livens things up. Although it’s short on action, it’s a great looking, atmospheric thriller, worth checking out.

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

Frankenstein 1970 (1958) A film crew prepares to shoot a horror movie in the real-life Frankenstein’s castle, home of the last living heir of the infamous scientist (Boris Karloff). We soon discover that the not so good doctor has ulterior motives, as the filmmakers disappear one by one. Despite the meta-possibilities of the premise, the majority of the movie is slow and plodding, much like the titular creature. An inordinate amount of time is wasted on a pointless subplot about the director’s ex-wife/screenwriter and a new starlet. Even though the material is less than inspiring, Karloff, ever the consummate professional, gives a quality performance as the ethically challenged mad scientist, obsessed with continuing the experiments of his ancestors. It’s not as bad as some reviews would lead you to believe, but it’s not good, either. For Karloff completists only.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Vampyres (1974) Two shapely vampire women (Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska, sans fangs) lure men, via hitchhiking, to their crumbling mansion, where they seduce them and drain them of their blood. Meanwhile, a couple camping in a trailer speculate about the strange goings-on in the nearby estate. There isn’t much to justify the film, with its weak plot and paper-thin story. The main characters are naked a lot, and the male characters are uniformly unlikable and condescending (I doubt anyone would mourn their passing). Ultimately, this pointless, exploitive exercise just reminded me of a British version of a Jean Rollin film or 1971’s Daughters of Darkness (albeit with less style, and making about as much sense).

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