Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Favorites :: Comic Books :: The Fine Art of Self-Defense in Five More Easy Lessons Courtesy of Lee Elias' The Black Cat (1946-1958)


"Since the success of judo depends on the swiftness of your 
counter-attack, it is essential to know more than one procedure."






For the first round of judo lessons and a brief history of Linda Turner, Hollywood starlet and stunt-woman by day and masked crime fighter The Black Cat by night, click right here

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Recommendations :: Hacking and Slashing Our Way Through Arrow Video's New Release of Larry Stewart's The Initiation (1984)


Plagued by a recurring nightmare, where, as a child, she wakes up holding onto a decapitated doll, follows some strange noises and stumbles upon her parents doing the horizontal bop, then stabs her father in the thigh with a pair of scissors, and then watches as another stranger enters the bedroom, who comes to blows with her father, which finds the stranger being tossed into the lit fireplace, whose flames quickly consume him, Kelly Fairchild (Zuniga) is ready to find some interpretive answers. Enrolled as a psych-major at the local college, Kelly turns to a grad assistant, Peter Adams (Reed), in the abnormal-psych department, who specializes in dream analysis for some advice on a term paper she wants to write in an effort to make this all-too-real night terror go away.



Adams offers to help if Kelly will volunteer for a study in support of his own doctoral thesis by hooking her up to several sensors and brainwave monitors while she sleeps and dreams, all ensconced inside his office -- more of a glorified janitors’ closet, really, along with his ever-suffering lab and research assistant, Heidi (Jones). Kelly agrees and relates the nightmare to Adams, who thinks Freud would have a field day with all the subconscious imagery and classic dream symbols involved (-- phallic stabbing of her father, fire, reflections). Here, Rachel also reveals she went through a bout of amnesia when she was a child after falling out of a tree-house, so she can offer no real answers to the origin of the dream because everything that happened before the age of seven is just gone.



Meanwhile, at a nearby sanitarium, one of the unbalanced patients clandestinely instigates a massive break-out to cover their own escape, stabbing the most abusive Nurse Ratchet surrogate to death for good measure. That night, Kelly’s parents, Frances and Dwight Fairchild (Miles, Gulager) receive a call from the very same institution, warning them about the deadly incident. They are also none too happy to hear about their daughter’s efforts to get to the bottom of her long-standing dream for reasons they keep very close to the vest, forbidding her from probing further -- advice she summarily ignores. And then, as her real estate entrepreneur father efforts to leave town on a business trip to secure the plot for his latest mall in Houston, Dwight is stabbed with the exact same hand rake that killed the nurse, and then gets his head lopped off by a machete by the still unseen killer.



Meantime, Kelly is also pledging a sorority with only one more obstacle to conquer to bring hell week to an end and achieve full sisterhood in Delta Rho Chi. And to accomplish this final pledge prank, Kelly and her fellow pledges, Marcia (Kagan) and Allison (Tylo), must break into one of her father’s malls and steal a security guard’s uniform and bring it back to Megan (Peterson), the bitchy rush chairwoman, who has a few surprises in store for her pledges once they’re locked inside the cavernous shopping center; namely a trio of wildcards by the name of Chad, Ralph and Andy (Bradley, Strout, Malof) sent in to scare them. However, the joke will soon be on all of them as the mystery killer is already inside, has offed the lone guard, and is now currently waiting in the shadows to pick them off one by one...



A prolific producer on the small screen, with shows ranging from The Wild Wild West (1966-1969), Mission: Impossible (1969-1972), Wonder Woman (1977-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980), Bruce Lansbury had just wrapped up The Powers of Matthew Star (1983), had some money burning a hole in his pocket, and was looking to spend some of it on a feature in hopes of cashing in on the waning slasher-boom before it finally bled out and died. One of his underlings, Scott Winant, got wind of this and looked up one of his old USC film school buddies, Charles Pratt Jr., and together, they successfully pitched the idea of a sorority prank gone horribly awry in a department store which triggers the prerequisite murder and mayhem.


Pratt Jr. was the son of Charles Pratt Sr., who had produced the vermin-fueled horror films Willard and Ben (1971, 1972) and the Buford Pusser Walking Tall trilogy (1973-1977), and was about to embark on a lengthy career writing for the soaps, including Santa Barbara, All My Children, General Hospital, and is currently the head writer on The Young and the Restless. This influence kinda shows up in The Initiation (1984) as there is a lot of sudsy melodrama, family skeleton subplots, and other soap opera elements to be found therein; a film of two very different halves that would prove just as schizophrenic as the lead character. (Sort of.) It didn’t help that the film was made by two different directors, which haunts the film and helps explain away its distinctive split personality.


Shot in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University, an abandoned Holiday Inn, and the Dallas Market Center -- a 5,000,000 square foot structure that technically wasn’t a mall but a wholesale trade center with showrooms occupying its multiple levels for home d├ęcor, apparel, fashion accessories, shoes, housewares, furniture, appliances and assorted gifts that was closed to the general public but open to bulk retail buyers, interior designers, and manufacturers -- the production only had a two week window to film before the limited budget dried up. But after only two days, while his footage looked spectacular, director Peter Crane was already two days behind schedule and was quickly removed from the picture and replaced with Larry Stewart, a veteran TV director, who quickly got the film caught back up. Alas, his speedy efforts lack the same delirious punch of Crane’s material (-- the dream sequence, the scenes at the mental hospital, and all the killer’s POV shots) and on this front the film never quite gels together properly.



As for the script itself it’s kind of a blatant mash-up of elements of Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Hell Night (1981), and the criminally underappreciated slasher, The House on Sorority Row (1983). Pratt does his best to sprinkle some clues and false leads and suspects into this mystery as The Initiation is officially a whodunit, with Adams digging into Kelly’s history to try and make sense of her dream when what she says doesn’t match with the data from his sensors.



Actually, it’s Heidi who unravels this mystery when she flexes her library-fu powers, which are mighty, as she pulls the string on the Fairchild family by digging into the microfiche of the Dallas Herald and what unravels proves that Kelly’s dream wasn’t a dream at all but repressed memories of catching her mother cheating on her father -- and it was her real father, Jason Randall (Dowdell), who wound up horribly burned when he caught Frances and Dwight in flagrante delicto! And who also wound up locked up in the very same asylum where all of this killing started -- he typed ominously. And then all of these threads converge at the mall, where a night of frights slowly devolves into everyone trapped inside pairing up and splitting off -- except for Kelly, who start bonkin’ and dying in that order by axe, arrow, harpoon and hunting knife. And as we reach the penultimate climax, turns out Pratt has a few more surprises up his sleeve to whomp the audience over the head.



As always, Arrow Video delivers a full payload, making the disc easy to recommend. The image and sound are clean and clear, with the usual double-sided box art, including the brilliant original poster that can be read on many Freudian levels. The package also includes an interview with Pratt, and two separate interviews with stars Christopher Bradley and Joy Jones, who all bring plenty of stories and anecdotes on the film’s accelerated production. There’s also a commentary track by the crew of The Hysteria Continues podcast, headed up by Justin Kerswell and the indispensable website, Hysteria Lives, and author of Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut. The track is jovial and enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit too crowded and hampered by “conference call” audio issues as each voice fights to be heard; and while it appears to be more about their history with the film and not the production itself stick with it as it gets meatier as it goes.



Taking into account its haphazard production history I’m going to let The Initiation skate on a lot of the stuff it trips and stumbles over. Miles and Gulager were both walking through this thing as fast as possible, but the rest of the cast -- Daphne Zuniga, Hunter Tylo, James Reed, Joy Jones, Trey Stroud, and Marilyn Kagan help things hack and slash along as the film achieves the rare air of not wanting to see any of these people listed get killed.



When it was released in late 1984 The Initiation was kind of marks the end of the first wave of slasher movies, where after it would no longer be about whodunit but howtheydunit.  Frankly, I was more intrigued by the opening two acts as we dig into Kelly’s fragile psyche before we reach the paint-by-numbers body count third act. There’s plenty of blood but the grue kinda takes a backseat during a lot of the kills for those who judge these kind of things on that level. (It feels like some of the gore has been restored but I think it was always there, we just couldn't see it on all those old chopped and cropped VHS prints.) And while the plot is kind of fun to unravel, the film p’rolly would’ve been better served to lose a couple of those subplots to tighten things up a bit because I think there’s a crackerjack 80-minute movie to be found in the 97 bloated minutes of The Initiation. As is, I like it well enough -- the final big twist isn’t a cheat and makes sense, and I’m a sucker for these things anyway, especially when we don’t know who is doing the killing and, sorry, no spoilers here, and can heartily recommend it on those grounds alone and with the latest Arrow effort makes this disc a complete no-brainer for slasher fans. 



The Initiation (1984) Georgian Bay Productions :: Bruce Lansbury Productions :: Jock Gaynor Productions :: Initiation Associates :: New World Pictures / EP: Jock Gaynor, Bruce Lansbury / P: Scott Winant / D: Larry Stewart / W: Charles Pratt Jr. / C: George Tirl / E: Ronald LaVine / M: Gabriel Black, Lance Ong / S: Daphne Zuniga, James Read, Marilyn Kagan, Hunter Tylo, Trey Stroud, Peter Malof, Christopher Bradley, Joy Jones, Robert Dowdell, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Taking Flight and Running the Risk of Looking Back at William Graham's Made for TV Movie, Birds of Prey (1973)


We open in the skies above Salt Lake City, Utah, where Harry “Smilin’ Jack” Walker skillfully zips around in the KBEX news helicopter, scouting the clogged turnpikes and thoroughfares, before calling in the eye-in-the-sky afternoon rush-hour traffic report. And, turns out, Walker (Janssen) will play an integral part in the radio station’s pending throwback weekend, where they’ll be playing nothing but big band standards in tribute to the 1940s and World War II. And part of this nostalgic promotion will include showcasing Walker’s own P-40 Warhawk that he flew as part of the American Volunteer Group in China, better known as the Flying Tigers. 



And as the opening credits roll, the music takes Walker back to his combat days via a flashback, courtesy of footage from David Miller’s The Flying Tigers (1942); and when they wrap, we cut to a highway, where Walker is now causing his own traffic jam with his wide load as he slowly tows the plane to the station.



Responding to all the complaints by furious motorists, Captain Jim McAndrew (Meeker), who flew in the same squadron as Walker, asks to see if his old friend has the proper permit to parade the plane around, which he does. (And judging by the number of Japanese flags on the fuselage, Walker was a Flying Ace.) Here, we also find out that Smilin’ Jack doesn’t really have a whole lot to smile about anymore. Feeling as antiquated as his plane, the only time Walker feels alive is when he’s either reminiscing about his glory days as a fighter pilot or in the air flying by the seat of his pants -- unlike his cop friend, who is now off the streets and ensconced behind a dispatcher’s desk. And as the two continue to trade barbs and reminisce about their time in the service nearly 30 years ago, McAndrew encourages his friend to start acting his age, let go of the past and start living in the present.



Meanwhile, two men stealthily break into a National Guard Armory and abscond with some heavy duty weapons, including a crate of grenades. And these they use later in a brazen daylight bank robbery, absconding with over $200,000 in cash and a female hostage, and flee the scene in a getaway car, leaving several dead guards behind them. Up in the air, Walker hears about the robbery over the scanner and takes up a pursuit, radioing in their location, description of the car, the license plate, and confirms the presence of a hostage to McAndrew. 




And when I say he follows them, I mean he FOLLOWS follows them, keeping the chopper perilously low, flying under underpasses, hugging the street, and taking tight corners around several buildings and does everything except land on them to keep a tab on these fleeing felons. 




In constant contact with McAndrew as he directs the pursuit, Walker is filled in on who he is pursuing: two former combat Marines, recently discharged after several tours in Vietnam, who know how to use those weapons they stole; and they’ve also identified the hostage as one of the bank tellers, Teresa Jane Shaw (Heilveil), who, on top of everything else, is due to be married in two days. And then this white-knuckle chase apparently comes to an end when the crooks duck into a parking garage, seemingly trapping themselves. But upon reaching the roof, turns out they have their own helicopter waiting for them. 



And while one of the robbers is shot and killed during the vehicle transfer, the hostage is used as shield to get everyone else on board safely. The getaway pilot then guns it for the city limits and the desert and mountains beyond, where there are plenty of places to hide, with the now highly expendable hostage’s only hope of rescue being Walker, who is still hot on their tail but is running dangerously low on gas...



Born in Naponee, Nebraska, David Janssen’s family moved to California and settled in Hollywood, where their teenage son soon developed an interest in acting. Signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox when he was just 18 he made his film debut in It’s a Pleasure (1945). But the studio quickly dropped him after becoming “disenchanted with his odd hairline and big prominent ears.” And though he never really stuck as a leading man on the big screen, the actor showed up in nearly 32 films over the next decade in supporting roles until he found his true niche as a leading man on the small screen, whether as detective Richard Diamond, the fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble, Treasury agent Jim O’Hara, or the grizzled Harry “Harry-O” Orwell.


And in between those TV series he still appeared in dozens of feature films, earning himself the reputation as one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood. “I have always considered myself basically unemployed,” said Janssen. “I’m from Nebraska and I feel guilty when I’m not working.” And sticking with that theme, the actor would go on to appear in over 20 Made for TV movies between 1970 and his untimely death in 1980. In 1973 alone he starred in the true crime drama, The Longest Night (1973), the supernatural Moon of the Wolf (1973), and Birds of Prey (1973), where the veteran pilot did a lot of his own flying.


While watching this telefilm one easily gets a Vanishing Point (1970) vibe emanating off it with the ‘man out of time’ protagonist, both literally and existentially, who has no place in this modern world, which, alas, is also a big clue on how this thing is destined to end. Janssen does a pretty good job of elevating the script’s rote notions of a flyer in search of that certain buzz he only got while in combat. He also has good chemistry with Elayne Heilveil, an unjustly unsung presence from the 1970s TV era with a familiar face but a name you can never quite place, after the bank teller makes her escape with the money when the robbers stop to refuel, leading to a harrowing chase between the two factions, with the opposing helicopters hovering like birds of prey fighting over a frightened field mouse in the kicked up dust.




With the faster and more maneuverable vehicle, Walker is able to rescue Teresa and they manage to give their pursuers the slip, landing in a narrow canyon, where they wait out the night as the pilot tries to repair a damaged hydraulic line that was shot up during their escape. And as the night progresses and the two bond over a love for old movies, Teresa, succumbing to Dudley Do-Right Syndrome, soon becomes infatuated with her rescuer as they discuss her doubts over her impending marriage; and then, what started as a general flirtation is about to turn into a full romantic bloom before Walker, seeing where this going, roughly cuts it off for the woman’s own good. And so, the following morning, after he radios his location and where he’s heading to McAndrew, he leaves Teresa behind with directions to the safety of a nearby highway while he draws off the bad guys for a final showdown at an abandoned Air Force base.



Like Janssen, Birds of Prey director William Graham started in features but made the most hay directing for the small screen, where his efforts ranged from the gawdawful Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975) to the intense and mesmerizing Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). This telefilm was also the debut of screenwriter Robert Boris, who also had another script in production at the same time, Electra Glide in Blue (1973), which has some stark parallels with Birds of Prey. Boris was also responsible for Izzy and Moe (1985), the one project that was capable of getting Art Carney and Jackie Gleason back together again after their long standing feud. And while all their efforts were nothing to sneeze at, the true star of Birds of Prey was probably stunt pilot James Gavin.



Birds of Prey was a ground-breaking project,' said Gavin. “We took the helicopter out of its normal environment [and] put it in the city streets.” The stunt flying is definitely pretty amazing in this telefilm and worth a watch alone. There’s one scenario where Teresa makes her escape and is pursued on foot by one of the robbers and Walker runs interference for her, eventually clobbering the bad guy with the landing skid on the helicopter. All of this was done in camera without the benefit of a cutaway. (And it looks like the rail really nailed him so if this was by design or accident, who can say for sure.) 



And this is not the only situation where the choppers appear to be dangerously close to the action. And then things really get nuts during the climax at the abandoned base, where the chase required both vehicles to zip in out of several hangars. And then the penultimate climax called for both choppers to hover and circle each other inside the same building. Before shooting the scene, there was some speculation among the crew that the downdraft generated by one helicopter might be enough to flip the other one over.


Thankfully, the stunt was pulled off without incident. And while there were no other mishaps, it’s kind of hard to watch Birds of Prey at times with the looming specter of the tragic accident that occurred while filming The Twilight Zone (1983) movie a decade later, where Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a helicopter stunt got grossly and negligently out of hand, which resulted in a ton of new safety regulations for such things, which is why, for better or for worse, we’re unlikely to see anything like Birds of Prey again any time soon -- if ever.


Birds of Prey (1973) Tomorrow Entertainment Inc. :: CBS Television Network / EP: Roger Gimbel / P: Alan A. Armer / D: William A. Graham / W: Robert Boris, Rupert Hitzig / C: Jordan Cronenweth / E: Jim Benson / M: Jack Elliott, Allyn Ferguson / S: David Janssen, Ralph Meeker, Elayne Heilveil, Don Wilbanks
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