Friday, March 15, 2019
You'll know right off the bat you're in for a real gonzo treat of the cinematic variety when our Frijole Refritos Western cues up and the first thing we hear as our boy rides into frame is a canned wolf-howl culled from the archives of the Children's Television Workshop. Yee-HAW!
Now. Our boy is none other than William "Wild Bill" Shatner, who plays both the forlorn drifter, Johnny Moon, and his evil twin, Notah; a peyote-bogarting, no-goodnik renegade Comanche with a Messiah complex, who also has the local tribe stirred up and on the warpath. This, obviously, is the root-cause for much of our hero's forlornness and, tired of being mistaken for his outlaw brother by all the resulting lynch-mobs, Moon challenges Notah to an old-fashioned showdown to put at least one of them out of the other’s misery. When Notah initially waffles at this ultimatum, Moon says he'll be waiting in the nearby town of Rio Hondo when his brother changes his mind and finally settles things for good.
Of course, Rio Hondo is one of those western towns where two rival factions are trying to stamp each other out. And both sides feel a man with such skills as Moon could tip the scales in their favor. But, Moon has no interest in such matters, feeling there's a pretty good chance he'll be dead in a few days anyway; so everything else is kinda moot. Besides, he's too busy avoiding both the local sheriff (Cotten) and several shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later bounty hunters, and wooing the local saloon girl (Yanni) -- well, as soon as she stops trying to kill him, that is.
See, seems she was attacked and raped by Notah; and naturally, she at first mistakes Moon for the man who violated her. But then our boy loses his shirt and gives her that look -- you know the one I'm talking about ... Head slightly cocked to the side, a raised eyebrow, and the hint of a grin; a grin that knows all your untold secrets that's about to break wide-open. And soon enough, the girl is all hot and bothered to sample the *ahem* “Captain's Log."
Anyways ... Several soul-searching scenes, padded-out side-stories, including one concerning Notah's pregnant wife that must be seen to be truly believed, and about, oh, four or five massacres later, the film at last stumbles upon a climax, where Moon and Notah finally decide to settle things, Shatner-o a Shatner-o, in a deadly climactic duel / joust / game of armed chicken.
Also along for the ride in White Comanche (1968) was Joseph Cotten as the town sheriff; a salty veteran actor, who helped extend his career by running around all over Europe and adding his screen-cred to the likes of this, Lady Frankenstein (1971) and Baron Blood (1972). This was the second screen team-up for for Shatner and Cotten in 1968, who both co-starred in Phil Karlson and Robert Pirosh's equally jaw-dropping TV-movie adaptation of Alexander the Great (1968).
Truth told, that failed pilot was shot back in 1964 but was deemed too expensive and was shelved indefinitely -- only to be unearthed again when Shatner and Adam West, who also had a small but pivotal role in that oddball combo of The Rat Patrol meets the 300 Spartans (1962), became household names when their respective TV franchises, the Trek and the Bat, hit big. And it was during Star Trek's (1966-1969) second season hiatus that Shatner was lured over to Spain for this exploitation quickie; and judging by what we see on screen, I think they blew half the budget on the plane ticket just to get him over there.
As for Shatner’s other co-star, we have the stupefyingly gorgeous Rosanna Yanni. This Argentinian beauty broke into film with a few Paul Naschy fright flicks but is probably most remembered from when she teamed up with the equally eye-popping Janine Reynaud in Jess Franco's wonderfully demented Red Lips double-dip, Sadist Erotica (-- Two Undercover Angels, 1969), and Bésame monstruo (-- Kiss Me, Monster, 1969), where our two femme fatales play detectives / cat-burglars in a Danger: Diabolik (1968) vein and foil a couple of kidnapping plots as Franco piles on the eye-candy, kitschy decor, and swanky absurdity to such Herculean levels it's almost impossible to process it all. But, who cares! And by all means check them out!
Behind the camera four sets of hands had their fingers in the plot-pot for this oddity. Along with an uncredited assist by the film's director, José Briz Méndez, and Manuel Gómez Rivera, Robert Holt and Frank Gruber hammered out the script for Comanche Blanco -- a/k/a White Comanche a/k/a Rio Hondo; a script that takes all the basic elements of spaghetti westerns past and systematically checks them off as the story progresses passed each yard-stick.
I honestly thought Holt and Gruber were perhaps "American" names adopted by their Spanish counterparts to help it sell, but according to the IMDB the pair had a long and storied career writing for the old Boob-Tube. And although Méndez and cinematographer, Francisco Fraile, manage a few interesting setups they become a little too obsessed with some trick mirror shots that were cool the first three times they used it but began to wear thin by the seventh or eighth refraction.
And adding even more to the surrealism of the proceedings is Jean Ledrut's plunky-guitar and horn-heavy soundtrack, which sounds like the interstitial muzak from some 1960s game show that was then cross-pollinated with a perky ditty from some vintage porn-loop. So, yeah, it doesn't fit the action or setting of White Comanche all that well.
But, you say, we're here for the Shatners, right? Right. As the ancient Hollywood proverb goes, "When you want somebody to play half-breed Comanche twins, you go for the Canadian Jew." Yeah, well, truthfully, though he veers into full-blown Smarmy McSmarmo mode more often than not, where he brings the Grade-A ham something fierce, especially during the fight scenes, our boy actually manages to bring some gravitas to the role of Johnny Moon. But as good as he is with that half of the equation Shatner totally screws the pooch with the other; as he portrays Notah with all the subtlety and nuance of a game of Whack-A-Mole.
Part of the problem lies with the script, which calls for a climax where we can't keep track of which twin is which during the deadly duel, which, in turn, also calls for Notah to be clean-shaven, clean-cut, with the perfect Wild Bill wave of hair, for all of his other scenes -- where, on top of all that hootin', hollerin', and war-whoop'n, his evil sneer makes him look like ... well, kind of an idiot.
I also think it's fair to warn potential viewers that even though a movie which promises and delivers William Shatner as belligerent half-breed Indian twins, White Comanche is not a whole can of lunacy from beginning to end. Expectation can be a bitch seldom satisfied, which is why, in the end, this film is a bit of a conundrum on the whole so bad it's good scale. Sure, there are some blinding flashes of whackadoodle stoopid to be found here; but in between those Notah interludes are a lot of dull stretches and soggy subplots to contend with and conquer. Just remember: when a movie sounds too good to be true it usually is. Keep that in mind when you pop this into your DVD player, and you should be good to go.
White Comanche a/k/a Comanche Blanco (1968) Producciones Cinematográficas A.B. :: International Producers Corporation / EP: Vicente Gómez, Philip N. Krasne / P: Sam White / AP: Bruce Yorke / D: José Briz Méndez, Gilbert Kay / W: José Briz Méndez, Manuel Gómez Rivera, Frank Gruber, Robert I. Holt / C: Francisco Fraile / E: Javier Morán, Gaby Peñalba, Nicholas Wentworth / M: Jean Ledrut / S: William Shatner, Joseph Cotten, Rosanna Yanni, Perla Cristal, Luis Rivera
Saturday, March 9, 2019
We open in some unnamed city where the police have just interrupted a suspected serial bomber in the act, give chase, and eventually gun him down. In the aftermath, three people gather at the crime scene: Randy Johnson (Kerr Jr.), Carolyn Schneider (Wood) and Ron Carlton (Smedley). Johnson, an African-American, is an attorney who just launched his mayoral candidacy. Seems this city has been rocked by a series of escalating terror attacks in the form of bombings and arson. Johnson concedes these attacks are most likely politically and racially motivated and feels he must do everything he can to oust the incumbent mayor, who is ensconced deep in the pocket of big business interests and only answers to them and the whims of the “political machine.” Then, Johnson can attack the real problem of poverty and inequality and level the playing field for all. For then, and only then, he insists, will this unrest and violence stop.
Carolyn is Johnson’s publicist, who cannot withhold her contempt for the “Pigs” who gunned the terrorist down, shot in the back several times as he tried to run away. After he tried to detonate a bomb. In a public area. Now, this strident, invective-flinging leftie is also Carlton’s girlfriend -- well, one of them anyway. And together, she and Johnson have been trying hard to persuade Carlton, a highly influential local TV news producer, to endorse the challenger in the upcoming election.
And while Johnson’s platform and rhetoric are sound, Carlton is not so easily swayed. These negotiations continue later that night as Carolyn and Carlton lounge around on a fur rug near a crackling fire, stark-naked, post-bonking, where the woman once more pleads her case as they both cool down. But this isn’t Carlton’s first political rodeo, and his cynicism on the subject is palpable as he explains how history has shown time and again regime changes, no matter how much benevolence they promise, pretty much end up just as bad -- if not worse, than the old corrupt regime. Here, Carolyn backs off and the subject changes to the future of their relationship. Seems Carlton has two women in his life that he loves dearly for very different reasons. (Plus: double the sex.) Both women are aware of each other. And both are ready to be in a monogamous relationship. Thus, equal time ain’t gonna cut it anymore and he must soon settle on who to endorse on that front, too.
Meantime, Ben Atkinson (Carew), the current mayor, is feeling the heat on many fronts. For not only is his besieged city a seething cauldron of racial tensions and strife, with a widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, but his sole opponent, Johnson, has been surging in the polls with each executed act of violence, blaming the mayor for all of it and laying out a very solid case on how only he can stop it; so now, an election that appeared to be in the bag a few scant weeks ago is getting too close to call. Atkinson still has the backing of the party, and a consortium of businessmen, led by Alexander Cartwright (Tepp), who have promised to launch several massive construction projects that will bring much needed jobs and revenue into the city. But this still might not be enough, and Atkinson will have to get off his ass, meet the masses, and press the flesh a bit to regain his momentum or there’s a big old can of “or else” to contend with if he loses.
Thus, as election day draws near, the mayoral race is essentially a dead heat. But Carlton still hasn’t decided on who he’ll endorse yet, which could be the deciding factor in this tight-knit race. He has, however, chosen to marry Cindy Cartwright (Caffaro), daughter of Alexander, and kind of a barely-dressed local celebrity in a proto-Paris Hilton sense, who has been out stumping for Mayor Atkinson, which went over like gangbusters with the wolf-whistling, blue-collar crowd. Carlton breaks this news to Carolyn (-- after they screw one last time, natch), swearing she’s the one he truly loves. But! She’s too strident in her beliefs. Too radical. Too volatile. And what he needs is stability, a trophy wife, without all of that baggage and hassle to deal with as he moves on to a Network job in the Big City once the election is over.
Johnson, meanwhile, has been preaching a good game, a real “man of the people” act, saying his goal is not to tear down from the top but to build up from the bottom to reach a new equality in the status quo. But when Carolyn reveals Carlton dumped her for Cindy, he fears Carlton is now in the elder Cartwright’s pocket and his endorsement is now lost. (Both the mayor and Cartwright tried to bribe Carlton for his vote but he refused.) Thus and so, in a bit of a twist, it’s revealed Johnson was the clandestine organizer behind these serial-bombings all along; a covert false flag operation Carolyn was not only aware of but endorsed wholeheartedly, as they would ride this wave of staged violence to victory by giving them something to rail against and rile up some stagnant voters. But now Johnson wants something different, something so vile and terrible it will all but usher him into City Hall. And what he plans to do is have his militant supporters kidnap Cindy and hold her hostage until the election is over. And I have a feeling whether Cindy will survive this ordeal or not depends on who wins the vote...
These days, writer, director, producer, and all around filmmaker, Donald Schain, is probably best remembered for a decade’s worth of TV movies he did for the Disney Channel -- most notably, producing the High School Musical franchise (2006-2008). But some of us probably remember him better as a notorious sleaze merchant with a particular kink when he broke into the industry back in the 1970s.
A native of Asbury Park, New Jersey, Schain’s movie career began shortly after he graduated from college in 1963, landing a job as an assistant in the distribution branch of the Walter Reed Theatres chain. Around 1968, Schain decided to take a crack at film production, conspiring with Steven Bradford to raise enough money to shoot a squalid little roughie called The Love Object (1970), where a woman, Sharon Austin (Kim Pope), heads to New York with dreams of becoming an actress on the stage. There, she picks up a boyfriend (Howard Blakey), who encourages her to keep on trying when Sharon refuses to compromise herself on several casting couches. But then the woman is abducted out of the blue and taken to a remote cabin, where she is tied up, verbally and physically abused, and forced to participate as the main attraction in several porn loops.
Once this humiliation is complete, Sharon is let go. But she can’t report this to the police, for if she does these pornographers, led by her so-called boyfriend, promise to release all the compromising material to the public, destroying any chance she’d have at a legitimate acting career. But, these assholes release it all anyway, forcing Sharon to sleep with “repulsive but influential” men to salvage her dream, which nets her a small role in an off-off-Broadway production, where her talent shines through and attracts the attention of a prominent director, who thinks the actress would be perfect for the lead of his new play. Turns out this role kind of echoes Sharon’s own dubious circumstances, she finds strength in it, and agrees to take it on -- once she’s taken care of some unfinished business first and gets her revenge on all those who exploited her first.
After the The Love Object was picked up and released by Joseph Brenner Associates, who specialized in packaging “adults only” and “matinee friendly” foreign imports, Schain packed up and moved to Hollywood in 1971 to further his career, where he met Ralph Desiderio. And together, they formed Derio Productions and conned Desiderio’s relatives into financing their next sleazoid feature about a secret agent, sex, and drugs. And while The Love Object basically mapped-out Schain’s softcore modus operandi and firmly established his bondage fetish, things were about to hit ludicrous speed on all of the above when the director found his personal muse after casting Cheri Caffaro for the lead in Ginger (1971).
Born in Miami, Florida, but raised in Pasadena, California (-- which would probably explain her well tanned blonde bombshell chassis), the lithe and shapely Caffaro won a Brigitte Bardot look-alike contest for LIFE Magazine at the age of 14, which she leveraged into work as a model. Later, Caffaro won a scholarship to attend the Pasadena Playhouse, appearing in several stage productions. She broke into pictures with a bit part in Art Lieberman’s farcical nudie, Up Your Alley (1971). After, she got on Schain’s radar after auditioning for the role of Ginger McCallister.
Schain would write and direct the delightfully demented Ginger, which is brazen in both it’s amateurishness and explicitness as Cafaro played a secret agent for … somebody, who is charged with taking out a New Jersey-based drug operation, sex-traffickers and blackmailers with extreme prejudice. Using her brains and her body, Ginger was an aggressive, reckless force to be reckoned with as she not only gets the job done but also works through some personal issues, gets caught, gets raped, gets tied up, gets loose, and gets her murder on something fierce.
In Ginger, “Caffaro brought a hard, steely edge and a raw, earthy, unbridled sex appeal to the part that's alluring and unnerving in equal measure.” And the film proved a big enough hit Schain decided to make two more starring the same character to cash-in: The Abductors (1972), which is even more sleazy and completely bonkers as Ginger takes on a band of white-slavers, and Girls Are for Loving (1973), which wasn’t quite as sleazy or bonkers but sleazy and bonkers enough with some low-rent international intrigue. At best, the Ginger McCallister trilogy is entertainingly tacky, and at its worst it’s an Eric Stanton Stantoon strung out on PCP as women brawl, men are castrated, and the heroine gets tied up and gagged. Ah lot.
Now, in the middle of all of that insanity, violence, and smut two things happened: one, Schain and Caffaro fell in love and got married; and two, Schain decided he wanted to try something different on film. Sure, there’d still be a lot of sex in it, and his new wife would get tied up and brutalized in her role, duh, but Schain wanted it to be in service of something bigger, something edgier -- something significant about the state of race relations and the broken political process. Something relevant. Something legitimate. Something timely. Something close to home. And most importantly, something he could exploit.
Thus, Schain’s sociopolitical opus thinly disguised as a porno -- or maybe make that a porno thinly disguised as a sociopolitical opus, A Place Called Today (1972), would be loosely based on the election of Kenneth Gibson, who was elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 1970, making him the first African American mayor of that city, which had seen a huge economic downturn since the 1950s due to deindustrialization, causing massive unemployment and a rise in poverty, especially for minorities, resulting in some deadly race riots in 1967, which caused even more White Flight and businesses to abandon the city. "Newark may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation," said Gibson during his campaign. He ran as a reformer, claiming incumbent mayor, Hugh Addonizio, ran a corrupt regime. And after his ouster, Addonizio was convicted of extortion and conspiracy over kickbacks received from city contractors to the tune of 1.5 million dollars and spent the next ten years in Federal prison.
And while Gibson courted the support of several radicals and militant minority groups in his election bid, it should be noted that none of them were blowing up or burning down buildings at the time. And he sure as hell didn’t conspire with them to kidnap and murder anyone, making Schain’s race-baiting plot both distasteful and disingenuous. And the fact Schain essentially wrote his ham-fisted and patronizing script on a shovel and then proceeded to beat the audience over the head with it to make sure we all realized how important and significant he thought he was being did not help at all. People don’t talk or have discussions in this movie. They preach and proselytize, and mostly fail at not looking directly into the camera while delivering these screeds. And while this does create a bit of verisimilitude, it was nothing more than accidental.
Sadly, this kind of wastes an interesting performance by J. Herbert Kerr Jr. as Johnson, whose motives are sound, and his solutions ring true, but he’s also a bit of a sociopath and sees everything and everyone as a simple means to an end, which allows him to compromise his conscience and do what must be done in a system rigged against him, aligning himself with a group of radicals -- billed only as Black Radical and White Radical (Carter, Viera), classy, who plant the bombs and pull off the kidnapping of Cindy (right out of the shower, natch), truss her up, bundle her in a sleeping bag, but then bring the victim to Johnson’s headquarters instead of the safehouse, where she was to be held until the election was over tomorrow. Why? Well, his lead minion thought Johnson’s hands were too clean and wanted to make it clear “it’s the things we're doing, and not those fancy words of yours, that's going to push the levers in the voting booths tomorrow!"
Here, Johnson (and Carolyn) is forced to face one of his victims but does not miss a beat, saying, "Until I'm sure of winning, there's nothing to save you. Not your money, not that body of yours that you flaunt so well. In fact, those are the very reasons you're here ... Because to the haves and the have-nots alike, you're the symbol of the ‘have it all, damn it-all of this city.’ And if this can happen to you, then nobody's safe. You are a symbol. Not a person." With that, the kidnappers take Cindy and leave. Now, I think the plan was to hold Cindy until the election was over. But now that she's seen Johnson and Carolyn her life expectancy just took some massive hit damage. And on top of that, the lead minion, who doesn’t really trust Johnson, decides to take his hostage to her father's country club, a symbolic gesture, where he rapes and brutalize Cindy to both defy Johnson and really mess with “the man."
Meantime, Carlton finally decides on who to endorse. And while he knows Johnson is not the idealistic fool he thought he was, and the idealistic fool the city needed to pull them out of the dumps, Carlton has concluded Atkinson has used up all of his chances and it’s time for a change. Watching his broadcast, Johnson can’t believe what just happened. And since he is now all but guaranteed a victory, Carolyn, who is starting to regret her life decisions, believes they can let Cindy go and races off to stop Johnson’s minions. But she’s already too late. Cindy is dead, and Carolyn winds up trapped with the two assailants as they have a shootout with the cops. Carlton also arrives on scene, having caught the newsflash about the discovery of Cindy’s body. One of the gunmen sees this and tries to shoot him. Carolyn sees this, too, and runs to warn him. But, caught in the crossfire, the cops shoot her dead while the gunmen shoot Carlton dead before they can reach each other. Oh, the irony.
The following day, Johnson receives word that Atkinson has conceded the election to him. And with all the other conspirators dead, the mayorship is his free and clear. But after his aide brings him the news, that the city is now his, Johnson considers the cost, saying, "I have a feeling someone must've said that to Cesar as he stood out on one of those seven hills and looked at Rome."
Like with Rene Daalder’s subversive lesson in civics, Massacre at Central High (1976), where a series of bloody regime changes rock a high school, turns out the focus of A Place Called Today is not on the instigator of these changes (Johnson), or the acts of violence per se, but an attempt to get other characters off the fence and make a commitment. Here, it’s Carolyn’s commitment to Carlton or the cause and Carlton on who to endorse both personally and professionally, making this movie nothing more than a sappy melodrama about the two least interesting, whitebread characters in the cast. Also, bonking.
Carolyn is a terrible cliche; a sneering, self-righteous, radicalized yuppie, who, unlike Johnson, fails to realize people aren’t voting for him because it’s empowering the downtrodden or the right choice but fear over what will happen if they don’t. Schain scored a minor coup by getting Lana Wood in this role, who was just coming off her appearance as the doomed Bond Girl, Plenty O’Toole, in Diamonds are Forever (1971) and a pleasant picture spread in Playboy. Neither Wood nor her co-star, Richard Smedley, a veteran of many skin-flicks, brought much as actors to the production but they fell in love during the shoot and got hitched. In her memoir, Wood said she had high hopes for the film based on the script but felt it was ruined in editing. Still, she defended it, saying even the most awful movies were made with the most sincerest of intentions.
And I guess that’s one of the biggest problems with A Place Called Today. As a viewer, we’re just not sure what exactly Schain intended or what he's trying to say or what we’re supposed to be feeling, here, as the film is constantly torpedoed by its tonal inconsistencies. Schain and his cinematographer, R. Kent Evans, who also provided three songs for the soundtrack, make some hay when they’re shooting on location in Newark -- with a special nod for when Johnson takes a reporter on a walkabout through the slums, but everything else is a static master and lifeless, including the sex scenes. Harry Glass’s editing is also pretty abysmal save for the final split-screen montage as we cut from the dead bodies, then to a flashback of Cindy and Carolyn each making speeches for their candidates, then Mayor Atkinson and Johnson in front of their raucous supporters, which dissolves into the voting booth as voters pull the levers as the sound blurs into a deafening cacophony until you realize there ain’t much difference between any of them. If the rest of the film had that much buzz, Schain might’ve actually had something here. But, he didn’t and we don’t.
These tonal inconsistencies spew forth from the script, too. There’s almost an interesting treatise on whether violence or discourse is the best method of achieving one’s goals. And a ruthless politician manipulating the easily frightened public by choosing the former and playing on their fears is a great hook -- and still relevant today. But under Schain’s heavy-hand, this is all just wasted potential as his focus keeps straying to all three corners of the insipid love-triangle.
And then there’s the rape and murder of Cindy Cartwright. To her credit, Caffaro feels genuine in her role as a spoiled rich girl, which nearly earns her a brief spurt of sympathy during her plight if -- and stress on the “if” -- this scene wasn’t shot like the porn insert it most probably was, making it feel gratuitous. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing: was this a porn trying to be a drama? Or a drama trying to be a porn?
Either way, the line between dirty movies and mainstream were definitely blurring by 1972. Deep Throat (1972) was on the way (-- sharp eyes will spot an uncredited Deep Throat star, Harry Reems, as a construction worker during one of the campaign rallies), as moral codes around the country were fraying, and courts were in the process of striking down many obscenity laws, opening the era of porno chic. When A Place Called Today was picked up by Embassy Pictures (AVCO), it was initially slapped with an X-rating, which I found kind of hilarious considering how tame it was compared to the R-rated Ginger films. Context is everything, I guess.
After wrapping up the Ginger series, Caffaro branched out and did Savage Sisters (1974) for Eddie Romero in the Philippines. Schain and Caffaro would then team up again and try to recapture the Ginger magic one last time with Too Hot to Handle (1977), which would essentially mark the end of his directing career and her acting career.
As I mentioned earlier, Schain would continue to produce but his subject matter would be decidedly different. Cafaro would be an associate producer on the early HBO staple, H.O.T.S. (1979), and the awful Bill Rebane flick, The Demons of Ludlow (1981), before divorcing Schain the same year and retiring to a quiet life of beekeeping, bringing a subdued end to a wild and whackadoodle run of exploitation filmmaking.
A legit check his pornographer butt just couldn’t cash, Schain shot and released A Place Called Today in between The Abductors and Girls Are for Loving. Alas, his attempt at legitimacy was both a box-office disappointment and a critical disaster. He shot for profound but scored a direct hit on nigh insufferable instead. As another reviewer noted, “Schain seems to think he’s revealing some deep truths here, and probably imagined the film as a cynical exposé, but cynicism demands a level of awareness that just isn’t in evidence here,” which is why I’ll be reluctantly voting none of the above on this one.
A Place Called Today (1972) Derio :: Embassy Pictures / EP: Frank J. Desiderio / P: Ralph T. Desiderio / D: Don Schain / W: Don Schain / C: R. Kent Evans / E: Harry D. Glass / M: Robert Orpin / S: J. Herbert Kerr Jr., Lana Wood, Richard Smedley, Cheri Caffaro, Leo Tepp, Peter Carew, Woody Carter, Cucho Viera