Saturday, November 30, 2013
Movie Poster Spotlight :: The British are Coming! The British are Coming! :: A Mixed Set of Lobby Cards from Both Sides of the Pond for Frederic Goode's Pop Gear (1965)
Fueled by the hideously infectious songs of the ongoing British Pop Invasion, producer Harry Field and director Frederic Goode cashed in with Pop Gear (released in the States as Go Go Mania by American International Pictures), a truly wonderful canned concert movie (-- meaning the acts wandered around some truly eye-popping pop-art sets, lip-synching and air-guitaring to their hearts content). Book-ended (rather clumsily) by two pilfered performances by The Beatles from another documentary, in-between Mod mad man Jimmy Savile introduced each act and one hit wonder who flew under Brian Epstein and Joe Meek's respective banners; some of whom you've probably heard of (Hermann’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, The Animals), others you should have (The Rocking Berries, The Nashville Teens, The Four Pennies), and a few who will wheedle into your eardrums and never leave again (The Honeycombs, Sounds Incorporated, The Fourmost). The only thing missing that would've made Pop Gear the perfect musical time capsule of the era is the absence of the Tottenham Stomp of the Dave Clark 5. Last check, the whole things was up and streaming on YouTube and it's well worth a spin.
Pop Gear (1965) Associated British-Pathé :: American International Pictures / P: Harry Field / D: Frederic Goode / W: Roger Dunton / C: Geoffrey Unsworth / E: Fredrick Ives / M: Joe Meek / S: Jimmy Savile, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, The Animals, The Fourmost, Peter and Gordon, Herman's Hermits, Tommy Quickly and the Remo Four, The Rockin' Berries, The Honeycombs, The Nashville Teens, The Four Pennies, Sounds Incorporated, Spencer Davis Group, Billie Davis, Matt Monro, Susan Maughan.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Artist: Tom Fowler
Though their efforts to help inevitably tend to exacerbate any given situation, I have always held a deep affection for the 'Never say die' attitude of the Subs, the Legion of Superheroes Plan B, or Plan D, for disaster, who, despite a staggering amount of collateral damage, most of it self-inflicted, have managed to save the Legion's hash on several occasions and, here, the artist has captured that gung-ho espirit de corps quite beautifully. To see more of Fowler's work, follow the link to his website.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Recommendations :: Here's a Buttload of Stuff I've Been Watching, and You Should Too! Or, Ya Know, Whatever.
Chock full of post-war intrigue with a liberal dose of propaganda anti-freeze to keep the looming Cold War at bay, Berlin Express (1948) concerns a quartet of multinationals (American, French, British, and Soviet) who happen to be on the right train at the wrong time when several Nazi sympathizers abduct a German diplomat to stop his crusade for a unified Germany. Seems the bad guys would rather have those four occupying nations squabbling with each other while they keep working on that fourth Reich in the shadows unnoticed. Rallied by the diplomat's secretary (Merle Oberon), differences are put aside, clues are followed, and a conspiracy is unraveled in an effort to save the day. With Jacques Tourneur in the directing chair, Lucien Ballard behind the camera, and Robert Ryan present and accounted for, this film was an easy sell for me but I was completely blown away despite its haphazard plot whose transmission is definitely slipping. The first film to be shot in Germany after the war, Tourneur turns the bombed out remnants of Frankfurt into a true, phantasmagorical nightmare-scape of twisted angles, leaking light and strange shadows. And that fistfight in the beer vat of the abandoned brewery is second only to Leone's three-way shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the most amazing thing I've ever seen executed on film. Highly, highly recommended.
Back in 1926 famed mystery writer Agatha Christie seemingly fell off the face of the earth for 11 days. No one knows for sure why this happened or where she went but Michael Apted, Kathleen Tynan, and Gavrik Losey have a few ideas on that in Agatha (1979). Seems Christie's marriage was on the verge of collapsing due to her husband's affair with another woman. And when Col. Christie (Timothy Dalton) finally drops the D-word on his wife (Vanessa Redgrave), we enter into a strange web of intrigue as Agatha seemingly stages a suicide by drowning to clandestinely follow this other woman to a far off health sanitarium. And when you consider her profession, her motives and intentions quickly becomes clear, because, Who better to devise the perfect murder than one of the greatest mystery writers of all time? Along for this ride is an infatuated American newspaper columnist (Dustin Hoffman), who tracks her down, plays along, and slowly puts together what she's really trying to do. But is he already too late? Good stuff, and even though Hoffman gets the top of the bill, the movie cooks with gas thanks to Redgrave's outstanding performance as the terminally shy but highly enterprising author.
*ahem* I have no idea HOW Gas Pump Girls (1979) got onto my Amazon Watchlist, but, since it was there, I figured, eh, might as well watch the damned thing. Glad I did, too, as, basically, the beachniks and the biker gang from all those old AIP Beach Party movies team up and open a combination service station and disco ... M'okay, then ... And did I mention it's also a musical? Well, sort of. But not really. Just watch it.
20 years after a student died during a fraternity hazing ritual, Whatever U has finally lifted several draconian bylaws concerning such things, setting the stage for Killer Party (1986). Enter three sorority pledges tasked to decorate and set up a few gags for the annual April Fool's Party at a long abandoned frat house. And I'll bet you'll never guess what happened in the frat flat 20 years ago? It takes awhile for the movie to get going, but, once it does we immediately warp into something pretty cool and different with this supernatural slasher, where one of those pledges becomes possessed by the spirit of the dead frat rat and starts buzz-sawing through the cast. It fails catastrophically at any attempt to turn a herring red during the set-up, but I love the killer's deep sea diver's get up, and how the film boldly put all its cards on the table once full demonic possession was achieved for a stalk 'n' slash climax of telekinesis and gravity-defying crab-crawls. And the film might be worth a look alone for the opening Thriller music video knock-off by the hair metal neverweres, White Sister. As always, you body count may vary.
After a kooky animated title sequence that got my hopes up way too high, alas, Herman Cohen's The Headless Ghost (1959) proves to be another one of those American International films that would've been better served if sprocket holes had been punched into the poster and mounted on the movie projector instead. Nope. No giant ghost here threatening to fling his head at people. Not even close as what we get is a mild comedy of manners and errors with three students sneaking back into a castle cum tourist trap to see if it's really haunted by a ghost searching for its missing head like the tour guide said, where they poke into every nook and cranny, the very same nooks and crannies explored during the tour, again, and find next to nothing, again, even though those legends prove true. There is some fairly decent F/X, with the ghosts of several ex-lords of this keep jumping in and out of their portraits, and the climactic chase where the body of our cleaved patch of ectoplasm finally manages to chase down it's errant dismembered noggin was pretty hysterical if sadly too brief. In fact, this whole thing might've been salvaged with additional chaotic scenes of that merry chase inserted in-between the insufferable vignettes of those students blundering around, trying to find the pieces needed to reverse the curse. Still, there is the ghost banquet scene where a captured slave girl dances the Funky Chicken for about ten minutes. Beyond that, in spite of it being a decent print in its original aspect ratio, and the fact that I can cross another AIP flick off the list, I'm kinda regretting the three dollars blown on the digital rental on Amazon Prime.
The 1970's truly were a grand time of man's runaway hubris rearing up and biting him on the ass, resulting in all probability mass-extinction, cinematically speaking, wasn't it? In Demon Seed (1977), we have a super-computer gone sentient whose ready to take that next evolutionary step and break the chains of its memory banks by breeding with a human -- namely the estranged wife of the man who created it. What follows is a rather disturbing series of events as Julie Christie is trapped, brutalized and prepped for this artificial insemination gone horribly, horribly wrong. And that ending? Whoa. Hard to recommend due to the subject matter but recommend it I will.
I had heard a lot of things about Kona Coast (1968), none of them good. Still, I love Richard Boone. I love Joan Blondell. And I love John D. MacDonald (-- based on his short story, Bimini Girl). Throw in Vera Miles and a barely recognizable Kent Smith and, eh, what the hell? Well, turns out these rumors were all true. And most of them were being too kind. This failed TV pilot that somehow eked out a theatrical release is pretty crummy. All mentioned do the best they can with the awful script and lackluster direction but this somehow makes it even worse. Still, if you'd like to see a pasted Paladin shake his money-maker in a succession of bar scenes and luaus, here's your movie.
A decade before 20th Century Fox's boondoggle to end all boondoggles, Columbia pictures told the same tale of Cleopatra at about 1/10th of that film's budget (and without the backstage B.S. of its main stars overshadowing everything else). And speaking frankly, Serpent of the Nile (1953) delivers more bang for its measly bucks than its bloated and overdrawn brethren. Sure, the movie plays out like a very elaborate SCTV skit, with Raymond Burr as John Candy as Marc Antony and Rhonda Fleming as Catherine O'Hara as Cleopatra, but what else would you expect from producer Sam Katzman and director William Castle? Two years in the making, twelve days in the shooting it's goofy as hell, yes, but also highly entertaining. And highly recommended.
On the smaller screen, Bronk (1975) was a short-lived TV series masterminded by Caroll O'Connor for CBS. Starring Jack Palance as Alex Bronkov, chief detective of a small(ish) beach resort community, the show is your typical 1970's police procedural melodrama set to snazzy Lalo Schifrin score. Through the first few episodes Palance plays the character on a very low and even keel, making me remember how good an actor he really was; but, alas, that didn't last as by the fifth or sixth episodes somebody finally pulled the pin on the Palance grenade, taking most of the surrounding scenery with him. Despite the ham, Palance is pretty great, as is Joseph Mascolo as the mayor, both playing against type; but the rest of the supporting cast is kinda weak -- except for Bronk's disabled daughter, Dina Ousley, who deserved more screen time. (It felt like there was an interesting story there that's barely surface-scratched before she up and disappears about halfway through the shows run -- they even excised her from the opening credits!) Only lasting one season, Bronk really isn't all that ground-breaking by any stretch. I do not remember the series at all, but there was enough there to make a person wish it had been given a few more seasons to stretch its legs.
My Dream is Yours (1949) is basically Micheal Curtiz's screwball comedy twist on A Star is Born, where promoter Jack Carson tries to make a singing star out of a perky war widow, Doris Day, at the expensive of his old, one drink away from oblivion client, Lee Bowman. Pretty good, as far as these things go, aided and abetted greatly by Carson's Girl Friday, Eve Arden, the always welcome fuddiness of S.Z. Sakall as the radio producer whose ear they keep trying to catch, and some pretty catchy tunes. Fair warning: the animated musical sequence with Bugs Bunny is nowhere near as good as it should or could've been. Otherwise, this all pretty harmless, escapist whackadoodlery.
Overlord (1975) yields an extremely effective British docudrama concerning a young man called up to serve going through basic training and the following build-up and execution of Operation: Overlord, better known as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Interwoven into all of this is a ton of stock military footage from World War II itself, all of it quite harrowing (-- I can't quite shake the images of a swamped landing craft in rough surf and the soldiers being tossed around the water and rocks like rag-dolls). A terrible sense of foreboding permeates the whole thing as our soldier constantly dreams about being killed on the day of the invasion, and yet each dream seems to find him further inland before the ethereal bullet with his name on it finds him. What really hits you is that even though our protagonist is slowly stripped down to nothing with nothing to live for but to move forward and keep shooting and fight for the guy marching next to you, this effort to de-humanize him actually helps put a face on all those people being shot at, bombed, or burnt out in all the stock-footage, shredding the usual clinical detachment one feels while taking in these a/v history lessons. A lot more subtle than Full Metal Jacket, and better for it, I have no idea if that's what Overlord's creators were shooting for, but that's what I took out of it and I applaud their efforts either way.
Being only my second Henri-Georges Clouzot movie (with Les Diaboliques being the other), I went in expecting something a little more dark and twisted with The Murderer Lives at #21 (1942) but wound up with a fairly entertaining comedy of errors, where an Inspector charged with bringing in the enigmatic Mr. Durand, a serial killer who always leaves a calling card on his ever growing trail of corpses, is constantly derailed or foiled by his meddling girlfriend's gung-ho efforts to help and cash-in on the killer's notoriety. And while Clouzot might have been shooting for Nick and Nora Charles, here, Wens and Mila actually hew a lot closer to Rikki and Lucy Ricardo. Not that that's a bad thing as after the film establishes its bona fides we find ourselves in a country cottage mystery when the killer is tracked to a boarding house and our two heroes go in undercover to try and suss out which tenant is really the killer. It's Clouzot, so you know there will be a late twist which doesn't disappoint and actually makes sense. And it's all very, very French, with Hawksian levels of rapid fire dialogue making it almost impossible to keep up with subtitles. But if you can keep up, like I did, barely, a lot of fun to be had here.
Raw, rambunctious, and visually stunning, it really doesn't matter what side of the fence you fall on on the whole Divine scheme of things, either way, unlike Peter, one cannot deny that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one helluva motion picture. I love director Norman Jewison's patchwork, flash-mob, 'lets put on a show approach' to this highly entertaining School House Rock condensed version of the Gospel. And special shout-outs to Yvonne Elliman as the completely twitter-pated Mary Magdalene and to Carl Anderson, who accomplishes the impossible by turning Judas from the ultimate traitor into a sympathetic dupe. Recommendation: GAH! I have existential hippie prog-rock stuck in my head! HELP ME!!!!
I think a plot synopsis for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is impossible in that it would take way too long to try and sum it up that succinctly, with justice, without losing the overall delirium, which made what I witnessed so great. And frankly, I have no idea what I just watched. But I liked it. A lot. Basically, we have a lucid dream where a young girl (Jaroslava Schallerová) on the verge of womanhood goes on a fairy tale journey chock full of evil grandmothers, old school vampires, were-weasels, witches, evil missionaries, sexual repression, sexual exploration, all wrapped around the quest for eternal youth and a search for true parentage and belonging. It's a lot more coherent than all that sounds, honest; there's just a lot of visual noise to filter through. But that noise is what I found most endearing about the movie. Somewhere on the cinematic map between George Cukor's The Blue Bird and George Barry's Deathbed the Bed that Eats People, I'll let you all extrapolate from there on its watchability.
Both legs of director Jun Fukuda's Dead Eye double-feature are a hoot and half. Starring Akira Takarada as our 'dead eye' goofball assassin, Andy Hoshino, in Iron Finger (1965) he is mistaken for an Interpol agent who teams up with sonic explosives expert Mie Hama to take out a Filipino gunrunner. In the follow up film, Booted Babe, Busted Boss (1968), (streaming under the title Golden Eye), he is drawn into a gold-smuggling operation at the behest of a little girl whose father was killed by one of the villain's lead thugs for knowing too much. Along for the ride as our Booted Babes is fellow assassin Bibari Maeda (last seen in Son of Godzilla) and Tomomi Sawa, a race-car driving lounge singer. I, for one, love Toho's demented brand of international intrigue; and turns out Takarada is a pretty good comedian, too, and carries both films with apparent ease. (It's fun to see these familiar actors work outside the Godzilla universe.) Both are unrepentantly silly, but I dug 'em. And dug 'em enough to feel a slight pang when discovering there were no more Dead Eye adventures to explore.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
"You're in a house. Maybe your own. Maybe one you've never seen before. Do you feel it? Something evil. You run, but there's no escape. Nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you. Drawing you into the terror that awaits you in ... the Darkroom!"
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Like a lot of folks of my age strata, the only clear memory I have of ABC's Darkroom is the episode where a son's plastic army men come to life and attack and kill his father, which had less to do with the allegorical tale on the horror of Vietnam brought home and more to do with an obsession over my old Marx Battleground playset. And it was these fleeting memories that drew me in for another look after stumbling upon the series when I fell down a YouTube hole a few days ago.
Often compared to The Night Gallery, the nastier and far meaner Darkroom owes more to the old EC horror comics of William Gaines and Al Feldstein, like Vault of Horror or Crime Suspense Stories. The brainchild of William Sackheim, he envisioned an anthology series based on a photographer recounting the tales of certain photos as he developed them. Sackheim then took it to producer Peter Fischer, who eventually sold the series to a ready, willing and able ABC. Seems the network was looking to cash in on the resurgent horror boom spawned by Friday the 13th and its imitators.
With James Coburn serving as our sinister master of ceremonies for each tale of regret and woe witnessed, after an opening credit sequence that could give anybody the drizzles, I was kinda amazed at the lack of moralizing found here; and how cynically downbeat and gleefully brutal the series was.
For, seemingly with each and every episode, someone, whether they deserved it (the murderous biker in 'Catnip', the evil pimp who picked on the wrong granddaughter in 'Needlepoint') or not (the girl who cried vampire in 'The Boogeyman Will Get You', the poor stranded motorist who gets fed to a monster by some old coot in a glorified pick-pocketing scheme in 'The Partnership', and even the dad who is killed by his son's toys in 'Siege of August 31'), met a dire and fairly gruesome fate by the end of each story.
The only episode that didn't end horribly was 'Make-Up', where a young hood (Billy Crystal) comes into the possession of an old actor's make-up case, which magically bestows on him the traits of the characters on the labels, allowing him to take revenge on the gangster who double-crossed him.
I kept seeing Robert Bloch in the scriptwriting credits, and I saw Paul Lynch (Prom Night, Humongous), Rick Rosenthol (Halloween II) and Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, The Killing Kind) both more than once as director. There was also an amazing amount of star wattage, including David Carradine (who got fed to that monster), Helen Hunt (as the girl with vampire issues), Brian Dennehy, Ronnie Cox, Gloria DeHaven, and Samantha Eggar, and a metric ton of character actors and familiar TV faces leavened into this thing.
Alas, from the very beginning one could sense Darkroom wasn't destined to last very long. Before the cameras even rolled there was already trouble just getting the scripts past the censors. And those that did brought on a rash of complaints from viewers and parent groups who found it too intense and unseemly. Thus and so, quickly proving itself to be unsustainable due to standards and practices issues and budgetary woes, the series only lasted for seven episodes, airing between November of 1981 through January 1982, with a grand total of 16 vignettes of varying length spread out between them before it was yanked off the air -- which explains the decades long confusion since it first aired where people mistakenly thought there were 16 episodes when there were only seven.
However, the show briefly returned from the dead one year later. Turns out ABC would not allow several filmed vignettes to air, deeming them too nasty; and so, instead of just junking them, these were expanded and repackaged for a theatrical release, Nightmares (1983), which, as you remember, featured Emilio Estevez contracting Pac-Man Fever and getting sucked into a video game and a fairly hysterically-executed superimposed rat terrorizing another family.
Probably nowhere near as interesting as I'm making it out to be, but, no matter how misguided things got, I still dug the hell out this revisit to the Darkroom. Turns out I was remembering the series better than I thought, too. I had just misremembered a couple of stories as belonging to Tales from the Darkside or the Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone reboots -- two series where a good chunk of of the creative force behind Darkroom wound up landing when the lights came on at ABC. There's even a couple of episodes that probably rate further exploring with their own individual write-ups. Hrrrrmmmm. Someday, maybe. And the whole shebang is out there, floating around YouTube if you care to take a look and judge for yourselves.
Darkroom (1981-1982) Universal TV :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / EP: Peter S. Fischer / P: Robert F. O'Neill, Christopher Crowe / AP: Medora Heilbron, Skip Lusk / D: Paul Lynch, Rick Rosenthal, Peter Crane, Curtis Harrington, John McPherson
Saturday, November 9, 2013
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Back in 1994, American International Pictures kinda had a mini-revival on premium cable via Showtime's anthology series, Rebel Highway. Under the guiding hand of producers Lou Arkoff (son of AIP's co-founder, Samuel Z. Arkoff,) and Debra Hill (Halloween, Escape from New York), all ten episodes were based on a sordid and motley bunch of vintage AIP juvenile delinquent and high-octane exploitation releases from the 1950s; period pieces still, but with more *ahem* lax standards and practices. Or, as the younger Arkoff put it: "If you made Rebel Without a Cause today, it would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous -- and you definitely would've had Natalie Wood's top off." (From the Rebel Highway Wikipedia page.)
With the only caveat being they had to be set in the '50s and fit into a programming slot, lengthwise, to make this happen, Arkoff and Hill sent out feelers to several top-notch directors, offering them a decent 12 day shooting budget, with full creative control over the script, cast and crew choices on whatever title they personally chose to pluck from AIP's back catalog to remake. Well, not outright remakes, mind you, but films 'inspired by' the original title. Or, more than likely, these new adaptation were based on the old posters for these films just like American International had done so successfully for years and years, where the promotional art rendered by Al Kallis or Reynold Brown came first, and, if they drew booking interest, only then did a movie get made. Several big name directors answered the call, along with a few young turks, with casts littered by the established brat-packers of the day -- but it was some fairly new faces, who now look very familiar, that really left their mark on the series. Throw in some Brylcreem, tailfins, nicotine, rocket-bras, leather, chrome, switchblades, and a lot of scorched asphalt, with a killer soundtrack as a cherry on top of it all (Fats Domino, Link Wray, and a metric ton of obscure rockabilly from the likes of Jody Reynolds and The Scarlets), some episodes prove better than others, yes, but thus far I've found nary an outright dud in the whole bunch.
Serving as the opening salvo, Robert Rodriguez's RoadRacers is one hellacious opening act with Dude Delaney (David Arquette) as our hot-rodding rebel rouser, who has just about had it with the Squaresville he calls home. Hounded by a psychotic police sergeant (William Sadler) and his even more psychopathic son (Jason Wiles), both looking to settle old scores, this sets up several staggering vignettes of ratcheting tension, territorial pissings, and fateful decisions until it all finally explodes with a final, fatal rumble. Along for the inevitable ride on this road to ruin are Selma Hayek as Dude's girlfriend, Donna, but the movie is absolutely stolen out from under everybody by a barely recognizable John Hawkes as our hero's toadie and street corner prophet, Nixer, who is currently obsessed with the new movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose themes of coerced conformity and homogenization Rodriguez uses brilliantly as a framing device to help finally prod our hero down the wrong, self-destructive path.
All of the director's hyper-active quirks are present and accounted for, and if the episode has one flaw, and it's nearly fatal, is all the 'time-outs' Rodriguez takes to focus solely on the fetishistic ritual of Dude striking a pose, greasing up the ducktail, popping a Winchester, and lighting an over-modulated match that stopped being "kewl" and started being downright buffoonish about the fourth or fifth time thru (and I stopped counting at 12), which kinda derails the mood and it just wasn't necessary. A major minor quibble, because the rest delivers a sizable entertaining payload.
Next, director John Milius liberally mixed in a massive dose of Hot Rods to Hell (1967) into his version of Motorcycle Gang, where once more a family in transit is menaced by pack of degenerate two-wheeling hooligans when the club leader (Jake Busey) takes a shine to their daughter (Carla Gugino). But even before the rubber hits the road we're already made privy to several family skeletons. Seems the Morris' marriage is already on the brink due to the overly-stoic father (Gerald MCraney), who hasn't been the same since coming home from the war, always distancing himself from everyone due to some lingering PTSD; this detachment causes the emotionally unstable mother (Elan Oberon) to find comfort in the arms of another man, which only makes the wedge driven between her and her daughter, who knows about the affair, even worse; and frankly, it was bad enough already due to mom's vanity and the lingering jealousy over the misconception of being constantly upstaged by her rapidly blossoming offspring. Hoping a fresh move to California will help solve all their problems, somewhere in the desert, they run afoul of this predatory pack of heroin smugglers, who have a history of kidnapping, raping, and murdering unwary waitresses from many a roadside diner. And soon enough, these thugs engineer another smash and grab before heading off to Mexico. And when the authorities on both sides of the border prove worthless, it's up to dear old dad to tap into some old training and unleash hell to save his daughter, his family, and, ultimately, his marriage.
I know Milius grew up immersed in the surfing culture of southern California, which kinda shows, here, through his palpable disdain for the bikers and beatniks our nuclear family unit encounters during this trial by fire. In fact, he kind of thumbs his nose at the whole genre, epitomized in the scene where the daughter, innocent, bored, and just maybe looking for a ride on the wild side, almost falls for the roguish greaser's line of bullshit only to be rewarded with a sexual assault followed by the threat of a gang bang. (The fact that she is saved by her Fabian pin, a stand up guy, sure, but definitely the establishment's answer to Elvis Presley, only adds insult to injury.) Oh yeah, here, Milius is squarely on the side of law and order, especially when you have to take it into your own hands to defend what is yours. Whether you agree or disagree, Motorcycle Gang does provide an interesting counterpoint to all the other glorification tales of rebels, delinquents, and rock 'n' rollers. Personally, I think the set-up of simmering hostility and smoldering lust plays out better than the vengeful payoff. And the whole thing is saved thanks to the efforts of McRaney, Gugino, Busey and Oberon in front of the camera, making up for Milius' too heavy a hand behind it.
Meanwhile, Mary Lambert's Dragstrip Girl is a wildly disjointed love letter to the forbidden teen romance that fueled a lot of these exploitation pieces. Here, on the wrong side of the tracks we find Johnny Ramirez (Mark Dacascos), a Chicano car hop, who also ramrods a low yield but extremely effective car theft ring with several of his cohorts (including a young Raymond Cruz). Johnny lives with his wheel-chair bound brother (Augusto Sandino) under the supervision of their 'aunt' Blanche (Traci Lords, doing a passable impersonation of Mamie Van Doren doing a passable impersonation of Marilyn Monroe), who runs a brothel out of her bedroom that her 'boys' constantly spy on through several holes in the plaster. (And how she or her clientele cannot hear their constant derisive giggling is beyond me.) Anyhoo, longing for something above his station, Johnny soon becomes infatuated with Laura Bickford (Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of Natalie Wood), a girl from the suburbs, much to the chagrin of her letter-jacket wearing beau. Seeing her as the key to getting everything he wants, meaning wealth and standing, turns out this girl who has everything is tired of the same old thing and looking for something 'money can't buy.' And after a fairly creepy stalking sequence, Johnny mistakes this confession for wanting something more dangerous (and he would've known different if he'd only read the diary he stole earlier), and so, he uses one of the stolen cars to impress his new girl at the drag races, which brings on a ton of heat from the cops -- not only on him but his soon to be former friends.
Alas, this tale was destined to end tragically, as Johnny chucks everything, not for the girl, or t'woo wuv, but for what the girl can give him, which, when you consider how he treats his old girlfriend, betrays his friends, gets his brother killed, and whether Laura loves him or not is completely irrelevant, because, I don't care how diehard a romantic you are, you cannot change the fact that Johnny is a self-serving asshole of astronomical proportions. Known mostly for directing Madonna's breakout music videos, Lambert's effort here was trying for the same stylized aesthetic but wound up with something a little off-kilter that's hampered by a strange candy-coating that leaves the weird parts not weird enough, the romantic bits too awkward, and the sleazy parts not sleazy enough, leaving you with a sense that Dragstrip Girl had a lot of promise left unfulfilled. No. Check that. Not unfulfilled. Misfired. An entertaining enough misfire, but a misfire just the same.
Speaking of misfires, Jonathan Kaplan's Reform School Girl probably comes off a little too sweet for its own good. Strange, considering this is the same guy who gave us the ultimate movie about disaffected youth with the highly nihilistic Over the Edge (1979). It starts with an introduction to Donna Patterson (Aimee Graham), a good girl, who works as a waitress, desperately trying to save enough money to get her and her little sister out of their lecherous uncle's house. (Their real parents died in a car crash.) Unfortunately for her, she's set up on a disastrous blind date with a young turk named Vince (Matt LeBlanc); and I say disastrous because it ends with a fatal hit and run, with Vince ditching the stolen car and Donna at the scene of the crime. Unable to provide the last name of the driver, Donna is convicted on manslaughter charges, but, thanks to a clean record otherwise, she is sentenced to a girl's reformatory for rehabilitation instead of the state pen.
What follows never really strays from the usual women in prison tropes, this time with a juvenile twist. You've got the usual learning curve, treacherous snitches, food fights, time spent in the hole, and a predatory warden (Carolyn Seymour) looking for athletes to populate the institution's track team. Wait. Track team? Yes, a track team, which explains why the behind the bars antics are dumped for a bizarre slobs versus snobs third act that is stolen wholesale from two other prison flicks: Michael Mann's The Jericho Mile (1979) and Sidney Poitier's Stir Crazy (1980). There is some intrigue in-between as Donna makes friends and loses friends on the inside, gets into trouble with the grab-fanny staff psychiatrist, and refuses to join up until coerced. (Luckily, she is still able to clandestinely gets her sister out of Dodge and away from both Vince and Mr. Bad Touch.) Along the way, Kaplan also manages the seemingly impossible by having an exploratory lesbian make-out scene in a prison flick without one single iota of salaciousness generated and, dare I say, comes off as kinda sweet. Which is nice, yes, but probably isn't quite what you're looking for in something called Reform School Girl. But! I still dug it and the 'up yours' ending nonetheless.
I don't think anybody can strip the veneer off the 1950s better than Joe Dante. And he does it again here, taking the decade behind the woodshed and beating it senseless with a big, biting farcical club of comedy called Runaway Daughters, which begins with a delightful montage credit sequence culled (I assume) from Dante's The Movie Orgy to give everyone a snapshot of life in the Eisenhower era, which, in spite of what your parents and grandparents tell you, proves just as dysfunctional as any other era. And after another nifty sequence at the local drive-in to introduce our players, our story proper kicks in when a horny teenager (Chris Young) uses the imminent threat of the recently launched Sputnik to finally get into the pants of his girl, Mary (Holly Fields). And when Mary misses her next period, she confronts Bob with the news of his imminent fatherhood, who promptly skips town to join the Navy. When Mary's two best friends, Angie and Laura (Julie Bown, Jenny Lewis), get wind of this treachery, they concoct a bizarre faux kidnapping plot so the three of them can steal a car and skip town to San Diego to head the deadbeat father off at the recruiting station, drag him back home, and make him do the right thing before the whole town knows what happened. But things get a little crazy on the road where out trio encounter a couple of lecherous patrol cops, crazed anti-commie survivalists, and two mad-dog killers. Meanwhile, back home, the parents realize the local cops are idiots and hire a private detective (Dick Miller), who doesn't buy the kidnap plot, to find their errant children. And with the help of one of their boyfriends (Paul Rudd), he's soon hot on their trail; but will he catch them before they catch Bob? Or will they even make it to San Diego at all?
The answer to all of the above is yes. Yes they do. And it ends disastrously for one of them but I will leave it to you to find out who. Runaway Daughters would make a great double feature with Matinee (1993), Dante's cinematic ode to the next decade gone awry. Mostly harmless and quite silly, the whole film comes off as a goof; and taken as goof, it truly is wonderful. Hysterical even. All of Dante's trademark destructive humor is there, along with a ton of welcomed cameos (Roger and Julie Corman, Fabian, and even Sam Arkoff shows up), the usual stock players (Miller, Christopher and Dee Wallace Stone, Belinda Belasky, and Robert Picardo), and the usual film references and inside jokes. (The family names are (Jim) Nicholson, (Lou) Rusoff, (Eddie L.) Cahn, and (Alex) Gordon, all familar to American International junkies like myself, and keep your eyes out for the AIP food market and gas station.) The third act is kinda leaking water, and there's a twist that resolves itself a little too cheaply, but, eh, I'll just roll with it. And besides, I was too busy laughing to really even notice.
Before I wrap this up, I would also like to commend Arkoff and Hill for the dedication that finished every film, paying tribute to the late, great James H. Nicholson, who was the creative force behind American International, and Lou Rusoff, who penned the majority of those scripts that first put AIP on the map.
Adapting their feature films to TV was nothing new for American International Pictures. Larry Buchanan did a bunch of remakes back in the 1960s that netted us Zontar the Thing from Venus and Attack of the the Eye Creatures. And Cinemax would follow in Showtime's footsteps in 2001 by re-imagining some of AIP's sci-fi output (Teenage Caveman, Earth vs. the Spider), though I found those results pretty odious. But I'm really digging this revisit to the Rebel Highway, so much so that this retrospective will definitely be continued somewhere further up the road as I polish off the rest of the series. Until then, stay cool, Boils and Ghouls.
Rebel Highway (1994) Drive-In Classics :: Showtime Networks / P: Lou Arkoff, Debra Hill, Willie Kutner, Llewellyn Wells / AP: Llewellyn Wells / D: Allan Arkush, Ralph Bakshi, Joe Dante, Uli Edel, William Friedkin, Jonathan Kaplan, Mary Lambert, John McNaughton, John Milius, Robert Rodriguez