Halloween Havoc!: DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (Thunderbird International 1966)

Welcome to the weird world of low-budget Florida-based filmmaker William Grefe, whose Everglades-lensed movies are always interesting. Not necessarily good mind you, but interesting. Still, the man did the best he could with what little resources he had. One of his most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) films is the 1966 shocker DEATH CURSE OF TARTU.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU concerns a husband-and-wife team of archeologists and their students searching for a missing colleague. The teens want to “go down to the lake and roast marshmallows” (and engage in some energetic frugging and heavy necking!), when they stumble on the crypt of Tartu, an ancient Indian “witch doctor”, and his curse. Soon, teens begin to drop like swamp flies as shape-shifting Tartu turns into a snake, shark and alligator, until the lead archeologist translates the ancient tablet, and discovers the only way to break the curse is by destroying Tartu’s remains…

I can see how DEATH CURSE OF TARTU has had an influence on all those slasher flicks to come, with the teens getting picked off one by one in some fairly gruesome (for the time) ways. My favorite is the swamp-shark attack, and even though, as one teen puts it, “Sharks don’t live in fresh water”, it’s a neat little set-piece. The 400-year-old “witch doctor” himself isn’t very scary in the flesh, but when he turns into a swamp creature, look out! The film was initially released as a double feature with another Grefe epic, STING OF DEATH, involving a mutated jellyfish and allegedly cowritten by another maverick filmmaker, Herschell Gordon Lewis!

Florida filmmaker William Grefe

Grefe’s filmography includes the biker flick THE WILD REBELS, the druggie drama THE HOOKED GENERATION (with biker/western vet Jeremy Slate), the sleazy THE NAKED ZOO (starring of all people Rita Hayworth alongside the rock band Canned Heat!), the WILLARD-with snakes shocker STANLEY, the psycho-killer classic IMPULSE (with William Shatner as a leisure-suited murderer!), and the aptly-titled JAWS rip-off MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH. He also did the underwater shark scenes for the James Bond adventure LIVE AND LET DIE, which is probably his greatest contribution to cinema.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU isn’t all that coherent, and I was annoyed by a few things in the film, like the constant drumbeats-and-chanting coming from nowhere, and the constant screaming of annoying teen Cindy (though I did love it when Annoying Cindy was mercifully chomped to death by that gator!). But as a proto-slasher movie, it deserves a small amount of credit, as does William Grefe himself, a man with a dream to make his movies his way, without the benefit of a large budget (or any budget, for that matter!). In that respect, Mr. Grefe was a success.

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL (Universal/Hammer 1971)

British babes Mary and Madeleine Collinson became the first set of twins to not only star as Playboy Twin Centerfolds (and we’ll get to that at the end of this post!!), but to star in a Hammer Horror film, 1971’s TWINS OF EVIL. Not only that, the lasses got to play opposite Hammer icon Peter Cushing as their puritanical, witch burning uncle. It’s the final chapter in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (preceded by 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on characters from Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella , and it’s a sexy, blood-spattered scream!

As uncle Gustav Weil goes around the countryside burning young girls at the stake, his recently orphaned twin teenage nieces Maria and Frieda arrive from Venice. Prudish Uncle Gustav disapproves of the girls’ plunging decolletage (“What kind of plumage is this? The birds of paradise?”). While Maria is shy and demure, Frieda’s a rebellious wild child, and sneaks out of the house to meet up with Gustav’s sworn enemy, the decadent Count Karnstein.

The aristocratic Count has long been dabbling in black magic, and his satanic ritual summons forth his dead ancestor Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth in a cameo), who puts the bite on Karnstein and makes him one of the undead. The Count in turn sinks his fangs into Frieda, and things really start to get gruesome from there as Gustav and his church brethren storm Castle Karnstein for an exciting, gore-filled climax.

Cushing’s amazing as always, delivering his pious lines with aplomb and running around like a much younger man (he was 58 at the time). Damien Thomas takes the role of the debauched Count and runs with it, his handsome looks belying what lurks underneath. Character actor Dennis Price has a small part as one of Gustav’s closest advisers. Director John Hough keeps the pace brisk; some other Hough horrors of note include THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and AMERICAN GOTHIC, not to mention the Peter Fonda drive-in actioner DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.

As for the Collinson Twins, their screen career pretty much ended with TWINS OF EVIL. Let’s face it, there’s not much you can do with a twin gimmick after starring in a vampire horror flick. Madeleine passed away in 2014, but Mary is still alive and well, living the good life in Milan. As I promised earlier, here are Mary and Madeleine Collinson in their famous 1970 Playboy Centerfold:

C’mon, you didn’t really think I was going to go there, did you? This is a family blog!!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)

Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued by The Covena, a cargo ship carrying a freight of wild animals to the uncharted island of Dr. Moreau, located in the South Pacific. Moreau is called “a scientific genius” by his associate aboard ship, Dr. Montgomery, but though ship’s Captain Davies labels him a “grave robbing ghoul” Parker gets into an altercation with the drunken captain, who strands him on the island. As Montgomery leads Parker through the jungle to Moreau’s home, the young man notices something strange about the island natives, something he can’t quite put his finger on.

It is now we meet Dr. Moreau: a white-suited, whip-cracking, portly figure who’s beard gives him a Satanic visage. The courteous Moreau invites Parker to spend the night, and leave with Montgomery in the morning, yet he has sinister ulterior motives. Moreau is a vivisectionist who has been experimenting with “organic evolution”, turning animals into half-human monstrosities in his ‘House of Pain’. The natives Parker encountered were the results of those mad experiments, but Moreau’s had more success with Lota, half-human/half-panther, and wants to find out how much human emotion she has by introducing her to the handsome Parker, hoping perhaps they’ll mate!

When Parker finds out about Moreau’s deviant research projects, he tries to escape with Lota (not yet realizing she, too, is half-human), but they’re stopped by the Manimals. Moreau rescues the pair, cracking his whip and forcing the beasts to recite The Law (“Not to spill blood”, “Not to eat meat”). After explaining his scientific discoveries to Parker, it’s discovered the schooner has sunk, leaving Parker no alternative but to stay longer. Lota has caught feelings for Parker, and they kiss, but to Parker’s horror, he feels large panther claws digging into his back! She’s reverting back to animal state, and Moreau returns her to his ‘House of Pain’. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiance Ruth has arrived with Captain Donahue, and Moreau’s plans to mate a human with his weird creations changes…

Shock follows shock in this gripping, gruesome film from director Erle C. Kenton, who began his career back in 1916. Kenton and his cinematographer Karl Struss use shadows and light to create an eerie ambiance, with that trademark Paramount early 30’s filmed-through-gauze style. Struss was well noted for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Expressionistic classic SUNRISE, and became one of the studio’s ace cinematographers. Kenton was strictly a ‘B’ director, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably his greatest film achievement. He later helmed Universal’s 40’s Monster Rallies (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , HOUSE OF DRACULA ) and Abbott & Costello comedies (PARDON MY SARONG, WHO DONE IT?, IT AIN’T HAY), as well as the 1948  exploitation drama BOB AND SALLY, which covered everything from abortion to alcoholism to VD in a little over an hour!

Charles Laughton  gives a bravura performance as Moreau, outwardly charming and cultivated yet harboring a deep rooted insanity. A lesser actor would’ve went over the top with a part as juicy as Moreau, but Laughton shows great restraint in bringing the mad doctor to life, even when uttering the tempting line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”. Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is up there in the pantheon of 1930’s horror performances, and though he’d give us more fine film roles (Henry VIII, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, Captian Bligh, Quasimodo) his Moreau remains my personal favorite.

Square jawed hero Richard Arlen has what’s probably his most unusual role of his career as Parker (except maybe his Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND , but as usual he nails it. Bela Lugosi appears, almost unrecognizable except for that Hungarian voice, as the hairy-faced Sayer of the Law, leader of the Manimals. Leila Hyams isn’t given much to do as Ruth,but she’s always a welcome presence. Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Stanely Fields (Davies), and Paul Hurst (Donahue) offer strong support.

Then there’s Lota the Panther Woman. She’s played by 19 year old Kathleen Burke, who won a talent contest in Chicago for the chance be in the film. Burke brings a savage beauty to the part, and is quite good for a novice in her first time out. Miss Burke altogether made 22 films, among them MURDERS IN THE ZOO (another horror effort, starring Lionel Atwill), LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (as a Russian seductress), THE LAST OUTPOST, and BOY OF THE STREETS, before retiring in 1938 and returning to Chicago. Kathleen Burke passed away in 1980.

Those half-human monstrosities were created by makeup wizard Wally Westmore and Charlie Gemora (who also appears early as a gorilla in a cage). Each and every Manimal is unique unto itself, which must have been painstaking work for the makeup department, but well worth the effort. The revolt of the Manimals against Moreau is one of the most chilling scenes in early horror history, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a bona fide horror classic that genre lovers do not want to miss.

 

Big Bad Bob: Robert Mitchum in MAN WITH THE GUN (United Artists 1955)

Rugged Robert Mitchum is pretty much the whole show in MAN WITH THE GUN, a film by first  time director (and Orson Welles protege) Richard Wilson. It seems a strange choice at this juncture of Mitchum’s career. He was just coming off four big films in a row (RIVER OF NO RETURN, TRACK OF THE CAT, NOT AS A STRANGER, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ), then makes a low budget Western that harkens back to his days making ‘B’ Zane Grey Westerns at RKO. But that was Mitchum; always the maverick who did things his way.

The film itself isn’t bad: Mitchum plays a notorious gunslinger, a “town tamer” hired by Sheridan City to clean things up from the clutches of boss ‘Dade Holman’ (who isn’t seen til the end, but whose influence is everywhere). There’s a subplot with his ex-wife Jan Sterling, now running the dance hall girls at The Palace, and the whereabouts of their five year old daughter. Another subplot involves Karen Sharpe, daughter of town council leader Emile Meyer, catching feelings for Mitchum, to the chagrin of her young, headstrong fiance  John Lupton. But don’t let the soap opera elements fool you: MAN WITH THE GUN is an exercise in violence, with Mitchum a killing machine who has no problem mowing down bad guys. Wilson and N.B. Stone Jr’s script dips briefly into the psychological reasons Mitchum’s character does what he does, making him more than just a one-dimensional gun-for-hire.

Wilson had helped stage plays for Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air, and worked as Welles’ assistant on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and associate producer on LADY FROM SHANGHAI and MACBETH. He completed the documentary IT’S ALL TRUE: BASED ON AN UNFINISHED FILM BY ORSON WELLES shortly before his death in 1991, and appears posthumously in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . While he’s no Welles, Wilson manages to create some moody, almost film noir-ish scenes with the help of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes (the burning down of The Palace in particular is well staged). His directorial filmography is skimpy, but includes some interesting vehicles, like THE BIG BOODLE (starring a dissipated Errol Flynn), AL CAPONE (with Rod Steiger as Scarface), the well-regarded noir PAY OR DIE, and the AIP sex romp THREE IN THE ATTIC.

MAN WITH THE GUN also benefits from a supporting cast of Familiar Faces, including veteran Henry Hull as the ineffective town marshal, Ted de Corsia as the Palace’s manager (complete with bad French accent!), Leo Gordon and Claude Akins as heavies, young Angie Dickinson as a saloon girl, and Jay Adler, Barbara Lawrence (as a dizzy blonde), Burt Mustin, Maidie Norman, Maudie Prickett, Stafford Repp, Buddy Roosevelt, Amzie Strickland, and James Westerfield (who sets up the film’s finale). The film’s no classic, but will satisfy fans of both Westerns in general, and Robert Mitchum in particular. I fall into both categories, so of course I liked it; the rest of you will have to watch and judge for yourselves!

 

 

RIP Sid Haig: A Career Retrospective

Quick, name an actor who’s played villains opposite everyone from Batman to  James Bond, and Captain Kirk to TJ Hooker. Not to mention sharing screen time with stars like Ann-Margret, Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney Jr, Pam Grier, Nancy Kwan, Lee Marvin, and Anthony Quinn, and working with directors as diverse as Robert Aldrich, Jack Hill, Richard Fleischer, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Rob Zombie.  There’s only one, and his name was Sid Haig, one of the last links to Old Hollywood and an Exploitation Icon, who sadly passed away yesterday at age 80.

Young Sidney Moesian, born 7/17/39 in Fresno, was bitten by the show biz bug early, dancing onstage as a child and even scoring a regional rock hit with his teenage band The T-Birds:

Sid got his acting education paying his dues at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, alongside roommate Stuart Margolin (THE ROCKFORD FILES, DEATH WISH, etc). His first feature was Jack Hill’s 1964’s SPIDER BABY , which didn’t get released until about four years later, and didn’t really hit it’s stride until being rediscovered during the VHS boom of the 1980’s.

Spider Baby (with Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Lon Chaney Jr.)

SPIDER BABY concerns the quirky Merrye family, with Sid as the drooling, psychotic Ralph, brother of homicidal sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), watched over by caretaker/chauffeur Bruno, played by horror vet Lon Chaney Jr. in what’s arguably his best latter-day performance. Even Mantan Moreland shows up in this blackest of black comedies, The two old pros are fun to watch, but Sid holds his own in a fine (if bizarre!) debut.

Lobby card for “It’s A Bikini World” (with Deborah Walley)

With his long, lanky frame, bald dome, and scruffy beard, Sid Haig was soon typecast mainly as a bad guy, but not always. In the beach flicks BEACH BALL, you can catch him on his beloved drums backing up The Righteous Brothers, and in IT’S A BIKINI WORLD , Sid plays ‘Daddy’, car customizer and owner of teen hangout The Dungeon. But in mainstream films of the era (POINT BLANK, THE HELL WITH HEROES, CHE!) Sid’s definitely not on the side of the angels.

Henchman of King Tut (Victor Buono) on TV’s BATMAN

He kept really busy on television during the 60’s, making his first TV appearance as ‘Augie the Hood’ on a 1962 episode of THE UNTOUCHABLES. He donned the bandages of his former co-star Chaney to play The Mummy in a 1965 LUCY SHOW episode titled “Lucy Meets The Monsters”, during the Classic Horror Revival of that decade (ahh, the good old days!!). He was one of King Tut’s (Victor Buono) henchmen on a BATMAN two-parter, one of the Lawgivers on the STAR TREK episode “Return of the Archons”, and made the rounds of both TV Westerns (LAREDO, THE IRON HORSE, DANIEL BOONE, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, GUNSMOKE) and spy shows like THE MAN FROM UNCLE, the spoof GET SMART, and nine (count ’em) different episodes of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – as nine different bad guys!

Bond villain Sid in “Diamonds Are Forever”

Sid was one of William Smith’s biker gang, who kidnap Ann-Margret in CC & COMPANY (starring NFL quarterback Joe Namath!). He has a small part as a prisoner in director George Lucas’ debut THX 1138, but his next found him in a higher profile film, as one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s henchmen in 1971’s DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , with Sean Connery returning to his iconic role as James Bond. Other more mainstream film roles followed: one of the hobos in EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, ‘The Arab’ in THE DON IS DEAD, a bouncer in BUSTING. But it was in the world of low budget Exploitation movies that Sid really began to make his mark.

With Pam Grier in “The Big Bird Cage”

Jack Hill’s 1971 THE BIG DOLL HOUSE helped kicked off the popular “Women in Prison” genre, with Sid as a sleazebag opposite Pam Grier, Judy Brown, and Roberta Collins. In Hill’s THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), he’s a revolutionary named Django (!!) and Pam’s his girlfriend Blossom, who leads a prison breakout. BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA (1973) finds Sid as Ruben, enlisted to hunt down escapees Pam and Margaret Markov in this distaff version of THE DEFIANT ONES directed by Eddie Romero. 1974’s SAVAGE SISTERS (aka EBONY, IVORY, AND JADE) casts him as a comic crook alongside Vic Diaz, up against genre stalwarts Gloria Hendry, Cheri Caffaro, and John Ashley in another fun, action-packed Romero epic!

With Pam again 9and Alan Arbus) in “Coffy”

Sid was no stranger to Blaxpolitation either, teaming again with Pam Grier and director Hill for two slam-bang genre entries. In COFFY (1973), he’s once again a henchman,this time to mobster Alan Arbus, with Pam as “the Baddest One-Chick Hit Squad” (according to the lurid movie poster!) out to avenge her brother’s death. FOXY BROWN (1974) has Pam again in vengeance mode, and Sid (you guessed it!) another mean henchman.

Saturday morning sci-fi: JASON OF STAR COMMAND

The oddly endearing Filipino sci-fi flick BEYOND ATLANTIS (1973) casts Sid as one of the treasure hunters who stumble upon a race of half-human, half-amphibians, with a cast that features Patrick Wayne, John Ashley, Filipino vets Vic Diaz and Eddie Garcia, and George (ROBOT MONSTER) Nader. On the small screen, Sid had a recurring role on Norman Lear’s soap opera spoof MARY HARTMAN MARY HARTMAN as Texas, a Fernwood auto factory worker and colleague of Mary’s (Louise Lasser) husband Tom (Greg Mullavey). The Saturday morning kiddie show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, during the height of the original STAR WARS craze, cast him as Dragos, the main villain and antagonist of hero Jason (Craig Littler). (Trivia Note: STAR TREK’s James Doohan was also in the cast during the first season as Jason’s commander!).

A biker bad guy on THE A-TEAM

More TV guest shots followed: THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, GET CHRISTIE LOVE! (the closest thing to a TV version of Blaxploitation!), THE ROCKFORD FILES (with former roomie Stuart Margolin), EMERGENCY!, POLICE STORY, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, HART TO HART, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, TJ HOOKER, THE A-TEAM, THE FALL GUY, HILL STREET BLUES, MCGYVER. But by 1992, Sid had grown tired of Hollywood and quit acting. In a 2004 interview with KAOS2000 Magazine, he explained: “I just didn’t want to play stupid heavies anymore. They just kept giving me the same parts but just putting different clothes on me… I resented it”. He stayed off the screen for almost ten years, popping up only in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997) as a judge, and starring his old friend Pam Grier in the title role. Believe it or not, Sid worked as a licensed hypnotherapist during these years.

Sid’s comeback began with a cameo as a grinning pirate in the Rob Zombie music video “Feel So Numb”:

This led to Zombie casting Sid in his feature film directorial debut, 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, an homage to all those crazy Grindhouse horror movies of the 70’s (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, etc). Sid is the deranged Captain Spaulding, leader of the murderous Firefly brood (all of whom are named after characters in Marx Brothers movies – but all you film buffs already know that!!). The terror is cranked up to 11, and Sid  Haig was introduced to a new audience, and worshipped as a horror icon! Henchman no longer! Captain Spaulding and his’family’ (Bill Mosley, Sherry Moon Zombie) returned for 2005’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, and will be back October 14 for 3 FROM HELL, scaring the crap out of us all at the local multiplex (I know I’ll be there!).

Sid Haig had a long career as a character actor, and I’ve only touched on the highlights of it. He wasn’t a ‘star’, but a solid supporting player who lend his special brand of lunacy to his parts, and fans like myself were delighted when Rob Zombie made him an “overnight horror sensation” after almost 50 years in front of the cameras. Thanks for all the ‘B’ Movie and TV memories, Sid… we won’t forget you!

Farewell, Captain Spaulding

News has reached us that character actor Sid Haig has passed away at age 80. I’ll have a full tribute/career retrospective on Sid later tonight or tomorrow evening. Meanwhile, enjoy this pictorial tribute to the late, great Sid Haig…

Spider Baby (1964; D: Jack Hill)
CC & Company (1970; D: Seymour Robbie)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971; D: Guy Hamilton)
Foxy Brown (1974; D: Jack Hill)
Jackie Brown (1997; D: Quentin Tarantino)

Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

Drive-In Saturday Night #5: MALIBU BEACH (Crown-International 1978) & VAN NUYS BOULEVARD (Crown-International 1979)

The kids are back in school, the days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting cooler. Yes, my friends, summer’s almost over, but before it ends, let’s take one more trip to the drive-in and enjoy a pair of Crown-International Exploitation classics. Crown was responsible for a slew of “teen sex” drive-in flicks  in the 70’s and early 80’s. You know the type: the “teens” are all over 21, and the “sex” consists mainly of topless babes and some heavy necking!

Our first feature, 1978’s MALIBU BEACH, is the quintessential Crown-International “teen sex” romp. School’s out, and all the hardbodied California kids head to said beach for some frolicking in the sand and surf. Pretty Dina gets a summer job as a lifeguard, and meets handsome football hunk Bobby. A leather jacket wearing musclehead named Dugan tries to get between them, but we all know he’s got no shot! And that’s about it for plot in this harmless but likable little effort – nothing really happens, but it’s a fun way to kill an hour and a half, and good for a few chuckles along the way.

We get all your basic stereotypes (like nerdy rich kid Claude and hot’n’horny Gloriana), a pair of lunkheaded cops, lots of bouncing boobs, pot smoking, beer drinking, hell raising, and a dog that likes to steals bikini tops, all set to a generic rock score. We even get a silly little JAWS parody thrown in at the end for good measure! True, it doesn’t sound like much (and really, it isn’t), but MALIBU BEACH has a certain charm about it, and I liked it a lot. It’s shot well, the cast is appealing, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of the shenanigans going on. What more do you want from a drive-in flick, anyway?

The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, with a few exceptions. Pretty Kim Lankford, best known as Ginger on the prime time soap KNOTS LANDING, plays pretty Dina. James Daughton (Bobby) challenged Fonzie to “jump the shark” in that infamous episode of HAPPY DAYS that coined the infamous phrase, but will forever be remembered as Greg Marmalade, arch enemy of the Deltas in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE! And Stephen Oliver, who plays the creep Dugan, played creep Lee Webber on the hit series PEYTON PLACE, and was typecast as a creepy biker in films like ANGELS FROM HELL, the cult classic WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS , and Russ Meyer’s MOTORPSYCHO.

Now let’s all head to the snack bar before our second feature:

Got all your snacks and soft drinks? Good, let’s look at our next film, 1979’s VAN NUYS BLVD…

…this one set in the 70’s milieu of aimlessly cruising up and down the main drag. Makes me nostalgic for cruising the Ave in my Chevy Nova back in the day; it’s just not the same in a Hyundai! But I digress. Like MALIBU BEACH, the plot of VAN NUYS BLVD is skimpier than the carhop’s uniforms. Country boy Bobby decides to jump in his customized van and head to where the action is, namely cruising up and down Van Nuys Blvd. He meets gorgeous van driver Moon, and they engage in a running battle of the sexes. They’re both competitive, trying to outdo each other, so you know by the end they’ll be madly in love, because that’s how these things work!

In between, we get some comic set pieces, including a pig loose on the beach, and the plight of skeezy Officer Zass, the scourge of the cruisers. We also get some disco dancing, with the Kansas City Glitter Girls doing a dance number called “Boogie Down the Boulevard”, a silly but entertaining bit of filler. There’s hot rods and muscle cars, an overaged cruiser with an impressive moustache named Chooch, lots of T-N-A, and smutty jokes that managed to make me laugh despite myself. It’s all goofy, trivial nonsense, but well done far as these exploitation flicks go.

Director William Sachs was also responsible for one of Crown-International’s best known films, 1980’s GALAXINA, starring the doomed Playmate Dorothy Stratton (whose story was filmed as Bob Fosse’s STAR 80). Another ex-Playmate, Cynthia Wood, plays Moon, while costar Bill Adler (Bobby) was a Crown International regular (THE POM POM GIRLS, THE VAN  ) who’s also in Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. You probably won’t recognize anyone else in the cast unless you’re an Exploitation fan: Tara Strohmeier (carhop Wanda, who winds up with Chooch) appeared in such fare as THE STUDENT TEACHERS, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, COVER GIRL MODELS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (and plays horny Gloriana in MALIBU BEACH).

The Drive-In’s now closed for the season, as we’re getting ready to hunker down for the winter months. Hopefully, we will reopen next spring to take a look at more Exploitation delights. Don’t forget to remove the speakers from your windows before driving off, and ya’ll come back now, ya hear?

Hellhound On My Trail: Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS (Columbia 1986)

‘Well the blues had a baby/and they named it rock and roll” –

Muddy Waters

Hi, my name’s Gary, and I’m a bluesoholic! Whether it’s Deep South Delta or Electric Chicago, distilled in Great Britain or Sunny California, the blues has always been the foundation upon which rock’n’roll was built. Yet there aren’t a lot of films out there depicting this totally original American art form. One I viewed recently was 1986’s CROSSROADS, directed by another American original whose work I enjoy, Walter Hill.

Hill was responsible for cult classics filled with violence and laced with humor, like HARD TIMES (with Charles Bronson as a 1930’s bare knuckles brawler), the highly stylized THE WARRIORS , the gritty Western THE LONG RIDERS, and SOUTHERN COMFORT (a kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME On The Bayou). He scored box office gold with the 1982 action-comedy 48 HRS, making a movie star out of SNL’s Eddie Murphy (for better or worse), but his  follow up STREETS OF FIRE (a “rock and roll fable”) tanked at theaters.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues (1911-1938)

CROSSROADS is a different type of Walter Hill film. While keeping the ‘buddy movie’ aspect and the humor, Hill tones down the violence quotient considerably to tell his tale, based somewhat loosely on the legend of Robert Johnson. the seminal Mississippi bluesman who allegedly “sold his soul to the devil” to achieve fame and fortune. Johnson’s output of music recorded before his death in 1938 at age 27 consists of just 29 songs, including future blues standards “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Dust My Broom”, “Love in Vain”, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and of course “Crossroad Blues”.

CROSSROADS is about a quest to discover Johnson’s missing thirtieth song, as a young Julliard student named Eugene Martone, who wants to be a bluesman, finds elderly Willie Brown (aka Blind Dog Fulton), Johnson’s former harmonica player, in an old folks home. Martone is obsessed with finding the lost song, and the crusty, crotchety Willie agrees to help him, if he’ll help Willie escape from the home. He does, and they go ‘hoboing’ down the backroads headed to the Mississippi Delta, where Willie claims he, like Robert Johnson, once sold his soul to the devil, and now wants it back!

Along the way, they meet young runaway Frances, and go on the adventure of a lifetime, as Eugene (dubbed by Willie ‘The Lighting Kid’) learns what it’s really like to live the life of an itinerant  bluesman. Willie finally makes it back to the crossroads, coming face to face with The Devil himself, and a mystical, mojo-fueled guitar duel takes place between Eugene and The Devil’s own shredder (demonically played by guitar whiz Steve Vai) for both their immortal souls…

Joe Seneca is marvelous as cranky Willie, full of piss and vinegar, and makes a totally believable bluesman. Ralph Macchio, who I usually find quite annoying, as Eugene is good as well. Jami Gertz (LESS THAN ZERO) is appealing as the runaway Frances. Joe Morton (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is The Devil’s Assistant, while Robert Judd (who acted with Seneca in the original Broadway production of MA RAINY’S BLACK BOTTOM) makes an evil, leering Devil (here called Scratch). And it’s a real treat to see veteran Harry Carey Jr. pop up in the brief role of the bartender in a redneck country joint!

Slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder contributes the rootsy soundtrack, aided immensely by the harp blowing of legendary bluesman Sonny Terry. Other musicians contributing include Frank Frost (harp), Otis Taylor (guitar), and Jim Keltner (drums). Walter Hill has crafted a totally likable musical fairy tale with CROSSROADS, a must-see for lovers of the blues.