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!!

 

 

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)

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?

Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!

Bang, You’re Dead!: Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (Paramount 1974)

Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.

Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that would’ve been an interesting interpretation, but the role ended up in Charlie’s firm hands, and he made it his own.

Architect Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) return from an idyllic Hawaiian vacation to grimy, crime infested New York City. They have a good life, but that life is shattered when Joanna and daughter Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three young punks (one of whom is future star Jeff Goldbum, making his film debut), who break into their apartment, brutally raping Carol and killing Joanna. The scene is graphic and uncomfortable to sit through, causing critics of the era to condemn it, but that savagery is necessary to understanding Paul’s motivation.

Tired and frustrated by police efforts and living in daily fear, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands with a sockful of quarters, then is sent by his boss to Tuscon, where he meets Western developer Ames Jainchill. We learn Paul served in Korea as a medic (and conscientious objector). We also learn quiet, peaceful Paul is more than familiar with guns. A trip to a Wild West show gives him ideas, and a going away present from Jainchill gives him the means to carry them out…

Bronson’s Paul Kersey is not just a cardboard vigilante. After his first kill, Paul is sickened by what he’s done, going home and immediately vomiting. As he gains more confidence in believing his actions are justified, he comes to think of himself as a Wild West bounty hunter mowing down bad guys (and there are several allusions to Western films throughout the movie). Bronson walks a fine line here, and gives what I think is his best performance. True, Kersey becomes a murderous Avenging Angel, but ask yourself these questions: What if you were in his shoes? What if it were YOUR wife and daughter?

Two of my favorite 70’s character actors are in DEATH WISH: Steven Keats and Stuart Margolin. Keats made a memorable first impression in the Boston-lensed neo-noir THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE opposite Robert Mitchum, and went on to act in THE GAMBLER, HESTER STREET, BLACK SUNDAY , SILENT RAGE, and the TV miniseries SEVENTH AVENUE and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG. Here he plays Kersey’s meek son-in-law Jack, whose response to the tragedy is much different than Paul’s, to say the least. Keats was a fine actor who tragically committed suicide in 1994, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work these days.

Margolin is a Familiar Face to fans of TV’s THE ROCKFORD FILES; he played James Garner’s former cellmate Angel, a con artist who frequently got Jim into trouble (winning two Emmys for his efforts). As Jainchill, Margolin plays a brief but essential part as the Westerner who sets Paul’s behavior into motion.  He’s best known for his television work, both as an actor and director, but his feature films include KELLY’S HEROES, FUTUREWORLD, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and S.O.B. He’s still acting, recently appearing on the revival of THE X-FILES. Both these men would make interesting Familiar Faces posts (hmmm… ).

Another great character actor, Vincent Gardenia, plays cynical NYC cop Frank Ochoa, assigned to hunt down the vigilante. Ochoa is enmeshed with the political ramifications of capturing the mysterious shooter, whose actions are popular with the public at large, having caused the crime rate to drastically drop in the Big Apple. The Emmy and Tony winning, Oscar nominated (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, MOONSTRUCK) Gardenia is well remembered by 70’s audiences for his role as Frank Lozenzo, neighbor of TV’s Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Plenty of other recognizable performers ply their trade as well: Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Elliott, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Eric Laneuville, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster!), Sonia Marzano (SESAME STREET’s Maria), and William Redfield.

Wendell Mayes’ script doesn’t judge Kersey one way or the other, letting the audience make their own decisions, and the writer of THE ENEMY BELOW, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE pulls it off with style. DP Arthur Ornitz gives viewers a bleak, uncompromising look at New York’s mean streets, and I absolutely love Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. Critics of the time loathed and reviled DEATH WISH, but theater owners packed ’em in, as the film really resonated with audiences, and still does today. DEATH WISH spawned a slew of vigilante movies that became a sub-genre in themselves, but none truly caught the zeitgeist of the times like this one. It also spawned four sequels, which are enjoyable but not nearly on a par with the original. It also spawned a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, but like I always say, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby! No matter which side of the coin you’re on, you’ve got to admit DEATH WISH is an important film that ranks with the best of the decade, not to mention damn entertaining!

 

Riot On Ice: Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT (Universal 1977)

Hockey fans are excited about this year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, so I figured now’s the time to take a look at the quintessential hockey movie, George Roy Hill’s SLAP SHOT. Hill and star Paul Newman, who’d previously collaborated on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, reunited for this raucous, raunchy sports comedy about a failing minor league hockey team who reinvent themselves as a hard-hitting goon squad.

Newman plays Reg Dunlap, an aging rink rat now the player-coach for the Chiefs, a dying franchise in a dying mill town. The team is on a massive losing streak, and attendance is at an all-time low. Two-bit GM Joe McGrath (Newman’s COOL HAND LUKE antagonist Strother Martin) is trying to sell the Chiefs, and things look bleak until Dunlap begins taunting his opponents and the rink violence escalates. Enter a trio of new players named the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Jeff and Steve Carlson), who take the art of hockey goons to a whole new level, and the fans return in droves, eating up the carny-like atmosphere like cherry flavored sno-cones.

Young hockey purist Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean, THE ROOKIES, TWIN PEAKS) objects to the pro wrestling inspired mayhem and refuses to take part, but the Chiefs become the hottest attraction in the league, and make their way to the championship game. Meanwhile, Reg tries to discover the true  identity of the Chiefs’ mysterious owner while dealing with marital disharmony (Jennifer Warren, later a director in her own right) as he continues to promote the hell out of his beloved Chiefs in order to save the franchise…

The movie is DEFINITELY non-PC and probably will offend the more sensitive types, but those of you who still have your sense of humor intact will guffaw wildly at the crude jokes and shenanigans taking place on and off the ice. In between the sexist humor and bloody violence you’ll find a serious character study as Newman’s Reg Dunlap goes through a mid-life crisis, including the loss of both his wife and his career. Paul was still in great shape at age 50 and looked like he belonged on a hockey team. Ontkean’s Ned Braden has marriage troubles of his own with wife Lindsay Crouse; both turn in good performances and Ontkean’s wicked funny striptease on ice toward the conclusion is a comedy highlight!

Those wild’n’crazy Hanson Brothers were based on real-life minor league hockey goons the Carlson Brothers, two of whom (Steve and Jeff) play their fictitious selves (third brother Jack was called up to Edmonton, replaced by another hockey goon, Dave “Killer” Hanson). Their cinematic hockey havoc made them minor celebrities, doing personal appearance tours and even making the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit thirty years later). Besides the always-reliable Strother Martin, others of interest include 70’s favorite Jerry Houser as a Dunlap loyalist, M. Emmett Walsh as a gullible reporter, Brad Sullivan as the obnoxious perv Morris, and the hit song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which keeps popping up throughout the film:

SLAP SHOT’s screenplay by Nancy Dowd was based on the experiences of her brother Ned’s time in the minor leagues (Ned plays the part of feared opponent Oglethorpe in the film). The movie wasn’t a hit at first, but has since become one of the ultimate “guy flicks” thanks to it’s sheer outrageousness. After all, it’s got sex, violence, beer, and sports – what’s not to love, eh? Meanwhile, here in the real world, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is about to start, soooo…

LET’S GO BRUINS!!

Bobby Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Last Ride: FAMILY PLOT (Universal 1976)

Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).

Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George,  is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird.  The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.

Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…

Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script  keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!

Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a   thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.

Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.