A Dragon’s Tale: Ron Van Clief in BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE (Madison World Films 1975)

I thought I’d seen all the 70’s Kung-Fu movie greats – Bruce Lee , Jackie Chan , Jim Kelly , Sonny Chiba – but I’d never even heard of Ron Van Clief until I watched BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE. Guess his films never played at my neighborhood Grindhouse, which is a shame, because Mr. Van Clief is one serious ass-kicker! The former Marine, Vietnam vet, NYC cop, and multiple-time martial arts champion starred in a series of action-packed films showcasing his dazzling technique, and BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE makes for one helluva introduction.

Dig those crazy 70’s sideburns!

No, BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE is not a sequel to Bela Lugosi’s 1942 Monogram flick BLACK DRAGONS, but a continuation of the badass character Van Clief played in his film debut, 1974’s BLACK DRAGON. Here, Van Clief is sent by an Exploitation film producer from San Francisco to Hong Kong to investigate the death of Bruce Lee. Teaming up with his friend, fellow martial artist Charles “La Pantera” Bonet, they go against the odds battling bad guys as they search for the truth behind the mystery. The somewhat convoluted plotline really doesn’t matter, as it’s just an excuse for some amazingly dazzling action set pieces, and concludes with an astounding battle on the beach between Van Clief and the (heretofore unrevealed) head villain that’s an eye-popping tableau of violence.

The Black Dragon in action!

Van Clief himself choreographed all the fight scenes, and the result is total Grndhouse heaven, with some bizarre imagery and good humor thrown in. The acting leaves much to be desired, even for a kung-fu entry, but who cares… these films are all about the fighting! Ron Van Clief’s acting career was brief (and he’s no Spencer Tracy!), and is erroneously credited as Ron Van CLIFF,  but his talent as a weapon of ass-kicking destruction can’t be denied. Fans of Italian cinema might remember him from 1978’s THE SQUEEZE, in which he played opposite Lee Van Cleef, who was a badass himself and amateur martial artist.

Ron “The Black Dragon” Van Clief today

Ron Van Clief came out of retirement from active competition at age 51 to enter the MMA Octagon, losing to Royce Gracie in a gutsy effort, and served for a time as UFC Commissioner. He’s still around today, training students and probably in better shape at age 76 than you and me both put together! Though we never really find out who killed Bruce Lee in BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE, we do get to watch one of the great kung-fu masters in action doing what he does best, and Ron Van Clief makes BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE worth your time.

BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE is currently streaming on https://www.thefilmdetective.com/

A Tasty Spaghetti Ragu: A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE (MGM 1974)

James Coburn, at the height of his career, moved from American movies to international productions with his trademark elegance and ease. He worked for the Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone in 1972’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER , then appeared for Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii in A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, a revenge tale disguised as a caper film that costars Telly Savalas and Spaghetti icon Bud Spencer. The version I viewed was the truncated American cut, missing about a half hour of footage and released stateside in 1974. If the complete version is as good as this one, I need to hunt it down and see it!

The Civil War-set drama finds Coburn as Col. Pembroke, recently escaped from a Confederate prison after surrendering Fort Holman without a fight to Rebel Major Ward (Savalas) and his forces. Fort Holman is a crucial piece of real estate to the Union Army, and Pembroke aims to redeem himself by taking it back, recruiting a scurvy bunch of reprobates about to be hung for their crimes – murderers, rapists, and horse thieves all. Pembroke and his Dirty Half-Dozen are initially at odds until he tells them the real reason they’re attacking the fort – a cache of hidden Confederate gold worth half a million dollars!

The first hour builds slowly, as the motley crew make their way to Fort Holman and Eli (Spencer) is sent in to infiltrate the fort and pave the way for Pembroke’s band of bandits. Then the action picks up considerably, as the attack turns into a bloody massacre and Pembroke’s true motive is revealed (and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you!). Valerii and his cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa capture the beautiful vistas of Spain’s Almeria desert (which Leone used extensively in his films), and Fort Holman itself was originally built for Burt Kennedy’s THE DESERTER. The terrific score is by… no, not Ennio Morricone, but Riz Ortolani, the Italian jazz composer who broke through in films with MONDO CANE (introducing the hit song “More”), and whose impressive resume includes scores for CASTLE OF BLOOD, ANZIO, THE MCKENZIE BREAK, THE VALACHI PAPERS, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

Director Tonino Valerii (1934-2016)

Valerii had quite an interesting career, writing the screenplays for Italian horrors TERROR IN THE CRYPT (with Christopher Lee) and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (starring Barbara Steele) before assisting Leone on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE . Making his debut in the director’s chair with 1966’s A TASTE FOR KILLING, he guided Lee Van Cleef and Guiliano Gemma in DAY OF ANGER, helmed the coming of age tale A GIRL CALLED JULES, the giallo MY DEAR KILLER, the poliziotesco GO GORILLA GO, and the Franco Nero action vehicle SAHARA CROSS. His most famous film is MY NAME IS NOBODY , starring Terence Hill and Henry Fonda, on which Leone himself allegedly directed a few scenes and contributed some second unit work.

Most Spaghetti Western aficionados sing the praises of NOBODY, while considering A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE to be a second-tier entry in the genre. I’d disagree; I think it’s a very underrated and well put together film that’s definitely worth a look, even in the edited version. And if you happen to run across a complete, uncut version of the film… let me know!

Made Man: Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS (Warner Brothers 1973)

Let’s talk about Martin Scorsese a bit, shall we? The much-lauded, Oscar-winning director/producer/film historian has rightly been recognized as one of out greatest living filmmakers, with classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED on his resume. Yet Scorsese started small, directing shorts and the low-budget WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? as a film student. He got work as an editor (UNHOLY ROLLERS) and assistant director (WOODSTOCK) before directing a feature for Roger Corman called BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. When Scorsese and Mardik Martin cowrote a screenplay based on Martin’s experiences growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Corman wanted to produce, but only if the film could be turned into a Blaxploitation movie! Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked it up, and the result was MEAN STREETS, which put Scorsese on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

MEAN STREETS follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), a young man with ambitions to move up in his insular neighborhood. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is a loan shark, a ‘man of respect’, and Charlie works for him as a debt collector. His uncle wants to grace him with the ownership of a restaurant currently in dire financial straights, but Charlie’s got problems. One of those problems is his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a loose cannon who owes money to everybody. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy with their pal, fellow shark Michael (Richard Romanus), but the wild child hasn’t paid up.

Charlie’s also hampered by his Catholic guilt, torn between religious convictions and life on the streets. He’s got another issue: he’s been having an affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whose epilepsy makes her a neighborhood pariah. All this spells trouble for Charlie’s ambitions on these mean streets, where everybody’s on the hustle, respect is valued above all, and violence is a way of life…

This is the film where Scorsese first developed his distinctive style, freed from the constraints of working for someone else’s vision, albeit on a much smaller scale and budget than in films to come. First, there’s the violence; it comes swiftly, without warning, and is brutal and uncompromising. Scorsese brought screen violence to new artistic heights, aided here by the lightning-quick editing of Sidney Levin, who like Scorsese had cut his teeth on AIP Exploitation fare (THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE YOUNG ANIMALS), and would later edit more mainstream films (NORMA RAE, MURPHY’S ROMANCE).

Being an unrepentant film buff, Scorsese peppers his film with homages to some of his favorites. Most noticeable is when his characters go to the movies, and scenes from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA play onscreen; posters and marquees from other movies dot the landscape. The characters of MEAN STREETS are constantly at war, with themselves as well as those who dwell in their world, and Scorsese references several war films during the course of the action. There are plenty of other examples, but I’ll leave that for you to discover… Happy Hunting!

Most importantly is the way Scorsese incorporates contemporary rock music into MEAN STREETS; the soundtrack of the character’s lives almost becomes a character itself. The film uses songs by The Rolling Stones (‘Tell Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘I Looked Away’), Smokey Robinson (‘Mickey’s Monkey’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), Cream (‘Steppin’/Out’), Betty Everett (‘It’s in His Kiss’), Johnny Ace (‘Pledging My Love’), and others, as well as traditional Italian tunes from his childhood. All these musical cues have meaning to the scene at hand, and Scorsese was one of the first to utilize pop music as a film score, a device that’s de rigueur in films today.

Martin Scorsese would go on to further explore crime and it’s consequences, but MEAN STREETS was his first attempt at making a personal statement, and it holds up well today. When his newest film THE IRISHMAN is released later this year, a direct lineage to MEAN STREETS can be traced – both DeNiro and Keitel will appear in the film. Scorsese is still going strong at age 76, one of The Greatest Living American Filmmakers, and MEAN STREETS remains essential viewing for all film buffs.

That’s Blaxploitation! 15: BLACK SHAMPOO (Dimension Pictures 1976)


Remember the Warren Beatty film SHAMPOO, about sexual and political attitudes in the Swingin’ 70’s? Well, BLACK SHAMPOO starts off as the Blaxploitation version, as super-stud Mr. Jonathan takes good care of all the follicle and sexual needs of the Horny Housewives of Beverly Hills – then veers sharply down Sleazy Street with lots of smutty scenes of simulated sex, flamingly gay stereotypes, and a violently gory finale! Yep, they truly don’t make ’em like this anymore; the “woke” crowd would never let ’em get away with it (except of course for the rich white bad guy!).

While Jonathan is out satisfying his amorous customers, his receptionist Brenda gets a visit from a trio of thugs representing Mr. Wilson, a greasy drug dealing crook who wants her back in his arms – and bed. The hoods trash Jonathan’s salon and rough up squeaky-voiced gay hairdresser Artie. Brenda goes back to Wilson so as not to cause Jonathan any more problems, but when she discovers Wilson’s secret ledger detailing his dirty deeds, Brenda runs back to the rugged Mr. J, and the two take off to his mountain cabin hideaway.

Lead henchman Maddox and the other thugs return to the salon and make Artie talk – by shoving a red-hot curling iron up his ass! They track Jonathan and Brenda down and, after running over J’s loyal old caretaker over, the chase is on. Mr. Jonathan turns badass and takes out the two lesser thugs with a chainsaw (Tobe Hooper would be proud!), but he’s overtaken by Wilson and Maddox. They try to get Jonathan to tell them where the ledger is by beating Brenda’s naked butt with a pool cue when, just before things get real nasty, the old caretaker rushes in and hacks up Maddox with a hatchet!  Jonathan and Wilson struggle, until the macho Mr. J emerges victorious by ramming that pool stick straight through Wilson’s torso!!

Yep, it’s Exploitation Heaven, chock full of 70’s-style sex’n’violence, though  the acting leaves much to be desired. John Daniels (Jonathan), who kinda-sorta resembles a Black Warren Beatty if you squint real hard, is as wooden as that aforementioned pool cue. Tanya Boyd’s (Brenda) emoting is Daytime Soap Opera level; in fact, she later had a long run as Celeste on DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Joe Ortiz (Wilson) is as stereotypical a rich white sleazebag as there is. Skip E. Lowe (Artie) camps it up mercilessly. He’s probably the best known of the bunch though; his long-running cable access show SKIP E. LOWE LOOKS AT HOLLYWOOD inspired Martin Short to create his comic persona Jiminy Glick. Maddox is played by Jack Mehoff… wait, WHAAAT?? “Jack Mehoff”?!? Geez, couldn’t actor William Bonner have come up with a more believable pseudonym, like say… Matthew Calamari!?!

Director/cowriter Greydon Clark was a graduate of the Al Adamson School of Filmmaking, having worked as an actor in the Grade-Z auteur’s SATAN’S SADISTS, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS, and DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose he wanted to prove he could make movies just as good (or bad, depending on your point of view) as Adamson, and despite the rock-bottom budget and amateurish cast he was saddled with, he handles the material fairly well. Many of his shots are well composed, and I like the way Clark transitions from one scene to the next by fading into a negative image. Clark continued to make films through 1998, with titles like SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS, the bizarre sci-fi WITHOUT WARNING (starring a slumming Jack Palance and Martin Landau), the totally 80’s teen flick JOYSTICKS, FINAL JUSTICE with Joe Don Baker, the LAMBADA rip-off THE FORBIDDEN DANCE, and his last to date, STARGAMES.

Is BLACK SHAMPOO a good movie? Well, considering the limitations Clark had to work with, it’s not that bad. He gives it his best shot, and though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again, I wouldn’t change the channel if I came across it, either. It’s an artifact of another era, and as such deserves a look, especially for fans of 70’s Grindhouse/Exploitation flicks.

More in the “That’s Blaxploitation” series:

BLACK BELT JONES  – BLACULA  – FOXY BROWN  – ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN  – The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga  – TOGETHER BROTHERS  – TROUBLE MAN  – SUPER FLY  – THREE THE HARD WAY  – HELL UP IN HARLEM  – SLAUGHTER  – SHAFT  – COTTON COMES TO HARLEM BLACK CAESAR

 

 

 

Necktie Party: Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (Universal 1972)


Alfred Hitchcock’s  previous two films, TORN CURTAIN (1966) and TOPAZ (1969) weren’t well received by critics, who claimed The Master of Suspense was too old-fashioned and had lost his touch. One wag even suggested that, after fifty years in films, it was time to put Hitch out to pasture! But Hitchcock wasn’t quite ready for a life of tea and crumpets in the garden, and came back with 1972’s FRENZY, complete with all the blatant sex, nudity, gore, and profanity of other early 70’s auteurs, proving he could not only keep up with the times, but surpass them by giving us the blackest of horror comedies.

Hitchcock had returned to his native England before to make a few films, but always with actors who had box office appeal in America (Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in UNDER CAPRICORN, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in STAGE FRIGHT). This time around, he uses an All-British cast of superb actors to tell his grisly little tale of a psycho sex killer on the loose in London, and an innocent man accused of the crimes. Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH, THE WICKER MAN) adapted Arthur LeBern’s novel GOODBYE PICCADILLY, FAREWELL LEICESTER SQUARE and added some macabre humor to the gruesome goings-on, which fit right in with Hitchcock’s playful style.

We begin with a woman’s nude body found floating in the Thames (and an early cameo for Hitch!), and learn she’s yet another victim of ‘The Necktie Killer’, a “criminal, sexual psychopath” that rapes and murders his prey. We then meet Dick Blaney, an ex-RAF pilot and unlovable loser who’s just been fired from his job as a barman. Dick’s a bitter, angry young man who seems to blame everybody else for his problems, including his ex-wife Brenda, now a successful “matrimonial agent”. Dick’s prone to drinking heavily and violent outbursts; despite all this, his girlfriend Babs remains loyal.

In contrast, Dick’s friend Bob Rusk is the charming, outgoing, and successful owner of a wholesale produce company. Bob’s the type of guy you’d like to left a few pints with down at the pub… so naturally, he turns out to be the Necktie Killer that’s been terrorizing London! When Bob brutally rapes and strangles Dick’s ex Brenda in her office, Dick is spotted in the area by her secretary. Finding her boss’s dead body, she tells Scotland Yard that Dick was in the office just the other day, arguing and carrying on, pointing the finger of suspicion on him, and from there, circumstances go rapidly beyond Dick’s control…

Jon Finch (Dick) was no stranger to horror, having previously been in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Even though Dick’s a shit, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, and that’s due in large part to Finch’s acting. Barry Foster (Bob) is charming on the outside, but creepy as hell when he’s in a “frenzied” state. Hitchcock had seen Foster in the 1968 horror TWISTED NERVE, and cast him for the part after Michael Caine turned it down (I know, hard to believe Caine turning something down, right!). The solid supporting cast includes Anna Massey as the doomed Babs, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the doomed Brenda (just doesn’t pay to get involved with Dick!), Alec McCowan as Inspector Oxford and Vivien Merchant as his wife, and Bernard Cribbins, Jean Marsh (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS), and Billie Whitelaw.

Those famous “Hitchcock Touches” are still around, including the magnificent overhead shot of the Thames River in the opening by DP Gilbert Taylor . There’s a long, slow tracking shot down a winding staircase onto the street, a Hitchcock trademark. The scenes between McCowan and Merchant, an amateur gourmet chef serving her hubby the vilest-looking food while they casually discuss the case, are gems, as is the “potato truck” scene where Rusk frantically looks for his tie-pin, grasped in Babs’s dead hand inside a sack of spuds. Alfred Hitchcock showed his critics he was far from being washed up, and while FRENZY may not rank as his greatest (there are just so many to choose!), it’s an effective, gripping thriller that’ll grab you by the necktie and not let go until the end – and what an ending it is,  a deliciously twisted shocker that I’m not going to spoil for you. You’ll have to watch and see for yourselves!

This post is part of The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To read more entries on The Master of Suspense’s movies, just click on this link! Thanks for having me again, Maddy!

 

Southern Fried Slasher: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (AIP 1976)

In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.

Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.

Producer/director/actor Charles B. Pierce

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).

The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.

“Skipper! Gilligan! HELP!!!”

Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.

Proto-slasher: The Phantom Killer

Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system,  did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.

40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)

Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted to see this new guy, Christopher Reeve. Never heard of him (no one had!), and we speculated whether he was cast because his name sounded like Reeves, the TV Superman. The advertising was telling us all “You’ll believe a man can fly”, promising cutting-edge special effects, and there was a buzz in the air. I had to see it. Everyone, even my non-comic book loving friends, wanted in, too.

We weren’t disappointed. The all-star lineup was a treat, the story balanced action with humor, and the new guy knocked it out of the universe – Christopher Reeve WAS Clark Kent/Superman! Those special effects were fantastic, seamless in their execution. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a blockbuster, and produced three sequels (SUPERMAN II was as good, maybe even better than, the original; the other two, not so much). All this was forty years ago, and movies have evolved since then, with CGI effects (for better or worse – you make the call) and visual innovations unthought of back then. Does it hold up compared to all those costumed cavorters battling in today’s big screen epics? Recently, Fathom Events re-released SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to theaters, and I took the trip out to Swansea, MA to find out.

I made the half hour trip down the highway on a Monday night, grabbed some popcorn, a soda, and a box of Chocolate Peanut Chewies (hey, it’s a long movie… I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, I promise!). I settled in and prepared to be transported back… back to 1941, it turned out, as the show began with the animated Superman short THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS, a treat in itself! Then SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE started, and I’d forgotten all about that pre-credits black-and-white sequence with the kid flipping through a copy of Action Comics, a throwaway bit, for sure, but it helped set the film’s tone.

The first few notes of John Williams’ iconic score hit, and those eye-popping credits roll (I always smile when I see “Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster”, knowing what a raw deal they got from DC). The first thing we see is Brando as Jor-El, still commanding the screen with his sheer presence (even when he’s later in hologram form), and setting up the sequel by sending General Zod and company to the Phantom Zone. I still love the way he pronounces ‘Krypt’n’ with his faux English (or is it a Kryptonian) accent.

Those Oscar-winning, “cutting edge” special effects hold up astoundingly well about 98% of the time: the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey through “the 28 known galaxies”, and Superman saving Lois from impending doom in that helicopter are standouts. The film introduced the then-new process of front projection, which gives the effects their seamless look. The final cataclysm at the San Andreas Fault was the only part that looked a bit on the cheesy side, but for the era it’s more than passable. Best of all for me was Superman taking Lois out for a fly, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic scenes in ANY film genre. You really will believe a man can fly!

Highlights among the cast are most certainly Gene Hackman’s turn as the evil genius Lex Luthor. He makes a diabolical villain, and his crazy wigs are a funny touch. Lex and his motley crew in their subterranean lair are a mismatched trio to be sure, and while I enjoyed Ned Beatty’s moronic henchman Otis, it’s Valerie Perrine who truly shines as the ditzy (but ultimately heroic) Miss Teschmacher. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter make a perfect Ma and Pa Kent, with both  giving understated performances. Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but his performance is vital to the character’s back story. Veteran Jackie Cooper makes a blustery Perry White, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brief but memorable cameo by Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill as young Clark rushes past the train they’re on; film buffs know they were the original Lois & Clark in the 1948 serial.

When Christopher Reeve first appears onscreen in the Fortress of Solitude, you knew you were watching the birth of a star. His dual role as the shy, bumbling Clark Kent and the heroic Man of Steel is a joy to behold, imbued with a sense of humor without going the camp route. Reeve’s interpretation of the character is the measuring stick for all screen superheroes; compare him to Henry Cavill – there’s no contest! The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder’s Lois is palpable, and rewatching that wonderful scene of Superman and Lois in flight I mentioned earlier brought a tear to my eye, knowing the tragedies that befell both these fine actors later in life. That scene alone will have you wishing they were still with us.

Several screenwriters (Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman) tried to capture the essence of Superman, but it took a rewrite by Tom Mankiewicz to polish this gem. His witty, knowing take on the Superman legend is pitch perfect, and Robert Donner’s superb vision as director brings it all to life. John Barry’s production design is outstanding, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth captures it all beautifully. The film is “dedicated with love and affection” to Unsworth, who died while filming TESS the following year. Altogether, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not only holds up extremely well, it’s a classic fantasy film that has stood the test of time. It’s got heart, humor, and most importantly characters you care about. While I do like some of the superhero films of today (and I’m sure you do, too), I can’t help but wonder… will audiences of the future be heading out to their local theaters to see the 40th anniversary of any of them? Only time will tell…

 

Kung-Foolery: Jackie Chan in DRUNKEN MASTER (Seasonal Film Corp. 1978)

Jackie Chan’s  combination of slapstick comedy and kung-fu action helped make him a worldwide superstar, and DRUNKEN MASTER put him over the top as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. While I’m no expert on the genre, I’ve seen my fare share, and I can tell you this movie’s more than a few belts above because of Chan’s natural charm and comic timing.

As per usual with these films, the plot’s thinner as a Chow Mein noodle, which is okay because who needs a plot when you’ve got Jackie Chan? The dubbed version I saw casts Jackie as Freddie Wong, a rascally scamp whose father runs a kung-fu school. Pop tries to break the spirited Freddie without success, so he sends for Great-Uncle So Hi, a tough old buzzard with a fondness for saki (hence the title!). So Hi drives Freddie so hard with his grueling training the youngster runs away! But an encounter with the deadly assassin Thunderleg, in which Freddie suffers abject humiliation, finds Freddie crawling back to his Drunken Master to perfect the Technique of the 8 Drunken Gods. And just in time, for Pop’s unscrupulous enemies have hired Thunderleg to kill him, resulting in a Freddie vs Thunderleg rematch that’s a dizzying display of both athletic grace and Jackie’s comic gifts.

The film’s an almost non-stop orgy of graceful kung-fu action scenes highlighted by Jackie’s comedic talents. It’s a “star vehicle” all the way, and launched Chan to international acclaim. He’d been around the Hong Kong film scene awhile, as a child actor in the 60’s, a stuntman in the 70’s (working on the Bruce Lee films FISTS OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON , and GAME OF DEATH), and even a Hong Kong porn flick before finally breaking through with SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and this movie, catapulting him to “overnight” stardom. His athletic martial arts moves have a balletic quality to him, and his comedic chops are impeccable.

Chan didn’t really break through stateside until 1995’s RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS, though he’d been seen here in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL and Burt Reynolds’s CANNONBALL RUN movies. Thanks to VHS and DVD, fans quickly caught up on his Hong Kong-made Kung-Foolery, and mainstream films like RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON elevated him to his rightful place as a major action star. DRUNKEN MASTER was the second film for director Yuen Woo-ping, who also made SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW with Jackie (and whose father Yuen Siu-tien plays Master So Hi), and his talents led him to mainstream work as well, choreographing the action scenes in the MATRIX and KILL BILL movies.

DRUNKEN MASTER gives fans the opportunity to see a young Jackie Chan honing his screen persona, and doing what he does best – giving audiences plenty of laughs to go along with plenty of action! Like I said, I’m no expert on Martial Arts movies, but I know what I like, and I liked this one a lot. Chances are, you will, too!

Strange Bedfellows: BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (Taylor-Laughlin Distributing 1977)

Billy Jack, hero of the oppressed, goes up against an enemy he can’t wrap his head around – the politicians of Washington, D.C. in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, the final chapter in the Billy Jack saga. I know I harped on the fact that the last film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK , didn’t contain enough action, and this one has even less, but I liked this film better. It’s a remake of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Capra’s son is the producer), retooled for the modern era and casting Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character in the Jimmy Stewart role. You’d think a forty-plus year old political film would be dated, but truth to tell, not a lot has changed since then… if anything, it’s gotten worse.

When Senator Foley has a heart attack and croaks, the powers-that-be look for a patsy to replace him in order to get their nuclear reactor project passed. The crooked pols (party bigwig Bailey, Governor Hopper, and esteemed Senator Paine) all have a financial stake in the game, and though Bailey wants to pick a pliable judge, the Gov gets the bright idea to appoint… Billy Jack, the mystical ass kicker who’s fresh out of prison, and has no political experience whatsoever! Meanwhile in D.C., lobbyist Dan has swiped Foley’s top-secret nuke file, with all the dirty info, and is looking to play Let’s Make A Deal.

Billy Jack, along with Jean and some Freedom School kids, head for Washington, and Paine and his aide Saunders (who happens to be Dan’s girlfriend) are put in charge of schooling him in the hard facts of political life. Billy has a proposal for a national initiative to build a camp for kids; unfortunately for him, it’s on the same land Bailey and company wants to put their power plant. Dan (remember him?) gets murdered, and Saunders lets BJ know what’s going down. The junior senator from Ass-Kicker Land takes a meeting with power broker Bailey, who explains the facts of life to Billy. He responds by karate chopping a glass table, because he’s Billy Jack!

Since BJ won’t play ball, Paine starts a smear campaign, stating Billy is the secret owner of that land and is out to profit from it (which is actually what the grimy pols are doing!), leading to Senate hearings and investigations (sound familiar?) and Billy about to be expelled from his seat. Billy spends the night wandering Washington and, inspired by the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, decides to fight fire with fire… not with his Hapkido skills, but a filibuster! The exhausted Billy finally collapses on the Senate floor, causing a repentant Paine to confesses his guilt in the whole sordid mess.

Laughlin and Taylor’s earnest screenplay is full of anti-nuke, anti-corruption, and pro-environmentalist polemics, as you would expect. Fitting Billy Jack into Capra’s classic story may seem weird, but somehow the darn thing worked for me. There’s only one action scene for fans, where Billy and Jean save Freedom Schooler Carol (played by the couple’s daughter Teresa) from a gang of thugs with their martial arts expertise – yes, pacifist Jean gets to kick some ass at last! The scene with BJ late at night visiting the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson et al is corny but effective, as is the dark scene where Dan gets killed, allowing Laughlin and DP Jack Marta to show off their talents.

Laughlin rounded up a strong supporting cast for this one. E.G. Marshall adds gravitas as Senator Paine; he’s almost as good as Claude Rains in the original  (Rains is a tough act to follow!). Veteran Pat O’Brien , still with that Irish twinkle in his eyes at age 76, plays the Senate president. Sam Wanamaker as Bailey makes a slimy villain, but Lucie Arnaz can’t hold a candle to Jean Arthur as Saunders (to be fair, the part is split between her and Taylor’s Jean). Others in the cast include Dick Gautier as the Governor, Kent Smith as the doomed Foley, Stanley Brock, Kathy Cronkite (daughter of newsman Walter), Peter Donat, Don Keefer, political columnist Joe Klein (who later wrote the novel PRIMARY COLORS), Sarah Purcell (TV’s REAL PEOPLE), Richard Sanders (WKRP’s Les Nessman), Julie Webb (Jack’s daughter), and Laughlin’s pal William Wellman Jr.

Laughlin and Taylor couldn’t get a major distributor for the movie, not even Sam Arkoff at AIP. So they did it themselves, and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON saw a very limited release, then quietly went away. Laughlin said it was a conspiracy, but in all honesty the studios were probably right. Fans wanted to see Billy Jack kick some righteous ass, not pull a filibuster on the Senate floor. While I personally liked it, I wished Billy Jack would’ve got up and started kicking some Senatorial ass myself! This was Laughlin’s last movie, though in 1986 he did begin a fifth in the series, THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK, but an injury during shooting and lack of funding shut production down, and the film was never finished. The rarely seen BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON isn’t perfect, but fans will find it a fitting coda to the Legend of Billy Jack.

The BILLY JACK Series on Cracked Rear Viewer:

“One Tin Soldier (Theme from Billy Jack)”

BORN LOSERS

BILLY JACK

THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK

Delores Taylor (1932-2018) and Tom Laughlin (1931-2013)

 

Heavy Hitter: THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (Warner Brothers 1974)


The last time we saw BILLY JACK , he was being hauled off to jail – and raking in about 60 million bucks at the box office! The eponymous hero of the surprise 1973 indie hit struck a chord with young audiences disillusioned with the Establishment’s endless wars and crushing their hobnail boots on the throats of dissidents (like I always say, the more things change…), and cheered as Billy Jack struck karate blows and Hapkido kicks in the cause of freedom. A sequel was inevitable, with Tom Laughlin returning as star/director/co-writer (along with wife Delores Taylor, who plays Jean) in a film loaded with political and spiritual philosophies designed to open those young moviegoers’ hearts and minds (not to mention wallets!).

But while BILLY JACK (and its predecessor, BORN LOSERS ) are fun flicks, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK suffers from that dreaded disease many filmmakers are prone to – pretentiousness. I didn’t totally dislike the movie, it has its moments, but at a running time of almost three hours, it just goes on too damn long. There are important points to be made, no question (comparing the slaughter of innocent civilians in Vietnam to the slaughter of protesting college students on campuses such as Kent State), but those points surely could’ve been made in two hours. Laughlin and Taylor’s screenplay just seems to meander on and on, and though the two are sincere in their effort to Make A Statement, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK would have benefitted from tighter editing (even though FIVE editors are credited on IMDB!).

Visually, the film’s quite impressive, with much of it shot in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley by DP Jack Marta. The scenes dealing with Billy’s “vision quest” are gorgeous, and the Cave of the Dead scene is a Cormanesque fever dream. This is where THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK comes to life; when we get into the Freedom School’s dealing with interference from state and Federal authorities, the plight of Native Americans, etc etc, things tend to bog down. Director Laughlin should have told his editors to get their scissors out to make his point more concise, especially some of the lame student songs, but since it’s his daughter Teresa singing most of them, well… nepotism wins out!

There’s some action, but it’s not enough to satisfy the action lover in me. Laughlin’s Billy Jack still kicks some righteous ass, especially when teamed with his Hapkido mentor Master Bong Soo Han , but again it’s too few and far between, as the Freedom School vs Establishment storyline takes up way too much time. The film does too much pondering and hammering the viewer over the head with it’s message to succeed, and suffers for it. That message is important to be sure, and still resonates today, but THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK finds Laughlin taking himself much too seriously as a filmmaker with Something To Say. The movie found an audience though, hungry for a champion of the oppressed, and Billy Jack was a box office sensation once again. The third and final chapter, which we’ll take a look at in a few days, finds Billy Jack up against his toughest foe… Washington D.C.!!