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.

Rockin’ in the Film World #20: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (Embassy 1983)

You couldn’t go anywhere in 1984 without hearing “On the Dark Side” blaring from a car radio or your neighborhood bar’s jukebox. That’s thanks in large part to audiences rediscovering 1983’s EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS via repeated showings on HBO, turning the film into an instant cult classic and veteran Providence-based rockers John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band into FM-radio favorites. The film hadn’t done well when first released to theaters, but exposure on the fairly-new medium of Cable TV garnered new fans of both it and Cafferty’s soundtrack album.

Investigative reporter Ellen Barkin looks into the mysterious death of Eddie Wilson (played by Michael Pare’), lead singer of The Cruisers, whose death in a car accident is shrouded in secret, as the body was never found. Was it suicide? murder? or is Eddie still alive? She digs deep to uncover the facts about what happened that fateful night at the recording studio, where the band was putting together an LP titled “A Season in Hell”, based on the dark poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.

Her journey of discovery takes her to Eddie’s bandmates: lyricist/keyboard player Tom Berenger, now a high school Literature teacher; former manager Joe Pantoliano, a New Jersey DJ; bitter ex-bass player Matthew Laurence, leader of a Cruisers tribute band; background singer (and Eddie’s steady) Helen Schneider, a choreographer; drummer David Wilson, working in an Atlantic City casino. She also discovers the fate of saxman Michael “Tunes’ Antunes (the sax player for Beaver Brown, who was born RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA!), who tragically died of a heroin overdose (the more things change… ).

Director Martin Davidson (who also cowrote the screenplay) made his debut with 1974’s THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH, a 50’s-set drama that was an early hit for Sylvester Stallone and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler. His films are mainly of the low-budget variety, but well worth seeking out: the Gen-X coming of age tale ALMOST SUMMER, the John Ritter superhero comedy HERO AT LARGE, the sorority life drama HEART OF DIXIE (with Ally Sheedy, Phoebe Cates, and Virginia Madsen), and the Sissy Spacek romantic comedy HARD PROMISES (steer clear of the Davidson-penned, Joe Brooks-directed bit of treacle IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN though!). Davidson also worked extensively in TV, helming episodes of CALL TO GLORY, PICKET FENCES, CHICAGO HOPE, and JUDGING AMY, and a pair of TV-Movies starring Miss Madsen: the true-crime drama A MURDEROUS AFFAIR: THE CAROLYN WARMUS STORY and the baseball comedy LONG GONE.

Still rockin’ after all these years: John Cafferty, Michael Antunes, and the Beaver Brown Band

John Cafferty and Beaver Brown enjoyed enormous success after EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS found its way to cable TV, not only with “On the Dark Side”, but the FM hits “Tender Years” and “Wild Summer Nights”. Their follow-up album contained more hits (“Tough All Over” and “C-I-T-Y”), and they recorded the theme to the 1986 Stallone action flick COBRA (“Voice of America’s Sons”). The film’s sequel EDDIE & THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES!, tanked at the box office (and frankly isn’t very good), but that hasn’t stopped Cafferty and his bandmates from rockin’ and rollin’ after 40-plus years on the road. I’ve seen and enjoyed them several times, and they always manage to get the crowd movin’ and groovin’ (and stole the show from headliners Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes last time out!). The Beaver Brown Band are true rock’n’roll road warriors, and EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS is a must-see for die-hard rockers (like yours truly!).

 

Is LADY STREET FIGHTER The Worst Movie Ever Made? (American General 1981)

In all my years of watching movies, I’ve seen more than my share of stinkers. But nothing quite prepared me for the total ineptitude that is LADY STREET FIGHTER, starring the immortal Renee Harmon. This wretchedly made film features an incoherent script, horrific cinematography, murky sound, no direction, really bad acting, and an ersatz synth theme ripped off from Morricone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Let’s put it this way… when Jody McCrea (Bonehead of the Beach Party series) takes your film’s best acting honors, you KNOW you’re in for trouble!!

This senseless excuse for a movie finds Renee out to avenge the death of her sister at the hands of a gang called Assassins Incorporated, or something like that. I’m really not too sure, as the convoluted plot isn’t well defined. The movie starts off promising for Grindhouse fans with a gruesome torture scene (including a beating with a Kendo stick ala WWE!), but descends into something truly bad. I don’t mean so-bad-it’s-good… I mean downright BAD. I’d say it looks like something out of a high school film class, but that would be an insult to high school film classes across the country. The only redeeming quality I could find in LADY STREET FIGHTER was that it finally ended.

Miss Harmon herself was of German origin, and immigrated to Texas with her Army colonel husband after WWII. Renee was always interested in acting, and after the couple moved to California she began producing, writing, and starring in her own low-budget films. She reminded me of the love child between Bela Lugosi and Marlene Dietrich (if one can imagine!) – trouble is, she couldn’t act her way out of the proverbial paper bag. And her martial arts “skills” are as bad as her acting. Her thick German accent (“Let’s zay at the goo-goo club”, she drones, meaning go-go club) is almost indecipherable, though I gotta admit the 50ish  Renee looks pretty good nekkid, and she can do some really amazing things with a stalk of celery!

At the end of this totally incompetent movie, there was a scrawl that read…

Watch for THE RETURN OF LADY STREET FIGHTER…

coming this Fall!

What?? You mean there was a sequel?? Must’ve been rated “For Masochists Only”!!

The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!

“For God’s sake, Marlowe, put on a tie!”

The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .

Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).

There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.

A Dollar and a Dream: THE EVIL DEAD (New Line Cinema 1981)

In 1981, the inspirational British sports drama CHARIOTS OF FIRE edged out Warren Beatty’s sweeping socialist epic REDS for Best Picture at the 54th annual Academy Awards. Bah. I’m here to say THE EVIL DEAD is a better movie than either of them! At the very least, it’s a helluva lot more fun! It features a stunning debut for writer/director Sam Raimi, who, though he had far less money to work with than Beatty or CHARIOTS director Hugh Hudson, demonstrates some mega talent on a mini budget.

Sam Raimi (r) and Bruce Campbell, 1981

Raimi was a movie mad kid from the suburbs of Detroit who experimented with making Super-8 shorts as a teen with his friends, including EVIL DEAD star and cult icon Bruce Campbell . They put together a 1978 supernatural slasher called WITHIN THE WOODS, hoping to attract attention and make it into a feature. Raimi managed to scrape up about $90,000 through friends and family, and shot his spooky, Lovecraft-inspired film at a remote cabin in rural Morristown, Tennessee. He caught the attention of Irvin Shapiro, a distributor specializing in foreign films and low-budget entertainment. Shapiro was one of the founders of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and got Raimi’s little horror flick a screening there. Who should happen to be in attendance than Stephen King , who gave THE EVIL DEAD a glowing review, and the rest is history!

The plot is deceptively simple: five youths taking a break from college drive out to a secluded cabin in the Tennessee woods. Hearing noises coming from the basement, the boys investigate, and stumble upon some occult-related items and a tape recorder. What they’ve found is the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead, “bound in human flesh and inked in human blood”. Playing the tape, an incantation summons the demons of Kandara, and the horrors quickly mount up as the friends are possessed one by one…

Raimi improvised and overcame his budget restrictions by using several techniques. A judicious use of close-ups are shot, and much of the movie is drenched in shadows and fog. Cameras were mounted on wood and pulled by rope to get the desired tracking shots. Much of THE EVIL DEAD’s eerie atmosphere came during post-production, where supervising sound editor Joe Mansfield created horrifying movie magic. Joseph DoLuca’s score was chilling, and he’d continue to collaborate with Raimi on later films. Detroit editor Edna Ruth Paul cut the whole thing into a cohesive piece of work, along with her assistant, future director Joel Coen.

The gross-out factor was instrumental in making THE EVIL DEAD a huge hit, especially among drive-in fans. The film was considered one of the most violent of its time, and still manages to shock some more sensitive viewers. There’s plenty of blood, guts, and gore thanks to special effects wizards Tom Sullivan (makeup) and Bart Prince (cameras), but the intense horror is laced with Raimi’s warped sense of humor, which I can certainly appreciate (check out the closing credits tribute to Joe Palma – Three Stooges buffs will know what I’m talking about!).

It seems like Bruce Campbell’s Ash has been battling THE EVIL DEAD forever! The character appeared in two sequels, and the late, lamented Starz series ASH VS EVIL DEAD. The whole EVIL DEAD universe has taken on a life of its own, with video games, comic books, a 2013 reboot, and even an Off-Broadway musical! Sam Raimi has gone on to mainstream success with DARKMAN, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, the underrated neo-noir A SIMPLE PLAN, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, and the Spider-Man franchise from 2002-07. And to think, it all started with a kid and his Super-8 camera, a dollar and a dream.

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!

While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…

“That’s right, we bad!”

It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.

Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.

The Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)

While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noir directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!

After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!

Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!

Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.

You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).

Farley Granger
Lawrence Tierney

Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!

 

One Hit Wonders #17: “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats (Backstreet Records 1982)

When this song came on my car radio last week, I immediately knew I had to do a “One Hit Wonders” post on it, so without any further ado, here’s Canadian New Wave pop rockers Men Without Hats doing their #3 smash dance hit “The Safety Dance”:

The band was led by singer/songwriter Ivan Doroschuck, who claimed he penned the bouncy tune in response to nightclubs banning pogo dancing, then a hot thing. At the time of recording the song and others for the album “Rhythm of Youth”, the group consisted of Ivan’s brothers Colin (guitars) and Stefan (bass), Allen McCarthy (keyboards/electronics), and Martin Cartier (percussion). The silly, Renaissance Fair-looking video got in heavy rotation on MTV (remember when they actually played music all day?), which aided it’s rise to the top of the pop charts.

Men Without Hats have gone through multiple personell changes over the years, with Ivan Doroschuck the one constant. But never again would they hit the lofty heights of their one hit wonder, that peppy, synth-heavy little dance number from The Golden Age of New Wave. I still crank it up whenever it comes on the radio… and I bet you do, too!

Slashed To Thrill: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (Filmways 1980)

Brian De Palma was a big deal back in the 70’s and 80’s, and his films like CARRIE, SCARFACE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES are still discussed. Yet works such as SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION, BLOW OUT, and BODY DOUBLE seem unjustly neglected today, and some critics deride him for his over the top sex and violence. DRESSED TO KILL finds De Palma in full Hitchcock mode, an homage to PSYCHO that The Master of Suspense himself cited as more like a “fromage”, but one I find still entertaining.

The film begins with a sizzling hot shower scene with Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, remarried mother of  science nerd Peter  (Keith Gordon, CHRISTINE ). Kate has problems in her marriage and with her own mom,  not to mention being a nymphomaniac! She’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine ), but seemingly getting nowhere. We follow her to  New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she engages in an erotic game of hide-and-go-seek with a complete stranger. They have sex in the cab, and at his apartment. Leaving the encounter, Kate steps into an elevator… and is brutally slashed/hacked to death by a tall, blonde woman in dark glasses brandishing a straight razor!

When the elevator stops, young Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the horror within. She’s brought tp police headquarters where Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is investigating, where we discover Liz is a call girl, “a Park Avenue whore” as Marino calls her. Peter and his stepdad are devastated, as is Dr. Elliott, who refuses to give nay information out on his clients. Liz becomes the prime suspect, but Peter starts his own investigation, learning the tall blonde woman is one of Elliott’s patients, a patient who is now stalking Liz…

De Palma keeps things suspenseful, with a jolting scene in the subway, and the gripping psycho-sexual drama played out in Elliott’s office while a thunderstorm rages outside. I won’t spoil the killer’s identity for those of you who haven’t viewed this thriller (though it’s not hard to figure out if you’ve seen PSYCHO)… but I will tell you De Palma wraps things up with a double – make that triple! – twist ending. The director (who also wrote the screenplay) draws not only from Hitchcock, but other sources like Goddard and Antonioni, especially in the art museum scene. His use of sound, like that of Hitchcock, adds immensely to the atmosphere, and split-screen imagery is utilized in a scene with Caine and Allen. Pino Donaggio’s score evokes Bernard Herrmann , and DP Ralf Bode’s imagery is superb.

Let’s talk for a minute about Nancy Allen. The cute-as-a-button actress, who was married to De Palma at the time, makes a great woman-in-jeopardy as Liz, and was one of the brightest stars of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Allen made her film debut in 1973’s THE LAST DETAIL at age 23, and gained major recognition as “mean girl” Chris in De Palma’s CARRIE. She starred in Robert Zemeckis’s first movie I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, and was well-known for her roles in BLOW OUT, STRANGE INVADERS, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, and the first three ROBOCOP flicks. Nancy’s pretty much retired from acting, working with environmental and breast cancer causes, but it’s always nice to go back and view her work (and yes, I still have a crush on her!).

Michael Caine seems more invested in the part of Dr. Elliott than he does in other films of this era. It’s a good, juicy part, and Caine is more than up to the task. Angie Dickinson, in the Janet Leigh role, is still sexy at 49, though that’s not her nude in that shower, but a body double (former Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson). Dennis Franz as Marino is practicing for his Detective Sipowicz in TV’s NYPD BLUE, which isn’t a bad thing. Keith Gordon is good as nerdy Peter – so nerdy he even rides a moped!! And in an interesting side note, former AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff is the film’s executive producer.

I don’t know exactly why Brian De Palma’s work is largely ignored today, save for a handful of films. He’s still cranking ’em out, and has an upcoming production DOMINO scheduled for release this year. His movies, especially those made in the 1970’s and 80’s, are well worth watching, and the sexy horror DRESSED TO KILL ranks as one of his best in my book. It’s time for a new generation to rediscover De Palma!

Glory Daze: Peter O’Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR (MGM 1982)

The world of 1950’s live TV gets the comic treatment in Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR, a hilarious homage to those golden days of yore. Executive producer Mel Brooks had first-hand knowledge of the era, and much of the hysterical Norman Steinberg/Dennis Palumbo screenplay is based on his experiences, though completely exaggerated and laugh-out-loud funny. The film earned star Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination for his role as Alan Swann, a dissipated movie star based on swashbuckling Errol Flynn .

Swann arrives at NBC’s 30 Rock, scheduled to be the week’s special guest on “Comedy Calvacade”, totally smashed, much to the displeasure of gruff show host Stan ‘King’ Kaiser (Joseph Bologna in a brilliant Sid Caesar parody), who immediately wants to fire him. But young comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, later of TV’s PERFECT STRANGERS), who idolizes the movie great, pleads with Kaiser to give Swann another chance. He does, and appoints Benjy as Swann’s personal babysitter, making sure the actor behaves… or else they’ll both get the boot!

Among the many subplots are Kaiser’s ongoing battle with gangland goon Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell ), a Jimmy Hoffa-type Kaiser’s been lampooning on the show as “Boss Hijack”. Benjy’s got romantic problems with pretty young coproducer K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper, SUSPIRIA, STARDUST MEMORIES), as well as problems with his overbearing Brooklyn mom (Lanie Kazan). The writing staff is constantly at odds, with overbearing Sy (Bill Macy), cynical Alice (Anne DeSalvo), and the strangely silent Herb (Basil Hoffman in an apparent Neil Simon take-off).

O’Toole, who knew a thing or two about living la vida loca himself, was the perfect choice to portray the Flynn-like Swann. The gaunt actor may look like death warmed over, but his way with the ladies remains intact, and underneath the bravado of his screen persona lays a barely concealed vulnerability. His hard-partying ways have left him in debt and involved in scandalous behavior, but his dignity manages to shine through. O’Toole’s performance makes Alan Swann a flamboyant, funny, poignant, and all-too-human character, and he deserved the Oscar nom, but lost to Ben Kingsley in GANDHI. In fact, the actor was nominated and lost eight times in all, an Oscar record, only receiving an honorary award in 2002 for his body of work.

This was Benjamin’s first film as director, and got him off on the right foot. The actor had starred in TV’s HE & SHE and films like GOODBYE COLUMBUS, CATCH-22, and WESTWORLD before taking a seat in the director’s chair, and has made some good films since (CITY HEAT, LITTLE NIKITA, MERMAIDS, MRS. WINTERBOURNE). The supporting cast also features Adolph Green as show producer Leo Silver. Green’s no stranger to comedy writing himself, having penned the Broadway and Hollywood hits ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON , AUNTIE MAME, and BELLS ARE RINGING with partner Betty Comden. Selma Diamond, who also wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50’s, plays the sarcastic costume matron. Familiar Faces Phil Bruns, Stanley Brock, Lou Jacobi, and George Wyner are on hand – and yes, that’s 1930’s starlet Gloria Stuart (later of TITANIC fame) as a dowager dancing with O’Toole during the Stork Club scene.

MY FAVORITE YEAR is right up my alley, a backstage pass to a show biz long gone. It’s got heart and chutzpah to spare, and never gets boring. If you’re like me, and love movies about behind the curtain shenanigans , you’re sure to love this one.