Drive-In Saturday Night 2: BIKINI BEACH (AIP 1964) & PAJAMA PARTY (AIP 1964)

Welcome back to Drive-In Saturday Night! Summer’s here, and the time is right for a double dose of American-International teen flicks, so pull in, pull up a speaker to hang on your car window, and enjoy our first feature, 1964’s BIKINI BEACH, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:

BIKINI BEACH is the third of AIP’s ‘Beach Party’ movies, and this one’s a typical hodgepodge of music, comedy, and the usual teenage shenanigans. The gang’s all here, heading to the beach on spring break for surfing and swinging. This time around, there’s a newcomer on the sand, British rock star The Potato Bug, with Frankie playing a dual role. Potato Bug is an obvious spoof of the big Beatlemania fever sweeping the country, with all the beach chicks (or “birds”, as he calls ’em) screaming whenever PB starts singing one of his songs, complete with Lennon/McCartney-esque “Wooos” and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Avalon has a good time in a wig and Granny glasses (and a Terry-Thomas like accent) poking fun at the latest teen fad, and in typical low-budget AIP fashion, scenes with Frankie and Mr. Bug together have Beach regular Ronnie Dayton doubling for Potato Bug.

The villain of the piece is Keenan Wynn as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who wants to get rid of the surfers so he can expand his old folks home. To prove his theory that the teens are nothing but Neanderthals “with an abnormal preoccupation with sex”, he has his simian sidekick Clyde (Janos Prohaska, The Bear from Andy Williams’s 60’s variety show) ape them by surfing, driving hot rods, and dancing. Martha Hyer is schoolteacher Vivien Clements, who stands up against Harvey for the kids, and guess who sides with him? That’s right, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck ) and his Rats, who hates the surfers even more than Harvey!

Frankie and Annette argue (because of course they do), and she takes up with Potato Bug to make him jealous. Since Bug is a drag racing buff, Frankie decides to take up the sport and challenge him to a grudge race. Don Rickles Don Rickles returns as Big Drag (the former Jack Fanny), proprietor of Big Drag’s Pit Stop, the surfer’s hangout, and he’s funny as ever. There’s plenty of tunes and musical guests, including Little Stevie Wonder (singing “Dance and Shout”), The Pyramids, and The Exciters Band (who worked with the shimmying sensation Candy Johnson). There’s also plenty of padding, with lots of stock footage of surfing and racing, and though it’s an incredibly silly romp, it still manages to entertain if you like these sort of things (and I do!). Oh, and that mysterious art collector who keeps popping in and out of the film is none other than everyone’s favorite monster…

Boris Karloff  in a cameo! Now let’s go to the concession stand and load up on burgers and hot dogs during Intermission:

Our second feature is PAJAMA PARTY, also released in 1964:

Considered by aficionados as the fourth in the series, besides the fact it shares Annette, Jody McCrea, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats, and other regulars (Luree Holmes, Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, Michael Nader, Ronnie Rondell, Salli Sachse), it bears no relationship to the usual ‘Beach Party’ movies. In fact, PAJAMA PARTY is even goofier than normal – if you can imagine – a surreal, almost plotless piece of escapism with self-knowing winks to the audience! It may not be ‘Beach Party’ canon, but the film knows it’s goofy and revels in it.

Martians (yes, Martians!) send their biggest goof-up, an outer space teen named Go-Go (Tommy Kirk ) to infiltrate Earth and pave the way for their upcoming invasion. Don Rickles plays a Martian on the spaceship, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal Frankie Avalon is the alien chief – you’ll recognize his voice instantly. Go-Go lands in the backyard of dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester ), who renames him George and introduces him to her teenage borders, including Connie (Annette) and her dumb jock boyfriend Big Lunk (Jody). Von Zipper and his Rats are around, out to get “them volleyball kids”, and a crook called J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is plotting to steal Aunt Wendy’s millions, left to her by her late husband – in cash! All this takes place amid one slapstick situation after another, until whatever plot ends are neatly tied up.

Among J. Sinister’s henchmen is Buster Keaton , making his first appearance in the series. The Great Stoneface has some funny gags and bits, and could still take a pratfall with the best of ’em! Also making her ‘Beach’ debut is Bobbi Shaw, the “ya, ya” girl, and actor and nightclub comic Ben Lessy rounds out the villainous quartet. Dorothy Lamour guest stars as hostess of a fashion show, and even gets a musical number, “Where Did I Go Wrong”. Sexy Susan Hart gyrates her way through the film without any dialog, which isn’t a bad thing; the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson was better at window dressing than acting.

The songs are no great shakes except for Loren’s rocking “Among the Young” and Annette’s uptempo “Pajama Party”, but there’s some real energetic 60’s dancing going on (see if you can spot Teri Garr and Toni Basil movin’ and groovin’ in the crowd). The Nooney Rickets 4 provide a few instrumentals for the kids to boogie to, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper pops up everywhere (Loren was the Dr. Pepper Girl for years in 1960’s TV ads). Both BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY are products of a bygone era, and both are still a lot of fun. A perfect double feature to watch on a hot summer night, with some popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper!

KOWABUNGA!

Stone Cold: Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC (United Artists 1972)

Stone-faced Charles Bronson is perfect as an ice-cold, classical music loving hit man who mentors young Jan-Michael Vincent in 1972’s THE MECHANIC. I’d say this is one of Charlie’s best 70’s actioners, but let’s be serious – they’re ALL damn entertaining!

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) takes his work seriously, meticulously planning every assignment he receives from his Mafia boss (Frank De Kova ). Given a job to kill family friend Big Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), Bishop does the deed with chilling precision. McKenna’s son Steve (Vincent) is a stone-cold sociopath himself, and soon worms his way into becoming Bishop’s apprentice. Their first caper together goes sour, bringing Bishop’s boss much displeasure. Bishop’s next hit takes the two overseas to Naples, where they’re set up to be killed themselves, resulting in a violent conclusion and a deliciously deadly twist ending.

Bronson, after over twenty years and 50 plus movie roles, became an overnight success with the same year’s THE VALACHI PAPERS. He’s his usual stoic self as Bishop, but the character has a bit more depth. Bishop is prone to anxiety attacks, and trouble forming a meaningful relationship, causing him to visit a call girl (wife Jill Ireland in a cameo), paying her to read him love letters before sex. Bishop’s bonding with young McKenna was originally homosexual in nature as envisioned  by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE GREAT SANTINI), but producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (the ROCKY films) nixed the idea. Still, the relationship between Bishop and McKenna comes off almost as intended, as Bishop doesn’t seem to respond to anyone else, including the hooker.

Jan-Michael Vincent is good as the antisocial McKenna, and makes me wish he and Bronson had done more films together. Vincent is well known to fans of 70’s flicks for his roles in the TV Movie TRIBES, the Disney comedy THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHELETE, and a slew of drive-in fare: WHITE LINE FEVER, BABY BLUE MARINE, VIGILANTE FORCE, DAMNATION ALLEY, and DEFIANCE. He played Robert Mitchum’s son in the miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, then headlined his own action series AIRWOLF from 1984-87. Vincent’s problems with alcohol and domestic violence have been well documented, and the actor, who lost a leg in a car crash, is now for the most part retired and living in Mississippi.

THE MECHANIC is the second of six films Bronson made with director Michael Winner, the last three being the first entries in the DEATH WISH series. Winner delivers (sorry, I can’t resist!) a winner here, keeping the suspense taut and the action exciting, including a cool dirt bike chase and the later scene with Bronson and Vincent chased by mobsters through a winding Italian mountain road. The film was remade in 2011 with Jason Statham in the Bishop role (and a sequel in 2016), which paled in comparison to this drive-in classic. Bronson and Winner’s DEATH WISH has been remade and is set for release this November, with Eli Roth directing and Bruce Willis in Bronson’s role. The trailer looks good, but like THE MECHANIC, it’ll be hard to top the original. We shall see…

 

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.

 

Let’s Get Physical: Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK (MGM 1967)

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Lee Marvin  was one tough son of a bitch both onscreen and off, awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by a machine gun blast in WWII.  The ex-Marine stumbled into acting post-war, and Hollywood beckoned in the 1950’s. His imposing presence typecast him as a villain in films like HANGMAN’S KNOT, THE BIG HEAT , and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. A three season stint in TV’s M SQUAD brought Marvin more acclaim, and he solidified that with his Oscar-winning role in CAT BALLOU, parodying his own tough-guy image. Marvin was now a star that could call his own shots, and used that clout in POINT BLANK, throwing out the script and collaborating with a young director he had faith in, John Boorman.

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POINT BLANK is a highly stylized revenge drama centering on Marvin’s character of Walker. The nightmarish opening sequence shows how Walker was left for dead on deserted Alcatraz Island by his partner-in-crime, Reese. The pair was heisting mob money from the drop site at the former prison, when Reese shoots down Walker and absconds with not only the cash, but Walker’s wife. Somehow Walker survives the point-blank gundown and escapes the island. This is never explained, which has led some critics to believe Walker is an Avenging Angel from Hell (or “The Walker Dead”, if you will). I’m not among that crowd, but I do like the fact that Walker’s unexplained return is left open to interpretation.

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The film then becomes a series of violent set pieces as Walker goes after Reese and the men who owe him $93,000, guided by the mysterious Mr. Yost. My favorite of these is when Walker  takes used car dealer Stegman for a ride he’ll never forget, smashing the car into concrete supports under a bridge in order to learn Reese’s whereabouts. The movie continues in this vein right to its conclusion, as both Walker and Yost end up getting what they wanted all along.

British director Boorman had one feature under his belt,  the 1965 rock romp HAVING A WILD WEEKEND starring The Dave Clark Five. He makes the movie a hip 60’s take on film noir, with splashy colors in place of chiaroscuro lighting. Boorman’s shot selection and pacing gives POINT BLANK a dreamlike quality usually reserved for films more arthouse than grindhouse. The director would go on to work with Marvin again in the war drama HELL IN THE PACIFIC before scoring big with 1972’s DELIVERANCE. His body of work includes the sci-fi cult classic ZARDOZ,  the King Arthur tale EXCALIBUR, and the Oscar nominated HOPE AND GLORY.

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The cast is filled with fine character actors, with Angie Dickinson at her 60’s sexiest best as Walker’s sister-in-law, who knows more than she lets on. John Vernon (Dean Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE) makes his film debut as Reese. Keenan Wynn is the mystery man Yost, while Lloyd Bochner, Carroll O’Connor, and James B. Sikking are prominently featured. Sharon Acker plays Walker’s doomed wife, and Sid Haig, Bill Hickman, Kathleen Freeman, and Felix Silla (THE ADDAMS FAMILY’s Cousin Itt) can be found in small roles.

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POINT BLANK is based on a novel by the great crime writer Donald E. Westlake. The Edgar Award winning writer was a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and wrote the screenplays for the films THE STEPFATHER and THE GRIFTERS. Some of Westlake’s other novels adapted for the screen were THE SPLIT (starring Jim Brown), THE HOT ROCK, THE OUTFIT, and BANK SHOT. POINT BLANK was remade as PAYBACK with Mel Gibson in the Marvin role. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. POINT BLANK may be a case of style over substance, but that style is a joy to watch if you’re a lover of crime thrillers. It’s a movie you’ll want to watch again just to see if you missed anything!