Well-Structured Destruction: Clint Eastwood in THE GAUNTLET (Warner Brothers 1977)

(First off, feast your eyes on the incredibly cool Frank Frazetta poster! Then read on… )

Clint Eastwood’s  directorial credits include some impressive films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. While 1977’s THE GAUNTLET may not belong on that list, I feel it’s a very underrated movie deserving a second look. Clint and his lady love at the time Sondra Locke star in this character study of two damaged people disguised as an action comedy, essentially a chase film loaded with dark humor.

Clint plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic Phoenix cop sent to Las Vegas to extradite Gus Mally, “a nothing witness in a nothing trial”. Gus turns out to be a woman, a hooker in fact, set to testify against a Phoenix mobster. Ben’s suspicions are roused when he learns Vegas oddsmakers are giving 50-1 they don’t make it to Phoenix alive, confirmed when the car they’re to drive to the airport is blown to smithereens! From there, it’s Ben and Gus trying to beat those odds as not only the mob but the cops are out to kill them – the corrupt Phoenix police commissioner is a perv who abused Gus, and pulls out all the stops to prevent her testimony.

When we first meet Ben, he’s looking pretty ragged. Drunk and disheveled, going nowhere on the job, and somewhat of a meathead, Ben’s the perfect patsy for Commissioner Blakelock’s fools errand. Face it, the guy’s expendable. But Ben has a reputation for getting the job done, and his dogged determination drives him to reach his goal. He may be in love with Jack Daniels, but when he learns he’s been set up by Blakelock, he draws on some inner strength to not only prove he’s still a competent cop, but to stick it to Blakelock.

Locke’s Gus Mally is a free-spirited, feminist hooker who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but has a steely reserve of her own. She knows the fix is in, and is reluctant at first to return to Phoenix and certain death. Along the way, she lets down her hard-core veneer and begins to trust Ben, eventually falling in love with the big ape. She also gets the best lines, calling Ben at one point a “.45 caliber fruit”, and engaging in banter like this: Ben: “I just do what I’m told”  Gus: “Yeah, well so does an imbecile”.

The violence quotient in THE GAUNTLET is ratcheted up to 11. There’s a scene where the Vegas cops blast the fuck out of Gus’s home, turning it into a smoldering block of Swiss cheese. The duo hop a freight train and are attacked by bikers, with Gus almost getting raped before Ben’s act of self-sacrifice. There’s blazing machine guns and explosions a-plenty, and the final gauntlet run through Phoenix in an armored bus is a masterpiece of mass destruction. Yes, the ending is totally improbable, but it will definitely make you smile.

Clint and Sondra’s offscreen life was filled with controversy, but they made a dynamic duo onscreen. Locke and Eastwood costarred in the aforementioned JOSEY WALES, as well as EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BRONCO BILLY, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and SUDDEN IMPACT. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and appeared in the horror flick WILLARD. Like THE GAUNTLET itself, Miss Locke is an underrated actress whose ‘palimony’ litigation against Eastwood after their break-up practically ruined her career (the more things change… ). She also directed the films RATBOY, IMPULSE, and DO ME A FAVOR, and is a breast cancer survivor.

Pat Hingle plays Ben’s former partner, now an administrator who discretely helps his friend from the inside. William Prince makes a slimy bad guy as Blakelock, and Clint’s old Universal Studios stablemate Mara Corday shows up early on as a prison matron. Bill McKinney , Roy Jenson, and Dan Vadis are Familiar 70’s Faces in the cast. Composer Jerry Fielding contributes a cool jazz score, featuring musician Art Pepper on sax. It aids tremendously in putting the picture over, as does Clint’s keen cinematic eye. THE GAUNTLET may not rank high in the Eastwood directorial canon, but it’s an exciting, explosive genre classic crackling with excitement that can be viewed as both an action thriller and character study, and is well worth another look.

 

Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)

TARANTULA is a movie that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and helped warp my fragile little mind. Watching it again through my so-called “grown-up” eyes, I could sit here and pick at some gaps in logic and bad dialog. But I’m not gonna do that; instead I’ll look at the positives in this still entertaining and fun “Big Bug” movie (okay, maybe I’ll pick at it a little!).

A pre-credits scene shows a deformed looking man in pajamas stumbling across the desert, buzzards circling over his head. He drops in his tracks, then the title appears in big, bold letters: TARANTULA! The credits roll, and we meet Dr. Mark Hastings, who’s “just a country doctor” in the aptly named desert town of Desert Rock. Mark gets a call from Sheriff Jack Andrews to inspect the body, assumed to be scientist Dr. Eric Jacobs. Mark thinks this is impossible, for the corpse has died from acute acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary glands causing gigantism and enlarged organs which takes years to produce the state the body’s in.

“Nutrient biologist” Prof. Gerald Deemer comes to the morgue and identifies the body as indeed Jacobs, “a friend for thirty years”. Deemer claims the condition came on suddenly four days ago, and he was helpless to aid his dear, deceased friend. Deemer returns to his laboratory far from town limits, and we glimpse the fruits of his labor: a giant rat, giant rabbit, and giant guinea pig locked in cages, as well as one BIG-ASS tarantula in a glass cage. A creepy dude looking similar to Jacobs enters the lab and attacks Deemer. They tussle, and the lab equipment bursts into flames! Creepy dude injects Deemer with a serum, then drops dead. The lab is in ruins, equipment and experiments destroyed… except for that BIG-ASS spider, who’s escaped into the desert night!

Enter hot graduate student Stephanie “Steve” Clayton, biology major. She’s arrived in town at the behest of Deemer and Jacobs, and Mark offers her a ride out to his home. He just happened to be heading there to meet newspaper reporter Joe Burch, hoping to get some info on Jacobs’ mysterious bout of acromegaly. Mark and Steve are automatically smitten with each other, despite Mark’s sexist comment, “I knew it would happen! Give women the vote and whaddaya get? Lady scientists!”.

Arriving at Deemer’s, the scientist tells Mark he’s been experimenting with a powerful nutrient bolstered by a “radioactive isotope” in hopes of overcoming a future world hunger crisis brought on by overpopulation. When he leaves, we see Deemer beginning to show signs of acromegaly from the serum Creepy Guy injected in him. As Deemer continues to weaken, reports of mutilated cattle, “their bones picked clean”, occur, a viscous pool of white liquid nearby. When a truck is overturned and it’s occupants similarly victimized, Mark takes a thermos full of the stuff to be examined at the local college… but not before taking a taste of the vile-looking stuff! Yuck!!

The university doctor tells Mark it’s “related to insect venom”, but it’d have to be one BIG-ASS insect to produce that much venom. Mark puts two and two together and calls Deemer’s home, with Steve telling him she’s worried about the scientist’s condition. She lets out a scream, and Mark rushes to the rescue, finding Deemer in rough shape, but not rough enough to give out some exposition on the story’s plot. Mark gets the sheriff to call in the state police, as the tarantula crawls along, ominous music playing wherever he goes!

The highway is blocked off, and here comes Spidey! Machine gun fire can’t stop it, as two unlucky trooper find out (“Jumpin’ Jupiter!”, exclaims the sheriff). Desert Rock is evacuated, and the townsfolk order caseloads of dynamite to try and blast it to smithereens. The Air Force is called in (Mark: “If those boys have some napalm, tell ’em to bring it along!”), and the TNT blast doesn’t stop it (“Holy Cow!”), so the air squadron, led by an uncredited 25-year-old Clint Eastwood no less, uses their rockets and napalm bombs to obliterate that BIG-ASS spider in a fiery conflagration!

Sci-fi hero John Agar plays Mark, utilizing his expressive eyebrows and lopsided grin as usual. He gets the worst dialog, but as a sci-fi hero he’s okay; he’s done this before. Mara Corday, of THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT CLAW , made her sci-fi debut here; later, when Eastwood became a megastar, he cast his old friend Mara in small roles in some of his films. Veteran Leo G. Carroll  lends dignity to the sympathetic part of Prof. Deemer. Familiar Faces in key roles are Raymond Bailey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Mr. Drysdale), Ross Elliott, Nestor Paiva, and Hank Patterson (GREEN ACRES’ Fred Ziffle, “father” of Arnold). Stuntman Eddie Parker does double-duty as the deformed Jacobs and Creepy Dude in makeup by the great Bud Westmore.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold collaborated on 50’s sci-fi films IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and it’s sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THIS ISLAND EARTH (Arnold was uncredited on this one), and THE SPACE CHILDREN, all among  the decade’s best. Speaking of the decade’s best, Joseph Gershenson’s score is a cut above what’s usually heard in these films, and deserves recognition. Clifford Stine’s optical effects of the superimposed spider hold up well in this age of CGI. Robert Fresco and Martin Berkeley’s script manages to tell a gripping story regardless of those logic gaps and sometimes ludicrous dialog.

TARANTULA is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, an amusing “Big Bug” romp that’s doesn’t scare me like it did when I was a child, but remains a treat to watch. Nostalgia, maybe? Sure, but whereas some of these old sci-fi flicks I wouldn’t go out of my way to revisit, I would with TARANTULA! Over and over again!

Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

 

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

Creature_Double_Feature_Logo

Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he should be starring in his own series of Mexican horror flicks!). The result is “organic poisoning”, and a giant footprint has been found at the scene of the crime.

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While scientist Hank and Teresa get cozy, scientist Artur has found a fossil with a live scorpion embedded inside (this particular scorpion squeaks like a mouse for no apparent reason). Teresa gets a call from the telephone lineman repairing the lines, and at this point they’re coincidentally attacked by a giant black scorpion! The scorpion attacks the village, causing the villagers to flee in panic (one of them exclaims “It’s a giant scorpion!”, just to make things clear). Experts led by Dr. Velasco believe the Giant Scorp was released by the recent upheavals (again, in case you weren’t sure). Hank and Artur , the Mexican Army (well, one truckload), and the vaqueros seek the Giant Scorps’ lair, and the two geologists are lowered by crane into a crevice, only to discover a whole host of Giant Scorps! A Giant Scorp grabs their cage, and they have to escape by being pulled up on the cable (including little Juanito, who stowed away with the scientists… and the less said about this obnoxious little brat the better!).

Explosives are used to seal off the Giant Scorps, and the threat to humanity is over. Not quite- it seems another Giant Scorp found a way out, and is threatening Mexico City! This is the point where I lost interest in THE BLACK SCORPION, and will spare you the details. There’s far too much talking and standing around, and it’s 88 minute running time seems to go on forever.  Despite having sci-fi stalwarts Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and Mara Corday (TARANTULA) as stars, and fine special effects from Willis O’Brien (except when the filmmakers choose to use the Bert I. Gordon superimposition method in some scenes), the movie drags on and on, and is one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 50’s. One viewing of this turkey was more than enough for me, with only O’Brien’s special effects of interest.

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Next is THE KILLER SHREWS, and despite having an even lower budget, this film is far more enjoyable. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) and his first mate Rook arrive at an island to drop off supplies. They’re greeted by Dr. Cragis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney), his daughter Ann (Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude), assistant Dr. Baines (pirate radio king Gordon McLendon), Ann’s ex-fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis, GUNSMOKE’s Festus), and servant Mario. A hurricane is brewing and Thorne and Rook are planning on spending the night, despite protests from the Cragis bunch. It seems they’ve been monkeying around with some sort of formula on shrews, little rat-like creatures who are basically eating machines. The experiments were designed to study the effects of overpopulation, or so they say. Drunken, irresponsible Jerry did something stupid, and now the island is overrun with vicious, insatiable Killer Shrews the size of dogs. And not those ratty little teacup pooches either, but dogs the size of German Shepherds!

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The Killer Shrews are actually dogs made up to look like monstrous shrews, with matted fur and long, sharp teeth! They’re pretty laughable, especially in close-up, when puppet headed Killer Shrews stand in for the dogs. The dark lighting and nighttime exterior shots almost but not quite help suspend belief, but the dog/shrews are just too ludicrous. Anyway, Rook gets attacked and killed, then Thorne and the gang are trapped in the house while 200-300 Killer Shrews try to dig their way inside. At least theoretically; there’s really only about six dogs/shrews made up for the movie, but 200-300 sounds far more ominous.  Oh, and the Killer Shrews are rabid, to boot- one bite from their venomous fangs and its adios amigo!

Yes it sounds incredibly cheezy, and it is, but THE KILLER SHREWS has a certain lunatic energy to it that makes it exciting to watch, unlike the dull BLACK SCORPION. Actors Curtis and McLendon produced this made-in-Dallas film simultaneously with another giant monster flick, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, former special effects wizard at 20th Century-Fox. Kellogg also worked as second-unit director on many films, and co-directed the 1968 war drama THE GREEN BERETS with its star John Wayne.

Let’s end this look back at sci-fi of yesteryear with the credits for Channel 56’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature”, with music by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. (and if you’d like to see more of these sci-fi double-feature posts, let me know in the comments section!):