Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

All Star Exploitation: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australian 2010)

Tonight we celebrate baseball with MLB’s 90th annual All-Star Game, and… what’s that you say, Dear Readers? You don’t LIKE baseball?!? (*sighs, shakes head, mutters “must be some kinda Commies”*) Luckily for you, I’ve got an alternative for your viewing pleasure this evening. It’s an All-Star salute to the halcyon days of low-budget Exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that lasted roughly from 1959 (Gerry DeLeon’s TERROR IS A MAN, with Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen) to the early 80’s and the advent both of VHS, which effectively ended the Drive-In/Grindhouse Era, and political upheaval caused in part by Fernando Marcos’s imposition of martial law on the island nation.

1971’s “Beast of the Yellow Night”

This Australian-made documentary by writer/director Mark Hartley covers the wild, wild world of making Exploitation movies in the jungle on a shoestring budget through judicious use of clips, trailers, and interviews with the people who made these crazy things – and lived to tell about it! And you want non-baseball All-Stars? Let’s start with the King of the ‘B’s’ himself, Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures produced, financed (minimally, I might add!), and released many of them stateside, beginning with 1971’s BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT and ending with 1979’s JAWS -ripoff UP FROM THE DEEP. Rapid Roger makes no bones about the fact these little epics were green lit strictly to make money – and boy, did they ever!

Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in “Black Mama White Mama” (1973)

Among the many interviewees are directors Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Jonathan Kaplan , and John Landis , Corman graduates all. Landis is particularly candid and hilarious in his assessment of pretentious, eggheaded critics who saw more into these schlockfests than was intended. Like Corman, he fully admits the only reason they were made was a quick buck! Also on hand are rare interviews with legendary Filipino directors Eddie Romero (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA , THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE) and Cirio Santiago (TNT JACKSON, THE MUTHERS , VAMPIRE HOOKERS).

Pam again, with Sid Haig in “The Big Doll House” (1971)

And talk about All-Stars? How’s this for a power-hitting lineup: Colleen Camp (EBONY, IVORY, & JADE), Marlene Clark (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), Pam Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), Gloria Hendry (SAVAGE SISTERS), Dick Miller (FLY ME), Chris Mitchum (THE ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER), Patrick Wayne (BEYOND ATLANTIS), and Celeste Yarnell (BEAST OF BLOOD) all appear in interview segments. Not only that, but the great Sid Haig , who costarred in just about ALL of these films (many times opposite Grier), shares his own reminiscences about the glory days of Filipino filmmaking.

James Bond Jr?: Weng Weng in “For Y’ur Height Only” (1981)

There’s loads of clips and trailers from classic trash like THE BIG BIRD CAGE, COVER GIRL MODELS (“They’re always overexposed but they’re never underdeveloped!”), DYNAMITE JOHNSON, FIRECRACKER, THE HOT BOX (“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”), THEY CALL HER CLEOPATRA WONG, WOMEN IN CAGES, and FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, starring the immortal 2’9″ Filipino superstar Weng Weng! It’s all here in MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED: mad monsters, women in chains, action, explosions, and most importantly, The 3 B’s – Beasts, Blood, and Breasts! They just don’t make ’em like these flicks anymore, and probably never will again. This is one hell of a fun documentary that Grindhouse/Exploitation/Drive-In fans won’t want to miss! Now excuse me while I go watch some baseball.

from Eddie Romero’s “The Twilight People” (1972)

That’s Blaxploitation! 16: Pam Grier is SHEBA, BABY (AIP 1975)

The Blaxploitation Explosion was beginning to wind down by 1975, but genre superstar Pam Grier had a few more aces left up her silky sleeve. One was SHEBA, BABY, a film that doesn’t get much love, probably due to its lower-then-usual budget restrictions, but I found it a more than passable entry, mainly because of Pam’s charisma. She carries the movie on her sexy shoulders and makes it watchable, budget be damned!

In this outing, we have gangsters terrorizing local Louisville, KY businesses, including Andy Shayne. Enter daughter Sheba, a Chicago PI who comes home just in time to help. The cops refuse to get involved, so when Andy’s gunned down by hoods, Sheba’s on the case, and there’s no stopping her from getting revenge on those creepy criminals…

Pam is again one bad sista, decked out in stylish 70’s fashions as she pursues the villains with aplomb. In fact, SHEBA, BABY is a Totally 70’s Time Capsule, from the properly funky score by disco/jazzman Monk Higgins to Sheba’s fire engine red Mustang to a scene set at the local Louisville Burger Chef! Sheba is a Liberated Ass-Kicker who’s not afraid to take matters into her own hands, as we see when she tortures information out of the pimped-suited, jive-talking Walker (a funny Christopher Jay) in a car wash. Another effective scene has Sheba being chased through a carnival by bad guy Pilot (an over-the-top D’Urville Martin ) and his goons, turning the tables so the hunted becomes the hunter. The  climax finds Sheba a One-Woman Aquatic Assault Force, chasing down the smarmy, rich, white, narcissistic main villain Shark (Dick Merrifield) first on a jet ski, then in a speedboat, putting an end to the rotter with a spear gun!

Director/writer William Girdler was no Hitchcock or Welles, and he didn’t pretend to be. Instead, the Louisville native cranked out films that may have had low budgets, but were highly entertaining. His Kentucky-lensed proto-slasher THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) caught the eye of AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff, who signed Girdler up for a series of horror films. ABBY (1974) was a Blaxploitation EXORCIST ripoff featuring Carol Speed and William (BLACULA) Marshall that did big box office, but his most famous flick is 1976’s GRIZZLY, a sort of JAWS-in-the-woods about a 15-foot prehistoric bear on a rampage, with Exploitation stalwarts Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and Richard Jaeckel among the cast members. Girdler only made nine films before his untimely death in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in the Philippines in 1978 at age 31, and though his filmography isn’t exactly Oscar caliber, genre fans may want to look deeper.

Pam Grier starred in one more AIP Blaxploitation flick (FRIDAY FOSTER) before her contract with the studio ended. She spent the next twenty or so years working in lesser roles until Quentin Tarantino reintroduced her to audiences in 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, reviving her career and putting her back in the spotlight, where she belongs. SHEBA, BABY isn’t her best action film, but it puts Pam front and center in a showcase for her talents. And Sheba’s got plenty of talent, Baby!

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post of 2018!

We begin with BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (American-International, 1972), a Philippine-made “Women in Prison” entry by director Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the Philippines. Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier stars as a feisty American hooker who escapes from your typical brutal jungle prison chained to rich white revolutionary Margaret Markov. If you’re expecting something along the lines of 1957’s THE DEFIANT ONES, forget it! Instead, strap yourselves in for lots of nudity (including the obligatory shower scene!), violence, torture, and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Pam and Margaret jump a pair of nuns and steal their habits in order to make their getaway!

Sid Haig, a CRV favorite!

Besides WIP veterans Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, etc) and Markov (THE HOT BOX), the film features the immortal Sid Haig , who’s a riot as a redneck cowboy bounty hunter hired by the local gendarmes to hunt the girls down, dead or alive! I always enjoy Sid in roles large or small, and here he plays this crazy cracker to the hilt! Also in the cast is Vic Diaz, a mainstay of these Filipino exploitation classics, as the ruthless drug lord ripped off by Pam, who’s also hunting our heroines. Lynn Borden is the horny prison matron who peeps on the girls, and wants a piece of Pam pie! BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is a must for genre fans, who’ll love the violent’n’bloody climax!

From the Philippines, we travel to Spain for the Eurowestern THE TEXICAN (Columbia 1966), a strange hybrid of traditional and Spaghetti styles directed by sagebrush veteran Lesley Selander. This was Audie Murphy’s first and only foray into the Spaghetti genre, and his next-to-last film. and though he’s a little more clean-cut than most Spaghetti protagonists, he fits in with the material just fine (as a side note, Murphy was one of many Western stars who turned down Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , for which Clint Eastwood is eternally grateful!).

Audie’s still very youthful looking at age 41; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for costar Broderick Crawford, playing the villain who kills Murphy’s brother and triggers this revenge tale. Crawford, at age 55, looks mighty dissipated due to his years of heavy drinking, though it’s still fun to watch him snarl and growl his way through the role of mean town boss Luke Starr. Spaghetti regular Aldo Sambrell appears as Crawford’s right-hand gunman, adding his own brand of ‘foreign’ menace. Nico Fidenco’s score aids in setting the film’s mood, and the showdown in the swirling sandstorm street, followed by final retribution in Crawford’s saloon, is well staged by Selander. If you’re not an Audie Murphy and/or Spaghetti Western fan, you’ll probably want to pass, but those of you who are (and include me in that  number) will enjoy this minor entry in the genre’s canon.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (Entertainment Pyramid 1972) was a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller I’d never heard of before. It starts in 1940, as two college kids are making out in a cemetery, when a crypt opens and vampire Caleb Croft attacks, killing the boy and raping the girl. This macabre opening sets the stage as the girl later gives birth to a strange little baby who prefers blood over milk! From there, we flash-forward to the 70’s, as the child (now a grown-up William Smith ) seeks to destroy his unholy father, working at the local university under the name Prof. Adam Lockwood. In reality, Croft/Lockwood is Charles Croyden, an 1800’s nobleman whose wife Sarah was burned at the stake in Salem. Lynn Peters plays student Anne, and of course she’s a dead (no pun intended) ringer for Sarah. Michael Pataki makes a pretty fierce vampire, Smith is always fun to watch, and the film even manages to sneak in a Bela Lugosi reference! Creepy and atmospheric, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE should be on any horror buff’s must-watch list.

Another surprise was RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (AIP 1967), one of many Hippiesploitation flicks the studio made during those fabulous 60’s. Aldo Ray stars as Lt. Walt Lorimer, trying to keep the peace between the establishment forces and the kids on the Strip. Walt’s the voice of reason… until his daughter Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is given an LSD-spiked soda at a party and gang-raped by five punks. Mimsy’s interpretive “freak-out” dance is a sight to behold! The movie also features an overacting Anna Mizrahi as Andy’s pink-haired lush of a mom… perhaps she should’ve picked up some acting pointers from husband Lee Strasberg.

Mimsy Farmer freaking out!

The surprise part came for me when some of the great garage bands of the era performed. The Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame) do the title tune, featuring lead singer/drummer/ex-Mouseketeer Dickie Dodd and Russ Tamblyn’s younger brother Larry. There’s The Chocolate Watch Band, who sound like a punk Rolling Stones, and The Enemies, fronted by future Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. The movie has some footage from the actual ’66 riot spliced in, and on the whole is pretty well done for this sort of thing. A psychedelic artifact definitely worth a look.

Last but not least, Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA (AIP 1970) is one of the  onslaught of gangster epics churned out after the success of 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE. This one’s a cut above thanks to Corman and star Shelley Winters , giving a bravura performance as the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker without going over the top… well, not too far, anyway! Ma and her cretinous brood (Don Stroud, Robert DeNiro, Robert Wolders, Clint Kimbrough) rob, murder, rape, and kidnap their way to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list before the carnage-filled finale, with Bruce Dern , Diane Varsi , and Pat Hingle joining them along the way.

Little Bobby DeNiro and “Mama” Shelley Winters

Young Mr. DeNiro plays dope fiend son Lloyd in one of his earliest pictures. In fact, this may very well be his first gangster role! It also marks the feature debut of cinematographer John A. Alonso, who went on to lens VANISHING POINT , LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, SCARFACE, and many other films of note. BLOODY MAMA’s got a lot going for it, and Corman has said it’s his favorite among the many films he’s made.

There are a lot more movies I watched while sidelined, and more Cleaning Out the DVR to come! Next time, we’ll return to the dark world of film noir!

 

 

That’s Blaxploitaion 3: Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN (AIP 1974)

foxy1

Foxy Brown is one bad-ass chick, and FOXY BROWN is one bad-ass movie! Action queen Pam Grier plays Foxy, who’s out to get the bad guys that killed her boyfriend Mike (Terry Carter), an undercover narc. Mike has had plastic surgery to disguise himself from the mob, but Foxy’s weasely brother Linc (Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear of TV’s STARSKY & HUTCH) owes the villians twenty grand for a coke deal, so he drops a dime on Mike. The mob guns Mike down and Foxy is out for revenge!

foxy2

The gang is run by Miss Katherine and her man, Steve Elias. Foxy, as ‘Misty Cotton’, infiltrates their set-up. The dastardly duo run a ‘modeling agency’ as a front, using hookers to ‘persuade’ judges, politicians, and other authorities for protection for their dope racket. Foxy goes on an assignment with another hooker named Claudia (Juanita Brown) to seduce a judge, but the pair end up humiliating him instead! Foxy and  Claudia end up getting in cinema’s first lesbian barroom brawl (that I know of, anyway) and captured by the bad guys. Foxy is then doped up and sent to ‘The Ranch’, run by a couple of horndog redneck drug dealers, who rape and torture her. She escapes of course, being bad-ass and all, then finds out Elias and his crew have killed Linc and his coked out girlfriend. Foxy allies herself with the “Anti-Slavery Committee”, a group of righteous brothers battling dope pushers, and they take down Miss Katherine and her gang in a bloody, action packed climax.

foxy3

This was Grier’s fourth film with writer/director Jack Hill. The two pioneered the “women-in-prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, then scored big with the blaxploitationer COFFY. FOXY BROWN firmly established Grier as the top female action star, and she’s dynamite as always. Miss Katherine is played by Kathryn Loder, who was also a villainess in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. Peter Brown (Elias) is mainly known for TV Westerns (THE LAWMAN and LAREDO), and his appearances on soap operas. The great Sid Haig has a cameo as a dope smuggling pilot, and ex-wrestler H.B. Haggerty is a hoot as one of the rednecks. Motown producer/arranger/songwriter Willie Hutch provides the funky soundtrack.

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FOXY BROWN is loaded with 70s slang, outrageous fashions, and plenty of sex and violence. Like any good exploitation flick, there’s lots of gratuitous nudity, too. Blaxploitation fans won’t be disappointed, because FOXY BROWN is one of the genre’s best. Like the poster says, “Don’t mess aroun’ with…FOXY BROWN!”

Other righteous That’s Blaxploitaion entries: