Danger Is Their Business: STUNTS (New Line Cinema 1977)

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With the success of films like WHITE LIGHTING, CANNONBALL, DEATH RACE 2000, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (not to mention the continuing fascination with Evel Knenevel), movies revolving around stunts and stuntmen were big box office in the 1970’s. New Line Cinema took note and produced STUNTS, a murder mystery about stuntmen being killed off that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking in addition to a good cast and well-staged action.

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When stuntman Greg Wilson’s hanging from a helicopter gag goes horribly awry, resulting in him plummeting to his death, his brother Glen arrives on the set determined to do the stunt himself and investigate Greg’s demise. Along the way he picks up B.J. Parswell, an attractive reporter doing a story on stuntmen. Glen’s fellow stuntmen start getting picked off one by one in gruesome “accidents”, and he must find the killer before he becomes next.

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This basic variation on “Ten Little Indians” serves as the backdrop for some exciting stunt-and-special effect scenes, including one where Glen, asking for more explosive charge in his car, does a spectacular five-and-a-half rolls, emerging unscathed. The film-within-a-film setting also allows the viewer to observe some aspects of moviemaking on a tight budget, which always fascinates me. Director Mark L. Lester keeps things moving, adding comedy to the mystery and action. Lester knew a thing or two about low-budget films, having helmed TRUCK STOP WOMEN and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW among others, before making hits like ROLLER BOOGIE, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, and CLASS OF 1999.

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Robert Forster stars as Glen, and he’s one of my favorite underrated actors. The star of Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL and TV’s BANYON (a short-lived detective series about a 30’s private eye) struggled for decades starring in low-budget movies and supporting roles in larger ones before being rediscovered in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 JACKIE BROWN, earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Fiona Lewis (BJ) is known to horror genre fans for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and TINTONERA. Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER) plays macho stuntman Paulie, Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) is Patty, and Bruce Glover (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) is Chuck. The great Richard Lynch plays special effects wizard Pete Lustig, Candice Rialson (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, CHATTERBOX) is horny starlet Judy Blake, and James Luisi (THE ROCKFORD FILES) is her cuckolded producer hubby. Veteran Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF, BATMAN villain Falseface) puts up with everyone as director Earl O’Brien.

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But the real stars are the stuntmen behind the scenes, and this film assembled some of the best: Joie Chitwood (cars), Deanna Coleman (motorcycles), Dar Robinson (high fall), Lee Pulford (barroom brawl), and Chuck Tamburro (aeriel) all perform their specialties to thrill the audience. STUNTS doesn’t work as a mystery (it was originally titled WHO IS KILLING THE STUNTMEN?), but as an action pic it’s chock full of wild and wooly, death-defying stunts and, though not the best of it’s genre, is an entertaining 90 minutes of fun for movie buffs.

Halloween Havoc!: GOD TOLD ME TO (New World 1976)

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

Last year during “Halloween Havoc!”, I took a look at writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’s cult classic IT’S ALIVE . This time around, it’s GOD TOLD ME TO, a  creepily twisted tale tackling mass murder, aliens, Catholicism, and the nature of God himself that could’ve only been made in the paranoiac 70’s, and may be Cohen’s best film.

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There’s a sniper on a rampage in New York City perched atop a water tower. Fourteen people are dead, and police have the scene surrounded. Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas, a devout Catholic who was orphaned as a child and goes to confession daily,  climbs the ladder in hopes of engaging the shooter before he kills again. When Nicholas asks the killer why he’s caused all this carnage, the man simply replies, “God told me to”, then jumps off the tower, plunging to his doom.

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This sets the stage for more bizarre mayhem, starting with a young cop wreaking havoc at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, same results, same statement. Nicholas follows a lead on a young, long-haired man named Bernard Phillips, and tracks him to his mother’s apartment house, where he’s attacked by the woman on the staircase (in an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO). Further investigation leads Nicholas to discover Mrs. Phillips was a virgin who mysteriously gave birth to a child of “undetermined sex”. A witness who encountered Mrs. Phillips two decades ago states he came upon her stark naked, in a rainstorm, babbling about being abducted by aliens.

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Meanwhile, the killings continue, including a man who guns down his wife and children while claiming, “God told me to”. Nicholas gets the science editor at one of the major papers to write a column about the divine-inspired murders, and when the story hits the streets, panic and riots ensue. The police board stages an inquiry, trying to paint Nicholas as an overzealous religious nut. The cop is taken to a Mr. Richards, one of Phillips’s “chosen”. Nicholas starts talking about Phillips’ mother, and Richards is overtaken by what looks like a heart attack, but is actually the handiwork of Phillips.

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After another disciple tries to push Nicholas in front of a subway car, he’s led to Phillips’ hideout. The long-haired, robe clad Phillips is bathed in an eerie yellow light, and asks Nicholas to accept him, “no questions”, suggesting they have something in common. The detective researches his own background, and to his horror finds out he was “born fatherless” to a woman named Elizabeth Mullin. Tracking her down to a retirement home, Nicholas learns she too claims to have once been abducted by aliens, resulting in a virgin birth… his!

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I’m not going to spoil the nightmarish ending, you’ll have to watch for yourselves. And I encourage you to do so, for GOD TOLD ME TO is an unheralded gem of a horror flick, with plenty of twists and turns. The judicial use of religious iconography and location shooting in NYC aid greatly to the movie’s unsettling atmosphere. The juxtaposition of 70’s New York with the otherworldly goings-on make this a sure-fire winner for horror lovers. You definatley will not be disappointed.

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The cast is lead by Tony LoBianco  as Nicholas, an actor who should’ve had a much bigger career. He appeared in the thriller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, and films like MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY and BLOODBROTHERS, but never quite crossed the threshold to major stardom. Sandy Dennis and Deborah Raffin, both of whom I usually find annoying, play his estranged wife and current girlfriend respectively. Fortunately, their roles are small. A pair of veterans also show up in small roles; Sam Levene  as the science writer and Sylvia Sidney   as Nicholas’ mother. The Familiar Faces have a decidedly New York flavor: Mike Kellin,  Robert Drivas, Dan Resin, and in his feature film debut, Andy Kaufman as the young killer cop at the St. Pat’s parade.

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The eccentric character actor Richard Lynch has the pivotal part of Bernard Phillips, and puts his unique stamp on it. Lynch was featured in tons of movies from the 70’s up to his death in 2012.  His scarred visage was the result of setting himself on fire in a drug-fueled haze during the 60’s, and after getting clean he began his acting career, appearing in (among others) THE HAPPY HOOKER, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, LITTLE NIKITA, TRANCERS II, CYBORG 3, and an incredible amount of episodic TV.

GOD TOLD ME TO is “dedicated to the memory of Mr. Bernard Herrmann”, the veteran Hollywood composer who scored Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE! Herrmann was scheduled to do this one but, after completing work on Martin Scorcese’s TAXI DRIVER, he passed away at age 64. Frank Cordell filled in admirably, his score influenced tremendously by Herrmann’s work. This movie deserves to be rediscovered by horror fans, a deviously dark and demented tale by the underrated Larry Cohen that I highly recommend for this Halloween season.

Soda Pop Cops: THE SEVEN-UPS (20th Century Fox 1973)

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Theater screens of the 70’s were awash in blue as the “tough guy cop” film put a chokehold on Hollywood. DIRTY HARRY Callahan took on punks in a series of action flicks, SERPICO took down corruption in New York, and L.A. detective Joseph Wambaugh’s novels were adapted into big (and small) screen features.  Producer Philip D’Antoni helped usher in this modern take on film noir with 1968’s BULLITT starring Steve McQueen, followed by the Oscar-winning THE FRENCH CONNECTION , with Gene Hackman as brutal cop Popeye Doyle.

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D’Antoni decided to direct his next effort, 1973’s THE SEVEN-UPS. CONNECTION costar Roy Scheider gets his first top-billed role as Buddy Manucci, head of an elite “dirty tricks” squad that takes down perps whose felonies will land them seven years and up in jail (hence the title; it has nothing to do with the lemon-lime soda!). Manucci’s childhood pal Vito Lucia (Tony LoBianco) is an informer giving Buddy tips on criminal activities in The Big Apple. Mobster Max Kallish is a target, until he’s kidnapped and ransomed for $100g’s. When a second gangland figure is snatched, Buddy senses something’s going down in the streets. What he doesn’t sense is his friend Vito’s the mastermind behind the mob kidnappings, playing both ends against the middle.

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This sets the stage for action, double-crosses, and one of D’Antoni’s signature car chases through the streets of New York that almost (but not quite) matches THE FRENCH CONNECTION in intensity. Staged by ace stunt driver Bill Hickman (who also plays one of Vito’s thuggish partners-in-crime), it takes us on a ten minute joyride through Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, down New Jersey’s Palisades International Parkway, and ends on Tacoima State Parkway with Buddy’s car smashing into the rear of a semi, tearing the top off and almost decapitating him ala Jayne Mansfield!

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Scheider was Gene Hackman’s costar in FRENCH CONNECTION, and takes the lead here as Buddy. Two years later, he’d star in the shark shocker JAWS, followed by hits like MARATHON MAN, ALL THAT JAZZ (a personal favorite), BLUE THUNDER, 2010, and 52 PICK-UP. LoBianco is probably best known for the cult chiller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Richard Lynch plays Moon, Vito’s other goon, and was the villain in scores of 70’s and 80’s films. Other in the cast were Larry Haines, Ken Kercheval (of TV’s DALLAS), Victor Arnold, and real-life NYC homicide detective Jerry Leon.

Sonny Grosso, another real NY cop, wrote the story based on true life incidents. Grosso was the basis for Scheider’s character in FRENCH CONNECTION. Jazzman Don Ellis once again provides the score, and DP Urs Furrer (SHAFT) captures the grittiness of early 70’s New York. As for Philip D’Antoni, he moved to the small screen after THE SEVEN-UPS, producing the series MOVIN’ ON, about a pair of cross-country truckers (Claude Aikins, Frank Converse) and their exploits on the road. D’Antoni never directed again, and that’s a shame, because THE SEVEN-UPS is a well-paced thriller. It may not be as fondly remembered as BULLITT or THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but the movie doesn’t disappoint in the action department, and is worth a look for genre fans.

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