Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Monday, February 11, 2019

New World Rebel Girls on Prime: 7 Must-Sees from the 70s


On my recent New World kick (thanks to so much of it being on Prime), I went too far, and saw the savage self-parodying weirdness of Dante's and Arkush's Hollywood Boulevard, (not on Prime but I have an old copy) which though funny, is a harbinger of the grungier wave to come, and in its crassness, implies New World films are just packages breasts and blood farmed artlessly to drive-in third feature billing. Well, I don't think that's necessarily fair, boys! Or it wasn't, not always, until drive-ins died away and Jim Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray took over like those scuzzy looking runaways Phillip Baker Hall brings to Burt Reynold's 1980 New Year's party in Boogie Nights. Those silicone breasts looked so fake that--even as a 14 year-old hormonal boy-- you'd wish they'd put them away; suddenly ashamed that somehow your own hormones wreaked such sad gaudy damage on a generation of hopeful B-starlets, you felt deep despair over sex as a whole. Switching to videotape made it all so cheap, so artless... and then Porky's ushered in a whole new level of puerile we're still detoxing from even today.

There's still sex and violence in the old drive-in era (70s) New World, but it's subtler, folded in with wry wit, deadpan nonchalance, crazy stunts, social urgency and libsploitation. Corman's habit of hiring young, unproven talent fresh from film school paid off with kids who knew these cheap fast and out-of-control films could be calling cards to major studios, or they could be cement shoes bound to sink your career before it started, or you could just stall out, do cartwheels in the parking lot forever and ever until you were little more than an embarrassing footnote in a corner of imdb.

And either way, it's now Prime (even things like the dull Barbara Peeters-directed Starhops). Here's seven films, all but two of them looking great in remastered HD prints streaming free on Prime, that show these young turks of New World (and AIP) could fill the framework with enduring trash goodness. These seven films may not be Gone with the Wind, but they're way shorter, and still better than a lot of major studio big budgeted balderdash out there, with good pedigrees (John Sayles, Lewis Teague, Angie Dickinson, George Armitage, Jack Hill). Most of all they don't take themselves too seriously nor too lightly. Funny, sure, but not in a hokey, campy way, these films are (mostly) from the pre-Jaws / Star Wars era, the time when the drive-in was aimed at adults. They might be driving around in fur-covered vans, but they were still (relatively) mature. Kids today equate maturity with being boring and responsible, which is the opposite of what it really is. To be an adult in the 70s is to understand the superiority of actual car crashes, and actual, natural curves. When they hear the satisfying crunch of metal, or finally get a grasp on where the nipple naturally occurs on a human breast, even the CGI generation will have to agree there's value to be had in the old ways. In the 70s a man could be laid enough to not wind up a skeevy troll sending dick pics. In the 70s a woman could be the aggressor in sex without it indicating repressed childhood trauma. In the 70s sex wasn't 'problematic' and yes, maybe it turned out to be problematic, but no one knew yet. There's more than bliss in ignorance sometimes, there's virility.  At least here, on Drive-in on Prime, and in the past, there can be machine guns, stunts, and natural beauty. On Prime, the drive-in still lives! And now you don't even have to hide in the trunk to escape paying your bloody and just-dessert dues.

1. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE
(1971) Dir. Jack Hill
*** / Amazon Image - A+

One of the first films made by Corman's new label, New World, and a home run right out of the gate courtesy the great Jack Hill. Filmed it in the Filipino jungles with a brigade of hot American starlets, and Sid Haig as a fruit vendor/smuggler, it's the quintessential Women in Prison movie. Pam Grier in her feature debut sings the title song ("99 Years"), her signature swirl of raw toughness and empathic vulnerability is already in full effect; Brook Mills is her junky squeeze; Pat Woodell is a political prisoner, teaching her cellmates how to shoot machine guns; Roberta Collins is the tough blonde who's only looking out for herself, and advises the newbie (Judy Brown) to do the same. It's Collins who gets the movie's best line ("you'll either get it up or I'll cut it off!") as she's so sexually frustrated she even tries to rape Sid Haig's nervous assistant Fred (Jerry Franks).

Naturally warden Dietrich (Christiane Schmitmer) and her sadistic head guard Kathryn Loder won't tolerate such flagrant breaking of house rules. So while the mysterious figure in a black hood watches from behind some black netting, Loder lets her hair down and goes to work. The new (male) doctor protests all the bruises on the patients but Dietrich dismisses the inmate's complaints as a lot of gossip and imagination. Who's the doctor going to report these abuses to in a country so corrupt? There's no choice but to revolt!

Even if you despise WIP genre, Big Doll House earns its freedom from condemnation. It's filmed largely on cool sets (or at any rate indoors) with great lighting and camerawork and far fewer tedious slogs in showers, mud and torture rooms than the films that came after.  Calling it a WIP film is like calling Corman's Wild Angels (1966) a biker film. There was no such thing as a 'biker film' before Wild Angels. Everything that came after Corman's huge surprise hit was an imitation, i.e. part of the biker movie cycle, including--if you'll forgive me for saying so--Easy Rider.  They poured them into the drive-ins so fast we're still trying to figure out which one is which even today.

It's the same with Doll House, it's not following any markers. The girls are looking at classic Warner Bros. movies like Each Dawn I Die and 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing for their cues, and shrugging off their welts like Cagney or Bogart, see? These chicks are tough!


Highlight include the Collins 'seduction' of Fred; with great pinkish lighting Collins' really sells it-- (below) and in general makes the best use of her full-throated, nearly Meyer-esque lines. I also like Mill's crazy dance around the cell after Grier gets her high (and her anguished derangement when the flow of powder stops); there's a great long tracking shot following the girls as they leave the yard and go into the cane rushes so Grier and Collins can have their big mud fight that's an epitome of tough cool; and I love Woodall's tough performance under torture and later with machine guns in both arms - she underplays so tough you get chills. The girls are all lovingly filmed in their fully brushed long hair, their luxuriant limbs (it's the tropics so they're always in shorts) splayed around their cell in sexy but not prurient medium shots; Loder is genuinely spooky as the torturer head of the guards, with just enough Nurse Ratchet surface warmth to chill the blood all the more when she takes off her cap and lets down her wild long hair (underlit with a green eerie horror movie glow).


On the down side: Sid Haig delivers a hammy southern accent. He's playing it way too jokey rather than following the deadpan approach of all his comely co-stars.

The new HD transfer on Prime makes the Philippines, finally, look livable. Color grading has been done with such loving care (take close notes of the rose hues in Collins' skin hues vs. the pink prison uniform above -poetry) that it seems like a cool, breezy paradise rather than the sweaty, waxy humid hell it always looked like on VHS.

2. BIG BAD MAMA
(1973) Dir. Steve Carver
*** / Amazon Image - A-

A big rollicking hit for New World, this stars Angie Dickinson stars as a good-hearted, sexually voracious backwater woman who takes her two nubile daughters into crime during the Depression, hooking up with various outlaw lovers and sexy hostages. The sisters are played by Switchblade SistersRobbie Lee and Candy Snatchers' Susan Sennett (she was buried alive in that film, made the year before this, so it's nice to see her up and breathing freely). Dick Miller (RIP you game OG hipster) is the increasingly frustrated FBI man in dogged pursuit. but this is still the era before interstate highways so it's not easy to catch up with Mama, especially when the girls hook up with machine gun-waving desperado Tom Skerritt, who falls for Angie, but winds up bedding both the sisters instead when gentlemanly sharpie William Shatner (with an unconvincing antebellum accent) joins up, and helps Angie move into high society, i.e crashing tony social events and robbing everyone at machine gun point.

A big hit, Corman followed this up with a slew of imitations, none of which measure up (with one exception, Lady in Red -below). Unlike Demme's dated Crazy Mama, this doesn't confuse 'rollicking' with goofy - there's no sped-up car chases with cartoon sound effects and ragtime music--something AIP for example relied on all too often. Here the characters may be having a blast but the movie never forgets they're playing for keeps --people die- in fact nearly everyone. The cars might be old Model-Ts, but that just means they flip over easier- they just don't explode as fast as the ones in the 70s. But it's still cool!

Good as that all sounds, what made this huge hit for New World was Angie Dickinson doing nude scenes --in an R-rated movie! Shhh! This was back when things like that were big news: Playboy used to offer celebrities a million dollars. Angie was neither a prude nor a fool; she worked for a percentage, smart enough to get rich on her assets, and everyone made out like interstate bandits. This was when girls could be sexy into their forties and all their body parts were real and therefore all the sexier. In fact her sex scenes here but most to shame. We totally get why both Shat and Skerritt would be gaga over her, and surly if she beds the other.

Most sex on TV and movies now is either rapey (HBO) or this kind of joyless 'smash cut rut' (my term for this habit of cutting from some innocuous greeting right to the middle of some joyless mutually demeaning rutting). But what made sex under Corman's watch so fun is its naturalism, there's goofy laughter and awkward jumping around. Lee and Sennett jump around on the bed and leap ontop of Skerritt like he's a big bean bag chair; they're innocents following their bliss without phony bourgeois limitations. I think a lot of patriarchal studio heads would be threatened by that. kind of uninhibited female enjoyment. there's no violence or tired soft focus close-up shots of random body parts - we always know who's in the bed, and who's sulking outside it. Not only are they tasteful they're important to the narrative. Sex is how Mama keeps both men under her spell, and these things have consequences, as when Robbie Lee gets pregnant the first time out losing her virginity.


I'd never really heard of Steve Carver before watching this recently for this post, and then I noticed he also did the The Arena (below) and that Cannon-lover's fave Lone Wolf McQuade! In other words, he's the type of journeyman that somehow never stuck out for notice the way, say, Arthur Marks and John Flynn have recently during our post-Tarantino crime revivalist age. Shall his time too, not come? Ask anyone and they'll agree, Big Bad Mama is one of the quintessential New World pictures-- it has all its good parts and none of its bad, and the same goes for the lovely Amazon Streaming Image quality (the colors seem a little faded but it's possible it was intended that way to lend an old timey sepia tinge).
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On the downside, Shatner's southern gentleman accent is awful. And PS - Jim Wynorski's sequel BIG BAD MAMA 2 is also on Prime, albeit in full frame VHS dupe style, which is clearly all it deserves. Angie is in that one too, and--ever the trouper--she still gives it a good god-damn go, even though the care and love that went into the original is replaced by a kind of bachelor party costume theme tawdriness (the boys have that terrible mousse-sculpted hair of 80s porn stars). AVOID AVOID

3. COFFY
(1973) - Dir Jack Hill
**** / Amazon Image - A+

Grier rocketed to deserved exploitation stardom as the queen of blaxploitation films with this big cult hit-- capably stepping out from her ensemble work in the Philippine prisons and into the starring roles at AIP, which had then gone full blaxploitation (I thought this was New World which is why it made this list, but I wouldn't dare disrespect her by taking it out). Here she stars as a hardworking nurse out to avenge her smack-addicted 11-year-old sister by waging a one-woman war on LA's drug/prostitution racket. First she poses as a strung-out junky willing to do "anything" to get a fix (then blows the dealer away with a shotgun); she threatens to carve up the face of a strung-out call girl ( Carol Locatell: watch the subtle ways she comes slowly alive after taking some sniffs from her stash) finally setting up upscale pimp King George (Robert Doqui) for a great fall. Then shit gets pretty hairy, but she works it out and... well. In between all this, keeps her job as a nurse at the night shift of a downtown hospital.

What makes Grier's performance here so indelible is the unique mixture of raw anger, sensitivity, cool, towering strength and the obvious emotional toll her double life is taking on her as she screws and shoots her way up the pusher food chain. Her towering strength always coming with back-end weariness, the kind that needs no man's aid, just maybe a cup of coffee or a Sunday drive. Her "why not?" when Carter tells her she can't just run around killing people, is priceless. It's clear Tarantino was trying to capture that mellow openness, the weary but kittenish honesty, during her early scenes with Robert Forster in Jackie Brown. 

I know I've written on this before (see Jills of Jack Hill) but that viewing was over Xmas in AZ, when I was in bad shape, hallucinating, junk sick, twitchy, and seeing triple (so it looked like Pam had seven heads) Now, on Prime's excellent HD transfer (nicer than the waxy Blue-ray from Olive), it looks totally different; it breathes and glows and you can feel the slight chill in the salty Pacific coast air. Instead of looking like a moldy set slowly collapsing on its sweaty inhabitants, the opening bar setting now glows and breathes and evokes clubs in earlier AIP freak-out films like Psych-Out and The Trip. In this new air it's clear this is the best of all the Hill-Grier collaborations, and maybe the best blaxploitation film, maybe the best Hill film too. The writing and acting are superb in their innocuous subtlety: consider scenes like the post-coital vacation plan-making by Coffy and politician boyfriend (Booker Bradshaw) up at his swanky pad by the fireplace. Their discussion is filmed with her leaning back on him as they both stare into the fire, both are naked, comfortable around each other, the colors of the apartment and the flames of the fire all perfectly complimenting their black skin; they both look into the fire as they talk, in low real person voices - it's such a simple little scene. Hill Grier and Bradshaw have made a real moment that enchants in its simplicity. We all remember the catfight at King George's loft party, but there's so much more to savor, so many little bits, the great use Sid Haig makes of an ordinary thug/henchman role, his chilling sadistic laugh as he drags King George around a junkyard tied to the back of his own car, and his warm regret --he wants her to know it's nothing personal--while driving Coffy to her death.

But the main takeaway is the power a woman might yield when she uses her sex appeal rather than letting it use her. The men Coffy messes with may be bad in think they're 'in charge' they're all constantly in danger of losing themselves to desire for her; her body gives her power over them. It's mind control. And yet, the kind of sex we see in Coffy is practically foreplay compared to the demeaning rutting on TV these days. Maybe in a way that's why Coffy is almost more adult. For Hill's film postulates that maybe casual sex can be mutually rewarding, even on an emotional level, even between mortal enemies.

On the downside Pam's Jamaican accent is awful, mon.

4. THE ARENA 
(1974) Dir. Steve Carver
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Beautifully shot at Cinecittà Studios Studios in Rome, there's enough vivid tactile detail in this saga of female slaves forced to fight each other as gladiators that you can practically feel the roughness of the catacomb floor underneath your sandals. The fantastic cinematography is, believe it or not, by Joe D'Amato (under the alias Aristide Massaccesi) and it's produced, clearly with great care, by Mark Damon (the hero in Corman's Fall of the House of Usher). Though the mood is ultimately downbeat, one can't argue with the fury of Pam Grier and her cool chemistry with dynamic Margaret Markov as the two best fighters, and partners in an ultimate revolt. Markov and Grier were by now a proven fighting team, having been in The Hot Box and Black Mama White Mama before this. It must have seemed they were forever enduring abuse in Filipino prisons and gladiator pens before wreaking cathartic vengeance in their violent dashes to freedom. (This would be Markov's last, as she married Damon and went over to the business side). Though the whole thing is a bit rote in its round the 'debauched ancient Roman bend' (a mincing gay character, a gluttonous arena owner, the innocence of their pre-abduction/genocide ritual ceremonies, slave auctions, light shaft-lit steam room, food fight, etc) we get what pleasures we may such as Grier getting to do her funky dance, twice! Familiar faces like Marie Louise and Rosalba Neri help us feel like we're in familiar country.



I don't want to go into detail of plot but will tell you that their climactic catacomb escape is tense, violent (the ladies know how to fight), and riveting with the final outcome always questionable; there are dogs, there are jumps, there are deaths. The survivors could easily both die or get sent back. Besides, where does one go when the whole civilized world is run by Rome? The answer may be nowhere, but at least the survivors if any are still free at the moment of 'The End,' heading towards a boat and maybe freedom in the New World. And before then, though they may be slaves, at least the girls are still eating well, have access to wine (Lucretia Love plays a slave who develops into quite a lush - now that's an escape I'd totally try!), and no one goes to sleep sexually frustrated or forced to tame their wild lovely 70s hair -- this ain't goddamned Handmaid's Tale. The Roman audiences may be too close in their violence cheering viewing habits to modern TV watchers for comfort--but hey, deal with it.

The main reason I include it this in this list however is what it doesn't have: the terrible bangs and the stilted 'Roman' speech patterns that equate pontification and leather sandals with importance. What it does have: action! thrills! Pre-Christian morality! Grier and Markov together again and sticking it to the patriarchy! Brevity! And with Prime's HD upgrade, the blackness of those catacombs is so deep it's like the screen becomes 3D (at least on my groovy Sony Bravia, the best TV ever made!)

On the downside: is Markov dubbed by a different actress? 

5. TNT JACKSON
(1974) Dir. Cirio H. Santiago
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Filipino auteur (somewhere between Ed Wood and Luigi Cozzi if that makes any sense), Cirio Santiago was a great find for Corman's New World: he could be both producer and director when needed and he knew the New World secret like only a handful of others: if you can't make it good, make it fast. That's certainly true with TNT; if you can get past the first few 'missed-by-a-mile but still pulled your punch' fights, this gets pretty slam-bang, and the quality of the image on Prime here is terrific. If you've tried to watch this on past VHS versions and given up after five minutes (guilty, your honor), you'll swear it's not even the same movie!

The story has American girl TNT (Jamie Bell) visiting seedy Manilla's drug section to find her fiancee (or brother? I forget). Within minutes of crossing into this bad area, Jackson gets into about 80 fights. The shoddy fight choreography is forgotten once enough windows and doors break. Bell's lack of karate skills are forgotten to her cute nose and clear love of wild kung fu hand gestures. We know she's enjoying herself with these crazy, fluid, Bruce Lee-ish hand movements because, frankly, she's not a good enough actor to hide it. Luckily she doesn't enjoy herself to the point she cracks an actual smile. She rarely departs from her one-note little frown, refusing all help or to even be cordial to the big drug kingpin of the neighborhood, even though there's no immediate evidence he killed her brother, or fiancee. There's also a mysterious white lady (sultry Pat Anderson) who also seems to have an agenda concerning all the recently hijacked heroin shipments; it almost becomes her film as much as Jackson's as they fight each other and fight with each other as the shit goes down.


The real scene stealer though is Stan Shaw (left) as the sartorially splendid kung fu heavy who Jackson beds, bothers, and then beats to a pulp. He is simply put, pretty terrific. Even if he refuses to believe Jackson will be trouble since she's such a fine sister in a place where there are almost no other black people. But why is she in Manila anyway, really? His thinking is cloudy, but who can blame him? Jackson uses his desire against him as smoothly as Coffy (above).

Little clues let you know Enter the Dragon had come out the year before and was probably still in theaters. But Bruce Lee has nothing on Bell, who in addition to her fluid hand gestures, nails her topless kung fu fight. Zipping around her bedroom, flipping off the light to run to and fro around her hotel hallway, her assailants ever-dwindling in number and fighting stamina as she slowly gets dressed, this tiny little lady earns our loving respect for being both sexy and playful (reminding me of chasing each other around the upstairs beds as kids).

As it does with Big Doll House, Amazon's recently upgraded streaming print makes the Philippines look far less clammy and claustrophobic than in its countless past editions. So if you've been waiting, now's the time. And what about that badass super intense final fade out? One in a million.

6. LADY IN RED
(1979) Dir. Lewis Teague
*** / Amazon Image - C

I wanted to post some stills from this one which is damned crime it's not the HD anamorphic version Shout put out awhile ago, but the old full frame that Corman's own shitty DVD label put out years before that. But I love Sayle's episode-packed script and Pamela Sue Martin (I was a devotee as a kid back when she was Nancy Drew). Hence, I include this quartet of screenshots, to let you know the full extent of why the other titles on this list are so good. Sugar, everything used to look like that - all cropped and blurry. Lady in Red is good enough to see even in this version, maybe it will inspire you to get the Shout DVD, or petition the manager for better streaming. (full review)


7. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS 
(1975) Dir William Witney
*** / Amazon Image - C-

Produced for New World by Roger Corman's cool brother Gene, directed by old Republic serial journeyman William Witney and written by George Armitage (Gas-s-s-s, Miami Blues), here's a real find for the lovers of the weird. If you mesh something like Beach Blanket Bingo with Duck Soup and Shelly Duvall's Mother Goose's Rockin Rhymes, and a Bugs Bunny cartoon if Elmer was a cop, but then made it all uniquely and totally black fantabulous (ala The Wiz, then the rage on Broadway), you got this urban satire fairy tale set in what I think is supposed to Watts (actually Tennessee, according to imdb) or Louiville, or just of a surreal Monkees-meet-Parliament on Electric Company alterna-reality. The loose plot has Syreena (Trina Parks), member of a superhero-like gang of decked-out 'trikers', trying to find her abortionist mom, Cinderella, who has disappeared, possibly the result of a dastardly plot (lots of black men are missing too). Pursued along the way by KKK members on dirt bikes and inept cops with a giant siren on their car (that makes UFO noises), Syreena encounters bizarre characters like the 'Pot-Sicle' man, who sells drug-infused ice cream (I really wanted the 50/50 LSD peyote bar, but couldn't get my money through the screen) and a super cool detective who's feeling left out that he's not been abducted either. "Maybe it's like rape," Syreena says with a gyrating movement,  "you have to ask for it," Weird lines like that fly by so fast you can't even cognize their greatness; you know this is from the Corman school of constant movement during dialogue scenes because no one ever sits still. If they do, a strolling band of sweet harmony singing brothers materializes out of the park and the whole thing hits another level.


Darktown's hipster madcap pace coupled to DIY iconography takes some adjusting to, but lock onto its goofy kinetic off-the-cuff irreverence and its mix of music and danger and jet black social satire becomes sublime, able to be both exciting and hilarious at the same time. A climactic dirt bike chase between Syreena and the Klan can rivet us, for example, but then we don't get irritated if Syreena stops her foe's evil plantation dungeon escape in order to groove with the soulful band the Dramatics; serenading her from behind bars with their one hit, "Whatcha See is Watcha Get." She doesn't even stop to let them out, just grooves in front of their cell in awed funky appreciation. This is not the kind of thing to get too hung about. Musicians are supplied by Stax Records, baby. And uncredited soulful serenaders sing film-specific soul grooves (such as during Syreena's race around town with her future maybe-lover Mellow) adding to the homespun but so-sweet madnaees.

Commander Cross, aka Sky Hog
(any resemblance to a white devil purely...)
It all hinges on Trina Parks as we see this world through her eyes. She nails the perfect blend of deadpan cool and easy fun engagement. Whether disguising herself as a traffic cop in order to infiltrate the local precinct, or as a nun to get a inside the evil Colonel Cross's (Norman Bartold) southern-fried plantation mansion, she surfs the madness with a wry shrug and deadpan groove that sets a mighty fine tempo and mood. If she played it too straight it would be as much of a drag as if she did it too campy. She finds the exact right tenor and rides it all the way. The cast too jive on her energy and each other and the whole thing seems like a wild, fun party that, by the strength of her performance, never devolves into an incoherent fracas.

Of course one could think to oneself in today's enlightened times that hey, it's written by a white dude, produced by a white dude and directed by a white dude, how can it really lampoon racist tropes without being racist? Like a variety show Monkees episode if done by a really high Richard Pryor (though Armitage notes  Pryor crawled out of the test screening), with a dash of Green Pastures' in its cardboard iconography, it was different times. Knowing how keen Armitage is for improvisation, I'm sure a lot of it came from the mostly all-black cast too. They sure seem to be engaged and that a good time is being had by all. Or at least by me. If you can feel the cold sound of gallows humor laughter in your throat as the police chief dresses up in drag and blackface to catch a 'white female rapist who targets only black male queers' and is shot trying to leave by his skittish men - then man, you are sick. This was the 70s. Isn't that enough of a reason?

Remember when everything looked this bad (i.e. VHS)?
As you might guess, Tarantino is also a fan of Darktown Strutters. I'd never heard of it before last week (or if I did I got it confused with the song "Darktown Strutter's Ball," and then imagined boring ball documentaries) and now I can't forget it. Maybe because it's so off-the-beaten-track it can't be placed in any genre, it's not on Blu-ray, just DVR (where I fear the image quality is the same as the Prime stream). I only found it through "customers also watched" tab on the SUGAR HILL page. Who knows what weirdness might bubble up from Prime's fathomless basement next!!

OTHER GEMS OF OFF-THE CUFF DEADPANARCHY
Currently Suffering in No-DVD limbo!
Most of Darktown's crazier sisters and brothers--the ones that cross over any genre they want without losing their deadpan cool or getting too campy- aren't on even DVD. Is this because they're too weird for the powers that be to categorize? Something like the gonzo adventure of the 1984 Sandahl Bergman-starring She for example, is ostensibly based on the H Rider Haggard novel but throws in every trick in the book, including a hilarious guard who looks like a blonde Paul Thomas and runs through a head-spinning gamut of obscure old radio show impressions; then there's 1978's Get Crazy and Shelly Duvall's Mother Goose's Rockin' Rhymes (1990). None are available. So weird and so wondrous. What are they so scared of, Mary Joe? Rockin' Rhymes was a cable kids' movie. Surely it's safe for modern consumption? 

Luckily we can still find these gems on youtube, albeit in worse quality even than the Prime print of Strutters. (There is a DVD-R Strutters version though I'm afraid the quality is the same - anyone seen it?). 

(1982) Dir Avi Nesher
***

(1983) Dir. Allan Arkush
***1/2

MOTHER GOOSE'S ROCK 'N' RHYMES
(1990) Dir. Shelly Duvall
***1/2

RELEASE THEM AT ONCE!!
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See also on avail on Prime in good condition
(but not New World... or even AIP):

BONNIE'S KIDS (1973)
THE ROOMMATES (1973)

Other Recommended 70s New World Hits avail on DVD (but not Prime):
BIG TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE

Friday, February 01, 2019

Amazon Streams: Five Treasures drug up from Prime's Post-JAWS Riverbed (+ AVALANCHE)


It's so cold here in the New World, one thinks of summer. And the beach and the water, and the sharks, and the river... piranha... up the Amazon.... Prime....  There's so many retro fabulous options to choose, it's psychotronic heaven. New World + Amazon + Stream = Conquistadoritorial triumph.

Prime just uploads them en masse, via Shout and the New World, Concorde and AIP way back deep cut catalogue... And all of a sudden, many of the streaming prints from Roger Corman's independent label New World and Concorde films have been upgraded (many via Shout Factory who have a very nice channel you can subscribe to! We love Shout at Acidemic). Many of the New World pictures look marvelous, especially the ones from the 70s and early 80s, when the drive-in was still hopping and demanding their fare be shot on 35mm widescreen film (rather than the slimy murky square of video... boo!). 

While they're not always great, but New World pictures are always fun, never a dull moment, flying by in under 90 minutes and all still highly re-watchable. I return to them time and again in times of stress and woe, and since Prime has so many, I'm compelled like a gratitude-filled Marx Brother after eating that big free dinner in Night at the Opera, to give back, by organizing and collecting the titles for your amazement. Last week, Star Wars imitations. This week, Jaws imitations!

As with earlier assemblages in my ongoing slavish unpaid tribute to Amazon Prime, image rating is of Prime streaming quality, subject to be improved (or removed) at a moment's notice. Screenshots likewise are from Prime.

 SCREAMERS
(1979 -aka Island of the Fishmen)
Dir. Sergio Martino
*** / Amazon Image - A+

The great Sergio came off an entry in the burgeoning cannibal genre (Slaves of the Cannibal God) before making this film for New World, which, in fandom circles, has gotten a bad rap, but that was surely due to bad VHS reproduction (it's a film clearly meant for widescreen). Now, on the gorgeous new presentation print, its Victorian era 'aquatic research post'-steampunk Jules Verne-y sets impress and the endless supply of weird monsters (with big pointy teeth) amaze, astound, and flabbergast. The cast includes Joseph Cotten (safely in bed where he can't harm anyone, all these ailing old stars lucked out with so many wheelchair and bedridden parts), Barbara Bach (in lots of wet clothes) and Martino's go-to hero, Claudio Cassinelli. The spooky synths of Luciano Michelini's score sting anywhere the pace lags and swaying monstrous shadows darken our heroes cross-island fleeing. There are also sudden surges of native drums but... no native drums. And eventually a drowsy adventure motif that evokes John Williams' better passages of Close Encounters. 

It all begins with one of those quintessential drive-in horror sequences (shot in LA and added after, when Corman found the PG original too tame for American drive-ins): a nighttime on a remote beach visited by a Victorian era treasure seeker (Mel Ferrer) and his worried young wife (Beryl Cunningham), led ashore by a scruffy sea captain (Cameron Mitchell) waving a lantern. One look at that gorgeous Bronson Canyon cave formations with the oceans of fog machine fog rushing through the flood lights as shifty synths thudded in warning, and weird, whispery monster breathing crept in the pockets of the sound mix, and I knew I was, to use the seafaring vernacular, hooked. The story then moves forward to the actual Martino film: a prison ship lifeboat helmed by a ship's doctor (Cassinelli) and a Dirty Dozen style crew of cutthroats. The monsters attack their boat, some make it ashore, and in comes Barbara Bach and her husband, the island's mysterious plantation owner--played by that other Martino mainstay, Richard Johnson. Suspicious goings on, with the castaway number ever-dwindling down to just Claudio. In one great highlight, he follows Bach through the day-for-night jungle only in case she needs protection. When he sees her stripping down to her nightgown to wade out into the lagoon feed green drugs to a bunch of smitten fish monsters, we know we're not in familiar waters.



Indeed, now that it looks so good on HD remaster, Screamers  turns out to be a quiet gem that is finally getting its due: even Joseph Cotten seems to be awake, no matter how DTs-ridden and gill-encrusted he may seem, and Bach's round-eyed ethereality has never been more vivid. We all remember those hormone-awakening poster of her in the water, with the monsters ogling her beautiful legs. We figured no movie could live up to that kinky promise (especially since Weldon called it "childish") but it turns out it's pretty good rip snortin' fun. Bach's legs are seldom displayed (she favors boots and long skirts), and the gore is mostly limited to that New World-shot additional footage, but fans of those lovable 60s AIP Jules Verne adaptations starring Vincent Price (like Master of the World and Warlords of Atlantis) should love all the diving bells, ancient treasure, Atlantis miniatures and the big volcanic eruption / rocks falling on burning sets climax.


UP FROM THE DEPTHS
(1979) Dir. Charles B. Griffith
*1/2 / Amazon Image: A

There's a job that genre films need to do, and doing any more than that can either lead to lionization and classic status (The Terminator) or the abyss of boredom (Tentacles). Even the lesser New World monster pics have aged well by never trying for greatness. They seek only to fulfill their job requirements as fast, sexy and thrill-ridden entertainment - anything else is usually snuck in by writers and directors trying out new things that would never fly at a major studio, for their own amusement rather than award-hopefulness. A perfect example of this, Up from the Depths was edited with a trowel, shot with two eye patches on, with sound and dialogue that's almost all post-sync, leading in a strange 'overheard' kind of way that simultaneously evokes bad dubbing, a group commentary DVD track, and 70s Robert Altman at the same time. But on those terms, it's great.

So this time the monster is a fish, like a giant rabid coelacanth, eating up tourists in and around a Hawaiian hotel resort. The nervous wreck ninny hotel owner Mr. Forbes (a terribly hammy Kedric Wolfe) blames the murders on beach bum Timothy Bottoms and his charter boat captain uncle (Virgil Frye, doing a pretty good Nick Nolte), who hang around the hotel bar too much, looking for easy tourist marks. Frye is fun as the grizzled drunk captain -he's colorful! Meanwhile Wolfe's Forbes is so desperate to evoke Murray Hamilton in Jaws, he doesn't realize that his overacting is sinking the whole movie. Not that it's remotely buoyant to begin with, but when he's not around it's at least still partly afloat, thanks largely to the gorgeous scenery all beautifully HD thanks to (I'm guessing) the Shout Factory Corman upgrade.

Frye and Wolfe bury the hatchet with some boozin' (that finger Wolfe is waving
stands for 'one' as in "I'll have one drink with you and that's it!")
And, well, even if--as a movie--Up from the Depths is terrible, I do like it a whole hell of a lot, for the little bits (like the sly way Frye, after drunkenly lurching across the room towards his tourist mark, whispers an aside to Bottoms, totally sober, "am I overdoing it?") Like, say, Corman's own Creature from the Haunted Sea it has the good sense to not camp out, but rather to just string along with bits of business, blue waters, beaches, booze and babes.

Longtime Corman scriptwriter Charles B. Griffith directs with a nice leisurely (i.e. fairly inept) hand, figuring that if he follows the Jaws chalk marks while keeping an eye out for tropical charm and sneaking in hipster gags, he'll coast by with a film that barely does a thing. He's right, and his camera is so sloppily placed it seems like half the movie is going on in the background while the foreground lingers on a couple of tourist stereotypes shooting the shit (post-synced) by the lobby pamphlet rack. When Forbes can no longer hissy fit away the mounting death toll, he spins the giant fish into a cash contest for its head, prompting a run on the Tiki lounge's decorative spears, and the gun counter at the local pawn shop (one tourist gets a crossbow). That's when it gets real Mad Magazine-- a Japanese salaryman busts out a samurai sword, doing moves out on the rocks while two guys in full frogman suits walk backwards down the hotel stairs, and so on. It would come off like a savage satire of American 2nd amendment zeal (ala Dawn of the Dead) if it was filmed with a bit more panache.


But where Depths really earns its 2.8 imb rating is in the total wash of an ending (there hasn't been a more 'whoops we ran out of $$' rush to cut to the credits since Cat Women of the Moon) but fans of the New World will forgive it, especially when Bottoms uses one of their chewed up icthhyologist friend (Charles Howerton) as bait, stuffing his wet suit with plastic explosives while Susanne Reed protests indignantly (shades of Shriek of the Mutilated!). Forced all through the film to endure Forbes' hammy conniption fits as well, apparently, to indulge some skeevy German tourist's desire to get her alone on a deserted island for Sports Illustrated style posing. (Luckily he's an early casualty), Reed handles her role with a fine sense of purpose - she can seem professional even in a bathing suit and grass skirt, and for that we're truly grateful. The counterweight to her sober ease is Denise Hayes, who gets the best lines as a zonked-out supermodel there to shoot a magazine spread, there with her zonked out boyfriend (their dialogue is priceless).


And Hey! Guess what else is on Prime? Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961 -above, in original superior black-and-white), also written (not directed) by Griffith and a sublime example of his brand of deadpan comedy done right (i.e. in Papa Roger's capable, swift hands). Taken together, they're still shorter than Jaws and free of John Williams, and twice as funny. So do it! See 'em some drunk Saturday night, or facsimile - feel the ocean rocking you to sleep as occasional moments of genuine idiocy mix with moments of genuine wit, topsy turvy in the foam until one can't tell which is which.


3. PIRANHA 
(1978) Dir. Joe Dante
Writer: John Sayles
***  / Amazon Image: A

Some come and go but this is by now a pretty renowned feel-good classic, remade into a tongue-in-cheek 3D romp with CGI blood and piranha, and lots of T&A. It's funny that, while New World is certainly culpable in that kind of thing, they're not nearly as bad as their imitators. This, for example, has nothing like that, yet it's a quintessential New World romp with all the ingredients in place: Barbara Steele as a badass scientific researcher with the military. Heather Menzies-Urich is the sexually liberated PJ Soles-ish investigator who hikes up the mountain, recruits local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to help her find two filleted hikers, and who then inadvertently drains their holding tank into the river system looking for their bodies. In typical John Sayles pinko style, this girl thinks it's perfectly her right to trespass and then dump what could have been anything into the pristine river, then beats up Keven McCarthy when he tries to stop them. And THEN gets all high and mighty about the military's ghoulish irresponsibility as they run around determined to rob these hungry mutant fish of their favorite delicacy, man. And then the coup de gras, Grogan opens up the valves on a smelting plant to dump all sorts of toxic waste into the river to kill them, never worrying that with this final act he's utterly destroying the river system that provided for this mountain nigh over 2000 years. Along the way they find time to assault a police officer, and commandeer a police vehicle, all while never doubting their moral superiority. Meanwhile he leaves his young daughter to help out post-summer camp bloodbath, and Keenan's dog to just stand there at his dad master's shack, helpless and lost, rather than rescuing it and bringing it along on the raft and all subsequent adventures.

Skunked again, eh, Grogan?
Dante is clearly loving this chance to break out of editing trailers for Corman (his only feature film up to that time had been the old New World-footage-heavy Hollywood Boulevard, with fellow-trailer editor Allan Arkush). You can tell from his framing alone that he's going to be big in Hollywood as he takes the ball and runs with it, laying out the affectionate blend of insider-jokes, cameos, his ability to cut through the crap and etch surprising depth and maturity into relationships with very little screen time (he'd do it even better with his big break-out hit, also penned by Sayles, The Howling).  This one has it all: prison escapes, scuba-diving, 70s-style casual hook-ups,  Paul Bartel as a summer camp director determined to make Grogan's hydrophobic daughter learn to swim; an evil general throwing kids in the bloody water so they don't swamp his raft, and Dick Miller as a nervous arcade pier owner, determined no crank call about a lot of killer fish is going to disrupt his gala lakefront opening. Better listen to what the cranks are saying, Dick!
----

I mentioned these next two in an earlier Prime round-up, but these reviews are new, for no film is ever the same twice...

4. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP
(1980) Dir. Barbara Peeters
**1/2 (Amazon Image - A)

It's a kind of Jaws from the Black Lagoon with an Alien chaser as horny mutant salmon/men infiltrate a Pacific Northwestern coastal town to nonconsensually mate with human women (and kill their surprised boyfriends). Townie bigot Vic Morrow blames the incidents on the local Native American Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), who's been waging a one man-tribal war against the planned installation of a fish cannery on his native river (were they borrowing that hackneyed eco-suplot from the previous year's big studio budgeted-- but largely forgotten--Prophecy?). "Good" fisherman Doug McLure and his liberal son say no, Johnny is a good boy but they also support the cannery and even take reps out fishing. But the monsters start killing everyone's dogs; Morrow and Johnny Eagle blame each other for it; and there's a fight at the town hall dance. The next day McLure's Luke-alike son and hot girlfriend go have a beer down at Johnny's shack to show solidarity and learn a thing or two while Morrow's rednecks paddle quietly up. Enough with the liberal soapboxing, this is New World, so chop chop make with the monsters. A cannery-sponsored genetic scientist (Ann Turkel) shows up to investigate. I'm sure you figured out that, like Steele in Piranha, she's not exactly shocked by what's going on. But hey, this was directed by a woman and the monster rape scenes were played down (so Corman had extra breasts and violence, oh Roger!). While offensive, the monster rapes are too over-the-top sleazy to traumatize my sensitive feminist soul and while one might bemoan their shitty taste in men, the girls never lose their dignity or resourcefulness -- even the scantily clad Miss Salmon (Linda Shayne) stops screaming long enough to bash her attacker's brains out with a rock. And it's all leading somewhere we might well guess, considering the Alien part of the equation.

To me, actually, the most objectionable thing in the film is that a smirky toe-headed ventriloquist (David Strassman) almost gets it on with a girl in a tent, his puppet poking suggestively through the zipper of his bag over terribly snarky post-sync double entendre about his "woodpecker." Was this the crap that was shot later, like Jim Wynorski or Fred Olen Ray? Little things like the way the cannery rep calls Turkel a "great little scientist" and the way high school creep Jim slobbers over his date with his gross horndog stereotype mannerisms of the Porky's sex-obsessed teen craze to come. In 1980 we could still find trashy movies without those varsity jacketed little shits but like unspoiled rivers, or drive-ins they were getting scarce. Wynorski and Olen Ray were taking over, like those scabby kids -Phillip Baker Hall brings to Jack's 1980 New Years party in Boogie Nights.

Whatever, it's trashy and though I do like the way Dr. Turkel bosses around her co-worker Edward, she does mispronounce 'coelacanth.'  Then hell breaks loose in one of the best monster attacks on a local waterfront salmon festival in cinematic history. It goes on and on, monsters crashing through the boardwalk, marauding like a pack of rapey vikings, with no music just endless screaming. The monster suits themselves are good enough and with their long arm extensions and habit of swaying back and forth like seaweed-dipped Igor impressionists, their incessant sexual aggression becomes almost refreshing in its pre-cognitive innocence, like it's creating some new genre in being so blatantly free of subtlety in slathering on its drive-in snack bar ingredients. And hey, how can one night like a movie where the and young mother (Cindy Weintraub) eviscerates her home invader long before Doug McLure puts to the rescue? James Horner's eerily familiar score of eerie strings and harp glissandos, John Williams's Jaws horns and Jerry Goldsmith woodwinds stabs hurries things along and the moody Daniel Lacambra cinematography captures a nicely overcast Pacific Northwest.


5. THE GREAT ALLIGATOR 
(1979) Dir Sergio Martino
**1/2 / Amazon Image: B-

Sergio's next feature after Screamers (above) has tropes of the post-Jaws film mixed with the then-waning Italian mondo cannibal phase: at a newly-opened African safari/jungle resort (though it was filmed in Sri Lanka... where life is cheap), Barbara Bach and Claudio Cassinelli play more or less the same roles as they did in Screamers--he's a self-righteous photographer who keeps badgering the resort's capitalist owner Mel Ferrer about his model getting eaten by a giant alligator god. Naturally, Mel tries to keep the "alleged" devouring quiet. Bach is the resident anthropologist who speaks the language of the primitive locals and tries to balance out her boss's greed with Claudio's self-righteous fervor. Building a hotel so close to the native's huts isn't very smart it turns out, for either side. Bach wonders how an alligator got to Africa in the first place, instead of crocodiles but really, snout width aside, who but herpetologists care? It's big and scary, that's enough. The sole survivor of an old batch of white missionaries has been hiding from it behind a waterfall for night under forty years. By the time Bach and Cassinelli have teamed up (which doesn't take long since he starts following her around even after they just met, expecting her to keep him company all night long, like naturally she'll reciprocate his interest, since he's so... so... righteous - ugh men, Italian-style)



But by then it's dinner time. The natives are pretty pissed their angry god has been woken (probably by the dynamite) so they start killing off every white person in sight. In one long grand dusk-to-dawn stretch there's a 40-foot Alligator killing everyone in the water and natives killing everyone on land, so the tourists are caught like a bunch of sardines caught between the cape gannets and dolphins during the annual South African sardine run (been watching BBC nature shows).

One reason I love this movie: Martino never resorts to stock nature footage inserts for his gator attacks. The big gator itself might by only marginally convincing (its legs don't move, the miniature used in the long shots looks like a toy I used to have) but he's still awesome - the full-size giant jaws go up and down atop screaming extras splashing gamely, and Martino knows how to film the melee so it's clear to follow and scary-fun crazy rather than traumatic or confusing. Stevio Cipriani's cocktail score swirls gamely into a tapestry of thumping diegetic jungle drums, funky electric guitar, chanting, birdcalls, screaming that might or might not be human, and then ---suddenly -- a tiny splash....

--
I wanted to keep this all in the New World/Concorde/AIP family, but there's no sign of ALLIGATOR (1980) the Lewis Teague-directed, John Sayles-scripted, Robert Forster-starring classic, on Prime. It's maybe the best of all of these in my opinion. I can't even find my copy at home! Note to self! Track that shit down. Luckily Prime does have Forster in a different kind of hybrid eco-disaster produced by Corman....

It's the 70s, so his hair is longer than hers (she's got the "Hammil" - so you know she's a skater). 
AVALANCHE
(1978) Dir. Corey Allen
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B

When they run out of ocean and fresh water monsters, so it was that the filmmakers had to move to the land for their threats: The White Buffalo, Prophecy, and the mighty Grizzly. And from there it's a short fall to disaster threats like skyscraper fires, virus outbreaks, demonic totems, and here -ice and snow buildup on a mountain where millionaire idiot hotel owner Rock Hudson (in the same role played by Mel Ferrer in The Great Alligator, Dick Miller in Piranha etc.) refuses to heed the dire warnings of conservationist/photographer Robert Forster about the danger of avalanches. Mia Farrow is Rock's ex-wife, visiting the hotel and willing to try give it another chance (if he can get off the phone for five minutes). There's also a tomcattin' ski champ, Bruce (Rick Moses) and a foxy figure skater Peggy (Annette River) coached by Corman regular Anthony Carbone (who rocks in Creature from the Haunted Sea); Rock's fur-encrusted mother (Jeanette Nolan!!?) and the assistant assigned to keep her busy round out the immediate side stories.

While we wait for the snow to fall, we gaze in amazement at Hudson's dashing grey-tinged rug and Mia Farrow's unconvincing long hair extensions. She's way too short and meek for a man like Rock, looking up at him with big saucer eyes and denoting "you're a force of nature." We agree, and no way he'd make it with this fragile waif. A much better fit, Forster whisks her up to his cabin after Rock acts like a jealous ass in public by trying to dance during the big pre-avalanche night in the lounge (with a very groovy rock band).  Bruce fools around with the Hammil (above), though he's got a much hotter girl named Tina (Cathy Paine) who runs out into the snow in her negligee after walking in on them in bed. "Tina put that apple down or throw it at me!" he demands the next morning at breakfast before she vaults into a hysterically jealous/insane/gibbering mess. It's a nifty variation of a similarly gratuitous interlude in Corman's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. These saucy interludes are kind of things Corman no doubt insisted on to make this an R, though it was a PG, even despite the obligatory New World nude scene in Rock's very groovy 70s shower/steam room.

After the hilarious avalanche, Rock's mother and that assistant are snowed inside a windowless room -- very claustrophobic but there's a piano so they can try to sing before succumbing to the gas leak; Tina's real TV newsman husband and some kid are stranded on a crumbling ski-lift; and the odious Bruce ponders his life choices while buried upside down under 20 feet of the same snow he's so blithely skied over all his life. Ever mindful of our patience, producer Corman can't resist making the whole thing clock in at under 91 minutes even though the average disaster film is at least 2 1/2 hours long. We're not complaining. Whole reels of drab drama between Farrow and Hudson seem to have been shorn away, perhaps waiting for us in Hell if we continue to make the same choices with our lives Bruce has.

Here it.... comes... 
So... that's Avalanche ... it's not good or bad, but it delivers enough stunts and snow you don't feel cheated. For Corman devotees of a certain age and predilection, that's good enough. For us it's comfort food - at least that's how it worked for me. When I needed it, and it was thar. There's plenty of sly black humor (a lot of the people die even right as they're being rescued; emergency workers hoisting black bagged bodies in rows atop a flatbed truck let us know who did and didn't) and odd touches (like the sexy negligee snowstorm runoff). Corman never really messed around any further in the multi-character disaster genre - maybe because ponderous bores are not his scene. He brings the drive-in momentum to a genre mired in an unusually staid and draggy tempo but then what does he end up with at the finish line? Just Rock standing in a ruined chalet. We don't even see the "beautiful view" Mia talks of before leaving him there with a champagne bottle in his grief-numbed hands. They're very classy together though and Rock evinces real character growth in his shocked eyes. It's a nice little scene and then the credits.

Former kid actor Corey Allen directed and while I wouldn't be surprised if Corman hired him so those not reading the poster very close will figure it's by the other Allen (Irwin). It was filmed on location in Colorado with lots of gorgeous Rocky mountains in the background and pleasingly dopey miniatures (the mountains look like a faded postcard in some avalanche scenes). The Amazon image quality is pretty good - the colors are kind of washed out but it is rather white up there anyway so what do I expect?  Don't fight it, Erich. Let it wash over you in a comforting narcotizing blanket of white.

A screenshot from Devil Fish to show Prime ain't picky
and a lot of its titles look like they were transferred from an old VHS rather
than a 35mm negative. 

Avoid the DEVIL FISH, matey!

Picking the cleaner sandy 35mm shores...
that's why you need me as your captain. Argh! Where's that bottle? 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Six Dope Analog Sci-fi Nugs (1978-87) Now Streaming on Prime


Biiitch, and I mean you youngsters, you're all spoiled with your blah blah, but (cranky presuppository position insert), back in the day all we had was STAR WARS, and its special effects were analog - the ships were made with model airplane parts; the stars were made by poking pins through black felt and shining a light behind it. Child, we made everything ourselves, high as shit on Testors fumes circulating in our D&D dungeons. Computer Graphics were still at the Pong-stage. Atari was just giant pixels floating around. Life in space was tactile. And anyway, the big problem with STAR WARS? Just one woman in the whole thing. It was crush on Carrie or get lost. Corman and New World and the Italians, watching the box office from the wings, they knew - add more babes with guns, scrap the John Williams pomp, crank up the jams, let fly. 

Often maligned as imitations by us pre-teen virgin nerd film snobs at the time, today these scrappy influence-gathering sci-fi pack rats glow anew, and for a very simple reason: their tactile analog special effects, 35mm film and solid HD restoration bring us the vivid tactility, deep colors and film grain so lost in modern movies (mostly) and which we never saw in these films original pan and scan VHS versions.  Italian import films especially can look like shit on pan and scan as their directors make full use of widescreen for their imagined drive-in audience's windshield. Now with restored HD colors and anamorphic widescreen on a solid HD TV with deep blacks (like my beloved Sony Bravia), oh my my my! 


1. SPACEHUNTER: 
ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE
(1983) Dir Lamont Johnson 
*** / Amazon Image - A+

Time and widening sharpening HD video has been especially kind to this weird fusion of elaborate junkyard art design and middling everything else. What was once just another blatant PG blender-pureed Star Wars Road Warrior virgin cocktail (Molly Ringwald as the semi-feral ragamuffin- her red hair niftily color-coordinated with her dirty clothes) now beguiles and corrupts. Filmed in 3D (as the plethora of things flying right at the camera will confirm), it holds up better in 2D now that the whole (wide, anamorphic) screen is visible (the reviews at the time pointed out that with the 3D glasses it was too dark - and indeed there is a lot of shadow and night/twilight scenes that probably got lost in 3D or on pan and scan home video). I guess that means no more being a 16 year-old smartass bemoaning seeing his beloved Road Warrior wasteland besmirched with a PG rating, terrible cropping, and a bratty redheaded tomboy (at least she didn't have an 80s perm).

The plot is a bounty hunter free spirit on a rescue mission to a wild wild planet (virtuous maids held captive by a slavering bandit chief in a big metal rig as he's all crippled by his own lascivious evil). Peter Strauss is the mercenary; his assistant is a cute girl who's killed in the first big firefight after the hostages are whisked away by crazy glider hooks (a very cool stunt!).  Now it's personal, he's going into the Forbidden Zone to get those girls. His particular set of skills includes acting scruffy and rouge-ish, Han Solo meets Mad Max. But Peter Strauss may not be Harrison Ford, or even Christopher George, but he is in the league of, say, Andrew Prine, and sometimes Prine is enough.

Still, it's the spectacularly termite-detailed art direction that makes it work. Cars are immaculately dirty and surreal; the sail -(wind powered)-trains are life size and move on actual railroad tracks; the hang gliders swoop down and capture people in low hanging talon attachments - not models but real life (invisible wires etc); characters show up out of nowhere on roofed circular motorcycles; a barrage of deflated Michelin man-style blubber people come sliding obscenely forth from hanging cocoons; big trippy neon tunnels suck soul energy; and--the big highlight climax--Molly Ringwald is thrown into the pit to try and survive an obstacle course spring-activated buzz saws, spikes, whirring lawnmower blades, fire jets, and an ever advancing spike-fronted bulldozer. Hot damn!


Funny enough, the main reason my buddies and I sneered at this film at the time was due to our reverence for the original source material, i.e. The Road Warrior. Why did we sneer when, nary two years later, George Miller destroyed that reverence himself in Thunderdome when he brought all those kids aboard, choking the mise-en-scene with a cadre of scruffy orphan on a kookie train. The Tina Turner hit song and big bounce back from Ike media splash (her imperious overacting still lingers in my mind, "Raggedy Man" yeah right) and a 'Thunderdome' that includes bungee bounciness. What's next, George? An ewok? And don't make some lame joke about Angelo Rossitto. The man is a treasure. I didn't care for having to imagine a whole layer of pigshit under the city. That's disgusting, George!



It was a rough time to be a teenager, the mid-80s, during sequel fever. Greedy filmmakers forgot all the best films we saw repeatedly in theaters--Raiders, Ghostbusters, Conan, Star Wars -- had no kids in them. It was like they'd turned to writing of the sequels over to TV sitcom hacks for whom learning kids liked a movie meant putting actual kids in the sequel, which is a kind of dumb "you got an F in viewer psychology class and all you got was this lousy 7-figure writing gig" habit of Hollywood's. So Star Wars developed an ewok problem the same year (1983) as Spacehunter came out; Raiders of the Lost Ark's 1984 sequel had that insufferable Short Round, even Ghostbusters 2 (also 1984) had to have a baby in it. As I've said, kids hate to see themselves in movies unless they're legit savages -see CinemArchtype 21: The Wild Child - rather than merely slightly scruffy brats with big black velvet painting eyes.

Well, Ringwald gets a pass because, though her acting is all over the place, at least she's a girl, and cute, and not insufferable. Well, she's kind of insufferable, but the color coordinating of the maroon-brown clothes and her cherry red hair go a long way.


So, let's bury the hatchet and savor the anamorphic HD screen and Amazon's lovely streaming print allows us to savor Ringwald's red hair against the harsh burnt umber sky of a strange planet so elaborately and creatively detailed I thought at first it had to be a Dino de Laurentiis production, made with Ron Cobb, John Barry or Anthony Masters or someone at the art direction helm. The amount of creativity in this repurposed junkyard planet look, and the weird creatures and dangers met along the way, is well beyond the capacity of the story or direction to do justice to. It's like a quick museum tour through some elaborate interactive space that requires way more time and attention then the rushed guide is giving. The bad guy's big lair is about three stories tall and full of so much welded-together artfully-rusted bric-a-brac it should have been made into a permanent interactive art installation the moment filming wrapped. I can only imagine the sorrow of the craftsmen who labored on such spectacular mise en scene only to have it all torn down after the wrap, see the film barely recoup costs, and then have 90% of all their work lost on pan and scan home video, never---as far as they knew--to be seen again. Redemption ahoy!


For example, the space above, a beautifully natural-industrial flooded cavern/basement kind of environment, neither indoors nor out, with mangrove tree roots that are actually pipes, and so forth, is the kind of 'in-between' zone Antonioni would approve of were he making a sci-fi film in his post-structuralist Red Desert period. And then these sex hungry sirens cohere out of the mist, debating whether to use our wandering mercenary Peter Strauss for breeding purposes, a great idea (he's into it), but that's scuttled almost immediately with the arrival of a small dragon/snake thing (like an X-mas garland with teeth) which the sirens are all afraid of but seems easily dispatched by their spears or elaborate nets. That's a wrap on the sirens - were they edited out to make this a "G" rating? No one even mentions them again. and YET, Strauss and Molly Ringwald are too scared to go back into their parked car; they escape up a hatch to the surface and leave their car behind so they can wander the desert and almost die of thirst. Jesus - why didn't they just back the car out? It makes little sense, and this great set and sexy siren thing is just forgotten for the rest of the picture- we're onto another gorgeous, creatively ingenious set, should have been an art installation, but Strauss and Ringwald just run through it and it's never seen again.


Lastly, in my continuing push to restore some kind of platonic good faith between women and straight men, I recommend the film not just for the beautiful visions and creativity of the sets and vehicles, but also the unique relationship between Molly and Peter Strauss's characters. There's never any sexual intention between either one of them - never even a thought of it. She's obnoxious, but that's okay - I like she cuddles up to him in the dead of night because she's cold, but that it's no more than that for either of them or for the director, script or any unspoken subtext. She's more an adopted orphan, a scrappy Oliver, a Dr. Who companion, and his disinterest in even having her around speaks to, ironically enough, his worth as a mentor. It's a testament to a more innocent time, when real men were trusted to be caregivers of teenage redheads because, unlike celibate priests or pent-up nerd weirdos, they were laid, loose and not Archie Lee desperate or Humbert creepy.

Best of all, PG or no, it all ends with cocktails, evoking the spirit of Howard Hawks!

2. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS 
(1980) Dir. Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman
Script by John Sayles; Art director: James Cameron
(New World) - *** / Amazon Image - A+

The idea that this film was actually put out by Corman's New World seems absurd- it looks like a movie that would today cost at least 100 million today. Imaginatively written by John Sayles, adapting the Magnificent Seven/ Seven Samurai, it's got a zingy cast including John Saxon as the evil warlord; Robert Vaughn as a professional killer hiding in a dusty old space arcade; starry-eyed Richard Thomas as the John Boy-meets-Luke hero; George Peppard as a kind of Han Solo meets cowboy truck driver (truckers were still 'in'); buxom Sylvia Kristel as a diminutive Valkyrie; and--a personal favorite--a robotics engineer played Darlanne Fluegel, whose haunting gray eyes perfectly counterbalance her 80s-anticipating ironed blonde hair and gray-piped pink jumpsuit, as the breeding-ready love interest. How did John Boy get so lucky?


James Cameron worked in the art direction unit, which--as with his work on Galaxy of Terror--may partly explain why it's all so stunningly gorgeous, every frame pops to the point Star Wars now seems hopelessly square by contrast. Just dig the ship John Boy flies in (above) - it's both phallic and fallopian, like some Frank Frazetta barbarian lost a fight with a sexy slug. Why wasn't there a toy version of that instead of the tiresome Falcon or Tie-Fighters? I'm also a big fan of the cozy spaceship and planet interiors, full of warm hued-lighting and interesting touches that give them a 70s shag carpeted / older brother's van bedroom aura. Every ship has its own homey touch, you want to live in them and get to know these people (most of them anyway), but since it's a Corman joint it has to be over in under 90 minutes so Roger can save money on film cans. (Would there was a longer director's cut).


There are still negative voices out there for this movie, but if they're going by some old video pan and scan or other, they need to shut dey mouths and watch it again... in Prime's widescreen restored-color version it pops and glows and beguiles. And if they don't appreciate Sayle's weirdly Buddhist script (lotsa talk about the 'Vardas' preaching nonviolence) or the gorgeous matte shots and creative ideas bouncing all over the place, then to hell with them. For me, the only sour note concerns the scarfaced moron underlings of Sador, who have balding ginger 'fros and piggy noses, and attitudes typical of those smirky slob horndog types in bad early-80s teen movies who always have food on their shirts and are saying crude things about girls. You know the guys I mean, they give all guys a bad name. Though this a PG they pick up a peasant girl and presumably rape her in the back of their spaceship (she comes out form the back room with her dress torn and crashes their ship for them in retaliation, killing herself in the process - it's an oddly sleazy addition, unnecessary moment --one wonders why it's kept in when so much other interesting stuff was clearly taken out). There's also some weird misplaced hostility from John Boy with the arrival of Kristel's valkyrie, and her sudden appearance as a right-sized (and how!) maiden is never explained. If I have to get this minor to quibble, you know I loved it. Hubris kept me from watching it at the time -- it seemed such a blatant ripoff to my 13 year-old Star Wars-ophile senses (Empire Strikes Back was out the same year) but now I could care less about Star Wars whereas I'm a big-ass fan of Battle Beyond the Stars. Hey, it even has more than one female character! Maybe George Lucas should have been ripping it off instead of vice versa?

3. STARCRASH 
(1978) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
** / Amazon Image - A
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If you're watching all these as part of an Acidemic-azon Prime festival, let me warn you that it's better to watch this one first, because the FX are so crude it can feel like you just got demoted to the kid's table. That's not to say that--in their badness-the special effects are not peculiarly charming, especially if you were a kid in the 70s and remember Lite-brite ("making things with light / what a sight, making things with Lite-brite"), HO scale airplane models (I had a whole London blitz dogfight hanging over my bed); and erector sets, from childhood. These three elements of any 70s kid's toy collection seem to comprise the bulk of Starcrash special-effects tool kit. But hey, the film is still a blast... a big terrible blast. Directed by the "Italian Ed Wood," maestro Luigi Cozzi (working here, as he often did, under the Americanized 'Lewis Coates'), Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it seems to have more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) more than its clear source in$piration, the previous year's Star Wars.

The story has outer space adventuress Stella Starr (Caroline Munroe) squaring off against her future Maniac co-star Joe Spinell. As the evil-laughing, mustache-twirling, cape-swirling Baron, Spinell is clearly having fun so it's too bad he (as well as Munroe) are so blandly dubbed by other people. In league with "dark forces," the Baron has created a weapon "so vast, so huge, it would take a whole planet... to conceal it," Clearly, when Coggi does stop to rip off Star Wars, he doesn't kibitz -- (there's even an actual light saber at one point). On the other hand, his real yen is clearly to do The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in space -and to that end there's a stop-motion giant 'metallic' warrior woman guarding a beach, a sword fight with a stop-motion skeleton, a benevolent stranger in a gold mask, treachery from an evil double agent, Caroline Munroe (that's why Cozzi cast her and made sure she brought her heavenly midriff). But that's just the half of it!


Now the bright side: even if you don't like Munroe's co-star Marjoe Gortner (perhaps due to some archaic prejudice against overly white teeth and curly towheads) one has to admit that--maybe thanks to his being an ex-child evangelist--he handles the scenes of mystical magical force-casting with admirable dead-eyed focus (and mouth closed). Though he may be quite diminutive, his red and black leather uniform is way cool.  Munroe's 'sexy' outfit looks like it was cut out of a naugahyde car seat by contrast, though it's still a striking image that cuts through the years like a knife (especially if you're old enough that you remember her Starlost magazine cover). But oh, if only there was more of the evil Amazon queen, Corelia (Nadia Cassini -above)! Tossing off classic bon mots ("put her in the mind probe!") in her repurposed gladiator movie brocade, tossing her dynamite bangs back from her eyes, tossing Stella to the mines, she's very.... memorable. With a few extra lines she might have been a new Aura or a gender-reversed Vultan. Sadly, like every other challenge they wiz past, Stella and the Gort escape from her clutches mere seconds after falling into them, Cozzi just can't wait to dash ahead.


With already twice the number of cool chicks than Star Wars, would there was time to stop and appreciate any of the high camp weirdness before rushing onto the next exhibit. By the time we meet the king of the universe (you can tell he's important because his ship is bright gold and he's dressed in all sorts of Versace-ish golden chains and frills), we're out of breath, like an old parent dragged through an aquarium by a sugar-addled first grader.

Luckily there's one such old parent waiting at the end of the rainbow: the emperor of the universe, Christopher Plummer. Barely conscious, the one pure male heart left in Hollywood does a great kind of reverse hamming, trailing off into elliptical pauses for effect (or to remember his lines): "you must sail... to the haunted stars.... and find the count's... secret ship... and destroy it."

Barely talking in a whisper, while schmaltzy grand piano refrains in the background, we feel the greatness enter the room in fisher king style.

As for John Barry's titanic score, Legend has it that Cozzi didn't let him see the actual film while he was composing, lest he back out of the deal, which was a smart move. Barry treats the material like it's big budget grandeur and rises to the task, and and so yeah, it sounds wayyy too much like decade-old Bond cues hammered into Williams 'rousing sci-fi adventure' refrains. Yeah, David Hasselhof pops out from behind a golden mask (yo!) and yeah, we're like 'why couldn't he and the Gortner swapped roles? That-a been so choice. So many 'why couldn't?'s to count... but that's Coates!


As we pop along, sometimes things get too ridiculous even for the Italian Ed Wood: Hasselhof uses a gold demon mask to shoot lasers at a bunch of savages so he can rescue Stella during the big outdoor cave sequence, but THEN he throws his helmet down to fight hand-to-hand, and loses! And then, viola! now they both need to be rescued. The whole purpose of the Death Star (sorry, I meant "planet-sized weapon") is to explode it in the prince's face before he can successfully de-activate it? Whaat? Who cares? It's already over, and you can't wait to go again! 

Dude, find Cozzi's HERCULES and start the madness anew. The same erector set is used, this time for flying monsters, three-headed dragons, and... I already forgot. Praise this kind nepenthe.


4. SPACEBALLS
(1987) Dir. Mel Brooks
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Time's been kind to this lumbering doofus of a film.  A favorite of good friends of mine, it never used to make it past my three strikes rule. Strike 1) the off-the-beat comedic hamming of Rick Moranis as 'Darth Helmet' (it's a big helmet - get it!?), 2) the gross eating habits of Barf (John Candy's dog-wookie character), and 3) the disgusting 'Pizza the Hut'. But those are just the breakwaters, the first five or ten minutes. Once someone made me stick around to the end I started to really vibe with this film, especially once Daphne Zuniga (base hit!) shows up as a runaway bride in a gorgeous wedding gown exposing her toned, lithe, tan, bare shoulders. Escaping Prince Valium and capture by the Imperial Fleet by jumping into the space Winnebago of Bill Pullman as the Han Solo, her charm takes over the picture and lifts it over ugly hurtles. Pullman and Zuniga have a palpable chemistry and play the whole thing deadpan straight, which helps immeasurably especially when we have to endure oversize sight gags like the industrial strength hair dryer and the troopers 'combing' the desert.


Brooks makes films for a big audience to laugh at, loud and progressively raucous, in a theater. That means that, after every single pratfall, he pauses for presumed guffaws. But it's OK not to sob instead, quietly, at home, for he also clearly loves genre films; he makes movies that endure because they take the time to hit all the mythic narrative bases, deliver a respectful look and feel of his sources (The cinematography and special effects are all as good as any other decent post-Star Wars rip), showing again Brooks never forgets t, and best of all, to avoid ephemeral pop culture references beyond its designated genre.  Lovely detours into poker-faced absurdist post-structuralism (as when the bad guys watch a VHS tape of Spaceballs to figure out their next move, but wind up forwarding to the exact spot they're watching the film in) and when the Yiddish-accented Yogurt (Mel Brooks) showing off his collection of Spaceballs merchandise ("ver da real money is made") give it enough of a deconstructed edge you don't feel too stupid for liking it. Brooks also plays the evil emperor, as basically the same corrupt mayor he played in Blazing Saddles (only instead of a buxom redhead secretary to bark at (woof!) there's an 80s punk-short haired imperial officer onscreen at the urinal (hmmm). Joan Rivers provides the voice for the cockblocking C3PO chaperone and there's some great inside bits like sound effects guy Michael Winslow as a radar technician and John Hurt in his Nostromo duds chowing down at the local space diner (uh oh).



Really though, what puts it all over, for me, and gets me watching again and again (after decades of resistance because of the first 15 minutes of gross-outs and lame slapstick) is that Daphne Zuniga as the princess spending the whole film wild and lovely, with toned, tan bare shoulders in beautifully tattered runaway bride wedding dress, blowing up whole armies when they dare to mess up her perfect (down and free-flowing --no constricting buns or coils) hair; or the heated moments of near-hooking up between her and Pullman (cockblocked by Joanie's robot) they both play so straight and so well. Such moments are medicine for an ailing psyche, and if they work to allay a panic attack, one becomes a bit loyal to them. Spaceballs has already led me safely out of two such crises! Such is the power of the schwartz and Brooks' innate love of classic genre cinema, even if we're supposed to laugh when Barf molests a waitress with his errant tail. Barf, you aptly-named cretin, the days when that was funny are gone forever! The Schwartz decrees it so.
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5. SATURN 3
(1980) Dir. Stanley Donen
**1/2 / Amazon Image: A

Kirk Douglas plays "the Major" i.e. Adam, a hydroponic botanical scientist trying to solve a rapidly dying world's food shortage in an experimental, octopus-armed hydroponic garden in a cave.... on Saturn's third moon (so far you've got biblical allegory and Ringo Starr lyrics - and we've barely begun!). His Eve is a girl half his age, played by Farrah Fawcett, his lover and assistant, and rather naive. She's never even been to earth! She doesn't know how lucky she is. So Earth comes to her, in form of insecure (but with excellent eyelashes) Harvey Keitel. As Benson, Keitel lets you know they're so hard up on Earth they eat dogs, and everyone has to share sex partners, or else it's stealing, and people take pills called 'blues' just to relax enough to fall asleep. Yes please! He lusts for Farrah, thinks it's unfair Adam gets her all to himself, especially since he's obsolete, old, and 'inadequate.... in every area!" Benson meanwhile is building a giant robot to help them garden, but it goes crazy when Benson inadvertenly uploads his own stalker obsession onto Hector's organic hard drive. Thus begins a very long interesting stalk and chase sequence, as there's no way to radio for help while S3 is on the far side of Saturn's rotation, Hector has all the time in the world to lumber around the tentacles of the garden after our fleeing lovers. Does Hector stand for the razzing the December end of May-December relationship receives from his racketball buddies? Or is Hector himself a symbol of time's relentless attack on the male libido?

The best elements are, without a doubt of this fossil from a pre-Star Wars age of adult themed sci-fi (back when priapic middle-aged white men were still allowed to be punk rock about facing their demise), is the detailed and highly imaginative art direction, costumes, sets and effects are all of a unique, highly organized mixture of organic and mechanical: bizarre green/black insectoid space suits, a robot chassis styled after Da Vinci sketches, and winding hallways through the cavernous rock lit with an array of white, green and gleaming blue luminescent wires and pipes, like a combination giant human arterial system, ocean floor tentacle mazes and Space Port at the mall. Good music too, and Kirk is clearly feeling it - his fuck you to the social order at the end gets me cheering every time, even if it's from within my own navel. (full)


6. GALAXY OF TERROR
(1981) Dir. Bruce D. Clark
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A 

I read all the hostile reviews when this movie came out (in the local print newspaper, as was the style of the time) and, being caught up in my 14 year-old feminist phase, I blanched in horror (the slasher craze was going full bore at the time and the theater ad page looked like a frat boy's basement slaughterhouse), so I dismissed it outright, furious and appalled that the sickos were being pandered to.  Little did I know it would hold up so well, not for any special reason but, like Battle Beyond the Stars, from surfeit of imagination, aided in no small measure by ambitious production designer James Cameron and the genius of cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (Nightmare on Elm Street). You'd never guess this Alien clone was all shot in the Corman lumber yard lickety-split but it sure looks great. In fact, in one of those art imitates its own imitation things, James Cameron got the Aliens sequel largely because of this film. And no wonder! The space ship interiors are gorgeous, cozy and amniotic (love those padded walls); the strange mist-enshrouded giant space pyramid the crew scale and enter is a haunted world of eerie gel lighting worthy of Bava.



The crew is there to investigate, a bit like in that movie, what was it called? Alien? But what they find are demons of all sorts. Each meets their doom in a brutal, gory ironic way. The cook (Ray Walston) knows more than he's saying, but just smiles enigmatically when questioned and then volunteers for the dangerous work. And what a crew! Sid Haig plays a weird cult member whose devotion to his 'crystals' as his only weapons borders on absurdism (they break so easy it's a wonder they lasted him a week); Robert Englund (another future Elm-Street-er) winds up fighting himself (don't we all?); Erin Moran (Joanie!) is an empath who's not loving the weird vibes of this planet and she's claustrophobic (naturally she must slide through constricting embryonic tunnels; slug-ophobic Taaffe O'Connell provides the sex appeal in a questionably tasted but classic demise; Zalman King provides the scowling and brooding menace; Soulful-eyed Edward Albert is the Tom Skerrit natural leader, the one quickest to conquer his inner demons, and to empathically steer the crew above their surly bickering. The captain of the voyage is played by Grace Zabriskie with her usual alien-eyed conviction. She's one tough old salt, calling everyone "boy," like "come get some chow, boy." And somehow seeing her wide-awake face lit only by those cool red dashboard lights makes me feel grounded. Sure, she ends up going down tough as a burnt steak, but I don't think there's ever been a female space commander quite like her since. Or before.



Trouble is, the film moves so fast that you've barely met her, or anyone else, before their ranks dwindle down to almost nil. (Corman's got to get all the reels into one big film can, remember?) Better, though, to want more than one gets than to get more than one wants. Speaking of fast, see if you can spot that little stop motion lizard man thing from Joe Dante's Piranha. And if the end of the ride comes too soon, too super strange and mystic, to satisfy, don't get uptight: you can always go back and ride it again. That's the joy of the Prime. You don't even need to rewind anymore. Not even Phillip K. Dick could have predicted that kind of televisualization.

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