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.

(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.

(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).
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

(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.

(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? 

(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.

(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)

(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!!

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

(1990) Dir. Shelly Duvall


See also on avail on Prime in good condition
(but not New World... or even AIP):


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

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.

(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.

(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.

(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...

(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.

(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). 
(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? 
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