Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until all the layers are scrubbed off and the screen is a white glaring rectangle

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? 


  1. I watched Piranha this week and I couldn't believe he left his kid like that. Out of all the insane shit that happened in that flick, that's the thing that got me.

  2. Wow! Just watched Piranha, based on this and Dick Miller being on my mind. it was one of those movies I always thought I saw on tape in the barracks back then, but, no, not at all. What a great movie! It was made right around Austin, too! The swimming scene for the campers was also where they did all that swimming in season two of The Leftovers. Aquarena Springs is in San Marcos, just south of here - used to be anyway, Austin has sprawled out to it. It is a wetlands and river preserve now as part of South West Texas State, but you can still take glass bottom boat rides. When I was a kid, the cable gondoliers ran, there were mermaid shows, and Ralph the diving pig would jump off a diving board into a pool. The mechanical parts of the gondoliers are still standing, rusted and covered in vines like something out of Planet of the Apes. I didn't expect the piranha attacks to be as creepy and suspenseful and graphic as they were. And Barbara Steele in modern wear, talking, swoon! I am going to go through all these Amazon suggestions!


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