Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

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.

While they're not often great, or terribly original, New World pictures are usually wild and wooly with never a dull moment, flying by in under 90 minutes and most remain still highly re-watchable today. 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 convenience. 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), Barbara Bach (in lots of wet clothes) and Martino's go-to hero, Claudio Cassinelli doing his usual self-righteous meddling bit as a prison ship doctor marooned with a gang of cutthroats after the ship goes down in a big storm. The spooky synths of Luciano Michelini's score sting anywhere the pace lags and swaying monstrous shadows darken our heroes cross-island fleeing; sudden surges of native drums build to a drowsy adventure motif that evokes John Williams' better passages of Close Encounters, but it's better.

But first, a spooky prologue sequence, added by Corman found the PG original too tame for American drive-ins. Out of step with the rest of the film, it's filmed in the real nighttime (vs. day-for-night) and really glistens via Prime's HD print. Victorian era treasure seeker (Mel Ferrer), his young wife (Beryl Cunningham), and a scruffy sea captain (Cameron Mitchell) row ashore to investigate a cave supposedly containing  a cache of Aztec treasure. Moonlight glints on the edges of cave formations and sticky strands of goo on the freshly killed bodies. Fog machine mist rushes through the flood lights as shifty synths thud in warning, and weird, whispery monster breathing creeps into the pockets of the sound mix.


The rest of it is the actual Martino film - beginning on a lifeboat, manned by a dirty dozen of Devil's Island-bound prisoners and ship doctor Cassinelli. The monsters attack their boat, some of the men 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 at this mysterious Moreau-like compound ensue, with the castaway number ever-dwindling down to just Claudio. In one great highlight, he follows Bach through the day-for-night jungle and sees her stripping down to her nightgown to wade out into the lagoon feed green drugs to a bunch of smitten fish monsters! Yes, queen!  Fans of those 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, Victorian trimmings, Atlantis miniatures and the big volcanic eruption / rocks falling on burning sets climax. I did! Even Joseph Cotten seems to be awake, no matter how DT-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, and while her legs are seldom displayed (she favors boots and long skirts), and the gore is mostly limited to that New World-shot additional footage, it doesn't matter - matinee thrills galore!

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

A genre film has a job to do: deliver some thrills, maybe some laughs. Anything extra beyond 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 understood this, and not tried to be 'serious' or too campy. 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, almost more for their own termite 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, and features sound and dialogue that's almost all post-sync. And yet, this fractured, drunken style leads to an archly hip Mad meets MASH (the movie) kind of 'overheard' off-the-cuff kind of vibe that evokes badly-dubbed Japanese monster movies, group commentary DVD tracks, and the Armitage / Altman style of improv overlapping tossed-off wit, among other things. So it can't be 'all' bad - can it?

So this time the monster is an actual fish, a kind of 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's outdoor beachside bar looking for easy tourist marks. Frye is fun as the grizzled drunk captain -he's colorful! But 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 still like it a whole hell of a lot, for the little bits (like the sly way Frye--after staggering like a drunk Ahab across the dock 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 (Wolfe aside), 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 works without barely doing 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. The action picks up when Forbes can no longer hissy fit away the mounting death toll and so spins the giant fish attacks into a contest, offering a cash prize 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 second amendment zeal 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 when jaw-drop alluring 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 stoned supermodel, there in Hawaii to shoot a magazine spread, there with her zonked out boyfriend. Their dialogue is priceless: "How do you like Hawaii?" asks a reporter as they disembark in front of the hotel / "I've never been there," she answers.


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 together on 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, in truth, 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 that put Joe Dante on the map. Heather Menzies-Urich stars a the sexually liberated PJ Soles-ish investigator who hikes up the mountain in a big woodsy forest area, recruiting local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to help her find two hikers who made the mistake of swimming in the wrong seemingly-abandoned government research water tank. In typical John Sayles pinko style (he scripted), the detective thinks it's her right to trespass at the station and then dump what could have been any kind of chemical poison into the pristine river, then beat up Keven McCarthy when he tries to stop them. And THEN she gets all high and mighty about the military's ghoulish irresponsibility! 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 Grogan leaves his young daughter behind at the post-summer camp bloodbath, and leaves 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. Only the ever-Satanic Barbara Steele, as a badass scientific researcher teamed up with the military, comes out of this mess looking good.

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 make it big, laying out the affectionate blend of insider-jokes, cameos, and a deft ability to 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. Oh well - it's Dick Miller - you can't go wrong.
----

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 (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 Mark Hammil-ish son say no, Johnny is a good boy; but they also support the cannery and even take its reps out fishing. Morrow and Johnny Eagle blame each other for their dead dogs (why are dogs always the first to suffer?) and there's a fight at the town hall dance. The next day McLure's Luke-alike son and his hot girlfriend go have a beer down at Johnny's shack to show solidarity and learn a thing or two about treaties while Morrow's rednecks paddle quietly up with Molotov cocktails.

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 added, 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 was being ripped off in addition to Jaws.

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, leave a bad 80s-heralding taste in the mouth. In 1980 we could still find trashy movies without those varsity jacketed little shits in them 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, no one's arguing that, and though I do like the way Dr. Turkel bosses around her co-worker Edward, she does mispronounce 'coelacanth.'

And then, enough with the plot points already: all 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 Igors that 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. And hey, how can anyone not like a movie where Doug McLure's young wife (Cindy Weintraub), home with the baby, eviscerates her own slimy attacker long before he puts to the rescue?

James Horner's eerily familiar score of eerie strings and harp glissandos evoke John Williams's Jaws horns and Jerry Goldsmith woodwinds stabs 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), this hybrid of the post-Jaws 'amok nature' and cannibal massacre genres, takes place at a newly-opened African safari/jungle resort (though it was filmed in Sri Lanka, and the natives all look Australian). Barbara Bach and Claudio Cassinelli play more or less the same roles as they did in Screamers--he's a self-righteous photographer whose leggy black model is amongst the first to disappear under the murky river surface. Bach is the resident anthropologist, who speaks the language of the primitive locals and tries to balance out the greed of her boss (Mel Ferrer)--who's sunk too many millions into this dubious venture for it to go belly-up now--with the macho alarmism of Cassinelli. Building a hotel so close to the native's huts isn't very smart it turns out, for either side; and dynamiting palm trees to make room for bungalows along the water wakes up a giant alligator god that's been sleeping the generations away. Bach wonders how an alligator got to Africa in the first place, instead of crocodiles, but she never finds out. We do know that 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 nigh 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)



But by then it's dinner time. The natives are pretty pissed that their angry god has been woken up 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 stuck between the gannets and dolphins during the annual South African sardine run,

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 its still awesome - the full-size giant jaws go up and down atop screaming tourists, all splashing and screaming and trying to climb over spiked fences, and Martino knows how to film the melee so it's easy to follow, with lots of screaming close-ups and quick cuts making it hard to look away. 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.... In short, it's very much OK, though the Amazon print isn't HD, it is anamorphic and not too faded.

--
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. 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
AVALANCHE
(1978) Dir. Corey Allen
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B

When they run out of ocean and fresh water monsters, 70s filmmakers had to move inland 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 their marriage 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; 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, in a big way, 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 gigantic man like Rock. Looking up at him with big saucer eyes, she denotes "you're a force of nature." We agree, and no way he'd make it with this fragile waif without doing some damage to her hips. A much better fit is Forster, whisks her up to his cabin after Rock acts like a jealous ass during the big pre-avalanche party in the lounge (there's 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 and very welcome. It was still rated PG, despite the obligatory New World nude scene in Rock's very groovy 70s shower/steam room. (PG was a big tent back then).

After the hilarious avalanche (lots of miniatures, dissolves, and 2-D stills) comes the dig out: 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 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, it's comfort food - at least that's how it worked for me. When I needed it, and it was there (and I hope it always will be). 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 punctuate the 'unsuccessful' rescues) and sexy touches. Former kid actor Corey Allen directed and while I wouldn't be surprised if Corman hired him just to get his name ("Allen") on the poster, to subliminally evoke the disaster-synonymous Irwin. It was filmed on location in Colorado with lots of gorgeous Rocky mountains in the background. 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? 

2 comments:

  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.

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  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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