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....  And all of a sudden, many of the streaming prints from Roger Corman's independent label New World and Concorde films have been upgraded to HD anamorphic loveliness. 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. Those were the last golden days before VHS rentals and cable turned low budget filmmakers towards the less pictorial demands of the small screen market. 

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 trouble, 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 a musical interlude of manly prose in their honor. Let it commence!

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

The great Sergio Martino came off the nortorious Slaves of the Cannibal God before making this film, called Island of the Fishmen, and The Great Alligator in the same jungle location and with the same lead actors, which New World distributed here in the states, with a gory prologue added and re-titled Screamers for some reason . In fandom circles, it's since gotten a bad rap, but seeing it now it's hard to guess why, unless it was badly cropped and scanned for VHS (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 drug addict fish monsters with their sharp teeth and bulbous fish eyes, do a man good to see. The cast includes Joseph Cotten in a small role as a misguided geneticist, Barbara Bach (in lots of wet clothes) and Martino's go-to hero, Claudio Cassinelli doing his usual self-righteous heroic meddling. 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 cliffhanger style, rousing and rollicking, very Jules Verne-esque climax with island destroying volcanic eruption and everyone, for the most part, dead. 

But first, a spooky prologue sequence, added in the US by a different director, after Corman found the PG original too tame for American drive-ins. Out of step with the rest of the film but very welcome just the same, it's filmed in the real nighttime on a rolling shore, beautifully lit, with glowing drifting out of a huge cave entrance and the slime of the fishmen claws and half-dissolved but still living corpses really glisten via Prime's HD print. Mel Ferrer (in old age make-up), Beryl Cunningham (whose red coat looks great against the glowing nighttime fog), and Cameron Mitchell (as a scruffy sea captain) row ashore to investigate a cave supposedly containing  a cache of Aztec treasure. Shifty synths thud in warning, and weird, whispery monster breathing creeps into the pockets of the sound mix, the heads start coming off and gory effects have the desired "R" in their sights.

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, we follow 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, and Bach's round-eyed ethereality has never been more vivid (though her lack of participation in her own rescue gets irritating). In short, Saturday afternoon matinee thrills galore!

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

A genre film should deliver some thrills, maybe some laughs, and get out. 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 neither too 'serious' (i.e. like some lumbering big budget effort like The Swarm) or too campy (like Troma). New World, guided by Corman's own taste, exist in the fertile goldilocks zone between. They're fast, sexy and thrill-ridden entertainment clocking in under 90 minutes to save Roger money on film cans and come in on or under budget. Anything artistic or experimental is usually snuck in by young writers and directors trying out new ideas, almost more for their own termite amusement rather than mainstream recognition. And above all, they're learning a wealth of cost-saving shortcuts. 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' at the bar vibe that simultaneously evokes badly-dubbed Japanese monster movies, group commentary DVD tracks, and the Armitage/Altman style of improv overlapping tossed-off wit. So it can't be 'all' bad - can it? Yes. But then again, it's trying new things, and it's delivering some laughs and maybe some thrills, and clocking in under 90 minutes, and surely coming in way under budget. 

The rarely seen monster who comes up from the depths this time is a kind of giant rabid coelacanth who's been eating up tourists off the coast of a Hawaiian (actually the Philippines) hotel resort. The nervous wreck resort owner Mr. Forbes (a terribly hammy Kedric Wolfe) first denies the deaths are happening (it will kill his business!), then blames them on beach bum Timothy Bottoms and his charter boat captain uncle (Virgil Frye), who hang around the outdoor beachside bar looking for tourists interesting to charter their boat to search for bogus treasure. Frye is fun as the grizzled drunk Tom Waits/Nick Nolte kind of shaggy dog captain; he saves the film, almost, from the harpooning effect of Forbes' relentless showboating,  Lost in his rabid dog Franklin Pangborn schtick, doesn't realize that his overacting is sinking the whole movie. It's hardly buoyant to begin with, but it's partly afloat when Wolfe isn't onscreen. Mostly this is thanks to the hip off-the-cuff post-dub style, the gorgeous girls (especially Susanne Reed as the heroine and Denise Hays as a leggy model) and and the beach scenery all beautifully HD thanks to (I'm guessing) the Shout Factory Corman upgrade.

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 sneaking in hipster gags and soaking up the tropical charm, he can coast by on fumes. But 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) at the lobby pamphlet rack (though I guess this too evokes Altman, who--confidentially--I find sexist and overrated).

 The action picks up once the death toll is so high that greedy hotel manager Forbes can no longer hissy fit it away so he--in a moment of ingenious inspiration-- offers a cash prize for the monster's head, prompting a run on the Tiki lounge's decorative spears and the local pawn shop's gun section. That's when it gets real Mad Magazine sight gag-crazy (thus rewarding your sticking with it so long): 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 almost come off like a savage satire of American 2nd amendment zeal if it was filmed with a bit more panache. 

But where Depths really deserves its 2.8 imdb rating is in the total wash of an ending (there hasn't been a more 'whoops we ran out of $$' climax since Cat Women of the Moon's) but fans of the New World will forgive it, especially when Bottoms uses their chewed up icthyologist friend (Charles Howerton) as bait, stuffing his wetsuit with plastic explosives while Susanne Reed protests indignantly (shades of Shriek of the Mutilated!). As the resort's publicist, co-star Reed can seem professional even when she's jaw-drop alluring in a bathing suit and grass skirt, though her endurance of Forbes' hammy conniption fits, as well as her indulging some skeevy German amateur photographer has dated badly. The counterweight to her sober ease is Denise Hayes, who gets the best lines as the stoned supermodel there to shoot a magazine spread. ("How do you like Hawaii?" asks a reporter as she disembarks in front of the hotel. "I've never been there," she says.)

And Hey! Guess what else is on Prime? Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), also written (not directed) by Griffith. A sublime example of his brand of deadpan comedy done right (i.e. in Papa Roger's capable, swift hands). They make a great late night double bill, with a combined time still shorter than Jaws and twice as funny. See 'em together on Saturday night and feel the ocean rocking you to sleep as moments of genuine idiocy mix with moments of genuine wit until one can't tell which is which. And who would have thunk that, in a way, Up from the Depths is the harbinger of all the tongue-in-cheek Asylum monster movies on Syfy these days, like Sharknado, and Dam Sharks? These two films (and the next one on our list) are more or less the grandparents of that whole movement!

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

Some New World Jaws don't make much a splash (get it?) but here is the enduring feel-good classic that put Joe Dante on the map. Heather Menzies-Urich stars a the sexually liberated PJ Soles-ish detective 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 just to see if there are skeletons in there, then beat up Keven McCarthy when he tries to stop it. 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 a million 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 (once we wise up to Sayle's script's stealth socialist sanctimony). 

Skunked again, eh, Grogan?

In case you can't tell, I am not as big a fan of this movie as some, but 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 style which will be his signature - a mix of monster fan reverence for the classics (insider jokes, cameos, icon casting (i.e. Steele) 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). Subtext aide, 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, and even an evil general throwing kids in the bloody water so they don't swamp his raft! Want more? How about Dick Miller as a nervous resort owner? No presumed crank call about a lot of killer fish is going to disrupt his gala lakefront opening! G'head Dick Miller! You got this. 

(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 brawl 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 by 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, even she mispronounces 'coelacanth.'

And then without further ado, 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 through the night, monsters crashing through the boardwalk, marauding like a pack of rapey vikings, with no music just endless screaming. The monster suits themselves are both funny and scary. With their long arm extensions and habit of swaying back and forth like seaweed-dipped Igors, 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 lumbers to the rescue?

James Horner's eerily familiar score of eerie strings and harp glissandos evoke John Williams's Jaws horns and Jerry Goldsmith Alien woodwinds stabs and the moody Daniel Lacambra cinematography captures a nicely overcast Pacific Northwest. What's not to love, aside from that woodpecker bit? 

(1979) Dir Sergio Martino
**1/2 / Amazon Image: B-

Sergio's next feature after Island of the FishmenScreamers (above), this hybrid of the post-Jaws 'amok nature' and cannibal massacre genres takes place at a newly-opened African safari/jungle resort (it was filmed in Sri Lanka, though the natives look alternately Aborigine and African-American). Barbara Bach and Claudio Cassinelli plays a self-righteous photographer at the resort to shoot promo shots with a leggy black model (who quickly disappears after going on a midnight boat tryst with a local boy). 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, alligators be damned--and the sanctimonious alarmism of Cassinelli ("we have to evacuate, now!"). 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 for generations. Bach wonders how an alligator got to Africa in the first place, instead of crocodiles, but she never finds out. The sole survivor of an old batch of white missionaries alone knows its might firsthand. He's been hiding from it in a cave behind a waterfall for nigh under forty years, making a truly impressive totem sculpture in its honor. 

Soon enough, the first group of guests arrive and then it's dinner time. The natives are pretty pissed that their angry god has been woken up so once night falls 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 in between. 

That alligator really tears in, and it's quite gratifying to the soul to see. Martino never resorts to stock nature footage inserts for his gator attacks. Sure the oversize big gator itself might by only marginally convincing (its legs don't move, the miniature used in the long shots looks like a rubber 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 whereupon their shot by flaming arrows, and Martino knows how to film the melee so it's easy to follow, with lots of screaming close-ups and quick cuts.

What a film! There's even a helicopter fished out of water, Bach offered on a raft for human sacrifice, and a big underwater dynamite climax. The soundtrack mixes Stevio Cipriani's cocktail score, replete with funky electric guitar and loping bass, with a beguiling tapestry of thumping diegetic jungle drums,  chanting, birdcalls, screaming that might or might not be human, and then ---suddenly -- a tiny splash....and silence.

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. Luckily Prime does have Forster in a different kind of hybrid eco-disaster replete with a denial-ridden resort owner and a preachy naturalist Chicken Little, also produced by Corman....

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

Once they ran out of aquatic monsters, 70s filmmakers were forced to move inland for their threats, thus came The White Buffalo, Prophecy, and the mighty Grizzly. And from there it's a short fall to disaster threats like skyscraper fires, virus outbreaks, insect swarms, demonic totems and, when all else fails, AVALANCHE! Millionaire idiot hotel owner Rock Hudson refuses to heed the dire warnings of hip conservationist/photographer Robert Forster, so process with cutting down the tall mountain firs that usually break up avalanches in order to make his dream house. It's only a matter of time. Mia Farrow is Rock's ex-wife, willing to try give their marriage another chance (if he can get off the phone for five minutes). A tomcattin' ski champ, Bruce (Rick Moses), a foxy figure skater Peggy (Annette River) coached by Corman regular Anthony Carbone, and Rock's fur-encrusted mother (Jeanette Nolan!!?) round out the immediate side stories.

While we wait for the big dump to fall, we may 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,  who actually 'sees' her for who she is, whisking her up to his cabin for a tryst after Rock acts like a jealous ass during the big pre-avalanche party in the lounge (where there's a very groovy rock band so we get to see Rock dance!).  Bruce (the tomcat skier) fools around with Peggy (the naive skater), though he's got a much hotter girl named Tina (Cathy Paine) up in their suite. Tina 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 before she vaults into a hysterically jealous/insane/gibbering fit. Great stuff! You can tell Corman added it for a little mid-film spice, as it's a nifty variation of a similarly gratuitous interlude in Corman's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Corman, you're a genius. He surely wasn't happy it was 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 gratifying and strangely hilarious avalanche (lots of miniatures, dissolves, and 2-D stills) comes the long dig out: Rock's mother and that assistant are trapped inside a windowless room, but there's a piano so they can try to sing before succumbing to the gas leak; Tina's TV newsman husband (she gets around) and some kid are stranded up on a teetering ski-lift; and the odious Bruce ponders his tomcattin' sins 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 ecologically irresponsible choices.

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. When I needed it, it came to me. There's plenty of Corman's sly black humor (a lot of characters die even right as they're being rescued; emergency workers hoisting black bagged bodies in rows atop a flatbed truck punctuate the 'unsuccessful' attempts) and fine examples of Corman's brand of sexy, strong women  Former kid actor Corey Allen directed and no one would be surprised if Corman hired him just to get his name ("Allen") on the poster, to subliminally evoke the disaster-synonymous Irwin Allen, who was like the big name in big budget disaster films. If so, it's genius. GENIUS, Roger! Though filmed on location in Colorado with lots of gorgeous Rocky mountains in the background, there are backgrounds that are obviously projected photos, while the Amazon image quality is pretty good, it's not HD, and 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.. freezing... weighted white blanket.

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!

Pick 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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