Saturday, 6 May 2023

Foxy Brown (1974)

Director: Jack Hill
Writers: Jack Hill and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Peter Brown, Terry Carter, Kathryn Loder and Harry Holcombe

Index: The First Thirty.

In some ways, Foxy Brown, which started life as a sequel to Coffy titled Burn, Coffy, Burn!, had a bigger impact on film than its predecessor. It’s not a better movie and there are a slew of problems if you think even a little about the details, but it kept the things that worked for its target audience and focused them better to provide a film that would resonate with them even more deeply.

The most obvious detail it kept is the kick-ass female lead played by Pam Grier. This was her twelfth film and it feels like she had been building to these movies all the way through. Just as importantly, it kept the fact that she’s a good girl, even if we aren’t let in on her choice of day job. Coffy was a nurse, a saver of people. Foxy is a little less clear, but she does right by her brother, who doesn’t deserve it, and quite a few others, who do. She does what she does to help people, even if it’s vigilante justice.

What it firmly ditched was any semblance of guilt about doing those things. Coffy did what she felt she must because of her sister, but she agonised over it afterwards. Foxy’s trigger is a boyfriend, who’s murdered by drug dealers on her doorstep, but she never looks back. What she does apparently fails to phase her at all. It simplifies the question. And she does it all in a stylish wardrobe, courtesy of Ruthie West, her personal costumer on the film.

Grier, of course, is excellent, because she’s believable as the sister, girlfriend, community member who cares, but she’s also believable as a lady who will do anything it takes to take the bad guys down. Oddly, it takes a while for her to actually kill anyone in this film, but she gets there, of course, and she’s even colder blooded than that, as we find in a gruesome late scene that presages the finalĂ© of Se7en. What’s in the box, right?

Thursday, 4 May 2023

One Way Pendulum (1965)

Director: Peter Yates
Writer: N. F. Simpson, based on his stage play
Stars: Eric Sykes, George Cole, Julia Foster, Jonathan Miller and Peggy Mount

Index: 2023 Centennials.

As a critic, I learned long ago to avoid superlatives. This isn’t the best, it’s the best right now. That isn’t the worst, it’s the worst that I can think of. And that over there isn’t the most outrageous, it’s the most outrageous so far. That said, I would be fascinated to find a feature film more surreal than this one, especially played straight in a humdrum setting. If you know of one, please tell me about it. What’s most surprising is that it was directed by Peter Yates, not just because he would go on to direct successful features with a complete lack of surreality like Bullitt, The Deep and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but because he’d already done that with a 1963 debut, the Cliff Richard musical, Summer Holiday. This was like nothing he’d done before or would do later and it seems that it was exactly that fact that drew him to it. It started out as a live TV play with an impressive cast—not just character actors Richard Pearson and Alison Leggatt, but John Laurie, Joan Hickson and Frank Finlay—and its author, N. F. Simpson, adapted it to the big screen himself.

It’s hard to even suggest what it’s about, because I’m still digesting how much of it, if any, has deeper meaning or whether it’s only meant to be meaningless. It revolves around the Groomkirby family, who might appear to someone who doesn’t know them to be a typically respectable bunch living in the suburbs. Arthur, whom everyone but his wife calls Mr. Groomkirby, is an accountant who works at a faceless corporate job. His wife Mabel is a housewife who juggles all the domestic duties you might expect. They’re both middle aged and they have two children: a young lady called Sylvia who’s courting a gentleman named Stan, and a son who seems to only go by Kirby. There’s also Aunt Mildred, who lives with them because she’s old enough to need help. Nothing to write home about. They seem to be ordinary in every way. Except, if we actually pay the slightest bit of attention, which we naturally do when we follow them into their semi-detached home, absolutely nothing about them is ordinary beyond their outward appearances.

Wednesday, 3 May 2023

The Arena (1974)

Director: Steve Carver
Writers: John & Joyce Corrington
Stars: Margaret Markov and Pam Grier, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller, Daniel Vargas, Marie Louise, Mary Count and Sara Bay

Index: The First Thirty.

It shouldn’t seem too surprising to find Pam Grier making a peplum flick apparently out of nowhere, given that it’s not far off the Filipino women in prison movies she was shooting.

To be fair, part of that is because New World had it re-edited, by Joe Dante, future director of The Howling, Gremlins and The ’Burbs, in order to market it as “Black Slave White Slave”, as a way to build on the chemistry of the two leads in an earlier film, Black Mama White Mama. The other star is Margaret Markov.

Originally, however, it was an Italian movie with a third lead, Lucretia Love. I’ve only seen the beginning of the movie in Italian, showing us the capture by Roman soldiers of not only Bodicia, a druid priestess from Brittany clad in the purest white (Markov), and a lively Nubian dancer called Mamawi (Grier) in a leopard skin leotard, but also Deirdre, some drunken Irish redhead played by a Texan who married a pair of Europeans and died in the Seychelles. So an Italian gladiator movie makes sense, even if her part was whittled down to comic relief.

In either version, the Romans are recruiting slaves and these three, along with Livia, some sort of Roman noblewoman sold into slavery, soon show up on the auction block in Brindisi, back when it was called Brundisium. They’re bought en masse by an effete noble who seems very keen to point out that he won’t be doing anything with them because he’s gay. It seems weird to even point that out but it’s important to him, so I guess I’ll faithfully report it here.

Initially, this is as gratuitous as we expect it to be, with the usual women in prison shower scene showing bush as well as boobs, because, hey it’s European. However, once that’s out of the way, this tones down surprisingly much.

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Director: Bob Kelljan
Writers: Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig and Maurice Jules, based on a story by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Stars: William Marshall, Don Mitchell and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

After Coffy, Pam Grier was the kick ass chick in blaxploitation movies and I’m utterly sure that audiences wanted to see what she would come up with next. Well, further kick ass flicks were on the way in Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby and Friday Foster, but she had a couple of others to knock out before them.

This was the first, a sequel to 1972’s Blacula, which was exactly what you think it was. I’ve seen it before and it’s better than Blackenstein because of the presence of William Marshall as the lead actor. He was tall at 6’ 5”, elegant and very well-spoken, through his background as a Shakespearean stage actor and opera singer, and he fits very well alongside a select list of his white counterparts in classic horror, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

He’s back for this sequel, reprising his role of Prince Mamuwalde, known as Blacula. Why he could possibly be back is open to debate, as he was a sympathetic monster in the first film and ended it by deliberately walking into the morning sun. He’s just as good here, selling a script that deliberately has fun playing up his outdated manners.

“Your bread, man, all of it!” demand a pair of street hoodlums. “Or are we gonna have to become antisocial and kick your ass?”

Utterly unphased and presumably grasping only the threat in the situation, he apologises: “I’m sorry, I don’t have any ‘bread’ on me, and as for ‘kicking my ass’, I’d strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying.”

Then he backhands one through a window and slams the other face first into a door. And, after that, he feeds.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott, Allan Arbus and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

This project is reenforcing just how many fantastic exploitation pictures Pam Grier made in the seventies. It’s certainly not all of them, but Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage and Black Mama White Mama makes three winners out of eight, with Coffy a fourth, along with being the first of her classics made back home in the U.S.

I’ve seen it before, though it’s been a while, and, watching in context, it surprised me with its originality. Cool Breeze and Hit Man, a couple of films I hadn’t previously seen, are just what blaxploitation did, nothing original at all. This isn’t remotely like either of them.

For a start, Pam Grier doesn’t have a small role here, playing something stereotypical like a hooker or a porn star. She’s the lead, not just the female lead but the lead who’s female, and she’s an entirely respectable ER nurse dating a city councilman. That was unusual.

Apparently, AIP lost the rights to Cleopatra Jones, which should have pioneered this genre, to Warner Bros., so quickly threw a female-led blaxploitation of their own into production to beat the original to screens, which it did. It’s a better film too, which didn’t hurt, but it was a pioneer, just like The Big Doll House was a mere two years earlier.

For another thing, it doesn’t play into any of the usual stereotypes. Black leaders during the blaxploitation era often condemned them for doing exactly that, but it’s an anti-drug movie. Coffy spends her days saving lives, but she was unable to save her sister, Lubelle, a young girl now living in a Juvenile Rehabilitation Center attempting to recover from cocaine addiction and failing because her brain’s fried.

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Director: Steve Oram
Writer: Steve Oram
Stars: Lucian Barrett, Lucy Honigman, Tom Meeten, Steve Oram, Sean Reynard, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Toyah Willcox

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

In many ways, Aaaaaaaah!, actor Steve Oram’s debut feature as a director, is just a soap opera, because all the characters are defined entirely through their relationships, which change considerably over the course of the picture. Denise lives at home with her mum, Barabara, who’s currently with Ryan, even though her ex, Jupiter, is still hanging around looking forlorn. Denise clearly hates Ryan and what passes for a home life that their family has, so acts up accordingly, drinking and shoplifting with her cousin, Helen. When a stranger named Smith shows up at a party that they’re hosting at their house, she hooks up with him prompting things to change. Smith and Ryan clash repeatedly, trawling in friends and family members to their fight until everything eventually settles down to a new normal. The good times are good and folk enjoy cooking or playing console games. The bad times are bad, deteriorating into violent arguments that leave nobody happy. This could be Eastenders or Coronation Street, right? But it isn’t. Oh no!

Oram’s soap opera world has one major difference to anything you’ll see on primetime television, perhaps best highlighted with a note that the film’s title is the most coherent line of dialogue anyone utters in 79 minutes of running time. These characters might look like regular human beings and they might live lives that oddly echo our own, but they’re not regular human beings. What they are, Oram refuses to explain, so we have no easy recourse to a virus or a chemical leak or an alien experiment to explain anything. Things just are and it falls to us to figure out what Oram is trying to do in this film with all his actors communicating only through animalistic grunts. It’s like the world as we know it simply changed one day when everyone woke up with the primal urges and low (comparatively) intelligence of a chimpanzee. They carry on regardless, being British, but just through routine, because any higher functions, such as speech, have been forever lost. Civilisation has fallen, even if nobody’s apparently acknowledged it yet.

Monday, 24 April 2023

Black Mama White Mama (1973)

Director: Eddie Romero
Writer: H. R. Christian, from a story by Joseph Viola and Jonathan Demme
Stars: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov,Sid Haig, Lynn Borden, Zaldy Zschornack and Laurie Burton

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s back to the Philippines for Pam Grier yet again. However, unlike earlier Filipino movies, this wasn’t made by New World Pictures. It’s a production of Four Associates, a collaboration between Eddie Romero and John Ashley; if you recall, the former directed the latter in 1972’s The Twilight People, with Grier only growling as Ayesa, the Panther Woman. Here, she’s jointly top-billed with Margaret Markov in a take on 1958’s The Defiant Ones, with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in a similarly chained chase flick.

Oddly, it starts out like a spaghetti western, for no reason I can determine. We’re looking at a Filipino prison, after all, but it’s not only the soundtrack, which is highly reminiscent; it’s also the shots of Grier and Markov on the Women’s Rehabilitation Center bus and those in the fields. It’s a strange way to kick off and it doesn’t continue in that vein at all, but it’s there nonetheless, making little sense.

What does make sense is that we have eyes on these two, because they’re the leads from the very beginning. Grier is Lee Daniels, who arrives in a flowing red dress and tries to help another girl who falls on the steps. Markov is Karen Brent, who doesn’t care about anything except the revolution she wants to return to.

If there’s a third star at this point, it’s Lynn Borden as Matron Densmore, who plays up the lesbian angle so common to women in prison movies. She’s a butch blonde with severe hair and she sneaks between some walls to spy on the inevitable shower scene, moaning so loud that we’re shocked the inmates don’t hear her. Warden Logan knows she’s in there and waits for her to come out. “Keep it up and you’ll go blind!” she tells her.

Apparently the two are an item, but Matron likes to play around. She invites Daniels to her room first, offering her a drink and benefits of cooperation, but Grier, so happily lesbian in a couple of earlier WiP flicks, happily turns her down. Brent, who’s next on her list, plays into her ideas to make her life easier.

Friday, 21 April 2023

Hit Man (1972)

Director: George Armitage
Writer: George Armitage, based on the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis
Stars: Bernie Casey, Pamela Grier, Lisa Moore and Bhetty Waldron

Index: The First Thirty.

In the early seventies, Pam Grier made a lot of films for producer Roger Corman, generally women in prison flicks shot in the Philippines. However, in between them were a pair of films for Roger’s elder brother, Gene Corman, which were shot back home in the States.

Notably, both were also blaxploitation takes on hit novels that had already been made into more famous films. Cool Breeze was a version of The Asphalt Jungle, while Hit Man was literally an adaptation of Get Carter, even if the writer, George Armitage, didn’t know it, because Gene Corman gave him a copy of the script without a title on it, asking for a black equivalent.

Grier gets second billing for a much bigger role than the skimpy one she got in Cool Breeze and other actors return too, notably Sam Laws but also Rudy Challenger and Ed Cambridge. In that film she was a hooker, but she’s promoted to porn star here. We even get to see a little of one of her character’s movies during a pivotal scene. No hardcore, of course, because this is a long way from Caligula.

She’s one of three co-stars here, all of them playing second fiddle to Bernie Casey, the star of the show as Tyrone Tackett, the hit man of the title. At least I assume he’s a hit man. That never seems to be important and it really has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Gozelda does and, while she may or may not have the most screen time, she certainly gives Grier the most to do of any of the three co-stars.

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

The Big Bird Cage (1972)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Anitra Ford, Candice Roman, Carol Speed and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

The Big Doll House wasn’t a great movie but it was an important movie, a pioneer that kicked a genre into motion. This isn’t great either and it’s not as important but it’s much more fun. It stands up as a great example of why seventies exploitation is often so rewatchable.

Everything points to this being a sequel but it isn’t. Sure, it has a deliberately similar title to cash in. Sure, it’s another of Roger Corman’s films for New World Pictures that was shot in the Philippines and it’s women in prison once more. Sure, Jack Hill’s back as both writer and director and Pam Grier and Sid Haig, so good as supporting actors in The Big Doll House, get the leads this time. But it’s unrelated. Unlike Women in Cages, it doesn’t even re-use the sets.

Some of it is just as formulaic as you might expect. There’s a beautiful foreign woman in the Philippines who’s quickly incarcerated in a rural establishment packed full of women in skimpy outfits who take a lot of showers and not just because they need them after working hard on the road crew. The commandant’s a sadist and, every time something doesn’t meet his strict criteria, he doubles down. Of course, that goes way beyond realistic levels and that prompts the inevitable prison break.

So far so typical for the genre. However, Hill switches up a lot of things as well.

For a start, this is a government work camp rather than a prison and that means that it’s outside, as we see the moment the film begins, with a bevy of beauties working above stepped rice terraces. It’s great scenery, however you’ll interpret that. The girls live in dormitory huts and the sun is everywhere, making this quite a bright women in prison movie.

Saturday, 15 April 2023

Cool Breeze (1972)

Director: Barry Pollack
Writer: Barry Pollack, based on a novel by W. R. Burnett
Stars: Thalmus Rasulala, Judy Pace, Jim Watkins, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Raymond St. Jacques

Index: The First Thirty.

While Cool Breeze was written by its director, Barry Pollack, there’s an early credit to say it’s based on a novel by W. R. Burnett. Strangely, it isn’t interested in saying which novel, because it’s The Asphalt Jungle, famously filmed in 1950 with Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern, with The Badlanders in 1958 retelling the story as a western and Cairo in 1963 taking it to Egypt.

This, in case you weren’t able to guess from the poster, is a blaxploitation movie, so it’s an inner city look at how the American black man is ripped off by Whitey and it only seems fair to rip him off in return, to the tune of $3m in diamonds. Oddly, the city is Los Angeles rather than New York, but everything else applies.

Opening credits highlight that it’s an MGM picture, trying to stay relevant with the black audience after their huge success with Shaft a year earlier; it was produced by Gene Corman, who was Roger’s older brother; and it features the work of Solomon Burke on the soundtrack.

It also tells us that Pam Grier, who’s listed as Pamela Grier, isn’t one of the stars but is one of four co-stars, suggesting that she’s going to get a heck of a lot more screen time than she actually does. In truth, the only co-star with a real part is Sam Laws as “Stretch” Finian, who plays a big role in the developing crime and a bigger one in how it all falls apart.

What’s particularly telling is that the other three of those co-stars, the ones without a lot of screen time, are all female. Women simply don’t have much of a place in this picture and what place they have is decidedly subsidiary. It seems like women in this world are hookers or mistresses, maybe wives to ignore, but not anything of real consequence.