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.

Thursday, 13 April 2023

The Twilight People (1972)

Director: Eddie Romero
Writer: Jerome Small
Stars: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Jan Merlin and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

In 1971, officially, at least, there had only been one big screen adaptation of H. G. Wells’s seminal novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, namely the famous precode, Island of Lost Souls, which had been banned in the UK. Unofficially, there had been many, often made in the Philippines, where Gerry de Leon, director of Pam Grier’s previous film, Women in Cages, started a horror boom in 1959 with one of them, Terror is a Man.

It seems appropriate then that Grier would stay in the Philippines after her two women in prison flicks and diversify her range with yet another Island of Dr. Moreau rip-off, this one directed by Eddie Romero, a co-producer and uncredited director on Terror is a Man.

It’s not a good effort, but it has its moments. It starts out well with an underwater segment, someone scuba diving in tropical waters full of shoals of fish set to an exotica soundtrack. It’s all very nice but then the title arrives and the music gets sinister. After the opening credits, we remain in the water waiting for a story to show up and suddenly there it is, because our unwary diver is caught, tied up and hauled up onto a ship to be anaesthetised.

He’s Matt Farrell, an adventurer, known as the Last Renaissance Man, and he’s caught by Steinman, an adventurer himself, by the order of Dr. Gordon, a reclusive genius who clearly inspires fierce loyalty in his followers.

Eventually we get to meet him, in his huge house at the top of an island, but we’re given a few hints first at someone or something in the undergrowth who’s watching the trucks drive Farrell up there. We don’t know what yet, but the opening credits provided us with hints in some of the character names: Panther Woman, Antelope Man, Bat Man (no, not that one), Ape Man and Wolf Woman.

Gordon, in the form of Charles Macaulay, is a relatively typical mad scientist who doesn’t believe himself to be mad. He rants about the “single most important event in the history of life on this planet”, something he’s preparing for in his work. What could that be, you ask? Well, “The world is changing. Man isn’t. We’re not equipped.” Just in case you hadn’t caught any Dr. Moreau vibes, he hazards, “The human race cannot survive if it doesn’t remake itself.”

Wednesday, 12 April 2023

What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? (1943)

Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Harry Sauber, based on a play by Aben Kandel with altered dialogue by John P. Medbury
Stars: Ann Miller, Rochester, John Hubbard and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra

Index: 2023 Centennials.

This is not a good movie. Let’s get that right out there from the get go. I’m also watching a copy of horrific quality, because it hasn’t been officially released in any form that I can find and I don’t want to splash out ten bucks for a bootleg, which may or may not be a better copy than the one I downloaded from the Internet Archive for free. It’s so blurred that I can’t see the mouths moving but it’s so far out of sync that it really doesn’t matter. As bad as it is, though, it’s interesting and there’s much to say about it. For a start, it says that it’s based on a “play” by Aben Kandel, which may have never been produced, a play that I presume was named for a song, which isn’t in this movie. It was in a different movie a year earlier, Song of the Islands, which was shot in 1941 before the U.S. joined World War II but released afterwards, so its tropical paradise musical comedy feud romance story was painfully out of date before a single cinemagoer had a chance to see it. Hawaii had a very different tone indeed after Pearl Harbor.

This film is wildly out of date now but wasn’t when it was released, which makes it such a bizarre window into a bygone time that’s not as long ago as it immediately seems. The star is Ann Miller, who would have been a hundred years old today, but it takes a while for her to show up. Initially, we’re kept busy watching Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, who were big stars at the time. Martin had got his break when his friend Guy Lombardo couldn’t play a particular date so asked him to step in as a saxophonist. He formed his big band in 1931 and tapped into the newest trend in pop music. To quote John Gilliland’s Pop Chronicles, “swing or jive was on the wane and sweet music on the rise.” You may not have heard of sweet music, but Martin was the Ed Sheeran of his day, especially in 1941 after releasing Tonight We Love. It’s an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with lyrics by Ray Austin and it sold a million copies. No wonder they play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 here. Sweetening classical music was his m.o.

Sunday, 9 April 2023

Women in Cages (1971)

Director: Gerry de Leon
Writers: James H. Watkins and David R. Osterhout
Stars: Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Jennifer Gan and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

When I mentioned in my review of The Big Doll House that Jack Hill played it for fun but the jungle women in prison subgenre soon got more vicious, I wasn’t expecting it to happen quite so quickly as this. For half its running time, this is pretty close to being the same film but it grows into something much more and it definitely has more of a vicious streak.

Watching them together as a double bill is a real eye-opener, because the similarities go far beyond what you might expected.

Sure, a young lady is convicted of a crime in the Philippines and sent to a jungle prison, but it’s exactly the same prison as in The Big Doll House. The budget ran to a sign here, reading Carcel del Infierno, or Hell Prison.

Initially, I thought it was the same cell, but it’s one down, Cell No. 2 rather than Cell No. 3, so new graffiti but familiar girls. Three of the cast of The Big Doll House returned, but their roles were shuffled in a worthy approach.

The new fish is Jeff, played by a giant of an actress called Jennifer Gan—she was Amazon #2 in In Like Flint, but better known to Corman fans as Marlene in Naked Angels. In The Big Doll House, Jeff was Collier, played by Judy Brown, who’s back but moving up to play Sandy, the tough chick in charge of the cell.

Thursday, 6 April 2023

The Big Doll House (1971)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Pam Grier, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

If Pam Grier was hardly in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, she more than made up for that in what could be considered her real debut, this pioneering exploitation film shot by legendary director Jack Hill for an even more legendary producer, Roger Corman.

It didn’t start the Women in Prison genre, as that had evolved over decades, from precodes focused on tough female convicts like Up the River and Ladies They Talk About, through more dedicated prison movies in the fifties such as Caged and Women’s Prison to Jess Franco’s 1969 exploitation flick, 99 Women, with Herbert Lom and Mercedes McCambridge of all people, that inspired Corman to take his own shot at it.

But, with 99 Women setting the stage, Love Camp 7 then invented the Nazi WiP subgenre and The Big Doll House invented the jungle WiP subgenre. Every successful genre spawns a set of subgenres that thrive for a while and likely fade away soon afterwards. For a while, both these dominated exploitation cinema and Pam Grier was notable in the latter.

And it all started here, with her singing the opening theme, Long-time Woman, a song that was appropriately reused in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, given that this truly started her career and that restarted it. She shows up on screen very quickly, demonstrating character before anything actually happens and not needing a line of dialogue in order to do so.

Wednesday, 5 April 2023

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)

Director: Ron Ormond
Writer: Ron Ormond, from the book by Estus W. Pirkle
Stars: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall and Wes Saunders

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I’ve long held to the idea that the most interesting people in Hollywood aren’t the stars of big budget blockbusters; they’re the folk behind exploitation films. And I don’t just mean the stars, but the producers, directors, writers, the folk who were flexible enough and aware enough to jump from one thing to another as times changed. One of the people I’ve long wanted to read more about is a gentleman named Ron Ormond, who was all over this weirdly titled movie like a rash. It was a production of his company, simply named the Ormond Organization. He directed it. He wrote it, from the “book” by Estus W. Pirkle, which was really a pamphlet that ran 46 pages long. He edited it with his son, Tim, and the two of them also operated the cameras. Both of them also appear in brief, uncredited roles within the movie. About the only job that Ormond didn’t do was production supervisor, because that was his wife, June. It’s a very strange movie, but I feel like I should build up to it by explaining how Ormond got to this point.

Born Vittorio di Naro in Baldwin, LA in 1910, he soon found his way into vaudeville as Vic Narro, taking his eventual name from his friend, Ormond McGill, who was a magician and hypnotist. He met June in Oregon while working as a magician and MC on shows in which she was a singer and dancer. The Ormonds managed the Three Stooges, produced roller derby on television and travelled in the exotic east, Ormond penning a string of books with McGill with exploitation titles like Religious Mysteries of the Orient, The Master Method of Hypnosis and The Magical Pendulum of the Orient. And they got into the movie business, Ormond directing a fantastic string of B movies. He started out with Lash LaRue westerns like King of the Bullwhip and The Frontier Phantom but lent his hand to anything that looked likely to make a buck, especially in the deepsouth. Forty Acre Feud had an all-star country music cast led by Minnie Pearl. White Lightnin’ Road is a stock car drama. The Monster and the Stripper (aka The Exotic Ones) is, well, it’s exactly what you think it is.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Smokescreen (1964)

Director: Jim O’Connolly
Writer: Jim O’Connolly
Stars: Peter Vaughan, John Carson, Yvonne Romain and Gerald Flood

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Part of the joy of my centennials project is to avoid the typical titles that get trawled out everywhere else and choose something a little more obscure instead. With character actors like Peter Vaughan, that tends to mean seeking out leading roles rather than his usual prominent supporting slots, and, in turn, that has me turn over rocks to discover little gems like this. This is such an obscure film that I can’t even find the usual portrait poster, whether a one sheet or the very English double crown format; just a landscape one, presumably a quad, that isn’t available online without a watermark from CineMaterial. It did land a DVD release, paired with director Jim O’Connolly’s debut, The Hi-Jackers, but it’s long out of print. The version I watched is also watermarked, as a broadcast on TalkingPictures TV, which is new to me but looks like a more British-focused take on TCM that’s right up my alley. And all this obscurity is a shame, because this is a quietly impressive British B-movie that deserves to be more widely seen.

It’s everything I want from delving backwards into British film: a slice of its time shot primarily on location with an excellent cast, plenty of them sparking nostalgia from television roles, and a sharp script. It’s a mystery, but one led by an insurance assessor not the typical policeman or private detective. That insurance assessor is Mr. Roper, whose first name may have been dropped at some point during the film but really doesn’t matter, because 1964 was a different time so it was likely only used by his family. To Player, his boss at Reed, Player & Phillips, he’s just Roper, a highly capable but mild mannered investigator who’s tightfisted with money to the degree that his expenses warrant careful attention. To the many characters he encounters during the film, he’s Mr. Roper, who breezes into Brighton in his bowler hat and refuses to accept anything as its presented. He’s all business, but he finds that sharing a glimpse of his life can loosen lips. The running gag about thriftiness has a reason and it’s a private one we feel privileged to see.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Director: Russ Meyer
Writer: Roger Ebert, based on a story by Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer
Stars: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John La Zar, Michael Blodgett and David Gurian

Index: The First Thirty.

It has to be said that Pam Grier didn’t shine in her debut movie but it was hardly her fault. The only line she was given was cut and so she decorates the background of a single scene for a measly two seconds, half of which is stolen by the gentleman who bobs up in front of her. It took me frame advancing through an entire party scene to even find her. She’s highlighted by the arrow in the first image overleaf just in case she’s still elusive.

And that’s it for her in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Needless to say, she has no influence whatsoever on the quality of this picture.

I’ve seen this film before but I’m amazed by it afresh every time I watch it again. Sure, it’s an exploitative cash-in by cult filmmaker Russ Meyer on the success of Valley of the Dolls, an immensely popular book by Jacqueline Susann that became an immensely popular movie that was, shall we say, critically unacclaimed.

But it was written by a certain Roger Ebert, a nobody at the time who incurred the wrath of his future screen partner, Gene Siskel, who ranked it amongst his worst films of the year, pointing out: “boredom aplenty is provided by a screenplay which for some reason has been turned over to a screenwriting neophyte.” He may have been a neophyte but he was happy to parody everything, not merely Valley of the Dolls but the entirety of Hollywood.

Sunday, 2 April 2023

Prankster (2023)

Director: George O’Barts
Writer: George O’Barts
Stars: Nextraker, Bourke Floyd, Dylan Garcia, Gabby Barbosa, Sean Berube, Gianna Francesca Giorgio and Ken Ronk

This is such a quintessential George O’Barts film that it seems surprising that it had to wait until his third feature. He’s a pixie at heart, a filmmaker who subverts human behaviour by adding levels of karma, irony and silliness but never wants to be cruel. If all the filmmakers I know in Phoenix were to make a feature about an imaginary friend, 80% would make a horror movie and 15% would conjure up a drama. Of the 5% of others, only O’Barts would plump for a prankster comedy.

It’s primarily set indoors, within the offices of Biggs Cable, where a host of characters take calls in generic cubicles. It’s low key as it gets going, introducing us to a bunch of characters and setting the stage for what’s yet to come.

Johnny’s helpful but long suffering. Sheila’s supportive. Grace is a bitch while Candice is a manipulative bitch. Jim’s an accepting janitor and Ray’s a lazy IT guy. I know many examples of all of these characters from my life within corporate America. They’re real, but they need more than that to grab our attention here and it’s a while before that really happens.

The only dynamic character in the office is Conner, known as Conner the Terrible. He’s a step up the corporate ladder, as the supervisor over the helpdesk, but he wants to make it up to the executive floor and he’s manipulating Johnny’s hard work to get there. They’ve put a proposal together between them to send up to management but, while Johnny has done most of the work, it only sports one name on the front and it isn’t his. Conner has a sort of trickle down take on how it’ll help Johnny too, who mostly buys into it and, just like that, we have our hero and villain.

Saturday, 1 April 2023

Safety Last! (1923)

Directors: Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan Stars: Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis

I’ve started this project a couple of years too late to follow Harold Lloyd’s features through, but better late than never. He started in film as early as 1913, a year before Charlie Chaplin, but his star didn’t rise as quickly and he never found the same level of control over his work. His first three features—A Sailor-Made Man in 1921, then Grandma’s Boy and Dr. Jack in 1922—are all excellent but this one is better still.

It’s one of the most famous silent comedies and it features one of the most famous silent era images, that of Harold Lloyd hanging onto a clock on the side of a building a long way up from the ground. I know how that was done, because there are a bunch of videos out there showing it, but it still holds up as part of a tense and frankly scary segment dominating the tail end of the film.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s a while before we get to Harold Lloyd climbing the outside of a tall building with what seems like every obstacle in the world getting in his way. As we begin, he’s just a lovestruck young man leaving Great Bend to make his fortune in the city so that his girl can join him and they can get married.

Friday, 31 March 2023

Face/Off (1997)

Director: John Woo
Writer: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary
Stars: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen and Allesandro Nivola

Index: The First Thirty.

Well, it’s been a fun journey through Cage’s First Thirty films and it’s been an educational one for me. Watching him grow through good and bad movies, as well as good and bad acting decisions, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for his talent. Following these up with a look at The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was a sheer joy. So much more there makes sense to me now than would have done otherwise.

And what a way to end a First Thirty! I have seen Face/Off before, because I’m a fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies and this was the first time he had enough creative control to bring that high octane style to Hollywood. Watching afresh, decades after my last viewing, it holds up wonderfully.

As you might imagine from the poster, this is all about two people who want nothing out of life more than to stop each other. Everyone else is only in the film to be a human prop for one or both to use in that epic battle.

John Travolta is Special Agent Sean Archer who’s shot during the opening credits, while riding a carousel with his son, Michael, who’s killed with the same bullet. That bullet is fired from a sniper rifle by Castor Troy, who isn’t so much a criminal as a professional supervillain who should be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Needless to say, Troy is played by Nicolas Cage with every intention to go full on gonzo.

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

The Secret of Magic Island (1956)

Director: Jean Tourane
Writers: Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Tourane and Richard Lavigne
Star: Robert Lamoureux

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Sometimes tracking down the weirdest movies of all time takes some effort, which is why I’m watching this 1956 French-Italian co-production in a VHS rip that’s been dubbed into Swedish and fan subbed into English. I have to applaud the dedication needed for the former, even though there’s no dialogue and it’s always easier to dub a narration than the words of a dozen characters. I thank Dr. Death at Cinemageddon for the latter, even though my streaming device wouldn’t pick them up on my TV so I had to read them on my laptop while the film was playing. Such are the lengths to which I must go to in order to report on this cinematic insanity for your edification and pleasure! And talking of insanity, there’s plenty of it because this picture is entirely acted by animals. And no, I don’t mean animals playing animals interacting with humans; you’re not going to see Lassie in a book like this. All these characters could have been played by regular human actors, just as we might expect. But they aren’t. They’re played by animals. Because.

And we get to see a whole heck of a lot of them during the first half of the movie, because nothing happens beyond regular sort of folk going about their business in a regular sort of town, merely one sized to appropriate levels for the cast. It’s a damn good model and it’s easily the best thing about the movie. So we follow the postman as he delivers the mail, just as a human might do it, except that Gustaf is a duck. His cantankerous wife is a duck too, which is probably a good thing. The barber is a fox named, I kid you not, Foxy. The tavern has a dog for a bartender, who pours wine better than some human bartenders I know. It’s not merely the model town that’s immediately impressive; it’s the props as well because this is a well equipped model. There’s a pool table in the bar. The fireplace has a fire in it. The goose drives around town in an actual moving vehicle. And, amazing as it might seem, we fall into this logic because it’s never commented on. Within the framework of this story, it isn’t worthy of mention.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Con Air (1997)

Director: Simon West
Writer: Scott Rosenberg
Stars: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm meaney, Mykelti Williamson and Rachel Ticotin

Index: The First Thirty.

What I like the most about Con Air, a picture I should have seen many years ago but never got round to until now, is that Cage still isn’t the action hero in the way we expect. It seems like every time he gets the opportunity to be a straight forward action hero, he resists.

In The Rock he was a kinda sorta action hero but he was also the nerdy dude playing second fiddle to tough guy Sean Connery. Here, he’s a bona fide action hero at the very outset, but it doesn’t last and he takes an utterly differently approach for the bulk of the film.

He’s Cameron Poe and, to keep a trend alive from The Rock, his wife is pregnant. He’s a U.S. Army Ranger, who looks great in uniform for his honourable discharge and return home to Tricia in Mobile, Alabama. And he doesn’t get into the bar fight some idiot wants him to get into, which makes her happy because she was hoping the army would take that guy out of him. Apparently it did.

Except this idiot and his two drunk buddies decide to jump him in the parking lot, with a knife. He responds, totally in self defence, but he leaves one of them dead on the ground. The others skip with the knife, the judge calls his hands deadly weapons and suddenly he’s in a cell serving seven to ten years. He watches his daughter grow up in photos, he learns Spanish and he exercises a heck of a lot.

Monday, 27 March 2023

Souls for Sale (1923)

Director: Rupert Hughes
Writer: Rupert Hughes, from his own novel
Stars: Eleanor Boardman, Frank Mayo, Richard Dix, Mae Busch, Barbara La marr, Lew Cody and Thirty-Five Famous Stars

I took this viewing of Souls for Sale as a kind of test. I first saw it on TCM in 2006 and failed to recognise many of the “thirty-five famous stars” that it boasts alongside its leads. I’m far more versed in silent cinema in 2023, so I was eager to see if that would hold true today. To my discredit, it does, but many of these names drifted quickly away from the limelight.

It’s a Hollywood movie all about Hollywood movies, an attempt to defend an industry that had so recently endured so many scandals: the overdose of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials and the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor. Those three happened in the three years between 1920 and 1922. Novelist Rupert Hughes did what he could to calm the backlash down in his 1922 novel, Souls for Sale, and again in his own adaptation of it in 1923, a large pool of talent lending their names to his cause in a string of cameos.

Of course, it’s a rags to riches tale of a young lady who finds her way to Hollywood, onto the screen and into the hearts of millions. In this take on that clichĂ©, the star was at least played by a nobody, Eleanor Boardman, who had won a contract with Goldwyn Pictures, the G in the future MGM, in a New Faces of 1922 contest.

Sunday, 26 March 2023

The Rock (1996)

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: David Weisberg and Douglas Cook, from a story by David Weisberg
Stars: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, John Spencer and John C. McGinley

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s another movie I’ve missed out on for a long time because I thought I’d seen it. That proved not to be the case and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Michael Bay movie this much, not that it converts me into a fan. After all, the talent he had to work with here guarantees an interesting film at the very least.

And thank goodness for that because it’s as overblown as we might expect even before we get past the opening credits. There are lots of uniforms and medals and a sweeping score by Hans Zimmer. If we didn’t already know that this was a Michael Bay movie, we wouldn’t be at all surprised when his name shows up.

It’s raining through all of that and it’s still raining as Brigadier General Francis Hummel and his men break into a naval depot, murder American soldiers and wander off with fifteen M55 rockets loaded with VX gas. We find out what that means when the sixteenth drops, a toxic ball bursts and the man who doesn’t get out before they lock the doors melts horribly.

Ed Harris is spot on as Hummel, an excellent example of a villain who’s the hero of his own story. He’s pissed that he’s worked numerous secret missions for the U.S. government and a whole slew of his men were left behind, their families not even compensated for their loss. And so, to highlight this in a way nobody can ignore, he takes over Alcatraz and points the rockets at San Francisco. $100m in forty hours or he’ll start pressing the red button. And, as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed tells us, one rocket will kill sixty to seventy thousand people. “It’s one of those things we wish we could disinvent.”

Saturday, 25 March 2023

An Angel for Satan (1966)

Director: Camillo Mastrocinque
Writers: Giuseppe Mangione and Camillo Mastrocinque, from a story of Luigi Emmanuele
Stars: Barbara Steele, Anthony Steffen and Betty Delon with Mario Brega and Claudio Gora

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Not all people important to film are stars. There are character actors who we see over and over again, so often that many of them become like old friends, even if we don’t recall their names. We could call that memory lapse the Al Leong Syndrome, after one of the omnipresent supporting actors of American action movies. Alternatively, we could call it the Mario Brega Syndrome, after the Italian actor who’s so instantly recognisable in so many spaghetti westerns and other Italian films, and he’s who I’m watching this for, because he was born in Rome a hundred years ago today. Before he found the cinema, he was known as Florestano Brega, who worked as a butcher, and was far less famous than his father, the distance runner Primo Brega, who was twice Italian champion at 5,000 metres and once at 10,000 metres. The young Florestano, with his huge frame and menacing features, was too perfect for the screen to avoid it for long and, after one appearance in 1947, became a regular thug, bully and gang member from 1958 onwards.

While he’s best known for westerns, not least the “Man with No Name” trilogy by Sergio Leone, in which he plays three characters, Chico in A Fistful of Dollars, Nino in For a Few Dollars More and Corporal Wallace in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he tended to end up cast as a senior enough heavy to get lines but not senior enough to get much screen time, even if he had become popular enough to land high up credits. Case in point: Death Rides a Horse, a 1967 spaghetti western I watched before this film for his centennial, where he gets the third credit after the film’s two imported stars, Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law. However, while he’s memorable, he doesn’t have much opportunity to shine, and he’s not one of the core characters who are sought in the central quest for vengeance. He has a lot more to do in this film, a black and white gothic horror from a year earlier, with the timeless Barbara Steele in a weird leading double role, so it seemed like an easy choice to remember him and his long career, with eighty credits over six decades.