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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Retro Review: DEATH DIMENSION (1978)


DEATH DIMENSION
aka FREEZE BOMB
aka THE KILL FACTOR
(US/Italy - 1978)

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by Harry Hope. Cast: Jim Kelly, George Lazenby, Harold "Odd Job" Sakata, Terry Moore, Bob Minor, Patch McKenzie, Aldo Ray, Myron Bruce Lee, April Sommers, Linda Lawrence, T.E. Foreman, Frank Scarpitto, Madame Sally Conforte. (R, 88 mins)

With the fateful inevitability of a foretold prophecy of doom, a collaboration between Al Adamson and Dick Randall simply had to happen at some point, and we got just that with 1978's DEATH DIMENSION. It did reteam Adamson with producer Harry Hope (THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE), who bankrolled his teen sex comedy SUNSET COVE the same year, but DEATH DIMENSION's co-producer was the infamous Randall, best known for bad-movie classics like 1973's FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (featuring one "Boris Lugosi" as "Ook, the Neanderthal Man"), 1980's CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, 1983's PIECES, and 1984's other killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS. Randall's company, Spectacular Film Productions, was quite busy throughout the '70s and '80s, setting up shop at various times in places like Italy, Hong Kong, Spain, and the UK and moving around like a shell company perpetually trying to stay one step ahead of the posse. At the time of DEATH DIMENSION, Spectacular and Randall were based in Italy, though he didn't bring along any Italians or even any of his usual actors (how are Brad Harris and Edmund Purdom not in this?). Other than some Italian financing, DEATH DIMENSION is a standard-issue Adamson exploitationer shot in his frequent stomping grounds of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Reno. It even includes a visit to the Mustang Ranch, along with a cameo by its madame, Sally Conforte, probably throwing in a few bucks toward the budget (or perhaps supplying other services) in exchange for promotional consideration along the lines of Colonel Sanders popping up in a KFC in HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS.






1980 re-release poster, with title font
apparently doodled by a bored
high-schooler during study hall
Included on Severin's sprawling new 14-disc, 32-movie Adamson box set (because physical media is dead), DEATH DIMENSION stars Jim Kelly, just five years removed from his breakout turn alongside Bruce Lee and John Saxon in 1973's classic ENTER THE DRAGON. Kelly was an unknown at the time, but he had a loose, likable screen presence ("Bullshit, Mr. Han Man!") and could kick ass onscreen, so he became the first black martial-arts star when Warner Bros. immediately rewarded him with his own movie, reuniting him with ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse for 1974's BLACK BELT JONES. Later the same year, they teamed him with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson on the insane THREE THE HARD WAY. After supporting roles in Clouse's Joe Don Baker actioner GOLDEN NEEDLES in 1974 (a busy year for Kelly) and the 1975 western TAKE A HARD RIDE (again with Brown and Williamson), Kelly's big-studio career ended with Warner Bros' little-loved 1976 kung-fu comedy HOT POTATO. When that flopped, he found himself sucked into the Adamson orbit, starring in 1976's BLACK SAMURAI. It wasn't quite the same as what Kelly had grown accustomed to in just a short time, but he and Adamson reunited for the ridiculous DEATH DIMENSION. Kelly is Lt. I.J. Ash, an L.A. cop who ends up on the trail of ill-tempered Reno megalomaniac Joe "The Pig" Santamassino (Harold Sakata, who was so identified with his iconic turn as ultimate Bond villain henchman Oddjob in 1964's GOLDFINGER that he was just now going by Harold "Odd Job" Sakata). The Pig is very much Adamson's version of a Bond supervillain, except that he appears to live in an ordinary average ranch-style house with distinctly 1970s wood-paneled walls. And his plan is a doozy: hijack the blueprints for constructing a "freeze bomb" that a scientist (T.E. Foreman) has benevolently invented in the name of controlling the weather to eliminate droughts. But it also has the ability to reduce the temperature of large areas to absolute zero, and The Pig intends to sell the patent to the highest bidder to be used in warfare or terrorist attacks. Ash sums it up best when he tells his boss Capt. Gallagher (one-and-done 007 George Lazenby), "That's heavy stuff."


"Yeah Jim, I know you were in ENTER THE DRAGON.
I was James Bond, for Christ's sake! And yet, here we are." 
The scientist has stored the information on a tiny microchip and implanted it just under the skin on the forehead of his assistant Felicia (Patch McKenzie), who finds herself targeted by The Pig and his chief henchman Tatoupu (Bob Minor). The Pig tries to broker a deal with Verde (Aldo Ray), a representative from a foreign country with interests in the freeze bomb, and they end up holding Felicia prisoner, with The Pig pulling out a giant, ugly-ass snapping turtle and threatening to have it "bite your tit off!" and even mocking her by shouting "You're going to be flat-chested!" Ash spends his spare time at his karate dojo and relaxing at home with orange juice and malt liquor, but his pursuit of The Pig gets personal when Tatoupu kills his wife (April Sommers), leading to his teaming up with kung-fu cop Li (the debut and farewell of martial-arts non-sensation "Myron Bruce Lee") to rescue Felicia, stop The Pig, and make sure he doesn't detonate...the Freeze Bomb!


FREEZE BOMB was actually an alternate title when the film was re-released in 1980, and it underwent yet another title change when it hit VHS as THE KILL FACTOR. Under any name, it's reasonably entertaining junk so long as expectations are tempered. It's Al Adamson, so you've got choppy editing; jaw-dropping continuity errors (watch when Ash and Li are battling bad guys on two separate speedboats, and one speedboat suddenly vanishes and they're both together on one); inept fight sequences where you can see guys huffing for breath and waiting for a cue to attack Ash; Ash's arrival in Reno beginning with an establishing shot that looks like it came from 1965, followed by travelogue footage of Kelly wandering around the strip, with onlookers gawking at him before he ducks into a casino and plays a few pulls on a slot machine; McKenzie walking around downtown L.A. with Adamson and cinematographer Gary Graver employing a trippy kaleidoscopic lens filter for no reason at all; a dubbed Sakata's vein-popping overacting, whether he's petting his turtles or demanding a massage from his girlfriend (Linda Lawrence) and yelling "Soothe me, Sheila!"; and of course, that absolutely pointless detour to the Mustang Ranch, where Ash walks in, exchanges pleasantries with Madame Sally, gets a girl, ducks away while she's undressing, walks down a hallway, pops into a room where a guy's in a jacuzzi with several women, gets kicked out, then heads to the Reno strip. Why was he there? Who was he looking for? There's no point to this entire sequence other than promoting the Mustang Ranch. With the presence of Sakata and Lazenby in the cast, it's obvious this is intended as a tongue-in-cheek Blaxploitation 007, and the climax involving a helicopter vs. cable car at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has an unmistakably "Bond on a tight budget" feel that's scored by inappropriate jazz piano and ends with the same aircraft explosion stock footage that Adamson recycled multiple times during this period, including at the end of 1976's BLACK HEAT. Kelly next starred in the 1978 Hong Kong kung-fu actioner THE TATTOO CONNECTION and appeared in 1982's ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO, with his old buddies Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. He then left movies and continued practicing martial arts in addition to becoming a tennis pro on the senior circuit. He appeared in a 2006 Nike commercial with Lebron James, made a one-off return to movies with a cameo in the 2009 YouTube-inspired AFRO NINJA, and in his later years, was a regular presence at fan conventions. Kelly died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 67.

Friday, May 22, 2020

On VOD: SURVIVE THE NIGHT (2020)


SURVIVE THE NIGHT
(US - 2020)

Directed by Matt Eskandari. Written by Doug Wolfe. Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Bruce Willis, Shea Buckner, Tyler Jon Olson, Lydia Hull, Riley Wolfe Rach, Jessica Abrams, Sara Lynn Holbrook, Jef Holbrook, Ravare Elise Rupert. (R, 89 mins)

"Where's Frank?"
"He went to get help."

And there it is. "He went to get help." It takes longer than usual--about 45 minutes--for Bruce Willis to find his way out of SURVIVE THE NIGHT, the latest installment in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series. Of course, it's premiering exclusively on VOD, with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus preventing this newest entry from making its standard simultaneous ten-screen, one-to-two-showings per day theatrical bow. But other than that, it's business as usual for Willis who, even before it became a matter of public health, has long been a practitioner of socially distancing himself from the co-stars and plots of movies he's actually in. To his credit, Willis, reuniting with director Matt Eskandari after their TRAUMA CENTER triumph, is onscreen quite a bit in SURVIVE THE NIGHT, but he frequently appears visibly inconvenienced and couldn't appear less invested in the proceedings. It's a DESPERATE HOURS home invasion scenario minus any sense of suspense, urgency, or even light, as it takes place in almost total darkness, with two sibling fugitives--violent psycho Jamie (Shea Buckner) and somewhat more rational Matthias (Tyler Jon Olson)--on the run and, as typically happens, only making things worse for themselves. Jamie impulsively decides to start shooting in a carryout, killing a hostage and starting a skirmish that ends up with Matthias getting hit in the leg, opening his femoral artery. Traveling the back roads, they find the "Country Clinic" is closed, so they decide to follow doctor Rich (Chad Michael Murray) back to his home.







But Rich has fallen on hard times. Once an up-and-coming surgeon, he was bankrupted by a malpractice suit and only got the job at the Country Clinic through an old friend who wants to give him a second chance. So along with his resentful wife Jan (Lydia Hull) and daughter Riley (Riley Wolfe Rach), he's moved back to his childhood home in rural Georgia. That's fine with Rich's mom Rachel (Jessica Abrams), but it's a sore point with his retired sheriff dad Frank (Willis), who can't believe he caved to the lawsuit and has always regarded his brainy son as a loser with no fight in him. Rich gets to prove his dad wrong when the brothers break into the house in the middle of the night demanding Rich operate on Matthias' leg and stop him from bleeding out. Of course, the plan instantly goes to shit since Jamie can't stop himself from killing somebody, in this case Rachel, who he apparently stabs though it's hard to tell how it all goes down since the scene is so darkly shot and awkwardly cut. Insisting "We're not here to hurt anyone!" approximately ten seconds after stabbing the family's matriarch to death, Jamie ends up tying everyone to chairs and forcing Rich to operate using basic household tools, though Murray doesn't do a very convincing job of selling it (slices open the leg, a couple snips, a clamp, and he says "It's done" after a few seconds and some perfunctory grimaces). But before he can sew the gaping incision, hardass Frank takes action, attacking Jamie with a scalpel and getting stabbed in the gut himself, with Rich eventually getting shot in the shoulder in the ensuing melee.


At this point, Frank takes off and hides in the woods, plotting his next move. It's here that Willis does his most emoting, grunting, crying, and even howling at the moon before taking a short sabbatical and returning for the climax. SURVIVE THE NIGHT is pretty repetitive, with various dumb circumstances repeatedly forcing people to run around the house or go outside only to end up back inside, a sure sign that Eskandari and screenwriter Doug Wolfe really don't have anything here and are just padding the job to get to an acceptable 90-minute length. And isn't there a manhunt for these clowns? Where are the cops? Performances range from apathetic (Murray) to terrible (Buckner), with Willis falling somewhere in the middle. He's a little more present than you'd expect, and his regular double is noticeable only fleetingly when Frank runs into the woods after a pointless car chase around the property (?). There's no character development of any kind and the arcs are totally predictable. Of course, father and son will iron out their differences and Frank will finally respect Rich and apologize for being such an asshole his whole life ("I want you to know that I was always proud of you!"). SURVIVE THE NIGHT is utterly inessential even by VOD-era Willis standards, but it's not the worst he's done. Still, if Chad Michael Murray can't even be bothered to give a shit, then why would Bruce?


Thursday, May 21, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: THE POSTCARD KILLINGS (2020) and LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY (2020)


THE POSTCARD KILLINGS
(UK/US/Germany - 2020)

Based on the 2010 novel The Postcard Killers, a collaboration between America's James Patterson® and Sweden's Liza Marklund, THE POSTCARD KILLINGS manages to be both a post-SE7EN serial killer thriller and the kind of wintry Scandinavian mystery that came in the wake of Stieg Larsson's best-selling phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And for about 45 minutes, it's a terrific, expertly-crafted nailbiter that would've been a huge hit a decade and a half ago. But after an unexpected, gasp-inducing bait-and-switch that you won't see coming, the film loses the thread, stumbling and bumbling along with contrivances, confusion, and sloppy editing on its way to a dumb and unsatisfying conclusion, almost as if another team of filmmakers came in to take charge of the second half. NYC homicide detective Jacob Kanon (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is in London to claim the bodies of his murdered daughter and son-in-law, who were just married and on their honeymoon when they became the victims of a deranged killer who "posed" them in an embrace, with their eyes pinned open, an arm (not belonging to either of the them) stuffed in the son-in-law's mouth, and his daughter's left hand missing, among other disturbing details. A postcard was sent to a London journalist and Kanon learns from the unhelpful inspector in charge (Steven Mackintosh) that a similar M.O.--newlywed couple murdered and posed, dismembered body parts from another killing, a taunting postcard sent to a journalist--was recently found in an almost identical case in Madrid. Stonewalled over his repeated attempts to take an active role in the investigation, an irate Kanon heads to Berlin after another newlywed murder happens there and gets more collaborative cooperation from rumpled Inspector Bublitz (Joachim Krol). Then he ends up in Stockholm after American expat journalist Dessie Lombard (Cush Jumbo of THE GOOD WIFE and THE GOOD FIGHT) gets a postcard before police discover a nearly identical crime scene, at which Kanon's daughter's knit hat was placed in the hands of one of the victims.





There's a parallel storyline involving...well, let's not get into that. The victims are staged like art exhibits currently in museums in the city where each killing occurs, and they're done so in such horrifically macabre ways that bring to mind an episode of HANNIBAL if directed by a young Dario Argento. Morgan does a fine balancing act of being overcome with grief and seething with entitled American rage when one European cop after another won't let him have his way and allow him to take over the investigation. Of course, he ends up doing that anyway, and  he and Jumbo establish a nice rapport and make a solid detective team. But they're let down by an abrupt shift in direction after that whopper of a mid-film reveal, and things just start to get silly, like a typical episode of a CBS police procedural or any one of these elaborate serial killer potboilers where the murderers have way too much time on their hands. Making his first English-language film since 2009's neglected and barely-released TRIAGE with Colin Farrell and Christopher Lee in a great late-career performance that almost nobody's seen, director Danis Tanovic (a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner for 2001's NO MAN'S LAND) just falls asleep on the job in the second half, introducing an incarcerated Wall Street asshole (Denis O'Hare) and having no idea what to do with Famke Janssen as Kanon's ex-wife, who seems to be off in a completely different movie most of the time. And the end lands with a complete thud, made even more frustrating by the door being left open for a sequel. It's enough to make you wonder if something went wrong in post-production or if it was just too many cooks in the kitchen, with Marklund one of five credited screenwriters and Morgan among the small army of 28 producers. (Unrated, 104 mins)



LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY
(UK - 2020)


A ludicrous thriller being simultaneously dumped on VOD and Blu-ray after two years on the shelf, LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY is admirably resourceful in the way it manages to pass Norfolk, VA off as NYC, Los Angeles, and Paris (!), but that kind of ingenuity doesn't extend to its asinine plot. Sam (blank void Zach Avery) has been living a solitary life in Paris (played by Norfolk's Freemason District) in the three years since the death of his girlfriend Georgia (READY OR NOT's Samara Weaving), who perished in a NYC gas leak explosion caused by a stray bullet when gunmen entered their apartment and started shooting. He managed to escape and flee overseas and now works at a cafe owned by Scottish expat Gilles (Brian Cox, who must've happened to be in Norfolk that day). Gilles doesn't know Sam's troubled past, but admonishes him to forget about whatever happened and move on. But Sam can't, especially after he goes to see a movie and one of its stars looks exactly like Georgia, only with blonde hair. He Googles the actress, Lauren Creek (also Weaving) and finds that she's a model, tabloid fixture and rising movie star in the States. Convinced Lauren is Georgia, Sam packs his bags and heads to L.A. He attempts to crash her latest movie premiere but is recognized by Kat (MR. ROBOT's Carly Chaikin), a gofer for Lauren's PR firm who happens to be the long-forgotten little sister of Sam's best friend in high school. They catch up, but Kat isn't buying his story, especially after she tries to arrange an introduction at the post-premiere party and Lauren doesn't recognize Sam. Undeterred, Sam persists in trying to prove Lauren is Georgia, even following her and her fiance Vince (Hal Ozsan) to a bar and selecting Willie Nelson's version of "Georgia On My Mind" on the jukebox to get her attention.





That's a bit too on the nose, but nothing about LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY, is subtle or smooth, especially the eventual involvement of some Eastern European gangsters led by cancer-stricken Ivan Denisovki (Udo Kier), and more background info that Sam keeps from Kat until it's convenient for the plot. With its rampant stupidity and a surprising amount of nudity from Weaving, LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY often feels enough like a deliberate throwback to an early '90s DTV erotic thriller that you almost expect it to open with the Prism Entertainment logo. But the sibling writing/directing team of Colin and James Krisel can't stop tripping over their own feet, telegraphing twists way too early, and never explaining why someone on the run and hiding from a ruthless crime organization would decide that becoming a model and movie star, and being in the tabloids after altering nothing about their appearance beyond switching from brunette to blonde and removing two tiny tattoos would be the ideal way to lay low. Weaving is uncharacteristically dull, though at least Kier gets to shout "What do you know about death?" giving you brief hope that he'll resurrect his signature line from 1973's FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN. Otherwise, LAST MOMENT OF CLARITY gets its biggest boost from Chaikin, who turns in a terrific performance in an otherwise lousy movie. She imbues her character with a sense of humor that's snarky without being affected, and does a great job of conveying the seen-it-all jadedness of L.A. without turning the character into a cartoon. She does a lot with just a look and works wonders with a throwaway line (when Sam asks why she's helping him, Kat replies "Because you rejected me and I'm just sick enough to be attracted to that"), and ends up becoming the film's most compelling character. The Krisels try to develop some intriguing parallels between Lauren and Kat, but not enough to do justice to Chaikin's efforts. It's also perfectly fitting that Chaikin gets the line that perfectly sums everything up, at one point screaming "This is so fucking dumb!" (R, 90 mins)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Retro Review: DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) and BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE (1969)


DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN
(US - 1971)

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by William Pugsley and Samuel M. Sherman. Cast: J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney, Anthony Eisley, Regina Carrol, Russ Tamblyn, Jim Davis, Zandor Vorkov, John Bloom, Shelly Weiss, Greydon Clark, Angelo Rossitto, Anne Morrell, William Bonner, Forrest J. Ackerman, Maria Lease, Bruce Kimball, Gary Kent, Connie Nelson. (PG, 91 mins)

Though he's made films that were better and films that were somehow worse, 1971's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is generally considered to be the career-defining statement of Z-grade exploitation legend Al Adamson, whose work has just been compiled in a near-comprehensive Blu-ray box set from Severin, because physical media is dead. It's by far his best-known and most-seen film thanks to its ubiquitous presence on late-night TV from the mid '70s to now (it still regularly runs on the sci-fi/horror channel Comet), and in nearly every way encompasses the whole Al Adamson "experience"--and why he's the Ed Wood of his era--in one painful 90-minute slog. It's a cut-and-paste patchwork of one or more abandoned projects where the new footage doesn't match the old, it's laughably cheap and unabashedly trashy, it's filled with nonsensical dialogue, it panders to the counterculture with hippies, bikers, groovy jams, and an LSD freakout, and it employs well past-their-prime Hollywood old-timers so feeble-looking that their presence, despite Adamson's noble intent in giving aging actors some work when no one else would hire them, is a sight so depressing that it borders on elder abuse.






Released in the fall of 1971 and making its way to America's drive-ins and grindhouses throughout 1972, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN began life in its embryonic stages in 1969 as a semi-sequel to Adamson's SATAN'S SADISTS, with his new BFF Russ Tamblyn playing another sadistic biker. That was almost immediately junked as the project morphed into a horror film called THE BLOOD SEEKERS, though Tamblyn and the bikers were kept on as supporting characters. The crux of the plot dealt with a Santa Monica amusement park being a cover for mad, wheelchair-bound scientist Dr. Durea (J. Carrol Naish), his mute, brutish, ax-wielding henchman Groton (Lon Chaney, Jr), and obnoxious carnival barker Grazbo (Angelo Rossitto), who abduct young women and harvest their blood for bizarre experiments. One victim is local hippie Joanie Fontaine (Maria Lease), whose Vegas go-go dancer sister Judith (Regina Carrol, soon to be Adamson's wife) is summoned by hard-nosed detective Martin (Jim Davis, several years before becoming patriarch Jock Ewing on DALLAS) after a missing persons report is filed. Martin informs her that Joanie was living in a commune near the amusement park, known to be "a hangout for pushers and white slavery operators." Judith goes to investigate and is drugged by biker gang leader Rico (Tamblyn) and eventually rescued by a pair of Joanie's hippie friends, Strange (Greydon Clark) and Samantha (Anne Morrell). She falls in love with aging hippie Mike (HAWAIIAN EYE star Anthony Eisley) and yada yada yada, discovers that Joanie was one of the evil Durea's victims.


That was THE BLOOD SEEKERS, and it was shot fast and cheap in the spring of 1969. Its biggest casting coup--or at least Adamson's idea of a casting coup--was getting guys like Chaney and Naish, though seeing both of them under these circumstances is not enjoyable for classic horror fans. Even considering the fact that he's playing a "mad zombie" kept alive by doses of Durea's experimental serum, Chaney appears to be at death's door. Bloated and sweaty, and suffering from the combined effects of throat cancer and decades of alcoholism, Chaney was beloved by horror fans after playing every Universal monster in the 1940s starting with THE WOLF MAN, but he was largely unemployable by this time. He was barely able to speak, but he did appear in one more Adamson film, THE FEMALE BUNCH, shot in 1969 and released in 1971. He's an even sadder sight in that film, his voice a gasping, hoarse croak, bleary-eyed, puffy, and guzzling vodka on camera. These two Adamson films would constitute his final work before his death in 1973. Naish, a two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee and one of the most in-demand character actors of the 1940s, would periodically dabble in the horror genre in his heyday, and he co-starred with Chaney in 1944's monster rally HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But by 1969, he was only doing sporadic TV guest spots and hadn't appeared on the big screen in nearly a decade. The 73-year-old actor was in obviously declining health and arrived on the set in a wheelchair, had ill-fitting dentures, couldn't remember his lines, and could barely see to read the cue cards that were made for him. It also doesn't help that he had a glass eye and he's visibly reading those cue cards. And when Adamson plants the camera right in front of Naish's face, you can't really focus on anything aside from his functioning right eye reading the words as he babbles reams of dialogue while his glass left eye stares straight ahead.


THE BLOOD SEEKERS sat around for a year in an unfinished, unreleasable state, but after the breakout success of SATAN'S SADISTS, Adamson and co-writer and Independent-International partner Sam Sherman came up with a plan to tweak it and make it a winner: throw in Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. Adamson shot new footage with Naish (becoming noticeably more frail and aged in the year since working on THE BLOOD SEEKERS), whose Dr. Durea is revealed to be the last descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein. He's visited by Dracula (Zandor Vorkov--more on him in a minute), who has happened upon the remains of the Frankenstein monster (John Bloom), and plots to revive him in order to help "Durea" get revenge on past colleagues (including one played by beloved Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman) who ruined his career and caused a fire that left him in a wheelchair. None of this has anything to do with the plot of THE BLOOD SEEKERS, and Dracula and the Frankenstein monster appear so infrequently that calling it DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is a bit misleading. Granted, they do finally fight at the end, with Dracula dismembering the monster and ripping its head off, but in true Adamson fashion, the battle was a late reshoot outside a church in Somers, NY that Sherman shot himself. In these final scenes, Vorkov's makeup doesn't even match what he looked like in the rest of the movie, and the monster is suddenly played by Shelly Weiss, who's thinner and about eight inches shorter than the hulking, gigantic Bloom, presumably because Sherman didn't want to pay to fly the actor to New York for the reshoots. Adding to the confusion is the credits, which list "John Bloom as The Monster" and "Shelly Weiss as The Creature," but they're both playing the same monster. From what was once THE BLOOD SEEKERS, only Naish and Regina Carrol appear in the new footage with Dracula and the monster, and the released DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN ended up being Naish's final screen appearance before his death from emphysema in 1973.


Adamson took a page right out of Ed Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE playbook (Wood infamously had his chiropractor hold a cape over his face to unconvincingly double for the dead Bela Lugosi) in casting non-actor "Zandor Vorkov" as Dracula. "Vorkov" was actually a guy named Roger Engel, a Los Angeles stockbroker who was serving as Adamson's and Sherman's financial adviser. His Dracula is dubbed over with a weird electronic echo effect, and with his curly hair and goatee, he looks and sounds less like the Dracula of Bram Stoker, Universal, or Hammer, and more like Frank Zappa auditioning for THE TIMOTHY CAREY STORY. And as mentioned, his look is completely overhauled for the New York-shot climax, where he's suddenly sporting white makeup and black circles around his eyes like a Kabuki theater tribute to King Diamond. Everything about DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is like crack for bad movie lovers--the terrible acting, the cheap sets, the choppy editing, the ludicrous dialogue (Clark's Strange is introduced exclaiming "Let's get ready for the big protest tonight!"), Eisley as Santa Monica's oldest and squarest hippie, and the haphazard structure that's so clumsy in its execution that even the most casual moviegoer will be able to tell this is two movies precariously and hastily Scotch-taped together. But nothing sums up the utter lovable nonsense that is DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN more than this dialogue exchange when ominously voice-echoing Dracula just suddenly appears in the passenger seat of Durea rival Dr. Beaumont's (Ackerman) car:

Beaumont: "Who are you?"  
Dracula: "I am known as the Count of Darkness. The Lord of the Manor of Corpathia. Turn here." 

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN on a Halloween double bill
with the Paul Naschy werewolf movie FRANKENSTEIN'S
 BLOODY TERROR in Toledo, OH on 10/25/1972



BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE
(US - 1969)

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by Rex Carlton. Cast: John Carradine, Paula Raymond, Alex D'Arcy, Robert Dix, Gene O'Shane (Gene Otis Shane), Barbara Bishop (Jennifer Bishop), Vicki Volante, Ray Young, John "Bud" Cardos, Ken Osborne. (PG, 84 mins)

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN wasn't Al Adamson's first stab at tarnishing the legacy of a classic horror movie monster. Released in May 1969 by Crown International on a double bill with the dismal NIGHTMARE IN WAX, BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE started making the drive-in rounds about two weeks before Adamson's Independent-International kickoff SATAN'S SADISTS. But it had been on the shelf for quite some time after it was completed back in 1966, with its initial announcement in Variety coming a year earlier with Jayne Mansfield attached to star. That never happened, but Adamson did secure the services of the great character actor John Carradine, who never turned down a job and would star in several films for the director. Carradine also had a history with Dracula, having played the vampire in 1944's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1945's HOUSE OF DRACULA, and 1966's almost Adamson-esque BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA. But since this is an Al Adamson movie we're talking about, of course BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE would be the worst Dracula movie in which Carradine would appear to that point, and of course it would somehow be a Dracula movie where Carradine doesn't even play Dracula, but rather, the pivotal role of Dracula's butler George.






Written by co-producer Rex Carlton (who would "commit suicide" in 1968 after he failed to secure a distribution deal after borrowing mob-connected money to help fund Adamson's THE FAKERS, which ultimately became HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS), BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE hooks you in from the start, opening with a solid three time-killing minutes of regular Adamson starlet Vicki Volante driving around and listening to the radio, from which emanates the sounds of Gil Bernal's "Next Train Out," an admittedly catchy tune. Her car runs out of gas and he's abducted by lumbering, deformed Mango (Ray Young). Cut to smarmy photographer Glen Cannon (Gene Otis Shane), who's doing a photo shoot with model/girlfriend Liz (Jennifer Bishop, billed as "Barbara Bishop") at L.A.'s Marineland, which is a perfect excuse for Adamson to inflate the running time a little more by taking a leisurely tour around the park, including a ride up the Sky Tower. Glen is notified that his uncle has died and left him a castle (played for the exteriors by the landmark Shea's Castle) that's been rented for the last 60 years by the wealthy, erudite, and ageless Count Charles Townsend (Alex D'Arcy) and his wife (Paula Raymond). Their butler George (Carradine) and his henchman Mango kidnap young women passing through and keep them chained in the basement as a fresh blood supply for the Townsends, who are actually the Count and Countess Dracula, drinking their victims' blood out of Bloody Mary glasses. Glen arrives and intends to politely evict them, around the same time Townsend family friend--escaped murderer Johnny (Robert Dix)--pays them a visit. Dracula and his wife intend to stay and they find Liz an appetizing source of blood that they wish to keep around.


It's no surprise that BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE is cheap and sloppy, and that it doesn't even seem to be paying attention to itself. Glen and Liz hear a girl screaming in the middle of the night, and Johnny insists it's a toucan (!), so they go off to investigate as Adamson immediately cuts to the next morning as Glen and Liz are happily swimming in the ocean and walking along the rocky shoreline by the castle (nevermind that the exterior shots of Shea's Castle show it nowhere near any body of water). It's filled with aimless, meandering conversations and detours, like the Marineland sequence, and then Johnny's escape from jail and fleeing taking up about 15 minutes of screen time, during which he kills one girl and then another guy, rifling through a suitcase and eating a single piece of chicken that the guy had packed away with his clothes. Such is the flagrant, "get it in the can" carelessness of the Adamson experience, but unlike a lot of his films, the humor here appears to be somewhat intentional, with D'Arcy playing Dracula as an emasculated and henpecked husband (when George intends to sacrifice some kidnapped women, an excited Dracula asks his wife "Can I watch the purification?" and she replies with a curt, judgmental "At your age?"). It also seems that there was more going on with Dix's Johnny, with vague werewolf references being made that "he's only a problem when that damn moon is full!" but from what we see, he's just a crazy psycho killer. When the 84-minute film was being prepped for syndicated TV, the title was changed to simply DRACULA'S CASTLE, with seven minutes of new footage added showing Johnny (not played by Dix) turning into a werewolf. These new scenes were rumored to be shot by Don Hulette (best known for directing 1977's BREAKER! BREAKER! with Chuck Norris in his first starring role), who would routinely re-edit Crown International product for TV. Hulette also scored the added werewolf scenes with some sub-Rick Wakeman synth farts that don't sound anything like the rest of the film's stock Harry Lubin cues.


Crown International's  BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE/
NIGHTMARE IN WAX double bill hitting Toledo, OH

Monday, May 18, 2020

Retro Review: SATAN'S SADISTS (1969) and HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS (1970)


SATAN'S SADISTS
(US - 1969)

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by Dennis Wayne (Greydon Clark). Cast: Russ Tamblyn, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, John "Bud" Cardos, Robert Dix, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Regina Carrol, Evelyn Frank, Jackie Taylor, William Bonner, Randee Lynn, Bambi Allen. (R, 87 mins)

Last year, Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD renewed interest in the history of Spahn Ranch, the old western movie set where Charles Manson and his followers were squatting around the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969. Severin's exhaustive, 14-disc, 32-movie mega-box set of the films of Z-list exploitation auteur Al Adamson (1929-1995) was secretly in the works before the Tarantino film was released (because physical media is dead), but it's an interesting supplement in many ways, as several of Adamson's schlocky drive-in hits of the late '60s into the early '70s were shot at Spahn Ranch, where Manson as well as his followers were often present during some shoots. Additionally, according to WEST SIDE STORY and THE HAUNTING co-star Russ Tamblyn in David Gregory's feature-length 2019 documentary BLOOD & FLESH: THE REEL LIFE & GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON (also in the box), Manson was a disruptive enough presence during the making of THE FEMALE BUNCH (shot in 1969, unreleased until 1971) that Adamson's co-director John "Bud" Cardos had to physically remove him from the set. Tamblyn, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nominee for 1957's PEYTON PLACE (he lost to Red Buttons in SAYONARA) was in enough of a career slump by the late '60s that he wound up becoming a member of the Adamson stock company. His truly repugnant performance is one of the most memorable aspects of 1969's lurid biker shocker SATAN'S SADISTS, one of the key titles in Adamson's dubious body of work and one of the very few times when the director came within striking distance of technical competence and achieving the almost-professional appearance of a real movie.






It probably helped that SATAN'S SADISTS was one of the few Adamson joints from that period that wasn't a patchwork of several other already-released or long-shelved projects. It's not by any means a "good" movie, but relative to almost everything he did up to that point, it was fairly polished and the story was coherent. Scripted under the pseudonym "Dennis Wayne" by future B-movie director Greydon Clark (who would go on to direct SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS, WITHOUT WARNING, and THE FORBIDDEN DANCE, one of two competing "lambada" movies in the spring of 1990), who also co-stars as the partially deaf Acid, one of the titular outlaw bikers, SATAN'S SADISTS' opening half hour brings a disparate cast together at a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere in the California desert. There's vacationing Pittsburgh cop Charlie (Scott Brady) and his wife Nora (Evelyn Frank), picking up hitchhiker and Vietnam vet Johnny (Gary Kent), because he reminds them of their son, who's currently serving ("It's rough over there," Johnny gloomily says before adding, "eh, but he'll be fine!"). There's also waitress Tracy (Jackie Taylor) and diner owner Lew (Kent Taylor), and they're all soon terrorized by the Sadists, led by the appropriately sadistic Anchor (Tamblyn), who start with general obnoxiousness which soon escalates to violence when a fight breaks out. Johnny and Tracy run out the back after Johnny slashes one Sadist's throat in self-defense and drowns another in the men's room toilet. Meanwhile, the other Sadists take Charlie, Nora and Lew outside, where Anchor rapes Nora and informs Charlie "Hey, she's not bad!" before shooting all three of the hostages in the head.

Al Adamson (1929-1995)


That's just the first half hour of SATAN'S SADISTS. After that, it slows down significantly as Johnny and Tracy flee in her dune buggy, with the Sadists in pursuit once they realize they're gone (they took off while everyone was cheering on Anchor's rape of Nora). While Johnny and Tracy try to hide, the Sadists encounter Tracy's three friends, who happen to be in the area collecting rocks for their geology class (!), but end up getting high and having a desert orgy with Anchor and some of the other bikers. A notable exception is the level-headed Firewater (Cardos, in cancellable brownface with a mohawk/bald cap that keeps peeling loose around his ears), who wants to find the two witnesses and is getting tired of Anchor's psychotic behavior. Tamblyn really sinks his teeth into this character (his mother thought this film would end his career), even writing much of his own dialogue himself, which gets pretty rough when he constantly treats his clingy, needy "old lady" Gina (Regina Carrol, billed as "The Freak-Out Girl" in the advertising and soon to be Adamson's wife) like shit, telling her "Go back to where belong before I replace ya, you dumb bitch," and "You're nothin' but a piece of dead meat" before before stuffing stew in her mouth and punching her in the stomach. But much of the last 50 or so minutes is a long waiting game, with characters more or less hanging out until Adamson has enough footage for a feature film. It's a scuzzy production, shot in 16mm in just 12 days, and it's still got some rough edges (at one point during what's become a tense scene in the diner, Brady and Frank can be seen breaking character and laughing at Carrol's maniacal dancing), but it gets the job done if you're looking for a really mean and nasty exploitationer. Audiences thought so, as SATAN'S SADISTS became a big hit at drive-ins and put Independent-International, a company formed by Adamson and producer Sam Sherman, on the map. With that success, the pair used the revenue generated by SATAN'S SADISTS to tweak and/or finish existing Adamson films that had been languishing in limbo for some time due to a variety of reasons, and to that end, SATAN'S SADISTS is a major turning point in establishing the legend (?) that is Al Adamson.



SATAN'S SADISTS opening in Toledo, OH on 9/3/1969





HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS
(US - 1970)

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by Jerry Evans. Cast: Broderick Crawford, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Keith Andes, John Carradine, John Gabriel, Robert Dix, Erin O'Donnell, Vicki Volante, Anne Randall, Jack Starrett, Emily Banks, Dan Kemp, Jerry Mills, Bambi Allen, Jill Woelfel, Carol Brewster, Leslie McCrea, Gene Otis Shane, Greydon Clark, Gary Kent, John "Bud" Cardos, Kent Osborne, Alice Wong, Colonel Harland Sanders. (PG, 90 mins)

HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS, on the other hand, is a typical Adamson cut-and-paste patchwork that began life in 1967 as a spy thriller called OPERATION M, which became THE FAKERS at some point during production. John Gabriel starred as Mark Adams, a loyal underling to Vegas mob boss Joe Brimante (Keith Andes), who's brokering a shady deal for a syndicate partnership with Count Otto von Delberg (Kent Taylor), a wealthy German looking to create the "New Nazi Party" and finish what Hitler started. This alliance involves working with von Delberg associate Carol Bechtel (Vicki Volante), the go-between for Brimante to acquire some WWII-era counterfeit plates for phony $20 bills and to funnel other contraband through the Vegas syndicate. It turns out Adams is actually an undercover Fed, installed by FBI bureau chief Gavin (Broderick Crawford), who's also got agents Brand (Scott Brady) and rookie Jill (Emily Banks) on the case.





That was THE FAKERS, which was largely finished but abandoned during post-production in 1968 when Adamson moved on to other projects following the suicide of producer Rex Carlton--via self-inflicted gunshot wound--when he couldn't secure a distribution deal and was therefore unable to repay a loan he'd taken from alleged mob-connected financiers. Once SATAN'S SADISTS became a hit and biker movies were all the exploitation rage, Adamson and Independent-International partner Sam Sherman decided in 1969 to shoot a new subplot involving a neo-Nazi biker gang called the Bloody Devils, with Adamson regular Robert Dix as their leader Cunk. The Bloody Devils are being funded by von Delberg for unspecified mayhem and told to "keep up the good work" by Carol, with Vicki Volante the only cast member brought back to provide some connection with the two-year-old footage from THE FAKERS, even though it doesn't match with the new footage since she's got a completely different hairstyle and wardrobe. Cunk drops some far-out lingo like "What's a groovy chick like you doing in the spy racket?" but other than periodic cutaways to the Bloody Devils riding around and engaging in some random acts of violence, the new scenes serve no purpose other than pandering to the then in-vogue biker craze.





Obviously, HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS is a jumbled mess, filled with mismatched film stock and scenes where people stare at each other waiting for Adamson to yell "Cut." It's got a great title track by Nelson Riddle (he didn't work on the movie; it was an existing cue that Carlton and Adamson licensed), and the end result ends up strangely watchable. That's due in large part to the curio value of its bizarre cast, including a cameo by Colonel Harland Sanders inside a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a trade-off when he supplied the cast & crew with KFC during the shoot. In addition, you get the usual motley crew of slumming Hollywood vets who've fallen on hard times: John Carradine drops by for about 45 seconds as a syndicate-connected pet store owner (!); Taylor, a sort-of third-string Clark Gable/Errol Flynn-type in the '30s and '40s, found a lot of work in Adamson movies, as did JOHNNY GUITAR co-star Brady, whose fortunes would improve with appearances in films like 1979's THE CHINA SYNDROME and 1984's GREMLINS, his last before his death in 1985; and Crawford, a Best Actor Oscar-winner for 1949's ALL THE KING'S MEN, was mainly doing B-movies and TV guest spots by 1967, and Adamson managed to get his scenes shot in one day. Other than a visit to see a hospitalized Agent Adams, all of Crawford's scenes take place in an office that Adamson probably commandeered during a used car salesman buddy's lunch hour. Crawford participates in the climactic showdown from afar, standing in front of a map of Los Angeles county, marking on it with a pencil as he barks "Car 1, proceed to point 9...Car 2, proceed to point 27" into a dispatch mic in a competely-disconnected-from-the-action-but-still-appearing-to-be-the-star kind-of way that probably inspires Bruce Willis to this day. According to the exhaustively-researched, 116-page booklet in Severin's Adamson set, written by Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes, THE FAKERS (also included in the set) did eventually surface on syndicated TV in 1972 as SMASHING THE CRIME SYNDICATE, apparently without the biker subplot unique to the HELL'S BLOODY DEVIL'S cut.


DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, ANGELS' WILD WOMEN and
HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS: Al Adamson conquering Toledo, OH's
drive-ins on 10/25/1972 (along with FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY
TERROR, another Independent-International release)


Saturday, May 16, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: VIVARIUM (2020) and THE TRAITOR (2020)


VIVARIUM
(Ireland/Belgium/Denmark - 2020)

There's about enough material for a 20-minute short film in this tiresome sci-fi/horror suburban nightmare, but once it establishes what's going on, it just has nowhere else to go and nothing else to say. It wants to be something akin to a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode with Kafka-esque undertones that incorporates a bit of the novel The Midwich Cuckoos and its classic film adaptation VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but its messaging is ham-fisted, shallow, and juvenile, the kind of thing a writer would scrap after sleeping on it and looking at it again in the morning with fresh eyes. Schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her groundskeeper boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are house-hunting and discover a new gated community called Yonder. They're met by very odd but persuasive realtor Martin (Jonathan Aris), who has them follow him in their car through neighborhoods of endless streets with hundreds of identical green houses. "You're Home Now," says the ominous billboard at Yonder's entrance, and Martin seems hurt when Gemma and a snarky Tom aren't immediately taken with what he insists is their "forever home" with the address "9." Gemma and Tom check out the backyard with the same privacy fence and perfectly landscaped lawn as every other, and when they go back in the house, Martin is nowhere to be found and his car is gone. They drive around for hours looking for Yonder's exit (Tom annoys Gemma by arrogantly asking "Want me to drive?" as if that's why they can't find a way out), and keep ending up back at 9. When they walk around and find a house with the lights on, they enter through its back door to find themselves back at 9 just the way they left it. There's hundreds of vacant homes, no way out, no phone reception, and as the days goes on, they're left packages of flavorless, vacuum-sealed food and other necessities, until one day the care package contains something else: a baby, with the instructions "Raise the child and be released."






Cut to some time later, and the baby is now an eight-year-old boy (Senan Jennings), though it's only been a few months and he's growing at the several-years-to-one rate similar to a dog. The boy insists Gemma and Tom are his parents, he mimics their words, mannerisms, and actions, spies on them having sex, and speaks in a voice that's an electronically-enhanced mix of both Poots' and Eisenberg's voices (an unsettling effect the first time, not so much over the next hour). He emits a piercing scream when he doesn't get his way, spends hours watching what looks like a hypnotic screensaver on TV, and soon drives a wedge between the couple, with Tom even suggesting they kill him at one point. Gemma attempts to bond with the child, while Tom spends days and weeks digging a bottomless hole in the front yard. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, VIVARIUM makes some facile points about the bland sameness and homogeneity of planned, gated communities, the day-in/day-out grind of life (Tom's symbolically digging his own grave! Get it?), doesn't seem to have a very positive view of raising children, and just tediously spins its wheels after a promising start. It's a half-baked concept in search of a story, and it's not immune to horror movie cliches (when Gemma screams "I want to go home," the glaring boy replies with the sinister proclamation "You are home!"). By the time it finally reaches its finish--and you'll see the ending coming long before Gemma and Tom do--it's just an exhausting, pointless waste of time that its capable stars can't salvage. (R, 99 mins)



THE TRAITOR
(Italy/Brazil/Germany/France - 2019; US release 2020)


Part of the radical movement in Italian cinema in the 1960s, director Marco Bellocchio made his name with his 1965 feature debut FISTS IN THE POCKET. He was also the center of controversy two decades later with 1986's DEVIL IN THE FLESH, where a scene of Maruschka Detmers performing unsimulated fellatio on her male co-star earned the film an X rating in the US. Bellocchio is a filmmaker of sterling repute in Italy but he's never really made any effort to crack the global market. He's never tried to find Hollywood fame and, unlike politically-minded '60s and '70s contemporaries such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gillo Pontecorvo to name a few, has never sought a well-known American or British star to secure funding or increase export value. At 80 years of age, he's as busy and efficiently prolific a director in Italian cinema as geriatric Hollywood workhorses like Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, and a pre-cancellation Woody Allen, though the last Bellocchio film to get much arthouse attention stateside was 2009's excellent VINCERE. Sony Pictures Classics picked up his latest, THE TRAITOR, and it chronicles the last 20 years in the life of Palermo Cosa Nostra figure-turned-informer Tommaso "Masino" Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino). THE TRAITOR opens in 1980 as Buscetta is living in exile in Rio (cue mandatory establishing aerial shot of Christ the Redeemer statue) with his third wife Maria Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), after escaping from a Turin prison. Wanted by Italian authorities, he still long-distance oversees his Palermo-based operation, which has been under siege by chief Corleonesi rival Salvatore "Toto" Riina (Nicola Cali). Riina orders a barrage of hits on Buscetta associates and even family members, and when Buscetta's two oldest sons from his first marriage go missing in Palermo, he's taken into custody by Rio police, who torture him and dangle Maria Cristina from a helicopter. After attempting suicide by poisoning himself, he's extradited to Italy, and offers to turn pentito, spilling everything to notorious anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who's in the process of making a huge case against hundreds of Cosa Nostra figures in what became the epic "Maxi Trial" in Sicily in 1986, which eventually put away over 350 defendants for upwards of 2500 years' worth of prison sentences.






Part of this story--the Falcone side--was told in the 1999 HBO movie EXCELLENT CADAVERS, with Chazz Palminteri as Falcone and F. Murray Abraham as Buscetta, but most of THE TRAITOR focuses on the numerous trials at which Buscetta testifies throughout the 1980s. He wasn't the only informer at the Maxi Trial, though less time is devoted to the other, Salvatore "Totuccio" Contorno, played here by dead ringer Luigi Lo Cascio. Buscetta's family is placed in witness protection in New Hampshire, where he eventually joins them until he's spooked by a Santa in an Italian restaurant singing an old Sicilian song, at which time they're immediately moved to Colorado, and eventually Florida. THE TRAITOR seems entirely too long at two and a half hours, though its length may play better for Italian audiences who are more familiar with Buscetta, Falcone, and the Maxi Trial. Falcone really only figures in the first half of THE TRAITOR, but his horrific 1992 assassination at the hands of the Sicilian Mafia in the Capaci highway bombing (which also took the lives of his wife and several agents assigned to protect them) is depicted here in an incongruous sequence that seems more fitting for a FAST & FURIOUS sequel, and it's strange seeing Bellocchio embrace CGI action technology this far into his career. Favino, who occasionally has supporting roles in Hollywood movies like ANGELS & DEMONS and WORLD WAR Z, and is probably best known to America audiences as Christopher Columbus in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, turns in a strong performance as Buscetta, but while there's a compelling story here, THE TRAITOR is a film that expects you to be up to speed on its events going in. One might want to consult some Wikipedia entries on Buscetta and the Maxi Trial before watching, especially since the first 20 minutes are a dizzying blur of background info and character introductions with onscreen captions that only make things more confusing, since every other Sicilian Mafia guy seems to be named "Salvatore." (R, 150 mins)


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

On VOD: CAPONE (2020)


CAPONE
(US/Canada - 2020)

Written and directed by Josh Trank. Cast: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Jack Lowden, Noel Fisher, Gino Cafarelli, Al Sapienza, Kathrine Narducci, Neal Brennan, Mason Guccione, Wayne Pere, Rose Blanco, Manuel Fajardo Jr., Josh Trank, David Wachs, Troy Warren Anderson. (R, 103 mins)

After sci-fi sleeper CHRONICLE became a surprise hit in 2012, Josh Trank was being fast-tracked for the A-list. Anointed a Next Big Thing, he was given 2015's $155 million FANTASTIC FOUR reboot and, well, things didn't work out. There were rumors of "erratic behavior" on the set, he clashed with 20th Century Fox after they ordered reshoots and then re-edited the film without his input or involvement, he trashed the studio and the movie in a quickly-deleted Twitter tirade the day before its release, the reviews were apocalyptically bad, the endless negative press prompted fans to stay away, and his efforts were rewarded with a Razzie win for Worst Director. Only one of Trank's stars--Toby Kebbell, who played Doctor Doom--publicly defended him, though Trank did claim to get a letter from Stan Lee asking if he "was OK." While FANTASTIC FOUR was in production, Trank was attached to a proposed standalone STAR WARS film but was dismissed. The excuse given was that execs wanted to "take the project in a different direction," but the decision was strongly rumored to be the result of Trank burning bridges in the FANTASTIC FOUR debacle.





Leaving franchise tentpoles behind and opting for something smaller-scale, Trank is back with CAPONE. Rather than another biopic, the film looks specifically at the last year in the life of Al Capone (1899-1947), when the legendary Prohibition-era gangster was wasting away at his Miami Beach compound. He had been released  from prison due to poor health but was still under government watch, and hobbled by syphilis and dementia eating away at his brain before a major stroke expedited the inevitable at just 48 years of age. It's not typically the focus when chronicling the feared Capone of his glory days, and it's a part of his life that's rarely been depicted onscreen, though the subject was addressed in the last few minutes of 1975's Roger Corman-produced CAPONE, with a garbled, mushmouthed Ben Gazzara in the title role. Capone is played here by Tom Hardy, under some heavy makeup and diving head-on into the character, leaving any vanity at the door in a performance that somehow manages to demonstrate fearless commitment and over-the-top self-indulgence at the same time. Playing Capone as the decaying, desiccated shell of the man he once was, Hardy most of the time looks and acts less like your standard image of Al Capone and more like Grandpa Sawyer from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. There's little in the way of story--a search for an alleged $10 million that Capone stashed away at some point but can't remember where, repeat phone calls from an illegitimate son named Tony (Mason Guccione), and the possibility that Capone is exaggerating the extent of his illness, none of which are satisfactorily explored--and a lot of what happens is Capone having stream of consciousness thoughts, imagining people who aren't there, replaying past events in his life, and exhibiting nearly every bodily function imaginable.


Seriously, other than ejaculation--which I'm sure was at least discussed--Trank and Hardy cover it all. Capone spits, drools, vomits, has snot running out of his nose, pisses himself, shits the bed, and has another gassy, gurgly, audibly squishy bowel evacuation while being questioned on his back patio by an FBI agent (Jack Lowden), where he's so incoherent and lost that his attorney (played, for some reason, by CHAPPELLE'S SHOW co-creator and DAILY SHOW contributor Neal Brennan) has to answer even the most basic questions for him. If Trank and Hardy had plans of conveying any sense of dignity in Capone's cognitive and physical decline, it pretty much goes out the window when they turn yet another of his spontaneous deuce-droppings into what's basically a messier homage to the campfire scene in BLAZING SADDLES. Capone is cared for by his devoted wife Mae (Linda Cardellini, unable to do anything with the stock "long-suffering mob wife" role), their son Junior (Noel Fisher), and Capone's brother Ralphie (Al Sapienza) and sister Rosie (Kathrine Narducci), with occasional visits from his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan), who forbids cigars post-stroke and tells them to let him "smoke" carrots instead, since he won't know the difference. This leads to a climactic (dream) sequence where Capone finds a golden tommy gun and wanders around the compound grounds, chomping on a carrot and maniacally mowing down everyone while wearing nothing but an open bathrobe and an adult diaper. Matt Dillon also puts in a couple days' work in a nothing role as Johnny, a former Capone associate summoned to help take care of him, but Trank is so focused on providing Hardy with an anything goes, scatalogical showcase that he doesn't even bother to keep under wraps what should be a major twist--that Johnny is just a figment of Capone's imagination--instead giving up the ruse almost immediately after he arrives in Miami, after which Dillon makes only a couple of appearances, with Johnny exiting the film after gouging his own eyes out in another Capone hallucination.


Ultimately, CAPONE isn't really even about Al Capone. It's barely even a movie. It's go-for-broke performance art for an off-the-chain Hardy, who's been given carte blanche to indulge himself to his heart's content in what comes close (but not quite) to being 2020's version of THE FANATIC. For better or worse (mostly the latter), you can't accuse him of slacking on the job. He speaks in a guttural grunt that almost sounds like he's possessed, he gets up during a screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ and sings "If I Were King of the Forest" along with the Cowardly Lion, he has wild outbursts, contorts his face and shrieks "Assassino!" at loyal soldier Gino (Gino Cafarelli) before emphatically throwing himself on the floor, runs outside with some kids and rolls around in the mud, gets all crazy-eyed in a dream sequence where he's at a nightclub with Louis Armstrong (Troy Warren Anderson) singing "Blueberry Hill," goes on a fishing trip in drag, and shoots an alligator after it chomps on the catch he was reeling in. CAPONE was shot two years ago under the title FONZO (the nickname everyone calls Capone), and was allegedly intended to go to theaters until COVID-19 happened, or so say co-distributors Vertical Entertainment and Redbox. Really? Is that so? The pandemic forcing the closing of all the theaters is the reason why this Vertical Entertainment/Redbox title went straight to VOD? Yeah, OK. Are you sure about that?