Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Cannon Files: TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983)

(US/Spain - 1983)

Directed by Ferdinando Baldi. Written by Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce, and Jerry Lazarus. Cast: Tony Anthony, Ana Obregon, Gene Quintano, Jerry Lazarus, Francisco Rabal, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Lewis Gordon. (PG, 101 mins)

When 1983's TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS aired on The Movie Channel's JOE BOB'S DRIVE IN-THEATER back in the late '80s, host Joe Bob Briggs remarked that it was "the first hit in a series of one" for producer/star Tony Anthony. A funny line, yes, but not exactly true. Though he enjoyed some minor success and his COMIN' AT YA! was a surprise hit in 1981, he is, for the most part, an almost completely-forgotten C-lister as far as mainstream audiences are concerned. But the long, strange journey of Tony Anthony is the kind of oddball story that should be made into a movie. He wanted to run his career his own way, and like most independent-minded mavericks, his career achievements, such as they were, came about from ingenuity, perseverance, salesmanship, and having some good friends in unexpected places.

Anthony was born Roger Anthony Pettito in West Virginia in 1937. He broke into movies with his buddy Saul Swimmer (1936-2007) with their 1961 Miami-shot indie FORCE OF IMPULSE. Anthony and Swimmer wrote the script, Swimmer directed, and Anthony co-starred with a decidedly odd cast that featured Robert Alda, J. Carrol Naish, and jazz great Lionel Hampton. Anthony played a poor high-school student trying to woo a rich girl, so he robs his father's grocery store with tragic results. FORCE OF IMPULSE was barely released and probably hasn't been seen in decades, but Anthony and Swimmer kept at it with the 1962 circus drama WITHOUT EACH OTHER. Anthony and Swimmer briefly went their own ways, with Anthony going to Europe and finding work in some Italian films and Swimmer heading to London. As the spaghetti western genre exploded following 1964's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which wasn't released in the US until 1967, producers were scrambling to find the next Clint Eastwood, and Anthony would soon parlay what little notoriety he had into a series of "Man with No Name" knockoffs as "The Stranger."  A STRANGER IN TOWN (1967), THE STRANGER RETURNS (1967), and THE SILENT STRANGER (shot in 1968, shelved until 1975) has varying degrees of success in America and Anthony took on more creative control as the series went on. Swimmer, meanwhile, directed the 1968 Herman's Hermits movie MRS. BROWN, YOU'VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER and, through his friendship with Abkco Records chief and Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, would eventually be part of the Beatles' inner circle once Klein took over managing the band after Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Swimmer co-produced the Beatles' 1970 documentary LET IT BE and would later direct George Harrison's THE CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH (1972). Anthony would eventually be pulled into the Beatles' orbit via his old friend Swimmer, and the pair wrote the post-EASY RIDER road movie COME TOGETHER (1971), starring Anthony, directed by Swimmer and produced by the pair with Ringo Starr. Starr and Anthony hit it off, and after COME TOGETHER, Starr co-starred in Anthony's next film, 1971's BLINDMAN, co-produced by Klein and directed by Italian journeyman Ferdinando Baldi. Due mostly to the novelty of seeing a former Beatle playing a bad guy in a spaghetti western, BLINDMAN was, to that point, Anthony's most significant success with American audiences. In 1972, he starred in the Italian gangster film 1931: ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK, unfortunately retitled PETE, PEARL AND THE POLE for its US release, one of the last titles handled by National General Pictures. In 1975, he and Baldi made GET MEAN, the fourth and final "Stranger" outing. Anthony appeared in just 12 films from 1961 to 1975, and other than BLINDMAN and whatever cult status his spaghetti obscurities have, his career appeared stalled and he didn't even pursue hired-gun acting gigs.

Anthony had other things in mind and it would be six years before the world heard from him again. Teaming with American producers Gene Quintano and Marshall Lupo, Anthony formed a new production company and found his true calling: he was bringing 3-D back in a big way.  The process had been used only sparingly since its flash-in-the-pan craze from 1953 to 1954. Anthony recruited his BLINDMAN and GET MEAN director Baldi for COMIN' AT YA!, a violent, R-rated, 3-D spaghetti western throwback that became a sleeper hit for Filmways in 1981. Anthony and his collaborators had one goal: throw everything at the screen. Audiences loved it, though obviously because of the novelty of 3-D rather than the inanities of Anthony's script. COMIN' AT YA! was enough of a success that the same creative personnel--Anthony, Quintano, Lupo, and Baldi--moved on to their next 3-D outing, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, a modernized but still quite blatant ripoff of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Anthony and Quintano conceived the story, which was scripted by frequent Anthony collaborator Lloyd Battista, Jim Bryce, and co-star Jerry Lazarus. Shot in Spain with American and Spanish actors and an Italian crew, with music by none other than Ennio Morricone, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS was acquired by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and released by Cannon in US theaters on January 21, 1983. By this time, the second big 3-D craze was underway with the previous year's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and PARASITE, and, later in 1983, films like JAWS 3-D, AMITYVILLE 3-D, METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN, and SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. Additionally, 3-D classics from the first wave like 1953's HOUSE OF WAX and 1954's DIAL M FOR MURDER were given nationwide re-releases to capitalize on the trend. To the surprise of no one, the fad fizzled as quickly as it did 30 years earlier, but the renewed enthusiasm, however brief, can largely be credited to Tony Anthony and COMIN' AT YA!

While today's digital 3-D primarily adds depth, texture, and detail, the old-school 3-D films were about having things pop out of the screen, and few understood this as well as Tony Anthony. After an opening crawl in no way inspired by STAR WARS, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS commences with a 20-minute prologue as soldier-of-fortune J.T. Striker (Anthony, of course) searches for a hidden key inside a haunted castle. Over the course of those 20 minutes, Baldi and Anthony throw bats, buzzards, snakes, dogs, glass, spears, ropes, arrows, swords, cigarettes, and fireballs at the viewer. Anthony does everything short of unzipping his fly and showing the goods in his non-stop quest to just constantly dangle things in the audience's face. Virtually every scene--even boring exposition--features awkwardly-staged shots of people just sticking things in front of the camera.  Usually, you can clearly see the strings pulling the items. Audiences ate it up, and while FOUR CROWNS is a sentimental favorite to those of a certain age thanks to it seemingly being aired on a constant loop on cable in the '80s, it really doesn't play well flat. Time and again, things come to a dead halt when an actor has to stop the flow of a scene to hold something--a pen, a piece of paper, a key--in front of the camera for an absurd amount of time.  And the story is utter nonsense: Striker is hired by an aging professor (Francisco Villena) and money man Ed (Quintano, a terrible actor) to seek out the remaining two of four mystical, supernatural crowns with otherworldly powers. Striker assembles his team: Ed, "90 proof courage" alcoholic Rick (Lazarus), and father-daughter acrobatic pair Socrates (Francisco Rabal) and Liz (Ana Obregon) to infiltrate the impenetrable fortress of crazed cult leader Brother Jonas (Emiliano Redondo), who has the Crowns hidden in a booby-trapped lair inside.

While its set-up owes pretty much everything to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, right down to Striker being chased by a boulder, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS becomes more of a goofy heist movie. And it's never goofier than in the bonkers climax, which makes the whole tedious affair worthwhile. Striker finds the remaining two Crowns and the jewels inside cause him to be possessed by an otherworldly entitiy. His head spins around EXORCIST-style and his face mutates before he starts wiping out Jonas' army of followers by shooting fire from his hands. That's capped off by a nonsensical appearance by a disgusting lizard creature that seemingly there to set up a sequel that we're still waiting to see.

Sweating profusely throughout and looking like Christopher Hitchens with a bad case of heartburn, Anthony has absolutely no charisma and zero screen presence, making you appreciate Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, David Warbeck in some of Antonio Margheriti's Italian RAIDERS knockoffs, and Richard Chamberlain's affable Allan Quatermain in Cannon's KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985) even more. Anthony had his biggest box office hits with COMIN' AT YA and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, and that must've made him happy: after his triumphant turn as J.T. Striker, Anthony retired from acting and shows no signs of making a comeback. He continued producing movies with Quintano, like 1990's HONEYMOON ACADEMY and the popular 1998 TNT western DOLLAR FOR THE DEAD. Anthony also co-produced the Zalman King late-night cable favorite WILD ORCHID (1990), while Quintano went on to write the aforementioned KING SOLOMON'S MINES, as well as POLICE ACADEMY 3: BACK IN TRAINING (1985) and POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL (1987), and direct the instantly forgotten Christophers Lambert & Lloyd heist comedy WHY ME? (1990) and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S LOADED WEAPON 1 (1993).

Tony Anthony doing a Q&A
at a 2012 screening of
Now 76, Anthony has been inactive in movies since his producing credit on DOLLAR FOR THE DEAD, but he occupied his time owning and operating a successful optical supply company that stemmed from his longstanding interest in camera and projection equipment (he designed a special lens around the time of COMIN' AT YA! that was used by studios and theater chains in the subsequent early '80s 3-D craze). He briefly returned from his self-imposed exile in 2011 when he converted COMIN' AT YA! to digital 3-D and it was re-released on an Alamo Drafthouse tour. TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, meanwhile, has finally been released on DVD as part of a Shout! Factory "Action Adventure Movie Marathon" four-film set, with I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973), THE FINAL OPTION (1983), and SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959).  I wish the news was better, but Shout!'s presentation of FOUR CROWNS is one of the worst DVD transfers in the history of the medium, barely sub-YouTube in quality, cropped from 2.35 to 1.33, and riddled with extensive scratches and debris, inconsistent color, and significant print damage, rendering it an almost-unwatchable travesty. Yes, the four-film set retails at $9.99, but the picture quality is shockingly bad for a company of Shout!'s reputation. I get that it's the only print they had access to, but you could find a 30-year-old VHS tape at a flea market and the picture quality would be better. It does offer a pleasant and enthusiastic commentary track by "pop culture historian" and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS superfan Russell Dyball, but a sentimental cult favorite like this deserves something a little more than what Shout! has given it.

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