Thursday, January 26, 2017

Retro Review: SCAVENGER HUNT (1979)

(US - 1979)

Directed by Michael Schultz. Written by Steven A. Vail and Henry Harper. Cast: Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Scatman Crothers, Ruth Gordon, Cloris Leachman, Cleavon Little, Roddy McDowall, Robert Morley, Richard Mulligan, Tony Randall, Dirk Benedict, Willie Aames, Stephanie Faracy, Richard Masur, Meat Loaf, Vincent Price, Pat McCormick, Avery Schreiber, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liz Torres, Maureen Teefy, Carol Wayne, Stephen Furst, Stuart Pankin, Henry Polic II, Hal Landon Jr, Marji Martin, Jerado Decordovier. (PG, 116 mins)

When you go a couple of decades or longer without seeing a favorite film from your younger, formative years, you always run the risk of childhood nostalgia blowing up in your face, forcing you to confront the harsh realization that this thing you loved so much just might be a steaming pile of dog shit. Such is the case with SCAVENGER HUNT, a comedy that did only middling business in theaters when it was released the week of Christmas 1979. It found an audience on cable, where it was in constant rotation on Showtime and The Movie Channel in the early '80s, watched over and over again by latch-key kids like me who got home from school and had a couple of hours to kill before Mom and Dad got home from work. It was a movie I watched many times and always guffawed at the wacky, slapstick antics of the all-star cast of comedy stars and familiar character actor ringers I recognized from TV. I hadn't seen SCAVENGER HUNT in over 30 years and I still vividly recalled specific scenes. The film was just released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and in watching it again, many of those scenes played out exactly as I remembered, but something was different this time. It's the same movie, but I wasn't laughing. So is it me? Have maturity, life experience and age combined to make SCAVENGER HUNT a miserable slog now compared to the uproarious classic it was when I was eight or nine? Other comedies from that era that I watched a million times hold up beautifully. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. THE BLUES BROTHERS. CADDYSHACK. AIRPLANE! PORKY'S. I still love the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes shorts I watched repeatedly at that age. But SCAVENGER HUNT? Was it always this awful and I was just too young and dumb to know any better? Because let me be clear: what was comedy gold at nine was excruciatingly painful to watch through 44-year-old eyes.

The film opens with the death of wealthy board game creator Milton Parker (Vincent Price). His attorney Charles Bernstein (Robert Morley) reveals that Parker left a unique will for the "scavengers" looking to inherit his $200 million fortune: they're to form five groups and work from a checklist with objects to acquire for point value and bring back to the Parker estate by 5:00 pm that day. The teams: Parker's greedy sister Mildred Carruthers (Cloris Leachman), her oafish man-child of a son Georgie (Richard Masur), and her sleazy lawyer Stuart Selsome (Richard Benjamin); the servant staff consisting of butler Jenkins (Roddy McDowall), limo driver Jackson (Cleavon Little), chef Henri (James Coco), and sexy French maid Babette (Stephanie Faracy); Parker's hunky, nice-guy nephews Jeff (Dirk Benedict) and Kenny (Willie Aames), who welcome Mildred's outcast stepdaughter Lisa (Maureen Teefy) along; Parker's widower son-in-law Henry Motley (Tony Randall), who sees it as a way to bond with his four kids after his wife's death; and lunkhead cabbie Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan), who failed to get Parker's business partner to a meeting in a timely fashion many years earlier, therefore enabling him to take over their company and include Dummitz in the scavenger hunt as a form of gratitude. That Mad-inspired name--obviously a riff on Melvin Dummar, the guy who claimed to have given a ride to a disheveled Howard Hughes and was later named in a disputed will after Hughes' death--is the closest SCAVENGER HUNT comes to a clever joke, and it's a reference I never would've gotten at nine years of age.

With the ground rules set, the rest of the movie basically consists of acts of wanton slapstick destruction as a bunch of actors run and flail around, shouting, screaming, and mugging shamelessly as they do whatever it takes to get the items on their list. This leads to scenes where the servants have to steal a toilet, Selsome has to move a huge safe from the top floor of a building with an out-of-service elevator, Kenny has to tear the clown head off the drive-thru order speaker at a Jack-in-the-Box, and Dummitz has to disguise himself as a mummy, for some reason. Other objects on the list include tennis rackets, laughing gas (yes, it leads to a scene with everyone hysterically laughing), a fat person (yes), false teeth, a bulletproof vest, a globe, five ostriches, a stuffed fish, an oar, a stroller, a medicine ball, a table, assorted kitchenware, a football helmet, an old cylinder phonograph, etc. By the time of the climactic car chase with everyone heading to the Parker mansion with the random junk spilling out of their vehicles, SCAVENGER HUNT starts to look like an unfunny hybrid of IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and SANFORD AND SON. As in IAMMMMW and other similar, star-studded comedies that send their large casts on a madcap pursuit (THE GREAT RACE, THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, THE GUMBALL RALLY, MIDNIGHT MADNESS, THE CANNONBALL RUN, GREEDY, THE RAT RACE, etc), other parties end up joining the ensuing fracas, including a bridal shop security guard (Scatman Crothers), three obese people (Stuart Pankin, Stephen Furst, and Marji Martin) who are among the "items" and exist only to be the butt of endless "fatty eats and/or falls down" jokes, an old Native American (Jerado Decordovier) whose dentures were stolen by Selsome, and a lisping, Sylvester the Cat-sounding zookeeper (Avery Schreiber), looking for his stolen ostriches. Various parties also cross paths with a batty old weapons nut (Ruth Gordon), fearsome motorcycle gang leader Scum (Meat Loaf), and pumped-up gym trainer Lars (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Over 116 laborious minutes, nothing funny happens. It's a pretty amazing grouping of actors and they seem to be having a good time (Benjamin, especially), but SCAVENGER HUNT is the kind of comedy where everyone equates being loud with being funny. Everyone plays everything too broadly and most of the one-liners are totally rimshot-ready ("I loved him like a brother," Mildred says of Parker, to which Bernstein replies "He was your brother"). Bankrolled by shopping mall magnate turned movie producer Melvin Simon, SCAVENGER HUNT was co-written and produced by Steven A. Vail, whose only prior credit was the smutty 1978 late night cable favorite and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE ripoff JOKES MY FOLKS NEVER TOLD ME, and directed by Michael Schultz, which leads to the bizarre opening credit "A Steven A. Vail film by Michael Schultz." Schultz already had a reputation as a top African-American filmmaker of the decade with hit films like 1975's COOLEY HIGH and 1976's CAR WASH, and was a frequent Richard Pryor collaborator (WHICH WAY IS UP? and GREASED LIGHTNING, both from 1977, and he directed some of 1981's BUSTIN' LOOSE, though only Oz Scott received credit). Schultz's career hit a major speed bump with the expensive 1978 flop SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, which gathered a huge cast of non-singers in a musical starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. After SCAVENGER HUNT, Schultz stayed busy but he never lived up to the potential of his early hits. He enjoyed moderate box office successes with THE LAST DRAGON and KRUSH GROOVE in 1985, and directed the 1987 comedy DISORDERLIES, notable for its much-anticipated teaming of The Fat Boys and Ralph Bellamy. Other than 1991's LIVIN' LARGE and 2004's WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED, the now-78-year-old Schultz has worked exclusively in TV since the late 1980s, directing episodes of a myriad of shows, among them PICKET FENCES, ALLY MCBEAL, FELICITY, THE PRACTICE, BOSTON PUBLIC, EVERWOOD, TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, JAG, BROTHERS & SISTERS, and most recently, BLACK-ISH and ARROW. Schultz contributes a commentary track to the SCAVENGER HUNT Blu-ray, and cites it as his most successful film in terms of people mentioning it to him. It's remained a minor cult classic beloved by those who saw it at an impressionable age, and part of that ongoing affection might be because it was out of circulation for so long unless, as Schultz points out, "you taped it off of TV years ago or found an old VHS tape at a garage sale or on eBay." If you want to keep having fond memories of SCAVENGER HUNT, then you'd be wise to just leave it alone, because revisiting this one was a soul-crushing disappointment.

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