Thursday, April 30, 2020

On Netflix: EXTRACTION (2020)

(US - 2020)

Directed by Sam Hargrave. Written by Joe Russo. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, David Harbour, Rudraksh Jaiswal, Randeep Hooda, Golshifteh Farahani, Pankaj Tripathi, Priyanshu Painyuli, Suraj Rikame, Shataf Figar, Sam Hargrave, Rayna Campbell, Sudipto Ballav, Adam Bessa, Neha Mahajan, (R, 116 mins)

A Netflix production combined with the unforeseen COVID-19 novel coronavirus covers all bases in sparing Chris Hemsworth the indignity of having another non-Marvel movie bomb in theaters, but the non-stop action extravaganza EXTRACTION kicks all sorts of ass. Of course, it's got Marvel connections beyond Hemsworth, with screenwriter Joe Russo (co-director of two CAPTAIN AMERICAs and two AVENGERS movies) adapting Ande Parks' graphic novel Ciudad, and directing duties handled by veteran stunt coordinator and Chris Evans' Captain America stunt double Sam Hargrave. EXTRACTION is an impressive directing debut for Hargrave, who keeps things at a frenetic pace with an opening hour filled with one gonzo action set piece after another, including one long, 12-minute chase sequence where the edit cheats are obvious, but it's so expertly-assembled and tightly-edited that it doesn't diminish the effect at all. Hemsworth hasn't had much box-office success outside the Marvel extended universe, but EXTRACTION is his best star vehicle since Michael Mann's BLACKHAT, which of course tanked in theaters but has found a cult following since, and although it was intended for streaming before the coronavirus shuttered movie theaters indefinitely, EXTRACTION probably would've been quite an experience on a big screen. Hargrave approaches the film with a stuntman's eye for action, and in many ways, this looks and feels like a mash-up of THE RAID 2 with a big-budget version of the kind of B-movie actiongasms that guys like Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine have been making for years.

In Mumbai, teenage Ovi Mahajan (Rudraksh Jaiswal) is kidnapped by operatives working for Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), an insanely wealthy Bangladeshi drug lord seeking revenge on incarcerated Indian rival Ovi Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi). A jailhouse visit with Ovi Sr spells it out for his security chief Saju (Randeep Hooda), who was put in charge of protecting Ovi Jr: "You want your son to see his next birthday? Then get mine back." Enter Australian black-ops mercenary Tyler Rake (Hemsworth), recruited by his handler Nik (Golshifteh Farahani) to lead an extraction team to Dhaka, obtain proof of life, and bring Ovi home. Rescuing Ovi goes off relatively easy--and involves Rake wiping out a dozen guys, even killing two of them with, you guessed it, a rake--but then their payment doesn't transfer and the extraction team starts getting picked off one by one by an assailant quickly revealed to be Saju. He's been ordered by Ovi Sr to wipe out the extraction team after they do all the heavy lifting with rescuing Ovi as a way to avoid paying them. But money or not, Rake is the kind of guy who finishes a mission--and he has to somehow get Ovi back to Mumbai after Asif, who has both the police and the military on his payroll, shuts down the city. And for his own personal reasons later conveyed in a tragic backstory, Rake vows to protect the sensitive boy, who plays the piano and just wants to hang out with his friends and feels sick to his stomach knowing that his father is in a business where he regularly has to kill people.

The characters are pretty paper-thin--of course Painyuli's Asif is a cartoonish villain, David Harbour as Rake's ex-mercenary buddy may have ulterior motives, and Rake has a reason for taking all of this personally and self-medicating with booze and oxy and meditating underwater to dull a pain-to-be-named-later that's hinted at in quick, blurry cutaways with Nik gravely intoning "You're hoping if you spin the chamber enough times, you'll catch a bullet"--but that's not what EXTRACTION is about. Sure, Hemsworth and young Jaiswal develop a good MAN ON FIRE chemistry as the movie goes on, and regardless of how you interpret that ambiguous final shot, it's unexpectedly affecting either way. But if you're looking for bone-crushing, limb-snapping, throat-slashing, face-pummeling, skull-blasting action, then this will definitely cure the moviegoing blues if you've missed explosive, big-screen excitement these last six weeks. EXTRACTION is formulaic at a top level, and is good enough at what it is that it instantly establishes Hargrave as a promising action director to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020


(US - 2020)

Directed by Cory Finley. Written by Mike Makowsky. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Welker White, Annaleigh Ashford, Hari Dhillon, Jeremy Shamos, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Catherine Curtin, Kathrine Narducci, Ray Abruzzo, Kayli Carter, Jimmy Tatro, Pat Healy, Victor Verhaeghe, John Scurti, Larry Romano. (Unrated, 109 mins)

Based on Robert Kolker's 2004 New York Magazine article "The Bad Superintendent," BAD EDUCATION chronicles what stands as the largest school system embezzlement--upwards of $11 million-- in US history, a scandal that broke at Roslyn High School in Long Island in 2002. What's so jaw-dropping about what's depicted here is how it was more or less in plain sight, with numerous parties involved, with no one really paying attention to things like a treasurer owning three homes and driving a Jaguar to work every day. Roslyn is a school district on the rise and getting national attention, leading to some rapidly increasing property values, with by-the-book school board president Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a millionaire from his day job selling real estate. But the star of Roslyn is beloved, charismatic superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), an almost god-like figure who's the face of the school system, a former English teacher with a passion for Charles Dickens, and a dedicated educator who always makes time for any student. He offers a quick pull quote about a heavily-hyped, multi-million "skywalk" construction project for the high school to Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a junior doing grunt work on the school paper. She says it's just a puff piece because seniors get all the good stories, but the always-inspiring Dr. Tassone reminds her that "it's only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece," and that a good journalist can turn anything into a substantive story. Curious about some contractor bids on the skywalk contract (and being curtly dismissed when she asks why some of that money isn't going toward replacing the numerous moldy and rotting ceiling tiles throughout the school), Rachel is given the key to the records room by treasurer and assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) and she starts noticing financial inconsistencies, payments for vaguely-defined services to companies with non-existent phone numbers, payments for work that was never done, etc. She keeps digging despite being scolded by senior editor-at-large Nick Fleischman (HEREDITARY's Alex Wolff) that "we're just a school paper...not the New York Times."

But then the shit hits the fan. Gluckin's dumbass son (Jimmy Tatro) makes thousands of dollars worth of purchases at several Ace hardware stores over the course of a day, all for an expensive remodeling project at one of Gluckin's three homes. A store manager alerts Spicer, who has no idea why Gluckin's son would have a school credit card in his own name. An initial probe finds a minimum of $250,000 in misappropriated funds, but that's not counting all of the lost and discarded receipts. Gluckin is thrown under the bus, forced to resign, and deemed a sociopath by Tassone, but her transgressions are only scratching the surface of what's going on with some administrative staff at Roslyn. That's especially true with Tassone, who's also been living on the school's credit line for years and has an endless list of secrets and a partially fabricated past--no spoilers, but no one seems to have any recollection of his wife who "passed away a long time ago"--that he desperately tries to keep a lid on but can't quit behaving in a reckless and stupid fashion. And like Gluckin, he wants the wealth and privilege that Roslynians like Spicer are enjoying, and has grown so accustomed to getting away with it because everyone is so happy and complacent that he's become sloppy and isn't even bothering to cover his tracks anymore.

Oozing charm and slick confidence, and constantly maintaining Tassone's impeccable appearance, Jackman turns in one of his best performances, a complex balancing act that shows Tassone juggling several illusions for years on end while keeping his dark secrets hidden behind a mask--a mask that he symbolically maintains with a touch-up facelift over Christmas break (of course, he puts it on the school's credit card). An indie screened at last year's Toronto Film Festival and picked up by HBO, BAD EDUCATION was written by Mike Makowsky, who attended Roslyn High a few years after the scandal, with the aftershocks still being felt years later. Makowsky and director Cory Finley (THOROUGHBREDS) tell the story in a straightforward and darkly comedic fashion that recalls Alexander Payne's ELECTION, though its humor is less cynical and more just the shock of the events that transpire. It stays generally faithful to the story, though Viswanathan's "Rachel Bhargava" is a fictional composite of several student reporters who secretly did the digging, checked and corroborated their sources, uncovered the extent of the criminal activity, and broke the story in the school's own Hilltop Beacon newspaper.

Monday, April 27, 2020


(Australia/France/UK/China - 2020)

Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Shaun Grant. Cast: George MacKay, Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Ben Corbett, Claudia Karvan, Jack Charles, Lola Hewison, Paul Capsis, Jacob Collins-Levy. (R, 125 mins)

Licking his wounds after his ill-advised sojourn to Hollywood for a big-budget video game franchise that wasn't with the dismal ASSASSIN'S CREED, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, MACBETH) retreats to safer ground with the smaller-scale TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG. Based on Peter Carey's acclaimed 2000 novel of the same name, the film is yet another look at the life of Australian outlaw, folk hero, and cultural icon Ned Kelly, executed by hanging in 1880 and played in the past by Mick Jagger in 1970's NED KELLY and by Heath Ledger in an identically-titled 2003 version. Carey's novel was more or less high-end Ned Kelly fan fiction, and Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant take even more liberties with their so-called "punk rock" adaptation, most notably with some gender-bending elements and overt homoeroticism that indicate a queer interpretation of the Kelly mythology. It doesn't really stick the landing and comes off as trying too hard to force a subtext--one that wasn't in the novel--through the enlightened lens of woke 2020. It's an interesting approach that probably seemed like a better concept on paper than in the way it plays out on the screen, where the feeling ends up being one of a grim Down Under western like THE PROPOSITION if re-imagined by HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH auteur John Cameron Mitchell.

The title itself is an intentional misnomer, as an opening caption reads "Nothing you're about to see is true." The story is told through a letter Kelly writes to his unborn child, and we first see 12-year-old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) in the desolate nowhere of Van Diemen's Land, where his father Red (Ben Corbett) has been banished. The area is patrolled by despicable Brit Sgt. O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam), who regularly enjoys the sexual services of Red's wife and Ned's mother Ellen (THE BABADOOK's Essie Davis, who's terrific here). When Red is hauled away by O'Neil and eventually dies, Ellen takes up with a variety of suitors, including the notorious Harry Power (a bloated, madman-bearded Russell Crowe), a wily bushranger and feared outlaw who takes Ned under his wing and teaches him to be a man. It turns out to be yet another cruel life lesson for young Ned, who wants to go back to his mother but is informed that it's out of the question since she sold him to Harry. As an adult, Ned (1917's George MacKay takes over the role 40 minutes in) is making a meager living as a bareknuckle brawler and returns along with his friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) to his ramshackle child home, where his mother has taken up with George King (Marlon Williams), an American who's the same age as he is, and who politely introduces himself to his stepson with "I try to forget that you came kicking and screaming out of that pussy." Ned, who exchanges longing glances and playful physical affection with Joe (including spooning and cuddling) is alarmed to find his younger brother Dan (Earl Cave, Nick's lookalike son) wearing dresses and in a sexual relationship with one-eyed Steve Hart (Louis Hewison). That bit of info is given to him by sadistic constable Alex Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, channeling a young Malcolm McDowell), who Ned first meets at a local brothel, where they flirt with one another while a nude Fitzpatrick lounges on a sofa wearing nothing but garters and socks and waxing rhapsodic about fucking while wearing a dress.

Though punctuated by sporadic instances of shocking violence (including one guy strung up to a tree with his own balls crammed into his mouth), TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is less a commercial western and more a surreal, stylized study of the tortured psyche of Ned Kelly, whether it's him sorting out his bi-curiosity and his masculinity, his unresolved Oedipal issues with his unstable mother, or his love for prostitute and single mom Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie), who gets the full Ellen Kelly treatment upon her introduction, with Ned's mother spitting "Look at you...you got one of those cunts men fall in love with." It's not just the "True" part of the title that's a misnomer, but the Kelly Gang as well. Kurzel and Grant aren't interested in any of the standard western exploits of an outlaw gang. Said gang--cross-dressing enthusiasts calling themselves "Sons of Sieve," and initially comprised of Ned, Dan, Steve, and Jim, before being joined by many others--just appears in time for the shootout with British constables at Glenrowan, presented here in seizure-inducing Gaspar Noe-like fashion with intense strobe lighting and the constables represented in the distance as flashing skeletal figures with light beams for bullets. MacKay gives it his all in a performance that frequently borders on feral, but Kurzel and Grant don't appear to be working toward a defined purpose here, throwing a ton of ideas at the wall--including some intentional anachronisms that seem to be a shout-out to WALKER-era Alex Cox, which no one needs--just to see what sticks. TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG works best in the more conventional opening third, which is where it's most like your usual grim Australian western, with a hammy Crowe briefly taking center stage, leading the Kelly kids in a catchy and stunningly vulgar singalong and proving himself an absolutely merciless bastard once he's got young Ned in tow. The film gets less interesting as each name actor exits (Crowe and Hunnam both check out by the 35-minute mark). That's not on MacKay, but the more TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG goes on, the more Kurzel loses the thread and the film becomes an exercise in ponderous, scattershot self-indulgence that's trying to be too many things at once.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Retro Review: YETI: THE GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY (1977)

(Italy - 1977)

Directed by Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Parolini). Written by Marcello Coscia, Gianfranco Parolini and Mario Di Nardo. Cast: Phoenix Grant (Antonella Interlenghi), Jim Sullivan (Matteo Zoffoli), Tony Kendall, Mimmo Crao, Eddy Fay (Edoardo Faieta), John Stacy, Steve Elliot (Stelio Candelli), Loris Bazoky (Loris Bazzocchi), Donald O'Brien, Al Canti, Francesco D'Adda, Giuseppe Mattei, Claudio Zucchet, Stefano Cedrati, The American Collie Indio. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Dino De Laurentiis' blockbuster 1976 remake of KING KONG got trashed by critics but was a big hit with audiences, so of course the ripoffs were inevitable. Two were even quickly rushed into production when it was announced: the 3-D South Korean A*P*E (starring a pre-GROWING PAINS Joanna Kerns), which beat KING KONG into US theaters by two months, and the British-West German spoof QUEEN KONG cut it much closer, hitting European theaters a week before KING KONG's Christmas 1976 premiere (it was never released theatrically in the States). The Hong Kong THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN was in Asian theaters in the summer of 1977 and would eventually be released in the US in 1980 as GOLIATHON, then languishing in obscurity until its 1999 resurrection on the midnight movie circuit courtesy of Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures. America's lowly Monarch Releasing Corporation dusted off a 1968 Italian jungle horror adventure called KONG ISLAND--a Dick Randall production with peplum star Brad Harris as a mercenary vs. Marc Lawrence as a mad scientist doing mind control experiments on gorillas that had nothing to do with a giant ape--and shamelessly dumped it in drive-ins in 1978 like a flaming bag of dog shit at someone's doorstep as KING OF KONG ISLAND. Surprisingly, the usually savvy ripoff masters in the Italian exploitation industry were a little slow in their response, taking an entire year to release YETI: THE GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY.

Partly shot in Toronto, giving it a slight era-appropriate Canadian tax-shelter vibe (where's George Touliatos?), YETI found journeyman director Gianfranco Parolini--using his usual "Frank Kramer" pseudonym--on a career downturn. Parolini enjoyed some success in the 1960s with his KOMMISSAR X series of 007 knockoffs, and later with his 1969-1971 SABATA spaghetti western trilogy (the first and third with Lee Van Cleef, the second with Yul Brynner). Parolini was coming off of 1976's GOD'S GUN, an Italian-Israeli spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance, Richard Boone, Sybil Danning, and teen idol Leif Garrett. It was both an early Golan-Globus production and one of the worst spaghetti westerns ever made, and certainly the worst with actors of that caliber. Parolini's slump continued with the laughably cheap KING KONG cash-in YETI, which never even scored a US theatrical release, sitting unclaimed for seven years before becoming an early acquisition of a Miramax Films that was still finding its niche. They sold it to syndicated TV in 1984, where YETI's generally family-friendly nature made it a semi-regular presence on Saturday afternoon Creature Features. It eventually found some status as a bad movie favorite after it was broadcast on a 1985 installment of Elvira's "Movie Macabre."  A public domain fixture in the era of clearance-bin DVD sets, YETI: THE GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY wouldn't seem to be a film anyone was clamoring for in pristine HD clarity, but nevertheless, here we are: it's just been released on a bare bones Blu-ray from Code Red/Dark Force, because physical media is dead.

When a giant, million-year-old creature is found frozen in a block of ice off the coast of Newfoundland, billionaire Toronto industrial magnate H.H. Hunnicut (Edoardo Faieta, billed as "Eddy Fay") sends scientist Prof. Wasserman (John Stacy) to head an excavation team supervised by Hunnicut hatchet man Cliff Chandler (Tony Kendall,the star of the KOMMISSAR X films). Also tagging along are Hunnicut's orphaned grandchildren, Jane (Antonella Interlenghi, billed as "Phoenix Grant") and younger, mute Herbie (Matteo Zoffoli, billed as "Jim Sullivan"), the latter a science enthusiast who, as Jane explains in some clumsily-conveyed dubbed exposition, "lost his voice in the plane crash in which my father and mother died." Once thawed, the creature is revealed to be a Yeti (Mimmo Crao, mostly on his own against a not-100% functioning bluescreen), and it begins showing signs of life with a weak heartbeat. It regains strength and goes on a rampage at the excavation site before being calmed by the presence of Herbie, his dog Indio (played by a collie credited as "The American Collie Indio"), and especially Jane, for whom he develops a classic King Kong/Fay Wray attraction. Against Wasserman's wishes, Hunnicut decides to make the Yeti the trademark logo of all of his businesses, which leads to improbably huge, Yeti-crazed crowds at his gas stations and his supermarkets, where customers line up with a Beatlemania-like fervor for a creepy "Kiss Me Yeti" promotion. Speaking of creepy, look out for Chandler, played by a 41-year-old Kendall, trying to get all up in Jane's business, which would be inappropriate for a family-aimed adventure even if future CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD co-star Interlenghi wasn't just 16 when this was made.

The fantastical elements aside, YETI doesn't exist in any kind of logical reality. Even a cigar-sucking CEO as buffoonishly stupid as Hunnicut would see the danger of staging the Yeti's public introduction to a packed crowd of spectators on the top of a downtown Toronto skyscraper, which goes about as well as you'd expect when the media advances on the terrified creature and starts taking photos with huge flash bulbs going off. Granted, it's an odd twist that the Yeti climbs down the skyscraper instead of up, but then he's loose in the city and somehow sneaking up on people as if he's not anywhere between 30 and 500 ft. tall. Thanks to its cheapness and subpar special effects, the Yeti's size changes drastically from scene to scene before Jane and Herbie lure him to Toronto's Exhibition Stadium (where earlier, Parolini gives us some extended footage of a Blue Jays game during the team's 1977 inaugural season), and later to a warehouse, where Wasserman gives the weakened creature some oxygen via an unusually large nasal cannula that he must've had lying around for just such an occasion. For reasons that are never quite clear, Chandler and two goons (Stelio Candelli, Loris Bazzochi) decide to kill Wasserman and make it look like the Yeti did it, but Herbie and Indio overhear them talking about it, prompting Indio to go full Lassie, running off to bark a warning to Jane. The Yeti once again gets loose and goes after Chandler and his stooges en route to a showdown with the cops, led by future DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. madman Donald O'Brien, who goes through the finale with an incredulous look on his face that says "Hold on a second...wasn't I in John Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN and GRAND PRIX?"

YETI really deserves to be better-known among bad movie aficionados. Whether its the ridiculous, nonsensical plot machinations; the inability to decide if it wants to be a kiddie movie or an exploitation grinder (Chandler tries to sexually assault Jane at one point during a Yeti rampage, and even his guys are like "What are you doing?!"); the way Herbie is dressed as if young Zoffoli (later seen as a young Sicilian boy in THE BIG RED ONE) got lost on his way to a junior high production of Little Lord Fauntleroy; the way Chandler's getaway car peels out of a downtown Toronto parking lot, and after one turn and a single cut, is immediately on a seaside mountain road, presumably somewhere in Italy; and the peculiarly catchy title jam that's definitely a "Goofy Italian Theme Song" Hall of Famer with its almost "funky OMEN" sound, YETI's idiotic joys are endless. Best of all are the chintzy Yeti bluescreen work and the embarrassing miniatures, with Parolini focusing so much on a cheap toy helicopter that you'd think he was proud of it (don't miss Crao tightly grasping an oversized plastic doll when the Yeti is supposed to be holding Herbie). Cinematographer Sandro Mancori is also credited with "Blue back," and he had a lengthy career as a never-exemplary but certainly competent D.P., with several credits for directors like Parolini, Antonio Margheriti, and Enzo G. Castellari, that one must assume he was doing the best he could here under the circumstances. This is a corner-cutting production, and the only conclusion you can really draw is that most of the budget probably went to hotel and airfare getting the Italian cast and crew to Canada and back. After a busy career going back to the 1950s, Parolini took a decade off after YETI, sitting out almost all of the coming Italian exploitation trends (no zombies, no post-nukes, no CONAN ripoffs) before making a one-off return with the little-seen 1987 Philippines-shot Indiana Jones ripoff THE SECRET OF THE INCAS' EMPIRE, starring Italian action D-lister "Conrad Nichols" (real name Bruno Minnetti). Parolini died in 2018 at the age of 93. YETI didn't advance the acting career of Mimmo Crao, who has zero IMDb credits after his stellar work in the title role here. Interestingly, he also had his most high-profile gig the same year, appearing as the apostle Thaddeus in Franco Zeffirelli's hugely popular 1977 NBC miniseries JESUS OF NAZARETH.

Monday, April 13, 2020


(UK/US/Russia - 2019)

An ambitious but inert chronicle of the 1880s "War of the Currents" between Thomas Edison (Team DC: direct current) and George Westinghouse (Team AC: alternating current), THE CURRENT WAR has a behind-the-scenes backstory that's ultimately more interesting than the one it presents onscreen. Originally shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2017 and set to be released that November by the Weinstein Company (you can already see where this is going), it was one of many films pulled from the release schedule and shelved indefinitely when HarveyGate broke in the October interim. Weinstein had been supervising some last-minute editing, and with the film in limbo and Weinstein out, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and several episodes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY) appealed to co-executive producer Martin Scorsese to allow him to re-edit the film to his own--and not Weinstein's--specifications as well as arrange some additional reshoots. Gomez-Rejon also tossed the original score heard in the 2017 Toronto version and replaced it with a new one. The end result--sold to the upstart 101 Studios and advertised as THE CURRENT WAR: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT for its theatrical run in October 2019--is a rarity in that, at 102 minutes, it's actually ten minutes shorter than what the notorious Harvey Scissorhands was going to release in 2017. Despite a relentless blitz of TV spots, THE CURRENT WAR died at the box office, though it will no doubt find its proper audience once schools reopen, playing over four class periods to bored junior high science students while the teacher gets caught up on grading papers.

Written by Michael Mitnick, who originally pitched the idea as a musical production over a decade ago (Weinstein's name has been removed from the released version, but other credited producers like Scorsese, Steven Zaillan, Bob Yari, and Timur Bekmambetov should give you an idea of how many people were involved at various points over the long development period), THE CURRENT WAR opens in 1880 as Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch, also one of the producers) obtains a patent on an invention "whose purpose is simple: to give light." It involves lighting by direct current and he attracts the attention of both powerful financier J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) and President Chester A. Arthur (Corey Johnson), the latter already impressed with Edison's invention of the phonograph. His work also intrigues engineer and entrepreneur Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who invites Edison to dinner but is stood up with no explanation. It's this personal slight that begins the "War of the Currents," as Westinghouse and his friend Franklin Pope (Stanley Townsend) tout their method of electric illumination with alternating current, which covers longer distances than direct current. Edison is made aware of this by contract worker and "futurist" Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who warns him that most of the country is empty space and that focusing on direct current isn't thinking about the long-term. This leads to a back-and-forth game of one-upmanship that will see tragedies for both men--Edison's wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) dies from a degenerative disease assumed by historians to be a brain tumor that wasn't helped by that era's all-purpose quick fix of laudanum, and Westinghouse loses his right-hand man Pope to an accidental electrocution--and a frustrated Tesla eventually joining forces with Westinghouse when he can no longer deal with the stubborn and egomaniacal Edison.

Original 2017 poster
THE CURRENT WAR covers the details, but does so in a dry, educational fashion that isn't far removed from those historical films that Roberto Rossellini made in the last years of his career, and Gomez-Rejon's frequent indulgence in fish-eye lenses, Dutch angles, and other flashy moves only serves as a transparent attempt to liven things up. It doesn't handle the time element very well--after captions reading "1880" and "1882," it's pretty much abandoned until the coda at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, so the years are a blur in terms of what happens when. This is especially bungled with the illness of Mary Edison, who's given a diagnosis in one scene, and the next shows the closed casket at her funeral. When did she die? A month later? A year later? Later that same day? Who knows? And we can only surmise a few years have passed when Edison's secretary-turned-partner Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) suddenly shows up in one scene with a glued-on mustache. The actors are fine, especially Katherine Waterston, who provides a spark whenever she turns up as Westinghouse's loving and unexpectedly shrewd wife, and Cumberbatch and Shannon finally meet in passing at the 1893 World's Fair, and while it might not exactly be the diner scene in HEAT, it's the best moment here for both stars. There's nothing really wrong with THE CURRENT WAR, but it's just very slow-moving and the constant tech talk doesn't make for very riveting drama. Fans of Cumberbatch and Shannon should see it, but if you want the gist of the story in a much shorter lesson, just stick with Tesla's video for their minor 1991 hit "Edison's Medicine." (PG-13, 102 mins)

(Australia/UK - 2020)

Based on the true story of three anti-apartheid activists who pulled off a daring escape from a South African prison in 1979, ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA makes sure to cross everything off the prison break movie checklist. After setting off a series of leaflet bombings in Cape Town in 1978, African National Congress activists Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are found guilty and thrown into the Pretoria political prison for white males, where Jenkin immediately begins plotting an escape. They find a mentor in legendary ANC member and close Nelson Mandela associate Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who's serving four life sentences for trying to overthrow the government. Goldberg warns Jenkin to calm down ("Everybody thinks they're gonna break out next week"), but he wants out, and a photographic memory allows him to draw a detailed sketch of the key used by the guards to unlock the cells. He's able to construct a makeshift wooden key in the prison shop and eventually gets it to work, then methodically creates numerous duplicates, obsessively testing them in the middle of the night while spending his days devising an escape plan and creating keys to all the doors that will eventually allow them to simply walk out when no one is looking. Goldberg ends up sitting out the escape to run interference with the block's least competent guard on duty, and Jenkin and Lee are instead joined by Frenchman Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter), a fictionalized version of the third escapee, Alex Moumbaris.

It took a lot of work and planning, and it's in these scenes that director/co-writer Francis Annan generates the most stomach-knotting tension. But the biggest assist the three men got during their escape was some extremely lax security in that section of the prison complex, subsequently stepped up significantly after the embarrassment of three prisoners getting through a half dozen locked doors and simply walking out of a front gate that was carelessly left unlocked and wide open, which even they find shocking ("The gate's open?!"). ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA takes some liberties beyond not mentioning Moumbaris by name, a big one being its depiction of Jenkin and Lee caught in the act of series of leaflet bombings on a busy street. It makes for a tension-filled opening sequence, but in reality, they were quietly apprehended without incident moving some printing equipment into their residence, which had been under surveillance for some time. Lee almost pulled off his own escape while the pair were awaiting trial, but that's never mentioned here, and it's strange that Lee is more or less relegated to being Jenkin's loyal sidekick, with Webber (best known as Lee Harvey Oswald in the Hulu series 11.22.63 and as Vince Neil in the Motley Crue biopic THE DIRT) given little to do. It does clear the way for a committed performance by Radcliffe, who's never not going to be Harry Potter, but does an excellent job of projecting some genuine grittiness and disappearing into this role. The specificities of the plot aside, ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA is generally routine as far as prison break thrillers go, right down to Jenkin's chief nemesis being a guard nicknamed Mongo (Nathan Page), who's cartoonishly sadistic even by apartheid standards. There's nothing new here, but it's well-made and compelling, like a politically-driven ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ. (PG-13, 106 mins)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Retro Review: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

(Italy - 1974; US release 1975)

Directed by Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G. Assonitis) and R. Barrett (Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli). Written by Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G. Assonitis), Antonio Troisio, R. Barrett (Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli), Giorgio Marini, Aldo Crudo, Alex Rebar and Christopher Cruise. Cast: Juliet Mills, Richard Johnson, Gabriele Lavia, Nino Segurini, Elizabeth Turner, Barbara Fiorini, David Colin Jr., Luigi Marturano. (R, 98 mins/108 mins)

When THE EXORCIST became a worldwide phenomenon in late 1973 and into 1974, it didn't take long for countless imitations, mostly from Italy, to spew forth. The most famous of these Italian ripoffs was BEYOND THE DOOR, which managed to fuse together elements of both THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY and, with the help of a memorably terrifying TV spot, became a surprise hit when it opened in the US over the spring and summer of 1975. It also infamously caught the attention of Warner Bros., who sued the producers and US distributor Film Ventures for copyright infringement. The case was eventually settled and BEYOND THE DOOR was never pulled from distribution, unlike ABBY, a 1974 blaxploitation EXORCIST knockoff that was withdrawn from circulation and hasn't been legitimately seen in decades, though poor-quality presentations of it aren't hard to find on YouTube and torrent sites. None of the other Italian EXORCIST ripoffs--among them 1974's THE ANTICHRIST (released in the US as THE TEMPTER in 1978), 1974's THE TORMENTED (released in the US in 1978 and rechristened for cable and home video in 1981 as THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), 1975's THE NIGHT CHILD, 1975's THE RETURN OF THE EXORCIST, aka CRIES AND SHADOWS (released in the US in 1977 as THE POSSESSOR), 1975's THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (the retooled version of Mario Bava's 1973 film LISA AND THE DEVIL, featuring added possession scenes with Elke Sommer being exorcised by priest Robert Alda)--or the 1975 Spanish knockoff EXORCISM with Paul Naschy and the 1974 German copycat MAGDALENA, POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL (released in the US in 1976 as BEYOND THE DARKNESS), faced any legal action from Warner Bros. And though some of the them took a long time to get to the US, the fad pretty much died out in Europe by 1977, with only a few sexploitative stragglers like 1978's softcore OBSCENE DESIRE and 1979's MALABIMBA, the latter a product of Italy's short-lived determination to make horror/porno crossovers a thing.

But it's BEYOND THE DOOR that remains the signature Italian EXORCIST ripoff, and it's just been released in a comprehensive, limited-edition Blu-ray box set from Arrow, because physical media is dead. It's been out on DVD and Blu before from Code Red, and some of those extras are carried over here, but Arrow has done a magnificent job with its 2K restoration of the 108-minute European version, titled THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, and the 98-minute US cut (you also get a poster and a 56-page booklet with essays). Juliet Mills stars as Jessica Barrett, a wife and mother of two who finds she's unexpectedly pregnant with a third, something that wasn't really in the plans of her record producer husband Robert (Gabriele Lavia). Soon, the fetus is growing at an alarming rate, and she begins vomiting blood and suffering from erratic mood swings. Her young son Ken (David Colin, Jr) witnesses her levitating in the middle of the night, while daughter Gail (Barbara Fiorini) goes to check on her only to be greeted with a grin as Jessica's head turns completely around, amidst other disturbing, inexplicable activity. At the same time, Robert notices he's being followed by a serious-looking mystery man named Dimitri (Richard Johnson), who says he knows what's happening to Jessica and insists he's the only one who can help her.

BEYOND THE DOOR opening in Toledo, OH on 8/15/1975

BEYOND THE DOOR might shamelessly crib from THE EXORCIST's highlight reel, but it's got plenty of its own wacky ideas. It seems Dimitri and Jessica were once lovers long before she met Robert. And in what turned out to be a real relationship-killer, she left him when he took her to a black mass where she was supposed to be the sacrifice. Yes, Dimitri is a Satanist who promised Jessica to the Devil, and the Devil--who frequently taunts Dimitri in voiceover--is pissed-off at Dimitri's incompetence and wants restitution in the form of Jessica's baby. And he's given Dimitri only a few days to procure it or he's going to die. As Jessica's possession and pregnancy grow more intense--complete with the mandatory demonic voice, green puke, and various obscenities ("Get out of here, you piece of shit!," Lick the vile whore's vomit!" etc, etc), along with a craving for discarded banana peels--Dimitri manages to convince Robert to let him tend to Jessica, though it's only a desperate effort to get the child. It's an interesting approach in that the "exorcist" figure is there not out of the sense of spiritual altruism to save the possessed but rather, just to save his own sorry ass, and to their credit, Mills (who had recently co-starred with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's AVANTI) and Johnson (THE HAUNTING) both appear to be taking this thing seriously and aren't coasting through for a quick paycheck.

Johnson imbues his rather silly dialogue ("The child...must be born!") with a generous amount of Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas, and Mills, the daughter of Oscar-winning actor John Mills and the older sister of early '60s Disney star Hayley Mills, really brings her A-game to a decidedly lowbrow production that was perhaps a tad beneath the family name ("Oh, I doubt Daddy ever saw this," she jokes on one of the ported-over commentaries). The possession histrionics aren't quite as intense as THE EXORCIST (there's no crucifix bit here, though there is a weird moment when Jessica kisses her young son for a uncomfortably long time), but their effectiveness is given a significant boost by an unnervingly bass-heavy sound design and by Mills' total commitment. The scene where she sits in a chair asking doctor and family friend George (Nino Segurini) "Who are you?" in a deep, guttural voice while Jessica seems to be internally fighting off the demon, quickly going back and forth in rapid-fire fashion from possessed to normal ("Help me, I'm so scared"), with Mills employing just slight changes in her facial expressions that you manage to see her through the contact lenses, the horrific makeup, and the chunky green vomit caking on her chin, is some legitimately terrific acting on her part.

BEYOND THE DOOR in Toledo, OH on 8/15/1975

Mills and Johnson class up the joint, but at the end of the day, BEYOND THE DOOR is still tacky as hell, particularly the finale where Dimitri is pounding on her very pregnant belly as the devil instructs him to "reach inside her and pull it out!" Shot in San Francisco with interiors done back in Rome, the film was the brainchild of Egyptian-born Italian exploitation producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (THE VISITOR, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING), who co-wrote and co-directed under the pseudonym "Oliver Hellman," which he would employ a few more times, most notably on the 1977 Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES. Up to this time, Assonitis had a few producer credits (1972's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, 1974's SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN), but BEYOND THE DOOR marked his first directing effort, and he shared duties with cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli, who hid under the alias "R. Barrett." Both were among seven (!) credited screenwriters, which included Alex Rebar, who would secure his place in B-movie history with the title role in 1977's THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. Assonitis and D'Ettorre Piazzoli manage to create some scattered images that get under your skin throughout, whether it's the freakish grin on Mills' face during the head spin, or the unexpected use of Sam Peckinpah-style freeze-frames during a demonic fit, or an optical effect where one eye stares straight ahead while the other looks in every direction. With a budget of only $400,000, a good chunk of which likely went to Mills and Johnson, the effects--supervised by Wally Gentleman, who worked on Douglas Trumbull's crew on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and has the most fake Italian pseudonym-sounding name that somehow isn't--are crude but they get the job done.

But there's a lot of quirky touches that don't always work, especially the antics of Jessica's two foul-mouthed kids (their nickname for their dad is "Asshole"), like Gail's obsession with owning over a dozen copies of Erich Segal's Love Story or Ken constantly drinking cans of Campbell's pea soup through a straw, an obvious nod to the colorful prop used for possessed Regan's puking scenes in THE EXORCIST. The film also opens with an offscreen Satan welcoming the audience and introducing the film like an avuncular TV host. When Film Ventures cut ten minutes out of the film for its US release, one of the first things to go had to be a bizarre, nonsensical scene late in the film where Robert is out walking around and is followed by an intimidating guy playing a flute with his nose. This seemingly goes on forever and only seems to be there so Assonitis can show off more San Francisco exteriors, stopping the uncut European version dead in its tracks at a pivotal time. Film Ventures also tossed a scene of Jessica getting groceries at a local Safeway, which was part of the original opening credits sequence showing Robert in the recording studio chewing out a funk band for not getting it right. The band is playing a Franco Micalizzi-written tune called "Bargain with the Devil," and it's an absolute jam that's unfortunately nowhere to be heard in the US version.

BEYOND THE DOOR was such an unexpected sleeper hit stateside that it led to two unrelated "sequels." Mario Bava's 1977 swan song SHOCK was picked up by Film Ventures and released in the US in 1979 as BEYOND THE DOOR II. It involved a little boy being possessed by the spirit of his dead father, and passing it off as a sequel was probably made a lot easier with the happy coincidence of David Colin Jr. playing the little boy. Assonitis had nothing to do with SHOCK or its rechristening as BEYOND THE DOOR II, but he did produce AMOK TRAIN, which had college students stuck on a possessed train while in Yugoslavia for a Balkan Studies research project. Shot in 1989, AMOK TRAIN was eventually released straight-to-video in the US in 1991 as--you guessed it--BEYOND THE DOOR III. The decision was probably inspired by Assonitis producing the minor 1987 horror hit THE CURSE, and then turning his 1989 "guy bitten by radioactive snake" epic THE BITE into the in-name-only CURSE II: THE BITE, an insane film that really should be better-known, and one so gross that the sight of a post-coital Jamie Farr doesn't even make the top five ghastliest things in it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Retro Review: XTRO 3 (1995)

(US - 1995)

Directed by Harry Bromley-Davenport. Written by Daryl Haney. Cast: Sal Landi, Andrew Divoff, Robert Culp, Karen Moncrieff, David M. Parker, Jim Hanks, Andrea Lauren Herz, Daryl Haney, Virgil Frye, Sal Ruscio, Jeanne Mori, Martin Shienle. (R, 96 mins)

In the world of late 1980s-to-mid-1990s DTV, it wasn't at all uncommon to find in-name-only horror franchises filled with at-best tenuously-connected sequels linked almost entirely by brand recognition. THE HOWLING and THE CURSE spawning numerous unrelated sequels immediately come to mind, along with multiple WATCHERS and CHILDREN OF THE CORN installments. The XTRO series is unique in that it consists of three films, completely lacking in continuity aside from the title and the involvement of some kind of alien life form, yet all share the same director: Harry Bromley-Davenport. Part of the slew of early '80s ALIEN knockoffs that included Luigi Cozzi's Italian gorefest CONTAMINATION, and sleazy offerings like the Roger Corman-produced GALAXY OF TERROR and Norman J. Warren's INSEMINOID (aka HORROR PLANET), XTRO was a British import released in US theaters and drive-ins over the spring and summer of 1983 by a pre-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET New Line Cinema. The XTRO money shot involved a woman being impregnated by an alien creature and giving birth to a fully-grown "man" in a scene that, once seen, can never be unseen. Prior to XTRO, Bromley-Davenport's most noteworthy credit was having a hand in the script for Richard Loncraine's 1977 cult classic THE HAUNTING OF JULIA. Though it was expectedly trashed by critics, XTRO became a cable and video store fan favorite, yet it didn't lead to much of anything for Bromley-Davenport. He was MIA until he resurfaced with 1991's Canadian-made XTRO 2: THE SECOND ENCOUNTER, which had nothing to do with XTRO beyond an alien creature, and is only remembered at all today for Jan-Michael Vincent turning in another of his "visibly shitfaced" performances that were unfortunately all too common during that period of his career.

Bromley-Davenport fell off the radar once again until 1995's XTRO 3, a second sequel that, of course, had nothing to do with either of its predecessors. This one was shot in the Los Angeles area in locations that were once part of the Iverson Ranch, a popular movie location from the silents through the 1950s, known for its unique rock formations and not far from the better-known Spahn Ranch, infamously commandeered by Charles Manson and his followers. Roger Corman shot a lot of his 1950s programmers at Iverson Ranch, and that connection, along with the involvement of writer/co-star Daryl Haney--a late '80s Corman/Concorde regular (CRIME ZONE, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) after a brief dalliance with the majors when he wrote 1988's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD--gives it that distinct '90s Corman/New Horizons vibe more in the vein of Jim Wynorski rather than The Notorious HBD.

"Uh, did I mention that I know Tom Hanks?
In a rare lead, B-movie and busy TV guest actor Sal Landi (SAVAGE STREETS) stars as Lt. Kirn, a career Marine who's holed up a shithole L.A. motel telling his story to an incredulous reporter (Jeanne Mori). He was part of a secret military operation to explore an uncharted island 200 miles offshore that was once the location of a Japanese internment camp but has been deserted since WWII. Kirn is ordered by Major Guardino (I SPY and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO TV favorite Robert Culp, dropping by for a morning's work, clearly looking off to the side at cue cards or reading his dialogue from the file he's holding) to destroy an extensive weapons stockpile still on the island, which the military plans to use to construct a massive fuel station. That's the official story at least, as Kirn is given a ragtag quartet of losers, screw-ups, and malcontents (among them Haney and Jim Hanks, Tom's look-and-soundalike younger brother) and ordered to report to Capt. Fetterman (Andrew Divoff as Robert Davi), a Pentagon hardass who accompanies them to the island. They find a lone survivor (Virgil Frye), along with evidence of some activity dated 1955, ten years after the island was supposed to be evacuated. Soon the secret is out--the island was home to an Area 51-type military base where everyone--except the now-insane survivor--was killed by an alien life form found on a spacecraft that was taken there in 1955, after which the ship--with the alien inside--was encased in a massive block of concrete. And because of the irresponsible dicking around of obnoxious Hendricks (Haney), the alien is set loose and starts picking everyone off one by one.

Just out on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (because physical media is dead), XTRO 3 is a blatant ripoff of not one but two late '80s blockbusters. It steals a lot from ALIENS, though the Marines here are less badass and more Bad News Bears. Andrea Lauren Herz as tough-talking Banta is an obvious clone of Jenette Goldstein's Vasquez, while Divoff's treacherous Fetterman, who knows the real reason they're there and takes off on the boat and leaves everyone stranded when the alien gets loose, is a stand-in for Paul Reiser's weaselly Burke. But XTRO 3 doesn't stop there--it even gives the alien, who looks like a geriatric MAC AND ME, the same kind of chameleon-like camouflaging ability seen in PREDATOR. The alien also has this weird death trap where its victims are caught in a gooey, slimy spider web that looks like Bromley-Davenport and Haney saw the deleted scene from ALIEN where Sigourney Weaver discovers Harry Dean Stanton and a barely-alive Tom Skerritt in a massive alien cocoon, and ran to the nearest CVS for cotton balls and K-Y to recreate it. XTRO 3 doesn't seem to be under the illusion that it's anything other than a junky B-movie, and it even seems to recognize its own ridiculousness by giving the alien the stock sound effect of a cougar roar that you hear in every Tarzan movie. But where Bromley-Davenport had enough of a stylistic sense of scuzzy exploitation around the time of XTRO to be lumped in with the likes of grimy British genre counterparts Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren, here he's just plodding along in a listless and utterly perfunctory fashion. XTRO 3 went straight to video courtesy of Triboro, and it's interchangeable with nearly every other early-to-mid '90s DTV sci-fi title from companies like New Horizons, Prism, A-Pix, and Vidmark that were regular fixtures in the "Hot Singles" section of Blockbuster's new release wall. XTRO 3 marked the beginning of a partnership between Bromley-Davenport and Haney, who went on to work together on several little-seen, non-horror indie titles like the 1998 hitman comedy ERASABLE YOU and the 2001 drama MOCKINGBIRD DON'T SING. In 2011, Bromley-Davenport told Fangoria that he and Haney were planning an XTRO 4, though as of yet, nothing has materialized.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Retro Review: ENDLESS NIGHT (1972)

(UK - 1972)

Written and directed by Sidney Gilliat. Cast: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Per Oscarsson, Patience Collier, Aubrey Richards, Peter Bowles, Lois Maxwell, Madge Ryan, David Bower, Helen Horton, Walter Gotell, David Healy, Leo Genn. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Along with the many versions of her 1939 novel And Then There Were None, usually under the title TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the overwhelming majority of Agatha Christie film and TV adaptations have been her mysteries featuring either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. With WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder's 1957 version of her 1925 courtroom drama short story, being tops among the exceptions, the film versions of her literary departures have proven mostly unsuccessful, particularly 1985's ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, possibly the worst big-screen take on her work. 1972's ENDLESS NIGHT has been held in low regard for nearly 50 years, and its response was so unfavorable in its native UK that it was never even released in American theaters. It's not exactly obscure--between TV airings and its availability on VHS in the '80s and on DVD in the early '00s, it hasn't been all that difficult to see--but it's rarely-discussed and it's been generally dismissed, if not outright forgotten. Based on Christie's 1967 novel, ENDLESS NIGHT definitely falls into the ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE category in that it's a more inward psychological drama rather than a standard mystery, and the film is much more Hitchcockian than Christie in style and execution. And the connection is there, as writer/director Sidney Gilliat (1908-1994), whose career as a screenwriter dated back to the advent of talkies, first found success scripting Alfred Hitchcock films like 1938's THE LADY VANISHES and 1939's JAMAICA INN. ENDLESS NIGHT is generally faithful to Christie's novel, but like ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, its story structure doesn't lend itself to a visual medium. As a result, unlike ensemble pieces featuring Poirot, Marple, or a group of strangers summoned to an isolated house where they're picked off one by one, Endless Night is one of Christie's works that's better-served on the page.

That doesn't mean it isn't interesting. In fact, it's unusual in the way that it's virtually impossible for it to work on a first viewing. It almost requires a second watch just to make sense of the plot. Its finale throws out twists and turns with such wild abandon that even if the intent is some kind of ambiguity, it will only result in frustration unless you have an opportunity to go back and rewatch key scenes, including a stilted, confusing opening that only makes sense on a second run-through. This is probably a big reason for its chilly reception, plus Christie mysteries just weren't a big draw at the time, with a lull of interest between the mid-1960s and the success of 1974's Oscar-winning MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which kickstarted a Christie renaissance just before her death in 1976. I don't mean to imply that ENDLESS NIGHT is some kind of innovative, misunderstood trailblazer, because at the end of the day, it really doesn't work. But it deserves some credit for being a little ahead of its time with the kind of smack-you-upside-the-head twists and kick-in-the-balls reveals that you'd start seeing regularly in the '90s, especially after THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), ENDLESS NIGHT was also notable for reuniting the stars of Roy Boulting's acclaimed 1968 chiller TWISTED NERVE: grown-up Disney child star and POLLYANNA herself, Hayley Mills, and cherubic David Hemmings-alike Hywel Bennett. Bennett, then coming off of 1971's penis-transplant sex farce PERCY, is Michael Rogers, an aimless, irresponsible, and immature young man who drifts from job to job with no real drive or sense of responsibility. He's a self-described "idle dreamer" obsessed with a large swath of land in the countryside called Gipsy's Acre, where he has a pie-in-the-sky notion of building a beautiful dream house. He loses a limo driving job over his attitude and is able to leave his new part-time job at a gas station after a chance encounter with free-spirited Ellie Thomsen (Mills). He soon discovers that she's an orphaned heiress--"the sixth-richest heiress in the world," in fact--and they marry after a whirlwind courtship where she surprises him by purchasing Gipsy's Acre. The marriage is frowned upon by her relatives who live on an allowance she doles out, including her bitter stepmother (Lois Maxwell, the Bond series' Miss Moneypenny seen here in rare bitch-on-wheels form). Ellie's cynical, condescending attorney Lippincott (an enjoyably snide performance by George Sanders, in his next-to-last film; he committed suicide six months before its release) even offers Michael a huge payout to divorce her and walk away, subtly implying that this isn't Ellie's first impulsive marriage. Things get strange, combative, and uncomfortable with the arrival of Ellie's friend Greta (Britt Ekland, Bennett's PERCY co-star), who seems familiar to Santonix (Per Oscarsson), an acquaintance of Michael's from his days as a limo driver and also a highly-regarded, terminally ill architect who designs the high-tech, state-of-the-art mansion that Michael and Ellie build at Gipsy's Acre, with Michael quickly coming to the realization that things aren't what they seem to be.

George Sanders (1906-1972)
Nothing is what it seems to be, and that becomes--I hesitate to use the word "clear"--the longer ENDLESS NIGHT goes on. Gilliat was better known as a writer than a director, though he was no slouch in that department, having helmed the great 1946 British mystery GREEN FOR DANGER. One can see why found this story appealing, with all of its Hitchcockian elements, plus the subterfuge, the misdirection, threats, secrets, and blackmail, all set to a score by Bernard Herrmann, whose contributions to Hitchcock classics like VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and PSYCHO were inestimable. There's also the possibility that Michael is an unreliable narrator whose general shiftlessness, fleeting flashbacks to a tragedy from his childhood, and the fact that his own mother (Madge Ryan) doesn't seem to like him very much, all work together to imply that he's got his own secrets and ulterior motives. But the resolution happens so fast that it's almost too much to take in without going back and looking at parts of the movie again. Only then do things appear to begin coming together, and even then it's a shaky foundation. ENDLESS NIGHT is a film that's easier to appreciate than actually enjoy. It's not really a thriller, and despite some classifying it as "horror," it doesn't really fall into that category either, aside from a couple of creepy moments where Michael imagines Ellie as a faceless figure. Christie's novel was a journey into the mind of its main character, and that isn't easy to pull off as an "Agatha Christie" movie. For her part, Christie saw the film and expressed displeasure with the end result, though her biggest complaints stemmed from the concessions made to the era, primarily some Ekland nudity (Bennett also drops an F-bomb at one point, which isn't something you can imagine hearing from Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple). ENDLESS NIGHT also marked the end of the road for Gilliat, who called it a career and never wrote or directed another film.