Sunday, May 31, 2020

Retro Review: MEAN MOTHER (1973) and UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1977)

(US - 1973)

Directed by Albert Victor (Al Adamson) and Leon Klimovsky. Written by Charles Johnson and Joy Garrison. Cast: Clifton Brown (Dobie Gray), Dennis Safren, Luciana Paluzzi, Lang Jeffries, Tracy King (Marilyn Joi), Bedi Moratti, Albert Cole, Al Richardson, Elizabeth Chauvet, Dick Poston, Irv Saunders, Barta Barri. (R, 87 mins)

Throughout his prolific career in Z-grade schlock, Al Adamson was no stranger to stitching together pieces of his various finished or unfinished projects with newly-shot scenes to to create completely different movies. He managed to get two more films out of copious amounts of stock footage from 1965's PSYCHO A GO GO (1967's THE FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN and 1972's BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR). He turned his unreleased 1968 spy movie THE FAKERS into the 1970 biker flick HELL'S BLOODY DEVILS, and transformed the biker-turned-mad doctor horror flick THE BLOOD SEEKERS, uncompleted and abandoned in 1969, into 1971's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN by adding Dracula and Frankenstein. In the case of 1970's HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS, where astronauts visit a prehistoric planet to stop a vampirism epidemic on Earth (?!), he used tinted footage from a black-and-white Filipino caveman movie as well as dinosaur shots from 1940's ONE MILLION B.C. Adamson's Independent-International partner Sam Sherman acquired a 1971 Spanish/Italian thriller called RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, directed by Spanish journeyman and frequent Paul Naschy collaborator Leon Klimovsky (DR. JEKYLL VS. THE WEREWOLF, VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES). The story dealt with an American Vietnam War deserter (Dennis Safren) making his way to Rome and getting involved in jewelry smuggling and a kidnapping plot, but upon further review, Sherman didn't see much potential for it being a success at drive-ins and on the grindhouse circuit.

Original 1971 Spanish poster
His solution? Have Adamson cut about 45 minutes out of it, add new scenes and create an entirely new plot to turn it into a blaxploitation movie, with HAMMER and SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF screenwriter Charles Johnson helping concoct the new story. They also brought back Safren--a Sal Mineo clone whose short career other than RUN FOR YOUR LIFE was limited to three TV guest spots before vanishing into obscurity--to shoot some new scenes to tie into the old RUN FOR YOUR LIFE footage, though his hair is very noticeably longer and more shaggy in these new scenes. The new movie became 1973's MEAN MOTHER, a haphazardly-assembled hodgepodge that's nonsensical even by Al Adamson standards. The star of these new scenes that make up MEAN MOTHER is R&B singer Dobie Gray in his only acting role. Gray was already known for his 1964 hit "The 'In' Crowd," and he was still enjoying the biggest chart success of his career with his 1973 radio staple "Drift Away." He's credited as "Clifton Brown" in MEAN MOTHER, ostensibly because he wanted to keep his music and acting careers separate. Translation: Gray didn't want fans of "Drift Away" going to see MEAN MOTHER. Adamson did likewise, using the pseudonym "Albert Victor" (his first and middle names) and sharing directing credit with Klimovsky.

It opens with a hilariously inept fight sequence that doesn't really have anything to do with anything that follows, with Beauregard Jones (Gray) beating the shit out of some guys on an L.A. rooftop. Cut to RUN FOR YOUR LIFE footage, with Joe Scott (Safren) in Vietnam, getting into an argument with his lieutenant and being placed under arrest. He's being transported to base when enemy soldiers attack. He kills the enemy soldiers and is the only survivor. With his hair suddenly much longer, Joe is rescued by fellow deserter Beauregard, who announces his intention to go to Spain, advises Joe to flee to Italy, and off they go into their separate movies. In old footage, Joe meets mystery man Daniel (Lang Jeffries), who gets him into the smuggling game and introduces him to cocktail waitress Therese (Luciana Paluzzi), who agrees to help him find an apartment the next day. Meanwhile, in Spain (played mostly by a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles), an on-the-run Beauregard is discovered by some American criminals and gets into a brawl that's so unconvincingly executed that an extra sitting in a booth can be clearly seen laughing hysterically at Gray and the other actors (Gray may have been a terrific singer, but he's absolutely awful in these action scenes). The next time we see Joe in old footage, Therese is yelling at him about how he won't marry her and he fires back with "We've been through all this before!" Wait, didn't they just meet? Meanwhile, Beauregard is one step ahead of the syndicate, smuggling plates through Europe with his girlfriend Joy (Marilyn Joi, billed as "Tracy King") and eventually ending up in Rome, where he and Joe briefly reunite (Safren with shaggy hair), and just like wherever Beauregard was in Spain, Rome still looks a lot like the Hollywood Hills (the ruse isn't helped by Adamson failing to conceal the California license plates on the cars). Joe (Saffren with short hair) ends up trying to rescue a woman (Bedi Moratti) from some big event that has something to do with Daniel, and Beauregard and Joy try to elude syndicate guys who show up in Rome.

With scenes from RUN FOR YOUR LIFE seemingly edited in at random, MEAN MOTHER is a mind-bogglingly incoherent experience. Whole chunks of story from RUN FOR YOUR LIFE have been hacked away willy-nilly with zero thought given as to how what's left can work into the plot of MEAN MOTHER. Gray and Safren only have two actual scenes together--in "Vietnam" and in "Rome"--before Safren returns to his previous movie, already in progress. Adamson has so little interest in what's going on with Joe's side of the story that Safren eventually vanishes from MEAN MOTHER altogether, with Gray's Beauregard explaining him away with a shrugging "He gave himself up!" Even without knowing the backstory or if they somehow don't pick up on Safren's hair continuity, anyone watching MEAN MOTHER can immediately tell it's comprised of two separate movies just from the different look of the film stock on RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and its Eurolounge score and post-synced dialogue juxtaposed with the more American look and live sound of the Gray footage, with is augmented with a standard funky blaxploitation soundtrack. MEAN MOTHER makes 87 minutes feel like an eternity, and even then, Adamson had to pad his end of the movie with nearly ten minutes of Joi seducing some syndicate doofus charged with babysitting her while the others track down Beauregard. "Drift Away" is a song everybody knows, but there's little wonder why Gray's acting career began and ended here, and Safren never acted onscreen again. He's awful in both shoots (he, Paluzzi, and Canadian actor Jeffries appear to be dubbing themselves in the RUN FOR YOUR LIFE scenes), and has this strange affect where he leans way too hard into the enunciation of his "T"s, leading to robotic line readings like "It doesn't maT-Ter," and "I've got thirT-Tee thousand." Best known as the lethal Fiona Volpe in 1965's THUNDERBALL, former Bond girl Paluzzi was lovely in every movie she ever made, but I'm willing to bet that to this day, 42 years retired from acting, she still has no idea she's in an Al Adamson blaxploitation movie called MEAN MOTHER.

(US - 1977)

No director credited (Geza von Radvanyi, Al Adamson). No writer credited (Fred Denger, Geza von Radvanyi, Al Adamson). Cast: John Kitzmiller, Herbert Lom, Olive Moorefield, Mary Ann Jenson, Prentiss Moulden, Erwin Fuller, Jean Clark, Biff Yeager, J.C. Welles, Chuck Welles, Vincent Isaac, Marilyn Joi, O.W. Fischer, Gertraud Mittermayr, Catana Cayetano, Charles Fawcett, Vilma Degischer, Thomas Fritsch, Bibi Jelinek, Harold Bradley, Aziz Saad, George Goodman. (R, 98 mins)

Speaking of Bond actors utterly oblivious to their presence in an Al Adamson movie, John Kitzmiller probably would've been shocked to find himself starring in the director's 1977 version of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, especially since he died in 1965. Best known as Quarrel, the islander who helps 007 get to Crab Key in 1962's DR. NO, Kitzmiller was born in Battle Creek, MI in 1913 and joined the US Army after graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Michigan. He was stationed in Italy during WWII and just stayed there when the war ended. He fell into acting after a chance encounter with a young Carlo Ponti, which led to him becoming a regular presence in postwar Italian neo-realist films, including one of the lead roles in Federico Fellini's 1950 directing debut VARIETY LIGHTS. He worked all over Europe, even winning the Best Actor award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival for the Yugoslavian war drama VALLEY OF PEACE. It didn't lead to bigger and better roles--being a black actor in Europe, Kitzmiller found his options were limited, so he usually ended up playing a variety of soldiers, servants, or jazz musicians, and as time went on, he fell into depression and alcoholism. But in 1964, he landed the starring role in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, a prestigious, three-hour West German/French/Italian/Yugoslavian adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's legendary 1852 novel. As Uncle Tom, Kitzmiller headed an international cast that included Herbert Lom as Simon Legree, German-based American singer Olive Moorefield as Cassy, and other respected European actors like O.W. Fischer, Mylene Demongeot, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Charles Fawcett, and Juliette Greco. It was directed by Hungarian filmmaker Geza von Radvanyi, best known for the 1958 version of MADCHEN IN UNIFORM. UNCLE TOM'S CABIN won acclaim in Europe when it premiered in West Germany in April 1965, but it still didn't provide a career bump for Kitzmiller: the actor died two months before the film's release, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver at just 51.

Poster for the 1965 German version
The German-language UNCLE TOM'S CABIN was a tough sell in the US, where it wouldn't appear until 1969, when distributor/showman Kroger Babb released a version cut by nearly an hour and dubbed in English (Lom's voice isn't heard in the shorter US cut, though he is speaking German in the original version). It wasn't a hit, but Babb kept it in circulation, even re-releasing it in 1975 as CASSY. In 1976, a financially-strapped Babb sold his 1969 re-edit of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN to Adamson and Sam Sherman's Independent-International and, as usual, Sherman had a brilliant idea: relaunch the film to capitalize on the phenomenal success of the TV miniseries ROOTS, and to make it even more marketable, have Adamson spice it up with some salacious sex and violence to pull in the MANDINGO and DRUM crowd. Adamson cut about 40 minutes out of the already-shortened 1969 re-edit, and added a new subplot about a Legree slave named Napoleon. In the original 1965 film, Napoleon (Aziz Saad) escapes by jumping off a steamship and swimming away but is killed by an alligator. In Adamson's version, Napoleon manages to make it to land, where he's suddenly played by a different actor (Prentiss Moulden) and finds refuge at a nearly abandoned plantation where young spinster Melissa (Mary Ann Jenson) is all by her lonesome and very horny. Of course, she seduces Napoleon, allowing Adamson to give us a couple of prolonged, grinding sex scenes. Fearing his presence would put Melissa in jeopardy, Napoleon leaves her but is caught by three Legree goons (among them Adamson regular Biff Yeager), who proceed to strip him, gang-rape him (why not rip off DELIVERANCE while we're at it?), tie him to a tree, and pour boiling tar all over him until he dies.

Adamson cuts back to the 1965 scenes, but the story has been so chopped up, so many actors have been cut entirely (Rossi Drago, Demongeot, and Greco are nowhere to be seen in Adamson's version), and so many characters and relationships obliterated by hacking away entire sequences at random that there's no narrative to speak of whatsoever. But really, that's not why Sherman had Adamson restructure von Radvanyi's film anyway. Adamson semi-regular and MEAN MOTHER addition Marilyn Joi (best known as Cleopatra Schwartz in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE) is on-hand at the beginning as a slave's daughter who tries to run away and gets raped by one of Legree's men, who taunts her father with "Hey, boy! I'm gonna fuck your daughter!" Those same three Legree guys in the new footage also fear contracting a venereal disease from raping Napoleon, but one quips "Can't be any worse than what we got from that sheep!," a line that one can only assume was in Beecher Stowe's first rough draft. They also wind up castrated by the first rape victim's father and two other slaves as the movie comes to an abrupt end, completely abandoning the characters who are actually in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Adamson's new footage is trashy and tasteless, and the Napoleon/Melissa sex scenes are barely above stag-quality in production value and execution. Also, having none of the technical crew credited (no director, no writers, etc), along with the use of "Albert Victor" on MEAN MOTHER really begs the question "How utterly disreputable must a movie be for Al Fucking Adamson to leave his name off of it?"

John Kitzmiller (1913-1965)
The added skin doesn't quite gel with the rest of the film which, despite the sloppy dubbing overseen by Babb, is clearly a prestige project that had some money and effort put into it. The 1977 composite released by Independent-International, included in Severin's epic 14-disc, 32-film Adamson box set on the same disc as the aforementioned MEAN MOTHER (because physical media is dead), actually played in theaters and at drive-ins across America (and they re-released this cut again in 1979 under the unlikely title WHITE TRASH WOMAN), so it's possible Herbert Lom, then enjoying a bit of a career upswing thanks to his exemplary work as twitchy Inspector Clouseau foil Dreyfus in the rebooted PINK PANTHER franchise, knew he somehow ended up in a crummy Al Adamson movie. Poor John Kitzmiller definitely did not, and he never would've imagined starring in a sleazy, grindhouse T&A revamp of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN 12 years after his death, let alone WHITE TRASH WOMAN two years after that.

Al Adamson's revamp of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
opening in Toledo, OH on 3/11/1977

Saturday, May 30, 2020

On Amazon Prime: THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020)

(US - 2020)

Directed by Andrew Patterson. Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer, Cheyenne Barton, Mark Banik, Gregory Peyton, Adam Dietrich, Mallorie Rodak. (PG-13, 91 mins)

A micro-budgeted Little Movie That Could out of Texas, THE VAST OF NIGHT was shot way back in 2016, with debuting director Andrew Patterson seeing it get rejected for submission by one indie film festival after another. The Slamdance Film Festival finally bit and included it on their 2019 roster and the buzz grew from there. It was picked up by Amazon, who released it to some drive-ins in mid-May, two weeks before its streaming debut. With cinemas closed and new movies at a minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic, THE VAST OF NIGHT is certainly benefiting from a bad situation and likely would've been lost in the shuffle under normal circumstances. It's not quite the genre Insta-Classic of the Week, but it is an affectionate love letter to THE TWILIGHT ZONE from the start, with its very set-up introducing it--accompanied by a Rod Serling-like voiceover--as an episode of a faux TV series called PARADOX THEATER. It's a throwback '70s style sci-fi/paranoia thriller set in the '50s and with the investigative mindset and low-key feel of a podcast, refreshingly done completely straightforward and without any kitsch, irony, affect, or self-conscious awareness that it's an homage.

With shades of THE X FILES and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, as well as Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and even PONTYPOOL, THE VAST OF NIGHT takes place largely in real time with only a minimum of clock-related implausibilities (there is one bit where a lot seems to happen in ten minutes) in the fictional small town of Cayuga, New Mexico. References to Sputnik still being a topic of conversation set it in the vicinity of late 1957 to early 1958, and the entire town is at the high school basketball game except for a few babysitters and people stuck at their jobs. People like 16-year-old science nerd Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick of VFW), who platonically hangs around with fast-talking, chain-smoking WOTW night DJ Everett "The Maverick" Sloan (Jake Horowitz). Fay is working the night shift at the Cayuga switchboard and keeps hearing strange sounds on numerous calls that keep being cut off, or there's no one being on the other line, just a bizarre radio frequency. She's listening to Everett's radio show, which keeps getting interference. A woman calls into the switchboard and says there's a "large object" hovering over property, high above the trees. Everett plays the sound over the radio and asks if anyone who recognizes it could identify it and call in to the show.

It isn't long before he gets a call from Billy (voice of Bruce Davis), a terminally ill, African-American war vet who recognizes the sound from various covert military operations during and after the war. He describes the sounds and how he's "seen things" during his years in the service and that the military would exclusively put black and Latino soldiers on these secret assignments, transporting large objects under cover of night because no one (meaning, white folks) would ever believe them if they talked about it (and like Billy, they were viewed as expendable, and frequently exposed to radiation that's been slowly killing them). The more they listen and the more they investigate--with some key info provided by elderly shut-in Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer, delivering a captivating, heartbreaking monologue) with a traumatic secret--the deeper Fay and Everett find themselves in a mystery that's seemingly targeting Cayuga for specific reasons.

Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger take a very minimalist approach with THE VAST OF NIGHT. Indeed, the storyline doesn't really bring anything new to the table for this sort of thing, but there's an admirable discipline to Patterson's technique and a respect for both the genre and its audience. It manages to create captivating sequences with Patterson's love of both long tracking shots (one of them is particularly tricky) and stationary ones, such as the mesmerizing, ten-minute unbroken take with the camera planted on McCormick as she maneuvers her way through switchboard calls and slowly pieces together that something very strange is happening in the sky over Cayuga. The film nails the atmosphere of a small 1950s podunk town, with everyone knowing everyone else and various secondary characters with names like Ethel, Gertie, and Bertsie. The two leads make a likable buddy team, with Patterson unafraid to give them reams of rapid-fire dialogue that both establish their friendship and their short-hand conversation with one another (plus it's hard not to be amused by Fay talking about science journal articles predicting "a car radio with a screen that gives you driving directions" by 1974, or palm-sized "tiny TV telephones with screens on them!" by 2000. There's things you can nitpick (it does seem unlikely, given the story she tells, that the incident Mabel describes from decades ago wouldn't be an urban legend in Cayuga, and that Everett would have no idea who she is even though she lives two blocks from the radio station), but THE VAST OF NIGHT otherwise plays fair, doesn't back itself into corners forcing itself to bullshit its way out, and it's got a hauntingly effective final shot. It's a little too soon to declare it the second coming of PRIMER, but it is an impressive lo-fi debut of a young filmmaker already demonstrating remarkable confidence and discipline, with the period setting and finding areas of Texas that haven't changed all that much in 60 years (probably not as difficult as it sounds), the fashions, and the pristine condition of the vintage switchboard, radio, and analog equipment. How many antique malls, museums, and private collectors did the filmmakers consult and visit to get the things they needed?

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Retro Review: FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH (1980)

(US - 1980)

Directed by Matthew Mallinson. Written by Ron Harvey. Cast: Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson, Ron Van Clief, Adolph Caesar, Aaron Banks, Bill Louie, Teruyuki Higa, Richard Barathy, Gail Turner, Hollywood Browde, Louis Neglia, Cydra Karlyn, Annette Bronson, John "Cyclone" Flood, Ron Harvey. (R, 86 mins)

When he died suddenly in 1973 at just 32, Bruce Lee was already a renowned figure in martial arts and his legacy would be cemented when ENTER THE DRAGON hit theaters a month later. The official cause was deemed cerebral edema but Lee's death was instantly shrouded in mystery and intrigue with conspiracy theories continuing to this day, with a bonus "family curse" added to the mix when his 28-year-old son Brandon was killed in a tragic on-set accident with a prop gun while filming THE CROW in 1993. In the years following Lee's death, the cash-ins and ripoffs--the "Bruceploitation" craze--never stopped, the best-known being GAME OF DEATH, the film Lee was working on at the time of his passing. He had the climactic fight scenes (including one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) done in 1973 but ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse ended up creating a new plot around the existing Lee footage, using outtakes from past Lee movies and two unconvincing doubles (and, in one incredible shot that somehow didn't end the careers of everyone who thought it would work: a cardboard cutout of Lee's head attached to a mirror so it looks like it's his reflection). GAME OF DEATH hit theaters in 1979 and despite its dubious nature (and perhaps because the fight scenes Lee completed were among the best he'd ever done), it satisfied a public that still wanted all the Bruce Lee it could get, even if wasn't him. That demand was further satiated by tons of kung-fu movies featuring rechristened actors with names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lea, Dragon Lee, Bronson Lee, and the unlikely Myron Bruce Lee, among several others. These guys starred in films like ENTER THE GAME OF DEATH, NEW FIST OF FURY, FIST OF FURY II, GAME OF DEATH II, THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, and EXIT THE DRAGON, ENTER THE TIGER just to name a few.

Legendary 42nd Street grindhouse god Terry Levene and his Aquarius Releasing were no strangers to scrounging in the exploitation gutter to make a quick buck, like driving a "Butchermobile" around NYC in 1982 to promote DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D., or releasing the same movie multiple times under different titles, so it was inevitable that they got a piece of the Bruceploitation action. Aquarius had titles like GOODBYE, BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH and BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE in regular rotation in Times Square and on America's drive-in circuit, but 1980 saw their most shameless Bruceploitation con job yet with FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH, which has just been released by The Film Detective in a surprisingly nice 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition (!) with a top-notch transfer (!!), bonus features (!!!) and liner notes (!!!!), because physical media is dead (?).

It's hard to believe FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH actually played in theaters across America, but gullible Lee fans were so hungry for more of their hero that they'd plunk down their hard-earned cash to see any new stuff they could, no matter how many times they'd get hosed and leave pissed-off. Driven by sheer chutzpah, Levene decided to assemble a "new" Bruce Lee movie out of some footage from a black-and-white 1957 Hong Kong drama he acquired called THUNDERSTORM, which featured a 17-year-old Lee among the supporting cast. Aquarius staffer Ron Harvey found the two-decade-old film by accident while doing an inventory of titles in Levene's library. Harvey was then charged with constructing a story around the THUNDERSTORM footage, and what he and director Matthew Mallinson came up with can only be termed a "movie" in the loosest sense. It's set up as a TV documentary hosted by then-busy grindhouse trailer narrator Adolph Caesar, who would get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination four years later for A SOLDIER'S STORY and co-star as Old Mister in Steven Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE a year after that. Caesar is covering the 1979 World Karate Championship at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden and interviewing various talking heads about the legend of Bruce Lee. That includes event organizer Aaron Banks, taking on the role of conspiracy theorist and insisting that Lee's death was caused by "The Touch of Death" as punishment for revealing too many of the secrets of Chinese martial arts. Banks then proceeds to reveal more secrets of Chinese martial arts by detailing a move called "The Vibrating Palm," which can be laid upon someone in a certain way and lead to death in three to four weeks.

Caesar jabbers endlessly about this tournament being the deciding factor as to who will be the successor to Lee's legacy. Among those interviewed are actor and ex-football star Fred Williamson, who's introduced in a comedy sketch where he gets a late wake-up call and is exhausted and spent from satisfying his woman (Hollywood Browde) all night long (she begs for more, and Fred replies "Five times ain't enough?"). A running gag has everyone mistaking Fred for Harry Belafonte, including a would-be tough guy named Jasper Milktoast (played by Harvey) who tries to start shit with Fred by stealing his cab. Fred ends up catching a ride to the Garden with Caesar, who talks incessantly about Lee's TBD successor while Mallinson provides us with some vintage shots of 1979 Times Square, with movies like 10, HALLOWEEN, STARTING OVER, ANIMAL HOUSE, and APOCALYPSE NOW on theater marquees. Caesar also talks to full contact karate champ Ron Van Clief, who's shown doing his workout routine before agreeing with Banks and emphatically declaring that there's no way Lee could've died from natural causes. Dr. Van Clief is then shown beating the shit out of some creeps hassling an attractive women in the park. "How can I ever repay you?" the woman coos to a beaming Van Clief, as a presumably leering Caesar coyly quips via voiceover, "I'm sure Ron has some ideas of his own." Canceled.

Then comes what Caesar calls "The Halftime Show," where he delves into Lee's past and what made him the martial arts legend he became. Cut to over 30 minutes of footage from THUNDERSTORM, which has been dubbed over with ridiculous American voices to become a story of a teenage Bruce Lee being pressured by his family to pay attention to his studies when all he wants to do is keep practicing karate and get tickets to "the karate show." The black-and-white THUNDERSTORM footage is periodically interrupted by another detour into completely different stock footage, as Lee's mother tells him about the legend of his kung-fu warrior great-grandfather, which plays out in scenes taken from 1971's in-color and Bruce Lee-less INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN, another import that Levene forgot he owned and would eventually release on its own in 1983 as FORCED TO FIGHT. Of course, it didn't matter to anyone that INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN was about a samurai warrior and not a kung-fu fighter, but hey, whatever helps pad the running time by 30-plus minutes. And the THUNDERSTORM footage is the sketchiest way possible at Levene's disposal to justify giving Bruce Lee top billing in a movie being hastily assembled to take advantage of his name seven years after his death.

There's another haphazardly-stitched together scene of Lee having a conversation with Banks (of course, never in the shot together at the same time, and the scene is tinted to make it all match), and the Lee side of it is just badly-dubbed stock footage from either an old interview or a TV show (possibly taken from his recurring role on the short-lived 1971 ABC series LONGSTREET, which starred James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator), followed by Mallinson cutting to World Karate Championship contender Bill Louie (seen earlier in a hilarious staged shot yanking out an opponent's eyes and tossing them into the crowd) going after some muggers in Central Park while dressed as Lee's Kato from THE GREEN HORNET. Caesar continues to ask anyone within earshot about who will carry on the legacy of Bruce Lee, including a ringside sitdown with a seemingly irritable Williamson, followed by a desperate crawl to the feature-length threshold by showing the final two rounds of the World Welterweight Full Contact championship bout between Louie Neglia and John "Cyclone" Flood. Neglia wins but Caesar, who's spent the entire movie pestering everyone with the same inane questions about who will inherit Bruce Lee's crown, decides it doesn't matter. On the subject of handing off Lee's legacy, he asks "Why should we?" and concludes that Lee is irreplaceable, which is interesting since no one was even talking about it in the first place except Adolph Caesar.

Can you imagine paying to see this in 1980? What is this movie? Is it even a movie? It's part documentary, part mockumentary, part sketch comedy, part sporting event coverage, part proto-JACKASS, and it was all sold as a new martial arts epic teaming Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson, and Ron Van Clief ("The 3 Greatest Masters!"). The Blu-ray features interviews with all the major surviving players, including Levene (who's in his 90s), Mallinson, and Harvey, plus Williamson and Van Clief are interviewed together (Caesar died in 1986). They all have a sense of humor about it, with stories of creating forged credentials and equipment adorned with a "WAQU-TV" (for "Aquarius") logo so Garden security would let Caesar and a cameraman into the event, thinking they were with an actual TV station. Harvey also shares a hilarious memory of Caesar (described by Mallinson as "not drunk, but he had a couple drinks and was feeling good") nailing some lines of dialogue before Harvey realized he missed a couple of sentences, and started shouting to get Caesar's attention "like I was Arthur Miller trying to preserve the sacred texts." It's hard to recommend FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH to anyone but the most die-hard Bruce Lee completists or Bruceploitation masochists, but one almost has to admire the audacity of its very existence, along with the nostalgic reminder that there was once a time when some straight-up bullshit like this could make money in theaters. I feel sorry for any '80s kid who decided to do a book report on Bruce Lee and thought watching this would be a good way to get around the reading ("...but all he really wanted to do was get tickets to the karate show").

opening in Toledo, OH on 11/14/1980

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Retro Review: DEATH DIMENSION (1978)

(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


(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


(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)

(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


(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

(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)

(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

(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.

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)