Wednesday 21 May 2014

Last of the Badmen [1967]

LAST OF THE BADMEN is an Italian western that was directed by Nando Cicero and originally released in August 1967 under its original title Il tempo di avvoltoi.  It stars George Hilton, Frank Wolff, Eduardo Fajardo and Pamela Tudor.  Hilton plays Kitosch, a cowboy working for brutal cattle baron Don Jaime (Fajardo).  After enduring various punishments Kitosch quits and falls in with mysterious man in black Tracy (Wolff) and together they set off to track down Tracy's former partners who made off with his share of a bank robbery.

I've written about spaghetti westerns before but just to recap they differ from American westerns in that, generally speaking, they are more violent, more stylised, cheaper and morally ambiguous.  The best of them, made by the likes of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima, are the equal of anything Hollywood produced.  Even the lesser ones are usually worth a look if only because you will see in them things you never see in mainstream Westerns.

Unfortunately, LAST OF THE BADMEN is not one of the best spaghettis you'll ever see; in fact it's not enough a lesser example.  It's what I call a tinned spaghetti western, that is to say an inferior, ersatz version of the real McCoy.  In a sense, and without wanting to sound too wanky, you might even describe it as a meta-spaghetti by which I mean it apes a genre which is itself aping a genre.  You can usually tell a poor spaghetti western, or a poor genre film of most types, because it will have little to offer besides its violence and sadism.  This movie is a prime example: it is full of tedious fist fights and gun fights which go on too long and do little advance the plot or characterization.

Neither does it have any of the visual flair of many spaghettis.  It uses a very drab grey / brown / green palette and aside from a few breathtaking mountain backdrops it seems to take place in muddy fields.  More than anything it just looks so cold.  What I want from spaghettis, and to be fair what I usually get, is the feeling of intense baking heat which inflames the passions, makes good men bad and bad men worse.  In Leone's westerns in particular the amount of people you see sweating profusely is quite incredible.  You never get that sense here; it's a bit like those CARRY ON movies set on camp sites in what appear to be sodden, freezing field.

These stills are examples of the dull landscapes in LAST OF THE BADMEN

Another element missing from this movie is the socialist / revolutionary aspect which is common to most of the good spaghettis.  Kitosch is a essentially a good man, it's true, but he's not motivated by any desire to help the working man against the robber baron.  Indeed, the only man he really helps to any significant degree is the psychopathic killer Tracy.  Furthermore, at the end of the picture, Kitosch actually hands back to Don Jaime the $90,000 he had previously stolen from him.  Such a thing would be unthinkable in the westerns directed by the men I listed above.

You can't say that LAST OF THE BADMEN lacks action.  In the first twenty minutes alone Kitosch is whipped, beaten up, branded, lassoed twice, double crossed and thrown in jail.  And that's before the shooting starts. That hectic pace slows down little but not much because, as I said above, that's pretty much all it has to offer.  Most of the standard western tropes are present but here their use feels like a checklist more than anything truly creative.

Familiar western tropes: the barrel bath tub (full of bubbles and Pamela Tudor)...

...and lynching rescue...

...and saloon complete with Mexican bandits

Leading man George Hilton made a lot of spaghetti westerns in the '60s (including Frontera al sur, a prequel to this film, released in March 1967) before moving with the times into giallos in the '70s.  He has quite a cult following based on these genre movies but I've never been a big fan: he's good-looking in a bland sort of way but can't emote worth a damn.  I suppose that's why Cicero gave him plenty of support in Wolff and Fajardo, both of whom turn in good performances.  It may be an invidious comparison but Hilton just isn't as talented or charismatic as Franco Nero or Lee Van Cleef, let alone Clint Eastwood.

George Hilton as Kitosch

Frank Wolff as Joshua Tracy

Woolff and Fajardo are good value though.  I've written about Wolff before (here) so will limit myself to saying he's the best thing in it and I could have done with more of his backstory - his past exploits with erstwhile partners in crime Traps and Big John.  If you watch enough delirious movies you'll come to know the Eduardo Fajardo very well because he was a very busy actor for whom the word prolific is an understatement.  He was in countless spaghettis and occasionally crossed over into mainstream Hollywood pictures.  Still alive is old Eduardo - 90 this year - and, as I always say of actors of that vintage - I hope someone is writing down his reminiscences of the movie business because once they're gone they're gone for good and let's face it, there will soon be no-one around who can remember film-making in the '40s.

Eduardo Fajardo as Don Jaime Mendoza

Nando Cicero was basically a bit of a hack who tried his hand at various genres without advancing the form in any of them.  His journeyman status goes some way to explaining why this film is so lacklustre.  That said he did work with a lot of the stars of European cult cinema - Klaus Kinski, Edwige Fenech, Marisa Mell - so I'm sure he'll crop up on Cinema Delirium again at some stage.  let's hope it's in connection with something a little more individual and inspiring.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Maniac Cop 2 [1990]

MANIAC COP 2 is an American action / horror movie that was directed by William Lustig and originally released in December 1990.  It stars Robert Davi, Claudia Christian and Robert Z'Dar with supporting performances from Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Leo Rossi and Michael Lerner.  Very much like the original, this sequel concerns the havoc caused (again) by crazed, undead cop Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) who has returned from the grave (again) to seek vengeance (again) against the baddies who did him in.

The first film in this series was well received even by the mainstream film critics.  I think what they admired was its energy, the engaging cast and the right blend of horror, action and investigation.  For the most part the same can be said of this sequel although on the down side it suffers from the inevitable familiarity inherent in franchises.  Lustig tries to cover this up by introducing a rather disturbing and incredibly hairy serial killer (Leo Rossi) character who teams up with Cordell.

Cordell and Turkell compare blades

I don't think I'm spoiling the fun too much to say that Campbell and Landon briefly reprise their roles from the first movie before they are killed off to introduce two new 'heroes' in Davi and Christian.  I say 'heroes' not as some sort of homage to David Bowie but because basically they're not hugely likeable people.  Davi plays guilt-ridden detective Sean McKinney who is gruff, unfriendly and deeply suspicious of police psychologist Susan Riley (Claudia Christian) whom he believes is responsible for getting good cops suspended from duty.

Laurene Landon and Bruce Campbell

However, they quickly cotton on to the fact that a series of cop slayings must be the work of Cordell; attempting to convince slimy police commissioner Doyle (Michael Lerner at his oiliest) they are met with scorn and a marked lack of cooperation.  What then follows is a series of set pieces, usually involving violent action the odd couple try to track down their man / zombie.

Matt Cordell goes to work

Lustig directs in a style reminiscent of Larry Cohen, which comes as no surprise because Cohen wrote and produced the film.  What they have in common is a lean, kinetic style, a good eye and a terrifically imaginative use of urban locations.

I think Lustig isn't quite in Cohen's class: Cohen has a better control of pace and mood. whereas Lustig is rather too keen on the violent action, which has the effect of making his films feel relentless. By way of underlining that point I can say that the body count in this film is astronomical and more police cars are smashed to bits than in any film save THE BLUES BROTHERS [1980].

Robert Davi as Detective Sean McKinney

Having said that, there are a couple of touching moments: a blind newspaper seller recounting how he lost his sight in WW2, and a stripper speaking to her mother on the phone, reassuring her that her secretarial career is going well.  Lustig also elicits good performances from his cast although Laurene Landon, bless her, is no great shakes despite playing a character she has played once before.  As does Robert Z'Dar although little is required of him other than to be a great hulking menace which is to be said he does with aplomb.  There is some spectacular stunt work too, especially a couple of full body burns which you don't see that often these days.

Lustig has only directed a few pictures, three of which are in this MANIAC COP series.  Of the rest I think all of them are urban action thrillers or, in the case of his debut feature MANIAC [1980], a horror movie. MANIAC has a great central performance from Joe Spinell, the fearless character actor, who was slated to play Leo Rossi's role in this film but sadly passed away before shooting began.  I ought to say that MANIAC isn't strictly speaking Lustig's debut feature: whisper it quietly but he made a couple of porn movies in the '70s.  He's obviously very fond of the word 'maniac', and why not?  My friend Marshy reckons 'Maniac Cop' is the best exploitation film title ever; it's certainly up there with Larry Cohen's THE STUFF [1985], that's fer damn sure!

Claudia Christian as Susan Riley

Bruce Campbell is familiar to millions from THE EVIL DEAD movies and plenty of other delirious movies. Like Jeffrey Combs, he just has one of those face that are impossible to take seriously.  Laurene Landon isn't a prolific actress but nevertheless has been in plenty of genre fare, much of it in concert with Larry Cohen. She's also in an excellent film about women's wrestling called ...ALL THE MARBLES [1981] directed by Robert Aldrich; it's well worth a look.  Robert Davi is another familiar face albeit one that is only ever going to get him work as a tough guy.  Still, he's had a long and successful career out of it so who's complaining? Maybe Mrs Davi, I guess.  Claudia Christian who is a whole lot prettier than Robert Davi has also had a good career although mostly on TV, notably in BABYLON 5.  I think this was only her second feature film, after Jack Sholder's terrific little B-picture THE HIDDEN [1987].  Robert Z'Dar makes scores of films and is instantly recognisable as he suffers from cherubism which causes the face to grow abnormally large.  That sort of makes him a modern day Rondo Hatton but it's something he has embraced and turned to his advantage; I don't anyone could claim that he is being exploited.  Finally, there are a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos from Charles Napier, B-movie king de nos jours Danny Trejo  and, somewhere, because I didn't spot him, Sam Raimi.

I can't resist this still to end on: Laurene Landon about to duke it out with Matt Cordell.  With a chainsaw.

Saturday 17 May 2014

The Town That Dreaded Sundown [1976]

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is an American true crime thriller that was directed by Charles B. Pierce and originally released by American International Pictures (AIP) in December 1976.  It stars Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine and not only Pierce himself but also his then wife Cindy Butler.  The citizens of Texarkana, Arkansas are being terrorised by a masked killer who always appears to be one step ahead of the law so the local Sheriff's Department calls in a renowned detective with the Texas Rangers to take charge of the investigation.

Charles B. Pierce was a director of independent backwoods movies which most often found a home on the grindhouse / drive-in circuit.  As is the case with this film, his pictures were usually set in the southern United States, particularly Arkansas where Pierce grew up.  Knowing the region so well allowed him to create believable settings populated with three-dimensional characters; indeed in some of his films, especially the early ones, parts were played not by actors but by local people.  It's often the case that you have to stray quite some distance from the mainstream to find genuinely regional films like Pierce's.  Contrast this film, with its colourful but credible characters, with something like Alan Parker's MISSISSIPPI BURNING [1988] which is peopled by stereotypical hayseeds and rednecks.

A more sophisticated view of the South than we are used to: note the characters are drinking wine rather than beer.  The still is not without social comment though: note the black waiter.

Pierce wasn't the only one by any means.  I suppose the prime example is Woody Allen, an independent film-maker, albeit on a much larger scale, who limits the majority of his films not to a region but to one city. As my friend JBD pointed out to me the other day, the likes of S. F. Brownrigg and Earl Owensby were responsible for independent regional genre films which were set in Texas and North Carolina respectively.

It's not just the regional nature of Pierce's film that makes it stands out; by itself that wouldn't necessarily make a film.  What Pierce also offers is technique: a genuine mastery of the widescreen frame and an impressive control of colour.  Pierce's first eight features were all shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (which must be some kind of record for a low-budget independent genre director) and clearly by the time he made this, his fifth feature, he'd really got the hang of it.

I've written before about the pros and cons of widescreen photography but in a nutshell one might say that it's great for epics but at the cost of intimacy.  In my opinion Pierce manages that problem very well because in certain moments his film has to be intimate; the Phantom Killer preys initially upon courting couples parked up in lovers lanes so the viewer must be able to imagine he / she is in the car with them.

John Carpenter achieves the same effect in HALLOWEEN [1978], utilising the wide frame to find places for Michael Myers to hide in but also creating a feeling of claustrophobia as Jamie Lee Curtis, by contrast, can't find anywhere to hide.

The wide open spaces of Haddonfield in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1979]

and the claustrophobic interiors in the same film.

t has been pointed out that Stanley Kubrick used a technique knows as 'one point perspective' whereby the viewer's eye is drawn to a single central vanishing point by a meticulous mise en scene involving unobtrusive symmetry.

One point perspective in Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET [1987]

Two point perspective in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
In the above still Pierce uses two point perspective, using the lines created on the left by the pavement and the hotel awning, and on the right by the building's two perpendicular sides to draw the viewer's eye away from the centre of the screen thereby reinforcing the idea of space already created by the use of widescreen. Another example is shown in the still below.

Pierce's use of colour is another striking element of this film.  Like the once great Dario Argento, Pierce uses colour very deliberately and not at all gratuitously so that you really notice when it's there.  Red plays a very important part and Pierce uses it to both enhance the overall look of a frame and to pick out details within the frame.  Consider these examples.

In terms of its narrative and structure Pierce's film was very much a forerunner of David Fincher's ZODIAC [2007].  Although the plot story centres around the brutal murders of young couples, this is a world away from the OTT sensational slasher flicks like FRIDAY THE 13TH [1979] or the stylised sadism of Argento. The murder scenes are harrowing, brutal and actually rather upsetting just as they are in ZODIAC.  In between the murders we follow the progress of the police investigation and while I wouldn't call it a procedural, such as Michael Mann's MANHUNTER [1986] Pierce does show us some of the nuts and bolts of police work.

Charles B. Pierce as the hapless Patrolman Benson
The only false note in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is the broad comedy provided by the bumbling Patrolman Benson, played by Pierce himself.  Such moments as Benson forgetting the keys to his car, or driving his car into a lake, or dressing up in drag as part of a trap to lure the killer, are jarring in an otherwise sober movie.  Perhaps Pierce felt that his film would be too downbeat without moments of levity, and he may have been right, but I think he went too far in that direction.

Ben Johnson as Captain J.D. Morales
There are really only two cast members with roles prominent enough to mention here: Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine.  Ben Johnson, like Richard Farnsworth who I wrote about in my review of RESURRECTION recently, started out in movies as a stunt rider which eventually got him speaking parts in Westerns.  Initially he was a member of John Ford's stock company and latterly became associated with Sam Peckinpah.  His finest hour, at least in the eyes of the Academy was in Peter Bogdanovich's wonderful THE LAST PICTURE SHOW [1971] for which Johnson won the Best Supporting Actor award.  Johnson could play mean or avuncular but he was always authoritative and his creased face spoke of a man who had witnessed much.  He died in 1996.

Andrew Prine as Deputy Norman Ramsey

Andrew Prine is a more a genre specialist and made plenty of delirious movies and as such is aces by me. I've written about him before (see my review of THE EVIL here) so I'll limit myself to saying he's very good in this film and makes a good hero.  He was good looking and talented enough to have become a big star but it never really happened for him and he ended up in a lot of TV episodes in the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s too.  He's still going strong and has racked up a frankly ludicrous 181 acting credits according to imdb. You can visit his official site here

Charles B. Pierce only made 12 features but was involved in film-making for most of his adult life; he had a side career as a set dresser on low-budget genre films as well as mainstream stuff like Clint Eastwood's THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES [1976].  Obviously Pierce's attention to deal was exceptional and a significant factor in THE TOWN... being so convincing in its post-war setting.  I would urge you to check out any of Pierce's films but would particularly recommend his debut feature THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK [1972] which is a lot more thoughtful and even lyrical than its lurid would suggest, and THE EVICTORS [1979] a brutal but effective horror story.  Pierce died in 2010.

The DP responsible for successfully capturing Pierce's set-ups was James Roberson who shot five films for him before moving into TV work.  He did however direct the 1982 horror feature SUPERSTITION a review of which you will find elsewhere on this site.

Friday 16 May 2014

Resurrection [1980]

RESURRECTION is an American drama that was directed by Daniel Petrie and originally released in September 1980.  It stars Ellen Burstyn, Sam Shepard and Roberts Blossom, with Richard Farnsworth, Lois Smith and Jeffrey DeMunn in smaller roles.  Burstyn plays Edna who survives a traumatic car crash and finds that she has somehow acquired the power to heal.  Returning to her childhood home in Kansas to convalesce she comes into conflict with some of the deeply religious people in the farming community who variously regard her as the Devil or Christ incarnate.

I've been intrigued about this film since I read about it in Halliwell's Film Guide probably thirty years ago.  It wasn't so much the subject matter - I was obsessed with supernatural and horror films in those days, and this didn't qualify on either count - but the fact that I never came across it anywhere: not on TV, at the cinema or in the video shop.  It was just one of those 'disappeared' films I've written about before and as the years went by with no trace of it my desire to see it grew and grew.  A couple of years ago I eventually found a grainy VHS dupe of it but couldn't bring myself to watch it in that condition.  And then, out of nowhere, an HD version arrives.

Never mind all that, I hear you cry, is it any good?  Well, being as you asked so politely, I'll give you a solid, straight-down-the-line unequivocal 'yes and no'.  The concepts of near death experience and bona fide miracles are good but only occasional fodder for films.  Off the top of my head I can think of Peter Weir's FEARLESS [1993], M. Night Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE [2000] and Richard Pearce's LEAP OF FAITH [1992] in relatively recent years.  Despite being inherently fascinating subjects I think the reason Hollywood by and large steers clear from them are threefold.  First, Hollywood is much more interested in killing people than it is in seeing them get up again.  Second, these subjects take you perilously close to religion - a topic that Hollywood likes to avoid.  Third, you're eventually going to run into the problem of how to depict the halfway house between life and death, heaven and earth.

Unfortunately, Petrie doesn't solve that problem.  His visual interpretation of the various accounts of near death experiences is too literal.  That is to say, there is literally a tunnel, there is literally a bright light at the end of it, there are literally all the people - now deceased - you ever knew lining each side of the tunnel smiling beatifically at you.  As Edna lies in a coma she imagines herself gliding along the tunnel en route to the light - is it heaven? is it God? - before realising it's not her time and comes gliding back.  The dialogue too has its clunky moments: there really are scenes where Edna's 'patients' say things like "I can hear!  I can hear!"

The other major problem with RESURRECTION is that it's monumentally soppy.  Now I'm as peace-loving as the next man but the film is so wet and liberal that it verges on the offensive.  As someone once said of a similar movie, 'It's the kind of film where you wish Pauly Shore would come on and start dry humping someone.'  Apart from the three most religious characters the entire cast is so benign that you begin to wonder whether Edna has actually died and gone upstairs.  Towards the end Edna's grandma says 'If only people would love each other the world would be a much better place'.  Good grief, I've seen greetings cards with more profound messages than that.

This the kind of thing I mean: small seriously ill boy, cute puppy.  It's too much.
The contrast between spirituality and religion is interesting though.  Edna isn't a believer and rejects her boyfriend's (Sam Shepard) conviction that she is Christ resurrected.  But she does believe that she has experienced, however briefly, some form an afterlife.  She even comforts a dying man and tells him not be afraid of death because what happens afterwards is wonderful.  So where is the intersection between a belief in the eternal soul, belief in the word of God, and belief in the teachings of Christ?  As I say, the religious characters are the only real villains in the picture so Petrie and scriptwriter Lewis John Carlino appear to be telling us that dogma is best avoided.

The fire and brimstone bible basher gives Edna a piece of his mind.
There are some effective sequences.  The climactic healing sequence where Edna appears to purge a woman's chronic, disfiguring arthritic condition only to transfer it to herself is powerful stuff and there's an incredibly evocative sequence which shows the gradual disintegration of Edna's childhood farmhouse.  The gas station sections which effectively bookend the movie and summarise its message, such as it is, are sentimental but well done.

Edna's family home slowly falls victim to the elements.
I've written about Ellen Burstyn before albeit only in passing, if you'll pardon the pun.  Her period as a top-line star was criminally brief: she was, and no doubt still is, beautiful and talented but for whatever reason - probably luck as much as anything else - didn't quite capture the public imagination in the same way as, say, Faye Dunaway.  She still gets plenty of work though having successfully made the transition from young leading actress to older character actress.  That in itself is an achievement in the youth-obsessed film business.

Ellen Burtsyn as Edna Mae
Sam Shepard is a good looking guy who has made a lot of films but I always get the impression with him that acting is something he does on his days off, rather like Kris Kristofferson.  He's obviously a very bright bloke though and that may be why he often plays slightly remote characters.  I saw him in AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY earlier in the year and he was just like that - an alcoholic writer who lives in the middle of nowhere.

Sam Shepard as Cal
Roberts Blossom was a character actor who as well as having one of the greatest names in showbiz added colour to some very good films over the years.  He didn't make that many but his characters are usually memorable: he specialises in ornery, borderline aggressive, plain-speaking farmers although occasionally you'll see him as a kindly plain-speaking farmer.  Life has few certainties but one is that you will never see Roberts Blossom in a tux leaning against a marble mantlepiece.  In reality, Blossom was a Harvard-educated man who wrote poetry in his spare time which probably tells you something about how Hollywood operates.

Roberts Blossom as John Harper
Richard Farnsworth became an actor late in life, although he had been in the film business for 40 years as a stuntman specialising in horse riding.  As if to prove that all good things come to those who wait he eventually got star billing and the leading role in David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY [1999].  And as if to prove how cruel life can be, the following year Farnsworth was diagnosed with terminal cancer and rather than submit he shot himself.

Richard Farnsworth as Esco
A couple of brief notes on the bit parts.  Lois Smith is an actress whose career resembles Ellen Burstyn's without the brief period of stardom.  She did get to play opposite James Dean in Elia Kazan's EAST OF EDEN [1955] though and there are some great stills to be seen of her doing just that.  Jeffrey DeMunn, who plays Edna's ill-fated husband, is probably better known as the equally ill-fated Dale in the TV series THE WALKING DEAD.

Lois Smith (L) as Kathy
Daniel Petrie was a director who did most of his work on TV which may partly explain why RESURRECTION has an intimate rather than an epic feel.  His 1982 Paul Newman movie FORT APACHE THE BRONX is a good cop thriller though and THE BETSY from 1977 is remembered too, although for all the wrong reasons.  His son Daniel Jr was a big noise in scriptwriting in the early 80s, penning among others BEVERLY HILLS COP [1984] (and all its sequels) and one of my favourite films THE BIG EASY [1986]. Another son, Donald, also went into the directing game but has largely helmed undemanding and forgettable light comedies.

I love this still.  Edna is about to perform her first public act of healing on this little girl whose fake putty nose is bleeding
Lewis John Carlino wrote flawed but interesting scripts for films which unsurprisingly were themselves flawed but interesting, much as RESURRECTED is.  One I've always wanted to see but failed to track down is Mark Rydell's THE FOX [1967], which Carlino adapted from a D. H. Lawrence story.  In a totally different vein he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winner's umpteenth Charles Bronson movie THE MECHANIC [1972], recently remade for Jason Statham, and the little-seen horror movie A REFLECTION OF FEAR [1973].  I think his best work is THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA [1976], which he also directed.  It's a proper delirious movie that one: sex, nudity, voyeurism, hints of incest, and implacably cruel children.  Almost certainly the best Yukio Mishima adaptation ever filmed in Devon.  It also has a terrific poster of a type you really don't see these days.

Cinematographer Mario Tosi worked on a number of films I'm fond of - FROGS [1972], CARRIE [1976], THE STUNT MAN [1980] and WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? [1981] - but I'd be hard pressed to describe his personal style.  Perhaps he was just a generalist, and there's no shame in that.

And to end, a gratuitous still of a small furry dog: Clancy