1979 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE RETURN OF THE BIONIC BOY

The final year of exploitation cinema’s greatest decade begins with Alien, the film that made the careers of director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver. Ian Holm stands out in a top-notch ensemble, which includes the late John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright. Seven years later, James Cameron took a very different route with the belated, high octane sequel, which, unlike its predecessor, was an immediate hit. Apart from the performances of Weaver and Bill Paxton, however, Cameron’s sequel doesn’t stand up, lacking the tension, freshness, and sense of wonder of Scott’s original, which took its time earning its cult status.

Likewise, The Brood cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation as a startlingly original and provocative filmmaker. Status quo critics, such as Roger Ebert, were mightily offended. Thank God.

Staying consistent, Ebert missed the boat again with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It spawned a lot of imitations, including Coscarelli’s inferior sequels, which have curiously imitated the imitators.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a homage to F.W. Murnaru’s original. Although some will undoubtedly scream blasphemy, Herzog’s effort, starring Klaus Kinski  in the role made famous by Max Schreck, is the equal of the 1922 classic.

Dracula (directed by John Balham) was an unnecessary big budget remake with  a feathered-hair Count (Frank Langella). Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance co-starred.

With the success of Carrie, it was inevitable that Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, would be adapted too. Surprisingly, it was made into a mini-series. Even more surprisingly, it’s directed by Tobe Hooper, although like Poltergeist, it feels more like the work of its producers. David Soul, riding high on his “Starsky and Hutch” popularity, stars, but James Mason, as usual, steals the show.

Cleopatra Wong (Marrie Lee) showed up in 1979 for a couple of ass-whuppin features: first in Bobby A. Suarez’ The Devil’s Three (AKA Mean Business). As usual with Suarez, oddity is in his DNA. In order to save the day, Cleopatra has to dine with the devil (Johnny Wilson), who’s not literally the devil—he’s just a gang lord who goes by that name. Along the way she picks up a flaming bunny in drag (Chito Guerrero) and a four hundred pound psychic (Florence Carvajel) as sidekicks. It’s low budget, badly dubbed, G-rated (well, perhaps PG-rated) lunacy at its most inspired. It probably played at every drive-in theater in the country, for which it was tailor-made.

The Return of the Bionic Boy features a returning Wong, teaming up with the Bionic Boy (Johnson Yap) who is not only bionic, but also an eight-year-old Tae Kwon Do master. Suarez and company jump on the bionic bandwagon, pitting our heroes against Nazis, laser thingamajigs, the campiest gay villain in all of cinema history, and a fire-breathing pseudo-Godzilla as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Being expired cheese, this comes with a manager’s special discount, including a fee pack of antacids for afterwards. Enjoy.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.

Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and Christopher Plummer, but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.

Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame Bette Davis, still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.

Jean Rollin goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

 Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright,  Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.

Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.

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