Archive for the Reviews Category

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH: Pound for Glory

Posted in Movies, My Heroes, Reviews, Videos with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2022 by Robert Morgan

The year is 1933. The United States of America has been brought to its knees by economic disaster, resulting in the Great Depression. Across the country, millions of people find themselves out of work and no longer able to keep roofs over their heads. Men become transients who survive by any means necessary and travel the land looking for work by stowing away on trains. One conductor who refuses to let hobos ride his train for free is Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a fearsome brute unafraid to murder any unwanted passenger. He is a despised legend to both the hobos of the country and the railway workers forced to deal upfront with his violent tactics, but the Shack may have just met his match in the most famous tramp of them, A-Number-One (Lee Marvin).

A-Number-One is a legend in his own right and he is determined to get to Portland by way of Shack’s train no matter what. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and with his fellow bums cheering him on and the rail men taking bets on his possible fate, A-Number-One accepts the challenge of outwitting the sadistic conductor with the help of the brash younger hobo Cigaret (Keith Carradine) and seeing if he has what it takes to become “Emperor of the North Pole”.

Robert Aldrich’s harrowing, gritty period adventure Emperor of the North didn’t stand a chance at the box office when it first released; its own studio 20th Century Fox was confused as to how it should be effectively marketed to the masses, and films aimed at younger audiences made on modest budgets were finding greater success and profitability. It would take several decades for this criminally underrated masterpiece to find appreciative viewers through home video and cable television.

Few filmmakers were able to take advantage of the Hollywood studio system to make entertaining features with subversive undertones as effectively and memorably as Robert Aldrich did in the 1950’s and 60’s. After all, this is the man who directed the seminal Atomic Age film noir Kiss Me Deadly, the creepy thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the exhilarating WWII action epic The Dirty Dozen. Emperor stands as one of Aldrich’s greatest achievements behind the camera, one that stands the test of time thanks to its unflinching approach to addressing the poverty and unlawful brutality that has been all too present in America since it was founded. Income inequality and unpoliced abuses of the free market by major corporations and their political puppets help to create the situations in which most unemployed Americans find themselves presently, and the excessive force practiced by this country’s law enforcement professionals against its citizenry is worse than it ever was.

Screenwriter Christopher Knopf (20 Million Miles to Earth) drew upon two of Jack London’s autobiographical accounts of his days traveling across the U.S. as the basis for a script that is rich in evocative imagery and hard-boiled dialogue seeped in the sad yet cautiously optimistic poetry of the open road. Under Aldrich’s brutally harsh direction, Emperor of the North comes to embody the ongoing battle between the besieged working class and the authoritarians granted almost unlimited power to bend the proletariat to the will of the oligarchy, only told in the broad strokes of mythology. A-Number-One, portrayed with playful wisdom and true grit by the legendary Lee Marvin, is the classic hero who is beloved and lionized by his fellow man to heights that will ensure his legacy will endure long after he is dead. He is given the perfect villain in the form of the sadistic Shack, brought to sweaty, bug-eyed, yellow-teethed life by the late Ernest Borgnine, a god among character acting who always made the movies he appeared in just a little bit better just from his presence alone.

My next dating profile pic.

Borgnine imbues Shack with a fury that borders on demonic and his flaring blue eyes cannot conceal, and his character is granted enough justification for his unforgivably atrocious actions against the men who commit the cardinal sin of simply wanting a free ride they would otherwise pay for if they had the money. To this day, pundits and politicians alike complain that lower and middle class Americans are always wanting a “free ride”, and by that they naturally mean government-funded social programs that are created to assist those who do not have massive bank accounts, golden parachutes, and million dollar book deals to fund their lifestyle. If the character of Shack wasn’t meant to personify the right-wing viewpoint that the poor are only that way because they are lazy and need to be taught to respect authority and the value of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and learning the value of an honest day’s work, he ends up being that personification when you analyze the film from a contemporary social and political perspective. Perhaps that is what Aldrich, who turned an exciting WWII action epic into a subtle yet scathing critique of the Vietnam War, had in mind all along.

Aldrich lets the audience know he doesn’t intend to play around in the opening scene where Shack clubs a hobo over the head and watches as the poor man gets pulled under the train and cut in half, and the camera refuses to turn away from the bloody aftermath. Such shocking imagery was not exactly common in PG-rated studio features, but Emperor of the North manages to skirt the draconian laws of the MPAA by not being a wall-to-wall festival of violence and gore. The film runs nearly a minute of two hours but doesn’t fall victim to slow stretches and scenes that go nowhere thanks to the sharp editing of longtime Aldrich collaborator Michael Luciano (Twilight’s Last Gleaming). The time between action sequences is wisely spent setting up the characters and the times they now live in with art direction by Fox veteran Jack Martin Smith (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, M*A*S*H) and set decoration by Raphael Bretton (The Towering Inferno) that adds immeasurably to its authentic atmosphere of grime and desperation. Another favored member of Aldrich’s behind-the-scenes talent is composer Frank De Vol (who worked on some of the director’s best features, as well as creating the theme music for The Brady Bunch), contributing a jaunty original soundtrack that ideally underscores the quieter moments of Emperor as well as the scenes where the tension is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw.

The climatic set-piece features a thrilling showdown between A-Number-One and Shack atop the moving track where the two combatants duel to the finish with any weapon they can get their hands on. Aldrich shoots the action with a respect for the geography of the final battle and achieves an unforgettable effect through a combination of tight close-ups and professional stunt work that you just don’t see on the big screen anymore. Keith Carradine, in one of his earliest film roles, rips into the character of Cigaret with swaggering confidence and a brash, loud-mouthed personality that could only come about from the need to conceal embarrassing inadequacies. His chemistry with Marvin is convincing enough to power their unlikely mentor-student relationship. Aldrich stocks the supporting cast of Emperor of the North with some of the finest character actors there ever was, including Matt Clark (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Vic Tayback (Alice) as railroad yardmen, Elisha Cook Jr. (The Killing) and Sid Haig (The Devil’s Rejects) as a pair of A-Number-One’s fellow bums, and Simon Oakland (Psycho) as an overwhelmed policemen made to look the fool in one of the film’s comedic highlights.  

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE: Who Needs Enemies?

Posted in Blu-ray, Movies, My Heroes, Nothing That Should Concern You, Reviews, Videos on June 23, 2022 by Robert Morgan

In the Boston underworld, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is known as a stand-up guy. His colleagues call him “Eddie Fingers” because he once got his hand slammed in a drawer by some unsavory associates, giving the old timer a new set of knuckles in the process. Coyle must be a jack of many trades in the Beantown mob, but his primary business is supplying guns he procures through his younger partner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). His current best customers are a gang of bank robbers led by Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco) and Artie Van (Joe Santos) that must abandon their arms after every holdup. He’s done his share of prison time and has no intention of going back now that he has a wife (Helena Carroll) and three children to look after, but when he gets busted driving a truck full of stolen Canadian Club whiskey in New Hampshire, Coyle is forced to become an informant for ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) in the hope that he can avoid a sentence that could stretch to five years.

In order to keep from getting sent back to the clink, Coyle must sell out both Jackie and the Scalise gang, but his life – whether it be on the outside or in – isn’t going to mean much once word gets to the elusive Boston crime boss known to everyone as “the Man” that this low-life nobody is informing on his fellow criminals for the law.

One of the greatest necessities of effective storytelling is that the characters must define and propel the action, and not the other way around. Based on the novel by the celebrated crime novelist George V. Higgins (whose work was last adapted for the screen in 2012’s Killing Them Softly, one of that year’s best and most underrated films in spite of its odd retitling), The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the most realistic depictions of blue collar criminal life and the strained and mendacious, but regrettably necessary, relationship between the right and wrong sides of the law. Best known as the director of the stellar Steve McQueen action hit Bullitt, Peter Yates is at his absolute best here, crafting a bleak and merciless thriller where the outcome only becomes certain once you grow to understand the people involved in the story. Working with screenwriter Paul Monash, who also produced, Yates brings the world of Higgins’ novel to vivid life and places greater emphasis on creating an immersive and authentic working-class landscape where the characters could plausibly exist than on delivering the thrills that audiences crave.

This is a story where relationships are important, but loyalties buckle easily when the slightest pressure is applied, and Yates and Monash understand this all too well. The Boston where Eddie Coyle goes to work every day trying to make ends and keep his nose clean is one anyone from the city could recognize and connection to because Yates and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon) shot the film on location in several areas around the actual city. They take the production to the nondescript banks, grocery stores, train stations, and public parks where criminal activity is often going on with average ordinary citizens blissfully unaware. Monash’s adaptation of the Higgins novel retains the author’s gift for dialogue that sounds natural and genuine and doesn’t serve to merely advance the narrative, but to give the viewer a window into how these people think, operate, and relate to one another.

The houses mostly have wood-paneled interiors and could have burst hot water heaters and a lack of food in the fridge. Art director and production designer Gene Callahan (The Stepford Wives) did a fantastic job bringing a sense of hard-edged kitchen sink realism to the sets. Dave Grusin’s (The Nickel Ride) jazzy score, infused with a healthy dose of streetwise funk, pulsates with the rhythm and poetry of the world of dangerous and doomed men, and the expert editing by documentary veteran Patricia Lewis Jaffe keeps the pacing razor-taut and furious with respect to the characters and the dilemmas in which each person finds themselves. There are several memorable set-pieces that positively rack the nerves because we are never quite sure what the outcome could be, but the possible threat of violence and death hangs over everything the characters say and do; one false move, one misspoken sentiment, and that could be all she wrote. It’s rare when a movie can keep you on the literal edge of your seat, but The Friends of Eddie Coyle is never short on such suspenseful moments.

Yates’ film starred iconic cinema tough guy Robert Mitchum in what is undoubtedly his finest performance, and at the point in both his life and career when this project came along, the man was ready to play Eddie Coyle. The role required an actor who embodied Coyle’s world-weary resignation, aged wisdom, and stringent devotion to a moral code that has kept him alive and employed in criminal activity with strength and authenticity. Mitchum, growing weary of being typecast as the laconic badass in every generic crime and western picture that got tossed onto a studio development exec’s desk, brings a battered authority to the role and really nails down the character’s Boston accent by incorporating it into his own whiskey-aged vocals with nuance. Coyle isn’t an action hero, but an old man who has long comprehended the choices he has made in life and the people with whom he has to do business on a regular basis and must exist in that world without rocking the boat. Mitchum gives what may be the best performance of his storied career.

Coyle’s fatal mistake is overestimating the value of the experience and intelligence his years in the underworld have brought him. When he finally realizes that he’s a small-timer for a good reason, it’s far too late. In a more conventional film, Eddie and ATF agent Foley – played by Richard Jordan, one of American cinema’s most unsung and underappreciated character actors, in one of the best performances of a distinguished career that should have made him a star – would have bonded early on, developed a trusting relationship, and teamed up in the finale to battle the forces of the mob in a showdown full of pummeling fists and blazing fists. This is not a conventional story.

To Foley, a low-level slob like Eddie Coyle is a nobody who might have some useful information, and that’s if the Feds don’t already have it (which they usually do). Foley isn’t a cold-blooded bastard, but a man trying to do his job to bring down the mob. He’s the good guy in this scenario, and if a tip from Coyle can bring him a good arrest with an easy conviction on the side, so be it. That doesn’t make these men friends or even allies with overlapping motivations. That’s the nature of this business, one that the film never tires of reminding us – sell out your friends, and the same could very well happen to you. Coyle is expendable. If he goes down, someone else will take his place and life will go on as if nothing ever threatened to derail it.

Mitchum and Jordan are surrounded by a gangbuster of a supporting cast comprised of unsung acting talent that it took years, and for some even decades, for audiences to truly appreciate. Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver) is terrific as a syndicate man and another of Foley’s informers put in a very difficult position in the finale. Alex Rocco (The Godfather) and Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) impress greatly as the leaders of the stick-up crew with whom Coyle does regular business. One of my favorite performances in the film was given by the late Steven Keats, probably best known to contemporary as Paul Kersey’s son-in-law in the original Death Wish, as Coyle’s cocky, but canny and vigilant protégé Jackie Brown.

The cast is rounded out by smaller turns from Mitchell Ryan (Electra Glide in Blue) as Foley’s superior, James Tolkan (Back to the Future) as a mysterious representative of “the Man”, Matthew Cowles (Shutter Island) and Margaret Ladd (Mozart in the Jungle) as a pair of impulsive kids trying to secure weapons from Jackie for their own robbery, and Michael McLeery (Mother’s Day) as a nervous punk who shows up in the final scenes to serve a purpose I dare not spoil but will easily become clear to you once he makes his first appearance if you understand what must be the logical conclusion to The Friends of Eddie Coyle….the only conclusion that could make any sense.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a masterpiece of 1970’s downbeat crime cinema and a feast of terrific acting, writing, direction, music, and cinematography. Peter Yates’ best film as director is also a timeless classic that would be difficult to make in this day and age.

NOBODY Does It Better (Than Most Modern Action Movies)

Posted in Blu-ray, Crazy Shit, Hilarity, Movies, My Heroes, Reviews, Videos on June 13, 2022 by Robert Morgan

It is one of the rarest of occasions, the moment when a special kind of movie comes along – a movie that, until it actually existed, I never realized my life had been missing. Now that it was a reality, a crucial piece of the puzzle known as my soul has been restored to its rightful place and I am one step closer to achieving nirvana.

Nobody is such a movie.

As I write this, several hours have passed since my third session with the first therapist I’ve seen on a regular basis since 1997. I’m also still processing the recent passing of Philip Baker Hall, the legendary character actor who delivered fantastic performances on film (Secret Honor, Hard Eight) and television (Seinfeld) before dying at the age of 90 on June 12. Hall was a favorite of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast the screen veteran as aging professional gambler Sydney in his 1996 breakthrough feature Hard Eight (originally titled Sydney) and three years later as cancer-stricken game show host Jimmy Gator in Magnolia.

Between those two films, Hall made a memorable appearance as ambitious porn financier Floyd Gondolli in Anderson’s sprawling epic Boogie Nights. He had only scene, but it was one of the film’s definitive scenes. During a New Year’s Eve party at the home of adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), Gondolli has arrived to deliver a stark message to Horner about the industry’s future: film was dead, and videotape would soon be the way to go. It’s not the message an intelligent professional with lofty ideals such as Horner wants to hear, and at first he rejects it with barely concealed fury (successfully conveying the first two stages of grief in the process), but Gondolli coolly counters Horner’s skepticism with a masterful sales pitch that all but ensures the hardcore devotee of shooting hardcore on celluloid will soon see the light:

“I’m not a complicated man. I like cinema. In particular, I like to see people fucking on film. But I don’t want to win an Oscar and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass and lollipops in my mouth. That’s just me. That’s just something I enjoy.”

Now, you might ask, what does butter in the ass and people fucking on film have to do with a violent action vehicle driven by longtime alt-comedy icon and acclaimed icon Bob Odenkirk? Simple pleasures, ladies and germs. Much like Floyd Gondolli, the Professor Harold Hill of the XXX market, I myself am not a complicated man. Although I have yet to experience the sensation of a churned dairy product in close proximity to my rectum, I do like cinema. You might even say that I love it.

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t watch a movie. Most of the movies I watch are enjoyable in some fashion; it’s rare when I see one that’s so lousy and boring, I treat it like Spartans treat newborn babies with visible birth defects. I’m one of the easiest people in the world to please. Action cinema is one of my longtime loves. The amount of cinematic epics loaded with bullets, bombs, and badasses in my physical media collection easily outnumber the other genres by 4-to-1. That’s being generous. That’s being me. I’m a sucker for a sweet, tasty slice of escapism, and Nobody hits the spot every time.

Bear with me now, because I’m about to write my least favorite part of any review – the synopsis. I only do it for the benefit of the skeptical reader, if anyone actually reads what I write.

When we first meet Odenkirk’s titular suburban schlub Hutch Mansell, he’s living a life that could not be more ordinary if his hobbies included tax form preparation. He works at a metal fabrication plant owned by his father-in-law Eddie (fuckin’ Michael Ironside) and lives in a lovely house in a quiet neighborhood with his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen, who should have shot to stardom on the strength of her performances in The Devil’s Advocate and Gladiator, and the fact that she didn’t is an unforgivable offense), teenage son Blake (Gage Munroe) and younger daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath).

Hutch is sleepwalking through life until the night when he gets the rudest of awakenings….

Okay, that was all bullshit, and I can do better. After all, I’m not writing the Nobody press kit here. Long story short, thugs break into the Mansell home, Hutch gets pissed because they stole Abby’s kitty cat bracelet, he kicks a bunch of ass on a city bus and kills the little brother of a powerful Russian gangster, and the next thing you know, all-out war with a steadily rising body count ensues.

As it turns out, Hutch used to be a covert government assassin known as an “auditor” who retired to live a normal life, and now he’ll need to summon his particular skill set once more to protect his loved ones and save his ass from Russian retribution.

That’s much better.

The brainchild of John Wick creator Derek Kolstad and Hardcore Henry (a kickass flick I should revisit sometime down the road) director Ilya Naishuller, Nobody takes a well-worn concept and finds surprising new ways to make it fresh again. It’s not a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s damn great entertainment that delivers action, drama, character, and humor with expert precision without once boring the viewer.

We’ve seen the story of a retired assassin forced to return to his old life for matters of the heart before, but not quite like Nobody presents it. Even after Saul Goodman came into his life, it was difficult to picture Odenkirk playing a man who could break bones and wield firearms with the confidence of a cool-headed professional athlete. The featurettes on the Blu-ray release of Nobody show the actor training harder than he ever thought possible to convincingly play Hutch. That hard work pays off in spectacular fashion when our humble everyman working stiff reveals his true colors in the now-classic bus fight scene.

Hutch Mansell isn’t invincible. He can’t get into brawls with guys half his age without earning at least a few bruises for his trouble. It’s refreshing, in this age of superheroes and muscle-bound dude bros knocking down entire armies of faceless henchmen without slipping in their own puddles of baby oil, to have a main character in an action movie take a little damage. Not even the mighty John Wick, who shares a little DNA with our man Hutch no doubt thanks to their mutual creator Kolstad, could make it through one of his franchise’s epic shootouts unscathed.

What Odenkirk brings to the role of Hutch is relatability. Many of us see ourselves in the regular guy known to his family and co-workers, and more than a few of us wish we could come out victorious after a 90-minute assault of violence capped off by a ripper of a car chase soundtracked by Pat Benatar’s 80’s rock classic “Heartbreaker” and a full-scale gun battle at Hutch’s place of employment where he gets some much-needed from his aging father (Christopher Lloyd) and brother/fellow government operative (RZA). The finale is a beautiful parade of mayhem that could go on for a solid hour and I would not complain one bit.

The perfect family.

Kolstad’s script provides the cast without just enough character meat for them to snack on, with Odenkirk and Aleksei Serebryakov getting the most scenery to chew. Serebryakov’s stressed Russkie mobster is often a demented delight, going from singing at his own nightclub to beating up hospitalized goons in a matter of minutes with the same level of energy. It’s always nice to see Michael Ironside, ever the pro as Hutch’s dad-in-law and watching Christopher Lloyd – Doc Brown himself – working a pump-action shotgun in the final bullet-fest is a visual that will linger in my memory forever. Kudos to Kolstad for making Nielsen’s underwritten wife role a little different than usual; when Becca finds out what her hubby has been up to at night as his unsuspecting family sleeps, her reaction might pleasantly surprise you.

The direction by Naishuller is not quite as flashy and chaotic as he displayed in Hardcore Henry, but a dialed-down approach best suits the material and he still brings plenty of energy to the action set-pieces of Nobody while keeping the focus on character and story, as slight as both may be. It’s always nice to be able to follow what’s going on in a fight scene or shootout since most modern action features tend to rely heavily on handheld cinematography and jagged editing that leaves the simplest physical conflict an incomprehensible mess.

Watching Nobody is like eating a meal you’ve enjoyed before but prepared with a few different ingredients. Even though the outcome is ultimately the same as before, you still feel fulfilled. I could watch this movie every week without tiring of it. That’s how good it is. Nobody won’t win any Oscars and it’s not going to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t have to. It’s one of the simple pleasures that make being a movie fan so much fun, like a glob of Country Crock lubricating the crevices of your anus.

“I’m gonna fuck you up.”

In Need of a Gory Getaway? Plan Your Escape to BLOOD ISLAND Today!

Posted in Blu-ray, Crazy Shit, Hilarity, Independent Cinema, Movies, My Heroes, Nothing That Should Concern You, Reviews, Videos with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2022 by Robert Morgan

Six decades ago, a group of Filipino filmmakers and a few English-speaking actors in need of an easy payday birth one of the wildest and bloodiest franchises in the history of exploitation cinema. I am referring, of course, about the infamous “Blood Island” series – a quartet of insane low-budget horror flicks that delivered to audiences around the world a non-stop parade of slime, sex, and slaughter.

The beginning was a little rough.

1959’s Terror Is A Man, a lo-fi riff on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, sowed the seeds for the monstrous mayhem to come. But the movie itself is an overly talkative affair about a shipwrecked sailor (Richard Derr) whose lifeboat lands on an island in the middle of who-the-hell-knows where scientist Dr. Charles Girard (Francis Lederer) and his wife/assistant Francis (Greta Thyssen) have transformed a panther into a sort of Man Panther (Flory Carlos), or Panther Man if you will.

Nothing much happens for the first hour of Terror outside of Francis falling in love with the sailor and a surgery scene with less blood than a papercut. For that scene, the producers added a warning bell to cue the audience for mondo disturbing stuff about to happen. That bell sounds like a telephone ringing and when I first heard it, I half-expected Girard to shout, “Will someone answer that damn thing already?” By the time Panther Dude finally breaks free from bondage and goes on a very mild rampage in the movie’s last twenty minutes, you may or may not care one bit. The laughable make-up on the misbegotten mutant does not help either.

Terror was co-directed by Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero, with only de Leon getting screen credit, and produced by Kane W. Lynn. During World War II, Lynn was a pilot in the U.S. Navy stationed in the Philippines. Once the war ended, he decided to settle down there, and it was then that he met Romero and the two men became friends and formed Lynn-Romero Productions. Back in the States, Lynn met up with producer Irwin Pizor, and together with Romero they founded Hemisphere Pictures to ensure American distribution for their Filipino projects.

Out of the partnership between Lynn and Romero came several other movies including The Scavengers (which played on a double bill in the U.S. with Terror Is A Man) and The Raiders of Leyte Gulf, the latter a staple of exploitation trailer compilation DVDs. Few of these did well at the box office, compelling the producers to make a return trip to Blood Island in 1968 for Brides of Blood.

After the sleep-inducing Terror, there was nowhere for the series to go but up. Introducing color and upping the ante in terms of sex and violence made Brides a vastly more entertaining movie. It also one of the Blood Island quartet’s most enduring staples – actor John Ashley. At the time he received the offer to star in Brides, Ashley’s marriage to Deborah Walley had ended and he needed immediate escape. He enjoyed the experience of working in the Philippines so much that he stayed on long after the Blood Island series concluded and produced several exploitation movies in the country that saw release in the U.S. through distributors like Dimension Pictures and Roger Corman’s then newly-formed New World Pictures.

Shot for a meager $75,000, Brides found Ashley playing Peace Corps member Jim Farrell, who escorts Dr. Paul Henderson (Kent Taylor, another B-movie veteran) and his wife Carla (Beverly Powers, credited as “Beverly Hills”) to investigate evidence of atomic radiation at the tropical paradise nicknamed “Blood Island” by the fearful natives. There they encounter Esteban Powers (Mario Montenegro), a 50-year-old man who looks half that age, mutated vegetation with life of its own, and a hideous monstrosity who terrorizes the islanders unless it is offered two naked female sacrifices.

Once again, de Leon and Romero co-directed, but Romero was able to minimize his colleague’s artistic intents behind the camera while amping up Terror Is A Man’s few memorable aspects and frosting the finished cake with plenty of fake blood and a plethora of nude women. When Hemisphere released Brides in the U.S., publicity representative Sam Sherman came up with a marketing gimmick that offered a pair of cheap plastic engagement rings to female moviegoers so that they become Brides of Blood themselves. Sherman’s idea to include fake marriage licenses in the ring set was vetoed because of the potential legal nightmare they could create.

A year after the release of Brides, the series hit its peak big time with Mad Doctor of Blood Island, the most entertainingly lurid and trashy of the quartet. Ashley was brought back to play a different character, pathologist Dr. Bill Foster, while voluptuous film and television actress Angelique Pettyjohn supplied the sex appeal. Foster and Pettyjohn’s character Sheila have come to Blood Island for different reasons: the doc is investigating an outbreak among the natives of a chlorophyll disease, while Sheila is hoping to find her estranged father. Their host Dr. Lorca (Ronald Remy) stays mum about mysterious happenings on the island, which includes people bleeding out green before perishing with faces covered in mossy infections. And once again, there is a rampaging monster in the area and this one both bleeds green and randomly murders islanders.

Mad Doctor opens with a prologue, filmed at an Air Force base in Manila, inviting audiences to take part in the “Oath of Green Blood” by drinking “of the Mystic Emerald fluids herein offered” and becoming ravenous for either sex or murder. Packets of green liquid were handed out to paying patrons during the movie’s American release, another Sam Sherman marketing innovation, though one he later claimed made him sick to his stomach when he tried the stuff himself. Following the oath, we get a cold open with a terrified native woman running naked through the jungle before the chlorophyll beast rips her face to shreds. We are clued into the monster’s presence with a series of wild, repeated zoom-ins. This flick wastes no time whatsoever.

The third and best entry in the Blood Island series boasted its best trailer, narrated with frothing, cackling hysteria by the German-born actor, monologist, concentration camp survivor, and frequent David Letterman guest Brother Theodore (The ‘Burbs).

With de Leon opting out of 1970’s Beast of Blood, Romero returned to bring the series to a close. Picking up immediately after the end of Mad Doctor, Ashley returned as the heroic Dr. Foster, the sole survivor after the previous movie’s green-blooded creature murdered the others and destroyed their boat. Months later, he returns to the island (because some people just never learn) with reporter Myra Russell (Celeste Yarnall) and they find the still-alive Dr. Lorca (played this time by Eddie Garcia), now sporting an eyepatch and continuing his diabolical experiments. He also has the monster from Mad Doctor in his lab, its disembodied head kept alive on machines while its body lays strapped to Lorca’s surgical table.

Though it rarely hits the delirious heights of Mad Doctor, Beast of Blood – which marked Ashley’s debut as producer – has enough sleaze value to justify its existence even as it retreads familiar territory with little inspiration. Severin Films released all four movies on Blu-ray in an attractive box set in late 2018. The set is now out of print and fetching ludicrous prices online, but you can still purchase individual releases of Terror Is A Man, Brides of Blood, and Mac Doctor of Blood Island. If you are in the mood for a cavalcade of carnality and carnage, plan your escape to Blood Island today!

GRINDHOUSE: Schlock of Ages

Posted in Blu-ray, Crazy Shit, Hilarity, Movies, My Heroes, Nothing That Should Concern You, Reviews with tags , , , on December 24, 2015 by Robert Morgan

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Once upon a time, more than eight years ago, the mighty filmmaking team of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino collaborated yet again on a project that paid homage to the drive-in exploitation movie memories of their youth. But this time instead of Rodriguez directing a Tarantino script or Tarantino doing a cameo in one of Rodriguez’s movies, the two teamed up to bring us a rare cinematic experience: an old school night at the movies, two features for the price of one, complete with fake trailers directed by the cream of the genre cinema crop sprinkled between the main attractions.

For inspiration, Rodriguez and Tarantino reached back into the past to the days when VCRs and DVD players were only gestating ideas and the only way to experience true B-grade cinema was to go to your rundown neighborhood grindhouse to catch a double or triple bill of the latest blaxploitation thriller, chop-socky adventure, and gruesome horror extravaganza.

In a grindhouse theater you got more than a few movies, you got the whole enchilada: trailers for coming attractions, cartoons, short films, restaurant ads, and a reeking ambiance that you can’t replicate in the privacy of your own home unless you want to get kicked out.

The aptly-titled Grindhouse turned out to be much more than a movie; it was both a love letter and the ultimate tribute to the forbidden fruits of cinema by a pair of adoring fans and first class filmmakers.

There’s a lot to take in here so I will break down the features one by one.

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Machete– True to form, we open with a trailer for a 1970’s-style action flick starring Rodriguez staple Danny Trejo as a Mexican day laborer hired by a mysterious well-dressed man (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a US senator. Sure enough Machete is set up for the big betrayal and left for dead. After recovering he sets out to take revenge on those behind the frame up with the help of a former comrade (Cheech Marin) who has since become a priest. Turns out our boy Machete is a former federale with expertise in guns and explosives, and is proficient in throwing his trademark machetes like a distant cousin to Trejo’s character in Desperado.

The gods of manly action classics would surely welcome Machete into their fold. The man’s a jack of all trades and Trejo looks and plays the part like a true master of adventure. From nailing two topless babes under a waterfall to leaping over an exploding barricade on a motorcycle blasting a Vulcan cannon, Machete brings the excitement. As it goes with any good trailer, this one leaves you wanting more. After the release of Grindhouse Rodriguez began talking about making a Machete feature for the direct-to-video market, but three years later it was released theatrically with Trejo fronting a truly mind-frying ensemble cast that included Jessica Alba, Robert DeNiro, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, and none other than Steven fuckin’ Seagal as the Mexican villain.

Rodriguez incorporated some of the footage he shot for the trailer into the full-length feature and though Machete was hardly a box office blockbuster it did well enough to spawn a belated sequel, the inferior (but still fun in its own way) Machete Kills. That one just bombed outright at the box office, making the chances of this gonzo action saga’s third installment, Machete Kills Again in Space, ever being made slim enough to fit into one of the crevices in Trejo’s face.

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Planet Terror– Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse power twosome is a unabashedly balls-out tribute to the sci-fi horror action movies of such genre greats as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Romero, James Cameron, and Stuart Gordon. Set in a small Texas town over the course of one night, Planet Terror begins with the attempted sale of a deadly biological weapon known as DC2 (aka “Project Terror) to a Marine platoon led by the uncaring Muldoon (Bruce Willis). The sale goes south and in desperation military scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews), the man responsible for brokering the deal, shoots the canisters containing the virus. Project Terror is on the loose.

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Meanwhile, frustrated go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) has just quit her job and is sitting in a roadside BBQ shack owned by J.T. (Jeff Fahey…again!) when her old flame, the mysterious El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), walks in. Clearly the two have a complicated past. Wray offers to give Cherry a ride home. On the way Wray swerves his truck to avoid hitting something in the road and the truck flips over, crashing off the road. Cherry is pulled out of the truck by a group of shadowy figures and taken screaming into the night. Wray grabs a rifle and goes looking, and when he finds Cherry alive she’s missing a leg. The people who took her ate her leg. Wray takes her to the nearest hospital, presided over by cynical doctor William Block (Josh Brolin) and his anesthesiologist wife Dakota (Marley Shelton).

Dakota is currently planning to leave her husband and run away with her lesbian lover Tammy (Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie), but her attempts to keep it secret from the good doctor aren’t working. Not to mention Tammy’s car has broken down and in trying to flag down someone to help her gets attacked and eaten by more people infected by the rapidly spreading DC2. Block attends to his friend Joe (Nicky Katt), who has a strange bite on his arm and some rather disturbing lesions on his tongue. Fearing the worst Block advises Joe to have his arm severed so the infection won’t spread to his vital internal organs. The local sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) and his two deputies Tolo (gore god Tom Savini) and Carlos (Carlos Gallardo, the original El Mariachi) arrest Wray for Cherry’s maiming not believing his wild story of the sickos who actually ate her leg.

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Back at the hospital Block discovers Dakota’s infidelity when the paramedics wheel in Tammy’s partially-devoured corpse. The sinister doctor attacks his wife with her own needles, numbing her hands, and locks her in a closet. In the midst of all this the infected start pouring in. Hague and his men are attacked at the police station but get some unexpected assistance from a more than capable Wray, who decides to head for the hospital to retrieve Cherry with Hague and the deputies riding along. Block finds Joe has become one of the infected and becomes one himself when his diseased former friend spreads virus-ridden goop all over the doctor’s face. Dakota manages to escape from the hospital but is forced to drive with two numb hands to pick up her son Tony (Rodriguez’s son Rebel) currently being watched by the Crazy Babysitter Twins (Electra and Elise Avellan, Rodriguez’s former stepdaughters).

Wray finds Cherry and sticks a table leg in the spot where her real leg used to be and the two of them flee the hospital, rendezvousing back at J.T.’s place with the sheriff, his deputies, and several uninfected townsfolk. With the number of infected growing by the hour, this disparate group must band together to fight the ravenous hordes hungry for their flesh and survive the night while trying to unlock the mystery of Project Terror’s origins.

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Planet Terror, much like his previous film Sin City, is Robert Rodriguez unleashed. This is the kind of full tilt boogie lurid and ultraviolent action splatter-fest that used to pour out of drive-in movie screens on hot summer nights and crowd the horror rack at your local video store. If this movie had been released in the 1980’s England would’ve proudly placed it on their “Video Nasties” list. Rodriguez has said before in interviews that he sees Planet Terror as “the lost John Carpenter movie between Escape from New York and The Thing” and that just says it all. He even composes, with a little help from his musician friends, a terrific musical score that recalls the great synthesizer scores of Carpenter’s earlier films.

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This is not a movie that plays by normal rules. Every person in the movie has the license to give free rein to become their inner superhero. People run up walls, shoot syringe guns, and use a rocket launcher on their leg to propel themselves into the air in order to blast a waiting group of pustule-oozing zombie Marines on the other side of a building. This is Rodriguez’s own comic book universe, his every cinematic fantasy made flesh, and it’s amazing. KNB EFX pulls out all the stops to provide the grisliest effects they have ever produced. This is one of their finest hours.

Rodriguez chose a fine cast to bring his B-movie archetypes to bold, colorful life. Rose McGowan gets one of her best roles in years playing the tough but gentle Cherry Darling. Cherry is given a clever running joke throughout the movie as she expresses her desire to become a stand-up comedian and tries to prove to an unconvinced Wray that she’s funny. But when her old boyfriend attaches a modified machine gun to her lonely leg stump Cherry enters the pantheon of iconic action heroes. She’s a goddess of destruction, and McGowan gives the part her all. Freddy Rodriguez (no relation) is not everyone’s first choice to play an unlikely action superhero, but as the versatile El Wray he certainly impresses. Running up walls, wielding some wicked knives, and keeping his ex-girlfriend calm and encouraged is all part of a night’s work for this pint-sized badass, even if that bit of peach fuzz on his chin doesn’t fool me.

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Marley Shelton, another member of Rodriguez’s ever growing repertory company, gets her fair share of moments to shine as the anesthetic gun-sporting wonder woman Dakota Block. At certain times she’s bears an uncanny resemblance to Uma Thurman, and that’s okay because I love Uma. Michael Biehn gives a commanding comeback performance as the hardened Sheriff Hague, all action and no bullshit. Jeff Fahey gets to play his role of grizzled barbecue gourmet J.T. with a welcome sense of humor. He has a great bickering chemistry with Biehn, who turns out to be J.T.’s estranged brother. Bruce Willis gets to play himself once again as the cold and cynical Lt. Muldoon, but why complain when he plays himself like a fucking pro? Naveen Andrews subverts the serious television persona he built on “Lost” with a cutting wit as the obligatory scientist who provides handy exposition, but he’s given a rather twisted character trait and Andrews is clearly savoring the opportunity to play such a useful bastard.

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The Avellan sisters are wonderfully gonzo as the sexy but goddamn insane Crazy Babysitter Twins. Tom Savini provides more comic relief as the dumbass deputy Tolo, but he gets his own shining moment when he dispatches a zombie with a brilliant gun move. Josh Brolin is a long way from The Goonies playing the sadistic Doc Block (“His prescription….pain!”), a role he sinks his teeth into with disturbing glee. Michael Parks returns to reprise his role as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw and gets to unload his six-shooter on a few zombies like the manly man he is.

Planet Terror is pure fun for lovers of two-fisted action flicks and blood-and-guts horror alike. Lock up your inhibitions and have a great time.

POSTSCRIPT: 2015

To this day Planet Terror remains my favorite half of the Grindhouse double bill. I had the pleasure recently of watching the extended cut on the Blu-ray that was released nearly two years before the full experience finally made its way to the format. It’s some of the purest exploitation cinema made since the sleaze pit bijous and drive-ins were permanently shuttered and converted to flea markets and cost-free motels for squatters. It’s also the last truly great feature Rodriguez made. The spectacular box office flame-out of Grindhouse impacted him more than it did Tarantino; from that moment on the majordomo of Troublemaker Studios had to search for work at other studios or outside independent financing for his projects that held limited mass audience appeal.

His collaborator bounced back from Grindhouse‘s failure to connect with modern moviegoers by making two of the best and most successful films of his career, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. In comparison, Rodriguez’ Planet Terror follow-up was the episodic kiddie flick Shorts, released theatrically around the same time as Basterds in August 2009. The next year he made good on his promise to convert Machete into a feature and the result was a hugely entertaining B-action thriller on Terror‘s level that was cheaper to make and thus able to turn a profit during its theatrical run. But other films Rodriguez desired to make, like updated adaptations of Barbarella and Red Sonja, never made it out of Development Hell.

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Now for more trailers.

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ThanksgivingEli Roth’s contribution to the Grindhouse fake trailer reel is his homage to gruesome 1980s slasher flicks and a diseased little corker that lets loose some quality holiday-themed carnage. Using available members of his Hostel Part II cast and creating a small Massachusetts town in Prague, Roth lets loose his nasty and vicious imagination to give us a hint of what a funny gorefest he would make out of Turkey Day. The gore gags on display are priceless.

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Werewolf Women of the S.S. – Melding horror and Naziploitation flicks like Love Camp 7 and the infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S., Rob Zombie creates the trailer for his ultimate grind house epic with the help of several members of his Halloween remake cast including Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley. Routinely dismissed as the least of the Grindhouse trailer collection, Zombie’s contribution is still a lot of fun complete with an out-of-left field cameo from Nicholas Cage as….Fu Manchu!

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Don’t – Last but not least is the jewel of the Grindhouse trailer reel, an uproarious send-up of ineptly marketed European horrors directed by Edgar Wright and starring most of his Hot Fuzz cast (you bloody well know who). A rapid fire anthology of intense horror mainstays underscored with an announcer (Will Arnett) screaming “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” Wright’s contribution is a twisted delight.

An explosive crash from Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (Grindhouse)

Death Proof – Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse pays unabashed tribute to the four-on-the-floor car chase epics of the 1960s and 1970s like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Split into two tonally-different acts, the first focuses on a group of young women out for a night on the town: Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), visiting from New York; Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a beautiful but occasionally insensitive local disc jockey; and Shanna (Jordan Ladd), their hard-partying friend.

At a bar they encounter Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a former movie and TV stuntman who enjoys hanging out in bars practicing his rusted pick-up techniques on the younger women who frequent the joint. Mike offers to give wisecracking hippie chick Pam a ride home, and this is where we the stuntman’s true colors. It turns out he likes jumping into his “death proof” stunt car and running down the ladies who don’t buy into his masculine wiles. After giving Pam her last ride, Mike turns around and speeds off after Arlene and company.

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Act two takes place sometime later. Mike is now in Tennessee stalking another small group of women, this particular bunch in town working on a cheerleader flick: actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), make-up artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and stuntwomen Zoe (Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). Zoe drags her friends up to the house of a creepy rancher who’s selling a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Ever since seeing Vanishing Point Zoe has always wanted to get behind the wheel of one of these mean machines. Leaving Lee behind to keep the creep company, Zoe and her two friends take the Challenger out for a test spin.

With Kim at the wheel and Abernathy riding in the backseat, Zoe climbs onto the hood to play “Ship’s Mast”. As the Challenge roars down the empty country highway, Stuntman Mike decides to join the ladies and give them a time to remember. Barely surviving, the ladies take it upon themselves to turn the tables on the fleeing stuntman. This time Mike isn’t getting away that easy.

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Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s idea of a chick flick. We are in the company of a group of fiercely-independent and intelligent women out for a good time who know very well how to take care of themselves. It’s a lot of fun to spend time with these lovely ladies because each group has their own authentic chemistry, aided by Tarantino’s trademark knack for meaty dialogue. Even if you’re a guy you can’t help but be carried along and feel like you’re part of each group.

That’s when Kurt Russell walks in. A true silver screen icon known for his defining roles in John Carpenter’s films Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell returns to the type of badass character that he built his career on. Stuntman Mike can go from affable and charismatic to cruel and violent when he gets behind the wheel of his “death proof” car to pursue his attractive quarry. Endowing his auto psycho with his trademark charm and good humor, Russell gives one of the best performances of his career.

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The true heart of Death Proof is Tarantino’s wonderfully-drawn female characters and the actresses he wisely chose to play them. Vanessa Ferlito is great as Arlene, the friend who finds herself simultaneously repulsed and intrigued by Mike. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of screen acting legend Sidney Poitier, has a ball playing the hot and slightly catty Jungle Julia who has no patience for people she sees through immediately. Jordan Ladd’s character doesn’t get much focus but she stills acts her heart out playing a lovable character. Making her second appearance in Grindhouse is Rose McGowan, playing a character whose sad beauty and endearing cynicism could almost make her a distant cousin to Cherry Darling, but does in fact serve her up as easy prey for the cool Stuntman Mike.

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In my opinion the actresses who turn up in Death Proof’s second half are the true stars of the movie. Rosario Dawson plays Abernathy as another in her staple of sweet and adorable heroines. It’s a wonderful role given personality and life by Dawson. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s vaguely naïve actress Lee is the “Shanna” of this act but she still gives a good show and doesn’t annoy. Tracie Thoms gives her character Kim a loving demeanor with a “don’t fuck with me” attitude on the side. She’s awesome.

The breakout performance of Death Proof, and indeed all of Grindhouse, comes courtesy of veteran stuntwoman Zoe Bell, a New Zealand native making her acting debut here. If you’ve ever seen Zoe in interviews then it doesn’t come as a surprise that her cute and friendly superwoman is essentially an extension of her own personality, and she does all of her own stunts to boot. Bell is the true star of this movie and deserves a long and fruitful career. How can you not love her?

Death Proof finds the equally admired and maligned Quentin Tarantino indulging in his fetishistic love for insane car chases, old school tough guys, and the bare feet of beautiful women. Recalling the good ol’ days when CGI was a laughable pipe dream and the stunts were done for real, the stunt work in Death Proof is first class, the real deal all the way. The car chases are thrilling and intense as the director puts you in the driver’s seat to experience the action first hand. The movie is an honest-to-Buddha rollercoaster ride that fully engages you on a visceral level with no breaks. Death Proof is a much different film from Planet Terror but it yields more than its fair share of rewards.

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POSTSCRIPT: 2015

In the years since the release of Grindhouse Tarantino has been brutally honest about Death Proof‘s place in his filmography, even referring to it as the worst movie he has ever made. Personally I would assign that dishonorable honor to Kill Bill V.2, but I digress. The filmmaker bounced back from the failure of his epic collaboration with Rodriguez by making two of the biggest hits of his career, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Prior to making Death Proof Tarantino had been working at a Malickian pace, but watching Grindhouse go down in flames at the box office seemed to have motivated the notoriously combative but gifted enfant terrible of cinema to get busy directing or get busy dying.

At first Death Proof appears oddly constructed in terms of its story, but that unconventional structure serves the film well if you accept it as two short films each with their own three-act layout melded together instead of as one film split into two distinct halves. The first half, set in Austin, TX, is set mostly at night and is designed visually to be a nihilistic slasher flick with a conclusion as inevitable as any scuzzy blood horror that spilled onto the movie screens in the genre’s heyday. The second, shot in the broadest of daylight with rural California standing in for rural Tennessee, is a full-speed rape revenge movie centering on a group of wronged women getting some wondrously cathartic payback against the perverted psychopath who tried to take away everything they had. Only in this case the rapist is a crazed ex-stuntman using his custom killing machine to batter what he perceives to be a lesser car driven by a lesser gender into nothingness and then bend them all to his sickening will.

It’s like Death Proof was one of those cinematic Frankenstein monsters that guys like Al Adamson and Sam Sherman used to stitch together out of pieces of movies that started production but fell apart and were left unfinished or were released but did absolutely no business. We accept that Russell is still playing Stuntman Mike in the second half, but he’s never referred to by that name (not even by himself) and he even drives a different car than in the first half. Is it possible then that we’re watching two different movies edited together to become one, with the scene with Shelton and the Parks men added to bridge the distinct narratives? Go into Death Proof with that mindset and it starts to make a little more sense. I feel a revisit is in order soon.

When you add every single element of this sucker up you have a cinematic experience unlike any other. Grindhouse is a movie made by film fans for film fans. I love it, and so will you.