Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Good Reads :: The Economics of Horror :: Kevin Heffernan's Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold (2004)

"A number of other difficulties plagued neighborhood theaters subsisting on the eclectic mix of sub-runs, matinees, and exploitation films. A theater manager might have to hurriedly remove posters and lobby cards from the evening adults-only feature for the kiddie matinee and then replace them later while the ushers swept up the kids' popcorn to ready the house for the evening "raincoat crowd." Far from atypical was the weekend of June 11, 1966, when the Leader featured a kiddie horror matinee of BLOOD OF DRACULA and THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD. In the evening the theater showcased Audubon Film's racial sexploitation drama I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and the mondo sexploiter ECCO. Six months later another inner-city house, the Pearl, showed as a matinee I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE and HEY THERE IT'S YOGI BEAR. The kids were then ushered out of the theater before they crossed paths with the evening patrons, there to see a double feature of THE PINK PUSSYCAT and UNSATISFIED."
Kevin Heffernan
Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953-1968 (2004)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Trailer Park :: In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh -- Except Me :: Stewart Raffill's The Ice Pirates (1984)

Our film opens with a Lucas scroll and a redundant narrator, both cluing us in that even though the Galactic Wars have ended, most water bearing planets were obliterated by the same. Now, with only one source left in the entire known galaxy to produce this life-sustaining fluid, the evil Templars, who control the planet Mithra, and its water flow, hold the rest of the universe under a very wet thumb. But, this tyrannical monopoly is constantly under siege by roving bands of rebellious space pirates, who ambush Mithroid convoys and pillage their cargo of precious ice...

Speaking of such devils, with the opening plot dump safely tucked away, our movie proper begins with a small pirate ship clandestinely zigzagging its way through a line of ice-freighters until it finally latches onto one undetected. Led by the roguish Captain Jason (Urich), a boarding party, augmented by several cantankerous robots, punch their way through the hull. Now, even though Jason's chief mechanic, Roscoe (Roberts) swears these robots are top of the line, all visual evidence shows that Asimov's Laws of Robotics have been chucked out the airlock as these ever-malfunctioning automatons don't obey orders very well and appear to be constantly on the verge of falling apart. After a successful breach, if the trailer didn't make it obvious enough, the film shows its low-balling comedy hand early as the pirates have managed to tap their way into the enemies' toilet, complete with a rubbery E.T., pants around his geeblars, trying to pinch one off ... Moving on, then, while trying to avoid a sentry patrol, the pirates stumble into the quarters of Princess Karina (Crosby), subdue her nanny, and, over the protests of everyone else, Jason, thinking with that slight bulge in his pants, decides to kidnap her Beautifulness for ransom. But, they've tallied too long and the alarm has been raised. And so, with the stolen ice and pilfered princess in tow, with some of the best robot-carnage every committed to film, the pirates make it back to their ship and blast off just as the Templar gun-ships come into range.

Outgunned, Jason gives the order to break up his ship for a better chance of escape to rendezvous later on Zagora, the Pirate Moon. With that, the ship breaks into three component pods and scatter. And while the others escape, Jason and Roscoe aren't so lucky as they are shot down and captured by Lord Paisley (Caillou), who liberates Karina, and sentences our heroes to be slaves of the empire -- and did I mention that before becoming a Templar slave one must first be castrated and lobotomized? It's true. Luckily for Jason, Karina has other plans and *ahem* saves the Captain's log from this dire fate. But, there's a price. Seems Karina needs Jason and his crew to find her father, who, allegedly, finally found the legendary Seventh World, orbiting somewhere near the center of the galaxy, which, if you were paying attention to the opening scroll, is rumored to have an almost unlimited amount of water. Of course, whether it really exists or not, the Templars, obviously, would rather keep this discovery a secret at all costs, making our merry band of Ice Pirates the most wanted fugitives in all six systems, dead or alive -- preferably dead.

You wanna know something? I will never, ever understand the fathomous depths of hate for this movie among my niche of B-Movie Brethren. To even invoke its name brings swift sanction and censure. Feh. Heathens. Even outside my circle, The Ice Pirates takes way too much grief for being just another badly Xeroxed Star Wars -- in this case, coming out in 1984, a Return of the Jedi -- cash-in from 20th Century Fox's rival studio, MGM.

Produced by John Foreman, whose career arc went from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to this to Mannequin 2: On the Move, The Ice Pirates was a collaboration between writers Stanford Sherman and Stewart Raffill, who also directed. Sherman's credits date back to writing for the old Batman TV series, which would go a long way in explaining why the script's tongue is so firmly planted in its cheek -- and I freely admit this bawdy goof of a film nearly bites itself in half in a few spots. Sherman also penned the previous year's sci-fi fantasy epic, Krull, which also involved a lot of questing and meandering as it spurted along, with every known British character actor in tow. Raffill, meanwhile, was a double-threat. Before The Ice Pirates, he mostly wrote family films, like the back to nature Wilderness Family and the lion-fueled road movie, Napoleon and Samantha. After, he helmed the equally gonzo but highly entertaining The Philadelphia Experiment before crashing and burning with the mind-blowingly gawdawful E.T. knock-off, Mac & Me, before salting the ashes with the even more gawdawfuller follow up to animitronic-puppets gone bad, Tammy and the T-Rex (-- which I soooo hope is still on both Paul Walker and Denise Richards' resumes.) Which, I guess, if you added all of those elements into cocktail for audience consumption, maybe I can understand why some people tend to throw rocks at this, uh, unique comedic formula.

Still, it never slows down and keeps right on trucking -- warping? -- along, which tends to bowl over all the groan-inducing bits. But at the same stroke, it doesn't allow the good parts much time to shine either. [That's me shrugging right now.] But, eh, the cast of mostly TV vets is fine and appear to happily run with it. (In fact, the whole thing feels like an expanded TV pilot.) In the lull between Vegas and Spenser for Hire, Urich makes a fine scoundrel and Roberts, reprising his similar second-banana role in Manimal, and his robots, are fine as the comedy relief. Crosby, known forever as the girl who shot J.R. Ewing, has some bite as Karina, easily matching and countering Jason's every move. In supporting roles we find the always reliable Ron Perlman and Anjelica Huston, who you would think would be completely out of place but she kicks some major ass, here. Also adding some muscle is former NFL'r John Matuzak and the Pimpbot 3000, which helps our heroes get off Mithra and back to Zagora, where several leads await Karina that will, hopefully, reveal her father's location.

However, even if they do find him, and he confirms the Seventh World's existence, there are still no guarantees they'll reach it. You see, many other expeditions have tried to find the fabled water planet and everyone of them, until now, failed, catastrophically, because of a massive acceleration hiccup in the space-time continuum that surrounds the center of the galaxy, explaining why the crews who managed to make it back out in their crumbling ships were radically aged and decrepit or dead.

But, even though Jason and Roscoe accidentally infect their ship with a case of Space Herpes (Venereal Odiousus Comici Propsus -- and too long of a story to tell here), they manage to find Karina's father in the care of prissy Prince Wendon (Villanch) and his robot Glamazons. Alas, it was all a ruse as Karina's father was dead all along, killed by the Templars, but he left her the means to navigate safely through the time-warp. And so, with Lord Paisely in hot pursuit, we reach the inspired climactic battle, a work of sheer genius as the combatants are caught in the accelerated time loop, aging and graying and gestating (trust me) and creaking and shriveling with each passing second, that the written word just cannot give due justice to it. You'll just have to tune and see for yourselves how our heroes manage to eke out a victory with the help of some cavalry from a most unexpected source.

Most of the futuristic sets and props for The Ice Pirates were pilfered wholesale from Logan's Run. Aside from them, the special-effects are pretty standard for the time: stock sound-effect lasers and model spaceships -- that bank around rather oddly. But despite these sci-fi trappings the anachronistic film honestly owes more to the old pirate movies of the 1930's and '40s. Even Bruce Broughton's rousing musical score is more Errol Flynn than Darth Vader. Everything else is designed for a quick laugh: a nice booger-picking scene, a plucked alien parrot, but they're mostly there to clutter up the background -- except for that Space Herpe; another by-product of the '80s, where sexually transmitted diseases, along with casual drug use, were the epitome of high comedy. Overcompensating for this, and where The Ice Pirates positively excels, is in it's production design -- especially with all the wide variety of robots. And what makes the frenetic robots here so great is that they seem so plausibly real. These things aren't sleek and streamlined but are big and clunky and prone to breakdowns and malfunctions. Hats off to Michael Shane McCracken, Michael John McCracken and Ray Raymond for the designs and Gary Brockette for the choreography during the chaotic robot carnage. For the most part, these robots were played for laughs, too. And when one of the scared robots crapped his pants -- jettisoning a stream of oil, bolts, and washers -- before going into battle, and the next robot in line slipped and fell on the soiled oil-slick, I nearly crapped my pants from laughing too hard.

So, there ya go: booger-picking aliens, Space Herpes, and a robot that craps his pants. If that isn't enough of a ringing endorsement for The Ice Pirates, then I don't know what else can be said.

The Ice Pirates (1984) JF Productions :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / P: John Foreman / AP: Dennis Lasker / D: Stewart Raffill / W: Stewart Raffill, Stanford Sherman / C: Matthew F. Leonetti / E: Tom Walls / M: Bruce Broughton / S: Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Michael D. Roberts, Anjelica Huston, John Matuszak, Ron Perlman, Natalie Core, Alan Caillou, Bruce Vilanch

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recommendations :: What I've Been Watching. And You Should, too. Or not...

It's like a nine-months later end result of a drunken prom date between Terrence Malick's BADLANDS and Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE but I still found Mark Lester's BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW to be oddly mesmerizing. And, yes, it goes well beyond catching a glimpse of Lynda Carter's magnificent boobs. And, besides, I was too busy crushing on Belinda Belasky's Essie May to really even notice. Available on demand through MGM or you can catch a pretty rough pan and scan print on Netflix. Recommendation: I dug it, but your mileage my vary.

SAW for Dummies, made by Dummies, for Dummies. Thanks for the recommendation, Netflix. Feh. My recommendation? HELL, no.

When one thinks about who would make a good cinematic viking the last person to pop into your mind would be Richard Widmark or Russ Tamblyn. And having them kidnap a princess to use as a hostage so they can steal a boat to look for a giant golden bell before the bad guys, led by a turban'd Sidney Poitier, beat them to it and make them take a ride on the slide from hell is just gravy, making THE LONG SHIPS a demented good time. Highly recommended.

Though I have seen this movie many times, love it and know it, backward and forward -- sure, we all do, but how many of us have actually seen CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in 3-D? Well, I have. Twice. Once in the theater and now once on my TV courtesy of the Drive-In Classics Channel on my trusty Roku box. Drive-In Classics has a whole slew of 3-D films ready to stream in that format, including IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. Word of warning, the prints are far from pristine and the 3-D process is hardly ideal and only works about 35% of the time (and that's being generous), and all of this will be moot unless you have some old 3-D glasses lying around ... But I still find this to be a really cool endeavor. Also, DIC's content is only available in 8-minute chunks, with repetitive commercials breaks in between. But, it's a free subscription, and as someone who has been bitching and moaning about the loss of this kind of content on the Superstations, this I can live with. Recommendation: As Rowdy Roddy Piper would say, Put on the glasses!

You know, I am of the opinion if Marty McFly had only totally futched things up in the 1950's and borked that lightning strike, the world would probably resemble the setting of Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE. Therefore, I have never hated Robert Zemeckis more than I do right now. Recommendation: Rock on, folks, and press play already!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Repost :: Guess which William Castle Flick is Finally Streaming on Netflix?!?

Memory can be a tricky thing; and the earlier the memory, the more it tends to play tricks on you by tweaking, embellishing or being annoyingly selective when you try to massage that certain patch of neurons to paint a picture for your mind's eye. As I've stated before, a lot of my earliest movie memories consist of being dumped off at the old Strand or Rivoli theaters for weekend blocks of films while the folks took a break from my rowdy brood. And one such fleeting memory was a film where a trio of love-triangle'd ghosts, victims of a self-inflicted meat-cleaver massacre, continue to haunt the site of their demise, much to the chagrin of the current family living there.

That's all I could really recall aside from a few bits and pieces about an ancestor who looked just like one of the ghosts, and therefore, often mistaken for being one; but I, being the obsessive nut that I am, was determined to take those fragments and figure out what it was and then revisit it again someday -- because that on screen meat-cleaver massacre was so indelibly etched into my four-year old brain I just KNOW it went a long way in formatting my bent taste in movies. And with the advent of the internet, after some careful massaging, I had myself a title, and, lo and behold, it was the product of legendary schlock-meister, William Castle. (Of COURSE it's a William Castle flick; the axe's in the back should have been a dead giveaway!) Alas, the discovery was bittersweet because the film was never released for home video in any format, and, after years of gray market searches proved fruitless, the film was once more tucked back into memory -- until we fast forward to Sony Pictures announced it would be releasing a William Castle box-set, where my enthusiasm was tempered only by the fact that The Spirit is Willing would not be included. But, the internet has come to my rescue once again as the film is available, serialized, on many YouTube channels, and, best of all, currently streaming on Netflix.

Seems back in 1898, when Ebeneezer Twitchell agreed to marry Felicity Pruitt, the ugly-duckling daughter of a shipping tycoon, he was really mo
re interested in dropping his anchor with the Pruitt's lusty maid, Jenny Weems. Catching them in the act, an enraged Felicity took up a handy cleaver and dispatched the both of them. But while moving the bodies into the cellar, turns out Ebeneezer was till twitching, who took up another piece of cutlery and murdered his wife, in kind, before expiring.

Over the ensuing years, several families have tried to move into the old Twitchell place, but every last one of them has vacated in less than a few days, the victims of eerie nocturnal visits and other strange accidents -- some of them fatal. Enter the Powell family: Ben, Kate and their teenage son, Steve, (Caesar, Miles, Gordon) who rent the house for the summer for some much needed R&R for the over-stressed Ben. Unfortunately, the majority of Ben's stress comes from dealing with his recalcitrant son. And when the unruly and destructive spirits make themselves known and start trashing the place, Steve is the only witness, and of course, being the only witness in a room that's been reduced to rubble, Steve is blamed for all the property damage, including not one, but two, of his Uncle George's prized yachts.

Eventually, with the help of some locals, including several of Jenny's descendants (-- all played by Townsend), the Powells come around to the fact that their property is haunted by a nymphomaniac, a horny old fart and his jealous wife. And to exorcise them out of the house, they decide to give them all exactly what they want -- the perfect partne

"The First Picture to Face the Biggest Problem of Our Time: The Sex-Life of Ghosts
and Kiss-Hungry Girl Ghosts Looking for Lover in Haunted House of Mayhem" screamed the promotional materials for The Spirit is Willing, and though the film sets itself up as a nice farce on the mating habits of ectoplasm it really doesn't do anything with it once the premise is set up
, and, instead, basically chucks it for a more conventional take on the generational gap -- in this case, a chasm -- between the Powells and their son.

Based on the Nathaniel Benchley novel, The Visitors, which was kookily illustrated by the king kook himself, Charles Addams, Benchley also had a hand in another filmed farce with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming, and perhaps the strangest made for TV movie ever produced with Sweet Hostage, where an escaped mental patient kidnaps a girl, who, while hiding out, eventually fall in love. However, when comparing the film to the source novel, it looks like scriptwriter Ben Starr tossed most of the plot for a series of repeating gags that repeat and repeat and repeat. And then repeat, and repeat and repeat some more. And though some of those repeating gags work (-- like Caesar and Miles being constantly interrupted while trying to make out), most have run out of gas by the third reel.

The ghostly effects are top-notch for the time, and the amiable cast is more than solid -- solid enough to almost make this mess work. John Astin makes a welcome fourth-quarter appearance as a goofy psychiatrist, but even he can't salvage an ending where the film basically does just that: ends, without really resolving anything. And a
ll of this is doubly sad because with a little more fine-tuning and pruning, they really could have had something truly hilarious, here. As it is, it's a bunch of people shouting, some mixed-up identity buffoonery, and a copious amount of property damage set to a really kickin' Vic Mizzy score.

My faulty memory also had the ghosts re-enacting the massacre on a nightly basis, and one instance where Gordon got mixed up in the procession of blades and revolving doors from the kitchen, but it actually was shown just once, at the beginning -- but that scene always stuck with me and stuck with me good. After that, we're strictly in 13 Ghosts territory, though it is implicitly implied that Steve and Jenny's ghost knocked-boots, which would really open up a can of worms if they were brave enough to take it just a step farther ... Still, if you like this kind of corn straight of the cobb, like I do, and your flesh isn't weak, then The Spirit is Willing is well worth your time.

Other Points of Interest:

Poster campaign at the Archive.

The Spirit is Willing (1967) William Castle Productions :: Paramount Pictures / P: William Castle / AP: Dona Holloway / D: William Castle / W: Ben Starr, Nathaniel Benchley (Novel) / C: Harold E. Stine / E: Edwin H. Bryant / M: Vic Mizzy / S: Sid Caesar, Vera Miles, Barry Gordon, Jill Townsend, John McGiver, John Astin, Robert Donner, Cass Daley
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