A Movie A Day #319: Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976, directed by Thomas L. Dyke and William Dear)


You can’t always tell a book by its cover and that is the case with the Spirits, the nicest motorcycle gang to ever roll across America’s highways.  When they come across an old couple on the side of the road with a flat tire, they don’t rob the couple.  Instead, they change the tire.  When they come across a young man named Chris (David Hyrly, who is overdubbed by a young Nick Nolte), they invite him to join them on their journey.  When they are arrested, they sit in jail and roll a joint.  The Spirits are solid dudes.  But because they are rebels who live outside of straight society, they will always be picked on by the Man.  After a redneck deputy rapes the Chris’s girlfriend, the deputy blames the Spirits.  Soon, the Spirits find themselves under attack and are violently picked off one by one.  In self-defense, the Spirits start to arm themselves.  It all comes to a head in a violent confrontation in Northville Cemetery.

Made for a miniscule budget. featuring a largely amateur cast, and graphically violent, Northville Cemetery Massacre is an overlooked masterpiece, the type of movie that Sam Peckinpah would have made if he had worked on AIP biker movies instead of westerns.  The Spirits are innocent and, as long as no one hassles them, peaceful but the rest of the world only sees their motorcycles and their leather jackets.  The rapist deputy is one of the most evil lawmen in film history but because he wears a uniform and know the right people, he knows that he will never have to face justice.  The ambiguous ending proves that the filmmaker’s had more on their mind than just cashing in one the tail end of the biker genre’s popularity.  Adding to the film’s strength is a country-rock score from former Monkee Mike Nesmith and the casting of members of a real-life motorcycle club, the Scorpions.  What the Scorpions may have lacked in acting ability, they made up for in authenticity.

Northville Cemetery Massacre was made in the early 70s but it wasn’t released by Cannon Films until 1976, at which point the biker genre was close to dead.  Northville Cemetery Massacre provided audiences with one last chance to get their motor running, head out on the highway, and look for adventure with smoke and lightning and heavy metal thunder.

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A Movie A Day #316: 52 Pick-Up (1986, directed by John Frankenheimer)


Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) is a businessman who has money, a beautiful wife named Barbara (Ann-Margaret), a sexy mistress named Cini (Kelly Preston), and a shitload of trouble.  He is approached by Alan Raimey (John Glover) and informed that there is a sex tape of him and his mistress.  Alan demands $105,000 to destroy the tape.  When Harry refuses to pay, Alan and his partners (Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor) show up with a new tape, this one framing Harry for the murder of Cini.  They also make a new demand: $105,000 a year or else they will release the tape.  Can Harry beat Alan at his own game without harming his wife’s political ambitions?

Based on a novel by the great Elmore Leonard and directed by John Frankenheimer, 52 Pick-Up is one of the best films to ever come out of the Cannon Film Group.  Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other films (like The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, Black Sunday, and Ronin), 52 Pick-Up shows why Frankenheimer was considered to be one of the masters of the thriller genre.  52 Pick-Up is a stylish, fast-paced, and violent thriller.  John Glover is memorably sleazy as the repellent Alan and the often underrated Roy Scheider does an excellent job of portraying Harry as a man who starts out smugly complacent and then becomes increasingly desperate as the story play out.

One final note: This movie was actually Cannon’s second attempt to turn Elmore Leonard’s novel to the big screen.  The first attempt was The Ambassador, which ultimately had little to do with Leonard’s original story.  Avoid The Ambassador but see 52 Pick-Up.

A Movie A Day #315: That Championship Season (1982, directed by Jason Miller)


Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania.  Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions.  Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season.  George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection.  Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife.  James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father.  James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job.  The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach.  All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.

Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season.  Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct.  (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.)  While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows.  The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.

One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity.  As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career.  Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.

A Movie A Day #314: Body and Soul (1981, directed by George Bowers)


When his little sister falls ill with sickle-cell anemia, Leon Johnson (Leon Isaac Kennedy) has to make a decision.  He can either finish his education, graduate from medical school, and treat her as a doctor or he can drop out of school, reinvent himself as “Leon the Lover,” and make a fortune as a professional boxer!  At first, Leon’s career goes perfectly.  He is winning fights.  He is making money.  He has a foxy new girlfriend (played Leon Isaac Kennedy’s then-wife, Jayne Kennedy.)  But then the fame starts to go to Leon’s head.  He forgets where he came from.  He’s no longer fighting just to help his sister.  Now, he’s fighting for his own personal glory.  When Leon finally gets a title shot, a crooked boxing promoter known as Big Man (former JFK in-law Peter Lawford, looking coked up) orders Leon to take a dive.  Will Leon intentionally lose the biggest fight of his life or will he stay in the ring and battle Ricardo (Al Denava), a boxer so evil that he literally throws children to the ground?  More importantly, will he make his trainer (Muhammad Ali, playing himself!) proud?

Leon Isaac Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and Peter Lawford all in the same movie!?  No surprise here, it’s a Cannon film.  Leon Isaac Kennedy was best known for playing a jailhouse boxer in the Penitentiary films and he was a good actor with charisma to burn so it probably made perfect sense to not only cast him in a remake of John Garfield’s Body and Soul but to let him write the script too.  The end result is a film that is too heavy-handed to be taken seriously but it is still an entertaining movie.  Body and Soul leaves not a single sports cliché unused but Kennedy was a convincing fighter and the boxing scenes are well-directed.  Muhammad Ali did a better job playing himself here then he did in The Greatest.  All in all, Body and Soul is a good movie for fight fans.

Body and Soul was not a box office success and Kennedy ended his film career a few years after it was released.  He is now the head of Leon Kennedy Ministries, Inc of Burbank, California.

 

A Movie A Day #312: Mata Hari (1985, directed by Curtis Harrington)


Europe, during World War I.  The beautiful dancer, Mata Hari (Sylvia Kristel), is in love with two different soldiers, one German and one French.  (The soldiers, played by Olivier Tobias and Christopher Cazenove, are also friends though they are now on opposite sides of the Great War.)  Forced into the world of decadent, high class espionage by Frau Doktor (Gaye Brown), Mata Hari sleeps with everyone, shares information with both the Germans and the French, and tries to prevent more people from dying.  Just as in history, Mata Hari ultimately has to face a firing squad but not before taking part in threesomes, voyeurism, and a topless sword fight.

The original Emmanuelle in a Cannon Film based on the life of the famed seductress Mata Hari?  It sounds like it should be great but Mata Hari is mostly dull.  I’ve read that Mata Hari was heavily edited before it was released in the United States so maybe that explains why the film is so choppy and nearly impossible to follow.  I was never sure who Mata Hari was spying for and, after a while, I no longer cared.  Sylvia Kristel is frequently naked, which explains why Mata Hari was once a Skinemax staple, but Kirstel later wrote that she was addicted to both cocaine and alcohol while making Mata Hari and maybe that partially explains why she seems to be so mentally checked out through the entire film.  I don’t blame her.  I checked out too.

One final note: About that topless sword fight, it sounds cooler than it actually is.

A Movie A Day #308: Number One With A Bullet (1987, directed by Jack Smight)


Number One With A Bullet is the story of two cops.  Nick Barzack (Robert Carradine) is so crazy that the all criminals have nicknamed “Beserk.”  (Who says criminals aren’t clever?)  Nick’s partner, Frank Hazeltine (Billy Dee Williams) is so smooth that jazz starts to play whenever he steps into a room.  Nick keeps a motorcycle in his living room, wants to get back together with his wife (Valerie Bertinelli), and has an overprotective mother (Doris Roberts).  Hazeltine is Billy Dee Williams so all he has to worry about is being the coolest man on Earth.  Their captain (Peter Graves!) may want them to do things by the book but Nick and Hazeltine are willing to throw the book out if it means taking down DaCosta, a so-called respectable citizen who they think is actually the city’s biggest drug lord.

It is natural to assume that, because of the whole crazy white cop/centered black cop storyline, this movie was meant to be a rip-off of a well-known film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover but actually, Number One With A Bullet was released a week before Lethal Weapon.  As well, while Carradine’s Nick is almost as crazy as Mel Gibson’s Riggs, it is impossible to imagine Billy Dee Williams ever saying that he’s “too old for this shit.”  Williams is having too good a time listening to jazz and picking up women.  Whenever Hazeltine shows up, Number One With A Bullet feels like a Colt 45 commercial that somehow costars Robert Carradine.  Whenever the film is just Carradine, it feels like an unauthorized sequel to Revenge of the Nerds where Lewis gets really, really pissed off.

Number One With A Bullet is a Cannon film and entertaining in the way that most late 80s Cannon films are.  There is a lot of action, a little skin, and some dated comedy, much of it featuring Robert Carradine having to dress in drag.  There is also a mud wrestling scene because I guess mud wrestling was extremely popular back in the 80s.  They may not be Gibson and Glover but Carradine and Williams still make a good team and they both seem to be having a ball.  For fans of cheap 80s action films, there is a lot to enjoy in Number One With A Bullet.

A Movie A Day #307: River of Death (1989, directed by Steve Carver)


In the Amazon, natives are dying of a mysterious disease.  Could it have anything to do with a German war criminal named Wolfgang (played by Robert Vaughn) who is living in a cave that is decorated with a Nazi flag?  A scientist (Victor Melleney) and his daughter, Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp), are determined to find out.  They hire a tough explorer, John Hamilton (Michael Dudikoff), to lead them up the river but John does not do a very good job because the scientist ends up dead and Anna ends up kidnapped.

Everyone tells John to forget about Anna.  Colonel Diaz (Herbert Lom) says that she is dead.  John’s best friend, an arms dealer named Eddie (L.Q. Jones), says that she’s dead.  John refuses to accept that and he organizes an expedition to help track them down.  A strange man (Donald Pleasence) and his assistant (Cynthia Erland) approach John and offer to help.  What John does not know is that the man is actually Heinrich Spaatz, yet another Nazi war criminal.

River of Death is a ridiculous movie but it is entertaining in a way that only a late 80s Michael Dudikoff movie can be.  Though River of Death was a Cannon film, it was produced by the legendary Harry Alan Towers, which is probably why the production standards are higher than the average Menahem Golan quickie.  Dudikoff does a passable imitation of Indiana Jones (and he even gets to do some Apocalypse Now-style narrating) but the real reason to watch the film is to watch veteran actors like Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, and L.Q. Jones ham it up.  Vaughn doesn’t even attempt to sound German while Pleasence gives a performance that is strange even by his own considerable standards.

One final note: River of Death was the second-to-last film directed by Steve Carver, who also did Capone, and Big Bad Mama, along with helping to make Chuck Norris a star by directing Lone Wolf McQuade and An Eye For An Eye.