Original Gangstas (1996, directed by Larry Cohen)


Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair.  The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work.  While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods.  Now, Gary is a shell of its former self.  Even the local movie theater has closed down.  The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.

Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary.  They rule through violence and intimidation.  Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot.  However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.

John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father.  Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son.  When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again.  With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.

Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies.  The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era.  (Jim Kelly is missed.)  When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable.  Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not.  (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.)  The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie.  He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Silence of the Lambs (dir by Jonathan Demme)


Oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I have such mixed feelings about you.

On the one hand, I’m a horror fan and Silence of the Lambs is a very important film in the history of horror.  Back in 1992, it was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture!  It even made history by winning all of the big “five” awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay!  It was the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night to pull that off!

Beyond that, it’s one of the most influential films ever made.  Every erudite serial killer owes a debt to Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter.  Every competent but untested and unappreciated female FBI agent owes a debt to Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling.  Even though the whole criminal profiler craze probably owes more to Manhunter (a film to which Silence of the Lambs is a sequel, though that often seems to go unacknowledged) than to anything else, this Oscar winner still definitely played a part.  I mean, how many people watched Manhunter for the first time, specifically because Lecter mentioned the events in that earlier film in Silence of the Lambs?

Plus, this won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors!  And while I’m sure Jodie Foster would have gone on to have a strong career regardless of whether she had played Clarice Starling or not, it’s generally acknowledged that Silence of the Lambs revitalized the career of Anthony Hopkins.  So for that, we should all be thankful.

And yet, it can be strange to watch Silence of the Lambs today.  All of the imitations (not to mention some ill-thought sequels and prequels) have lessened its bite.  I can only imagine how it must have freaked out audiences when it was first released but I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed the first time that I watched the film.  Looking back, I can see that disappointment was due to having been told that it were one of the scariest movies of all time but, because, I had seen a countless number of imitations, parodies, and homages, I felt as if I had already watched the film.  So, I wasn’t shocked when Lecter turned out to be ruthlessly manipulative and dangerously charismatic.  Nor was I shocked when he managed to escape and poor Charles Napier ended up strung up in that cage.  I’m sure that audiences in 1991 were freaked out, though.

Actually, as good as Foster and Hopkins and Scott Glenn are, I think the best performance in the film comes from Ted Levine, playing Buffalo Bill.  Seriously, Levine’s performance still freaks me out.  It’s the voice and the way he says, “Precious.”  Levine’s performance, I found to be a hundred times more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’s and I think it’s due to the fact that Hannibal Lecter was clearly an author’s invention while Levin’s Buffalo Bill came across like he might very will be hiding in an alley somewhere, waiting for one of your friends to walk by. (Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction when I first saw Manhunter.  Brian Cox did a good job as Lecter but he still came across as a bit cartoonish.  Meanwhile, Tom Noonan was absolutely terrifying.)  Levine has subsequently gone on to play a lot of nice guy roles.  He was a detective on Monk, for instance.  Good for him.  I’m glad to see he was able to escape being typecast.  Admittedly, I do kinda wonder how many serial killer roles he had to turn down immediately after the release of The Silence Of The Lambs.

Still, it’s a good film.  Time may have lessened it’s power but The Silence of the Lambs is still an effective and well-directed thriller.  It’s impossible not to cheer for Clarice.  It’s impossible not to smile at the fun that Anthony Hopkins seems to be having in the role of Lecter.  Jonathan Demme creates a world of shadows and darkness and still adds enough little quirks to keep things interesting.  (I especially liked Lecter watching a stand-up special in his cell.)  It’s the little details that makes the world of The Silence of the Lambs feel lived in, like Clarice’s nervous laugh as she gives a civilian instructions on what to do in case she accidentally gets trapped in a storage locker.  Even the film’s final one liner will make you smile, even though it’s the type of thing that every film seemed to feel the need to do nowadays.  It’s still a good movie, even if it no longer feels as fresh as it once may have.

When It Comes To Halloween, Should You Trust The IMDb?


Dr. Sam Loomis

Like a lot of people, I enjoy browsing the trivia sections of the IMDb.  While it’s true that a lot of the items are stuff like, “This movie features two people who appeared on a television series set in the Star Trek Universe!,” you still occasionally came across an interesting fact or two.

Of course, sometimes, you just come across something that makes so little sense that you can only assume that it was posted as a joke.  For instance, I was reading the IMDb’s trivia for the original 1978 Halloween and I came across this:

Peter O’Toole, Mel Brooks, Steven Hill, Walter Matthau, Jerry Van Dyke, Lawrence Tierney, Kirk Douglas, John Belushi, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Kris Kristofferson, Sterling Hayden, David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Charles Napier, Yul Brynner and Edward Bunker were considered for the role of Dr. Sam Loomis.

Now, some of these names make sense.  Despite the fact that Sam Loomis became Donald Pleasence’s signature role, it is still possible to imagine other actors taking the role and perhaps bringing a less neurotic interpretation to the character.

Peter O’Toole as Dr. Loomis?  Okay, I can see that.

Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden, Charles Napier, Steve Hill, or Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Loomis?  Actually, I can imagine all of them grimacing through the role.

Walter Matthau?  Well, I guess if you wanted Dr. Loomis to be kind of schlubby….

Abe Vigoda?  Uhmmm, okay.

Dennis Hopper?  That would be interesting.

Mel Brooks?  What?  Wait….

John Belushi?  Okay, stop it!

Dr. Sam Loomis

My point is that I doubt any of these people were considered for the role of Dr. Loomis.  Both director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill have said that they wanted to cast an English horror actor in the role, as a bit of an homage to the Hammer films of the 60s.  Christopher Lee was offered the role but turned it down, saying that he didn’t care for the script or the low salary.  (Lee later said this was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.)  Peter Cushing’s agent turned down the role, again because of the money.  It’s not clear whether Cushing himself ever saw the script.

To be honest, I could easily Peter Cushing in the role and I could see him making a brilliant Dr. Loomis.  But, ultimately, Donald Pleasence was the perfect (if not the first) choice for the role.  Of course, Pleasence nearly turned down the role as well.  Apparently, it was his daughter, Angela, who changed his mind.  She was an admirer of John Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precint 13.  Carpenter has said that he was originally intimidated by Donald Pleasence (the man had played Blofeld, after all) but that Pleasence turned out to be a professional and a gentleman.

Laurie Strode

Of course, Halloween is best known for being the first starring role of Jamie Lee Curtis.  Curtis was actually not Carpenter’s first choice for the role of Laurie Strode.  His first choice was an actress named Annie Lockhart, who was the daughter of June Lockhart.  Carpenter changed his mind when he learned that Jamie was the daughter of Janet Leigh.  Like any great showman, Carpenter understood the importance of publicity and he knew nothing would bring his horror movie more publicity then casting the daughter of the woman whose onscreen death in Psycho left moviegoers nervous about taking a shower.

There was also another future big name who came close to appearing in Halloween.  At the time that she was cast as Lynda, P.J. Soles was dating an up-and-coming actor from Texas named Dennis Quaid.  Quaid was offered the role of Lynda’s doomed boyfriend, Bob but he was already committed to another film.

Not considered for a role was Robert Englund, though the future Freddy Krueger still spent some time on set.  He was hired by Carpenter to help spread around the leaves that would make it appear as if his film was taking place in the October, even though it was filmed in May.

Robert Englund, making May look like October

Interestingly enough, Englund nearly wasn’t need for that job because Halloween was not originally envisioned as taking place on Halloween or any other specific holiday.  When producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad originally approached Carpenter and Hill to make a movie for them about a psycho stalking three babysitters, they didn’t care when the film was set.  It was only after Carpenter and Hill wrote a script called The Babysitter Muders that it occurred to Yablans that setting the film during Halloween would be good from a marketing standpoint.  Plus Halloween made for a better title than The Babysitter Murders.

And, of course, the rest is history.  Carpenter’s film came to define Halloween and it still remains the standard by which every subsequent slasher movie has been judged.  Would that have happened if the film had been known as The Babysitter Murders and had starred John Belushi?

Sadly, we may never know.

A Movie A Day #227: Silk Degrees (1994, directed by Armand Garabidian)


Actress Alex Ramsey (Deborah Shelton) may have become a star as a result of playing the lead role in a cop show but she still worries that her show is not realistic enough.  When a fight with her director (Gilbert Gottfried) leads to her walking off the set for the hundredth time, Alex stumbles across a real-life murder.  Now being chased by terrorists and gun smugglers, Alex is forced to go into hiding.  FBI agent Baker (Marc Singer) is assigned to protect her but how can he hide one of the most famous women in America, especially one who does not appreciate being told what to do? Making things even worse, there is a traitor in the bureau.  Shelton is going to have to use all of her tv crime-fighting skills to survive.

Though it featured enough Deborah Shelton nudity to win it a place in the regular Skinemax rotation, Silk Degrees is basically a standard 90s direct-to-video action film but it has a cast that will be appreciated by any B-move fan.  Along with Body Double‘s Shelton, Beastmaster’s Marc Singer, and everything’s Gilbert Gottfried, Silk Degrees also features Charles Napier as Singer’s boss, Mark Hamill as Singer’s partner, and Katherine Armstong as a duplicitous femme fatale.  The main villain is played by singer Michael Des Barres.  Even Adrienne Barbeau shows up in a tiny role!  Silk Degrees is not a great movie but with a cast like this, it does not have to be.

Embracing the Melodrama #26: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (dir by Russ Meyer)


beyondposter

THE FILM YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE IS NOT A SEQUEL TO “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.” IT IS WHOLLY ORIGINAL AND BEARS NO RELATIONSHIP TO REAL PERSONS, LIVING OR DEAD. IT DOES, LIKE “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” DEAL WITH THE OFT-TIMES NIGHTMARE WORLD OF SHOW BUSINESS BUT IN A DIFFERENT TIME AND CONTEXT. — Disclaimer at the beginning of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970)

If I hadn’t reviewed it already, I would definitely have included 1967’s Valley of the Dolls in this series on film melodrama.  However, seeing as I have already reviewed it (and you can read that excellent review here!), I figured why not take this opportunity to review a film that was legally required to acknowledge that it was not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.

I’m speaking of 1970’s Beyond the Valley of The Dolls, a satirical take on every Hollywood melodrama that had been made up until that point.  It was directed by notorious exploitation veteran Russ Meyer and written by film critic Roger Ebert.  The combination of Meyer’s unapologetic tawdriness and Ebert’s film school in jokes comes together to create a truly memorable film experience.

Okay, so what happens in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?  Let’s see if I can keep all this straight because, in its clearly satirical way, BVD is a bit like the Game of Thrones of satiric Hollywood melodrama.  There are so many characters with so many subplots that it helps to have a flowchart to try to keep track of it all.

beyond-the-valley-of-the-dolls-05-1

Kelly (Dolly McNamara), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Pet (Marcia McBroom) start a band and, after playing the high school graduation dance, they decide to head out to Los Angeles to become famous.  Accompanying them is their manager, Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), who is in love with Kelly and spends the entire film looking miserable.  As opposed to the three main characters in Valley of the Dolls, Kelly, Casey, and Pet do not arrive in Hollywood as wide-eyed innocents.  Instead, they’re already talking endlessly about their love of weed, pills, and sex but they do so in dialogue that is so deliberately over-the-top, so intentionally artificial, and so cheerfully delivered by the three girls that it’s impossible not to root for them.  More than that, though, these are three strong, independent women and, regardless of whether they’re appearing a film directed by a man best known for being obsessed with boobs, that’s still three more than you’ll find in most American films from both the 70s and today.

Fortunately, the girls already have a contact in Los Angeles.  Kelly’s rich aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) knows all sorts of people and wants to share some of her fortune with Kelly.  Unfortunately, Susan’s lawyer is the evil Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), who hates free spirits.  Porter tries to keep Kelly from getting the money but Kelly is willing to seduce Porter in order to get that money, even after she discovers that the uptight Porter wears his black socks to bed.  Obviously, Porter is a bad guy but who can help Aunt Susan realize this?  How about the wonderfully named man’s man, Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier)?

ZMan

Through Aunt Susan’s influence, the girl’s end up at a party thrown by the legendary music promoter Z-Man (John Lazar).  Z-Man is one of those flamboyant 70s characters who simply has to be seen to be believed.  Z-Man speaks in some of the most florid dialogue ever heard and there are more than a few secrets hidden behind all of that eccentricity.  But, at the moment, what’s important is that Z-Man takes control of the girl’s group — now known as the Carrie Nations (which is actually a pretty good name for a band) — and makes them famous overnight.

Soon, Kelly is spending more and more time with notorious Hollywood gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett, who gives a hilariously narcissistic performance) and ignoring poor Harris.  This drives Harris into the waiting arms of porn star Ashley St. Ives (Eddy Williams) who, with her unapologetic and non-neurotic approach to sex, is probably the most stable character in the entire film.

Beyond

Casey, feeling uncomfortable with the Hollywood jet set, is soon popping pills like they’re candy.  She finally starts to find some comfort and happiness with Roxanne (Erica Gavin).

And finally, Pet falls in love with Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), a serious-minded law student.  However, as much as Pet and Emerson seem to be meant for each other (and they even get a slow-motion montage where they run through a green field), Pet is still tempted to stray by a punch drunk boxer (James Inglehart).

And finally, there’s Otto (Henry Rowland).  Otto is Z-Man’s butler.  Apparently, he’s also a Nazi war criminal.

And, not surprisingly, all of this lust and all of these secrets lead to a suicide attempt, renewed love, and finally a disturbingly violent massacre that leaves the surviving members of the cast feeling wiser and sadder but not necessarily older.  Fortunately, just in case we the viewers might be wondering how all of this could have happened, a somber-voiced narrator suddenly explains what every character did wrong and how those mistakes led to their fate.  Thanks, narrator guy!

So, obviously, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not meant to be taken seriously.  The film is a satire of all of the self-serious and hypocritically moralistic Hollywood melodramas that came before it .  Fortunately, the largely likable cast plays all of this absurd material with the straightest of faces and the end result is a film that is sordid and oddly likable.  This is one of those films that, if it offends you, you may be taking life too seriously.

beyond the valley of the dolls party

David Hess, R.I.P.


The grindhouse mourns today for actor David Hess, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 69. 

Where to start with David Hess?  He would probably start with the fact that, before he become an actor, he was a succesful songwriter whose songs were performed by Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.  He was also a singer himself and can be heard performing his brand of dark folk in several of the films that he later appeared in.  He won a Grammy for co-writing a rock opera called “The Naked Carmen.”  He was also good friends with the writer, actor and political activist, Malachy McCourt (brother of Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt) and recorded an album with him.  Hess never stopped making music and he even recorded a few tracks for Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever.

However, David Hess is probably best known for playing assorted rapists, killers, and other unpleasant people in over 30 films.  Starting with his iconic performance as Krug in Wes Craven’s original Last House On The Left, Hess quickly established himself as one of the most believable (and scary) villains in the grindhouse world.  Whether he was holding Franco Nero hostage in Hitch-Hike, terrorizing guests while wearing a canary yellow suit in The House On The Edge of the Park, or playing a rare good guy in Camping Del Terrore (a film which co-starred another recently deceased grindhouse favorite, Charles Napier), Hess was always both bigger-than-life and a surprisingly underrated actor.  Hess may have made a career out of playing killers but every killer was unique and special in his own twisted way.

Like many movie psychos, David Hess was a funny, sensitive, and, at time, erratic interview subject.  Interviews with him can be found on the DVD releases of Hitch-Hike, The House on the Edge of The Park, and Last House On The Left and all three of them are worth owning for that reason alone.

While I doubt those toadsuckers in the Academy will see fit to honor David Hess during next year’s Oscar ceremony, he will forever be remembered by film fans (i.e., the people who actually matter). 

 

David not only starred in Last House On The Left but he also composed the music.  Below is his song, Wait For The Rain.

And even though he didn’t compose the soundtrack for The House On The Edge of the Park, here’s a clip of David Hess watching Giovanni Lombardo Radice dance in that film.  Yes, I’ve shown this clip before but I just happen to love it.  This clip proves, once again, that even in a canary yellow suit, David Hess could still dominate a scene.*

David Alexander Hess, R.I.P.

6 Trailers Designed To Induce Hysteria


This latest edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers was meant to have a theme.  I was only going to include trailers of films that have been reviewed on the Hysteria Lives! website.  Unfortunately, I ran in to some trouble with the New Year’s Evil trailer and I ended up going with a different trailer of a movie that hasn’t been reviewed on the site.  So, yes, the theme kinda falls apart at the end.  But anyway, let’s get things started…

1) The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970)

Sergio Martino doesn’t get as much attention as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava but he made some giallo classics and this is one of them.  Yes, the trailer’s in Italian but stick with it anyway.  Also, the person who uploaded this to Youtube, included another trailer — this one for Lucio Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin — after the end of the Mrs. Wardh trailer.

2) Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

You can tell that this trailer from 1981 isn’t messing around because the birthday cake gets it!  I saw this movie on TV a few years ago.  The brain surgery scenes really freaked me out.  Another thing that freaked me out was a scene where all the high school snobs decided to spend their night at a special showing of High Noon.  Why couldn’t I have gone to high school with a bunch of film snobs?  Seriously, life sucks.

3) Don’t Open The Door (made in 1975, released in 1979)

All together now: “Don’t.  Don’t.  Don’t.  Don’t.  Don’t…”  With all due respect to the very hot Eli Roth, that was my favorite of the fake trailers from Grindhouse.  Anyway, Don’t is not a real film but Don’t Open The Door is.  Exploitation film of the 70s and the 80s were always trying to tell us how to live our lives.  Don’t stand by the window, don’t look in the basement, don’t go in the house, don’t go into the woods…alone, and now, apparently we can’t even open the freaking door.  This actually reminds me of this time that we were visiting my grandma and I was up in the attic exploring and I heard my sisters downstairs calling out my name because they couldn’t find me so I tried to open the attic door and I accidentally yanked off the door knob.  Agck!  That was scary.  But I survived and here’s the trailer…

4) Body Count (1987)

I haven’t seen this one so all of my information on it comes from what I’ve read online.  Apparently, this was Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s attempt to make an American-style slasher film so, of course, it takes place at a summer camp.  David Hess is in this one and apparently, he’s not playing the killer for once.  Former Russ Meyer star Charles Napier is in this one too.  As for why I love this trailer, just listen to narrator at the end of the trailer when he starts tossing out various taglines.  It’s as if the film’s producers were arguing about which tagline to use and finally someone said, “Fuck it, just toss them all in there!  Now, shut up and behave!  It’s time for dinner!”

5) Scalps (1983)

Horror will surround you … and we’re not just talking about the acting.  I love it when trailers dare you to actually sit through the entire movie.  (And, I should add, that I own Scalps on DVD and, bad acting aside, it’s actually a surprisingly effective little horror movie.)

6) Bloody New Year (1987)

I wanted to include the trailer for a film called New Year’s Evil here but the only one I could find had this huge advertising logo across the bottom of it.  But while I searched, I came across the trailer for another New Year’s horror film, Bloody New Year.  And you know what?  I’ve seen New Year’s Evil and it sucks and it had a really nasty sort of sadism to it that makes you feel dirty after you watch it.  So, fuck New Year’s Evil.  Now, let’s all have a Bloody New Year!

Finally, since that Lizard in a Woman’s Skin extra actually means that there were 7 trailers in this edition as opposed to 6, I’m going to add one more bonus trailer so that we can end things on an even number.  There’s no way I couldn’t take the opportunity to include Edgar Wright’s brilliant fake trailer, Don’t.