Horror on the Lens: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jakob, and Jack Nicholson)


Have you ever woken up and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see a movie where a youngish Jack Nicholson played a French soldier who, while searching for a mysterious woman, comes across a castle that’s inhabited by both Dick Miller and Boris Karloff?”

Of course you have!  Who hasn’t?

Well, fortunately, it’s YouTube to the rescue.  In Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, Jack Nicholson is the least believable 19th century French soldier ever.  However, it’s still interesting to watch him before he became a cinematic icon.  (Judging from his performance here and in Cry Baby Killer, Jack was not a natural-born actor.)  Boris Karloff is, as usual, great and familiar Corman actor Dick Miller gets a much larger role than usual.  Pay attention to the actress playing the mysterious woman.  That’s Sandra Knight who, at the time of filming, was married to Jack Nicholson.

Reportedly, The Terror was one of those films that Corman made because he still had the sets from his much more acclaimed film version of The Raven.  The script was never finished, the story was made up as filming moved alone, and no less than five directors shot different parts of this 81 minute movie.  Among the directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Jack Nicholson himself!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the final film is a total mess but it does have some historical value.

(In typical Corman fashion, scenes from The Terror were later used in the 1968 film, Targets.)

Check out The Terror below!

Evil Toons (1992, directed by Fred Olen Ray)


Evil Toons opens, disturbingly enough, with David Carradine hanging himself.  Carradine is playing Gideon Fisk, the owner of both a run-down mansion and an ancient book that appears to be bound in human skin.  Though Fisk kills himself, he still appears several years later so that he can deliver a copy of the book to the four girls who have been hired to clean his home.

The girls are all students at Miskatonic University, a name that will be familiar to any fans of the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  (Those same fans will also have figured out that the book is the Necronomicon.)  Jan (Barbara Dare) and Terry (Suzanne Auger) want to get the house cleaned so they can get paid.  Roxanne (Madison Stone) wants to party overnight with her idiot boyfriend, Biff (Don Dowe).  Shy and intellectual Megan (Monique Gabrielle) is mostly just worried about surviving until morning.  After the girls open the book, they get Megan to translate the Latin writing within.  This brings to life a cartoon monster, one who looks much like a combination of the Big Bad Wolf and the Tasmanian Devil but which is far more bloodthirsty and horny than either of them.  After killing one of the girls and possessing her body, the Monster stalks the other inhabitants of the house.

Not meant to be taken seriously in any way shape or form, Evil Toons was made by Fred Olen Ray for $150,000.  That probably explains why, despite the title, there’s only one evil toon and it only gets a minute and a half of screen time before possessing its first victim.  Most of the dialogue is deliberately obtuse, with none of the girls showing any alarm upon realizing that forcing Megan to translate the book has condemned everyone to an eternity of torment.  The good thing is that there are enough funny lines to hold your interest and the cast is game (and frequently undressed, which is probably why this film still has a cult following).  Monique Gabrielle proves that she can scream with the best of them while Madison Stone is genuinely funny as Roxanne, delivering her lines with a playful quirkiness and even indulging in a little physical comedy with a hard-to-open wine bottle.

Fans of B-horror will be happy to see Dick Miller in the role of Burt, the man who hires the girls to clean up the house.  After leaving the girls at the house, Burt goes home and watches Bucket of Blood (starring Dick Miller, of course) on television.  “How come that guy never won an Academy Award?” Burt asks.  Burt’s wife is played by scream queen Michelle Bauer, who gets a guest starring credit for a two-minute role that consists of her reminding Burt what Friday night is supposed to be for.

Evil Toons is undeniably dumb but I laughed more than I was expecting too.  I think it helps that the movie confirmed what anyone who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons has always suspected.  Most cartoon characters aren’t that innocent, especially the ones that are drawn in the margins of the Necronomicon.

Horror Film Review: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Jakob, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson)


Can you follow the plot of the 1963 horror film, The Terror?

If so, congratulations!  You’ve accomplished something that even the people who made the film have admitted to being unable to do.

The film opens in 19th century Europe.  Andre Duvalier is an earnest French soldier who has somehow gotten lost in Germany.  Andre is played by a youngish, pre-stardom Jack Nicholson.  Nicholson, that most contemporary, sarcastic, and American of actors, is thoroughly unconvincing as an idealistic Frenchman from 1806.  Obviously unsure of what do with the character, Nicholson delivers his lines stiffly and does what he can to downplay the naturally sardonic sound of his voice.  This is probably the only film where Jack Nicholson is a “nice young man.”

Andre meets a mysterious woman named Helene (played by Sandra Knight, who was Nicholson’s wife at the time).  Helene appears to live in a castle with the Baron (Boris Karloff) and his servant, Stefan (Dick Miller, who makes no effort to come across as being, in anyway, European).  However, Helene bears a distinct resemblance to the Baron’s long-dead wife, Ilse, who the Baron killed after discovering her with another man.  However, a witch in the village claims that Ilse’s lover was her son so she put a curse on the Baron and the presence of Helene is a part of that curse.  However, Stefan claims that the Baron isn’t actually the Baron and and that Ilse’s husband isn’t actually dead.  However….

Yes, there’s a ton of plot twists in this movie, which is probably the result of the fact that the film was shot without a completed script.  In fact, the only reason the movie was made was because Roger Corman had access to Boris Karloff and a castle set that he used for The Raven.  When he discovered that he could use the set for two extra days, he shot some random footage with Boris Karloff and then he tried to build a movie around it.  As a result, the cast and the directors largely made up the story as the filmed.

Yes, I said directors.  While Corman shot the Karloff scenes, he no longer had enough money to use a union crew to shoot the rest of the film.  Because Corman was a member of the DGA, he couldn’t direct a nonunion film. So, he assigned the rest of the film to one his assistants, an aspiring filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola.  Coppola shot the beach scenes and, in a sign of things to come, he went overbudget and got behind schedule.  Coppola was meant to shoot for three days but instead went for eleven.

Though Coppola shot the majority of the film, he got a better job offer before he could do any reshoots.  Coppola suggested that a friend of his from film school, Dennis Jakob, take over.  Jakob shot for three days and reportedly used most of the time to shoot footage for his thesis movie.

Still feeling that the movie needed a few extra scenes to try to make sense of the plot, Corman then gave the film to Monte Hellman and, after Hellman got hired for another job, Jack Hill.  Hellman would later go on to direct films like The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop.  Jack Hill would later direct Spider Baby and several other exploitation films in the 70s.  Reportedly, on the final day of shooting, even Jack Nicholson took some time behind the camera.  It was Nicholson’s first directing job.  (Nicholson, for his part, has often said that his original ambition in Hollywood was to become a director and not an actor.)

So, yes, the film’s a bit disjointed.  The plot doesn’t make any sense.  Nicholson shows little of his trademark charisma.  But Dick Miller has a lot of fun as the duplicitous Stefan and Boris Karloff brings his weary dignity to the role of the Baron.  Oddly, even though the Baron’s scene were shot before the script had even been written, they’re the ones that make the most sense.  It’s a messy film but it plays out with a certain hallucinatory style.  It’s a piece of Hollywood history and a testament to Roger Corman’s refusal to waste even two days of shooting.  If you’ve got a star and a set for two days, you’ve got enough for a movie!

Horror Film Review: Piranha (1978, dir by Joe Dante)


At the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Government came up with a plan that could have changed the course of the war.

What if the government developed gigantic, super-fast, occasionally jumpy piranha?  And what if they set those killer fish loose in the rivers of Vietnam?  Would those fish swim through North Vietnam and take out the VC?  Sadly, the war ended before the government got a chance to test out Operation Razorteeth.  With the war over, the government was stuck with a bunch of killer fish.  Scientist Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) ignored all orders to destroy his mutant fish because they were his life’s work.  (Awwwwwwwww!)  He kept an eye on them and did everything he could to prevent them from getting into the nearby river.

Unfortunately, Dr. Hoak’s best wasn’t good enough.  Because the piranha have gotten loose and now they’re making their way down to the river!  They start out eating skinny dipping teenagers, fisherman, and Keenan Wynn.  (They’re good enough not to eat Wynn’s adorable dog, which I appreciated.)  Further down the river, there’s a summer camp and a water park!  It’s definitely not safe to get back in the water but sadly, that’s what several people insist on doing throughout this film.  Even when the water is full of blood, people will jump in.  (It’s easy to be judgmental but it is a pretty river.  I don’t swim but I honestly wouldn’t mind living near a river that looked that nice.  Instead, I have to make due with a creek.)

Floating down the river on a raft and trying to warn everyone is the unlikely team of Maggie (Heather Menzies) and Paul (Bradford Dillman).  Maggie is a detective who has come to town to track down the two teenage skinny dippers who were eaten at the start of the film.  Paul is a drunk.  Well, technically, Paul is a wilderness guide and he does spend the entire movie wearing the type of plaid shirt that would only be worn by someone who goes camping every weekend but really, Paul’s main personality trait seems to be that he enjoys his booze.  Paul’s daughter is away at the summer camp.  Yes, that’s the same summer camp that’s about to be visited by a school of piranha.  AGCK!

Produced by Roger Corman and obviously designed to capitalize on the monster success of Jaws, Piranha was an early directorial credit for Joe Dante.  Dante would later go on to direct films like The Howling and GremlinsPiranha was also an early screenwriting credit for the novelist John Sayles, who would use his paycheck to launch his own directing career.  As a director, Sayles specializes in politically-themed ensemble pieces, which is something you might not guess while watching Piranha.  (Piranha does have an anti-military subplot but then again, it’s a film from the 70s so of course it does.)  Like the best of Corman’s film, Piranha works because it sticks to the basics and it delivers exactly what it promises.  Piranha promises killer fish biting away at anyone dumb enough to get in the water and that’s what it gives us.  As an added bonus, we also get some occasionally witty dialogue and Joe Dante’s energetic, self-aware direction.

As is typical with the films of both Corman and Dante, the cast is full of familiar faces.  Along with Kevin McCarthy as the mad scientist and Keenan Wynn as the eccentric fisherman, Dick Miller shows up as the waterpark owner.  Richard Deacon, who made a career of playing bosses and neighbors on various sitcoms in the 50s and 60s, plays the father of a missing teenager.  Director Paul Bartel plays the head of the summer camp, who may be a jerk but who still heroically jumps in the water to save several campers.  (Bartel’s moment of heroism is one of Piranha’s best scenes and, significantly, it’s played without irony.  You’ll want to cheer for the guy.)  Finally, the great Barbara Steele plays the government scientist who shows up to clean up Operation Razorteeth.

Piranha is simple but entertaining.   Dante’s direction is energetic and, despite the film’s self-referential tone, the killer fish are just savage enough to be scary.  It’s a film that tell us not to get back in the water but which understands that the temptation might just be too strong.

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (dir. by Ernest Dickerson)


Demon Knight PosterI remember going to the movies for Demon Knight. I loved Tales from the Crypt on HBO, and the idea of a movie was cool at the time. My sister and my best friend joined me for the showing. It was treat to watch. I left the cinema thinking of different tales that could come up using some of the elements in this story.

For those unfamiliar with Tales From the Crypt, the show aired on HBO during the late 1980s, and part of the 1990s. Based off of the old horror tales from EC Comics, each episode was a horror story. Unlike Tales From the Darkside, Monsters and Darkroom, Tales from the Crypt had the bonus of being on cable. This meant they were able to get away with more gore and nudity than their prime time counterparts. Perhaps that’s the only real disadvantage with the film. At least with Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, the story could push into darker elements with their restrictions lifted.

As with every episode of the show, Demon Knight is sandwiched between a scene with the Crypt Keeper (John Kassir) greeting the audience with some corny jokes and introducing the story. Frank Brayker (William Sadler – The Mist, Bill & Ted Face the Music) is on the run from The Collector (Billy Zane – Titanic). With his options dwindling and the strange seven-star pattern tattoo on his hand slowly forming a circle, Brayker makes his last stand at a motel with a group of individuals. In his possession is a key shaped vial that has the power to create wards. These wards hold back the army of demons that wish to reclaim the key and bring darkness across the land. Can Brayker make it through the night, while protecting the key and everyone around him? That’s pretty much the plot.

Demon Knight CryptKeeper

The Crypt Keeper is ready for his close up in Demon Knight. 

Having previously worked as a Cinematographer for Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson made the jump to directing with 1992’s Juice. Demon Knight was his follow up and for the most part, it’s good. The creature design is interesting, reminiscent of Top Cow’s comic book, The Darkness. The demons are thin and indeed strange to behold, but they mostly take a back seat to Billy Zane’s Collector, who tries to seduce everyone into turning against the rest of the group.  Zane brings a lot of humor to the movie with his villain, as does Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways) playing that one guy you’d really like to slug in the mouth. CCH Pounder (Avatar), Jada Pinkett (Collateral), Brenda Bakke (L.A. Confidential), the legendary Dick Miller (Gremlins and just about everything Joe Dante did), and Charles Fleisher (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Gary Farmer (Forever Knight) round it all out. It’s Sadler’s film to carry, however, and he does a great job here playing the hero.

From a sound/musical standpoint, Demon Knight boasts a interesting soundtrack, which I picked up around the time I first saw the film. Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” seemed like the only song featured in the film, but Ministry’s “Tonight We Murder”, Henry Rollins “Fall Guy” and Pantera’s “Cemetary Gates” are the standouts. The pacing of the film is pretty even, despite being a one shot. There’s not enough of a slowdown to feel bored. Demon Knight is just one regular Tales from the Crypt tale in a longer format. I would have preferred shorter pieces in this larger timespan, but that’s more a nitpick than anything.

Overall, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight is a fun film to visit around Halloween. Just make sure your doors and windows are locked (and sealed, if possible), when watching.

 

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Chopping Mall (dir by Jim Wynorski)


This 1986 film tells the story of what happens when one local mall decides that it’s had enough of thievery and vandalism.

First off, automatic locks and shutters are installed.  What that means is that, at a certain hour, anyone who is inside the mall is going to be trapped there until the morning.  Secondly, three robots are used as a security force.  They’re called Protectors and they roll around, looking for thieves and keeping people safe.  Don’t worry about getting mistaken for a thief, of course.  As long as you’ve got a badge, the protector will just say, “Thank you and have a good day.”

It all seems perfect but …. what if the robots malfunction?  What if they ignore the badges and just start killing anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in the mall for the night?  Surely, that could never happen, right?

Of course, it does happen.  Thanks to a freak electrical storm, the Protectors come to life and set out to keep the mall safe from intruders.  First, they kill the technicians that are supposed to keeping a watch over them.  Then, they kill a janitor named Walter Paisley (played, of course, by Dick Miller).  Then, they set off after the six attractive people who were having a sleep-over in one of the stores.

So, what did I learn from Chopping Mall?

Well, I was tempted to say that I learned not to shoplift but actually, no one in the movie gets in trouble for shoplifting.  I guess the main thing I learned is not to walk around the mall in my underwear because that definitely seems to be something that will cause the Protectors to blow up your head.

I also learned that, if you’re tapped in the mall with a bunch of killer robots, the best place to go is the sporting goods store because that store not only has a lot of automatic rifles but also an unlimited supply of ammunition.  Of course, I already learned that from Dawn of the Dead but it’s always good to be reminded….

Anyway, Chopping Mall is a lot of fun.  It’s undeniably dated.  Just the fact that everyone’s life revolves around a mall tells you just how dated it is.  I guess if they made the film now, it would have to take place at an Ikea store or maybe an Amazon warehouse.  But the fact that the film is dated is a part of what makes it so much fun to watch.  Seriously, it’s amazing all of the stuff that apparently used to go on at the local mall in the 80s.

Despite the fact that they have a bad habit of killing people, the Protectors are actually kind of cute.  If nothing else, they’re unfailingly polite.  You have to love the fact that they’ll wish you a nice day even after they’ve killed you.  Surprisingly enough, the humans are just as likable as the Protectors.  For a film about killer robots, Chopping Mall is surprisingly well-acted by a likable cast.  Russell Todd, who was the best-looking man to ever be killed by Jason Voorhees, is in this film and he’s as broodingly handsome here as he was in Friday the 13th Part II.

Chopping Mall is a good mix of humor and thrills and robots and exploding heads and Dick Miller.  This is 80s mall horror at its best!

Horror on the Lens: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jakob, and Jack Nicholson)


(As some of you may have noticed, I shared this movie last year as well.  I figured I might as well post it again this year.  Plus, it’s Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller!  Why not post it again?)

Have you ever woken up and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see a movie where a youngish Jack Nicholson played a French soldier who, while searching for a mysterious woman, comes across a castle that’s inhabited by both Dick Miller and Boris Karloff?”

Of course you have!  Who hasn’t?

Well, fortunately, it’s YouTube to the rescue.  In Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, Jack Nicholson is the least believable 19th century French soldier ever.  However, it’s still interesting to watch him before he became a cinematic icon.  (Judging from his performance here and in Cry Baby Killer, Jack was not a natural-born actor.)  Boris Karloff is, as usual, great and familiar Corman actor Dick Miller gets a much larger role than usual.  Pay attention to the actress playing the mysterious woman.  That’s Sandra Knight who, at the time of filming, was married to Jack Nicholson.

Reportedly, The Terror was one of those films that Corman made because he still had the sets from his much more acclaimed film version of The Raven.  The script was never finished, the story was made up as filming moved alone, and no less than five directors shot different parts of this 81 minute movie.  Among the directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Jack Nicholson himself!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the final film is a total mess but it does have some historical value.

(In typical Corman fashion, scenes from The Terror were later used in the 1968 film, Targets.)

Check out The Terror below!

 

Horror Film Review: Twilight Zone: The Movie (dir by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller)


1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie is meant to be a tribute to the classic original anthology series.  It features four “episodes” and two wrap-around segments, with Burgess Meredith providing opening and closing narration.  Each segment is directed by a different director, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, Twilight Zone: The Movie is a bit of a mess.  One of the episodes is brilliant.  Another one is good up until the final few minutes.  Another one is forgettable.  And then finally, one of them is next too impossible to objectively watch because of a real-life tragedy.

With a film that varies as wildly in tone and quality as Twilight Zone: The Movie, the only way to really review it is to take a segment at a time:

Something Scary (dir by John Landis)

Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd drive through the desert and discuss the old Twilight Zone TV series.  Brooks claims that the show was scary.  Aykoyd asks if Brooks wants to see something really scary.  This is short but fun.  It’s tone doesn’t really go along with the rest of the movie but …. oh well.  It made me jump.

Time Out (dir by John Landis)

Vic Morrow plays a racist named Bill Connor who, upon leaving his local bar, finds himself transported to Nazi-occupied France, the deep South, and eventually Vietnam.

How you react to this story will probably depend on how much you know about its backstory.  If you don’t know anything about the filming of this sequence, you’ll probably just think it’s a bit heavy-handed and, at times, unintentionally offensive.  Twilight Zone often explored themes of prejudice but Time Out just seems to be using racism as a gimmick.

If you do know the story of what happened while this segment was being filmed, it’s difficult to watch.  Actor Vic Morrow was killed during filming.  His death was the result of a preventable accident that occurred during a scene that was to involve Morrow saving two Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack.  The helicopter crashed, killing not only Morrow but the children as well.  It was later determined that not only were safety protocols ignored but that Landis had hired the children illegally and was paying them under the table so that he could get around the regulations governing how many hours child actors could work.  It’s a tragic story and one that will not leave you as a fan of John Landis’s, regardless of how much you like An American Werewolf in London and Animal House.

Nothing about the segment feels as if it was worth anyone dying for and, to be honest, I’m kind of amazed that it was even included in the finished film.

Kick The Can (dir by Steven Spielberg)

An old man named Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) shows up at Sunnyvale Retirement Home and encourages the residents to play a game of kick the can.  Everyone except for Mr. Conroy (Bill Quinn) eventually agrees to take part and, just as in the episode of the Twilight Zone that this segment is based on, everyone becomes young.

However, while the television show ended with the newly young residents all running off and leaving behind the one person who refused to play the game, the movie ends with everyone, with the exception of one man who apparently became a teenager istead of a kid, deciding that they would rather be old and just think young.  That really doesn’t make any damn sense but okay.

This segment is unabashedly sentimental and clearly calculated to brings tears to the eyes to the viewers.  The problem is that it’s so calculated that you end up resenting both Mr. Bloom and all the old people.  One gets the feeling that this segment is more about how we wish old people than how they actually are.  It’s very earnest and very Spielbergian but it doesn’t feel much like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

It’s A Good Life (dir by Joe Dante)

A teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) meets a young boy (Jeremy Licht) who has tremendous and frightening powers.

This is a remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life, with the difference being that young Anthony is not holding an entire town hostage but instead just his family.  This segment was directed by Joe Dante, who turns the segment into a cartoon, both figuratively and, at one point, literally.  That’s not necessarily a complaint.  It’s certainly improvement over Spielberg’s sentimental approach to the material.  Dante also finds roles for genre vets like Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert, and Dick Miller and he provides some memorably over-the-top visuals.

The main problem with this segment is the ending, in which Anthony suddenly reveals that he’s not really that bad and just wants to be treated normally, which doesn’t make much sense.  I mean, if you want to be treated normally, maybe don’t zap your sister in a cartoon.  The teacher agrees to teach Anthony how to be a normal boy and again, what the Hell?  The original It’s A Good Life worked because, like any child, Anthony had no conception of how adults felt about him.  In the movie version, he’s suddenly wracked with guilt and it’s far less effective.  It feels like a cop out.

Still, up until that ending, It’s A Good Life worked well as a satire of the perfect American family.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (dir by George Miller)

In this remake of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, John Lithgow steps into the role that was originally played by William Shatner.  He plays a man who, while attempting to conquer his fear of flying, sees a gremlin on the wing of his airplane.  Unfortunately, he can’t get anyone else on the plane to believe him.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is the best of the four main segments.  It’s also the one that sticks closest to its source material.  Director George Miller (yes, of Mad Max fame) doesn’t try to improve on the material because he seems to understand that it works perfectly the way it is.  John Lithgow is also perfectly cast in the lead role, perfectly capturing his increasing desperation.  The one change that Miller does make is that, as opposed in the TV show, the gremlin actually seems to be taunting John Lithgow at time and it works wonderfully.  Not only is Lithgow trying to save the plane, he’s also trying to defeat a bully.

Something Scarier (dir by John Landis)

Dan Aykroyd’s back as an ambulance driver, still asking his passenger if he wants to see something really scary.  It’s an okay ending but it does kind of lessen the impact of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

 

Four Rode Out (1970, directed by John Peyser)


In this self-conciously hip western, former Lolita Sue Lyon stars as Myra Polsen.  Myra has a reputation for being the town tramp and, when her father discovers Myra in bed with wanted outlaw Frenando Nunez (Julian Mateos), it leads to her father having a violent breakdown which ends with him shooting himself and Frenando escaping into the desert.  (Before anyone comments, that’s not a misspelling.  The outlaw’s name actually is Frenando.)  World-weary U.S. Marshall Ross (Pernell Roberts) heads into the desert to try to capture Frenando.  Accompanying him are Myra (who still loves Frenando) and the mysterious Mr. Brown (Leslie Nielsen!), a detective who is obsessed with Frenando and who says that he’ll kill the outlaw as soon as he sees him.

Also accompanying them is a ghostly folksinger played by Janis Ian, of At Seventeen fame.  Ian sings songs that comment upon the story and they’re just as empty-headed and bad as you would expect them to be.  Janis Ian’s presence marks this as being one of the handful of new wave westerns that were released in the wake of Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and the films of Sergio Leone.  These westerns attempted to appeal to the counter-culture by sympathizing with the outlaws and featuring crooked lawmen.  The addition of Janis Ian and her songs is Four Rode Out‘s way of saying, “This may be a western but this is a western that gets it.” Instead, it just comes across as artificial and forced.  There’s a lot of room for both moral ambiguity and political subtext in the western genre, which was something that Leone and Sam Peckinpah proved.  There’s less room for a hippie folksinger, as Four Rode Out demonstrates.

Other than Janis Ian’s songs and some dialogue that tries too hard to be profound, Four Rode Out isn’t bad.  Sue Lyon really digs into the role of Myra and even Pernell Roberts gives a good performance.  Of course, if you’re watching this movie in 2020, it’s probably going to be because of Leslie Nielsen.  This movie was made before Nielsen recreated himself as a comedic actor and it’s interesting to see how the same things that made Nielsen so funny — the deadpan delivery, the overly serious facial expressions — also made him a good villain.  For modern audiences, it can be difficult to look at Leslie Nielsen without laughing.  That’s how much we associate him with comedy.  But once you accept the fact that this is Leslie Nielsen playing a bad guy, he’s very convincing in the role.

One final note of interest: Four Rode Out was based on a story idea from the actor Dick Miller.  Yes, that Dick Miller.  Unfortunately, Miller himself is not in the movie.

Film Review: Corvette Summer (dir by Matthew Robbins)


The 1978 film, Corvette Summer, tells the story of Kenny Dantley (Mark Hamill).

Kenny is a student at a high school in Southern California.  He lives in a trailer park and he’s kind of dumb.  He’s the type who rarely shows up to class and, when he does, it’s just to discover that he managed to score a D-minus on his last test.  Kenny doesn’t think school’s important, though.  All Kenny cares about is cars.  He doesn’t date.  He doesn’t have friends.  But he can rebuild a corvette and spend hours talking about why it’s the greatest car in the world.

Yes, Kenny’s an idiot.

Kenny’s auto shop teacher, Mr. McGrath (Eugne Roche), warns Kenny that he’s spending too much obsessing on cars.  Don’t fall in love with a car, Mr. McGrath says.  A car is just a machine and a machine will always let you down.  A machine is something that you build so you can sell it and move on to something else.  To me, Mr. McGrath makes sense but Kenny’s like, “No, that’s totally squaresville.  Real melvin, man.”

(Well, okay, Kenny doesn’t use those exact words but you can tell that he’s thinking them…..)

Anyway, Kenny and the shop class have just rebuilt a red corvette and Kenny’s convinced that it’s the greatest car ever.  However, on the same night that the car makes its debut by cruising down the streets of Kenny’s hometown, it’s stolen!  Maybe Kenny shouldn’t have given the keys to Danny Bonaduce.  Kenny gets so angry that he smashes a cup of coke and attempts to beat up Bonaduce.

Mr. McGrath tells Kenny that these things happen and he suggests that Kenny instead look into enrolling at a community college after high school.  Kenny, however, is too obsessed with finding his car to listen to Mr. McGrath.  He even prints up flyers with a picture of the corvette.  “Have you seen this car?” the flyers ask.  Amazingly, it turns out that someone has.  He tells Kenny that he saw the corvette in Las Vegas.

That’s all it takes for Kenny to head to Nevada.  Of course, since Kenny doesn’t have a car, he has to hitchhiker.  Despite the fact that Kenny looks like a killer hippie and tends to spend a lot of time yelling in a somewhat shrill manner, he’s picked up by Vanessa (Annie Potts).  Vanessa is an “aspiring prostitute” who lives in a van.  “Vanessa” is written on the side of the van, which means that it will be useless if anyone ever needs to use it as a getaway vehicle for a bank robbery.  Way to go, Vanessa.

Once they arrives in Las Vegas, Kenny and Vanessa work a series of different jobs while looking for that corvette.  Along the way, Kenny falls in love, discovers that there’s more to life than just cars, and also suffers a bit of disillusionment when one of his mentors turns out to be not as perfect as Kenny originally believed.

Corvette Summer is best known for being Mark Hamill’s first post-Star Wars role.  He’s in almost every scene of the film and, to be honest, his performance kind of got on my nerves.  Some of that is because, as written, Kenny is almost unbelievably stupid.  But Hamill doesn’t help things by giving a rather shrill performance in the lead role.  Though the film may be a coming-of-age comedy, Hamill is so intense in the role that he comes across as being less like a naive teenager and more like a mentally unbalanced time bomb.  You find yourself hoping that he’ll get the car back before he’s forced to take hostages.  Annie Potts is a bit more likable as Vanessa but her character is dreadfully inconsistent.  One gets the feeling that she’s mostly just there so that Kenny can finally lose his virginity and be a little bit less of a loser by the end of the movie.

I will say that I did really like the performance of Kim Milford, who plays a superslick car thief named Wayne Lowry.  As I watched the film, it took me a few minutes to realize where I recognized Milford from.  He was the star of Laserblast, a film that featured Milford finding a laser gun and using it to blow up a sign advertising Star Wars.  Milford only has a small role in Corvette Summer and we’re not supposed to like him but he’s so handsome and sure-of-himself that it’s hard not to prefer him to the rather histrionic character played by Mark Hamill.

Corvette Summer is such a film of the 70s that watching it is like stepping into a time machine.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.  Indeed, in 2020, the main appeal of a film like this is a chance to see how people lived in 1978.  (It’s always a bit odd to watch a movie where no one carries a phone or has a twitter account.)  Watching this film in 2020, it’s hard not cringe a little at the sight of not only Kenny hitchhiking but also people stopping to pick him up.  Seriously, are they just trying to get killed?