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.

The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1983, directed by Georg Fenady)


When civil engineer Carl Miller (James MacArthur) discovers that the Madison Bridge is on the verge of collapsing, he goes to his superior (Philip Baker Hall!) and explains that the bridge has to be closed down or people could die.  Since there wouldn’t be a movie if anyone listened to Carl’s concerns, he’s ignored.

No sooner has Carl been told that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about than the bridge suddenly starts to collapse.  With both ends of the bridge collapsing into the river below, a diverse group of people find themselves stranded in the middle.  The group is made up of the usual group of disaster movie characters and, of course, one of them is played by Leslie Nielsen.  This time, Nielsen is a crooked businessman with a mistress (played by Barbara Rush) and a baby to worry about.  Eve Plumb (who was a member of the original Brady Bunch) is a nun.  Richard Gilliland is a wounded cop.  Gregory Sierra is a landscaper.  Perhaps most improbably, clean-cut Desi Arnaz Jr. is a bank robber who keeps losing his temper and pointing a gun at everyone.  Carl has to figure out how to get everyone off of the bridge before the entire things collapses.  This leads to many shots of chunks of concrete falling off what’s left of the bridge, as if we need to be reminded that it’s dangerous to be on a bridge that’s in the process of very slowly collapsing.

After finding success making movies about fires, overturned ocean liners, volcanoes, cave-ins, and killer bees, I guess it only makes sense that Irwin Allen would finally get around the producing a movie about a collapsing bridge.  The Night The Bridge Fell Down was filmed in 1980 but it wasn’t aired until 1983.  When it did air, it played opposite the series finale of M*A*S*H, which remains one of the highest rated single episodes of television ever aired.  It’s obvious that no one had much faith in a three hour film about a collapsing bridge and it only aired because NBC needed something — anything — to air at a time when they knew no one would be watching.

Because of the lengthy amount of time between the film’s production and it’s airing, The Night The Bridge Fell Down is the type of serious and plodding disaster film that was popular in the 70s but, by the time 1983 rolled around, had been rendered obsolete by the satiric bards of Airplane!  Airplane‘s Leslie Nielsen even appears here, giving the type of serious performance that he specialized in before people discovered that he was actually a very funny man.  Nielsen doesn’t give a bad performance but everything he says is thoroughly undercut by how difficult it is to take Leslie Nielsen seriously.  No matter what Nielsen says, it always seems like he’s on the verge of adding, “And don’t call me Shirley.”

The main problem with The Night The Bridge Fell Down is that it’s a three-hour movie and that’s a long time to spend with a group of thinly characterized people on a bridge.  I guess the film does feature an important message about maintaining roads and bridges.  Watch it next Infrastructure Week.

Snatched (1973, directed by Sutton Roley)


Three women have been kidnapped and are being held prisoner in a lighthouse.  Robin Wood (Tisha Sterling), Kim Sutter (Sheree North), and Barbara Maxvill (Barbara Parkins) are married to three wealthy men and the kidnappers (one of whom is played by the great Anthony Zerbe) assume that the husband will be willing to pay whatever is necessary to get back their wives.  Paul Maxvill (John Saxon) and Bill Sutter (Leslie Nielsen!) are willing to put up the money but Duncan Wood (Howard Duff) scoffs at the idea of paying a million dollars just to see his adulterous wife again!

It sounds like the set-up for a Ransom of Red Chief-type of comedy but Snatched is actually a very serious and intelligent thriller, one that will definitely keep you on your toes as you try to keep up with who is working for who.  Kim is diabetic and is growing weaker every minute that she’s being held in the lighthouse.  Paul, Bill, and police detective Frank McCloy (Robert Reed) try to get Duncan to pay his share of the ransom but Duncan is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him and he refuses to pay for her.  On top of that, it turns out that one of the wives might be in on the scheme.  When she tells the kidnappers that she’s actually the one who came up with the plan, is she just trying to protect the other wives or is she telling the truth?  It leads to betrayal and a surprisingly downbeat ending.

Snatched is a well-produced made-for-TV movie.  The mystery will keep you guessing and the cast is made up of a collection of old pros.  Leslie Nielsen, cast here long before he reinvented himself as a comedic actor, is especially good as Bill Sutter and John Saxon gives one of his better performances as Paul.  Even Robert Reed gives a good performance.  Snatched is a classic made-for-TV mystery.

Cave-In! (1983, directed by Georg Fenady)


Sen. Kate Lassiter (Susan Sullivan) is visiting a cave in order to determine whether it’s safe to leave it open to the public.  Giving the senator and her group the grand tour is Gene Pearson (Dennis Cole), who is not only a park ranger but who is also Kate’s ex-boyfriend.  The question as to whether or not the cave is safe for the general public is answered by a sudden cave-in, which leaves Kate, Gene, and the others trapped.  Now, Gene has to lead the group across often dangerous terrain to safety.

Along with Kate, the group includes a bitter cop named Joe Johnson (Leslie Nielsen!), his wife Liz (Julie Sommars), arrogant Prof. Harrison Soames (Ray Milland), and the professor’s shy daughter, Ann (Sheila Larkin).  Joe and Liz are struggling to keep their marriage together.  Prof. Soames refuses to allow his daughter to have a life of her own.  The six of them are going to have to somehow work together if they’re going to survive this cave-in!  Of course, they’re not alone.  There’s a seventh person in the cave.  Tom Arlen (James Olson) is a dangerous convict who was in the cave hiding out from the police.  Now, he’s trapped along with everyone else.

Cave-In is a pretty standard disaster movie.  Produced by Irwin Allen, it was originally filmed in 1979 but it didn’t air on NBC until 1983.  By that time, Airplane! had pretty much reduced the disaster genre to a joke.  Ironically, Leslie Nielsen himself has a starring role in Cave-In, playing exactly the type of character that he parodied in both Airplane! and Police Squad.  At the time he filmed Cave-In, Neilsen was still a dramatic actor but by the time the movie aired, his deadpan style was firmly associated with comedy.  Even when his dialogue is serious, the natural instinct is to laugh.

Cave-In gets bogged down by flashbacks.  Even though everyone should be concentrating on making their way to safety, it instead seems that they’re too busy obsessing on their backstory.  Since no one’s backstory is that interesting, the flashbacks don’t do much to liven up the film and, unfortunately, a cave-in just isn’t as compelling as a fire in skyscraper or an upside down boat.

On the plus side, every disaster movie needs an arrogant bastard who makes escape unnecessarily difficult and, in the 70s, no one played a better arrogant bastard Ray Milland.  Otherwise, Cave-In is a forgettable entry from the final days of the disaster genre.

TV Review: Night Gallery 2.1 “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes/Miss Lovecraft Sent Me/The Hand of Borgus Weems/Phantom of What Opera?”


The second season of Night Gallery premiered on September 15th, 1971.  Once again, Rod Serling led viewers through a darkened museum, inviting them to look upon macabre paintings and imagine the story behind image.

The first episode had four — that’s right, four! — different stories!  Apparently, the show’s producers demanded that, for the 2nd season, each episode feature shorter stories along with some light-heated segments.  From what I’ve read, Rod Serling was not particularly happy with the directive and it’s perhaps significant that, after writing every story featured in Night Gallery‘s first season, he only wrote one of the stories featured in the second season premiere.

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes (dir by John Badham, written by Rod Serling)

Herbie (played by 12 year-old Clint Howard, younger brother of Ron) is a little boy with a very special gift.  He can see the future.  He seems like a normal child, the type who rambles about random subjects except that, at random, he’ll suddenly stop and ominously predict the future.  After Herbie correctly predicts both the rescue of a missing girl and an earthquake, Herbie is given his own TV show.  For a year, Herbie makes predictions, all of which come true.  Then, suddenly, Herbie refuses to shares his latest prediction and says that he doesn’t want to do the show anymore.  What has Herbie seen and is it a good thing or a bad thing?

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes gets the second season of Night Gallery off to a good start.  Centered by a natural performance from Clint Howard, The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes is an intelligently written and thought-provoking story.  Not only does it examine the burden of being able to see the future but it’s also a provocative look at how society exploits the gifted.  With the exception of Herbie’s grandfather (William Hansen), the people around Herbie are less concerned with what he predicts than that people keep watching.  The segment ends on an appropriately dark note, one that will keep the viewer thinking.

Miss Lovecraft Sent Me (dir by Gene Kearney, written by Jack Laird)

A gum-chewing babysitter (Sue Lyon) show up for her latest job.  It’s at a castle!  And the owner of the castle (played by Joseph Campanella) has gray skin, is wearing a cape, and has a Transylvanian accent!  What could it all mean?

This is a short comedic segment.  Apparently, the producer of Night Gallery, Jack Laird, had the idea to liven things up with sketches like this one.  Serling was apparently not a fan of the idea but Miss Lovecraft Sent Me isn’t that bad.  It’s silly and insubstantial because Joseph Campanella and Sue Lyon handled their roles well.  It’s impossible not to laugh when the babysitter reads aloud the names of the books that Campanella has sitting on his bookshelf.

The Hand of Borgus Weems (dir by John M. Lucas, written by Alvin Sapinsley)

Peter Lacland (George Maharis) sits in a doctor’s office and asks Dr. Ravadon (Ray Milland) to remoe his right hand.  Peter explains that his right hand has a mind of its own and that it keeps trying to kill everyone who Peter comes into contact with.  Peter explains that his hand has been possessed!

There’s a surprisingly large number of stories out there about possessed hands.  The Hand of Borgus Weems doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the genre and it gets a bit bogged down with its flashback structure but it’s still an enjoyably creepy little segment, featuring good performances from George Maharis and Ray Milland.  Possessed hands are also creepy, no matter what.  Like The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes, it also has an effective ending, which is quite a contrast to the often insubstantial conclusions of Night Gallery’s first season.

Phantom Of What Opera?  (written and dir by Gene Kearney)

This is a short, 4-minute comedic story — a skit really — featuring Leslie Nielsen as the Phantom of the Opera and Mary Ann Beck as Christine. This version starts out like a typical Phantom segment, with the Phantom kidnapping Christine, taking her down to the dungeon, and telling her never to remove his mask.  Christine, of course, removes his mask while he’s playing the organ just for him to then discover that she’s also wearing a mask.  It all leads to love and a happy ending!  It’s kind of a sweet segment, actually.

So the 2nd season of Night Gallery got off to a pretty good start!  Would future episodes continue the trend?  We’ll find out soon as I continue to watch Night Gallery.

Previous Night Gallery Reviews:

  1. The Pilot
  2. The Dead Man/The Housekeeper
  3. Room With A View/The Little Black Bag/The Nature of the Enemy
  4. The House/Certain Shadows on the Wall
  5. Make Me Laugh/Clean Kills And Other Trophies
  6. Pamela’s Voice/Lone Survivor/The Doll
  7. They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar/The Last Laurel

City on Fire (1979, directed by Alvin Rakoff)


In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery.  Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do.  He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals.  One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.

While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital.  Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor.  Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her.  When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic.  Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters.  (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.)  At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.

Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad.  The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast.  It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures.  He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing.  Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.

What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue.  From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection.  It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world.  What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school.  It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital.  It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.

Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection.  A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.

Viva Knievel (1977, directed by Gordon Douglas)


Last night, I watched one of the greatest movies of all time, Viva Knievel!

Viva Knievel! starts with the real-life, motorcycle-riding daredevil Evel Knievel breaking into an orphanage in the middle of the night, waking up all the children, and giving each of them their own Evel Knievel action figure.  When one of the kids says, “You actually came!,” Evel replies that he always keeps his word.  Another one of the orphans then throws away his crutches as he announced that he can walk again!

From there, Viva Knievel! only gets better as Evel preaches against drug use, helps his alcoholic mechanic (Gene Kelly) bond with his son, and flirts with a glamorous photojournalist (Lauren Hutton).  Evel was married at the time that Viva Knievel! was produced but his wife and family go unmentioned as Evel, Kelly, and Hutton travel through Mexico, jumping over fire pits, and battling drug dealers.

Evel’s former protegee, Jessie (former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner), has fallen in with a bad crowd and gotten messed up on the same drugs that Evel spends the entire movie preaching against.  An evil drug trafficker (Leslie Nielsen, a few years before Airplane! and The Naked Gun) pressures Jessie to convince Evel to do a dangerous stunt.  The plot is to replace Evel’s trusted mechanic with a crooked mechanic (Cameron Mitchell) who will sabotage the jump.  When Evel dies, he will be shipped back to the U.S. in a coffin and, hidden within the walls of the coffin, will be several kilos of cocaine.  Oh, the irony!  Evel Knievel, America’s number one spokesman against drugs, will be responsible for bringing them into the United States!  Can Evel thwart the nefarious plans of Leslie Nielsen while still finding time to fall in love with Lauren Hutton and break Gene Kelly out of a psychiatric ward?  If anyone can do it, Evel can.

Even Dabney Coleman’s in this movie!

From the start, Viva Knievel! is a vanity project but in the best, most loony and entertaining way possible.  There are many well-known actors in this film and all of them take a backseat to Evel Knievel, whom they all speak of as if he’s a cross between Gary Cooper and Jesus Christ.  Watching this movie, you learn three things: 1) Evel Knievel was high on life but not dope, 2) Evel Knievel always kept his word, and 3) Evel Knievel always wore his helmet.  He even makes sure that Lauren Hutton is wearing one before he takes her for a spin on his motorcycle.  You also learn that Evel Knievel liked to get paid.  He nearly beats up his manager (Red Buttons) when he thinks that he’s been cheated but they’re still friends afterwards because how could anyone turn down a chance to be in Evel’s presence?

There are plenty of stunts and jumps to be seen in Viva Knievel!, though watching Leslie Nielsen play a villain is almost as fun as watching Evel jump over a fire pit.  Judging from his performance here, Evel Knievel probably could have had a film career.  He had a natural screen presence and delivered even the worst dialogue with sincerity.   Unfortunately, three months after Viva Knievel! opened in the United States, Evel attacked a promoter with an aluminum baseball bat and ended up doing 6 months in jail.  Evel said it was because the promoter was spreading lies about him but, regardless, Evel lost most of his sponsorships and his toyline was discontinued.  Viva Knievel! sunk into an obscurity from which it has only recently reemerged.  Viva Knievel! is cheesy fun, a relic of a bygone era.  Watch it, think about whatever problems you may be dealing with in your own life, and then ask yourself, “What would Evel do?”

 

Dangerous Curves (1988, directed by David Lewis)


Last night, I watched Dangerous Curves.

This was a dumb, dumb film from the late 80s.  Tate Donovan and Grant Heslov star as two college students who lose a Porsche in San Diego and then have to get it back.  Fortunately, the Porsche is the grand prize in a beauty contest so Donovan and Heslov just have to hope that their friend Michelle (Danielle van Zernick) wins.  This should have been fun because it featured a hot car and several hot girls in bikinis but it also featured Tate Donovan and Grant Heslov as our “heroes.”  Donovan plays the uptight college student and comes across like one of the flunkies who helped Ted Kennedy cover-up Chappaquiddick.  Grant Heslov plays the carefree college student who constantly ruins everyone else’s life.  Neither one has the screen presence necessary to make us overlook how stupid their characters are.  On the basis of Dangerous Curves, it’s easy to see why Heslov went into producing and Tate Donovan went into doing character roles in films produced by Grant Heslov.

On the plus side, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen are funny in small roles.  And the car is hot and the film features as many bikinis as a typical episode of Miami Vice.  Watching the movie might remind you of the fun you had playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City back in the day.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Horror on the Lens: Night Slaves (dir by Ted Post)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have the 1970 made-for-TV movie, Night Slaves!

In this atmospheric film, an estranged married couple (James Franciscus and Lee Grant) find themselves in a small town.  It seems like a friendly enough place.  I mean, Leslie Nielsen is the sheriff!  How could anything go wrong in a town protected by Leslie Nielsen?

However, at night, the town changes.  Only Franciscus seems to notice all of the townspeople wandering about like zombies.  Is he going crazy or has he stumbled across something sinister?

You’ll have to watch find out!

Enjoy!

Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)


cracked rear viewer

Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take…

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