A Movie A Day #269: The Horror Show (1989, directed by James Isaac and David Blyth)


For the crime of having murdered over a 100 people, “Meat Cleaver Max” Jenke (Brion James) is sentenced to death and sent to the electric chair.  Even though everyone thinks that Max was electrocuted, his electricity-fueled spirit is still alive and pissed off.  If this sounds familiar, that is because it is the exact same premise that was used in Destroyer.  The only difference is that Max is not haunting a prison and killing a film crew.  Instead, he is living in a basement and seeking revenge on Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen), the cop who arrested him.

Lucas is already tightly wound.  There is a scene where Lucas is watching as his family laughs uproariously at a late night comic who is telling a not very funny joke about then-Vice President Dan Quayle.  When Lucas thinks that he sees Max on TV, he pulls out his gun and shoots the screen.  His wife, son, and daughter will probably never laugh at another joke about any vice president.  Soon, Lucas is seeing and hearing Max everywhere.  Max says that he is going to tear Lucas’s world apart and he means it.

That The Horror Show is going to be a mess is obvious from the opening credits, where the screenplay is credited to Alan Smithee.  The credited director is visual effects specialist James Isaac but most of the film was reportedly directed by David Blythe.  Isaac stepped in when Blythe was fired by producer Sean S. Cunningham.  Full of false scares and scenes where people go down into the basement for no reason other than to become Max’s latest victim, The Horror Show is usually boring, except for when it is violent, gory, and mean-spirited.  There are moments of strange attempts at humor that do not seem to belong.  In the middle of all the carnage, there is a subplot about McCarthy’s son (Aron Eisenberg) ordering case after case of Nestle Quick.  Did Nestle pay for the product placement?  Were they happy to be associated with a movie where Lance Henriksen has a nightmare that his daughter (played by DeeDee “sister of Michelle” Pfieffer) is pregnant with Max Jenke’s baby?

The Horror Show provided both Lance Henriksen and Brion James with rare starring roles and they did their best what they had to work with.  Also keep an eye out for veteran tough guy Lawrence Tierney as the warden who supervises Max’s execution.

A Movie A Day #185: Emperor of the North Pole (1973, directed by Robert Aldrich)


Emperor of the North Pole is the story of depression-era hobos and one man who is determined to kill them.

The year is 1933 and Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is one of the toughest conductors around.  At a time when destitute and desperate men are riding the rails in search of work and food, Shack has declared that no one will ride his train for free.  When Shack is first introduced, the sadistic conductor is seen shoving a hobo off of his train and onto the tracks.  Shack smiles with satisfaction when the man is chopped in half under the train’s wheels.

A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is a legend, the unofficial king of the hobos.  A grizzled veteran, A-No. 1 has been riding the rails for most of his life.  (The title comes from the hobo saying that great hobos, like A-No. 1, are like the Emperor of the North Pole, the ruler of a vast wasteland).  A-No. 1 is determined to do what no hobo has ever done, successfully hitch a ride on Shack’s train.  He even tags a water tower, announcing to everyone that he intends to take Shack’s train all the way to Portland.

If A-No. 1 did not have enough to worry about with Shack determined to get him, he is also being tailed by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young and cocky hobo who is determined to become as big a legend as A-No. 1.  Cigaret and A. No. 1 may work together but they never trust each other.

Like many of Robert Aldrich’s later films, Emperor of the North Pole is too long and the rambling narrative often promises more than it can deliver.  Like almost all movies that were released at the time, Emperor of North Pole attempts to turn its story into a contemporary allegory, with Shack standing in for the establishment, A-No. 1 representing the liberal anti-establishment, and, most problematically, Cigaret serving as a symbol for the callow counter culture, eager to take credit for A-No. 1’s accomplishments but not willing to put in any hard work himself.

As an allegory, Emperor of the North Pole is too heavy-handed but, as a gritty adventure film, it works wonderfully.  Lee Marvin is perfectly cast as the wise, no-nonsense A-No. 1.  This was the sixth film in which Marvin and Borgnine co-starred and the two old pros both go at each other with gusto.  Carradine does the best he can with an underwritten part but this is Borgnine and Marvin’s film all the way.  Marvin’s trademark underacting meshes perfectly with Borgnine’s trademark overacting, with the movie making perfect use of both men’s distinctive screen personas.  As staged by Aldrich, the final fight between Shack and A-No. 1 is a classic.

Even at a time when almost every anti-establishment film of the early 70s is being rediscovered, Emperor of the North Pole remains unjustly obscure.  When it was first released, it struggled at the box office.  Unsure of how to sell a movie about hobos and worrying that audiences were staying away because they thought it might be a Christmas film, 20th Century Fox pulled the movie from circulation and then rereleased it under a slightly altered name: Emperor of the North.  As far as titles go, Emperor of the North makes even less sense than Emperor of the North Pole.  Even with the title change, Emperor of the North Pole flopped at the box office but, fortunately for him, Aldrich was already working on what would become his biggest hit: The Longest Yard.

Keep an eye out for Lance Henriksen, in one of his earliest roles.  Supposedly, he plays a railroad worker.  If you spot him, let me know because I have watched Emperor of the North Pole three times and I still can’t find him.

 

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Dreamer (dir by Noel Nosseck)


(I am currently trying to clean out my DVR!  I recorded this 1979 sports film off of FXM on February 1st!)

In Dreamer, Tim Matheson plays a character named Harold Nuttingham.  His nickname is Dreamer.  Do you think it’s possible that Harold has a dream!?  Well, it would probably be a really cruel nickname if he didn’t!

Dreamer lives in small town Illinois.  He loves to bowl.  He spends all of his time down at the local bowling alley, where everyone knows him and they all love him and his dreams of becoming a professional bowler.  His mentor is named Harry White (Jack Warden) and runs the pro shop.  Harry dreamed of being a famous, champion bowler but his dreams didn’t come true.  But now he can help Dreamer’s dreams work out.  Everyone loves the fact that Harry is helping Dreamer.  Dreamer’s girlfriend is named Karen Lee (Susan Blakely).  She loves that Dreamer loves bowling but she is frustrated because everyone keeps telling Dreamer that it would be a mistake to take her to his games.  Karen might bring bad luck.

Everyone in his hometown loves Dreamer but the Professional Bowling Association (which apparently is an actual thing) doesn’t love Dreamer.  They don’t want to let Dreamer compete on a professional level.  Or, at least, they don’t until Dreamer meets with them personally and shows off his amazing bowling skills.  Then they love Dreamer.

Even though Dreamer is the new guy on the professional circuit, the audiences love him.  And all the other professional bowlers love him, even when they lose to him.  Everyone loves Dreamer, perhaps because everyone loves a dreamer…

Are you getting the impression that Dreamer might be one of the most positive movies ever made?  Well, it is.  Hardly anyone says a bad word about anyone in Dreamer.  Nobody tells Dreamer to give up.  Dreamer never really suffers from any self-doubt, though he does injure his thumb at one point.  There is a moment of tragedy towards the end of the movie but it’s one of those tragedies that leads to better things.  You can’t have light without a little darkness, though Dreamer seems to suggest that you can come awfully close.

Normally, films get on my nerves when they’re overwhelmingly positive but I can’t really complain about a movie like Dreamer.  It’s just so earnest and sincere.  There’s no real conflict and there’s no real drama but everyone in the movie is just so damn likable that you almost feel guilty for wishing something unexpected would happen.  Dreamer struggles and fails to make bowling cinematic but Dreamer’s a nice guy so you wish him the best.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dreamer is that it was directed by Noel Nosseck, who also directed an incredibly odd little grindhouse film called Best Friends.  Best Friends, which I recommend tracking down, is almost the anti-Dreamer.  Watch Best Friends to have your faith in humanity destroyed and then follow it up with Dreamer so your faith can be restored.

Or don’t.  It’s really up to you.

A Movie A Day #107: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981, directed by William A. Fraker)


Long before he found fame playing Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks, Michael Horse made his film debut in one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  

Michael Horse played Tonto, the young Comanche who rescues his childhood friend, John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury), and nurses him back to health after Reid has been attacked and left for dead by the notorious outlaw, Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd).  Reid was a civilian, accompanying a group of Texas Rangers led by his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry).  When Cavendish attacked, John was the only survivor.  John wants to avenge his brother’s death but first, Tonto is going to have to teach him how to shoot a six-shooter and how to ride his new horse, Silver.  Finally, John is ready to don the mask and becomes the Lone Ranger.  It’s just in time, because Cavendish has kidnapped President Grant (Jason Robards).

An even bigger flop than the more recent Lone Ranger film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, The Legend of the Lone Ranger failed for several reasons.  For one thing, the film has a major identity crisis.  The violence is not for kids but most of the dialogue and the performances are.  For another thing, it takes forever for John Reid to actually put on the mask and become the Lone Ranger.  By the time the William Tell Overture is heard, the movie is nearly over.

It was made to capitalize on the same type of nostalgia that previously made Superman a hit and, just as Superman introduced the world to Christopher Reeve, The Legend of the Lone Ranger introduced the world to a football player turned actor, named Klinton Spilsbury.  Unfortunately, the world did not want to meet Klinton Spilsbury, whose blank-faced performance was so bad that James Keach was brought in to dub over all of his dialogue.   Spilsbury did not help himself by reportedly acting like a diva during the shooting, demanding constant rewrites, and getting into bar brawls offset.  Of the two actors who made their screen debuts in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Michael Horse has worked again.  Klinton Spilsbury has not.

When The Legend of the Lone Ranger went into production, the film’s producers made the incredibly boneheaded move of getting a court injunction barring Clayton Moore (who had played the role on TV) from wearing his Lone Ranger uniform is public.  Since the semi-retired Moore was living off of the money that he made appearing as the Lone Ranger at country fairs and children’s hospitals, this move was a public relations disaster.  (For his part, Moore filed a counter suit and continued to make appearances, now wearing wrap-around sunglasses instead of his mask.)  Moore refused to appear in a cameo and spent much of 1981 speaking out against the film.

Finally, the main reason that Legend of The Lone Ranger flopped was because it opened on the same Friday as a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The rest is history.

Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)


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Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.

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WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he…

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A Movie A Day #8: White Lightning (1973, directed by Joseph Sargent)


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A year after co-starring in Deliverance, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty reunited for another movie about life in the backwoods, White Lightning.

White Lightning starts with two hippies, bound and gagged and floating in a canoe.  While a banjo plays in the background, two rednecks use a shotgun to blow the canoe into pieces.  They watch as the hippies drown in the swamp.  It turns out that one of those hippies was the brother of legendary moonshiner and expert driver, Gator McCluskey (Reynolds).  Gator is doing time but when he hears that his brother has been murdered, he immediately realizes that he was probably killed on the orders of corrupt Sheriff J. C. Connors (Ned Beatty).  The Feds arrange for Gator to be released from prison, on the condition that he work undercover and bring them enough evidence that they can take Connors down.

Back home, Gator works with a fellow informant, Dude Watson (Matt Clark), teams up with local moonshiner, Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), and has an affair with Roy’s girl, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley).   Connors and his main henchman, Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong) both suspect that Gator and Dude are working for the government.  Since this is a Burt Reynolds movie, it all ends with a car chase.

A classic of its kind and a huge box office success, White Lightning set the template for almost every other film that Burt Reynolds made in the 1970s and 80s.  There is not much to the movie beyond Burt’s good old boy charm and Ned Beatty’s blustering villainy but if you’re in the mood for car chases and Southern scenery, White Lightning might be the movie for you.   Joseph Sargent also directed the New York crime classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and he gives White Lightning an edginess that would be lacking from many of Burt Reynolds’s later movies.

For tomorrow’s movie a day, it’s the sequel to White Lightning (and Burt Reynolds’s directorial debut), Gator.

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Pure 80s Hokum: Let’s Get Harry (1986, directed by Alan Smithee)


Lets-get-harry-movie-poster-1986-1020362350Let’s Get Harry opens deep in the jungles of Columbia.  The newly appointed American Ambassador (Bruce Gray) is touring a newly constructed water pipeline when suddenly, terrorist drug smugglers attack!  The Ambassador, along with chief engineer Harry Burck (Mark Harmon, long before NCIS), is taken hostage.  Drug Lord Carlos Ochobar announces that both the Ambassador and Harry will be executed unless the U.S. government immediately releases Ochobar’s men.  However, the policy of the U.S. government is to not negotiate with terrorists.  As grizzled mercenary Norman Shrike (Robert Duvall) explains it, nobody gives a damn about a minor ambassador.

Nobody in a small blue-collar town in Illinois gives a damn about the ambassador either.  But they do give a damn about their friend Harry!  When its obvious that the bureaucrats up in Washington are not going to do anything, Harry’s younger brother, Corey (Michael Shoeffling, Sixteen Candles), decides that he and his friends are going to go to Columbia themselves and get Harry!  Helping him out are Bob (Thomas F. Wilson, Back to the Future), Kurt (Rick Rossovich, Top Gun), Spence (Glenn Frey!), and Jack (Gary Busey).  If Jake Ryan, Biff Tannen, Slider, Buddy Holly, and the guy from the Eagles who wasn’t Don Henley can’t get Harry, then who can!?

There were a lot of these “American rescue mission” movies made in the 80s, everything from Uncommon Valor to The Delta Force to the Rambo films.  Plotwise, Let’s Get Harry adds little to the genre.  It’s about as simplistic and implausible as a Donald Trump campaign speech.  A bunch of terrorists are holding American hostages and making us all look bad while the establishment refuses to do anything about it?  Don’t worry!  Here come a bunch of heavily armed, no-nonsense American citizens to save the day and make America great again!

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There are two things that distinguish Let’s Get Harry.  First, Let’s Get Harry is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee.  From 1968 to 2000, Alan Smithee was the official pseudonym used by directors who wanted to disown a project.  Smithee has been credited as directing everything from Solar Crisis to Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home to The O.J. Simpson Story.  In the case of Let’s Get Harry, Smithee was standing in for veteran director Stuart Rosenberg (probably best known for Cool Hand Luke).  Rosenberg originally only planned for Mark Harmon to be seen only at the end of the film, much like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.  When TriStar Pictures demanded extra scenes featuring Harmon being taken and held hostage, Rosenberg took his name off the film.

(Before Rosenberg signed on to direct, Let’s Get Harry started out as a Sam Fuller project and he received a story credit on the film.  With the exception of some of the scenes with Harmon, which may have been shot by a different director, Rosenberg’s direction was adequate but Let’s Get Harry really does cry out for a director like Sam Fuller.)

Secondly, there is the cast, which is a lot more interesting than would be typically found in a low-budget, 80s action film.  Not surprisingly, by respectively underplaying and overplaying, Duvall and Busy give the two best performances.  Meanwhile, lightweight Mark Harmon gives the worst.  Perhaps because of the conflict between Rosenberg and the studio over his character, Harmon spends the entire movie looking lost.

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As an exercise in patriotic wish fulfillment, Let’s Get Harry is pure 80s hokum.  It may be dumb but it is also entertaining.  After all, any film that features not only Robert Duvall, Gary Busey, and Ben Johnson, but also Glenn Frey is going to be worth watching.  Let’s Get Harry has never been released on DVD and is currently only available on VHS.  Somebody needs to do something about this.

Let’s get Harry on DVD!

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