Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — Metzengerstein (dir by Roger Vadim)


First released in 1968, Spirits of the Dead is an anthology film, one in which three famous international directors (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini) each took a shot at adapting a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  By their very nature, anthology films tend to be uneven and that’s certainly the case with Spirits of the Dead.

Consider the first story in the film, Roger Vadim’s adaptation of Metzengerstein.  Vadim was best known for his visually lavish films, the majority of which starred whoever he happened to be romantically involved with at the time.  Vadim’s films were sexually charged and decadent but it was a very specific, late 60s type of decadence.  They may have seemed wild when they were first released but, seen today, his films seem rather quaint (not to mention dated).

Anyway, when Vadim was hired to shoot his part of Spirits of the Dead, he was married to Jane Fonda so, of course, she stars as Countess Frederique Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda).  That Countess Frederique is evil is obvious from the start.  In between having tastefully shot orgies, she torments her servants.  She even has one servant boy hung so that she can see if she can shoot an arrow through the rope.  (Fortunately, for the servant boy, she can.)  It’s an evil, spiritually empty life but, as can be seen in the picture above, her clothes are to die for.

(Though Metzengerstein appears to be taking place in the 19th century, everyone looks like they’ve just flown over from swinging London.  There’s a lot of miniskirts, sideburns, and tinted glasses.)

Anyway, things change for Frederique when she meets her virtuous cousin, Wilhelm.  She immediately falls into lust with him but he wants nothing to do with her and her evil ways.  (Her cousin, I might add, is played by Peter Fonda, brother of Jane.)  Upset over being rejected, Frederique sets his stables on fire.  Wilhelm dies in the inferno.

After Wilhelm’s death, a new horse suddenly appears outside of Frederique’s castle.  Convinced that Wilhelm’s spirit has inhabited it, Frederique grows obsessed with the horse.  Soon, Frederique is spending all of her time riding the horse.  With no more time to be evil, Frederique becomes less feared.

But, in the distance, there are always flames calling out to her…

So, let’s just start with the obvious.  There is a huge ick factor to be found in Metzengerstein.  Just as Frederique spends the first half of the movie in love with her cousin, Jane Fonda spends the first half of the movie pretending to be in love with Peter Fonda.  Wilhelm, of course, rejects Frederique but still, it just feels undeniably … creepy.  What’s odd is that it’s difficult to tell if Vadim was trying to make the audience uncomfortable or if this casting was just a case of Peter having some time to kill while visiting his sister and brother-in-law.  For all the attention that he pays to the film’s lush visuals, Vadim is such a detached storyteller that it’s hard to guess what his intention was.

Jane Fonda gives a good performance as the cruel Frederique but otherwise, everyone else in the film is just a part of the scenery.  That’s the thing with Metzengerstein.  It’s a gorgeous film but, ultimately, it’s all scenery that adds up to nothing.

 

 

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A Movie A Day #196: Mercenary Fighters (1988, directed by Riki Shelach Nissimoff)


Everyone’s favorite hippie action hero, Peter Fonda, plays Virelli, a long-haired Vietnam vet turned mercenary who is hired by a corrupt African general (Robert Doqui) to protect the construction of a dam that will result in the flooding of a native village.  Got all that?  Though Fonda is top-billed, he is not the star of the film.  The star is Reb Brown, who plays T.J. Christian.  T.J. starts out as a member of Fonda’s team but then he falls in love with a nurse (Joanna Weinberg) and he switches sides.  The villagers need someone to lead their revolution and all it takes is hearing Reb Brown do one of his trademarks power yells to know that he’s the man for the job.  Reb Brown was famous for yelling whenever he did anything and he yells a lot in Mercenary Fighters, even more than he yelled in Space Mutiny.

Mercenary Fighters is a typical Cannon film from the late 80s.  Like many of Cannon’s mercenary movies, it was covertly filmed in South Africa, at a time when apartheid was still being enforced and Nelson Mandela was still sitting in a prison cell.  (Cannon was not the only film company to secretly make movies in South Africa during the Apartheid Era.  They were just the most blatant about it.)  Richard Kiel apparently turned down Peter Fonda’s role.  It’s hard to imagine Kiel in the role but perhaps that’s because Virelli is a quintessential Peter Fonda-in-the-80s role.   Fonda glides through the film, delivering his lines like a California surfer who just smoked the kine bud.  The presence of Ron “Superfly” O’Neal and James “son of Robert” Mitchum serves to elevate the film’s cool factor while Robert Doqui brings some “I’ve worked with both Robert Altman and Paul Verhoeven” credibility to his one-note role.  Mercenary Fighters is good for anyone who is into either mindless Cannon action movies or Reb Brown yelling while shit blows up behind him.

My Favorite Super Bowl Commercial 2017


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I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the ads during last night’s nail-biting Super Bowl, but this one caught my eye. A rowdy gang of bikers are partying hardy, when one comes in and tells his brothers they’re “Blocked in!”. The gang goes outside ready for action, when they see a shiny new Mercedes AMG GT Roadster. Who’s driving? None other than Mr. Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda! The ad was directed by the Coen Brothers, and as we say in New England, it’s “wicked funny”! Enjoy!

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Roger Corman’s Electric Kool-Aid Tangerine Dream: THE TRIP (AIP 1967)


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“You are about to be involved in a most unusual motion picture experience. It deals fictionally with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Today, the extensive use in black market production of this and other so-called ‘mind bending’ chemicals are of great concern to medical and civil authorities…. This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” – Disclaimer at the beginning of 1967’s THE TRIP

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“Tune in, turn on, drop out”, exhorted 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary. The hippie generation’s fascination with having a psychedelic experience was a craze ripe for exploitation picking, and leave it to Roger Corman to create the first drug movie, THE TRIP. Released during the peak of the Summer of Love, THE TRIP was a box office success. Most critics of the era had no clue what to make of it, but the youth…

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A Movie A Day #6: The Cannonball Run (1981, directed by Hal Needham)


cannonball_runA legendary Hollywood stuntman, Hal Needham moved into directing in the 1970s and proved that all he required to make a successful film were willing stuntmen, fast cars, Coors beer, and Burt Reynolds.  Following that logic, The Cannonball Run may very well be the ultimate Hal Needham movie.

The Cannonball Run follows several teams of racers as they compete to see who can be the first to reach California from Connecticut.  Trying to stop them is Arthur J.  Foyt (George Furth), who represents the Safety Enforcement Unit and who believes that cars are a menace.  However, Foyt is no match for these racers, who include:

  • J.J. (Burt Reynolds), who is racing in memory of his father, and his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), who turns into Captain Choas whenever he is feeling threatened.  J.J. and Victor are driving an ambulance and are accompanied by crazy Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) and a fake “patient” (Farrah Fawcett),
  • Bradford Compton (Bert Convy) who is riding a motorcycle and who, because of the weight of his mechanic, has to pop a wheelie for the entire race,
  • An Arab oil sheik (Jamie Farr) who is racing for “the glory of Islam” and who would probably not be in the movie if it were made today,
  • Sidney Goldfarb (Roger Moore), the heir to a mattress fortune who has had extensive plastic surgery to make himself look like Roger Moore,
  • Jackie Chan and Michael Hui, called “The Japanese team” even though they both speak Cantonese throughout the entire movie,
  • Terry Bradsahw and Mel Tillis because why the Hell not?,
  • Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman), using their cleavage to get out of speeding tickets, or at least they do until they’re pulled over by Valerie Perrine,
  • And Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., pretending to be priests and apparently drunk throughout filming.

Based on a real life (and very illegal) cross-country race that was held four times in the 1970s, The Cannonball Run is profoundly stupid movie that, if you’re in the right mood for it, is also profoundly fun.  It’s a movie that really has no plot but it does have a lot of cars, a lot of stunts, a lot of cleavage, and a lot of politically incorrect humor, some of which has not aged well.  Despite being hated by the critics, The Cannonball Run was a huge box office hit and it still remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure for a lot of people, myself included.  One person who did not like The Cannonball Run was Burt Reynolds who, in an interview with the New York Times, once said, “”I did that film for all the wrong reasons.  I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”

Burt has a point but, in defense of The Cannonball Run, what other movie actually features Jackie Chan beating up Peter Fonda?

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Or Roger Moore playing someone who thinks that he’s Roger Moore?

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Or Jack Elam playing a mad scientist?

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Or Sammy and Dino, phoning it in one last time?

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Or Captain Chaos?

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Like most of Hal Needham’s films, The Cannonball Run ends with outtakes of Burt Reynolds blowing his lines and hitting people.

Tomorrow’s movie a day will be a film that Burt Reynolds is presumably much more proud of, Sharky’s Machine.

Film Review: Race With The Devil (1975, directed by Jack Starrett)


220px-RaceWithTheDevilWarren Oates and Peter Fonda versus …. SATAN!

Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) are lifelong friends and business partners who, along with their wives Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretts Swit), are planning on taking the “best damn vacation we ever had.”  Traveling to Colorado in Frank’s RV, they decide to camp for a night next to a river.  Not only do Frank and Roger witness what appears to be a human sacrifice but they also have to run for their lives when they are spotted.  The local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) tells them that they probably just saw a bunch of hippies killing an animal but Peter Fonda knows hippies and those were not hippies.  Taking some blood-stained dirt so it can be analyzed by the authorities, Roger and Frank try to drive on but find themselves being pursued by Satanists.

A relentless and entertaining B-movie, Race With The Devil is a hybrid of Rosemary’s Baby, Smokey and the Bandit, and Easy Rider, with some Parallax View-style paranoia mixed in as well.  Eventually, it seems as if everyone in rural Texas — from the sheriff to the gas station attendant to the residents of an RV park where our heroes try to spend the night — is a Satanist.  (Even a wrecked school bus turns out to just be an excuse to get the RV to slow down so the Satanic rednecks can attack, leading to Warren Oates’s classic line, “I don’t believe in a school bus on Sunday.”)

A big part of the fun of Race With The Devil is getting to watch Peter Fonda and Warren Oates acting opposite each other.  (A lot of drive-in patrons probably left Race With The Devil with a crush on the lovely Lara Parker as well.)  Friends both on and off-screen (Oates previously co-starred in Fonda’s directorial debut, The Hired Hand), Fonda and Oates are a lot of fun to watch playing off of each other in Race With The Devil, with Warren Oates’s natural intensity providing a good contrast to Fonda’s laid back style.

It may not rank up there with the movies that he appeared in for Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman but Race With The Devil is still one of Warren Oates’s most entertaining films.

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In Praise of Easy Rider’s Captain America


1969 was a watershed year for both America and the movies.  While the war in Viet Nam dragged on and turmoil raged at home, movie audiences watched as two generations of Fondas appeared in movies about the American dream.  In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, Henry Fonda played Frank, a gunslinger so ruthless that he shoots a child during his first scene.  In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, daughter Jane Fonda played a woman struggling to survive the Great Depression.  And, in Easy Rider, Peter Fonda played Captain America.

Peter FondaThe Captain America of Easy Rider should not be mistaken for the super soldier played by Chris Evans.  Instead, this Captain America is actually Wyatt Williams, a motorcycle rider who is planning on going to Mardi Gras with his friend Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also directed).  Wyatt is nicknamed Captain America because he wears a leather jacket with an American flag on the back.  It is an appropriate nickname because Wyatt represents everything that is good about America.

When we first meet Captain America, he and Billy are engaged in a business transaction, bringing to mind the old saying that the business of America is business.  They are selling cocaine to none other than Phil Spector.  Taking Spector’s money, Wyatt stuffs it into a plastic tube that he keeps hidden in his motorcycle’s fuel tank.  It is no coincidence that the fuel tank is decorated with the stars and bars.

Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-RiderHaving made their money, Wyatt and Billy ride across the country to celebrate.  At the start of their journey, Wyatt takes off his watch and leaves it on the ground, declaring that time has no meaning to a man who has freedom.  If you replaced their motorcycles with horses, there would be little to distinguish Wyatt and Billy from the American outlaws who might show up in an old Henry Fonda western.

On their way to New Orleans, Wyatt and Billy interact with many different people.  If the always paranoid and nervous Billy represents America’s worst impulses, Wyatt represents the best.  When Wyatt and Billy eat dinner with a rancher and his family, Wyatt alone appreciates what the rancher has accomplished and says, “You’ve got a nice place. It’s not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”  When they later stop off at a ramshackle hippie commune, Wyatt is the one who says, in the best tradition of American optimism, that “They’ll make it.”

EasyRider2When they stop to pick up a hitchhiker and then later when alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) joins them on their trip, it’s always Wyatt who volunteers to share his bike.  (Billy always rides alone.)  Whenever they stop for the night, it is always the generous Wyatt who offers to share his grass with whomever is traveling with them.  When George smokes for the first time, Wyatt is the one who teaches him.  It is the stoned George who tells Wyatt and Billy that they represent freedom.

It is only after George is beaten to death by a group of rednecks that Wyatt loses his optimistic outlook and his generous spirit.  George’s death opens Wyatt’s eyes in much the same way that the turmoil of the 1960s did for the rest of America.  After George’s murder, Wyatt loses his faith in himself.  When he and Billy reach New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a letdown.  When he takes the acid that was given to him by the hitchhiker, Captain America’s journey becomes a bad trip both figuratively and literally.

0603-peter-fonda-and-easy-riderjpg-b0f5351afb0a53df_mediumWhile Billy insists that they had a great time in New Orleans (in much the same way that some insist that America is just as strong a nation as it has ever been), Wyatt knows the truth.  “We blew it,” Wyatt says, speaking for the entire nation.

Despite his mistakes and despite having blown it, Wyatt, much like America itself, remains good at heart.  When Captain America dies at the end of the film, it is because he is trying to protect his friend Billy.  In the best American tradition, he sacrifices himself to protect another.

This Independence Day, let us all take a few moment to appreciate Wyatt Williams, the man known as Captain America.

Wyatt Williams (aka Captain America) RIP

Wyatt Williams (aka Captain America) RIP