Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

The First Police Story: Slow Boy (1973, directed by William A. Graham)


Long before The Wire, Homicide, Chicago PD, NYPD Blue, or even Hill Street Blues, there was Police Story.

Co-created by cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh, Police Story aired on NBC from 1973 to 1978.  It was an anthology series, with each episode following a different member of the LAPD as they deal with crime and social issues in Los Angeles.  For its time, it was ground-breaking in its realistic approach to the life and work of the police.  Interestingly, the show wasn’t always blindly pro-cop.  Often the cops featured were deeply flawed and the war on crime was frequently portrayed to be unwinnable.  Over the course of its run, Police Story was a regular Emmy nominee and won the award for Best Drama Series in 1976.

Police Story started, in 1973, with a two-hour TV movie.  At the time it aired, the pilot was called Stakeout but it has since aired in syndication under the title Slow Boy.  Vic Morrow stars as Sgt. Joe LaFrieda, a plainclothes detective who can’t keep his marriage together but who can take criminals off the street.  LaFrieda is the second-in-command of a special squad of detectives who specialize in watching and taking down high-profile criminals.  Their methods frequently come close to entrapment but they usually work.  Their current target is Slow Boy (Chuck Conners), the son of a mafia chieftain, who enjoys robbing stores.  When LaFrieda’s first attempt to put Slow Boy in jail is thwarted by a liberal judge and departmental bureaucracy, he and the squad come up with a second, less-than-legal plan to take Slow Boy down.

Considering the involvement of Joseph Wambaugh, it’s no surprise that plot is secondary to exploring the day-to-day lives of the blue-collar cops trying to take Slow Boy down.  The heart of the movie is in the scenes of the cops shooting the breeze and trying to keep each other amused during length shakeouts.  Their humor is often grim and the fascinating dialogue is cynical, dark, and, even by today’s standards, surprisingly raw.  One of the detectives (played by Harry Guardino, who specialized in loud-mouth city cops) is an unapologetic racist.  Though he gets a comeuppance of sorts, the way the film and the rest of his squad handle his racism will undoubtedly make modern audiences uncomfortable, even if it is authentic to the era in which Slow Boy was made.

The underrated Vic Morrow gives one of his best performances as the tough but sympathetic LaFrieda, who is bad at everything but his job.  He is ably supported by a host of familiar character actors.  Ed Asner plays LaFrieda’s reactionary lieutenant while Sandy Baron is great in the role of an informant.  Diane Baker was also perfectly cast as LaFrieda’s potential girlfriend.  (She first meets the detective while Slow Boy is holding a gun to her head.)  Finally, Chuck Conner is as intimidating as always as the sadistic Slow Boy.

Slow Boy is a tough and uncompromising police procedural and it provided a great start for Police Story.  Reruns of Police Story currently air on H&I on Sunday morning.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Humanoids from the Deep (dir by Barbara Peeters)


Some people really hate clowns.

Myself, I really hate ventriloquist’s dummies.

Seriously, those little wooden things totally freak me out.  You know how some of you feel about the painted smile on the clowns ‘face?  Well, that’s how I feel whenever I see the big eyes of a ventriloquist dummy or that mouth with the fake teeth.  And don’t even get me started on those tiny little legs that some of them have!  AGCK!

I mention this because there is a ventriloquist’s dummy in the 1980 film, Humanoids From The Deep.  There’s really no reason for it to be in the film but suddenly, out of nowhere, there it is.  It belongs to a teenager named Billy who, when we first see him, is relaxing in a tent on the beach, trying to get his girlfriend to undress for him and the dummy. Of course, they’re promptly interrupted by a seaweed-covered monster, who rips open the tent, kills Billy, and chases after his girlfriend.  The whole time, the dummy watches with a somewhat quizzical expression on his face.  It’s a strange scene.

Now, I’ve done some research and I’ve discovered that Billy was played by David Strassman, who was (and still is) a professional ventriloquist and his dummy was named …. I do not kid …. Chuck Wood.  So, the whole tent scene was kind of a celebrity cameo.  Roger Corman, who produced the film, said, “You know what?  This movie has blood, nudity, killer fish-men, and rampant misogyny but it’s still missing something!  How about that ventriloquist that I saw on the Tonight Show last night!?”

Anyway, Humanoids From The Deep is basically about what happens when you try to mutate salmon.  You end up with a bunch of pervy fish monsters swarming the beach and trying to make like human/fish babies.  You end up with a lot of dead teens and unplanned pregnancies.  You also end up with the local redneck fisherman (led by Vic Morrow) blaming the local Native Americans, accusing them of killing all of the dogs in town.  Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and his wife, Carol (Cindy Weintraub), try to keep the peace but their efforts are continually tripped up by the fact that almost everyone in town is an idiot.

For instance, despite the fact that there’s been a countless number of murders and rapes and that they’ve all been committed a group of monsters that nobody knows how to fight, the town still decides to hold their annual festival on the pier.  Of course, as soon as the obnoxious DJ starts broadcasting, the humanoids from the deep show up and basically, the entire festival goes to Hell.  And here’s the thing.  The film itself is ugly and mean-spirited and misogynistic but the attack on the festival is totally and completely brilliant.  I mean, it’s one of the greatest monster sieges of all time, largely because the monsters are apparently unstoppable and that humans are so obnoxious that you don’t mind seeing them all die.  I mean, if nothing else, the monster deserve some credit for taking out that DJ.

It all leads to a “surprise” ending, which isn’t particularly surprising but which is so batshit insane that it somehow seems appropriate.

Humanoids From The Deep is an incredibly icky movie, one that has some effective scare scenes but which is way too misogynistic to really be much fun.  (Roger Corman hired Barbara Peeters to direct the film but reportedly brought in a male director to film the movie’s more explicit scenes.)  Oh well.  At least the ventriloquist died.

Italian Horror Spotlight: The Last Shark (dir by Enzo G. Castellari)


Chances are this is going to sound familiar to you.

The 1981 film, The Last Shark (a.k.a. Great White), takes place in a small seaside community.  A teenager goes out in the water, doesn’t pay enough attention to the surroundings, and ends up getting eaten.  Local civic leader named Peter Benton (James Franciscus) wants to shut down the beach.  A crusty old shark hunter named Ron Hammer (Vic Morrow) says that he can take care of the problem.  However, Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) refuses to even admit that there’s a shark in the water.  After all, sharks are not only bad for business but also could potentially keep him from being President someday!

However, the shark attacks continue.  After his son is nearly eaten by a shark — a great white, to be exact — even the mayor is forced to admit that something must be done….

If you think that the plot of The Last Shark sounds like it has a lot in common with Jaws …. well, you’re right.  And you’re not alone!  Universal Pictures though that The Last Shark borrowed a bit too much from Steven Spielberg’s seminal film as well.  In 1982, Universal filed a lawsuit to block the film’s distribution in the United States.  Though the film played for a month (and grossed 18 million dollars) while the case worked its way through the legal system, a federal judge eventually ruled that The Last Shark was too similar to Jaws and, as a result, The Last Shark was not only yanked from theaters but it also didn’t even get a proper video release until 2013!  Because of all this, The Last Shark has developed a cult following.  It’s literally the film that the major studios didn’t want people to see.  Of course, The Last Shark was neither the first nor the lat film to rip-off Jaws.  It was, however, one of the few to make a good deal of money and I imagine that was the main motivation behind Universal’s lawsuit.

Interestingly enough, The Last Shark actually has more in common with Jaws 2 than with Jaws.  Just as in Jaws 2, a bunch of stupid teenagers make the mistake of going after the shark themselves.  Also, much as in Jaws 2, the shark manages to bite down on a helicopter and pull it under the water.  A quality shark movie always features at least one helicopter getting destroyed.  That the original Jaws become a classic despite not featuring any helicopter destruction is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s ability as a director.

As for The Last Shark, it’s a thoroughly shameless and undeniably entertaining film.  Director Enzo G. Castellari (who directed several Franco Nero films and might be best-known to American audiences for directing the original Inglorious Bastards) keeps the action moving at steady pace and even manages to give us a few striking images of shark mayhem.  (The scene where a man gets bitten in half manages to be both shocking and ludicrous at the same time.)  James Franciscus appears to be taking himself far too seriously in the role of Peter Benton but Vic Morrow seems to be having a good time as the ill-tempered shark hunter.

A few other thoughts on The Last Shark:

Mayor Wells, who has presidential ambitions, also has a mustache and a haircut that makes him look like a 70s porn actor.  (In fact, with the exception of James Franciscus, nearly every adult male in this movie has a mustache.)  Whenever Mayor Wells walked through a scene, I found myself expecting to hear a lot of bass and plenty of wah wah on the soundtrack.

Secondly, it would appear that the best way to track down a shark is to drop a steak in the water.  At least, that’s the lesson I learned from watching The Last Shark.  There are actually a handful of scenes of shark hunters announcing that they’re about to go hunt for the shark and then holing up a steak.  Forget about using blood or noise to attract your prey!  Instead, just toss some spare ribs in the ocean and wait for the shark to show up!

Anyway, Italian filmmakers were always fairly shameless when it came to ripping off successful movies.  In fact, one reason why I love Italian cinema is because of that very lack of shame.  Whatever its flaws, The Last Shark is a film totally without shame and, for that reason, it’s more than worth viewing.

Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out

 

6 Trailers To Go On The Road With


This weekend, I’m busy getting ready to go on a road trip with Jeff.  I’ll be away from home for two whole weeks!  However, fear not!  With the help of WordPress and my wonderful, beautiful older sister Erin, I will still be updating and posting even while we’re on the road.  I might even be able to convince my fellow Shattered Lens writer to spend the next two weeks watching the Lifetime Movie Channel and posting “What Lisa Would Have Watched Last Night.”  How about it, guys? *wink wink*

Anyway, while I deal with shopping and packing, why not enjoy the latest entry of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse And Exploitation Trailers.

(And by the way, just because I’m going to be out of town next weekend won’t stop me from posting six more trailers next Saturday.  Why?  Because I love you, silly!)

1) The Klansman (1974)

In this infamous little film from the 1970s, Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, and O.J. Simpson fight the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen this movie though the copy I saw was one of those public domain DVDs that I think was actually a copy of the edited-for-TV version of this movie.  (I say that because every time someone cursed, there was an awkward silence on the soundtrack.)  Even more odd is the fact that I’ve actually read the old novel that this movie is based on.  Anyway, this movie is pretty bad but the book is okay.  The film was directed by the same guy who directed the first James Bond films.

2) Beyond the Door (1975)

Okay, so this is pretty obviously an Exorcist rip-off but wow, this trailer freaks me out.  Needless to say this is an Italian film.  My favorite part of the trailer, to be honest, is the use of the Ryder truck.  It’s a moment that epitomizes Italian exploitation in that you can tell that the filmmakers really thought that displaying the one word — “Ryder” — would convince viewers that they were watching an American-made film.

3) 2020 Texas Gladiators (1985)

Speaking of Italian exploitation cinema, here we have another example.  I pretty much had to include this trailer because I live in Dallas and 2020 is just 9 years away.  That said, I’m not sure what part of Texas this film is supposed to be taking place in.  I’m guessing by all the shots of boots marching through grass that this is supposed to be up in North Texas but if you can find mountains like that around here then you’ve got far better eyesight than I do.  Add to that, the sudden indian attack seems more like an Oklahoma thing.  Not surprisingly, according to Amazon, this film was not only directed by Joe D’Amato but features both George Eastman and Al Cliver.

4) 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982)

Apparently, it didn’t start in Texas.  This is also an Italian film.  It was directed by Enzo Castellari and, not surprisingly, George Eastman is in this one as well.

5) Empire of the Ants (1977)

The is the trailer that  dares to ask — who are you going to listen to?  Common sense or H.G. Wells?  I’ll tell you, nothing freaks me out more than when I see  one of those ant lines carrying a dead cricket back to the anthill.  Ants are one thing that I will not allow in the house.  However, I kinda admire them.  They’re so neat and organized.  Plus, males in ant society know their place.

6) Mr. Billion (1977)

“20th Century Fox presents Mr. Billion …. starring Terence Hill, the 5th biggest star in the  world…”  I haven’t seen very many Terence Hill films but I always enjoy seeing him in trailers.  I can’t really say whether he’s a good actor or not because every time I’ve seen him, he’s been dubbed.  But he definitely had a very likable presence.  You wanted him to be a good actor whether he was or wasn’t.  That said, even if I had been alive at the height of Mr. Hill’s fame, it never would have worked out for us as I’m Southern Italian and Hill is quite clearly from the north.  That’s just the way it is.  Anyway, back to Mr. Billion — I’m including two trailers for this one.  The first is the “Prestige” trailer.  The second one is much shorter and features one of those odd little songs that gets stuck in your head.