The Shooter (1997, directed by Fred Olen Ray)


While riding his horse through the old, Michael Atherton (Michael Dudikoff) discovers a group of thuggish ranch hands attacking a prostitute named Wendy (Valerie Wildman).  Because Michael is known as being the Shooter, he has no problem coolly gunning the men down and saving Wendy’s life.  Unfortunately, for Michael, one of the dead men is the son of a fearsome rancher named Jerry Krants (William Smith) and Jerry has his own reasons for wanting Wendy dead.  Michael may be the Shooter but Jerry Krants is William Smith so you automatically know that it is not a good idea to mess with him.

In the grand spaghetti western tradition, Krants has his men kidnap Michael, beat him up, and crucify him outside of town.  The men leave Michael for dead but, after they’ve left, Wendy repays Michael’s kindness by untying him from the cross, nursing him back to health, and saving his life.  (The same thing used to happen to Clint Eastwood, except he usually had to nurse himself back to health without anyone else’s help.)  With everyone else believing him to be dead, Michael rides into town to get his violent revenge against Krants and his men.  With all of the townspeople convinced that Michael has returned as a ghost, only the town’s power-hungry sheriff, Kyle Tapert (Randy Travis), understands what has actually happened.  Tapert makes plans to use Michael’s return for his own advantage.  While it wouldn’t look good for Tapert to openly murder all of his opponents, what if he killed them and then framed Michael?  And then what if he made himself a hero by being the one to end Michael’s reign of terror?

Directed by Fred Olen Ray, The Shooter is a low-budget western that turned out to be far better than I was expecting.  Ray is obviously a fan of the western genre and, with The Shooter, he’s made a respectful and, by his standards, restrained homage to the classic spaghetti westerns of old.  He even shows some undeniable skill when it comes to building up the suspense before the climatic showdown.  Ray indulges in every western cliché imaginable but he does so with the respect of a true fan.

With his less than grizzled screen presence, Michael Dudikoff is slightly miscast as a Clint Eastwood-style gunslinger but the rest of the cast is made up of genre veterans who give it their best.  In particular, William Smith shows why he was one of the busiest “bad guys” working in the movies.  To me, the most surprising part of the film was that the casting of Randy Travis as a villain actually worked.  Fred Olen Ray made good use of Travis’s natural amiability, making Kyle into a villain who will give you friendly smile right before he opens fire.  Also be sure to keep an eye out for Andrew Stevens, playing the man who records Michael’s story.  It wouldn’t be a Fed Olen Ray movie without Andrew Stevens playing at least a small role.

Low-budget, undemanding, and made with obvious care, The Shooter is film that will be appreciated by western fans everywhere.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Fast Company (dir by David Cronenberg)


Released in 1979, Fast Company is a Canadian film about fast cars and the fast-living people who drive them.  Lonnie Johnson (William Smith) is a veteran drag racer who is so good at his job that his nickname is “Lucky Man.”  He rarely loses a race.  He’s never without an adoring fan or two, though he always remains loyal to his girlfriend, Sammy (Claudia Jennings).  Lonnie is so lucky that, even when one of his cars explodes, he walks away without even a scratch.

Lonnie and his protégé, Billy (Nicholas Campbell), are being sponsored by Fast Company, an international oil consortium.  The money is okay but Lonnie is getting old and he would like to step back and spend some more quality time with Sammy.  Unfortunately, the team boss is Phil Adamson (John Saxon) and the viewers knows that Phil is a bad guy because he’s played by John Saxon and, instead of driving to the races, he pilots his own private plane.  When Lonnie starts to rebel against Phil’s management, Phil schemes to not only replace him and Billy with rival driver Gary Black (Cedric Smith) but he also plots to repossess Lonnie’s prized car!

Okay, so it’s kind of a silly and predictable film.  In fact, there’s really only two reasons why Fast Company is remembered today.  

One is because it was the last film to feature B-movie star Claudia Jennings before her death in a traffic accident. Jennings was nicknamed the “Queen of the B movies” and, over the course of her brief career, appeared in a lot of films about fast cars.  She gives a likable performance as Sammy, even if the film’s script doesn’t really give her much to do.

Secondly, this film was directed by David Cronenberg.  This was Cronenberg’s first time to direct a film that he hadn’t written.  This was his first job as a “director for hire” but, interestingly enough, it was while directing this film that Cronenberg first worked with some of his most important future collaborators, including cinematographer Mark Irwin and actor Nicholas Campbell.  Cronenberg directed Fast Company in between Rabid and The Brood and Fast Company might as well take place in a different universe from either of those films.  To be honest, there’s not much about this film that would lead anyone to suspect that it had been directed by Cronenberg if they hadn’t already seen his name in the credits.  Cronenberg’s signature style is really only evident when the camera lingers over the scenes of the mechanics working on the cars.  In those scenes, there’s a hint of the Cronenberg that everyone knows, the Cronenberg who is fascinated by both the relationship between man and machine and how things work inside the body of both the driver and the car.

For the most part, Fast Company is a typical 70s racing film, one that was made for drive-in audiences and which makes no apologies for that fact.  (Nor should it.)  There’s a lot of shots of denim-clad Canadians cheering as their favorite driver crosses the finish line.  William Smith brings a world-weary dignity to the role of Lonnie Johnson but, while John Saxon is always fun to watch, Phil Adamson is so evil that he threatens to throw the tone of the film out of whack.  The light-hearted scenes of Lonnie, Billy, and head mechanic Elder (Don Francks) don’t always seem to belong in the same movie with scenes of John Saxon scheming to cheat and risk the lives of his drivers.  

In the end, though, the important thing is that the cars are fast and so is this quickly paced movie.  I’m enough of a country girl that I have to admit that I have a weakness for fast cars that leave a cloud of dust behind them.  On that level, I enjoyed the film and really, that’s the only level that matters when it comes to a film like Fast Company.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: C.C. and Company (dir by Seymour Robbie)


As our long-time readers know, I’ve seen my share of bad movies but it’s been a while since I’ve seen one as bad as 1970’s C.C. and Company.

C.C. and Company is about a drifter named C.C. Ryder (played by Joe Namath, who was a pro football quarterback at the time).  Ryder rides through the desert on his dorky motorcycle.  He doesn’t have a job.  He doesn’t have much money.  He does have a lot of hair and he also has a lot of teeth.  We know that because it’s rare that there’s ever moment when C.C. isn’t smiling.  C.C. is perhaps the most cheerful amateur criminal that I’ve ever seen.  Even when C.C. really shouldn’t be smiling, he’s smiling.  There are moments when people try to kill C.C. and he responds with a smile.  This could be a sign of C.C.’s devil-may-care-attitude but I think it has more to do with Joe Namath being a really bad actor.

C.C. is apparently a member of a motorcycle gang.  I say apparently because no one in the gang seems to like him and they’re constantly beating up on him.  The leader of the gang is Moon (William Smith) and among the members of the gang is an intimidating figure named Crow (Sid Haig).  Smith and Haig were both professional actors and genuine tough guys.  They not only knew how to act on camera but they also knew how to throw a punch without faking it.  Having them act opposite Namath doesn’t really accomplish much beyond emphasizing just how terrible an actor Namath was.  Even though Moon is a Mansonesque creep, you still find yourself rooting for him whenever he and C.C. get into a fight because Smith creates an actual character whereas Namath…. well, he doesn’t.  I sat through this entire film and never once did I find myself wondering what C.C.’s initials stood for.  That’s how uninterested I was in C.C.’s life.

Anyway, C.C. meets the wealthy and chic Ann McCalley (Ann-Margaret) after Ann’s limo breaks down in the middle of the desert.  C.C. not only fixes the limo but he also saves Ann from Crow and Lizard (Greg Mullaney).  It’s love at first sight but, unfortunately, Ann has places to go so she drives off and C.C. returns to the biker camp and watches as Moon sends his girlfriend, Pom Pom (Jennifer Billingsley), out to make money on the highway.  As I watched all of this, I found myself wondering how everyone else in the gang got stuck with names like Moon, Lizard, Crow, Rabbit, Pom Pom, and Zit-Zit (my favorite) but somehow C.C. was able to keep his innocent initials.  The movie never explained the ritual behind receiving motorcycle gang names and I think that was a missed opportunity.

Eventually, C.C. trades in his dorky motorcycle for a Kawasaki, largely because Kawasaki apparently paid the film’s producers a lot of money.  C.C. enters a race and wins.  Ann sees him win and falls even more in love with him.  C.C. gets into a fight with the gang and then he and Ann head to …. well, it looked a lot like Reno but honestly, who knows for sure?  Eventually, Moon and the gang track C.C. and Ann down and it all leads to one last fight.  We never do find out if the “company” of the title referred to Ann and her rich friends or Moon and the gang.  Not even C.C. seems to know for sure.

So, there’s a lot of reasons why C.C. and Company doesn’t really work but mostly it all comes down to the lead non-performance of Joe Namath as C.C.  There’s nothing tough or intimidating or rebellious about Namath.  C.C. is the biker you can bring home to meet your parents.  William Smith and Sid Haig are a lot more fun but they’re playing totally disreputable characters.  Namath and Ann-Margaret have zero romantic chemistry and the entire film has the look of a cheap made-for-TV movie.  Between C.C. and Company and Altamont, 1970 was not a good year to be a biker groupie.

That said, there is one good scene in C.C. and Company, where C.C. and Ann go out dancing.  While Joe Namath awkwardly shakes his shoulders while flashing that ever-present grin, Ann-Margaret dances as if the fate of the world depended upon her.  One year after the release of this movie, she would prove herself as dramatic actress and receive her first Oscar nomination for Carnal Knowledge.

Fever Pitch (1985, directed by Richard Brooks)


It takes a great director to come up with a movie as bad as Fever Pitch and, in his day, Richard Brooks was a great director.  Among Brooks’s films as a director you’ll find titles like Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood.  These were all films that took risks and broke new ground and which were willing to defy the conventions of the time.  Brooks was a director who told hard-boiled stories that dealt honestly with real-life issues.

Unfortunately, as often happens with great filmmakers, Brooks struggled to remain relevant as he got older.  Hollywood’s sensibility eventually caught up with Brooks’s sensibility and then moved past it.  While Brooks remained an interesting director, his final films often seemed to be the work of a grumpy old man who just wanted all those young people to stay off his lawn.

Fever Pitch, Brooks’s final film, stars Ryan O’Neal as Steve Taggart.  Taggart is a sports writer for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner.  He’s been writing a series of stories about a compulsive gambler named Mr. Green.  The stories are so popular that his editor (John Saxon) has no problem giving Taggart $10,000 so that Taggart can then give the money to Mr. Green so that Mr. Green can continue to gamble.  What anyone, especially the editor of a major newspaper, should be able to figure out is that Mr. Green is actually Steve Taggart.

Taggart takes the money to Las Vegas, where he hits the casinos while also researching the root causes of gambling.  On the one hand, Brooks includes a lot of scenes of Taggart listening to real people explain the history and the dangers of gambling, often in the most didactic ways possible.  (Hank Greenspun, the legendary publisher of The Las Vegas Sun, appears as himself and shows why he became a publisher and not an actor.)  On other other hand, MGM not only produced the film but allowed it to be filmed at the MGM Grand Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.  Fever Pitch is anti-gambling film that also doubles as a commercial for a casino.  It’s like an anti-smoking film that gives everyone in the audience a free pack of Camels.

Steve hooks up with an unbelievable wholesome prostitute played by Catherine Hicks.  He also has to deal with several shady characters, including a veteran gambler named Charlie (Giancarlo Giannini) ad a debt collector named The Hat (played by William Smith).  Taggart is obsessed with gambling but he doesn’t seem to be very good at it, as he keeps getting beat up and threatened.  Eventually, he goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and he seems to be ready to admit that he has a problem and that it’s keeping him from being a good father to his daughter.  That might seem like the ideal place for the movie to end but instead, Taggart has to try his luck with just one last slot machine.

Fever Pitch is doomed from the minute Ryan O’Neal starts his narration.  Nothing about O’Neal suggests that he could be capable of writing a hard-hitting expose about the life of a compulsive gambler.  In this film, he doesn’t even come across like he would be capable of reading it. O’Neal is too passive of an actor to be a convincing gambler and his wooden performance clashes with Brooks’s attempts to create a hyperkinetic feel to the Vegas scenes.  While everyone in the film is lecturing him about the dangers of gambling, O’Neal sit there with same blank look on his face.

A critical and a commercial failure, Fever Pitch was Brooks’s final film.  He died seven years later, leaving behind a legacy of important movies that cannot be tarnished even by something like Fever Pitch.

Horror on the Lens: Crowhaven Farm (dir by John McGreevey)


Sure, inheriting an old New England farm might sound like a fun idea but what are you going to do if it turns out that the farm is haunted by the spirits of a coven of witches?

That’s the question that Hope Lange and Paul Burke have to find an answer for in this enjoyably spooky 1970 made-for-TV horror film!  Lange and Burke both give good performances, generating a lot of sympathy for their unhappily married couple while director John McGreevey does a commendable job of creating and maintaining a nicely ominous atmosphere.

And, of course, John Carradine’s in it!  It’s simply not a rural horror film from the 70s without John Carradine!

Enjoy!

Horror On TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.10 “The Energy Eater” (dir by Alexander Grasshoff)


 

On tonight’s episode of Kolchak….

Kolchak investigates a series of accidents at a hospital and discovers that they’re all connected to a recently reawakened monster known as the Matchemonedo!  This episode features the great character actor William Smith as Jim Elkhorn, who teams up with Kolchak to battle the Matchemonedo.

This episode originally aired on December 13th, 1974.

Enjoy!

Film Review: The Mean Season (dir by Phillip Borsos)


From the very first few scenes of the 1985 film, The Mean Season, one thing is abundantly clear.  People are dying in Florida.

In itself, that’s probably not a shock.  Death is a part of life, after all.  Add to that, the majority of The Mean Season takes place in Miami, the seventh most populous area of the United States.  It makes sense that the more people you have living in one area, the more people are also going to end up dead.  That’s just the way things work.

Still, Malcolm Anderson is getting tired of all the death.  Played by a youngish and sexy Kurt Russell, Malcolm’s a journalist.  He covers the crime beat for the Miami Herald.  He spends all day reporting on death and violence and he’s finally reached the point where he’s burned out.  He and his girlfriend, a teacher named Christine (Mariel Hemingway), are even planning on moving to Colorado.  Malcolm says that he could be very happy working at a small town newspaper.  His editor (Richard Masur) doesn’t believe him and, quite frankly, neither do we.  Malcolm may say that he wants peace and quiet but it’s hard not to feel as if he’s fooling himself.

One day, Malcolm gets a phone call.  The voice on the other line (which belongs to character actor Richard Jordan) is deceptively calm.  The caller explains that he’s a fan of Malcolm’s work.  The caller also claims to be responsible for a series of murders that have recently taken place.  At first, Malcolm is skeptical.  After all, he gets calls from crazy people all the time.  That’s one reason why he wants to leave Miami, after all.  But then the caller starts to give Malcolm details about the crimes, details that haven’t been released to general public…

The killings continue and, after every murder, the caller contacts Malcolm.  Soon, Malcolm is appearing on the national news, giving carefully calculated interviews about what it’s like to be a celebrity.  Malcolm is soon on the front page of all the papers.  Malcolm’s happy.  His editor is happy.  But you know who isn’t happy?  The killer.  He didn’t go to all the trouble to kill those people just so Malcolm could get famous off of his hard work!  Soon, the killer is no longer content to just call Malcolm.  Now, he wants to meet face-to-face and maybe even get to know Christine as well…

The Mean Season is one of those movies that starts out well but then falls apart towards the end.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the killer eventually ends up kidnapping Christine.  You probably figured out that was going to happen as soon as I told you that Malcolm had a girlfriend.  (It doesn’t help that Christine is such an underwritten character that it feels like the only reason she was put in the film was so she could be used for one gratuitous nude scene and then get kidnapped.)   Once the killer kidnaps her, he goes from being a genuinely intriguing menace to just being a typical and overly verbose movie psycho.

That’s a shame because the first half of The Mean Season is really quite good.  The film makes excellent use of its locations, capturing the humid atmosphere of Florida in the summer.  As the killer, Richard Jordan alternates between being coldly calculating and surprisingly vulnerable without missing a beat.  (Interestingly, he appears to be personally hurt when he realizes that Malcolm doesn’t consider him to be a friend.)  Not surprisingly, Kurt Russell is likable as the conflicted Malcolm but his best moments are the ones where he suggests that Malcolm has become so addicted to fame that he’s almost hoping that the killer strikes again.  As the two homicide detectives who are assigned to keep an eye on Malcolm, both Richard Bradford and Andy Garcia are perfectly cast.  A scene where Bradford tries to comfort a child who accidentally gets in the middle of the search for the killer is the best in the film.  “We’re just looking for the bad guys,” he tell the traumatized child.  It’s small moments like this that elevates The Mean Season above the typical mid-80s serial killer film.

Seen today, The Mean Season — with its emphasis on newspapers — feels like a historical artifact.  If the film were made today, Russell would definitely work for either a 24-hour cable news channel or an online news site.  It actually would be interesting to see this story updated and retold for the age of clickbait.  Somebody needs to get on that and, while they’re at it, come up with the type of ending that an otherwise intriguing story like this deserves.

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!


cracked rear viewer

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post…

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A Movie A Day #327: The Ultimate Warrior (1976, directed by Robert Clouse)


The year is 2012 and New York City, like the rest of the world, has been devastated by energy shortages, wars, and a great plague.  The few survivors now live in isolated communes and are easily victimized by roving gangs of marauders.  (On the plus side, this version of New York City has been spared Bill de Blasio.)  The Baron (Max von Sydow) has managed to keep his people safe by ruling with an iron hand but he knows that it will only be a matter of time until his commune is overrun by the psychotic Carrot (William Smith) and his men.  When a mysterious warrior known only as Carson (Yul Brynner) comes to the commune, the Baron tasks him with a very important mission: help his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) escape from New York City and transport both her and some genetically modified seeds to an island in North Carolina.

Despite being an obviously low-budget production, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for a deserted New York, The Ultimate Warrior is an entertaining post-apocalyptic action movie.  Yul Brynner was nearly 60 years old when he played Carson but he still had the intense stare that made him so menacing in Westworld and he still looked credible in the fight scenes.  William Smith was one of the best B-movie villains of the 70s and, as usual, Max Von Sydow brought a lot of gravity to his role.  Best known for directing Enter The Dragon, Robert Clouse was an action specialist and the fight scenes in The Ultimate Warrior are both exciting and realistic.  For those looking for a good post-apocalyptic action movie, keep an eye out for The Ultimate Warrior.

A Movie A Day #306: Platoon Leader (1988, directed by Aaron Norris)


Having just graduated from West Point, Lt. Jeff Knight (Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja himself) is sent to Vietnam and takes over a battle-weary platoon.  Lt. Knight has got his work cut out for him.  The VC is all around, drug use is rampant, and the cynical members of the platoon have no respect for him.  When Lt. Knight is injured during one of his first patrols, everyone is so convinced that he’ll go back to the U.S. that they loot his quarters.  However, Knight does return, determined to earn the respect of his men and become a true platoon leader!

Though Cannon was best known for making B action movies (many of which starred either Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson), they occasionally tried to improve their image by releasing a prestige film.  Platoon Leader is somewhere in the middle between Cannon’s usual output and their “respectable” films.  It is based on a highly acclaimed memoir and, though the film was made in South Africa, it does a good job of recreating the look of Vietnam.  For instance, Platoon Leader‘s version of Vietnam is more convincing than what Cannon later presented in P.O.W.: The EscapePlatoon Leader also spends some time developing its characters.  Lt. Knight is more than just a stoic action hero, which already distinguishes it from 90% of Cannon’s usual output.  At the same time, Platoon Leader was directed by Chuck Norris’s brother, Aaron, and he doesn’t hold back on the explosions and the gunfire that everyone had come to expect from a Cannon war film.  The end result is an enjoyably hokey film that has a few more layers than the typical Cannon production but not too many.

This film was originally titled Nam but, after the success of Platoon, the title was changed to Platoon Leader.  In typical Cannon fashion, Platoon Leader plays like a more jingoistic and even less subtle version of Stone’s film.  The main difference is that Platoon‘s Lt. Wolfe never won the respect of his men and ended up getting killed with almost everyone else while Lt. Knight beats back the VC and shares a celebratory embrace with his sergeant.

One final note: keep an eye out for genre vet William Smith, who starred in The Losers (a film about a group of bikers who are recruited by the CIA and sent to Vietnam), in the role of Dudikoff’s superior officer.  If Platoon Leader had been made in the 70s, Smith would have played Dudikoff’s role so his appearance here is almost a passing of the B-movie torch.