Monday, August 22, 2011

Argoman aka The Incredible Paris Incident 1967 ** 1/2

Dir: Sergio Greico

Stars: Roger Browne, Dominique Boschero, Edoardo Fajardo

Argoman, Argoman, does whatever an Argo can. And he's got radioactive...cigarettes? Yes, one of the ingenious devices the hero of this film carries is a tiny geiger counter which can track a person that has smoked one of the radioactive cigarettes he offers them. Best of all, however, is his power of telekenesis which turns out quite useful for either getting out of a trap, making an aircraft crash, or in one case, literally picking up chicks. In his civilian identity as Sir Reginald, he pulls an attractive girl off a hovercraft and into his swinging lair, where, rather than waste time with normal wooing procedures, he challenges her to an archery contest; if she wins she gets a Rolls Royce and some emeralds, if she loses than she gets to be another of suave Sir Reginald's conquests. She loses, naturally, prompting Reggie's allegedly Indian manservant to point out Argoman's one weakness - for six hours after an act of love, he will completely lose his powers.

In many films the "MacGuffin" is a large jewel, and it is no different here, in fact it is a jewel about the size of a pumpkin which also has an interesting power - if a laser beam is passed through it, things nearby will be rendered soft and pliable. According to nervous scientists discussing the jewel, this could have limitless applications. I'll take their word for it.

It's not long before a beautiful but evil woman - who as it happens is the very one Reginald slept with earlier - has an army of ominously clad henchman steal the jewel and, just for fun, strap Argoman's new girlfriend to a table and leave a giant robot slowly advancing on her. Fortunately Argoman leaps to the rescue.

The film has some unique aspects among superhero films, perhaps the most unique being that, while Argoman is willing to put his powers to use for the good of the world, he is also apparently an actual jewel thief. Well, we can't all be born billionaires, and makes him a bit different from the usual Batman wannabe - in fact, in the more recent comics this is much how Catwoman is portrayed, goodhearted jewel thief.

The actors in it are lively and the hero's powers are very amusing. Roger Browne is actually quite a capable leading man. It's slowed somewhat by a few longish, talky, scenes, but the campy action, costumes, and the almost non-stop groovy soundtrack - with upbeat perfume ad-style vocals - definitely push it along.

Speaking of Italian movie soundtracks of the sixties and seventies, a topic never far from my mind, a friend recently turned me on to this band from Milan, who make great soundtrack style instrumentals.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Star Crash 1978 ***1/2

Dir: Lewis Coates aka Luigi Cozzi

Stars: Marjoe Gortner, Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, Robert Tessier, Christopher Plummer, Joe Spinell

Speaking off Star Wars knockoffs that are a lot of fun, there is also Star Crash, which stars Caroline Munro as Stella Star, a roguish, lovable space outlaw who travels through space with her odd, superpowered companion Arkton, portrayed by the former evangelical child minister Marjoe Gortner. After pursuit and capture, the pair is eventually called for an assignment from the benevolent Emperor of the galaxy, played by Christopher Plummer, to find his missing son, lost when three launches took off from a space ship being attacked by the Doom Machine belonging to the diabolical Count Zarth Arn. Stella is joined by two space cops, the likable but oddly named Elle, a robot, and a blue humanoid alien named Thor, not to be confused with the thunder god, portrayed by the Dr. Evil-esque Robert Tessier.

The search for the missing son, who eventually turns out to be none other than the Hoff, is a lot of fun to watch as the heroes explore the planets where the launches crashed, finding various perils such as a tribe of scantily clad space amazons, of course, their giant robot, an ice planet that gets even colder at night, and a planet full of what seem to be mutant cavemen. When the son, wielding a fairly unapologetic light sabre clone, is finally located, they then have to come up with a way of defeating the evil count and his Doom Machine, though only after an epic battle between Arkton and two creepy looking stop motion sword fighting robots. These and several other creatures in the film show the distinct influence of Ray Harryhausen.

Shout! Factory has put out a deluxe set for this cult classic film, and reading the booklet that is included, with text by Stephen Romano, made me realize how much there is to appreciate about living in a time where films like this are available on DVD, remembering how in the olden times they were rare on VHS, and usually only in poor copies (though I do have friends who collect VHS originals, more power to 'em). Romano also makes an impassioned case for the soulfulness of this film. The effects are easy to see through, and space looks like Christmas with multicoloured stars , but there is a kind of dreamlike beauty to it all. I also like the costume designs quite a bit, they look straight out of comic books, with many shiny tunics, pointy shoulder pads and capes.

Star Wars took elements of old science fiction b-movies and serials and forged them into "A" material. Since there were several b-knockoffs, or perhaps more than several, another contribution Star Wars might be credited was in helping bring back to the b-movies what had been largely absent since older times, the planet tripping and space battles of heroes like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers against goateed maniacal villains. Star Crash does it all again in grand style with more effects and slightly less clothes.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Ice Pirates 1984 *** 1/4

Dir: Stewart Raffill

Stars: Robert Urich, Michael D. Roberts, Mary Crosby, Anjelica Huston, Ron Perlman, John Matuszak

It is the far future where flights across the galaxy are common but water is scarce. People who grew up in the eighties will recall how frightened we all were that humans would developinterstellar travel and find there wasn't any place to get a drink. Of course nowadays we've known for a while there is probably water on Mars so this all seems laughable to young people who can begin each day with confidence that if they travel into space they won't end up like the Sesame Street Agua guy.

Robert Urich, looking grungily like the missing link between Han Solo and Jack Sparrow, leads a group of scallywags and ne'er-do-wells through space, their mission to steal water from people who have a lot of it. We can take comfort that the people they are stealing from are all pure evil and imperialistic, natch, a dynamic which in movies automatically makes thieves heroes. Joining him on the crew is Anjelica Huston as a warrior woman of space, and a youthful Ron Perlman, who ends up looking strangely small here in comparison with co-stars Urich and John Matuszak. Matuszak joins the cast as the plot goes along and they find themselves imprisoned by evil, evil galactic evil people, among whom is the lovely and slightly less evil Princess Karina. She is portrayed sultrilily by Mary Crosby, daughter of Bing. I can't help but speculate part of the idea of casting her was because, since Princess Leia was played by the daughter of a famous singer, maybe that would be the charm for this picture. Whatever the reason, she actually comes off as more royal than Carrie Fisher, though less sassy. I recall Crosby playing a henchwoman of Lex Luthor in about the third episode of Lois and Clark. And speaking of performers who later appeared in nineties TV shows, the cast also features Michael D. Roberts as the robot expert of the crew. Roberts would later appear in an episode of Seinfeld as an expenses accountant in the Peterman company, the one who demands Elaine produce the very expensive fur hat George bought on her account and then lost. Co-stanza!

It soon develops that Karina's father is lost in space, having gone on a quest to find the legendary 7th world, and she recruits the pirates to help her go off in search of him. This doesn't fit well with the evil rulers of the galaxy, led by a sickly John Carradine and a nasty Jeremy West, who are in hot pursuit.

There are a ton of b-highlights to this film, which is why I give it a solid three stars by the criteria of this blog (with the extra quarter for my own sentimental attachment); chases through a futuristic city (the long shots of which use models from Logan's Run), strange vehicles, swordfights, slapstick robots, an army of bikini clad warrior women, bizarre aliens, a prissy living head without a body, and more. One of the notable aspects is the strange naturalism to the direction, which seems to take its cues from Alien, with a grainier look like perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Missing in Action. The approach may seem strangely incongruous in what is purportedly a space spoof - which audiences, especially in a post-Spaceballs world, would expect to be brighter and splashier. And yet, it's among the idiosyncracies that have maintained my fascination with this minor cult film ever since I first videotaped it from TV in the eighties. There are also some gripping cameos, particularly Robert Symonds as Lanky Nibs, a fellow space pirate who was caught in a space warp and rapidly aged without reaching the 7th world. I am always impressed when an actor can appear in one scene of a movie, as a character who is supposed to have a history with the other characters, and seem as if they have always been there. That is good acting, no matter the context, or perhaps especially if the context is as farflung and otherworldly as it is here.

Better than Star Wars! the frequent claim of those who champion one or another of the various knockoffs and wannabes that followed in the years after the 1977 original. It makes a good shock value stink bomb to throw into a room for some attention grabbing, but also ends up looking pretty futile and desperate. Hey everybody, look at me, I don't like that thing that everybody else likes! I'm so different!

I certainly won't make that claim in the case of The Ice Pirates, but it is some good clean eighties space fun and features some good performances that are maybe a bit above the level of the script, which nonetheless manages a lot of amusing space zingers and some bizarre twists. Yes, the movie often feels like it's being made up as it goes along, but I find in about half the cases where a film feels like that, I enjoy it. This is one of those times.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

They Came From Beyond Space 1967 **

Dir: Freddie Francis Stars: Robert Hutton, Jennifer Jayne, Michael Gough

I hate to say it but this is a case where the poster is better than the movie (I plan to discuss how movies compare to their posters when I get around to reviewing Terrornauts). But the movie is okay, as long as you think of it more as an extended English episode of Outer Limits than an actual feature.

Plot has hero Hutton not being affected by alien mind control because he has a steel plate in his head, which leaves him to investigate a phenomenon attacking his scientific colleagues including the woman he loves, portrayed by the very pouty-lipped Jennifer Jayne.

The scenes where mind control takes over are fun, because suddenly there is an explosion of groovy, jazzy music. As Hutton investigates he finds a secure compound the mind-controlled are working at with all sorts of suspicious whatnot taking place. When he starts getting too close to the secret, he gets zapped by some alien type zappers, which apparently cause him to pass out and wake up to see this:

This of course only makes him want to investigate further, leading him into the compound where he uncovers what appear to be frozen bodies. He basically kidnaps his girlfriend, still possessed as she is by aliens, only he has now figured out how to get the bad presence out, and that the way to keep it out is by having people wear pots on their head.

This all leads to a pretty interesting ending, as he stows away on a craft being sent nightly to the moon from the compound, where he discovers the secret of the aliens, as revealed by the Nimoy-esque Michael Gough, who would later play Alfred for four Batman films.

This is the kind of movie that is sort of problematic from the perspective of a b-movie fan. It's actually almost compelling enough to be a real film, and shows some film making skill; but at the same time, the type of thrills one hopes for from a crazy low-grade picture are only there sporadically and in small doses. So it's neither one or the other. But like I said, it would be decent if condensed down to an episode of a sci-fi anthology show. This film doesn't give you a wild ride, it is more something to be hypnotized by on a Sunday afternoon when bombed out on cold remedies and afterwards wonder what the heck it was you just watched. At least enjoy the wallpaper and curtains.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Black Fist 1975 or 1976 **

Director: Timothy Galfas, Richard Kaye

Star: Richard Lawson, Dabney Coleman, Philip Michael Thomas

Indeed, this movie does feature the work of Philip Michael Thomas, who plays a junkie from the ghetto, probably giving him the background needed for when he was later on Miami Vice and had to seem like he was familiar with the drug underworld. You can also look for PMT as a gang member in The Dark, the 1979 movie about an alien monster that shoots a death ray out of its forehead, and which also features the acting talents of Casey Kasem.

Black Fist tells a story similar to many of its genre. A young black man from the mean streets seeks to become somebody, through somewhat shady means if necessary, and in this case his ticket there is in the illegal fighting game. He demonstrates he is good with his fists fighting a large bald man who will recall to the viewer Pat Roach's hulking German in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

All seems to be going along swimmingly, then along comes a cop played by Dabney Coleman, still years away from his lecherous turn in 9 to 5. He of course demands a piece of the action to keep the heat off, and utters the immortal line, "Some of us never pay the piper because some of us are the piper."

So as one might expect, the odds pile up so high there is eventually pressure on our hero to throw a fight which he will not do, leading to all sorts of nastiness, and then him going on a revenge trip. The part where he deals with Coleman's character is a frosty treat. It all comes to a finish with an ambiguous, psychout head-trip final shot.

Movies like this can be a lot of fun and this one is no exception with all the jive talk, terrific funk soundtrack and disco dancing. Also like many of its type, it balances out being visibly low budget, with some scenes that feel very natural, as during one fight in a public washroom, a man wanders into the altercation and become a part of it in a way that almost looks like it just happened during filming.

While these films can seem exploitative, I do think they did a lot for the acceptance and the growing influence of black culture into white parts of North America. One can imagine that suburban kids would see these in drive-ins, and be introduced to a world that would seem a bit fascinating and strange, a tad alluring. At the same time, what the heroes were going through, while being particular to their situation, would also have a universal quality and be fairly identifiable for anyone who feels desperately trapped in their life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Blood Harvest aka Nightmare 1987 **

Dir: Bill Rebane
Stars: Cari Salochek aka Itonia Salcheck, Dean West, Tiny Tim

There is some b-genius at work here in casting Tiny Tim as an unnerving clown character. For a grainy, synth-accompanied, straight-to-video slasher movie, this is really several cuts above of what one might expect. A young girl named Jill returns home from college to visit her parents only to find that she is a pariah in the town and her parents are missing. Creepy events start taking place as a boy she used to know tries to rekindle a romance with her. Tiny Tim is the brother of this boy, and keeps showing up uninvited around her house and generally freaking her out. People close to her begin to go missing, which means it's time for the beauteous Salocheck to take some showers and parade around the house in her underwear. Strangely, after all that, in the climactic chase scene, as the killer is revealed, she is dressed modestly in jeans and a bulky sweatshirt. It is to the credit of Cari Salocheck, this her only film credit, that she still looks sexy, perhaps even more so, and it's a nice switch from the usual. I've previously discussed my aversion to blatant nudity in lurid films, but in 80's straight-to-vid slashers it's pretty unavoidable and it would almost seem jarring if there was none at all. Although Tiny Tim's off-kilter (if he was ever on-kilter) performance - which makes great use of his trademark combination of weirdness and vulnerability - is deservedly played up in distribution material, with a gratifying payoff, Cari deserves a lot of credit for just looking great and her performance is quite creditable.

This is not usually my taste in movies, in fact early on I thought I might not get too far, but it ended up pulling me in. There is some well-done gore, although the grainy picture probably helps cover flaws, not that I don't enjoy flaws when I see them. For sheer enthusiasm of film-making there is something quite likable about the film.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ghost in the Invisible Bikini 1966 ***

Dir: Don Weis

Stars: Tommy Kirk, Aron Kincaid, Boris Karloff, Nancy Sinatra, Harvey Lembeck, Monstro the Gorilla

This is not the most obscure of films, but in terms of what it provides for bizarre enjoyment, it's tops. This is considered one of the AIP "beach" films, but it's missing several ingredients - there's no Frankie, no Annette, and no beach. But it compensates, does it ever, with Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and a haunted house, just for starters. Not an awful lot of movies have scenes of biker gangs, go-go bikini dancing, ghosts, gorillas, dungeons and wax statues, but this one does, and more.

The main plot involves Karloff as elderly Hiram Stokely discovering he is dead and that he has to do a good deed or he goes to the bad place. So he oversees a weekend get together of relatives to make sure the inheritance goes to the right place. One thing leads to another and soon groups of teens are doing the monkey and every other current dance out by the swimming pool, to the swinging sounds of Nancy Sinatra and the Bobby Fuller Four. The song performed there, "Geronimo", is probably the best song in the picture, per se, but a couple of the other songs are well worth it due simply to their strange incongruity. For instance, at one point baddie Basil's daughter, the shapely Sinestra, is supposed to use her feminine wiles to fool heir Kincaid into drinking some poison. Only trouble is, gee whiz, Sin loses her glasses and ends up singing her song to a suit of armour, shimmying nicely all the while.

A circus caravan with a gorilla shows up, and then Eric Von Zipper and his bikers as well, and soon all sorts of hallway hijinks are taking place in the mansion as secret passageways are uncovered. Everyone winds up in the secret dungeon where, after some Perils of Pauline action with a mill saw - in which a young heiress is nearly cut off from the will, as it were - all is well and the youngsters start a kah-razy dance party in the dungeon. Oh, yeah, and all the while the former Mrs. Stokely, who died many years ago, is appearing as a ghost in an invisible bikini.

This is no masterwork of acting, and there are practically no close-ups, except on Boris, with many extended stationary longshots. But the flick is definitely groovy fun.