The Movie Trailers Which Played Before ‘Django Unchained’ at New Beverly Cinema

DjangoUnchained_poster2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally back in 2012.

I was lucky enough to check out Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, the same movie theater he bought and kept from going out of business. It was being shown in 35mm instead of a digital print at other theaters because Tarantino is still a big fan of film, and the New Beverly is known for showing movies in 35mm because that’s exactly what the owners and patrons like best.

One of the real treats of seeing “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema is instead of getting coming attractions for 2013 movies, we instead get to watch movie trailers from the past. These ones were especially campy and represent the kind of movies Hollywood no longer makes, and I wondered if the trailers being shown before “Django Unchained” inspired this particular Tarantino film in some way. Many of the prints of movies and trailers shown at the New Beverly tend to come from Tarantino’s own personal collection, so even if they didn’t inspire this movie of his, then they must have been ones he loves watching over and over.

Let’s take a look.

The Arena 1974 movie poster

“The Arena”

This exploitation film from 1974, one which clearly was inspired by “Spartacus,” stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov as female gladiators who have been enslaved in Rome and are forced to fight for their freedom. The trailer proved to be hilarious as the acting is over the top, and the narrator embellishes the more explicit elements of this movie by saying how the Romans “enslaved the most sensuous women to titillate the perverted pleasures of the Roman public” and how the main characters are “beautiful unchained women” whose bodies are “shaped into superb fighting equipment.” There’s also a bit of nudity and blood on display, the kinds of things you almost never see in a movie trailer today unless it is a red band trailer being shown for restricted audiences only.

Still, it’s great to see Grier here whom Tarantino cast in his movie “Jackie Brown,” and it is said she and Markov did all their own fights and stunts in “The Arena.” We should all known by now that Grier is as tough as the characters she has played in dozens of movies, and seeing her take on the Romans makes this one worth a look.

Boot Hill movie poster

“Boot Hill”

The trailer for this 1969 Italian Spaghetti Western runs four minutes long, much longer than the average movie trailer we see in theaters today. It stars Terence Hill as Cat Stevens, but the trailer’s narrator refers to him as “the man with no name.” It also stars football great Woody Strode as Thomas, a man who is quick with a gun and out for revenge over the death of his son. Together, these two help the inhabitants of a gold mining community which is being oppressed by a criminal organization.

This is another trailer which has a male narrator emphasizing the movie’s violence, and it’s fun to hear him say how “Boot Hill” is a town “where death comes quick,” “where death comes hard,” and where “death comes in two colors.” Seeing Hill and Strode walk into town all serious and without a smile on their faces brings to mind how Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz roll into town in “Django Unchained.”

“Boot Hill” was actually the last film in a trilogy of movies directed by Giuseppe Colizzi, and it was preceded by “God Forgives… I Don’t!” and “Aces High.”

Mandingo movie poster

“Mandingo”

This 1975 film was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kyle Onstott, and it stars James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Lillian Hayman, former boxer Ken Norton and pro-wrestler Earl Maynard. It takes place in the 1840’s where a plantation owner trains one of his slaves to be a bare-knuckle fighter, and there are some brutal scenes of bare-knuckle fighting to be found in “Django Unchained.” It makes me wonder if Tarantino based the character of Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ones played by Mason or King in “Mandingo.”

The narrator of this trailer describes “Mandingo” as being “the first true motion picture epic of the Old South,” but it’s a little hard to believe this as certain scenes appear to be very overwrought. The audience couldn’t help but laugh at the actress who told her lover “don’t kiss me yet, unless it’s just a cousin kiss” because the kiss which followed seems to be anything but a cousin kiss.

The movie version of “Mandingo” received a severe bashing from film critics like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Richard Schickel, all of whom gave it their lowest rating. Tarantino, however, said it represents one of only two instances in the last few decades where “a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie” (the other being Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”).

Tick Tick Tick movie poster

“…tick…tick…tick…”

Ralph Nelson’s 1970 movie stars another football great, Jim Brown, as Jimmy Price, a black police officer who has just been elected sheriff of a racially divided town in the American South. The fact he beat out the former Sheriff, a white man named John Little (George Kennedy), does not sit well with some of the townspeople. As the movie’s title and the endless ticking in the trailer indicates, the racial tensions will continue to rise until they boil over into a possibly fatal conflict.

…tick…tick…tick…” has long since become a cult classic for its cutting-edge portrayal of racial tensions and its tense narrative, and of all the trailers shown before “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, this was the one the audience laughed at the least, if at all. It looks like it still holds up to this day regardless of the passing of time, and the way the white characters treat Jimmy doesn’t seem much different from the way Django is treated in “Django Unchained.” It’s especially cool to see Brown as a Sheriff because he has always had the appearance of someone who can clean up a town single-handedly.

Take a Hard Ride movie poster

“Take a Hard Ride”

This Western from 1975 also stars Jim Brown as Pike, a rugged trail boss and former criminal who promises Bob Morgan (Dana Andrews) he will successfully transport $86,000 across the border to a ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Pike is forced to team up with a dishonest gambler named Tyree (Fred Williamson) for this mission, and they are soon being pursued by the ruthless bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef) and the corrupt sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan).

The trailer for “Take a Hard Ride” made it look like a movie I really want to check out. Like “Django Unchained,” it is a mix up of the Blaxploitation and western genres and features one of the best casts a movie like this could ever hope to have. Brown and Williamson have always proven to be ultimate bad asses in whatever movies they appear in, and I love how the trailer’s narrator describes Cleef’s character as being “as sly as a rattlesnake and twice as deadly.” It was also great watching the scene where the cowboys and their horses crash down a hill because now I know where the filmmakers of “Young Guns II” got the idea for a similar scene.

After watching all these trailers and “Django Unchained,” it becomes clearer to see where Tarantino took his cues from as a writer and director. It also shows how brilliant he is at taking all the elements and turning them into a movie which is uniquely his own and not just an uninspired homage that pales in comparison to the films it inspired. “Django Unchained” proved to be a lot of fun, and the trailers which preceded it are for movies which look to be just as entertaining.

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So Bad It’s Good: Ed Adlum on the Making of ‘Shriek of the Mutilated’

Shriek of the Mutilated movie poster

“The picture you are about to see… is not good.”

So said filmmaker Ed Adlum who introduced the screening of the 1974 cult horror movie he wrote and produced called “Shriek of the Mutilated.” This film played as part of a double feature along with another movie of his, “Invasion of the Blood Farmers,” for the Grindhouse Film Festival’s tribute to him at New Beverly Cinema back in September of 2012. Adlum also brought up a conversation his daughter Ingrid got involved in while she was a student at UC Irvine of what the worst movie ever made was. Ingrid said it was “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” but another student ended up saying:

“There’s one worse than that. It’s called ‘Shriek of the Mutilated.'”

“My father made that movie!” Ingrid said.

After Adlum’s introduction we watched “Shriek of the Mutilated,” and while it is far from brilliant to put it mildly, everyone in the audience had fun watching it. The movie even had the techno-pop song “Popcorn” by Hot Butter playing in a party scene, and listening to the song proved to be more exciting than the party. Brian J. Quinn, one of the programmers of the Grindhouse Film Festival, defended it by saying the worst movie ever made is a $100 million-dollar blockbuster which is a piece of crap, and “Shriek of the Mutilated” is certainly not that kind of movie.

“I don’t know about you but I had a ball,” Adlum told the audience after the movie had finished. “The thing isn’t as bad as I remember. The unintended laughs of which there were about 115 are really the best part of the picture. The things I can see that you can’t see like the guy wheeling Karen (Jennifer Stock’s character) into the room and banging into the door, I remember all of that stuff!”

There’s one moment where Lynn (played by Darcy Brown) is walking outside and picks up a broom and starts sweeping for no discernible reason before putting it back down. Adlum said it was “just a piece of business to do as she walked from here to there” and that “acting wasn’t essential” for anyone to be in this movie.

Adlum talked a bit about actor Alan Brock who played Dr. Ernst Prell, the professor who assembles a group of his students for a field trip to search for a dangerous creature known as a Yeti.

“Alan Brock was at one time a child star on film and hadn’t worked in years,” Adlum said. “He still lived with his mother and even though he was well into his 60s, he was so immature in that he had to be driven home every night instead of staying at the motel with all the other players and the crew. He had to be in his house and in his own bed, then I would pick him up in the morning and bring him back up to the woods (in Westchester County, New York) to do the film.”

The director of “Shriek of the Mutilated” was Michael Findlay, an exploitation filmmaker, and Adlum said the movie was his gift to Findlay for editing “Invasion of the Blood Farmers.” Adlum said he and Findlay were “fierce friends” as they “drank their brains out,” and he described him as knowing more about films than anybody else. For Findlay, “Shriek of the Mutilated” represented his chance to make a real movie as compared to the ones he was famous for like “Take Me Naked” or “The Touch of Her Flesh.”

Sadly, Adlum and Findlay had a big falling out at one point to where Findlay ended up calling Adlum a Nazi for some odd reason, and they didn’t speak again for years. Findlay died in 1977 on top of the Pam Am Building in New York City when a helicopter crashed and killed him and two other people. Upon hearing of his death, Adlum said he cried harder than when he found out his parents had died.

One audience member described “Shriek of the Mutilated” as starting off like a Bigfoot movie but then ends like a Manson cult movie, and he asked Adlum if this was always his plan.

“No, a lot of stuff was done on the fly and it kind of morphed into that,” Adlum said. “You think of stuff while you’re standing there. You may find a prop and work that into the film. Then when you’re all done with the picture and you’re editing it you say, these eight minutes is boring, let’s do something. So, you come up with what we call inserts, and sometimes inserts have nothing to do with the plot but they’ll make people go, oh!”

In talking about the music used in the movie, Adlum said it came from the Prague Philharmonic. This was back in the day of the Iron Curtain and the Eastern Bloc had no intellectual property rights with America, and America didn’t have any with them.

“I bought the record in the bargain bin, and I bought it for $2.98 with the express purpose of using it as background music in the movie” Adlum remembered. “The guy at the counter says to me, what are you doing with that? And I tell him and he says, well you better keep the receipt so that you can prove you have the rights!”

It also turns out Ivan Agar, the man who played the Indian Laughing Crow, was actually a chiropractor from Brooklyn, New York. Adlum said Agar had the funniest scene in the movie where a big line of drool comes out the side of his mouth, but this scene unfortunately didn’t make it into the final cut.

So yeah, “Shriek of the Mutilated” is not on the same level of filmmaking as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” but it was fun to watch even if we enjoyed for all the wrong reasons. It was a treat for us to hear Ed Adlum talk about its making, and you have to admire the sense of humor he has about the finished product. While he thought we would all head home after his Q&A, everyone stayed to watch “Invasion of the Blood Farmers” which showed just how much we appreciated him spending some time with us.

Mel Brooks Unveils ‘Young Frankenstein’ Mural at Fox Studios

Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein mural

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about an event which took place in 2014. I am presenting it here in honor of Mel Brooks’ 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday Mel!

The career of iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks was celebrated at Twentieth Century Fox Studios on October 23, 2014, and it was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of one of his best and funniest films, “Young Frankenstein.” This event brought out a big crowd on the Fox Lot and Jim Gianopulos, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, introduced Brooks by saying he is one of 12 people to win an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and the Tony) and that the 80-year-old studio was welcoming back its 2,000 year-old-man.

To commemorate this occasion, the studio painted a mural on Stage 5 where the movie was shot, and it features stars Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Peter Boyle in a scene which depicted them re-animating the creature. On the other side of the mural was an illustration of Mel Brooks who looked over the proceedings with a big smile on his face. This made Brooks remark amusingly, “That’s a beautiful, beautiful mural, really. I wish we were in Italy, it would last forever. They keep them on church walls in Italy. This will be good for 18 months and then they will get something else.”

Young Frankenstein mural

After all these years, Brooks remains a consummate storyteller, and the was delighted to hear of how the idea for “Young Frankenstein” first came about.

Mel Brooks: While I was doing “Blazing Saddles,” Gene Wilder, who played the Waco Kid, was in a corner of the soundstage scribbling on a legal pad. And I said, what are you doing? And he said I have an idea for a movie. I’ve always wanted to play this nutty, wonderful character Frankenstein, and in my concept I call him Frankenstein because he’s ashamed of the family fooling around with occult nonsense, trying to take dead tissue and turn it into living matter. He says that’s my story, sucked in again to the Frankenstein destiny.’ I said that’s a good story, do you need any help?’ He said well, I don’t know how to write. So, we wrote it together while we were filming “Blazing Saddles,” and most of it while I was in the editing process of “Blazing Saddles.”

Brooks’ first pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, but the studio was ultimately not interested. Keep in mind, this was before “Blazing Saddles” was released. Brooks said if he pitched the idea after “Blazing Saddles” came out, there’s no doubt Warner Brothers would have made any movie he offered them. So instead Brooks and Wilder took it over to Columbia Pictures, but it resulted in a rather strange situation.

MB: So, Columbia liked the idea and they said they would make it, and we made a deal for roughly $1,750,000, not even $2 million to make “Young Frankenstein.” And as I left the room at Columbia, I said thank you, this is wonderful! We’ll start Monday. Just one thing, just one little thing – we’re gonna make it in black and white, and then I left. Down the hall after me were a thundering herd of Jews screaming, “PERU JUST GOT COLOR!” So, we went back in the room for six hours of arguing about black and white or color and finally they said, we’ll compromise. We’ll make it on color stock and we’ll diffuse the stock and it’ll be in black and white, and those countries that are up to color like Peru will issue it in color. I said, well it’s a good compromise, and then somebody told me it’s never black and white. It’s blackish like the show, actually bluish. I said no, it has to be on Agfa black and white thick film. They said that’s a deal breaker, and I said break the deal. So that night Mike Gruskoff (the movie’s producer) got the script over to Alan Ladd Jr. who was running the feature aspect. We met with Ladd and he said, we’ll do it. What do you need? We said about $2 million. He said I’ll give you $2.2 (million). So, Fox bought it and no interference, just support, and I have tried to be at Fox ever since.”

This led Brooks to talk about another one of his best-known comedies which spoofed the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and of how Hitchcock himself was actually involved in its making.

MB: I made “High Anxiety” here and Hitchcock was helping me write it, and Hitchcock gave me a joke. I said hey, Hitch is pitching! Look at this! And I said what’s the joke Hitch? He said, a guy is running, he’s at the end of a dock and the ferry is about 12 or 14 feet away, and he leaps into the air and he lands on the deck of the ferry. Ah, made it! Except the ferry is coming in. That’s a great joke, and if I had the money, I would have filmed it. Hitchcock saw a rough cut of “High Anxiety,” and he didn’t say a word and he literally waddled past me (makes waddling sounds), got to the end of the aisle, walked out the door and I said, he didn’t like it? He liked it? He didn’t like it?’ I was just heartbroken and I thought it’s a failure. Next day a guy comes with a wooden box. On the box it says Château Haut-Brion, 1961. Priceless! Six magnums of Château Haut-Brion with a note: “Dear Mel, have no anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’ It’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.”

In addition, Fox permanently renamed the street adjacent to Stage 5 “Mel Brooks Boulevard” in honor of the director. The event came to an end after Brooks unveiled the new street sign for everyone to see, and he couldn’t help but say the following,

MB: Now that they’ve got a street named after me, people are going to walk all over me. Terrible.

Nevertheless, it was a fitting tribute to a man who has given us some of the funniest movies ever made.

 

Soundtrack Review: ‘Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star’

Assault on Precinct 13 Dark Star soundtrack cover

Of all the soundtracks to John Carpenter’s movies, the ones for “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” remain the hardest to find. “Dark Star’s” soundtrack has been out of print for years and is basically comprised of dialogue and music from the movie. As for “Assault on Precinct 13,” its soundtrack was available only as a bootleg until 2003 when a French company named Record Makers gave it its first commercial release. But now BSX Records has released “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star,” a soundtrack which contains the music from both movies and has been newly recorded by Alan Howarth, and the results are truly fantastic.

“Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” were Carpenter’s first movies which he directed and did film music for, and they were extremely low budget affairs which forced him to make the best use of whatever he had available. The soundtracks for each ended up inaugurating what is known as “the Carpenter sound” which was expanded on in later films such as “Halloween II” and “Prince of Darkness.” The theme to “Assault on Precinct 13” is one of Carpenter’s most memorable, and it was inspired in part by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” His music for “Dark Star” helped to illustrate the movie’s more thoughtful elements as well as its most comically absurd.

Other artists have re-recorded Carpenter’s music over the years with varying degrees of success, but BSX Records really lucked out here in getting Howarth to recreate these two soundtracks. A highly regarded sound designer and pioneering electronic musician, Howarth worked with Carpenter on the scores to many of his movies all the way up to 1988’s “They Live.” With “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” Howarth doesn’t try to update either soundtrack, but instead aims to remain faithful to Carpenter’s original versions and how they sounded back in the 1970’s. The only real difference is while both soundtracks were originally recorded in mono, Howarth gets the opportunity to record them in stereo which allows for a more powerful presentation.

“Assault on Precinct 13” ends up sounding better than ever here, and the main theme will give your stereo speakers a really strong workout. Track 16 is my favorite on the disc as Howarth takes the movie’s theme and adds orchestral elements on top of the electronic ones. It’s the closest he comes to updating any of Carpenter’s soundtracks, but the theme still stays very close to its original sound.

As for “Dark Star,” Howarth sounds like he’s having a blast recreating all those primitive computerized sounds which dominated the score for the 1974 movie. He even recreates “Doolittle’s Solo” which had the character of the same name performing on a makeshift instrument made up of bottles and tin cans, and he adds in those crazy sounds which emanate from that beach ball of an alien. In addition, composer Dominik Hauser arranges and performs a new version of the song “Benson, Arizona.”

This CD also comes with a highly informative booklet entitled “Assault on a Dark Star: The Musical Pulse of Early John Carpenter” written by Randall D. Larson, a film music columnist and author of the book “Musical Fantastique: 100 Years of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Film Music.” Larson goes into excellent detail over the challenges Carpenter faced in making both “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” and of how he went about created the music for each. Larson also talks in depth with Howarth on how he went about re-recording the scores for this release and the types of equipment he had to work with.

When it comes to re-creating a well-known soundtrack, composers and musicians usually find themselves at a loss. Whether they do a good job or not, they end up giving us something which makes us pine for the original version. The great thing about BSX Records’ “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star” release is how Alan Howarth makes both film scores sound as they were always meant to sound. Listening to them is like traveling back in time to the 1970’s when these two movies came out, and it makes for one of the best soundtrack re-recordings I have heard in a long time.

Click here to purchase a CD copy of the soundtracks.

Click here to purchase the digital copy of the soundtracks.

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’ Remains a Highly Disturbing Cinematic Experience Years Later

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

“To avoid fainting keep repeating,

It’s only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie”

Exploitation movies, or “video nasties” as they are called in certain countries, have a power most do not have. They shock even the most jaded and seasoned of movie fanatics, and they burn into your subconscious in a way which cannot be undone. A lot has been written about Wes Craven’s “Last House on The Left” and of the impact it had on audiences upon its release. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” it’s a movie I was bound to see at some point. Many would prefer to stay far away from movies like this, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be put off watching a movie just because it shocks more than half the world. Who am I to talk or criticize a particular movie if I haven’t seen it anyway?

“The Last House on the Left” was Craven’s directorial debut, and he made it with future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham on a very low budget. While many of Craven’s later movies deal with horror on a fantasy level like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this one deals with the horrors of real life. It deals with real people and situations any of us could fall victim to. While it was made back in 1972, it still has the power to completely unnerve anyone who sits through it to this very day. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, this movie proved to be a true endurance test more than others of its genre. And like many horror movies of the past, it just had to be remade years later.

To dismiss “The Last House on The Left” as pure exploitation is not altogether fair. There is extreme violence, naked bodies and a lot of blood and gore, but there is more going on here than what we see on the surface. Throughout Craven’s long career, he has made movies which work on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and this one is no exception. Craven said he made this movie in response to the Vietnam War which was going on at the time. I can certainly see that, but I think it also deals with the death of the 1960’s as well as the destruction of innocence. This film also deals with humanity at its most depraved and animalistic and of how no one can ever go back to who they once were. Everything is changed when the movie is over, and so are we for having watched it.

This movie’s story is somewhat inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” and it follows two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, as they head into the city to go to a concert. While in town, they decide to score some grass and go to a total stranger named Junior who ends up taking them back to his place. But what the ladies find instead are a couple of escaped convicts and their girlfriend who proceed to torture them to their last dying breath. You can see why the tagline fits the movie so perfectly. You have to keep reminding yourself this is only a movie as everything we are forced to witness is all too evil to process right away.

As this twisted family of psychos viciously rape and torture the two girls in the woods right near where one of them lives, it is intercut with scenes of one of the girl’s parents baking a cake and preparing a birthday party for her. There is an innocence on display in these scenes with the parents, and it serves to make all the sheer brutality even more disturbing to sit through. You don’t watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” as much as you experience it, and movies don’t get much bleaker than this one.

Once the group has finished their dirty work, their car breaks down and they end up staying as guests of one of the girls’ parents who just welcome them into their home, completely unaware of who they actually are. They even take the time to make dinner for their guests and give them wine to drink. You would never ever see that happening today, ever. Perhaps it was the custom of people in the 1960’s to be hospitable to total strangers.

During the evening, however, the wife discovers a necklace one of their guests is wearing as being the same one she and her husband gave to their daughter before she went off with her friend. This leads to her discovering bloody clothes in one of their suitcases, and she and her husband rush off to the lake where they find their daughter dead. From there, both carry out bloody revenge against their guests, and it leads to one of the bloodiest conclusions ever in a motion picture.

To watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” is to witness how brutal human nature can get, and it makes you wonder how someone could do something so incredibly. It’s easy to see why Craven saw this movie as a response to the Vietnam War. We went into that country and raped it without much thought of what would happen to us, and this conflict bled deeply into our country and its citizens. This war been covered in many movies like Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” as well as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here as they don’t play their characters as much as they inhabit them. Medals of bravery should be given to both Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who play Mari and Phyllis as both are forced to suffer indignities no human being should ever endure. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped naked and violated in the worst ways imaginable.

But it’s not just the girls who die, the killers do as well, but not just in the literal sense. There is a perverse ecstasy they take in degrading their hostages, but killing them off leaves them with nothing much in the way of emotion. Seeing the looks on their faces after killing the girls proves to be one of the most fascinating moments in “The Last House on the Left” as we can see how each has lost any chance at redemption they could ever hope to get.

The late David Hess gives us one of the most despicable and vile villains in movies as Krug Stillo. There is no redeeming value to this character, and he sinks even deeper into a moral black hole when you realize he controls his son, Junior, through the use of drugs. Hess also did the music score which, to put it mildly, sounds utterly bizarre.

One other important thing to note is this is not the kind of movie where you cheer on the good guys. When the parents get their revenge, there is no joy to be taken in it and you are as emotionally drained as they are when the screen fades to black. Many people complain about the unspeakable violence in this movie, but then they go out to see the latest action extravaganza which features dozens of exploding limbs and severed body parts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Don’t get me wrong, I like those movies as well, but it is hypocritical to get furious at one violent movie while excusing another one.

I should also add that one of idiotic cops we see in this movie is played by Martin Kove, the same actor who would go on to play Kreese in “The Karate Kid” movies. Kove seems to have been the only actor here to come out of this movie with a successful acting career.

With all the unpleasantness surrounding “The Last House on The Left,” why would I give it a positive review? Because it stands out from the average exploitation fare of the time, and there was a good deal of thought put into it. No, it is not enjoyable to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Craven doesn’t hold anything back, and he gets to the ugliness humanity has to offer the innocent and the unsuspecting.

It says a lot about a movie when it can still retain its power to shock and unnerve audiences even decades after its release. “The Last House on The Left” belongs in the same company with the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as neither have lost any of their visceral power. You don’t like unpleasant movies? Stay miles away from this one. For those willing to endure it, just remember it’s only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …With an utterly bizarre music score!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Jaws’ – Peter Benchley’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” is much darker in tone as the main characters come across as unhappy and have harsh tempers which constantly get the best of them. There are also a number of subplots that bring out the negative sides of each character throughout. When it came to turning “Jaws” into a movie, Spielberg worked with different screenwriters to make the characters more likable, and he eliminated many of the novel’s subplots. In the process, he changed much of the story to where the movie focused on the terror the shark wreaks on the helpless townspeople and tourists, and on the last act where Brody, Hooper and Quint go on a hunt to destroy it.

The movie has the married couple of Martin and Ellen Brody more or less settled on Amity Island, and Ellen seems to be happier than Martin about their relocation from New York City to their current residence as her husband has a big fear of the water. Benchley’s novel, however, has them at odds with one another to where they argue most of the time, and it is Ellen who is more dissatisfied with the move to Amity Island as she misses her former life in the city.

One major subplot which did not transfer over to the movie is when Ellen Brody has an affair with marine biologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss). It turns out she used to date Matt’s older brother and being with Matt vividly reminds her of the life she used to have. While Spielberg’s film portrays Matt and Martin as being friends, Benchley’s novel has them becoming enemies as Martin struggles with getting older along with his envy of Hooper who represents the man he used to be.

Quint, who was unforgettably portrayed by Robert Shaw, is described much differently and barely speaks at all. Suffice to say, his speech about being on board the USS Indianapolis when it sank is not in the book. Even Quint’s death is different as, instead of him being eaten by the shark after it jumps on board the Orca, he gets his foot caught in a rope attached to the great white and drowns after he is pulled underwater.

As for Hooper, who survived his ordeal in the shark cage in the Spielberg movie, he is killed off in the book as well. Perhaps it is karmic justice as Benchley portrays him as an obnoxious man who Martin almost chokes to death at one point.

Another subplot which did not carry over from the book is when Mayor Vaughn is found to be seriously in debt to the mafia, hence his strong need to keep the beaches of Amity open despite the shark attack. Spielberg’s movie, however, has him resisting Martin’s urges to close the beaches as Amity Island is seriously dependent on tourist dollars during the summer for its very existence.

When it comes to the ending of “Jaws,” Martin Brody does not kill the shark by shooting a bullet into the air tank stuck in its mouth which causes it to explode. In the book, he is helplessly stuck in the water after the Orca sinks, and the shark heads straight for him. In the process of Brody accepting his fate, the shark ends up passing away just mere inches away from him. After battling these men for several days while having barrels stuck in it and suffering from blood loss, the shark just gives in and dies which makes for a rather anti-climactic ending.

Many of the changes came about because Spielberg set out to make an audience pleasing movie, and he didn’t want the main characters battling one another as they battled the shark. But for those who have seen the movie hundreds of times, it is worth reading the book as Peter Benchley uses the shark as a metaphor for Martin Brody’s realization of his mortality and how it comes to affect his actions on the job and in his marriage.

Despite its differences, Benchley’s novel remains a riveting tale of suspense and terror worth reading while you sit on the beach and getting a nice suntan.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Klute’ Features One of Jane Fonda’s Best Performances on Film

Klute movie poster

Many keep wondering what draws people, and not just women, to prostitution. It seems such a sordid profession which offers nothing but degradation and humiliation to those involved in it. Other than money, what does draw people into a lifestyle like this one which has been around for so long? From a physical point of view, it’s got to get tiresome after a while. Maybe it is appealing from a psychological point of view; people profiting off the needs and weaknesses of others may very well be its selling point. To have control over another person is always an appealing prospect.

This is made clear in “Klute” which was directed by Alan J. Pakula who had a talent for taking familiar stories and populating them with characters you can recognize from real life. The movie revolves around the case of a missing man and a private detective named John Klute (Donald Sutherland) who has been assigned to find him. The only lead he has is a prostitute named Bree Daniels, and she is played by Jane Fonda in one of her best roles.

Fonda won one of her two Oscars for her performance in this classic 1970’s thriller. It is a wonderfully complex role for an actress to play as Bree is a struggling actress and model who finds a power and control as a call girl she doesn’t have elsewhere in life. In one of several meetings with her psychiatrist, Bree admits she doesn’t enjoy the physical part, but she does enjoy the act she plays for all her clients. When she is with them, she considers herself to be the greatest actress in the world and brilliantly exploits their weaknesses to gain a higher price for her services.

Bree, however, ends up finding a different view on life with John, a man as straitlaced and upstanding as they come. Donald Sutherland has one of his best roles here, and while his character ends up succumbing to Bree’s charms, he never completely loses himself in his desires. Throughout the movie, he remains the source of hope and strength Bree needs when she finds out someone wants to kill her.

When Bree does ends up sleeping with John, she thinks she has him right where she wants him. She quickly intuits her strength over him as a result of him not making her orgasm as a weakness on his part, but later finds herself losing this power she has over men while she is with him. Bree finds she likes being with him, and this scares her because love is not something anyone can have any control over. There is a beautiful moment when she is shopping with John at a local farmer’s market, and you can see the insecurity on her face. She feels strongly for John, and it frightens her as the addiction she has for being a call girl may overwhelm her true love for him.

Pakula does a great job of increasing tension throughout “Klute,” and this is heightened by the characters being very relatable and down to earth. This has been the case with the majority of his movies like “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and even “Presumed Innocent.” Even if the plots of some of his movies seem far-fetched, it is the reality of the characters and the world they inhabit which sucks us in.

“Klute” also features another great performance by the late Roy Scheider as Frank Ligourin, a pimp disguised as a record producer. Scheider makes him unlike other pimps we have seen in “Taxi Driver” or “Street Smart” as he makes his character much more casual in his cruelty and control over those who work for him. He doesn’t deal too much in force because it doesn’t suit him well, and it would affect the relationships he has with his employees.

We do find out who’s threatening Bree early on, so the whodunit element of “Klute” disappears rather quickly. This could have really sunk the movie, but Pakula gets away with it because we find it is integral to the themes the movie explores: perversity, sexuality and the mentality behind them. Many think they are above perversity, but there is a darkness inside of us which often goes unchecked. The more we repress it, the more explosive it becomes when finally released. There are no good or bad guys in this movie, just people trying to measure out what they feel is right and wrong, and some do a better job of figuring this out than others.

“Klute” does have an anticlimactic ending, but that’s probably because the one we expect a movie like this to have would have just taken away from the reality of the story. Either way, it proves to be one of the most memorable movies of the 1970’s.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Sorcerer’ May Very Well Be William Friedkin’s Masterpiece

Sorcerer movie poster

This is the movie that almost completely destroyed filmmaker William Friedkin. “Sorcerer” came into theaters with a high level of anticipation, which was understandable as it was made by the same man who gave us “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” Lines were wrapped around the block when it opened at Mann’s Chinese back in 1977, but by the second week the theater was practically empty. “Sorcerer” was considered to be a critical and commercial failure, and Friedkin’s career has never been the same since. Of course, it opened around the same time as a small independent feature which blew away the competition. You may have heard of it, “Star Wars?”

Well, they say time heals all wounds, and “Sorcerer” has been critically re-evaluated to where it has received the critical acclaim it long deserved. The film is quite an accomplishment and a fascinating study in madness and redemption, and you will never look at truck driving the same way again after watching it. Depending on who you ask, it t is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (Friedkin denies it is). The Oscar-winning director put his heart and soul into “Sorcerer,” and it pins you back into your seat and thoroughly exhausts you long before it ends. Like many great movies, it is one you experience more than watch.

“Sorcerer” takes its time getting started as we watch the back stories for its four main characters and of how they ended up at where they are. We meet hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal) who takes down a target with a simple bullet, Kassem (Amidou) as he bombs a local church with the help of his friends, investment banker Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) who is about to be jailed for fraud, and then there’s Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who is marked for execution after his gang robs a church and accidentally kills a priest.

After this protracted prologue, the action moves to an unnamed location in a Latin American country which these four people have escaped to and seek refuge in. The utter squalor these men are forced to live in is so vivid to where it feels like the flies and stench of the environment doesn’t stop at the silver screen. You know how some people look at a movie and say it really made them want to take a cold shower? One shower is not enough to get past the filth these characters are forced to live in from day to endless day. This place is hell on earth for anyone, but these men obviously prefer it to death. They managed to avoid prison, but they came to a different kind of prison they are now ever so desperate to escape.

The chance for escape comes when an oil refinery suddenly explodes into a fireball, and the firefighters are unable to put the fire out without the help of explosives. Company executives manage to find a surplus of nitroglycerin sticks which can do the job, but the only catch is these sticks have not been turned and, as a result, have become highly sensitive and to where the slightest vibration could make them explode. So when an offer comes to drive this unstable set of explosives to the burning oil field for a high reward, these four jump at the chance to do the job. The rest of the movie follows their treacherous journey in trucks to deliver the explosives and hopefully not lose their lives in the process.

One thing I really admired about “Sorcerer” is how Friedkin dared to give us characters who were not altogether sympathetic. They are criminals of one kind or another, and yet we follow them every step of the way through their treacherous trip. Friedkin saw their incredibly dangerous journey as their chance not to just escape the filthy poverty they were stuck in, but also as an opportunity to redeem themselves for whatever bad deeds they committed. But their entire journey is a lot like sailing down the river Styx as they have to travel to through hell in order to escape it.

Friedkin does a great job of sustaining the tension as these men drive the trucks over terrain which looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing, and who encounter unwanted guests that have no idea of the cargo they are carrying. But the movie’s big action centerpiece is when they are force to drive the trucks over a suspended bridge which looks more than ready to completely fall apart. Add to that some furious rainstorms, and you have yourself one hell of a sequence which leaves you wrung out by the end.

Of all the actors in the cast, the most recognizable is Scheider. As a man on the run from the mob, he gives a performance which is never less than compelling, and you can only imagine the hell Friedkin put him through to play this role. The journey these men go on is not just dangerous physically, but also psychologically. Scheider does great work here as he is constantly on the verge of losing his mind, and this is especially in the movie’s second half.

Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Bruno Cremer are equally as good as they show the exhaustion and determination their characters have to complete this mission, and they too are put through the wringer to where they never seem to be acting their roles, but instead living them. You feel every bead of sweat which drips from their faces, and it makes “Sorcerer” even more of a visceral cinematic experience.

The imagery Friedkin captures is incredible as he shows us the squalor and unhealthy environment these characters live in so well, you can’t help but feel as trapped in it as they are. Friedkin has gone on record to say this film was the toughest for him to make, and I don’t doubt that for a second.

One of the other big pluses of “Sorcerer” is the brilliant score composed and performed by Tangerine Dream. Interestingly enough, they never saw a frame of the movie’s footage while working on the music, and yet they capture the events and psychology of the characters ever so perfectly. Like many of Tangerine Dream’s movie scores from “Thief” to “Risky Business,” this one is highly original and hard to compare to others. The soundtrack is still available on compact disc if you look hard enough for it.

After all these years, “Sorcerer” can no longer be mistaken as one of Friedkin’s misfires as it is now seen as one of his greatest cinematic achievements. It has since gained a strong cult following and is truly one of the most underrated movies of the 1970’s. It is unlikely we will ever get to see a movie made the way this one was ever again, and this makes it a must see for every and any film buff out there.

* * * * out of * * * *