How Taxi Driver Forever Changed The Way I View Movies

While “Goodfellas” introduced me to the filmmaking brilliance of Martin Scorsese and became my all-time favorite movie, it was “Taxi Driver” which really shaped the way I view movies today. Before seeing it, I always tried to avoid those movies which would make me sad or were too dark. This was a result of my parents having to carry me out of “Star Trek II” and “E.T.,” both of which I cried so hard over to where others wondered if I was okay. I promised myself I would never put my family through such embarrassing situations ever again, and this was especially the case with my brother who was constantly annoyed at my emotional outbursts.

Unlike “Goodfellas” which was immensely entertaining and had great comedic moments, “Taxi Driver” is dark, dark, dark. There is nothing the least bit glamorous to see here as we watch the main character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) get continually sucked into a corrupted environment he deeply despises. I kept hoping for him to achieve sort of redemption and maybe, just maybe, have another chance with Cybil Shepherd’s character of Betsy whom he had a memorable first date with. But as we reach the movie’s bloody conclusion, I realized there was nowhere for Travis to go but down. While the reaction to his actions may have been surprising, we all know the truth about Travis and realize something will set him off again before we know it.

Once the end credits went up, my dad asked me what I thought about “Taxi Driver.” My initial reaction was it was not exactly enjoyable. My dad’s response to this has always stayed with me, “Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Some are meant to be experienced.”

Looking back, I see what he meant. Look, there are a lot of reasons to not make a movie about someone like Travis Bickle; he’s seriously nuts, not a good date if you want to go to the movies, and watching him lose his mind is painful. But the thing about “Taxi Driver” is people like Travis exist, and turning a blind eye to their existence does us no good. We need to understand why people do the things they do. It’s like what Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:

“Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”

With “Taxi Driver,” I came to see how you need these kinds of movies just as much as you need the average escapist entertainment. Some movies need to shine a light on the darker parts of human nature to remind us we need to acknowledge we have a dark side and realize we have more in common with Travis Bickle than we would ever care to think or admit.

Since watching “Taxi Driver,” I have become completely open to movies which disturb me or take me on a journey I would not necessarily want to endure in real life. I can’t stand to watch films in a passive manner. I want to be moved by what I see, be disturbed and shaken, and even weep. Movies are too powerful an art form to be made just for the sake of entertainment. There are so many things about the human existence which deserve to be captured on celluloid, and I believe audiences crave these kind of cinematic experiences as they do the next Marvel movie.

“Taxi Driver” is my second favorite movie of all time, right behind “Goodfellas.” It is a movie I admire above so many others, and I still watch it from time to time. There are many I get sick of watching, but this is one I will never tire of sitting through.

Edgar Wright Talks with Walter Hill about The Driver

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Continuing with his film programming at New Beverly Cinema which he entitled The Wright Stuff II, filmmaker Edgar Wright gave us a vehicular double feature with “The Driver” and “Duel.” The main attraction of the evening, however, was “The Driver,” a 1978 movie directed by Walter Hill, and Wright gleefully told the audience it was more for him than us as it was his first time seeing it on the big screen, and that it made him want to become a getaway driver. Joining him for this screening was the film’s director Walter Hill, actors Bruce Dern and Ronee Blakley, and producer Frank Marshall.

Upon seeing the sold-out audience at the New Beverly, Hill remarked, “This is the largest crowd in the United States that has ever seen this movie. It didn’t do all that well when it was first released.”

Indeed, “The Driver” is not as well-known as some of Hill’s other movies like “48 Hours” or “Southern Comfort.” When it came out, it was criticized as not being fun and for being “too real.” Hill remarked how depressing it can be when a movie you make does no business and gets bad reviews. Later though, another filmmaker contacted Hill about the reception “The Driver” got and told him, “Pay no attention to reviews. The movie’s marvelous, life is hard.”

“The Driver” marked the first time Hill worked with Dern, and Dern praised Hill endlessly throughout the evening and said he would go anywhere in the world for him. Dern said he found Hill to be “full of surprises,” and he came to work thinking they would do something which had never done before. Hill in turn described Dern as “a very special actor” who always jumped out at him with quality and personality in each of his performances, and that he gave each role an unusual quality of psychological density to even the most mundane characters.

Marshall, best known for producing the Jason Bourne movies and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” originally turned the movie down because it was being shot at night in downtown Los Angeles. Back in the 1970’s, he was worried about shooting there as it had a very brutal atmosphere. Somehow though, he got sucked into doing this one and ended up trading a summer in Malibu as a result. “The Driver” later led Hill to make another film called “The Warriors” which was also shot at night.

While Dern has most of the movie’s dialogue, the main star of “The Driver” is Ryan O’Neal. His character is noted for having only 350 words in the entire script, and Wright remarked how nice it was to have an action movie where the hero has no good lines. O’Neal was known as a heartthrob at the time, but he was eager to do something different in his career when this role came along. However, many didn’t accept O’Neal as this character when the movie came out as people had a different image of him at the time. Years later though, it is clear just how good he is here, and it served him well in his growth as an actor.

When it comes to the car chases in “The Driver,” it is clear the actors really were driving those cars instead of their stunt doubles. This film was released not long after “The French Connection” which did everything for real, and everyone was really tearing around at crazy speeds. Hill said he and his fellow filmmakers were “young and reckless” back then, and he gleefully pointed out there indeed was “a real man in that car that flipped.”

But what’s great about the car chases in “The Driver,” as Marshall pointed out, is how Hill uses them to tell a story. These are not car chases for the sake of car chases, but ones which are an integral part to the movie as a whole. Watching it at New Beverly Cinema, it made me yearn for the kind Hollywood doesn’t do any more unless CGI is heavily involved. In the end, there is not much which is even better than the real thing.

One audience member asked if there were any police experts on set during the making of “The Driver.” Hill said there were not, and he made clear how the movie is really “pure fantasy” in what it portrays and is the “opposite of law enforcement.” It’s hard to think of any police force wanting to be involved with a movie like this as it appears to show the bad guys getting away without any real repercussions. In the end, Hill saw it as an extension of the “dark sides of personalities.” Indeed, this is not a film inhabited by easily redeemable characters, and Hill was correct in describing as a “very unreal movie.”

Hill also took the time to talk about his style of directing, and this something I was eager to know more about. His films typically don’t get much rehearsal time, but he found this actually works in the director’s favor. He told the audience that two-thirds of directing is casting, and he never gets any rehearsal until take one. Dern added how Hill is not very good at rehearsal, and this made him and Walter seem like a perfect match for one another.

Hill even talked about how he originally wanted Robert Mitchum for Dern’s role, and that he talked with him for six hours straight about it. In the end, however, Mitchum told Hill there was “too much car stuff” and that he didn’t have the energy for it. This clearly benefited Dern who got the role instead, and he admitted Mitchum would have been a “handful” for Hill to deal with.

In the end, this screening “The Driver” really turned out to be a gift for everyone at New Beverly Cinema. It was a gift for Hill and the other guests as it brought back so many memories they would have otherwise forgotten. It was also a gift for Wright as he would never have seen it on the big screen otherwise. But it was an especially big gift for the audience because many of would not have seen it otherwise. I probably would not have rushed out to see “The Driver” if Wright did not feature it in his festival of movies, and for me it turned out to be a special treat.

“The Driver” is one of the many movies which show how Walter Hill is still a vastly underappreciated filmmaker at times. After watching it at New Beverly Cinema, I am reminded of how effective a director he can be when given the right material.

ADDITIONAL WRITER’S NOTE: This movie has become a cult classic in recent years and has proven to be very influential on many filmmakers. Nicolas Winding Refn has cited it as an inspiration on his brilliant movie “Drive,” and you can see its influence all over Edgar Wright’s 2017 action film “Baby Driver.”

So Bad Its Good: Josh Olson on His Favorite Cult Movie Musicals

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Writer Josh Olson, best known for penning the screenplay to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” dropped by New Beverly Cinema to introduce two of his favorite cult movie musicals: “The Apple” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” These films were not well received critically or commercially when first released, but they have since gained a cult following, and the fans have come to appreciate them for reasons the filmmakers did not exactly intend. This was especially the case with “The Apple” which has since become one of the most unique movie musicals ever made.

Olson thanked those who came to this double feature and made clear to us he worships at the altar of “The Apple” and shows it to those unfamiliar with it (a.k.a. virgins) everywhere. He even remarked how two close friends of his, after they saw it, had a baby. The movie tells the story of two young Canadian musicians, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who travel to America to participate in an infinitely popular music festival. They are approached by the powerful entertainment agent Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) to sign with him, but Alphie sees the dark side of the music industry and refuses to be a part of it. Bibi, however, finds herself caught up in the wild lifestyle this industry has to offer, and it is up to Alfie to rescue her from Boogalow’s evil clutches.

In addition to screenwriting, Olson works for a website run by filmmaker Joe Dante called Trailers from Hell, and he talked about how the trailer for “The Apple” was one of the first he did a commentary track for.

Josh Olson: I stand by almost everything I said on that commentary except at one point I did use the phrase “it’s so bad it’s good,” and I regret that today. This movie has taught me that that phrase is meaningless. Intention does not matter. There are great movies out there that are so much better than the filmmakers intended them to make or had a right to make. Everything is accidental in this business so I don’t think it matters. I think either a movie is great or it is not, and there are movies that people think are wonderful that just won’t entertain you one iota as much as “The Apple” will.

Olson made it clear to the audience he will never again use the phrase “so bad its good” in reference to “The Apple” as he considers it to be one of the greatest movies in the history of the world. Once it was shown, he came back to the front of the audience to introduce the movie version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and said there was no way to top “The Apple,” so he wasn’t going to even try.

Olson talked briefly about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before it started. It was directed by Michael Schultz who previously made “Car Wash” which Olson described as a “weird, urban Robert Altman film,” and also “Cooley High” which he called one of the most formative films from his childhood. Olson told the audience at the New Beverly how Schultz got involved in making a cinematic adaptation of the Beatles’ classic album.

Josh Olson: Robert Stigwood (one of the most successful movie producers of the 1970’s) came to him and offered him “Grease” to direct, and Schultz looked at it and said, “This is fucking horrible and I don’t want anything to do with it.” So, he passed on “Grease” and it then went on to make a trillion dollars, and Robert Stigwood came back to him with the idea of turning the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into a movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. To this, Schultz said, “Wow, this sounds like a worse idea than ‘Grease.’ But what do I know, I passed on ‘Grease.’”

After watching the “Sgt. Pepper” movie, we were all in agreement with Olson that it was one of the most “batshit” ideas for a feature film, and it remains one of the biggest critical disasters in motion picture history. Olson, however, did try to rationalize this particular movie’s existence as it was made back in the 1970’s.

Josh Olson: It was a better time back then, and you have to have the yin to balance out the yang. The really good ones (movies) were almost indistinguishable from the really bad ones. But we had people thinking “Sgt. Pepper” was a good idea for a movie, and we also had people who were making “Apocalypse Now” back then, so it was a small price to pay.

Big thanks to Josh Olson for putting this crazy double feature together. “The Apple” isn’t so much a movie musical as it is an experience, and you won’t find another one quite like it. As for “Sgt. Pepper,” we may never get another opportunity to see it on the big screen again, so those who stayed could not quite say they regretted sitting through it. But yeah, it really was a bad idea for a movie.

Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.

So Bad It’s Good: Ed Adlum Looks Back at ‘Invasion of the Blood Farmers’

Invasion of the Blood Farmers movie poster

Ed Adlum was the Grindhouse Film Festival’s guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on September 25, 2012. Among the movies of Adlum’s were showing there on this evening was his 1972 cult horror movie “Invasion of the Blood Farmers.” Many have described this film as being delightfully dreadful, and Adlum is not blind to its lack of quality. Watching it with an audience, however, and hearing Adlum talk about what got him to make movies made this a highly entertaining evening.

Adlum was actually involved in the music business before he decided to make movies, and he was a writer for Cashbox Magazine back in the 1960’s. This determination which led him to do the things he wanted to do came about in his youth.

“When I was a kid, I was one of these ambitious fellas who was gonna show everybody in the East Bronx that I was special,” Adlum said. “Now how that happened is up to the psychiatric profession, but it happened anyhow. I was short, I was not especially good looking and frightened of girls. I was number one in school and you know how that can happen, and I was the kind of person who often said in his own head I’m gonna be something special. So, when you have a motivation like that, all you need is the occasion, and the occasion came along.”

From there, Adlum talked about how he met Jimmy Walker whose band Castle Kings he ended up joining as a guitarist. He went on to say Walker and him made “several really bad” albums after being signed by Atlantic Records and that they eventually split up to do their own things. Adlum then went on to join the army as everyone was in the army back then thanks to General Dwight Eisenhower. Following this, he started Replay Magazine which covered the jukebox and coin-up industries.

When he moved to California, Adlum decided he wanted to fulfill his heart’s desire to make a movie. He came up with the story for his directorial debut while talking with a friend of his named Jackie.

“Why don’t we do something about a planet that’s dying from lack of food and call it Hianus and they all come to the earth in search of a food supply for their planet back home, but they find it in human blood,” Adlum said. “And I stop right in the middle of the floor and I say ‘Jackie I got it, Invasion of the Blood Farmers!’ From that point I went to my friends in the jukebox business and I raised the money. One of the guys that worked with me at Cashbox Magazine named Ed Kelleher and I wrote the script. We made that movie for $24,000 dollars.”

Adlum went on to describe “Invasion of the Blood Farmers” as being “bad good” and that “it is just a hoot which is like saying I don’t believe this picture.” Doing the movie also got him to meet Mike Findlay who ended up directing a film Adlum wrote and produced called “Shriek of the Mutilated,” and they became “fierce friends” as a result.

“Invasion of the Blood Farmers” cannot be mistaken for classic cinema as it has a number of things wrong with it: bad acting, erratic editing and serious continuity problems. Still, none of us could come out of it saying we were not entertained. When all is said and done, Ed Adlum did achieve his dream of making a movie, and in a way this was more than enough. The only thing even funnier than the unintentional laughs in the movie itself is, despite all the blood and gore, how it ended up getting a PG rating from the MPAA. Even in the 1970’s this group proved to be a hypocritical bunch! Some things never change.

Here are some other tidbits of trivia about this movie:

Most of the cast members worked for a six-pack of beer as payment.

It was shot over three weekends and never made its money back.

Cast members Richard Erickson and Richard Kennedy were so bad at memorizing dialogue that they ended up having to read off cue cards.

The production went through eight and a half bottles of stage blood.

 

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.

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 * * * *