As Hollywood’s current output tailspins our collective IQ into oblivion, a few of the major studios have had a moment of clarity. Warner Bros, MGM and others have quietly started making beautiful DVD masters of their archival prints and offering them to us undeserving jerks via the internet. And we’re here to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good or bad.
Now note that these aren’t shoddy DVD-Rs, but instead clean, gorgeous, high-quality DVDs in the films’ original aspect ratios, with fancy full-color covers and the whole nine yards. Many have never been available on any home format, and since the studios don’t have the pressure of selling thousands of units, they’re releasing the most varied and often electrifyingly bizarre titles in their vast libraries. For example:
ACT OF VENGEANCE a.k.a. RAPE SQUAD
Dir. Robert Kelljchian / 1974 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
To clarify: this is a squad of women that prevent and avenge rape, as opposed to a squad comprised of rapists. There’s a serious difference. But this gritty, giddily confused AIP production, initially released as Rape Squad with five terror-stricken female faces emblazoned on the poster, seems content to blur the lines.
The film alternates between gratuitous violence, sexual villainy and several chauvinistically misguided attempts at feminism. In Roger Ebert’s 1974 review (in which
he gives the film just one star), he attempted to decipher its fundamental intent: “It's not an old-style sexist movie, but it's not a feminist movie, either. The women, who organize an anti-rapist guerrilla unit, get the idea while floating completely nude in a whirlpool bath.” And things only get more dichotomous from there.
Whenever the plot plummets to its most unpleasant depths, a miniskirt-sporting heroine does a reverse swivel kick and plants her stiletto heel in a deserving testicle. But when this happens after a half dozen assaults and bra-free blouse-rippings, are the filmmakers absolved? One can argue that the production’s saving grace is that it was scripted by a woman named Betty Conklin. She co-wrote the similarly paradoxical The Swinging Cheerleaders the same year, which follows a feminist teen reporter who joins the sexually active, rarely clothed school pep squad to prove that cheerleading is demeaning to women. There’s only problem with the Conklin Defense: she was actually named David Kidd. Whoops.
But back to the Squad. A hyper-driven sex fiend in an orange jumpsuit and pre-Voorhees hockey mask stalks various attractive women, ultimately violating them while he forces them to sing “Jingle Bells” throughout the act. When not committing atrocities, he chronicles his adventures to a handheld tape recorder, beginning one entry with: “Diary of a champ…” After the police prove themselves useless, five vengeful victims team with a female karate instructor to tear apart the mysterious predator, along with plenty of other wrong-headed neanderthals that cross their paths.
Surprisingly, the lead female character is intelligent, independent and resourceful. Jo Anne Harris is genuinely impressive throughout the film’s multiple indignities, including a scene where she screams at a snarking cop: “I hope a 300-pound killer faggot shoves it right in your fat ass!” The movie is shot well by Foxy Brown cinematographer Brick (!) Marquard, has great pacing, and features enough unique script flourishes to win the viewer back from many of its offenses. Overall, it works and I liked it, though I’m ashamed to admit that. If anyone fires a flaming arrow into my crotch after reading this, I won’t complain.
Dir. Robert Gordon / 1963 / Warner Archive
In this animalistic crime thriller, stonefaced UK (over)actor Michael Gough outroars the lions as Michael Conrad, the rage-fueled proprietor of a private zoo. He loves all beasts, hates all humans, and chews all scenery. When anyone crosses him, or in any way encroaches on his suburban jungle retreat, said offender quickly ends up as panther dung. Assisting with the lethal feedings is his gold-hearted teen mute (Rod Lauren of The Crawling Hand), while Conrad’s suffering wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper) turns a blind eye to the insanity.
Black Zoo was the third consecutive collaboration between Gough and American lowbrow writer/producer Herman Cohen, following Horrors of the Black Museum and shoestring ape epic Konga. In each, Gough plays a noxious paranoid who uses his powers over the animals and/or people around him to wreak a twisted form of vengeance. He gave each successive performance an additional needleful of mania, to the point that his zookeeper Conrad is a violent, rampaging, abusive spazz, though still prone to moments of tea-sipping British respectability. The character is clearly at his most comfortable while watching a gorilla perforate a man’s spine, and many of these animal attacks are played out at a shockingly graphic level, especially considering the era. The opening scene depicts a young woman being attacked and fatally mauled by a tiger, and the same cat later cuts character actor Elisha Cook Jr. into juicy red ribbons.
The film also features some truly deep end weirdness in a possible effort to avoid retreading earlier Cohen/Gough productions. Tremendous man-eating animals recline on sofas while the doting Conrad plays them instrumental serenades on a gothic pipe organ. One beautifully framed scene has the creatures gather around a mist-framed rocky outcropping in a funeral for one of their own. And, most notably, we’re introduced to a secret occult society of animal worshippers, where a man wearing a lion pelt/tuxedo combo leads a bevy of wealthy socialites in chanting a dead tiger’s soul into a newborn cub’s body. Dear Hollywood… more like this and less of everything else, please.
Dir. Owen Crump / 1962 / Warner Archive
An uncommonly tense early ‘60s murder attack co-written by Psycho author Robert Bloch and the great, recently late Blake Edwards, who also wrote and/or directed
everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the original Pink Panther series. The story follows young urban schizoid maniac Charles (‘50s scifi veteran Grant Williams) as he gripes to his therapist, woos a wildly oblivious receptionist, and – here’s the fun part – stabs innocent passers-by on crowded city sidewalks.
Unlike most suspense thrillers, the murder scenes play out with great urgency but deliberately little tension. It’s an odd experiment and somehow makes the film’s random homicides all the more horrific. For the most part, Charles doesn’t care who he kills, as long as he gets to sink his blade into someone whenever he feels the urge. Naturally, his less-than-social behavior eventually catches up with him, leading to the film’s sweatiest moments. In one scene, Charles is pulled so far into his own black pit of rage that he goes nuclear-ballistic while stabbing at a sock drawer. Sounds silly, but it’s played so well that it’s actually chilling. Go figure. It was also a fairly new concept for a film to showcase the villain as the protagonist, especially when he’s played with such fearless rabidity as Williams displays in the final act.
Advertisements blared that The Couch was filmed in the deepest secrecy and under a mysterious codename (“Project Icepick”), all because the jarring content would be too much for the average American: “So startling it had to be made in secret with the doors bolted -- with the public kept out!” Warner Bros likely felt they had a blockbuster on their hands considering Psycho’s enduring popularity, and they milked the public’s fascination with the mentally unhinged for all it was worth. Unfortunately, though the film is largely very effective and the performances are uniformly strong, audiences didn’t bite and The Couch slipped into darkness.
DARK ANGEL a.k.a. I COME IN PEACE
Dir. Craig R. Baxley / 1990 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
A physically fit alien warrior delights in harvesting human victims until he's engaged in a major volley of explosive, lethal firepower by an Eastern European bodybuilder. No, I'm not talking about Predator. This film (from the second unit director of Predator) instead stars Dolph Lundgren as a narcotics officer who goes chin-to-chin with a 'roid-raging albino drug dealer from the outer reaches of the universe.
The unearthly heroin vampire (6’5” martial artist Matthias Hues) is armed with a wide assortment of impossible weapons, from his head-splitting fist spike to a series of razor-lazer frisbees that whiz through the night and straight into the jugular. Lundgren is aided in his interplanetary Aryan-vs-Aryan death match by a long-haired alien cop and an FBI goofball (Brian Benben) who makes wry comic observations while our species teeters on the brink of total extermination.
Like Robocop and Terminator 2, I Come in Peace was part of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s subgenre phenomenon of R-rated movies marketed to 12-year-old boys. The intended audience was of course unable to legally see these movies without their parents’ supervision and few breeding adults could be lured into the theater to watch a Lundgren starring vehicle, so the film never got the credit it deserves. Sure, it’s boneheaded and relies entirely on violence and explosives to propel its plot, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. Stuntman-turned-filmmaker Baxley would go on to direct the even more underrated Stone Cold starring Brian Bosworth, which is the single best action movie of the ‘90s and fuck you.
INCIDENT IN AN ALLEY
Dir. Edward L. Cahn / 1962 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
Honest police officer Joddy (Chris Warfield) accidentally guns down a 14-year-old boy and sits in court for 30,017 years in this heavy-handed, extremely white drama. Between his regretful soul-searching, his wife’s emotional histrionics and the interminable courtroom sequences, the film feels like something you’d be forced to endure as part of a criminal reform program.
The original story is credited to the great Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame, junior), but there’s no doubt his initial vision was more vital and confrontational, in line with his non-supernatural teleplays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and the masterful Patterns. Incident’s actual shooting script was handled by a couple of by-the book crime/war writers chained to a studio contract, and boy, does it ever show. The film doesn’t feel like a feature, but instead like an episodic TV courtroom thriller with a capital COURTROOM and lowercase thrills. To be fair, the story does eventually proceed beyond the courthouse and back to community theater hams wringing their hands all over a studio backlot. The only respite comes in the form of a refreshingly dopey beatnik in the last 30 minutes, who repeatedly refers to his jazz clarinet as a “squeak stick.”
This was the second-to-last feature from prolific director Cahn, who’d been working the lower budget studio sector since the ‘20s and helmed classic scifi B movies (Invasion of the Saucer Men; Creature with the Atom Brain) as well as some of the better Little Rascals shorts. It’s a damn shame that he had to bust out this extended yawn on his way to the graveyard.
Dir. William Fruet / 1986 / Warner Archive
This severely confused and blatantly Canadian mess glows with the ambition to fail at several genres at once. It’s a slasher boner comedy with no slashing, zero boners and the most dead-eyed, tepid comedy you’ll find north of the border. Three college newbies have to spend time in a haunted house, and their hornball antics are occasionally punctuated with paranormal attacks. Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel shows up just long enough to get electrocuted. Naked girls get chased by bees. It all sounds like a riot on paper, but take my word for it…the movie you’re imagining is a hell of a lot more fun than the one I just watched.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and why things go sour, but Killer Party’s troubles began very early in its existence. The film was practically completed back in 1978
as The April Fools, then relegated to a storage space until rescued by producers in 1984. They shot a few more scenes plus injected a completely superfluous opening musical number (the movie’s most entertaining moment, provided by Canadian receding- hair-rock band “White Sister”). It was then handed over to MGM, who sat on it a while longer, butchered out all the much-needed scenes of butchering, and finally set a release date of mid-1986. The popular slasher film April Fools Day had just been released, and Fruet’s painfully delayed film was quickly retitled Killer Party before being rolled out to little fanfare.
Stories like this often describe an underseen would-be classic, but this is a case where a forgotten film deserves its obscurity. By the time it hit screens, many of its creators and crew had moved on to better careers, like writer Barney Cohen who’d penned Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in 1984, the entry often considered to be the best in the series. I’m also a fan of the director, Canuck exploitationeer Fruet. His films (Trapped; Spasms; Search and Destroy) usually reek of earnestness and triumph in the face of financial adversity. But sadly, Killer Party just plain reeks.
SUGAR HILL a.k.a. THE ZOMBIES OF SUGAR HILL
Dir. Paul Maslansky / 1974 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
The finest blacksploitation zombie romance revenge voodoo action horror film you’ll ever see. When Miss Sugar Hill’s boyfriend is murdered by no-good gangsters, a
shriveled black arts priestess (Zara Cully of TV’s The Jeffersons) puts her in touch with Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), also known as The Lord of the Dead. Fortunately, The Baron is an all-powerful mystic with an army of legitimately creepy silver-eyed zombies. UNfortunately, he’s also a raging horndog and Sugar finds herself dodging his post-mortem advances while she exacts supernatural vengeance on the men who did her wrong.
Blaxploitation horror is roundly dismissed, largely due to calculated clunkers like Blackenstein and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, but Sugar Hill beats out even the Blacula films as the best of the bunch. It features a strong lead performance from Marki Bell (Super Dude), who dispatches her man’s murderers with a tangibly icy hatred. While baiting them to their deaths, she taunts them with epithets like “white-ass,” “cracker,” and – my personal favorite – “honk.” Colley is downright incredible as the undead Baron. In his previous films, the talented actor had been underused or relegated to bit roles (though he had a substantial part in 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, he was simply credited as “Negro”), and rarely been allowed to shine. Here, he grins and leers and cracks off one-liners like he’s on a sinking comedy cruise.
This was the only film ever directed by Maslansky, who would later produce cannibalistic heartwrencher Raw Meat and go on to make his fortune off the Police
Academy movies. Come to think of it, I like most of those too, so maybe you don’t want to put too much stock in my Sugar Hill praise.
THE SUPER COPS
Dir. Gordon Parks / 1974 / Warner Archive
A frenetic, unfocused and enjoyable account of real life NYC crimefighters Greenberg & Hantz, known on the streets as “Batman & Robin.” This film was adapted from the duo’s best-selling ’73 biography, which chronicled their exploits in explosive and exciting fragments. The movie operates in a similar way, patching together their adventures and struggles (against criminals as well as fellow officers) in a whiplashing episodic assault that makes the feature feel like a 90 minute trailer rather than a conventional narrative. But that’s not a criticism; it’s a unique and successful method to wedge a factual epic into the time/attention span parameters of an average action movie.
David Selby and Ron Leibman are both excellent in the lead roles. Neither one of them has the face or pretensions of a leading man, and both seem grateful for it. Their characters are content to alienate everyone in the world in the pursuit of defending the law, and their wiseass banter and kamikaze flatfooting have you rooting for them from the start. You don’t know much about them and you don’t expect there’s much to learn; they’re just two big city locals determined to clean up the streets, no matter how much shit is thrown in their path. Kinda like the “real” Batman and Robin, only without the billions of dollars and the support of the police commissioner.
Director Parks had made his name with the legendary first two Shaft movies, and at points, The Super Cops really does feel like a blaxploitation film that just happens to be about two goony white guys. But Parks was respected as and author and award-winning photographer outside of his film work, and the movie benefits from his smart and authentic aesthetics running wild throughout. The screenplay was handled by the great Lorenzo Semple Jr., which is itself entertaining since Semple was one of the creators of the original ‘60s Batman TV series. You won’t find that fact mentioned on the Super Cops IMDB or Wikipedia pages because no one gives a rat’s ass.
Whew! That’s it for this round. To order these and a zillion other titles, visit:
Or I guess you could go to Amazon. Whatever makes you happy.
We’ll be back with more in mid-December. Until then, stop watching bullshit and instead watch some of this GOOD bullshit!!