Jun 27 2017

Tragic Ceremony (1972)

Half a dozen years before she Spit on Your Grave, Camille Keaton toplined a supernatural slice of Italian horror titled Tragic Ceremony. In the film from Riccardo Freda (Murder Syndrome), Keaton’s plain Jane and her three guy friends of varying unlikability hop in a dune buggy after a rough-and-tough day of carefree yachting, only to run out of gas after evening falls and a downpour, well, pours. The foursome lucks upon a mansion whose owners, Lord and Lady Alexander (A Bay of Blood’s Luigi Pistilli and Thunderball’s Luciana Paluzzi), welcome them inside for cheese and salami and shelter with all the Gothic trimmings.

Late that night, the youths learn why the Alexanders are such gracious hosts: They’ve gathered their pals for a full-blown black mass, and require Jane as the pièce de résistance. (In other words, I think she is the subject of a sacrifice!) But her buddies put this party on ice and rescue her in the nick of time, albeit by having to commit murder to do so; the robed participants turn on one another, too, because when in Rome. Most notably, one guy takes a sword to the noggin, which immediately goes halfsies. I must not be the only one who finds this bisection (courtesy of effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi, 1976’s King Kong) the highlight of this sequence, because Freda later trots it out a couple more times for instant-replay kicks, making it this film’s equivalent of Sybil Danning’s infamous top-ripping scene in Howling II.

Then our quartet flees the house to safety. Whew! The end … except it’s not — Freda still has half a Ceremony to go! Unfortunately, coming after the misplaced climax, it’s the least interesting half.

The remainder finds death coming after Jane and the guys individually, Final Destination-style, to finish what it started. At least another of Rambaldi’s nifty gore gags pops up (look out for the grooming scene!), so it’s not as if the movie totally withdrawals its syringe of cheap pleasures on this downward slope. It does, however, unravel into a mess of an ending upon an ending upon an ending, as needlessly convoluted as Tragic Ceremony’s original title in its native Italy: Extracted from the Secret Police Archives of a European Capital. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 26 2017

Pajama Party (1964)

For the fourth movie in the Beach Party series (and the third sequel in 1964 alone!), AIP shook things up beyond the cast’s hips by adding a new director (Don Weis, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini), a sci-fi element and many, many sets of PJs. While Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello indeed return, they’re playing different characters, but it hardly matters.

Seen only from behind until the final shot, Avalon plays a Martian who sends Go Go (Tommy Kirk, Village of the Giants), a teenager of the angry red planet, to Earth on an exploratory mission before a planned full-scale invasion. Go Go attracts the amorous attention of Connie (Funicello), who hasn’t been too happy with her current, lunkheaded beau (Jody McCrea, Bikini Beach), who’s hosting quite the shindig for the whole gang at the mansion of his dress shop-owning aunt, Wendy (Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein).

Coincidentally, all this occurs on the same weekend that Aunt Wendy’s hidden riches are targeted for theft by con man J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White, Las Vegas Lady) whose balding pate and chomped cigar clearly mark him as a jokey dig at AIP co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff. To assist him in his nefarious scheme, Hulk enlists a super-sexy Swede (Bobbi Shaw, Sergeant Dead Head) and a Native American named Chief Rotting Eagle (legendary silent comedian Buster Keaton, here reduced to lines like “Cowabunga. Make chop-chop”).

Pool Party would have made a more fitting title, as these 20-something teens dive, front-flip and cannonball into Wendy’s pool with reckless abandon — and often — throughout. But the word “pajama” carries the connotation of nookie, which no one onscreen was having, although drive-in audiences where Pajama Party was projected likely were. That’s not to say Weis and friends don’t try to wink at the deed as unsubtly as the MPAA permitted. Personifying the sex act in a start-to-finish running gag is not Funicello, for Uncle Walt never would have allowed it, but future AIP Co-Founder James Nicholson Wife No. 2, Susan Hart (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine). The shapely brunette gets male castmates’ (and viewers’) motors running with a highly suggestive hustle of the hips that causes Dr Pepper to pop their caps, marshmallows to combust and candles to melt — the latter fate ultimately shared by the end credits!

Even with all these hinted-at erections and orgasms, Pajama Party remains good, clean fun. I imagine more adults may have had their panties wadded by a visual joke that sees two teens literally walking on water. Keep an eye out for that fun-in-the-sun sacrilege, as well as future stars Teri Garr and Toni Basil as backup dancers. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 24 2017

Awakening the Zodiac (2017)

While the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown, several popular theories connect him to men who since have passed away. But when has that ever stopped Hollywood from exploiting an exploitable concept? No stranger to other wacky “what if”s on the silver screen, San Francisco’s notorious serial killer of the late 1960s and early ’70s comes alive — with pleasure! — in Awakening the Zodiac.

Tired of living in a shitbox (their words) in a trailer park, blue-collar couple Mick and Zoe Branson (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s Shane West and Hell Baby’s Leslie Bibb) play a lottery of different sorts by bidding on the contents of storage lockers in arrears, in hopes that whatever contents are inside will exceed their investment. On their latest, they go halfsies with Mick’s buddy, Harvey (Matt Craven, Happy Birthday to Me), who owns a pawn shop. While excavating the wares, Harvey finds a box of 8mm films: homemade snuff reels, shot by none other than the Zodiac Killer. They know this because, helpfully, the madman appears in an all-black costume befitting of a superhero, complete with chest insignia.

Because the FBI’s case against the Zodiac remains unsolved, a beaucoup reward remains up for grabs. Hurting for money, our trio reasons if only they can discern the name of the locker renter, they can cash in and be able to crawl out of their miserable small-town lives. Instead of letting the law do that detective work, they stupidly attempt it themselves, starting with a couple of good ol’ B-and-Es. Who’d’ve thunk it, but in doing so, these rubes attract the ire of the actual Zodiac (Stephen McHattie, Watchmen), who emerges from retirement and hasn’t lost his thirst for bloodshed in the ensuing decades.

It goes without saying that Awakening the Zodiac packs nary a fraction of the punch of David Fincher’s 2007 true-crime masterpiece, Zodiac, and you’d be a fool to expect it to. Although inspiration is drawn from the real-life crimes, most explicitly in the time-warped prologue, historical accuracy is not on the mind of director/co-screenwriter Jonathan Wright (Nostrum), who’s more concerned with leveraging the boogeyman’s brand-name infamy into a marketable hook and letting it lie there. Marginally functional yet utterly predictable, the movie squanders its limited creepiness and becomes a victim of its own stupidity; it even takes the time — and wastes ours — to have Harvey explain the concept of ciphers to Mick and Zoe — the stuff of workbook pages geared toward third-graders. Bibb and Craven exude more energy than the film deserves, while West just does that thing he always does, which is to say he stands around with his face scrunched into what looks like a balled-up fist. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 20 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 6/21/17

Similar in structure to fellow McFarland & Company releases Now a Terrifying Motion Picture! and Classic Horror Films and the Literature That Inspired Them, yet by a different author, Ron Miller’s Mystery Classics on Film: The Adaptation of 65 Novels and Stories provides a thorough breakdown of the changes that short stories and novels have undergone on their path from the page to 24 frames per second. Tackling works nearly as old as cinema itself and as recent as the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, Miller (formerly a syndicated columnist on the topic of the telly) mines a wealth of whodunits for this multimedia survey, reviewing both the source material and the resulting movie with equal devotion and effectiveness. While several bona fide classics are covered — e.g., Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon — Miller makes his work more interesting by deviating often from the usual suspects, most obviously in eschewing the Agatha Christie adaptations And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express for … What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. All this, plus Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Mike Hammer, Auguste Dupin and even that lovable serial killer, Dexter Morgan.

Few reads can be as addictive as the oral history, and having written ones on SNL and ESPN, James Andrew Miller is arguably a master of them. Now he turns his attention to another set of initials, CAA, in Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. A 2016 release now in paperback from Custom House, the brick of a book (now with additional material, no less) traces the unlikely rise of CAA from the ashes of five disenchanted William Morris agents to a near-monopoly on the entertainment industry as a whole. Along the way, a classic Cain and Abel story builds between its two most powerful founders, Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer, but their fallout occurs in the second act; Powerhouse loses its luster after that, arguing for an earlier ending. Absolutely packed with gossip and dozens of unreliable narrators, Powerhouse offers both a business lesson in innovation and a cautionary tale of hubris.

Not for nothing does Robert Hofler’s latest biography, Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts, sport chapter titles of pairs, because his jack-of-all-trades subject is a textbook study in duality — and far more than mere separation of the public and private. Although a married (for a time) man with children, Dunne long enjoyed the company of his own gender, via anonymous restroom encounters and even skipping his father’s wake for a backseat coupling. Hofler plays these details not for gossip’s sake, but in crafting a full portrait of a very complex man — one who forever wrestled with guilt and, following the slaying of his daughter, Poltergeist actress Dominique Dunne, turned guilt of another kind into a second-act career as reporter of cause célèbre trials, most notoriously the O.J. Simpson circus. Whether you know Dunne from that journalism work, from the movies he produced (e.g., The Boys in the Band, The Panic in Needle Park) or from the high-society novels he wrote and their tony television adaptations (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles), Hofler — the author behind one of my all-time favorite cultural histories, 2014’s Sexplosion — does one helluva job documenting the life of one helluva interesting guy. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.

Jun 15 2017

47 Meters Down (2017)

Two things you should know about 47 Meters Down:
1. It was one week away from debuting on home video when it was picked up for a theatrical release.
2. One meter equals roughly 3.28 feet. Not being raised on the metric system, I had to Google that. It would have been helpful to know.

Nursing a broken heart, Lisa (Mandy Moore, Saved!) takes her younger, more liberated sister (Claire Holt, Messengers 2: The Scarecrow) with her to vacation in Mexico. Over fruity drinks, a couple of local studs (Jason X’s Yani Gellman and Scream: The TV Series’ Santiago Segura) cajole the girls into going shark-sighting with them the next day. Doing so entails donning scuba gear inside a metal cage lowered a few meters below the ocean’s surface. From the ship, captained by a gringo (Matthew Modine, TV’s Stranger Things), buckets of chum are dumped illegally to attract sharks to see. That method works — a little too well, when the winch snaps loose and the sisters are sent to the ocean floor, some 47 met– oh, you know?

As with similar minimalist shark thrillers Open Water and The Shallows, this is one of those high-concept films where the premise is so simple, one wonders how an entire feature can be squeezed from the tube. Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door) somehow manages. His bag of tricks may not be original — a cage door that gets caught, the ever-present deadline of expiring air tanks — but they work just enough to notch the movie over to the side of fun. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure … if that crowd is full of viewers who are easily swayed and led around like, well, sharks to chum.

Gorgeous underwater photography, sharks that don’t look fake, a running time under 90 minutes and genial performances from Holt and Moore combine to combat the fact that 47 Meters Down lacks the intensity with which it should be waterlogged. Roberts delivers one showstopper of a shot I won’t spoil — it involves a flare — and stops just shy of an ending that would enrage audiences like nothing since The Mist. No flourish, however, earns Roberts the right to slap his name as a possessive above the title, as seen in the opening credits. Get at least one classic under your scuba belt first. —Rod Lott