Sep 10 2017

Another Son of Sam (1977)

If David Berkowitz, the real-life Son of Sam, actually did receive his orders to kill from a dog, that would make more sense than Another Son of Sam, a bonkers exploitation thriller that trades on the murderer’s media-friendly moniker, but otherwise is unrelated. Not for nothing was this tabloid-tainted obscurity the one and only stab at directing, screenwriting, producing, editing and casting by Dave A. Adams, stuntman of William Grefé’s Whiskey Mountain.

After three minutes of ellipses-ridden titles commemorating the exploits and body counts of such all-star serial killers as Jack the Ripper, Charles Starkweather and Richard Speck, Another Son of Sam presents a live performance by the Tom Jones-esque singer Johnny Charro (as himself) at the Treehouse Lounge, which has as much bearing on the hour that follows as all the front-loaded discussion of waterskiing: zilch. Just get used to that; Adams has no idea how to set up a story, so the viewer will be unable to determine the main character. I thought I knew, but learned — after my second viewing, no less — that the policeman I assumed was the lead was actually two officers who not only look alike, but have similar-sounding names. To say that the “FLUSH OLD MEDICINES DOWN THE TOILET” sign spotted in early scenes is more prominent than any of its surrounding performers is hardly an exaggeration.

Therefore, there is no lead role — not even the titular madman, Harvey! Until the climax, such as it is, we glimpse him only as a set of feet or hands or eyes in extreme close-up, like the creature in Creepshow’s segment of “The Crate.” Strangling an orderly with a telephone cord and clocking a lady doc into a coma, Harvey escapes a mental institution, where a treatment of shock therapy literally jolts into a willy-nilly killing spree. His reign of terror occurs mostly in a girls’ college dorm — one well-populated, despite it being spring break. Once Harvey slays one of its residents (who stole $500 from the administration building, so she sorta deserves it, the film suggests), the police call in the local S.W.A.T. team, whose members perform on the level of S.H.I.T., making for an awkwardly inert action sequence of roughly 30 minutes. (At least the S.W.A.T. commander is entertaining in mispronouncing super-simple words in a super-Southern drawl: “window” –> “wind-uh.”)

Amateurs though the performers may be (and they are), their acting is hardly the flick’s defining deficiency. Another Son of Sam sports a color palette as brown as a UPS truck full of UPS uniforms; its straightforward timeline struggles to adhere to a reality as it leaps between cops and collegians; Adams employs slow-motion for no other discernible reason than to elongate the running time over the hour-and-a-nickel mark; his editing choices are so puzzling, they veer toward the experimental (emphasis on “mental”) — and that’s even discounting his head-scratching decision to end virtually every scene with a freeze frame! Why, it’s as if Adams caught the final shot of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and thought, “If it works once, why not dozens of times?” Ergo, freeze frames out the wazoo — enough to power a 1982 J. Geils Band single.

In summary, this is a killer no-budget, no-win endeavor lensed in that hotbed of auteurist cinema, North Carolina. Don’t you dare miss it! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Sep 2 2017

Amsterdamned (1988)

Somewhere, under the 25 miles of canals that twist through the capital city of Holland, lurks a serial killer in a scuba suit — shades of The Snorkel! People of Amsterdam, you are Amsterdamned.

In this minor gem of Dutch genre cinema, writer and director Dick Maas, reunites with Huub Stapel, the satanic Santa of his 2010 Christmas horror film, Saint Nick. Here, Stapel is the good guy: Eric Visser, a single dad and Amsterdam’s top police detective. Visser’s work on the case begins when a boat full of tourists can’t help but make icky contact with the corpse of a hooker, left dangling from a bridge. That the glass-topped watercraft cannot come to an immediate stop, causing the body to be dragged ever so slowly over horrified passengers, like a mop held by a lethargic janitor, lets you know Maas isn’t above introducing a streak of wicked humor into a thriller that is played largely straight, despite that exploitable title.

Clad head to toe in black synthetic rubber, the killer projects sleek menace as he makes waves through the city on his stabby spree. Although the movie is a tad too long at an hour and 54 minutes, it more or less moves swiftly through the paces of a procedural, replete with red herrings and last-act twists. Midway through Amsterdamned, Maas impressively stages its best sequence: a high-speed boat chase through those narrow canals lined with innocent members of the public on each side. While not quite on the hair-raising level of The French Connection or Bullitt, the extended scene — something of a knockout — generates a sizable wake of fun that elevates the material surrounding it. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Aug 9 2017

Freeway (1988)

In Steve Martin’s seriocomic L.A. Story, there exists a once-buzzy scene played for laughs that may leave today’s young viewer wondering what the big deal was: various Angelenos exchanging gunfire as they drove down the highway. See, kids, in the late 1980s, long before our nation found the courage to kill our co-workers at the office like we do today, we shot people anonymously, from car to car. Guess you had to be there.

In terms of timeliness, filmmaker Francis Delia was there, with Freeway, the kind of quick and cheap newsploitation thriller studios no longer bother to make.

Darlanne Fluegel (To Live and Die in L.A.) is the morose Sunny, still an emotional wreck after witnessing her himbo physician hub fatally take a bullet to the skull from a passing motorist one night. With the killer still at large and aggressively active, Sunny feels the police detective assigned to the case (Michael Callan, Leprechaun 3) isn’t doing enough to put an end to the maniac’s four-wheeled reign of terror. For Chrissake, the fully loaded loon even makes a habit of spewing Book o’ Revelation babble by calling into a live AM radio show hosted by the not coincedentally named Dr. Lazarus (comedian Richard Belzer, The Groove Tube).

Then a director of music videos by Starship and “Weird Al” Yankovic, Delia teases the killer’s identity for much of Freeway‘s stretch, but no self-respecting genre junkie drawn to this kind of A/V smack will fall for the use of James Russo (Beverly Hills Cop) as a red herring — not with the sky-high billing of Billy Drago in the credits! Ever since Drago’s evil, pasty-white perf as Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables the year prior, the poor guy was typecast as the craziest of crazies — much like Clint Howard (Evilspeak), who cameos as a Yet Another Creepy Guy.

Drago’s typecasting is not without justification; he plays bad very well. Thus, the nasty little thriller works well, too, with a modicum of fuss and one foot on the pedal, headed toward tawdry, thrifty suspense. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jul 22 2017

Out of the Dark (1988)

As if a serial-killer thriller in which the targets are phone-sex workers weren’t ludicrous enough, Out of the Dark went one further by making said killer a former circus clown named Bobo.

And that, my friends, is why I miss the ’80s. Sigh …

The L.A.-based Suite Nothings is the dial-a-gasm operation in question, run by the blowsy, Jolt Cola-swilling Ruth (Karen Black, Airport 1975). For a reason that’s not really a reason once All Is Revealed at the end, her employees start to get killed after leaving the two-bit office for the night. First to go (unfortunately enough, because she’s strikingly beautiful) is a naive blonde (former Playboy centerfold Karen Witter, Popcorn) who meets Bobo in the park and plays invisible baseball with him until he cracks her on the noggin with a very real bat. Bobo commits his murders in full clown mask and while dancing jigs. The effect is bizarre, to say the least.

The investigating lieutenant (Tracey Walter, 1989’s Batman) suspects the girls’ headshot photographer, Kevin (Cameron Dye, Fraternity Vacation), but he’s the boyfriend of adorable Sweet Nothings employee Kristi (Lynn Danielson, Ghoulies IV). Besides, there’s that drunken photographer (Geoffrey Lewis, The Lawnmower Man) making threats because he’s jealous of Kev’s success. And how about that creepy CPA (Bud Cort, 1987’s Bates Motel) in the same building as Suite Nothings who tries to get close to the ladies …

While Bobo-hunting around a cheap motel, Kevin tells Kristi, “You have to think of this as an adventure in sleaze,” and that advice holds true for the viewer. Full of boobs and blood, Out of the Dark is exactly the kind of un-PC exercise in watching pretty girls die that revolted critics, yet churned many a rental dollar. For a flick this sordid, writer/director Michael Schroeder (Cyborg 2) sure assembled one hell of a cast! Aside from those previously mentioned, the B-movie all-star team includes bits by Tab Hunter (Grease 2), Lainie Kazan (The Delta Force), Divine (John Waters’ muse in his final role) and executive producer Paul Bartel (Chopping Mall), in a wig that makes him look like a bloated Chris Elliott. This one’s not for the humorless, although somehow, Bobo antics aside, it is played arrow-straight. —Rod Lott

Get it 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