Monday, December 27, 2010

Mike Malloy's "Elsewhere on the Web" Files #2 -- CROSS SHOT

Nigel Maskell's Italian Film Review ( is a blog that gives one much the same feeling as cracking open an edition of Leonard Maltin's video guide in days of yore -- it's a good place to expeditiously (a) compare your opinion on a particular recent viewing, or (b) get advanced info on what to expect from an upcoming viewing, or (c) browse so as to bulk up your "to watch" pile. The obvious difference being that Nigel's blog is focused entirely on the cool world of Italian genre cinema (the Eurocrime and Giallo genres, primarily) and skips all that other fluff of MGM musicals, Buddy Hackett comedies and whatever else Maltin and his staff wasted their time reviewing. And while still short enough to qualify as capsule reviews, the Italian Film Review write-ups are about three times as long as the old Maltin-book ones. But even so, your humble writer was still too verbose and wordy when he submitted a review (see, Nigel enlists other reviewers too) of the 1976 John Saxon Eurocrime film, CROSS SHOT. So here's the breezy IFR version at the link, followed by a fuller version....

CROSS SHOT write-up on ItalianFilmReview

Where '70s tough-guy actors were concerned, John Saxon couldn't be beat for versatility. During the decade, the actor played equal amounts of leading and supporting parts, as both heroes and villains –- in a bevy of different countries, as a bevy of different ethnicities. But when Saxon made an incredibly prolific burst of 1976-1977 Eurocrime movies, the roles were a lot more lopsided towards villains and supporting parts –- you need only take a look at his nefarious criminal characters in VIOLENT NAPLES, MARK STRIKES AGAIN, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION, THE SWISS CONSPIRACY and THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST. Although occasionally he would play a good guy (BLAZING MAGNUMS), only once did he play a heroic lead during his Eurocrime phase, in CROSS SHOT.

The story has Inspector Jacovella (Saxon) chasing a crew of armored-car heisters who killed a cop during the robbery. Jacovella catches up to some of the crooks (and delivers a nice groin kick to one), but another escapes by carjacking a vehicle. Because this new ride contains a briefcase belonging to a local mobster (Lee J. Cobb), the remainder of the film becomes a race between Inspector Jacovella and the mobster to locate the hiding crook.

CROSS SHOT is yet another DIRTY HARRY-inspired Italian cop movie about an angry-at-the-system police detective, but the script doesn't give Saxon much of a twist on this cinematic archetype, except an unusual (even for Eurocrime) penchant for excessive force (at one point, Jacovella pummels a kid for breaking into a cigarette machine). Perhaps to counter this, the film softens Jacovella by giving him a family, and we see him interacting lovingly with his wife and even racing slot cars with his son (played by Saxon's real-life kid -- awwww).

But the biggest twist that CROSS SHOT offers on the Italian angry-cop formula is that here the cop is not butting heads with his police superiors but rather the local newspaperman (Eurocrime fatty Renzo Palmer), who keeps whining that Jacovella's methods are not strictly by the book. Otherwise, all the genre staples are trotted out, from the hostage getting dumped from a moving car (see also CRIME BOSS, VIOLENT ROME, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION, etc) to the blind kingpin character (see also SYNDICATE SADISTS).

Saxon made another film with director Massi that year, playing the villain in MARK STRIKES AGAIN, which is the third in the “Mark the Narc” series. And who was the villain in the first two? CROSS SHOT's Lee J. Cobb.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A fistful of realistically tough and GRIT-ty female performances

The Coen brothers are notoriously meticulous about the details of their films' production design -- extending to casting -- and they're generally spot on. That's why it's disappointing that their new adaptation of the Western novel TRUE GRIT features a button-cute Hailee Steinfeld as its 14-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross. The earlier, 1969 film version of GRIT gets the Mattie character right, with the awkward, boyish-looking actress Kim Darby in the role. Her Mattie is not adorable or instantly endearing. But it is precisely because she has no cute exterior that the viewer must look to her defining inner quality -- dogged persistence -- in order to admire her. And maybe that''s as it should be. Because realistically tough female performances should have nothing to do with attractive women in spandex catsuits doing backflips while spraying machine-gun bullets into baddies. They should be more about real-looking women braving tough circumstances and pulling through, even if only by the skin of their teeth. Sadly, most lists of tough female film performances feature some combination of the same, tired usual suspects: Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and "them Lara Croft and KILL BILL girls" (I sometimes wonder if mainstream film journalists should have to pass an equivalent of the Bar).

So in honor of Darby's performance, let's look at some other women who are realistically, convincingly tough:


"I always felt my part was incidental … you have to have a leading lady," Ms. Gray told me during a 2001 interview about her character in this underrated film noir. And sure, she's not a head-turning femme fatale, as would be typical of a hard-boiled crimer, but that doesn't make her part incidental. In fact, Gray's squeaky-clean character (the actress would make a career out of portraying Good Girls) manages to play an integral role in keeping the hero alive. And how does she accomplish this, considering she doesn't fire a shot or throw a punch? Simply by using her law-student smarts to talk their way out of scrapes. And mind you, this is against some of the best screen villains of the 1950s, including Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand.

Elizabeth James in THE BORN LOSERS (1967)

Before the plainly titled BILLY JACK, there was this lesser-known Billy Jack film, about the half-Indian vigilante's attempt to save a young lady from some bikers who have gang rape on their collective, dim-witted mind. And the girl -- played by Elizabeth James who, sadly, acted in only one other film -- did ultimately need saving. But she fended off their sexual assaults for a good while with her smart mouth ("All together or just one at a time?") and a lug wrench. Sure, her sassy backtalk to the bikers may have been just masking her fear, but she kept her cool (and a brave face) nonetheless. And if James seemed natural delivering the feisty dialogue, it's because she wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym "E. James Lloyd." (According to a 1975 NEW YORK MAGAZINE article, James worked on BILLY JACK too and was intended, for a time, to be the female lead. It's not clear exactly why she wasn't.)


Foster's impressive 13-year-old character somehow lives in a house all by herself and keeps that fact hidden from the townspeople (even the landlady!) -- all while fending off the advances of a pedophile played by Martin Sheen. This scenario would have been too improbable for a suspension of disbelief if any other actress had played the brave kiddo, but a young Jodie Foster possesses such a strength and intelligence here that it becomes credible. If John Hinckley absolutely had to go nuts over a Foster role, it should have been this and not her TAXI DRIVER part.

Linda Haynes in ROLLING THUNDER (1977)

Is a typical cocktail waitress tough enough to drop what she's doing (in this case literally, with drinks crashing to the floor) and head to Mexico to help a former 'Nam POW find the crooks who robbed him? Dunno, but in the capable hands of Ms. Haynes, we are believers -- perhaps because of the character's well-rounded realism: She likes the revenging 'Nam vet and wants to be supportive, but she doesn't mind putting up a fuss if their Mexican jaunt strays too far from what she signed up for. Also helpful is the waitress's background as the tomboy daughter of an Army sergeant (the scene explaining her history was reportedly added by co-writer Heywood Gould after the character played well in the dailies). Haynes is a cute blonde in this, but it's not the sort of cute that exists only in the movies.

Patty Duke in A MATTER OF JUSTICE (1993, TV)

"My hell began the day my son was killed. Your hell is just beginning." With these fighting words, Patty Duke's strong Alabama woman lays down the gauntlet to her former daughter-in-law, whom she eventually gets convicted for a part in conspiring to kill a young Marine (Duke's character's son). I say "eventually" because the process drags out for years, making Duke's character not only intimidating with her toughspeak but also determined as hell (she travels to other states, hires P.I.s, sits through hearings, and gets personally involved in operations). Although this fact-based TV movie made it to DVD as FINAL JUSTICE and continues to play occasionally on Lifetime, perhaps the biggest testament to Duke's crowd-pleasing toughness is the fact that a certain teenaged Eastwood/Bronson fan (guilty as charged) sat captivated in front of his TV on both nights of its original NBC airing, blown away by the Southern bravado he was witnessing.

CONFIDENTIAL and LITTLE GIRL have both been available on studio DVDs, and the former has also had a myriad of budget releases too (it was/is in the Public Domain). THE BORN LOSERS has been available in a couple of different Billy Jack box sets. ROLLING THUNDER is available from the MGM Movie On Demand dvd-r series. A severely cut MATTER OF JUSTICE is available as an R1 dvd entitled FINAL JUSTICE and as a R2 dvd bearing its original title.

And lastly ... how did Martin Sheen manage to turn up acting alongside 40% of the characters listed here?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When likable tough-guy *adults* used to star in horror films (or, Not just another RACE WITH THE DEVIL review)

In this staged publicity photo, Frank (a fortysomething Warren Oates) and Roger (a thirtysomething Peter Fonda) demonstrate they’re not helpless against the Satanic cult that is pursuing them across the state of Texas. Kelly (Lara Parker) looks on from a more protected spot.

As much as I dig 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (and to a lesser extent HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS from that same decade), I begrudge these 1970s proto-slasher films for their legacy: “Teens in peril” as the norm for horror protagonists.

From the early 1980s right up to the time of this writing, we’ve had teenagers and twentysomethings almost exclusively as fright-film heroes, heroines and/or victims. Just look at the youth orientation indicated by titles from the first wave of slasher films: PROM NIGHT (1980), GRADUATION DAY(1981), THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982), THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1982), SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986), SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE (1986). And student characters were also the rule for the slasher revival of the 1990s: SCREAM (1996, high school), I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997, college), URBAN LEGEND (1998, college), CHERRY FALLS (2000, high school). And in this new millennium, young characters are still standard in horror cinema, in movies like CABIN FEVER (2003), WRONG TURN (2003), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), the FINAL DESTINATION series (2000-2009) and HOSTEL (2006). Hell, there’s even a term — “final girl” — to describe the archetypal lone heroine that survives to the end of these horror movies.

But why isn’t it “final woman” — or final man? Why aren’t more adults cast as the leads of fright films? Perhaps there is no greater argument for overturning horror cinema’s ageism than 1975’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL, a film starring forty- and thirtysomething actors. There’s no final girl here. RACE makes it two final men (Warren Oates and Peter Fonda) and their two final wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker). And why does the age of the protagonists matter to the film’s ability to terrify?

Let’s put it this way: Why should we bite our nails for the safety of dumb, self-interested, irresponsible, squabbling teens if we don’t even like these kids in the first place? Isn’t it infinitely more tense to root for mature, likeable characters who are struggling together to battle a horror villain (be it man, monster or somewhere in between) so they can return to the meaningful lives they’re building for themselves? Don’t older and more responsible characters generally have the most invested in life — and therefore have the most to lose?

Whether or not it was the movie’s intention, the likeability of its adult protagonists is what makes RACE WITH THE DEVIL so effectively tense. The film follows Texans Frank (Oates) and Roger (Fonda) as they head for a much-needed skiing vacation in Colorado. Their wives are with them on Frank’s 32-foot RV, and all four (plus one canine traveling companion) trek across the Lone Star state towards their snowy destination.

We learn that this vacation is well-deserved. For the past five years, Frank and Roger have been putting in long hours to build up their motorcycle design/sales business, and it seems they have finally hit upon hard-earned success (“You know what we have done in five years? We have put it together, baby!”). According to Roger’s wife, the vacation is “the first time they’ve really relaxed in such a long time.” Compare this to the young, Goodtime Charlie protagonists of 2006’s HOSTEL — college students who are celebrating four years of partying with a trip full of, well, more partying.

(One wonders if movies like HOSTEL, or any ‘80s slasher flick that follows the “rules” spelled out by Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, are really just punish-the-wicked morality plays. But then again, we aren’t rooting for the knife-wielding villain to win either, so where does that leave us? With a sense of justice borrowed from a revenge film, and with few, if any, characters deserving to live to the end? What good is that? I’m so confused...)

No, the characters in RACE are good people, and we spend the first 17 minutes of the movie getting to know and like this foursome. By minute 18, the action (and the horror) is underway, as Roger and Frank accidentally witness a Satanic ritual — one that ends in human sacrifice — during their first night on the road. The Satanic cult (truly a great movie villain; they don’t need motivations for their evils—they’re Satanists!) chase the two couples, who narrowly escape in their RV. The incident is reported, but the nearby lawman, Sheriff Taylor (perhaps a reference to Andy Griffith?), tries to discredit Frank and Roger’s account of the fatal devil-worshipping ceremony. A paranoia is created in the viewer at this point, as we wonder if all the locals—even the constabulary — are members of the cult.

Frank and Roger take the local law enforcement (R.G. Armstrong

and Wes Bishop) to the site of the sacrificial murder.

But do these local lawmen have their own agenda,

or is it just the viewer's paranoia acting up?

Likeable protagonists are all well and good, but they must be imperiled before we’ll commit to watching them for a feature-length horror romp. And RACE WITH THE DEVIL smartly creates a sense of danger by building on the paranoia established during the Sheriff Taylor scene. As Frank, Roger and the gals head toward Colorado, each roadside person they meet — a filling station attendant, an RV park guest, a country musician — seems as if he could be part of the Satanic conspiracy. To the viewer especially, it sure feels as if the RV is being followed and watched as it traverses the state. The camera lingers on the faces of all the people encountered along the side of the road — perhaps harmless, perhaps not — casting each and every one under suspicion.

It’s not only these minor characters that create paranoia, but occurrences too. Are the phones really inoperative at a petrol station, or were they intentionally disabled to prevent Roger from reporting the human sacrifice to a big-city police department? Is that really a school-bus accident on the deserted back road, or is it an ambush set by the Satanists? Why does that same red pickup truck keep driving by? (We’ll discover the answer to this last question in one of the great reveal shots in all of cinema.)

For all the tension, there is surprisingly little outright malice towards our heroic quartet in the first 58 minutes. After the initial incident on the first night, a rune (or written witch’s curse) is attached to the RV. Later, the pet dog is killed. But for nearly an hour, that’s all. It’s mostly just pending—and possibly paranoid—threats of danger. Today’s horror films (SAW II and the HILLS HAVE EYES remake spring to mind) generally feel the need, in a desperate attempt to be constantly eventful, to fill in any such early lulls with infighting and bickering amongst the protagonists. That way, the film can be unrelentingly noisy, strident, uncomfortable and, yes, tense. But the negative side effect is — (how many times must I say it?) — characters we just don’t give a damn about.

Back inside Frank’s RV, it’s a loving atmosphere before the action begins (“Here’s to friends I don’t deserve”) and a cooperative spirit after the trip takes its Satanic wrong turn. However, these characters aren’t unrealistically mellow or even-keeled. They do quarrel on occasion — about having to bring the dog, about whether to abandon the skiing vacation — but the arguments are always organic to the story. There is no squabbling for the sake of pumping in artificial tension.

Just as the characters aren’t overly quarrelsome, neither are they helpless — and that goes a long way towards fostering likeability. When events start getting too hairy, Frank pulls the RV over and buys a pump shotgun from a general store. Later, Roger climbs onto the back of the motorhome and un-straps the bikes, causing them to become ingenious road hazards for the closely following baddies. The only hysterical screamer in the bunch is Roger’s wife (Parker, apparently cast because of screaming abilities demonstrated on DARK SHADOWS), but she never acts so foolishly as to jeopardize the group.

The last half-hour is a real corker, and it’s full of some of the greatest vehicle-to-vehicle combat ever driven and filmed. This is all the more impressive considering that helmer Jack Starrett was brought in as a replacement director (during production!) and had no preparation. (To fill the director’s chair, Starrett was hired and Lee Frost was fired, although the film is still very much a project moulded by the filmmaking team of Frost and Wes Bishop. Between the two, they receive four credits in the film, including Wes Bishop’s acting credit as “Deputy Dave.” Frost and Bishop also made low-budget blaxploitation, hixploitation and biker movies, but Twentieth Century Fox’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL was their shot at making a studio film.)

At the time of this writing, a RACE WITH THE DEVIL remake has been in development for several years, and one can only hope a new version will not star twentysomething party kids. Of course, no matter their age, the new cast will be unable to duplicate the natural chemistry between Oates and Fonda — surely due to the pair’s off-screen friendship. RACE was the second of three films made together by the acting buddies, who were also neighbors in Montana. On several occasions in RACE, Fonda hints at their friendship by addressing Oates’ character as “Bubba Bear” (if Fonda’s autobiography is any indication, that’s the actor’s real-life nickname for his co-star and friend).

But don’t get me wrong. Despite all my complaints, I do understand the practicalities of why teen and college-aged characters are used as horror protagonists. Young kids can be good looking, and their raging hormones can be an easy pretext for flashing some nudity. Further, their immaturity is a good excuse for a lot of sneak-up-behind-you pranks in a film’s first act, which, in turn, are good for fake-em-out early scares for the viewer. And besides these more practical considerations, some reviewers (especially those given to overanalyzing) will say that boobs-and-blood teen horror films can effectively tap into younger viewers’ anxieties regarding sex.

What I don’t understand is why these young characters have a virtual monopoly on horror protagonism. And don’t give me that bunk that it’s done out of necessity to target the younger demographic of ticket buyers. Where is it written that moviegoers only want to watch their exact peer group on screen?

No, give me responsible grown-ups like Frank and Roger, and let me root for them as I watch their struggle against some form of nefarious evil. Oh sure, I may sit through some modern horror films with annoying kid heroes, but when they get sliced and diced, see if I care — or scare.