McQ (1974)

From the back of the box: “After his best friend, Sgt. Stan Boyle, is shotgunned to death, Lt. Lon McQ finds himself in trouble with his superiors when he beats up the man he believes was responsible, Manny Santiago.”

“Shotgunned to death.” What a turn of phrase. Is being “slightly shotgunned” a thing? “Shotgunned a bit.” Also, come to think of it, is McQ even a name?

Legend has it that John Wayne turned down the role of Harry Callahan because he didn’t want to play an anti-hero. That did not, however, stop him from dipping his toes in the “gritty urban crime thriller” pool. McQ was the first of two excellent entries in the genre he starred in, the other being the following year’s somewhat lighter Brannigan.

Despite it’s Dirty Harry-style underpinnings, McQ is at its core a film noir, with all the double crosses and troubled dames you could hope for. There are nods to The Maltese Falcon and Farewell My Lovely and that classic noir trope the McGuffin is present, if in the very ’70s shape of a truckload of drugs. It starts as a cop thriller but McQ soon hands in his badge to become the most noir of protagonists, a private eye. However, he is neither the standard pulp-era hard-boiled cynic nor the amoral ’70s anti hero. Nearing retirement, he’s seen it all and though, as is the way in these films, he’s willing to play hard and fast with the small matter of suspects’ rights, he is at heart an old-fashioned good guy. When Wayne delivers a very of-its-day line about “women’s lib”, he does it with a cheerfully rueful acceptance, Lawrence Roman’s script hinting at the changing times without overplaying its hand.

The capable supporting cast includes a raft of industry stalwarts of the day (several of whom had appeared in then-recent Wayne vehicles) – Eddie Albert, David Huddleston, Clu Gulager and William Bryant as well as future TV regulars Diana Muldaur, Julian Christopher and Roger E.Mosley. Not forgetting of course Al Lettieri as Santiago in full “slimy bad guy” mode.

The most memorable performance in the film is Colleen Dewhurst’s note perfect informant, Myra. In a layered, sympathetically played scene recalling Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (and a likely influence on the 1975 film adaptation), McQ visits her to get information. He pays her in cocaine and ends up sleeping with her. A less typically “John Wayne” scenario is difficult to imagine.

Of course, there’s plenty of action here. Directed by genre giant John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), McQ uses its Seattle locations to great effect, with fast cars and shootouts galore. There are memorable set pieces (McQ in his Trans Am being crushed between two trucks, a climactic beach front car chase) aided in no small measure by some terrific music. Really, apart from Wayne, the star of this film might just be Elmer Bernstein’s score, one of his best. The bold, brassy main theme fits Wayne to a ‘T’.

The urban thrillers of the 1970s produced many memorable movies from Dirty Harry to Death Wish and Get Carter. If McQ doesn’t quite sit at the top of that list, it certainly has its place alongside some of the lesser known gems of the era like Shamus, Sitting Target and Night Moves.

I watched this on VHS, a pre-cert rental copy that I picked up a few years ago for not cheap. This was due to there never having been a UK DVD release, though a glance at eBay shows me that US versions are now available at a reasonable price. There’s also recently been a reportedly very decent Blu Ray release, again USA only. These have to be worth checking out as the VHS print suffers noticeably from being panned and scanned.

McQ

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King Kong (1976)

Slippery Big Oil man Charles Grodin out of Filofax leads an expedition to an unexplored pacific island in the company of stowaway hippie palaeontologist Jeff Bridges out of Nadine and castaway starlet Jessica Lange out of Rob Roy. Once on the island, it turns out there’s not much to offer in the way of oil, so they take home a giant apelike creature instead. While being put on public display in New York, said giant ape expresses its general displeasure by breaking loose and going completely mental.

The first remake, then, of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original which has long been considered a classic and rightly so, with its legendary stop-motion animated effects and creature designs still holding up well today. It does have its problems though, particularly the pacing. The first half of the film is downright boring, with nothing much to hold the attention until Kong finally puts in an appearance. The 1976 iteration has no such problems – beautifully shot by Richard H. Kline, the first half of the film looks great and is always entertaining. It sounds great too, thanks to John Barry’s score. Its real problem is that, although the pacing holds up, once Kong finally appears the special effects are a huge let down and they continue to jar somewhat for the remaining running time.

I think I saw this Kong Kong at the cinema when I was wee and then again on the telly in my teens. I was prompted to revisit it for the first time since then, on DVD, after rediscovering Bruce Bahrenburg’s excellent behind the scenes book The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. As a snapshot of the clash of Old Hollywood and the emergent major independent producers of the ’70s it’s a great read.

A lavish Dino De Laurentiis production, this was one of the most expensive movies ever at that point and much was made at the time about the 50 foot-tall mechanical Kong that would be used in the production. It even gets its own onscreen credit. However, impressive as it is, the mechanical Kong actually only puts in a few seconds of screen time, played for the rest of the film by an obvious man-in-a-suit, and a giant mechanical hand. The De Laurentiis production was up against a rival remake in preproduction at Universal, and so the film was shot on an unrealistically tight schedule. Problems with the mechanical Kong couldn’t be ironed out in time and so the man-in-suit solution, in the shape of future makeup effects guru Rick Baker, was arrived at. The end result is an odd clash between a very handsomely shot, lavish production and something that at times just looks cheap and silly. However even the “suit” sequences do have their moments with an attack on a city train being particularly impressive, as is the surprisingly bloody climax set on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Scripted by master of high camp Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the ’60s Batman TV series, 1980’s Flash Gordon) and directed with a sure hand by John Guillermin, there’s a great cast of ’70s character actors and supporting regulars at work here (Jack O’Halloran, Renee Auberjonois, Ed Lauter), as well as the three main stars on the rise. Grodin lends depth to his corrupt, ambitious company man and it’s hard, from a post-Big Lebowski vantage point, not to view Bridge’s charismatic turn as a peak at The Dude’s younger years.

In one of old school Hollywood’s last attempts at classic star building, this is former model Jessica Lange’s first film appearance. The camera, of course, loves her but it would be disingenuous to say that she has “Oscar winner” written all over her at this stage. She acquits herself well, though, largely replacing Fay Wray’s incessant screaming from the 1933 film with satirically inclined feminism-lite dialogue of its day (“… you male chauvinist ape!”).

Though perhaps not the all-conquering blockbuster De Laurentiis had been hoping for, it did well enough to merit a belated sequel, the now largely forgotten King Kong Lives (1986). The original has been remade twice since, in 2005 and 2017. The 2005 effort is a complete misfire, overlong, overblown and over reliant on CGI, with a poorly designed Kong to boot. The 2017 take, Kong: Skull Island is actually a lot of fun, completely reinventing the Kong story while getting the CGI and creature designs right.

The 1976 film sits somewhere between its two descendants if, like them, falling shy of the original. Hampered by its schedule and the FX technology of the day, it is still hugely entertaining and often gorgeous to look at.

mde

The Octagon (1980)

Ex-karate champion and secret good Ninja, Scott James (Chuck Norris), becomes embroiled once again in the world of ninjutsu when his wayward step brother, bad Ninja Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) starts a training camp for what would appear to be weekend Ninjas … car park security Ninjas, perhaps. Dragging Scott reluctantly into proceedings are karate mucker A.J. (Art Hindle), anti terrorist McCarn (Lee Van Cleef) and a couple of potential romantic interests who – spoilers! – are not long for this film. Much karate-based action follows, with plenty Ninjas up trees and that, culminating in a raid on the Ninjas’ octagon-shaped headquarters.  Brilliantly, when we are privy to Scott’s expository thoughts, they’re in the form of a weird whispery voice-over.  Some quality randomness there.

This is a comparatively early outing for Chuck, one of the movies that cemented his reputation as an actual honest-to-goodness film star.  He’s personable enough here and his fight scenes are excellent.  It’s easy to forget, between laughing at the memes and groaning at the man’s personal politics just how impressive his onscreen fighting style was – practical and brutally effective with just enough flash to keep the “ooft!” factor in play – making him for that reason at least an influential figure in martial arts movies and action films in general.

Watch out for a young Ernie Hudson as a karate competitor-in-training and Richard Norton, who would go on to appear in countless Hong Kong vehicles with the likes of Cynthia Rothrock and Jackie Chan before his own brush with DTV stardom in the ’90s. Interestingly, here he plays two roles. As a heavy for a mercenary recruitment operation, he takes an unglamorous kicking from Chuck and is otherwise seen throughout as Seikura’s enforcer, face obscured by a fancy Ninja mask. In this guise, his fight with Norris near the film’s end is fun to watch.

While The Octagon is hardly a classic, it cracks along at a fair old pace.  One of a handful of films directed by Eric Karson (who returned to Ninja movies eight years later with Black Eagle, helping propel a young Jean Claude Van Damme to spin-kicking stardom), this one kicked off the brief early ’80s Ninja craze and was blatantly ripped off the following year for the awful Franco Nero vehicle Enter the Ninja.

I started viewing this via an original pre-cert VHS but my machine started acting up so I switched to an old forgotten DVD. I’m sure the DVD is sourced from the same print, only later, after it had developed some problems. I believe there is now a more recent and generally better DVD version available (the older one is also cut, which I don’t think is true of the VHS).  In this instance though, VHS definitely beat DVD hands down (the format if not the hardware).  Also, check those covers out.  The VHS is epic, the DVD is a load of pish.

The Octagon

 

 

 

The Marine (2006)

Super Marine John Triton (John Cena off of the wrestling) is discharged after heroically but illegally rescuing His Men from some swarthy foreigners who prove no match for his enormous arms. After a stint as a security guard goes amusingly pear-shaped due to fighting, his missus is kidnapped by that Terminator who could turn himself into vinyl flooring (Robert Patrick) and that naked guy out of Spartacus (Manu Bennett) after a bunch of explosions and some fighting. After that, it’s all fighting and explosions.

The Marine

This one is almost derailed at the off by the cheesy title card which is a beyond camp live shot of Cena in full US Marine dress uniform (one of the great unintentionally funny military getups) standing to attention in front of the Stars’n’Stripes before snapping off a salute. Oh dear. The opening rescue mission sequence, right out of the mid-’80s Chuck Norris playbook, doesn’t entirely help matters, being most reminiscent of the Charlie Sheen/ Michael Biehn “classic” Navy SEALS. Clearly, this could go either way.

Happily, once Triton is returned to civvy street and everybody stops saluting, the film hits its stride, turning out to be a total ’80s/’90s action movie throwback, solidly directed by first-time helmer John Bonito. There are ’90s-style “big-bang” heists, great effects and stunt work. Those effects are mostly practical – shit blows up for real – and a succession of satisfying fight scenes deliver a mix of old school duking it out, martial arts and of course, pro wrestling moves.

Even if the script does go from “dumb-but-entertaining” to just plain “dumb” here and there, the pace never lets up so by the time you’ve spat your beer out shouting, “no, hang on a minute”, there’s another explosion and all’s well.  The bad guys are played mostly for laughs, complete with some sub Carry On-style music cues. As the big bad, Robert Patrick is on particularly fine scenery-chewing form.

As befits an early WWE Studios production, the soundtrack features the Smackdown-friendly likes of White Zombie while end credit tune If It All Ended Tomorrow is credited to John Cena and Trademarc – serving now as a reminder of Cena’s old wrestling gimmick (as a rapper – he was on Top of the Pops!). Cena is fine in the action hero role here, handling most of his own stunts and comfortable with the straight-man dialogue.

The Marine was successful enough to spawn several DTV sequels, none of which featured Cena, who went on to make the similarly received, Renny Harlin-directed 12 Rounds.  Since then, his wrestling schedule appears to have largely taken precedence.  Recently though, he’s been picking up critical praise for his comic turns in Trainwreck and Sisters, and this year’s dramatic role in The Wall. Surprisingly director Bonito only seems to have completed one other project, 2011’s Carjacked.

A film I never saw new, and was only vaguely aware of, I picked this up as part of an irresistible “4 DVDs for 99p” charity-shop deal and had no real hopes for it. Turned out to be just-under-25p very well spent. If you find yourself hankering after the likes of Raw Deal or Cobra of an evening, The Marine could well be the very thing.

The Marine cover

 

The Dark Power (1985)

A group of college students decide to move into a house together, little realising that this is the burial site of some Native American sorcerers (yes, sorcerers). It’s all tits and carnage until an ageing, whip-wielding Texas Ranger comes to the students’ aid.

The Dark Power is a regional horror movie, a sub-genre of US zero budget indies best known for The Evil Dead. This one is in truth pretty shoddy but worthy of interest due to a star turn for Lash LaRue, B-movie cowboy legend from the era of Roy Rogers and William Boyd. It’s also known for its box art, a cheesy classic of its kind. The movie was directed by Phil Smoot (a name to be reckoned with) whose only other director’s credit is for the same year’s Alien Outlaw, also featuring LaRue.

LaRue is a fascinating character – his onscreen persona in B-movies of the ’40s and ’50s was a man-in-black, brandishing a bullwhip. He appeared in over thirty of these low budget spectaculars with titles such as Mark of the Lash and King of the Bullwhip and even had his own long-running comic book series. In later years, after a long break from movies spent as a lay preacher in repentance for his unwitting appearance in a soft core porn film, he continued to take the odd B-movie role. His legitimate expertise with the bullwhip also led to him performing in circuses and carnivals during leaner times. Curiously, in 1986, he featured on the back cover of Heroes, the only album ever recorded by Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash as a duo (LaRue, also known as a musician, doesn’t appear on the actual recording although his signature does adorn a brief poem on the sleeve). He also appeared in a couple of the late ’80s “Highwaymen” TV movies (Stagecoach and A Pair of Aces). As mentioned, LaRue’s classic movie image was that of the original “man in black” so perhaps this was an influence on Cash. Most interestingly, he was apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ use of the bullwhip in Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels and served as Harrison Ford’s trainer.

Dark Power Heroes https://ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

All of which serves to make his appearance four years after Raiders in this weird little horror movie seem quite unremarkable. He’s in his late sixties here, grizzled, game and the only pro in the room.  He’s on the scene as a zombie fightin’ whip crackin’ Texas Ranger, leading to the occasional great quote (“Feel my whip, you son of a bitch!”) and a properly mental scene where he faces down one of the ancient evil sorcerers (yes, sorcerers) with, “Alright, you demonic bastard! Let’s take this outside!”  – and they do! An unlikely whip duel ensues.

The sorcerers (yes, sorcerers) are something special. Presumably there was no costume budget, so it looks like the actors (yes, actors) have been let loose on the dress-up box from an impoverished secondary school theatre arts department. They end up looking like a cross between Klytus from Flash Gordon, Mr. Punch, Wurzel Gummidge and nobody’s idea of a samurai. One, credited as “Tomahawk” (Jerry Montgomery) is, surprisingly for a thousands-of-years-dead Native American, a martial arts whiz. This leads to a fair amount of unintentional comedy with Tomahawk breaking into elaborate displays of axe-twirling karate moves before getting his kill on. Also, in a literally staggering display of racial stereotyping, these fellows enjoy a drink. Apparently, after centuries in the grave, your average Native American wizard (no, sorcerer) likes nothing more than getting a bit rapey after partying with the old fire water. All the more surprising as they start out as the most polite movie monsters ever, accessing the house by actually knocking at the front door.

The Evil Dead ‘presence in the woods’ POV camera shot is copied wholesale, the film is poorly paced, there’s an incredibly tame looking pack of wild dogs and some exceptionally inept production. During the initial bout of standard horror movie mayhem, which takes place at a party with loud music and all, one of the student tenants is being distracted from her studies. “All this partying’s enough to wake the dead!” she shouts – a quality comical line, clearly, because, you know, they actually have woken the dead. Brilliant. Unfortunately the filmmakers forgot to add any party sounds in the edit, meaning that she delivers it to an entirely silent house. On the plus side, there is a decapitation-by-bullwhip scene.

Dark Power dogs Dark Power Heroes https://ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

A terrifying pack of wild dogs.

If nothing else, The Dark Power is of interest as a historical curio, a just about watchable example of regional horror providing a glimpse into the wayward career of a golden age B-movie star with a few accidental laughs thrown in. And that schlocky box art does look good on the shelf.

Dark Power ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

UK big box ex-rental VHS tape picked up online for about £7 all-in.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One of those films that just got past me, I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until picking up the original VHS online recently.  I went with the VHS as this original pre-cert version is apparently the only uncut UK release.  I had seen the second sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (which I remember liking) on its original cinema release but that remained my only exposure to the series.  Nowadays of course the first film is considered a horror classic, Freddie Krueger is an icon (though he’s just “Fred” Krueger in the titles here) and writer/director Wes Craven is considered one of the masters of the genre.  Let’s say I had high expectations.

Sadly, if this ever really did seem like a great movie, the years haven’t been kind.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments and in places it shows signs of real horror movie class but even at its strongest it goes back and forth between creepy and inept.  The concept is a great one, a variation on the usual “teens in danger” slasher flick.  A group of kids from the same neighbourhood start having nightmares in which they’re being stalked by the same monster, a freakshow-faced hat-wearing razor-clawed psychopath.  Turns out their dreams are haunted by the demonic ghost of a dead serial killer.  That villain too – the aforementioned Freddie Krueger , as played by Robert Englund – is an undeniably great movie monster but here just too often comes across as a bloke in a lame Halloween costume.

Talking of Halloween, there’s obviously a John Carpenter influence here, which can only be a good thing.  It’s most apparent in Charles Bernstein’s synth soundtrack, which although not in Carpenter’s league at least helps establish an atmosphere (end title song Nightmare by 213, however, sounds like a bad demo that can only have been included by accident).

The biggest downside is the acting which, including that of a young Johnny Depp, is ropey throughout despite the best efforts of Englund and Hollywood stalwart John Saxon.  The writing doesn’t help, with Craven’s awful dialogue leading to some truly cringe-worthy mother/daughter interactions.  There’s also an odd moment with a talking digital watch which is worth looking out for (as if Craven had thought “There’s bound to be talking watches by the time this is released.  I mean, come on, they’ve got calculators on them now.  Calculators!“).

Of course, the film looks good and there are great scenes.  In particular the two iconic bedroom “kills” – one Exorcist-like sequence has a character being thrown about the ceiling, another ends with a bed erupting in a fountain of blood.  By the final act though, it’s all definitely falling apart.  A montage which is supposed to take place over just twenty minutes sees the heroine expertly carrying out about a day’s worth of DIY (part of a sequence which has gained in unintentional humour by having become the apparent inspiration for much of Home Alone) and the actual denouement is just silly.

As a piece of pop culture history, A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely worth checking out.  You might, like me, want to see what all the fuss was about – just go in with your expectations suitably tempered.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street: original pre-cert ex-rental VHS, picked up online for £8.00 in decent playable condition.

 

The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes.  The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot.  Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them.  I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.

Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on.  There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird.  I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years.  Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.

So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time.  Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites.  It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation.  As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.

New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable.  One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds.  Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie.  The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot.  Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security.  He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven.  Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.

Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse.  Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role.  The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere.  The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained.  It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife.  Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe.  While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.

There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film.  That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.

Tapes for my VCR: The Ultimate Warrior

Original UK Warner’s big box pre-cert release. Online purchase for £11.00

Alan Frank's Sci-Fi Now

Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now. Not sure if this is my original copy – it rings a very vague bell that I had to pick up a replacement in the dim and distant past.