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

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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 Pyjama Girl Case (1977)

A grim, if nicely shot, Italian/Spanish giallo filmed in Australia, featuring a couple of Hollywood stars of a certain vintage and lots of dodgy post-synch dubbing.

The Pyjama Girl Case

Loosely based on a real Australian murder case from the 1930s (though set when it was made, in the mid ’70s), the film consists of two stories told in parallel, one a murder mystery, one a melodrama.  How or indeed whether these narratives connect is not made at all clear until late in the film and while this is an adventurous stylistic move from director Flavio Mogherini, it does lead to a muddled feel.

The murder mystery follows the discovery of the mutilated body of a young woman in yellow pyjamas.  The victim can’t be identified and the body is put on public display in the hope that witnesses will come forward.  Ray Milland leads impressively as a grumpy old-school cop brought out of retirement to help with the case.  The melodramatic narrative is a psycho-sexual drama played out over a few years, following the restless, unhappy Glenda, sympathetically portrayed by Dalila Di Lazzaro, through a tangle of affairs including a lovesick waiter (Michele Placido) and a wealthy middle aged amoral lothario (Mel Ferrer).

At times the film feels like a construction of contradictions.  The characters are universally unlikeable but the principal cast is excellent.  One plot point in particular – the idea of the police putting the victim’s preserved body on public display in a glass case – could read as fetishistic sensationalism, yet it actually happened during the original investigation.  Then there’s Riz Ortolani’s pseudo-disco electronic score, highlighted by two songs performed in a lightweight Nico-meets-Grace Jones style by Amanda Lear, Look at Her Dancing and Your Yellow Pyjama. They’re either awful or brilliant, I can’t make up my mind (also, note the use there of “pyjama” as a singular noun – for strictly disco purposes, obviously).  One even scores the opening scene of the body being discovered; it’s quite bizarre.

With its handsome cinematography, ambitious structure and a plaintive quality rooted in its real-life origins, I expect I’ll revisit The Pyjama Girl Case at some point.  This time round I watched the Salvation widescreen VHS which I picked up for a couple of quid online.  Luckily I didn’t pay too much attention to the cover image before watching the film as it’s actually a huge spoiler, so beware of that if seeking the tape out.

The Obligatory “Top Ten of 2016” Post

The obligatory Top Ten of 2016 post – it is what it is. And what it is, more or less, is split into halves: 2016 releases and older stuff I picked up throughout the year.  There’ll likely be full reviews of a lot of these titles to follow over the next wee while.

Top 10 of 2016

Albums

Some 2016 releases I haven’t been able to check out or pick up yet including at least a couple of heavy hitters, most obviously David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree.  There are undoubtedly others.  I was sadly underwhelmed by Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, ZZ Top’s Live Greatest Hits From Around The World (as perfunctory as its title) and The Cult’s latest but I’ll give them all a second chance at some point.  The same can’t be said for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.  It’s had its second chances.

Albums: Top 5 2016 releases

5.  The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith of Phobos
Endlessly entertaining psych-prog.
4.  The Monkees – Good Times!
Their first new album since 1996’s Justus and it’s rather good.
3.  Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer
Beck hooks up with London duo Bones to make what is easily his most compelling album since Guitar Shop.
=1.  Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
A lush, soulful, roots-rock diamond of an album.
=1.  The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome
A covers album, no less; a wonderfully jagged-edge contemporary take on Chicago blues (reviewed HERE).

Albums: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5.  Dave Arcari & the Helsinki Hellraisers – Whisky In My Blood (2013)
Yer raucous, rootsy alt.blues.
4.  Donovan – Barabajagal (1969)
Properly groovy psych-folk (with contributions from Jeff Beck).
3.  Prince and 3rdEyeGirl – Plectrumelectrum (2014)
One of Prince’s best latter-day releases, much of it straight-ahead heavy rock.
2.  James Gang – Rides Again (1970)
No matter how much music you listen to over the years, there’s always a stone classic that’s passed you by.  Damn!
1.  Eli Radish – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1969)
Outlaw Country forerunner, a set of covers of wartime songs (from the American Civil War through to Vietnam) given the Woodstock-generation treatment.  I’d been ages looking for this one and it was worth it.

Movies.  

I didn’t get to see half of what I might have wanted to; cinema is a too-expensive night out these days.  I’ll no doubt catch up on home releases (anyway, this blog is meant to be about physical formats, right?).

I’m sick to death of superhero movies, though.  I made the mistake of double-billing Batman v Superman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one seemingly endless night; watched through heavy eyes, it turns out they’re exactly the same film.

Movies: Top 5 2016 releases

5. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Underrated comedy drama based on a true story starring Tina Fey as a TV reporter in Afghanistan.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A tense and enjoyable wee sci-fi suspense thriller (even if the basic set up was pillaged from the pages of Métal Hurlant).
3. Hail, Caesar!
Brash, bright and loud – the Coen brothers at their least subtle with a very funny send up of McCarthy-era Hollywood.
2. The Nice Guys
A quality addition to Shane Black’s long list of quality buddy-comedy /thrillers.
1. The Lobster
Mental, though eh.

Movies: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5. The Vanishing (1988)
Superior Dutch/French thriller which takes some surprising turns.  Until the dodgy ending, right enough, which unfolds as if from a rejected script for Tales of the Unexpected.
4. Empire Records (1995)
Hollywood knock-off of Clerks is way more entertaining than it has any right to be; a throwback to old rock’n’roll movies and ’70s fare like FM.
3. Bread (1971)
Obscure British movie trying to appeal to that elusive “hippies who are big Robin Askwith fans” demographic.  Lots of great footage of little-known rock bands of the day.
2. St. Ives (1976)
J. Lee Thompson directing Charles Bronson as a writer-cum-private-eye, with Jaqueline Bisset being all sexy-like. Can’t go wrong.
1. Calvary (2014)
Bleakly funny, if ultimately just bleak.  Brendan Gleason, though.  Wow.

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.

 

Vamp (1986)

College fraternity pledges Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) go on a road trip to book a stripper for their frat house.  Together with “friend for a week” Duncan (Gedde Watanabe out of Gung Ho) they have a run in with Billy Drago in a white fright wig before happening on a dodgy looking strip club with cockroaches for bar snacks, a creepy manager, a psycho bouncer and a cute waitress/stripper (Dedee Pfieffer).  Oh, and loads of vampires, led by Grace Jones’ Katrina.

Richard Wenk’s Vamp is a minor horror-comedy cult classic which I’d somehow managed to miss over the years.  It’s good cheesy fun – funny in places, creepy in others, its neon lit nighttime street settings combining with the synth heavy soundtrack for a gothic, even goth, atmosphere.  There’s a great, bird-flipping death scene in there and one of the best creepy child-vampires you’re likely to see. The cast is good with Dedee Pfieffer particularly engaging while Grace Jones’ vampire turn is a memorable one, her Katrina pitched somewhere between Nosferatau and Metropolis.

What’s most remarkable about the film though is its very clear influence on later movies.  Drago’s street gang is an obvious template for Keifer Sutherland’s vampire gang in The Lost Boys and as a monster-movie riff on the teen college comedies of the day, it’s no great stretch to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes Vamp a debt.  As to a strip club run by vampires?  From Dusk Till Dawn, surely – right down to meeting the queen vamp during a dance sequence (we first encounter Katrina using her powers to mesmerise the audience during a mental ’80s performance art piece).  More surprisingly perhaps, I think it’s fair to say that Watanabe’s Duncan is surely a loose template for both Zach Galifianakis’ and Ken Jeong’s characters from the Hangover movies.

Vamp finds itself at the better end of the horror comedy scene of the ’80s and ’90s.  It does however leave certain questions unanswered – why would a group of vampires keep open oil drums and naked flames next to their coffins?  And, just how difficult was it to hire a stripper in 1986?

Vamp

Original UK big box ex-rental, £10 online.

Stone Cold (1991)

In the most ’80s movie ever to come out of the ’90s, massively mulleted undercover cop Joe Huff infiltrates a biker gang while wearing as few shirts as possible. He has a huge leather goth coat, which is odd, he favours some frankly disturbing thong underwear, which is strange, and has a pet lizard called Fido, which is unusual.  Every ’80s/’90s action movie cliche puts in an appearance here, including a bare knuckle pit fight, covert meetings in pole dancing clubs, the hanging-on-to-the-bonnet-of-a-moving-car bit, everybody shooting everyone else and blowing shit up.  Shit really does blow up a lot in Stone Cold – in fact it must surely be one of the last great “vehicles bursting into flames for no apparent reason” flicks – a lost art today.

This was one of several “star-making” action movies released by the major studios in the early ’90s, presumably off the back of the similar launch of Steven Seagal’s film career after he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the fringes of Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1988 . Seagal’s Nico [Above the Law], co-written by the star and virtually an expanded showreel right down to a semi-autobiographical intro, went on to be a minor hit in the US and led to a run of box office successes.  For a while after that, these tailor-made star turns must have seemed like no-brainers though they never panned out quite so successfully.  The likes of martial artist Jeff Speakman and jobbing actor/writer Thomas Ian Griffith had their own “Next Big Thing” projects (they’re on the Tapes for My VCR shelf – watch this space!) but first up was American Football player Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth. 

The Boz.  Glaswegian readers can stop sniggering in their own time.  No hurry.

Here, as Huff – undercover as John Stone – the fledgling star is pitted against a quality cast of bad’ns.  William Forsythe does that character he does (i.e., Richie in the same year’s Out for Justice) and a surprisingly ripped Lance Henriksen puts in a great scenery-chewing turn as biker gang leader Chains, at one point recalling his father’s dying words as “Don’t, son!  That gun’s loaded!”  Although not in retrospect destined to be the next great action star (it would be five years before he made another film), Bosworth himself is not too bad in a straight ahead action role, while, hot off the back of a couple of B-gems, Action Jackson and Dark Angel, director Craig R. Baxley puts his background in stuntwork to good use.

Stone Cold is full of would-be iconography, most notably a long steadicam shot after the film’s ‘copters-and-machine-guns climax, following Bosworth walking away from the obligatory mayhem, bloody and of course shirtless, as the credits roll.  Oh, sorry, spoiler alert: he doesn’t die.  Earlier scenes borrow liberally from the biggest action stars of the day, the opening set piece in a supermarket lifting simultaneously from Stallone’s Cobra and Seagal’s Hard To Kill, the pit fight lifting from Van Damme’s AWOL and Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.  Even the box art is a Terminator knock off.  The plot lacks logic and, as mentioned, is cliche-ridden.  However there is a knowing quality here which, while hardly postmodern deconstruction, is enough to keep you onboard through a breathless pantomime of brawling, motorbike chases and lots of explosions.

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

UK big box ex-rental in good order from Amazon for about £8. This is the “generic cop thriller” side of the reversable box art (boo!).

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

Other side of the reversable box art: it’s a Terminator movie (yay!).