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 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.

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.

Night of the Comet (1984)

For this post, I had been going to put together a proper “Halloween special” with a double-bill of appropriate titles I’d missed on their first go-round.  Unfortunately, the other film, 1988’s Leviathan, turned out to suck really quite a lot, so I’ll give writing about it a miss. Ah well. Happy Halloween anyway …

Deep in the heart of the 1980s, cinema employee Reggie, out of The Last Starfighter, and her younger sister Sam, out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, unknowingly survive a Doomsday event only to find themselves in a largely deserted city, what with much of the population having turned to dust.  During trips to the mall, the local radio station and so on, they encounter zombies, psychotic stockroom workers, shady scientists, that guy out of Star Trek Voyager and Juliette Lewis’ dad.

Written and directed by Thom Eberhardt, Night of the Comet certainly serves as an ’80s time capsule – but it’s also a very cool little movie in its own right.  The properly ’80s cast of Catherine Mary Stewart (as well as … Starfighter she was in Weekend at Bernie’s), Kelli Maroney (not only Fast Times … but also Chopping Mall) and Robert Beltran (okay, Voyager was mid-’90s but he was in Lone Wolf McQuade) is engaging and the film is visually arresting.  The post apocalyptic vibe is driven home with lense filters, the sky having turned red in the aftermath of a comet’s passing, while the effective use of empty streets recalls The Omega Man and dozens of zombie flicks to follow.  There’s some social satire in there and a few proper horror moments with everything working on a “cheesy ’80s schlock” level – the mainstream pop soundtrack certainly helps – and as a Joe Dantesque send up of ’50s and ’60s B-movies.  The villainy is top notch with the stockboys from the mall all tooled up and nihilistic-like (“I’m not crazy – I just don’t give a fuck!”) and Geoffrey Lewis providing a scenery chewing turn as the sinister head of a lab where survivors are kept as sources of clean blood.  For, you know, evil research.

I’m glad to have found this one.  I was only vaguely aware of it prior to this viewing – I had, presumably, seen the box in video stores back in the day but had never read up on it. Night of the Comet is well worth checking out – zombies,Doomsday/post apocalyptic sci-fi, ’80s teen comedy and smart pastiche – somehow it manages to convincingly tick all of those boxes.

Night of the Comet

Original pre-cert small box release, online purchase, about eight quid all-in.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Fatal Games (1984)

An insane javelin-thrower is picking off the elite of the promising young athletes at an elite school for young, promising athletes by, insanely, throwing javelins at them.  You know the drill: Look!  A psycho-killer!  Quick love, pop your top off!

In the hands of one-time-only director Michael Elliot, slasher movie Fatal Games is so ineptly executed you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a largely unfunny spoof of the genre.  The usual tropes are all in place but are somehow rendered even sillier than the norm.  For instance, there are lots of shower scenes to facilite copious scream queen nudity – genre legend Linnea Quigley is in there somewhere in an early role – but the equivalent scenes for the male characters (“scream kings”?) has them showering with their underpants on, begging the question: was this somehow easier than shooting from the waist up or do American males actually keep their pants on in shared showering situations?

Now, Tapes For My VCR is usually all about what I’ve been calling “celebratory criticism”.  The featured videos are certainly not all classics but I hope to find something there of value.  Also, I generally don’t do that “so bad it’s good” thing – that level of sneering is just not for me.  So then, why review Fatal Games?  It has virtually nothing to recommend it.  In fact, it’s an utter bag of complete arse.  Admittedly, much of the javelin-based carnage and the unmasking of the killer do hit some heights of mildly enjoyable absurdity – and at one point the gold standard is set for unintentionally funny fictional newpaper headlines – but it’s not enough to save it.

The one thing that really made this stand out as worth writing about is something unique to the tape format and therefore apropos for a VHS-centric blog.  With impeccable timing, during the “dramatic” unmasking of the killer, there is a sudden burst of vintage ’90s UK telly – I think it was Bugs starring Jesse Birdsall.  Just a few seconds’ worth before cutting back to what I’ll loosely term the “action”.  A quick check afterwards shows that, unusually, the cassette has an intact recording tab.  Oops.  Some weary soul presumably hit the record button by accident while resuming playback, armed with a fresh cup of tea and the resolve to watch the film to its bitter end as the rental was two quid.  I considered sending it back (it was a recent eBay purchase) but really, that telly clip was one of the highlights, so what the hell.

Nice to think that a dreadful film could be rendered marginally more entertaining today by a remote control fumble from thirty years ago.  Only on tape … you won’t get any of that with your BluStreamingDVDRays.

Fatal Games

Ex-rental, online purchase for about a fiver all-in.