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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Masters and Hauers

The joy of the movie art tagline. Sometimes just lame and/or perfunctory, other times an art form to itself. Here are some of the gems I have on hand.

The Master:

1 – He hears the silence. He sees the darkness.

2 – The king of martial arts faces a bionic killing machine!

3 – The most feared person of all is a person without fear!

4 – One’s tough – one’s smart

Later Chuck releases often didn’t bother with a tagline. “Chuck Norris” was tagline enough.

Jeff vs. Jeff:

1 (a) – Just try him. (b) No gun. No knife. No equal.

2 – He’s the perfect weapon

Imagine the confusion amongst young cinephiles the world over. They’re not even the same Jeff.

Mind, if I had a time machine, I’d use it to go back and make the tagline for The Perfect Weapon “He’s the Karate Cop”. And, you know, kill Hitler.

Hot Hauer Action:

As if if Rutger with a sword wasn’t enough to secure the rental.

So stupid it’s clever:

Now, that’s just lazy:

Death Wish 6 – “The vigilante is back for vengeance again with a vengeance ..!” Ah, what might have been.

You thought that was lazy:

While the tagline hasn’t completely died, “from the director/writer/caterer of Taken” doesn’t quite cut it.

Keeping the flame burning:

1 – Seven colleagues. One weekend away. It’s time to get slaughtered.

2 – They’re close mates, but not that close.

3 – Part mystery. Part thriller. Parts missing.

These are all on that new fangled DVD format which is all the rage. Not bad.

Top 3

3.

The Stath! Points deducted, mind, for being intentionally funny.

2.

This is genius. The tag is near as big as the title, and downright weird. What is he, radioactive?

1.

Simple, economic and to the point – a thing of beauty.

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 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.

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.

Love You Till Tuesday (1969)

It’s been a cruel few weeks for music fans.  David Bowie’s death was, for me, robbed of some of its impact coming so soon on the heels of Lemmy’s.  Although I was a fan of Bowie’s work, it was more from a position of admiration than any real kind of emotional connection or visceral appeal (unlike Motörhead).  Nonetheless, he made at least two of my favourite albums (Scary Monsters and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, if you must know) as well as co-producing one of my absolute all timers, Lou Reed’s Transformer.  And the iconography is undeniable – he was David fucking Bowie.

I wasn’t sure what I could write about him or which release to look at but I’d recently picked up a copy of this late ’60’s curio.  It’s something of an oddity which is fitting, more so when considering the sheer variety which characterised his career.

Love You Till Tuesday was conceived as a promotional film by Bowie’s management in 1969 after his first label dropped him.  It seems likely that it was meant for some kind of cinema distribution, probably as a supporting short (that used to be a thing).  In the end it never surfaced, at least not until this 1984 video release.

Nine songs feature in the 28 minute running time, some drawn from Bowie’s Deram debut album plus new recordings Ching-A-Ling, When I’m Five, The Mask and Space Oddity.  Directed by Malcolm J. Thomson (his only directing credit).  The music is typical childhood-and-love obsessed English psychedelic pop of the day, with a more polished Syd Barrett flavour.

Visually, this is mostly Bowie plus an occasional minimal cast miming in a parade of ’60s’ fashions, often against a stark white background.  That’s “mime” in the sense of “lip synch” but also, at one point, in the full-on Marcel Marceau way of things which makes for an … uhm … fascinating (?) watch on the spoken word piece The Mask.

When I’m Five sees Bowie acting in the slightly cringeworthy manner of an infant to a cloying lyric while Let Me Sleep Beside You is a great pop rock number with a straight forward performance clip complete with prop guitar.  Ching-a-Ling features Bowie in backing vocal/rhythm guitar mode and is a pleasant enough piece of psych/folk-pop kitsch, a showcase for Hermione and Hutch (Bowie’s then girlfriend and music partner respectively, presumably under the same management).

The original version of Space Oddity jars a little due to familiarity with the classic version.  The music production is rougher and rootsier, there’s a flute solo, and the visuals are almost cynically “groovy” with sexy spacebirds and that.  Still it’s interesting and is the highlight here, worth checking out by dint of originality if nothing else.

Although of interest largely as a curiosity, Love You Till Tuesday does point towards Bowie’s future groundbreaking tendencies.  I’m not aware of another project quite like this one from the period, and the “video album” – which is essentially what this is – was still more than a decade away.

Tapes For My VCR - David Bowie Love You Till Tuesday

Original 1984 Spectrum sell-through release, about £4 online.