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'The Satanic Rites Of Dracula' was the last entry in Hammer's Dracula series which began with the terrific 'Dracula' (aka 'Horror Of Dracula') in 1958. It's supposedly a direct sequel to 'Dracula A.D. 1972', which for me was not only the weakest in the series, but possible the worst Hammer movie I've ever seen. I say "supposedly" because even though once again Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing's grandson Larimer, and his own granddaughter Jessica is featured (with Joanna Lumley replacing Stephanie Beacham), there's no explanation for Dracula's resurrection or any reference to the earlier movie. 'Satanic Rites...' is a definite improvement on '... 1972' though, which was the first Hammer Dracula movie set in the present day. Director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton seemed unsure of themselves in the previous film, not knowing whether to play it straight or as pure camp. This movie is more successful on that score and takes a new Bond-like direction which might have breathed new life into the series if given the chance. Christopher Lee was apparently fed up with playing Dracula by this stage, which is a shame as he's always great to watch, and arguably as good as Lugosi in the role. Lee unfortunately has very little screen time in this movie but really makes the most of what he's given, especially his few scenes with Cushing. Michael Coles (who had a bit part in 'Dracula A.D. 1972) and William Franklyn ('Quatermass 2') are reasonably effective heroes, Scotland Yard men investigating a secret cult of Satanists led by a mysterious recluse D.D. Denham (guess who), but Cushing steals the show, as does David Lynch regular Freddie Jones who plays an unbalanced scientist. Joanna Lumley, just two years from playing Purdey in 'The New Avengers', looks delicious but doesn't get to do all that much. Too bad there was more Lumley and Cushing (and Lee) and less Coles and Franklyn. As to the climax which many people seem to hate, well I won't spoil it, but I thought it was effective enough. If you're unfamiliar with Hammer's Dracula series I suggest you stick with the two best 'Dracula' and 'Dracula: Prince Of Darkness'. Unless like me you're mad for the Cushing and Lee team you can give 'The Satanic Rites Of Dracula' a miss. As an alternative I instead highly recommend the non-Hammer 'Horror Express'. Too bad that wasn't their final screen pairing not this!
A sentence with the words "David Cronenberg" and "car racing movie" isn't exactly something you hear every day, but yes, Cronenberg did in fact make one in the late 70s in between his horror classics 'Rabid' and 'The Brood'. Very few people outside of Canada have seen 'Fast Company', and as Cronenberg is my favourite contemporary director I've been intrigued about it for years. Now that Blue Underground have released a restored version on DVD we can all finally get to see it. Now I'd love to be able to say that's it's some kind of lost masterpiece and essential viewing for Cronenberg buffs, but to be honest it's just an enjoyable b-grade racing movie, the kind of flick AIP would have released without a blink of an eye. I seriously doubt that anyone who watched it not knowing who directed it would be able to guess that Cronenberg was involved. He himself regards it as an important movie in his career, as it was another step in his learning how to make "real" movies, and because he also met several key future collaborators. That historical interest aside it's by far the most "normal" and therefore least interesting movie he's made to date. The movie is helped immeasurably by having b-grade legends William Smith ('Run, Angel, Run', 'Invasion Of The Bee Girls', 'Boss N*gger', 'The Ultimate Warrior') and John Saxon ('Planet Of Blood', 'Enter The Dragon', 'Black Christmas', 'Cannibal Apocalypse') as leads. Smith plays Lonnie Johnson a racer under pressure from his sponsors, who are represented by the back stabbing Saxon. The two work well together and by the looks of the short interview included on the DVD seem like great buddies. The late Claudia Jennings (her final role) plays Smith's love interest Sammy, and Nicholas Campbell, who subsequently acted in Cronenberg's 'The Brood', 'The Dead Zone' and 'Naked Lunch', plays his cocky protege Billy "The Kid" Brocker. The main problem with the movie apart from the awful sub-Springsteen "rawk" score, is a dull script. With a bit more work the movie really could have been something special , but as it stands 'Fast Company' is little more than an interesting curio for fans of Cronenberg and/or 70s exploitation movies.
Being a major fan of American movies of the 1970s 'Cockfighter' has been like a Holy Grail for me for as long as I can remember. When I finally got a hold of a copy I'm happy to say it more than lived up to my expectations. I think it's one of the most extraordinary movies of the decade, and further proof that Monte Hellman is one of the most underrated directors of all time. Hellman, like many other film makers, got his first big break working for Roger Corman, directing 'Beast From Haunted Cave' in the 1950s. He then went on to work on Corman's 'The Terror' alongside Coppola and Jack Hill, and edited the biker classic 'The Wild Angels'. Hellman never became a Hollywood legend like Coppola, or a much loved exploitation cult hero like Jack Hill, and has always had difficulties getting his movies made. Why, I really don't know, just watch 'The Shooting', 'Two-Lane Blacktop' and 'Cockfighter' back to back and tell me that he isn't a major talent. After going their separate ways for some time Corman and Hellman reunited for 'Cockfighter'. Apparently Corman hated the ending and the movie is supposedly one of the very few that lost him money, but I think it's an amazing achievement. The controversial bird fighting sequences are very brutal and very beautiful. Animal lovers will abhor the movie for this reason. The morality of filming them is very problematic, even Hellman admits he was disgusted doing it. Aside from that can of worms 'Cockfighter' features a superb performance from Warren Oates, one of his very best ever, so if you are an Oates fan you MUST try and see this movie! Hellman and Oates worked on four movies altogether, and the supporting cast also includes Harry Dean Stanton and Millie Perkins, who had three Hellman movies apiece, and Laurie Bird who co-starred in 'Two-Lane Blacktop'. On top of that you have some strong performances by a whole bunch of character actors like Warren Finnerty ('Cool Hand Luke'), Ed Begley Jr, Steve Railsback (in one of my favourite scenes) and - one of the biggest surprises - Troy Donahue, who has a memorable cameo as Oates alcoholic brother. Richard B. Shull is great as Oates' partner, as is Patricia Pearcy who plays his love interest. Even Charles Willeford who wrote both the movie script and the original novel it was based on has a great bit as a fight official. 'Cockfighter's explicit fight sequences will repel most people but if you persevere you'll witness some brilliant acting, especially from Warren Oates. 'Cockfighter' has immediately rocketed into my all time favourite movies list.
Jess Franco regarded the late Soledad Miranda as his muse and was devastated by her tragic death in 1970. The two made a handful of extraordinary movies released in 1970-71 with Miranda billed as "Susann Korda", including the legendary 'Vampyros Lesbos', arguably Franco's finest achievement. I've seen four of the Franco/Miranda collaborations to date, the others being 'Eugenie De Sade', which is almost as great as 'Vampyros Lesbos', and 'The Devil Came From Akasava', a campy (but entertaining) potboiler. 'She Killed In Ecstasy' is definitely better than 'Akasava', but not quite as impressive as the other two. I'm not exactly sure, but I get the impression that some of them were shot simultaneously. They share the same visual style, groovy music, and similar casts. Miranda plays the wife of a scientist (Fred Williams) who suicides after his experimental research is rejected by the medical establishment. She gets her revenge by seducing and murdering the four committee members involved with the decision one by one. They are played by Franco regulars Howard Vernon and Paul Muller, 'Vampyros Lesbos' co-star Ewa Stromberg and Franco himself. The cast also includes Horst Tappert who was in 'Akasava' playing a policeman. I've seen something like twenty Jess Franco movies to date, which is only a fraction of his 180+ output, but it's enough to know that I'm hooked. I find it to be difficult to be objective about his work, as even his lesser movies contain bits of genius. He is a frustratingly uneven director, capable of making astonishing movies when he really tries, but too often content to release seemingly rushed and unfinished films. 'She Killed In Ecstasy' is probably not the best place to start if you are a Franco neophyte, but I'd certainly rate it among his better films, and the utterly beautiful Soledad Miranda is always mesmerizing to look at. Newcomers are still recommended to start with 'Vampyros Lesbos', but if you get the chance to see this film, don't hesitate.
'Into The Night' is John Landis' attempt at a Hitchcockian comedy thriller, and for me he falls flat on his face. Scorsese's 'After Hours' and Demme's 'Something Wild' are two similar quirky movies from the same period which feature an unlikely hero taking an out of character walk on the wild side, and they are much more interesting and entertaining. But that's no real surprise, Scorsese and Demme are talented directors, and Landis is a hack who makes pretty lousy movies. Jeff Goldblum is always watchable, and Michelle Pfeiffer is a peach, but their sheer likability and star appeal aren't enough to save the viewer from restlessness. The comic touches aren't all that amusing, and the thriller aspects of the story aren't very suspenseful. All that's left is a meandering shaggy dog story that ultimately goes nowhere. Landis' usual stunt casting means that we get to see a knife fight between David Bowie and rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, and countless cameos by his director buddies (David Cronenberg, Roger Vadim, Paul Bartel, Don Siegel,etc.etc.). Landis himself plays a supposedly funny bad guy and gives himself plenty of screen time, yet wastes great actors like Richard Farnsworth, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager and Irene Papas in thankless supporting roles. Jeff Goldblum's character suffers from insomnia, but if you do, just try sitting through this waste of time and talent. I guarantee you'll be nodding off way before the (anti)climax!
'Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein' is one of the most enjoyable entries in the utterly bizarre Santo series. For those who don't know Santo is a Mexican silver masked wrestler cum crime fighter. He and his long time pal Blue Demon (Alejandro Cruz) are recruited by the local police to help in a perplexing investigation into a series of unusual murders. The evil genius behind them is none other than Dr. Frankenstein's grandson Irwin (Jorge Russek). The cigar chewing Irwin is experimenting with brain transplants and plans on creating a private army of radio controlled zombies and barks things like "We're beginning to lack fluid. Raise the charge of the transistors in the cerebellum to the max" and "They are wondering what I want to accomplish? If they knew they would pee their pants!". Santo and Blue Demon's bacteriologist lady friend Alicia (Sasha Montenegro) is kidnapped by Frankenstein's cronies in an attempt to resurrect his dead wife... or something like that. Believe me, it all makes some kind of sense when you're watching it. As usual in Santo movies there are a few wrestling matches, one of which is against Golem, an African zombie giant enslaved by Frankenstein who fights under the secret identity Mortis (with a mask - naturally!). My favourite bit in the movie apart from the Golem/Mortis scenes is a flash of a newspaper headline - "FOUR POLICEMEN TORN TO PIECES BY A STRANGE INDIVIDUAL. ONE OF THEM LIVED LONG ENOUGH TO EXPLAIN WHAT HAPPENED". The Santo movies are pure entertainment, and if you haven't seen any, you're really missing out on something special!
'Zatoichi At The Fire Festival' was the 21st entry in the popular martial arts series that starred Shintaro Katsu as the blind swordsman Zatoichi. This time around Zatoichi (who moonlights as a masseur) is present at a geisha auction. Later that night he rescues one of the sold women but she is unexpectedly murdered by a mysterious swordsman. We soon learn that he was the dead woman's husband and that he plans on killing Zatoichi because he believes that his wife slept with him. To complicate things further Zatoichi also makes an enemy of the local boss (a common occurrence in this series!), a blind man known as "the Prince Of Darkness" (played by Masayuki Mori who co-starred in Kurosawa's samurai classic 'Rashomon'), becomes a sort of mentor to a young, effeminate wanna-be pimp Umeji (played by Peter, who later appeared in Kurosawa's 'Ran'), and also falls in love with the beautiful Okiyo (Reiko Ohara). Whew! I'm a relative newcomer to these movies but I'm really loving them. Zatoichi is a fascinating character, shy and funny, but a killing machine when need be. This is one of the best in the series, and the standout scenes are a hilarious attempted seduction of Zatoichi by Umeji, and a killer nude fight sequence in a bathhouse. If Beat Takeshi's recent (excellent) 'Zatoichi' has whetted your appetite try some of the Katsu originals. They are immensely entertaining, and I'll bet twenty bucks that Tarantino is a BIG fan.
'Spun' is a mixed bag, it has both good and bad scenes and performances. Ultimately I was unsatisfied, but it has enough going for it to make it worth watching. I had two main problems with it. The first was stylistically. Akerlund uses Aronofsky's 'Requiem For A Dream' closeups/fast cuts over and over again until you're ready to scream "enough already!". Not only is this hijacking unoriginal and repetitive, it wasn't even that great a device in the first place. Despite 'Spun' owing a huge visual debt to 'Requiem For A Dream' I preferred it - flaws and all - because it lacks Aronofsky's simplistic ant-drugs propaganda. 'Spun' just shows some f*cked up people doing f*cked up things and allows the audience to make its own judgements. Basically this isn't a message movie, it's strictly played for laughs. Now I don't mind that in itself, but what I found grating was the lack of consistency in the tone. Most of the movie is very black comedy ala 'Drugstore Cowboy, 'Trainspotting', 'Jesus' Son', but every now and again there's silly cartoonish slapstick scenes and it just doesn't work for me. The real low points are the TV cops played by Peter Stomare and Alexis Arquette and the ridiculous animated interludes. The best things about 'Spun' are the performances by Jason Schwartzman (Ross), Brittany Murphy (Nikki), John Leguizamo (Spider Mike), and especially, Mickey Rourke ("The Cook"). Once again Rourke shines in a so-so movie (see also 'Once Upon A Time In Mexico'). We even get to see him briefly reunite with his 'The Pope Of Greenwich Village' co-star Eric Roberts, though sadly it's only one scene, and Roberts is given very little to do. (Mena Suvari is also wasted in the movie - no pun intended!) So, there you have it. If you're looking for characters with depth and any insight into meth addicts you'll be disappointed, but if you're looking for a few laughs you'll be entertained for the most part. A re-edit and some more effort put into the script could have greatly improved 'Spun'. As it is it's an uneven but enjoyable experience.
Larry Cohen was one of the most inspired and inventive writer/directors of the 1970s/80s, frequently coming up with b-grade gems on skimpy budgets. 'The Stuff' isn't his best work (I'd say that was 'Gold Told Me To', closely followed by 'Q The Winged Serpent'), but it's still a lot of fun. It's a very silly but entertaining movie about a mysterious new desert ("The Stuff") which comes out of nowhere and takes America by storm. Michael Moriarty, who was absolutely terrific in 'Q', plays "Mo'" Rutherford, an industrial espionage expert who is hired to investigate The Stuff. Along the way he hooks up with a PR person (Andrea Marcovicci, 'The Hand'), a suspicious little kid (Scott Bloom), and 'Chocolate Chip Charlie' (Garrett Morris) whose business has been destroyed by The Stuff. There's also an amusing performance from Paul Sorvino as a nutty Right Wing militia leader, and a few surprise cameos in the TV ads for The Stuff. This is the kind of movie that collapses after any kind of scrutiny, but if you enter into the spirit of things it's a hoot. Moriarty is always a fascinating actor to watch, and Cohen keeps the movie interesting right up until the final frame.
'Zatoichi In Desperation' was the 24th movie in the long running and very popular martial arts series starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi the blind master swordsman and masseur. Zatoichi, for those that don't know is a ronin (a wandering samurai), very quiet and unassuming with a wry sense of humour, but an absolute killing machine when crossed! In this episode he encounters an old woman while crossing a bridge, and after a brief conversation with her, she tragically falls to her death. Upset, Zatoichi sets off to a nearby town to look for the woman's daughter Nishikigi to break the news to her. He eventually finds her working as a geisha and learns she only needs to pay a debt of fifty ryo to buy her freedom. Zatoichi becomes obsessed with raising the money and in doing so ignores the hardships experienced by the local fisherman caused by the local evil boss Mangoro. But when Mangoro kidnaps Nishikigi everything comes to a head in a brutal climax, and Zatoichi must save her and his own life. I can't claim to be any kind of Zatoichi expert, but he's a most intriguing character, and Katsu plays the role masterfully. I highly recommend 'Zatoichi In Desperation'.
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