Hired To Kill (1990)

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It’s hard not to have a fondness for the straight to video era. There were titles in all genres turning up weekly that would catch your attention for both the eye popping artwork on the case cover or how about the name actors splashed across the poster hanging in the store window.

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Prominently displayed on this action flick’s cover you’ll find the name of legendary drinker/actor Oliver Reed and a couple of Oscar winners. George Kennedy and Jose Ferrer. Reed and Kennedy? Count me in!

Borrowing plot points from previous mercenary flicks we have a cross between The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Geese with an all girl squad led by our main fighting man and male chauvinist Brian Thompson.

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George Kennedy is the man behind the mission. He calls out Thompson to take an elite group of women killing machines who will double as models to free politician Jose Ferrer from the military forces of Oliver Reed. This allows director Nico Mastorakis to give us plenty of violence mixed with slender bodies wearing bikinis.

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Thomas goes into Lee Marvin mode visiting jails around the planet to recruit his team of beautiful killers. After training classes on the model runway as well as in the field with machine guns and grenade launchers are completed, the girls and Thompson are off to the unnamed country under Reed’s control.

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Once there it’s time to do photo layouts and model shows, much to Reed’s delight. With the girls keeping Reed’s roving eye busy, Thompson hopes to make contact with an agent already under Reed’s nose. Or should I say his enormous walrus mustache.

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Best scene in the movie is when Reed corners Thompson about the beautiful girls, Thompson plants a big wet kiss on old Ollie’s mouth to show his sexual preference and maintain his cover. Reed is not amused. Not nearly as much as I was at seeing this he-man of the screen disgusted at Thompson’s advances.

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Once our elite team finds out the whereabouts of Ferrer the gun fights start. While it’s all low budget and done on a small scale it’s refreshing to see some large scale explosions erupting on screen. As the rescue operation begins don’t be surprised if there may be a traitor in the group. Could our good friend George Kennedy be playing both sides against the middle?

Find yourself a copy and relive those glorious VHS days when actors like Oliver Reed turned up in countless low budget efforts that were never intended to play in theater houses across the continent.

 

 

 

 

Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

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“Enter for yet another lifetime in the Brotherhood of Satan.”

Here’s an eerie independent flick for the late night crowd. It concerns a small town seemingly cut off from the outside world where parents are mutilated and small children are disappearing.

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Into the town comes a family of strangers. Charles Bateman, his daughter and his fiance. Sheriff L.Q. Jones wants to know who they are as do the town folk. The reason being that no one has been able to leave. Cars wind up wrecked, people slaughtered.

The town leaders are lost as to what’s going on. L.Q. is weathered and worn. Minister Charles Robinson is searching through books on the devil to see what evil has befallen the community. Local “Doc” Strother Martin thinks the evil angle is a ridiculous and wants to search for a logical answer.

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The answer is witches and someone knows more than they are letting on.

A coven of elderly witches have hidden away and through black magic they’ve murdered and maimed for the children. The reasoning is that a ritual is to be performed by their leader which will transfer their beings to the bodies of the children thus ensuring their immortality. They are one child short which is the only reason Bateman and family have been allowed into the community.

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Can L.Q. and company solve the mystery of the missing, the murdered and put a stop to the black mass rituals that are about to take place?

Low budget Satanic worship films at one time flooded the market. Probably due to the influence of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Some were quite effective while some were filmed for the exploitation crowd with plenty of flesh added in. I’ve always felt this one was a solid entry made by producers who were trying to turn out a decent product.

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The producers in question are L.Q. Jones and Alvy Moore. Moore plays Jones’ deputy here and was a long time character actor. You may recall him as Mr. Kimball on Green Acres. The two teamed with each other on four productions including the cult favorite A Boy and His Dog.

Strother Martin was a long time crony of L.Q.’s as well so his casting here should come as no surprise. His role as Doc allows him to play it low key but not to worry, he’ll have his chance to go over the top with his mop of hair flying around. Martin is one of those great character actors I love to focus on as is L.Q. He and L.Q. were stablemates in the Sam Peckinpah company and even appeared in an episode of Gunsmoke together before Sam came along.

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Overall this film far exceeds it’s low budget limitations and would make for a nice double bill with something like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death which came out the same year.

Jack Pierce : Make Up Master

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This article (before edits or grammar corrections) appeared in the year end issue of The Dark Pages 2013 which featured the film The Killers as it’s centerpiece.

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In the world of artists the names of Van Gogh or Picasso might spring to mind. Show me one of their art works and admittedly I probably won’t recognize it by name and I suspect many others in a crowd of people are perhaps just like me. Now show that same crowd of people 3 or 4 creations from the mind of Jack Pierce and in all likelihood the vast majority of these people could identify them by name and yet be unfamiliar with their creator to the extent that his name offers no recollection at all. Such is the world of pop culture.

Jack Pierce is the mind behind many of Halloween’s greatest inspirations. He is the designer of Universal Studios stable of Monsters including Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride, The Mummy and The Wolf man. Iconic Film images to be sure. His inspirations have trickled down to countless imitations, product marketing and ad campaigns steadily over the last 80 years.

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Born in Greece in 1889, Pierce would arrive in California in 1910. With the film industry in it’s infancy Pierce would find himself doing various jobs ranging from a nickelodeon operator to bit roles as well as an assistant camera man in the rapidly expanding world of film making.

It was while working on Raoul Walsh’s 1927 film The Monkey Talks that Pierce first shone as a makeup artist designing the title character. Impressing Universal Studios chief Carl Laemmle with his work on the Walsh film, Laemmle put him in charge of the studios makeup division for future productions. Pierce would hold this position until 1947 by which time the studio would come to be known as Universal International. Next up was the makeup design for Conrad Veidt in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. This facial design would influence artist Bob Kane in creating his look for Batman’s sworn enemy The Joker.

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When Carl Laemmle turned the reigns of the studio over to his son Carl Jr, Pierce’s greatest characters were about to be unleashed. With the success of Dracula came the horror explosion of the early 1930’s. Universal Studios and Jack Pierce would lead the way along with actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

With James Whale directing and Boris Karloff sitting in a makeup chair for up to 6 hours by some reports, Jack Pierce using Karloff as a canvas created what is probably his most iconic monster, The Frankenstein Monster. The Monster itself evolved over the ensuing years into being known as just plain Frankenstein. With the successful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story brought the need for more terrors to haunt movie houses. Next up would be the creation of The Mummy. Once again Dear Boris would be putting himself in Pierce’s hands for up to 8 hours to create another iconic screen character.

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Other tales of terror that Universal were associated with would find Pierce dabbling in designs for The Black Cat, The Raven and other films. It was in 1935 that The Werewolf of London went into production. Actor Henry Hull was in the title role but he wasn’t so keen on transforming into the creature we have all come to recognize. That was still in the future. The same year brought another being back from the dead. The remarkable Bride of Frankenstein, another magnificent entry in his gallery of horrors immortalizing Elsa Lanchester.

As the 30’s came to a close, there would be another character to add to his list of accomplishments. For the Son of Frankenstein, the character of Igor was designed by Pierce and played wonderfully by Bela Lugosi. This was spoofed years later by Marty Feldman in the Mel Brooks hit comedy Young Frankenstein.

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Lon Chaney Jr. was up next in the makeup chair to star in his 1941 horror classic, The Wolf Man. This allowed Pierce to use the design he had created for Henry Hull 6 years previous. With a wonderful script and first rate cast the film was a smash and cemented another classic monster at the Universal studio. With the 1940’s came the sequels to the earlier films. Four Kharis the Mummy films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula brought the other creatures together on screen for a shockingly good time keeping Pierce busy behind the scenes. There was also the new Phantom movie bringing Claude Rains to the title role.

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There were of course other films that the studio was putting out that Pierce is credited on like the Noir classic The Killers but it is the Universal Monsters that have been his lasting contribution to the studio. MGM had more stars than the heavens, Warner Brothers had the gangster scripts ripped out of current headlines and Universal had the undead characters brought to life by Pierce and actors like Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr.

As 1947 rolled around Jack Pierce was let go by Universal International from the position he had held for the two previous decades and was replaced by Bud Westmore. The reasons vary but Piece was apparently set in his ways and the studio wanted to move forward and have someone in place capable of using new materials, ideas and quicker methods behind the scenes.

Up until his death in 1968, Pierce would find work where he could on low budget films and television including Mr. Ed. With the rights to all his creations held by Universal Studios, Pierce unfortunately died with little to his name and not much fanfare.

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By all accounts and photographs Pierce dressed like a surgeon while conducting his experiments using actors to create his images. He could be fussy and wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly, yet the backstage photo’s with Karloff and company show a lighter side and are a wonderful window to a world behind the scenes when the classical era of screen horror began.

Future makeup artists like Rick Baker and Tom Savini would look to Pierce as an inspiration and find success of their own. Baker has won multiple Academy Awards for his work and one would think if there had been Oscars for makeup designers in the 1930’s and 40’s that Jack Pierce would have rivaled Edith Head as a yearly contender and multiple winner.

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As it stands if one looks around on any given day a design or idea inspired by Jack Pierce is probably visible on a billboard, magazine or television ad, especially in the month of October. Not to mention the replaying of a classic monster film on some late night channel for our enjoyment.

Thank you Mr. Pierce.

Love Crazy (1941)

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Once again the teaming of Myrna Loy and William Powell comes up aces. These two pros play off each other so well that it’s no wonder MGM teamed them for films outside of their famous Thin Man series. This time we get the added bonus of Jack Carson. Scene stealer extraordinaire.

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It’s another screwball comedy. A genre I have always leaned to when looking for a laugh. While one can argue the film loses it’s way, the first thirty minutes alone make it worth watching.

The set up is we have our married couple Powell and Loy trying to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. In walks Powell’s mother-in-law to ruin the evening which is compounded by Powell bumping into old flame Gail Patrick who has just moved into the same apartment building. She’s now married herself but she isn’t going to let that stop her from making a play for the man who got away.

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The fun goes into overdrive when Loy figures on teaching Powell and Gail a lesson with Gail’s hubby Donald MacBride. Problem is she mistakes Jack Carson for MacBride and he’s more than willing to play along with Loy who seems to be coming on strong. He has no idea it’s all for the benefit of teaching Powell a lesson.

One thing will invariably lead to another and with screwball comedies there is no telling where one may wind up. Take our leading man for example, before he knows it he’s institutionalized as a lunatic. What starts out as a way of getting Loy’s divorce proceedings delayed backfires and now he finds himself on the wrong side of the fence watching Carson making his move on his beloved Myrna.

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There are a few familiar faces popping up here of some great character actors. As the hotel elevator boy we have Elisha Cook Jr. who shares a very funny escapade with Powell and Gail on the ups and downs in an elevator shaft.

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Sig Ruman as the head man in the asylum who fences with Powell about his sanity and Vladimir Sokoloff who is convinced Powell is nutty enough to have him put away in the first place.

It’ll all come down to a wild frantic pace as Powell tries to win back Loy and find a way to get Carson out of the picture. Jack Carson plays a perfectly named character here, Ward Willoughby. He repeats it constantly upon meeting new characters and it suits his comedic style just fine. Carson is usually associated with Warner Brothers films so I would imagine he was on loan for this MGM production from director Jack Conway.

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Conway worked with both Powell and Loy separately and also directed Libeled Lady in 1936 with our screen couple. Once again I have to state that Powell and Loy had wonderful timing and they were so natural when paired together. If you haven’t seen their pairings you should do so at your earliest convenience.

Black Sunday (1977)

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Growing up as I did in the long shadow of Jaws there wasn’t a kid on the street who didn’t know who Captain Quint was. We all knew his rough exterior and the story of the Indianapolis or we giggled at his toast to swimming with bowel legged women. The main difference between me and many of my friends was I wanted to know more about the actor Robert Shaw who played Quint and watch his other film roles. Sadly due to his early death there isn’t really that many but this John Frankenheimer title must have served as the guide for making an excellent thriller in the terrorist genre for those that have come since.

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The opening raid on a terrorist hideout led by Shaw’s elite tactical group sets the tone for the the films easy to take two and a half hour length. Shaw’s character is known as “the final solution.” When he is called upon there are no prisoners to be taken. Self doubt begins to creep into his character as we shall see when he makes the mistake of leaving a woman alive during the raid. Little does he know that Marthe Keller is about to make his life hell.

Keller has convinced her American lover to join her in a suicide bombing of enormous proportions. Good Year Blimp size proportions! Bruce Dern stars as her deranged partner. He’s a returning war hero who can’t fit in. Please remember that this was filmed at a time when this type of character wasn’t the cliche it arguably became in the years that followed. You could argue however that Dern became the poster boy for the tortured Vietnam vet on film. Especially with Coming Home right behind this release.

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Shaw and partner Steven Keats arrive in the United States on the trail of Keller with a tape recording that convinces U.S. intelligence that Shaw is onto something. What they don’t realize is the methods he’ll use to get information from the likes of Michael V. Gazzo. Actor Shaw makes for a determined officer of the law.

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“What exactly is this superbowl?”

The terrorist plot begins to take shape after Shaw takes down one of Keller’s contacts, Bekim Fehmiu. He just can’t quite figure out how they intend to create chaos at the game.

This is where Dern comes in, he’ll be piloting the Blimp from above.

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This really is a riveting film with a great score by John Williams to tighten up the tension. Having Shaw and crew running along the sidelines of a real game between the Cowboys and the Steelers makes it all that more realistic.

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Our three leads are all rock solid in their performances and it should be noted that Dern never turns this into a cartoon character. The script fleshes out all three leads and the reasons for their actions.

Dern was by this time a well known face and is still active having just scored an Oscar nomination last year in Nebraska. Keller was just coming off another thriller in The Marathon Man and continues to act overseas.

Sadly Robert Shaw only had three films remaining before his death and none match this gripping effort. Robert died in August of 1978 at the age of 51 leaving his final film Avalanche Express unfinished. By the time it was released it turned out as an embarrassment to all involved.

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Like many films from John Frankenheimer, this one is well worth checking out. If like me you hadn’t seen it for many years it’s about time to revisit it. I’m glad I did.

The Films of Donald Pleasence by Christopher Gullo

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A really nice volume here on a career that spanned five decades. Donald Pleasence is a very recognizable face to anyone who has been watching classic films, most notably the Bond series, Halloween films or The Great Escape.

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This release from Bear Manor Media reminds me of the formula used by Citadel books on their Films of series. The opening is dedicated to a biography. In this case the first 40 pages. It includes an overview of his personal life and various quotes from those who shared the screen with him including one from Jeff Bridges who worked with Donald in 1975’s Hearts of the West, “gentleness an intense gentleness.”

Once again a screen villain who much like Price and Cushing elicits nothing but kind words from those who knew him.

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The theatrical releases are covered with a casting list, a synopsis and a decent commentary on each film. Its the type of book that I’ll refer to after watching a Pleasence film or in researching one I haven’t yet seen. I checked my stats and have currently seen 67 of the films he has appeared in. My count includes some of the films he appeared in that were produced for television. If I could add one thing to the book it would be to include these roles as well. For whatever the reason the author hasn’t listed them. Films like The Defection of Simas Kudirka opposite Alan Arkin or Better Late Than Never. The latter title I recall had a wonderful cast of “faces”. Strother Martin, Harry Morgan and Harold Gould.

Not sure if I have a favorite Donald role but like many I do believe his part in The Great Escape was a scene stealer amidst all the other iconic actors in that film.

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I grew up focusing on the horror anthology films he would appear in and of course Halloween and then came Escape From New York. There are plenty of films I haven’t seen yet and many more solid roles that this volume points out I need to catch up with. Some are kind of rare so that works to fuel my passion for seeking out more titles to add to the collection.

Any Donald favorites to share?

 

Dracula (1974) Jack Palance Eerie Fest 5th and Final Day

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Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis teams with Jack Palance for one of the screens best adaptations of the original Bram Stoker novel.

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The well known Richard Matheson is the credited writer here on a film that almost plays like a coles notes version of the novel at times. Don’t let that stop you from finding a copy of this superior film in the Jack Palance cannon of performances.

The basic plot of the novel is in place and one we have seen in numerous versions since Murnau’s Nosferatu. Jonathan Harker played by Murray Brown is enroute to Castle Dracula to offer up some real estate choices. He will wind up a slave to the vampire King and find himself confronted with the three bloodthirsty brides.

Palance is low key and deliberate here with his movements. He repeats many of the famed lines with just the right inflection of a European nobleman. “I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.”

Long before Coppola added in the reincarnation angle to the story, Dan Curtis beat him to it though he freely admits he borrowed it from his own Dark Shadows series. Palance finds that Miss Lucy played by Fiona Lewis is the image of his love from his days as Vlad Tepes in two brief flashbacks.

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Like Hammers The Horror of Dracula much of the novel is removed from the shooting script along with characters like Renfield. That doesn’t hurt the narrative at all and like the Hammer film, it allows it to pick up speed. Simon Ward stars as the young lover of Lucy who along with Nigel Davenport as Van Helsing sets out to stop the vampire from spreading his terror throughout England.

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While most of us know the general plot of the famed story there is no point in going into it here. As for the performance of Palance, he makes a powerful Count who commands respect both on screen and in the ranking of actors who have taken on the popular role. By allowing for the reincarnation plot device it allowed Jack that little extra that many of the other performers didn’t have for their interpretation up to this time. There’s also a definite connection to the Dracula of history with an amazing painting of Palance as the Wallachian ruler.

The ending of the film has a nice touch as well the way Curtis frames it with Palance in the foreground. A fallen King with the sounds of drums and an army calling his name before the painting I’d love to have as a movie prop hanging on my wall.

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The on location filming in England and Yugoslavia gives the film an authentic feel and keeps it from being stage bound like some of the Stoker adaptations have been known to do. (Sorry Bela).

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While this is a made for t.v. effort, it was released in theaters overseas. Apparently it was close to three hours in length but was trimmed for it’s network debut. I would imagine much of the cut footage would be from the center of the film as it takes a few leaps and bounds at times. It would be nice to find out if the longer version still exists.

I love to reminisce and this may actually be my earliest recollection of seeing Jack Palance. I know I saw the film when I was quite young and at any early age to see Palance as the King of the undead can leave a long and lasting impression.

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Palance had worked with Curtis previously on their 1968 version of Jekyll and Hyde which is worth seeking out along with this top drawer rendition of Bram Stoker’s classic and one of Jack Palance’s finest roles.

(It Came) Without Warning (1980) Jack Palance Eerie Fest Day 4 of 5

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“Stay away from the Lake!”

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A very common line in horror films when a group of teens are about to set off for a weekend of drinking and sex. But when Jack Palance issues the warning through clenched teeth it takes on a whole new meaning.

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When it comes to campy fun this film has to rank very high on the list. It seems that an alien creature is roaming the woods near a town where everyone is an aging film star slumming in a cheap horror film. You’ve got to give low budget specialist Greydon Clark credit for getting name actors to appear in a good many of his productions.

Cameron Mitchell starts the film with his outcast son on a hunting trip that gets a little gooey when flying rubber like fried eggs land on the skin and dig right in to the flesh. Larry Storch hamming it up as a scout leader doesn’t fair much better either.

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When our four teens pass on the warning of Jack they have basically sealed there fate. One of the four is a very young David Caruso who before long will be wishing he’d have listened to our star of the week.

Joining Jack for this campy ride besides Mitchell and Storch is Neville Brand, Martin Landau in another wonderful ham job, Ralph Meeker and Sue Ann Langdon.

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When two of our teens flee the carnage they run into Palance who takes control of the situation. That doesn’t stop Landau from going over the edge of sanity as he is convinced the teens are agents of evil.

Jack goes campy Rambo in this one and when hit by the flying rubber eggs just cuts them off. No worries about a tetanus shot here. It’s actually Landau who is having the military flashbacks causing him to leave his sanity at the door as the final clash between our two main leads and the alien creature comes to a head. Anyone willing to bet against Jack on this fight to the death?

The alien under the huge head is played by Kevin Peter Hall who also appeared as the Predator and as Harry opposite the Hendersons.

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Both Neville Brand and Jack Palance had a long history in film by the time of this production. They had actually costarred together in a 1950 war film titled The Halls of Montezuma as well as The Lonely Man in 1957. Add in another appearance together in 1969’s  The Desperadoes. By 1980 Brand was nearing the end of his run and Jack was a decade away from his rebirth opposite Billy Crystal.

Landau in this and Alone in the Dark with Palance once again is quite a bit of fun as he goes about playing a couple of insane characters. While not Oscar worthy they are definitely worth watching for the sheer enjoyment of his slicing the ham pretty thick.

Director Clark worked exclusively in low budget cinema with titles like The Return featuring Landau and Angel’s Brigade which had Palance and Brand in that cast as well. And let’s not forget the embarrassment of Satan’s Cheerleaders with John Ireland, Yvonne DeCarlo and who else but John Carradine.

As for this popular title on the cult circuit it was sadly the final film of Ralph Meeker’s and while he is in the film, he really doesn’t do much in the bar scene featuring Brand and Langdon.

After years of bootleg editions, Jack Palance and his cronies can finally be enjoyed on blu ray in a top notch release from Scream Factory that came out this year.

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And yes, the original one sheet is in the collection.

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