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“Death Race 2000” (1975)
One of the problems with films that take place in the imminent future is that they tend to appear flat-footed when envisioning the vicissitudes of the subject speculative society. This is especially true when that same society is parasitically reflective of the most garish of influences in popular culture (rather than practical anthropological evolution) from the time during which the film is conceived and produced. If Paul Bartel’s “Death Race 2000” promises a future, it is one already trendily lived in and discarded. Cheaply cobbled production values (observe how camera angles are usually determined to disguise obvious seams between poverty row production values and more grandiose but imagined surroundings) are presented amid such decorative affectations as the shimmering representational citadels of the metropolitan matte painting in the background (suggesting unlikely Russ Manning comic book draftsmanship rather than the more utilitarian aligned dominoes of old Gotham) collides with the sub-NASCAR hayseeds in the crowd who are no more credibly at home in such an environment than the slimy tentacled xenomorphs of bad SF who always appear from user impractical gleaming spaceships. Science fiction films have a tendency to burrow into a contemporary mindset- not as a suggestively editorial backdrop, but simply out of sheer laziness in directing the film toward a more timelessly universal level in dialogue and thought -without a regard for credible speculative alterations of societal behavior. How depressing when a film taking place a hundred years into the future already seems quaintly antiquated within a few brief drive-in seasons; and the danger for films consciously produced with the intention of a likelihood of developing a cult following is more pronounced as there is a tendency to think that an innate hipster flippancy is a sufficient substitution for genuinely imaginative content.
Such a flippancy submerges every frame of “Death Race 2000”, whose crudity of execution exhausts the patience of the viewer without once rewarding excited visceral expectations (deadly in an action film), entertaining the imagination (double deadly in a speculative fantasy film), nor engaging the funny bone (positively fatal in a satire). Such a triumvirate of failure is the natural result of an undeveloped one-note conception (a cross-country auto race in which running down pedestrians yields points to the competitors) that meticulously avoids the remotest understanding of the importance of character development, or the usefulness of unpredictability of action, either of which might nourish the viewer’s appetite for a minimum of substance, while all that screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles Griffith (from a short story by Ib Melchior) have concocted is a tired retread of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, pasted onto a dystopian context so watered down, it is uncertain whether or not it is meant as satire, and if so, a satire of what? Half of the actors appear inexplicably garbed in leftover wardrobe from one of Roger Corman’s gaudy gangster productions, but it seems doubtful that the intended target of the sparse humor could be the producer’s notoriously miserly production allowances?
Fortifying the aridity of the script is the equal measure by which the film suffers from apparent disinterest from the director’s chair. Bartel’s ineptness with the camera and lack of establishing a basic tone to the proceedings, dooms the film to a tiresome succession of sequences of speeding cars (though the logic of competitively gaining time by travelling down serpentine desert backroads rather than following more direct interstate highways is never explained) and witless broadcast media editorializing of a teeth gnashing vacuity. One scene which carries the possibility of genuine poignancy- Frankenstein’s encounter with an enamored fan and its bitter aftermath -shows the direction the film might have traveled if the filmmakers hadn’t chosen to trivialize their own conceptions, but this moment is also carelessly discarded; subjected to the movie’s cavalier self-destructive creative nonchalance. Seldom has a film seemed so intensely disinterested in its own characters.
The entirety of the cast is amateurishly undistinguished (with Harlan Ellison look-alike Don Steele particularly annoying as running commentator Junior Bruce), giving the impression of an aimless troupe of auditioning low sketch comics (including director Bartel himself, who cannot then lay blame to the unfortunate level of performance on imprudent casting). Even the normally intriguing Mary Woronov whose film appearances often seem blessed with the happy ability to make the most innocuous utterance feel like a promiscuous invitation, is unaccountably underused, as the film could certainly use a shot of her usual dirty charm. More problematic is the disappointing performance of David Carradine as thethe mysterious driver Frankenstein, a character who is pronounced throughout the film as a national hero, though his manner is so off-putting, the lack any sympathetic insight into the character undercuts the film’s denouement and unmercifully exposes the script’s disgracefully hollow core. Carradine, a talented actor, seems enveloped in a perpetual Zen-like stupor which is neither witty not involving. Unluckily, he is paired with the generic drive-in starlet blandness of Simone Griffith whose ample but vacant curvaceousness only proves that exposure is not always a natural companion to sexiness.
If by its general definition which includes an elemental nihilism in both its thematic genetics and within the limited but evident visual aesthetic, film noir is certainly the most formally pessimistic of the film genres. However, with the additional consideration of an elective element in the creative process, there surely is no film genre of greater voluntarily creative pessimism than science fiction. In serious examples of the form (this excludes the intellectual juvenilia mingling Flash Gordon comic strip fantasy with transplanted western shoot-’em-ups of the “Star Wars” brand of intergalactic buddy-buddy adventure variety), the realities of societal discord- a useful backdrop on which to apply the story’s speculative insertions -already feeding disturbing wrinkles which render false the typical utopian Hollywood model of community harmony. Curiously, the better examples of the genre seem to have a commonality in that regardless of their subject, they seem to draw an extra thematic sustenance from the times in which they were made: in the 1950’s, absorbing the combined paranoiac mindset of both the emergent Cold War tensions and the continued development of an Atomic technology that would assert an influence beyond the initial aggressive capabilities of weapons of war, the films were far more metaphorical in theme, with the almost ridiculous nature of enlarged beasts substituting for far more realistic and therefore discomforting human manifestations of these anxieties, whereas in the 1960’s, there was a marked evolution of critical anti-authority inherent in the philosophical bent of the genre, producing works that were openly critical or disdaining of the continued folly of Man’s increasing blind path toward its own destruction (Who needed giant grasshoppers when there was us?). However, another commonality to the SF film is the chasm of priority between the scientific world which seems incapable of marching through its own internalized evolution without tripping over unforeseen tragic consequences evolving from an apparent institutional hubris, a further indication of a willingness to believe that those in charge are always in control (or at least are capable of pulling miraculous magician’s survival tricks out the scientific hat). Man’s intellectual capabilities were clearly outpacing its reason: a perfect stage for a pointed metaphorical arena in which the divisions of good and wrongheaded impulses are deeply explored in both literal and metaphorical terms; philosophic introspection being the hallmark of the SF genre sandwiched in between the hysterical 195o’s cautionary alarums against atomic energy and the undemanding popular fascination with spinning shiny objects that has intellectually retarded the genre since the introduction of Jedi lucre.
Certainly in the area of the widening of the cinematic aesthetic, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 “2001: A Space Odyssey” holds a lofty position over all other candidates (including his own “Doctor Strangelove”) as the preeminent landmark SF achievement (in purely aesthetic terms) of the decade which indicated the greatest (though sadly unrealized) potential inherent in the genre, though for the closest representation of that was produced, one need look no further than the same year’s “Planet of the Apes”, a film which by it’s calendar association with the more aggressively cerebral clout of monoliths with the addition of Ligeti-flavored aural confection, would seem to be the less adventurous (intellectually) and poetic (metaphysically) and visionary (aesthetically) of the two offerings, yet there is something sneakily subversive in the way Franklin J.Schaffner’s film addresses the most heated points of social contention of the day (disguised in a satirical coating of animal fur) which accredits the film with two characteristics that the more ethereally inclined film is fated to fall short: immediacy and topicality; thus an important aspect of SF- a direct relationship in bridging the direct consequences and delicate symbiosis of scientific advancement and the core effect it has upon society by a thematically allusive representation of the climate under which such a work is born remains absent in Kubrick’s master opus (human representations are guided by a bitter intellectual cynicism defining a condition of universal emotional remoteness that becomes destructively central to the director’s oeuvre) but finds effortless expression in the myriad thematic threads of which the narrative subtly intertwines the surface adventure elements with a genuinely witty undercurrent of social satire- though with a happy absence of demonstrative editorial causticity -that actually fuels the absurdity of the film’s topsy turvy view of civilization by punctuating the depiction of an alien culture with details of banal familiarity, thus making the ridiculous acceptable in a way in which a more serious approach might feel strained and untenable.
The premise, while ingenious, has the benefit of simplicity: astronauts traveling at the speed of light crash on a distant planet in which the evolutionary order is reversed, with simians (amusingly divided into chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan with a sensible class and power division that comments untold volumes about mirrored class and ethnic divisions than almost all of Hollywood’s entire output of sanctimonious race message pictures) taking the leadership role on the evolutionary scale while humans are reduced to a feral breed. In opening the film with astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston in fine ironic form in which he winks playfully at the granite-like heroic imperturbability he had finessed in almost two decades of screen work by this film) acting as the relentlessly obnoxious voice of discontent (wisely the film portrays him as a fly in the ointment to his fellow space travelers who are worn down by his relentlessly pessimistic world view), and as such, a representative voice of 1960’s anti authoritarianism. However, the real novelty of the film is the cleverly- almost invisible -dividing line between Taylor’s representation of the socially disaffected and as defender of the species which is carried out without the slightest hint of imprudent self-awareness.
The first thing “Planet of the Apes” gets right- most important in a film whose philosophic barbs are acid social criticism cleverly dipped in satiric candy coating -is this well-considered anthropological construct: the film doesn’t feel as though we’ve arrived at merely a gimmicky premise, but in an ordered and logically evolved social order, and one that wisely doesn’t play favorites: presenting an equal critical voice from the opposing factions and equal actions deserving of that criticism, which places the characters in the peculiar position of being on completely the very real danger of obvious and off-putting political polemic. It becomes very clear that the existent social order is meant to mirror our own in very meaningful ways; not merely in the smaller details but in the greater philosophical scope in which the actions of the characters derive their fullest consequence. Interestingly, except for the initial encounter with the hunting gorillas, there is little overt violence in a film in which the threat of lobotomy or human gelding is ever a present threat; it is the reversal of fortunes which provides the central tension as Heston is reduced to a lab rat scurrying to avoid vivisection, a conviction concerning their own while he and the apes, ironically, share an equal disdain for each other as well as evolutionary superiority to each other; the suggestion of a reversal to the substance of The Origin of the Species opens areas of satirical theological speculation (and refutation) that is also hinted at, though the audience is (somewhat) wisely allowed to amuse itself to fill in the blanks.
Taking its central conceit from the Pierre Boulle novel La Planète des Singes, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling have reconfigured the plot to encompass very contemporaneous sociopolitical rending of a society in violently chaotic generational flux while properly distancing the period’s widespread intemperate disaffection (the targeted universality of which is seen as intellectually stunted as a blind reverence to traditional social order given value simply due a longevity of willful mass acceptance) with an intricate and surprisingly comforting fabric of Science fiction films will necessarily- despite the enacted time frame or backdrop -reflect the mindset of the time in which it is written and produced, and the satiric subtext with which “Planet of the Apes” is designed manages to perfectly reflect the growing societal pessimism of the day while managing a more temperamentally palatable tone in which the discontent is expressed (on top of the hopelessly inescapable situation in which the astronauts find themselves) with a comforting note of whimsey, the carefully controlled tone magnifying the impact of the cautionary hammer blow of the film’s unexpected though thoroughly logical conclusion (The artistry of the final moments is made all the more palpable by a chilling yet unheralded use of sound effects.); the film’s sudden shift into an entirely nihilistic stance on the fate of humanity becomes a numbing primal howl: the comically black is unmasked (as ironically foretold by Taylor) as a descent into the total darkness of Man’s self-destructive maelstrom.
Among its many pleasures, the film is graced with several performances of surprisingly nuanced accomplishment- considering they are managed under pounds of John Chambers’ witty simian facial prosthetic applications -by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall as Taylor-friendly chimpanzee scientists (and amusing romantic couple) Zira and Cornelius, and Maurice Evans as the adversarial, complexly defensive defender of social tradition: orangutan science minister Dr. Zaius, who entertainingly engages in a number of labyrinthine arguments with both the chimps and Taylor that eerily echo the insupportable ignorance of authority that rules due to fear of its own self-perpetuating devising. Best of all is Heston who brings his trademark heroic physicality (How many other major stars might withstand similar indignities of undress and regressive status on the evolutionary chain with their dignity intact?) abetted with an appreciably elevated level of generous self-mocking that allows the cynically conceived Taylor to emerge deserving of our committed sympathy and therefore to become a tragic figure of Jacobean heights.
“The Teacher” (1974)
The effect of the removal of the Production Code with regard to the drive-in youth market had an incalculable, though slow, effect on the films produced which always featured- more than mainstream releases -the wholly exploitable elements of action, rebellion and violence, though in matters of the sexual, most producers displayed the same reticence as the big studios. The emergence of more graphic voyeurism by way of quick flashed of breast, buttocks or pubis became standard fare (though chauvinistically, the exposure was entirely on the female side; frontal male nudity usually meriting the dreaded X) though consentual love making was usually enacted encumbered by so much men’s trouser wear, it rendered the concept of the chastity belt irrelevant. But in spite of the visual timidity of credible depictions of consenting sexuality in drive-in fare (the incidence of more graphic rape, however, was unaccountably and disturbingly prevalent), the male fantasy of sex with forbidden suburbanite fantasy objects would find popularity with the emergence of surrogate cinematic succubi with the proliferation of hormonally hyperactive stewardesses and cheerleaders, and with the addition of the 1974 feature “The Teacher”, the Triple Crown of the Carnal Conquest was complete.
High school teacher Diane Marshall (Angel Tompkins) finds herself being stalked by the psychotic stalking vet (a concession to an obscenely overused scapegoat for villainy of the era) Ralph Gordon (Anthony James) while starting an affair with horny 18 year old recent graduate Sean Roberts (Jay North) who happens to be best friends with Lou Gordon (Rudy Herrera Jr.), the younger brother of the deranged Ralph. In other words, what director-writer Hikmet Avedis constructs for his roster of characters is a community rife with the kind of disfunction which the drive-in exploitation film thrives on. Typical of films of this type, the lead protagonists operate in a special kind of protected universe, in which the presumptive authority figures- in this case, both Sean’s parents and the police, are clueless dolts who appear incapable of noticing the hotbed of adultery, sexual exhibitionism, violent assault, serial threats, attempted murder and inappropriate leering that is going on right in front of them. If a film maker makes the conscious decision to eliminate connective elements in the story which would advance even a cursory level of credibility (for instance, there is no explanation as to how, at the film’s beginning, the police would have missed the cache of weaponry in a madman’s hideout in the middle of a crime scene, except that it would have ended the film directly after the opening credits) in favor to a complete concession to the more prurient aspects of the story, it defines that film maker as either callous or exploitative.
In “The Teacher”, Avedis sets his sights low from the start by showing the young teacher dealing with her stalker’s unwanted attention (driving her sports car, she notices she is being surreptitiously followed by Ralph in a white hearse!) by mooring her boat (for a teacher, her level of luxury is unexplainably high) in front of his spying perch and sunbathing topless. If the director intends this opening sequence to introduce a suspense plot in the film, it is certainly sending mixed messages to condemn a leering peeper, while at the same time expecting the audience to enjoy the same character’s striptease, yet this is a willing sexual objectification of Donna that continues throughout the film, in direct contradiction to the portrayal of her as a victim of sexual objectification by Ralph. It is a confusion of perspective from a film maker who lacks the conviction of telling a story in a straightforward manner without the safety net of exploitative elements to keep the audience’s interest.This can be seen in the conception of the character of Donna Marshall, who is a walking contradiction: not in the sense of human complexity, but as a convenient vessel on which to hang the vagaries of sloppy plotting. By any standard, an adulterous wife who happens to fall into a sexual relationship with one of her students, is not the basis for a film heroine, especially when the nature of the film is to focus precisely on those aspects of her behavior that would be considered socially unacceptable (not to mention, immoral, although immoral behavior is at the very heart of the allure of most drive-in features, so this is not necessarily a detracting factor), which explains the imperative need for the character of Ralph Gordon’s stalker to divert attention away from the sleaziness of the film’s central relationship. By creating an antagonist who is both dangerous and criminally irredeemable by comparison, Avedis may successfully tip the balance to make his illicit lovers appear more palatable, but he also surrenders his story to an almost nonexistent level of empathetic perception in which each side of the narrative coin- both the “forbidden” love story and the suspense aspect -is irretrievably diluted. However, even with this ill-considered direction undermining both ends of his schizophrenic film, the director also portrays Sean’s most essential moral influences- his parents – as particularly loathsome people: his father weakly conceding to his spouse’s whims despite the fact that he open recognizes that her attitudes toward Sean are unnatural, and his mother who is so bereft of healthy maternal instincts that on most occasions she remarks about her son in the most discomforting manner, expressing feelings toward Sean bordering on the incestuous, or promoting thoughts indistinguishable from that of a pimp proudly sending their stable to hit the mattresses, or in this case, for her son to nail any one of her randy friends, who seem to serve little function other than to parade about in bathing suits while Sean drools into his lap.
The bridging of the two story arcs is cemented almost immediately with the accidental death of Ralph’s brother Lou, who falls from an elevated platform when startled by Ralph as he and Sean share Ralph’s binoculars in peeping at the semi-nude, contorting Diane; thus establishing a motif of concurrent voyeurism and convenient exhibitionism that will characterize the entire film, but also instigating a revengeful rage with which Ralph will pursue the hapless Sean (who will conveniently forget both his best friend’s death and the brother’s lurking rampage whenever it becomes to convenient to plunge into his van project or his teacher). However, the disparate elements never gel, with Ralph often forgetting whether he’s mad at Sean for Lou’s death or whether he’s jealous over the lad’s success in romancing Diane, a confusion which stutters the progression of the suspense plot, making Ralph’s presence in the story irrelevant, only to randomly reemerge by peering through a window, always- conveniently -when the lovers are about to engage in bedroom antics; a circumstantial recurrence that in more skilled hands might suggest an Hitchcockian context to the audience’s role in exploitation cinema: that Ralph is manifested as a surrogate of the audience to play both voyeur and harbinger of moral retribution (in the notorious restaurant scene, Ralph’s voyeurism is supplanted by a pair of elderly gossips whom the film treats with unfair derision), but the director isn’t resourceful enough to develop Ralph’s character that he might be clever enough to escalate his campaign of annoyance (its far too tepid to call it a”reign of terror”) in a way which might ratchet up the suspense. Avedis’ failure to develop the sexual affair between Diane and Sean is equal evidence of his inability to advance either plot or character beyond the most elementary concepts. It is certainly among the most uncomfortably awkward relationships in film not so much for the student/teacher factor which is the exploitative hook, but for its complete absence of believable emotional, intellectual or physical connection (this last is especially puzzling for the sexually ignorant as Diane seems to achieve moaning climax through the simple act of leaning on Sean’s chest).
That Sean is portrayed as a leering hormone- and pretty dim at that -is consistent with the film’s need for everyone to act, not in their own best interests, but in service to the needs of the script, which takes great pains to increase the outrage of Diane’s seduction of her student by including the preposterous restaurant sequence in which the teacher openly, physically seduces Sean, plies him with alcohol until they are both roaring drunk and exchange saliva samples all in public view, once again emphasizing the implausible view of social conventions created specifically for these characters which eliminates any possibility of professional or personal recriminations (the town’s P.T.A. and School Committee must be the most lenient in history, following the example of that pioneer of educational methodology- Bob Guccione). Diane is the complete seductress, though unlike the claims of the marketing materials (see poster, above) she does not impugn the morals of an entire school (though in the depicted inattentive climate, it probably wouldn’t make any difference) so her relentless campaign to bed the astonishingly callow Sean seems as much a matter of possible mental illness as itchy pants- it certainly shows an unquestionable lack of taste.
Much of this has to do with the casting of the film, which is inhabited by performers who read their lines with the dull, monotonic aptitude of an automated answering machine. Angel Tomkins plays the sexpot aspects of Diane to a fault, as was her limited specialty in showing leg and stripping bare, but she makes no effort to make Diane a sympathetic character. Jay North is physically stiff and emotionally insipid, evoking the full range of emotions by blankly staring with a great cow-eyed glaze, usually armed with a creepy smile that suggests the nature of a simpleton, but would surely have every woman in the community- except for mother and teacher -running for the pepper spray. Anthony James performance is limited to a blank stare or a death’s head Jack-O-Lantern grin, hardly the makings of a classic movie villain. Consistent with his paltry talents in direction and screenwriting, Hikmet Avedis reveals no directorial aptitude with his performers, with the domestic scenes at Sean’s home meriting special recognition, so poorly directed, written and performed, they suggest an intensive study in the film techniques of Larry Buchanan: seldom have a collection of scenes in one film- even comparable to the low expectations of the exploitation film -been so conspicuous for their negative achievement.
The film, with its calculated, hypocritically stacked moral tone, predates the same psychotically puritanical route followed in most of the American slasher films in which the enjoyment of sex is met with a violent comeuppance. This moral hypocrisy is regularly practiced in the world of exploitation cinema, as it affords the audience the opportunity to satisfy the voyeuristic appetite and then feel morally cleansed- at the character’s expense, of course -at the conclusion. However, no punishment is too severe for having to endure the appalling musical tracks of Shorty Rogers, whose motifs for lovemaking and homicidal pursuit are so similar it may be the first recorded case of tonal monozygotic twins.
“EL CONDOR” (1970)
John Guillerman’s “El Condor” is a noisy, violent, preposterous western of the variety that became extremely popular with studios in the Sixties (Richard Brooks’ “The Professionals” being the most accomplished example) often blending elements consistent with the fading noir genre and expanding the seemingly pedestrian roots of the Western genre itself by also melding with familiar elements of adventure, war and caper films ; a reactive osmosis in no small part due to Hollywood’s paranoid suspicions that the extreme proliferation of westerns on television would erode the ticket buying audience’s appetite for new cinematic visions that mirrored what on television were becoming overly familiar genre tropes.
Jim Brown portrays Luke, a prison convict who is in the midst of filing through his leg irons while being regaled by an old man (a welcome Elisha Cook Jr. who permanently disappears within moments, a wasted opportunity by the filmmakers) with stories of the Mexican fortress El Condor which presumably contains billions of dollars in bullion; the gold resources of Emperor Maximilian. Rather conveniently, Luke encounters drifter Jacoo (Lee Van Cleef) who for no apparent reason he partners up with (the circumstances of both their meeting and immediate alliance make no sense except for the fact that both actors signed onto the project) to plan an attack on El Condor and abscond with the loot. Standing in the way of this enterprise are a large army of soldiers stationed at the fortress, led by the sadistic Mexican General (Is there any other kind in films such as this?) Chavez.
Ultimately,“El Condor” is both a western and a heist film, a schizophrenia which the film fails to balance with satisfying results in either direction. What often distinguishes a successful heist formula are not only colorful characters, but an ingenious plot to overcome spectacular odds against all anticipated forms of perils and hazards, and within that ingenious design, a commonplace monkey wrench thrown into the mixture that adds surprising reminders as to the fragility of fate. In the case of “El Condor”, screenwriters Larry Cohen and Steven Carabatsos borrow concepts from several diverse sources, including Burt Kennedy’s “The War Wagon” with its use of Indian warriors as camouflage and Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” in using siege as a stratagem, yet the ultimate mindset behind the plot is an appetite for unadulterated slaughter on a massively absurd scale as entertainment; cold blooded murder of epic proportions with the solitary goal to satisfy the mercenary avarice of the “heroes”. The confluence of western revisionism, the emergence of the spaghetti western with its more fundamental characteristics of nihilism, the emergence of the western as action-adventure-caper film and the increased “sensitivity” toward the Native American merged into a perverse willingness to target the Mexican as an undefended source of sitting ducks. The seemingly casual manner in which Mexicans were regarded as convenient targets of execution in large numbers was supposedly made more palatable through the use of cynical whimsey on the parts of the lead players in an attempt to masquerade the cynical results of the sacrifice of hundreds of lives for fun and profit.
Unfortunately, despite the overabundance of action (much of it well staged), there is precious little connecting incident that is either interesting or logical; the film held together with a tenuous adhesive of bantering that met with greatest popularity in the previous year’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and was equally ineffective in that film, as the nature of one-liners as dialogue tends to diminish any attempt at dramatic gravitas within the narrative. Clearly massive carnage is generally inconsistent with off-the-cuff humor, yet this seems to be the basis of the screenplay by Larry Cohen and Steven Carabatsos, who occasionally hint at a deepening of characterization in isolated scenes, but then back peddle to abruptly return to set pieces of mayhem. For indiscriminate enthusiasts of battlefield casualties there is much to engage the eye, but there is far to little to nourish the mind.
However, what the film is blessed with are engaging performances from both Lee Van Cleef- who seems to be having a grand time poking at his steely eyed tough guy image -and Jim Brown who is surprisingly loose (seemingly influenced by Van Cleef) and more open to the nuances of irony than in his previous humorless (if not outright stolid) performances. Iron Eyes Cody, as the Apache chief Santana is typically iconically stoic, but Mariana Hill is wasted in a meaning and demeaning role as Chavez’ lady love who seems present only for some gratuitous nudity. By way of contrast, Patrick O’Neal seems completely at ease though completely miscast in the role of (of all things) a Mexican General, though he makes use of his considerable skills in portraying Chavez with his signature urbane sliminess to the fullest advantage, and even though the sketchily written role affords little in the way of believability, O’Neal manages to suavely coast through- and bring a surprising hint of class to -the role of an otherwise stereotypical stock movie villain.
“TALES FROM THE CRYPT” (1972)
Sometimes, one cultural form takes decades longer to reach a path on which another has already tread. In the case of American film, the restrictions produced by the inflexible Production Code meant that what was more freely expressed in other artistic forms, most prominently in both literature and theater, was generally castigated of content that was offensive to the Catholic-based moral strictures of the Hays Office authority. Themes found provocative, usually dealing with the sexual (especially what was considered aberrant, i.e. homosexuality) and the morally depraved (curiously, this was not exclusive to criminal or blatantly antisocial behaviors, but also included such domestic indiscretions as adultery or, in the case of the more perversely myopic stretches of Production Code moralizing: miscegenation) were banished outright as cinematic content unless the materials were reworked in heavily disguised fashion to obliterate overt hints of “moral depravity” from the film: thus leading interesting avenues open for the advancement of genres that were able to transmute the offending content more easily within their specific stylized characteristics- film noir, the advent of the “adult” western and even the musical form.
Subject to later, but no less strenuous external creative pressures was the comics industry, which was criticized and castigated by fervent crusaders as a detriment to the youth of the nation; the campaign of negativity finding its fullest expression in the infamous 1954 book by Frederic Wertham M.D., “Seduction of the Innocent” which blamed what the author saw as a growing danger of depraved juveniles running rampant under the influence of zombies, eye-gouging villains and the sexual subtext (as he saw it) of, amongst others, a presumed lesbian Wonder Woman, and presumed homosexual partners Batman and Robin. With this book as a fuel for moralistic hysteria, coupled with hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, the industry was forced into accepting their own version of the motion picture Production Code, the self-regulating, censorial board, the Comics Code Authority, which exists in a symbolic sense, if no other, to this very day. The CAA effectively banned graphic depictions of violence and mayhem, removing the very source of EC comics’ widespread appeal, and forcing them to cease publication of their most successful titles.
The motion picture Production Code was effectively nullified in 1967, thus ending a thirty four year reign of forced censorship from the open depiction of adult themes, sex, violence, blind defiance of religious and law enforcement authorities and unpunished antisocial behavior.
Which set the stage for the 1972 Freddie Francis anthology film “Tales From the Crypt”, an amalgam of five different stories originally published in those same EC horror comics, produced by Amicus Productions, a rival of Hammer films which had already used the anthology format with varying success in such films as “Torture Garden” and “The House That Dripped Blood”. As the first cinematic representation of the EC comics stories, it becomes immediately apparent that the common element of each tale is not so much the promotion of antisocial behavior as the level of disproportionately brutal punishment meted out to the wrongdoers, which is virtually Biblical in its ferocity. The Inquisitional rapture with which comeuppance is delivered makes it a mystery why moral and religious leaders didn’t find these stories useful as tales of sinful deterrence rather than as targets of pious moral persecution. In a related facet inherent to the O. Henry style twists at the conclusions of the episodes, is the nature of the comeuppance of each protagonist; the ironic codas of each tale depicting a representative of relative innocence as being the destructive instruments of the wrongdoer’s downfall, making these true morality tales. It is merely the depiction of that comeuppance in the most lurid Grand Guignol fashion that is the basis of the controversy.
The five stories of the film are linked by a connective thread in which five strangers, (Joan Collins, Ian Hendry, Nigel Patrick, Richard Greene and Robin Phillips) casual tourists in an English countryside complex of ancient crypts, find themselves lost until they happen upon a concealed subterranean chamber containing a cryptic figure, played with sardonic relish by Sir Ralph Richardson. He is the Cryptkeeper, though only identified as such in the main credits. The five tales he relates to the strangers he insists are warnings of terrible things they individually “may be capable of”. Each episode is briskly told in a crisp, efficiently nasty and entertainingly gratuitous style, eschewing the overt campiness or destructive self-effacing jokiness that often afflicts horror films made without a creative trust in the material. That is not to say the film is humorless, but it is of the blackly comic variety. The anticipation of and satisfaction gained from seeing the baddies get theirs in increasingly exaggerated gruesome fashion is part of the morbid fun of the piece, though to fully succeed it would be necessary for the stories to be unveiled so that the individual story elements continue to increase in visceral intensity, and in that the film may stricken with a structural miscalculation, using up its payoff so protracted in the delivery, it might have made more sense to have put this as the opening segment of this surprisingly creepy, nastily entertaining picture. For EC Comics fans or fans of horror films produced with the earnest respect they deserve, the twenty year delay was well worth the wait.
“THE VAULT OF HORROR” (1973)
The follow-up to Freddie Francis’ stylish and enjoyable “Tales From the Crypt” finds five more characters recounting troubling dreams that turn out to be…well, you know the drill. Nastier and more vicious than its predecessor, it is also less polished and a great deal less fun.
It is evident right from the start that director Roy Ward Baker was absent of the peculiar disciplines necessary to successfully convey such materials. A director of high craftsmanship and a genuine feel for intelligently balancing complex narrative lines (his uncluttered yet energetic direction of such disparate films as the classic “A Night to Remember” and the superior Hammer SF production “Quatermass and the Pit” attests to his skill at maintaining disciplined reins with projects demanding multiple, active story lines), he seems at a complete loss here to conjure the most rudimentary elements of suspense or atmosphere. Where the Francis film (and Baker is a far more distinguished director) embraced the comic book form- not only in its virtual storyboard three color visualization, but in delivering sustained energy throughout all five brief tales, each building to jolting crescendos of violent retribution, whereas the Baker film feels flat and inert, never once evincing the sense of a heightened story arc in any of the episodes, and thus diluting the shock value of any would be-delicious twists. Instead of investing the film with vitality, Baker shockingly seems content in allowing the (to be generous) distinctly overactive scoring by Douglas Gamley to insert movement where none exists, and there are far too many instances of a laxadaisical rhythm to the between segment expository scenes (A good example of this would be the very opening sequence of each film, with the gathering of the protagonists: in “Tales”, this is accomplished with an atmospheric tour through ancient burial catacombs revealing small but important details about several of the players, in “Vault” there is merely a laboriously extended shot [from behind, no less] in an elevator in which each of the key characters enters and waits…and waits.) which tend to grind the entire film to a slow crawl.
While the basic formula is intact, and several key creative players are in the mix, there are essential ingredients missing that immediately dilute the experience. Milton Subotsky returns to adapt the original comic stories of Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines, and there are a few clever tales to be found here (especially the last), but the overall sense is of a disconnection within many of the tales, as if the essential details which build each situation are often absent, leaving a shell outline of an idea, but failing to fill in the segments with motivations or a logical progression of events. Each segment of “Tales From the Crypt” was engineered as a small but ingenious mousetrap, the connective materials also contributing toward the collective point of the film which was that it was a movie (as it appeared on the surface) not of redemptive avoidance of heinous acts, but of celebrating the act of punishing damnation; the ironies of distinction rendered with deft touches of mordantly dark humor. “The Vault of Horror” is equipped with none of this, instead going through the motions of its predecessor, but without the commitment of an infectiously wicked spirit to the project.
Of the five stories, again, the weakest is the second, in that the protagonist (this time Terry-Thomas) doesn’t genuinely appear to merit his particularly gruesome end, especially when his crime seems to be merely a bit of insensitive nagging of his wife, hardly the basis for a gratuitously graphic comeuppance. However, the first tale, a tale of murder that ends with a vampiristic twist is demonstrative of the sloppiness in the film’s writing, both structurally and in its lack of attention to detail. Suspense tales are as successful as the logic of their premise, the gears of the narrative intricately placed together so that it may function as one harmonious machine; one slipped gear and the mechanism ceases to function smoothly. This is doubly important when inserting the supernatural element into such a tale, as there must be a presumption of fair play in the otherworldly elements that coincide with the suspense mechanism: a supernatural story may alter the rules of reality, but in doing so- to be successful -they are bound by the rules they construct, and cannot alter them midstream for the ease of lazy plot progression. Again, a matter of logic.
In the initial tale, Daniel Massey portrays a man looking for his sister who has inherited the family fortune. He does so in the time honored fashion of hiring a detective and then killing the man for no good reason except to show what a rotter he is. (He smiles while strangling him.) Then, after leaving enough clues behind that even Inspector Clouseau could track him, he visits the town of his sibling, making several side trips (just in case there is a person within earshot his presence has not been witnessed by) to a restaurant, where he inevitably meets his fate. (A scene involving a wall length mirror, exposing him as the only guest who casts a shadow is a genuinely effective moment, reminiscent of a similar scene in Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers”.) For a segment involving multiple murders and a streak of vampirism, there is a shocking lack of imagination displayed in the story, nor are any of the suggested terrors of the town fully explained or exploited in any way that is atmospheric or suspenseful. This lack of cohesive momentum in the writing insinuates itself into all but the last of the segments, a crackerjack tale unveiled as if Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence” were reimagined as a story of voodoo retribution.
Featuring an energetically engaged Tom Baker as a painter seeking revenge against the three men whom he feels have cheated him of deserved advancement in his career, the film finally settles down into tight, coherent storytelling in which each action contributes to a snowballing toward a fatal consequences in an ironic final twist that is both logical -within the invented rules of the situation -and blackly comic. Rather than a last minute reprieve for a unconscionably tepid film, the segment reemphasizes the substantial and evident flaws in the rest of the production.
Concluding on a disaffected epilogue, in which the five gentlemen seem to be the last in the theater to realize they’re already dead, there is little opportunity given for the viewer to feel anything for the characters portrayed by the talented likes of Curt Jurgens, Daniel Massey, Michael Craig and, most surprisingly, the usually reliable Terry-Thomasas they fade into the ghostly oblivion of death, when their individual performances are uniformly unfocused and lacking even a hint of a pulse. Despite the fundamental failures of Subotsky’s scripting, the brunt of the responsibility must be laid at the feet of the director, whose ultimate responsibility it is to not only translate the written word with an interesting visual sense, but to interject even a modicum of his skills onto the screen and into his actors. Unfortunately, these are issues that appear to crop up frequently in many of Baker’s later horror efforts. Could it be that the good director felt he was slumming?
“THE GREEN BERETS” (1968)
John Wayne’s production of “The Green Berets” (it would be ludicrous to ascribe credit to another individual) was the only Hollywood studio film to directly deal with the Vietnam War during the conflict, and would remain so for another decade. That the film tackled what could be modestly considered a hot-button topic makes it a subject of interest, but that its depiction of that topic was in direct opposition to the growing, violent national mood of the time shows a rare example of American filmmaking bravura that in itself cannot be ignored as a foundation for further industry critical evaluation.
That Hollywood would in the following several years produce so-called “anti-establishment” films is an irony lost on the entrenched industry “establishment” yielding to the increasing weight of corporate merging which demanded productions which would find a more empathetic viewpoint that would speak directly to a troubled youth (i.e., separating the youthful suckers from their money) resulting in a plethora of films filtered through Beverly Hills-colored glasses that depicted a sense of youthful societal discontent (Being that rock throwing campus riots are highly cinematic anyway, and violent action means big box office.) but without any attempted insight as to what was driving that discontent. (Thoughts? What are those? Not so cinematic. Bad box office.) The fact is that none of these films were driven by a desire to reflect American society introspectively- that was never the case in Hollywood, otherwise why would a movement such as Italian neorealism create such a stir?- but out of typical industry mammon. After all, “Easy Rider” had made a fortune on very little investment, why couldn’t the industry leaders replicate that success tenfold? Antiwar sentiment became a mere decorous backdrop in empty headed films which attempted the quick cash grab until Hollywood could formulate the next lucrative trend to supplant their prodigious bankrupting failure of their previous misguided enthusiasm: the overproduced musical.
And so, there was “The Green Berets”, the lone film whose subject dealt directly with Vietnam and would receive the brickbats from all sides generated by the increasing frustrations aimed at the inflammatory military conflict. For all of its flaws (and they are legion) or admirable qualities (Yes Virginia, there are a few.), the film has always been reviewed as an extension of an increasingly unpopular (though at the time of its release, the unpopularity of the war was not as universal as current myth making would insist) conflict, and the star’s unpopular (amongst Liberal commentators) personal Conservative politics rather than through any objective critical prism.
The film begins with a rousing choral rendition of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and then immediately stops dead in its tracks for a laborious dissertation on the capabilities of the Green Berets and the militaristic position of the war against Communism, intercut only with the most uninformative, generic military briefing in the history of war films. Both sequences direct attention to the main problem which will plague the film, and that is its script by Wayne favorite James Lee Bartlett who is apparently willing to concede all occasions for either narrative progression or revealing character exposition (there isn’t one single role that doesn’t remain a cipher by the film’s end) when the substitution of stilted civics lesson speechifying might be inserted.
The blatant inclusion of a straightforward political point of view isn’t unheard of in wartime films, (it’s the very nature of that brand of film’s propagandistic goals) as a matter of fact, the 1940’s were awash in films whose primary goal was to boost morale with patriotic wartime zeal, and that example brings one of the most telling problems of the film to light: it is a late 60’s Vietnam film entirely seen through the sensibilities of a 40’s World War Two propaganda programmer. But Barrett’s script is positively primitive in its clumsily executed construction; consisting of patently phoney lines which are delivered only to elicit a dramatically inconsequential response (either cheap humor or ideological superiority) which plays like the most the prefabricated dialogue patterns of a smirk-a-minute sitcom. Nowhere do we get a scene in which a soldier in Vietnam even acknowledges the existence of “back home” or speaks of a personal experience outside the military as they are not characters but automatons existing to spew forth a Gung Ho proclamation before mowing down a few dozen of Charlie. This may be effective for a recruitment advertisement, but it’s deadly as drama.
Scenes comprising the introductions to the major American players in this drama demonstrate not only a puzzling conflicting tone but a general misunderstanding of attitude, not about Vietnam but about the modernity of cinema by 1968. Scenes are executed in a haphazard fashion, with the approximation of sequential development but without the most important cementing element in film: context. For instance, there is an excruciatingly extended sequence meant to introduce the character of Corporal (later Sergeant) Petersen (Jim Hutton) but it emerges into a series of tired comic hijinks which supposedly display his skill at scrounging (toilet seats always seem to be a hot commodity) which will make him invaluable in the war effort (the war, apparently, being fought using America’s tactical superiority in indoor plumbing) though the entire sequence is predicated on the fact he is so clumsy he is caught by seemingly everyone else in the cast; aided, in no small part, by shamelessly whimsical musical scoring straight out of a “Dennis the Menace” episode.
The entire sequence takes up the bulk of the pre-Vietnam preparation footage, obviously with the need for strategic background deemed unessential; for instance, why is the presence of Colonel Kirby (John Wayne) vital to the war effort except for the fact he’s the star of the film? Kirby, as the authoritative military presence through most of the film, never once exudes any strategic acumen, and his entire plan of attack seems to be waiting while under siege until overrun by superior numbers, (This is a parallel to Wayne’s previous directorial outing, 1960’s “The Alamo”, also written by James Lee Barrett, with its extended tale of siege and slaughter which “The Green Berets” resembles- perhaps a virtual attempt to update and alter the denouement of that fateful historic episode?) but there is no attempt whatsoever to orient the audience as to how a modern American military force might adapt itself to the more primitive but effective techniques of guerilla warfare they are faced with, and continually whine about as if the enemy is playing unfairly if they simply don’t march straight into their kill zone. This disconnected inconsistency of tone combined with seeming lack of preparatory knowledge about either Vietnam or the modern military in the screenwriting finds the film too easily settling into the lazy jingoistic formula of lesser, more creatively starved films made about World War Two in the 1940’s: simply line up the enemy and kill “em. If this film is intended as a tribute to America’s elite fighting forces, it puzzles that it is portrayed with the hoariest elements of dated service comedies. Bob Hope had similar problems in the dismal Frank Tashlin film “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell”, but at least that was supposed to be a comedy. And with this conflicted depiction of the central characters who, remember, are supposed to be not mere infantry greenhorns, but the elite Special Forces Green Berets, we find ourselves with characters reduced to the most basic war film clichés: gruff but loveable sergeant, good ol’ country boy soldier, comic con artist/scrounger. The inclusion in this version of elite Special Services corp seems to be predicated on the the questionable requirements of (A) being excessively overage and overweight for active service, or (B) to demonstrate enough character eccentricities to alarm a psychiatric ward at twenty paces.
Despite these conceptual problems, the film eventually finds its way to South Vietnam, (accompanied on the soundtrack by primitive chop socky music penned by the renowned Miklos Rozsa, who should have known better) there finding Colonel Kirby and company joined by droopy reporter David Janssen (who appears in the opening Q & A lecture portion of the film) who convinces the Colonel to allow a civilian to accompany him to a dangerous hot zone merely by use of some choice sarcasm. Janssen’s role is limited to hanging his head in embarrassment/shame/narcolepsy while feigning outrage every time someone raises their voice at the enemy in a battle zone, only to be summarily derided that his questions about the conflict are both uninformed and Anti-American. War films are usually made with one of two intentions: (A) as a propagandistic tool (especially during wartime), or (B) as an instrument of Hollywood chest-thumping antiwar sentiments (though usually after the studios have bled the public dry with and exhausted the appetite for type (A) films) Clearly “The Green Berets” has the earmarks of a jingoistic vehicle, which is acceptable as long as there is a relevant point of view. Again, the problem with this Vietnam War film is its point of view is from the wrong conflict in the wrong decade. In a time when the conflict was hardly publicly supported with enthusiasm or a sense of national civilian self-sacrifice, Wayne’s intention to rally support for the troops he felt were being unfairly unsupported by a vocal majority and the media may have been a noble effort but extremely ill-conceived. To have come close to succeeding in his intention, the film has to contain even a glimmer of a palpable historical context that would explain the mission of the soldiers in a more convincing and illuminating light. (It doesn’t help when Barrett’s snippy responses to the reporters in the opening scene contain arguments that falsify historical facts and references about our own history to draw parallels to the emergence of Vietnam as a comparable democratic state.) Wayne reportedly passed on starring in Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen” to direct (With Ray Kellogg and an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy) this film, and ironically that World War Two drama was laced with an abundance 60’s cynicism that “The Green Berets” is desperately lacking; a little of which may have done a long way in bringing even a hint of contemporary reality to a drunken dinosaur of a war film.
This being said, there are some contributions of note that should be pointed out. First of all, of all of the Vietnam films produced since, “The Green Berets” provides the most generous acknowledgement of the South Vietnamese to their own war effort; something that is disturbingly absent from most other more (according to popular and critical consensus alike) “substantial” Vietnam films.. This is not unimportant and goes a long way in depicting the South Vietnamese as anything but the usual war film whore, pimp, thief or hustler. (In other films, even the soldier in the South Vietnamese army are usually depicted as shadowy and equally suspicious as their Viet Cong counterparts.) There are also some fine performances by Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Evers,and George Takei who should not be overlooked among the bombast of Barrett’s dialogue, and even Wayne himself has a few affecting moments including the infamous sunset-in-the-East finale in which he tells grieving young Hamchunk (the less said about this cloying and insultingly unnecessary character the better): “you’re what this is all about”. This finale scene, despite all that has occurred before, remains effective if for no other reason than its blind sincerity; proving that in a time of growing social upheaval and moral pessimism, it was still possible to be stand optimistic about America and what it stands for.
“The Green Berets” could never be mistaken for a good film, but it defiantly remains a sincerely felt- no matter how misguided on strictly a filmmaking level -production by a lone Hollywood individual when the entire remainder of the motion picture industry sat on its cowardly hands for a decade before pronouncing their exalted insight into Vietnam and the American psyche: time will always provide the hubris for “artists” to act as visionaries- armed with twenty-twenty hindsight.