Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '76 - Ira Brooker ""

Friday, August 5, 2016

Underrated '76 - Ira Brooker

Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at atalentforidleness.blogspot.com, irabrooker.com and @irabrooker.
Check out his Underrated '96 & '86 lists too:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/04/underrated-96-ira-brooker.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/05/underrated-ira-brooker.html
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1976 gets my vote as my single favorite year for cinema. Film artists were peaking all over the place, from the arthouse to the grindhouse, with Taxi Driver representing the perfect dovetailing of the two. Try as I might, I couldn’t limit my Underrated ‘76 list to the usual five or six. All things considered, there are worse problems to have.

Northville Cemetery Massacre (Directed by William Dear)
Early on in Northville Cemetery Massacre, a straitlaced couple’s car troubles are compounded when they’re surrounded by a bunch of Harleys. After a couple beats of suspense, the bikers cheerfully perform a roadside repair and send the folks on their way. That’s sort of how things go in this movie, which swaps out the usual bloodthirsty biker gang for a mostly harmless bunch of two-wheeled hippies who enjoy the occasional punch-up. Of course The Man is always gonna be The Man, so our long-haired heroes wind up being hunted for sport after a rapist cop frames them for his own crimes. It’s about as amiable as a bloody biker flick with a dozens-strong body count could possibly be, and it’s got a sweet Michael Nesmith song score to boot.

Island of Death (Directed by Nico Mastorakis)
Well, here is a movie where the sexual assault of a young goat ranks only about a seven on the depravity scale. This one’s place on the Video Nasty registry is well-earned, but it’s soaked in a distinctly different kind of nastiness than are most of its gory neighbors. It’s the simple story of two good-looking young deviants who live by a rigid but inscrutable moral code and pass sadistic judgment on any residents of an idyllic Greek island who unwittingly violate it. Lunatic sleaze director Nico Mastoraki’s best-known film is less disjointed than a lot of his work but definitely no less bonkers. It’s a mean, messy, ultimately satisfying bit of ugliness that even boasts a kick-ass theme song about killing people with a sword.

J.D.’s Revenge (Directed by Arthur Marks)
On a lark, mild-mannered New Orleans college student Glynn Turman visits a French Quarter fortune-teller with some friends. In short order he finds himself possessed by the ghost of a flamboyant, razor-wielding gangster with a vendetta against sketchy preacher Louis Gossett, Jr. It’s sort of like The Nutty Professor played for thrills and chills instead of laughs.

As a former resident, I’m a sucker for low-budget flicks shot on location in New Orleans, and this high-energy, supernatural slice-’em-up is one of the best. As much as I treasure Glynn Turman’s career as a can’t-miss character actor, it’s unforgivable that this is one of his only turns as a leading man. His performance here is a thing of manic, rabid beauty.

The Food of the Gods (Directed by Bert I. Gordon)
I don’t know if it was nostalgia, economics or good old-fashioned cocaine that led a studio to let 1976 Bert I. Gordon make a 1956 Bert I. Gordon movie, but whatever the reason, I’m thrilled that it happened. When a bubbling goo comes up from the ground on Ida Lupino’s Pacific Northwestern island poultry farm (!), she does the obvious thing and feeds it to her stock. Wouldn’t you know it, the island is soon overrun with giant, mutant chickens, wasps and rats, and it’s up to the usual ragtag band of misfits to stave them off.

The demands of the decade mean there’s more gore and misanthropy here than in Gordon’s older work, but this is still the work of Mr. B.I.G. through and through. There are all the dubious rear-projection effects, shots of animals swarming over unconvincing models, and pseudo-scientific babble mingling with warnings about meddling in the divine that fans of Beginning of the End and Attack of the Puppet People know and love, and thank the heavens for that.


Brotherhood of Death (Directed by Bill Berry)
A group of black Vietnam veterans returns home to a small town in hopes of settling back into civilian life. The local redneck population has no intention of making that an easy transition, and the vets soon find themselves getting the platoon back together to bring the war to their hometown Klan chapter.

The low budget is often painfully evident here - the Vietnam flashbacks are pretty clearly shot in some Maryland state park, and the supporting cast is filled out with Washington Redskins players in an effort to land some recognizable names without having to pay actual actors - but on the whole Brotherhood of Death is a prime example of ‘70s regional filmmaking. It’s the rare exploitation flick that knows how to shift from gritty to good-natured with minimal jarring, and it’s genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking in places. It’s also depressingly relevant to current events 40 years later.

Death Machines (Directed by Paul Kyriazi)
A screeching supervillain with mile-high hair uses her hypnotic powers to brainwash a multiracial trio of martial arts masters into being her zombie hitmen. She then dispatches them to take out her enemies list, which apparently includes such high-profile targets as the local tavern and the children’s hospital. This is barely coherent, dirt-cheap stuff that gets by on loony violence and sheer weirdness. It loses steam in the third quarter, when the focus inexplicably shifts to one of the Death Machines’ victims and his quest for revenge, but even that maneuver is bizarre enough to keep things thoroughly watchable.

Violent Naples (Directed by Umberto Lenzi)
Italy’s response to Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle is exactly what you’d expect it to be: slick, mean, hyper-violent action pumping nihilism and day-glo blood. In the hands of exploitation giant Umberto Lenzi, it’s also phenomenally entertaining. The second installment in Lenzi’s Inspector Betti series finds Maurizio Merli’s perpetually furious cop cutting a swath through the robbers, rapists and racketeers of Naples with nary a concern about rights or regulations. While the staunchly pro-police brutality message is so overt as to border on satire, the action is so fast-paced and well-orchestrated that it’s hard to get too bummed out about philosophical points in between all the urban infernos, bowling alley executions and POV motorcycle chases.

Keoma (Directed by Enzo G. Castellari)
1976 was the tail end of the Euro-Western’s decade in the sun, and Keoma makes for a suitable send-off. Franco Nero plays a half-Native, half-white outlaw (who speaks with a European accent for reasons unexplained) who returns home from a self-imposed exile to find his town riddled with plague and under the thumb of a penny-ante dictator, with Nero’s three jerk-ass half-brothers as his lieutenants. If you think that sounds like a pretty standard Western plot, you’re right. Keoma doesn’t do much out of the ordinary, but it does the ordinary exceedingly well. Future post-apocalypse luminary Castellari frames his shots masterfully, fills the screen with gorgeous close-ups of ungorgeous faces, and makes solid use of Woody Strode as a drunken banjo-picker in need of redemption. If the Euro-Western had to die, this is as satisfying a death rattle as anyone could ask for.

Shoot (Directed by Harvey Hart)
Bored furniture salesman Cliff Robertson takes a break from his shattered marriage and crumbling affair for a weekend hunting trip with his buddies. Things take a bizarre turn when another hunting party randomly opens fire on them and one of the assailants is killed in the resultant volley. Cliff’s bunch retreats to the city to plot their next move, with Ernest Borgnine as the pacifist voice of reason and Henry Silva as the macho aggressor.

It’s my understanding that this movie has a small right-wing cult following, which makes sense for a film about a bunch of gun-toting white dudes standing their ground against shadowy bad guys. For my money, though, this is actually a pitch-black satire on fragile masculinity. Watching the childish glee of Robertson’s posse as they channel their midlife crises into planning a real-life bloodbath is some grim comedy indeed. Even amidst all that testosterone, Kate Reid comes mighty close to stealing the show as a bitter widow whose eulogy for her husband slowly becomes a racist defense of the Second Amendment before disintegrating into a drunken pass at Cliff Robertson. Hey, it’s a white male empowerment fantasy already. Why not make Cliff Robertson a sexually irresistible dynamo while we’re at it?

Massacre at Central High (Directed by Renee Daalder)
This proto-Heathers ranks way up there on the “couldn’t be made today” scale. The story of a good-looking oddball who moves into town and promptly begins killing off his high school’s bullies and jocks (including, ironically, future nerd-avenger Robert Carradine) would never fly in the post-Columbine landscape. As it stands, this is an entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful relic of a more innocent time when the downtrodden could entertain guilt-free fantasies of taking down their tormentors by needlessly flamboyant means. Death Wish + Animal Farm + Dazed and Confused + the Old Testament = this.

(Apparently there’s an X-rated Italian cut of this movie called Sexy Jeans that splices in unrelated hardcore sex scenes. I have no intention of seeing that but it seems like a good reminder that 1976 was a very different time.)

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