Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '76 - Matt Bourjaily ""

Friday, August 26, 2016

Underrated '76 - Matt Bourjaily

Matt Bourjaily is an English teacher, a former teen film critic, and a shamefully unknown writer who was once dismissed from the test audience of the POINT BREAK remake for being too negative.

Check out his Underrated '86 list here:
VIGILANTE FORCE (written & directed by George Armitage)
Okay, so the opening of this movie is entirely amazing. Set to a rollicking banjo soundtrack, we immediately get a montage of a hootin’ n’ hollerin’ gang of oil workers wreaking havoc on a small California town. At first, it seems like ordinary good ol’ boy fun (speeding cars, drinking, strippers, bar fights), but it quickly becomes WTF THOSE GUYS JUST MURDERED TWO COPS AND THREE CIVILIANS AND BLEW UP A POLICE CAR. And, thus, VIGILANTE FORCE begins.

In any other town, the governor might be called, maybe the National Guard would come in, because you’ve got a murderous band of lunatics on the loose. (Imagine TOMBSTONE set in 1970’s California, and you’ve got a good idea of what’s going on here.) But instead, the hapless sheriff decides hiring a mercenary is a more reasonable solution. So, local nice guy Jan-Michael Vincent calls on his loose cannon Vietnam Vet brother, Kris Kristofferson, to clean house.

By the way, this all happens in the first fifteen minutes, which is what makes this movie awesome. It doesn’t waste any time with needless exposition--it gets you right into the action, which involves a lot of punching, a lot of KK not wearing a shirt, and a LOT of unwarranted murders (most of which happen in full view of a few dozen witnesses, which doesn’t seem to make one bit of difference). As the extortion, brutality, and body counts pile up, it becomes clear to JMV that hiring his brother was a REALLY bad idea, but no one who matters will listen, and it all builds towards an explosive climax that I can’t even begin to describe. (Let’s just say things seem to reach Fallujah-level combat rather quickly.) You also get an unbelievably gorgeous Victoria Principal playing JMV’s love interest, and Bernadette Peters playing KK’s girlfriend, or perhaps indentured servant, or maybe personal prostitute. (They seem to avoid putting labels on the relationship. Always a wise move in the early stages of emotional abuse.) Also, keep your eyes open for Paul Gleason as a thug with great fashion sense, an uncredited Loni Anderson as a prostitute named “Peaches,” and the always awesome DICK MILLER tickling the ivories.

THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka EXPOSE, aka TRAUMA) (written & directed by James Kenelm Clarke)
Probably the weirdest one on this list, mainly because at points, it’s hard to tell if you’re watching a halfhearted effort at a porn film, or a halfhearted effort at a horror film. (Based on its original X rating, it’s probably both.) Udo Kier plays an egocentric novelist who, while living in a secluded English farmhouse, is growing increasingly paranoid for unidentified reasons. He hires a typist (Linda Hayden) to help him write his next novel, and the sex and violence meters spike soon after her arrival.

While the film often settles into fairly standard slasher/sexploitation fare, there’s enough weirdness and twists to keep it engaging until the end. Clarke creates an effectively claustrophobic feeling in the house, with lots of tight shots and narrow hallways enclosing the performers, and at points the film seems to take a few well-advised (but more amateurishly executed) nods from STRAW DOGS. Perhaps it’s the fact that film never seems to settle on its genre that makes it intriguing, while at the same time never fully successful. But the alternate titles for the film reveal a bit of that disconnect: Is there something about the House on Straw Hill that causes people to lose inhibitions and, eventually, their sanity? Is this a film about revealing hidden secrets? Or is it about the lasting psychological damage caused by painful events? It’s never really clear, and the answer probably lies somewhere in the nexus of all of those questions. Worth a watch, if only for the conversations you’ll have afterwards about Udo’s predilection for latex gloves.

THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES (aka KILLER FORCE) (written by Michael Winder, Val Guest, and Gerald Sandford; directed by Val Guest)
Does Telly Savalas even own a shirt that buttons higher than his navel? If so, I don’t want to know about it. A caper/action film with a great ensemble cast, THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES centers on Peter Fonda as Bradley, a security guard for a diamond mining syndicate. Bradley gets surreptitiously asked by the company CEO to join a team of diamond thieves in order to root out their contact inside the company. However, the head of security, Harry Webb (Telly Savalas) doesn’t know anything about this plan, and he’s a guy who doesn’t hesitate to use KILLER FORCE (!) in dealing with trespassers, thieves, and anyone else who crosses him.

Like any good heist film, the thieves have to negotiate a number of obstacles, including heat-detecting helicopter patrols, hidden pressure plates, a time-locked vault, and high-tech radar systems (which include a giant Lite Brite and what I swear is a library microfiche machine). But what’s worse, Webb isn’t in the know on Bradley’s secret mission, so he’s just as dangerous as the criminals are. Telly brings his classic cool-guy toughness to intimidate everybody, including Bradley’s super-cute, super-sassy love interest Clare (Maud Adams).

Speaking of whom, the ragtag group of mercenaries planning the diamond heist are a whole lot of fun. Led by Hugh O’Brian looking rather dapper in a turtleneck and leather jacket (must be one of those pesky South African cold spells), the team also includes real-life mercenary Ian Yule as tough guy Woody, OJ Simpson and his funky suspenders as undercover funny man Bopper, and a fantastic Christopher Lee as Chilton, a poetry-reading, stiletto-wielding enforcer. Fonda has some great one-liners, although he doesn’t always seem to deliver them with his fullest effort, and there’s a level of inelegance to the heist that makes you feel like these guys spent about fifteen minutes planning the whole affair. But throughout the whole thing, Telly never takes his sunglasses off and never buttons his shirt, and isn’t that all anybody really wanted in the 70s?

ALICE SWEET ALICE (aka COMMUNION, aka HOLY TERROR) (directed by Alfred Sole; written by Rosemary Ritvo & Alfred Sole)
Now here’s a film that will make you uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. Two sisters, the younger Karen (Brook Shields, in her first role) and the elder Alice (Linda Miller), are constantly fighting, mostly due to the mother’s constant doting on Karen as the perfect little princess. But, when Karen is rather graphically choked to death in church just before her first communion, all suspicion falls on Alice, and the body count rises as a pint-sized, raincoat-wearing psychopath runs amok throughout New Jersey.

So what makes this film so uncomfortable to watch? Well, first off, everybody’s constantly yelling at each other. Alice yells at her mom, mom yells at Alice, the nutty aunt yells at both of them, the morbidly obese pedophile living upstairs yells at the kids, who yell right back at him...seriously, it’s pretty exhausting. Oh, did I mention the pedophile? Yep, Alphonso DeNoble makes one of his three film appearances in Alice, Sweet Alice, and it’s hard to tell if he’s more inappropriately interested in young girls or in his own cats. Meanwhile, the most incompetent police detectives ever promoted out of parking meter duty are being shown up by Alice & Karen’s estranged father (Niles McMaster), who’s determined to prove Alice innocent, and a neighborhood priest (Rudolph Willrich), who tries to help , but ultimately offers little solace or explanation for the events.

While Alice, Sweet Alice occasionally reveals its budgetary restrictions a bit too overtly, it’s a film that really does offer a lot to fans of slashers. Linda Miller’s performance is fairly strong considering her age and the role, and the scene in which she lures her sister into an abandoned warehouse is rather brilliantly suspenseful. The cast of characters, most of whom are family, neighbors, and neighborhood folk, effectively develops a crucible of tension and claustrophobia within the urban setting; despite the chaos and multitudes of city living, Ritvo & Sole’s decision to keep all of the conflict and violence restricted within a family unit and their close acquaintances helps to enhance the larger themes of alienation and abandonment that underpin almost every moment. Even the film’s twists and reveals are thoughtfully timed, answering core questions earlier than is usual for slasher fare, but then adding new complications as a result. It’s not a perfect film, and certainly suffers from a handful of plot holes and oddly hapless characters who seem to have no survival instincts whatsoever, it’s a grimy, slow burning film that, while clunky in ways, is also worth a watch.

OBSESSION (written by Paul Schrader; directed by Brian De Palma)
I’ve been on a massive Paul Schrader kick lately, which led me to this heavy-handed offering from a director who shares Schrader’s lack of subtlety. Part Hitchcock, part southern Gothic, part John Lithgow with a glorious moustache, this is a film that wallows if not glories in its melodrama. Cliff Robertson plays a wealthy businessman whose wife and daughter are kidnapped, then killed in a botched recovery effort (led by a uniquely terrible police officer, I might add). Fifteen years go by, and Robertson is still torn up over the loss of his family, so much so that his business partner (Lithgow) basically forces him to come along on a trip to Italy. Once there, Robertson runs into a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife, and...well, you can probably take it from there.

All the great DePalma/Hitchcock trappings come out to play in this one. There’s shady waiters who walk into frame, giving the audience a peek at the handguns tucked in their belts. There’s a number of split-focus shots that allow DePalma to play with power dynamics between characters. And, most notably, there’s the Academy Award-nominated Bernard Herrmann score that permeates the entire affair, with swells and shocks punctuating virtually every line of dialogue. Really, the entire production almost becomes self-parody, and in less capable hands, it certainly would have. But once the final act is in full swing, it’s impossible to look away--and not just because of Lithgow’s flowing pompadour.

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