Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Any contemporary viewers who want to understand the appeal of the late Claudia Jennings, former Playmate of the Year (1970), who would spend her remaining nine years in drive-in fare, need look no further than this terrific southern-fried crooks-on-the-lam romp. As Candy Morgan, the actress plays her archetypal role of a young woman who is aggressive both in life and love. Having just escaped from prison, Candy performs a unique bank robbery by holding a stick of dynamite, and then uses the cash to provide for her family before she skips town. Meanwhile, bank teller Ellie Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) gets fired from her job just before the robbery, and gladly helps Candy collect the money. Guess who picks Ellie Jo up when she's hitching a ride? Small town! Anyway, Ellie Jo convinces Candy that they'd have a good thing going as a duo robbing on the road, and their crime spree with sticks of dynamite begins. Later, in a supermarket holdup they kidnap a customer named Slim (Johnny Crawford, the kid from "The Rifleman"), who's hardly an unwilling hostage.

This breezy fare is a solid effort from Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which sums up the drive-in movie experience of the mid-1970's. In addition to the healthy doses of action and sex, there's a freewheeling sense of hedonism and anti-authoritarian stance. But it's also great fun to watch because it doesn't take itself too seriously, with amusing plot twists and a jaunty clarinet score.

Still, it's no wonder that Claudia Jennings fans love this movie. Clad in unbuttoned shirts tied at the waist (when she has clothes on, that is), this stunning honey-haired actress shows her equal adeptness at action and comedy, plus her love scene with the man who sells her dynamite is very hot. Her characters are as fiercely passionate in bed as they are in their causes. (There is also a love scene between Ellie Jo and Slim which is very sweet.)

They sure don't make them like this anymore. God bless the 1970's.

RATING: 4 mosquito coils out of five.

Sisters of Death (1977)

Sisters of Death starts off rather intriguingly, where two girls are getting initiated into a sisterhood. At first glance, this looks like an occult thriller, as the initiation takes place in this huge gothic set, with a large fireplace, and the girls are decked out in these magenta gowns and veils. Then for the coup de grace, in the final piece of initiation, they play Russian Roulette with a Derringer pistol! The gun sadly does fire into the heads of one of the girls, blood flies onto the magenta garments, roll credits.

But sadly, this flick doesn't offer much of the same fireworks after that. The movie, looking like it could've been a Friday night thriller shot for ABC television, is an easy to watch, but flyweight "Ten Little Indians" ripoff, which would become a standard plot device for such slashers as Prom Night. We flash forward to the present, "seven years later", when the girls are each given anonymous invitations to attend a reunion. They all meet in the parking lot of a hotel and then are approached by two guys who are to escort them to the actual reunion location. Sure, the guys are total strangers, and their car's windows are frosted in, but it's the 70's right? So naturally off the fun-loving gals go. Finally, they arrive at a mansion with a "Welcome Sisters" sign at the pool, bathing suits and booze laid out for everyone. But the party doesn't last long, as this reunion is part of a revenge plot hatched by the father (Arthur Franz) of the girl who was shot in the initiation years earlier.

The production history of Sisters of Death eerily resembles the structure of the film itself. It was shot in 1972, yet stayed on the shelf for several years before getting released. Therefore, drive-in fans in 1977 would be surprised to see Claudia Jennings, the Queen of the B's in a minor role, despite that she's second-billed. Perhaps her's is given the most development among the women in peril, since she's the one most haunted by the gruesome initiation gone wrong (as seen in a nifty double exposure), but largely the characterizations are two-dimensional (despite their amusing hedonistic ways) thus we don't much care what happens to them. It's apparent the scenario finds Franz the most interesting person, as we follow him dashing from secret compartments, and playing the flute! This mild good time is full of such ingredients as electric fences, spiders, and slashing, and while it's all a pleasant night at the ozoner, it's still average. As a vehicle for Claudia Jennings, her fans will be disappointed to see that she's given little to do. (Trivia note: one of the two guys who escort, and later help the girls out of danger, is recognizable character player Paul Carr, seen in dozens of television appearances. He would co-star with Ms. Jennings again in Truck Stop Women.)

RATING: 2 mosquito coils out of five.

The Single Girls (1974)

Now here's an unusual concept: members of an encounter group have their sexcapades at a weekend retreat interrupted by a mysterious killer. This sarcastic thriller is perhaps the most interesting picture by the Sebastian filmmaking couple (who made some curios like On The Air With Captain Midnight and Delta Fox). It is also perhaps the most "of-its-time" of their work, painting a less-than-flattering portrait of swinging singles in that excessive decade. Despite the thriller trimmings and the expected doses of sex, this is largely a character study of despair in which nymphos and celibates alike have sexual hangups. Most of the male characters are such socially displaced souls -oh, like those who only come out of their apartments enough to attend memorabilia fairs or small press shows- that one wonders how they hooked up with these babes. The only male who seems confident and personable is played by Albert Popwell (best remembered in the "six shots or only five" scene in Dirty Harry). It is interesting too to see Claudia Jennings cast against type as an ingenue.

For the most part, this is a fascinating blend of murder mystery, sexploitation and psychoanalysis. Interesting too are the excellent "fly on the wall", documentary-like scenes full of stuttering overlapping dialogue where the characters discuss their feelings in encounter meetings- these moments don't feel like a movie at all. The Single Girls is a curio to remember.

RATING: 3.5 mosquito coils out of five.

Gator Bait (1974)

This rural revenge trash isn't nearly as vile as its reputation suggests, but it still is rather by-the-numbers despite an interesting role for its star, Claudia Jennings. She plays Desiree Thibodeau (cool name!), a backwoods gal who seeks revenge on another hillbilly family that murders her sister after wrongly believing she was responsible for the death of their kinfolk. The most novel this film gets is early on, when we see one hillbilly fiercely groping a country gal who doesn't seem to mind, until Pa comes out and says "That's your sister!" And for Ms. Jennings, this is perhaps her most unusual role, and one that doesn't exploit her sexuality. Instead, her primitive character blankly pursues the villains through the bayou, luring them to their certain doom, as she knows every inch of the swamp like the back of her hand.

The last part of that phrase, by the way, is actually a line of dialogue uttered by the patriarchal Bracken character, who is dogging her vengeance along with his two dimwitted sons and a couple of corrupt lawmen. Similar redneck cliches abound: the lawmen are named Billy Boy and (yep, you guessed it) Joe Bob. Despite that this mini epic is surprisingly well made, at the core, it's still as generic as they come. The chase is really not suspenseful, as we don't care about any of the characters. Still, this minor trash is noteworthy for Jennings' coldest, most dispassionate role, and the casting of Bill Thurman (seen in southern-fried films of Larry Buchanan and S.F. Brownrigg) as the sheriff.

RATING: 2 mosquito coils out of five

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Time For Killing (1967)

Towards the end of the Civil War, Confederate prisoners escape from a Union fort, and on the way to the Mexican border, they attack a wagon with passenger Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), the bride-to-be of Union Major Tom Wolcott (Glenn Ford), who is also pursuing the escaped inmates. George Hamilton is quite good as Captain Dorrit Bentley, the leader of the gang, whose devotion to the confederacy is so obsessive that he doesn't bother telling anyone when the war ends! In Halsted Welles' screenplay (adapted from the novel, The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford), the soldiers on either side of the Civil War are well aware of the futility of battle, and both blue and grey just simply wants to go home.

Its anti-war sensibility would no doubt have attracted young ticket-buyers who were opposed to the Vietnam draft, but still A Time For Killing is curiously old-fashioned with its classical Hollywood look (everything in the old west is bright and beautiful). But still, Phil Karlson attempts to inject some edgy realism into the film with awkwardly-framed sweaty closeups, and handheld camera during fight scenes (which just end up looking more sloppy than savage). Inger Stevens is really given little more to do than look frightened and scream. In fact, her underused performance enforces the ill-treatment of women in the old frontier. Much later in the film, once she and Wolcott are re-united after she is manhandled by Bentley, her fiancé bluntly mentions that not even a woman's honour is reason enough to pursue the prisoners! In fact, most of the characters are morally ambigious-- soldiers on either side of the war are depicted as psychotic cads.

A Time For Killing is perhaps more interesting on paper, since there are interesting gender and war politics that don't get fully realized. Still, it's not a bad flick for a double-bill at the drive-in. It's more interesting to watch for its cameos by Harry Dean Stanton as one of Hamilton's men, Dick Miller in an actually substantial role as a cowardly Union soldier, psychotic Timothy Carey as a bluebelly who likes shooting... anything, and look quick for Harrison Ford in the firing squad scene near the beginning.

RATING: 2.5 mosquito coils out of five.