Showing posts with label '70s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label '70s. Show all posts

Jul 28, 2020

THE CRAZIES (1976)


The Crazies is unofficially looked upon as a spiritual prequel to Night of the Living Dead, even if it followed on that landmark film six years later. But the idea of a toxen leaking into the earth and infecting the people of a small town and turning them into drooling, primitive monsters seems to go hand in hand with Romero’s already established ghoulery. Take that, add a batch of in-fighting that begins to plague our band of survivors traversing the countryside and trying to survive this radical transformation of their world, and the two films seem very spiritually linked. Whereas Night of the Living Dead purposely kept the potential causes for the zombiegeddon vague, having newscasters speculate on-air about all the different potential catalysts, The Crazies points its finger directly at the U.S. government first, and then the military later. Even if, when compared to Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies doesn’t seem as ghoulish or eerie, it’s a whole lot more angry, and Romero, ever the socially conscious filmmaker, knows what he’s doing.

Romero is most well known for his long-running zombie series, with films like The Crazies (or Season of the Witch, or There’s Always Vanilla — both below) sometimes falling by the wayside. And there’s a combination of reasons why, first and foremost being that his zombie films had a huge impact on the zeitgeist at the time, and attracted audiences who didn’t normally like horror films and tempted them into a theater showing Dawn of the Dead. Except for his non-zombie centric (well, mostly) Creepshow, Romero only seemed to fire on all cylinders when it came to his shuffling undead. 


The Crazies contains that same sense of renegade spirit and a socially important message, but its biggest detractor — the worst you can have in any film, but especially horror — is its languid pace. The Crazies, after a strong opening and slices of now-iconic imagery — all those faceless men in Hazmat suits — meanders from point to point, struggling to find ways to keep this cross-countryside night-time journey consistently thrilling. It’s why — and you won’t hear me say this often — its 2010 remake is actually the superior film. Sure, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, it sidestepped social commentary in favor of creating a more viscerally entertaining B-movie, and considering that was its only goal, it was a success.

As an early Romero effort, it’s interesting to see the early formulation of ideas and his anti-establishment persona, and it’s also neat to see Romero and co. actors pop up with whom he had already worked or with whom he’d eventually work (the biggest probably being Richard Liberty, who would play Dr. “Frankenstein” in Day of the Dead.) These days, The Crazies is looked upon more as a curiosity than even a minor classic, and it’s for good reason. It’s undistilled Romero, and for that alone it’s worth seeing, but it lacks the gut-punch of Night of the Living Dead and the confidence of its mall-set sequel. 

Jul 16, 2020

SUGAR HILL (1974)


If Sugar Hill proves anything at all, it's that the blaxsploitation movement of the 1970s focused much of its attention on angry and sobering concepts, but didn't nearly enough embrace the full-on absurdity that the general exploitation movement had already been doing. When people hear the word "blaxspoitation," certain names immediately come to mind: Shaft, Foxy Brown, and perhaps Gravedigger Jones. Apply that to the horror genre and that's where it starts getting interesting: here comes Blacula, Blackenstein, and the lazily named Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Good job on your noticing that they're all "updated" versions of classic myths and literature, but beyond their gimmicky names, none of them felt too comfortable shedding their horrific surroundings and just trying to have a bit of silly fun. (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde might be the worst offender in this camp, taking a ripe concept for race-relations exploration in which a black scientist inadvertently turns himself into a vampire during a freak experiment - a vampire that just happens to be white - and creating a film that's an utter chore to sit through.) It's easy to laugh at titles like Blacula and Blackenstein, as one might assume that they're hoots and a half, but each film presented a surprising amount of seriousness that one wouldn't expect from their respective posters alone. Despite their not-so-subtle titles, they just weren't stupid enough.

That's where Sugar Hill comes in. 


This 1974 oddball blaxsploitation offering starring the gorgeous Marki Bey as the eponymous heroine just wants to have tons of silly fun, utilizing the "evil white man" component for much more entertaining aspects. The social commentary involved is still just as important, but the film is also totally fine with resurrecting a bunch of cobweb-ridden corpses for the purposes of revenge. (It should be noted that the zombies presented in Sugar Hill adhere more closely to the "myth" of the zombies of New Guinea, in which living people were drugged and brainwashed into following their master; here, the zombies remain resurrected corpses, but are still very much following the orders of their master, not eating a bunch of people indiscriminately, as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead introduced in 1968.)

What may sound like idle praise for Sugar Hill is actually a fair point of commendation, which is the film's refreshing inclusion of something indicative of genuine black culture - more specifically, the inclusion of a New Orleans-esque flavor and the use of spirituality in the form of voodoo as a plot device. Though there are many titles in blaxsploitation canon that are more well-known, and some might argue still heavily referenced in even today's modern pop culture, not many of them relied on a very real and established facet of black culture, relegating many of the more recognizable characters to walk around, listen to funk, and look cool. And that's all well and good as far as entertainment goes, but blaxsploitation was birthed out of the desire to tell stories about strong and suave and sexy black characters, and to have seen such a lack of emphasis on a significant part of black culture is disappointing.


Sugar Hill maintains a fair balance of horror and thrilling action, but if it all comes across sillier than had been intended by American International Pictures (who also released Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream), we'll likely never know. Its own director, Paul Maslansky, would agree that it's not a perfect film, and his commentary track contains a handful of very willing self-critiques, including the nugget, "Look how poorly I framed that shot. He's barely in it. This was a terrible set-up." That right there, kids, is a lesson in humility.

Sugar Hill ain't exactly a film dedicated to charting the black struggle, but it's also clearly not trying to be. What it wants to do is shed minor light on the state of race relations during 1974, though it's wrapped within the very silly undead hands of zombie slaves. It does, depending on your outlook, either fall victim to or maintain certain expectations: the white people are evil, they use the n-word way too liberally, and they pay - oh lord, do they pay - for their transgressions. Everything aside, Sugar Hill is bananas-crazy, and entertaining in the most ridiculous of ways. So long as it gets that right, that's good enough to start with.


Jun 30, 2020

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971)


The drug film is a hard film to watch--at least if it's done the right way. For modern audiences, the most gut-wrenching experience to come along in quite a while is likely Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a film which saw drugs tearing apart four different people in different ways, rendering their shared relationships obsolete and their futures cut very short. The Panic in Needle Park traverses the same ground, only it did so thirty years prior. Above all, its story focuses on the doomed romance (aren't they all?) between Al Pacino's Bobby and Kitty Winn's Helen, who meet randomly at a drug deal of sorts and who begin, unexpectedly, a savage and passionate romance that will see Helen fall victim to the same drug habit that Bobby claims he doesn't have. As you can imagine, it doesn't end well.

Director Jeffrey Schatzberg, who battled in getting this film made, has no romantic notions about New York City, or more specifically, "Needle Park" (a nickname for Sherman Square) where drug users were known to congregate and trade tips about who is holding, and where, and who might have the bread to get off. Settings like these, or broken-down tenement buildings, or prison-like apartments, are where the bulk of the story take place. (Ironically, the only scenes that contain any brightness at all are during Helen's pre-drug addiction scenes spent in a flat or a hospital bed where she is both temporarily recovering and suffering side effects from a botched abortion, respectively.) But as Helen follows Bobby down his drug-addled rabbit hole, the lights around them dim. Their romance changes face from idealistic, to hopeful, to dreadful.


In Al Pacino's film debut in a lead role, his Bobby is a tough-talking street hood defying authority at every opportunity while smacking gum or chain smoking cigarettes (sometimes both) in an effort to keep his mind off the fact that he hasn't used in a while and, well, he really really wants to. But the real showstopper here is Kitty Winn as Helen, whose slow transformation from innocent/fully naive to hopeless addict of both heroin as well as her boyfriend (and on-again/off-again "fiancé"), is where the sucker punch really takes place.

There's a disarming documentary quality to The Panic in Needle Park, where people interact with awkward sincerity, and where there's no happy ending in sight. Schatzberg has no qualms about letting the camera get in close to see Bobby, or Helen, or an array of the dead-ends who surround them, stick that needle into their veins and slowly inject themselves. For minutes at a time, the viewer has no choice but to watch. There's nothing else on screen they can use to momentarily affix their gaze while they wait for the needle nastiness to disperse. Schatzberg shoves this image into your eye-line because it should be shoved there. He also doesn't want his audience to escape from the ugliness, so when there isn't explicit drug-use on screen, he instead relies on the film's environment to convey that ugliness. The Panic in Needle Park takes place in the scummiest rooms and alleys and rooftops of the scummiest areas in New York City. Every interior features peeling paint or wallpaper, painted in a sickening green or a flat gray. Outdoors, we're treated to graffitied walls and litter-strewn streets. There is no escape, no matter where we go, and no matter what characters are on screen. 


Like Requiem for a Dream, The Panic in Needle Park is a film that effects rather than entertains, hewing closer to life than our happy-ending-wanting brains have come to expect, which is what makes it such a visceral experience. One could argue that the ending is a happy ending of sorts, if only for our characters and no one else. No matter the trials and tribulations they each experience, and no matter the depths they'll plunge, they always come back, and they always end up in each other's arms. Whatever battles they have to overcome, they'll find a way to do it, and they'll do it together. They are doomed, that's for sure, but doom is in the eye of the beholder.

The Panic in Needle Park is a tough film to watch, as any well-made film about drug abuse should be. And it's worth watching for two reasons, both similar and very disparate: the first would be to see Al Pacino in his film debut, who hits the ground running in an explosive performance and who is still celebrated today, but the second would be to see Kitty Winn, whose performance has been even more heralded, but who slowly disappeared from the world of acting after her turns in and The Exorcist (and its deplorable first sequel). As film's end, you won't be left feeling good, but being that was the intention, The Panic in Needle Park is a success. 

May 15, 2020

BOSS (1975)


Boss, also known as The Black Bounty Hunter and its original/credits title Boss Nigger (the one and only time I’ll use that particular title, and for search/posterity only), was released less than one year after Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Both films saw a pretty similar plot, though the latter was played for much broader comedic effect: a black sheriff presides over a white town in the Old West and shakes up their culture — along with their women. And while Boss is a comedy, it’s not nearly as on the nose as its most immediate colleague. Being a Blaxploitation title, it also strives to upset the status quo by deviating away from the comedy to revel in darker aspects of humanity’s ugliness. Much of this comes from the hugely offensive exchanges that Boss (Fred Williamson) and his deputy, Amos (D’Urville Martin) engage in as they first arrive in town. (The n-word is thrown around more liberally than Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and that’s saying something.) But it also comes from the violence, the tragedies faced, and in the generally despicable way that the white town treats black and Mexican characters. The Blaxploitation sub-genre could do this like no other, and though it’s a cinematic movement not taken all that seriously due to some of the dubious titles that were released and the unintentionally amusing tropes that became legacy, always hidden within some heinous concepts was an important, and sometimes smartly rendered, morality tale. (Williamson’s Black Caesar is the best example of this.)

Williamson, who wrote and produced Boss, sometimes falls victim to too broadly showing whites as offensive — even those who aren’t trying to be. “Our family in Boston had black people working for us,” begins the white Miss Pruit (Barbara Leigh), and already you begin to cringe — openers like this equate to “I’m no racist, but..” in real life. “They were good people. They used to sing and dance a lot. I used to love to watch them.”

Cut to this face:


In fact, there’s exactly one white character — Pete the Blacksmith — who is a decent man right off the bat; he doesn’t start off as horrid and bigoted before learning the error of his ways. Williamson’s script suggests that, in a town of, maybe, a hundred citizens, one of them isn’t racist.

Yikes.

Though not taken very seriously (Blaxploitation might rank even below horror, which I never thought was possible), the sub-genre was instrumental in doing one main thing: exposing white audiences to black culture, in an effort to humanize them, by sneaking it into otherwise mainstream concepts for films. It’s no mistake that Blaxploitation was launched and enjoyed a nice long successful run following the turbulent fight for civil rights during the 1960s. It was a direct response and reaction to uncertain times and deeply rattled communities. Super Fly is one of the best examples of this covert exposure to black culture, during which the film stops the action several times as its main cast of characters visits a club to watch entire song performances by the film’s soundtrack contributor, Curtis Mayfield. Boss doesn’t follow this same approach, forgoing a look at black culture and instead focuses on the black experience; even when its black characters are in positions of power, specifically law enforcement, they still suffer the indignities of being treated like human garbage by the townsfolk. It’s just that they’re now in a place where they can do something about it. You’ll note, amusingly, that when Boss and Amos begin posting new ordinances all around town about what’s now considered illegal, and what kinds of fines those infractions incur, none of them rank more than a $5 fine — unless, of course, someone uses a racial epithet against someone else. That ranks a solid $20 fine or a day in jail.

Much of Boss is very funny, but it’s that kind of humor where you feel conflicted for laughing, even though that’s what was intended. Williamson knows there’s humor to be found in casual offense; I can’t even imagine what the pearl-clutchers of today’s easily-outraged populace would think as they watched. The strongest point of Boss’ use of humor is that the viewer becomes more easily disarmed during the moments that are genuinely dramatic. You spend so much time laughing about how Amos likes to pursue “fat women,” or at how obliviously terrible the town can be to Boss and Amos, that once a young boy is trampled in the street by the film’s villain, it’s not something you’d expect and it packs a surprising punch.

Blaxploitation very rarely infiltrated the western genre, even though the idea to do so harks back to 1938 with Two-Gun Man from Harlem, but with Williamson as the lead/co-writer/producer and veteran Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon — irony!) at the helm, it’s doubtful any other duo could have pulled off a more entertaining and even poignant film.


Mar 11, 2020

THE CAR (1977)


It sounds a little funny to call The Car, about a black you-know-what terrorizing citizens within a dusty, barren, sandy landscape, a rip-off of JAWS, but...that's exactly what it is. Adding to the irony, in that everything about The Car is as opposite to JAWS as you can get, is that Spielberg's previous film to JAWS was Duel, about an ominous black truck terrorizing one particular unfortunate man across a dusty, barren, sandy landscape. Much in the same way the shark of JAWS cruised the waters of Amity Island, the black demonized Lincoln of The Car cruises the sandy roads of a Santa Fe-ish town - both relentlessly looking for victims, both of a scope never before seen, and both announcing their presences with a fin and a horn, respectively. And meanwhile, two sheriffs dealing with their own shortcomings (a fear of the water and a desire to live up to a law-enforcement father) find themselves contending with the monstrous force that's come to plague their homes.

But where JAWS was a high concept, philosophical audience favorite, The Car is just dumb, lacking emotion, philosophy, or anything toward which other films wishing to make more than a visceral impact strive.

But, that's okay.

There's an undeniable enjoyment that derives from watching The Car. That it never reveals who or what it is behind the wheel adds to that enjoyment, leaving that bit of mystery to embolden the idea that whatever's driving the car is something unnatural and evil. And once the film achieves its highest Blues Brothers level of absurdity by having the titular force impossibly roll, sideways, over the two patrol cruisers pursuing it, clearly destroying itself in the process only to touch back down on the ground without a mark in the paint or some soot on the previously blazing grill, well, by now you're either fully on board with The Car or not.

The Car is dumb but absolutely entertaining. A breezy 90 mins filled with car-nage (get it?), half-baked ideas, and moments of nonsense even sillier than the nonsense surrounding it (how's a car drive itself into a garage and then lock itself in?), it's a clever-enough spin on the killer-car sub-genre and an unlikely but wholly watchable JAWS rip-off. Though The Car's originality is running low on gas, it's an offbeat title you shouldn't put in your rear-view, and other metaphors about cars.

(P.S. A very, very belated sequel was recently released direct-to-video called The Car: Road to Revenge. It's one of the worst things you could ever see, but it's hilariously incompetent.)