Saturday, July 30, 2011

Film Review: THE CRAWLING EYE a.k.a. THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (1958)


Welcome to The Horn Section's contribution to the 50's Monster Mash Blog-a-Thon at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear!  This is my very first blogathon in the five years I've been reviewing the overlooked and obscure, and what better debut than a tribute to a bona fide genre standard starring The Horn Section's number one icon?

Be sure to check out the other entries from the online film blogger community during this six-day salute to the classic monsters of the 1950's.  There's 43 participants altogether, and this has been going on since Thursday morning!  While you're there, note that this isn't the first time Nate's hosted a Blog-a-Thon; the Roger Corman showcase from June is also there for your perusal.

So is my site, while you're here. (hint) If you happen to be browsing The Horn Section for the first time, welcome!   Feel free to sign up for notification via email (lower right column) or follow me on Twitter for future reviews and musings.  (hint hint) 

And now, with the commercials out of the way, our feature presentation.......


THE CRAWLING EYE a.k.a. THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (1958 Eros/DCA) Starring Forrest Tucker, Janet Munro, Jennifer Jayne, Laurence Payne, Warren Mitchell.  Directed by Quentin Lawrence.

OUR HERO: By day, a mild mannered scientist hiding his alter ego behind glasses and scholarly reading material

Look! Up from the paper!  It's a bird, it's a plane.....

No dude, it's Janet Munro fainting into your arms!  Time for action!

The glasses come off, the paper vanishes, and out comes the flaskMACK TUCK has arrived!

The Alpine village of Trollenberg has been plagued by a series of fatal accidents on the town's namesake mountain. Numerous climbers have mysteriously vanished without a trace, and the only one who was found had been beheaded.  A static, radioactive cloud near the peak is the common denominator in the deaths and Mitchell, believing alien forces are involved, has summoned colleague Tucker to help.  Psychic sisters Jayne and Munro decide to tag along after the latter experiences a premonition on the train just before Tuck's scheduled stop there.

Called on because he and Mitchell witnessed similar lethal happenings in the Andes years earlier, Tuck is reluctant, for the prior fiasco almost ruined his career.  But a geologist ends up as a second decapitation victim, an experienced climber turns into a dead-eyed zombie with his murderous sights on Munro, and reporter Payne observes all of it.  The otherworldly creatures seem to be better acclimated to the conditions by the minute. With the entire village under assault and secrecy no longer an issue, Tucker takes charge and confronts his painful professional past.

HOW TOUGH IS HE?  We learn that it's cold enough up there to freeze the blankets inside the cabin.....
But Tuck doesn't even need a HAT!  You've had it this time, aliens!!

Unsubtly retitled THE CRAWLING EYE for its U.S. release, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR remains one of the most beloved sci-fi flicks of its decade.  The nostalgia factor goes beyond one's fondness for otherworldly monsters and vintage black and white film.  Pay close attention to the alcohol consumption by the characters:  I'd say on a "drinks per minute" basis it's more than your typical DALLAS episode but less than an average BEWITCHED.  TERROR is more than suitable for inventing drinking games of your own (I recommend the word "cloud" as the trigger to "down it").   Quentin Lawrence's work was an influence on THE FOG and THE MIST (both John Carpenter and Stephen King are acknowledged fans) and the film ended up as MST3K's premiere episode in 1989.

Don't let that last fact fool you, though.  The film has been mocked for decades because of its blatant U.S. title, not a lack of quality.  Director Lawrence builds a genuine sense of dread and is able to successfully hide his low budget until TERROR's final act, when he's forced to employ the best special effects the funding will allow (subpar, to put it kindly) and to finally reveal what's been hiding in that cloud.  There's that word again--that's one gulp if you're playing along.

Glad t'see ya!

While THE TROLLENBERG TERROR is marred somewhat by the late breaking cheese factor, the flaw is nowhere near fatal.  In fact, to modern eyes the shortcomings only add to the fun.  It's also refreshing these days to see a reporter who isn't a sleazeball in his pursuit of the story and actually pitches in willingly at the climax instead of being a hindrance.

Elsewhere, Munro smiles and faints a lot.  Jayne cuts loose with a good scream in the final act but is properly reserved otherwise, and Mitchell looks and sounds Einsteinian.  But it isn't Mitchell who solves the problem--this is Tucker's show all the way.  This was the second of three sci-fi starring roles for the action stalwart in the late fifties, and all were British productions (the third was the rarely seen THE COSMIC MONSTERS, which TCM dusted off just last month).  After playing the greedy, unsympathetic "ugly American" butting heads with Peter Cushing in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, Tuck gets to play a more traditional hero this time out and delivers one of his most authoritative performances.

On top of that, it seems courageous enough for the guy just to climb up that mountain again after what happened to him in SNOWMAN and AUNTIE MAME. 

 What She ended up with the reporter?  You've GOT to be kidding!
Why he's Mack Tuck and you're not: he smoothly moves on to big sis without missing a beat!  "Cigarette?"
"I've got a gal I met on the hill...she won't do it but her sister will...."

So...why didn't I ask: Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?

Because it IS--and it has been since 2001.  The release of the widescreen European edition includes interesting liner notes (Tuck admitted he had trouble keeping a straight face when he saw the title monster) and the original U.S. theatrical trailer.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Missing TV from DVD: CRAZY LIKE A FOX (1984-86)

Why the Hell isn't MY show on DVD yet???
 

CRAZY LIKE A FOX (1984-86 CBS-TV) Starring Jack Warden, John Rubenstein, Penny Peyser, Robby Kiger.


Five years ago today, we lost Roy L. Fuchs himself, the great Jack Warden.  I won't go into detail about why this man was one of the very best character actors who ever lived, since I've already done that.  Instead, I'd like to ponder why his best-remembered TV series, underappreciated in its day by its network despite healthy ratings, hasn't made it to DVD yet.

Warden had some success in prime time in earlier years, enjoying a second season with the decent cop show N.Y.P.D. (1967-69) and even the CBS version of THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1979-80), which somehow got renewed despite the fact that the movies had already run their course and you could forget about the kids spouting four-letter words during the three network era.  But when CRAZY LIKE A FOX premiered in 1984, it appeared that Warden had finally found the vehicle to take him to TV superstardom.

Warden played Harrison Fox Sr., a freewheeling San Francisco private investigator who was nicknamed "Harry" to avoid confusion with his son Rubenstein, a straight-laced attorney.  Senior was forever inadvertently dragging Junior into his latest case ("All I need is a ride!  What can possibly happen?") and, naturally, whatever it was that could possibly happen, and go wrong---did.



Each week's adventure took some unexpected turns, but the well-traveled, disheveled, but wily old pro found the solution in the end.  No long lost classic, just a funny, breezy show with Warden and Rubenstein showing solid chemistry from the pilot episode.  If you can imagine Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in THE IN-LAWS as father and son with Falk as the father, that's a reasonable facsimile of what CRAZY LIKE A FOX was like.

The role of Harry Fox fit Warden like a glove.  It was designed to.  The series' creators (John Baskin, Frank Cardea, George Schenck and Roger Shulman) had Jack Warden in mind for the lead from the get-go, and researched and drew upon the actor's real-life experiences while fleshing out the Senior Fox, and the character ended up sharing Warden's WW2 experiences as a paratrooper and other real-life occupations of his youth (i.e. bouncer, lifeguard).

CRAZY LIKE A FOX was a midseason replacement in 1984-85 for CBS in the Sunday night slot between MURDER, SHE WROTE, which was in its first season, and TRAPPER JOHN, M.D., which in its sixth was starting to show signs of wear.   FOX was an immediate smash, ending the season at # 10 in the Nielsens.  It was CBS' second highest ranked new show behind MURDER (8th) and the third highest rated new series of the entire season.  So at age 64, Jack Warden finally had a long awaited and well deserved hit of his own--and an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy (yes, really) Series.

So how on earth did CRAZY LIKE A FOX end up canceled just one year later, despite a second Emmy nod for its star?  Well, CBS did what networks too often do.  They tinkered it to death.  In this case, they didn't tinker with the show creatively: the lighthearted cases of Season Two were every bit as entertaining as those from the first.  No, this time scheduling by ADD was the culprit.  CBS preempted the show six times by mid-December, and making things worse for the cunning Foxes, running mate TRAPPER JOHN was severely weakened by age and cast defections and went into a ratings free fall.

The result was a drop from # 10 to a still respectable # 29, cause for concern, sure.  A new running mate at 10 ET sounded like the logical choice (it was in the top 10 three months earlier), but instead CBS started playing musical time slots.  Unfortunately the first move was opposite ABC's entrenched DYNASTY.  When that didn't work, the network tried FOX at 8 PM Thursday---yup, opposite COSBY.  The 1985-86 season marked the end of a six year reign atop the Nielsens for CBS, and with moves like this to kill off promising shows, one can see why.  I can only imagine the choice words Roy L. Fuchs or Jack Fine would have had for the programmers.

Predictably, CBS received some letters of displeasure from viewers, and the palpable fan interest led them to green-light a reunion movie during the 1986-87 season, STILL CRAZY LIKE A FOX, which delightfully played like a two part episode of the regular series.  Set in England and co-starring Monty Python's Graham Chapman, STILL CRAZY was a ratings hit in the series' old Sunday time slot, ranking # 12 for the week ending April 5, 1987.  There was talk that CBS would correct its earlier error and bring CRAZY LIKE A FOX back for the 1987-88 season.  Alas, it was not to be.  CBS scheduled more hour-long dramas than any other network but decided the likes of THE OLDEST ROOKIE and HOUSTON KNIGHTS were better bets than a proven viewer favorite headlined a two-time Emmy nominee.

CRAZY LIKE A FOX has virtually disappeared.  It's hard to syndicate a show with only 35 episodes.  Still, this one is an ideal candidate for rediscovery on DVD, a fun, fondly remembered showcase for perhaps the quintessential character actor, Jack Warden.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Film Review: ROUGH CUT (1980)




"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 64




ROUGH CUT (1980 Paramount) Starring Burt Reynolds, Lesley-Anne Down, David Niven, Timothy West, Patrick Magee, Susan Littler, Isobel Dean.  Directed by Don Siegel.


Retiring Scotland Yard Inspector Niven wants to go out in a blaze of glory by capturing wealthy restaurant owner Reynolds, who Niven suspects is moonlighting as the world's most successful jewel thief.  Knowing his prey's weakness for the ladies, the officer blackmails gorgeous kleptomaniac Down into acting as the bait luring Reynolds into "one last job" for jewels worth $30 million--and Niven's entrapment.

ROUGH CUT's biggest strength is Burt Reynolds' performance.  The star was at the peak of both his commerical and critical standing following a Golden Globe nomination for STARTING OVER.  One brief "Burt laugh" early (as he leads Littler into his room) is his only moment of self-indulgence as he pays homage to friend Cary Grant (including a Grant impression in the first scene) and acquits himself nicely.  Reynolds is suave and assured, with sprinkles of self-depreciating humor via his character's penchant for (mediocre at best) impressions and disguises.  Surprisingly, it is Down and not Reynolds who leads the police through car chases in England and France.

It certainly appeared in 1980 that producer David Merrick (SEMI-TOUGH) had a sure thing with the talent assembled behind the reigning box office king and leading lady Down (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS).  Venerable Oscar winner Niven was cast as Burt's adversary, and Don Siegel directed, fresh off ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ and working with Burt for the first time.  Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) scripted, and Nelson Riddle provided the classy score.

Unfortunately Merrick didn't leave well enough alone, butting heads with most of the above.  He ordered numerous rewrites and ultimately fired Gelbart, who ultimately removed his name from the credits.  Merrick also had creative disagreements with Siegel, who came on board after the project was initially developed with Blake Edwards in mind.  Siegel was actually fired at one point and replaced by Peter R. Hunt but Reynolds reportedly intervened on Siegel's behalf.  Still, the finale was directed by an uncredited Robert Ellis Miller--meaning that neither the screenwriter nor the director had anything to do with ROUGH CUT's conclusion.  Reportedly, this was the fourth time the ending was changed.


With the dizzying number of changes its no surprise that ROUGH CUT falls short of its potential.  It's hard to say that any of the script doctoring was helpful. The heist itself is routine, not terribly involving, and it takes half the film just to get around to recruitment for the caper.  Down's kleptomania is apparently cured after the first 20 minutes, as her condition never comes into play again despite numerous potential temptations.  Reynolds and Down should be bantering effortlessly but after awhile too many lines come across as both characters pressing to sound clever.

Things perk up considerably when Reynolds and Niven meet face to face.  The two legendary raconteurs spar delightfully and it is a real shame that they share barely two minutes of screen time in the finished product.  Niven's role was cut substantially in the alterations: even he was at odds with Merrick, suing him after the film's release for $90K in salary he was owed (Merrick settled out of court).  Niven appears frail at times (he was diagnosed with ALS in 1980 and passed away three years later) but retains his considerable charm.  It's to his credit that he's able to sell the tacked-on final twist as well as he is.

One can see glimpses what might have been--ROUGH CUT clearly would have benefited from a single director's vision from beginning to end (whether Edwards, Siegel or Hunt) and Gelbart's final draft was likely far more interesting than the repeatedly revised shooting script.  The overall results are middling, but Reynolds' strong effort in this atypical role is worth tuning in for.

So....why isn't this on DVD?

You can't really blame Reynolds' later career troubles or the film's box office failure for the lack of a DVD release--after all, out and out flops like STROKER ACE, STICK, HEAT and MALONE are among the Burt Reynolds vehicles of the Eighties that have made it.  One of the very few Reynolds flicks of the period to just slip through the cracks.

Why it should be on DVD:

The change of pace setting and role makes ROUGH CUT something of a sleeper for Burt's fans.  It's ironic that the star's choice of STROKER ACE over TERMS OF ENDEARMENT for a 1983 project is cited as the beginning of the end for him when you consider that his 1980-1982 "acting stretches" (ROUGH CUT, PATERNITY, BEST FRIENDS) were all medicore box office performers while the actor had a runaway hit each year with a breezy "good ol' boy" effort (SMOKEY II, CANNONBALL RUN and BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE respectively).  It might not completely excuse his STROKER ACE decision, but this context at least makes it a little easier to understand.

Just a little, mind you.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Missing No More: SKIDOO (1968) and CHAINED HEAT (1983)

Two more Horn Section favorites and review subjects are coming to DVD in July!


In the case of CHAINED HEAT (1983), which was reviewed here as part of our Tamara Dobson 65th birthday Salute, you'd better hurry.  Courtesy of the one and only Mr. Skin, CHAINED HEAT is arriving on July 12th as part of a WIP Triple Feature along with RED HEAT (1985) and JUNGLE WARRIOR (1984).

It's a bit pricey at $29.98 if CHAINED HEAT is the only title you want, but there's excellent value for the money: interviews with actresses Stella Stevens and Sybil Danning (who co-starred in all three films) and the very first UNCUT release of CHAINED HEAT ever; at 98 minutes this release is three minutes longer than the theatrical release and will contain nine full minutes of footage missing from both the VHS release and the print that recently made the Showtime/TMC cable rounds a couple of years back.

Where to order this long-awaited must see?  Synapse Films has it available for pre-order now and, of course, so does Amazon.  As I stated above, you'd better hurry, as rumor has it that the rights will expire at the end of 2011, so this is truly "available for a limited time only".  Is CHAINED HEAT worth the rush, and the price?
Well, let's see: Linda Blair, John Vernon, Henry Silva, Tamara Dobson, Sybil Danning.....I could go on, but why not just read the review and decide for yourself?



CHAINED HEAT isn't the only long-awaited DVD release this month.  On July 19th, SKIDOO (1968) will be arriving via Olive Films, after years of being out of circulation.  In fact, this late 1960's Otto Preminger experiment was never released on VHS and was long-rumored to be withheld for the longest time by the late director's estate.  It isn't a success, but it isn't that big of an embarrassment either.

The Riddler on acid!

It's hard to describe SKIDOO in a concise manner.  So hard that it probably holds the record for The Horn Section's lengthiest review of a film.  (Yes, I'm aware I get long-winded doing the QUINCY, M.E. recaps.  But they ain't films!)  If you have a few days to kill, here's the original review, which was posted when TCM originally dusted SKIDOO off in 2008 for a run on TCM Underground.

More recently, the venerable hippie-era relic made the rounds on Showtime and Flix this Spring, and now it is available for pre-order from, where else, Amazon.

Not much I can add to the review except this, the trailer:

Enjoy!  More reviews to follow, including The Horn Section's participation in a blogathon later this month.  Happy 4th!