Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Film Review: CALIFORNIA DREAMING (1979)





"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 65






CALIFORNIA DREAMING (1979 American International Pictures) Starring Dennis Christopher, Seymour Cassell, Glynnis O'Connor, Dorothy Tristan, Tanya Roberts, Stacy Nelkin, John Calvin, Jimmy Van Patten, Johnny Fain, Ned Wynn, Alice Playten.  Directed by John D. Hancock.


Believing his life unfulfilled after the sudden death of his brother, Chicago nerd (and virgin) Christopher follows Horace Greeley's famous advice and ends up in Avila Beach, California to try out the surfer life that they both had always dreamed about.  He finds a place to stay and a mentor in aging Cassell, who owns the local bar and clings to his long-faded glory days of swimming in the Olympics.  Christopher's interested in learning how to fit in from the elder statesman and even more interested in making time with the ladies, particularly Cassell's daughter O'Connor.  Christopher comes to believe that Cassell isn't quite the guru that he'd like to be and that the carefree west coast lifestyle isn't as romantic as it appeared from 1,700 miles away.  Elsewhere, Roberts tries to get hedonistic boyfriend Calvin to mature and commit to her, and mechanic Wynn (who also scripted) tries to win a vintage car and the heart of a gold-digging waitress by living inside his clunker for six weeks.

With the demise of A.I.P. barely a year away, the studio that once rode the BEACH PARTY series to box office glory released a film that showed the flip side of its nonstop party 1960's films and "the surfer life".  Your first clue that CALIFORNIA DREAMING isn't going to be a BEACH BLANKET BINGO for the late 1970's arrives in the opening credits.  Hancock (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, BABY BLUE MARINE) is hardly the director you'd picture helming a comedy about the neverending summer.   Surprising eroticism springing from Christopher's fish-out-of-water awkwardness (i.e. the hilarious and titillating slo-mo sequence in the theatre snack bar) is reminiscient of earlier coming of age films like OUT OF IT and only the completely unlikable Calvin doesn't long for something more in his life among the locals Christopher meets.

A hotbed of eroticism!  The beach??
No, the movie snack bar!!!
OH YEAH!!!!!

For example, Fain's character.  A professional surfer in real life (and in his mid-30's by this time), Fain was a very familiar face in the genre who appeared in 7 of A.I.P.'s Beach series.  Fain did nothing but smile and surf in the likes of BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY but here wishes to propose to Nelkin and open his own business, repeatedly declaring his weariness with surfing on a daily basis.  Fain later breaks his arm on the pier: the perils of facing those gnarly waves aren't ignored.  

Get off my beach!!!!

Cassell personifies the perils of not growing up.  The actor was already playing long in the tooth hipsters a decade earlier (FACES) and his "Duke" comes across as more than a little sad as he pontificates about the superiority of the "old days", manly surf boards, and volleyball as the ultimate way for Christopher to "get some ass".  Unlike the shallow Calvin (who mocks both Cassell and Fain, his supposed best friend), Cassell actually experienced sporting glory.  Tellingly, while Cassell is truthful about his Olympic achievements, he embellishes the year to cover up what he's really insecure about--his age. 

CALIFORNIA DREAMING falters in the final third when it takes a melodramatic turn, and not every twist is entirely believable.  The film also suffers a bit from characters who are difficult to warm to and the uninteresting subplot involving Wynn's character.  This isn't the popcorn T and A flick you're expecting, but Hancock does provide a healthy amount of nudity from O'Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE).  CALIFORNIA DREAMING isn't completely successful but is worthy of Danny Peary's "sleeper" description; Hancock and Wynn deliver some surprises without turning too dark.  And yes, the title song is performed, an excellent cover by America played over the end credits.

Tanya Roberts

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

Scarcity of characters you'd actually like to revisit; quite a few shallow folks here, hurting rewatchability.  Cassell's character probably resonates the most, and only if you've reached a certain age first--you'll likely find him as obnoxious as the local kids do if you're still in your twenties.  Also, it isn't your typical brain-dead summer flick, and came just before films of that type started their late night cable domination of the early 1980's.

Why it should be on DVD:

FilmFanatic.org states that the cult following is "probably" due solely to O'Connor's nudity, but I disagree.  The same unusual qualities that likely caused it to fall through the cracks as "too serious" for the target audience also make it worth searching out as a change of pace. 

CALIFORNIA DREAMING is currently streaming on Netflix Instant. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Missing No More: SUGAR HILL (1974) and VAMPIRA/OLD DRACULA (1974)


We have Fox's MGM On Demand program to thank for the latest entries to move from "Why the Hell Not?" status to a release on DVD in the U.S.  Both are from 1974, right in the middle of arguably the peak decade for American cinema.  One is a long-awaited and particularly welcome arrival.  The other?  Eh, not so much, but it isn't without its points of interest.

The former is A.I.P.'s SUGAR HILL (1974), a gleefully ghoulish and campy variation on Pam Grier's revenge flicks for the studio, in which Marki Bey (THE LANDLORD) stars.  Rather than open up a can of whoopass herself, Bey enlists the aid of Zara Cully and Don Pedro Colley (as the best Baron Samedi to date) and their zombie hit men to fight the mafia responsible for the death of Sugar's boyfriend.  Bey is no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson, but this wickedly humorous tale of evil colliding with evil is loads of fun in spite of its low budget and shortage of exploitation staples (it is rated PG).  The original review is here.


SUGAR HILL may lack a "name" cast, nudity and gore, but is still fondly remembered.  So much so that it has undergone a rediscovery in recent years, first with TCM Underground airing it in 2008-2009 and then more recently through streaming availability on Netflix Instant and Epix.  Now you can take it home with you for the first time---SUGAR HILL was never even released on VHSMovies Unlimited has this MOD available for preorder, with a release date of October 6, 2011--just in time for Halloween!




Already out is VAMPIRA (1974), retitled OLD DRACULA in U.S. theatres in an attempt to capitalize on Mel Brooks' smash YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  As you can see from the review, I feel VAMPIRA is a missed opportunity.  The intended comedy somehow has a much lower laugh count than SUGAR HILL despite a big star in Niven and a much higher budget.


Even taking into account its many flaws, VAMPIRA does have an awful lot of PLAYBOY product placement, enough that I suspected Hugh Hefner was the executive producer at first.  The playmates are portrayed by several lovely actresses of the era who didn't make many films: Cathie Shiriff (in her debut, nine years before STAR TREK III); stunning Nigerian model Minah Byrd (PERCY'S PROGRESS) who tragically died young in 1995; and buxom Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA).  And we can't forget Jenny Linden, can we?  The movie is also a must for fans of beautiful GET CHRISTIE LOVE! star Teresa Graves, who only made three feature films before retiring from show business at 27.

This one is already out and available at Amazon, under its U.S. theatrical title OLD DRACULA.  Happy viewing, and as always there's more reviews forthcoming here at The Horn Section.