Thursday, February 9, 2017

From Avco to Dino: Resurgence

Now this is the era of Embassy I truly love. Gone are the attempts at making real art, the bad adaptations of crappy novels and Oscar wins (though those films that did win are uniformly excellent). When the company started back up in 1977 with Robert Rehme at the helm, it was a full on deep dive into low budget genre goodness all the way till the end of '81 when he left the company Having American International Pictures out of the picture (no pun intended) helped matters dramatically too as they quickly became the rulers of the roost when it came to solid horror movies. In a way, they were a higher class version of Roger Corman's New World Pictures only with better budgets and a little less sleaze.

This is a big one (though there a few I am skipping just because I have nothing to say about them) so let's not fart around.

 Kicking things off is this pseudo-reworking (as in I'm probably the only dude making this reference in regards to it) of a classic French horror movie called Eyes Without a Face that sees a deranged plastic surgeon kidnap a young accident victim and alter her face so that she looks like his long lost daughter who ran off after seeing him kill her mother (in the French film, this is not the case). It turns out to be an inheritance scam and as far as starting points go, this one was a sick, twisted way for Embassy to renew itself.

 Up next was the U.S. release of this late entry in the disaster movie sub genre. A British/Italian co-production, it puts your standard cast of 70's character actors on a train carrying a Swedish terrorist infected with a rather nasty case of the plague. Not a great flick and the only thing I find interesting about it is the director went on to direct Rambo: First Blood Part II and Leviathan.
Gene Hackman is roped into an assassination plot by the mysterious group that helped him break out of prison. It starts poorly with a cheesy narrator bloviating the viewer into an alleged state of paranoia and while Hackman is always good, the film is just another 70's conspiracy film right down to the downer ending. A later film in this post will tackle similar themes in a more interesting manner.

WWII drama from Sam Peckinpah about a rivalry between two German soldiers. One working class man who covets a medal and his CO who dislikes him. Well regarded but not successful, this has all of the staples of the director: brutal violence, interesting characters and a good story.

Action film about motocross racing that I wish I could find more info on.

Teen sex comedy (they multiplied like rabbits in the late 70's) starring Steve Guttenberg as a young man hell bent on getting laid with a popular cheerleader.

Billy Crystal plays the world's first pregnant man in this poorly received comedy directed by Joan Rivers.

I reviewed this one recently so in short, it's quite the entertaining bad movie.

Interesting Vietnam War film (released five years after US involvement ended no less) that stars Burt Lancaster and Craig Wasson in a story about a doomed platoon in 1964. While it was ignored when first released, it has since gained some measure of popularity when it comes to anti-war films.

Interesting but not entirely successful martial arts fantasy film about a young student sent on a quest to find a wise man. David Carradine is good in his four roles (originally intended for Bruce Lee who came up with the idea for the film) and there are small roles for Eli Wallach, Christopher Lee and others that are solidly entertaining. At the end of the day though, it is more of an interesting look at Eastern philosophy than a really good movie.

Typical action/comedy about two friends who mistakenly acquire a car filled with money and drugs. They are naturally chased by the criminals who put the stuff in the car as well as the usual dumb cops.

Biopic about former Nixon administration lawyer Charles Colson and his life during and after the Watergate scandal.

Wonderfully put together and quite dark fantasy film about a bunch of rabbits looking for a new place to live after their home is destroyed. Embassy handled the US distribution for this British classic.

Probably the best film in this period from the company. I've already written tons of words about how awesome this horror film so in the interest of not repeating myself, I will simply direct you to my review of it here.

If The Domino Principle was the conspiracy thriller at its most rote and basic, Winter Kills is probably the most inventive and defiantly odd entry in the sub genre. Jeff Bridges stars as the younger brother of a slain US President who is looking for the hows and whys of his older brother;s sad fate. Standing in his way are a shady government man played nicely by Anthony Perkins and his own father, played with charming malice by John Huston. The cast is fantastic and while the film has rather obvious parallels to the JFK assassination, it is still a reasonably entertaining dark parody of the entire genre even with the needless romance subplot, the rather spastic pacing and overall lack of focus.

The production of the film was rife with problems (to the point where the backstory is almost more interesting then the film itself) such as production being shut down several times; one of the drug dealing producers ending up murdered and the other getting 40 years in prison, a truncated final cut and theatrical release. It's not often a film suffers from studio interference (to the point where Embassy basically dumped it unceremoniously in theaters) and anyone associated with it could rightly say "That's just the tip of the iceberg, pal!"

James Coburn stars in this film about a mad scientist who turns his daughter into a perfect physical specimen who can compete in the 1980 Olympics. One of the stranger sports films out there, this is one I'd actually like to try and track down.

Another release at the tail end of the disaster film craze, this has an all-star cast as usual and was featured on MST3K when it was just seen locally on KTMA in Minnesota.

Based on a true story and the novel by Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field is a solid drama about the murder of one police officer and the subsequent hunt for the killers as well as the surviving cop's issues after the trauma. James Woods is great as one of the killers.

Embassy wrapped up 1979 with this heist film from Canada. All in all, this period was great for the studio as its new direction gave it focus and a sense of urgent purpose. This would carry on into the next two years, to say nothing of the next installment of this series.

Coming soon: 1980 to 1981

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

From Avco to Dino: 69-76

In the interest of brevity, the two segments of this series that were going to follow this one are being folded into one giant post. The reason for this is that I have looked over the lineup and to be brutally frank, it sucks for the most part. Besides, the real interesting stuff during this era wasn't being released into theaters.

While Avco/Embassy wasn't necessarily able to capitalize on their great showing at the end of 1967 and 1968; that is not to say they tanked completely (that won't happen until the mid 70's). From 1969 till 1972, they released a nice variety of films, some good, and some... Well, we can get to that. Either way, though they ended up falling victim to the law of diminishing returns, that is not to say they put out nothing of any merit. Let's take a look at a sampling of their wares for this stretch.

The first of two Harold Robbins adaptations we'll cover in this piece, this is your standard "hitman tries to retire but is targeted by his former employers" flick. Can't find it anywhere but that's okay because the real main event is coming up soon.

Jackie Gleason stars in this comedy based on a Woody Allen play about a couple that ends up behind the Iron Curtain. Early Allen is generally pretty funny and so is Gleason. Didn't really have the time to see this one but it sounds decent enough. New Line released it on VHS in the early 90's.

This is where the Harold Robbins adaptation craze fizzled out in spectacular fashion. The Adventurers is a nearly three hour cavalcade of trash about a young man who runs from his war torn South American home to become a rich, sleazy playboy and also avenge the death of his entire family when he was a kid. The bad acting and silly plot lines flow like a torrent of water here to create a Bad Movie gem.

Controversial due to the level of violence, Soldier Blue depicts a brutal massacre of Native Americans in the Old West, this was released around the same time the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was getting news coverage. As tended to be the case when they couldn't get Peter O'Toole or someone of that caliber in their movie (no offense to Donald Pleasence but he wasn't getting any acting awards anytime soon), Embassy mixed social relevance with shameless exploitati0on and ended up with something memorable, of not exactly palatable or great.

After the success of The Graduate, Mike Nichols directed this solid drama about two friends and their romances with various women starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel (it was the early 70's, musicians were getting acting roles even more so than today) and Candice Bergen. It garner good reviews and of course, Nicholson is fun as always to watch.

From thoughtful drama, we slam back to horror with this prequel to the 1961 film starring Deborah Kerr The Innocents. In that film, a governess was haunted by the ghosts of a murdered caretaker and her predecessor who drowned herself after her lover's death. This prequel tells the backstory outlined in the original and features a torrid romance between Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham that naturally, ends in tragedy though with some details changed that sort of rob the original of its ambiguity (honestly, the original is not a favorite of mine and the lack of a concrete explanation is sort of most of what it has going for it). Still, this did well enough.

Now this, on the other hand, is one of my favorite dark comedies. Peter O'Toole stars as a mentally ill man who belongs to a prominent British family. When his father dies, he naturally is the next in line but his family tries to sabotage him. O'Toole is great here both as the crazy yet gentle man who thinks he's Jesus and in the last third of the film as a truly dangerous (but more socially acceptable) crazy person who thinks he's Jack the Ripper. Pete has one moment near the end where where he screams in rage that might be the most unnerving thing I have ever seen an actor do. And this is coming from a guy who watches lots of horror films. It takes a lot to creep me out. That aside, the rest of the film is top notch as well.

After two more releases, 1972 came to an end for Embassy. The ensuing years would see the company cut down on production, finally stopping making films altogether for the most part in 1975. They lost several millions in 1973 and the following year, Joseph Levine would resign from the company.

The films released during this period were, as noted in the first paragraph, less than inspiring. For this reason, I'll just be highlighting a few titles and moving things along.

 Glenda scored a Best Actress Oscar for this romantic comedy which also starred George Segal.

 The tagline probably didn't do the movie any favors, nor did the apparent jettisoning of the source novel's more satirical take on the idea of dolphins being used by the CIA in favor of a more earnest approach.

 Robert Mitchum is hard boiled detective Philip Marlowe in this decently reviewed movie that has the standard solid Mitchum performance which he would reprise three years later in a remake of The Big Sleep.

 To quote myself from a post on this blog way back when (in other words, not linking to it because it isn't good): This is an adequate heist movie that's an early effort from Golan-Globus.  Yeah, that's pretty much all I have for this one.  I saw it, it wasn't bad, I barely remember anything about it.

We can also add in that Shelley Winters is in this and is as annoying as usual.

 Another early Golan Globus endeavor, this is a mob comedy starring Jack Palance as a mobster trying to defend everything in his life he values (as in his girl, money and business interests) and is really the best and probably only reason to seek this one out. Early Cannon (let's face it, Golan and Globus were making Cannon films long before they even bought the damn company) films usually interest me and this one is... Well, Palance is good in it at least.

The rest of 1975 and the following year were not good for Embassy and though they were apparently close to shutting down, a fresh beginning was not far off.

Coming soon: Embassy Goes Commercial!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

From Avco to Dino: The Road to the Middle of the Top

The end of the 60's marked an interesting time for Embassy as while they would ascend to some pretty good heights in terms of quality product, they would also go through some fairly major changes. We left off in the middle of 1966, let's get to it.

We begin with two of the cheesier, more notorious titles in horror history. Both were made on the extra cheap; both are western/horror hybrids, both feature legendary real life outlaws clashing with famous monsters and both are absolute crap.

Actually, Jesse James is facing off against the good doctor's granddaughter but let's be honest, the title is better off as is. Something about it has to be memorable, after all.

John Carradine is Dracula once again,m this time in this endearingly awful showdown with Billy the Kid from noted bad movie maven William "One Shot" Beaudine who also directed the above title. Weirdly enough, Carradine isn't listed as the titular bloodsucker nor is he mentioned as such in the credits.

The first feature the team of Rankin and Bass did for Embassy, this is a blend of live action and the duo's trademark stop-motion animation (soon to become a staple of the holidays) based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen.

As I noted in the previous part of this series, the huge success of the company's adaptation of Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers yielded a prequel in the form of this rather ordinary western starring Steve McQueen. Its more or less your basic revenge flick and McQueen would do far better in the years to come.

After two more less than notable releases to close out 1966, Embassy kicked off 1967 with another Rankin Bass film, this time the eminently entertaining Mad Monster Party. This year was also notable in that it marked the beginning of Embassy as an independent distributor of its own product. While the year carried on in fairly ordinary fashion, it can be said, without much in the way of exaggeration that they closed the year out with a bang.

Dustin Hoffman had a solid breakout role here (though he's too old for the part) in this comedy/drama. While it has been written about and lauded elsewhere, I can only say that it is a key part of the late 60's resurrection of American cinema. With the success of this film, Joseph Levine was able to sell his company to Avco, creating Avco/Embassy and staying on as an executive.

While Avco/Embassy only released two films in 1968, both ended up being classics in their own right. First off was Mel Brooks' directorial debut, the savagely funny dark comedy The Producers. Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel are quite funny in their parts and Brooks won a much deserved Oscar for his screenplay.
Lastly for this entry is The Lion in Winter, one of the best costume dramas (not a genre I tend to favor in most cases) ever made. Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn are in stellar form as Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine respectively in this tensely funny drama that  makes you really appreciate how normal your family Christmas is, even if your uncle does occasionally get hammered and start a fight with your cousin while Granny overcooks the turkey.

Hepburn won an Oscar here (she practically begs for it in every bloody scene she's in) but O'Toole is equally good (the scenes where they go at it are simply awesome as they devour whatever scenery is nearby). Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton are also good in their supporting roles as the future King Richard the Lionheart and King Philip of France, respectively.

This was truly the pinnacle for the company as far as critical success goes. The end of the decade and the 70's would bring on some interesting changes. But that is a story for another day. Stay tuned...

Friday, January 6, 2017

From Avco to Dino: A Hint of Class, A Hint of Trash

Note from the author: In prepping this part of the series, I noticed that there are some titles I overlooked for the first part of the series, several in fact along with some titles I just can't find much to write about. Most of the output I skipped and will be overlooking in future segments consists of dubbed foreign films. In total, we'll be covering roughly 168 out of the total 285 films Embassy distributed/produced, give or take or roughly 68 to 69% of their total output. Just for the sake of full disclosure.

After his first two successes, Joseph Levine capitalized on them, entering into a partnership with Warner Brothers and then Paramount which would yield even more success.

Steve Reeves returns as Hercules in this solid if mildly disappointing sequel to the first film. Herc is tasked with solving a family squabble over the leadership of Thebes but is sidetracked by a witch who causes him to forget who he is for three quarters of the film. Like the original, there is some good action and nice scenery with the requisite cheesy English dub. Like the original, this made it onto MST3k as well, along with some other films in this piece.

Italian version of the Biblical tale of King Davis with Orson Welles as King Saul.

Another version of The Thief of Baghdad, this time we get Steve Reeves in the title role. It got good notices and has pretty much nothing in common with the other versions of the film.

Embassy made a leap into more sophisticated fare with distributing this drama based on the Eugene O'Neill play. Katherine Hepburn got an Oscar nomination for her work as a drug addicted matriarch to a dysfunctional family in 1912.

Michael Caine's first big role is as a snobbish upper class soldier in this epic retelling of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879. Lavishly mounted but riddled with historical inaccuracies, this nevertheless won considerable acclaim as, as noted, gave Michael Caine a big break that he would capitalize on very quickly.

Italian drama directed by the man who would go on to direct Amityville II: The Possession. Needless to say, this is is considerably better than that piece of dreck.

Decades before the trend of young adult fantasy novels being made into films (with varying degrees of success), there was a slough of films based on the works of trash novelist Harold Robbins. Robbins was quite popular with readers though not with critics, writing sordid soapy novels full of sex and sleaze, eventually he would become one of the best selling authors of all time. Several of his books were made into films with The Carpetbaggers being one of the biggest hits (and best in terms of quality). We will cover two more of his adaptations later in the series along with a small detour later.

George Peppard plays a thinly veiled version of Howard Hughes whose ruthless ambition leads him to success in Hollywood while also alienating anyone who might give a damn about him. Western star Alan Ladd is also in the film as a cowboy turned actor and the whole thing is a frankly over the top (for the mid-sixties at least) 150 minute long soap opera that is entertaining trash. Embassy and Paramount did quite well with this one, (it ended up being the fourth highest grossing film of 1964 behind My Fair Lady, Goldfinger and Mary Poppins) to the point where there was even a prequel which we will cover in the next part of this series.

One of the seminal bad Christmas movies, this ended up on MST3K as well as the spin offs from that series-Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax (I could almost subtitle this installment 'MST3K Fodder and More'). Also notable for being the film debut of 80's bad movie staple Pia Zadora (if I feel evil/masochistic someday, I might cover one or two of her films on the blog).

Back to the quality side of things, this one is a French import from Jean-Luc Godard with Jack Palance as a frustrated movie producer and and Brigitte Bardot as the wife of a screenwriter Palance hires to rework his latest project.

One of two films about the short lived star Jean Harlow, this film only uses her name and the name of her husband and nothing else (hooray for authenticity, eh?) and the result is a long, superficial piece of junk. Weirdly enough, it is mirrored somewhat by The Carpetbaggers as the Carroll Baker (she plays the lead here too) character in that film is loosely based on Jean Harlow herself.

Embassy rolled on into 1966 with some Oscar bait and some cheese.

Exactly what it sounds like. Actually, I would give non vital parts of my anatomy to see a couple of Brooklyn wiseguys accidentally walking into this show just for their reaction.

This is a British spy comedy that is one of the many riffs on James Bond from the period. Director Lindsay Shonteff made a few sequels to this as well as a few more racy spy spoofs in the 70's.

We hit the last of our MST3K features with this rather good on its own Russian fantasy film based on a Russian fairy tale. Production design is quite good and overall, its quite the delightful film, even without Mike & the Bots.

Lastly for this installment is this truly awful showbiz flick which combines a Harlan Ellison script; Tony Bennett in his one and only acting gig and a rep that makes the aforementioned Santa Claus Conquers the Martians look good.

That's all for now. Coming up next, things get a hell of a lot better.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.