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!

About Me

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