Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Monday: Tentacles

I thought we were done with the whole "killer animals" thing, but then I saw on Netflix Watch Instantly the 1977 classic Tentacles!

Of course, Tentacles is no classic; its yet another cheesefest rip-of coming off the heels of Jaws. But octopi are kinda scary, so let's give this a look!
This film has an...eclectic cast, to say the least: Bo Hopkins, John Huston, Claude Akins (reunited from Battle for the Planet of Apes), Shelley Winters and, once again cashing a check, Henry Fonda!

Tentacles is set in a tourist spot known as Ocean Beach (clever!), which is under attack by a giant octopus.

Director Ovidio G. Assonitis (here credited as Oliver Hellman, presumably to hide the film's Italian roots?) knows to rip-off Steven Spielberg right from the beginning, with a scene of two women talking, with one of their babies off in the background.

As cars whiz by, we see the kid suddenly disappear, in a scene very similar to the beach scene with Roy Scheider in Jaws:
No one knows how the kid got into the water--stroller and all--in just seconds. But they figure out something is wrong real fast when two kids go fishing, and one of them reaches for his pole which has dropped into the water:
Soon after, a reporter (John Huston, improbably) is on the case, and he quickly gets a hint that the excavation of a nearby underwater tunnel by a large corporation named Trojan (no snickering!) has maybe upset the giant octopus, making it mad...real mad.

There are several scenes of Shelley Winters, playing Huston's blowsy sister, not really doing much of anything having to do with the plot. There are even more scenes of Henry Fonda, as the head of Trojan (I said no snickering!), literally phoning it in:
Most of the giant killer octopus scenes are fairly dull, but there are some occasional moments of well-executed horror. One involves a boat that is attacked by the octopus, and one of the passengers gets dumped overboard. She makes her way to a nearby dinghy, and its red light provides the illumination as we see the squid rise from the water:
There's a long, long, long sequence involving a boat race, with very non-scary music and endless scenes of Shelley Winters looking for her grandson, who has gone out on the water.

There is another scene that's a little creepy, when the octopus tries a more frontal assault:
Later, Bo Hopkins, playing a sea-life trainer, takes it upon himself to hunt the octopus when it kills his wife. Hopkins gets a long, impassioned speech to his two whale pals, telling them he needs them to help hunt the octopus. It's like Orca crossed with Knute Rockne.

All the other characters are pretty much forgotten as Hopkins takes center stage, as his two whale pals do the deed to the octopus, via some very murky, if real, footage:
The whales kill the octopus, The End.

Compared to the other killer animal films I've been looking at the last couple of Movie Mondays (Frogs, Tintorera, The Swarm), Tentacles is a near-classic: there are some genuine scenes of tension, and some of the effects aren't bad. But it still suffers from slack pacing, a Love Boat-ish cast, and a lack of any real genuine horror.

I can only imagine what kinds of crazy stories were swapped among John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Claude Akins between set-ups; I think a documentary of just their hellraising would have made for a more interesting film than Tentacles.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Monday: The Swarm

We're continuing our Killer Animals on The Loose theme for Movie Monday with the 1978 all-star disaster/horror epic The Swarm!

Take a look at that poster, and check out the aging names producer Irwin Allen managed to bribe/persuade/extort into appearing in this, one the last of the big 1970s "disaster" films: Michael Caine! Richard Widmark! Olivia de Havilland! Slim Pickens! Ben Johnson! Fred MacMurray! Henry Fonda! Henry Fonda!!

I love old school cheesefests like this one, and since I had never seen The Swarm before, I was quite excited to watch it. As I was starting it up, I was doing a little background info on it: directed by Irwin Allen, okay; written by Sterling Silliphant, okay; based on a book, okay; running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, okay, pro...wait, what? 2 hours and 35 minutes?!?

Yep--apparently Irwin Allen saw this film in the same mold of his other hits, like The Towering Inferno (2 hours, 45 minutes) and The Poseidon Adventure (2 hours), thinking people wanted to see a two hour-plus film about killer bees. Oh boy, this is going to be rough going...
Anyway, The Swarm opens with its absurdly long list of actors, over a series of scenes of men in hazmat suits heading into some sort of heavily-fortified goverment base. It seems to be deserted, and they put in a call to their commander, General Slater (Richard Widmark).

But just they get him on the line, they see someone is inside:
sg's world-famous entomologist Brad Crane, who has bad news to report all the mysterious killings that have been happening: its a swarm of killer bees!!

General Slater of course thinks this is nonsense, and the two of them have a completely ridiculous, overheated argument that sets the tone for the movie: Irwin Allen thought 1978 filmgoers wanted to see big-name actors yell at each other, instead of what the title promised: people gettin' killed by lots of bees.

Problem is, the film doesn't even really work on that score (which was by Jerry Goldsmith, BTW). Visually, bees can only be shown two ways: first, as a giant cloud, like they are here when bringing down a military helicopter:
(I'm pretty sure M*A*S*H 4077 was just off the bottom of the frame)

Or secondly, like this, in close-up:
Like in Frogs, the killer animal in question, when its just sitting there minding its own damn business, just isn't that frightening. And when the bees finally do kill some people--like they do when they attack a family on a picnic--Allen doesn't have the money (I guess) to do any gruesome make-up effects; so we're left with shots of people lying really still as swarms of bees crawl over them. Kinda icky, sure, but once you've seen it, you've seen it. And this movie only has two more hours to go!

After the first set of victims are discovered, they are brought--along with their son, who survived--to the military base. Then Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda) arrives, and issues a grim warning: these bees are going to keep killing, and there's not much anyone can do!

Caine's Crane (ha!) is aghast. He always knew Man has been fighting the insect world, and it would eventually come to a head. But
: "I never dreamed it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend."

The word starts to get out about the bees. A reporter played by Lee Grant, gets on the story. Caine and Widmark argue some more. A bow-tied Fred McMurray (in his final film appearance, a million miles away from Double Indemnity) romances a school principal, played by Olivia de Havilland. A local farmer (Slim Pickens) is mad at the government for letting members of his family get killed by the bees, and refuses to help. Caine teams-up with, and romances, a military office played by Katharine Ross. Another so-called expert, played by Richard Chamberlain, tries to undermine Caine at every turn.

The bees attack a nearby town, causing everyone to scurry in-doors. Caine receives a call from Fonda, who says just two stings from the bees is fatal. The streets are lined with bee-stung corpses. It's a madhouse, I tell you; a madhouse!!
Widmark wants to cover the area where the bees are with a deadly toxin, that will kill all bees, period. Caine tries to explain that the honeybee is a vital part of the eco-system, and killing them would be disastrous. But Widmark's Slater is a man of results, dammit!
The town residents are ordered to evacuate, and that includes a young, widowed pregnant woman played by Patti Duke Astin. But due to all the excitement, she begins to go into labor!

Night falls, and the town becomes mostly deserted. Crane resumes his experiments on an antidote, alongside Fonda's Krim (who has to wear an Andromeda Strain-esque hazmat suit to deliver a lot of his lines).
The train carrying many of the evacuees crashes when a bee stings the engineer, causing the whole magilla to come tumbling down a mountain (this movie was not sponsored by Amtrak). It explodes, killing Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland, and Ben Johnson! Who knew Irwin Allen was such a nihilist?

What's even more troubling than that is the location--its 70 miles away, towards Houston. That means the bees are headed for more densely-populated areas! Crane realizes time, already short, is running out!

Finally, Crane and Krim develop a solution they think will work--a pellet that, when dropped from the air, will ideally attract just the killer bees. And when the bees touch the pellets, they'll die. Except--the bees won't touch the pellets. One of scientists grimly observes, "They're smarter then we thought." Another Big Government plan, wasting our precious tax dollars!

Krim goes back to work, coming up with an experimental serum--but it needs to be tested on a human. Crane volunteers, but Krim refuses due to their long-standing friendship. Later, when he's alone, Krim tries it on himself. Unfortunately, it kills him, in a scene that seems to be a visual tribute to Fonda's classic 12 Angry Men:
The bees attack a nuclear plant, run by Jose Ferrer (who was literally across the WB lot, shooting another Irwin Allen project, The Amazing Captain Nemo). Richard Chamberlain is also there, trying to get Ferrer to take the bees seriously as a threat.

Ferrer pish-poshes this, but changes his tune when the bees swarm in, killing everyone inside. This is the film's only moment that approaches anything like horror, with some cool lighting and the site of the actual stars getting attacked:
Upon news of this, the President issues an order, putting Slater in charge and essentially side-lining Crane.

Crane is helpless as he watches Slater orders a bomb of "Nutricide" dropped on Houston. Crane argues that doing so will prevent anything from growing there for ten years, but Slater is unimpressed. He has the bomb dropped.

Unfortunately, the bomb doesn't work--the bees have become immune to the spray. Slater is despondent, Crane is dismayed, and the bees begin to take over Houston: getting jobs, opening small businesses, going to Astros games, etc.

At this point we're at hour six of The Swarm (or maybe it just feels like it), as Caine and Ross pretty much just sit around, bemoaning the fact that there's nothing they can do. At one point, Ross is left alone to sleep. She hears a weird scratching noise, and she looks to see what it is. She opens a door, and:
Uh-oh! Things "bee" gettin' worse!

Crane figures out that the bees have been attracted by the government's alarm sound--the vibrations being the exact same as the ones between the bees and their queen! Maybe, if that sound can be amplified, it can be move the bees away from Houston!

Slater, who appears to have to check with no one in higher government about this (talks about a hands-off President--no wonder Carter only served a single term), gives Crane the a-okay, and before you can say Pre-sold international distribution rights, Crane is in a helicopter over the ocean, hoping the bees will follow the sound.

The bees, being stupid, follow the sound into giant globs of oil that have been dumped onto the ocean (which seems like trading one problem for another, IMO). While the bees are stuck, the oil is set on fire, causing massive explosions!

The film ends with some of the worse blue screen projection since The Hunt For Red October (or is that the other way around?), as Caine and Ross wonder if they've truly won, or just bought Humanity a little more time:

Credits roll, and Irwin Allen sends the moviegoer back out into the world with this little caveat, lest we leave The Swarm with a totally negative view of bees:

The Swarm was a notorious bomb when it came out; apparently it made Irwin Allen so mad that he demanded no one in his employ ever mention the film; apparently he once bolted from an interview as soon as the ne-'er-do-well reporter brought it up.

Why, then, when the film was released on laserdisc(!), did Allen add forty minutes to its running time? If anything, The Swarm might have been salvageable if cut down to the bone; but by adding more and more scenes of Caine and Widmark yelling Allen just made a bad film interminable.

Many film fans who remember the "golden age" of 70s moviemaking say "They just don't make 'em like that anymore." And in some cases, that's a good thing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Movie Monday: Tintorera: Killer Shark

We're continuing our Killer Animals on The Loose theme for Movie Monday with the 1978 horror/almost-soft-core porn film Tintorera: Killer Shark!

In 1975, director Steven Spielberg made you afraid to back into the water with Jaws. A few months later, you grew comfortable about the whole water thing, and started to go back. Then director Rene Cardona Jr. tried to make you afraid of the water all over again in 1978 with Tintorera: Killer Shark!!
In the credits, its says this movie is based on the book Tinorera--no second "T." I guess those fat cat studio heads won again! Man, its all about the money with those guys.

Anyway, the movie opens with a guy named Steven (Hugo Stiglitz, a movie-star name if I ever saw one) arrives in Mexico on vacation. A local fisherman named Colorado takes Steven to a spot on the beach where he shows local tourists his haul of caught sharks.

Colorado uses the sharks to meet chicks, and engages in very typical movie Funny Foreign Guy shtick while wooing bikini girls:
Steven meets a woman named Patricia (Fiona Lewis) and they quickly hook up (this was the 70s, after all). Director Cardona gives us endless scenes of the two of them romancing, under the mistaken assumption that the combination of Stiglitz and Lewis would take ticket buyers to new heights of cinematic sensuality. He was wrong.
Patricia and Steven have a brief falling out, and she quickly takes up with a local named Miguel (Andres Garcia). While they're getting it on (it was the 70s), Steven broods on his yacht, refusing to even participate in the orgy-esque party going on around him:
This scene is pretty out there, in terms of what you'd expect for what's supposedly a horror movie. There's rampant nudity, girls getting it on with other girls, and assorted bacchanalia. As you can see from the above still, Colorado lays on some more classic movie comedy for us.

The next morning, post-coital, Patricia is feeling guilty. She strips down (it was the 70s) and goes for a skinny dip.

You might wonder, are there actually sharks in this movie? I was wondering that, too--we're twenty-two minutes into a eighty-four-minute movie and still no sharks!

Anyway, yes, this is where a shark shows up: it grabs the comely Patricia, thrashing her into bits. This might be the time for some, you know, horror, but director Cardona screws it all up, cutting away to a longshot that made me laugh in its Looney Tunes-esque feel:
Patricia's death remains unknown to anyone, and Steven and Miguel improbably become friends, teaming up to score more local women, assuming Patricia has gone home to England. They also start a shark-hunting business, mostly for the hell of it. When Steven asks Miguel what he does for a living, exactly, he answers, "I live!" in his most lusty European Guy style, acting as though the question itself is stupid.

A short time later, they meet Gabriella (Susan George) and within a few hours she goes back with them to Steven's yacht (it was the 70s). She makes it clear she likes both of them--a lot. So much so that, by night's end, they're in a Devil's Threeway:
Director Cardona does his best to show that Steven and Miguel are not--repeat, not--doing anything in bed together, but I think that's more of an editing choice, probably for an American audience who was not going to tolerate these kinds of shenanigans in a 1970s horror movie!

The three of them then engage in an ongoing three-way relationship, suddenly turning this Jaws ripoff into Jules and Jim. What movie, exactly, did Cardona think he was making here?

We see Gabriella, Steven, and Miguel visit some local sites, have dinner, take snapshots, and even engage in a sort of three-way marriage ceremony. Once again, we follow them as they get it on (it was the 70s), leading to a scene where Gabriella climbs into bed and waits for her men to follow her. Steven tells Miguel to "go first", but Miguel is nothing if not a gentleman:
...dear lord, this is like a porno version of Chip n' Dale--"After you. Ho ho, no, after you. No, after you. No, no, after you..."

Miguel and Steven take Gabriella shark hunting, and these scenes suggest that real sharks were actually killed, which is gruesome and unpleasant in the extreme, even more than the above scene. I'm no shark lover, but going around killing them for a movie is really despicable. Luckily, since this movie has so little interest in its title subject, these scenes are over fairly quickly.

Miguel is later killed by a tiger shark (hey, something happened!), and Gabriella is so distressed she leaves Mexico, breaking up with Steven. Steven vows revenge on all sharks, but not before he goes to a party where he engages in some more nighttime nude frolicking.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the tiger shark shows up and ruins the orgy:
Steven recommits to hunting the shark, and with the help of Colorado he finds the shark, luring it with a devilfish he's using as bait. He then shoots the shark with speargun that has an explosive tip, killing it.

The Wikipedia entry for this film mentions a scene with Steven gets his arm ripped off by the shark, waking up in a hospital bed. There's no scene like this in the version I saw on Netflix--it just cuts to the final montage, where Steven reminisces about the great time in his life when he was in a three-way:
sg, more movies should conclude like this. The End!

The first fifteen minutes of Tintorera: Killer Shark is so meandering, the pace so slack, and the characters so unappealing that I seriously considered stopping it and watching something else. But man am I glad I stuck with it--once all the sex starts, the movie gets so creepy and icky and weird that I really couldn't believe what I was watching.

The whole long menage a trois plot is so bizarre, especially when you consider the movie was advertised as starring American actress Susan George. While George was no big star by any standards, she did come to this movie with a few bona fide big time credits to her name--Straw Dogs, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and The Looking Glass War, for example. Its hard to imagine a movie actress--even nowadays--taking a role that's so casually sexually transgressive.

And to have that plot jammed into the middle of a cheesy shark movie makes Tintorera: Killer Shark one of the most head-scratching-est, unease-inducing moviegoing experiences I've ever had. And I've seen Burial Ground.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Movie Monday: Frogs

For this week's Movie Monday we'll be talking about the horror masterpiece Frogs!

Okay...obviously I'm completely kidding: Frogs is a total C-level movie, and that's being generous. I saw it many years ago and remember it being hilariously bad, so bad it was worth revisiting again via the magic of Netflix Watch Instantly:
The film opens with photographer named Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, pre-mustache) taking some nature photographs. The opening credits sequence goes on approximately seventy-five minutes, with endless close-ups of various swamp creatures, none of them inherently terrifying.

Smith's canoe gets upended by a brother and sister named Clint and Karen (Adam Roarke and Joan Van Ark) who are goofing around. Feeling bad they dunked the guy, they ask Smith to come home with them so he can dry off.

"Home" is a large, creepy mansion owned by their Grandpa, a crotchety old guy named Jason Crockett, played by Ray Milland:
Fairly quickly, we get an idea of the dynamic in this family: Grandpa is loaded, and sort of controls his family with an iron fist. Some members of the family are clearly humoring him, others, like Karen, seem to care for their grandfather, but he doesn't make it easy.

To make matters worse, we learn that Jason Crockett seems to despise Nature itself--he's constantly pouring all sorts of noxious chemicals into the eco-system to keep the various life-forms at bay (then why have a house in the swamp?). Grandpa is disturbed when one of his grandsons shows up with a giant frog in his hand. Its here Milland gets to utter the immortal line "No matter how much money I have, I just can't get rid of the frogs."

The film has lots (lots!) of establishing shots of alligators, bugs, snakes, and, yes, frogs, most of them just minding their own damn business:
After some more scenes of family drama, Nature seems to decide to take a shot at the Crockett family, by picking them off one by one. A snake shows up in the dining room, frogs gather outside the windows. One of the family members goes out hunting, but accidentally shoots himself.

As he writhes in pain, moss seems to cover him, leaving his susceptible to the attack of some tarantulas. This scene is needlessly dragged out--the guy could just get up--but there are some icky close-ups of the spiders:

Another member of the family, out chasing a butterfly (great idea!), gets caught up in the woods and is attacked by an alligator and then some leeches:
Pickett and Karen decide that Nature is gunning for them, so they plan to leave. They try and talk Grandpa into going with them, but for whatever reason Jason insists on staying, barking even to his grandkids that "You're either for me for against me!"
Pickett, Karen, and the kids escape, ending up in the car of a passerby. Inside is a family, whose young kid has, as a pet...a giant frog!!!

Back at the house, Jason Crockett watches the frogs amass outside his door. We hear the sound of breaking glass (whuh?), and soon the frogs are inside. Jason Crockett begins to sweat profusely, and tries to climb out of his wheelchair. He has a heart attack, collapsing onto the floor. He helplessly watches the frogs crawl all over him, and we reach The End.

The credits roll, and at the end there's a little bit of animation sending the audience out of the theater:
...the frog slurps up the human hand, and the movie ends. Man, Marvel so stole this whole post-credits sequence idea!!

Frogs is, of course, completely absurd. Misleading, too: from the title and poster, you think this movie is about giant, man-eating frogs, but its really about Nature itself getting revenge, something seen in lots of better movies than this. The frogs themselves just sit around, croaking, while the director (George McCowan) tries desperately to make them look terrifying. It doesn't work.

The horror scenes are boringly staged, and the gore, such as it is, is so minimal that you don't even really get a charge out of seeing people die in imaginative, violent ways. There are some close-ups of spiders, snakes, and alligators, mix in shots of people screaming, move on to the next scene.

You have to feel bad for the great Ray Milland, stuck in dreck like this. In between set-ups, he must have thought of better days when he worked with Billy Wilder and Hitchcock. Sadly, Frogs wasn't even the worst film Milland would appear in--1972 was a particularly bad year for the guy.

No one, to my knowledge, has made an actual Giant Man-Eating Frog movie yet. I think its time for a Frogs "re-imagining", don't you?

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