Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reel Bad Cinema: Night of the Lepus (1972) review


Stuart Whitman (Roy Bennett), Janet Leigh (Gerry Bennett), Rory Calhoun (Cole Hillman), DeForest Kelley (Elgin Clark), Paul Fix (Sheriff Cody), Melanie Fullerton (Amanda Bennett)

Directed by William F. Claxton

"Jud... calm down... the rabbit's gone."

The Short Version: Leapin' Lepus's! A movie about giant flesh-eating rabbits devouring the human population in a small Arizona town fails not only as a serious slice of environmental SciFi, but also as an unintentional comedy. It would take Monty Python to make rabbits legitimately hilarious a few years later. Shot like a western (Claxton directed lots of them), it plays like one more than it does a horror picture. Instead, it's just a horrible picture. Had they replaced the ridiculous rabbits with wild, rampaging buffalo, the film wouldn't work as western horror, either. Bert I. Gordon could've done more with this silly premise and made a genuine knee-slapper out of it. If you have THE GIANT CLAW (1957) handy, make it a double Terrible On the Rocks.

Two scientists, a local doctor and a rancher (sounds like the start of a joke... well, it is!) attempt to halt the rapid multiplyin' of rabbits on a Southwestern range land by injecting a few dozen problem hare's with a hormone. Instead of solving the problem, it magnifies it... literally. It isn't long before giant rabbits--having sworn off carrots--decide to take a bite out of man instead.

Despite the laughably vague trailer as to the nature of the "mutants" and "devil creatures", NIGHT OF THE LEPUS gives its killer kritters away during the first two minutes; prompting the audience to quickly decide whether they wish to stick it out or make for the exit and hope they'll get their money back. Based on the book, 'The Year of the Angry Rabbit' by Russell Braddon, the movie version deviates from the complexities of the source to settle for the usual killer animal style of 70s eco-horror. And therein lies LEPUS's biggest problem--there's nothing remotely scary about it... unless you put it in the context of just who in the hell thought this was a good idea.

If ever there was one movie I'd be most intrigued to learn every aspect of its making--from pitching the idea to the actual filming--it's NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972). How in the world this got the greenlight is a question that desperately needs answering; as well as knowing if the cast were in such dire straits to sign on to this pile of regurgitated kibble. Normally, when big name actor appear in foreign films that amass critical derision the excuse is always they wanted to take vacation there; that excuse cannot apply in the case of LEPUS since it was filmed at Old Tuscon Studios in Arizona.

How do you approach somebody like wild west star Rory Calhoun--who was appearing in his first genre picture--and say, "Look, Roy... we want you to do this movie.... it's about rampaging, killer rabbits." It's worth mentioning that it was just eight years later that Roy donned a severed pig's head and swung a mean chainsaw as rural cannibal cultivator Farmer Vincent in MOTEL HELL (1980). 

Back to the bunnies, the big pitch for LEPUS may have went something like this...

Producer: Okay, whaddaya got for me?

Pitchman: (slight pause) Giant.... flesh-eating rabbits... (clenches eyes tight as if in ecstasy) IT'LL BE GREAT!

Producer: (long pause) Have you been drinking?!

Pitchman: No, no, no, no... we make the rabbits BIG, see? Like those 50s movies with the giant bugs only we're gonna use bunnies! We make'em BIG and make'em mutants... at least we tell people they're mutants in the trailer; (with a look of optimism) unless... you guys wanna pony up extra money for makeup FX to make the rabbits scary lookin'.

Producer: (long pause) Are you sure you haven't been drinking? If there's problems at home....

Pitchman: Trust me! And we'll get some big names to do it!

Producer: (long pause) Why rabbits? I mean, all I can imagine is a pissed off Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny was even funnier when he was pissed off. Remember 'Rebel Rabbit'? Christ, that was hilarious. Nothing at all scary about that; nor do the words 'bunny' or 'rabbit' sound the least bit dangerous. Why not something more practical... like a big mutant bear?

Pitchman: (laughs) We won't sell'em as rabbits in the title, see... we'll use the Latin terminology of Lepus. We'll call it... (in a scary voice) 'Night... of the Lepus'...! (smiling while overcome with confidence) Yeah, that's it! (pause) A giant mutant bear? Naaah, that would never sell.

If only someone had been mindful of the shock and awe-ful of THE GIANT CLAW (1957) with its cracked-out turkey monster from outer space. That film was taken totally seriously by the actors as well; the difference being Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday didn't know what the monster looked like till the film wrapped. In LEPUS, everybody already knew it was an army of killer Easter Bunnies. Apparently the writing on the wall wasn't legible enough.

The same would apply to certain aspects of the script. Such as a peculiar sequence where Calhoun and Whitman attempt to bury the big bunnies in a mine shaft. It seemingly never dawns of them that rabbits do in fact dig burrows in the ground--so it isn't problematic for them to dig a hole out of it. Elsewhere, rifles seem to bring instant death to the hungry hare's yet when the military comes in and brings out the heavy artillery, machine gun fire doesn't slow them down at all. 

Some of the dialog in this hare-raisingly horror-ible movie makes you wonder if actors were given sedatives to maintain their composure when given lines like, "Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There's a herd of killer rabbits headed this way....!"

The special effects are a step up from any of your finer Bert I. Gordon macro-enlarged monster flicks. Actually, Gordon would've been able to instill a lot of charm had he been assigned to the project; his own style of then outdated special effects techniques would be recycled a few years later in FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). Saying "plague of rabbits" just doesn't have the same ring as "plague of locusts".

The model work in LEPUS distinguishes itself nicely from the carnivorous bunnies that hop along through the toy sets. Unfortunately, as good as the miniature farms and town are, the rabbits refuse to strike fear in the audience; the growling sounds given them do not help. Even with their movements slowed down there's still no sense of gigantism. The close-ups of stuntmen in obvious rabbit suits viciously nibbling away at the cast derive more menace mainly because the editing is pulled off to efficiency.

Aside from the good acting and serious tone afforded a movie that didn't deserve it, the picture has a few shocking instances of gory violence toggling between real-life footage of farmers shooting dozens of rabbits; and fake violence of humans torn limb from limb by the least fearsome creatures imaginable. 

As for the actors, Stuart Whitman does come off the best as the lead Tough Guy, his shirt with the top couple buttons laid bare allowing his hairy chest to get its own closeup. Rory Calhoun does just fine, although he looks like he took a break from a western and on his way back, wandered onto the wrong set and just ran with it. Janet Leigh probably wishes she'd of died in a shower again; and DeForest Kelly was likely longing for the sick bay on STAR TREK.

A misfire on virtually every level, LEPUS goes limp almost immediately. A chore to get through, it warrants at least one viewing just so you can say you actually watched a movie about giant bunnies that eat people. If you can't get enough of flesh-ripping rabbits, see MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)--it's intentionally funny. Even so, it is said that anything is possible... anything that is, except making rabbits scary in this movie.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD. Specs and extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; original theatrical trailer; running time: 01:28:19

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Special Cop In Action (1976) review


Maurizio Merli (Commissioner Betti), Raymond Pellegrin (Arpino), John Saxon (Albertelli), Mirella D'Angelo (Luisa), Toni Ucci (Cacace), Daniele Dublino (Luizzi), Massimo Vanni (Fabbri)

Directed by Marino Girolami (as Franco Martinelli)

The Short Version: The Commissioner Betti series is capped with this, the GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY of the Tough Cop triumvirate. It's an epic denouement brought to you by the man who introduced the character, Marino Girolami (as Franco Martinelli), the father of Enzo G. Castellari. Merli is excessive force par excellence in what is easily his finest pure action film. There's shootings, car chases, stunts, and fist fights every five minutes. SPECIAL COP is certainly a Special entry in Italian Action cinema.

When he isn't trying to locate a busload of kidnapped school kids and solve a series of bank robberies, Commissioner Betti attempts to nail down the mastermind behind the crimes. Believing a smuggler named Albertelli is the kingpin, the real criminals pulling the strings want the persistent lawman out of the way; so Albertelli--who has a past with the Iron Commissioner--has Betti framed for murder. Sent to prison, Betti must now contend with dozens of thugs he put away there. It isn't long before Betti is released and he quickly turns the tables on Albertelli and his partners.

Maurizio Merli had been a bit part actor for a decade before he broke out as a leading man in 1975 starring in Girolami's VIOLENT ROME; a film that drew some inspiration from MAGNUM FORCE (1973), but owed greater allegiance to Steno's superb EXECUTION SQUAD (1972). A big hit for the actor, he returned to the role in 1976 for director Umberto Lenzi in the superior VIOLENT NAPLES. One of the finest films of its type, it stands tall alongside the best of Eastwood and Bronson. The same year Merli would play Commissioner Betti for the third and last time under Girolami's direction in SPECIAL COP IN ACTION; a film that deviates in tone and structure from the previous pictures.

If you've seen the first two movies, you'll notice Maurizio is more mello Merli this time around. He still dishes out lead justice and hard chops to the face with an open-handed fist, only he's slightly more restrained, and certainly more calculating; he takes more risks with his own life in trying to save whoever is in harm's way at that moment. By comparison, the Betti of VIOLENT ROME was like a wild west cowboy driven from policeman to vigilante; blurring the lines between law and lawlessness. For VIOLENT NAPLES, Merli's Betti retains that "I don't give a damn" approach to catching crooks and exposing corruption, but an element of pathos creeps into all that masculine attitude.

The Betti of SPECIAL COP is more refined, and fits the mold of Eastwood's Callahan more so than it did in Girolami's first go-round. Dramatically, his interpretation is more one-dimensional compared to the deeper tones of NAPLES; what little characterization that surfaced in Lenzi's classic is virtually non-existent here. Girolami's movie is more interested in giving the audience action, and Merli's fans will not be disappointed.

Each film is basically a separate adventure unrelated to each other. Merli's character is the only hold-over in the trilogy. What's uniquely frustrating about SPECIAL COP is that it has its own backstory. We discover that Betti has a past not only with some of his fellow officers, but the criminal element he's after. Unfortunately, we never learn much about these details beyond the periphery since the script isn't the least bit interested in exposition--using these ambiguous tidbits as an excuse to give the audience a chance to breathe between action sequences. 

John Saxon returns, but he's playing an entirely different gangster character from NAPLES. His portrayal of Albertelli is more flashy, aggressive, and a bit too sure of himself; very different from his seriousness playing Capuano in the previous movie. Saxon played yet another mobster in the Merli vehicle, THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977); another crimer for Umberto Lenzi. He wasn't always playing lawbreakers, though; Saxon was on the right side of the law in some entries, one such being Alberto de Martino's fireball classic, BLAZING MAGNUM (1976), oddly titled SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM for its US release.

Genre regular Raymond Pellegrin co-stars as Merli's partner. He sends for him early into the movie when he realizes his hands are too full with multiple robberies and a kidnapping case all at once. These two have a good rapport onscreen. When Arpino (Pellegrin) reveals he's retiring in a month, that's a cue for the viewer that something bad will likely happen to him later in the picture. Interestingly, we get a better feel of the working relationship of Betti and Arpino than we do the burgeoning, intimate relationship between Betti and Luisa (Mirella D'Angelo) that never even begins to simmer. 

Merli's movies occasionally had love interests, but these sometimes ended up much the way Paul Kersey's did in the DEATH WISH sequels a few years later. Other times these romantic angles weren't given chances to bloom--simply there to give Merli's cop characters a lady to rescue and swoon over him afterward. It wasn't till the tail-end of his career in THE REBEL (1980) that he was given a cop role with a heavy dose of characterization; and a female coupling with some believable passion behind it. 

The phrase "action-packed" perfectly describes SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (1976). Stunt director Goffredo Unger truly delivers some fabulous chase sequences and other instances of kinetic movement. So many of these movies were interchangeable with one another and Girolami and his crew bucks the system by cramming as many bank robberies and car chases as he possibly can to keep the film moving to its unexpected ending. Without giving anything away, if you've seen VIOLENT ROME, that film's ambiguous ending could be seen as foreshadowing for what is to come.

In Italian cinema, and especially their crime pictures, slow-motion is often overused to the extreme. You get it here too, but sparingly. Letting the action move untouched, as well as being able to see the impact of crashes at full speed, is a refreshing change of pace.

SPECIAL COP is a big bang closer to the Betti series. It's a satisfying finish to a trilogy that began coarse, yet solid; reached an apex with Umberto Lenzi's no-nonsense, brutal sensibilities; and climaxed with an explosion of adrenaline-fueled, epic action. If you're not familiar with the actor, this series is a fantastic starting point; but begin with VIOLENT NAPLES, then ROME, then SPECIAL COP. If you enjoy Tough Cop style actioners, then Merli is the man you're after.

This review is representative of the Dorado Films bluray 2 disc set (one bluray double feature of SPECIAL COP IN ACTION and WEAPONS OF DEATH and DVD of THE COUNSELLOR); Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 (both HD features; THE COUNSELLOR is 2.35:1 widescreen English only); English dub/Italian dub (English dubtitles), Italian, Spanish subs for HD feature films; original theatrical trailers for all three films; SPECIAL COP running time: 01:41:13

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