Friday, February 8, 2019

Gentle Savage (1973) review


William Smith (Camper John Allen), Kevin Hagen (Ken Schaffer), Gene Evans (Sheriff McVaney), Barbara Luna (Gayle), Ned Romero (Richard Allen), R.G. Armstrong (Rupert Beeker), C.J. Hincks (Betty Shaffer), Betty Ann Carr (Vicky)

Directed by Sean MacGregor

The Short Version: Low budget clone of BILLY JACK (1971) has William Smith as a muscle-heavy, motorcycle ridin' red man who tangles with a passel of Injun hatin' bigots. There's a teepee full of potential here only MacGregor fails to give his tender Tonto a satisfying retribution and his mediocre movie an actual ending. He does manage to give Smith room to flex his acting muscle, though. The same story was told in slimier fashion in 1975s far more rewarding JOHNNY FIRECLOUD. A fantastic cast and occasional scenes of over-anxious violence means a minor league, light-weight piece of exploitation for Drive-in fanatics. Unfortunately, GENTLE SAVAGE is too benevolent for what it's capable of.

Camper John is an Indian living on a piss poor reservation with his wife, child and brother just outside a town populated by the most egregious bunch of miscreants imaginable. Framed for beating and raping the daughter of the town's biggest businessman, Camper John is arrested while everyone in town wants him dead. After his brother is brutally murdered, the Gentle Savage has to decide whether or not to spill blood for revenge.

With all the potential at his disposal for a sterling piece of Drive-in trash, Sean MacGregor (DEVIL TIMES FIVE) inexplicably fouls up his own tale of Indian revenge. Actually, calling it an Indian revenge movie is a bit of a misnomer. It takes an hour building the rage within Camper John; but just when you think William Smith is going to turn into a not-so Gentle Savage after being told to "spill blood, innocent and guilty", nothing happens. 

After the villains of the film shotgun and castrate Camper's brother, the revenge boils down to blowing up a truck, a barn, and holding some of the killer townsfolk hostage till the press comes to expose the town's crimes! The movie ends just when you think the sheriff is going to pursue Camper for a showdown. 

Imagine if in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)--after nearly an hour of rape and humiliation--Camille Keaton simply captured her attackers and held them hostage till police arrived to arrest them. That's essentially what happens in GENTLE SAVAGE when no vindication is forthcoming for the script's despicable human debris.

Said script goes to great lengths to showcase the town's population as utter savages while indulging in outrageous displays of raping, the pillaging of a shanty village, bullying, and eventual murder. One over-the-top sequence has a mad posse terrorizing a white couple whom they've mistaken for Indians!

Almost everyone in the film comes off like they've had way too much caffeine; either screaming their lines or acting irrationally. Sean MacGregor's directing style is equally irrational. Director MacGregor seems unsure which direction he wants his film to go. It would appear Tom Laughlin's pretentious BILLY JACK (1971) was an inspiration; although Laughlin's overrated hit had sense enough to satisfactorily wrap things up. For the film that GENTLE SAVAGE could have been, see William Castleman's far trashier JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975).

Shot in late 1972, CAMPER JOHN, alias GENTLE SAVAGE, wasn't the only time MacGregor worked with Smith; he worked with the actor on another production in 1974 that went unfinished. Titled 'Tiger Cage', it was to star Smith in one of the sub-genre of crazed Vietnam vet pictures that were popping up throughout the 1970s. Apparently, the film did get made in 1988 as A MISSION TO KILL with Smith starring but no longer the lead character.

Co-produced with his LAREDO (1965-1967) co-star Peter Brown, Smith's film is in the same camp as another movie both men starred in that same year, PIRANHA (1972). It, too, suffers from a full-proof Drive-in scenario only to fall well short of its potential. As for the film in question, the filmmakers manage to pack it full of familiar faces; many of which did GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) episodes.

As for his GENTLE SAVAGE, William Smith displays a variety of emotions, and the film is clearly his showcase; only the flimsy script by MacGregor and Jacar Lane Dancer gives us an incredible build-up with no payoff. An opportunity to allow Smith to go totally off the deep end is discarded in favor of a more civil response to appalling actions that demand an equivalent justice this film denies both Smith's character and the audience watching it. 

Aside from William Smith's convincing portrayal, he gets to play a rare good guy role and ride a motorcycle in a few scenes. If only Smith's heroic roles made the same impression as his antagonistic ones.

Since so many of the cast appeared in the classic western (GENTLE SAVAGE itself plays out like a modern day western), William Smith did two episodes of the best one, GUNSMOKE. Season 18s 'Hostage!' became a fan-favorite for Smith's portrayal of vengeful half-breed Jude Bonner. What fan's remember most about this episode is Smith beating up and shooting Miss Kitty in the back!

Kevin Hagen is equally impressive as the main villain Ken Schaffer. If you're a fan of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, you'll be shocked to see just how vicious 'Doc Baker' can get. In GENTLE SAVAGE he holds a seething hatred for Indians, letting us know every few minutes with a flurry of derogatory terms. He not only kills Camper's brother but rapes his own daughter, too! Like many of his fellow cast members, Hagen acted in a host of GUNSMOKE episodes; some of which saw him playing villains akin to the one he plays here; like the incredibly dark season nine episode, 'No Hands' from 1964.

C.J. Hincks (Candice Roman) is the troublesome spitfire that sets the violence in motion after Camper John refuses to light her fuse. A good, underrated actress, Ms. Hincks's best remembered movie role was in Jack Hill's THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). Sadly, Hincks--an actress of stage and screen--passed away from brain cancer on January 11th, 2017.

Gene Evans plays the Indian-loathing lawman, McVaney. Evans was a familiar face in television and Drive-in fare. He would play another shady sheriff in the Tough Guy classic WALKING TALL (1973). Evans played a variety of villains and burly characters on GUNSMOKE (1955-1975); one of his best portrayals was as a fearless mountain man who inadvertently starts a violent chain of events with Chill Wills in the surprisingly bloody episode, 'A Hat' from season 13.

R.G. Armstrong was in practically everything back in the day. He was a familiar face in a slew of horror movies and westerns, and, like many of his SAVAGE co-stars, did several GUNSMOKE episodes. His roles on that classic western series were more stoic. One of the best was the powerful season six show, 'With A Smile'. In it, he plays a wealthy, honorable rancher whose spoiled, violent son (played by future Roscoe P. Coltrane, James Best) believes his father's money and power will save him from the hangman's noose.

As Beeker, Armstrong's bar-owner is Schaffer's lackey and pretty much does what he's told to do. Always a welcome presence, he isn't given a great deal to do.

Barbara Luna, an actress and singer likely best known for playing Marlena in the classic STAR TREK (1966-1969) episode 'Mirror, Mirror', is Camper John's moral center in GENTLE SAVAGE. With an already crowded cast, Luna stands out in her quieter role compared to all the shouting and raucous behavior of most everyone else. One of Luna's best dramatic roles was as Chavela, the Mexican lady who helps Chester (Dennis Weaver) escape from the clutches of Comancheros led by Claude Akins in the season 7 episode of GUNSMOKE, 'He Learned About Women'.

In addition to opening with one of those "based on a series of true events" title cards, GENTLE SAVAGE--like many 70s films--comes equipped with a plot-driven main melody. Titled 'Once Upon A Tribe', this somber theme song is sung by half-Cherokee, half-French Indian actress, singer, and teacher Betty Ann Carr. She also plays a part in the movie. Ms. Carr can also be seen in the 1972 Bob Hope comedy, CANCEL MY RESERVATION.

Rated 'R', the violence in GENTLE SAVAGE doesn't justify such a rating. Incidentally,  press materials list an 85 minute running time, but available versions for viewing (no legit release as of yet) taken from old videocassettes are only 76 minutes including credits.

GENTLE SAVAGE had a list of alternate titles during its release history. You can read more about its various advertising campaigns HERE at the Temple of Schlock.

If you're a diehard William Smith fan, GENTLE SAVAGE might momentarily pique your interest for his presence alone. It's grossly disappointing that, for whatever reason, more wasn't done with the concept. It neither satisfies as a message movie, nor as an exploitation one. Arguably, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the revenge movie sweepstakes.

running time: 01:17:56

Sunday, January 27, 2019

TV Movie Terror: Trilogy of Terror 2 (1996) review


Lysette Anthony (Laura/Elma/Dr. Simpson), Geraint Wyn Davies (Dan), Matt Clark (Ansford), Geoffrey Lewis (Arly Stubbs), Blake Heron (Bobby)

Directed by Dan Curtis

The Short Version: Dan Curtis sequelizes his own 1975 TV horror anthology favorite in a Made For Cable chiller starring three times the Lysette Anthony--repeating Karen Black's triplicitous turn in the original. The first concerns greedy lovers receiving an unexpected surprise in a graveyard; the second sees a mother bring her son back from the dead with disastrous results; and the third is a direct sequel to the famous Zuni Fetish doll segment of Curtis's original TRILOGY. Mostly a rehash of the director's 70s horrors with a killer doll selling point that's lost its shock value indigenous to the modest 1975 source. The director's 90s update is still enjoyable escapist horror for those nostalgic for old-school style Made For TV Terror.

A dark, brooding anthology featuring enormous, flesh-eating rats, demonic revenge from beyond, and a murderous, devil-possessed doll make up the Terror in this Trilogy. 

Filmed in Canada over the course of 22 days and debuting on the USA Network on October 30th, 1996, the belated TRILOGY OF TERROR 2 improves on the original in that the entire film is consistent with the title's promise of "terror"; as opposed to the '75 version's third tale being the sole, purely horror segment. There's nothing particularly remarkable about this encore, but it's efficiently made, modestly gory, and retaining the spirit of Dan Curtis's style of horror that dominated the small screen back in the 1970s.

One of the things that made TRILOGY OF TERROR unique was Karen Black starring in all three of the stories; two of which she was the predator and the third the Prey. For this sequel, British actress Lysette Anthony follows suit, tackling leads in all three yarns. In the case of T2, Anthony's portrayals are more diverse: the archetypal gold-digger of anthology horror; a tragic figure who goes to unnatural lengths for maternal salvation; and a victimized scientist faced with a supernatural enemy.

Lysette Anthony had worked with Dan Curtis earlier in the decade as Angelique, a witch character, on the short-lived revival of DARK SHADOWS; the 1991 series lasted only a dozen episodes before the coffin closed. Anthony's trust in Curtis was such that she didn't even read the script before accepting the role(s).

Curtis brought famed SciFi-Fantasy-Horror writer William F. Nolan back to pen his sequel. It had been 20 years since the two had worked together on the theatrical haunted house spooker, BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). Nolan collaborated with Curtis a few times including writing duties on the creepy supernatural horror, THE NORLISS TAPES in 1973 and authoring the first two stories in the original TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975). Nolan is likely most famous for co-authoring the SciFi novel 'Logan's Run' with George Clayton Johnson in 1967--turned into a movie in 1976.

In a 1996 Fangoria article, Curtis remarked he had the sequel in mind seven years earlier in 1989. Possibly inspired by the success of the award winning HBO horror series, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1989-1996), T2 has some of that EC flavor of those notoriously grim comic books; mostly apparent in the first story, the typical tale of infidelity and revenge from beyond the grave... 

Story #1: The Graveyard Rats

Caught in a compromising position by her elderly, wealthy, wheelchair-bound husband, Laura Ansford can remain the sole beneficiary in Roger Ansford's will so long as she keeps her vow to love thy husband till he passes on. Not content with this arrangement, Laura and her lover conspire to knock off the old man before his time. With the deed done, the two money-hungry lovebirds think they're in the clear till they learn Roger has had the microfilm detailing the account numbers for his fortune buried with him. Overcome with greed, Laura and her co-conspirator decide to dig him up despite warnings from the graveyard caretaker that the particular plot where Roger wanted to be buried is overrun with rats... big ones.

The film's most ghoulish segment was originally written by Henry Kuttner back in 1936, appearing in Weird Tales, the revered fantasy-horror magazine that featured works by notable authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. William F. Nolan's adaptation differs in a few ways--one by swapping out Kuttner's graverobber central figure for the plotting, adulterous couple. In the film version, the graverobber (played by the always reliable Geoffrey Lewis) is a minor character.

At the time, erotic/suspense thrillers were still very popular and Lysette Anthony did a few of them like SAVE ME (1994), AFFAIR PLAY (1995), DEAD COLD (1995), and MAN OF HER DREAMS (1997). Some brief sexual content involving her character recalls Anthony's works in that genre while tapping into the EC-style of libidinous machinations leading the greedy to an early grave.

One other difference between the print and film version is the removal of a zombie-type figure crawling around in the increasingly narrowing tunnels Kuttner's graverobber finds himself trying to escape from. Nolan's version works just fine, and itself, a weird tale well told.

Story #2: Bobby

Distraught over the drowning of her child, Elma uses a satanic spell to return her son Bobby to life. Appearing on her doorstep on a dark and stormy night, she is quick to notice that something is terribly wrong with Bobby.

An original story written by Richard Matheson for Dan Curtis's DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), his supernatural short finds a second home in T2 remade in a slightly streamlined form; yet virtually identical with minimal alterations. Nolan's contribution is negligible, if any. Matheson gets sole writing credit. The principal difference between the two is the '77 version has an expository scene between Elma and her husband John on the phone that gave viewers a bit more characterization while emphasizing the horror of a later scene when the two are on the phone again.

Compared to Joan Hackett's portrayal from the first time around, Ms. Anthony is good in the role as the grieving mother, if more overzealous in her hysteria upon the realization her son (or what she believes is her son) is trying to kill her.

Blake Heron, the 12 year old actor playing Bobby, shot to stardom very quickly. Battling drug addiction reportedly even at a young age, Heron would die from an accidental overdose of fentanyl in September of 2017.

A genuinely terrifying story, it's still curious why Curtis would opt to remake the old segment as opposed to going with a different one. Additionally, the makeup is different for the big reveal at the end; even though it's less creepy than before. The Lovecraftian aura helps. Still, this 'Bobby' is suspenseful and as well made as its 1977 source; just don't expect any surprises unless you're unfamiliar with Curtis's DEAD OF NIGHT. 

Story #3: He Who Kills

At a nasty murder scene, police discover the bodies of two mutilated women and a burned up doll inside an oven. Believing it to be a ritualistic slaying, the police take the doll to a museum in the hopes that a Dr. Simpson can identify its significance. After hours in the museum, the lady ethnologist learns the gruesome-looking doll represents a centuries extinct African cannibal tribe... and that the thing is alive and ready to kill.

The hype generated for T2 was built solely around the return of the Zuni Fetish Doll, the outrageously creepy little monster that comes to life to terrorize Karen Black in Curtis's 1975 original. Picking up where that segment finished, the doll now terrorizes Lysette Anthony in much the same fashion; the major difference now is that it's no longer a single apartment building, but inside a museum.

A marionette in the original picture, the diminutive wooden maniac is operated via animatronics for the sequel. A one-woman show the first time around, the new version affords some additional characters and a few extra deaths.

Nolan was thrilled to be putting his own spin on Matheson's work; a short story titled 'Prey' written by him in 1969. Nolan's take on Matheson's material is just as energetic as before, if playing it safe by rehashing the source almost note-for-note. Even so, seeing one of cinema's scariest killer dolls again in an updated setting is exciting for nostalgia buffs.

Aiding all three of these cryptic tales is some striking photography and nicely atmospheric locations. On the whole, Curtis made a movie that's three-quarters of dusted-off old material done over, yet he succeeds elsewhere; even managing some nods to his past works.

Dan Curtis is one of the horror genres most recognizable names and has contributed some of its most memorable, and popular, small-screen examples. While he continued to produce horror fare for television, TRILOGY OF TERROR 2 (1996) was his last time directing various creatures of the night. It's an enjoyable 90 minute spooker, even if it's mostly haunted territory traversed 20 years earlier.

This review is representative of an airing on OuterMax (Cinemax channel).
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