Saturday, January 23, 2016

TV Movie Terror: A Cold Night's Death (1973) review


Robert Culp (Robert Jones), Eli Wallach (Frank Enari), Michael C. Gwynne (Val Adams)

Directed by Jerrold Freedman

The Short Version: This chilling slice of isolation horror is among the best examples of TV terror and, unfortunately, one that is buried in obscurity. Two scientists are alone at a remote polar outpost where space exploratory experiments are conducted on chimps; only there's something else inside the station with them. The suspense and impending dread mounts as quickly as the piles of snow dumped by a merciless blizzard. Meticulously paced and possessing an ice-cold sting in the tail, the less you know about this one going in the better.

After losing contact with Dr. Vogel at an isolated animal research facility in the Arctic, two scientists, doctors Jones and Enari, are flown out to the Tower Mountain Research Station to replace Vogel. Upon their arrival they find the facility in a shambles, windows open and Vogel frozen to death. Bringing with them a new monkey for testing, the two doctors continue Vogel's experiments on stress studies for astronauts during space exploration. However, it isn't long before the scientists discover that someone or something is inside the polar station with them.

Frost-biting fear is felt by both the audience and two fine actors stuck in an isolated research outpost with a bunch of monkey's that become increasingly rattled by an unseen entity. Everything in Jerrold Freedman's 74 minute shiver-fest is top-notch; unraveling in methodical fashion, enabling the viewer to wonder if the two men will end up killing each other or if something else will.

Masterfully made by a cadre of NIGHT GALLERY alumni, the chilly atmosphere of A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH is amplified by the photography of Leonard J. South (HANG'EM HIGH [1968]) and the editing skills of David Berlatsky (PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID [1973]). South's slow pans and tracking shots frequently crank up the sense of unease while Berlatsky complements it with his cutting techniques in crucial scenes. For example, a simple camera motion gives clues as to the horror awaiting our protagonists; while rapid cutting creates an unsettling mood during one of the more potentially harrowing moments. The film is so polished, you almost forget you're watching a TV movie. The writing is another area where this modest movie excels.

Christopher Knopf's script is rife with good dialog, giving actors Culp and Wallach numerous opportunities to shine as they become increasingly disenchanted, and ultimately distrustful of one another. Are they losing their minds? Or is it something supernatural? Or maybe something else? Engaging from start to finish, it's only in the last few minutes that the horrifying reality is unveiled leading to a shocker final shot. At 74 minutes long, and with a limited cast, the scenario is perfect for the small screen medium and often feels like an extended episode for either THE TWILIGHT ZONE or the aforementioned NIGHT GALLERY.

Another factor that benefits this night of cold death are the performances. We get to spend less than 80 minutes with them, but to their credit, it seems like months. As the film progresses, both Robert Culp (I SPY [1965-1968]) and Eli Wallach (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY [1966]) make you believe that one of them could in fact be going crazy from the isolation; their familiar, safer surroundings of home having been replaced by the biting cold and howling wind. This air of confinement, of remoteness, is conveyed in the increasingly argumentative, even hostile conversations between the two men; while the passage of time is evident through their growing fatigue and facial hair.

Prior to helming this tale of horror 20 degrees below zero, Jerrold Freedman directed several NIGHT GALLERY shows; then on to the Raquel Welch Roller Derby drama KANSAS CITY BOMBER (1972); and later the Charles Bronson picture BORDERLINE (1980). Freedman ran the genre gamut, but one wonders what he might of done had he entered horror's theatrical realm considering how good of a job he did within the confines of Made For TV terror.

If Richard Einhorn's skin-crawling cues for SHOCK WAVES (1976) gave you the creeps, you'll get your goosebump fix out of Gil Melle's electronic sounds of frozen doom. Primarily a TV Movie composer, some of his works include NIGHT GALLERY and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER episodes; the cult favorite KILLDOZER (1974) and A VACATION IN HELL (1979); and theatrical features like THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), THE SENTINEL (1977) and BLOOD BEACH (1981). 

A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH premiered January 30th, 1973 as ABC's Tuesday Movie of the Week. Like a lot of American TV productions, it did get theatrical play in overseas markets. That same year saw other memorable and obscure television horror pictures like the classic DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (directed by Jeannot Szwarc), Dan Curtis's creepy THE NORLISS TAPES, and SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS to name a few.

A blizzard of great performances and ideas, Freedman's compact and claustrophobic quasi-SciFi Horror deserves rediscovery. A cross between Colin Eggelston's eco-goosebumper LONG WEEKEND (1978) and John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), if you're a fan of bleak, slow-burn horror, than you'll likely warm up to A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Samurai Pirate (1963) review


Toshiro Mifune (Luzon Sukezaemon), Tadao Nakamura (Chancellor), Makoto Sato (Black Pirate), Arishima Ichiro (Kume Sennin), Kusabue Mitsuko (Masuo), Mie Hama (Princess Wataru), Kumi Mizuno (Miwa), Akiko Wakabayashi (maid), Hideyo Amamoto (Witch), Jun Tazaki (Suribu), Jun Funado (Kimiko), Haruo Suzuki (Prince Feng Shen of Shiro), Takashi Shimura (the King), Kimu Sakatama (Giant)

Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi

The Short Version: This fanciful Japanese Adventure movie was promoted as a Sinbad picture in the United States in 1965 under the banner of AIP. Unfortunately, there are no stop-motion monsters, nor any of the man-in-suit variety, but there is a fantasy element involving two sorcerers; one of them being a horny wizard with a predilection for big breasts; and a nasty looking witch who can turn people to stone. A bit long at 97 minutes, and with the bulk of the action saved for the last 20, Taniguchi's unusual movie might be a hard sell for both monster and samurai fans. However, the film's biggest selling point is an exotic look and the fantastic cast that's a veritable pirate's treasure of familiar faces from many of Japan's famous SciFi and giant monster movies. Toho's light-hearted actioner is equal parts pirate movie and peplum picture; more SINBAD THE SAILOR (1947) than Harryhausen's 7TH VOYAGE (1958); but it's a nice change of pace for Mifune fans used to seeing him in more serious samurai roles.

Framed for piracy and ultimately escaping execution by being burned alive, the wealthy merchant, Luzon Sukezaemon, leaves Japan behind and takes to the sea to become a real pirate with a crew of his own. However, a storm at sea destroys his vessel killing all but two of his ship mates. Adrift with his remaining riches, Luzon and the remnants of his crew run across the dreaded Black Pirate who quickly overpowers them and steals his treasure. Presumed dead, the now penniless pirate washes ashore on a tropical island somewhere in the South China Sea and is aided by an eccentric wizard named Sennin. Taken to the city Luzon becomes entranced by the lovely Princess Wataru; but not necessarily by her beauty, but that she's wearing one of his prized jewels. Befriending the Princess, Luzon soon uncovers a plot by the Chancellor, a duplicitous Premier with eyes of usurping the throne of her father, the King. With the help of an evil witch, the Chancellor plans to steal the hand of the Princess by murdering her fiance, a Chinese Prince, before he arrives on the island. Luzon, an amorous wizard, and a spunky female fighter and her band of thieves intend to stop him before he can bring his plan to fruition.

Aside from some mild violence and light sexual overtones, SAMURAI PIRATE is a family affair in the vein of your average Fantasy classic it seems to be modeled after. Still, it never achieves the level of wonder and adventure of the 1958 Harryhausen Sinbad that was such a worldwide success. The filmmakers settle instead for the subdued whimsy of 1947s SINBAD THE SAILOR. As entertaining as it is, Toho's mix of pirates and Italian style peplum tropes fails to match the average film in those genres with its low, and predominantly restrained action quotient. There's minor bits of aggravated assault with certain characters, but for the most part, the bulk of the action is saved for the last 20 minutes. Prior to that, the focus of Takeshi Kimura's and Shinichi Sekizawa's script is on a comical tone. There's nothing wrong with this playfully kid-friendly nature, but considering the potential for high-spirited adventure, some viewers may be disappointed by the subtle amount of swashbuckling; and, since it's a Fantasy film, and a Toho picture to boot, the absence of any monsters will likely leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans expecting them.

Arguably the single best attribute of this production is seeing Toshiro Mifune acting alongside Toho's cast of familiar faces seen in any number of their beloved monster movies. Mifune--no stranger to Fantasy films having starred in 1959s THE THREE TREASURES--is essaying a hero of circumstance; a former merchant who, after being blamed for thievery, decides to become one. He slips into the role rather easily, playing Luzon as rough around the edges yet always stern and assured. By the end of the film he's leading a full-fledged revolt; rescuing dozens of female slaves; toppling Nakamura's evil Chancellor; and settling things with Makoto Sato's Black Pirate.

For what it is, Toho delivers an enjoyable romp even if it's like having an appetizer without ever getting the main course. Eiji Tsuburaya was the SPX director (with Teruyoshi Nakano assisting), but his talents are muted, even with the few miniature boats, a model city, some mattes, optical effects and rear projection. There's not a lot done with them aside from sprucing up a scene. Toho apparently wasn't willing to go all out on a flashy adventure movie that could have been an unheralded classic.

Take the Black Pirate's ship, for instance; it has an enormous spearhead mounted on it, but we never see it used as a ramming device or anything. It's just there to make the model ship look more menacing. The drill-like weapon looks a lot like the one seen on the Gotengo in ATRAGON (1963). Had time and budget permitted, an ocean battle (or even a sea serpent!) would have been a great addition to this film.

The most outrageous, if unconvincing, SPX sequence is when Luzon attempts to covertly get back inside the castle by using a giant, bird-shaped kite. This scene, like most others, has a playful quality about it as opposed to rousing adventure.

The closest to a monster in the picture is the old hag, a frighteningly over the top makeup job brought superbly to life by character actor Hideyo Amamoto in drag. You'll know him as Dr. Who from KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) and the kindly toymaker from Ishiro Honda's under-appreciated GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969). Amamoto not only steals the picture away from Mifune, but the character's demise is one of the highlights of the film. Possessing a magic mirror, this lethal harpy doesn't need a broom to fly and her magic power of choice is turning people to stone. Thankfully, we see quite a bit of the witch, enhancing the villainy alongside Tadao Nakamura's murderous Chancellor.

Fans of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) will get a kick out of Arishima Ichiro as Sennin, the kooky good wizard. Unrecognizable in his old man makeup, Ichiro was Tako, the bumbling businessman who financed Kong's capture. Here, he's a horny hermit who goes to pieces over bodacious breasts; so much so, that at one point he turns himself into a fly and lands safely atop any firm, exposed cleavage within range. The duel between the two wizards is, like most of the movie prior to the finale, played for laughs.

The one lady that sends Sennin into debauched fits of nirvana is a bosomy slave girl played by exotic beauty Akiko Wakabayashi (see insert). Appearing in some European films early in her career, Akiko was, like her co-star Mie Hama, among the Bond girls in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Mie Hama (see above) gets a meatier role playing the elegant Princess Wataru. Both women were among Toho's most famous faces in the 1960s. A third, Kumi Mizuno, gets a juicy supporting role as Miwa, the feisty leader of a band of thieves. Mizuno, more than the other two, became Toho's signature actress in their SciFi-Monster canon with roles in pictures like MONSTER ZERO (1965) and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARUGON (1965).

Action and swordplay is dotted throughout, but doesn't truly arrive till the last half of the movie. There's some good maneuvers captured on film, but the fighting isn't too overly dramatic in its design. Misaki Gentaro's weapons work differs from the typical samurai epic, with the choreo feeling more at home in a traditional Anglo styled adventure. Gentaro worked on Kurosawa pictures like THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) and SANJURO (1962); and others including the Mifune Productions SAMURAI REBELLION (1967) and SHINSENGUMI (1969); and Toei pictures such as KARATE WARRIORS (1976) starring Sonny Chiba. His last work was Kurosawa's RAN in 1985--the same year in which he died at 76 years of age.

Director Taniguchi made his debut in 1947s SNOW TRAIL; a film that was also the first acting role for Toshiro Mifune as well as the first scoring job for notable composer Akira Ifukube. While the first two reunite here, Masaru Sato does musical duties and delivers a fantastic score, a highlight of which is an incredibly catchy main theme. Sato later delivered an eye-opening soundtrack for GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), and you can hear hints of that later score in this one.

Senkichi Taniguchi directed and worked on largely serious pictures, examples being directorial duties on ESCAPE AT DAWN (1950) and scripting Kurosawa's THE QUIET DUEL (1949)--another film starring Mifune. Later in his career, Taniguchi relaxed into a lighter realm including the last two installments of the five film INTERNATIONAL SECRET POLICE series--those two films being KEY OF KEYS (1965) and DESPERATE SITUATION (1967); the KEY OF KEYS being the recipient of dreary treatment by Woody Allen, re-dubbed and re-titled as WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966).

Toho produced a follow-up to SAMURAI PIRATE in 1966 with most of the same cast, crew and again directed by Taniguchi. Titled THE ADVENTURE IN KIGAN CASTLE, the cast play similar roles; such as Hideyo Amamoto wearing nearly identical makeup as another sorcerer type character. The model castle set built for this picture was utilized for episode #7 of ULTRAMAN, 'The Blue Stone of Baraji'. Additionally, one of ULTRAMAN's Science Patrol members, actor Masanari Nihei (see insert in middle), plays one of the thieves.

Released in Japan on October 26th, 1963, the movie was picked up by American International Pictures and released in 1965 as THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD. Paired with Italy's horror peplum from 1964, WAR OF THE ZOMBIES (ROMA CONTRO ROMA), AIP marketed Toho's picture with their usual razzle dazzle promotional stylings; even going so far as to ballyhoo Mifune as Errol Flynn's successor!

Likely the best audience for SAMURAI PIRATE would be those overly enthusiastic to see this cast in something without giant monsters destroying miniature cities. For those expecting something remotely close to a Toho SciFi feature, there's not enough fantastical elements to satisfy the monster movie crowd; nor is there enough swordplay or compelling dramatic qualities for the Chambara lovers. Bearing a formula script, blessed with an unusual setting and costumes, this lively, minor Mifune movie isn't among his treasures, but it isn't fool's gold, either.

This review is representative of the Toho R2 DVD. Specs & Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Japanese language only; behind the scenes footage including set and costume designs; original trailer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: The Making of Jaws 2


By Louis R. Pisano and Michael A. Smith

343 pages; available in softcover and hardcover; B/W photos; 1st edition 2015

The making of one of filmdom's most successful sequels is documented via the words of most of the cast and crew that worked on the tumultuous shoot that was JAWS 2 (1978). Inspired by 'Memories From Martha's Vineyard', the presentation is nowhere near as glossy, but with over 200 behind the scenes photos and pages packed with information, the authors deliver the Great White goodness. If you own the pricey and out of print, 'The Jaws 2 Log', this book makes a nice companion piece. Aside from some minor negatives this is a veritable feeding frenzy for fans of the sequel.

Authors and heavy duty JAWS fans, Pisano and Smith, have amassed a great deal of behind the scenes stories, anecdotes and rare photos from many who worked on JAWS 2; this extends to those who worked, albeit briefly, on the production before being fired and replaced. Among those released from the picture early on included a handful of the young cast, one of which was Ricky Schroder (SILVER SPOONS [1982-1987]). This particular chapter (titled 'The Amity Kids: Part I') offers insight into the difficulties of being an aspiring actor or actress; for some, it led to stable careers in the industry post JAWS 2, and others, it led to different paths.

Naturally, there's another chapter detailing the shoot from the perspective of the youngsters who came aboard later, as well as those who managed to survive being fired. Of these, one of the most interesting is the stories of Billy Van Zandt (he played Bob) recounting the gory death scenes devised and filmed for his character--none of which were used; he ultimately lived in the end.

Roy Scheider passed away in 2008, but he and his cantankerous on and off-screen behavior is covered via mentions of old articles and in the words of many of the actors interviewed; these include the infamous altercation between Scheider and director Jeannot Szwarc. Moreover, the most attractive addition of this book is the information revolving around the director initially hired to helm the sequel to Hollywood's first blockbuster...

The presence of original director John Hancock is all over this book; from remembrances by the cast and crew, and even in the words from the man himself. Since you're getting a wide spectrum of opinions from the multitude of people involved, there's variance from one story to the next; yet all the viewpoints enable the reader to come to their own conclusion as to why Hancock (known to genre fans for his moody 1971 cult favorite, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH) was removed from the production and replaced with French director, Jeannot Szwarc.

Hancock's wife, writer Dorothy Tristan, who was also removed from the project, is present yet her remarks included here are brief, but not without there significance.

Of even greater interest, you'll find, among some 200 behind the scenes images, photos of scenes shot by Hancock before his dismissal.

There are no major negatives to be levied at this volume, but some minor quibbles would be the low quality of the photos re-produced. There's a wealth of great images, just don't expect glossiness akin to the ultimate JAWS tome, 'Memories of Martha's Vineyard'; that book being the inspiration for this one. 

Aside from that, there's a lot of spelling errors and sections that could have been trimmed down to eliminate repetitiveness; so it would seem there wasn't much proofreading done. However, the wealth of information and stories will make these little more than minor issues for most.

'Jaws 2: The Making of A Hollywood Sequel' is highly recommended for JAWS fans and anyone with an interest in the behind the scenes goings-on of big budget Hollywood productions. If you already own 'Memories of Martha's Vineyard', you'll surely want to reel this one in as well.

You can purchase the book from Bear Manor Media HERE, and from amazon HERE.

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