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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Knife For the Ladies (1974) review


Jack Elam (Jarrod Colcord), Ruth Roman (Elizabeth Mescal), Jeff Cooper (Detective Edward Burns), John Kellogg (Simeon Hollyfield), Gene Evans (Virgil Hooker), Diana Ewing (Jenny), Derek Sanderson (Lute), Jon Spangler (Seth)

Directed by Larry G. Spangler

The Short Version: A curious sagebrush slasher about a citified sleuth and a local sheriff investigating a string of prostitute murders. Aside from feeling like a sleazier version of a TV movie, KNIFE FOR THE LADIES is as tame as the Lone Ranger's horse. No nudity, very little blood, and only one brief shootout won't do much for the rough n' rowdy horror and western crowds. Ironically the picture is more successful at characterizations--the entire middle portion is devoted to it although there are some worthy characters that are either unexplored or given no payoff. The grotesque finale is a satisfying coda, followed by a catchy end credits funk tune. The budget is low, the music consists of library tracks and cues lifted from HANG'EM HIGH (1968); but the diet horror elements and plot twists make for a modestly intriguing 86 minutes of Little Horror On the Prairie.

The time is 1883. The place is Mescal, a small Southwestern town gripped in terror by a knife-wielding killer with a hatred of beautiful young women. Marshal Colcord is unable to solve the murders so an outside investigator named Ed Burns is brought in and immediately ruffles the Marshal's feathers. After butting heads and beating the hell out of one another, the two lawmen finally decide to cooperate. Uncovering a trail of clues that puts them closer to the murderer's identity, can they catch the killer in time before the next murder?

Larry Spangler was obviously fond of western cinema; his hands were on five of them back in the 1970s. All ranging in quality, his tales among the tumbleweeds include the awful THE LAST REBEL (1971) with Joe Namath (a friend of Spangler's) and the cult black action favorite THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) starring Fred Williamson--whom Spangler would work with a few more times throughout the decade. Wedged in among his resume is KNIFE FOR THE LADIES, an obscure, peculiar, slasher western. A decent little picture, it nonetheless fails from a budget unable to withstand the weight of its ambitions.

Floating around for years in a carved up version barely reaching 60 minutes, KNIFE FOR THE LADIES (1974) comes to bluray from Code Red in its full 86 minute running time for the first time ever. The longer cut is a much better presentation showcasing several artistic flourishes that, despite making the picture appreciable in light of its low budget, won't help it win many new fans of either westerns or horror films.

Articles from the 1970s when Spangler and his crew were shooting in Old Tucson in mid '73 stated two versions were being shot--a gorier X-rated version with nudity for the European market and a less salacious one for North America. Purportedly aiming for a PG rating, the film ended up with an unnecessary R; this is especially perplexing since there are PG films more violent than this one from the same time period. As mildly enjoyable as it is, it's unfortunate the Drive-in crowd were denied the proper elements that could have made KNIFE FOR THE LADIES (originally shooting with the article 'A' on the title) an unheralded gem of trash cinema.

What we do get is a very mild horror picture with a touch of PSYCHO (1960), BABY JANE (1962) and the expected red herrings (such as the eccentric mortician who happens to be the town barber). The ample opportunities for exploitation is limited to a few slit throats and one character covered in Syphilis sores. 

Limited is another way to describe the action quotient. There's one brawl and only one gun battle (and it's hardly that at all); yet the script could just as easily have found room for more. The finished product isn't bound to satisfy many of either camp, but it isn't without some merits.

Shot at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, the "Hollywood of the desert" was an oasis for the western genre on both the big and small screen. Many of the greats were shot there including four big ones from The Duke, John Wayne: RIO BRAVO (1959), McLINTOCK! (1963), EL DORADO (1968) and RIO LOBO (1970). Additionally, it was also a popular tourist attraction. Built in 1938, Land Developer Robert Shelton bought the property in 1959 and turned it into the hottest locale for shooting Sagebrush Sagas. Shelton was involved in hundreds of Out West features and TV programs during the time he owned the property between 1960-1985. For KNIFE FOR THE LADIES, Shelton's contribution was as a writer for the first, and presumably only time.

Speaking of which, the writers do an extraordinary job of fleshing out the main participants--much to the detriment of the exploitation potential. Virtually the entirety of the middle portion is building the characters. While this isn't a bad thing, it causes confusion as to what sort of picture Spangler and crew were intending to create--and makes one long for that gruesome export version. Still, Jack Elam and Ruth Roman do well in keeping the movie bearable.

Elam's short-tempered sheriff is arguably the most likable and gets the most mileage from the way his character is written. Out of his dozens of western gigs this is one of the most complex; he's given an unusually meaty role where he starts out as a grizzled, unkempt marshal; by the end, he's a tempered, jovial personality. Key to this transformation is a minor sub-plot about a small boy (Spangler's son) that, yet again, goes the distance in moving the film away from its sleaze proponents during the middle section.

Seth, the kid who stumbles across one of the killer's victims at the beginning--much like Gene Evans' character (mentioned below)--is eventually pushed to the sidelines and not explored to any benefit. There's not even a scene where the kid is put in danger. He is key to the evolution of Elam's sheriff, but this ends up as another missed opportunity.

Ruth Roman is particularly sinister as the aristocratic Mescal founder. Just her delivery alone you know there's something not quite right about her. There's a great shot near the beginning where Seth walks past the Mescal home and sees a shadow moving past a window. KNIFE FOR THE LADIES needed more eerie moments like this. Roman appeared in a few other movies that had similar narratives like THE KILLING KIND (1973) and IMPULSE (1974)--the latter starring William Shatner. 

Character actor Gene Evans as former deputy Virgil Hooker is the other villain of the picture. Evans was always a reliable bad guy in the reputable, and less than reputable, films he appeared in. His former lawman, now disgruntled bar owner, is underdeveloped; which is unfortunate as he does a lot with his role--in the few scenes he's given.

Jeff Cooper, compared to the others, is arguably the least interesting character of the bunch. The script does well contradicting his Holmesian approach to investigating versus Elam's casual, almost disinterested style. Cooper's hairdo is somewhat distracting in an anachronistically 70s sort of way. It stands out as much as the funk theme song, 'Evil Lady' by Michael Stull. Cooper was the star of two comic book-based movies in Mexico's Kaliman series; and played Cord, the lead protagonist in CIRCLE OF IRON (1978). Sort of a beefier version of Marjoe Gortner, Cooper did garner a recurring role in the first few seasons of the mega-popular DALLAS (1978-1991) and some additional TV work before dropping out of the industry scene in the mid 1980s. 

Westerns mixed with Horror is a bizarre combo, and not a particularly popular sub-genre. Some have become minor cult items among the so-bad-it's-good crowd. There have been quite a few of them in recent years, although KNIFE FOR THE LADIES is but a minor footnote in the wagon train of wild west horror; other examples include TEENAGE MONSTER (1958), CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959), BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966) and JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1966). Modern examples include EYES OF FIRE (1983), GRIM PRAIRIE TALES (1990), RAVENOUS (1999), and BONE TOMAHAWK (2015).

Mexico did a fair number of them, too. THE LIVING COFFIN (1958), LA MURCIELAGOS (THE BATS [1964]), and EL CHARRO DE LAS CALAVERAS (THE COWBOY OF THE SKULLS [1965]) being some examples.

The reality is, that despite what little KNIFE FOR THE LADIES does right, its target audience is going to feel short-changed. It's obvious the filmmakers are trying for something different with its multi-genre machinations, but fails at satisfying a single one of them. There's not enough sleaze for the Drive-in lovers nor enough shootouts for western fans; and the dramatic moments that dominate the talky mid-section will serve only the most tolerant fan of Drive-in fare. It's biggest draw is its obscurity status, and the chance to see the full-length film for the first time.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specifications and extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; Code Red trailers; running time: 1:26:18.


Armando Macias said...

Awesome I'm from Mexico, Jeff Cooper film three movies here, Kaliman el hombre increible 1972, viaje fantastico en globo 1975 y Kaliman en el siniestro mundo de Humanon 1976, Jeff lives in Mexico for almost one year, he lives in a apartment in the Mexico city pink zone the year was 1974, he comeback to Los Angeles, I think that he lives in Hamilton Ontario Canada, he is retired of the movies and lives a normal life, cheers Jeff....

Kaijinu said...

Saw this just a few days back and I have to say, being hardly a fan of westerns, the shortage of gunfights wasn't really a big deal for me. I like how this movie is a Western Giallo hybrid and I guess it won me over as a fan of this obscure gem!

Terrible and underwhelming, yeah, but at least it played enough cards right to be entertaining for my eyes.

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