Saturday, June 18, 2022

Trackdown (1976) review

James Mitchum (Jim Calhoun), Karen Lamb (Betsy Calhoun), Anne Archer (Barbara), Erik Estrada (Chucho), Cathy Lee Crosby (Lynn Strong), Vince Cannon (Johnny Dee)
Directed by Richard T. Heffron
The Short Version: James Mitchum is Jim Calhoun, a rancher whose 17-year old sister runs off to Los Angeles for a life of excitement and ends up as a high-dollar hooker in a call girl ring. Big-city law and order is lacking justice so Calhoun brings his own, putting his brand on the bad guys during an explosive finale. Notable for a Kenny Rogers track titled 'Runaway Girl', TRACKDOWN is an obscure gem even if neither the script nor a leaden Mitchum are up to the task. Estrada and Crosby are benefits but what really carries the movie are the sadistic villains, a few moments of shocking brutality, and a creative gun battle inside an elevator shaft. TRACKDOWN is quality sleaze worth pursuing for undemanding Drive-in fans.

A Montana cowboy named Calhoun traces his runaway sister to Los Angeles where she has gone missing. With the help of a street kid and a social worker, Calhoun learns his 17-year old sibling was sold into prostitution; going from a group of low-level greasy pimps to a high-dollar call girl ring led by a gangster named Johnny Dee. With little to no help coming from law enforcement, Calhoun makes his own law, leading to a final showdown with Johnny and his men.

You'd figure every good to decent movie has gotten a legitimate release by now; but once in a while you run across a hidden gem, and TRACKDOWN is one such diamond in the rough. Heffron's tale of revenge belongs to the school of films that brings together the rural isolation and tranquility with the crowded and crime-riddled urban setting. Think THE SEARCHERS (1956) meets MR. MAJESTYK (1974), but instead of Charles Bronson's melon farmer it's Jim Mitchum's Montana rancher taking on big-city mobsters. 
Richard T. Heffron's direction triumphs as a solid piece of Drive-in exploitation that has a few instances of shocking violence and brutality, and nicely staged action scenes. Unfortunately, director Heffron is unsuccessful at generating a memorable protagonist for his movie that likely would be more well known had he been able to do so. The film simply needed a more compelling leading actor.

James Mitchum nonetheless has presence and looks the part of a take-no-shit cowboy; he simply doesn't have the conviction the role demands. Any time Mitchum opens his mouth to deliver dialog, he never convincingly emotes the frustration and anger of a man from the country searching for a needle in a city of 22 million haystacks. Even when he finds out his sister's been gang-raped, passed around, and viciously beaten after being sold into sex slavery, he takes the whole ordeal in stride. 

In Mitchum's defense, the script by Paul Edwards doesn't give him much to work with. It's far more successful in the brutalization of his sister and building absolutely despicable bad guys (many of which--like in the original DEATH WISH--never pay for their crimes). The vigilante justice in the last half hour is fun to watch; but again, there's no emotional core emanating from the lead protagonist for the audience to rally behind. But if all you want is a really good exploitation movie, you'll find it here.
The eldest son of Robert Mitchum does his role justice in the action scenes at least. There's a fish-out-of-water element to the script as Calhoun encounters various underhanded and questionable characters while searching the streets of LA, occasionally brawling with the people he meets. One funny scene has him approached by three cross-dressers who claim to have info on his missing sister but they try to rob him instead. One of the transvestites is played by Tony Burton, Apollo Creed's trainer in the ROCKY series.
As evidenced by the handful of action sequences, Mitchum's fists are certainly better actors than he is.

He had a similar mild-as-milk performance in BLACKOUT (1978) where the villains carried that film, too. Mitchum came off much better in the rowdy Mountain Dew movie, MOONRUNNERS (1975), the inspiration for THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-1985). Earlier in his career, he seemed more enthusiastic doing Italian westerns like MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1965) and THE TRAMPLERS (1966) starring Gordon Scott and Franco Nero prior to DJANGO (1966) made him a major western star. 

The plotline of a young girl leaving the country and moving to the city where her innocence is corrupted has been told many times. In TRACKDOWN, Betsy Calhoun unwillingly works her way up from a small-time street gang, being raped by them (one of their members is a woman, too), juiced up on drugs, and then sold off to a lower-class pimp who then sells her to Johnny Dee, an upper-class kingpin running a high-end prostitution ring for an even more depraved clientele. 
Johnny's main lady, Barbara (Anne Archer of GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK and FATAL ATTRACTION), gives Betsy the guided tour, giving her the impression the life of a hooker is a glamorous and profitable one. In a similar fashion to the way Betsy's brother blithely reacts to her being abducted, she casually accepts the life of a lady of the evening till one client in particular is excessively violent. It's at this point the film takes a much darker turn and even Barbara suffers the consequences of her life choices.
It has been said that "a movie is only as good as its villain", and the antagonists in TRACKDOWN are truly loathsome. Where the script creates a less than enthusiastic hero, it goes out of its way to envision the sleaziest creeps imaginable. They come to satisfying ends even if the finality is wrought by an inexpressive, mostly vacant advocate for good. 

Vince Cannon may have had a minor career in movies and television, but he certainly carves a memorably slimy persona as Johnny Dee. He had a great look for mobsters and plays it to the hilt. It's surprising he didn't do more work of this kind.

On top of the viciousness and gritty atmosphere, a highlight is a gun battle staged inside an elevator shaft. Mitchum and some of Dee's cronies exchange gunfire atop dueling elevators in the film's height of creativity. The desert location for the final showdown is well-shot and caps the film in an appropriately exciting fashion.

Carrying Mitchum in the acting department are Cathy Lee Crosby and Erik Estrada. Crosby plays an impassioned social worker dealing with insurmountable numbers of troubled women who end up homeless, missing, or dead. She'd previously played the title super heroine in the TV movie WONDER WOMAN (1974) before Lynda Carter made the role her own. She was visible on a weekly basis on the hit real-life television program, THAT'S INCREDIBLE! (1980-1984); a series featuring various incredible stunts, explorations of the unknown, and scientific breakthroughs. If you grew up watching RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT (1982-1986), then you will fondly recall Crosby's INCREDIBLE co-hosting gig with John Davidson and Fran Tarkenton.

Estrada's Chucho starts off as a not-so noble guy, but redeems himself as the film goes on. It's not a huge surprise that he went from this movie to being a major television star on CHiPs (1977-1983) the following year. Aside from dozens of other TV guest spots, Estrada appeared in numerous motion pictures; mostly of the 'B' movie and DTV variety. If you're a night owl, you likely saw Estrada selling resort properties on infomercials.

Richard T. Heffron directed FUTUREWORLD the same year. The WESTWORLD (1973) sequel had a fantastic plot, rich in potential for a fascinating movie. However, Heffron was unable to take advantage of what the script had to offer; and TRACKDOWN similarly misses opportunities to ramp up its drama as well. Heffron directed lots of television, and TRACKDOWN has that feel at times... till the increasing sex and violence shows you otherwise.

The Kenny Rogers song, 'Runaway Girl', was written for the movie, and is featured on Rogers' 'Love Lifted Me' album from 1976 on the United Artists label.

The script may be severely crippled in creating an indelible hero (and the movie for not having a better actor playing him), but there are other aspects of it that sustains the areas that falter. TRACKDOWN is a surprisingly entertaining and engrossing bit of 'Cowboys and Gangsters' exploitation masquerading as a serious dramatic thriller.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber bluray. Specs and extras: Brand new 2020 HD master from the original interpositive; 1080p widescreen 1.78:1; original trailer; running time: 01:38:12

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Bog (1979) review

Gloria DeHaven (Dr. Ginny Glenn/Adrianna), Marshall Thompson (Dr. Brad Wednesday), Leo Gordon (Dr. John Warren), Aldo Ray (Sheriff Neal Rydholm), Rojay North (Chuck Pierce), Glen Voros (Alan Tanner), Carol Terry (May Tanner), Lou Hunt (Kim Pierce), Ed Clark (Deputy Jensen), Robert Fry (Wallace Fry), Jeff Schwaab (The Monster)
Directed by Don Keeslar

The Short Version: What makes bad movies fun is energy, and BOG drinks a six pack of Monster. It's a throwback to 50s style scientists vs. nature gone amuck with a BOGGY CREEK-style backdrop. The cheap production manages to scrounge up a few old-Hollywood pros to bring that Creature Feature feeling back again. This extends to the debilitated effects work involving the crappie fish monster that's more Coela-can't than prehistoric aquatic terror. It's the spirited performances of its leads taking the morass material seriously that makes BOG fun in the muck; as opposed to a Hemorrhoid From the Deep.
Dynamite fishing awakens a centuries-old, lake-dwelling, humanoid fish monster that drinks blood and mates with human women. After the wives of two vacationing couples turn up dead, three scientists and the local sheriff discover the ever-growing pile of bodies is the work of an ancient monster from the Ice Age. They hope to capture the beast and stop it before it breeds even more monsters below the murky waters of Bog Lake.
Wisconsin is not only home to Ed Gein and good cheese, but homegrown monster pictures like THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975) and BOG (1979). The former is a fairly well known cult favorite while the latter didn't even get theater play in the state it was shot in (till recently). Compared to other do-it-yourself filmmaking ventures, it's a surprisingly fun 85 minutes of el cheapo monster-in-the-lake horror.
One half 1950s science vs. nature flick and one half BOGGY CREEK-style swamp-dwelling creature feature, you'll feel a sense of deja vu in Carl Kitt's script. It's chock full of scientific-sounding gobbledy-gook, bridging scenes of monster attacks that vary in how big the Bog beast is. Don Keeslar's direction is also reminiscent of a 50s SciFi flick; although more in the vein of say THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957) than THEM! (1954).
Filmed at various Wisconsin locations like Lake Tomahawk, Harshaw and around Minocqua during the summer of 1978, BOG failed to attain the same level of cult status as its elder Wisconsin born n' bred brethren,THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975). Whereas that movie got wider distribution and regular airplay on television, BOG was scarcely seen at Drive-in's in southern and southwestern territories from 1979 to 1983. Even more surprising, both Gloria DeHaven and director Don Keeslar were unaware the movie was even finished. The latter reportedly called it a day after the last shot was in the can. To the point, more people have seen Bigfoot than got to see BOG.
When this little aforementioned picture called THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972) came out and was an unexpected smash hit, many more mysterious monsters began stalking the various woods and marshes across the country. It wasn't a Bigfoot, but the regional 'monster-in-the-lake' movies that surfaced afterward followed the same formula: a spooky lake surrounded by an atmosphere-thick wilderness; a cheap monster suit; and a bunch of non-actors to add local flavor. BOG had the benefit of a few past-their-prime Hollywood stars to beef up its marquee value, too.
Producer Michelle Marshall was a Completion Guarantor (a guarantee to financiers that said film will be completed and delivered to a distributor on the agreed-upon date) who, for around a decade, was also a movie producer. The guarantor and producer work closely together. If a film is going off the rails, the guarantor can take it over; but for reasons of good business practices, tend to leave it to the producer to get things back on track. However, since Ms. Marshall was also BOG's producer, she could get involved if she deemed it necessary. It's clear both time and money was in short supply on this movie. In one instance, Marshall reportedly dunked an actress under the water with her hand or foot to get the panicked reaction she wanted. Producer interference may have been the reason the director didn't hang around to oversee final edit of his picture.

Like the movie or not, Gloria DeHaven is a tour de force (as much as you can triumph in a low budget lake monster movie). She plays both the spunky, middle-aged lady scientist and the creepy hag in the woods who has a mysterious connection to the Bog Beast. Ms. DeHaven (who was also a singer) went from Hollywood musicals like BEST FOOT FORWARD (1943) with Lucille Ball and SUMMER STOCK (1950) with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland to being carried off by an amphibious monster with an affinity for human women in BOG. Doubtful she'd have ever viewed this film as noteworthy, but what is notable is that BOG is the only monster picture Ms. DeHaven ever starred in.
Although she had recognizable star status, DeHaven was never a major player in Hollywood. Regardless of the film's near nonexistent production values, her dual role in BOG (that most likely was done to keep from paying another actor) stands out among her colleagues that went from high profile productions to roles they would never have taken in their prime. Her enthusiasm as a scientist is better than this level just shy of the barrel's bottom usually got. And her primordial reading of Adrianna, the creepy lady in the woods, foreshadows the old witch Haggis in PUMPKINHEAD (1988). She capably gave director Keeslar his money's worth; in light of the limited coins budgeted for it. Sadly, Ms. DeHaven died in hospice care shortly after suffering a stroke on July 30th, 2016.
Her co-star Marshall Thompson had some leads in movies like GALLANT BESS (1947), the first cinecolor movie from MGM; and he co-starred with the great cowboy star and most decorated soldier of WWII, Audie Murphy in Murphy's biopic, TO HELL AND BACK (1955). Unlike DeHaven, though, Thompson was doing leading roles in monster pictures early in his career like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) and FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959); so doing BOG was like slipping into an old shoe. Thompson would pass away May 18th, 1992 from congestive heart failure at age 66.

Getting Leo Gordon, one of the greatest movie Tough Guys, adds enormous appeal to the picture even though he probably only did a couple day's work on it. If you're familiar with Leo Gordon, you're probably a fan of BOG that enjoys the picture strictly for its lack of quality. Gordon was a familiar face in numerous westerns and thrillers, almost always playing the heavy on movies and television. 
For a spell he was a real life heavy after a failed armed robbery attempt put him in San Quentin for five years. He was the main villain in the pilot episode of GUNSMOKE, 'Hack Prine' in 1955 where he had a more lithe, but stout appearance on his 6'2" frame. He worked with Roger Corman both in front of and behind the camera; and made his presence known in John Wayne movies like HONDO (1953) and McLintock! (1963). THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966), appearing opposite Clint Walker, is another of Gordon's memorable bad guy roles. One of Hollywood's most rugged faces would die on December 26th, 2000 at the age of 78.
WWII vet Aldo Ray worked with many of Hollywood's major players and gained a degree of stardom himself, leading to some awards nominations. When his unpredictable and rebellious behavior cost him roles, his looks and no-nonsense attitude typecast him in macho parts, and particularly those of military figures. Some of his career highlights include BATTLE CRY (1955), THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN (1955), MEN IN WAR (1957), and THE GREEN BERETS (1968). His drinking problem began in the late 1950s and would take its toll on his career in the early 1960s. He was primarily relegated to exploitation movies in the 70s and 80s with roles in films like THE BAD BUNCH (1973), THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) and PSYCHIC KILLER (1975). 
His energetic role in BOG as the sheriff has a scene where Ray states he needs a drink after an encounter with the monster and shows him downing a glass of alcohol. He died February 19th, 1991 from throat cancer at just 64 years of age.

Ray was broke at this stage in his career, but he gives a good performance with the material he has to work with. Everybody does far better than expected for this sort of thing. A unique quality of BOG is in how it gives its aging Hollywood cast things to do normally afforded younger actors. During the finale, for example, Marshall Thompson  (53 at the time) and Leo Gordon (56 years old then) indulge in their Tough Guy personas of their younger days, showing they still had some pep in their step; going mano-a-monster against the slime-covered man-fish after it carries DeHaven away for an amorous interlude. 

Moreover, in something you never saw in the movies BOG sources from, the elder leads, Thompson and DeHaven (in her mid-50s at that time), have a middle-aged romance going on; even getting a mild love scene backed by an Anne Murray-style melody called 'Walk With Me' sang by Pat Hopkins. Playing at the outset and also over the end credits, the producers were possibly hoping for a minor hit and some radio play. The theme on harmonica and piano is heard at various points during the movie.

Like its main cast, many of BOG's crew, sadly, have passed on; leaving many stories of working in the arena of low budget cinema lost to time. 
The director Don Keeslar, passed away in August of 2020. It was his first and only theatrical motion picture he directed. He did helm the Made For TV movie THE CAPTURE OF GRIZZLY ADAMS (1982) and television commercials. 
And like the director and others involved in the production, the writer, Carl Kitt, passed back in 1990 from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis; or Lou Gehrig's disease)
Jack Willoughby, who worked on major movies like ROCKY (1976) and UP IN SMOKE (1978) as a camera operator, was also a cinematographer; performing the job as DP on BOG, but oddly billed as Wings. Possibly the pseudonym was due to him also acting in a producer capacity. Willoughby's regional monster picture roots extend to the earlier THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION where he was also the DP and an associate producer on that show as well. He died on June 8th, 2018 at the ripe old age of 101! 
One of BOG's two special effects men, Richard Albain, had a prolific career in low budget horror, television, and some big studio productions. He too worked on THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION in the FX department. He left this world back in May of 1999 at 76 years of age.

A farmer at the time, Jeff Schwaab took on the difficult task of lumbering around inside the indiscernible monster suit. Thirty years old at the time and standing 6'7", he does the best he can in a poorly made (but heavily slimed-up) costume that certainly fits the 1950s style of 'C' movie BOG is mimicking. You get a few decent glimpses of it, but the camera often cuts away too quickly for viewers to appreciate the intricate deficiencies of the suit (although it was reportedly very heavy). The filmmakers should've just embraced the fact they had a monster that was on a par with the stunt guys inside the trash bags in ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) and wallowed in longer takes.
In keeping with the 50s monster movie vibe, the scientists devise a weapon to defeat the monster; in this case it's a Blood Scent Generator to lure the beast out in the open so locals can blast it with Rotenone--a toxicant that's basically an Oxygen Destroyer for fish. It's one of the best, if funniest, sequences in the movie. It's the first time the lack of money for even a moderately credible looking monster suit is visualized; and the first time we clearly see Jeff Schwaab walking around in it

For all its faults, BOG genuinely tries to be more than its budget allows. This is why it surpasses other similar, monetarily inebriated movies. In spite of its lack of theatrical exposure it's possible it influenced other, more well-known horror movies. The plot point of the monster being part fish, part man and part animal seems to have seeped into the script for PROPHECY (1979)--with its mutant bear monster that's supposed to be a variety of nature's creatures. Another plot contrivance is the monster mating with human women. This was used to graphic effect in the Roger Corman cult favorite HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980).

BOG (1979) has a poor reputation, but fans that like the picture have solid affection for it. Todd Brown is likely the biggest BOG fan on the planet, managing to have tracked down the film's director and, back in August of 2018, set up a 40th anniversary screening at a local cinema in Rhinelander, Wisconsin; the first time it was being seen in its home state. You can read about the event he organized HERE.
A brief note about this blu-ray presentation: for years BOG had been on VHS labels in dry full-screen presentations. A very nice widescreen DVD arose in recent years; but this new HD version utilized on the Dark Force blu-ray is a welcome upgrade, particularly in the audio department as the soundtrack is crisp and clear.

A three week wonder, BOG is a gob of bad movie fun. It's THE GIANT CLAW (1957) of BOGGY CREEK successors; in that the cast takes everything with the utmost of seriousness even when the silly, crab-clawed monster takes center-stage. Even so, it's a fun regional throwback. If you don't find enjoyment in cut-rate cinema, though, you'll want to traverse more familiar waters and stay out of the BOG.

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray double feature. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1  anamorphic widescreen; HD transfer for the first time using the only surviving 35mm print; BOG press gallery; paired with co-feature MAKO: JAWS OF DEATH (1976); trailers; intermission/snack bar ads; Drive-in Mode; running time: 01:25:19
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