Saturday, August 25, 2012

Movie Review: Killdozer (1974)

One of the great things about growing up in the 70's were all the truly bizarre T.V. movies that were produced and unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.  The horror genre in particular was well-represented with the likes of The Night Stalker, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Trilogy of Terror to name but a few.  Another standout, remembered for its title alone if nothing else, is the 1974 ABC production Killdozer.  I don't care what one may think of the finished product, you have to admire any team of individuals that would greenlight and participate in the making of a piece of cinematic art called Killdozer.  The ad pictured above pretty much captures everything you need to know going into Killdozer.  Six men in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer bulldozer.  Period.  End of story.  Recently through their video on demand vault series, Universal has released Killdozer almost 40 years after it aired, providing a chance for modern audiences to bear witness.  Revisitng this relic from my childhood, I was curious to see if it would live up to my fond memories and the positive cult classic repurtation it has developed over the years.  I'm happy to say the answer is an enthusiastic yes!

In a nutshell, Killdozer involves a group of construction workers on a Pacific island who unearth a long-buried meteor.  When the aforementioned dozer comes into contact with the meteor, a malevolent entity is transferred into the machine, and begins to dispatch the workers one by one.  That's really all there is to it.  This sort of thing is old hat now thanks to the likes of The Car, Christine, Maximum Overdrive, etc., but seeing a killer vehicle back then was something special.  Even crazier is that they chose a vehicle that doesn't move quickly, lending an air of additional absurdity to the proceedings.  Honestly this could have been an unmitigated disaster, but what makes it work are the performances from a credible cast and great production values. 

Killdozer boasts a surprisingly capable roster of familiar faces including Clint Walker (The Night of the Grizzly), James A. Watson Jr. (Airplane II), Neville Brand (Eaten Alive), and a pre-S.W.A.T. Robert Urich - and let me tell you these guys sell this premise with everything they've got!  Walker plays the foreman for whom the job represents a last chance to overcome alcoholism, and he is deadly serious and straight-faced for the duration.  The always reliable Brand is terrific as a crusty mechanic, and Urich shines in a brief role as the first victim who sounds the warning about the possessed machine.  By far though the award for brilliance in committed thespianism goes to James Wainright (Battletruck) who plays Urich's older best buddy.  This guy really lays it on thick about his friendship with Urich and his grief after Urich buys the farm.  It is way over the top for a movie called Killdozer.  The inappropriatene level of attention given to this character's devotion makes for the type of unintentional entertainment value cult movie fans (myself included) absolutely love.

In addition to the performances, the concept and production team for Killdozer is also top notch.  The film is based on a story by celebrated sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon (who also co-wrote the teleplay), it's produced by Herb Solow (the man responsible for the original Star Trek and Mission: Impossible), and the effects are by the legendary Albert Whitlock (Cat People, The Thing, Dune, etc.).  These are talented folks and the movie reaps the benefits of their participation.  There is a cinematic look to the film, the "cat and mouse" action is all well-staged, and when optical effects are called for they look pretty impressive for a 70's televison movie.  One could easily imagine Killdozer on a theatrical double-bill with Speilberg's Duel (it even starts with the Universal opening logo making it feel all the more like a theatrical release).

If there is any flaw in Killdozer, it's that there are a number of well-worn genre hallmarks that make appearances.  Specifically I was reminded a great deal of The Thing From Another World, to which this film owes a heavy debt.  Nevertheless, the fact that someone had the audacity to try and convince an audience that a self-aware bulldozer could be a credible threat to individuals that should have no problem outrunning it, earns substantial upfront good will in my book.  No matter how ridiculous Killdozer gets, the artistic team never winks at the audience.  Their commitment made the movie worthy of the grade school lunchroom debates that followed its airing, and qualify it as worthy of the fond memories it generated these decades later.  Viva la Killdozer!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Changes @ Fantasmo HQ

Hey Superfans!
For those of you not at our FantaSci event, there are some major changes happening at Fantasmo.  This half of Team Fantasmo will be departing the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Commonwealth of Kentucky to take on a library director position.  It's been an amazing 7+ years and I want you all to know how much I've appreciated the support you've shown the program.  We've watched almost 200 films together, some incredible (Can't Stop the Music), some not so incredible (The Ice Pirates), and some bafflingly awful (The Apple).  Regardless of the entertainment value of whatever was on screen, you made watching them fun and I'll certainly miss it!

Despite my departure, the other half of Team Fantasmo is committed to keeping things going!  So fear not, there are plenty more movies to be enjoyed or suffered through (depending on your point of view)!  I will also keep up the blog with updates on the shows and reviews of all things Fantasmo.  So keep watching here for the latest and greatest news.

On a related note my partner on 1 Great Movie, Original Superfan Tony Mercer, is going to keep that running as well.  Our first outing went really well, so hopefully it can continue.  We had hoped to have one more with both of us on hand this week, but alas the schedule didn't cooperate.  As soon as the next one is set, I will put the details up here on the blog.

So that's all for now.  Again thank you all for a wonderful 7 years, and rest assured I will be back to visit!  My only request is that Gymkata be screened in my honor every time I come to Virginia . . . is that really so much to ask :  )

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Movie Review: Monsignor (1982)

In his excellent book Superman Vs. Hollywood, author Jake Rossen recounts an anecdote in which Christopher Reeve cornered Sean Connery at a party and asked him for career advice.  Reeve was concerned that Superman "would make him a star and ruin his career, all at the same time" due to typecasting.  If anyone knew something about managing a career around portraying an iconic character, surely it would be James Bond himself.  After hearing Reeve's concerns about portraying the Man of Steel, Connery gave him the following advice: "If it's a big hit, do something completely different for your next picture.  And if the second one's a big hit, get yourself the best lawyer and agent in the world and stick it to them."  I have no doubt that Sean Connery thought he was giving Reeve sound advice, but upon viewing Monsignor my take is that Connery's formula is not to be applied in a one-size-fits-all type of fashion.

1982, now celebrating its 30th anniversary as a numerical notch in the belt of cinematic history, was a time when amazing movies were flowing out of Hollywood.  That summer in particular was a literal treasure trove in which one classic rolled out after another.  It was also a full two years since the previous installment of Superman.  The only other film Reeve had done as a leading man was Somewhere in Time, which came out in the fall of 1980, just a few months after Superman II.  While not a blockbuster, it was generally well-received, and meshed well with Reeve's likeable onscreen persona.  So in the spring of 1982, audiences knew Reeve essentially as Superman and a generally heroic, dashing cinematic figure.  Instead of coming out with another installment of Superman in that legendary summer, or at least another spectacular genre film, Reeve decided to put Connery's advice into effect with a vengeance.  In March of '82 he played Michael Caine's conspiratorial, murderous lover in Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, and in October he followed that up by playing a corrupt priest in Monsignor.  Two very non-Superman like roles, and two movies not embraced with enthusiasm by the movie-going public.

Before getting into a general discussion about Connery's advice and Reeve's career, first let us address the business at hand - Monsignor.  I've got to be honest here, it's hard to know where to start with this movie, it's truly unlike anything I've ever seen.  The plot, such as it is, follows the rise of young priest John Flaherty (Reeve) from battlefield chaplain in World War II to Vatican treasurer.  Things starts out well enough with Flaherty attending the wedding of a close friend before he heads off to war, echoing the beginning of The Godfather.  Immediately following this promising start the film moves right into the thick of battle, where Flaherty heroically takes on a German battalion by himself.  This deed draws the attention of the Church hierarchy, and Flaherty is brought to the Vatican to serve as their treasurer.  This is all takes place in the first 15 minutes, and Monsignor seems to be moving briskly in the right direction.  Unfortunately upon Flaherty's arrival at the Vatican, things spiral downhill quickly and the movie earns its reputation as one of the elite circle of legendary Hollywood bombs.

Once Flaherty assumes his role as treasurer, he learns that the Vatican is short on financial resources due to the war.  Flaherty then coincidentally meets up with an old buddy, who is tied in with the Sicilian mafia in trafficking black market goods (e.g. chocolate, tobacco, liquor, etc.).  Flaherty, who up until this point would appear to be a pretty decent fellow, inexplicably decides it would be a good idea to funnel the goods through the Vatican commissary and take a slice of the proceeds to swell the Vatican coffers.  He cuts a deal with the local mob boss Don Appolini (Jason Miller), and receives the tacit approval of his superior Cardinal Santoni (Fernando Rey).  This pits Flaherty and Santoni against their rivals for the Vatican hierarchy Cardinal Vinci (Adolfo Celi) and Father Francisco (Tomas Milian).  Amidst all this supposed intrigue Flaherty also falls for a French nun (Genevieve Bujold), who he deceives regarding his identity as a priest.

This is one crazy movie, but not for the reasons one might think.  If memory serves me correctly, I recall at the time there being a bit of an uproar about how the Church was portrayed in this film.  In truth though this movie never reaches the type of intensity of your typical mob movie (e.g. Goodfellas).  Reeve's plot is actually pretty bland compared to that encountered in most crime sagas, and frankly the restrained approach the film generally adopts renders the whole organized crime thread pretty dull.  Basically the whole thing comes off as Reeve making some questionable decisions, and partnering with some seedy individuals who never come off as particularly ominious.  Jason Miller (The Exorcist) plays the villain of the piece, and I could totally see him being great in a mob movie role.  In Monsignor though he never seems like a mob boss, and therefore any sort of implied threat he might represent cannot be taken seriously.

And herein lies one of Monsignor's two key problem areas - the characters do not play the way the movie intends to portray them.  Not only is Miller's mob boss not villainous, but Reeve doesn't seem either diabolical or particularly clever for that matter.  In fact, the cues the movie gives you would have you believe we're watching Superman playing a member of the clergy.  The film's score is by Superman's own John Williams, and as Reeve is dashing about orchestrating black market dealings the score is light, chipper, and triumphant.  Adolfo Celi (Thunderball) and Tomas Milian (Django Kill!) are Reeve's adversaries in the Vatican, working to uncover his underhanded dealings, yet are portrayed as the bad guys!  Fernando Rey (The French Connection) is Reeve's mentor, tacitly approving of his schemes, and is portrayed as a likeable Yoda-type figure.  Granted in The Godfather we are primed to sort of enjoy the antics of Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Al Pacino, but here the supposed bad guys are portrayed as flawed, but really pretty okay folks.  It's bizarre.

The other major problem with Monsignor, and for my money what makes it memorable and worth watching, is that I don't believe I have ever seen worse performances from a group of talented actors.  To begin with, the movie is a who's who of genre film actors.  Rey, Celi, Miller, Bujold, Leonardo Cimino, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Prosky all turn up and hit career lows.  It's as though they don't have any clue what they're supposed to be doing with these characters, and furthermore for such a lively bunch the energy level is at rock bottom.  The only one who comes off as interesting or awake is Tomas Milian.  Milian, for those unfamiliar, was a major Italian star in the late 60's and 70's.  He was in some of the greatest spaghetti Westerns and crime films to come out of Italy.  When I saw he was in the movie, receiving the highly coveted "and" credit, I got really excited.  Unfortunately he is underutilized, and featured in only a few key scenes.  Still it was great to see him, and he provided a brief respite from the torturous proceedings.

Standing head and shoulders above the other poor performers though is Christopher Reeve.  Let's be clear on one thing upfront, I am a HUGE Christopher Reeve fan.  Superman 1 and II were far more important to me as a kid than Star Wars, and perhaps never has there been a more pitch perfect performance in a film series than Reeve's portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman.  In Monsignor however, Reeve is playing against his strength (i.e. being the greatest of good guys) and it doesn't work for a minute.  We never buy him as a baddie, and I don't think he does either.  Reeve looks completely lost when trying to play heavy, and it's an absolute train wreck.  And so we come back to that advice Sean Connery offered to Reeve.  If you look at Connery's career, indeed he did seem to practice what he preached.  He did plenty of Bonds, but he would alternate with other unrelated films.  Here is a partial list of some of those "classics": A Fine Madness, Shalako, The Red Tent, The Offence, Zardoz, Meteor, Wrong Is Right, Cuba, etc.  Not exactly a roster of classics.

After Bond, while Connery certainly found work, it's pretty clear he wasn't hitting home runs left and right.  Much like Reeve, anything he did that strayed far from his persona was not a smashing success.  If you look at his career closely, it wasn't until The Untouchables and his Oscar that Connery launched into his great second act.  And that great second act featured a whole lot of Connery doing what he did best - playing likeable tough guys.  Here is a partial list of those films: Highlander, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Rock, etc.  It seems to me that Connery learned that it was wise to play to his strengths, and The Untouchables gave him a wonderful opportunity to course correct.

The problem for Reeve was that he never had a chance like The Untouchables.  All he got was his Never Say Never Again in the form of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. (Note: For the record I do enjoy Never Say Never Again, but I think most would agree it is far from Connery's finest hour as Bond).  His big comeback movie was John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, and we all know how that turned out.  In other words, Reeve took some questionable advice and charged down a path that ultimately short-circuited his career.  If he had embraced his heroic, leading man image, which honestly was where his significant talent was gathered, I think we all would have been treated to a far more volumious cinematic legacy.  Instead we have to sift through the likes of Switching Channels and Noises Off . . ., before we hit a Remains of the Day.  Alas.

To sum up, Monsignor is truly one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and may perhaps feature the worst performances ever from a name cast (a remarkable feat indeed).  It clocks in at an exhausting 121 minutes, but for fans of bad movies I have to give it my strongest recommendation.  You'll also be pleased to know that it has recently been given a wonderful treatment on DVD by Shout Factory, with a clean, anamorphic transfer, allowing you to appreciate its epic grandeur.  Run, don't walk, to check this out! 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

FantaSci X!

Hey Superfans!
Hard as it is to believe, our annual sci-fi/fantasy convention FantaSci is turning 10 years old this summer!  In honor of this amazing milestone, we've lined up one of our best events yet.  Here are the essential details:

When: Saturday, July 7th, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (Note: Library closes @ 5:00 p.m. and reopens @ 7:00 p.m. for the evening Fantasmo)

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA  23322

Schedule of Events:

10:30 a.m. - Horror Films of the 1990's - Presented by: John Kenneth Muir

10:30 a.m. - Tarzan's Zip Code: Where Exactly Did the King of the Jungle Live? - Presented by: Deborah Painter

11:00 a.m. - Lightsaber Demonstration - Presented by: Tidewater Alliance

11:30 a.m. - DC's New 52 & the Phenomena of Comic Reboots: Brilliant Ideas or Total Disasters? - Presented by: Justin Cristelli & Ryan Claringbole

11:30 a.m. - Has Everything Been Done Before? How Writers Can Create New Stories to Keep the Reader Engaged - Presented by: Tony Ruggiero, G. R. Holton & Jim Bernheimer

11:30 a.m. - Why We Love/Hate Star Trek - Presented by: Starfleet Atlantic

1:00 p.m. - Fantasy/Paranormal Fiction Cliches to Avoid: Keeping Things Fresh - Presented by: Daniele Lanzarotta, CW Nash, David Niall Wilson, and JM Lee

1:00 p.m. - A Culinary History of Klingon Food - Presented by: Will Aygarn

1:00 p.m. - Food in Ficton Writing: What are Your Characters Eating and Why Does it Matter? - Presented by: Leona Wisoker, Tony Ruggiero, Ashanti Luke & Elizabeth Blue

2:30 p.m. - Paranormal Investigating for the Writer: Myth & Reality - Presented by: Pamela K. Kinney

2:30 p.m. - Puppet Masters: The Wild, Wonderful World of Puppeteering - Presented by: Elizabeth Pasieczny & Craig T. Adams

2:30 p.m. - Lessons From the World of Self-Publishing - Presented by: Jim Bernheimer, David Niall Wilson & JM Lee

3:30 p.m. - Torres Vs. Zombies - Presented by: Alfredo Torres

3:30 p.m. - Klingon Makeup & Forehead Construction - IKV Devastator

Library closes @ 5:00 p.m. and reopens at 7:00 p.m.  Fantasmo begins at 8:00 p.m. featuring cheesy 80's double-feature of Spacehunter & Metalstorm!

That's the basics on one of our best lineups ever!  You can get full details on guests and participants over at our wonderful fan run site at: (BIG thanks to Marie Bridgeforth for her terrific work on the site!!).  See you all at FantaSci on July 7th!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Behold . . . 1 Great Movie!

Hey Superfans!

We've been talking about this for a few months now, and the day is almost upon us . . . we're launching a new movie program called 1 Great Movie!  If you haven't heard us discuss it yet, let me fill you in on the pertinent details.  As you well know, at Fantasmo we are dedicated to bringing you the best (and worst) cult cinema has to offer on a monthly basis, with the often added value of delightful commentary, special guests, and related ballyhoo.  Typically we show a lot of horror, some sci-fi, occasional action, and other oddities which cannot be classified.  We recognize however, that there is a whole other world of movies out there that are not mainstream, but don't necessarily fit in with the mission of Fantasmo1 Great Movie is thus tailored to seek out THE BEST movies you've either never heard of, or that may have been unjustly dismissed/ignored by the critical community.

With that being said, we don't intend to serve you up a carbon copy of Fantasmo, so 1 Great Movie will feature a slightly different format.  One Friday per month, usually the week following Fantasmo, Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer (dramatically pictured below) and yours truly will host a screening of a movie we have decided is great.

 Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer

Your two self-appointed experts will open the screening by presenting our case (i.e. why we feel the movie is great) and then show you the film on the big screen (THE WAY IT WAS MEANT TO BE SEEN).  Following the screening we will then open the floor for discussion, and let you tell us if we were right or wrong.  We hope to encourage a forum for cineastes to delve into a heady exploration of buried celluloid gems, and call us on our missteps (which are sure to be few and far between - you guessed it, we won't be showing Gymkata anytime soon :  )

For our inaugural edition, taking place on Friday, June 8 @ 8:00 p.m., we will be screening Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.  When folks speak about Hitchcock, certain titles always are mentioned such as Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, etc.  However there are a number of outstanding titles that are mentioned far too infrequently for our tastes.  A little while back at Fantasmo we screened Hitchcock's Rope to an enthusiastic response, and were surprised at how many attendees had never seen or heard of it!  With this in mind Tony and I felt that a lesser known Hitchcock outing would be a great way to kick off the program, and hopefully get you in our corner/avoid scorn and contempt from the word go (Tony wisely talked me down from French Connection II for our kickoff session, but rest assured one day it will happen).

So without any further ado, here are your full 1 Great Movie: Episode I details:

When: Friday, June 8 @ 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Great Movie:  Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

As with Fantasmo the doors will open at 7:00 p.m. for pre-show discussions about all things cinema, and we'll make with the formal proceedings at 8:00 p.m.  We're looking forward to this next fantastic addition to our film offerings here at the library, and hope you'll join us for this historic first edition of 1 Great Movie!  See you there!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Want to See a Particle Accelerator?

Here's a little off-topic coolness for your Friday afternoon.  This came up at Fantasmo last week, and sounds like an amazing event!  The Jefferson Lab is having an open house tomorrow in which you can see everything from particle accelerators to powerful lasers in action.  If you get a chance to make it out it should be a one-of-a-kind opportunity . . . sort of like watching Razorback on the big screen June 1st (I'd say they're in roughly the same league right? :  )

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fantasmo Episode 71: Killer Critters

Hey Superfans!

Our summer season is in full swing, and what says summer better than a couple of killer critter movies?!?  Jaws gave you fair warning that it wasn't safe to go in the water, and our two classics will add idyllic coastal islands and the Australian Outback to the list!

The first killer critter movie we'll be featuring is the 1977 film The Pack starring the incomparable Joe Don Baker.  Directed by Robert "Gymkata" Clouse, The Pack finds Baker playing a marine biologist on an island resort battling a horde of wild dogs.  Let's just review that real quick.  The director of Gymkata, Joe Don Baker playing a marine biologist, and a pack of killer dogs.  If that doesn't equal B-movie gold I don't know what in the world does :  )

But that's not all!  The second feature on the bill is the 1984 thriller Razorback, starring television icon Gregory Harrison (Logan's Run).  Razorback was the feature film directorial debut from legendary cult director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), and chronicles one man's battle against a giant, killer boar.  Mulcahy takes what could have been a run-of-the-mill monster movie, and turns it into one of the most visually interesting movies of the 80's.  If you remember how cool the cinematography and editing was in Highlander, imagine that level of artistry applied to a movie about a giant, killer boar.  Yep, pretty ridiculous, but also amazing.

So without any further ado here are your full Episode 71 details:

When: Friday, June 1 @ 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322


8:00 p.m.: The Pack (1977)

9:45 p.m.: Razorback (1984)

So there you have it Superfans, two outstanding killer critter movies back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN!  See you there!