“Not when you’re hungry”: Conquest

To say the least, Halloween 2020 is going to be very strange…and maybe not in the good way. In case you’ve been living under a rock clad in a blindfold and earplugs, you’ll notice that the world’s been going through a lot of stuff lately. This Halloween season, browsing streaming sites and watching horror movies of varying levels of quality is a great way to unwind during these stressful times. I found the subject of today’s review while I was perusing the free streaming service Tubi. Within this collection of cinematic odds and ends, I discovered 1983’s Conquest, a weird fantasy adventure helmed by the renowned Italian giallo director Lucio Fulci. Although Fulci made films in a multitude of genres, he is best known for his stylish and ultraviolent horror movies like The Beyond and Zombi 2. With Conquest, he puts a bloody and brutal spin on the typical sword and sorcery tale.

Oliver Queen experiments with a Green Lantern ring.

Produced and written by two-time David di Donatello Award winner Giovanni Di Clemente, Conquest is the story of a young, magic bow-wielding hero named Ilias, played by Andrea Occhipinti (who worked with Fulci in 1982’s The New York Ripper). The evil spirit Zora, portrayed by Conrado San Martin of The Colossus of Rhodes fame, and a gratuitously nude sorceress known as Ocron (Sabrina Siani) plot against him after Ocron receives a vision of her own demise at the hands of an archer armed with the magic bow. Along the way, Ilias befriends Mace, a charismatic nomad played by Jorge Rivero, and the duo embark on a mission to stop Ocron’s evil forces from conquering the land. Barring the exception of an interesting twist near the end, the plot is pretty standard for the genre and the performances are typical as well. Conquest‘s main hooks are its trippy visual storytelling and the copious amounts of barbaric violence. The various creatures and costumes may look like rejected designs from the set of Quest for Fire but at least Alejandro Ulloa’s cinematography tries to make them look majestic, otherworldly and frightening. The synthesizer-intensive score by Dawn of the Dead composer Claudio Simonetti also sets the appropriate level of mystery and intensity, especially during the gory battle scenes.

You might not think of Conquest as a typical Lucio Fulci film but his distinctive style and directorial chops elevate this otherwise bland sword and sorcery adventure. If you’re looking for an unconventional Halloween movie marathon entry this year, give Conquest a try. Did I mention it’s free on Tubi?

Credit: CampMovieCamp

Carcharodon Copycats: A Tornado to Move the Boat

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Italy seemed to be the low-budget knockoff capital of the world. Whenever a Hollywood genre movie becomes a huge hit, you can bet that there would be at least one Italian film made to exploit the popularity of the global blockbuster. Jaws was an easy target for exploitation compared to most big movies because its simple premise allowed for a stronger focus on suspense and character drama. If Steven Spielberg can extract cinematic gold from the modest idea of a great white shark threatening a resort town, then making a hit movie should be simple. All you need is a ferocious sea-dwelling animal and enough money to afford boats, scuba gear and a trip to a peaceful seaside town. Unfortunately, most Italian knockoffs of Jaws put a lot of effort into the aquatic creature to the detriment of every other element of the film. A textbook example of this is the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Tentacles.

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Family Circus took a weird turn in the 70’s.

Known as Tentacoli in Italy, the concept of Tentacles is more intriguing than the film itself. The film’s direction, provided by former Cannon Pictures CEO and Pirahna II producer Ovidio Assonitis, is very rudimentary, especially when the film’s antagonist, a deadly giant octopus, is offscreen. The only real suspense in the film comes from any scene involving the savage cephalopod, who feels like a terrifying presence thanks to some decent model work, clever editing by Angelo Curi and the skilled cinematography of Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who would work on another infamous knockoff of a famous blockbuster, Starcrash, sometime after this picture. The standouts of the oddly star-studded cast are the legendary John Huston (director and screenwriter of The Maltese Falcon) and Oscar winner Henry Fonda, who do the very best they can with the stilted direction and a hackneyed and inconsistent script written by Jerome Max, Escape from the Bronx scribe Tito Carpi and former Star Trek script editor Steven Carabatsos. Another Academy Award-winning star, Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank), shows up to waste her time in a cloying subplot that desperately attempts to evoke the sense of dread that surrounded Alex Kintner’s death scene in Jaws. The overall tone of Tentacles lacks any semblance of harmony between its horror elements and its playful humor which isn’t helped by Stelvio Cipriani’s bizarre, synth-heavy score and some weird scenes like Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) giving a pep talk to a pair of killer whales that are sent to fight the octopus.

If you’re looking for a cheesy horror film that’s good fodder for a bad movie night with friends, I highly recommend Tentacles. It’s always fun to see a group of top-tier actors slumming it in a schlocky B-movie and this Jaws knockoff is no exception.

Credit: BisXploitationcinema

Carcharodon Copycats: A Sin Against an Animal

One of the most brazen things that a ripoff of a famous blockbuster can do is film a scene that functions as an obvious dig at the blockbuster in question. In most cases, it’s a kind of move that can easily backfire because it reminds the viewer of the more popular film. Perhaps the most notable example is a brief moment in the infamous Star Wars knockoff and subject of a fan-favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Laserblast where Kim Milford’s character blows up a Star Wars billboard for no readily discernible reason beyond the behind-the-scenes desire to mock any potential competition to Laserblast. One of the earliest scenes of the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Orca, shows the titular killer whale slaughtering a great white shark, which is a moment where the in-story justification of making the orca both threatening and appealing is outweighed by the out-of-universe purpose of taunting Jaws, its biggest influence. When you see it, you can almost hear co-producer Dino De Laurentiis, prolific producer of countless cult classics, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming for you, Spielberg!” With a scene like that, you’d think that Orca would simply be a cheap, simplistic duplication of a better movie. Instead, Orca has a surprisingly thoughtful approach to its storytelling and themes that sets it apart from other, less subtle Jaws ripoffs.

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Behold, a relic of the good old days, when movie posters told you the entire story of the movie.

The biggest aspect that sets Orca apart from its competition is making the titular creature, played by Yaka and Nepo, an important and sympathetic character in his own right. The movie truly comes to life whenever the whales appear. The impressive cinematography, effective model work and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score effectively sell the audience on the emotional plight of the chief orca and the merciless terror he creates throughout the film. The standout actor in the human cast is Richard Harris of Camelot fame, who gives a stirring performance as a ship’s captain who becomes the target of the orca’s ire but begins to understand the whale’s hunger for revenge. The rest of the cast, which includes Zardoz’s Charlotte Rampling as a whale biologist and Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as a somewhat stereotypical Native American teacher, is adequate with the weakest link being a young Bo Derek, best known for her role in 10, who looks lost in any scene that doesn’t involve a killer whale. Orca is directed by The Dam Busters helmer Michael Anderson, who tries his best to make a threadbare script, written by Sergio Donati and co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni, feel tense, believable and meaningful by focusing on both the captain’s personal conflict and the orca’s quest for retribution, as well as placing a strong emphasis on visual storytelling.

Orca is a much more intriguing film than its reputation implies. By putting a spotlight on the thoughts and feelings of the eponymous creature, the film finds a different angle that enables it to stand out in the Jawsploitation craze.

Credit: Youtube Movies

Carcharodon Copycats: Fish Don’t Eat People

This month marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal seafaring thriller, 1975’s Jaws. Widely considered to be the first modern, high-concept blockbuster, Jaws would reshape the landscape of Hollywood with its broad but intriguing characters, minimalist approach to storytelling and emphasis on exciting set pieces. As is the case with many popular blockbusters, the success of Jaws spawned many imitators of varying quality. Today, let’s take a look at 1978’s Piranha, one of the better-known copycats and a somewhat more ambitious knockoff than the others that were released at the time. One of the earliest films directed by visionary Gremlins helmer Joe Dante and produced by Dante’s collaborator Jon Davison and independent filmmaking mogul Roger Corman, Piranha was once the target of a lawsuit from Universal Studios because it was so similar to Jaws. When Spielberg praised the film after an advance screening, the lawsuit was dropped. With that kind of ringing endorsement from one of the greatest directors around, Piranha must be good, right?

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Lost River Lake: the birthplace of bikini pool float rodeo.

Surprisingly, Piranha kind of works! The script, written by Battle Beyond the Stars scribe John Sayles, is clever, the quick pace keeps the action flowing, Pino Donaggio’s score carries the right balance of suspense and strangeness and Dante’s signature comedic approach to science fiction and horror gives the film a consistently fun tone that matches the crazy premise of a bloodthirsty school of mutated piranha invading a river near a peaceful town. As far as the acting goes, the late, great Dick Miller, a frequent associate of both Dante and Corman, steals the film in his role as Buck Gardner, a crooked resort owner whose place of business is overwhelmed by the deadly fish. Miller’s character may lack the depth of his Jaws equivalent, Mayor Vaughn, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives a strong, grounded performance as a government scientist who is haunted by the fact that he led the project that created the mutant piranha and the two leads, Heather Menzies of The Sound of Music fame and King’s Crossing’s Bradford Dillman, have an interesting chemistry. The special effects are more of a mixed bag. This is the kind of movie where impressive stop motion creature animation and convincing prosthetic work share the screen with rudimentary puppetry and drab set design.

Spielberg may have been onto something. Although it’s a cheap Jawsploitation cash grab, Piranha is a unexpectedly charming movie with a clear sense of purpose and enough self-awareness to keep your interest.

Credit: sideshowcarny

Holy Oak Anniversary, Batman!

This month is a very important one for Batman fans. 80 years ago, three of the most important characters in the Batman mythos made their first appearances in the comics:

  • Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s eager and reckless young ward and the first Robin. Introduced in Detective Comics #38 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson as the Watson to Batman’s Holmes, Robin proved to be popular enough to become a major part of many essential DC stories, including the formation of the Teen Titans and his own maturation as a solo hero and a leader in the guise of Nightwing.
  • Selina Kyle, best known as the beguiling burglar Catwoman. Ever since her debut in Batman #1, she has evolved from an enigmatic thief and audacious supervillainess to a complex and cunning anti-heroine with a unique personal connection to the Caped Crusader.
  • Last but certainly not least, everyone’s favorite cutthroat comedian, the Joker. Premiering in Batman #1, the Clown Prince of Crime has become one of the most persistent and formidable knaves that the Dark Knight has ever dueled as well as one of the most iconic villains in pop culture.

To celebrate this anniversary, I’ve decided to share John Fiorella’s excellent 2004 short film Grayson. The short, framed like a movie trailer, illustrates a possible future for the Boy Wonder, acceptably portrayed by Fiorella, where Batman has been murdered and an older Robin comes out of retirement to find his killer. Although it may seem strange that Dick would go back to the Robin persona in this short instead of becoming Nightwing, the concept has some precedent in earlier comics with an older Grayson from an alternate Earth joining the Justice Society as Robin in Justice League #55 published in 1967. While the story is straightforward and the cast is adequate, with Kimberly Page’s Catwoman and the late Brian C. Bethel’s Joker as the only standouts, the real stars of the short are the terrific production design, which is impressive when you consider the $18,000 budget, and the creative cinematography of co-producer Gabriel Sabloff (Samson). Grayson fascinated me when I first saw it on TheForce.net and it’s still pretty remarkable today.

Credit: Gabriel Sabloff – Director

“Brother, brother, help each other”: Three the Hard Way

I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the blaxploitation subgenre is precarious. On one hand, the subgenre included some of the first American films that featured black characters in leading and prominent roles, commented on the oppression of black Americans that was ingrained in American society, and promoted outlooks associated with the Black Power movement. On the other hand, a lot of these films would glorify some of the negative stereotypes associated with predominantly black communities, such as high crime rates and violent activity. Regardless of your feelings about the films themselves, blaxploitation has left a permanent mark on how African American life can be depicted in popular culture. In its own strange way, 1974’s Three the Hard Way mostly succeeds as both a pseudo-political, Afrocentric parable and an exciting, hardcore action flick.

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Three the Hard Way was directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr., son of famous photographer and blaxploitation pioneer Gordon Parks. The younger Parks was no stranger to handling contentious subject matter, as evidenced by the fact that he directed the successful but divisive crime drama Super Fly two years before Hard Way’s release. With Hard Way, Parks makes a smooth transition into action filmmaking and does a pretty solid job of translating Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig’s provocative story of a heroic black trio’s quest to stop a sinister white supremacist plot to poison every black person in America into a well-structured film. Of the three leads, Jim Kelly gives the best performance despite having very little to do beyond demonstrating his mastery of Okinawan karate and staring intensely at his foes. Three-time American Football League All-Star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson brings some necessary charm and humor to the proceedings, while Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown acquits himself well in the action set pieces but acts a little stilted in scenes that demand more emotional weight. Sheila Frazier, who previously worked with Parks on Super Fly, does the best she can in a limited role as the love interest of Brown’s character and Jay Robinson (Emperor Caligula in The Robe) and Richard Angarola are appropriately unpleasant as the racist villains. The film’s themes of black empowerment are consistently applied, the action scenes hit all the right beats and the film moves at a quick pace, although there are a few slow spots where songs by the Impressions play over long montages of characters walking around or driving vehicles.

If you’ve only heard about Three the Hard Way, I suggest you check it out. The story may be incendiary, especially by our current standards, but its message of Black Power rings true even now.

Credit: Department of Afro-American Research Arts Culture