Love at First Bite 1979 ***

After sampling the reputedly toxic, morally corrosive substances emitted by the Joker movie, the immediate consequences involved watching a short season of George Hamilton comedies, something worth holding the film-makers of Joker directly responsible for. Having followed up on their quote of Zorro The Gay Blade, it seemed natural to look back a couple of years to the film that Hamilton was attempting to recapture the magic of; Love at First Bite.

Stan Dragosi’s comedy was a breakout hit in 1979, but has since fallen by the wayside, partly because of some hideous stereotyping; black characters are little more than cheerful thieves in the Manhattan that Count Dracula visits. Copyright issues involving a featured Alicia Bridges song have also muted re-release plans. Dracula goes disco’ would be a better title for this film, in which the Count faces a fish-out-of-water culture clash as he encounters nightclubs, modelling shoots, psychiatry and various other late 70’s touchstones. Along the way, a shrink who is related to nemesis Van Helsing (Richard Benjamin) gets wind of the count’s plans and a duel of wits follows.

Love at First Bite is a more interesting film that a rather sketchy reputation might suggest; this isn’t quite Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the count can shoot steam jets from his mouth, bend metal with his stare, transform himself into a dog and control a horse and cart with his mind. The world he encounters is recognisably 1970’s, but it’s odd how some characters recognise the Dracula brand, and others don’t; Love at First Bite is so keen to get laughs it can’t maintain a consistent universe.

That said, Hamilton is a laugh here, playing straight and with great style in the way he’s constantly undercutting of his own gravity. Arte Johnson does well as his cockroach-loving sidekick Renfield, and there’s a few wierdly caustic lines like a psychiatrist saying ‘If you don’t pay for it, it won’t get better’ or a conquest who excuses her messy apartment by saying ‘I hate housework, it killed my mother’. The time-frame jokes are many and varied, but the best scene, a hypnosis duel, is timeless and a great moment; sure, Love at First Bite may have a few regrettable scenes, but there’s plenty of comedy meat on these often gnawed bones.

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Zorro The Gay Blade 1981 ***

It is becoming something of a ‘thing’ for film-makers to point out their inspirations by having a movie theatre prominently placed within their work. That’s fine if, as in It Chapter 1, the point is to pin down in time the specific summer that Derry’s local cinema is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2.  The device feels a bit more laboured when Zack Snyder pans over a 1981 cinema showing Excalibur in Batman Vs Superman, or Todd Phillips recreates the marquee signage from the same year of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in Joker.

Equally prominent in the same shot is Peter Medak’s Zorro The Gay Blade, a rather more neglected text that De Palma’s much frothed-over if effective thriller. Given Joker’s rejection of laughter, from clowns to Chaplin, is the suggestion that George Hamilton’s ‘zany, zexy, spectacular’ parody of the much loved swordsman signifies the death of comedy? Or could Arthur Fleck have been diverted from his murderous purpose if he’d just let a little spray-tanned self-deprecation into his life? The bottom line is that while real-world movies seem to exist in both DC and Marvel universes, it’s kind of hard to see how Zorro The Gay Blade exists in the miserablist world of Joker.

Zorro The Gay Blade certainly delivers on its title; Hamilton plays Diego, a athletic ladies man who doubles up as Zorro. An injury causes him to shirk his duties, and his flamboyantly camp brother Bunny Wrigglesworth (also Hamilton)  takes his place. Wrigglesworth prefers a whip to a sword and constructs a suit and cape combo in gold lame rather than black as he attempts to personalise the classic style of the Zorro brand.

Medak, who made The Ruling Class and has been touring with his Ghost of Peter Sellers film, was quite a craftsman, and assembles some great suppor for Hamiltont, from Ron Lieberman’s shouty villain to Lauren Hutton and Brenda Vaccarro, plus some well-staged action scenes. The stereotypes are larger than life, but not exactly crude; in fact, for 1981, they’re positively progressive.

Hamilton’s brief period as a bankable movie lead post his big Love At First Bite success ended with the muted reception for this film, but he’s in his element here, sending up his good looks and throwing himself into drag; it’s an anything for a laugh film. At a time when comic-book characters are getting so serious, it’s nice to see such an amiable, lightweight comedy, although what the over-analytical Joker fanboys will make of this as a reference to pore over is anyone’s guess.

Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

Dirty Weekend 1993

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Michael Winner was an A-list British director, who made a number of decent 1960’s comedies, then hit big with Death Wish and the sequels. He turned down the chance to make everything from The French Connection to Jaws, including the James Bond franchise. His regular TV appearances made him a household name in the UK; in 2011, David Cameron did a Michael Winner impression during Prime Minister’s question time. And despite his name being synonymous with bad taste, a number of his films (The Jokers, The Sentinel ) are pretty watchable. Dirty Weekend was his second last film, and it’s a bleak reworking of the Death Wish theme, but this time from a female point of view. Adapted with Winner from her own book, Helen Zahavi’s story depicts a young woman Bella (Lia Williams) who finds herself preyed on by various seedy men in the seaside town of Brighton, and takes revenge by killing them. Amongst those she encounters are Rufus Sewell as a Peeping Tom, an Iranian clairvoyant (Star Wars star Ian Richardson in blackface) and a dentist (Man from Uncle and NCIS star David McCallum). It feels like Michael Winner made Dirty Weekend to demonstrate some kind of kinship with feminists, but the result feels like a gross appropriation. It’s hard to recommend this horrid, ill-judged film, and yet it’s unequivocal in his condemnation of misogyny, and that seems to be why it was lambasted on release, and promptly banned by the BBFC for years. It’s no hidden gem, in fact it’s tone deaf to women, but as an example of how feminists are correct to fear men co-opting their arguments, it’s not without some kind of historical interest now that it washes up, briefly one assumes, on the most polluted shores of You Tube.

Parting Shots 1999 ***

Michael Winner was something of a tricky figure to sum up; he made a number of films in different modes, from swinging 60’s comedies to hard, violent dramas in the 70’s, notably Death Wish and a series of dour collaborations with Charles Bronson. His later films switch between horror (The Sentinel, Scream for Help), period (The Wicked Lady, Appointment with Death) and any other genre that took his fancy, including a failed attempt to make Captain America with Stan Lee. For his final film, Winner brought together a selection of his favourite actors and friends including Oliver Reed, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley and John Cleese. Cult fans will appreciate the combination of Dr Who stars Peter Davidson and Nicola Bryant, or a New Avengers reunion in the form of Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley, alongside fellow Bond girl Diana Rigg. The only problem with this star-studded line-up is the material, a script written by Winner from his own idea revisits Death Wish but as a comedy. It’s about a man called Harry who finds out he has inoperable cancer, and decides to buy a gun and kill everyone who he perceives as having wronged him. For reasons which can only be explained by the director’s vanity, AOR rocker Chris Rea, with no acting experience, plays Harry, and his presence not only jars every scene he’s in, but his music doesn’t fit the film’s themes at all. That’s Winner’s fault rather than Rea’s, but the rest of the score doesn’t help; it feels lifted from a Carry-On film. Parting Shots was derided on release as being in dubious taste, but there’s no sex, bad language or grossness, the whole notion of the film seems like a terrible idea and the execution is bland. Winner was trying to pull off a black comedy he doesn’t have the chops for, but there is something vaguely interesting about his inversion of the vigilante theme for comic effect. Fans of the considerable cast have been disappointed in Parting Shots, which has a reputation as one of the worst films ever made, but as a snapshot of a cross-section of resistible London media glitterati circa 1999, including BBC political commentator Andrew Neil in an inessential cameo, it’s not without sociological value.

Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.

The Thief and the Cobbler 1990 ****

the-thief-and-the-cobbler-post2A few long car journeys with a friend recently gave birth to a new conversational cliche; when you first discovered the internet, what was the thing you searched for? One of the original reasons that this blog was created was Richard Williams’ astonishing animated film The Thief and the Cobbler, which popped up in the amoral copyright-free wild west that was You Tube over a decade ago. This was big news; Williams’ masterpiece was considered to be incomplete, unfinished; the chance to see any version at all was like a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. Williams was an animator whose work ranges from his Oscar-winning version of A Christmas Carol to the bridging scenes of The Charge of the Light Brigade to such feted work as the Pink Panther credits and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That feature led to Williams being given the chance to make a feature with the huge scale of a Disney, or at least a Don Bluth, and Williams delivered a film of strikingly unique tone and appearance. Disney’s Aladdin is one of the Mouse House’s best, and there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of the drawings here. The Arabian theme is bent with imagination, creating dizzying worlds for the characters to step nimbly through. The Thief and the Cobbler has always been hard to track down; brief glimpses on You Tube are your best bet. It’s a shame that at the time of his death in August 2019, Williams’s terrific film was barely viewable; perhaps now is the time to exhume The Thief and the Cobbler and celebrate Williams as an all-time great in the field of animation.