Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 1987 ***

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The wheels had come off the Superman franchise for some time before Sidney J Furie’s final entry in the Christopher Reeve era; what’s notable here is how many of the original cast are on board for this famously awful film. Of course, Cannon were desperate for respectability, and the Superman franchise was one expected to generate a family friendly hit, even if Superman III was considerably bent out of shape by being reworked to showcase Richard Pryor. The fourth movie has an interesting premise; what is Superman took an interest, not in costumed foes, but real world issues like the nuclear arms race? The discussion about real world violence in Todd Phillips’ Joker movie has some echoes here, but Superman IV doesn’t go down that road at all. In fact, the movie doubles down on ludicrousness as Superman gathers all the world nuclear weapons, rolls them into a ball and shot-puts it into the sun. He does this after making a speech at the United Nations, which, for reasons which can only be to do with penny-pinching, is evoked by using the brutalist exteriors of Milton Keynes shopping centre in England. The real drama, if that’s the right word, doesn’t kick off until Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) takes advantage of the absence of nuclear weapons to create Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who looks like Trey Parker circa 2002. Superman and Nuclear Man fight on the moon in a blaze of sub-standard special effects; co-star Jon Cryer felt that the film was unfinished, and on this evidence, he’s right, Spotting Jim Broadbent, Mareiel Hemingway and Robert Beatty amongst the cast adds to the fun, and it’s strange seeing such an iconic cast phoning it in for a pay-check. Superhero movies have come a long way from this low-point, but for bad movie fans, Superman IV is a bottomless pit of amusement.

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Death Wish 3 1985 ***

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Third sequels go off fast, like milk left out of the fridge, particularly if the second entry in the franchise is as vile as Death Wish 2. Presumably feeling that there was no more mileage in terms of gritty hatefulness, exploitation and misogyny, Winner goes off in a silly post-Rambo new direction with the third turgid chapter of the continuing adventures of taciturn vigilante Paul Kersey, played with minimal effort and no application whatsoever by Charles Bronson. Kersey is back in New York, and Winner opens his film with a typical lack of flair by showcasing the side of a bus that Kersey is travelling on through the opening credits. After a few decent location shots in Port Authority bus station, the action shifts to a strange post-apocalyptic landscape; for one reason or another, presumably cheapness, Winner elects to shoot his NYC drama in what looks like an old schoolyard in England, and the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing in an Inception-type way. With three American cars and a couple of Victorian buildings, Winner and his team abjectly fail to conjure up the idea that we’re in NYC for a split second, and watching Bronson, Martin Balsam and Ed Lauter bumble around dull English street-corners gives Death Wish 3 the unprofessional air of an amateur/student film. Kersey arrives in NYC to spend time with a friend, but the attentions of various thugs including Bill and Ted’s not incredibly intimidating Alex Winter, set him on a Energiser-bunny rampage with one predictable take-away; ‘Blow the scum away.’ But rather than shocking the neighborhood, Kersey’s kill-fest delights various pensioners in the area, who are goey-eyed at his gift for constructing lethal man-traps and cheer from the windows as he mows down an army of thugs to create a kill-count that goes into double figures. Mourning widows break out ear-to-ear grins at the thought of impending violence, families share a smile like it’s Christmas Day when they hear of Kersey’s murderous sprees, while Jimmy Page contributes a raft of inappropriate music that sounds like a particularly jocular game-show theme. The mark of a truly terrible film is that, even on a third or fourth viewing, there are layers of awfulness to be discovered, and Death Wish 3 is a very rich text indeed.

Svengali 1954 ***

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Yet another baffling and yet still welcome random choice from Amazon Prime, the 1954 version of Svengali arrives in a print processed in the Awful-o-vision labs, with characters and set-dressing glowing and fading mid-scene and a pervasive air of murk that’s appropriate for the subject matter of male dominance. If you’ve heard men described as Svengalis, then we’re talking about control freaks, but the Svengali features here is even freakier than that. Played by Donald Wolfit, Svengali looks like Bela Lugosi playing Fu Manchu as Genghis Khan, and his every appearance provokes mirth. Wolfit’s protrayal of Svengali feels incredibly racist, although it’s not clear which particular race should be offended. An artist of some kind, he stalks the demi-monde of turn of the 19th century Paris, with acolytes including such richly Gallic actors as Michael Craig, Harry Secombe and Are You Being Served?’s Alfie Bass. The object of Svengali’s desire is Hildegard Knef, who plays an artist’s model from Ireland, going by the splendid name Trilby O’Farrell. As often as Trilby disrobes in private, Svengali loves to tickle the ivories in public, and clears crowded night-clubs by performing the death match; his plan is to hypnotise poor Trilby and convince her she’s a world-class singer. Given Wolfit’s bizarre antics, it’s hard to see what Trilby sees in him as he mumbles about ‘the music of the spheres’ and offers such romantic blandishments as ‘Sing, you clumsy oaf!”.  It’s a shame Amazon couldn’t find a better print that this, with all kinds of marks and splatter not helping a pretty dank looking film, but the eccentric performance of Wolfit gives Svengali all the fascination of a ten car pile-up; notorious as one of Britain’s most famously self-absorbed actors, Wolfit’s huge, unhinged performance was probably visible from space, and his gleeful, scenery-chewing antics genuinely have to be seen to be believed.

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.

Firepower 1979 ***

Producer Lew Grade certainly had an eye for a bad movie; ponying up for The Cassandra Crossing, Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic indicates a complete lack of discernment , and presumably that’s what led him to the door of director Michael Winner. Even Winner’s successes, notably Death Wish, are in dubious taste, but his worst efforts have to be seen to be believed, and Firepower is pretty bad. Originally developed as a Dirty Harry movie, Firepower is a shambolic violent caper movie set in a drab looking Caribbean. James Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a gun-for-hire who agrees to locate and secure reclusive businessman Carl Stegner, teaming up with Adela Tasca (Sophia Loren) who wants revenge on the billionaire for personal reasons. With the film-makers imagination seemingly taken up by thinking of strange character names like Manley Reckford, securing appearances by Jake LaMotta and OJ Simpson, blowing up buildings or demolishing them with bulldozers, there’s little chance for old-timers like Eli Wallach or Vincent Gardenia to shine. The final action scenes have a couple of great shots to recommend them, but most of Firepower is notable only as a repository of disinterested performances and seemingly improvised quirks; Loren’s ability to make scrambled egg sandwiches is her most interesting trait, while Coburn unwisely play two characters in the same scene without any special effects; Winner’s inability to frame the two characters convincingly reduces this scene, like many others here, into a Godardian mush of incoherence. There’s a lot going on in Firepower, but not much of it is in front of the camera; a brief glimpse of Victor Mature with green hair tops things off with just the right bizarre note in time for the closing credits. And any film which has a specific credit for saxophone solos deserves a  special mention in dispatches;  slathered over the locations like a cheap balm, these moments of musical noodling turn the stomach and yet tickle the mind with their awfulness, much like Winner himself.

Sextette 1978 ***

Someone, somewhere at Amazon Prime, with over a century of cinematic history to choose from, is coming up with Sextette as their new release on their streaming service. With Disney, Apple and Warners all launching their own platforms, it’s pretty odd that this legendary 1978 clunker should be the plastic jewel in Amazon’s Fall 2019 line-up. Sextette had been a stage vehicle for Mae West from 1961, and it’s clear that the most, or only remarkable thing about it was the star. A film version was announced in 1970, but by the time it got in front of the camera in 1978, West was in her eighties and somewhat less that the sin-sational broad promised on the posters. West certainly had presence, but she moves like a parking hovercraft and delivers her lines as if she’s never formed a sentence before, a phenomena that has inspired a number of urban legends. But there’s many a film in which an aged male actor froths over young women, so Sextette’s notion of having West meet six of her previous young husbands while staying at a London hotel isn’t necessarily awful. But Sextette is awful, and the contents read like a crime sheet. How about Mae West and Timothy Dalton performing Love Will Keep Us Together? Or West directing a flirtatious performance of Happy Birthday Sweet Twenty-One to the entire US Athletics team? Tony Curtis as a diplomat called Sexy Alexi? How about random cameos from Dom Deluise, Ringo Starr, Walter Pigeon, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and George Raft? Perhaps to compensate for the star’s immobility, all concerned give inhibited performances that must now be the subject of some regret. Hughes’s shambolic film switches gears with ease, balancing casual racism with tremendous homophobia while the cast pick their way through such mind-numbing innuendos as ‘Have you seen Big Ben? / I hardly know the man!’ Sextette is a car-crash of a film that has to be seen to be believed, filmed in a process which should be called Awful-o-Vision which makes everything look like its filmed through a screen door. After ninety minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve been trapped in Mae West’s boudoir with an assortment of 70’s glitterati; not pleasant, but an experience that you’ll never forget. Like the Mae-Goes-Disco version of Baby Face that climaxes the film, it burns it way into your consciousness, leaving you changed inside forever.

Prisioners of the Lost Universe 1982 ***

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Terry Marcel is an unheralded figure, but his unique comic book sensibilities seemed probably out of step with both the 70’s and 80’s. He went from first and second AD on projects as diverse as Straw Dogs and Pink Panther films to taking the directorial reigns on cult classic Hawk the Slayer and comic-strip revival Jane and the Lost City. He’s got a certain swashbuckling style that was never matched by his budgets; together with producer and musical maestro Harry Robertson, they wrote the script for Prisoners of the Universe, a very 1982 project involving time-travelling portals; HG Wells’ The Time Machine, or at least George Pal’s version, seems to be a jumping-off point. And what a jump; Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch is Dan, a man in a truck involved in a highway crash with Carrie (Kay Lenz) during a series of earth tremors. She visits the home of Dr Hartmann (Kenneth Hendel) a scientist who has constructed a portal to another dimension, and doesn’t see any reason by an earthquake might hinder his experiment, The three of them are transported a lost universe that looks exactly like a South African scrubland with some trees with paper plates attached, ruled with an iron fist by Kleel (John Saxon), who makes General Zod look like a social worker. There’s a giant who looks a lot like the late Greek singer Demis Roussos, talking geese, a midget thief and a number of the oddities which marked Hawk the Slayer, plus the kind of chat that grabs the attention; ‘This may only work on snakes who like music’ and ‘What am I supposed to do with a mad scientist for an hour?’ both rack up the points on the bad dialogue scoreboard in the first five minutes. Saxon, looking like Sean Connery’s stunt double and enjoying himself as usual, is something of a blast here, with plentiful catch-phrases and uncertain horse-manship; the actor had his fans in the US, but in the UK, John Saxon’s popularity dictates that his face appears on coins and stamps, and lucrative government grants are available to film theorists who can prove they’ve seen over fifty of his films. That’s not actually true, but it should be; meanwhile in a parallel universe that looks at lot like ours, Marcel’s daughter Rosie wrote the screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey; fans of bad movie dialogue can connect the dots themselves.