bijou reviews – D

The Dark
Mel Anderson, Vivi…
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aka: The Mutilator. Starring William Devane, Richard Jaeckel, Cathy Lee Crosby and Keenan Wynn. Directed by John ‘Bud’ Cardos.

I can still remember how creepy I found THE DARK (1979) upon initial viewing. Much of the impact was because the theater was vacant save a few patrons, and as I was projecting it upon initial theatrical run in a small, Southern one-screen cinema (CINEMA PARADISO but deep-fried), I was required to sit alone upstairs in the closed balcony to ‘watch it down.’
That meant: there was a lot of dark, empty space behind me, I was alone, and if I had found it necessary to, say, whip around to defend myself against an alien monster? I’d have been staring straight into the blinding, flickering carbon arc beam from the projector, helpless save for my spotlit expression of deer-like terror. Because the flick deals with the eerie, helpless feeling created by, say, being alone in an underground parking lot after a midnight screening lets out, my being in a cavernous old cinema castle made the spooky soundtrack really come alive as it echoed across the moldy walls.

I would have been much happier working at the white cedar log furniture manufacturing plant located a mile out of town than sitting by myself projecting the movie. Heck, I would have been happier dragging those cedar logs into the post yard in their raw form directly from the nearby forest, as long as it was daytime or work in their saw mill where the logs are debarked by taking off the bark from the cut cedar posts, or stacking the posts according to predetermined lengths that are blueprinted in the furniture plant. One of my friends works in the warehouse where all the parts for the cedar furniture are assembled and then banded up to be stored. Smells really good in there. Or perhaps it would be better working as a legal aid at our local lawyers’ office. The two lawyers seem to do a little of everything: wills and other legal documents, defending the accused, as well as offering car accident legal help for victims. I used their legal expertise when my wife was seriously injured in a car accident several years ago. They helped us to deal with the insurance companies and would have represented my wife if she had ended up pursuing her case in court. As it happened, she settled out of court, but their help was invaluable. And the working hours would be during the daylight hours. But NO, instead here I am nervous and on edge in a dark creepy space.

Did you notice that the eerie ‘gimmick’ effect THE DARK employs is not unlike the signature tubular bells in THE EXORCIST; an effective but overused suspense technique, consisting of whispered vocalists intoning ‘the darrrrrkkkkkk’ just above the threshold of human hearing (well, okay, way above that, actually). Still, like SUSPIRIA’s great goosepimple-inducing Goblins’ soundtrack, it really helps an otherwise tepid alien invader flick. There’s just something about creepy voices in horror movies, right?

Legend has it Tobe Hooper worked anywhere from one to three days on the picture before either walking and/or being fired by the producers. One source claims Hooper spent three days working on one scene with star William Devane, which seems pretty far-fetched given the miniscule budget. Also on hand are Cathy Lee Crosby, the ‘first’ t.v. Wonder Woman, Richard Jaeckel, and reliable genre vet Keenan (THE SEA SERPENT) Wynn. Fortunately, Wynn’s lively appearances suggest he was having a good time and indeed, he steals every scene he inhabits.

Speaking of Devane, he was a big star in those days, commanding huge salary in the 70’s era before multi-million dollars per pic was standard. This flick actually marks the beginning of his down and out days; now of course he has transitioned into being a fine character actor, always turning up for a dependable turn in studio fare.

It would be hard to defend his perf on any conventional level save “induced.” He literally wears his huge, dark retro-70’s sunglasses throughout the flick, whether in the sun-drenched Los Angeles exteriors or — more frequently — in the dark itself. Known for his super method intensity as a thesp, perhaps this was Devane’s attempt to “externalize” the literal title of the flick? 😉 Whatever his motivation (the reported $750,000 paycheck must’ve been, er, enticing), even during the ending apocalypse as the Alien attacks, Devane keeps ’em on, dodging beast and darkness alike in his quest to be ‘super cool & beyond.’ It’s so ludicrous because you just know he can’t see jack-shit wearing shades at night — especially considering the underlit night photography in most of THE DARK!

Or, since we’re speculating ala the media without facts at hand, perhaps Devane is motivated to keep his sunglasses on because of protesting Hooper’s dismissal and his being “reduced” to working with John ‘Bud’ Cardos, best-loved for the Shatnerpiece KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS? Especially since Cardos was hired to move it along and not spend days on a scene with Devane’s “character” which, unless a lot was lost on the cutting room floor, is sketchy at best? While genre fans love and respect Cardos’ efforts, stepping into the directorial gig after the first ringmaster has been let go surely must’ve made for lots of fun, long night shoots.

In fact, I like THE DARK for that reason, too: it has a B-movie sense of what photographs Los Angeles honestly that I miss these days, when every shot is “perfect” and — as a result — doesn’t capture anything true save the postcard image of the era in which it was/is created. Sure, c.g.i. is great, but so are real locations, which always suggest effects, shots and even whole sequences that even a great script doesn’t reveal in a studio environment. Even special effects guru Peter Kuran’s cel animated laser beams augment what was shot on set rather than suggest what will be shot on the set as is too often the case today with c.gi. “instant sets.”
Nothing prior in the flick prepares you for the outrageous ending, which is like a brief redux of THE WILD BUNCH meets Hawks’ THE THING, save for Holden blazing a Gatlin machine gun into his

enemies in a dying act, you get The Alien blasting his raybeam eyes into one doomed police officer after another; if the rest of the flick had been this over the top, its cult status would be much greater. It’s no stretch to say that it heavily resembles the cop precinct slaughter sequence in Cameron’s later THE TERMINATOR in both intensity and carnage against those whose hapless function (at least as far as these flix are concerned!) is to “protect and serve.”

More like, protect the R rating and serve them up! Of course, John Carpenter had done in much earlier and ultimately more effectively with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, minus the larger-scaled pyrotechnics.
So if you like those great old 70’s/80’s horror and sf flix that often went “straight to video” (this flick was an exception to that, by the way), which were often well-shot on 35mm and featured good talent on the way up or down, THE DARK is bound to satiate your sense of a classic slice of Americana cheese-whiz: all form, no content, but temporarily satisfying if you don’t mind your ‘non-dairy’ cheddar ‘product’ served pressurized rather than, say, aged and sliced. — Notes by Lou Escobar.

What Critics Say:

“…Decent craftsmanship in all departments….Richard Jaeckel is terrific…” — VARIETY 

”After ALIEN hit the film underwent re-editing to make it a quick ALIEN cash-in. All scenes of and referring to the zombie figure wielding an axe to behead its victims were eliminated… intended to suggest the creature was now an alien.” — SF, HORROR & FANTASY FILM REVIEW

“Tobe Hooper was supposed to direct it, but couldn’t get along with the producers, so he was replaced in day one… [producer] Montoro felt it was time to go, so he took out 1 million dollars out of the company’s funds, and disappeared, never to be seen again.” — THE UNKNOWN MOVIES PAGE 

”John Morrell’s photography, at times, you can’t see what is going on because the scenes are so dark, but I guess that is the purpose of the movie and makes some of the attack scenes scary… [Composer] Kellaway had just won an Academy Award for A STAR IS BORN in 1976, and he also wrote the theme for TV’s ALL IN THE FAMILY… a fun B-movie.” — SCI-FILM REVIEWS

Dynamite Chicken
Joan Baez, Lenny B…
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With Richard Pryor, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Fred Willard, & Jimi Hendrix. Directed by Ernest Pintoff.

Be forewarned: no poultry explodes during screenings of this movie, unless, of course, you get too engrossed, and overcook chicken in your microwave.

Rather, what we have here is an odd arty-fact that might appeal to fans of the old SNL (in fact, Michael O’Donoghue is in the film), vintage Richard Pryor (who garners the most space in this pastiche), early Second City Television, 60’s and early 70’s pop counterculture fans and pop iconographers in general.

DYNAMITE CHICKEN is directed by Ernest Pintoff, who worked on a slew of major TV series, such including Hawaii Five-O, the Six Million Dollar Man, Falcon Crest, and Kojak. Artistically,

however, his highpoint may have been his direction of shorts, including the Oscar-winning animation The Critic (with Mel Brooks) and the Oscar-nominated The Violinist (with Carl Reiner). Not too shabby in the comedy collaborators department, eh?

This 1971 film is, in a way, a collection of shorts. Actually, more like shorts, vignettes, skits, pieces of performance art, video poems, interviews, concert footage, animation, standup, parodies, collages, and more. It is flooded with ‘cameo’ and topical appearances and performances by dozens of the era’s celebrities: John and Yoko, Hendrix, BB King, Peter Max, Paul Krassner, Richard Pryor, Joan Baez, Michael O’Donoghue, Fred Willard, Andy Warhol, Jim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Ace Trucking Company, and many more.

The film has its moments — about 75 of them, in fact — it’s just that few are great, and most just interesting from a historical perspective. True, the Pryor routines are classic, those of us interested in this material know it well already, and it’s hardly

groundbreaking anymore. Again, DYNAMITE CHICKEN is best regarded as an artifact, a grainy, dark and even burnt-out (for those of you old enough to

remember the phrase) time capsule video collage depicting the issues and concerns of an era of, arguably, disillusionment as well as artistic, sexual (did we mention the nuns in lingerie bits?) and socio-political subversion. It’s alternatively grandiose, campy, self effacing, self-important, arty, nasty, funny and tired.

DYNAMITE CHICKEN isn’t the greatest work, but it is interesting for fans of the era and independent projects, and — in the end — it does contain cool moments and snippets of some of the most important artists and political figures of the time. — Notes by J.R. Sebastian.

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