Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Doll

The Doll, by Gerard Gormley
May, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Unjustly obscure, this Pinnacle paperback original deserved a better fate. At least it got a great cover illustration, courtesy Bruce Minney (who is credited on the copyright page); it’s a stepback cover, as shown below. And to Minney’s credit, he clearly read the manuscript (or was given good direction by the art director at Pinnacle), as he faithfully details the two main characters in the novel, as well as the bronze statue the protagonist works on, even down to the expression on the statue’s face. 

Coming in at 211 pages, The Doll is interesting in how it melds two disparate tones: the first half of the novel is essentially a love story, one complete with ‘70s-mandatory explicit sex. But the second half of the novel is a dark and disturbing descent into madness. My assumption is Gerard Gormley, who proves himself a gifted author, must have shot for the hardcover leagues but for whatever reason ended up publishing the book through Pinnacle…possibly not the best outfit for this book. I mean a subplot here concerns “The Man,” a Mafia bigwig in Boston, and one keeps waiting for the protagonist to call in Pinnacle Books star Mack Bolan

Opening in November of 1969, The Doll concerns Mark Forman, a thirty year-old sculptor who makes a meager living turning out statues in his Boston penthouse studio-apartment. Gormley well brings the character to life; Forman sports a beard (as per Minney’s illustration), and he’s very serious about his work, living almost a hermetic life. He’s approached one day by his landlord, Lou Pacino, who has a plush job for Forman: Pacino’s acquaintance, a wealthy man, wants a bronze statue made of his woman, and price will not be an issue. 

We already have an indication of the way the novel will be going, given the opening note that the story begins “like most nightmares.” Which is to say, without any indication that it will become a nightmare. But Gormley well establishes the forbidden nature of the romance that will expectedly ensue between Forman and the woman he is to create a statue of: Anna, a smokin’ hot “chestnut haired” beauty with violet eyes in her mid-twenties who is delivered to Forman’s door one day like a package. Gormley also handles the groundwork of the romance well, with the chemistry between Forman and Anna naturally developing and not seeming forced. Both characters are given personalities, and despite being a goddess-level beauty, Anna is easy to talk to and they have a nicely-developed rapport. 

Gormley also isn’t one to focus on the exploitation, which makes the ensuing sex scenes so hard-hitting. For one, when Anna does strip down for some nude sketches, Forman focuses on the task at hand before briefly allowing himself to “marvel at the perfection of [Anna’s] breasts” (size 36, as we learn when Forman takes her measurements), noting further that she is a “visual delight.” But instead the focus is on the chemistry between the two, rather than the exploitation of Anna’s ample charms. That said, the lovin’ doesn’t take too long to happen; but then, the two of them spend full days together alone in Forman’s studio, and one quickly detects that Anna is enjoying her time away from “The Man,” which is how Forman soon comes to think of the mysterious man Anna is the mistress of. 

In a way it’s all sort of like a rom-com or something; on their first day Anna asks Forman if he’s got a lot of girlfriends, but Forman claims he’s more of a shy type and wouldn’t even know how to hit on a woman as gorgeous as Anna, which leads to some role-playing that becomes serious quick for both of them. This leads to them thinking of each other all weekend, complete with Anna making surprise calls to Forman. Some of it is funny, like when Anna gives a tired Forman a massage, which gives him an immediate hard-on. But boy when the sexual shenanigans transpire, no sleazy stone is left unturned; it goes on for a few pages, complete with Anna’s explicit descriptions of her orgasms (“Darling, I’m coming again. Deep inside this time!”) and TMI detail like Forman “gloriously gushing” into her upon his own orgasm. Actually, “gloriously gushing” is used again in the novel; personally I think it should’ve been the title of the book. 

Here's where the “nightmare” angle comes into play, because – you won’t be surprised to learn – Anna’s boyfriend is clearly a high-ranking Mafioso. Anna is tight-lipped about him, but we learn he is not the expected old and ugly guy who could afford such a beauty as Anna, but rather a young and attractive man who happens to be in an unhappy marriage arranged by “the families.” So Anna’s in two secret relationships: one with “The Man,” which is kep secret from the Man’s wife, and one with Forman, which is kept secret from the Man. 

But the relationship with Forman is where Anna’s heart is, and Gormley does lay it on a little thick with Anna and Forman expressing love for each other, even down to ridiculous “foreshadowing” stuff where Anna proclaims how “even death” wouldn’t keep her from Forman. I mean let’s telegraph it a little more, huh? Also, Forman knows he’s getting in hot water because his landlord, Pacino, is becoming increasingly nervous on the project, saying how his friend thinks the statue should be done already – I forgot to mention, but Forman never even meets the Man, the entire project handled through Pacino. And it’s clear that the Man is starting to suspect Forman of intentionally taking his time. 

Gormley also well captures the artistic mindset and the laborious process of making a bronze statue. It’s not overbearing and is handled well, letting us see Forman in action. His goal is to capture Anna’s beauty – and also we learn that her body is so incredible that Forman decides to make it slightly less gobsmacking, so the statue will be more believable! He struggles over the expression for the statue, finally deciding on a yearning, gazing-into-the-distance expression Anna had on her face on that first day, when Forman was doing sketches of her; Forman had asked her to think of her childhood, and that was the expression on Anna’s face when she talked of being a child. This is also the expression Bruce Minney has tried to convey in his cover illustration, so again he either read the book or read this section to do a faithful job of it. 

The nightmare portion of The Doll develops just as naturally as the rom-com portion. Anna is quickly removed from Forman’s life, the Man calling her back – and having Pacino kick Forman out of his studio apartment, as the Man clearly suspects Forman of having screwed Anna. Even though Forman and Anna have no way of contacting each other, Forman not even knowing Anna’s last name, our industrious protagonist figures out a way to track her down…with devastating results. The ensuing sequence is out of a Pinnacle novel, complete with Forman getting beaten near to death by a pair of Mafia stooges. 

But whereas the hero of a typical Pinnacle book would recuperate and then train himself in the fine art of killing, Mark Forman instead tries to get his hands to work again so he can get back to sculpting. The novel gradually becomes more of a sick descent into a damaged mind, as Forman’s brain was injured in the beating, and gradually he loses any connection between fantasy and reality. This is how the titular “doll” comes into the story; Forman kept the wax mold used to create the bronze statue of Anna, meaning Forman has a perfect likeness of Anna…and he creates a life-size latex doll of this likeness. And soon enough he’s shopping for wigs of real hair, gemstone eyes of the same violet color as Anna’s eyes, using spare hair from the wig to create eyebrows and pubic hair, etc. Just a crazy descent into sickness, with the interesting gimmick that Gormley writes it all casually, given that Forman himself doesn’t think it’s sick – he’s just a man determined to get Anna back. 

So yes, the latter half of The Doll concerns a guy in love with a lifesize latex doll, even hollowing out a section in the crotch so that he can “gush gloriously” into it. And the madness is well handled, with Forman coming up with a complete alternate reality of what happened to Anna…sometimes the doll is really her, other times he realizes it’s just a simulacrum he’s made of her, etc. That said, I did find the reveal of what really happened to Anna a little underwhelming, and had wished for more insight into her story, even if Forman had to get it from someone else, like perhaps his landlord Pacino – again, I wanted more of your standard Pinnacle hero, more of a man of action who would’ve gotten the answers he wanted. 

Ultimately The Doll left me with a sick feeling, Gerard Gormley doing a great job of documenting a man’s slipping hold on sanity, but I felt that it was too hard of a punch after the easy, naturally-developing chemistry of the opening half. The book essentially delivers an unexpected uppercut to the reader, and I can’t say I enjoyed the experience…perhaps it would have been more palatable if it had built to a more satisfying climax. But Gormley is determined to tell a dark tale, and clearly his ending is more realistic than the one I would’ve wanted – say, Mark Forman buying himself a shotgun and doling out some bloody payback. 

That said, the finale itself is pretty nuts, dark, and twisted, with a pair of young hoodlums breaking into Forman’s studio and discovering the doll and, uh, having a little sick fun with it. When Forman gets back from an art show and discovers the transgression, he goes ballistic, and given that he’s now a psycho he has psycho strength, smashing out brains and whatnot. It’s crazy and all, but again just so out of sync with the vibe of the first half of the novel. But then as mentioned the novel is really two stories in the same book: a romance for the first half, followed by a hundred pages of a guy falling in love with a lifesize doll and screwing it a bunch. 

But on that note, I guess this element of The Doll was a lot more shocking in its day. Lifesize latex sex dolls are fairly common today; I think I have a couple in my downstairs closet. Just kidding. But didn’t I read a news story a few years ago about some dude marrying a latex sex doll? Crazy, but in retrospect I guess it’s no more crazy than marrying a real woman, is it? I mean at least the doll won’t nag you to death. 

As promised, here’s Bruce Minney’s interior illustration – as you’ll note, my copy has writing on it, but that’s cool. I don’t mind that sort of thing nearly as much as I once did. In fact I think it’s cool that someone named “Lottie” once owned this copy, and liked it so much she even wrote “please return” on it. Sorry, Lottie – I’m keeping it. 

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 18

Grindhouse/Drive-in movies

Invasion Of The Bee Girls (1973): Bringing the vibe of ‘50s paranoia sci-fi like Invasion of The Body Snatchers to the drive-in ‘70s, Invasion Of The Bee Girls follows the same path as those earlier drive-in flicks but adds in ‘70s-mandatory boobs. Burly William Smith is cast against type as an amiable, even-tempered State Department agent who spends the entire movie wearing a three-piece suit and smiling; you get the impression he’s dying to tear off the suit and start swinging his fists. Despite being somewhat miscast, he’s still good in the role, and like the same year’s Wonder Women this one almost comes off like the film adaptation of a men’s adventure series that never was. 

Written by Nicholas Meyer, there’s a bit more to the movie than the standard drive-in fare of the day, with various “readings” of the film possible. To me it seems a clear reaction to the women’s lib of the day, though spoofing it to a certain extent. The gist of the story is that men in smalltown Peckham, in California, are dying of massive heart attacks, apparently caused by lots of sex. Though the film never outright states it, the implication is clear: they’ve been fucked to death. But then, the movie is interesting in how it’s never too R-rated; while there is copious boobage, there’s little cursing and hardly any violence. It’s essentially a mainstream take on drive-in pulp, and perhaps it’s for this reason that Invasion Of The Bee Girls is relatively unknown: it’s too timid for the hardcore grindhouse fans and it’s too saucy for mainstream movie fans. 

Truth be told, it is a little slow-paced, operating more on a long-simmer mystery angle than the slam-bang sci-fi action one might expect. Smith’s character is called in because the men dying happen to be employed at a secret governmental research base in town, and the State Department is concerned of threats and whatnot. Safe to say, there’s never been a State Department officer who looked like William Smith (especially not in today’s “intersectional” era), but for a guy who spent the previous decade busting heads in various biker movies, Smith acquits himself well as a nattily-attired agent who’s just trying to do his job. There isn’t even the expected antagonism with the local cops; indeed, there’s a part midway through where the local police chief loses his cool over the “Fed” pushing in on his territory, and Smith just grins and apologizes for stepping on his toes. It’s way against type for Smith, but one imagines he enjoyed the opportunity to play less of a hot-head. 

While the movie spends most of its time focused on Smith trying to figure out what’s going on, the viewer already knows that sultry Anitra Ford, who plays a researcher at the secret base, is basically turning the town’s women into the titular Bee Girls. Now one thing to note is that the awesome poster for the film is misleading: the Bee Girls never wear costumes. 

But then, they don’t wear anything. One of the humorous bits about the movie is that all of these Peckham women are total babes: there’s a laugh out loud part where we meet the widow of one of the men – a heavyset bald guy who looks like Colonel Klink – and she’s a mega-stacked babe who goes topless throughout a practically endless sequence in which we see how the Bee Girls are created. But then, Smith’s character spends the entire movie working with a research assistant at the base who wears glasses and dresses conservatively, and late in the novel she too is captured and almost given the Bee Girl treatment, topless and showing off a body that’s straight out of Playboy…not surprising, given that the actress is Victoria Vettri, who was a famous Playmate in the late ‘60s. Indeed her centerfold picture even made it to the Moon, courtesy the rowdy Apollo 12 crew. Even here Smith’s character shows special consideration; he doesn’t even make his interest in her known until the end, when he throws her on a bed and climbs on top of her. Given that the camera pans over to a bee and we hear “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on the soundtrack as the two get with it, the implication is clear that Vettri’s character might have indeed become a Bee Girl. 

Overall Invasion Of The Bee Girls is fun, but one must think of it more as a hybrid of sci-fi and mystery, as it never goes to the action levels one might hope for. Production values are certainly high for the genre, with Anitra Ford’s high-tech secret chambers being especially cool. But the pace kind of plods at times and one wishes William Smith had been given more to do than just ask questions. That said, the movie scores points for featuring the guy who played the Mafioso in Black Belt Jones as a “sex researcher” at the base. Also, Charles Bernstein’s jazz-funk score is very nice, with an effective main theme featuring a wordless “la la la” melody that almost sounds like it could’ve come off an Italian picture of the day. 

Speaking of men’s adventure, there’s a part toward the very end where the Bee Girls lab is blowing up and William Smith watches the action through a window in a door, and he looks just like the profile portrait of Adrano on the Adrano For Hire covers: 

Seizure (1974): Back in 2016 I bought the Trailer Trauma grindhouse/drive-in trailer compilation Blu Ray, because it was the only new release of its kind after the awesome 42nd Street Forever series came to an end with its fifth volume in 2009 (save for a special Blu Ray release in 2012, which I of course got as soon as it came out, but while cool it was just a compilation of the first two volumes of the original standard disc releases). Trailer Trauma is now also up to its fifth volume – 2020’s 70’s Action Attack, which might be my favorite trailer comp of all time given that it focuses, as you might guess from the title, on ‘70s action – but I never got into the Trailer Trauma series much due to its focus on horror. I’m not a fan of ‘70s and ‘80s horror movies, really. Well anyway I was recently watching my Trailer Trauma Blu Ray…only to realize midway through that I never even watched all of it back when I got it. I think I just watched the first half. Well, hell, there was still a predominance of horror stuff on it, but toward the end of the disc there was this crazy trailer in French with people in a cabin in the woods and a long-limbed girl in panties and halter top fighting some guy with a knife, and the title was “Tango Macabre,” so I figured it was just some goofy ‘70s French horror flick. 

But then I happened to read the review of Trailer Trauma at DVD Drive-In, and was surprised to learn that the trailer was the French promo for a Canada-US film from 1974…a film directed, of all people, by Oliver frigggin’ Stone!! So needless to say I had to see it. It’s now out on Blu Ray and that’s how I saw it, but to tell the truth it would’ve been just as well if I hadn’t. Curiously listless, Seizure has a lot of potential, concerning a horror author/artist (Jonathan Frid, from Dark Shadows) hosting a weekend getaway (or something) at his cottage in the verdant French Canadian countryside. But man, for a movie that features the credit, “Herve Villacheze as The Spider,” Seizure never makes much use of its crazy setup. Basically our hero – such as he is – fears that his dreams are becoming reality, and three freaks crawl out of the woodwork and start making hell for him and his guests. Or maybe they’re escaped lunatics from an asylum…or maybe it’s all just a dream! Stone tries to have his cake and eat it, too, but the only problem is he doesn’t spend enough time preparing either (hopefully that lame analogy made sense). 

The movie is lethargically paced, and not helped by the fact that it takes itself too seriously…but then, it is an Oliver Stone picture! He does aim above his minimal trappings with staging that’s unusual for the genre, particularly using a handheld camera at times. So I guess one could see the makings of a future cinema heavyweight here, this being Stone’s first directing credit. And yes, Herve Villechaize is in the film, a few years before Fantasy Island and two years before The Man With The Golden Gun (according to IMDB the movie was filmed in late 1972). His part here seems to be a trial for that latter role, as he essentially plays the henchman of the lunatic chick in charge of the trio (there’s also a hulking black man with a horrifically-scarred face). But man, Stone saddles Villechaize with most of the movie’s dialog, and I had a helluva time understanding what the hell he was saying! It didn’t help that it seemed Stone (who by the way co-wrote the script as well) seemed to have penned this dialog after ingesting the poetry of Jim Morrison. It’s just way over the top, but at least Villechaize acquits himself well. 

The humor comes unintentionally, like the disperate group of “friends” who congregrate here…they spend most of the time fighting and bickering, to the point that you wonder what the hell they’re even doing together. Genre regular Mary Woronov (who appears elsewhere on this review round-up) shines as the young wife of a loudmouth; the two nearly steal the picture. Woronov though gets the honor; she is the aforementioned long-limbed babe in panties and halter top from the trailer, and she appears this way in the final quarter of the film, forced into a knife fight with the Dark Shadows guy. This scene here again shows Oliver Stone’s attempts at getting outside his contraints, with the camera going handheld again and close to the actors; Woronov looks like she’s trying out for the Conan picture (which by the way Oliver Stone also wrote! At least the first draft!), like a sort of ‘70s barbarian babe. She should’ve been the star of the movie. 

Seizure is curiously tame in the sex and violence departments; other than Wornov’s skimpy clothing, there is zero in the way of sex appeal, and no nudity whatsoever. Violence is also minimal, with only occasional bits of blood, and a gruesome bit toward the end where the hulking black villain crushes a guy’s skull (off-camera) with his bare hands, and we get a closeup of his hands afterward and there’s all this chunky goup on it (ie, the brains he just crushed out!). Oh, we also get some animal violence, with a quick cut of a poor dog hanging in the woods. “Quick” is the key word, though; Stone goes for a lot of “shock shots,” with super-quick hits of violence, but they’re so quick that the shock is ruined – like the aforementioned horrifically-scarred face. The first time it’s shown, it’s on-camera so fast you barely even register it. 

Another interesting thing from a modern perspective is that Seizure, like Hollywood Boulevard below, could almost be the work of a modern-day director trying to cater to an old genre form. And not just due to the lack of nudity – see, for example, Rodriguez and Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse movies, which slavishly catered to the form but somehow missed the key ingredient of female nudity and were set in the present day for some inexplicable reason – but also due to the film artifacts that occasionally pop up. By this I again refer to Grindhouse, with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in particular having all kinds of “bad film damage” digitally overlaid. We get almost this same thing in the “horror scenes” in Seizure; there will suddenly be film damage, like bad splices, when characters scream or react to something shocking or whatever. 

Otherwise Seizure was only interesting in that it showed the beginnings of a legendary career. But even “Herve Villechaize as The Spider” couldn’t save it, nor could Mary Woronov in her panties and halter top. 

Death Race 2000 (1975): I remember hearing about this movie all the time as a kid (I was born the year before it came out), so clearly it made some impact on the cultural radar. But, other than seeing bits and pieces on TV over the years, I never actually watched the movie until fairly recently. I’m not sure how well Death Race 2000 is considered now; the trailer does not appear on any of the grindhouse trailer comps I’m familiar with (which is a lot), and this implies to me that genre fans consider it too mainstream. Or maybe no one wants to talk about it due to the lame remake of several years back. (I assume it’s lame; of course, there’s no way in hell I ever intended to watch it.) But man, Death Race 2000 might just be one of the greatest grindhouse/drive-in movies of all time, featuring plentiful action, lots of nudity, and even horror effects courtesy the proto-Darth Vader garb “hero” David Carradine sports as “Frankenstein.” Plus it co-stars Sylvester Stallone!! (And it also features Mary Woronov – who will appear yet again in this review round-up!) 

The movie performs way above expectations and just gets better with age, though I bet it was a helluva lot of fun to watch in a drive-in back in ’75. It’s also a great reminder of how Hollywood once churned out fast-moving pieces of entertainment that didn’t wear out their welcome (the flick’s not even 90 minutes long), and featured plenty of nudity and violence. While the boobs and butts (and bush, in Woronov’s case) are real, the violence is spectacularly fake – the blood is this garish reddish-orange, and the outrageous gore effects are more comical than gut-churning. Limbs getting ripped off, heads getting crushed, etc; it’s all here, and it all looks more slapstick than violent, lending the film even more of a wonderfully dark comic vibe. 

This appears to be mostly due to director Paul Bartel, who cameos (uncredited) in the film as the doctor who attends David Carradine’s character Frankenstein in the beginning of the film. Bartel was known more for acting than directing, and indeed appeared in the following year’s Hollywood Boulevard (below), where he played a pretentious director – a film that included clips from Death Race 2000, adding even more self-referential comedy to a movie already filled with it. His direction here is great, with a rapid pace, steady shots on the big racing scenes (none of the shaky cam or cgi bullshit of today’s movies here), and the droll, blackly comic vibe seems like just the thing his character in Hollywood Boulevard would have done, again giving these two movies a cool sort of in-joke vibe. 

Carradine is very good in his role, underplaying it; he spends most of the movie in a leather costume and cape complete with full face mask. There’s a proto-Darth Vader element to the Frankenstein look, but unlike Vader this guy actually has a libido, so we have the required T&A when Frankenstein gets busy with his navigator, a blonde babe with a brick shithouse bod (Annie, as played by actress Simone Griffeth). Good grief these ‘70s women had it going on. The producers knew their audience; in addition to Griffeth’s frequent nudity, we also have a bit where she, Woronov, and Roberta Collins (as racer Matilda the Hun) get full-body massages in the nude…Woronov’s Calamity Jane and Collins’s Matilda get in a catfight, and we get a half-second confirmation that Woronov is indeed fully naked when she gets up off the massage table to confront Collins’s character. Stallone is also present, seeming quite the calm professional surrounded by all this bare female flesh. 

The dark comedy is perfectly handled and I love that the movie doesn’t play it safe, though I am glad the producers didn’t go all the way and show kids getting run over by the racers – kids and the elderly affording the most “points” when run over during the trans-continental race. That said, there’s none of the pandering a modern-day flick like this would stoop to; Frankenstein, even though he’s our hero, still runs over men and women without even looking upset about it. I’m sure if this movie were made today the hero would be fighting back tears everytime he had to run over someone, or he’d go out of his way to not run over anyone. (Oh, and of course “he” would be “she” if the film were made today!) I also enjoyed the political satire afoot with the guru-like president who openly lies to the populace (loved the running gag that “the French” are behind the attacks on the race, a government cover-up of the resistance movement) and the easy-going government officials who casually tell the racers they can have them killed. 

A year before he became famous for life, Stallone shines as Machine Gun Joe, and I got the impression he was ad-libbing his lines. Being a writer himself, I think it’s very likely Stallone was coming up with his own lines. There is a natural delivery to his performance and he’s clearly having a lot of fun, and from a modern vantage point it’s also fun to see him playing a bad guy for once. Also, where else can you see slender David Carradine beating up burly Sylvester Stallone? Plus there’s a hilarious part where Machine Gun Joe blasts a tommy gun at the audience before the race starts, and Stallone pulls a proto-Rambo grimace while blasting on full auto. There are also hidden storylines in the film for the viewer to ponder, like what exactly is going on between Machine Gun Joe and Frankenstein’s navigator Annie…who, by the way, also seems to have something going on with one of the resistance leaders. 

There’s also a cool postmodern vibe in play with the proto-reality TV element of the race, complete with gabby newscasters giving frequent updates or voiceovers, a la Survivor or The Amazing Race or other such bullshit. One of the newscasters is a pitch-perfect spoof of Walter Kronkite, and the other appears to be a spoof of a Rona Barrett type, a gossip-focused woman whose recurring joke has it that she is a “dear friend” of practically every important character. The entire movie is funny, with really no missteps, but manages to also pack a punch in the frequent action scenes. I mean I know many years ago Vanishing Point was proclaimed as the best of those ‘70s “car movies,” but really Death Race 2000 is better than any of them, and is probably the epitome of a drive-in movie. 

Hollywood Boulevard (1976): I only recently saw this movie for the first time, and couldn’t believe how much I loved it. Previously I was only familiar with the poster for it, and knew that it starred the blonde and lovely, should-have-been-a-huge-star, Candice Rialson. What I did not know was that Hollywood Boulevard was the first film of future heavyweight director Joe Dante (who co-directs with Allan Arkush), who had been cutting trailers for New World (in fact he cut the trailer for Death Race 2000) and who managed to convince Roger Corman to allow him to direct an entire picture. As mentioned above, there is a strange post-modern feeling to this movie…as if it had been made by someone who watched all of the 42nd Street Forever grindhouse trailer DVD compilations and tried to both spoof and pay tribute to the entire drive-in aesthetic. In other words, Hollywood Boulevard is everything Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse wanted to be, with the additional coolness factor that it was actually produced in the ‘70s. 

This one’s an actual comedy, but still manages to pack in action and the required nudity. Surprisingly Rialson isn’t the one showing off the most flesh; surprising because the lady had perhaps the nicest rack in film history. Good grief! Her topless scenes are for the most part tame, usually while quickly disrobing before some off-screen lovin’ (a fun element about the movie is that Rialson’s character “Candy” is more wholesome than promiscuous, and spends the movie with just one guy). Then of course there’s the rape scene. Actually, the rape scenes. Hollywood Boulevard is so “1970s” that a gang-rape is played for laughs twice: first when Candy must act out being raped by a bunch of enemy soldiers in a movie she’s shooting in the Philipines, and later in the movie when the “real” Candy is almost raped by a film projectionist and an audience member who get overly excited watching the aforementioned “fake” rape scene on the big screen. 

Dante and Arkush recycle footage from other New World movies, like the aforementioned Death Race 2000, complete with Candice Rialson wearing David Carradine’s leather Frankenstein costume. Meaning there’s even a cosplay element to the damn movie…that’s how ahead of its time it was! True, the humor is a little slapstick at times…the plot hinges on mysterious deaths plaguing the shooting locations of Miracle Pictures productions (“If it’s a good movie, it’s a Miracle!”), and the flick opens with a parachutist falling to her death – complete with a big Loony Tunes type bodyshaped hole in the ground where she hit…and moments later the producer, lothario P.G., is talking how most actresses would “die” to get in Hollywood. That said, Paul Bartel shines as a pretentious director, with a running gag of him giving “motivation” to the actors for the scene they’re about to play. But Mary Woronov steals the film, playing a bitchy diva and clearly enjoying every minute of it. 

Rialson as ever shines, but her role is limited to basically just being adorable; she is the na├»ve beauty who just wants to break into pictures, so she doesn’t get much opportunity to steal scenes like the others do. That said, there’s a great meta-fictional bit where her character goes to see her “big debut,” only to have to drive way outside of L.A., where the movie is playing on a triple-bill at a drive-in, and Candy gets progressively drunk and dispirited as she watches herself on the big screen…leading to that aforementioned rape scene. Oh, and Dick Miller also steals the show as Candy’s agent Walter Paisely (a character name Dick Miller often played), complete with running gags about former clients – the movie rewards multiple viewings, as in Dick Miller’s first scene he’s complaining that he’s just lost one of his big clients, a friggin’ elephant, and in a later scene, while Candy’s waiting in the car for a bank robbery that she thinks is a movie scene but isn’t, you can hear the commercial for a movie starring an elephant on her car radio. 

There’s actually a lot of meta humor throughout Hollywood Boulevard; when Candy gets her first gig with Miracle Pictures, Walter gives her directions and tells her to “take the Slauson Cutoff.” Anyone who watched Johnny Carson will get that one. Former Monster Kid Dante also inserts a lot of references to the old horror flicks, with Rialson even posing over the Hollywood star of Bela Lugosi in the opening credits. The direction is miles beyond typical drive-in fodder, with a lot of visual gags; the plot gradually concerns a killer stalking the Miracle Pictures crew, and in one memorable sequence the masked killer slashes a victim with a blade, and we cut immediately to barbecuse sauce dripping off Walter’s chicken onto a newspaper headline about the murder. Another part has P.G. about to get it on with two lovely actresses at the same time, and we get a quick cut to the foam erupting from a beer can someone’s popped the tab on. This is in addition to the visual cues to genre films, like for example the clear tribute to Mario Bava in a late scene where the killer stalks prey on a darkened, fogswept movie lot. I’m not as familiar with the work of Allan Arkush, but one can clearly see the seeds of Joe Dante’s future work here; the movie is just as much a tribute to the genre as his later unsung piece Matinee was to its genre. 

Almost all drive-in genres are spoofed: women in prison, women with guns, car races, giallo-type thrillers, etc.  Godzilla is even here, courtesy a guy who randomly enough is wearing the costume during one of the shoots – leading to another of those goofy gags, where Godzilla gets up off a toilet (which for some reason is sitting in a field in the middle of a shooting location) and throws the script he’s reading into the bowl. Again, the movie is very much both tribute and spoof of the stuff one thinks of when one thinks “drive-in movie,” spoofing the exact sort of thing you see in the various grindhouse trailer compilations out there; indeed, I recall reading that Joe Dante was involved with the Alamo Drafthouse’s 2012 compilation Trailer War, which is one of the best drive-in compilations out there. 

But whereas Matinee was a love letter to a long-gone time, Hollywood Boulevard is a time capsule of a long-gone time; when Candy, her boyfriend, and Walter go to the drive-in theater to see Candy’s movie, we have a long sequence of the experience. It’s obviously done for comedy, with most of the audience drunk, rowdy, and horny, but at the same time it allows us in the modern day to experience what it might have been like in the era. This for me is the highlight of the film; you almost feel like you are there with the three characters. It’s a fun scene, complete with Candice Rialson apparently getting drunk for real. One part that really cracked me up was the sound effects on the film playing in the background; when they watch Candy’s Philipines-shot flick “Machete Maidens,” there’s a quick shot of the movie screen, showing a girl being whipped by another woman; a scene taken from The Big Doll House. The camera cuts back to the trio in the car, but you can still hear the movie in the background, and the girl getting whipped sounds like she’s enjoying it. It’s been years since I saw The Big Doll House (I plan to watch it again soon), but I suspect this audio was newly added by Dante and Arkush. 

There’s also a lot of great dialog in it, most of it again genre-referential. Like when one of the characters is killed in the Philipines and someone says to call the cops, and Mary Woronov (who plays “Mary,” just like Candice Rialson plays “Candy,” adding more of a meta nature to the flick) deadpans: “This is the Philipines. There are no police.” One could clearly come to that conclusion after watching the Philipines-shot action movies of the ‘70s. My only complaint is that sometimes the comedy gets too broad, at least in the callous played-for-laughs reactions to various deaths. There’s also a curious bit a little over halfway through where the crew is about to shoot a 1950s film, but it’s just as abruptly dropped; one gets the impression it was inserted for time. I read that Hollywood Boulevard was shot in a mere ten days, for under sixty thousand dollars, but you’d never guess it, as it’s genuinely a quality film, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Adrano For Hire #4: The Blood Bargain

Adrano For Hire #4: The Blood Bargain, by Michael Bradley
April, 1974  Warner Books

The fourth and final volume of Adrano For Hire picks up three weeks after the previous volume, Gary “Michael Bradley” Blumberg again turning in a slow-moving ensemble piece that could only be considered “men’s adventure” due to the uncredited cover art. There isn’t much mystery why this series didn’t continue, as doubtless readers in 1974 felt swindled by the misleadingly-packaged series. 

Last we saw Adrano, he was relaxing with mega-rich drug buddy Jean Paoli in his fancy retreat in Marseilles, looking forward to reading some literature and whatnot. But when we (eventually) meet up with Adrano this time, he’s chomping at the bit to get back into action. This is set in motion by a long opening sequence in which a wealthy banker is assassinated in Beirut, and ultimately we’ll learn that the banker was connected to Paoli’s business affairs in the drug world. Paoli will activate Adrano as his enforcer to stave off future assassinations – and find out who is behind the plot to take down Paoli. 

But as mentioned this is an ensemble piece, so we also have busy subplots about a girl who witnesses the assassination in Beirut, and becomes another target of the killers. We also have a contract hitman, the one who is doing the assassinations, who happens to be gay (indeed, we learn in background material that he was “gang-raped” in prison)…and wants money so he can have a sex-change operation. I love finding modern-day topicality in old books, and boy, The Blood Bargain is in a league of its own, with subblots involving transsexuals and Palestinian radicals! 

But even at 170-some pages, The Blood Bargain is still sluggish. That cynical vibe of previous books is still here…though “sardonic” might be the more accurate term, as Adrano himself is referred to by Marie, the female character who witnessed the assassination in Beirut…and who happened to sleep with Adrano back in the first volume, when he was posing as “Joseph Abel” and wearing a disguise. Once again she will become involved with Adrano, and author Blumberg develops a subplot at the very end of The Blood Bargain that Adrano and Maria might become a more serious thing, given that Adrano apparently tells Marie he loves her in his sleep after their off-page bedroom shenanigans. 

In fact, Blumberg sets up another subplot at the end of the novel, which presumably would’ve had repercussions in a fifth volume of Adrano For Hire. Namely, Adrano’s benefactor Jean Paoli vows to get revenge of Tony La Rocca, a Mafioso in the US who ultimately turns out to be behind the attack on Paoli in this volume. Both Adrano and Marie are pulled into it, with Adrano not wanting to get involved but knowing he’ll have to if only to protect Marie. I can’t say I’m sad there was not Adrano For Hire #5, as I can already imagine what it would’ve been like: a long-simmer yarn with a “sardonic” protagonist and lots of time-wasting stuff about one-off characters. Such is the case with The Blood Bargain, and such was the case with the previous three volumes. 

To wit, so much of The Blood Bargain concerns new-to-the-series characters like Mickie, the homosexual hitman who wants to “go to Sweden to be a real woman,” La Rocca’s enforcer Tex, and a former Muslim terrorist who through the fortunes of fate has become a smuggler. There’s also a lot of stuff about Rashi Nuhr, a banker in Beirut who was the apprentice of the assassinated banker who managed Paoli’s affairs; it is this banker who is murdered by Mickie in the first pages of the book, the assassination witnessed by Maria, and Nuhr knows he is next on the list. So this entails a drawn-out affair of Nuhr hiding, Tex and Mickie trying to find Nuhr, and Paoli and Adrano trying to find everyone. 

As usual, Adrano is lost in the shuffle. We’re often told he’s bored and ready to get back in action – both of the fighting and the sex varieties – but once the action does begin to happen, he spends the novel sweating in fear. Literally. Blumberg makes a big deal out of Adrano and Marie smelling like “goats” in the climax, stinking of “fear sweat” and “exertion sweat.” Also I thought it was funny that Adrano spent a large chunk of the narrative stuck in a dark apartment. Action is smallscale for sure, with the main villains being Mickie and his boss Tex, who has been called here to Beirut to fix Mickie’s various screwups. Action is also infrequent, and not in the least dwelt upon: “Adrano put a bullet in his head” is literally the extent of it. But then, Blumberg isn’t much of an action writer to begin with, particularly given that he arms Adrano with a .38 revolver that somehow has a safety on it. 

Rather, the author’s focus is on long-brew tension, with lots and lots of stuff about Nuhr hiding in Beirut in various states of panic as Tex and Mickie try to get a lead on his whereabouts. And meanwhile Paoli and Adrano come into town to figure out who is behind the plot. This is how Adrano meets Marie once again, literally bumping into her in a darkened apartment in Beirut, where he’s been taken by a pair of stooges who have captured him. As ever, Adrano is quite prone to getting abducted. And Blumberg further demonstrates how he isn’t much of an action writer when Paoli, in Beirut, provides several guns for Adrano to use, from rifles to submachine guns, and Adrano just takes a .38 police special! At least Adrano eventually uses it here in this “darkened apartment” sequence, but the action scenes are perfunctory and Blumberg is more focused on people running, hiding, sweating, and stinking. 

There’s also a moronic part where Adrano could kill a couple thugs and save himself some future trouble, but doesn’t kill them on account of Marie’s feelings, concerned it would be “too much for her” after she’s been taken captive and all! But Marie does serve as the main female character in The Blood Bargain, at Adrano’s side in the long running sequence that comrpises the final quarter of the book. As mentioned though the sex is all off-page (taking place during a much-needed shower at novel’s end), and here Marie learns that “Joseph Abel” is really a guy named Adrano…though I have to admit it rankled me that Adrano says here that “Joseph” is a “crummy” name. Sure, there’s a crummy President by that name, but the name “Joseph” itself isn’t crummy at all!! The bigger question at the end of the book is if Adrano will tell Marie that he’s really an ex-Mafioso with a price on his head, etc. 

Again, all this no doubt would’ve factored into the fifth Adrano For Hire that never was, as would Paoli’s war against Tony La Rocca. But I’m not upset that this book never came to be; overall I wasn’t much impressed with Adrano For Hire and found each volume a struggle to get through. Regardless, Gary Blumberg at least seemed to be invested in it, as there’s definitely a connecting thread to each volume.  He must have been a fast writer, too, as the entire series was published in two months!  But ultimately I wasn’t much of a fan of this four-volume series.  

Thursday, May 2, 2024

No One Here Gets Out Alive

No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
April, 1981  Warner Books

The Doors are one of those groups that go through phases in popularity. Huge in their day, then forgotten, then rediscovered due to the publication of this book, then again super famous in 1990 with Oliver Stone’s film hagiography of Jim Morrison; I still remember how the rock chicks at my high school traded out their Motley Crue shirts for Doors shirts when that movie came out. I also recall seeing this very paperback a lot around school. It seems that today we might be in one of those phases where it’s more common to see the Doors put down, their impact on the era minimized, and the poetry of their lyrics ridiculed. 

So, just to put all my cards on the table, I think the Doors were one of the greatest rock groups of the ‘60s (which is to say ever), I think Jim Morrison had the greatest voice in rock, and I’d rather listen to them than the The Beatles or The Rolling Stones any day of the week. 

So it’s strange it’s taken me so long to get around to reading No One Here Gets Out Alive. First published in trade paperback in 1980, the book essentially relaunched the Doors as one of the most popular rock acts ever; the previous year saw “The End” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which probably gave the band’s popularity just as much of a boost. Plus the version in the movie was uncensored, with Morrison dropping some f-bombs that were cut from the original record release; man I spent forever searching for a release with this version (it wasn’t on the soundtrack), but it wasn’t officially released until 1999, when it came out on one of the Doors remasters. 

At nearly 400 pages of smallish print, there’s more to No One Here Gets Out Alive than I assumed there’d be. Danny Sugerman was a young fan of the group who eventually handled their fan mail; for some reason he appears in this book as “Denny Sullivan,” and not under his real name. Jerry Hopkins was a reporter who did the big inteview with Morrison for Rolling Stone, and it’s my understanding Hopkins had wanted to do a bio of Morrison for some time, not finding any interest from publishers until Sugerman came on board – I guess the “sell” being that Sugerman would add a lot of behind-the-scenes info about the band. 

But then…boy, the other Doors are supporting characters at best in No One Here Gets Out Alive. This really is a bio of Jim Morrison, with the caveat that Morrison was such a chameleon – particularly, a chameleon who drank a whole helluva lot – that you come out of the book with no greater understanding of him than you had before you read it. Essentially the book is comprised of Jim Morrison doing this or that other insane thing while drunk off his ass. Big events, like recording albums or giving concerts or whatever, aren’t much dwelt upon, and indeed in most cases they just happen in the narrative. If you are looking for any sort of peek into the creative process, forget about it. And if you’re really into the Doors and want to know about their two post-Morrison albums, Other Voices and Full Circle, you can totally forget about them (if you haven’t already); they aren’t even mentioned. Even the posthumous Morrison collaboration An American Prayer isn’t mentioned. 

Another thing to note is that No One Here Gets Out Alive, despite being the impetus for a Doors renaissance (up to and including Stone’s film, which largely was inspired by the book), is now itself ignored by Doors fans – it has been put forth that the book is mostly fan fiction with little bearing on the real Jim Morrison, and in particular that Sugerman tarnished Jerry Hopkins’s actual research with a lot of b.s. Morrison idolization. See this 1981 interview with Doors producer Paul Rotchchild for a telling condemnation of the book…particularly given how Rothchild’s comments to Hopkins were changed by Sugerman prior to the book’s publication. 

That said, the book reads just fine as a sensationalistic rock expose. I knew I was in for a good time when I saw that, on the very first page, Danny Sugerman in his Foreword wrote “This book neither propels nor dispels the Morrison myth,” and then, in the very next paragraph, wrote, “My personal belief is that Jim Morrison was a god.” And this friends is pretty much the vibe No One Here Gets Out Alive maintains throughout, alternately informative and idolatrous. 

We certainly aren’t talking about a fantastic piece of word-painting like Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, still the best rock bio I’ve ever read. Hopkins and Sugerman do occasionally go into literary flourishes to describe Doors music, but for the most part their focus is on the lyrics. Even then their criticism is not on the level of Paul Williams or the like, but more along the lines of a fanzine. We don’t even get much in the way of the behind-the-scenes material Sugerman supposedly would’ve value-added, at least insofar as the music goes, other than occasional rundowns of how such and such a song sounds. 

What we do get is the rambling, exhaustive account of a very gifted but very troubled artist. I have to say, I got very sick of Jim Morrison over the course of No One Here Gets Out Alive, just tired of his constant drunken escapades, but at the same time it was a refreshing reminder of how rock stars were once so casually self-destructive. I mean the flyweight “rockers” of today are too busy hawking merchandise or posing for social media; Jim Morrison would get blitzed and hang from a balcony ten floors up. But man, it isn’t this sort of shit that makes a legend – I mean I’m 49, so I was born after Morrison was dead and wasn’t around at the time…but I’ve known about the Doors since I was a little kid, and I never knew much about Morrison’s personal life. It was the music I knew and responded to, and doubtless that will continue for future generations. 

And Morrison surely was the key to the Doors’s success, even though he himself was uncomfortable with that notion. If you need any indication, just play the albums Other Voices or Full Circle, laughingly credited to “The Doors,” even though Jim Morrison isn’t on either of them. In fact, play “Ships With Sails,” one of the better tracks off Other Voices, with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals, and you might think it’s okay, even if it doesn’t really sound like the Doors. But then…then play the same track with an AI Jim Morrison, and suddenly…suddenly that same track sounds like the Doors. With two songs you can prove who the key to “the Doors sound” was, if for some reason you ever questioned that. 

One thing I’ve forgotten to mention is that the authors also have a tendency to recreate conversations, giving the book the feel of fiction, sort of like Dakota Days. So we’ll periodically have parts wher Morrison is talking to this or that person, and it’s relayed as dialog between two characters, so clearly it is fiction, given that neither writer was there to hear what was actually said. In some ways, No One Here Gets Out Alive is essentially a rock novel; it certainly has the “drugs” part down – though Morrison became more of a heavy drinker than a drug user – and there’s even a bit of sex at times, though Morrison’s conquests are not thoroughly detailed. We do get the random mention, however, that Jim at one point “butt-fucked” a girl…with the quotation marks around it and everything. 

Surprisingly I found myself really enjoying the pre-fame stuff. Usually with these books I don’t care too much about the background, but in Jim Morrison’s case I enjoyed it – particularly the cerebral essays he would secretly write for his younger brother’s school assignments. There’s also lots of stuff about Morrison and his issues with his father, a career Navy officer who was the youngest admiral onboard a ship, or somesuch. Great insight here on young Jim’s part when we’re told how he would see his dad on his ship, bossing around all the men…but then his dad would go home and take out the garbage when his wife told him to. This kernel, while just a quick humorous note in the narrative, actually serves to explain Jim Morrison’s personality more than practically anything in the ensuing 300+ pages; he was never to be bossed around by any woman. 

I also appreciated how the formation of the band was essentially a casual thing that just happened to fall perfectly together. Speaking of the book’s length, the long page count undermines how briefly the group was even together; they were only around for four years, and fame came to them rather quickly. It’s no wonder Jim Morrison, who was the focus of 99% of the attention, struggled with his newfound fame. The book makes it clear that alcohol was the drug he turned to; indeed, No One Here Gets Out Alive is more a document of a (barely) functioning alcoholic than it is an expose on a rock band. For that matter, “rock stuff” is minimal, with minor asides about this or that concert, or this or that personality – I mean we’re told in passing how Morrison got drunk and puked in a bar while hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, with no further detail…meanwhile, I’ve had a shitty bootleg CD for decades that features Morrison and Hendrix performing together on a small New York stage sometime in 1969 or thereabouts. Sounds like the greatest thing in rock history, true, but in reality it’s barely listenable due to poor fidelity and Morrison is drunk as hell, wailing “fuck my baby in the ass” intermittently. Wow, that’s two references to anal sex in the same Doors review! 

I might be an anomaly in that I prefer the later Doors material; I’d rather hear “Five To One” than “Light My Fire.” And the title track of The Soft Parade is one of my favorite Doors songs of all, and I think their last album, L.A. Woman, is their best. But still, it would have been nice to have just a little more info on the sessions that produced the albums. There’s almost this weird sort of inevitability to the narrative, as if the band was just following some pre-ordained trajectory: we’re told “it was time to record the new album” and such, with no topical detail on how they’d worked up the material or whatever. But again this is also a reminder of how labels drove their acts so mercilessly back in the day. One must argue that the methods of the labels did produce results: I mean here we are still listening to music recorded over 50 years ago. In 1969, who was listening to 78s recorded in 1919? 

But it’s less about the music than it is about Jim Morrison getting drunk, with stuff about his “cosmic mate” Pamela often in tow. There’s also a Wiccan rock critic named Patricia, but the merits of the book could be judged on the fact that the authors consistently misspell her last name: they have Patricia Kennely, but it’s actually Patricia Kennealy. Humorously, we’re often given minor asides like how Morrison flies somewhere to see the Stones, or how he went to see Canned Heat, or etc, but the book very much gives the impression that Jim Morrison had no interest in rock music. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I did get a chuckle out of the part where the Danny Sugerman character asks Morrison if he can get “Denny” tickets to a sold-out Rolling Stones show, and Morrison, giving him a hard time, replies, “What do you need Mick Jagger for when you have me?” Indeed! 

And do not go into the book hoping for interesting tidbits about forgotten Doors lore. Even standard fan stuff like “The Celebration Of The Lizard” is given short shrift, the authors merely leaving it that the band was unable to record it to their liking. And there’s no mention at all of “Rock Is Dead,” that bizarre hour-plus “song” recorded during the Soft Parade sessions that was bootlegged over the years, before officially being released some years ago. Actually that track explains much of what Morrison was doing at the infamous Miami concert, which happened right around the same time as “Rock Is Dead” was recorded. The authors quote some of Jim’s onstage antics during that show, and the lines he is quoted as saying to the audience – “I want to see some dancing,” “I want to have a good time,” etc – are taken directly from what he says on “Rock Is Dead.” So it seems clear that the authors are correct and that Morrison was indeed doing a sort of performance piece at Miami, and it wasn’t just a drunken tirade. 

I’d only read the barest of details about Miami, but the book makes it clear that the charges were trumped-up by biased prosecutors and judges who had an eye on the political field and were looking for votes. Boy, how times have changed. I also got a post-ironic chuckle of how the FBI even got involved in it, further persecuting Morrison. But according to the book, Morrison was inspired by a confrontational play he’d seen in New York and was looking to do something similar on stage, and was only going to strip down to his boxers. What I hadn’t realized was how this Miami debacle essentially killed the Doors, at least as a performing group, given how they were blacklisted in so many places. 

Otherwise the book moves at a good clip, documenting all the high notes in the brief timeline of the Doors, without getting too much in the weeds. We’re also told a little about Morrison’s pursuits in writing and filmmaking, with MGM at one point trying to get him as an actor. But with his wanton drinking and self-endangerment, it’s clear that, subconsiously or not, Jim Morrison didn’t plan on sticking around long. This again is a narrative conceit of the book, which often brings up the destructive bent of the poets Morrison admired. The problem is, Jim Morrison isn’t the most relatable of protagonists, and reading the book one does not understand how people could be drawn to him – we are told nothing of any kindness on his part, or much of a sense of humor other than mean practical jokes. So even as someone who knew next to nothing about the Doors, other than their music, even I could detect that something was missing in this presentation of Jim Morrison. 

But I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s curious that No One Here Gets Out Alive is the book that made the Doors popular again, but I guess it’s an indication of how if something comes out at just the right time, it will resonate. Perhaps in the post-punk, bland New Wave early ‘80s a book about a drunk and disorderly rock star from the ‘60s was just what people needed. But man…in today’s emasculated era, where Supreme Court justices can’t even define what a woman is, we need a rock star like Jim Morrison more than ever. And speaking of which – color me shocked that Morrison was “politically conservative,” at least according to this book! Man…if he’d lived, he could’ve sang at a Trump rally! Come on, people, just imagine an old Jim Morrison singing “Peace Frog” to a packed Trump audience! I can see the incensed CNN reporter now: “They were singing about ‘blood in the streets’ at a MAGA rally!!” 

Seriously though, I wouldn’t say this was the best rock bio I’ve read, not by a long shot, but I did enjoy a lot of it. It also made me decide to read that Doors bio by Mike Jahn I picked up many years ago, which seems to be scarce these days.