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 naïve 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.


Johny Malone said...

Tarantino and his henchmen turned out to be pasteurizing agents of the uncomfortable cinema of the past.

Film Buff said...

I got the VHS copy for Seizure.

Gene Phillips said...

I've always thought it interesting that Frank Herbert's HELLSTROM'S HIVE came out the same year as BEE GIRLS. I suppose the only influence Meyer might've taken would be if he encountered some advance info on the book and then just did his own take on the general subject...

Grant said...

I can never help thinking that BEE GIRLS is also a kind of inside-out version of THE STEPFORD WIVES. Which is funny since, even though it would've come out after that book, I guess it came out before the film version.

Along with many others, one funny part is the "George and Martha" type couple in the town, with her line about sex - "If I thought it WOULD kill you, I'd do it!"