Monday, June 20, 2022

Kolchak Returns in The Night Strangler

Things have not gone well for brash reporter Carl Kolchak since he destroyed a vampire in Las Vegas in The Night Stalker (1972). Most people don't believe his story and those who know it's true have quashed it. After relocating to Seattle, Kolchak (Darren McGavin) convinces his former editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) to hire him at the Seattle Daily Chronicle. His first assignment involves the murder of a young woman who was strangled.

Kolchak quickly discovers the most recent murder is one of a series of killings with the same modus operandi. With the help of newspaper researcher Titus Berry (Wally Cox), Kolchak discovers a bizarre pattern of homicides: Every 21 years, six women are killed in the vicinity of Pioneer Square within a period of eighteen days. In each case, the victims' necks are crushed and a small amount of blood is drained by the base of their skulls. Kolchak presents his facts to the police, but they reject the notion that they're chasing a killer who is 144 years old!

The Night Strangler (1973) adheres closely to the formula that made The Night Stalker a rating smash the previous year. Once again, Kolchak proves capable of doing anything to get his story--even risking the life of an undergraduate student/exotic dancer played by Jo Ann Pflug (who admittedly agrees to serve as bait). Carl belittles the police for not doing enough and engages in shouting matches with his editor (who took a huge risk in hiring Kolchak after Vegas).

Indeed, the Kolchak character could be downright unlikable if not for the fact that he's played by Darren McGavin. The actor finds the key in portraying his larger-than-life character: For all his huff and puff, Kolchak just wants to uncover the truth. Kolchak provides his own comic relief at times, but he's also willing to do what it takes to make the streets of Seattle safe again.

Wally Cox as Mr. Berry.
Personally, I find The Night Strangler more entertaining than The Night Stalker, largely because producer-director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) cast a colorful group of classic Hollywood actors in supporting roles: Scott Brady plays the tough police captain, Margaret Hamilton pops up as a college professor with knowledge of the occult, and John Carradine is the Chronicle's publisher. The best supporting performance comes from the always reliable Wally Cox, whose greasy-haired researcher toils in the bowels of the newspaper's building. Also, be sure to look quickly for Nina Wayne as another exotic dancer; she is the sister of the late Carol Wayne (a semi-regular on The Tonight Show).

Richard Matheson (Duel), who wrote the teleplay for The Night Stalker, penned an original story for The Night Strangler. It also works better than the previous film, because the audience doesn't know what kind of monster is causing the mayhem. The climax in the Seattle Underground is also genuinely creepy. Note that there are two different versions of The Night Strangler, a 72-minute cut that aired in 1973 on the ABC Movie of the Week and a 90-minute cut released overseas for theatrical distribution.

Kolchak confronts his editor--again.
There are numerous stories about planned Kolchak films that were never made. In a 2004 interview, Dan Curtis said he wanted Kolchak to go to New York City and discover that Janos Skorzeny--the vampire from The Night Stalker--was not destroyed after all. Alas, that film was never made because ABC decided to make a TV series with McGavin called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Now something of a cult show, the series only lasted for 20 episodes. It quickly became redundant with Kolchak fighting a new creature every week. I think Carl Kolchak would have lasted a lot longer had the character been featured solely in one or two movies a year.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Five Favorite Shark Movies

1. Jaws (1975) - It's an obvious choice for the No. 1 spot, but it's also the only choice, isn't it? Time has improved this impeccably-made blockbuster that functions as two films. Its first half focuses on the political and financial implications of closing the Amity Island beaches on the busy Fourth of July weekend. The island's mayor doesn't want to believe there's a people-eating great white shark lurking in the waters, while police chief Brody desperately tries to convince the locals of the impending danger. The second half of Jaws is a masterful suspense "film" that finds an unlikely trio--Brody, oceanographer Matt Hooper, and local shark expert Quint--hunting the killer beast. There's humor (the stories about their scars), drama (Quint's retelling of the USS Indianapolis tragedy), and heavyweight thrills as the vicious shark attacks their boat. Jaws set the bar high in terms of shark movies, but, alas, its sequels ranged from mediocre (Jaws 2) to silly (Jaws 3D) to just plain bad (Jaws: The Revenge).

2. Deep Blue Sea (1999) - Scientists trying to invent a cure for Alzheimer's disease genetically alter the brains of three mako sharks at an isolated off-shore research station. When a tropical storm cuts off all communications with the coast, the super-intelligent sharks set about destroying the facility--and specifically the humans trapped inside. Director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) keeps the action going almost non-stop in a movie that successfully blends elements of The Poseidon Adventure and Alien. When one of Deep Blue Sea's best-known stars is suddenly devoured, it becomes apparent that no character is safe in this entertaining sharkfest.

3. The Shallows (2016) - Nancy (Blake Lively), a medical student coping with her mother's death from cancer, goes surfing at an isolated beach in Mexico. After noticing the carcass of a humpback whale, she is attacked by a great white shark lurking in the lagoon. Bleeding from a serious leg wound, she swims to a rock that provides temporary safety. Like the earlier, less successful Open Water (2003), The Shallows is part survivalist tale and part character study. As Nancy tries figure out how to travel the short--but potentially deadly--distance to shore, she rediscovers her own strength and will to survive.

4. Bait (2012) - A tsunami washes a great white shark into a coastal town's supermarket...yes, you read that sentence correctly. The survivors climb to temporary safety atop the grocery shelves as they strategize how to escape from the building without being eaten. With the catchy tagline "Cleanup on aisle 7," Bait (aka Bait 3D) mingles thrills and humor effectively to create a lively popcorn movie. The no-star cast works to the film's advantage, as the audience has no idea who will live or die. Bait's low budget limits the shark's appearances, which (as in Jaws) amplifies the creature's impact.

5. Sharknado (2013) - The most ridiculous of all shark movies became a pop culture phenomenon (thanks to social media) and produced five sequels. It's one of those rare films that's so silly that it's entertaining. Imagine sharks being propelled through the air courtesy of a tornado...it's  such a wacky premise! The original film is played semi-straight with Ian Ziering as a beach bar owner hell bent on rescuing his estranged wife and kids during a flurry of sharknados. Sharknado wasn't the first outlandish shark movie shown on the SyFy channel. It was preceded by gems such as Sharktopus (2010), Dinoshark (2010), and Sand Sharks (2012). But none of them captured the zeitgeist of their time like Sharknado.

Monday, June 6, 2022

In Like Flint: James Coburn Returns as the Coolest Secret Agent

The 1966 spy spoof Our Man Flint was still playing in theaters when 20th Century-Fox gave the greenlight for a sequel once again starring James Coburn as super secret agent Derek Flint.

Actually, the title character is nowhere to be seen in the opening scenes of In Like Flint (1967). Instead, the plot focuses on a group of businesswomen who have set their sites on world domination. Their plans hinge on taking control of a space platform armed with nuclear weapons and replacing the U.S. president with a lookalike actor. 

The latter scheme is almost executed perfectly. While the president is playing golf, a gas is deployed that places him and his colleagues in a trance for three minutes. During that time, the real president is kidnapped and the fake one takes his place. The one hitch is that Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), one of the president's closest advisors, was timing the commander-in-chief's golf swing. Cramden can't figure out how it took the president three minutes to hit a golf ball. When he suspects a conspiracy within the White House staff, Cramden turns to Derek Flint to find out what happened.

Flint infiltrates a top-secret government facility, eludes the KGB across the rooftops of Moscow, and confronts the villains at a Caribbean spa resort called Fabulous Face. He also finds time to dance with the Moscow Ballet, talk with dolphins, experiment with sound waves, and--of course--romance beautiful women. Yes, In Like Flint offers nothing new to the formula that made Our Man Flint a success. The differences this time around are that the premise isn't as fresh, the plot is sillier and even more sexist, and there seems to be less Flint. In the film's first half-hour, his screen time is limited to a single six-minute scene.

Coburn's charisma and Cobb's enthusiasm make up for a lot of the film's deficiencies. The typically serious Cobb seems to enjoy the chance to do some comedy, whether flirting with a younger woman or dressing in drag as a disguise. However, it's unfortunate that in a movie where gender plays a major role in the plot that the female cast members are mostly wasted. The exceptions are Jean Hale, who has an amusing scene with Cobb, and Yvonne Craig in a cameo as a Russian ballerina who banters playfully with Coburn's hero.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith recycles some of his marvelous score from Our Man Flint and adds a melodic, instantly hummable title theme. Later in the film, you can hear the unusual, playful lyrics written by the late Leslie Bricusse. The song, known as "Your Zowie Face" (a reference to Cramden's organization, the Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) has been covered by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra and jazz guitarist Russell Malone.

At its best, In Like Flint is light, frothy fun if you can ignore its 1960s celluloid view of the conflicts between men and woman. Perhaps, Our Man Flint deserved a better sequel, but I'm glad we have one. 20th Century-Fox wanted to make a third Flint film. There are conflicting stories as to why that didn't happen. In 1976, ABC broadcast a made-for-TV movie called Our Man Flint: Dead On Target, a pilot for a TV series that never materialized. It starred Ray Danton as Flint. That just ain't right--James Coburn is the only Flint!