Five Minutes to Live (1961)

Five Minutes to Live (1961) movie poster

director Bill Karn
viewed: 08/04/2018

Johnny Cash stars as a bad boy in Five Minutes to Live (a.k.a. Door-to-Door Maniac). And even sings the title tune.

This low-budget home invasion noir also features Vic Tayback with a head of hair, and little Ronnie Howard.

Most interesting to me in reading up on the film is to realize that the script was written by Cay Forester, the vicitmized wife and mother at the core of the story. It’s Forester’s only screenwriting credit in a career in obscure noirs and television.

Of course, the real appeal of Five Minutes to Live is Johnny Cash, who carries a certain level of menace in his role and a ton of just being Johnny Cash to his credit.

Wanda (1970)

Wanda (1970) movie poster

director Barbara Loden
viewed: 07/31/2018

Wanda is sincerely amazing.  Barbara Loden’s directorial debut, in which she stars (and which she also wrote), is a remarkable film, far more obscure than it deserves to be.

I’d quite recently read about it in Sarah Weinman’s article about the film and its true crime inspiration (The True Crime Story Behind a 1970 Cult Feminist Film Classic). Reading about how much Barbara Loden identified with her beaten-down protagonist and Loden’s own all too brief life, imbues Wanda with further tragedy but also with a prime sense of accomplishment.

The films that came to mind while watching Wanda were interestingly mostly films that came after it: Badlands (1973), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Killer of Sheep (1978). Only Blast of Silence (1961), which also echoed for me somewhere predates Wanda.

Wanda starts out in rural Pennsylvania, where she borrows some money, allows her kids to be taken by the court and her ex-husband, and flows through bars into lonely places, random men, movie houses (the 1962 Mexican horror film The Brainiac was on the marquee!), she stumbles into a partnership with a sleazy middle aged lowlife who looks a lot like James Ellroy.

“I don’t like friendly people.”

A truly remarkable picture.

Gleaming the Cube (1989)

Gleaming the Cube (1989) movie poster

director  Graeme Clifford
viewed: 07/20/2018

Remember when Christian Slater was a top listed movie star? 

A wonderfully hackneyed piece of crap, Gleaming the Cube is the best skateboarding kid solves the murder of his Vietnamese adopted brother movie of 1989.  Or maybe since.

1989: this movie came at the oddly wrong time to become the cult gem it possibly deserves to be. It’s also at this point a pretty nostalgic glimpse of late 80s LA, before  the Rams left (and came back). Tons of nice location shots pack the film.

The skating and stunts pop and impress throughout, thanks in part to the numerous pro skaters who appear in the film and execute the more interesting tricks. 

The portrait of Vietnamese culture in this point and time is rather deep and relatively progressive, an unusual and surprising flavor to this teen mystery on wheels. The latter part, despite some nice stunts, kind of devolves to TV level drama.

Doberman Cop (1977)

Doberman Cop (1977) movie poster

director Kinji Fukasaku
viewed: 06/25/2018

Jesus, what did Kinji Fukasaku not direct? The man did it all.

Doberman Cop features Sonny Chiba and Sonny Chiba’s fabulous perm as an Okinawan cop, a fish-out-of-water in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, tracking the mystery of an Okinawan woman burned to death by a suspected serial killer. 

But just like Chiba’s country bumpkin demeanor, below the surface, things turn out to be different from first glances.

Fukasaku keeps the gritty affair roiling with his agile handheld camerawork and sharp editing. Even if Chiba was taking a nap, Fukasaku keeps the film teeming with verve and energy.

Doberman Cop might not be the wackiest film either Fukasaku or Chiba ever made, but it’s a fun action-packed thriller with a little bit of giallo and a lot of humor thrown in.

Spun (2002)

Spun (2002) movie poster

director  Jonas Åkerlund
viewed: 06/24/2018

Spun spins up a black comedy about the lives of meth heads, meth cooks, and and the experience of being under the influence. And it’s pretty good and effective.

The cast is comprised of interesting leads, supporting roles and cameos, too numerous to mention, all quite solid, keeping the movie buoyant and humorous throughout.

I will say that Brittany Murphy is a real stand-out. Though I’d seen her in several smaller roles, this is probably the juiciest I’ve seen of her works. And she really had that certain something that makes a compelling movie star. Spun is certainly a decent piece of her screen legacy.

On the downside, a lot of the inventive editing and camerawork, animation, and effects used to create the “spun” experience felt dated and not so effectual. I’ve certainly read where other folks have found this stuff as a significant part of the movie’s power. I found a lot of it annoying.

Still, a pretty good flick.

Teen-Age Strangler (1964)

Teen-Age Strangler (1964) movie poster

director  Ben Parker
viewed: 06/23/2018

“Stocking around her neck, lipstick mark on her forehead.”

West Virginia isn’t exactly Hollywood. Heck, it isn’t exactly most places that are also not Hollywood where movies get made. In fact, I might be willing to hazard a guess that West Virginia is one of the least home-grown regional horror states in the country.

Teen-Age Strangler comes in 1964, just as The Beatles invaded America. Huntington, WV could be almost a decade behind that time, though the Fab Four do get name-dropped here briefly. Apparently, small town America had some ubiquity even then before cable television homogenized culture even further.

Teen-Age Strangler is a real oddity. It’s a teen film/juvenile delinquency potboiler, shaped not unlike Rebel Without a Cause despite that flick coming almost a decade earlier. But it’s also a sort of proto-slasher in which the killer doesn’t do so much slashing but strangling. This might be influenced by the real life Boston Strangler, whose crimes spanned 1962-1964.

This mash-up may not be such a successful invention, but it’s certainly unique in its own ways. Transitional Americana, from the soda shop to the serial killer.

The Death Kiss (1932)

The Death Kiss (1932) movie poster

director  Edwin L. Marin
viewed: 05/28/2018

The Death Kiss is a pre-code B-picture murder mystery, starring Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan who appeared together one year earlier in the much more heralded Dracula (1931).

It’s a little meta, opening on a scene in which a woman kisses a man, marking him for execution by gunfire. A scene that is a scene on a movie set of a film called “The Death Kiss”. Only, someone set up some real bullets and killed the actor. Now we’ve got a murder mystery! At a Hollywood studio!

Frankly, it’s nonessential but not uninteresting. Outside of the notability of the cast vis-a-vis their prior, more famous grouping, and the film-within-a-film thing, it’s got little to really recommend it. There is, however, at the finale,  some kinda cool hand-tinting color of flashlights and gunfire, a reminder that odd innovations were still commonplace in the early Thirties.

And the movie poster is Deco cool.

Kalifornia (1993)

Kalifornia (1993) movie poster

director Dominic Sena
viewed: 05/09/2018

“If you looked in the dictionary under poor White Trash, a picture of Early and Adele would have been there. But I knew if I was gonna be a good writer , I’d have to ignore the cliches and look at life through my own eyes.”

Kalifornia is such a screenwriter’s film that the main character is of course a writer. And that writer is David Duchovny, perched on the cusp of The X-Files here in 1993, not yet big time famous.

Actually, Kalifornia features a cast that was pretty red hot in 1993. Namely, Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis, Early and Adele, as mentioned above. Also, Duchovny’s photographer girlfriend, played by Michelle Forbes, who would also go on to lots of notability on the small screen.

Conceptually, Kalifornia has a pretty good set-up, with Duchovny and Forbes having picked up Pitt and Lewis as road trip help, driving across the country researching horrible murder scenes. Only, they’ve not just picked up cartoons of White Trash, but their own genuine serial killer.

For my money,  only Lewis is able to infuse her character with elan and esprit de corps, eclipsing the script’s shortcomings. Pitt runs into a bit of a wall with Early, hocking snot rockets, having to be vicious and cruel, and also be a decent bloke.

Is it me or is it funny that this only came one year before Natural Born Killers?

Terror on Tour (1980)

Terror on Tour (1980)

director Don Edmonds
viewed: 04/30/2018

“Send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here”

These Clowns are a horror rock group, looking more like a reject gang from The Warriors than a KISS wannabe band. The real band, The Names, from Rockford, IL, is actually kinda good, sporting a sort of power pop sound rather than the metal you might guess they’d play. And the band members actually act in the film, too?

Terror on Tour is more a murder mystery than a slasher. It all starts when someone dressed up like a member of the band starts killing chicks. And since the band isn’t actually on tour, nor is the terror, all this is going down in a seedy old, but cool-looking, theater, and the detectives come in to solve the crimes.

The detective pulls in a a drug bust prostitute girl and coerces her into going undercover. Kinda cool that she’s semi-heroic, though, as in real life, the cops put her in danger and she has no power to choose.

Not the best, and not the worst.

Cardiac Arrest (1980)

 Cardiac Arrest (1980) movie postere

director Murray Mintz
viewed: 04/18/2018

Unheralded, probably because it’s not very good, Cardiac Arrest is a detective thriller on the streets of San Francisco. Going by the movie poster, it was marketed as a horror film, and sadly, that’s a guarantee for disappointment.

Clumsy writing and directing in this picture is probably a testament to why it’s one of very few Murray Mintz movies.

But one thing it does have going for it is that it’s very fucking local San Francisco crime horror picture. The locations are very neighborhoody, not places non-locals would know or recognize largely. And it’s a lot of a city that no longer exists.

The most recognizable star is Max Gail (then Detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz of Barney Miller). But it also features local actors Michael Paul Chan and Marjorie Eaton, as well as then local newscaster, David McElhatton.

It’s so local they even mention the Main Street in my neighborhood, Taraval. So it’s that local.

Yeah, it’s no great shakes, but the old San Francisco angle made it worth my while.