King of the Gypsies (1978)

The scene is set at a gypsy camp in the 1940s, as Zharko Stepanowicz (Sterling Hayden in one of his late-career mandatory beard roles), self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, demands to be given young Rose (Tiffany Bogart), as he’s already paid $4,000 for her so she can marry his son Groffo (Mark Vahanian). Rose’s parents object and the elder of the clan demands King Zharko leave without either a refund or the girl. But Zharko and his wife Queen Rachel (Shelley Winters) grab the little girl anyway and take off with her. Years pass, and Rose (now Susan Sarandon) and Groffo (Judd Hirsch) are married, with a young son and another baby on the way. Rose is an expert grifter, a fortune teller on the make and a thief, while Groffo is a useless, violent alcoholic. Their son Dave (Eric Roberts) runs off when young, never goes to school, though when older manages to get a job as a singer, as well as a nice girlfriend (Annette O’Toole). Still, he hopes to pursue the proverbial American Dream, and believes that his life as a gypsy has held him back. But after a few years, his grandfather King Zharko tells him that he’s essentially terminal, and he wants to pass on the title of King of the Gypsies to Dave, bypassing Groffo. When Dave inherits the symbolic title, Groffo, his own father, comes after him, as well as his young sister (Brooke Shields) and the rest of the family, and Dave’s … Continue reading

Coffy (1973)

After years of small roles in exploitation flicks, Pam Grier finally hit it big with the blaxploitation classic Coffy (1973). Written and directed by Jack Hill, who had directed Grier in low-budget flicks before, Coffy to modern eyes looks far less empowering than it does exploitative. Grier spends a significant amount of time in the film nude, as do almost all the actresses; they lose their shirts in fistfights faster than Bruce Lee ever did. But the film, dealing so directly as it does with corrupt politics, urban drug problems and the exploitation of women, was very much ahead of its time, so much so that, as Hill said in a DGA interview in 2011, it was a struggle to make simply because of the constant battle against racism; Grier notes in a separate interview that there were so few African-American stunt people at that time that several men and women had to be trained specifically for the film. Pam Grier is Coffy, an emergency room nurse who has gone on a revenge spree against the drug dealers who got her young sister hooked on drugs. She’s not afraid to get down and dirty with these scumbags, then at just the right moment, grab a gun from her purse and blow their brains out. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a major problem after witnessing her good cop friend Carter (William Elliott) being beaten by a drug dealer’s henchmen. She poses as a high-class call girl and infiltrates the business … Continue reading

Yellowbeard (1983)

The infamous 1983 film Yellowbeard, a zany spoof of adventure-packed swashbucklers of yesteryear, is known for its unbeatable cast and unbearable lack of humor. Meant to be a wacky smash-up of classic British and American humor, instead it’s a schizophrenic whirlwind of confusion and mayhem. The bad kind of mayhem, unfortunately, the kind that happens behind the scenes and involves executives in polyester suits and rock stars without acting experience coming and going from production. It’s the middle of the 17th Century, and the dread pirate Yellowbeard (Graham Chapman), after spending 20 years in a disgusting hell-hole of a prison for tax evasion, is due to be released. Instead, he’s informed by a commander in Her Majesty’s service (Eric Idle) that no one expected him to live so long, and they really don’t want to release him, so they’ve just tacked 140 years on to his sentence. Infuriated, he escapes, his sole concern the treasure he has buried but refused to reveal to the Crown. He’s hampered, only slightly, by his former conquest Betty (Madeline Kahn) and her news that he has a son, Dan (Martin Hewitt). Dan isn’t a pirate by nature, more of a scholar, but he has the treasure map tattooed on his head, so off he goes with his father, his step-father Lord Percy (Peter Cook) and Dr. Gilpin (Michael Horndern) in tow. They’re pursued by the law, of course, as well as Yellowbeard’s old nemesis Moon (Peter Boyle) and Moon’s sidekick Gilbert (Marty Feldman). The … Continue reading

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is your standard, teen-oriented, low-budget space flick with its narrative roots firmly implanted in the paranoia of the Cold War. It’s the kind of film where all the strings and zippers show, yet still manages to be not only entertaining, but effective. Helmed by Edward L. Cahn, the same director behind The She-Creature (1956), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), It! has come to be known as more than just an old-school science fiction classic, but as the inspiration behind Alien (1979), one of the most important science fiction films in recent history. That said, as much as Alien “borrowed” from the plot, It! seems to have been conceived as a knock-off of The Thing from Another World (1951), right down to the title. Further, It! wasn’t the sole inspiration for Alien, as Planet of the Vampires (1965) also provides quite a bit of the story that ultimately ended up in Ridley Scott’s film. That Alien was just a big-budget version of an old B-movie is no surprise, given so many films of that era, including Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975), were as well. In It! The Terror From Beyond Space, it’s 15 years in the future, and the United States has sent its first manned rocket ship to Mars. But as we learn in a press conference, held in the standard bare grey-walled room so familiar to fans of 1950s low-budget cinema, everyone in … Continue reading

Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Sketch comedy films, the spiritual descendants of 1930s cinematic musical extravaganzas and 1960s television variety shows, hit their peak popularity in the 1970s. Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different, Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, and the inaugural Zucker-Abrams-Zucker outing Kentucky Fried Movie captured the free-wheeling irreverence of the decade. But the genre didn’t die out with the ’70s; Amazon Women on the Moon and The Meaning of Life were two notable genre entries released in the 1980s. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) is perhaps one of the best of the sketch comedy films, featuring on-point social commentary, solid humor, and amazing production values for a film that reportedly cost less than $100,000 to make; further, your humble host would like to add that Hollywood Shuffle wins a lot of points for being a sketch comedy film that has a title that is not only perfect, but of reasonable length. Actor and comedian Robert Townsend plays struggling thesp Bobby Taylor, a black man desperate to break into an industry that offers him only racist and demeaning roles. Living at home with three generations of his family — the Taylor house looks almost as though it’s in the same neighborhood as the Mildred Pierce home — Bobby knows his family needs him to get a big break, and soon. But the racist dialect of the scripts, the instructions to shuffle and roll his eyes, the directors’ pleas to “act more black” wear on Bobby, and … Continue reading

Firewalker (1986)

Everyone loves a good bad movie, but not every bad movie works as a late-night laugh-a-thon. As the crew of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” explained in Wired‘s oral history of the show, they couldn’t just pick any old bad movie to riff. The films couldn’t be “boring and really, really talky,” and they had to be up to a certain visual and audio standard; after all, there’s no use trying to watch a bad movie if you can’t actually watch that bad movie. The same standards apply to those of us looking for just the right awful movie to watch for a fun night at home with friends and beer — or, for many of us, a fun night at home with Twitter and beer. Firewalker, a 1986 action-adventure flick that is astonishingly light on both action and adventure, seems like the perfect shlock to spend an evening with, but it just barely meets the minimum FDA guidelines for daily consumption of cheese. A knock-off of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Romancing the Stone, Firewalker is frequently cited as the primary reason its production company, the (in)famous Cannon Group, would declare bankruptcy just a few years later. However, Cannon’s best year was 1986 — not because of, but in spite of, Firewalker, which took in nearly $12 million at the box office over its first three weekends. Chuck Norris is Max Donigan, a character with so little personality that one feels it’s a waste of good font … Continue reading

Without a Clue (1988)

Before they became the kind of actors one gets when one wants to add a little class to an otherwise iffy production, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine headlined the Sherlock Holmes spoof Without a Clue (1988), a gentle period comedy that cheekily posits that the fictional Holmes both did and did not exist. Without a Clue places Holmes and Watson in a series of very silly situations, not quite what you’d call lowbrow, but far less sophisticated than one would expect the duo to encounter. But it was always a conceit of modern times to portray the detectives as particularly classy; our view of the turn of the 20th Century is a bit more stodgy than those who lived it, and Without a Clue is happy to remind us of that. After Holmes (Caine) and Dr. Watson (Kingsley) solve yet another case to much public acclaim, we learn that Holmes is no detective: he’s the gambling, womanizing, alcoholic actor Reginald Kincaid, hired by Watson years ago to portray Holmes. Whatever Holmes appears to be in print, Kincaid is essentially the opposite of it, with the exception of his wardrobe and a true fondness for making Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) look ridiculous. For all of Kincaid-Holmes’ bravado, Watson is the genius sleuth of the duo and Holmes merely a character created to preserve Watson’s reputation as a solid, dependable doctor. After one too many slip-ups, Watson has had enough of Kincaid because he is, well, a gambler, a womanizer, and a … Continue reading