Maurice “MoJo” Jones Jr. never really managed to make a name for himself as an American film director, though he was able to eke out a modest living as a theater director in southern France until his tragic and early death in a set collapse at an outdoor theater festival in 1989. This is doubly unfortunate, because not only was an underrated director lost to the world, but his widow (second wife Annette Cartier-Jones) destroyed the manuscript to his oft-discussed but never finished autobiography, Long Swim From the White Lagoon.

It’s telling that even sixteen years after he’d made it in six weeks with a small cast almost all related to him by blood or marriage, Creature from the White Lagoon still had some kind of hold on him. If you’ve ever seen it, it’s not hard to see why: Jones’ deft touch cuts through all the pseudo-Blaxpo swagger and bravado and broad satire to craft a sensitive portrayal of a creature adrift in a time it doesn’t belong in.

Unfortunately, while the directing—and even the acting, especially considering the level of experience most cast members had—is ably done, the special effects, such as they are, are terrible. The Creature himself (Maurice Jones Senior, giving a remarkable first—and last—performance) is simply a man with a shaven head in what appears to be a combination of white facepaint and sprinkled flour. The actual lagoon he hails from is never shown. Virtually any scene calling for more action than fisticuffs happens offscreen.

The plot is simple enough: the Creature from the White Lagoon awakens after a slumber “thousands of years in duration”, as a voiceover (ably done by Jones Jr) informs us, and shambles out into the modern world. He finds himself in a typical 1970s-era city (specifically Chicago, although no major landmarks are shown), and despite his clearly freakish appearance, he attempts to blend in with modern society. When the creature’s species roamed the earth, the voiceover tells us, the albinos of the race ruled over the more numerous pigmented members of their species, and naturally the creature, seeing caucasians, believes them to be the ruling class and attempts to rejoin the elite.

A series of misadventures follow. In the most memorable, a housewife (Annette Cartier, who Jones would leave his wife for in 1976) tries to get her henpecked husband (Jack Graham) to KO the creature so the authorities can come to pick it up, but the WASP patrician and the creature instead end up sitting on the porch, drunkenly discussing how the world has slipped through their fingers. Much of the movie is like this; muted and tinged with sadness, but with a strange kind of optimism: the racist world the creature wanders through is dying out, and it knows it, just as the creature knows he will soon die in the modern world’s inhospitable climate. (In a later scene, the creature runs afoul of two racist cops, who mistake it for an African-American albino and hassle it before it beats them up and flees. In a more conventional blaxploitation film, this would precipitate a massive manhunt, but in White Lagoon, the cops shrug resignedly and limp back to their cruiser.)

The print in Crate 5 is in a bad way, and the sound is inaudible in many parts; I was fortunate that a poorly mimeographed copy of the shooting script was included, so that even when there was no audio I could follow along. Even so, I was deeply impressed by this film, a totally atypical blaxploitation film that nonetheless is quietly triumphalistic in its own way: while whites seem to rule everything and are oppressive, Jones seems to say, they even more than their victims are cognizant of the fact that they are no longer in control of the edifices they’ve created. It’s a message made all the more effective by the fact that the villains are neither completely unsympathetic  nor caricatures.

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In an interview for “Canadian Exploits: Underground Cinema of the Northern Territories” Richard Bezet claimed that his cautionary movie about the perils of mixing computer games with the machineries of war beat the better known American film War Games to the box office. Technically he is correct, although Tank Command only screened in half a dozen theaters in Manitoba it was released a year prior to the Matthew Broderick movie.

Having now seen four of Bezet’s efforts (including 1975’s Stellar Police Action, and 1980’s Android Hunter), I am impressed with the writer/director/producer’s ability to create films that seem inspired by well-known films to come. His simultaneous fear of and reverence for technology reflects the tensions within Western culture itself. He imbues devices with fantastical power that far surpass rational expectations and invariably cause horrors beyond imagining – which on Bezet’s typical budget usually meant a handful of “teenagers” getting doused in caro syrup.

The hero of Tank Command is Freddy Prescott, played with enthusiasm by Jonathon Tillman (one of the Bezet irregulars). Freddy is a senior in high school and spends a lot a of time playing Tank Command on his Watari system (actually Combat on Atari 2600). This, with typically Bezet illogic, transforms the youth into a tactical genius with the ability to control vehicles with his mind. I confess that I played more Caterpillar than Combat, but I never noticed any comparable effects. Perhaps my console was flawed.

Every adult in Freddy’s life (including a memorable scene with a roller-skating transvestite) gives him an obligatory lecture on how he’s wasting his life playing video games and losing touch with reality. His father gives him an ultimatum: do one useful thing with skills learned from playing Watari games or give up the game system and join the baseball team. We are then shown the shelf of trophies earned by Mr. Prescott in high school. I had a frame copied and enlarged to inspect them, which provided about an hour of entertainment for us in the intern workroom. My favorite was the team trophy for 2nd place in the conference in Girls’s Volleyball. Tim suggested that Bezet just loaded up a box at a pawn shop.

Luckily, Freddy finds a flyer for the Watari Game King Competition at the arcade. Seems that the event will take place in his town, and in only two days! There are top prizes for best score on a number of Watari games, including Tank Command! How lucky! That’ll show pops! What follows is a sequence of shots that details his practice regimen. Close shots on his hands while he works the joystick (stop snickering!), crazy angles of the tanks battling on his 12″ TV, putting a bandage over the blister on his thumb, eating potato chips… It looked pretty much like Saturday to me.

It’s interesting that Freddy’s parents disappear during this time. It demonstrates how spartan Bezet’s productions are that there are never people in scene that don’t speak or serve the plot visually. Even Freddy’s room, while appropriately lived in, is clearly another boy’s room that they took over for a few days of filming. A rather young boy to judge by the small bed and the posters of Sesame Street puppets.

The day of the competition arrives, and Freddy dresses for victory in tight blue shorts and a hockey jersey with the arms ripped off. Need I mention the headband? A rivalry is established with the late introduction into the film of a baseball jock. His name is Buck, although he’s listed as Jock in the credits, and that’s pretty much all there is to him. Buck (Jock) has a throng of female admirers, represented by one suggestively attired woman whose big line comes as Buck (Jock) grabs the joystick. “I wish he’d grab me like that,” she confides to nobody.

Despite the promise of several contests, the entirety of the competition consists of Freddy playing Tank Command against Buck (Jock). The game is played on an enormous 20″ screen, and a crowd of literally three hangs on every move. While Freddy and Buck (Jock) duel with 8-bit tanks, Sado Watari (inventor of the Watari console and owner of the company) observes. He wears thick glasses, uses the word ‘honorable’ a lot (“honorable contestants”, “honorable audience”), and has a French-Canadian accent. Watari waits until the game is tied at 10-10 and springs into action. He taps at his giant calculator watch, a completely different TV than they’d been playing on explodes (with the camera at a safe distance, showing that nobody is within 200 yards of the set), and we are transported to a miniature battle ground where toy tanks maneuver in passable stop-motion.

I’ll be honest. I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. It doesn’t need to convince me of anything; it just needs to move.

This is Richard Bezet’s strength as a film-maker. Whenever his movies finally get around to the action, he inserts a crazy animated sequence. He revealed in a segment on the local program Manitoba Magazine that he and his friends played a lot of war games with elaborate miniatures. He’d call on their expertise to design and build the elaborate sets for his movies. In this case, they re-created the entire city at 1/100 scale. It’s a beautiful piece of modeling, and it all gets destroyed in the tank battle that follows.

One tank starts blowing up the town. Miniatures tumble and burn. A cut scene shows a close shot of Freddy in darkness with multi-colored lights shining on  him. He drops the exposition that the game has become real and that Buck (Jock) is destroying everything. He decides to leap into action, but he doesn’t know how to operate a “real” tank. As he wishes aloud that he could just make it move forward, the tank lurches forward. Instantly, he’s a pro at manipulating the tank with his desires.

Now for the battle! Freddy misses the enemy tank and destroys the school. He quips “So much for that math test” but decides that he should switch ammunition. His next shot also misses, but it bounces harmlessly off of a few buildings before disappearing. Freddy is pleased with the effect, but then he realizes that his opponent has disappeared. A shell flies right past Freddy’s tank, and he catches a glimpse of the enemy tank before it vanishes again. “He’s in invisible mode!” Freddy cries.

What follows is the sort of idea that probably sounded good in the design stage, raised concerns in filming, set off alarms in editing and got in anyway. A stop-action miniature fight between invisible tanks! For long moments, nothing happens. Then a tank will blip in and out of sight and a shell will destroy a building or bounce around harmlessly for a while. Astoundingly, the flickering shadows in the empty sequences indicate that even though nothing was moving it was still being animated one frame at a time. What were they doing between frames? Did they actually have invisible models?

All good things must come to an end, and so too must stupefying action sequences. Freddy announces that he’s got to make this one count, his tank blips into view, and a shell bounces off several walls before hitting nothing. A flashpot explosion is spliced in, and all is well. Freddy dashes over to see if Buck (Jock) is alright. Instead, he finds Mr. Watari sitting on a charred piece of ground. Watari runs away, and Freddy is about to give chase when Buck (Jock) grabs his shoulder. “Let him run,” he advises. “He can’t hide.” A siren is heard faintly. As the royalty-free music swells, Freddy asks if there’s any room on the baseball team. “I think I’ve had enough of video games,” he confesses.

And so, having saved an unnamed Canadian town from a French-Canadian led Japanese technological incursion with the skills he learned by opposing societal pressure, our hero buckles and does what everyone wanted all along. It’s a Hollywood ending that feels all the the more awkward in a movie made so completely outside the system, but it reflects Bezet’s recurring assertion that we are not ready to wield such power. Far from opposing technology, he ultimately decides that we simply don’t deserve it.

Hot Cars (USA, 1983)

July 23, 2009

This is the first fully intact film I’ve found in Crate 5, though God knows why anyone would have wanted to keep this preserved over a rare genre masterpiece like Creature from the White Lagoon; it’s beyond me.

Hot Cars was directed by Ira “Don” Cascowitz, a Detroit-based director of industrial shorts and z-grade films who did the majority of his work (Non-Mechanical Press, Swinging Shop Class—which Tarantino is apparently a big fan of—etc.) in the 1970s. A few visual cues lead me to believe that Hot Cars may have been made in the ’70s as well, but since Cascowitz’s own autobiography (Have It Rain on the Broad, Simon & Schuster, 1998, and a pretty good source for a lot of the weirdness in the Detroit film scene of the era, though Cascowitz comes off as a complete jerk) states they began prinicipal filming in 1982, I’ll go with the generally accepted release date for now.

The plot, such as there is, is extremely simple. This is a terrible, terrible teen sex comedy revolving around Patrick (Wally Thoma), a seventeen-year-old boy who desperately wants to lose his virginity to his attractive—I use the term loosely— high school classmate Dana (Janet Eller). There’s a hitch, however: Patrick’s widowed dad (Forrest Bluth) is a VP at one of the Big Three Automakers (never stated which one, but since Patrick spends a lot of the movie tooling around in a 1974 four-cylinder Mustang II—the most maligned Mustang of all time, by the way—it’s not to hard to read between the lines), and Dana’s divorced mom (Ingrid Wallenbacher, who actually would have looked pretty in this if they’d gone easier on the eye makeup) works on the production line, and so they exist in different worlds.

Adding complications to the plot is that a sinister union boss (Cascowitz himself)—who’s actually working with a foreign car company to try and blackmail Patrick’s dad into undertaking a little industrial espionage for them—has decided he wants both Dana AND her mom, preferably at the same time. He also thinks that the best way to get to Patrick’s dad is by getting Patrick in a compromising situation with a kimono-wearing foreign femme fatale (Ruth Kim) and going from there.

It might almost sound, from the above summary, that this could be kind of a busy movie. It is not. Literally a full 30 minutes of the overlong 93 minute running time is taken up by shots of Patrick driving from place to place. True to form, Cascowitz tries to spice things up by having, for example, a bus full of old-looking co-eds flash Patrick as they drive by, but this and virtually everything else in the movie feels forced.

Now, my theory on the making of this film, which is ultimately more interesting, I think , than the movie itself: Cascowitz produced a number of training films for Ford in the 1970s, even as his exploitation films were achieiving some level of success, albeit mainly in the Detroit metro area. The production values of Hot Cars are incredible, and not just by comparison to what Cascowitz had done previously (this may be the only film of his I’ve seen that was shot with multiple cameras). There are crowd scenes, some assembly line footage that clearly isn’t stock, and a whole lot of Ford automobiles, including what is, if I’m not mistaken, the original 1972 Ford Carousel Minivan concept car standing in as the “revolutionary new American auto” that the bad guys want to steal.

Now, I have nothing beyond circumstantial evidence and a 300-word interview in a 1974 issue of Detroiter Magazine where Cascowitz mentions he’s “partnering up with a household name to do something big”, but my theory is this: what if, from 1975-1976, which Cascowitz has always claimed was spent getting funding for Sex Drivers Ed, he was actually working on a teen sex comedy originally paid for and sponsored by Ford Motor Company? Presumably saner heads intervened (perhaps this was one of the reasons Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca?) and the project was shelved. By 1978, Cascowitz was already having trouble finding distributers, and Hot Cars was actually sold, essentially door-to-door, to drive-ins by Cascowitz himself.

Something to consider…

[There was only one reel of this movie in Crate 5. Although it happens to be the final reel, there are no closing credits so the movie and its stars are unnamed. The tin bore only a 6 digit number, the significance of which remains unknown. We are continuing to look for records that may help with identification. Until then, we are referring the contents of 682269 as Zombie Death Camp Film.]

Zombie Death Camp Film appears to be set in a German internment camp, circa 1944. It’s not definite, as the swastikas are turned the wrong way and some of the guards wore chaps. I want to say it’s Spanish or Italian, but the voices sound more French. From the hair and makeup (and stray anachronisms) I’d date the production to the early 1980s.

The reel begins with a line of female zombie prisoners filing back into their dormitory. They are naked for some reason, and the majority of them shuffle rigidly. One appears more to be doing the robot, which just made me crave a musical death camp exploitation movie with zombies. Instead, orderlies come in and pull gowns over every single prisoner. Arms up, gown down, arms down. Next zombie. I’m just saying that it could have used a snappy dance number.

I should mention the ‘special’ effects here. The zombie makeup consists of a gray cream applied unevenly to the face. That’s all. It’s especially interesting that the ‘effect’ was never even applied to so much as the neck.

Next is a research project that involves a mixed crowd of zombies. They are, thankfully, clothed. A scientist reports to the commandant that the subjects are perfectly compliant and will obey every command. The commandant demands proof. He gives a small gesture, and somehow guards know to start pouring in from the hallway with arms full of guns. They also know to force the guns into the hands of the zombies and leave. The commandant orders the zombies to shoot themselves. The camera focuses on the commandant as shots ring out. Then we see the zombies lying on the ground with red dots on their foreheads. The camera swings dramatically to an angry zombie who is still standing. He shoots the commandant and the scientist.

What follows is a succession of shots where zombies in different parts of the camp are suddenly armed and killing the guards. A crop duster flies overhead. The camera hangs on the empty scene for moment. The word ‘END’ appears, and almost immediately the film runs out.

It’s hard to evaluate a film based on some 10 minutes of footage, but I feel safe in saying that I don’t particularly miss however many minutes are missing. The death camp exploitation genre is noted for being crass, but this one seemed to want to gain respectability by the connection. With minimal production values and a story that was plainly an afterthought, the remaining footage is a dreary affair that seems much longer than it is. Perhaps one day we’ll find the rest of the reels. I hope not.

[Both the first and final reels of this film are heavily damaged, making it difficult to ascertain cast and crew information. The title comes from the numbered 3″x5″ notecards affixed to each reel.]

My Lover, The Alien is an extremely disjoined film. I apologize in advance if my summary of it doesn’t make much sense, but I’m working off of my notes. I’d almost watch it again to make sure I’ve got this all down correctly, but there’s some concern over how the film will hold up, considering both its age and (poor) material condition. Anyway, on to the movie.

The film is set in what is apparently supposed to be New York in 1988 (although what appears to be Milan’s Pirelli Tower is clearly visible in a number of shots). Apparently, in 1980(? or 1983, both years are given at seperate times) there was the “Final War”, between the US and Russia; at the end of the war, the world renounced conflict forever and formed the “Earth Unified Movement”, which now runs the planet and manages the “Outer Colonization Runs”. Despite this advance, poverty is widespread, and the movie opens with the main character, Deric, in a bread line. Apparently Deric was a war hero in the “USA Missile Control Command”, and he is extremely embittered to have been denied a chance to leave Earth after the war.

A woman tries to cut in the bread line, which sparks a riot, and the “Ground Enforcers” show up to disperse the rioters. I should probably note that these guys need to be seen to be believed. They’re wearing a sort of track suit with epaulets and a cuirassier-style breastplate, and their headgear is just sunglasses and white football helmets with the word “POLIC” [sic] on them. This misspelling is pretty visible, as there are a number of close-ups on their faces. They appear to be carrying a bunch of weapons left over from a WWII movie of some sort.

Deric punches out a bunch of Ground Enforcers and helps the woman who tried to cut to escape by stealing one of the Ground Enforcers’ golf carts. The police chase them half-heartedly, but eventually Deric manages to get her to the ruined building he squats in, and then slaps her around a bit and demands to know why she caused a riot. The woman says she is an alien from “the third leg of Tartorkas[? sound quality was very poor here]” and that she had come to Earth on a mission of peace, but that her star cruiser was shot down by the Earth Unified Movement when she tried to land. Apparently, humanity is colonizing worlds that other species already inhabit, and the government is covering this up.

The scene now shifts to what’s pretty clearly a still image of the World Trade Center, where “Special Galactical Unified Intelligence” is headquartered. There, the sinister Mister Galk is receiving orders from a speaker. I love the guy who plays Galk. He’s kind of a Henry Silva type, and he has this big black eyepatch with a red lightbulb in the middle over his right eye and wears a pinstripe suit with army boots. He’s also really the only actor who does even a mediocre job; everyone else is pretty numb with their lines.  Anyway, the speaker orders Galk to stop Deric and the woman before they can tell anyone else. Galk promises to do so, and opens the wall of his office to reveal a cargo elevator(!) with a jet black golf cart kind of like the police were using.

Meanwhile Deric and the woman (whose name is Vazelle) try to buy passage off earth from people who have been selected to be colonists. Apparently there is a thriving black market where people sell their place on a ship. (Note that at this point, nearly 45 minutes into the movie, we have not yet seen a spaceship.) The police show up and bust up the transaction, and kill the people selling their places. Deric manages to grab their “spacepasses” (which look a lot like Michelin maps) and escapes with Vazelle. They both hide in an abandoned shack and Vazelle confesses to Deric that if she doesn’t get in contact with her people, they will make war on the Earth. Then she tells him that she loves him and wants to have a human baby with him(!) and what follows must be some of the least sexy-looking making out ever put on screen. At one point, Deric squeezes Vazelle’s breasts through her sweater, and the actress playing Vazelle doesn’t even bother to hide her expression of pain and annoyance.

Meanwhile, Mister Galk is interrogating informants and killing them if he doesn’t like what they have to say. I think the actor who played him may really have only had one eye, because he uses the lightbulb in his eyepatch to kill them with “a fatal ray” (his words), and when he does this, wisps of smoke come out from behind the patch. Apparently word has gotten out about Vazelle, and this is a big deal because the government has told people that there are no other species out there. Galk reports this development to a speaker on his golf cart, and it makes his eyepatch light up and give him a terrible headache. He vows to find Deric and Vazelle and to kill them.

Deric and Vazelle meanwhile have decided to board a colony ship using their stolen passes and then hijack it and use its “hypercrystal radio” to contact Vazelle’s people, who will then pick them up and tell the people of Earth what’s being done in their name via “ultrathought broadcast”. Why they didn’t do this to begin with isn’t really explained. The two get in line to board the spaceship (which we can’t see; the crowd waiting in front of an elevator of some sort), and they become increasingly nervous as they see there are a lot of guards around. Then Galk shows up, slowly driving his cart past the line and looking for Vazelle, who gets more and more nervous until she suddenly cuts and runs. Deric follows her, and Galk and the guards chase them onto a catwalk. Deric now has a gun for some reason, and he shoots a bunch of guards before Galk uses his eyepatch bulb to shoot the gun out of Deric’s hand. Vazelle then tells the guards that she’s an alien and that Galk is lying to them, and Galk gets increasingly upset as it seems like the police are buying it. Finally, he tries to shoot Vazelle, but Deric jumps in the way and takes the hit, and then the police shoot Galk, who becomes a mannequin and falls to his death. The tearful Vazelle takes Deric’s hand and tells him he would have been a good father for their baby, and then roll credits.

This was a weird one. It’s arguably in the worst material condition of any film in Crate 5, and in parts it seems like it had a pretty big budget for the time, while at others it looks like it was made in somone’s basement. One of the other interns suggests that this was a vanity project for the director, who used studio resources to make this brief (78 minutes) film; what research I’ve been able to do indicates it may never have been theatrically released, and I certainly don’t recognize any of the actors in it.