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Best-Case Scenario

Penguin Random House, my long-ago employers (then Penguin USA), have just published an elegant Penguin Classics volume, The Best of Richard Matheson, edited with an introduction by award-winning author Victor LaValle, touted as “one of horror fiction’s brightest talents.”  My old pal Greg Cox and his colleagues at Tor pretty much own Richard’s oeuvre in trade editions and, since the mid-1990s, have done a commendable job of keeping his stories in print, either accompanying his shorter novels or in their own collections.  So the last thing we needed is one whose contents represent the usual suspects…and this ain’t it, which does credit to LaValle, who deems this “The Best of Richard Matheson—at least according to me”; that’s just as it should be.

Despite starting with Richard’s 1950 professional debut, these 33 stories are otherwise presented in no discernible order.  Many are established classics, yet others were first published more than 50 years after “Born of Man and Woman” by Gauntlet Press, Tor’s counterpart when it comes to limited editions of his work, in Masques V (“Haircut”) and Matheson Uncollected: Volume One (“Counterfeit Bills,” “Man with a Club,” “The Prisoner”).  Of greatest interest, at least to me, is “Now Die in It,” which after appearing in the December 1958 issue of Mystery Tales was soon expanded into Richard’s twice-filmed 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, and only finally saw book publication in its original incarnation in Gauntlet’s Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two in 2010.

LaValle’s well-written 12-page intro says surprisingly little about the actual tales, with more than half of it devoted to relating his own unnerving “Matheson moment,” when his teenaged self “stepped into a story he could’ve written.”  Yet letting the work speak for itself is no bad thing, and given Richard’s customary concision, those 407 pages encompass an impressive range, both chronologically and thematically.  The stories run the gamut from the horror (“Blood Son,” “Dress of White Silk”) and science fiction (“Witch War,” “The Last Day”) genres for which he is best known to crime fiction (“A Visit to Santa Claus”), Westerns (“The Conqueror”), and even a collaboration with author/scenarist son Richard Christian Matheson (“Where There’s a Will”).

Nowadays, the DIY shorts proliferating like mushrooms on YouTube—a trend that was still but nascent when I went to press with Richard Matheson on Screen—have blurred, perhaps forever, the lines demarcating what I would consider “real” movies.  Yet given the frequency with which his work was dramatized, it’s no surprise that almost half of these stories have been adapted in features (“Button, Button”), TV-movies (“Prey,” “Dying Room Only,” “Duel,” “No Such Thing as a Vampire”), or episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” “Long Distance Call,” “Mute”), Night Gallery (“The Funeral,” “Big Surprise”), and other TV series (“Shipshape Home,” “Dance of the Dead,” “One for the Books”).

Back in May, Richard’s agent e-mailed some bibliographic questions from Penguin editor Sam Raim, and since Mrs. Bradley didn’t raise any stupid children, I looped in my Richard Matheson Companion co-editor Paul Stuve, who is to his published work what I am to his screen credits.  We were, alas, not able to correct the citation misidentifying 87th Precinct creator Ed McBain as “Bain” in the title of his eponymous Mystery Book, or minor errors regarding Richard’s Twilight Zone episodes (he scripted 14—“Third from the Sun” not among them—rather than 16, basing only half on his stories).  But for non-curmudgeonly lay readers, this handsome edition, of which Sam kindly sent me a copy, can serve as a wonderful introduction to Richard’s legendary talents.

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“Avenge Me, Boys!”

With those basset-hound eyes, a face like worn shoe leather, and a voice that somehow sounded perennially muffled, Harry Dean Stanton was truly one of the screen’s great character actors; he had a filmography to die for, yet when I think of Harry, who went to his well-earned rest at 91 on September 15, I think first and foremost of two roles that bookended his work in the 1970s. Then billed simply as Dean Stanton, and already a 16-year screen veteran, he was Willard, a quintessential member of the platoon in Kelly’s Heroes (1970). And as Brett in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), his lonely death while probing the bowels of the Nostromo in search of errant cat Jonesy is, I submit, an indelible scene in a uniformly unforgettable film.

The list of names linked with Stanton’s is like a Who’s Who of BOF-centric cinema: Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973), Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely, 1975), John Huston (Wise Blood, 1979), John Carpenter (Escape from New York, 1981; Christine, 1983), Sam Shepard (Fool for Love, 1985), John Frankenheimer (the frustratingly as-yet-unseen The Fourth War, 1990; Against the Wall, 1994), David Lynch (Wild at Heart, 1990, et alia), Elmore Leonard (The Big Bounce, 2004).

Perhaps inevitably, prominent billing usually eluded guys like Harry, yet when given the ball, he ran with it, e.g., as Emilio Estevez’s gruff mentor in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (“…ordinary f*ck*ng people. [Exquisitely timed beat.] I hate ’em.”), and most especially as the unlikely lead in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (both 1984), which was already high on my list to revisit before his death. Suffice to say that even a film as lowly as Red Dawn (also 1984—a banner year!) was enhanced by his presence, braying the line that gave this post its title.

Harry, you were unique, and will be sorely missed. God bless.

Addendum: Two other recent nonagenarian passings make for a curious juxtaposition. I don’t like boxing, so I don’t like boxing movies, so I’m not a big fan of Raging Bull (1980), so I don’t care too much that Jake LaMotta died at 95 on September 19. But I do remember vividly that his ex-wife, Vikki, posed nude in Playboy (founded by Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday, also at 91) in November 1981 at 51, and blew away many of their models practically young enough to be her grandchildren. This being a family blog, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Have You Heard?

Since I can’t be the only one who sometimes confused actors John Hurt and John Heard, it seems strangely apt that they died the same year, the latter having passed at 71 on July 21.  His roles were all over the map, in the best possible way, e.g., a romantic lead in the ill-fated Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat (1980), the bemused zoologist in Cat People (1982, with Annette O’Toole below), the son in The Trip to Bountiful (1985), the dickish rival in Big (1988), the father in Home Alone (1990).  Heard was an Emmy nominee as Outstanding Guest Actor for his recurring role as Detective Vin Makazian on The Sopranos.

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He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War, The Seventh Sign, Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed (all also 1988!), Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990), Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire, Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief (both 1993), Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000), and others too numerous to mention.  I don’t have immediate access to it, so I can’t treat myself to a memorial viewing, but Heard’s tour de force performance in the title role of Cutter’s Way (1981, below)—also known as Cutter and Bone after Newton Thornburg’s source novel—is but one aspect that made Ivan Passer’s criminally underrated film so extraordinary.  Highly recommended.

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You Wish

What I’ve Been Watching:  Death Wish (1974).

Who’s Responsible:  Michael Winner (director); Wendell Mayes (screenwriter); Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Countless reasons.

Seen It Before?  Many times.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  10.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  1.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  8.

And?  Unless I’m planning, say, a page-to-screen analysis, I rarely begin a film intending to blog about it, my Muse usually showing up a couple of reels in.  With this one, which I didn’t even know is being remade, the odds were admittedly higher, partly because I used the ensuing series to give Breakheart Pass context, and partly because I’ve lately noticed an odd phenomenon:  I often seem to post about random movies, while taking major ones for granted.  This time, I made my decision during the credits, especially as I’d forgotten that it was presented by producer Dino De Laurentiis, and marked his penultimate of six collaborations with Bronson from Battle of the Bulge (1965) to The White Buffalo (1977).

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I’d also forgotten that Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, which I’ve read but sadly don’t recall, was adapted by Mayes, as he also did for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Advise and Consent (1962), and In Harm’s Way (1965).  The supporting cast, if not major names, were of personal significance; Stuart Margolin, for example, was not only Angel on The Rockford Files but also one of Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  To me, William Redfield will always be Felix’s brother, Floyd Unger, in the Odd Couple episode “Shuffling off to Buffalo,” albeit equally indelible in Ralph Nelson’s curiously underrated Western Duel at Diablo and as Capt. Bill Owens, the pilot of the Proteus in Fantastic Voyage (both 1966).

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I’m pretty sure that my Dad, whose greatest  influence on my persona was undoubtedly cinematic, took me to this at the age of 11 upon its release.  The story is by now familiar:  a Manhattan architect’s wife, Joanna (Lange), is killed and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), raped by three freaks—including Jeff Goldblum in his scary debut—who follow them from D’Agostino’s and enter the apartment by purporting to deliver their groceries.  Growing into a gun-toting, Bernhard Goetz-anticipating vigilante, Paul Kersey (Bronson) becomes a hero to crime-weary citizens, so NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Gardenia) is ordered to scare him away quietly after violent crime plummets, which the authorities keep quiet.

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Is this a brilliantly made movie?  No.  It’s more than a little obvious in spots, e.g., when he suggests messing around on the beach during their opening Hawaiian vacation, Joanna demurs, “We’re too civilized”; friendly colleague Sam Kreutzer (Redfield) actually calls the pre-tragedy Paul a “bleeding-heart liberal”; a TV ad asks post-tragedy if he’s satisfied with his life.  Yet its box-office success, downward-spiraling sequels, and real-life echoes suggest how deeply it tapped into the Zeitgeist of the day, forming a perfect time capsule.  Is there still crime in New York?  Yes.  Have things improved?  Yes.  So, I won’t say the city was better then—if undeniably very interesting—but this is the city as I first knew it.

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It’s faint praise to say this may be director/co-producer Winner’s best film, given my low opinion of the “Turn of the Screw” prequel The Nightcomers (1971), The Sentinel (1977), and the ill-advised The Big Sleep (1978).  He did work with Burt Lancaster on Lawman (1971) and Scorpio (1973), and Chuck on Chato’s Land, The Mechanic (both 1972), and The Stone Killer (1973) as well as the first two sequels (1982 and ’85).  Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz is no Owen Roizman—whom I dubbed “the poet laureate of ’70s NYC” for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)—but he and Winner capture the urban decay, and a feeling of danger around every corner.

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Curiously effective little touches contribute to this; a quartet of nuns virtually appears to float down the street as the freaks stalk Paul’s family, seeming to prefigure those outside the Catholic rehab center in which a catatonic Carol is committed.  When Kersey goes to the police station for a progress report (read:  not much), we see, but only from the back, a figure who looks like a quintessential ’70s pimp, yet when he speaks, it’s in a voice—possibly post-dubbed—that isn’t what we expect, asserting that his dog contributes to his livelihood by painting pictures with its paws.  Following this WTF moment is a vignette of a mugging victim asking how she can identify the perp who attacked her from behind.

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Oops!  Wrong movie.

In such a milieu, Kersey’s transformation seems reasonable, as do his reactions to his first brush with crime, hitting a would-be mugger in the face with a sock containing $20 worth of quarters.  After pouring a drink with shaking hands, he swings the sock (which breaks, spewing quarters) in a triumphant way that reminded me of bone-wielding Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Raised among guns, Kersey lost his father in a hunting accident and was a conscientious objector (“an unlikely vigilante,” Ochoa drily observes) in Korea; it’s also worth noting that, like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) but in contrast to many otherwise similar “revenge” movies, the real villains get away scot-free.

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The film is no Rorschach test but, as with Dirty Harry (1971), divided many on whether it condemned or condoned vigilantism and violence.  Notable among the latter camp were Bronson’s agent, Paul Kohner, who advocated turning it down because of its “dangerous” message, and Garfield, who reinforced his position with a 1975 sequel, Death Sentence; I have neither read that nor seen the (reportedly in-name-only) 2007 adaptation with Kevin Bacon.  Your mileage may vary, yet for all the understandable skittishness of the studios and filmmakers who did wind up turning it down, and notwithstanding the often negative reviews, De Laurentiis et alia were smart enough to know that it would rake in the bucks.

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Despite its crowd-pleasing “wish”-fulfillment, as when Alma Lee Brown (Helen Martin) fends off muggers with a hat pin, I found the film surprisingly thoughtful in its depiction of Kersey’s progression.  I also liked the police-procedural aspects, as Ochoa first focuses on people who have war records and/or lost family members to violent crime, and then is able to narrow his search geographically with the receipt from the D’Ag Bag Paul leaves behind on the subway after apparently using it as a prop to make him look like a tempting target.  Winner wisely added the Hawaiian scenes to show loving interaction between the couple (which further resonates when Paul receives vacation photos after Joanna’s death).

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Several surprises, many of them uncredited, in the IMDb cast list, e.g., precinct cops Len Lesser and Olympia Dukakis, whom you probably wouldn’t spot if not on the lookout for her, and hotel lobby guard Al “Grandpa” Lewis.  More readily recognizable, at least to me, are mockumentary king Christopher Guest as discreet Patrolman Reilly; hospital cop Paul Dooley; and park mugger Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, a Welcome Back, Kotter “Sweathog.”  Subway station mugger Eric Laneuville may be found in the index of Richard Matheson on Screen for playing the ill-fated Richie in The Omega Man (1971), while train mugger John Herzfeld wrote and directed 2 Days in the Valley (1996), which I would love to see again.

What’s Lemmy doing in here?

Been watching The Last Command (1955), a movie about legendary knife-wielder Jim Bowie (the great Sterling Hayden, hence my viewing) that climaxes with…well, you know.  Seems John Wayne was supposed to star, but parted ways with longtime employer Republic Pictures when prexy Herbert Yates wouldn’t let him direct it as well, which he later did on his own elephantine version of the same historical events.

I’ve seen several Alamo-vies, but it seemed like this one did a better job than some of explaining the events leading up to the siege (sort of the anti-Zulu, if you will) and emphasizing why the Texans’ sacrifice mattered.  In other words, assuming any degree of historical accuracy here, it’s not so much, “Well, we’re outnumbered and trapped and we’re all gonna die.  Sucks to be us” as it is, “If you choose to fight—and inevitably die—rather than try to escape—and probably die—or surrender, you’ll weaken Santa Ana’s army and buy time for Sam Houston [whose namesake city has been my oldest brother Jonathan’s adopted home for about 40 years] to raise his.”  Hey, I’ll get a lump in my Maudlin Man throat from that.

No formal review/synopsis—y’all know how it comes out anyway—and I am not especially familiar with the careers of director Frank Lloyd (a silent-screen vet best known for the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty), whose last film this was, or screenwriters Warren Duff and Sy Bartlett (who wrote several vehicles apiece for, respectively, James Cagney and producing partner Gregory Peck).  But holy cats, what a cast:

  • As the señorita who—too late—captures Jim’s heart after his wife’s tragic death, the charming and fetching Anna Maria Alberghetti proves she had a career before serving as the Good Seasons pitchwoman in my youth. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Rula Lenska.)
  • Genre star Richard Carlson (Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon) as Colonel William B. Travis, played by Laurence Harvey in Wayne’s 1960 version (which featured the formidable Richard Widmark as Bowie).
  • Arthur Hunnicutt, one of those guys you instantly recognize but (at least in my case) whose name you don’t know, as Davy Crockett. A tad less imposing than the Duke, but what the hell, I was never a big Wayne-fan anyway, and he’s pretty entertaining.
  • Up-and-coming Ernest Borgnine (later to appear in such BOF faves as Ice Station Zebra, The Wild Bunch, and Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen), who starts out looking like his typically sinister sagebrush self of the period (e.g., Aldrich’s Vera Cruz), but turns out to be an okay guy with an extra-dramatic death scene.
  • The pan-ethnic J. Carrol Naish (Sahara, House of Frankenstein, The Beast with Five Fingers, Dracula vs. Frankenstein), an interesting choice as Mexican General Santa Ana.
  • John Russell, who starred on Lawman, for which—believe it or not—Richard Matheson wrote more scripts than any series except The Twilight Zone.
  • Jim Davis, beloved of my friend Fred for his role as Jock Ewing on Dallas and, oddly enough, a fellow survivor of Al Adamson’s epically awful Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
  • Eduard Franz, best known to weirdos like me for such genre films as The Thing (from Another World) and that WNEW Creature Features staple The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.
  • Otto Kruger (Dracula’s Daughter, Hitchcock’s Saboteur), as Steve—excuse me, Stephen F.—“I Want a City Named after Me, Too” Austin.
  • Russell Simpson, another guy I instantly recognized but couldn’t name (and a member of John Ford’s stock company, e.g., as Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath), as the hilariously laconic Parson.
  • A young(ish) Slim Pickens, billed with Hayden nine years before Stanley Kubrick’s immortal Dr. Strangelove…in which, of course, they had no scenes together as, respectively, bomb-riding Major “King” Kong and “just a little funny” General Jack D. Ripper.
  • And, last but far from least, unbilled genre mainstay Morris Ankrum (Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Claw, et military cetera).

Photographed by Jack A. Marta (an Emmy nominee for Matheson’s Duel), with a title tune composed by film-scoring pioneer Max Steiner (of that other King Kong) and warbled by Oklahoma! and Carousel star Gordon MacRae.  In short, I can think of far worse ways to spend 110 minutes.  “Remember the Alamo!”

Addendum:  Be sure to check out my substantially revised post for The Fly, featuring new material on Return of the Fly.

What I’ve Been Watching:  Men in War (1957).

Who’s Responsible:  Anthony Mann (director); Philip Yordan (screenwriter); Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Mann and Ryan.

Seen It Before?  Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  6.

And?  I saw this as a kid, almost certainly on WOR, and disliked it.  Revisiting it decades later, I’m not surprised.  No, not because it’s bad—quite the reverse—but because it’s the antithesis of the colorful, Kelly’s Heroes-style war movies I favored then, and still prefer, yet I hope I’m a little more open-minded now.  I think the fact that it’s among a relatively few films made about the “Forgotten [i.e., Korean] War” is a significant factor.  Fresh in viewers’ minds, the war had been over for less than four years when it was released, and its narrow focus is nigh-Aristotelian as it follows a single platoon in its attempts to reach and take a barren hill on September 6, 1950, less than three months after hostilities began.

Befitting its generic title, the film opens with the epigraph, “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars,” and Van Van Praag’s 1949 source novel was rebranded as the equally nonspecific Combat in 1951.  Tellingly, the book (originally called Day Without End, as in, say, “the longest day”) was about the Normandy campaign in the previous war, yet the film also seems to prefigure the next one, at a time when we still had only military advisers in Vietnam.  In Home of the Brave (1949), James Edwards played an African-American soldier experiencing racism in World War II, yet here, when he is killed after sitting down to put flowers on his helmet, it’s hard not to flash forward…

So a certain universality was achieved, especially when you throw A Hill in Korea (1956) and Pork Chop Hill (1959)—which was in, yes, Korea—into the mix.  And it’s probably no coincidence that Philip Yordan, the credited screenwriter of this film (which you could categorize just as easily as a war movie or an anti-war movie), was reportedly fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow both here and when much of the same cast and crew worked with Mann on God’s Little Acre the next year.  The films share an interesting assemblage of talent that, in addition to Ryan, Ray, and Vic Morrow, includes veteran lensman Ernest Haller, who also shot his Man of the West (1958), and famed composer Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein, whose contribution here is minimal, also scored Mann’s The Tin Star (1957), a nifty little number with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins, and interestingly, Men in War feels almost like a hybrid of the two types of films for which he was hitherto best known, noirs (e.g., T-Men, 1947; Raw Deal, 1948) and Westerns.  I regard his work with James Stewart as one of the latter genre’s best director/actor pairings:  Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953; my favorite, aptly co-starring Ryan), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955).  They also collaborated on Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and Strategic Air Command (1955).

The closest Mann came to my kind of war movie was in his late-career epic phase, e.g., producer Samuel Bronston’s El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), whose chariot race rivals that of Ben-Hur (1959).  I’m surprised he made the fact-based The Heroes of Telemark (1965) after its star, Kirk Douglas, had fired him from Spartacus (1960)—of which Kirk was also the executive producer—and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick, his director on Paths of Glory (1957).  Kubrick, ironically, had just parted ways with Marlon Brando on One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which its star directed; after Mann died while shooting A Dandy in Aspic (1968), it was completed by…its star, Laurence Harvey.

Morrow achieved his widest exposure as Sgt. Chip Saunders on Combat! (the premiere of which, “Forgotten Front,” was written by Richard Matheson under his pseudonym of Logan Swanson), and thus, as Cpl. Zwickley, is perhaps the most recognizable among the ill-fated platoon led by Lt. Benson (Ryan).  TV mainstay Nehemiah Persoff (Sgt. Lewis) popped up in occasional features ranging from Bogart’s last film, The Harder They Fall (1956), to the Byron Haskin/George Pal reunion The Power (1968).  Doubling as a writer-producer on The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)—again opposite old pal Strother Martin—and A Boy and His Dog (1975), L.Q. Jones (Sgt. Davis) also directed the latter, based on Harlan Ellison’s story.

When we meet them, the men have just lost their transport and are wondering how they’ll schlepp all of their gear to Hill 465, where they’re supposed to hook up with the division.  The timely arrival of a jeep driven by Sgt. Montana (Ray) is complicated by the fact that his passenger, known only as the Colonel (Keith)—of whom he is fiercely protective—is catatonic after a nearby blast.  So Benson ousts the abrasive Montana, turning the driver’s seat over to the unwell Zwickley, and orders the men to load the gear as they begin the trek through enemy territory, subject to attrition from snipers, artillery, and a minefield (used to great effect in Kelly’s Heroes), the fear of which drives Lewis into a self-destructive panic.

I’ve called Keith the poor man’s Les Tremayne, partly due to the many military men both have portrayed over the years, but I probably would’ve found a less flattering sobriquet if I’d known he was the father of Brian Keith, strike one against Sam Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (1961).  The Colonel, sympathetic as he struggles to speak, is at least a change of pace from the obnoxious officers he portrayed in They Came to Cordura (1959) and Posse from Hell (1961). Similarly, I’ve always loathed Ray, yet while tough-guy Montana is not only unlikable but also positively trigger-happy, he is a perfect fit for the actor’s screen persona, and his devotion to the Colonel gives him added dimensions.

Reaching Hill 465, they find it in enemy hands, and the effort to take it wipes out almost the entire platoon plus the Colonel, who rallies long enough to take out a few “gooks” (as they are inevitably called) before being cut down.  At this point the film becomes almost existential as Benson says, “Battalion doesn’t exist.  Regiment doesn’t exist.  Command HQ doesn’t exist.  The U.S.A. doesn’t exist…We’re the only ones left to fight this war.”  Since Sgt. Riordan (Philip Pine) turns out to have survived, that is as incorrect as when he tells Montana—with whom he finally takes the hill, using a flamethrower—“We’ll never see the morning”; we close as they “award” the Colonel’s supply of medals to the dead…

Unsurprisingly, per Wikipedia, the military refused to cooperate with the account of such a, shall we say, dysfunctional unit and, “Unable to get tanks and military extras from the Pentagon, [the filmmakers] concentrate on the landscape,” aptly echoing the combination of internal tensions and rugged exteriors prized in Mann’s Westerns.  The location itself, Bronson Canyon, was ubiquitous in multiple low-budget SF films apiece from directors Phil Tucker—including the immortal Robot Monster (1953)—Roger Corman, and Bert I. Gordon.  Ryan, my main reason for giving this a second chance, appeared in BOF faves such as The Longest Day (1962), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Wild Bunch (1969).

What I’ve Been Watching:  Sssssss (1973).

Who’s Responsible:  Bernard L. Kowalski (director); Hal Dresner, Dan Striepeke (screenwriters); Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Slavish devotion to the genre.

Seen It Before?  Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  6.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  3.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  5.

And?  I disliked this when I saw it as kid (although I was surprised not to find one of my trademark 3″ x 5″ index cards documenting that; maybe I didn’t see it all the way through, and thus had to disqualify it), primarily because it’s such a downer, or perhaps I should say “a wrist-ssssssslitter.”  Cutting to the chase, it’s about a guy who gets turned into a snake.  I misremembered—on several counts—that it ended with a shock reveal of said snake-guy on display in a carnival sideshow, a shot that I’m still convinced was a deliberate homage to the notorious “human duck” (Olga Baclanova) at the close of Tod Browning’s twisted classic, Freaks (1932)…but it’s neither the ending nor the poor protagonist, David Blake.

It’s probably more accurate to say that I’d assumed, rather than misremembered, it to be a bargain-basement production, especially coming from Kowalski, the director of Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), who worked primarily in television and helmed the notorious bomb Krakatoa: East [sic] of Java (1968).  So it was with some surprise that I discovered it was from a major studio, Universal, and the famed Zanuck/Brown production team that, incredibly, made The Sting the same year, and went back to zoological terror with Jaws (1975).  Accordingly, it has a polished look that I was not expecting, photographed by a serial Emmy Award nominee, Gerald Perry Finnerman.

Sssssssupremely sssssssilly and sssssssorta sssssssadistic, it’s from a long line of movies in which mad scientists try to hybridize humans with other species, thus enabling ours to survive a looming threat.  In this case, ophiologist Dr. Carl Stoner (Martin) theorizes that becoming literally cold-blooded will see us through once we’ve squandered all of those increasingly scarce fossil fuels, and endeavors to prove his point with David (Benedict).  Yet while rigorously conventional in that way, the film is unique in another, marking the sole effort as writer (sharing credit with Hal Dresner) or producer of makeup artist Dan Striepeke, an Oscar nominee for Forrest Gump (1994) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

We open as Stoner helps Kogen (Tim O’Connor) load his truck with a coffin-sized crate containing…something alive that he has just sold to the sideshow proprietor.  On a visit to the nearby college, Stoner asks pompous colleague Dr. Ken Daniels (Richard B. Shull) to extend his research grant, but it doesn’t sound very promising because he’s, y’know, a mad scientist, and their ideas rarely go down well with academia.  He also mentions that his last assistant, Tim McGraw…left rather abruptly—an illness in the family, I believe—and could he please have another, so Daniels sends him home with David, who’s hunky and amiable enough to attract the attention of Stoner’s daughter/assistant, Kristina (Menzies).

David’s not overly endowed with intelligence, though, so he’s naively acquiescent as the doc starts pumping him full of injections that give him strange dreams, and purport to be precautionary antivenom.  The Stoners, y’see, eke out a living selling venom milked from their extensive snake collection, augmented with paltry donations from local yokels who come and watch the doc risk his life dancing around with a king cobra, although probably more in the ghoulish hope of seeing him fatally bitten than for entertainment value alone.  Speaking of which, visiting the carny, David sees the, um, extremely realistic Snake Man (Nobel [sic] Craig), and you’d have to be dumber than he is not to suss that it’s McGraw.

Surprisingly, that makeup is credited not to Striepeke (who worked on four Planet of the Apes films and the TV series)—although he reportedly had an uncredited hand in it—but to the maestro himself, John Chambers, and Nick Marcellino.  Unsurprisingly, it’s really, really good, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who recalls that image more than anything else in the film, which as we’ll see is a double-edged sword.  Anyway, re-enter classmate Steve Randall (Reb Brown, TV’s pilloried Captain America), whom we’ve seen bullying David at the school and coming on to Kristina at the carnival; climbing uninvited into her window one night, he is surprised by, and breaks the neck of, one of their beloved snakes.

Although that probably violated any number of statutes, Stoner favors private justice, so he slips a black mamba into Steve’s shower.  When Daniels visits soon after, he brings two pieces of news:  the refusal of Stoner’s grant request (shocker), and the death of football star Steve from a “heart attack”; curiosity piqued by the doc’s reaction, or lack thereof, he starts to snoop around, which amounts to signing your own death warrant in such movies.  Sure enough, just after getting a glimpse of David—who’s turning progressively greener and scalier—through a window, he’s clonked on the head, awakening in the cellar where he quickly falls victim to a python, last seen as a shoe protruding from the snake’s maw.

Mindful of the fact that even Kristina might notice David’s new emerald complexion, and concerned about the ramifications of their growing attraction, Stoner has sent her off on a wild snake chase to pick up a nonexistent delivery.  She then just happens to learn of the, um, extremely realistic Snake Man and, upon sneaking into the carny after hours to check it out, is horrified to find Tim.  Meanwhile, once David has completed his transformation into an actual snake—which, alas, is a lot less visually or dramatically interesting than the Snake Man—Stoner commands “an audience” with the cobra, informing the ex-king that he has been dethroned by a new species with the body of a snake and the mind of a man.

Evidently “his majesty” doesn’t take the news well, because he bites Stoner to death, and it’s unclear whether the doc became inexplicably suicidal, or his luck finally just ran out.  Just then, Kristina comes home, and although she might reasonably be miffed at Dad for turning Tim into the consummate sideshow freak, she’s not happy to see him lying there dead, and even less so when the cobra menaces her.  A sharpshooting cop’s timely arrival ends that threat, but worse waits inside, where a frantic mongoose (which they evidently kept around just as a precaution) suddenly manages to escape from his cage and goes for the throat of her ex-boyfriend; we end with a freeze-frame on Kristina’s screaming face.

What a happy story, and admittedly unusual in that respect, although in a way, the ending is (as AllMovie critic Donald Guarisco called it) “anticlimactic” after the amazing Snake-Man scenes.  Okay, I know he’s a mad scientist, but even with that in mind, it’s difficult to understand Stoner’s plan; even with human brains, how would our reptilian successors inherit the Earth, lacking both the power of speech and opposable thumbs…or opposable anything else, for that matter?  Or are they just supposed to go back to nature?  And how, in the short term, did he think he could keep all of that a secret?  These gaping plot holes, and the casualness with which David is subjected to such horror, didn’t endear this to me.

Frequently cast with offscreen pal L.Q. Jones, and perhaps best known for his “failure to communicate” line from Cool Hand Luke (1967), character actor Ssssssstrother Martin is probably worthy of a post in his own right.  His films include such BOF favorites as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Wild Bunch (1969), and—speaking of “Stoners”—Up in Smoke (1978).  Tellingly, I associate the supporting players most readily with genre TV series:  Benedict was Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, Menzies essayed Jessica on the ill-fated Logan’s Run, Shull partnered with android cop John Schuck on Holmes and Yo-Yo, and O’Connor showed his benevolent side as Dr. Huer on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.