Film Review: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Also known as: Frankensteins Todesrennen (Austria)
Release Date: April 27th, 1975
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Robert Thom, Charles Griffith
Based on: The Racer by Ib Melchior
Music by: Paul Chihara
Cast: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Sand McCallum, Louisa Moritz, Don Steele, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, Joyce Jameson, Paul Bartel

New World Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year’s rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” – Harold

When Roger Corman stepped away from directing to start New World Pictures, it really opened the door for young filmmakers to usher in a new era of outside-the-box indie pictures. Paul Bartel was one of the premier guys to come out of the Corman camp and while he made a few really good films, none of them had as big of an impact on me as the super stylish and insane Death Race 2000.

The film is about a transcontinental race from New York City to Los Angeles, a race where the drivers earn points for killing human targets. The more offensive the target, the higher the points. So babies and old people are prime meat for the sadistic drivers and their high octane killing machines.

The movie takes place in a not-too-distant future where society has kind of evolved similar to those more modern Purge movies. America is a fascist state and this grand motor race is patriotic. Those who die, as victims of the drivers, are considered heroes and their sacrifices usually come with rewards for their loved ones.

Within this severely screwed up America is a group of rebels who are trying to end the race and overthrow the sick and twisted president in an effort to reestablish an America that is closer to what the Founding Fathers fought for. There is a lot of political and social commentary sprinkled in throughout the film and it almost exists as a response to the American government’s expansion into the world and its quest for occupation and control. It makes sense that this was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

The film stars David Carradine as Frankenstein, the most elite of all the racers. He is a literal living legend but he has his own ideas on the race and his government’s politics, which play out subtly as the film progresses, leading to a big rebellious crescendo at the end.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a very young Sylvester Stallone, who was a year away from Rocky fame, as well as Paul Bartel’s favorite collaborator, Mary Woronov. We also get Roberta Collins, who spent a large part of her career in exploitation films, a young Martin Kove, a decade before becoming the iconic John Kreese from The Karate Kid films, Joyce Jameson, who was a part of a lot of Corman’s ’60s horror productions, Don Steele, a charismatic and over the top shock jock from the ’70s, as well as two beautiful ladies: Simone Griffeth and Louisa Moritz, both of whom play navigators to the two top drivers. Paul Bartel even has a small cameo as Frankenstein’s doctor when the iconic racer is first introduced in the film.

One thing that makes this picture work so well, is that it is a tongue in cheek critique on the government and society but it doesn’t beat you over the head because of how ridiculous and stylized everything in the film is. Every character is more or less a caricature, every car has some sort of bizarre and hokey gimmick and things are so over the top and goofy that you don’t find yourself buried in serious subject matter. And maybe the political statements are sort of lost in this circus of a film but the sentiment seems pretty clear, even if it’s not fine tuned enough to be specific.

Bartel would follow this up with another action car picture for Roger Corman called Cannonball. That one also starred David Carradine and is enjoyable but it doesn’t stick out in quite the same way Death Race 2000 does.

This would also spawn a horrible remake that had even worse sequels. Eventually, a true sequel to this was made called Death Race 2050. I haven’t seen that one yet but I plan to give it a watch in the very near future.

Film Review: Eating Raoul (1982)

Release Date: March 24th, 1982
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Paul Bartel, Richard Blackburn
Music by: Arlon Ober
Cast: Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, Susan Saiger, Ed Begley Jr., Buck Henry, Edie McClurg, Don Steele

Bartel Films Incorporated, Quartet, 20th Century Fox, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Why don’t you go to bed, honey? I’ll bag the Nazi and straighten up.” – Paul Bland

Eating Raoul is the film where the team of Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov really cemented itself. While Bartel had directed before, this is his first real effort without the involvement of Roger Corman.

The film is, more or less, a black comedy that pokes fun at a lot of the cultural things that made up the 1980s. The free love movement has run its course, greed is everywhere and everyone is pretty much self-absorbed and blinded by their own desires.

The film follows the prudish Blands (played by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov). They are in serious financial trouble and are also continually harassed and repulsed by the swingers that seem to be everywhere in their Hollywood apartment complex. After murdering a swinger who was trying to rape Mrs. Bland, the two discover he is loaded. They then devise a scheme to knock off swingers and to take their cash. This gets them mixed up with Raoul (Robert Beltran), a shady locksmith. Raoul gives the Blands money for the “cadavers” and they all three scheme to get rich, as Raoul has his eyes on Mrs. Bland. We get a whole lot of hilarious insanity, a love triangle and a high society swingers party that makes up a fantastic finale.

Eating Raoul is a film that is a lot smarter than it initially appears to be. Bartel and Richard Blackburn wrote a stupendous script, which was only enhanced by the talents of Bartel, Woronov and Beltran on the screen. While the stars aren’t comic veterans, at this point, they have the timing and the presence of more experienced players.

Eating Raoul is a film that is greater than what one would assume is the sum of its parts in 1982. It was a small comedy that would’ve normally just come and gone and disappeared forever but somehow, the true talent of Bartel and Woronov comes through and this thing was a surprising hit and has thus achieved cult classic status. There is even a Criterion Collection version of the film.

Film Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Release Date: August 24th, 1979
Directed by: Allan Arkush
Written by: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante
Music by: The Ramones
Cast: P.J. Soles, Dey Young, Vince Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, The Ramones

New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Those Ramones are peculiar.” – Miss Togar

Roger Corman always liked to capitalize on whatever pop culture trends came along. Initially, he wanted to make a film called Disco High School. However, with the end of the film being capped off by the high school exploding behind dancing students, one of his collaborators said that the ending would fit much better with rock and roll. Corman agreed and after being pointed in the direction of punk rock legends The Ramones by Paul Bartel, a regular Corman collaborator, the rest is history.

Rock & Roll High School isn’t a good film but it is a ridiculous and fun motion picture that features the great tunes of The Ramones and the insane and infectious enthusiasm of its star, P.J. Soles.

The film also stars the always great Mary Woronov as the villainous principal and Paul Bartel as a music teacher that converts to a fan of The Ramones after getting doped up at a concert. We also get a good cameo by Dick Miller and get to enjoy a few scenes with the enigmatic and entertaining Don Steele. A young Clint Howard is also in this.

This movie is mostly a high school teen sex comedy with a heavy emphasis on The Ramones music. It isn’t quite a musical but it plays like one at times. The Ramones have a lengthy concert segment within the film but outside of that, we see P.J. Soles lead a group of girls singing in gym class, as well as the big finale which sees the students and The Ramones march through the school halls as they trash the place to the horror of the administration, their parents and the police outside.

Rock & Roll High School is highly entertaining but probably only for those who love the actors involved or who have a love for The Ramones. I’m not sure how it would resonate for others. It’s definitely a movie that is still well regarded by many because of its ties to punk music, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and because it has a massive nostalgia factor.

Film Review: The ‘Gremlins’ Series (1984-1990)

The Gremlins film series is proof that America wasn’t ruled by overprotective helicopter parents in the 80s. I’m glad I grew up in that era, as opposed to nowadays when a good old family film like Gremlins would be severely toned down and edited or have to be rated R and thus, not a family film.

I saw it in the theater with my parents. I was five. Yes, I saw people killed by little monsters and a bunch of horror violence but guess what? I loved it because I wasn’t coddled into being a complete wuss.

So let me discuss these films that, by today’s standards, should have destroyed me and turned me into a budding serial killer.

Gremlins (1984):

Release Date: June 8th, 1984
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holiday, Frances Lee McCain, Dick Miller, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Jackie Joseph, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, Jonathan Banks, Don Steele (voice)

Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros., 106 Minutes

gremlinsReview:

The first one is the best one. It is a classic and a “must view” film come Christmas time, even though it oddly came out in the summer months of 1984.

Gremlins is a prefect balance of comedy, horror and holiday cheer. It also is a perfect balance of cuteness and insanity and I’m not talking about the very young Corey Feldman in this picture.

The creature effects are top notch for their time and I would still rather watch these animatronic puppets than CGI any day. And one can’t not be impressed with how many Gremlins they actually put in some of these scenes. In the movie theater segment alone, it looks as if there are dozens of these creatures, all controlled and animated by some off-screen puppeteer.

The story is pretty basic and straightforward but most fairy tales are. But this is a dark and amusing fairy tale. The Gremlins, for being terrifying little monsters are hilarious. They joke around, act crazy and are lethal, even to each other. The fairy tale also has its rules that must be followed. Of course, the rules aren’t followed and that is why we end up with the glorious chaos that is this film.

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are perfect as the leads in this film and they had great chemistry, which also worked well in the sequel. In fact, unlike other boys my age, this is the film where I got a huge crush on Phoebe Cates, as opposed to Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Hoyt Axton was entertaining as the father character, a struggling inventor whose gadgets are the butt of several jokes in the films. Judge Reinhold and Dick Miller both show up for a bit as well.

This was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid and it has aged well. It still exudes the magic I found in it as a five year-old in the theater. Yeah, it is cheesy and over the top but it has a grittiness to it that you will never get when this film is eventually remade.

Gremlins is great. It is some of Joe Dante’s best work as a director.

And the soundtrack is fantastically nuts.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990):

Release Date: June 15th, 1990
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Charles S. Haas, Chuck Jones
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith, Carl Stalling
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Christopher Lee, John Glover, Robert J. Prosky, Robert Picardo, Hulk Hogan, Paul Bartel, Rick Ducommun

Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros., 106 Minutes

gremlins_2Review:

The New Batch is a pretty satisfactory sequel. I feel like they took too much time off between films but it still has a lot of the spirit of the original. It was also cool to see Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates return, as well as Dick Miller.

The film also has Christopher Lee in it, one of my favorite actors ever, as a mad scientist who does zany experiments on animals. His carelessness leads to the Gremlins acquiring some extraordinary abilities and a few bizarre abilities. The inclusion of Christopher Lee’s character ups the ante in this film, making the Gremlins more of a serious threat than they were in the first movie.

Also joining the cast are John Glover, as Daniel Clamp (a parody of Donald Trump in the 80s), Robert Picardo (a regular collaborator with Joe Dante) and Robert Prosky (as a late night horror movie show host dressed like a vampire). All three of these guys give superb performances, especially Glover.

Gremlins 2 isn’t as good of a film as the first but overall, it might be more fun. It is less dark but it is more campy. It has more Gremlin gags as opposed to a straightforward fluid story. The plot exists and there is a beginning and an end but the in-between stuff plays more like sketch comedy with a few plot points added in to keep it somewhat coherent.

This is a very different film than the first, which is refreshing. I probably wouldn’t want a rehash of what was done previously. This film did a great job of being its own thing while continuing the story on from the original.

I had always hoped for a third and final film but that ship has most likely sailed and Joe Dante isn’t the same director anymore.