Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

... aka: Devil's Men, The
... aka: Devil's People, The
... aka: I maska tou Diavolou

Directed by:
Costa Carayiannis (Kostas Karagiannis)

A pair of teenagers disappear in a small Greek village. Despite the local police sergeant's insistence he butt out, Irish priest Father Roche (Donald Pleasence), who knows the teens aren't the first to disappear there, starts looking into things. He sends a letter off to his private eye friend Milo Kaye ("Costa Skouras" / Costas Carageorgis) in New York City asking for help. While he waits for a reply, three archeology students; Beth ("Gelsomina" / Vanna Reville), her boyfriend Ian (Bob Behling) and their friend Tom (Nikos Verlekis), show up in their van for a visit. Tom has found a golden bull's head figurine nearby, so everyone wants to do some excavating in the area. Over dinner, Father Roche tells them about the disappearances in the village and refers to the area as "Land of Evil" and "The Devil's Territory." Thinking he's discouraged them from going he goes to bed, but the students unwisely decide not to heed his warning. They sneak out late that same night and camp out near a castle and the ruins of an old Pagan temple.

The next day, Beth goes into town to mail a letter and pick up breakfast while the two guys explore. The men find a secret entranceway into an underground cave, discover two corpses down there and then hear an ominous voice telling them "Those who enter the forbidden chamber of the minotaur must die!" In the village, Beth bumps into Baron Corofax (Peter Cushing) and his chauffeur Max (George Vivas). Since we already saw the Baron heading over a cult of pagans sacrificing two people in the pre-credits sequence, we know she's in trouble. Needless to say, Beth, Ian and Tom never make it back to Father Roche's home. Tom's girlfriend Laurie Gordon (Luan Peters) flies in to meet up with her friends and discovers they're missing. After some more nagging, Milo finally flies in, too. The three go to the village, get rooms at the inn and decide to try to get to the bottom of things.

Everyone in the village behaves strangely. The local police sergeant ("Fernando" / Dimitris Bislani) doesn't want them snooping around and tries to keep an eye on them. The innkeeper's young daughter is a creepy mute who wanders around and just stares off into space. A frantic woman (Jessica Dublin) keeps trying to warn them about something but she getting run off (and is later found dead). While visiting the Baron's castle, Father Roche notices that a baby is playing with a 4000 year old Pagan toy with a symbol for human sacrifice on it. And hooded cult members keep terrorizing Laurie (and peep in on her taking a bubble bath). Roche eventually comes to the realization that the devil has taken possession of the entire village. After Laurie turns up missing and the Baron pulls a shotgun on them and tells them to leave town, Father Roche arms himself with a crucifix and holy water and storms into the temple for the explosive finale.

What a huge waste this turned out to be. There's Cushing and Pleasence on hand in major roles, high production values, an excellent shooting location, a fine score from Brian Eno, some cool props (including a great stone minotaur that shoots flames out of its nostrils) and great sets... and this thing still sucks. The culprits? Annoying direction and a terrible screenplay. Because the director is intent on showing us everything, the film is incredibly predictable and the opening sequence itself ensures this never builds up the slightest bit of intrigue. There are constant annoying zoom shots into eyeballs any time someone says something important. And the characters are unlikable and annoying. With his gray shaggy hair and thick black eyebrows, our "hero" Milo is not only an eyesore, but an obnoxious douche bag whose skepticism about what's going on and "I only deal in fact and reason" cliché detective mantra reaches absurd proportions. After Laurie escapes some cult members who chase her through the woods, he tells her it was "Probably just a cow loose in the woods or something." And when Laurie acts upset that everyone in the village has disappeared and the power has been shut off, he slaps her in the face (!!)

Even Pleasence gets a little annoying in this one, constantly nagging Milo about his bad driving, snapping at Laurie when she says she isn't religious and even bitching "Did you have to push me so hard?" when Milo saves his life shoving him out of the way of a car trying to run him over! The Laurie character is barely even defined and constantly left alone until she's finally abducted. The film also believes that paganism and satanism are the same exact thing.

It was filmed in Greece and all three stars of the notorious bad taste Greek shocker ISLAND OF DEATH (1975); Behling, Dublin and Jane Lyle (who pops in long enough for a gratuitous nude scene); have small roles. There's a rock title theme song sung by Paul Williams (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). British actor Emlyn Williams was the assistant editor. The uncensored version I watched was titled The Devil's Men. The easier to find cut version that's missing some violence and all of the nudity (the same one released to U.S. theaters) is Land of the Minotaur. Under either title, it's not good.


All the Kind Strangers (1974)

... aka: Evil in the Swamp

Directed by:
Burt Kennedy

Big city photo journalist Jimmy Wheeler (Stacy Keach) is about to get a good taste of (forced) Southern hospitality in this middling made-for-TV movie (produced for Jerry Gross' Cinemation). While driving cross country from New York to California in his brand new convertible, Jimmy decides to take a scenic back road and spots 7-year-old Gilbert (Tim Parkison) walking along the side of the road carrying a heavy bag of groceries. He decides to give the kid a lift home, which Gilbert claims is only about a mile away. So Jimmy keeps driving... and driving... and driving some more. Gilbert leads him down a gravel road and then onto a dirt one. Jimmy cringes as tree branches smack off his car, he hits some bumps and is even forced to drive through a shallow creek. They finally arrive and Gilbert begs him to come inside, meet his family and take some pictures with his fancy Polaroid camera. Jimmy's introduced to all of the children, seven in total, ranging in age from 5 to late teens. Gilbert claims his mom is dead and from all indications their pa is, too, though eldest son Peter (John Savage; who'd just played a similar anti-social type in the underrated THE KILLING KIND [1973] a year earlier) he's just "away."

Jimmy passes on their supper invitation, but when he tries to leave his car won't start. Now he's forced to take them up on their offer of spending the night. The children; including mute oldest daughter Martha (Arlene Farber), 15-year-old John (Robby Benson), 12-year-old Rita (Patti Parkison), 11-year-old James (Brent Campbell) and the youngest, named just Baby (John Connell) because ma died giving birth to him so he was never named, all act strangely and secretively. And things get even stranger when Jimmy is introduced to their mom Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar), who they'd previously claimed was dead, talks with a British accent and writes out "HELP" in some flour while preparing biscuits. As it turns out, the kids have lured there off the highway, are holding her against her will and forcing her to take on the responsibilities of a mother. And now they're in need of a dad to complete their happy family... which is where Jimmy comes in.

In between singing bible hymns and doing chores, the kids do everything in their power to make sure the adults can't leave. They have guns, there's an army of vicious, well-trained dogs (a Rottweiler, German Shepherd, etc.) lurking the grounds, and the fields and woods surrounding the property are all booby trapped. If the new parents refuse to play along or cause too many problems, then they're forced to leave. And by leave, I mean permanently. Peter takes them outside and shoots them, though the other kids don't know he's doing it. They sink Jimmy's car into a swimming hole where other cars from other visitors are. Martha ends up developing a crush on Jimmy and tries to kill her Carol Ann by sneaking a "varmint" (rattlesnake) into her bedroom and Peter, who dreams of traveling the country (even to "Mardi Grass"), is behind it all and is doing it because of the stress and strain of having to take on a parent's responsibility at such a young age and not being able to live his own life.

Also released as Evil in the Swamp, this has decent acting (Keach is particularly good) and an interesting premise, though it really could have been fleshed-out a lot better than it actually is. It's non-exploitative. I'd imagine if this were an R-rated release, the filmmakers would have elaborated more on the teenage daughter's desire for her new "pa" and other aspects of the plot. There's minimal violence and even a "heart-warming" ending. Benson sings the title theme song played over the end credits. Director Kennedy also made the theatrical release THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1976), which was loosely based on a Jim Thompson novel and starred Keach as a psycho cop. It's supposed to be better than this one.


"It's Alive!" (1969)

... aka It's Alive!

Directed by:
Larry Buchanan

The last of eight films made for Buchanan's production company Azalea Pictures that were used to pad out an AIP TV package, this is unlike most of the others in the series in that it's not a remake of a 50s sci-fi favorite. Instead, Buchanan was allowed to use an un-filmed screenplay by Richard Matheson called Being, which at one point was going to be filmed as G.O.O. starring Peter Lorre and Elsa Lanchester but fell through. Matheson's name is nowhere to be found in the credits, which is just as well for him since Buchanan does his usual thoroughly inept job with the material handed to him. Middle-aged couple Norman (Corveth Ousterhouse) and Leslynn (Shirley Bonne) Sterns are on their way to a Wilson National Park and accidentally take the wrong road off the highway. After driving a bit on a country back road and getting low on fuel, they spot a jeep pulled over to the side and get out to talk to a young man, Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk), who points them in the direction of a farmhouse where they may be able to borrow some gasoline. They travel up the road a ways until they reach the home. The owner, Mr. Greely (Bill Thurman), claims they have no gas but a delivery truck should be by shortly to bring some. He invites the couple inside his home to wait.

Mr. Greely is, you could say, eccentric. He has a stuffed lizard on the mantle in his home and keeps cages outside full of various animals (wildcats, monkey, pigs, rattlesnakes). He slaps around his poor housekeeper Bella Pittman (Annabelle Weenick), who's frightened to death of him, and tells her not to say anything to the couple that might scare them away. When Wayne shows up to check in on the couple, Greely clubs him over the head with a wrench before luring Norman and Leslynn down into some caves. There, he manages to lock them inside. Wayne, a little battered but not badly injured, is locked up there, too. The cave system is huge, with all kinds of tunnels going up and down. The trio begin exploring when Greely shows up to inform them they're sharing space with some kind of "thing." That "thing" turns out to be some kind of giant lizardy creature that spends most of its time in some bubbling hot spring and only emerges to grab a bite to eat.

Captured, stuck in a cage and then forced to co-star in 'It's Alive'? Whatta life!

As if the situation isn't bad enough already, stress brings out the worst in Norman (who's a huge prick, anyway) and he attempts to lure Wayne to his death but instead gets gobbled up. Wayne, who conveniently happens to be an assistant professor of paleontology, pegs the monster as a massasaurus, or aquatic lizard, which grew to be 40 to 50 feet tall and lived around 75 million years ago. Greely has a crush on Leslynn and says he'll take her out of the cave if she'll be extra nice to him. He even says he'll get rid of Bella if need be. Bella overhears his plans and agrees to help the captives. But first...

"It was like I was on a treadmill in a horrible nightmare!"

The flustered "maid" tells about she ended up there to begin with during an extra long and utterly pointless flashback sequence. Once a school teacher, she was passing through the area and needed a cheap place to stay. Greely offered her a room, locked her inside, denied her food and water for days, served her a dead mouse on a plate and would sneak into her room while she was sleeping and blow a whistle in her face. She retaliated by throwing peroxide in his face and trying to escape but he caught up to her and beat her with a belt. Ever since then she's been his slave. These scenes were clearly filmed with a different camera than the rest of the movie. They were also shot without sound. Lips move and nothing comes out, so narration is used; long enough to completely get our minds off of what else was going on. After some drugged tea and dynamite, it's over.

It's Alive! was filmed in the same caves as ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS (1966), a remake of IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), and utilizes the same awful googly-eyed monster costume as CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE (1966). Buchanan himself does the corny narration ("An ominous feeling invaded the privacy of the car; a feeling that intensified with each turn in the winding highway...") at the beginning.

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