DRIVE-IN FRIDAY: Eddie Harrison

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eddie Harrison has been a critic in print for The List magazine since 2003, and as a broadcaster for the BBC for the same period. He writes his own personal blog at film-authority.com. Here are his picks for a four-movie drive-in night of cinematic excess.

MOVIE 1: Highway Racer

Italian movies of the 70’s are coming of a staging post for cinema lovers; more than just imitations of American products, the best of them have a life of their own and style to burn. As kids, we get Hitchcock, and then graduate to Bava and Argento, Italy had something of a political upheaval in the 1970’s, and when they came to get inspiration from Dirty Harry and the Godfather, they came up with the Poliziotteschi, or Euro-crime genre with hard cops, sleazy villains and so much action that they shame the very films they copy.

Maurizio Merli was a giant of the genre, and his Inspector Betti trilogy (Violent Rome, Violent Naples, A Special Cop in Action) are the jewels of the crown of 70’s action cinema. Merli was an indomitable man, hirsute, virile, a perfect centre for an action movie. Here he teams up with director Marino Giolami for a take-no-prisoners cops and robbers movie that makes a virtue of their access-all-areas to Rome to enable some thrilling car chases.

Marli plays Marco Palma, a cop with a drive for nailing the bad guys. They’ve got souped-up motors, so Palma harasses his boss until he gets the same, a Ferrari 250 GTE specially modified to level the playing field. Palma makes Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious movies looks like a novice; he lives, breathes and loves cars, but only as a method of bringing down his enemy. Indeed, the climax of the film makes it clear that there’s a code of conduct between the hunter and the pursued, and the whole film is a chess match between the two.

The stunts here have no CGI to soften the edges; taking inspiration from real police pursuits, Giolami uses the same locations and even cars to replicate the action, and isn’t averse to grandstanding; flinging cars on their roofs as they tumble down Rome’s Spanish Steps tourist attraction, there’s plenty of bang for your buck here.  Highway Racer has been a hard movie to track down and only has a couple of English language reviews to date; if you get a chance, see it; this really is one special cop, and the action is highly impressive.

MOVIE 2: Magic

Magic is an odd bird indeed; Sir Richard Attenborough directs, but as a gun for hire, an unusual position for a man for whom most film ventures were long gestated and fit firmly under the heading ‘passion project’. This was a horror film, adapted by scribe William Goldman from his own book, and allowing Attenborough to make some coin in between A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi.  Genre pieces, modern day settings, Hitchcock-ian tension; these are all things untypical of the director’s work, but what’s remarkable about Magic is that he does them all pretty well.

Part of the appeal was undoubtedly the chance to work again with Anthony Hopkins, something of a muse for Attenborough. Hopkins plays Corky, a ventriloquist who has re-invented himself with a new, blue repertoire of gags which bring him to a new audience. Corky is hot, and his agent (a peerless Burgess Meredith, riding high post-Rocky) is keen to get him into some big-time gigs. But Corky is more interested in his old sweetheart Peggy (Ann Margaret) and heads off to her back-woods guest-house where she ekes out an abusive relationship with her partner Duke (Ed Lauter). Peggy is wowed by Corky, but he’s got a secret; his dummy, Fats, wants to call the shots, and when work and personal relationships turn sour, the doll seems to be able to manipulate events to sinister ends.

Magic did well, finding an audience and getting Hopkins a BAFTA nomination, but wasn’t a horror game-changer in the way that the same year’s Halloween was. Nevertheless, there’s lots to enjoy here, even if large chunks of Goldman’s prose fell by the wayside, notably the novel’s long and beautifully imagined history of Corky’s relationship with his mentor, only seen in one scene here. But there are still some terrific scenes, notably when Meredith unexpectedly drops by Corky’s house and challenges him to sit for five minutes without Corky taking over. Some critics found that Hopkins lacked the vulgarity to play a vaudevillian, but in this scene, the Welsh actor nails the split in Corky’s personality, a bitterness and cruelty instilled by the business sitting uneasily with a desire to be loved and respected.

Magic might have been little more that a prestige time-passer for all concerned, but as a movie, there’s a haunting strength. Magic deals with the deals we make with ourselves, rather than the devil per se, and perhaps the lack of a supernatural dénouement alienated genre fans. But not all horror comes from outside, and Magic is one of the few showbiz film that explore the darkness inside a performers head; a pumped-up B movie perhaps, but one that reaches a level of intelligence and intensity that few prestige pictures can reach.

MOVIE 3: Zoltan Hound of Dracula

Also known as Dracula’s Dog, Zoltan Hound of Dracula has a title that’s easy to love; sure, you’re the ultimate incarnation of evil, but why shouldn’t you want a pet too? There was a well-documented wave of interest in Dracula in the late 1970’s, from disco Dracula in Love at First Bite to John Badham’s prestige revamp with Frank Langella. But at the shallow end of the pull, we find Albert Band directing Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer, Michael Pataki and the brilliantly named B-movie specialist Roger Pancake. What’s not to like here?

The boring bit of any review is sometimes the plot-summary, but writer Frank Ray Perilli makes sure that the synopsis is a riot by the sheer veracity of his research into foreign-sounding names. Jose Ferrer plays Inspector Vaclav Banco, a Van Helsing in a polo-neck, and he’s on the trail of Count Dracula, played by Tarantino fave Michael Pataki. But to set all this in motion, we first have to see the Romanian army accidentally exhume Dracula’s dog Zoltan, who in-turn exhumes his master, not Dracula himself, but crypt-keeper, innkeeper and dog-keeper Veidt Smit, played by Salem’s Lot’s Reggie Nalder. Everyone seems to agree that this is quite enough of that storyline for a bit, and we reverse back 300 years to see how the original Dracula (Michael Pataki) bit a unwary dog who had eaten his dinner; for the petulant act, Zoltan becomes a loyal servant of the vampire. This back-story dispensed with, we shift back to 1978 and the modern Dracula family, with modern-day descendant (also Pataki), wife, two kids and puppies crammed into a Winnebago and enjoying a National Lampoon-style vacation. Zoltan and Smit mail themselves to the U.S and emerge to track down their relatives without even considering a subscription to a genealogy website.

U.S. cineastes often imagine the BBC as some kind of august institution, but the Beeb were never above broadcasting such outré fare as Zoltan Hound of Dracula to bemused customers such as myself. ‘There’s more to this legend than meets…the throat!’ was the desperate sounding tagline, but there’s little gore or even action here, Band seems to have a full time job explaining how Dracula has a dog, why Dracula’s not with his dog, why Dracula’s dog is chasing down his family tree and a number of other contrivances, but ultimately this all goes in a reassuringly familiar direction; the imdb lists the Winnebago as the single most expensive element in the film, which in retrospect, feels just about right.

MOVIE 4: New Seekers: Live at the Royal Albert Hall

In music-hall times, it was understood that the final act should be a bad one, to make sure that the hall was emptied and could be cleaned before the next round of performances began. I’m not sure exactly what kind of audience would be left after a triple-header of Highway Racer, Magic and Zoltan Hound of Dracula, but I’d imagine some tenacious characters indeed, so what better way to clear the desks than British songbirds and blokes The New Seekers and their fabled concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

The New Seekers are something to behold. Dressed in curtains, wide of lapel and enormous of bell-bottom, they’re a wholesome alternative to glam rock and glitter, warbling such head-in-the-sand old-time sentiments as I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing, Good Old Fashioned Music, and the aptly titled Never Ending Song of Love. With astonishing laboured patter, they diversify into arch comedy songs (I’m a Nut, When I Was Small) that boggle the mind; the tracking on my VHS copy also adds a discordant, David Lynchian twang which renders any attempt at musicianship hopeless.

I’ve used this film to clear people out of flats at parties; whatever one thinks of the New Seekers, and I kind of dig their bubble-gum sentiments in a Bobby Sherman kind of way, this is a record of truly bizarre musicianship, sentiment and clothes that should be compulsory viewing for anyone who despairs of the music or fashions of today. Things have been worse, much worse, and the new Seekers live performance arguably marks the zenith or nadir of popular culture as we know and understand it today.

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