You’ve heard Sam and myself rave — as result of his incessant, ’70s and ’80s TV movie work — the wares of Canadian filmmaker Steven Hilliard Stern. From his work with Portrait of a Showgirl (Tony Curtis and Rita Moreno!) The Ghost of Flight 401 (Ernest Borgnine!) and This Park Is Mine (Tommy Lee Jones!), Mr. Hilliard rocked our television sets. Then, in one of his rare, later theatrical works, Rolling Vengeance, well . . . a movie where a man reacts to the death of his wife and children by making a monster truck and killing everyone responsible . . . that’s our kinda movie!
Other entries in Stern’s superior TV movie oeuvre (on U.S. TV and cable; in Canada, they ran as theatrical features) are the James Brolin-starring The Ambush Murders (1982), the pre-stardom Tom Hanks-starring Mazes and Monsters (1982), and the Ned Beatty-starring Hostage Flight (1982).
I know. I know. Stop squeezing the Hilliard Stern toiletries. Get on with the review. . . .
Well, by the time of this not-so-comedy featuring second and third tier comedians, Stern was four films into theatrical features: B.S. I Love You (1971; a sexual revolution comedy starring JoAnna “Isis” Cameron), Neither by Day Nor by Night (1972; a war drama starring Zalman “Red Shoe Diaries” King), and Harrad Summer (1974; more “sexual revolution drama” starring Laurie “Eight Is Enough” Walters) — only Harrad Summer was a box office hit (and also a flop, when compared against the hit status/box office of the previous The Harrad Experiment). So off to TV Steven went, with U.S. series such as McCloud, Quincy M.E., and Hawaii Five-O. Remember when they tried to make Al Pacino’s hit cop flick, Serpico, and Logan’s Run, into TV series: Stern helmed them both.
“Ugh, R.D. The movie at hand, please.!”
Okay, well, we have to remember Hilliard’s career is still in its infancy, but he did have a sort-of-hit on his hands with Harrad Summer leading to this . . . maybe if Steven was given a cast of better actors and comedians? And if this — being a “sex comedy” — had some actual (implied) sex or nudity? Ugh, Bob Dishy and Bill Dana (name a ’60s TV comedy), and Vito Scotti (name a ’60s comedy series that needed a Bela Lugosi-ham job), and a young Pat Morita just aren’t funny. No, the gag of Severn Darden’s (the Apes franchise) art collector walking around on his knees isn’t funny.
So, do we blame our TV movie god Steven Hilliard Stern for the out-dated, behind-the-times humor?
Blame Mickey Rose, the brains behind the early ’60s Sid Caesar Show, as responsible for the comedic faux pas. And let us not forget the abysmal failures to spin off Tim Conway, Dean Martin, and Jonathan Winters into their own, out-of-date-before-they-made-it-to-air, one-season variety series. But wait . . . this is the same Mickey Rose who gave an assist to Woody Allen with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run, and Allen’s first, runaway hit, Bananas (1971)? It is the same Mickey Rose!
So, what happened with Rose’s spoof of ’40s mafia films: one that plays, not as a film of the ’70s, but as a zany, madcap ’60s comedy, à la 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? But perhaps that was Rose’s scripting — and Stern’s — retro-intent? But who — in the post Vietnam ’70s — wants a zany, madcap ’60s throwback?
Was nothing learned from the failed Conway, Martin, and Winters TV series? Well, this sure as hell ain’t a Mel Brooks joint by any stretch of imaginary hopes. Maybe if Peter Sellers — who had to bow out due to a medical issue with his heart — remained as our hen-pecked, embezzler-cum-assassin?
So . . . Jordon Oliver (the awful Bob Dishy in the planned Sellers role) has been fired from his job for embezzlement. His wife wants a divorce. Now, Jordon decides on a insurance scam: take out a million dollar policy and bump off his rich wife (the never-hard-to-gaze-at Joanna Barnes of Spartacus and The Parent Trap). But that means she needs a medical examine — on the q.t. — so Jordon contracts a shady (and offensively-troped) doctor (a young Pat Morita) on the scam. Then, Jordon hires a hitman (Bill “Jose Jimenez” Dana, who, as with Tim Conway, leaves no wonder as to why he was stuck on TV for the remainder of his career). The comedy ensues as our lazy, inept hitman contracted another hitman. And its just goes on and on . . . and it gets sillier and sillier . . . and more groan-inducing with, what seems, the ad-libbed dopiness of desperate, no-longer-relevant comedians calling attention to themselves in an attempt to outdo the other . . . as the celluloid frames creak through the analog sprockets.
I mean, come on: one assassination attempt is by a-shark-in-the-swimming pool — complete with an “Acme Shark Rentals” truck at the curbside. And that’s after Dishy wears a chicken suit. And that’s after Dishy’s fakes a piano recital by way of a backstage dwarf (disguised as a daisy) on a mini-piano peckin’ off the classics. And Dishy’s awful, ongoing “Bogart” impression jokes. And on and on and on it goes . . . where it stops, nobody knows. Even at a meager one hour twenty-seven minutes, it’s still too long. No way Peter Sellers could have made this work. Never.
Ugh. Argh! What I do for you, Steven. What I do for you.
So, yeah. Cue the T.L.P Swicegood “Wah-Wah-waaaahhhhhhs” trombones from The Undertaker and his Pals, then file this madcap farce on the not-funny-words-on-a-dusty-shelf next to the analogous box office failures of Angel, Angel Down We Go, Myra Breckinridge, and Skidoo — as a celluloid curiosity to pick at on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Eh, well . . . at least Mickey Rose wrote and directed the original slasher spoof, Student Bodies. So, without ol’ Mickey, we’d have no ’90s Scream spoofs, so there’s that to ponder. And you can ponder it all — for free — on You Tube. Sure, it’s over on Amazon Prime, EPIX, and Paramount +, but do you really want to waste your hard-earned dollars on this? Do ya’ really? No, do you?