Plenty of directors have made extreme cinema. However, only a few have been arrested for murder and owned the title Monsieur Cannibal.
Ruggero Deodato started life as a music prodigy, directing an orchestra by the age of seven before quitting once his teacher sent him away for playing by ear. Through his friendship with Renzo Rossellini, he started working with Renzo’s father Roberto and Sergio Corbucci, who he worked with as the assistant director for Django.
Deodato also made three movies of his own, Hercules, Prisoner of Evil; Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen; Gungala, the Black Panther Girl; Donne… botte e bersaglieri, Vacanze sulla Costa Smeralda, I quattro del pater noster, Zenabel and the TV series Il triangolo rosso and All’ultimo minuto before leaving to work in advertising.
It was in 1977 that Deodato would plant his flag in the genre that he is best known for: the cannibal film. While these movies have their roots in the jungle adventure genre, they really took root when Umberto Lenzi made The Man from Deep River in 1972. Released as Sacrifice! in the U.S., it was basically a remix of A Man Called Horse yet set in the Green Inferno. Deodato would take that film and push it with a series of cannibal-themed movies like Jungle Holocaust (aka Last Cannibal World) and Cannibal Holocaust, the watershed of all cannibal and found footage films.
Lenzi claims that the only reason Deodato got to make Jungle Holocaust was because he was busy making Almost Human and wasn’t offered enough money by the producers; this could just be part of the somewhat feud between the two directors, as when Lenzi made Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) in 1980, Deodato said, “I think the forefather of the cannibal genre was me. I had not seen Umberto Lenzi’s movie Man from Deep River. So my film, Last Cannibal World, really originated, and was written to start this whole cannibal trend. I studied a lot of books on the subject and documented some of it from National Geographic magazine as well. I also looked closely at the ritualism of cannibalism and I don’t believe Lenzi did that with his film. Maybe Lenzi did it after I made Last Cannibal World. You know, when he went on to do Cannibal Ferox. He didn’t do it first, that’s for sure. When I finally saw his film, it was more of a copy of A Man Called Horse.”
Maybe Luigi Cozzi is the arbitrator of this argument. He said, “To me, the real beginning of the cannibal genre is Cannibal Holocaust. It was a legitimate success at the box office, but not in Italy as it was banned, blocked and withheld. They distributed it at a later date, but it was dead by then. However, it did astonishing business abroad.”
Cannibal Holocaustis either a work of exploitation junk madness or an art film inspired by the political unrest of Italy at the time. Can it — perhaps by accident — be both? How strange is it when the filmmakers — particularly Deodato if interviews by the cast are any indication — are just as bad if not worse than the characters on screen?
Ten days after the movie’s premiere, it was confiscated under the orders of a local magistrate and Deodato was charged with obscenity, which if you’ve watched any Italian films is incredible with the sheer outrages one sees in these films. And then, in one of those no news is bad news PR moments, the charges against Deodato soon included murder, as some believed the actors who portrayed the missing film crew and the impaled actress were actually murdered. This could be the ultimate kayfabe press story, but the actors — who some claim were told to hide for some months to get across the idea that this was a real snuff film — and special effects crew were called to court to prove Deodato’s innocence. That said, he received a four-month suspended sentence for obscenity and animal cruelty as eight real animals were murdered during the making of the movie. The film didn’t play Italy uncut until 1984.
It’s also on the list of films distributed on video cassette that were criticized for their violent content by the UK press and various organizations such as the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. You can read more about the Video Nasties in our three-part article. Start with part one, which has Deodato’s cannibal film, right here.
The director also made Last Feelings and Concorde Affaire ’79 during this period as he fought to retain his directing license.
As groundbreaking as Deodato was before 1980, I believe that he made movies just as interesting and wild after, starting with his Last House on the Left-influenced House on the Edge of the Park, a movie so indebted to Craven’s movie that it even has star David Hess in the cast. As I wrote in my initial review of the film, “Deodato makes a film that continually assaults not just the characters” and again, it found one of his movies on the section 1 Video Nasty list.
Billed in the U.S. as Richard Franklin, Deodato’s next film would be the improbable Raiders of the Lost Ark/Road Warrior mix and match that is Atlantis Interceptors (aka Raiders of Atlantis), which has an all-star — well, Italian exploitation all-star — cast including Christopher Connelly, George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and a young Michele Soavi.
The slasher boom in the U.S. led to two larger budget films for Deodato.
Cut and Run was intended as a Wes Craven film and had an R-rated and international cut packed with more of the wildness that Deodato was known for. Fran Hudson (Lisa Blount, Prince of Darkness) is investigating a war in the jungles of South America between drug cartels and the army of Colonel Brian Horne (Richard Lynch), who has a gigantic assassin named Quencho (Michael Berryman) on his side. Plus, you get Willie Aames in a Mickey Mouse shirt, Karen Black, Eriq La Salle, Gabriele Tinti, John Steiner and Barbara Magnolfi. It’s as if the big world of Hollywood has met the Italian industry for this one, which features bodies torn in half and crucified, as well as references to Jonestown.
The second larger budget film Deodato worked on was Body Count, which has Charles Napier, Ivan Rassimov, John Steiner, Cynthia Thompson, David Hess and Mimsy Farmer in a movie that combines the stalk and slash camp action of Crystal Lake with the haunted burial ground of Cuesta Verde. It also has an RV, dirt bikes and a blaring synth score from Claudio Simonetti. It’s also the kind of movie that claims to be in Colorado yet was shot in the Cascate di Monte Gelato forest park.
Like most Italian exploitation directors, Deodato tried nearly any genre that was hot at the time. The Lone Runner is the next example. This post-apocalyptic film stars Italian mainstay Miles O’Keefe (the Ator series), Raiders of the Lost Ark bad guy Ronald Lacey, John Steiner, Hal Yamanouchi and Yugoslavian actress Savina Gersak, who ends up in all manner of movies I obsess over, including Iron Warrior, Afghanistan – The Last War Bus, Curse II: The Bite, Beyond the Door III and Midnight Ride.
Deodato’s next film, The Barbarians, moves into another Italian-beloved genre, the peplum film by way of Conan the Barbarian pastiche. This was a well-trod genre for the director, as the firm movie he made was Hercules, Prisoner of Evil.
What would be better than one barbarian? How about two? Twin brothers — The Barbarian Brothers! Made for Cannon Films, with a script by James R. Silke (Ninja 3: The Domination, Revenge of the Ninja), this takes the best of the venerable Cannon and throws in Italian stars with America talent, so Richard Lynch and Michael Berryman appear in the same movie as George Eastman and Virginia Bryant.
A movie that is almost the entire Conan movie redone with double the brawny beefcake swordsmen, this movie is fun from start to finish, with an episodic story that takes the brothers from young members of a circus to battle gigantic monsters.
The next film that Deodato would direct was Phantom of Death, a way late in the cycle giallo with horror elements that boasts Michael York as a man aging prematurely, Donald Pleasence as an inspector and Edwige Fenech as the love interest. This is one of the few films in which you can hear Fenech’s voice undubbed.
Dial:Help is one of the strangest films in Deodato’s career, a mix of horror, giallo and telephones acting as both protector and antagonist for Charlotte Lewis. Working from a script by Franco Ferrini (Phenomena, Sleepless, Opera), this is probably the most gorgeous of all the movies Deodato would direct, including a wild scene that shows the reason behind these murderous phones: an abandoned phone line for people who had their hearts broken, an office where all of the operators are dead and can reach out from the other side. It’s a crime that this movie isn’t yet available on blu ray.
Deodato also worked in Italian TV, making two episodes of Il Racatto, the mini-series Ocean (which features David Hess, Michael Berryman and Martin Balsam), eight episodes of I ragazzi del muretto, six episodes of We Are Angels (featuring the wild team of Bud Spencer and Philip Michael Thomas as criminals hiding out as monks; it also has appearances by Hess, Berryman, Richard Lynch and Erik Estrada), ten of the Carol Alt-starring Thinking About Africa, an episode of Incantesimo 8 and the TV movie Padre Speranza (Father Hope), which stars Spencer.
Deodato also made two theatrical films in the early 90s, the child-friendly drama Mom I can Do It, starring American actors Chistopher Mattheson and Elisabeth Kemp (He Knows You’re Alone) and The Washing Machine, a sex-packed giallo tale of three sisters, murder and dead bodies found inside washing machines. Again, sadly, this has not yet been reissued in the U.S. so it hasn’t found an appreciative audience.
An appearance by Deodato in big fan Eli Roth’s film Hostel: Part II — which also has a cameos by Fenech as an art class professor — led to the director appearing in films like The Museum of Wonders, Endless Dark, Phantasmagoria and the Italian horror history-referencing Lilith’s Hell in which he plays himself.
After an eight year break, Deodato would direct a segment in The Profane Exhibit, the short Io e mia figlia and a segment in Deathcember. He also would make Ballad In Blood, his first full-length movie in a quarter century. Based on the Meredith Kercher murder case, it retains much of the headline chasing, boundary pushing blood and sleaze that Deodato has traded in for his entire career. Recently available from Severin in the U.S., one can only hope that the label finds a way to bring official releases of his other films to American collectors.
Deodato has also found his way into numerous documentaries — Shudder devoted an entire episode of Cursed Films to his most notorious movie and he’s one of the main interviews in The Found Footage Phenomenon— and has even been the subject of several, including Deodato Holocaust.
While Deodato’s films aren’t for everyone, they are important movies to study and enjoy for those willing to take the journey. He’s certainly one of the more interesting Italian filmmakers and one of the last surviving links to the heyday of 70s and 80s darkness that emerged from the country.
A couple of weeks ago on the Drive-In Asylum Double Feature, Bill, Gigi and I were discussing why there weren’t more disco-based slasher movies. Sure, disco died — or so they say, but it never went away and we all know and love this — during Disco Demolition Night on Thursday, July 12, 1979 in Chicago.
That said — Halloween came out in 1978 and disco-based films were still coming out as late as 1980. So why didn’t the slasher genre create more disco-based films?
Here are the few that are agreed upon disco slashers. Can you think of any other ones? We’d appreciate finding more!
Keep in mind — we’re not discussing rave movies or just movies set in nightclubs. And no, even though Phantasm has a flying silver ball, it’s not a disco slasher. Carrie has a disco ball too, but I just don’t think it belongs. This would also write off movies like Hellraiser III, Terminator and Blade. Nightclubs and raves don’t count.
Prom Night: Perhaps the most well-known of all the few disco slashers, Prom Night came out in 1980, just at the time that there was that strange disco backlash. There’s a story that this movie was shot with the actors dancing to tracks by Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, France Joli and Pat Benatar, but according to composer Paul Zaza, the publishing rights to the songs were larger than the budget of a Canadian tax shelter slasher could afford.
According to the documentary The Horrors of Hamilton High: The Making of Prom Night, producer Peter Simpson had Zaza xerox those songs and do slightly different remixes of them for use in the movie. The resulting $10 million dollar copyright lawsuit was settled for $50,000.
The soundtrack was released — originally — only in Japan and the music made its way into other Zaza-scored movies like Ghostkeeper and Curtains.
Don’t Go in the House: With a psychopath who falls asleep listening to loud music on headphones finds himself leaving the safety of rock and roll for the sped up cocaine beats of disco, you can only imagine that the least of his sins is throwing a candle at a young dancer’s hairspray filled coif, an act that barely gets her friends to stop doing the hustle.
A truly mean spirited blast of sheer degeneracy — and therefore everything wonderful about the slasher form — Don’t Go In the House has songs like “Boogie Lightning,” “Dancin’ Close to You,” “Straight Ahead” and “Late Night Surrender” playing in between moments of women being set ablaze and a mother rotting somewhere in a house that has an impossibly huge torture chamber in the basement.
Bloody Moon: Leave it to Jess Franco to embrace not only the slasher, but disco. Throbbing beats play over a poolside disco party, killers with ruined faces, incest, bladesaw butchery, kids getting hit by cars and roller disco. It’s one of those slashers that you keep on saying, “Surely there’s no way they’ll take things this far,” and then Franco says, “I’m actually kind of feeling restrained by this movie and you should see when I really go for it.”
Discopathe: While made more than 25 years after the other examples on this list, this is all about a New York fast food cook who goes into a trance killing statue — murderdrone? — whenever he hears disco. After a series of killings, he runs to Montreal and begins wearing special clothing that cuts out sound and makes him almost deaf. But when a surprise disco party at the school where he works as an audio-visual tech goes down, the rage comes back.
House on the Edge of the Park: Before their night of psychosexual madness, Alex and Ricky were planning on going to the disco. So when a disco party breaks out in Gloria’s house and she humiliates Ricky by making him strip and drink, is it any wonder that Alex remembers he’s David Hess and takes over the party, beating people, tying them up and pissing all over them?
Riz Ortolani is seriously astounding, the only music man I can think of that would pair cannibals impaling someone from ass to mouth with a gorgeous sad song. So beyond Cannibal Holocaust, the songs “Sweetly” and “Do It to Me” in this movie just flat out get me ready for the strobe light.
Eyes of Laura Mars: Alright, this might be more disco giallo than disco slasher, but go with us for this. KC & the Sunshine Band and Odyssey are on the soundtrack, so that’s more than enough to qualify this for the list.
Actually, this is totally a disco slasher because beyond the music, disco is all about fashion. And this movie, well, it is fashion. It’s a movie that I want more people to see and appreciate, as it has some really wild moments.
I’ve debated including The Disco Exorcist, but it’s not a slasher. Climax has some great dancing scenes and death as well, but it feels too EDM. Cruising is more punk rock and BDSM and murder mystery than slasher. Fright Night is more nightclub than disco. And Murder Rock feels more Flashdance than Can’t Stop the Music.
The sad fact is that there should be so many more disco slashers. Hopefully, you can think of a few more and put them in the comments.
Finally — something fun that I found as I was writing this:
Spacetoonz are awesome — making DJ video mixtapes of some of our favorite horror movies. Their new mix — Bloody Disco Balls — has a preview on Vimeo and you can buy it now from Diabolik DVD.
A few years ago, I came up with an All-Star movie baseball team. Now that the Pro Bowl is coming this weekend, I’ve picked my lineup of the best movie football players. I invite you to reply with your own draft to see if you can defeat my team — The B&S About Movies Bullies.
Quarterback – Shane Falco, The Replacements
I have a theory here, so go with me. Falco was recruited to play for the Washington Sentinels after a strike hit the league with four games left in the season. He’s a former All-American from Ohio State who badly lost the Sugar Bowl and just fixes boats instead of being a star quarterback. Or is he just undercover? Because he’s played by Keanu Reeves, who also played FBI Special Agent John “Johnny” Utah in Point Break, an Ohio State quarterback who went undercover after leaving football thanks to a knee injury. Also, who amongst us hasn’t been hungover on a Sunday and enjoyed The Replacements on WTBS?
Back up: Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon
Does anyone love football more than a man that introduces himself to an alien race by shouting “Flash Gordon: Quarterback, New York Jets.”? When the game gets close, he will save every one of us.
Running back – Billy Cole, The Last Boy Scout
Sure, there may be better running backs. But how many other players are Tae Bo king Billy Blanks, much less will bring a gun on the field and kill as many players as he can to ensure that the L.A. Stallions win? So like Eternal Champions on Genesis, I have pulled Billy from the point in time before he blows his mind out all over the endzone and jammed him up with even more PCP guaranteeing some chaos.
Fullback/running back – Guard Dunham, The Longest Yard
If you’re just starting to figure out that most of my team has no concerns about penalty yards, just remember that I’m from the hometown of the biggest heels in football, the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that’s the bottom line.
Wide receiver – Rod Tidwell, Jerry McGuire
I might despise this movie, but I have no worry that Tidwell can get the yards we need to win. I am prepared to show him the cash.
Wide receiver – Phillip Elliot, North Dallas Forty
Sure, he has a painkiller problem, but who in the league doesn’t? This team needs a veteran to get the kids in line and there’s no one better at that than this guy.
Tight end – Cheeseburger Eddy, The Longest Yard
I’m drafting based on passion. After all, he’s the man who said, “I got the shakes that’ll make you quake. I got the fries that’ll cross your eyes. I got that burgers that’ll… I just got burgers.”
Yeah, he may not emotionally be that prepared for the big leagues, but there’s no one that cares about the team (and his truck) more.
Guard – Jamal Jackson, The Replacements
A big part of me just wants to draft the entire Washington replacement squad. But that feels like cheating.
Tackle – Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans
“I’m Louie Lastik, I’m offensive lineman, naval family just moved here from Bayonne, someone said football, so I come runnin’. What’s goin’ on everybody?” Welcome to the team. Also, Ethan Suplee, who played thsi role, is in amazing shape today, so that goes into account.
Tackle – Jumbo Fumiko, The Replacements
I promise, no more Washington Sentinels after this one.
Center – Manumana, Necessary Roughness
Good at playing both sides, this big man is perfect for my team of bruisers.
Defensive Line – Switowski, The Longest Yard
I picked this one because that’s Bob Sapp. If you watched Japanese wrestling in the 2000s, he was one of the few bright spots.
I’m excited to change the NFL with my team and finally bring a woman on the field. Plus, I can’t pick Nigel “The Leg” Gruff because I promised no more players from that movie. I debated Ray Finkle from Ace Ventura Pet Detective, but this seemed like the right call.
As we’ve spent an entire week covering the mainstream films of Gregory Hippolyte Brown, also known as Gregory Dark, there’s an entire other list of directing duties that he worked on that you’ve seen but may have not recognized.
Yes, we understand that he had quite the career in adult, but starting in 1996, Dark started directing music videos — back when that was a thing and MTV played them — and achieved plenty of success. The idea that the man who made Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout White Chicks was making preteen friendly videos was a big story to magazines like Esquire, who published the Tom Junod article “The Devil in Greg Dark,” which starts with this: “He was a pornographer. Maybe the worst pornographer. Now, through Britney and Mandy, he’s teaching our teenage daughters about budding desire.” and perpetuates Dark’s legend by saying that the director “…might be the devil.”
It also explains why so many bands hired him.
“There’s a whole generation of kids who learned about sex from my fucked-up movies. A lot of gangster rappers and guys in heavy-metal bands still come up to me and say, “Gregory Dark, I had my first sexual experience watching New Wave Hookers!””
Click on any of the song titles to see these videos.
The Melvins “Bar-X the Rocking M“: The first video that Dark sort of fell into, this definitely has the feel of the adult work that he was making in 1996, but was the start of his video career. Adult actress Roxanne Hall, who told Dark in the adult film Snake Pit that ” like knives, I like to be cut, I like to be choked. I like weird sex. I like it rough and I know one of these days I’ll end up dying with a smile on my face,” appears in this video. You can learn more about the video in this incredibly well-written Diabolique article.
Sublime “Wrong Way” and “Doing Time“: Sublime lead singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996 the day after their last live show and two months before their third album would become a success. With no band to actually perform the songs, MTV put both of these Dark-directed videos into heavy rotation. Doppelganger cameraman Vance Burberry was the cinematographer for “Wrong Way,” while Kim Haun, the cinematographer on “Doin’ Time,” was the cameraman on Malibu High. The makeup on “Wrong Way” was by former adult actress Kelly Nichols.
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies “Zoot Suit Riot“: Co-directed with Bob Murawski, the Academy Award-winning editor of The Hurt Locker, this was the second video for this song, as the first “wasn’t up to MTV standards.” It won the band a nomination for Best New Artist in a Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. This was shot by Julian Whatley, who ran camera on se7en.
Orgy “Blue Monday“: At the time of this cover song’s release, more people probably knew the Orgy version than the original New Order version.
Mandy Moore “Walk Me Home” and “So Real“: The dichotomy of the man who directed Traci Lords as a preteen — unknown to Dark — and the preteens who shaped the buying and romantic identity of other preteens is fascinating, particularly when you consider that Dark’s father was an occult-interested anthropologist and his main father figure was a psyops military analyst (from Dark’s interview with The Rialto Report).
Vitamin C “Graduation“: Dark discussed this video on The Rialto Report, saying that while he didn’t like the song, he recognized the challenge of showing the changes in a woman’s life in a short video and that’s why he enjoyed the results. As Colleen Fitzpatrick, Vitamin C would appear in several movies, including Dracula 2000.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Beebe grew up in the Northeast. He studied film at the University of Hartford. He’s held boom mics, wrangled cables, grabbed a camera etc. on little local shoots. He is a music fanatic, and is working on a book devoted to the NYC underground hip hop scene of the ’90s. He plans on following that with writings on obscure hard rock and proto-metal bands of the ’70s. His favorite film is Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar.
Have you ever been struck by how interrogating and shamelessly harsh certain horror titles seem? Who Saw Her Die? and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? are both infamousgialli that without doubt inform the viewer an unpleasant experience awaits. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is one of a few examples of psychological terrors directed by Curtis Harrington that also comes to mind; it’s ridiculous sounding, but nevertheless accentuates mystery and violence, particularly, harm to a female. It’s also another title that begins with use of the 5 Ws. The late Harrington was an American filmmaker who often displayed a European sensibility and an extravagant visual style, but this is where most of the similarities between his work and the notorious Italian subgenre end. Something like Alice,Sweet, Alice is regarded among horror obsessives as a perfect American attempt at being thematically and stylistically linked to the best gialli. While no stranger to cinematic bloodletting, Harrington instead falls into a seemingly less celebrated, slightly more restrained and somber cinema of “Personality” horror, a sub-genre that was defined by writer Charles Derry in a 1974 issue of the great CINEFANTASTIQUE (Volume 3 Number 3). That very article serves as an invaluable document in placing Harrington as a major figure in a category that specializes in depicting madness on screen, with a less flashy, slower paced, perhaps old fashioned manner, in comparison to the loud and gorier approaches of his Italian counterparts. The giallo-inspired original Halloween is of course beloved as a film that puts viewers thrilled to the point of clinging to or jumping out of their seats. Watch Harrington’s The Killing Kind on a rainy day or a lonely late night, and you’ll be more likely filled with dread and reflections on the emotional well-being of yourself and those who you know closely. No wonder it seems that Curtis is forgotten by so many! But is he really forgotten? Beginning with the groundbreaking (in my view) piece by Charles Derry, in which he is included with William Castle and Robert Aldrich to complete the triple threat of Personality horror auteurs, there are highly recommended sources to seek out for beginners to Harrington, and maybe even the genre enthusiasts that had written him off as only having a minor role in horror film history. Even if his style and concerns appear to make for an unpleasant chore to some, there’s a lot to unpack in the story of his youth and career in Hollywood, experiences and accomplishments that at the very least grant Harrington as a practitioner of high art.
Let’s go back to the CINEFANTASTIQUE article for a moment. We can easily make the connection between the campy sounding titles What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?by Aldrich and Harrington’s What’s the MatterWith Helen? The latter arrived almost 10 years after the legendary Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford vehicle, which is arguably the film that launched the “crazy old lady” genre, also often labeled as “hag-horror”. The formula for Aldrich’s 1962 film, based on a novel of the same name, proved to be an overall astounding success. A few years later, Harrington began making similarly titled, disturbing thrillers focused on the fragile mental states of aging women imprisoned in run down mansions, sadly hanging onto memories of a foregone era. The longing for a glorious comeback in the showbiz universe is also a reoccurring element shared between the two directors. So is Harrington an opportunist? Maybe, but in the sense that he saw a chance to be greenlit while also working with imagery, characters and themes that were genuine obsessions of his. His debut feature film was the waterlogged Night Tide (1961) and like the highly regarded Avant-garde shorts he started with as a teenager/young man in the 1940s-1950s, a gloomy atmosphere and preoccupation with loss, madness and death was already prevalent. The CINEFANTASTIQUE overview of Personality horror cinema also includes an early interview with Harrington, and it reveals that he was determined to cast Old Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich, then in her mid-‘60s in his first major studio film Games (1967), and importantly, in discussing What’s the MatterWith Helen? he says: “To me, the film was a very affectionate recreation of a period in Los Angeles history which I have my own tremendous feeling of nostalgia for. I was trying to show lives on the fringe of Hollywood in the ‘30s.” In addition to being fascinated by middle and older aged women and actresses, Harrington also had a knack for directing them. He was applauded by industry veterans for being able to evoke intense performances from a number of actresses who weren’t known to suffer fools lightly, while managing to also stay friendly.
About those outlandish film titles: they appear to have been imposed on Harrington by studio heads and producers, something that plagued his filmography, just like he was forced to work with screenwriters and cinematographers who he detested. The two Harrington/Shelley Winters films discussed here are based on scripts and stories with far subtler titles. Any interview with Harrington has plenty of sad and frustrating recounts of development hell and productions where he had little choice but to personally fulfill multiple tasks and still find his work compromised when released theatrically, and on television. And home video-the story behind the botched first videocassette release of his sole gross out flick Ruby (1977) is laughably perplexing.
Another major genre magazine was Fangoria, where Harrington was interviewed in the early 1980s by the late, legendary author of fanzine Sleazoid Express, Bill Landis, in one of his few submissions to the more mainstream publication. This is interesting because if you read the Sleazoid Express book, which covers the exploitation film explosion in the Times Square movie theater scene, neither Harrington nor his films are mentioned. Nothing in the Harrington oeuvre fits Sleazoid. His films undoubtedly played drive-ins and grindhouses, but how likely is it that they splattered across screens to the delight of rowdy crowds in the way that Make Them Die Slowly famously did? Landis’ interest in Harrington is probably a result of their shared connection to a peer from the Avant-garde days, Kenneth Anger, who Landis later authored a biography on. Anger had a falling out with Harrington and eventually Landis, but there was a time when both Kenneth and Curtis, as early as their teenage years, were renowned worldwide as two groundbreaking homoerotic, experimental filmmakers. Anger never involved himself with feature-length studio film production, but he enjoys an almost rock star reputation because, well, he hung out and collaborated with the likes of Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page. There’s also the notion that Anger’s shorts were more electrifying and influential to popular culture than the shadowy, tormented early cinema of Harrington. As mentioned, Kenneth Anger was once a friend but has been known to be a somewhat volatile, difficult personality. Despite making no secret of his constant battles with pushy studio execs, “creative producers”, clueless cameramen, inferior set dressers, incompetent writers, by pretty much all accounts, Curtis Harrington was one of the nice guys.
“Before Lynch…Before Cronenberg…CURTIS HARRINGTON” proclaims the cover of the Nov/Dec 1992 issue of Video Watchdog, graced by a chilling close-up of the crazed smile of the Queen of Blood (ironically, one of his more impersonal projects). This issue features an outstanding collection of writing on Harrington, with Stephen R. Bissette’s typically brilliant analysis and historical overview of the early experimental shorts, a videography by VW publisher Tim Lucas and an interview with Harrington conducted by longtime friend Bill Kelley. Throughout, Harrington offers candid recollections of his career-long battles with the Hollywood studio system; at this point, he hadn’t made a feature film in nearly a decade. Something that makes this interview so endearing is how he often finds himself laughing at the absurdity of the film business. He has a sense of humor about how his hard work, talent and personal vision can so easily go down the drain. Overall, he seems like a pretty nice guy!
Here’s a weird question: what do ‘90s indie rock darlings/mopes Pavement and Curtis Harrington have in common? No, he didn’t direct one of their videos. They both were handled by sophisticated record label Drag City, in Harrington’s case publishing his posthumous autobiography aptly titled Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood in 2013. The same year, Drag City in collaboration with Flicker Alley also released The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Blu-ray. Both, of course, are unequivocally essential.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD release of The Killing Kind, his most blistering film
VCI Entertainment’s Blu-ray/DVD release of Ruby, which is simultaneously his most fun movie and troubled production. This one is a very dingy and ridiculous piece of work. And very ‘70s, even though it was, like many Harrington’s, a period piece. The transfer is decent enough and the cut is thankfully his preferred version. The bonus features include interviews with Harrington conducted by David Del Valle, a saint to the genre, who surely is Harrington’s biggest fan, from 1988 and 2001. There are multiple audio commentaries with Del Valle, excellent liner notes (!) by Harrington expert Nathanial Bell and yet another audio commentary, this time with Harrington and Ruby herself, actress Piper Laurie
Also, on some dreary day or especially dark evening, take a look at two specific television movies of his, How Awful About Allan and The Dead Don’t Die, charming and spooky little gems that Harrington doesn’t disown, and that can be easily found online.
In 1980, Joe D’Amato started Filmirage, a production company that would help create his movies as well as the films of others. They released more than forty movies in fourteen years, which is a pretty good record. By 1994, D’Amato had made the move to almost strictly making adult films and had left theaters and even the horror movie shelves behind.
Here are the movies of Filmirage, some of the most disreputable blasts of sleaze ever committed to celluloid.
Anthropophagus (1980): The studio started strong with this release, a gut muching, busting and destroying downbeat beach epic that has a menancing tone that still strikes hard four decades after it was made. You need to get the insanely awesome Severin Video rerelease or watch it as The Grim Reaper on Tubi.
Absurd(1981): I hold firm to my belief that this movie was set in Pittsburgh during the Super Bowl XIV game against the Los Angeles Rams. It’s also my third favorite movie in the Halloween series, because it’s pretty much the second one all over again. I mean that as a recommendation. Severin Films re-released this film with all of their trademark quality and insanity. You can also watch it on Tubi.
Cuando calienta el sol… vamos a la playa (1981): This movie about Stefano, a boxer on holiday who falls in love. It has Giovanni Frezza in its cast, so beware.
Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982): The first of the series of four sword and sorcery films, Ator is great if you love giant spiders, Edmund Purdom, Sabrina Siani and can deal with a hero who totally wants to get down with his sister.
Endgame(1983): This entire site sometimes feels like my love for this movie. I mean, end of the world psychic ninjas and mutated fishmen and Laura Gemser and George Eastman and just order it from You can get it from Severin.
L’alcova (1985): If you come home from the war and bring Laura Gemser to your wife who already hates you and has been having an affair with your secretary, things are not going to work out. They’re going to be crazy getting there, though.
The Pleasure (1985): Oh man, this movie is wrong on the kind of level that only an Italian sex drama written by Claudio Fragasso and directed by Joe D’Amato can be. TL:DR a girl falls for her father’s old lover, who wants to recreate her through the young girl.
A Lustful Mind (1986): When Alessio’s mother died, he lost his voice. After his father gets married again, he’s sent to live in the country to recuperate. And while daddy is playing with the new mommy, an aunt and an art restorer, his son is sailing the seas of mayonnaise wishing it was him doing all the actual sex.
Convent of Sinners(1986): Joe D’Amato. Who else would make a movie in which a girl is assaulted by her father, sent to a convent, falls for a priest and then has lesbian nuns accuse her of being possessed so that they can scissor out her sins?
Christina (1986): Christina is wealthy and neglected, which is exactly the kind of recipe for a D’Amato movie heroine. You’ve seen it before, but you can see Laura Gemser every day for the rest of your life and it’s still as great as the first time. Also: I apologize that this article has become “ways to mention how wonderful Ms. Gemser is.”
Delizia(1986): When a centerfold takes over her family home, all manner of lovemaking ensures. Lead actress Tinì Cansino claimed she was the niece of Rita Hayworth. Who are we to call her out?
Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987): Some people are content to watch 9 and 1/2 Weeks. Joe D’Amato was determined to make a better movie and he had Jessica Moore on his side, as well as the city of New Orleans as his majestic canvas. Way better than it has any right to be.
StageFright (1987): It’s not hyperbole when I say that Michele Soavi is at the same level as Argento, Fulci and Martino. Even in his first movie, a slasher written by George Eastman and produced by D’Amato, he’s immediately firing on every cylinder and unleashing sheer mayhem, as well as one of the best-dressed killers ever. Watch it on Tubi.
Ghosthouse (1988): Also known as La Casa 3 — don’t get us started — this Umberto Lenzi film is everything Filimrage: the soft darkness of shot on film madness with a synth soundtrack and characters who want to convince you they’re in an American movie but have been beamed down from another galaxy. Also, the fact that Lenzi used Humphrey Humbert as his name on this movie delights me every single moment of every day.
Top Model (1988): It seems like Filmrage delights in confusion: Top Model is the sequel to Eleven Days, Eleven Nights, yet there is also an Eleven Days, Eleven Nights 2. This one is way better, perhaps even better than the first movie. It also has a theme song that plays more than the one in Super Fuzz.
Too Beautiful to Die(1988): Let the rest of the world think giallo is dead. Just like disco, it will never go away. This high fashion blast of insanity tops my list of 80s giallo and you can get it from Vinegar Syndrome.
Witchery(1988): The next Ghosthouse film boasts Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, as so many of the Filmirage movies were made with the hopes of conquering America through theaters and then, if that didn’t work, VCRs. You can watch this on Tubi.
Dirty Love (1988): Who would make a dirtier Dirty Dancing and cast Jeff Stryker in it? We all know the answer. Joe D’Amato. It also features the incredibly named Valentine Demy, who went from waitressing to lingerie model to D’Amato star while she was 17. Today, she’s still making adult films. By the way, the video box above is perhaps my favorite D’Amato ad object ever made, as it has a great tagline — “Dirty Love continues where Dirty Dancing dare not go” — and a sticker that screams “Directed by Joe D’Amato the maker of Eleven Days, Eleven Nights.” Who did they make that for? Me?
Zombi 5: Killing Birds (1988): I get the feeling that sometimes, all Joe D’Amato wanted to do was chill. The jury is out as to whether he directed this, but I say he did. Somehow he got Robert Vaughn to be in a movie about zombie birds, so God bless him. You can order this from Vinegar Syndrome or watch it on Tubi.
11 Days 11 Nights Part 3(1989): I assure you that there’s a second film in this series and it came out two years after this one, while Top Modelis also listed as the second movie. Look, things are confusing. What can I tell you?
Interzone (1989): An Italian post-apocalyptic movie written by Claudio Fragasso, Rossella Drudi and director Deran Sarafian (Alien Predator) that I somehow have not watched yet? How does this happen? And it has Tegan Clive, The Alienator, in the cast? I’m sorry to the readers of our site, I am really dropping the ball.
Blue Angel Cafe (1989): Tara Buckman, of Night Killer fame, is an exotic dancing lounge singer in love with a politician who loses his fortune and sobriety thanks to her adoration. You know, D’Amato could have made ten movies with Buckman and I’d watch them all. Sadly, he only made this and High Finance Woman.
Hitcher in the Dark(1989): Umberto Lenzi may not have made as good a film as The Hitcher, but darn it if he didn’t make perhaps a more fascinating one. Daddy issues, RV driving, murder on the highway, mind games, this was released in Italy as — you know it — Hitcher 2. You can get this from Vinegar Syndrome or watch it on Tubi.
La stanza delle parole (1989): With Henry and June seeming like it was going to be a big arthouse deal, Filmirage wondered, “But can you make a version more people want to jack off to?” Enzo Sciotti got the memo and made a poster that destroys minds and pushes young boys into puberty before they’re ready. The Laura Gemser is the nearly too rich cherry on top. “Based on the diaries of Anais Ninn?” Oh Filmirage, you crazy.
Any Time, Any Play (1990): A card dealer and a lounge singer fall out of love, into other beds and back into love, bringing organized crime down on them.
Deep Blood (1990): If you thought Joe D’Amato didn’t have a Jaws ripoff in him, then you don’t know Joe D’Amato. Or Federiko Slonisko. Or Michael Wotruba. Or David Hills. Or Kevin Mancuso. Or Joan Russell. Or Raf Donato, the name he used when he directed this. You can get this from Severin, who used our quote on the back cover, or watch it on Tubi.
High Finance Woman(1990): Tara Buckman and Joe D’Amato come together again for a story about a stockbroker — the title says so much — who has an affair with a father and son.
Metamorphosis (1990): George Eastman directed this version of The Fly was called Re-Animator 2 in Spain. If that doesn’t tell you why I love it, you haven’t been reading this site. You can watch it on Tubi.
Quest for the Mighty Sword(1990): Joe D’Amato could have made five thousand Ator movies and I would be defending every single one of them. This one — also known as Ator III: The Hobgoblin, Hobgoblin, Quest for the Mighty Sword and Troll 3 because it has the costume from Troll 2 — finds D’Amato reclaiming his character after Iron Warrior, a sequel he did not like.
Body Moves (1990): A disco fight. Yes, somehow Filmirage was trying to get into all the different hot angles of the late 80s and 90s and dance competitions seemed the way to money. You have to love them for trying.
Beyond Darkness(1990): Also known as Evil Dead 5, Horror House II, Ghosthouse 6 and House 5, this Claudio Fragasso-directed film has Troll 2 star Michael Stephenson, D’Amato filming things and Laura Gemser making the costumes. You can get it from Severin or watch this tale of a child murderer coming after a priest and his family on Tubi.
Troll 2 (1990): Somehow, Joe D’Amato was able to send Claudio Fragasso, his wife Rossella Drudi, costume designer Laura Gemser and the Filmirage crew to Utah to make one of the strangest movies ever. I hate that people watch this ironically, because I just plain love it. It’s a pure example of a movie that came from another reality to ours and has no idea how human beings act. It’s literally like being in an ever-changing dream, including a moment where you piss all over your family’s dinner.
The Crawlers(1990): Known by many names, just like the man who directed it, you can call this Troll 3, Creepers or Contamination .7. It’s got killer plants, an attack on Utah and horribly dumb humans in it. You already know that I love it. Go ahead, watch it on Tubi.
Passion’s Flower (1991): Jeff and Gordon own a drug store and just when Jeff gets to town, he falls in lust for a woman that turns out to be his brother’s wife who wants her to kill him and he wants to kill them both and look — Laura Gemser plays a prostitute so kind that she gives Jeff a freebie when he forgets his wallet. Obviously, this movie is total science fiction.
Ossessione fatale (1991): D’Amato — and a few other Italian directors — realized that the erotic thrillers that American video stores and cabe wanted were just giallo. This time around, D’Amato went back to Emanuelle and Francoise to tell the story of a woman who turns the tables on a man, turning him into a captive slave and using him for pleasure. Of course she moves on and he falls in love.
Il diavolo nella carne (1991): Also known as War Baby and The Devil in the Flesh, this has three female nurses and a female doctor encounter commandoes and a wounded prime minister and, well, love comes from rough handling I guess.
Favola crudele (1991):The Dark Tale is the story of a 9-year-old who falls for the handsome of her dreams prince who is really a terrorist because didn’t Fulci lie when he warned us, “No one will ever know whether the children are monsters or the monsters are children.” Directed and written by Robert Leoni, who also wrote American Rickshaw, Santa Sangre and My Dear Killer.
11 Days, 11 Nights 2(1991): A sequel in name only, even though the character of Sarah comes back and is now played by Kristine Rose. After being married and quickly separated, she gets the new job of being the executor of the estate of Lionel Durrington, one of her past lovers and the richest man in Louisiana. Consider this Malibu Express with less guns and somehow almost as much sex. Which means it’s closer to Stacey.
A Woman’s Secret (1992): I love when American actors find themselves in Italian productions. This D’Amato-directed film has Margaux Hemingway (I mean, she’s also in Killer FIsh and They Call Me Bruce? so perhaps I should not be so surprised) as a woman whose New Orleans affair becomes dangerous. Also — Apollonia Kotero. Yes, the Apollonia from Purple Rain. How did Joe — who produced under the name John Gelardi and did cinematography as Frederic Slonisko — not get Laura Gemser, who was on set as the costume designer, into a scene with Apollonia? Maybe as fun sisters who have a Pretty Woman shopping scene?
Door to Silence (1992): I would assume that John Savage had a two-movie deal with Filmirage and followed Favola crudele with the last movie that Lucio Fulci would direct. I mean, it has a quote that doesn’t match the source material, one of my favorite Fulci tics: “When you go to the gates of nothingness, no one will be near you: only the shadow of your death – Book Four of the Apocalypse.” Yet when producer John Gelardi saw the film, he thought it was too slow, so he went back to New Orleans and shot some new scenes. Gelardi is, of course, Lucio Fulci. And he replaced Fulci’s name — supposedly his last few films didn’t do well — with the alias H. Simon Kittay.
Frankenstein 2000 (1992): As D’Amato closed in on the end of his directing career, he made what should have been a no-brainer, a film that had Donald O’Brien as the monster and Cinthia Monreale as the woman he died protecting, now animating him from her coma. It should be great, it isn’t, but it’s still interesting, which is more than most movies can say.
Una tenera storia (1993): This was Laura Gemser’s last film role, which makes me pretty sad. Let’s pause for a moment so I can collect myself. Ah man, who ordered all these onions? Anyway, Love Project is a soap opera pretty much, but you know, with sex. Cinemax sex. If you look at the credits and see a Daniele Massaccesi, that isn’t Joe. It’s his son. Look at softcore movies bringing families together.
Tales of Red Chamber (1993): The genius of D’Amato is that people thought that these films that he produced were straight up Asian movies that he imported. Well, Robert Yip is…Joe D’Amato. He made a bunch of these movies and they’re on the list, but any time I’m really down (like just a minute ago, thinking of Laura Gemser being done acting) I say Robert Yip out loud and I get happy.
Instinct (1994): Joe D’Amato used the name James Burke for this film about a woman who moves into the home of her dead sister and this is an erotic thriller, which we all know is a giallo.
China and Sex(1994): Filmirage closed up shop with one last Robert Yip-directed film. The end of an era, one filled with zombies munching people, houses filled with evil children, Laura Gemser and the hundreds of names of Joe D’Amato. Just seeing the name before a movie makes me feel better about this sad world. Take some time, track down some of their movies and see if you feel the same.
Editor’s Note: This cinematic journey will take us from 1970 to 1983, as we explore 36 films.You’ll find links to individual, expanded reviews for some of those films, which will, in turn, have links to watch the films online. There is, admittedly, a lot to unpack here. So bookmark this article — and come back, often — for your one-source guide to discovering Christian films, films that exploited the genre, and other films that searched for the deeper meaning and purpose of man.
Trailers and/or the full films for each film we’ve reviewed can easily be found online through a wide array of video hosting and streaming service.
We dove deep into the radioactive, post-apocalyptic pools with our two-part, two-month long September and October 2019 extravaganza with all manner of “End of the World” flicks — as well as a few from the Christian Cinema subgenre of biblical prophecy-based films.
Since then, as is our obsession with niche genres, we went a little bit overboard as we reviewed more of the puritanical pablum. So, let’s round up all of those “Christian Cinema” reviews — along with a few new ones, and a few you won’t expect — as we learn more about the beginnings of the genre and its post-apocalypse subgenre concerned with the Apocalypse as foretold in the Book of Revelations of The Holy Bible.
Christian Cinema is known by secular audiences as Christploitation or Godsploitation, and as with any “-ploitation” sub-genre of films, such as Blaxploitation or Hicksploitation*, someone is exploited. So instead of African-Americans or Southerners, Jesus Christ is used to gain financial success. Only, instead of clipping taboo trends or lurid content concerning sex and violence into the frames, these proselytizing flicks center around Christian practices. As is the production model of any -ploitation film, Christian Cinema product takes their “wholesome” plot points way over the top (even more so than secular exploiters), where all non-believers are inherently evil (and ripe for the guillotine, fiery pits, or mass graves), Russians, Chinese, and Israeli peoples are behind the “end times” and are inherently damned (at least in the older, more crazed films), and Christians are perpetually oppressed for their (cheesy) patriotism (e.g, a gun is put to a believer’s head as they are told to renounce Christ; they’re bound, then dropped on spikes, etc.).
Christploitation films — even more so with their updated, ‘ 90s and ’00s versions — are in fact, not analogous to the secular, major studio biblical films of old; films that intended to inspire hope (but were “exploitative” none the less). Most of the films we explore on this list (and others we name drop within reviews) are intended to frighten you into believing. That is if they don’t make you, the secular viewer, guffaw, first. And that’s because Christian filmmakers, as well as Christian musicians, are creating their preaching-to-the-choir art solely for religious purposes, forgetting they need to create good art; a non-hokey art that will appeal to a mass audience beyond their respective Christian targets. Thus the reason for the major studio biblical-based films garnering more positive reviews and box office returns than their low-budgeted, Christian-indie counterparts.
In the pages of the book Media, Culture, and the Religious Right by Linda Kintz and Julia Lesage (1998; University of Minnesota Press), we learn that, in the 1940s, Christian film libraries emerged. Soon, Christian businessmen, most notably Harvey W. Marks, who started the Visual Aid Center in 1945, invested in the what became the earliest video stores, by creating libraries for the faithful to rent audiovisual materials and supplies churches with product. By 1968, Christian Cinema, a small theater in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, was opened by Harry Bristow to screen Christian-based films. That theater-based ministry continued its mission until its newer location in Ambler, Pennsylvania, ceased operation in the mid-1990s.
Subtly is not part of the narrative in most of the films we’re looking at or referring to; most wear their earnestness (especially those of the post-Cloud Ten Productions variety; now PureFlix has entered the fray alongside Albany, Georgia-based Sherwood Pictures) on their sleeves, leaving one with a sanctimonious, but never dull (well, sometimes; okay, most times) film. Whether or not the film is irreverent or irrelevant to one’s life depends on the secular or Christian insights of the viewers. Christian cinema isn’t for everyone, as is horror films based/set within the Bible (such as The Exorcist or The Omen) are for everyone.
While biblical-based films have been produced since the silent era and the earliest days of the “Talkies,” (1915’s Civilization, 1935’s Golgotha, and 1941’s all-Black production The Blood of Jesus are worthy of mention) the genre hit its stride in the 1950s, with the major studios’ “Books of the Bible ” epics of Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), Salome (1953), Slaves of Babylon (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), The Big Fisherman (1959), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), The Story of Ruth (1960), Barabbas (1961), Francis of Assisi (1961), King of Kings (1961), A Story of David (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and The Bible: In the Beginning(1966). Also released during this period were Luis Buñuel’s (Simon the Desert) surrealistic take with The Milky Way (1969) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s neo-realist (a really fine must-watch) The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). Other faith-based films released during this period included A Man Called Peter (1955), Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), Satan Never Sleep (1962), Lillies of the Field (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), A Man for All Seasons (1966), 7 Women (1966), and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). And while it is looked upon as a war film, Sergeant York (1941) chronicles the faith-based life of Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I. (The faith-based life of World War II conscientious objector Desmond Doss is chronicled in 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge.) Then there’s the “western” Stars in My Crown (1950), where a pastor preaches in a dangerous town — with a gun on his side.
Of course, all of those early, major studio, secular versions of the bible were rife with A-List stars, such as Stuart Granger, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with the “faith” aspects of the film’s source materials taking a backseat to the glitz and glam of Hollywood (even more so with 2014’s later, competing Sfx spectacles Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale and Noah starring Russell Crowe). It was time for churches and faith-based production companies to begin making their own films to get the story, straight.
Prior to the Christian Cinema industry that we know today becoming big business in the ’90s and ‘2000s, courtesy of widespread, mainstream theatrical and cable television showings, as well as those Christian media concerns embracing the DVD format to distribute their proselytizing wares, the church-financed indie-genre started out as “roadshow” films.
Those were the days when films literally “hit the road,” traveling from church showing to church showing, from tent revival to tent revival. No secular drive-in or indoor theater would offer a free screen for such fare, and the organizations behind these early Christian Cinema flicks weren’t about to pay to “four-wall” a tour of secular venues (a marketing venue that worked for the much later, Christian-oriented film, Flywheel, from Albany, Georgia’s Sherwood Pictures). So, the first exposure for the many (well, the followers of a particular church or pastor) of several of the films on this list were inside church auditoriums, chapels, and revival tents. Some may have had additional showings on local/rural UHF-TV channels in the 1970s, as well on the 1973-incorporated, UHF-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Then, with the advent of the home video market, these once lost, underground church n’ tent films broke away from their puritanical obscurity into the secular, VCR-inclined curiosity seekers during the home video ’80s.
As the home video marketplace completed its transformation from analog tapes to DVDs, Christian author Tim LaHaye, along with writer Jerry B. Jenkins, inspired a Christian-leaning post-apoc industry in 1995 with their first book in the 12-title Left Behind adult novel series. The books, replete with elements of sci-fi, horror and action, became a series with critical acclaim and sales that matched the secular works of Stephen King and Tom Clancy. In the pages of a February 2005 TIME magazine interview, world renowned pastoral leader Jerry Falwell said, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s [the Left Behind books] probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”
And as with King and Clancy before him, Hollywood optioned LaHaye’s works for theatrical adaptions, which became a tetraology franchise by Canadian’s Paul and Peter LaLonde Christian-based Cloud Ten Pictures, a studio that specializes in end-times films. The original three films were Left Behind: The Movie (2000), Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002), and Left Behind: World at War (2005). The films were so successful in the home video and cable television marketplace, a big screen theatrical reboot starring Nicolas Cage (be sure to visit our exploration of Nicolas Cage’s career),Left Behind, was released in 2014.
But let’s step back for a moment.
In between the paranoia-driven insights of Donald W. Thompson, with his decade-long, four-part Thief in the Night film series, and secular exploitation filmmaker Ron Ormond teaming with Mississippi evangelist Estus Pirkle to let loose a half-dozen films, most which dealt with the tales of the Apocalypse, mainstream studio 20th Century Fox stole their “thunder,” if you will, to give us Richard Donner’s influential The Omen (1976). Its tale of the coming Antichrist not only spawned four sequels between 1976 to 1991, as well as a 2006 remake, it spawned a puritanical plethora of Italian and Spanish knockoffs**.
Prior to The Omen, William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, more so inspired the European film industry**, with the book’s 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin. But those films, as they wore on, shed their religious elements and concentrated on the horror, to the point the “faith element” that served as the soul purpose of the films by Donald W. Thompson and Ron Ormond, were lost. Some of those faith-based elements of early ’70s Christian Cinema found their way back in the major studio system, with Columbia Pictures’ apocalyptic-horror drama The Seventh Sign (1988) and New Line Pictures took a break from the Freddie slasher flicks to produce their biblical thriller-drama, The Rapture (1991).
And that takes us back to 1995 and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s debut, best selling book, Left Behind.
Inspired by LaHaye’s books, the LaLonde Brothers, prior to their optioning of Left Behind as the best-distributed film from Cloud Ten Pictures, produced their own tetraology based on the end times chronicled in the Book of Revelations. The first in the series, known as Apocalypse (1998) during its initial release, was retitled Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm for the home video market. The next films in the series each carried “Apocalypse” colon prefixes with Roman numerations for the sequels Revelation (1999), Tribulation (2000), and Judgement (2001).
Paul and Jan Crouch’s TBN, which began airing these modern-day biblical apoc flicks to ratings success, weren’t going to be “left behind,” so they bankrolled their own “End of Times” flick with Six: The Mark Unleashed (2004). That film, starring faith-based actor David A.R. White, led to his forming his own studio, PureFlix (think Netflix, only for Christians). The studio, in turn, produced their own Rapture films with The Moment After (1999), The Moment After 2 (2006), In the Blink of an Eye (2009), and Jerusalem Countdown (2011). Of course, the biggie for TBN was the theatrically-released The Omega Code (1999) starring Casper Van Dien and Michael York, which spawned an equally-successful sequel in Meddigo: The Omega Code 2 (2001).
Each of these proselytizing flicks, as with the Left Behind series, upped their Christian Cinema game by casting past-their prime actors, but reliable and dependable actors none the less, such as Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Bernsen, Gary Busey, Jeff Fahey, Margot Kidder, Nick Mancuso, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mr. T, and Eric Roberts. And, as with Cloud Ten Pictures, those films also achieved significant sales, rentals, and ratings. They also failed with secular critics, with the word “worthless” accompanying their zero-to-half-star reviews. But evangelical reviewers — the intended audience — loved the films, lamenting their “transformative messages” for the masses.
Transformation or movement of the Holy Spirit was, of course, not the goal of the obviously superior produced End of Days (1999) directed by Peter Hyams and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and The Book of Eli (2010), backed by producer royalty in Joel Silver and starring Denzel Washington. Those films backburner the faith-aspects and placed the obvious sci-fi, horror and action elements prevalent in the books written by John (the Apostle or of Patmos; opinions vary) to the forefront. And once Christian-based studios, such Cloud Ten Productions, PureFlix, and Sherwood Pictures began breaking box office and retail rental records (with films like Do You Believe? and Let There Be Light), the major studios responded with, again the likes of Exodus: Gods and Kings (Christian Bale as Moses), Noah (Russell Crowe as the crazy boat guy), and Mary Magdalene (2018; Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus).
Now, let’s see if we can transform you with our reviews to these lost premillennialist flicks — with a few tangents that question who and what is the purpose of man — of Christian Cinema. Remember, we, as a society, just came out of the Vietnam War and were still feeling the dread of the Korean War. Man needed answers. And Hollywood was ready to answer the calling to instill either apeirophobia (the fear of eternity) and ouranophobia (the fear of heaven) in movie goers to make a buck. For you need not be a Christian to exploit Jesus Christ. Amen.
Aliens mixed with your bible was big business in the ’70s, much to the chagrin of the traditionalist fire-and-brimstone brigade (who believe UFOs “are Devils” sent to distract you) — and this is the film where The History Channel’s Giorgio A. Tsoukalos got his ancient aliens schtick. First released as Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, a German-produced film based on Erich von Däniken’s 1968 worldwide best-seller Chariots of the Gods? , this ancient aliens trailblazer extrapolates aliens and interplanetary craft to the Holy Bible’s Book of Ezekiel.
When this raked in $26 million in U.S. box office and received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, documentaries on the mysteries of Earth and space, were thou loosed. A down-on-his-luck William Shatner got into the ancient-biblical astronauts game with Mysteries of the Gods (1977), while Rod Serling pulled a paycheck in 1973 with In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, and The Outer Space Connection — all released by Sunn Classics, the studio behind Chariots.
On a personal note: I had a pastor tell me that there can’t be life on other planets, as Jesus doesn’t have the time to go from planet to planet, flying from galaxy to galaxy on a chariot, dying for everyone’s sins.
But isn’t Jesus the Son of God who turned water into wine and fed the 5,000-strong multitudes with five loaves and two fish? Can’t Jesus do everything? Aren’t all things possible with God? And why does Jesus have to fly on a chariot? Can’t he just “appear” where he needs to go in an instant?
Then I was forced to watch a Rom Ormond-Estus Pirkle flick in the chapel for our mandatory Wednesday service to wise up my inquisitiveness. For the rule is not to question: It is DO as Pastor says . . . or it off to the “bible room” you go. Yes. The Bible Room. (It’s not as bad as Carrie White in the closet, but it’s damn close to it.)
Christian Cinema of the ’70s boils down to this trailblazer based on the worldwide, 1963 best-seller on the life of Pentecostal pastor David Wilkerson (45 million-selling ’50s pop singer Pat Boone) who — alone and with no money — goes to the mean streets of Brooklyn to witness to street gang members. He comes to meet Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada), the leader of the Mau Maus, whom he eventually transforms though Jesus Christ. A box office success — directed by actor Don Murray (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) — the film was dubbed into 30 languages and has been enjoyed over the years in 150 countries.
Erik Estrada would impress, again, in his second film, one that is also critically (criminally) remembered as a Christploiter — but is not the least exploitative — the musician-cautionary tale, The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972). Don’t let the presence of Pat Boone deter you: both he and Estrada, are excellent; while Don Murray proves as a solid director who should have made more films.
The first exposure of this early Christian post-apoc’er by secular audiences was the film’s dialog appearing on Negativland’s albums Escape from Noise (1987) and Helter Stupid (1989) (which subsequent garnered mainstream press in alt-rock publications, a first for Pastor Pirke). Courtesy of the “modern” technology of VCR, this once forgotten film, not seen outside of church services and tent revivals, found a new audience on home video. After one viewing, we, the secular, sinning hoards were hooked; we sought out the rest of the utterly insane Ormond-Pirkle canons.
If you were unfortunate enough during your middle-to-high school life subjected to 16-mm shorts regarding drugs, vandalism, and teen pregnancy during social sciences and civics classes (which also played in private schools), that’s what we have here: the same slanted, low-budget drive-in styled production values, only as a pastor’s sermon unfurls with docudrama reenactments of his message. Footmen‘s production came about after Westerns and exploitation drive-in purveyor Ron Ormond survived a single-engine plan crash; upon “finding God,” he woke to the literal, fire and brimstone teachings of Mississippi pastor Estus Pirkle. Together, they’d make three films; Ormond, with other pastors, made a half dozen faith-based films, in total.
If you want to see a film where good Christian folks are subjugated by Communists, forced to renounce Jesus Christ and accept Fidel Castro as their personal savor (at gunpoint) this is the film. But be warned, this Ormond-Pirkle debut is rough watch . . . and not because of its production values, but of its squeamish violence. Christians are wiped out by machine gun; they’re stabbed, hung, tortured and murdered. Children — children — are made to hang, then dropped on buried pitch forks — at least the ones who don’t have their hands bound behind their backs, only to have bamboo shoots shoved into their brains through their ears, leaving them to puke their guts out.
Mind you, this film is meant to inspire you. But as is the case with most of the films on this list, Christians prove they’re sicker than Satanists and excel in shilling their outright fear equals inspiration marketing technique. Seriously, the kids really go through the ringer in this one, to the point of it almost being a pedo-snuff film. I need to stop talking about this film, now, as its upsetting me.
Next up for Ormond-Pirkle traveling salvation show, The Burning Hell.
* We love this movie so much so that frequent guest writer Herbert P. Caine took another swipe at it as part of our 2022 April Movie-thon. Yes, pardon the pun, but Estus Pirkle is a celluloid god in these here parts. Fear the Reaper, ye sinner.
We know. We know. Why is an exploration of ’70s Christian Cinema starting off with a crime-horror that warns “Death is the only way out,” as brought to us by Cinemation Industry — the Drive-In shingle that gave us the likes of Teenage Mother (1967), I Eat Your Skin (1971), and an X-rated cartoon in the form of Fritz the Cat (1972)?
Well, it was the ’60s and Charles Manson-inspired films, such as The Love-Thrill Murders (1971), were all the rage — and when you’re director Lee Madden of Angel Unchained (1970) fame, you work in a little Jesus teachin’ and preachin’ into the counterculture frames to upend the religious establishment. And Madden did just that. When it comes to the Christploitation genre — even in the shadow of Estus Pirkle’s admittedly honorable films — this is a real scrape through the rusted bottom of the barrel.
Ex-20th Century Fox starlet Jeanne Crain co-stars with director Alex Nicol (Point of Terror) as a preacher’s wife on the run from a faux-Manson and his “Jesus freaks” hippie minions after they crucified (literally) her preacher-husband. They, of course, get off, only to lay a revenge-siege to Crain’s country home.
So, yes. It’s an unconventional Christploitation listing. But after Pirkle jamming sharpened bamboo shoots through children’s ears, this film is — while offensive — still a peaceful stroll to Damascus. Just thank us for our decorum in not including the Christ-Sexploiters Girls in Trouble (1971), The Astrologer (1975), and Dark Sunday (1976). (Hey, we just did!) Ditto for the Bette Midler musical screech-fest, The Greatest Story Overtold, aka The Thorn (1971) — which is less enjoyable than an Estus Pirkle bamboo shoot in the ear. Oh, Bette . . . being nailed down to wood would be more enjoyable.
The pedigree is the thing in this imperiled-musician-in-a-spiritual crisis tale (Starcrossed Roads in its VHS shelf life), with our director being none other than Kent Osborne of the counterculture dune buggy romp Wild Wheels (1969); as an actor he appeared in Al Adamson’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle and Five Bloody Graves. The scribe behind this Christploitationer, Ralph Luce, also wrote Wild Wheels; and that’s Robert Dix and William Kerwin from Satan’s Sadists and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, respectively, in the cast, as well as a pre-CHiPs Erik Estrada (in his second, faith-based film and second film overall; his first was The Cross and the Switchblade).
It’s the tale of a drug-and-boozed out country music star — our faux-message “Jesus Christ” of the proceedings — sent to prison, aka Hell, on a bum murder rap; he finds God by way of a prison preacher and a Christ-following country music star.
Regardless of its secular, exploitative pedigree, this was Rated-G — and it ran as a “Special Church Benefit” in rural theaters, as well as in churches and tent revivals. But, unlike a Pirkle movie: no children were harmed to get its salvation message across.
6. Pilate and Others (1972)
It took forever to find a copy of this on VHS with subtitles, but the days of pre-Internet grey market catalogs came though — and this film didn’t disappoint.
Andrzej Wajda touched on biblical adaptations with his art house take, Samson (1961), a philosophical amalgam that sets World War II to the Old Testament tale of Samson. While that film is not well-know outside of its Polish homeland, Pilate and Others was rediscovered upon its showing at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival where Wajda received and honorary Golden Bear.
Wajda’s satirical take, set in 1930s Germany, is based on the 1967 Russian novel The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov (set in Moscow). U.S. audiences didn’t know or care about the film until it began appearing on video after the BIFF showing; suddenly aware, now U.S Christians had issues with Wajda ‘s contemporary take on Pontius Pilate, which placed the Roman governor of Judaea on the same Nuremberg platform where Hitler gave his speeches.
Yeah, no one wants a New Testament-based biblical set in Germany. That’s their loss. There’s several other Euro adaptations of Bulgakov’s multi-language best-seller, but Wajda’s is the best known.
So, you think Donald W. Thompson, with his four-part A Thief in the Night series, had the sci-fi end of the Christploitation spectrum locked up? Think again: Thompson may have made it to the tents, first (in March ’72), but this imaginative, against-the-budget apoc’er by writer Marshall Riggan (the secular debut Cry for Poor Wally, the later psych-horror So Sad About Gloria) is, by far, the superior film. The quality comes courtesy of the always-dependable Joe Turkel (ironically, of the later, influential apoc’er, Bladerunner) starring as a Colonel in command of a secret mountain-computer brain facility when the Rapture, then Armageddon, breaks out.
Shown exclusively at churches, tent revivals, and Youth For Christ centers into the ’80s (yes, part of another Wednesday Chapel “Media Day” we had once-a-month at school), it was re-discovered by the booming ’90s Christian film market and reissued on DVD as 666: Mark of the Beast. If you’re a fan of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Silent Running (1972), and the trapped-in-a-bunker-by-bats apoc’er Chosen Survivors (1974), then you’ll enjoy this science fiction-inflected Christploiter.
Donald W. Thompson is an indie writer-director not well-known in secular circles as Ron Ormond who began in secular films, but when it comes to Evangelical Christian Cinema, Thompson is a prolific filmmaker who created 16 films centered around his faith. His best known work to secular audiences — due to its Good Life TV Network showings (Inchon) — is the Christian-romantic drama All the King’s Horses (1977). The many have sought out that film, as it stars an early Dee Wallace (who we came to know in The Howling) and Grant Goodeve (Mark Hamill’s replacement on TV’s Eight Is Enough).
But it was Thompson’s pioneering “Rapture” tetralogy series — all written by Russell Doughten, who produced and did uncredited direction on The Blob; no really — that that had the greatest impact among evangelicals searching for non-secular entertainment. The prolific films, concerned with biblical “End Times” prophecies, crafted two decades before Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of novel and films, dispense with the family-friendly evangelism of Thompson’s other films (and the fire and brimstone mania of Ron Ormond’s later films), placing the bible into a contemporary sci-fi/horror context.
While A Thief in the Night wasn’t made as a TV movie, but for roadhouse showings in churches (where I got stuck watching them during Wednesday chapel), it certainly all plays as a TV movie. And if you know your TV movies, these religious apoc’ers come complete with the same, strained acting, harshly-lit flat production values, and all the stock music cues you expect. Thompson, however, effectively hits all of the plot points (a one-word UNITE organization, marking of hands and foreheads, etc.) from the rash of all the of the bible-poc films produced in the Left Behind backwash, so it makes for a fascinating watch. Even more so considering Thompson produced his film — and was most likely inspired by — Hollywood’s mainstream, post-apocalyptic sci-fi craze with the likes of The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and The Ultimate Warrior (1974).
Strangely enough, as it is peppered with radio and black and white TV broadcasts (and awful stock music), A Thief in the Night plays as a Christian version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — sans the zombies, which are replaced by disappearing, i.e., raptured, people. Oh, and instead of the Communists of the Ormond-Pirkle gospel train, it’s the U.N — the United Nations themselves — which will lead the world’s demise.
Should you watch? Well, it’s purported that over 300 million have seen the film and converted (i.e., scared) more people to Christ than any other Christian film. What proof Thompson can offer to back up that claim, is questionable.
Next up: A Distant Thunder, aka A Thief In the Night II.
This odd-duck documentary-portmanteau trilogy of “true tales” narrated by Rod Serling doesn’t really belong here, but the second installment, The Darkness, is concerned with “a hole to Hell”: a real-life hole to Hell that swallows a dog and drives a man insane. You can’t get more biblical than that or find another reel of tabloid filmmaking any finer.
The studio behind it, American National Enterprises, returns with Mysteries from Beyond Planet Earth.
10. Godspell (1973)
As with Andrzej Wajda’s contemporary bible take set in Nuremberg, Germany, faith-based audiences weren’t keen on a Broadway musical adaptation of parables from The Holy Bible‘s New Testament Gospel of Matthew set in contemporary New York City. One look at John the Baptist gathering disciples (aka, ’60s hippies) to follow Jesus Christ (decked out in a Superman “S” tee-shirt and suspenders), who then take to the streets as a roving acting troupe to reenact Jesus’s parables . . . well, out came the picket signs. The pickets didn’t matter: the secular reviewers were split and generally towards the positive, but the film’s box office barely broke even.
The “Jesus Rock” soundtrack, however, is fantastic, courtesy of the four musicians from the original stage production and cast album — Steve Reinhardt on keyboards, Jesse Cutler on acoustic and lead guitar and bass, Richard LaBonte on rhythm guitar and bass, and Ricky Shutter (Bo Diddley and Gary U.S. Bonds) on drums and percussion — returning for the film. Assisting in the studio are Hugh McCracken (Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel’s early recordings) and Paul Shaffer (of David Letterman fame and A Year at the Top, which has its own religious bent to it).
Columbia Studios, Universal Studios, and Paramount all got into the “Jesus” game with their respective films Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. So Johnny Cash easily pitched his country-gospel musical take on the life of Jesus to 20th Century Fox, who released this in March amid those films — and met the same public and critical indifference. Narrated by Johnny Cash, his heartfelt (and not the least exploitative), self-financed production that shot on location in Israel came with an accompanying double album of all-original music penned by Cash, June Carter (who stars as Mary Magdalene), and Kris Kristofferson (who doesn’t star, but would have made a great Jesus).
12. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Before he let thou loose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on an unsuspecting world, Robert Stigwood produced this Norman Jewison directing effort based on the 1970 Broadway rock opera.
The film goes meta, as it begins with the cast and crew traveling by bus into the Israeli desert to re-enact the Passion of Christ. They set up their props and get into costume as the story begins, concentrating on the conflict between Jesus and Judas during the week of the crucifixion of Jesus.
As with Godspell released in March, the August release of JSC met to mixed reviews — with outright criticism from religious groups. The film, however, garnered Golden Globe nobs for its lead actors Ted Neely (Jesus), Carl Anderson (Judas) and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene).
You can stream Jesus Christ Superstar on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.
The September 17, 1981, cover of Rolling Stone #352, with a picture of Jim Morrison emblazoned on the cover, proclaimed: “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy and Dead.” In the early ’70s, the same could be said about Jesus Christ, for the Son of God rules the airwaves and theater screens.
So, with Columbia and Universal releasing their competing films versions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 (in March and August, respectively), the odd-studio out, Paramount, wasn’t missing the “Jesus Rock” boat. So they optioned writer Richard Bach’s 1970 best-selling novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And since the book — as did the two stage-to-films that inspired its production — didn’t come with a soundtrack, Paramount, through Columbia Records (his label), contracted Neil Diamond to write a companion piece to the book/film. Yes, Neil Diamond, the bane of one’s musical existence (not me) made a “Jesus Rock” album — and topped the album and singles charts.
If you enjoyed the book — which many (criminally) dismissed as metaphysical drivel and thus, hated the movie — you’ll love the movie, a movie that is of its time and place: a time when seagulls could talk and Jesus was, in fact, “hot, sexy and dead.”
While Ron Ormond and Estus Pirkle’s debut film If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? turned your stomach — courtesy of its child abductions, bondage and murders by communist soldiers — this film tells you of the aftermath of those sinners who failed to follow Jesus — and will give your outright nightmares. Again, fear equals inspiration.
According to the statistical preaching of Pastor Pirkle, people enter Hell at 60-bodies per minute to the tune of over 3,000 each hour of every day, where those worms will eat you forever and ever and ever and ever. People — as with all Christian films obsessed with swords and guillotines — are beheaded. People are actually seen burning in Hell, covered in blood, sores, and soot, while chased by devilish, fanged centaurs. Yes, we do see real worms and grubs crawling on people — and not even the most discriminating Italian zombie purveyor will hold back the puke. Fear Factor contestants wouldn’t make the background-extra actor grade, as they’d run screaming from the set.
Hey, scoff if you will at Pirkle’s sermons, but Ormond’s against-the-budget depictions of Hell, as well as his actors, are impressive (considering they’re non-pros working for free-for-Jesus) and on equal to the previous depictions of Hell imagined by Jose Majica Marins as Coffin Joe in (the obviously better made) This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Yeah, it’s all a bit goofy, but still powerful.
And, with that, the Ormond-Pirkle “grindhouse gospel” train rolled into the station and Ormond made The Grim Reaper (1976). Their next dual-project is a companion piece to The Burning Hell, known as The Believer’s Heaven (1977), which does for Heaven, what this film does for Hell. However, between the making of The Burning Hell and The Grim Reaper, the Ormond family made the “travelogue/documentary” feature, The Land Where Jesus Walked (1975).
If there’s a cinematic kitchen sink to the freak-out-the-puny-humans genre of ancient alien-cum-biblical films, then his entry from exploitation sausage factory American National Enterprises (also gave us the previously entry, Encounter with the Unknown), is it. No theory is too obscure nor too crazed for discussion. Biblical clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (who believed Jesus was the reincarnation of Adam) talking about Atlantis and UFOs? You bet. Then there’s the Bermuda Triangle, Telepathy, ESP, firestarters, Kirlian photography that captures auras, and examinations on plants being able to communicate. And there’s still frames left to discuss witchcraft, Satanism, Black Masses, the Hollow Earth, Bigfoot, black holes, genetic engineering, clones, and cryogenic suspension and reanimation.
You need more weirdness and unexplained Earthly phenomenons concerning Edgar Cayce, Bigfoot and Atlantis? Then you need to watch The Force Beyond (1977). Bankrolled by FVI – Film Ventures International (see our “Drive-In Friday” feature on the studio), it’s directed by William Sachs (Van Nuys Blvd.) and Orson Welles, the voice behind another film on our list, The Late Great PlanetEarth, narrates. And don’t confuse The Force Beyond — remember, it was the Year of Our George Lucas — with The Unknown Force (1977), in which Jack Palance bellows about psychics, miracle healers, and Man’s and the Earth’s untapped energies.
Needless to say my church and youth pastors (Sam?) preached against and warned our parents not to let us see Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. For UFOs, again, “are Devils” and “there is no life on other planets” . . . because Jesus just haven’t enough time in his enteral life to die for everyone’s sins, and God didn’t “seed” other planets to then “seed” the Earth. Oh, the memories . . . that Wednesday chapel service when my blue-plaid blazer and pink-striped tie pastor went off the deep end, saliva spraying, collecting in the corners of his mouth, ranting-to-aneurysm about George Lucas and Glen Larson as the “false prophets” of Satan. Horrifying, good times? You bet! (Maybe it’s true: God punished George with Howard the Duck and Glen with Buck Rogers, after all.)
Ron Ormond’s third Christsploitation flick — sans Estus Pirkle and his cheap suits — is a loose rewrite of The Burning Hell that dispenses with the preaching-documentary reenactments of If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? and The Burning Hell. This time, the Baptist propaganda pedaled is a drama about a family asunder amid a crisis of faith.
A God-fearing mother and her preacher-aspiring son toil as her husband and stock car racing other son refuse to attending church. When their son dies in a race, the father falls under the spell of a fortune teller, communicating with the dead, so as to comfort his wife and keep her out of the graveyard. Meanwhile, a pastor (Greg Pirkle, the son of Estus) refuses to perform a sermon for the dead son, because the son rejected Jesus and was cast into Hell.
Oh, this movie . . . when the fortune teller connects to the after world, with the winds, the screaming, and the photo-trickery imposed ghosts. When Frankie, the son, comes out of a wall, crying out for “his momma.” Then there’s momma’s flashbacks, the stock car racing, Estus’s wife, Julie, showing up as a Spirit Halloween-cackling witch, and appearances by Jack Van Impe and Jerry Falwell. . . wow, this one has it all: all played serious and straightforward, which makes is all the more entertaining. Again, Ormond’s against-the-budget Hell scenes are effective. If you take away the heavy-handed Bible message, you have a scrappy, little Drive-In horror exploiter cash-in on The Exorcist and The Omen, here.
Don’t fret, dear believer. The agit-preaching of Pastor Pirkle returns in The Believer’s Heaven.
A documentary based on the best-selling book by David Balsiger made by Sunn Classics (Hanger 18) on the cheap and quick in Park City, Utah, was bound to happen. The main point of all of this: Noah’s Ark “has been found” on Turkey’s Mount Ararat, yet physical and political challenges have kept mankind from studying the ark any further.
Sunn’s magic worked: In Search of Noah’s Ark was the number nine movie for all of 1976, up against the likes of Rocky, the aforementioned The Omen, King Kong and Silver Streak. Sunn made this movie for next to nothing and it grossed $55 million in the U.S. So, there, take that, you gomorrahites of Tinseltown.
My life’s current mission statement is to instill an obsession in B&S About Movies’ boss Sam Panico equal to my own over this religious-variety show pastiche. Think of an adult version of TV’s The Monkees obsessed with the parables of Adam and Eve and Noah and the Ark from The Holy Bible. Then envision ’70s song and dance man Ben Vereen — decked out in green sequence suits and red dump jumpsuits, as the Devil — singing the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Oh, ye believer, yes there is more, as you haven’t begun to scratch the surface of watching TV’s Mary Tyler Moore whisked off into a disco-ballet version of The Wizard of Oz.
No, I am not explaining my own LSD trip. This is real. This films exists. This film is an epic disaster on equal with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Italian-produced religious-disco disaster that is White Pop Jesus. And we thank God that Ms. Moore opted to sing Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” and not the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” for the big “Flood” set piece. And while the proceedings are bad, it is still not as awful as Bette Midler’s foray . . . which, now, just got two more mentions than it deserves in this “Exploring” feature. Stop it, Bette! We are not giving your train wreck of a movie a full review, no matter how many times you interject!
The ecclesiastical crowd wasn’t thrilled with British biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield’s published translation of The Holy Bible‘s New Testament — from a Jewish perspective. And everyone — especially the Catholic Church — wasn’t thrilled with his controversial non-fiction work, The Passover Plot (1965).
A decade later, the book was pretty much forgotten. But the Jesus train was rolling down the tracks and the major studios optioned all the best materials. So leave it to our old ’80s video junk cinema buddy and exploitation bandwagoner Menahen Golan (who gave us his futurist Adam and Eve new wave musical The Apple in 1980) to adapt a controversial book that concluded that the Holy Savior’s death and resurrection was a conspiracy purported by Jesus — who drugged himself to feign death — and his followers.
Now, you say you’re not up for a biblical conspiracy flick, but would the fact that Michael Campos, he of the early ’70s Oliver Reed post-apoc’er Z.P.G. (1970) and the Blaxploition classic The Mack (1973), directed it, interest you? Perhaps that Zalman King portrays Jesus (and shot the rape-sleaze fest Trip with the Teacher the year previous)? That Donald Plesence is Pontius Pilate? That TV character actor Dan Hedaya (Joe Versus the Volcano) is one of the Twelve Disciples?
Not since Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ — penned by Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s (equally forgotten) 1955 novel of the same name — with its depictions of Jesus Christ pulling himself off the Cross and engaging in sexual intercourse (it’s all symbolism, not literal; exploring spiritual conflicts), caused more rabid outrage and protests than The Passover Plot. But let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which set solely on the horrors of Jesus’s suffering, The Da Vinci Code (2006), with its claims Jesus Christ was married, the German-made Pilate and Others (1972), with it’s satirical take set in 1930’s Germany, and Jesus of Montreal (1989) with its contemporary take in Quebec by a down-on-their-luck acting troupe hired to put on The Passion Play.
You can free stream The Passover Plot on You Tube and Vimeo. (We’ve since given this film a full review proper, in honor of cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who shot Lemon Popsicle, and its American remake, The Last American Virgin. So controversial, Pat Boone, the star of The Cross and the Switchblade, purchased national syndicated TV time to create an hour-long show asking people not to go see The Passover Plot.)
Ron Ormond follows up The Grim Reaper with this fourth film in his “Christian Exploitation” phase. This time, Ron produces and directs with a script by his producing partner Estus Pirkle (who wrote Footmen and The Burning Hell). In this biographical tale-cum-documentary, real-life fire-and-brimstone preacher Estus W. Pirkle conveys to his followers what a Christian Heaven looks like, according to his interpretation of the Bible. (Immense marbled chapels supported on Corinthian columns; everyone wears white robes and sports a pair of — in a nice, budget effect — transparent angel wings.) Thank God, Estus toned it down. After the first three, horrific-saving films, we needed something a little more upbeat.
Nope. Think again. Thou let it loose, Estus.
We’re only three minutes in and we’ve already had a bubbling pit of boiling mud and an earthquake, along with post-quake famine and plague, and heavy equipment digging mass graves. Yeah, the depictions of a literal Hell are back. And Dear Lord, more dead children, piled up in a mass grave? How did the Estus convince the parents to convince the kids to portray dead bodies in a big hole in the dirt? How? Why are children always tortured and butchered in Estus’s films? Thank god no sharpened bamboo sticks are jammed into brains via ear canals.
I need to stop talking about this film. I’m getting upset, again.
21. Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Passing on a film by director Franco Zeffirelli (1967’s The Taming of the Shrew; 1968’s Romeo and Juliet) isn’t an option. Originally a miniseries backed by Sir Lew Grade (Saturn 3) and airing simultaneously on ITV in the U.K., Rai 1 in Italy, and NBC-TV in the U.S. and running at 382 minutes, the current DVDs run at a criminal 10-minutes short at 374 minutes; the older VHS is even shorter, at 270.
The casting is the thing, here: Robert Powell is fantastic as Jesus, as is Ian McShane (of the recent John Wick franchise) as Judas Iscariot. Then there’s Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York) as a Roman Centurion, James Farentino (The Final Countdown) and James Earl Jones appearing as disciples, along with Rod Steiger and Anthony Quinn, and Micheal York as John the Baptist.
Watch this, if just for the great filmmaking and acting. It’s a magnificent epic.
This second entry in the A Thief In the Night series is pretty much a retread of the first film, only this time it’s not a “dream”; the premonitions have become real. Although there’s been a six-year gap between productions, most of the original players are back, with Patty, who, it turns out, didn’t jump off the bridge to escape the Mark of the Beast in the first movie. Again, that was the “dream,” remember?
Now, she’s awake and awaiting execution — by guillotines — for her refusal to accept the Mark. She escapes and spends the rest of the film avoiding the murderous U.N. troops, which is now known as UNITE (and now, instead of those nifty red, white and blue vans (well, one) from the first film, now we’re stuck with a drab, UPS-styled brown van. And how’s about those nifty, drab-green Cuban military uniforms to keep pushing that evil Communist angle?
As hokey as a Jack T. Chick’s track can be, the production values are non-existent, but creative, and the non-linear scripting is inventive, with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Then there’s the subplots about the evils of UFOs (again, with UFOs are demons, ugh), how credit cards and the “Mark” aren’t the same thing (oh, the folly of those who believe we are “already marked”), and the guillotine are back. Oh, how turn-the-other-cheek Christians rejoice in their razor-sharp guillotines and sinner-head removals.
Next up is part three in the series: Image of the Beast.
Roger Ebert listed this as one of his most hated movies on his site and it’s one of the entries in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. (That’s two for him on this list: the other was Jonathan Livingston Seagull.)
Eh, what did Sunn Classic producer Charles E. Sellier Jr. care? He said of his juxtaposition between revival house and grindhouse that he “believes God wants me to do the films I do, otherwise He wouldn’t have made me a success.”
As with Sunn’s previous documents we’ve reviewed in this feature, In Search of Noah’s Ark and the later In Search of Historic Jesus, this documentary on the “science” behind Christianity cleaned up at the box office, as Sunn Classics four-walled it in out-of-the-big-city rural drive-ins and single/dual-plex theaters.
24. Born Again(1978)
Frank Capra, Jr. produces this uplifting, biographical film on the life of Richard M. Nixon’s Special Counsel and Watergate co-conspirator, Charles Colson (Disney stalwart Dean Jones). He comes to his conversion to Christianity while in prison and incorporates the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Courtesy of the full cooperation of the federal government and the Episcopal Church, this AVCO Embassy Pictures’ production (yes, they brought you Escape from New York) gets a lot out of its budget — even though it was, at the time, the highest-budgeted religious film and the first religious film released by a major distributor. Dean Jones, as well as Anne Francis as his wife (TV’s Honey West, Forbidden Planet), are both excellent throughout. Highly suggested.
You can watch this courtesy of the Jesus Wept Movies You Tube portal. If you need the other side of the story: consult Alan J. Pakula’s critically acclaimed All the President’s Men (1976).
How can you pass up a film by nature film purveyor Pacific International (Challenge to be Free, Mountain Family Robinson, and The Adventures of the Wildness Family) based on a 1970 international biblical gloom n’ doom best-seller — complete with narration by Orson Welles interspersed between biblical reenactments, chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling talking-head academics, stock footage of war, starving children, gibberish about entomology cross-breeding of bees, planetary alignments, and supercomputers running Ronald Reagan through numerology algorithms to determine if he is the dreaded Antichrist?
This movie rocks, for it is a mutual obsession between myself and Sam Pacino, the head honcho around here. I know Sam the Bossman, with his overexposure to all things post-conversioned Ron Ormond, can relate: freaked out and obsessed when the Rapture was coming — and if we had a “ticket” to ride. Sure, we can laugh at it now over our Rolling Rocks (Olde Frothingslosh, if you got ’em), but back in the day, this movie scared the crap out of us and other Church-laden kiddies.
Since this was a major studio film, there were no copies to play for Wednesday chapel. So a school field trip was planned. I hated school field trips (long story), so I played “sick” that day . . . and received an “F” for the day — in all subjects.
26. The Nativity(1978)
The great Bernard L. Kowalski — for whom we did a week-long tribute — expertly directs John Shea and Madeline Stowe, both in their feature debuts. They star as Mary and Jesus, in this against the-budget television movie based on the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There’s not much middle ground with this (well-down, IMO) adaptation: fundamentalists appreciate the acting (you’ll recognized many, familiar character actors), but not the fictional liberties taken with the Holy Bible’s text.
There’s no online streams, but you can enjoy the trailer and these clips (1 & 2) on You Tube.
When you’re on-the-cheap documentary on Noah’s Ark grosses $55 million is U.S. box office, you know Brother J will get his own docudrama — and score box office gold. Again, the casting is the thing, so if you want to see John Rubinstein (who would go on to play Daniel Webster on Netflix’s Sabrina and Einstein of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) in reenactments as Jesus, then this is your movie. And if you wanted to know more about the Shroud of Turin, well, you get that in the frames, as well.
Sunn Classics also hit box office gold with The Bermuda Triangle (1979) and (the scary as hell) Nostradamus romp with its own post-apoc slant, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981). Yeah, no one did the mysteries-of-man documentary genre better in the ’70s than Sunn Classics.
28. Jesus, aka The Jesus Film(1979)
After the musical versions on the life of Jesus from the hands of Columbia Studios (Godspell), Universal Studios (Jesus Christ Superstar), Paramount (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and 20th Century Fox (The Gospel Road), it was time for a movie proper on Jesus of Nazareth — and this finely crafted drama was Warner Bros. late-to-the-major-studio-Jesus-Game offering. And it’s a very well-made film, one filmed at over 200 locations in Israel.
Based on the gospel of Luke in the New Testament, and unlike any other film on Jesus, this six-million dollar production shot in full English, with actors also speaking in their character-appropriate Aramic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. That latter multi-language version is then voiced-over in numerous languages for its international distribution — and noted as the most translated film in history. Regardless of those efforts to assure the film appealed to and was accessible to everyone, with its historical and culturally accurate take and high production values, many were taken aback by a jovial Jesus; non-stoic savior, laughing in glee as a newly converted-to-God tax collector returns his ill-gotten gains to those he’s cheated.
Now, you probably do not want to watch a historically accurate drama on Jesus Christ. But I think you would watch one where Jesus is portrayed by (incredible) British actor Brian Deacon; he who starred in Paul Naschy’s cohort Jose Ramon Larraz’s Vampyres (1974). Mostly working in British television, Deacon currently works as a video game voice artist.
Other, later dramatic depictions on Jesus you may be interested in, courtesy of the casting, is Jesus (1999), with Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate, and Last Days in the Desert (2015) with Ewan McGregor as Jesus. Then there’s the supernatural bonkers The Young Messiah (2016) that may interest you — since it’s based on a book by vampire purveyor Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (2005), centered on the Holy Savior as a young boy.
You can stream a copy at the Jesus.net You Tube portal.
29. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Sure, Eric Idle and the Python troupe will inspire you to watch a parody on the Holy Scriptures. But we’ve been here before with Luis Buñuel’s (Simon the Desert) surrealistic, but not as parody-driven, The Milky Way (1969).
Remember Python’s take on the Beatles with The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)? Well, it’s like that: an alternate-universe Jesus, if you will, with Brian (Graham Chapman) born at the same time as Jesus — and Brian gains his own following. Of course, Christians and Catholics alike lost their minds, even thought Idle and his cohorts insisted the film was a goof on organized, man-made religions and not a spoof on Jesus or The Holy Bible itself. And so it goes.
At least Life of Brian is funny. The same can’t be said for Bette Midler’s (never understood the fascination; singer or actress) utterly abysmal The Greatest Story Overtold, aka The Thorn (1971), where she screeches as a trope-laden Jewish mother. (Oh, come, Bette! Three times? We’re not going to do a full review. Stop it.) The same goes for the awful, religious satires In God We Trust with Marty Feldman (who we love, but), and Wholly Moses with Dudley Moore (both 1980), not because of their subject matter — but because they’re just inherently stupid. Watch the Python’s version . . . and just leave the Jesus parodies, at that. Moving on.
There’s Blu-ray rip on You Tube to enjoy — and you will!
Ron Ormond returns with his fifth directing-producing effort in this follow up to The Believer’s Heaven. This time, Ron goes the bioflick route with the story of Ed Martin (who appears briefly on camera and narrates; Ormond’s son Tim, in addition to scripting, also stars as the younger Martin), a former chain gang convict who converts to Christianity in 1944 and founds the HopeAglow Prison Ministry. Martin gets his “big break” when the prison’s God-fearing warden inspires Martin to take over for an absent preacher on the prison’s Sunday services — and Martin comes to convert a convict intent on murdering him.
Clocking in at an hour, in terms of old fashioned, drive-in style “chain gang” movies, this is a pretty good flick. Granted, this is no Cool Hand Luke, but Tim Ormond was shaping up as a pretty decent actor, here, in his first leading-man role carrying an entire film. While appearing in all of his dad’s Christploitation works — except for The Second Coming — he also appeared in Ron’s secular works Girl from Tobacco Row,White Lightnin’ Road, and The Exotic Ones. (Ron’s other pre-salvation movies we’ve reviewed include Please Don’t Touch Me and Mesa of Lost Women.)
Yeah, we can trash on the prosperity preachers of today (yes, talking at you, Joel Osteen and Creflo “fifteen-year old daughter beater” Dollar; Senator Grassley didn’t dig enough on you, Ceffy; you can’t hid behind the bogus 501c3 paper trail, forever), but not all pastors are false prophets. Ed Martin was one of the (very, very few) real deals actually “called” by God; a true apostle who served people with a legitimate compassion on equal with the calling of Christ’s original twelve. (David Wilkerson of the aforementioned The Cross and the Switchblade, is another.)
This is a touching film, only undone by its budget. And highly recommended.
31. The Day Christ Died (1980)
After Sir Lew Grade and NBC-TV gave us their take on the life of Christ with Jesus of Nazareth (1977), CBS-TV was bound to get in the game with this effort bankrolled by 20th Century Fox for overseas TV and theatrical distribution.
An adaption of Jim Bishop’s 1957 book of the same name, it’s adapted by James Lee Barrett, he who scripted bible epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). So, yeah, this 142-minute dramatization (that survived cuts and made it to video, intact) on the last 24 hours on Jesus Christ’s life is that good. Really good.
Of course, everyone lost their minds — as with The Gospel Road (1973) and Jesus (1979) — of a jovial Jesus who laughs and plays with children, and in this case, of Chris Sarandon’s (Fright Night) Jesus playing an ersatz game of primitive football with the Apostles. For our Lord Savior must be a perpetually dour, stoic contemplator who never smiles.
Oh, the youth sermons denouncing this film! My youth pastor went off the deep end with the verse and overhead slides. I am talking red, pock-marked cheeks obsessed to the point of a brain aneurysm. “Jesus doesn’t play games! He’s the Christ sent to save our souls, not to play games! While he’s wasting time playing a game, a soul is not saved and lost!” Then, we were subjected into force “witnessing” labor; for if we did not witness to a person, and that person goes to Hell, we too, shall go to Hell. So, thanks, for that, Chris Sarandon. But you’re still the best Jesus, next to Robert Powell, and Brian Deacon, in that order.
Scoff if you want at this third installment in the A Thief in the Night series, but even-against-its-budget, the production values, scripting, and direction is improving with each film. And it’s even more intense that the previous A Distant Thunder.
Yes, Patty’s back, but not for long: Uh-oh, we are flashing back to and fo, and forward again, and within — again — as Patty, finally, looses her head to the guillotines. Amen.
So, now, we meet David, Kathy, and Leslie, a trio of freedom fighters, aka warriors for Christ. And it’s this film’s focus on these Christian guerrillas battling the evil UNITE forces — with its budgetary pinching of the paramilitary police state plotting of Escape from New York, as the Antichrist is full-on dictator mode and God rains down his golden bowels — that gives third installment more of a sci-fi vibe over the first two films. Then there’s the computer hacking, the evils of UPC codes, the manufacturing of fake Mark chips, literal giant locusts swarm the Earth (not seen due to budget), and a nuke drops.
Just wow. This one has it all. And there’s still one more film to go: The Prodigal Planet.
Ron Ormond comes full circle with his sixth and final production, which serves as the directing debut and second writing credit of his son, Tim Ormond (he served as an editor and cinematographer all of his father’s Christploitation films). The story returns to the apocalypse, as a troubled man continues to avoid church — and fails to pay heed to the Bible stories unfolding before him — even as the end of the world draws nigh.
Sadly, Ron Ormond died during the film’s pre-production, which Tim and Ron’s widow, June, to complete the film as a final testament to his life. While there’s six other pastors spewin’ the brimstone, here, Ormond’s fans (moi) miss the paranoid mania of Estus Pirkle’s crazed scripting and dedicated preaching. As with 39 Stripes prior, for a production on a shoestring budget, Tim was shaping into a decent filmmaker (the vision of King Nebuchadnezzar, Jesus arriving on a horse-clouded phalanx, and the John Carpenter-styled “new world” police are impressive). While he stopped acting in 1979, Tim continued to work behind the camera on a half-dozen faith-based film into the late ’90s — even one starring Jim “Ernest P. Worrell ” Varney (but not as that character).
There’s no trailer or streams to share of this lone, lost Ron Ormond film. If Sam and I had the resources, we’d restore this film as part of an ongoing Ormond box set series: secular and religious. We love ya’, Ron!
In a tale that predates the Tim LaHaye-inspired “religious thriller” industry by a decade, a Christian woman, who is part of an underground rebellion, teams with a newspaper reporter to warn the world of the dangers behind the ever-growing One World Foundation. Along the way, unlike most Christian films, real actors show up — in the form of Alvy Moore (an astronomer-cum-Christian scientist) and Buck Flowers (a scruffy desert rebel, natch). Needless to say, their (minor) parts are the only ripples of hope in this otherwise flat production — but it’s still an ambitious, inspired effort.
Film and television sound editor David R. Elliot, in his lone writing and directing effort, was certainly influenced by Donald W. Thompson’s and Hal Lindsey’s eschatological works that we’ve discussed. I, however, can’t help but think the post-apoc visions of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York served as an influence, here, courtesy of the (slightly) above-the-usual (non) production values of low-budget Christian films — especially ones that veer into sci-fi territories — as Elliot gives us car chases under helicopter sniper fire by black-clad soldiers, over-the-cliff car crashes, and some techo-trinkets.
This watching-paint-dryer possesses none of the charms of the Russell Doughten (Six-Hundred & Sixty Six) and Donald W. Thompson’s (A Thief in the Night) PreMillenialist Dispensationalism flicks we talked about in this feature, and it lacks the techno-trickets of David Elliot’s take on the last days.
The copywriters on this claim this is a “fast moving, dramatic” film. I’m not sure what movie they were watching, as this overly-talky, proselytizing pablum moves at a dry, snail’s pace (and dry snails don’t move). If this film’s goal was to “convert” the non-believer to Christ, well, it pushed viewers towards Satan-rock loving atheism (see Raging Angels).
If the title hasn’t already given it away, the Beast, aka the Antichist, has risen and driven his heel into the backs of the world — a world where money is now worthless; a world besieged by every manner of natural disaster, government corruption, and oppression. Seattle is (low-budget) nuked. Of course, we experience none of this, in camera: we learn about it from a whiny, out-of-work college professor and the once kindly, now Machiavellian small-town Sheriff who will force the Mark on our collegiate — no matter the cost.
So: Years of the Beast, Early Warning, or Six-Hundred Sixty Six in the apoc-religious sweepstakes: the latter — easily, by three-lengths — for the win. Yes, even beating Thompson’s fourth and final. . . .
Well, it took Donald W. Thompson a decade (1972 to 1983), but he final wraps up the A Thief in the Night series with this fourth and final film. As with Patty back in part II, aka A Distant Thunder, David, our hero from Image of the Beast, didn’t die. He’s been rescued from the chopping block by Connie, a UNITE double agent with BUMS (Believers Underground Movement Squad) from the previous film, an organization that weeds out Christians for beheading. Of course, Connie’s con is to have David lead her to the rebel’s hidden base (yeah, the sci-fi crazed Star Wars era certainly had something to do with this).
Oh, this film has it all! It’s pure ’80s post-apoc, with non-believers stuck with a leukemia outbreak and facial legions, monk-adorned, wasteland-roaming monks, helicopters, and God cleaning up the mess with a battery of B-roll ICBMs. Oh, and the maps and sermons dispensed via flashback, directing us through the plot, as is the norm in the series . . . are back, and more than ever before.
It’s an indie-Christian roadshower like this that gives films like Years of the Beast a bad name. For this may be hokey, but it is — unlike Years of the Beast — never boring. Not for one single frame. For Donald W. Thompson was the man when it came to Christian apoc-mania.
Our list of these 36 films is by no means complete in our exploration of Christian Cinema — and its exploitative perimeters — in the 1970s. You’ll also find uplifting, faith-based messages in the following films:
Brother John (1971) — James Goldstone (later of Rollercoaster fame) directs Sidney Poitier’s passion project regarding a man who can sense death and appears to offer spiritual comfort to the troubled. A valiant film that was a box office failure for Columbia Pictures.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971) — Directed by Dalton Trumbo and co-written with Luis Buñuel (of the aforementioned The Milky Way; 1969), this anti-war statement adapted from Trumbo’s own 1939 novel of the same name, stars Timothy Bottoms and Jason Robards. A powerful film, but not an easy one to watch.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) — Franco Zeffirelli, who also gave us the previously reviewed Jesus of Nazareth, directs this tale on life of Italy’s Saint Francis of Assisi. The Saint’s life was examined four times, previously: by Federico Fellini (1950), Louis de Wohl (1961), Liliana Cavani (1966), and Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966). Cavani explored the Saint once more in 1989 with Francesco, starring Micky Rourke as Francis. Both versions — all, in fact — are must watches for their stellar filmmaking.
Pope Joan (1972) — Directed by Michael Anderson, Liv Ullmann and Franco Nero star in this examination of — be it literal or myth (this film treats it as fact) — the legend of the female Pope that ruled the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Not a great film, but the familiar cast of Lesley-Anne Down, Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, and Maximilian Schell, captivate, none the less.
Soul Hustler (1973) — Shooting in San Diego (at a 1971 Osmonds’ concert) under the title That Lovin’ Jesus Man, then reissued on the drive-in circuit as The Love-In Man and Matthew, then The Day the Lord Got Busted (1976), this plays a lot like The Ballad for Billie Blue (1972) — with its concerns about a faith-crisis “Jesus Rock” musician. Matthew Crowe, a hard luck musician (Fabian Forte; A Bullet for Pretty Boy), joins a preacher’s touring tent rival. As the evangelist’s career rises, so does Matthew’s; the usual drugs and sinful carousing intervenes. Christsploitive to the extreme, the act is known as Matthew, Son of Jesus: Matthew wears a white robe and sandals and sings at a mike’d pulpit; his band adorns in brown monks’ robes.
Luther (1974) — Stacy Keach, who impressed in the better-known American neo-noir The New Centurions (1972) and boxing drama Fat City (1972), is equally stellar as the German theologian and Augustin monk who brought about the 16th-century Reformation. The directorial quality behind the lens comes courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Guy Green (Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, 1946; the multi-nominated A Patch of Blue, 1965, as a director).
Christmas Lilies of the Field (1979) — A made-for-television sequel — produced by the Osmond Family (yes, as in Donnie and Marie) — to the 1962 theatrical feature Lillies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier. Now played by Billy Dee Williams, Homer Smith returns to the Arizona desert to build a school and orphanage to go with the chapel he built in the previous film. International, multi-award winning Austrian-Swiss actress Maria Schell (1974’s The Odessa File) as the Mother Maria is, of course, excellent.
Peter and Paul (1981) — Anthony Hopkins and Robert Foxworth star as the disciples Peter and Paul in this CBS-TV four-hour miniseries based on the Book of Acts concerned with their apostolic missionary in the wake of the death of Jesus. The top-flight cast is rounded out by Herbert Lom as Barnabas, along with Eddie Albert, Raymond Burr, Jose Ferrer, and Jon Finch. Shot on the Greek island of Rhodes, it was nominated for two, and won one Emmy (for make up; the second nod was for costumes).
* Be sure to visit our other film-genre explorations with our ongoing “Exploring” series:
About the Author:You can read the music and film reviews, as well as short stories by R.D. Francis based on his screenplays, on the Medium portal. You can learn more about his work on Facebook.He also writes for B&S About Movies (the link guides you to a text-only site-listing of all of his reviews).
Well, you know how the VCRs roll at B&S About Movies . . . where a review of Peter Carpenter’s Point of Terror, as well as Blood Mania, leads to a reader inquiry and discussion on whatever happened ever happened to Pete . . . which inspires a two-fer review of Vixen! and Love Me Like I Do to finish off his all-too-slight resume. And those discussion about Pete left us wondering . . . “What ever happened to Gene Shane from Werewolves on Wheels and The Velvet Vampire?”
Well, as you know, we solved “The Case of Peter Carpenter” with that said, two-fer review, and we peeled away at the onion that is “The Mystery of Gene Shane” watering our eyes with our review of The Velvet Vampire. Luckily — because we are so exhausted from those two crazed investigations of our favorite actors of yore — “The Case of Sherry Miles,” now known as DeBoer, is more easier slice and diced, thanks to her involvement in her own IMDb page, along with the many, loyal websites* dedicated to all things Hee Haw (an old “Kornfield Kountry” TV series that aired on CBS in the ’60s).
So, let’s pay tribute to one of our favorite — and missed — actress of the ’60s and ’70s.
That Teen modeling spread we used for our banner, above, soon transitioned Sherry into an acting career, which began with the pre-Gilligan’s Island Bob Denver series The Good Guys (1969), an early Aaron Spelling series, the counterculture sci-fi drama, The New People (1969), and Medical Center (1969) starring Chad Everett (The Intruder Within). Sherry’s other, early ’70s appearances included the popular series Mod Squad, Nanny and the Professor, Pat Paulsen’sHalf a Comedy Hour, The Name of the Game, The High Chaparral, The Beverly Hillbillies, Adam 12, Love American Style, and The Partridge Family (Sherry over Susan Dey, every day of the week — and twice on Sundays!). As we crossed the nation’s bicentennial, Sherry appeared on the popular series Baretta with Robert Blake (Corky), Police Woman with Angie Dickinson (Big Bad Mama), Richie Brockelman, Private Eye with future director Dennis Dugan (Love, Weddings & Other Disasters), and Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter (Bobbi Joe and the Outlaw). And let’s not forget Sherry’s 26-episode run as part of the comedy ensemble on the homegrown variety show Hee Haw* during its 1971 to 1972 season.
A one-time heiress to the Hawaii-based Long’s Drug Store chain (now owned and operated by CVS since 2008; I’m in there, often), Sherry Miles got married, became a DeBoer, and retired from the business after her final, on-camera appearance during the third season of Wonder Woman. Since her retirement, she’s become a long-respected animal rights activist.
Some of Sherry’s films you may not know. Others you have seen. And, hopefully, after this “Exploring” feature, you’ll search out the others. But you’ll surely revisit with Sherry in everyone’s favorite film of her career: The Velvet Vampire, a film so gosh-darn fine that, no offense to Sherry, intended: even if she weren’t in it . . . basically, we’re telling you to put The Velvet Vampire on your must-watch list, unintended insults to Sherry, be damned.
Okay, let’s unpack Sherry’s all-too-brief, big screen career, shall we?
Cry For Poor Wally (1969)
Russell Johnson (the Professor of Gilligan’s Island fame) stars as the small town sheriff in this “based on a true story” crime-drama filmed in Dallas, Texas. Johnson confronts Wally (a very good Keith Rothschild in his only film role; Johnson is equally fine): a fugitive on the run who takes a woman hostage in a diner with the goal of staying out of prison — no matter the cost. As Johnson tries to talk down Wally, the story flashes back as to the “why” it all happened: upon the death of his mother, his father leaves (abandons) him for greener pastures; his girlfriend (Sherry Miles) also contributes to his psychotic break.
Keep your eyes open for another slight-resume actress in Barbara Hancock, who we enjoyed in her fourth and final film, the “GP” horror film, The Night God Screamed (1972). In addition to Russell and Sherry, this is packed with a great cast of familiar character actors of the you-know-them-when-you-see-them variety of Elisha Cook, Jr., Bill Thurman (!) ,Gene Ross, and Paul Lambert.
Cry for Poor Wally proved to be the only producing and directing effort by Marty Young. Screenwriter Marshall Riggan followed with the Christian apocalypse drama Six-Hundred & Sixty Six (1972) and completed his features career with the lost, psychological horror, So Sad About Gloria (1973).
There’s a copy on the Internet Archive to stream. There’s also a ten-minute highlight reel — of its opening diner scene — courtesy of our friends at Scarecrow Video on You Tube, who also contributed the film’s full-digitized upload to the IA.
To say Sam and I love this movie — Sherry’s presence, aside — is a well-worn trope.
The Phynx are a manufactured band — kind of like the Monkees meets Stripes — made up of A. “Michael” Miller, Ray Chipperway, Dennis Larden and Lonny Stevens. They’re trained in all manner of espionage, as well as rock ‘n roll, including meeting Dick Clark, record industry-emissary James Brown, and being taught how to have some “soul” by Richard Pryor. Hey, wait a sec . . . didn’t Cliff Richards and the Shadows do the “spy rock” thing in Finders Keepers (1966)?
At once an indictment of the system and the product of the very hand that it is biting, The Phynx occupies the same weird space as Skidoo, i.e., big-budget Hollywood films trying desperately — and failing — to reach the long-haired hippy audience — like the Monkees with Head — yet failing to understand them at any level. Sort of like the next film on today’s program.
Since this is locked up in the Warner Archive, there’s no streams to share, but here’s a clip on You Tube.
Making It (1971)
Ugh. The marketing of movies.
Based on the theatrical one-sheet and the R-rating, you’re expecting a soft-core sexploitationer: you actually end up with a not-so-bad, smart “coming of age” teen dramedy. As it should be: it’s written by Peter Bart (for 20th Century Fox), who you known best as the co-host, with film executive Peter Guber, of AMC’s film talk and interview programs Shootout and Storymakers, as well as Encore’s In the House. True movieheads known, that, after his screenwriting career, Bart was a writer at the New York Times, an Editor-In Chief at Variety, and later a Vice President of Production at Paramount Studios. While serving as the screenwriting debut for Bart, Making It was also the feature film debut for longtime TV director John Erman (Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, Star Trek: TOS); continuing with TV series, Erman directed numerous TV movies into the early-2000s.
While Sherry Miles is what brought us here: we’re also captivated by a cast that features early roles for the familiar Bob Balaban, David Doyle (yep, Bosley from TV’s Charlie’s Angels), character actor extraordinaire John Fiedler, Denny Miller, Lawrence Pressman, and Tom Troupe, along with the brother-sister thespian duo of Dick and Joyce Van Patten.
Based on the ’60s best-seller, What Can You Do?, a very young Kristoffer Tabori (later of Brave New World and a Star Wars video game voice artist) stars as Phil Fuller: a 17-year-old ne’er-do-well clone of David Cassidy (who would have been perfect in the “grown up” role) living with his widowed mother (Joyce Van Patten). He quenches his self-centered needs by using the girls in his school (prom queen, Sherry Miles), his nerdy best friend (a very young Bob Balaban), and his basketball coach (Denny Miller) — by taking up with his wife (Marlyn Mason). Meanwhile, Joyce Van has or own sexual issues: she’s facing the thoughts of an abortion after shacking up with an insurance agent (played by her brother!). Then Phil, himself, deals with the issues of abortion when he gets one of his high school-conquests, pregnant.
In the end, what you get in the frames of Making It is not a sexploitation comedy, or even a “coming of age” dramedy, but an insightful examination of a pre-Roe vs. Wade world regarding the legalities surrounding abortions (then illegal in California, where this takes place, but legal in New York, where a Patten’s character considers going to get one).
It’s pretty heavy stuff of a time and place, but without the favorable atmosphere of Fast Times of Ridgemont High — if that film centered soley on Mike Damone knocking up Stacy Hamilton. My youthful nostalgia for movies like this slide in nicely next to an early Sam Elliot in Lifeguard, Dennis Christopher in California Dreaming, and the genre change-up with Cathy Lee Crosby in Coach. Your own nostalgia mileage — and for all films Sherry Miles — may vary.
My enjoyment of this movie, which serves as the suffix-title to this retrospective on Sherry Miles, is unbound. Sherry is not only stellar in it: so is the cast, under the pen and lens of Stephanie Rothman. Simply put: this is a beautiful, creepy film.
Swinging Lee Ritter and his vapid, but pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles), make the mistake of accepting the art gallery invitation of a mysterious, red-dressed vixen, Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall), to visit her secluded, desert estate. The couple soon discover Diane is a centuries-old vampire — and both are objects of her bisexual thirsts.
The Todd Killings (1971)
Fans of the based-in-fact teen murder tale of River’s Edge (marketed on the later VHS “slasher” reissues as Maniac; it’s why we rented it) will enjoy Sherry Miles’s second — after Cry for Poor Wally — true crime drama, this one based on the true story of ’60s thrill-killer Charles Schmid, known as “The Pied Piper of Tuscon.”
The film was inspired by a March 1966 Life magazine article about the killings, which, in turn, inspired the 1966 short anthology story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Schmid’s exploits were also loosely adapted into the Treat Williams-starring Smooth Talk (1985), as well as the (woefully inferior) films Dead Beat (1994) and The Lost (2005).
Skipper Todd (an outstanding Robert F. Lyons, a much-seen ’60s TV actor in his fourth feature film, but first starring role) is a charismatic, 23-year old ne’er-do-well who charms his way into the lives of out-of-his-age-bracket high school kids in a small California town. The girls, of course, fall instantly for him and head out to the desert for some romantic fun — only never to return. As in the true crimes that inspired River’s Edge, Todd, aka Schmid, was assisted by his girlfriend and best friend in luring, killing, and burying the victims. Shocking for its time, Belinda J. Montgomery and Richard Thomas are frontal nude; Montgomery’s is cut from the later VHS versions.
As with Cry for Poor Wally, this is another one of those lost, underrated gems — it’s heartbreaking for all concerned, even the beyond salvation Skipper Todd — of the Drive-In era rediscovered, not during the UHF-TV ’70s, but the home video ’80s. The quality comes courtesy of its familiar cast of a just-starting-out Richard Thomas (as Skipper’s loyal hanger-on buddy), along with Edward Asner, Barbara Bel Geddes, James Broderick, Michael Conrad (remember the gruff commander on Hill Street Blues?) Gloria Grahame, and Fay Spain. Also keep your eyes open for musician-actress Holly Near in her third role; she made her debut in the critically lambasted Angel, Angel Down WeGo (1969).
There’s no trailers or streams to share — well, there’s a You Tube Italian-dub to skim — but the DVDs abound in the online marketplace. This is a great film. It’s also a nihilistic, downbeat one, but still worthy of a watch.
“Spoofs today’s sex films (i.e., porn) the way Batman spoofed Super Heroes!” — tagline for the original, first release of Calliope
I just can’t see my dearest Sherry signing on the dotted line for a goofy, post-Russ Meyer wannabe skinflick that proclaims: “It spreads, and spreads, and spreads,” only to equate its comedy to a beloved Adam West TV series. Obviously, what was presented during negotiations to Sherry, and what was distributed to theaters, differed. Wildly. But what else should we have expected from writer-director Matt Climber, he who gave us The Black Six (1973), Pia Zadora in Butterfly (1981), and a sex-bent take on Indiana Jones with Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold (1984)?
Well, this movie. That’s what. And this one is truly a lost film.
So much for producing an Americanized remake of the significant and cinematically-respected La Ronde (1950), a 1900s-era, spicy-romantic, French-language comedy by German-born director Max Ophüls, which earned a 1952 “Best Screenplay” Oscar nod. He also repeated that Oscar feat with his next film, Le Plaisir (1952), which earned a 1955 nod for its Art Direction, done by Max, himself. So loved was La Ronde in its homeland, as well as across Europe, Roger Vadim (Barbarella) updated the film as Circle of Love (1964), with his soon-to-be lover, Jane Fonda. As for the Ophüls original: it took four years before U.S. film sensors approved the film, sans cuts, for theater showings in 1954.
As for the U.S. remake, originally released under the title, Calliope, what could go wrong: everything. Didn’t you hear the sound of two-time Oscar-nominated Max Ophüls turning over in his grave?
Both films are concerned with ten people “in various episodes in the endless waltz of love” (they go “round and round,” thus the titles), as they each hop from encounter to encounter . . . and that’s were it all stops. Dead.
Since Americans were still swingin’ from the free-loving, Summer of Love ’60s, and Mike Nichols answered the “sex revolution” charge with the aforementioned Carnal Knowledge (1971) (and Paul Mazursky’s 1969 effort, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), Allied Artists (an outgrowth of Monogram Pictures, a library now owned-split among Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, and Paramount; Warner owns Calliope) decided that, instead of the main protagonist (now a hippie musician instead of soldier-on-leave) eventually finding love with the partner he started off with (Sherry Miles, now a band groupie, instead of the original’s prostitute) . . . he receives “the gift that goes on giving”: a sexually transmitted disease, i.e., venereal disease, since this was the ’70s and not the AIDS ’80s.
Calliope (no theatrical one-sheets exist, at least online), needless to say, bombed. Ah, but the “Golden Age of Porn” was in full swing, so Allied Artists didn’t give up: a year later, in 1972, the reimaged Love Is Catching hit the circuit; it opened in, of all places, the home base of B&S About Movies: Pittsburgh. It bombed, again, and harder than a Richard Harrison Philippine film he was edited-into and never signed on to do.
This soft-sexploitation romp causes me to reflex on poor Gerald McRaney and Tom Selleck, each scoring their first major roles in Night of Bloody Horror and Daughters of Satan, respectively. The scripts are pretty good . . . and work is work . . . and they thesp’d up a sweat to make it all work . . . then J.N Houck, Jr., and worse, in Tom Selleck’s case, since U.S. major, United Artists, backed it, cheesed the films with exploitative ad campaigns. Just like Calliope. And Skidoo. And Myra Breckinridge.
Sherry, six films in to her career, and just missing out on a co-starring role with Jack Nicholson in one of Mike Nichols best films — a frank, adult-discussion of modern-day sexual issues — was deserving of a better, leading lady role than this STD sex farce.
Sure, it’s a well-shot picture, and the acting is pretty decent (we have great character actors Marjorie Bennett and Stan Rose, on board). And it’s not all that bad; sure, modernizing from the early 1900s to the late 1960s is inspired. And it’s not at all porny, since the sex scenes are implied, more than shown . . . but I still have this need to go back in time and kick someone . . . for having my sweet Sherry transmitting VD in a movie.
But things are looking up, nicely, with our next feature.
The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972)
From a sexploitation flick to a Christian cinema obscurity: only in Tinseltown, baby. And while his name is nixed from the one-sheet (whatever, Plekker, nice n’ cheesy paste-up work): the writer-director here is Ken Osborne, the man behind the pen and lens on the biker flick Wild Wheels (1969). He also appeared in our Uncle Al Adamson’s Blood on Dracula’s Castle (1969), Five Bloody Graves (1969), and Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970).
And there’s more!
In addition to Sherry Miles, we have Marty Allen and Eric Estrada? Ray Danton (too many ’60s to ’70s TV series to mention)? Bruce Kimball (Rollercoaster)? Where’s the VCR. Load the tape. LOAD THE TAPE!
The pedigree is the thing in this imperiled-musician-in-a-spiritual-crisis tale, not only with our director, Ken Osborne: the scribe behind this Christploitationer, Ralph Luce, also wrote Wild Wheels. Why, yes, that’s Robert Dix and William Kerwin from Satan’s Sadists, and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast, respectively, in the cast, as well as, again, a very youthful, pre-CHiPs Erik Estrada. And we mention Erik a second time, since this second film in his career was also his second Christploiter. The first was The Cross and the Switchblade, which starred ’60s crooner Pat Boone, as directed by Don Murray (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes).
The Ballad of Billie Blue is the tale of a drug-and-boozed out country music star — our faux-message “Jesus Christ” of the proceedings — sent to prison, aka Hell, on a bum murder rap; he finds God by way of a prison preacher and a Christ-following country music star.
Regardless of its secular, exploitative pedigree, this was Rated-G — and it ran as a “Special Church Benefit” in rural theaters, as well as in churches and tent revivals. Granted it’s no country-cautionary tale in the vein of A Star Is Born (1976) with Kris Kristofferson, but it’s not a total disaster.
I still say the Oscar-winning dramedy Sideways (2004) starring Paul Giamatti (in the Beau Bridges role) and Thomas Haden Church (in the Rob Liebman role) stole this movie lock, stock, and wine bottle. But I digress. . . .
So . . . the ’70s and their slew of ne’er-do-well “buddy films” were entertaining times, with the likes of Midnight Cowboy (1969), starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, Busting (1974), with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake, Freebie and the Bean (1974), starring Alan Arkin and James Caan, and Let’s Do It Again (1975), with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier.
My old Pop loved his “buddy films,” so you didn’t have to sell us twice — especially when the buddies are Beau Bridges and Ron Liebman. And we ain’t hatin’ Janet Margolin in the frames, either. Mom and Pop dumped me at the sitter to see this back when; I watched it later, amid the ultra-high frequency haze of my pre-cable TV youth. All, of course, were rented, again, when they hit home video.
Oh, and speaking of Sideways: this isn’t just a buddy film. You know all of those Judd Apatow, gross-out “road movies” you love: this is where that road, began. Only without any of the Paul Rudd or Seth Rogen annoyance aftertaste.
Charlie (a perfectly cast Beau Bridges) is a henpecked office drone-doormat at a dead-end job, engaged to harping woman (Janet Margolin, Planet Earth). The lone spark in his life is his “idol,” Mike (an even more perfectly cast Rob Liebman), a narcissistic and misogynistic, well, dickhead, of a buddy. So, to get Charlie out from under his soon-to-be-loveless marriage — and his own, mounting debts and his recently cut-off unemployment benefits — the pair hits the roads of the California coast on Mike’s last two, usable credit cards, subsidized by a little bit of larceny. Along the way, the pick up two, nubile hippie chicks (in the expertly cast) June Fairchild (Up In Smoke) and Sherry Miles.
So, somewhere in the frames is a message about America’s newfound “liberation” forged in the ’60s (more effectively done with Beau’s brother, Jeff, in 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), but while this warms the ol’ UHF-TV cockles of watching it with ol’ Pop all those years ago, Your Three Minutes Are Up is an erratic, rambling TV movie-flat messadventure that could have easily went the bloody-serial killer route — if not for its purposeful, comedic slant. Think Easy Rider sans the drugs and bikes, or Five Easy Pieces with Liebman as our ersatz Jack Nicholson, and you’re on the right road in this still, effectively cast and well-acted adventure.
Look, Steven Hilliard Stern (The Park Is Mine) is directing . . . so what’s not to like, here?
Well, uh, not much, in this woefully dated “sex revolution” tale that sequels the box office hit, The Harrad Experiment (1973), which grossed $3 million against $400,000.
So, why did this sure-fire hit, flop?
Well, the character of James Whitmore (Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption) doesn’t return. Tippi Hedren’s does, but is replaced by a lookalike in Emmaline Henry (Ms Amanda Bellows from TV’s I Dream of Jeannie). And Don Johnson and Bruno Kirby bowed out. Sure, Laurie Walters (Warlock Moon; later TV’s Eight Is Enough), who made her acting debut in the original, is back, and so is bit TV actress Victoria Thompson, but who is coming to see either? And we want more Sherry Miles, thank you.
Note to executives: When you loose three quarters of your cast, don’t make the sequel.
Anyway, the premise is that faux-Stanley and Harry, along with real-Sheila and Beth, are out on summer break from their first year at Harrad College: it’s time to test their new found sexual freedom in the real world. Or something. Like going back and re-watching Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice and Carnal Knowledge.
Hey, I champion Stern’s TV work just as much as my fellow fan of the VHS obscure, but this is simply yawn-inducing . . . .the total opposite of The Harrad Experiment, which has Don and Bruno — especially Bruno — going for it. Robert Reiser and Richard Doran in their places, well . . . they’re not awful: they just don’t have the same spunk to make the hippie proceedings, hep.
No streams, but the DVDs are out there; here’s the trailer.
Okay. So, the heart breaker and dream maker of my wee-lad years, Sherry Miles, closes out her career by running around an island with Joe Don Baker to escape a pack of wild dogs . . . get this: under the lens of Robert Clouse of Enter the Dragon, Black Belt Jones, and Golden Needles fame?
Load. The. Tape. Now.
Sure, this beat Stephen’s King’s Cujoto theaters and was all about a literal army of dogs biting everyone on Seal Island — which has nothing on Dog Island from Humongous. So, was Robert Clouse inspired by the 1976 film starring David McCallum that you don’t want to confuse with The Pack, aka Dogs? Probably. No, not Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978), as that one starred Richard Crenna. Get your horror dog movies, straight, buddy! Did Clouse’s dog romp inspire Earl Owensby’s (Dark Sunday) backwater sheriff fighting off government-bred mutts in Dogs of Hell (1983)? Probably.
What else can we say: it’s a killer dog movie. Not even Sherry’s presence can save it. But horror was hot and, as an actor, you jump the trend and hope for a hit. Well, it is to us, at B&S About Movies. We’re weird that way.
There’s no freebie streams, but the PPVs are out there; here’s the trailer.
So wraps this latest “Exploring” featuring, this one on (sigh . . . skyrockets . . . rainbows . . . fields of flowers . . . hearts with angel wings) Sherry Miles. Be sure to click the “Exploring” tag below to read the full list of all of our “Exploring” features on the lost, forgotten and awesome actors and directors, as well as genres, of the Drive-In ’60s, the UHF-TV ’70s, and VHS ’80s eras.
Yeah, we’re doin’ it for the celluloid love. And because we’re just crazy that way. This is B&S About Movies, after all.
Wow. It’s hard to believe it’s been 45 years since a struggling, unknown actor out of New York City shocked the world on November 21, 1976, with a “sleeper hit” made for $960,000 that would go on to make $225 million in box office receipts — the highest grossing film of 1976 that received ten Academy Award nominations, winning three, including Best Picture.
Sly’s entertained us with a lot of films over those 45 years, since . . . and back in August of 2019, we watched them all. Well, most of them . . . along with a few you’ve never heard of, but you’ll probably take a plunge and watch them now.
Sly, through the celluloid ups and the downs through those sprockets, we’ll always love you, brother. Thanks for the flicks.
No one mobbed-up better than you, Ray. We’ll see you on that field of dreams. . . .
What began as one of our “Top 10” lists, which turned into a “Top Ten Best and Worst Mafia Flicks,” ultimately transformed into one of our “Exploring” features examining all of the gangster flicks inspired by the critical and box office successes of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Based on the reception of Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), well, there are probably more films to come in the wake of Capone (2020) and Lansky (2021). In fact, a third film — on top of Goodfellas — dealing with the infamous Lufthansa Heist, is already in pre-production.
We’re unpacking 50 films released between 1990 and 2021. Each are listed alphabetically by their year of release. So bookmark us and return to us as your mob flick source.
The American Film Institute presented their “Ten Greatest American Films” lists, which were unveiled on a CBS-TV television special that aired July 2008. The AFI defines the “gangster film” as a genre that centers on organized crime or maverick criminals in a modern setting.
Needless to say, only a few of the films we’re examining — such as Black Mass and The Irishman — make the grade against these ten AFI choices, while most fail at the task. You can use the AFI’s “Gangster Top Ten” of these influential films as a barometer to critique the following films on our list to your own tastes. We hope you enjoy our journey on discovering some mob films you may have missed.
The Godfather — 1972
Goodfellas — 1990
The Godfather Part II — 1974
White Heat — 1949
Bonnie and Clyde — 1967
Scarface — 1932
Pulp Fiction — 1994
The Public Enemy — 1931
Little Caesar — 1931
Scarface — 1983
1. Goodfellas (1990) Yes, there are those who offer the Siskel & Ebert “thumbs down” on this modern-day Othello based on the 1985 memoir Wiseguy written by gangster Henry Hill and crime novelist Nicholas Pileggi. Some say, while it’s a great movie, it is still given “too much praise” and The Godfather movies are far superior. Others say that the more Robert De Niro does these “New Yark” movies, (Casino, The Irishman, A Bronx Tale), the more he proves he isn’t a good actor. Then there’s the “long and boring” detractors, those who say the film lacks “suspense and thrills,” and those who see it as a “bunch of guys acting cool and killing people.”
Okay, then. So much for the Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAF nods. But Goodfellas is still better than most of the 45 films on this list that it influenced.
2. King of New York(1990) One of the first post-Goodfellas flicks out of the gate was this fictitious gangland tale concerned with Columbian drug dealers going against the New York Mafia. Tanking at the box office with a less than $3 million take against $5 million, Christopher Walken and Larry Fishburne deliver the goods . . . but then there’s the smarmy-ass thespin’ of David Caruso (Go back to TV, please!) in the miscast Cameron Diaz role (see Gangs of New York).
Abel Ferrara is a director, like Michael Mann, of a classy mood and engaging style (see Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant), but this still a one-and-done watch. However, as with Scarface, this has found a strong cult following on home video in the hip-hop realms.
3. Miller’s Crossing (1990) Life Magazine proclaims this Coen Brothers’ production as one of the “100 greatest films made since the inception of the periodical.” Uh-oh, there’s that pesky $5 million box office against its near $15 million budget. Yep, another Coen Brothers par-for-the course: Haughty critics love it. The movie-going public, hates it.
In an overly-complex gangster-noir that clumsily borrows from Akira Kurosawa’s flawless Yojimbo — although the haughty Coens-do-no-wrong press claims it’s taken from the works of Dashielll Hammet, his books The Glass Key (1931) and Red Harvest (1929), in particular.
Sorry Life staffers, we pass. The Coen brothers do make movies that suck, you know? Did you not see Hail, Ceasar! or their remake of True Grit? Toss this limp mob romp on that stack. And don’t get us started on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Hudsucker Proxy. But we’ll watch Fargo, again!
Eh, Will Walter Hill fair better with his later, official Yojimbo-cum-gangster remake? Well, er, ah. . . .
4. Bugsy (1991) Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) delivers not so much a mob flick, but a hard-boiled romance flick with this chronicle on the life of Bugsy Siegel. We learn of his tragic romance with Virginia Hill as he begins construction on the Flamingo — the first casino in Las Vegas.
Everything works, here, yes, everything (yes, even the you-can-take-it-or-leave-it Mrs. Beatty, aka Annette Bening), since Warren Beatty as the title Mafioso is pure dynamite. The same goes for Harvey Keitel as Los Angeles mob boss Mickey Cohen, and Ben Kingsley as Jewish “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky.
Bugsy, as with Goodfellas and Casino, is a repeat-watching film. Cue them up for a triple-feature weekend of mob flick mania.
5. Mobsters (1991) When your film is nominated for two Razzies — courtesy of Anthony Quinn and Christian Slater — and the film doesn’t live up to Bugsy (1991), as publicly hoped for by Slater, it’s a foregone conclusion Variety and Roger Ebert weren’t kind in their reviews, either. Yeah, this is yet another mob flick suffering from style-and-ultraviolence over substance (there’s quite a few on this list).
So, we meet the Brat Pack-versions of Lucky Luciano (Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Bugsy Siegel (Richard Grieco), and Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor) during their Prohibition teens as they mature into their eventual creation of the Commission, that is, the organization of the five families that come to rule the New York underworld.
The critical drubbing is well-deserved: The teen heartthrob casting of four serial killers as misunderstood “sex symbols,” is downright offensive. And Grieco is woefully lost amid the thepsin’ to leave no wonder as to why he fell so quickly to the D-List, while Depp, the guy he replaced way back when, moved to the A-List. Then there is the excessive studio tinkering that resulted in a confusing four different versions of the film being distributed in the world marketplace. The film ended Micheal Karbelnikoff’s directing career.
6. Oscar (1991) Sylvester Stallone gets into the post-Goodfellas mob game with this remake of the 1967 French comedy of the same name — updated to Depression-era New York City. This time the “comedy of errors” stars Sly as Angelo “Snaps” Provolone, a mob boss who promises his dying father he’ll become an honest businessman.
What can we tell you: We dig Sly and did a week-long tribute to his films — and passed on reviewing this one, proper: for a Stallone in a retro-“Screwball Comedy” ain’t no William Powell or Clark Gable joint. Maybe if Sly — infamous for his displeasure with the writers and directors he works with — rewrote Jim Mulholland’s (Michael Bay’s 1995 action-comedy Bad Boys) script and took the reins from John Landis (Animal House)? (Remember the Cobra vs. Beverly Hills Cop boondoggle?) Maybe if the “first choice” of Al Pacino, took the role — who passed for a $3 million vs. $2 million payday on Warren Beatty’s live-action mob comic book, Dick Tracy (1990)?
How does this story end? Bad ass John Landis dissed John Rambo by saying Oscar would have been a much better movie with Al.
Stallone’s next mob flick, Avenging Angelo (2002), was a mafia rom-com in the tradition of Prizzi’s Honor (1985, Jack Nicholson) and Married to the Mob (1988, Michelle Pfeiffer). And there’s a reason we mention it as a sidebar, here. Yeah, if you need a “mob romance,” stick to Beatty’s Bugsy.
7. The 10 Million Dollar Getaway (1991) The Goodfellas influence is heavy in this TV movie released within a year of its inspiration — and goes as far to cast Mike Starr in the “Frenchy”-same role. Sure, John Mahoney (TV’s Frasier and the Bruce Willis-starring Striking Distance) is affable as Jimmy Burke, but he still pails to Robert De Niro’s interpretation of Jimmy Conway. Still, watching Mahoney saves this, big time, and it’s nice to see Wendell Pierce (debuted in A Matter of Degrees) as Stack Edwards — who holds his own when compared against Samuel L. Jackson. Not as “Poorfellas” as some opine; it’s more like “Mediocrefellas,” but still worth your streaming efforts.
8. 29th Street (1991) Once upon a time in Italy, Antonio Margheriti cast James Franciscus (of the ’70s Apes franchise) and Frank Pesce as co-stars for his Jaws rip, Killer Fish (1979). The two became friends and came to write a screenplay on based Pesce’s winning $6 million dollars in the New York state lottery. But his dad (mob flick mainstay Danny Aiello of the early mob romps Godfather Part II and Once Upon a Time in America) has some gambling debts to the mob. So, does Frank (Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia nailing the New York accent) give up the ticket to the mob to save his pop?
Sure, there’s no blood or bullets and the mob-angle is all played for comedy, but it’s still a great directorial debut by George Gallo, the writer behind Bad Boys, De Niro’s Midnight Run, and the director of one of the better remakes in recent years, with Harry Hurwitz’s The Comeback Trail.
9. Reservoir Dogs (1992) Remember what we said about the detractors on Goodfellas? Copy and paste that, Mr. Pink. Then add the additional aggravation of non-linear storytelling and the overuse of profanity as character development. Then add the opinions that Tarantino ripped off Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) in his diamond heist gone wrong tale — sans the Stealer’s Wheel ear-lobbing interludes.
Look, Tarantino is the master of the art of layers, as taught by screenwriting guru Robert McKee. Tarantino is the Sensei of pop-culture references. He’s the master of actor casting. And he made a great heist movie and accomplished in his career what worshipers Troy Duffy (Boondock Saints) and Rob Weiss (Amongst Friends), could not.
As for Pulp Fiction: Calling Mr. Pink for the copy-paste assist: Tarantino: you either love ’em or hate ’em.
10. Amongst Friends (1993) Thanks to Tarantino’s creative influences, burgeoning writer and director Rob Weiss cobbled together one million dollars to tell the story of three childhood, drug-dealing friends who graduate to robbing a local mobster; the mobster forces them into a diamond smuggling heist.
Even with the film’s production faux pas in the directing, editing (too many fades-to-black, as I recall), and acting departments, there was still a magic in the frames that caught the eye of the 1993 Sundance Film Festival crowd . . . and ’90s indie guys like me who went to see any movie under the Fine Line Features or Miramax shingles. And I bought the Kevin Smith-inspired, indie alt-rock leaning soundtrack (Lemonheads, Big Audio Dynamite, Dramarama).
Then, like Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn) before him and Troy Duffy (Boondock Saints) after him: Weiss got bit in the ass by his own ego — and gave Kevin Smith plenty of fodder for his non-fiction books.
11. A Bronx Tale (1993) In 1989, Chazz Palminteri staged his autobiographical, one-man stage play about his coming-of-age relationships with his hard working, Italian-American father (to be played by Robert De Niro) and the temptations of a better life with a local mafia boss (to be played by Palminteri).
While the film was a minor financial success during its initial release, the critics raved as the film came to find a loyal audience via incessant cable television replays. Everyone agrees it’s a solid directorial debut by De Niro and it gave Palminteri a well-deserved jump start to his always-consistent acting career. However, many aren’t kind to the performances of Francis Capra and Lillo Brancato, Jr. — who play Palminteri at the ages of 9 and 17, respectively.
Eh, I like the lads just fine, De Niro is Scorsese-solid behind the lens, so this is a repeat viewer.
12. Carlito’s Way (1993) Taking his cues from Scorsese using Nicholas Pileggi’s crime biographies for script fodder, Brian De Palma used Edwin Torres’s fictional novels Carlito’s Way (1975), and its sequel, After Hours (1979), for a lukewarm box office tale about Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino): a Puerto Rican criminal who vows to go straight as a legit club owner, but instead becomes a leading coke dealer for the mob.
While the film carries the title of Torres’s debut novel, it’s actually based on the second; the first was years-too-late adapted into a quickly-forgotten, direct-to-video sequel, Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power (2005) — with Jay Hernandez (Hostel, Suicide Squad) channeling a younger Pacino. (There’s a reason that film doesn’t have its own entry, here.)
Sure, Sean Penn and Penelope Ann Miller walked away with (well-deserved) Golden Globe nods, but there’s that faction that feel they are the film’s two weakest links; Pacino took some critical punches, as well. No matter: As with De Palma and Pacino’s previous joint-effort, Scarface (1983), and the first-out-of-the-gate Goodfellas knockoff, King of New York, Al Pacino’s tour de force as Carlito Brigante worked its way up to achieve a herald, hip-hop culture status.
13. Federal Hill (1994) In lieu of New York, we’re on the mob-infested streets of Providence, Rhode Island, as five friends make their bones in the Italian mob by way of counterfeiting, cat burglary, and the usual mob shenanigans. When one, the clichéd dimwit of the group, gets indebted to the mob, the others devise a plan to bail him out.
Sure, we get the always-welcomed Nicholas Turturro and Frank Vincent (How many does this make, Frankie?), but you know what: this budget-conscious mix of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets and Goodfellas serving as Michael Corrente’s writing-directing debut (of the enjoyable American Buffalo and engaging Outside Providence) isn’t great, but it keeps you watching.
14. Getting Gotti (1994) This is a Canadian TV movie alert . . . this is a Cannuck misfire masquerading as a real movie — which aired on CBS-TV in the States. Let that be your first caveat.
The next emptor: Ugh, Lorraine Bracco of Goodfellas fame in the title role of Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Diane Giacalone: she grew up in the same neighborhood as John Gotti — and comes to take down his empire. Is Anthony John Dennison solid as Gotti? Eh, well, er, he doesn’t look like him at all, but he sells the role. Now, for Bracco: As in Goodfellas, she does nothing but shout and scream and screech and caterwaul her dialog all-the-day long, which is annoying as f**k as it is off-putting as it is exhausting. Thus, the script’s narrative twist of having Gotti’s tale told from Giacalone’s viewpoint is DOA.
So, yeah, we’ll err to the side of the two-years later HBO production of Gotti starring Armand Assante in the title role (he won an Emmy for his work, as well as a Golden Globe nod). Yes, and Double-A for the win over John Travolta’s 2018 “passion project,” as well. But still: even though the Assante-version is well-made, as an HBO production always is, the proceedings are still inaccurate, docudrama-flat, possessing none of the depth, of say, a gangster film like Donnie Brasco.
15. Casino (1995) It’s a “sequel” to Goodfellas . . . and it’s not, as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are back with Martin Scorsese directing his second book-to-screen crime drama penned by Nicholas Pileggi. This time, it’s the book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, that tells the story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal (Sam “Ace” Rothstein in the film), a Jewish American gambling expert handicapper recruited by the Chicago Mafia to run their casino operations in Vegas. The usual Shakespearean chaos and downfalls — with graphic bloodshed — ensues.
As with its New York-based, Scorsese-Pileggi predecessor: Casino is either “underrated cinema” or “overrated schlock”; it’s either “Classic Scorsese” or a failed attempt at a “Goodfellas 2,” one that lacks substance or class that substitutes F-bombs and constant yelling — especially from Sharon Stone, in the opinions of some, in the Lorraine Bracco-caterwauling role. But Stone earned “Best Actress” Golden Globe and Academy Award nods (winning the former), so you know how it goes. Me? This is a repeat viewing film that’s oft-copied by several films on this list, but will never be duplicated.
16. Heat (1995) This is Michael Mann’s first entry on this gangster list — he’s back with Public Enemies in 2009 — one that suffered from way too much hype centered on the fact that the film would offer the first on-screen appearance of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (both doing it awesome, later, in The Irishman).
Yeah, sorry, Mike: even with the acting royalty — including an equally-great Val Kilmer (err, we can do without the TV-flatness of Amy Brenneman) — this is no Casino. Opinions vary, but err to the side of the proceedings as all too-talky “meh” up to the big bank robbery . . . but when that robbery comes, whoa: it’s a classic Michael Mann set piece that reminds of his 1981 mafia-crime masterpiece, Thief. So, yeah, it’s not a repeat-viewer, but it keeps you watching for at least one viewing.
17. The Usual Suspects (1995) There is a contingent that feels this (overly talky) tale of five criminals on a quest to find a mythical mob boss — Keyser Soze, who no one has ever seen — is overwrought and overrated. Sure, it’s off the major-studio beaten path and the twist is did-not-see-it-coming clever, and it made $35 million against a $6 million budget, and the WGA ranks Christopher McQuarrie’s work as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, etc., but not everyone is on board with a story that leans towards being, essentially, a gloried stage play that heavily relies on non-linear flashbacks and narration. And a lot of Kevin “Look at what a great thespian, I am” Spacey: the sole reason for the overwroughtness of it all.
Look, your opinions of Brian Singer’s sexual deviations and Kevin the Great’s acting aside: Singer tried to pull a Tarantino — and succeeded. He gave us a film not as violent as Reservoir Dogs or character-engaging as Pulp Fiction, but nonetheless engaging and one that serves as the epitome of word-of-mouth indie film marketing in the Fine Line and Miramax ’90s tradition (such as David Salle’s — which I think is much better — Search and Destroy).
18. Last Man Standing (1996) Sure, we have Walter Hill of The Driver, The Warriors, Streets of Fire, and 48 Hours in the writer’s and director’s chairs, but a remake of a remake is still a remake of a remake as the “man with no name” from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai adventure Yojimbo (1961) — remembering it was rebooted by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) — returns. Ah, but Leone’s was an unauthorized, European-litigated remake and Kurosawa supported this American remake. Warning: Akira’s backing means nothing.
So, does Hill’s 1940s-styled film noir updating of Kurosawa’s revenge proceedings to a 1930’s gangster flick set in a dusty, western-styled Texas border town with liquor bootleggin’ afoot — with Bruce Willis in the “Robert Mitchum/Humphrey Bogart” anti-hero role — work?
The film’s worldwide gross ($18 million in the U.S.) was less than $50 million against a $40 million budget that ballooned to near $70 million. Sure, the cast is all here, with Bruce Dern as the second lead and (wimpy) town sheriff, along with William Sanderson (Blade Runner), Christopher Walken, R.D. Call (Waterworld), and David Patrick Kelly (Luther in The Warriors, Sully in Commando). So what went wrong?
Eh, it looks good . . . but it’s all boring formula from the Syd Field Aristotle, three-act screenplay book: eight sequences of stock characters doing gangstery-things threaded together by too much sex, splashy violence, and the dreaded sign that nothing is working: droning voice-over narration. Unlike its predecessors: Hill’s version is totally forgettable — and Hill made my beloved The Driver. Go figure.
Oh, ah . . . since this is B&S About Movies: We need to mention our beloved Enzo G. Castellari clipped this all before Hill did, with his post-apoc, Mad Maxian-updating as Warriors of the Wasteland. Are we suggesting an Enzo-epic over a Hill romp? This time, yeah, for Enzo entertains us, makes us yell at the screen, and jump up and down in glee at the absurdity of it all.
19. Public Enemies (1996) No, this isn’t the Johnny Depp one by Micheal Mann: that comes later, in 2006. This is the one by Mark L. Lester starring . . . Frank Stallone. Let that be a warning.
Yes, Mark L. Lester (he of the ’70s hicksploitation classic Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw) took on the then-hot mobster genre sweeping ’90s Hollywood — by clipping Roger Corman’s ’30s-styled Big Bad Mama (1974). Theresa Russell as Ma Barker? Sure. But Alyssa Milano as a femme fatale? No. Eric Roberts as a member of the infamous Barker gang? Oh, yes! But Frank Stallone as Alvin Karpis? Frank Stallone vs. Channing Tatum (in the Mann-version): ponder than celluloid conundrum. And Dan Cortese (then from MTV Sports, later George’s man-crush “Tony” from Seinfeld) as Melvin Purvis? No. No. No.
Yeah, it’s Lester and we did a week-long tribute praising his films and all . . . but against the other films on this list, it’s not as good as it wants to be . . . yet still infinitely better than a few of the more contemporary vanity mobster flicks on our list. If you’re a fan of Lester, you’ll be fine; others will scoff.
20. Donnie Brasco (1997) Director Mike Newell (later of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; he made his debut with the Charlton Heston mummy romp, The Awakening) knocks it out of the park, as Paul Attanasio wins his well-deserved, second “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar (the first was for Quiz Show; he also wrote Disclosure) in this tale based on the 1988 non-fiction book, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone.
Johnny Depp portrays the FBI agent — uncover as a jewel thief — befriended by Al Pacino’s Lefty Ruggiero, an aging hitman in the Bonanno crime family. As for the rest of the cast: Wow. We’ve got Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Zeljko Ivanek, and Robert Miano (Exorcism at 60,000 Feet) all bringing their A-games (but I can do without Anne Heche). Depp and Pacino play their characters perfectly: as you watch, you experience the true friendship between Pistone and Ruggiero — and Pistone’s conflict in his work leading to his friend’s ultimate demise. Deep is fantastic, but Pacino: as with his work in Heat, he owns the film.
This movie is dead-solid perfect and a repeat-watching classic: not just for mob films, but films, period. Do it. In fact, I am going to watch it for the umpteenth time as soon as I hit the “enter” key on this sentence.
21. The Boondock Saints (1999) Sure, the film bombed — hard — at the box office and Harvey Weinstein buried him, but Troy Duffy’s debut film cleaned up on home video, to the point its fans quote the film verbatim, wear the t-shirts (me), and even have Boondock Saints “double gun” lamps on their end tables in their media rooms (not me).
Sadly, as with Tommy Wiseau (The Room) after him: Troy Duffy’s ego was so driven, he had a cameraman on-set filming everything about his epic film — that would sweep the Oscars. And we wished Rob Weiss had behind-the-scenes cameras rolling on the set of Amongst Friends. Oh, well.
You may have heard the stories about Duffy’s meteoric rise and even quicker fall with his tale of two resourceful Irish lads taking on the Russian mob; your chance to see it all up close and personal can be had with the documentary Overnight. Detract if you must, but Boondocks Saints is still better at the Tarantino’in that most of the low-budget wannabes on this list. Only the most diehard fans should attempt the sequel, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) — Julie Benz is utterly dreadful in the “Willem Dafoe” role that made the first film work better than it should.
“In Nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti.”
22. Wannabes (2000) Is this a “wannabe” in every aspect of film? Indeed, as the vanity “triple threat” this go-around comes courtesy of William DeMeo of The Sopranos (and a bit role in A Bronx Tale).
Needless to say, casting go-to “mobster” Joe Viterelli (Ruby, The Firm, maybe you remember him in Jack Black’s Shallow Hal) and Joseph D’Orofrio (young Tommy in Goodfellas; Slick in A Bronx Tale), along with a few other familiar “mob” faces — in conjunction with a mind-numbing onslaught of “F-bombs” for the sake of cartoonish character development — can’t help this dead-on-arrival vanity effort. If you care: Vitrelli is the mob boss, D’Orofrio is the clichéd-hotheaded son (pinching off James Caan’s Sonny Corleone), while DeMeo is the other son; to escape their legit waiter jobs, they get into the bookmaking business with the expected, bloody results . . . and expected boredom.
23. The Big Heist (2001) In line after The10 Million Dollar Getaway, this Canadian TV production — jokingly referred to by mob flick fans as “Poorfellas” (again?) — aired in the U.S. on the A&E network, with yet another version of the story behind the Lufthansa Heist. This was justifiably taken to critical task for its historical inaccuracies, such as Jimmy “The Gent” Burke’s crew being connected to the Gambino family, when, in reality, they were part of the Lucchese family, and John Gotti wasn’t involved in the heist. Did these filmmakers not read any of the mob books my ol’ pop bought and I re-read?
Yeah, there’s Rocco Sisto and Nick Sandow as Tommy DeSimone and Henry Hill, but they’re awkward and weak (both in scripting and acting) and totally opposite in their portrayals compared against Goodfellas. Then there’s Donald Sutherland, who chose to go with an (in-and-out-and-in) Irish accent when, in fact: while Jimmy Burke was Irish, he was born and bred in New York and had no accent.
Yeah, for our Lufthansa fix, we’ll err to the side of The 10 Million Dollar Getaway — until the next film. Uh, oh, we spoke too soon: there’s a flick in development based on Henry Hill’s 2015 book, The Lufthansa Heist. Way to go, Hollywood.
24. Knockaround Guys (2001) Brian Koppelman and his writing-directing partner David Levien (later of Ocean’s Thirteen and HBO’s Billions) come off their modest box office hit about high-stakes poker, Rounders (1998), with this mob action-comedy starring Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Seth Green, Dennis Hopper, and John Malkovich.
The wannabe sons of mobsters — Pepper is a hitman that can’t pull the trigger; Seth Green can’t handle a simply “package” pick up — head to Billings, Montana, to set up their own shop to show-up their boss-fathers. The action-comedy “buddy film” cliches ensue . . . as the film barely made back its $15 million production cost.
Eh, if you’re fans of the actors, there’s something for you. Mob aficionadoes have seen better and can pass. Vin mobs up a second time in Find Me Guilty — and gets the same response.
25. Deuces Wild (2002) As a favor to writer Paul Kimatian, Martin Scorsese signed to this retro-’50s mob project as an executive producer. Then he eventually removed his name. What does that tell you? Well, Deuces Wild is rated three points over John Travolta’s Gotti opus, which earned a Rotten Tomatoes 0%. What does that tell you?
Well, for those enticed by DVD sleeve copy: don’t fall for that “TheBasketball Diaries . . .” tagline (the connection: rock/rap video director Scott Kalvert helmed both films). That Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer is a repeat viewing film . . . this mob-dress up flick, you’ll barely make it through one viewing. Needless to say: Scott Kalvert and writer/producer Paul Kimatian (he got his start as a First AD on Hot Dog . . . The Movie, executive produced Without Warning, and crewed on Deathsport, but worked as Scorsese’s still photographer on Taxi Driver and New York, New York, thus the connection) haven’t been heard from since. . . .
Leon and Bobby Anthony (the always great Stephen Dorff and Brad Renfo; the latter of the later 10th and Wolf) are two brothers who run the Deuces, a Brooklyn Street gang that protects the neighborhood of Sunset Park. When their younger brother Alphonse dies from a drug overdose by way of drugs pushed by the rival Vipers street gang, the clichéd violence, erupts. The fact that Fairuza Balk is our resident femme fetale from the Vipers’ gang tempting Renfo, isn’t helping matters, either.
In addition to Dorff and Renfo, the cast is all here: we’ve got Fairuza Balk, Matt Dillon (not here enough to matter, as a mob boss), Max Perlich, Balthazar Getty, Norman Reedus (the Vipers’ leader), Frankie Muniz (meh), James Franco — even mob flick mainstay Vicent Pastore (against type as a priest). So what went wrong? Sure John A. Alonzo (Vanishing Point, Chinatown and Scarface) in the cinematographer’s chair captures it all, expertly, but ugh. It’s all just a bunch of too-old-actors-as-teens playing dress up in greasy pompadours on a Hollywood back lot dressed with 1950s cars — sans any of the dance numbers from West Side Story.
So, you decide: Spend the evening with the Sharks and the Jets . . . or the punk ass Vipers and Deuces. Me: I’ll rewatch the far superior battles between the greasers and socs in The Outsiders. Better yet: I’ll rewatch Roger Corman do it better — and with Jim Carroll in the cast and on the soundtrack — in Tuff Turf.
26. Gangs of New York (2002) So, Martin Scorsese is back behind the camera, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. We’ve got Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCarpio in front of the camera. We’ve got ten Academy Award nods. Ugh, but then there’s the miscasting of the woefully-awful Cameron Diaz, along with Daniel Day Lewis going way over the top, as if he’s saying “I shalt win an Oscar by simply breathing your air.”
Whatever, Danny D.
Based on the 1927 book, The Gangs of New York, regarding a long-running feud between Catholics and Protestants in 1860s New York, the end result is just one, big, overwrought fight scene with little-to-no character development. Clocking in at almost three hours and clearing only $193 million against $100 million, well, yeah, it sure looks fantastic, but far from the repeated-watching masterpiece that is Goodfellas and Casino.
If you need another “look at what a great actor I am” work that’s all surface (make-up) and no substance: see Tom Hardy in Capone (2020). Better yet, don’t.
27. Internal Affairs (2002) This is the blockbuster, Hong Kong-produced action-drama about a cop pretending to be a gangster and a gangster pretending to be a cop that everyone word-of-mouth rented on home video. Once the original became Hong Kong’s official entry for “Best Foreign Language Film” for the 76th Academy Awards, Miramax put it into U.S. theaters in 2004. So successful — not only in the Asian, but worldwide marketplace — its two sequels met with the same international acclaim and box office.
Then Scorsese got the remake rights . . . and U.S. audiences ended up with a film, not based on Internal Affairs, but a film (very) loosely based on the relationship between Boston’s Whitey Bulger and rogue FBI agent John Connolly . . . which we got proper — and oh, so much better — with Black Mass (2015).
Sure, The Departed grossed close to $300 million against $90 million, but Internal Affairs grossed $55 million against $6 million. So I’ll err to the Cantonese language original — every time — in lieu of a DiCaprio/Damon joint. Look, Marty, if you’re going to “remake” a film, remake it. Don’t say you’ll remake it, then give us a completely different movie — and stick us with Matt friggin’ Damon.
28. The Departed (2006) Continuing on: Sure, this Scorsese joint won 97 of its 141 worldwide nominations — 4 of which are Oscar wins — and it appeared on many U.S. critics’ “Top Ten” best films of 2006 lists. For me: this is still a bloated, 151 minutes-long Shakespearean-troped gangster opera rife with (bad) Bostonian-accented yelling — none of it comes across as believable — with Matt Damon as the weakest link in the not terrible, but seriously flawed proceedings.
Anyway, Scorsese’s retool follows two newly-graduated officers from the Massachusetts Police Academy: The first, William Costigan (Leonardo Dicaprio) goes undercover to infiltrate the Irish mob run by Frank Costello, aka our ersatz James “Whitey” Bulger mixed with real life Boston mob boss Frank Costello (played great by Jack Nicholson, but he acts as or resembles, neither). The second: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is mentored by Costello from childhood and pressed into law enforcement to act as a mole.
Look, it’s stylishly made, rife with great shots, and nods to Howard Hawks, and “Catholic guilt” subtext, and yada, yada, yada. Just give me copies of the Internal Affairs series and the multi-watch Black Mass and hate on me for not liking this one.
29. Find Me Guilty (2006) You know that long-running screenwriter joke when a crime-driven character says, “I want ______ to play me?” Well, in this case, the real Jackie DiNorscio, the New Jersey Mafia solider for the Lucchese crime family on which this is based, requested Vin Diesel. And the film returned less than $3 million against $13 million. Yeah, those involved blame “the marketing” (it’s a drama, but the poster and trailer make it look like a comedy), but it’s the casting that’s the problem (Alex Rocco and Richard Portnow aren’t here enough; having Ron Silver onboard, helps). That’s not to say Vin isn’t okay, here, he is: but as with Sylvester Stallone before him: the public wasn’t ready for the guy who made his action-bones as Dominic Toretto, Riddick, and Xander Cage to go “dramatic,” as directed by five-time Academy Award-nominated Sidney Lumet.
Sure, Vin is no Pacino, here (but who is, really), and we’re not getting his and Lumet’s Serpico (1973) or Dog Day Afternoon (1975) (or Lumet’s own, 1982 courtroom drama with Paul Newman, The Verdict), in this chronicle of the longest Mafia trial in history, in which DiNorscio represented himself — and won. Eh, there are worst films to sit through on this list.
Speaking of long: two hours of courtroom chatter is about 20 minutes too long; a shorter run time would help. And all of those New York-based, network TV actors turn the proceedings into Law & Order: The Movie — since most of the supporting cast hails from that popular franchise. And that stagnant, lingering wide shot of Vin trying to wedge a cherished, ratty recliner through the prison cell door: it’s uncomfortable and clumsy . . . as you become frustrated for the mediums and close-ups that never come from a great director that knows and has done better. Oh, and that annoying, comedy-inducing clarinet soundtrack: that ONLY works in Woody Allen movies, not mob flicks.
30. 10th and Wolf (2006) Boy, oh, boy, did this “true story” on the Philadelphia Mafia have high hopes . . . only to take one hell of a critical drubbing. Those “high hopes” were based on two factors: Robert Moresco, who writes and directs, here, previously won a 2004 Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay” for Paul Haggis’s multi-character study, Crash. The other hope: this was based on a “true story” observed/told by Donnie Brasco, aka FBI Agent Joseph Pistone, who infiltrated the mafia in the Johnny Depp flick of the same name.
Tommy (an always fine and underrated James Marsden; Cyclops in the X-Men franchise) is the son of a Mafia hitman, and a dishonorably discharged, Desert Storm-era Marine, who returns to Philadelphia (with Pittsburgh doubling as Philly) — only to be pressed into uncover service by a rogue FBI agent (Brian Dennehy doing what he does, best: be a prick). Then there’s Brad Renfo: sure, he’s great, but his character is so clichéd, you wonder if it’s based on “Fredo Corleone” instead of a real person. Dash Mihok, who’s always great in the Law & Order franchises, is too “Sonny Corleone,” here, to matter much. Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi (he mobs-up in the later Public Enemies and Gangster Squad), well . . . at this point: we expect him to be either the over the top thespin’ village idiot or the local sociopath; here, he’s the latter — but, even still, he saves the film from the doldrums.
Sure, the proceedings are well made and Moresco pulls off a few nice shots, but, well . . . maybe you need to have been a Penn State’er who has lived in both Pittsburgh and Philly. They’re two, very distinct cities and one can not be passed off as the other; it’s like trying to pass off Chicago as Los Angeles. In the end, this is all too by-the-numbers with characters and scenarios pinched from superior mob flicks on this list, to invest your time or emotions. It is, however, also better than most of the other, low-budgeted vanity productions on this list — such as #31, #32, and #33.
You can learn more about the rich career of this film’s producer, Suzanne DeLaurentiis, with her July 2021 interview with B&S About Movies. Her most recent offering is the 2022 horror film, Reed’s Point.
31. This Thing of Ours (2006) Well, we’re all mobbed-up with the familiar gangster faces of Frank Vincent and Vincent Pastore. It’s nice to see Chuck Zito and ‘60s and ‘70s funnyman Pat Cooper (in the Don Rickles role). We’ve got James Caan. Ah, with that cast, it sounds like a name-on-the-box industry calling card.
Yep, it is. This is a Danny Provenzano vanity joint exhibiting his Tarantino-writing, his Scorsese-directing and acting chop-socky (he’s been at it since 1990’s Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D), so it’s a whole lot of Danny-the-star and other amateurs — probably his friends — and not enough Caan.
However, bonus spins on the table for intriguing us with a tale on how the old school Mafia (Caan) makes its move into the digital age with his young bucks (Danny P.) attempting to pull off a bank heist that’ll rival the infamous Lufthansa heist. It’s in no way in the Goodfellas-cum-Reservoir Dogs ballpark, but it’s a hell-of-decent swing for the fences.
32. Brooklyn Rules (2007) Well, at least it’s all updated from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it’s still the same, boiled-over, voiced-over flashback-drivel concerning three Italian-Catholics earning their Mafia bones. Do want to hear Scott Caan dropping F-bombs, Freddie Prinze, Jr. in “fudgetaboudit” mode, while watching Alec Baldwin going through the mob motions as a Gambino family captain?
Well, sure . . . the script from Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos producer and writer Terence Winter, while it feels like a patchwork of castoff writing-room ideas from those two shows, Brooklyn Rules still rises above most of the films on this list. Prinze — who’s no prize in the acting department by any stretch — does turn in a pretty decent performance (Ugh. I still can’t get Wing Commander out of my mind). Nevertheless, this does not rise to the levels of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which Winter also wrote, while director Michael Corrente walked these mean streets before with an early Tarantinoesque knock off, Federal Hill.
33. Chicago Overcoat (2009) Cast mob flick mainstays Frank Vincent, Katherine Narducci, Mike Starr (How many does this make?), and Armand Assante for the box office win!
Vincent is an aging hitman, with Stacy Keach as the aging cop looking to bust him, finally. Assante is the mob boss, with Starr as an under/street boss. Ugh, just because the scene switches from New York to Chicago doesn’t make it different. Yeah, it’s all just a tired, clichéd pastiche of everything we’ve seen done much better.
34. Public Enemies (2009) You’d think, in the wake of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, a major studio biographical drama on bank robber John Dillinger — especially with Johnny Depp in the title role — would be box office and critical gold.
As always, Michael Mann’s films (The Keep and Thief) are cinematic sights to behold, but, in the end, this by-the-numbers gangster romp is too clinical and cold. Sure, Giovanni Ribisi and Channing Tatum are fine as infamous gangsters Alvin Karpis and Pretty Boy Floyd . . . but everyone seems too young and wrong for the part, leaving it a bit too mobster “brat packy” — as you wait for Judd Nelson to show up. (Hey, at least Frank Stallone didn’t appear.) And the historical details, for the sake of narrative, are a mess.
Yeah, we’re erring to the side of the Roger Corman-produced The Lady in Red, aka Guns, Sin and Bathtub Gin (1979), starring Robert Conrad as Dillinger and A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970) starring Fabian as the title hood. I know: I just suggested a Fabian flick over a Mann-Depp flick.
35. Sinatra Club (2010) While ex-Mafiso Salvatore Polisi had his life chronicled in a well-received book, Sins of the Father (2015), by Nick Taylor (also an acclaimed memoir on astronaut John Glenn), Polisi took it upon himself to write his own memoirs: The Sinatra Club (2014): his book was adapted from this, his screenwriter debut.
A familiar Danny Nucci stars as John Gotti in 1972 New York. Amid a Mafia war, our up-and-coming Gotti has a dream: he, along with our faux-Sammy “The Bull” Gravano (Jason Gedrick), will put an end to the conflict by pulling together a heist crew with one member from each of the five families (run by a-barely-here Leo Rossi and Michael Nouri) to steal a cache of silver bullion: the crew comes together in Salvatore Polisi’s gambling den, the Sinatra Club (the real-life Polisi opted to comically narrate the film himself). As with the earlier The Big Heist: all of the characterizations are way off; everyone comes off as weak and dopey buffons with big mouths and littler brains to match.
Critics and mob flick fans were not kind to this “Kiddiefellas” — starring ex-’80s teen actors Danny Nucci (TV’s Family Ties, Falcon Crest; currently on FOX’s 9-1-1), Jason Gedrick (Iron Eagle), and Joey Lawrence (Gimme a Break, Blossom) as a dopey lounge singer — that plays it very loose with the facts. Think of everything that made Scorsese’s and Ford Coppola’s adaptations of “the truth” Oscar-stunning. Think of Ray Liotta’s expert voice over work — courtesy of Scorsese’s writing. Then take all of that away. You have Sinatra Club.
Yeah, everyone dumps on Gedrick and Nucci in “fugetaboutit” mode, but I appreciate seeing them trying ragged, mature rolls; the only reason I stuck with this was their presence. But you kind of see why they’re here (and Gedrick didn’t become “Tom Cruise”) — and not in a Scorsese flick. Then again: look at the material and flat direction they had to work with.
36. For the Love of Money (2012) This female-driven mob flick from director Ellie Kanner-Zuckerman and producer-writer Jenna Mattison brings a refreshing twist to the mob genre. Its purported “true story” (“based on the life” of one of its executive producers moving from Tel Aviv to L.A.) concerns the Jewish mob going against the Italians (run by James Caan, again) and the Columbians (run by always-welcomed Steven Bauer, fantastic in The Beast). As with most of these Tarantino-cum-Scorsese flicks: the expected soundtrack nostalgia runs the (sugary-queasy) gamut from Steppenwolf to Three Dog Night to Billy Squire to A Flock of Seagulls.
Rotten Tomatoes rates this with a Gotti-equal 0%, so take that as you will.
37. The Iceman (2012) We’ve reviewed director Ariel Vromen’s work before with The Angel (2018) and, as with that film, he delivers the goods with this tale about Polish-bred, Italian mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. What makes this work: Michael Shannon in the title role, along with Ray Liotta, now promoted to a mob boss role, as Roy DeMeo. Keep your eyes open for Winona Ryder, Chris Evans as the murderous Robert “Mr. Freezy” Pronge, along with Robert Davi, James Franco, and Stephen Dorff in support roles.
Does it rise to the level of Scorsese: not by a long shot. But having a skilled cast of thespians who let you lose yourself in their work — without showing off — makes all the difference in the world. It’s a shame the Oscars are based on box office performance: Shannon deserved one for his work, even though this bombed at the ticket window.
For a deeper take on Kuklinski’s life: HBO made the 1993 documentary, Kuklinski: Confessions with a Killer.
38. The Gangster Squad (2013) Is this a spoof on gangsters or a real drama? One thing is certain: Sean Penn under make-up as Mickey Cohen is the reason we have “The Razzies” once a year.
Anyway, this lauded Black List “spec script” written by ex-LAPD officer Will Beall (Aquaman) attracted the talents of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sean Penn . . . then squeaked by with just over $100 million against a $75 million budget. While it’s based on real life individuals, this is actually a fictionalized account (think of James Cameron’s narrative approach on The Titanic) of LAPD’s ‘40s era “Gangster Squad” taking down kingpin Mickey Cohen.
The studio blames the film’s failure on the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting in July 2012 — considering this film features a submachine gun battle inside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The critical reality is that the box office failure is the result of the film’s style-over-substance punctuated by excessive violence rife with historical inaccuracies and been-there-done-that characters. And Penn’s “Look at what a great actor, I am!” emoting makes my teeth hurt and my eyeballs bleed.
39. Momo: The Sam Giancana Story (2013) Until Hollywood feels the inspiration to produce a feature film version, this critically-lambasted documentary that explores gangster Sam Giancana’s connections with the Kennedy family and the (alleged) role he played in the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and the St. Valentine’s Massacre will have to do.
In addition to insights from Giancana’s daughters, the film is rife with archive footage-padding (and opined historical inaccuracies and “made up” facts-based on one’s opinions) from all the key players, such as Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa and Jack Ruby. It’s all courtesy of Dimitri Logothetis — the producer behind Hardbodies 2 and the director of Slaughterhouse Rock (no, really). We’re placing our bets on the Flamingo’s green felts that Logothetis probably wanted to make a feature film, but due to finances, opted for the documentary route.
Is anyone else tired of these flicks turning serial killers into misunderstood folk heroes to the hard working Italians that helped build America? It’s an insult to Italians the world over.
40. Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn (2013) The genre tropes of the previous 39 flicks on our list are a flippin’ and-a floppin in Paul Borghese’s vanity affair as he tackles the writing, directing and acting — totally out of his element with genre mainstays Armand Assante (earning a paycheck), Vincent Pastore, William DeMeo (who’s awful again, here), Louis Vanaria (“Crazy Mario” in A Bronx Tale), and Cathy Moriatry (who deserves better). Even rap musician-cum-actors Ja Rule and Ice T (who aren’t Oscar caliber, but always serviceable, nevertheless) make Borghese look even worse at the craft, in this painfully over-acted, tragic Shakespearean mess of a Tarantino-wannabe of intertwined (more like tangled and mangled) story lines concerned with the Italians of old. vs. the new vanguard of urban gangsters.
Just don’t do it. Unless you enjoy being more confused than entertained.
Oh, for the DeMeo completists: he meshes boxing with the mob, Rocky meets Goodfellas, if you will — and brings Michael Madsen and Alec Baldwin along for the ride — as a half Italian-Puerto Rican boxer in 2016’s Back in the Day. It’s supposably the “life story” of Freddy “Anthony” Rodriguez, for you sports enthusiasts. Eh, it’s a low rent A Bronx Tale rip with awful writing, directing, and everything else: just like Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn and DeMeo’s Wannabes.
41. Black Mass (2015) Oh, this movie. Oh, this friggin’ movie! This is how you do a mob flick, Goombah! Capeesh?
Johnny Depp as Bostonian-Irish kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger is pure, bottled lightning, topping his great work in Donnie Brasco. Yeah, there’s some questions as to the accuracy of it all, such as Bulger, according to those who knew him best, never swearing, but wow . . . in between the F-bombs and ultra-violence, Depp is expertly cold and frightening, nevertheless.
The film’s production was inspired by the well-made and well-received documentary Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger (2014). I personally double-featured both (Black Mass, first) and had a great, entertaining evening. Then I watched the next film on our list. . . . Oh, where have all the good times gone, amico?
42. Brooklyn Banker (2016) Federico Castelluccio, who you know for his 28-episode run as Furio Giunta in HBO’s The Sopranos, goes the vanity production route with his feature film directing debut; he also stars as Zucci, along with the name-on-the-box, gangster flick mainstays Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) and David Proval (The Sopranos). As with Chazz Palminteri basing A Bronx Tale on his childhood: we have lawyer-turned-first time screenwriter Michael Ricigliano corralling his own, supposed childhood in this tale about (the fictional) Santo Bastucci (Troy Garity, the son of Jane Fonda who appeared in the Barbershop franchise): a straight-laced local banker with a rare gift for memorizing numbers; he’s reluctantly recruited by the mob.
The direction and cinematography are streaming-production flat and uninspired; the same goes for the film’s woeful vanity-mix of out-of-their-league amateurs against skilled thespians. There’s no grit, no depth, no nothing. It’s so awful, well, it can’t be “real life,” as it all plays as if it was made up in Final Draft after reading a stack of screenwriting books. It makes you want to punch Scorsese in the nutsacks for inspiring its production.
43. Gangster Land (2017) Sure, the always-rises-above-the-material-and-delivers Jason Patric (incredible in The Beast), as well as Michael Pare (of my fav, Moon 44), is here, but very little: this is all about Milo Gibson (yeah, the son of Mel) as Al Capone, alongside Sean Faris (ABC-TV’s Life as We Know It) as Capone’s second-in-command, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn: the alleged mastermind behind the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Telling the tale from McGurn’s perspective adds nothing to the material that well-deserved its negative Variety review and 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating — the same rating given to Gotti. And this is just as bad — if not worse — than that John Travolta tour de force of a piss puddle. Gangster Land just tosses one violent, Tarantinoseque vignette after another, to lesser and lesser effect, hoping to achieve Tarantinoness, but just creaks and stumbles about with been-there-done-that fatigue.
So, we had Capone (1975) with Ben Gazzara and this. That should be the end of telling the life of Al Capone. Wrong. Another film on the Windy City’s most notorious serial killer is on the way in 2020.
44. First We Take Brooklyn (2018) Also known as Brooklyn Guns, the obvious model in this predictable and flat, Z-grade mobster flick is Al Pacino’s Scarface and Carlito’s Way. Danny A. Abeckaser takes the vanity plunge as the star, screenwriter and director in a tale about an ex-con Israeli immigrant who relocates to New York and finds himself at odds with the Russian mob, à la this film’s other pinch: The Boondock Saints. Sure, that Troy Duffy flick has its detractors, but even that film’s naysayers will agree Duffy’s flick is better than this industry-calling card boondoggle oozing on the riverside docks.
Oh, the Harvey Keitel caveat: he’s only here in a name-on-the-box role; he’s gone as quickly as he appears.
45. Gotti (2018) Okay, so we are three films into committing infamous mob boss John Gotti to film: Getting Gotti (1994) and Gotti (1996). Wait , there’s four: let’s not forget Sinatra Club (2010). Have they finally got it right?
Critics pounced on it. Ticket buyers greeted it with a $6 million box office against a $10 million production budget (and the six million tally is in question). The 39th Golden Raspberry Awards greeted John Travolta’s “passion project” with six Razzies, including “Worst Picture,” along with a “Worst Actor” nod for Travolta. And to think this swam in the studio development hell fires since 2010 — with Barry Levinson (Bugsy) in the director’s chair and Al Pacino (Donnie Brasco, Heat) in the title role (even Joe Pesci and Chazz Palminteri when through the casting process, in other roles).
Sure, screenwriter Lem Dobbs — with mob-acting mainstay Leo Rossi — gets the credit, and he gave us the fine British crime romp, The Limey. But who in the hell — after Barry Levinson — decided “E” from HBO’s Entourage, aka Kevin Connolly — with a couple of episodes of Entourage and Crackle’s (the Troma Team of streaming) Snatch under his belt — was the way to go?
The final tally of Dante’s circles: Gotti took four directors and 44 producers — and countless actors (including, ugh, William DeMeo, again; see Wannabes and Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn) — to get to the finished product. Oh, and Connolly got a well-deserved, “Worst Director” Razzie nod.
As Sam the Bossman of B&S About Movies said in his review of the Rotten Tomatoes 0% turd that is John Travolta’s The Fanatic: “I lay the blame for this amazing turd of a film squarely at the feet of one Fred Durst. (Only, now: substitute Connolly’s name.) And that Travolta should know better, as every single decision he makes as an actor in this film is wrong and his [Gotti] is beyond a bad performance in a bad movie.”
How bad is it: Well, it was discovered — back to the bogus box office tallies — MoviePass Ventures, the production company behind the film, knew they had a turkey, well, a Golden Raspberry on their hands: so they bought out the tickets to their own movie to bump the film’s opening weekend.
Argh! This film is utterly offensive in its portrayal of the father and son, serial killer team of John Gotti and John, Jr., again, as misunderstood folk heroes to Italians, with senior as a loving family man and good friend, while junior is misunderstood and a victim of government bullying.
To quote Moose from The Fanatic: “Poppycock!”
Seriously, John, you should have followed the thespian advice of Kirk Lazarus. What a painful movie to watch. “E,” please don’t direct another movie. Please. The public has spoken.
46. The Irishman (2019) Well, Martin Scorsese is back . . . and polarizing as ever.
You’ll either love or you’ll hate this tale based on the 2004 non-fiction book, I Hear You Paint Houses (i.e., kill people; carpentry work is “cleaning up” a problem). Both examine the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro): a truck driver who becomes a Mafia hitman employed by mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), then rises to work alongside the powerful Teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
As with Travolta’s Gotti, and the next film on our list, the unrelated Kill the Irishman, this was a major studio hot property that languished in development hell for over a decade. However, while those two films were whittled down to low-budget affairs with less-than-A-List actors, Scorsese convinced Netflix to front a reported $250 million to create a 209-minute, almost four-hour epic.
So, why the lukewarm-to-hate reception from the streaming crowd?
Well, as you can see from this list, we’ve been plummeted by 40-plus mob flicks since Goodfellas captured our imagination 31 years ago. Then there’s Scorsese embracing the boundless creativity of the streaming format that echews brick and mortar theatrical norms. There’s the eschewing of practical in-camera effects or casting younger actors in flashbacks (see Goodfellas) for a newly-developed computer-assisted “aging process” — that many feel needs more “development” — that leaves, everyone — especially De Niro — looking odd n’ waxy in appearance. (I’ll even admit the gas station scene with the “youthful” De Niro and Pesci first meeting is an awkward watch.) Then there’s the non-linear scripting — the bane of many film goers — who additionally opine the film is “too talky,” “too long,” and “boring.”
Me: I was enthralled to see how Scorsese would attack the new, digital technologies in “make-up effects” and film distribution, as well as how the thespian triumvirate of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino would work in this new realm of “digital aging make-up.” I think everyone shot — and scored.
So, long-winded, eh, maybe. Overrated, err? Well . . . if anyone is going to knock out the kinks in new film technologies, I say let Marty and his buddies be our cinematic Magellans and de Gamas.
47. Kill the Irishman (2019) In 2011, the documentary, Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of The Irishman — itself based on the 1998 book, To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia — became a well-deserved critical favorite that did well enough on streaming platforms.
So, you know what that means: MOVIE SIGN!
Uh, oh. Less than one and a half million in box office against a partly $12 million budget? Too similar too Goodfellas, the critics and film goers say? What went wrong from the documentary-to-docudrama transition?
Well, while this is about the Youngstown/Cleveland/Pittsburgh mafia, it’s filmed in Detroit (Ugh. See the Philly-Steeltown snafu of 10th and Wolf). And it languished in the development hell fires since 2009 (see the Travolta-helmed Gotti). And has a cut-rate “nostalgia” soundtrack (see The Boondock Saints).
For those of unfamiliar with Danny Greene: a Cleveland docks longshoreman, he rose to the Presidency of the International Longshoremen’s Association . . . only to be convicted of embezzling union funds. He then rose through the Irish mob’s ranks in his personal war against the Italian mafia for control of Cleveland.
Ray Stevenson, as Danny Greene (Frank Castle and Volstagg in The Punisher reboot and Thor franchises, respectively), owns his Oscar-caliber role. (Ah, but only popular box office hits receive award nods; box office bombs — no matter how solid the acting — do not. The Oscars ain’t ’bout the “craft,” after all.) Vincent D’Onofrio is his usual, never-awful self as a mob strong-arm, while Christopher Walken is just dandy as Greene’s mob boss. But then there’s the to and fro, non-linear scripting and the narrative voices overs (ugh) from Val Kilmer’s out-to-get-Danny Greene cop stringing it together.
So, sadly, while it is trying, valiantly on-the-cheap, to copy the Scorsese “formula,” the fine cast is still a past-their-primes bargain cast on a $12 million budget, leaving this stuck on the “B-minus” list. And that’s a shame because Ray Stevenson is an “A-Plus” actor, here. It’s not great, but it’s not awful, you know, like 10th and Wolf. So, if you’ve seen neither, you’ll do alright paring them up for a mobster night double-feature of viewing to learn about the Philadelphia and Cleveland mobs — regardless of where each was filmed.
48. Capone (2020) Didn’t we see this all before with Brian De Palma’s box office bonanza The Untouchables in 1987? No matter, for when you need to ride the coattails of Martin Scorese’s The Irishman . . . to box office failure . . . you saddle up the horses. Well, the Caddies and Lincolns.
Josh Trank (yeah, that guy) returned — from his five-year exile after the social media, critical and box office meltdown that was Fantastic Four — for this “Citizen Kane” version of the life of Chicago crime boss Al Capone. Needless to say: Trank utterly fails at reaching an obvious, The Irishman-conclusion, thinking his non-linear screenplay — every film goer’s favorite way to see a film (not) — was the way to go. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy pushes the realms of “Look at how great of an actor I am,” with his incoherent, mush-mouth babbling, Oscar-baited thespin’ that flashes to and fro and to and fro as a dying Capone suffers syphilis, hallucinates, and mumble-mouths us into tedium. Awful. Just awful. It should be the last we see of Trash, I mean, Trank.
So, yeah, we’re erring, yes, again, to the side of Ben Gazzara starring in Roger Corman’s Capone (1975) for our Chicago crime fix. Thank god for you Roger. And to Ben, we bow, yes, even after your doing The Neptune Factor. But you did Road House, so all is kosher and forgiven.
49. Lansky (2021) As in Meyer Lansky, the Polish-born “mob accountant” for Lucky Luciano who rose through the ranks of the Jewish mob and developed the modern casinos in Las Vegas and Cuba. The narrative choice this time: flashbacks, by way of a reporter conducting an interview. Thus, this mob romp ends up being slow, documentary-slow with no class, no style, no reason, no purpose, or point; a dull knife rife with historical inaccuracies, buttered to the tune of $5 million bucks against a little over $100,000 in box office.
Sure, Harvey Keitel in the title role, delivers, but a Keitel in the lead does not a Scorese or Tarantino film, make. Thus, we’ll continue to err to the side of the pen of David Mamet and lens of John McNaughton with Richard Dreyfuss starring in the title role of Lansky (1999) — but there’s still a reason why we’ve opted for a sidebar in lieu of a formal entry for that “meh” Dreyfuss Oscar-baity, tour de force.
Eh, either way you look at it: Lansky wasn’t an American entrepreneur who built casinos and created jobs: he was a mass murderer with just as much, if not more, blood on his hands than his Italian employer-counterparts. This and the aforementioned Capone most likely went into production when Scorsese announced the production of The Irishman . . . both are as weak as a copycat-cash-in can be. Totally forgettable.
50.The Many Saints of Newark (2021) Mob flicks inspired by Martin Scorsese never die: they simply become theatrical prequels to a pay cable TV series — which we’ve named-dropped several times on this list by way of that series’ actors branching out into their own, mob-vanity productions. The prequel in this case takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey, to set up the “rise to power” of Tony Soprano: originated by James Gandolfini, but now played by his real life son, Michael.
As with a Scorsese mob romp, opinions split down the middle: The critics rave. The ticket buyers and streamers call it out as a TV-styled movie amalgam based on a series — just like HBO’s Sex and the City. Sure, it looks great, but . . . well, the proceedings come across as a wannabe gangster flick — see Capone and Lasky, above. Yeah, the acting’s fine in Chaseville, but the plotting is a mob flick pastiche lacking that raison d’être Goodfellas/Casino panache. To quote Patton Oswalt’s opine about Star Wars sequels, Solo: A Star Wars Story, in particular: “I don’t give a s**t where the stuff I love, comes from! I JUST LOVE THE STUFF I LOVE!”
Indeed: this is another Mediocrefellas — one strictly for the series’ fans.
Honorable Mentions American Gangster — 2007; the Harlem mob City of God — 2002; the Brazilian mob Eastern Promises — 2007; the Russian mob Hoffa — 1992; more about Hoffa’s life and less about the mob behind him Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — 1998; British and Irish mobsters in the U.K. New Jack City — 1991, NYC’s urban mobs
Well, that wraps up our exploration of Mafia flicks from 1990 to 2021. We think we watched them all . . . did we miss something? Let us know in the comments, below.