Tuesday, January 31, 2012

THE EXTERMINATOR by Peter McCurtin


Reviewed by Paul Talbot and Chris Poggiali

For his second feature film, director/writer James Glickenhaus created the low-budget, brutal vigilante thriller THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), which quickly became a hit with urban grindhouse patrons who were delighted with the skuzzy, twisted movie that went farther than most exploitation epics of the era. Shortly after the film was picked up for U.S. release by Avco Embassy Pictures, the distributor set up a novelization deal. The memorable newspaper ads advised patrons to “Read the Manor paperback original.”

Author Peter McCurtin followed the movie closely as he retold the story of Johnny Eastland, a Vietnam veteran who snaps after his best friend and army buddy is rendered a quadriplegic by the Bronx street gang the Ghetto Ghouls. Calling himself “The Exterminator,” Eastland turns vigilante and utilizes a flamethrower, a meat grinder, an electric carving knife, hungry rats, mercury-laced bullets, and an M-16 rifle to rid the city of numerous thugs (including the Ghetto Ghouls), mobsters, pedophiles, and one highly trained, mafia-employed attack dog. As the colorful back cover copy explains, “John Eastland uses a Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum with an eight-inch barrel. He drills out the tips of his slugs and loads them with mercury. Whey they hit a scumbag’s belly they blow up like a hand grenade. John calls that his rat load.” Meanwhile, the NYPD detective in charge of the Exterminator case, James Dalton, realizes he has a few things in common with the loner vigilante he’s out to bust, and unfortunately gets caught in the crossfire when the CIA meddles in his investigation.

McCurtin (not a pseudonym) was responsible for writing dozens of men’s adventure novels in the 1970s, including three vigilante-themed series -- The Marksman (published by Belmont Tower), The Sharpshooter (Leisure Books), and The Assassin (Dell) -- so this was no doubt a quick and easy paycheck for him. His 1970 novel Mafioso had been the basis for Fernando Di Leo’s THE BOSS (1973), a vicious Eurocrime movie starring Henry Silva and Richard Conte, but with THE EXTERMINATOR he was presented with the flipside experience: writing his own novel from someone else’s feature film. Because Glickenhaus’ screenplay is short on exposition and almost comically devoid of segues, McCurtin was left with plenty of room to expand and create backstory, alter existing situations, and even toss in a few additional supporting characters with their own plot tangents.

For example, in the movie it’s never explained where Eastland gets the flamethrower, machine guns and other weaponry; the viewer just assumes that, like so many other veterans, he brought it all back with him after the war. In the novel, McCurtin points out that Eastland is unlike other veterans because he doesn’t have automatic weapons mothballed in his apartment. The reader is then taken on an eight-page tangent in which Eastland rips off Fordham Road pawnshop owner Shecky Brill, who is something of a legend thanks to his 40-year sideline career as an illegal gun dealer whose customers have included Israel, the IRA, and Dutch Schultz! Eastland walks out of Shecky’s warehouse with M-16’s, S&W .44’s, Schmeissers, commando knives and plenty of ammo.

In the movie, to learn the location of the Ghetto Ghouls’ clubhouse, Eastland uses a blow torch to menace gang member Frankie (Dennis Boutsikaris), leading to the first instance of the Exterminator’s catchphrase, “If you’re lying, I’ll be back.” Frankie survives the scene but is later killed by Eastland after mugging an elderly woman in the park. For the novel, McCurtin plays the blow torch interrogation the same way, but replaces Frankie with a Puerto Rican punk named Vinny, who Eastland guts with a commando knife after learning the whereabouts of the Ghouls hangout. The gang member shot by Eastland after the park mugging is never given a name, so there is no Frankie in the novel.

There’s no catchphrase either, because McCurtin also changes the second scene in which Eastland tells someone, “If you’re lying, I’ll be back.” Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing moment in the movie -- Gino Pontivini being lowered into a large meat grinder and chopped into chuck -- is completely deflated in the novel by having the mobster already dead of a heart attack when the bloodied and furious Eastland returns from his encounter with Pontivini’s security Doberman. If there was a point to this particular revision, it was lost on us.

Otherwise, McCurtin’s pulpy prose perfectly captures the movie’s cynical, downbeat tone. Choice passages include, “There was a fountain of arterial blood and the head fell and bounced” and “Spit was mixed with blood and a pink, frothy bubble formed between his lips and bobbed there for a moment before it broke.” Containing 16 pages of color publicity stills, the novelization of THE EXTERMINATOR is a compelling read and a highly-prized collectible worth seeking out, even for longtime fans who have the film memorized.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Ad of the Week: THE DIRECTOR (1970)


October 14th, 1970

The Director
by Henry Denker
Richard W. Baron, 1970

The film adaptation was never made.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Ad of the Week: 144 PICCADILLY (1972)


March 7th, 1972

144 Piccadilly
by Samuel Fuller
Richard W. Baron, 1971

The film adaptation was never made.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales

"Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales" was a weekly syndicated comic strip that ran from July 13th, 1952 to February 15th, 1987 and serialized (usually in 13 weeks) the Walt Disney movies that were currently in theatrical release. I grew up a huge fan of the Disney live-action comedies of the 1960s and '70s -- especially the ones starring Dean Jones, Kurt Russell, Tim Conway and Don Knotts -- but only had limited exposure to the comic strip because the newspapers in my neck of the woods never carried it. I caught up with some of the stories when they were reprinted as comic books in the "Walt Disney Showcase" series...


...but many of the films, like the nine sampled below, never appeared in comic form again after their initial newspaper runs. I'd like to see these and others get reprinted in color eventually (Jack Kirby's adaptation of THE BLACK HOLE would be a great way to kick off the series), but for now I'm satisfied with the black-and-white copies I've been able to track down.

THE SHAGGY D.A. (9/5/1976 - 11/28/1976)

KING OF THE GRIZZLIES (3/1/1970 - 5/31/1970)

THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (12/7/1969 - 2/22/1970)

NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (4/2/1972 - 6/25/1972)

THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG (5/4/1975 - 6/29/1975)

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING (7/6/1975 - 9/28/1975)

SNOWBALL EXPRESS (10/1/1972 - 12/31/1972)

THE LEGEND OF LOBO (7/2/1972 - 9/24/1972)

NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN (12/7/1975 - 2/29/1976)

The Paperback Film Projector book, which is slated for release later this year, will not include comic book or comic strip adaptations unless they were also published as mass market paperbacks, but we will review them here on the blog.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drink the blood before it Klotz!


DRACULA PÈRE ET FILS / DRACULA AND SON (1976) is a comedy by director Edouard Molinaro (LA CAGE AUX FOLLES) that is notable for being Christopher Lee's last appearance to date as the Prince of Darkness. It's based on Claude Klotz's 1974 novel Paris-Vampire, which has never been published in English as far as we know (For its U.S. release in 1979, Molinaro's film was drastically recut, rewritten and revoiced to become a universally loathed WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY-style send-up of vampire movies). Here's a cover scan of the French-language movie tie-in paperback.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Ad of the Week: Cinemabooks Go Wild!


Here's an advertisement for the four "Cinemabook" paperbacks that Holloway House issued in 1969 and '70. Similar to the Olympic Foto-Readers and Greenleaf Classics titles from the same time, these were "adults only" novelizations heavily illustrated with b&w photos from the films. We have all four in the Temple library, and plan to review each one individually in the near future.

All the Loving Couples (1969) was written by tough guy character actor Leo V. Gordon, based on his own screenplay. Mining a similar suburban sexual revolution storyline as BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE -- released the same year -- ALL THE LOVING COUPLES was a highly profitable independent release that is all but forgotten today. Originally rated X by the MPAA in 1969, it was edited to earn an R rating in 1972.

Leo Guild, a Holloway House author who wrote everything from Confidential Sex Survey and Street of Ho's to biographies of Josephine Baker and Darryl Zanuck for the publisher, novelized David Friedman's STARLET (1969), a softcore "behind the scenes" story about the making of skin flicks that Friedman remade years later as the hardcore MATINEE IDOL (1984).

How to Succeed with (The Opposite) Sex (1970) was penned by writer-director Bert I. Gordon. A soft sex comedy originally released by Billy Fine's Medford Films, the movie was rated X by the MPAA in '70 but edited for an R when reissued by Media Cinema in 1974.

Satyricon (1970) is a FELLINI'S SATYRICON tie-in edition of Paul Gillette's Satyricon: Memoirs of a Lusty Roman, first published by Holloway House in 1965.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Paperback Newsreel (January edition)

The big news this month: Two classic horror movie novelizations that fetch very high prices among collectors are back in print!

The rare and incredibly pricey CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON novelization (Dragon, 1954) by Vargo Statten [a.k.a. John Russell Fearn], originally published only in England as a hardcover that could set you back $1,500 to $3,000 these days, has returned in softcover and hardcover thanks to Bad Moon Books, and at much more affordable prices. This new edition contains the original novel plus stills from the movie, new cover art by Bob Eggleton and a new introduction by David Schow. Bad Moon also has limited edition hardcovers signed by Julie Adams and Ricou Browning, while Dark Delicasies is selling copies signed by Adams and Schow in advance of their book signing event on Saturday, February 11th at 2:00 pm.

Dean Owen's novelization of BRIDES OF DRACULA (Monarch, 1960), based on Peter Bryan's early draft of the screenplay and also pretty scarce, has returned to print in softcover and hardcover editions from Bear Manor Media as the first volume in a series of 1950s and '60s horror novelization reprints edited by noted film historian and author Philip J Riley. You can order the softcover directly from Bear Manor. The hardcover is only available through Cover Out and supplies are limited.

John Pinkney's Thirst (Circus, 1979) -- based on his screenplay for the Australian thriller starring Chantal Contouri, David Hemmings and Henry Silva -- is another extremely rare novelization that has returned from the dead recently, albeit as a Kindle-only exclusive. It can be ordered here for only $2.99!

Meanwhile, over at Centipede Press there are still a few copies available of their new limited edition hardcover movie tie-in of Robert Marasco's novel Burnt Offerings, signed by co-screenwriter William F. Nolan (who contributed a new afterword) and artist J.K. Potter (new half title and full title artwork). Print run: 150 copies. Head over to Centipede Press for more details.

The latest issue of Justin Marriott's wonderful 'zine The Paperback Fanatic (#21) just arrived, and the first thing that caught our eye was "Fit to be Tied," a new column dedicated to novelizations. For the maiden voyage, writer Graham Andrews covers Five Weeks in a Balloon by Gardner F. Fox (Pyramid, 1962), which he mislabels a "tie-in" when it's actually a novelization (A "movie tie-in" would've been the Jules Verne novel reprinted to promote the movie); otherwise, he knows his stuff, and we're looking forward to future installments. The issue also contains an obituary for John Burke (1922-2011), the prolific sci-fi author who penned novelizations ranging from The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Look Back in Anger to Moon Zero Two, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and the two Hammer Horror Omnibus collections. Issues of The Paperback Fanatic sell out almost instantly, so order now!

And finally, if you haven’t seen it yet and can still find a copy at your local newsstand or bookseller (if you even have a local newsstand or bookseller anymore), the latest Film Comment (Vol. 47, #6) features a good historical overview of novelizations by journalist Grady Hendrix. It's the November/December issue pictured above, and the article is titled “Pulp Fiction: In Appreciation of Movie Novelizations”
(pp.44-49). Check it out.

Compiled by
Darrin Venticinque, Michael Gingold, Chris Poggiali

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Ad of the Week: LADYCAT (1980)


April 25th, 1980

Ladycat
by Nancy Greenwald
Crown Publishers, 1980

The film adaptation was never made.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Adam Adult Cinemastrip: PINOCCHIO (1970)



Chris Warfield and Corey Allen's "adults only" version of Pinocchio was rated X by the MPAA in 1970 and originally released by Russ Meyer's company, Eve Productions, under the title THE VOLUPTUARY. By the time Adam Film World magazine issued this 66-page photo comic (or "adult cinemastrip") in October 1971, the onscreen title had been changed to PINOCCHIO, with all advertising materials hyping it as THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO, presumably so it wouldn't be confused with the Disney classic or Ron Merk's kiddie matinees like PINOCCHIO'S BIRTHDAY PARTY.

(Above: Note the new title pasted over THE VOLUPTUARY on this one-sheet)


Despite the title change, Warfield continued to secure bookings for the film as THE VOLUPTUARY as late as November of 1976 (His company, Lima Productions, ran the advertisement below in Boxoffice in advance of the 1974 drive-in season).


Riding the coattails of Bill Osco's X-rated musical ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which hit theaters in April of 1976 and was an immediate box-office success, Warfield created a new ad campaign for PINOCCHIO that was pure exploitation genius ("See the surprise when he lies! It's not his nose that grows!") and got it booked into drive-ins all over the country for the next eight years as well as cable TV and video exposure for years after that. After some re-editing, the MPAA gave it an R rating in 1977.


William Rotsler, the director of MANTIS IN LACE and a regular contributor to Adam Film World magazine, was the still photographer on the PINOCCHIO set and his photos were used for this first -- and only? -- "Adam Adult Cinemastrip." Liberties were taken with the story, and those familiar with the movie will notice a few major deviations in the first couple of pages included here.


Monica Gayle's character, Gepetta, is named "Cindy" for some reason.




The "friendly wizard" pictured below is nowhere to be found in the movie.


Dyanne Thorne plays a traditional (albeit frequently nude) Fairy Godmother in the movie, concerned only with Pinocchio and Gepetta's well-being. However, in the magazine she's a troublemaker who constantly puts Pinocchio in awkward situations.


Most important difference: in the movie the Fairy Godmother causes Pinocchio's penis to expand grotesquely every time he misbehaves, and this is considered punishment, but in the magazine the enormous appendage seems to be a positive rather than negative attribute (There are no shots of Pinocchio knocking over lamps and getting snagged in the drapes).


If Warfield's catalog ever gets a decent DVD release, this magazine would make an entertaining supplement on the PINOCCHIO special edition. A completely uncut and restored version of this movie is long overdue.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

SUMMER CAMP by Richard Woodley


Reviewed by Chris Poggiali

Richard Woodley is the go-to writer for paperback adaptations of sports-related movies -- he’s novelized the BAD NEWS BEARS series, SLAP SHOT, BLUE CHIPS, and THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH, among others -- so I shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that his young adult novel Summer Camp is also a novelization. Unlike all the others he’s written over the years, however, this one was adapted from a script that never got filmed. With the Bill Murray star vehicle MEATBALLS cleaning up at the box-office and LITTLE DARLINGS, GORP, STUCKEY’S LAST STAND and the R-rated Chuck Vincent effort SUMMER CAMP picking clean whatever was left, the last thing anyone needed during the 1979-‘80 movie season was another comedy set in a summer camp. Based on a screenplay by former actor Michael Norell (Captain Stanley on Emergency!) and published by Dell in April of 1979 -- two months before MEATBALLS hit theaters -- Summer Camp is aimed more at younger kids, relying on swirlies, snuggies and bad breath jokes for its laughs instead of sex, drugs and bathroom humor. Why it never got made is anyone’s guess, although I suspect the producer(s) took one look at the overcrowded playing field and decided to forfeit (Golan & Globus of Cannon Films killed their proposed camp comedy SUMMER SCORE around the same time). Summer camps would soon become the preferred mise-en-scène for massacres rather than mirth thanks to FRIDAY THE 13TH.

Camp Smilin’ Through, celebrating its thirty-third -- and possibly last -- summer of operation, has been losing more and more of its clientele each year to the larger, more modern and affluent camps in the area. In order to show the late owner’s greedy son that Smilin’ Through can still turn a profit (and prevent him from selling the land to condo developers), camp director Jack "Steamboat" Scarborough and his wife Annie "Tugboat" invite twenty tough, rowdy, mostly minority orphans to stay at the camp on the state’s dime. “My name is Luscious Moncrief, and I can whup any honky in this camp,” snarls the first orphan off the bus. White flight reduces the number of original kids to twenty by the next morning, creating two equal factions of children who are at each other’s throats until they settle their differences during the expected “Field Day” sports competitions (the camp equivalent of the “senior prom” climax in high school movies) and ultimately learn to respect one another. Myriad subplots include the search for a missing youngster, Steamboat’s awkward relationship with his teenage son Chet, a budding romance between two kids chosen to edit the camp’s newspaper, and “Crazy Wilson and his Hound of Death,” ghosts that supposedly haunt the surrounding woods but are actually a wise old Native American and his friendly dog, who live in a nearby cave. Two snuggies and a prolonged swirlie go to anyone who hasn’t already guessed whose land deed saves the camp at the end.

The target audience in 1979 would’ve enjoyed Summer Camp as a movie, but Woodley’s adaptation is hampered by the same flaw that plagues most comedy novelizations: it takes too many words to set up and execute what is visually a two-second cutaway or sight gag, so by the time the readers get to the end of the paragraph, they’ve already guessed the punchline. On top of that, Woodley’s saddled with wayyyyy too many characters from the first page on. It’s hard to take Steamboat seriously when he complains about having only thirty-three kids staying at the camp; at least he doesn’t have to slog through three chapters of backstory for all thirty-three of them, plus every single camp counselor! In a book that’s barely 175 pages long, it takes the first thirty to get everyone to the camp, and when the orphans arrive at the halfway point we get introduced to twenty more kids. And like summer camps themselves, the book is a breeding ground for nicknames, so the reader has a dozen or more of those to contend with as well. In a film this wouldn't even be an issue, but for what’s supposed to be a quick-read YA novel it’s a pain in the ass. To Norell’s credit, he handles the racial aspects of the story honestly, openly and fairly by giving the orphans as much humor, depth and intelligence as the other kids. I also like the fact that Steamboat is a likable, three-dimensional character when too often the camp directors in these movies are either tyrants or buffoons. Summer Camp had the potential to be a pretty good movie -- certainly no worse than MEATBALLS, and a good deal better than the others. File this one under “m” for missed opportunity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Cinematic Worlds of Johnny Handsome



by Philip Nathaniel Poggiali

John Mitchell Sedley is a professional thief nearing the end of a five-year stretch in the state pen. Face disfigured since birth, a cleft palate leaving his speech muffled and snorting, Sedley coped with derision and rejection as a youth by drifting into a life of crime. While on the inside, as the guinea pig in a rehabilitation experiment, Johnny goes under the knife to repair his cleft, chin, ears, brow and broken nose -- an alteration so extreme that even the convict's own mother wouldn't recognize him. Once in the free world, his new face should find him the respect he needs to live a clean life, or so his surgeon Dr. Katsouras believes. On the outside, Johnny attempts to go straight but can't resist the lure of crime. It's not long before he's casing the local small town bank and planning his double-cross for Jappy, the tightwad who couldn't bribe a cop to keep him out of prison.

She was looking at him appraisingly. "You're handsomer than Tully. You know that?"

He nodded and said, "I'll be the best-looking man in the whole cemetery."

John Godey's The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome was an old tale even for 1972, the one about the ex-con who tried to go straight but fell into bad habits, and whose bland appearance masked an intricate, brutal revenge. The writer's name was also a kind of mask, being a pseudonym for the late Morton Freedgood (who also wrote The Taking of Pelham One Two Three under the Godey moniker). Freedgood's noir-ish tone seemed fatalistic enough to justify a nagging sense of the familiar. Crime fiction tropes were trotted out to form a routine largely consistent with the retrogressive nature of the main character.

Freedgood's non-linear structure is unusual, and resembles Donald E. Westlake's experiments as Richard Stark (the Parker series also had its protagonist undergo plastic surgery). In Part One, entitled "Free World," the mysterious Mitchell introduces himself to Jappy and his gang of misfits -- including whiny Sunny and her dim-bulb boyfriend, Tully -- and pitches a bank job. Mitchell claims to have learned of the gang from a cellmate known as Johnny Handsome, a former employee of Jappy's who Mitchell says died in prison. What the reader isn't meant to know until the conclusion of "Free World," somewhere around page 70, is that Mitchell and Johnny happen to be the same criminal with different faces. Part Two, "Inside World," is a flashback covering Johnny's time in the pen and his surgery, and Part Three ("Real World") takes us back to the robbery and Johnny's plan to double-cross Jappy and walk away with the loot.

Screenwriter Ken Friedman received sole credit for adapting Three Worlds as JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989). I don't know if he penned the majority of the script, or if director Walter Hill had a lot of input, but whatever the case, there seem to have been wise decisions made in transition. Scenes were placed in chronological order, presumably to gain the viewer's emotional investment in Johnny at an earlier point. The ex-convict (portrayed brilliantly by Mickey Rourke) had a more sympathetic reason for getting revenge, in that his best friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) was murdered by their partners during a jewelry store holdup. Jappy and Tully, neither character very memorable or fully realized, were combined to give us the alternately sinister and pathetic Rafe (Lance Henriksen), while a few heavies were dropped and Sunny's role beefed and spiced up to the point where Ellen Barkin nearly walked off with the movie. And Lt. Shannon, the inevitable crooked cop who wants a piece of the action, was traded for sarcastic but honest Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman), who dogs Johnny's every step and predicts the thief's fall as unwaveringly as his name would suggest. With his observations on the dubious moral character of ex-cons and the failure of reforming them, Drones voices the essence of both film and novel.

"Y'know, Johnny, you might fool this fucking quack and little sister over there, but I know you. I know who you are, and I know what you are. And we both know right where you're going. Don't we, Johnny?"

FULL CONTACT (HAAP DOU KO FEI) is a 1993 Hong Kong thriller (shot in Cantonese dialect) written by Nam Yin and directed by Ringo Lam. Humorous, stylish with action, steeped in corny melodrama and homoerotic male bonding, the film is an early 90s Hong Kong action picture through-and-through, and never captures the gritty, cynical spirit of either Freedgood's novel or Friedman/Hill's adaptation. But I do think that Lam borrowed a lot from Hill's visual style and, more significantly, imagined an alternate version of Friedman's story in which the Johnny character's friend is the one who betrays him, adding an interesting element to a rather generic revenge plot.

The Johnny figure is Ko Fei -- or Godfrey, or Jeffrey, depending on English subtitles and dubbing -- a Chinese bouncer in a Bangkok nightclub with a sense of ethics in opposition to his sleazy environment. Much like the Friedman protagonist, Ko Fei (Chow Yun-Fat) finds himself drawn into armed robbery to help a friend out of debt. He and buddy Sam (Anthony Wong) team up with the latter's flamboyantly gay cousin Judge (Simon Yam), and his bickering cohorts Yin and Madman, to rob a truck full of munitions. During the robbery Judge pulls a double-cross, Sam loses his nerve and, under pressure from his cousin, shoots Ko Fei and takes up with his friend's fiancée. Ko Fei, of course, is not dead, and after a few months in hiding he returns to steal the munitions from Judge -- the first step in an elaborate plan of vengeance.

"He looks awful familiar."

"There's no such thing as ghosts."

Lam, the director who brought us at least one unofficial Hong Kong remake of a U.S. production (WILD SEARCH, patterned on WITNESS) and who regularly lifts material from American genre pictures, seems to be an admirer of Hill and Friedman's approach. In addition to similarities of plot, both films open with jewelry heists in which a tastelessly dressed, sexually aggressive woman threatens customers, with pistol barrels shoved into the camera or photographed at such an angle that they appear larger than they are. Shadowy bars and deserted warehouse interiors are playing fields in both films. Ko Fei's appearance in the nightclub, after Judge learns the munitions have been stolen, resembles Johnny baiting Sunny at the bar in their first meeting after his release from prison. Like Hill, Lam has a fondness for trashy retro hairstyles, clothing and automobiles (the dance choreography, however, is basically of the period, especially a nightclub act set to Extreme's "Get the Funk Out").

The supporting villains seem familiar. Madman and Yin could be Rafe and Sunny of the Far East, or even, at times, Tully and Sunny. The femme fatale of JOHNNY HANDSOME was a greedy ex-prostitute. FULL CONTACT throws in nymphomania for comic relief (Yin: "I used to get it seven times a day! It's been a week now, and I'm tired of begging!"), moving further down a twisted path of the novel (Sunny, as written by Freedgood: "I can't stand three days without a man….If I don't get it at night, I can't go to sleep"). Madman, ignorant and incapable of thinking beyond his stomach and libido, is not a schemer like Rafe, but a stooge like Tully.

But FULL CONTACT is neither a remake nor an adaptation. Lam and Nam Yin do not include the disfigurement and plastic surgery elements. They're also far more compassionate with characters, allowing Ko Fei, Sam, and Ko Fei's fiancée, Mona, to learn from mistakes and atone for them. Ko Fei's ultimate goal is even noble: to deliver money stolen from Judge to a young woman horribly burned during the initial robbery.

The similarities are interesting, though, and I wonder how Lam would visualize The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome on film. With FULL CONTACT, we might have a rough idea.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Stark Views: The Violent World of Donald Westlake


by Chris Poggiali


After two roars from the MGM lion, we cut to tough guy Parker (Jim Brown) kicking open the door to his girlfriend Ellie’s apartment. He charges inside, searches the place, and finds Ellie (Diahann Carroll) sitting up in bed, dead, skewered to the headboard with a sword -- "stuck there like a scarecrow put away for the winter." Checking the closet, Parker discovers that the money from the stadium heist is missing, and then -- "Whoa, wait a minute!" some of you are yelling now, "I saw THE SPLIT and it didn’t start like that! And who the hell is this Parker guy?! Jim played McClain in that movie!" Yeah, yeah, I know -- but if the producers of THE SPLIT had been interested in making a great caper movie instead of just a mediocre action flick that wastes a once-in-a-lifetime cast, they would’ve stuck closer to their source material: The Seventh, a fast-paced, ingeniously plotted crime novel written by the late Donald E. Westlake, under his "Richard Stark" pseudonym. Published in 1966 as a 158-page paperback from Pocket Books, The Seventh tells the story of seven crooks who rob a stadium during a college football inter-conference game, and the violent complications that erupt before the take is divided. The title refers not only to the one-seventh share of the loot that each crook is due to receive, but also to the fact that this was the seventh novel written by Westlake under the Stark alias.

"Stark" is right. During their peak in the late 60s and early 70s, these cold, hard, stripped-down books were extremely popular in prison libraries across the country, due to the fact that the main characters are killers and thieves who always get away in the end. Twenty-four of the twenty-eight books are about ruthless criminal Parker -- possibly the toughest tough guy in the history of crime fiction --while other novels shine the spotlight on his frequent partner in crime, Alan Grofield, a wisecracking stage actor who commits armed robberies to support the community theatre he owns in Indiana. Parker is a professional crook -- "Banks, payrolls, armored cars, jewelers, anyplace that’s worth the risk" -- and his adventures focus on the elaborate heists in which he participates, as well as the inevitable carnage that follows, with a few exceptions: The Jugger, a strange mystery set in a small town in Nebraska, brilliantly pays homage to Jim Thompson’s "crazy sheriff" stories (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280), while The Handle is surely to blame for all those mind-numbing men's action paperbacks that Pinnacle started mass-producing two or three years later. In Butcher’s Moon, Westlake tips his hat to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest by dropping Parker and Grofield into the middle of a complicated plot involving gangsters and corrupt politicians. Grofield’s first three solo ventures (The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird) are clumsy, lightweight affairs that turn the fourth book, the downbeat and nasty Lemons Never Lie, into a sucker punch.

In 1973, Berkley Medallion Books reissued most of the Parker novels as a numbered adventure series, "The Violent World of Parker," in an attempt to cash in on Pinnacle’s popular Destroyer and Executioner series (the Coffin Ed and Gravedigger mysteries by Chester Himes underwent a similar facelift around the same time). Titles were changed -- The Score became Killtown, for example -- but Berkley screwed up the whole thing by assigning the wrong number to almost every book in the series! For maximum enjoyment, the Stark books should be read in a certain order (see list below), since characters from earlier stories return, and previous adventures are frequently referred to and sometimes even continued. Bett Harrow, the woman who sets up Parker for blackmail in The Outfit, is dealt with in the following book, The Mourner. The Damsel opens with Grofield still recovering from the gunshot wounds he received in The Handle. Parker spends half of Plunder Squad on the hunt for George Uhl, the double-crossing lunatic who fouled up a bank heist split in The Sour Lemon Score, and at least half of Firebreak tracking down a trio of losers, also from The Sour Lemon Score, who put a contract out on his life. In Butcher’s Moon, Parker and Grofield return to the Fun Island amusement park to retrieve the $73,000 that Parker stashed at the end of Slayground. The last three books (Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot, Dirty Money) form a trilogy focusing on Parker’s robbery of armored trucks during a bank merger, and the problems evading law enforcement and moving the stolen cash.

Westlake was the mad scientist of crime fiction for nearly half a century and the Stark books showcase some of his more daring experiments with style and structure. The Blackbird and Slayground both open with the same botched armored car robbery, told from two different points of view: Grofield’s in The Blackbird, Parker’s in Slayground. The two books share the same opening chapter, but go off in completely different directions; Grofield is captured by the police, then recruited by the CIA (!) and sent to Quebec on a silly James Bond-type adventure with a beautiful secret agent from Africa (the "blackbird" of the title); Parker, who gets away with the loot, ends up tangling with mobsters and bad cops in a shuttered amusement park only one block away from the scene of the robbery! Even more bizarre is the jaw-dropping plot twist in Plunder Squad that sends Parker wandering into chapter eighteen of Dead Skip, the first DKA File mystery by Joe "Hammett" Gores. And then there’s Jimmy the Kid, the third installment in Westlake’s hilarious Dortmunder series (following The Hot Rock and Bank Shot), which has its hapless crooks using the nonexistent Stark novel Child Heist as the blueprint for their own bungled kidnapping attempt.

Big screen adaptations of Stark’s novels range from excellent to excruciating. The superb POINT BLANK (1967) departs from its source material (The Hunter) early on, while others are more faithful but not very strong as movies. Westlake didn't allow other writers to use the name "Parker," so Lee Marvin is Walker in POINT BLANK, Michel Constantin is Georges in MISE EN SAC (a.k.a. PILLAGED, based on The Score) (1967), Jim Brown is McClain in THE SPLIT (1968), Robert Duvall is Macklin in THE OUTFIT (1974), Peter Coyote is Stone in SLAYGROUND, and Mel Gibson is Porter in a second version of The Hunter, PAYBACK (1999), as well as director Brian Helgeland's revised cut, PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP (2007). For Jean-Luc Godard’s MADE IN U.S.A. (1966), Parker became pretty Anna Karina as journalist Paula Nelson, in a political thriller bearing little resemblance to its credited source, The Jugger (though Westlake won a lawsuit against the film’s producer when he wasn’t paid for use of his novel).

Westlake himself wrote several drafts of a screenplay for The Score circa 1964-65, for a project that was to be directed by Ed Spiegel and produced by Max J. Rosenberg. Peter Yates was set to direct a Deadly Edge movie in 1972, but it was never made (Yates did helm a very good adaptation of Westlake's THE HOT ROCK the same year, however). Another unrealized adaptation, Butcher's Moon, would've reunited Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner immediately after their controversial hit DEATH WISH (1974), with a screenplay by the author of that film's source novel, Brian Garfield (who was one of Westlake's good friends and occasional collaborators); the project apparently fell apart when Garfield and Westlake expressed their dissatisfaction with the page-to-screen translation of Death Wish. In 2001, screenwriter Alexander Ignon penned an adaptation of The Green Eagle Score as a pilot for a Parker television series that never happened. More recently, Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez star in PARKER for director Taylor Hackford, based on Flashfire, which is set for release later this year.


The Novels of Violence by Richard Stark

The Hunter (a.k.a. Point Blank! - 1962) ***
The Man with the Getaway Face (a.k.a. The Steel Hit - 1963) ***½
The Outfit (1963) **½
The Mourner (1963) **½
The Score (a.k.a. Killtown - 1964) ***½
The Jugger (a.k.a. Made in U.S.A. - 1965) ****
The Seventh (a.k.a. The Split - 1966) ****
The Handle (a.k.a. Run Lethal - 1966) **½
The Damsel (1967) *
The Rare Coin Score (1967) ***
The Green Eagle Score (1968) ***
The Dame (1969) **
The Black Ice Score (1968) **½
The Sour Lemon Score (1969) ****
Deadly Edge (1971) ***½
The Blackbird (1969) **
Slayground (1971) ****
Lemons Never Lie (1971) ***
Plunder Squad (1972) ***
Butcher’s Moon (1974) ****
Comeback (1997) ****
Backflash (1998) ****
Flashfire (2000) ***½
Firebreak (2001) ****
Breakout (2002) ***½
Nobody Runs Forever (2004) ****
Ask the Parrot (2006) ****
Dirty Money (2008) ***

(This is a revision of an article that first appeared in BadAzz MoFo #4, April 1999, p. 70)

Monday, January 2, 2012

LAST MAN STANDING by Jerome Preisler



Reviewed by Philip Nathaniel Poggiali

The plot of writer/director Walter Hill’s gangland thriller is nothing original, following A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and a slew of other unofficial remakes of YOJIMBO (the Sonny Chiba vehicle, KARATE WARRIORS, among them). The original film was itself loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and Hill goes back to the roots of that novel by making his characters Prohibition-era gangsters. At heart, though, LAST MAN STANDING is really a western, as hoodlums lounge around barrooms and duel to the death in a Texas backwater town.

One of these hoodlums is John Smith (Bruce Willis), a gunman who sells his talent to the Irish and Italian bootlegging gangs that have seized control of the town. Smith’s intention is to manipulate the gangs into destroying each other; he also wants to free beautiful Felina (Karina Lombard) from the clutches of Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) and psychotic right hand Hickey (Christopher Walken). Doyle and Hickey eventually wipe out the competing gang, led by obnoxious cousins Strossi (Ned Eisenberg) and Giorgio (Michael Imperioli), and when they learn of Smith’s plans for Felina they capture and torture the lone gunman. But Smith eventually escapes and, aided by a bar-owner and crooked Sheriff Galt (Bruce Dern), plots his revenge.

LAST MAN STANDING, released by New Line in 1996, was shot under two other titles (GUNDOWN, WELCOME TO JERICHO), had its release date pushed back, and featured footage in trailers that never made it to the final cut -- a strong indication of production and test screening woes. The film tanked at the box office and critics despised it; nevertheless, LAST MAN is full of spirited performances and brutal, haunting images.

Early drafts of the screenplay were penned by Henry Bean (INTERNAL AFFAIRS, THE BELIEVER) though Jerome Preisler’s novelization -- like its companion film -- gives sole credit to Hill. Preisler does fine work fleshing out the director’s spare writing style, elaborating on the violent desperation of Jericho and its inhabitants without losing Hill’s terseness and ambiguity. The author is also good at describing action so that it’s exciting and coherent (“The sofa cushions blew into seared, smoking clots of fabric and stuffing and then there was a loud scream and a ribbon of blood appeared under the sofa’s legs”), quite an accomplishment considering that the John Woo-inspired set-pieces of the film seem determined to lose their audience in violent mayhem.

Since screenplay adaptations are usually based on drafts altered during production, there are expected variations from the finished film -- some minor differences e.g. character names (“Rossi” rather than “Strossi”) and alternate dialogue. One subplot, involving a hoodlum from the Doyle gang who murders a Texas Ranger and is held hostage, was an element borrowed from YOJIMBO and dropped for the film.

Simple-minded Joe (William Sanderson), barman and owner of the Red Bird, was originally Dixie Monday. Like Joe, Dixie provides Smith with background on the gangs and their business in Jericho, filling in gaps between all of the scheming and shooting. Joe was a type and a plot device; Dixie is tough, witty, damaged (“The lines and angles of her face were a lasting record of disappointments … pains known only to women who’d lived hard and been forced into too many compromises with the world”). Whereas Joe seemed mildly irritated, even amused, by Jericho’s corruption and desolation, Dixie is saddened and carries guilt over the state of the decrepit saloon that once thrived under her father’s management. A sweet flirtation develops between Smith and Dixie showing us a gentler side to the gunman, making it easier to comprehend when he goes out of his way to save Felina.

It occurred to me that actress Deborah Van Valkenburgh would have been the right age for Dixie, and I wonder if Hill wrote the part with her in mind: she played a similar role in Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE and was hard-edged prostitute Mercy in THE WARRIORS. In those films Van Valkenburgh projected streetwise confidence with humor and charm, a nice contrast to her emotionally limited leading men. She would have worked well opposite Bruce Willis, who has considerable range but is locked into Clint Eastwood’s tough-and-taciturn routine for the majority of the film. LAST MAN STANDING remains a favorite of mine, an underrated crime thriller, but I find it something of a loss that Dixie never made it beyond Preisler’s book.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Book Ad of the Week: A COMPLETE STATE OF DEATH (1969)


November 9th, 1969

A Complete State of Death
by John Gardner
The Viking Press, 1969

This novel became the Columbia Pictures release THE STONE KILLER (1973), directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson.