Sometimes we show up at the theater to see a particular film, sometimes we just want to “go to the movies” and make a selection from what’s available. Films compete against the other titles on the marquee for our dollars and it’s interesting to take a look back at the options we had in the past. Once a month, Back to the Cinema offers a glimpse into the selections offered at a theaters for the weekend viewing of moviegoers in the 70s and 80s. Make Your Choice In the Poll Below!
Background – Delaware County, Pennsylvania is situated southwest of Philadelphia in the southeastern corner of the state. In 1972, Budco Quality Theaters operated a number of establishments around the county, including two drive-ins, 202 Drive-In, named for the route it was located on in West Chester (drive-ins.com reports that the location now holds a nursery), and Naamans, which was actually in Claymont, Delaware, technically not Delaware County, but just over the state line. Drive-ins.com states that the Naamans screen was literally on the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware, though I’m not sure if that’s technically true. Naamans seems to have closed in the late 1980s, whereas 202 lasted a little bit longer into the next decade.
Before we take a look at our films for this month, lets adjust ourselves to the United States in 1972 with the help of The People History website.
- Cost of Living – Average income per year was $11,800.00; average cost of a new house was $27,550.00; cost of a gallon of gas was 55 cents.
- Popular Films – The Godfather, Fiddler on the Roof, Diamonds Are Forever, What’s Up Doc?, Dirty Harry, The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange, Cabaret
- Popular Musicians – ABBA, Roxy Music, The Eagles, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Don McLean, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Moody Blues, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin
- Popular TV Shows – Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Benny Hill Show, The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five-O
- Born in 1972 – Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck
- Technology – HBO launched; digital watches are introduced; Atari releases Pong
Blacula – It is what it says on the tin. Blacula. Black Dracula. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on what you’re hoping to get from this movie), the name is the silliest thing about this blaxploitation horror film. Somewhat surprisingly, Blacula is a decent, entertaining film that somehow manages to avoid being completely ridiculous (though it has its moments, of course). I credit a lot of this transcendence to lead actor William Marshall, who was also the primary draw for me to want to watch this movie. For those that don’t recognize the name, if you’re a child of the 80s, you probably watched some “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and remember the King of Cartoons. Yup, that’s William Marshall. With his imposing height (6’5″) and deep, rich bass voice, Marshall easily conveys both the character’s royal African ancestry and the horror of his current state as a monster. He’s both regal and frightening. Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde and his transformation into a creature of the night occurs at the hands of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay), whom Mamuwalde visits during the late 18th century to discuss abolition of the slave trade. Dracula turns out to be a racist asshole, suggesting that it would be an honor for Mamuwalde’s wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) to become his slave. Mamuwalde is, of course, outraged at this suggestion and the two tussle. It’s a trap. A bunch of other vampires appear and Mamuwalde is transformed and Luva is imprisoned. Fast forward to the 1970s and Dracula’s castle is purchased by a gay couple. Their sexuality is played for laughs, I think, and it’s a low point for the film. Blacula awakes when one of the two men cuts his hand when sorting through the items — which include Mamuwalde’s coffin — left in the basement. Awakened, the African prince heads out to confront 1970s America and soon encounters a woman identical to Luva, Tina (also played by McGee). Tina’s sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas, Ghost Dad) is dating Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), who acts as the Van Helsing to Mamuwalde’s Dracula. Given the era and the budget, Blacula‘s makeup effects are at times a little distracting, but thanks to the aforementioned performance of Marshall and a, for the most part, decent supporting cast (McGee, though pretty, was not very convincing), Blacula makes for a fun watch. A sequel followed in 1973 entitled Scream, Blacula, Scream, featuring the stunning Pam Grier.
The Doberman Gang – So… some dogs rob a bank. Sounds pretty amazing, right? Why would a movie about doberman bandits languish in obscurity without a DVD release?* You guessed it: because it’s not all that good. Frustrated with the human error that results in the botched heist that opens the film, the leader of a trio of criminals decides that robots would make for the perfect partners-in-crime: you could program them and not have to worry about mistakes. Unfortunately, that’s an expensive and unrealistic solution. However, later that evening this mastermind witnesses a bunch of kids being chased out of a junkyard by a pack of dobermans and gets a brilliant idea. Before you can say “canine caper,” he’s recruited an innocent animal trainer and duped him into training the six dogs he’s purchased to accomplish his criminal goals, not forgetting to acquire a love interest along the way. Said love interest eventually begins to vacillate between the criminal mastermind and the animal trainer, creating a love triangle of sorts. That development hints at one of the problems I had with this film: for a movie about dogs robbing a bank, it focuses an awful lot of adult melodrama. I guess I’ve gotten so used to movies about animals acting like humans being aimed at children that I expected this one to have the same youthful target audience. That doesn’t seem to be the case given the focus on the relationships between the adult humans in the film and the blood involved in the film’s climax (not to mention — spoiler alert — one of the dogs gets hit randomly by a car and dies instantly). Ultimately, The Doberman Gang didn’t go far enough in either direction — adult campy with lots of blood or whimsical, silly, and child-like — for me to really enjoy it. That said, the heist is fun to watch once the film finally gets around to it, and I also really enjoyed the names given to the dobermans: Dillinger (John Dillinger), Bonnie (Bonnie Parker), Clyde (Clyde Barrow), Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Ma Barker. That kind of nomenclature seems to be in the spirit of the ridiculousness I wanted but did not really get from The Doberman Gang. Strangely, two sequels followed: The Daring Dobermans (1973) and The Amazing Dobermans (1976). I’m mildly curious about them. A couple interesting facts about this film: 1. Wikipedia points out that this is the first score done by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future trilogy, The Abyss, Forrest Gump); 2. IMDB.com states that this is the first film to receive the “No Animals Were Harmed” end credit from the American Human Society.
* Four days ago, Warner Bros. made The Doberman Gang and The Daring Dobermans available as a part of their print-on-demand Warner Archive project. What about The Amazing Dobermans, Warner Bros.? Stop depriving us.
Frogs – Okay, I’m going to be honest: I didn’t pay the kind of attention to this movie befitting of a reviewer. In other words, I looked at my iPhone a lot. Here’s the best thing about Frogs: it stars Sam Elliott in an early role as Pickett Smith, a nature photographer. While getting some shots of the local wildlife, Smith’s canoe is tipped over by Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), carelessly boating around with his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark of “Dallas” and “Knots Landing”). The Crockett siblings bring Smith back to the family mansion to dry off, change clothes, and meet the rest of the family, including patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland of The Lost Weekend), who is about to have a birthday. Meanwhile, frogs are making a ton of racket in the nearby wildlife. Apparently, I’m not the only one who found the noise annoying, because Jason has sent a man out to spray pesticide everywhere and create a quiet environment for the impending celebrations. Not even Smith’s discovery of this man’s corpse covered with snake bites will put a stop to Jason’s plans. As the Crocketts commence their bash, nature strikes back and not just the titular amphibians: alligators, snakes, birds and butterflies all get in on the fun of dispatching the humans. It sounds like a lot of campy fun, but like The Doberman Gang, Frogs doesn’t really deliver on its promise. It’s just boring. Perhaps if you are a Sam Elliott completist and want to see The Stranger young, muscular and sans mustache, you should add this to your to-watch pile. Otherwise, skip Frogs. The poster is freakin’ awesome though, eh?
The Other – Evil kids. The history of film is full of them. The Exorcist, The Omen, Children of the Corn, Village of the Damned, and so on. Whether they are possessed by the devil or just plain black sheep is sometimes made explicit and sometimes left ambiguous. Of course, film is not the only media that these pint-sized terrors inhabit. In fact, a number of the aforementioned films were first books or short stories. Children of the Corn was, of course, first part of the Stephen King collection Night Shift. While William Peter Blatty was adopting his 1971 novel The Exorcist into a screenplay, Tom Tryon was doing the same with his novel published the same year, The Other. Tryon’s script beat Blatty’s to the silver screen, but that was really it’s only victory over the better known story. Not that The Other is a bad film, it’s just not a classic of the same caliber. That said, The Other is worth a watch for fans of the evil children sub-genre of horror films. It takes place in the 1930s. Identical twins Niles and Holland (Chris and Martin Udvarnoky) are looked after by their grandmother Ada (Uta Hagen), a Russian immigrant, who has taught Niles “the great game,” which seems to be astral projection or some sort of psychic trick that enables Niles to inhabit another creature to some degree. For example, he practices on a bird, experiencing the sensation of flight. Niles seems a rather sweet boy, so, naturally, Holland’s a regular little shit. His idea of fun is leaving a pitchfork in a pile of hay so that their cousin impales himself on it when he leaps into the hay. More deaths follow, leading to an investigation, naturally, and the local handyman is suspected. Meanwhile, the boys’ mother remains in her bedroom, mourning over the loss of her husband, whose ring Niles secretly possesses. When this is discovered, along with their father’s finger wrapped in wax paper, Niles claims that Holland gave him the items and would not take them back. When the boys’ mother attempts to repossess the ring, she falls down some stairs and is paralyzed, adding to the tragedy around the family farm. But, it gets even worse, as the tag line on the poster hints. The poster also implores that viewers not spoil the “secret” of The Other, and I’ll comply. Suffice to say that the reveal is actually rather satisfying. I can’t promise you won’t see it coming, but I think you’ll find it well played regardless. While bested by the film based on Blatty’s novel (maybe I’m inflating the comparison between the two), The Other stands among the better films focusing on corrupt youth.
Also at Budco: Butterflies Are Free; The Conqueror Worm; Dirty Heroes; The French Connection; M.A.S.H.; Twilight People
Selection: Going in cold, with no knowledge of any of the films, it’s unlikely I would have been able to resist The Doberman Gang. What can I say? I’m a sucker for animals acting like humans. I’ve never seen Babe, though.
At Other Theaters in Delaware County: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Fiddler on the Roof, Kansas City Bomber, and, at the Jerry Lewis Cinema in Aston, PA, Napoleon and Samantha and The Million Dollar Duck.
Drive-in marquee photo by army.arch