As you can see from this far-from-exhaustive list, 2012 was the year I spent obsessed with star-studded 70s casts, the King of Rock and Roll, strange teen movies and 80s action awesomeness. Very little of it was truly obscure, but all of it was unforgettable and worthy of making this list.
Truck Turner (1974)
My friend and co-author, Darren Zenko, died of cancer this year. I spent one very memorable day with him watching old movies at his parents’ house before that happened. He tasked me with selecting the films and thankfully I chose well. I had never seen Trunk Turner before, but it’s now officially one of my all-time favourite Blaxploitation movies. You know right from the start that you’re in for a good time when the film’s hero begins the movie wearing a shirt soaked in cat piss, yet still manages to fulfill all of his badass action hero duties. Add in Nichelle Nichols as a sexy madam and Yaphet Kotto as an ambitious and psychotic pimp named Harvard Blue and you have a classic for the ages.
The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979)
Every year I tend to find myself obsessed with a particular subgenre of movie and in 2012 that ended up being 70s disaster movies, which meant watching the entire Airport franchise quickly became a moral imperative. Of the four, it was the last that truly captured my heart. It’s undeniably the cheesiest film in the series (and that’s no small achievement), but I found its low rent, barely-TV-movie-quality level production values and cast utterly charming. Written by the same screenwriter who would eventually give us Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Concorde doesn’t play by the petty rules of logic or physics, but still insists on remaining resolutely enthralling throughout its entire runtime.
Miami Connection (1987)
Very often I find myself disappointed by the lost films rediscovered by bad movie enthusiasts that are instantly enshrined in the so-bad-it’s-good pantheon (don’t get me started on Birdemic), but that wasn’t the case with Miami Connection, which managed to be as deliriously wonderful/terrible as I’d heard. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever get “Against the Ninja” out of my head for the rest of my life. The Blu-ray literally just arrived in my mail as I was writing this. I can’t wait to dig into it’s special features!
The Devil Within Her (1975)
Former stripper Joan Collins is cursed by an angry dwarf to have an evil baby possessed by his vengeful spirit, and she ends up giving birth to just that. The angry-yet-adorable infant then proceeds to go on a murderous rampage that proves just how hilarious Larry Cohen’s It's Alive could have been if he hadn’t gone with the mutant angle and just expected us to believe a regular baby could do that kind of damage. Also released as I Don’t Want To Be Born, this isn’t actually a good movie, but it’s definitely one I feel compelled to tell people about.
I didn’t hold much hope for this low-budget AIP produced sequel to MGM’s Westworld, since I found Michael Crichton’s influential hit to be quite slight and overrated when I finally sat down to watch it. I was happily surprised, then, when it turned out this conspiracy thriller exploited Crichton’s admittedly clever concept in ways he had failed to do himself. I especially enjoyed the combination of Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda as the two journalists who discover the evil scheme to replace world leaders with lookalike robots and laughed out loud at the one-finger salute Fonda gives in the film’s memorable final shot.
Tickle Me (1965)
Along with 70s disaster movies, I also spent 2012 catching up on some of Elvis Presley’s more obscure cinematic efforts. Of these my favorite was the Norman Taurog-directed Tickle Me, which posits Elvis as a rodeo rider/singer who finds work at Julie Adams’ resort for gorgeous models/actresses/trophy wives looking to shed a few pounds in a ranch setting. One of Elvis’ rare flops, I enjoyed how the film played up its star’s impact on the opposite sex and was especially enthralled by his leading lady, Jocelyn Lane, an actress who I had never seen before, but who made an instant and lasting impression through this introduction.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
My 2012 obsession with 70s disaster movies of course meant mainlining the entire Irwin Allen pantheon, of which my favourite was his most famous and successful effort (the less said about The Swarm the better). As long and over-stuffed as it is, I admired The Towering Inferno’s ruthlessness (I was genuinely shocked and upset by the fate of my favourite character, Jennifer Jones’ saintly socialite) and many of its effective sfx set pieces. I was particularly impressed by Robert Wagner’s death scene, which struck me as actually quite beautiful and wholly cinematic.
Little Cigars (1973)
I had known about this little person mob caper for a long time, but only finally got the chance to see it this year. Apart from making me instantly fall in love with its star, Angel Tompkins (playing a blond bad girl), I was most impressed/amazed by how it insists on playing her relationship with diminutive ringleader, Billy Curtis, 100% straight. It’s still a curiosity at best, but one that ended up feeling a lot less exploitative than I was expecting.
Lord Love a Duck (1966)
After rewatching Roger Vadim’s bizarre 1971 black comedy Pretty Maids All In a Row—in which Roddy McDowell plays an ineffectual high school principal—I got the urge to see the other high school satire he starred in just five years earlier. In George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck he plays a student so obsessed with Tuesday Weld, he happily commits all sorts of crimes—including murder—to get her everything she wants in life. It’s a strange film and, like a lot of social satires, has lost part of its impact over the course of time, but it is definitely worth seeing for McDowell’s performance alone.
Teen Witch (1989)
Looking over my DVD collection one afternoon, I discovered it contained what I thought was an obscure teen comedy and decided to pop it in and say mean things about it on Twitter. Little did I know that it was considered a beloved masterpiece by many of my (female) Twitter followers and I was forced to take the film more seriously as they quoted from it like it was a sacred text. In the film, the very pretty Robin Lively plays Louise, a very pretty girl who people pretend isn’t very pretty because the script tells them they have to think she’s homely instead. With the help of Zelda Rubenstein, Louise finds out she’s a witch with magical powers, which she uses to obtain a wardrobe that actually makes her slightly less pretty, but which convinces everyone else that she’s gorgeous. Then she dances with the boy she likes at the prom. The end. So, yeah, I didn’t quite get where all the love was coming from, but talking about it on Twitter while I was watching Teen Witch made this one of the more memorable movies I saw this year.
The Punisher (1989)
Along with 70s disaster movies and Elvis flicks, I also spent a large part of 2012 delving into the cinema of Dolph Lundgren. Like so many ignorant folks out there, I had once casually dismissed him as one of the more laughable 80s action movie meatheads, but after making the effort to watch his films I found an often likeable performer who was well aware of how he was coming across in most of his films. While not up to the admirably insane standards of the last Punisher film (but infinitely better than the Thomas Jane iteration), I enjoyed Dolph’s ballsy (literally, you can see them dangling in one shot) portrayal of Frank Castle. It probably helps that I’ve never liked The Punisher as a character, so the various blasphemies this version commits rolled completely off my back, allowing me to luxuriate in its wonderful 80s action-movie cheesiness.
Technically I rented Vamp sometime in my early teens, but at the time my main concern was fast-forwarding past the talky bits to get to the strippers the film’s plot promised would be in abundance. When it turned out there wasn’t nearly as many as I’d been expecting I judged the film a failure and assumed it’s negative reputation was deserved. So, I was bit surprised when I finally watched it without fast-forwarding this year and found an oft-clever, low-budget horror comedy that gets more things right than it does wrong. Sure, it probably needs more sleaze, considering its setting, and Grace Jones will always be more frightening than sexy, but I’m definitely glad I gave it a second chance all these years later.
This pre-Jaws Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown production is an interesting blend of colorful Blaxploitation bravado and serious melodrama. The former is exhibited through its gorgeously tacky costumes and instantly unforgettable title theme song, while the latter succeeds thanks to great performances by Sesame Streets’ Roscoe Orman as the title character—an ambitious young pimp—and the late, great Diana Sands, as a former prostitute who has now dedicated her life to getting girls out of the “life” and putting an end to Willie’s small empire.
A Gentleman at Heart (1942)
This charming programmer features Cesar Romero as a New York bookie who takes over the struggling art gallery his indebted stooge, Milton Berle, inherits from a forgotten relative. Romero’s instinct is to immediately liquidate, but he has second thoughts when he meets Carole Landis, the woman who runs the small shop. Wanting to impress her and make some dough at the same time, he attempts a forgery scam that twists and turns its way to an inevitably happy ending. Running just barely over an hour, A Gentleman at Heart never has time to become tedious or lose focus. The cast is perfect and while it doesn’t rate as a forgotten classic, it is definitely worth sitting through if you come across it.
Twins of Evil (1971)
The release of several Hammer movies on Blu-ray made me extra happy in 2012. A few years earlier I had procured a bootleg copy of this effort at a comic book expo, but never got around to watching it. I’m glad I procrastinated, since that meant seeing it for the first time in a wonderful HD transfer. Apart from all of the usual Hammer goodness (found this time in the charms of identical Maltese playmates
Madeleine and Mary Collinson), Twins of Evil sets itself apart with an intriguing screenplay that finds just as much at fault with Peter Cushing’s devout vampire hunter as it does Damien Thomas’s evil Count Karnstein.
Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970)
A classic 70s cop movie that is often (and I believe, unfairly) lumped into the Blaxploitation camp due to its largely black cast, Cotton Comes to Harlem features the first onscreen team up of Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, two Harlem detectives much more interested in justice than the law. Searching for the $87,000 stolen from a crooked preacher (Calvin Lockhart) who claims it’s for a boat designed to take investors back to Africa, Johnson and Jones alienate both their community (who think they’re race traitors) and their fellow police (who think they’re too loyal to the black community) in their mission to do what they know is right. Director Ossie Davis strikes the perfect tone—at times serious, often comic—and keeps everything moving at an entertaining clip, aided by a great score composed by Galt McDermot.