The Last Chase (1981)

‘I can give you anything, but I can’t give you gas.’

Private transportation was banned twenty years after a global pandemic decimated the population. A one-time racing car driver rebuilds his vehicle and sets out for California with the authorities in hot pursuit…

Dystopian sci-fi adventure starring one-time ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ Lee Majors in a rare big screen role. Character actor Burgess Meredith joins in the fun for co-writer and director Martyn Burke.

Life isn’t much fun anymore for former racetrack hotshot Franklyn Hart (Majors) in 2011. These days he takes the subway to work, where he’s the mouthpiece of the Mass Transit Authority. The days of private car ownership are long gone in the wake of oil supplies being restricted by the government. Haunted by a past crash and the death of his family in the pandemic two decades earlier, he’s beginning to unravel, going off script in a talk to a room of boarding school kids, which includes Ring (Chris Makepeace).

Under investigation by sinister government official Santana (Diane D’Aquila), Majors secretly rebuilds his race car. After a nocturnal visit from Makepeace, who is on the run after hacking into government systems, the unlikely duo hit the road and head West, inspired by fragmented transmissions from an organisation called Radio Free California. When D’Aquila’s efforts to contain the situation don’t pan out, Washington spook Mr Hawkins (George Touliatos) takes command. He brings decorated hero Captain J G Williams (Burgess Meredith) out of retirement, sending him after the two fugitives in a recommissioned jet.

Originally planned as a novel by screenwriter Christopher Crowe, this odd dystopian drama pulls in several different directions at once to the severe detriment of the final results. Director Burke and writer Roy Moore also get script credits, and it’s tempting to think that differing takes on the material prompted the confusion. It’s a shame because there’s the seed of an interesting idea here with plenty of potential.

Proceedings start well, introducing Majors, first in the chaos of the pandemic and then twenty years later as bitter, disillusioned drone mouthing platitudes about the efficiency of Mass Transit to bored corporate types and school kids. In the evenings, he drinks and watches old news film of his last crash. Sometimes he ventures out to steal auto parts from abandoned junkyards. This last activity has brought him to the attention of D’Aquila, and he compounds the problem with his behaviour at work. His supervisor, Jud (Harvey Atkin), warns him he could be heading for jail, but Majors is beyond caring.

It’s a strong opening, with Majors in particular, displaying a naturalism and quiet charisma that’s as welcome as it’s unexpected. Unfortunately, there are story problems already that seriously impact the credibility of events later on. There’s no real explanation of the new society that has grown up after the pandemic or how it works. Reference is made to the oil running out, which is why all private transportation is banned, but it’s delivered in such a way as to suggest that the government is lying about it. It’s also heavily inferred that the pandemic led to this situation, but it isn’t easy to see how one thing led to the other.

Things go further awry when Majors hooks up with misfit tech wiz Makepeace. The thoughtful quality of the opening scenes is sacrificed to the familiar tropes of a surrogate father and son bonding exercise. Majors does sell it with his measured performance, but it’s predictable as all hell and nothing that hasn’t been seen a thousand times before. Just as standard is their layover in a remote rural community and our hero’s romance with attractive widow, Eudora (Alexandra Stewart). By then, what initially seemed to be a unique meditation on ageing and a vanishing way of life is but a dim memory.

It’s also unfortunate that director Burke is no George Miller. For those looking for parallels to midnight movie sensation ‘Mad Max’ (1979), the pickings are slim indeed. It’s highly likely that both stories were originally inspired by the oil crisis of the mid-1970s and the resulting shortages and ballooning prices, but that’s where any similarity ends. Burke’s film has almost zero vehicular action and stuntwork, and the little that exists is awkwardly presented. Burke has no eye for the poetry of the road, and it often feels that Majors is just out for an afternoon drive.

However, there are much bigger problems for the film to overcome. In the words of Touliatos, Majors’ breakout is ‘undermining the entire balance of this country’, and yet I fail to see how. Even if his rebellious act is that significant, who knows about it? The few dozen people at the settlement where they stop, and the voice of ‘Radio Free California’. No other media outlets exist. Also, it’s only clear toward the end of the film that the radio broadcasts are not just some crank with a ham set-up. No, the entire state of California is outside government control. Again, how that works I don’t know, but making it clear in the first place would have helped.

To make matters worse, apparently, the U.S. government has only three options to stop our heroes. Send in a dozen troops from Denver to machine gun the peaceful settlers, haul an old Coca-Cola truck across the road (real subtle product placement there) and use an alcoholic, cantankerous old pilot (Meredith) who hasn’t flown since Vietnam. Oh, and one laser gun turret by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. To add insult to injury, Meredith goes up in a jet that’s been out of commission for as long as he has, but it’s fine after a 5-minute refit and a new spray job. Eat your heart out, ‘Battlefield Earth’ (2000)!

And there’s more. Touliatos enters the film as a polite, soft-spoken observer before he takes over from D’Aquila when Majors and Makepeace avoid her brilliant Coca-Cola roadblock. By the end, he’s cackling sadistically as technician Morley (Ben Gordon) blows up cacti with the laser gun, and the troops shoot the settlers in their mountain village. Then he goes off on a rant about ‘the desperate quest for the impurities contained in mobility,’ which is supposed to explain why the government doesn’t want anyone to own a car. The script does cover Majors’ petrol requirements, though. Apparently, a ‘special pump’ can extract the last few inches in the underground tanks of abandoned service stations. We never see him use such a thing, and after 20 years, it wouldn’t be useable anyway. Still trying to figure out where Meredith gets his aviation fuel.

It is interesting viewing this film at a time when government interference in daily life is increasingly utilised as a political football. Curiously, the film seems to foreshadow concerns with the ’30-minute city’ concept and its perceived threat to free movement. Ironically, of course, these very fears are some of the building blocks used by populist figures to further their own political ambitions. The notion of a car-free world as a bad thing and petrolheads as the last great bastions of freedom and individual expression is not an agenda pushed by the film. However, it is strongly implicit, although, in the filmmakers’ defence, it was a whole different world back in 1981.

Despite his appearance in the laughable adventures of ‘The Norseman’ (1978), Majors’ popularity on television meant he still had a shot as a big-screen star at this point. However, this project was made outside the studio system and was distributed by Crown International Pictures, whose only big-time credit was their involvement with Disney’s ‘Tron’ (1982). Even if the film had been good, it might have struggled to find an audience. Worse still for Majors was that while he was stuck filming on location in Canada, the news broke of the relationship between his wife, Farrah Fawcett, and actor Ryan O’Neal. In the days before celebrity culture and social media were so pervasive, actors had little experience dealing with such public scandals. Whether it was that unhappy circumstance or the film’s box-office failure, Majors returned to television and, after the embarrassment of ‘Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land’ (1983), secured the lead in massive hit ‘The Fall Guy’ which ran for five years.

Some interesting ideas are badly fumbled at the script stage and can’t be saved by such indifferent execution.

The Sentinel (1977)

‘Believe it or not, I attended a birthday party here last night for a cat.’

A successful young fashion model with a troubled past takes a new apartment to get some perspective on a possible future with her long-term boyfriend. It’s not long, however, before she’s disturbed by strange noises in the night, weird dreams and the attentions of her new neighbours, who exhibit some decidedly odd behaviour…

Satan was big box office in Hollywood in the 1970s, particularly when his activities were transposed to a modern, urban setting. The trend had begun with Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and continued primarily through movies made for television in the early 1970s. Then came the box-office juggernaut that was ‘The Exorcist’ (1973). Three years later, ‘The Omen’ (1976) was another smash and this dance with the devil from British director Michael Winner’s followed hard on its heels.

Young and beautiful Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is the cover girl of her day, appearing in exclusive photoshoots from top fashion magazines and gracing prime time TV in shampoo commercials. On the surface, she’s living the American Dream, but a dark past contains a suicide attempt after breaking in on her elderly father cavorting with some naked prostitutes. Long term live-in boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) wants marriage, but Raines needs some space to think things over. So she rents a big apartment in an exclusive building downtown and moves in. It looks like a steal, but when you’ve got a blind priest John Carradine staring out of the window of the flat on the top floor, it’s best to think twice before signing the lease agreement.

Things start going bump in the night pretty quickly, and that’s not all. Her neighbours are a rum bunch, to be sure. There’s the campy Burgess Meredith, who carries his cat around, and lesbian ballet fans Sylvia Miles and the wordless Beverley D’Angelo, who starts to masturbate in front of Raines as soon as Miles is out of the room. Later on, Meredith holds a birthday shindig for his cat, and Raines gets to meet some more of the residents, who act weird and start turning up in her dreams. When she complains to the local house agent about everything, she’s told that the building’s only other resident is Carradine. When she examines the other apartments with Sarandon, they are deserted and covered in dust.

Based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, this occult mystery struggles to find a consistent tone and engage the audience. The story is very much a slow burn, without a great deal of action or incident, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in Winner’s hands, the absence of tension and atmosphere is a serious problem. Raines and Sarandon have little chemistry together, and neither exhibits enough presence to overcome their underwritten characters. The script is credited as a collaboration between Konviotz and Winner, although Konvitz was unhappy with Winner’s involvement from the start and is not a fan of the finished film. It’s not hard to see why.

The main issue is Winner’s apparent determination to ‘gross out’ the audience. There is a memorable scene where Raines slices up what seems to be her dead father’s living corpse. It is quite shocking but comes so far out of left field and is so over the top that it’s borderline hilarious, which is obviously not the effect the director intended. However, it is worth pointing out that the film is over 40 years old. The contemporary audience was probably far more unfamiliar with such moments of sudden shock and gore than viewers today. Instead of carrying on along that line, however, the tale then seems to morph into a conspiracy thriller as Sarandon breaks into the offices of the local Catholic diocese, suspicious of their involvement with the building and a mysterious priest played by Arthur Kennedy. Then it’s on to the climax and the solution to the mystery, which is where things get very divisive.

In essence, the climax is just two of the characters shouting at each other in an attic, which is not very cinematic. Winner chose to deal with this problem by showing an army of demons rising from hell to surround the protagonists. Rather than employ practical makeup effects, the director decided to use real-life people with significant physical deformities. There was a precedent for this approach, of course, the most obvious example being Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932). Jack Cardiff had also employed it for his dreadful mash-up of horror and science-fiction ‘The Mutations’ (1974). However, the crucial difference between the 1932 film and its 1970s counterparts is that Browning portrayed his unusual cast as human beings, giving them dialogue and characters. They were the centre of the drama. Winner in particular merely uses them as window dressing, inviting the audience to gawk at them and be horrified, much in the way of carnival sideshows of a bygone age. Yes, I’m sure everyone was paid for their participation and took part through choice, but it still leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Elsewhere, it’s an unusual case of ‘spot the famous face’ as the cast is stocked with stars of yesteryear and some whose day was yet to come. Apart from veterans Kennedy, Carradine and Miles, we get Ava Gardner renting out apartment space in New York, Jose Ferrer with a walk-on as one of Kennedy’s ecclesiastical colleagues and Martin Balsam in a pointless scene as an absent-minded academic. As well as D’Angelo, we get future stars Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer and Tom Berenger doing a bit of flat hunting and billed as ‘Man at the end.’ There’s also a combination of the two eras with veteran cop Eli Wallach partnered with a young Christopher Walken. The older detective is convinced that Sarandon had his wife pushed from a bridge, a potentially interesting subplot that is never really developed. Finally, there’s a curious ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ cameo from Richard Dreyfuss hanging out on a street corner, probably waiting for his next call from Steven Spielberg.

Winner is poorly regarded as a filmmaker in his homeland of the United Kingdom. This critical and popular backlash was rooted in the seemingly endless run of sequels to his original hit ‘Death Wish’ (1974), although, of course, such a practice would not raise much of an eyebrow in these more franchise-friendly times. Later on, however, when the film offers began to dry up, he re-invented himself as a food critic, parlaying that into a career as a television personality. Unfortunately, his personal charms failed to win over the public, who disliked him thoroughly, something probably accentuated by his frequent appearances in tv commercials for an insurance company.

The director died in 2013, and his name has come up during recent revelations about the mistreatment of women in the film industry. By all accounts, Raines, in particular, clashed with him frequently during the production, as did several other cast and crew members. In addition, Konvitz has been very vocal about his dissatisfaction with Winner and the whole experience of making the film.

All of which commentary tends to colour opinion on the man’s films, but it does have to be acknowledged when in possession of a decent script; he could deliver an acceptable end product. However, those examples tend to reside in the earlier part of his career when perhaps he possessed less creative control over the process.

An acceptable 1970s horror experience if you can disregard its flaws.

The Yin And The Yang Of Mr. Go (1970)

The_Yin_And_The_Yang_Of_Mr._Go_(1970)‘Have you ever looked through the belly button of Buddha before?’

An oriental mastermind plots to obtain a secret laser weapon in Hong Kong by means of blackmail and murder. He’s able to cope with the machinations of secret agents from various countries but finds himself hard pressed to cope with the intervention of a new opponent: Buddha.

What was in Burgess Meredith’s cigarette holder when he appeared on the ‘Batman’ TV show in the late 1960s? Well, it must have been good stuff for him to come up with this bizarre oddity involving Buddhism and spies in the Far East. For he wrote and directed and persuaded some famous names to take part. Maybe it looked good at the script stage, who knows?

Matters open with Meredith giving acupuncture to James Mason, who plays the title role. Both are in poor oriental makeup and affecting only slight attempts at appropriate voices. At first, being a spy movie, I was hoping that at least one of them was in disguise but sadly not. Mason is a Fu Manchu wannabe who is attempting to secure this new super weapon thingy by blackmailing top American scientists. But halfway through the film, his plans are scuppered when Buddha takes a hand! Apparently, due to some malarkey about the ancients discovering the secret of eternal life, the deity picks one man at random every 50 years or so and reverses his personality. Luckily, this is all explained by Voiceover Man, which is fortunate because otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense at all. Voiceover Man is actually played by Buddha himself, which is probably a first.

Muddled up in the plot is a young American writer, his oriental girlfriend and an Irish-American secret agent, played by Jack MacGowran. His boss is played by Broderick Crawford, who has a couple of scenes where he discusses things in someone’s front room with some unidentified gentlemen in suits and glasses. Back in Hong Kong, groups of people run around a lot for no obvious reason, there’s a lot of footage of the streets at night and a few scenes shot in negative. The choppy nature and general incoherence suggests that maybe some linking scenes were never shot, or were left behind on the cutting room floor. Things are not assisted by some silly happy-clappy songs on the soundtrack.

The cast includes a new actor; supposedly making his first appearance with one of those ‘and introducing…’ credits at the start of the film. You know the kind; the one which names someone you’ve never heard of, who never went on to any sort of career. But hold on a second, this one is ‘Introducing Jeffrey Bridges’. Yes, it’s The Dude, Rooster Cogburn and that guy from ‘Crazy Heart’. Bridges had already appeared on daddy Lloyd’s TV hit ‘Sea Hunt’ and a couple of other things, but this does appear to be his first bow on the big screen. His performance as the wasted young writer is acceptable enough, given the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the role, and it wasn’t long before he was taking his first steps toward movie stardom in ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971).


‘Watch it, Meredith, that’s almost as painful as your script.’

The problem with this film is there is absolutely no consistency of tone. ls it supposed to be a comedy? A satire of some sort? Simply a Far Eastern adventure? I have no idea. It fails on every level. Worse than that, it’s rather boring. Advertising tried to compare it to ‘Dr. No’ (1962), and emphasise the role of Irene Tsu as a ‘femme fatale’ but she’s more of a ‘damsel in distress’ most of the time. This must have been a near impossible sell, even in the ‘anything goes’ era when it was made.

Meredith had done a little directing before; a co-credit 21 years earlier on ‘The Man On The Eiffel Tower’ (1949) with Charles Laughton, and a TV episode in the 1950s. He’d also written a couple of scripts back at the beginning of his career. But, after this, he never took up his pen or stepped behind the camera again. Judging by this effort, it was probably for the best.

Beware! The Blob (1972)

Beware! The Blob (1972)‘I don’t cut hair, I sculpt it. Do you want a hair sculpt?’

A pipeline engineer working at the North Pole brings a specimen back home that he discovered buried in the permafrost. Unfortunately, his unreasonable wife won’t let him keep it in the family refrigerator.  When it thaws out, it turns out to be The Blob!

Painfully laboured sequel to the 1958 movie that launched Steve McQueen’s career. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but any chance at hilarity (or even vague amusement) is killed stone dead by a pace so slow that it’s almost petrified. There’s only enough material in the thin script for a film about half this length so a lot of the scenes are poorly improvised by the lacklustre cast.

The project was the brainchild of legendary independent producer Jack H Harris, who happened to be living next door to TV star Larry Hagman in the early 1970s. Harris, who had produced the original movie, still had the rights to the property and had unsuccessfully attempted to put together a sequel before. Hagman had helmed a few episodes of his hit TV show ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and expressed an interest in directing another attempt. Unfortunately, no-one remembered to get a decent script.

Robert Walker (‘Charlie X’ on ‘Star Trek’) is an amiable leading man, but doesn’t break too much of a sweat and the rest of the cast is filled out by figures from the alternative comedy scene, including Cindy Williams and Geoffrey Cambridge. Hagman probably called in some favours, getting brief cameos from Burgess Meredith and 60’s blonde bombshell Carol Lynley.

Beware! The Blob (1972)

Something strange had come between them.

Too much of the comedy is directed at hippies, who provide a tiresome and easy target with endless jokes about their long hair and washing habits that must have seemed old even at the time. Stoners get stoned, get hassled by the Man, get eaten by the Blob. That’s about the size of it. In one scene comedian Cambridge watches the original movie on his TV, which isn’t really funny but is probably the most inventive gag on offer.

The brightest spot here is heroine Gwynne Gilford, who heroically delivers the only really committed performance in the film. Mind you, this kind of thing must be in her genes. Her mother Anne Gwynne was there for ‘Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe’ (1940), chummed up with the Wolf Man in the ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944) and messed with voodoo in ‘Weird Woman’ (1944). And, almost a decade after fighting off the Blob, Gilford made a far more major contribution to the world of science fiction by giving birth to the new Captain Kirk. Yes, she’s Chris Pine’s mother!

In the 1980s, when Hagman’s face was everywhere and the world (apparently) thrilled to the question of ‘Who Shot J.R.?’, some bright spark decided to put the movie out again. It was advertised as ‘The Movie that J.R. Shot!’ Unfortunately, this is a lot funnier than anything in the film itself.

Skidoo (1968)

Skidoo (1968)Because a lotta people think they’ve gotta draw the line / They separate the good the bad the wrong from right / But forget about the color that’s between the black and white / And all the groovy little in betweens.

Skidoo Skidoo / Skidoo doobly do / I really believe it is the thing to do.’

An ageing mobster comes out of retirement for one last job; killing his best friend in prison. Meanwhile his daughter gets involved with a group of hippies and his wife invites them all to come round and stay so they aren’t thrown out of town by The Man.

There a few sights sadder or more tragic than watching middle aged people trying to get ‘with it’ and ‘down with the kids’. And when the people in question are Hollywood types letting it all hang out on film? Well, the inevitable result is something like ‘Skidoo’ (1968); a stupid, formless, desperately unfunny ‘comedy’ that lurches across the screen like a 3 legged rhinoceros attempting the Paso Doble.

Veteran director Otto Preminger (‘Laura’ (1944), ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ (1955), ‘Exodus’ (1960)) had already dipped his toe into the late 1960s counter culture by appearing as Mr. Freeze on the ‘Batman’ TV show. He even managed to get fellow ‘Bat-villains’ to waste their time on this: Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith all make brief appearances, and probably wished they hadn’t. Songs and music are supplied by Harry Nillson, who even sings all the end credits, down to the copyright notice! He also appears as a prison guard. Asked if he was high during the making of the film, he replied that he wasn’t – just drunk instead.

Our ‘story’ centres on retired hit man Jackie Gleason, who is ordered out of retirement for one last job by mob kingpin God (Groucho Marx!) This involves rubbing out a jailbird (Mickey Rooney!) who is going to turn state’s evidence. Gleason has to ‘break in’ to prison, where he unwittingly drops acid and sees the error of his ways. Outside of stir, his wife (a dreadful Carol Channing) takes her clothes off for a wannabe mobster (50s singing heartthrob Frankie Avalon!) and their daughter gets involved with a bunch of hippies. These flower children are led by John Phillip Law, who was a star in Europe after appearing as Jane Fonda’s love interest in ‘Barbarella’ (1967) and taking the lead in ‘Diabolik’ (1968). God’s private yacht is skippered by 30s gangster star George Raft and we also get turns from Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens and Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel.

Skidoo (1968)

Err….. ye-ssss…

According to Adam West’s autobiography, Preminger was difficult to work with on ‘Batman’ and apparently clashed with his cast here, bullying Groucho to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache. He also had words with Gleason, who wasn’t putting up with any of his nonsense.

The script was in constant flux with new writers being brought in during filming but Preminger refused to consider most of their suggestions and a lot of film was in the can already. The picture lurches from one inept setup to the next; including an acid trip prison break featuring dancing garbage cans! The brilliant finale features Channing leading the hippies on to the yacht whilst singing the wonderful theme song: ‘Skiddo! Skidoo! Between the one and three, there is a two!’ Raft performs a hippie wedding and Groucho sails off into the sunset whilst smoking a joint. Epic.

Is ‘Skidoo’ (1968) so bad it’s good? No. Is ‘Skidoo’ (1968) available to buy on DVD? Yes. Good luck with that.

‘Skidoo’ (1968) was a production of Paramount Pictures.

‘And watch the scenery / As the color slowly changes from fourteen to twenty three / Skidoo, Skidoo…’