To reiterate (and copy/paste), I’ve been reading Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels lately (more reviews on the way). And I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Yay for me! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. I already dealt with Cop Hater, so next up:
The Mugger (1958)
There’s a new mugger in town preying on women within the 87th Squad’s jurisdiction, and he doesn’t seem to be letting up. Having stumped the detectives, psychiatrist and former detective Dr. Pete Graham (Kent Smith) comes out of pseudo-retirement to try and crack this nut. Graham is also contacted by an old friend, who wants him to look into his troubled young sister-in-law; she’s acting like something’s wrong, but tells Graham she doesn’t have any problems. Then she’s found stabbed to death in a city park, with the mugger’s trademark sunglasses crushed in her hands, and Graham has a personal motivation to catch this killer.
Whereas the book and Cop Hater were more character-driven police procedurals, The Mugger is more of a low-key psycho-detective analy-gation. It doesn’t break down into psycho-analyzing witnesses or anything—that’s just a fringe thing—but it doesn’t go as heavy into the detecting, either. In fact, the film just sort of muddles around without any sense of character or depth. Graham looks into several potential suspects and works around the mystery of the girl’s death while he keeps up his relationship with his wife Claire; meanwhile the 87th is continually stymied, and eventually tries luring the mugger out using a female detective as bait.
Now, I have read this novel, and it’s one of the best books in the 87th series, which is nothing like the film. And the changes are for the worse. The protagonist was originally a young cop—Bert Kling, see the first movie—and he met his on-off college-student girlfriend Claire Townsend during the course of the investigation, where in the film they’re married and working out of the same building. Note cop, not criminal psychiatrist; that sounds like a horrible change made to play up the contemporary growth of psychiatrists. And I should emphasize young, because I think the changes didn’t work, because the film then proceeds to point out how every loose woman in the world thinks this middle-aged, psychologist Kling is the sexiest man on Earth.
The film lacks any kind of detective/investigation work until near the end, which then results in a very unconvincing car chase (perhaps at speeds up to forty miles an hour!), and while the villain’s ending is suitably gory, there’s no real reason or lead-up to it. (In the book, it ends with the perp nailed and arrested and jailed, not brutally slain.) And the mugger himself was amped up from socking women to cutting them, probably to inflate the drama/tension needlessly. All in all, a tight, taut fraternal order of detectives with a strong sense of character was lost into a banal, featureless film. The things that were kept from the novel include the mugger, the general plot about the younger sister, a beatnik informant, a few of the set-pieces (like the female detective bait sequence), and some of the character names.
Again, McBain’s 87th was strong because it had a large, rotating cast of characters, and each subsequent novel made them feel more fleshed-out and developed. Losing that humanist approach makes the film feel shallow and lifeless, and gives it a strong emotional distance: we don’t even see the murder victim long enough to make her death anything more than a plot device, which I’m pretty sure would have irked McBain. It’s hard to incorporate that developing texture in film; Cop Hater gave it a good try, while The Mugger avoids it completely. You can tell it had a shoestring budget from its lack of characters and cheap-o sets.
Unlike Cop Hater, which wasn’t bad, The Mugger was nowhere close to good. The film is sluggish, listing, and banal, lacking any sense of character or plot depth to result in monotonous and shallow tripe. That also means it’s short—74 minutes—so there’s a reason for its lack of anything; that brevity is something of a plus. The change in character could have worked great, but instead we’re left with a rather bland psychiatrist-detective with a rather bland wife and some uninspired coworkers; the most interesting characters are the bit-players and suspects. Kent Smith was no newcomer to crime/detective cinema, and while he doesn’t phone his role in, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic either. The film as a whole just didn’t do anything for me.
I’m unsure this film will please hardcore McBain readers given all the alterations that were made, nor did it blow me away as a standalone police mystery, so I’m unconvinced this film has enough of an audience to give it some rediscovery comeback: it’s just not that good.
I’m blazing through Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels of late, and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Score! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. First up:
Cop Hater (1958) – MGM
On the hottest, steamiest summer in the City’s recent memory, somebody is out killing cops. Detectives of the 87th Precinct are getting gunned down while off duty. One murder is problematic and depressing; two is an endemic. The rest of the 8-7 cops are uneasy, on edge, unsure how or when this cop hater will strike again. Detectives Steve Carelli (Robert Loggia) and Mike Maguire (Gerald O’Loughlin) are put on the case, and are racing against the clock before another cop dies. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter is trying to uncover dirt to blow this story wide open, and rookie detective Bert Kling has a rough few days on the job.
McBain’s novels have a strong character-driven, humanist approach as their centerpiece: these are average, everyday guys, blue-collar-workers with guns kind of thing. They’re not the super-exaggerated detectives of most noir fiction; combined with McBain’s inclusion of real technique, procedures, and documents, it gives his 87th a very realistic feel.
That’s important to realize since the film follows the same approach. We see Maguire and Carelli hanging out and drinking, going for a night on the town with their wives; we see their two respective home lives, which have a major impact later on the plot. They’re also an interesting parallel. Carelli’s engaged to Teddy, a deaf-mute; two young lovers kind of thing. Maguire is the older cop, with a slightly burnt-out home life; you get the feeling his wife Alice (Shirley Ballard) really wants something more in her marriage now that the spark is flickering out.
The film deals with some very heavy adult themes for the ’50s; the deaths have a lot of weight and grit—murder, after all, of the protagonists’ figurative brothers—and we see a lot of sexual tension and implications without any real detail. Alice dresses quite provocatively—at one point she models her new swimsuit—and Teddy’s later caught in nothing more than a bath towel. Meanwhile, we have a trip to a brothel, and a large subplot about a youth gang who might include suspects, and who are antagonized by the reporter’s grilling. (Juvie gangs are so nostalgically ’50s, when the corruption of our youths’ innocence to violence and drugs was the second greatest threat to our civilization, behind Communism.)
I haven’t read the novel yet, but from what I can tell most of the pieces are there. Aside from Carella becoming Carelli, all the big-name characters still here; “Carelli’s” wife Teddy is still a deaf-mute; the City is no longer McBain’s nameless amalgam but is more clearly New York. Many of the huge cast of detectives with bit-parts in the series are rolled into faceless characters here; that’s understandable, given the difference between the two forms of media, and there’s a large cast of nameless actors in the Precinct’s offices to create the illusion of a large, overworked police squad. Everything I see is accurate enough, though I don’t remember seeing Maguire in any of the book reviews or synopsis I’ve read, so there’s that.
So what we end up with is a good, well-rounded film, yet one that’s overall unexceptional, not much more than drive-in fare; it’s a little too short, and it feels rushed when its credits are rolling over the action to save time—seriously, people are talking and running around while names, and later The End, fill up the screen. It looks like a B-movie, and feels like a B-movie, even as it sticks to the rigorous authenticity of life as a detective. That said, I thought it was very enjoyable for what it was, and is worth checking out for the noir/crime/detective movie fan. I liked it well enough.
I think most of the horror movies I’ve seen were a part of those long, televised movie marathons Sci-Fi and USA and TNT used to air on major holidays. I know it was on USA, and I’m pretty sure it was Labor Day, when I first saw this fine film.
Tremors shows what happens when two fed-up handymen, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, decide to leave the isolated Nevada town of Perfection one day too late. They become trapped in the desert valley by huge subterranean worms that have snake-tentacles in their mouths. These two heroes, along with a college-student seismologist and a cast of oddball city residents—the annoying kid, the single mother, the survivalist gun-nut couple, the Mexican dude, the Asian grocery store owner—have to figure out first how to survive, then how to escape.
The only way I can think to categorize Tremors is as a b-movie creature feature. It has all the parts—monsters, survivors, the heroes, the girl, escape plans, climactic “kill the evil thing” ending. It’s something of a homage to the monster movies of yore, one that manages to keep a straight face while keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Its heroes are handymen; the girl is introduced as pretty homely; the monsters (like all proper b-movie monsters) are both terrifying and somewhat inane; that’s not even including Michael Gross’ survivalist gun-nut character.
This is an enjoyable movie, for its camp, its humor, its slick effects and tight pacing.When a film names its monsters “graboids…” you know it’s not meant to be taken seriously. The fact that it takes itself somewhat seriously—but not too seriously—just adds to the charm. It’s a modern day b-movie, only it rises above the genre to be a solid film.
Why is it scary?
Again, the humor cuts the scariness down a few notches, the film does follow all the basics of a creature feature:
- Isolated location: it’s a tiny town, blocked off from the rest of the world by mountains. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no contact with the outside world.
- Finding the monster’s aftermath: we don’t see the creature for most of the film, just the bloody ruin in the wake of the graboids, including a dessicated corpse in a telephone pole, a decapitated farmer, piles of dead sheep, and a submerged station wagon. We’re shown these things are dangerous before we get a first glimpse of them.
- Don’t Show the Monster: Even when we do see the monster, it’s just one of the snake-like tentacle heads, which is rather small and harmless compared to the real thing. Living under the ground helps: we see the attacks, but not the monster.
- A menace you can’t get to: the graboids are under the ground. Not only are they hard to kill, rarely surfacing to be shot at, but they’re also impossible to see. They strike without warning, grab something, and drag it down under the ground. It’s like Jaws in the desert.
- A smart monster: the graboids get pretty damn smart, proving they can learn later on, which makes the escape attempts come to a screeching halt with the need to devise a new plan.
- Death by other means: there are several instances where the characters are stuck somewhere, in the desert heat, without food or water or shade. They’re put in situations where, if they don’t act, either they’ll die of thirst, or the monsters will get them.
Not the scariest movie out there, but it has plenty of tricks it uses to its advantage.
The b-movie people who hate b-movies love. A trashy horror movie with a philosophical axe to grind. And it’s got Bruce Campbell to boot.
Bruce Campbell is Sebastian Haff, Elvis impersonator in an old folks’ home. Unless he really is Elvis, like he thinks he is. He’s largely bed-bound, left alone with his reflections of past glories and introspection on age and life. His lone friend is Jack, an elderly black gent in a wheelchair who claims he is JFK (dyed black after the assassination attempt, then left to rot). These two must face off against an ancient Egyptian mummy who walks the halls of the retirement villa, slaying old people.
It’s a surprisingly deep movie, all things considered, though its humor is derived from the ludicrousness of the situation. Is this really Elvis? That pill is easier to take than accepting the old black dude is really JFK, but most of all, this is a movie with a mummy that regenerates by sucking the souls of old people out of their assholes. Not something to take seriously, despite its serious introspection from Elvis/not-Elvis on the topics of age and life. This is a complex film, with some great scenes, and an unforgettable performance on behalf of Bruce Campbell.
Why is it scary?
Well… it isn’t? The horror parts are something of a derail to the meditation on old age (and/or sanity), and are somewhat predictable. But that’s part of the fun: in a way, it’s a b-movie parodying b-movies. A lot of the humor comes from the protagonists, yes, but also in the weirdness of the situation: an ancient mummy? Which sucks souls out of somebody’s ass? In an old folks’ home? And these are the only two people who stop it are
Though, it is worth noting that there’s some viable terror here: it’s pitched as a drama in many circles because the horror parallels, and in many cases augments, the film’s philosophical messages: the helplessness and isolation of old age. Horror often uses isolation and helplessness to its advantages; here, the characters start off weak and old to boot. People don’t believe that they’re really Elvis and JFK to begin with, so it’s up to them to prove that they’re not just old and worthless.
The first true horror movie I ever saw, and the only ’50s B-movie that scared me at all. (What can I say, I would have been… seven? Eight? Another one of those Sci-Fi channel movie marathons celebrating Labor Day or Columbus Day or something.) I liked it enough that I taped a later showing, and watched it until the tape burned out. It may not have much actual horror, but it does have good atmosphere for the first third, and some great action scenes for the last acts. Great fun, at least.
Pretty basic plot. Ants were mutated by atomic bomb testing in the White Sands area of New Mexico. They’re now giant, killer, and lurking the countryside in waves. The local authorities find out because some locals are being killed off; now they’re on the hunt to stop the ants from spreading… which they eventually do, leading to a showdown in the Los Angeles sewer system.
At the end of the day, it’s a giant bugs movie, but it’s the granddaddy of all giant bugs movies. I can’t think of a ’50s B-movie that handled its inane giant bugs plot with more seriousness or atmosphere. It has the benefit of lots of post-War military surplus on-hand, it’s filmed on location, its cast is pretty good, and they have some impressive (for 1954) special effects. It’s corny, but it’s also the best example within its genre.
Come to think of it, there is a close second, but it’s more of a Kaiju film. Rodan has always impressed me for the same style of horror: watch the first parts again, with mine workers and military policemen dicking around in a flooded mineshaft, getting picked off one by one. What makes that even better is that they’re dying not from the titular kaiju, but some Cloverfield-esque parasites; when the rodan show up, shit gets real, but most of the movie is over by the time the miniature buildings get wrecked. Much like Them!, if you turned it on without knowing what it’s about, the lurking horror mystery would be really well done. Alas, when there’s a giant rubber animal on the poster, you already know what you’re getting into.
Why is it scary?
To a greater or lesser extent, it isn’t; we all know it’s giant bugs, and there’s only so much horror you can do with giant ants. That said, the movie has a excellent pacing for the first half hour: we don’t see the bugs, just the devastation of their passing. It’s a solid trick to any horror movie: don’t show the monster until it’s too late. Them! does this with style: little girl with a broken doll, busted-out trailer, ruined store and dead shopkeep. If you weren’t paying attention, the mystery of it all would be stunning. Instead, since we know it’s giant bugs, it’s not so much mysterious as deeply atmospheric.
It’s also set in the most isolated setting ever: the desert. There’s nobody around except for the cops, the bumbling scientist, and his daughter. Those two cops were perfectly isolated for the first act; you could chalk that up to “B-movies had no budget” except the film has dozens and dozens of extras running around L.A. for the final fight scenes. It’s a gradual growth in characters as the magnitude of the threat increases, which I think adds to the film’s charm: strange happenings in the New Mexico desert to army dudes driving jeeps around the L.A. sewers.