The Amazon Grindhouse 3 - Flames & Dolls & Warhawk Tanzania

Jan 15, 2021

My third foray into the outer fingers of genre content available on Amazon Prime in the UK (see here and here for my first two visits) has been a mixed bag - there's at least one exploitation classic in this selection but it's accompanied by several that have few, if any, redeeming features.

Once again the posters are often the best thing about the film (hinting at delights that never materialise in the finished product) but when you get a sense that people have poured all available resources into creating something luridly entertaining on a shoestring budget then the results are often rewarding, in one way or another.

All these films are presented in HD and although high definition can sometimes magnify the imperfections of the source prints, I guess that just adds to the fun!

'Don't Go In The House' movie poster

Featuring a kind of pyromaniacal version of Norman Bates - significant mummy issues resulting from a fiery childhood trauma - Don't Go In The House (1980) is a pretty grim tale as our perspective is that of a man slowly losing whatever grip he had on reality by taking his obsession with fire to murderous extremes. The film got caught up in the video nasty controversy of the early 1980s and the theme of child abuse along with the brutal method in which victims are dispatched probably helped it onto the list of banned films - staying with killer's POV for the most part makes it an uneasy watch. The lack of shading is a drawback but Dan Grimaldi turns in an effectively quirky and disturbing performance in the lead role, almost eliciting sympathy at some points. Almost. It never quite decides if it wants to position the blame on real world psychological abuse or instead attempt a supernatural angle by suggesting it's all down to eerie voices in his head, so it doesn't win any prizes for its depiction of mental health issues, but as a singular journey into a broken mind it's more successful than many in the bargain budget realm.

Devil's Express movie poster
A blaxploitation flick that combines kung fu AND horror, Devil's Express (1976) is a micro budget early seventies offering which perhaps tries too hard to straddle genres, to the point where it sometimes feels like there's more than one movie vying for attention. That's acceptable when you're dealing with a film starring the astonishingly monikered Warhawk Tanzania (yes, really). It seems Warhawk only made two movies, and there's a considerable sense of injustice resulting from the knowledge that someone proudly possessing a handle such as that couldn't have become a sizeable cult star, at the very least. With a plot not knowing quite which direction to take (concentrate on the erupting gang war? Or the crazy Chinese zombie in the subway tunnels?) means Warhawk is missing for good chunks of the movie, but he's a charismatic presence when he does appear, even if his thespian skills don't quite match his martial arts skills. The two cops trying to unravel what's going on (Larry Fleischman and Stephen DeFazio, the latter in, apparently, his only movie role) make a decent impression via some authentic (relatively speaking) banter, and there are some surprisingly great visual choices sprinkled throughout. Ultimately it comes down to one question: how can you not watch a movie starring Warhawk Tanzania?!

The Doll Squad movie poster

An apparent inspiration for Charlie's Angels as well as being an acknowledged influence on Tarantino for his Deadly Viper Squad in Kill Bill, the concept for The Doll Squad (1973) is probably a lot more interesting than its execution. A spy flick where a team of ass-kicking female spooks are put together after an act of terrorism to thwart a villain's dastardly plan... or a frankly ludicrous plan, to be honest as, once he explains it, you are left wondering whether the long term effects have been properly considered! Francine York is engaging as leader of the squad, the wonderfully named Sabrina Kincaid, although her wardrobe is somewhat distracting at times (not that the plot requires rigorous concentration, of course). There's some hammy acting, dodgy special effects, histrionic deaths, some fun costumes (the matching-jumpsuit attack on the villain's base is a treat) but overall it's less than the sum of its parts.

Blackenstein movie poster

The enormous success of Blacula in 1972 showed there was a potential niche for horror-themed Blaxploitation flicks which led to the swift release of Blackenstein (1973) (aka Black Frankenstein) the following year. Unfortunately there's very little to recommend this entry in the genre. There always needs to be tolerance for bad acting, poor scripting, clunky directing and an obvious lack of budget with these kinds of movies but there's very little in Blackenstein to give it an identity of its own - the titular monster is nothing more than a rampaging killing-machine with little-to-no attempt to provide him with any humanity or pathos. There's some unintentional hilarity early on but this soon wears thin, and really this is exploitation movie-making in its purest form - made for the money, and nothing else. Perhaps more engaging than the movie is the story of its writer/producer Frank R. Saletri, murdered in his Hollywood Hills mansion a decade later - the case remains unsolved but there's speculation it could have been a Mob hit. 

Gone In 60 Seconds movie poster

Writer/director/producer/actor H.B. "Toby" Halicki clearly spent most of the limited $150k budget for Gone In 60 Seconds (1974) on the 127 vehicles that were damaged or destroyed through its duration, leaving little room for an actual story to frame the carnage with. The abundance of overdubbed dialogue suggests the 'plot' was fine-tuned during the editing process but then it's quite a slender premise as it is - insurance scamming car thieves have to steal 48 specific cars for a South American drug lord within five days of the job being offered, which will see them receive a total of $400k for their troubles. There's a pleasing authenticity to the film, from the locations to the superb seventies attire to Halicki's background in automobiles (he owned a towing/impound business and performs his own stunts here). The plot, such as it is, becomes irrelevant once the film's showstopping 40-minute car chase gets under way, and it's a thrilling sequence, Halicki's character's relentless determination to evade the cops, and the resulting vehicular destruction, in all its gritty glory, is far more satisfying than anything the modern slickness of the Fast & Furious franchise can offer.

Fair Game movie poster

A ruthlessly efficient Ozploitation thriller in which a woman running a wildlife sanctuary in the Australian outback is terrorised by a trio of kangaroo poachers before she turns the tables on them. And that's pretty much the size of it. There's no fat on the story in Fair Game (1986); it does what it means to do very effectively without the distractions of subtext or metaphor or anything of that nature. The relentless unpleasantness of the male characters is offset by stunning sunbaked scenery, the cinematography captures often stark landscapes with a skill that manages to rise above the low budget origins, the environment appearing simultaneously welcoming and inhospitable. Cassandra Delany has the right mix of innocence and determination, even if she does come over as cut-price Linda Hamilton at points, although her real life short-lived marriage to John Denver sounds like it may have been more of a challenge than evading three Australian hillbillies!

The Female Bunch movie poster

On paper, The Female Bunch (1969) sounds like a militantly feminist premise - a group of abused women form a marauding, violent gang where men are off limits unless it's on their terms - but the characters are so uniformly unpleasant there's very little sympathy to be had from anyone and it instead comes across as more of an anti-feminist tract. The audience surrogate character essentially bookends the film and is barely seen reacting to the behaviour in between so is essentially ineffective. The soft porn scenes do nothing to shape any kind of narrative and after a while the whole thing feels pointless, defiantly exploitative but without any substance beyond that. Lon Chaney Jr - the original Universal Wolf Man - is the only cast member to bring in any form of humanity and empathy, and it being his final film makes it notable, as does being filmed at the infamous Spahn Ranch (where the Manson Family were residing at the time). Beyond that, sadly, there's very little to recommend this one.

Killer Nun movie poster

It takes a lot to squander a title as loaded with potential as Killer Nun (1979), but that's pretty much what this Italian nunsploitation flick does. Anita Ekberg - a long, long way from La Dolce Vita - is a sister working at a convalescent home, recovering from the recent removal of a brain tumour which has caused her to develop a morphine habit. She seems to be losing her grip on reality, and when the murdered bodies of patients begin piling up, all the signs point to her being the culprit. Necessarily sleazy - throwing in sacrilegious diversions such as a lesbian affair and anonymous sex in an apartment block lobby amongst other softcore interludes - but even for the genre it pushes against plausibility too often, the cheap thrills overriding the need for logic. Clumsy when it should be shocking, whatever movie you imagine in your head when you hear the title Killer Nun, this ain't it.

NB: All films were available on Amazon UK Prime at the time of writing.

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