Friday, February 05, 2016

035. Death Riders and 036. Medusa

Jump to Medusa (1973)

035. Death Riders (1976)
Director: Jim Wilson
From: Cult Cinema

A documentary following the Death Riders, a death-defying stunt troupe that specializes in motorcycle jumps and car crashes.

The first title card in the movie notes that all the stunts are real and have resulted in someone's death at some point in time. Then they run through a list of all the stunts with the names and dates of people who died doing them. I know they intend for that to be dramatic and to establish early tension, but opening your movie with, “people who've done what you're about to see have died!” could just as easily preface a film of people eating a meal or walking down the stairs.

Which, of course, is not the attitude to have approaching this film. I was doubly inclined toward my contrarian posture, though, when one of the people said they take “no special safety precautions. That's the way we like it.” Well, then they're stupid.

I have nothing against daredevil acts or stunt performers, but part of the appeal is that they're going to be okay. They may be pushing their bodies to the limit or doing things that are, on their face, really dangerous, but in reality they're going to be safe because they've prepared and taken precautions. I mean, Mad Max: Fury Road looked as good as it did because nearly everything on screen was practical effects. So when a guy leaps from one speeding car onto another that then explodes, someone did that. It's spectacular to see. And it's no less spectacular for all the harnesses and low-speed practice runs they did to make sure no one got hurt doing it.

When I see someone say, “We could really get hurt. A-hyuk!” I'm not sympathetic and I'm not really worried. So the movie started off on the wrong foot for me even though it did have a nice scene of one of the drivers knocking all the glass out of a car because, for safety, he can't have anything that might break off or confine him during or after the stunt. That's neat, that explains part of this work that I don't inherently understand. Unfortunately that's the only moment in the movie like that.

The documentary is trying to be more a slice-of-life/portrait than trying to tell any kind of story. So there's no through line, no sense of what the film is focused on, and no sense of any of the Death Riders in particular. They're all 17-18 year-old kids with that same unaffected, “like, I dunno” way of speaking. Also, being kids, they can't really articulate what is special about what they do or why they keep returning to it despite the risks.

I mean, Wordplay is about crossword puzzles and it got me excited about its subject. How does a movie about people riding motorcycles through tunnels of fire fail to grab me?

There are a few very nice shots—particularly one of a motorcycle doing a ramp-to-ramp jump that keeps pace with the motorcycle the entire time—but the movie seems more interesting as a curiosity or document of a moment than as a film you'd recommend to someone.

036. Medusa (1973)
Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: Christopher Wicking
From: Cult Cinema and Chilling

Jeff owes nearly $200,000 to a loan shark and has found out that he and his sister have just been cut out of their uncle's will. His only hope is to find and destroy the final will so that the inheritance will be reinstated. Doing so may leave several people dead, though, and draw his sister into the trouble as well.

I've seen this movie several times. It's on the first disc of the Chilling set so it ended up getting rewatched every time I tried to wade through these movies before. Despite having watched it several times, I still don't remember what it's about, which maybe says everything that needs to be said.

The movie takes its time establishing what the plot is, who the characters are, and how they relate. Seriously, the opening portion is a long stretch of “Who is this? Why is this happening? Hey, it's Cameron Mitchell!”

Yes, the movie features our lord and savior, Cameron Mitchell, may his name be praised, and he is, hands down, the best part. He plays Angelo, a loan shark who needs the $174,000 Jeff owes or the syndicate Angelo works for will be angry. That provides a nice source of pressure. Angelo is being the evil mafia-type, but is putting pressure on Jeff because there are worse things breathing down his neck.

Jeff starts tracking down who might have the will, but none of the targets have it and some mysterious person keeps murdering them in conjunction with Jeff's visits. Meanwhile Jeff's sister, Sarah, is betrothed to be married and is trying to cover for Jeff's public outbursts, doing harm to her relationship in the process.

So things roll along their merry, confusing way. We know Jeff and his sister are going to die because the movie opens with the two of them dead on their boat and Jeff beginning the story in voice-over. Since this isn't Sunset Blvd., it doesn't work.

When the film isn't being confusing, it's focusing on Jeff, played by George Hamilton who is hamming it up and trying to, I guess, demonstrate his range. Hamilton, though, seems to understand that as braying like a donkey and doing bad impressions of Cary Grant, among others. Hamilton has a production credit on this so I don't know if he was brought in to add his name to it and just assholed his way through the movie or if he was actually involved in the creative process and wanted to prove he could do a “scary, serious” role.

Whatever the case, this felt like My Big Fat Greek Tax Shelter. There are shades of incest in the movie as well as pained pretensions of depth by referencing Socrates and other philosophers, but never to any purpose. Hell, even the title never makes sense. Medusa is never invoked and there's not any metaphorical significance to the title. It's just pointless, which I guess, does make it an apt title for this film.

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