Monday, November 29, 2010

R.I.P.: Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen

11 Feb 1926 (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada)
28 Nov 2010 (Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA)

We'll miss you – sort of.

Leslie Nielsen is not necessarily a person whose demise you might expect to see mourned on a blog dedicated to obscure and trashy films. But indeed, he did make a lot of real trash over the past twenty years – though not the type of trash we here at A Wasted Life like.
Thanks to Airplane! (1980) and the Naked Gun franchise (1988-94), Leslie Nielsen moved up from being a familiar, third-rate actor in the background of films (or a bit further to the front on TV) to being a headlining star of mostly third-rate mainstream comedies. But though more than one of the numerous crappy comedies that he was in over the past twenty years – say, for example, Repossessed (1990 / trailer), Surf Ninjas (1993 / trailer), Spy Hard (1996 / fan-made trailer) or Mr. Magoo (1997 / trailer) – might actually one day enjoy a certain level of cult popularity for being as bad as they are, they are not the films for which A Wasted Life says "We're gonna miss you."
No, the films for which Mr Nielsen is being honoured for here are a bit further back in his career: back in the days when he had an occasional role of varying length on the big screen when not busy on the small screen, or when he was the last "star" credited and first star dead (as in 1972's Poseidon Adventure), or even earlier, when he headlined the occasional B&W cheapie and, at the start of his career, even managed to have a lead in a film classic.

Forbidden Planet
Does anything need to be said about this film? If you haven't seen it, you should. A classic: had this been his only film of note, Leslie Nielsen would still be fondly remembered – and have earned his place to be memorialised on A Wasted Life.

Ransom! (1956
Dunno if this film is any good or even still available, but it gets mentioned here simply because we like the poster. This little known and forgotten film, which was based on an even less-remembered teleplay from 1953 entitled Fearful Decision, is the movie that the Mel Gibson vehicle Ransom! (1996) was based on 40 years later. If you can't remember the Gibson film, that’s OK – we saw it and can't remember it, either.

Hot Summer Night (1957)
OK, another film we ain’t never heard of and really have no idea if it’s any good – but aren't these old poster great?

Night Train to Paris (1964
Here we get closer to the kind of film we like. A B&W cheapie from 1964, an odd and badly acted espionage flick that has a perverse attraction to it.
DVD Verdict describe it well when they say: "…[T]he movie actually falls more into the Swinging Sixties Spy Caper genre, leavening its formula thriller plot with mild dollops of titillation, surrealism, and offbeat humor. Thus, you have beautiful women dancing at a party, the aforementioned guy in a bear suit running around (he's the mascot of a ski club), and Leslie Nielsen running around with a Groucho nose, mustache, and glasses and kissing a woman to stop her from screaming. At times, the mish-mash of Sixties cool and Forties noir just seems goofy, but the movie wraps up with a chase that manages to be both silly and tense."

The full trailer, which gives you a better idea of what the film holds in store, can be seen here. The badly edited short version shown below comes from the good ol’ Internet Archives.

Dark Intruder (1965)
Saw this as a kid, but I’ll be durned if I can remember much about it. It was originally filmed as a series pilot but got released as a short (59 minutes long) second feature. Nice poster, though.

Change of Mind (1969)

I'd never even heard of the film before Mr. Nielsen went the way of the wind, but this forgotten pre-Blaxploitation sci-fi message film sounds rather interesting, if absurd. (And, as always, a groovy poster.) Nielsen costars as a racist sheriff accused of murdering a black woman, but the main thrust of the film is about the social, emotional and intellectual problems faced by a liberal white district attorney after he, dying of cancer, has his brain transplanted into the body of a dead black man (Raymond St. Jacques of Come Back, Charleston Blue).
Change of Mind should be more of a message film than cheap and sleazy, which is probably why no one remembers it today.

And, as of now, along with Forbidden Planet, the following films are the real reason why we respect Leslie Nieslen here at A Wasted Life, no matter how many crappy comedies he made.

Four Rode Out (1970)

And you thought Leslie Nielson was incapable of playing an unmitigated asshole? Guess again. For years, that was about the only thing he did – and one his snivelling best was his character in this film, a little-seen imitation spaghetti western. The flick is all over the place (it even has a soundtrack by Janis Ian – anyone remember her?), but it’s a good watch. It also has the forgotten "star" Sue Lyon, which alone makes it worth watching...

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
As mention earlier, the last star named and the first to go. A classic of the Golden Age of disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure still puts many newer films to shame. (And didn't we boys all just dream about bonking Nancy Drew back then?) Nielsen’s screen time is over in the time it takes to pop open a beer, but he’s there, serious as ever. Wolfgang Peterson's remake of 2006 is such a fucking disaster in comparison (trailer), so if you saw that and gagged (like I did), give this classic a go.

Project: Kill (1976 / trailer)
Is any good? No fucking way! But who cares? It was made by William Girdler (RIP), one of A Wasted Life’s true heroes. Oddly enough, Girdler had a higher opinion of the film than we do: "[Project Kill] is the beginning of what I can do if I'm given the opportunity. Here I'm not pinned down by clichés or lousy material. It's the only picture I'm really proud of." (William Girdler, Courier Journal, 1975)
To give credit where credit is due, Leslie Nielsen is the best actor in the film, though his polyester outfits are deadly. Want to find out yourself just how bad this piece o' trash truly is? Here’s the whole film (from Internet Archives), just for you.

Day of the Animals (1977)
Either the rent was due, or Nielsen must have liked working with William Girdler, for a year after Project: Kill he showed up in Girdler’s next low budget Hollywood project (with Christopher George and Lynda Day George!) playing an asshole businessman who, like the animals in the film, is driven crazy by a hole in the ozone layer. (Huh?)
Nielsen's bear-wrestling scene is more than enough reason to see this film, which is finally available (at least here in Europe) as a cheap DVD. Due to legal problems, the film was pulled when it first came out and then re-released by the producer as Something Is Out There. The trailer to both releases are here to be seen. Believe me, the film is almost as wonderfully bad as you might hope it to be…

Prom Night (1980)

Leslie Nielsen’s last exploitive film of note before becoming a headlining straight man; if we remember correctly, he is in the film all of five minutes despite being the headlining star ahead of the then up-and-coming Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis. (We here at A Wasted Life actually had the pleasure of catching this when it came out in a downtown San Diego grindhouse at Horton Plaza, way back when it was still a sleazy and fun place to be.)
Despite the ridiculous motivation behind the revenge stalking (after 6 whole years), Prom Night is still a pretty good slasher with more than one surprise – way better than the "reinterpretation" that came out in 2008 (trailer). The originals sequels have nothing to do with this film, but some are fun in their own way…

Airplane! (1980)

This film, made the same year as Prom Night, was the beginning of two things: Leslie Nielsen ascent to a headlining deadpan comedy star, and the advent of the modern full-length (vs. episodic) persiflage comedy – ala the Scary Movie franchise and any other flick that ends with “Movie” in the title (such as Epic Movie [2007 / trailer], Date Movie [2006/ trailer], or Hamster Sex Movie [coming soon]) – that pretty much dominates modern mainstream comedy. Throwaway movies, for the most part, most of which won't be remembered or funny in ten years time, but till then the producers are laughing all the way to the bank…
Whatever. Airplane! is included here primarily because it was his first, and it is to blame for all that it has wrought. (I wonder if, nowadays, in a mainstream movie, you could still get away with having, as a joke, an adult man asking a young male child "You ever seen a grown man naked?")

Creepshow (1982)

The classic Stephen King & George Romero take on the old anthology films, liberally sprinkled (as they all were) with the twisted humour of vintage EC comics. Leslie Nielsen’s last true foray of note outside the bad comedies for which he is now best known for, and once again he plays an asshole. But he gets what he deserves…

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Once upon a time there was a comedian named Mel Brooks, and he made some good and funny films, most being satires of specific genres – westerns (Blazing Saddles [1974 / trailer]), Frankenstein movies (Young Frankenstein [1974 / trailer]), silent films (Silent Movie [1976 / trailer]), Hitchcock films (High Anxiety [1977 / trailer]) – before losing his touch.
But he sort of found it again for one film, modern persiflage comedy of vampire films starring Leslie Nielsen. A masterpiece it ain’t, but cute in its own innocent way…

Goodbye, Leslie Nielsen.

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