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Retro Review: BLACKOUT (1978)


(Canada/France - 1978)

Directed by Eddy Matalon. Written by John C.W. Saxton. Cast: Jim Mitchum, Robert Carradine, Belinda J. Montgomery, June Allyson, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Ray Milland, Don Granbery, Terry Haig, Victor Tyler, Camille Ange, Fred Doederlein, Judy London, Norman Taviss, Gwen Tolbart, Vlasta Vrana. (R, 92 mins)

A then-topical, "ripped from the headlines" Canadian tax shelter quickie cranked out in response to the infamous NYC blackout and the resulting looting and crime spree over July 13-14, 1977, BLACKOUT never gets as nasty or exploitative as its R rating would lead you to believe, and other than some minor cursing and a bloody stabbing, it could easily pass for a TV-movie. It's surprising in retrospect that the '77 blackout didn't lead to competing Movies of the Week on all three major networks, but the bland BLACKOUT never takes advantage of being the only contemporary semi-dramatization of the event, instead resorting to recycled tropes of the decade's disaster movie craze (the poster even has the standard "faces in boxes" design showcasing the sort-of all-star cast). Released by New World Pictures in the fall of 1978, BLACKOUT was relegated to grindhouses and drive-ins and other than a 1986 VHS release and some scattered TV airings, has languished in obscurity in the decades since. It's just been released on Blu-ray in a flawed but as-good-as-it-can-be edition by Code Red (because physical media is dead), and while it's not really very good, I'm glad it's available. And it's got some curio value, like one of the producers being future MEATBALLS, STRIPES, and GHOSTBUSTERS director Ivan Reitman, and a cast headlined by the sons of two Hollywood legends sharing scenes with revered old-timers looking to cash in on the declining disaster cycle by slumming in a cheap B-movie from the director of 1977's schlocky CATHY'S CURSE.

As a storm rages over NYC (played mostly by Montreal mixed with mismatched stock footage of Manhattan), a series of lightning strikes takes out the power grid, sending the entire city into darkness and total chaos. At the same time, a prisoner transport van crashes and the cops running it are killed by crazed Christie (Robert Carradine, youngest son of John), who dons one's uniform and leads three other psycho escapees (including Don Granbery, who played a similar role in the previous year's Canuxploitation home invasion thriller THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE) into a nearby high-rise where they make their way through the building on an overnight spree of rape, robbery, and murder. Meanwhile, cop Dan Evans (Jim Mitchum, eldest son of Robert), apparently the only police officer in the area, happens upon the transport crash and heads into the building after hearing the screams of a tenant (Belinda J. Montgomery), who's just been raped by one of the psychos. Among those terrorized by Christie and the fugitives are French magician Henri the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who gets lectured by Christie about the dangers of living on credit cards before being stabbed in the stomach; Mrs. Grant (June Allyson), whose ailing husband (Fred Doederlein) is on a ventilator; and wealthy, asshole art collector Stafford (Ray Milland, cast radically against type at this point in his career as a pompous, sneering prick), who initially refuses to give the psychos the combination to his safe, even as they beat his helpless wife, but finally caves when Christie threatens to burn a priceless Picasso (and, in a brief moment where you actually side with the bad guys, Christie gets in the safe but proceeds to burn all of Stafford's paintings anyway). In accordance with disaster movie convention, there's also two people trapped in the elevator, a pregnant woman (Gwen Tolbart) about to go into labor, as well as a big, fat Greek wedding packed with drunk, obnoxious guests on the top floor that will no doubt be crashed by Christie and his creeps.

Director Eddy Matalon and screenwriter John C.W. Saxton (ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE S.S., HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, CLASS OF 1984) don't really convey the chaos of the NYC blackout aside from a handful of cutaways to the power company command center and a few random shots of black people looting. Instead, they stay confined to the high-rise in what amounts to a proto-ENEMY TERRITORY/DIE HARD situation, the latter especially once Christie pulls a "Bill Clay" on Evans by passing himself off as a resident. But the comparisons end there, as Matalon generates little suspense and really no one to root for since the lumbering, sleepy Mitchum--at the end of a very short-lived stint as a drive-in headliner, following MOONRUNNERS, TRACKDOWN, and MANIAC!, aka RANSOM--can only get so far by looking exactly like his father, not even possessing the screen presence of his younger brother Chris, let alone the magnetic star power of his legendary dad. Carradine, several years before cementing his place in pop culture history with 1984's REVENGE OF THE NERDS, fares better as the ruthless Christie, even if the crimes for which he was incarcerated (he's an activist who has a chip on his shoulder about...corporations and credit cards?) don't really gel with his homicidal actions. The older actors seem like they're getting sub-Irwin Allen table scraps, particularly Allyson, who's far too classy to be in something like this, even if it's relatively restrained for its type. Neither she, Aumont, nor Milland (a Best Actor Oscar-winner for 1945's THE LOST WEEKEND) have much screen time, and Allyson's character just disappears from the film after Christie ties her up, gags her, and shuts off her husband's ventilator just because.

There's some obvious audio damage inherent to the print used for Code Red's Blu-ray, a sort-of audible, rhythmic hiss that's apparent whenever there's no dialogue. It tapers off as the film goes on and is hardly a dealbreaker and might actually accentuate the grindhouse experience. No, the only real issue with the BLACKOUT Blu-ray is (deep breath) yet another steaming shit sandwich of a commentary track from the two-man wrecking crew of Code Red head Bill Olsen and L.A.-based DIY filmmaker Damon Packard--the duo last heard knowing fuck-all about anything to do with Lamberto Bava's DEVILFISH--who welcome co-star Belinda J. Montgomery for her first and probably last Blu-ray bonus feature. Perhaps best known to genre fans for co-starring with Patrick Duffy on his pre-DALLAS '70s cult TV series MAN FROM ATLANTIS and later as the title character's mom on DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D., the now-68-year-old Montgomery acts sparingly today but had a very busy career on TV from the early '70s through the '90s. But it's this commentary that might actually constitute her finest acting thus far, as she somehow doesn't just get up and leave after a barrage of idiotic comments from Olsen and Packard, who have clearly done zero prep work and, judging from how often they throw her a question that's already been asked and answered, don't even appear to be listening to what Montgomery is saying. Honestly, I got 25 minutes into this commentary and couldn't take it anymore, but among the lowlights in that short period of time:

  • Olsen taking all of 52 seconds into the film before uttering something stupid, over a stock footage shot of NYC: "This isn't Quebec," to which Montgomery replies "Yep, it's supposed to be New York but we shot in Montreal." OK, sure, maybe he was making a joke and it just didn't land, but I've heard enough Bill Olsen commentaries to conclude that's probably not the case.
  • Olsen doing his usual schtick of mispronouncing people's names as they come up in the credits, and saying "Gene" Pierre Aumont, with Montgomery immediately correcting him with "Yes, Jean-Pierre Aumont." 
  • Olsen and Packard deciding, apropos of nothing, to shit all over score composer Didier Vasseur when his credit appears. Olsen, chuckling: "There's a great musician." Packard: "Never heard of him." Well, Vasseur also composed two other films by Matalon, including CATHY'S CURSE, which might be worth mentioning as opposed to a flippant "Never heard of him." If only there was some sort of, oh I don't know, some easily-accessible database on the internet that had movie information where one could quickly find out this sort of stuff beforehand. 
  • Packard asking "What else has Eddy Matalon done?" Again, if there was only a way to find this information online ahead of time.
  • Montgomery mentioning that MAN FROM ATLANTIS was canceled after one season, followed five minutes later by Packard asking "Why were you replaced on the second season of MAN FROM ATLANTIS?" Montgomery clears her throat and replies "There was no second season of MAN FROM ATLANTIS." 
  • The Canadian-born Montgomery mentions early on that she got her start when she came to Hollywood in 1969, so of course, Packard later asks "When did you get your start?" 
  • Olsen keeps talking about Don Granbery being in THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE, aka DEATH WEEKEND. Packard: "Was that a Canadian film?" Yes, it's pretty well-known among Canadian tax-shelter films of the period.
  • Montgomery mentions she didn't see BLACKOUT when it was released, but she and her husband saw it somewhere several years later (I would assume on TV). Olsen, less than ten minutes later: "Now, when this came out, did you see it in a theater?" 
  • Montgomery reminisces about doing an episode of MARCUS WELBY, M.D., and says "Robert Young was just adorable." Packard: "Robert Young the director?" Montgomery, after a pause: "No. Robert Young. The star of the show." Packard: "Oh." Yes, there is a director named Robert M. Young (SHORT EYES, ONE-TRICK PONY, EXTREMITIES, DOMINICK AND EUGENE), but how do you not think of the actor Robert Young when someone is talking about MARCUS WELBY, M.D.?

And with that, I, unlike Belinda J. Montgomery, had heard enough. She's not an A-lister, but she's someone who's been in the entertainment industry for 50 years. She has an extensive list of credits and she's worked with a shitload of people. Is this supposed to be some kind of convention-defying, avant-garde, anti-commentary performance art or are Olsen and Packard really this dumb? Do the prep work, fellas. Montgomery deserves that respect, and to an extent, so does BLACKOUT. It's not a great movie. Hell, it's not even a good movie, but this is likely the last chance to preserve it and its making for posterity. That doesn't mean it needs to be an academic, Criterion-style commentary by a stuffy film professor, but even commentaries for the crummiest movies, even if you want to be amusing (which Olsen and Packard are not), need to have a certain level of research, preparation, and professionalism.

BLACKOUT opening in Toledo, OH on 11/17/1978

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