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Retro Review: MOON IN SCORPIO (1987)

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MOON IN SCORPIO
(US - 1987)

Directed by Gary Graver. Written by Robert S. Aiken. Cast: Britt Ekland, John Phillip Law, William Smith, Lewis Van Bergen, April Wayne, Robert Quarry, Jillian Kesner, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, Don Scribner, Bruno Marcotulli (R, 87 mins)

"Moon in Scorpio...what does it mean?" 

That's the question asked by strait-jacketed heroine Linda (Britt Ekland) at the beginning of MOON IN SCORPIO, and like her, you still won't have an answer when it's over. One of the worst slasher films of the 1980s, MOON IN SCORPIO, just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), squanders a more-than-capable B-movie cast in an amateurishly-shot and excruciatingly dull mishmash from director Gary Graver. A veteran cinematographer on drive-in and grindhouse fare going back to the 1960s--in his early days, he was part of the Al Adamson stock company, shooting SATAN'S SADISTS and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN before moving on to some New World-era Roger Corman productions--Graver (1938-2006) would occasionally helm mainstream exploitation like the 1981 Cameron Mitchell trucker actioner TEXAS LIGHTNING and the HALLOWEEN-inspired 1982 slasher film TRICK OR TREATS, in addition to having a long career directing hardcore porn under the name "Robert McCallum." But to present-day film nerds, he's best-known for his association with Orson Welles in the 1970s, which has earned him a certain degree of cred in cineaste circles. Graver struck up a friendship with Welles after contacting him out of the blue and expressing a desire to work for him. This occurred in early 1970 when the auteur was beginning work on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which wouldn't be completed and released until 2018, long after Welles, Graver, and a good chunk of the creative and acting personnel passed on. Graver was a loyal Welles inner-circler in this latter phase of Welles' life and career, serving as an assistant and uncredited co-director on 1973's F FOR FAKE and other assorted projects left in various states of completion. Happy to be an apprentice to a master and correctly assuming he wouldn't be getting paid, Graver made ends meet by taking cinematography and directing gigs where he could get them, eventually relying on the hardcore porn industry to pay the bills. At one point during THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND's on-again/off-again production that lasted until 1976, Welles gifted Graver the Oscar he won for co-writing 1941's CITIZEN KANE, which Graver held on to until he reached a financially-strapped period of his life in the 1990s and sold it for $50,000, a move that eventually led to him being sued by Welles' daughter Beatrice.






Graver with his mentor Orson Welles
Until his death, Graver was one of many people involved in the long completion process of the infamously unfinished THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Welles died in 1985, and Graver probably could've used his help on MOON IN SCORPIO, a dismal slasher outing co-produced by '80s B action stalwart Fred Olen Ray (ARMED RESPONSE, CYCLONE). It was released straight-to-video in late 1987 with some admittedly great artwork on the VHS box that could be found in any video store well into the '90s. As was the case with his mercurial mentor on so many of his own projects, Graver clashed with the money men--in this case Trans-World Entertainment head Moshe Diamant--during the film's production and eventually had the film taken away from him in post, which was probably a Welles-ian badge of honor. Diamant didn't like the supernatural angle of the script by Robert S. Aiken (an unsuccessful flash-in-the-pan actor briefly known as "Ford Dunhill" in the late '50s when he was being groomed as a Rock Hudson clone for about an hour and a half before appearing under his real name in a couple of Russ Meyer films a decade later), and instructed Graver to make it a straight-up slasher movie. When Graver disregarded his marching orders, Diamant recut the film in his absence, resulting in complete incoherence, though it's really hard to imagine MOON IN SCORPIO being good even under the most ideal circumstances.


The plot has Ekland's Linda in a psych ward, babbling about a ghost ship after being found alone on an abandoned yacht. She tells attending shrink Dr. Khorda (Robert Quarry) that she was on the yacht for her honeymoon with her husband Allen (John Phillip Law), who surprised her on their wedding day with...a trip on a yacht with his Vietnam buddies Burt (William Smith) and Mark (Lewis Van Bergen, looking like SNL-era Dennis Miller) and their annoying girlfriends? Linda is understandably puzzled, especially as Allen has had a fear of water since the war, and still struggles with PTSD from an incident involving Burt murdering a Vietnamese woman in cold blood. Mark's much-younger squeeze Isabel (April Wayne) constantly reminds everyone that "The moon is in Scorpio, you know," while Burt and his booze-swilling girlfriend Claire (Graver's wife Jillian Kesner, star of FIRECRACKER and RAW FORCE) seem to be lost in their own community theater version of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? If MOON IN SCORPIO accomplishes nothing else (and trust me, it doesn't), you at least get to hear the wonderfully gravelly Smith, who constantly sounds like he's gargling glass shards, grunt to a frequently-topless Kesner, "Hey, lay off the hooch, will ya?" thus saving it from complete ruin.


It takes about 45 of the film's 87 minutes before they're even on the yacht, and eventually, they find themselves being offed one-by-one by a possible stowaway, a knife-and-harpoon-wielding maniac. Apparently, Graver's initial cut, from Aiken's script, dealt with the trip being haunted by the vengeful spirit of the dead Vietnamese woman. That's vaguely hinted at here and in the scenes with Ekland and Quarry, where she's talking about the yacht being possessed. But none of that means anything since Diamant turned it into a Namsploitation-tinged slasher movie that offers some over-the-top gore but little in the way of suspense, since it's pretty easy to figure out the killer by simple process of elimination. Ekland was never mistaken for a great actress in her prime, though she always get by (she was in THE WICKER MAN, after all), but still, she's terrible here, and she gets no help from the laughable dialogue ("My honeymoon turned out to be a nightmare...on a death ship!"). Much of the time, MOON IN SCORPIO resembles an L.A.-shot Jess Franco film, complete with glaring gaffes (watch Kesner fill her gin glass she just filled in the previous shot and say the same line of dialogue over again, and Van Bergen's name is misspelled "Louis" in the credits), bizarre supporting characters (why are James Booth and Donna Kei Benz even in this?) and a flashback Vietnam skirmish--augmented by grainy, mismatched, decades-old documentary combat stock footage (in 19-fucking-87!)--looks like it was hastily staged in a park down the street from Graver's house. There's one big laugh that's probably intentional (a weirdo private eye played by Don Scribner is made out to be a total badass and gets harpooned about ten seconds after he's introduced), and Smith and Kesner are trying to make something out of nothing, and while MOON IN SCORPIO looks better than it has any business looking on this strong candidate for the Buyer's Remorse Blu-ray of 2019, this is decidedly not a long-buried classic that's been patiently waiting to be discovered, no matter how tight Gary Graver was with Orson Welles.



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