Sunday, 12 October 2014

Quest for the Seven Cities

Director: Mark L Lester
Writer: 'Sue Donem'
Producer: Alfredo Leone
Cast: Bo Svenson, Anita Ekberg, Donald Pleasence
Year of release: 1979
Country: USA
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Scan Euro Video, 1987)

In today’s media world, there is no stigma to being a TV movie. Telemovies are often better than the films we see in the cinema, with top stars, excellent scripts, big budgets and talented directors. But there was a time, not so long ago, when telemovies were almost guaranteed to be pisspoor with slumming has-beens, hopeless wannabes and non-existent budgets.

One such is this late 1970s piece of nonsense, the quality of which can be accurately judged by the way that the writer has disguised his/her name with a staggeringly lame nom-de-plume. It seems that even Alan Smithee wouldn’t own up to Quest for the Seven Cities.

Originally released as Gold of the Amazon Women, the movie stars Bo Svenson (Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, Curse II, Kill Bill Vol.2 and the monster in the faithful but dull Victor Frankenstein), who looks like a sort of cut-price Rutger Hauer, as explorer Tom Jensen. On his way to the ‘Discoverers Club’ in New York, he is watched from the rooftops by two young women dressed in animal skins and carrying bows and arrows. A staggeringly wooden receptionist tells him that a man has been calling for him and this turns out to be elderly explorer Frederick Reynolds (Carl Low), believed dead in the jungles of South America. Reynolds has discovered the legendary seven cities of El Dorado but a man named Blasko plans to steal all the gold and use it to dominate the world drugs market. Or something.

Reynolds gives Jensen a map before being hit by two arrows from the young ladies, who then shoot each other as a form of double suicide.

At Reynolds’ wake, Jensen finds himself chatting with Luis Escobar (Richard Romanus: The Couch Trip and a recurring role in The Sopranos), a camping supplies store-owner who has never been further then upstate New York. “Was he really that famous?” asks Escobar, to which Jensen replies, “If Frederick Reynolds had lived in the 16th century they probably would have named a country after him. But he didn’t.” When their dining companion is poisoned by a man disguised as a waiter, Tom decides to go to South America to find the cities and Luis decides to go with him. It is never explained who the pseudo-waiter was or why he killed their companion, but then lots of things in this film are not explained.

Watching from a passing limo is Clarence Blasko, played by Donald Pleasence, who didn’t half make some crap films in among the good ones.

After the first ad break, Tom and Luis are in Brazil where a monk gives them a copy of a map because the original was stolen a few weeks ago. This suggests that Blasko stole it but then why is he (as we will discover) desperate to get Tom’s map? And why does Tom need the monk’s map when he has the one that Reynolds gave him? Never mind because in their hotel room Tom finds a ridiculously rubber snake in his suitcase, which is all that is needed for him and Luis to jump off their balcony into the shrubbery, climb into their landrover and drive off as Blasko and two leggy lovelies shoot at them.

The rest of the film takes place in the Amazon jungle although no attempt is made at continuity as the amount and type of vegetation varies from one shot to the next and it all looks about as lush and tropical as my back garden in Leicester. And for unexplored jungle, it doesn’t half have some parts that are easy to drive along.

In a native village (populated by people with remarkably varied skin colour for one isolated tribe) they dine on monkey stew and Tom dances with a fur bikini-clad young lady before getting into a fight with her strapping black boyfriend. The next morning, as they prepare to drive off, the big chap from last night climbs into the jeep to go with them. His name is Noboro, he is played by stuntman Robert Minor, and he gets killed off about ten minutes later. Specifically what happens is:

  • Blasko and his girls shoot at the jeep from a helicopter;
  • The three men jump from the jeep which then blows up;
  • They trek through the ‘jungle’ for a bit;
  • Luis gets bitten by some poisonous ants;
  • Noboro gets bitten by a deadly snake while finding an ant-antidote for Luis.

The Noboro character serves no purpose whatsoever except to fill a bit of time and it really wasn’t worth the actor turning up, especially when one considers Bob Minor’s amazing list of credits. These include a stack of blaxploitation classics - Blacula, Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown - as well as Live and Let Die, Rollerball, Escape from New York, Maniac Cop 2 and 3, National Treasure and, um, Team Knight Rider.

The next day, Tom and Luis are captured by a small tribe of ‘Amazon women’. In actual fact all the women are lovely young things in their twenties who are about as Amazonian as children’s TV presenters. They wear a variety of skimpy animal skin costumes, they carry spears and bows, they have fair skin, they speak English, they’re played by a couple of stuntwomen and a whole load of ‘actresses’ who were never in anything else - and some of them have crimped hair, which must be tricky to achieve in the jungle. The only exception to this is their Queen, 48-year-old Anita Ekberg who is the only member of the tribe to have ever visited the seven cities and who is mutton dressed as lamb in this movie, no mistake. The star of La Dolce Vita was at a real high point in her career in 1979, having recently completed that sensitive exploration of religion and mortality Killer Nun...

Tom and Luis are put in a wooden cage with an English guy, a German guy and an old man who is, we are assured, only 35. They are held prisoner by the Amazons purely to provide the tribe with (female) babies, a theory which doesn’t really hold up as the Englishman claims to have been there six years and there are clearly no children under six - or any children at all - running around the small village (which is obviously the previously seen native village redressed to save money).

Two girls fight over the new arrivals on a raft in a shallow river and when one falls in Tom rescues her from a rubber alligator, then he and Luis spend the night with the two young ladies, (Maggie Jean Smith and Bond Gideon). Blasko and his girls (who are renegade Amazons and, being both over six feet, actually look the part) arrive in their helicopter, drop gas bombs on the village, steal the map from Tom’s pocket and then torch the huts. The queen then leads her girls (and boys) through the ‘jungle’ to one of the seven cities, which fortunately is the one that Blasko is heading for too (along with a servant carrying his table, chair and picnic basket).

The ‘city’ turns out to be a really badly done forced perspective model where Blasko and the girls are warned away by a miniature man who says, “I was once normal size but I was shrunk alive by the...” - it sounds like ‘hebiles’. The three baddies are captured by a tribe of primitive men who also attack the women when they arrive. But Tom shows that the wee guy is an optical illusion (or as we sometimes call them, a bad special effect) and the men are repulsed by the women, who then take Blasko and his girls to the nearest town (it’s only 60 miles away!) to hand them over to the authorities.

Tom and Luis say goodbye to the ladies - who are apparently returning to the jungle (a) despite having no village left and (b) by bus - and fly off in a plane. There are no end credits on this video version (so nothing to tell us that the music is by Gil Melle who also composed for Night Gallery, Frankenstein: The True Story, The Ultimate Warrior, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and masses of other films and TV shows).

Quest for the Seven Cities is dreadful in every respect. It was clearly shot for about twenty dollars and no thought has been given towards how the tribes might exist in reality, yet this isn’t funny enough to be a spoof, surely? It’s light-hearted but it’s hardly a comedy. Among the cast only Pleasence stands out, but then his cultured criminal is about the only role with even a hint of characterisation.

The ‘Sue Donem’-ous script is the work of executive producer Stanley Ralph Ross, a major force behind the Wonder Woman TV series and also a writer on Batman, The Man from UNCLE and The Monkees. It’s full of bits that sound like they might work - Amazons prowling New York rooftops, a bite from a deadly snake, etc - but which are ineptly handled and which certainly don’t make a cohesive whole. There’s no reasoning behind anything, no clear plan of what any of the characters are ultimately aiming to do or how they will do it.

Director Mark L Lester scored a few hits in the early ‘80s - Commando, Firestarter, Class of 1984 - before returning to a career helming things you’ve never heard of. Italian producer Alfredo Leone had previously written, produced and directed Lisa and the Devil/House of Exorcism. And cinematographer David Quaid had actually worked on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and was a camera operator on Exorcist II, so this is only the third worst film he ever made.

MJS rating: D

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