Directors: Alexander Grasshoff, Paolo Bianchini (as Paul Maxwell)
Code Red DVD

Started by BCI a few years ago, the “Exploitation Cinema Double Feature” line has been a welcomed drop-off for worldwide cult items (some truly obscure) of the “anything goes” variety. With BCI’s demise, Code Red has thankfully continued the series on DVD, and with this release, provides two entries which couldn’t be less alike: an American dramedy about an independent cabbie and an Italian/Spanish superhero action flick. For all we know, this match-up could’ve been decided by the flip of a coin, but diversity can be a good thing, and we’re all for it.

Bored with his stable but ho-hum job in the factory and wanting something more out of life, Mexican-American Pepper Morales (John Astin) quits his factory position and blows his savings on a rusty old 1959 Cadillac. Painting his name and "taxi" across the jalopy’s doors, Pepper turns it into a cab and embarks on driving about the San Diego area looking for fairs and with high hopes of growing his business with additional drivers. With a posse of children at home and his wife Maria (Maria Pohji) about to have their fifth, Pepper has a lot to be responsible for and his newfound cabbie career brings on one heartbreak after the other. Pepper not only has to deal with not having the proper permits (or a meter for that fact), but has to compete with the legal yellow taxis lingering around the airport. At one point, his vehicle’s engine breaks down in a cloud of black smoke, and later the damn thing gets stolen as soon as his back is turned. The final act of the film concentrates on Pepper’s madcap search to find it.

With not much of a plot and material that’s not a fraction as funny as its advertising campaign would have you believe, WACKY TAXI (aka PEPPER AND HIS WACKY TAXI) is actually very watchable (and can be fairly enjoyable) for two reasons: the on-location guerilla shooting in various parts of San Diego and John Astin. Astin, who was given supporting roles in a number of Hollywood comedies around this time, is here given a rare starring role and does his best with the unimaginative material and makes the film his own. Anyone who’s ever been down on his luck and attempted to make ends meet (while at the same time grasping at a dream) can identify with the character of Pepper, and the very talented Astin plays him marvelously with a blend of humble facial impressions, great comic timing (watch him drop a crowbar on his foot when cornered by the police or coerce a pack of navy men into his cab) and improvisation, which the film seems to rely on a lot.

Released in 1972 by Avco Embassy as a family film, by it’s one-sheet poster, WACKY TAXI might have looked to be something like a Disney endeavor which forgot to cast Dean Jones, but it may have been more influenced by the then-recent POPI (in which Alan Arkin marvelously played a struggling Hispanic father) as it’s definitely more of a comedy/drama in that vein, albeit on an extremely low budget. It’s funny what you could get away with in the early 1970s: the film was given a G rating, though it depicts a female marine (Marian Brasch) being driven to the border of Mexico so she can enter Tijuana for a quickie abortion, as well as Pepper invading the home of the man he believes stole his taxi, only to get a slow motion pounding by a bunch of guys in retaliation. The celebrity special guest stars include stand-up funnyman Jackie Gayle (seen briefly a projectionist), novelty recording legend Alan Sherman (as a loud-mouthed, over-eating fare who gives awful directions) and singer Frank Sinatra Jr. (as the man Pepper believes robbed him of his livelihood). Ralph James (BIG BAD MAMA) is good as Pepper’s pompous brother-in-law Jaimie, a lawyer who Americanizes his name and is constantly putting down and discouraging poor Pepper.

An Italian/Spanish co-production, SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS involves a small army of robots (actors with stockings over the faces and what looks like space age loving cups on their heads) performing abductions, robbing banks and causing general havoc. The Secret Service determines that the right man for the job is Superargo (Ken Wood), a costumed crime crusader garbed in red leotards and a black Batman-like upper face mask. Superargo is assisted by his Indian mystic friend (Aldo Sambrell, THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) who teaches him some mind tricks and other neato techniques that come in handy later. Anyway, our hero sets up a trap to capture one of the robots for examination, but that results in the kidnapping of his love interest (Luisa Barreto, here billed as Liz Barrett) and later has to re-enter the ring (he’s a retired wrestler you see) as further means to lure his unstoppable mechanical enemies. Superargo’s snooping leads him to the castle of master criminal Juan (American tough guy actor Guy Madison, BEAST OF THE HOLLOW MOUNTAIN) who’s behind the creation of these super bots and all the “wanting to take over the world” shenanigans.

Although everywhere on the DVD packaging’s front, back and side, the film is referred to simply as “Superargo”, make no mistake that this is the follow-up to 1966’s SUPERARGO VS. DIABOLICUS. Originally released theatrically in the U.S. to kiddie matinees in 1970 by Joe Soloman’s Fanfare (as second feature support for Antonio Margheriti’s WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS), SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS (L'invincibile Superman) continues the hokey comic book fun of its predecessor, a European crime genre hodgepodge of such 1960s icons as Batman, Bond and of course the Mexican-made masked superhero wrestling flicks.

Ken Wood (who starred in a string of Spaghetti westerns and whose real name is Giovanni Cianfriglia), is confident, athletic, and well-spirited as Superargo and never looks the least embarrassed in his bright red attire, even though he knows he’s in acting in something aimed at ten year-olds (Madison looks like he might be embarrassed, but it’s hard to get the full picture since his voice has been re-dubbed). There’s lots of fight scenes (the robots use a ball-and-chain as their choice of weapon, while our heroes have ray guns), levitation as a means of escaping certain death, a cavern headquarters for the baddies and a small stretch of quicksand (suspiciously covered by piles of Fall leaves) which comes in handy during the climax. Sensuous-eyed, raven-haired Spanish beauty Diana Lorys (who horror fans will easily recognize from THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF, MALENKA, THE BLOODY JUDGE, BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL and others) is Juan’s wicked assistant, wicked that is until she has second thoughts about sparing our crimson-tighted hero.

Both titles are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement. Transferred from serviceable print sources, both have some muted colors with TAXI being the more consistent of the two in terms of overall quality. SUPERARGO’s colors suffer more from reddish Eastman hues and a number of emulsion scratches and other blotches, but don’t let that daunt your enjoyment of the “grindhouse” experience on display here. Both films have adequate mono English tracks with no subtitle options. For those who need a distraction while viewing, SUPERARGO has a “comedy” commentary by Cinema Head Cheese (featuring 42nd Street Forever founder Jeff Dolniak with David Hayes and Kevin Moyer) and the other extra is the original WACKY TAXI trailer (which has the gall to compare the film with BULLITT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION). (George R. Reis)