Drive-in Double Feature #19: Smokey and the Judge/Alien Thunder [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Dark Force Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (23rd December 2023).
The Film

Smokey and the Judge: Doing time at the state women's penitentiary after taking the rap for her boyfriend's robbery of a jewelry store, Carol (Cathy Carson) finds a musical kindred soul in Margo (Gwen Owen) who plans to hit the music scene when she gets outside and inadvertently finds some help with that by way of a dating service when she meets sketchy talent agent Morris Levy (The Fog's Darrow Igus). Margo gets a job as a waitress, but her missed shifts raise the suspicions of her stern parole officer Wally Lewis (The Female Bunch's A'leshia Brevard) who suspects that she is turning tricks. By the time Carol gets parole, Margo has paired up with Maria (Juanita Curiel) and Morris gets the trio an audition in the dead-end town of Pitts at a local dive bar run by leering Ed (Blade Runner's Hy Pyke) who hopes the girls will satisfy his clientele in other ways besides singing. A speeding ticket puts them in the lecherous cross-hairs of Sheriff Cutter (Guess What We Learned in School Today?'s Gene Price) and corrupt Judge Maddox (Scarface's Joe Marmo) who offer them an alternative means of paying off their three hundred dollar fine. The trio turn the tables on the men in a humiliating fashion and get ready to skip town when Morris gets them a space at a local talent show judged by record producer Matt Polskey (Motel Hell's Rory Calhoun). Parole officer Lewis has discovered that her two charges are violating the terms of their parole and schemes with the sheriff and the judge to catch them in the act (literally).

Although the success of Smokey and the Bandit spawned a mini-boom of imitators, there were also plenty of distributors eager to pass off any random regional production with action elements as something in the same vein. According to IMDb, Smokey and the Judge had several working titles before its release, and the replacement title card on black that interrupts the flow of the title sequence suggests it had one more before this one. "Makin' It" sounded like a teenage sex comedy, "Just Not the Same Without You" sounds like a melodrama, and the trio of "Strong Together", "Stronger Together", and "We Can Be Stronger Together" sound more like a drama than a comedy with a music angle that was intended as a vehicle for the band Hot (Owen, Carson, and Curiel are credited onscreen beneath the band name). Presumably the intended title was "Runnin' Hot" after the Bruce Stewart song that accompanies the end titles. The frequent musical interludes are the best thing about the film as whatever acting talent the leads have are undercut by the script which only gives Carol a backstory and comedy best summed up by casting character actor Hy Pyke in a dual role as the bar owner and a used car salesman "Mr. Kuntz" police brutality as a comic set-piece. Director Dan Seeger had worked in the editorial department of Samuel M. Sherman's Independent-International but conveys little affinity for handling actors or staging action in any way but the most banal through least three car chases including one that involves a dynamite-dropping crop duster. If the viewer is happy with the neat wrap-up, it may only be because the long ninety-minutes is finally over.

Alien Thunder: When Cree Indian Almighty Voice (Legends of the Fall's Gordon Tootoosis) who had been arrested for slaughtering one of his own cows for food without the permission of the colonial government kills mountie Malcolm (Invasion of the Body Snatchers' Kevin McCarthy), his friend and colleague Dan Candy (Don't Look Now's Donald Sutherland) vows to Malcolm's young widow (Four Flies on Grey Velvet's Francine Racette) to apprehend him. Candy's superior Inspector Brisebois (Mon Oncle Antoine's Jean Duceppe) will not spare more men and resources, so Dan takes off on his own, hunting Almighty Voice and his pregnant wife Small Face (Ernestine Gamble) across snowy landscapes from outpost to outpost, and repeatedly encountering Sounding Sky (Little Big Man's Chief Dan George) who neither helps nor hinders his quest. When Small Face gives birth, however, Almighty Voice goes on the offensive and starts hunting Dan. In a move to placate the townspeople, Brisebois puts a price on Alimighty Voice's head and Dan fears that a bunch of bounty hunters will prevent him from apprehending him alive. Dan tracks Almighty Voice and a few other Cree to a stretch of forest, but the intervention of Brisebois, forty mounties, and a canon threatens to turn the standoff into a circus as well as a massacre.

Based on a true story, Alien Thunder is shot-through with painterly snowy Panavision landscape shots and chiaroscuro interiors scenes as if attempting to take after Mccabe & Mrs. Miller but dramatically it is an extremely uneven experience. Quebecois director Claude Fournier, who also photographed the film, seems more concerned with the look of the actors and the settings while only payinglip-service to its necessary exposition without conviction. The action scenes lack suspense while the dramatic scenes lack resonance. Sutherland's performance is ludicrously all over the place including some downright embarrassing line readings as if he was given little direction, Duceppe is wooden, and Racette is marginally better in a largely decorative role. Tootoosis and Chief Dan George come across the best, but they are not required to do any more than be wise and ambiguous as per the script's cardboard characterization. George Delerue's spare but beautiful score tries to sweep us up in the flow of the beautiful images, but the editing is choppier than suited to the languorous pace (making some of the cuts seem like bad reel changes). What remains is visually-striking but uninvolving.
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Video

Following its short theatrical release, Smokey and the Judge appeared on now hard-to-find VHS under that title in 1981 from Sun Video and later from Academy Home Entertainment under the title "Makin' It". The film had an unauthorized DVD release from a company that billed the film as being "In the tradition of Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard!" with Dark Force's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray representing the first legitimate release. Transferred from new scan of the original CRI, the image has been color-corrected while any digital clean-up has been conservative leaving behind some faint dings and scratches on a fairly attractive image given the seventies color schemes and largely functional cinematography.

Alien Thunder circulated theatrically under that title from Cinerama Releasing Corporation in regional releases in 1974 before going to television as "Dan Candy's Law" (cropped 16mm prints of which served as the sources for Prism Entertainment's VHS/Beta release and various PD DVD editions. Scorpion Releasing gave the film its DVD bow in 2011 in a barebones edition that finally made sense of the tight compositions. Dark Force's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfer comes from a new scan from the 35mm internegative. Either due to different materials or the grading, the titles are in red whereas they were in orange on the earlier transfer, and the image impresses once we get past the optical titles further degraded by on-camera diffusion, natural lighting, and heavy fog. The reds of the mountie uniforms pop while skin and hair textures are now more lifelike than on DVD. Plenty of speckling remains at the reel change points and dings and dents are apparent throughout but often the compositions are so arresting as to make up for these defects.
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Audio

Both films feature lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks, with Smokey and the Judge sounding cleaner in general and faring best with the boisterous music track while the dialogue track is sometimes subject to the location recording. Alien Thunder has very apparent underlying hiss throughout and instances of clicks and pops on the optical track corresponding to picture damage. The dialogue of the half-production audio, half-post-synched track occasionally sounds harsh but some of this may be due to the original mix rather than digital clean-up. There are no subtitles.
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Extras

Neither film includes any extras but, as per Dark Force's other drive-in line titles, the films can be watched separately of in a Demon Drive-in Mode which includes a program of trailers for films as unevenly matched as the double feature and intermission shorts (13:22) between the two features.
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Overall

While Alien Thunder might have had some vaguely arthouse pedigree to warrant a release on its own, its paring with Smokey and the Judge in a drive-in double feature might make the purchase of the two lesser-known films worth the risk of at least one of them appealing to the viewer.

 


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