Friday, July 24, 2015

B-MOVIE REVIEW: “Million Dollar Mystery” (1987)

Have you ever wondered just how good a movie made by a trash bag manufacturer can be? Well … wonder no more, fellas. 

By: Jimbo X

Back in the 1980s -- no matter how stupid the premise -- it seemed like film studios had a hard time saying “no” to any movie script. This, of course, is the same decade that gave us “Megaforce,” “Leonard Part 6” and a Superman movie featuring both a robot devil woman and Richard Pryor visibly high on cocaine in every scene. Apparently, the producers figured there was no such thing as “too much” for movie-going masses in Reagan’s America. That philosophy, along with the aforementioned cocaine, explains how we wound up with big budget adaptations of both “Howard the Duck” and the motherfucking “Garbage Pail Kids,” I’d presume.

Which brings us to a guy by the name of Dino De Laurentiis. One of the most iconic producers in the history of Hollywood, he began his career by helping import world cinema classics by the likes of Fellini, Mario Bava and King Vidor to the U.S. Then, he just went off the deep end in the 1970s, alternately producing some really great flicks (like “Serpico,” “The Serpent’s Egg” and the first “Death Wish” flick) along with some really misguided, bloated misfires (most notably the 1976 “King Kong” remake, but also, the notorious slave drama “Mandingo.”) By the early 1980s, he was stuck producing mostly B-level genre-fare, which included some respectable offerings (“Halloween II” and the first “Conan” movie) and an absolute shit-ton of crappy Stephen King adaptations.

It can be argued that Dino hit his career nadir in 1987, when his distributing company released one of the absolute weirdest concept movies of the decade … and considering the out-there shit that DID prove lucrative at the box office in the ‘80s, that’s saying something.

At heart, “Million Dollar Mystery” is little more than a brazen rip-off of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” only without the appeal of a star-studded cast. But much more than that, it’s one of the most mystifyingly bad marketing ploys in mainstream film history. You see, the title “Million Dollar Mystery” is no joke -- the producers of the film actually DID offer $1 million to viewers who could solve a puzzle posed at the end of the movie. And helping put up the financing for the flick -- and with a premise like that, who wouldn’t? -- was the Glad trash bag company. So, yes, this is a film that LITERALLY had rubbish built into its celluloid.

So, yeah, it's pretty much the exact same thing as "Fury Road."
The film begins with Tom Bosley (when THAT’S the biggest name in the cast, you know you’re working with scant materials) hiding out in a safe-house, stuffing wads and wads of cash into … you guessed it, Glad trash bags. After that, he hightails it to a hole-in-the-wall diner, which just so happens to be populated by the following: an angry family complete with a dad with a mullet haircut, a rock and roll dude and his blonde bimbo harem, a just-married nerd couple that want to bone bad (the dude is played by the guy who voiced Mandark on “Dexter’s Laboratory”) and an old cowboy fellow and his … sister? Wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? Honestly, I‘m not sure what the relationship there is supposed to be. Anyhoo, Bosley flirts with the ginger waitress for a bit, then he suffers a heart attack and keels over. However, before he punches his ticket to that great Mattress Firm in the sky, he lets all of the patrons know that he’s scattered $4 million in cash throughout this great county o’ ours. And the first cool million? Apparently, it’s located somewhere in “the city of the bridge.”

Oh, by the way, Tom Bosley is actually a bit of stunt casting here, since he portrayed a character known as “The Man From Glad” in a series of old school trash bag commercials. Forget being remembered as Howard Cunningham or a Tony Award winning stage actor -- this dude will forever be linked to plastic sanitation consumer goods in my mind.

From there, we’re introduced to the tertiary members of the cast. There’s a duo of bumbling federal investigators hot on the trail of Bosley’s loot and a Vietnam veteran commando-for-hire named Buzzard. Following a way-too-long sequence in which a pick-up truck rolls down a plateau, the family from earlier drives their station wagon into a retention pond … which nearby lab techs note is actually a toxic waste pool. As their Volvo disintegrates in the caustic chemical (apparently, it can depressurize metal but doesn‘t do shit to human skin tissue),  one of the lab workers decides to drink the stuff, and automatically turns retarded. Interestingly enough, the character is referred to as “the toxic werewolf” in the film’s closing credits.

After that, the rocker dude and his comely lasses get arrested, while the family sans a ride gets a lift from an RV commandeered by two pro wrestlers pretending to be evil Ruskies and Iranian sympathizers (an oblique nod to the infamous Iron Sheik/Hacksaw Jim Duggan weed incident, perhaps?) After that, the extremely nerdy (and horny) couple try to make the sign of the three-legged Armenian mud weasel, but since they can’t figure out how a Murphy bed works, they just run around in fast-forward mode for a few minutes. In the pokey, the rock and roller dude and his lady pals trick an officer into doing a series of horrific impersonations (complete with arguably the worst Woody Allen imitation you’ve ever heard) so they can escape.

Strangely enough, all of the treasure seekers wind up at the secret location (a pipe bridge out in the desert) at the same time. The clues are written on a few eggs, but since one of the eggs got dropped, the hunters are left with an incomplete puzzle piece. After nearly plummeting to his death, one of the treasure chasers notices something wedged inside an actual pipe near the bridge. As it turns out, it’s a briefcase filled with one million dollars! But, uh, a strong wind picks up, and all of the cash flies off into a ravine. Thankfully, there is a SECOND one million dollar briefcase located elsewhere, an enigmatic clue in the briefcase reminds us.

It's a LOT queasier when you realize a stunt like this KILLED
one of the actors in the movie.
From there, its subplot city. The federal investigators show up and mill about for awhile, then the local
police arrive and an overweight female cop gets stuck in a hole in the bridge because, shit, that’s funny. A woman being a police officer … har-har! We meet a new character -- a private investigator -- whose scenes are filmed in a black and white filter. Eventually, he sets his own office on fire because he is a nitwit … such highbrow humor, I know.

So, Buzzard attempts to hotwire a truck, can’t, and decides to jack a fire truck instead. The family steals a rental car (which, for some reason, speaks Spanish) and their kids decide to team up with the pro ‘rasslers following a hammy, forced anti-materialist spiel (played entirely for laughs, of course.) The rock and roller’s blondes pull the old “American Graffiti” trick on a few squad cars, and a bunch of Boy Scouts watch the nerd couple bump uglies in the bushes. The blondes, some old fellows and the now corrupted local po-po decide to join forces, and they arrive at the second hidden money site -- a random houseboat -- just in time to watch all the money get chewed up in a paper shredder. There’s also a great bit with the money-hunters discovering the loot inside a fish tank. How’d they manage to keep the bills from getting soggy, you may be wondering? Well, you will never have to worry about the money you stole from the U.S. government ever getting damp when you stow it away in aquarium displays, thanks to the magic of Glad-Lock trash bags.

But wouldn’t you goddamn know it, there just so happens to be a THIRD million dollar briefcase, hidden somewhere in the London Bridge (which is actually in Arizona, in case you didn’t know.) Next up, we see the federal investigators attempt to jack civilian aircraft (the joke is, everybody onboard has a gun and is secretly part of some sting operation), and the cops decide to steal a tour bus filled with Asians (although I spotted a couple of Italians near the back of the Greyhound.) Some motorbikes and even a hot air balloon gets stolen, while the nerds engage in more horny shenanigans. Following a long motorcycle chase in which soccer balls play a prominent role, the little kid discovers some mysterious markings on the bridge, revealing the location of the third briefcase. Of course, the hot air balloon owner decides to yank  the money away from him, and in his getaway, he accidentally unlatches the briefcase and watches all of his dough flutter away. The impersonator cop then imitates Bill Cosby (it’s every bit as awful as you’d imagine it to be) and all of the money-seekers start swimming after a boat that floats by called “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Then, the federal agents speak DIRECTLY to the audience, letting them know there’s one more million dollar briefcase out there. As the credits roll, they talk about Styrofoam ice chests and cherries -- completely worthless banter, or subtle clues about the location of the hidden million? As it turns out … yeah, it’s actually just worthless banter.

According to the Internet, the unquestionable repository of knowledge that it is, the theatrical version of the film actually had a completely different end credits sequence, in which the federal investigators gave out clues pertinent to the location of the real-world hidden loot. As it turns out, the million dollar prize was hidden inside the bridge of the Statue of Liberty’s nose -- as determined by some dame out in Bakersfield, who was then given pretty much the film’s entire box office take as part of the contest/marketing stunt. On a side note, some theaters supposedly handed out a couple of mock, promotional dollars for the film, featuring Dino’s mug in lieu of a deceased president or Benny Franklin. My goodness, the absurd amount of actual money I’d pay to get one of those on my bookcase.

Despite producing the second and third “Evil Dead” movies, Dino never really had another “hit” movie after “Million Dollar Mystery.” During the ‘90s, he was relegated to making stuff like “Rumplestiltskin” and the ironically titled “Unforgettable,” and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s, when his production company took over the reins of the Hannibal franchise, that it seemed like Dino’s fortunes were reversing. And then, he dropped dead in 2010.

Unsurprisingly, the film was a critical and financial flop. Despite taking $10 million to make, the film barely recouped a million in ticket sales; this more or less ended the career of director Richard Fleischer, whose resume up to that point -- having directed “Fantastic Voyage” and “Soylent Green,” among other works -- was very impressive. Even worse, this movie KILLED Dar Robinson, the man universally recognized as one of the greatest stuntmen in Hollywood history. Considering the ungodly damage this movie wreaked (for heaven’s sake, even the Glad brand itself got bought out shortly after the film’s release!) maybe we ought to start referencing it as “The Conqueror” of the ‘80s, no?


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