A year ago this weekend I made what's become an annual cult cinema pilgrimage to Philadelphia for Exhumed Films' eX-Fest II. The event is a twelve hour indulgence of all things rare, exploitative, and sleazy in 35mm (a format which regular readers know my passion for). With this weekend heralding eX-Fest III, I decided the best way to prepare would be by looking at a gem from 2012's lineup. In a bout of fortuitous timing, the film at the center of today's Shock-O-Rama costars a young Ben Kingsley!
Those among you with an encyclopedic knowledge of 70's cinema know that I'm talking about 1973's Fear is the Key, which is based on the 1961 Alistar MacLean novel of the same name. What kind of flick is this? First and foremost you should know it pits Barry Newman against John Vernon and Ben Kingsley. It didn't get much more epic than that in the 70's (truthfully it still doesn't).
The first third of Fear is the Key could easily be confused as a strangely contrived, amped up version of Newman's own Vanishing Point from two years prior. Vanishing Point is consider by many to be the quintessential car chase flick, riding Kowalski's(Newman) fearsome white 1970 Dodge Challenger into the annals of cinematic immortality. While I will not present the argument that Fear is the Key is a better film than Vanishing Point, I will unapologetically state that the car chase sequence comprising a large part of the early film is easily superior to the car action in the latter film. Sure, Vanishing Point is a much deeper, more complexly constructed film, but Fear is the Key offers breath taking car smashing action that slams the adrenaline through your veins like a muscle car through a tight s-turn.
The abrupt instigation for the chase sets the purveying tone of reckless abandon which carries throughout the run time, but it's a false lead. Newman's John Talbot couldn't be more in control of the surrounding situation if he was pulling the strings of those around him in the literal puppetry sense. Yet as he sits down in a small town southern diner demanding alcohol on the sabbath, helping himself to it when it's withheld from him, then inexplicably punching the first cop that walks in the door, control seems like it's the absolute furthest thing from this chaos.
As we put the amazing chase sequences behind us, Fear is the Key segues into an intriguing James Bond flavored adventure. The grandiose machinations of John Vernon's Vyland include an oil rig staffed with minions and menacing second in command Royale (Kingsley). While he had been acting for stage and television for years, this is Sir Ben Kingsley's first film role. Here he's the quiet sociopath, dark and vicious (and with a robust head of hair!). There's even a submarine sequence and some sneaky espionage.
The car Newman steals for use in the chase is not a Dodge Challenger as in Vanishing Point; instead it's a beautiful red 1972 Ford Gran Torino. As he slams it through escape stunts, you can physically feel the center fugal pull of the Ford's engine rocket you onward.
And so it is I go onward to eX-Fest III this weekend; my brain an egg that's ready to be cracked open and fried over the delicious exploitation-y goodness. The real treat of this film fest lies in it's closely guarded line up. The audience doesn't know what they'll be seeing, we only know that it's a deep cut sampling of all sub genres under the exploitation rainbow: blaxploitation, sexsploitation, Kung-fu, revenge, biker, hicksploitation, even Travolta-sploitation (it really is a thing. If that flick ever makes it to home release, I'll tell you all about it). The point being that if it makes you feel sleazy, there's a good chance you'll see it at eX-Fest. As of this publication there are about a dozen tickets remaining. If you live even remotely close to the Philadelphia area, you need to attend this event. Twelve hours later, you'll thank me.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.