A Pale 'Jennifer'

A Pale 'Jennifer'

Washington Post, The (DC) - May 12, 1978

Author: Gary Arnold

"Jennifer" is doubly deficient: a copycat movie that fails to copy imaginatively. The principal model is Brian De Palma's "Carrie," which seems to be encouraging as many imitations as "The Excorcist." If it put an end to "Carrie" spinoffs, "Jennifer" might justify its existence.

The plot doesn't so much unfold as squirm around, subject to the filmmakers' desire to recall "Carrie" without placing themselves in technical jeopardy of plagiarism. In their desperation they pilfer from other sources to fill out the continuity: a disco sequence inspired by "Saturday Night Fever" and recollections of new obscure fight melodramas like "Willard" and "Sssssss." The story conferences were probably closer to scavenger hunts.

"Jennifer" really should have been called "Slither," since the beleagured schoolgirl heroine, portrayed by Lisa Pelikan, the adolescent incarnation of Julia in "Julia," gets even with her cruel classmates by invoking snake-charming powers rather than Carrie's telekinetic powers. It appears that the budget may not have permitted apocalyptic special effects. "Jennifer" is obliged to fake it with a batch of rubber snakes and an occasional harmless-looking real snake.

A faulty imitation can enhance one's appreciation of the original. Each blundering move in "Jennifer" tends to remind you of how astutely "Carrie" was imagined and rationalized.(Ironically, the same thing happens in De Palma's new thriller, "The Fury.") Jennifer is located at a supposedly exclusive girls' school, where she inspires the malice of a slutty troublemaker who resents her for having a scholarship and a West Virginia accent. It's immediately apparent that the copier don't quite understand what made the original tick.

Unlike Carrie, Jennifer never appears believably out of it, either socially or emotionally. The more convincing tormented character is Lousie Hoven as an overweight girl who humiliates herself trying to be one of the troublemaker's confidantes and recalls a bit of the poignance of Catherine Burns in "Last Summer." The mother whose religious fanaticism and sexual guilt afflicted Carrie has been replaced by a fundamentalist father of no dramatic consequence, even though the role is played by Jeff Corey. The troublemaker's spite, feebly motivated to begin with, ends up causing harm only because she's protected by the frankly corrupt headmistress of the school, Nina Foch, a far cry from the sympathetic teacher played by Betty Buckley who tried to help Carrie, only to become a victim when her humiliation at the prom turned Carrie into a monster.

"Jennifer" is expedient at every point. It substitutes trumped-up motives for truly elemental feelings of deprivation and rage. Even if the horror climaxes were something to look at, which they aren't the preparation that makes a climax dramatically satisfying would be missing. "Jennifer" doesn't know what horror movies are about, what emotions they're designed to clarify and purge.

It remains to be seen how sympathetic Lisa Pelikan might be under the best circumstances. She's a spooky-looking young actress, with huge gray irises and a sharply defined jawline that ends in a chin so prominently dimpled that it appears dented. In "Julia" she seemed a clever match for Vanessa Redgrave and interesting because her young Julia was vaguely dislikeable, sinister in some indefinable way. She may be better suited for vixens rather than heroines.

It's not her fault that "Jennifer" is never in the same league with "Carrie," but the next time a starring opportunity seems to knock, she might be wise to take a longer look at the caller.

Murder by the Blade

Murder by the Blade

Washington Post, The (DC) - October 1, 1980

Author: Gary Arnold

The newspaper ads for "He Knows You're Alone" and "Schizoid" are almost identical, the dominant motif being a dark silhouette with a sharp weapon (knife in one case, scissors in the other) gripped in its fist. The copy also overlaps: "The wedding night killer is about to strike again!" contrasts with "Dear Julie: Don't let me do it again . . ."

Obviously a similar MO. And at the theater where I sampled "Schizoid" over the weekend, lobby posters for the upcoming "Terror Train" and returning "Prom Night" quadrupled the stabbing imagery.

Despite the impression of bloodthirsty uniformity, these movies have been far more distinctive in mood and technique than, for example, porn features or the genre of raunchy farces spawned in the wake of "National Lampoon's Animal House," More often than not, murder thrillers exhibit an authentic flair and gusto, suggesting that they supply the least expensive and most reliable pretext for aspiring talent.

If John Carpenter could earn a reputation as an exciting young stylist with a scare movie as elementary and ponderous as " Halloween ," then the unknown directors of "He Knows You're Alone" and "Schizoid" -- Armand Mastroianni and David Paulsen respectively -- merit instant cult acclaim and multiple-picture deals. They imprint a surprising amount of kicky, insinuating stuff on the screen, notably and aptitude for erotic comedy that needs a less frightening and under handed pretext to evolve in a consistently satisfying way.

It's curious that in both movies, the most shocking elements tend to receive the most derivative, cliched depiction, with the camera crudely stalking the victims while the sound track redundantly breathes down their necks. The directors can't afford to skip the violent pay-offs, of course, but they seem far more inventive and relaxed with the expository material that precedes and follows the atrocities.

In "He Knows You're Alone" the killer is identified relatively soon as a psycho whose specialty is terrorizing young women about to be married. Judging from the pile of victims he leaves behind, the homicidal urge is easily transferred to friends, acquaintances and by-standers. (In fact, a title like "He's All Over the Place" would be more appropriate.) I wish Mastroianni (a cousin of the famous Marcello but born and raised in New York) and screenwriter Scott Parker had used one of the lines echoed with creepy effectiveness in the course of their playful, verbally witty script: "Is Anybody There?"

"He Knows You're Alone" is the classier production and superior fright spectacle of the two. It opens with a deceptive, illusion-meet-reality murder sequence that combines hilarious and terrifying effects. Making a scintillating feature directing debut at the age of 30, Mastroianni reveals a special knack for juxtaposing funny and frightening stimuli, recalling De Plama and Steven Spielberg at their most provocatively amusing.

It's a safe bet that Mastroianni's cirriculum included "Carrie" and "Jaws" as well as "Psycho," which is casually discussed by one of the characters and twice emulated. "He Knows You're Alone" inspires sustained, high-decibel shrieking when Mastroianni cuts loose, but it ingratiates itself in a more congenial way by being so mischievosly movie-crazy and by swift strokes of characterizationand funny romatic by play.

Most of the characters -- including those seen or heard only momentarily -- create distinctive impressions. The apparent ease with which Mastroianni can achieve a humorous, diverse social atmosphere may carry him much further in the long run than the mechanics of pictorial terror, proficient as he is at souping up the jolts and shivers The menace seems more menacing because you're often charmed or tickled by the people in harm's way, notably Don scardino (the only recognizable human in "Cruising" not so long ago) as the affable ex-boyfriend of the imperiled heroine (caitlin O'Heany, effectively vulnerabvle in appearance but not quite adequate histrionically); Patty Pease as the heroine's liveliest pal, a sexpot with an infectiously brazen sense of humor; and Joseph Leon as the crusty, cigar-puffing proprietor of a bridal shop.

Mastroianni's exuberant talent doesn't necessarily save him from bad judgement. The killer seems to come and go with the freedom of a phantom and strike with the inhuman force of jaws or The Thing. A subplot involving a cop obessively pursuing the killer seems as misplaced as a dangling shirttail. If Mastroianni and Parker couldn't get it tucked in, they should have cut it off. Worst of all, the fadeout evocation of " Halloween " is a very dumb joke. o

"Schizoid" is a hapless title, and for the first reel or so it appears unlikely that the film will rise above its initial lurid homicide and low-budget veneer.

Neverthless, Paulsen succeeds in sustaining a mystery plot and showing flashes of intuitive directing ability in a ramshackle context. The hit in his movie consists of five women introduced sharing gossip and champagne in a hot tub. (Obvious overlooked title: "The Hot Tub Murders.") It's disclosed that the victims have something else in common: an ambiguously tormented group therapist played by Klaus Kinski, revealed to be romantically entangled with more than one female member of the group.

Perhaps the funniest line in the script occurs when murder has taken a toll of Kinski's patients, and he exclaims "Where is everybody?" (another swell title wasted) at a small turnout. The ultimate target is Mariana Hill, who writes a newspaper advice column, "Dear Julie." It's Julie's friends who get knocked off first, and the suspects are somehow connected with Julie.

At first every suspicion points rather too directly at Kinski. The rival suspects -- Craig Wasson as Julie's estranged husband and Christopher lloyd as a building suprintendent infatuated with Julie (hilariously, he's also a member of her group) -- don't receive nearly as much suggestive footage. Unexpectedly, Paulsen compensates for this weakness by springing a fourth suspect, who could be in a unique position to frame Kinski. s

Finally, in a deft climactic manuever Paulsen gets all four suspects and the heroine in the same deathrap -- her office -- at the same time. Having achieved this social coup, Paulsen begins cooking with a skill you couldn't have anticipated in the early reels. Throughout the denouement the suspense intensifies partly through the manipulation of clever ironic details like the timely use of the prevailing murder weapon, a pair of scissors, to help save the heroine's skin. When the final credits roll up you still feel slightly breathless from the whirlwind payoff.

Mastroianni and Paulsen haven't come to town with the most reputable vehicles ever made, but you leave convinced that they know how to get some exciting mileage out of those rattletraps.

Too Many 'Knights' in the Same Old Town

Too Many Knights in the Same Old Town

Washington Post, The (DC) - May 20, 1980

Author: Gary Arnold

The Hollywood Knights," the motleyest imitation yet of "American Graffiti," illustrates how rapidly decay can set in after a concept is generally recognized as appealing in Hollywood. The idea of "American Graffiti" was rejected by every major studio (and some twice) before finally being shot for the paltry sum of $800,000 and released successfully in 1973.

Its success inspired a popular TV series, "Happy Days," which then became the model for increasingly strained spinoffs and imitations. "American Graffiti" no doubt paved the way for fitfully interesting theatrical disappointments like "American Hot Wax" and "The wanderers." The derivative trail seemed to come to a dead and last summer when George Lucas himself collabrated on "More American Graffiti," a misbegotten sequel to his original triumph. With "The Hollywood Knights," Floyd Mutrux, the director of "American Hot Wax," seems determined to wear out the welcome of a once-amusing nostalgic device once and for all.

"Knights" relies on a soundtrack full of golden oldies to evoke the ostensible setting. Beverly Hills on the Halloween night, 1965. The members of a car club, the Hollywood Knights, cruise in and out of their favorite meeting place, a drive-in diner called Tubby's that is scheduled to close the following day, victimized by uptight residents and urban renewal.

The jerky, threadbare continuity is devoted to savoring the antics of the most irrespressibly clowish Knights, notably an obnoxious campus cutup called Newbomb, embodied by a smirky galoot named Robert Wuhl. Sort of a cheerless, vague reminder of Dick Shawn, Wuhl betrays the ill effects of too many appearances as a facetious would-be escort on Chuck Barris' "The Dating Game." He already resembles stale comic goods in his movie debut. Moreover, he appears so old for the role that one is left with the impression that Newbomb must have been repeating the 12th grade since about 1950.

Evidently destined for a career as the slimiest lounge comedian in Las Vegas, Newbomb celebrates this farewell Halloween by repeatedly humiliating other subspecies: Gailard Sartain (who played The Big Bopper in "The Buddy Holly Story") and Sandy Helberg as stoogy patrolmen; Leigh French and Richard Schaal as adulterous upper-middle-class hypocrites; Stuart Pank as a fat adolescent mama's boy. The Newbomb repertoire relies all too heavily on stinky chestnuts: food-chuckling, mooning, flatulence, even the old flaming dog doo on the front porch. He's got a handful of hot ones, does Newbomb.

The derivative ineptitude of Mutrux's burlesque humor is epitomized in his borrowing of the sight gag from the cover of the National Lampoon's High School Yearbook Parody. You'd think that moving pictures might do more with the idea of a pantyless cheerleader than a still photograph could, but Mutrux is so imprecise and inattentive that the forgetful (or exhibitionistic) cute isn't even caught from wittly revealing, decisive angles. Mutrux canan barely be trusted to get a laugh out of can't miss, pie-in-the-face situation.

Mercifully, not every Knight is supposed to be a card. There are subdued subplots dealing with a member about to join the Army (and presumably perish in Vietnam) and another (Tony Danza of "Taxi") at odds with his girlfiend (Michelle Pfeiffer), a carhop with dreams of a Hollywood career. Although it comes as a welcome change of emphasis, the "serious" motif is as superficial and perfunctory as the farce. Nothing takes hold within this spastically facetious, centrifugal filmmaking context. Moreover, the dialogue tracks seem so poorly recorded or mixed that the conversation is often reduced to incomprehensible static.

Mutrux is probably a genuine child of pop culture, and he showed some comic aptitude in "American Hot Wax." He's backpedaling in "Holloywood Knights," a disgraceful trifle predicated on an idea whose time has passed. Far from showing continued promise, Mutrux has now identified himself as a kind of untutored, remedical-school imitator of George Lucas.

' Halloween ': A Trickle of Treats

' Halloween ': A Trickle of Treats

Washington Post, The (DC) - November 24, 1978

Author: Gary Arnold

A most inappropriate Thanksgiving attraction, " Halloween ," arrives at a time when reports of an authentic horror story are bound to accentuate the triviality of a mere horror movie.

Not that this plodding exercise in sham apprehension would look impressive even if one felt starved for morbid stimulation. Now at area theaters, " Halloween " is far more proficient at torpor than terror.

Evidently conceived as a genre talent showcase by 30-year-old John Carpenter, who also collaborated on the minimal scenario and composed the undernourished score. " Halloween " is a stab at a derivative minor classic. It's apparent where Carpenter got his horror devices - and a minor misfortune that he hasn't been able to synthesize them in a fresh or exciting way.

The movie begins with a prologue in which a teen-age girl is stabbed to death in her room on Halloween night, 1963. The murder is depicted subjectively, supposedly from the point of view of the killer, who peeps at the girl as she necks with her boyfriend, extracts a butcher knife (inevitably reminiscent of the murder weapon in "Psycho") from a kitchen drawer, climbs a steep staircase (inevitably reminiscent of a key setting from "Psycho") and attacks the victim, who is unclothed and appears to recognize her assailant.

In a moment it's revealed why she knows him: the killer is the victim's kid brother, dressed in a clown's costume. This kicker is the sort of "masterstroke" that makes the crime itself look clownishly implausible, but Carpenter blunders on. It's 15 years later, Halloween Eve, 1978. Two passengers in a car navigating through a rainstorm (inevitably reminiscent of a situation in "Psycho") are entrusted with cryptic expository lines updating the murderer's case history.

The passengers are a psychiatrist, played by Donald Pleasence, and a nurse. According to the physician, the killer was a child of six when he stabbed his sister and has failed to respond to treatment while growing up in an institution for the criminally insane. He is convinced that this bad seed, named Michael, will always be a menace - indeed, the essence of evil. He is determined to impress this fear on a parole board scheduled to review Michael's case.

Arriving at the institution to pick up Michael, doctor and nurse discover that he's been waiting for them. In fact, he steals the car from under their negligent noses and heads for the scene of the crime, Haddonfield, Ill., an idyllic small town obvioulsy chosen to duplicate Hitchcock's use of pretty, serene Santa Rosa, Calif., as a backdrop for terro in "Shadow of a Doubt."

Once back home, the grown Michael, whose face remains averted from the camera, branches out a bit, recalling sources other than Hitchcock. He begins stalking potential victims derived from Brian DePalma's "Carrie" - high school girls played by Jamie Lee Curtis. P. J. Soles and Nancy Loomis - and affecting a heavy mockasthmatic wheeze borrowed from the maniac played by Ross Martin in Blake Edwards' "Experiment in Terror."

Since there is precious little character or plot development to pass the time between stalking sequences, one tends to wish the killer would get on with it. Presumably, Carpenter imagines he's building up spinetingling anticipation, but his techniques are so transparent and laborious that the result is attemuation rather than tension.

Carpenter lacks the stylistic flair and psychological penetration that have allowed De Palma and George Romero to contribute new classics to the horror in recent years. Carpenter's scenario isn't rooted in anything except old movies, and it develops too arbitrarily to establish roots even in that shallow ground.

Michael's case history doesn't sustain the movie beyond the prologue. The killer has no identity as a dangerously demented human being. He's a thing lurking in the dark, the bogeyman that a neighborhood kid takes him to be.

Moreover, that darkness is so Stygian that it's often impossible to discern anyone's face or appreciate the monster's unexpected entrances. The murky images are the closest Carpenter comes to giving the picture a "look," and it turns out to be a self-defeating one, similar to the lighting miscalculations that seem to be plaguing many movies these days, especially "Comes a Horseman" and the still unreleased "September 30, 1955," both shot-by Gordon Willis and both literally lost in the dark for long, long stretches.

Eventually, Carpenter's dimly perceived bogeyman degenerates into a bad joke. After snuffing the high school girls played by Soles (who appeared in "Carrie" as the best pal of bad girl Nancy Allen) and Lomis - whose promiscuity apparently renders them expendable - Michael is confronted by the straight-arrow character of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis but more suggestive of a melancholy, ungainly young Lauren Bacall).

The movie ends with the sound of heavy, heavy breathing still haunting the pleasant tree-lined streets of Haddonfield. A horror melodrama that resorts to an "irony" like that obviously wants to be congratuled for digging its own grave. Congratulations.

"Rolling Thunder": Twisted Violence

"Rolling Thunder": Twisted Violence

Washington Post, The (DC) - October 29, 1977

Author: Gary Arnold

John Flynn's crisp, laconic direction and evocative use of Southern Texas locations - the San Antonio area, with particularly effective, sinister excursions to border towns like Del Rio - transorm "Rolling Thunder," now at area theaters, into a more distinctive exploitation movie than it deserves to be. The screenplay, which originated with Paul Schrader, the writer of "Taxi Driver," is miserably vicious, a hybrid of "The Wild Bunch" and "Death Wish" in which a returning P.O.W., an Air Force major who spent eight years imprisoned in North Vietnam, sets out to massacre a gang of hoodlums who break into his home, shove his right hand down a churning garbage disposal and shoot his wife and son.

The premise is twisted in a way that could serve as a textbooks example of pornographic violence. All the major's ordeals - physical and emotional, as a prisoner and a returning serviceman and family man - become pretexts for kinked-up, brutal sensations and a final orgiastic shooting spree.

There's no point in responding to the hero's situation with ordinary sympathy or human interest, because these amount to sucker's responses in this context. Flynn directs the homecoming encounters between William Devane as the major, Hordon Gerler as his son and Lisa Richards as his wife, who has become romantically involved with another man, with such admirable stillness and concentration that one could be fooled into believing that the film intends to deal with his readjustment problems conscientiously. In retrospect, one may recall this as the neatest single illusion in the picture and wish John Flynn a more appropriate subject for stylistic concentration the next time around.

it doesn't take long to discover that the humanistic murmurs are setting up nihilistic knock-out punches. Bringing on the murderers spares a screenwriter the drudgery of trying to resolve the estrangement between the major and his wife. At the same time it's presumed to give a melodramatic warrior a "mission" worthy of his training and value system. Yet there's no conviction behind this mission of vengeance, no sense of values that might deserve to be protected or offenses that might deserve to be punished.

On the contrary, the hero and a fellow P.O.W. who joins him, played by Tommy Lee Jones, are justified on the basis of professionalism rather than motive. We're supposed to accept the platitude that they're emotionally dead and have been since their capture during the war. The major has become a stranger to his family, and while he's offered a girl friend who might be some consolation - Linda Haynes, who resembles a careworn Tuesday Weld, makes an appealing impression as a cocktail waitress whose down-to-earth aspirations and apprehensions correspond to the audience's - he must reject her, or else miss the climactic shootout.

The major's comrade leaves a household conceived as the meanest of lower middle-class sancturaries, a haven for prattling women and unheroic men. In its simultaneous contempt for the homefronts the heroes ostensibly march out to avenge or protect and for the scummy adversaries they'll face, the movie exposes an emotional and moral blackout far more genuine than the perfunctory daze ascribed to Devane and Jones, both very capable actors. This picture was conceived by someone - presumably Schrader - who glorifies violence, yet only responds to it as a transcendant, abstract pictorial spectacle, an esthetic thrill, like the nomcombatants who derive more satisfaction from combat than professional soldiers.

There are some exceedingly ugly notions in "Rolling Thunder," and they're never mitigated by the kind of character exploration and embiguity that strengthened "Taxi Drive." For example, the major is depicted recalling nightmarish scenes of torture and then reenacting some of those scenes, with a hint of of masochistic gratification. His severed hand is replaced by a prosthetic device that becomes even better than a hand for the purposes of this story, because he can file the to a point and use it as a deadly weapon.

The big showndown self-sconsciously justaposes sex and violence. The setting is a Mexican bordello, so naked actresses scurry about trying to stay out of the line of fire while the actors pretend to have it out. Speaking of having it out, Jones is depicted being undressed by a whore seconds before the shooting starts, and he comes out of her room with an automatic rifle in one hand while zipping up his fly with the other. "Rolling Thunder" is undoubtedly Spawn of Peckinpah, but some of its kinkier wrinkles might shock the originator himself.

'Telefon': Dialing for Spies

'Telefon': Dialing for Spies

Washington Post, The (DC) - December 17, 1977

Author: Gary Arnold

"You must admit it's ironic, the KBG sending you to protect the American Establishment," says Yankee accomplice Lee Remick to Soviet secret agent Charles Bronson late in "Telefon," a new espionage melodrama at several area theaters.

This line says a lot, since it reflects the movie's uncertainty about whether the audience has been witty enough to appreciate the filmmakers' little detente-in-spired joke of casting Bronson as a Soviet spy trying to prevent a renegade colleague, Donald Pleasence, from provoking World War III with acts of sabotage in the United States.

The real problem is that the filmmakers lay out this story blueprint so doggedly that the audienfe is invariably 25 pages of expository chitchat ahead of them. Following "Telefon" is about as thrilling as being kept on hold for the better part of the day.

The title refers to a telephone-activated sabotage network supposedly by the KBG back in the early '60s. If worse came to worst, about 50 agents long since submerged in ordinary American identities and walks of life could be triggered into carrying out strategic acts of sabotage in the manner popularized by "The Manchurian Candidate" - hearing a code phrase that compels them to obey hypnotically implanted commands.

There's a tension-eliminating goofiness about the premise from the outset. KBG biggies Patrick Magee and Alan Badel turn to Bronson, the superspy with the photographic memory, because they don't want to 'fess up to Brezhnev; assuming the Telefon project had become obsolete, they didn't tell him about it. As a matter of fact, it probably is obsolete, they didn't tell him about it. As a matter of fact, it probably is obsolete. Pleasence can't retarget the human missiles he activates. In the first of these suicide missions we're invited to see a Denver gas stateion owner blow up what used to be a Chemical-Biological Warfare storage depot.

Upon his arrival Bronson is contacted by Remick, an American liaison who rivals Pleasence as a candidate for instant liquidation in my book. Supposedly assigned to assist Bronson, she immediately begins to henpeck him prattle and demands for equality. But the filmmakers have a surprise up their sleeves, eventually played with no flourish, that they think explains her presumptuous conduct.

In my naive way, conditioned by so many years of stories in which characters with apparent affinities were brough together and clues were systematically followed up, I kept expecting Bronson to be matched with the likable woman on the premises, a brainy CIA researcher played by Tyne Daly (who also brought an ingratiating note of humanity to the last Clint Eastwood vehicle. "The Enforcer"). I still see no compelling reason why the paths of the American office worker with the fabulous memory and the Russian field operative with the fabulous memory shouldn't cross.

The script credited to Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant tends to inspire unintentional mirth at least from the moment one hears the ominous code phrase - a passage from Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Still, they have a way to go before matching the editorial writers at Izvestia, who handed the film company a publicity bonus when "Telefon" was shooting in Helsinki, which doubled for Moscow.

The Izvestia salvo couldn't have been wilder: "It is obvious that the film has a provicative character. Its purpose is to stroke up a psychosis against the Soviet Union in western countries. . . The wires from this 'Telefon' lead back notorious western intelligence agencies which use every dirty method in their anti-Soviet activities."

Director Don Siegel joked that he expected to be summoned to the Kremlin and awarded a decoration after the movie came out.

He can dream, but no one will be pinning decorations on him for the quality of "Telefon." If anything, Siegel's style of direction seems to be slowing to an irreversible plod.

'The Choirboys': An Out-of-Tune Precinct

'The Choirboys': An Out-of-Tune Precinct

Washington Post, The (DC) - December 24, 1977

Author: Gary Arnold

Among the Los Angeles patrolmen characterized - or, to be precise, caricatured - in "The Choirboys," now at area theaters, the term "choir practice" is a euphemism for an all-night drunken toot in MacArthur Park. At some stage the original author, Joseph Wambaugh, and the director, Robert Aldrich, must have envisioned a profane popular comedy patterned after "M*A*S*H," with the choir practicesserving the same purpose for overworked, pressured and sometimes brutalized urban cops that the binges and practical jokes served for the battle surgeons in Robert Altman's film.

"The Choirboys" belongs to the tradition of service comedies, but I doubt if anyone will hail it for doing a service for either cops or movie auidences. If the filmmakers had ironic or satirical intentions, the finished film totally obscures them. There's no contrast between cops at work and play. The whole movie suggests a dirtyminded "McHale's Navy," with scenes pivoting on gross set jokes alternating with scenes pivoting on grosser sick jokes.

Some of the jokes are so raucously or goofily low-minded that you may laugh out of a kind of shocked weakness. At a certain level there is something funny about the idea of a drunken slob creeping under a glass-topped coffee table to get a peek up a women's skirt or the idea of a jumper being provoked to her doom by a cop who tries to use reverse psychology and dares her to "go ahead and jump."

However, once commiting your entertainment in this direction, it may be impossible to change. Towards the end "Choirboys" attempts to get serious about the sordidness that it has been wallowing in for gratuitious, episodic laughs, and this switch seems both deceitful and laughable. It's much too late to take a different tack, and at the fadeout the mood returns to cackling facetiousness. The promotion for this movie should probably be built mately, neither the filmmakers nor the characters feel any credible pain. They're just rowdy fraternity boys in blue.

Wambaugh, who did the original adaptation of his own best-selling novel, has been busy disowning the film. He succeeded in having his name removed from the screenwriting credits and placed an ad in movie trade papers complaining that Aldrich had done him wrong. It's difficult to see how. The comic vulgarity originated in the novel, and surely no one could imagine the director of "The Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Yard," "Hustle" "The Killing of Sister George" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" suddenly developing a delicate touch.

It's more likely that Wambaugh came to the realization that visualizing this colection of tales told out of school could be more embarrassing and misleading than simply publishing them. "The Choirboys" is a vaudeville of precinct scandals and follies that may not mean the same thing to cops that they mean to civilians. Although he supplied the pretext and context, Wambaugh may not care to associate himself with the misconceptions about police work and psychology that could result from the film version.

"The Choirboys" takes a fairly obnoxious place among a burgeoning genre of Hollywood films determined to revel in raunchiness. "Slap Shot" set, the pace earlier this year. Now we have "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Saturday Night Fever," "The Gauntlet" "The Choirboy" and even "The World's Greatest Lover" straining to keep up, The spectre of television must be partly responsible: To a certain extent these movies recommed themselves because they'll need to be expurgated for telecasting.

Charles Durning has the most prominent role in a large, able but largely wasted cast as the hard-bitten patrolman "Spermwhale" Whalen, suggesting a cross between Spencer Tracy and Los Costello. Not too surprisingly, Burt Young creates the most human and appealing impression as a motley-looking but gentle natured vice cop. Tim McIntire also gets something distinctive into the boobytrapped assignment of the resident redneck bigot. Robert Webber cops the booby prize for his teethgrinding closeups as, naturally a mealy-mouthed brasshat.