SCAVENGER HUNT (1979) Blu-ray
Director: Michael Schultz
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Kino Lorber has released on Blu-ray SCAVENGER HUNT, the madcap 1979 chase comedy from indie Melvin Simon Productions (released by 20th Century-Fox), produced and co-scripted by Steven A. Vail, directed by Michael Schultz, and starring a big, big cast of comedians, including Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Scatman Crothers, Ruth Gordon, Cloris Leachman, Cleavon Little, Roddy McDowall, Robert Morley, Richard Mulligan, Tony Randall, Dirk Benedict, Willie Aames, Stephanie Faracy, Stephen Furst and Richard Masur. A flop at the Christmas, 1979 box office, I wouldn’t be surprised if SCAVENGER HUNT eventually went into the black with its seemingly endless re-runs in TV syndication and pay cable during the 1980s. Lots of kids like me saw SCAVENGER HUNT back then, and a small cult has since grown up around the hard-to-find comedy (only a VHS home video release back in the early 1980s). KL’s adequate Blu 1920x1080p 1.85:1 transfer is accompanied by a couple of new extras for the fans, including a director’s commentary track, and interviews with Benjamin and Masur.

Multi-millionaire toy inventor Milton Parker (Vincent Price, THE FLY, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES), with the bouncing aid of his sexy, nubile nurse (Carol Wayne, GUNN, THE PARTY), plays—and loses—his last electronic game, and promptly drops dead. Now, it’s time to hear the will, recorded by the sneering, cynical Parker himself. His $200 millions estate is up for grabs, payable to any of his named relatives and associates who can win his self-designed scavenger hunt. 100 items are listed, with various point values assigned. The winner is the team that amasses the most points by 5:00pm that day, with no rules about how the items are “found,” short of purchasing them. The “contestant” teams consist of: 1) Parker’s grasping, waspish sister Mildred Carruthers (Cloris Leachman, KISS ME DEADLY, HIGH ANXIETY), her seemingly mentally challenged adult son, Georgie (Richard Masur, THE THING, MY SCIENCE PROJECT), and her villainous, scheming lawyer Stuart Selsome (Richard Benjamin, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, SATURDAY THE 14TH); 2) Parker’s harried widowed son-in-law Henry Motley (Tony Randall, HELLO DOWN THERE, THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO) and his four rowdy, squabbling kids; 3) Parker’s genial nephews Jeff (Dirk Benedict, W, Sssssss) and Kenny Stevens (Willie Aames, PARADISE, ZAPPED!), with the addition of Mildred Carruthers’ cast-off daughter, Lisa (Maureen Teefy, GREASE 2, SUPERGIRL); 4) Parker’s household servants, including arch valet Jenkins (Roddy McDowall, PLANET OF THE APES, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), sly chauffer Jackson (Cleavon Little, VANISHING POINT, BLAZING SADDLES), imperious chef Henri (James Coco, THE WILD PARTY, THE CHEAP DETECTIVE), and hot French maid Babbette (Stephanie Faracy, BLIND DATE, THE GREAT OUTDOORS); and 5) dimwitted cabbie Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan, THE BIG BUS, THE TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER), the man responsible for killing Parker’s partner in a car accident, making Parker sole owner of the gaming fortune. What results is a mad dash around San Diego as the contestants smash, grab, and steal items like toilets, foxtails, suits of armor, and live ostriches to win the game...and the loot.

Supposedly inspired (according to director Schultz) by the slapstick antics of classic comedy geniuses like Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and The Three Stooges, SCAVENGER HUNT never comes close, laugh-wise, to its most obvious influence, director Stanley Kramer’s own flawed IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, let alone compares to even marginal efforts of the aforementioned clowns. Anyone who grew up on a steady TV diet of Larry, Moe, and Curly, as well as syndicated packages of silent comedy shorts, can sense right away something is off with SCAVENGER HUNT. I was 14 when it came out, and I knew it didn’t smell right then, with that main cast of talented but downward-spiraling second-tier “stars” (an immediate indicator that more in-demand talent couldn’t be persuaded to join in), and a loud round of critical boos accompanying its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run. Subsequently run and re-run on Showtime and cable TV, I watched it at some point, but apart from Benjamin’s and Mulligan’s amusingly broad turns, very little of SCAVENGER HUNT stayed in my memory.

Seen today, SCAVENGER HUNT hasn’t improved at all...but it’s such a curious waste of fine talent that you can’t help but be at times fascinated with the blatant squandering. There’s a lot wrong with SCAVENGER HUNT, but its biggest failing is the most simple (and deadly): it just isn’t funny. This is supposed to be broad, slapstick farce. Subtlety of characterization or deftness of scripting and direction isn’t needed. All we need is a script providing us with a constant stream of solid gags, guided by a director that can build a joke within a scene while at the same time ratcheting up the overall mayhem factor, with performers that can get us to laugh by employing some comedic chops.

Well, for starters: forget SCAVENGER HUNT’s script. Credited to no less than five writers (red flag), it’s clear none of them had an extensive familiarity with classic slapstick comedy. The gags are either disappointingly one-note (gee, look: water comes out when you disconnect a toilet), or unimaginative and heavily recycled (they run over Mulligan how many times and still don’t get a laugh?), while the one-liners are groan-inducing or worse, illogical (why would the luscious, pneumatic Carol Wayne say she’s in Vincent Price’s melon patch during their electronic game—that joke only gets a laugh if its his line). Michael Schultz’s direction isn’t exactly a help, either. Known previously for some wild-and-wooly comedies with agreeably frenetic edges (CAR WASH and WHICH WAY IS UP?), Schultz can’t seem to inject any zip into the proceedings this time; it’s ersatz frenzy here. Actors run around flapping their arms and yelling (to composer Billy Goldenberg’s chintzy, rinky-dink score), but the frames are dead inside, while the weed-whacker cross-cutting between scenes is atrocious, with already undernourished gags either extended beyond all human endurance or terminated before there’s a pay-off. Every bit is chopped up and elongated in an effort to achieve some sense of “bigness” that just isn’t there. Why in the world did Schultz deliver SCAVENGER HUNT at almost two hours long? No one at 20th asked for an edit (a good place to start: eliminate all of pallid Benedict’s and Aames’ stuff)? Three hour+ IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD used many millions and Cinerama to make “scope” and big-scale sight gags central, integral parts of its comedy. SCAVENGER HUNT’s crappy budget and Schultz’s weird TV sensibility only gets you badly-timed “pretend” gags that are either unconvincingly mimed (watch Benjamin not get crushed by a phony-looking safe), or poorly executed (any random BARNABY JONES episode had better car chases) or critical gags that happen too frequently off-camera (all that time spent on ostriches—har dee har har—and we never actually see one taken).

And that just leaves the actors. Not one of these talented pros has to apologize for what shows up on screen in SCAVENGER HUNT: it’s clear they had little or no help from the script and director. That being said, Benjamin and Mulligan probably come off best here. Benjamin is having a lot of fun playing a cartoony villain full of nicely-timed double takes and snarly, amusing ad libs (it’s a broad turn but still controlled), while Mulligan, doing his jittery, dense “Burt” bit from TV’s SOAP, can’t help but get laughs, despite the embarrassing things he’s made to do (like lurching around as a mummy, fercrissakes). Masur tries way too hard; physically he’s good playing a variation of the time-tested “nasty widdle kid” character, but that voice work is amateur hour. What happens to the rest of the cast—they’re basically abandoned—is what makes a bad movie like SCAVENGER HUNT so fascinating (should we all just agree not to mention genetically unfunny Avery Schreiber?). How do you take major talents like Coco, Leachman, McDowall and Randall, and give them nothing to do? Oscar-winner Leachman is only asked to screech and jab her fists at people, without one resulting titter. Is it no wonder she reportedly was a handful on the set? McDowall falls back on his patented “arch” bit (we had all seen that about a hundred times too often by ‘79), while Coco and Little and Faracy search in vain for some hook to anchor their puny antics (is it possible Little had sunk this low on the totem pole only a few years after BLAZING SADDLES?). It’s particularly depressing to see Randall, only a few years after his small screen triumph THE ODD COUPLE, appear so small and beaten-down and ineffectual. Given his talents, he should have been the most manic person in SCAVENGER HUNT, but somehow his character is designed as lethargic and morose, and it just doesn’t work (it’s like he’s in another movie). When terrific comedic performers like these can’t get more than an isolated chuckle or two out their material...they’re not the problem.

I wasn’t knocked out by KL’s Blu-ray 1920x1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of SCAVENGER HUNT. Speckling, surprisingly, was pretty heavy during the opening shots, while a few later scenes looked a little soft (to be fair, that could be the original 1970s cinematography). Colors were okay (if subdued), grain was moderately filmic. Not a wow by any means...but it certainly beats that old fullscreen VHS copy you have. I’m going to blame crappy sound work on location and in the dubbing room for SCAVENGER HUNT’s muddy DTS-HD MA 2.0 English soundtrack. Hiss is barely noticeable, but dialogue got mushy in parts. English subtitles are available.

Extras include a new director’s commentary track. Schultz speaks slow, and he doesn’t really have a whole lot to say about the actual production of the movie (details are really sparse). It’s mostly complimentary comments about the cast (...along with extended patches of silence). Highlights include Schultz worrying the movie might not be P.C. today (after calling Masur’s character a “retarded nut”), and admitting he doesn’t really remember directing Benedict and Aames (classic). Next, a new interview with Richard Benjamin (10:07) has the actor briefly discussing his start in the business, before he admits being alarmed at not remembering whole sections of SCAVENGER HUNT’s shoot (probably best). Next, a new interview with Richard Masur (10:12), features some fun production backstories (I don’t think he or Benjamin will be attending a Leachman lifetime achievement ceremony anytime soon), along with some honest appraisals about his performance (he admits to being “a little humiliated” by the overplaying), as well as some goofy sociology observations (if your career was a “horrible black hole” in the 1980s, don’t blame the decade). Finally, original trailers for MOVING VIOLATIONS, MARRIED TO THE MOB and AFTER THE FOX round out the extras. (Paul Mavis)