Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Evil promises a deadly start to the new year

By Steve D. Stones

Happy Days star Roz Kelly stars in this early 1980s slasher film directed by Emmett Alston. Like so many horror films of the 1980s, this one is an attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise.

Kelly is a punk rock mother hosting a New Year’s Eve party at a hip New Wave music club in downtown Los Angeles. Her teenage son comes to see her at the club with flowers, but she completely ignores him. A maniac killer, played by Kip Niven, calls Kelly at the club hotline to inform her that he will commit a murder every hour until 12 midnight as part of his New Year’s resolution. A club worker named Yvonne is the first victim to be killed in a bathtub in a club dressing room.

The second victim is a pretty blonde nurse at the local hospital. The killer predictably poses as a new hospital orderly who lures the nurse into a hospital room with champagne and proceeds to stab her to death after making out with her. Another nurse at the hospital discovers her body in a closet.

The killer continues to call Kelly at the music club in a disguised voice to inform her that he is committing murders. He even plays a taped recording over the phone of him stabbing the nurse at the hospital. Kelly is now forced to take his threats seriously. She asks the local police department for police protection.

By now the viewer has been exposed to lots of really bad punk rock performances, zebra striped T-shirts, and 1980s mullet hairstyles. Where are The Ramones, The Misfits and The Sex Pistols when we need them?

Feeling rejected by his mother, Kelly’s son sees his mother performing on television at the club with a punk band. In a fit of anger, he tears apart the roses he brought for her, and stretches one of her red nylon stalkings over his face as if he is about to become a killer himself. This is a particularly confusing scene because by now we already know who the killer is and what he looks like, so any attempt to suggest that the killer could be Kelly’s son seems unnecessary. The killer now shows up at another dance club in L.A. dressed in an obviously fake moustache and three-piece suit. He tells another pretty blonde girl at the bar that he is a business agent for many Hollywood actors in town. He convinces her to leave the club to attend a business party. She refuses to go alone with him, so she takes one of her club friends with her.

This spoils the plans of the killer to get her alone. The three drive in the killer’s Mercedes to a gas station, where the killer strangles one of the girls with a bag full of marijuana. He hides in a Dumpster to attack the second girl as she comes out of the gas station with a bottle of champagne. The killer stabs her to death. As the killer flees the scene, he is harassed at a stop light by a motorcycle gang. The killer speeds away from the motorcycle gang and hides out at a local drive-in theatre.

The movie screen advertises a film entitled Blood Feast as a feature playing at the theatre, but it is not Herschel Gordon Lewis’ schlock masterpiece from 1963, unfortunately. After stealing another car from a young couple making out at the drive-in, the killer shows up at the New Wave club, manages to club a police officer in the head at a back entrance, and puts his police uniform on, which conveniently fits him perfectly. Under police protection outside her dressing room, Kelly sits in front of a mirror putting on make-up as the killer suddenly appears in her room in a jogging outfit and a Halloween mask.

She sees him in the mirror, but is not frightened. He removes the mask, and reveals himself to be Richard Sullivan, her husband. She is not frightened by his presence because she has no idea he is the killer. As the couple gets into an elevator, it becomes evident to Kelly that her husband is the killer.

He holds a knife up to her and saying:“I’m fed up . . . You’re just like all the other women in my life. Women are manipulative, deceitful, immoral and very, very selfish!”

His reasoning for killing here seems very petty and unnecessary. Wouldn’t his actions make him “manipulative, deceitful, immoral and selfish?” If he was so fed up with his wife, why didn’t he just request a divorce from her? Why go through the troubles of killing several innocent women to get to her? In the post O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson world we live in today, it seems highly unlikely that a man would go on a killing spree killing innocent victims just to prove a point with his wife.

However, I realize this film was made long before the O.J. Simpson ordeal of the1990s, and the Scott Peterson ordeal early in this decade. As the film comes to an end, Richard chains his wife to the bottom of the elevator and is chased by policemen who fire shots at him. He is chased to the top balcony of the building, where he puts the Halloween mask back on and jumps off the building, committing suicide. His son emotionally removes the mask from him.

The film ends with a shot of Kelly being wheeled into an ambulance. The driver of the ambulance is wearing Richard’s Halloween mask, and the paramedic on the passenger side lies dead on the floor of the ambulance. Could the killer now be Kelly’s son?

NEW YEAR’S EVIL follows in the long line-up of so many 1980s slasher/horror films. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so many others, NEW YEAR’S EVIL is an attempt to use a holiday title to cash in on the slasher craze of the 1980s.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Outlaw Riders! An Easy Rider wannabe


By Doug Gibson

"Outlaw Riders" is a 1971 film that belongs in a time capsule marked Hollywood 1970s derivatve biker film. It was produced by Tony Cardoza, who gave us "The Beast of Yucca Flats" and it's a low-budget mix of "Easy Rider" and "Born Losers." It's a motorcycle gang/hippy cliche-fest. The riders spout words like"split," "make the scene," "fuzz," "crash" etc.

Plot involves an outlaw motorcycle gang headed by two couples (Bambi Allan, Jennifer Bishop, Bill Bonner and Bryan West). The gang is badly hurt by a botched robbery and the four stars, the only survivors, eventually head to Mexico, where they have to combat a gang run by a sadistic Mexican (Rafael Campos). Campos is the only "name star" in the film, although he was far away from his better days in "West Side Story."

I like this film for all its low-budget shortcomings. The mostly outdoor American West setting with long dusty cycle treks give it a nostalgic, time-capsule feeling. Cult film fans will enjoy the short cameo from Ed Wood star Valda Hansen as a nun who treats one of the injured bandits. Rumor as it that Hansen was a paramour of producer Cardoza. Film has the same type of downbeat ending as "Easy Rider."

I have no idea what exposure or success "Outlaw Riders" had in 1971. The color, 86-minute Tony Huston-directed film has a lot of violence but little sex, which might have cut down on its grindhouse potential. It's fairly hard to find today, but not impossible. My video copy is in great shape. It would make a nice DVD offering for a multi-disc set of biker films. Enjoy the kitschy theme song above.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Plan 9 Crunch bloggers offer their five favorite Christmas movies

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, in honor of the holidays, bloggers Steve D. Stones and I, Doug Gibson, offer readers our five favorite Christmastime films. We hope you enjoy reading our picks and perhaps you will sample one or two as Christmas day approaches. So, here we go!
Doug Gibson’s list of favorite Christmas/holiday-themed films.

1). “A Christmas Carol,” 1951: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Simply put, Alastair Sim best represents Scrooge as depicted by Charles Dickens.  His redemption after visits from three spirits is also the best, most joyfully portrayed on film. Old screen veterans Kathleen Harrison and Ernest Thesiger also add spice and cheer to this adaptation.

2). “A Christmas Carol,” 1984: George C. Scott’s portrayal of London’s meanest businessman is superb, and just a tad below Sim’s definitive portrayal. Scott gives Scrooge a faint of air whimsy and humor, even when he’s coveting pennies within sight of beggars. To be fair to Scott, it translates well to the screen. Edward Woodward, as an imposing, scolding Ghost of Christmas Present, is the best Christmas ghost captured on the screen.

3). “Going My Way,” 1944: Bing Crosby, as Father Chuck O’Malley is a joy for Christmas, mixing wonderful songs with a story about a talented young priest called to a struggling to secretly help a grizzled old veteran priest, Father Fitzgibbon, (wonderfully played by Barry Fitzgerald) back on its financial feet. Perhaps no other film captures life in the heart of NYC so well. The finally scene, in which Father Fitzgibbon is reunited with his mother after a half-century, will cause the driest cynic to tear up.

4). “Miracle on 34th Street,” 1947: This witty tale of Santa Claus on trial basically made Edmund Gwenn iconic as who Santa Claus is. The most tear-inducing scene is Gwenn’s Santa speaking Dutch with a WW2 orphan girl at Macy’s. There are two main threads in this marvelous slice-of-NYC life film. The first involves a witty court fight to legitimize Gwenn’s Santa. The second is Gwenn’s quiet but effective campaign to teach a cynical mom and her impressionable daughter the true spirit of Christmas.

5) “The Shop Around the Corner,” 1940: I love this Christmas film, where two shop clerks, who initially actually have a history of disliking each other, share love notes as anonymous pen pals. Jimmy Stewart is great as the male lead, and Margaret Sullavan is beautiful as the shopgirl. This is based on a Hungarian play, and is set in “Budapest,” which looks like the most beautiful city on Earth.

Steve D. Stones’  list of favorite Christmas/Holiday themed films.

1). Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964). This favorite pick is predictable, but how can anyone resist a Christmas movie with dopey characters named Drop-O, Keemar, Voldar, Gurmar and Bomar? The acting, dialogue, make-up, sets and costumes are amateur, at best, but the film has a lot of heart. John Call in the role of Santa Claus is irresistible, and may be the only convincing character in the entire film. Watch for the cheap spaceships designed from toilet paper rolls and toilet plungers are used as ray guns.  No toilet humor is involved. The green Martian make-up is lightly applied to many of the actors, likely for lack of budget. Don’t miss it! See Doug Gibson and I review this film as a video-cast on this web-site.

2). Die-Hard (1988). Yes, believe it or not, this box office action yarn can be considered a “Christmas movie.” Not since Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo in “First Blood” (1982) has Bruce Willis’ John McClane action hero had such great appeal to mass audiences.  His famous “Yippy-Ki-Yah-Mother-Fu*#er” line has become a staple of popular cinema culture. McClane takes on a group of European terrorists on Christmas Eve who have seized a high rise building in Los Angeles.  The result is a dynamite, edge of your seat action film that never lets up, and allows the audience to cheer for the killing of every bad guy McClane chalks up on his arm with a marker.  Willis is perfect in this role, and went on to make three more in the series. This is a film where you’ll find yourself cheering for police and law enforcement.

3). Scrooge (1935). Although there have been many screen adaptations with larger budgets of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” classic, this one is a particular favorite of mine because it was the first VHS video I ever bought with my allowance money when I was 13. The dated, worn out look of the film helps add to its nostalgic quality.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Sir Seymour Hicks, who also co-wrote the script. Hicks is perfectly cast. The film is as poverty looking as its subject matter, but is worthy of a viewing just to see what one of the first screen adaptations of this Dickens classic looks like. Most public domain prints run 58 minutes, but an extended version runs over 80 minutes. Even the 58 minute versions list the film length on the box cover as 83 minutes. Don’t be fooled by this.

4). Black Christmas (1974). It has often been said that John Carpenter’s 1978 film – “Halloween” ushered in the so-called “slasher” horror films of the 1980s. Halloween owes a great deal to this holiday horror feature. Beautiful Olivia Hussey plays a college girl with boyfriend problems living in a sorority house, who is terrorized on Christmas Eve by threatening phone calls. The phone caller-killer is never shown on screen, adding to the suspense. He hides in the attic of the sorority house, which makes perfect since, considering how cold it is outside on Christmas Eve. The film was also marketed as Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger In The House.

5). Santa Claus (1959). Not to be confused with the 1994 Tim Allen movie, or the 1985 Dudley Moore film of the same title, this bizarre 1959 Mexican import is notorious for VHS prints that cut out scenes involving the devil. Santa Claus also shows scenes of children from different countries singing Christmas carols in their native languages at Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The film has a moral tale to warn children not to steal the toys they want just because their parents may not have the money to buy them for Christmas.  It’s not known why public domain prints cut out all the scenes of the devil, but those scenes depict the devil as playful and ridiculous and are an important part of the film. Perhaps the scenes were cut so as not to scare children? 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The creaky but wonderful 1935 Scrooge

Scrooge, 1935, 78 minutes, B and W, British. Directed by Henry Edwards. Starring Sir. Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer Scrooge, Donald Calthrop as Bob Cratchit, Robert Cochran as Fred, Mary Glynne as Belle and Phillip Frost as Tiny Tim. Rating: Seven stars out of 10.

NOTE TO READERS: This is a review of the long-ubiquitous edited version of the film, which is about 60 minutes or so with various chopping. The short version is a staple seller at dollar stores. The 78-minute version is available at Google Archives, probably YouTube, and finally played on TV, airing on Turner Classic Movies last night (Dec. 19, 2013). The likely shorter version airs tonight on UEN Channel 9 as part of Sci Fi Friday.

This very creaky British version of Dickens' A Christmas Tale can't hold a candle to the 1951, 1984 and 1999 versions, but it's better than the 1938 Hollywood adaptation. It stars Hicks as Scrooge. The British actor had the part down pat. He had played Scrooge for decades on the British stage. Nevertheless, he plays Scrooge as a crochety old crank, which is one of your reviewer's pet peeves. I prefer Scrooge to be played as a smug, self satisfied superior sort, such as Sims, Scott and Stewart portrayed Dickens' miser in other adaptations. The result is that Scrooge's experience is a startling comeuppance for him. Like Saul of Tarsus, he's literally brought to his senses and scared straight through divine interference. But with an old crochety Scrooge, all he goes through seems like a scolding that a child would take from an elder.

But still, this is a must-see version for fans. The London sets are simply marvelous. You can feel Victorian England in this film better than any other version. Also, a pleasant surprise is Calthrop as Bob Cratchit. He is the only Bob Cratchit that's able to stand up to Scrooge. Indeed, early in the film, he mutters of Scrooge's miserliness when denied coal for the fire. The other actors are adequate for their roles. One chilling scene has Tiny Tim (Frost) laying dead on a bed for Scrooge to see during the third spirit visit.

There are some odd twists to the film. Not much is told about Scrooge's childhood, and a really strange scene is with Marley's ghost. To the audience he is invisible, though it's clear Scrooge can see him. There is a scene early in the film, inserted for some reason, of Queen Victoria receiving a Christmas toast from London's leading citizens. The final scene where a changed Scrooge fools Cratchit and gives him a raise has the pair taking the day off, rather than having some smoking Christmas bishop to drink. Scrooge is a curio of early British filmmaking and certainly worth a rental for the holidays. For decades this film was literally out of circulation, but with the advent of video it enjoyed a comeback and can now usually be found on TV each holiday season and can be purchased. It can also be seen for free on the Web.
-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Christmas Treat -- the 1910 Silent version of A Christmas Carol

Rumor has it that there are more than 200 filmed variations of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." This may be the earliest one, at least surviving. It's the Thomas Alva Edison's 1910 film version of "A Christmas Carol," starring Marc McDermott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Take a break, enjoy it, it's less than 11 minutes long, and later watch a better version starring Alastair Sim or George C. Scott, etc. But enjoy this curio.
-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Santa Claws, a terror-filled Christmas with Debbie Rochon

By Steve D. Stones

I have to admit that when I purchased this film on videotape in the late 1990s at a local Media Play store, I bought it mostly because it had a busty picture of Debbie Rochon on the video box cover. The back of the video cover also had a sexy girl in a bikini being attacked by the villain of the film, The Hooded Claw. This is obviously a clever marketing tactic to sell the video. After all, sex does indeed sell, even if the film is a total bust (no pun intended).

My other interest in purchasing this film was that I had heard that many of the actors involved in the original 1968 Night of The Living Dead were involved in this film, such as Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Bill Hinzman and John Russo. Russo played a zombie in Night of The Living Dead and was also screenwriter. Russo wrote and directed Santa Claws.

A teenage boy named Wayne witnesses his widowed mother in bed with his uncle Joe on Christmas Eve. This angers him, so he finds a gun in the bedroom dresser and kills both his mother and uncle Joe. That’s the last Christmas they’ll ever have! Wayne is rushed to a psychiatric clinic for mental evaluation. Director John Russo has a cameo in this scene as a police detective.

Fast forward 10 years later. Wayne is now a grown man living next door to Raven Quinn, a model and actress working in soft-core adult films for Scream Productions.  Although Raven has a Master’s Degree in Zoology, she chooses to be in the soft-core industry for the easy money. Wayne has become a fanatical fan of Raven, and has a shrine devoted to all her movie collectibles, including a doll in her likeness that he fantasizes making out with.

Raven’s marriage to her husband Eric is on the rocks.  Her husband is unfaithful by seeing one of his employees in his spare time. While picking up her children from her mother in laws home, Raven has an argument with her mother and sister in law. Both do not approve of Raven’s occupation as an adult film actress and model, even though her husband makes his living as a porn photographer. It seems it’s OK for members of their family to be involved with porn, but it’s not OK for an in law to be involved in the business too. Families sometimes have double standards.

While visiting Raven in her home, Wayne discovers that her marriage is quickly going downhill, so he volunteers to baby-sit her two children. Raven reveals to Wayne that some of the girls at Scream Productions may eclipse her popularity as the most popular “Scream Queen.”

In an attempt to maintain Raven’s popularity, Wayne then decides to murder one of the girls at Scream Productions while dressed in dark overalls and a black ski hat. He calls himself The Hooded Claw from a character in a Scream Queen film, and kills his victims with a gardening claw. He even manages to attack and kill a Scream Queen producer, played by Night of The Living Dead star Karl Hardman.

Later, Raven asks Wayne to baby-sit her two children. He puts sleeping pills in their hot chocolate so he can leave the home to go out on another murdering rampage.

Eric decides to leave his mistress and go back to Raven. When arriving home, he discovers that Wayne has doped the children to make them sleep. He leaves the home to go look for Raven at Scream Productions.

Before Eric arrives, Wayne sneaks into Scream Productions and kills several employees. Dressed in a black Santa suit, he waits for Eric to arrive and attacks both him and Raven. The two men struggle in a fight, but Raven eventually kills Wayne with his own gardening claw.

Aside from the fact that the film takes place during Christmas time, it is really not much of a Christmas film at all. Several strip tease sequences in the film show girls dancing around a Christmas tree and Christmas decorations, but the film is obviously more of a horror and soft-core sex film than a Christmas film. I'm sure the producers of this film were fully aware of this. Sometimes it makes good marketing sense to mix holidays with horror and sex.

Like so many Christmas horror films, the killer of the film really has no specific motivation for killing his victims. Even if he does, it doesn’t seem to be much of a motivation at all. In Silent Night, Deadly Night, for example, a young boy grows up to become a killer dressed in a Santa suit as a result of witnessing his parents killed by a man dressed as Santa when he was a child. In Santa Claws, Wayne the killer has even less of a motivation to kill his victims. He simply is a fan of a popular screen actress who does not want her fame to fade, so he begins to kill anyone who stands in her way of continued success. Is being a fan of anything really worth the risk of killing people?

Santa Claws is certainly not a Christmas film intended for the entire family, so I wouldn’t recommend that you watch this with the kids. Only fans of Debbie Rochon and soft-core sex and horror films need apply.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A break from Xmas -- 'Andy Warhol's Bad' a forgotten 1970s' curio

By Doug Gibson

I just watched "Andy Warhol's Bad," one of the Factory's films from the 1970s that sought to shock people, a la John Waters, etc. There are the requisite shocks: limbs being cut off, a dog being stabbed, and the biggee, a baby tossed out of a tenement several floors high. With deliberately poor FXs, the camera lingers on this stuff.

"Bad" s mostly forgotten now. It's attempt at savage, gross-out black comedy never goes as far or as acid as John Waters' contributions, such as "Female Trouble," Desperate Living" or the infamous "Pink Flamingos," which has the late Divine eating dog poop. (FYI, the dog pop scene is not the most disturbing scene in "Pink Flamingos," -- not even close. So "Bad" has faded away.

And that's for the best; although the best produced Warhol film, it's often dreary as the main actors, Carrol1 Baker and Perry King, underplay their roles. In fact, King has more energy than Baker, perhaps the only time King had more energy than a co-star in any film! Other Warhol films, such as "Trash," and the monster flicks, are more interesting.

The plot involves Baker as running a hair removal and murder for hire businesses out of her home, which she shares with a doughty family, a few hit girls, including the beautiful actress Stefania Casini. Enter hit man Perry King, who needs to stay a few days before his appointment to kill an autistic boy whose parents want to get rid of. There's also a creepy cop harassing Baker, who basically is the main breadwinner in the dysfunctional family business. The film is as close a look at persons who are basically sociopaths sans any moral functions as any other film has attempted. Susan Tyrell has a role as Baker's marginally moronic daughter in law, who the sociopathic hit girls like to torment.

"Bad" is not a bad film lol, it's just not a great film,. I'd suggest '70s cult completists watch it, though, to see what cinema was competing with Waters for gross-you-out black comedy genre. The 1977 film runs a too-long 105 minutes.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Black Christmas a scary cultish holiday flick

By Steve D. Stones

A film like this could never be made for today’s audiences because most phones have caller IDs. The plot evolves around a killer making obscene phone calls to a university sorority house. Wes Craven’s Scream and John Carpenter’s Halloween both owe a great deal of credit to this film.

The opening sequence is a point of view shot of someone wandering outside a sorority house and peaking in a window. This same technique was used in the opening sequence of the 1978 Halloween to establish the point of view of little Michael Meyers walking up to his sister’s room to stab her to death. Carpenter may have borrowed this idea from Black Christmas, made just four years earlier in 1974.

The film immediately sets up the premise that someone is lurking in the attic of the sorority house just before college students are leaving for their Christmas break. The opening point of view shot continues with a shot indicating that someone is crawling through the window from outside the attic. The shot then cuts to an interior shot inside the house showing the opening of the attic uncovered.

Sorority sister Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, answers the telephone to someone making loud obscene noises. She holds up the phone so that everyone in the room can hear the call. A girl in the room asks if the caller is only one person. “That’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing their annual obscene phone call,” says Barbara, played by Margot Kidder.

One of the sorority sisters named Claire Harrison is in her room packing to leave for the Christmas break. Her father is to pick her up later that evening. As she walks into her closet to remove some of her clothes, a figure can be seen hiding behind plastic. The figure lunges at her and strangles her with the plastic. Next we see Claire dead in a rocking chair in the attic with the plastic wrapped around her head. The killer is rocking her back and fourth in the chair.

Claire’s father, Mr. Harrison, comes to pick her up at the bell tower on campus later that evening. She never shows up, so he decides to go directly to the sorority house to find out what happened to her. The drunken housemother Mrs. Mack meets him. She suggests that Claire could be at the fraternity house on campus visiting a boy.

Mr. Harrison cannot find Claire anywhere on campus so he goes to the local police station with some of Claire’s friends to file a missing persons report. Lieutenant Fuller, played by John Saxon, forms a search party later that night.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mack is now housemother to an empty sorority house, and is desperately trying to find Claire’s cat named Claude. She climbs up to the attic to discover the corpse of Claire as the killer swings a meat hook on a rope, killing her.

Jess arrives back at the sorority house to another obscene phone call. Another point of view shot shows legs coming down the stairs towards Jess. It is Jess’s boyfriend Peter. This is where the audience is led to believe that the killer has to be Peter.

Peter proposes marriage to Jess, but she refuses. Peter is concerned over Jess’s decision to have an abortion, since he is the father. The two have a fight and Peter angrily leaves the house.

Lieutenant Fuller has a tracing device put on the sorority house phone. Jess sits by the fireplace in the house to wait for another obscene phone call so that the police can trace the call. She hears the loud sound of someone choking, and rushes into Barbara’s room as she is having an asthma attack in her sleep. Christmas carolers begin singing loudly outside the house. Jess opens the door to listen to the carolers as the killer comes out of the attic and kills Barbara in her room.

Jess comes back into the house as the carolers leave. The phone rings and Jess picks up the phone, only to hear more obscene noises. A close up shot of Jess’s face as she tries to talk to the obscene caller puts the viewer on the edge of their seat.

The police are able to trace the phone call to the house itself. Police clerk Nash calls Jess and tells her to get out of the house immediately. Jess grabs a fire poker from the fireplace and walks up the stairs to discover Barbara and another girl dead. She sees an eye staring out of the bedroom closet. This is the most haunting shot in the entire film.

Jess runs down the stars, but is unable to get the front door open. As she runs back towards the stairs, we see a hand reach out and grab her hair. She is able to get away and lock herself in the basement. A shadowy figure peeks into the windows of the basement and begins to call Jess by name. He breaks the window and we discover it is Peter her boyfriend.

The police arrive to find Jess lying on top of dead Peter. She has killed him with the fire poker. The police take her up to her bedroom to rest. The film ends with the camera traveling back up to the attic to reveal that the killer is still there with the corpses of Claire and Mrs. Mack. Peter was not the killer after all.

I think it would be safe to say that this film sets up many of the typical clich├ęs that we now recognize in the slasher genre that saturated 1980s horror films. However, that is not to say that they are not effective in this film. There are many false scares in this film where the viewer is lead to believe one thing, but later discovers something else. Much of the horror in this film is implied, not shown.

For example, in one clever sequence, the parents of Claire Harrison are helping with the search effort to find their daughter. They see a girl screaming in a park and run to her. The camera shows a look of horror on their faces as they look down at something on the ground. The camera never shows what they are looking at, but we later discover they are seeing a murdered child, and not their daughter. The audience is led to believe it is their daughter they are looking at.

It is also quite clever that we never get to see what the killer looks like. As Jess runs down the stairs towards the end of the film and a hand reaches out over the banister to grab her, we never see who the person is, just the hand grabbing her. We also never see the killer as the camera travels back up to the attic at the end of the film, but we do know the killer is there. This is a clever tactic in never revealing to the audience who the killer really is.

As an interesting side note, producer/director Bob Clark went on to create A Christmas Story and the first two Porky’s films. All three films were a huge hit in the 1980s. Have yourself a scary little Christmas with Black Christmas this Christmas Season! And watch the really cool complete original trailer for the film above!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Alistair Sim is a great Scrooge, again, in animated A Christmas Carol

By Doug Gibson

The second time Alistair Sim played Ebenezer Scrooge was in 1971 in a 24 or so minute version of "A Christmas Carol." Sim is marvelous in this version, which is perhaps the best faithful cartoon version of Dickens' classic Christmas ghost story.

More than 20 years earlier, a much younger Sim had starred as Scrooge in the British Renown version of Scrooge, or a Christmas Carol. Despite strong competition from George C. Scott's 1984 Scrooge, I still hold Sim to be the best Scrooge ever captured on screen, and the Renown version the best. But, as mentioned, this short cartoon, which also has Michael Redgrave in it, is superb.

Enjoy it; take less than a half hour and capture the Christmas spirit in a manner it's meant to be captured.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Evil -- not your father's Santa Claus

By Steve D. Stones

The title Christmas Evil is not a judgment on Christmas itself, but more of an analysis of the main character Harry Stadling who witnesses his mother making out with Santa on Christmas Eve in 1947. Apparently even Santa can’t resist curvaceous cuties, even on Christmas Eve. Harry grows up to work in a toy factory and becomes obsessed with all things Christmas. His obsession is an attempt to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in his heart, despite his mother shattering his image of Christmas as a young boy.

Harry takes his job seriously at Jolly Dream Toy Company. He works hard to perfect quality toys manufactured by the company. Although he is promoted as a supervisor at the company, his dedication leads him to clock in overtime on the assembly line for a worker who calls in sick. He wants to make sure the company makes their toy quota just in time for Christmas. After his overtime shift, he sees the man whose shift he covered drinking at a local bar. This greatly upsets him.

In his spare time, Harry spies on local children and their parents and keeps a record book of naughty and nice children, just like the real Santa would. In his own mind, he is Santa Claus. He witnesses one male child looking at an issue of Penthouse magazine, and writes him up in his naughty book.

Deep down, Harry is a sexually repressed and emotionally unstable middle-aged man who cannot connect well with other human beings, living a life of isolation and depravity. His family members even begin to worry about him. He uses the character of Santa Claus as a way to try and connect with others, but his obsession leads him to murder adults on Christmas Eve. He transforms himself into Santa, and shows up at parties to give children gifts. He even climbs down chimneys while covering his Santa costume in chimney dust.

Harry stabs three worshippers leaving a church service after they tease him about being dressed in a Santa suit. In a scene reminiscent of the classic 1931 Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, locals take up torches and chase after Harry when they learn he is responsible for a number of local murders.

Christmas Evil was marketed under two other titles when it was released in 1980. It also appeared as Terror In Toyland and You Better Watch Out! The folks at Troma Studios sell a print of the film as Christmas Evil. Brentwood Home Video also released Christmas Evil in a four pack DVD set in 2001 with three other horror classics – House On The Edge of The Park, Messiah of Evil, and Deep Red – The Hatchet Murders. The former title is a film directed by Italian suspense master Dario Argento.

In comparison to other Christmas horror films, Christmas Evil is relatively well made and develops an interesting story line. Those who feel the subject of Christmas and Santa to be too sacred need not view this film. Other films in this genre include – Black Christmas (1974), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Santa Claws (1996), and Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) among many others.

Happy Holiday Season to you and Happy Viewing!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Andy Griffith Show Christmas episode is a classic with Will Wright as Ben Weaver

Perhaps the best Christmas episode ever from a TV show was The Christmas episode of The Andy Griffith Show, aired in December 1960, with character actor Will Wright as the mean Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver. Wright (here is his imdb page) was made to be Ben Weaver, the lean, old, cranky businessman with the secret heart of gold. Wright played Weaver thrice in memorable episodes before his death in 1962. The character of Ben Weaver was never as effective on TAGS, although other actors, including Tol Avery, played the role. Above is part 1 of The Christmas episode on TAGS and below is a re-run of my review of this wonderful 24-minute or so show.

The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.

Review by Doug Gibson

Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a cranky, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.

The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examining Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!

Other amusing parts are Andy teasing Barney for being called "Barney Parney Poo" by his sweetheart, Hilda May, in a card, and a skinny Barney, with a bad white beard, playing Santa Claus.
The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.

I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role.

He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.
Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three fun, cheesy Christmas movies

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it.

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Also, YouTube has all three (see Santa Claus below). However, the live action of Santa and the Three Bears is getting hard to find. Most prints omit it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Plan9Crunch RETRO videocast, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians!

"Hurray for Santy Claus!" was the cheery theme song for the ultra-bizarre 1960s kiddie-matinee Christmas cult classic "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." The hyper-low budget, so-bad-it's-good blend of sci-fi and holiday cheer hung around theaters for more than a decade. In the past couple of generations, it was named one of the 50 Worst Films by the Medved brothers, was spoofed by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and is still ubiquitous as a DVD offering in dollar stores. In the video podcast above, Steve D. Stones and I, along with camera help from Jennifer Thorsted, dissect this wonderful film. And, by, we're in the screening room of the beautiful Art House Cinema 502 theater, located at 158  Historic 25th Street in Ogden, Utah.
-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

'The Creeping Terror' or 'Invasion of the People Eaters?' -- an iconic bad film gets another title


I recently received a DVD in the mail from Sinister Cinema entitled – Invasion of The People Eaters. I bought the DVD fully knowing that this title is the alternative title for what is regarded as one of the worst movies of all time – The Creeping Terror. When I bought the DVD, I assumed that perhaps this print may have scenes missing or later added to The Creeping Terror. Be aware if you purchase this film from Sinister Cinema because this is not the case. Only the title sequence has changed.

The Creeping Terror is notorious for the monster of the film looking like giant carpet shag that lethargically crawls around locations as his victims literally shove themselves into the opening at his feet. That is how bad and unconvincing this monster is. The viewer cannot help but laugh hysterically at the victims as they make no effort to escape the giant carpet shag, but instead push themselves into his large orifice.

One teenage girl is consumed by the monster at a dance hall as the monster makes his way across the dance room floor. Her sexy nylon covered legs are shown as she pushes her way into the monster. A sun bathing beauty in a bikini is also consumed by the monster in another scene. Even a young mother is attacked while hanging her laundry out to dry in her backyard. Instead of running from the monster, she stares dumbfounded at him until he eats her for lunch.

The Creeping Terror is also notorious for the sound man accidentally dumping the recorded sound for the film in Lake Tahoe, which is the location where the film was made. Most of the film is dubbed in boring voice over narration typical of industrial short films children watched in elementary school. The Invasion of The People Eaters print sold by Sinister Cinema has large portions of the film where the sound is not dubbed in sync with the movement of the actor’s mouths, making it difficult to view (as if the movie isn’t already tough enough to sit through).

The Creeping Terror may have been made in an attempt to cash in on some of the success of a film made six years earlier – The Blob (1958) starring Steve McQueen. The opening sequence shows spiraling lines encompassing the title and credits, similar to The Blob, although they are not animated as they are in The Blob. Happy Viewing!!!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

'Chaplin's Vintage Year' offers a history of the star's early Mutual film series

By Doug Gibson

Despite the fact that Charlie Chaplin is generally regarded as the top silent film comic and his persona, as the Little Tramp, is iconic, few realize how incredibly popular he was almost 100 years ago. As Michael J. Hayde notes in his new book, "Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials," (Bear Manor Media) it was not uncommon for movie theaters to play a Chaplin short every day of operation. When the British-born star signed to make 12 two-reel shorts for Mutual, a film-exchange group that rented production facilities, he received $670,000 in 1916, an amount akin to about $15 million today.

The Mutual series of films are likely the most accessible of Chaplin's early work. As Hayde explains, they have been by far the most ubiquitous of this era. They were reissued frequently over the next 30 years, in varying formats, with different music, even in one-reel editions. One constant is they tended to make money. For as much as Mutual paid Chaplin for the series, it was a bargain, the 12 films grossed several times what Chaplin earned.

Hayde's book is part of the genre of film and culture where the minutiae of a subject is delved into. For historians, Chaplin enthusiasts, silent film fans, there is a desire to delve deeper into the subject. Hayde, who has authored a book on the Dragnet TV series and co-authored a deep biography of the silent/talkie comedy star Harry Langdon, is capable of fulfilling this duty. The history of the Mutual films, "The Pawnbroker," "The Fireman," "One a.m.," etc., provides a fascinating read. Chaplin was not an actor -- such as Ben Turpin -- who stuck to the same film company. Always seeking bigger paychecks and creative freedom, he moved from Keystone, to Essanay, to Mutual in rapid succession. After the Mutual series, the comic star bolted again. Mutual enjoyed a profitable but short tenure with the Little Tramp, and then faded away.

The "ins and outs" of the early movie-making business is described in loving detail by Hayde as it applies to Chaplin. The efforts to consolidate power by a few in the early days of cinema were doomed as the production spread west to Hollywood and stars realized that they were worth more than assumed only a decade earlier. As Hayde writes, as the 20th century began, films were logged at the bottom rung of entertainment, fir for the poorest of the entertainment clientele.

Even when a production company lost control of a star such as Chaplin, Hayde notes that there were still ways to continue making big dollars. Essanay, for example, used just about every extra stock of its Chaplin film to create longer "films" that piggybacked on the Mutual successes. This grafting annoyed Chaplin and others, who sometimes attempted legal action against the slapdash "films."

Many of the executives, film crew and co-stars of the Mutual films are profiled in Hayde's book. I found the life story of Edna Purviance, co-star of the Mutual film series and Chaplin's paramour at the time, to be most interesting. She eventually tired of Chaplin's roving romantic eye but remained on the Chaplin payroll for years until she married. After her husband died in the 1940s she was slated for a Chaplin-related comeback but it didn't happen. Nevertheless, she was on her former lover's payroll for the rest of her life.

Chaplin appears in Hayde's book to be a man focused on details, wanting more time and money spent than execs were comfortable with. If there is a shortcoming to Hayde's book, it is that the main man, Chaplin himself, remains an elusive figure. He's basically portrayed in the passive sense, reacting to events and personalities. To be fair, though, the subject of the book is on Chaplin's Mutual series, and not on the actor.

As for the movies themselves, they are superb efforts, which can now be seen as easily as surfing to YouTube. Their lives, from debut screens to revivals to additions in documentaries to Blackhawk status for collectors, to video, DVD and finally Internet access, is very interesting reading. An extremely detailed summary of the films, from scenes, titles, production, reviews, etc. takes up much of the second half of the book. My favorite of the films is "The Fireman," which encapsulates Chaplin's ability to create sympathy with the audience, despite his foolishness, by virtue of his inimitable mannerisms and deadpan facial expressions. "One A.M.," however, may be the most interesting of the films because it strays from the most successful formula, as noted in "The Fireman." "One A.M." is almost a one-man show from Chaplin. It's interesting that it was among the least successful of the series, it does underscore, though, that Chaplin was not afraid of expanding his artistic persona. Watch "The Floorwalker" below.

As Hayde notes, his usage of the term "vintage" means excellence with staying power. That defines the 12 Mutual films. Books such as "Chaplin's Vintage Year" are appreciates as they provide new information on a subject that has already been analysed from likely 1,000 different angles.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Monster Maker – Acromegaly Deforms Famous Pianist

By Steve D. Stones

This 1944 poverty row cheapie was directed by Sam Neufeld and stars veteran actor J. Carrol Naish. Naish plays a phony glandular doctor named Igor Markoff who becomes infatuated with the daughter of a famous pianist – Anthony Lawrence. Markoff continually sends flowers to the Lawrence’s daughter Maxine in an attempt to court her. This forces Lawrence to confront him.

After an argument and a fight, Markoff injects Lawrence with acromegaly virus, causing him to become a deformed monster. Lawrence takes the advice of Maxine and sees a doctor named Adams. Adams recommends that Lawrence see Markoff for treatment, since he is regarded as an expert on the subject.  Lawrence of course wants nothing to do with Markoff, but is forced to see him again.
Markoff baits a trap by luring Maxine to his home to check up on and comfort Lawrence. When she arrives, Lawrence has progressed into his most hideous state yet. Maxine demands her father’s release and cure, but Markoff refuses unless Maxine agrees to marry him.

Lawrence is bound to a bed, but is able to escape while getting into another fight with Markoff. He struggles with Markoff to force a gun away from him. The gun fires in the struggle, killing Markoff.
The film ends with Lawrence being cured of acromegaly, and returning to his piano for a public recital.

Like many poverty row films of the 1940s released by PRC, The Monster Make barely clocks in at about 61 minutes. The film may have been inspired by the true-life story of Rondo Hatton, a World War I veteran who developed acromegaly following combat duty. Hatton starred in a number of low-budget films of the 1940s, such as The Brute Man, House of Horrors, The Jungle Captive and The Spider Woman Strikes Back. Happy viewing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

'Universal Horrors' is an incredible piece of research of a golden black-and-white era

By Doug Gibson

"Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946," 2nd Edition, from McFarland, is a simply incredible work of reference from genre writers Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas. Eighty-six films from Universal, spanning 15 years, are covered in so much detail that I can't imagine what can be added. Every film, whether "Frankenstein" or "The Spider Woman Strikes Back," receives near equal consideration and analysis. The authors deserve full credit for spending what must have been thousands of hours working on a project that likely yields more kudos than dollars.

I read the book over a two-week period and at times had to stop, frankly overwhelmed by the details in every film. The $55 book is meant as a reference guide, to be perused at one's leisure. Its use to prepare one to view a Universal film is invaluable. I recently watched and reviewed "The Old Dark House after re-reading the extensive research on the film provided by Weaver and company.

If one does spend a great deal of time with the book, one notes the gradual decline in Universal products, that begins more subtly in the late 1930s, gains steam in the 1940s and eventually leads to the studio that produced "Bride of Frankenstein" turning out films such as "House of Horrors" and "The Brute Man," efforts that were akin to poverty row studios. One notes the gradual decline in budgets from the 1930s monster films to under $100,000 efforts in the 1940s such as "Man Made Monster." In between the years it's interesting to see the studio's original, classic monsters slip into second-tier status in the 1940s' Kharis Mummy films and the "House of ..." monster-fests. Or watch its stars move from Lugosi and Karloff to Chaney Jr. and Carradine and eventually Rondo Hatten.

Highly regarded directors, such as Tod Browning, James Whale and Earle C. Kenton were eventually replaced with by-the-numbers guys such as William Beaudine or Jean Yarbrough. It's also interesting to track the reviews through the 15 years. The earliest classic Universal monsters received grudging respect by the major newspapers (think New York Times) but gradually over time the reviews became -- appropriately -- pans. It's amusing to read the deliberate snide pans over the years from one New York Times film critic, the amusingly named Bosley Crowther!

As mentioned, there are scores of films. The authors are liberal in their selections, including comedy farces, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series and Lon Chaney Jr's Inner Sanctum soap operas. But more is a plus here, as each film contains a treasure chest of genre facts for the reader. Weaver & Co. can be snarky at times, particularly at Bela Lugosi fans (they suffer from a syndrome that prefers John Carradine over Lugosi as a screen Dracula) but these matter nothing, Universal Horrors is far too valuable a tome to refuse over a few critical differences. I loved it and will use it as a reference for a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Damnation Alley is classic low-budget '70s apocalyptic science fiction

By Steve D. Stones

This 1977 feature should be of some interest to Utah residents because scenes from the film were made in Salt Lake City. Damnation Alley stars Jan-Michael Vincent and the cigar smoking George Peppard from the hit 80s TV show The A-Team. The film is a post-apocalyptic thriller that takes place as a result of a nuclear holocaust that causes the earth to tilt on its axis. The holocaust wipes out most of the human race.

After the nuclear holocaust, a few remaining survivors in a U.S. Air Force bomb shelter in the Mojave Desert decide to head east towards Albany, New York. The group is able to pick up radio signals coming from Albany. Vincent and Peppard leave the bomb shelter in giant armored vehicles called Landmasters that are equipped to withstand any unforeseen elements of nature.

Along the way, they encounter giant desert scorpions and flesh eating cockroaches in Salt Lake City. On a stop in Las Vegas, the group encounters a Las Vegas showgirl in an abandoned casino and latter a wandering teenager. The teen and showgirl join the group. They also encounter a number of violent sandstorms across the desert.

Forget what film critics have said about Damnation Alley over the years. It’s a fun and exciting post-apocalyptic feature that still holds up well today. Some of the special effects are dated, but nevertheless, it is still a worthy effort destined to be on any film fan’s list of guilty pleasures.  The film is in keeping with other post-apocalyptic themed features such as: The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, Mad Max and many others. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Old Dark House is James Whale at his creepiest, and wittiest

By Doug Gibson

“The Old Dark House,” James Whale’s 1932 take on what happens when travelers stop at a dreary, tomb-like mansion, with creepy occupants, on a dark and rainy night, is not as well-known as Whale’s other Universal offerings, such as “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” or “Bride of Frankenstein.” That’s probably because it was considered lost for about 30 years. We’re lucky it’s a found film, because it’s a crackling good, creepy horror/comedy.

The plot: Squabbling husband and wife Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are driving through the Welsh mountains, thoroughly lost late at night during a brutal rainstorm. In their back seat is their relaxed, witty friend, Roger Penderel, (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas). In a superb special-effects scene, the Waverton car barely escapes a massive mudslide. They spot a mansion and stop, requesting shelter for the night. The door is answered by a brutish, very fearsome looking mute servant, Morgan, played by Boris Karloff. Later we learn that Morgan has a drinking problem. Eventually, the trio is greeted by an odd brother and sister pair, Horace Femm, (Ernest Thesiger), and his dourly religious sister, Rebecca, played by Eva Moore. The Femms inform the guests that they have a 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick Femm, bedridden upstairs, Interestingly, a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, plays Sir. Roderick, although the actress’ sex was kept from audiences in 1932.

Early on there is a very creepy, pre-code scene where Margaret Waverton, very scantily clad in her underwear, is intruded upon by the religious fanatic, Rebecca Femm. While lambasting Margaret for her immorality, Moore’s Rebecca forces her hand on Margaret’s exposed upper chest, just above the breasts. It discombobulates Margaret, who is now very wary of the house. She has good reason; later a drunken Morgan attacks her on the stairs.

Later a couple more travelers seek refuge in the mansion. They are the garrolous, obese, somewhat crude, but wealthy Sir William Porterhouse, played well by Charles Laughton, along with an unemployed chorus girl, Gladys DuCane Perkins, (Lilian Bond), who is Porterhouse’s girlfriend, although there’s no real love between them. He has money, and she has a pleasing body. In one scene, Laughton effectively conveys the inner sadness and tragedy of Porterhouse, a man whose wife is died, feels empty and is no longer attractive enough to obtain love. Eventually, Penderel (remember him) and Bond form an attachment and fall in love, without too much consternation from Porterhouse.

As the weather stays dangerous outside, events inside the old, dark house get more perilous. I don’t want to give away the plot except to mention that we get a chance to see the very feminine-looking 102-year-old Sir Roderick Femm, who informs the guests that there is a third younger Femm, named Saul, who is by far the most dangerous inhabitant of the house. This all leads to a pretty thrilling, and witty at times, conclusion.

“The Old Dark House” is great gothic comedy/horror. It’s based on a long-ago bestselling novel, called “Benighted,” by J.B. Priestley. Whales stuck pretty faithfully to the plot, but omitted a lot of philosophic sophistry from the novel and focused on the action. The director looked for droll, humorous lines in the midst of chaos or fear. Thesiger’s Horace Femm has the best lines, such as “We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don’t be alarmed if they go out altogether,” and, when picking up some flowers, says, “my sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,” and then tossing them into the fireplace.”

The film is about 71 minutes long. It pops up on Turner Classic Movies but can be seen at YouTube above.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rat Pfink A Boo Boo ... a title only a Steckler could create!

By Steve D. Stones

Low budget director Ray Dennis Steckler is best known for creating the first so-called “monster musical” – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living & Became Mixed Up Zombies (AKA Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary). Like most of Steckler’s films, he cast his wife Carolyn Brandt in a leading role in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (AKA The Adventures of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo).

As campy as the title may be, the person who created the opening titles for the film forgot to put a letter N and D after the letter A so that the title would read: Rat Pfink And Boo Boo. To further complicate matters, a letter P was placed in front of the word Fink, likely to not confuse the Rat Fink character in this film with the famous Rat Fink character created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s. Confused yet? Perhaps this was Steckler’s way of avoiding copyright infringements?

A group of hoodlums is constantly harassing Ceebee Beaumont by calling her on the telephone. Ceebee is the beautiful girlfriend of rising rock singer and teenage heartthrob Lonnie Lord, played by Vin Saxon (AKA Ron Haydock). The group follows and kidnaps Ceebee, played by Steckler’s wife at the time – Carolyn Brandt, and demands a ransom of $50,000.00 from Lonnie.

Lonnie and his gardener, played by Titus Moede, thrust into action by dressing up in costumes similar to Batman & Robin, but instead they wear ski masks. They call themselves Rat Pfink & Boo Boo, in case you haven’t guessed by now. The two catch up with the hoodlums and save the day by rescuing the girl and avoiding a confrontation with a giant ape named Kogar.

Various interesting scenes in the film use colored filters over the black and white photography, such as an opening night sequence in blue of the hoodlums attacking a young woman to steal her purse. Other scenes use a red filter over the black and white.

The DVD and video print of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, sold by Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon has a short introduction by director Steckler. Steckler’s films have gained a strong following in recent years, and have even been featured on Turner Classic Movies, a cable network that screens classic films.

Steckler spent the last few years of his life living in Las Vegas running a video store. He passed away in January of 2009. May his films live on forever for cult movie fans to enjoy for many generations to come!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Iconic kitsch horror -- Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man

By Doug Gibson

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. Dressed in evening clothes, Lugosi is an iconic caricature of kitsch. An alternate title to this film is "They Creep in the Night," and Lugosi's ape literally does this in the film. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.

Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably bottom of the barrel. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel some sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?" His presence, though, underscores that Monogram did have its tongue in its cheek when it made its horror cheapies. It's an observation many reviewers miss when they slam the films for poor horror elements.

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: As mentioned, the film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end of the month. I enjoy those references in films. Others I have seen of that era include pitches to buy war bonds and have Victory Gardens. Watch the film below!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Giant fireballs and panic on the earth -- The Cremators

By Steve D. Stones

Harry Essex, director of the 1971 classic Octaman, brings us this low-budget gem. Essex is also credited as a co-writer responsible for the 1953 classic Creature From The Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. The DVD of this film is distributed by Retromedia, and has a “Bikini Drive-In” introduction by Fred Olen Ray and his sidekick Miss Kim. The film stars Maria De Aragon, who went on to star in Star Wars episode IV in the costume of Greedo the bounty hunter. As an added bonus, the DVD contains an interview with De Aragon.

The film opens with a local native Indian being chased by a giant fireball, which apparently has come from outer space. The fireball rolls over the Indian and burns him to the ground, reducing him to ashes. The opening narration sounds like the voice of Arch Hall Sr. from Eegah. Later sequences in the film show the same stock shot of human ashes being blown into the air after the fireball attacks victims.

Meanwhile, Ian Thorn, a local scientist, is studying the waters off the local shoreline. It is never clear throughout the entire film where it takes place, but we have to assume it is Florida or any small coastal town, since many of the shots show an ocean shoreline. Director Essex shot Octaman in Florida, so this is why I also suspect The Cremators was also shot there.

Thorn finds strange, small glowing crystals in the local waters. He takes some of them back to his lab to be studied and places one in a package to be mailed to a colleague in Michigan for further investigation.

While delivering the package to a local post office, Thorn gets the feeling he is being chased by something. He gets out of his truck, but finds nothing. He delivers the package to a postal carrier. The carrier is later chased in his vehicle by a giant fireball and burned to death. Ian and the local sheriff later investigate the burned remains of the postal carrier’s vehicle. Ian’s package is found but not completely destroyed in the remains.

Later, a local native brings his dead cat to Thorn to try and discover what killed the cat. Thorn conducts an autopsy and discovers a fragment of one of the glowing crystals inside the belly of the cat. He also discovers another crystal fragment inside the belly of a dog he finds by the side of the road. Somehow local animals are eating the glowing crystals found in the local waters of the town.

Although I greatly enjoyed viewing this film, I find some of the plot points a bit confusing. For example, what does the glowing crystals being eaten by local animals have to do with the giant fireballs attacking local citizens? I suppose the connection is that many of the victims find a glowing crystal just before they are attacked and burned by the giant fireballs.

However, this still adds some confusion. Are the giant fireballs attracted to the glowing crystals, or are they a result of the glowing crystals? Plus, why don’t the giant fireballs attack the animals who eat the crystals, and why do they only attack when someone picks up a crystal? These are all questions that enter into my mind as I view the film.

The film certainly leaves more questions to the viewer than it answers. At the end of the film, Thorn arranges a small circle of crystals on the ground in an attempt to attract the giant fireball. Like a hen looking for her newborn hatchlings, the fireball comes for the circle of crystals. Thorn is able to destroy the fireball with an explosion.

If you are familiar with It Came From Outer Space, it is easy to see some similarities to this film. However, It Came From Outer Space is a much better scripted and well-produced film. Fans of Octaman are encouraged to see The Cremators, if only to see what director Essex made after Octaman. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Octaman -- a low-budget take on Creature From the Black Lagoon

By Steve D. Stones

A small ecological scientific expedition, headed by Kerwin Matthews, star of such great 1960s classics as Jack The Giant Killer and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, travels to a small Latin American fishing community to study radioactive contamination in the water. Here they take blood samples of local villagers, since their diet consists mostly of foods found in the sea. One member of the expedition, Mort, discovers a strange, small creature similar to a small octopus. The creature looks like a cheap rubber toy for kids.

Matthews decides to return to the United States to seek more funding for his research and to continue the expedition. He presents his findings to Jeff Morrow, star of This Island Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us. Morrow is not convinced of Matthews' hypothesis that the small octa-creature is a result of contaminated water, so he decides not to fund the rest of the expedition.

Matthews then turns to a wealthy rancher named Johnny Caruso to fund the remainder of the expedition. Caruso is not a scientist, so his interest is mostly in finding his next sideshow attraction and to profit from its discovery.

After returning to Latin America, the expedition learns of a local myth of a giant half man, half sea creature, who attacks and murders local villagers. If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it was written and directed by Harry Essex, a screenwriter for the 1950s classic: The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Some viewers have described Octaman as a low-budget version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon.

There are some similarities. For instance, there is a scene where the expedition is trying to leave the local area in their motor home. They encounter a fallen tree that blocks their path on the road, making it so that they cannot leave. This is similar to when the creature in The Creature From The Black Lagoon moves a fallen tree in front of the boat expedition.

It is important to note that the unique Octaman creature was an early creation of makeup wizard Rick Baker, who has gone on to have a very successful career in many big-budget Hollywood films, such as: American Werewolf In London, Star Wars and The Howling. Baker won an academy award for his work on American Werewolf In London and The Nutty Professor. His earliest work was Octaman and in assisting Dick Smith in make-up effects in The Exorcist. The female lead in Octaman, Pier Angeli, died of a barbiturate overdose while the film was in production.

The film was never released theatrically in the U.S. and went straight to television and later video.

What makes Octaman so interesting is the fact that it is a summation of so many earlier monster movie creatures from the 1950s. As I watched Octaman, I couldn't help but think of the creature in Monster of Piedras Blancas, the tree creature in From Hell It Came, and of course The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Octaman is worthy of a viewing, if not only to see an interesting reference to so many classic monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Gruesome Twosome — A grindhouse film to scalp you

By Steve D. Stones

This 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis feature has the unique distinction of having one of the most bizarre openings in low-budget horror cinema history. After editing, the film was short in length. As filler, Lewis added two wig blocks with construction paper faces talking to each other during the opening. One of the wig blocks is stabbed as blood gushes out everywhere. Even after inserting this opening sequence, the film only runs 72 minutes.

Crazy Mrs. Pringle and her mentally challenged son Rodney run a wig shop near a Florida college campus. The wigs are advertised as 100 percent real human hair. The shop also rents vacant rooms to college co-eds. The renting of rooms is only a disguise for Pringle to lure young women to the shop so Rodney can scalp and murder them. Pringle often talks to her stuffed cat named Napoleon, adding to her craziness. \

A college girl arrives at Pringle’s wig shop to inquire about a room for rent. She is lured into a back room to be scalped by Rodney. The girl’s friend, Kathy Baker, investigates to try and find the murdered girl. During her investigation, other girls are scalped and murdered. Kathy follows a janitor home who buries bones in his backyard from a campus garbage can. She suspects he has something to do with the murders, but discovers the bones are for his dog.

A number of scenes pad out the length of the film with shots that last too long and don’t tribute to the plot of the film. An unrelated sequence of spectators watching a car race is one example. Another example is a scene of college girls in their dorm room dancing on beds in pajamas and see-through nighties while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken — an attempt at product placement. Colonel Sanders would make an appearance in Lewis’ next film — Blast Off Girls (1967).

The police eventually catch up to Mrs. Pringle and Rodney, and arrest them both. A trailer for the film shows Pringle hamming it up for the camera as the police carry her away in handcuffs.

Director Lewis often combined dark humor and horror in an attempt to make gore and over-the-top violence look silly and unsophisticated. His early “Blood Trilogy” films — Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) are all good examples of this. Too extreme for most mainstream theatres, these films played on 42nd street grindhouses in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Blood Feast changed motion picture history forever as being the first film to introduce extreme violence and gore to the movie screen. Anyone with a weak stomach is not encouraged to view these films. See them at your own risk.

Happy viewing and Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Honeymoon Killers an arty wannabe that played the grindhouses

                                                                       By Doug Gibson

“The Honeymoon Killers,” director Leonard Kastle’s 1970 black-and-white look at the exploits of real-life “lonely hearts” killers Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, is a sleazy film, but it’s arty too. For a brief while, it captured the fancy of critics and earned back its cheap $200,000 budget. The film’s acclaim, however, did not extend to suburbia, and “The Honeymoon Killers” eventually found a home in the grindhouse cinemas of 42nd Street in NYC.

This is a really good film, a must for film fans who want to see how effectively a film’s mission can be accomplished so cheaply. The plot: Lonely nurse, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) works at a southern hospital and takes care of her whiny, ill mother. Through a lonely hearts club, she hooks up with Ray Fernandez, (Tony LoBianco) an attractive lothario. Critic Danny Peary, in the book “Cult Movies,” nails the sleazy charm of Ray as “slimy Charles Boyer” and describes his teasing talk as “Spanish penny-ante confidence man.” Both leads are fantastic in this film. Stoler should have received an Oscar nomination for her stoic determination to have love at the expense of destroyed lives. Despite that callousness, her character can elicit our sympathy. After Ray gets to close to a woman he’s scamming, Martha attempts suicide. Ray saves her and swears his love and fidelity to her.

To get back to the plot, Beck abandons her job and her mother to follow Ray, even accepting his confession that he’s a confidence man that swoops in on loveless women, takes their money, and leaves. Beck agrees to go with him and play his “sister” in these confidence charades. There is an interesting scene where the idea that Ray can live with Martha — who will stay at the hospital — is broached. Ray, in an ironic definition of machismo, declares that he will not live off a woman. Of course, that’s exactly what he does for a living.

The inclusion of Martha in Ray’s confidence schemes is the trigger that leads to murders. She is incapable of sticking to that role. Watching the women make intimate gestures to Ray, as well as Ray’s own weakness with the more attractive women, drives Martha to be the instigator of murder. Ray, a far weaker individual than Martha, becomes an accomplice in the killings. Perhaps the most terrifying — and one I imagine that pleased grindhouse audiences — is the killing of elderly Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higbee). Ray is supposed to marry her and then do the usual fade. The grouchy Janet, offended by Martha’s bulk and hostility, gets suspicious and wants to contact her children. Her murder is drawn out, as Martha placidly tells Ray she has to die in front of a terrified, pleading, Janet. Ray finally joins Martha in the murder. Martha hits her with a hammer and Ray strangles her. The cramped room, the three persons, with Martha being so big, and the black and white simplicity, really provides a punch to the audience.

I won’t give away any more of this excellent film. As Peary has noted in “Cult Movies,” “A sense of claustrophobia is meant to dominate the film.” Sets are small, the women usually complaining and everywhere is the very large, hostile, unattractive Martha, doing her best to stifle any intimacy between Ray and the women he is fleecing.

Director and script writer Kastle — who never made another film — created a crude but effective, clinical, documentary-feel film of a couple who fed off each others’ warped definition of love. That they can elicit the audience’s sympathy even while being so amoral is helped by the fact that the majority of their victims, even Martha’s mother, are generally poor specimens of humanity. In the film, Ray always signed his letters to his confederate, “Dear Martha.” Near the end of the film, Martha, in prison, awaiting execution, receives a letter from Ray, also in prison, awaiting execution. It’s a fitting finale that after all the carnage, the pair’s warped love is still strong. The films IMDB web page is at