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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

American Movie, and the making of Coven

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, color, 107 minutes, Northwest Films. Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Mark Borchadt, Mike Schank and Bill Borchadt. Rating: Nine stars out of 10.

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern is the most original slice of Americana captured on film since Michael Moore chronicled the corporate-caused decay of Flint, Mich. in Roger and Me more than a decade ago. Judged top documentary film at Sundance a few years ago, it’s the best of its genre since Waco: The Rules of Engagement managed to snag an Oscar nomination several years ago.
It’s the story of Mark Borchardt a wannabe film-maker, who redefines the word persistence. He lives in Wisconsin. Mark is, by most definitions, a loser. He failed to finish high school. He’s unmarried but has three children. He’s under-employed. He’s a border-line alcoholic. He owes several thousand dollars in child support and thousands more in other debts. He lives at home with his mom, sleeping on a thin mattress. His best friend is a dazed ex-stoner musician named Mike who’s addicted to scratch lottery. His family scorns his goals, suggesting that he’s fit at best to be a factory worker.
Mark has no prospects, but he has a goal. To be a feature film-maker. His almost-obsessive pursuit of that dream and his infectious optimism is captured by director Chris Smith. You want to see reality on film? Ignore the “Big Brother’ and “Survivor” garbage heaped onto television screens recently. American Movie is a primer on micro-budget film making and the fragile dreams of its creators.
Mark’s been making short films with his friends since he was a teen. Horror is his preferred genre. He counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence in his life. Mark wants to make a feature film called Northwestern. The first part of the film focuses on Mark and his team’s fruitless effort to get the production off the ground. Kitchen-table production meetings provide only pessimism and finally the project is shelved for lack of funds.
Not deterred, the rest of the film concerns Mark’s efforts to finish and release Coven, a 40-minute psychological horror drama that he started years earlier. Despite setback after setback, the film gets finished, thanks largely to Mark’s dying, lonely Uncle Bill, who lives in a trailer park and has $280,000 in the bank. The scenes between Mark and his curmudgeon uncle are touching. Mark exploits him to be sure, but he’s not fooling Bill, who knows Mark has pipe dreams but is nourished from the attention Mark pays to him.
There are priceless scenes in American Movie. They include a desperate Mark pleading with his mom to put on a costume and play an extra in Coven. “But I need to go shopping today,” she protests. There’s the 30-plus take scene of Uncle Bill delivering a few lines in Coven. Another is Mark’s glee at unexpectedly receiving a credit card offer in the mail. There’s Mark’s “office,” the front seat of his car parked at the airport. Another is the poverty-inspired panic which results in post production when a few seconds of film are discovered missing. Also, there’s a hilarious scene from the filming of Coven where several takes are required to smash a hard-headed actor’s skull through a kitchen cabinet.



A serious side to this film adds to its strength. Film-maker Smith provides viewers a peek in Mark’s personal life. It’s dysfunctional. While watching the Super Bowl with his family, a drunken Mark allows some of the bitterness he usually hides to come out in the surface. It’s tough to watch, but important as it rounds out his character and offers a peek into inner demons that have kept him from success.
Besides Uncle Bill, Mike Schank, Mark’s best friend, is an asset to American Movie. His blank stare, accompanied by monotone voice, might lead viewers to think he’s suffering from an acid flashback. However, Mike grows on you, and before the end of the film he’s shown to be a talented musician.
Despite no formal training, Mark is a talented self-taught film-maker, and you can’t help cheering for him once he finally finishes Coven and stands outside the theater, amidst a long line of people waiting to see his film. He may not have a home of his own, but he’s a director with a film under his belt, a colleague of Steven Spielburg. He has triumphed. Note: The DVD version of American Movie contains Mark’s film Coven. I have seen it and it's not too bad. Very low budget but with a cold, dark nihilism feel.

Doug Gibson

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Iron Rose – Jean Rollin’s Most Poetic Title



By Steve D. Stones

French director Jean Rollin created fascinating and bizarre films which combined surrealism and erotic imagery. In recent years, his work has found a new generation of fans from DVD releases of his films by Redemption Entertainment.  The Iron Rose is Rollin’s fifth feature, and is often cited as a fan favorite. This blogger certainly points to The Iron Rose as his favorite Rollin film. However, the film was the least commercially successful of his career, and Rollin anticipated it would not do well even before it was released.

He gave the film a more personal touch to avoid compromises he made in previous films.
The Iron Rose concerns a young couple who meet at a party. The film begins with the girl finding an iron rose washed up in the sand by the ocean. The couple goes for a bike ride after the party and discovers an old gated gothic cemetery. The two explore the cemetery as the sun quickly sets. They discover an underground crypt and climb into it for some quick sex.

The cemetery appears to be deserted, but a strange clown appears to put flowers on a grave. The couple panics as they have a hard time finding a way out in the dark.  The two wander aimlessly through the cemetery, never finding an escape.

After a violent fight in the cemetery, both fall into a pit covered in dust and bones. Eventually they climb out of the pit after making out again. The young girl finds the iron rose and suggests it will help them find the way out. The boy climbs back into the crypt and the girl seals the top, trapping him inside. As dawn approaches, the girl dances throughout the cemetery like a ballerina. She joins her boyfriend in the crypt as dawn has fully approached.

Like many of Rollin’s films, The Iron Rose employs a scene of a nude girl walking on the shore of the beach with upright wood poles and an iron cross sticking in the sand. This scene gives the film a surreal and erotic poetry that is a Rollin trademark. In his 1975 film Lips of Blood, a similar scene finds a nude couple walking along the beach that crawls into a coffin which washes out to shore.

Another appeal of The Iron Rose is its theme of old world decay. At the opening, the film shows a number of old decaying buildings, and then contrasts the decay against a landscape of industry by showing trains and rail yards. The old cemetery also adds to the decay theme. In a number of scenes, the young couple, who represent the living, push, kick and topple over a number of tombstones while wandering through the cemetery. This adds to the contrast of life and death, a theme which threads through the entire film.

Redemption Entertainment has released most of Rollin's works, including The Nude Vampire, Lips of Blood, The Shiver of the Vampires, Fascination, and of course The Iron Rose. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plan9Crunch reviews a novel: Hanif Kureish's The Black Album

(Note, I wrote the review that follows for a magazine just after Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent War on Terror has made The Black Album a very prescient book, a sort of embryonic look at such extremism.)

Hanif Kureishi excels in exposing the sour taste of tired overworked, spoiled radicalism. In Buddha of Suburbia, he conveyed the decay of the 60s idealism leading to the advent of Thatcherism. But he's no neo-conservative. Kureishi takes on political correctness with imagination as a weapon, rather than wanting to restrain thought.

The Black Album is Kureishi's response to the fatwah more than a decade ago issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. As well as the novel exposes the foolishness of being "devoid of doubt," post Sept. 11 it can also be read as a precursor to the terrorism that killed more than 3,000, or even the recent Boston bombings. Kureishi's fanatical students who inhabit a third-rate London university, being deceived by a quiet madman, show a potential for violence as the novel concludes.

The protaganist is Shahid, a young student pulled in two opposing radical ideologies. He arrives at the college because he idolizes professor Dee Dee Osgood, who is in her late 30s. Her classes mix Prince with Baldwin, Cleaver, Angela Davis, Marvin Gaye and others. For Shahid, it's intellectual stimulation. He begins a friendship with Dee Dee that soon leads to a sexual relationship between the teacher and student. Kureishi pulls no punches in his description of the affair. There are explicit scenes of lovemaking, but the sex is not pornographic. 

Pulling Shahid in the opposite direction is a clique of radical Islamic fundamentalists led by Riaz, a quiet, almost wimpy older student who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand while speaking. Shahid lacks a central of authority. His father is dead, his mother does not command authority, his sister in law is a conservative bore and his flashy older brother Chili is succumbing to drugs. The meaning of life offered by his religious friends and their efforts to combat racism is attractive to Shahid, and much of the novel involves his tug of war between Dee Dee's influence and Riaz's. Eventually, the controversy over The Satanic Verses results in a book burning that forces Shahid to make a final choice. The consequences lead to violence.

Kureishi knows how to deliver humor and farce. And there are several instances: The radical clique worships a decayed eggplant that is rumored to contain holy verse; a communist professor develops a stutter that gets progressively worse as Eastern Europe become more democratic; and Riaz's clothes, while under Shahid's watch, are stolen from a coin laundrette.

The Black Album is populated by vivid, very creative characters. Besides Shahid, Dee Dee and Riaz, there's Chili, Shahid's brother who idolizes Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese but is discovering that crime and drugs in the real world suck. There's Dee Dee's estranged husband, the stuttering Communist professor Brownlow who lusts after Moslem girls in veils. Chad, a former drug dealer turned convert to Riaz's doctrines, is a compelling tragic figure. Adopted by a white couple, his discovery that he has no identity causes him to leap too far into fanaticism, with tragic results. The novel is also populated with drug dealers, foolish politicians, racist council inhabitants and scared Asian immigrant families.

A theme to The Black Album might be Imagination. It certainly combats religious rigidity. Late in the novel, Shahid tells a sympathetic member of the Moslem clique that he can't have any boundaries, even one set by God. That may offend some readers, but given the choice the young student faces, he's making a wise decision. Notes: Dee Dee Osgood's fate is mentioned in passing in Kureishi's later novel, Gabriel's Gift, where she's now a successful psychologist. The time frame is just after the millennium.

-- Doug Gibson

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Diagnosing a cult film: Milligan's Torture Dungeon

Watch a YouTube video review of Torture Dungeon courtesy of Steve Stones and Doug Gibson here.
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By Steve D. Stones

From the moment Andy Milligan’s film Torture Dungeon arrived at my doorstep, I knew I had something very special. Not only because the film is so rare but also because I had to sweat blood to find it. Type the words Torture Dungeon into the search engine of any mail-away video and DVD company, and the result that comes up is always the disappointing Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon. Amazon.com even lists Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon as: Torture Dungeon.

If you’re not a careful buyer, you could end up buying the wrong film, which is what happened to me. Finally I was able to find a VHS copy of the film on e-bay issued by Midnight Video, a company no longer in business. This tape is my most cherished video in my collection. I proudly display it on my video shelf as an ancient relic of a bygone era. Because the film is so rare and not listed in most film encyclopedias, I consider it to be “The Holy Grail of Cult Films.”

If you have never seen a Milligan film, I suggest you start with Torture Dungeon. You won’t be disappointed. Norman-Duke of Norwich, played by Gerry Jacuzzo (aka Jeremy Brooks),star of Milligan’s gay bath house short Vapors, is determined to rise to the throne and become king. He will do anything to acquire the throne, including murdering members of his own family to become successor to the crown. An opening sequence shows his half brother being decapitated on a beautiful spring day while admiring a flower. This gives us a clue for the violence that is in store for the rest of the film.

A legal council, headed by Neil Flannigan, star of Milligan’s Fleshpot On 42nd Street and Guru The Mad Monk, decides the rightful heir to the throne should be Albert, played by Hal Borske, a mentally challenged half-wit who picks his nose, talks like a child, eats bugs, and wears a tacky wig. The council is eager to marry Albert so he can provide a new heir.

The council selects a pretty peasant girl named Heather, played by Susan Cassidy, to be his bride. Heather can’t seem to keep her breasts inside her blouse throughout the entire film, which suits this male just fine. The problem with the council’s plan is that Heather is already in love with another local peasant named William. One sequence shows William and Heather running around nude in a pool of water. Milligan is careful not to show too much flesh by disguising parts of their bodies with tree branches and foliage.

Another violent scene in the film shows William being nailed to a barn door in a poorly lit sequence as black hooded executioners drive a pitchfork through his chest. This is a recurring theme seen in many of Milligan’s films, such as: The Ghastly Ones, The Weirdo and Carnage. Some of the film’s strangest dialogue comes from the Norman-Duke of Norwich character. In a scene where his wife enters their bedroom, he says: “I live for pleasure and pleasure alone . . . next to power, of course.” He goes on to say: “I’m not a homosexual. I’m not a heterosexual. I’m not asexual. I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything for pleasure!”

This may be perhaps some of the strangest dialogue ever put on celluloid. Even stranger is Milligan’s trademark swirl camera technique used in the film, particularly during William’s pitchfork murder and at the end of the film when Heather tries to ride off on a horse. The camera seems to swirl around in circles in a close-up of Susan Cassidy’s right thigh as she tries to ride off to avoid Norman.

Milligan also has the uncanny ability to completely disguise the smallness of his interior locations, said to be on Staten Island, by hanging lots of draping fabric over furniture and doors. The actors wear amateurish attire unrealistic to the clothing styles of the Middle Ages. All these characteristics give the film a very unique charm that is typical of so many cult films.

Some critics have suggested that Torture Dungeon is Milligan’s Richard III or Romeo & Juliet. That may be far reaching, but it is an interesting film that will satisfy connoisseurs of underground cult films. You may even want to view it back to back with Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers, its original theatrical double feature.

Bloodthristy Butchers is Milligan’s take on the Sweeney Todd-DemonBarber of Fleet Street story. Neil Flanagan’s transvestite character in Fleshpot On 42nd Street even gives the double feature a plug in the film by saying: “Let’s go see Torture Dungeon playing on a double bill with Bloodthirsty Butchers down at The Waverly.” Don’t miss it! You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Hitchcock classic, 'Rope!'


By Steve D. Stones

In his book Crackpot, director John Waters mentions Rope as his favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. Rope may not be Hitchcock’s most well-known effort, but it has all the suspense elements that make his films distinctive. The film is inspired by the real-life Leopold-Loeb murder case.

Two college buddies murder a classmate in their high rise New York apartment by strangling him with a rope. They place his body in a trunk and hold a party for his family and friends as a challenge to see if they will get caught. The trunk is used as a buffet table for the party.

A former professor of the two men named Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart, attends the party. A conversation during the party leads to the topic of committing the perfect murder. Rupert and his two former students get into a philosophical debate as to whether or not moral concepts of right and wrong, good and evil apply to intellectually superior individuals. They conclude that those who are intellectually inferior in life should be murdered, ridding society of poverty and other ills.

The entire film takes place on one set of the high rise apartment, adding to the suspense. A maid almost discovers the body in the trunk as she cleans up after the party to place books in the trunk. Rupert returns to the apartment after the party, claiming to have left his cigarette case behind. The tension builds as the viewer waits in anticipation for Rupert to open the trunk to discover the body. Rope is a brilliant film made with a small number of actors and one location.

The philosophical debate the three main characters have about committing the perfect crime leads the viewer to believe that Rupert will at some point side with the two murders. In the end, he discovers their crime and argues that no human being has the right to take someone’s life, regardless of how “intellectually superior” they may think they are. A brilliant premise. Happy Viewing!!!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kingdom of The Spiders – Captain Kirk To The Rescue



By Steve D. Stones

William Shatner is one of those actors that we all love to hate, or is that hate to love? His recent appeal is a kitsch one based on the cheesy priceline.com commercials he does for television and the internet. After a short three season run of the original Star Trek TV series in the 1960s, Shatner found himself cast in a number of low-budget sci-fi and horror films of the 1970s, such as The Devil’s Rain (1975) with Ernest Borgnine and Kingdom of The Spiders (1977). Both films have gained a cult following over the years, but Kingdom of The Spiders is the better of the two.

Shatner plays a small town Arizona veterinarian named Rack Hansen. A beautiful entomologist, played by Tiffany Bolling, arrives in town to investigate a series of spider attacks on local livestock. Shatner decides to chase skirt and follow Bolling as she conducts her investigation. Shatner’s sister-in-law Terry is jealous of Bolling because she wants to score Shatner for herself after the death of her husband. The sister-in-law is played by Shatner’s wife at the time – Marcy Lafferty.

Shatner and Bolling run across a number of large spider hills infested with tarantula spiders. Unlike most insect infested sci-fi movies, the spiders are not a result of atomic radiation or scientific experimentation. The spiders have arrived to seek new feeding grounds after having their lands infected with pesticide.  
In a plot scenario similar to the original Jaws (1975), Shatner and Bolling recommend that the area be quarantined. The town mayor of course refuses the quarantine because a county fair is to be held in a few weeks, bringing money to the local economy.

In yet another reference to a well-known horror movie, Night of The Living Dead, Shatner, Bolling and a few locals barricade themselves inside a lodge as the spiders consume the land and cover the entire lodge. Shatner fights off the spiders as they find a way to cut off all electrical power to the area. The film ends with an unconvincing aerial shot of the entire town covered in thick spider webs.

Interestingly enough, most film encyclopedias give Kingdom of The Spiders a three star rating, including Leonard Maltin’s yearly movie guide. The effects have dated, but the film is still a fun effort in the genre of insects attacking man theme. As I watched this film, I could not help but think of Bert I. Gordon’s “Empire of The Ants” made in 1977 and Bill Rebane’s “The Giant Spider Invasion” from 1975. All three films would be a delight to view back to back. Happy Viewing!!!

Monday, April 8, 2013

'Gold Raiders' - obscure but notable as the 3 Stooges first feature





By Doug Gibson


"The Gold Raiders," 1951, B&W, 56 minutes, directed by Edward Bernds, starring George O'Brien as "George O'Brien," The Three Stooges, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Shemp Howard, Lyle Talbot as Taggert, Sheila Ryan as Laura Mason and Clem Bevans as Doc Mason.

This "oater" is a curio, mainly because it features the Three Stooges in supporting roles. The very short B-film stars silent and early talkie cowboy film star George O'Brien as a lawman turned insurance man hired by mining companies to get their gold safely to the bank. Crime boss Lyle Talbot wants to steal the gold. He tries to get information on where the gold is being taken from a drunken old doctor (Bevans) who, with his stooped figure and drawling voice, is made for westerns.

The Three Stooges play bumbling peddlers who ally with O'Brien to keep the gold safe. Gold Raiders is an OK film. It's nothing special from the hundreds of other "oaters" made in Hollywood but an aging O'Brien does an OK job shooting and fighting. Talbot, who starred in Ed Wood films, is a good villain and the Stooges are funny.

Director Bernds, who helmed many Stooge shorts, a few with the trio's beautiful blonde co-star Christine McIntyre, and later some features, told Cult Movies Magazine that Moe Howard was envious of Abbott and Costello and wanted to get into features. The result was Gold Raiders, an almost forgotten film today that was meant more as a comeback vehicle for O'Brien. Bernds recalled that the film was trashed by critics but, in my opinion, it really isn't too bad. Its main handicap is an abysmally low budget. It was shot in five days and looks it. One unintentionally funny scene includes a close-range shootout in a cramped saloon where almost no one seems to get shot. The film is also unique in that it may be the only western ever made where an insurance man is a two-fisted, gunslinging hero! It's a fun film and it's interesting and not unpleasant to see see the Stooges as comedy relief is a western action film.

According to Bernds, the film idea was hatched because Moe was envious of the success of the comedy team of Abbott & Costello. Despite the obscurity of Gold Raiders, the Stooges later made several features where they were the stars, including The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, Snow White and the Three Stooges and The Outlaws is Coming. Truth is, though, I enjoy the lean and mean Gold Raiders more than any of the later bigger-budget efforts. The Stooges are more effective as comedy relief, rather than the main components of a film

Notes: The makeup for Gold Raiders was done by Ed Wood regular Harry Thomas. Gold Raiders was released by United Artists but plans for a sequel with the Stooges and O'Brien were abandoned. The film was released to TV several years later and then sat for decades forgotten until 2006 when Warner Brothers released it on DVD. It can be bought via amazon.com





Friday, April 5, 2013

Even Lon Chaney Jr. can't save 'The Cyclops'



By Doug Gibson

I was really looking forward to seeing "The Cyclops." It had two points in its favor: One was that it was directed by Bert I. Gordon, or Mr. BIG, who made a career out of delightfully shoddy but flashy special effects. Anyone who has seen "Food of the Gods" understands how fun a BIG film can be. Also, it stars Lon Chaney Jr., years after his heyday at Universal, but hey, it's Chaney Jr.

Also, the film stinks. The FX are really bad. They're old-fashioned, badly placed photo-enhanced schlock, you know, backscreen projection and so on, and the cyclops isn't really a traditional cyclops. He's a deformed monster grown too tall thanks to uranium contamination. He has one eye because skin has grown over his eye. My young son disdainfully disses this film as the "fake cyclops" movie.

Chaney Jr. is wasted too. He doesn't play anyone sinister. In fact, he plays a thuggish, cowardly type who is supposed to be a greedy businessman. He's miscast, though. He doesn't seem smart enough to have succeeded in business. Anyway: Four people, including Chaney, head off to Mexico in a plane to explore an area allegedly rich in uranium. The locals don't want then to go, but they do anyway. Besides Chaney, there's a wisecracking pilot, a scientist, a woman whose test pilot husband disappeared over that area of Mexico a couple of years past. They are played by (pilot) Tom Drake, woman (Gloria Talbot) and scientist (James Craig). The scientist, by the way, has the hots for Talbot, the wife of the missing test pilot, played by Duncan Parkin.

Yep, you guessed it. Once they land in the Mexican they discover that the high amount of uranium has turned all the animals and insects huge (although there seems to be very few wildlife) and eventually they find the wife's husband, turned into a babbling, grotesque hulk with one good eye. During all this Chaney's despicable character dies in a cave. That scene is so poorly done that it was necessary for others in the cast to mention that Chaney had died. Honestly, from watching the scene, you wouldn't be sure. The dialogue is melodramatic; the "romance" scenes between Craig and Talbot are offensive given that it's unclear if her husband is dead and pilot Drake is always cracking unfunny jokes. Chaney, as mentioned, is boorish and cowardly.

The film was released by Allied Artists and ran 66 minutes. The "cyclops" Parkin also played the giant in "War of the Colossal Beast." If you want to watch it, click on the YouTube link above.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Quick review of 'House of Frankenstein'



By Doug Gibson

I watched an old monster classic, Universal's 1944 monster-fest "House of Frankenstein." Here is a quick review:

"House of  Frankenstein" is really two films fit into one 60-plus minute feature. It involves mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann, (Boris Karloff) who escapes from a prison with his hunchback pal Daniel, played well by J. Carrol Naish. It seems that Niemann was imprisoned for helping Dr. Frankenstein years ago. Bent on revenge, he heads to the air of the burgermeister who sent him to prison. Improbably, he encounters Lampini's horror show, run by George Zucco. After killing Lampini, the pair resurrect Dracula (John Carradine) by pulling a stake out of his bones??!! Niemann and Daniel use Dracula to kill the burgermeister but old Dracula has the hots for his daughter (Anne Gwynne). After her husband (Peter Coe) and others go after Dracula to save the young lovely, Niemann abandons Dracula, who dies when the sun hits him.

Niemann and Daniel head for the hills, and encounter a gypsy camp where Daniel falls in love with a young gypsy dancer, Llonka (Elena Verdugo). Somehow the wolfman Larry Talbot joins them and the obsessed Niemann convinces Talbot to help him resurrect Frankenstein. Meanwhile, the gypsy falls for the moody Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), much to Daniel's displeasure. It all ends badly, with Verdugo's gypsy killing Talbot to save him. Unfortunately, she's mortally wounded doing that, which upsets Daniel who goes after Niemann. At this point the Frankenstein monster, played by Glenn Strange, tosses Daniel out the window and carries a badly wounded Niemann into the swamp, where they both sink under quicksand.

True, it's convoluted as heck, but it all works OK, particularly with a great cast (Lionel Atwill is also somewhere in there) and capable direction over 71 minutes by Earle C. Kenton. Of the two tales, the first with Dracula is shorter and more crisp. There's nary any fat to the plot. The second tale, with the wolfman and monster, is a bit convoluted. However, the least effective monster acting is Carradine, who is so low key as the vampire that he seems more exhausted than undead. Fortunately, a few years later, Universal International was smart enough to go with Lugosi for the monster spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Naish is not bad with his tortured hunchback with the unrequited love for gypsy Verdugo.