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Monday, March 28, 2016

Gutter Auteur: The Films of Andy Milligan - by Rob Craig



Review by Steve D. Stones

After the Medved brothers published their Golden Turkey Awards book in 1980, it became hip, if not sophisticated, to poke fun at "bad movies." The hit 90s TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, took this a step further by poking fun at bad movies while the films were shown on TV. Cult movies writer Rob Craig has never jumped on board this bandwagon. In fact, he shows great respect for his cult movie subjects, particularly the grindhouse films of Andy Milligan.

In his 2012 book - Gutter Auteur - The Films of Andy Milligan, Craig gives a sweeping analysis of the films of low budget director Andy Milligan. Milligan literally made films for peanuts, usually for less than $20,000, and shot them on 16mm stock film. The films were blown up and shown on movie screens on 42nd Street in New York, giving them the appearance of a 19th century Impressionist painting, as Craig points out in the book.

Milligan was able to employ a number of stock actors in his films from Caffe Cino in New York, a small coffee house that produced plays. Playwright Robert Patrick once described the Caffe Cino as a theatre, flop-house, dope ring, temple and brothel. This gives the reader an idea of the eccentric kinds of people who spent time there. Future stars who perfected their craft at Caffe Cino are Harvey Keitel and Bette Midler.

Craig's analysis of Milligan's films clearly points out the recurring themes that the director explored, such as the emptiness of the sexual revolution of the 60s, a deconstruction of the traditional heterosexual lifestyle, and the family unit portrayed as dysfunctional and evil. Craig also points out the connection Milligan makes in his films of violence and sex, and the controlling nature of the matriarch in a dysfunctional family. Milligan's mother was very controlling of him, so this theme is often expressed in his work.

Milligan was also fond of creating period pieces from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era of the 1800s. Costumes were sewn together by the director himself. He gives his costume screen credit as Raffine, Milligan's Greenwich Village dress shop.

I particularly found Craig's section in the book on the lost films of Milligan to be the most intriguing. Craig discusses such lost classics as - The Promiscuous Sex (1967), The Naked Witch (1967), The Degenerates (1967), Depraved (1967), The Filthy Five (1968) and others. Film critics at the time seemed to praise these works. It's unfortunate that these films were thought to have been destroyed by William Miskin's son, Lew, who had an on-going feud with Milligan. Miskin served as Milligan's producer for many of his films. Fans are hopeful that prints of some of these films surface someday.

Craig mentions the stylistic trait of Milligan's "cinema verite" style of guerrilla filmmaking. His films come across as gritty, random and experimental. He also employs the "swirl camera" technique in which the camera turns in a full circle as it zooms in to its subject, as it does in the opening beheading scene of Torture Dungeon (1969).

For any fan of grindhouse films and the films of Andy Milligan, Rob Craig's book Gutter Auteur is a must. Happy reading. To purchase Gutter Auteur, please contact McFarland at www.mcfarlandpub.com and their order line at 800-253-2187.



Friday, March 25, 2016

'The Devil Bat' is poverty-row Bela Lugosi at his best



The Devil Bat
The Devil Bat, 1941, Producers Releasing Corporation, directed by Jean Yarbrough. Starring Bela Lugosi, Suzaane Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Hal Price. Sixty-nine minutes. Schlock-Meter Rating: *********1/2 stars out of 10 stars. Note: Also sold on some video labels as Killer Bats.

By Doug Gibson
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Okay, I know that the plot of Devil Bat is silly. I know the budget is a $1.89. I know the special effects are ridiculous with rubber bats swooping down to victims’ necks. I’m aware that many critics, including John Stanley (whom I respect) consider Devil Bat an example of Lugosi’s slow side to oblivion, and Ed Wood movies.

Nevertheless, I love this film. It is a great cult movie because it has heart. Lugosi -- and the rest of the cast -- take their job seriously. They take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. The plot is as follows: A seemingly kindly scientist (Lugosi) has toiled his entire life for a perfume company. The scientist’s discoveries had made millions for the firm’s family, but he remains a salaried employee. For that he is bitter and angry, and has harvested killer bats that will attack the scent of a perfume. Of course, Lugosi gives the perfume to the rich family members, and murders occur. By the end, nosy reporters and cops uncover Lugosi’s crime and he is killed at the end. Of course, as was PRC’s and other minor 40s film companies’ wont, there is also a love story mixed in this thriller.

Bela Lugosi’s greatest talent was providing an excellent performance no matter the subject matter. His performance as a brooding scientist, bitter, angry, feeling underappreciated, is a masterpiece. There is a scene at the beginning of Devil Bat where the family members of the firm -- who really seem to love the scientist -- throw him an appreciation testimonial and provide him with a $25,000 gift. Lugosi’s scientist is all decorum in this scene, and it’s chilling when he’s alone and the mad, angry, bitter murderer is revealed. It’s an effective contrast, which I don’t think other 40 chiller stars George Zucco or John Carradine could have pulled off.

By all means, rent Devil Bat (I recommend you buy it) and lose yourself in a great actor making the most of a simple story. Lugosi on screen can hypnotize a viewer. One ignores the plot flaws and poor special effects and appreciates a master actor in a great performance.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Time of Their Lives -- Costello's ghost kicks Abbott


By Doug Gibson

I had the opportunity to watch -- again -- the 1946 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ghost romp, "The Time of Their Lives." It's one of the comedy pair's more sophisticated, often witty films, and has aged very well. I'd rank it just below "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" in the duo's fantasy comedies and it's also one of the top 5 or 6 films the pair made.

What's interesting is that the film was a financial loser for Bud and Lou in 1946, although it did better when re-released five years later. One reason may be been because Bud and Lou were feuding at the time the film was made. As a result, the pair didn't play companions in "The Time of Their Lives" but separate character who barely share any dialogue together in the film. However, Lou's character -- playing a ghost -- does get to push around Bud's hapless modern-day psychiatrist.

But to the plot: It's 1780, and Lou plays Horation Primm, a poor tinker who has a letter of recommendation from General George Washington. He arrives at the estate of Tom Danbury, hoping to use the letter to win approval to marry one of Danbury's maids, Nora (Anne Gillis). However, the Danbury House butler, Cuthbert Greenway (Abbott) manages to shove the tinker in a large drawer for a while.

Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that Master Tom Danbury is a traitor, ready to assist Benedict Arnold. Nora finds this out and is briefly captured. Horatio's letter is hidden in a mantel clock on the estate. Danbury's fiance, Melody (played by Marjorie Reynolds) learns of Tom's treachery. She grabs the tinker Horatio and attempts to flee on horses to get help. However, in a misunderstanding, troops sent to capture Danbury shoot and kill Horatio and Melody. The now-dead pair, camaflouged by their riding clothing, are casually tossed in the well with a curse that they will never be allowed to leave the Danbury estate -- now burning -- until they can clear their names. There is a funny scene where Melody and Horatio discover they are ghosts.

The plot moves forward to 165 years later, with ghosts Melody and Horation living their long existence, unable to leave the estate, which has been rebuilt -- with almost all of the original furniture, saved from the burning, now in the new home. There is a funny scene where Melody makes a playful romantic move on Costello's tinker, only to push him off their tree when he admits that all he wants is to have his back scratched.

It doesn't take long for the new owners and visitors at the home, which includes psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenway, the butler's descendent, played, of course by Abbott, to learn that ghosts are haunting the home and want to convey a message. With the help of a housekeeper, Emily, played somberly by Gale Sondergaard, a seance is conducted where ghosts Melody and Horace get the message across that they need General Washington's note to clear their names and be allowed into heaven, where Horace can reunite with Nora, and Melody with Tom ... who we have learned, later renounced his treachery and became a good patriot.

The casting is superb. John Shelton plays Sheldon Gage, the new owner of the estate. Lynn Baggett is great as his fiancee, June, and wisecracking Binnie Barnes is very witty as wisecracking Aunt Millie, who psychiatrist Greenway sort of secretely has the hots for. Scenes of ghosts Horatio and Melody learning about electricity, phones and the radio are funny. Costello has a field day pushing around the scared descendent of his one-time romantic rival Cuthbert. There is also a funny scene where Abbott's psychiatrist, remorseful over his ancestor's mistreatment of Horatio, steals the original clock from a museum and in a wild chase on the Danbury estate, tries to elude the police while attempting to unlock the secret compartment that hides the Washington letter.

I can't highly recommend this film enough. It's a high-brow version of Abbott and Costello. To me it plays like a suspenseful, funny spoof of that era's genre ghost films, such as "The Uninvited." Despite the real-life tensions between the stars in 1945-1946 -- at one point Costello walked off the set, insisting he should play Abbott's role -- there's no evidence of tension between the two. Their performances are splendid and the comic timing superb. The 82-minute film was directed by Charles Barton.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Monogram mania - Revenge of the Zombies

By Doug Gibson

Revenge of the Zombies, Monogram, 1943, B and W, 61 minutes, directed by Steve Sekely, starring John Carradine as Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann, Gale Storm as Jennifer Rand, Robert Lowery as Larry Adams, Bob Steele as U.S. double agent, Mauritz Hugo as Scott Warrington, Mantan Moreland as Jeff, Veda Ann Botg as Lila von Altermann and Barry Macollum as Dr. Harvey Keating. Schlock-meter rating: 6 out of 10.

Let me just first say that Revenge of the Zombies is a wretched film. It's a malformed puppy, as my co-blogger Steve Stones might say. It has poor acting, particularly by star Carradine, who sleepwalks through his role as the heavy. Its zombies are tamer than the commom housefly and there is a lot of forced comic relief that isn't too funny.

But nevertheless, I respect and enjoy this film. It's another example of the bizarre, wild, other-worldly plots that C-movie helmsters such as Monogram would throw at small-town theaters and big city matinees. Imagine David Lynch with a $100,000 budget (far more than this film, I'm sure) and slightly drugged actors and you have the feel of "Revenge of the Zombies."

The plot takes us to the backwoods swamps of Louisiana, in the middle of World War II, where Lila von Altermann (Borg), wife of Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann (Carradine), has mysteriously died. Skeptical of the details of her death, Lila's brother, Scott (Hugo,) a local doctor (Macollum), and detective Larry Adams (Lowery) decide to investigate the death. They visit Dr. von Altermann and encounter few people other than his very attractive secretary, Jennifer Rand, (Storm), some wisecracking black kitchen staff, other black servants who are obviously zombies -- they walk with their hands stretched forward like Frankenstein's monster -- and, in a casket, seemingly dead, is Lila von Altermann.

For reasons that are generally unclear to any viewer, the visiting trio try to have detective Adams and brother Warrington switch roles, but the ploy is easily detected by Carradine's Dr. von Altermann. I haven't mentioned the very talented black comedy star Mantan Moreland. As Jeff, Detective's Adams' driver, he gets to sling jokes 10 times a minute, appear scared three times a minute and flirt with a pretty kitchen maid (Sybil Lewis). The problem, of course, is that Mantan was being forced to portray the ubiquitous racist scenario of the scared, wisecracking, child-like negro that many films of that era reveled in. Ironically, though, Moreland and the other black actors were likely included so the film could get bookings in the hundreds of theaters that catered to blacks. As mentioned, Moreland was a very talented actor and comedian who often rose above the demeaning roles he was given. He's particularly good in a 1940 Monogram film, King of the Zombies.

OK, here's where the film really gets Monogram-style weird: The visiting trio see Lila, who is clearly a zombie, walking around the secluded von Altermann mansion. Then, in the film's most bizarre scene, Carradine consults with a supposed Nazi agent and admits that he intentionally turned his wife and others into zombies to prove to the Nazis that he could create an army of zombies, who need no feeding and cannot be killed. to defeat the allies (And all you cult film fans thought Black Dragons was a bizarre WW2-era chiller!!) To prove his point, he shoots his dead wife twice, who does not flinch from her stance. However, undead Lila proves to still have a mind of her own, even as a zombie, and that causes her widower doctor some problems.

I won't give away the rest of the plot, but it never deviates from the twisted mind(s) of the poorly paid young writers who toiled at Monogram 60-plus years ago. As mentioned, I'm torn on this film. I love these old cheapies, and I can watch Revenge of the Zombies 10 times. But it's not one of the better poverty row chillers. Carradine is just awful as the villain. He seems dazed throughout and acts as if he is a socialite at a Manhattan party instead of a mad scientist. Storm, Lowery and Macollum are mediocre talents, although Storm later gained fame in the TV show My Little Margie. Former cowboy star Steele has a small, confusing role as a double agent. Borg, as the undead Lila, is the only creepy character in the film. She's tough and could easily lick the other, passive zombies in a fight. Moreland can deliver comedy relief well but he's saddled with a poor script and uninterested co-stars.

The difference between the 1940s Monogram and PRC's low-budget films and Universal's B-monster films were the tightness and disciplines of the Universal scripts and action. Films such as the Mummy series and the House of Dracula or Frankenstein were efficiently acted, to the point, concise, well-directed, lean-mean hour-long or so films. Monogram or PRC could not afford that talent. It's probable most poverty row scripts were hastily written in one draft. Films such as Revenge of the Zombies and even Bowery at Midnight, a much better film, take sudden twists that the films' ultra-low budgets cannot deal with. Invariably, audiences get confused. These C-films relied on the charisma of the star (Bela Lugosi, J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, Carradine) to maintain interest and suspense. However, one plus for these cheap films is that the sets were always pretty spooky and Revenge of the Zombies is no exception.

But I'm glad Monogram and others made their films in such haphazard ways. If they had been ordinary programmers instead of the mysterious, jaw-dropping mishmashes they became, we wouldn't still be talking about these poverty row wonders, and I probably wouldn't have written this review.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

'Torture Dungeon' -- Andy Milligan's grindhouse take on Richard the Third


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.

Watch this extraordinary film -- in three parts -- below