Sunday, August 7, 2022

John Carradine makes Cain's Cutthroats a western worth a look



Review by Doug Gibson

"Caine's Cutthroats" is a 1970 revenge western that was originally titled "Caine's Way" (more on that later). It's a very low-budget western with ambitous pretensions. It wants to be deep, and explore how unwarranted suffering and grief can be contaminated into a never-ending desire to torture and kill; and how the desire for revenge can return a good man to his once-evil self. If the producers had just kept a simple plot simple, you might see "Caine's Cutthroats" on western cable channels today instead of the same tired fuzzy print that has made the rounds through a VHS release, various appearances on out-of-print multi-western DVD collections, and current appearances on Tubi, YouTube and Daily Motion.

The plot: "Caine's Cutthroats" are former Confederate soldiers who committed crimes against Union forces. It's long after the Civil War, and they are out of prison. They have resumed criminal activities, stealing a Union military payroll and slaughtering several soldiers. They visit the home of their past gang leader, Justice Cain (Scott Brady), who has renounced his past and lives with his son and new wife, an African-American woman who once served as a slave maid in his household. Cain rebuffs his returning crew and they turn on him, raping his wife and killing her and Cain's young son. They shoot Cain, torch his property and leave him for dead.

There's one main reason to see this film (and another smaller one). The main reason is the introduction of the character, Preacher Simms, played by the great John Carradine. The self-described preacher discovers Cain, nurses him back to health and buries his wife and child. Preacher Simms loves to quote Bible scripture -- often as wry commentary on events he witnesses -- but he makes most of his money as a bounty hunter. He keeps the heads of the outlaws he kills pickled in a big barrel. He collects bounties by delivering the heads to law enforcement. As Cain heals, Simms learns that the Cain's Cutthroats gang members carry healthy bounty rewards. Preacher and Cain join to hunt the 'Cutthroats; Preacher for the money, Cain for revenge.

At this point in his career, Carradine was usually a one- or two-day payday for low-budget films. But he has a substantial role in this film, and I think this may be his best performance in a low-budget film in the early '70s. He just chews up the scenery, quoting Bible scriptures  shows great comic timing, and really seems to be enjoying himself. As he tells Cain, "... I sort of mix vocations, a shepherd of the flock, a hunter of men. ..."

Brady, once a major star and still getting some A-film roles in 1970, seemed to enjoy paydays in low-budget films. He's adequate as Cain, a man who has lost everything and can't control his thirst for vengeance. Although initially the sympathetic victim, he reverts to his former heartless, criminal, sadistic tendencies. 

The simple plot has promise but the execution fails. The film, shot in Kanab, Utah, and Yucca Valley's PioneerTown in California, is very low-budget. It's directed by Kent Osborne, who is slightly less talented than Al Adamson. Both Brady and Carradine, and Robert Dix -- who plays Cain's former second in command -- worked for Adamson. With one exception, the actors who portray the 'Cutthroats are very mediocre. They seem incapable of doing anything other than whooping and hollering, and laughing at inflicting pain. The violence is poorly portrayed, with fake blood, and the scenes are shot crudely and unconvincingly. The scant budget, and 85-minute running time, doesn't provide nuance for the adversaries, nor does it provide sympathy for the protagonist Cain, who shows his rage in explosions of anger, rather than as a slowly-simmering-to-boiling cauldron.

The one positive performance from the 'Cutthroats comes from Darwin Joston, as Billy Joe, a psychopathic former soldier with serious mother issues. Joston went on to star in bigger films, including "Wild at Heart," "The Fog," and "Assault From Precinct 13,"

Now, here's the second cult reason to view "Cain's Cutthroats." There is a small but substantial role by Ed Wood actor -- and his friend -- Valda Hansen. She plays"Zelda,' who is either a barfly or prostitute who cavorts romantically with Billy Joe in a "saloon." (The low budget prevents viewers from really seeing a realistic-looking saloon.) Valda's acting is very strong. She portrays a boisterous woman who really enjoys heavy flirting with the outlaw. A second scene, inside a room where the two prepare to have sex, ends with a partially nude Zelda being strangled to death by the psychopath. He can't engage in sex due to his mother issues, and an angry Zelda insults him, triggering the homicidal rage.

Viewers need to note that the second scene, the murder -- with Hansen's character being strangled -- is missing from both YouTube and Daily Motion versions, as well as DVDs that include "Cain's Cutthroats" with other westerns. The version currently on Tubi has the film with both scenes. Other than the obscure VHS release, that may be the only complete "Cain's Cutthroats" out there. 

Another actor, Adair Jameson, is effective in a small role as Rita, a former mistress of one of the killers, who joins Cain and Preacher after her boyfriend is killed. She engages in a romance with Cain that would have helped him. However, Cain is too consumed with anger to accept her offer of love. After a particularly sadistic killing of one of the murderers, both Rita and Preacher Simms abandon Cain, leaving him for good. The final scene provides a sort of morality tale that is intended to show a broken Cain that cannot achieve peace, even at the end of his vengeance quest.

Jameson has a nude bathing scene that is not cut from any prints. She is probably best known for her tiny role in the Don Knotts comedy, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," where she plays an attractive bank employee, Eileen, whose fully-filled sweater is complimented by her boss, played by James Millhollin. Jameson was married to B-film actor Myron Healey ("The Unearthly").

The "spaghetti westerns" were done a lot better than this California/Utah sadistic 'oater. It boasts some original songs, which seem out of place with the grim story. Mentioned earlier is that the film was released as "Caine's Way." It was about 10 minutes longer and apparently included documentary-like footage of modern-day criminal biking gangs committing mayhem. It would be interesting to see that print. In the unlikely event a nice Blu-Ray print is ever provided for this film, I hope the "Caine's Way"footage is an extra, if it still exists.

In an interview with Cult Movies Magazine published after her death, Valda Hansen expressed a lot of enthusiasm for "Cain's Cutthroats," expressing high hopes and later disappointment that it did not get more exposure. It's one of the few films where Hansen received considerable film time, and she shows she possesses acting skills, as she also does in another '70s low-budget film, "Outlaw Riders."

As you can see from the theater ads interspersed in this review, it did get many bookings. With a bigger budget, less sadism, a bigger star, and Carradine, it might be a favorite today seen on TCM, etc. As it is, it's a mediocre, small-budget revenge western with a very small cult that's due to Carradine's truly bizarre performance, and his comic timing. Despite its shortcomings, I have developed a fondness for the film, and watch it every couple of years. I own a VHS copy.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Mad Monster -- George Zucco is a brooding genius maniac


The Mad Monster, 77 minutes, Producers Releasing Corporation, B&W. Directed by Sam Newfield. Starring George Zucco as Dr. Lorenzo Cameron, Johnny Downs as Tom Gregory, Anne Nagel as Lenora Cameron, Glenn Strange as Petro/the monster, and Sarah Padden as the grandmother. Schlock-meter rating: 5.5 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

The first time I watched this vintage PRC cheapie, I trashed it and compared it to later dogs like Beast of Yucca Flats and The Creeping Terror. However, during my second viewing I warmed a little to the film. It is, as one reviewer has said, so bad it fascinates. I agree. The plot: Mad scientist Lorenzo Cameron (Zucco), rebuffed by his peers, injects wolf blood into a simpleminded handyman (Strange) turning him into a well-dressed dog/wolf man. Ostensibly, the crazy doc plans to create warriors to defeat the Nazis and other enemies with his injections, but he eventually uses the monster to kill his enemies. The plot, which is recycled pulp, includes a backwoods country swamp setting, a beautiful daughter, her reporter boyfriend, and the cops.

The bottom of the barrel budget hampers Mad Monster, but there are scenes of high camp that are bizarre: The opening sequence involves the mad Zucco injecting Petro in the laboratory with blood from a snarling creature in a cage. During the scene, the doctor hallucinates a debate with his scientist colleagues (who appear as misty personages). I guess low-budget director Newfield was trying to show Zucco is mad, but it seems like he's on an LSD trip. Also, some filter is used to make the country swamp seem dank and foggy, but it just looks like the air is filled with cheesecloth.

The film lags often and should have been trimmed to an hour. There are several scenes where actors, who have nothing to do, sit and wait for the camera to stop rolling. Despite the budget and bad script, Zucco, a veteran of low-grade horrors, does a capable job. PRC starlet Nagel is pretty, and has a voice that is a dead ringer for Judy Garland. Unfortunately her reporter/boyfriend Gregory has a squeaky voice. Strange, who later would play the Frankenstein monster in a few films, is terrible. As the dim-witted Petro, he's a fourth-rate imitation of Lon Chaney Jr's Lenny in Of Mice and Men. In fact, he seems to have a far better personality as the monster. In a small role, Padden is creepy as a cackling backwoods grandma. The film ends, as was often the style 60 years ago, with the young lovers embracing in front of a burning house. It's worth a rental if you like C and B movies from the 30s and 40s.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Axe -- its spare bleak terrain and characters heighten suspense, terror


Axe, a very low-budget North Carolina regional film, was shot in 1974 by a 20-something filmmaker, Frederick R. Friedel. The budget was only slightly more than $20,000.  Harry Novak, who ran Boxoffice International Prictures, Inc., a now-cultish mostly grindhouse distributor, picked it up from Friedel, along with another micro-budget Friedel film, Kidnapped Coed.

I haven't seen the latter film but I always wanted to see Axe, mainly thanks to a creepy trailer Novak put together. (You can see the trailer at the IMDB link to Axe above) I saw ads for the video/DVD when Something Weird was pitching it, but never bit. A key reason was despite several exceptions, Novak-released films generally seemed to be wanna-be porn that skirted the gray area between X and XXX.

Axe popped up on YouTube recently and I decided to finally check it out. I had recently learned that it was one of the "video nasties" that England banned for a while long ago. 

Axe kind of blew me away. It's only slightly longer than an hour, and it's no Novak-type sex film. It's an intense revenge film where the spare, bleak settings, buildings and emotionally spare characters create both a suspenseful and ultimately terrifying film. Novak, who was trying hard to stay in business in the mid to late '70s, was wise to pick up Axe. I hope it made a few bucks.

The film involves three criminals. Two are sadistic psychopaths. One is a weak man who goes along with the murdering and robbing. After killing one man and causing his terrified male lover to leap to his death, they take off for the country in search of plunder. In a small convenience store on the road, the two sadists casually terrorize and sexually humiliate the lone female employee. It's uncomfortable and gradually more frightening to watch. People shouldn't be allowed to terrorize innocents like this. They do in life, though. It's a harsh reality.

The trio eventually stop at a large house off the road, very southern style, wih a long front porch. Inside is a grandfather, who is paralyzed and cannot speak. He is tended to by granddaughter Lisa (Leslie Lee), a pretty girl/woman with an age difficult to ascertain. She is quiet, emotionless and solemn, speaking rarely and without emotion. She could have medical issues except in her bedroom there is art of girls laughing and smiling. They even look like Lisa. It's clear something traumatic has changed  Lisa.

She is a stoic and does not emote when two of the criminals very soon become threatening to her and her granddad. The third, weaker criminal, develops a crush on Lisa. Director Friedel has set up an odd kidnapping situation where the "hostages" barely acknowledge their captors. When a police vehicle stops by looking for the criminals, Lisa blandly acquises with the kidnappers' ponderous threats not to tell. 

The contrast to the terror victims experiences in the two previous scenes, a double murder, and a robbery, to what's occurring in this remote southern house, is striking. Stoicism without fear is being exhibited by Lisa. The criminals are too crudely dumb to be concerned.

That night, one of the psychopaths enters Lisa's girlish bedroom with an intent to rape her. But Lisa has a straight razor in bed with her. The criminal dies a graphic, painful, bloody death. Lisa, exerting tremendous strength, cleans up and tries to hide the body. 

This is an intense film. We know there are flaws. We don't have a backstory as to how Lisa became an emotionless, almost robotic character. We don't know what spurs the fire inside her to fight back. But what Roger Ebert said in his review of Last House on the Left applies also to Axe, which at heart is a less explicit version of Last House ... Ebert said he was describing what occurs in this intense film, not trying to deconstruct it. It may be unpleasant. It may be horrific. But the story is lean and mean and told effectively. The music works in Axe, as well. It's haunting, with a kind of hopeless melody.

The scenery, the house, bedrooms, living room, kitchen, the shabby store where the clerk is terrified, all are "characters" that contribute to this grim tale of revenge. The scenes of Lisa feeding her disabled grandfather, without emotion, while evil hovers around her, are at first disconcerting but later forbidding. It becomes so clear that these criminals are way in over their heads with this 100-pound protagonist.

Axe eventually has garnered a very small cult. Severin Films has released a Blu Ray of it and Kidnapped Coed, which is a film I'll also see once I buy the Blu-Ray. The Blue-Ray includes a blending of both films that Friedel released 30 years later, called Bloody Brothers.

I urge readers to see Axe. I want to know what you think. It grabs me with its spare, devoid of emotion crude justice. It's only about 66 minutes. Edited for the times, of course, it would have been a superb idea for Monogram or PRC 80 years ago. You can watch Axe (for now) here. Also see a South Carolina 1974 release ad under its original title, Lisa, Lisa (below).

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, June 12, 2022

House of Ygor novel keeps that Universal horrors feel within its pages


Review by Doug Gibson

The actor Bela Lugosi created the iconic character, Ygor, in the Universal horror film "Son of Frankenstein." Lugosi's creation -- who hadn't even been in the two previous Frankenstein films -- upstaged Boris Karloff's monster in the 1939 film. The devious, grotesquely-bent-at-the-neck survivor of a hanging produced dread, fear and pathos for audiences. Ygor was in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" and then his brain was in the monster's body in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman." In that film Lugosi portrayed the monster.

But if Ygor fails to appear in the Frankenstein saga until film number three, it's fair to wonder where this deviously charismatic fiend came from. Author Brad Braddock, who penned an entertaining prequel to another iconic Lugosi film, "White Zombie," has provided genre readers, as well as fans of gothic horror, an explanation as to what exactly Ygor was doing prior to his activities in "Son of Frankenstein." 

In "House of Ygor,"' Arcane Shadows Press, 2022, Ygor is a shepherd, living a hermit-like life outside the village of Frankenstein, trying to live down his past adventures with Doctor Frankenstein. Unfortunately, someone is stealing bodies, and the one-armed Inspector Krogh, who retains some sympathy for Ygor, warns him he is considered a suspect.

Ygor is discovered hiding by two villagers. They try to kill him and he kills one to escape. He heads to the ruined castle where monsters were created and makes a surprising discovery. He is then captured and eventually tried and hanged. Just before slipping into unconsciousness, Ygor sees his beloved sheep slaughtered by the village elders. Inspector Krogh is sickened and disgusted with the savagery of his fellow townsman.

I will not mention more of the plot because I don't want to deprive readers of enjoying the overall tale. This is a thoroughly first-rate Universal horror "variation" (to use the new preferred term for sequels and prequels of classic works). Braddock is a talented storyteller. He possesses a scholar's knowledge of the Universal horrors, the characters, the monsters, the locations, the lands, the traditions. He comprehends the overwhelming guilt, despair, malice, cruelty, fear, terror and injustice that creates such horrors.

"House of Ygor" may be a deliberate title because like those two lean Universal films, "House of Frankenstein" and "House of Dracula," there are multiple monsters, and -- like "House of Frankenstein" -- divergent plot lines, though in "House of Ygor" both occur at the same time. There is another iconic Universal monster who appears in the book, and his search for relief is related. And even more genre characters greet readers.

Braddock's novel is fast-paced, with 36 generally short chapters spread over almost 200 pages. This is a plus as it keeps the narrative moving quickly, which is essential to maintain suspense. Often the chapters move from the Ygor narrative to the other tale. Besides the village of Frankenstein and the desolate castle, passages take readers through deep caves, gypsy camps, a boat on the sea, dark streets in London, and the decayed Castle Carew in England, which really exists.

The terror of the village elders who are picked off one by one for death delight the hardened, unfeeling Ygor, who is obsessed with revenge. Braddock also conveys well his friendship with the Frankenstein monster, which often is displayed more through eye contact and hand signals than spoken word.

An appropriate quick summary of "House of Ygor" is that besides being a good read, it keeps that familiar vintage Universal horrors feel within its pages. There is one more additional treat: an introduction by genre writer Frank Dello Stritto, which is filled with indispensible observations on the Universal films.