Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An appreciation of Jack Hill's Spider Baby

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, B&W, 1964. Directed by Jack Hill. Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno, the chauffer, Carol Ohmart as Emily Howe, Quinn K. Redeker as Peter Howe, Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth, Jill Banner as Virginia, Sid Haig as Ralph, Mary Mitchel as Ann, Karl Schanzer as Schlocker, the lawyer and Mantan Moreland as the messanger. Schlock-meter rating: Nine stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

In the 1960s several creepy, very original low-budget B&W shockers (some loaded with black humor) were thrown into the drive-ins and theaters. Most fared poorly at the box office (the exception being Night of the Living Dead). Others included Carnival of Souls, The Sadist and Dementia 13. Perhaps the best of the lot is Jack Hill's Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, an extremely creepy, laced with black humor let's-spend-the-night-in-a-house-filled-with-homicidal-lunatics film. Spider Baby's inventive plot involves the story of The Merrye Syndrome, a disease that infects the few remaining descendants of the deceased Titus Merrye; what happens is, after a Merrye turns 10, they rapidly age backwards. As they become more childish, they become homicidal, graduating towards dementia and cannibalism as the afflicted moves past the pre-natal stage. As the story begins, the clan is cared for by loyal servant Bruno (Chaney Jr., in a great performance). Living there are sexy teenage "toddlers" Elizabeth (Washburn) and Virginia (Banner), a young man, Ralph (Haig), who has degenerated to baby status, and aunt Martha and uncle Ned who live in the basement, mewling, growling and being fed scraps of raw meat. Virginia likes to play "spider," and in a highly entertaining opening sequence, a hired messenger, played by former cult movie star Mantan Moreland, is trapped in a window sill by Virginia the spider, who use knives and scissors to "bite" him to death. Mantan the messenger is eventually tossed in the cellar to be consumed by aunt and uncle.

However, there are more visitors. Distant relatives Peter and Emily Howe, along with a overbearing lawyer (Schanzer) and quiet secretary (Mitchel) arrive and inform Chaney and the Merrye brood that they'll be moving soon, to be institutionalized. Naturally, the Merryes are less than enchanted by these developments, and the sleepover the visitors experience turns into an experience of terror. Chaney, in what must have been a first in his career, warbles the title song to Spider Baby. It's sort of a singsong rap, delivered in such kooky fashion, that it's worth the price of the film itself. The cast, with the exception of Karl Schanzer's smarmy lawyer, are all in fine form. Besides Chaney, the best actor in the film is surprisingly Jill Banner, who plays the psychopathic toddler teen Virginia. Only 17 when Spider Baby was filmed, Banner conveys a disturbing sexuality; she's best described as a pyschotic Lolita. The scene where she ties up visitor Peter Howe (Redeker), decides to seduce him and then just as quickly decides it would be better to kill him is very chilling. Had there been cable, video and dvd in the 1960s, Banner likely would have achieved notice for her role. As it is, she is best known for occasional appearances on the 1960-70s show Dragnet. She was killed in 1982 in a car wreck while developing scripts for Marlon Brando. To sum up, Spider Baby is a must for cult fans of quirky 60s black comedies.

Notes: Spider Baby cost $65,000 to make. It was tied up in bankruptcy court. Once released in 1968, it hardly played in theaters, mostly serving as the second half of double bills. It was finally re-discovered and played the midnight movie circuit in the 1990s. Director Jack Hill, a protege of Roger Corman, later directed several Pam Grier "blacksploitation" films, including Coffy. Chaney Jr., known as a severe alcoholic, only fell off the wagon once during filming, according to Hill. The veteran actor died several years after the film was completed. In 1993, the film was re-premiered in Los Angeles. Guests at the post-film party included Hill and actors Haig, Washburn and Mitchel. Actress Ohmart starred in the 60s cult shocker House on Haunted Hill. The subtitle, The Maddest Story Ever Told, was a film joke parody of the monster-budget Bible film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which came out at about the same time. In the last year or so, Spider Baby has finally received a DVD release.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A look at Mr. BIG's Grasshoppers

Remembering Bert I Gordon's Beginning of the End

Long before Peter Graves appeared in the hit 1960s TV show Mission Impossible, he began his acting career starring in a number of low budget science fiction films of the 1950s. Some of the low budget science fiction films that he appeared in include: Killers From Space, Red Planet Mars, It Conquered The World, and my favorite: Beginning of The End.
I have a fondness for insects, particularly grasshoppers. As a boy, I would hunt them down in the fields near my home and pull off their legs or place them in a milk carton and blow them up with Black Jack firecrackers. Sometimes I even liked to put them on anthills and watch the ants attack them.
As penance for my behavior, I have used them as a subject in many of my paintings. The large grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of The End would likely get their revenge on me if they knew how badly I treated them as a child.
The 1950s ushered in a series of science fiction films with the theme of something growing large as a result of atomic radiation. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, a giant bird, giant ants, a giant colossal man and even a giant reptile from Japan named Godzilla were all popular forms of entertainment for post-World War II movie-goers. Director Bert I. Gordon was the master of the “giant genre.” In fact, his initials spell BIG, so he was often referred to as “Mr. Big.”
A small town named Ludlow in the suburbs of Chicago has been entirely wiped out without a trace. Pretty photographer and newspaper journalist Audrey Ames, played by Peggie Castle, is there to report on the town's devastation. The local authorities and the military are anxious to keep the story quiet, so they forbid Castle from taking pictures and printing any information about the devastation. Her newspaper editor suggests she investigate the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There she meets local entomologist Dr. Ed Waynewright, played by Peter Graves, who is conducting atomic experiments on plants. After being fascinated by Graves’ large plants, Castle convinces him and his laboratory assistant to look over the grounds of a recently destroyed warehouse near the Department of Agriculture. While investigating the grounds, they encounter several giant grasshoppers. Graves’ lab assistant is attacked and killed by one of them.
What I find so interesting about this film is the fact that actual grasshoppers are used in many of the scenes. Unlike so many giant insect films of the 1950s that use fake-looking paper mache or clay modeled insects, such as The Deadly Mantis, Monster From Green Hell or The Black Scorpion, Beginning of The End manages to use the real thing, even if it is through a rear projection method on a screen. Even the giant ants in Gordon’s own 1977 film, Empire of The Ants appear to be very fake looking and unconvincing, unlike this film. Plus, the film is not dependent on the CGI effects that we see in so many films of today. This makes it much more authentic and interesting to me.
Like so many low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, the film manages to use many stock footage shots of military men loading shells into cannons and running around with rifles. There are also stock shots of mass numbers of people running in the streets, similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. One particularly effective shot is of a woman standing in her high-rise Chicago apartment combing her hair after getting out of the shower. As she combs her hair in a white bathrobe, a giant grasshopper appears at her window, She screams loudly as the grasshopper breaks the window and the camera quickly zooms up close to the grasshopper’s head. (Too bad Oprah’s HARPO Studios in Chicago wasn’t around in the 1950s for the giant grasshoppers to pounce on!)
Other effective shots are of Graves and military men combing through a small forest as they encounter a number of grasshoppers. The grasshoppers actually look as though they’re walking between the trees as the men run to avoid them. One of the grasshoppers even manages to chase the army vehicle as it quickly drives out of the forest. These are some of the most effective sequences in the film. For unintentional humor, there is a sequence of Graves trying to capture a giant grasshopper so he can record the sounds it makes into a recorder. Somehow the grasshopper manages to make its way into a cage in Graves’ high-rise building laboratory in Chicago. How it managed to get through the door and into a cage in the lab is anyone’s guess, but it provides some unintentional humor in the film.
Also for laughs is the end sequence when the military general, played by veteran actor Morris Ankrum, uses the grasshopper call to drive them out into the nearby lake like the Pied Piper. An aerial view of the grasshoppers reveals that they are obviously floating in someone’s bathtub or bathroom sink. This is an important ending to the film, but also a very funny one too.
Beginning of The End is a film that taps into the atomic fears that so many viewers had in the post-World War II era of the 1950s. I highly recommend the film to any fan of low-budget science fiction films, especially insect lovers!
-- Steve D. Stones

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Andy Milligan's Torture Dungeon: An appreciation

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. 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.