Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: Hanif Kureishi's London Kills Me

London Kills Me, 1992, 107 minutes, color, United Kingdom. Written and directed by Hanif Kureishi. Starring Justin Chadwick as Clint Eastwood, Steven Mackintosh as Muffdiver, Fiona Shaw as Headley, Emer McCourt as Sylvie, Tony Haygarth as Burns, Naveen Andrews as Bike, Roshan Seth as Dr. Bubba, and Brad Dourif as Hemingway. Rating on a scale of 10: 8.

London Kills Me seems a cross between Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy, yet a cut below those films, and not quite as gritty in its portrayal of the drug culture. It’s more lighthearted, and frankly, the actors look too cute and healthy to be drug addicts. But it’s still a superior film, and a great directing debut for writer Hanif Kureishi, who captures the seediness of the post-Tory ruled London in the early 1990s.

The plot, which is amusingly off the wall, concerns a very small-time London drug team run by Muffdiver (Mackintosh, who looks just like Charlie Hero of Buddha of Suburbia), and populated by his sellers, one of whom, Clint Eastwood (Chadwick) is disillusioned with drugs and wants a job as a waiter in an upscale cafe. The cafe’s manager Hemingway (Brad Dourif, in a great cameo), says he can have the job if he can come up with a cool pair of shoes to wear by Tuesday. No shoes, no job, says Hemingway. Also, the drug team breaks into and squats a luxury condo so they can impress some high-level drug dealers who Muffdiver wants to deal with.

That’s the plot, and it’s a lot of fun. Kureishi provides viewers quite a glimpse into the underbelly of London and the young grifters who populate it, selling and seeking drugs, sleeping where and with whom they can. Chadwick is a talented youngster, but he seems too pretty to be a homeless drug addict. Mackintosh is great as the small drug lord. As in other films, he uses his face and eyes to betray his anger and frustration.

The talented Naveen Andrews seems wasted as a bicycle-freak named Bike, and I would have preferred him in the Clint Eastwood role. Roshan Seth is marvelous as a serene guru named Dr. Bubba. Young actress Emer McCourt is Sylvie, the one girl in the drug team, and the object of both Muffdiver’s and Clint’s lust. Her character seems to be the one who actually suffers in this film. She mutilates herself and in one scene, suffers a bad case of the drug shakes. Film has an upbeat ending that is generally in sync with the light treatment of the topic.

-- Doug Gibson

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A 1930s forgotten gem: The Dark Horse

The Dark Horse, 1932, 75 minutes, B&W, First National Pictures, directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Guy Kibbee as Zachary Hicks, Warren William as Hal S. Blake, Bette Davis as Kay Russell, Vivienne Osborne as Maybelle Blake, Hal's ex-wife, Berton Churchill as William A. Underwood and Frank McHugh as Joe. Rating: 7 stars out of 10.


A quick note: "The Dark Horse" is one of those wonderful 1930s programmers that would sit neglected in a film library (or perhaps sit seldom seen in a Bette Davis film collection DVD) if it wasn't for Turner Classic Movies. Film-lovers are in debt to TMC, which daily offers an invaluable history lesson of cinema with its offerings.

Now, on to "The Dark Horse." This is a delightful satire of politics that proves that, even 76 years ago, we weren't fooled by the absurdities of the political arena. Veteran actor Guy Kibbee plays, Zachary Hicks, a bumbling fool of a man who is accidentally nominated by his "Progressive" Party to be governor of an unnamed state after the two front-runners are deadlocked.

A party secretary, Kay Russell, (a very young Bette Davis) recommends that a fast-talking, charming cad of a man Hal S. Blake (forgotten leading man Warren William) be bailed out of jail -- where's he sitting due to unpaid child support -- to run Hicks' campaign. Blake does a masterful job, all while trying to stay one step ahead of his scheming, vindictive ex-wife (Vivienne Osborne) and romancing wary secretary Russell.

The key to the film, though, is the dumbness and naivete of 50sh Hays, thrust out of nowhere. Kibbee is perfect in the role. He provides understated humor in his misunderstanding of situations and constant "yes ... and maybe no" to any question. William's political operative is uncannyingly on-target, you could almost picture him spinning on cable news shows today. Davis hasn't much to do but viewers can sense her screen presence that would lead her to stardom. A fun, fast-paced film that still has relevance today, it's well worth watching when it's on TCM.

Notes: Kibbee was a very much in demand character actor and B-film starrer in the 30s and early 40s. He is best known as the corrupt governor controlled by Jim Taylor in Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He also starred in the only sound version of Sinclair Lewis' tale "Babbitt." Kibbee is great as Babbitt in that seldom-seen 1934 film, which aired recently on TCM. Frank McHugh, who played William's political sidekick, is best known as Father Tim Dowd in the 1944 Bing Crosby classic "Going My Way."

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Creeping Terror! The Killer Carpet Attacks!

The Creeping Terror, 1964, 75 minutes, B&W, Metropolitan International Pictures. Directed by Art J. Nelson. Starring Nelson as Martin Gordon, Shannon O’Neil as Brett Gordon, William Thourlby as Dr. Bradford, John Caresio as Colonel Caldwell, Brendan Boone as Barney. Schlock-Meter rating: 2 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

The Creeping Terror is an abysmal, patched-together mess of a horror film. Watching it, I wonder to myself: How did films this bad get distributed? There was no family VCR in 1964. Did people actually go to the drive-in to see The Creeping Terror of Beast of Yucca Flats. Did they play the second half of a double-bill? Or grind houses on 42nd Street in Manhattan? I would love to know the answer.

Plot: A spaceship falls to the earth. It contains two monsters, one of which hides for most of the film. The monsters look just like a carpet gone amok. They are killer carpets (not at all scary) that slither along the earth at about two miles an hour. Despite that, their victims oblige them by standing very still, or backing slowly away, and allowing themselves to be pulled by unseen hands into the killer carpet. There is a scene, at a dance, where the carpet waddles in and kills most of the dancers, who just stare at it with barely disguised boredom. It is perhaps the worst edited scene ever filmed.

Near the end we learn that the killer carpet machines are from another world in outer space and they kill to analyze human body parts and learn our weaknesses as humans. How that was learned is mystery, since a healthy chunk of the dialogue is missing. Like the wretched Beast of Yucca Flats, viewers endure a pompous narrator who besides giving us the plot, gives a long-winded soliloquy on the joys of marriage. A sheriff’s deputy (Nelson) and his bride (O’Neil) help out the U.S. military in battling the killer carpets.

I’ve heard stories that director/star Nelson was a gadfly who rolled into a California community with his girlfriend O’Neil and convinced many townspeople to back him financially in a “can’t-win” horror film he wanted to make. To keep the cash rolling in, Nelson gave many of The Creeping Terror’s financial backers bit parts in the film. Then, the story goes, he skipped town before the investors could see what a dog of a film they were left with. If that tale is true, it’s far more entertaining than The Creeping Terror.

-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The weirdest Christmas films

(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."

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. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Monday, December 21, 2009

TALES FROM THE CRYPT CHRISTMAS EPISODES: Tales From The Crypt (1972) and Tales From The Crypt: “And All Through The House” (1989).

By Steve Stones

Long before HBO created their Tales From The Crypt TV series in the late
1980s and early 1990s, Amicus Studios (an adjunct of Hammer Studios) in
England created a full-length feature film in 1972 based on the William
Gaines, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig E.C. comic books of the 1950s. For
this article, I will focus on comparing one segment of the full-length
feature film with an HBO TV episode in 1989 entitled: “All Through The

Tales From The Crypt (1972)

A group of tourists is taken to a crypt in an old England cemetery. A
tour guide tells them that religious martyrs of Henry VIII are buried
there. Five members of the group get lost and wander into an empty
crypt. The crypt keeper intentionally traps them inside but informs them
that he has a purpose. He then asks actress Joan Collins what her plans
are after she leaves the crypt.

Next, we see a young and beautiful Collins murdering her husband on
Christmas Eve with a fire poker as he is reading the evening newspaper.
She wants to collect on his life insurance policy. As she says goodnight
to her daughter and quickly tries to clean up the blood on the floor
from the murder, she hears on the radio that a killer has escaped from a
local sanitarium and may be dressed in a Santa suit to disguise his
identity. He is to be considered very dangerous.

Collins hears a knock at the door and realizes it must be the escaped
killer. She attempts to close all the blinds in the house as he peaks
through the windows in a Santa suit. She thinks of calling the police,
but realizes she cannot call them because the corpse of her husband lies
on the living room floor. She pushes his body down the basement stairs
to try and make it look as if he died of a fall.

Returning upstairs, she sees the door to her daughter’s bedroom open.
She discovers her daughter is gone. Suddenly, from behind a curtain
downstairs she hears her daughter say “He’s here Mommy! Santa is here!”
Sure enough, it is the escaped killer in a Santa suit holding hands with
her daughter. Collins runs for the fire poker, but the killer gets to
her quickly and chokes her as she grabs for the poker in front of the

Tales From The Crypt: “And All Through The House” HBO TV episode (1989)

This episode opens with actress Mary Ellen Trainor reaching for a fire
poker in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve. Her husband asks for the
poker so he can stir the fire. “Let me have it!” he says. Trainor whacks
him over the head with the poker and says “Merry Christmas you son of a

She quickly sits her murdered husband back up in his chair and removes
the poker from his head as her daughter comes down the stairs to say
Santa will be there soon. Her daughter refers to the murdered man as
Joseph, even though she is not aware he is dead. It’s obvious he is her

Trainor escorts her daughter back to her bedroom and opens her window
slightly because of the heat in the room. Her daughter asks her “What do
you want for Christmas Mommy?” “I already got it sweetheart,” says

Trainor calls someone on the phone to say she has killed her husband and
that everything, including some money, is now theirs. She then drags her
dead husband outside into the cold snow to throw him down a well as a
news report on the radio informs listeners that a killer from a local
mental ward has escaped in a Santa suit. Just as she is about to throw
her husband down the water well, he grabs her. He is not dead yet.
Trainor hits him one more time over the head, this time killing him for

The escaped killer in a Santa suit surprises her with an axe. She runs back into the house to call the police but realizes her murdered husband is still lying dead on the front lawn.

The phone rings as the killer throws a tire swing through the living
room window and once again attacks Trainor. She hits him in the head
with the axe then answers the phone. The voice on the phone warns her of
the escaped killer in a Santa suit, and tells her that police will be in
her area in twenty minutes. The Santa killer lies unconscious and spread
out in the snow on her front yard.

This gives Trainor the plan to make it look as if the Santa killer is
the person who killed her husband. She goes back outside to plunge the
axe into the chest of her husband’s corpse a few times as the wind blows
her front door shut, locking her out of the house.

To get back into the house, Trainor looks for some keys in her husband’s
pocket. She finds them and goes back into the house to call the police
to blame the murder of her husband on the Santa killer. The person on
the phone tells her to find something to protect herself with, such as a

While trying to find one of Joseph’s guns in an upstairs closet, Trainor
accidentally locks herself in the closet. She sees the Santa killer
climbing up a ladder to her daughter’s room through the closet window.
She kicks open the door and runs to find her daughter in her room. She
is not there.

Trainor runs down the stairs to see her daughter standing in the living
room holding hands with the Santa killer. “See, I told you Santa would
come Mommy, and he didn’t even need to come down the chimney!” Trainor
screams as the Santa says “Naughty or nice?” holding the bloody axe.

Both of these Tales From The Crypt episodes seem to work quite well and
have many similarities. However, the 1989 version is better produced.
The Santa killer in the 1989 episode is much more convincing as a killer
because he appears to be more rough and menacing. The Santa in the 1972 version looks like a regular Santa standing on a street corner ringing a

The 1989 episode also has a more sinister and foreboding feeling to it
because the interior scenes inside the house are very dark, unlike the
1972 version where the interiors are well lit. The Joan Collins
character in the 1972 version also never has to go outside or fight with
the Santa killer, unlike Trainor’s character in the 1989 version who
fights with the Santa out in the cold.

Collins pushes her husband’s corpse down the basement stairs, whereas
Trainor drags her husband out into the snow to throw him into a well.
This is the biggest difference of the two episodes.

The 1989 episode is also a real treat because it has the classic opening
of the Crypt Keeper introducing the episode in a Santa suit. The crypt
keeper in the 1972 version is a middle-aged British man dressed as
though he is part of the Jedi council in Star Wars.

Let the Crypt Keeper guide you through some of your holiday
entertainment this Christmas Season boys and ghouls! He’ll deck the
halls with murder and mayhem!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Earth Versus the Spider

Earth Versus the Spider, 1958, 73 minutes, black & white, American International Pictures, directed by Bert I. Gordon, produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff. Starring Ed Kemmer as Mr. Kingston, June Kenny as Carol Flynn, Eugene Persson as Mike Simpson, Gene Roth as Sheriff Cagle, Hank Patterson as Hugo the Janitor, Merritt Stone as Mr. Flynn. (Also known as The Spider) Schlock-Meter rating: 7 1/2 stars out of 10.

It would have been fun to have been alive and old enough to go to the movies in the 1950s. Imagine being able to see The Incredible Shrinking Man, I was a Teenage Werewolf, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Attack of the Puppet People, and so many others on a big screen. Earth Versus the Spider who have also been a treat to see as well. Okay, it’s pretty lame, stuffed full of stock characters and a lame looking big spider (courtesy of the all-time cheap FX winner, Mr. BIG, Bert I. Gordon), and the web in the “cave” looks like rope (and why doesn’t it stick to and trap those kids who travel all over it?).

But the film is fun to watch, and that garners it a 7 and a half on the Schlock-Meter. The plot concerns a giant spider who lives in a cave outside a small town. One day a typical dad disappears while driving home with a gift for his typical high school-age daughter. She and her typical high school boyfriend search for him in a typical cave and escape the spider. A typical beer-bellied sheriff laughs at their story, but is persuaded by a typical high school science teacher “egghead” to check things out. They encounter the spider and supposedly kill it with massive doses of DDT. But typically, the spider awakes in the high school gym during a typical school dance. Typically, the spider kills a typical janitor too stupid to run. Typically, the typical girl and her typical boyfriend have returned to the typical cave to find the gift dear old typical dad bought her (she left it there). Typically, the big spider returns to the cave and there’s a battle royal (or the type you can get for these type of low-budget films).

The spider makes a cool, annoying high-pitched whine whenever it is close and sounds a lot like several dozen mental patients screaming at once. The spider’s victims are rubber fake corpses with drawn faces made to look as if the blood has been sucked out of them. By all means rent Earth Versus the Spider. Sure it’s lame, but there’s hardly a dull moment in this tame predecessor to today’s Scream movies. It’s a look at bargain filmmaking generations ago.

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, December 17, 2009

BLACK CHRISTMAS: Have yourself a scary little Christmas!

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!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SANTA CLAUS (1959 Mexican): Don't be naughty this Christmas Season!


This has got to be the most bizarre film in my collection. And believe me, I have many of them. I don’t think there are words in the English language to describe how strange this film is, but I will try my best. My good friend Doug Gibson was kind enough to record this film for me off of a cable show known as Off-Beat Cinema a couple of years ago when it first aired. This film certainly qualifies as “off beat,” no question about it.

Like most Christmas films, the target audience of Santa Claus is obviously children. However, I think it is safe to say that even children would find this film just too unusual, not to mention unwatchable. Only viewers with a strong stomach for the usual and obscure may get a kick out of it. Not even Howard The Duck or Garbage Pail Kids The Movie can compete with this turkey! Perhaps the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) should replace Troll II with this film as the “worst film of all time?” At least Troll II is very entertaining and has some redeeming qualities.

Santa lives high in the sky in a palace above the North Pole. The inside of his palace looks like strange Islamic architecture gone bad. A part of the palace is known as Toyland, where children from all over the world serve as Santa’s helpers. In this film, his helpers are not the stereotypical little elves with red hats, beards and green outfits. Santa plays an organ as children from China, Russia, France, England, Africa, Spain, Japan, Germany, Italy, Mexico and the USA perform bizarre dance and musical performances.

A child from Mexico gives Santa a doll of the Devil. The child lights a fuse on the doll and it spins like a top. This releases the real Devil down in Hell. Before coming to the earth, the Devil dances in Hell with several other Devils.

When arriving on Earth, the Devil tempts a little girl named Lupita to steal a doll her mother cannot afford to give her for Christmas. Lupita stares longingly at the doll in a store front window. Lupita attempts to steal the doll, but decides to be a good little girl and put it back. Santa observes this in a giant telescope from his palace, and is pleased by Lupita’s decision not to steal the doll. She has now made Santa’s short list of good little girls this Christmas.

The Devil also tempts three little boys to throw rocks through the storefront window where a Santa is greeting children. Unlike Lupita, the three boys decide to be naughty and throw the rocks through the storefront window at the Santa. This does not please the real Santa at the North Pole.

One of the strangest sequences in the film is a dream sequence in which little Lupita is dreaming of getting the doll she wants for Christmas. She stands in a large room full of giant boxes. The boxes open to reveal giant dolls that perform a bizarre dance for Lupita. One of the giant dolls again tempts Lupita to steal the doll she wants. It must be the Devil in disguise! This scene reminds me of something out of Babes In Toyland.

A boy with rich parents dreams of opening giant boxes on Christmas Day with his parents inside the two boxes. All he wants for Christmas is the love and affection of his parents. This is a touching scene because it suggests that not all children only want toys and gifts for Christmas. They also want love from their parents.

Another strange sequence shows a key maker who looks like a prehistoric caveman forging a giant golden key for Santa. The key is to be used to open any door to enter every child’s home on Christmas Eve. Santa tests the golden key on several doors in his workshop.

Santa also spends some time exercising on a conveyor belt and practicing going down fake chimneys while his helpers load up his sleigh with gifts. His reindeer look like giant white plastic toys that require a key to wind them up. He tells a child helper from Russia that he cannot replace the reindeer with sputniks to make the sleigh travel faster. This is a very strange comment coming from Santa. It’s an obvious reference to the cold war and the space race that was going on at the time this film was made.

A funny sequence in the film shows Santa on his way down a chimney as the Devil blows fire up the chimney, burning Santa’s backside. Santa gets his revenge as he finally makes his way into the house and shoots the Devil in his butt with a dart from a child’s dart gun as the Devil is trying to escape out a window.

If there is one important message to be taken from Santa Claus it’s the timeless Christmas theme that Santa rewards good little boys and girls and carefully watches out for the bad ones. Little Lupita is tempted several times to steal the doll she wants, but she refuses because she is hopeful Santa will bring it to her for Christmas. Her good behavior is rewarded at the end of the film.

Beware little children this Christmas Season! Santa may be watching you through his giant telescope from his crystal palace high above the North Pole! I hope you are being nice little boys and girls!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, 1966, Embassy Pictures, 88 minutes, color. Directed by William Beaudine. Starring John Lupton as Jesse James, Narda Onyx as Dr. Maria Frankenstein, Estelita as Juanita Lopez, Cal Bolder as Hank Tracy/Igor, and Jim Davis as Marshall MacPhee. Rating: Four and one-half stars out of 10.

In the mid-60s Embassy Pictures produced an odd duo: Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. THEY WERE NOT COMEDIES, for which we should be thankful for, since they are much funnier as straight western/horror melodramas. Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is a little better, primarily because John Carradine overacts in a campy manner as the vampire. I doubt that these films played beyond the Saturday matinee level, if at all. Any web surfers know?

Except for the many chuckles at the horrendous dialogue and ultra-cheap special effects, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter is a pretty wretched but fun film. The plot? Dr. Maria Frankenstein and her cowed brother Rudolph are hiding out in the Wild West trying to resurrect the dead without success. They are, however, scaring the entire countryside, which seems to consist of only an aging Mexican diva named Juanita (Estelita) and her stereotypical parents. Soon arrives James (Lupton) and his big sidekick Hank Tracy (Bolder), who has been wounded. They're on the run, and Maria agrees to help Hank, but she plans on using him as a guinea pig for an artificial brain. Maria at first tries to seduce Jesse, but he rebuffs her so she tries to have him killed. After Hank becomes the monster, she changes his name to Igor, and has him kill her brother. Somewhere in this mess Jesse and Juanita fall in love and Maria is foiled in her plans.

If this film was black and white and had more unique dialogue, you'd swear it was an Ed Wood film. The laboratory in the film rivals that which was used in Bride of the Monster for bargain basement props. The acting is horrendous. The dialogue is all cliches, conveyed with eye-rolling melodrama. However, the one bright spot is Onyx as Dr. Maria Frankenstein. She plays her role with a kind of mad gleefulness. Her expressions, particularly her eyes, are those of a full-fledged loonie. TV actress Onyx, who was in the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, was born for this role. Bolder, who was a Southern California cop, as Jesse's sidekick Hank turned Igor is portrayed as an imbecile, although it's debatable as to whether that was the script's intention or the result of Mr. Bolder's acting skills.

This film if seen, is best viewed as a midnight offering at a party. In fact, I recently saw it at 1 a.m. in Utah on a tiny St. George station as the offering to the Retro Television Network show "Offbeat Cinema." It will provide some laughs for midnight fans. Some trivia: Estelita died of influenza soon after the film was completed. Lupton, who played Jesse James was a veteran character actor who played mainly TV roles. He was on several Gomer Pyle USMC episodes playing various officers. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter can be watched on the Web. Watch the trailer for it and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula above!

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, December 10, 2009

SANTA CLAWS: Attack of the Hooded Claw!

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 8, 2009

Revenge of the Zombies, 1943

By Doug Gibson

Revenge of the Zombies, Monogram, 1943, B&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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS: Little green men and Santa on mars!

By Steve D. Stones

The critics have not been kind to this film over the years. Every time I view the film, I keep in mind that it is intended for children. With this in mind, I am willing to overlook the poor acting, bad make-up and cardboard sets. The title alone is so campy and kitsch that it grabs my attention immediately.

The children of mars have grown bored, depressed and discontent. A Martian father named Kimar, played by Leonard Hicks, concludes that the children of mars have become this way from watching “meaningless earth programs.” The children see a newscaster interview Santa on television from the North Pole and wish that mars also had a Santa Claus. The newscaster complains of the cold outside Santa’s workshop, yet he wears no gloves and his breath cannot be seen as he speaks. This adds to some of the unintentional humor of the film.

Back on mars, Kimar meets with the “council of the wise” at Thunder Forrest. The council consists of Lomas, Rigna, Hargo and Voldar, and seeks the advice of an 800 year old Wiseman named Chochum. Long before Yoda was seen on movie screens, Chochum the wise was seen in this film. Perhaps the two wise men knew each other and trained at the Jedi academy? Not very likely, I’m afraid!

Chochum suggests to the council of the wise that they kidnap Santa Claus from the North Pole and bring him to mars to bring joy and happiness to the children of mars. Voldar, the protagonist of the group, opposes Chochum’s plan. He insists that he does not want the children of mars to play with games and toys and run around joyfully. “The earth has had Santa Claus long enough! We will bring him to Mars!” proclaims Kimar.

Despite Voldar’s opposition, the group is lead by Kimar to the North Pole in a spaceship that looks like a painted toilet paper roll. Shortly after landing, they see two children in a park and ask them where they can find Santa. They kidnap the children so that they cannot run to the police to report Martians coming to earth.

After finally landing at the North Pole, the Martians use their giant robot named Torg to kidnap Santa at his workshop. Torg appears to be made of painted cardboard and ventilation pipes. Voldar freezes Mrs. Claus and many of Santa’s elves with his ray gun that looks like a toilet plunger. Santa is brought to the spaceship and taken back to mars.

What follows for the rest of the film is a series of attempts by Voldar and his henchmen to either kill Santa or sabotage his efforts on mars. For example, in one particular scene Voldar rewires the toy machines in Santa’s workshop so that they create poorly designed toys. On their way back to mars, Voldar locks Santa and the two kidnapped children in a compression room of the space ship in an attempt to open a door and have them sucked away into space. The group conveniently escapes before the door can be opened.

Eventually Santa’s workshop on mars is running smoothly. Voldar and his henchmen are captured and imprisoned by Kimar for threatening Santa and the children. Kimar decides to allow Santa to go back to earth in time for Christmas. A happy ending always concludes any Christmas movie, which is certainly the case with this film.

In his book “Cult Science Fiction Films,” Welch Everman suggests that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is such a terrible film that not even children would enjoy watching it, and would find it “stupid.” I disagree with this statement. Although I did not see Santa Claus Conquers The Martians until I was an adult, I can imagine myself enjoying this film even more so if I had seen it as a five-year-old child. If I had been aware of it as a child, I may have included it in my long list of Christmas films to view every December. I encourage you to gather up your family and watch Santa Claus Conquers The Martians this Christmas Season. Happy Holiday Season!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The BEST animated " A Christmas Carol"

Some of us recall seeing this 25-minute "A Christmas Carol" on TV in the 1970s. Alistair Sim plays Scrooge, and he's almost as good as he was in the classic 1952 feature "Scrooge." This is a real Yuletide treat of an animated short that you just can't find anywhere to buy at a decent price. There are used out-of-print VHS tapes for sale at more than $100 on amazon. That's just too much, enjoy it here, courtesy of Google video. Trust me -- this is a great film. It's a Richard Williams production from 1971, also starring the voice of Michael Redgrave.

-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Faster Pussycat, $%$# #$%$!!

FASTER PUSSYCAT! &^%$! &^%$! — Directed in 1965 by "sexploitation" director Russ Meyer, the film concerns the story of three buxom go-go girls who embark on a wild and violent rampage of vengeance on all men they encounter.

Many of the phrases used for the ad campaign best summarize this film: "Belted, Buckled, Booted, and Ready For Action," and "The Sweetest Kittens Have The Sharpest Claws!!!"

I find this film very appealing because it has the potential to appeal to feminist audiences, while at the same time fulfilling the carnal desires of the male audience. This film was a huge hit on the drive-in movie circuit of the mid- to late-1960s. (The last two words of the film's title are not shown due to rules. Picture above is a still from film. This review was originally published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper.)

-- Steve D. Stones