Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's a scary New Year's Eve

Happy Days star Roz Kelly stars in this early 1980s slasher film directed by Emmett Alston. Like so many horror films of the 1980s, this one is an attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise.

Kelly is a punk rock mother hosting a New Year’s Eve party at a hip New Wave music club in downtown Los Angeles. Her teenage son comes to see her at the club with flowers, but she completely ignores him. A maniac killer, played by Kip Niven, calls Kelly at the club hotline to inform her that he will commit a murder every hour until 12 midnight as part of his New Year’s resolution. A club worker named Yvonne is the first victim to be killed in a bathtub in a club dressing room.

The second victim is a pretty blonde nurse at the local hospital. The killer predictably poses as a new hospital orderly who lures the nurse into a hospital room with champagne and proceeds to stab her to death after making out with her. Another nurse at the hospital discovers her body in a closet.

The killer continues to call Kelly at the music club in a disguised voice to inform her that he is committing murders. He even plays a taped recording over the phone of him stabbing the nurse at the hospital. Kelly is now forced to take his threats seriously. She asks the local police department for police protection.

By now the viewer has been exposed to lots of really bad punk rock performances, zebra striped T-shirts, and 1980s mullet hairstyles. Where are The Ramones, The Misfits and The Sex Pistols when we need them?

Feeling rejected by his mother, Kelly’s son sees his mother performing on television at the club with a punk band. In a fit of anger, he tears apart the roses he brought for her, and stretches one of her red nylon stalkings over his face as if he is about to become a killer himself. This is a particularly confusing scene because by now we already know who the killer is and what he looks like, so any attempt to suggest that the killer could be Kelly’s son seems unnecessary. The killer now shows up at another dance club in L.A. dressed in an obviously fake moustache and three-piece suit. He tells another pretty blonde girl at the bar that he is a business agent for many Hollywood actors in town. He convinces her to leave the club to attend a business party. She refuses to go alone with him, so she takes one of her club friends with her.

This spoils the plans of the killer to get her alone. The three drive in the killer’s Mercedes to a gas station, where the killer strangles one of the girls with a bag full of marijuana. He hides in a Dumpster to attack the second girl as she comes out of the gas station with a bottle of champagne. The killer stabs her to death. As the killer flees the scene, he is harassed at a stop light by a motorcycle gang. The killer speeds away from the motorcycle gang and hides out at a local drive-in theatre.

The movie screen advertises a film entitled Blood Feast as a feature playing at the theatre, but it is not Herschel Gordon Lewis’ schlock masterpiece from 1963, unfortunately. After stealing another car from a young couple making out at the drive-in, the killer shows up at the New Wave club, manages to club a police officer in the head at a back entrance, and puts his police uniform on, which conveniently fits him perfectly. Under police protection outside her dressing room, Kelly sits in front of a mirror putting on make-up as the killer suddenly appears in her room in a jogging outfit and a Halloween mask.

She sees him in the mirror, but is not frightened. He removes the mask, and reveals himself to be Richard Sullivan, her husband. She is not frightened by his presence because she has no idea he is the killer. As the couple gets into an elevator, it becomes evident to Kelly that her husband is the killer.

He holds a knife up to her and saying:“I’m fed up . . . You’re just like all the other women in my life. Women are manipulative, deceitful, immoral and very, very selfish!”

His reasoning for killing here seems very petty and unnecessary. Wouldn’t his actions make him “manipulative, deceitful, immoral and selfish?” If he was so fed up with his wife, why didn’t he just request a divorce from her? Why go through the troubles of killing several innocent women to get to her? In the post O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson world we live in today, it seems highly unlikely that a man would go on a killing spree killing innocent victims just to prove a point with his wife.

However, I realize this film was made long before the O.J. Simpson ordeal of the1990s, and the Scott Peterson ordeal early in this decade. As the film comes to an end, Richard chains his wife to the bottom of the elevator and is chased by policemen who fire shots at him. He is chased to the top balcony of the building, where he puts the Halloween mask back on and jumps off the building, committing suicide. His son emotionally removes the mask from him.

The film ends with a shot of Kelly being wheeled into an ambulance. The driver of the ambulance is wearing Richard’s Halloween mask, and the paramedic on the passenger side lies dead on the floor of the ambulance. Could the killer now be Kelly’s son?

NEW YEAR’S EVIL follows in the long line-up of so many 1980s slasher/horror films. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so many others, NEW YEAR’S EVIL is an attempt to use a holiday title to cash in on the slasher craze of the 1980s.

-- Steve D. Stones

Friday, December 30, 2011

Plan 9 From Outer Space on Sci-Fi Friday tonight!

Watch Plan 9 From Outer Space on UEN Channel 9's Sci-Fi Friday at 9 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2011:

This capsule review of Plan 9 From Outer Space was written by Steve Stones, originally published in the Jan. 28, 2007 Standard-Examiner (

PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE —This film by cross-dressing director Edward D. Wood Jr. actually began in 1956, but was completed in 1959 when Wood convinced a group of Christian Baptists to fund the remainder of the film in exchange for being baptized into the church.
The story surrounding how this film was made has become as much of interest and a phenomenon as the film itself. Universally hailed as the "worst movie ever made," this film has become one of my favorite "guilty pleasures."
Plan 9 concerns aliens from outer space who are robbing graves in the San Fernando Valley of California to turn these corpses into murdering zombified slaves for world power. The film has every element a student of "bad films" could ever hope for, such as bad acting, cheap sets, continuity errors, and burning hubcaps and paper plates used as flying saucers. An absolute must for every connoisseur of "bad movies."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Spider Baby -- one great cult flick

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. Spider Baby has finally received a DVD release.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The forgotten, but wonderful 'Scrooge'

Scrooge, 1935, 78 minutes, B&W, British. Directed by Henry Edwards. Starring Sir. Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer Scrooge, Donald Calthrop as Bob Cratchit, Robert Cochran as Fred, Mary Glynne as Belle and Phillip Frost as Tiny Tim. Rating: Seven stars out of 10.

This very creaky British version of Dickens' A Christmas Tale can't hold a candle to the 1951, 1984 and 1999 versions, but it's better than the 1938 Hollywood adaptation. It stars Hicks as Scrooge. The British actor had the part down pat. He had played Scrooge for decades on the British stage.

Nevertheless, he plays Scrooge as a crochety old crank, which is one of your reviewer's pet peeves. I prefer Scrooge to be played as a smug, self satisfied superior sort, such as Sims, Scott and Stewart portrayed Dickens' miser in other adaptations. The result is that Scrooge's experience is a startling comeuppance for him. Like Saul of Tarsus, he's literally brought to his senses and scared straight through divine interference. But with an old crochety Scrooge, all he goes through seems like a scolding that a child would take from an elder.

But still, this is a must-see version for fans. The London sets are simply marvelous. You can feel Victorian England in this film better than any other version. Also, a pleasant surprise is Calthrop as Bob Cratchit. He is the only Bob Cratchit that's able to stand up to Scrooge. Indeed, early in the film, he mutters of Scrooge's miserliness when denied coal for the fire. The other actors are adequate for their roles. One chilling scene has Tiny Tim (Frost) laying dead on a bed for Scrooge to see during the third spirit visit.

There are some odd twists to the film. Not much is told about Scrooge's childhood, and a really strange scene is with Marley's ghost. To the audience he is invisible, though it's clear Scrooge can see him. There is a scene early in the film, inserted for some reason, of Queen Victoria receiving a Christmas toast from London's leading citizens. The final scene where a changed Scrooge fools Cratchit and gives him a raise has the pair taking the day off, rather than having some smoking Christmas bishop to drink.

Scrooge, quite an expressionist film, is a curio of early British filmmaking and certainly worth a rental for the holidays. For decades this film was literally out of circulation, but with the advent of video it enjoyed a comeback and can now usually be found on TV each holiday season and can be purchased. It can also be seen for free on the Web. Go to is (Internet Movie Database) page to watch the film. Enjoy the film; watch it above!

-- Doug Gibson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Black Christmas - Happy Holidays

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!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Alistair Sim's second take as Scrooge!

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 DailyMotion. Trust me -- this is a great film. It's a Richard Williams production from 1971, also starring the voice of Michael Redgrave.
-- Doug Gibson

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Some very unique 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." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

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."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Andy Griffith Show celebrates Christmas!

Here's another recap/review of a great Andy Griffith Show episode (watch a clip). From Season 1, "The Christmas Story."
By Doug Gibson
The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a crochety, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.
The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examing Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!
The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.
I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role. He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.
Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Plan9Crunch re-run: Ed Wood versus Nightmare of Ecstasy

By Doug Gibson

Tim Burton's wonderful film, Ed Wood, recently was chosen as one of the "new classics," by Entertainment Weekly. It's a worthy selection. Burton's black & white tale of Hollywood in the 1950s is a romanticized fairy tale. Johnny Depp's exuberant, ceaselessly optimistic Wood carries the day with a triumphant Plan 9 from Outer Space premiere at the Pantages. (That didn't happen, of course. Plan 9 was screened once at the tiny Rialto and then sat on the shelf for three years). When Plan 9 was put into general release, Wood didn't see a cent.

Later, before the credits to Burton's film roll, the epilogue tells us Wood descended into alcoholism and pornography. It's appropriate that not be shown in Burton's film. It is, as mentioned a fairy tale, of optimism and perserverance. In a general sense, it is accurate. Wood battled tremendous odds in the 1950s. He filmed Glen Or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls with virtually no money. He managed to attract a diverse and eccentric collection of well-known and semi-known cast names, including Dolores Fuller, Criswell, Kenne Duncan, Steve Reeves, Bud Osborne, Timothy Farrell, John Carpenter, Harvey Dunne, Lyle Talbot, Vampira, Herbert Rawlinson, Gregory Walcott and, of course, Bela Lugosi. It appears Wood's enthusiasm was contagious, and many thought he might make it. That he didn't have a long career at least in directing low-budget thrillers must be attributed to his alcoholism, which made him unreliable. Even near his death, his writing was amazingly prolific. More than one friend recalls him writing a screenplay in a day. He wrote hundreds of paperback novels.

The following are some inconsistencies between Burton's Ed Wood, the romanticized, fairy tale film, and Grey's often gritty absorbing oral biography account of Wood's short rise and long descent. I will likely add to this as time goes on. Here are inconsistencies by film:

Glen or Glenda: In the book, George Weiss is shown as short and trim. In the film he is an overweight slob; It is doubtful that Wood's gay friend Bunny Breckenridge auditioned transvestites for the film. By the way, actor Bill Murray does a great job portraying Breckenridge. The film set for G&G though, matches it as described in the book. Lugosi was not divorced, as the film depicts him. He was still with his wife, Lillian, although she left him soon after. In fact, Grey reports that Lillian pushed Lugosi to take the film. It is also very doubtful Wood gave G&G to a major producer to watch, as the film shows. Also, the film shows Depp's Wood as unhappy that the film was not reviewed in LA. Obviously, Wood would have known where the film was debuting and not checked the LA Times for a review. Burton's scenes of Wood's company stealing shots on LA streets are accurate, according to Grey.

Jail Bait: This film is not even mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood (probably for time and continuity reasons) so let's give it some ink. It's a crime thriller that involves a hood (Farrell) pressuring a plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) and his daughter (Fuller) to make him a new face. Interesting co-stars were Reeves (in his pre-muscleman days) and then-top model Theodora Thurman. Also in the cast are Wood regulars Mona McKinnon, Don Nagel and Bud Osborne. The film's score, which is a bit grating, was taken from Mesa of Lost Women. Howco Films released the film, which likely mostly played the southern drive-in circuit. It's too ambitious for its budget, but is not a bad hour-long time waster. According to Grey, scenes were stolen at an LA motel. (Scene stealing is shooting at private and public locations without permission) Grey, and many rumors, claim that ex-silent film star Rawlinson died the morning after his scenes were shot. Lugosi was slated to play the plastic surgeon, but was either exhausted from his recent Las Vegas gig, too addicted to morphine, or perhaps just had a better offer.

Bride of the Monster: Burton's scenes in LA's Griffith Park of Wood filming in the early AM the finale to Bride are accurate to Grey's description with one exception: Lugosi never got in the water to tangle with a rubber octopus. That was handled by his stand-in, stuntman Eddie Parker. Burton portrays Loretta King, who starred as a nosy reporter, as an airhead. Grey's depiction is fairer, and recent interviews support that she was a capable actress who got the job not for her supposed money, but for her skills. Dolores Fuller's anger at losing the role is accurately portrayed in both film and book. Also, Burton is very unfair to leading man Tony McCoy. He is portrayed as borderline retarded. Wood calls him the worst he ever had in Grey's book. But a viewing of Bride of the Monster shows McCoy to be a very average but capable actor. He certainly knew his lines and can be personable on screen. In fact, McCoy and King were both handled by agent Marge Usher, who supplied Wood with several actors.

Plan 9 From Outer Space: First, although it is a marvelous scene in Burton's Ed Wood, Wood and his idol Orson Welles never chatted at a Hollywood bar. That scene is fiction. By the way, Wood's friend and actor Conrad Brooks plays the bartender in that scene. Also, Burton has Vampira and Kathy Wood being baptized as a Baptist with other Wood regulars to get funding for the film. I don't believe Vampira would have done it, and Kathy Wood says in Grey's book she wouldn't get baptized. It is doubtful Wood would have been angry at Gregory Walcott being cast in his film, since he was a minor name actor at the time. Also, Wood never agreed to his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, being changed in title to Plan 9 From Outer Space, as Burton's film show. A minor point; but Ed and Kathy Wood did not meet at Lugosi's hospital, as the film shows. In later interviews, Kathy Wood said they met in a bar. The film was not premiered at the Pantages, and certainly wasn't the elaborate affair as Burton's film shows. In fact, Wood sold the rights to Plan 9 to his Baptist financier, J. Edward Reynolds, for $1 (as Grey recounts) and the film received a minimal release from a small firm, Distributors Releasing Corporation of America. It opened as a second bill to a now-obscure British film called Time Lock.

Night of the Ghouls: Again, not mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood, this film was a sequel to Bride of the Monster, as it involved Tor Johnson's giant Lobo, and a semi sequel to Plan 9 as it had Paul Marco's Patrolman Kelton and Duke Moore's Lt. Daniel Bradford in the cast. It involves a phony medium (Duncan, in a role obviously intended for the late Lugosi) and his young squeeze (Valda Hansen) ripping off elderly fools in an old house. The tables are turned on the pair as the police close in on them and the dead really do start to awake. It has Criswell, narrating from a coffin as he does in Plan 9 and having a brief acting role as well. (Let me digress and say that Jeffrey Jones was brilliant as the late psychic in Burton's film). As mentioned, Tor Johnson's Lobo shuffles around menacingly. The film is intermixed with scenes from an unreleased Wood film called Final Curtain. That sequence, which stars Moore and actress Jeanne Stevens, is quite creepy. If anyone knows where to find a complete version of Final Curtain, it would be quite a find. Night of the Ghou;s was premiered but Wood ran out money, couldn't pay a lab bill and the film was seized for about a quarter of a century before Wood fan Wade Williams paid the bill and it was released. The film's budget is threadbare and dirt-cheap. A cut out picture of Ed Wood is posted on a police wall. The police commander's office has no doorknobs. Obviously, Wood planned more editing and shoots before he lost control of the film. Night of the Ghouls was the first in a planned sequence of films that Wood wanted to make.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Angry Red Planet

By Steve D. Stones

The interesting gimmick used to sell this film was a process known as Cinemagic in which a red colored filter is used with scenes depicting shots on Mars. However, the scenes using Cinemagic look pink instead of red, which seems very appropriate, considering one  of the producers and screenwriters of the film is named Sidney Pink. I’m not sure if this was intentional or strictly coincidental, but it certainly adds to the cult interest of the film.

Three male crew members and one-woman scientist, played by Nora Hayden, lead an expedition to Mars – The Angry Red Planet. Upon landing on Mars, the crew discovers that their ship has become incapacitated and cannot leave the planet. This fact is further reinforced when the crew later witnesses a Martian peeking through the ship’s window. The Martian issues a warning to the crew that they cannot return to earth.

The four-crew members travel outside the ship to explore the planet. A creature looking part plant life and part octopus attacks Hayden. The head crew member Colonel Tom O’Bannion, played by serial star Gerald Mohr, rescues Hayden by chopping the tentacles of the creature with a machete. The creature was operated by one of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.

The crew takes a second trip outside the ship and is attacked this time by a giant rat-bat-spider creature. This sequence in the film is the one which gives it it’s strange cult following. The rat-bat-spider would later appear on the 1982 album cover of Walk Among Us by The Misfits.

The strangest creature is saved for last when the crew paddles across a Martian lake in a raft and discover an abandoned city. A giant blob with a spinning eyeball on top emerges from the lake and chases after the crew as they desperately attempt to row back to shore. The blob looks as if it could pass for a Sunday dinner rump roast.

Producer and screenwriter Sidney Pink went on to work on another sci-fi cult favorite – Journey To The Seventh Planet, starring John Agar in 1962. Director Ib Melchoir also went on to work on other cult classics, such as The Time Travelers, Reptilicus, Robinson Crusoe On Mars and several episodes of The Outer Limits TV show. For more information on the life and work of Melchoir, I recommend the book Ib Melchoir – Man of Imagination by Robert Skotak, published in 2000.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Plan9Crunch Book Review - Embers

By Doug Gibson

The late Hungarian Sandor Marai's novel Embers takes place in Hungary in 1940, in a secluded castle. There lives the very old general Henrik, with his even older nanny, who has cared for him most of his life. The general's wife died a generation ago. It is a big night. Coming to dine that evening is Konrad, once the general's closest friend. The general and Konrad have not seen each other in 42 years, nor communicated.

It will be a tense dinner and evening. Prior to Konrad's arrival, the aged nanny places her hand on the general and gently tells him not to get too excited. When Konrad arrives, the pair take the same places they had the last time they met. After dinner, the host begins a discourse, with the guest mostly listening. Traced through the rest of the novel is a deconstruction of a dead friendship. Two lives, friendship, pride, guilt, anger, loathing, deceit, adultery, regret, hunting and thoughts of murder and betrayal are recalled during the long evening spent together by the pair.

Embers is a marvelous, lucid, engrossing novel that deals with male friendships and emotions from a male perspective. Two men with great potential are explored. One betrays the other and runs away without the courage to explain why. As a result the other shields his love from who needs it most, and lives an empty life. The dialogue between the old friends is masterfully crafted. Marai's style compares with Thomas Mann in that this is a European novel that builds slowly with much patience. The reader who delves into Embers one evening may encounter dawn before he turns from the pages.

Notes: Marai was an acclaimed Hungarian novelist 70 years ago but his works were mostly destroyed and he was forced into exile when communists grabbed power in Hungary. He emigrated to America and died in San Diego in 1989. Shortly afterwards, his novels were returned to circulation and his stature as one of the best European novelists of the first half of the 20th century was restored.

Castle Films break! The Mummy's Ghost

Kick back and enjoy a condensed version, courtesy of Castle Films and YouTube, of The Mummy's Ghost. I used to watch Castle Films as a kid in school at assemblies. It's cool to see an 8 minute version of a classic, and Castle's got a bunch, including all the old Universal horrors. So, enjoy:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What! No Beer? OK Keaton, bad Durante

What! No Beer? 1933. B&W, MGM, 70 minutes. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Starring Buster Keaton as Elmer J. Butts, Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Potts, Phyllis Barry as Hortense, Edward Brophy as Spike Moran and Charles Giblyn as Chief. Schlock-Meter rating: Four stars out of 10 stars.

What! No Beer? is a curio, a relic from the past. The plot of the mostly unfunny comedy deals with prohibition and efforts to repeal it, an issue which dominated headlines nearly 80 years ago. It was a box office winner due to its stars, Keaton and Durante, but is generally regarded as one of the unfunniest comedies of the 1930s. It was the pair's last film together. Keaton's drinking problem and absences from the set caused the studio to fire him even before the film was released. It was the start of a spiral into film oblivion for Keaton, and his career did not surge again until television began to thrive two decades later.
The plot: Jimmy Potts (Durante) is a barber and Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) is a luckless businessman. Potts, incorrectly thinking prohibition has been repealed, convinces Butts to invest his money in a long-closed brewery. The stone-faced Butts moons over a pretty gangster moll named Hortense (Barry). He wants to be a millionaire so he can win her love. Seeing no other way to earn the million bucks, he agrees to get into the beer business. Police quickly raid the brewery and arrest the pair, but discover there's no alcohol in the brew. Later, a hobo at the deserted plant confesses he was once a great brewer and real beer is made, which is a big hit. Soon the police and the mob muscle in on Potts and Butts.
The film is as unfunny as it sounds. Durante, in particular, is just pathetic. He bellows and brays and cracks unfunny jokes. It's painful to watch him flop on the screen. Although he is clearly half-bagged in many of the scenes, the best part of the film is comic great Keaton. His talent for physical comedy is on display in several scenes, and his naivete and trusting demeanor leads to misunderstandings that bring laughs, particularly a scene where gangsters, sent to muscle him, interpret his bland replies as extreme coolness under pressure, and leave impressed. What! No Beer? is not a good movie, but it's worth a rental to see an early sound Keaton offering.
-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Attack of The 50 Foot Woman – Every Man’s Nightmare!

By Steve D. Stones

Allied Artists distributed the famous and notorious for being laughable- Attack of The 50 Foot Woman (1958). Director Nathan Hertz (AKA Nathan Juran) was at the helm of directing both pictures. 

Attack of The 50 Foot Woman stars buxom brunette beauty Allison Hayes and Playboy Magazine’s Miss July 1959 – Yvette Vickers. Both women serve as rich eye candy for the male drive-in audience, which is part of the appeal of the film, if not the only appeal. 

Much has been written over the years as to whether or not Attack of The 50 Foot Woman is a ridiculous, kitsch-laden film with no redeeming social value, or a pure feminist work of art that makes a bold political statement about the breakdown of male-female relationships and angst female power. In a time when women stayed at home cooking and cleaning in poodleskirts, it certainly serves a message that was well ahead of its time. 

 Hayes plays a wealthy socialite who drives directly into a satellite from outer space in the desert after an evening of heavy drinking. She becomes terrified as a giant alien, who looks a bit like President Eisenhower, leaves the satellite and chases after her. Her two timing husband refuses to believe her story when she returns home. He even suggests that she go back to a sanitarium for psychological treatment, after having already spent some time there. 

Meanwhile, Hayes’ husband Harry, played by William Hudson, is running around town and drinking heavily with a local harlot named Honey, played by Yvette Vickers. The two have plans to put Hayes into a crazy state of mind to drive her back to the local booby-hatch in order to take over all her wealth. After several attempts to convince Harry that she is not crazy, the two decide to drive out into the desert to find the satellite and giant alien. Hayes expresses her disgust and awareness of Harry going around with the town tramp. 

Sure enough, the two encounter the giant alien, and Harry quickly drives away, leaving Hayes behind. Hayes later returns home, although it is never fully established in the film how or why she was able to get back. We learn that she is growing at a fast pace, and must be administered drugs to slow down the growing process. 

One hilarious scene shows a nurse entering Hayes’ room with a giant rubbery hand chained to the bedside as the nurse administers a drug to her. This is likely the same hand that was used in an earlier scene in which the giant alien picks up the sheriff’s car and throws it, only this time it does not have hair painted on the knuckles. By all appearances of the fake hand, her body would be much too large to fit into the entire bedroom. Talk about cheap, unconvincing special effects. This is down-right hilarious! Hayes eventually breaks out of her bedside shackles, tears down her own house, and goes on the prowl for Harry. Now she has grown 50 feet tall, is dressed in a low cut bikini skirt and blouse, sporting eye-popping cleavage. 

We don’t know whether to be scared of her, or to stop and look up her giant skirt for an eyeful. She is sexy, mad as hell, and ready to tear Harry apart, just like the house she left in shambles. As she walks around town in unconvincing rear projected photography superimposed over shots of town environments, she continually yells out Harry’s name. She tears through the roof of the town saloon to grab Harry. Here we see another unconvincing shot, only this time it actually is Hayes carrying a doll instead of the actual Harry. Enough gunshots are put into Hayes to bring her down, with the dead Harry in her hand. 

 It is safe to say that Attack of The 50 Foot Woman serves as an early feminist tale of women who want to have a sense of independence and power in a 1950s male-dominated society. No longer are women content with staying home, cooking and cleaning all day for their men. Director Nathan Juran and screenwriter Mark Hanna may not have had this in mind at the time Attack of The 50 Foot Woman was filmed, but viewers of today certainly view the film this way. 

 Sadly, actress Yvette Vickers was found dead in her Benedict Canyon Drive home in Beverly Hills in April 2011. After not hearing from Vickers for several months, a neighbor crawled through a house window to find the mummified remains of the 50s sex symbol. It is speculated that she had been dead for over six months before the neighbor found her. A sad ending to a once-promising young woman who appeared in the pages of Playboy. She was 82. 

Fans can also see Vickers in the 1959 film Attack of The Giant Leeches (AKA The Giant Leeches), once again cast as a town harlot. Attack of The 50 Foot Woman was remade in 1993, with Daryl Hannah in the lead role. This film does not have the enjoyable, feminist, camp quality that is apparent in the original. Happy Viewing!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Unearthly: Carradine as mad scientist, again

The UnearthlyThe Unearthly, 1957, Director: Brooke L. Peters; Cast includes John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Allison Hayes, Myron Healey; About 75 minutes in most prints. *******1/2 out of 10 stars on the Schlock-Meter

The Unearthly boasts Ed Wood’s giant Tor Johnson among its cast, which automatically bumps it up a star or two on the Schlock-Meter. The tale is pretty standard fare for 1950s sci-fi/horror filmdom; Mad scientist John Carradine uses unsuspecting patients to try and graft on a “17th gland,” which the “good” doctor hopes will create eternal life. The problem is, all of the previous human guinea pigs he’s tried the gland procedure on have turned up mentally impaired and deformed. They exist -- a pretty motley bunch -- in the basement.

Pretty Allison Hayes is Carradine’s next intended victim, but she’s saved by Myron Healey, who plays an undercover cop who infiltrates Carradine’s sanitarium pretending to be a killer on the lam. Don’t you love these convoluted plots. Anyway, it’s up to Healey to save the day, since the patients of Carradine are too dense to realize that their ranks are shrinking rapidly.

Surprisingly, Carradine makes a pretty effective bad guy in this low-budget offer. He’s more subtle, resisting the urge to revert to his usual “over-the-top” overacting. The few times Carradine raises his voice in anger, his sinister side is effectively revealed. Tor Johnson, as Carradine’s hulking helper, is actually allowed a few lines of garbled dialogue. There are a few shots of Allison Hayes in a low cut nightgown, which must have a excited quite a few movie-going boys just entering puberty in 1957.

Some of the more glaring inconsistencies include: The sanitarium appears to be located in a secluded, out-of-the-way site, but it only takes the police a couple of minutes to arrive when called; none of the “patients” of Carradine’s doctor appear too concerned that Tor Johnson’s grotesque “Lobo” is on the staff; also, it’s amusing to see characters feign the effects of being shot in the stomach without any blood or bullet holes showing up.

The Unearthly is definitely worth a rental, if just to see one of the few films Tor Johnson made.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wizard of Gore - Marvel At Montag The Magician's Gruesome Illusions!

By Steve D. Stones

Over the years, gore specialist Herschell Gordon Lewis has not spoken fondly of his 1970 film - The Wizard of Gore. He claims he was unable to achieve the believable gore effects that he wanted in the film. His watershed gore film - Blood Feast, from 1963, broke all the rules for what was acceptable in showing extreme violence on the screen. His reputation for showing some of the most gruesome and over-the-top gore effects soon earned him the title of "The Godfather of Gore."

Blood Feast broke all the rules of tasteful entertainment in showing a woman's leg sawed off in a bath tub, a young girl's brain removed from her head, and another woman's tongue ripped out. Lewis is responsible for more sick-to-their stomach movie goers at the movie house as Russ Meyer was responsible for sexually arousing male viewers with his films at the drive-in movie circuit of the 1960s.

Like so many of Lewis' gore epics, The Wizard of Gore suffers from technical problems and strange, kitsch ridden acting, particularly from actor Ray Sager, who plays Montag The Magician in the film. Montag is not your usual dog and pony act wizard. He actually shows his illusions without any barriers blocking the audience's view.

In the opening act, he cuts off his own head with a cheap looking, cardboard guillotine. The head that rolls into a basket below the guillotine is obviously a rubber stage prop that looks nothing like actor Ray Sager, giving the viewer a taste of Lewis' tongue and cheek effects.

Next, Montag asks for volunteers from the audience to perform his gruesome illusions. The volunteers are conveniently women, and appear in a zombie-like trance. In one act, Montag saws a girl in half with a chainsaw, then pushes her innards around with his hands in extreme camera close ups. Another volunteer is punched through the stomach with a punch press. A third victim has a spike nailed through her head.

Each victim lives through the act, then later dies after leaving Montag's theater. Audience members are puzzled as to why each woman walks away from the illusions unharmed.

Lewis' next gore epic is the much less entertaining Gore Gore Girls from 1972. Lewis retired from the film business in the 1970s, and worked in the advertising industry for many years. He is now back in the director's chair directing new gore films. For further information about The Wizard of Gore and the career of Herschell Gordon Lewis, read the two very informative books: "A Taste of Blood" by Christopher Wayne Curry and "Herschell Gordon Lewis - Godfather of Gore: The Films" by Randy Palmer. Something Weird Video in Seattle, Washington has also recently produced a new documentary about Lewis. Be sure to have a vomit bag on hand if you watch any of Lewis' gore films. Happy Viewing! (or should I say - Happy Vomiting!).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Detective meets Baldy! Dick Tracy versus Cueball

By Doug Gibson

The Medved brothers list Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball as one of the 5o worst films in their book, The 50 Worst Films of All Time, that was a popular a generation ago.

They're wrong, of course, "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball," from RKO Radio Pictures, is a lean 62-minute programmer that provides exactly what is offers. A very fast-paced cartoonish detective story of the famous detective stopping a dangerous mug, Cueball, who starts strangling people with a hatband who get in his way of getting full value for the diamonds he stole.

Morgan Conway as Tracy lacks the facial looks and screen presence that Ralph Byrd brought to the role but he does an OK job. The funny-pages feel to the picture is accentuated by colorful characters, including Anne Jeffreys as Tess Truehart, Tracy's girl and Lyle Latell as Pat Patton, Tracy's silly sidekick.

The other characters have names that highlight their personalities, such as Jewels Sparkle, Percival Priceless, Vitamin Flintheart, Filthy Flora and, of course, the baddie Cueball, played in sinister fashion by Dick Wessel. A chief clue toward catching Cueball is learned when a youngster tells Tracy all the kids bought hatbands made by a prisoner who was recently released. ...

A 50 worst film? ... NONSENSE. I loved this action programmer from director Gordon Douglas. Why don't we watch the trailer below! Or start watching the entire film above via YouTUbe!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Swamp Girl -- a real cracker film!

By Doug Gibson

"Swamp Girl" is a real "cracker" film. A deep South drive-in, Saturday matinee film that bombed at the box office largely due to that dichotemy. The film is very tame, tame enough indeed to play at a kids' Saturday matinee. That is was a best a soft PG is a bit perplexing given that the director was Don Davis, who was more comfortable shooting soft-core porn in that era. (Davis also has a memorable but small role as a drunk in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space.)

"Swamp Girl" is an interesting film and watchable. It stars a "Marcia Brady" lookalike (Simone Griffith) who is a gorgeous teenage blonde named Janeen who lives in the swamp with her guardian, a black man she calls "Paw." It seems that Swamp Girl was abandoned as a baby and later Paw rescued her from drug dealers who killed her earlier guardian. Despite living in a swamp, swamp girl is gorgeous, with creamy white skin, tanned shaved legs, beautifully coiffed blonde hair and wears a cut summery type of dress. She also is friends with the local sheriff (Claude King) and the swamp ranger, played by southern crooner Ferlin Husky (he of Hillbillys in a Haunted House fame).

To go on, one day a con and his girlfriend are on the run. They turn up at Swamp Girl's house, kill "Paw" and take Swamp Girl hostage as they seek escape through the swamp. However, Swamp Girl, who knows the swamp all too well, turns the tables on the baddies and makes their lives miserable in the swamp. Eventually, the bad guy sinks to his death in quicksand and his girlfriend is eaten by 'gators. (There's a subplot involving some local criminals who want to kill Swamp Girl for some reason but viewers can ignore and just star at Griffith prancing through the swamp)

Besides the plot as mentioned, Ferlin Husky sings a song or two and I think there's a half-baked, chaste romance between Swamp Girl and a deputy. There's also, and let me make this clear, no R-rated material in this film. As mentioned, it's quite tame.

It's an enjoyable 70 minutes or so and is a chance to see a genre film (southern justice) that is very low budget and all late '60s early '70s deep South. And, it was filmed at a real swamp, Okefenokee Swamp Park, near Waycross, Georgia. It can be purchased via Something Weird, which recently showed the film on OnDemand cable. Enjoy the trailer above!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Haunted House - The Screaming Skull

The Screaming Skull - Free Burial For Frightened Viewers!

By Steve D. Stones

Director Fred Olen Ray once said that The Screaming Skull is perhaps the greatest low budget film made with only five actors and one location. If it wasn’t for Roger Corman’s 1961 classic The Pit & The Pendulum, I would agree with Ray. The Screaming Skull has my vote as second best for a film limited to less than six actors and one location.

The film opens with an interesting gimmick of a coffin opening with a sign inside that says: Reserved For You. The narrator insures viewers that the producers promise a free burial for anyone who dies of fright while watching The Screaming Skull. I wonder if they ever had to follow through with their promise?

Next, a boiling stream of water is shown with fog as a skull floats to the surface and a loud screaming of a wild bird is heard. The bold letters of THE SCREAMING SKULL dash out in front of the floating skull.

Eric Whitlock brings his new bride named Jenny to his mansion in the countryside after having been gone for two years. Eric lived there with his former wife Marion, who died in the garden when she slipped and fell on a concrete wall, banging her head.

The reverend Snow and his wife arrive to meet Jenny and to bring the couple some groceries for the night. Eric informs reverend Snow in private that Jenny’s parents had died many years ago in a drowning accident, making her emotionally unstable, but also inheriting their wealth.

That night while in bed, Jenny hears a constant banging sound, which she discovers to be the wind banging some window shudders against the house. The next morning she tries to make friends with the shy, introverted gardener named Mickey by suggesting they take some flowers to Marion’s gave.

The following night Jenny has nightmares as the sound of screaming peacocks haunts her dreams. She wakes to the sound of a loud knocking on the front door. She opens the door to discover a skull on the doorsteps. What follows for the rest of the film is a series of Jenny finding the skull all over the mansion, driving her insane.

Eric suggests that Jenny is hallucinating, and that perhaps her nightmares are a result of a portrait in the house of Marion. Eric decides to burn the portrait as Jenny witnesses the destruction of the painting. As the couple rake over the hot coals from the fire, another skull emerges, causing Jenny to faint.

It turns out that Eric placed the skull in the ashes of the fire to frighten Jenny. His goal was to drive Jenny insane so that he could inherit her wealth.

By some supernatural force, the skull returns to haunt Eric, causing him to be struck by lightning and drown in his garden pond, the same pond where Marion was killed.

It’s unfortunate that many film encyclopedias give The Screaming Skull such a poor rating. I find it to be a fun little film worthy of any serious B-movie fan’s list of guilty pleasures. It’s a film that goes well with a large bucket of buttered popcorn and a soda drink at 1 in the morning. Who knows, perhaps the producers of The Screaming Skull may still promise you a free burial if you die of fright while watching the film? Happy viewing!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Werewolf of London

Werewolf of London, 1935, 75 minutes, Universal, black and white. Directed by Stuart Walker. Starring Henry Hull as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami, Valerie Hobson as Mrs. Lisa Glendon, Lester Matthews as Capt. Paul Ames, and Lawrence Grant as Sir. Thomas Forsythe, Scotland Yard chief. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The Werewolf of London, which pre-dates Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolfman by several years, drips in atmosphere. There's foggy London nights, remote Tibetan valleys and sinister chilly nights in deserted country homes. It's the tale of a London botanist (Hull) who travels to Tibet to find a rare flower which blooms when the moon shines. Also, legend has it that it serves as an antidote to lycanthropy, or literally, becoming a werewolf. In Tibet, Hull is attacked by a werewolf, and while fighting him off, is bitten on the arm. He returns to London with the flower.

Once in London, the workaholic Hull is visited by an Oriental colleague (Oland) who asks for the flower to help patients, or so he claims. Oland, who carries a charmingly sinister persona, hints that he was the werewolf Hull fought off in Tibet. Meanwhile, Hull's Dr. Glendon, much to his surprise and horror, become a werewolf. The transformation leaves him evil, and he kills several women when the moon is full. An old beau (Matthews) of Glendon's neglected wife Lisa (Hobson), visits the community and begins to suspect Hull.

This film is not too scary, but it's still very well made and very entertaining. Hull is a bit too skinny to inspire much fear and his werewolf is not too threatening or awful in appearance. In fact, the werewolves in this film aren't much stronger than the women they attack. Nevertheless, Hull's feelings of horror and helplessness at what has happened to him create strong pathos. In a particularly emotional scene Hull, desperately prays to God to spare him the werewolf curse. Then, he adds a final prayer, asking that at least he be spared of killing his wife if he be so cursed. In a way, Hull's dilemma is similar to John Abbott's in The Vampire's Ghost (Republic, 1945). They are reluctant monsters!

There are a few silly scenes of stereotypical neighbors and party guests who distract from the plot, and another subplot where the hero Matthews makes a play for Hull's wife, Lisa. But star Hull, despite his physical limitations, does a better-than-average job, and Oland also contributes to the fun. The music is splendid, and was copied in many other horror films of that era. The method of Hull's "werewolfism" is a flower plant. That was certainly changed by the time Chaney Jr. became the wolfman. Werewolf of London was a box-office flop for Universal, and that ended Hull's bid for horror star status. Still, the film holds up well today. Catch it when you can on Turner Classic Movies or you can buy it fairly cheap.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Ape Man with Lugosi!

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.

Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably bottom of the barrel. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?"

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: The film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end.
The Ape Man plays often on UEN's (Utah Educational Network) Sci Fi Friday and has a podcast to go along with it. There are many versions of the film. It is free to watch on the Web. Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies will air a pristine print of the film some day, but watch a version above!.

The Ape Man with Lugosi!

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.
This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.
Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably bottom of the barrel. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?"
Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: The film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end.
The Ape Man plays often on UEN's (Utah Educational Network) Sci Fi Friday and has a podcast to go along with it. There are many versions of the film. It is free to watch on the Web. Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies will air a pristine print of the film some day.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Monster On The Campus- Beware The Bite of The Coelacanth!

By Steve D. Stones

Director Jack Arnold is best known for two great 1950s masterpieces – The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

While Monster On The Campus (1958) may not be highly regarded by film critics and sci-fi fans, it is still a worthy effort that is fun to watch on a Friday night with a large soda and buttered popcorn. Professor Donald Blake, played by veteran actor Arthur Franz, is a paleontology professor at Dunsfield University who receives a frozen prehistoric fish – a coelacanth.

The frozen fish thaws as it’s delivered to Blake’s laboratory. A student’s dog drinks some of the water from the fish’s tank, which turns him into a fierce canine beast. While examining the fish in his lab, Professor Blake cuts his hand on the teeth of the coelacanth. The cut causes him to experience blackouts while students on the campus are being attacked and murdered by some unknown beast.

The cut has caused Blake to transform into a prehistoric Neanderthal man. Blake and two students observe a dragonfly transform into a giant insect after it bites the coelacanth in Blake’s lab. Blake soon realizes that anything that comes in contact with the fish reverts back to its prehistoric origins – a sort of evolution in reverse.

He also observes that his blackouts are a result of his own devolution – evolving
backwards to a prehistoric man. He tests this theory by isolating himself in a mountain cabin while movie cameras record his transformation.

On the surface, Monster On The Campus appears to be a homage or rip off of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Curt Siodmak’s The Werewolf tale. Sources claim that director Jack Arnold was not happy with Monster On The Campus. In comparison to his other efforts, Monster is a bit tacky in content, and not as technically competent as his other classics. However, it is still a very fun movie to view.

Star Arthur Franz appeared in a number of sci-fi films of the 1950s, including: Flight To Mars, Invaders From Mars, The Atomic Submarine and the car racing classic – The Devil’s Hairpin. Happy viewing!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Capsule reviews: Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula, The Monster, and The Sex Killer

All of these films are available via amazon for sale.

SANTO EN EL TESORO DE DRACULA: The 1969 Mexican masked wrestler battles with Dracula and a masked criminal in this insane, chaotic entry that blends time travel, the Lugosi Dracula tale and a search for Dracula's treasure in one convoluted flick. It's funnier than heck, though, particularly the time travel sequences, the cheesecake scenes of a Latina lovely in a sheer nighty, and the obligatory wrestling. And what's with that mask, Santo, do you ever take it off to sleep, shower, make love ...?
THE MONSTER: The presence of Lon Chaney Sr. as a mad scientist/doctor who is using patients at a sanitarium the imprison several is reason enough to watch this too-often stagy adaptation of a popular comedy thriller stage play of that era, 1925. Johnny Arthur, a comedian of that era, provides the laughs but Chaney's menace and strong facial emotions dominate the film.
THE SEX KILLER: Viewers will feel like they'll need a strong shower after watching this grimy, 1967 Barry Mahon directed "nudie roughie" filmed in that era just before grindhouses surrended and starting showing triple XXX. "The Sex Killer" would be an R today. It's about a loner who works in a manniquinn factory who progresses from peeping to rape and murder, although only breasts and flimsy nightwear is shown. The film is worth viewing only for the stark, lengthy shots of New York City in the 1960s. In fact, it's almost like a documentary of the city's grimy section of that era. The final scene, which scans the New Yorks business and industrial skyline, is great gonzo cinematography.

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tod Browning: Master director of the sinister

(This column originally ran in the Standard-Examiner newspaper)

By Doug Gibson

My friend, Steve Stones, and I have a blog on cult movies. As a result, sometimes we are asked to recommend a suitably chilling Halloween movie. That’s a little like being given $25 and being asked to buy that one novel you want more than any other novel. There’s just too much competition.
To enjoy great films, think of them as samplers of genres, directors or stars. You like Bela Lugosi, (I do), Check out “Dracula,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” and “Son of Frankenstein.” You like Vincent Price? Try “The Tingler,” “Tower of London” and “The Conqueror Worm.” I favor the older films but I don’t discriminate against new films. Watch Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and then rent his earlier films “Army of Darkness” and “Dark Man.”
This year I hope people will discover, or re-discover Tod Browning, a director whose popularity peaked during the silent era. Although he directed Lugosi in “Dracula,” his career declined in the ‘30s and by 1939 it was over. As a boy late in the 19th century, Browning ran away from home and joined the circus. He was a contortionist and lived closely with the carny lifestyle. Later he was a fairly successful early silent movie actor before gaining fame as a director.
Always fascinated with the circus lifestyle, Browning cultivated the talents of a young actor named Lon Chaney. Dubbed the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was the biggest star of the late silent era. The actor was an incredible physical specimen, and a perfectionist. He created faces in two films, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the now-lost “London After Midnight,” that have not been matched in fright value. Chaney died just before he was to film “Dracula.” His death opened the door for Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster) to achieve stardom.
In 1927, Browning directed Chaney in the silent film “The Unknown.” It is my first selection for a Halloween evening. Set in a circus, it stars Chaney as circus attraction, “Alonzo the Armless,” who shoots arrows safely at a pretty circus girl, Nanon, played by a very young — and gorgeous — Joan Crawford. Chaney really isn’t armless, he’s a violent criminal on the lam. With a trusted assistant’s help, he wraps his arms to his sides to escape detection. Chaney is in love with Nanon. With his eyes and facial grimaces, he lets us know what a possessive, frustrating, tinder-box love it is. He can’t bear the sight of the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty, who admires Nanon, and he encourages Nanon to distrust Malabar.
Chaney’s obsessive love for Nanon leads him to really remove his arms in an operation. When he returns weeks later, expecting to pursue Nanon and find his love requited, he discovers Nanon and Malabar have fallen in love and will be married soon. In my opinion, the two minutes of Chaney’s reaction to the news, bewilderment, frozen smile, pantomime of maniacal laughter and threatening glare, is the finest acting of the silent era. This is a tight, 50-minute film (some inconsequential scenes are lost).
Besides “Dracula,” the film Browning may be best known for is the 1932 “Freaks.” It is a masterpiece of surreal horror. The plot involves a selfish, beautiful trapeze artist (Cleopatra) who marries a little man (Hans) for his money. With her strongman lover (Hercules), she plots to kill Hans. Their big mistake is that they assume the circus “freaks” are little children, rather than adults capable of retribution. What they learn too late is that the “freaks” — and the actors really were such — act like children as a defense mechanism. They want to be left alone. But threatened in their environment, they draw strength from numbers.
For 40-plus minutes of this slightly longer than an hour film, we are not scared. Instead, we learn about life in a circus, and we view the “freaks” as human beings. The last 20 or so minutes are horrifying as the “freaks” gain revenge on two who would falsely request their trust and then try to kill one of them. The scenes of the “freaks” with knives and guns, peering through windows and under wagons, slithering, hopping, sliding and pursuing Hercules and Cleopatra through a dark rainy night are frightening. For years, the fim ended with a brief, jarring shot of what the “freaks” had done to Cleopatra. It’s one of the most shocking finales in film. But I recently saw “Freaks” on Turner Classic Movies and the print added an epilogue with Hans and other characters that diminishes the impact a little.
“Freaks” was ahead of its time. The suits at MGM hated the film and barely distributed it. More than any other film, it damaged Browning’s career. In fact, it was banned in Britain for 40 years. See it for yourself: it’s a masterpiece that draws on Browning’s love and respect for carnival life.
One more Browning film worth seeing is the 1936 “The Devil-Doll.” It stars Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a framed banker who breaks out of France’s Devil’s Island prison with a mad scientist who can turn people into doll-sized humans who can be manipulated by human masters’ thoughts. It’s a wild plot. Outside Paris the mad scientist dies. Lavond’s and the scientist’s widow — who is as crazy as her husband — continue the experiments. She wants to turn the whole world little; Lavond just wants to gain revenge on his ex-partners who framed him and also help his blind mother and daughter, who were impoverished by his imprisonment. He uses the “devil dolls” to get his revenge on his ex-partners and clear his name.
Watch this film for the special effects and Barrymore’s performance. He’s great as a mostly decent man who can’t control his thirst for revenge and knows it.
All these films are inexpensive, pop up on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented. Trust me, they are far better than “Saw VI,” or any of the “Saw(s)”.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace, 1963, 85 minutes, American International, directed by Roger Corman. Starring Vincent Price as Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen, Debra Paget as Ana Ward, Frank Maxwell as Ian/Dr. Willett, Lon Chaney Jr. as Simon Orne, Leo Gordon as Edgar Weeden/Ezra Weeden and Cathie Merchant as Hester Tillinghast. Schlock-Meter rating: 7 stars out of 10.

This is a better-than-average Vincent Price AIP 1960s offering. It offers chills, atmosphere and good direction from movie legend Corman. The story concerns a mild mannered man (Price), who moves to the mysterious town of Arkham with his wife (Paget) to inhabit a creepy castle, or palace. The townspeople, a forbidding, brooding, suspicious group except for one doctor (Maxwell), react in panic after they discover Price's character (Charles Dexter Ward) resembles an evil ancestor (Joseph Curwen) who was executed by Arkham residents long ago.

It isn't long before Price begins to take on the personality of his evil ancestor, much to the terror of his lovely wife, whom he begins to treat very roughly. With some assistance, the now evil Price (possessed by Curwen) spends much of the film extracting revenge from the descendents of the townspeople who killed him, and trying to resurrect to life a long-dead love (Merchent).
The film boasts a lot of atmosphere. Including aging horror great Lon Chaney Jr. was a casting coup for Corman. As an evil henchman of Price, he doesn't have much to do, but he lends a spooky credibility to the film just with his presence.

The title The Haunted Palace is from Edgar Allen Poe, but there's no resemblance to the story. Indeed the plot is from an H.P. Lovecraft short novel, The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but even then, the story only touches briefly on Lovecraft's plot. As is often with a Lovecraft tale, the sinister town of Arkham is the setting. Fans of Price will really enjoy this film. He's at his best. Others will find it an excellent sample of AIP's 60s horror offerings. Watch the trailer above.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tower of London

Review: Tower of London


Wow, I absolutely love this low-budget 1962 gothic adaptation of Shakespeare (well, sort of) that stars Vincent Price as the mad wannabe king Richard who goes around slaughtering anyone who gets in his way, all the while dealing with those voices in his head and derisive laughter only he can hear.

It's directed by Roger Corman, who can stretch a budget as far as it can go without snapping. The black and white adds to the grim mood. There are some chilling scenes. A young maiden is tortured to death on a stretching rack. A man is murdered when a cage with a hungry rat is placed over his head. The scenes of a climatic battle that leads to Richard's death are from the 1939 Tower of London, a fine adaptation starring Boris Karloff.

I want to spend a little time on star Vincent Price's performance. A characteristic of Price's is he can be truly evil while keeping his tongue in his cheek. In Tower, he is clearly mad, and carries a confused, pained expression on his face. It's excellent acting. The audience almost wants to feel sorry for a suffering madman doomed to defeat, but he's simply too evil to care about. Although most critics deride the final battle scene where Price is superimposed over stock footage of battles, I like it. It adds to the hallucinatory atmosphere of Richard's madness.

A great film, easy to find on TV or buy. Also stars Michael Pate, Joan Freeman and Sandra Knight. It's fast-paced at 79 minutes. You can watch it in several parts free on YouTube. Part 1 is above.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

American Movie

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

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern is the most original slice of Americana captured on film since Michael Moore chronicled the corporate-caused decay of Flint, Mich. in Roger and Me more than a decade ago. Judged top documentary film at Sundance a few years ago, it’s the best of its genre since Waco: The Rules of Engagement managed to snag an Oscar nomination several years ago.
It’s the story of Mark Borchardt a wannabe film-maker, who redefines the word persistence. He lives in Wisconsin. Mark is, by most definitions, a loser. He failed to finish high school. He’s unmarried but has three children. He’s under-employed. He’s a border-line alcoholic. He owes several thousand dollars in child support and thousands more in other debts. He lives at home with his mom, sleeping on a thin mattress. His best friend is a dazed ex-stoner musician named Mike who’s addicted to scratch lottery. His family scorns his goals, suggesting that he’s fit at best to be a factory worker.
Mark has no prospects, but he has a goal. To be a feature film-maker. His almost-obsessive pursuit of that dream and his infectious optimism is captured by director Chris Smith. You want to see reality on film? Ignore the “Big Brother’ and “Survivor” garbage heaped onto television screens recently. American Movie is a primer on micro-budget film making and the fragile dreams of its creators.
Mark’s been making short films with his friends since he was a teen. Horror is his preferred genre. He counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence in his life. Mark wants to make a feature film called Northwestern. The first part of the film focuses on Mark and his team’s fruitless effort to get the production off the ground. Kitchen-table production meetings provide only pessimism and finally the project is shelved for lack of funds.
Not deterred, the rest of the film concerns Mark’s efforts to finish and release Coven, a 40-minute psychological horror drama that he started years earlier. Despite setback after setback, the film gets finished, thanks largely to Mark’s dying, lonely Uncle Bill, who lives in a trailer park and has $280,000 in the bank. The scenes between Mark and his curmudgeon uncle are touching. Mark exploits him to be sure, but he’s not fooling Bill, who knows Mark has pipe dreams but is nourished from the attention Mark pays to him.
There are priceless scenes in American Movie. They include a desperate Mark pleading with his mom to put on a costume and play an extra in Coven. “But I need to go shopping today,” she protests. There’s the 30-plus take scene of Uncle Bill delivering a few lines in Coven. Another is Mark’s glee at unexpectedly receiving a credit card offer in the mail. There’s Mark’s “office,” the front seat of his car parked at the airport. Another is the poverty-inspired panic which results in post production when a few seconds of film are discovered missing. Also, there’s a hilarious scene from the filming of Coven where several takes are required to smash a hard-headed actor’s skull through a kitchen cabinet.
A serious side to this film adds to its strength. Film-maker Smith provides viewers a peek in Mark’s personal life. It’s dysfunctional. While watching the Super Bowl with his family, a drunken Mark allows some of the bitterness he usually hides to come out in the surface. It’s tough to watch, but important as it rounds out his character and offers a peek into inner demons that have kept him from success.
Besides Uncle Bill, Mike Schank, Mark’s best friend, is an asset to American Movie. His blank stare, accompanied by monotone voice, might lead viewers to think he’s suffering from an acid flashback. However, Mike grows on you, and before the end of the film he’s shown to be a talented musician.
Despite no formal training, Mark is a talented self-taught film-maker, and you can’t help cheering for him once he finally finishes Coven and stands outside the theater, amidst a long line of people waiting to see his film. He may not have a home of his own, but he’s a director with a film under his belt, a colleague of Steven Spielburg. He has triumphed. Note: The DVD version of American Movie contains Mark’s film Coven. I have seen it and it's not too bad. Very low budget but with a cold, dark nihilism feel.

Doug Gibson