Monday, May 28, 2012

Damnation Alley – An Adventure You’ll Never Forget.

By Steve D. Stones

This 1977 feature should be of some interest to Utah residents because scenes from the film were made in Salt Lake City. Damnation Alley stars Jan-Michael Vincent and the cigar smoking George Peppard from the hit 80s TV show The A-Team. The film is a post-apocalyptic thriller that takes place as a result of a nuclear holocaust that causes the earth to tilt on its axis. The holocaust wipes out most of the human race.

After the nuclear holocaust, a few remaining survivors in a U.S. Air Force bomb shelter in the Mojave Desert decide to head east towards Albany, New York. The group is able to pick up radio signals coming from Albany. Vincent and Peppard leave the bomb shelter in giant armored vehicles called Landmasters that are equipped to withstand any unforeseen elements of nature.

Along the way, they encounter giant desert scorpions and flesh eating cockroaches in Salt Lake City. On a stop in Las Vegas, the group encounters a Las Vegas showgirl in an abandoned casino and latter a wandering teenager. The teen and showgirl join the group. They also encounter a number of violent sandstorms across the desert.

Forget what film critics have said about Damnation Alley over the years. It’s a fun and exciting post-apocalyptic feature that still holds up well today. Some of the special effects are dated, but nevertheless, it is still a worthy effort destined to be on any film fan’s list of guilty pleasures.  The film is in keeping with other post-apocalyptic themed features such as: The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, Mad Max and many others. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Finally, Andy Milligan's 'Nightbirds' is coming to DVD

Screem magazine as an article about the upcoming release of Andy Milligan's semi-lost film, "Nightbirds," an interesting 1970 film of a woman's destructive psychological domination of a young man. It's rumored the film only played once. The film's imdb page is here. "Nightbirds" stars Berwick Kaler and Julie Shaw. Kaler is featured on the DVD release doing commentary. The DVD, which also includes Milligan's "The Body Beneath," can be purchased at ebay and also at this amazon UK site. Release date in May 2. (The trailer above was likely created for "the grindhouse" crowd that Milligan's films ultimately were marketed and is likely not nearly as prurient as the trailer teases)

It would be cool if IFC or TCM Underground could be convinced to air "Nightbirds." According to those few who have seen it, it's less a garish MIlligan costumed period piece and more of a surreal affair, such as Miligan's "Vapors" and "Fleshpot on 42nd Street." We'll be sure to have a review once we get a copy at Plan9Crunch! This is an important development for cult film fans and historians.

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pin Down Girl - The Low Down On Pin Down Girls!

By Steve S. Stones

Anyone interested in the films and career of cult director Ed Wood may take some interest in this 1951 exploitation feature – Pin Down Girl. It stars two of Wood’s stock actors – Timothy Farrell and Mona McKinnon. McKinnon’s role is a short cameo role in a brief scene. Farrell starred in Wood’s transvestite epic - Glen or Glenda, and his 1954 film Jail Bait with body builder Steve Reeves.

If you’ve seen Glen or Glenda and Jailbait, you know Farrell has a reputation for having a dry, monotone voice that makes his performances unbelievable, not to mention unbearable. Farrell stars as crooked sports promoter named Umberto Scalli, who runs a gym used as a front for illegal gambling activities, prostitution and pill peddling.

Busty blonde bombshell wrestler Peaches Page signs a contract with Scalli to further her career. Peaches later falls in love with Scalli, but is warned by his former girlfriend Ruby to keep her distance. Scalli owes a large sum of money to the local mob kingpin named Mr. Big.

The film is full of hilariously staged wrestling matches between beefy women and wrestlers working out on low impact exercise equipment in the gym. Real life wrestling champions Clara Mortensen and Rita Martinez join Peaches in at least one scene. Director of photography, William C. Thompson, who lensed Ed Wood’s cult masterpiece – Plan 9 From Outer Space, also lensed Pin Down Girl. The film was originally titled Racket Girls and was produced by George Weiss, whose other films include Wood’s Glen or Glenda, Test Tube Babies and Dance Hall Racket.

Watch carefully for a scene in Tim Burton’s 1994 film – Ed Wood where Wood, played by Johnny Depp, visits producer George Weiss in his office to convince him that he should direct – I Changed My Sex (later retitled: Glen or Glenda). The office wall has a poster of Pin Down Girl hanging in the background.

Alpha Video, as known as, recently released a DVD print of Pin Down Girl in 2012. The film has not been digitally remastered, so the image quality is in poor condition throughout most of the film. However, it is still watchable. Happy viewing!!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Antz, a communist fable

A Tale of “Antz” meant more for adults than just the kiddies

Essay by Katalin Gibson

Our toddler daughter loves shows about animals big and small, so when we decided to watch the animated movie “Antz” a few nights ago, it had promised to be an entertaining evening for kiddie and a restful one for the by then worn out parents. However, after a few minutes the interest of our little one started to wane--maybe her taste refined by repeated viewings of Barney and Elmo has not prepared her for ontological monologues in the Woody Allenian vein. Mommy, on the other hand, started to be sucked into the movie as it unfolded the fable of an Orwellian ant colony. It strangely reminded me of my childhood spent behind the iron walls of communism, the old parroted slogans (“In unity is force,” “Nobody is irreplaceable”), and the workings of a society marked by overbearing state control.

Not that “Antz” is about Hungary in the 1970s and early 80s--rather, its model seems to be universal: the pattern of dictatorship. It could take place just about anywhere, from an ant colony to the Soviet Union or ancient Rome, with leaders like Mussolini or Darth Vader. The genre of “Antz” is somewhat reminiscent of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” told from a slightly aberrant and neurotic but otherwise average ant worker’s point of view. “Z” is the classic Woody Allen from “Bananas,” just as clumsy and oddly charming, an unwitting revolutionary leader who manages to overhaul the ‘milit-ant’ leader Mandible’s burgeoning autocracy. And, as someone would expect from the hero of a tale, he becomes the new and just leader and marries Princess Leia, I mean Bala--a charming little story, where evil gets thwarted and good prevails.
So far this should be an ideal children’s story--adults have already become too cynical to believe in fairy tales anyway. In fact, it wasn’t the storyline that gained my attention, shame on me. Rather, some elements that drew provoking parallels between the everyday drudgery, the lopsided musketeer world of the ants, where all is for one but the one couldn’t care less about the many ordinary nonindividuals--and my once familiar world of communism with the Labor Day demonstrations, planned society, indoctrination and indistinct masses.

I remember being taught unwavering loyalty to the Party and their doctrine, to look at the West as the source of all evil, and to mechanically do whatever was prescribed. Divergent voices were stilled and resistance sprouted underground--another image befitting “Antz.” And, of course, this forbidden land of the West, only known from fabled accounts became our Insectopia, the land of plenty and bliss. Not many were permitted to travel, especially beyond the western borders (or, to the Soviet Union, for that matter--although I think they tried to protect the Soviets from the too liberal East Europeans in that case), and the ones who came back had tales of wonders to tell and backed their stories with 5-pound product catalogues.

Utopias are very attractive if you live in a society you find grossly lacking in perfection. You may look at stories of other lands as a proof of a real paradise. But in “Antz,” Insectopia turns out to be a garbage can: the rotting waste shared with other, jovial insects exemplifies bounty that you don’t have to work for. I guess, it would look extremely inviting if I’d had to slave in a mine every day to get my allotment of food. Otherwise, the appeal might stem from ignorance and you’ll have to be careful not to get completely lost.

Because in this new land unknown dangers lurk for the inexperienced travelers--like a piece of gum for Z and Bala, but you could also mention unemployment, menial and low paying jobs, or a lack of knowledge of the land’s culture. Maybe it is for this fear of the unknown, together with the restrictions imposed on travel (let alone the ridiculously low amount of money you were able to exchange for hard currency: $50 person for a trip--you could maybe cover the gas from it...) that most Hungarians didn’t travel much.

The workers felt safe in “Antz,” and there is something safe in your homeland, regardless of the government over you. For the average people, the monotony of everyday work and life in Hungary alternated with the occasional diversion of state-sanctioned holidays with the inevitable parades, through sunshine and rain, even in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. In a strange way, this type of planned economy and society provided a source of security: things went so routinely that change would have been just as upsetting for the average worker as for the leader. The lifestyle was kind of accepted, and no one thought that things would dramatically change practically overnight. (When they did, and a more competitive type of economy was introduced, the effect came like a shock to the majority of people, who felt suddenly really lost in their newly found freedom.) And needless to say, the Antz-type instantaneous improvement in society just isn’t going to happen. I don’t know, what causes it, but while things look so simple from the average person’s stand point, when you get to be in charge, you find yourself in a huge maze of interests and conflicts, and you objectivity suddenly disappears.

Here may lay the secret of a happy ending: it is not the story that ends, but the chances of a perfectly happy resolution. Good luck to “Z” figuring out classes, just distribution, or freedom of speech in the new ant-land.

These are questions for a different genre, however. It can be refreshing to willingly “suspend our disbelief” in perfect political systems and just enjoy a little tale of little creatures, identify with the suspense of being stuck in chewing gum, and rejoice when all ends well. Maybe adults are the ones, who really need tales.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Ape Man

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.