Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Year's Evil, a scary end to the season!

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

'The Entertainer' a book of an actor's role in 20th century entertainment

By Doug Gibson

Prior to this week, if one had asked me about the late character actor, Lyle Talbot, I'd have leaned on my knowledge of cult cinema to define him. I'd have cited his three Ed Wood films and his role in the Wood documentaries a generation ago. And I'd recall his appearances as "Lex Luthor" or "Commissioner Gordon," in cheap Superman and Batman serials. Or even his role as a narrator in the Ormond family's cheapo "Mesa of Lost Women."

It's up to Talbot's daughter, New Yorker journalist Margaret Talbot, to do justice to her dad. She has written "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, " (Riverhead Books) (link),and absolutely brilliant tale that not only encapsulates Lyle Talbot's life, but provides the subject as a background, a Zelig, a symbol, of the history of 20th century mass market entertainment.

As his daughter relates, Talbot never became a star, but he had the privilege of earning his living solely as an actor for more than 70 years, which was his lifetime goal. Born in 1902 to a mother who died a few months later, Lyle was snatched up by his grandmother, Mary Talbot,  -- who kept his natural father away -- and ran a drummers' hotel outside a train station in Brainard, Neb. The very young Lyle never had his own bed, instead sleeping curled next to the Bohemian teenage servant girls, most of Czech origin, who were hired at the hotel to learn homemaking skills, primarily cooking, from Lyle's businesswoman grandma.

Although deprived of contact with his son early, Lyle's dad, Ellis Henderson, eventually met his son and came to have the greatest influence on his life. Ellis and Lyle's stepmother, Anna, became entertainers, traveling the region in circuses, carnivals, predecessors to today's reality TV freak shows, and small acting troupes. Son Lyle, no doubt having the genes from dad, became an entertainer as a teenager. He started at the absolute bottom, not entertaining, but cleaning up at the circuses and carnivals. But, as author Margaret Talbot notes, assumed correctly that he would eventually get a chance to be on stage.

The genesis for many of Margaret Talbot's recollections of dad's life and times derived from the many stories she heard from her father, whether at the dinner table, living room, etc. She's done a good job of research backing the stories as well as providing what must be, for her, priceless photos of her dad at long-gone locations such as the Savidge carnivals, Chase Lister company, with the magician Mock Sad Alli, ... a life of small touring troupes of actors, traveling the Midwest, hoping the gate take would provide enough for a small payday and funds to move on to the next small town with an "opera house."

Lyle gained enough stature in the 1920s to actually start his own acting company in the south; it failed thanks to the Depression. He did attract the eye of a Warner Brothers talent scout and was invited to take a screen test in Hollywood. So broke that he had to borrow money from his agent to fund the trip, Lyle, a good looking young man, beat the odds and earned a contract after the test.

Perhaps the best part of Margaret Talbot's book is her description of Hollywood in the early to mid 1930s and the life of a "movie star," or contract player for a studio. It was a tough, insular, clannish life, with 14-hour work days, contracts that favored the studios, studios that functioned as little worlds of their own, and studio bosses who arranged dates for their contract players and paid off the cops when a "star" got himself in a bit of legal trouble.

The Hollywood described in "The Entertainer" doesn't exist any more, but it must have seemed like a mythical magic kingdom to those far away and those, such as Lyle, who were successes there. It was far away from the Midwest and East, accessible by long train rides or motor trips. As recounted, Talbot had many affairs, often with the women that males dreamed about in movie houses. One of his more serious flings was with the hard-bitten, older silent star Estelle Taylor, who had earlier married, and dumped, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey.

What I got most from Margaret Talbot's book is a desire to immerse myself in what is described as "Forbidden Hollywood," the steady stream of racy, sexy, hard-bitten films that the studios churned out prior to he Hays Office morality crackdown in the mid-30s. Lyle starred in a bunch of them, including "Three On a Match," which is clearly one of his daughter's favorites. (I'll be searching Turner Classic Movies for this take of lust, adultery, regret.) In these films, Talbot starred with Glenda Farrell, Joan Blondell, Mae West, Loretta Young, Humphrey Bogart and even a very young John Wayne. The stories of Hollywood culture in that age were fascinating, with fan clubs that featured stories about the fans, and stars who were eager to be involved with their fans. In fact, these early fan clubs, described by the author as a type of early "Facebook" with most eager to talk about others rather than themselves, even offered advice and criticism on their stars' handling by the studio bosses.

Talbot's role as a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as his "friendships" with the occasional hood, his traveling by train across country to hype Warner Brothers, the occasional theater gig, and visits from his dad, stepmother and grandma to Hollywood are detailed. I must stress that daughter Margaret's tale strays often from biography, and offers detailed accounts of the entertainment culture of her dad's era.

Lyle Talbot starred in or was featured in hundreds of films; he was ubiquitous in the 1930s and a popular item in film fan magazines. But he never became a star, eventually settling into a role as an independent actor who would take almost any role offered. He had his fat times and his thin times, but he always lived comfortably. Margaret Talbot offers theories as to why her dad never made it to the level of a Bogart or a Grant. He was handsome but lacked that thing called screen presence, that made his face irresistible to audiences. He usually played weaker characters, such as feckless hoods or spurned lovers. There may have been political reasons. His efforts to unionize actors may have annoyed Warner Brothers.

Or maybe it was his problem with alcohol, a quiet but persistent flaw in his personal life for 25 years. He had his share of mishaps, as well as several ill-advised marriages. In the latter half of the 1940s, as Lyle battled middle age and perhaps fears of an alcoholic, solitary middle age, Talbot finally met the woman he would spend 40 years with, Margaret Epple, only 20 (26 years younger than Lyle) but more mature than her years thanks to a few years as breadwinner to a semi-dysfunctional family. Margaret provided what Lyle Talbot yearned for, a family, stability, a home. She also, through some tough love, cured him of his alcoholism problem.

To Talbot, entertaining was as natural as throwing a baseball with his sons. His daughter recalls his ease and lack of nerves behind the stage as the curtain opening drew nearer. Perhaps energized by his successful marriage, he passed through his "Ed Wood era" unscathed, making a smooth and profitable move to television, most notably as the neighbor on the Nelsons on "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot provides some interesting tales of how television was greeted by critics, along with a amusing anecdote of a New York Times writer who predicted its failure because people would not take the time to stare at the TV screen. (To cult film fans: Margaret Talbot has little nice to say about her dad's association with Ed Wood. She recounts the oft-told anecdote of a drunken Ed wearing Lyle's wife Margaret's underclothes. She describes "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Jail Bait" as "unwatchable" but has kinder words for "Glen Or Glenda," noting its progressive and forward take on accepting sexual differences.)

I could write more about this marvelous book, my favorite non-fiction offering of 2012, but it's time to stop with the final word of advice that there's much to recommend in Talbot's life and times that is found in his daughter's affectionate re-telling.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Mad Monster -- low rent Wolf Man!

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

By Doug Gibson

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

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Three beloved, kitschy Christmas flicks

(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. Antenna TV played "... Martians" all last week. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Have a 'Black Christmas'

By Steve D. Stones

A film like this could never be made for today’s audiences because most phones have caller IDs. The plot evolves around a killer making obscene phone calls to a university sorority house. Wes Craven’s Scream and John Carpenter’s Halloween both owe a great deal of credit to this film.

The opening sequence is a point of view shot of someone wandering outside a sorority house and peaking in a window. This same technique was used in the opening sequence of the 1978 Halloween to establish the point of view of little Michael Meyers walking up to his sister’s room to stab her to death. Carpenter may have borrowed this idea from Black Christmas, made just four years earlier in 1974.

The film immediately sets up the premise that someone is lurking in the attic of the sorority house just before college students are leaving for their Christmas break. The opening point of view shot continues with a shot indicating that someone is crawling through the window from outside the attic. The shot then cuts to an interior shot inside the house showing the opening of the attic uncovered.

Sorority sister Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, answers the telephone to someone making loud obscene noises. She holds up the phone so that everyone in the room can hear the call. A girl in the room asks if the caller is only one person. “That’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing their annual obscene phone call,” says Barbara, played by Margot Kidder.

One of the sorority sisters named Claire Harrison is in her room packing to leave for the Christmas break. Her father is to pick her up later that evening. As she walks into her closet to remove some of her clothes, a figure can be seen hiding behind plastic. The figure lunges at her and strangles her with the plastic. Next we see Claire dead in a rocking chair in the attic with the plastic wrapped around her head. The killer is rocking her back and fourth in the chair.

Claire’s father, Mr. Harrison, comes to pick her up at the bell tower on campus later that evening. She never shows up, so he decides to go directly to the sorority house to find out what happened to her. The drunken housemother Mrs. Mack meets him. She suggests that Claire could be at the fraternity house on campus visiting a boy.

Mr. Harrison cannot find Claire anywhere on campus so he goes to the local police station with some of Claire’s friends to file a missing persons report. Lieutenant Fuller, played by John Saxon, forms a search party later that night.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Mack is now housemother to an empty sorority house, and is desperately trying to find Claire’s cat named Claude. She climbs up to the attic to discover the corpse of Claire as the killer swings a meat hook on a rope, killing her.

Jess arrives back at the sorority house to another obscene phone call. Another point of view shot shows legs coming down the stairs towards Jess. It is Jess’s boyfriend Peter. This is where the audience is led to believe that the killer has to be Peter.

Peter proposes marriage to Jess, but she refuses. Peter is concerned over Jess’s decision to have an abortion, since he is the father. The two have a fight and Peter angrily leaves the house.

Lieutenant Fuller has a tracing device put on the sorority house phone. Jess sits by the fireplace in the house to wait for another obscene phone call so that the police can trace the call. She hears the loud sound of someone choking, and rushes into Barbara’s room as she is having an asthma attack in her sleep. Christmas carolers begin singing loudly outside the house. Jess opens the door to listen to the carolers as the killer comes out of the attic and kills Barbara in her room.

Jess comes back into the house as the carolers leave. The phone rings and Jess picks up the phone, only to hear more obscene noises. A close up shot of Jess’s face as she tries to talk to the obscene caller puts the viewer on the edge of their seat.

The police are able to trace the phone call to the house itself. Police clerk Nash calls Jess and tells her to get out of the house immediately. Jess grabs a fire poker from the fireplace and walks up the stairs to discover Barbara and another girl dead. She sees an eye staring out of the bedroom closet. This is the most haunting shot in the entire film.

Jess runs down the stars, but is unable to get the front door open. As she runs back towards the stairs, we see a hand reach out and grab her hair. She is able to get away and lock herself in the basement. A shadowy figure peeks into the windows of the basement and begins to call Jess by name. He breaks the window and we discover it is Peter her boyfriend.

The police arrive to find Jess lying on top of dead Peter. She has killed him with the fire poker. The police take her up to her bedroom to rest. The film ends with the camera traveling back up to the attic to reveal that the killer is still there with the corpses of Claire and Mrs. Mack. Peter was not the killer after all.

I think it would be safe to say that this film sets up many of the typical clichés 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!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Plan9Crunch videocast! Santa Claus Conquers the Martians!

"Hurray for Santy Claus!" was the cheery theme song for the ultra-bizarre 1960s kiddie-matinee Christmas cult classic "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." The hyper-low budget, so-bad-it's-good blend of sci-fi and holiday cheer hung around theaters for more than a decade. In the past couple of generations, it was named one of the 50 Worst Films by the Medved brothers, was spoofed by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and is still ubiquitous as a DVD offering in dollar stores. In the video podcast above, Steve D. Stones and I, along with camera help from Jennifer Thorsted, dissect this wonderful film. And, by, we're in the screening room of the beautiful Art House Cinema 502 theater, located at 158  Historic 25th Street in Ogden, Utah.
-- Doug Gibson

Rerun: Interview with Andy Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough

In 2010, Plan9Crunch interviewed Jimmy McDonough, author of "The Ghastly One ...," the fascinating biography of the late grindhouse filmmaker, Andy Milligan. For our readers' convenience, we re-run it today. Interest in Milligan remains high. Due in part to McDonough preserving a print for years, the British Film Institute just released Milligan's very obscure film, "Nightbirds." We can always hope "The Naked Witch," the original "The Weirdo," "The Degenerates" or other lost films resurface.

1) How much of an influence did Cafe Cino have on the evolution of grindhouse (42nd St.) cinema and eventually on mainstream cinema?

McDonough: I'm not sure it had any influence on 42nd Street. It had a great deal of influence on Andy, though. Freedom. It gave him the license to create. And to make flesh certain fantasies lurking in his mind. Very powerful, that. If I had a time machine that is one place I'd go back to...the Cino, to watch one of Milligan's productions. Better yet, watching Andy watching of his productions. See those beady little eyes dancing as he utters a low, evil chuckle, all while watching a couple of actors beat up on one another. I think the Cino days held great promise for Andy. He had a big framed picture of Joe Cino, an unusually sentimental thing for Milligan. I still have it."

2) Why didn't Andy Milligan, in your opinion, make it out of the grindhouses as a director, given that he had more critical success at Cafe Cino and as an off-Broadway theater director?

McDonough: "He was self-destructive. Milligan refused to tailor his act for anybody. He was incapable of it. And Andy could be an angry, angry guy. It scared people. Producer William Mishkin was the only one who could deal with Andy for more than a picture or two, and even that relationship was fraught with tension. Mishkin gave him the opportunity to make movies, but it was never financially rewarding enough to lead anywhere. The limitations were always the same--and primarily it was, "make it for nothing." Bill was a very cautious individual who wanted to see a return for every dollar spent. Andy was caught in a trick bag, stuck on the Mishkin plantation. All he could do was grind out one cheapo film after another. Eventually he burned out and grew very bitter about it all."

 3) There seems to be mixed accounts as to whether or not Milligan actually made some of his films in England. One individual told us that he did not make any of his films there. Can you somehow confirm if Milligan did/did not make any of his films in England? What evidence or information do you have to suggest that Milligan did indeed film in England? McDonough: Didn't make any films in England?!? You can't be serious. What poppycock. Is this the same "individual" who goes around claiming Andy wasn't homosexual? Bloodthirsty Butchers, The Body Beneath, Nightbirds, The Man with Two Heads, The Rats Are Coming... were all shot in England (parts of Rats were shot on Staten Island). The English estate where Milligan shot Body Beneath and Rats--do you think that's a set? Done with CGI? All the overseas actors--Berwick Kaler, Julie Shaw, Annabella Wood, Dennis DeMarne, so many others--did Andy fly them all to Staten Island? He didn't have enough in the budget to buy the crew coffee! You read the book, right? Reliable witnesses like John Borske and John Miranda are quoted about working with Andy overseas. Andy HIMSELF talks about living and working in England. He made films for an English producer, Leslie Elliot, also quoted in the book. Are they liars? Did I make it all up? What would be the point of such a conspiracy, anyway?"

4) What are your thoughts as to whether or not Milligan will ever achieve the cult status of someone like Ed Wood? Could Milligan ever achieve the same status as Wood, and could you envision Hollywood ever making a big budget film of his life, like Tim Burton did of Ed Wood? If Milligan will never achieve the status of Ed Wood, why is this? 

McDonough: There was a certain innocence about Ed Wood (however angora-swathed) Milligan never had. Andy comes from a grimier, more recent time. He kind of picks up where Wood left off. Every week I get more and more mail about Andy. So something is happening, however tiny. Much to my amusement, there has been talk of a film of The Ghastly One, but I don't see how that particular environment could ever be replicated. Maybe in England. Don't tell anybody!"

 5). In your own view, what is it specifically that makes Milligan films so sought after by cult film fans? What is his appeal to you as a writer?

McDonough: You know how there are these utterly obscure 45s that record fanatics savor? Some nobody--let's call him Herman--cuts a few great records at midnight in the back of a radio station and only 500 copies slip out to the world. Herman doesn't make a dime, works his entire life as a high school custodian, then dies of cirrosis of the liver at his Mom's house. Twenty years later he has a fan club in Sweden and the French are writing books about him. Suddenly Herman's got a cult! It may only be twenty-six people, but they're willing to die for the guy. Why? Who knows. Something in what Herman did struck a chord within these few. And if one person catches the virus, it's a given somebody else will get it, too. That's one of the few things that makes life bearable: sharing a movie or a book or a song with another person. Suddenly you're not alone. Everything's so homogenized these days, it's like it all comes out of the same fast-food vat. Movies are so slick, TV is all the same reality show, the radio's filled with songs that have been AutoTuned free of emotion. There's no use crying about it, that's just the way things work. The Model T turns into the PT Cruiser. You can't escape it. Andy is a refreshing antidote to all that. His is a timeless world, a dirty aquarium swimming with threadbare thespians in outlandish costumery, all of them ranting and raving the Milligan world view. Within seconds you know where you are, and it isn't pretty. There's something so original, so crackpot about the vision. For better and for worse, there's nothing remotely like it. Andy's movies are looking better and better as the years go by. I think I was too hard on his films in the book. That's the only thing I regret about The Ghastly One. What appeals to me most of all is that Milligan did it against all odds. People laughed at him, told him he was no good. He kept right on going. Make no mistake, Andy was an artist. You may think his art is something that should be scraped off the bottom of your shoe, but he was a true artist until the bitter end. One of the many reasons I admired him."

 6) Milligan is noted for his "swirl technique" in early films, as well as long shots and facial closeups. Is this all due to the limitations and weight advantages, of an Auricon, or did he have his own style techniques that he deliberately used?

McDonough: "I think it was a combination plate. Andy couldn't be bothered by technical things, even the simplest adjustments that would've made his films a thousand times more bearable. The guy had no patience. Try to show him a different way of doing anything and he went berserk. Yes, he was affected by the limitations of his equipment, but primarily he was driven by emotions that way were beyond his control. Andy was a walking, talking 'swirl camera.' So that seeped out of his fingers and through the 16mm Auricon. His 35mm pictures are more earthbound. You couldn't 'swirl' that tank."

7) I was watching Tom Vazzo on a GURU DVD extra talking about working with Milligan's later films. He has little nice to say about Milligan's film-making. You were there for a couple of films. I'd like you to relate some positives of Milligan's skills that showed up even in a film such as Monstrosity?

McDonough: "You can't judge Andy by Hollywood (or even 'Independent Filmmaker') standards. He existed in a creepy little snowglobe all his own. Milligan made pictures for no money. NO MONEY. Anybody who's worked in the film business knows how hard it is to make a movie, particularly if you're a one man band like Milligan. There was something heroic in the way he did it. And he swept you up in the enthusiasm. It was the best fun ever. I wish you could've been there. I worked on big budget Hollywood pictures and it was a total bore. With Andy it was always total lunacy. Whenever I get together with Charlie Beesley, my primary cohort from those days, we end up doing impressions of Andy--or his much-beloved 'script girl' Frank Echols, who was always rolling his eyes at whatever atrocious faux pas Milligan had just committed. Honestly, I think of those times and I laugh out loud. Some of the happiest days of my life, working for Andy.

8) In The Ghastly One, you describe Milligan as an ill-tempered misanthrope capable of tantrums and vilifications, yet your affection for the man comes through in a genuine manner. Explain this paradox. How could someone who pushed so many people away from him be so well liked by you and others?

McDonough: Explain? I don't think I can. My job as biographer is to evoke, not explain. Cantankerous, complex characters deserve friends, too. I've spent my life around them, and apparently I am one. Andy could be screaming about shooting drag queens one minute and then turn around and do something so kind and gentle you'd do a double-take. Not many people saw this side of him, but it was there. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Andy. I still wear the cowboy boots he gave me. I still have the cowboy shirts he made for me. And they still reek of his scent, which, I must tell you, is quite unforgettable. Eau d' Milligan!" 

9) Why were Milligan and other grindhouse filmmakers so easily manipulated and exploited by people such as the Mishkins, etc. Did they have any legal recourses they could have used?

McDonough: "I think a loaded gun would've worked much better. Those days were like the wild west. A handful of people held the power on 42nd Street. They controlled what played there. You wanted to play your pitiful little picture there, fine, but bend over first. A handful of distributors were savvy enough to swim in this shark tank and William Mishkin was one of them. He was the filter between Andy and the powers that be. Once Milligan lost Mishkin, it was really over for him. No way was he going to deal with somebody like Bingo Brandt and emerge without his feathers. I have a lot of respect for William Mishkin. Did he treat Andy as good as he could've? Probably not. But they made a lot of pictures together. And those lurid campaigns we all love came from Bill's feverish mind, nowhere else. In terms of exploitations campaigns the guy was a genius. I love the posters and pressbooks for Milligan's pictures as much as the movies themselves. I have a lot of respect for William Mishkin. Did he treat Andy as good as he could've? Probably not. But they made a lot of pictures together. And those lurid campaigns we all love came from Bill's feverish mind, nowhere else. In terms of exploitations campaigns the guy was a genius. I love the posters and pressbooks for Milligan's pictures as much as the movies themselves."

10) Do you think any "lost" Milligan films, such as The Naked Witch and "The Degenerates," might have prints that are still lurking out there somewhere?

McDonough: "You never know. I think I might've just located a 16mm reel that I believe is from "Depraved."

Last question: If you have any box office information on Milligan's films, we'd love to share that info on the blog. Also, any chance of a release of Nightbirds some day? (It took us a long time to find Torture Dungeon, Blood and Legacy of Horror, and I'm not sure the last two were worth it!

McDonough: "(I'm) happy that my collection of Milligan films now resides with the noted Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and he plans on releasing them on DVD. Mr. Refn is just the man for the job. He loves all things Milligan and I know he'll do a great job with it all. A huge relief, that." Editor's Note: "Nightbirds" was released in 2012 by BFI DVD's Flip Side label with "The Body Beneath" and extras.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Andy Griffith Show Christmas episode

Here's another recap/review of a great Andy Griffith Show episode. 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-examining Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!
Other amusing parts are Andy teasing Barney for being called "Barney Parney Poo" by his sweetheart, Hilda May, in a card, and a skinny Barney, with a bad white beard, playing Santa Claus.
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, December 17, 2012

Sir Seymour Hicks as '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.

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Evil – Ol’ Saint Nick Is Not So Jolly After All

By Steve D. Stones

The title Christmas Evil is not a judgment on Christmas itself, but more of an analysis of the main character Harry Stadling who witnesses his mother making out with Santa on Christmas Eve in 1947. Apparently even Santa can’t resist curvaceous cuties, even on Christmas Eve. Harry grows up to work in a toy factory and becomes obsessed with all things Christmas. His obsession is an attempt to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in his heart, despite his mother shattering his image of Christmas as a young boy.

Harry takes his job seriously at Jolly Dream Toy Company. He works hard to perfect quality toys manufactured by the company. Although he is promoted as a supervisor at the company, his dedication leads him to clock in overtime on the assembly line for a worker who calls in sick. He wants to make sure the company makes their toy quota just in time for Christmas. After his overtime shift, he sees the man whose shift he covered drinking at a local bar. This greatly upsets him.

In his spare time, Harry spies on local children and their parents and keeps a record book of naughty and nice children, just like the real Santa would. In his own mind, he is Santa Claus. He witnesses one male child looking at an issue of Penthouse magazine, and writes him up in his naughty book.

Deep down, Harry is a sexually repressed and emotionally unstable middle-aged man who cannot connect well with other human beings, living a life of isolation and depravity. His family members even begin to worry about him. He uses the character of Santa Claus as a way to try and connect with others, but his obsession leads him to murder adults on Christmas Eve. He transforms himself into Santa, and shows up at parties to give children gifts. He even climbs down chimneys while covering his Santa costume in chimney dust.

Harry stabs three worshippers leaving a church service after they tease him about being dressed in a Santa suit. In a scene reminiscent of the classic 1931 Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, locals take up torches and chase after Harry when they learn he is responsible for a number of local murders.

Christmas Evil was marketed under two other titles when it was released in 1980. It also appeared as Terror In Toyland and You Better Watch Out! The folks at Troma Studios sell a print of the film as Christmas Evil. Brentwood Home Video also released Christmas Evil in a four pack DVD set in 2001 with three other horror classics – House On The Edge of The Park, Messiah of Evil, and Deep Red – The Hatchet Murders. The former title is a film directed by Italian suspense master Dario Argento.

In comparison to other Christmas horror films, Christmas Evil is relatively well made and develops an interesting story line. Those who feel the subject of Christmas and Santa to be too sacred need not view this film. Other films in this genre include – Black Christmas (1974), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Santa Claws (1996), and Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) among many others.

Happy Holiday Season to you and Happy Viewing!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Andy Milligan's 'Vapors' a fascinating pre-Stonewall gay short

By Doug Gibson

Vapors is a fascinating pre-Stonewall era short film that portrays the gay lifestyle of that era in neutral, and even positive story-telling. The 32-minute black and white film was shot by Andy Milligan, the late cult gay filmmaker who would later make a string micro-budget gutter horror films unique enough to garner cult status.

Vapors may be Milligan’s best film, although “Fleshpot on 42nd Street” is a strong contender. The film takes place in a bathhouse of that era in NYC, it’s meant to be the St. Marks bathhouse (exteriors are shot there, and towels from that establishment are used in the film. Interiors, which are quite realistic, were shot near Milligan’s apartment in NYC. A gay young man, played by Gerry Jacuzzo, who would become a Milligan troupe actor, arrives at the bathhouse. He, Thomas, enters a room and awaits male companionship. An older man, Mr. Jaffe, played by Cino Café director Bob Dadah, enters and the two begin a conversation. Sex is never mentioned but the chat is intimate; much of this is due to Jacuzzo’s performance, which is Oscar quality. He maintains eye and hand contact with Mr. Jaffe and makes an effort to understand this interesting man.

Dadah is very good too as a repressed homosexual, married, and making his first trip to a bathhouse. It becomes apparent soon that he’s looking for someone to talk to, about his dissatisfaction with his wife and his grief over his son’s death. During the conversation, Mr. Jaffe, played well by Dadah, asks to touch Thomas’ skin. The caress is tender. The conversation has turned to Mr. Jaffe’s dead son, and Thomas seems to be a surrogate, a chance for a grieving father to caress a child once again.

Although no sex occurs between these two, their conversation is more intimate than intercourse.
Also in the movie are various “queens,” frequent, ubiquitous frequenters of St. Mark’s that move in and out of the action. Usually grouped together, they serve as a Shakespearian choir, updating the audience about life in the bathhouse and the culture of frequent, anonymous homosexual sex.

This was filmed almost 20 years before the AIDS virus struck. It’s a time capsule of a movie. Watching the lives of quiet and extrovert desperation, one understands how unfair it was that those who desired same-sex companionship were forced into the dysfunctional, seedy world of St. Mark’s and other locations. As Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough has published, Milligan was a frequent participant in the life of frequent anonymous sexual encounters with men in sticky locations, from bathhouses to flophouses to 42nd Street theaters. He died of AIDS, as did many of his contemporaries.

The film was written by Hope Stansbury, a Milligan actress. It is at times a corny victim of its era. The queens, the best acting is by another Milligan actor, Hal Borske, are stereotypical and might be considered bigoted today. Dadah’s complaints of his wife’s cold cream, ugly feet and bunions are juvenile. But it all works, largely due to Jacuzzo’s sensitive, intense performance.

The last scene has Thomas, alone, asking a man to come in his room. The man drops his St. Mark’s bathrobe. In the original film release, it focuses on the visitor’s penis. That caused police raids in its time. The Something Weird folks, who rescued the film from oblivion, have a print that does a sketchy job of blocking the penis. Vapors, which deserves more notice, is an extra on SW’s DVD of another Milligan film, The Body Beneath; its trailer is also included. It is also in a SW compilation of gay films of that era.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hatchet For The Honeymoon – Bava’s 1970 Horror Feature

By Steve D. Stones

After Italian director Mario Bava created his horror masterpiece in 1960 – Black Sunday, he was never really able to create another horror film equal to the suspenseful elements of that one. Many die-hard Bava fans may disagree with this analysis, but critics over the years have identified Black Sunday as his greatest work.  His 1970 film – Hatchet For The Honeymoon, is a study in Bava’s fluid visual style that is a trademark exhibited in many of his films. A rapid zooming in quickly on characters during key scenes is a style Bava continues with in this film.

A young wedding dress designer named John wants to get a divorce from his wife but she refuses to agree on their separation, even though she too is bored with their marriage. In a secret room, the designer keeps mannequins with wedding dresses, and occasionally wears a dress himself. One of his dress models informs him that she cannot work for him any longer because she is getting married. He asks her to stay after work one evening when all the other models have gone home so he can let her choose a wedding dress as a gift. After she chooses a dress and puts it on for him, John murders her in the secret room and burns her body in an incinerator.

For much of the film’s screen time, John murders and hacks up brides on their wedding night. This is likely because of his frustrations in not being able to get a divorce from his wife. In an opening sequence, he kills a couple on their wedding night on a train. The reflection of John’s boyhood image is seen on the door leading to the couple’s train room. Apparently, John witnessed the killing of his mother when he was a boy. This may also have something to do with his murderous tendencies.

John eventually kills his wife while dressed in a wedding veil as the local police try beating down his door. At the time of his wife’s murder, director Bava’s film Black Sabbath is seen playing on a TV set in the couple’s living room. When the police are let into the home, John explains that the screaming the men heard was from a scene playing on the TV set from the film.  One of the detectives later discovers that the scene playing on the TV at that moment did not have screaming involved in the scene.

After his wife’s murder, John’s friends are able to see the spirit of his wife sitting next to him at public places, but he is unaware of this. Eventually the police take him away in a police truck, and he is able to see the spirit of his wife in the truck. She mentally tortures him on the way to the police station, driving him to complete insanity.

Actor Stephen Forsyth, who plays the murdering dress designer, looks very similar to another Bava actor – John Phillip Law from Bava’s 1968 film – Danger Diabolik. Despite the title of Hatchet For The Honeymoon, the murder weapon is not a hatchet. A meat cleaver is used to kill victims. Next up was Bava’s 1972 horror feature – Baron of Blood starring the aging Joseph Cotton. See Baron of Blood and Hatchet For The Honeymoon together. Happy viewing!

Monday, December 10, 2012

A trio of Ray Dennis Steckler films

By Doug Gibson

I watched three Ray Dennis Steckler films over the weekend: "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living," "Rat Pfink a Boo Boo," and the 30-minute version of "The Lemon Grove Kids." Steckler's been dead a few years. He was fortunate enough to gain some cult fame while alive. Like a lot of cult figures, Steckler gained some notice early in his career, lost steam after that, and moved into adult films in the later stages of his career. He eventually bought a couple of video stores in Las Vegas. As his cult status grew, he enjoyed acclaim as one of the truly nice guys in the film netherworld. His films were sold widely, particularly on Sinister Cinema.

We'll post our previous reviews of "Incredibly Strange Creatures ..." and ""Rat Pfink ..." below but I want to waste some space on "The Lemon Grove Kids." It's Steckler's tribute to the Bowery Boys and he does an on-target impersonation of Huntz Hall. It was so good that Hall threatened to sue the man who idolized him, Steckler. As a film, "Lemon Grove" is a patchwork, advanced home movie of disconnected shots and many actors mugging for the camera. The film I'm reviewing starts with the Lemon Grove kids wanting to protect a teenage girl from a semi-hood and bizarrely ends with a foot race to settle a gang war. It's funny as heck, with real actors, such as Steckler, Carolyn Brandt and Coleman Francis mixed in with the amateurs, Steckler's extended family and friends. I love noise effects that punctuate some of the antics of the cast. It's appropriately bizarre to see sunny California as the background to Steckler's version of the Bowery Boys.

One great highlight of Steckler's films, these three included, is observing Southern California in the 1960s. For anyone who was aroun in those times, it's a nostalgia fest. I particularly love the shots of the old long-gone Pike amusement park in Long Beach from "Incredibly Strange Creatures ..." and the mixture of sneak and staged shots from a real parade in "Rat Pfink ..." All three films also have great shots of the California shore.

So, here's reviews for the above-mentioned films:


Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 1963, director Ray Dennis Steckler, Starring Cash Flagg (Steckler), Carolyn Brandt. Color, 82 minutes. (Also know as The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.) Schlock-meter rating: 6 stars out of 10.
By Doug Gibson

I'll say this much: Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is a GREAT title. And for that the late director/star Steckler gets three stars right off the bat. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is very confusing, and only the carnival scenes somewhat save this semi-bore, and very non-scary, monster musical with strippers who are very clothed. 

A word about the carnival. It looks a lot like the old Pike in Long Beach, Calif., a wonderful amusement place by the beach that was torn down more than 25 years ago. If any web surfers reading this can verify this, I d love to know.

The plot is very tangled and poorly developed, but here goes. An ugly gypsy fortune teller (who looks a lot like a tired Liz Taylor with a big mole) turns a bunch of hapless fortune seekers into scarred, drugged-out zombies who have an urge to kill. (Why do zombies always have an urge to kill in films? by the way.) No reason is ever given as to why the gypsy wants these zombies around. One night free spirit, cool young guy (Steckler), who looks a bit like a homely Nicholas Cage, goes to the carnival with his rich-girl lady. They have a spat when he eyes a comely dancer, and she stalks off.

Steckler goes after the dancer, and falls into the clutches of the evil fortune teller. He spends the rest of the film wandering around in a daze, occasionally killing and once trying to kill his girl. Later the zombies revolt and wreck havoc around the carnival. Steckler is pursued to the beach, where he meets his fate. Steckler is nota bad actor. He later was very good in a private eye flick he directed, Super Cool. He also made some great C films, including the spoofs Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids series, as well as genuinly nervy psycho killer film called The Thrill Killers.

But this film is too undisciplined to take seriously. Several times scenes don't seem to mesh with the plot and often there is no explanation for why anything is occurring. The viewer is never told how the evil gypsy controls minds. She mumbles in dreams and we see a bad imitation of the Twilight Zone spiral (was this film shot originally in 3D?). In theaters ushers were forced to dress up like zombies and run through the theaters. Steckler's then-wife, Carolyn Brandt, who often starred in his films, plays a sexy carny dancer.

It was advertised as a monster musical and as a result, we're forced to watch a lot of bad singing and dancing. The acting is overall poor. The best part of the film is the weird carny world where so much of the action occurs. The film captures the seedy side of small-time carnival life a generation ago. Unfortunately, the limitations of the filmmakers and likely, a very tiny budget, produce what s mostly a talky bore. But still a great title! I must mention that Steckler, in interviews I have read and watched, seems like a good guy, modest and candid. Other titles for this film included "Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary." This is the film Steckler is best known for, even if it's not his best. Try "Body Fever" or "The Thrill Killers." It's fun to see Steckler acting in the film. He was a fine thespian. The film was also spoofed in MST3K.


By Steve D. Stones

Low budget director Ray Dennis Steckler is best known for creating the first so-called “monster musical” – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living & Became Mixed Up Zombies (AKA Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary). Like most of Steckler’s films, he cast his wife Carolyn Brandt in a leading role in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (AKA The Adventures of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo).

As campy as the title may be, the person who created the opening titles for the film forgot to put a letter N and D after the letter A so that the title would read: Rat Pfink And Boo Boo. To further complicate matters, a letter P was placed in front of the word Fink, likely to not confuse the Rat Fink character in this film with the famous Rat Fink character created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s. Confused yet? Perhaps this was Steckler’s way of avoiding copyright infringements?

A group of hoodlums is constantly harassing Ceebee Beaumont by calling her on the telephone. Ceebee is the beautiful girlfriend of rising rock singer and teenage heartthrob Lonnie Lord, played by Vin Saxon (AKA Ron Haydock). The group follows and kidnaps Ceebee, played by Steckler’s wife at the time – Carolyn Brandt, and demands a ransom of $50,000.00 from Lonnie.

Lonnie and his gardener, played by Titus Moede, thrust into action by dressing up in costumes similar to Batman & Robin, but instead they wear ski masks. They call themselves Rat Pfink & Boo Boo, in case you haven’t guessed by now. The two catch up with the hoodlums and save the day by rescuing the girl and avoiding a confrontation with a giant ape named Kogar.

Various interesting scenes in the film use colored filters over the black and white photography, such as an opening night sequence in blue of the hoodlums attacking a young woman to steal her purse. Other scenes use a red filter over the black and white.

The DVD and video print of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, sold by Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon has a short introduction by director Steckler. Steckler’s films have gained a strong following in recent years, and have even been featured on Turner Classic Movies, a cable network that screens classic films.

Steckler spent the last few years of his life living in Las Vegas running a video store. He passed away in January of 2009. May his films live on forever for cult movie fans to enjoy for many generations to come!

This link is to a tribute we wrote about Steckler after his death. (Read)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sanders shines again as Simon Templar in 'The Saint Takes Over'

By Doug Gibson

(Long-suffering?) readers of this blog know that I have recently discovered, and become a big fan of, George Sanders' portrayals as Simon Templar in several of the RKO Radio pictures of The Saint movies (late 1930s to early 1940s). TCM aired "The Saint Takes Over" last Saturday (tomorrow I'll be taping Sanders in "The Saint in Palm Springs," also on TCM). Of course, the missus and I watched "... Takes Over" and Sanders was every bit the cool, fashion-conscious "Robin Hood-type," as one cast member put it. Frankly, Sanders reminded my wife and I just a little bit of "Mr. Chapel," the enforcer, played by Michael Madsen, who righted wrongs in the too-short one-season ABC series "Vengeance Unlimited."

But enough babble, on with the review. "The Saint Takes Over" begins with Sanders' Simon Templar taking a cruise across the Atlantic to New York City. On deck he rescues a lovely young lady, played by Wendy Barrie, from card cheats. Her character, Ruth (he doesn't catch her last name) rebuffs his more amorous intentions, however. Coincidentally, later in NYC, the Saint rescues Ruth from some hoods who want to drag her into a car. He also buys her roses.

The Saint is in New York to bail out his feckless but diligent opponent/collaborator nspector Henry Fernack, played as always by Jonathan Hale. It seems the mob not only beat him at trial by killing his star witness, Johnny Summers, they've framed the inspector, sticking $50,000 in his safe.The Saint, Simon Templar, naturally is coming to his rescue.

This movie, while still a lot of fun and well done, is less sharply written. There are fewer plot twists and it's more of a standard Hollywood B tale. That may be because this is a studio-created story, and not based on any Saint tales by his creator/writer, Leslie Charteris. In any event, after a scene where the mobsters who framed Fernack meet and discuss raising the $90,000 it cost to clear case and frame the inspector, they start getting killed one by one. Strangely enough, Fernack, who is trying to clear his name, always seems to be around when a mob guy dies. This amuses the Saint, who teases the inspector at times not only about his probablt culpability, but about his absence of a badge -- he's on suspension. As is the case with most Saint films, there's a former baddie who goes good. In "... Takes Over," it's Clarence "Pearly" Gates, a low0level mug whose employed by one of the mob leaders. Veteran actor Paul Guifoyle does a good job as "Pearly."

The Saint has his own ideas about who might be committing the murders. In what is a rather heavy cinematic clue, he finds part of the roses he sent to Ruth at the scene of one killing. I'm giving away the murderer in this review for two reasons. One, viewers will guess soon that Ruth is the killer, and two, Ruth's fate in the film is directly tied to the Hollywood morality code of the early 1940s. That may be the most fascinating part of the film.

Rith's last name, we discover, is Ruth Summers. You see, she's the slain Johnny Summers' sister, grief-stricken and driven to revenge. As the plot nears its end, Simon Templar, no doubt having guessed all this, conveys an elaborate scheme that will solve the crimes, nail the mobsters for their murder and frame of Fernack, clear Fernack, of course, and absolve Ruth of any consequences for her killings. After all, she's a swell kid -- she even gave the $90,000 she took from the mob to her brother's widow.

Oh well, all goes well except the last part of The Saint's goal. Ruth gets mortally wounded in a gun battle with one of the mobsters. She kills the mobster, but then, with barely a wrinkle, dies in Simon Templar's arms. It seems that no matter how good a reason a young lovely might have for revenge, is she commits murder in a film the Hays Commission would never allow her to live!

Notes: This was Wendy Barrie's second of three appearances in The Saint films. Barrie, who bears a resemblance to Loretta Switt, best known for MASH TV series, played a different character in each film. Morgan Conway, who later played Dick Tracy a couple of times, plays a hood in the film. The 70-minute, 1940 film was directed by Jack Hively.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A review of "John Carradine, The Films"

By Doug Gibson

There is a anecdote, in "John Carradine, The Films," that perfectly sums up the helter-skelter career -- and life -- of the late actor John Carradine, a man who would take virtually any role, so long as the check would cash. As producer-actor Tony Cardoza relates to author Tom Weaver, he and his associate, Coleman Francis, were traveling down the Hollywood Freeway when they noticed Carradine, in a convertible sports car. Coleman, spotting an opportunity, yelled for Carradine's attention, asking him if he'd discuss acting in a movie they were going to shoot.

Carradine suggested they pull over and go to a diner. At the restaurant, a deal -- for $600 advance money -- was hatched and Carradine subsequently had a small part in "Night Train to Mundo Fine," a hideously bad film that bored the few who saw it then, and later was played for laughs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Incredibly, for what I'm sure was a few hundred dollars more, Carradine warbled the film's title song. That placed him in the same schlock legendary status as fellow horror actor, Lon Chaney Jr., who sang the theme song to "Spider Baby." (a much better film)

The year "Night Train ...." was released, Carradine also acted in "Munster Go Home," for big studio Universal, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for a tiny studio, and in "The Emperor's New Clothes," an early Bob Clark film shot in Florida that appears to be lost.

But that was a typical year for Carradine, always short of money, grabbing a few thousand wherever he could but still popular enough to to get cast in the occasional big-studio film. "John Carradine, The Films," from McFarland Press, (here) was published more than a decade ago but it remains the definitive work on the melodramatic hard-drinking thespian who traversed through Hollywood, and many other shooting locations, for almost 60 years. Weaver's book is fantastic, a true labor of love, since the odds are probably slim he's made a lot of money off this extensive research. He provides magazine-quality features and recaps of Carradine's hundreds of films. And he's enough of a sleuth to ferret out information on Carradine's most obscure films, the cheapo westerns ("Cain's Cutthroats," "Five Bloody Graves" ...) that are poor imitations of "The Wild Bunch", the south-of-the-border Mexican thrillers --  including a yet-to-be-marked cult classic with Basil Rathbone -- that have yet to be dubbed into English, and not-released, or plain lost crap, such as "... Emperor's New Clothes."

Carradine merits this attention from Weaver, as well as tribute essays from contributors Joe Dante and Fred Olen Ray, both directors who worked with Carradine, who never retiring, died in 1988 at age 82. Despite the poor quality of many of his films, Carradine's participation, however slight, marks them as films worthy of note. Virtually every director, or other film crew member, that Weaver managed to contact offers only praise for Carradine, his work ethic, as well as his candor, and even bluntness. The elderly actor, battling crippling arthritis and trying to keep a fee of $1,000 a day from the cheap-set independents that always sought him out, would carefully learn his lines, deliver them well, and then leave the film, unaware of the entire plot and likely never seeing the completed film.

As many interviewees relate, while on the set, Carradine would regale actors and crew members with anecdotes and tales of his half-century of experiences as a prominent actor. "Great stories told by a master raconteur," is how Dante put it. Dante, by the way, directed one of the better late films that Carradine acted in, "The Howling." Another great story collected in Weaver's book is how Carradine, spending a few days on the set of "Shock Waves," a slightly above-average 1970s horror tale about zombie Nazis, put himself in danger by allowing five shots of his "dead body" in the ocean to be filmed in a pool. On the fifth take, as Fred Olen Ray relates, Carradine's head collided with a wooden dinghy strategically placed over his body. He was quickly rescued, and Carradine, about 70 at the time, collected his $8,000 check and was off to a new film. One can only repeat -- what a trouper. Years later, Olen Ray noted that Carradine claimed no remembrance of the film.

As the reader may have guessed by now, I find Carradine's later acting years more fascinating. There were fewer big-budget films -- two exceptions were "The Shootist" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" -- but the countless films, with titles such as "Shock Waves" or "Vampire Hookers" or Hillbillys in a Haunted House" or "Beast of the Yellow Night," or "Doctor Dracula" ... and so on, the recaps and memories paint a fascinating portrait of a hard-driven old actor, alone despite his several marriages and well-known actor sons, indefatigably pressing forward, knowing he alone had the power to earn the money needed to pay alimony, feed his body, quench his alcoholic thirst, and find warm places to sleep.

Carradine's acting career began in earnest in 1930, when he lodged a small part in the sound remake of the silent classic "Tolable David." He claims he was tested by Universal for the Frankenstein monster role. Carradine's salad days in Hollywwod were the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he was a contract player for 20th Century Fox. He was in "Stagecoach," "Cleopatra," several well-regarded films about the James boys, played Mormon enforcer Porter Rockwell in the big-budget "Brigham Young," and is perhaps best known for his role as the radical, irascible preacher in the classic "The Grapes of Wrath."

One gets the impression that Carradine would have shucked his career in films on a moment's notice if he could have made it big on the stage. He tried, particularly with his second wife, actress Sonia Sorel, to start acting companies. The legends of Carradine, usually in his cups, quoting Shakespeare on Hollywood streets are true. However, there never was enough money to leave films, and money became more scarce after he was dropped as a contract player. One of his best films, however, "Bluebeard," was filmed at ultra-cheap PRC studios in the mid-1940s. It helped that the director was the great Edgar Ulmer, a friend who was also on the outs with the big studios.

Factor in an ugly divorce, an unwise second marriage, constant carousing with the bottle, and alimony and support problems that led to infrequent jail stays, and Carradine's final 40-plus years were basically a sprint of frequent films that were the means to stay ahead, however precariously, of the many bills he was faced with. In the mid-1940s, Universal flirted with Carradine, using him as Dracula in two monster-fests, but the horror craze died at that time. As mentioned, Carradine would take just about any role offered. In two films, "Voodoo Man" and "The Black Sleep," he's almost hilariously cast against type, playing a moron in the first and a mutated, insane theologian in the latter. No role was too offbeat for this character actor.

As Weaver relates, Carradine's career was so significant because some of his performances are iconic. He can be the eccentric preacher, later mixing this persona with a western bounty hunter role. He was Dracula, with an interpretation that is still debated against Bela Lugosi's. He was a mad scientist in several productions -- usually with Jerry Warren and other cheapo producers -- with the fill-in movie role of narrator/scientist, usually spouting scientific babble to pad up chopped-up older films.

Film historian Gregory Mank provides a 50-plus page small biography of Carradine. It's fascinating, with much of its focus on the actor's dysfunctional personal life, his wives and his relationship with his children. The biography, as well as Weaver's research, leaves many questions about Carradine's relationships with his wives, his sons, as well as his agents. In fact, as good as Weaver's book is, and it is a must-read for film fans, it underscores the need for a serious, in-depth scholarly biography of John Carradine. He needs what Bela Lugosi has -- a biographer with the talents of an Arthur Lennig to probe his interesting life.

End Notes: According to Weaver, Carradine liked to call "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula" his worst film. It wasn't. My guess is he was struck by the ridiculous title, and plot. In later years, Carradine was fond of telling people that he had long forgot about some of the films he had been in. No doubt most of those were of the level of his Al Adamson, Jerry Warren films. Late in his career/life, director Olen Ray took advantage of a day shooting Carradine to film scenes that were intended for several films. As a result, some of Carradine's "films" were released after his death. Some of my favorite Carradine films, besides "Grapes of Wrath" and "Bluebird," are "The Unearthly," for his mad scientist role, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for his sheer hamminess, "The Wizard of Mars,' for its sheer lunacy and Carradine as the "Wizard," and "Cain's Cutthroats," an otherwise nasty low-budget revenge western where Carradine tears up the scenery as a Bible-quoting preacher/bounty hunter who collects his criminals heads as evidence he got them. If respect Weaver a lot and appreciate his work in film history and criticism. If I have one minor quibble with him, it's that Weaver often looks at cult films and/or low-budget films with a conventional critic's eye. As my co-blogger Steve D. Stones says, many of these films are malformed little puppies with a curious charm that one needs to watch often enough to love. The harsh criticism of a good Universal film, "House of Dracula," is a tad disconcerting, and even the grime heaped on a films such as "The Wizard of Mars" seems unfair. After all, Carradine is dealing with American General Films here, one step below even PRC and Banner Films of the 1940s. I recall something I once read in the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine, where Lugosi's Monogram efforts were compared to "Michelangelo working with a crayon." With that mindset, the films can become very rewarding and the same applies to Carradine, even if he's Dracula battling Billy the Kid.