Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Dragons, the wackiest Bela Lugosi Monogram film!

Editor's note: I watched Black Dragons last Saturday for likely the seventh or eighth time and loved it so much, as always, that I resolved to write a review. I went to Plan9Crunch and, lo and behold, learned I penned a review three-plus years ago. OK, so many reviews; hard for this 50-year-old brain to recall them all. So, I will re-post it but reserve the right to add more observations, which I have (in black). -- Doug Gibson

Black Dragons is probably Bela Lugosi's oddest C-movie cheapie, and let's face it, the competition is fierce. But, oh, how I love these old '40s gems. It's a Monogram film, made under its Banner Productions. I'm sure it played in LA and NYC street theaters and smaller cities and towns, perhaps paired with an East Side Kids flick?

But I digress: Black Dragons, 1942, directed by William Nigh, runs 69 B&W minutes and stars Lugosi as Dr. Melcher and Monsieur Colomb. He's a sinister guy who pops up just as a bunch of American industrialists are getting mysteriously bumped off. There is also pretty Joan Barclay as the niece of a Dr. Saunders (Robert Frazer), who is all mixed up in whatever is going on. It's also fun to see future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as an FBI agent.

Now, we have mysterious deaths, we have Lugosi. It's all set to be a horror, right ... ahem, no. This is 1942, the U.S. is at war with the Axis, and Monogram head honcho Sam Katzman saw money to be made by creating a combination thriller/WW2 propaganda anti-Japanese film. So that's what Black Dragons is, and it makes the film an interesting historical curio piece. One has to appreciate Katzman's ability to mix patriotism with a quick buck! He had this film in the can and ready for theaters by late spring 1942. The film ends with a banner headline, "Jap spy ring smashed!" and a fade out of Old Glory, the American flag.

You see, these U.S. industrialists are Japanese spies, created through plastic surgery to look like the American industrialists. Lugosi was the Nazi surgeon who did all this in Japan ... and then was doublecrossed and thrown in prison. Somehow -- the film sort of glosses over this -- Lugosi escaped Japan and headed to the U.S. to get his revenge on the spies. The plot is delightfully bizarre. Lugosi not only conducts plastic surgery on the Japanese agents, he lightens their skin and provides them accents, as well as hair and body shapes. All the industrialists who are now having doubles were killed off sans anyone knowing, even their families! Once Lugosi's character is tossed into a Japanese cell, which appears to be all stone, he somehow is able to conduct perfect plastic surgery -- from his bag -- on another prisoner!

As I mentioned, I love these time-capsule films. Monogram was famous for its bizarre intricate plots that its ultra-low budgets just could never keep up with. They dissolve into fun nonsensical action. Lugosi is Lugosi in this film. He's wonderful, whether he's coyly flirting with starlet Barclay or cleverly and calmly dispatching his victims. And there's also that wonderful, ubiquitous menacing, Monogram music. As Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig notes, this was the last film in which Lugosi (in his early 60s) was considered attractive to a young lovely. Barclay does flirt rather unabashedly with Bela. Also, Robert Frazer, who co-starred with Lugosi in the classic "White Zombie," is in this film.

The boom of video and DVD plus public domain has made Black Dragons, once rather obscure, easy to find. It's often in the $1 DVD bin at Wal-Mart or in the 20- to 50-set public domain offerings. Those with broadband Internet can watch it free on the Net. Buy it and enjoy an hour-plus diversion into a different filmmaking existence. I love the opening sequence, where fat, bloated and old Washington pols, lobbyists and businessmen are partying with lots of liquor, cigars and blonde babes. Some things never change.

-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Flying Serpent: PRC wackiness with George Zucco

By Doug Gibson

Listen, I'm a big George Zucco fan, I love the old Producers Releasing Corporation 40s C-movies but the 1946 The Flying Serpent is not one of the better offerings. Zucco plays a mad archaeologist who uses a live big flying creature to kill his enemies. The "flying serpent" is a stiff stage prop and if you look hard you can see the strings.

Naturally, Zucco gets it in the end from his dangerous bird. In theme the film is very similar to the far superior 1940 PRC release The Devil Bat, starring Bela Lugosi. There's a big killer controlled by a bitter man of science. An investigative journalist helps solve the crime and protects a young lovely. Also, the music is the same as Devil Bat, and a lot of other C-films of that era, and the film uses "banner headlines" like Devil Bat and others to bridge the plot. There's comic bits to relieve the "tension."

But while that plot worked in Devil Bat it doesn't work here. The scenes with the crusading radio reporter (Ralph Lewis) are very dull and slow down the main action of Zucco getting revenge. By contrast, crusading newspaper reporter Dave O'Brien is outstanding combating Lugosi in Devil Bat. Flying Serpent is a tight, very low budget film that runs 59 minutes. The ending is pretty cool, and lifts the film a bit. It was directed by Sam Newfield and also starred Mary Forbes.

It's worth watching -- anything with George Zucco is but it's not up to par with other PRC offerings such as Devil Bat and Strangler of the Swamp.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bela Lugosi and The Ape Man -- a low-budget cheapie, but we love it!

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.

Review by Doug Gibson

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. Turner Classic Movies airs a pristine print of the film occasionally, but watch a version above!.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Corrective surgery on invisible faces -- Surgikill and Lords of Magick

This essay is by one of our favorite Plan9Crunch contributors, director and screenwriter Sherman Hirsh, who penned both the Andy Milligan film, "Surgikill" and the 1980s adventure fantasy, "Lords of Magick." Both are reviewed on this blog and Sherman has provided his recollections of these films. In the following essay, he describes some re-editing he has done on both films, as a personal project. It's interesting to read about the private, definitely not for sale, edited versions. So here we go, enjoy readers! Above is co-blogger Steve D. Stones' art work on Surgikill.



I was interested to learn recently that NIGHT BIRDS, one of Andy Milligan’s formerly lost films has been recovered.   This was significant to me because I was associated with another of Andy’s lost films, SURGIKILL.  Somehow, in the early ‘90’s,  word spread that Andy had made SURGIKILL, but no one knew where it was and assumed it was just lost.  Except that it wasn’t really lost.  It was being held for ransom.

Even though SURGIKILL was shot in 1988, it never saw light of day until 2000.  There was a contractual dispute between the Van Harlingens and a representative of certain investors.  This guy was a total pain throughout the production and I blame him for all of SURGIKILL’S major problems. He couldn’t keep his hands off, and was constantly interfering.  He was so nasty,  Andy almost got into a fistfight with him, because the guy thought he was a better director than Andy Milligan.  This was the guy who wanted to take out all the Horror elements and rename the film SCREWBALL HOSPITAL.  That title almost stuck.  When I was redoing the titles, I found ONE FRAME of the title, SCREWBALL HOSPITAL left from an earlier edit. 

Anyway, the film ended up rotting in a garage in Beverly Hills for more than a decade, until the VanH’s settled with him, which is why SURGIKILL was for a time, one of Andy’s lost films.  Andy was once quoted as saying that someday all shooting would be on Video.  He was right, and I was able to use technology that didn’t exist when Andy was producing to slightly improve his last film. 

A couple of years ago, I remastered  SURGIKILL for its DVD release.   This consisted mostly of redoing the titles, putting one of those dreaded FBI Copyright warnings on the beginning, and designing new box art.  While I was doing this, I got the idea of seeing if I could improve it.  I had no plan. I just started at the beginning and  fooled around with anything I thought needed fixing.  This consisted mostly of putting in sound effects where they had been omitted, and adding dissolves between scenes where the transitions  were too abrupt.

Then I decided to see if I could dress up the whole film, and erase some of the sloppy parts that were not Andy’s doing.  If you are familiar with the history of Surgikill, most  of which is chronicled in Plan9Crunch, you know that  it was “improved” by individuals with more money than film sense.  They waited until Andy’s contract had expired and put in that insipid ending and a load of crude gags that had nothing to do with the story.   As I was analyzing the film for stuff to futz with, I realized that Andy had shot the first part of the film with reasonable faithfulness to my script.  He made some changes to character names I didn’t like, but the changes he made were,  ultimately, no more than any director makes to a script to make it work in its circumstances.  The deeper you get into the film, the more the Stupid creeps in.   Nothing much I could do about that, but I could at least make it look a little better.

All I could really do was slap a few bandaids on it.  I found a reverb setting in my editing software for “HOSPITAL HALLWAY”, and applied it to all the PA announcements made by Nurse Rached, a touch that made those scenes a little stronger.   When the crepitant Mrs. Gross let loose her intestinal pollution, in addition to the existing fart sound, I filled the shot with a nasty green fog, which was funny because the characters didn’t notice it,  as if it is what always happened.   During her surgery, when her gaseous guts are detonated, I always thought the explosion was wimpy.  A louder explosion sound and a re-edit of the explosion itself gave the scene the guts it needed, in addition to the cow guts used for props.

There is a scene I really, really hate.  Someone (guess who) got the idiotic idea of hiring an Oliver Hardy look-alike to play an undertaker named BuryMore.  He looked like Ollie all right, but he was THE WORST ACTOR I EVER SAW IN A FILM!  He mumbles out a stream of stupid banal one-liners, in a really boring mumbled monotone.  I wanted to just jerk the scene, but instead, I rendered the scene in Black& White and made it grainy, like an old movie.  I filtered the sound to make it sound like an old movie, too.  Better, but still not good.

Various places had weak sound effects or no sound effects at all.  Somebody gets hit on the head with a  bedpan, you want a satisfying CLUNK.  There were a few points I could punch up like that.  Basically, that’s all I was able to do.  I gave a copy to John and Darlene ( Bouvier ) Van Harlingen, who own SURGIKILL. They  liked the new version, but never did anything with it.  When SURGIKILL had its world theatrical premiere in Long Beach, it was the regular, normal version that got screened.   So, my version exists as a file on my computer and a few bootleg copies I slipped to my friends.    Legalities being what they are, it will probably stay that way.


I’m assuming you’ve seen LORDS OF MAGICK.   If you haven’t, you can always pick up a 20 year old retired rental copy on eBay.  Not only is there no DVD of LORDS OF MAGICK,  there was never any sale of copies to the public.  It was only sold to video rental stores and the original price was $86.00!  Or you can watch the whole thing on YouTube for free.

There are two major complaints I have against LORDS OF MAGICK.  The first is that idiotic prologue.  It talks about a contest to find the Lord of Magick, when there is absolutely no shred of that in the story. David put it in just because he liked it.  He did that a lot.  That whole pointless scene of the Princess and the Pea was just one of David Marsh’s whim.   Anyway, when I made my re-edit, that prologue was the first thing to go.

The second is the overall tone of the film.  People talk about how amateurish LOM is.  One of the reasons for this is that David had no feel for the genre.  He just didn’t understand Fantasy, and he had a little trouble staging the comedy, too.  He tried to play LOM as an Urban Action Film.  That doesn’t work.   It’s the old “square peg in a round hole” situation.  Parts just don’t fit together.

The first major evidence of this is the opening scene of Salatin abducting the Princess.  It comes first in the story, making Salatin the most important character.   Also, setting up the crime before you introduce the hero is a common tactic in Urban Action films.   If you open on a high action point, everything after that is a letdown.  It’s better to build to a peak.  This movie isn’t about Salatin. It’s about the Redglen Brothers fighting Salatin, and they should come first.  So, I excised the abduction scene and moved it to  the  point in the story when the King explains the problem to the brothers, as it had been written in the script.  Instead of opening on a violent nasty incident, we introduce the brothers chatting as they head to the local tavern.  We see them in their natural habitat, a thousand years ago, enjoying the world they live in, then we propel them into the weird mean world of the 20th Century.

With the two main problems neutralized, I could now move on the assorted minor boo-boos.  The first day of shooting was the first 1986 scene on Hollywood Boulevard.  There is a part where Ulric Redglen, the Bad Boy of Good Magic,  pulls his sword and chases a kid who makes the mistake of turning on his Boom Box and startling Ulric.  Except that the music that was supposed to scare Ulric was never added to the sound track, so we don’t know why Ulric chases the kid.  One viewer on YouTube called the scene racist.  This viewer thought Ulric chased the kid because he was Black,  because the music was missing.  I added the music.

An earlier 986AD scene had the boys doing a little necromancy to get info on how to bag Salatin.  They wake up a hanging corpse and use it to invoke some  ”OLD ONE”.  I didn’t think the stiff sounded ominous enough, so I isolated the dead guy’s lines and shifted the pitch and added a little distortion and reverb and synced that to the production sound track, giving the OLD ONE a little more menace.  The corpse was hanging by his wrists, rather than by the neck, which is what we really wanted to see, and I thought that was kind of bland.  I added a mysterious glow around the dead guy’s head to give it a little more visual magic. 

Other than that, and a few dissolves to smooth out the story, that was all I could do  for LOM. 

I wish you could see the smoothed out versions of SURGIKILL and LORDS OF MAGICK, but copyright laws being what they are, that’s not likely.  You’ll just have to watch them as they are and dream, as I did for a quarter century, how they could have been.

Here are some links to some of Sherman's previous essays for Plan9Crunch:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Homicidal is William Castle's version of Psycho

By Doug Gibson

The late-great William Castle was a master showman, and he made some great thrillers. In homage to his showmanship, I offer this trailer that starred Castle more than the film. I personally tag "Homicidal," 1961, as his second-scariest offering, second only to "The Tingler."

As most readers of this blog already know, "Homicidal" was Castle's version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." "Homicidal" as a lot of scary scenes, similar in content to the movies such as "Drag Me to Hell" or the "Insidious" series. However, one of Castle's trademarks was to keep his tongue firmly entrenched in his cheek during his movies. As a result, "Homicidal" never approaches the intensity and suspense of "Psycho." How could it with gimmicks such as a clock materializing on the screen and giving "faint-hearted" patrons 45 seconds to leave the theater before the terrifying conclusion!

The plot is standard Castle -- a dysfunctional family gathered together (the setting is Solvang, Calif.) prior to a settlement in which a young man, the mildly repulsive, clean shaven, prissy-voiced Warren, is set to inherit a fortune. He has a disturbed, beautiful friend, Emily, who culminates a long prologue by murdering a justice of the peace (James Westerfield) in front of his traumatized wife (Hope Summers) and Emily's surprised  faux husband to be (Snub Pollard) whom she hired for the murderous ruse.

Emily's deadly deeds are unknown -- at least for a while -- to Warren's generally happy sister, Miriam (Patricia Breslin). In fact, family and townspersons seem to generally like Warren despite his vague creepiness, which includes baring his closed teeth while he talks. Back to Emily: She's taking care of a crippled, mute, Helga, (Eugenie Leontovich) whom Emily treats rather cruelly. There is the boyfriend (to Miriam), a detective, and the country doctor, all stock characters.

There's lots of intrigue, spooky moments, thrills and giggles, and a particularly chilling scene in which Emily sadistically draws out a terrified Helga's final moments. I won't give away the surprise ending, although -- unlike "Psycho" -- sharp viewers can more easily guess what's going to occur. By the way, the actress who plays Emily does an excellent job. She's really the best actor in the film.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

John Barrymore does forgotten villain Svengali proud

By Doug Gibson

I'll say this for "Svengali," the 1931 Warner Bros. 81-minute pre-code adaptation of George L. Du Maurier's mostly-forgotten late-19th century, clearly bigoted and anti-Semitic "evil-eye/covetous-Jew" thriller, "Trilby," and that is, it sticks to the novel's downbeat ending. I've seen too many 1930s' and early 1940s' films trash the plots of novels to not appreciate director Archie Mayor for sticking pretty close to the novel.

John Barrymore stars as the anti-Semitic stereotype, a tall, lean, sinful, perpetually dirty vocalist teaching Jew with the evil eye, who sets that eye on pretty lower-class model, Trilby (Marion Marsh), steals her from her feckless artist lover, Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), and turns her into a singing sensation. In Warner Bros' toned-down depiction (that still retains a healthy whiff of bigotry) Barrymore's tall, bearded, long-haired dirty Svengali still manages to garner sympathy from the audience. He does this partially with wit; at one point he jokes with artists that his last bath was when he fell into the sewer, and with pathos (he is mistreated, and generally despised, even by his artist friends). Even with his triumph, garnered through the evil eye, over Trilby, he laments that his love gained is only "manufactured."

Film historian Frank J. Dello Stritto, in his essay, "Svengali: The Forgotten Monster," from the anthology "A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore,"  quotes Barrymore's take on his role: "The male character must be funny and get lots of laughs, particularly in the first part of the story. Although a sinister figure, he is a wise, dirty, glutinous Polish Jew, with no conscience and a supreme contempt for all those nice, clean straight-thinking English Christians."

Despite Svengali's affability, as defined by Barrymore, the first scene leaves no doubt as to the music teacher's capacity for evil. Madame Honori (Carmel Myers), a rich woman with a terrible voice whom Svengali tolerates both for her money and sexual favors (remember, this is pre-code), arrives. Svengali, not sure what will transpire, sends his minion, Gecko (Luis Alberni), outside. Svengali soon learns that the foolish woman has left her husband without a financial settlement. Outraged, he turns his "evil eye," unseen, on her. She screams in horror and flees the room. Later, it is learned that she drowned in the river Seine, a presumed suicide.

Svengali is obsessed with Trilby, played by 18-year-old Marian Marsh. She tolerates him because he cures her headaches, but otherwise is repulsed by him. Instead, she falls for artist Billie, younger, shorter, and more handsome. However, when Billie catches Trilby in a nude modeling session and leaves in disgust, Trilby goes to Svengali for advice. Unknown to Trilby, Svengali has been putting his hypnotic eye on her. She is easy prey for the loathsome protagonist, and leaves with Svengali, under his spell. Trilby's clothes are left by the river Seine. Billie and others assume she has drowned.

Years pass, with Billie and the others having heard that Svengali has achieved fame with a top singer prodigy. They decide to watch the new star in concert. Billie eventually recognizes her as Trilby, and Trilby him. She greets him happily and they chat for a moment. Suddenly, Trilby turns cold, and ends the conversation. The jealous Svengali, discovering the reunion, has placed the "eye" upon her. Svengali is jealous of Billie, who he knows can excite love in Trilby, whom he desperately wishes to excite in the same manner free of hypnotism. As he says, "You are beautiful, my manufactured love, but it is only Svengali talking to himself again."

As Dello Stritto notes in his essay, the novel is far more anti-Semitic than the 1931 film, which doesn't even specifically name Svengali as a Jew. He writes, "'Trilby' is blatantly anti-Semitic. The novel clearly links Svengali's Jewishness to his evil character and repulsive appearance." Du Maurier, a famous cartoonist for "Punch," wrote three novels late in his life. As Dello Stritto explains, Du Maurier was a short man, and loathed his short stature. His novels idolized persons who were tall, healthy and physically fit, which Du Maurier was not.  Dello Stritto writes, "His (Du Maurier's) first two books ("Peter Ibbotson" and "Trilby") succeeded as offbeat tales of love unrequited." In short, Du Maurier's novels were heavily autobiographical, and provided frank hints of the author's deepest yearnings.

With that knowledge, it is telling that Billie, in the novel, is regarded as "Little Billie." While Du Maurier is by no means a fan of Svengali, he does make him tall, and impetuous. Billie is short and wimpy, easily able to spurn Trilby if he fears she won't meet with his family's approval, and apparently not man enough to get her back from the evil Svengali once he discovers she really is alive.

Marsh, who played Trilby, is very good in the lead. She has a laughing, sweet countenance and personality early in the film and she reminded me of Marion Davies in light comedies. In this pre-code film, her "nude" backside is seen as she flees the modeling session, but it is not Marsh. It's a double wearing a nude stocking. Marsh, as mentioned, was only 18. Her career faded through the 1930s and she retired from feature films in 1942 after starring in the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation comedy, "House of Errors," also starring Harry Langdon. Watch "Svengali" below:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bela Lugosi in a comedy-thriller -- Zombies on Broadway

Zombies on Broadway, 69 minutes, B&W, RKO. Directed by Gordon Douglas. Starring Wally Brown as Jerry Miles, Alan Carney as Mike Streger, Bela Lugosi as Dr. Paul Renault, Anne Jeffreys as Jean LaDance, Sheldon Leonard as Ace Miller and Darby Jones as Kolaga, the Zombie. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

This is an enjoyable 1940s B movie with Brown and Carney, RKO's version of Abbott and Costello, as PR hustlers announcing that a new NYC nightclub, The Zombie Hut, will open with a real zombie. To them it's just a gag, but toughman mob owner Leonard tells them to come up with a zombie or else. That sends the boys to the island of San Sebastian where, with the help of a beautiful dancer (Jeffreys), the boys overcome a zombie creating mad scientist (Lugosi) and return with a zombie.

The cast is wonderful. Comedians Brown and Carney do a passable imitation of Abbott and Costello. Carney plays Costello, while Brown is the AbboTt clone who ends up with the strikingly beautiful Jeffreys. Leonard is menacing in his stock role as gangster hood. Thrown in for atmosphere is Darby Jones, who bugs his eyes out as impressively as he did in Val Lewton's classic I Walked With a Zombie. The film moves at a fast, easy pace. Lugosi is suitably conniving as the mad scientist and there's a fun twist ending.

RKO had semi-high hopes for ex-vaudeville performers Carney and Brown, but they never seriously threatened Abbott and Costello at the box office. Still, they made several amusing B features and fading horror star Lugosi appeared in two, the other being One Body Too Many. This seldom-seen-today film is a must for Lugosi fans and those who enjoy the old 1940s B programmers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nightbirds, a Milligan film once thought lost, resurfaces

By Doug Gibson

I'd been meaning to write something about "Nightbirds," a 1970 Andy Milligan film, helmed in Britain for the owner of a "cinema club," that apparently had virtually no showings. According to Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, the cult director had a 16-millimeter print of "Nightbirds" that passed to the writer after Milligan's death. Eventually, McDonough (read an interview here) sold "Nightbirds" and other Milligan film memorabilia to filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who had the cash to get Nightbirds a Region 2 release courtesy of the BFI's Flip Side label. (Read) Living n America, I bought the film and watched it on my laptop.

First, it's pure Milligan, a dysfunctional love affair where a weak man, Dink, played by oft-used Milligan player Berwick Kaler, meets a striking manipulative blonde, Dee, played by Julie Shaw. They begin an idyllic affair in Dee's rummage-filled upstairs flat making love often (this is one of the more erotic Milligan films) and talking, although it's mostly Dink revealing his feelings. Despite Dee's interest in Dink, there's a remoteness to her. Eventually, the pair develop conflicts. One involves Dee's mysterious relationship with her male landlord. The other involves Dink's friendship with a flirty, very middle-aged friend named Mabel. In a scene that is pure Milligan, the queenish Mabel physically flutters around Dee, appearing both maternal and sexually interested.

The film is similar to "The Servant," in that Dee slowly grows more calculating and manipulative toward her lover, so much so that the viewer realizes she's playing a sadistic game with a much-weaker, more vulnerable prey. All of Milligan's routine misogyny is on display, although Dee is more multi-dimensional, and harder to read, than the average Milligan antagonist. Whether this is due to Milligan, who made his unique films quickly and in slapdash fashion, or the superb performance by the beautiful, "vulnerable-looking" Shaw, is worthy of debate. Most of the cast is adequate, Kaler pretty good, but Shaw is simply marvelous in her role. Had independant film been more popular 40-plus years ago, she may have become a star. As it is, she disappeared after this non-release, never making another film.

I won't reveal more of the threadbare, dysfunctional but haunting "Nightbirds." Go see the film, readers. Buy the DVD, and take advantage of the trailer above. I have a challenge for TCM Underground, or IFC's more disappointing Grindhouse nights. Get a Milligan film. Although my preferred choice would be "Torture Dungeon," I'm sure that "Nighbirds," one of Milligan's top 5 films, and more like "Fleshpot on 42nd Street" than "The Ghastly Ones," would be an easy grab for either network. Readers should send emails to TCM and IFC and get Milligan on. If "Nightbirds" makes it TCM Underground, the director's early gay short, "Vapors," (read) would be perfect for a TCM Underground short.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book review of Ed Wood, Mad Genius

The following column originally ran in the Dec. 28, 2009, Standard-Examiner.

By Doug Gibson
It really annoys me that golfer Tiger Woods has become a scandal item. For so  long he seemed the perfect, respectful, graceful, honorable role model. And  instead he's off tomcatting like the stereotypical frat boy in a bad R-rated  movie.
But Woods is just one in a long line of the respectable who go bad. Look at  politics. What a consistent mine for scandal is found there: Bill Clinton, Mark  Sanford, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Barney Frank, Tom Foley, David Vitter, the  late Ted Kennedy ... all these are lawmakers who have been caught in sex  scandals.
Scandal has been around forever, but for a long time we didn't have several  cable channels and more Web sites devoted to wallowing in it. The more  respectable the person was before being dragged into the tabloid media muck, the  bigger the catch.
But I've wondered, if Tiger Woods becomes kitsch, is it possible for kitsch  to rise to scholarship? Is that a future byproduct of our scandal world? Will  there soon be higher education courses on the Tiger Woods' affairs and their  effect on relationships between whites and African-Americans?
As bizarre as that sounds, anyone who has perused some university course  books might not be surprised to see such a class.
Although he never was a politician or a sports star, no one better embodied  kitsch than Ed Wood. The transvestite filmmaker made some very interesting "bad"  films, such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Glen Or Glenda." He also wrote  more than 100 novels. An alcoholic, he eventually drifted into porn writing and  filmmaking and died homeless. The kitsch of his films created a cult that at  first was smarmy but gravitated to a respect for his imagination, if not his  talents.
In 1993, Tim Burton made a romanticized version of Wood's life called "Ed  Wood." The movie resulted in the re-publication of a few of Wood's long-gone  novels. The eventual result of the film has been a very slow but solid shift in  how Wood is perceived. The much-maligned man associated with such films as  "Night of the Ghouls" is suddenly a subject of scholarship.
Granted, Wood's cult has decreased as his more smarmy fans aren't interested  in literary criticism on the filmmaker, but the remaining fans are more apt to  discuss Wood in the same breath with Luis Bunuel or "Waiting for Godot."
To be honest, if Wood were alive today he'd probably ask them what the hell  they were talking about, but don't be surprised if you peruse a college course  book and see a film class devoted to Wood. The new book, "Ed Wood -- Mad Genius:  A Critical Study of the Films," by Rob Craig (McFarland Press, at, will certainly  audition as a text.
The book, which reached my journalist's desk recently, is fascinating reading  if you are a Wood fan -- I am -- and pretty dense reading if you are not, or if  your exposure to Wood is limited to Burton's film or "Plan 9 From Outer Space"  Or "Glen Or Glenda." Its main interest is that it's real, scholarly literary and  film criticism of Wood's work. Some of us have waited decades for a book like  this.
Having said that, Craig's observations are hit and miss. The strongest part  of "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" is Craig's assertion that many of the absurdities in  Wood's films, such as night being day and vice versa, ridiculous dialogue and  threadbare sets that remind of improv theater, are actually examples of  Brechtian theater, and attempts to convince the audience to accept the alternate  reality, or alternate world, in which his film exists.
Although it's easy to scoff at this and call it pseudoscholarship, even the  most smarmy Wood watcher will admit that his films are unique. No one-lung  director or producer ever made films as interesting as Wood did.
The weaker part of Craig's book is his attempt to find a feminist message in  Wood's films. To do this, he populates the pages with references to the late  radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. On many pages she's the only source for an  argument by Craig. There's a certain ridiculous irony in Craig using Dworkin to  find feminism in the works of a film-maker who has pornography to his credits,  but that's a topic for another time.
To sum up, if you are a Wood fan or really want to know more about Wood, "Ed  Wood: Mad Genius" is worth reading. If not, rent Burton's "Ed Wood" and get to  know a quirky, likeable guy.
In any event, let's just enjoy the irony of our popular culture allowing  Tiger Woods to sink to the level of Paris Hilton while Ed Wood rises to the  level of Luis Bunuel. That's America.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Horror of Party Beach -- a schlock winner

The Horror of Party Beach
The Horror of Party Beach, 1964, 78 minutes, Iselin-Tenney Productions, B and W. Directed by Del Tenney. Produced by Tenney and Alan V. Iselin. Starring John Scott as Hank Green, Alice Lyon as Elaine Gavin, Allen Laurel as Dr. Gavin, Eulabelle Moore as Eulabelle. Featuring the music of the Del-Aires. Schlock-Meter rating: 6 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

OK, this film is no masterpiece, but I disagree with those who include The Horror of Party Beach in worst film lists. Have they ever seen Monster A Go Go? Director Del Tenney lacked time, money, acting talent (some directing talent, let’s admit) and special effects worth a damn (the monsters are RIDICULOUS), but he had a pretty good filmmaking imagination, and Horror of Party Beach boasts a pretty good tale that may have been better with a bigger budget and better singing talent.
Here’s the plot: Radioactive waste is dumped into the Long Island harbor. Somehow it resurrects sailors long drowned at the bottom of the ocean. The radioactivity turns them into monsters who appear (I’m not making this up) to have hot dog franks stuffed into their masks. The creatures are pathetic looking rubber fiends, and one wishes Tenney would have spent just a little more cash on the makeup.

Anyway, the monsters seem attracted to the hot teen spot on the beach, where lots of silly white kids dance to the tunes of an inept band called the Del-Aires (pay close attention to the song The Zombie Stomp, it’s a howler). So, the monsters kill a lot of girls and women before finally being foiled by hard-working Dr. Gavin (Laurel), his teen-queen daughter Elaine (Lyon), and Dr. Gavin’s assistant Hank Green (Scott) who has the hots for Elaine, which is reciprocated by her. There’s also a black maid Eulabelle (Moore), thrown in for comic relief, but today would be considered a racist stereotype.

Despite clichés and contradictions, one of which has the monsters being killed by sodium, even though they became monsters in the salt water ocean, the film is rarely dull and provides a lot of laughs, albeit unintentionally. The actors try hard and except for some jokes on the beach intended to make viewers laugh, the film takes itself seriously. It’s no classic, but it can serve as a fun video to show friends at midnight. Audiences liked The Horror of Party Beach when it was released. It and another Tenney film, Curse of the Living Corpse, were huge hits on the drive-in circuit for distributor Twentieth Century-Fox in 1964.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

She Demons – Crusty Faced, Curvy Cuties Experimented On By Mad Nazi Scientist

By Steve D. Stones 

This 1957 low-budget film was produced by Astor Pictures and directed by Richard Cunha, the man who gave use such drive-in schlock as Frankenstein’s Daughter, Missile To The Moon and Giant From The Unknown.

The one thing going for She Demons is that it stars beautiful Irish McCalla, who was a nude model for men’s magazines and later the star of the 1950s TV series – Sheena, Queen of The Jungle. A ship carrying three men and a woman is wrecked after a violent storm. The four manage to row to shore on an uncharted island off the coast of Florida. Does any of this sound clichéd yet?

When they reach shore, they find the dead body of a beautiful young woman with a crusty face and bulging eyes, thus the name – She Demons. A number of these She Demons are kept in cages on the island. One of the men of the ship wreck is killed by a spear early on in the film when the other three survivors leave their camp to explore the shores of the island.

The three survivors go exploring the island when they encounter a dozen women in skimpy outfits in a tribal, voodoo dance. The women are caged in cells and used as experiment subjects by a crazed Nazi scientist. Does this also sound clichéd?

 Soon, the three survivors of the ship wreck are captured by Nazi soldiers. The crazed Nazi scientist is infatuated by Irish McCalla, the only woman survivor of the ship wreck, and wants her to be his new bride. His current wife is badly scarred by experiments to restore her youth and beauty. McCalla refuses as he threatens her with her life.

The two surviving men are tortured by Nazi soldiers. McCalla and the two men eventually escape the clutches of the Nazi soldiers and the scientist when a bombing raid helps a volcano erupt on the island, conveniently destroying everyone and everything but McCalla and the two men.

If this film is a complete bore to any viewer, the eye candy of Irish McCalla certainly helps it. Never mind her unconvincing acting and the clichéd blonde airhead she plays who is eager to be saved and is constantly high maintenance for the men who surround her. That type of acting is better suited for her Sheena – Queen of The Jungle role she played on TV in the mid-1950s. The role of Sheena required simple, sparse dialogue.

Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon sells She Demons on a double-feature drive-in combo with another Richard Cunha film – Giant From The Unknown (Drive-In Double Feature #28). The two films are a fun combo to enjoy on a Friday night. Happy viewing!!! Below is a picture of McCalla.