Monday, July 28, 2014

Four dumb ‘cracker’ hell-fire films that exemplify the folly of a burning hell


Editor's note: This review was originally published in 2013 on the Political Surf blogTo see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) I like the Mormon definition of hell. It’s called Sons of Perdition, which to me has always sounded like a sequel to the Laurel & Hardy film “Sons of the Desert.” We keep the criteria for Sons of Perdition very vague. To get in there, someone has to fight against the gospel while having a clear knowledge of the truth. That sort of closes the gates of Mormon hell to everyone who has lived on earth except for Cain and Judas, and maybe Harry Reid (just joking on that last name.)

What hell is like is an obsession for a lot of us out there. My brain is fried from watching a bunch of southern evangelical films of the early 1970s from the late Ron Ormond, who went from making cheap science fiction films in the 1950s, to making tame “adult” films in the 1960s to make “hell, fire and brimstone” cracker evangelical films in the 1970s.
Dig these titles: “The Burning Hell,” “The Grim Reaper,”(with a young, buttery Rev. Jerry Falwell!)  and “If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?” (The last one also includes commies as well as Christian-haters). It’s easy to ridicule these films. They basically have the same plot: Some people, mostly young, scorn Christianity and the warnings of real, burning hell that resembles Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” One of the unbelievers has the bad luck to die — usually in a wreck. The camera then lingers lovingly for scores of minutes on the eternal tortures and miseries of the good old boy(s) who were earlier scorning God. Eventually, one of the unbelievers who is still alive wanders into a church. He listens to a Southern-fried preacher (in two of the films the preacher is played by a real preacher, the delightfully named Estus W. Pirkle). The climax of the film involves the disbeliever being so swayed by the Reverend Pirkle, and so afraid of hell, that he/she is born again and saved. It’s too late for the dead sinners, though, they keep burning forever.
The idea of the hell envisioned by Ormond and Pirkle still carries a lot of strength. The “Left Behind” series of books, which has sold 70 million-plus copies, imagines a post-Rapture where millions are consigned to a burning hell after prolonged suffering on earth. Today’s Islamic radicals consider the victims of their terrorism as “infidels,” and consign them to an eternal hell of suffering. And I recall watching a feature film on one of the SLC area TV evangelical channels, “Final Exit,” in which a woman murdered by a serial killer burns eternally in hell due to her promiscuous lifestyle. Her killer, however, due to a pre-execution conversion to Christ, is welcomed into heaven.
These depictions of hell, and what some people believe God will do to his children, are appalling. It is an evil doctrine, in opposition to God’s love for his children and, in regards to Christianity, it also mocks the suffering of Jesus Christ. This point merits expansion. Though Mormons are taught that Jesus Christ suffered far more in the Garden of Gethsemane than on the cross being crucified, the traditional viewpoint is that Christ’s, or God’s, atonement was achieved in part through the pain he experienced being crucified.
However, in these movies a mortal’s post-earthly existence in hell is forever, which includes eternal suffering, usually by burning, that of course never ends. The obvious question: why would God wish his children to suffer more pain than Christ himself suffered on the cross? To take this doctrine is to worship a vengeful God, the opposite of love and charity.
The absoluteness of this doctrine is evil. If one does not accept Christ in the same manner of someone else, that individual is consigned to an eternal punishment in hell. Taken to its absurd conclusions, the vengeful God that hell-believers worship would consign to eternal torture an infinite amount of devout Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, and so on, who reject the entreaties of those who see only a narrow passage to heaven and a vengeful God punishing those who don’t “dot their i’s or cross their t’s.”
To sum up, to teach of any ‘hell’ with endlessly burning sinners is evil. This doctrine hangs around still (has anyone been to an evangelical “hell house” for Halloween?) and it will always hang around. But as time goes, there are less adherents fooled, frightened by it.
(If anyone wants to watch those bizarre, hysterical evangelical southern cracker films from Ron Ormond and the Rev. Estus W. Pirkle, they’re available on that repository of culture, YouTube.  ”The Grim Reaper” is here and “The Burning Hell” is here. “If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do is here. The far worse, 1995 “Final Exit,” is here. They are, literally, a trip.)

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Ape Man: Bela Lugosi's most iconic Monogram kitsch

By Doug Gibson

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

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

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

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: The film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, scenes were included in a now-lost compendium called "Lock Your Daughters." There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end.

The Ape Man plays often on UEN's (Utah Educational Network) Sci Fi Friday and has a podcast to go along with it. There are many versions of the film. It is free to watch on the Web. Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies will air a pristine print of the film some day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The House By The Cemetery - A Monster Dwells In The Basement

By Steve D. Stones

This Italian production from director Lucio Fulci wastes no time in splashing graphic, over-the-top violence across the screen. The opening sequence shows a young girl being stabbed in the head inside an old house. Her bloodied body is dragged across a dusty floor by an unknown, unseen killer. \

A college professor and his young family leave their New York apartment to rent a decrepit mansion by a small cemetery in New England. The professor is conducting research for six months. The mansion was once owned by the deranged Dr. Freudstein.  The professor is interested in finding out information about Freudstein.

The professor’s son Bob sees a photograph of the mansion hanging on the wall of their apartment. Bob claims the little girl looking out the window in the photograph is telling him not to move to the mansion. He warns his parents not to move to there.

Soon after the family settles into the mansion, the mother finds a crypt marker under a rug in the hallway.  Under the crypt marker is a passage that leads to a cellar and a tomb. The professor investigates the cellar and is attacked by a bat. This scene is downright bloody, as the professor stabs the bat over and over until it finally dies.

The woman who rented the mansion to the family falls through a hole in the floor board and twists her ankle. While trying to free herself, an unknown killer stabs her to death with a fire poker.  The babysitter is also killed in a later scene that is not for the faint of heart.

The viewer is subjected to a series of stabbings, throat ripping, impalement, maggot spewing and other graphic forms of violence through the entire film. These are also trademarks of other Fulci horror films. Fulci is never subtle about how he employs violence. He intentionally rubs it in the face of his viewers and does not care if it is gratuitous and nauseating.

The most effective element of this film is Fulci not allowing the viewer to get a good view of the killer until the film draws to a close. The killings are shown in graphic detail, but without any description of whom or what the killer is. The viewer is left wondering why this person is in the cellar, and what is their motivation for killing?

A number of continuity errors in the film show the killer’s hands looking rotted and ugly, while other sequences show his hands as normal and young in close-up shots.

House By The Cemetery completes director Fulci’s  “zombie chronicles.” Other films in the series include – Zombie (aka Zombie 2 – 1979), The Beyond (1981) and City of the Living Dead (1980). Fulci is considered one of the most prolific directors in European cinema history. Happy viewing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Time of Their Lives, Abbott and Costello at their best

By Doug Gibson

I had the opportunity to watch -- again -- the 1946 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ghost romp, "The Time of Their Lives." It's one of the comedy pair's more sophisticated, often witty films, and has aged very well. I'd rank it just below "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" in the duo's fantasy comedies and it's also one of the top 5 or 6 films the pair made.

What's interesting is that the film was a financial loser for Bud and Lou in 1946, although it did better when re-released five years later. One reason may be been because Bud and Lou were feuding at the time the film was made. As a result, the pair didn't play companions in "The Time of Their Lives" but separate character who barely share any dialogue together in the film. However, Lou's character -- playing a ghost -- does get to push around Bud's hapless modern-day psychiatrist.

But to the plot: It's 1780, and Lou plays Horation Primm, a poor tinker who has a letter of recommendation from General George Washington. He arrives at the estate of Tom Danbury, hoping to use the letter to win approval to marry one of Danbury's maids, Nora (Anne Gillis). However, the Danbury House butler, Cuthbert Greenway (Abbott) manages to shove the tinker in a large drawer for a while.

Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that Master Tom Danbury is a traitor, ready to assist Benedict Arnold. Nora finds this out and is briefly captured. Horatio's letter is hidden in a mantel clock on the estate. Danbury's fiance, Melody (played by Marjorie Reynolds) learns of Tom's treachery. She grabs the tinker Horatio and attempts to flee on horses to get help. However, in a misunderstanding, troops sent to capture Danbury shoot and kill Horatio and Melody. The now-dead pair, camaflouged by their riding clothing, are casually tossed in the well with a curse that they will never be allowed to leave the Danbury estate -- now burning -- until they can clear their names. There is a funny scene where Melody and Horatio discover they are ghosts.

The plot moves forward to 165 years later, with ghosts Melody and Horation living their long existence, unable to leave the estate, which has been rebuilt -- with almost all of the original furniture, saved from the burning, now in the new home. There is a funny scene where Melody makes a playful romantic move on Costello's tinker, only to push him off their tree when he admits that all he wants is to have his back scratched.

It doesn't take long for the new owners and visitors at the home, which includes psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenway, the butler's descendent, played, of course by Abbott, to learn that ghosts are haunting the home and want to convey a message. With the help of a housekeeper, Emily, played somberly by Gale Sondergaard, a seance is conducted where ghosts Melody and Horace get the message across that they need General Washington's note to clear their names and be allowed into heaven, where Horace can reunite with Nora, and Melody with Tom ... who we have learned, later renounced his treachery and became a good patriot.

The casting is superb. John Shelton plays Sheldon Gage, the new owner of the estate. Lynn Baggett is great as his fiancee, June, and wisecracking Binnie Barnes is very witty as wisecracking Aunt Millie, who psychiatrist Greenway sort of secretely has the hots for. Scenes of ghosts Horatio and Melody learning about electricity, phones and the radio are funny. Costello has a field day pushing around the scared descendent of his one-time romantic rival Cuthbert. There is also a funny scene where Abbott's psychiatrist, remorseful over his ancestor's mistreatment of Horatio, steals the original clock from a museum and in a wild chase on the Danbury estate, tries to elude the police while attempting to unlock the secret compartment that hides the Washington letter.

I can't highly recommend this film enough. It's a high-brow version of Abbott and Costello. To me it plays like a suspenseful, funny spoof of that era's genre ghost films, such as "The Uninvited." Despite the real-life tensions between the stars in 1945-1946 -- at one point Costello walked off the set, insisting he should play Abbott's role -- there's no evidence of tension between the two. Their performances are splendid and the comic timing superb. The 82-minute film was directed by Charles Barton.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Conjuring – Familiar, But Scary Horror Story

By Steve D. Stones

If you’re familiar with classic haunted house movies such as The Haunting, Burnt Offerings, Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror – The Conjuring may not have anything new to offer. However, director James Wan manages to create a retro 1970s atmosphere without trying to rehash too much of these old classics. There are enough scares in this film to fill an entire mansion.

World renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, are contacted by Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor, to investigate her farmhouse in Harrisville, Road Island. The farmhouse was once the scene of an accused witch named Bathsheba who hanged herself from a tree in the 1863 after having sacrificed her week old child to the devil. Her spirit possesses Perron to try and murder her children.

The first sign that something is wrong with the house comes when the clocks in the house have stopped at 3:07 am - the time the mother hanged herself. The family dog Sadie is also found dead outside the house.  Perron finds bruises on her body, and her children smell a foul odor in their rooms while being touched by something in their beds at night.

The Warrens keep items in their home that come from possessed places they have investigated. The items are blessed by a priest to keep them from becoming active again.

While doing research on the Harrisville farmhouse, the Warrens discover that the property was once over 200 acres and later subdivided and sold. A number of murders and suicides have occurred in homes built on the divided properties.

Ed Warren suggests to the Perron family that the house should have a cleansing - an exorcism. The Catholic Church has to first grant permission to Warren for an exorcism after evidence of a possession is presented. A priest and friend of the Warren’s, father Gordon, tries to push through the request to have the house exorcised.

The Perron family leaves the house to stay in a motel. Carolyn kidnaps two of her children to take them back to the house for a sacrifice. Carolyn’s transformation into a possessed witch is not nearly as effective as Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, but it still manages to scare the viewer intensely.
Ed Warren performs an exorcism in front of Carolyn as thousands of birds hit the house – a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Carolyn returns to normal.

Many sequences in The Conjuring have a documentary feel to them, as if they are really happening at the moment.  The film manages to scare without any use of extreme violence and gore. The most effective scare is when Loraine sees an illusion of her daughter Judy moving in the water near where Bathsheba hung herself.

The Conjuring cost only 20 million to produce, and has gone on to gross 318 million worldwide – making it one of the highest grossing horror films of all time.  The film is based on a “true story.”

The only “true” aspect of the film may be the characters. They are all based on real life people. The end sequence shows actual photographs of the Perron family and Ed and Lorraine Warren.

For genuine scares and thrills, see The Conjuring. Happy viewing!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel – A Visual Treat From Director Wes Anderson

By Steve D. Stones

This delightful film may be Ralph Fiennes’ finest performance since Schindler’s List.  In fact, all the actors involved give an excellent performance. Some big name stars include Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton and Owen Wilson. Director Wes Anderson gives the viewer an eye candy treat with richly colored, visually ornate European environments.

The Grand Budapest Hotel follows the 1932 adventures of the liberally perfumed Gustave H - a concierge - played by Fiennes, and his lobby boy – Zero Moustafa, played by Tony Revolori.  A much older Moustafa tells his story thirty-six years later in 1968 to a young writer while dinning in the hotel.

Gustave attends the reading of a will and inherits a Renaissance painting entitled “Boy With Apple” from a deceased widow and owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel – Madame D. The Madame is one of many lovers of Gustave. Her son Dimitri refuses to give the painting to Gustave, so he steals it from the estate and replaces it with an erotic painting by Egon Schiele. Gustave cherishes the painting because Madame D felt the boy in the painting reminded her of him.

After the reading of the will, Gustave is accused by the military police of murdering Madame D. He states his innocence to the police, but flees the hotel in a strange yet hilarious scene. He is caught and incarcerated. Some of his jail mates plan a break out. The group manages to escape through a laundry chute.

Meanwhile, Dimitri employs Jopling - played by Willem Dafoe, to murder Deputy Kovacs – the executor of Madame D’s estate. Kovacs’ body is found in a museum coffin with four fingers missing. Jopling also murders Serge X – the Hotel butler, and his sister.

Zero’s girlfriend Agatha goes to the hotel to retrieve the “Boy With Apple” painting. Dimitri chases after her, and a gun battle breaks out on the top floor of the hotel. This is one of the funniest scenes in the film because no one seems to be able to wound anyone, and the gun firing occasionally ceases as the characters argue, point fingers and shout at each other.

A second will is found attached to the back of the painting. The will leaves Madame D’s entire estate to Gustave, which includes the Grand Budapest Hotel. He is cleared of her murder. Zero is appointed Gustave’s successor, and marries Agatha.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of clever, hilarious dialogue. In one particular scene, Gustave says to Zero after the military police beat them onboard a train - “you see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.

Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant . . . oh, f*ck it!” At the reading of Madame D’s will, Dimitri accuses Gustave of having sex with his mother. Gustave’s response is: “I go to bed with all my friends.”

Don’t miss The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film is a well-crafted, cinematic masterpiece. Happy viewing.