Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Conqueror Worm: Evil Vincent Price keeps tongue out of cheek

The Conqueror Worm (Also known as Witchfinder General)1968, United Kingdom, American International release, Color, about 88 minutes. Stars: Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, Hilary Dwyer as Sara, Rupert Davies as John Lowes, Robert Russell as John Stearne and Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

Ever wanted to see how really evil a person Vincent Price could portray in a film? Go rent, or buy, the Conqueror Worm. This is a magnificent film about 17th Century England and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (Price) who is the law in a war-torn land. The plot: The sadistic Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Russell) terrorize towns by executing “witches” and collecting cash for their services. In Brandiston, they torture an aged preacher. In order to save the preacher’s life, his niece Sara (Dwyer) agrees to be Hopkins’ sex slave. But after Stearne rapes Sara, Hopkins loses interest in Sara and kills her uncle.

Back from the wars arrives Sara’s intended Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and when he finds out how his fiance has been treated, he swears vengeance and goes after the witch hunter, who lays a trap for Marshall. I won’t give away the climax, except to say that the intensity of the last scene has been matched by few cult films.

Atmosphere keeps The Conqueror Worm moving at a fast pace. The characters seem believable, whether they are in a pub, at war or witnessing the execution of a “witch.” Critic Danny Peary describes Price as never having been better. Peary also talks about the triumph of evil, which “will emerge victorious” despite whether Hopkins or Marshall kills the other. In the film, the viewer is jolted into a sense of overwhelming pessimism of the situation. One wonders at the end if the protagonist (Marshall) is really any better than Hopkins.

Credit to the gloomy but effective mood of Conqueror Worm goes to the director Michael Reeves. He was a major new talent in Britain in the 1960s. Besides Conqueror, he directed The Castle of the Living Dead, 1964, and The Sorcerers, 1967, with Boris Karloff. Sadly, Reeves took his own life in 1969.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Bela Lugosi as The Mysterious Mr. Wong

Review by Doug Gibson

For a huge Bela Lugosi fan such as myself, it was sort of an outrage that I had not yet seen 1934's "The Mysterious Mr. Wong," Mr. Dracula's first foray into the low-budget world of Monogram Studios. The film is ubiquitous. You can watch it at several locations on the Internet (see above). It's also a staple of the DVD sets of 20 or 50 public domain films that can be purchased for $10 to $20. I shucked out $5 for an copy because I like the impressive cover art that firm provides.

Based on a story by cult writer Harry Stephen Keeler, the tale is, in a crazy sort of way, a little like Lord of the Rings set in cramped Chinatown. Mr. Wong (Lugosi) a tough-looking power-crazy hood who masquerades as a meek shop owner, is busy murdering various Chinese contemporaries in order to get the 12 gold coins that Confucious minted before his death. Through murder and theft, Wong has nabbed 11 of the 12. If he can get them all, he'll achieve some sort of world domination (the script is a little fuzzy on this, but he definitely wants that coin.

Wong, though faces some tough competition from wisecracking newspaper reporter, Jay Barton (played by Wallace Ford, whose fantastic in these types of roles). In between doubting the cops' belief that the murders are over a gang turf war, Barton slowly, in his own inimitable style, begins to piece together who exactly Wong is and what he wants.In his spare time, Barton -- who gets his hands on the 12th gold coin -- breezily romances newspaper operator girl Peg, played by the pretty Arline Judge. It all leads to a final showdown where Wong menaces Jay and Peg.

This is nowhere near Lugosi's best film, but it's a fun way to waste 64 or so minutes. Despite its low budget and usual "where-the-heck-is-this-going" Monogram plot, it was lean enough to carry my wife and son through the film. And Lugosi, although one look at that nose kills any belief that he's Chinese, is suitably menacing. Scenes where he brutally tosses a man down into a cellar filled with rats is almost chilling, as is a scene where he bullies two Chinese women who disapprove of his plans. And he certainly has sadistic, murderous plans in store for Jay and Peg (Judge screams well) as the climax approaches.

William Nigh's direction is OK; he keeps scenes moving briskly. Ford has his usual good snark and adequate comic timing. Robert Emmett O'Connor is not too bad as an inept Irish cop to provide humor fodder. Another plus is a chance to witness what life was like 78 years ago in the outdoor city shots as well as the studio shots of he newsroom Jay and Peg work in. Worth watching and a must for Lugosi fans.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'Gabriel Over the White House' -- FDR's favorite movie

By Doug Gibson

EDITOR's NOTE: This film airs tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 at 10:15 EST on Turner Classic Movies. "Gabriel Over the White House" is one of the most, contradictory, fascinating films we've encountered in the Plan9Crunch cyberworld. It's a 1933 pre-code motion picture from MGM, but it's not devoted to "immoral lifestyles," such as "Employee's Entrance," or a sexual innuendo film such as "She Done Him Wrong." Rather, "Gabriel Over the White House," is, like the pre-code "Heroes for Sale." It's a film that condemns the U.S. capitalist political and economic system as one that favors the rich, powerful and criminal elements over the poor and middle class; it portrays the power structure as one that deliberately oppresses the common people.

(I realize I sound like a derivative humanities professor but I'm just explaining the pre-code political stances in film history.) Anyway, the film involves the tenure, in the depths of the Depression, of U.S. President Judson "Jud" Hammond, played by Walter Huston. He's a political hack, a gregarious pol beholden to all special interests, full of faux sentimentality and faux good cheer. In one scene, he jocularly asks his young political aide, Hartlee Beekman (Franchot Tone) if he can call him "Beek."

President Hammond is injured in an accident that leaves him in a coma for a while. While in the coma, he is endowed with the spirit, if not the actual indwelling, of the Angel Gabriel. When he awakes, he's a completely different leader, resolute and determined to stamp out corruption and crime. To do so he declares martial law, dissolves Congress, diverts money -- by fiat -- to veterans, creates jobs programs and equality programs, spending billions that have been diverted from the rich and special interests. He also nationalizes alcoholic beverages, and uses U.S. military might to capture an Al Capone-type character and his cronies, has them court martialed in a "star chamber," and once convicted, summarily executed against a wall. The film's climax involves President Hammond forcing his European allies to pay their war debts to the U.S., with a not-too-subtle promise that the U.S. will attack them if they don't pay up.

At that point, President Hammond dies, presumably of deferred injuries from the accident, and the nation mourns the death of a great leader of the people who has died.

This is a fascinating time-capsule film. It lionizes a protagonist, Hammond, who uses tactics that a Stalin or Mussolini used. Of course, all the "reforms" that Huston's president are successful, from providing bonuses and jobs to wiping out organized crime and setting shifty political colleagues and foreign allies straight. As a citizen, the film teaches that you only have to allow President "Angel Gabriel" Hammond to tear up your constitutional rights and become a dictator end wrong-doing.

Rumor has it that this film was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's favorite movie; our leader during the Great Depression probably envied "President Hammond" his ease at swatting away congressional and foreign opposition. And remember, Hammond is a hero in this film, none so much as when he's shooting gangsters against a wall and threatening European allies with military destruction.

Another star of the film is Karen Morley, who plays President Hammond's secretary, Pendola Molloy, who falls in love with Tone's Beekman. She serves as sort of the moral conscience of the film, initially distrusting the "new" Hammond, but eventually revering the "dear leader." Huston, it must be noted, is absolutely magnificent in "Gabriel Over the White House." His before-and-after transformations are done superbly and his screen presence and gravitas makes the audience sympathize with the new president. He may be a dictator, but he's an honest, likable dictator.

I quote from Wikipedia the following: "Controversial since the time of its release, Gabriel Over the White House is widely acknowledged to be an example of totalitarian propaganda. ... the author of the original novel, was a "liberal champion of government activism"] and trusted adviser to David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister who brought Bismarck's welfare state to the United Kingdom.The decision to buy the story was made by producer Walter Wanger,variously described as "a liberal Democrat" or a "liberal Hollywood mogul." After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's staunchest supporters, who had helped him get the Democratic presidential nomination and who enlisted his entire media empire to campaign for him.Hearst intended the film to be a tribute to FDR and an attack on previous Republican administrations."

Louis B. Mayer, head man at MGM, hated the film. Conspiracy theorists have alleged a long time that the film was a sort of "dry run" for Roosevelt to take similar measures as "President Hammond" does. There are claims that Roosevelt had a hand in the script. Frankly, I doubt that. However, the film is hard to defend for anyone who adhere to our Republican form of government. It's best thought of as a misguided, yet idealistic fantasy of a strong leader able to solve all the problems of a nation mired in the Great Depression.

Watch a couple of clips from the film via YouTube. It can be purchased via amazon, as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A review of the definitive Ben Turpin biography, 'For Art's Sake'

Review by Doug Gibson

There's a passage in "For Art's Sake," Steve Rydzewski's biography and compilation of silent film comedy star Ben Turpin's life (BearManor Media), in which actor Wallace Beery roughs up his co-star Turpin while making a comedy short. The somewhat sadistic encounter takes place just before Turpin, a literal pioneer of slapstick silent cinema, becomes a major star for producer Mack Sennett, earning more than $3,000 a week in his heyday.

Now flash 20-plus a few years, the elderly Sennett, getting close to 70, provides a bittersweet rational as to why he is rarely in the "talkies" cinema --no one has asked. Turpin is still active, whether on the stage or for other publicity endeavors. But he's proud of what he has accomplished, and doesn't want to go hat in the hand, begging for screen work.

Rydzewski's book is a dash of biography (much of it in his subject's early years) and a whole lot of research that is shared with readers, mainly in the form of newspaper clipping and press releases. The format works. The subject's life and events flow well and the information, which must have taken thousands of hours to gather, is fascinating.This is a treasure trove of history. (Just the accounts of obscure stage performances are fascinating) It's unlikely that another book will ever improve on detailing Turpin's life. Given that most readers of this genre book will be searching for details of the subject's life, the format is successful

There's a lot of pathos in these life anecdotes, clipping and biography, but Turpin's life was not a tragedy. He was a very successful man, who saved and invested his earnings so he didn't have to work all his life. He enjoyed two successful marriages that were only ended by death. Rydzewski has done an impressive job of detailing the comic performer's life about as well as anyone has done and will be able to do. As for myself, prior to reading "For Art's Sake, " I knew little about Turpin's life, other than recognizing his iconic cross-eyed countenance. Several years ago, I read an enjoyable feature article on Turpin in Cult Movies Magazine, where I learned that Ben as a teen was given a small bounty by his dad and told to seek his fortune. After Ben, born in 1869, lost the bounty gambling, he hit the rails as a hobo. In the book, Rydzewski quotes Turpin as saying that "Mulligan stew was my bread" in those days.

"For Art's Sake" provides lots of information on Turpin's early life. His father managed candy shops in New Orleans and New York City, where Turpin learned the art of taffy pulling, a skill he was paid for as an adult performer. Living a nomadic life for several years after leaving home, Ben gravitated to carnivals and theater work, particularly physical comedy. A brief first marriage hardly slowed him down. Although he traveled widely, working for very low wages, Chicago eventually became an early hub of his career.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Turpin gained notoriety for his "Happy Hooligan" performance. These types of characters required intense physical skill, including throwing one's legs up high in the air and falling on the back and quickly rising. These moves, as well as comedy acts that required climbing and hard knocks, would frequently send Turpin over the years to hospitals. (Although there are many "explanations" as to why Turpin developed crossed-eyes, Rydzeswki's research points toward the cumulative effect of Ben having to intentionally cross his eyes for long stretches to play Happy Hooligan as a likely reason.

In 1907, Ben married Carrie Le Mieux, a fellow performer and they settled in Chicago. It was a happy union that would last until her death in 1925. About this time, Ben started making silent comedy films for Essanay, a Chicago-based company. As Rydzewski explains, film was not as respected as the stage in that period. Scripts were not a part of short comedy films. It was go to the scene, stay away from the cops, and improvise your movie. In fact, as Rydzewski's book notes, Ben was once arrested, and spent several hours in jail shivering, for entering public waters in Chicago while filming. (Here is a look at Ben, a legitimate pioneer of slapstick silent cinema -- he was literally the first -- in a portion of the Essanay 1909 short "Mr. Flip.")

Although he was only paid $20 to $30 a week for several years, Ben stayed with Essanay for a long time, even heading with his wife, Carrie, when Essanay made the move to Hollywood. Most of his early films are lost but enough survive remain to fully appreciate Ben's talent for physical comedy timing as well as his facial expressions and aggressive persistence that demands that viewers pay attention to him. Frankly, Essanay exploited his talent, making a fortune with the peanuts they paid him. As Rydzewski notes, once Ben tried to quit Essanay, but lost, and came back to the same miserable pay.

It was Charlie Chaplin, hired by Essanay, who finally started to move Ben's career into well-paid stardom. Instantly noting Turpin's star power, Chaplin worked with him and then refused to work with him again -- as a compliment -- correctly noting Turpin was a star. When Chaplin left Essanay, it likely helped provide Ben the resolve to find better earnings. He signed with Sennett, amazed that they accepted his demand of $100 a week. (An interesting anecdote in Rydzewski's book is Turpin recounting how his accountant urged him to live on far less and save a lot. That likely underscores his frugal lifestyle, which kept the Turpins financially secure after the top-earning years were over.)

As mentioned, Ben sailed to super-stardom with Sennett, earning $3K-plus a week. Many of his Sennett shorts survive and they are a pleasure to watch. As his wife Carrie's life neared its end, Ben, a very devout Catholic, took her to religious shrines hoping for a cure. He suspended his career to care for her in her final months. After her death, there are several news clipping that capture how big the story was in the mid-1920 entertainment media of star Ben Turpin shucking off his career to care for his loved spouse.

Although very witty in his public appearances, Turpin lived a quiet life with Carrie. There were no children, evidently a life disappointment. (Rydzewski includes an odd tale of Ben and Carrie asking a poor man if they could raise his daughter -- the man declined). In any event, it's not a surprise Ben eventually married Babette Dietz in the summer of 1926. Their union lasted until Ben's death in 1940 at age 70.

Ben went back to comedies but did not make the change to talky comedies. He was financially secure. At age 60 he could still do stage work and add to his secure living. He had invested well. I'm just guessing but he may have looked at the artistic difficulties some of his peers (Langdon, Lloyd, Keaton and even Chaplin) were having making the transition. In the early '30s, comedy cinema was moving toward dialogue comedy, either battle of the sexes or the fast repartee of the Marx Brothers. Slapstick was popular in shorts, but the budgets were tiny, and the films less recognized than in the Sennett era.

The best chance to see Ben in a film is the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film, "Saps at Sea," where he plays -- in a quick cameo -- a cross-eyed plumber. Ben Turpin died of a heart attack on July 1, 1940. Born in 1869, he was a literal first in his class of silent slapstick. Rydzewski has done a tremendous service, both to fans and film historians, with this comprehensive work. The book also includes scores and scores of pages of photos.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Andy Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough talks about 'The Ghastly One ...'

It's no secret that at Plan9Crunch, we are fans of the cult filmmaker Andy Milligan. His no-budget grindhouse films of a generation ago had a unique stamp that defined Milligan's compelling, dysfunctional style. Milligan died of AIDS almost 20 years ago, broke and more or less forgotten. Biographer Jimmy McDonough spent time with Milligan in his final years, and helped with a couple of his later films. His biography of Milligan captures the life Milligan led, from Cafe Cino productions, off-0ff Broadway productions, grindhouse filmmaking and his gay, hustling lifestyle that led to his death. We sent Jimmy several questions about Milligan, and he was kind enough to answer them with candor and insight. McDonough has written several acclaimed biographies that include the lives of Neil Young, Russ Meyer, and his latest, due out in about a week, Tammy Wynette. Here's the interview, unedited, conducted by Doug Gibson and Steve Stones. Thanks again, Jimmy!
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.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Embalmer features, sans irony, a murdering madman

By Steve D. Stones

The Embalmer originally played on a double-bill in drive-ins in 1966 with the Barbara Steele film The She Beast. It was later put on a triple bill in the early 1970s with the Ted V. Mikels classic The Corpse Grinders and The Undertaker and  His Pals. The Sinister Cinema DVD print of The Embalmer contains an interesting trailer for the triple bill encouraging movie patrons to sign a certificate of assurance guaranteeing to be of healthy and sound mind, and to not hold the theatre management liable for any heart conditions suffered while viewing The Embalmer. This was a clever gimmick to draw patrons into the theatre. A nurse was also on attendance to take the blood pressure of movie patrons.

A maniac dressed in a hooded monk’s robe and skull mask (similar to the mask used by The Crimson Ghost in the 1947 serial) is kidnapping young beautiful girls, draining their blood and injecting them with a serum to preserve their beauty forever. He puts their bodies on display in glass cases in his underground hideout in the catacombs under the city of Venice in Italy.

A young newspaper reporter is determined to solve the case of the missing girls. He helps a tour group find their hotel, and later guides them around the city. He falls in love with the leader of the tour group named Maureen.

Meanwhile, The Embalmer is busy kidnapping and drowning young girls by pulling them into a canal above the catacombs. He seems to have a taste for brunettes. An archaeologist discovers the Embalmer’s hideout. The Embalmer kills him and places his body in a coffin used as a stage prop for a local music club. Patrons at the music club are horrified when they witness the corpse of the archaeologist fall out of the upright coffin during a performance.

One of the girls from the tour group becomes the Embalmer’s next victim. Maureen is determined to find the girl. She enters the apartment of the hotel manager and discovers a secret passage to the catacombs through the fireplace. She discovers the Embalmer’s hideout in the catacombs. He chases after her as the young reporter hears her screams and comes to her rescue. The Embalmer and the reporter struggle in a fight. The reporter is able to remove the skull mask of the Embalmer to discover he is the hotel manager.

What I find so clever about this film is that the mask and identity of the Embalmer is not shown to the audience until the end of the film when Maureen discovers his hideout. Up until this point in the film, we only see the backside of the Embalmer as he hovers over his victims to inject them with a serum. Many clever point of view shots are shown of the Embalmers legs as he is walking to sneak up on his victims. This helps to build up tension and suspense.

Since The Embalmer is an Italian horror film, it is dubbed in English for American audiences. However, this does not distract from the film in any way. Both Alpha Video ( and Sinister Cinema sell The Embalmer on DVD. Both prints seem to be of equal quality, and likely come from the same source material. I recommend that you view The Embalmer together with another Italian horror classic, such as Castle of Blood or Terror Creatures From The Grave. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

More art from Steve D. Stones along with a couple of reviews

At Plan9Crunch we've always used co-blogger Steve D. Stones' iconic art to go with blog articles. In the last month or so we have done it frequently and I hope it continues. The first art (above) is Steve's Kiss art. Accompanying it will be this blog review of Kiss Meets the Phantom in New York, one of the most kitschy TV movies ever made. Here's an excerpt:

Gene Simmons in particular left an impression on me with his long tongue and demon headed boots. Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park greatly suffers from a thoughtful script and production values. Hanna-Barbara Studios, creators of Scooby Doo, produced the film. Guitarist Ace Frehley had a hard time showing up for work in make-up at 7 a.m. from partying the night before, and drummer Peter Criss had his lines dubbed by another actor because his dialogue was difficult to decipher. A stunt double was used for Frehley’s action sequences because he was so unreliable on the set.

 Our second art by Steve (above) is the Bride of Frankenstein, It's a scandal but we have never published a review of that great film (we will one day). In any event, we link to our review of scholar Tom Weaver's wonderful book, "Universal Horrors," that reviews all of the Universal films of its golden era, including "Bride ...'

Here is an excerpt from my review (buy this book, it's on Kindle too):

Highly regarded directors, such as Tod Browning, James Whale and Earle C. Kenton were eventually replaced with by-the-numbers guys such as William Beaudine or Jean Yarbrough. It's also interesting to track the reviews through the 15 years. The earliest classic Universal monsters received grudging respect by the major newspapers (think New York Times) but gradually over time the reviews became -- appropriately -- pans. It's amusing to read the deliberate snide pans over the years from one New York Times film critic, the amusingly named Bosley Crowther!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

'The Dentist' is a very funny pre-code W.C. Fields short

By Doug Gibson

I had the opportunity to watch, again, this pretty fun 1932 Sennett comedy short, "The Dentist," starring W. C. Fields as a gruff, eccentric dentist and his travails with his daughter, who loves the ice man, his golf game, as well as some golf buddies and life in the dentist's office interacting with his pretty nurse and a few eccentric patients.

As mentioned, Fields is great. Only Fields can wave away concern about patient's pain with lines such as, "Oh, to hell with her," or "Have you ever had this tooth pulled before?" This is a film made just before the dreaded Hayes Code restricted Hollywood fare to a G rated-type fare. "The Dentist" is PG fare, with Field's mild growling, suggestive sarcasm, and in one particular one very sexually suggestive scene where dentist Fields burrows himself deep between a lady patient's very wide, very bare legs in order to force a tooth extraction. (A portion of the scene is shown above). The lady patient is played by willowly, Elise Cavanna, and she sort of looks like a sexier version of Carol Burnett. Although Fields' character has no romantic intentions, the scene is definitely played as a sexual satire. Cavanna's groans of pain contain more than a hint of passion, and after the tooth is extracted, she lies back in the chair, limbs splayed, with a countenance that hints of "afterglow."

I have recently learned that the scene between Fields and Cavanna was indeed a sexual spoof. It was a based on a popular stag film of the 1920s, called, "The Slow Fire Dentist." In the film, a dentist and a lady patient take things a good deal further than Fields and Cavanna. It's an interesting bit of film history and, as mentioned, it's a good bet "The Dentist" would never have been allowed to be screened had it been made a couple of years later.

Rumor has it that there's an even spicier version of "The Dentist" out there but I suspect the Turner Classic Movies print, which is shown at least once a year, is complete. The 20-minute film was directed by Leslie Pearce. If one wants to see Fields at his best in a feature film, I suggest 1934's "It's a Gift."

Friday, September 4, 2015

'Strange Confession' is Chaney's best Inner Sanctum film

By Doug Gibson

For a few brief years in the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jr. was the top monster man at Universal Studios. He even took Dracula away from Bela Lugosi in the vampire sequel. Chaney was a far better actor than many realize; he proved a great capable character actor in western and gritty dramas; think "High Noon" and "The Defiant Ones." But 70 years ago Universal wasn't sure if its star was "Lenny-turned-Monster" or a tortured intellectual, man-about-town.

Hence, Universal's last effort to keep Chaney as a leading man, the Inner Sanctum series, six psychological dramas, based on pulp literature, and early distant cousins of the soon-to-be-flourishing film noir of the late 40s and on. In most of the Inner Sanctum films, five of which were introduced by a floating head, Chaney was miscast as an upper-crust academic or a supposedly suave entertainer, the object of both treachery and adoration by beautiful women.

What played against those high hopes was that Chaney, despite a still-rugged build, had a face that was slowly morphing into folding decay courtesy of a severe alcohol addiction. He was also what you might call a "regular Joe" kind of guy, with passions that included hunting, bending the elbow and practical jokes.

As for the Inner Sanctums, which were B movie material, Chaney gave decent performances despite the casting, "Weird Woman" is pretty good, almost as good is "Calling Dr. Death," "Dead Man's Eyes" ... pretty bad. I had seen four and finally picked up the DVD to see them all.

"Strange Confession" threw me for a loop. The series entry, which for years had been filed away by Universal, away from TV, is a damn good 62-minute programmer. It's about a dedicated researcher, Chaney, who is exploited by his truly evil millionaire boss, an excellent J. Carrol Naish, who lusts after both quick millions marketing a flu medicine (and who cares if it's the medicine that works) and also for Chaney's very shapely wife, played by Brenda Joyce.

Early in the film, Chaney quits Naish's employ, realizing what scum he is. Blacklisted, Chaney's character, Jeff Carter, is working as an assistant pharmacist or something, barely able to plug out a living with his wife and toddler boy. Naish, a visitor to a party at the Carter's humble abode, offers his former scientist wealth if he'll return. Carter says no, but is later persuaded to accept the job by his wife, who is tired of poverty.

Joyce's Mary is a complex character. She clearly loves her husband but plays the traditional "Eve" character, persuading him to follow "Satan," Naish's Roger Graham. Also, rather creepily Mary seems to provide limited encouragement to Graham's slow but persistent efforts to have an affair with her. This was, of course, the Breen era, so we never even have a hint that adultery occurred but that is Graham's goal. He even sends Chaney's Carter off to Brazil, with an assistant played by a young Lloyd Bridges, to find the ingredients to complete the flu medicine. Chaney finds it, but not before a flu epidemic hits the U.S. Graham ignores Chaney's correct formula, and markets an inferior earlier concoction to make a quick buck.

This leads to a particularly heart-wrenching tragedy and a truly gruesome climax that, this again being the Breen era, is not shown in gory detail.

Although Chaney is an academic he's more of a loner, a socially awkward rumpled professor full of obsession and angst and he carries it off, playing a more determined Larry Talbot, Naish is also superb; he's pure evil, without conscience but also gifted with a silver tongue and the art of persuasion. Others who are good in smaller roles are Milburn Stone as a business confederate of Graham's and Mary Gordon as a stereotypical but appealing nanny to the now-prosperous Carter family.

Even as Universal's horror offerings solidified as B films they were still above the quality of Monogram and PRC C films. The chief reason was tight scripts, better supporting actors and lean direction. As with other "Universal Horrors," "Strange Confession," directed by John Hoffman, is a lean-mean offering with a disciplined plot that's over before you know it.

It's one of Chaney's better late-Universal films and his portrayal of a dedicated scientist cheated in many ways by a sociopath boss allows him to retain sympathy despite the revenge he takes. Below is a screen shot of Naish, Chaney and Joyce.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

More art and reviews from the talented Steve D. Stones

A while back we had a post that featured art from Plan9Crunch co-blogger Steve D. Stones, along with a link to one of his reviews of a film associated with the art. We're going to do that again today with a couple of his works and reviews. Here is his painting titled Creepshow Crunch.  The review that we are attaching with it is Steve's review of The Blob, a monster movie of the 1950s that contains the iconic monster and spirit of the cult films era. The review is here.
Below will be Steve's Photo of the Frankenstein monster, a definite modern take on the most iconic one from Universal in 1931. As a review to go with it we will attach my review of the wonderful by scholar Frank Dello Stritto, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It." Dello Stritto counts the film "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" as shaping his love of the genre during his youth. The review is here.