Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie ... bizarre, surreal

By Doug Gibson

I finally got a chance, via YouTube, to see the infamous "The Last Movie," the 1971 Universal bomb that starred directed Dennis Hopper. I'd always wanted to see it after reading about it almost 30 years ago in the Medved brothers book, "The 50 Worst Films of All Time." The film, which barely got a VHS release and has never been released on DVD, damaged Hopper's career for about 15 years.

Although, there is a small contingent of film fans who claim "The Last Movie" is a misunderstood genius, don't believe it. It's an incomprehensible, pretentious, expensive ego trip for the star, who had become a hot property due to "Easy Rider." Given $1 million by Universal to make a film, Hopper and many friends, hopped to a small town in rural Peru and shot a film. Purposely not shot in sequence (one waits almost 30 minutes before the title "The Last Movie" is shown, it stars Hopper as "Kansas," a stunt man for a Hollywood western film production. Kansas is shacked up with the town whore and decides to stay after the western filmmakers go home.

At this point, locals, egged on by a Catholic priest who hates Kansas and the others western film people, decide to make their own film. They use fake cameras (made of wood) and worse, real weapons and violence, that kill and main people. The priest blames Kansas, and he's wounded and on the run from the filmmaker villagers, who want to finish the film with Kansas as the villain.

This sounds mildly interesting but the film is shot out of sequence and with little coherence. The film "begins" with a wounded Kansas being hunted by villagers ... and so on, back and forth. At one point, the plot goes away and Kansas and a buddy visit a degenerate couple with plans to invest in a mine. The degenerate is played by Julie Adams, star of Creature of the Black Lagoon and once a girlfriend to "Andy Taylor" in The Andy Griffith Show. She's very fetching as a 40sh trophy wife but her performance is so bad it has to be seen to fully comprehend how bad it is. As poor as Hopper is in the film, Adams is beyond belief. The film has a couple of "erotic" scenes, including a voyeuristic one involving staged lesbianism.

The rest of the film flies back and forth sequentially. At one point is seems to settle with a climax of Hopper facing death in the villagers' "film," but then everything goes out the window and we're subject to what looks like outtakes from director Hopper. Then the film just ends, and the people of Chinchero, Peru are eventually thanked. ...

The backstory of the film is more interesting. As mentioned, Hopper was provided a million plus to make the film from Universal execs, who did not oversee the filmmaking. There are rumors, and from viewing the film I'd tend to agree, that drug use was frequent on the set. Apparently, Hopper did prepare a conventional, sequential version of a film. However, it was mocked by "El Topo" director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Hopper, humiliated, tore apart the film and attempted to make a "deep" "metaphysical" "spiritual" incomprehensible adaptation that allegedly poked fun at materialism. Some of the co-stars include Adams, Tomas Milian, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, James Mitchum, Dean Stockwell, Michelle Phillips, Russ Tamblyn and Kris Kristofferson, who sings.

The film horrified Universal execs. Despite winning a minor award at a Eiropean film festival, after it played in NYC, LA and a few other major cities, it was dumped into general release as a second or third feature on the drive in circuit, often titled "Chinchero." The film bombed, Hopper's career was harmed. Defiantly, he took the film on the road during the 70s, showing it on college campuses. After Hopper's career returned, he regained rights and before his death spoke of getting a DVD release. That never happened, although I'm sure one day there will be an art house label DVD release. When that occurs, don't expect much, but it's worth a peek just to experience the pretentious banality. Maybe it will pop up on TCM Underground some day. Watch the trailer above.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Ship of Monsters (La Nave De Los Monstruos) - 1960

Review by Steve D. Stones

This south of the border science fiction feature, "Ship of Monsters," has everything a good low budget cult film should have - sexy space girls in bikinis and high heels, a giant robot, a phallic rocket flying through the universe and ugly space creatures trapped in a cave.

Sexy Venusian gals Gamma (Ana Bertha) and Beta (Lorena Velazquez) have been assigned to bring back "perfect male specimens" to Venus. The male population on Venus has been destroyed by atomic destruction.  Their spaceship lands in Mexico where they meet cowboy - Laureano Atrevino Gomez, played by Eulalio 'Piporro' Gonzalez. Gomez was hoping the universe would bring him a lovely female companion as he watched Gamma and Beta's ship soar through the sky. Now, he has encountered two of them. He will have a difficult choice to make.

Gamma and Beta tell Gomez that they are part of a traveling circus and are looking for a place to stay while their giant robot Torr makes repairs to their spaceship. Gomez decides to allow the two to stay at his home. He is puzzled that the two sexy gals do not have boyfriends and have never heard of love and marriage. Lucky for them, they've never had their hearts broken. Gomez proceeds to explain what love and marriage is. Beta wants to take Gomez back to Venus to have him for herself.

Some of the male specimens in the spaceship have gotten out of control. With the help of Torr, Gamma and Beta encase them in frozen blocks and hide them in a remote cave. These male specimens are obviously not human, for they are ugly and look like space aliens.  One of the specimens is named Tawal - Prince of Mars. His head is shaped like a giant brain, similar to the aliens in Invasion of The Saucer Men (1957). Another is a cyclops with vampire teeth named Uk - King of The Fire Planet.

Beta is sentenced to death after Gamma witnesses her turn into a vampire and murder some local villagers. It is never explained how or why Beta becomes a vampire. Perhaps Uk bit her on the neck? She escapes the spaceship and frees all the aliens from the cave. Uk slaughters Gomez's cow, and eventually his horse.

The film tries to merge several genres - science-fiction, comedy, a musical and a western. Gomez has a number of scenes in which he sings. In one sequence, Torr says to the jukebox in Gomez's home "Oh baby, what lovely bulbs you have," which is an obvious sexual reference, after the fact that Gomez has sang a love song to Gamma.

Ship of Monsters would make a great double feature with the 1966 Larry Buchanan film - Mars Needs Women. One film has women searching for men to bring back to their planet for breeding purposes. The other film has men looking for women for breeding purposes on their planet. Perhaps director Buchanan may have been inspired by Ship of Monsters when he made Mars Needs Women? Happy viewing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A look at Ed Wood's short stories ... A Muddled Mind

Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by David C. Hayes, 2009 update, Ramble House Press, Reviewer received a review copy.

By Doug Gibson

Depending on your point of view, Ed Wood was either a famous, or infamous filmmaker. What the average Ed Wood fan doesn't know is that Wood wrote a heck of a lot of novels, short stories and news articles; 80 novels, several hundred short stories and a few hundred non-fiction articles. And Wood was a damn good writer, Imagine Elmore Leonard writing without an editor and submitting a first draft. That's Wood.

The tragedy of Wood's life is that he was a drunk; after the mid 1960s most of his written work -- and all of his film work -- was in porn. But even that sleaze had Wood's iconic and unique touch and value. His books and sleazy magazines -- many of which he created all by himself -- are still in demand, fetching big prices for collectors.

It's high time someone provided a detailed overview of Wood's literary output, and Chicago writer, actor, screenwriter and filmmaker David C. Hayes does a pretty good job in Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood Jr. It's a reference book of all of Wood's writing; from the semi-sleazy mid-60s tales such as Death of a Transvestite and Devil Girls to the raunchier books and stories and finally the hard-core porn Wood was reduced to writing his final years.

Hayes' book is tongue in cheek at times, with a fictional "co-author," and it's not a deep book, but it's of real value to Wood fans. We learn what an amazing, tireless writer Wood was even with the crutch of alcoholism. For example, he was invaluable to the fly-by-night porn magazine publishers of the 1970s. Wood would write an entire issue of "Tales for a Sexy Night" or another similarly title magazine, and then do again a few weeks later.

In what Hayes describes as The Golden Age, Wood wrote some fast-paced, compact Elmore Leonard-type novels, such as Killer in Drag, Devil Girls and Death of a Transvestite. They are not porn, and must have earned Wood some prestige as a writer, although he was probably lucky to see $2,000 for all three books. Wood's desperate straights made him easily exploitable by low-brow publishers. (Come to think of it, that's also a fate that plagued the actor Bela Lugosi, who, as most know, starred in a few Wood films)

Hayes repeats what I have read in other sources that writing porn is part of what destroyed Wood in the last years of his life. Muddled Mind respects Wood enough to offer critiques on his work to the bitter adult sleaze end. Hayes writes with both humor and respect for Wood. It is amazing that more than 30 years after his death, we are still finding Wood novels, stories and articles (he wrote often under pseudonyms) and it's likely that 50 years from now, we'll still be finding Wood's output. He was indefatigable.

I've saved the best part of Muddled Mind for last. It includes complete copies of three excellent, distinct Wood stories. The first, The Night the Banshee Cried, is a spooky tale of a woman fearing a sinister presence. It's Wood's very credible effort to invoke the atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe. The next, Pearl Hart and the Last Stage, is a very entertaining fictional essay on an infamous lady stagecoach bandit. Again, Wood manages to capture the spirit of a Zane Grey-type tale.

The last, and best story, To Kill a Saturday Night, is simply brilliant. The tale of a pair of bloviating farm workers contemplating casual murder on their day off will remind readers of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Both Pearl Hart ... and To Kill ... were written in the 1970s, a time when Wood was sadly, firmly padlocked into lowbrow porn. But even then, an alcoholic semi-bum, the man could still write talented prose.

There is one more treat in Muddled Mind. There is Wood's prologue to an audio version of Plan 9 From Outer Space that was produced by Wood's porn producer Pendulum Press. The audio may have been a reward for Wood's previous workload. Who knows? Wood wrote this prologue after being kicked out of his apartment. Living as a charity case with actor Peter Coe, Wood died days after he penned this friendly, optimistic intro with a lot of literary license. If you love and admire Wood's work, you will get goose bumps reading this. It's nice that Wood was aware, while alive, that there was a young cult following for his work. He deserved that.

Muddled Mind is a great follow up to Wood's literary life after we were teased about it in Rudolph's Grey's excellent oral biography on Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy. Ramble House is a very tiny press, and Wood fans should be grateful that it is critiquing Wood's writing and searching for more of his works. In fact, Ramble House, under the name Woodpile Press, is selling reproductions of much of Wood's writings. Muddled Mind has a list of the offerings. This is wonderful news and we hope Ramble House keeps rambling.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The life of the man who was Old Mother Riley -- Arthur Lucan

By Doug Gibson

Let's face it, in America at least, to most cult movies fans, Arthur Lucan (AKA Old Mother Riley), is a footnote, the eccentric co-star with Bela Lugosi in the 1952 British film "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Watching that film, which is on YouTube, Lucan's pantomime dame is frankly, a "whirling dervish" of energy, prancing around the sets, singing songs and speaking 300 words a minute in the working-class dialect.

He's a talent, there's no doubt about that, but a strange one to U.S. viewers, or contemporary viewers today, because his chief skill is a largely forgotten one. As mentioned, Lucan was a "pantomime dame," a not uncommon feature of the British stage and music halls of the first half of the 20th century. "Old Mother Riley" was not a drag act, or geared toward gay audiences. It was comprised of comedy sketches, many of which were bathed in pathos and social messages, explains Robert V. Kenny, author of the new biography, "The Man Who Was Old Mother Riley: The Lives and Films of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane (Bear Manor Media, 2014) here.

Arthur Lucan (1885-1954) was married to Kitty McShane (1897-1964), who he described as his Irish beauty. Unfortunately, after a few years of marital bliss, it turned into a dysfunctional nightmare with the mild-mannered Lucan eventually becoming a kept cuckold in his own home, with McShane, who by most accounts exhibited sociopathic behavior, taking control of the money, bankrupting the couple and using her lover, actor "Willer Neal," as her co-star in "The Old Mother Riley ..." films that she starred in with Lucan.  I often seriously wonder if there is an entertainer as universally disliked by those who knew her, and historians, as Kitty McShane. Kenny's account of their lives only seems to add more evidence of her malice, insensitivity and drunken cruelties.

The "Old Mother Riley" films, though, were a huge success prior and during World War II as topics such as the war, war profiteers, parliament, the rights of the poor, and even relations with Ireland were explored within the comedies. The basic premise stayed the same: Lucan played widow Old Mother Riley with McShane as her daughter, who was always seeking romance and usually found it. British audiences loved Lucan and McShane, who had developed the characters, if not with the same name, as early as the 1920s. However, Kitty McShane's narcissism led her to continue to play the "young daughter" in the post-World War II films, despite that she had become a plump matron.

Lucan honed his skills at the turn of the 20th century, learning a lot from a family of actors he lived and worked with prior to going out on his own and marrying McShane. Kitty McShane's pleasant voice and young good looks made the team very popular. One of their first skits, called "Bridget's Night Out," featured pantomime dame "mother" Lucan fretting over "daughter" Kitty's late night out. As Kenny explains, these skits not only were meant for humor, but tapped into the fear in those times of how a wayward daughter's life could be ruined if she was taken advantage of by a man.

I can't adequately explain Lucan as a performer except to say again that he is clearly talented in what he does. On YouTube, there is an early skit with Lucan and McShane that is similar to "Bridget's Night Out." It's heavy on pathos as well as comedy and one can't help but marvel at Lucan's skill, even if it's hard for us to comprehend. Watch it here but note that despite the title card, Lucan was not known as Old Mother Riley at the time (1936).

At their peak, with many movies and a performance in front of the Royal Family in Britain to their credit, Lucan and McShane were very rich, the equivalent of millionaires. McShane blew the money with excess spending and bad investments. Her behavior became so abominable that by the early 1950s, the pair, while married, had split; hence the reason that there's no Kitty McShane in "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire."

Kenny's book still fails to capture the dysfunctional but stubbornly durable connection between Lucan and his wife. Perhaps we'll never know why he put up with her cruelty, that extended to violence on occasions (Once her boyfriend Neal beat Lucan mercilessly). According to Kenny, McShane stopped -- in the late 1920s -- plans for Lucan to team with a comedian in U.S. films because there was no planned role for her.

As it was, Arthur Lucan eventually died as he lived most of his life, in a theater, collapsing while preparing to play his most famous character, pantomime dame Old Mother Riley. As for Kitty McShane, her career was more or less over. She lived almost 10 more years, in increasing squalor, and died shortly after her boyfriend, Neal, passed away.

Today, Arthur Lucan has been rediscovered in Britain and his grave is well cared for and there are occasional analysis of his career, which spanned roughly 50 years. Kitty McShane's funeral was attended by a few mourners, and despite knowledge of the cemetery she was buried in, a stone was never placed, and no one is sure exactly where she is buried.

Kenny's biography is superb. He makes a myth out of the idea that some entertainers are too old and gone to find interesting information into their lives. The book captures a period of entertainment history that few know much about, and appreciates the talent of the master of that particular entertainment. Until this book the most Lugosi fans and generally everyone else in the U.S. knew about Lucan and McShane came from a segment in Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks excellent book, "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain."

Watch Mother Riley Meets the Vampire below under a different title.