This is the introductory entry in a new series covering movies that originally played in drive-in-cinema double bills across the country. One of the first drive-in theaters premiered in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. The venue’s popularity reached its zenith from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Still, the 1940s was also a robust decade for the drive-in, which specialized in low budget B-films, especially horror and science fiction. The setting was also unique in that drive-ins continued to screen films from the 30 and 40s all the way until the late 70s. For a more extended discussion, see the … Continue reading 1944 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: CORPSE VANISHES AND VOODOO MAN
Gas Pump Girls (directed by Joel Bender) is a slice of 70s drive-in T&A. Not aspiring to be anything else, it revels in its Americana kookiness. June (Kirsten Baker) takes over a gas station from her uncle (Huntz Hall from the Bowery Boys) after he has a heart attack. She trains her tight tanktop, short-short-wearing girlfriends to pump gas (“Stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out”), which naturally leads them to take on a big bad oil company. Musical numbers and topless scenes are thrown in just for the hell of it, and why not? There’s a punk gang, too; the film is almost a hybrid of the Ramones doing a Grease soundtrack on a “Happy Days” set with a bit of Rockythrown in. Yes, it’s that cool. It was influential and Bender does wonders with virtually no budget, making this quintessential 1970s trash.
H.O.T.S (directed by Gerald Seth Sindell) is another uddersploitation offshoot of Animal House. It can be summed up as politically incorrect campus topless football. Given that its inspiration isn’t very good to begin with, H.O.T.S. doesn’t set it sights very high, and is all the better for it.
Linda Blair’s cleavage, Linda Blair’s legs, lots of hair, lots of polyester, lots of spandex, and lots of skating add up to a late 70s campfest in Roller Boogie (directed by Mark Lester). It’s embarrassing in the best way.
Bad men kidnap a busload of pretty, all-American cheerleader boobs in The Great American Girl Robbery (directed by Jeff Werner). Ra-ra.
Malibu High (directed by Irvin Berwick) is what 70s drive-in cinema was all about—sex, drugs, and amorality. Hallelujah! Kim (Jill Lansing, in her only film role) is flunking school, just got dumped by her boyfriend for a rich bitch, hates her bathrobe-wearing mama, and her daddy killed himself. What’s a girl to do? First, bed all the teachers. Now, Kim has a 4.0 GPA, but she wants nice things, too, dammit. With her new miniskirt, Kim figures she might as well get paid for what all those stupid girls do for free. Meet Kim, the hooker who’ll rock your van into the gates of paradise. Alas, poor Kim also likes the wacky tobaccy, and we know what that demon will do—turn you into a gun-toting hitman with a pop-gun. Lansing plays her sociopath without an ounce of sympathy and even less talent, with thespian skills so tawdry that it’s easy to see why she became a minor cult goddess. Even worse is the writing, which seems penned by a clueless tenth grader, and the score by a tone deaf composer. It’s mind-boggling enough to be a trash masterpiece that can rank with the likes of Larry Buchanan.
In the future, future generations may see fit to an erect a future Mount Rushmore homage to the likes of Ed Wood, Al Adamson, Doris Wishman, and Larry Buchanan in the future. And why wouldn’t they, with gems like Buchanan’s Mistress of the Apes? See Susan (Jenny Neumann) fill a pair of white daisy dukes. See Susan teach a missing link how to deep throat a banana. See Susan scratch her armpit and beat her boobs. See Susan become goddess of the jungle. Among the injustices of the world is the academy’s total failure to nominate “Ape Woman” as Best Original Song. Oh, e, oh, oh, e, oh.
Weasels Rip My Flesh is not a long-lost Frank Zappa movie. Rather, it’s a Nathan Schiff opus that’s among the most uproariously incompetent movies ever made. (Keep in mind that Schiff was a 16-year-old teenager with a Super-8 camera and a $400 budget). A NASA probe from Venus crashes in Long Island, emits radiation, and creates a giant paper machete weasel. The acting is mortifying, the audio is often indecipherable, the editing and writing are mind-numbing, and the cheap camerawork is shaky, but Schiff managed to make a cult film for the ages. God bless him.
The final year of exploitation cinema’s greatest decade begins with Alien, the film that made the careers of director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver. Ian Holm stands out in a top-notch ensemble, which includes the late John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright. Seven years later, James Cameron took a very different route with the belated, high octane sequel, which, unlike its predecessor, was an immediate hit. Apart from the performances of Weaver and Bill Paxton, however, Cameron’s sequel doesn’t stand up, lacking the tension, freshness, and sense of wonder of Scott’s original, which took its time earning its cult status.
Likewise, The Brood cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation as a startlingly original and provocative filmmaker. Status quo critics, such as Roger Ebert, were mightily offended. Thank God.
Staying consistent, Ebert missed the boat again with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It spawned a lot of imitations, including Coscarelli’s inferior sequels, which have curiously imitated the imitators.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a homage to F.W. Murnaru’s original. Although some will undoubtedly scream blasphemy, Herzog’s effort, starring Klaus Kinski in the role made famous by Max Schreck, is the equal of the 1922 classic.
Dracula (directed by John Balham) was an unnecessary big budget remake with a feathered-hair Count (Frank Langella). Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance co-starred.
With the success of Carrie, it was inevitable that Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, would be adapted too. Surprisingly, it was made into a mini-series. Even more surprisingly, it’s directed by Tobe Hooper, although like Poltergeist, it feels more like the work of its producers. David Soul, riding high on his “Starsky and Hutch” popularity, stars, but James Mason, as usual, steals the show.
Cleopatra Wong (Marrie Lee) showed up in 1979 for a couple of ass-whuppin features: first in Bobby A. Suarez’ The Devil’s Three (AKA Mean Business). As usual with Suarez, oddity is in his DNA. In order to save the day, Cleopatra has to dine with the devil (Johnny Wilson), who’s not literally the devil—he’s just a gang lord who goes by that name. Along the way she picks up a flaming bunny in drag (Chito Guerrero) and a four hundred pound psychic (Florence Carvajel) as sidekicks. It’s low budget, badly dubbed, G-rated (well, perhaps PG-rated) lunacy at its most inspired. It probably played at every drive-in theater in the country, for which it was tailor-made.
The Return of the Bionic Boy features a returning Wong, teaming up with the Bionic Boy (Johnson Yap) who is not only bionic, but also an eight-year-old Tae Kwon Do master. Suarez and company jump on the bionic bandwagon, pitting our heroes against Nazis, laser thingamajigs, the campiest gay villain in all of cinema history, and a fire-breathing pseudo-Godzilla as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Being expired cheese, this comes with a manager’s special discount, including a fee pack of antacids for afterwards. Enjoy.
Check out http://driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.
Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”
As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kickingnachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) is reaping critical praise, and opened with an astounding one hundred million dollar weekend box office. It’s being hailed as the best movie in the DCEU—i.e., D.C. comics extended universe—although I’m not sure how exactly that’s different than the DC movies that preexisted that label.
Regardless, this is the first big screen standalone treatment of the character, which originally debuted during the Second World War, created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. Wonder Woman was always a kind of female variation on Superman. Paradoxically, she was both a symbol of female empowerment and a pinup bondage fantasy. Initially, under the original artists, she was more feminist than titillating. Predictably, it was the pinup quality that drove the bulk of her fan base and informed most of her subsequent incarnations, the notable exception being the series helmed by George Perez’ silvery pencils. Even then, “Wonder Woman” comics never equaled the sales of her male counterparts. When it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was being cast as the big screen Wonder Woman, a lot of fanboys harped, comparing her unfavorably to 1970s TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter—because, frankly, Carter has more robust cleavage. In 2011, an updated TV movie was planned, but once publicity stills were released of actress Adrianne Palicki wearing a long pants version of the red, yellow, and blue suit, the DC fundamentalists were up in arms. They wanted legs, dammit, and went the politically correct route of whining about political correctness. The movie, which apparently was a pilot for a series, was purportedly wretched anyway, and seems to have vanished from memory. Five years later, when Gadot’s cameo proved the only bright spot in the execrable Batman vs. Superman, the fanatics were finally appeased, and thankfully silenced.
Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists, Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.
Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted it to a fanbase who then pedestaled it. The eventual consequences of that dumbing-down was the trailer park science fiction franchise, Alien vs. Predator.
The consensus seems to be that Covenant is better than Prometheus but falls short of the original Alien. Undeniably, that spook house gorilla has its distinctive, addictive history, having been inspired by It, The Terror from Beyond Space, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As is well known, Scott upped the ante of anxiety by not allowing the cast to read the entire Alien script ahead of time. That tension spilled over, making a celluloid model so formidable that it merely inspired imitations.
With Prometheus, Scott escaped the doldrums of vapid ritual and crafted a film so original, so divisive, it became almost a standalone that no one would dare emulate. Although the rampaging rapist xenomorph was nowhere to be seen, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw still manages to be impregnated with something, making for a nail-biting race against birth. Behind it all is Michael Fassbender’s bewitchingly enigmatic David, the most compelling cinematic android since Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner and Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” in A.I.. Finally, Alien was exciting and fresh again.
The absence of Rapace is keenly felt in Covenant, but Fassbender’s David returns—twofold—and it’s his relationship with himself that propels Covenant and cements Scott as a late-in-life virtuoso filmmaker. He’s that rarity of rarities: an artist that started strong and, far from becoming derivative, has revisited and reflected on his body of work and ongoing themes, managing to say something epic about his oeuvre and himself. Comparatively, late in their careers, filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and even Picasso were producing what amounted to rudimentary, even fatigued sketches of previous wonders. The Scott of Covenant is like John Coltrane at Newport in the Sixties, expansively recomposing “My Favorite Things” into something so epic that it eradicates its former incarnations into faint skeletons. A small minority have accused Scott of compromise here, but that’s as deceptive as the criticisms thirty-eight years prior.
The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.
Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and Christopher Plummer, but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.
Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame Bette Davis, still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.
goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.
They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.
We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.
The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.
Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.
Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.
John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.
The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.
Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.
Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.
Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.
If anyone from the future opens a 1977 time capsule stuffed with DVDs, the first impression they may reap is that everyone was having lotza sex this year. Sylvia Kristal (the most famous actress to essay the role) opens the year with Emmanuel 3. Laura Gemser (our Black Emanuel from ’75) takes over with Emanuel in America. Apparently native boys can’t get it up enough for her, so Laura branches out in Emanuel Around the World. She then plies her trade in the nunspolitation genre in Sister Emanuel, and finally takes on the cannibal movement with Emanuel and the Last Cannibals. After that, Laura gets some much needed R &R, and won’t return until 1980’s Emanuel: Queen Bitch.The 70s were definitely not political correct, as Chai Lee proves with Yellow Emanuel. It’s more of the same with a different skin hue. Lee shrugs off the racist title and slut shaming, declaring that her vagina is merely a muscle that needs exercising. Actually, it’s a tame affair.
Joey Heatherton took over the role of Xaviera Hollander for The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington. She’s a bitter fit than Lynn Redgrave was in 1975’s The Happy Hooker, and director William A. Levey was more at home with the trashy tales of the madame’s purportedly true exploits than Nicholas Sgarro had been two years earlier. Still, it’s dated soft-core titillation.
Adult film star Uschi Digard shows up for the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” sexploitation segment of John Landis’ anthology, Kentucky Fried Movie. Despite his one time commercial standing and the cults around a few of his films (1978’s Animal House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, 1981’s An American Werewolf In London), Landis never made a good film and proved what a lousy filmmaker he was going to be in this, his second film. At the very least, we have to give the hack his due because he got through this without crippling or killing anyone.
Tan, buxom blonde Cheri Caffaro was a minor 70s exploitation sex symbol. She began her path to “fame” after winning a Brigitte Bardot lookalike contest and is best known for her Ginger McAllister trilogy: Ginger, The Abductors, and Girls Are For Loving, made between 1971 and 1973 and written and directed by her then husband Don Schain. Ginger was a softcore female James Bond for the drive-in circuit. All of these were trashy and fun (we hope to cover the entire trilogy at a later date). Caffaro had branched out(sort of) playing different characters in Schain’s A Place Called Today (social commentary exploitation, AKA dull sleaze) and Savage Sisters (1974, directed by Eddie Romero), which is a somewhat tame but fun women-in-prison exploitation. Caffaro’s last film role (before divorcing Schain and becoming a beekeeper!) is Too Hot to Handle, which reunited her with husband/Ginger director. Her character name has changed here to Samantha Fox, but it’s essentially a darker variation of Ginger McAllister with a bit of Ilsa thrown in. Caffaro has fun playing a lethal lady, and it’s contagious. It’s kinky and inventive, but hampered by trying to do more than the budget allowed.
Death Game (directed by Peter Traynor) is purportedly based on a true story and opens like an old dark house thriller with two women (Sondra Locke—best known as Clint Eastwood’s ex, and Coleen Camp—best known for her 70s cleavage) seeking refuge from the rain. Unfortunately, Seymour Cassel lets them in, and before you can say menage-a-trois, he discovers himself tormented by lesbian psychos from the pit. Despite all the destruction and mayhem, Seymour doesn’t solicit our sympathies. Low budget, rude, crude, and with some of the most amateurish editing ever committed to celluloid, this was almost universally panned at the time, but it is exploitation at its deranged purest, with waaaaaaay over-the-top performances. Overdosing on ham, you’ll think its a holiday of sorts.
Fight for Your Life (the only film directed by Robert Endelson) is ultra-violent blaxploitation, and one of the best in that sub-genre. With all the racial slurs being bandied about, this Straw Weisman script would be an almost impossible to produce today. It’s a variation of Last House on the Left and, to a lesser degree, 1955’s The Desperate Hours, with a gang of thugs breaking into the house of black minister and his family. A lot of torment follows, until the tables are turned. It’s been described as vile and repulsive and that’s absolutely spot on. It’s actually superior to Wes Craven’s groundbreaking film, but inexplicably less well known. If you prefer white racism swept under the rug, avoid this like the plague.
We come down several notches for The Uncanny (directed by Denis Héroux). Produced by Amicus veteran Milton Subotsky, it’s another stab at the anthology genre, and a tepid one at that. Peter Cushing is the author/host who tries to convince his skeptical publisher (Ray Milland) that cats are evil spirits intent on taking over the world, which segues into a trio of tales. The first (and-sort-of- best) vignette stars Joan Greenwood as a wealthy socialite who has revised her will, leaving everything to her cats. The maid (Susan Penhaligon) tries to steal the will and the felines get pissed, making for a gory comeuppance. The two remaining tales are forgettable, with Donald Pleasance giving one of his worst performances as faded actor Valentine Death, whom everyone calls V.D. Get it? Fortunately, the cat literally gets his tongue. Cushing and Milland are quite good and the direction is competent, but its failure is in the scripting by Michel Parry.
Star Wars, Annie Hall, and Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.
Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.
Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.
The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).
A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.
Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.
The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.
SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.
Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.
Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.
Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.
Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continued the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past twenty years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as a “dark” auteur. Rather, his has muted into a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Wonka projected far more interior … Continue reading DARK SHADOWS (2012)
The beauty of the 1970s is its obsession with multifarious genres and trends, but the hardly means all the movies are good. A case in point is Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, which jumps on the killer animal bandwagon started by Bruce the shark, who shows up here as a laughably fake big green scaly lizard. Naturally, Hooper taps into his own hayseed folk focus, which include Texas Chainsaw‘s tied-up Marilyn Burns, a very creepy Neville Brand, an almost unrecognizably made up Carolyn Jones, and a very kinky fellar named Buck, played by Robert Englund. Another 70s tendency, which would be unthinkable in the next decade, is the terrorization of tykes. Here, a poor little crippled girl gets to witness her doggy become gator bait. She’s further terrorized by dysfunctional parents, including a pappy lookin’ for a nonexistent eyeball (!) It’s a weird indie (but, by no means not List-worthy). Hooper is still in full exploitation mode before Spielberg ruined him with a professional filmmaking lesson for Poltergeist (1982)—not a bad movie per se, but with a few exceptions, it threw Hooper permanently off course.
No award will given for guessing what film Mako: The Jaws of Death (directed by William Grefe) is shamelessly ripping off. It stars Richard Jaeckel using sharks to exact revenge. Better is William Girdler’s Jaws-with-claws, Grizzly, which stars Christopher George and the busy Jaeckel (again). It’s an unadulterated rip-off, made all the better for its trashiness.
Jeff Liberman’s Squirm is a hoot. Think Jaws as a buncha earth worms. It’s roguish humor is winning. It was a video store favorite for years, usually found next to the sticky floor section.
Surprisingly Rattlers (directed by John McCauley) are a duller, less threatening lot than fish bait.
Frustratingly, The Rat Savior (directed by Krsto Panic) remains an elusive gem. It won several awards at genre festivals, was available briefly on beta-max, was shown rarely on television and in arthouse cinemas (where I caught it a quarter of a century ago), and is only available on YouTube, devoid of subtitles or dubbing. It has recently been released on a PAL DVD in its original Yugoslavian language, which will hopefully pave the path for an accessible statewide release. Based on the novel by Alexander Greene, it’s a rodent-infested variation on body snatchers crossed with John Campbell’s shape-shifting “Thing.” The nasty cheese-eaters kill and impersonate human victims. The resident scientist (Ivica Vidovic) develops his own pesticide. However, once the rats impersonate a human, there’s no way to differentiate them, and mistakes are bound to happen. The Rat Savior is allegorical, political paranoia; a one-of-a-kind film, awaiting rescue from obscurity.
The House With Laughing Windows (directed by Pupi Avati) is a rare giallo that’s more unsettling than stylish. Already covered at 366 movies (as a capsule), it’s a bizarre mystery centering around an enigmatic fresco of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and warrants exploration for fans of the genre seeking something off-kilter.
How can an exploitation film starring Klaus Kinski and Josephine Chaplin, revolving around history’s most famous serial killer, go wrong? Simple: Jack the Ripper is directed by Jess Franco, who lazily adds gore to mask the lack of atmosphere, style, and enthusiasm. The performances can’t rescue it from Franco’s drab hands.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is Charles B. Pierce’s obvious jump on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bandwagon. Fortunately, it has its own attributes. Pierce, having previously done the pseudo-documentary horror The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973) (about the mythical Bigfoot) has a feel for the material, and injects a sense of hayseed humor in this tale purportedly about a real life, never caught Phantom Killer from 1946.
Snuff (directed—sort-of—by Michael Findlay) is really a hodgepodge that combines footage from a previous Argentine film, Slaughter(1970) together with a What’s Up Tiger Lilly spirit (but without Woody Allen’s wit). Of course, it’s not a snuff film at all, but it is beautifully idiotic—enough to be distributed on DVD by Blue Underground.
Now we come to the post- Ilsa(AKA Naziploitation) portion of our show with SS Experiment Camp (directed by Italian exploitation guru Sergio Garrone). It has everything you would expect: lesbian Nazis in lab coats, horny storm troopers, electrocutions, golden showers, and frozen camp prisoners.
Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess. He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later. After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate. Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels. Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly. Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from. It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre. Even knowing Zex’s previous … Continue reading DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE
“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism. True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist … Continue reading BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)
1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.
Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.
The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.
While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television. One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone … Continue reading DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR
James Bond aficionados all tend to have their favorite 007. While I prefer the first four films, three of which were directed with style by Terence Young, I do like most of the series. The Roger Moore Bonds get picked on a bit because of their cartoonish qualities. Moore, in realizing the silliness of the scripts, chose to play 007 at an absurd level, and that was not an unwise choice. Even an overblown dud like Moonraker (1979) has its guilty pleasure moments, although by the time of View to A Kill (1985), the franchise had clearly gone stale and desperately … Continue reading LICENCE TO KILL (1989): DEBUNKING THE DALTON BOND MYTHS
“When I don’t think about film, I think about sex. Every 10 seconds. I have the sense that my head is very close to my genitals.” So speaks Latvian animator Signe Baumane in the documentary Signe and…. It’s part of an indispensable and unique collection of Baumane’s animated shorts called Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane.
True to her word, there is sex aplenty in most of the films in this collection, including her Teat Beat of Sex, and Baumane goes a long way to prove obsession in art is indeed a good thing.
In Natasha, a lonely housewife finds a vacuum cleaner is just as effective as any man. In Five F___king Fables the head of a decapitated princess gives a man oral while a dog performs cunnilingus on her, penises do indeed come in every shape, size, color and form, and Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers are taken to a whole new level. These are just a few of the repeated erotic images and themes that make up Baumane’s world.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws defined the idea of blockbuster as we now know it. Despite the epic career that followed, the director has never surpassed this early work. It’s really a full-throttle horror adventure about the trio of shark hunters Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss; a fact that amazingly eluded MCA when they produced numerous sequels (without Spielberg) that reduced Bruce (the shark) to an underwater Jason Vorhees.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined “cult classic” like no other film before or since. Although it was relatively slow to take off, it became the staple for audience participating midnight showings and undeniably the number one cult film of all time. It was stupidly remade by Fox (imagine that) in 2016 and deservedly flopped with both critics and its TV audience.
Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom was the last and most notorious film of Pier Paolo Pasolini before he was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, shortly after filming. The film itself is only for the strongest stomachs.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (directed by Don Edmonds) is one of the most notorious of cult films and made a bonafide 70s grindhouse superstar out of former exotic dancer and softcore porn actress Dyanne Thorne. The main role is loosely based on Ilse Koch—the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” The historical Ilse, wife of the camp’s commander, was known to have frequently flogged prisoners, including pregnant women. At one of her trials, witnesses were produced who testified that she chose Jews with unique tattoos for extermination so that she could keep their skin. After two trials, she was sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for crimes against foreigners, incitement to murder, and attempted murder. In the last few years of her life, she became paranoid that former camp prisoners were conspiring to kill her, and committed suicide in her cell in 1960.
Shot on the same sets as “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film is thoroughly a product of its time. Under that lens of horror/sexploitation/torture porn, it’s less offensive than either a TV series that makes light of the Holocaust or torture porn dressing itself up as sacred Easter pageant theology (2004’s Passion of the Christ). Still, one can question the entertainment value of a buxom blonde Josef Mengele conducting monstrous experiments, but 70s audiences had no qualms, flocking to see it in grindhouse theaters and making it enough of a hit that three sequels followed. Ilsa’s motive for torture is to prove that women can endure more pain than men and should therefore be allowed to fight on the front lines, which is about as convincing as the movie’s opening statement from the producers defending its historical accuracy. It’s unlikely to inspire contemporary viewers to go to do research on Wikipedia. There’s not much in the way of plot, but purely as exploitation, it’s resoundingly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.
With this subject matter, a solid performance is needed. Thorne, with tight, low-cut white blouse and swastika armband, delivers in spades, spitting dialogue out of thin, cruel lips. It must be a testament to her onscreen charisma that she commands attention through all that bloodletting, which is still revolting even by contemporary standards. Thorne appeared in a number of similar-themed films outside of the Ilsa franchise before receiving a PhD in comparative religions and becoming a minister.
Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and its wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing. One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach. The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there. But then, we’ve … Continue reading A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P