1965 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DIE MONSTER DIE, MONSTER A GO-GO, AND INCUBUS

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After the bonanzas of 1963 and 1964, 1965 was a comparatively lackluster year for horror and exploitation flicks, with a few exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, and Freda Jackson starred in Die, Monster, Die, directed by Daniel Haller, which was one of the first big screen attempts at an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Released by AIP for the drive-in double feature circuit along with Mario Bava’s  cult fave, Planet Of The Vampires, Die, Monster, Die has more kinship to that studio’s Poe  product than to Lovecraft. It also has a distant relationship to Hammer Horror: Jackson previously appeared in Brides Of Dracula, and Farmer went on to do both Dracula, Prince Of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk for the studio the following year. Additionally, elements of Die, Monster Die are clearly related to Universal’s Man-Made Monster(1941) and Columbia’s mad doctor series.

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With Universal horror icon Karloff and Rebel Without a Cause heartthrob Adams as the two leading men, Die, Monster, Die feels like a queer hybrid. The aged Karloff, suffering the effects of emphysema, is wheelchair bound (and will be for the rest of his career and life), but he evokes formidable English mystery from his blanket and chair. In sharp contrast is all that pent-up, pushy, youthful American angst from Adams, who is aptly vulgar and a standout in his Jersey accent.

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Stephen Reinhart  goes to visit Susan Witley at her parents’ home in the English village of Arkham. Stephen had met Susan at the college they attended together in the States, but when he stops at a local pub, he discovers the entire village paralyzed with fear in regards to the Witley estate (calling to mind Ed Wood’s daffily delivered dialogue from 1955’s Bride Of The Monster, “stay away from the old Willow’s place!”) Poor Stephen can’t get anyone to give him transportation and is forced to walk. Upon finally arriving at the Witley estate, he discovers that the surrounding plant life has all mysteriously died. He is greeted with hostility by Susan’s crippled father, Nahum (Karloff), who demands that Stephen leave at once. Nahum is interrupted by a beaming Susan and introduced to her mother, Letitia (Jackson), who is bedridden and hidden behind a veil. Letitia intercedes for Stephen and asks him to take Susan away from this charnel house. A short while later, Nahum’s servant, Merwyn (Terence De Marney) collapses and dies. After Merwyn’s late night burial, followed by a phantom-like figure appearing at the window, Stephen and Susan make their way into Nahum’s greenhouse and discover abnormally enlarged plant life and mutated critters. “It looks like a zoo on hell,” declares Stephen. After some Sherlock Holmes/Watson sleuthing, he and Susan unlock the dreadful secret: Nahum has been “experimenting” with radioactivity from a meteorite. Hoping to undo an ancestor’s evil deeds (whatever those were) Nahum plans to help feed the world with mutated plant life! Of course, things go awry and everyone who worked in the greenhouse has been either mutated or killed. The phantom figure turns out to be a former maid, now a butcher knife-wielding mutant. Both Letitia and Merwyn were victims, and now it’s Nahum’s turn as he transforms into a green thing with an axe, leading to a fiery climax.

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The opening plot sounds like a number of the Vincent Proice/Roger Corman screen treatments of Edgar Alan Poe. Despite the ho-hum overfamiliarity, Die, Monster Die has rich cinematography (by Paul Beeson), delightfully dated FX (including Karloff’s green thing stand-in), a vibrant score (from Don Banks), and a crackerjack performance from Karloff. Performances like this explain how an almost eighty-year-old, handicapped actor kept getting parts personally tailored to him up until his death four years later. Even Adams is pretty good (much better than his other ’65 performance—see below). With a zippy pace and Gothic sci-fi milieu, Monster is perfect drive-in fodder and must have made a helluva cinema-under-the-stars bargain when paired with Planet of the Vampires.  First released for home video as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies series (coupled with 1970’s Dunwich Horror, also directed by Haller), it has been upgraded to Blu-ray in a gorgeous transfer from Scream Factory and looks better than ever. Primarily criticized on its release for straying too far from it’s source story, “The Colour out of Space,” it has since has garnered a cult reputation as a fun mix of nostalgic Gothic horror and science fiction.

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BARRY MAHON DOUBLE FEATURE: THE WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ (1969) & THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN (1965)

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Barry Mahon is another 366 weird movie saint awaiting canonization.  His directing breakthrough was with the Errol Flynn fiasco Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), which is essential bad film viewing. For another eleven years, Mahon made one godawful film after another until someone wised up and quit funding this hack (he died in 1999, never making another film after 1970). He was something of a Zach Snyder for his time, although no one was stupid enough to give Mahon millions of dollars.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Most of Mahon’s films were  Z-grade nudies (International Smorgas-BroadThe Adventures of Busty BrownFanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico), but there are a few execrable standouts, with The Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969) and Thumbellina (bundled into 1972’s certified weird Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny) being among the most memorable.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Literally looking like garage filmmaking, The Wonderful Land of Oz opens with a warbled song and introduces us to hanging sheets, Glinda (still annoying, regardless of who plays her), a papier-mâché purple cow with blinking eyes, and badly costumed characters, including the Wogglebug: a man with antenna, bug eyes, and a walrus mustache.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

The Tin Man and Scarecrow are obligatory characters, but Pumpkinhead has replaced the Cowardly Lion. Someone forgot to give him a microphone under that oversized head because we can barely hear him. It hardy matters, because he seems to be struggling with his lines. His fellow cast members, who frequently talk to themselves, are no help, mumbling their cues as they move lethargically, seemingly having overdosed on tranquilizers.

Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)

Tip (Channy Mahon, Barry’s rugrat) replaces Dorothy. Tip is loaded with dull angst over his evil stepmother, the Wicked Witch Mombi ( played by someone named Ziska). She makes the boy go to bed on time, and when he attempts to rebel against such parental sadism, she vows to turn him into a statue. Comatose slapstick and phlegmatic sing-a-longs are visually accompanied by a cardboard fence (which we keep expecting to fall over) and half a gallon of straw on the soundstage floor to represent a stable. Tip flees with the aid of Pumpkinhead, who is brought to sort-of life via magic powder. The two run afoul of an obnoxious high school band (is there any other kind?) headed by teenaged brat General Jinjur. Tip and Pumpkinhead manage to make it to Emerald City (it’s a short walk around the garage), but rather than encountering a wizard behind the curtain, Tip gets magically transformed into a girl (he doesn’t put up much of protest) by Glinda, who confirms what we have always known: she is more Dolores Umbridge (the real villain of Harry Potter) than goodwitch (although she is called a fairy here). That sickening, bloated pink dress and K-Mart tiara fools no one. After that suburban porn reject Glinda forces a sex change on poor Tip, she does an exit stage left, cruelly depriving us yet again of the chance to see her die a horrible death.

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RUSS MEYER’S FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! (1965)

Faster Pussycat, KILL! KILL! (1965 Russ Meyer) Poster

Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) comes by its cult reputation honestly. John Waters  once proclaimed it “the greatest movie ever made.”  Like most of Meyer’s films, it was initially dismissed as cheap sexpolitation, but there is always more to Meyer than surface, fetish, or cleavage. It stars the statuesque half-Japanese/half-Apache Tura Satana as a black leather clad dominatrix Varla, who left such an impression that a hard rock band took its name from the movie.

Faster Pussycat, KILL! KILL! (1965)

In addition to buxom wrasslin’ babes, go-go-dancers, and desert hot rod racing, FPKK is imbued with Meyer’s trademark, frenetic precision editing, sharp and superior black and white photography by Walter Schenk, an aptly kitsch score from the psychotronic lounge by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter that echoes the dusty terrain, and good sound: all of which are rarities for shoestring-budgeted indies.  Meyer self-distributed his pictures, so his body of work has been well preserved.

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DORIS WISHMAN’S BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965) theatrical release poster

To the alternative cineaste, Doris Wishman is somewhat akin to what Mary, the Mother of Christ, is to Catholics. She was a considerable influence on luminaries such as John Waters, Roger Corman, and Quentin Tarantino. Like them, Wishman approached genre films with an idiosyncratic enthusiasm for the art and the business. Her films are sexploitation roughies, nudie-cuties, and precursors to the grindhouse films. Therefore, she also has her detractors, who compare to her to the likes of Ed Wood. Wishman was a true, self-taught outsider artist. And like most outsider artists, being a maverick had its advantages and disadvantages (she never had the budget she needed). Wishman was as tenebrous and quirky as her films. She often told elaborate lies about herself and remained defiant to the end, mocking conventional attitudes. “I’ll continue making films in Hell” she said, terminally ill, only days before her passing at age 90. If that anecdote doesn’t endear her to you, well, you may have come to the wrong film site.

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DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)/SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965)

Something Weird Video offers up two of the most obscure, absurd, sexually depraved white trash soapers in this 1965 double feature.

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965) poster

Day of the Nightmare was directed by John A. Bushelman. Bushelman’s directorial credits are few, but he was a prolific editor of low budget cult trash. Cat Women on the Moon (1953), Frankenstein 1970 (1953, starring Karloff), the Sinister Cinema favorite Tormented (1960), and Village of the Giants(1965) are among his (ahem) “notable classics.”

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965) Dave Harmon, John Ireland

Familiar B-actor John Ireland (who had an off-screen reputation rivaling Errol Flynn‘s) virtually sleepwalks his way through what amounts to a supporting detective role, despite receiving star billing. That leaves the rest of the acting chores to unknowns who, with one exception, are not up to the job. The direction and lighting is as bland and anonymous as the acting and the title, which is unfortunate because, despite lethargic execution, Day of the Nightmare teeters on the edge of having real sensationalist potential by mid 60’s film standards.

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)

The plot is related to William Castle‘s more atmospheric Homicidal (1961). Jonathan Crane (Cliff Fields) is an artist with a few loose screws. He is married to Barbara (Beverly Bain, in her sole screen credit). Poor Barb is a much put-upon wife, and Bain is the only actor able to overcome Bushelman’s static direction.  She invests enough into her character to create an interesting portrayal which, alas, does not salvage the film.
Crane cries (embarrassingly) at his psychiatrist office, Crane has a drag persona, Crane likes to watch lesbos get it on, and Crane has an S & M fetish. The film opens with our hero lashing an unattractive model on her buttocks.  Cliff Fields’ turn as a queen has to be one of worst drag performances ever burned into celluloid. He sports sunglasses at night, a crumpled raincoat and a lopsided dishwater blond wig (he looks a bit like an uncanny precursor to Michael Caine’s transvestite psycho killer in 1980’s Dressed To Kill).

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THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965): EXISTENTIAL POTPOURRI

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) poster

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a filmmakers’ film. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorses, Luis Bunuel, and David Lynch are among its impassioned devotees.  Has’ film is also a cult favorite, no doubt helped by Jerry Garcia’s advocacy.  Superlative artistry and bold originality would be reason enough for its elevated aesthetic standing, but The Saragossa Manuscript also begs description.

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965) theatrical release poster

The methodical, brooding, short-lived Zbigniew Cybulski (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) heads a prodigious cast that remarkably fleshes out Count Jan Potocki’s 19th century, picaresque, magical realist novel.  After the discovery of the titular manuscript, The Unknown Soldier is transported in time and space joining Alfonso van Worden’s (Cybulski) on a phantasmagorical, anecdotal journey during the Napoleonic Wars.  Van Worden leads his uneasy party down a depraved path through the Spanish Mountains, temporarily settling at the infamous Sierra Morena.

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THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both  and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.

The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.

Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.

Still from The Cameraman (1928)Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.

However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…

Buster Keaton from %22Film%22(1965)

Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of  the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.

Samuel Beckett & Buster Keaton

Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it has a few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Chaplin mercilessly takes Keaton down with him. WithLimelight, one tends to be thankful, for once, that Keaton was wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo for him.

%22Film%22 (1965) Buster Keaton

Instead, rescue came from the unlikely source of an Irish avant-garde playwright. Keaton didn’t see it that way, and neither did the late Andrew Sarris, who essentially dismissed Film as pretentious garbage. Taking nothing from ‘s brand of populist film criticism, Andrew Sarris, who died in 2012, is the greatest loss we have faced in the art of film criticism since the passing of Pauline Kael. Naturally, neither Sarris nor Kael is infallible. Indeed, in their authentic (and virtually extinct) reverence for film, both had a point, and both were off in their infamous back-and-forth row regarding the auteur theory. Another case in point of critical fallibility might be Sarris’ dismissive assessment of Film.

%22Film%22 (Samuel Beckett) Buster Keaton

Beckett had longed to work with , but Langdon died prematurely. When Beckett began considering casting Film (his only screenplay), his first choice for the role of “O” was Chaplin, but the star proved impossible to reach. Beckett’s next choice was Zero Mostel, who also did not work out. Despite being an admitted “Keaton fan” Beckett settled belatedly and reluctantly on the aging silent comedian (who only had two more roles after this before dying in 1966). Perhaps the reason behind Beckett’s reticence  to cast Keaton lies in the actor’s having turned down Beckett’s offer to appear in the 1956 Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot.” At that point, Keaton had been Beckett’s first choice, but after Keaton’s rejection, the role went to Bert Lahr instead. (An MP3 sound file of Lahr’s acclaimed performance is available. It is recommended with reservations. Although listening to the performance is a remarkable experience, it grates to me to recommend something as impersonal as an MP3 sound file. Of course, my reservation is completely subjective, due to having absorbed too much Jacques Ellul and living long enough to see that philosopher tragically become a prophet).

Still from Film (1965)

Keaton was as crabby in regards to Beckett and Film as I am to a superficial, hyper-capitalist 21st century, postmodern mass media: Beckett’s meeting with Keaton reportedly was a struggle. Considering that Beckett was the quintessential iconoclast and Keaton, at this point, was something of an icon, their tense relationship was, in retrospect, predictable. It was Beckett’s long time (and long-suffering) director Alan Schneider who eventually persuaded Keaton, along with a hefty salary for three weeks work. Unlike his experience at MGM, this time Keaton’s ambition to sign for financial reasons yielded something remarkable, even if the artist failed to realize it. Regardless, the casting of Keaton is something approaching ideal. Keaton’s weathered face poignantly suits the nonsensical pathos of Film. Keaton’s entire aged body, mostly shot from behind, sets the expressive, balletic narrative in ways far different than how he used his body in the silent era. Film serves, quite possibly, as a simple, yet delightfully startling tribute to Keaton’s mortality and his body of work.

%22Film%22 (Samuel Beckett 1965) Buster Keaton

The second main character in the film is the camera itself, named “E”: E and O, Eye and Object. Director Alan Schneider’s interview (he credits Beckett as Film‘s true director) and Simon Critchley’s essay cannot be bettered and should be considered essential reading.

 

ST.LUIS

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 Buñuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.” This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites (Claudio Brook) has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.

Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.

The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out. She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.

As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.