KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF BATMAN (1966-1968), PART THREE

Before resuming Season Two of “Batman”, we’ll cave into the crave of batmania with one of the biggest chunks of studio-backed cinematic cheese ever conceived: 1966’s Batman, the Movie. For years, this was the only Batman vehicle available on home video. Batmaniacs have reason to rejoice, because this gloriously dated, souped-up big screen treatment of the series is an “it has to be seen to believed” extravaganza. The hopelessly dippy plot and dialogue may throw off angsty fanboys, but it’s all about our merry villains: Lee Meriwether in her sole performance as Catwoman, as the Riddler, as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker,  and the most color-saturated array of (inflatable) henchmen in cinema. After the sexiest psychedelic credits you’ll probably ever see comes Batman infamously fending off a rubber shark with his “Bat-repellent Shark Spray.” That gag’s almost topped with later with the “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” routine. It only gets loopier from there.

Among the toys on display is the Batcopter, Batboat, and Penguin submarine (with flippers!). Even cooler are the fight scenes. Here’s where the multi-hued henchman get to show their mettle, withstanding the dynamic duo while an arsenal of “Kapow, Zlopp, and Touche!”s fills the screen. Each of the four primary villains is at their maniacal best, and all take turns stealing their scenes. Watching Romero’s Joker today, his influence on is blatantly obvious. Of course, Gorshin (a tad underused) twitches with caffeine; there’s a reason he was the sole actor from the series nominated for an Emmy. Meredith’s Penguin is delightfully obnoxious, and Meriwether’s Catwoman is a walking pheromone . Meriwether is criminally underrated, but they’re all so damned animated that you don’t care one bit that their goal is to turn the United Nations into colored sand.

If we weren’t so close to completing the List, I’d plead with the admin here to at least include Batmanas a List Candidate. It’s a rarity in being both weird and absurdly entertaining. Like the series, it’s bound to be considered as blasphemy to modern-day Bat toddlers, who erroneously believe the darker version of the Caped Crusader is truer to the comics. Yes, it is: to the later comics from the likes of Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore. But Batman didn’t start that way. The comics of the 40s and 50s were pure camp. Originally, “Batman” series producer William Dozier planned to create something more serious, akin to “The Adventures of Superman,” but after reading the comics he went high camp instead. That is what the series, and movie bring to life in a way that has never been replicated with such energy and dated style (the Blu-ray edition is a must, with Robin’s hot colors popping against Joker’s cool pinks and greens and Batman’s blue and grey).

Back to Season Two. In “The Impractical Joker/Joker’s Provokers” (directed by James Clark, written by Jay Thompson and Charles Hoffman, airing 16 and 17 November, 1966) the Joker is obsessed with keys; so obsessed that he rips up a copy of the novel “Keys of the Kingdom” and smashes an LP of “You’re the Key to My Heart.” The Joker’s henchbabe is Cornelia,[1] clad in skintight purple. She’s pure decor, and she knows it. There’s a big skeleton key, and we learn that Joker was a hypnotist in his youth when he attempts to revive his old talent on the Caped Crusaders. Robin throws a bat-wrench into Joker’s plans with counter-hypnosis bat-pellets! Cue the “Kapow!” Howard Duff does the bat climb cameo, and there’s a quick plug for us to watch “The Green Hornet.” Apart from the purple decoration, this episode only kicks in near the finale of Part One, when Batman (about to get his goose cooked) has to get in the last word: “Evil only triumphs temporarily, but never conquers!” It turns out Batman has a key too and uses it to get out of his predicament in Part Two. There’s also a magic box that stops time, and Alfred gets a piece of the action in two roles.

“Come Back Shame/It’s How You Play The Game” (directed by Oliver Rudolph, written by Stanley Ross, airing 30-31 of November 1966) is one of the most off-kilter episodes, which is quite an accomplishment. Old West shootist Shame (Cliff Robertson) is back, and he’s stealing parts from hot rods! “Why wouldn’t he steal the entire auto?’ Robin asks. “That,” Batman waxes, with pointed finger, “…is the question!” Shame has a duo of dunderhead henchmen in Messy James (Timothy Scott) and Rip Snorting (John Mitchum) along with gal pal Okie Annie (“Playboy” model Joan Staley). An ordinary lead bullet …with platinum paint is no help at all for the world’s greatest detective. Nor is the lame Shane ripoff tyke Andy (Eric Shea) who screams “Shame, come back” again and again and again and again. Like the kid in the overrated George Stevens “classic”,  Andy’s a good argument for birth control; but don’t give up yet, because there is a cow, by golly. “What’s a nice cow like you doing in a place like this?” youthful ward Dick Grayson asks. To the batcycles, but lo and behold there’s a stampede a-comin’, pardner, and I’m gonna turn you boys into some good ol’ hamburger helper. “Will Batman and Robin bite the dust? Is this the Last Roundup? Find out tomorrow, Shame time, shame Channel!” Part Two gets the batprize for most preposterous escape from a cliffhanger. “Holy Guacamole!” Then it’s Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer) from “Hogan’s Heroes” (the comedy about Nazi concentration camps!) for the bat climb cameo! Andy gets a moral lesson, Shame runs outta ammo and, sigh, the kid lives. Not all endings can be happy.

“That Darn Catwoman/Scat Darn Catwoman” was directed by Oscar Rudolph and written by Stanley Ross and aired on the 25th and 26th of January, 1967. Pop singer Lesley (“It’s My Party”) Gore shows up as a pussycat, belts out a couple of tunes, and not only bewitches Catwoman’s pussypatters, but the Boy Wonder himself. Batman falls prey to the pussy succubus too (“Yeah, Cat-Baby, we’re gonna wail, doll”); but it’s a trick! With a sip of Bat-sleep, the cat is conked and carried to the cave. “I’ll do everything I can to rehabilitate you.” “Marry me.” Everything, but that.” Well, there goes life number two when the cat falls to her death and the tears of a Batman get shed. Luckily, he has his bat-kerchief handy.

“Batman’s Anniversary/A Riddling Controversy”(directed by James Clark and written by William D’Angelo) aired February 8-9, 1967. It features John Astin (better known as Gomez in “The Addams Family”) as the subtsitute Riddler. Smartly, Astin doesn’t mimic Gorshin, instead making the part his own with subdued menace and a question mark cane, but the episode itself lacks the lunacy of those with his predecessor (who will return in season 3).

“A Piece of the Action/ Batman’s Satisfaction” (directed by Oscar Rudolph, written by Charles Hoffman, first aired March 1st and 2nd, 1967) is the crossover episode with “Green Hornet” which, like Batman, was struggling in the ratings. “Hornet,” which was darker in tone, only lasted one season. Batman was a pop phenomenon for a year, but was so original that its novelty was quickly fading by the second season.  Luckily, this twofer is a stylish change of pace, and a hoot to boot, with the Green Hornet (Van Williams) and his trusty kung fu sidekick Kato (the legendary Bruce Lee) arriving at the Pink Chip Stamp Factory in search of a counterfeit stamp ring. Owner Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain—she has pink hair and a pink puppy) mistakes Green Hornet and Kato for villains and soon the Dynamic Duo are summoned. You guessed it, it’s the Batmobile vs. the Black Beauty. There’s a real villain afoot by the name of Col. Glumm (Roger C. Carmel, best knowns as Harry Mudd in “Star Trek”) who, with the focus on the guest heroes, gets short-shrifted. That’s unfortunate, as he has personality aplenty.  Glumm is a stamp-themed menace who perforates the Green Hornet and Kato, turning them into wallpaper: “Holy human collector’s item!” Batman and Robin aren’t ignored, of course, threatened with an undetachable “Holy flypaper, Batman!” glue pad. Solving an alphabet soup puzzle and feeding noodles to the bat-computer (!) will set things straight in Gotham for sure. Character actor Alex Rocco proves a colorful henchman. Angelique Pettyjohn (who will soon appear in “Star Trek” and get mauled by alien-loving Captain Kirk) is the lingerie-modeling babe, but our chaste hero isn’t moved. “I smell pink,” he intones (don’t go there). In the hippest bat cameo since Ted Cassidy (Lurch from Addams Family), Little Cesar legend Edward G. Robinson shows up for the bat climb to bitch about ! Yeah, if you can’t see the coolness of Batman, you just need to go away.

Michael Rennie as Sandman, Walter Sleazy as the Clock King, and Maurice Evans as the Puzzler are a few of the lesser-known, underrated villains of Season Two.

However, the Batbank was quickly drying up. For Season Three, producers dispensed of the two-episode format (holy no-more-cliffhangers!) but brought in a potential ratings booster with Batgirl (Yvonne Craig). “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin” (directed by Oscar Rudolph, written by Stanford Sherman) aired on 14 September, 1967, with Commission Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Craig) kidnapped by the Penguin because he wants a bride. Alfred gets kidnapped, too, finds out Barbara is Batgirl and, trusty guy that he is, keeps her identity secret, even from his masters Bruce and Dick. With her Batgirl cycle, batkicks (she doesn’t punch) and batpartment, Batgirl is the coolest thing since sliced bread. Batman and Robin are barely present and get their batasses saved by BOTH Alfred and Batgirl (what a series that would have made).

Joan Collins made a wonderfully hammy villainess in “Wail of the Siren” (she has henchmen named Allegro and Andante). Both King Tut and Shame surpass their previous appearances in this season. , Anne Baxter, Rudy Valle, Milton Berle, and Zsa Zsa Gabor were colorful fillers in lesser entries. In addition to Batgirl, we are introduced to Eartha Kitt’s delightfully idiosyncratic take on Catwoman in the episodes “Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill” and The Joke’s on Catwoman (teaming her with Romero’s Joker). She was set to make additional appearances, but publicly criticized the Vietnam War and was sacked (!) “Batman” was fortunate in having three exceptional actresses essaying the role of Catwoman. Through no fault of her own (Kitt commands the scene for every second she is present–she truly is EEEEEEVIL), neither of the actress’ episodes quite match the scenes with Newmar, or Meriweather in the movie.

I want to end this survey by discussing one of the most bizarre episodes of the entire series. Joker made three appearances in the final season of “Batman.” In his second (“Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under”), both Joker and the caped crusader go a-surfin’, but the sheer insanity of that cheesy green screen gets blown to smithereens by “The Joker’s Flying Saucer.” Allegedly, it was directed by Sam Strings and written by Charles Hoffman (airing on leap year 1968), but I swear those are pseudonyms for . This literally feels like it’s written and directed by our favorite cross-dressing freak. For most fans, it’s the nadir of the series, but for a weird movie site, it may be the crowning achievement of “Batman.”

Surrounded by henchmen  (Shamrock, Chartreuse, and Green) wearing various shades of green, a Martian, and a babe (Emerald) adorned in a green mini, the Joker is going to be doing something with a flying saucer. I think he’s planning on an invasion of some sort. He kidnaps Alfred, believing the butler to be a mad scientist, and he kidnaps Batgirl too. “I’ve thrilled many a woman, Batgirl, but I’ve never sent one completely into orbit before,” the Joker says as he ties her to a rocket. There’s a professor Greenleaf, too (he’s a Joker plant), and a Mrs. Green who swears she saw a little green man. The Batcave is bombed and there’s a fight, and that’s about as a good a synopsis as any, because this is a mess, which doesn’t stop Romero from overdosing with glee. Take his cue.

  1. Played by Kathy Kersh, who briefly became Mrs. Burt Ward. It should have been a match made in bad bat-acting heaven. []                                                         *reprinted from 366 weird movies 

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART TWO

On 30 , March 1966, ‘s Riddler returned for “Ring of Wax” (directed by James Clark, written by Jack Paritz and Bob Rodger). The local wax museum is supposed to be unveiling a wax figure of Batman. To the crowd’s horror, that loathsome lithe Riddler is on display instead, and up to his usual atrocious anarchy with a stupendous squirter, spewing crimson crud all over the Gotham gang. Of course, he leaves a pair of baffling riddles behind. In his cauldron of corruption, Riddler concocts a wax that burn its way through any vault in the world, sending him to the local library (!), where he is accompanied by a striped dayglo duo and a purple leather-clad villainess named Moth (Linda Gaye Scott). She’s one in a series of Gorshin’s increasingly bizarre disciples (in “A Riddle A Day,”  Riddler was followed by a girl who talks like a mouse and a trio of henchmen wearing a rainbow of primary colored hoodies, one of whom is the yellowed bug-eyed cheese munching stooge). The Riddler’s inexplicable entourage makes him all the more absurdly frightening. We get such a kick watching Gorshin’s bouncing, blithesome histrionics that the only disappointment is NOT getting to see him lay waste to the Dynamic Duo. However, he does get to stop them in place with “Dr. Riddler’s Instant Forever-Stick Invisible Wax Emulsion,” AKA spray-on superglue.  Escaping with a book on a lost treasure of the Incas, Riddler and his gang head back to their candle factory, where Batman and the Boy Wonder are tied up and lowered into an enormous cauldron. “Will Batman wax serious? For the sake of our heroes, let’s think positively!!! But it looks bad! Very bad! How can we wait until tomorrow night.. same bat-time… same bat-channel !!?”

Their escape in Part Two (“Give ’em the Axe”) is among the series’ most preposterous, and the battle with henchmen hits a garish high, all of which translates into camp delight. When Moth tries to flirt her way out of jail, Batman waxes chaste: “A moth that plays with fire is bound to be burned.” Needless to say, Gorshin owns both episodes.

“The Curse of Tut/Pharaoh’s in a Rut” (directed by Charles Rondeau, written by Robert Dennis and Earl Barret) aired on the 13th and 14th of April, 1966. “A giant Sphinx is uttering demented threats in Gotham Central Park in a woman’s voice!” “Holy hieroglyphics, this might mean a battle royal” with King Tut (Victor Buono), of course. “Maybe this sphinx will give us a clue!” Tut surrounds himself with 1960s Egyptian babes (including Zoda Rodann as a coney dog eating Nefertiti) and henchmen (including busy character actor and B-Western regular Don Berry), whom Tut dismisses as twits. Chasing the deluded creature Nefertiti in the park, Batman and Robin engaged in a hilarious QUNCKKK of a sword fight, but even that’s topped by a bonked Bruce rolling down a hill on gurney and heading for a cliff—which has to be the sexiest update on a serial cliffhanger to date.

The previous episode is one of the most nonsensical of season one. It looks downright linear compared to Part Two. Nefertiti  swoons amorously, and Tut blows his top. Alfred gets bonked. Batman gets gassed. Batman and Nefertiti, tortured with pebbles (!) are taunted with a chorus of “Twinkle, twinkle little bat, how I wonder where you’re at.” While Alfred drives Robin to the exhibit, BATMAN RETURNS WITH THE BATUSI; he tops his previous version with such flair that I swear Tut’s in love. Oh, but isn’t it just like Batman to burst the poor man’s beard with a “BIFF!”? After another duel (Errol and Basil they ain’t), the heartbroken Tut heads for the hills, but “that’s life—full of ups and downs.” Buono’s a different kind of villain; underrated, and his buffoonery fits the refreshing absurdity.

turns up as another unique, one-time-only nerd villain in “The Bookworm Turns/While Gotham City Burns” (directed by Larry Peerce and written by Hedrick Vollaerts, airing on April 20 and 21, 1966). McDowell is such a delight that one laments it’s his only appearance. “Holy Homicide!” Bookworm has infiltrated a bridge dedication by assassinating Commissioner Gordon live on TV (using stock black and white footage of a man falling from a bridge). “This is one time we don’t wait for the batphone.”

A buxom bookworm henchwoman (inconspicuously dressed from head to toe in a body-hugging bright red body suit) drops a copy of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in the Batmobile, but “holy reincarnation!” Gordon is alive! It was only a body double and a  “typical twisted bookworm joke.” The Batmobile is literally book bombed, and the Dynamic Duo darts to deduce dastardly designs by a failed novelist turned super bookworm. Wait, he’s gonna blow the bridge, which means time for a Bat-U-turn, and a call to the Batmobile parachute pickup service.

“Holy human flies!” Jerry Lewis shows up for the Batclimb cameo. “Holy headache!” There’s a Robin the belfry. “Holy Midnight, the first minute of the new day… the everlasting end for Robin! Stick merciful cotton in your ears…! The death-knell sounds tomorrow…same bat-time…same bat-channel!”

Where’s Robin? It’s time for Bat-meditation. “But Batman,” pleads Chief O’Hara. “Don’t interrupt! I’m trying to fathom the  subconscious of a deadly criminal!”

“Ohh,” the disappointed henchman moan in unison when the Boy Wonder is saved. The bookworms are dressed like ice cream men and wear glasses, echoing the big worm himself, who drops a giant cookbook in the middle of Gotham City. Luckily, Batman has a neon pink and yellow super-powered bat magnet. Okay boys, take off your glasses, it’s time for… “Thunk!”

I’m showing bat-bias for Gorshin, but his perfect impersonation alone justifies it in “Death in Slow Motion/Riddler’s False Notion” (directed by Charles Rondeau and written by Richard Carr, airing 27th and 28th of April, 1966). A silent film theme takes flight with Keystone Kops, pie fights, a damsel in distress named Pauline (Sherry Jackson), explosive eclairs, a vixen Bo Peep, Gorshin  (briefly channeling ) overdosing on Folgers, and one of the best dialogue exchanges of the entire series. “Holy molars, am I ever glad I take care of my teeth,” Robin says after catching the batarang with his teeth. “You owe your life to dental hygiene,” says Batman. In true silent film spirit, a hogtied Robin nearly gets split into two by a buzzsaw in one of the series most memorable cliffhangers. Ben Hur‘s Francis X. Bushman plays a small part as Mr. Van Jones, and Riddler prophecies, “this is your last reel.” Indeed it was; Bushman died a mere three months later.

takes cheese to a new level in Season Two’s “An Egg Grows in Gotham/The Yegg Foes in Gotham” (directed by Universal horror’s George Waggner, written by Stanley Ross, and Edwin Self, and aptly airing during the Halloween season, 1966).

Egghead is easily the best villain created specifically for the series, and it would never have worked with anyone other than Price, who makes his entrance at City Hall, stealing the Gotham City Charter from the eggsperts and eggsiting stage left with the loot. Egghead’s lair is eggsquisite (with eggdesks, eggchairs, and eggclocks) and populated by chrome-domed henchman: Benedict (Gene Dynakrski), Foo Young (Ben Welden) and eggsecutive secretary Miss Bacon (Gail Hire). It’s downright surreal slapstick, missing only . Egghead finds a loophole in the town charter—Gotham City must pay nine raccoon pelts to Chief Screaming Chicken (Edward Everett Horton)—that can make the city his! Stereotypes are as abundant as puns, with Egghead delighted with the eggstravagant eggshibition in Screaming Chicken’s tepee. Egghead wants an eggsclusive lease.

“You have egg on your face,” Robin announces on barging into the villain’s chicken coop. “Thwack!” “You put all your eggs in one basket,” says Batman. ”

Prepare yourself for an eggspeditious defeat!”

“That’s very apt, Robin.”

Egghead may have just broken the shell of Bruce Wayne’s secret. How diabolical!!! How inhuman!!! How eggscrutiating!!! Will the world’s greatest criminal mind eggstract the true identity of Batman??? The eggsplanation to these and other eggscentric questions tomorrow!!! Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!!!

If Egghead doesn’t give you a batgasm, then Liberace will surely be the batviagra you need in “The Devil’s Fingers/The Dead Ringers” (directed by Larry Peerce, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr, airing October 26th and 27th, 1966). The Dead Ringers are twin brothers Chandell and Harry (Liberace x 2!). Cigar-chomping, tommygun-toting Harry is blackmailing Chandell into a life of crime. The virtuoso has a wee bonnie trio (a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette) of miniskirted henchwomen (you didn’t really expect Liberace to be hanging out with macho thugs, did you?) From afar, Bruce Wayne hears Chandell make a mistake in a C-minor chord. “Holy impossibility!”

Liberace a ladies’ man? Seducing Aunt Harriet?

That’s only topped by Liberace’s Jimmy Cagney impersonation, which makes him the most delightfully awful villain of the series.

Will the music end?

KAPOW! ZLOPP! TOUCHE! THE BEST OF “BATMAN” (1966-1968), PART ONE

It’s very simple: if you love “Batman” (1966-1968), starring Adam West, you’re in the cool kids club. If you don’t, you’re clueless and need to go away. Only freaks are allowed here.

“Batman” is still the yardstick by which all other live-action superheroes are to be judged. There has never been another series like it. I’ll go even further: it’s not only a genre and cult yardstick, but it’s a yardstick for television, period.

Before we catapult into the Batcave, I’ll share a few childhood memories, of which I’m damned proud. Adam West’s Batman and ‘ Superman  were the epitome of cool (I’ll never forgive for turning them into caped white trash and making them go commando). I caught Superman in syndication and already knew that Superman had blown his brains out. For me, that was part of his appeal. (I was a tad off-kilter. In my defense, Superman was a more appealing martyr than the Pentecostal Jesus). Admittedly, however, Superman had bland villains, and his second Lois Lane was too June Cleaver-Protestant boring.

Then came Adam West’ Batman. I caught the last season in its first-run, then caught up in syndication. Of course, the show was mass-marketed. Among the most cherished mementos was Batman trading cards, which I would often lose. They meant so much to me that my poor Dad would have to drive all the way downtown to buy me replacement cards from the only store that carried them. I found my true rainbow pot of batgold, however, through a wedding. My cousin was getting married and wanted me for a ring bearer. The last thing I wanted to do was climb into a tuxedo in front of a church crowd, but when she promised to buy me a Batman suit AND a Batmobile to pedal around the back porch on, I begged Dad to call the tuxedo shop immediately so I could be fitted. For Christmas, my brother asked for a children’s Bible (he was such a suck-up). In sharp contrast, I asked for, and received, a Batman View-Master set. With all those bat-toys, I was indisputably the coolest kid who ever lived.

“Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” “Roger. Ready to move out!”

Since I’m hard pressed to come up with a single non-enjoyable episode, a “Best of Batman” list is bit of an oxymoron, although of course there are standout episodes. This is really more an exercise in cherry picking highlights, because by the time I could finish covering the entire series, we might be heading into 366 Weird Movies, the Sequel. So, without further ado, I have to start with the pilot, which features Batman dancing in a disco.

On 12, January, 1966  “Batman” premiered with “Hi Diddle Riddle” (directed by Robert Butler, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr,) and, yes, that means… the Riddler () is our first dastardly criminal. He pranks the World’s Fair with an exploding cake and inspires Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) to dial the batphone. Alfred, the butler (Alan Napier) answers, and rescues Bruce Wayne (Adam West) from a fatally boring meeting. Bruce uses the excuse of “gone fishing” with his ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) who utters his first “Holy Barracuda!”

“It’ll be a pleasure” to tackle the Riddler, Bruce tells Gordon with such square-jawed seriousness that we damn well believe him.  Cue the opening animation to Nelson Riddle’s iconic theme music.

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ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015.

The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is his final completed narrative feature—one that he never could have topped. The character of Falstaff inspired Welles to heights previously unreached (as it did Giuseppe Verdi). Chimes is his most personal and finest foray into Shakespearean terrain. While you’re watching it, you feel he’s peerless. Despite an epic struggle to finish the production, Welles’ direction is assured, but it’s as an actor that he soars in a tour de force performance. Welles himself cited as his best work, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff on film. One is inclined to agree. Welles had first played the part in a high school play that was ambitiously intended to be three hours long. Predictably, the school demanded cuts, forcing him to compromise (it wouldn’t be the last time). He played the part again in the late 1930s and in 1960, although both productions were short-lived financial failures.

Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight screenplay draws a linear chronological portrait of John Falstaff from the plays “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Richard III,” with Ralph Richardson’s narration taken from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles.”

Like almost all of Welles’ later films, it was made under ragged conditions. The director was able to obtain meager financing by telling a bold faced lie (see F For Fake) to producer Emiliano Piedra, promising to direct and act in a version of “Treasure Island” in exchange. Welles had no intention of keeping that promise,  which Piedra eventually discovered, complicating the production (it took two years to complete). Despite budgetary struggles, Welles produced a final masterpiece. Only Welles could do so much with so little, crafting a chiaroscuro landscape with an epic ferociously bleak battle scene that can rank with the likes of Kurosawa.

With his girth and advanced age now a plus, Welles is physically perfect for the role, but the character of a lush, rogue anecdotist on the verge of become a train wreck parody is also close to the actor’s heart.  He doesn’t play Falstaff too broadly (comedy was never Welles’ medium), and there is a touch of smallness in the distended knight living beyond his means. Art imitating life, as far as Welles was concerned. Almost equally fine is ‘s performance as the draconian Henry and (most disturbingly) as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

As fine as Laurence Olivier was as Hamlet, Henry, and Richard, there was always a feeling of Shakespeare being too easy for him. The (considerably budgeted) productions went smoothly. One never comes away from Olivier’s Shakespeare with a sense of the artist and the production having grappled with the literary source.  Quintessentially professional, Olivier, like the Berlin Philharmonic conductor , is well-rehearsed in the art of reinterpretation. What makes Chimes at Midnight unique among the great cinematic Shakespeares is that which some critics initially complained of in it. Welles, like Leonard Bernstein, transforms interpretation into a sweaty brawl. In doing so, the director’s idiosyncrasies, or rather personality, is so imposed that it transforms  the work into a bona fide personal manifesto: lusty, often approaching a bacchanal.  It speaks volumes that Olivier, unlike Welles, was an Academy favorite. Yet Welles is as fearless and assured with the text as the more acclaimed examples of Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Put Chimes at Midnight at the top of your Shakespeare to do list. You won’t even have to wait a half century to see it as it should be seen.

*Reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

1966 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARE CASTLE AND THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z

“Thunderbird International Pictures Presents The Death Curse of Tartu, a legend black with evil and red with the blood of innocent youth!!! Photographed in the forbidding depths of the Florida Everglades, this is the incredible story of an archeological excursion, planned as an educational attraction and ending as a blood-spattered nightmare!!! Cold and slimy creatures without mercy hunt and kill, controlled by the soul of a rotting corpse. They danced over the grave of Tartu who was restless in his coffin and made passionate love on his burial ground until … they faced the terrible reality of The Death Curse of Tartu! Was it really a killer shark in the swamp waters? Or  was it… Tartu, who had sworn vengeance on all who disturbed his grave?  See the bloody massacre of terrified youngsters as Tartu, the witch doctor, returns to wreak vengeance. See The Death Curse of Tartu, coming soon to this theater.”

And…

“Famous characters of the fairy tale world together for the first time. It’s all new when K. Gordon Murray presents Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters. See the Wicked Witch and all her bad guys. Bad guys? Mr. Hurricane! The Robot! Carrot Head and the Siamese Twins: two-in one. Frankensteen. A giant spectacle in color with a story that children and grownups will never forget.  Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters! 

Nightmare Castle (directed by Mario Caiano) rarely makes best-of Barbara Steele films lists, with even the star herself seemingly holding it in low esteem. Although a pastiche of Steele’s earlier work, Nightmare Castle is entertainingly tailored to the actress’ idiosyncratic screen persona and remains one of the better-filmed opuses in her oeuvre. As in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), Steele is cast in dual roles, one of which is a revenge-seeking disfigured ghost (hence its alternative title, The Faceless Monster).

Its virtues are hardly found in the narrative about a sadistic husband (Paul Muller) who tortures and kills his unfaithful wife (Steele) along with her lover (Rik Battaglia), then marries her mentally unstable sister to get the inheritance. Exquisite cinematography (Enzo Borboni), a top-rate dissonant score (Ennio Morricone), Steele at her her most beguiling, and Caiano’s attention to detail renders the plot secondary. Almost surrealistic in parts (one scene clearly was a major influence on 1998’s Ringu), Nightmare Castle is shockingly sadistic and misogynistic (Battaglia loses an eye in an unsettling torture scene, and Steele gets acid to the face, followed by an  S &M electrocution). It’s also visually and musically memorable, and yet another director with a Steele fetish allows the star to sear. Unfortunately, the dubbing is poor, but the valuable Blu-ray from Severin Films is a considerable improvement over previous releases. Among its extra features are complete versions of the Steele-starring films Castle of Blood (1964) and Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965).

“Flavos: the delicious, oriental treat that’s out of this world for taste-tempting goodness. Light and delicious, full of tender, juicy fresh shrimp meat. America’s favorite shrimp roll. You’ll say they’re shrimply delicious.”

“Free for our patrons… Men, women, boys, girls…through the cooperation of Leading Business Places …You may now have free admission to this theater. Ask for DividenTickets  when you shop at Nelson’s Liquor Mart. Hywy 51 North of Bridge. Tomahawk’s Largest & Finest.”

“See you in CHURCH Sunday! When you attend church, it’s not an ordinary act. It is something worthwhile. When you attend church, you come to GOD’S house to adore, worship and praise. See you in CHURCH Sunday!”

1966 may very well be among the most shocking years in the entirety of cinema. It’s the year that  Jess Franco actually made a relatively good film with The Diabolical Dr. Z (so maybe there’s hope for  Zack Snyder yet). Perhaps Alejandro Ulloa’s lensing inspired Franco to move beyond his typical laziness.

The titlur mad doctor (Antonio Jimenez) actually gets bumped off early in the film, leaving his daughter (Mabel Karr) to take up a doctoral course in revenge. She gets a bit of help from Miss Death (Estella Blain) at the local jazz club, which naturally means a typical Franco jazz score (by Daniel White, who makes a cameo, along with Franco himself). There is one theory that Franco merely made films to show off his love of jazz, and in many cases that may be factual, but here it’s icing on a cake with macabre set pieces (including an arachnid stage show), kinky mannequins, a doomed sexpot hitchhiker, a hillside strangler, and an off-the-charts fisticuffs finale in a decadent castle. What more could you ask of the prolific hack? He deserves a break today with The Diabolical Dr. Z.

“Please remember to replace the speaker and heater when you leave the theater.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the (currently out-of-print) double-feature DVD from Sinister Cinema.

1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

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The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands Of Fate. It’s also the year that Barbara Steele made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while Curtis Harrington and Michael Reeves made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of  Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby Kill. It was Hammer Horror and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.

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Terence Fisher officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, with Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and Peter Cushing, but directed with little enthusiasm.

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Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides Of Dracula (1960), Curse Of The Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).

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UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963) AND CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966)

 

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Unearthly Stranger (1963, directed by John Krish) often showed up on late night television from the late 60s through the 70s. Naturally, there is always a risk in revisiting a movie first seen during adolescence. Chances are that it may not hold up—and more often than not, that is the case. Or, one my find value in it, but for very different reasons.

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Subdued, with a distinctly British flavor, The Unearthly Stranger has qualities similar to The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Married a Monster from Outer Space(1958), “The Twilight Zone,” and the “Outer Limits.” Shot on a low budget, this Independent Artists production does not rely on special effects, which would have inevitably dated by now anyway. Although short on action and surprises, its virtues are atmosphere, dialogue, and solid performances.

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Unearthly Stranger opens with Dr. Mark Davidson ( John Neville, best known for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ) running through an empty city at night before reaching his apartment. Finding a tape recorder, he leaves a message: “In a little while I expect to be killed by something you and I know is here,” which segues into an extended flashback.

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Shortly after the mysterious murder of fellow researcher Dr. Munro (Warren Mitchell), Davidson and Professor Lancaster (Phillip Stone) resume work on their government funded project, one which enables people to telepathically travel to other planets and potentially contact alien life. In addition to investigating Munro’s death, project supervisor Major Clark (Patrick Newell) has taken an abnormal interest in Davidson’s new Swiss wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Lancaster, a close friend of Davidson’s, is also curious and surprised that he has not been introduced to the new bride.

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WOODY ALLEN’S WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966)

WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966, Woody Allen)

What’s up Tiger Lily (1966) is from Woody Allen‘s early period, when he was a funny guy, but he was also just as prone to experimentation in his Genesis period (his next project was the infamous experimental James Bond disaster Casino Royale, which he acted in and co-wrote). The concept for Tiger Lily is so simple, one wonders why no one had attempted it before (or since): Allen took a Japanese spy film—a not so subtle ripoff of the Bond films called The Key of Keys, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi—and redubbed it. Allen himself appears to introduce this one-of-a-kind, playful hybrid.

WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966, Woody Allen)

Allen has since dismissed What’s Up Tiger Lily as juvenile doodle, but its youthful pulse on the absurd is convincing, winning, and is probably the closest he gets to authentically weird cinema. There are some who maintain that in addition to being his first film, Lily is also his funniest.

WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966, Woody Allen)

Most of the mainstream suddenly became acquainted with Allen with this film, which was an unexpected hit (Allen later joked that his overnight success was a decade in the making). In addition to the dubbing, Allen also re-edited  the film, and the result is so refreshing that the original film becomes a viewing ordeal (the opposite of what happened whenever Jerry Warren‘s edits inexplicably made godawful films even worse, i.e., Face Of The Screaming Werewolf).

WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966, Woody Allen)

Whether or not What’s Up Tiger Lily is Allen’s funniest film is debatable, but it’s certainly his silliest, because of its inherent helter-skelter weirdness. Its the cinematic equivalent of a Mad Magazine, with subtle-as-a-pair of brass knuckles humor and spliced-in performances from the Lovin’ Spoonful making it a bouncing off the wall party favorite (it’s probably not as fun to watch alone). There are just as many jokes that fail as ones that work, but they are delivered with such kinetic, Tex Avery-like speed that it hardly matters. Comparatively, the whole of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seems like an academic lecture.

WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY (1966, Woody Allen)

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RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) posterRIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) German movie poster

Monte Hellman’s‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

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Both were produced by Roger Corman(uncredited), Jack Nicholson, and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded amongfilms for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

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Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

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