1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

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The 1970s were probably the most prolific decade in production of exploitation and horror films. The decade started off with Gordon Hessler’s mediocre Cry of the Banshee, co-starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror was also surprisingly uneven, despite its well-received source material. Hammer Studios was still in full throttle, although its output increasingly met with mixed reviews and decreasing box office. Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula was considered by many to be the last decent Hammer take on the infamous Count. Roy Ward Baker’s The Scars of Dracula was universally panned by critics. Scars‘ star Christopher Lee then made a stab at the character for a different studio in Jess Franco’s [1] Count Dracula, which co-starred  Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. Noticeably shot on a lower budget, Franco’s Draculawas deemed a faithful adaptation of the novel, but a noble misfire. Franco and Lee also teamed up for The Bloody Judge, which was a second-rate rehash of Michael Reeves’ final film, Witchfinder General.

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Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier, was another offshoot of the late Mr. Reeves’ swan song, with the addition of graphic torture, and it’s reputation as one of the most revolting grindhouse films ever made still holds strong nearly a half century later. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw was the third Witchfinder General copycat in one year. It disappeared quickly (rightfully so). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the camp-fest fundamentalist Christian exploitation Cross and the Switchblade, which aptly cast the whitest white man who ever lived—Pat Boone—as Hoosier Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson, going to the ghetto to convert gang member Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada). It was such a hit with the fundie circuit that they even produced a cross-promotional comic book that was littered throughout church pews to take home and keep “if you got saved.”

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The primary influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), the microbudget horror Equinox has a substantial cult following, enough to receive the Criterion Collection treatment. Equinox is a holy grail for lovers of  backyard filmmaking, and is almost as famous for its making of narrative. The story began with three teenagers, David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Mark McGee, who got together and made a monster movie. Discovering the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen through the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential “Famous Monsters Of Filmland,” aspiring stop-animation animator Allen placed a personal ad in a 1962 issue of FM, inviting lovers of King Kong to correspond. Muren, whose monster memorabilia collection had been featured in an earlier article of the magazine, was the first to respond, followed by McGee. Shortly after that initial introduction, the three were meeting regularly for screenings and discussions of creature features and experimenting with 16 MM shorts. In 1965 Muren received money from his grandfather to make Equinox.

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Influenced primarily by Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957), the film also pays homage to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The cast includes Muren’s grandfather as a hermit who is trampled on by Allen’s stop-motion demon, the Taurus. Ackerman has a voice cameo via a tape recorder playing in the hospital. Pulp fantasy author Fritz Leiber (once an apprentice to H.P. Lovecraft) plays Professor Waterman, who is in possession of a medieval book, which contains a gateway to another dimension called the Equinox. The movie begins on a picnic when David (Edward Connell) and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) discover Waterman’s book and unintentionally summon forth a demon.

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There are two versions of Equinox. In the original, the narrative is ambiguous and really just an excuse to unleash stop-motion monsters (courtesy Allen and Jim Danforth). In the second version, Jack Woods, credited as a co-director with McGee and Muren, over-explains everything to the point of tedium. Although neither cut is a long-lost masterpiece, the original, pre-tampering version is definitely superior. But it’s the winning extras in the Criterion Collection disc that are the highlight, spinning a narrative of fan love for the genre, paid homage by commentary from the surviving principals.

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Equinox has some “American dream” success stories: Muren went on to become an Oscar-winning visual effects artist for Industrial Light and Magic, and worked on Willy Wonka And The Chocolate FactoryFlesh Gordon, the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the television series “Battlestar Galactica,” E.T.The AbyssGhostbusters IITerminator 2, Jurassic Park,  A.I., HulkWar of the Worlds, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among many others. David Allen also had a successful career, working on Flesh GordonThe HowlingQThe Hunger, Young Sherlock HolmesGhostbusters II, Willow, Puppetmaster, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, before dying prematurely in 1999. McGee had a career in B-movies, and Woods went on to work in sound.

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RUSS MEYER’S BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ( Russ Meyer1970) lobby card

Purportedly, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) was the film Russ Meyer felt was his most successful work. It was certainly his most profitable movie, and has the most extensive cult following.

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Its origin is well known. Upon learning that Meyer’s Vixen (1968) brought in six million dollars on a budget of seventy-five thousand, Fox Studios signed the director to a three-picture deal, with each budgeted at one million. The studio desperately needed a profitable venture, after the expensive flops Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly(1969). Meyer was assigned scriptwriter Roger Ebert to make a spoof of the studio’s Valley Of The Dolls (1967). After Mark Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trash novel had proven to be a surprise hit, Fox was taking no chances, counting on the Dolls name to bring in audiences.

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ( Russ Meyer1970) lobby cardBEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ( Russ Meyer1970) lobby card

 Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is only loosely related to its original source, and it was hated by both studio and Susann (who unsuccessfully sued to stop its release, fearing it would harm even her reputation). Fox insisted that Meyer insert a disclaimer, informing viewers that BTVOTD was not related to the Susann original. In hindsight, the studio’s misgivings are puzzling, since the movie is exactly what they ordered: a big budget Russ Meyer flick that became an instant cult phenomenon. While best viewed as a time capsule, BTVOTD is better than the pedestrian film it parodies. Valley Of The Dolls was directed on cruise control. Comparatively,  BTVOTD has the vigor of a tawdry cartoon, supplied by its twenty-seven-year-old scriptwriter and a middle-aged perverted artisan.
Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are “The Kelly Affair,” a trio of buxom rockers who, in their “Josie and the Pussycats” van, travel from sleepy Texas to the wild and wooly Los Angeles in hopes of success.  At a party, thrown by a bell-bottomed Caligula, the hexagon of singing mammary glands are discovered by the androgynous Z -Man (John Lazar, channeling Phil Spector), who redubs them “The Carrie Nations.”  With their rapid success comes drug addiction, avarice, harlotry, lesbianism, abortion, alcoholism, transsexualism, porn stars, and Nazi orgies.

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ( Russ Meyer1970) lobby card

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RUSS MEYER’S CHERRY, HARRY & RAQUEL! (1970)

Cherry, Harry & Raquel (Russ Meyer 1970)Cherry, Harry & Raquel (Russ Meyer)

Russ Meyer’s Cherry, Harry, And Raquel (1970) is a film that achieves a sense of hyper-surrealism through kinetic editing alone. Actually, it may be one of the most bizarrely edited films in the whole of cinema. It opens with scrolling text: a strange preamble about the First Amendment and how constipated religious right wackos are a threat to Freedom of Speech, juxtaposed against images of nudie cuties bouncing up and down on a bed.  Naturally, the imagery is intentionally provocative, and there is no doubt that some 1970 evangelical heads exploded when this played the drive-in circuit. Of course, it doesn’t take much to bring out the Pat Robertsons or Donald Trumps, be it boobs or red coffee cups, but Meyer was not about to risk being inoffensive. He not only filled the screen with bouncing udders, but also threw in a “pickle shot” courtesy of actor Charles Napier (in his first Meyer film; from here until 1975 the two collaborated in Beyond the Valley of the DollsThe Seven Minutes, and Supervixens). Although Napier’s full frontal nudity in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel was briefit was enough to to earn the movie an “X” certification.

Cherry, Harry & Raquel (Russ Meyer 1970) lobby cardCherry, Harry & Raquel (Russ Meyer 1970) lobby card

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DORIS WISHMAN’S THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970)

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Of course, Doris Wishman, the self-taught, innovative grand dame of sexploitation and grindhouse films, personally stamped everything she did. Wishman’s repeated focus on inanimate objects is her most infamous trademark. Hideous wallpaper, repeated shots of feet, and dirty floor tiles were favorite concentrations in some of the most outrageous compositions ever filtered through a lens. All of those abound in The Amazing Transplant (1970), but there is an additional focal point here: a giant moose head hanging on the wall. I have no idea what the hell it means, if anything. It is tempting to say that, perhaps, it’s a symbolic joke at the expense of male testosterone, except that this may also be Wishman’s most misogynistic film—which is saying quite a lot.

THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970 Doris Wishman)THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970 Doris Wishman) screenshot.

The Hands of Orlac (1924), Mad Love (1935), The Beast With Five Fingers (1946) and The Hand (1981), all dealt with with hand transplants resulting in murderous hands. Most of these films at least had an iota of style, and two of them starred the iconic character actor Peter Lorre. In this film, Doris Wishman gives us her take on a transplanted member. Naturally, no Wishman film would dare to tackle something so acceptable as a hand. No, Wishman’s raving lunatic has a newly-grafted penis. Lest one be tempted to conjure up the image of David Cronenberg’s vampire phallus growing from the armpit of the late porn star Marilyn Chmbers (Rabid-1977), I lament to report that The Amazing Transplant is nowhere near as anatomically outrageous. That is simply because we never see the Edward Hyde anaconda of poor Arthur (Juan Fernandez)—which is probably a good thing. Perhaps the hanging moose head is a sufficient avatar for all things phallic after all.

THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970 Doris Wishman)Doris Wishman

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SOMETHING WEIRD TRAVELING ROADSHOW FILMS: DAMAGED GOODS (1961)/THE HARD ROAD (1970)

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Today we tend to primarily (or solely) think of “Roadshow” films  as “filler” exploitation films for the pre-television era. However,Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Roadshow Releases,” is a useful in-depth tool on their history, revealing the initial understanding of the term was as a format, rather than genre. Of course, we’re not interested in “classy” roadshow features like Ben Hur or Cleopatra, but in the sexploitation features that took to the road to show audiences glimpses of forbidden fruit—movies that couldn’t be booked in regular suburban theaters because of their salacious content. Thefirst part of the series dealt with the phenomenon in the repressed Forties; for this installment, we move into the swinging Sixties.

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JOHN WATERS’ MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970)

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Multiple Maniacs (1970) was John Waters second feature-length movie (his first was 1969’s Mondo Trasho). Shot in grainy black and white, it lives up to its “Cavalcade Of Perversions” tagline. Even for those familiar with Waters’ early work (and everyone should at least sample one of them), Multiple Maniacs may be considered anextreme challenge. Comparatively, Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977) and especially Polyester (1981) might be seen as Busby Berkeley-styled celebrations of white trash.

The Multiple Maniacs

Shot on a two thousand dollar budget (Pink Flamingos came in at $5,000 and Polyester, $200,000), Multiple Maniacs opens with the camera panning down credits typed out on white paper.

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BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

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It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

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Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

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Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

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Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

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“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

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Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic Randolph Scott could never have competed.

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“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

“Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent, we are a peaceful people. We don’t kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”

Insert nihilistic finale.

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