RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GRIM REAPER (1976) AND THE BELIEVER’S HEAVEN (1977)

Like before him, had a brief, inspired period of lunacy, best seen in his two Christian scare masterstrokes: If Footman Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) and The Burning Hell (1974). After these, he lost his demented mojo. While 1976’s The Grim Reaper has much to recommend it (within a certain mindset), an element of fatigue has set in. The first and most obvious sign is the absence of Rev. Estus Pirkle (he and Ormond had a falling out over money—imagine that!), and as unfathomable as it may be, that stoic nutcase is immediately missed. The second major flaw is Ormond’s futile attempt at a linear narrative, proving he didn’t quite grasp the fact that the appeal of his previous two films was as crowning examples of evangelical .

One thing that The Grim Reaper does accomplish is fleshing out, on celluloid at least, the Baptist maxim “you’re goin’ to hay-ull.” One can always tell a Baptist because that’s their favorite catchphrase, and they haven’t grown tired of it yet.

Tim (played again by Ormond’s son Tim, now minus facial fair and sporting a Baptist haircut) and his mama, Ruby (Viola Walden) are saved. Unfortunately, his dad, Vern (Cecil Scaife) and brother, Frankie (Eddie King) are unsaved trash.

Worse, Eddie races cars! Now, the film doesn’t go into the semantics of “what if a race car driver is saved?” My Pentecostal aunt found herself in that same undesired predicament with one of her brood, but since Pentecostals don’t believe in “once saved, always saved,” I guess her boy wasn’t saved, even if he claimed to be. While the appeal of watching cars driving around a circle is a tad perplexing and the idea of racing is foolhardy, one might be hard pressed to locate the sin in it.

Still, Eddie isn’t saved. Tim attempts a literal last second death conversion by pleading with Eddie to recite the sinner’s prayer before succumbing to injuries from a wreck. Stupidly, Eddie doesn’t accept Jesus as his lord and personal savior. Now, Eddie’s gonna fry, but good. Such half-baked theology lacks a bit of spiritual common sense. The Ormond hypothesis follows Baptist reasoning (?!) pretty closely. According to them, if a serial killer gets saved before he dies, he goes to heaven (an example is Jeffrey Dahmer, who some actually claimed was saved in this manner). However, if his victims didn’t get the chance to say the sinner’s prayer and died immediately (as we assume some did), then they have go to Hell. Shit outta luck, dude—it’s a “the rules are the rules” kinda thing, as the Baptist preacher tells Eddie’s mum and dad. Sorry, folks, I can’t say he’s in heaven at the funeral because he’s burning in Hell now (as if dying in a fiery death wasn’t punishment enough). Yes, these are adults who actually believe this.

Continue reading

1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: RABID

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.

Continue reading

1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland 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.

Continue reading

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

ken-russells-valentino-1977

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from Bela Lugosi to Elvis Presley were influenced by him.

rudolph-valentino

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

son-of-the-sheik-1926

Continue reading

DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

Desperate Living (1977 dir. John Waters) Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey)

If Female Trouble (1975) is John Waters‘ greatest narrative film, then Desperate Living (1977) is his inimitable descent into a surreal, kitsch abyss that few could imagine. Desperate Living is Waters’ personal, alternative universe to the parallel world of Busby Berkeley.  Seen today, Berkeley’s films are a surreal wet dream, a perverse man’s big budget fairy tales.  Waters filmed his perverse anti-fairy tale on a meager budget three years after Female Troubles, although he had substantially more money here than on his previous films. Budget or no, Desperate Living is just as grandiose and epic as anything Berkeley ever produced.

Desperate Living (1977 dir. John Waters) Edith Massey

Continue reading