BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by Wallace Fox, is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by Lugosi‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep … Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, Bela Lugosi’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late Lon Chaney. Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to Boris Karloff. Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. … Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

BLADE RUNNER (1982) & BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

When Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was released this Fall, many were surprised that it did not meet box office expectations. Nor did it’s father, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Having seen the original on its opening weekend, I’m among those who witnessed its initial weak box office evolve into a cult phenomena.  John Carpenter’s The Thing, released the same year as Blade Runner, also took off slow amidst lukewarm reviews, yet both became examples of visionary science fiction, joining a small cluster of classic films from the last half century that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), E.T. (1982), Videodrome (1983), Back to the Future (1985), The Fly (1986),  A.I.(2001), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mine (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Prometheus (2012) (and of course a few others). Like  Steven Spielberg’s aforementioned Close Encounters, competing edits of Scott’s Blade Runner (my advice: go with “The Final Cut”) didn’t hinder its eventual cult status.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?,” the iconographic texture of Blade Runner was apparent mere moments into its release, despite the awkwardness of the silly studio-mandated Phillip Marlowe narration (supplied by star Harrison Ford as Deckard) and a happy ending that was woefully unconvincing for a film that practically defined dystopian noir. Thankfully, Scott was able to restore the film and added to it considerable by omitting those executive errors (while excising five minutes).

With his “Final Cut,” Scott cemented Blade Runner as his second (and greatest) of three unquestionable science fiction classics (the first being Alien and third being its belated prequel Prometheus—which of course will provoke futile debate). The cast is uniformly excellent. Despite its initial weak box office performance, Blade Runner made a brief star of antagonist Rutger Hauer, whose characterization of the replicant Roy is far more haunting and aptly hammy than its source material. The same could be said for Sean Young; she’s magnetic as Rachel, in her chic 2019  Joan Crawford shoulder pads and Louise Brooks-inspired bob, diaphanously exhaling a smoky-treat. Darryl Hannah as Pris (with lethal thighs), Brion James as Leon, and the eternally underrated Joanna Cassidy as the snake-wielding Zhora make a trio of memorable replicant villains, more poignantly human than most of the humans. Apart from Ford’s Deckard, who—as has been noted and debated endlessly—is possibly a replicant himself, the human exceptions are Joe Turkell as doomed Dr. Tyrell and William Sanderson as the pathos-ridden toymaker Sebastien. Both remain etched in the memory.

Continue reading “BLADE RUNNER (1982) & BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)”

1964 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR CASTLE AND CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD

Our Next Attraction… “The most exciting feature of the year! Lady in a Cage… and Olivia de Havilland is in it! A lady in a cage, locked in her own madhouse of insane intruders, powerless to stop the psychopathic horror that hems her in. Olivia de Havilland helpless before the rage of such characters as the Wino, half-crazed with his own destroying sin… the Hustler, a blousy has-been—the most amazing role Ann Southern has ever played… the Muscler, lusting for the last wild thrill of killing… the Weirdo, a blonde psycho driven to tempt, to taunt, to destroy… the Wildo, … Continue reading 1964 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: HORROR CASTLE AND CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD

1979 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MALIBU HIGH AND THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS

Gas Pump Girls (directed by Joel Bender) is a slice of 70s drive-in T&A. Not aspiring to be anything else, it revels in its Americana kookiness. June (Kirsten Baker) takes over a gas station from her uncle (Huntz Hall from the Bowery Boys) after he has a heart attack. She trains her tight tanktop, short-short-wearing girlfriends to pump gas (“Stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out”), which naturally leads them to take on a big bad oil company. Musical numbers and topless scenes are thrown in just for the hell of it, and why not? There’s a punk gang, too; the film is almost a hybrid of the Ramones doing a Grease soundtrack on a “Happy Days” set with a bit of Rockythrown in. Yes, it’s that cool. It was influential and Bender does wonders with virtually no budget, making this quintessential 1970s trash.

H.O.T.S (directed by Gerald Seth Sindell) is another uddersploitation offshoot of Animal House. It can be summed up as politically incorrect campus topless football. Given that its inspiration isn’t very good to begin with, H.O.T.S. doesn’t set it sights very high, and is all the better for it.

Linda Blair’s cleavage, Linda Blair’s legs, lots of hair, lots of polyester, lots of spandex, and lots of skating add up to a late 70s campfest in Roller Boogie (directed by Mark Lester). It’s embarrassing in the best way.

Bad men kidnap a busload of pretty, all-American cheerleader boobs in The Great American Girl Robbery (directed by Jeff Werner). Ra-ra.

Malibu High (directed by Irvin Berwick) is what 70s drive-in cinema was all about—sex, drugs, and amorality. Hallelujah! Kim (Jill Lansing, in her only film role) is flunking school, just got dumped by her boyfriend for a rich bitch, hates her bathrobe-wearing mama, and her daddy killed himself. What’s a girl to do? First, bed all the teachers. Now, Kim has a 4.0 GPA, but she wants nice things, too, dammit. With her new miniskirt, Kim figures she might as well get paid for what all those stupid girls do for free. Meet Kim, the hooker who’ll rock your van into the gates of paradise. Alas, poor Kim also likes the wacky tobaccy, and we know what that demon will do—turn you into a gun-toting hitman with a pop-gun. Lansing plays her sociopath without an ounce of sympathy and even less talent, with thespian skills so tawdry that it’s easy to see why she became a minor cult goddess. Even worse is the writing, which seems penned by a clueless tenth grader, and the score by a tone deaf composer. It’s mind-boggling enough to be a trash masterpiece that can rank with the likes of Larry Buchanan.

In the future, future generations may see fit to an erect a future Mount Rushmore homage to the likes of Ed Wood, Al Adamson, Doris Wishman, and Larry Buchanan in the future. And why wouldn’t they, with gems like Buchanan’s Mistress of the Apes? See Susan (Jenny Neumann) fill a pair of white daisy dukes. See Susan teach a missing link how to deep throat a banana. See Susan scratch her armpit and beat her boobs. See Susan become goddess of the jungle. Among the injustices of the world is the academy’s total failure to nominate “Ape Woman” as Best Original Song.  Oh, e, oh, oh, e, oh.

Weasels Rip My Flesh is not a long-lost  Frank Zappa movie. Rather, it’s a Nathan Schiff opus that’s among the most uproariously incompetent movies ever made. (Keep in mind that Schiff was a 16-year-old teenager with a Super-8 camera and a $400 budget).  A NASA probe from Venus crashes in Long Island, emits radiation, and creates a giant paper machete weasel. The acting is mortifying, the audio is often indecipherable, the editing and writing are mind-numbing, and the cheap camerawork is shaky,  but Schiff managed to make a cult film for the ages. God bless him.

Continue reading “1979 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MALIBU HIGH AND THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS”

1964 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, 2000 MANIACS, AND THE CREEPING TERROR (WITH BONUS: STRAIGHT-JACKET )

straight-jacket

1964 was nearly as productive a year for the cinematic horror genre as 1963 was. Coming from the barrel bottom was Jerry Warren’s improvement on 1960’s La Casa del Terror, Face of The Screaming Werewolf, starring (sort of) Lon Chaney, Jr. and Yerye Beirut (who later co-starred with Boris Karloff in a string of Mexican films co-produced by Jack Hill). Chaney was probably less embarrassed (although doubtfully any less sober) working for Hammer director Don Sharp in the well-received Witchcraft. Fellow Hammer veterans Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing collaborated on the actor’s only non- Terence Fisher directed Frankenstein opus, The Evil of Frankenstein, which initially received poor reviews, but has since been reassessed in a more positive light (in some quarters). Without a star actor (or competent director) Hammer’s The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (DirMichael Carreras) was as limp as its title character. However, the dynamic trio of Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Shelley did their best work (despite a silly-looking title creature), as usual, for Terence Fisher in The Gorgon. Lee didn’t fair as winningly in the Warren Kiefer/Luciano Ricci co-directed Castle Of The Living Dead, despite having closing scenes directed by an uncredited Michael Reeves. Lee moved from a castle to a mere crypt in Crypt Of the Vampire (directed by Camilio Mastrocinque), which was as narratively pedestrian as its title,despite undeniable atmosphere. The icon of Italian Gothic cinema Barbara Steele (and the last living of the classic horror stars) was also at home in a castle setting in Castle Of Blood (Co-Directed by Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Corbucci) and teamed again with Magheriti in The Long Hair Of Death, which we will be covering soon in a Steele triple feature. The final two Poe films from Roger Corman and Vincent Price, Masque Of The Red Death and Tomb Of Ligeia were  among their best received, although the latter features yet another ingratiatingly whiny, flowery performance from its  star. Rounding out a busy year, Price starred in The Last Man On Earth (Co-directed by Ubaldo Ramona and Sidney Salkow),  the first of several big screen adaptations of Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend,”none of which astoundingly could get right.

the-incredibly-strange-creatures-who-stopped-living-and-became-mixed-up-zombies

Blood and Black Lace predictably became yet another cult film from Mario Bava, but even he could not compete with the legendary Kwaidan (directed by Masaki Kobayashi), which puts most Western horror anthologies to shame. Down several notches is Del Tenney, who has an inexplicable cult reputation, but as both I Eat Your Skin and The Horrors Of Party Beach prove, that status is undeserved for such a dullard. Spiraling downward, ever downward we come to Ray Dennis Steckler’s biggest budgeted film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which is more famous for its title than the film itself. There’s a reason for that; It also commits the cardinal sin of being hopelessly dull. It doesn’t have zombies per se, but victims of the carnival fortune teller, Madame Estrella who throws acid in people’s faces, turning them into “monsters.” Despite bad sound, obnoxious acting (including Steckler himself under the pseudonym Cash Flagg) and execrable “rock and roll” numbers that have nothing to do with the plot, it’s sort of decently shot-in color- by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-1977), but even the lensing is guilty of “incredibly slow and pointless shots of carnival rides,” which would perhaps be a better title.

Continue reading “1964 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, 2000 MANIACS, AND THE CREEPING TERROR (WITH BONUS: STRAIGHT-JACKET )”

1962 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: MONDO CANE, EEGAH, AND WILD GUITAR

“All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life. If often they are shocking, it is only because there are many shocking things in this world.”

mondo-cane-1962

Thus, Mondo Cane not only introduced America to the mondo name and genre, it also was the first shockumentary to play in cinemas internationally, unsettling both critics and audiences who had never seen anything like it. It became a grandfather to countless pseudo-sequels and imitations, including the infamous Faces of Death, and for that reason alone Mondo Cane is of historical importance to bizarre cinema aficionados. Although dated and outdone by its successors, Mondo Cane retains its power to provoke—and that is the sole purpose of this film, which further renders it an original in every way.

mondo-cane-1962

Although Mondo Cane has been accused of having a xenophobic perspective, its hard to make that point when the filmmakers (Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi , and Guiltiero Jacopetti) consistently contrast primitive and western customs through condescending narration. It’s really a series of mostly unrelated film clips. Food is the theme most explored: from Asians eating dog, to rattle snake entrails in the marketplace, to pigs beaten to death in New Guinea, to civilized diners devouring ants in a posh restaurant.

mondo-cane-1962

A scene of a sea turtle slowly dying on a radioactive beach is beautifully harrowing and juxtaposed against the extended, revolting spectacle of a bull goring a man to death. While recommending the film to anyone with suicidal tendencies probably would not be a good idea, Mondo Cane is not without some humor, seen in its pet cemetery vignette, and in the contrast of savage native women being fattened to become the bride of a chieftain with Western women rolling their fat away on the floor. Very well-shot and surprisingly endowed with a sterling score (by Nino Oliviero), Mondo Cane is cinema at its most bi-polar and nihilistic. How nihilistic is it? It’s the only film I know of that will inspire the viewer to pity a man-eating shark.

Continue reading “1962 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: MONDO CANE, EEGAH, AND WILD GUITAR”

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 “KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)”

1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

  Arch Hall Jr. is practically American cinema’s masochistic patron saint of Juvenile Delinquent exploitation garbage. Guided by daddy Arch Sr. (who penned the script and produced)The Choppers was Junior’s first film in a mercifully brief career (he retired in 1965 to become a musician and aviator—daddy was ex-Air Force). To most contemporary viewers, Hall, Jr. is possibly best known for his second film, Eegah (1962), after it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000—although to the cult crowd, his crowning achievement is 1963’s The Sadist. Both of these will be covered here, along with Wild Guitar (1962), in upcoming exploitation collections from their respective years.   In Leigh Jason’s The … Continue reading 1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

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.

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

THE ACID EATERS (1968) RIP Buck Kartalian (1922-2016)

Plot-spoiler police beware! The Acid Eaters (1968)… Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock… up the pyramid of white blotter. Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock goes the white clock and… a man climbs down a tree and then climbs up another tree. Tick Tock… telephone operators at work, Tick Tock…man stamps checks, Tick Tock… man paints pictures, Tick Tock…man pours booze for shaking, hungry awaiting hands, Tick Tock… Whistle blows… man eats sandwich with mouth open, Whistle blows…toilet flushes…woman eats McFries with mouth open, toilet flushes, 60s chicks do … well, something, toilet flushes…Whistle blows…  TickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTock Lather, rinse, repeat. Peopledowalk. Carsdodrive. Therebeawhitepyramidofacid…People dowalk. Carsdodrive…Therebeawhitepyramidofacid…People dowalk. Carsdodrive… boomchickaboom, boomchickaboom,boomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchicksintightminiskirtshuggingbuttsboomchickaboomguysintightjeanshuggingbuttsboomchickaboomboomchickaboom…wahwahwah…rusty … Continue reading THE ACID EATERS (1968) RIP Buck Kartalian (1922-2016)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL

 Ken Russell

Parts I  & 2 of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of  (1927-2011) originally posted at 366 Weird Movies. Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

Ken Russell

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

KEN RUSSELL French Dressing

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of Richaed Lester‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

KEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar BrainKEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar Brain

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love


Women In Love
(1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Kramer’s script, also nominated for an Academy Award, simplifies its literary source). Russell’s body of work, especially in television, reveals a highly erudite filmmaker who consistently approached literary themes and subjects with contextual fidelity, as opposed to surface literalism, which eventually branded him an irreverent enfant terrible.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love

Russell had a superb cast in Bates, Reed, Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Jenny Linden. Billy Williams’ camerawork (yet another Oscar nominee) is lyrical, stark, and very much indicative of Russell to come.

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

After the box office and critical success of Women in Love, Russell plunged quickly into his first theatrical film with a composer as its subject. The Music Lovers (1970) focuses on Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). With expressionistic sets, psychedelic lensing, elongated fantasy sequences (clearly inspired by : Kenneth Anger and Fantasia), along with a spiritually irreverent, high-pitched tone, this is Russell as we came to know him. Forsaking the typical program bio of the Nutcracker composer, Russell is not at all interested in pedestrian ideas of a “biopic.” Frank about its subject’s banality (he ejaculates while imagining the cannons of his god awful “1812 Overture” aimed at his enemies) and homosexuality, many critics, Roger Ebert included, labeled the film libelous. Chamberlain, who years later came out of the closet, in a far more accepting period, expertly slips into the title role. As Nina, the composer’s sexually frustrated wife, Glenda Jackson again excels in her second collaboration with Russell (she also spends much of the film in full frontal nudity, which, of course, inspired a few exploding heads in the “classical music” scene).

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

In all fairness to Russell, Tchaikovsky was tormented by his sexuality (in a undoubtedly hostile era). His death, publicly attributed to cholera, was probably a suicide, and he admitted a self-loathing for producing such commissioned works as the “Nutcracker” and “1812.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s best work is his lesser-known, personal compositions. Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with his usual craftsmanship. The film, like its subject, is aptly heart-on-sleeve.

Ken Russell The Devils

The Devils (1971) is considered by many cult film fans to be Russell’s masterpiece, and it is almost unfathomable that it would be denied a 366 List entry. Russell, a convert to Catholicism, was aware of that religion’s inherent surrealism. Attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to its dogma (I can relate), Russell locates the pulse of European excesses. For the traditionalist minded, The Devils is unadulterated blasphemy.

Ken Russell The Devils

Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,”The Devils is the quintessential example of Russell excess (don’t dare look for a discernible plot)With opulent set designs by  (a frequent Russell collaborator), masturbating nuns, sadomasochistic demonic possessions, tormented priests of the Inquisition, and X-rated sexual fantasies, Russell is intentionally provocativesparing no demographic from potential offense (including Roger Ebert, an atheist and former Catholic). Oliver Reed gives the performance of his life as a sacred erection, in duet with a bewitching Vanessa Redgrave.

Ken Russell The Devils

Chicago Reader critic David Kehr found humor in The Devils and amusingly described it as a “David Lean remake of Pink Flamingos.” That’s about apt a summary as one can manage. More than forty years after its release, The Devils is no less subversive today, and has had spotty distribution in home video.

Ken Russell the Boy Friend

Russell followed The Devils with his only movie to receive a “G” rating. Starring Twiggy and adorned in an MGM color palette, The Boy Friend (1971) is an oddity in the Russell cannon. Based on Sandy Wilson’s 1954 play, Russell, with his charismatic lead, transforms it into a musical with an almost Wagnerian undercurrent (as if Busby Berkeley, clearly channeled here, isn’t demented enough). Twiggy’s charm serves as a counterbalance to Russell’s wandering camera. Christopher Gable co-stars (and will work with Russell again in 1989’s The Rainbow). Unfortunately, The Boyfriend was a box office flop, which prompted MGM to refuse Russell financial backing for his next film.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Russell financed Savage Messiah (1972) himself, which again finds the director examining artistic genius, here in the persona of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony). With Russell’s lifelong, obsessive passion for his subject, Savage Messiah is an authentic labor of love. Derek Jarman again serves as Russell’s art director, endowing Savage Messiah with Russell’s over-the top-visual sensibility (including an amorous Helen Mirren in a pop-colored cabaret). It is also an emotionally rich film focusing on the romance between Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), which makes it all the more disappointing that MGM failed to promote it in distribution. Savage Messiah is, paradoxically, one of Russell’s most accomplished and least known works.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler (1974) is another highly personal film for Russell, which I previously wrote about here.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Starring The Who, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John (as the Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner (as the Acid Queen), and Robert Powell, Tommy (1975) is undoubtedly Russell’s most famous film. Based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera,  many critics accused Russell of preferring spectacle to substance. Others felt Russell’s film was a too literal approach. Tommy divided both fans and critics alike, and still does. The flaws are more the Who’s than Russell’s. With his operatic tenets and sense to enough to know that good taste is often at enmity with good art, Russell makes Tommy a powerful, one-of-a-kind experience, with each act topping its predecessor, building to an aptly histrionic crescendo. Disorienting, sensual, and filled to the brim with salted pain, Tommy is that rarity of rarities: an artistically authentic opera and musical experience.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Reed, unleashed again, proves an ideal collaborator, and Ann-Margaret deservedly earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tommy’s mother. Unfortunately, Roger Daltry is no actor, and his performance undeniably hinders the film.

Tommy is already a deserving List Candidate and hopefully will be canonized sometime in the future.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Lisztomania (1975) is Russell’s idiosyncratic take on composer Franz Liszt. It is also an official List entry, found here.

Ken Russell Valentino

Under-directed by Russell and physically miscast, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev still convinces as the titular Valentino (1977). A mix of alarming self-control and unfettered hyperbole, this uneven film disappointed Russell fans who wanted something more experimental in the vein of Mahler and Lisztomania. It also disappointed cinema history buffs and Valentino fans who wanted (but should not have expected) something more orthodox.

Ken Russell ValentinoKen Russell Valentino

Despite flaws, Valentino is a beautiful film and accessible, if not constrained by historicity. Russell treats this subject no differently than others, including religion, as a mix of fantasy, facts, legend, and folklore.

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino was Russell’s biggest budgeted film to date and was a resounding flop at the American box office (it did considerably better overseas). It has since developed a cult following and recently has been released on Blu-ray, although the transfer has received mixed reviews.

Continue reading “DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL”

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only Orson Welles could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons(1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panic. Fearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically … Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

Continue reading “GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)”

RUSS MEYER’S BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979)

BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979) poster

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens (1979) is the last authentic Russ Meyer film (he returned only to produce 2001‘s rarely-seen Pandora Peaks, which is, as to be expected, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the documentary genre). Co-written by Roger Ebert (under his “R. Hyde” pseudonym), Meyer’s swan song is film as one additional cup size enhancement. It has charmed moments of Meyerisms, including his trademark spry editing, but adds erratic eroticism. Meyer once claimed it was the favorite of his own works (although he said the same of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls). This may be an echo of Paul Gauguin’s claim that the artistic process was more satisfying than the finished work. Coloring Meyer’s sense of nostalgia for the film was his admission that he constantly engaged in sex with star Kitten Natividad between takes. According to Meyer, the actress introduced him to multifarious taboos and was even more oversexed than he was.

BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979) Kitten Natividad

As in Up! (1976), the plot is emaciated Surrealism. The relationship (so to speak) between Surrealism and pornography has been complex since the movement’s inception (works by Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag, and Theodor Adorno are among essential writings on the subject). Meyer’s brand of Surrealism is strictly visceral, which renders him closer to authentic Surrealism than to soft-core porn. For the Surrealists, porn’s lack of social acceptability amounted to an endorsement. However, its totalitarian simple-mindedness prevented a complete embrace, or mimicry. Rather, elements of pornography proved influential to the aesthetics and tenets of Surrealism.

BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979)

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979)”

RUSS MEYER’S UP! (1976)

Up! (1976, Russ Meyer)

Russ Meyer followed up on the relative success of 1975’s Supervixens with Up! From a script based on Roger Ebert’s original story, Meyer produced his most surreal live-action, X-rated cartoon. There is no tangible plot, but rather loosely connected vignettes.

Up! opens with a sadomasochistic scene of Adolf Schwartz (Edward Schaaf) being tortured, and pleasured, by three female prostitutes, each belonging to a different ethnic group: the Ethiopian Chief (Elaine Collins), the Oriental Limehouse (Su Ling) and Pocahontas (Foxy Lae). Of course, the Native American requires a Captain Smith, who she get in puritan pilgrim Paul (Robert McLane, with a foot-long prosthetic penis). Candy Samples also appears, under a mask, to breast slap Adolf, who is actually the aged Adolf Hitler, having apparently faked his 1944 suicide. He’s living in a Bavarian castle (his mailbox has a red flag) until a mysterious black-gloved assassin drops a piranha in the Fuhrer’s bathtub to the strains of the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Although obviously justified, Adolf’s death is actually a disappointment: within the dank dungeon, Schaff is the most animated sex participant, expressively enjoying his carnality. The remaining cast members all engage with the outdoor, sunny California countryside, but under a spell of kinetic blankness, like sex machines gone wild. That is intentional. It is essential to be aware of this film’s time period. The country was still under the spell and success of the hardcore XXX filmDeep Throat (1972). It influenced the entire sexploitation industry and Up! is a venomous, satirical rejection of the hardcore phenomenon. Paradoxically, Up! is also an attempt to appease changing tastes.

Up! (1976, Russ Meyer) Adolf Schwartz (Edward Schaaf)

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S UP! (1976)”

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.

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ( Russ Meyer1970) poster

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

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)”

RUSS MEYER’S SUPERVIXENS (1975)

Supervixens (Russ Meyer) poster

Russ Meyer had seemingly put low budget independent film permanently behind him when he made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls(1970, co-written with (Roger Ebert) and The Seven Minutes (1971) for super-studio 20th Century Fox. The first film made an unprecedented nine million dollars, but the latter was a commercial and critical failure. The axiom “you are only as big as your last film” held true, and Meyer was back on an independent path with the Caribbean-filmed period drama Black Snake (1973). Unfortunately, that was also a commercial failure. Some advocated it as an attempted change-of-pace for Meyer, but many felt the director had lost his footing.

Supervixens (Russ Meyer 1975) lobby card

Supervixens (1975) marked a return to Meyer’s zanier sexploitation style. It also finds him trying to catch up with his earlier self and with the indie school he influenced, which had already surpassed Meyer in its sex and violence quotas. Fortunately, he succeeded, and Supervixens‘ unexpected financial success (especially for an independent film) paved a path for the larger budgets of Up!(1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens(1979; his second and final collaboration with Ebert as co-writer).

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S SUPERVIXENS (1975)”

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

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S CHERRY, HARRY & RAQUEL! (1970)”

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.

Continue reading “RUSS MEYER’S FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! (1965)”