“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”
Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of James Whale, the art deco perversity of Edgar G. Ulmer, Tod Browning‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of Val Lewton represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.
This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superiormediocrity. Actually, despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former Hitchcock heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star Rory Calhoun, Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).
To say that John Waters is the most polarizing of American filmmakers, even among his own fan base, is stating the obvious. Not even David Lynch invites Waters’ level of divisiveness. By and large, the cult filmmaker’s canon is split between those who prefer his pre-Hairspray (1988) work and moviegoers who cannot digest the earlier, low budget underground period, and are forced to begin with that crossover film. With the later Waters’ crowd, the consensus is that the director took the shock ’em til you succeed route, and it worked. After that, Waters made legitimate movies. Waters himself seemed to add fuel to that theory with Cecil B. Demented (2000), which took aim at independent (along with conglomerate) filmmaking, although he did not refrain from self-parody or self-critique.
When composer Igor Stravinsky followed a series of seismic, revolutionary works with a reversion to a neo-Classical style, many of his advocates (avant-garde proselytizer Pierre Boulez among them) and disciples deemed him a traitor, literally picketing his concerts. Waters’ earliest fans were far more forgiving of their idol’s mainstream success. Perhaps that is because their prophet is cut from the same pop cloth as an Elvis Presley, rather than Stravinksy’s heritage of European high art. Although Waters would certainly wax amused (at least publicly) at the notion of his work being classified as art, he is no less provocative or innovative than his counterparts in the academic avant-garde. His flair for provocation is born of his time, place, and culture. Waters’ response to his heritage is honest, rendering him an authentic American success story.
By dubbing himself “the Pope Of Trash” in early write-ups in Baltimore newspapers and speaking engagements, Waters himself allegedly gives credence to the argument from the “early film” faction that once the director lost regulars David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Divine, and experienced authentic critical and financial successes, he merely took the money and ran. The earlier films represent the real John Waters.
Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994) is a seven and half hour long, glacially paced, acerbic adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel. It is the second of four films in which Tarr has collaborated with Krasznahraki as writer, beginning with Damnation (1988) and most recentlyThe Turin Horse (2011).
Tarr is frequently and aptly compared to Andrei Tarkovskt. Like Tarkovsky, Tarr’s films require intelligence and patience. At this length, Tarkovsky may seem hyperkinetic, particularly to Western viewers. Yet, patience reaps a rich spiritual reward. Indeed, Tarr may be the most spiritually intuitive filmmaker since Tarkvosky, Bresson, and Dreyer.
In a round table meeting with a couple of editors, I was discussing a proposed documentary (which we abandoned). As we were dialoguing, I mentioned a scene which would require green screen. One of the editors stopped me short and said: “This is a documentary. You do not do green screen shots in a documentary.” When I explained that the scene was meant to be poetic and dream-like, which did pertain to the subject at hand, my editor persisted: “You still cannot do that. That’s against all the rules of documentary filmmaking.” I ended that with: “So who made these rules?” If I had thought that argument through, I probably would have tied the editor down and shown him two documentary films, which break “THE rules.” One would be Guy Maddin‘s My Winnipeg (2007) and the other would be Doris Wishman‘s Let Me Die A Woman (1978).
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 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.
To the alternative cineaste, Doris Wishman is somewhat akin to what Mary, the Mother of Christ, is to Catholics. She was a considerable influence on luminaries such as John Waters, Roger Corman, and Quentin Tarantino. Like them, Wishman approached genre films with an idiosyncratic enthusiasm for the art and the business. Her films are sexploitation roughies, nudie-cuties, and precursors to the grindhouse films. Therefore, she also has her detractors, who compare to her to the likes of Ed Wood. Wishman was a true, self-taught outsider artist. And like most outsider artists, being a maverick had its advantages and disadvantages (she never had the budget she needed). Wishman was as tenebrous and quirky as her films. She often told elaborate lies about herself and remained defiant to the end, mocking conventional attitudes. “I’ll continue making films in Hell” she said, terminally ill, only days before her passing at age 90. If that anecdote doesn’t endear her to you, well, you may have come to the wrong film site.
It’s 1962. You are a producer/director who, admittedly, makes films for the primary purpose of turning a profit. Now, you only have a budget of about fifty bucks. So, what’s the best way to turn a profit? Skin, of course. There is, however, a bit of an obstacle. The obscenity laws prohibit nudity. Of course, that is hardly an obstacle if your name is Doirs Wishman. Doris was well aware of THE BIG LOOPHOLE. Nudity on film was permissible IF it was confined to a nudist colony, because we all know there is, indeed, educational value in filming naturists. And if you really want to double your potential profit, you take that nudist colony and put it on the moon for the sic-fi kids. Amazing, but true!
When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the Arrow, Jim Thorpe-All American,The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.
However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices. In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking. If Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.
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.
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).
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.
In hindsight, Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) might mark a type of penance for director John Huston. It certainly represents a shift in his cinematic oeuvre. Huston, of legendary macho fame, had cemented his reputation with virile opuses: Treasure of the Sierre Madre (1948), TheRed Badge of Courage (1951), African Queen (1951), Moby Dick (1956), Roots of Heaven (1958), and The Bible (1966). Yet, Houston also was occasionally drawn to sensitive or eccentric material. Both The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Beat the Devil (1953) became cult hits. Huston went from working with John Wayne in Barbarian and the Geisha ( 1958) to Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961).
Having worked well with Clift in The Misfits, Huston cast the actor in the title role of his dream project: Freud (1962). Unfortunately, that production was plagued by a pedestrian script and the tension that resulted when Huston walked in on Clift bedding a male reporter. It proved the wrong film for Huston to vent his homophobia. Continue reading “REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967)”
The Roger Corman cult favorite Bucket of Blood (1959) was ahead of its time, literally pioneering the phrase “supplemental feature.” Having finished A Bucket of Blood ahead of schedule, Corman fashioned his supplemental material in a second cult favorite feature, Little Shop of Horrors (1960), shot on an old Charlie Chaplin set. As a producer, Corman’s oeuvre is, naturally, outrageously varied, from Z-grade potboilers to arthouse films. Corman’s output as a director was almost as varied, but the quality of his work took an improved turn with this film (with no small assistance from writer Charles B. Griffith, who also penned Shop). Corman’s directing career essentially ended with 1971′s Von Richthofen and Brown, although he returned nineteen years later for Frankenstein Unbound (1990), which was mostly panned. Like the director himself, Frankenstein Unbound may be underrated; as underrated as some of Corman’s Poe films are overrated.
Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson challenged Corman to break his own record of a six day shoot, quality be damned. Despite the five-day shoot, Bucket of Bloodremains one of Corman’s best efforts. It is essentially a reworking of House Of Wax (1953) transplanted to a beatnik coffee shop. Dick Miller (in his only starring role) plays the geek busboy Walter who wants to become as hip as the beatniks, poets, jazz musicians, and artists at the Yellow Door Cafe. Walter not only want to impress his customers, but also his unrequited love: hostess Carla (Barboura Morris). He gets his opportunity when he accidentally kills a cat, panics, and covers up the evidence in clay. He becomes an artistic sensation. Before you can say “Sweeney Todd,” Walter’s next masterpiece is of the two-legged mammalian variety. An irksome detective joins the list of victims turned masterpieces; and, naturally, Walter’s posthumous fame will supersede his homicidal proclivities. Continue reading “ROGER CORMAN’S A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)”
The Intruder (1962) is a film that Roger Corman, star William Shatner , writer Charles Beaumont (who penned numerous Twilight Zone episodes) and a cast of relative unknowns can put atop their resumes. Predictably, Corman’s most progressive endeavor was his only commercial flop. The Intruder can also lay a considerable claim to being Corman’s best film. Shot in 1961, during the very early stages of the civil rights movement, The Intruder was extraordinarily risky, so much so, that AIP, Corman’s studio, would not touch it. Corman and his brother Gene produced by refinancing his home. A few gutsy critics lavished admiration and praise, and, after Cannes banned it, a few smaller overseas festivals gave it awards. Alas, awards do not count as a return on investment, and a desperate Corman and his initial distributor Pathé made the drive-in rounds with four different titles in a vain effort to recoup costs. Whether under the moniker Shame, The Stranger, or I Hate Your Guts, it was a hopeless cause. Pathé eventually backed out and Corman distributed the film itself, securing the loss of his own investment. Continue reading “ROGER CORMAN’S THE INTRUDER (1962)”
Richard Boone exemplifies the star of yesteryear. He was not a twenty-something, pretty Twilight boy chiseled out of wax. He was craggy and already middle-aged when cast as Paladin in “Have Gun Will Travel,” television’s greatest westerns series. Boone was a perfect anti-hero and a memorable, complex villain in countless films, including Budd Boetticher`s The Tall T (1957). Despite his rough exterior, Boone was an erudite actor, and his proudest accomplishment may have been the tragically short-lived “Richard Boone Show” (1963) which brought repertory theater to small screen American audiences (even if, predictably, the fare was too original for that audience). Boone’s way to starring roles from character parts was a slow one, and his early body of work included low budget genre films, such as the quirky, flawed gem, I Bury The Living (1958).
Boone, one year into the iconic “Have Gun Will Travel,” is as understated in I Bury the Living as the movie’s title is trashy. The film was directed by prolific Z-movie director Albert Band (father of Full Moon Productions’ Charles Band), who gives it a brooding, British noir milieu, employing psychedelic montages (shot by cinematographer Frederick Gatelyand) and expressionist sets (from Edward Vorkapich). It plays like an extended “Twilight Zone” episode with one noticeable difference: an ending which almost kills it. Continue reading “I BURY THE LIVING (1958)”
“Female has the fluff and finery, as specified by those who design and sell. Little Miss Female, you should feel quite proud of the situation! You of course realize it’s predominantly men who design your clothes, your jewelry, your makeup, your hair styling, your perfume!” – Ed Wood narration from Glen or Glenda.
Ed Wood is certainly the auteur saint of naive surrealism. Everything he touched had his indelible stamp of personality all over it. More accurately, everything he touched oozed with Woodianisms.
Do not be alarmed! The loud thud you are getting to hear is merely the sound of your jaw dropping to the floor while watching Child Bride (1938). And before the credits roll, you will know that you have truly entered a twilight zone from the gutter cinema of yesteryear.
Of course, in 1938 movies were deep in the law of the Hays Code, and the only films which managed to subvert Will Hays’ dos-and-don’ts-list were the exploitation features. That is because they contained an “educational, moral message” for the masses.
Child Bride was a government funded film which begins it’s sermon with: “These child marriages must be stopped!” Predictably, the film then wallows in its own tawdry agenda. Written and directed by the rightfully forgotten hack, Harry Reiver, Child Bride is a ripe candidate for one to the most disturbing examples of unintentional weirdness.
Edgar G Ulmer‘s The Man From Planet X (1951) was the first released movie depicting an extraterrestrial visitation. Although it was shot for peanuts, this Mid Century Films production is a lesser known cult entry in the sci-fi genre. Being the first of its kind, The Man From Plant X established many archetypes to come.
The studio wanted an exploitative film, tagging their alien invasion opus as “the weirdest visitor the earth has even seen!” True to his nature, Ulmer instead delivered a tight little mood piece. It does have a (considerably) weird alien, but the finished film is probably not what the studio anticipated. Ulmer douses the film in glowing mist, dim lights and masterful compositions (his expressionist roots are still intact).
I recently saw two films for the first time since childhood. If there is ever proof that we are not born with taste, that taste is a reflection of our willingness to move past what we know or are exposed to, then the proof is in this proverbial pudding. Two of the coolest movies to an adolescent in the early 1970s were Elvis On Tour (1972) and the Omega Man (1971). However, the sight of a pasty Rock and Roll King, dressed as a lounge lizard Batman, bejeweled in a string of rhinestone Christmas lights, with a shoe-polished football helmet for hair and sideburns reaching down to his collarbone, singing Sinatra’s “My Way,” is the stuff of nightmares.
Even more horrific is Omega Man`s Charlton Heston as a doomsday martyr with a Savior complex, dying for our sins. Boris Sagal’s apocalyptic oater is a delightfully dated and tacky fantasy. Who better to fill that role than all-American, granite-jawed Heston? The dialogue is jaw dropping. Omega Man was one of several ideologically right-leaning science fiction films that Heston gravitated to. (His choice of roles revealed a shrewd awareness on the actor’s part towards development of a public persona). It was a natural to follow epic Biblical melodramas with parts casting him as a messianic loner. The essence of American power and strength, highlighted by his carved-in-marble Roman profile, Heston was built for adolescent males to emulate and females to swoon over. Continue reading “OMEGA MAN (1971): DELIGHTFULLY TACKY APOCALYPTIC CHEESE”
Roger Corman’s The Terror has been in public domain for half of forever. The result, predictably, has been a plethora of DVD prints, ranging from wretched to execrable. It is a legendary film that has its equal share of fans and detractors. The Terror marks the only time Boris Karloff actually “starred” in a film directed by Corman (The Raven-1963, does not really count, as Karloff was secondary to Vincent Price). How much of the movie Corman directed is debatable. Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller are all reported to have directed parts of The Terror, although only Corman is credited.
When a film opens up with a raspy-voiced Lon Chaney, Jr. ardently singing the title song, it almost comes with a guarantee of a weird trip ahead. Spider Baby (1964) does not disappoint.
Some commentators have likened Spider Baby to Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 ), or TV’s “the Addams Family,” while others have erroneously categorized it as “surreal.” If we have to give comparisons, we might find it to be the most idiosyncratic film in the “Old Dark House” genre (and yes, that includes Rocky Horror Picture Show). Still, even that is not adequate. Spider Baby is a maverick that defies labels.
Writer/director Jack Hill‘s credits include Boris Karloff‘s unfortunate Z-grade Mexican horror films House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), Alien Terror (1971); the women-in-prison jigglefests The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972); the Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle Foxy Brown (1974); and Switchblade Sisters (1975-the title says it all). All of these are lucid examples of trash cinema; Spider Baby is a one-of-a-kind inbred sibling to the lot. Continue reading “SPIDER BABY (1964): THEME SONG BY LON CHANEY, JR!”
Boris Karloff`s series of Mexican films is anything but routine. Of the entire ill-reputed group, House of Evil (1968) has something that most resembles a traditional plot. It is orthodox only in that it is a retread of the old dark house scenario. However, that genre is filtered through such bizarre ineptness that it would be an incredulous stretch to claim House of Evil is a film bordering on coherency. The movie is available via that valuable distributor, Sinister Cinema. Their brief assessment of House of Evil is telling: “not bad.”
As with Fear Chamber, House was co-directed by Jack Hill and Juan Ibanez and co-stars south of the border sexpot Julissa. A murdered girl has been found by local villagers and, just like another recent victim, her eyes have been torn out. Upon hearing the news, Matthias Morteval (Karloff) is mightily upset. His friend and doctor, Emery (Angel Espinoza), tries to simultaneously caution and calm Matthias. Dr. Emery reminds Matthias of similar murders in Vienna, involving Matthias’ brother Hugo. Before a painting of his late father, Matthias pulls himself together and vows to rid their garden of the evil weed that has sprung up. The camera pans, revealing that the eyes have been cut out of the fatherly figure in the painting. Continue reading “HOUSE OF EVIL (1968): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK”