1975 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, AND SHIVERS

In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws defined the idea of blockbuster as we now know it. Despite the epic career that followed, the director has never surpassed this early work. It’s really a full-throttle horror adventure about the trio of shark hunters Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss; a fact that amazingly eluded MCA when they produced numerous sequels (without Spielberg) that reduced Bruce (the shark) to an underwater Jason Vorhees.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined “cult classic” like no other film before or since. Although it was relatively slow to take off, it became the staple for audience participating midnight showings and undeniably the number one cult film of all time. It was stupidly remade by Fox (imagine that) in 2016 and deservedly flopped with both critics and its TV audience.

Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom was the last and most notorious film of Pier Paolo Pasolini before he was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, shortly after filming. The film itself is only for the strongest stomachs.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (directed by Don Edmonds) is one of the most notorious of cult films and made a bonafide 70s grindhouse superstar out of former exotic dancer and softcore porn actress Dyanne Thorne. The main role is loosely based on Ilse Koch—the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” The historical Ilse, wife of the camp’s commander, was known to have frequently flogged prisoners, including pregnant women. At one of her trials, witnesses were produced who testified that she chose Jews with unique tattoos for extermination so that she could keep their skin. After two trials, she was sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for crimes against foreigners, incitement to murder, and attempted murder. In the last few years of her life, she became paranoid that former camp prisoners were conspiring to kill her, and committed suicide in her cell in 1960.

Shot on the same sets as “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film is thoroughly a product of its time. Under that lens of horror/sexploitation/torture porn, it’s less offensive than either a TV series that makes light of the Holocaust or torture porn dressing itself up as sacred Easter pageant theology (2004’s Passion of the Christ). Still, one can question the entertainment value of a buxom blonde Josef Mengele conducting monstrous experiments, but 70s audiences had no qualms, flocking to see it in grindhouse theaters and making it enough of a hit that three sequels followed. Ilsa’s motive for torture is to prove that women can endure more pain than men and should therefore be allowed to fight on the front lines, which is about as convincing as the movie’s opening statement from the producers defending its historical accuracy. It’s unlikely to inspire contemporary viewers to go to do research on Wikipedia. There’s not much in the way of plot, but purely as exploitation, it’s resoundingly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.

With this subject matter, a solid performance is needed. Thorne, with tight, low-cut white blouse and swastika armband, delivers in spades, spitting dialogue out of thin, cruel lips. It must be a testament to her onscreen charisma that she commands attention through all that bloodletting, which is still revolting even by contemporary standards. Thorne appeared in a number of similar-themed films outside of the Ilsa franchise before receiving a PhD in comparative religions and becoming a minister.

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A BORIS KARLOFF RETROSPECTIVE

“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff.

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) BORIS KARLOFF

After the death of the silent star, Lon Chaney, The King of Horror crown was up for grabs.  It was Universal Studios contract actor Boris Karloff who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly christened patriarch.

SCARFACE (1932) Karloff

Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s most iconic vampire in Tod Browning‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in James Whale‘s Frankenstein (also 1931).  With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.

Frankenstein (1931 dir. James Whale) Colin Clive, Boris Karloff. lobby card

Lugosi often told the tale of how he turned down the role of the monster, thus gifting Karloff his career-making role. Lugosi’s version of the casting switch has made the rounds, becoming part of Hollywood folklore, but, as is often the case, it is pure myth. Lugosi was wanted by neither the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.). Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos. In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role. On the face of it, Lugosi should have reigned supreme in the genre. He seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense. However, he lacked Chaney’s sense of humanism, thus paving the path for a better actor.

Frankenstein (1931) lobby card

In sharp contrast to Lugosi, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969. Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted posthumous revenge on the thespian who stole his crown.  Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff. This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with vampires, and with Lugosi’s more colorful biography compared to the workaholic Karloff.  Justice, it would seem, has been served, except that the revisionist take is dead wrong.  Karloff’s genteel nature and cultured leaning rendered him a vastly superior artist. The studio heads were correct in preferring Karloff to Lugosi: Bela was not in Boris’ league.  Karloff triumphed because he approached his craft with an intelligence and insight that Lugosi simply did not possess. Karloff was also more pragmatic, calling the monster: “The best friend I ever had.” Lugosi, oddly, resented his genre typecasting. Karloff embraced it, knowing it won him hard earned security. Astutely, Karloff referred to his film work as “fairy tales,” as opposed to “horror.” Continue reading “A BORIS KARLOFF RETROSPECTIVE”

SPIDER BABY (1964): THEME SONG BY LON CHANEY, JR!

SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD, LON CHANEY

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.

Spider Baby screen shot

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.

SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD Color SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD

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!”

HOUSE OF EVIL (1968): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK

HOUSE OF EVILHouse of Evil (1968) lobby card. Boris Karloff

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.”

house of evil video

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”

ALIEN TERROR (1971): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK

ALIEN TERROR KARLOFF MOVIE AD

Alien Terror (1971) (AKA) Sinister Invasion is one of the oddest of Boris Karloffs final six movies, but it is hardly the most exciting. It begins with typical Sixties screen credit font and pseudo jazz that sounds like it was composed for period porn.

ALIEN TERROR AKA SINISTER INVASION VHS KARLOFFALIEN TERROR 1971. Boris Karloff, Yerye Beirute

Boris is Professor Mayer, and he and his scarred (Ygor-like) assistant Isabel (Maura Monti) are playing around with some power ray thingamajig. It shoots through the roof and hits a spaceship which just happens to be flying by and looks like one of those rocket invader ships from the old Atari arcade games. One half expects a lost Adventures of Superman episode and that at any moment some green Martian is going to show up.  Alas, all that shows up is Laura (Christa Linder), the professor’s niece; she is having a fit because her uncle has just blown another hole in the roof.

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SNAKE PEOPLE (1971): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK

KARLOFF SNAKE PEOPLE POSTER

Snake People (AKA Isle Of The Snake People) feels like pure Jack Hill; that is, Jack Hill the exploitation guru to whom Quentin Tarantino has built an altar.

Isle Of The Snake People (1971) Yolanda Montes

The opening narration is a duller variant of Criswell’s repetitive but puerile Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) monologue: “During Many centuries in Various parts of the world, Various diabolical rites and ceremonies have been practiced in homage to Various sinister gods who are believed to have Many supernatural powers. These rites are generally known as voodoo!”

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FEAR CHAMBER (1968): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK

FEAR CHAMBER BORIS KARLOFF MOVIE AD

A lot of people have expressed the wish that horror icon Boris Karloff could have ended his career with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). But Karloff, on his last leg, pushed himself through six more movies, four of which were the Mexican films for producer Jack Hill and director Juan Ibinez. This last six pack of films is, by consensus, godawful. Why did Karloff do it? According to his biographers, the actor said that he wanted to “die with his boots on.” And he nearly did just that.

FEAR CHAMBER LOBBY CARD BORIS KARLOFF

Karloff’s final and bizarre six pack are indisputably awful within the accepted meaning of the word. Several of them, however, are downright bizarre products of their time, which now might be looked at as examples of naive surrealism. The films are: House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971), and Alien Terror (1971). Continue reading “FEAR CHAMBER (1968): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK”