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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. LANGDON & CRAWFORD

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.

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A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”

“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”

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Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”

“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”

Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count. Continue reading

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

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The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era.  Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd.  The Unknown is the ebony carousel of theTod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.  This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be.  That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).

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“There is a story they tell in old Madrid.  The story, they say is true.”  So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.”  Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).

Jona Crawford the Unknown

 

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