Thursday, April 29, 2010

Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars (1992): or, Hello, Norma Jeane

Riding on the Night Train to Terror, Part II! (Click here for related posts)

If you've been reading this site for a while, are a Mill Creek fanatic, or just have alarmingly little going on in your life, you probably know about the mash-up of movie madness that is Night Train to Terror. If not, a brief catch-up: in the movie, God and Satan hop on the titular track-based transport to "review" three cases whose outcomes they can't decide, for some reason. Meanwhile, a cadre of headband-and-sweatsuit-clad 80s pop singers croon the most infectiously inept ditty ever written in the dining car. The stories themselves are actually 3 full-length b-movie bombs that have been ruthlessly cut down to 25-30 minutes each, with the effect of immersing the viewer in a disjointed nightmare-logic ride that is often entertaining but NEVER makes the slightest bit of sense. For more detail, see my full review HERE.

Recently I made it a quest to seek out the three movies that were mashed to a pulp in service of NTtT, to find out if they could possibly be as mad, bad, and dangerous to watch at full-length as they were in abbreviated form. In the case of my first experiment, The Nightmare Never Ends (review here), the answer was a reverberating YES. So, buoyed by my enjoyment of that flick, I recently dove into the second, with the unwieldy title Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. I expected ineptitude; I expected illogic; I expected Madness.

But what I didn't expect? To find that the mashed-up movie in question was ITSELF a mash-up! Layers within layers, people! Who'd have thought?

"You rang?"

According to imdb user todmichel ( as near as I can figure is the world's leading authority on the subject--director John Carr started the movie sometime in the 80s, then for whatever reason (funding problems, I presume) left the film unfinished and went to England for a time. In his absence, his incomplete footage was incorporated into Night Train to Terror, released in 1985. Producers then added footage and released a "complete" version of the movie on VHS, entitled Scream Your Head Off, surprising and displeasing Carr on his return to the states. (Try as I might, I could NOT locate a copy of this version.) Some time later he decided to complete *his* vision of the movie, somehow convincing original star John Phillip Law to come back and shoot new scenes to flesh out the gaps. This final, official version he called Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars, which was finished and released on VHS in 1992.

It's important to have all this information up front, as it explains a lot of inconsistencies of tone, stlye, and even medium. However, it can't explain EVERYTHING...thank god!

Stephen King in an uncredited cameo

We open at Forest Lawn cemetery in LA, where Special Needs Cyclist Sidney (Mark Petrich)--wearing a fetching ensemble of overalls, goggles, and World War I leather flying helmet--is visiting the grave of everyone's favorite bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. "Is Marilyn buried here?" a couple of tourists stop to ask. "No! People think she is, but she's NOT!" he replies, cryptically. (Ba-dump.) Sidney then gets gone with the Schwinn and returns to his place of employment, a private asylum that looks like the interior of someone's condo, and brings breakfast in bed to a mysterious points for guessing who.

Meanwhile, sometime in the 80s, newlywed Harry Billings (John Philip Law) and his nameless wife are driving from the ceremony to their honeymoon getaway. Sadly Harry decides to take a detour down the Stock Footage Expressway, where they are sideswiped by a semi and thereafter plummet a dozen feet off a bridge toward a watery grave. Somehow Billings survives, but his wife--whose entire role consisted of staring bright-eyed at her wedding ring and loosing one rather impressive scream, and who I can't even guarantee was in the same car as Law--is killed.

Harry is extremely depressed, as we realized when he's discovered sleeping barefoot atop his wife's grave. With nothing left to live for, he returns to the scene of the tragedy and flings himself into the water, but is rescued via jump cut and finds himself in the hospital, where attending Dr. Nobody quips, "This one's goin' to the sanitarium!"

John Phillip Law: What a difference seven years makes.

Back at said sanitarium, Dr. Brewer (Arthur Braham, doing his best Alfred Hitchcock impression, which I have to say is a fairly decent one) and hulking assistant Otto (Night Train/Court alumnus Richard Moll) are ministering to a bikini-clad blonde bound to a stretcher. She resists their attempts to "help her," but the doctor is not worried. "She'll come around," he lisps. "They all do." When a lost couple arrives to use the phone and Otto kills the husband and kidnaps the blonde for similar tie-down activities, we start to believe that this asylum may not be on the up and up.

Harry arrives at the asylum (again via jump-cut), and Dr. Brewer and his MILF-tastic partner Dr. Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) decide he'd be the perfect replacement for their former kidnappy muscle Robert, who had to be lobotomized when he got too greedy. Reasoning that "Suicide attempts are a manic-depressive state of mind. The fastest way of curing that is electric shock treatment!", Brewer pumps Harry fulla volts, erasing his personality temporarily. They then train him to go out into the community and kidnap every blonde he can get his paws on, bringing them back to the asylum so that they can be similarly tabula-rasarized and sold into white slavery to the OPEC board member--complete with suit, giant sunglasses, keffiyeh, and suitcase full of cash) who comes by every now and then to replenish his harem.

"There must be some mistake--I only wanted a back-wax!"

While wandering around the asylum between assignments, Harry discovers the Mysterious Madwoman's room upstairs, and of course the inmate is revealed to be none other than the one and only Marilyn Monroe! Apparently she's been starring in her own mashup of Oldboy and Some Like it Hot since her apparent death, confined to this room with only the numerous photos of herself on the walls (including an awesome velvet rug painting!) to keep her sane. As she explains:

"The story they told me here was, when the studio dropped my contract, I was signed by an independent company to do a film. I didn't know that it was owned by Powerful People! They never intended to make the film! They insured my life for millions of dollars, and then they murdered a lookalike Marilyn Monroe, and left her in my bedroom!"

But you don't know how hot till you try.

That's all well and good, but why would Powerful People--powerful enough to find a perfect lookalike of Marilyn and murder her, get away with it, and then incarcerate the real Marilyn for twenty or so years--not simply murder the real Marilyn instead? And WHY are they keeping her imprisoned? Clearly not to sell to the Arabs, or they would have done so by now. Harry is wondering these things too, and reaches the reasonable conclusion that she's NOT Marilyn, but a crazy woman who just thinks she is. That doesn't stop him from visiting her every time he comes back from snatching an innocent into white slavery, though, and as their love blossoms, Harry's core decency starts to return and they plan a daring escape.

So most of the movie is John Philip Law putting himself in different situations where he can mack on blondes--which include hanging out in bars, posing as a taxi driver at the bus station, cruising for Elderly Care Nurses in the public park, and in the most memorable scene, visiting an evangelical church--slipping them a mickey, and then taking them back to the docs to fuel the whole Blondes-for-Cash revenue stream. Interspersed (and seldom connecting) are his scenes with "Marilyn" (played all "Happy Birthday Mr. President" breathy by busy TV actress Francine York), torture scenes with Docs Fargo and Brewer shocking the shit out of writhing bikini blondes strapped to gurneys, and Richard Moll occasionally popping up to swing a comically large cleaver at some would-be escapee's head.

"It's not what it looks like! Well, okay, it is, a bit."

You might be wondering how well Carr was able to blend his scenes shot pre-1985 with those shot in 1991 and 1992, and the answer is, not so well AT ALL. While the asylum and many of the kidnapping scenes were shot on film and have a nice shadowy look, the "Marilyn" scenes look to have been shot on a consumer-quality video camera with the warm, yellowy glow of overexposed photos. Worse, there's a very noticeable and absolutely pervasive tape hiss in these scenes, which magically disappears whenever we get back to the asylum in the 80s. Also, the gore and nudity scenes used so prominently in Night Train to Terror (usually involving Moll's Otto character molesting the inmates) are missing from this version, and might have been among the unauthorized footage producers shot for Scream Your Head Off.

Further, Carr was either unable to or uninterested in matching the sets from one segment to the other. The asylum of the Marilyn scenes is CLEARLY not the same building as the hospital in the older footage, and in fact looks like somebody's apartment or a rented condo. (Her "cell" even has a security peephole in the door!) Furthermore, while John Phillip Law is still a handsome man, you can clearly see the difference the 7 years lapse made on his looks. His acting in the 1985 segments is passable, but in the '92 segments he's phoning it in while sleepwalking (often barefoot, for no reason that's ever explained). One has to wonder why he returned for the reshoots--my theories are that either Carr is a personal friend to whom Law owed a favor, or else JPL found himself short of cash in LA and needed the work to finance a flight back to Europe. Or maybe those electroshock scenes weren't done with props. At any rate, it's bad.

"Please, just try to relax."

"Okay, Vicar," you might well ask, "So the movie is a laughably inept hodgepodge of unmatched footage. But what about the MADNESS?" Sadly MA&BB does not approach The Nightmare Never Ends in this regard, but that's not to say there aren't a few high spots. To wit:
  • Sidney the Bicycle Boy's impromptu airplane impression.
  • An odd scene in which Dr. Brewer gives Harry an injection that "puts him under hypnosis," then implants the suggestion: "Harry! No woman can resist you! You are Casanova!You are the sexiest man in the world! There's Dr. Fargo! I want you to turn it on! Incidentally, her first name is Jane!" Dr. Fargo is unimpressed, which leads Casanova/Harry to quip, "I'm giving you two choices, Jane--either you give, or I take!" Fortunately he snaps out of it before either occurs.
  • Marilyn's little girl/Norma Desmond stylings in an extended, odd soliloqy.
"I don't know, Teddy...what has no thumbs and would really like a BJ?"
  • Random belly-dancing sex-slave in the hospital foyer. Later, the Arab prince loads all his purchases into the Royal Saudi Winnebago!
  • As the Least Stealthy Kidnapper ever, Harry visits a church and sits right beside his Dolly Parton-haired mark, introduces himself to the congregation (without even sunglasses!), and takes Protestant Grape Juice that he can drop the drugs in his victim's plastic one-serve communion cup! How does he get her from the church to the asylum? Via jump cut, of course. ;)
  • A nearly effective Tales from the Crypt-ish "doc operated on by the lobotomized patients" scene.
  • And in a throwaway scene, Richard Moll lurching toward a cabinet to reveal a collection of heads, and an empty jar with Harry's name on it!

"Quit Night Court on ME, will ya, Anderson? YOU'LL PAY!"

Objectively, there's really no way Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars could have POSSIBLY been any good. The odd idea of Marilyn-as-Oldboy is intriguing, but only goes so far, and without any nefarious plan for Harry to save her from, falls absolutely flat. I'd kind of like to see the Scream Your Head Off version just to find out if the gore/nudity additions do any good, but I'm guessing the improvement would be negligible. As a movie whose backstory is more interesting than the flick itself, I give Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars 1.25 thumbs. Unless you're a Richard Moll/John Philip Law completist, stick with the Night Train version.

Years of dramatic training could not prepare JPL for the distractive power of Southern Baptist Hair.


Matt Bradshaw said...

I absolutely love Night Train To Terror (feel free to check out my video review of it here:

I own all three of the movies that went on to become Night Train, but I've never gotten around to watching Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. Death Wish Club is a real bore in its full length form, though it taught me that the annoying lesbian strapped to the electrocution machine is actually the main character Gretta under the delusion that she is a man. The Nightmare Never Ends wasn't bad and it filled in a few story elements, but it's tough to beat the idiotic breakneck pace of the Night Train To Terror Version. What I thought most interesting was that the cheezy yet awesome stop-motion effects were missing from the originals and were apparently made specifically for Night Train to Terror.

Great review, love the site.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks, Matt! DEATH WISH CLUB will be my third and final Boxcar on the Night Train to Terror entry--I have a copy, just waiting for the right time/mood to strike. It's funny that both DWC and this one had added scenes in the NTtT versions, even though they were cut down such a huge amount from their original run times. Anyway, keep watching for the caboose!

Emily said...

Wow. Just wow. Really. Wow.

And is it me, or does Harry resemble a Return of the Jedi-era Mark Hammill?

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