Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye Awful Aughts, Hello Terrific Teens!

As I select my robes of state for the evening festivities at the Duke of DVD's palace (the preparations have been intense--they've been hauling tuns of wine and mead up there for weeks, a herd of fatted boars was possessed by a legion of demons earlier this week and sent squealing over a cliff into the Duchy's largest stew-pot, and the screams from the Duke's dungeon as his torturers practice their piñata swings have been downright encouraging), I must apologize to my parishioners for the downfall in new content at the end of the year. But do YOU feel like working?

At any rate, 2010 promises to be another banner year for Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, so once the hangovers are over and the streamers (organic and otherwise) stripped from the ceilings of the Duke's Orgy Chamber and Crisco Silo, look forward to more reviews, more features, more photos, and more MADNESS.

And thanks once again to all our followers, commenters, and silent lurkers. I can't say we wouldn't be doing this without you (if we had to tap our reviews in code through the grates of the Bastille, the Duke and I would still be entertained), but you definitely make it more fun.


The Vicar


Friday, December 25, 2009


The Duke and the Vicar would like to wish their subjects and parishioners a very merry Xmas, happy Hanukkah, super Kwanzaa, Wonderful Winter Solstice, fantastic Festivus, and Atheistic Another Day. May your presents be what you wanted, and may all your vampires be lesbian.

Please enjoy this exploding head as our gift to you.

The Vicar and the Duke


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black Sunday (1960): Bava's Awesomeness, Let Me Show You It

My dear friends, it is I, the Duke of DVD, and as most of you probably already know, my love for Italian horror is only eclipsed by my love for poncy hats. No one, I'm sure you'll all agree, puts the "Italia" in Italian horror like the great Mario Bava, a cinematographer turned director whose first film is our subject of discussion today. Every single gothic horror movie made after 1960 owes its lifeblood to this cinematic epic, and to complete a viewing is to sit in stunned awe, basking in the glory that is one of horror's pillars.

I must provide a warning here, however: This movie contains lots of talk about burning witches, outfitting witch faces with spiked masks, and the ill treatment of witches in general. If you or one of your loved ones are currently in the employ of Satan, you might find this content objectionable. We at MMMMad Movies apologize in advance and wish to remind you that sometimes art has to be cruel to be kind.

With that out of the way, let us explore, shall we?

Black Sunday opens with a spectacular witch trial. I say "trial" but what I really mean is a good ol' fashioned witch burning. A group of hooded, torch-bearing folks listen to a local noble as he denounces a raven-haired beauty tied to a pole. Lets get this out of the way:Barbara Steele is stunning. STUNNING, I say! We soon find out that it is her own brother that is condemning her for Satanic practices, along with her cohort, who is already dead via "Mask of Satan"ing.

An early publicity still from a Sunn O))) concert.

The witch is a princess, it turns out, named Asa Vajda. She spits a curse back at her brother, crying out: "You will never escape my hunger, nor that of Satan!" From my understanding, Satan prefers gluten-free products due to an allergy. He also likes his witches saucy, and Steele is muy caliente, to be sure.

Basically, the "Mask of Satan" is an iron mask wrought to resemble the Vicar's visage as he rolls out of bed in the mornings after a particularly epic bender. The inside of the mask is studded with 3-inch long spikes. Luckily for us, Bava pulls no punches and we get to see the Mask applied. First, it is fitted onto the struggling witch's face and then a large, shirtless executioner-type dude wielding a mallet the size of a tree trunk walks up and hammers it onto her face, causing instant death.

"Miss, please be still, this Avon Age-Defying Mask(tm) has to be properly applied."

Just to be double sure, the princess is dragged over to a large pyre. As soon as torches are touched to the wood, though, a mysterious downpour occurs, causing the superstitious villagers to flee, the fools! Don't they realize what they are doing?! You can't leave a witch unburned! At any rate, they are at least wise enough to bury her in the family crypt inside a sarcophagus that has a window in the lid, where her masked corpse is forced to stare at a stone cross fashioned out of the top of the coffin lid. At least they get something right!

We then jump 200 years into the future. The stately Doctor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Doctor Andre (played by the dashingly handsome John Richardson) are traveling via horse-drawn coach to a lecture. Their alcoholic driver is highly nervous and is attempting to cross the foul land as fast as he can. Suddenly, they all pay for his haste when the carriage gets stuck on a fallen tree! The two doctors decide to investigate their surroundings while the driver works to free the vehicle.

"Boris, you fucking clod, hurry up and call AAA."

Soon they hear a mournful howl, which appears to be coming from the ruins of an old church. Going to investigate, they discover that the howling is the work of some old pipe organ pipes. Knocking them down, the older Dr. Kruvajan shows he's not afraid of no ghost. They see an open door leading down into the sub-level of the ruins, so they investigate further. Naturally, it's the crypt of the witch!

"Look Andre, with this handy window we can watch the maggots feast. Andre? Where are you going?"

The two of them gaze through the glass on the coffin, talking with each other about the customs of how this witch was treated, clucking their tongues at the barbarity of it all. Dr. Andre leaves his elder as he goes back to check on the driver's progress with the coach. As soon as he's gone, Dr. Kruvajan is assaulted by a bat the size of a bull mastiff! Beating it with his cane, he fends it off before finally shooting it. It falls on the sarcophagus, where a final blow from the Doctor's cane busts the stone cross on top of the lid. Oh dear...

Mario Bava Presents: The World's Dustiest Bat

Pieces of the cross fall and break the glass window, to boot. The doctor reaches inside the coffin to retrieve a painted triptych he sees inside, cutting himself on the glass in the process. Stupidly, the doctor also unmasks the corpse, his curiosity getting the best of him I guess. Something tells me this sequence of events is about to cause people problems. In fact, this might be best expressed with a Bava tribute haiku:

Busted cross breaks glass
Cut hand drips blood in eye-hole
Satan's bride rises!

The doctor, not realizing his grave error (ba-dump--The Vicar), leaves. Outside, the two doctors meet the local princess, the beautiful Katia (also played by Barbara Steele). She's out walking the dogs. The young doc Andre is smitten instantly, as are we all. After a brief conversation, the doctors are on their way, and young Andre leans out of the window to watch Katia fade into the distance. We then cut back into the interior of the stone sarcophagus and see that bubbling blood and maggots are swarming in the empty eye sockets of the now-unmasked witch!

The Cursed Cemetery: Satanic Grotto and Dog-Run

Next we see Katia at home, playing the piano as her brother stands by polishing a hunting rifle. Nearby her father sits before a roaring fire. A suddenly howling in the distance frightens them all, and her father realizes that a painting of the Princess Asa has changed to incorporate more evil. It turns out these are direct descendants, naturally, of the burned witch and her partner, whose painting also hangs in the family room. I normally don't question people's decoration decisions, but whaaaaa?!

"My god, Duke, that'll never fit in my... uh, let's try anyway."

The father tells us all a story about how exactly one century to the day after Princess Asa was buried, a descendant of hers that resembled her died horribly. And now, one century after that, Katia (who also resembles her, natch) is in grave danger. This is a cause for concern by all, obviously.

We then cut to a rowdy tavern, where the good doc and his protege are enjoying the local vodka. A young girl is being ordered by her innkeeper mother to go milk the cow (in the dead of night, wtf?). Obviously the girl is reticent so her mother turns to the elder Dr. Kruvajan and asks for his opinion. Turns out the girl is afraid because the barn is next to a cemetery (!). The doctor reassures the girl, saying the line that will no doubt come back to haunt him: "We shouldn't be afraid of the dead."

While the girl is milking the cow, who is obviously cranky at being woken up for a midnight udder-tug, a deep fog rolls into the graveyard. We see the witch issue the command "RISE!" and up comes her masked Satanic partner, who rips off his mask with his graveyard-mud-soaked gloves and heads off into the woods, oddly enough not pausing to kill the milk maid.

"Oh, hi, uh, is this the tryouts for Man in the Iron Mask 2: Get Maskier?"

Instead, he heads straight to the castle and tries to kill the king (at least I assume he's king), but fails when at the last second the king produces a cruciform, driving the ghostly Satan worshiper away with the power of JAYZUS. Knowing that the king is protected, the Satanic minion goes after Dr. Kruvajan instead, rumbling up out of nowhere in a badass black carriage.

This is pretty much the most awesome shot in any movie, ever, that doesn't feature Paul Naschy.

He whisks the doctor away to the castle and leads him through a secret passage behind the fireplace which leads down into the crypt, which is underneath the church ruins nearby. The witch, still manipulating things from within her stone sarcophagus, finally begins to rise as the doctor tries to flee, in vain. The stone shatters, and the witch is free!

She immediately hypnotizes the good doctor, forcing him to walk over and give her a lingering kiss. I'm afraid I wouldn't have needed any hypnosis. Meanwhile, the king is sweaty with fever, writhing in bed. The good Katia and the prince try to care for him, all to no avail. Suddenly, the doctor comes in, walking like a zombie (no doubt still numb from making out with a 200 year old heretic), and asks the youngsters to leave so that he may care for the king. As soon as they are gone, he gives him the stare of death, literally.

Meanwhile, the Satanic assistant collaborates with his newly awakened mistress. The plan, as it were, is to bring the young Katia down to yon crypt so that the witch can suck the life from her. Elsewhere, Dr. Andre is waking up from too much vodka to find the professor is gone. He learns from the innkeeper that the good doc went to the castle to care for the ailing king. Andre sallies forth into the dawn!

As Andre is passing by on horse on his way to the castle, he sees the young milk maid washing clothes in a fetid river. After he goes on his merry way after receiving directions from her, she notices a pox-ridden body floating near the shore. It's Boris, the hapless coach driver! Poor Boris, done in by Satanic forces no doubt!

Andre arrives at the castle, only to run into the zombified Doc, who speaks cryptically until Andre pulls the triptych from his bag, causing the doctor to flee in a panic. Andre and the young brother scour the castle, eventually finding the secret passage behind the fireplace. Going down to investigate, they discover the witch, freed from her tomb, now apparently breathing and regaining life! Andre runs off to find the local priest, leaving the brother alone with the witch.

"Here, let me help you with this top button..."

He's not alone for long, however, when suddenly the Satanic minion arrives and a rousing bout of fisticuffs ensues, culminating in the brother getting tossed into a handy trapdoor pit, complete with spikes at the bottom. Meanwhile, Andre with priest in tow head to the graveyard and find the opened grave, and the Mask of Satan that the minion tossed aside. Choice line from the priest: "Sometimes Satan, in his capacity for evil, plays tricks with the dead!"

"Thank you for the birthday card, but why is it addressed to Father Grizzly Adams?"

In another nearby grave they find the body of the poor doctor Kruvajan and drive a spike into his eye-socket, presumably preventing any further reanimation. The two then race back to the castle as the Satanic minion drags Katia down to the crypt. The witch visibly drains her life, causing the witch's own face to look fantastic while ravaging the face of poor young Katia. Bava uses some killer camera work here, in one frame showing both people played by Steele at the same time. Amazingly groundbreaking stuff.

"Hmm, you know, I could make out with myself..."

Andre arrives just in the nick of time, but the Satanic minion is having no interruptions. Fisticuffs ensue yet again, the two going at it like a couple of prize pugilists. The trapdoor pit once again comes into play, but before the minion can shove Andre into it, a not-so-dead brother comes flying up out of the pit, high enough to grab the minion and pull him down to his doom. The brother then expires in Andre's arms, the poor thing was just tuckered out.

Back in the village, a posse is roused, presumed by me to be heading to Broadway, but no! They instead head to the castle, torches in hand. The witch is once again dragged off toward a hastily-erected pyre. Andre, though, is in mourning. They were too late to save poor Katia, whom he is in lust with. As the flames begin to flicker around the witch, it seems all is not lost yet. Katia breathes!

Just a good ol' fashioned witch burnin' and weenie roast.

In the end, dispatching the witch with the purifying fire of JAYZUS cured everyone's ills. Note to self: Applying a Mask of Satan is not enough; burn any and all witches. Andre and Katia kiss. Fin.

I would try to talk about Bava's opus here but I fear I would run out of superlatives. Suffice it to say that this movie, shot entirely in black & white, is beyond beautiful. It holds up just as well today as it did in 1960, and is simply stunning. Bava uses composition like no other, and his work in this film is still being felt today.

The acting is fantastic as well, and no person does it better than Barbara Steele. Playing two roles, each completely different from the other, she shines like a star. Every single scene she's in the eye just gravitates to her, and Bava's camera obviously loved her. The others as well, especially Andre, carry out their roles with enthusiasm and skill. The crew was definitely firing on all cylinders, that's for sure.

The special effects, also, were superb. From the opening application by mallet of the Mask of Satan to the nail being driven into Dr. Krujavan's eye socket, everything was wrought in disgusting detail, and the camera wouldn't let us flinch away. Bava basically holds your head in a vise-like grip, forcing you with his unyielding, grave-cold hands to watch what he wants you to watch. We love this, oh yes we do.

In the end, how can I give this film anything else than the highest of honors: 3+ Thumbs Up. Any reader of his blog who doesn't have this film in their collection is truly missing a gem.


Friday, December 18, 2009

The Nightmare Never Ends (1980): or, Ridin' on the Night Train

Riding on the Night Train to Terror, Part I!

Early in the history of MMMMMovies, I reviewed a little-known anthology flick Night Train to Terror (1985). That movie, notorious among 80s video trash connoisseurs and Mill Creek Enthusiasts, is a gloriously inept hodge-podge of three full-length movies whittled down to 30-minute chunks and slapped in a frame story that has God and Satan taking a cross-country train ride to review problematic "cases" while a group of would-be new wave punks in the dining car sing one of the most insidiously catchy 80s pop tunes that's ever got stuck in my head. (Seriously.) I assumed at the time that the butchered features, while certainly not the work of master filmmakers, would have to be better films at their full running times, since the stitched-together leftovers were not so much a challenge to the viewer's ability to follow them as a direct assault on the very idea of coherent storytelling.

But now I've seen 1980's The Nightmare Never Ends (aka Cataclysm), the full version of the third boxcar on that infamous night train, and let me tell you parishioners, I was wrong. Or rather I was right, but not in the way I thought. No, not that way at all.

Allow me to elucidate.

"Reed" Richard Moll puzzles over how to expunge this film from his resume.

Simply put, The Nightmare Never Ends is a wonderfully entertaining movie for all the wrong reasons. The acting, editing, and screenplay (by Academy Award-winning writer Philip Yordan!) would easily rank near the bottom of anybody's "worst-of" list. To call the story disjointed is to drastically understate the explosive nature of its disjointedness. The direction can scarcely be commented on, since the credits list not one, not two, not five, but THREE different directors (Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, and Gregg C. Tallas), which probably has a little to do with the flick's piecemeal vibe. Add a dash of Nazisploitation, a whole lot of blasphemy, and a truly amazing performance by cinematic bottom-dwelling legend Cameron Mitchell, and what have you got?

A movie that had me grinning like a grade-A eedjit all the way through, and turning off the DVD with a song in my heart. That's what.

As we open, Nobel Prize-winning author James Hansen (Richard Moll, easily the most talented thespian in the film--yes, you read that right) and his surgeon wife Claire (Faith Clift) are on their way to Vegas, presumably to escape the nightmares Claire's been having--nightmares that seem to consist entirely of stock footage of underwater volcanic vents. (Hey, everyone's got a phobia.) Escape proves impossible when Claire is singled out by a stage-show clairvoyant who looks like Marty Feldman's younger brother and falls into a trance at the merest suggestion.

"It's pronounced EYE-GOR."

Apparently the undersea volcanoes in Claire's dreams were just a placeholder for what's really troubling her: NAZIS! Suddenly we're whisked back in time to 1944, where an evil but very pretty young Nazi Officer busts up an opulent Third Reich Rave by gunning down the all-girl string orchestra--which really, you know, is just rude. Back in the clairvoyant's dressing room after the show, he warns Claire that her visions point to something demonic; but Bull, I mean James hurries her out and before you can say "Gimme that Prime Time Religion!" Feldman the Younger drops dead, a strange "666" tattoo on his scalp. WTF?

Suddenly we're in the apartment of the aged and extremely disoriented Mr. Weiss (character actor and Hollywood Blacklist victim Marc Lawrence), who gets all palsied and excited when he catches a TV interview (broadcast live from the intermission of the New York Ballet--do they do that?) with prettyboy rich-kid Olivier (Robert Bristol, clearly Sean Cassidy's evil twin), who is the spitting image of the Nazi Officer who killed Weiss's parents at Auschwitz, and not coincidentally the big beautiful baddie from Claire's dream. As it turns out Weiss is not just a confused old man, but a NAZI HUNTER, and he's sure he's found his man, despite the fact that the quarry hasn't aged a day since 1944.

Doddering and incomprehensible, Weiss calls in his neighbor Lieutenant Stern (Mitchell), a loose-cannon cop with a bad attitude. ("I'm only the police in the 5th Precinct--the rest of the world, I don't give a damn!") Still, to calm the old man Stern takes him to the ballet theater before the final curtain, where they see Olivier exit and follow him back to his opulent mansion, The Round House. (Not, unfortunately, The Road House.) Despite many raucous protestations, Stern just can't convince Weiss that the boy in the house is the same Nazi Bastard from Weiss's own childhood. I mean, he can't, can he?

"Hotsy totsy, I'm a Nazi!"

Meanwhile, back in Plot A, we learn that James got his Nobel Prize for his research into THE DEATH OF GOD--seriously--and has just published his prize-winning manuscript for popular consumption. This involves book signings, interviews, and his very own TV special in which he plans to "shatter the myth" of religion. Surprisingly, no one seems too upset by all this, except for one woman at the local Waldenbooks, who calls him a fiend in a whisper before walking out. Everyone else seems to accept his Divine Obituary as the un-Gospel Truth. Everyone except Claire, that is, who we further learn is a devout Catholic.

So Weiss gets out his antique Luger and goes to kill him a Nazi, but is surprised in the house by a demon of some sort jumping out from behind a curtain--it happens kind of fast. Anyway, he's dead now, a new 666 tattoo to go with his concentration camp numbers, and guilt-wracked Mitchell swears to find out who did it and why. Olivier--who is actually THE DEVIL (<--Spoiler), wants to fund Hansen's further "research," since they're fighting on the same side. Meanwhile, Rasputin-like defrocked priest Papini (Maurice Grandmaison) is trying to convince Claire and that the devil wants her soul, and only she can stop him.

When I lay it all out like that, it sounds like a fairly straightforward story, doesn't it? Well friends, that's a testament to my consummate writing skills, because this movie is absolutely NUTS.

Yes, that's the edge of the sets. IN FRAME.

First of all, the acting. Faith Clift as Claire is called upon to carry at least one third of the movie; I don't know which of the three directors she was sleeping with, but I hope she was good in that arena, as she literally could not be more awful here. Delivering every line as if she were the stagefright-stricken relative of a used car salesman pressed into service for a public access commercial, Clift is an absolute vaccuum of talent. In fact, she's SO bad, she's absolutely hysterical to watch! It's like her performance sucks so hard it turns itself inside out and becomes a glee-inducing work of art. The truly terrible lines she's given to say only paradoxically help matters.

Also turning in a performance that's so horrendous it's awesome is Cameron Mitchell, no stranger to such a phenomenon. His line readings are so haphazard and pause-strewn, I'm nearly convinced that Mitchell improvised them all, with a gut full of cheap bourbon and only the most rudimentary idea of what the scene was supposed to accomplish.

Richard Moll gives the best performance in the movie, faint praise indeed. He really gets into his blasphemous TV special monologue especially, delivering arguments against the existence of God that sound like they came from a gaming messageboard OT thread as if they were the most profound, earth-shattering revelations ever. Added joy comes from the fact that Moll and everyone else in the cast seem to be purposefully drawing out every line, speaking in a slow-motion cadence that is as perplexing as it is entertaining. You'd think it would get old, but for me it never did.

Cameron Mitchell searches in vain for his dignity.

The three plots of the movie--Claire and James' story, Cameron's investigation, and Olivier/the Devil's machinations--must have each been directed by one of the trio of credited directors, but all are so inept it hardly makes a difference. The stories seldom overlap, and as a result characters are forgotten for huge chunks of run time only to be reintroduced via jump cut. My advice is don't worry about it--just go with the manic flow.

It would take me hours to catalog all the incidental crazee in the plot, so instead I've decided to present some of my favorites in bullet-list form:

  • After Mr. Weiss's death, Marc Lawrence reappears as Cameron's partner, Dieter. His character does nothing but deliver one-liners and die.
  • Characters periodically start screaming their lines for no discernable reason, only to deliver the next chunk of dialogue in a perfectly calm monotone. Not one character--ALL OF THEM.
  • Olivier, who looks like he should be the lead in an Andy Warhol movie, seduces Claire's nephew's fiancee and takes off his shoes to reveal a CLOVEN HOOF. You just have to see it.
  • Actual dialog between Cameron Mitchell and Olivier:
    Cam: "To you, I'm a cockroach."
    Olivier: "Worse. A PIECE. OF. CRAP."
    Cam: "Be careful Mr. Olivier--don't step on me, or you'll never get rid of the smell!"
  • Out of nowhere, Olivier has a demon assistant. Named Ishtar. In a bikini:
Belial Got Back
  • Claire visits a black occultist who out of nowhere goes on a racially explosive diatribe: ""I am a black man--a n*gger in your country...You are a rich woman, I'm sure you have many powerful friends...but they couldn't help had to seek the help...of a N*GGER!" Where the fuck did that come from?
  • Cameron, on having spent too long going through Mr. Weiss's papers: "I see swastikas swimming in my oatmeal!"
  • Confronting the devil he never believed in, Richard Moll's character is suddenly attacked...BY A GROUP OF WILD WEST INDIANS!
  • All this, and what has to be the most EPIC DISCO SCENE EVAR.
Disco for the Devil

There's so much more awfulness to be enjoyed, but it all leads up to a final confrontation between Claire and Olivier, where she performs what has to be the only OPEN HEART EXORCISM ever committed to film. Words fail--you just have to watch.

Or don't. I know full well this kind of thing is not for everyone, but for me, it was a brainfuckling trip through Wackyland, and that's a trip I'm always up for taking. Bad on almost every level, it was just what I needed to get me through a boring, uneventful evening. Much as I want to give it three thumbs, I'll split the difference between my experience and that of normal people and peg it at 2 thumbs. Not for every taste, but if it sounds like yours, it should leave you licking your lips.

A few more images from The Nightmare Never Ends:

The Devil Meets the Hardy Boys
Slaughtering the Bull
Surgical Kill-Face
"What a country!"

Hood Ornament

"Oh, Vicar!"


Poetry Friday: Ave Maria by Frank O'Hara

Found this poem, and it seemed appropriate to the site. Take heed, my parishioners, and enjoy.

Ave Maria

Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies
get them out of the house so they won't
know what you're up to
it's true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by
silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you
they won't hate you
they won't criticize you they won't know
they'll be in some glamorous
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or
playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
and didn't upset the peaceful
they will know where candy bars come
and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before
it's over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment
is in the Heaven on
Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
oh mothers you will have made
the little
so happy because if nobody does pick
them up in the movies
they won't know the difference
and if somebody does it'll be
sheer gravy
and they'll have been truly entertained
either way
instead of hanging around the yard
or up in their room hating you
prematurely since you won't have done
anything horribly mean
except keeping them from life's darker joys
it's unforgivable the latter
so don't blame me if you won't take this
and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in
front of a TV set
movies you wouldn't let them see when
they were young

--Frank O'Hara


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

All the Kind Strangers (1974): or, Ignore Your Better Nature

Horror movies have a lot to teach us. Not just folklore, myths, and legends, but practical stuff, things you can apply to your everyday life. For instance, they teach us you should never be part of a group of people who plan an elaborate prank to embarrass the weirdo in your town/class/camp, since such plans always tragically backfire and lead to your clique's bloody deaths. They teach us that when you're getting threatening calls from a mouth-breathing psycho, they're always coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE. They teach us that whenever you hear a strange noise at night or see a meteor crash nearby, it's NEVER a good idea to go investigate.

But perhaps the biggest, most overwhelming lesson that modern horror movies have to teach us, the one that they come back to again and again as if they can't emphasize the point enough, is this: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Or, as I like to phrase it, "Being nice to other people is for suckers."

That's definitely the take-away lesson from Burt Kennedy's 1974 made-for-TV movie All the Kind Strangers. That, and never make a DVD cover without watching the movie first.

Photojournalist Jimmy Wheeler (the inimitable and un-mustachioed Stacy Keach) is on a cross-country road trip from New York to California, looking for new subjects on which to turn his lens. On a country road five miles from the nearest town he espies a tow-headed waif slogging along the side of the road, toting a bag of groceries almost as big as he is. Loosing the compassion and kindness in his big, beefy heart, Wheeler pulls over and offers the kid a ride to his backwoods home.

"Come on kid, work it! Give it to me!"

The kid's name is Gilbert, and he's happy to accept the ride, pointing the Keachmobile down a bumpy dirt road into the deep dark heart of hillbilly darkness. Wheeler is more worried about the possible damage to his brand-new, SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLAR car occassioned by passing through a shallow creek than he is about the kid's vague, elusive answers to pleasantries about his parents, a materialism and lack of curiosity he'll soon come to regret.

They roll up to the family farmhouse just as a thunderstorm is rolling in, and in gratitude for the ride Gilbert invites Wheeler to stay to supper. Keach declines, ready to get back out on that open road, but the kid is insistent that he come in and meet the family. Said family consists of six other children ranging in age from 5 to 18, the most notable being 15-year-old sharpshooter John (teen heartthrob Robby Benson, who seems to equate "hick accent" with "tardspeech"), 16-year-old Martha (Arlene Farber) , who is mute, pubescent, and horny, and oldest brother Peter (John Savage of The Deer Hunter and Godfather Part III fame), an intense, glowering teen who rules the rest of the family with an iron fist.

"We ARE saying 'cheese'."

Gilbert has already told Wheeler that their mother died birthin' Baby, the youngest ("Ma died when he was born, so he didn't get no other name."), so The Keach is understandably confused when Peter introduces him to "Ma" Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar of The Brood and Demonoid), busy makin' biscuits in the kitchen. Realizing immediately that this hot young lass with an English accent CAN'T be the mother of this particular brood, Wheeler pumps her for info, getting nothing but top-volume pleasantries from the obviously frightened woman. Secret messages in the flour only serve to confirm his (and our) worst fears:

"Help...I'm out of buttermilk!"

Yes, what we have here is basically Children of the Corn meets Texas Chainsaw Babies--the odd, violent, hickish family with no parents has made a habit of kidnapping kind strangers and forcing them into the roles of "Ma" and "Pa," keeping them prisoner with locks on the outside of the bedroom doors and a pack of ominous, snarling hounds who've been trained not to let them leave the property. It's not long before Peter has sunk Wheeler's car in the deepest part of the swimming hole and started encouraging him to discipline the other kids like a good Paw should. The other cars in the water along with a closet full of differently monogrammed clothes lets Wheeler know he can and will be replaced if he refuses to live up to his parental responsibilities.

Director Kennedy does a good job of generating a lot of ominous suspense in the early going here, aided by excellent performances from Keach and Savage. Every word from young Peter's mouth is tinged with barely concealed menace, and as the difficulties of his situation become more and more apparent, Keach vaccilates between fear and outrage, using his Mean Daddy voice to intimidate the kids as much as he can while trying to figure a way out of this mess. Also worth noting is the evocative score by Ronald Frangipane, which effectively juxtaposes country-fried folk tunes with dissonant, Kronos Quartet-style stings to create an oppressive, dangerous-feeling atmosphere. Some nice directorial flourishes (such as hand-held pov shots during Keach's escape attempt) and creepy, shadowy lighting in the old house at night also help matters.

Also interesting, though not developed as much as I personally would have liked, is the tension between Peter and his oldest siblings, John and Martha. The mute sister is clearly in the throes of silent teenage passion, and imprints on Keach as more than a daddy figure, IYKWIM. Her longing gazes over dinner and clear jealousy of Keach's bonding with Eggar are well drawn, and Arlene Farber is to be lauded for creating such a complete, complex character with only facial expressions and body language. And while Benson's performance is a bit clunky and Gomer Pyle-ish for my tastes, his idolization of his older brother and desire to become the man of the house as well ring true.

"Mind if I call you Sugar, Daddy?"

Unfortunately the tension can't be sustained throughout, as the rest of the flick involves no less than three failed escape attempts by Wheeler, who gets lost in the woods and returned by shotgun-bearing Pete and his pack of hellhounds between commercial breaks. The threat of violence, so palpable in the early going, never materializes into anything truly menacing, and when it becomes clear that nobody's going to get offed, the air goes out.

Still, there are a few cool scenes scattered here and there--for instance when Martha sneaks one of Gilbert's pet rattlesnakes into Carol Ann's room in hopes of removing her as sexual competition. Also suitably tense is a 12 Angry Men-style "vote" the children hold to decide whether to keep their new parents or get rid of them and go hunting for newer ones.

Stacy Keach is great here, as he often was--he plays Wheeler as a basically selfish person who's clearly congratulating himself on doing such a nice thing for a kid, only to get angry and confrontational when his kindness is rewarded with kidnapping and imprisonment. The real force in the flick though is Savage, whose steely expression and quietly menacing line deliveries make him a believably deadly villain. Eggar doesn't really bring much to her role here, though, and Robby Benson's "aw shucks" performance is mostly embarrassing (though not as embarrassing as his plaintive vocals on the movie's folksy theme song, which plays over a montage of Peter stalking angrily through the cornfield). The dogs, however, deliver a knockout performance. Them's some scary mutts.

"Not tonight, John-boy. I got a headache."

As usual with made-for-TV fare from the 70s, All the Kind Strangers feels a lot more polished and serious than similar stuff we get nowadays, further cementing my belief that the 70s were the golden age of Straight-to-Network filmmaking. Still, the film's anticlimactic non-ending and lack of any delivery on its meticulously built threat of violence keeps it from attaining the giddy heights of Bad Ronald or This House Possessed. A C-average, 1.5 thumbs rating for this one.

And remember folks--let that little fucker walk home. It's good for him, and better for you.

"No, I don't have a moustache in this flick. Why on earth would I want to grow a moustache?"


Monday, December 14, 2009

The House on Skull Mountain (1974): or, Voodoo House Party

Rich old woman Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) seems to have everything a woman could want: a palatial estate, devoted and attentive servants, and the respect of her community engendered by her fabulous wealth and rumored occult powers. However, like many landed aristocracy, as she nears the appointed hour of her death she begins to think about the important things that are missing from her life--namely, family. Therefore, from her deathbed, she sends out four letters to her remaining living relatives, summoning them to her mansion for a chance at reconnection and an opportunity to pass the torch, and presumably all her glorious riches. However, before her grandchildren--none of whom has ever met any of the others--arrive on a stormswept summer afternoon, Pauline kicks the old bucket, clutching a voodoo doll in her gnarled, wrinkled fist. Of course almost immediately Strange Things start happening around the Cristophe estate.

Stop me if you've heard this one.

It may not tread any new ground, but here's a movie that hits its marks with competence and enthusiasm if not overwhelming skill. Featuring some well-done voodoo sequences, a couple of strong performances, and enough nonsensical supernatural happenings to keep you from getting bored, 1974's The House on Skull Mountain does manage to divert and entertain for its hour-and-twenty-minute running time. And really, what more could you ask for from a voodoo epic starring Carter Country's Victor French?

The first of the family to arrive at Christophe Manor is Lorena Christophe (the elegant and lovely Janee Michelle)--or rather, she would have been the first to arrive, had her loud-mouthed, jive-talkin', fast-drivin' cousin Phillipe Willette (Mike Evans, better known as the straitlaced spawn of George and Weezy Jefferson) not nearly run her off the treacherous mountain road in his pimped-out land yacht. Understandably shaken by her brush with automotive cataclysm, Lorena pulls over to the shoulder of the road...

...gets out of the car, takes a few deep breaths...

...and then looks out through the clear, sunlit summer afternoon sky to get a look at her destination, which looks...well, a little like THIS:

He-Man's Summer House

And, just so you don't think you're flashing back to the thunderstorm that accompanied Grandma Christophe's death, director Ron Honthaner stretches his budget to give us some near-seamless matte work:

Welcome, Matte

Say what you will about this movie, but when it promises a house on Skull Mountain, it FUCKING DELIVERS.

Lorena gets to the house in time to attend the last half of Grandma Christophe's funeral, attended only by the old lady's servants Louette (Ella Woods) and Thomas (Jean Durand). Here we get a little voodoo lore for no extra charge, as the servants have scattered shards of broken mirror on the grave "to keep the evil spirits away." It doesn't seem to work, though, as Louette sees a crow drop a chicken-foot totem on the coffin, which bursts into flames! I don't know from voodoo omens, but it's clearly meant to be a not-so-good one here.

Inside, Lorena spars with Phillippe over his near-vehicular homicide, though her righteous indignation does not prevent him from putting the moves on his much classier cousin. Nor his OTHER much classier cousin, Harriet (Xernona Clayton, who arrives safely despite having a vision of Hooded Death on her plane trip), nor serving girl Louette--here's a brother who believes in keeping all options open. One Christophe is still missing, and stately Mr. Leroux (Senator Leroy Johnson, the first African American to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly since the end of the Reconstruction era--thanks imdb!) insists they wait for him to arrive before reading the will.

"Whattaya think? Too much, right?"

As it turns out, to quote the ever-observant Phillipe, there must have been "a honky in the woodpile," as the fourth cousin is Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French, also of TV's Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame, though both those efforts pale in comparison to his Carter Country years, in my humble), a white professor of anthropology with an emphasis in voodoo studies. The will stipulates the expected division of gold between the surviving children and the servants, and also contains the requisite warning against evil spirits, lest you forget where you are.

Photographic proof of the existence of the Lightning Worm

Man, I just love that.

After some racial tension between Phillippe and Andrew (that neither of the much more sophisticated female cousins take part in), they all turn in for the night, and of course that's when the voodoo vengeance starts in earnest. Drunken Phillippe is lured to his death in a vacant elevator shaft, and Andrew finds a chicken-foot totem beside his corpse. The next day Lenora and Andrew go out on the town (Atlanta, I think, though I don't know of any famous skull-like rock formations in that general area) for a falling-in-love montage and an appropriately heartfelt love song. Back at the house, Harriet sees more visions and finally falls prey to a venomous snake in the old lady's rocking chair. Another chicken-foot calling card is found at the scene.

Don't go thinking this is some kind of pre-Clue whodunnit, however--we the audience know from early on that the bad mojo in the Christophe House is being delivered courtesy butler Thomas, a voodoo priest of great power who was (I think) enslaved by the more-powerful Pauline Christophe while she was alive. Now seeking vengeance on her heirs (not to mention an undivided chunk of the estate), Thomas is bumping them all off with his evil black magic. Can Dr. Cunningham's university training stand between Thomas and his evil goals?

"Don't worry, Sheriff--I'll handle-it handle-it."

With at least two relatively famous TV personalities in the cast and a cinematic style that would be right at home in a two-camera sit-com of the era, The House on Skull Mountain feels like it'd be right at home as a Very Special Episode of The Jeffersons or Good Times. (You know, like the evil-Tiki Hawaiian episode of The Brady Bunch, only a lot funkier.)

Still, there are a few things that lift it from the "meh" to the "actually pretty okay." Despite a largely static camera, one-time director Honthaner does give us a couple of nice transitions based on skull imagery, including a rather effective overlay of a death's head on a living (?) character's face near the end. And late in the proceedings there's a voodoo ceremony/human sacrifice that is actually well filmed and choreographed, a few suggestive snake scenes (sometimes a bulging python is just a bulging python, but not here), and a double-astral projection for no reason that nonetheless made me smile.

It's symbolic, of course

The performances are all pretty good as well. Victor French does his usual tough guy/teddy bear character work, and has a real knack for playing both strong and vulnerable at the same time. He has a certain amount of chemistry with love-interest Janee Michelle, who is strong and intelligent (not to mention lovely) in her only screen appearance. It's interesting to watch Mike Evans play the jive-talkin' asshole instead of the upright young man he essayed on TV. But the best acting prize goes to Jean Durand as voodoo baddie Thomas, who really brings power to his role as voodoo master bent on vengeance--even going so far as sacrificing his coworker and raising his former boss from the dead to kill her own offspring! Talk about a disgruntled domestic!

Benson: The Untold Story

I'm gonna go ahead and classify The House on Skull Mountain as a blaxploitation flick just because it was clearly intended to cash in on the blaxploitation audience; however, as far as the ethos of those films go it kind of drops the ball, since the male hero is the only white character (as appealing as French might be) and the only sharp-dressin' brother is the first to go. It's not a barn burner, but I had an okay time with it, so I give it the slightly better-than-average 1.75 thumb rating.


Okay, 1.85. But that's my final offer.

"Okay, me how funky and strong is your fight."


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1972): or, Creating a BDSMonster

Damn it, Jess, you just WON'T make it easy for me, will you?

Much as I want to love the cinema of Jess Franco without reservation, after getting a smattering of his work under my belt I still find myself maddeningly on the fence. My early experience of Oasis of the Zombies put me squarely in the "Jeez, what a hack!" camp; but then he hit me with the beautiful Vampyros Lesbos, and I had to recalibrate my judge-ometer. The Awful Dr. Orloff, while not without its charms, left me cold (sorry, Kate), but then I was blasted into giddy glee by his much more colorful and MAD retelling of a similar story in the excellent Faceless (1987). Succubus hypnotized me with imagery and dreamlike narrative on par with the best work of Vicar-fave director Jean Rollin, but 99 Women seemed pale and uninvolving by comparison. The charming, enthusiastic interviews Franco is famous for only make it that much harder, since often he manages to convince me the movie I just watched was much more impressive and enjoyable than my initial viewing experience would indicate.

I guess what I'm saying is that for me, Franco more than lives up to his billing as a "difficult" filmmaker. And my latest foray into his inarguably unique cinematic vision, 1972's The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (Ritos de Frankenstein, La maldición de Frankenstein), did little to settle the matter. On the one hand, it's largely a poor production with laughable effects and a story so incoherent it would have the late, great Paul Naschy shaking his head in bewilderment; on the other, it has some gorgeous compositions, tasty psychedelic lighting, and enough sexy-horror MADNESS to prevent my dismissing it entirely. Hack or genius? HACK OR GENIUS? GAHHHH!

"My creature will be the greatest Solid Gold Dancer the world has ever known!"

Ritos de Frankenstein hits the ground running and seldom stops for breath. Skipping all preliminaries and niceties, we open in the sparsely appointed lab of Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price), in flagrante de genesis. Highlights here include a nicely disgusting brain in a jar, Franco himself assaying the role of the doctor's skeezy assistant Morpho, and monster makeup consisting of a bodybuilder (Fernando Bilbao) with a cereal box flat-top covered from head to foot in metallic silver body paint! Seconds later the monster is jolted to life and utters his first words--"It HURTS!" Flush with success, Dr. Frankenstein explains that since he put a human brain in the monster, it now has the power of speech and is thus perfect!

There's no time for celebration, however, as at just that moment a strange visitor arrives at the doctor's house. Clad in a full-length robe, anachronistic shiny red platform boots, and little else, Melisa (Anne Libert) is the right-hand girl of the mysterious Cagliostro, an occultist hip to the doc's discoveries and wanting to get in on the action. Together with distinctly Vampyros Lesbos-era Morpho-like henchman Caronte (Luis Barboo), Melisa invades Frankenstein's lab, kills his assistant, and then makes short work of the doctor, revealing under her robe some strange bright green feathers and talon-like fingers, about which there will be more to say in a moment.

Cagliostro, as played by Franco regular Howard Vernon, is a perpeturally reborn supervillain with incredible powers that are apparently based on a combination of telepathy, psychokinesis, and "magnetism" with a dash of Eeevil Spirituality thrown in--sort of a Caligari-meets-Crowley with a bit of R'as Al Ghul added for flavor. By summoning the legions of the dead in service of the great devil-god Panthos, Caligrosto hopes to create a new race of supermen to rule the earth, leveraging Frankenstein's technology to breed his monster with a yet-uncreated female creature.

Caligostro learns the perils of the Taloned Handjob

Melisa is apparently an earlier failed experiment in the whole "perfect being" sweepstakes, a hybrid of a Eurobabe and a bird of prey (hence the talons and feathers) that didn't quite live up to his hopes. However, though she turned out all blind and feathery, Melisa also inherited a bit of clairvoyance and the ability to transmit Caligostro's "magnetism" over great distances, sort of a relay tower between him and his creatures of the night. ("I receive images through your magnetic waves! Pleasure, blood, death! I can see Frankenstein's creature raping beautiful virgins to satisfy your desires!" All righty then!) And all she asks in return is the occasional half-naked woman (or in one case a young boy) chained to the dungeon walls in Caligostro's castle where she can find them by echolocation and drink their sweet hot blood. You know, just like a bird of prey does.

Back at Castle Frankenstein, one of the late doctor's colleagues, Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbés, who played a pretty good mad scientist himself in Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue) has arrived for the funeral, along with the sole heir, Vera Frankenstein (Beatriz Savón), herself a fledgling mad scientist intent on plumbing the depths of her father's discoveries in order to avenge his death. At this point, my monster-kid brain kind of went into overload--we have Dr. Frankenstein, his creature, La Hija de Frankenstein, a Caligari-figure, a blind, blood-drinking, clairvoyant bird-woman, and the doctor from Bram Stoker's Dracula all tussling with each other with the fate of future generations in the balance. Could it get any crazier?

Have I mentioned the BDSM subtext yet? Well, hang on!

Frankenstein's Daughter: More than a Little Cross

So Vera and her female Igor quickly liberate the body of Dr. Frankenstein from his tomb and hook him up to the old rejuvenating ray, half-succeeding in bringing the old man back to life. Dear Dead Dad tells Vera that only Caligostro could be behind his death, and she swears to hunt him down and make him pay. Meanwhile Big C is sending Frankenstein's monster out to kidnap beautiful women and bring them back to his Build-A-Bride workshop so that he can pick the most perfect parts and stitch them together to create his Eve. Vera has to jolt Dad to life a couple more times (really, she uses him like a Living Dead Magic 8-Ball), but finally manages to trick the slow-witted monster into kidnapping her (instead of one of the other naked Eurobabes he went after) and thus infiltrates Caligostro's compound.

Of course Caligostro sees through the ruse right away and chains Vera in the dungeon along with all Melisa's tasty snack treats. There's already been a lot of leering bondage with these nameless unfortunates, but here Franco kicks the fetish up several notches. Dissatisfied with Caronte for allowing the monster to bring back the wrong dame, Caligostro concocts a fiendish system to kill two birds with one stone: he chains Caronte and Vera together back to back, places them in the center of a roomful of poisoned metal spikes,and decrees that whoever pushes the other onto the fatal spikes and survives will be released. To make it more interesting, he summons a legion of the wandering dead to watch, gives the Monster a cat o' nine tails, and has him get all whip-happy on them till someone dies.

To recap--you've got a mostly naked couple chained to one another surrounded by poisoned spikes, being whipped by a musclebound, silver body-painted Frankenstein's monster, while a bunch of skull-faced zombies look on. "Jaw dropping" is not really the word, but it's all I've got.

There's something you don't see every day.

Vera wins the challenge, earning the right to become Caligostro's mindless slave and work on putting the Bride together. Meanwhile Dr. Seward and the local police inspector have jolted Dr. F to life one more time to find out where Vera went. It turns out it's one time too many, as the Dead Doc becomes a shambling zombie and goes after Seward. Luckily the cop has a jug of hydrochloric acid in hand, which he splashes on the dead man and which immediately dissolves his head to a bloody stump! I mean, in less than a second! Good thing Seward didn't get any splashback.

It all ramps up to a scene where the Bride is brought to life in a wonderfully pervy and very BDSM-tinged scene, and the Monster prepares to mate with her while the Dead Army of Panthos cheers him on. Seward arrives in time to break it to the monster that Caligostro killed his papa, which leads the creature to interrupt his coitus and go after the bad guy for the Final Confrontation.

Oh, and there's a bunch of scenes with Lina Romay as a gypsy writhing by a creek while Caligostro sends her mental messages that really seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie at all.

Most Romantic Honeymoon Ever

Like I say, the madness of the plot is certainly appealing, and the BDSM subtext and kitchen-sink sensibility is something I can get behind even if I can't quite sort it all out. It's about as far removed from the lyrical tristesse of Succubus as you can get, but I've got plenty of room for both under my pleasantly pitched tent.

Where it gets maddening in a bad way is the split-personalty nature of the way the film is made. Franco gets in some truly gorgeous shots here--standouts are an early scene with some henchmen bringing a crate containing Frankenstein's monster up the beach to Caligostro's castle (again reminiscent of some of Rollin's best work, all bright colors and weird visual poetry) and shots of the Children of Panthos creeping through the fog-drenched forest, wrapped in their burial shrouds--just creepy and lovely. However, much of the rest of the movie looks like it was shot by an epileptic ape and edited with a blender. The monster's makeup is "My Kid's First Super-8" level stuff, as is the haphazard feathering of Melisa. The scenes in the dungeon with the chained models are grimy in a grindhouse way that's either terrible or great depending on your perspective. And close-ups of Panthos' Kidz in the final scenes are frankly laughable. And despite my previous statement, sometimes the plot seems SO pulled strait out of Franco's drug-addled ass, some of the joy gives way to frustration.

Performances are all over the place too--Vernon is great as Caligostro, sporting a truly awesome fake beard and some of the craziest wide-eyed stares it's been my pleasure to witness. Vera ranges from competent to bad, and Seward isn't given much to do. I was actually kind of moved by some of the monster's scenes, particularly his painful birth, though I don't know if that's a result of the actor's performance or my own gin intake.

"Wait--you made his wang HOW big?"

I do think The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is an...interesting movie, with flashes of brilliance amid a sea of what-the-fuckery. It doesn't settle my Franco problem, but it's definitely worth at least one viewing--because let's face it, where else are you going to see Frankenstein's Monster whipping a couple of chained up naked folks? 2.25 thumbs.

Nota bene: I actually checked this DVD out of my local public library, which is pretty objectively awesome. The version on the disc is the domestic "clothed" version, but includes the for-export nude versions of the super-pervy scenes as a bonus feature. These improve the proceedings greatly--naked artist's models, the bride in all her birthday-suit glory, and even Vera and Caronte completely unclothed in the climactic whipping scene, offering a rare glimpse of wiggly Eurowang. You know, if that's your thing.

A few more images from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein:

And this is your brain on really good drugs...

Caligostro: Next on MTV's Cribs

"A little to the left..."

A Haunting Scene

"I knew we should have worn our Ming Dynasty camouflage!"

Caligostro always got a kick out of Melisa's Grover impersonation

"Thow the switch, Jess! THROW THE SWITCH!"


Related Posts with Thumbnails