Saturday, May 20, 2017

173. Policewomen

173. Policewomen (1974)
Director: Lee Frost
Writers: Lee Frost and Wes Bishop
From: Cult Cinema

A police woman goes undercover in to expose a female mafia that’s smuggling gold.

Look at the year, look at the title, look at the quick description. What you think happens is exactly what happens. Only, it’s done with, I don’t want to say “panache,” or “style,” but there is a certain wit throughout.

The movie starts with the titular (no pun intended… for three whole minutes of screen time. Really) Policewoman Policewomen Lacy Bond booking a prisoner. There’s a prison break where Lacy single-handedly fights off most of the escaping prisoners but, in the end, two escape—some rando and Jeannie Bell from TNT Jackson. The nudity three minutes in is from Bell and her accomplices changing into their escape clothes.

Due to her performance foiling the break, Lacy is offered a position doing fieldwork to take down an emergent “female mafia” that’s exclusively recruiting women and led by the 70-year-old crime lord Maude. They’re smuggling gold into the United States and risking the possibility of crashing the market to make Glenn Beck cry.

Yes, I want that Netflix original series right now.

Lacy infiltrates the group that Bell and her co-escapee have joined and is spotted by the pair. However, Bell offers a cover story claiming to recognize Lacy from a stint they did back in Chicago. Bell later reveals that she’s Secret Service and working to take down the organization as well.

The rest of the movie goes as you’d expect—Lacy and Bell get themselves involved in the big score, signal the cops, get caught, fight their way out, save the day. What I’m leaving out is that Lacy doesn’t infiltrate the group until an hour into this hour and forty minute film.

What happens in the interim is Lacy proving she’s tough enough to handle field work, her male co-workers being either dismissive or patronizing, and her hooking up with the patronizing one because, given the options, at least he recognizes she can do the work.

So this is the kind of movie I’m supposed to really hate—cheap sexism, formulaic plot that they don’t even follow, and an interminable running time—but, and maybe this is just because I’m coming off of watching The Manipulator, I kinda liked it.

There’s a certain vim to the movie and, even though I want to avoid the word, a charm as well. As Good Bad Flicks notes in their review, the star Sondra Currie adds a lot to the picture and there are moments of real wit to be found here. I’m actually surprised at my enjoyment of the movie because it’s from the director of Chain Gang Women which was really uncomfortable. Whereas that was rapey exploitation, this feels like it’s winking a bit at the exploitation tropes, that even its moments of sexism and racism are done with an ironic edge, the joke being that anyone would take this seriously.

The racism, though, is pretty out of left-field and shocking, possibly because it’s so concentrated. It’s literally all in these thirty seconds. That’s a bit much all at once.

Obviously this isn’t for the kids or safe-for-work, but it has its own campy charm and I recommend it on that level. Since it’s so formulaic, you can just have it on in the background while you’re doing other things and still not miss anything—the dramatic moments are cued by the music. It’s also nice for a beer and pretzels evening with friends, and sometimes that’s all you want.

Friday, May 19, 2017

172. The Manipulator

172. The Manipulator (1971)
Director: Yabo Yablonsky
Writers: Yabo Yablonsky from an idea by John Durren
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In

A deranged former actor/director holds a young woman prisoner trying to force her to play Roxanne in his version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

How is this my life? Seriously, how is this my life? I’m watching The Manipulator starring Mickey Rooney. I’m trying to get other things done. I just started reading Jane Eyre. I’ve never read it. I can’t get into it, though, because I’m busy watching the goddamn Manipulator!

Here’s the entire movie: Mickey Rooney is a washed-up Hollywood figure running around an abandoned theater emotionally abusing a woman he’s kidnapped. The first 50 minutes, she’s tied to a chair, the last 40, he’s chasing her through the theater. In the end, he kills himself and she starts hearing the spectral crowds he’s heard because he’s driven her mad. THE END.

There’s ninety minutes of this. Ninety! Ninety minutes of Rooney doing bizarro reads of Cyrano de Bergerac, talking to people that aren’t there, and acting manic in sequences shot like an experimental film. One IMDB commenter said the movie’s impressive in small doses—Rooney’s actually good and the experiments are interesting when kept to five minutes or less.

The chase scene after his victim escapes her chair lasts ten minutes and is shot in slow motion. This is excruciating.

Normally I can bloviate for close to a thousand words on a movie, but there’s nothing here. Faux-acid-inspired sequence after faux-acid-inspired sequence, and I’m someone that likes experimental film. While there are hints of a more interesting movie underlying it with the occasionally inventive visuals, or a nice one-act stage play about a former star struggling with obscurity, what’s actually here is really hard to watch. I could say this feels a bit like a precursor to Birdman, particularly the element of a lead playing a character that echoes some of their real-life creative work, but that’d be giving this film too much credit.

It sucks. Avoid it.

It’s still not as bad as Cavegirl or Going Steady.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

First-Year Writing Syllabus: The Internet--Connection, Disconnection, and Control

With my semester done, I thought I'd share some of my teaching material. I'm always curious how other people put their classes together as well as the reasons behind their choices. Even though I've been teaching for nine years, I'm still worried that I'm getting things wrong and shortchanging my students. Also, I get very excited by process and transparency. If I can see how something was put together, I can apply that same logic to my own situation. So, with that in mind, I've decided to share my most recent syllabus--partly for other people looking for a model to construct their own courses, partly to finally put it behind me as I'm tired of teaching this material. I've been teaching variations of this material for 3 years. I'd like to talk about something else. Also, since the subject is the Internet and social media, the material ages out pretty quickly.

I've stripped the syllabus down to include only my own contributions. All the university and department-specific language such as course goals and necessary bureaucratic language such as accessibility and academic freedom policies has been removed. These things are important, essential even, but they're neither unique to my course nor composed by me so I've left them out. Likewise I've left out the day-by-day schedule that included paper due dates, conferences, and library days. Instead, the readings are sorted by unit in the order that they were assigned. If you want to adapt this for your own classes (please do), sort things as they'd best fit your schedule.

At the end I've included additional and alternate readings that had been part of earlier incarnations of this syllabus as well as why they were ultimately cut.

If you find this post useful, would like me to share more materials, or have any questions, please let me know.

Course Description:
The focus of this class is technology—specifically the Internet and social media—and our personal relationship to it. We will begin with an overview of how technology is discussed and a rejection of the Manichean good/bad framework and instead focus on a both/and means of interpretation and discussion. The second unit focuses on Lessig’s maxim, “code is law,” with discussions on the structure of technology and how it relates to issues of privacy, power, and control. The third and final unit uses Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together as a baseline for examining how we interact emotionally with technology and what questions we should be asking.

To be successful in this course, you do not need to have any prior knowledge about technology, code, or epistemology. All you need is to be curious and fully engaged in what we’re doing in class and in our required paper assignments.

[The course description that lays out not only what the class is going to be about, but hints at my own interests and hobbyhorses. I'm not interested in students giving me the "right" answer and certainly not interested in them agreeing with me. I want them to articulate their own position. With that goal in mind, I try to select topics that they, hopefully, will be able to find their own way into or already have an opinion on. The Internet, smartphones, and social media is an easy go-to, but carries with it the threat of simple moralizing and thought-destroying cliches. "We're all worse for using technology." "Things were better before the Internet." "Social media makes us all self-obsessed." Thus the initial push against the "good/bad framework." I wanted the students to ask why, how, and to push through simplistic interpretations.]

Course Texts:
Sherry Turkle—Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Institute of Network Cultures—Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives
Michael Mandiberg, Editor—The Social Media Reader

[Textbooks cost too much and are part of the Ponzi-scheme of higher ed. That's a whole long rant, but it's one of the things that led me to start looking for Creative Commons-licensed textbooks. I'd taught some first-year writing courses about copyright (another hobbyhorse that I'll detail later) and a lot of those books are distributed under a CC-license which made availability a non-issue. A few years later, all the textbooks I was reviewing for my community college research writing course provided useful structures, but not so useful as to justify the price. Then I found Stephen D. Krause's The Process of Research Writing. It hit all the key points and, best of all, was free. Even better, the school was willing to print up copies of the book for the students and I just passed them out on the first day. So when I was looking for collections dealing with social media, I was thrilled to find not one, but two books released under CC-licenses. In addition to making the readings available to students, the collections included many readings we didn't get to which served as additional research resources for the students' papers. With the materials from the books providing a structure, I was able to flesh out the course with further readings from various websites--readings, I should note, that I was exposed to in Jeff Osbourne's Reading Pop Culture, 2nd Edition. It's an excellent volume and I've had great success teaching it in several courses. It's just an unfortunate reality that a collection of contemporary readings is largely going to be pulled from the Internet making alternate copies very easy to find.]

(SMR)=Social Media Reader
(UUR)=Unlike Us Reader

Unit 1
Sherry Turkle-TED Talk
Neil Postman-"The Judgment of Thamus"
Nikal Saval-"Wall of Sound: The iPod Has Changed the Way We Listen to Music"
Clay Shirky-"Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" (SMR)
Chris Anderson-"The Long Tail" (SMR)
[The first unit looks at various ways we talk about technology, using the introduction to Postman's Technopoly as a starting point. He argues that technological change is neither good nor bad,
but ecological--one change changes everything. That allowed us to look at the writers and ask in which ways they were unduly optimistic or pessimistic. The readings include technophobes (Turkle
and Saval) and technophiles (Shirky and Anderson) as well as different styles of writing which allowed for a variety of discussions around content and form.]


Unit 2
Chiara Atik-"Public Displays of Transaction"
Bruce Schneier-Alternative Radio: "The Internet, Privacy, and Power" (MP3 & Transcript available for purchase)
Felix Stalder-"Between Democracy and Spectacle" (SMR)
Jenny Kennedy-"Rhetorics of Sharing" (UUR)
Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey-"The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper-Publicity" (UUR)
[The second unit discussed how these technologies operate, how they work as structures, and what kinds of behavior they encourage or discourage. I used Schneier's talk as a baseline and shared the podcast episode I had of it as well as the transcript (in a response to a student asking about options for those with hearing issues. Having the transcript made things easier for all the students and was something I should have thought of myself beforehand. It's a priority in my course design now). This is the unit that gets closest to my particular interest in social media and big data--structures of control. So there are discussions about NSA surveillance, Google hoovering up all our data, and just what mass data aggregation means--good and bad.]

Unit 3
Sherry Turkle-Alone Together Part 2
Nathan Jurgenson-"The IRL Fetish"
Jacob Burak-"Escape From the Matrix"
Jennifer Bleyer-"Love the One You’re Near"
[The final unit starting with the second half of Sherry Turkle's book. The first half, while compelling, deals with robots and how much we're willing to imbue them with emotional qualities, and that's a topic too far removed from most of the discussions we were having in the class. Plus there's always the time constraints. I don't read Turkle as ardently anti-tech (the way Jurgenson does in his piece from the unit, which served as its own discussion point), but instead poking at the idea of all this connectivity. Why do we want it? What does it do? How have we changed? She interrogates things with a nervous ambivalence and, while she does fall on the critical side, I think models that both/and structure I want my students to pursue. The other pieces in the unit speak to some of the same issues, but take on a new context after the first and second unit. Where the the pieces are unceasingly critical of technology and see it as removed from the world, the students have Postman and the Unit 1 readings to fall back on. Where the pieces talk about how the technology works and who benefits, the students have the Unit 2 readings to fall back on.]

Additional and alternate readings:
Willian Deresiewicz-"Solitude and Leadership" [I used to start my courses with this reading because I liked a lot of the points it made and the way I felt it articulated what I wanted my students to get out of not just my course, but their broader college experience. It was never intended to be used as a source in their papers, though, and I would constantly see it pop up. That coupled with time constraints ultimately made me drop it, although I still think it's a good piece and much better than the book that grew out it, Excellent Sheep.]
Vicessimus Knox-"On Novel Reading" [This had been part of the initial Unit 1 readings as an example of how people have always had moral panics over new mediums. Conceptually, it's hilarious now to think of people being critical of children reading novels--not what kind of novels, but novels in and of themselves--and it was interesting to highlight how the language of outrage hasn't changed despite the shifting centuries and technologies. Unfortunately, it works here as, at best, a curiosity, and the work it does as an example of criticism is done by Postman quoting Plato's fears of writing.]
Sonali Kohli-"Pop Culture’s Transgender Moment" [This was paired with Anderson's "The Long Tail" as an example of what the infinite space of the web allowed. Since its purpose was largely to compliment another piece, I cut it for time and recommended it to students writing about "The Long Tail" instead.]
danah boyd [No specific piece here, but boyd was someone I found myself returning to a lot throughout the semester, either by recommending specific pieces of hers to students or seeing her pop up independently in their work. She writes both excellently and accessibly about social media and many of her pieces could be swapped into this course in any unit. She's made much of her writing available on her website as well, which is always appreciated.]

Copyright: [My big hobbyhorse that was easier to discuss with my students six or seven years ago when mashups were still a thing and people still worried about getting sued by the RIAA. The intellectual property movement, as many others, seemed to lose steam with the election of President Obama, which I don't really understand. Anyway, these are the materials I used for those courses. The Vaidhyanathan and Lessig pieces from The Social Media Reader were initially in the second unit, but were cut as introducing copyright into that discussion, while appropriate in the context of "control," took the discussion too far afield. There was a whole lot of context I had to give so that the pieces would make sense and, compared to the other readings, they were pretty long. However, if you were interested in swapping a unit out for a discussion on Net Neutrality, these could be useful background readings or resources to offer to your students.]
Siva Vaidhyanathan-"Open Source as Culture/Culture as Open Source" (SMR)
Lawrence Lessig-"REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law" (SMR)
Negativland-"Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain"
Lawrence Lessig-Free Culture
Kembre McLeod-Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
RIP!: A Remix Manifesto
Good Copy, Bad Copy

Negativland-Over the Edge Radio Archive [Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value. Just an additional bit of weirdness to throw in if you're considering a copyright unit. This is an archive of nearly every episode of Negativland's radio show Over the Edge. There's a lot there, but I'd recommend the episodes remixing Lessig's Free Culture or "All Art Radio: A History of Noise" for a rundown on collage (and also because it's the episode that made me a fan). Each episode is 3-5 hours long so, if you want to subject your students to it or use it in the classroom, you'll have to edit it down.]

This ended up a lot longer than I thought it would (I specifically chose not to post the paper prompts because I thought it would make this too long), but hopefully it's interesting if not useful. Again, if you have any questions or would like to see more material, feel free to comment.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

171. Night of the Blood Beast

171. Night of the Blood Beast (1958)
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Writer: Martin Varno
From: Sci-Fi Invasion; Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org

An experimental rocket crashes upon its return to Earth, seemingly killing the pilot. However, members of the project find anomalies with the body and strange things start happening back at base.

A classic Corman cheapie, this film doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t have characters so much as roles. Seriously, none of these people stand out, they just move the plot forward. I mean, the movie features four white guys named John, Dave, Steve, and Dr. Wyman, and Dr. Wyman dies. The only reason John stands out from the other two white guys is he’s a corpse, and even then it gets a bit confusing.

Without characters, the movie is just plot: pilot crashes, is found dead, things seem a bit off at the crash site, and something skitters away when no one’s looking. Back at base, the corpse has a foreign substance in its blood, a magnetic field is blocking the radio and then shorts out all the electrical equipment. Monster emerges, corpse wakes up, is actually harboring alien embryos, and tries to convince people monster isn’t evil. Meet-retreat, meet-retreat, finally settle down to parlay with the monster that can now talk, hideous plan revealed, monster destroyed, humanity saved… for now.

I’ve complained with earlier films that there’s no character, the plot’s obvious, and the final product is incredibly boring. While this also has no character and an obvious plot, it’s fun for being formulaic. It has a few inventions and works well within its constraints. I mean, a big positive of this film is that it’s only 63 minutes long. Sure, it follows all the expected steps, but it does it efficiently and quickly. There’s no bloat here.

You can expect that from a Corman production, though. The Wikipedia article on this movie is interesting in how it details conflicts between the Cormans and the writer that led to a severing of connections between Corman and the WGA. It also describes the cheapness of Corman, including repurposing the monster from Teenage Caveman for this movie. To be fair, it’s a good costume.

I was going to say the movie’s fun and very riffable, and then I saw that it’s episode 0701 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 which makes that point moot. I enjoyed it, though, and recommend it to fans of cheap midnight movies. The movie seemingly is in the public domain so I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to archive.org here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

170. The Demons of Ludlow

170. The Demons of Ludlow (1983)
Director: Bill Rebane
Writers: William Arthur with additional dialogue by Alan Ross
From: Chilling

In celebration of Ludlow’s bicentennial, the family of the founder deliver a special piano to the town, only the piano carries with it a power that will fulfill a curse laid upon descendants of the town’s founders 200 years before.

The third film from director Bill Rebane to pop up in this series, the previous two being The Astral Factor and The Cold, this piece also demonstrates his mastery of the 80’s-afternoon-TV form. Think of him as a mid-budget Don Dohler.

The movie starts with 3 establishing shots: someone we don’t know walks through the snow to a house, a woman wearing a corset and heels is trying to decide what to wear, and a jug band plays down at the ol’ town hall where they’re celebrating the town’s bicentennial. With that you have a sense of the tenor and competence of the film—stuff’s going to happen and there’ll be (mostly) TV-safe titillation along the way.

The man is the town’s Reverend, the woman his wife, and they share a snarky exchange about how much she drinks and demonstrating a general discontentment in their marriage. Neither matters to the plot and neither element is brought up again, but the scene did allow this reviewer to clarify that, yes, she’s getting ready for the evening and is only wearing a corset and high heels. Super.

The town is Ludlow, celebrating it’s bicentennial, and the family of the late great-grandson of the founder, also named Ludlow, has sent an antique piano to commemorate the event. Most people are impressed by the gift, a few say there’s something creepy about it, and a young couple decides to sneak off to fool around while the piano’s played.

Ghosts show up and kill them, natch, but everyone in town thinks they’ve just run off together.

Meanwhile, a reporter who spent her childhood in the town has returned out of pure curiosity and is investigating old tales her grandfather told her, including tales of the piano.

Anyway, haunted piano, ancient curse, yadda yadda. There aren’t any characters here and nothing really surprising. The Reverend and the Reporter (coming this fall to ABC) are the only ones who are suspicious of the piano and its connections to the town’s history. People keep dying and the mayor refuses the Reverend’s demands that they bring in outside help. The movie becomes a bit of a cross between Jaws and Poltergeist at this point, although for no explicable reason. It’s never clear why the mayor is so resistant to calling the cops, and then ghosts cut his head off.

The Reverend digs up “the list” which details all the original settlers of the town and what crimes they committed against each other and ultimately against Ludlow himself. The Reporter, while talking to her colleague, says there were rumors that Ludlow was a vampire or witch, that something happened with children, and he was run out of town and forced back to England. What the Reverend reveals is that Ludlow played the piano a bunch, which annoyed everyone, so they cut off his hands. Plus his ten-year-old daughter got sick and died, so he blamed the town. Hence a centuries-long curse that’s finally coming to fruition!

This culminates in the Reverend and Reporter facing off against the piano, first trying to write the proper notes on it to dispel the curse and then just attacking it with an ax. Credit where due, the piano starts flying up and down a la Hausu, and then all the Puritan-era ghosts appear. They cut off the Reverend’s hands, the Reporter (suddenly in period dress) flees but finds herself unable to cross the town’s border, and then that stops when the Reverend’s hands are restored to Ludlow’s ghost. THE END.

As you’d expect from a Rebane film, it’s generically bad. It remains watchable and makes some budgetary choices that are unintentionally funny—the piano never sounds like a piano, instead always sounding like a bank of synths—but it also doesn’t demand any kind of attention. You could turn this movie on at any point and immediately be caught up because there are no details that need explaining. The set-up is obvious throughout. Even the echoes, intentional or otherwise, of Carnival of Souls amplify the feeling that this is a movie you’ve seen before.

So I’m in the middle on it. It’s fine enough if it comes on in the background, but I wouldn’t direct anyone to it. It has a few campy excesses, but not enough to make the movie riffable or enjoyable on an ironic level. While it’s not as boring as Alien Prey, it’s not as much fun as his follow-up, The Cold which managed the cheap movie mash-up style more effectively. If I were to recommend anything, it’d be that or the two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring his movies, 0421: Monster-A-Go-Go and 0810: The Giant Spider Invasion.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

169. Alien Prey

169. Alien Prey aka Prey (1977)
Director: Norman J. Warren
Writers: Max Cuff from a story by Quinn Donoghue
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

An alien arrives at an isolated English estate where his presence exacerbates the murderous tension between the couple living there.

This movie’s a little difficult to describe because nothing happens. I know I say that about a lot of these movies, but it’s particularly true here. We open with Jessica waking up in her room to flashing green lights. She runs into Jo’s room to tell her about it, but Jo dismisses the event. Meanwhile, a couple is making out in a car. An alien attacks the man, Anders, and takes on his form to kill the woman.

The next day, Jo and Jessica come across the alien Anders while walking in the woods. Jessica invites him back to their house, but Jo wants him gone. She doesn’t like anyone disturbing the solitude she and Jessica have.

And things play out from there. Jo and Jessica are lesbians, which is related as bluntly as that, as well as vegetarians, which feels like it’s played up as further evidence of their strangeness. There had been a previous visitor to the estate, their friend Simon, but he left early one morning without saying anything.

Jessica finds Simon’s blood-stained shirt and realizes Jo must have killed him. Jo keeps playing mind game with Jessica, doing a push-pull thing, but the movie can’t decide where it stands: is she an emotionally-abusive partner or is she unhinged? In other words, where does the threat lie? That question can be asked of the entire movie because, with all this talk, you might well forget there’s a murderous alien staying at their house, wandering around, and watching them in a gratuitously long sex scene. The movie’s not sure if it wants to be pensive or exploitative and manages neither.

In the end, Jessica and Jo have a fight, Jessica says she’s leaving, Jo knocks her out and goes to dig a grave. Jessica wakes up and begs Anders to take her to London. They have sex where he transforms into his alien form—somewhere between a Na’vi and a reject from Cats—and eats her. Jo walks in on this, flees, and falls into the grave herself where Anders finds and presumably kills her. The final shot is Anders radioing his ship to say Earth is full of easy prey that’s high in protein. THE END.

Like I said, it’s not clear what the threat is supposed to be in the movie—is it Anders or is it Jo? The movie never decides so the tension never builds. Moments of Anders being a dangerous force are pretty removed from what’s happening in the house and it’s not clear that he’s hurting people for any purpose beyond fear and self-defense. Thus there’s no sense of him getting closer and closer to hurting Jessica and Jo or that he will. In fact, the question becomes will Jo hurt Anders? Likewise, Jessica’s slow realization that Jo murdered their friend isn’t slow at all—she realizes it before we as the audience even think to suspect something. On top of that, even though Jessica thinks Jo is a threat, she never starts working to get away until the very last minute. The movie never articulates the threat that you’re supposed to be paying attention to.

So, obviously, not a recommend. It’s boring-bad, not funny-bad, and the exploitation moments like the extended sex scene feel like cop-outs. It’s like they did an initial cut of the movie and realized their thoughtful psychological sci-fi thriller was none of those things so they threw in some salacious elements to get people to say something, anything, “please God, just don’t ignore us!”, about it. Skip it. It’s not worth any kind of attention.

Friday, May 05, 2017

168. TNT Jackson

168. TNT Jackson (1974)
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Writers: Dick Miller and Ken Metcalfe
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
Watch: archive.org

Martial arts master TNT Jackson goes to China to investigate her brother’s disappearance and attracts the attention of a heroin smuggling operation.

Our movie opens in China where Charlie, an assistant to a local heroin distributor catches Stag buying drugs. Stag realizes he’s caught, tries to escape, but Charlie and his men corner and kill him. Why his buying drugs is a problem isn’t clear, but it’s enough to bring his sister, TNT Jackson, over to visit.

She goes looking for Joe’s place because that’s the last contact point she had for her brother. It takes her a while to get there because it’s in the bad part of town that the cabbie won’t go to. He drops her at the edge of the district where she’s immediately attacked by a group of thugs, each of whom she defeats using her sleepy Ambien-style kung-fu.

Maybe the first thing to note about the movie is the lead actors aren’t good fighters. The only good fight sequences are done by Shatnerianly obvious stunt doubles. That’d be okay if the actors were good actors, but they’re not.

Speaking of bad actors, a car with Angel, a white woman who alternates speaking in a low mumble or lazy whisper, picks up TNT and drops her off at Joe’s. As TNT’s talking to him, one of his customers gets handsy with his assistant and a fight breaks out. TNT joins in and Charlie arrives to watch her handily defeat all comers. She’s managed to capture his attention and esteem.

By the way, that’s three fight scenes in the first thirteen minutes. Well done, movie, well done.

Things inevitably progress, although lugubriously for a movie with a 71-minute runtime. Angel and Charlie both work for Sid, a white drug kingpin distributing million-dollar-amounts of heroin. He also has a Chinese assistant, Ming. For unexplained reasons, they all become obsessed with TNT, initially wanting her to join their group as a prostitute and then thinking she’s responsible for attacks on two of their drug deals. Charlie says she has nothing to do with it, Ming suspects her, and Angel is meeting with a mysterious figure on the side. Intrigue!

TNT learns her brother is dead, tries to infiltrate Charlie’s group, then, somehow (the transitional scene isn’t there), is chasing Angel through a graveyard. They have a fight, TNT wins, and Angel admits to being a cop trying to set up a large-scale sting operation to take down Sid.

Yadda yadda. TNT, naked (oh, that’s why she was cast), fights Ming and his crew in the dark then hooks up with Charlie. When she sees him light a cigarette with her brother’s lighter, she realizes he’s the killer. She follows him to an island festival where Sid has arranged a face-to-face meeting with all the major distributors in the region. Too much of his money’s been stolen in these foiled hand-offs for him to buy the drugs with cash and he needs to talk them into trusting him.

Various betrayals later, all the drug dealers are in the hands of the police, Sid and Angel throw each other out a window and presumably die (we don’t see them land or an aftermath), and TNT and Charlie have their Inigo Montoya moment. They fight, she literally punches a hole through him, THE END. No epilogue, no follow-up.

It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a terribly great movie either. Despite the constant action, I was falling asleep twenty-five minutes in and the movie had a hard time holding my interest. So much of it feels perfunctory, which makes sense in its own way. This is from the same director as Fighting Mad which I reviewed in February. I said that movie “is the way it is because the producers sat down and said, ‘What’s awesome?’ Then they put it all into a script,” and there’s arguably the same process happening here, but with the producers asking, “what’s selling well now?” That makes it a little less joyful and a little more sleazy. The fight sequences, though, are just as hokey and poorly executed which provides its own layer of entertainment.

The movie is eminently riffable, especially if you get into the lightning-quick pushback against other characters’ overt racism without cringing too much at that very racism. It’s a fine line. Those moments produce some of the most viscerally satisfying “fuck you”s I’ve seen in movies lately, but you gotta hear a lot of really racist shit before they’re delivered.

In other words, this one ain’t for the kids and is certainly NSFW. However, if you have your beer-and-pretzels crew looking for something to inflict your wit upon, this is a good choice. The movie’s in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to the Internet Archive here. It might even be worth doing a Cirio Santiago double-feature with this and Fighting Mad, but if you only have time for one, go for Fighting Mad. It’s sillier, less sleazy, and goes so much further off the rails.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

167. Horror of the Zombies

167. Horror of the Zombies aka The Ghost Galleon aka The Blind Dead 3 aka El buque maldito (1974)
Director: Amando de Ossorio
Writer: Amando de Ossorio
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In

A publicity stunt involving models stranded on a boat goes awry when they’re met not by a shipping vessel, but an 18th-Century haunted ship.

We follow The Murder Mansion with another GATT’d Spanish film that ups the ante on that piece by being filled with neither incident nor energy. The story begins with models at a photo shoot. Lillian, the photograph and boss, is confronted by the inappropriately dubbed Noemi about the whereabouts of her roommate and fellow model Kathy.

Turns out Kathy has signed on for a high-concept ad campaign for sports manufacturer Howard Tucker. Kathy and another model have purposefully stranded themselves in the ocean along a major shipping route waiting for a ship to find them. Instead of a commercial vessel, though, they’re struck by a seemingly abandoned ghost ship. Tucker calls the stunt off, but the helicopter he sends out can’t find any trace of the girls. Sergio, Tucker’s assistant, takes Lillian captive to prevent her from sharing the story.

At the ship, Kathy’s partner has climbed aboard and disappeared to the sounds of screams. Kathy’s fallen asleep, though, and doesn’t hear. When she wakes up, she finds the boat’s radio no longer works so she climbs onto the ship where, eventually, zombies rise from coffins in the hold and kill her.

It takes a while for this to happen. So long in fact that I thought the material with Noemi investigating her missing roommate was cut in after the fact to a different movie about a zombie ship. I was wrong, though, because now Tucker, Sergio, Lillian, and Noemi, against her will, travel to the ship along with a scientist who tells them a story about a “ghost galleon” being spotted in that region.

They find the ship, get trapped on board, and Noemi flashes back to times with Kathy where Noemi basically bullied Kathy into becoming a model, sending her down the path that led to this boat. While everyone’s asleep, Noemi searches the ship for Kathy only to find the zombies instead. They slash her throat, drag her down a series of steps, across the floor in the hold, then finally kill her via dismemberment. Seriously, her death takes forever. The majority of it is her just wordlessly howling for help and no one responding. It’s a curious choice for the movie because, if there’s a “good guy,” it’s Noemi. The scientist is sort of neutral, but Noemi is involved because she’s trying to save her friend from the unscrupulous Tucker and Lillian. Then she ends up with the most drawn-out on-screen death. This, by the way, is after Sergio assaults her while she’s being held prisoner.

Did I not mention that? Yeah, you can read that as not happening—the movie cuts away before anything specific can be said to have happened—but you know what’s happening after that cut away.

So the movie’s real boring and then has the sympathetic character die slowly. Whee.

Everyone wakes up and the scientist finds documents on the boat indicating that it’s hauling the cursed corpses of the Knights Templar (was there ever a time when people weren’t obsessed with this Da Vinci Code BS?). The zombies awaken after the group finds a secret room filled with treasure (and a satanic skull with rams horns) which leads to a hilarious shot of Sergio doing a full-on football run through the zombies. The group escapes and the scientist drives the zombies back by performing a minor exorcism, but that only buys them an extra day.

At the last minute, they throw all the coffins into the ocean, the magic surrounding the ship starts to fade, and Lillian, Tucker, and Sergio jump in the ocean to swim to some now visible land. The scientist stays behind because he can’t swim. The trio are using a plank of wood to float and it’s sinking because Sergio is carrying a load of treasure with him. He attacks Tucker rather than give up his treasure so Lillian knocks Sergio out, leaving him to drown. She and Tucker make it to land and pass out on the shore.

On the ship, the satanic skull lights up and the ship catches on fire. The scientist chokes to death from the smoke and the whole thing goes up in flames. Meanwhile, the zombies have risen from their coffins and march onto the shore of the island Lillian and Tucker are on. The pair awakens to find themselves surrounded as the zombies reach forward. The End.

Not nearly so much fun as The Murder Mansion which wasn’t particularly fun to begin with. The movie is clearly built around the idea of “scantily-clad women in peril!” but fails to live up to any part of that promise, be it the “scantily-clad” part or the “peril.” I’d say even the exclamation point is a stretch. This is a film that calls for very sedate punctuation.

There is some unintentional hilarity in the models constantly running around in high heels—Noemi trying to escape her prison while running across the very echoy concrete floor in her heels, people’s heels getting stuck in the ship while trying to escape zombies, twice—but that’s not enough to carry the movie.

Now, I’m not one to say you have to show the monster in the first reel, but you gotta give us something—tone, character, exposition, something. This flick’s got nothing for a good forty minutes if not more. It was a disappointment because I was hoping for a lot more cheese when I heard the dubbing. Noemi’s voice is so miscast, but nothing else here rises to that level of camp.

As I mentioned, this movie is protected under GATT, but it’s not something I’d encourage people to look for anyway.

Friday, April 28, 2017

166. The Murder Mansion

166. The Murder Mansion aka Maniac Mansion aka La mansión de la niebla (1972)
Director: Francisco Lara Polop
Writers: Luis G. de Blain and Antonio Troiso
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In

Various travelers get lost and find themselves converging on a house by a cemetery haunted by the ghosts of a witch and her chauffeur.

We open with footage of people driving which is always a sign of high-quality filmmaking. A motorist, Mr. Porter, passes a motorcyclist, Fred. Fred aggressively pursues Porter until Fred finally succeeds in passing the car. Then Fred stops for a hitchhiker, Laura, but she gets into the car instead. Porter gets too handsy, though, so at the next rest stop, Laura leaves to ride with Fred. Porter, despairingly, warns them that “something will happen.” This is the 166th movie I’ve watched from these sets. He’s lying.

Cut to another couple driving, the Tremonts. Mr. Tremont is the lawyer for Elsa who’s divorcing her philandering husband Ernest. Ernest says he can’t make it to their planned destination because of car trouble so Elsa, despite the fog, decides to drive out to pick him up. The Tremonts follow in their car. When Ernest hangs up the phone, though, he’s in the nearby restaurant where Fred and Laura are—he’s lying!

To jump ahead, Mr. Porter and the Tremonts have a head-on collision that take out their cars, Fred and Laura are almost run over by a Rolls Royce driven by a hulking chauffeur, and Elsa’s car breaks down near the cemetery where she’s chased by the hulking chauffeur and an old woman. They all end up at a nearby house owned by Marta, the niece of the former owner, a witch who was suspected of being a vampire when twelve people in the nearby town died one night. The aunt was killed in a car accident along with her chauffeur.

*exhale* Exposition over.

So they’re all stuck in the house for the night. The movie feels a lot like The Devils Nightmare meets Scooby-Doo. Part of this is due to the musical choices of the producers. It sounds like outtakes from the cartoon. That most of the scares involve people taking off masks and hidden passages doesn’t help.

The events of the movie, such as they are, mostly involve jump scares designed to harry or kill the people in the house. We also get flashbacks of Elsa getting mad at her father for hooking up with her college friends (which ultimately leads to him dying of a heart attack while screwing one of them) and Elsa hooking up with her future husband almost in revenge. It’s about the purest form of padding you’ll ever see.

Meanwhile, Fred and Laura go full “Jinkies!” and search the forbidden cellar. They find an empty coffin with the aunt’s name and things gradually escalate with sightings of the ghost chauffeur and the evil aunt. As they’re investigating, a mysterious figure appears and starts wandering through the cellar.

Scooby sense intensifying. Fred figures out the whole thing is a set-up, Laura tries to keep Elsa and Mrs. Tremont safe, the twist that isn’t that surprising is revealed only to be immediately subverted by a second twist! Then Fred and Laura ride off into the sunrise with inappropriately upbeat music considering the mountain of corpses in the house. The End.

This isn’t particularly good. The movie tries to construct its mood through referencing scary things, but never manifesting or even showing them. For instance, the rooms that all the people are staying in are deeply unnerving due to the Boschian paintings on the walls. Only we never see the paintings or shots demonstrating how creepy the rooms are. The characters say it’s creepy, and that’s supposed to be enough.

Compounding that is the plot doesn’t make sense. There’s a bit of a Gaslight/The Screaming Skull thing going on, but gathering all these people at the house, most of them strangers who yet are essential to the plan, depends on a whole lot of coincidence that strains credulity. A vampiric witch rising from the grave to claim more victims seems more plausible.

The movie’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. It’s fine enough to laugh at on a Saturday afternoon, but not of much interest beyond that. I think this had previously been public domain, but has been GATT’d and is no longer free to use.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

165. Memorial Valley Massacre

165. Memorial Valley Massacre (1989)
Director: Robert C. Hughes
Writers: Robert C. Hughes and George Frances Skrow
From: Chilling

A campground opens for its inaugural Memorial Day Weekend, but is beset by problems that aren’t wholly the fault of the boorish customers. A wildman is stalking the campgrounds, seemingly exacting nature’s vengeance on those who’d cross him.

This is trash and I love (very nearly) every minute of it. The movie starts with our lord and savior, Cameron Mitchell checking on the condition of the campgrounds he’s been developing. Turns out there are all sorts of problems running the gamut from a lack of running water to the recent suspicious death of a contractor. He demands the park open anyway just as his naturalist son arrives seeking work. Mitchell gives him a job as assistant to the chief ranger, which the chief ranger doesn’t like at all.

And then it doesn’t matter. The customers who decide to stay are all hilariously, but not quite cartoonishly, awful inverting the slasher movie morality. Even though slasher movies have a set of rules you’re not supposed to break, you’re also supposed to have some sympathy for the victims. Here, you’re rooting for the killer from jump street. The only time I wasn’t on his side was when he killed a dog, but that happens off-screen and the dog is such a bad dog actor that, even though it’s supposed to be threatening the killer, can’t help but be vigorously wagging its tail the whole time. You guys, doggo is so happy to be in this movie! How can you be mad?

The inevitable deadmeats include a klepto fat kid who wanders around playing with a knife, some kids into “speed metal” that sounds like lite rock, a bike gang that’s lost all its members to middle class softness, and a retired general and his wife sitting in an RV. All the deaths are pretty hilarious including a trio of people getting crushed by a rolling truck that could easily stepped away from. There’s also a man on fire.

+2 points for man on fire.

There are clichés: the forest ranger is gruff, but has a sad past he’s trying to cover up, Mitchell’s son is suspected of being in it for the money but is actually hoping to protect the forest, there’s a love interest you couldn’t possibly care about, lather, rinse, repeat. The movie doesn’t really innovate in any way, but the enthusiasm with which it pursues its clichés and cheapness is really endearing.

This comes at the end of 80’s direct-to-video/made-for-TV glory and it’s clear that this was intended for broadcast in the Saturday afternoon slot or on USA Up All Night. The movie is completely TV-safe despite its plot which is the big clue as to what the producers intended, and I love it. I unabashedly love this movie. It’s probably one of my favorite flicks in any of these sets.

This was the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched it and, fourteen minutes in, I started laughing at how bad it is. Still. And this is a movie where the first death doesn’t happen until nearly halfway through. Normally I’d complain about it being a failed slow-burn or not knowing what it was trying to do, or being a crass attempt at being a genre picture—and it is—but it has just the right mix of competence, ineptness, and straight-up weirdness, that it never fails to delight me. Memorial Valley Massacre is pure Bull Dada and it’s what I hope all these movies are.

Friday, April 21, 2017

163. Beyond the Moon and 164. The Gypsy Moon

163. Beyond the Moon (1956)
164. The Gypsy Moon (1954)
Director: Hollingsworth Morse
Writer: Warren Wilson
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

The start of the Rocky Jones saga sees the titular space ranger travel to Ophecius and discover a plot to undermine the United Worlds. Then he discovers two planets traveling through the galaxy together, locked in both orbit and battle putting Rocky and the United Worlds at great risk.

And let us return once more to the endlessly soporific adventures of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Or not. Want to say not? Well, I already watched them, so, I mean it’d seem a waste not to.

Beyond the Moon and the unfortunately named Gypsy Moon are the first two Rocky Jones adventures comprising the first six episodes of the series and they’re kind of interesting for how they represent two of the goals of children’s media at the time: indoctrination and education, respectively.

Beyond the Moon introduces us to Rocky Jones and the setting of the United Worlds. Professor Newton has seemingly defected to the hostile Ophecius Group, but poly-linguist Vena thinks he’s been taken against his will. Rocky, Winky, and Vena go to Ophecius to find Professor Newton and his nephew Bobby. It turns out they are being held prisoner. Ophecius wants Professor Newton to replicate United Worlds’ technology for their forces. The leader, Cleolanta, hypnotizes Bobby and uses him as a bargaining chip against the Professor. She tries to capture Rocky as well, but the whole group escapes. They learn about a mole operating on the United Worlds and Rocky defeats him.

This first Rocky Jones story is a little dull, but not so bad as the some of the later ones. The big issue is how much it just drips with the 1950’s—casual sexism and Commie paranoia. The United Worlds are a pretty obvious stand in for the US and the Ophecius Group is the Soviets. On top of that, the whole story is built around two ideas: fear of the enemy within and that those who say they support the enemy don’t know their own minds. They may say they support it, may even make coherent arguments, but they either don’t believe or know what they’re saying.

Granted, this tracks with paranoia in general. Look at how quickly political criticism in the US reverts to labels of traitors or that the opposition doesn’t know what they’re actually advocating, regardless of either side’s politics. What its role in Rocky Jones highlights is how the media then was training kids to be ready for these kinds of arguments against the Soviets and Communists whereas today, in our culture of polarization and anti-politics, this rhetoric is directed at our fellow citizens.

In fact, watching all these pieces of Cold War culture, the US’ victim complex, the visceral need we feel to paint ourselves as embattled becomes clearer as does the way that narrative breaks down once you no longer have the ostensibly equal or greater threat to push back against. In Rocky Jones, the United Worlds has the technological edge, but Ophecius has the propaganda/domination edge. Neither side is in a place to pursue military action against the other so it has to be war by other means

In the age of the War Against Terror, we’re repeating those narratives of existential threats and enemies within, of competing world views and ideologies that allow no space for compromise, but there’s no easy symbol for villainy, no primary leader we’re pushing back against. The narrative of fighting terror is of liberating people from the oppressive forces that also co-opt them. Look at the way we talk about Syria—45 bombed an air base because of the suffering of Syrian children, but can’t allow Syrian children into the US because Syrians are the terrorists. Narratively, the very people we’re trying to save are the ones we mark out as the threats. When we think about the fact that this whole enterprise is being run by people who grew up on media like Rocky Jones, pieces of not-quite propaganda that instilled a narrative of a singular, massive force that needs to be pushed back against, is it fair to wonder if part of the global situation is due to the fact that the ruling class doesn’t understand what kind of story they’re in?

Hey, look at all the rabbits at the bottom of this hole!

So, this first one is interesting as a cultural artifact, as an example of kids’ media as moral instruction. The second one, The Gypsy Moon, takes the other route of desperately trying to convince the audience that the show isn’t just a crass attempt to sell Rocky Jones-branded toys to kids but is actually educational. It’s also the one that goes full-bore in giving the kid a role in the story so that kids can see themselves in the picture. Golly gee, what fun! Feed me Liquid Plumber!

Rocky and his crew encounter a strange atmospheric belt following a moon that’s drifting through space. That implies that there’s another moon traveling with it and they’re sharing an atmosphere. Boy, science fiction was fun before they worried about any of that science stuff! They encounter a plane within the belt that tries to attack them, but cannot follow Rocky’s ship into space. In hopes of learning what the moon’s situation is, Rocky and his crew land to try to talk to the inhabitants.

Meanwhile, and serving as the framing device throughout the movie, Bobby is being forced to read The Odyssey. He doesn’t want to because it’s poetry and what’s a Space Ranger need with poetry? Insert didactic defense of reading the classics, followed by overt references to The Odyssey with the story clearly being built around the events of the book.

So Rocky uses his ship as a Trojan Horse to enter the city, they travel to the companion moon where they face a Siren-like threat, and finally return home where Rocky is presumed dead so they disguise themselves to learn what’s really happening in town. All these elements are preceded by Bobby giving a, “Golly, this is just like in The Odyssey” speech laying out the plot points.

Make no mistake, this is peak “the Goddamn kid” material. His role is teeth-grindingly bad making the worst moments of Wesley Crusher shine with subtlety and sartorial brilliance. It’s a product of people who have contempt for or actively hate children writing children and I hope I don’t have to say it’s really awful.

Which is maybe what makes this the most enjoyable of the five (Jesus, five) Rocky Jones movies I’ve watched. I commented on the fourth one, Manhunt in Space here and the third and seventh ones, Menace From Outer Space and Crash of the Moons here. The Gypsy Moon is the only Rocky Jones movie that feels legitimately hilariously bad. Not only was I cracking up the whole way through, there were constant opportunities for really risqué, and I mean downright foul, riffing. Everything sounded like a double entendre and I couldn’t hold back.

In the end, they’re both recommends in their own way. Beyond the Moon is interesting in how naked the indoctrination is, how clearly it’s trying to prepare kids for a certain kind of thinking, but also how clearly it’s not thinking about that. The movie is this way because that culture was the air they were breathing—these are the kinds of stories you tell. Other stories, other ways of thinking about conflicts and relationships literally didn’t make sense. As for The Gypsy Moon, it’s begging for a savaging. I didn’t even mention that it has both legitimately good set design at different points and downright Dobbsian faces on some of the characters. It’s one to share with your bad movie friends.

Unfortunately, all the Rocky Jones material is under copyright, specifically in these film forms, although I can’t imagine anyone’s making any kind of money off them. Copies aren’t hard to find, though. GFE and all that. This should be the end of Rocky Jones movies for me. I don’t think any of the other movies are in the sets I have, although I do apparently have three of the four films in Alfonso Brescia's sci-fi series so look for a group post about those soon.

Friday, April 14, 2017

162. Manos: The Hands of Fate

162. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Director: Harold P. Warren
Writer: Harold P. Warren
From: Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (via Netflix), Rifftrax, Rifftrax Live

A family on vacation takes a wrong turn and ends up at the Valley Lodge, a home owned by the mysterious “Master” and seen over by his servant Torgo.

The movie that there’s very little to say about because its reputation exceeds anything that can be said. One of the contenders for worst movie ever made, it entered the public imagination due to being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its fourth season. Since then, it’s become a midnight movie staple and a cult sensation with various theater adaptations being produced.

There’s nothing to be said about the plot because nothing in the movie makes sense. The story of the film is that Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, made the film on a bet, and the result is a train wreck that rivals The Room, Samurai Cop, Birdemic, and the films of Neil Breen for sheer incomprehensibility. I dreaded this movie coming up in the list because I didn’t want to watch it. I ended up going back to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

You don’t need me to tell you about the movie because you already know about it. What’s new, though, is the launch of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11 today on Netflix. I chipped in to the Kickstarter campaign in the winter of 2015 so, as a backer, I got to see a preview of the first episode. So rather than talk about Manos, I’ll briefly mention my thoughts on the reboot and then be on my way.

I have thoughts about the relaunch itself, what they’re aiming to do with the property, and these Kickstarter campaign in general, but that feels like a longer essay about the marketing of nostalgia, returning to the well to try to squeeze out a little more from the fans, and the corrupting effects of branding in general. Though I don’t feel like I’m ready to write that essay yet. It would take some more time than I have right now and my thinking may change as I get to sit down and watch more of the new season.

As for the reboot itself, it’s good, I liked it. The show looks fantastic, I can clearly hear the voice of head writer Elliott Kalen in the riffs (which is to the good since I’m a fan of his sense of humor), and it’s obvious the show is incorporating elements of Cinematic Titanic both in terms of using the entire space of the screen during the riffs and in what’s being done with the films at the end of every episode. That means they’re expanding the idea of what can be done with riffing and learning from how post-MST3k projects engaged with the form. I laughed at a lot of the jokes, thought the cast rose to the occasion, and was really happy with this overall.

There are choices I take issue with. The biggest is that each episode is nearly or exactly 90 minutes long. One of the advantages of being produced for online distribution is you don’t have to edit—the work can be as long as it needs to be. Instead, it’s clear that the movie for the first episode has some significant chunks taken out of it which gives the show the abruptness of MST3k: The Movie. Furthermore, because the episodes are short, the host segments get cut short as well. The first host segment is a rap about monsters which runs as long as it needs to, but every other bit feels really quick and truncated. There is plenty of time for these gags, but the show isn’t using it.

On top of that, there are obvious commercial break moments including show bumpers. Granted, I think the bumpers they have are good and speak to the Saturday morning kid show tradition that MST3k ultimately draws from. Plus, there is the structural challenge of how to move from riffing to a comedy bit without the excuse of a commercial interruption already moving you, visually, into a new format. It’s an interesting stylistic choice that I think works, but only if you’re going to have this on broadcast TV. I think that’s why the bumps are there, so that this season can be sold in syndication if/when Netflix stops carrying it. That seems at once both lazy and greedy, like they’re preparing to be able to sell this in every format they can imagine right now instead of tailoring the show to whatever channel they’re trying to distribute it on.

I almost called the show the “product” there, which is another issue.

Kinga Forrester, the new Mad, is bringing the show back to license and market it in as many ways and on as may platforms as possible. I like that as an idea: we move from the trope of mad scientists doing experiments for nebulous purposes to a megalomaniac intent on revenge and world domination to a marketing person mad with power. The problem with that concept, though, is that’s exactly what Joel is doing. The whole Kickstarter campaign was about bringing MST3k back so they could keep making and selling new episodes. A lot of the messages he sent during production detailed how they were working on the branding angle and asking backers what kind of MST3k-related products we’d like to buy. Would you like a Crow plushie? What about an SOL-based video game? During the post-preview Q&A, he mentioned a comic book coming out from Dark Horse comics.

I don’t get the sense from the show that it has an ironic perspective that it’s making fun of the very thing that it is, that there’s a knowing wink to the fans that part of loving a show is loving the brand and picking up tons of ancillary products. Instead, it feels like it’s all in earnest, that all the effort is about getting as much money as possible from every angle possible. I don’t object to people getting paid, but when is it enough and how much is this show that’s been profoundly influential for me diminished by this effort?

Gee, I wonder what the “long” essay would have looked like.

Bottom line, the show’s good, I’m glad it’s back, and I’m enjoying what I’m seeing on screen. I just wonder why it came back and what they intend to do with it now that it’s here.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

161. Superchick

161. Superchick (1973)
Director: Ed Forsyth
Writers: Gary Crutcher from a story by John H. Burrows
From: Cult Cinema

Flight attendant and karate master Tara B. True has a man in every city, but when some thugs threaten one of her lovers if she doesn’t help them in a heist on one of her flights, it’s questionable whether she’ll come out on top this time.

This is a Marimark production. I didn’t know it was a Marimark production until the very end. I initially thought it was going to be one, but somehow convinced myself it wasn’t, and then it was. Ironically, I had planned on watching this for April Fools’ Day assuming then that it was a Marimark production, thus the joke being on me. I fucking hate Marimark.

This is the company that produced The Beach Girls, Coach, and Galaxina, some of my most hated movies so far (and, to be fair, Hunk, one of the ones I enjoyed). Superchick is the earliest Marimark film I have and clearly set the standard for all the others that followed.

That standard is the same one The Asylum of Sharknado fame uses for their films: take an idea that’s successful, make a cover that looks close enough to that idea, and make people pay up front. The idea Superchick is selling is The Stewardesses meets cheap karate film.

The plot: Tara is an uber-sexy flight attendant. She’s so sexy that she has to disguise herself as a dowdy prude while on the job because, when she didn’t, as she says, “even the automatic pilot made a pass at me.” Her route takes her to New York, Miami, and Los Angeles and she has a lover in each city. In New York, it’s brain surgeon Ernest who shares a sophisticated, high-class life with her, but never touches her due to his germaphobia. In Miami, it’s gigolo Johnny who helps her indulge in fun, sun, and lots of sexy times. Finally, in LA, it’s rock star Davy who sends her to all the hippest underground parties in town.

You’d think the story would be that the three men would find out about each other and conflict would ensue, but you’d be wrong. Instead, Johnny has a gambling debt and the crooks he’s in the hole to want him to convince Tara to smuggle guns onto a flight so they can use them to rob a mobster transporting money from mafia casinos. This plot doesn’t matter, though, because it’s delivered in drips and drabs, isn’t fully articulated until about an hour into the movie, and is resolved in under 5 minutes.

So we don’t have jealous lovers, we don’t have her facing off against a criminal enterprise, surely the only thing left for the movie to focus on is the sex comedy aspect—a series of bawdy set-pieces that may not age well, but are there for easy nudity and burlesque-style puns. If you’re thinking that, you have forgotten that this is a Marimark production. The rest of the film is padded out with footage of driving, parking, and indulging in various touristy activities.

The reason I harp on it being a Marimark production and the reason I’m kind of harsh on their films in general is because there are legitimate moments of wit, cleverness, and invention. Their movies always look good so they have people who know how to do the basic work. On top of that, they get relatively competent actors. For instance, this movie has John Carradine in a goofy cameo and he camps it right up to the skies. Finally, some of the jokes land. I laughed out loud several times, halfway due to shock at a joke being legitimately funny. All these things point to the kind of movie it could have been while simultaneously reminding you of exactly the movie that it is.

I could go into the gender politics of these films, but there’s no point. They don’t even rise to the level of being political because they’re so boring. Marimark, the company that never fails to disappoint, sinks to the task again. Clearly, this isn’t a recommend and it’s not worth looking for even to make fun of. It’s putatively a comedy—how do you make fun of a comedy?

While I have a little under 200 more movies to go through before this project is done, I’m more disheartened by the thought that I have 8 more Marimark productions ahead of me. Save me Bob.

Friday, April 07, 2017

160. Bell From Hell

160. Bell From Hell aka La campana del infierno (1973)
Directors: Claudio Guerín and Juan Antonio Bardem
Writer: Santiago Moncada
From: Chilling

A young man’s aunt is scheming to have him declared insane so she can claim his inheritance, but he has plans of his own.

I hope you have a good supply of “WTF movie?” cause this is going to use up a lot of it.

The plot is pretty straight-forward. John is being released from the sanatorium that his aunt had him committed to five years before. She did it to prevent him from squandering the money he inherited after his mother’s death. He’s only released on probation, though, and is facing being committed for life if his aunt and her daughters claim that he’s insane. He’s not interested in proving his sanity—he wants to take revenge upon them all.

The revenge involved inviting them all to the old family house where he leaves the aunt to be stung to death by bees and then ties up and potentially rapes each of his cousins. I say “potentially,” because I’m not sure if material was cut from my version. We only see him assault the third sister, but it feels like the movie’s implying that this is what’s going on.

By the way, get a fistful of WTFs ready, cause this is when you need it: rape and incest are topics of lighthearted discussion throughout this movie. The grounds for John’s initial institutionalization was his eldest cousin’s claim, which the movie never makes clear if it’s true, that he raped her. His youngest cousin jokes with him about it, suggesting he rape the middle sister before she gets married and asks when it’ll be her turn. By the way, this isn’t her being sadistic, this is her flirting with him. When he starts enacting his revenge, there’s a level of consent from the sisters themselves. Eww.

On top of this, earlier in the film, John pulls a prank on his neighbor where he makes her think he’s plucked out his eyes. She faints, he carries her into her house, and then musses up her hair, takes off her panties, and leaves a note implying that he raped her even though he didn’t, cause, LOL. On his way home from there, he encounters her husband leading a group of hunters who have stranded a young girl in the middle of a lake. They attempt to gang rape her, but John shows up and chases them all off with his motorcycle.

Yeah, a whole lot of, “what are you doing, movie? What are you even doing?”

He takes the sisters into a secret basement that he’s fashioned into a slaughterhouse, hangs them naked from meat hooks, and prepares to butcher them but loses his nerve at the last minute. He’s distracted by the neighbor coming to ask him if he’d actually done anything to her and he says no, promising to explain everything to her husband the next night.

After she leaves, he goes to check on his aunt’s body, but it’s not there. She springs forth, swollen and disfigured by the bees, and John runs off only to get caught by the husband/rapist. The aunt and the rapist have John tied to the bell the local church has just installed where he’ll serve as a counterweight and seal him up in the wall. The next morning, the bell is rung for the first time and John is presumably killed. The family returns to the house, but the youngest sister refuses to join them because of what they’ve done and her sympathy/affection (?) for John. That night, the rapist sees lights in the house, goes to investigate, and gets killed in John’s final trap. THE END

A truly revolting film. The central concept, John trying to get revenge for being institutionalized/aunt and daughters trying to steal his inheritance, is a solid one. There’s real potential for a nice cat-and-mouse game, points of one-upmanship, and plots and counterplots, but that doesn’t happen. It takes about forty minutes for the aunt and daughters to get to the house and then all the drama and revenge take place in the next fifteen/twenty minutes. John’s plan fails and he’s getting strung up when there’s still twenty minutes left in the movie. So the majority of the movie doesn’t have any plot happening at all.

Then add all the rape and incest elements. Rather than try to make the audience uncomfortable with tension or misdirection or the moral ambiguity of both sides being kind of evil, it aims to discomfit via taboo. And like a cut-rate comic sneering, “does it offend you, does it offend you?” it only leaves you wondering why they’re so invested in it. It’s not offensive, it’s weird and it feels like these elements are only in the movie because the producers couldn’t think of anything else to do.

Which sums up the movie, nothing thinking of what to do. There are some artful/pretentious touches, but they don’t come to anything, and seeds that are planted—like opening with John making a cast of his own face—have not even a perfunctory payoff. Obviously, it’s not a recommend. Take your pick as to why. I wouldn’t even suggest this for riffing because the content goes so far off the rails. This may have been public domain at one point, but is currently protected under GATT. Except for some admittedly artful shots, nothing’s been lost.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Story Slam: I Dare You

After seven months, I finally return to the Story Slam stage with a variation on a story I told nearly five years ago. Since my 20 year high school reunion is next year, it only seems fitting to return to the capstone story of my high school experience and talk about being the lookout as my friend hung a banner off the school roof.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

159. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter

159. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
Director: William Beaudine
Writer: Carl K. Hittleman
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org

Outlaw Jesse James, while seeking out a doctor to remove a bullet from his friend, winds up at the castle of Dr. Maria Frankenstein who is obsessed with continuing her grandfather’s work.

I was going to write this up highlighting how it was being posted on April Fools’ Day, but that the joke was on me since watching movies like this was my life. Then I couldn’t even find the time to write this up because I was too busy grading student papers—the thing that actually is my life. So I put a placeholder post here naming and linking to the movie in case any of you visit regularly looking for these things, and it got more hits than my fully-composed posts.

Y’all… I mean… C’mon… Am I watching films like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter for nothing? Well, in literal terms, yes because there are no ads associated with this and it’s completely divorced from my paying work, but… Look, this is a passive-aggressive way to pressure you into sharing these posts with your friends, alright?

Not that “nothing” isn’t an appropriate summary of the film.

In brief, Dr. Maria Frankenstein, granddaughter of the famed Frankenstein, has fled to Mexico with her brother Rudolph to continue their grandfather’s experiments. Meanwhile, Jesse James gets caught in a frame-up with his partner Hank, leaving Hank shot. Jaunita, a woman from the village the Frankensteins have been doing their experiments in, agrees to lead Jesse and Hank to the Doctors for help. Maria decides to use Hank as her final test subject, succeeds, but at the last minute, of course, Hank turns on his creator and then is killed by Juanita. Jesse leaves with the Marshal that’s been hunting him, presumably to hang for his crimes. THE END

Now, I said, “in brief,” but that’s a lie because that implies I left things out of that description. There is nothing else to tell except a love triangle subplot between Juanita, Jesse, and Maria. There’s nothing here, not even padding. I mean, I’d previously described Hell on Wheels as “Padding: The Motion Picture,” so it’d be a fitting double-feature with this, Exposition: The Motion Picture.

We open on Juanita and her family discussing leaving the town now that all the children have died due to plague. Then we cut to the Frankensteins having a failed experiment and explaining how they’ve killed every child in the village and blamed it on a plague. Then we meet Jesse James and Hank, establishing their partnership and what’s happened to the rest of the James gang. From there, we meet another gang that’s called Jesse and Hank in for help and hear the story of the James gang again. And on and on and on. You could cut this into a tight, entertaining 30-minute piece a la Sandra Bernhard’s Reel Wild Cinema, but this is verges on 90.

This could be an entertaining short film, by the way. It’s competently filmed and acted, the set design is nice if a little cheap, and it hits the beats that it needs to hit. The only thing is, it only hits those beats and it never follows through on giving you want you want from something like this: either the monster rampaging through a space or a mob of villagers swarming forth to take their revenge.

It’s hard to even get behind a hero in this movie since the primary characters are Jesse James and Maria Frankenstein. One’s a murderous outlaw, the other is actively trying to take over the world. Hank and Juanita are the sympathetic characters, but the former gets gutted and the latter is relegated to being in love with and the love object of the two main male characters.

At heart, though, the movie’s boring. It’s so boring! Nothing happens, repeatedly. So it’s not a recommend, maybe not even as something to riff. The film is so empty that it’s difficult to find anything to make fun of. I watched the version from Elvira’s Movie Macabre, and, while she was able to insert the occasional good gag, I still had to play the movie three times to see all the parts I’d slept through.

On the upside, the movie is in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 version to archive.org. Maybe it could serve as raw material for an interesting editing project. I’d advise against actually trying to watch it for entertainment, though. If you already did because all I’d posted previously was the link to the video, April Fools.

Friday, March 31, 2017

158. Return of the Kung Fu Dragon

158. Return of the Kung Fu Dragon aka Ju ma pao (1976)
Directors: Chi-Lien Yu and Kang Yu
Writers: Ge-Sun Lee from a story by Yu-Yen Lin
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

Golden City, the capital of Phoenix Island, is overtaken in a coup led by an evil despot and his wizard assistant. 19 years later, the children of the rightful Emperor’s 3 great generals must find each other and help the Princess defeat the man who killed her father.

Happy April Fools’ weekend. To celebrate, I give you a film that I cannot understand. I did not know what was going on from moment-to-moment, who was who, or what anyone was trying to achieve. This is the most brain-meltingly confusing film I’ve seen since starting this project and the movie doesn’t even feature a monkey.

And Hell yes, that’s a recommendation!

The movie is 84 minutes long which I think is why I found it so confusing. It’s clearly cut from source material that is not 84 minutes long. We start with a voiceover telling us the tale of the three great generals of Golden City who have each developed and mastered a new form of Kung Fu. They serve the just and kind Emperor.

However, treachery! An evil and ambitious man wants the throne for himself and has a wizard working for him who has now recovered the Dragon Staff, which is a thing that does something, I guess. The voiceover doesn’t go into much detail. They trick the Emperor into going on a hunt where they kill him and then lay siege to the castle. The generals do their best to protect the castle and the Princess, but each is ultimately killed.

One, before dying, does manage to get hold of the Princess and is about to escape with her when his wife runs out begging him to save their daughter. He looks back and forth between his kid and the Princess, says something about honor, then literally flies away leaving his wife and child to die. I wish I had a clip of Black Dynamite’s dad that I could link here, but those seem to have been scrubbed from the Internet.

The general, just before dying, gets the Princess to a mystic who lives in the mountain so she’ll be protected. The mystic calls up a wall of fog that’ll block access to the mountain for a curiously specific 19 years, and raises the Princess with the help of his weird imp/goblin/fairy assistant who’s played by a little person.

19 years later, the despot is in power, has a daughter who’s a Kung Fu master, and has taken the former Empress as his bride. Yadda yadda. Princess comes down from the mountain, despot’s daughter is actually the daughter of one of the generals, and the sons of the other two generals are a local rogue and a member of the palace guard. They all find each other, recognize their roles due to tattoos they all share, and try their best to defeat the despot and his wizard. Strange elements come up like what the wizard’s magic is and when it actually works, a nearby demi-plane where the wizard can banish people but that the daughter can enter and leave at will, and a fight sequence that suddenly is occurring on a giant chess board.

The movie is bonkers and an absolute delight. I mean, I’ve barely mentioned a fraction of what goes on this movie. For instance, the wizard has an incredibly long beard that’s held off the ground by an assistant. Later, the wizard uses the beard to fight people. Let’s be honest: that’s all you’ve ever wanted from a movie.

This has all the absurd tropes of Kung Fu films including poor dubbing, over-the-top sound effects, and the merest pretense of a plot to justify balletic fight sequences. I did find the movie relentlessly confusing, mostly due to the editing and the way it seemed to be using cultural references that I am completely ignorant of. I’m not sure if this is a sequel and the opening was just reminding audiences of what went before, if this was cut down from a three-hour epic, or if this is a serial or TV show forged into a feature-length piece, but I guarantee you something got cut.

It’s such a hoot, though, and composed of all the things that make bad-movie watching so fun. I highly recommend it, riffed, straight, or half-asleep. The movie appears to be in the public domain so I've added an MPEG-2 copy to archive.org here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

157. Secret File: Hollywood

157. Secret File: Hollywood (1962)
Director: Rudolph Cusumano
Writer: Jack Lewis
From: Cult Cinema

A disgraced PI gets a job as a photojournalist for a Hollywood scandal mag, but realizes he might be involved in a deeper criminal conspiracy.

Maxwell Carter is a down-on-his-luck PI in Hollywood. He gets caught taking pictures of a man cheating on his wife and, as the two of them fight, the cheater pulls out a gun and a passer-by is killed. As a result, Max loses his PI license. Don’t imagine, by the way, that there’ll be any further consequences for a random person getting shot and killed. The only value this scene will have will be in how it’s echoed at the end.

Anyway, Nan Tor and Hap Grogan, a pair in charge of local scandal magazine Secret File: Hollywood, get an order from their superior telling them to hire Max. Hap runs a gambling ring and Max owes him $3,000, so they decide to use that to pressure Max into taking the job if he resists. Except he doesn’t. He signs on as a photographer for the magazine and then. . . disappears from the movie for a bit.

Instead, we see Hap and Nan working to manufacture celebrity scandals to turn into stories for their own magazine. Meanwhile, a TV pundit, the “Conscience of Hollywood,” is railing against magazines like Secret File: Hollywood saying they’re destroying lives and careers.

At this point, I started wondering if this was anti-paparazzi propaganda. It’s a bit of an odd thing to take a stand against, but this felt a lot like an overtly moralistic Ed Wood-style film (except semi-competent). From the tone, I expected the story to take an anti-Communist turn positioning these magazines and their ability to ruin careers as being part of a Communist plot. To be fair, when I say “I expected,” I mean, “I hoped in the deepest recesses of the dark, cavernous, cynical hole where my heart once was,” because that would be super campy and super fun. Unfortunately, despite Nan and Hap getting orders on reel-to-reel tapes, there’s no Communist conspiracy in the movie and no red-baiting at all.

The voice on the tape instructs Nan and Hap to go after famous director James Cameron (the name’s just a coincidence). The voice wants him caught in a compromising situation so his life can be ruined. Nan sends an aspiring actress to Cameron’s house to try out for a role and sends Max to surreptitiously take pictures. Nan takes the photos and uses them to blackmail Cameron. He pays, but they run the pictures anyway and, when his wife sees the magazine, she kills herself.

Now Max is back in the film. He and the actress are brought in by the cops and team up to try to take the magazine down. Nan and Hap were running the blackmail scheme without the voice’s permission, so he’s angry at them, and things start falling apart. Max breaks into Nan’s apartment, finds the tapes detailing all the plans, and sends them to Cameron via the actress. Max gets caught by Nan and Hap, though, and Hap tries to kill him. Max drives his car off a cliff and jumps free at the last second, killing Hap instead. As Nan hears the news of Hap’s death, the voice comes into her apartment and murders her. Max and the actress return to Nan’s place, get her last words, and rush to the TV studio where Cameron is about to confront the Conscience of Hollywood because, surprise, the Conscience was the voice. He’d worked with Cameron years before, had gotten in some kind of accident because of him, and had always wanted revenge. Honestly, it’s a lot of backstory to all come out at the end. Cameron and Conscience struggle, Conscience pulls a gun, gets shot himself in an echo of the initial shooting, and dies. Max and the actress leave to get married, because apparently there was something there, and the movie ends.

This is another one of those movies that’s interesting for all the things that it’s not. It’s clearly a 40’s/50’s-era pseudo-noir, except it’s from 1962. It’s obviously going to say that tabloids are a Communist front, but Communism never comes up at all. The PI is going to immediately figure out something’s fishy and start working to turn the tables on his bosses, but he actually just disappears for the first half of the movie. I guess you could give the movie credit for subverting expectations, but it so rarely meets any expectations that it never has the opportunity to subvert them.

Overall, the movie feels half-baked, like there was a germ of an idea that needed just a touch more time to develop. “A blackmail ring using a tabloid as a tool. Great idea! What will we do with it? Oh, we’ve already started shooting.” Or, “A disgraced PI gets sucked into the seedy world of tabloid journalism. Great! And? Oh.” Even the movie’s message isn’t completed. When the Conscience of Hollywood rants about celebrity tabloids, that’s the movie pausing to tell you it’s moral message. The movie’s literally going, “Hey, audience! This is what the movie’s about.” When the Conscience turns out to be the mastermind behind the tabloids himself, the message is seriously muddled. Was he making that claim just as a cover? Is Hollywood so corrupt that even its moral scolds are in on it? Are the moral scolds themselves no different from the gossip they condemn? What are you trying to say here?

The core idea is fine. I’d even like to see a story about celebrity gossip magazines that really played with the layers of artifice—the magazine manufacturing scandals, celebrities and their publicists manufacturing scandals, the scandals or threat of scandal being used as blackmail. That seems compelling and potentially a layered and nuanced story. It’d have to be set before TMZ, of course. Nothing kills the titillation of gossip like gluttony. “Want celebrity secrets? Here’s all of them! And here’s us snickering over developing the story! Nothing entertains like seeing the sausage get made.”

The movie itself is watchable enough, but it’s nothing special. It’s really stripped-down and never goes as far as it could or as far as you want it to. It’s neither in the public domain nor, if a cursory Googling isn’t misleading me, readily available online for free the way a lot of these are. I can’t really take a stance on recommending it either way: it’s not good enough to hunt down nor bad enough to avoid. If you want an instructable on where to push a story further, it’s useful. Otherwise, there are other films to watch.