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 Invastion

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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

156. Moon of the Wolf

156. Moon of the Wolf (1972)
Director: Daniel Petrie
Writers: Alvin Sapinsley from the novel by Leslie H. Whitten
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

When a young woman’s body is found in a Louisiana swamp, the local sheriff initially thinks he’s dealing with wild dogs. After the doctor’s autopsy, though, he suspects it’s something more sinister.

This is a slow-burn, made-for-TV, werewolf cheapie, but not too bad for that. I say “slow-burn” because there are very few werewolf deaths. The first one happens off-screen before the start of the movie—the young woman, the Laura Palmer of the picture if you will—and the second and third happen halfway through. In the interim, the class and social dynamics of this small Louisiana town are built up.

The sheriff is investigating the death as a murder. He suspects the real backwoods guys who found the body, the woman’s low-class brother, and the doctor who told the sheriff she was murdered. Turns out she was pregnant with the doctor’s baby. He wanted her to get an abortion, she wanted him to run away with her to another town where no one would know them.

That detail makes the movie interesting. They couldn’t have a relationship in the town, that would be scandalous, but it’s not said why. The movie makes it clear, though: they’re not from the same class. The doctor is one of the rich hill folk, she’s trailer trash living near the swamp. It’s not an issue that he’s married to someone or would bring shame upon himself for being in this situation, it’s that people are supposed to stay at their level.

The same dynamic is reflected in the sheriff and Louise Rodanthe, the descendant of the town’s founder who’s returned from New York. Her brother serves as town royalty, but wants to keep the reasons she’s back from getting out. She was living with someone she wasn’t supposed to (the movie makes it sound like a poor or working class person, but the vibe is that he was black), and, to make matters worse, he dumped her. Slumming is okay as long as everyone knows their place. Louise admits to having had a crush on the sheriff when they were in high school and he says it was mutual. Her brother, though, keeps subtly, but clearly, pushing the sheriff away, telling him to know his station.

And that’s what makes the movie interesting, the way class permeates it. Sure, it’s a werewolf story, but that seems so secondary to what’s happening in the town. Plus, it’s so rare that I see that kind of recognition of class in modern films.

This is a werewolf movie, though, and the werewolf part is pretty weak. One big reason for that is the movie itself isn’t sure if it wants to be a werewolf movie or if it wants to be a murder mystery that, *shock!* turns out to have a werewolf twist. The first victim’s father is a bedridden man who only speaks heavily accented French. He keeps saying “loup garou,” but everyone mishears it and doesn’t know what it means anyway. So, for the first half, the movie’s trying to keep it subtle, but giving a wink to nerdy werewolf fans like myself.

Then the second and third deaths happen—the victim’s brother and the guard at the jail holding him. The werewolf literally tears the bars off the cell when murdering the two guys. So now there’s no pretense that it’s a non-supernatural threat, but no one knows or suspects that it’s a werewolf so we’re twiddling our thumbs as the old man’s nurse mixes up some werewolf repellent that ends up effecting exactly who you think it would. The movie tries to give you red herrings, but any sense of these stories’ formula will tell you immediately who it is.

In the end, we get the werewolf going on a full rampage, and the makeup is adorably terrible. He looks like he’s dressed up as a Shih Tzu for Halloween. In an interesting twist, the sheriff, who’s been the main character throughout the movie, isn’t the one to defeat the monster. Instead it’s the monster’s final target, but even that has a twist that’s a little bit stupid.

Overall, it’s an all right movie. There are curious production elements—there’s little to no background music except when the obvious commercial breaks are coming in and it’s very clearly structured for that commercial-break rhythm—and there’s shockingly little werewolf in this werewolf movie. However, I had a lot of fun mishearing “Rodanthe” as “Rodan,” the kaiju, and was waiting for them to sprout wings and start laying waste to this tiny Louisiana town. The movie moves well enough that you won’t get bored watching, but isn’t so dense that you’ll miss something if it’s on in the background and you’re just half-watching. Certainly riffable, but okay on its own as well. The movie is in the public domain and there’s an MPEG-2 copy on archive.org, so it’s free to view.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

155. Manhunt in Space

155. Manhunt in Space (1956)
Director: Hollingsworth Morse
Writer: Arthur Hoerl
From: Cult Cinema

Rocky Jones and the United Worlds must thwart the plans of the evil Cleolanta and her interstellar pirates.

The second compiled serial movie for the weekend, this is three episodes of the TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger cut together into a feature-length presentation. Whereas Shadow of Chinatown was downright manic with its plot, this is glacially slow. So much so that it pauses in the middle for Rocky’s sidekick, Winky, yes, “Winky,” to sing a little song.

There’s not a whole lot of plot to relate. Space pirates hijack a ship carrying Rocky’s girlfriend which leads to Rocky not only saving her but uncovering the larger plot. Eventually he goes to the planet where the pirates are striking from, uses experimental “cold light” technology to make his ship invisible, and defeats the villains. THE END.

I’ll admit to not watching this one very closely. In fact, I watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version (avaible on Vol. XIV), and even then I drifted off periodically and didn’t bother rewinding. There’s not a whole lot here to engage with.

I mentioned in the last post that I didn’t like Star Wars: Episode IV because it stays too close to the style of the serials that it’s an homage to, but the reason Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon work and Rocky Jones doesn’t is the scale of the imagination. Patton Oswalt, in Talking for Clapping, refers to Star Wars as a “realm,” a space he could fall into and learn everything about. Not only did the Star Wars universe, through its presentation, invite people in, but there was a universe there to explore. While people may criticize the prequels (which is fair—they’re bad movies), they are evidence of that very scope of the universe. The prequels get into the political minutia of the setting, an impulse familiar to anyone who’s gone deep into Tolkien or played a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The adventure and spectacle is what draw people in, then the obsession and attention leads to a detailing of every element.

Rocky Jones doesn’t have any adventure, it’s just the politics, and not even interesting politics at that. There aren’t strange alien species for him to interact with, odd cultures and technologies for him to encounter, he’s just a bureaucrat making sure trade routes remain unclogged. He’s the rough-and-tumble, two-fisted traffic reporter giving you updates on the eights. There’s no adventure here.

And if you think I’m being unfair to the movie, there’s actually so little going on that despite the movie being the perfect length to play unedited in MST3k, they still cut it down, put an episode of General Hospital before it, and used their first host segment to make fun of that instead of the movie. Paste Magazine ranks this as the 143rd of 177 MST3k episodes, noting that compiled movies like this are very rarely good ideas. Even they, though, get it wrong by saying the movie is composed of two episodes of Rocky Jones instead of three. That’s how little happened here: even after editing the edited version of three episodes, it was still read as two bloated episodes.

Wikipedia says the movie is in the public domain, but I’ve found records for it on copyright.gov, so it’s definitely not. Not that much is lost. It’s easily found if you’re desperate to see it, but I’d recommend the MST3k version instead. That looks to be officially out-of-print at the moment, but the episode is streaming on Amazon and easy enough to find otherwise.

Friday, March 17, 2017

154. Shadow of Chinatown

154. Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
Director: Robert F. Hill
Writers: story by Robert F. Hill, additional dialogue by William Buchanan, continuity by Isadore Bernstein and Basil Dickey
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A shady criminal enterprise tries to take over Chinatown businesses but is constantly thwarted by a pulp writer and his tenacious reporter friend.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone. To celebrate your drowning in Lucky Charms, I give you serials. I know that’s a stretch, but the only material on these sets that I know is even remotely Irish is Naked Massacre and that’s not actually very fun. Or good. Or something I’m rushing to watch again. Instead, today and tomorrow will focus on two movies cut together from movie serials—each cut in their own way and facing their own problems.

First is Shadow of Chinatown starring Bela Lugosi, which is to its credit. In fact, initially, there’s a lot to this movie’s credit. It takes 6 whole minutes to have an openly racist stereotype—the koan-spouting Chinese manservant—and, apart from him, it doesn’t really have others. Sonya Rokoff, who seems initially to be the main villain, looks like she might be a Dragon Lady type or even someone doing yellowface, but, as her name indicates, she’s just a white woman wearing Chinese fashion. She’s also part of a business concern importing and exporting Chinese goods so there’s a reason she’s wearing that. I was nervous when I first saw her, but she’s not putting on an accent and then I caught the name. Let’s be fair: the movie was made in 1936—there was a better than even chance it would be cringingly racist throughout.

None of this describes the plot, though, which is always difficult with serials turned into movies. You either have a few episodes cut together with minimal editing so there’s a lot of bloat, or you have the entire serial cut into one feature so everything’s manic and confused. This is the latter.

So Rokoff works for an import/export firm and gets a note instructing her to sabotage the Chinese businesses in San Francisco because they’re offering too much competition. She calls Lugosi who’s involved with some vague mad scientisty thing and he, an expert of disguise, sends his gang members into Chinatown looking like locals to set off bombs, shoot off guns, and generally create an air of violence that scares all the tourists away.

Plucky society columnist Joan Whiting is investigating the events in hopes of getting promoted to full reporter. She asks her friend/crush, pulp writer Martin Andrews for help, but he blows her off because, *pfft* dames, so she investigates on her own and gets captured.

Thus we have the initial setup and boy did this serial get busy. She’s kidnapped, Andrews stupids his way into saving her, he’s the key suspect in all the gang activity then just isn’t anymore, Lugosi has a longstanding grudge against him, action moves to Los Angeles but never arrives there, Lugosi turns out to be a master hypnotist and then, in the third act, to be a master inventor as well and has bugged all of San Fran with his vi-coders, chase, chase, chase, double-cross, fight, fight, all baddies die, the end.

The original serial, I think, was supposed to focus on Andrews as the hero—a pulp novelist whose stories reflect the real-life adventures he leads. It’s not a bad trope, it worked great for Murder, She Wrote, but it doesn’t come across in this edited version because there’s no time to establish that he’s writing any of this down. The only hint we get is the cigar-chomping chief of police has Andrews under suspicion because the initial set of crimes matches one of his novels.

Instead, initially the movie feels like it’s making Whiting the hero. She’s the one who goes to investigate the crimes, she’s the one who engineers her own escape, and she’s the one who wants something—she’s the character with drive. Granted, there’s a bit of a Lois Lane/Clark Kent divide there where her curiosity gets her captured and Kent/Superman has to save her, but the joke’s always been that Clark Kent is a boring, crappy, unwatchable character. Lois is the one that does stuff. In fact, now that I think about it, how many Superman stories would actually have happened if Lois Lane hadn’t investigated and shown Superman that there was something that needed doing?

God, Superman’s a garbage character.

Anyway, that only plays out for the first act. The second largely sidelines Whiting as everything’s happening on a boat and the third involves the gang turning on Lugosi out of fear, but never getting around to telling the cops what his name is. It’s kind of hilarious the contortions the movie goes through to prevent people from saying his name. Of course there’s a dart in the neck right when someone’s about to say it, but you’ll have criminals monologuing, approaching the name, and then a distraction will happen in the next room and Lugosi will rush in to hypnotize the crooks. It’s a hoot.

Back to Andrews as the hero, though. You start to see the budget limitations in Lugosi as the villain. He’s not bad as the villain—unsurprisingly, he’s the best part of the movie—it’s just that he’s too many villains. He’s initially a hired thug who’s a master of disguise. Then he’s a master hypnotist and gang leader. Finally, he’s the big bad ultimate evil moving all the chess pieces around the board. It’s too much. I got the sense that these were supposed to be three stories that eventually evolved into facing off against this final threat as opposed to Lugosi being all the threats.

What’s interesting to me is how useful the serial story structure is for planning out things like role-playing games, but how disappointing I find it for movies and narrative. Shadow of Chinatown would make a great 1920’s pulp RPG. It’s noir and sneering and dames and you could write down all the plot points of this movie (or the original serial) and have a rollicking campaign. As a movie, though, as a continuous narrative, it doesn’t work because there is no throughline.

In a serial, everything’s about hitting the next beat, driving to the next cliffhanger, and stringing the whole thing along for as long as possible. It’s not surprising to me now that I don’t like Star Wars: Episode IV. The movie follows this format—it was pitched as a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon reboot—and is imagined as a serial. I grew up watching it on TBS so all the peaks and cliffhangers fit in nicely with commercial breaks. I loved it then, but once I saw it on the big screen in one go, I realized how much it didn’t work.

And very much the same here. There’s campy fun to be had—Andrews is your typical useless non-hero and the way things ramp up in the final act is very funny—but it’s nothing that stands out too much. It’s neither great nor terrible, but it’s short and if you’re in the mood to make fun of something, it’ll serve you well. The movie is in the public domain, but Mill Creek slimed my copy so I can’t upload it. There is, however, already a copy on archive.org for you to use at your pleasure.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

153. Liar's Moon

153. Liar’s Moon (1982)
Director: David Fisher
Writers: David Fisher from a story by Janice Thompson and Billy Hanna
From: Cult Cinema

A rich girl and a poor boy pursue a relationship over the objections of their parents, although a secret from their parents’ past may be the final doom for the couple.

The movie opens with no title card and a car driving down a road in not-quite black & white footage, not-quite sepia tone, and it’s clear we’re going to feel each and every one of these 105 minutes. A young woman goes into a doctor’s office carrying her baby and convinces her nurse friend to do something, but exactly what is kept a secret from the audience. We cut to 18 years later as Matt Dillon is working on his dad’s oil equipment. This is Jack.

Jack’s two friends show up and convince him to compete in the hog-catching contest at the fair that evening. Meanwhile, rich-girl Ginny is preparing for her Yale boyfriend to take her to the fair. Things go as you’d expect: Jack ends up soiling Ginny’s dress during the hog contest, similar missteps happen later, but he ends up finally making a good impression and she invites him over to dinner with her family.

When Ginny’s dad meets Jack, he calls Jack’s mother and tells her they need to work to stop this. No reason given and the movie plods along until Jack’s dad dies when a bunch of pipes fall on him. And honestly, to hell with this plot. The whole movie is yadda-yadda.

Parents conspire against the kids, kids figure it out, decide to elope at the 45-minute mark because their relationship isn’t what the movie’s about. They go to Louisiana because the fact that she’s 17 isn’t a legal barrier there. Gross, movie.

She gets pregnant, doctor calls Texas to check with her old doctor, learns that Ginny and Jack have the same father—Jack’s mom had an affair with Ginny’s dad and that’s where Jack came from. That’s why they were opposed to the relationship.

None of this, by the way, is revealed by the parents or their portrayal. Jack’s mom barely gets screentime. The thing driving the plot is a conspiracy between to characters who never speak to each other on screen. Well done, movie.

To be fair, this does lead to the funniest line in the movie, “In Louisiana, only a few things are illegal, but incest is certainly one of them.” It’s not supposed to be funny, but it’s hilarious.

In fact, the final act of the film descends into unintentional hilarity. The doctor says he’s legally obligated to abort the baby. Ginny leaves to talk to her prostitute neighbor to seek help getting sterilized so she can stay married to Jack because the important thing is that she get to keep screwing her brother. No, movie. No.

While she’s leaving to do that, the doctor gets an update from Texas that the couple aren’t actually related, that Jack’s mother had the records changed out of spite because Ginny’s dad dumped her. It’s too late, though, because Ginny is already getting surgery from the backwoods doctor. Jack finds her, surgery has gone wrong, rushes her to a hospital where she dies. All due to his mother’s pettiness. THE END.

What can I say except, “Ewwwww.” This movie’s gross, y’all.

Let’s put the incest plotline aside (and add that to the list of “phrases you never thought you’d read”), the movie’s politics are really gross. All the tragedy stems from women trying to have control over their own lives. At the root is Jack’s mom who goes to great lengths to have the records changed to say that Jack isn’t his father’s son. All because a relationship didn’t work out. Then you have Ginny, who’s underaged, and has been accepted to college in the north. She throws her future and comfortable life away because Jack wants to screw her, and she’s happy to do so. She even goes under the knife to make sure he can safely have sex with her rather than end the relationship. Because she does that, she dies.

Lest you think I’m over-reaching by saying the film has an anti-choice perspective, when Jack is trying to find Ginny, the prostitute tells him, “what she does with her body is her business.” Of course, the line is unintentionally ironic since Ginny’s doing this specifically so Jack can use her body as he wishes.

So in the end, the movie is about a bitter woman who wants to screw over an ex. This costs a girl her life, but that’s what happens when you try to take control of your own body. Ultimately, Jack is the victim as he condemns the parents with righteous scorn over having lost his rightful fuck toy.

What a garbage film. Even if you cut my gender-focused reading, it’s still garbage. The conflict hinges on a secret that’s never explored in the film. The parents are supposed to be working in tandem to undermine the relationship, but they don’t ever talk or scheme together on screen. If the movie’s about acts from the past impacting the present, why don’t we get anything about that past? Plus the movie’s really comfortable with incest. Yes, it turns out it’s fake-out incest, but the characters don’t know that so the movie’s taking the line of love conquers all, even sibling-screwing.

Surprisingly, it’s not a recommend. On top of everything else, it’s boring. It’s so boring. Here’s a curious thing, though. I just did a search to see if there are any copies online (of course there are) and immediately found one with both a title card and an alternate ending! There’s a version of the film where Ginny lives! That doesn’t mitigate any of the problems I have with the film, but it does suggest even the filmmakers didn’t know what they were making. What a pile.

Friday, March 10, 2017

152. Embryo

152. Embryo (1976)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Writers: Anita Doohan and Jack W. Thomas from a story by Jack W. Thomas
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org (widescreen); archive.org (fullscreen)

A scientist working on synthetic growth hormone develops a fetus from 15-weeks to 25 years-old outside the womb over the course of a few days. When she wakes up, she may not be entirely good.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a movie with bloody fetuses!

Rock Hudson plays a scientist who hits a pregnant dog on his way home one night and experiments on her fetuses. He’s using a special serum to accelerate fetal development and the one surviving fetus grows to a full-sized dog in under a week. It’s hyper-smart and learns things immediately (and is also a source of great dog acting. When the movie gets bogged down, doggo spices it up). Having succeeded with the dog, Hudson decides to move to human fetuses, failing to notice his dog murder another dog and hide the body. Apparently the process makes you evil.

He gets a fetus from a suicide victim, uses his process, and the 15-week-old fetus develops to a living baby in under a day. Then it continues to grow until it’s developing at the rate of a year a day. Hudson manages to stop the growth when she’s roughly 24 years-old, and then counteracts the side-effect of rapid aging by dosing her with a highly-addictive drug. He names her Victoria.

Like the dog, Victoria learns things immediately which leads to a hilarious scene at a party where she basically owns a couple of mansplaining sapiosexuals, but that’s followed up by her asking Hudson to have sex with her because she wants “to learn.” It feels very father-daughter and, just, no. After sex, she has sharp pains in her abdomen and learns that the aging effect has started up again. She does some research and learns that the only cure is extract from the pineal gland of a 5-6 month-old fetus. She tries to get it from a pregnant prostitute, but the extraction fails. However, Hudson’s pregnant daughter-in-law shows up right then.

The final sequence, which is hilarious but not supposed to be, Hudson and his son fight Vitctoria over the extracted fetus, and everything goes wrong in the most soap-operay way. I don’t even want to go into any details because it’s so good and nothing in the movie up to that point suggests that things will take that turn.

While the conclusion is absolutely bonkers and there’s great dog acting throughout, it gets kind of bogged down in the middle. The flick is 105 minutes long and it doesn’t need to be. In fact, we need to see her start aging and turning to drastic measures much sooner. The movie goes into a holding pattern while Hudson is educating her and then picks up speed again at the party, but that’s also where all the sex stuff comes in which is not okay.

The reason it’s discomfiting is that nothing up to that point in the movie suggests it’s going to have that kind of content. Even when Victoria first emerges and Hudson finds her walking around, yes, she’s naked, but he doesn’t pause to look at her, the camera is shooting from far away, and her hair is strategically placed. Rather than being a scene of eroticism and titillation, it’s a scene of vulnerability and demonstrates Hudson’s impulse to protect and comfort her. The party guests’ sexual aggressiveness (and jealously from Hudson’s sister-in-law who I’ve completely left out of this) comes as a shock, but, arguably, our experience of being shocked by it is supposed to mirror her shock. She’s never spoken to anyone but Hudson. While smart and very well-read, she’s functionally innocent. Then someone comes up and tells her how fantastic their humping is going to be.

Rather than play that up as a corrupting world pushing her into moral compromises which make her decisions at the end easier or this being a spot for her to start showing the secret evil within her, she proves to be very adept at flirting and kind of on board with all of it. As, apparently, are the rest of the party guests who are aware of these guys being creepers and laugh it off. Then she goes home and screws, essentially, her father, so she can have a proper fucking. Gross.

One of the archive.org sources describes this as a “retelling of the Frankenstein story,” which is it, but I felt more echoes of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. This is mad scientist pulp done with a 70’s aesthetic (and morality), and that’s the movie that kept coming to mind while watching this. Even the very beginning which features Hudson hitting the dog while driving immediately make me think of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Once Hudson learns the dog is pregnant, he calls his son to bring over lots of dog blood to keep the fetuses alive. The son brings his pregnant wife at her insistence and I was sure they were going to have an accident on the way over and her fetus would be the one they experiment on. While that doesn’t happen, they movie is not subtle with its foreshadowing, so you know something is going to happen to that fetus at some point. That it takes so long is really the movie’s failing.

Despite its flaws, or maybe because of them, the movie’s fun in a badfilm/seeing-is-believing way. It’s not quite entertaining on its own—it’s a slow burn at the start and then slows down even further in the middle—but it’s definitely riffable, especially when it goes into the sexual realm of wrong. There’s a real pleasure to be had in how much the film loses the audience at that point and just keeps going full-tilt until it crashes head-fist into the ending. That conclusion is such a delicious wreck. In that context, of laughing with friends, I’d recommend it.

This movie is in the public domain, but unfortunately Mill Creek vandalized my copy with their logo. There are two copies on the Internet Archive, one widescreen with better quality and one fullscreen that’s closer to what I saw. While the widescreen one is 4 minutes shorter, so something may be cut, and the text that appears at the start is in French for some reason, I’d still suggest that version. For your convenience, here is the text, in English:

Saturday, March 04, 2017

151. The Madmen of Mandoras

151. The Madmen of Mandoras (1963)
Director: David Bradley
Writers: Peter Miles from a story by Steve Bennett
From: Cult Cinema

A scientist developing a new bioweapon is kidnapped, but that’s only part of the larger plan for world domination developing in the South American country of Mandoras.

I’m not going to say much about this because it’s the original version of They Saved Hitler’s Brain. I’m not saying that was a remake, I’m saying they’re literally the same film. They Saved Hitler’s Brain took The Madmen of Mandoras and added about twenty minutes of new footage to the beginning so it could be played on TV as a movie.

The core plot is the same. A scientist developing poison gas is kidnapped. His daughter and her intelligence-service husband are met by a representative of the offending government and travel to the country. They find the scientist’s other daughter, and the whole family is kidnapped. Turns out the Nazis are behind it all and have kept Hitler’s head alive inside a jar. In the end, the Nazis die in flames, and everyone’s happy except Bill Kristol who thinks we’ve been cheering for the wrong side in this movie for the past 25 years.

To its credit, this version works a lot better than the remixed one, mainly because it’s a complete movie. They Saved Hitler’s Brain adds a CIA element that interrupts a lot of the first act and has no impact on the plot because all the new characters die. All the remix does is make the story more complicated than it needs to be by delaying a lot of the exposition. Also, it kills the only good surprise the movie has, that it’s Nazis running the show and keeping Hitler’s head in a jar.

The performance of Hitler’s head never stops being funny, though. I highly recommend just fast-forwarding until you see those parts.

Apart from that, not a whole lot to this film. It has that strange “waiting to be saved by a white man” thing going on. The town has been organizing a resistance to the Nazis and it’s all the locals who actually take heroic actions, but for some reason the camera’s locked on this bland cracker who accomplishes nothing. He arguably doesn’t even serve as an effective distraction so the real heroes can put their plan into action. I don’t know why the plot has to wait for him to arrive to jump off.

I did copy down two lines that seemed funny at the time but are just depressing today.
Nazis, surely a few fascists can’t upset the world.
I’m a very good police chief. I always obey orders most of the time.
Oh, time reopens all wounds and rubs lemon juice in them.

All in all, a pretty generic flick. It should be public domain because who could care about it, but it’s not. If you want to watch it, it’s not difficult to find and it’s fun enough to riff. It’s standard MST3k fare: useless white guy kept center stage while all the real adventure is happening elsewhere. To its credit, it did ultimately give us the phrase “they saved Hitler’s brain” which is enjoyable on its own without any context whatsoever.

Friday, March 03, 2017

150. Invasion of the Bee Girls

150. Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Director: Denis Sanders
Writer: Nicholas Meyer
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
Watch: archive.org

The State Department starts investigating the curious deaths of their scientists, deaths seemingly caused by exhaustion during sex. What the investigator finds, though, is a case of science gone mad.

State Department investigator Neil Agar arrives at a sleepy little town that houses State Department researchers doing weird experiments. One of their lead scientists was found dead in a hotel, apparently dying while having sex. Agar teams up with the scientist’s assistant/secretary/colleague who tells him the research compound is like a giant swingers’ club: everybody’s hooking up with everybody.

Meanwhile, more men die while having sex. It’s an epidemic sweeping the town. Naturally, this allows the movie a variety of brief nude scenes, each one closing with a rising buzzing sound.

To try to prevent further deaths, Agar, the Sheriff, and a representative from the lab hold a town hall and suggest that there may be a new form of VD going around so, until things are sorted out, everyone should practice abstinence. The head of the lab’s maintenance union stands up and objects loudly.

And I think I’ll stop there because this is where I stopped while watching the movie. I assumed this was supposed to be a joke, that on some, if not every, level, the movie is not serious. Is the whole thing supposed to be a camp comedy with lots of nudity? Are the characters supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to find the situations comedic? Initially it felt like the tone was aiming for titties and blown raspberries, but then the nudity seemed to fall away instead of it being like a boob comedy where everything inevitably leads to toplessness. The characters have ridiculous conversations, but they don’t quite rise to the level of parody or farce. Then there were the actual events of the plot, and that’s where I abandoned the idea that this movie’s a comedy.

Agar’s assistant is assaulted and nearly raped by a group of men.

This movie, about women being genetically mixed with bees and then killing men by having sex with them is 100% earnest. They’re making a serious sci-fi thriller here. When I realized that, any sense of fun I was reading from the movie disappeared.

I’d go through the rest of the plot, but there really isn’t one. One of the scientists is the “queen bee,” as it were, and is kidnapping the wives of the victims to put them in her transformation apparatus to turn them into her bee slaves. The transformation sequence is just another excuse for nudity, and excuses for nudity are things you’d think a movie about people dying while having sex wouldn’t need, but it’s just long and boring. There are a few good shots—the victim covered in bees, getting covered in wax—and they’re good because they are honestly strange and unnerving. The rest though, including the orgasmic moaning and self-caressing all the bee girls engage in after the process is complete, is the definition of tedium.

Somehow Agar figures it out. Literally. “Somehow.” Nothing in this movie moves from point A to B. How he comes to any of his conclusions or why the mystery leads him where it does is never explained. At the last minute, he breaks into the scientist’s lab to rescue the assistant. He shoots the big machine, grabs her, and all the bee girls burn to death. Cut to her house where, apropos of nothing, she’s chattering away like she never did in the movie and then the couple go to the bedroom to screw while bees visit the flowers outside. I’d say, “Implying that she’s a bee girl as well,” but this film implies nothing. It has no sense, no subtext, and no ability to present things subtly. THE END.

One of my notes for this is literally, “What the fuck is this movie?” It’s unintentionally funny until the rape scene which runs too long and is allowed to proceed just a bit too far before the hero arrives to save the day. And maybe that sums up the movie: just a little off and wrong in every way.

And that’s really disappointing because this could have been a lot of fun. It’s a really stupid idea and should have been pursued with campy glee. You might have been able to rework it as a sort-of sequel to The Wasp Woman which would have given just a bit more punch. And I could write about the weird gender politics of the movie which ultimately posits that when women want to have sex, something is very wrong and it could kill you.

I’ve thought about suggesting this movie to We Hate Movies for their “Side Order of Sleaze,” but it doesn’t even rise up to that level. This is actually supposed to be kind of sleazy—people are dying from fucking left and right—and it has long stretches with no nudity whatsoever. That’s the only reason you make a movie with this premise in 1973. I’m not looking for that, but I’d at least like to see one kind of joy pursued in the movie. Instead, it’s serious. . . about bee women fucking people to death.

This is one I’d suggest giving a pass. It’s in the public domain and there’s a widescreen, uncut version on archive.org here. I would have uploaded an MPEG from my DVD, but Mill Creek burned their logo into it, but it’s just as well.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

149. Hell on Wheels

149. Hell On Wheels (1967)
Director: Will Zens
Writer: Wesley Cox
From: Cult Cinema

Del is jealous of his brother Marty’s success, both as a race car driver and country singer, and starts repairing moonshiners’ cars to fund his own racing ambitions.

Country superstar Marty Robbins stars as Marty Robbins, the world’s greatest country singer and race car driver. We know how good he is at both because all the other characters in the movie are only interested in telling us how great he is.

Before you cry, “Gary Stu!,” as I did, let me note that Marty Robbins actually was a racing celebrity. He literally plays himself! That’s why it’s surprising that the movie’s so bad. The story of a person pursuing two dreams at once that don’t intersect would be plenty dramatic, but this movie avoids that. Instead, he’s already successful at both so the story has to be about something else.

Marty has two brothers, Del and Steve. Del is Marty’s mechanic who’s jealous of the credit and attention Marty gets, especially from Del’s girlfriend (the jealousy thread goes nowhere). Del feels that it’s his mechanical talents and brilliance that’s making Marty win the races, but that Marty gets all the credit. So after the race that opens the movie, Del quits.

Steve is a G-man working on busting moonshiners. They’re evil criminals, don’t ‘cha know, making that booze and stuff and driving fast all over the county. I don’t know how much of a concern moonshine was in 1967, but it is so strange to watch what is basically a pro-prohibition film from that period.

All three brothers have to be involved in the drama so, of course, Del is approached by some gang leaders who want him to work on their cars. The cars are used for running moonshine, but Del chooses to be ignorant of that and takes the job. The movie treats this as a huge moral compromise, but it’s hard to see how a mechanic being hired to work on cars crosses some moral line. Maybe that’s a reflection of the age we’re in. Back then, if you sold something that you knew could be used in a crime, then you were morally culpable for it. Now, in our age of mass shootings, we see how morally backward such a stance is.

Then nothing happens. The movie pauses the non-action periodically for a concert—not just Marty performing but an actual mini-concert featuring an opening act—or for undramatic racing footage. There’s even a pause in the movie where we cut to Steve addressing his officers about the dangers of moonshine which amounts to the movie stopping for a PSA from the ATF. I have the phrase, “Padding: the Motion Picture” in my notes, but this is what the director did.

Zens favored a variation of what Red Letter Media refers to as “shooting the rodeo,” a tactic involving filming an event that happens to be occurring near production and then incorporating it into the movie. Zens seems to make short industrial/promotional films and then use them as groundwork for a feature. So there’s The Road to Nashville that’s about a filmmaker meeting with various country stars to ask them to be in his movie, and they perform their songs: a movie built around music videos. There’s also The Starfighters (episode 0612 of Mystery Science Theater 3000) where nothing happens in-between industrial footage of jets refueling. In other words, he’s not padding his movies with stock footage, he’s padding his stock footage with a movie.

The same sense dominates Hell On Wheels. A scene starts, characters are interacting a bit, but the drama never advances. Instead every scene, the entire movie in fact, starts with the characters already at the emotional endpoint, and then it’s interrupted for racing footage or a concert. So while there’s a plot, there’s no story, and the whole thing feels like an excuse to profit off of promotional footage the director had already filmed.

So Del works for the gang guys, buys his own racing car, and wins his first race, beating his brother. Marty congratulates him (cause Marty is holy and perfect and has no flaws), confronts Del over his hostility, and then convinces him to quit working for the gang.

At the same time, the gang has decided there’s too much pressure from the ATF so they’re going to pull up stakes. Some thugs are sent to pick up the car that Del is working on and they overhear Marty talk Del into turning down future jobs. So in response they emerge with guns drawn and kidnap them both because they don’t want Del to turn down the future jobs that there won’t be?

They get tied up, escape, but Del gets shot in the process. Marty steals one of the moonshiners’ cars and is racing Del to the hospital, but is at once being chased by the other moonshiners and, unbeknown to anyone, heading for an ATF roadblock run by Steve. Cops catch the bad guys, brothers all help each other out, THE END.

There’s not much to say about it. In terms of plot, it sounds fine. Similar to The Manster, there isn’t any groundwork laid for who these characters are so we don’t see how they’re changed by the events of the movie. That means there’s no inherent drama: where the characters are at the beginning is where they are at the end. All of this adds to the Gary Stu sense of the piece. The only strong emotions people have are for how fantastic they think Marty Robbins is.

I’d compare this to something like Wild Guitar starring Arch Hall, Jr. That’s a movie about a naive young kid going to LA to become a musical superstar and… immediate does! That feels like a vanity project for Hall, Jr., especially since it was produced by and co-stars his dad, but it has a different sensibility. Whereas Hell on Wheels has everyone telling Robbins how great he is, Wild Guitar has everything going great for the characters—all the characters. The latter feels like a kid’s fantasy where, despite the struggles that come up, in the end we can all be friends and share these riches with each other. The former feels like a product of insecurity, like the central figure has to be told he’s worthy and everything else is secondary to that.

So Hell on Wheels is not a recommend. It’s dull and self-serving. The musical performances are interesting in their way. I’m not into country so some of the performances seemed like something done by aliens (the first band features a woman on guitar doing the strangest quasi-Riverdance thing I’ve ever seen), but even I could tell Robbins was a good singer. If you want a taste of the mid-60’s Country-Western scene, you could fast-forward to those performances, but your time would likely be better spent watching The Road to Nashville. Apart from that, there’s occasional fun to be had with the incompetent production, but not enough to justify the rest of the film.