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.

Friday, February 24, 2017

148. The Manster

148. The Manster (1959)
Director: Geroge P. Breakston
Writers: William J. Sheldon from a story by Geroge P. Breakston
From: Sci-Fi Invastion; Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org

A foreign correspondent in Japan is injected with a formula that gradually turns him into a two-headed monster.

Larry Stanford, an American foreign correspondent working in Japan goes to interview Dr. Robert Suzuki about the doctor’s theories about cosmic rays effecting evolution. The doctor says he doesn’t have anything ready for publication yet, but decides that Stanford would be the perfect subject for the latest version of the serum. Suzuki drugs Stanford and then injects him in the shoulder with the serum. Suzuki’s assistant, Tara, objects, but Suzuki dismisses her concerns.

Back at the newspaper, Stanford tells his boss how eager he is to finally go back to New York and see his wife. This is to establish the baseline of who he is and how the serum’s changing him. This, by the way, is the extent of that baseline: wants to go home, then doesn’t. He goes for a night out with Suzuki at a geisha bar, gets drunk, and hooks up with one of the geishas. Cut to a week or so later and Stanford’s editor scolding him for delaying his trip home and spending all his time drunk. Stanford angrily replies that he’s been dogging it for the newspaper all this time, he should get to enjoy himself before heading back home and settling down.

As Stanford becomes the monster, first his hand changes, then an eye grows in his shoulder (good visual there), which finally emerges as a separate head. As the change is happening, Stanford goes on several murder sprees, none of which he remembers or have any consequences. Just before the changes manifest, his wife comes to Japan to convince him to come home and catches him with Tara. He spurns his wife and then confronts her right after his hand changes, threatening her and saying he probably didn’t hit her enough when he was living with her.

There are ways to read that scene that don’t make him look bad and, to be fair, it doesn’t read as him actively threatening her so much as saying what he needs to say to make her escape. The reason it’s problematic is the problem with the movie itself: he’s not sympathetic. No, he never does anything to warrant the injection and everything that comes with it—the movie makes it explicit more than once that Suzuki’s earlier subjects volunteered for the injection—but we never see him before the change so he’s only a jerk, only selfish, only randomly lashing out at people. We’re told he’s changed, but we don’t see him change. Except when the head pops out.

Anyway, murder spree, cops on his tail, he, now in full mindless monster form, goes up the volcano to the lab (sound like The Revenge of Doctor X yet?). There, Tara and Suzuki have had a change of heart apropos of nothing. There’s literally no explanation for this. Tara has arguably fallen in love with Standford, but Suzuki’s remained deaf to her pleas and to the murders. All of a sudden, he regrets what he’s done and has prepared a new injection that should accelerate the change and split Standford into two beings—the human and the monster.

Standford breaks in, gets injected, kills Suzuki, and takes Tara up the volcano. As they reach the lip, the injection goes into effect, the two split, and the monster approaches Tara. Standford wakes up, attacks the monster, and is getting beaten when Tara tries to help. The monster grabs her and, as the cops show up, the two go over the lip of the volcano leaving Standford in his faithful wife’s arms. Paramedics take Standford away to heal and potentially stand trial for his crimes while the editor gives some crap monologue about the good and evil in all of us, ostensibly the moral of the movie. THE END.

The movie’s remarkable for being at once so short and so excruciatingly boring. It feels like it just keeps going. One problem is that it’s so expository. Like I said, we’re told he’s not the same person, but we never see who he was before. Likewise, we’re told about the murders, but we don’t see him commit the murders—this is a monster movie where you don’t see the monster attack people! On top of that is the lack of motivation for anything. Starting with the experiment, there’s no explanation of what Suzuki’s trying to do. It’s about how cosmic rays can make an animal give birth to a new species, but how that relates to what he’s attempting escapes me. All of it feels like the line from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie and that the movie’s set “when science didn't have to have any specific purpose.”

So we never establish the baseline from which things change and we don’t know what the characters hope to accomplish with this change, we only see someone kind of be a dick to his friends and then turn into a monster. The movie drops the ball on giving us characters and, since it’s so short, it’s a big mistake because they could have included those elements.

In the end. the effects are good in close-up, but laughably bad at a distance, which is a bit of a switch, and the concept itself is fine, there’s just no reason for any of it. As I said, it’s short, but still manages to drag. The movie is public domain, though, and I’ve uploaded an MPEG-2 here. Perfectly fine for riffing, even better for recutting to play with the monster shots. Apart from that, it’s curiously bloodless for its high body count. Lots of people get killed, each of them off-screen, none with particular consequence. That’s probably the best summary of the movie right there.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

147. The Hellcats

147. The Hellcats (1968)
Director: Robert F. Slatzer
Writers: Tony Huston and Robert F. Slatzer from a story by James Gordon White
From: Cult Cinema

After a narcotics detective is murdered, his fiancée and brother infiltrate the motorcycle gang he was investigating to find the real killer.

This is an easy one to write up: nothing happens. See you next week.

Okay, while that’s a justified review, it’s not entirely accurate. We open at the funeral of the former head of the Hellcats motorcycle gang. Two narco cops are watching and wonder aloud how the gang members would feel if they knew their boss was ratting them out. Hiding behind a gravestone are two mafia types who take note of the cops’ presence. When Sheila, the acting head of the gang, shows up late for a drug handoff to the mafia boss, the decision’s made to kill the lead cop.

After the cop’s death, his brother comes home from the war to comfort the cop’s fiancée. They decide to pose as biker types and join the gang. And they do. Forty-ish minutes later, the fiancée rides with Sheila and Betty down to Mexico to pick up some heroin. Betty hides it behind the headlight of her bike, but gets thrown while riding back and dies. Sheila sends a random member of the gang to break into the impound yard to get the drugs from the bike while she goes to talk to the mafia boss. The fiancée follows her, claiming she wants to make sure she gets her cut, and the brother follows the two of them.

The mafia boss is getting ready to skip town, has all three of the meddling kids beaten up, and takes the brother and fiancée with him to dispose of in the harbor. Sheila has escaped and called the Hellcats to come to the harbor for a rumble. They show up, save the fiancée and brother, and beat up the mafia types. Cops show up, everyone gets arrested, and the brother and fiancée go their separate ways: she goes home, and he returns to the road having found a fascination with motorcycles. THE END and PS. I make it sound way more dramatic and action-packed than it is.

This is a 100% snoozer. It’s not particularly camp despite the Hellcats being a weird mixture of Hell’s Angels, beatniks, and hippies, and there’s not much violence or tension despite it being about violent criminals smuggling drugs from Mexico. The majority of the running time is spent watching the Hellcats drink and party while generic 60’s rock plays in the background. And it’s always the whole song. The movie regularly stops to play another song that is completely forgettable.

If you absolutely have to watch it, check out the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it. This was the ninth episode of the second season and I honestly don’t know how they managed to riff it. There’s just a whole lot of nothing in this picture.

Friday, February 17, 2017

146. Fighting Mad

146. Fighting Mad aka Death Force(1978)
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Writers: Howard R. Cohen from a story by Cirio H. Santiago and Robert E. Waters
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A Vietnam veteran, betrayed by his comrades and left for dead, trains as a samurai in the hopes of one day enacting revenge.

Doug Russell is heading home from Vietnam with his friends Morelli and McGee when they stop off at the Philippines to deliver smuggled gold to a generic crime syndicate. While they’re riding a boat back to base, Morelli suggests McGee join up with him to take over the crime syndicates back home. McGee’s interested, but, for some inexplicable reason, they have to take Russell out of the picture. Russell has a wife and kid back home that he’s eager to return to so he won’t be interested in the plan. Morelli, who’s white, tells McGee, who’s black like Russell, to ignore all this “black revolutionary” talk about being brothers and take the deal.

I don’t know why they can’t pursue their plan without Russell. Maybe it’s a Musketeer's curse from a prequel where they have to do everything together or it won’t work at all. Whatever the situation, McGee, who seems conflicted, immediately helps Morelli stab Russell in the neck and throw him overboard.

The movie goes in two directions at this point. Morelli and McGee return to the States, somehow take over the entirety of LA’s crime scene by being more ruthless than the mafia that’s there, and McGee tries to get Russell’s wife to go out with him. She’s a successful lounge singer, but gets fired for economic reasons and can’t find a new gig. McGee keeps putting pressure on her to date him since he can take care of her. I think the movie intended for him to be responsible for her getting fired and remaining unemployed, but it failed to mention that. Also, I have to mention her kid.

Kid’s cute. He’s maybe 3 or 4 and has no idea what’s going on. I never say this about these movies, but give the kid more screen time. He’s adorable. Also, while I think several years are supposed to go by in the film, the kid never ages so it feels like everything happens over, maybe, two weeks.

Meanwhile, Russell has washed up on the shore of an uncharted island. He’s found by the island’s two residents: Japanese soldiers who think it’s still WWII. They take him in as a POW and train him to be a samurai because he wants to get revenge on Morelli and McGee. Things kind of hang out there for awhile. The situation on the island is silly because the two Japanese officers keep insisting on maintaining rank, but then Russell, as a POW, seems to outrank the second officer. Then that second officer, after 30 years of living on the island, falls off a ladder and dies. After Russell and the other officer bury him, a boat with unspecified militaristic ne'er-do-wells lands. The Japanese officer kills a few of them, but Russell surrenders if they’ll take him away. He tells them he was the only survivor on the island (which means they’re comfortable with him having killed their comrades) and they leave allowing the remaining officer to rule over the island alone.

Then he goes home, immediately meets a Japanese cab driver who becomes his assistant (I’d forgotten this part! Why are you still reading this and not watching the movie right now?!) and goes on a murder rampage until he manages to kill Morelli and McGee. While that’s what the movie’s about, it’s not nearly as interesting or entertaining as everything leading up to that point.

Do I need to say I love this movie? It’s a blaxploitation/mafia/revenge/samurai/vet-coming-home film. It even incorporates the then-recent news of stranded Japanese soldiers who were unaware of the end of the war. If I said this movie was made by adolescents, that’d be both inaccurate and unfair. While the movie is not excellently made, it’s almost competently made. However, if I said this movie was made with an adolescent mindset, that’d be the heart of my recommendation for it. This movie is the way it is because the producers sat down and said, “What’s awesome?” Then they put it all into a script.

So you have Russell becoming a samurai seemingly overnight, except he forgets all those instructions about avoiding violence and rejecting revenge. He’s such a good samurai that he’s able to defeat all sorts of goons with guns, yet he never advances beyond swinging the sword like a baseball bat. Likewise, Morelli and McGee somehow manage to out-think and out-gun all branches of the LA mafia despite it only being the two of them and they constantly arrive at ambushes together. It’s amazing.

And I’ll admit, I watched this awhile ago so my memory of the movie isn’t fantastic, even though I remember that the movie itself is fantastic. The only reason I mention that is because my notes include a line from the movie, “I had a son like you. He went off to become a Muslim,” and the note, “heads on spikes in front yard.” I don’t remember what these refer to or how they come up in the movie, but you need to know about them so you can understand the precise sort of exploitation excellence that this film acheives.

This movie is produced and presented with a real sense of glee, and that’s to its credit. The premise is fundamentally silly and, if it were pursued in earnest, would either fall flat or the movie would cut almost every element that makes the film fun. On top of that, it’s in the public domain so I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to the Internet Archive. This feels like it could be the sequel to Black Dynamite and is 100% beer-and-pretzel cinema. I recommend you grab it right now.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

145. Double Exposure

145. Double Exposure (1983)
Director: William Byron Hillman
Writer: William Byron Hillman
From: Pure Terror

A photographer suffering from extreme headaches and nightmares fears that he might be the serial killer operating in his city.

We open with a cop working undercover, in drag, as a prostitute. As he gets to his car, he’s stabbed in the throat and dies. His two partners get chewed out by the chief for screwing up, particularly the female cop. She hears complaints about how the chief should never have put a woman on this case and yadda yadda yadda. Put those cops in your back pocket because, while they’ll pop up again, they aren’t part of the movie. Hold tight to that lazy ‘80’s misogyny, though! You’re going to dipping back into that again and again.

We cut to a credit sequence that looks like crap of our protagonist, Adrian, running along a path. He’s a professional photographer who keeps telling his shrink about terrible nightmares he has. As he’s leaving his appointment, he corners a woman, Mindy, in the elevator, and is just a fucking creep. He keeps bugging her for a date even after she’s given him the brush-off, and it turns out he’s blocked her car in with his. It’s supposed to be charming, but it’s a total “get your mace” moment.

I’m not going to detail the plot, cause there is none. Adrian and Mindy start dating, but then she just disappears from the entire middle of the movie. Adrian’s brother, BJ, is a stunt driver who’s lost his arm and leg in a recent accident and is in financial trouble. We see Adrian murdering his models in unduly complicated ways, but then it turns out he only dreamed it, but then they’re actually dead in the way he dreamed it.

In the end—yes, I’m skipping everything, but absolutely nothing of consequence—Adrian takes a trip with Mindy in his RV, worrying that he is in fact the killer, BJ tells the cops where Adrian is, and then goes down to find Adrian himself. Mindy gets stabbed on the beach and, twist! BJ’s the real killer, re-enacting Adrian’s dreams, taking pictures of the corpses, and planting them at Adrian’s studio so he’d get the blame. All because when they were kids, BJ could hear their mom having sex through the wall so all women, particularly Adrian’s girlfriends and models are teases and whores that need to die. As he’s about to kill Adrian, Mindy runs up and stabs BJ in the neck with a broken beer bottle. Cops show up and everything is okay. THE END.

Ugh.

Ugh!

UGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

This one sucks! It’s so bad and it’s boring on top of it. The movie just keeps going. There’s no energy, no point, no conflict. It’s constantly pulling you back and forth: he’s the murderer, it was a dream, but the person’s actually dead, oop! Twist ending that doesn’t really work! And the picture is misogynistic. All the women are viewed through this leering, bullying lens. It’s not something I can detail or a set of examples I can list, the whole thing just feels like someone behind the camera is just repeating, “fucking bitches” over and over—like the movie shares the attitude of the murderer.

That should be enough to write this movie off, but let’s say I’m just being PC. There’s no driving force to the movie. Adrian never feels like the cops are closing in and he’s not even sure he’s the killer, so that’s not generating any tension. His victims literally pop up just for him to kill them so there’s no concern over those characters, cause they’re not characters. The cops aren’t part of this movie so their failure to find any clues doesn’t matter. All we’re left with is Adrian himself who we’re told to think is the killer, only he’s not a charming or interesting character, let alone monster. He’s neither Patrick Bateman nor Hannibal Lecter, but we’re stuck with him for 95 teeth-achingly dull minutes.

One scene did make me laugh-out-loud. One scene was good. In the middle, the exact middle of the movie, Adrian goes into his studio, looks at reflections of himself, and has a shouting match with them about whether he should call the cops. He spins away from the mirror and screams, “NOOOO!” It gave me quite a chortle. Otherwise, a real stinker.

For some reason, IMDB lists this as a comedy. It’s not. It’s just bad. It’s not even funny bad. The movie didn’t offend and anger me the way Cavegirl did, but it is exasperatingly dull. Skip it.

Friday, February 10, 2017

144. Iron Angel

144. Iron Angel (1964)
Director: Ken Kennedy
Writer: Ken Kennedy
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A group of soldiers serving in Korea are dispatched to take out an enemy mortar that’s blocking a supply route. After completing the mission, they meet up with a nurse who complicates their situation.

The Koreans have set up a mortar that’s preventing US soldiers from getting supplies to the line. A young Lieutenant is tasked with taking the mortar out before the next shipment goes through. He picks an older sergeant, Sgt. Walsh, and four men who’d served under Walsh because they were the only survivors of a prior encounter. The Lieutenant acts as though Walsh was a coward and did something treacherous to survive. When the Captain asks the Lieutenant about it, though, the Lieutenant admits that these five are the only ones who’ve seen any combat whatsoever.

And that’s the problem with the movie: the characters don’t have a consistent stance on how they feel about each other from the very beginning. You can’t have a character going, “You’ve coming with me so I can make you pay,” to, literally a minute later, going, “These are the only people I can trust.”

Walsh gives the list to the Corporal, an African-American, which is only worth noting because one of the other four is “Reb,” a racist that is constantly making comments about the Corporal. Later in the movie, the Corporal says Reb has people call him that so they’ll assume he’s Southern and thus won’t blame him for his racism, even though he’s actually from Iowa. That’s actually a clever character detail. The movie doesn’t do anything with it, though.

The other two men are generic war movie types—the devoutly religious and the young naïf—and all six of them, including the Lieutenant, go off to find the mortar, which they do relatively quickly. Walsh suggests someone sneak around back since they’re taking direct fire, but the Lieutenant accuses him of being a coward and commences a direct assault. Walsh tries to cover him, but his gun jams. The Lieutenant gets shot and Walsh runs forward to successfully complete the job. Reb fires off Walsh’s gun, demonstrating that it wasn’t jammed, and the Lieutenant, with his dying words, curses Walsh as a coward.

This is only the first third of the movie. The group has to rendezvous at a field hospital that they don’t 100% know the way to or if it still exists. On the way, they find a crashed Army ambulance with its nurse still present. She refuses to let them on board with their weapons because it’d violate the Geneva Conventions. Remember when Americans saw the Geneva Conventions as something to abide as opposed to a bucket list?

There’s back-and-forth with her and the group, they’re found by some Korean soldiers, the Corporal gets shot, but the Americans win. They find a map on one of the bodies that reveals a second mortar set-up further up the line. They also learn that the Lieutenant was the nurse’s fiancé, which is unfortunate, but not spun out at all because nothing is of any great consequence in this movie. They manage to find the second mortar, take it out, but Reb and the naïf get shot. The naïf dies after reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Reb and the Corporal make amends, off screen, because they’re both getting sent home. Walsh and the Christian are reunited with their company and the nurse goes back to the field hospital. THE END.

What I haven’t mentioned yet are the weird cutaways. Three times during the movie, characters start telling lurid stories about women and the movie whip-pans into a fantasy sequence of what’s being described. No dialogue, no voice-over, just lusty, dancing women in various states of undress. The scenes don’t make sense and are just padding, maybe also there for the lascivious edge they add to the picture. War pictures usually have characters end up in brothels or clubs that serve soldiers so there can be an excuse to squeeze in nudity, but it happens in-between moments of action. The characters are actually there and it plays either into the larger story of the movie or into the theme of war allowing people to shed the stifling conventions of society and be what we really are—real men and real women focused on the moment that matters. Alternately, it’s there to demonstrate the debauchery of war, how it drags everybody involved with and adjunct to it down. Whatever the reason, there is a justification for it. Here, they are literally moments where the movie goes, “Are you tired of watching this movie? Let’s see what’s on the other channel briefly. That sucks, let’s go back.”

The movie’s also not about anything. This isn’t a character study, it’s not about what war does to people, it’s not even particularly about ennobling the soldier. It’s just some nondescript people on a job that they get done. There could be some exploration of officers vs. enlisted men—prioritizing glory over survival—but that’s not here. It could be about Reb, a cowardly, shit-stirring soldier and the damage he can do to a group, but that’s not it either. The group doesn’t even learn about the second mortar until the third act so the movie’s not even about trying to do this one job that’ll protect the company.

It’s not terrible, it’s just average, with really weird cutaways to girls dancing and stripping. I actually liked it in terms of plot, I just didn’t think they did anything interesting with it. The movie is curious to consider in the context of Vietnam. Troop levels were increasing there by the time this movie was produced, so you can try to read it as reflecting the national mood about that war. If you do that, the movie’s ambivalence, neither gung-ho about soldiers nor earnestly depicting the horrors of war, becomes a cultural signifier of the US’s attitude to military intervention at that point: just something you do before you come back for your real life, if it doesn’t kill you in the process.

So it’s an odd duck. I don’t recommend it because it’s not fun, it’s not campy, but I also don’t advise anyone to avoid it because it’s not actively bad. The movie’s merely okay, relentlessly on the verge of tipping over into being something better, and never tipping. Which maybe speaks to my frustration watching it. I kept waiting for promises that were never fulfilled.

This movie’s in the public domain and I’ve added and MPEG-2 to the Internet Archive here.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

143. The Devil's Nightmare

143. The Devil’s Nightmare aka La plus longue nuit du diable (1971)
Director: Jean Brismée
Writers: Patrice Rhomm from a scenario by Pierre-Claude Garnier and Patrice Rhomm
From: Pure Terror

A band of tourists gets stranded at the castle of a Baron whose family is cursed by a succubus.

The movie opens with stock footage of allied planes bombing Berlin in 1945. A German Baroness dies while giving birth to a daughter, news that makes the Baron visibly unhappy. He sends his brother and maid into the bomb shelter while he christens then murders the baby.

Suffice it to say no one’s going to accuse this movie of subtlety.

Cut to the present day, a busload of tourists hit a roadblock and ask a thin, pasty bald man dressed all in black staring at a fire in the middle of a field for advice on where to go. The guy looks like Death taking a break from a Bergman film or a vampire mime, and that means trustworthy in their book! He directs them to the Baron’s castle.

The butler shows each of them to their rooms, telling each a grim story about that room’s history. You’d think the stories will relate to how the tourists die, but they don’t. Another seeming misstep is there are seven tourists and, initially, it feels like their deaths will be based upon the seven deadly sins, but that goes out the window pretty quickly too.

Briefly, there’s the gluttonous tour guide, a cranky old man, a seminarian, a husband with a wandering eye, his gold-obsessed wife, and a blond and brunette who end up sharing a room. All these people may well have names in the movie, but you’d be hard pressed to give them more characterization than I just did.

Also, the two women sharing a room immediately start hanging out in their underwear and then fooling around. Pretty intensely, to be honest, and much more graphic than I expected from 1971 and one of these flicks. Enjoy it while it lasts—and it lasts—because it’s the only time it happens in the movie, but you know it was also the selling point.

Anyway, the Baron tells the group over dinner that his family was cursed because a 12th century ancestor sold his soul to the Devil and promised that each generation’s eldest daughter would serve as a succubus. While he’s telling this story, a woman arrives at the castle. The maid recognizes her and denies her entry, but the butler lets her in.

Obviously she’s the succubus and now the deaths can get underway. Although I should note that she arrives in perfectly normal dress and then joins the dinner in the weirdest mix of bondage gear as lingerie as fashion. Elvira would describe her as unduly tarted up.

The tour guide is tempted by a feast in the kitchen and, after a long, long (long) montage of him eating, he finally chokes to death. The wife follows the Baron into his alchemical laboratory (because he’s an alchemist for no reason) and becomes obsessed with finding his gold. The succubus leads her to a mountain of gold and the wife sinks in it like quicksand.

The husband and brunette sneak off to fool around and wind up in the attic which is full of medieval torture equipment. The succubus throws the husband onto the guillotine and cuts off his head while the brunette falls into the iron maiden. The old man is angry about the noise and chases the succubus through the castle until she turns on him and throws him over the wall onto some stakes. She picks up a stick, turns it into a snake, and it slides into the blond’s room where it kills her.

All that’s left is the seminarian who the succubus is trying to seduce. He figures things out, runs to the church on the property where he’s confronted by the vampire mime who, of course, is the Devil. The Devil says the souls of the six are his, but the seminarian offers his soul in trade for theirs. The Devil agrees, the seminarian signs a contract that immediately bursts into flames, and then the seminarian wakes up in his bed.

At breakfast, everyone is fine and the Baron is fencing with the butler outside. The Baron gets stabbed and confesses to the seminarian that he killed his daughter. Then the maid tells the seminarian that she’d had a daughter by the Baron’s brother—making the child the actual eldest daughter—and she was the woman who’d arrived the night before. In the church, the seminarian finds the ashes of the contract. He decides to stay at the castle and watches as the busload of tourists drives away then off a cliff. THE END.

Obviously a pretty silly flick. It’s b-grade exploitation that I think misses the mark by putting too much effort into titillation. A big problem is that it has too many characters so there isn’t time to develop each character enough to make them interesting, it’s just waiting for everyone’s inevitable death.

Not to say there isn’t any atmosphere or charm. The movie has good sets and it even feels like a nice setup for a Gothic tale, it just never delivers on that promise. Ultimately, it has a good enough tone and is kind of campy in its over-the-top moments. I mean, one of the first things that happens is a Nazi stabs a baby. It’s very easy to laugh at this movie’s excesses.

If this movie was ever in the public domain, it’s likely not now due to GATT. I’d say it’s worth checking out if you stumble across it, though. The sex scene runs a little too long to be comfortable for group watching (it crosses the line into, “is this what this movie’s going to be now?”), but apart from that, I think you can have some fun laughing at this picture.

Friday, February 03, 2017

142. Alien Zone/The House of the Dead

142. The House of the Dead aka Alien Zone (1978)
Director: Sharron Miller
Writer: David O’Malley
From: Cult Cinema (Alien Zone); Chilling (The House of the Dead)
Watch: archive.org

An anthology horror film where a man takes shelter in a funeral home and learns how each body came to meet their unfortunate fate.

The frame narrative for this movie is Talmudge, a businessman in town for a semi-annual conference who’s meeting up with his mistress. The movie opens, in fact, with them screwing so you know this is going to be a classy flick. By the way, screwing, but no nudity or profanity so the movie’s safe-for-work. She talks about her husband, how he’s not who she loves, and how she needs to see Talmudge more. He generally blows her off and then leaves to catch a cab back to his hotel to call his wife.

The cabbie, though, drops Talmudge off in a random part of town leaving him to wander through the rain looking for shelter. He’s eventually taken in by an odd man who wants to tell Talmudge about the customers the man serves. The man is a mortician and starts showing Talmudge the bodies of his latest acquisitions and relating the tales of their death. We then go from story to story, each a short horror film that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either individually or collectively, but whatever.

The first story is an elementary school teacher who hates children. She goes home from work, starts preparing her dinner and a shower, but suspects someone’s in her house. Doors are opening, radios get turned off. Finally she’s sure of it, but discovers it’s just a band of kids in Halloween masks. She shouts at them, takes the mask off one only to reveal that they all have weird Nosferatu-style fangs and they descend upon her.

There’s not much tension or personality—it’s one person alone in a house who hears strange noises. Were it longer, you could have the character talk to someone or raise doubts about whether someone’s there or not. The movie itself is 76 minutes long and has 4 stories within the frame narrative. There’s not much time for anything. Ultimately, this first piece feels, at best, like a semi-competent student film, but nothing more.

The second story is a serial killer who records all his murders. He has a camera set up in his living room and invites women over so he can record their deaths. So the found-footage idea, but back in 1978. The first thing we see, though, is him getting arrested by the cops and then shots of journalists asking him why he recorded every death so we’re told in advance everything we’re about to see which kills any kind of tension or suspense. We see the various women being tricked into his home and killed. I was hoping for some kind of twist where something else was killing them or the script was carefully choosing its words so that he was recording something else, but no, it’s just him strangling women.

This is the ultimate issue facing the movie. Since every story is about how its subject died, these pieces don’t have tension so much as inevitability. We aren’t watching to see what happens, we’re waiting for the character to die so we can move to the next piece.

The third story is maybe the most competently done. A genius detective is examining the body of a hanged man and then, by detailing every bit of evidence at the crime scene, is able to name the murderer and send the cops to arrest him. A British detective is watching him and introduces himself. They’re both competing for the title of world’s greatest investigator. They go out to dinner where the American receives a cryptic note threatening someone close to him. He spends the next several days trying to get whatever clues he can from the note while the British detective hovers about making unhelpful comments.

Because of the limited number of characters, you can guess where it goes from there. However, it actually has characters, some personality, and, since it’s more than one person, some doubt as to what the final outcome will be. It’s not a great piece, but it does all right.

The final story, once again, is just one man, some nondescript business type who doesn’t want to associate with anyone. He accidentally gets locked in an abandoned store and, as he tries to get out, falls into an open elevator shaft. The elevator starts to descend and, just before he’s about to be crushed, a door opens and he rushes through it. He turns out to be trapped in a small concrete cell where the walls can move—at one point revealing a wall of spikes that nearly impale him, but stop just short, at another, allowing space for a bottle of beer to be rolled to him. He remains there for an unspecified amount of time, becoming an alcoholic, before a door opens to let him out. He stumbles into the light, asking passers-by for help, but he just seems like a crazy bum. A businessman tells him to “get a job,” and then walks into the same abandoned store, presumably to get trapped the same way, before the original man can manage to shout, “No!”

The last piece, admittedly, felt like something we would see today. Think of things like Saw or even Oldboy where there isn’t so much a logic as a sense of “here are ways to hurt someone.” Again, like the first story, there isn’t any character. He’s just an object that stuff is done to. However, this one does at least have a mystery built into it—what is this place and what is going on? That the short doesn't provide an answer works for me. It’s basically an unnerving tone poem and isn’t trying to be anything more.

Then, of course, there’s the frame narrative where Talmudge is shocked by what’s happened to all these people and the mortician says they all deserved it. He gives an uninspired moralizing speech about people needing to be kind to one another and it feels like the movie is trying to make it seem like each person violated one of the seven deadly sins, but there aren’t enough people to hit all the sins.

After his speech, one casket remains and Talmudge asks what their sin was. The mortician says “infidelity” and reveals that it’s empty. Talmudge flees and is chased through the streets by the cabbie who dropped him off before. Turns out he’s the mistress’ husband and shoots Talmudge. The final shot is an ambulance loading the body into the back while the mortician sits in the passenger seat smiling.

To start, I don’t know why the original version of this movie was named Alien Zone It has nothing to do with aliens. The House of the Dead works because the whole movie is happening in a mortuary. Also, while my copy of Alien Zone on the Cult Cinema set is 1:30 longer than my copy of The House of the Dead on the Chilling set, I don’t think there’s any difference between the two (apart from The House of the Dead being the much better print). They have all the same stories so I think they’re just playing at different speeds. When I manage to sync both copies up, they fall out of sync pretty quickly.

As to the quality of the movie itself, obviously I wasn’t thrilled by it. Anthology pieces are hard to do and you really have to demonstrate some neat idea that’s best served by being a short piece. The man trapped in the abandoned store is a neat idea. The detectives could have been spun out into an actual movie. The camera killer at least had the novelty of found-footage, but the producers couldn’t think of much to do with it. And the first piece was just poorly done. The movie, frankly, feels like a job application for a reboot of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. Only it’s not good enough to land the job.

It’s not all bad, though. The two final pieces are interesting enough and the ideas are certainly useful if you’re trying to come up with an idea for a Call of Cthulhu session. Overall, though, it’s just not that great and it’s not particularly fun. However, it is in the public domain and I’ve uploaded an MPEG-2 version to the Internet Archive here. I’m sure there are inventive ways you could recut it or use bits of it here and there. It could be fun to use the mortician’s opening of the coffins as transitions in a music video show on your public access station. Use your imagination. Just use it more than these filmmakers did.