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.