Friday, June 30, 2017

184. Mama Dracula

184. Mama Dracula (1980)
Director: Boris Szulzinger
Writers: Pierre Sterckx, Boris Szulzinger, Marc-Henri Wajnberg, with English dialogue by Tony Hendra
From: Drive-In
Countess Dracula, a vampire who survives by bathing in the blood of virgins, becomes a patron of the scientist Professor Van Bloed in hopes of developing a synthetic blood that will protect her immortality.
We start with Van Bloed (pronounced “Blood” which indicates the caliber of comedy here) doing a mad scientist rant while petting a bunny. He’s trying to develop synthetic blood. His work must have caught someone’s attention because he’s been invited to the “Congress of Blood” to share his findings. He sets out immediately and we’re given a montage of boats coming into Ellis Island, punctuated by a shot of the Statue of Liberty growing fangs. That’s the only time we get animation like this so I don’t know why the moment is there.

Nor do I know why we’re being shown boats around New York when Van Bloed is going to Transylvania. That was my first point of confusion. The movie seemed to be set in modern day America, and then it’s in a seemingly medieval Eastern Europe. Turns out it was just sloppy editing. The movie takes place in modern Transylvania.

Van Bloed arrives at the castle of Countess Dracula where he’s immediately harried by twin vampires (the Wajnberg brothers who play it very broad and later do an extended Vaudeville-style mirror routine where they mimic each other’s actions) and is saved at the last minute by the Countess. She reveals that there is no Congress, but she wants to support his work to the tune of $1,000,000. He accepts.

And from here the movie should be him growing suspicious of what’s going on and who his patrons are, but it doesn’t. Instead we see the Countess and her two vampire servants running a high-fashion shop called Vamp from which they kidnap virgins. The virgins are kidnapped from the changing room which gives the movie many opportunities for cheap nudity, which it takes advantage of. They finally reveal to Van Bloed that they’re vampires and he’s completely on board, growing into more of a Renfield character. He gets frustrated in his work and demands ten virgins to complete the project. The twins get to work on gathering them.

Halfway through the movie, the Inspector shows up, but he’s a buffoon and it’s really his female assistant who’s doing all the work. These, I guess, are supposed to be our heroes, but it’s still not clear. Whose story are we following? Whose goals do we want to see fulfilled?

The assistant inspector catches the attention of the vampires and Van Bloed so they kidnap her. While she’s confined, the Countess visits her and seemingly convinces her to become a vampire. I think. This whole part is unclear.

The Inspector apologizes to the Countess for all the unrest and suspicion around her and she tells him to invite all the townspeople to the castle for the twin’s fashion show where they’ll be unveiling their new designs. The mob arrives and… is really impressed by the fashion. While the show’s going on, the assistant inspector starts chasing one of the twins because she’s been turned, I think (?), and Van Bloed perfects his synthetic blood formula. The assistant inspector chases one twin across the stage, Van Bloed comes forward to announce his success, and the vampires announce to everyone that they are vampires and now, thanks to the blood, everyone can be vampires and live forever. The townspeople erupt in applause.

The coda is the assistant inspector as the new Countess marries both the twins and they have a brood of baby vampires. The final shot is Van Bloed, gray and old, taking their picture while the original Countess says the picture is, as always with him, too red. THE END.

This is a strange film. It’s trying to be a farce, but it’s never clear what it’s a farce of. It also doesn’t have a traditional protagonist/antagonist situation. In fact, there’s never really a hero or main character. It’s just a muddle of stuff. It’s obviously trying to be a comedy on one level, but the kind of jokes it’s trying to tell is never clear. The movie ranges from being cartoonishly slapstick with the Inspector constantly falling over and shouting “Sabotage!” to weirdly bawdy with a woman who keeps trying to lose her virginity to be protected from the Countess. When she finally does, an orgy breaks out causing the building she’s in to literally explode. Then the investigation starts halfway through, but it’s not clear if that’s just supposed to be another opportunity for comedy or is part of a rising threat to Van Bloed’s work or the Countess.

It is, admittedly, kind of fun to see Van Bloed when he’s investigating or getting deep into his experiments. The actor looks like a cross between Buster Keaton and Annie Lennox, and the movie’s at its best when he’s being androgynous and New Wave-y. When he gets into his more slapsticky bits, including a scene where he’s essentially doing a silly walk, the Keaton resemblance is clearer and the movie’s weaker. That tends to be true for the movie as a whole: When it’s aiming for style, atmosphere, or strangeness, it’s approaching something interesting. It so often isn’t in that space, though, which diminishes the fun.

This movie is apparently in the public domain, but, unfortunately my copy has the Mill Creek logo graffitied onto it so I can’t upload it. Furthermore, there are no copies currently available on the Internet Archive, which is unusual for a movie like this. You can find copies with a simple Google search, though. I wouldn’t really recommend it, but it’s not offensive either. It just never rises to be much of anything.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

183. Escape From Hell Island

183. Escape From Hell Island (1963)
Director: Mark Stevens
Writers: T.L.P. Swicegood based on the novel by Robert Sheckley
From: Cult Cinema
A boat captain is contracted to smuggle rebels out of Cuba, but the job lands him in the middle of a love triangle.
Welcome people to a movie that has no idea what it’s actually about. We start with Captain James played by director Mark Stevens, the greatest, gutsiest sea captain to ever live and you get one guess as to the story arc awaiting this aged Brylcreem-and-shoe-polish-headed hero. A rich Cuban emigree hires James to do an unsanctioned run to Cuba to smuggle out revolutionaries including the man’s daughter. James agrees because the daughter is cute.

The Navy gives him proprietary information cause he’s just so awesome, and he goes to do the job. He successfully picks up the people, but attracts the attention of the Cuban Coast Guard who open fire on him. He, instead of fleeing, turns the boat around and single-handedly kills all the Cubans. His first mate dies, but he has successfully helped the refugees, including the beautiful daughter, escape from the titular “Hell Island.” THE END

of the first act. Because not only did James save the daughter, he saved the daughter’s husband, so now it’s a love triangle movie with the husband being jealous of the attention James is getting and the daughter telling James all about her husband’s cowardice and moments of sucking up to Che and Castro. The father who funded the rescue, by the way, who was played up as a gangster of some kind, is gone from the movie as the daughter will soon be once we get to

Act III where the husband charters James’ sailboat (James’ other boat being seized by the State Department as part of their investigation into an international incident that left two boatloads of Cubans dead) for no readily discernible purpose. It’s not clear if he’s trying to ingratiate himself to James or to rub his money and power in James’ face. Regardless, he gets the idea of killing James on the boat and stealing both the boat and the traveling business for himself. He kicks James overboard in the middle of the ocean, but can’t get the engine to start, so has to sit and wait for him to drown.

This is literally the last half of the movie. The husband on deck starting to go stir-crazy and hallucinate because of the sun while James treads water in a swimming pool, periodically trying to climb back on board. Inevitably he does, gets into a fight with James, who gets stabbed and then falls overboard where he’s eaten by sharks. THE END. For real this time. No return to the daughter, no resolution about the initial raid, no reaction to the husband’s death. Just the boat in the water and THE END. Fabulous.

To its credit, the movie does have some hilariously bad elements. The husband has a great terrible monologue in a bar where he claims he stood up to Che. Also, that same bar gets the phone call announcing the death of the first mate before the first mate’s wife. The bar is notified of his death before his wife! That said, those moments are too few and far between.

The movie sells you a false bill of goods. It’s supposed to be about a smuggling/rescue operation from Cuba potentially funded by gangsters or drug runners. Instead, it feels very piecemeal, like they were filming as they went and kept checking to see if they’d made a feature-length piece yet. “The refugees are safely ashore, is it 90 minutes yet? Get the love triangle in there. 90 yet? He rents the boat!” I kind of wanted every movie they promised instead of the one they gave me.

So it’s not a recommend. There’s not a lot that’s particularly special about it and the best part can be found by searching “Escape From Hell Island” on YouTube. The movie’s not in the public domain, so I can’t share a copy of it, but it’s not worth the effort of trying to find anyway.

Friday, June 23, 2017

182. The Dungeon of Harrow

182. The Dungeon of Harrow (1962)
Director: Pat Boyette
Writers: Pat Boyette and Henry Garcia
From: Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org
A man shipwrecked on an island has to endure the machinations of the mad Count living there.
The movie opens with a voice-over by an on-screen character who refuses to show us his face. That’s as good a clue as any as to what to expect both in terms of quality and story. The narrator is the last of the Fallon family relating the tale of woe that left his father dead and him the sole surviving member. We then flashback to that story for the entire movie.

So the first thing the movie tells you is that it’s going to flashback to a story of danger and woe that we know the narrator survived because they’re telling us the story. I have to wonder if Jonathan Franzen watched this while writing The Corrections. It would explain a lot.

We cut to the real start of the movie where the captain of the ship tells Fallon to leave his quarters immediately as a storm is threatening to sink them all. Fallon balks, then runs. The opening credits then play out over some of the funniest toy boat footage I’ve seen. This toy ship just rocks up on an outcropping and stays there, letting you drink in just how terrible the model is.

Finally we cut away to Fallon and the captain on an island, the sole survivors. A tarp with the Fallon family crest also washes up which they later use as a roof. The captain talks about how good a man Fallon’s father was and Fallon, in voice-over, realizes his social standing no longer means anything, but he keeps treating the captain like a servant. That night, they hear a woman screaming while getting attacked by animals.

Cut to the castle of Count de Sade (yup. The writers called him “de Sade.” Guess what happens) where his slave—not servant—informs him that the dogs got loose and killed a woman. The Count surmises that if one person washed ashore, there may be others, and he starts worrying about pirates. Then the Devil appears to him, says he’s a manifestation of the Count’s madness, and harries him with rubber spiders and bats. Then he vanishes from the movie entirely. Thanks for taking the time Satan.

Anyway, Fallon and the captain are attacked and taken to the castle, the captain seemingly mortally wounded. Fallon meets Cassandra, a young woman living with the Count, who initially is dictating the castle’s rules to Fallon. She tries to cover up the disappearance of the captain and keep Fallon in the dark about what’s going on, but he wakes up to see a woman getting whipped. He confronts Cassandra about the strange things going on and she’s tells the castle’s sad story:

The Countess came down with leprosy and was exiled to the island. The Count followed her, but she went mad and he sealed her in the cellar where she’s still alive, believing it to be her wedding day. The situation drove the Count mad and now he’s constantly paranoid about pirates trying to infiltrate the island and tortures Ann, the mute servant Fallon saw getting whipped, because he consistently believes she’s trying to poison him. Cassandra is the nurse. The only other resident is a black man who’s literally the Count’s slave and does all the torturing and killing for him despite his own wishes.

So, yeah, that’s where we stand.

The captain has been taken by the Count who suspects he’s a pirate and tortures him. Ann falls in love with Fallon and tries to save the captain, but he’s seemingly dead when she unties him from the rack and she gets caught. The Count puts her on the rack, leaves, and the captain wakes up and doesn’t untie her! What’s even going on? The captain faces off against the slave to save Fallon because. . . reasons(?) and dies. Fallon is locked in the cellar to face the mad leper, Cassandra comes down and kills the Countess, and the two try to escape. The Count immediately follows, the slave falls over (literally), and the Count kills him. Then Fallon wrestles with the Count, shoots him, and he and Cassandra wait for a ship to arrive so they can leave. It takes two years and that’s when Fallon realizes he’s contracted leprosy and can never leave the island. Cut back to the opening shot and we see him and Cassandra with oatmeal all over their faces. She’s gone mad so he’s locking her in the cellar just like the Count had done to his own wife. THE END.

What can I say? There’s narration throughout telling us what we’re literally seeing on screen plus we have a “hero” who’s not only does nothing, but who nearly every character sacrifices themselves for. Ann dies, off-screen, from the injuries she incurred trying to save the captain for Fallon. The captain dies trying to rescue Fallon. The slave, who’s one of the only sympathetic characters, gets killed for failing to capture Fallon as efficiently as the Count wants. Even the Countess gets killed because she’s too close to Fallon. And he doesn’t do anything! It’s a bit of a shock when he shoots the Count. I half expected the Count to go mad hunting Fallon through the woods and then fall off a cliff. Fallon’s a doorknob—why is everyone so eager to help him?

The movie is, and maybe this is already clear, hilariously bad, but it’s sort of immediately hilariously bad. Narration, characters telling the main character how good he is, a spectral Satan, rubber bats and spiders, but all that happens right at the beginning and doesn’t get built on as the movie persists. Those bats and spiders never return even though those are always good for a laugh. And Satan. Satan. Where is my Satan? Everything’s better with Satan and, once again, this is a campy Satan. It’s not James Coco as Satan campy, but it still promises a nice side of ham with this movie.

But, no, it all disappears pretty quick and we’re left with the flat, affectless acting of the cast. It’s kind of boring, but you can get some good mileage out of riffing it. Fortunately, the movie is in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to archive.org here. You may enjoy it more than I did. Plus the gothic sets and shots may prove useful for some editing project.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Story Slam: My People

My latest Story Slam piece relating the tale of how I ended up leading a trip of the Society of Black Engineers to NASA and then finding my way into a bad movie group.



The picture in question:

Saturday, June 17, 2017

181. The Patriot

181. The Patriot (1986)
Director: Frank Harris
Writers: Andy Ruben and Katt Shea
From: Cult Cinema
Terrorists steal two nuclear warheads and the only person that can stop them is dishonorably-discharged Naval Lieutenant Ryder.
A trio of masked men break into a nuclear storage facility—one where the security doesn’t have alarms on the gates and doesn’t hear a literal explosion happen at one of the buildings—and steals two nuclear warheads. They put one warhead into the oil outflow that leads to an offshore oil platform where it’s picked up by some SCUBA divers. Maggie, an employee at the platform, sees lights underwater and goes to investigate. While diving, she finds a piece of paper—the label from the warhead, I think—and contacts Ryder, an ex-Navy almost SEAL to ask him about it.

We’re introduced to Ryder at a honky-tonk bar where he sharks some guy at pool and then beats up the guy’s entire gang before taking his money. He briefly offers the money to a woman who helped him in the fight, then pockets it all and leaves her behind.

Getting that heroic vibe yet? Cause that’s our man!

He meets Maggie at a bar where she shows him the paper. He tells her not to go diving the next day, but she refuses and gets all huffy about it. The interaction is weird because he tells her it’s from a nuclear warhead and that something serious is going on. She contacted him for that very reason. Then she gets mad that he’s not interested in hooking up and is instead concerned about a rogue warhead. This shift doesn’t happen between scenes or over the course of the film, it’s within a single shot.

That confusion is the leitmotif of the movie. Ryder goes to the platform claiming to be part of a demolitions crew to remove an eyesore. The film’s characters are as confused as I was. Turns out the trio that stole the warheads are working on the platform. Maggie goes to dive and Ryder blows his cover trying to stop her. She goes anyway, a charge she’s holding goes off early, and Ryder dives into the ocean to save her—wearing a t-shirt and jeans which are apparently just as good as full SCUBA gear. When he brings her up, he’s getting hit with the bends, but puts her in a decompression chamber. While it’s running a tube comes loose and she dies raising the question of why the writers and director didn’t just have the explosion kill her.

Ryder goes drinking to get over it and is shanghaied by Naval officers to be taken before Admiral Leslie Nielsen. This is when we find out that Ryder had been in the Navy, almost became a SEAL, and was dishonorably discharged. We also learn that he was the best that bested at besting ever and was called “The Patriot,” a revelation that means nothing for the rest of the movie. Nielsen reveals that warheads have been stolen, it’s being kept a secret, and he’ll reinstate Ryder if he can find them. His CO will be Mitchell. This is forty minutes in, by the way. In an 85 minute movie.

So Ryder meets Nielsen for dinner and Nielsen’s niece is there. She and Ryder have a history that they angrily hash out by shouting exposition on the boardwalk that, and I am not making this up, is suddenly about Vietnam and all the good men we lost over there. Then they fuck. While someone smoking a cigarette watches from the bushes.

Okay, just… just give me a second here. Whoooo.

Oh my gosh, this is the most awkward sex scene I’ve seen since Hard Ticket to Hawaii, and I’ve seen The Room. The final shot literally holds on the two of them cradling each other with looks on their faces that say, “Are you going to call ‘cut’? You can say ‘cut.’ Just… just say ‘cut.’” And then Ryder starts talking about Vietnam again.

Wait, wait, the scene’s not done yet. Cause remember when I said his CO will be Mitchell? Guess who was waiting in the bushes. Yup, Mitchell who is, I think, the niece’s boyfriend. Maybe her husband? Or just crushing on her? Clarify your relationships, movie! But he’s both very angry and totally cool with her hooking up with Ryder and tells her that he himself masterminded stealing the warheads and has set one to detonate. His logic is if both sides have one, no one will be willing to use it. Although it’s not clear who the sides are or how that justifies him arming one or why it’s…

via GIPHY


I GIF’d. This movie made me GIF. I don’t think I’ve GIF’d before on the Misery Mill. That’s how far this movie has pushed me. I can’t even use words anymore. I just…

Right, right, movie. So Ryder, niece, and helicopter pilot arm up and invade the platform, big shootout, go diving, harpoon gun fight between people all dressed in SCUBA gear so good luck guessing who’s who, and all the baddies are killed. Including Mitchell who was the only one that can disarm the nuke. Ryder opens it up with one minute left on the detonator. He doesn’t know which wire to cut. He picks one, cuts it as the timer reaches one, and the movie freezes on his face and solarizes.

Cut to a county road in the middle of nowhere and the girl from the honky-tonk at the beginning is hitchhiking in jerky slow motion. Ryder rolls up on his bike, picks her up, and they ride off into the distance as a song fades over the credits. THE END. And then the song fades back up as the credits continue.

This movie is awful, truly awful. I’ve only described the incomprehensible garbage plot. There’s also bad acting, a lead with a combover that’s barely trying at the best of times and actively failing at others, and terrible editing. The editor repeatedly takes two scenes that should run in sequence and intercut them with each other. So rather than have scene A play out followed by scene B, you get shot from scene A, shot from scene B, shot from scene A, and on and on. It’s to imply that both scenes are happening at the same time, but it only makes things confusing because there’s no narrative value to knowing that these two things are happening contemporaneously. Also, they’re not happening contemporaneously.

For example, the scene with Mitchell confronts the niece immediately after Ryder leaves is intercut with Ryder sneaking into the building where the second warhead is stored. These aren’t happening at the same time. Ryder isn’t immediately at the second location. So the effect is to make the viewer think, “Oh, that was a short scene, oh, I guess that one’s done too. Wait, is this still going on?” It extends the sense of time when watching the movie making it that much more interminable.

I think it’s clear what I’m going to say, right?

You have to see this movie. You have to. It is awful, but this is the first “seeing is believing” level of awful I’ve run into during the Misery Mill. There have been bad movies, there have been surprise good movies, and there have been so-bad-they’re-good movies, but this is the first one that I am literally asking you to watch to confirm that I haven’t lost my mind. Did I really see what I think I saw? I am downright giddy writing this up, that’s how excited and gob-smacked I am about this movie. Please, please, please find yourself a copy of The Patriot and watch it. Don’t make me have done this alone. It is definitely worth digging up to watch with friends and just shout at incredulously. I haven’t done it justice because so much of it defies description. Please, please, please go find and watch this movie.

Friday, June 16, 2017

180. The Sadist

180. The Sadist (1963)
Director: James Landis
Writer: James Landis
From: Pure Terror
Watch: archive.org
A trio of schoolteachers is menaced by a serial killer and his girlfriend at an isolated junkyard in the California desert.
There’s little to say plot-wise about this “edgy” Arch Hall Jr. vehicle. In his other films, he tends to play a gormless teenager despite being nearly 20 and looking older. And I don’t mean to bag on Hall Jr. here. He’s coming out of the age of elderly teens so it wasn’t uncommon to see people playing 15/16-year-olds after completing their Selective Service requirements or filing for their first mortgage. In this movie, though, he’s not playing the “aw shucks” goody-goody, he’s a sociopathic mass murderer. I guess his dad wanted to demonstrate Jr.’s range.

Oh yeah, if Arch Hall Jr. is in the film, Arch Hall Sr. is working as a producer if not also as co-writer and co-star. That may explain why, in a film like Wild Guitar, Sr. plays the villain, Jr. the childish Midwesterner come out to LA to make his fortune, and Jr. forgives Sr. for all his villainy at the end. I could complain about these movies being hacky and a hair’s breadth away from a vanity project, but Jr. isn’t terrible at it. He carries off the wide-eyed innocence pretty well and seems to convey real enthusiasm at the idea of being in a movie at all. I have a soft spot for movies where the overriding aesthetic is, “Golly! Movies are fun!” Miami Connection has that feeling and there’s a variation of it in 2011’s The Muppets.

So The Sadist. Arch Hall Jr., so good at playing wide-eyed innocents who are as excited as a puppy just brought home, is playing a sub-literate sociopath who delights in tormenting his victims. It’s a bit of an odd choice, but it also works. Jr. comes off as willfully immature in all his performances so playing a killer with the mental capacity of a child kind of works. He doesn’t come off as a calculating threat, he’s just a giggling idiot who’s found a gun and likes how it goes “boom.”

Anyway, the plot: a trio of teachers—the guy, the girl, and the elder—are driving to LA to catch a Dodgers game when their fuel pump goes out. They pull over at a junkyard/garage to get help, but no one seems to be there. As they try to get the part from a junked car, Jr. and his nigh-mute girlfriend appear with a gun, tell them to fix the car so the pair can get away, and harry the trio for the rest of the movie. In the end, everyone’s dead except the girl who has to walk back to the garage she’d just fled from to contact the police. THE END.

There’s certainly more incident than that, but that’s basically the film: Jr. has the gun, the guy is working on the car but keeps trying to think of a way to thwart Jr., and, towards the end, things start happening that may let them escape, but then don’t until the very end.

It’s an okay flick, but, then again, I don’t care much for so-called psychological thrillers where there isn’t any “psychology” at play. Jr. isn’t playing mind games with his victims, he’s just a sociopath. He has no sense of cause and effect or responsibility. He’s at the junkyard because his car broke down and, just for kicks, he killed the people who live there before they could fix his vehicle. He kills the elder teacher because the idea strikes him as funny at the moment.

The movie has curious narrative choices, though. The guy tries to challenge Jr. by accusing him of being the person who killed seven people in Arizona just a few days before, which, how does that help his situation? “Oh, you! You threatening me with that gun, saying you’re going to shoot me! I know who you are! You’re that person who has already killed seven people so you’ve demonstrated that you’re perfectly willing to follow through on your threat and now you know that I know this! So what are you gonna do? Huh? What are you gonna do?” Isn’t that supposed to work the other way around? The victims tell the killer they know who he is, but they tell him as though that gives them the upper hand. It’s another case of “stupid hero syndrome.” You can tell he’s the hero because his decisions are bad.

What strikes me as interesting about the movie is how horror movies are generally, in symbolic terms, supposed to work. The monster works as a manifestation of a cultural fear, but also serves as a cleansing force. The nightmare is made flesh, kill all who transgress or do not belong in the “us” of “them and us,” and then is destroyed by the symbol of righteousness, of purity, of order made manifest. So you have the trope of the final girl—virginal, white, and not quite hip to what’s going on—as a symbol of innocence triumphing over the threat, or the trope of the beaten-down cop—tired, hen-pecked, and constrained by Internal Affairs—tossing orders to the wind to “do what’s right” showing that unrestrained authority is what’s needed to save the day. In slasher movies, the audience is teenagers so the final girl is the dominant trope there. In serial killer movies, the audience is adults so you get the cop as synecdoche for authoritarianism.

There’s the other side of that, though, in the marking of victims. Scream articulated (but did not follow) the rules for who dies in a horror movie, but it’s a little bigger than that, more purging the culture of those who transgress. Of course there’s the sin element—drinking, screwing, committing a crime—that results in the monster operating as divine punishment. Slasher movies are curiously Old Testament for how violently they punish transgression, but “transgression” in these movies includes those who are “other,” those who are symbolically not part of the culture. So it’s easy to catalog the deadmeats in these movies—gay, black, disabled—anyone who has an identity in addition to or instead of straight white able-bodied American is going to get it. In fact, you can see the progression of acceptance within our culture by which groups stop being de facto deadmeats. In the 90’s, African-Americans started living through horror and sci-fi films when the trope had been the black guy gets it first. That happened both because filmmakers were aware of the trope and started trying to subvert it, but also because African-Americans, to a degree, became less othered, less cut out of the culture and less perceived as “Americans, but not quite.”

With that idea of purging in mind, the viewer’s supposed to take some pleasure in watching the victims die. Look at who dies in slasher movies—the cheerleader, the bully, the teacher, the cop—the popular kids who look down on the horror-fan burnouts and the authority figures who bully them. That the horror-fan stand-ins in these movies also die doesn’t matter because they usually transgress in some other way—being assholes, being stupid, being high—or you’re supposed to identify with them as victims, both of the bullying culture they’re in and of the monster.

In The Sadist, you have, ultimately, five potential victims of the killer (two cops show up and get killed). The teachers transgress in certain ways—the elder doesn’t recognize the threat and dies for it, the guy repeatedly demonstrates his cowardice so his death is deserved—but I think we’re supposed to initially be siding with Jr. and his partner. Jr. talks about how teachers always bullied his girlfriend, calling her stupid and sending her home crying. The teachers keep trying to assert their authority by leaning on their position as teachers even though they’re not in school, and that constantly backfires. The elder tries to talk Jr. out of murdering him by asking him to imagine someone doing this to his father which leads Jr. to note that both his and his girlfriend’s fathers were abusive drunks. The innocent is the “final girl” who is the only one to make any real effort to get away from Jr. and ultimately survives because he falls into a snake pit while chasing her.

I think the movie wants to tap into a latent resentment towards bad teachers so the audience gets a bit of a thrill watching them die, but we never see them as teachers and never really see them being jerks. The most we get is the very strange middle-class white entitlement at play. I mean, they show up at a garage that’s, as far as they can tell, closed for the weekend, and start demanding service. When no one appears to cater to them, they start wandering the grounds just stealing things. The elder actually walks into the house—into the home of the people who run the garage!—looking for someone to cater to them and walks through the whole place. Who are these people? The movie doesn’t want us to read that as problematic, though, it’s just my jaundiced perspective. Then again, as we all know, I’m of that entitled demo that’s eating too much avocado toast instead of acquiring equity.

So the movie falls a bit flat on that level. We don’t really sympathize with the victims, but we don’t get the vicarious thrill of seeing them laid low either. There’s also an alternative reading: that we’re supposed to side with the trio and the horror is people like Jr. and his girlfriend not knowing their place. In that sense, the movie becomes a justification of social class—you don’t want to fund schools and parks and libraries, you don’t want to give resources to the poors because they’re morally undeserving of it. Just look at this movie and see what happens when the wrong kind of person gains power.

This has been a long post and, frankly, little of it has been focused on the movie itself. Much of my take is likely informed by the currently on-going Trumpcare debate, but I’m not going to apologize for that. One of the reasons I’m going through the movies the way I am, one of the specific lens that I’m looking at them through, is that media reflects their moment, even when they seem to be ardently apolitical. So this is a review of a B-movie, but it’s being written at a specific time in a specific context, and that can’t be divorced from how the movie’s being understood.

Like I said, it’s an okay flick, it just lacks incident and makes some poor choices. I don’t mean that politically, despite all this verbiage. I mean, for example, after the trio has been told Jr. and his girlfriend are going to steal the car, Jr. tears up the trio’s baseball tickets. That’s played as a stunning act of cruelty, but they were never going to get to that game. Their car is being stolen right then. You could play it up as insult to injury, but it’s not the traumatic moment the movie seems to treat it as.

It’s all right. Check it out as a Saturday matinĂ©e or gather the beer and pretzels to watch with your riffing friends. It’s cheesy in the right ways and doesn’t offend, it just doesn’t do much else. To its credit, the movie is in the public domain. You can grab a copy from archive.org here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

179. Morons From Outer Space

179. Morons From Outer Space (1985)
Director: Mike Hodges
Writers: Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
A trio of interstellar idiots crash on Earth, causing chaos before becoming superstars, but the fourth member of their group, stranded in space, is trying to return to his friends.
A mid-80’s British sci-fi comedy written by the sketch comedy duo Smith and Jones which is maybe enough of a description to tell you everything about the movie. While there is nominally a plot and characters, they’re largely present to allow for a series of loosely-related sketches. Think of The Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy or the films of Monty Python and you’ll have a sense of what to expect, but don’t expect greatness.

We open on a Star Wars-esque shot of the underside of a spaceship filling the screen followed by a long chain towing a small camper. And when I say “long,” I mean a shot that lasts the better part of a minute before we get the camper. That’s the payoff. Here’s this massive, screen-filling ship bringing along something behind it and that thing is… is… is… is still not on screen. Oh. It’s a camper.

The quartet of aliens are general idiots and their ship has blown a fuse preventing them from having any fun. Bernard, the “come on, cheer up” guy in the group, steps outside to play “space ball,” aka low-gravity soccer. The drunk idiot onboard uncouples their ship and flies to Earth where they crash, leaving Bernard stranded at the… base? Dock? Hotel? It wasn’t clear.

The government and military get involved immediately, but they’re either brutishly stupid or stupidly insane, which was refreshing. It reminded me how everything went downhill in the 90’s with cop dramas and Presidents punching terrorists off planes. Now people think figures of authority somehow deserve power instead of ridicule. In the 70’s and 80’s, in Britain more than the US, we recognized “leaders” were too stupid to be allowed access to meaningful work—that’s why you made them politicians.

Anyway, Graham, a put-upon newsroom assistant literally stumbles his way into the meeting with the aliens and then… not much. I mean, a lot happens, there are a lot of gags, but nothing of consequence. The aliens are basically mindless tourists so there’s no information to be gained from them. The American ambassador decides they’re hiding their true forms and decides to kill them, but Graham helps them escape. They become celebrities because of this and Graham becomes their manager, half chaffing at their stereotypical celebrity excess and idiocy, half trying to exploit them for his own gain.

Meanwhile, Bernard ends up getting rescued then immediately jettisoned, crashing in the US. He gets institutionalized, escapes, finds out the other three are in England and famous, and works on meeting them.

The reunion comes at the aliens’ New York show, their first in the US, where the trio perform, have an on-stage argument then leave. Bernard has snuck into their dressing room and asks to join them, but is rebuffed. Then an alien ship arrives, the trio address the man who walks out of it, and he turns out to be from the rental agency that they got their ship from. Since the ship has been wrecked, he says they’ll have to come with him. They leave, stranding Bernard once again. Graham knows who Bernard is, though, and the movie closes with him putting his arm around Bernard and discussing plans to make him a star.

The movie is competently done—written by the comedy duo Smith and Jones whose show Alas Smith and Jones seems clever enough and it’s directed by Mike Hodges who did Get Carter and Flash Gordon. It’s not a bad movie, it just never comes together to be what it could. It’s too focused on quick gags to let the characters develop—Graham barely has a line through the first half and then becomes the main character in the second. Suddenly he has an arc that moves from compassion to exploitation very quickly. However, the movie is also too scattered in its plots to let the gags build to something big. There’s the government response to the aliens, the aliens as celebrities, and Bernard trying to get back home after crashing on Earth. It’s too much.

Which is a shame because I laughed out loud several times during the movie and thought it had a real cleverness and wit. This isn’t like the Marimark films that have moments showing what they could be doing, but end up doing a Marimark film anyway, this is a case of lots of good ingredients just not working together. The movie’s fine if you’re looking for something to have running in the background or that you don’t want to give 100% of your attention to—you won’t miss any plot points—but it’s not quite cohesive enough for me to recommend you actively try to find it.

Friday, June 09, 2017

178. Man in the Attic

178. Man in the Attic (1953)
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Writers: Robert Pressnell Jr. and Barré Lyndon from the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org
As Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of London, a strange Mr. Slade rents a room from Mr. and Mrs. Harley and becomes interested in their actress niece, much to Mrs. Harley’s concern.
Not to be confused with Hider in the House, this focuses on someone who may be Jack the Ripper moving into an attic in Victorian London. That the man is played by Jack Palance is what gives the movie the little edge it has.

The film opens with two cops walking the beat, talking about the hunt for Jack the Ripper. He’s killed twice and they’re trying to find him before he kills again, which immediately seems unlikely. Not that they’d try to find and stop him, but that they’d think they have a serial killer situation after only two deaths. There’s not yet enough to determine a pattern.

The cops walk a drunk woman home, but she slips back out and gets murdered by the Ripper. Immediately thereafter, Jack Palance, as Mr. Slade, comes to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harley. They’re down-on-their luck bourgeoisie renting out some rooms for extra money. Slade takes the rooms and asks for access to the attic as well so he may conduct his “experiments.” Mrs. Harley is immediately suspicious of his behavior.

And this really should be the movie—the tension of Mrs. Harley suspecting Slade is the Ripper, finding evidence, having it challenged, and ultimately having a confrontation with horrible consequences for one of the two. Yes, it’s formulaic, but not without its pleasures and at least you can say what kind of film it is. This movie doesn’t do that.

Instead, it has that plot, to a degree, but also has a plot involving Mrs. Harley’s niece Lily, an actress who’s about to have her big break. Mr. Slade doesn’t like actresses which now suggests the other potential plot—that he’s the killer and coming ever closer to killing Lily. That doesn’t happen either, though, at least not completely, because there’s the third plot element.

The chief inspector in the Ripper case is Inspector Warwick. The Ripper’s fourth victim last spoke to Lily before she died so Warwick goes to talk to Lily and immediately becomes infatuated. Thus we get a bit of a love triangle between Warwick, Lily, and Slade, with Warwick and Slade having what’s supposed to be a psychological battle over whether Warwick will ever capture the Ripper.

So nothing really comes to anything because the movie never decides which plot it wants to follow. Since it tries to be all three, but never makes much of an effort to be any one of them, it just meanders without any urgency. It’s a Jack the Ripper movie without any tension, mystery, or doubt, so what’s the point?

Slade eventually reveals to Lily that he hates actresses because his mother was one, but was unfaithful to his father because she was beautiful enough to get away with it—she could have any man she wanted. This is similar to the line that MRAs take about women in general so it was interesting, in a way, to hear it coming out of Jack the Ripper (oh yeah, spoiler, he’s the Ripper, but the movie doesn’t put much effort into making you think he’s not). At the same time, it seems to be a moment where the movie wants you to sympathize with him—he didn’t want to commit these murders, he was forced by his slatternly mother. At the end, when he finally tries to kill Lily, it’s because he’s jealous of all the men leering at her from the audience at her show, so it seems to be criticizing his position while also endorsing it. Earlier it also has Mrs. Harley being shocked that Lily seems to be flirting with the Prince of Wales from the stage—shocked that she’s using her beauty and sexuality to try to improve her position precisely the way Slade criticized his mother for doing.

What I’m saying is the movie dips its toe into a weird space of seemingly justifying Jack the Ripper’s murders because of slutty-slut-sluts. Sympathy for the serial killer is always a difficult stance to take, but would be a badass title to a metal song.

As with a lot of these movies where I start to get sidelined by the politics, the movie itself doesn’t rise to the level of meriting a political or feminist analysis. That element sticks out as a bit of a, “Wait, what?” moment in an otherwise not-quite-meandering movie. While there’s no energy to the film, it doesn’t drag either, and literally sputters out at the end: Slade is finally revealed, chased by Warwick to a river where Slade simply walks in until he vanishes below the surface. Warwick and the police try to find Slade, but he never resurfaces. So that’s the big dramatic ending that lacks any sense of drama or ending.

I also want to note that the movie is only about 80 minutes long, but has three musical breaks. So it’s short, has nothing much happening, and still felt the need to pump the brakes three times during just to reduce all that tension.

So it’s not a recommend, although saying that implies more passion than the movie’s worth. There’s nice black-and-white cinematography and it’s kind of fun to see a simple studio flick from the 50’s, but there’s nothing compelling about it. On the other hand, it is in the public domain and there’s a copy on archive.org here. It’s riffable enough—I’m sure there are plenty of Jack Palance jokes folks could make—and could be used for a simple editing project, so that’s not nothing. It’s not, though, as a movie, much else.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

176-177. Alfonso Brescia's Italian Star Wars

Jump to 176. War of the Robots (1978)
Jump to 177. Star Odyssey (1979)

*. Cosmos: War of the Planets aka Anno zero - Guerra nello spazio (1977)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia and Aldo Crudo
From: Science Fiction PD Project
Watch: archive.org
A spaceship makes an emergency landing on a planet after intercepting a mysterious signal only to find the planet ruled by a robotic monster.
An unnumbered entry with a link to the PD Project archive? What’s going on? Well, I saw that the next movie was Alfonso Brescia’s War of the Robots, the third in his series of four (some sources say five) Star Wars rip-offs. So I decided to do a master post with the entire series, going back to the first one which I originally watched nine years ago (how is this my life?). Here’s what I wrote then:

The movie is trying to be a high-tech John Henry tale. The hero, Capt. Hamilton, resents having his life and actions dictated by machines. He thinks humans are innately and eternally superior. However the world he lives in is governed by a supercomputer and every act, even sex, is performed via machine. Think Woody Allen's Sleeper but in earnest.

So naturally the planet they land on used to be home to a great civilization that eventually let robots do everything for them—including designing and building new robots. Robots revolted, destroyed the society and now have their eyes on Earth.

Overall not a bad idea—hell, it was great in 2001—but it's so poorly done. The movie drags along, beats you over the head with its at best muddy anti-technology ideology (how do we travel to space without it?) and, like the malevolent computer intelligence, refuses to die. The amazing thing is there are some remarkably rough jump cuts in the film. The original version may have been longer. Yikes.

Upon rewatching, I don’t have much to add except that it’s worse than my previous description implied. All these movies are exhaustingly dull. They’re an odd mix of Star Wars epic space opera and 2001 meditative sci-fi: they have stupid action and silly ideas done really slowly. The space battles are drawn out by orders being given to individual crew to prep this, adjust that, calibrate the other thing. I don’t need the mechanics of shooty-splodey and there are no ideas in these movies to meditate over. So it's just dull.

However, I will expand on the “rough jump cuts.” All the connective tissue in this movie is missing. The who and why of anything is never clear. I can’t name the characters, can’t describe their motivations, or explain what their mission was, and I’ve seen this twice now while taking notes.

This movie is followed by Battle of the Stars which I’ll say very little about because I haven’t seen it.

Not for lack of trying. All these movies are public domain and available all over the Internet, derisively referred to as “Italian Star Wars” (here included). However, this movie is particularly rare. Trash Film Guru’s post about it details both the confusions surrounding the film and the difficulty in finding it, but I’ll give just a quick summary here:

This was shot back-to-back with Cosmos using much of the same cast and sets. It was just random chance that Cosmos was released first. Because of their similarity, many people ignored Battle of the Stars because they thought they were the same movie which has made copies very scarce. It’s so rarely seen, in fact, that it’s the only one of these four movies without a Wikipedia page and its IMDB page is filled with reviews for Cosmos instead.

I’d love to get my hands on a copy to upload to archive.org. Plus, I think there’s a fun editing project that could be done with all these movies.

176. War of the Robots aka La guerra dei robot (1978)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia and Aldo Crudo
From: Chilling; Sci-Fi Invasion
Watch: archive.org
A scientist working on artificial life and his assistant are kidnapped by an alien race intent on immortality. A rescue crew from Earth has 8 days to save them and return before the scientist's experiment explodes, leveling a city and killing thousands.
"Is it because I have cabbage for a head?"
This is when the movies get strange and the “Italian Star Wars” comments make sense. The Prof and his lovely assistant (I’m not looking up anyone’s names for this crap) get kidnapped by Prince-Valiant-looking robots and I had my one moment of real pleasure in imaging this was a Kids in the Hall bit directed by and starring Bruce McCulloch. Then there were three more hours of movies to watch.

Lovely assistant’s boyfriend leads a ship to track down the aliens since the Professor’s nuclear reactor will go critical in 8 ½ days and only the Professor can disable it. They stop to fix a satellite, basically repeating a sequence from Cosmos, fight the aliens, land on an asteroid, get captured, and find the Professor controlling the robots with the supercomputer that was destroyed at the end of Cosmos. He’s the villain now! And lovely assistant is the Empress of the aliens. Empress betrays the aliens, gets everyone out, but turns out she’s actually a traitor, big space battle, Earth wins, town saved, no one could possibly care.

During the movie, the robots start attacking the humans with really crappy lightsabers, and this is where the Star Wars comparisons become clearer. Honestly, the first movie felt a little more like it was ripping off Battlestar Galactica, but whatever. It’s so cheesy, so poorly done. There’s a love-triangle where one of the crew is in love with the Empress’ boyfriend and the joke is he’s literally the only person who doesn’t know. They even pick up an alien from a species that’s been oppressed by the robots and he comments on it. At the end, she’s the one who saves the day. In fact, the boyfriend who’s coded as the “hero” doesn’t do much at all. All the heroic actions are taken by the two women and the alien and I don’t really need to reiterate my lack of patience for films focusing on useless white guys, do I? My apartment has a mirror in the kitchen. I see a useless white guy in action every time I make breakfast. Focus on characters who do shit.

177. Star Odyssey aka Sette uomini d'oro nello spazio (1979)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia, Massimo Lo Jacono, and Giacomo Mazzocchi
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org
An alien comes to Earth planning to enslave all humans. It’s up to a scientist and his band of ragtag thieves and scammers to develop the solution to save the planet.
The waffles have come for revenge!
David Hasselhoff wearing oatmeal is leading an army of the robots from War of the Robots to gather humans from Earth to sell as slaves. As his ship approaches, monitoring stations on Earth go crazy since this is their first contact with an alien species. That doesn’t matter for the movie, I just want to mention it for later.

The alien ship is made from an impenetrable substance so a genius scientist convinces his neice’s showboating space officer boyfriend to break a pair of the scientist's friends out of prison. This “convincing,” by the way, is done via hypnosis. Later, a scammer who’s going to help the officer uses his psychic powers to manipulate small objects and dominate someone’s mind. Yep, we’re into “use the Force” territory and 100% fake Star Wars.

A good three-quarters of this movie is “getting the band back together,” except we don’t know who the band is, how they work together, or why each of them is being selected. So it’s basically an hour of a bunch of nobodies reaching out to yahoos for reasons, maybe.

The original Covfefe.
They also have a pair of suicidal robots that look like Howard the Cyberduck and his girlfriend. They agreed to a suicide pact, but forgot why. At the end of the movie, they remember they wanted to kill themselves because they couldn’t fuck. The scientist offers them a happy ending by promising to make them genitals so they can screw like anyone else.

Were these pornos? This feels like a porno. The acting gets worse from film to film until we arrive at this one that feels like it’s supposed to be a farce, that’s it’s supposed to be the goofy bits between people getting down to fucking, but all the fucking’s been cut. That math doesn’t work, though, because this movie is nearly 100 minutes long. What got cut?

And I’m not going into the plot in detail because it doesn’t make sense. All the shots are out of order. So the alien is approaching Earth, the scientist is getting his plan ready, the scammer is brought in to help in the prison break, and then it flashes back to the alien bidding for the Earth in an interplanetary auction, the scammer in the scene preceding the one where the niece recruited him for the job, both of these intercut with the niece at a wrestling match between a scrawny guy and a robot.

In the end, the escaped prisoners find the solution, big space battle where aliens are driven back, heroes who created awkward love triangles die to simplify the relationships afterwards, and the escaped prisoners follow Breakfasthoff back to the auction house where they sell Earth off again, the prisoners getting a 50% cut. Which is a big, “What?” to end the movie on.

As I mentioned, this uses the same robots as the previous movie. Hoff and oats with syrup’s ship is also the same as the ones used by the heroes in the previous films. I wanted to note that this movie features Earth’s first contact with aliens because it really feels like the movies go in reverse order, that you could watch them 4, 3, 2, 1 and see an epic about Earth’s space program developing over time to ultimately combat the evil supercomputer that’s been angling for galactic conquest the whole time. It’d make a hell of a lot more sense that any one of these movies do on their own.

In fact, because there’s so much overlap in sets and costumes, it’d be really easy to cut up all these films and make something new that makes sense and looks like one coherent thing. You could even redub it since the original dubbing is so bad.

These movies are trash. Watching them literally wore me out. They’re highly mockable because they’re so silly, but I’d say Star Odyssey might be so bad that even watching it to make fun of it would be a challenge. As I suggested, there are editing projects you could put together using these movies and, luckily, they're all public domain. I didn’t realize this when I set out to watch all of these, but I already uploaded Cosmos way back when. It’s the 2nd most downloaded movie I’ve posted after Bloody Pit of Horror and beats the 3rd most, The Phantom Planet, by just over 50,000 downloads. I’ve added an MPEG-2 of War of the Robots to archive.org here and would have added one of Star Odyssey, but Mill Creek decided to rub themselves all over the crusty deliciousness of Spam-and-eggs-and-Hoff by squirting their logo onto my copy. Fortunately, someone else posted one to archive.org here. If you're particularly masochistic, you can watch them all, but I'd recommend doing so only after several "tall glasses of water."

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Story Slam: Battle Scars

A new Story Slam piece, this time about my first reporting gig for Rustbelt Radio in Pittsburgh. I was covering the protest of the third anniversary of the Iraq War, an event that was, maybe unsurprisingly, framed by the specter of state violence.