"The best of this kind are but shadows..." - Theseus (Midsummer Night's Dream)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Paula of the Apes: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, JUNGLE CAPTIVE (Scream Factory Universal Horror Collection VI)


An oft overlooked part of Universal's monster pantheon, Paula Dupree, the gorilla/human hybrid, starred in her very own trilogy: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, and JUNGLE CAPTIVE, all released in a three year-span of 1943-5 (the height of wartime and--for some reason--the height of gorilladom - see RETURN OF THE APE MAN: Revisiting the Wartime Savage from a Post-Modern Perspective!). Like any number of popular monsters, she was regularly brought back from the abyss from the dead by unscrupulous (male) scientists, made brunette human to suit their own likeness, but reverted back to animal form as soon as some dull as dishwater leading man overlooked them as romantic partners in favor some equally square blonde.

In all three films, Paula ends up shot, shot up, or otherwise killed. Three times! What a lives! And what a set from Scream Factory! All three films (+ another gorilla-friendly sub-classic) comprise Volume Six of their Universal Horror Collection, a series which rounds up all the titles that Universal didn't consider 'pantheon' enough to release themselves, i.e that don't feature one of Universal's chosen males: Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Phantom of the Opera (this last one being, to most Universal fans, a dubious inclusion in the pantheon, at best, though an Abbot and Costello vs. the Phantom of the Opera would have been... no doubt unbearable.)

Naturally, all four look amazing, better than they ever did (on my old VHS tapes). The only thing wrong is the lack of so much as a five-minute documentary on Paula Dupree aka Sheela, the Gorilla. There's not even a bit of feminist outrage about why there's no documentary to accompany her overdue moment in the sun.

Whatever your impressions, Paula's origins as a character are easy enough to trace: she's clearly conjured by Universal idea men after noticing the box office generated by RKO's Cat People (which came out the year before). Like Irina (Simone Simon) in that film, Paula's animal instincts are triggered by raging jealousy and sexual frustration, bringing home the war-enforced separation subtext loud and clear. What soldier or homefront 21 year-old warrbride climbing the walls at home thinking about foreign women with their clingy claws out or handsome Lockheed shift managers couldn't relate?

A gorilla brain transplant melodrama that was recently introduced on TCM by its biggest fan, ape suit connoisseur John Landis (an intro not even included on this bare-bones set), the set's fourth and last film is THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941), a groovy strangely noir-esque and poetic tale of a man wrongly convicted and executed whose brain is transplanted into a gorilla body after death and then comes back to find and kill the the gangsters who framed him and are now after his moll. It's interesting and cool but it's really Paula's boxed set. Don't try and steal her agency, you sexist/species-ist. It would be nice if Scream gave us an ape woman documentary. Even a commentary--even a five minute bit on the sexism that has led to the characters exclusion from the Universal pantheon. 

But the films themselves have never looked better. You'll be surprised at the attention given to spooky lighting Dmytryk's CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, it's so gorgeous now in the HD glimmer it's beguiling; and the beauty of Evelyn Ankers' face is more striking than it ever was on video or TV; her flawless white make-up; the planes of her face marvelous in their matte alabaster. Even her hats are dynamite.

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN
(1943) Dir. Edward Dmytrk
Film: *** / Image - A+ / Extras - F 

We first meet her while she's happily (for some unknown reason) being lifted out of ship storage in a tiny little cage and loaded onto the docks of America for her life of exploitation by her new owner, the circus after a presumably normal life in Africa. She's a gorilla, at this stage in her accelerated evolution--i.e. she's a guy in a gorilla suit--but she's a naive sweetheart with way too much faith in the inherent goodness of her captor, a dullard lion tamer played by Milburn Stone. Her life might have been one of happy servitude, if only she didn't catch the eye of a visiting glandular specialist played with superbly creepy understatement by John Carradine. Like the evil fairy godfather of some kind of Moreau island Cinderella myth, smooth-talking Carradine turns her human--thanks to the glandular extracts from patient Martha Vickers (three years before trying to sit in Bogey's lap while he's standing up in The Big Sleep)--so she can land a prince charming, i.e. Stone, who prefers cool hat-sporting Evelyn Ankers. Vicker's older sister, Ankers read in a medical journal that Carradine fixed up "a completely deformed child" and also "reversed acromegaly 'due to a hyper secretion in the pituitary gland," which is why, for some reason not evident in her beautiful countenance,  he takes her kid sister to his isolated, creepy mansion "clinic" in the first place.

If Captive Wild Woman is actually good, rather than just kind of smirky and uncouth (due to the unconscious sexism and animal cruelty on the part the "hero"), it's thanks to the flair for horror shown by director Edward Dmytryk who takes the time to get the atmosphere and peripheral horror details just right, like the glint of madness in the eyes of John Carradine as he watches an offscreen Sheela strangle her drunken abusive handler; or the way his hillside clinic is constantly bathed in thunderstorms and billowing winds, contrasted with the moody, deathly still interiors. Naturally his operating room is hidden behind a false bookcase, far from prying eyes. That Ankers would just leave her sister alone for days in this spooky place seems rather careless, but as Carradine's picture is in all the medical journals, she reckons he must be trustworthy (as evinced by her engagement to the idiot Stone, she clearly places far too much faith in the patriarchy).

Our objections to Carradine's Mirakle-style plan in today's more enlightened world aren't as extreme as they might have been back in 1943, but meanwhile our compassion for women and abused jungle animals (namely the lions and tigers Stone forces to work together in his sick big top displays) make our 21st century hearts sink, especially when we hear he's captured and brought back "20-30 cats", all in these tiny crates that don't even give them room to turn around. Neither the cats nor the now-human "Paula Dupree" (Aquanetta) get a second glance of credit for making Stone the big shot he is. i.e. the cats aren't praised or rewarded for learning tricks (the way they seem to be in the Clyde Beatty footage that's intercut with Stone's, and which shows Beatty more of a hypnotist with a real connection to the cats rather than Stone, who is more like a dopey front for uncredited female agency (since Paula is able to control the animals through telepathy and a deep jungle connection, for some unexaplained reason - like a glandular side effect). And Sheela/Paula isn't awarded for her loyalty to lion tamer Stone, whose life she saves from outside the training cage with her moody stares, Stone just admits she can be a big help to him and assumes she'll always be there in the wings as long as he needs her (he doesn't ask her permission to use her this way; he acts Carradine's permission, like he's her pimp!



That's another big sore spot that can either be read as a dig on the expectations of returning vets to just boot all the working-during-wartime women out of their jobs, it's really Paula who trains the big cats with her staring, and Stone isn't needed at all. He should be fired and Paula hired full time, given a big hat to make her look taller, like Mae West as Tyra the lion tamer in I'm No Angel (yet there's no mention of her even going on the payroll, anymore than the cats themselves). Instead, super square Milburn is only too willing to take all the credit, with the indispensable Paula as forgotten as, perhaps, a stuntwoman or voice artist who dubs a character's singing voice, doomed to anonymity to foster the illusion of another actor's supremacy in all things. She does get some publicity but the papers admit they don't quite know how she figures in.

The other women in the cast fare no better at the hands of men: Carradine's long-loyal female assistant balks at threatening the life of Vickers (via partial brain transplants) in order to turn Sheela more human, so Carradine kills her without so much as a second thought (word to the wise: if you're going to turn your mad scientist boss into the authorities, don't boldly proclaim your intentions while alone with him down in their scream-proof secret basement). And Ankers' job at the circus (she's the owner's assistant) is treated as utterly superfluous to Milburn, to whom she's little more than chattel, another animal ("I hope you're as easy to train when we're married.") Poor Martha Vickers, meanwhile, is dumped off and left to the mercy of crazy Carradine without a second thought, which is weird since she exhibits no signs of illness whatsoever, nor is her opinion asked of whether she's comfortable being left at some stranger's eerie house for an indeterminate amount of time. When she displays trepidation, Ankers even chides her, treating her with the same infantalizing contempt with which she herself allows herself to be treated by Stone.

Unlike Stone's lion tamer, however, at least glandular expert Carradine knows enough not to try to get married. He's prideful but he recognizes his own psychopathic villainy. There's no excuse for Milburn's because it's so unconscious and accepted it took us decades of slow-burn enlightenment to finally realize how rotten it is.

Martha Vickers is refused one phone call by sinister Carradine - Captive Wild Woman
Fortunately, Dmytryk --unconsciously or not -- is an ally; and in her way, though she's homicidally jealous, to the point of killing the house matron at Ankers' girls' residence after she climbs into her bedroom to kill her (over jealousy for Stone for some reason), she does end up slaughtering Carradine and then rushing to the rescue after the big top catches fire and the lions and tigers run loose and start chomping on Stone. Like Lota conveniently does for her man in Paramount's 1933 film, Sheela saves Stone's life, rescuing him from a mauling by Nero the lion before being shot and killed by a nervous cop who who doesn't deign to figure out it's a good ape or reckon he might kill Stone, who's slumped over her shoulder. And yet, two seconds after what should be her martyrdom, the circle has closed around Stone's white male privilege once more. Paula/Sheela is totally forgotten; the cop is not even reprimanded; Stone plans his big show to come (it doesn't seem to dawn on him he's lost his apron string safety net) and we actually end up with a homage to Carradine's looney doctor, whose ever-windswept sanitarium gets a final glide-over during a coda voiceover about the price of daring to delve into God's domain. 

Paula (Aquanetta) tries to restrain her delight at having these two grade-A specimens (J. Caroll Naish, left; Eddy Hyans, right) as her sole companions during her post-surgery convalescence
JUNGLE WOMAN
(1944) Dir. Reginald LeBorg
*1/2 / Image Quality - A / Extras - F

The second film in the Dupree saga is easily the worst, thanks to both the jumbled, lazy flashback structure and banal time-wasting bits of low-energy hamming by a woefully miscast J. Carroll Naish as whisper-talking psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher The narrative itself occurs as flashbacks illustrating Fletcher's whispery testimony at the second inquest for Paula, after he's both revived her from the last film and then killed her himself. Thus, the film is structured as a flashback but then the first part of the flashback is a flashback to the last film, all of which is stretched to tedium as Naish putters around one issue of the case after another, as if he hates to part with a single line of dialogue. At his tony sanitarium, the only inhabitants seem to be himself, a few staff members, his daughter (Lois Collier and her bland fiancee (Richard Davis) who drop by now and again-- and the gorilla he takes home from the circus fire of the last film, who then becomes Aquanetta again, but then walks away from her bed before Dr. Fletcher or the nurse notices the change. This means Naish gets to eat up more time as Fletcher wonders where his comatose gorilla's gone and where his cute amnesiac drop-in came from. While Fletcher tries to put two and two together, history repeats itself as another super bland idiot fiancee catches Paula's eye.

But neither that bland fellow nor Naish are even the real reason the film is such a drag. That dubious honor goes to Eddie Hyans as big old George (upper right), the orderly at Fletcher's sanitarium. He plays a needy Lenny-style imbecile with the kind of flat almost self-sabotaging half-assedness that makes you feel like a fool for even paying attention. As he falls into a childish obsession with Paula. (Why the hell wouldn't he?), lines like "I don't annoy her; I was just bringin' her lunch," or "aw, it's a gyp," sound like he's doing a drunk impression of Tammany Young in It's a Gift (1934), itself not a bad thing, when your drinking buddy does it at 3 AM, but not in a Universal horror film.

There are one or two great Lewton-esque scenes, both stalking scenes set at night on Naish's vast estate as Dupree (unseen) stalks Naish's daughter (again mirroring Irina chasing Alice in Cat People). In the best of the two, with nothing in the music to indicate danger; we see the couple out on a canoe out on the estate's groovy pond/lake at night. The scene is quiet, romantic, no music; everything is perfect enough we start noticing details like the moon, the reflection on the still water, and then something stirring below the surface, starting from shore but making a bee-line ripple-eddy straight towards the lovers' canoe. You can feel the typical over-emphatic mickey mouse composer chomping at the bit, begging to underscore everything with strings and woodwinds, and that he didn't bespeaks to someone, somewhere, along the film's assembly line, making a genuine eerie cinematic moment, simply by removing, rather than adding.

Meanwhile Fletcher us so dumb he still can't figure out what is going on; even with all the copious evidence, even without Milburn Stone showing up to try and fill in the blanks from the last film.  And Fletcher is so removed from cognizant reality, he refuses to call the police, even after George's body is discovered on the grounds, torn to shreds, not out of squirmy guilt but because he genuinely believes it was some wandering animal, and therefore just an accident not worth a policeman's time. One can only presume he's dangerously incompetent and not sociopathic, as the bodies pile up it never occurs to him to even consider hiring a security guard. The reason is probably pretty clear: in grand Universal B-lot style, nary an extra outside of stock footage may be found.

Even at only an hour long, even packed with footage from the last film, this is pretty slow going. Only the rage expressed by Paula has any resonance: the more angry she becomes the scarier she gets. All the while though one wonders why Aquanetta was cast in the role. Did some producer think she resembled some idealized fusion of Dorothy Lamour (then a hit at Paramount) and Simone Simon? Whatever the reason, she's too short to pack menace as a human, and lacks the eerie poise and dark feeling of ex-pat isolation that Simon brought to Irina. But, if she can't really act, she sure can glower, and that is something.


JUNGLE CAPTIVE
(1945) Dir. Harold Young 
**1/2 / Image - A / Extras - F

Jungle Captive is certainly terrible but at least it is atmospheric and miles above Jungle Woman (1945) thanks to an amusingly sinister turn by Otto Kruger and the always fascinating Rondo Hatton as the smitten killer assistant who first steals her body from the morgue (an ape woman's corpse just can't get a break). Hatton and Kruger are so good they aren't even the same genus as Naish and Hyans from the last film in the trilogy, so don't hold your past-film resentment against them. There is no pretending to be anything but shady with this pair. Standahl (Kruger) isn't even a doctor, just a laboratory scientist who sees Paula as the perfect loophole to the 'no experimenting on humans' rule in science (she's technically a lab animal), moving up a few steps from his experiments bringing life back to dead rabbits--with Rondo snarling and holding a gun on morgue technicians a far cry from dopey Hyans mooning over Paula and mumbling like some half-assed Bugs Bunny gangster flunky.

Once again, animal abuse and control plays a huge part --with Rondo whipping a Great Dane (fortunately, as with Milburn in the other film, just whipping the air or the ground in front of him) who is scared of Paula's lifeless gorilla body. But, always a welcome presence, droopy-eyed Jerome Cowan is Detective Harrigan of Homicide. and Amelita Ward is the fetching Liz Taylor-eyed assistant and, for some unknown reason, Vicky Lane steps in as Paula Dupree. Everything just got better! Almost. 


Another element that lifts this above Universal's tossed-off B-movie dregs: little bits of macabre deadpan humor, like Hatton advancing from behind on Ann, his big hands all looming in the grand 'Creeper' tradition, only to then just take off her coat,  and just the habit Kruger has of bugging his eyes out as the moody noir shadows hit his features just right; or Ann realizing too late that Kruger is the one who stole the ape, and Kruger kind of relishing her shock as he announces he needs her ("You see, Ann, I need you... I need your blood.") When she tries to reason with Molloch (Hatton), he's unswayed. Stendahl comments: "You see, Molloch (Hatton) is a true scientist. He understands the unimportance of a mere life when it might impede progress." Kruger could be awfully bland as a good guy, ala his sober sages in Dracula's Daughter and Magnificent Obsession, but when he's a villain he's pretty intriguing, eagerly playing those same noble features against type with a kind of aglow eerie relish. Here especially he's pretty good, maybe even better than he was Murder, My Sweet. And he and Hatton have a fine working colleague rapport, until of course, they don't.

Ann is pretty dimwitted but she trusts Kruger, who harvests her blood to bring back Paula and she's been nice to Molloch. That's where Stendahl makes his mistake, for like all ugly brute thug assistants, he develops a crush on the pretty victim. "Why, Molloch!" Kruger says, mockingly, "I believe you feel sorry for my pretty assistant. Don't be a fool! We're scientists, not sentimentalists." 

Elements like Kruger's wry delivery and Hatton's looming aside, there are other things to cherish here too, like the atmospheric almost James Wong Howe-ish lighting (which was never really in evidence prior to Shout's sublime Blu-ray restoration).

Unfortunately, these things aside, it's still kind of a shrug of a film thanks to the blank space where an ape woman should be. Paula never seems to shake her somnambulistic amnesia throughout the film.  She can barely be bothered to be jealous over some all human girl's luck with the men. It's all much more about Otto and Molloch vs. Detective Cowan and the 'good' couple, with Paula only real snapping to life when she has a chance to play rescuer as the lab inevitably (I think?) goes up in flames.

A few extraneous details: my old girlfriend was named Paula so I sampled more than a few lines from this movie in my DJ phase in the 90s, including "Paula's brain is gone. Her reactions are those of an animal." But that will mean little to you, though it took me a long time to realize it. In fact the reason I bought all three films on video tape over the years was because her name was Paula. It soothed my broken heart in many a way, even though our breakup was mutual and I didn't want her back, it was just that she was so far away, and I was suffering from missing her. Watching Jungle Captive, I still do. 
----

I could go into the MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941) also included on this Shout Universal Horror edition and maybe I will at some future date. But I don't want to steal any more of Paula's agency than the world has already. She's too far gone now to ever be redeemed or suddenly re-valued, anyway, but why add insult to injury. Ignored and maligned by history, to ever have her likeness reproduced on a stamp, or an Aurora model, or even rate as either a coded lesbian archetype ala Irina in Cat People or a Halloween hairdo like The Bride of Frankenstein. She may have been exhumed and revived in the diegesis of her films, but never in real life. Though her closest cousin may well be the Wolf Man as far looks go (when she's right in between gorilla and human girl form) the bottom line is, Paula just doesn't know what she wants to be. Clearly her murderous  behavior has much to do with Irina's - in that being ignored and belittled and slighted by the guy who catches her eye makes her insanely jealous over the girl he prefers, leading to her turning all crazed with animal hatred and vengeance. That she and her writers never figure out where to go beyond that, stuck in and endless repetition, (or even reach that, effectively, in the third film) speaks woefully of their imaginations. Never quite all the way a bad guy or a good, her murders are all emotionally driven, failing the Bechdel test in so many ways, but paid for in the end by her coming to the rescue of the code-approved (i.e. human, white, Christian, heterosexual, and age appropriate) pair bond, killing the real villains, usually as flames lick her fur.

Maybe it's all that middle of the road-ness that stops her from connecting with audiences today. She lacks a James Whale / Karloff or Lewton/Tourneur combination to make her sense of all consuming isolation connect with wartime audiences (particularly romantic couples coping with prolonged, eerie foreboding while separated by WWII). Conversely, also also lacks a Browning / Lugosi combination to make the monster's sense of otherworldly Gothic sex fever resonate across deeper valleys of the unconscious. She lacks Chaney/ Siodmak fatalism, or even a Ricou Browning /Arnold sense of eco-awareness.

What she has instead is the story of absence; or a gaping void where her own arc and narrative might have grown outside of patriarchal manipulation and exploitation; women (and animals) are still recovering from such blatant encroachment, ever trying to shake the yoke of 'captivity' and finding it impossible, even in death. Lucky for her (as opposed to the gloomy Larry Talbot/Wolfman who seeks 'release' all through his last five or six films) after her third film she's able to finally, permanently die. In this one thing, maybe, she reigns triumphant. It must be.. glorious.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

NIGHTMARE USA: 10 Wild, Weird Gems of Off-Brand 70s Horror Americana (via Stephen Thrower)



I've found a fine and massive tome for the summer's reading (and accompanying viewing) in British author Stephen Thrower's NIGHTMARE USA, a mammoth look at the locally-made independent horror cinema that flourished on drive-in and inner-city screens in the 70s and early-80s. Much of it forgotten, maligned, or long-buried in obscurity, even with so much of it out on DVD and, best of all, Prime! He's already curated two volumes of the American Horror Project via Arrow, each with three films, commentaries and documentaries. The second volume has two great surreal gems (The Child, Dream No Evil) and one interesting Vermont-filmed witchcraft tale that has lovely scenery but is slow, vaguely irritating, and empty (not unlike Vermont itself), Dark August. The first volume is OOP but two of the three titles in it are on Prime! So that's pretty cool. 

And so, I have collected, as is my wont, 11 cool films Thrower writes about. Several of them I never would have watched without Thrower's enthusiasm to inspire me. So I have included copious, random quotes from the fast-becoming-indispensable Nightmare USA.

Now, one place Thrower and I differ is in the taste for the hard stuff - the downbeat brutality of sexual assault and slasher films, the blunt force trauma of 'classics' like Last House on the Left and Maniac (neither of which I have yet seen, fearing the PTS). As I've often written, as a sensitive child of the 70s just seeing the TV spots and previews for a lot of these movies left me feeling deeply disturbed and unsafe for weeks. As an isolated teenager in the early-80s, I felt trapped and targeted by slashers. But I am fine with Thrower having fondness for them, as he writes of the slasher movies so infectiously, eschewing post-lib psychoanalysis in favor of a kind of practical-poetic prose coming from an infectious sense of portent. On the habit of having slasher films set at certain holidays and celebrations, for example, he writes of something I know I never thought of myself:
"There's the way in which teen audiences experience seasonal intervals: as each yearly celebration goes by, even the most carefree of fifteen year-olds grows aware of the passage of time. When you're a teenager, to be a year older than another is to occupy an entirely different social milieu. Teenagers thus have a very different temporal awareness. Three years is a long time: five years is tantamount to a generation gap. In general, it's only with yearly holidays that younger people are aware of the passage of time, and thus perhaps of their own mortality. Yearly rituals let the future as well as the past leak through..." (p. 26)
Genius! So what then, is the difference between us? I think England and its video nasty law is the key. He was protected (if that is the right word) by the government from the blunt force trauma I was exposed to.  In the US, wherein the video store 'horror' section was a very traumatic place to visit, fraught with screaming underdressed females in various states of dismemberment. If you grew up without exposure to it (while kids in the 80s for example, formed around it, taking it all with a grain of salt). In England, banned films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac, Driller Killer and The Toolbox Murders were the stuff of legend - viewable only on terrible VHS dupes smuggled in like hashish. As a result, the mystique we initially felt as kids, driving past the sleazy marquees in the pre-video era, the excitement of the forbidden easily beats the depression of suddenly all the forbidden being rubbed in your face, made horribly visible. I resonated strongly with the feminist backlash, and absorbed the indignity (see notes for more details).

But the 70s also was rife with fariy tale-style supernatural-based horror, the ones that look to dreams and surrealism, ala Susipiria, The Beyond. To me, that is all different. Even things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Drink Your Blood are different enough, as the violence is more across the board and less misogynist. A a kid I developed a deep fascination with secondhand descriptions from babysitters (who looked like Lynn Lowry in I drink your Blood or Suzanna Ling in Kiss of the Tarantula) and their cool dangerous boyfriends who could go to the drive-ins, and my own imagination of their dangerous, sexy lives, of which these movies were a part. Going to see an R-film the first time in the 70s was like a right of passage; after VCR and cable boom, the R-movie met nothing.. Gradually, the surge of gory horrible misogyny on display at video stores began to be quite warping and upsetting; it happened (to me, anyway) so slowly it took me awhile to notice, but eventually leaving me so soured on my own gender it took finally reading Carol Clover and Camille Paglia in the early 90s to lift me out of my guilty ashen miasma. 

Time has mellowed it all somewhat, and so forth, the violence is contextualized, and ---in the all forgiving lens of nostalgia - made safe and fun. Kinda. Maybe. 


Luckily, there are really two sides to Thrower's 70s horror lens. There's his love of the shady, un-PC blunt force trauma of things like Maniac, Sex Wish, Abducted and Victims and there's what I love and what I didn't even have the words to describe until he pointed it out in his praise of The Beyond (via his Fulci book) and The Child
"Disorientation, not storytelling, is the key to the film's pleasures... this brand of straight-faced narrative absurdity is something I particularly like, maddening though it may be to students of dramatic arts. The Child's disconcerting oneiric shiver is intimately bound up in its lack of sense. " (p.351)
These oneiric shiver films include things like Lemora: A Child's Tale of the SupernaturalLets Scare Jessica to Death, and Messiah of Evil, The Child, and Phantasm. And Thrower's admiration is infectious. I still avoid things like The Toolbox Murders, but that's where Thrower is a good guide for this journey. I can discern what's surreal and cool vs. traumatic (if Thrower thinks something is genuinely disturbing, I know to keep my distance). Luckily, at least a good half or more of the films Thrower mentions in Nightmare USA are sexual misogyny-free (unless the girl gets to be the killer) and available on Prime. Here are 11 I found there that I can either heartily, or perhaps cautiously, recommend! But there are many, many, many more.


1. EATEN ALIVE
(British Title: Death-Trap)
(1976) Dir. Tobe Hooper
*** / Amazon Image - A+

This used to be one ugly, loud full frame downer, but thanks to Thrower's appreciation I realized I had to see it again, via Prime's gorgeous print in HD anamorphic widescreen, wherein the reds and oranges of its color gel-emblazoned mise-en-scene glow like the magnificent Louisiana swampland back alley cousin of Suspiria and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Trying to recapture Chainsaw magic, Hooper tells the tale of 24 hours or so of a deranged hotel owner (played here by a terrific, muttering, shaggy wigged Neville Brand) who tends to feed disgruntled guests to his tourist attraction giant crocodile.  Hooper creates elegant tension and a kind of surreal fairy tale ambience as Brand's entire Starlite is indoors on a set, with jungle swamps bathed in pink, red, and rose, the mist like some beguiling seductive dark Disney haunted house ride. Marilyn Burns (the heroine from Texas) arrives with a super insane, twisted-up  husbnd (William Finley) and a distraught daughter (the croc eats her puppy) who ends up spending the bulk of the movie hiding in the crawlspace under the hotel, trying to dodge Brand's scythe and the crocodile while hoping someone hears her screams above the swamp noises. Apparently Hooper was never too happy about the final result of all this mayhem, but Thrower is fond, and his fondness is contagious. 

Especially now that it's all remastered, widescreen and with those gorgeous red and pink Suspiria gels it's like some sick interactive ride, from the lower crawlspace with crocodile and Night of the Hunter-style bogeyman chases), to the hotel exterior with cars coming and going and the croc ever-hungry, to the second floor with sex and bondage (in different rooms, and the sex being consensual, 'whew') all contributing to the dense, wild sound mix, where the sound of the swamp all but obscures the dim sounds of the child screaming for help two floors down and the struggles of the bound Burns. The musical score, meanwhile, is all over the place in the best possible way (the book includes a great interview with composer Wayne Bell). Thrower notes:
"It's true that compared to its perfect sibling (Texas) it suffers from a limp and a stoop and a crooked gait, but in all its malformed glory it still commands respect for its unrelenting weirdness, its vicious hysteria, and Neville Brand's wonderful performance." (p. 441)

2. THE PREMONITION
(1976) Dir. Robert Allen Schnitzer
*** / Amazon Image - A

It's a gorgeous print of a fine, weird film that's filled with stunningly weird moments, including every moment the foxy Ellen Barber is onscreen. Acting crazy in a red dress and black choker with cameo portrait and long stunning black hair (above), we totally get why a weird looking clown like Jude (Richard Lynch) her buddy from the sanitarium, would be so smitten with her he'd let her obsession (to kidnap the child taken from her and given up for adoption when she was first committed to the sanitarium) become his, to the point of losing his own mind even further than he had previously. There's a lot to admire in this unique and marvelous film, but it's Barber's beauty and Lynch's insanity that stand out. If you're not a fan of Lynch's burn-ravaged face and eerily calming voice, what's wrong with you? Here he adds a great touch of moaning insanely when driven to violence-if you've ever lost consciousness in a rage-based white-out you can really relate. As Thrower notes:
"Twice during the film, Jude loses control and Lynch's performance makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He summons a pressurized, resonant tone from deep in his chest, one that sounds viritually electronic ((think Tim Buckley circa Starsailor): it will haunt you long after the film is over. The cry ascends like a nuclear warning, from inhuman oscillation to frenzied shriek. Normally he'd be the villain, pure and simple. Instead, even he is shown with love; indeed, love is what motivates him. He adores Andrea so much that he donates his ever waking moment to her obsession. He only snaps when Andrea settles for less. Clutching a mere doll, she sinks into her own delusion and Jude, having staked all on their joint venture, is left high and dry: a psychotic who's bet his heart and lost. Richard Lynch is the sort of actor that David Lynch ought to seek out, and after seeing The Premonition I found it hard to watch him in less demanding roles (for instance Delta Fox or Deathsport): in their mundanity they seem disrespectful." (p.324)
He also adds that "like Thom Eberhardt's Sole Survivor or Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil, it deserves a far greater genre profile. " That he goes to them, two lesser-known gems I personally love, as examples of undersung brilliance, it lets me know I'd like this film, and I did. To be sure, I love those two films more than this. It's marred by yet another squaresville husband (the adopted dad) who studies parapsychology with a smirk and almost lets his masculine logocentric pride keep him from trying all sorts of crazy shit in order to be reunited with his daughter, and there's no satisfaction of seeing him realize the truth and supporting his wife's supernatural instincts verbally (i.e. changing his tone) even after he realizes she's right. And there are scenes with way too much crying and hysterics from adopted mom Sharon Farrell (Schnitzer must have been too shy to cut her anguishes short, realizing she was giving him a powerhouse emotional display), so as a result all the best stuff happens in the first half when Lynch and Barber are closer to center stage and a great dark but compassionate mirror to the adopted parents in their little world bubble, but hey, overall it is a beautiful, unique film.

3. WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, THE
(1976) Dir. Matt Climber
**** / Amazon Image - A

I love this film and wrote about it, some would say 'at length' here. Thrower included it in the first volume of his curated American Horror Project (along with the previous film on this list), and Prime's copy reflects no doubt the hand of a qualified, loving restorer. 
"(it) turns out to be one of the strangest and most perversely beautiful horror films of the seventies" Thrower notes. "The movie changes the metabolism of its genre; the scares are oblique, the overall tone languid...  The Witch Who Came from the Sea is in another league; a genre masterpiece deserving of a much higher profile..." (p. 514-515)

4. PIGS
Dir. Marc Lawrence 
*** / Amazon Image - B+
"It's a personal favourite of mine, one of an initial handful of titles that inspired me to embark on this book (Nightmare USA). Alright, so there's a lack of action, but the absence of a forward-driving narrative is an essential part of the fun: Pigs doesn't fly; it floats. There's a muted, psychedelic feel to the film ---you feel kind of stoned watching it, a sensation that's cued up by Charles Bernstein's wonderful 60s theme song (...) and his often startling score, which employs lots of Jew's harp (a neglected psychedelic instrument in my opinion)." (Thrower- p. 489)
Me too, bro, and it was definitely great being able to que this up on Prime immediately after reading about it. It goes down easy, but I'm not sure director Lawrence is right as the pig farmer / diner owner. With his brooding gangster brow and acne-scarred face and New York sass, he's livened up everything Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum to Diamonds are Forever, always playing basically the same doomed thug. Here we have to buy him as a reticent graverobbing (?) pig farmer (who everyone knows is digging up corpses to feed to his pigs, which sounds exhausting) / diner owner / former circus persona, whose property lies at the tail end cul-de-sac of dusty desert nowhere. Watching this with the subtitles on, it takes forever for him to actually read his own visible lines so we have to guess if he forgot them or is just registering fear and evasiveness as he dodges sheriff Jesse Vint's patient probing into who he's been feeding them pigs. We'd love to see some tough guy moxy, but instead he grasps too much on the 'trying to hide something' shyness. Luckily, his (real life) daughter Toni Lawrence, shows up, with a mysterious past, and a need for a job and a place to stay. She is truly unhinged and they make a great pair. Sure, he makes a few mistakes in cleaning up her mess, like leaving a spare hand outside of the pen. Also, who keeps pigs right behind a diner? The smell alone would ensure no one comes near with any kind of appetite.

Anyway, with its sombre mix of grit, ennui and psychosis it must seem uniquely Nightmare USA grade-A prime, and that it's one of Thrower's favorites probably has to do with his being British, hence he's more keen on the kind of distinctly sweaty desert vibe it has. Maybe England is too small, old and settled to really have ass end of nowhere style cul-de-sacs like the town that holds Lawrence's pig ranch/diner. Maybe only Australia, with its vast empty outback, really understands that there's nothing romantic about it.  

Me, there are a few things I don't like, for instance the cover art (which looks like some dreary Scholastic paperback) and the title. It's not sexy; I think of obese cannibalistic slobs eating people with all the finesse of a high school cafeteria wiseass in a badly-lit 80s slasher movie. BUT I have a soft spot for girl schizophrenic killers and Toni Lawrence's glee in killing and her delirious, relaxed almost post-coital relaxation afterwards, all bloody and calm, is pretty awesome. I like movies where female killers don't need to be violated before dicing up any stray idiot male, for any reason whatsoever, and who enjoy their work. 

5. DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS  
(1977) Dir. George Barry
**2/3 / Amazon Image - B+

My appreciation of this super strange film stems 100% from soaking up the prose of Thrower's loving appreciation before hitting the 'play' button on yonder Prime. Thrower even mentions George Barry learning about it via the Scarlet Street Message Forums, my old alma mater! I've tried to get through Death Bed in the past, before reading Thrower's praise, but found it incoherent and overly winky.  But after reading Thrower I found the tools to love it for its very weirdness:
"Death Bed deals in transcendental mysteries (the impossible geometry of the bed, bigger on the inside than the outside; the occult means by which it is created and destroyed), but Barry summons his demons from a fantasy world disconnected from religious tradition, telling a story of demonic seduction that has nothing to do with the Church...

"Throught the film, poetic images allow the slender narrative to take a back seat (...) We see blood blossom from the eye-socket of a skull in the bed's fluid interior; roses blooming from the same skull, now magically buried in the soil outside; a shattered mirror fragmenting into a kaleidoscopic collage; and the pages of a book turning into mirrors that capture the flames of a fire. Such imagery suggests the Romantic tradition, as befits the Artist behind the glass, like a fey whisper caught halfway between English Gothic and the Scandinavian Symbolists..." (375)
Full of great lines, strange characters and a totally unique plot and place and a totally unique setting. There's a giant bed in a small one room building, with black walls covered with strange surrealist Victorian era inks, and a lit fireplace!) and great lines ("Flowers? you brought flowers to the country? I hate to disillusion you but they do grow wild up here." / "What have you been reading that we couldn't find you?")  Weird voiceovers and a haunting elegant synth melody.


There's a kind of proto-emo kid art project 16mm glory to the film; as Thrower notes, it's a true original. It's not afraid to cut away to people in coffins, to move from one person's inner monologue to another, and full of strange one-sided conversations between a Goth-ish artist trapped behind one of his 'paintings' --actually a drawing!--  talking to the demon bed ("it's been such a long time since your last meal") and wishing he could get warn the unlucky visitors ("you gaze upon me as a painting on the wall, I gaze on you a serving upon some monster's silver platter.") but he mainly talks to the bed ('your insides are bleeding, why?) We see blood enter the urine-sea that is the bed interior; book of glossy mirror pages; nude doubling; fires inside books; some strange object that like a peyote bud sticking out of the severed mouth of a coppherhead; strange dreams, people sleeping in bed with their sandals still on. This bed movie has it all. A scene that takes comically forever of one of the near-digested victims climbing out of the bed, and dragging herself almost out of the room (her legs covered in blood) takes what seems like forever but then builds to a magnificent, almost Tarkovsky-esque payoff for our patience.

The best scene finds a young hippie pulling his hands out of the bed and seeing they are now skeleton hands. "It's amost like a surgical operation," he notes. As his phalanges and metacarpals fall off one by one, he comments "great." Alas, they don't move from the room of their own accord but just wait there. "til your appetite returns?" wonders the artist. No one freaks out or asks what the hell is going on, no matter how weird things get. They just burn their skeleton hands in the fire and wait for the demon to sleep so the artist can finally talk beyond his painting. "Young lady I will wake you halfway," he notes, sounding like Herbert Marshall. "Find the remnants of the fingers of your brother; take a strand of your friend's hair." When she cuts a magic circle around the bed, the floor bleeds!

Ever the modest soul, Thrower doesn't mention his outtasite weird music band Cyclobe composed new music for the film's DVD release (Barry was unhappy with the original composer; he had every right to change it before release since, after all, the film hasn't been officially released before coming to DVD. It was on bootleg tapes, never in theaters). "It's a movie where dreams and reality are interchangably bizarre," Thrower notes, "where humour, horror and surreal imagination are tucked so tightly together they've merged into a single, unique night-beast... There's nothing else like it, and if you love it there is nowhere else to turn: you have to go back to the bed." (384) Amen, I'm getting sleepy already. (The best time to see this? 4 AM.)

6. PHANTASM
(1978) Dir. Don Coscarelli
***1/2 / (Amazon Image - A+)
(See The Tick-Tock Inititation)

Props for using actual night, with pitch-black corners; "you got some over-active kind of imagination!" but then he throws the kid the keys to his gorgeous Plymouth Barracuda (?); the kid has a cool lunar wall bedroom mural of the type that were cool back then (I always wanted one, like the killer in Manhunter!)

The score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave is very au currant with Carpenter's Halloween and Goblin's Suspiria, derivative in that super cool way Italians have of shamelessly stealing something but then riffing off it to make it their own at the same time. (All the sing-song music box melodies can be traced to Ennio Morricone, but he borrowed it from Komeda's on Rosemary Baby, etc.) Gotta love a kid who just straps up and goes out to investigate a funeral parlor in the dead of night, with a knife taped to his leg. And his cool older brother says things like,  "No warning shots. Warning shots are bullshit," after handing him a shotgun. It's definitely a bad boy's life. "We gotta snag that tall, dude and we got to kick the shit out of him." 
"Phantasm mixes genres with such smart but unselfconscious verve that it's only later you realize you've been watching a sci-fi horror film about grave robbers from another world. That's right, the same plot as Plan Nine from Outer Space. Could this be the film Edward D. Wood was seeing in his mind's eyes? Certainly nothing could be further from Wood's ineptitude than this assured and constantly inventive movie." (487)
7. SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES
(1971) Dir. Bruce Kessler
*** / Amazon Image - B
"Simon, King of the witches is an intelligent, warm and witty addition to the early 70s witchcraft subgenre, starring the ever-wonderful Andrew Prine... (the theme is not satanism and there's no dilly-dallying with the trappings of inverted Christianity)" (p. 503) 
I remember this one as having a fairly big push, as I saw TV spots as well as coming attractions; I remember wondering why on earth we'd care about a male witch who seemed more like leader of some sewer-bred tribe of step dancing Seven Brothers gypsies. Turns out, it's pretty cool thanks to a typically laconic turn by the great Andrew Pine and a serious, non-goofy respect for actual magic ritual. This is the film to play for the white magician in your life, the Wiccans and the magically inclined or anyone with a Tarot deck. You got to love a movie wherein our cool laid back magus Ptinr does a big 'cosmic working' to get the DA arrested for planting evidence against him (as reprisal for dating his daughter!) and then sacrifices the narc who planted it. But then somewhere along the line somewhere, someone or some things messed up! He has to go rescue his druggy chick (the DA's daughter) by leaving the time/space continuum and venturing inside a cosmic mirror, zooming deeper and deeper into the finesse abyss to rescue her from a... what? .... an acid overdose freakout??? 


The Prime print is only in full screen and kind of on the soft side but hey, this still awesome and worth checking out. For the longest time it just wasn't available, so this is a godsend to patrons of the 70s occult and genuinely odd, very 70s films. (see also this older Occult Prime list, from 2016)

8. MESSIAH OF EVIL
(1973) Dir/writers - Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz
**** / Amazon Image - D+

I think sometimes the interviews and backstory of production--especially in fractured imperfect gems like Messiah of Evil and The Child--can sometimes detract from one's enjoyment. If you learn the director is unhappy with certain scenes, or if an actor you admire was a jerk on set, sometimes you can no longer have this innocent one-to-one admiration for the film's fairy tale sense of dislocation and mythopoetic eeriness; the kind of thing that may be a result of cutting corners or producer-insisted script changes for example, maybe it's better not knowing.  My love for The Child is slightly dampened by the news of the shafting its makers received no returns via the "creative financing" of distributor Harry Novak led to them never making another film. But then again, the prose of Thrower makes up for it. (I wouldn't have even known about The Child if not for this book, and I certainly wouldn't have ponied up the dough for the American Horror Project vol. II on the off chance I liked it. But I knew from Thrower's writing it was for me, and within the first few minutes I not only knew he was right, I wanted to jump for joy, knowing here was the movie that could stand next to Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor, and Lemorra: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural that I was looking for (and I also loved most of Dream No Evil, and thankfully Thrower warned me in advance about the terribly obvious voiceover that's like if a bad cinema studies teacher was narrating the movie to a continuing ed psych class. 

Alas, the only thing great about seeing Messiah of Evil on Prime is--if you don't know whether you want to shell out the bucks for a decent transfer/copy of the OOP Code Red DVD or Bly-ray--you can watch this version to acquaint yourself with whether it's worth buying, like a fuzzy online pre-date. Thrower's interviews with Hyuck and Katz, long having gone onto the big time, don't really add to its luster, but Thrower's writing sure does:
"Hyuck captures a sense of unease that you sometimes get in our mechanized society when the fever of daily traffic is subdued by nightfall. If you've ever hitch-hiked and found yourself stuck for hours beside motorway slip roads near industrial estates, with their giant arc-lit loading bays, you'll have some idea of the picture I'm trying to draw --inhuman, hostile places, emerging after dark from behind the facade of banality. The lightning... brings that hard-edged frigidaire ambience in from the periphery and onto the city streets, turning unremarkable shopping areas into glittering consumerist cemeteries." (p. 238)
Note the way Thrower masterfully fills you in on some interesting experiences of his youth, but only in this unique context. How he could hitchhike after watching so many psycho movies, I confess I do not know. 

9. BLOOD SABBATH
(1977) Dir. Brianne Murphy
*** / Aazon Image - C-

This mostly amusing pastoral witchcraft tale would fit perfectly at the late night end of a double feature with the Esperanto language Shatner-starring Incubus, and/or Corman's The Terror. Like them it's a mostly outdoors tale of evil women seducing a disillusioned soldier (Vietnam this time) turned lost and wandering pilgrim, trying to navigate his feeling of love for a woman whose either a witch or an animal daemonic spirit. This time, a seemingly benign old sage takes him 'in' (so to speak) after his heart is broke, but the sage has a weird relationship to the succubi / witch coven who so torment our solider: he provides them with a child sacrifice every year, donated by the simple peasant locals. 

Interestingly, at a bar to celebrate the harvest (one of the few indoor scenes), a moth-eaten dipsomaniac priest lets slip the sage's habit of sacrificing a child every year; we don't get the expected freaking on the part of the solider at the news: we get a flashback to his unintentionally killing VC kids. Then he ends telling the priest he wants to lose his soul! Even better, the priest goes nutzoid and his voice shoots up an octave, rising to a tone of hysteria, which is awesome. Actually, the first two times he does it, this slow measured actorly build to an upper octave FREAK OUT - it's superb, and then he does it several more times. He seems drunk. Later that night, he drops by the coven, to bitch about the witches' sacrificial habit and do the slow upper register FREAK OUT a few more times. We learn that they had a 'no molestar' agreement with the priest; the head witch (Ilsa star Dyanne Thorne) offers him choice her women as a kind of Manson prostitute chaser. "You've kept your part of the bargain and I've kept mine!" But that's about to end. Our drunk priest wants no more sacrifices and the soldier wants to lose his soul. That's about the plot.

One would love to see this film in a decent print, a nice HD restoration instead of this murky VHS transfer because this is one groovy movie. When the soldier finally does lose his soul he goes nutzoid, trashing everything and shouting "Yylaa!!!!" before running off after his long-since-flown lover witch. His voice shoots up three octaves until he sounds like he just finished a set with his black metal band.  But then he runs around with her (now wearing clothes!) in a field of all white flowers. His hair is still terrible but her wig is worse. She's got a great jawline and nose combination though, that evokes Claudia Jennings if she liked wearing giant platinum wigs and couldn't act. 

Anyway its pretty cool how amoral it all is - the villagers are cool with the sacrifice (good harvests) and only the priest is a whining hypocrite, so to have our vet going from being all self-righteous and haunted to acting like a grinning Hyde-monster jackanapes. Then his witch girlfriend wigs out to see he's guzzled blood at the sacrifice - why wasn't she there? She's not grossed out long though, as he starts freaking with both the coven leader and the chief witch. Meanwhile just as he's lost her soul - Yylava. 

Overall though what we really get is a lot outdoor dancing, a mix of what I can only guess are strippers asked to put some pagan into their numbers. It's not unlike what some hippie commune might make, with the sage as Manson and the priest as old man Spahn. When you wonder where else it could go the vet is chased around a field by a hippie van and run over (sorta). Maybe the folksy theme song heard in the beginning and end can explain: "The wise are not so very wise; they never seem quite sure / there seems to be conflicting views." So true. 

Thrower notes of the star Geary, "he looks like he'd have trouble fighting off a persistent moth, let alone the Vietcong. Blood Sabbath draws much of its amusement from such miscalculations" before confessing "If you simply have to watch an early 70s witchcraft tale, this one is probably the most fun. (424)

10. KISS OF THE TARANTULA 
(1976) Dir. Chris Munger
** / Amazon Image - A+

A kind of fusion of Spider Baby and Axe, this tale of a socially dysfunctional but very pretty girl who lives in a mortuary, loves spiders and her undertaker father (but hates her mother and her cop uncle) moves very slowly, as if edited by a sleepy metronome; as such it used to be a burden to sit through, but now on Prime it looks really great, all HD and beautifully, forlornly-lit. I like just enough about this film to recommend it for the hardcore arachnophile. There's a strange Philian Bishop score and a cliche'd roster of evil characters set up like nine pins. Luckily, the film has good sense to let Susan keep center stage and have everything fall neatly in place for her, i.e. though tarantula bites are no more deadly than bee stings (letting them loose over humans is more likely to lead to the poor things being squashed by flailing limbs) she can somehow not lose a single of her pets as they create spastic heart attacks and panic-induced accidents when released into closed quarters with her foes. These scenes go on and on like G-rated versions of the tarantula scene in The Beyond.  Either way, if you're really zonked and really love Spider Baby but wish it was longer and not funny or great, maybe you'll get into it. There's a great climax where SPOILER we watch her very carefully lift (via straps and a crank) one comatose girl's body out of a coffin and then lift and lower her paralyzed lecherous cop uncle up and into the coffin, before covering him up with a wraps and then replacing the girl back in the coffin on top of him, closing the top to cover his muffled screams! It's almost Tarkovsky slow as he muffles his panicked cries of "Susan!" But will dad arrive home in time to spoil the show? 

Making up for the slowness is star Susan Ling, one of those uniquely 70s babysitter type girls, like a prettier Joni Mitchell. Thrower is a fan of the film but wisely points out she's far too pretty to be a wallflower.and the idea she'd get even for the crushing of one of her pets by releasing them all into tight, confined spaces with thrashing adult-sized humans, makes no sense (at least the film doesn't try to kid you that the tarantula bite is lethal; the adults die of fear and panic-related accidents and heart failure)
Kiss of the Tarantula has a morbid setting (much of the action takes place around a marvelously Gothic funeral home, set in the wintry woods redolent of Fulci's House by the Cemetery); the-girl-and-her-spiders concept is so weirdly charming it can survive the glaring inconsistencies; and the death scenes, though slightly silly, are actually quite bizarre and memorable. (...) The naive electronic score by Phillian Bishop, who also did the score for Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil and Thomas Alderman's The Severed Arrm- ... is memorably cheesy and Moogalicious and there is one great sequence...." 
I shan't spoil it, but the other big reason this movie is on this list is a very happy ending. In this day and age, that and the Moog alone are worth any slog.

See also:

(1973) Dir. Bill Gunn
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

It's kind of a sin that Thrower didn't sling props at this rough and ready, shocking, strangely touching, uniquely African American masterpiece that provides perhaps the trippiest metaphysical soundtrack ever, exploring the ever-mounting nature of addiction so beautifully it's palpable, tragic, and moving. If you only know Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead it may prove a real eye opener to see him play the majestic, fluent French-speaking Dr. Hess, living the high life, with a son in boarding school, and a suicidal vampire guest... 

OTHERS 
(praised in Thrower's book but not covered here):

Spawn of the Slithis (looks great in HD but the film itself seems awfully dull and homegrown). Amazon's copy of Scream Bloody Murder has terrible full frame video quality and looks too depressing to stick with (but hey, it's available for those who read Thrower's praise and then don't mind feeling angry and depressed after enduring a strange, unrewardingly tense film); Godmonster of Indian Flats seems a bit too hippie-dippy western sanctimonious, ala Billy Jack's mix of preachy environmentalism, tolerance, and wild west show didactics; and the monster sucks and comes too late and has a depressing backstory and the print looks muddy and slovenly; the downbeat GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is covered here; MICROWAVE MASSACRE is too vulgar and for me (I hate movies with dopey fat guys cutting up and eating hottie girls, I'd rather it was the reverse); I also don't like MOVIE HOUSE MASSACRE and THE NESTING  but they are both on Prime and looking great (obviously culled from groovy Blu-rays). I saw most of the homegrown monster-in-a-mineshaft movie The Strangeness but the Prime print is still far too murky and dark for a movie that's set 95% inside a dark mine, but it looks like it was shot in 16mm and is probably as good as it's gonna get. Much as I admire its chutzpah and great monster but I'll stick with The Boogens. 

The book is huge and I'm sure there's more. Just say away from anything by Zebedy Colt - that's the takeaway. Good God. 

And PS - if you don't mind paying a few bucks, as of this post you can download FROZEN SCREAM for $2.99. Thrower waxes infectiously over its mind-boggling badness, and I agree. I downloaded it last weekend and have already seen it twice. If you're ant accidental Brechtianist, it's dee-lightful!

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Gone Hawks-in: AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA (1966)

"We know less about the deep oceans than we know about the surface of the moon!"
There's never any question of getting the bends in the fun and oceanic quasi-sci-fi adventure film Around the World Under the Sea. In fact it's the one element that seems the most unscientific about this charmingly odd duck of a movie, produced by the ever-adventurous Ivan Tors and ably achieving just what it wants to do, i.e. pleasurably evoking the previous nine or so years of ocean-related TV adventure series, Irwin Allen sci-fi films, and Jacques Cousteau documentaries; and I say that as someone who is totally fine with the uncommented on presence of a macro-scoped moray eel doing the duty as the requisite giant sea monster (ala what kept us kids watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reruns). In fact, I love it. I wish there were more (no giant squid or octopus) but what can you do? There's a deep-breathing Shirley Eaton, so it skews slightly older, and that's cool, too.

Lloyd Bridges (from TV's Sea Hunt) co-stars with Brian Kelly (from TV's Flipper) as two divers on a mission to assemble a team of the leading oceanographers, tech gurus, oxygen mixers (Shirley Eaton), and undersea miners (dull as dishwater William Thompson) to travel the oceans deep and plant seismographic detection devices around the 'ring of fire' and other places via an experimental yellow submarine, the Hydronaut ("she can circle the globe on one cartridge of nuclear fuel!") Are you down for the trip yet? Or would you rather slog through another week of CNN watching the world above you burn, like it does in Irwin Allen's movie version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?

Along the way there are rescues (the best one being early on when Bridges dives down to help his sinking buddy with no oxygen tank, and swims 100 feet or so down -doing no real good except to bang on the top of the window). I love it, as no one is perfect. The steam heat of Eaton almost crashes the sub as McCallum is busy trying to woo her and nearly collides with an undersea cliff.

Keenan Wynn co-stars as one of the breathing mixers. And I am fascinated by his bachelor pod under the sea (he lives in a giant NYC studio apartment-sized diving bell several thousand feet down). I have had dreams about just such a place; in these apocalyptic times it's looking better than ever! The only difference is that his lacks a VHS player and TV, instead has an LP player and a nice stack of records, and an ongoing chess game via shortwave. That's OK, too.  Lloyd Bridges dives down there and tries to convince him of all the lives he'll save by helping install a chain of underwater earthquake detectors along the Pacific 'ring of fire': "I don't care - let 'em all go." Wynn fires back. "I got it made down here! I got my research, my books, my music!"

Bridges and Kelly, reminding us of a time when men looked like men. 
To provide evidence, he shows a shark hatching from its egg: "He's trying to free himself from his nourishing egg yolk! He wants to be born!" The analog is clear. Wynn doesn't want to, preferring to stay in his nourishing egg under the sea. Like I say, I relate to his churlish disposition; it doesn't seem quite fair to drop in and guilt trip him like some crafty Greenpeace canvasser.  So he's going to leave all his lab animals to just die in his undersea cave because some scientist wants to save Asia? To prove Wynn's misanthropy is just a lazy doge, Bridges leaves the pod without the right oxygen mix to get back to the surface alive, banking on his old pal coming to the rescue. 

Another of my favorite crew, Eaton has that wry knowing look--both haughty and turned-on, dismissive of your interest in her yet intrigued, steaming up the cramped ocean spaces, and throwing the alpha male young buck Kelly into a state of mating season heat; and vexing the Metalunan forehead of David McCallum as the wizard at communications and computers. (Meanwhile dull as dishwater Marshall Thompson occasionally puts his arm around her, presuming she'd marry him in a minute if he asked). I'm no fan of McCallum (he's like Klaus Kinski without the froth) but I like the way the he and Keenan begin their ongoing chess game (magnetically attached to the side of the sub so as not to take up space) without a single word but he's way better an option for Eaton than Thompson, who'd be more believable as her father, even in the 60s. (though he's only 12 years her senior). Luckily, providing handsome manly gruffness as the guy who gets Eaton into whatever bed there is onboard, because he treats her the worst, Kelly beats them all.

The reason for Kelly's gruffness is clear: once they're all submerged on this groovy experimental vessel, the steam rises. You can feel Eaton's pheromones oozing off of her into the mix of sweat and salt water steam. What makes her allure so unique is her rather harsh face --she's not afraid to keep those jet black roots and big black eyebrows, with wide, cunning eyes (as she showed in the The Million Eyes of Sumuru), that devouring face, those gnashing teeth. She's from a brand of mid-60s Bond girl that includes Honor Blackman that, with the era's preference for inch-thick eyeliner, could be seen staring at you with a wolfish smile from a mile away without binoculars. "I've caught them all," is her first line of dialogue, seen on land, after rounding up escaped guinea pigs. But by the end, it's clear who she really means is the entirety of the Hydronaut crew. "You're a lot on a man's blood pressure," admits Bridges. But he also notes she's excellent at her job and men are going to have to get used to women like her being around, i.e. it's not her fault, and she's not just here as eye candy, or a secretary. She's the leading expert in her field and we regularly see her proving it. There are a few shots of her bringing orange juice in and out of rooms on a tray, as if the filmmakers felt the need to satisfy some archaic gender typing; but we also see her injecting the men with chemicals that will help them absorb more oxygen from the limited air, and keeping an eye on her guinea pigs for signs of changing in the breathing. She's a great one for oxygen.


The climax involving a last minute extra sensor right at the foot of an underwater volcanic eruption includes lots of great, albeit unconvincing, miniatures and colors as the bright orange light of the magma creates deep blue dark shadows on the sub and its interiors, evoking Suspiria and early two-strip color films like Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, with the ship balanced on the lip of a volcano, then sliding vertically so that they're all trying to work while literally falling on top of each other.  and the last minute plan to blow the sub in half to rocket the top half straight up to the surface ensures the framing gets understandably messy--even Twister-esque--in the interiors but man the exteriors look gorgeous in this big climax, with the deep volcanic stock footage and model work casting a cool contrasting blue and orange lattice of shadows as the colors filter through the dark ocean water.

 It's not for everyone, and I'm no specific fan of underwater TV shows from the 60s, but I have warmed up on movies where the sea monster is a normal-sized predator in an aquarium battling a tiny model and there's something downright Hawksian about these professionals all working together and the slow burn romance bathed in steam.

Truth be told. Not even sure why I like this movie, its title seems designed to weld Around the World in 80 Days to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and it sure is derivative of a lot of different TV and movies like Fantastic Voyage as well. But that's all okay. One amazing element is just how little the film seems to care about the usual oceanography documentary stuff. We see the Great Barrier Reefs and so forth but only in passing. The only dolphin is one programmed to attach magnetic mines to ships.Clearly most of this was filmed on the dry dock or with miniatures in big tanks but I love that. In CGI or life-size 'reality', with endless digressions on the wonders of aquatic life, it would be a snooze (or more of a snooze than it is). Instead, it's almost Hawksian. And in these trying times, regardless of whether you think, like Wynn's salty dog, we should "let 'em all go" or be like Kelly and Nolan and "want to be born," getting far under the sea away from the dizzy situations back on land seems hard to resist. I know a lot of harried dads would love this movie with a few cocktails after their nagging wives go off to bed. Submarine movies work a special kind of magic for us air-conditioning-dependent summertime older males, and provide the ultimate metaphor for late night viewing itself, that special privatized sphere of buzzed insomniacs, when the lack of prying eyes frees you to unfurl all your hidden tentacles, and--even if it's all too dark to see except through a single glowing window--the world is yours.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Acid Goes Legit: HAVE A GOOD TRIP: ADVENTURES IN PSYCHEDELICS (2020)



"Drugs can be dangerous," notes Nick Offerman, dressed as a scientist in this cautious documentary, playing off all the anti-drug 'educational' films they used to show us in school. "But they can also be... hilarious."

The new Netflix documentary, full of animated renditions of famous comedians' flashbacks, is more than just an LSD documentary or an extended episode of Party Legends. With the presence of pro-therapeutic model doctors like Deepak Chopra on hand (who points out the impossibility of objective reality), it's both a hilarious trip story montage and a medical vindication (with psychiatrists like Charles Grob who use it in clinical trials to help terminal cancer patients let go of their fear of death, etc.) with a final putting to bed of the demonizing double talk. All those phony DNA-warping trials that went into making it illegal during the Vietnam war are finally booed out of the room.

That's not to say it's not full of sound advice on the dangers of dosing. They put cautious stress on set and setting--but it's really an attempt to ease off the stigma that has too long associated good drugs like mushrooms and LSD with 'bad' drugs like cocaine and heroin. Non-addictive, not always 'fun' but nearly always insightful about one's own psychological make-up (even a bad trip can provide ten years of normal psychotherapy in a single night), as long as you don't do nothin' stupid, like dose when you're already drunk and its 5 AM, or try to drive. (Not that I haven't done both).


While it made me very glad to see HAVE A GOOD TRIP, and it gave me a tang on my tongue and sweaty palms, that burning sensation in the third eye (lodged above/between/behind the eyes like a blazing solar bullet), that excited feeling I used to get when my psyche could sense an imminent drug trip even before I maybe had decided to have one. During my own acid/shrooms heyday, approximately 1986-1998 (did you know I invented 'micro-dosing'? You're welcome!) there was something much cooler and more political about drugs because of the war on drugs was at its nadir. Even spoiled white college kids could go to jail for life just for having a few shrooms in their pockets at a Dead show. The danger made it all so sexy and intimate, we were outlaws! Narcs would show up at college asking for larger amounts of course, trying to sweet-talk dumbass freshmen into big enough deals that could send them away for life; the trick with cops was always to act nonchalant, no matter how thuggish they may get and how many drugs you had stashed in your car. Narcs would show up at our parties with all the subtlety of Jack Lemmon in Glengary Glen Ross talking about their friend Joe, or whomever was dumb enough to mention one of us could hook them up. Narcs like Johnny Depp in that show 21 Jump Street were supposed to be cool! (It wasn't until Ed Wood that we were ready to forgive him.) Nancy's "Just Say No" campaign made it mandatory for insurance rates that companies gave urine tests to their employees, like it was some kind of 1984 gulag. Maybe some still do, I don't want to know.

All of which I mean to say, well, man. A documentary like this, right out in the open on Netflix. I would never have thunk this thing possible. Today, it's only the older talking head celebs they have on this show, like Sting, who really understand just how bad things used to be. For us older folks the very idea of an acid documentary seems like, in order for it to have funding, it would have to lean on the down side more than the up. As Sting puts it, stressing his initial reluctance, "I wouldn't want to be an exercise in the Just Say No campaign." I'm not a fan of his music but I fell in love with him here, especially talking about assisting in the birth of a calf while tripping on peyote, and his clear-eyed admission of having plenty of bad trips, noting: "Sometimes it kicks your ass, sometimes you need to have your ego kicked down a rung or two." Indeed, a bad trip is just a sample of the Buddhist idea of Hell, where the burning flames are the demons devouring the shreds of ego still clinging to your soul like crusty flesh moths around a burning lightbulb until at last its full wattage may shine forth. Try to telling that to yourself when you're writhing around on the floor moaning pitifully as little carpet gnomes shred your eyeballs, though. It doesn't help.

Unsurprisingly for his general uptight persona, Ben Stiller didn't jibe with his acid. Stiller talks about the one time he did it and wigged out ("fear and anxiety just being amplified"), walking past the half-inflated animals late at night on the UWS the night before the Thanksgiving Day parade, etc. Incidentally, I had that same experience in the mid-90s, but I loved it! Tripping to a half-inflated Snoopy at 4 AM = pure weird bliss, but Jerry got so wigged he ended up calling his parents! They were off somewhere shooting an episode of The Love Boat! Great details though, gotta love him for that. Elsewhere are those two knuckleheads at the left, enacting an Anthony Bourdain story of a narcoleptic stripper dying on them in a hotel room where they're doing massive amounts of shrooms and cocaine. Noice! She snaps back to life, but they really bring home the full dose of paranoia that can result when you can all but smell the naugahyde in the back seat of the cop car just from thinking about the trouble you might now be in. (The presence of the late Bourdain and Carrie Fisher lets you know--if the startling young age of some of these talking heads didn't give it away beforehand--that this film is many years in the making. Since it's presented as a new documentary, the effect is unintentionally (I presume) quite jarring. Was the film so long in the making because the director was all stoned and whatnot? Bro, I don't even want to tell you what a mess Max and my acid documentary for America in the 60s class was. (We got an F!) In the words of Otto, man, people who party hearty show up tardy, man.

Since his dad is Jerry Stiller, I guess it's OK, and I do like Zoolander, but still, Ben proves my hunch was right, and that he's the type of guy we called a wally, i.e. they don't want to trip but they also want to hang out with you while you do, dragging you down with their banal straight insights. And if they do trip, an hour or two in, they want someone to drive them to the ER as they think they're dying (or worse, they want to give themselves up to the cops). Other comedians in the doc talk about the idiot "friends" it's good to avoid --the ones who find out you are tripping and give you a hard time going "Woo! Woo! You're going down a tunnel!" and all this other moronic townie dirtbag shit. We get a sampling of the wrong crowd too in an a hilariously over-the-top Afterschool special re-enactment that again, only those of us of a certain generation X will be able to relate to (the afterschool special being a thing purely from the 70s, when shows like Go Ask Alice gave us such confusing demonizations of high school drug use we were left as misled as if we read a Judy Blume book for a guide to human sexuality.)

Along the way there is plenty of groovy candy-colored animation ala the other big trippy Netflix animated show, Midnight Gospel. Among other treats, we get a groovy sound mix of how voices and music sounds when your hearing is slipping in and out of the space-time continuum, animated "trees are waving kind of musically at me" There's a bit about wigging out at the Van Gogh Museum as one of the fields of rippling wheat paintings in while scared tourist families gawk (I've been there, but at the Met). We get Nick Kroll remembering being covered in seaweed down at the beach and running around being the seaweed monster. We get Bill Kreutzmann (drummer for the Dead, left) talking about being so high his cymbals were melting. (I've seen his cymbals melt too! I've also seen his tongue hanging out down to his socks with his head rolled back like he's a bloated corpse!) Ae$op Rocky mentions having great sex and when he cam "a rainbow shot out of my penis." (Never saw that one myself, but I've never been much for sex while tripping, it's too intense already.)

As Rocky points out, acid is "not for everybody. I'm an artiste. It's my lifestyle." Man, I totally agree. One of the reasons I stopped trying to be such a keen promoter, was the realization people weren't using it the way I did, originally, as an artistic/spiritual quest device (with overcoming paralyzing depression being a nice side effect) but to get fucked up.  Sure, I've done that too. But it's wrong, man. Still, if you take it to get fucked up but then see God, that's way cooler than taking it to see God and just seeing yourself, fucked-up.

Too many funny bits to name, but you can tell this is assembled by someone 'in the know' and they took their time to get all the details right. I love how the first half of the documentary stresses the danger of looking in a mirror while tripping (which I don't agree wit!). The second half stresses how cool it is to look in the mirror while tripping (I was right!). With a little kid dressed as a machine elf pointing out helpful dos and don'ts that sometimes contradict. Watching this I felt my self nodding excitedly, my palms getting clammy with flashback sensations. I got a little misty remembering my mindset back in the late 80s, the total political drug war making a documentary like this all but impossible except on the DL. (I was long afraid to put our acid doc on youtube, for just this reason).

As one of the talking heads notes, tripping visuals have never been captured very well on film except for the carpet patterns in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 
Donovan gives us a natural history. Zach Leary (Tim's son) notes DMT "is the express train to the ooze." Reggie Watts gives us a sage bit of bad trip-avoiding advice: "When it doubt, zoom out."

Evie Oddly - Drag Race winner,
a sign o' the trippy times
As usual, however, it's Deepak Chopra who makes 'reality' seems suddenly to have never been a dangerous or confusing place: "In reality there is no such thing as colors and sounds, just a fluctuation of energy in an infinite void." Right on.

As one who's long stuck up for psychedelics as a viable therapeutic and creative tool, even in the un-PC 80s or in AA groups, this documentary made me feel as vindicated as the movie Ed Wood did back in the glorious early 90s. I set this blog up back in 2006, the way Claudia Cardinale's fake-Irish husband Mr. McBain started setting up his station in the middle of nowhere, knowing the train was headed his way... little did I suspect that I too would be more or less killed by Henry Fonda by the time the train got here! I mean, here we are, in the age of Midnight Gospel, Climax, Mandy, Midsommar, The Beach Bum, Evie Oddly, and now this. And I am alive... but at what cost? I can't even do a hit of cough medicine without having an anxiety attack.  What's important though is that I have made peace with that, too. Is no longer needing to be hip more important than being so? Is having tripped 100+ times 20 years ago as important as wanting to trip once tomorrow?

It depends!

I no longer don't fear death they way I used to, if that makes sense. But isn't that the province of the young, to face death through some scary gauntlet and come out a better, calmer person? Now the thought of just going to the hospital terrifies me so I keep myself constantly distracted. It's not the same, but sobriety makes a clear-eyed stare into the void rather hard to do, which is why AA stresses prayer so much. Drunk, I could look down the barrel of a gun without flinching. Tripping, I could feel death's cold hands on my just seeing a picture of a gun in a magazine. Sober, I can't even sneeze without having a COVID panic attack. I believe in God, but only because I've had so many religious experiences I'd be a fool not to, like giving back a lifetime of Christmas presents because I refuse to "believe" in Santa.

Ultimately that's the big issue Have a Good Trip skirts around in favor of funny stories; the nature of reality and the link to a higher power. Of course, whether or not there is a God is irrelevant to faith. There is no this, so how can it not be that? Once duality is transcended, the game, the seeking, is over. Once one goes back down from the mountain, knowing what lies beyond, what can one do but pick up their burden again, and continue on, participating joyfully in the sorrows of the universe, so as not to spoil the surprise for everyone else? Knowing this, as the Upanishads say, the rest is known. This is the trick Luke could never figure out when fighting Darth Vader in the awful Return of the Jedi. To fight with love in your heart is not violence. When someone tells you to just say NO, tell them to KNOW is better, but be sure and name check John Lennon in The Yellow Submarine who does that to the Blue Meanies' big marching NO font-monster.


When I saw John do that the last time I was in a mystical experience (during the 2012 galactic alignment). I suddenly, in that satori moment, understood how true love transcends duality. But what does that give you in the end? Lockjaw from too much smiling, a high fever, and... when you see some long... long in the making documentary like this... a kind of pleasant tang in the parasympathetic nervous system, tinged with the regrets of blown, flown youth, and tainted by the realization that, in this life, and maybe even the next, the amount of positive energy it takes to vibrate at a higher frequency is never going last.

Still, if the wave ever comes my way again, and the set and setting is just right, I'm ready to surf. All you got to do is roll right past my house. When the tide is that high, swear to god I'll surf it, like Desolation Williams and Lt. Melanie Ballard at the end of Ghosts of Mars!  Momma, I shall surf again!

Further:

June 17, 2012:
Tripumentaries: MAGIC TRIP, DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE, 2012: Mayan Prophecy and Shift of the Ages, and ROBERT THURMAN ON BUDDHISM

June 25, 2015:
Summer of my Netflix Streaming I: A Psychedelic Odyssey- Though all these films are long gone from Netflix streaming, woe is us. You can still program a nice 12 hours of dosed post-whatever viewing from them if you can track 'em down. 

And of course, the films of THE PSYCHEDELIC CANON in yonder right hand sidebar (top) and my other 'weirder' sites, like Medsitation and Divinrorum Psychonuauticus + Surrealist Collage Exercises!
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