Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, December 31, 2021

Way of the Coffin Flop: GAME OF DEATH II (1981)

Night #6 of the 12 Days of Ed Wood

Some deaths never last.

 Acolytes of the Great Bruce Lee temple generally sneer at the legions of posthumous 'final' films of their great one, for which there as many as there are posthumous Hendrix albums. It's much easier to 'finish' a Hendrix song as one can easily add and subtract tracks to any guitar, but it's harder to make a movie out of a few smiling reaction shots and home movies. Very rarely does a film like that transcend its ghoulish aspirations to become something top drawer Plan Nine-hilarious. Well, sneer away, acolytes, but GAME OF DEATH II (1981) --one of the earlier posthumous mashups from Golden Harvest, the sequel to what was a ridiculous mash-up to begin with--is a magnificent melange for the dissociative cinenambulist, with some great fights and stunts for those who like that sort of thing, so prett queetending and wag on the jump train! 

Strangely joyous and soothing in a post-modern sort of way, it's such a uniquely cool hodgepodge homage it demands to be taken on its own terms, and as soon as it figures out what those terms are, you'll know... everything, and beyond, until a Godardesque demonstration of the impossibility of a unified cinematic subject and you are merged to the point of inextricability.

Released a mere seven year after Lee's death, Golden Harvest pulls out three of the stops to let us know his spirit still very much present, ghostlording over a relentlessly shifting composite of doubles, dubbers, stunt-men, unused footage from other movies, dummies, and lookalike replacement 'little brothers' in a film that's half-seance, part flashback 'clips' episode, part verite funeral footage /memorial, and one half cheap-but-inventive Enter the Dragon / James Bond-emulating spy flick science fiction kung fu action movie. That's more than two halves, I know, but logic and math have no place in Game of Death II. It's not even really a sequel. All you need to know is this: it... is... the what it does... and what it does... no one man can say. Until now.

I love it enough that I hate the dumb title. I wish it was called Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. Alas, there already is an actual film Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. It has no footage of Bruce Lee whatsoever. Can you imagine how cool it would be to have the below left poster be for GOD2, or to have a poster with Bruce leaping from a coffin hoisted 600 feet in the air lifted by helicopter? it's such an indelible moment in the film--one of those WTF moments bad film lovers stuff under their mattresses like tittering misers-- and yet the poster art for Game of Death II is woefully short of trumpeting its grandeur. 

I mention all this because death and graves and coffin imagery are a huge part of Game of Death II. Billy Lo (i.e. Lee... if his full face is visible, otherwise a stand-in/double) falls to his death after mysterious claw-wielding helicopter absconds with his buddy's coffin during a big funeral, hoisting it high in the air. Bruce tries to hold onto death for dear life. Death will not have him. Now Lo/Lee's subsequent funeral--is full of actual Lee funeral footage interspersed with footage from Lee's earlier, non-kung fu, acting roles, as a child actor and young romantic lead. By then, about 1/3 of the way through the film, we're so confused over the melange dummies, stand-ins, dubbers, projections, outtakes and doubles, we don't even know who the real Lee was or is or supposed to be. It raises strange questions: What even is death? Can we live forever if we hire someone to dress like us and walk around our old neighborhood? Does the weird seductress in the poster at left really have a bat tied up in her hair like Medusa's snakes caught a flying monkey? Did Bruce fake his death in real life to avoid dealing with the triads? Were the triads trying to extort Lee into signing a long contract and he felt there was no way out other than a fake suicide? Or Did the triads whack him for not signing with them, and they successfully made it look like an accident? 

Nothing is answered in Game of Death II and that's how we want it. It starts and we're instantly in an off-footing. In his last fully alive film, Enter the Dragon, we heard Lee's real voice when he spoke --a careful, measured, sinuous purr. When Bruce speaks in Death II, his real voice is replaced by a strident, square-jawed, no nonsense hero-style voice actor, one we've heard a thousand times in other roles and who does not sound purring or Asian but like a Dragnet audition. The effect is immediately disorienting, plunging us into an uncanny sense of disconnect. But if we don't fight it, if we let the uncanny affect create a post-structural frisson, the payoff- as he splits into a whir of doubles and triples---  will be a magic carpet ride of creative Bruce posthumous representation, like a post-modern kick to the back of the head (we'll see a lot of the back of Lee's head). Everything evokes something. During the funeral we hear trumpets evoking Ennio Morricone elegies. 

If the first Game of Death was the first posthumous Jimi Hendrix album Cry of Love (i.e. Jimi's singing and playing on ever track, but tracks clearly finished by musicians Jimi never met), Game of Death II seems more a Vegas-style hologram of Hendrix in concert backed by a boozy cover band. Since it has much less Bruce footage to work with than the first Game, Part II is forced to think way outside the box. It gets so far away the box is left behind altogether. As such, I love it like a mother loves the bottom rung of her drug stash, or the writers at Bleeding Skull! love Doris Wishman's A Night to Dismember. In other words, a lot. 


The story begins with Lee walking the garden of his kung fu school's massive temple, talking to someone offscreen, not the orange-robed older monk he was talking to in Enter the Dragon, but a fellow badass named Chin Lu (Hwang Jang-lee, whose long black facial hair and ponytail decorated many a Golden Harvest kung fu villain). Chin--in a flowing gold robe--pauses their talk to decimate an Anglo challenger with his peerless sword technique while Lee watches and drinks tea. Afterwards, Lu notes they both have been receiving an unusual amount of challenges ("Someone may want us dead"). Lee narrates a flashback to a midnight (i.e. so it can be too dark to see faces clearly), greenhouse rendezvous he had with a young upstart some weeks earlier and we get our first composite restructured Lee: most of the time it's a fight double (lots of back of the head shots) plus what looks like an image of Lee from Game of Death I projected onto one of the plastic sheeted walls. The double keeps his mouth hanging open throughout so that dialogue can be attributed to him at any time. "That's what we call control!" he shouts at his whiny challenger after a pointed beatdown, "something you wouldn't understand!" We can't imagine the real Lee ever getting pissy like that after beating an opponent in a fair challenge, but it's not Lee's voice, and it's not him fighting, and its someone else's back of the head, so there you go. The fight still has lots of stillness and lightning quick moves and there's a great bit of Dolby foley work with a breaking clay pot mixed in there (on my 2004 Dragon Dynasty disc) it sounded like it was coming from my kitchen! 

Even in the narrative, doubling, flashbacks and mistakes commingle as if trying to confuse even the most astute of viewers as to whether the guy they're watching is supposed to be the actual Bruce Lee in flashback, or his character Billy Lo (who alternates between old Lee clips and his back-of-the-head double), or his college student pornography-owning, flaking-out-on-his-training brother Bobby. Whatever the truth, I don't care. The laconic nature of the first half, with its laid-back clip show aimlessness mixed with fights and and family matters leads to a mellow glow that carries through the rest of the film  ("Don't worry father, I won't let it bother me") which becomes a fun, ultra-goofy spin on Enter the Dragon's midnight black suit secret agent basement lair skulkfest, i.e. the best part of that film. 

But first! Billy learns his friend Chin Lu has been killed! He goes to tell Lu's sister, plunging the movies into the nighttime world of 'the Ginza.' We get a very Japanese rock/pop singer song of the moment (is it Meiko Kaji?) as Lo threads his way through the stock footage streets to find the nightclub where she works. Underdressed waitresses dare to wear bunny ears, and everyone watches glumly from their tables as if it's the 100th take of the night. Even with all that torpor, a fight erupts in her dressing room; someone helpfully kicks out the lightbulb so a double can be used for most of the shots. Our hero goes running through the streets which resemble a kind of sad indoor mall. 

Next up, Lee/Lo goes to visit his own sibling, a kid brother named Bobby (Tae-jeong Kim) at college, wasting his time with pornography and non-martial arts studies. We see hands reading an erotic Chinese book then throwing it in the trash. They are Lee's, he is at his kid brother Bobby's apartment or house or garage. He throws all his brother's dirty magazines into the trash basket, and then starts penning a letter :

"Dear Bobby - how are you? I was hoping to see you but you were out; sorry I missed you. I guess I don't have to tell you that to become an expert in kung fu requires more effort." 

Lo/Lee leaves him his bro the family's secret boxing manual as if knowing he's about to die. A very Ennio Morricone rip with a blazing brass section and male vocalizing heralds a visit to a fancy pagoda for Lu's funeral, where marital arts trainees in black, like an army of Japanese Lee replacements waiting to go, stand motionless along all the sides of the walkway, in case their needed to jump into action. 

The funeral is with Shinto Buddhist touches. Astute viewers realize instantly Lu's not really dead when four muscly guys in white won't let Lo get close enough to view the body. Lo runs into a Japanese guy and we see the swastika (in the right direction) on the casket, realizing in the process that Buddhism is so much more cosmic than Christianity. The art shows a much clearer understanding of universal energy flows, the circular breathing of the monks echoes eternity, and when a helicopter comes to steal the casket the circuit is complete. 

Lee/Lo is so adamant at getting a look at the body, he hitches a ride grabbing onto the claws on the the casket, only to drop down and fall to his death from hundreds of feet in the air. And lo, Billy Lo is dead! But also-- the real Bruce Lee is dead!! Now we get Lee's real funeral with overlays of his whole career, from child actor onwards, a whole photo album is overlaid with footage of his funeral ceremony. 

Well if you got to go, the best way is to do it while falling off of a coffin claw from three hundred feet.  "After you've read this letter, go to Japan," reads dad's letter to young Bobby, "and avenge your brother, Billy." 

Bobby visits a wealthy white guy named Lewis (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?) who eats raw meat and drinks a red milky pink cocktail for breakfast. ("This is raw venison, and deer's blood!") He gives Bobby a tour of the grounds, interrupting the tour to fight to the death three idiot martial artists who show up at the gate to challenge him. It's funny that Lewis, the only white guy in the whole film, is the worst dubbed, with a voice all halting and unevenly accenting the wrong words, as he shows off his grounds ("I keep a lot of specially trained.... peacocks... over there. They obey my command. It takes a lot of training.") When Sherman makes a signal and a whole flock of peacocks fly out of their aerie, across the vast lawn and right towards the camera! It's just one of the unique sights on hand that you won't find in any other movie. We also see lions just hanging out in the garden; Bobby notes that "they are really big lions. I'm kind of frightened." We get quite a bit of the lion footage; they surround the jeep "their favorite dish is fresh human meat").   

Bobby sleeps over at Lewis's estate and is visited first by an under-clothed Anglo lady named Angel (Miranda Austin) who tries to first mate with, and then kill, Bobby. Did Lewis send him or someone else? A guy in a convincing lion suit, acting like a lion (he may or may not be supposed to be an actual lion -we never quite know) comes flying through the window next. Wait was he supposed to be a lion or a guy in a lion suit? We've seen less convincing lion suits that were supposed to be actual lions. It's not Lewis sending these hit women and animals. There's also someone trying to kill Lewis, too: someone wearing a crazy red mask. Lewis may be the guilty one who ordered Billy's death, but Bobby still fights the guy trying to kill him, whom he encounters while they're both skulking around the grounds in the dead of night (Bobby wearing the iconic black catsuit Bruce Lee wore when sneaking around the island at night in Enter the Dragon), leading to a nice day-for-night fight in the garden.

Clues finally lead to the "Tower of Death" but the secret is - the tower is in reverse!! That's not what a tower is called, man! It's called a pit. But there you go. An elevator takes Bobby down down to a trap-rigged lair, a very cool combination of James Bond super villain lair, a 1960s TV Batman cliffhanger death trap and Han's underground opium processing plant in Enter the Dragon. Rivers of red blood (or some kind of red liquid) flank a grey industrial sci-fi room with ridged booby trap-laden hallways. Instead of Dragon's hall of mirrors we get the spinning throw room; an electrified grid of colored lasers fries his stick when he pokes it in, and so he must throw a rope so well it anchors between long boxes of tinsel and wrapping paper! I think (that's what I saw anyway).

Luckily before Bobby can be fried, the bad guy leaps from out of his coffin onto a pedestal where the off switch can be easily accessed. A bit of the theme song from Enter is shoved into the faux-Morricone grandeur, and the film ends on a freeze frame. Blammo! No coffin can hold Lu, I mean Lo!  I man LEE!

Deadpan before Death! 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Eternal Rewards: ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965)

(Night #4 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special) 

If you watch Plan Nine from Outer Space two or three times a year, as many of us do, you probably wish there could be a whole movie of Vampira lolling around the mist-enshrouded graveyard, arms raised classic cartoon sleepwalker fashion. Maybe this time she could talk? Maybe was emceeing a Halloween-style strip show line-up of lost female souls summoned to dance to escape damnation? And a mummy and werewolf acted as bouncers? And there was enough mist, skulls, and Martin Denny-style lounge music to fill six ordinary movies? And Criswell ruling over all of it, lolling in his shiny black cape and mirthlessly laughing as women are doused in liquid gold? Such a dream would be--in the words of a bare bodkin-contemplating Hamlet, devoutly to be wished! 

ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965) has what you need, oh bare bodkin-fancier: Fawn Silver as the Black Ghoul isn't quite on Vampira's level, but she does manage to keep a straight face as she introduces the girls. Criswell, the Emperor of Darkness, looks all boozed-up--dilated and doughy, glazed-eyed and cue card-dependent--but his hair and black cape shine in the starlight and his voice is the same never-ending source of resonant delight and his words, written and cue-carded by the great Ed Wood, send the whole thing over into paroxysms of surrealist bliss:

Now all we need is a reprint of
Ed's original novel, please
"It is said on clear nights, beneath the cold light of the moon, howl the dog and the wolf, and creepy things crawl out of the slime; it is then the ghouls feast in all their radiance." 

Only Wood would describe his ghouls as "radiant." You can feel his love for his monsters - even if they are to be "pitied" and "despised." His affection permeates the ether  and extends even to the moon, which "comes forth once more to shine in radiance and contentment." 

 Contentment indeed. Can you doubt it. The weird language continues as Criswell sets the scene:

 "Time seems to stand still. Not so the ghouls, when a night of pleasure is at hand!"

He's sure right on one level - time does seem to stand still. 

And thus we meet two members of the living world: burly horror writer Bob (Edward Bates) and his stacked but virgin redhead girlfriend Shirley (Fawn Silver) are in the car, headed off to a remote graveyard under a spooky full moon. Why? Bob needs inspiration for his monsters and full moons are the best time to go. She would rather not; and insistence on dragging her there seems disrespectful, but who are we to judge? She wishes he'd write about something other than monsters (you can imagine Ed's first, very square, wife and/or girlfriend Dolores Fuller, harping on these very points). Bob argues: "My monsters have done well for me," Bob says, "they sell in the top spots. You want me to give all that up and write about trees, or dogs, or daisies?"  

Their love life is--we glean--a nonstarter too (maybe like Ed's first wife, who the story goes, was holding out for marriage, and then divorced him as soon as she 'met' Glenda): "Your puritan upbringing holds you back from my monsters, but it certainly doesn't hurt your art of kissing."  Like Brad and Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's clear these two are going to need a night orgy, with some degenerate swinger undead, to loosen sexual repression's buzzkill shackles. But will it loosen them too much, as in from their mortal coils? It all depends on how fast the dawn comes. 

The dance floor is a cemetery clearing, flanked by above ground tombs, and surrounded by grave markers and ominous portent (i.e. swirling fog). Seated on the stairs around one of the tombs comes Criswell, Emperor of the Night, who bids the Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver), his right hand woman, to come monster-walking forth (i.e. slowly, with arms outstretched in front like a cartoon sleepwalker). A werewolf and a mummy watch and do the Emperor's bidding, as do a pair of mute dudes in island native wear who escort, whip and dip the dancers into a liquid gold cauldron as needed. In sum, Criswell is not playing around: "If I am not pleased by tonight's entertainment I shall banish their souls to everlasting damnation!" And with that...


And thus, with a clap of the Black Ghoul's hands, comes the first in a very long line: a Native American fire dancer, "one who loves flame,' says the Black Ghoul, "Her lover was killed in flame... She died in flame." As a kind of lounge-era version of Native American chants and tribal drumming plays on the score, she 'dances' as if half-heartedly trying to remember a calisthenics class.  At one point the music ends. We see a shot of Criswell, barely awake --are we done!? Not so fast! The needle is pulled back and the tom-toms beat on! A fire is burning to symbolize flame but for some reason the camera keeps it offscreen. A streetwalker (Colleen O'Brien), (one who prowls the lonely streets of life is bound to prowl them in eternity") sashaying barefoot to a laid-back Spanish guitar, tinny piano and hazy sax combo, is next. Much better. With her awesome red hair, pink dress and blue feather boa, O'Brien seems to be at least able to convey a good time, winking at the camera (which Criswell loves in a cutaway) and cavorting with a skeleton under nice Gold Key comic / pulp magazine lighting. 

"Throw gold at her!"
Next up is the "one who prized gold above else" (Pat Barington, who also plays Shirley). Natural, full but not grotesque, hers is a perfect burlesque body, and her dance gets the best introduction; lying on a slab in a comely crypt, opened by two Pacific islander type slaves, and the most loungey track, replete with bongos, mariachi trumpet, xylophone, and skittery flute. "Throw gold at her!" declares mighty Cris, adding "more gold!" over and over before cracking up in mirthless laughter.

 "For all eternity she shall have gold!" 
Obligingly melting down the gold in a big cauldron and baptizing her in it, she emerges a gold-covered corpse ala Goldfinger (which came out the year before), the natives have created the ultimate idol - we worship thee, Mickey! She really is totally gold covered. We can only hope she left a patch for her skin to breathe through! We never know, as the natives carry her back to her slab, the fog comes rolling in, the crickets and piano pound "and both couldn't help but remember a line from one of Bob's stories" and goes onto basically quote The Final Curtain, "I know I should think of other things, pleasant things, but how can I when shadows are all around me..."

Next up is one of the worst: Texas Starr in a shitty leopard costume with dark red ears ad the chest and ass cut out. "To love the cat is to be the cat," the empress says, or as Criswell puts in those honeyed tones, "a pussycat is born to be whipped." A slave whacks the ground or feebly whips her but she doesn't seem to notice, her paws bent forward, hopping as if jumping an invisible rope. Her dancing--to an idiotic xylophone riff-- with her little bunny hop and ass wiggle in her leaopard pajamas is idiotic. Criswell gets an idea, though, and notes that "it would please me very much to see the slave girl and her tortures." So we meet next a slave girl (Nadeja Klein) chained up, kinda, and whipped mercilessly ("torture! Torture, it pleasures me!" shouts Criswell) but then her whipper leaves, her chains come off and she's just a girl dancing. in that dazed 'trying to remember calisthenics' manner, as the mist in the air slowly grows to the opaque level.. She rolls around on the ground, she wafts pass the still-open crypt, tours the whole set. Waves her arms around. Her nipples seem too red for the rest of her. 

It goes on and on from there - a Spanish flamenco dancer (Stephanie Jones) struts around the skull of her bullfighter lover; "a worshipper of snakes, and smoke.. and flame" is next: she does some good Hawaiian dance hip gyrations but has strange too-white teeth and an ill-fitting Betti Page wig; we cut to a rattlesnake occasionally to imply it's jamming along with the congas and steamy sax. The Ghoul and Criswell nod at each other with conspiratorial smiles. "She pleases me," he says. "Permit her to live in the world of the snakes." Bob and Shirley start to bicker; she blames him for getting them into this mess. Next up is a bride (Barbara Norton) dancing with the skeleton of her groom. When her dress comes off the tune shakes up to a funky Herb Albert style bouncy melody and she shakes and shimmies and rattles her breasts around like she's swimming through the mist. She does this for what seems like ten minutes. This is the one the Wolf Man and the Mummy supposedly chose out of the remaining line-up, as the Ghoul convinces Criswell to speed things up as the morning will be here soon. Shirley and Bob watching stunned from their posts as the shimmying breast shaker goes on and on.

"The princess of darkness would have you for her own to join us in extreme pain," he tells ShirleyShirley begs for their lives. Even Bob is promised. 

Bob tries to offer himself in Shirley's place, so she can escape. "No one wishes to see a man dance!' sniffs Criswell.

It's rather redundant, but: "She lived as a zombie in life; so she will remain forever a zombie in death." - Dene Starnes' dance makes the others seem almost lifelike; it consists of putting her arms straight out in front of her, lowering them, bowing, touching her hair, putting her hands back down again. her eyes seem scared and dead at the same time. The music plods and she doesn't even appear to blink. How she got the dead lifeless glaze in her eyes I don't know, but it's effective. Her eyes look like they were painted on the back of her eyelids. But they're her real eyes. Anyway, she bows. She makes a little back and forth sidestep movement. She  sort of wafts around in a circle. This, you think, instead of letting the empress have her way with Shirley! By now we're squirming in anticipation!

"The moon sinks slower in the hills," notes an anxious Black Ghoul; Criswell puts her at ease: "you shall have your pleasure, that I decree."

Bur first, the dancers continue: "This one would have died for feathers, fur and fluff... and so she did." (Rene De Beau) has nice breasts and kind of looks like Debbi Mazur. She does a lot of twirling. By then even those of us who came purely to see naked women dance have grown no doubt weary. With a few exceptions, the dancing all has a disconnected half-asleep aura, as if the music was added later. chosen at random, and the coffee was yet to arrive; and the girls--Silver and O'Brien aside--don't seem to be professionals but scared amateurs who seem to be contemplating if they should run off the set and catch the first Greyhound back to Kansas. 

"Could it be a college initiation? "

By now the disconnect between movement and music has become as vast as the ocean.  And yet, in that disconnect there is a kind of modernist thrill to be unearthed. Dyed-wool Woodsians know this. Wood didn't direct it, but he wrote it, cast Criswell, and he was there on set to hold his cue cards. Director Stephen C. Apostlof, would go on to partner with Ed on titles like The Cocktail Hostesses and Drop Out Wife), full of--as Dead2rights says-- "pasty white Californians halfheartedly pretending to hump each other in blandly-hideous bedrooms, motel rooms, and living rooms, while drowsy "beautiful music" drones on in the background"  Most of them seem lost to time. Orgy is one time Ed and Stephen got it right.  And thanks to a beautiful remastering by Vinegar Syndrome, it looks stunning, mesmerizing, inviting and ever-so radiantly ghoulish. The endless parade of half-asleep strippers are now couched in a gorgeously-lit (by Ted Mikels!) set, rich with lurid blazing colors and real 3-D depth in the swirling fog. And while most of the dancers make time seem to stand still, we can take comfort in bleary-eyed Criswell's odd commentary, the cutaway reaction shots to the buxom redhead human witness (the red of her hair and lips is insane on this new restoration), the lesbian Vampira substitute with her belated knife act, the werewolf and mummy hanging back in the bushes, The lovely fog and Gold Key comic book cover colors, the skeletons and skulls. It's all sublime. 

It gets a bit disappointing when after whining for her reward, the empress wastes too much time dancing with her knife and staring at the camera, rather than molesting Shirley. But you can't have everything. You can always pop in Jess Franco's Succubus immediately after and pretend Fawn has become magically Jeanine Reynaud and is picking up right where we left off. But that is the catch. Both Criswell and the Black Ghoul turn instantly into skeletons before she can plunge in the knife. Girl, you wasted too much time with your damned blade dance!

The perfect movie to fall asleep to, at 4 AM, perhaps the most touching element is to think how bad this used to look in cropped format with ugly colors until 2017 when the restoration and Blu-ray set came out. Looking as good as it does more than makes up for the dull stretches. As the Joseph Ziemba wrote in 2004, 13 years before VS came through: "Orgy Of The Dead is the greatest trash movie of all time... let it not rot in the vaults." So Vinegar Syndrome came through, before actual vinegar syndrome could work its catastrophic damage. Hurray for AFGA, SW, and VS, and for Bleeding Skull! And the championing of the outsider artist. Open the vaults of thy crypt the next full moon when the ghouls are once more bid to  'dance' again. As erotic as a tombstone, but ripe with eternal rewards, and enough radiance and contentment for a dozen full moonzz.

Monday, December 20, 2021

"Your powers are lightnings!!" Ed Wood's REVENGE OF DR. X (aka VENUS FLYTRAP)

(Night #3 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood - Acidemic Holiday Special) 
"I'll make you the most powerful thing on the universe! (sic)
Move over Kenne Duncan, James Craig is on his way to the podium and he's in a shoving mood. Ignored far too long due to its twilight identity (it wound up with the wrong credits as Revenge, leading one to think it was an Eddie Romero Filipino "Blood" movie; there's a much-later [fan made?] credit revision version called Body of the Prey that tries to slight Wood's involvement) but whatever you want to call it, Revenge of Dr. X or Venus Flytrap or Body of the Prey, Wood scholars have correctly attributed the script to him on imdb and elsewhere. How do we know for sure without his name up there? The climax finds a crazed rocket scientist-cum-botanist cradling a baby goat in his arms, and shouting "Insectovarus!" while looking down on a volcano. This may be filmed in Japan, the credits may be wrong, twice!, but we're in Woodland USA. You can't make us doubt it. Why try? Just give in...

Dr. Bragan (Craig) is a Cape Kennedy rocket scientist with a lot of stress-related issues; this mainly consists of berating other scientists about the importance of accurate calculations ("Could-be's I cannot use! I need facts! Facts, do you hear?" and appearing superimposed over some NASA stock footage. His Japanese (male) assistant convinces Bragan to take the summer off: "Japan is very beautiful... this time of the year." Soon he's driving up the coast (in case he finds some "interesting flora and fauna along the way") before catching the plane to Tokyo, to 'relax' while his space capsule or whatever is heading off to Venus. 

real life Ama
After stopping at the gas station of a muddy-faced snake handler (Al Ricketts) after car trouble, Bragan realizes instantly he's found just the right subject to bring to Japan, right there in the middle of the snake cages (unseen): the Venus Flytrap! He digs one up, keeps it in a little box and gives it a seat on the plane. He's smitten with this thing. Apparently, Darwin wrote about it being the most evolved of plants, so Bragan figures he can turn it human, kind of. 

His assistant's cousin "Noriko (Atsuko Rome) meets Bragan at the airport with orders to be his assistant. She takes him to a bar to get sake. This film was shot with live sound and English is clearly not her first language, but then again, this really isn't English as you are I speak it. This is Wood wording, so it sounds even more unnatural and uncanny. But she will be a good assistant but get on his nerves by forevder trying to get him to take a nap or eat breakfast; he has no time! He cares only for his project. This is supposed to be a vacation but he's madder than ever, but not always. There's time for picnincs and long drives.

Their days click by in a delirious montage set to kooky but soothing and jubilant organ music that sounds like Raymond Scott's "Music for Baby" crossed with Candace Hilligoss's Carnival of Souls scorethe hunchback caretaker of Bragan's remote Osaka greenhouse laboratory plays Bach's Toccata Fugue (over and over) on the organ, raises a brood of ever-yapping puppies, and he too keeps what looks like big smears of mud on his face (like Rickets at the gas station!). Noriko and Bragan drive to Tokyo to buy lab supplies;  Noriko and Bragan drink sake. They pull over to admire the view. They get to know one another. They drive up the side of the volcano and are almost crushed by falling rocks. But we don't care, because the music and dialogue are so weird. Maybe the director and producers didn't understand English enough to make script changes, and the actors weren't much for improvising, so we get an English language (not dubbed) film shot in Japan, written by Ed Wood, so like all the best worlds. 

And that crazy score never relents: nouncing oboes, sudden military snare rolls, and xylophones running through scales accompany his Florida drives and when Bragan lands in Japan the bouncing lute and bent-ling chimes start up. The soundscape contains a sound effects record worth of noises: thunder, sea gulls, crashing surf, crows caws, cock crows, puppies whining, the whirring of electrical appliances (with animated electric current!); long strange whistles, wind whipping the willows, all topped off a glistening organ so full of roller rink jubilation it seems at times to not know what kind of the film it's in. The beach scenes underwater and by the ocean are dreamy with a blend of church organ, rolling surf, swirling lute, chimes, skittering xylophone and a never-ending stream of bubbles. The soundscape you hope to hear while getting your Ativan shot at the mental hospital and swooning into a pleasurable coma. 

"now you bring the red to my face," 
Bragan is at the beach to find a sample of the "Venus" Vesiculosa' - an underwater version of the flytrap which he finds with the help of some topless local Japanese Ama(upper left) he and Noriko recruit on the beach. He wants to splice the two together and so they are soon wiling away the hours in her family's remote volcanic greenhouse. He also doing a lot of skulking around at night through yon stormy graveyard, which Noriko watches from her bedroom, in a negligee; she would be amenable, no doubt, but he only has eyes for his creature - "Insectovarus" who he as Nietzscheanly as James Mason does his son in Bigger than Life.  ("You can move, I'll make you move!") He reasons to be more human it will need human blood: "If it takes the blood of a human heart to prove my theory, you will have the blood of a human heart!" (it never occurs to him he could just do a transfusion or go to the blood bank and that blood is the same all through the body - 'blood from a human heart' is almost redundant; yet he has to sneak into a hospital and withdraw it from a sleeping topless female patient. Ed Wood writes scientific inquiry with the zeal of a twelve year-old kid bluffing his way through a science project ("the human element"). 

Still, he would never quit splicing in the Lugosi gothic style to the 50s atomic age overreach and for that he should get the Nobel Prize. Frankenstein of course is the ultimate sci-fi gothic. And Wood pays homage to it all over the place. Most especially he draws on Son of Frankenstein with Lugosi's Ygot talking about "your mother was the lightning" given three attempts by a drunk Bragan. First:
"You can think. You can reason. You must be part-human. But like all humans you're weak!  I'll find a way. Mark my words, I'll find a way. make you the most powerful thing on this universe (sic). Your mother was the soil... perhaps.... the lightning will become your father!" 
Later he tries again: "your father will be the rain! Your mother was the soil, maybe your father will be the lightning!" But then he even gives a second variation later on: "Your father will be the rain! your powers are lightnings!" and later he drives it home while drinking and staring at Insectovarus with growing cranky aggression and love: "I do love wild things! Your mother was the earth! The rain your blood! The lightning your power! Ahahahahaha! (at which point he passes out and the plant finally starts moving around.   

"as human as the human element itself"

Insectovarus grows up quickly, standing and looking around waving his arms, with fanged pink cather's mitt-style flytrap hands and feet and a radish sprout head and an upside down flower petal frill, and big empty eye sockets. It seems to talk and cry in a pitch-shifted baby voice, and when it moves we hear those weird string pull sounds most of us associate with fleas jumping on dogs' backs in Warner Brothers cartoons. Noriko wants it destroyed ("I wish that thing had died!" and for Bragan to take better care of himself ("you should eat!") She's very obsessed with rest and nutrition, reflecting no doubt Ed's cagey worship/resentment towards the maternal.  He barks at her ("Stop harping!"), sheepishly apologizes, and comes in for breakfast. As Joseph Ziemba says the film has a "beautiful warmth.

Insectovarus needs to eat too. And there are lots of dogs around... for awhile. 

Once shopped around as the B-list Clark Gable, Craig mostly worked in westerns, like Wood's pal Kenne Duncan. and Wood loved westerns, all of which make the pair a perfect match. Craig's burly boom of a voice captures the booze-blasted rapture in Wood's writing that few others have. The cranky inconsistency--the bug-eyed ruefulness, the angry outbursts and apologies; the slow disoriented wake-ups; the thunder crash 4 AM ecstasy ("I do love the wild things)--is the hallmark by which alcoholic writers, actors, and directors lose the war of the moment, but win the posthumous cult. Ed's out-there dialogue is a series of ropes over a yawning chasm of fire and ole Craig is swinging across, roaring like a kamikaze bull walrus acrobat, realizing the words don't make sense only as he says them, after he's already swinging for the next senseless sentence, holding on for dear life. 

We can feel Ed's love for the wild things all through the script: Bragam sticks up for his monster even when it's caught dead to rights, with the hunchback's dog's collar hanging out of its mouth, Dr. Bragan champions its innocence. When it tries to kill the hunchback, Dr. Bragan jumps to its defense ("What did you do to him!??")  Insectovarus only goes out on the town when Bragan and Noriko are asleep; he can even knock people unconscious by releasing special spores. The climax finds Insectovarus loose and Noriko and Bragan hearing stories he's rampaging through the village. We do see him approaching and presumably eating a child, sparking the citizenry (again, shades of Frankenstein). We do see townspeople creeping up the face of the volcano with torches but they're more like a funeral procession than an angry mob. Dr. Bragan tells Noriko he must go up and find his beast alone and bring with him, only a "small farm animal." His last words to Noriko "Noriko, stay... stay here" sound like he's talking to a dog trying to follow him home Knowing Ed as we do, we know a small part of him (and us) wanted to see Dr. Bragan  and his monster escape the torch-wielding villagers and flee to the next town, splitting the baby goat along the way. But Bragan and his creation fall into the volcano together, rather sudden and matter of factly, leaving Noriko holding the goat. The goat lives!

That sums it up but I am barely scratching the surface. In every corner of the film, ideas cohere and dissipate. For awhile it looks like Dr. Bragan's hand is going to turn into a Venus flytrap after he refuses to wash out a cut (he has "no time for bandages!") but then if it was going to figure in the climax, it doesn't. Noriko mentions her rich father is "too busy making money" to spend time with her, which goes nowhere. When Noriko lights a cigarette and puts it in his mouth after he comes to from a drunken black-out, he says "I've forgotten how sweet your licorice could be" (was a romantic moment edited out?) There's so many unanswered dead ends: why is the foley soundscape so rich with animal noises? Why does the gas station owner/mechanic in the US (Al Ricketts) who fixes Dr. Bragan's car look like he just gave himself a mud facial? Why is he holding a snake in either hand? Why is the hunchback's face apparently covered with lines from a black magic marker? The answer is just the howl of the wind, the call of the cock, the whining of the puppies, and of the hum of electrical equipment, and the bounce of the organ, the tipple of the xylophone, and the pluck of the pizzicato string.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Gorilla, mon Amor: Ed Wood's THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958) + UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956)

(Night #2 of the Ten Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special) 

"If you must go into the jungle, leave her there!"
In old movies, gorillas (i.e. guys in gorilla suits) do many things: they break out of cages, creep behind secret panels, and--in a grand burlesque of controversial Darwinism-- try to mate with human women, Gorillas never actually get to mate with human women, though. Someone always shoots them first. That was the law.

In 1956, Ron Orman struck a gong and declared: Law... no more! 

Ron (MESA OF LOST WOMEN) Ormond's UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956) is the film. Velda (Jacqueline Fontaine) is the girl. Velda grew up with the apes in deepest Africa, was mated to the chief, then 'rescued' by a Maharaja (Brian Keith). A sizable chunk of (quickly forgotten) filler from an old Sabu movie tells how he came to Africa on a hunting expedition, fell for a local girl who didn't like him, heard a jungle boy named Sabu was tipping off the animals (but never saw him - part of the deal Ormond made for the footage), lost his fortune when he obtained a cursed shrunken head; then he roamed the plains as a penniless freelance guide; and then found Velda after killing her ape lover in a fight. Now he's dying and asking these young hunters to return a cursed shrunken head to its point of origin, and to bring Velda back to her 'people.' Velda no like him. 

All caught up, the 'raj cautions the age and species-appropriate Jack (Allan Nixon) against Velda (they've already fallen in love, sort of) : "Do you not believe," he cautions, "that someday her soft caresses could turn into hairy steel claws at your throat?" 

He dies. Jack and his crew haul off on safari (a desert ranch fills in for the Congo) with Velda as guide. Jack doesn't want to know about Velda's past--doesn't want to even think about it--but the older guys in the safari say "Wise up Jack - she's not a woman, she's a beast."  A lush and fecund brunette with a low slung peasant blouse and pale skin that has somehow eluded a tan, Velda's no beast, but she does love Jack rather roughly. If an ape made out, that would be how she kisses. He's unnerved.

Like all B-movie safaris, there's a lot of wandering around, pointing at mismatched stock footage (courtesy Ormond's neighbor's vacation movies) and providing narration travelogue ("the zebra as usual was comical to look at..) But no other narration of such footage had previously dared to ask: "Could natural selection influence the mating instinct of a girl who was brought up half human, half gorilla?" 

When things get dull Velda dances; a shrunken head magically flies into her hands like a gift from the trees. She pulls up her skirt to show her plump things and twirls around the shrunken head. Where is her music coming from? Later, natives attending a tribal dance in the stock footage wear shirts and baseball caps, clearly modern Africans out on the weekend; one wonders what they'd think if they knew they were portraying headhunting savages who send a beautiful maiden each year to placate the lusts of a neighboring gorilla tribe."Every year Garuda come for sacrifice," explains Velda, "for girl."

"The natives consider it an honor, declares Jack's guide, adding "none of the have ever been found dead." Hmmm.

Whatever your thoughts on just what that means, it's worth sticking around for the sudden, lurching, super WTF finale. In fact, it's worth all of the bad movies you ever watched. All the times you felt bad for the gorilla dying at the end --paid in full!
A hit in the mid-50s southern markets, Untamed must have tapped right in to the sludgy vein of redneck miscegenation and anti-evolution anxiety that was fermenting in advance of the Civil Rights era. Today it works for a different reason. Personally, I love it, because of all the time I spent as a child rooting for the bad guys in my afternoon cartoons (namely Speed Racer), day-after-day I tuned in, thinking this time they'll win, just from the law of averages. Finally my mom could stand it no more - and told me the facts - the bad guys would never win, ever. 

I was devastated. I never watched Speed Racer again. Well, after that, after watching King Kong a hundred times and always the same sad ending, at least I was prepared. With Untamed Mistress, I feel the same surge of joy I hadn't felts since Django Unchained.

Two years later: Ed Wood and Adrian Weiss (Jack's brother) sidestepped unconscious racial subtext by introducing civilized modern woman and ape in a well turned-out mansion boudoir and made it less about did they or didn't they and more about reincarnation and the idea that, in a past life, a human could have been "queen of the gorillas."  

Dan (Lance Fuller) is a big game hunter millionaire with an adult male gorilla (named Spanky!) behind the secret panel in his boudoir. New bride Laura (Charlotte Austin) wants to meet him!  The honeymoon is literally stormy, with crashing thunder and flashes of lightning. Dan's study is laden with taxidermy animals and animal skin rugs. Laura has a striped angora sweater that she rubs a lot, as if chilly, but in a languid, beguiling way. She and Spanky hit it off. She seems psychically connected to him; during her fitful sleep that night, she dreams of the jungle, as if channelling Spanky and encouraging him to break the bars and come to her. Spanky does. Dan wakes up in time to shoot Spanky right as he tears off her nightgown. She doesn't sleep well after that, just keeps rubbing her angora fur, and whisper-talking about her 'weird sensation.'

Everything takes on a sinister sense of dislocated giddy wonder when Ed Wood is writing the dialogue. He makes the proceedings as resonant with B-movie and personal touches as he can; Spanky is kept in a basement lit by torches and accessible via secret panel. Nothing is played for carny side show sleaze because Ed's compassion for his freaks is without measure.  We root for the ape to get the girl from the beginning. Dan never does anything evil, but we can't help but feel there's something 'off' about him, something akin to Herb Evers in Brain that Wouldn't Die. 

Next morning, Dan and Laura need to talk about this like adults. Dan declares her reaction to Spanky's caress was not "normal."  She keeps remembering the jungle, the animals. A hypnotherapist announces Laura was, in a distant past life, 'queen of the gorillas!' Will their already scheduled honeymoon on African safari let her work it out of her system?   Not sure why Dan thinks bringing her to the land of the apes is a good idea. But for us, and for Laura, and Africa's single gorillas, it surely is ideal. The animal trainer male / animal female pair bond archetype goes way back, from Marnie to Captive Wild Woman.  It usually only ends one or two ways. But there is yet a third.

Laura worries: "Dan will think he's married to an idiot or something."

Then the film gets--- according to some critics, including monkey suit maniac John Landis--a little dull. To stand-in for Africa, Weiss folds in lots of tiger (!) footage from Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) and safari shots from Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Landis doesn't care for such cost-cutting measures, but me, Ive always had a soft spot for scenes of actors shooting at stock footage. Though some of the driving and chasing down giraffes and antelopes scenes--evocative of Hatari--are kind of alarming, one may rest assured the actors were nowhere around any of these creatures. Furthering the abstraction, when Laura dreams her way into the jungle past, the animal footage is shown in negative. This is even better since we can just see hypnogogic spirals, Austin's pretty sleeping face, super-imposed over it; Laura's zonked hypnotized voice names each animal is it appears in the footage as we see her past life ape POV ("trees and vines don't seem to bother me. I push right through them.")

 Ed spares us the usual cliches. Laura is no victim or savage, just legitimately capable and turned on by Africa ("the jungle really gets in your blood, doesn't it?"). She digs the danger; she doesn't mope over the animals being killed, nor try to rescue prey items from carnivores the way Tarzan does. Speaking throughout the movie in a cool sexual purr, both mature and open-minded, sexy yet reaching deep in herself in answer to some strange 'sensation.' Austin doesn't overdo it or make the character ridiculous, campy, or misguided. And marvel at how Ed slips in a rhapsody over his "angora sweater" into her hypnotized ramblings ("soft like kitten's fur -- it felt so good on me.")  

I'd rather see Bride and the Beast twice than the entirety of the Captive Wild Woman trilogy once, so there you go.

Both films are currently on Prime, and if you don't have it, they're still floating around...You'd be a fool to miss them. Come to think of it, you'd be a fool to see them, too. 

Darwin, you old so-and-so, you must feel pretty proud of yourself.

"You'll feel rested," notes the hypnotist, "but you'll want a cigarette."

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