Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception until your screens glows infinite

Thursday, September 24, 2020


You could do a lot worse with your retro escapist sci-fi yen then explore the six films that loosely comprise the Ivan Reiner/Antonio Margheriti  Gamma One series, a mid-60s sexy space future where the United Democracy Space Center manages all the interplanetary threats, where endearingly cheap analog (in-camera) special effects, beautiful miniature cityscapes, space stations, and landing fields; tough guy performances, cohesive interplanetary space-military jargon, and occasional stealth feminism serve a no-nonsense scripts- all recycling names, characters, settings, footage, and actors and writers from one film to another.  

What is so fascinating is how they linked, not as some obvious series with a prefix in the title, but they recycle sets, props, character names, actors, miniatures, and a general mise-en-scene future, with a united government and revolving circular space stations in orbit around the solar system with names like "Gamma One" and "Gamma 3." But this isn't a TV series-based movie series like the Star Trek films, nor a series stemming from instant pop culture pervasion like Star Wars, these films aren't titled to draw attention to the others in the series; it's as if each one is stand alone, but just uses the same characters, actors, writers, sets, and props.  They're just there. What are they? And why am I so fascinated?

Getting to know these films can be confusing - they have similar names, and casts, but things keep changing. The main four films that comprise the "Gamma One Quadrilogy" were shot over a two year period in the mid-60s by genre journeyman Antonio Margheriti (using the Americanized pseudonym 'Anthony Dawson' in the credits) with co-producing and writing by American writer (and Batman co-creator) Ivan Reiner: Set in a future where mankind as moved out into space in much the way Werner von Braun laid out in early Disney films, with space stations revolving (to duplicate gravity) around the Earth, the moon, Mars, etc. The key station is "Gamma One," where men and women work side-by-side, clad in corsets (for the men only) and muted polyester, as interplanetary threats--'wild' planets, mutant-making splinter societies, abominable snowmen, and unified intelligence 'diaphanoids'-- come and are dispatched by intrepid commanders. Then the writers from the last film went Margheriti made went over to Japan two years later to make another unofficial entry, with none of the same characters but set on "Gamma 3" instead of Gamma One, and organized around the same Central Space Command idea. If you add to these five a film Margheriti made in 1964 that plants a lot of the seeds we'd reap in the Gamma One quadrilogy, then you have what I term the Gamma One Sextet - and you can even add a 1963 Japanese science fiction movie that seems a partial inspiration for The Green Slime if you want to be thorough. 

If you watch these films a few times you learn what the differences are between the Gamma, Alpha, and Delta space stations, the names of ships (given the names of planets, just to confuse) and manned satellites (like "Echo"), and they are not easy to keep separate as often the effects referred to are either not added (probably for budget reasons, or they looked too ridiculous even for Margheriti) or the same shots are used for exteriors. Also, the names of crew stay the same from film to film, but actors switch roles, furthering the mystery, alongside the overly similar titling. For example I was a fan of War Between Planets for a long time without realizing War of the Planets was a totally different film, albeit with some of the same cast in different roles. 

Of course my enthusiasm for this odd duck series may blind me to their niche appeal. The special effects are pretty bad, but to me that's part of the charm. First, there are no optical effects at all in any of these  films. Forget  about CGI, or hand-painted glowing shapes, here there's not even a laser beam scratched into the celluloid. When floating in space the wires are always visible, and far away astronauts are represented by floating plastic toy spacemen. When these characters fire their lasers (one guy even pronounces them 'lazz-ers'), it's as giant cigarette lighters meet blow torches, so they have to aim at things up in the air as that's where the flame is going anyway. When the ships roar through the cosmos there's this prop with three of them flying in formation, each spitting fire into nose of the one behind from their exhaust as they roar through the cosmos: in the light of the fire not only do you see the clear plastic rod connecting all three ships to each other and being held up by some offscreen hand, you can slightly see the studio back wall, painted black to resemble outer space but the lines of the Exit door visible in the light of the sparklers. The stars are almost afterthoughts, hanging low in the sky;  the Earth, when visible, is as 2D as if it was hanging in the back of kid's a stage show. Sometimes the darkness of space is more a light blue depending on how alert the lighting tech is. But who cares when the exterior miniatures are super cool like this? The imagination is there, in typical Italian genius style.

Here are the Main Four, the Gamma One Quadrilogy: (note that the ratings for all these are subjective and insular - so a film with four stars is four stars in comparison to the others, and so forth - all are worth seeing more than once. If you're into that sort of thing.)

I criminali della galassia 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti 

Though it has easily the best of all the movie posters (above). a title that urges you to consider it in the same hipster vein as Wild, Wild West, and a lot of great miniatures, ideas, and kooky sets, the first in "Anthony Dawson's" official Gamma One quartet suffers from too many gross outs (and a hero whose horror of genetic difference is both reprehensible and contagious), with one or two to many outdoor scenes back on Earth (nothing takes the air out of a goofy sci-fi movie like bright Italian sunlight), and a ridiculous villain in the corporate chemist "Mr. Nurmi" (Massimo Serato). A eugenics-crazed lunatic with his own corporation-owned planet, Delphus, he has a master plan to abduct 'perfect specimens' via a chemical that shrinks them down to Barbie-size, he's always clamoring about "perfection" even as his Klingon-esque eyebrows are peeling off under the sweaty soundstage kliegs. Nurmi's plan to purify the world is ridiculous, but even more so is the incredible slowness of Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) of Space Command to figure out what's going on. He regularly misses obvious clues (clones appearing in several places at once) and dismisses his own sister's eyewitness accounts as hysteria, at least at first. Eventually they figure it out, and thanks to a cool sketch artist dome, get an exact ID, but the skeevy irritation lingers. Still, this is such a completely realized mise-en-scene, such cool futuristic miniatures, futuristic cars, ray guns, etc. that it's hard to stay mad. Ivan Reiner (New York City-living Batman co-creator) gets sole screenwriting credit, indicating that the tenets of the series are really his baby. The impetus to make this a kind of loose "James Bond in space" series is clear here in this first film more than any of the ones that would follow. 

One-Offs: One tack that would disappear after this first entry is a typically-Italian anti-corporate motif in the form of gigantic chemical company CBM -who can get away with whatever they want, leaving Halstead to have to escape his house arrest to throw himself into the fray. It's a cliche'd antiauthoritarian slant that doesn't taste right in this kind of utopian collective future. We wouldn't see such division at the high end again in the series, which is to its credit. "All these parts of people, shrunken organs.. kind of makes me sick to my stomach" notes Halstead. "Perhaps the corporations.... will indoctrinate him," notes Nurmi. 

Special Effects: As with most of the series, the effects are terrible - ray guns are basically sparklers and lighters cranked to eleven (all effects are in-camera) Luckily Margheriti would rather give you a poorly designed alien world than just have another static, cheap, talky scene. But oh brother, don't get me started about the grimy-looking "Proteo Theater" with its butterfly dancers! Man, does Nurmi have some odd ideas.

Feminism:  The romantic bickering between the 'married to his job' commander of Gamma 1, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) and martial arts expert Connie, i.e. Lieutenant Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) has aged very badly. Connie doesn't give a good an impression of women in the workforce. She ignores red flags galore when she gets the leering proposition to go away to Nurmi's off-limits corporate planet, Delphus, merely because he calls her "a marvelous jungle animal" that he wants to to "explore."  And when she snaps to Mike, "I want to be treated as a woman, not as an equal," you want to find the macho idiot who wrote that line and belt him with a hardcover version of Molly Haskell. Worse, Connie goes from demonstrating kung fu to freaking out when blood comes out of the shower on Delphus, then to being locked up in an old-school medical version of a pillory without any argument. The language used by the guy introducing her to Nurmi is also offensive ("she's 100% for our commander, like she's some kind of reserved bottle of wine.) Halstead meanwhile is such a dumbass sexist he doesn't even notice the danger his arrogance is exposing Connie to. 

Score: A.F. Lavagnino delivers a nice processional orchestral theme, wistful, with harp, synth, and chime accents as it lilts into drowsy floating lullaby accents for things like space station maintenance. Echoey vibes and murky low end strings aid other areas with an aura of futuristic ominousness. 

Good Effects: in addition to the gorgeous miniatures, dig the full size set of the front of UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command), replete with subway maps, check-in desk, shop windows, with the working futuristic cars (though when they're outside the feeling is more Dr. Who or The Prisoner more than James Bond. Margheriti takes time to give us busy (indoor soundstage) exteriors of the UDSC, replete with televisions in windows advertising things like the "Computo-doll" (a computer animated talking baby doll) and "Nu-Face" an at-home plastic surgery kit. The beautifully-lit miniatures, reflecting launch pads with departing rockets, space port entrances, trains, and cityscapes, all a-glisten under black skies, are unique to the series. The end makes a grand use of the vast empty soundstage for the big holding area where the clones stand robotically around the blood pool and a giant 'merging' device is lowered from the cavernous ceiling like some expensive Dr. No style doomsday device (but it's really to inexplicably weld Connie and Nurmi into one super being... somehow).  Delphus is impressively flooded at the end, with lots of mutants drowning in red lake water.

I will forgive the terrible blue eyeshadow/pink lipstick combination of the enemy kung fu women because, well, I love the idea of them as a whole. I like that the film has the guts that makes it okay for the enemy agent lady to abduct a young moppet for no clear reason. There's a great hotel room fight between a bunch of kung-fu hittin' babes and the three space force Gamma 1 officers (which include a young Franco Nero in a supporting part); though it's funny they fight the men, while kung fu Connie hangs in limbo on Delphis. And there's a cool mid-air escape from an apartment window by Halstead after he's confined to quarters, when his crew (including Nero) swing by to pick him up in a craft before zipping over to Delphus! Good stuff. There's a cool shoot-out where the boys massacre a whole army of mutant clones, their four arms waving menacingly (some only have two but who's complaining?) and a final all-out brawl as the set is flooded with bloody eviscera-water that' evokes both Danny Torrance's special Overlook elevator and the flooding of the Romans after Moses gets across the Red Sea. And I have no problem with Connie riding out the big climax in her underwear. It lets us know that sexy poster is no lie after all! 

Egregious Offenses: Nurmi's mission on Halstead's station is to create living, autonomous human organs for transplants; Halstead looks at them and expresses his distaste; and then we're supposed to buy that a villain hung up on perfection wouldn't think his beautiful people might object to a life spent lounging by an open swimming pool full of blood and pureed human viscera (which they're also expected to shower with) that eventually spills through during the big collapse climax ala something between . Parts of the film seem to have been cut for budget or time -though we have but a glimpse of Nurmi's grand plan to become one with Connie (slice both people in half, literally, and splice them together!). And his planet Delphus seems to be awfully small. The tour of his place (under the blood lake) is freaky thoiugh, with a room full of deformed mutants straight of an AIP Lovecraft adaptation and trays full of severed limbs being dumped into the lake as 'leftovers'. The most disquieting element though is the uncanny look Nurmi's cloned henchman, a tall sharp-nosed man with an obscenely bald head barely covered by a fascist infantry cap, wearing a cheap black rubber raincoat too sizes too small. He's like that icky guy you have to be friends with in school since he's the only other kid who listens to punk rock. Luckily all his clones have four arms (making them "a freak... a sickening freak" as reactionary Halstead dubs him). The rest of Nurmi's 'perfection' army are women suffering a surfeit of cheap oily make-up, unflattering costumes (only the men wear corsets in the future!) with a dislike of harsh words, and trapped in godawful hair styles. 

Enzo Fiermonte status: He's called General Fowler here (the "Italian Burt Lancaster" plays a general in all four of the main quadrilogy but never keeps the same name)

Obsessive Hints: there's a pixie-faced brunette girl who keeps popping up as an extra in all these films as one of the crew. Here she actually gets some lines of dialogue (like "there's another phone call for you, commander, they say it's urgent," when passing him the phone). I have yet to find out who she is, but it's fascinating that she's always around in all four films. Look for the only half-shrunk scientist (Franco Doria) at the end, close to the bottom of the screen at the end, when Connie is all revealed in a fetching bathing suit and the gang is kicking back with cocktails by the (normal-colored) swimming pool. He's not bitter; he's impressed "it's not humorous, it's extraordinary!" (We don't get a cutaway to a close-up of him that might make the moment land). Try to figure out what is going on with Fowler and the thing he found in the wreckage ("my lucky number") that we don't get an insert close-up to see, or what drug he's talking about ("Sactanon"?) that he got on Delphus that "cleared (his) mind completely." Another cutaway seems to be missing... but that's the Margheriti touch. If you wanted 'perfection' you wouldn't be here. 

I diafanoidi vengono da Marte 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Now safely off of Earth and up on Gamma 1, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) and Lieutenant. Connie, Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) are celebrating New Years, up to their old 'not as cute as they think' unprofessional bickering, and all the stations are competing for the best space display - or in Gamma One's case, a live space ballet of cheerleader-style letter spelling Happy New Year (in English!). But while that's going on - terror strikes - when one of the officers on duty that night, Captain Jacques Dubois (the Satanic-looking Michael Lemoine) is possessed by a green-lit fog. A hive mind of bodiless creatures roaming the galaxy in search of the ideal hosts, are attacking the space stations through their green light displays (which the revelers presume are fireworks or DTs). Though it takes awhile for it to sink in as the crews are all getting drunk and/or snogging (the dress designer Berenice Saprano doesn't waste a chance to trot out lots of cute space babes in various futuristic--albeit tasteful--dresses.), Margheriti proves himself a master of well executed crowd movements in the the way the emergency is gradually relayed from just a peculiar observation in background radiation all the way to evacuation of all guests, and the way the guests--drunk--make it no easy task. Ivan Reiner is back as screenwriter, here joined with Renato Morretti. 

Effects: I think the glowing green lights everyone sees flashing in the corner of their eyes are supposed to be something tangible, though all we ever see of them are rushing green smoke illuminated from a green light off camera (and occasionally the sight of some weird floating blob thing that Margheriti seems ashamed of so we're missing a lot of cutaways). We have to take Halstead's right hand man's word that "you did it commander - you knocked 'em right out of orbit" by- luring them between two lead shields and then blasting 'lazzers' at them. When he tells the crew to "get ready with the .38s!" it's pretty funny - imagining shooting bullets at puffs of smoke. We're a long way from the same year's Planet of the Vampires, which managed to get by with using a few bicycle reflector lights to depict a similar alien threat (bodiless spirits possessing astronauts - an all-too common--and cost-cutting--alien threat). But we're still in the same country, with the same abundant creative spirit and ability to a do a whole lot on a relatively small budget. 

Egregious Offenses: The gross idea of some dusty old automated system on Mars, wherein you just push a button and get "lobster tails ala bracco" instantly delivered from inside a steel block, is kind of gross. Even more so is the idea of young Franco Nero sitting right down and gorging himself without the slightest qualm, never considering it must have been a long time since anyone reloaded the fridge (lobsters don't grow on Mars, and they don't age well). When he's all done and mutters "What do we do with the garbage, leave it for the maid?" I find it especially wrankling. It's been a long time since I heard a lobster so disgraced! 

Enzo Fiermonte status: Imdb is, I think, mixed up: he's billed General Halstead here (Mike's father!). But actually he's the scientist Werner and slightly less behind the learning curve than usual, with probing questions like, "Did something happen, if so, what? Then we can ask... why?" Later he becomes one of the first scientists to want to experience an alien mind meld ("I would like to experience this.") Halstead here is... I don't know who... but is more of the mind that "We'll need some of that boy's wild bravado before this is all over," when his son disobeys orders yet again. 

Plusses: Lots of groovy tracking shots this time, one involving a helmet-less stagger across a flat planetary surface to escape at the climax, with a red tinted space sky and full size ships and vehicles crawled gaspingly passed in favor of a bigger craft all the way across the red sandy (all indoor soundstage with cool lighting) landing area. There is also a marvelous walk across what is a big hangar / boiler room / garage / soundstage garage on either Gamma One or Earth, as the crew set out on this journey to a remote mining planet (Mars?); and a long, kind of pointlessly elongated automated walkway journey down into the dark recesses of the mine where the "hosting" ceremony is going on. The big New Years parties on all the various space stations and Earth HQ are also shown in elaborate detail, as if we'll see these people again (we never do). 

Feminism: Along with the first film, this is one of the more sexist of the series, with Sanchez easily hypnotized into a green trance, and spending most of the movie a zombie, and there's an older officer as well (same deal). They don't get much dialogue but Sanchez gets all pissy when--again--Mike treats her like an officer in front of the troops instead of getting all romantic, which seems hopelessly unprofessional. She looks good though, and there are more than a few pretty faces floating around at the party (such as that unbilled pixie-faced girl from the previous film). "When are you coming to Alpha 2 to teach our girls karate?" asks a fellow communications officer when Connie drops into her department. But then emergency signals erupt from Delta-2, which she throws to Mike to keep him from 'getting involved' with a bedroom-eyes making ground chick (unbilled). 

Final Thoughts: The difference between these first two films (with Halstead) and the next two are interesting in a thematic countercultural way reflecting Italian social disillusion. The first two threats here are similar - a lunatic desire for 'sameness' that requires massive casualties in the 'imperfect' specimens. Though it's all very retro for the Vietnam era, the enforced uniformity dread is the same as so many other films of the time. The next two are much more abstract and fantastical in their threats. There's no longer any division within the human ranks. The threats are completely external, and therefore--in my mind--far more pleasurable for repeat viewing. 

Il pianeta errante 
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti 

You guessed it - the title to this one is the "runaway planet" or "The Errant Planet" if you want to be exact. But distributors eager perhaps to jump on the press they did for the last film (or was this one first?) but banking on a short memory.. ? no, anyway you look at it, the nearly identical title makes no sense, especially considering its got much of the same cast and props, so that if you were sleeping through the last movie you might not be able to tell the difference!

Cast: This is one of my favorites as it has Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby Kill!), who with his regular voiceover dubber whomever it is is a master - at matching GRS's brief lip movements with great torrents of tough snapped dialogue, which is the way a coiled natural leader with a GI Joe-style handle like Commander Rod Jacskon would be. The dubbing is great matching the lips with weird hesitance and fast-talking when necessary. Dialogue is rich.... and wondrous, using the weird pauses of the actors to create mood and drama rather than just making them sound drunk: "Read your retros - don't get clogged, Mack!" / "Who's got the flagship?!" Great lines like the interchange with his on-station lover Terry Sanchez (Ombretta Colli):

"I'm engaged to her Terry.... not that... I want to be."
"Cant you keep her from coming up here?"
"I'm afraid..... it's too involved ...for that."

It's in charge of communications and she's way more low key and professional than Lisa Gastoni was with Mike Halstead in the first two films. They've been having an affair when not too busy with space; and there's just one hitch - Rod's dopey, cat-eyed fiancee is down on Earth, and happens to be the General's daughter (Halina Zalewski of Long Hair of Death fame). Pietro Maretellenzana is Toby, AKA Capt. Dubrowski, who is buddies of sorts with Commander Jackson but has a hard time taking orders.

FX: The exterior (beyond the pull of the space wheel) is once again the worst part as far as being convincing, and therefore the best - while they stand on the edge the stars don't move as they would if the wheel was spinning (to create gravity) and naturally the flying through space is all done from wires so everyone looks like they're lifted up by the seat of their britches. Man it's ridiculous but the music is nice and ominous and weird.

Enzo Fiermonte status: He's called General Norton here, and Janet (Zalewska) accompanies him like a secretary or something, even getting him to cut short an important meeting so she can whine about not hearing from Mike on Gamma One! Norton, that's so unprofessional! 
It's not so much it's that riveting but its rich with delight.
that unknown pixie-faced extra - left, behind Ombretta Coli.

There are no weird aliens, but the errant planet, soaring too close to earth's gravitational field, creates enough geologic and tidal disturbances that it's more devastating than an invasion (most of the calamity is offscreen),. It's uninhabited but impressive and alive within itself, with fields of cold red gelatin quicksand and islands of hairy ground surrounding craters breathing out plumes of cold steam. Going into one of the craters, they find a world like Fantastic Voyage's brain or bloodstream. While trying to plant anti-matter bombs they're attacked by long veinlike white tendrils that bleed but repair themselves as soon as Rod stops hacking at them. We've seen the look of this interior before, those long tendrils were hanging around in the last film in the series, War of the Planets. And back in 1964 in Margheriti's Battle of the Worlds it was almost the same exact planet! It's like it's back again, but in a different universe.

The imdb score is unfairly low, and perhaps based on old faded VHS pan and scans (or memories of being horribly bored as a kid catching it on TV, marveling that an astronaut hacking at white tubes constituted a science fiction movie); but the Prime print is sublime. It lets the scheme of dark colors-- greys, blacks and red that make up the bulk of the colors look really rich and alluring. If space opera style drama and mature, adults doing work as an organized group in constant radio communication is your bag, this is like the base, the raw go-to for all your Italian swinging cocktail space station needs.  I can see it any old time, and if nothing else, it rocks me to sleep like a baby. That cool dubbing voice of Stuart's "Don't get clogged, Mac!" it's like the manly manna to lure me out of any panic attack as gelatinous planet surface seems to envelop my ship, essentially burying me alive. "Use your retros!"

La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Reiner Alert: One again the name Ivan Reiner crops up in the writing credits. Is he like the show runner? He never wrote another movie series (but co-created Batman with Bob Kane and invented most of the cooler characters--Joker, Cat Woman, Riddler--himself, but got shafted from the spotlight). Reiner and Devils co-writers Bill Finger and Charles Sinclair went on to do The Green Slime in Japan. 

These show a regular improvement, gaining steadily since the herky-jerky Wild, Wild Planet
The exterior that opens things this time is snow-bound, a tower on the north pole, where "General Norton has approved Commander Jackson's new rotation schedule," i.e. things are quiet and now everyone can take off. But then - wham! The middle segment is a long trek from a village in Nepal up a Himalayan mountain to seek the mighty snowmen. The last segment is the flight to "the big one, Jupiter" for a mission to save the Earth once again. 

Cast: Giacomi-Rossi Stuart's Commander Rod Jackson is back from the previous film and is no longer with either girl. He's free agent, lounging around with sexy countess's who play mini golf in their gardens with pet parrot; or at the karate gym, working out with Japanese martial artists (giving Sanchez a chance to speak in Japanese, to which he replies it's a "singu-war preszher" to talk with her- thus undoing any racial progress). Ombretta Colli is here, though now she's called Lisa and has strange cheekbones and is dating someone else and I'm also not crazy about her hair, up in this wildly unkempt 'do. 
And what's the deal with the way the hot "countess" is seen only in passing at the pool spa where Jackson and his buddy Captain Pulaski (Geoffredo Unger, back from the grave from the last film) are hanging out with a ginger kidwho I can only assume is Toby's orphaned son seen at the end of the last film? Well, the kid only gets the one scene (thank goodness) and soon Rod and Pulaski are jetting off the Himalayas; and we're back to a very frumpy looking Halena Zalewski in the same outfit and sagging reptilian black hair bun and gold lame jumpsuit, but she's no longer engaged to Rod and no longer the general's daughter - she's called Lt. Sanchez, now!  

Debits: This is a very segmented film, not unlike Empire Strikes Back in that it seems to be several different films welded together, from the weird intro of Rod and Pulaski's vacation spots (which we never see again) to dispatched to Nepal to climb the Himalayas (or at least a few snowy sloped hills somewhere in the Italian Alps), to a cave leading to the Snowmen's secret relay station; the indoor scenes, such as a strange 'night life' sequence with their guide (Wilbert Bradley) cavorts like he's in a voodoo trance, and is given misleading inscrutable close-ups to make you think he's a spy; but with his crazy eyes and racist dub he's like a black-Italian actor doing an impression of a sherpa that would embarrass Alan Bourdillon Trahearne. Also, we miss the the actor who did Rod's English speaking voice in War Between the Planets. The new guy is fine, but it's jarring to lose the last guy, as he and Stuart were a perfect match.

That's all minor quibbles, of course, Each part is interesting and the last section, the flight to Jupiter, has everything we've by now come to adore about the series, from those white air force helmets to the high wire astronauts swinging through the darkness of studio space to plant bombs on asteroids; and of course the same endearing exploding sets and fireballs we've seen in by now all four films, which is part of what makes them adorable (sort of like the Corman Poe films use the same fire effect shots at the end of each film). 

Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's theme song has a groping rock edge; making it second only to the Green Slime as far as a groovy theme song, with a slinky lead guitar and a pleasingly ominous beat. The main instrument for the rest seems to be an open mashed piano, lower keys banged and boomed so all the strings vibrate. Tres cool.

Enzo Fiermonte status: He gets to stay General Norton this time, even if his daughter is now nonexistent (With Zalewska playing Lt. Sanchez). He's just as ineffectual as ever, getting all flustered when Jackson isn't right at his post even though he just approved leave, getting mad he didn't use the heli-jet, not realizing it's been destroyed, and so forth.

Uniforms: I like the red triangle on their navy blue uniform with the light blue trim. As with Wild Wild Planet the costumes and make-up are all substantially cheap-looking, but once we're in the caves with the snowmen there's at least some nice painted frost, cold air (for steam breath) and clever lighting (purples and greens). Best of all, the snowmen themselves: giant actors in elegant in green vinyl bathing suits over dark grey long underwear with red capes and sashes; with puffy grey hair, beards and big medallions they look like a crew of Germanic salt and pepper "bears" at some 70s disco. 

Odd Touches: it takes awhile to kick in at first there's some weird things; the winter station has a blue and black uniform and there's a beefy silver-haired actor as the commander of the station - a weird symbiosis to the big snow devil aliens and his salt and pepper beard. There's a yeti footprint in plaster, a global warming plot, and a 

FX: As with all the other films in the series, the laser guns shoot a mix of sparklers and flames, like giant cigarette lighters/blowtorches (every effect is in camera) but there are some gorgeous miniatures, including a snowbound arctic station and burning heli-jet sabotage.

(1968) Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
Writer/co-producer Ivan Reiner is back one more time as is the space station design and overall vibe / mise-en-scene; instead of Gamma 1 this time (or in addition to), it's Gamma 3, further out there. Neither Jackson or Halstead are around, nor is Margheriti, but Fukasaku more than makes up for it with a well-oiled thrill machine. Shot in English with what seems to be a bigger budget, a better sense of pace and dynamics than the Margheriti films, it's a load of cohesive fun. This time the Toby-Rod dynamic from Between is back, with the square-jawed Commander Rankin (the iron cool Robert Horton) sent on an urgent mission to blow up an encroaching asteroid. First he has to go to space station Gamma 3 and that means bumping into station chief Vince Elliott (Richard Baywatch Jaeckel, sporting an aggressive blonde buzzcut and a short guy shoulder chip.) Elliott questions his decisions every step of the way, and then the mission is almost blown thanks to a dawdling biologist (the inescapable Ted Gunther) who finds a glowing green slime ball on his sample case. Uh oh. Naturally he has to bring a chunk back with him, though in a way it's not even his fault the thing gets loose and spreads like wildfire. Rankin trashes the sample case, runs decontamination three times ("three times!?" exclaims Elliott), but it's Vince who ends up killing more men in his attempts to aid the ever-clumsy Gunther.

Back on Gamma 3, Rankin moves in on more than station command, there's also the chief medical officer, sexy-lipped Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball), dressed here in sexy silver glitter open-midriff disco-heralding jump suit. The camerawork is tight, the sets are cohesive, impressive and just artistic enough to seem inviting, with impressive close-ups; and tough (non-dubbed) English language dialogue, and of course the monsters are incredibly endearing, if sloppily-painted, and they make a groovy whir-squeal noise as they go breaking through walls in search of the electric current that stimulates their cell division. I remember my first ever rubber monster thumb puppet from the 25 cents gum ball machine when I was two or three. I loved that thing. And it looked just like these slimy monsters, so maybe I'm prejudiced. I also love the scenes of the army of cute blonde nurses wheeling wounded patients' hospital beds away from the monsters and the care the filmmakers take in displaying corridor maps so we know just where 'c-block' is.

FX: The first in the sextet to use optical effects, this has bright yellow laser beams painted on, and some process shots as the men fly around in space outside the station, zapping monsters as they swing by on their wires. 

Pros: It's probably the best parable for letting liberal empathy make you a bad leader --Vince is the kind of bleeding heart who would "kill ten to save one" as Rankin puts it (summing up one of Vince's past blunders). Paluzzi sticks up for Vince in that same puppy dog pity way that Katniss frets over little Peta in The Hunger Games. There is also a good parable to glean with the way the slime spreads and multiplies as an invasive species, ala COVID wherein once an invasive organism jumps containment, you have to keep evacuating, no room to fret and 'try', It's not long before the whole station must be blown to shreds before it crashes and spreads its tentacled plague to the world! 

In short, this movie is the best of everything. 

Score: Love that theme song with the Tommy Holland-ish lead vocal. And the Toshiaki Tsushima / Charles Fox score is very slinky, with lots of pizzicato string bends that mimic the sounds of the instrumentation, blaring horn stabs, modernist xylophones, blowsy bassoons, and the occasional thunderous string passage.

Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti / Translation: Planet of Extinct Men
(1961) Dir. Antonio Margheriti

Sort of the early prequel to Margheriti's 1966-7 "Gamma One" Tetralogy (note its American title is Battle of the Worlds, and is not be confused his War Between the Planets or War of the Planets, both of which came later and all of which resist using "war" and "worlds" in the same title). When a runaway planet enters out solar system, the world's leading observatories look to a hamming wildly Claude Raines as a Einstein/Hawking-style grand vizier of physics. Ever the sport, Raines dubs his own voice, superbly, and even wears a big space helmet during the big alien planet-landing climax. Racing around like a kid in a candy store through miles of alien tubing and red gel lights (an early version of the similar "runaway" in War Between the Planets), Raines saves the day by issuing grating 'music of the spheres' from his portable synthesizer. (enemy UFOs are maneuver via sound waves, leading to lots of overlaid asynchronous tones as ships race into heavily-edited dogfights). Mixing Mycroft Holmes and Peter O'Toole doing Henry II, Raine's mathematician physicist is so brilliant he can just write an equation on the observatory floor in chalk for the world's leaders to see (via camera phones) and the world is saved. A pair of young couples (one from a Martian outpost, and a pair from his own observatory) fawn over him and stand around in awe and then saddle up when it's time to ride out of orbit and take on "the Outsider" (as Raines dubs it). In many ways I like this film more than that Wild Wild Planet that came next in Margheriti's sci-fi development, though really both are essential. This may lack a more fully realized UDSC mise-en-scene compared to the 'official' Gamma One quadrilogy, but Raines keeps it vibrant, powering through the limits in budget with his florid gumption. 

Score: Mario Migliardi's score smoothes over any soft patches and helps to give the rocky island scenery a proto-giallo sense of class. That said, the barrage of jarring synth noises in the second half, during Raines' 'music of the spheres' phase, may wake and annoy your sleeping girlfriend if you don't keep the volume low.

Prayer for a Remastered 2K Blu-ray: Long a PD title, one can dream of seeing this one day remastered to look as good as the (above) War Between the Planets. What else is the stuffing of the stars, professor, if not such dreams? As it is, the big climax finds the astronauts all gawking at what looks like a Rauschenberg 'black' painting leaning against the tunnel floor, but is supposed to be dead aliens.

Uch├╗ daikaij├╗ Girara
(1963) Dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu
*** / Criterion Channel Image - B-/C

Though it shares no co-creators, it's pretty clear this was at least a partial inspiration for The Green Slime, with its future of moon base cocktails and plot of a biological sample, taken during a dangerous mission, that grows insanely via gobbling energy, and running amok, while the gang celebrate with cocktails back at base. With a happy astro-theme song and groovy lounge soundtrack (courtesy Taku Izumi), a cheerful shade of blue for the outer space backgrounds, and cute if unconvincing space miniatures,  a goofy monster, and a pretty, youthful international cast, and cheap-ass sets, X is set--like its Gamma One descendants--in that once-so entrenched in its seemingly inevitable immediate future--conjured by Werner von Braun and Walt Disney. Here we got cute blonde gaijin astrobiologist Lisa (Peggy Neal) as the girl in a group of four bound for Mars, stopping off on the moon to party with cute Michiko (Itoko Harada), whose got a crush on Capt. Sano (Shun'ya Wazaki), who crushes on Lisa, who likes him too but knows Michiko crushes so much harder. Japanese sci-fi gaijin mainstay Franz Gruber sports a goatee as a high-ranking scientific advisor (he also counsels Lisa when hearts gets too heavy). Planetary danger erupts when Lisa collects a tiny alien spore she found stuck to the ship's tail fin and brings it down to Earth. This one leaves a chicken size footprint etched in acid and immediately grows kaiju massive!

Though quite joyful and triumphant (just this side of The Giant Claw in pleasing ridiculousness) Guilala's attacks are a bit on the weaker side compared to his more esteemed Toho comrade, but with all the fun jetting back and forth from the moon to Earth to that loungedelic Taku Izumi score, the glowing soap dish UFO visits, the widescreen medium shot compositions, the luminous glowing skin of the two lead actresses, and Guilala's aerodynamic head-curling its edges when blasting laser spitballs, it just doesn't matter.

Grooving at the moon's astro-lounge, foggily

The Criterion image is soft but hey - if not for their "It came from Shochiku" Eclipse series, it wouldn't be out on anything but a $60 Japanese import (and you would never buy it without first knowing how much it rocked), because if there are cocktails being served on space stations or the moon in a 60s science fiction film, I shall be crawling forth, insatiable. There is no 'counting days' when there are no longer 'days' without Earth's gravitational spin and these seven films just aren't enough to stem my shakes!


You can find BATTLE OF THE WORLDS and WAR BETWEEN PLANETS streaming on Amazon Prime. For more cool 60s science fiction on Prime, check out this post from a few months ago. 

As for rest, you can find them on nice DVRs from Warner Archive. The X FROM OUTER SPACE is on the Criterion Channel.

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 a 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. There are commentaries from prolific Universal horror archivist author Gregory Mank, but I haven't listened yet, lest I realize he's already arrived at the same trenchant and pithy deconstructivist observations I have, and thus negate the power of my direct experience and dampen the ardor of my prose. I will hear him later.... rest assured I am far from done with this matter.  

Whatever your impressions, Paula the Jungle Wild Woman/Captive'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, 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.

(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; she exhibits no signs of illness whatsoever; her opinion is not asked as to whether she's comfortable being left at some male stranger's eerie house for an indeterminate amount of time; in short, she is as indentured to the patriarchy as Sheela the gorilla. When she displays a sign of trepidation, Ankers even chides her, treating her with the same infantilizing contempt with which she herself allows herself to be treated by Stone. Any sense of intuition of danger, being a feminine trait, is a sign of childish animal idiocy, while a magazine article is taken as a kind of gospel truth. Carradine's picture is in a medical journal, therefore a girl is betrayed by her own sister, the way Catholic parents might punish a child for saying a respected priest molested him after choir practice.

Unlike Stone's lion tamer, however, at least glandular expert Carradine is cool. He knows enough not to try to get married and he has no interest in Vickers, sexually; he's prideful but he recognizes his own psychopathic villainy, and it's all in the service of science and his wild ideas; he takes risks because he's driven to. There's no such excuse for Milburn's villainy because it's so unconscious and accepted by the social order that it takes us decades of slow-burn enlightenment to finally realize how vile he is. Carradine is way more likable purely for being so openly mephistophelian.

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
(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.

(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.

(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)

(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.

(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)

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. 

(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.)

(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)
(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)

(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. 

(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)

(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 shame Thrower didn't sling props at this rough and ready, shocking, moving, uniquely African American masterpiece; it's not only uniquely its decade, it provides perhaps the trippiest metaphysical soundtrack in the history of film, exploring the ever-mounting nature of addiction with a beautifully widening gyre of sonic feedback. If you only know Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead, his majestic, fluent French-speaking Dr. Hess, living the high life, with a son in boarding school, and a suicidal vampire guest, will have you stoned in awe. 

(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!
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