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

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How the Hell Was Won: DEMONOID (1981), CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978)


Blame it on the foundation-rattling popularity of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby if you want, but the 70s was occult down to its bones, wilding out adults and children alike (if we were too young to see them in the theaters, we caught them edited on TV). The devil was--all through the 70s--kid-friendly; he carried a current of underground electric jouissance that connected our elementary school playground gossip chakras in a unified field of ouija boards, vividly recounted movie plots, slumber party telekinesis and deep dish absorption of TVMs like Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Crowhaven Farm, Horror at 37,000 Feet and the discussed in this issue, Cruise into TerrorThe uncanny magnetism of the neighborhood covens often depicted in these films acted as a sort of tribal mask obscuring the mysteries of adulthood, which lax (in hindsight?) parental guidelines enabled us to often witness firsthand, even with inflexible bedtimes preventing us from seeing them to the end (denied closure, we'd lie in bed and dream the endings, and lurid and dark those endings were, way more lurid and far darker than the chaste denouements rattled off for us by a half-asleep mom the next morning). 

I forgot to mention the preponderance--as holy children's writs---of scary 70s paperbacks. These were so important because if you saw a movie either on TV or the big screen and you loved it, you had to accept the fact you might never see it again. The only way to 'own' it would be to buy the novel or soundtrack album (or the bubblegum cards). The child of the 80s could have his mind blown by the 'horror' aisle at the video rental store, but for the kid of the 70s, it was the supermarket checkout paperback rack that promised the 'real' scares. While mom shopped we'd stand hypnotized by the beguilingly cryptic occult covers, that underground jouissance current snaking right into us.

That all changed in the 80s, of course, when we could at last own these films, as well as rent stuff far too gruesome or sexual to have ever even graced out TVs before; But today... now... these final days, for some of us, The Car,  Beyond the Doorand The Devil's Rain and The Legacy, abide. 

Oh yeah, and....these two...

(1981)- Wr./Dir. Alfredo Zacarias
*** / Prime Image - A+

DEMONOID might technically be from 1981 but if you melted down a 70s shelf full of occult paperbacks, then wrapped the result up in a mix of R-rated nudity and gore + PG-rated TV movie covering, Demonoid would be what was left. Here we have at all, packed into a 92 minute thrill ride: a severed hand racing around, possessing one person after another; crazy train/car chases involving possessed victims; subliminal flash cuts of the severed hand's accompanying demon, its clawed hand raised with a mighty sword; dazzling fashion juxtapositions such as Eggar's mixing hardhat and high heels); absurd lines and misguided hamminess; Stuart Whitman's half-hearted oft-vanishing Irish accent as the priest doubting his faith; a whole TV mini-series worth of crazy twists and ridiculous contrivances welded into 92 nonstop minutes full of a familiar prime-time ABC TV movie innocence that makes the moments of nudity and goofy gore all the more startling.

But best of all, for bad movie lovers like me: talented actors trying to be convincing wrestling with a rubber hand. No one beats this hand; its demonic aura affixes to the next victim, now both evil and inexplicably driven to sever their own hand and, if possible, offer it to Samantha Eggar on a silver tray. It was her who discovered the original hand--last affixed to a Mexican Inquisition-era topless hottie-- buried deep in her husband's Mexican silver mine. The hand belongs to her. Do you hear? It crawls up her leg while she's sleeping and tries to initiate a ménage à trois with her drunk miner husband Mark (Roy Jensen). It possesses him for a consolation and soon he's leaping from his grave after Haji (Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill) sets him on fire for winning on 24 consecutive tosses at a Las Vegas craps tables. He cuts his hand off by slamming it on the car door of the cop called to investigate, then the cop drives off in a hurry to go make a plastic surgeon cut off his hand, at gunpoint - no anesthetic, while forcing Eggar to watch. The movie has barely begun and we're already in such fucked-up awesome territory one finds oneself longing to smash their hand in the doorjamb to join the party.

Devoted readers know I'm a fan of evil mummy hand movies, especially Hammer's 1973 gem  Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (the best of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker's 1903 novella "Jewel of the Seven Stars"). This is kind of a Mexican-Spanish Inquisition riff on those adaptions, with the tomb discovered accidentally and the hand being far busier. It's its own thing, baby - and it zips fast. The giddy flavors of De Palma's Fury are here coupled to some of the spiritual tropes of The Exorcist, It's got it all. 

Dopey Stuart can't believe any of it, even God's holy power seems beyond his belief system. Will he, like old Father Karras ("how can I be of service when I have such personal doubts?" he actually says this during his opening prayers - I mean c'mon! And instead of running track like Karras, Stuart works out at the local boxing gym), make the ultimate sacrifice? Who cares? As the hand makes its rounds, its chosen hosts get so frisky and loco, even after being burned down their skeletons, that you can't help but applaud the reckless high-wire idiocy of it all, reserving eye rolls only for the half-assed soul searching of Whitman's continuously wrong-headed padre (does he really think a security detail --a pair of cops in their car outside her apartment---are going to protect her from a disembodied hand? ("What are they gonna do?" quips Eggar, "arrest it?"). 

Eggar is perfect in the role. Smart as a whip and never totally scared, only horrified. When she watches as the priest blow-torches off his evil hand while staring at her in an impressively unwavering, shadowy leer (above) it's as if great and terrible acting meters merge in the gas tanks of some tailspinning biplane and somehow keep it aloft for whole minutes after it should have crashed. When she widens them in horror, which is often, her eyes become almost perfect circles, so bright they shine right through the spiderweb spiral ironwork (top) from which she watches Stu blow-torch his hand while staring at her in shadowy, inscrutable Satanic gravitas. Richard Gillis' uneven score at times evokes the ominously advancing synths of Carpenter; at other times it's fairly generic TV suspense-ville, but if you love good-bad 70s TV movies, but all the sublimer for it, covering many abrupt tonal shifts and sublimely meshing with the nice cinematography, the shocking gore, and the environs of the different victims. It calls for us! As Sgt. Leo says, "In the name of evil, you and I must obey." 

------speaking of evil-confronting 70s priests, check out:

(1978) Dir. Bruce Kessler
ABC TV movie - **1/2    

Here's a Friday Night TV movie nearly every kid remembers from 1978 on ABC. I think I just got braces on or wisdom teeth out or had a throat infection or something as I have a memory of great pain and pain killers swirling in my brain in alternating currents, which elegantly gels with its sexy mood. There's also the reason we all remember it, for it has a unique spin on the mummy: here we never see a mummy or a ghost of a mummy; we see instead a child-size breathing Egyptian sarcophagus... possessing a sexy passenger list on a sexy cruise to Mexico. y make no sense, but it's a truly original, nonsensical idea, probably born from some writer dropping acid at the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit which was then all the rage. Whatever the origin story, I knew I could at last see the film again even though I'd forgotten the title and everything else about it, just by googling the words "breathing sarcophagus." See? We all remember.

Still, I was too giddy and/or sick to remember if I liked it at the time (probably not) but it turns out this is a cute little gem worth rediscovering for those with the fondness. Would there was a Warner Archive DVR or some such thing the way there was/is for Bermuda Depths or Terror at 37,000 Feet (the film incidentally fits between them in terms of watchability), if for no other reason than the scenery, and attractive women gamboling to and fro on deck. It would be great eye candy, as relaxing as a lazy hammock Sunday. 

Robert "Charles Townsend" Forsythe is a hieroglyph-reading missionary priest on a cruise with his sexually frustrated, lingerie-wearing wife (Lee Meriwether). Noted archeologist Ray Milland is on the ship, headed for sunny Mexico to prove his thesis there's an Egyptian tomb there. A physicist, assorted babes, and first mate Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica) are aboard as well, and they're expecting you... ooh...ooh.

No Love Boat this, though there is some bed-hopping (Starbuck is very busy) and sunny days scuba diving in beguiling bathing suits. What is the strange curse hanging over the ship, causing accidents and freak encounters, some fatal (amongst other 70s occult crazes was a fascination with the Bermuda Triangle). One of the near misses is a harrowing encounter between three lovely snorkelers and a "vicious" (small, blue) shark (any self-respecting child of the post-Jaws late-70s scoffed at the tourist's overreaction to this harmless specimen'). Then, the ship breaks down and leaves them anchored in the middle of the ocean, conveniently right over the spot where archeologist Ray Milland needs to dive for his missing Egyptian tomb, thanks to a handsome physicist named Matt Lazarus (Frank Converse) recalculating Ray's figures and tells him the tomb he's looking for is actually sunk below the waves, "two degrees off our present course!" Captain Andrews (Hugh O'Brien) can't say no to a dive when the ship stalls out over the exact spot. Everyone wants to dive for the treasure and be rich! Freak storms and accidents abound. Let's go diving!

Ripe for some Love Boat style ship corridor of shame cabin-creeping, the guest roster includes several cabins full of foxy ladies and hot-to-trot wives whose husbands are either frigid (Forsythe's priest) or too focused on work (Christopher George's wheeler/dealer stock broker). The others are mostly single: Stella Stevens, Lee Meriwether, Jo Ann Harris, Hilarie Thompson. Lynda Day George (with Christopher--her real-life husband). They're both still hot and bucking at the seams (George's crack about "I can still look at the menu" when the other bikinis pass by is the kind of passive veiled crack that makes a couple's single friends roll their eyes and snort like impatient stallions). Looks like Starbuck has to step in again!

If you're a fan of 70s bad films you know the 'disparate slice of humanity forced to work together plotline was almost inescapable thanks to the popularity of Airport, Poseidon Adventure and 1977's Day of the Animals. And you know it's he 70s when virile men can rebuff the sultry come-ons of foxy ladies without judging them one way another; players like Dirk Benedict's first mate aren't depicted as sleazes in need of canceling so much as guys doing their manly duty to please the perfectly acceptable and natural desires of the passengers. If in our current climate you think that can't possibly be true, catch an episode of Love Boat, where the crew are all basically allowed and encouraged by the captain to bed down with the guest stars -- it's practically part of the job!-- and you have an inkling of how sex-positive we all were in the 70s. The national obsession with right-wing prudery had momentarily abated and mainstream America had what Alexander D'Arcy's gigolo piano teacher in 1937's Awful Truth call "a continental mind." 

That's one reason  70s TV movies are so fascinating, and remain so-- the openly sexually liberated prime time zeitgeist. 

As reverend Mather, Forsythe struggles just as much with seeming like a prude as he does with seeming to understand hieroglyphics (this was, after all, "Charlie").  When he reads an engraved tablet dredged up from below and exclaims"It's a serpent-headed bird!" or--reminding them of the fate of those sorry and/or dead archeologists who opened Tut's tomb and woke the "curse of the pharaohs"--demands the passengers not "mar that tomb!" can't help but draw laugh. Just like a buzzkill censorious reverend of the pre-code era, he seems determined to steer this vessel as far away from interesting and titillating as he can get it. On the other hand, at least he's not also having a crisis of faith  like Whitman in Demonoid or sulking and making shitty remarks like the mighty Shat in 37.000 Feet). Keenly aware of his limits as an actor, Forsythe never tries to hide himself in a 'performance' -- he knows his limits. 

And anyway, his priest is soon proven right. No sooner has the sarcophagus come on board than the cast is going full greedy savage arguing over where to sell the booty and how to split it, the evil spirit growing in strength the more bad vibes it sows. First its ruby eyes start to glow, then it breathes. We never even see it open! What is inside it? We never find out.  Its ruby eyes flash and cause sudden storms when someone tries to injure it, spooking everyone not under its malevolent sway. As more and more of the cast become sensually liberated agents of evil, the film gets funnier and freer. When Thomson snaps at her mousy friend Debbie (Jo-Ann Harris) for being too scared to even shoot a flare gun up in the air ("I'm scared, Judy!"). A flare gun for god's sake, if you'll pardon the expression. Of course Judy snaps! Finally and forever, full of devilish brio saying basically "stop following me around!" It's supposed to be the effect of the ancient evil at work (as in Exorcist) but it feels more like the effect of good, liberating shrooms. 

So does a sudden contempt for weakness and morality and unreserved attraction to earthly delight and fiery power make one evil, or just cool? Countering Forsythe's bland gospel is Milland ("I do not believe in biblical fantasies!") The captain (Hugh O'Brien) tries to explain all the deaths and storms and ship failures as coincidence, though it gets harder and harder as the freak events accumulate. 

Still, there's no arguing with a skeptic, and sometimes that's a good thing: "There is a devil --it's in here, all of us --his name is greed, fear and all of the ugly things we can never face." So deep, bro. He even has a fancy poem to send us all to bed in a cautionary mood:

There is a devil, there is no doubt,
but is he trying to get in us
or trying to get out?
Gee dad, why can't it be both? As a Pisces, I'm comfortable with that kind of ambiguity.

The 70s will all end soon enough, the age of Pisces gone deep to Davy Jones', where it began- splattered like a glass goblet on the sidewalk outside the Dakota. (1).

But was the evil of libidinal freedom vanquished, or was the good of libidinal freedom stifled?


Some Other Good Occult Movies of the 70s:
1. The first Dakota death-- Terry Gionoffrio in Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (the first attempt at impregnation, inside a fiction that manifest in culture as a televisual reality) to Lennon in 1980 (in a reality dictated by fiction) - in each case a metatextual rupture - the devil's favorite kind, though the early 80s Satanic panic hysteria effectively drove him underground by then, back under the rug of our collective unconscious, the covens replaced by a sea of slashers, just as the paperbacks were replaced by video rentals

Saturday, January 02, 2021


What to do about Jon Finch? He can look as wan and bloated as any British drinker but when the dialogue and co-star is right, boy oh boy, he's like a prime era Peter O'Toole (in richly Shakeseparean, commanding voice crossed with a delightfully dissolute feyness) possessing a young Jim Morrison's dandy jaw line and heroic drug intake. Robert Fuest's dark, freewheeling, and--for a long time--hard to find British sci-fi satire from 1973, THE FINAL PROGRAMME (distributed stateside by Corman's New World Pictures as The Last Days of Man on Earth) is finally here in a stunning new transfer. Now we may marvel and swoon over Fuest's beguilingly surreal production design (he's the man behind the Phibeses), Finch's alcohol-enriched roaring, literate energy, and a roster of sublimely-etched side characters. Marred only by the occasional groan-worthy satiric jabs at consumerism's future ouroboros vanishing point (the world's supposed to be ending, but the budget can't afford crowd scenes or anything too dystopian, so we have to take Finch's word for it) and a kind of disappointing resolution, it's worth checking out for the game and hearty. 

Taking leaps of adaptive liberty (I'm told) with Michael Moorcock's countercultural touchstone (in Britain) novel, it's the tale of dissolute hard-drinking bad boy billionaire super-genius scientist military hardware collector and helicopter and (off-camera) jet pilot Jerry Cornelius (Finch). After a native funeral up in Lapland for his genius billionaire father,  Jerry plans to take resolve his family differences by dropping napalm on the ancestral mansion and jetting off with his (implied incestuous) sister. But first things first, he has to get the napalm, that means running around London meeting eccentric arms dealers. As a result of some bizarre passive-aggressive urge to be helpful, he agrees to help the three Quentin Crisp-ish scientist cronies who were working with his father before his death, mainly to find them a missing computer program tape (the "final" one) dad was working on, now hidden deep in a safe inside a vault inside the tricked-up mansion. To this end, he teams up with the scientist's sexy androgynous computer programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) who has some (off-camera) habit of absorbing her lovers and/or anyone whose knowledge she seeks to possess (like military secret peddler Patrick Magee). Jerry only knows the program seems to involve involves some Italian pretty boy waiting in the car, and it's supposed to bring about the savior of the new dawn, a self-replicating perfect hermaphrodite human --the best of all man and woman has to offer -- a fusion of two brains, two genders, into one, a being that can finally formulate and answer the ultimate question.... why?

Sure, in its mad bid to be drolly satiric, and painfully hip, the result has not aged as well as one would hope: superfluous cameos like an ineffectually mugging Sterling Hayden as eccentric arms dealer Wrongway Lindbergh ("the Wrong way. is the right way!") reek of that late-60s 'older stars trying to fit into the counterculture via eccentric cameos and kooky glasses desperation.. There's also that bit where the ride up to Lapland in a balloon (which is I guess, kept handy for films that can't afford a Phantom F4, which Jerry supposedly pilots). But the whimsy and twee touches are kept at a distance. I do like the three wise men scientists (Basil Henson, George Coulouris, and Graham Crowden) who follow Ms, Brunner around; they more than make up for all the elements that seem to be missing. For example, Jerry's quest for napalm (he pronounces it "Nepal-m") and the rescue of his strung-out sister from his junky brother Frank's druggy clutches. We never really see the sister until much later so any inkling of what kind of strange incestuous reason he has for this is left unexplained. This is a film that blithely skips over vast and possibly interesting mythic arcs that may be in Moorcock's novel in favor of hit and miss (but at least it swings for the fences). Futuristic satire like a restaurant where wine and alcohol comes in dehydrated cubes (Jerry orders French toxic river sludge, demanding to know 'which bank' it was culled from.) or a pinball arcade where Jerry meets his stoned connection (Ronald "Why don't you tell me where the Ark is... right now?" Lacey) are well executed but may induce groans in those who by then have higher hopes for this strange, otherwise very hip movie. 

He is... nefarious

Perhaps the only film that comes close in its style is 1971's Hammer film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. In that film too, a strident dominatrix-y intellectual badass female (Valerie Leon) runs roughshod over trios of stumbling old men scientists (George Coulouris and Aubrey Morris appear in both) while teaming up with a fey amoral aristocratic hipster (James Villers instead of Finch) to bring about some earth-shattering prophecy by ushering in a new kind of woman. Here, Runacre handles her carnivorous authority with cool throaty confidence and instantly establishes a deep in-the-moment sultry rapport with Finch's Jerry, one cool young super genius sexy cool titan to another. One can't help but wonder as to what a great Lady Macbeth she would have made opposite Finch in Polanski's 1971 film (instead of Francesca Annis, though she was fine enough). It's their scenes together--and her beating up Jerry's brother, the manipulative junky Frank (Derrick O'Connor)--that really crackle. 

Luckily most of the film involves the pair of them, with the three scientists making the perfect back-up band. Far from the usual stuffy bowler-and-brolly types we'd expect to be harumphing in the background or the dreaded reverse (that Richard Lester-ish style of conservative faux-hipness), these three-four older scientists manage the hitherto impossible - each being cool and individual while functioning as a cool ultra-dry comedy team. Aging scientists unconcerned with the surface flash, they're in pursuit of completing--with the straight facedness required to convey now-or-never urgency--a complicated experiment that's beyond mad/daft and that needs to be executed at a certain, looming time. 

Overall it's a film free of villains, unless you count Frank, who's taken over the family estate, setting all the futuristic alarms and traps --including psychedelic light attacks ("designed to cause pseudo-epilepsy:), elaborate inflatable tunnels (a mix of a carnival bouncy castle and Corman's Masque of the Red Death), poisoned gas, and poisoned needles shooting out of walls while the siblings shoot at each other in weird homemade futuristic air guns (just to be extra weird and save on blood expenses).

But all of that is fine with me because of the cocky actorly rapport with Runacre and Finch as these kind of super-cool amoral hedonist next-gen scientific wits in fabulous clothes and --in his case--a kind of foppish arrogant feminine elegance; hers, a Bowie-esque androgyne sexy-cool. With her tousled orange hair and natty slacks and his too-tight black velvet blazer and black nail polish, they're a superb-looking team, like they've spent a lot of time improv --they're destined to entwine! 

Hint: Fans of Hammer films (and their ilk) might recall Runacre as playing a great insane red-dress wearing schizophrenic Folies Bergère dancer in the same year's The Creeping Flesh.

There's a great climax set in an abandoned Nazi submarine pen deep under Lapland, where "the best brains in Europe" are kept in jars (groan-worthy but still interesting), working overtime to answer the "ultimate question", and sunlight is harnessed and accumulated during the midnight sun period of summer to power the special device Jerry's dad was working on before he died. It ends just how you'd think, though I shan't spoil it. Anyway, I recommend it. Take it for what it is, and just enjoy Fuest's wicked sense of design style (the submarine pen and other futuristic sets evoke fond memories of Fuest's Avengers episodes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again's ancient Egyptian tomb). I kept thinking I wanted to live down there, and get drunk with these people ("The classic sanctuary fixation" notes Ms. Brunner) to wind up safe and sound after the Fall, ready for the new dawn.

Note the empties behind them while brainstorming in Jerry's flat. His freezer is empty except for hundreds of McVities' Dark
Chocolate Digestives. I can really relate

Navigating the family mansion's "defences"

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Swirling Mists of Chu Yuan: 70s Shaw Brothers Wuxia on Prime: SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (Trilogy) HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE (1&2)

There are seemingly hundreds of old Shaw Brothers kung fu and wuxia films on Prime, enough in fact you can find a whole sub-school of them that fit your exact likes for your own massive bender. Me, I avoid the "Shaolin" ones, full of sweaty young bald dudes smacking each other and going through their callow revenge/shame-training montages in bright exteriors, with nary a female marital artist in sight. These are usually dubbed, often badly, with the same nasally Brit doing half the characters. I prefer the more esoteric "swordplay thriller" wuxia, from Shaw Brothers, in Cantonese with gorgeously-lit nights rich with elaborate decor, expansive sets, swirling mists, and strong female characters as deadly as their male counterparts, or more so. The best and weirdest are ussually directed by Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor) you know it's one of his when an old woman might triumph in a fight to the death with three experienced male martial arts heroes, as in the climax of The Proud Twins). The Chu Yuan output can be uneven, but generally come stocked with dazzling swordplay, wire-aided spins, jumps and kicks, recurring characters, period fantasy garb where everyone is dressed like gossamer princesses and plots that avoid corrupt governments and peasant exploitation in favor of cool supernaturally-tinged mysteries, where all the food is poisoned by smiling princesses and "Devil Grandma" and everyone is challenging each other to duels over magical weapons and hidden kung fu manuals as the plum blossoms shed their snowy petals in a slow, regular rain against the gorgeous soundstage night sky. Heroes wander from one beautiful background to another as they seek to level up against the one or two ranked swordsmen left to challenge their skills. There's seldom any vengeance to seek beyond some ancient grudge of the hero's teacher or parents passed on to the next generation. The battles tend towards almost Leone-level cool (Leone is clearly a big influence on Yuan, to the point that in many films hero Ti Lung walks around in a Clint Eastwood pancho) and Hawks-level gallant, wry professionalism between foes. Rather than duplicating some past reality, Yuan's wuxias snake through a land of mysticism, strange invincible light-shooting weapons, with colored Bava-style gel lights running through vast impeccably-lit soundstages that seem to stretch out to the infinite and--during magic hour shots created by a blazing visible circle of orange studio light--create a rarefied neither/or space that, to me, evokes the essence of my favorite dreams.

Also, they've probably never looked better than they do now, via Prime's seemingly endless collection of HD prints coming in on the Celestial Pictures distribution label. Since Shaw studios cranked out so many of these, they wisely kept all their sets seemingly mostly standing, connected to each other so they often seem to occur in the same netherworld of ornate plum blossom-filled gardens, temple ruins, secret lairs all aglow in foggy green and purple gel spot lighting, waterfalls, cliff face alcoves, little green water pools in the rock, meditation chambers, secret caves, ancient ruins, bamboo forests, indoor/outdoor restaurants, brothels, gambling dens, palace reception halls, booby trap-filled hallways, clan meeting halls, thief-filled roadside inns, and mystical fox ghost dens. While the more fight scene-centric Shaolin films seem to forego beauty in the name of athleticism, the Chu Yuan swordsman thrillers all keep the focus on the beauty, the strange characters, droll wit, and elaborate charade-style plots where one mystery reveal tops another, and every setting has its own colorfully-named gang of killers waiting in ambush. Swordsmen heroes uncover elaborate assassination plots, protect invincible clan weapons, search for lost siblings, discover long-missing kung fu manuals (and attain the mystical powers therein overnight), and above all, seek vengeance the one opponent who can finally give them a real challenge to their acquired skills. Some of these champions and villains have chi of such power the practitioner glows red and shoot rays of light out of their palms. They can all jump straight up two or more stories, do endless midair flips and super high kicks (via unseen wires) and all regularly take mid-fight breaks for bits of conversation confessing elaborate crimes, making grand threats, and/or professing innocence and being set up before resuming rounds of high-wire swordplay and kung fu combat.

Here are some of my favorites (all on Prime), and of course, check out my round-up of more fantastical supernatural based wuxias from my last big wuxia bender: Wild Wild Wuxia!

(1977) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
Sentiment is not always a plus in the martial arts world, or so the bad guy--the evil Plum Blossom Bandit--says to the venerable ace swordsman hero Chi Lu-hsiang (the venerable Ti Lung) after praying on his sense of honor and loyalty. Now in self-imposed exile from his wealth and lady love, the venerable Chi Lu just coasts around for ten years, knocking back jugs wine, pontificating with Taoist realizations in that unique 'talking to the air' Ti Lung way, and slowly getting a Doc Holiday style consumptive cough. Since he's ranked the #3 best martial artist in the world he has to duel constantly; he prefers to gaze wistfully at the plum blossoms, or watch the world go in fitful fights and boasts behind his back at the bar. He drinks because his one true love wishes she was with him instead of the husband she has, the friend Chi Liu gave his everything to out of gratitude ten years ago. Or is that --like many alcoholics (myself included)-- he'd rather drink to to numb the pain of losing his only love than get the love back, even if she's right there, pining for him in lonely solitude. If that sounds like Geoffrey Firmin to you, then, cheers, old man! It maybe sounds like me, too. Or any drunk.

Cool characters include Lin Xanier, the whore of martial arts world,  offering to marry the man who finds and kills the Plum Blossom Bandit. She's contrasted w the modest beauty of the sad, sober creature Lin Hsin-ehr (Li Cheng) pointlessly sweeping up this empty courtyard, for no conceivable reason, waiting for Chi Liu to return to his home, the beautiful estate he gave up out of his woefully misguided sentiment.  

The ironies compound: despite the title, Chi Lu doesn't even carry a sword, preferring to parry with his fan. He bats his opponents around, blocks strokes with his fan (folded), and when things get tiring, just whips it open, wizzing some of the darts out of the folds, killing his foe instantly via at least one to the neck, the opened fan bearing the words: "Little Li's Darts That Never Miss." Who would want to duel with a guy who does that? Isn't that cheating? Either way, he's doing a lot of killing with those darts --a bunch of martial arts social climbers have been duped into thinking he's the Plum Blossom Bandit (who throws poison plum blossom darts and dresses like a pink ninja). Luckily a young bumpkin wanderer-- the irrepressible Ah Fei (Derek Yee)-- shows to cover Chi Lu's back. Other bad guys include a fake plum blossom bandit, a despicable old member of the 'Seven Incredible Men' who poisons Li's wine, and a doctor who notes that "Nothing is better than drinking to death" and then cures Master Li with another glass of wine! You were poisoned by wine and the cure is more wine! "Why would trivial matters such as life and death get in the way of drinking?" Lu gets it; he keeps drinking though his consumptive coughing (or is it an ulcer?). Whatever the reason, he doesn't let it stop him. Go for it, bro!

Under Chu Yuan's direction, the rich atmosphere and expansive shadowy, mist and water-enshrouded indoor/outdoor sets keep the eye continually seduced, like cold wine down a parched throat after walking out of the hot sun into a chilly lounge, with just the right amount of wit, mystery, exotic atmosphere, emotional sweep, and Sergio Leone-style cool dude posturing to keep one's attention.

Cons: There are two too many draggy moments between Li and his "past in the past" philosophy as he refuses to even talk about how why he gave away his wealth, woman and house ten years ago. Another rarity: lots of exterior shots -- a relative rarity in the Yuanverse-- as they walk to Wudang Mountain to see if Li is the Plum Blossom Bandit. We get lots of long shots of these traveling heroes in dwindling numbers walking all the way to Wudang, and not eating for many days  (they keep running into the Five Poisons Kid, who manages to poison everything in advance of their arrival). Fights are all on the soundstage but occasionally cut to outside (and there's a comparative lack of mist and moody atmosphere compared to the other two films in the trilogy, though still plenty compared to any non-Yuan).

(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)

"There is no truth in the marital arts world - only dead people, gold, and fame"

Correctly considered one of the few sequels better than the first. Laden with swirling mists and plum blossom evenings ("they've bloomed too soon," notes Ah Fei "and will die sooner.") it has an almost mystical reverence for alcohol coupled to savvy awareness of the process of alcohol addiction (and evocations of Rio Bravo and My Darling Clementine). Rather than any Plum Blossom bandit (the masked pink ninja villain of the first film) it's the real plum blossoms that count here, seen at night, under softly falling snow, amidst tiny waterfalls and glowing lanterns, with mist rolling over the ground. The beautiful plum blossom trees of his estate being in bloom in in fact what lures ever-drinking and coughing titular swordsman Chi Lu (Ti Lung again) back home, where his lady love still hopes he'll come back to live finally. But Chi Lu is also looking for trusty Ah Fei, who's been missing from the martial arts world for awhile. Where did he go? He's cohabitating with that slutty martial art groupie Lin Xanier (Linda Chu) and has become a tranquil nonviolent early-to-bed health nut, spending his days counting the plum blossom blooms, blinded by love and tranquilized by the drugs she spikes his tea with at night so he falls asleep way early and she can sneak down to the whorehouse and whoop it up with the head of the Money Clan! Once he finds out, heartbroken Ah Fei plunges into alcohol addiction and winds up imprisoned in the Money Clan's brothel, groveling around on the carpet for a drink as the prostitute's laugh and pour wine in his face. We're reminded of the opening of Rio Bravo, especially at the climax when Tung Li's lady love brings Ah Fei his old clothes and sword after he's finally sobered enough to join his old friend in a duel at Summit Mountain. The duel is set at dawn, and the Money Clan leader's golden robe looks great in that artificial early light as the red sun pierces through the mists and trees, the sky gradually getting brighter as the duel wages on, 

While the echoes of Rio Bravo are clear, there is also evidence of Chu's familiarity with the Sergio Leone westerns: various Morricone-esque electric guitar and weird rhythmic strains erupt on the during big duel squaring-off staring contests. There's also a nod to the numbering system with each martial artist ranked fourth or fifth and all trying to climb the top and go up against #1, or at least the next person up, evoking the yakuza films of Seijin Suzuki. What a world! As with the first Sentimental film, there might be one too many frustrating melancholy exchanges between Chi Liu and his glum platonic love, but the scenery is gorgeous and Yuan knows how to parlay the need for fighting and position jostling amongst martial artists into an endlessly fascinating series of sword battles --Leone-like exchanges of midnight cool, honor and last words amidst the blossoms. Fights on a silent flowing stream, each fight better than the last. More slow motion than one might expect for a Shaw Brothers film. But hey.


(1982) Dir. Chu Yuan (Yuen Chor)

Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman skips the mopey romantic sudsy drama of the previous two films and works as a stand-alone adventure, with Ti Lung's consumptive wanderer Chi-Liu pretending to turn outlaw in order to infiltrate the 'Ghostly Village,' an apparently transdimensional extradition-free settlement accessible only via a disappearing cloud bridge! It's one of the coolest of all Chu Yuan's Really Cool Places, evoking the fox ghost realm in Full Moon Scmitar (1979) coupled to Bat Island (seeable in another Chi-Liu Hisiang stand-alone adventure, Legend of the Bat (1978- not on Prime but there's a non-HD DVD). The first thing the Charon-like guide shows you after you arrive is the liquor store ("Hell's Cellar --do you need to buy any wine?") so you know I love this film. His fame ensuring he gets handed a gorgeous little pad, with a servant ("this is a blanket"), Chi-Liu has to find his contact amidst the new neighbors: a mincing gay stereotype, a foxy siren known as "The General," and a wild gambling lunatic played by the irrepressible Lo Lieh. Turns out the masked 'phantom' who runs the place is organizing a revolution out in the real world, so they can all come back to 'Earth' without fear of incarceration. 

The thing is, who is a spy for the current throne and who isn't? People try and confess being a spy to out each other, so who can you trust? Meanwhile some ghosts fly around in an immaculately green-lit mist-shrouded haunted ruin atop a nearby hill.  Spending a night up there on a bet, Lo Leih does the Costello monster comedy bit, quaking with fear while being gaslit by the ghost stealing his food one bite at a time, etc. with Chi-Liu as the Abbott. Great stuff. The sword fights are okay but it's really the spooky elaborate beauty of the sets and eccentric characters I vibe with; the always dark or at dusk/dawn inner/outer mist-enshrouded otherworld of the Ghostly Village and the colorful never-ending parade of villains, like scruffy elderly rogue named Dugu Fei, aka "the Handsome Loner," known also is "the one who disdains his kinfolks." And this time there are no exterior shots or even daytime shots. Everything occurs from dusk to dawn, aka the time of ghosts, eddying through the gorgeous swirling mist like whirling vape-nados. 


(Dir. Chor Yuen AKA Yuan Chi)

Good luck keeping up with the byzantine plot of this strange two-part affair, especially since it kind of starts in the middle of some probably massive novel by Louis Cha (the Prime blurb lets us know it's also a popular TV serial). If you read the whole thing in advance I presume you wouldn't be scratching your head as we whizz past one crazy fight scene after another. If not may help to have seen The Battle Wizard first, as it borrows a lot of the same elements, like the hero finding a special oasis halfway down a cliff where the hero mends his wounds and finds ancient power in eating or drinking the blood of glowing toads, red frogs or giant pythons, and Hsueh-Erh Wen as a snake-handling venom-loving girl, and kung fu manuals that impart instant super power. This time we follow a dashing young hero (Tung Shing-Yee) this time seeking to find out who's behind his foster father going crazy after an evil monk killed his family and sewn seeds of dissent against the Ming clan with all the other kung fu schools.  The two titular magic blades are--when brought together--possessed of some dynamic magic but really don't figure that prominently. Mostly there's poison, antidotes, hair-raising rescues, and strange deals, interrupted weddings and people once thought friends becoming bitter enemies and vice versa. 

As with most of these Celestial Shaw Brothers films, one of the unique aspects not often found in western action genre is the prevalence of female led-fighting clans like the Er Mei (the female counterpart to the Shaolin Temple). At Er Mei they keep their women sharp by forbidding all sexual contact with men, and they take an especially dim view of pregnancy. Here the Er Mei clan is led by a rigid white haired old super Buddhist nun with super deadly kung fu schools, who kills the girls who transgress, and eventually passes the reins to the secret love of the leader of the Ming clan, which makes his rival in the other clan super jealous, and around and around. 

The first film flows much better as the focus stays on young Tung-Shin Yee, curing himself from a Buddha's palm wound inflicted on him while a child, growing up under the protection of a renowned pharmacist who tries every cure in the book to keep him alive. All this will lead him to the promised land, eating the red frogs, finding the secret manuals, saving and taking over the Ming clan and getting to the bottom of all the grudges that have led to the Ming Clan being unfairly blamed for all sorts of calamitous behavior. The result, everyone watches various duels at the Gang Ming Summit showing off what they know, and the good don't kill the losers, that's how you know who's good. 

At the end, even the villains may well take note of the power of the Buddha by renouncing their past, shaving their heads and joining the Shaolin monks in humble contemplation of the Amanita Buddha. Glory to Amitabha. I kind of like that kind of ending as it vibes with my own saving through the power of AA. Glory to the higher power as you understand it. 

All is emptiness...

Friday, November 06, 2020

Welcome to the Zugsmithery: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960)

If you don't think film critics can make mistakes, consider the terrible reviews given the sublime SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, a C-list 1960 madcap comedy (once likely called SEX POT GOES TO COLLEGE but changed due to pot references) about the effect a super genius doctor of medicine,  psychology, and physics (plus ten other degrees) has on a small town college when she arrives from Vegas to assume the role of dean (hired by "Thinko" the computer/robot who is "never wrong!") Why is she causing such a stir? Just because she happens to arrive in the body of "the Tallahassee Tassle Tosser," Mamie van Doren. Often billed as being to Jayne Mansfield what Jayne Mansfield was to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie underplays with such calm authority that even those who sneer and deride her 'type' would be impressed if they could leave their male sexual panic at the door. Not only can she can carry a film, she can stay cool and grounded as a photographic memory and 13 doctorates-having genius. No doubt she is the right woman to lead this cocakamamie college into the "space age" she 
can give you the page # of any given text. In short, Thinko is not wrong; she's qualified above and beyond the rest of them. The sparks fly because no one can handle the fact of her hotness. This inability is never depicted as anything but 'their' problem, and reflects perhaps the irrational hostility of critics (similar to the unearned scorn heaped on Myra Breckenridge.

And she's not the only assett: a stunning Tuesday Weld is the hitherto raining beauty queen. (she accuses Van Doren of "making every other woman in the world feel flat-chested"). Weld has been trying to get lumpen football star "Woo-Woo" (Norman Grabowski) to try at least for first base rather than just running off in a stuttering virgin panic. Trying to help Weld out, Dr. Mamie gives him some good counsel --just one of the surprising moments van Doren handles with a sensitive aplomb worthy of a real therapist, yet hitting all the right comedic notes with a deadpan feather ("boys with nicknames are usually sensitive"). No wonder he ends up falling for her instead of Weld, but it hardly matters. There's too much else going on as the film slowly builds to one of the stateroom scene-style 'everyone onstage' madhouses. One can't forget (though she doesn't make much of an impression) Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is around as a sexually frustrated lab assistant. And there's so much more. 

Mijanou, in a nice color photo (I couldn't find a good Sex Kittens still

For all Van Doren's range, the secondary romantic lead, Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte's sister!) basically steals the bulk of the sex appeal as a Russ Meyer heroine-style, sexually voracious exchange student out to bed a cross-section of ze American male for her term paper. The forthright way she explores a cross-section of manhood for her term paper is inspiring, the stuff of semi-terrified fantasy. She ends up zeroing in on a "real live Chicago gangster" in the form of Allan Drake as "Legs" --whose squeamish semi-reticence is met with bewildered academic urgency ("Do you want to set science back thirty years!?") He and his pal are there to lean on this guy "Thinko" whose been gambling rather too successfullu Though far from the most interesting of the Mad style cacaphony of crazy characters, Drake's rattled "Legs" becomes more interesting purely through his gradual tolerance of Bardot's unswerving affection, eventually, like some Anna Karina anti-heroine, she joins the bad guys ("This dialogue, pure Roaring 20s, no?!)

"I"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet."
"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet" 

And that's good Legs comes around and conquers his sexual panic. Hey, you'd be surprised how many normally red-blooded American males can't handle a beautiful girl suddenly throwing herself at him like a freight train. A man might fantasize all through his pained adolescence about such moments, but if one actually comes, it's--and Lacanians know this all too well--his reaction isn't aggressive cool, but panicky; he starts to stutter, spills his drink, and before you know it, finds himself running away, covered in sweat, desperate to get home and begin his lifetime of self-reproach over this this chickening out. To go from tortured adolescent longing for this golden chance to tortured adult regret about blowing it is almost a rite of passage; hopefully one can glean the message - you are a complicated person and the unconscious half of yourself is a spiteful anima out to keep you for herself, so she can occasionally creep up from the attic and molest you while you dream. This is the comedic gold mine understood only by a chosen few in the comedy business. College is, in this film, the zone of endless Lacanian objet petit a proximity; campus life is visualized as a zone where fantasy is freely imagined by those who have only been there in passing and thought 'man if I was in college I could score with all these chicks' and suddenly they have to put up or shut up.  The women--namely van Doren, Weld and Bardot--have all the brains and assertive libidos, and the men are reduced to terrified deer in the headlights. Such is the Russ Meyer-esque vein mined by Albert Confessions of an Opium Eater Zugsmith in the long-derided Sex Kittens Go to College. 

L-R: Tuesday, Mijanot, Mamie
I don't have all the answers; I have no idea why this awesome comedy gets such a bad critical rap, unless male critics are too threatened by the idea of a genius bombshell who's not evil, passive, helpless, materialistic, or moronic. As of this writing it has a 2.2 on imdb. and Lenny Maltin gives it a BOMB ("don't say you weren't warned!"); Glenn Erikson says "Compared to Sex Kittens, Otto Preminger's Skiddoo is a profound statement on the human condition." An uncredited imdb writer calls it "one of the most legendarily worst films ever produced." But I say, if you've been to college and like to get wasted and love Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman, used to read Mad and Cracked then at least consider checking it out. I think a lot of these low budget zany comedies get a bad rap, especially if they don't have big recognizable directors (like Frank Tashlin or George Axelrod) so that critics can guess how they're supposed to respond right away. This isn't a guffaw style comedy, but how often did we laugh reading Mad as kids? 2/3 of the time we didn't even get the jokes. We had no idea what they were talking about running satires of films far too dry and adult for our interest, like The Sandpiper and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  Some comedies don't have to be funny. Ask Albert Zugsmith, the strange figure who could go from producing films like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, to directing unclassifiable strangeness like Confessions of an Opium Eater, The Beat Generation, and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill! 

If you don't see that list is all connected, then you need to learn so very much about the spirit of revolutionary cinematic anarchy in the service of sexual stimulation. (Behind me right as I wrote that phrase a Quaker Oats commercial said "Where new normals are created.") That's the beauty of the Zugsmith touch.  Watching Vincent Price sailing madly down the sewer towards Frisco Bay oblivion in Opium Eater for example, leaves us more questions than answers (it a horror film? A white slavery expose? A surreal odyssey worthy of Bunuel? 

It is all that and more; it's the Zugsmithery. 

The simple fact is, there are so many things to zero in on here in the Zugsmithery that if one element annoys you, there are ten more to delight or flabbergast. For me the annoying element is Van Doren's assigned romantic lead, college PR rep Martin Milner (the supposedly hip jazz guitarist who had to have weed planted on him in Sweet Smell of Success). Talking fast in a kind of high-voiced style, sort of imitating Cary Grant at his most flummoxed in Arsenic and Old Lace, Milner tries to steal scenes as if he;s feeling the need to give the film a square white fall guy center, to link the film to every other banal desperately mansplaining-flooded "sex" comedy flatlining on big screens around America at the end of the 1950s. Tather than letting the women rule as they do anyway, Milner lets a kind desperate flop sweat reduce his square lead idiot to tatters. That said, he still comes out a few yards ahead of Eliot Reid's smarmy detective in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as far as worst male counterpart to a busty comedic titan

There's one other caveat: I also don't like the cop-out ending (SPOILER ALERT!), when Mamie hangs up her shingle and goes back to Vegas to continue her tassle-tossing, so that Milner can romance her without feeling threatened. When she says "for the first time I feel like I'm really using my brain" one wants to track down writer Robert Hill and beat him senseless (I feel the same way at the end of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when smarmy David Gurian is accepted back into the fold and the lesbians are blamed for their own deaths.)  Ugh! If there's one thing I loathe it's those smug white privilege-touting SWMs (i.e. Smug WASP Morons), often young men with clean cut hair and a pipe and an unearned lordly air, as if they believe the Madison Avenue plastic fantastic wave that tells them they--by virtue of their educated SWM status-- are in charge of any other genders and races they might encounter, determined to solve whatever bothers them until their comfortable patriarchal homogenization reasserts itself. Sure, not all these guys are insufferable; watching them today becomes more insufferable with every passing day of my work's sensitivity training. Ugh! (Of you can't get enough of my ravings on the topic, check out: CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend. and Vanishing Caloric Density: The Queen of Outer Space.

 Luckily, balancing out Milner's forced hysteria, there's wondrously wry turns by Jackie Coogan as Admiral "Wildcat" McPherson (borrowing W.C. Field's drawl wholesale as the college's financial underwriter) and John Carradine, proving he isn't limited to shady butlers and secondary Draculas as a professor. Turns out Carradine is adept as hell at deadpan comedy as one of Mamie's firm supporters. Unthreatened by her mix of sex appeal and brains he calls her "a positive vision" while helping her into his faculty-packed jalopy (her chimp sidekick sneaks into the rumble seat) for a night of buzzed carousing (or  "simple homespun country fun" as he assures her) at local college tavern, "the Passion Pit." To overcome any further doubts as to her qualifications as either genius or stripper, she hypnotizes the gathered faculty and patrons to join her in a crazy rhumba. Conway Twitty watches, moved, and sings. But that doesn't phase the benevolent and respectful ardor of the older men, who are--essentially--too debauched to be troublesome (the greatest libertines never mash or paw; they lean in only to spook off the riff-raff). 

Small bit parts and great lines float around ("I'm a selectman of the church!" rants the cop who arrests the admiral when his morality is on the ropes); Charlie Chaplin Jr. (as a bewildered fire chief); the imposing and magnificently bullhorn-voiced Babe London, who arrives in town representing "the Paddy Pad Brassier for the larger figures gal"  - At the end she's heading off once more into the great beyond: "You people don't deserve Paddy Pads! I'm taking my brassieres to Europe where they'll be appreciated!")

And over all, it's one of those great fantasies where all the women are stacked and leggy, and the men well-written and acted (Milner aside) nincompoops. With poops like Coogan and Carradine, how bad can things get, no matter how much Milner dashes around like some kind of universal chaperone (telling Jayne "You are a bit much for a growing boy to face at nine-AM in the morning.") or the flash-frozen "Woo Woo" mopes and Moranises? Sure, the ending is total chaos as all the disparate parts come together in a big science lab/classroom climax (with the gangsters and Thinko finally squaring off) but at least half the gags hit home and if you don't really laugh, well, one of the beautiful gals is usually onscreen to rest your eyes on while you wait for the next zany character to come tumbling into the scene. For all its faults, I think I like it better, as a whole, than either Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which has an icky homophobic/misogynist subtext) or The Girl Can't Help It (which has an icky Tom Ewell smarm). Sure it's not as good as Lord, Love a Duck but what is? Even that's not perfect, though it sure is Milnerless.

 The question is, does Sex Kittens link up with Opium to delineate and auteur style for the Zugsmith? Maybe not, but it does indicate a termite interest in veering from audience expectation and letting the sewer carry us where it may. If Vincent Price were to show up, waving an opium pipe as he sails past, we might well find one. I don't think he is going to make it, but really, it's probably just because he was under AIP contract and in 1960 was making House of Usher.  Hey, maybe I am crazy or just benefitted from a nice buzz and low expectations. I think you can't pin high hopes on it, it's not any better than Invasion of the Star Creatures but if you tolerate that, there's plenty of galakazoom and maybe even some ringy-dink; best of all there's full-bodied and nuanced performances from Bardot (casually carnal), Van Doren (sensitive and balanced - she talks, not shouts, further stranding the sub-par actors--Milner in the ham flats) and Weld (less to do than in Duck but still ravishing with some good rapport with Van Doren--with whom she remained fast friends--and Bardot, who together have a kind of sisterly ruling benevolence, watching over the male college co-eds and faculty the way proud cowboys watch over the herd in Red River. Even with the cop-out coda, this baby isn't Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this here's the Pussycat! Follow the lead of Prof. John Carradine and Coogan instead of the dopey Milner. A girl with youth, brains, education and hot blondeness is not a threat or an object, but a great drinking partner.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2020


Autumn... despite our current plaga, it means all the best things in life (and death) are now arrived.. especially old dark house movies from the 1930s,

These days, I wonder if I might be alone in this last part. Everyone has Halloween, or at least Guy Fawkes' Day, October filmic canon, but modern kids and even their parents have grown up with soooo much in the way of options for viewing. They don't have to love the old dark house movies, the way we Famous Monsters-reading kids did, we who were like shaking junkies waiting for every new TV Guide to come along in the Sunday paper so we could underline anything remotely spooky looking and then try to get the timer to work at the dead of night or even set the alarm and wake up so we could sneak downstairs and tape it, just so we could pause during the commercials, in order to fit more four rather than three movies on the six-hour tape (which were like two pounds each and $12) and also, if needed, manipulate the aerial to get a clearer picture, including standing up and grounding it by holding the antenna in one hand and the wall in the other, all just for something like One Body Too Many or The Ape Man. Why would anyone bother treading through such blurry dross when there's every single old horror movie on streaming all the time? And if we don't get used to the genre and learn to love its creaks and groans, the Cat and the Canary or The Phantom of Crestwood might not be the sort of thing we even know how to appreciate in the coming post-civilization! Won't you help? 

Maybe now, during these strange times, even with Netflix and all that, I may yet recruit fellow travelers in the hoariness stillness.

What is an old dark house movie vs. say, a mystery or a thriller or a straight-up horror movie? Well, just as all of 'modern' country music stems from a handful of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams Sr. (which stem in turn from old string band reels and traditional ballads) so all of the old dark housers are based on a handful of barnstorming mystery plays that used to tour the country in roadshows, The Cat and the Canary (there are at least four film adaptations, including one lost to time "The Cat Creeps"), The Bat (at least two faithful versions and a zillion spinoffs) and The Gorilla. From these three basic plots spins the entire genre (just as the three in turn spring from drawing room mysteries and barnstorming Victorian melodramas). 

What makes an old dark house movie, aside from the old dark house itself? Usually there are a few recurring sinthoms: a threatening note; the reading of a will; a terrified maid; a shifty-eyed butler; a smart aleck reporter or PR agent; a gorilla; one or more secret passages; a masked madman; incompetent cops or asylum guards who might actually be escaped patients; an imperiled heiress; hidden jewels, greedy heirs forgotten in the will unless the current heir dies or is proven insane; a black cat racing up the stairs, the sound of sheet metal thunder / stock footage lightning cutaways; gnarled or furry hands reaching out towards oblivious heroines as they sleep. One or more corpses! Repeat! 

For settings they fall back to an era long before the dawn of suburban tract homes, when extended families all lived together in big cavernous houses that were passed down through generations. Today they are mostly all cut up into co-ops but some still exist. If you've ever stayed overnight in one then you know ho creepy it is just waking up in the dark and trying to find the bathroom at night. You can easily get lost in the dark, and if you hear a strange noise it's almost impossible to search everywhere; families can live comfortably together without ever seeing one another; guests can fill the rooms for long weekends of creeping around long hallways; and if the cops in the foyer hear a scream somewhere above, they may not even be able to find the one who screamed by the time they get up the stairs and down the cavernous hall; (and by the time they search the next floor, they hear a scream or a shot somewhere else, and it all starts over. Once you split up and search different rooms you may never find each other again).

The secret panels and hidden lairs are what I think most grabs me. The idea people could be watching you through the walls, and you'd never know it. Or more cozily, vice versa. If you don't believe they're real I can tell you from experience: nearly every single old mansion has them, especially if they were built before or during Prohibition; but no one thinks to look for them. They'd rather say you're crazy when you say someone peered out from behind the bookcase. I've been in two rich kid houses that had hidden rooms adjacent to their bedrooms, secret spaces so quiet and isolated you could do whatever you wanted out of sight or smell from parents and staff. Never before had I seen total freedom just a hidden door away from mind-numbing conservative patriarchal bourgeois repression (as in the hidden playroom of Holiday).

But then, in general, the old ultimate patriarch, the dying old codger in the wheelchair symbolizes the extent of social isolation, of both sides, the rich patriarch's alienating inflexibility -driving his children against him until he only sees them when he's on death's door, their hands outstretched, or the children themselves, who've shut themselves away in hidden lairs of excess, the wealth affording them the freedom to wind up utterly alone in a room full of mirrors, in each case, their massive house becomes void of all but a few weird servants who become as disturbed and jaded as the owner, sinister and paranoid, taking on the demeanor of the owner. When forced to face mortality via the old will, only then is this hermetically sealed world of long shadows and empty rooms suddenly thrown open to relatives, cops, and cameras. The cops must pick through the list of suspects in search of where the old man might have hidden the loot or who may have killed him. If you've ever gone through the effects of a dead loved one then you know the weird frisson - like investigating your mother's or father's most private life, everything that was hidden from you all your life. Now, nothing personal is off limits. That's why the number one famous last words of our modern age isn't "forgive me, father," but "hide my porn."  

(1931) Written and Directed by Alan James
***1/2 (or * depending on your tastes)

"Say, that guy ain't no regular butler!"

The saddest eyes in show biz - Niles Welch
One of my new favorites in both the so-bad-it's-good and the old dark house genres, the surreal-comic barnstormer THE PHANTOMs (1931) clearly marked a real departure for the the mightily-titled Supreme Pictures. They made a lot of silent era westerns and serials, and a lot of their cowboy stock can be seen here, amazed and uncertain how to act, as if this isn't just the first time they've spoken out loud on film, but the first time they've been indoors for longer than it takes to rob yonder general store. Consider the opening: while the.... Phantom (the name always comes with pregnant pauses) is waiting is on death row, the chair warming up, the warden talks about the case with a reporter up in his office; someone mentions the plane buzzing the yard. Suddenlhy! Outside the window ''the Phantom" breaks jail and jumps from the big house wall onto the top of a passing train and then a biplane roars overhead and throws down a ladder. The.... Phantom reaches up, grabs the ladder and is lifted away into the air and thus to freedom! Since it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the film, and the stock seems significantly more degraded, we can't but presume the scene is lifted from one of Supreme's silent era serials (a not uncommon practice at the time). Especially if we love bad movies, of course we won't complain! We don't complain at the stock footage Ed Wood uses, it's part of the charm. Anyway, it's hard to know for sure if anything connects in... The Phantom...

The insult follows injury as we drift into loving incoherence: Though the Phantom was on all the front pages, a notorious master criminal on death row, once he escapes no one knows what he looks like! It never occurred to his jailers to take a single a mugshot. No one knows who... the Phantom... really is! All they know for sure is that, back at the time of his sentencing, he threatened to get even with the DA (Wilfred Lucas). Enter rock-hard Sgt. Collins (Tom O'Brien) who signs on to protect him and his society reporter daughter Ruth (Allene "Sweetheart of San Antonio" Ray). Her editor--the cool older dude who loves her--is sad-eyed Sam Crandall (Niles Welch -upper left). He's the coolest character in the film, just watching him waft across scenes like he's up to his knees in mud, one wonders many things about this deep-eyed actor. Did he have a death in the family before shooting started? Was he still treating early sound recording like it was 1929, when you had to speak... slowly... and... clearly with many pauses... or is he just too drunk to remember his lines and is being fed them through some whispering off camera prompter? Whatever the reason, he has a distracted, stop-starting melancholy gravitas that perfectly fits being put in the odd position of being asked by Ruth, his one true love, to promote square-jawed cub reporter, Dick (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) so Dick can be successful enough to marry Ruth! "So... if I give Dick the job," intones Sam, gradually adding it all up for the yokels in the back row, "you and he... will be married?" (she nods, clearly thrilled). 

Just to let you know he's the real hero of the story, Sam puts Dick on the big, career-making story. And guess what that story is... Where and who... is the Phantom?!

it's a mystery this time, pardnuh! 
Poor Sam, he's really better off without her. We never get why this  Britt Reid / Lamont Cranston -style man about town would be into an overdressed, "tipsy, nicer Lina Lamont"-voiced square like Ruth, aside from she's the only girl in the movie (aside from her comic relief scared maid). Ray and Williams clearly played Supreme sweethearts of the rodeo many times before this and they fit together well (he's twice her height, it works if she stays on her horse) when Niles was probably the city slicker land grabber. For all that, Williams's hard edges help give him an inscrutable air, like the director wants us to think he might be... the Phantom... (as far as being a reporter, he doesn't give the impression he knows how to hold a pen). Both these guys do all right but Ruth has more of an adjustment moving off the silent ranch and into the sound boudoir, like she's trying to crawl out from under her blonde wave and stacks of fur wraps; her squeaky voice clashes antithetically with the heavy sense of experience she radiates, like she can't quite pick a voice or persona to bring with her into the age of sound recording and is always wishing she could just ride silently back to the saloon. Too bad she couldn't.  The Phantom was her last film until 1949. 

Supreme made naught but a handful of pictures after The Phantom and as far as I'm concerned it's a shame there's not a lot more like it from the same stock cast, as they are all--like the stars--clearly uncomfortable having to remember lines or speak clearly. Everyone plays these stock old dark house characters-- from the terrified maid to the passive-aggressive butler "James"--like they've never seen a sound movie before, lending the whole thing an endearing air of primitivism. As a result, The Phantom becomes to old dark house movies what Luigi Cozz's Hercules is to peplum or The Shaggs' Philosophy of the World to quirky pop music, in short, a kind of primitivist folk-art approximation that's way better than the more coherent but ordinary entries. This extends to Allan James' direction and the camerawork: the framing of each scene is so inept it skirts back around to brilliant. Characters swingle and dingle in corners of the screen during long static shots. Every element is slightly off, even the silence. 

Even more than most of its early sound contemporaries, 'room tone' is is almost a character in itself. Thick and hissy, it's like we're hearing what air sounds like for the first time; it's so thick we're amazed how easily people can walk through it (though speaking is often slowed, careful, as if they don't... quite.... trust... that words will carry through this thick aether). And the way each character deals with it is unique.

There's something cool about cops trusting the adult judgement of civilians (including giving them guns); I like that nearly everyone is armed, like they'd be in a western, and everyone has no problem barging in places, skulking in and out of passageways and swimming through the thick crackling and hissing air; and it's meant to be a mystery, so you can't tell if Dick is... the Phantom, or Sam Crandall, or is it that short guy who runs around with his face covered in a black slouch hat and a cape pulled under his hawklike nose so he looks just like The Shadow crossed with Chico Marx (Sheldon Lewis). Waving his big oogie-boogie hands at either Ray or the terrified maid, one suspects him of being..... the Phantom.... but is he?

The dialogue is weird, too (including the first time I've heard the use of the word "cool" in a behavioral context in any 30s film, allowing suspicion to flood the motivations of nearly every character. the relationships are very vague. For proof, here's one of the great, surreal exchanges of vague dialogue; this between Hampton the DA, and Niles' enigmatic editor:
Niles: "Well Mr. Hampton, I'm sure you'd like to know what this is all about."
Hampton: "Yes... I would."
Niles: "Well.... I'll be very glad to explain it."
Hampton: "Good... come on and sit down."
Niles; "OK"
(cut - we never hear him explain, etc.)
Beholding the row of failed brain transplants

Then there's the climax at the mysterious private rest home, an amazingly dark hall of odd shadows with a dream-like massive palm frond-bedecked reception/waiting area, a hidden operating room, and secret passages. Ruth pretends to have fainted to warrant their barging in; out of the woodwork (in some cases literally) creeps storky William Jackie. With buggy Bruce Spence reptilian eyes and and the kind of lean tall body where, were he to turn sidewise, he might well disappear, Jackie speaks in either a terrible or genuine Swedish accent with a bunch of fractured possible clues buried in his dialogue. 

Note his surreal exchange with Dick, who insists on staying on script with his answers, regardless of what the crazy Swede might say:

Jackie: "Shhhhh- dis here's a crazy hoose: there's tree tousah why hunda why a men her 
Big Boy: "What... What did you say his last name was?" 

        Jackie: I say Dere's 7,777 seasick men here and dere all crazy, like me." 

        Big Boy: ohh

Jackie: You know my son, he is the daughter of this here stable." (etc.)
The finale gets even 'crazier' once Ruth is spirited away to the secret chamber operating room by the brain transplant enthusiast Dr. Elden, who mulls over the shelf of skulls from his failed attempts with his fey lab partner Alphonse. What's truly crazy is that this guy is running an asylum but, if he's the Phantom, no one ever noticed he was also on death row, especially not his two assistants, the freaky Chico Marx as the Shadow guy (Sheldon Lewis) and naughty Frenchman Alphonse (uncredited). It seem unlikely that they were the ones who busted him out, so the end reveal holds naught together. 

The craziness is whole-hog when, moving shakily down the long 'shock corridor' in the dead of night, trying to find the abducted Ruth by shouting her name as he walks down the hall, Dick is handed a note from one of the doors, reading: "She's in Uncle Tom's cabin." Outside in the garden, the chauffeur is knocked out (by someone else) but wakes up and blames the stork-stepping Jackie and they get in a fight which Jackie presumes is just playful sconce bonking. The end finds the endangered Ruth stalling in the operating chamber while Dick tries to get the secret door combination from Jackie, who would rather tell him the story of "a-Yack and Yill."

The fistfights are all sped up and clearly unchoreographed but it's fun to watch everyone chase each other around sofas and operating tables and all the other nonsense, fake fighting in the way we used to do it in my old super-8mm action films. Still nothing compares to those great, sad cutaways to Niles, whose monotone expression as Sam Crandall never changes, looking stricken with his eyes wide as if he might any minute be revealed as... the Phantom. For some reason he's smart enough to know that the hot tip about the mental asylum is worth investigating... rather than a lure from... the Phantom, and he brings the cops and the DA along for the ride. 

The big reveal is that though old Same seems to know all about what's going on well before we or anyone else does: "Print that "Phantom" story just as I laid it out, credit... Dick Mallory." He's not the Phantom but just a lovestruck hangdog dude who wants the apple of his eye to be happy... even if it is without him. In other words, Dick Mallory didn't write it, Sam wrote it, but Dick gets the credit so he can marry the girl the guy Sam loves... "and take a few weeks vacation to get married" - that's how you tell a mensch, he loves her so he steps aside. Sam, I say to the screen, don't worry. With those sad Irish eyes and that tony power position, you're going to get plenty of dolls on your dance card, with less squeaky-doll voices (but for Asher, alas, nothing more in the way of work after this than a few minor parts, just like Ray... and nearly everyone else).

You might think I've flipped being so into this bad film, and maybe I have. Haven't you?

(1930) Dir. George B. Seitz

It's never been on TCM... or DVD, or VHS, or TV, but one can find the 1931 Return of Fu Manchu if one looks hard enough (I finally got to see it on Youtube a few months ago but then it was gone again) and one should. Until then, Drums of Jeopardy offers basically the same plot, and Oland seems to have just as much drunken fun there as he does as crafty Fu, in a very similar plot line. In many scenes in both his eyes glisten with the ecstasy of drink. By day he was playing good guy Charlie Chan over at Fox, by night he was slinking out to wreak havoc as Fu Manchu or--in this case, master chemist Boris Karloff. Enraged by his daughter's pregnant suicide (she won't name names, but she's hiding a clue, the famous necklace, the "Drums of Jeopardy," a Petrov family heirloom, no doubt stolen and given to her by the craven father; so he crashes a dinner party and stares down the entirety of Russian aristocracy, demanding the guilty Petrov step forward. He doesn't, but Karloff knows it's one of them, so why not kill them all.... one at a to each brother, and father, in return, as receiving one of the "drums" (supposed to denote immanent death --hence the name). Convenient coincidence? Maybe. But very cool. 

Petrov's scene at the restaurant gets him hauled off to jail but.. in a purloined letter brought to the now Moriarty-like Karlov by his right hand man Mischa Auer, we learn he later escaped jail to become a leader of the Bolshevik secret police. He's now hunting Petroffs all over Europe, with a small but very capable squad of men at his command. Very cool. The letter also says what boat to America the remaining Petroffs are taking to escape, allowing Karlov a chance to prepare a warm reception.  

As with the Oland's Fu Manchu films, his motivation may be grief (unlike the Sax Rohmer Fu), but he's clearly having a blast and we're rooting for him and his Trotsky-like right hand man (Mischa Auer) all the way, and relishing how they manage to have all the luck (like when the comic relief auntie is sent in her nightgown out to the streets to find a doctor and she runs right into Auer). and loathe the bland and bickering Petroffs and their flatline American aides. even though he takes way too long to kill the final one good Petroffs, allowing him chance to escape with the random girl who dared to help him by calling the cops when he showed up shot and disoriented in her apartment after another failed attempt.  The bland good may prevail but whatever, the atmosphere is plenty thick, and there's cool moments like sharing a cigarette with the Nayland Smith equivalent (who trusts it's not poisoned as that would be "too easy") 

Oland can get great mileage out of little lines.

"They sent me for a doctor," Auer tells him in their hideout a block or two away.
"Well" says Karlov, "we must not disappoint them." He turns and looks back, "get my hat and coat and my bag... my black bag. "

The endangered Petroff is surprised to see Karlov leaning down over him when they arrive, the comic relief aunt fretting as she shoos them in: "you don't think he's going to die?" 
Karrov: "that would not surprise me... at all."

Too bad then, that the Nayland Smith character arrives to chase them away! But they're not gone long. The Amazon Prime print is pretty good, so dig in! 

(1934) Dir. William Nigh
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-

"Hindus! Tom toms! Apes! Haunted Houses!"

the posters for this film are lame so I figured I'd show
this Bernie Wrightston salvia hallucination comic book cover
There's a lot going on with John Pryn (Clay Clement), a super shady archaeologist who robs an ancient temple in India. He's such an entitled colonialist shit he whips the high priest with a riding crop, causing the old man's prayer bead necklace to break (the beads scatter down the temple steps dramatically). No one seems willing to stop him, the temple dancer girl Chanda (Joyzelle Joyner) likes him and helps him outrun the temple's pet gorilla. Rather than worry about getting the jewels back, the priest just levies "the Curse of Ka-La" --all who gain from his theft will die horrible deaths at the hands of some giant ape or other (what else do you want from an old dark house movie?). It can only be... "the curse of Ka-LA!" 

Years later the man finally agrees to share his stolen treasure with all of his expedition's investors (or their heirs). The catch, they must remain in his gloomy mansion with him for one year to um.... protect themselves from the curse of Ka-la! Naturally they all start dying in mysterious ways, and what's up with that motionless stuffed (?) ape in the library? And why does he have Chanda around as a kind of spiritual housekeeper/mistress. What's her deal (she can't be an out and out mistress or wife --miscegenation was still illegal in southern states.) ? And the sound of the drums... of Ka-La keep pounding when it's time for another killing. It's impoverished and star-starved but it does zip along. The only caveat is the annoying young insurance salesman heir as the ostensible hero. He thinks he's mighty irresistible, hitting on the now crippled Mr. Pryn's cute nurse. She tries to ward him off but where's she gonna go to get away? Urgh. So dated. Luckily he has just enough of Jackie Oakie dab about his cheeks and stances. 

The archaic early sound makes sure long pauses occur between each sentence (it seems much earlier than 1934). The long rambling scene of Pryn rattling off the terms of his share giving and the terrible curse is a great time to get popcorn or go the bathroom. Exchanges like: "Chanda is a strange person." / "Person? hah! She looks more like Gandhi's ghost" are pretty offensive. Luckily, the sharp-tongued old broad married to the fuddy-duddy professor has some good lines and there's an unspoken lesbian vibe between the faux hypochondriac  psychic"companion" who calls on her control, Pocahontas a lot, leading to great exchanges between "them" like asking Pocahontas "What is that which afflicts our nostrils and enervates our senses?" / "This night," answers Pocahontas "one of you will go behind the veil."

Meanwhile everyone not currently dead regularly dim the light for seances with the kooky psychic in the pitch dark until the psychic herself gets a giant ape neck snap. There's a looney plumber with a big cigar and a funny Vaudeville patter. The overblown comedy of the dopey cop ("There's been a murder committed here... Who did it?"). As with all these kinds of things, there's not a lot of tears shed for those gone beyond the veil and the three cops are each stupider than the last... in fact, this is almost a copy of the Gorilla, except instead of Bela Lugosi as a sardonic butler, there's a dopey plumber walking around with a stogie, and... of course... Chanda, a very interesting character in how she ultimately last man stands her way to glory! 

(aka Strange Adventure)
(1932) Dir. Phil Witman
*** / Amazon Prime - C

It's of special interest since the reporter is very smart and cool and a girl; she's not afraid to scoop all her fellow journalists, yet they all think she's regular. There are a few knowing glances between her and her cop boyfriend and they both definitely know how to ferret out clues and sneak around the big empty house undetected to spy on murders, murderers, and tip-toeing suspects. In fact this is about the easiest piece of detective work ever since there's no dopey habit of being constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gal reporter "Nosy" Noodles (June Clyde) and cop boyfriend Mitchell (Regis Toomey) swap banter and he threatens to take her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of his way as he ponders documents and sends chicken-eating coppers to round up the gathered throng. Both Mitchell and Nosy have skills as far as how watch without being detected, leading to a lot of cool little scenes of watching Nosy watch people creep around in order to pounce on each other, kind of like "Sleep No More" if you ever went to that. The old duffer, Silas Wayne, who kicks is a hateful fool so we surely don't mourn him and there's all sorts of great little touches, like wry bit of fake jewel substitution: Silas realizes his big rock is a glass fake, then the secretary deftly swaps the real one so Silas re-test it, then puts the fake one back in the safe and Silas tests it again and its fake, thus sending for the cops but then he's dead!! And Dwight Frye plays the romantic gigolo nephew. It's barely over an hour and there's a gooney dude in overisize hood and black sleeves, waving his arms around.

With racist butlering ministered by 'Snowflake.' He misidentifies a suit of armor as a "night-guard" amongst other things. 

(1931) Dir. Edward Sloman
**1/2 / Youtube Image - C

I've long been a proponent of this one, which to my recollection has never been shown on TV, either on TCM or back in the UHF era, and has never been on VHS or even some misbegotten Alpha DVD. For a long time the only proof it even existed was a loving write-up in a classic horror film book I had as a child.  Few critics have written about it, or waxed sufficiently euphoric over the gleeful performance of Lilyan Tashman as the evil and conniving Laura, conniving wife of lily-livered Herbert (Walter McGrail), nephew of the bossy premature burial-fearing matriarch Julia (Blanche Friderici) of the once-prominent Endicott clan (their memory evokes Ambersons-style magnificence in the mind of the cemetery groundskeeper across the street). Today, the big house holds only Julia, her only son, a totally deranged but childlike simpleton (hammed through the roof and beyond by the great Irving Pichel) with immense crushing power in his strong hands, and the no-nonsense housekeeper, who has to regularly check the 'alarm horn' inside Julia's waiting tomb (fun fact: being buried alive wasn't uncommon in the 1800s and early 1900s, leading to a craze for burial horns, visible windows in coffins, easy-escape tombs, etc i.e. Poe wasn't the only one to become obsessed by the terrifying idea). Anyway, what sets the dastardliness of Murder By the Clock in motion is Julia's foolish idea to--after a bickering row with the maid one afternoon and realizing the house would go to brain dead Pichel when she dies, Julia makes the mistake of changing her will over to her spineless louse nephew Herbert her prime beneficiary! Not smart, Julia! She's murdered the night she signs the will... like clockwork! Are we going to hear her funeral horn in the third act? I'll never tell. But I will say it would be a great old dark house just between Julia's morbid rantings, Pichel's lunatic laughter, the eerie graveyard across the street, and all the midnight creeping around the old mansion. But then you add the divine Tashman. Oh! Oh, that Lilyan.


Plying her strange seductive charms with all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Tashman proves one thing ably: shy men will always let themselves be manipulated by sexually forward women... they're just so grateful not to have to bust the first move. It can be oh so tough for shy guys to resist such a girl, even (or maybe especially) if she's only slightly attractive (i.e. 'ugly-sexy'). If a really beautiful woman comes onto a man who isn't used to it, the effect can be a kind of uncontrollable terror, stammering and running out the door (followed by weeks of self-reproach). If the shy guy and the hot girl do end up having sex, it's never any good. See, the hot girl is used to being bedded by expert seducers, which means they're more like wine snobs rather than just normal gals dying of thirst. A shy guy is too inexperienced to measure up, and on her end, she's never learned to be grateful, been sex-starved, eager to please. But an ugly-sexy lady like Tashman, a cop might figure he could let her seduce him and then arrest her. And that's why she's so dangerous. Over the course of the film she first manipulates her husband into killing Julia, then after she's dead, manipulates her sculptor lover into killing her husband. Pichel is blamed for Julia's murder - jailed on suspicion. Tashman's Laura comes to visit him and true to its (pre)code, lets him all but molest her through the bars while convincing him to break out (he can bend the bars with ease) and kill her husband, and/or her sculptor lover - whichever is still alive by then. So he's got every man killing every other man to be with her, just throwing them all into the big gloomy house, hoping none of them will live long enough to rat her out. Hot damn this lady rulez!

And ultimately the thing is, there is no hero or romantic lead to root for which makes it kind of a strange ride: all the men are easily seducible murderers. Only the homicide cop on the case, the Bickford-esque William Boyd, has any integrity.  Julia may have the other sucker's snowed with her ugly-sexy seductive pre-code wiles, but he's not having it. Still, he admires her powerfully for trying; some might say Boyd brought a little bit of her to Zolok, the evil ruler of The Lost City (1935), the glint of feral madness in the eyes, maybe. 
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