Friday, June 10, 2022


Snaking her unhinged voluptuousness through the breezy soundstage jungles, medieval forests, old wests and voodoo graveyards of drive-in independence, Allison Hayes was a special breed of star (aggressively sexual) at a special time (the mid-to-late 50s) for a special place (the drive-in). And what she did for America and its boozy good-time pulse cannot be fully known or measured. At her best playing the direct, carnal sexually available wanton, the well-bodied broad with an unfulfilled need for sex and violence, she was as recognizable a face in the late-50s drive-in as Vincent Price or Boris Karloff. Classic genre fans rightly revere her like Christians do Mary Magdalene. She was the antidote to the Marilyn Monroe/Annette Funicello dichotomy, as ravenous as a wolf and smart as a pistol. Here are three of her films not as well known as her most iconic (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), but all are worth hunting down, if you love well-built and slightly crazy but all-the-way women.   

(1957) Dir. Edward L. Cahn

If you ever saw one of those cool plastic pirate skeleton or old-time diving suit aquarium ornaments--the kind that sit on the bottom of the tank, with the oxygen bubbles coming up from a small sunken treasure chest half buried in the gravel--and you really wanted one. But there was one problem: you didn't have an aquarium to put it in. Well, I have a movie for you. my friend: you should see this film from independent producer Sam Katzman. Old "Jungle" Sam doesn't have an aquarium either! But damned if that'll stop him from filling a film with a lot of underwater old time diving suited salvagers hunting out a gold chest in an old shipwreck, and tangling with its undead guardians. 

Many have tried over the years to recover the diamonds--guarded by the corpses of the ship's pirate crew--and all have died and joined the bubbly vigil. The undead captain's now-elderly wife (Marjorie Eaton) lives in the forlorn hope that one day the curse will be broken but the only way to break is "destroy" the diamonds. What? How can you destroy the hardest thing in the world? So she changes it to "get rid of them! Throw them into the sea!" They're in the sea already, lady, so what, just drop the chest back in the water? Why not just fish them out again once the curse is broken? Writers on these old yarns never seem to iron out curse logistics. At least Jungle Sam never does. He's a man who doesn't do rewrites, or monitor, it seems, his special effects crew (witness the dopey bird marionette of another of his 50s productions, The Giant Claw).

Jan (Autumn Hoskins) visits the coast to get the backstory after her incoming cab runs over a walking dead crewman and doesn't stop to check (proving the screenwriter saw White Zombie). She arrives to visit grandma at her coastal vigil, as does another doomed salvage team. There's the usual burly, long green-minded captain, Joel (George "Not the same Beatle" Harrison), his trophy mistress Mona (Alison Hayes) and the hunky-dopey 'hero,' first-mate diver Jeff (Gregg Palmer). Cue the flared tempers and aggressive come-ons, especially when jealous Mona gets a load Jan. Mona's so crazy over Jeff she practically stabs Jan just for giving him a drink of water after he's roughed up by a zombie. Joel hits her for that one, and she runs out in a huff. Guess how she comes back!

This movie gets a bad rap (called 'unimaginative' by one critic / "dull" by another) but in my inner TV guide it's got everything you want for a movie called Zombies of Mora Tau. Maybe it was badly panned and scanned for TV; maybe it was just too relaxing to keep viewers awake during late show TV airings back in the day. Unless you're expecting gut-munching, restored, HD-ified, and in its original aspect ratio, the Tau has near everything you want in a late-night drive-in relaxant, with nothing you don't. 

Then again, maybe I just love this movie the same reason I love Katzman's Giant Claw--for the dopey 'special' effects: the film's underwater treasure-recovering and old timey diving suit vs. zombie fights are all shot 'dry' (no aquarium), with the actors just moving really... slow. (with bubble overlays). The result evokes those WB cartoons where sleepy characters float into bed; or Cocteau through-the-mirror effects where characters fall up buildings. Mora Tau is a place that won't keep you awake, but it is a fine place to fall asleep. 

But probably the reason I like it is Alison Hayes. Wandering through the Tourneur-esque shadows in her cinched up nightgown--her knife, bra, and posture stiff as Frankenstein---treating everyone including their old lady host with uncouth scorn, openly suspecting their dinner is poisoned, goading Josh into insisting Jeff kiss her ("How dare you say no to a friendly kiss!"), Hayes' sexual energy makes a nice side dish to the leisurely zombie action. She's so mean they don't even realize she's become a zombie when she starts trying to stab everyone.

Scenes of sailor zombies coming at the living humans from bushes, and shadows, and the sea, and from all sides--never even flinching from point black gunshots--are dispersed well enough that there is nary a dull-- or exciting (the zombies are all rather slow)-- moment. When they're not guarding the treasure these (all-white male) undead are nosing around on the veranda, looking through open windows, skulking in bushes, ever ready for their cutaway. Their unstoppable slow momentum, and the moody black photography make Tau a key historical zombie link between 1932's White Zombie and 1968's Night of the Living Dead. If you can get around the weird nonsensical aspects--like that 'destroy the diamonds' curse, and the whole crew is buried in the same small mausoleum (like some sort of sailor's eternal rest home)--you'll find it a fine film to help you sail towards ye old catatonia.

(1957) Dir. Walter Grauman

Another of Allied Artist's drive-in back-end fucked-up, weird-ass bill-fillers comes a-calling. Hayes stars (in white 'native' bronzer) As "Tonda" a mix of slutty/sexually dissatisfied trophy wife of an old Germanic psychiatrist  (John Wengraf) doing research in the "jungle" and a homicidal voodoo priestess. Her appendage-squiggling, dagger-waving, hips and chest akimbo voodoo drum-spurred rhumba is perhaps the feature's sole attraction (the title likely refers to soul-transference, but it's hard to know for sure what part goes where). Her mixed blood implied by her name and a shellacking of bronzer, she does a lot of sultry veranda-stalking at their jungle compound. There's nothing to do otherwise but lust after her narc of a chiseled man servant Zuba (another white person in native bronzer) and try to kill her husband with voodoo dolls. But lo! The native drums are announcing a handsome jungle photographer Tom Maxwell (Paul Burke) and his lion-mauled buddy headed their way for the doctor's medical help. Tonda's eyes light up with lust at the size of Tom's zoom lens, but he's sure to leave immediately if the patient should die, and he's so weak with blood loss he won't last the night. What about the witch doctors of which Tonda speaks? And what about Zuba and her fixing to narc on Tonda's midnight liasons? Surely a voodoo shimmy will solve both problems at once. But then what of Zuba's vindictive mate (another white person in native bronzer) now that he's suddenly voodooed by mighty Tonda?

Look, I love Hayes to death, and maybe even beyond, but in general jungle movies don't grab me. They're too sweaty and stock footage-bogged. Even with Hayes in the cast. caged animals and stock footage narration alone could keep me away, but Disembodied is all shot on one big soundstage jungle set, free of  animals, bugs, compost, and realism of any kind. The only wild animal on display is Hayes' Tonda, stringing along her sweaty old doctor husband with the occasional kiss, strangling effigies of him and dancing at midnight dance rituals--"she's the voodoo queen!" observes Tom's (actual) black driver says Tom's guide as they spy on her secret ceremonies--she's divided even unto herself. We never can tell if her normal self knows there's a voodoo priestess side of her. Seeing a lot of movies like this may help fill in plot points the writers were too something or other to notice. 

Zuba's mate Mara (Eugenia Paul) may be the only one who understands his soul is in the healed buddy of Tom. She gets right away that his soul is inside a white dude who, as chance would have it, is now trying to kill everyone for some zombie reason. Maybe it was a case of rewrite-itis? One writer undoing the linear plot of the other? The gravelly German doctor husband is as surprised as anyone that his mauled-to-ribbons patient seems mostly healed the next day and only wants to stab people. As one of his buddies notes: "This whole thing is so freaky it gives me the shakes." Move over,  buster.

Competently acted all around ( Tom has that low register downtown New York-accented Actor's Studio-type of inflection; his precise but underneath TV cop show-style speaking voice lets you know he's not trying to be a ham), Disembodied is let down by two unforgivable elements: white actors playing natives by wearing bronzer to play natives, and Hayes' black fringe two-piece dance costume. What moron at AIP decided Hayes' skimpy tribal wear should be a formless black top with a long-hanging concealing black fringe? it's worse than a censor bar. Hard to believe this is the same girl who looked so young and alive in Corman's Gunslinger (below) and The Undead that same year. I do like her Asian-style cocktail dress and trim safari jumpsuit, and the fact that all three dresses include a front dagger sheathe, just big enough to get the job done without rousing the shame of low-hanging males. But that fringe? Oh boy. It cancels a lot of good feeling. 

Ah well, despite the heartbreak, The Disembodied is not a total failure: Hayes still has that weird air of bitchy carnal aggression that made her so transcendent in all these probably tailor-made roles (she would have been sublime as the treasure hunter-cum-monster in Voodoo Woman made the same year and I think on the same set (1)) She may stray from form when getting all gooey over Tom but she can wring maximum Stanwyickian mileage out of her hatred for her husband, hurling blunt force lines delivered low under breath like, "I could kill you...." in measured whispers like spears through cake. There's a lurching unevenness at work, but then again it's a short movie. Tom goes from falling for her sensual heat to hating her for her hamfisted attempts to get him to kill her husband. Her husband worships her with a kind of jungle-rot sub-Sternberg masochism, his mind refusing to see her voodoo queen truth even as he buries himself in mumbo research. 

whoever designed this outfit was no friend to straight men

And you can't blame her for being evil: she's horny and  bored, and as the doctor says, "the natives are like children." You can't figure why she'd marry this coded impotent German doctor in the first place, unless you imagine some kind of backstory on your own (or borrow from another film, such as White Woman, or Voodoo Woman or any D.H. Lawrence adaptation). But there's really no need for logical sense in in this potted soundstage jungle, just good steady drumming and the crisp photography that captures well the shadows of the black soundstage night. Maybe that's enough. Sometimes an eerie night in a "jungle" full of dangers all you need, at least for an hour's distraction. And preferably with that Hayes woman, figure-hiding fringe or no. All it takes to know it's a keeper is the turned-on look in her eyes as she watches Tom and his disembodied friend fight over a knife.

Note lack of fringe and light dress shade
allowing alluring under-shadow in this glamor shot, compared to next photo up

(1956) Dir. Roger Corman
Roger Corman is mainly known for his horror and science fiction films, but did ya know he started out with four westerns? Gunslinger--a gender-reversed Wyatt Earp variation--is easily the best, and it's also criminally unavailable on DVD, or Blu-ray (you can only currently find it on yonder YouTube). Beverly Garland plays Rose, whose marshal husband is gunned down in broad daylight. She vows to get the men, and woman, responsible; she even shoots one of her man's killers at his funeral, nice and quick, before stepping in as substitute marshall (after the mayor and rest of the men prove too chicken-hearted to accept it). Her daytime no-fuss funeral gunplay is a blast of fresh air after so many of the more liberal revisionist westerns of the era. People get shot right and left here in her muddy town of Oracle, with no fanfare or drawn-out showdowns. Rose has no problem--no tears or misgivings--about racking up an impressive body count. Damn straight! 

I'm not sure if you realize how revolutionary this is! Corman is breaking from the 50s western fold--the sort of bland revisionism epitomized by patriarchal pacifists like Gary Cooper in High Noon--like a B-list gender fluid Hawksian, almost pre-Peckinpah-ian, calf outta hell. These ladies don't refuse to pack a gun or cry over all the violence they see and dish out. Death doesn't even get a close-up or a showdown --it's quick and the ladies are more ruthless than the men. Hayes rival is even more bloody. Erica (Allison Hayes), proprietor of a 24-hour saloon/brothel, has the bad but ingenious habit of buying land in the area (she thinks the train might come through), then sending her lovestruck little bartender Jake (Jathan Haze) out to bushwhack the men she just bought land from, reclaiming the $$ and using it to buy another piece of property, etc. Ingenious! But that's not why Rose is after her. The friction comes when Rose decides to finally implement the town's never-hitherto-enforced liquor and prostitution laws. She gives Erica's three dancing whores a week to get out of town, and she forces Erica to close her saloon every night at three AM. 

Of course you know, this means war!

Erica hires a professional gunslinger Cane (John Ireland) to take Rose out, in both senses of the phrase. Her little smitten barkeep assassin Jake (Jonatha Haze) is pretty miffed about not getting the job, but Erica realizes he's no match for a good woman. Cane is soon the only real man in town, dating both women on alternate nights, angering little Jake even further! And then, Rose and Cane of fall for each other! Who'd a thunk it? Erica is double mad now and if the railway doesn't come through, god knows what a bloodbath may be in store, especially when Cane starts a-gunning for the cowardly mayor, who led Cane's artillery regiment the Civil War and ran away when he got scared. Got to love the idea of Rose riding desperately to the rescue of a grown-ass man, and the way all the men in the story are either dead, short, cowards, or otherwise ineffectual. Even Cane proves inadequate when he's made wishy-washy by love when---in very cool and nicely underplayed and well-written scenes by future Corman regular screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna--Rose and Cane fall for each other. She playfully but sincerely trying to change his outlaw ways, knowing full well she won't succeed, while remaining undeniably attracted to his bad boy sparkle at the same time. 

What a film! it doesn't even matter that--so rare for a western--the skies are overcast and rainy; and the ground is super muddy; the actors are pretending the wetness isn't soaking through their pants when they sit down for picnics or lay down after getting shot in the back. 

Corman is the first and for a long time the only schlock filmmaker who realized he could cast hot capable actresses roles usually reserved for men and not even change their actions. And Garland and Hayes are sublime examples of how a woman can be alluring and assertive at the same time. With her red hair, black velvet choker, tightly pulled corset and form fitting burgundy red dress, Hayes is an angry vision of loveliness and connivance in a western setting. Erica's mix of naked greed, amoral entrepreneurship, sexual jealousy, manipulativeness, aggression and combined with dark, worldly wit seems tailor-made. And casting her as the sexually-manipulative heavy going against a rival 'good' female sets the blueprint for another great Griffith/Hana script, my personal Roger Corman favorite, The Undead the following year. 

Executing a deft outflanking maneuver around all the liberal guilt-tripping, corny sentiment, and labored symbolism that usually dampens the mood in any 50-60s western, Corman keeps the tale lean, sexy and over fast. Perhaps the only reason Gunslinger isn't more widely celebrated today on a cult level (it rates a lowly 3.7 on imdb) is that western fans threatened by the gender revisionism? I usually roll my eyes at girl gunslinger movies as they're either campy, overwrought or saddled with tiresome moralists who don't approve of guns and murder so can't press the trigger on a disarmed opponent. This isn't like that at all, thank god. But Roger, if your film is about a battle between two strong, inflexible, beautiful, deadly women--they even have one of the best female-on-female bar fights in film history--why give it such a generic title? It is because boys are afraid of armed girls? I doubt it!

Though never released on DVD or Blu-ray (why, lord?), it's currently streaming on YouTube. Find it on my public YouTube playlist "4 AM Favorites") right next to another--never been on official DVD or Blu-ray--film, the Dino di Laurentiis-produced, Ennio Morricone-scored tale of a drug-addicted bisexual super spy, Fraulein Doktor. There are also two 70s TV series about cultures where women are in charge and men subservient--Star Maidens and All that Glitters. There are no streaming, VHS, DVD or Blu-ray releases of them, at all. Ever! 

Dear video labels, stop being threatened over strong women! Release Gunslinger, Fraulein Doktor, Star Maidens, and All that Glitters on DVD or streaming. Do it soon, or Allison Hayes' ghost just might get awful mad. 

click here for more where this came from! Awooo!

1.  Maybe she was busy making Zombies of Mora Tau? 1957 was her big year - she was in 4 films and made six TV shows. wth Voodoo Woman, which used to be on a double bill with The Undead (which co-starred Hayes) so maybe that's why they got Marla English instead (in her second go-round as a woman turning into an armor-plated She-Creature) in the villainess role. Two Hayes in one double feature, the same year may have confused half-watching audiences. But Hayes would have crushed it. (though English is clearly having a ball and is rather marvelous in a pint-sized sort of way. Keep your expectations even lower, and check it out).
2. their names and films shall be unmentioned as they constitute spoilers.) 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11 June, 2022

    Gunslinger is available on DVD as part of Movies 4 You Western Film Collection.

    Scott Lovrine


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