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Day of the Panther, 1987

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As Australian Kung Fu movies go, Day of the Panther is… the one I’ve seen.

It’s bland. Not atrociously bad. Not especially good. Just sits there. Clichés, tropes, a few marginally decent fights, nothing else.

Begins with a voiceover from William Anderson (John Stanton) telling us about how he was the first Westerner ever to be inducted into the “ancient and secret order of Panthers”, a Chinese kung fu cult, and how his daughter Linda and JASON BLADE! (coughcoughcough) became only the second Westerners ever to etc., etc.

The face of Special Branch's (second) most cunning agent

So the Panthers, seemingly centered in Hong Kong, studiously ignored westerners for over a hundred years. Curious, as HK was a creation of the British Empire, and so much of its success was dependent on both western trade and western culture. The Triad gangs got started partly because groups of Eurasian men felt that they could not be accepted in either culture (this is gross oversimplification, before somebody complains). Yes, Chinese culture was (and continues to be, in some ways) highly xenophobic and resistant to any outside influence. (This is why China does not practice capitalism, but capitalism “with Chinese characteristics” — because to just take it as is would be to admit that Chinese culture is not superior to everything else, everywhere, in every way; but add “Chinese characteristics”, and you’ve instantly made it better, and Chinese.) Still, kung fu was no secret, and even “secret societies” took in a few westerners (of the right sort, of course) long before the 1960s. So what were the Panthers doing all that time? I think I have now given this more thought than the writers did.

The induction ceremony is a hoot. The actor playing Anderson clearly speaks his Chinese phonetically, and whoever coached him didn’t get across the idea of tones very clearly. Or at all. (I couldn’t even tell if he was supposed to be speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. That’s sort of like not being able to tell if he was trying to speak French or Italian.) The actress playing his daughter has, alas, the sort of face that just doesn’t look intelligent; she spends the ceremony looking befuddled. JASON BLADE! (Edward John Stazak, whose only IMDb credits are this movie and its sequel), in comparison, is reasonably credible here. The amount of smoke arising from his forearm as he brands himself(!), though, is not.

Careful - skin bronzer can be flammable!

Turns out JASON BLADE! and Linda are also special agents for Her Majesty in some form; apparently police, though it’s not especially clear (the most precise naming we get is “Hong Kong’s Special Branch”; Special Branch of what is never explained). They’re partners, and work undercover together, and Dad’s voiceover ends with saying “Then came the night that would ultimately change all our lives,” and you just know that Linda’s going to achieve “hungry ghost” status before the second act begins.

I mean, she’s the daughter, the partner, a girl, she doesn’t get the backward-looking voiceover, and her name’s not JASON BLADE!. Why they didn’t name her Dead Meat and have done with it, I don’t know.

Granted, the movie doesn’t kack her immediately, and in fact gives her a lengthy action scene in which she defends herself ably — I had been fully expecting that, despite her Panther training, she was going to fold, as girls in western kung fu movies frequently do. But no, she fights off three or four assailants in an extended sequence, killing at least two of them, and only dies when caught off guard by another man, who knifes her while she’s in a defenseless position.

On the other hand, she does die because she didn’t do what JASON BLADE! told her to do, which was to sit tight and wait for him. No, she had to go out on her own, “investigating”, and because she didn’t follow the dictates of the masculine (but babyfaced) hero, she pays the price of all expendable characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In “Hong Kong” (adequately impersonated by a few sets in Perth, Australia, and some stock establishing shots in the beginning — although the stock shots don’t really scream “HONG KONG!”, they could be HK from unusual angles, or they could be Perth), Linda and JASON BLADE! sneak into a Chinese restaurant (of course!) and take pictures of a drug deal going down between an irritating, doughy-faced Aussie and a couple of old Chinese men. They’re discovered, pursued, and lose the camera (into a pot of noodles; one wonders if Jackie Chan saw this movie at some point before making Crime Story, though probably not, and he did a lot more with the gag than anyone on this movie even thought about), and while all the bodyguards are pursuing them, the doughy-faced Aussie, whom we’ll come to know as Baxter (“Baxter”? The best name they could come up with for the head henchman was Baxter!?), blows away the two older Chinese men, taking both the money and the drugs and hightailing it to the airport.

If you hadn’t already worked out that this movie is shallow, this sequence does the math for you. First, the dialog amongst the criminals while Linda and JASON BLADE! are taking pictures is banal and repetitive in the extreme. Most of it was clearly looped in later, and there is little purpose to it, other than to establish (five or six times) that Baxter wants to pay only five hundred thousand dollars. He does finally get bargained up to six hundred and they hit an agreement. The agreement is for an ongoing deal. The Chinese Triads (not so named, but one presumes) will supply Baxter and his organization with drugs every two months for six hundred thousand.

(Side note: Was HK really a central distribution point for drug running? I mean, okay, maybe for getting drugs into the mainland, but to Australia? Wouldn’t it be more practical to deal directly with drug producers in Thailand, and elsewhere? Again, I’m thinking about this more than the writers ever did.)

Then JASON BLADE! and Dead Meat Linda are discovered, and Baxter whips out a silenced pistol, shooting his suppliers: one in the forehead, the other in the neck.

The cunning, the sheer reasoning power, RADIATES off her, doesn't it?

So, okay, there was a security breach, but come on! The breach was exposed by the Triads. Is it really a good idea to whack your suppliers? I can’t imagine other suppliers are going to line up to deal with you after that. “Yeah, Mr. Baxter, we know you blew away your last business partners, but it was understandable — after all, they very helpfully exposed a couple of police who were spying on the deal, and you were mad, and people do things when caught off guard that, under calmer light, they wouldn’t; we’re sure you’ve learned an Important Lesson here, and have no worries about any such incident ever happening again.” Further, it is clear that the Australian operation needs steady supply, not a one-off deal. (The movie, on the other hand, only needs the one-off, so this action makes sense in terms of the plot, in a meta sort of way.)

There are no consequences to the killing off of these two old, apparently powerful triads. Once dead, they and their organization never affect the story again. (OK, there is one piece of throw-away dialog telling us that the killings started a Triad war in Hong Kong, but this makes little sense other than as a way of excusing the total lack of consequence within the story.)

So, yes, not the deepest, most thought-out movie of all time.

Linda pursues Baxter to Perth, while JASON BLADE! remains in Hong Kong, so that Linda can be killed off cleanly. No, really, there’s no actual reason given for him to stay behind, it’s only so that his partner can go off alone, die stupidly, and give him motivation for the rest of the movie. She calls him (on his 1987 car phone!) (which actually just looks like they put a store-bought regular corded phone into the car, and tried to shoot it so that it looked like it was part of the not-luxurious car’s standard equipment) to tell him that she’s followed the target, but not sure where the consignment of drugs is, and that the local cops are apparently clueless (oh, if she had only lived long enough to find out!). JASON BLADE! tells her to lay low, he’ll fly into Perth tomorrow and join her, but she doesn’t want to lose track of the bad guys, doesn’t promise much, and hangs up.

"Jyson Blide, spayking ta ya voia cah fahn!""Hmm.  Mah pahtnih's abaht ta dai.  Wunda wattai feel abaht that?"

The sequence where Linda meets her demise is actually kind of impressive. Somebody gave a damn about this movie, and it shows here, if nowhere else. The (rather extended) pursuit through, over, and around a warehouse by three menacing hulks in animal masks (the first one we meet is a very hairy gent in a pig mask, and we even get a couple of POV shots from inside the mask, complete with echo-y breathing foley) is intercut with JASON BLADE! arriving in Perth. And while the sequence is longish, it doesn’t flag. The fighting isn’t hugely impressive, but neither is it embarrassing. They milk the abandoned warehouse location for LOTS of action gags. Nothing huge or spectacular, but it never gets too repetitive. JASON BLADE!’s arrival is spliced in at just the right moments, counterpoints the action going on elsewhere, and establishes a few things.

First, he’s being watched. By two Aussie cops. Who are our film’s Odious Comic Relief, with supersized emphasis on the “odious”. One of them is like Ned Beatty from Superman: The Movie, only without one ounce of Beatty’s talent, comic timing, or the John Williams-scored humorous tubas in the background. The other one I have no convenient analogy for, he’s such a boring stock straightman. Flinders is a by-the-book idiot who thinks that wearing a fedora in 1987 qualifies as “plain clothes” and will help him blend in and not be noticed. He gets flustered and angry at his partner’s incompetence, while he’s not noticeably better himself. And again, no talent or knack for timing are apparent in his performance.

"Okay, which one of us gets to be Jerry Orbach?"

The only saving grace with regard to these two twits is that the director, editor, and producers did not fall in love with their komedik stylings. They are a part of the movie, and never just vanish, more’s the pity, but there are no extraneous scenes of them doing their schtick that serve no other purpose. What is in the film is there because removing it would harm the logic of the story (such as it is).

Second, from the OCR’s dialog, we gather that JASON BLADE! is a well-known Triad assassin.

Er, what?

It’s a necessary piece of business, but it’s handled so badly that they might as well not have done it.

The local drug lord, it comes to pass, has lots of police and judges in his pocket (though we never see any of these, we’re only told about them). So JASON BLADE!’s status as a top member of Special Branch is known only to one member of the Aussie police (as we’ll find out later), and his cover story is that he’s a Triad assassin, because the Kowloon Triads owed him a favor(!!!).

At no point does any of this make one damn bit of sense. JASON BLADE! always goes under his own name. (Because, you know, his name is JASON BLADE!, which is just too frakking cool not to use, right? Right?) Yet (almost) nobody knows who he really is. Dead Meat Linda was under an assumed name, so that the local cops wouldn’t know she was Anderson’s daughter right away. (Did I neglect to mention this? After Anderson left HK Special Branch, he retired to Perth and now owns a fitness center. Also a very Chinese-style home that is more like a mansion, or at least a compound, than a house. Retiring from Special Branch nets you a good bit more than a gold watch, I guess.) Everybody seems to know about the “secret” order of the Panthers, and to know that JASON BLADE! is one of them, and also that Anderson is one (it doesn’t seem clear if anyone figured out that Linda was, or not; at first, it goes unmentioned, but later in the movie, the cops do seem to know, yet nobody ever really cares), and don’t put it together that they’re pals and working together. It only works if you don’t think about it at all, and accept that this sort of thing just happens in these sorts of movies. JASON BLADE! is who he is, everybody knows who he is, but nobody knows what he is, except when they do, until it becomes necessary for him to be “revealed”.

And here we are, almost 1500 words into this review, and I haven’t even really gotten to the bad guy. It ain’t doughy-faced Baxter, he’s the henchman. No, the bad guy is… Richard E. Grant!

OK, it’s not Richard E. Grant, but wouldn’t you say he looks uncannily similar? An aged, eerily skeletal Richard E. Grant? I couldn’t stop thinking it anytime he was on screen. This guy is possibly the best actor in the production. He’s not good, but he gives a performance, and seems to have had fun hamming it up, while knowing when to dial back and let quietness be menacing.

The other way you know it isn’t Richard Grant is that at no point does he recite Hamlet to zoo animals in between slugs from a wine bottle. Probably just an oversight, though.

This main bad guy, whom everyone knows is the main bad guy, is named ZUKOR. Probably because "Snidely Whiplash" was already trademarked. And you want to know how truly evil he is? Not only does he run drugs, not only does he control Perth’s prostitution trade and illicit gambling rings, not only is his name ZUKOR… no, the capper is when we’re told that he even makes money from his legitimate businesses!!! Yes, it is stated in such a tone that we are meant to understand that this makes Zukor much worse than he otherwise would be.

Sigh. I only wish I were joking.

But JASON BLADE!, Real Man of Genius, has a plan.

He’s going to ask Zukor for a job.

He saunters into one of Zukor’s cover businesses, a boat dealership, and insults Zukor, Zukor’s salesmen, the business, and the hired muscle.

Then, once the hired muscle try to throw his carcass to the curb, he beats the ever-loving snot out of them.

Every single one.

(Except Baxter, who’s out “taking the Trans Am for a spin”; I cannot possibly make this excuse lamer than the movie does.)

Then he walks away, telling Zukor over his shoulder where he’s staying, and that he’d like work as a bodyguard.

Again, in this action scene, there is evidence that at least a couple of people involved in the production gave a damn. The fight scene is choreographed, and the choreography includes taking the camera and shot composition into consideration. It is, as with the earlier scene with Linda, reasonably impressive, once you account for the obvious limitations of the production. Clearly, they did not have a huge budget, an extended shooting schedule (especially as this was shot back-to-back with the sequel), or the most experienced crew ever.

I’ve left out something. See, Anderson didn’t just have a daughter, he has a niece, too. One who’s a ton cuter than his own progeny, and instantly hits it off with JASON BLADE! (but of course). There’s no actual chemistry between the two actors, and the attraction is not earned at all by the story. They meet, exchange a few words, she’s gone for a few scenes, then she all but throws herself on top of him.

But, back to where we were, more or less. JASON BLADE! is pulled into police HQ, and the big guy on precinct knows who he is, or believes him without a shred of proof, it’s not too clear which is the case. The get a little exposition out of the way, then JASON BLADE! departs, gets a call at his hotel, and is told by Zukor himself that a boat will pick him up.

This leads to more komedy.

JASON BLADE! is picked up by Baxter in an inboard pleasure craft. (To the tune of intensely uninspired synthesizer music. This sequence is the most Miami Vice part of the movie, and it’s bad.) His two tails, Beatty-clone and Flinders, decide to get a boat to follow him. They, of course, requisition a komikly tiny fishing boat with an outboard motor. And they don’t just get it and use it, no. They bumble into it, they bumble over which direction to go, they bumble starting the motor, they bumble it into going backwards, because going forwards wouldn’t be komikal, and…

Do not attempt this at home, these men are profeshinul komedians.

Somehow, I managed not to shove razorblades into my eyeballs or do violence to my computer or the DVD. Don’t ask me how. The bits showing the bumblers are short, but intensely painful.

So JASON BLADE! gets to Zukor, who asks him if he likes the party. “Is that what this is?” he “quips”. Zukor laughs, “You’re sharp, Blade. I like your style.”

May I just point out that somebody got paid to write that. That somebody, in fact, was probably very, very proud of giving action hero JASON BLADE! the action hero name JASON BLADE!, and then doubly proud of coming up with that “clever” little exchange.

I need a drink.

(Whoever put “I like your style” in there ought to have been staked to the ground, naked, near an anthill, his face and nether regions coated with honey. Or at least had his payday reduced drastically.) (Given that no-brainer cliché line, let me assure you, the potential viewer, that at no point in this film do the villain and the hero exchange the almost-as-hoary lines “Is that a threat?” “No. It’s a promise.” That, I guess, would not be JASON BLADE!’s style.)

So Zukor gives him a task: deliver a parcel to a particular place, and pick up a briefcase in return. JASON BLADE! asks what he’ll be carrying, and Zukor proves that he doesn’t trust JASON BLADE! at all by telling him that the parcel has smack, the briefcase has five hundred grand. You get no points for guessing that both of those are lies.

Baxter isn’t happy with this setup. This is his sort of task, and JASON BLADE! seems to be moving in on his turf. Oh, what drama! Oh, what pathos!

JASON BLADE! drives to a warehouse to make the exchange (followed by the Komikal Kops), but it’s a setup. The briefcase contains mostly cut paper, not money. So a fight ensues, of course. As the fight goes on, the Komikal Kops try to get into the warehouse, but the door is locked! So, as only happens in bad action movies with delusions of komedy, just as JASON BLADE! finishes wiping the floor with his adversaries and leaves, the Komikal Kops komandeer a forklift and krash through the warehouse wall. (They don’t know how to run the forklift, as if you didn’t already know.)

The Kops get to arrest a bunch of bruised, battered, barely-conscious thugs, and JASON BLADE! stalks back to Zukor all pissed, because he wasn’t told what the deal really was. (The Kops get the package and realize that it’s corn starch, so it was a bad deal from every direction.) Zukor laughs it off, saying it was a test, and that JASON BLADE! has now earned his trust. After all, he could have just waltzed off with the drugs and/or the money.

And even though there’s a chunk more plot to go, I am tired of recapping it. So, cut to the end, because there is something odd about the climactic fight scenes.

JASON BLADE! does not, repeat does not, square off against Zukor. The final fight is between JASON BLADE! and Baxter the head henchman. Anderson gets to chase after Zukor and hold him at gunpoint. The mentor takes on the head baddie, and the hero gets the henchman.

Man, that’s weird. And there was no especial reason for it, either, except that the actor playing Zukor would pretty clearly shatter with just a punch or two, so an actual fight wouldn’t be believable. But still, little or no confrontation, Zukor just gets handed off to the mentor character, who you would think would want revenge on the guy who actually killed his daughter, Baxter.

Nope, it was just a muddle. In any proper action movie, the protagonist is the one who resolves the conflict and deals with the root of the problem. That’s the reason he’s the protagonist — it’s his problem, he has to deal with it (or fail to do so). And the root of the problem here is definitely meant to be Zukor. So, we the audience already have a hard time identifying with JASON BLADE! because, really, there’s not much character there, and his only motivation is his partner’s death (and the actor has about two expressions, smirking and grinning). And then, at the climax, where we’re supposed to be rooting for him the most, he’s not the guy who solves the problem. He beats on the guy who actually killed his partner, sure, but henchmen can be replaced.

It’s just unsatisfying.

The end credits make a promise common to 1980s cheese-fests: “Jason Blade will return in Strike of the Panther!” Before I checked the IMDb preparing this review, I assumed this was fully in that tradition, meaning that no such movie ever got made.

(The example that leaps immediately to mind is the remarkably good The Sword and the Sorcerer, which promised at the end that its hero, Talon, would return in Tales of the Ancient Empire. That movie never got made, although Albert Pyun lensed another movie under that title this year [2009], I’m not entirely clear how direct the connection is going to be. Plus, it’s Albert Pyun, who has made precisely one good movie in his career, namely The Sword and the Sorcerer.)

But I was wrong. Strike of the Panther was, apparently, shot back to back with this feature. And given one or two of the IMDb user reviews, I’m now keen to track down a copy. This movie is comprised of banal, tired cliches pasted together with hoary genre tropes, with little or nothing to recommend it. The sequel, if the the reviews are to be trusted, is certifiably insane.

It’s actually rather interesting to look through the cast and crew list on IMDb and see who continued or went on to a productive career from here, and who didn’t.

As noted, the star, Edward John Stazak, never worked again outside of this film and its sequel. And that makes perfect sense. He can fight, but outside of the combat scenes, his expressions run the gamut from naive grin to smirk. His (highly inappropriate) aviator sunglasses show more range.

The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Happy The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Angry The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Wary, Yet Amused

However, the villain, Zukor, has a longish list of credits.

One half of the OCR duo only did these two movies, while Hat Guy started with this movie, and launched a respectable little acting career.

The mentor character, Anderson, had a respectable career both before and after.

Anderson’s niece, Gemma, whose only asset here is that she’s moderately attractive, also went on to a respectable career, including a recurring role on Xena: Warrior Princess.

The director has done lots of work.

The actor playing Baxter has a much sparser resume, one other acting role in the 1990s, but also did stunts on a few other films.

The woman who played Linda didn’t do much acting (understandably, I’m sorry to say), but did do more stunt work, though not a large amount.

This movie came to me as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Drive-In Movie Classic pack. The sequel, alas, is not included on the set, nor any other that I have. It’s on my list, though. Somewhere far below every Criterion Kurosawa disc, well below Sword of Doom, and a little above Showgirls.

OK, maybe a notch or two below Showgirls. But on the list, even so.

Written by [IMH]

2 July 2009 at 5:20 pm

The Bat, 1959

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This is the movie Vincent Price made right after The House on Haunted Hill, it seems, and you can sort of see why he agreed to be in it. It’s another gimmicky story, set mostly in one location, that seems like it should be having fun bringing the audience in on the joke.

Except that the movie doesn’t understand that it is a ridiculous joke. And it utterly fails to have any fun at all. (Vincent Price, however, is having fun, at least a little.)

I’ve seen some bad Price movies. I’ve sat all the way through Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. More than once. But this is possibly the worst he was ever involved in.

There are exactly two redeeming features here. First is the opening, cheesy as hell, bombastic jazz theme, which fits nothing in the movie even remotely. ((But this was 1959 — you had to use jazz in the film score, it was a Hollywood Law, at least for the big studios and the ones that wanted to be big. Call it Preminger’s Dictat. )) In fact, here’s the theme for you:

[audio:http://blog.ianhamet.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/thebat.mp3%5D

Atrocious, isn’t it?

And there is, of course, Vincent. Alas, his role is as a red herring, neither the protagonist nor the villain.

But overall, this one really isn’t worth anyone’s time.

Written by [IMH]

20 November 2008 at 2:17 pm

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920

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This is a silent movie (of course, given the year), and as such will be of limited interest to most people. However, it is worth seeing at least once.

The main reason to see it is John Barrymore’s performance as the two titular characters. While saying that he pulls off Hyde without benefit of makeup is absurd (the shape of his head changes, fer pete’s sake!), it is nevertheless a marvel of performance. And he does effect the first transformation in a single shot, using only ACTING! to transition from one to the other. It is a bit overwrought, but it is also impressive, because you have no trouble believing that there are two completely distinct characters.

The other reason, if you have a taste for ladies, and especially if you have a taste for ladies of this period, is Nita Naldi, who has a small role as the woman who tempts Dr. Jekyll to explore his evil side.

The copy of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on the Mill Creek collections is slightly truncated and, from what I understand, some bits of the film are, in fact, considered lost completely. However, given that it is not only Public Domain, but also silent, the condition of what I watched was pretty good.

The story follows the book and adds to it. The additions are not as successful as they might be. They attempt to “explain” Jekyll a bit more. He is, you see, a totally self-sacrificing altruist, the very model of sainthood. And his motivation in devising the drug that effects the alteration is that he wants to give into temptation without “staining his soul”. (Oy.)

The moral theory of the film is about what you would expect from the time it was made, if you assumed that it was scripted by a temperance union or the like. “Good” is pure and unremitting self-denial, and any pleasure of the flesh is “evil”. The surrender to temptation in even the smallest degree is doom, and nothing else. Insofar as its premises, the film is a horror-show without any need of an on-screen monster.

However, taking that into consideration, Barrymore’s performance is excellent, particularly in the closing scenes, when his Jekyll works feverishly to isolate himself from everyone and everything he loves in order not to harm them. (And, as noted above, his Hyde is remarkable as a physical performance — the two characters are completely different.)

Worth seeing? Yes, at the very least simply for Barrymore. It’s not the best silent horror film (I would say that Nosferatu takes that prize if you watch it in context, or the Lon Chaney-starring Phantom of the Opera if you want something without experiments that failed the test of time), but it is definitely worth watching.

The Alpha Incident, 1977

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Suppose you were in charge of a government operation. The purpose of that operation, for the moment, is to transport some hazardous material cross-country, without drawing attention to it. Suppose further that you don’t have much knowledge of how dangerous (or not) this material might be. And that it came from Mars, on the Viking probe. And, just for the sake of argument, you can’t send it by air, because the altitude and pressure changes may act as a catalyst for it.

So, how would you go about sending it and ensuring that it didn’t cause anybody any trouble?

If you said you’d send it locked in biohazard containers, and make sure nobody on the ride had the key, and further make sure that you send along more than one guy (like, oh, say, an army squadron) to watch over the stuff so that the stupid hick of a train engineer can’t go poking around when the single guard is asleep, then congratulate yourself — you are smarter than this movie.

It’s not that this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, nor even the worst one this Spook-a-Thon. Heck, it probably doesn’t break the bottom five, given that I’ve watched not only The Beast of Yucca Flats, but also a slew of Poverty Row cheapies. It’s just that the premise of The Alpha Incident depends so much on stupidity, and there’s so little actual story once the premise takes hold, that I couldn’t help focusing on it.

At least, I couldn’t help it when the girl was offscreen.

It is, if you haven’t noticed, a low-rent knockoff of The Andromeda Strain. But where Andromeda followed a group of scientists during four tense days in a top-secret underground complex while they tried to figure out what the heck they were dealing with and how to stop it, The Alpha Incident follows five people stuck in a room in a rural train station as they wait for scientists to figure out what the heck they’re dealing with and how to stop it.

And none of the people is very interesting. First, there’s the hillbilly engineer, played by “Buck” Flower. He’s a real actor, and a real annoying one the few times I’ve noticed him. Now, in this case, that’s sort of the point. He’s a guy who can’t shut up, can’t take a hint, and basically gets himself a big honking Darwin Award before the movie’s half over. And when he did, I almost cheered, so happy was I to see (well, “hear”) him die. But that leaves another bombastic, obnoxious talker in the station, and two taciturn men (one of whom was once Mike Hammer — Ralph Meeker, whom I only really know from Kiss of Death), and the girl.

Ah, the girl.

She is believable as a small town girl. Attractive, but not perfect. But, um. Well, she’s one of the prime reasons some men refer to bosoms as “racks”. Not stupendously large (though certainly not small), but impossible to ignore. And while there’s no frontal nudity, she does change, which we see from behind and a bit to the side, and she wears no bra. And she jiggles. So, yes, while she was onscreen, I could distract myself from the total lack of story. (She also gets a bit of story and backstory, too, more than the other characters do. It’s not especially satisfying, but hey, an effort was made.)

There are all kinds of logical lapses in the film, and you can’t help noticing them, because the “story” isn’t a story at all. It’s a bunch of people sitting around, trying to stay awake (if they sleep, they die), and… waiting. And then, in the end… well, I’ll just say that this is a 1970s film, and has a Romero-esque conclusion. Or, put another way, don’t get to liking anyone too well in the film (not that any of them are likeable), because none of them are coming home for dinner tomorrow.

I got all the way through it. But it sucked.

The Spook-a-Thon that just won’t die!

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Yeah, I’m something like two weeks behind on the Spook-a-Thon. I’m not quitting, though. I’ve just had to deal with some personal stuff, which was, as per usual, emotionally draining.

I think I’m going to take some time on at least one of the posts. I intend on re-watching and re-reviewing Night of the Living Dead, using the Objectivist aesthetic theory as a lens, possibly shedding light on the movie itself (though, considering how much has been written on this one, probably nothing new), but also on horror as a genre, and the aesthetic theory as well, which I have publicly had some problems with.

In all, there will be 33 reviews in this year’s Spook-a-Thon (if not a few more), come hell or high water. The marathon is simply going to bleed well into November, after which I will not try to do a movie every single day ever again. I’ll probably restrict myself to three movie reviews a week, but I haven’t made a decision on that, yet. While I love watching as many movies as possible, the writing part is tough, especially at a one-per-day rate. And, as you no doubt have noticed, I like to go in-depth, which rather increases both the time and the energy invested in a particular post. The few short posts have been almost entirely unsatisfactory to me.

Here are the movies I have actually watched, and not reviewed, at this point:

  • The Alpha Incident
  • Atom Age Vampire
  • The Bat
  • Don’t Look In The Basement
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave
  • Return of the Living Dead
  • White Zombie

And I have at least one I know for sure I’m going to watch and review:

  • Trauma

Which would be my first Italian giallo film. It looks interesting and trashy, but I know for sure it has nudity, and not just a flash either.

Which leaves four more slots to fill. We’ll see if I can wrap this up in another week and a half or not.

Anyway, once the horror movies are wrapped up, I’ll probably do a singing cowboy movie or three ((OK, at least three, because I should do one each of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter; but possibly not all in a row. )), and go back to my occasional run at spaghetti westerns.

Written by [IMH]

2 November 2008 at 8:54 pm

The Bloody Brood, 1959

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that Peter Falk was a badass.

This film was interesting, and would make an excellent companion piece to Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith’s Bucket of Blood. They were produced the same year, a continent apart (Bucket in Los Angeles, Brood in Toronto), and both examine the beatnik life in a very critical way. But their approaches are different. Corman’s is the better movie, but this has the best single performance.

And let me make clear that this is a crime film, and not a horror film. I didn’t know that going in, but it made for a nice palate-cleanser considering how much horror I’ve gorged on this month, and how I still have a fair bit to work through.

The Bloody Brood begins with some very Saul Bass-style titles, with jazz playing under, very definitely pinning the film to its era. Then the story begins.

“The Digs” is a beatnik cafe, lorded over by Nico, a very reserved, very intelligent man in a decidedly non-beatnik suit. (In fact, there is only one stereotypical beatnik in the whole movie, and most of the other characters are remarkably well individuated.) Nico is played by young Peter Falk, and damn is he good. You will see no glimmer of Columbo here. He is cool, observant, and just about always in control. Falk underplays the role, using stillness to viscerally convey Nico’s intelligence and power.

In the opening scene, an old man enters the cafe and sells Nico a newspaper. As the old man is leaving, he collapses and seems to be having a heart attack. Everyone else in the cafe (including the owner, I think) asks Nico what they should do. He looks down on the old man, and says that they should enjoy the show, that a real death would be very entertaining, a “kick”. The old man struggles to say something, and Nico asks him what his last words will be, but he dies before he can get anything out. “Too late,” Nico says.

The next night, at a party, Nico tells the tale about the fine entertainment of the old man dying, and everyone seems quite amused. After that, he gets one of his friends aside, a TV director, and convinces him that they should commit a murder — “Death is the last great challenge to the creative mind.” A knock at the door to the apartment (whose owner is out of town) reveals a messenger boy trying to deliver a telegram. After he marks the telegram as “unable to deliver”, Nico invites him in. Seeing a voluptuous young lady inside, he allows himself to be convinced, and the door closes behind him.

The movie now shifts to Cliff, who gets a call from his brother. The messenger boy. Who is calling from a payphone, and who is in intense pain, and in fact drops dead during the call.

At the hospital, Cliff goes a few rounds with Officer McCloud, who initially tries not to tell the man how his little brother died. Eventually it becomes clear — bro ate a hamburger filled with ground glass, which ripped his guts apart.

Cliff then vows to avenge his brother, no matter what, and McCloud the cop pretty much helps him, unofficially, while warning him to be careful.

I don’t want to give away more of the story, because this one is actually good. The plot clips right along, and it never really gets boring. There are no idiot decisions made, either, nothing to serve the writer’s convenience. The only hiccup was in the final act, the last six or seven minutes, when it felt like a scene or two got skipped, leaving at least one offscreen event incredibly unclear (two characters who were supposed to have been killed show up, much the worse for wear, and factor into the climax).

The reason that this movie is inferior, story-wise, to Corman’s film, is that it starts with the assumption that bohemian life is inherently evil, or at least its participants are intensely naive and easily manipulated. The viewpoint character, after the opening sequences, is a complete “square” who has no interest in the lifestyle, and whose introduction to it is from the most prejudicial angle possible. (It killed his brother, after all.)

A Bucket of Blood, contrariwise, focused on Dick Miller’s nerdy cafe waiter, who was simply dying to find acceptance by the beatnik crowd. He wants in, and gets it almost by accident. His character’s position within the story was brilliant, laying bare everyone’s pretensions and blindnesses as the story proceeded. It asked some very interesting questions about not only the bohemian life, but about the nature of art, both in its creation and its critical reception.

The Bloody Brood, on the other hand, doesn’t really ask any interesting questions. The square who wanted into the alternative lifestyle, the lead girl, is a secondary character in the story, and she gets in and out of that lifestyle cleanly. Cliff has no interest at all in the lifestyle of people who mock his life without knowing a thing about him. Can’t blame him, but the story poses nothing interesting in a thematic sense. It’s a pretty straight crime picture, with the revenge element, and doesn’t take any chances, storywise.

Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. And, technically, it is a more accomplished film than I remember Bucket being. The locations are populated well, the extras all seem like people in the scene, rather than performers. The camera work, while not ostentatious, is complex in a way you don’t expect in an obviously low-budget movie. The camera moves from medium to close up to wide in a single shot, and does that more than once, but it’s never flashy, it’s all in service of the story.

And, as I indicated above, Peter Falk’s performance is nothing short of amazing. He’s got the role where everybody in the film is supposed to follow him. Usually, with that kind of role, the performance doesn’t live up to the expectation. But here, the way Falk plays it, you never doubt for an instant that people would follow him. He is both monstrous and mesmerizing. It’s an impressive job.

Gammera the Invincible, 1966

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Ah, Gamera.

One of the major joys of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the onslaught of Gamera movies (dubbed courtesy of Mr. Sandy Frank) in the third season. I saw every one they did, and have since seen at least one Gamera film that eluded them (the dubbing of that one provided, somewhat more competently, by American International Pictures).

But this, the first release of the first Gamera film to the American market, is a wholly different thing. It goes the Godzilla route, adding in American actors in scenes of no use to the plot at all. The only really good actor, Brian Donlevy, looks embarrassed — at least in those moments when he doesn’t seem to be daydreaming. This was strictly a paycheck gig for him, I’m sure, and it looks like his scenes were done in a day. The other American actors fare even worse, although I do have to say that the actual dubbing is pretty good.

Gamera, if you don’t know, is a giant flying turtle (the “flying” part is a big reveal in this movie, so I just spoiled you; sorry) who, rather than attacking Japan, usually protects Japanese children from other giant monsters that are attacking Japan. The seed for that formula is planted here, but it has not sprouted.

Not long after Gammera the Invincible begins, some soviet fighter jets stray into US territory near the arctic, and one crashes, accidentally detonating the atomic bomb it was carrying.

Now, okay, incredibly dumb things happening in a Gamera movie ((At least in the original run of Gamera films — there was a reboot of the series in the 1990s which was, apparently, spectacular. )) is more or less par for the course, but still. Flying near enemy territory that’s thinly populated (at best) with a LIVE FREAKING NUKE? What would be the point? Disrupting the Iditarod? Okay, anyhow.

The detonation awakens Gamera, who comes from a past age of the Earth, according to the dubbing he comes from the Precambrian Era(!!!). First, there is no way anyone could possibly have established a possible date of origin, given how little chance anyone has to study the big shell-guy. Second, nobody remarks at all on what consequences such a dating would have for evolutionary theory. A turtle the size of a small town would be, to put it mildly, just a tad more dispositive than a pre-cambrian rabbit.

Anyway, Gamera flies around the world a couple of times (getting mistaken for a flying saucer), and meanwhile, the movie follows the intimate drama of a young boy (not named Kenny, amazingly) who lives in a lighthouse with his sister and father, and has just been made to set free his beloved pet turtle.

The seed for the “Gamera is a friend to all children” theme is planted when Gamera messes up the lighthouse, and not-Kenny ends up hanging from a railing near the top, as the whole structure is about to crumble. Gamera saves the boy, gently putting him back on the ground. Not-Kenny decides that Gamera is really his best friend, and persists through the rest of the movie, even though he’s not really involved in it, he and his family just observe the rest of the goings-on.

Since Gamera keeps mucking up infrastructure, and is resistant to shells and missiles (not to mention that nuke that simply woke him up and put him in a sour mood), a plan is put in place to…

OK, remember how that nuke being armed was silly? Hang onto your hat, because this really, really outdoes that.

They entrap Gamera in the cone of a (gigantic, apparently) rocketship, and shoot him off towards Mars.

Everybody’s happy, Gamera’s still alive for a sequel, the end.

You’ll notice that I’ve only used the title’s spelling in the title, and otherwise have referred to Gamera with one “r”. I don’t have any real justification for that, except that every other Gamera movie does it that way, and I did not see this first.

Even as Gamera movies go, this wasn’t all that entertaining. No other monster, the Kenny is a subplot, at best (and a maudlin one). No funky kaiju Olympics. No Gamera theme music (though that might just be for this release; the original film may have the theme, and I don’t remember whether the Sandy Frank dubbing had it or not). It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t all that satisfying either. It was, at best, cinematic comfort food, since I do love the other Gamera flicks, but it was low-grade even by that standard.

The Wasp Woman, 1959

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Produced and directed by Roger Corman, but without a script by either Richard Matheson or Charles B. Griffith. That should be enough to tell you, assuming you are a bad movie lover, more or less what level this movie is playing at.

If not, then allow me to clue you in. It means that the movie is probably entertaining, but in not good in any respect.

And that’s almost right, on both counts.

It’s almost entertaining, insofar as it’s a Roger Corman monster movie. Except that the monster movie scenes are the least interesting in the film. And they clash, rather badly, with what has gone before.

And it’s almost not good, except that the central performance is subtle, nuanced, and remarkably well-played. (It’s also actress Susan Cabot’s valedictory movie role.)

As The Wasp Woman opens, Dr. Zinthrop is visited in his office on a bee farm by an accountant from the company that owns the farm. The accountant rebukes the doctor for not performing his job, finding better ways of extracting queen bees’ royal jelly. Dr. Zinthrop counters that he has made some (frankly amazing) discoveries about the uses of royal jelly from queen wasps ((No, queen wasps do not make royal jelly, so the entire movie is premised on a mistake. )), and demonstrates them. The accountant, despite having evidence of a product that could make his company insanely wealthy (the royal jelly has kept a dog a puppy, while its sibling is full grown), fires Zinthrop for failing to do his job.

Then we get to see a board meeting of Janice Starling Enterprises, headed by Miss Starling herself (Susan Cabot). For the last quarter, revenues have been falling, and she wants to know if anyone knows why. They all do, but only one boor says it, and bluntly — since removing herself as the face of the company’s products, the public no longer trusts them. Starling tells them that nobody can be young forever, not even herself, but no solution is offered.

Miss Starlin, of course, has a possible solution, which she is meeting Dr. Zinthrop about. He demonstrates his discovery (changing a guinea pig into a rat [?!?]), and she signs him on, under the condition that she be the first human subject of his experiments.

And I pause in thumbnailing the plot here to point out a few things that this movie does differently than you might expect.

Dr. Zinthrop is no mad scientist. He has morals and scruples and a conscience. He is wary of using human subjects as yet, and instead of pushing the pace of his experiments forward, he does his best to reign in. He also is a perceptive man — he accepts Janice Starling’s word and handshake, saying that there’s no need for a contract, because he sees that she is a good woman. He sees beneath her surface, almost instantly, in a way that the people who have worked with her for twenty years never have.

Janice also is not an out of control capitalist megalomaniac. She is trying to save her company, and there is, at no point in the movie, an intimation that her clinging to youth is narcissistic. She is the one who crosses the boundary that leads to her becoming a monster, but she does it out of desperation, to protect the company she has spent her life building, not because she is shallow.

Once the monster movie aspects kick in, it becomes far less interesting. For one thing, the monster outfit is ridiculous. It’s a head mask and a pair of gloves (and black bodystocking, I guess). The gloves are obviously gloves, the head mask is obviously a head mask, and it is in no way, no how convincing. Plus, people keep disappearing, yet nobody gets really curious about where they might have gone. I had the impression that she kept hiding the bodies, but given that there’s dialogue early on about queen wasps devouring their mates, that might have been the intended inference. In which case, it’s nonsense on stilts, because she doesn’t gain an ounce — and one of the folks she kills is Bruno Ve Sota ((Who, if you are not a bad movie nut like me, was an actor who easily massed twice what Ms. Cabot did, if not three times. )).

Oh, another nice touch — it’s left completely ambiguous whether Starling has any knowledge of her monsterly activities. She seems to know something, but it could just be that she’s doing the math, rather than actually remembering her homicidal acts.

All in all, this is substandard Corman, but it has some very interesting stuff going on in it. Can’t recommend it, but I enjoyed it more than I probably ought to have.

Murder Mansion, 1972

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A bunch of people get lost in the fog, and somehow all end up at the same dark, mysterious, not very large mansion, which overlooks a graveyard near an abandoned village. They spend most of the time rehashing (or flashing back to) their personal lives, and some of the time getting stalked and killed by apparent zombies, or possibly vampires.

Murder Mansion is, in essence, a Gothic expliqué. It does manage to imbue the proceedings with a fair amount of mood and spookiness, but not much else. The characters are more or less interchangeable, the women, while stunningly attractive (mostly), don’t doff kit at any point, there is little forward momentum to the narrative, and, once the expliqué kicks in, it epicly fails to actually explain things. Like: how did those behind the proceedings manipulate everyone, independently, into getting lost, but all in the same exact area? If the explanation were supernatural, then that would make sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. At all.

The opening manages to be moderately interesting, as it is done without any dialogue. A guy who looks like Elvis Costello in his hairier moments tries to run a motorcyclist (who, in his goggles, looks a bit like Zalman King from Trip with the Teacher) off the road, and they contest for a pretty young hitchhiker. The whole bit runs nearly nine minutes, but until the end, it’s wordless.

Not much to say about this one beyond that, alas. It wasn’t wretched, but at the end, all I could ask myself was “why?”

Written by [IMH]

23 October 2008 at 10:39 am

Horror Express, 1971

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Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing.

And… Telly Savalas?????

Yes, Telly Savalas. His role is more of a glorified cameo than a full part. It is, however, quite glorious.

Somewhere in remote China, around about 1910, Christopher Lee has dug up something that will set the scientific world back on its heels, a body that he thinks is a “missing link”. He has it crated, and is taking it, via trans-Siberian train, back to Britain. Peter Cushing is also aboard the train, a scientist of a different stripe. Also into the initial mix are a lovely female stowaway ((Or whatever the equivalent term is for a train. )), some Russian nobility, including another lovely female, and a monk who looks more than a little like a young Rasputin. The monk seems to know what’s in the crate, and declares it to be the Devil himself.

Before the crate has been loaded into the train, a thief dies trying to break into it. His corpse has white eyes (no pupils or irises), and whatever killed him is not apparent.

Then the Horror Express gets moving, leaving Shanghai or Beijing (depending on whether you believe the dialogue or the film titles) to make its way across Siberia.

It should shock you not at all to learn that the creature in the crate awakens and starts killing passengers. But it gets more interesting than that.

Because the creature is killed and gone about halfway through the movie. Sort of. It has actually possessed one of the passengers, and continues its work through that agent.

When it kills, it absorbs all of its victim’s memories (leaving their brains smooth and unwrinkled — this movie posits that the wrinkles on the brain are the way memories are recorded) and through their eyes, leaving the eyes white.

And the body the creature left behind gets examined. It kept memories in a different fashion. When Lee and Cushing examine fluid from within one of its eyes, they see images. One of (a drawing of) a dinosaur, another of the Earth “as it must appear from space”. So the creature ain’t from around here.

But then, when everyone on the train realizes that there’s something very bad aboard with them, we switch to a Siberian station, and we meet Telly Savalas. He emerges from under a fur blanket, where he was keeping a lady warm (wink wink, nudge nudge), and proceeds to talk crazy talk to the station agent:

“Tell me, little father, do you believe in the devil?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Oh, good. Send a telegram. Tell them that Captain Kazan, he knows that a horse has four legs, he knows that a murderer has two arms, but still, the devil must be afraid of one honest Kossack, hm?”

I have no idea what it means. But Savalas delivers the line with mad-eyed glee, chewing the scenery something fierce, and it’s magnificent.

He and his Kossack soldiers have the train stop, and get aboard to take care of business. At one point, he orders the monk killed:

“But what if the monk is innocent?”

“Ahh, we got lots of innocent monks!”

He’s in the movie for maybe ten minutes or so, but damn is he fun to watch. He’s got his performance cranked up to eleven for every second he’s on screen.

The whole thing is thoroughly entertaining, as you might expect just from the cast (and the fact that Lee and Cushing are, in fact, the leads, and not simply in the movie for a few minutes to add star power to the cast). It’s a Spanish production, seemingly, with no connection to Hammer Films at all. Even so, it’s a lot of fun.

Cushing gets the best line and delivery of the film, though. At one point, he and Lee are in a compartment when a Police Inspector enters:

“Two of you together? That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?”

“Monster? We’re British, you know!”

I laughed out loud.

Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1963

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This movie kicks ass.

Really, need anything more be said?

OK, I guess I could go on a bit.

Years ago, I had a religious experience when I read Roger Corman’s autobiography, How I Made 100 Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. This movie gets heavy mention in it because a critic once said (and Corman agreed) that this is the quintessential Roger Corman movie. Mostly because of the final shot.

There are a few things I remember Corman relating about this movie, in fact.

The first is that it was shot more or less on a lark. Corman had taken cast and crew to Puerto Rico to shoot two films (Battle of Blood Island and The Last Woman On Earth), and they wrapped both productions early. Corman figured they should make another movie, to help amortize costs (this was a fairly common practice for him — Ski Troop Attack led to the production of Beast From Haunted Cave so that location costs could be amortized across both films). He called screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who hopped on a plane with a monster movie idea that he would have to turn into script pages in a very great hurry.

The second thing I recall is that Corman had a conference with his prop master (I think), and gave him a rough idea of what the monster would need to be able to do, and what it should look like. Then he asked how much it would cost to construct the monster suit. The prop master scratched his chin for a minute, eyed Corman for a little bit, and then said: “You’re talking about at least a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of mosnter, here.”

And the third thing I recall is that final shot, and how Corman agreed with a critic that it seemed to sum up his career very well. I’ll come back to that.

The story is relatively simple, but punched up by ridiculous details.

After a secret-agent type opening (starring Robert Towne under a pseudonym) which has very little to do with the rest of Creature From The Haunted Sea, Cuban ex-officials hire an American gangster to transport them and gold from the Treasury to the US, keeping the gold from Castro. The gangster of course wants the gold for himself, and comes up with a plot to get it — he’ll kill the soldiers and officials one or two at a time while asea, and gin up evidence that a sea monster did it.

Problem is, there’s a real sea monster at work, too. Of course.

Among the details that are ridiculous, which make this a comedy, is the voiceover. Robert Towne gives each character’s name, and all their aliases. The gangster is “Renzo Capetto, aka Capo Rosetto, aka Ratto Pazetti, aka Zeppo Staccato, aka Shirley Lamour”. His moll is “Mary-Belle Monahan, aka Mary Monahan Belle, aka Belle Mary Monahan, aka Monahan Mary Belle”.

There’s another character who enjoys making animal noises. The actor opens his mouth, and a sound effect is foleyed in. He later meets an ugly old woman who can do the same thing, and it’s True Love.

On the boat, while asea, they are approached by one of Castro’s gunboats (really a pleasure boat without any attempt to make it look military). The gangster tells his moll to sing a song, to prove that everyone on the boat is relaxed or something. She sings, a full song, with piano accompaniment! Where the piano came from is never explained (it’s sure not on the boat).

Lots of little gags like that pile up to make one very, very funny movie.

And that final shot? The one that makes this the quintessential Roger Corman movie?

The monster, still alive, sitting on top of the treasure at the bottom of the sea. The monster wins. I should have more to say about that, but not right now in the middle of a Spook-a-Thon.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable bad movie.

And that $150 worth of monster? Looks like even less was spent on it than that.

Bride of the Gorilla, 1951

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This was one of the movies I had watched a few minutes of, and thought it looked “sort of awesome“. And it is, in a very bad-movie sort of way.

First of all, the cast. It’s one of those casts that could only happen in a 1950s film. Raymond Burr as the lead character, Barney Chavez. (Yes, Barney Chavez.) Lon Chaney, Jr. in all his potato-faced, big doofus glory as the local (Hispanic!) police inspector Taro. Woody Strode gets a small part as a police officer, only showing up for two scenes. There are various character actors who have familiar faces, but whose names you likely don’t know.

And it was written by Curt Siodmak, author of Donovan’s Brain as well as scripts to any number of movies that you’d recognize, including The Invisible Man Returns and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.

On top of that, the female lead is a dish, and there’s another piece of eye-candy working as a maid in the main location, who wears not much at all (for a 1950s film, anyhow).

As Bride of the Gorilla begins, Barney Chavez is at odds with his boss on a South American plantation. He also has an eye for the ladies, having romanced one of the servant girls and now working on the boss’s wife. He and the boss have an argument, the boss gets bitten by a poisonous snake, and dies, leaving Barney to marry the Boss’s widow, take over the plantation, and get cursed by the servant girl’s crone of a mother (who also saw the not-quite-murder).

Barney, due to the effects of the poisonous and illegal plant used to curse him, begins hallucinating that he is an animal, and spending nights and stretches of days in the jungle, even as animals and people turn up mauled by an unknown animal, possibly a demon.

Chaney gets a most interesting (and philosophically unsound) speech about halfway through the proceedings:

You know, doctor, I was born in this little town. I sometimes regret that I went to university, and then returned to this jungle with its superstitions. It only served to confuse me. How can I help being confused? My native mind is filled with these superstitions. My legal mind was developed through books, written by people without emotion.

Making it better is that he makes no effort at all to sound like anyone other than Larry Talbot Lon Chaney, Jr. No accent, nothing. In one sense, I really respect him for it — the thought of Chaney attempting a Spanish accent is mortifying, and he seemed to know the limits of his range. On the other hand, having a big, lumbering, doughy-faced Lon Chaney try to play a South American native is so silly on its face that his American accent only makes it funnier. Then, when he gives the speech about his “native mind”, it becomes howlingly funny (I did manage not to actually howl, but it was a close thing).

Is it a bad movie? Oh yeah.

Is it awesome? Indubitably.

Was Raymond Burr ever skinny? Not a chance.

I Eat Your Skin, 1964

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Well, no.

The title, infamously, was applied to this movie because the producers needed something that could be, by some stretch of the imagination, given a title to go on a double-bill with the movie they had in the can, I Drink Your Blood. So they decided on this title, then went searching for a movie.

They found it, sort of, in this little pseudo-zombie thriller from the early 1960s, made by the fellow who gave the world The Horror of Party Beach. For some reason — and if you’ve ever seen The Horror of Party Beach, you probably have a very strong suspicion of what that reason is — this flick had never been released.

So how bad is it? I’ll say this much: it is not as aggressively silly as its auteur‘s aforementioned freshman effort. Not quite. On the other hand, it is reasonably entertaining, gloriously sexist in a way that only an early-60s movie could be, and if nothing else, gives male viewers a plethora of pulchritudinous pets parading for our appreciative perusal.

Then there’s the oatmeal-faced zombies.

The fact that this is, essentially, a zombie movie, but pre-Romero (at least in its making, if not in its release), makes it interesting as well. Because while voodoo is definitely part of the storyline, the zombies themselves exist because of non-magical causes.

I Eat Your Skin opens on a voodoo ceremony involving a smoking hot babe gyrating around in a bikini, then kneeling down before a priest with a sword. She winds up head to head with a goat. Camera pans up, sword cuts down out of frame, and then we get the credits.

That opener didn’t really have anything to do with anything. Oh, we’ll see the participants in the ceremony again (excepting the girl), and it serves as confirmation of what we later here, that the “natives” of the island practice human sacrifice. But the opening scene does not actually impact the story, such as it is, in any way.

But, as it features a fulsome lass showing off her natural talents, you’ll get no objection to it out of me. 🙂

The movie proper opens at The Fontainebleu in Miami, where a writer is reciting a tawdry love scene from one of his books to a gaggle of bikini-clad ladies. He kisses one especially, and his agent shows up nagging him to get writing his next book. What the agent is really about is wanting to take his client along to an uncharted (?) island he just inherited. The writer decides that going is a really good idea when the husband of the woman he was just macking shows up, less than entirely thrilled that his wife’s loyalty is more a matter of theory than practice.

The natives of the island practice voodoo, as we learn in exposition, but are supposedly harmless.

Since the island is uncharted, the plane misses it until it is almost out of fuel, forcing an emergency landing on the beach. (This scene was clearly created in the editing room, with sound effects, to mask the fact that they did not have the budget to actually film anything dangerous. It works reasonably well, too, I must say.)

Writer Hero Guy (what, you want me to look up the character’s name?) goes off in search of help, and stumbles across a skinny-dipping caucasian honey. He warns her off of a zombie, then continues on. Then he meets a native farmer who offers to help, but they are attacked by an oatmeal face, who (graphically) beheads the farmer. Then the supervisor ((The actor looked incredibly familiar to me. He turns out to have played Ethan Edwards’s brother in The Searchers. )) of the island shows up with some security men, and convinces Writer Hero Guy to come out of hiding.

As it turns out, there is a scientist working on the island who is trying to use snake venom to cure cancer. He also has some kind of mini nuclear reactor in his lab, which factors into the cure in some unexplained fashion.

The cancer cure, of course, turns out to be the cause of the zombie-ism on the island, and in the end, all the good caucasians (less the evil supervisor) escape the island just as the mini nuclear reactor vaporizes all the natives and zombies and whatnot.

The zombies, as mentioned, have really odd make-up. It looks like oatmeal is smeared on their faces, and they all have fake eyes that might very well be ping-pong ball halves with pupils drawn on.

All in all, it’s a fairly dumb movie, but it has pretty girls in scanty clothing. Even apart from the ladies, it is amusing to some extent.

Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, 1967

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It’s a Japanese Kaiju movie, and not one that anyone really remembers.

And it plays like a Japanese Kaiju movie, one that nobody would really remember.

It’s not really worse than many Kaiju films. It’s certainly not better than a lot of them, either. It’s just kind of there. Mostly entertaining, but with a grindingly boring climax that seems to go on for hours, even though you saw it coming miles away.

The American title Monster from a Prehistoric Planet is about as apt as American retitlings generally are. There are two monsters, not one, at least in the sense of men in suits stomping Tokyo to bits. (There is a third, but it’s a baby, and never really gets to get his monstrosity on. He’s the bait, nothing more.) And the indefinite prehistoric planet is, as any student of New World Films would be able to guess, Earth itself. ((Robert Rodriguez named Planet Terror in honor of that Roger Corman-style tradition. The planet mentioned is earth, and the title is just to sex things up a bit. I’m probably going to include both Grindhouse movies in the last week of this marathon.))

Playmate magazine ((Alas, it’s not that kind of magazine. )) is about to open a theme park. (As it seems to be a news magazine, this is distinctly weird. But this is Japan, after all.) The park will have a Tropical Paradise theme, including a native village, and actual imported natives ((The “authentic” natives in the film are played by Japanese actors in obvious blackface. It’s really, really disturbing to look at, especially the young boy who tags along back to Japan. )), so that Japanese can visit somewhere foreign without actually leaving Japan. ((This part is so, so true. ))

So the magazine sends an expedition to some tropical island, where they discover natives, and — dinosaurs! Well, an egg, that hatches. And what comes out is, as the natives call it, Gappa. It’s sort of a Pterosaur, by way of Japanese monster movies. They take the baby (but rapidly growing) Gappa back to Japan.

This, naturally, honks off the parent Gappa. ((The plural and singular seem to be the same. ))

Which leads to giant monsters attacking a Japanese city, stomping and smashing and, well, you know the drill.

The thirty minutes or so it takes to get to the island is passable. The stuff on the island is interesting. The stuff leading back to Japan is moderately interesting.

But when the monsters attack… okay, I like kaiju as much as anybody. I dig seeing Godzilla stomp Tokyo, I love Gamera and his disturbing fondness for Japanese boys in tight shorts.

The third act of this movie, however, is dead. The monsters are attacking, sure. They’re pissed about their baby being stolen, fine. But other than smashing stuff, nothing happens through most of this! There is no conflict, there is no struggle, the monsters attack, get attacked by the army (uselessly, of course), and nothing else happens till baby is freed, more on a lark than because any of the boring humans actually learned anything. Granted, the publisher is an eeeeeeevil capitalist with no heart. But nothing is done with that idea. It’s a cliché without a real point, other than to have an excuse to keep baby Gappa imprisoned.

The third act should have been the most fun, but the movie just died, all momentum vaporized, and I had a hard time slogging through to the end. Up to that point, I was actually having fun.

The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961

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Wow.

I missed this one when MST3K took it on, and, watching it flat, I’m really, really sorry I did. It almost riffs itself, and I can only imagine the insane joy that Mike and the Bots took in ripping this one to shreds.

A truly incompetent movie can be a thing of beauty. I’ve long held that the truly intelligent film student can learn more from one bad movie than from several classics. If that contention is true, then The Beast of Yucca Flats is a master class in the filmic art.

Watching it, you cannot help but analyze almost every decision the director made, trying to come up with something better. From casting to sound design to the meandering and barely coherent script (when your movie is 54 minutes long and it meanders, that right there is a Very Bad Sign), there is no aspect of this production that does not immediately invite second-guessing from the audience.

The voiceover is possibly the worst, most nonsensical voiceover in the history of movies. Then it doubles down by getting repetitious, self-important, and “philosophical”. The voiceover alone is comedy gold.

The fact that the film was shot completely MOS ((Without sound. )) and that all dialogue and sound was dubbed in later is strikingly obvious, but at least some effort was made not to emphasize it.

Casting. I could go on and on and on, but I don’t need to. Tor Johnson plays a brilliant Russian scientist (who, granted, becomes the eponymous beast in fairly short order). ‘Nuff said. ((Blessedly, none of the scant dialogue in the film is delivered by Mr. Johnson. ))

The pre-title sequence exists apart from the movie. It has no place in the narrative timeline, and is there for three reasons. First, to show off a not-unattractive lady in a bath towel (who gives a clearly accidental flash of nipple in the first few seconds of the film). Second, to establish the Beast’s MO — strangulation. Third, and most importantly, to pad out the incredibly skimpy running time. But as I said, it cannot be part of the same story. The lady is murdered in a hotel room, and the Beast never gets inside at any point, nor has he any chance to do so, being miles from even the simplest shacks. It’s odd but, since the lady is not unattractive, bearable.

There’s another scene with a lady who only shows up in that scene, and her sole purpose is to lean into the camera and display her (rather impressive) cleavage several times. This serves no narrative purpose whatsoever.

And, and, and. It’s amazing, the sheer mass of incompetence that was crammed into 54 little minutes. This movie seriously jeopardizes Robot Monster‘s claim to the title of Best Bad Movie Ever. Its place in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame is secure for all eternity.

It is, in short, unspeakably awesome. 🙂