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“Agony of Love” (1966)
Think “Klute” without the nonsense murder plot or “Belle de jour” without the surrealist subtext and both made without a hint of artistry and you will probably see much that is recognizable in William Rotsler’s “Agony of Love”, the portrait of a prostitute in crisis which is also the story of a housewife who is a prostitute in crisis.
Stuck in a loveless marriage, Barbara Thompson (Pat Barrington) finds solace in keeping a separate apartment in which she becomes a growing concern in the sex trade, luring clients there for an afternoon of mattress frolics in exchange for a fistful of cash. But rather than acting as a remedy for her feelings of emotional alienation, her activities result only in silly amateurishly filmed dream sequences and subsequent trips to the local psychiatrist whose manner of analysis suggests a surrender to professional mockery. Barbara’s therapy sessions provide sparse insight with a long, long road traveled to arrive at such revelations as she is searching for love (One can’t help but suspect a great deal of bill padding is afoot.) nor does the film provide satisfying dramatic closure (if that is what one seeks in such a picture) with a nasty concluding twist that is so predictable and telegraphed so far ahead that surely the only people in the theater surprised at the developments would be be the characters onscreen (though it does explain the unconventional but promising noirish opening sequence to which the film elliptically returns, but with diminished results).
The fledgling director occasionally seems to be making a case for sex as an objectifying activity (an idea liberally advanced during Barbara’s therapeutic sessions, though Rotsler never seems to recognize the thematic connections within his own material) as he inserts repeated shots of objects about the bedroom (a nightstand, a telephone, discarded shoes and bra) during the tepid sex sessions; though this may due to his awkwardness at just how and what to shoot in his unconvincing sex scenes (actually the most common feature of 60’s “adult” cinema), since the illusion of performer chastity is never in doubt when the men all jump under the covers fully clothed, some still wearing their shoes, while the women are forever fortified with what seem impregnable panties. Naturally being a nudie flick from the 60’s, the film will also encompass the usual suspects of pre-hardcore adult cinema genre ingredients, most especially the curious division between the photographic attractiveness of the genders. While the women are expected to be it is perfectly coiffed, well scrubbed and pointedly curvaceous, it is entirely acceptable for the males to be as shapeless, unhygienic and repellent as possible; with one truly revolting specimen spending his session with Barbara forcibly stuffing food down his gullet as if he were a grease covered human sausage grinder. For the more fashion conscious, there is also the occasional randomly inserted shot of feet so that the true connoisseur of grindhouse sleaze might pay an appreciative feminist tribute to this most important of fetishistic genre tropes by pioneering sexploitation director Doris Wishman.
As a skilled actress, Pat Barrington freely displays the assets which made her a success on the stripper circuit- she’s impressively statuesque with shoulder blades so perpetually moist they may be Simonized -though once she is required to open her mouth and demonstrate her dramatic capabilities she proves predictably inadequate to the task. (One of the ironies of the 1960s “adult” film industry was that on those occasions where a filmmaker wished to dramatically expand their production beyond simply an excuse for softcore exploitation, they discover that their onscreen “talent” is almost uniformly mislabeled in their capacity to express feelings more complex than those required by the undemanding fringe adult film industry beyond the willingness to strip and engage in your basic uninhibited jiggling and panting.) However, in comparison to her predominantly male co-stars (the remaining women in the cast are regarded as and are as disposable as decorative furniture), Barrington emerges as a grand thespian; however her personal erotic appeal in the film is stunted by two curious factors: the first being the enormous black wig she wears throughout the film which resembles a Bearskin Hat, and the second is her clumsy inability to undress in any way more seductive that doesn’t resemble a two-fingered sloth attempting to unravel a Gordian knot; a most perplexing deficiency for a professional ecdysiast.
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“El gran amor del conde Drácula” (1973)
Popularly recognized by Euro Horror enthusiasts for his continuing role as lycanthrope Wademar Daninsky, Paul Naschy portrays an unexpectedly sentimental variation of cinema’s favorite vampire in “El gran amor del conde Drácula” (“Count Dracula’s Great Love”), a film which raises the bar for erotic content to a level that would cause the makers of Hammer Films’ bodice and bosom laden features blush in comparison and, significantly, is one of the rare films which delves deeply into the realm of lesbian vampirism without an appreciable claim to a conceptual influence markedly attributable to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
A coach containing five travelers is disabled thereby necessitating their staying at the very abandoned sanitarium about which they had been discussing the ghoulish anecdotal history prior to their being cast afoot.. Occupied by a mysterious but kindly Dr.Wendell Marlow (Naschy) who just happens to have renovated a sufficient number of bed chambers to accommodate the stranded quintet, the travelers spend an inordinate amount of time in dreary small talk until the film relaxes into the vampiric domino principle which is its true destination. The film is temporarily infused with a rush of energy as, with the exception of the virginal Karen (Haydee Politoff), the houseguests are summarily transmogrified into fanged nocturnal prowlers with the onset of a rash of exponentially increasing bloodletting.
Up to this point Javier Aguirre’s direction has proven bloodless, both figuratively and literally, yet when the horror elements eventually kick in, he exhibits a perverse flair for stylish and sensual female-on-female vampire attacks; not the kind of thing that will significantly elevate a director’s status in the eyes of critics when one’s true calling seems limited to such a rarified specialty that may not be worth doing in the first place, though it’s always preferable to see even the trivial executed with panache.
Unfortunately, once all of the initial transformations have occurred, the film takes a decidedly strange turn involving Dr.Marlow revealing himself as Dracula (apparent since his first appearance, but the characters in this films are remarkably dense) who, in turn, reveals a softer side to himself by tactfully dismissing the amorous advances of the beauteous Senta (Rosanna Yanni) as he has designs on the less adventuresome but virtuous Karen. As it turns out, the Count’s motivations are not flavored by an equal dedication to chastity as it seems he is not only in need of virgin blood to fully resurrect his powers and the life of his daughter, the oddly inserted (not to mention comically disposable) Countess Dracula, but the source of sexually untainted blood must also actively romantically desire him as a partner in eternity; a dating etiquette variation of the mythic rule necessitating a vampire requiring an invitation prior to causing an anemia epidemic in a specific home.
In fact, Dracula is portrayed as a fairly impotent Prince of Darkness; barely able to get through night without being pummeled by one of his past victims, or unable to control the bloodlust of Karen’s three female traveling companions, Senta, Marlene (Ingrid Garbo) and Elke (Mirta Miller) who, once converted, roam the sanitarium and countryside with insolent impunity, though they more resemble a trio of haughty supermodels marching down the runway than vampiric “brides” on the jugular make. Certainly a new interpretation of the Dracula mythos would be a welcome reprieve from the endless frustrations masquerading as faithful translations of the source novel (Has anyone ever involved in shooting a Dracula movie actually bothered to read Stoker’s book?). At this point any reinterpretation which doesn’t merely retread the same tired movie tropes surrounding the Transylvanian Count might be welcome, but when that revisionist view is neither conceptualized so that it makes dramatic sense, or presented in such a way that the most serious flaws of the reconception are emphasized, the new version is rendered meaningless by the weight of its own incompetence. The enthrallment of Dracula toward a target of obsessive ardor is hardly a new idea, but the disastrously amateurish way in which it is handled makes it appear fresh in the depth of its brazen miscalculations.
If Dracula is made to find even partial redemption in what is intended as a sincere emotional draw toward the innocent Karen, no matter the motive which initiated his seductive stratagem, there is no dramatization of that process of conversion. The screenplay by Paul Naschy, Javier Aguirre and Alberto S. Insúa (from a story by Naschy) asserts mutual romantic attraction, yet the writers fail to invest a single line of dialogue with sincere adoration. If Dracula’s malignant temperament is kept in check as a ruse, then where is the compensatory seductive arsenal the vampire brings into play to enrapt his prey? Similarly absent is any reason given as to why Karen would surrender herself to a virulent bloodsucker, no matter how well behaved, except out of plot necessity. (It doesn’t profit the film that Naschy is badly miscast; physically wrong for the role, his appearance is too meaty to convincingly portray a desirable subject of Gothic romance.) The film reaches for a level of epic tragedy that the paltry scenario and emotionally arid leads simply cannot sustain. When without provocation Dracula makes a grand gesture of self-sacrifice in the name of love, it comes of as fairly ludicrous since any opportunity to convey genuine affection is discarded in favor of an excess of exploitative elements which strongly suggest that sex and violence are inseparable compatriots; one the inevitable consequence of the other; hardly a message commensurate with redemption through the purity of love.
“El gran amor del conde Drácula” was made by filmmakers who seem to recognize the need for evolution in the genre but are content to mire their movie in gratuitous excess enveloped in complacent- if poorly executed -Gothic conventions and this conflict between the opportunity for a genuine revisionist vision of the genre and timid, halfhearted execution renders the result insoluble.
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“He & She” (1970)
Matt Cimber’s “He & She” is one of those cannily marketed pseudo-explicit features which skated by the diligently suspicious antennae of community standards by masquerading its exploitative intentions as an educationally enlightening seminar in “marital” lovemaking. (It was an attempt which fooled no one- despite the rather absurd quotations from Dr. David Reuben and Ovid [!] -but it was rather quaint for them to give it a good old entrepreneurial try.) An unofficial follow-up to Cimber’s earlier “Man & Wife: An Educational Film For Married Adults”, the film celebrates an asserted relaxing of taboos while disseminating the forbidden knowledge it so mock defiantly announces as essential to good societal health while simultaneously (and with more than a trace of ironic contradiction) informing the audience that such knowledge is only meant for consenting married couples. Clearly such noble intentions serve to give insufficient warning to those presumed clean living suburban couples who suddenly find themselves in the bowels of the urban grindhouse, to beware the man in the raincoat sitting behind them whose intentions are probably far less domestically altruistic.
The film begins with an endless explanatory crawl which professes the film’s intentions with the dedicated piety of a holy mission statement, followed by an indescribably arid lecture delivered by an unidentified man posing as a pompous academic (you know he’s to be taken seriously in the way he waves about his pipe) whose entire spiel is latent with such confused and fraudulent information that, by comparison, makes the typical Ed Wood narration sound like a Nobel Prize acceptance speech. While this dusty codger wearily pontificates as much misinformation about sex as possible (The opening crawl has already defined foreplay as all sexual activity prior to orgasm.), he confidently asserts that “the imperatives of history now demand that the printed marriage manual of the past, helpful though they might have been, yield today to the motion picture marriage manual”, a declaration which just happens to benefit this film in particular with its suggestion of a built-in responsible and necessary societal benefit to the graphic depictions of hanky panky which comprise the greater bulk of the film.
Enter a young couple who are the demonstrable marionettes to the narrator’s unceasing sexual instructions, but so archly mechanical is this continuous aural droning that it seems to impede the genuine interest the two performers seem to have for each other. Since the film operates as a cinematic form of a Classics Illustrated Sex Manual, it profits no one when the visual portion of the program (which is the calling card of the film to begin with) is hampered by the wheezy utterances of a pestering schoolmaster who contributes little in the way of useful instruction, but only manages to be what one might charitably deem a mood killer; anywhere the narration is audible might very well be regarded as an anti-erogenous zone.
The unfortunate young “married” couple (this predictably dubious claim will be immediately shattered by sharp-eyed grindhouse mavens who will recognize the young woman as Sue Peters, who was featured in several Don Brown productions of the period, including “The Madam” and “The Midnight Graduate”) do their very best to carry on with heroically concentrated dedication to the task despite the intrusive narrator and Cimber’s inclination to break into the action when it is finally getting heated, to show what are presumably flashbacks (this is never established but it’s the only explanation which makes sense) of the same couple during their courtship period, including a hitchhiking journey to the beach, several carnival rides and a meal in a local eatery where the inevitable “Tom Jones” rip-off depicting sensually seductive mastication takes place, though in this case the ingenue’s sloppy shoveling of french fries indicates the only sexual aid which may have necessary utilitarian value is a box of Wet Naps.
These lengthy and pointless intrusions (a survey of a campus filled with modern sculptures is particularly arcane), without substantive contextual purpose, only serve as directorial acts of coitus interruptus; an infuriating situation since these segments undercut both the asserted instructional intentions of the film and abandon the movie’s actual viewer enticement: sex and nudity. Just what Cimber intends with fruitless episodes of the young lovers strolling past dry cleaners (If One Hour Martinizing has become an essential part of the seduction process, this is not indicated elsewhere in the film.) and vending street newspapers, except to pad the film goes unexplained. For a film which purports to explore the art of sex between married couples (One wonders what alternative techniques would be disseminated for unattached hedonists?), there is little to no mention of the word romance as part of a healthy sexual relationship. However, were one to literally follow every mechanical detail of the film’s dramatization of sensual parity , there might be no need for such emotional baggage when, according to “He & She”, all one needs for a successful marital sex life is a shower stall, a round revolving bed, bedroom disco lighting and a painfully apropos porno soundtrack.
For an example of the film’s rather ludicrous psychological overreach, one only need take the filmmakers at their word when they intend to “cinematically enter the mind of an individual engaged in the act of sexual intercourse and examine the montage of mental images which occur there.” During this transcendent and groundbreaking process in which “the female mind projects a profusion of mental pictures dredged up from the deep recesses of memory, which reflect her entire being”, the woman is shown in the last stages of sexual excitement while a truly disturbing selection of images- including a child being spanked by her parents -is unveiled on the screen, virtually assuring that any sequel to this film world have to be titled: “She & Shrink”. Naturally any sexual climax is “mentally” dramatized by shooting rockets and bursts of fireworks. For all of its supposed instructional insight, “He & She” never explains why women in the throes of passion would fantasize about stock footage?
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“The Cheerleaders” (1973)
With “The Cheerleaders”, director Paul Glickler answers the musical question: just what goes on in the heads of America’s annoying sideline screamers? If his film is any accurate indication, the answer is simple: very little thought as all roads appear to lead to the nether regions. The film follows the peculiarly successful season of the Amarosa High School football team- peculiar as they have been colossal duds until a recent string of victories against superior teams -and the particular circumstances involved in this mysterious turn of events. Being that this is a Jerry Gross presentation rather than one by Walt Disney, what are the odds that this mystery may find a solution not with Flubber but with rubbers?
By turning his high school cheerleading squad into an uncontrolled group of insatiable succubi, the Glickler film reverses the popular role of horny male adolescents in their search for carnal nirvana, though “The Cheerleaders” presents its “heroines” in a distinctly different light: being deliberately, aggressively predatory with a specific reward in mind for their sexual servicing. Rather than the usual vacuous goofy male teen simply out to get laid to fulfill the demands of both the dopey teen comedy and their burgeoning hormones, the girls of Amarosa High’s cheerleading squad seem so naturally practiced in the fine art of the courtesan revelry as to make the antics in Fanny Hill seems like antiquated prudery in comparison. And while the spontaneous couplings are of sufficient frequency to raise alarm that the squad might eventually suffer from friction burns, the young ladies (whose indeterminate portrayed ages, led to provocative concerns over a possible portrayal and endorsement of underage carnality; a view which the filmmakers deplorably sniff aside as mere coming-of-age hijinks) are imbued with a motive of disturbing calculation for a greater portion of their libertine excesses: with the their sexual congress unhealthily suggesting secondary school prostitution. None of the girls seem motivated by personal stimulative gratification, as much as the more mercenary reward of adding another win in their school’s hapless football team’s victory column by draining (so to speak) the opposing team’s players of stamina by strategically banging their brains out before the game. One wonders if the same stratagem is implemented for the school’s basketball, baseball and wrestling tournaments? Why not debate team meets and chess club matches as long as we’re talking about the blind promotion of school spirit? (In regard to the squad actually lighting a fire of enthusiasm under the collective student body, it might have occurred to someone in the planning stages of the film to have the girls show the slightest affinity for anything but painfully uncoordinated and tepid attempts at sideline rallying.)
The cynicism of the movie is startling, with the eponymous females portrayed as brainless sperm vessels amid a one-note dramatization of suburbia as a mindset of indecency in which every utterance is heavy with double entendre and so many snickering phallic references that the entire community seems struck with a raging case of penis envy. Amid this fetid landscape of communal depravity, in with authoritarian figures as coaches, teachers and parents apply participatory diligence to the not-so-minor corruption of minors, the cheerleaders mindlessly and dutifully perform their appointed errands with the dedication to school pride that is beyond reasonable credibility (not to mention felonious for certain). In its zeal to portray the widest panorama of trysts, the film skips out of even a minimum of basic expository information. For instance, just how did the girls formulate such a plan of action? Was this nymphomaniacal bent mentioned on the bulletin board memo for cheerleader tryouts as a special condition for membership? Even the lowest of sex comedies will allow for the unfolding of a moronic central course of action designed for the main characters to exact a libidinous fulfillment, but “The Cheerleaders” operates in a special kind of storytelling vacuum in which even the most fundamental standards of narrative cause and effect are jettisoned. For instance, to allow for the one virginal member of the squad to enjoy a timely parting of the seas, the cheerleaders engage in an orgy that results in both teams being too pooped to score on the field, with the exception of a lesser player to whom the virgin has expressed previous interest. Future film scholars might have a field day exploring the rise of absurdist existentialism in sex films cleverly disguised as incompetence. In the meantime, “The Cheerleaders” is still merely a vehicle of assorted hip grinding couplings with the ultimate aim of convincing the newest and only non-promiscuous member of the squad to shed her undies and have a go. The question arises, however, that if the surrender of virginity is due to mercenary peer pressure rather than any emotional engagement, is this not an indication of sex by bullying?
Have there ever been such a group of females in American film willing to sacrifice their sexual favors for such awkwardly contrived ends? Never have so many given so much for so little. Nowhere in the film is there a depiction of what one might consider a normal relationship nor of even a passing interest in emotional intimacy. Sex, as depicted in “The Cheerleaders” is represented as mechanical both in action and psychologically. The fact is that the sex is experienced as either casual time-killing couplings or transactional encounters, never as meaningful personal relationships; physical contact without intimacy. In “The Cheerleaders”, sex is depressingly utilitarian.
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“Space Thing” (1968)
The most meritoriously insignificant of films, surely among which Byron Mabe’s “Space Thing” may be unhesitatingly included, may often offer themselves up as the bearers of small life lessons concerning the creative miasma known as filmmaking. Through its own embarrassing example of dollar store production values, one nostrum for aspiring cineastes of all stripes- an adherence to which might alleviate a great deal of consternation further along the production process – might be in a serious consideration of not actually making the film if you lack the minimum of necessary resources; such as the purchase of paper on which to jot down a script. This caveat might be especially true if your idea for the film can be described with a minimum of no words or less.
Considering the complete absence of sexiness in “Space Thing”, the only novelty to engage interest is the supposed science fiction context in what is otherwise merely an extremely tired succession of sexual couplings that are so anemic in their staging and performance that it is quite possible none of the encounters intends to or reaches a level beyond lightweight petting. It is most revealing to ponder the lack of necessity of the film’s location in outer space, as if the pretense of using the traditions of the science fiction film would act as a commercial enhancement promising an elevation to the usual parade of disengaged mattress couplings, but as an example of the SF film, “Space Thing” is as legitimate a contribution to the expanding intellectual reach of the genre (released in the same year as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Charly”) as would be any suggestion that 1950s nudist camp films merit reevaluation as studies in Cold War geopolitics.
After a needlessly extended pre-title sequence, during which a couple, Marge (Bambi Allen) and James Granilla (Steve Vincent), quarrel over his preoccupation with science fiction stories and her frustration over their lack of occupation with sex, the remainder of the movie is a dream sequence in which James imagines a different version of himself (though equally inert and dull), space explorer Col. James Granilla, who has been cast adrift by his “rapscallious crew of mutineers” until finding himself in the company of an enemy spacecraft, which he cleverly infiltrates simply by walking through a door (the ship, despite traveling in a hard vacuum, is unequipped with airlocks which make the occasional preparatory outfitting of air masks rather perfunctory since as soon as the door is opened, the entire crew should be sucked into space). The ship’s crew is comprised mainly of women whose function seems primarily comprised of shedding their crepe paper costuming whether or not the need arises, as directed by their leader, Captain Mother (Cara Peters), a sadist whose every command decision is based upon seducing her female subordinates or flogging them for displaying amorous cravings toward the male of the species. For some reason Granilla is considered a sexual dynamo by the crew, though he not only expresses revulsion toward the fairer sex, but is demonstrably just as ineffective in his lovemaking technique as the other male crew members. The film’s bizarre ritualistic version of sexual union involving the endless rubbing of thighs and buttocks traditional in the surprisingly hesitant (or worse: uninformed) representation of sex seen in most softcore sexploitation films of the era, abetted by the similarly odd proclivity of men seen engaged in the carnal act while wearing sealed pants (it’s as if there were an industry-wide suggestion that women could be best satisfied by wishful thinking), would make the film’s sex scenes ludicrous enough without the addition of a truly strange dubbing of heavy panting over the erotically arid couplings (its a porn movie version of a laugh track); audible much of the time while the couples are seen lip locked or close mouthed, raising the question as to whether the source of the unrestrained expulsions were not from an easily excited person behind the camera. After an interminable period in which several of these tedious sessions of wannabe sex, which are the only distraction from the impoverished art direction highlighted by bar stools and overturned trash cans as an interstellar spaceship’s furnishings, the ship lands on an asteroid where after a few more incidents of strenuously fatigued seduction, and an inordinate amount of footage of geological rock formations (which compete with the cast for the designation of most inert presence in the film), the spaceship is inexplicably detonated.
Unsexy, unerotic, undramatic and uninteresting, “Space Thing” holds a special place of dishonor for the contempt which its makers hold for its audience; even the pruriently interested deserve a proverbial bang for their buck.
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“Common-Law Cabin” (1967)
“Common-Law Cabin” is a white trash comedy concerning the denizens of a dilapidated ranch cum tourist attraction on the Colorado River. The film begins like an earnest tourism documentary with narration that is as pregnant with double meaning as the opening lecture on pesticides in “Z”, though being a Russ Meyer production, the movie is ultimately less concerned with AAA travel advisories than the attractions of the triple D.
Hoople Haven is a hopelessly rundown Arizona property owned by Dewey Hoople (Jackie Moran), who along with ex-stripper Babette (Babette Bardot) and his innocent but “healthy” sixteen year old daughter Coral (Adele Rein), host unsuspecting tourists duped by the promise of an “adventure” by Hoople’s unscrupulous and constantly inebriated confederate Cracker (Franklin Bolger). His latest recruits include the fusspot Dr. Martin Ross (John Furlong), his overheated sexpot wife Sheila (Alaina Capri), and a leering ex-detective, Barney Rickert (Ken Swofford), who, from the start, is obviously up to no good as he thinks he’s smarter than anyone else in the film and doesn’t disguise that belief for one moment.
It is the collision of these characters in search of a plot (there isn’t even the slightest suggestion of one) on which Meyer and his co-scenarist (Jackie Moran, again) hang their succession of vignettes which more resemble a clearinghouse of the already identifiable preoccupations and signatory tropes one might expect from a Russ Meyer film: crime, violence, low humor and pneumatically pronounced women, mixed with dollops of a creepily unashamed incestuous smoldering (Hoople is consistently hot and bothered by his adolescent offspring, but requires constant reinforcing reminders from Babette that Coral is his daughter, not a lover); all are presented in that heightened pseudo-comic strip style which caricatures reality in the same way that Meyer’s favored hype-buxom starlets are meant to be representative, at least in his film universe, of women at large. The dialogue, often quite witty, is written in a deliberately affected style that is a parodistic pastiche of the overly ripe guttural talk from the cheapest form of hard-boiled pulp fiction and the more artful similes perfected in the works of Raymond Chandler.
However, in “Common-Law Cabin”, Meyer’s idiosyncratic designs fail to carry the full burden of having to compensate for a lack of even the slightest narrative thread on which the disparate incidental elements might find an enriching context. Though ostensibly a comedy, the eventual level of violence is jarring, especially two occasions of women violently punched in the face that no surrounding gimcrack absurdist tone can ameliorate the more misogynistic implications of the film’s existent content. Certain moments are firmly planted in the truly surreal; a shrill volcanic ceremony culminating in Babette doing a high dive into the lake is funny by its very ridiculousness, but when the film finds it necessary to summarily wipe the slate clean of the entire supporting cast simply to advance a facile story thread involving Rickert and a bag of stolen jewelry, the film loses its grip on the farcical and instead pursues an incredibly clunky germ of an idea of a crime thriller.
One cannot help but think that with “Common-Law Cabin”, the then-prolific Meyer was marking time until a better idea surfaced.
With imitation being the shortest route to the creation of bad movies, it was only a matter of counting down the minutes before “Alien”, a prestige recycling of the ludicrous 1950s SF potboiler “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” would begat such a noxious penny dreadful offspring as “Inseminoid”. Though, one must credit the “Alien” scribes for their ambition in also filching the idea of cross-species impregnation which was the central theme of 1958’s “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” (itself a somewhat fortunate recipient of ideas presented in the 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), would also see realization in such varied films as “Mars Needs Women”, “Demon Seed” and “Humanoids From the Deep”.
On a distant planet, a group of dramatically incapable scientists are exploring archeological ruins (actually, simply a cave) submerged in the type of conveniently misty atmosphere that makes for impressive Spielbergian beams of light and serves to disguise the fact that the mysterious crystalline samples found lying about are actually rock candy. After several mishaps which go strangely unquestioned, one of the team is impregnated by an alien entity, causing her to become mentally unbalanced and instead of craving pickles and ice cream, begins to systematically kill and occasionally feed on the crew (how convenient that in the vastness of space, this assemblage has, coursing through its veins, the precise nutritional supplements an expectant mommy requires), who themselves are trapped and awaiting rescue due to circumstances too stupid to recount.
No matter how exotically (or in this case, cheaply) disguised, this (like its predecessor “Alien”) is merely yet another, creakier version of “Ten Little Indians” only with the mystery elements removed; leaving only the stacking of bodies. If Ridley Scott’s picture got away with substituting a horror film under the pretense of science fiction, he was only successful due to the distraction of elaborately wrought visuals enhanced by the otherworldly designs of H.R. Giger, whereas in “Inseminoid”, there exists only a wince inducing credibility battle between the cardboard acting and the cardboard sets (was this filmed in an abandoned high school?) in which the art direction seemed to take its inspiration from a local yard sale. And considering the presence of actors- Stephanie Beacham, Judy Geeson (whose rape on a tanning bed will find unlikely inclusion in a career highlight reel) and Victoria Tennant, to name a few -who have demonstrated a certain level of distinction elsewhere, there is little explanation for the robotic delivery of dialogue by the entire cast, except perhaps as a combined unconscious rejection of the material as part of a greater expression of sensible workplace embarrassment.
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“Career Bed” (1969)
“Don’t give up your virginity for some silly boy, it’s too important an asset.”
With motherly advice like this is it any wonder that stage mothers have a bad reputation? This situation will certainly not be alleviated by the lurid details of a mother’s crass exploitation of her daughter which are the essence of Joel M. Reed’s “Career Bed”; less a cautionary tale than a tour through the unrelieved depravities to be found in the world of show business with just the merest suggestion of a “come hither” look.
Susan (Jennifer Welles, here identified as Lisa Duran) travels to the New York City to become a great star at the urging of her frustrated and highly oversexed mother Mrs. Potter (Honey Hunter). Despite Susan’s lack of any type of performance ability, Mrs. Potter arranges for a series of contacts with the sleaziest assortment of depraved men (one resembling, coincidentally, an eerie doppelgänger of Woody Allen), each of whom claim to be able to give her fame and fortune in exchange for using the supposed virgin as a sexual amusement park.
Naturally, being a softcore exploitation film, such subtleties of seduction are immediately dispensed with in favor of the shortest route to sexual abandon, but if Reed’s opus ultimately fails to overcome it’s disreputable grindhouse genealogy, it nevertheless addresses the seedier aspects of the stage mother phenomenon that are generally glossed over whether the film finds its basis in the biographical (“I’ll Cry Tomorrow”, “Gypsy”) or more artistically inclined fictionalization (Visconti’s “Bellissima”), and that is the dispassionate peddling of the child, not only as a financial commodity, but as a material one. In “Career Bed”, all nuance or subtlety is cast to the winds, as this form of forced child peddling is carried to a logical if uncomfortable extreme: with offspring used solely as a means of career making flesh peddling, with the unsavory mother, Mrs. Potter, assuming the roles of both literal pimp and eventual sexual auctioneer; she is a woman to whom the concept of the casting couch is singularly fixed as a means of success, with the desperate mother willing to use her own body as an added incentive in her negotiations. Mrs. Potter’s fixation of stardom for Susan becomes so extreme that she even seduces and beds Susan’s hometown fiancé Bob (John David), to permanently sever Susan from her intended; preventing her from exercising her own comfortable fallback plan of tranquil domesticity.
Sex is used as Mrs. Potter’s sole means to Susan’s end; prostituting her being the only option acceptable to a woman who professes contempt for what she sees as a wasted life and dull existence. It is Mrs. Potter’s desire for personal security and adjacency to fame that is her paramount concern; explaining her violent resistance to the one director who wishes to honestly assist Susan, but first by removing her from her mother’s pernicious control. Still, “Career Bed” can hardly be regarded as a tragic tale of innocence corrupted (in many ways it resembles a poverty row version of Southern and Hoffenberg’s Candy, but without the requisite satiric bite, the irony or an appreciable sense of naiveté at its core) as even Susan’s initial resistance toward her mother’s exploitative goals are half-hearted at best, met with a resigned equanimity that is truly puzzling (though this may also be attributable to Duran’s emotionally vacant performance), while almost instantaneously becoming as a creature as morally vacuous and scheming as her mother/mentor; leading to an eventual reversal of power that is both anticlimactic and unconvincing, especially since the film’s coda shows the mother’s depraved machinations remaining unchecked.
That Susan’s self-actualized emancipation arrives as late as it does in the film comments less on the credibility of the character’s psychological arc, than in Reed’s concern with supplying an occasion for a pageant of flesh at regularly scheduled intervals. Which is a shame as the writer/director, in his quest to satisfy the more unsavory appetites of his audience, has unwittingly stumbled upon but fails to give flesh to the dramatically compelling possibilities of his material which scream for enrichment. The crudity of his filmmaking skills would never touch the hem of Art, but he might have actually crafted a compelling drama had he demonstrated a greater faith in (and attention to) exploring his characters beyond their surface attractions (such as they are) instead of merely fulfilling the lowest expectations of softcore exploitation. (For instance, Reed could have chosen to explore a prevalent but little-discussed behavioral factor inherent in sexploitation films- and certainly relevant to this particular film -which is that members of both genders often enthusiastically engage in the sexual abuse and ruination of more vulnerable female characters. In “Career Bed”, though men are- with one prominent exception -portrayed as sex hungry creeps, there is no solace in the arms of the “fairer” sex.)
The acting is predictably appalling with the exception of a pre-“The Devil in Miss Jones” Georgina Spelvin as a lesbian agent harboring ulterior motives.
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“Orgy of the Dead” (1965)
Death may be eternal, but it doesn’t hold a candle to how one feels sitting through “Orgy of the Dead”. If the opening narration, spoken by a visibly tired Criswell, sounds vaguely familiar, it may that it is lifted almost verbatim from Ed Wood’s “Night of the Ghouls”, his presumably lost and unreleased 1958 production (it was withheld from any possibility of distribution by the film lab until the processing charges were paid in 1984), proving that in the world of low budget trash cinema, even the most desperate of material is resourcefully, though not wisely, recyclable.
That a second use of said materials proves as equally ineffective as in its original purposing is demonstrative of the inadvisable nature of the faulty notion the shuffling of dead wood. In fact, much of what is seen in “Orgy of the Dead” will be redundant to those familiar with the Wood oeuvre, with the only differences being the introduction of color photography, nudity of an embarrassingly unerotic abundance and the fact that the film is actually directed, not by Wood himself, but by one Stephen C. Apostolof under the pseudonym A.C. Stephen, whose open display of Wood-like directorial primitivism is indicative of the fact that even though higher artistic instincts are in evidence throughout the world of cinema, in practical terms they are difficult, if not impossible to replicate, whereas the ease of ineptitude is easily assimilated and, by all evidence, can be highly contagious.
A pair of bad actors- William Bates and Pat Barrington -make ignoble attempts at portraying a young couple named Bob and Shirley, who are driving to visit a remote cemetery in order to inspire Bob’s writing of a horror story when they inexplicably drive off a cliff though emerge without a scratch before wandering into a graveyard where they are bound to posts and are witness to an unexplained series of topless dances officiated over by a caped figure calling himself the Emperor (Criswell) and a Vampira wannabe (Fawn Silver) named the Black Ghoul; the Emperor announcing that all of the performers who displease him will find their souls condemned to eternal damnation, suggesting that while the rather pointless (and certainly endless) pageant is a type of supernatural Ted Mack Amateur Hour for wayward B-girls, there is a judgmental moral core to the proceeding (there always is in an Ed Wood script) that is both incoherent and contradictory (always in an Ed Wood script).
The bulk of the film is comprised of these not-so-exotic performances which neither serve as erotic offerings not as expressions of any sort of recognizable choreographic art form, making “Orgy of the Dead”, at this adolescent stage in the evolution of nudie films, a throwback to the cinematically inert one camera burlesque films, even inclusive of a spectacularly unfunny Wolfman and Mummy duo who are certainly intended as a representation of the between stripper entertainment of yore, but only serve as disagreeably annoying, Universal Monsters versions of Lum and Abner.
Reaching for supposed novelty acts (the tepid gyrations end up remarkably similar despite the initial introductions and full- if any -garb, which is usually discarded off-camera, denying the viewer the occasion to even appreciate the individual signatures of the ecdysiasts’ craft) rather than incarnations of dirty, sexy fun, the girls are corralled into a typical Woodian killjoy line-up of morally deficient “bad girls”, including an Indian squaw (Bunny Glaser), a streetwalker (Colleen O’Brien with an impressive Ann-Margret head of hair), and a worshipper of gold (Pat Barrington again, this time in a blonde wig) who is dealt a particularly unpleasant fate, obscured, as if much of the film, by the overly zealous application of a fog machine, whose only genuine function seems to be to make the extremely crisp reaction shots all the more obviously mismatched and to expose the performers to as many atmospheric irritants as a twenty year veteran of coal mining. When a film intends a certain level of eroticism, but only conjures thoughts of respiratory health concerns for its participants, it probably hasn’t done its dirty little job.
The desperately busy musical accompaniments composed by Jaime Mendoza-Nava blare through the setting as through the rather confined space of this makeshift graveyard cabaret were fitted with an overworked hi-fidelity sound system gurgling out sometime wildly inappropriate and always aurally numbing variations of lounge music; with this sole concession to cultural modernity strikingly at odds with the antiquated spook show context of the rest of the film.
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“Protracted” isn’t often the first word that comes to mind when think of film thrillers, especially of the psycho-sexual variety, but a flexible vocabulary certainly comes in handy when talking about José Ramón Larraz’ directorial debut “Whirlpool” (AKA: “She Died With Her Boots On”), an exploitation hybrid whose offense is magnified by being marketed using extravagantly overreaching comparisons to “Psycho”, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Repulsion”. Such unfathomable symbiotic attribution is designed to entice curious patrons of unnuanced sexually violence, but in the process of comparison there is a danger of conjuring prior artistic heights which tend to make the deficiencies of the current offering all the more obvious.
The film wastes no time in establishing a tone of enervated dreariness with the introduction of a pair of emotionally inanimate blonde mannequins: Theo (Karl Lanchbury), a photographer specializing in memorializing the horrified throes of women being assaulted and murdered (making the absence of a mention of “Peeping Tom” in the advertising campaign difficult to fathom) and his Aunt Sara (Pia Andersson, bearing a distracting resemblance to a mature Tippi Hedren), who it is revealed to not be Theo’s aunt (huh?), thus relieving the film- slightly -from entrance into more provocative area of an incestuous relationship during the film’s confused but plentiful sexual gamesmanship. The film is essentially a chamber piece involving the aforementioned duo and Sara’s latest pickup Tulia (Vivian Neves), an aspiring model who for no apparent reason accepts an invitation to Sara’s isolated “cottage” for an open-ended holiday (with predictably escalating dire results) and who breaks into absurd metaphysical musings whenever the conversation dries up. (As Sara comments, Tulia is “susceptible to atmospheres”; the kind of dialogue straining to be taken seriously as a camouflage for all of the sleaze that is the film’s true raison d’etre.
If there is a point of distinction evident in “Whirlpool”, it is that it manages to be both uncomfortably lurid and deadly dull. Every scene is protracted (there’s that word again), recording meaningless detail with glacial deliberation (Larraz seems to have never discovered the “bridging shot”, rather employing endless repeated footage of traveling from one location to another, one set to the next) while the actors engage in relentlessly long pauses between lines, as if the director/writer found each utterance worthy of individual framing. So too the sex scenes, which become so mind numbingly intolerable in their dispassionate erotic frigidity they might be used to summon a new Ice Age.
The film’s attitude toward sex fixates on quantity rather than coherence (certainly not eroticism), with lesbianism reprehensively targeted as a seductively convenient scapegoat in attributing blame for the corruption of the film’s moral climate, which fails to explain two later indulgences in sexual assault and murder by an associate of Theo’s (who pops in and out of the film with no explanation) and the “village idiot” who makes several harmless appearances throughout the film until he too seems not unappreciative for the opportunity to indulge in a bit of recreational rape. Watching “Whirlpool” gives the viewer the sensation of experiencing a chemical castration.
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“Confessions of a Psycho Cat” (1968)
While the variety of adaptations of Richard Connell’s seminal short story The Most Dangerous Game is impressively eclectic- with the tale attracting cinematic interest from filmmakers on both ends of the creative barometer from handily professional to jaw dropping incompetence (What is trendy to call “surreal”, which is a contemporary context is generally an academically naive way of avoiding identification as “lousy”) -perhaps none achieve a similar level of almost psychotropic weirdness as “Confessions of a Psycho Cat”, a film which certainly attempts a stubbornly consistent substitution of bizarrely inappropriate exploitation elements when faced with gaps of narrative logic, the restraints of meager budgetary resources, wince inducing bad performance skills and directorial indecision; explaining lengthy insertions of Doris Wishman-like orgy scenes in which (once again) the participants engage in the same endless ritualistic foreplay that was characteristic of the 1960’s nudie and roughie films, in which sexuality was generally expressed by a dispassionate guy slowly rubbing his hands over a topless woman’s body as if her were applying Turtle Wax to an old car, with peculiarly specific avoidance of all erogenous zones in dispiriting exhibitions of carnality as ennui; without either intimacy nor interest on the parts of the “lovers”.
Eileen Lord plays Virginia, a socialite who is, as one character astutely intuits, on the verge of a “nervous breakdown”; the warning signs of crazed stares, crazed inappropriate laughter, crazed expressions and general histrionically over-the-top crazed behavior being a slight tip off to her mental unrest, to all except the characters surrounding her in the film, including her psychiatrist, who during a therapy session brimming with invitational clues that a reservation at the asylum might be in order, merely inquires if Virginia is taking her medication? Nor do the three men- the junkie Benny, actor Charles and wrestler Rocco (played by real-life “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta) -she has assembled to offer a deal of $100,00 each if they are able to stay alive for twenty-four hours in Manhattan, show the slightest glimmer of recognition that this woman who bargains to use the trio as the hunted game in a deadly urban safari might be slightly insane.
The suspension of disbelief in this specific rendition of Connell’s story is particularly strained in the transplanted New York City setting, forsaking the all important sense of societal dislocation by switching the placement of the action from a distant tropical island to a densely populated metropolis. However, had the filmmakers used the possibilities of their new setting to the fullest measure (emphasizing the ironic isolation and subsequent paranoiac distancing that is inherent in a large urban area when a sudden disproportionate amount of strangers are thrust into tight confluence within the foreboding monolithic confines of the modern architectural sterility of what has euphemistically been referred to as “the urban jungle”) the movie could have achieved, with even modest directorial skills, a sense of shadowy menace played within an unlikely but uncomfortably recognizable Skinner Box: endangerment through faceless anonymity (and therefore intransient vulnerability) while in plain sight . However, for some reason, both director Herb Stanley and scenarist Bill Boyd ignore all but the most skeletal concept from Connell’s original tale, and the resultant absence of narrative detail and character development defeats any attempt at suspense, not to mention any presence of the important thematic undercurrents present in both the short story and the intelligently adapted 1932 film, and while budgetary concerns might excuse the paucity of production values, there is little explanation available for blatantly mismatched location shots (most evident in a chase involving Benny in Central Park which quickly changes into an unmistakable rural woodland) or a staggeringly inept capitulation to illogic when, as outlined by Virginia, any of the three chosen targets could easily elude death and win the $100,000 prize simply by staying in their respective apartments for twenty four hours. Instead the film has all three willingly expose themselves to exposure and death on the flimsiest of ; the most unbelievable example being that of the wrestler Rocco who is lured out of the safety of a locked door simply by Virginia making a few crank calls (obviously, leaving the phone off the hook would be a stratagem too advanced for the muscle-bound lummox). However, the greatest breach of common sense storytelling comes in the film’s rather unnecessarily complicated time structure which jerks the story back and forth as Benny relates the goings-on to the barely rapt orgy mongers, while no one questions how he would know any of the details of the previous murders as he was nowhere in the vicinity of the action?
This deliberate undermining of structural logic is explainable only as a willing sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers to find an excuse to have Benny spend time with the revelers so that there emerges an opportunity for the inclusion of the otherwise meaningless If the threadbare script by Bill Boyd is more than a little problematic, the film is fatally hampered as it becomes a virtual film within a film with an inexcusable amount of added nudie footage which fails both as erotica and- more seriously -as contributory content to the supposed central narrative. Thus, in between the individual bouts of chase and kill there appear lengthy sequences involving a group of lethargic dopers passing the time transfixed in various stages of frustrated pre-coital action since the men rarely remove their pants during these scenes (a rather universal issue with 1960’s sexploitation cinema which suggests an almost humorous selective prudery in a field in which the vast majority of filmmakers and certainly intended audience members would be male) all the while semi-consciously waiting for a “fix”. Every frame of this material detracts from what should be the core conflict of the story, creating a vacuum further distancing both character and events from the viewer. The footage is obviously included as some kind of filler, though since the material is clearly divorced from the original production shoot- the visual aesthetic isn’t even close -the splicing of the sexual material betrays an obvious late hour shift in direction: from florid exploitation to uncommitted sexploitation (one can’t help but feel embarrassed for the performers who expose themselves so needlessly and to so little effect).
With this forced exposure of dispassion (the antithesis of what a filmmaker should be attempting especially with such viscerally charged source material) there is one contribution within the film that stands out, even if that prominence is exaggerated, due partly to the startling absence of tension in any other aspect of the film. Eileen Lord displays no grounding in the thespian arts: there is certainly not any indication that she understands or even acknowledges the importance of performance modulation, yet there is an undeniable hellish fierceness to her Virginia that, if lacking in any practical effort to create a clearly defined character, she maintains the volcanic volatility of one who is maniacally unhinged in a truly terrifying way. It’s not a really a performance per se, but an exhibition of uninhibited feral behavior: a nightmarish carnival sideshow that fascinates even while the trashiness of what is transpiring is inescapable.
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In the domain of the Cinema of the Strange, director-actor Michael Findlay, under his alias Julian Marsh, certainly occupies a prominent corner of the far end of the darkened foyer, as demonstrated by his incomprehensible killer/lesbian/infantilism opus “A Thousand Pleasures”, which, from the start, overstates its meritorious accomplishments by at least a thousand, and would probably make even the most radical lesbian wish to be pushed back into the Hollywood closet rather than be represented in such an unflattering manner.
The film opens with the typically hazy Findlay (his acting style might charitably be referred to as “suffering from a severe concussion”) as Richard Davis (although appearing under the pseudonym Robert Wuesterwurst), who after killing his wife (played by real-life spouse Roberta Findlay, but appearing as Anna Riva), drives around town with her stuffed in the back of his station wagon. Immediately, he does what any murderer eluding capture would do: pick up a pair of women hitch hikers Jackie (Linda Boyce here under the guise of Linda Mactavish) and Maggie (the sexploitation familiar Uta Erickson under secret identity Artemidia Grillet) who- because they’re not proven brain dead, just yet -manage to figure out that Davis is in trouble and is suitable for their nefarious manipulations. Now, immediately one gets the sense that there is a great deal of similarity between this production and the Federal Witness Protection Program: mainly that no one appears to want to wish their presence known, not usually a barometer indicating high quality in a motion picture. Happily, though, it doesn’t take long to determine that such suspicious intuition is not without foundation (actually, the lack of quality shown before the opening credits pretty much solves the mystery), as Davis is quickly taken to the pair’s home where he meets a number of odd people: the nymphomaniac Anna (Donna Stone appearing without a false identity but variously known within the context of the film as “Boobarella”), a blank-faced henchman Bruno (John Amero under the codename Duke Ellsworth, not to be confused as the composer of Take the ‘A’ Train), a sulky sexually repressed girl who enjoys slipping Mickeys, Belle (Janet Banzet– yes, she did appear in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” -now identified as Marie Brent), and best of all, a mentally damaged blonde named Baby (Kim Lewid, bravely appearing as herself, though with a name like that one never knows) who believes she is just that: sleeping in a crib, wearing a diaper and suckling on the breast of anyone who happens by (though her stubborn determination to open Davis’ pants fly is never explained). The natural assumption would be that some sort of a plot might engage, taking advantage of the exotic variety of idiosyncratic characters on hand, but then one might be forgetting (despite the best efforts of the fugitive identity class) that this is a Michael Findlay film.
Upon arrival at Jackie and Maggie’s home, Davis encounters Baby and watches endlessly as she sucks her thumb, rubs against a mirror and plays with a candle (as with everything else that transpires in the movie, if there is an occasion where anything insignificant happens, it is stretched out for an insufferable eternity). He is eventually informed by Jackie and Maggie that they are true lesbians (as opposed to false?) and finding men repulsive (the male representation in this film offers little fuel for editorial rebuttal), they simply wish to milk him like a cow and artificially inseminate themselves (they also inform Davis that it the progeny is male they will be drowned, so there is little room for sensitivity in adult males assuming exclusive rights to the pair’s misandry). Meanwhile, Baby is subject to lengthy flagellation while suckling, as Anna attempts to have intercourse with Davis on the adjoining sofa even though both forget to remove their interfering garments, and Bruno stares emptily until deciding to abuse a suddenly randy Belle. None of this makes a bit of sense, is part of an overall narrative scheme, leads to coherent future action or is staged with any hint of technical competence. Supposedly important plot points (a few emerge for a moment or two) such as Jakie and Maggie’s secret disposal of Davis’ dead wife, to use as a means of controlling him, are meaningless since he is never apprised of their actions. Intentions are stated, then forgotten. Actions are announced and then never happen. Everything that occurs in the film operates in a contextual vacuum (there isn’t even any reason for Davis to murder his wife in the first scene since it’s entirely irrelevant to the film) except as a showcase for Findlay’s signature sadomasochism, perversion and fetishism, though even these are generally half-hearted and confused (is there anything more pathetic than a wannabe pervert?).
Needless to say, the acting is appalling though whether the amateurish dubbing (much provided by Roberta Findlay/Anna Riva herself) made necessary by the MOS filming contributes to this is capable of question, though no one could have mouthed the odoriferous utterances passing for human expression and emerged unscathed; so substandard is the dialogue of the film it reduces the art of writing to the state of an infectious disease. Additionally, the cinematography of Findlay/Riva is incompetently distracted (even when in focus) no matter what name is behind the camera: there may be serious question as to whether the woman suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder as she has a particularly hard time with focusing the camera on either the actors or the central action of a scene without the frame wandering over legs, furniture and walls until finally fixating on an irrelevant item (there is a lamp in the living room which seems to be a great source of fascination to her) until Michael Findlay’s equally puzzling editing takes over and throws the film into an entirely unrelated scene, mismatched shot or mystifying insert (stock footage from a different film?) that further perplexes the viewer as to just what is supposed to be going on?
There is a tendency among populist film enthusiasts (as opposed to rational critical thinkers) to exalt such obvious offenses with a laudatory perch in the realm of Cultism; a rather fuzzy and ill-defined territory which seems to be the equivalent of Auteurism for the brainless, creatively crippled, technically incompetent and talentless. Additionally, there is a mortal weakening of critical thought when a film finds acceptance with the illogical and meaningless attitude expressed as “it’s so bad, it’s good”, an example of excuse making for those whose taste occasionally descends (hopefully infrequently, but probably not as seldom as healthily recommended) to the distasteful wading pool of trash. “A Thousand Pleasures” is garbage of a particularly offensive vintage; creatively bankrupt and morally squalid. In viewing this movie, it is clear that Michael Findlay achieves not the generation of a single pleasure (nor is it evident he intended to), yet may have inadvertently contributed to the study of the sciences, for with his seventy minute opus, he may have discovered a way to make time appear to stand still.
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This Mel Welles directed, Italian-produced horror film (“La figlia di Frankenstein”) stars film stalwart Joseph Cotten in the midst of his Euro-slumming phase, Italian actress Rosalba Neri (billed here as Sara Bay), familiar Euro-thriller faces Paul Muller and Herbert Fux along with Jayne Mansfield’s ex Mickey Hargitay in a tale of generational like-father-like-daughter scientific method without motive. It’s the Mary Shelley model all over again but without the any depth of the philosophic duality of creator-monster/father-son, nor even a practical consideration as to why the experiments are taking place in the first place? This is a familiar story with the cinematic versions of the classic novel which shortchange on the mindset of Dr. Frankenstein except to depict him as a driven (more often than not more than slightly insane) scientist who is generally obsessed with (as he is in this film) the opportunity to “show the world” his genius, without ever considering a practical medical application for his research. Within the ranks of the Frankenstein film, the template is entirely the same: the scientist will create the creature which will then run amok, killing as many extras or supporting characters as possible before itself being destroyed in the end. (Though the 1930’s-40’s Universal series introduced the concept of invulnerability, in which the creature would be forever revived as long as the box-office returns were substantial enough to merit further sequels; a process which would prefigure the burgeoning ‘slasher’ market with the emergence of similarly unstoppable characters as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger.) However, the adherence of dozens of films following a strict narrative pattern is bound to elicit a staleness almost immediately within this sub-genre. After all, if part of the appeal of the horror film is the presentation of material which will shock, thrill and frighten it is probably good form if that material is of a nature in which predictability has not become a general state of condition.
Clearly the makers of “Lady Frankenstein” have determined to enliven the stasis which the Frankenstein story has fallen into by way of a gender switch; which in the case of the modern cinema, as exampled by a similar evolution of Hammer Films, seems to be the way to go especially since, as depicted, the transitioned women seemed to be of a particularly randy temperament which is probably excused as a insightful portrait of the modern sexually liberated feminine model, when in reality it becomes merely an excuse for more prominent exhibitions of the actress to scamper about in Rubenesque splendor as if the way to explaining the stitching of dead flesh is by way of the Biblical flesh. In this, “Lady Frankenstein” brings new meaning to the phrase “raising the dead” by finally defining the motivation of the resurrective experimentation (which has never been emboldened with anything as ignoble as helping humanity) as the satisfaction of carnal cravings. The film gives us not one but two Frankensteins, the Baron (Joseph Cotten) and his devoted daughter Tania (Sara Bay), whose equal dedication to science easily unravels into craven lustful urges the minute her father’s neck is broken by his typically facially challenged creation. Since there seems to be no purpose to the experiments indicated in the murdered Baron’s journals, except perhaps to provide an excuse for another Frankenstein film, Tania undertakes a natural course of action by using her father’s discoveries, not to direct his research into areas which might prove fruitfully beneficial to Mankind and thus secure his legacy, but to scratch an unnatural itch and to create the world’s first build-your-own-ideal-man dating service, complete with obvious but unaddressed necrophilic overtones. (Considering that his experiments brought the dead back to life, it seems to occur to no one to revive the Baron himself, but such are the thoughtless, self-absorbed roads often traveled by the spoiled children of mad scientists.) It appears that although she is enamored of the keen mind of Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Muller), the Baron’s associate, this attraction is less important to Tania than the sturdy physique and youthful looks of the servant simpleton Thomas (Marino Masé), though this being a situation where brain transplantation seems as common as changing a light bulb, a minor inconvenient juxtaposition of desirable elements fails to slow down the plans for our heroine’s nocturnal ecstasy Thus the opportunity to introduce a feminist perspective (which when introduced appears to be the direction the film might interestingly travel) is jettisoned to reveal that, according to this film, mad lady scientists are simply as indistinguishably shallow (not to mention randy) as the endless anonymous patrons populating Eastern European taverns in horror films, who drunkenly grab at the most attractive, bosomy barmaids.
Meanwhile, back in the town, the local policeman Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay) demonstrates his investigative skills in the case of the epidemic of missing dead bodies, by stoically sneering (though this may be an ill advised wood-be acting technique) at local graverobber Lynch (Herbert Fux), who not only tips off his proclivities for epidemic wrongdoing with his permanent smirk (he is far too content for someone who lives honestly in such a dull village) but also appears to be obviously hiding something since his voice is distractingly dubbed by director Welles. The sudden increase in death and violence- the Baron’s monster begins wreaking havoc on the town -equally frustrates Harris though it never seems to occur to him that perhaps a good place to start an investigation might be to follow the destructive trail left behind by the only eight-foot cyclopean giant in the vicinity. Meanwhile, back at the castle, Tania seduces the simple Thomas to her bed while Dr. Marshall rather rudely smothers the poor lad with a pillow, setting the stage for Tania to place the eminent doctor’s brain into the studly body of her choice. (Logic being the absent creative partner in these types of films, it never occurs to Marshall that a bit of exercise and some stomach crunches might have tightened up his body enough to make such romantically inclined homicide unnecessary.)
Clearly once the operation is successfully completed, the film has no where to go, being that the entire conception of the script seemed aimed at the idea of a modern (as far as the period setting allows), independent woman becoming the master of her own romantic and sexual destiny, though the film falls light years away from the provocative questions which naturally arise from Tania’s method of achieving her aims. (This is the first time the suggestion of mating with one’s own creation in a Frankenstein film- though similar motivational factors were overtly present in the thematically related, sexually gaudy “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” -has been openly considered; even Hammer’s later, more crudely wrought visions of Gothic horror failed to transgress such a boundary; That would come later with Paul Morrissey’s “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” as well as Franc Roddam’s flawed but interesting “The Bride”.) For instance, if Tania is interested in creating her ideal mate, then what is the measure of a deliberately manufactured relationship in which murder is the method of its achievement? And why is it- since the basis of Tania’s experiment is the retention of a stable brain -that the initial creation is always ensured of a damaged mind when one might think that particular piece of the anatomical puzzle might be something of a priority? Unfortunately, such questions are never resolved (or considered) in a film which exists simply to place a rather insulting contemporary (at least in its gratuitous nature) spin on an increasingly creaky, though seldom faithfully explored story. However, when all is said and done, “Lady Frankenstein” might achieve a modicum of feminist influence after all: it advances the reality that women might truly have achieved career equality with men in one particular field: they both can be the focal point of terrible horror movies.
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During the Blaxploitation trend of the early 1970’s there was a overall tendency for Hollywood to portray the Black community as simply a mirror image of the white world which had been portrayed by the cinema since its inception; rarely delving into the social and cultural verisimilitude to which the Black audience might more readily identify in a personal way, the usual process being to replicate an already proven white vehicle and then dipping it into the ethnic tide pool as if the result (beyond employing a great number of scandalously ignored onscreen talent) were a prescription balm for the decades of racially motivated neglect. (That the vast majority of these efforts were produced, written and directed by white filmmakers was never by accident nor an excuse for a great deal of shameless racial pandering.)
Especially counterfeited were the various examples of the horror genre in which only cosmetic variations were inserted to replicate a variety of well worn characters overly familiar with film audiences but with the mere alteration of skin color was meant to represent an entirely new product. Beyond the generic copies of Dracula (“Blacula”), Frankenstein (“Blackenstein”) and Mr. Hyde (“Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde”) appeared 1974’s “Abby”, a blatant carbon copy of “The Exorcist”, so much so that it almost immediately attracted the ire of that film’s producing studio, with this hapless William Girdler retread quickly withdrawn from distribution due to the intervention of equally possessed legal teams.
Essentially a cheaper, cosmetically darker version of the William Friedkin film, “Abby” does contains typical variations found in the transference process from A-list commercial cinema to lower case Blaxploitation, especially in its introduction of the supernatural elements having a strictly African basis, most noticeably a specificity in identifying the possessive source as opposed to the William Peter Blatty-scripted original which more obscurely danced around the true nature of the evil, as to whether it was truly the Devil or merely a lesser but still corruptive minion. “Abby” places the source of spiritual squatting squarely at the doorstep of Eshu, a demon of chaos and whirlwinds who uses the “power of sexuality to destroy his enemies”, a resume which seems tailor-made for exploitation cinema. This demonic entity, carelessly released from a carved puzzle box conveniently found in a Nigerian cavern by the eminent theologian Dr. Garrett Williams (William Marshall) and immediately finds its way to Louisville, Kentucky where it takes possession of Dr. Williams’ daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed) as an amorphous shadow in her shower (thus, apparently, disputing the axiom “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”) and later manifested by ’embarrassing overacting, rude sexual innuendo and sagebrush eyebrows inspired by “Frankenstein’s Daughter”.
Despite the evident intimacy of familial bonds on display, the characters in “Abby” seem far slower than anyone in “The Exorcist” to pick up on potential problems, such as the soft-spoken Abby suddenly communicating in a voice sounding like Lionel Stander without apparent notice by her loved ones. For the most part, her immediate family is depicted as such a brazenly simpleminded bunch following a typically threadbare conception of community life as seen through the prism of Blaxploitation genre knock-offs which either defined your familial support team as either composed of whores, pimps and hustlers or straight-arrow Gospel singing churchgoers, without the hope of a note of complexity in between. Particularly cartoonish is Abby’s mother, played by Juanita Moore: an insanely distressful creation, who brightens every scene with treacly sentimentality- her unrelievedly sunny dialogue can be likened to embroidered kitchen samplers hung in word balloons -though her sound mighty unchristian, especially when she blurts out in defense of Abby that “she’s a good Christian girl and isn’t mentally ill”: just what demented values are being expressed there where legitimate psychological disturbance is inseparable from heretical offense? Initially, any extraneous causes for Abby’s bizarre behavior is attributed top possible drug use as presumably the function of this loving God-fearing family is to assume the worst of one of their own.
That fine actor William Marshall is once again saddled with providing a central gravitas to events which appear sillier than necessary due to the very cheapness of production, written on a sub-literate level (the crude dialogue is an example of plot summarizing rather than storytelling, explaining what is happening rather than allowing the film to show us) and a signature slovenliness on the part of Girdler who abandons his own narrative just when events are heating up, to focus on “atmosphere” in one of the patently phoney bar scenes ever shot, though displaying a peculiarity unique fetishistic fascination with the mechanics of a jukebox. The film forgoes any theological depth but simply has the characters draw connections to the motivations of the demon from thin air. When Dr. Williams asserts that Ushu’s possession of Abby is “part of his campaign to destroy me”, it sounds like self-inflating hubris as there is no evidence as to his assertions except to make a connection to s similar motivation toward Father Karras in “The Exorcist”. (Who knew that the necessary academic background in fighting evil might be found by attending the movies?)
The climactic exorcism takes place on the barroom floor though it all seems rather perfunctory, without the slightest attempt at tension (at its conclusion, Williams simply walks away as if this were a television drama and his job is done until the next episode) and culminating in what appears to be a tacked on ending at an airport showing Abby and husband departing on a merry vacation without the slightest interest or remembrance of the string of bodies she has left in her wake. However, amid this dramatic apathy, Girdler’s film does manage to raise one fundamental question concerning that special symbiotic relationship between the filmmaker and his intended patron: if the film doesn’t care, why should the audience?
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“Nude on the Moon” (1961)
In an attempt to keep current with both advents in the burgeoning sexploitation film market and the Space Race (even NASA only had the measly Soviets to contend with) the team of photographer Raymond Phelan and producer Doris Wishman collaborated under the directorial pseudonym Anthony Brooks (they also co-wrote the script under the alias O.O. Miller) to create the world’s first “adult” outer space movie (a designation meaningful only in terms of the amount of exposed skin on view and without any referencing to the level of sophistication present either in the film’s concept or execution) with the 1961 naturist feature “Nude on the Moon”, though with the exception of a few predictably terrible miniatures and effects shots, the film is drearily earthbound, as the moonscape is inexplicably depicted as a tropical tourist trap which is fortunate as that it what it actually is: the film’s lunar sequences filmed about the grounds of Florida’s Coral Castle, the lush vegetation and kitschy architecture somewhat inconsistent with what was known about the Moon at the time, nor are these anomalies given any deep consideration except for a wistful shrug (perhaps an intellectual lapse being the direct consequence of lightheadedness as the pair’s space helmets are open to the acknowledged alien atmosphere). “Solaris” this ain’t.
The film introduces two scientists, Professor Nichols (William Mayer) and Dr. Hartley (Lester Brown), the former the senior mentor immediately identifiable by the pipe he contemplatively sucks on, and the latter identified as “one of the brightest young rocket scientists” who demonstrates his dedication to his field by ignoring the embarrassing come hither looks of secretary Cathy (Marietta). Finding himself the recipient of a large inheritance, Huntley concludes that he and Nichols will be able to prepare a rocket to travel to the moon within six months, a challenge the Professor is uncertain they are up to as “it means a lot of hard work, long hours and lots of black coffee”, demonstrating the scientific tenacity of a roadside restaurant hostess. Such visionary dedication would presumably call for feverish preparations which are demonstrated as Nichols sits before a series of gurgling flasks as if he were in an exploitation version of “The Man in the White Suit”, all the while there is never any consideration to the notion that at some point someone had better think about constructing a rocket as a part of the project’s grand design.
The trip to the moon is accomplished through succession of mismatched miniatures shots and by showing the two scientists sitting in a cramped compartment screaming at each other through microphones despite the fact they are sitting shoulder to shoulder. Both fall asleep and awaken to find themselves on the lunar surface, which to their surprise is not comprised of barren rock (except in the murky exterior shots of the craft itself) but a lush garden paradise complete with blue skies, fluffy white clouds and a bevy of topless women who are immediately identifiable as an alien species by the antennae embellished barrettes they wear in their hair. Despite the supposed intellectual stature of the unaccountably dim scientists, neither displays the slightest capacity for observational acumen: their trek through the clearly designed garden landscapes seems distracting enough that neither notices they are walking on paved paths and walking past clearly man-made structures. Nor, when they finally stumble upon the indigenous society, do either notice that the Queen of the tribe is the spitting image of their lovelorn secretary Cathy (also played by Marietta).
The film attempts to enter the realm of the well-worn naturist genre, though the faux lunar nudist colony features neither full bodied nudity- the extent of exposure being above waist, which removes the film from the usual excuse of such films demonstrating the legitimate practice of the cultural phenomenon of nudism -nor the usual smorgasbord out outdoor recreational activities as volleyball and badminton, with the most strenuous activity to which the moon people seem dedicated being running fingers through their own hair or lightly dipping toes into water. Countless numbers of insert shots of Professor Nichols making notations in a book and Dr. Huntley focusing his camera, are juxtaposed with postcard tableaux of the nudie cuties in differing poses. Much of the second half of the film is literally a live action magazine spread with no interaction and no discernible attempt at even the pretense of a plot: simply one shot of a topless maiden after another.
The lack of imagination shown by the filmmakers- considering the deliberate insertion of SF elements and the exotic backdrop of the lunar colony -is staggering, matched only by the sheer torpidity of the resultant production In the early expositive sequences, the pacing is glacial, with silent pauses between exchanged lines of dialogue (including one memorable moment in which Cathy stops mid-utterance, obviously meant to be interrupted by the Professor, who takes a nap before picking up his cue) that would drive Pinter to hysterical impatience. However, once on the Moon, the film embraces a truly paralyzed momentum which may result in the only instance of real science in the film as the audience may feel the filmmakers have actually discovered a method of making time stand still. Worse yet, for a film whose only reason to exist is to exploit the female body, it is not sexy nor pictorially beautiful, only dull; allowing for the impression of feeling embarrassed for the women on the screen whose public exposure may result only in a disinterested yawn.
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“THE GODSON” (1971)
Prolific presenter of prurience Harry Novak turns his attention to the world of the Mob in William Rostler’s 1971’s “The Godson” an also-ran precursor to the next year’s release of the filmization of Mario Puzo’s trashy sex and violence Mafia opus, an influence which Helen Keller could pick out of a line-up, though the end result finds, predictably, the sex remaining without the equal compensatory plunge into the inner workings of organized crime: no horse’s head in these gangster’s beds.
Marco (Jason Yukon) is the godson of Mob boss Lea Roca (Keith Erickson billed as Mario Santini), even though the two men appear to be the same age. Roca spends his time luxuriating on a dirty pool chair outside of his modest tract house, obviously proving that crime doesn’t pay outside of large studio productions. The “elder” crime boss is impressed with Marco’s enthusiasm (if not his oddly unbecoming permed afro complete with permed sideburns), especially after snuffing out a fellow gangster for abusing the “organization’s” “working girls”, though there is little said about Marco’s post-coital blabbing of secret Mob plans to one of the same girls. Marco, for no conceivable reason is elevated from “breaking in” the newer “working girls” (which seems to consist of either a great deal of the aimless rubbing of hands on the women’s bodies to the point where one wonders if he is attempting to sandpaper them, or alignment of nether regions so unconvincing the film might find value by the Vatican as an instructional resource promoting guaranteed birth control technique) to engineering the smuggling of drugs using the same “working girls”. The not-exactly-credible success of this enterprise infuriates the testy Gutierrez (Don Garra in a performance that has to be seen to be believed, making Zalman King in “Trip With the Teacher” seems almost placid by comparison), a fellow criminal whose status in the Mob has been compromised by Marco;s efforts, which ultimately leads to a poorly staged showdown during which everyone involved is gunned down by a last minute double cross by Roca and his Davy Jones look-alike gunsel.
The impoverished plot is merely an excuse for a series of interminably lengthy sex scenes (none of which contribute anything to the plot) depicting the “working girls” in action, much of it set in writer Harlan Ellison’s apartment, explaining the abundance of books scattered about, unless one believes that a prostitute’s principle occupation is to entertain clients with readings from Thor Heyerdahl, Will Durant or Jack Finney. The endless exhibition of pasty flesh combined with redundant and unproductive gyrations only makes you hope that Ellison had his furniture enhanced with Scotchgard. Rather than eroticism, the film merely presents nipple twisting as an generally accepted practice of Mafioso foreplay, and enough alarming rashes and lesions on the men to suggest that the Mob health plan might need to include the participation of a reliable dermatologist.
If one were forced to comment positively on Rostler’s direction it might be charitably noted that in creating his set-ups, he, more often than not, has the camera facing in the general vicinity of the scene, though his quirky pseudo-Russ Meyer staccato editing intrusions convey a sense that there is some desperation in patching up insufficiently filmed coverage footage (a hint that there may be legitimacy to this claim can be found in a bizarre scene in which Lois Mitchell enters a scene with straight hair, undresses with curly hair and the engages in an extended mattress jitterbug with straight hair, a result of the actress having to return at a later date when it was discovered that the shooting of the connective footage had been neglected), his climactic showdown so sloppily staged that it’s almost impossible to locate exactly where the characters are supposed to be at any point. Considering the paucity of actual narrative, there is little chance for distinguished acting to emerge; fortunately Rostler has been blessed with the availability of a cast eminently qualified to sink to such a nonexistent challenge, with the women particularly irksome as every “actress” has a helium laced speaking voice tinged with the panic and insecurity inherent in only the most amateurish of performers. The lucky few are consigned to the unenviable task of simply appearing mute but engaging in the mind-numbingly repetitious seismic bouncing in a tedious charade of sexual congress, especially the unfortunate and microscopically talented cult figure Uschi Digard who, as one of the nameless “working girls”, occupies herself through most of the film- as she does through most of her filmography -by fondling her own breasts with a concentrated dedication that would put the work ethic of Vince Lombardi to shame.___ _____ ____ _ _____________ _ __ _ ___ _ ______________________ __
“THE TOOLBOX MURDERS” (1978)
Is there anything more depressing than a nihilistic film which can’t even conjure up a new method to disgust its audience? With all of the possibilities for novel depravity, just where are the imaginative sociopaths, misogynists and deviants in the film industry (we know you’re out there) who might add a modicum of truly despairing perversion, if they’re going to bother to make a psychotic serial killer film in the first place? Imaginatively pure evil is clearly too hard to entice in today’s market without the handy incentives of both 401K and dental plans.
Such predictability of mayhem is in sorry evidence in “The Toolbox Murders”, a film which advances the notion that women who address their sexual nature are (and should be, by disturbingly logical extension) the deserved targets of violence. While not a new idea, this anti-female attitude can be seen as a natural extension of the decades of Production Code enforcement in which sexuality, especially that expressed by women, was met with condemnation and punishment, as if natural carnal urges were tantamount to instincts of the cold-blooded murder of puppies. The “bad girl” or even “femme fatale” image in Hollywood films was always marked for punishment, and always identified as “wrong” due to their sexual nature. Mainstream studio Hollywood, for all of its posturing as a purveyor of healthy attitudes has presented, for a great many years, a completely chauvinistic view of the world in which women were useful as objectified sex objects, yet were forbidden from pursuing their own sexual satisfaction: the most studio productions would allow for female sexual fantasies were the depiction of teenybopper crushes; all other were considered “fallen women” who were summarily dealt with the cruel hands of narrative fate swooping down upon them to ensure a disproportionately unjust demise appropriate to the puritanical conception of a monstrous female whose crime against decent society is to concede to even a hint of healthy sexual appetites. Two films from 1978, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Dennis Donnelly’s “The Toolbox Murders” set a standard for the depiction of violent carnage favorable to be targeted at sexually active women (or merely independent women, in which the inference was that they controlled their own sexuality and were therefore “loose” and certainly bound for immoral provocations); a narrative thread which had been richly explored in the Italian giallo film, though in the case of this specialized genre, the emphasis was often on sexual neurosis rather than perceived promiscuity. The American model was distinctly targeted at female characters actively (a formula eventually inclusive of male victims, though the quantity of female victims, by comparison, were suspiciously voluminous in number) and, significantly, enthusiastically (it was important to show punishment for unrepentant immorality) engaged in carnal activity- without the pretense of neurotic hesitation -with this activity somehow setting off a morally prosecutorial self-righteous dementia within the killer, with the camera often enacting the maniac’s point of view thus making the audience de facto participants in the crimes (since it is only the paying audience’s desire for bloodlust which inspires such blood soaked cinematic tableaux in the first place, the forced perspective may be philosophically apropos, but it has become drearily repetitive and depressing).
Cameron Mitchell is the landlord of an apartment complex beset with a series of horrible murders, all executed with the contents of a toolbox, of both the manual and power variety. The police are perplexed but it’s Cameron Mitchell running the building, so the immediate focus of investigation should have logically focused on… Cameron Mitchell. (Whatever his other dramatic attributes, Mitchell’s sweaty, suspiciously arrogant demeanor is one of the best examples of pre-advertised villainy to be seen on the screen.) Naturally, this masquerade is only effective if the investigating law enforcement is as thick as kindergarten paste, but fortunately for all concerned, “The Toolbox Murders” depicts, perhaps, the stupidest cops ever seen in a film, their incompetence reaching its zenith when you realize they’ve completely forgotten to investigate not only the four homicides, but the related kidnapping of virginal fifteen-year-old Laurie Ballard (Pamelyn Ferdin, the girl with the poisonous mushrooms in Don Siegel’s “The Beguiled”). It’s a dual edged crime drama that makes no sense as the police fail to investigate any of the four homicides except to invite their witnesses into the crime scenes, not to meaningfully question them, but merely to allow them access to walk all over the evidence. In the case of Laurie’s abduction, there is a failure to acknowledge her disappearance at all except to afford the lead detective the opportunity to try to pick up her mother for a date!
With the two different types of crime (though perpetrated by the same individual) comes the truly bizarre twist in the film in that it immediately shifts gears from a serial killer procedural (actually more of a how-to primer for would be homicidal maniacs, providing everyone conveniently leaves their door unlocked and is willing to compliantly lie inert while the killer fumbles through his toolbox for the latest instrument of death) to a psychodrama in which elements of incest and hereditary dispositions to dissociative homicidal fantasy are randomly thrown into the mix in a desperate attempt to inject some momentum into the film, but by the third extended monologue by the morally obsessed killer, the inertia has reached glacial proportions, and since there is no suspense element to keep the audience engaged. as there is no pursuit (or interest) by the police, the audience is left far too much free time in which to notice the oddball anomalies in the movie, such as the extravagant amount of time which is spent showing nothing: the wandering into a kitchen and pouring a soft drink; later more repetitive shots of a spilled can of soda; a scene in which Laurie’s mother insists on working her shift, which has no purpose as either character development or contributes in any way to the plot; a fellow continues to brush paint on a wall well after the scene has concluded; and in one prize piece of one-take lunacy, a scandalously extended scene of Laurie’s brother asking for the car keys, looking for the car keys, finding the car keys, leaving the apartment to get into the car and then driving down the street with the door mistakenly flying open as he accelerates, a sequence which proves two points about the production: any take was a good take (which explains the performances and the incompetent camera set-ups) and that 90% of trash cinema is innutritious filler.
The ineptitude of the film is staggering (even by grindhouse standards) with no apparent connective motivation for any of the crimes ever given, the depictions of the crimes ill-conceived and implausible (one victim is hiding in a bathroom whose door magically unlocks by a drill passing through its center (?), the extended crashes of lamps, bodies and furniture against walls, not to mention the chorus of screams, all go unheard by the other tenants, despite the fact there are several references to past complaints about the same neighbor’s loud music (??), fires are set in a garage- including a person burned to death -yet no one inside or outside the house notices any smoke (???)) and, in the end, the film being entirely absent of a point of view- even a foolish one -which would place the ugly events into some sort of context, apart from a callous desire to disgust. Never is there a moment expressed in which sympathy is addressed toward any victim (just the opposite, in fact), though the audience is privy to one unintended morsel of empathy: the endless, badly written diatribes Laurie must listen to while bound and gagged might similarly make the audience feel they’ve been recipient of their own nail gun to the head.____________ ___ __ ________________ ____ _ _____________ __________
“The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill” (1966)
With little relation, save the inclusion of the eponymous heroine’s name, to the famous literary scandalmonger, “The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill” introduces Fanny’s offspring Kissy in a colorfully filmed (by later Hollywood heavyweight cinematographer László Kovács) but narratively torpid comedy of manners that displays little comedy and is far too mannered for the supposed titillation seeking crowd that is the intended audience. It is an interesting hybrid of the old Hollywood dodge with an excess of production values (as far as the budget allows) masquerading shallow story conception with layers of meaningless opulence and sheer sexploitation in which the layers of opulence are shed as often as possible for the promise of equally distracting gratuitous exhibitionism, though sadly, the vacuum of the contextual inertia continually outweighs the good old-fashioned dirty fun promised but undermined by the witlessness of the sub-par burlesque level in both performance and writing.
The entire film is a come-on; a teasing enticement to the sensual pleasures of the flesh imprisoned underneath the rather absurd layers of fabric encasement and a blatant redressing (by undressing) of “Tom Jones” bawdiness. In fact, this is a rather dull affair, not a narrative driven movie at all but essentially a series of clumsily connected vignettes all featuring a small coterie of costumed couples who eventually pair up off in random assortments and engage in tediously snickering (though ultimately puritanical) pretenses toward enacting the sexual act in the most chastely unconvincing manner imaginable- that is, unless it is possible to engage in coitus while still wearing hermetically sealed leather pants. There is much attention given to the bared buttock and breast, though the nudity rarely coincides to practical conditions for completed erotic engagements; the bulk of the actual carnal activity limited to repetitive grasping and seductive gesticulation with nary a pelvic parry nor thrust in the visible vicinity, unsurprising what with the men attending to the missionary position while remaining in full uniform from the waist down.
The “Tom Jones” referencing is most apparent in an extending recreation of the famous eating seduction scene, though in this version there is neither wit nor heat on display, simply a dismally amateurish pageant of leering that lingers interminably until the only physical satisfaction would be the result of a stomach pump. There is no attempt, other than identifying Kissy as a courtesan, to define any character except as either one of a leering group watching the dismal attempts at coupling, or as the latest participants of said exhibitions. The bulk of the film is taken up with a revolving series of sexual posturing (usually comprised of a good deal of sighing and a lesser bit of bodily grinding) ending in a downbeat ending that makes little dramatic sense as a climatic result of jealous rage- an absurd action considering the casual attitude of all concerned in indulging adulterous inclinations -and comes off as merely an example of poor sportsmanship.
For her part, as Kissy, Stacey Walker is a sexpot whose arsenal of seduction seems limited to pouting lips and an expression meant as come-hither but embarrassingly results merely in an clueless sneer; the unreachable challenges of acting compensated for by a willingness to drop her blouse at the wink of an eye. There is enough lip smacking and suggestive tittering by the entire cast of helium-lightweight thespians to fuel a marathon Benny Hill retrospective, though the sexual content is of an extremely tame nature, with far more emphasis on art direction than eroticism, a characteristic peculiar in this period of sexploitation (especially with the advent of so-called “roughies”) as this was the first nudie film by schlockmeister producer David F. Friedman which adopted Hollywood period picture values to upgrade the surface appeal of an exploitation vehicle in an attempt to widen the appeal of the sex film from the seedy peepshow addicts to more desirable (and thus profitable) mixed gender audience; a trend that would continue quantitatively, encompassing such period figures as Cleopatra, Zorro, Romeo and Juliet and Hollywood safari stalwart Trader Horn.
Unfortunately, Friedman is unable to replicate the gloss of Hollywood stardom to fill the hollow trappings of the rather impressive look of the film and even in this context director Peter Perry allows the Hollywood clichés to occasionally overrun the movie with damaging results, especially the annoyingly repetitive use of sexual tableau framed with a burning fireplace in the foreground, which imbues a wet-blanket sameness to scenes which are intended to be excitingly lusty, though the unimaginative (and overly familiar) visualization results in generating all the sexual heat of a breath mint commercial. Unfortunately, for the aficionado of the erotic arts or merely the curious, this effort to stimulate the libido remains disappointingly flaccid._____________________________ __ ________ __ _____________ ___ _______________ ___
“BLOOD FEAST” (1963)
Never to be considered in the same breath with any discussion of Art, the appalling 1963 full color bloodbath “Blood Feast” is undeniably a movie (it feels inappropriate except if wearing a hazmat suite to use the appellation film) that can be regarded as a genuine cultural turning point; that is if regarded at a safe distance while using a pair of protective tongs.
If 1960 saw the emergence of an escalation of shocking violence in the popular cinema form from Alfred Hitchcock with”Psycho” and Michael Powell with “Peeping Tom”, the cultural shock waves were accentuated by the middlebrow critical culture which dissected the sudden leap of psycho-sexual violence- despite the fact that neither film included a single frame of explicit physical contact -in the works of two of the world’s most acclaimed international talents, while ignoring the readily available films which had already broken the ground on more graphic depictions of cinema violence, but lacked the prerequisite artistic peerage to be acknowledged as worthy of influencing an entire industry, or (and this is a point which has haunted the serious echelon of the Critical Establishment) was a product of those genres which are generally excluded from serious academic evaluation; in this case: exploitation and horror. Thus, within the orbit of critical discussions on the simultaneous influences by Hitchcock and Powell on the future of cinema violence and the rise of filmic sexual sadism, there is no mention of Sidney Hayers nor Arthur Crabtree; directors of the films “Circus of Horrors” ( also 1960) and “Horrors in the Black Museum” (1959), both along with Powell’s “Peeping Tom” a part of the unofficial Sadian Trilogy distributed by British Anglo-Amalgamated, for in the writing of cinema history is appears inconceivable to admit that the evolution of a perceived art form might be influenced equally or (and this is where the trouble begins) even more by individuals outside of the mainstream of critical thought in terms of artistic worth. However, seldom does the evolution of movie content exclusively coincide with perceived advancements in film artistry. Films by a Hitchcock or a Powell will automatically be approached with an anticipatory reverence never to be enjoyed by a journeyman or unknown director, yet it is in these more low-level efforts where, not uncommonly, cultural evolution (not to qualify whether that evolution is positive or not, simply that it occurs) unceremoniously makes another footprint, though in obscurity until replicated by prominent and thus “substantial” artists, where the same advancements are scrutinized as if they emerged without external influence, but spontaneously from a foreboding plateau of genius.
Such is the case with “Blood Feast”, an irredeemably grimy and aesthetically primal movie which steps beyond the boundaries of gratuitous violence as “gratuitous” might suggest the violence in the film would be unjustifiable when in fact, the violence is the only reason for the film to exist. This was something completely new in commercial cinema: a movie which deemed qualitative evaluation of aesthetic or artistic evaluation irrelevant in that a solitary element, by its very presence, satisfied an appetite alien to the need for critical responsiveness. Thus, in “Blood Feast” the violence is the only attraction; the first time in popular American film history an act in its most graphic form was the sole drawing card to the public; a phenomenon which would not repeat itself until the release of “Deep Throat” in which the explicitly performed sexual act alone, regardless of the quality movie around it, was the singular source of public fascination.
The substance of “Blood Feast” is in the title: it is a blood soaked feast for the eyes for an audience that craved the experience of a far more explicit level of gore than could have ever been depicted heretofore in the cinema. It is the bellwether of modern film violence, without which it is doubtful that more artistically rendered scenes of bloodletting might have evolved as quickly or graphically. However, unlike the full-color splattered gore of “Blood Feast”, the controversial violence of “Bonnie and Clyde”, “The Wild Bunch” and “The Godfather” was not only rendered with greater craftsmanship, but the violence in each occurs in a context that is an essential element of a greater artistic vision. More characteristic of the 1963 film is the legacy which eventually developed into the slasher genre which is still prevalent today, though even that woebegone line of cinema takes inspiration from other influences, most especially the Italian giallo.
“Blood Feast” was the first film by 60’s self-proclaimed “Godfather of Gore” Hershell Gordon Lewis, whose entire legacy consisted of grotesque films existing only to fill the screen with splattered blood, excavated organs and dangling entrails (as if his creative influence were directly culled from the lurid EC Horror Comics of the 1950’s, though absent any of those creative artists’ senses of wit, irony, drama or a basic eye for articulating a scene in the most effective framing possible) and a number a far lesser known efforts exhorting Lewis’ special brand of hillbilly dramaturgy which even drive-in cult enthusiasts have resisted.
Mal Arnold plays demented caterer Faud Ramses with behavior (the lack of ability shown absolves the interested observer from the use of the word “performance”) that is comprised entirely of sweaty pores and gigantic painted eyebrows that when waggled might be sufficient to signal landing aircraft. Arnold extends the running time of the film by at least half through a draggy delivery of dialogue that suggests English was a foreign tongue to the man, perhaps haphazardly learned by listening to an audio book version of “The Brothers Karamazov” as narrated by Tor Johnson. Ramses entices his customers with the promise of “an Egyptian feast” while nocturnally stalking every available co-ed to relieve them of important body parts; a situation the police seem baffled to solve despite the fact Ramses is the only pop-eyed sweaty maniac limping about the cheap sets wielding a bloody machete.
Lewis’ sense of drama is to attack a blonde in the bathtub and hack off her leg, his sense of comedy is to attack a couple on the beach and gorily remove the girl’s brain from her skull, his sense of romance is to stab a girl in the chest and remove her heart. All of this is accomplished in lurid, detailed close-up with gore and blood splattered profusely. Amidst all of the crimson, an intended victim portrayed by Playboy model Connie Mason escapes injury, but her performance is so painfully awful, it’s continuation is a new form of violence by the director against the audience. The film crawls to its ridiculous conclusion- a climactic foot chase with the physically lame Ramses that is so ridiculously slow the police might as well stop for donuts mid-chase -after the madman seems to have exhausted the variety of body parts he might detach from hapless women. The film is far too crudely stupid to even hint at a misogynist bent, though the primitivism of its visual style and absence of technical proficiency seem to have borrowed from the notorious Ohio State highway “scare” films, though not their subtlety.
“THE GROOVE TUBE” (1974)
Ken Shapiro’s“The Groove Tube” is a raggedy collection of skits satirizing television ads and programs, a not especially challenging target that is met with a lack of conceptual focus and a wildly variant acuity of wit. In fact, the film is a bit of a mess. not only technically- it’s rather shabby looking visually and the production values reek of serious budgetary limits -but in the scattershot content which often does not seem to gel with the film’s chosen subject. If one intends to poke fun at television, there are an endless number of targets richly deserving of ridicule, so to include material that seems to have no relationship to the medium is not only puzzling but annoying, as surely with the brevity of the film’s running time- a mere 75 minutes -one cannot possibly exhaust the material straining to be satirized by even the most sophomoric vein of humor.
The film opens with a mock- but impressively rendered -imitation of Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man” sequence from “2001”, though if memory serves correctly, the apemen from the original weren’t seen playing solitaire. The payoff of the playful segment is the basis for the rest of the film to come, a somewhat obvious punchline, though still a rather witty visual encapsulation of Marshall McLuhan’s most famous quote about television. The digressions, however, begin immediately with a pointless episode of hitchhiking and playful striptease which seems to exist solely for the prospect to seem provocative for its display of full frontal nudity of both genders, but without any relevant purpose. If an obvious effort to appear hip and daring, the sequence results only in confusion, and instead of conjuring memories of broadcast television it instead resembles outtakes from a good-natured version of Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left”.
If the intention of the film is to mimic a network broadcast schedule, there is confusing lack of structure and so enjoyment can be found in the film if one relinquishes higher expectations for the movie as cohesive whole but instead searches for the pleasures to be found in its independent parts. One thing that is immediately apparent is that the shorter pieces work best, often taking advantage of a spark of impish inspiration too brief to fall victim to the tendency toward the stretching of satiric concepts beyond their effective duration that often plagues the lengthier sequences.
This is especially true of two major episodes which in their greater ambition form the de facto heart of the film: the first, an episode of a program called “The Dealers”, in which a pair of weed peddlers (played by director/co-scenarist Ken Shapiro and future “Law and Order SVU” curmudgeon Richard Belzer) encounter paranoia, toilet humor (literally), public sex and homosexuality (the notable humiliating tone of this last exposes the supposed “enlightenment” of the counterculture attitudes at work here for what they really are) in an afternoon of imitating an extremely poor man’s conception of a bargain basement Cheech & Chong; the second episode is a parody of an evening news broadcast in which the level of humor can be briefly summarized as witless puns mixed with a talentless attempt at emulating The Ace Trucking Company.
Both segments are similarly characterized by extreme over-length coupled with a flippant attitude that anything they are portraying is hilarious (it’s not) as long as it’s aimed at the heart of what will aggravate “the Establishment”. when in reality, the humor is simply of a crude fourth-grade playground level that smacks of desperation. For instance, in a news report on Vietnam, the comedy is derived simply by turning every city or province name into an homophonic obscenity. The interminably lengthy “The Dealers” segment has the feel of a spontaneous riff by a pair actors clueless as to the subject of their improvisation. That this segment ends as having been sponsored by The National Council of Churches, a jab that not only falls flat but is meaningless as nowhere in the segment was there the hint of any satire applicable that isn’t secular in nature.
However, the entire film is cursed with a problem inherent in any film (most especially in comedy) that seeks to promote its own sense of self-assured hipness, and that is the problem of timeliness; it feels very dated as the humor generates from a very specific counterculture vibe of the time, the type of cultural influence which may impress with a subjective immediacy on its initial release, but also prone to the premature obsolescence characteristic of material that strains to be “of the moment”. This most affects the entire film, though most noticeably the commercial parodies, as they choose very specific advertising campaigns of the day as targets for their parody. These numerous bits range from amusing to abominable though even in the case of the successful bits, the conceptions and payoffs may be obscured (certainly diluted) to contemporary audiences unfamiliar with the original commercials, though certainly the product lines are still instantly familiar: the Yellow Pages, Barbie, Kraft Foods and Geritol. (This last featuring Chevy Chase in his screen debut paired with porn actress Jennifer Welles.)
The humor level in the film is that of sniggery titillation, the filmmakers assured of their own cleverness while the general range of parody lies somewhere between a bathroom limerick and a Rusty Warren LP; the comedic alterations generally consisting of a left-field insertion of a bawdy sexual or scatological reference. Thus when “The Koko Show” starts off as an only slightly exaggerated version of “Bozo the Clown”, it evolves into a secretive session of erotic literature readings (“Fanny Hill”, the text of choice) secretly held beyond the watchful gaze of “big people” during the show’s “make believe time”, a concept that is wonderfully underplayed until Koko later scolds the “little people” at home for not ensuring the parents have left the room; a development that undercuts the sketch’s humor by committing the comedy killing sin of the filmmakers having so little confidence in their comic premise, they feel they must over-explain it. (This goes so far as to almost cross a line of moral creepiness- when Koko scolds the kids by warning “the management will catch on to what we’re doing”, the proceedings suddenly degenerate from smart-alecky sophomorism an unsavory nudge toward conspiratorial pedophilic degeneracy.)
The exhibitionist nature of the material is itself spoofed by a rather witty Wide World of Sports segment involving an event in a sexual Olympics in which the voyeuristic inclinations of the viewer are frustrated by a Technical Difficulties title card while the increasingly excited narration of the broadcasters carries on in the background, a gag that succeeds as it’s a rare instance where the filmmakers don’t allow themselves to mistake frat house grotesquerie for wit. There is also a charming final segment in which Ken Shapiro dances through the city streets, possessed of an infectious ebullience while mouthing the words to the peppy tune “Just You Just Me”; a comic highlight that seems to exist for no other reason that to give silly pleasure. It’s an uncharacteristic moment in a film that finally forgets that it thinks it’s amusing and just is.______ ____ ________ __________ ___ _ ______________________ _ ____________________
“SWITCHBLADE SISTERS” (A.K.A. “THE JEZEBELS”) (1975)
Films that purport to be Exploitation cinema but follow the routine thematic formulas of this breed of cinema without encompassing genuine prerequisite exploitation elements is simply trash without a reason to exist.
Jack Hill’s “Switchblade Sisters” (alternately titled “The Jezebels”, without any greater success) is such an animal; a mutt masquerading as an overbred canine- a compendium of drive-in trash cinema clichés encompassing a random Column A/Column B selection from gang films, blaxploitation cinema, vigilante films, drug films, teen films, sexploitation cinema and women-in-prison melodramas- with no apparent decision ever made on which avenue to focus on. Its a virtual “greatest hits” version of exploitation but on somnambulist cruise control.
The film follows the exploits of two high school gangs, though most of the participants look about a decade too old, one named the Daggers and their female counterpart The Dagger Debs, who later in a break from the male of the species, to become The Jezebels. The events that lead to this change bring about the only remotely interesting aspect of the film; an indelible feminist viewpoint of empowerment.
Despite the fact that the subordinate Dagger Debs are the girlfriends of the male gang, they are treated as shabbily and with the same lack of respect afforded their victims in the surrounding community. This has little to do with machismo or an innate toughness, but is a sloppy perspective perpetrated by director Hill who set a general standard in all of his exploitation films of celebrating the empowered woman by treating them as proverbial sexual objects as gratuitously and insultingly as possible.
For instance, there are two major incidents of rape in the film, neither treated with any sense that it is either a physical nor emotional violation. Instead, the first, is a brutish attack which is clearly meant as a display of power, but almost instantaneously treated by both parties as if it were a casual social encounter, the second ignored completely under the shadow of an accompanying murder. One of the girls is retained to sexually service random students in the school for five dollars a pop, while another is openly assaulted after failing to win a bet by holding a lit cigarette between her wrists. Rather than an empowered group of females, they are completely dominated by the Daggers, who apparently wield no open display of power over them except that the girls are subservient to suits the needs of the narrative.
Oddly, for a film of compulsively antisocial behavior, there is a latent hint of homophobia present, though this too is selective. In the expected jailhouse/Lesbian matron sequence, the attraction to Maggie is depicted in broad cartoonish strokes, with the corpulent mistress getting her violent, humiliating comeuppance, while later on, the Amazonian pseudo-lesbian stance of a gang of black female revolutionaries is looked at as not only honorable, but a source of independence and strength.
What has not changed in the Hill oeuvre are the amateurish lead performances, especially the women, with Robbie Lee’s prepubescent Susan Tyrell wannabe gang leader coming off as embarrassingly snaggletoothed whiner, and Joanne Nail as Maggie, who can’t find a center to her character, wildly fluctuating between Doris Day and Cody Jarrett; in neither instance remotely convincing as a street hardened hoods.
Only Monica Gayle, as the one-eyed Patch exudes any sense of menace; a loose cannon who clearly has barely repressed feelings for Lace (and this, remember, is the same film that ridiculed the concept of lesbianism in the jailhouse scenes) and is seething with rage throughout the entire film, making her final comeuppance the only incident in the film that feels like a real punch in the gut. Hers is a gangland Iago to a nonentity Othello and she breathes life into the film in every scene she’s in. This isn’t to say her performance is particularly distinguished, but it has a sincere vitality lacking from everyone else in the film.
In previous outings, Hill has conveyed an appreciation for the conventions of the sleazier exploitation genres, if never truly mastering those elements himself, (technically his productions always resembled ABC Afterschool Specials with bare breasts and a sneer) but here, it is a strictly by-the-numbers affair. Even the women-in-juvy prison set-piece involves the usual clichés such as toilet bowl dunking and bitch slap rioting, but the scene is depicted with a bored tenuousness as if the director was dreaming of better days in between the brief and inconsequential robes of the blonde prisoners flying open. The action sequences lack grit or a sense of editing rhythm; seemingly assembled by an apprentice editing team hopelessly looking for matching shots. One climactic street gun battle is so underpopulated, its backlot roots so apparent that the lazy lack of verisimilitude is insulting. And this from a exploitation film where standards are expectedly low and life is cheap!
Hill’s dependably low rent directorial skills were more easily concealed when an amateurish but dynamic performer such as Pam Grier was presented center stage in a film like “Coffy” or (to a far lesser extent) “Foxy Brown”, but when the eponymous gang could best be described as a grindhouse version of the Muppets, he enjoys no equitable cushion of enjoyable disreputability.___________ _ ____________ _ _____________________ ____ _ _________ ______________ _______ ________ ____ __ ________________ _ ______ ______ __________ __________