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Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964)

I've waited a long, long time to see this film. Last time TCM showed it as part of their TCM Underground series, I set it to record but my local cable provider decided to change the channel they broadcast TCM on, so I got an hour and a half of the channel guide instead. Thanks, Cox. Luckily it worked out second time round and I can finally see the film with possibly the wildest title of all of those wild titles from the wild, wild sixties. It's my third Ray Dennis Steckler, after the Arch Hall Jr outsider pop movie Wild Guitar and the bizarrely mangled Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, which was two films in one because Steckler couldn't decide on what he actually wanted to make. It starred Carolyn Brandt who was merely being introduced here, and given the quality of her performance that's not surprising.

She's a dancer at the Hungry Mouth nightclub who is a little too fond of the bottle. She's called Marge Neilson and her partner is Bill Ward (not the drummer from Black Sabbath, the dancer playing himself). She has serious forebodings of doom and so visits a carnival fortune teller to find out exactly what that doom is going to be. When Madam Estrella confirms that death is in the cards, Marge rushes out and knocks over Jerry, Ray Dennis Steckler himself under his acting pseudonym of Cash Flagg, who is at the carnival with his uptown girlfriend Angie. Jerry's from the wrong side of the tracks and he doesn't buy into the gypsy fortune telling angle, so the gypsy gets her sister Carmelita, who dances at the next door girly show, to get him backstage alone and hypnotise him into killing Marge.

Given that no film could ever live up to the wildness of this title and given that Rat Pfink a Boo Boo was such a unique trainwreck of a movie, I was expecting this one to be pretty awful. However, like Wild Guitar, it's far better than it ought to be because it's put together in such a deadpan way. It can't hurt that it plays out like a wild hallucination. Is this what acid trips feel like? No, it's not a good film, don't get me wrong, but it's fascinating viewing, because of the wealth of exotic material that's just thrown at the screen. I kept thinking that it was the cinematic equivalent of an abstract painting created by throwing cans of paint at the canvas then rolling around in the result.

Steckler is no actor but he looks enough like Nicolas Cage to make his peformances hypnotic. Would the Oscar winning Cage play this role any better than Steckler? Somehow I doubt it. Brett O'Hara relishes her role as Madam Estrella, all done up in gypsy makeup but somehow out of place in her surroundings. Don Russell is almost a puppet as Ortega, her assistant, with his rigid mask. Atlas King has such a thick accent he's often nigh on unintelligible as Jerry's friend Harold. Acid burned freaks (Madam Estrella's pets) flounce around like a avant garde dancing troupe. This entire film could even be seen as a performance art piece, where the dancers are ambition and ineptitude.

The biggest flaw (or hidden charm) is the continuity. Scenes begin and end without any care being given to where the soundtrack will kick in or cut off. The editing is truly wild. There's no consistency to the colours, the contrast, the soundtrack, anything. There's not even much consistency to many of the set pieces. Erina Enyo may look OK but she's a terrible stripper, and everything about her performance clashes: The moves, not that there are many moves, clash with the costume which clashes with the music. Meanwhile we hear a whooping audience of guys throughout her performance but see few people sitting there, most of whom are women and all of whom are quiet.

The effects are truly no budget but I can't help but enjoy how shameless they are. Cameras tilt and whirl or focus in on spinning cardboard wheels. Jerry gets hypnotised while his eyes are shut then goes through a surreal nightmare sequence which probably contains the best dancing in the film. There's lots of fast paced editing with weird sound effects and superimposed images of women with painted faces. His murderous rampage, once he escapes from the dream, is conducted with him in a hoodie looking remarkably like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. Knives don't go anywhere near where they should and people get strangled by having hands placed on their shoulders. What an amazing film. It's terrible but I want to rewind and watch it again.

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