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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Monstrosity (1964)

Director: Joseph Mascelli
Stars: Marjorie Eaton and Frank Gerstle
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I just couldn't resist following up The Brain That Wouldn't Die with The Atomic Brain to make a double helping of brains, even though this film was originally titled Monstrosity only to perhaps be renamed because the original title described the picture too well. Both films ponder the same theme, the old chestnut about mad transplant surgeons, and both come down firmly on the side that it's immoral, unethical and unforgivable. How quaint we were back in the sixties when it came to such things, but then this film was co-written by no less than four writers and directed by Ray Dennis Steckler's cinematographer. Having four writers generally makes the best script turn to mush and it isn't surprising that Joseph Mascelli never directed again. He kept busy for a while on Steckler's films, with 1964 also seeing him lens Strange Compulsion, The Thrill Killers and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

The mad scientist here is Dr Otto Frank, because he presumably dropped the obvious last seven letters of his surname when coming through Ellis Island. However we don't hear him speak for a while because we're stuck listening to narration from the distinguished but uncredited Bradford Dillman instead. This is interminable, as inane as any Ed Wood movie and confusing to boot. We quickly assume it's there because Mascelli forgot to turn the sound on during the shoot, or to extend the vague physical similarity between experienced actor Frank Gerstle and Boris Karloff, a similarity we just know isn't going to extend to a sophisticated English accent. Yet characters start speaking when we least expect it, making this feel disjointed like a silent movie that got caught up in the sound wave at the last minute. Dillman tries to give us a framework for the story but succeeds only at not cracking up at the sheer inanity of the lines he has to read.

'Is the next step the transplantation of the human brain?' he asks us. 'Many scientists answer yes, but they pause and add a grim warning.' Fair enough, right? We really should listen to the grim warnings of scientists as they're the experts on such matters and have a firm grip on how they will affect the regular non-scientists among us. So, what are the grim warnings here? Well, Dillman continues on. 'For in the ancient folk legends, tales are told of blood-sucking vampires, crawling out of graves to live on the bodies of helpless victims. Is man now doomed to produce a race of ever-living monstrosities worse than the vampires of legend?' OK, so either this is a new meaning of the word 'science' that I was hitherto blissfully unaware of or those four writers took turns, one line at a time, and had fun messing with each other's heads. To be fair though, Frank is doing a pretty good job at producing ever-living monstrosities as we soon discover.

Dr Frank's thing seems to be grafting living animal brains into human corpses, which is a strange hobby as hobbies go. The corpses are cute, of course, because what's the point of being a mad scientist if you can't have an endless supply of cute female subjects for your experiments? Well, at least as cute as you can persuade to strip off naked and stand in a B movie cyclotron. Hang on, pick your jaw back up off the floor! This cyclotron has conveniently placed metal bands to hide all the juicy bits because exploitation films of the sixties were generally about hinting at the salacious rather than showing it, by necessity of course. The bodies come from the Greenhaven cemetery, through good old fashioned body snatching, but it's becoming a little dangerous given that Dr Frank takes one of his montrosities with him, a man who spontaneously sprouted tusks somehow when he was gifted with the brain of a dog. The dog man kills the night watchman.
All this time we haven't heard anyone speak, just Dillman. It takes a long while before we hear the actual voice of one of the characters, amazingly well over seven minutes, and even then it isn't Dr Frank. It's Hetty March, his employer, who Dillman describes as a 'miserly old woman brooding upstairs in her bedroom'. Really she's the driving force behind everything, a twisted old woman right out of The Twilight Zone who's obsessed with perpetuating her own life through any means necessary. She has it all planned out too. She'll hire servants from foreign countries so nobody will notice them disappear. She'll draw up her will to leave everything to one of them, then she'll have Dr Frank transplant her brain into the nubile young body of her chosen servant and take over her life. She even has a resident gigolo called Victor to take care of her every whim but has every intention to dump him when young and pretty enough to pick and choose.

The actress given the role is Marjorie Eaton, who plays Hetty with relish, sniping at everyone with the unassailable attitude of the very rich. It helps that she spends much of her time in her wheelchair and with her long face, hawkish nose and cruel mouth looks like nothing less than Alastair Sim playing Davros, the withered creator of the Daleks in Doctor Who. Eaton was a very talented actress, though unfortunately she had a tendency to play small parts in big pictures and big parts in small pictures, so while her filmography looks impressive, she was uncredited in movies like The Snake Pit, Witness for the Prosecution and Bullitt, but prominent in others like Zombies of Mora Tau, Night Tide and The Atomic Brain. She deserved better. On the flipside, Frank Fowler who passively absorbs all her barbs as Victor, her ill fated companion and gigolo, earned his only film credit here, after two uncredited appearances over the previous decade.

We spend surprisingly little time watching Miss March, Victor and Dr Frank, given that they really drive the plot, and more time watching the three young ladies who answer the call for servants and don't ask the right questions until it's far too late. They're supposedly international in origin: Nina (bizarrely pronounced Niner) Rhodes is supposedly Austrian, Beatrice Mullins is English and Anita Gonzalez is presumably Mexican, but actresses Erika Peters, Judy Bamber and Lisa Lang change their accents so frequently that we just give up believing their nationalities. Peters had some experience in the genre, having previously appeared in House of the Damned and William Castle's Mr Sardonicus, but she doesn't give any impression at being comfortable with this sort of material. It's not surprising to find that this was her last film. It was Bamber's last film too, a full five years after Roger Corman's joyous A Bucket of Blood. This was Lang's only feature.

While Nina probably gets most screen time, Bea is the one that becomes the focus, not just of Miss March but of most of the crew too. It can't hurt that she seems to be at least a foot taller than the rest of them, but she also claims to have the same measurements as Marilyn Monroe. She certainly seems to have the same ditzy brain too but not that much of the charisma. She can't even kick off her heels when she's lying down. The cameraman seems to keep aiming her way, the scriptwriters come up with scenes for her to stand out and the composer of the score seems to be obsessed. Every time Bea does something remotely sexy, like walking suggestively in front of the camera or bouncing on a bed, suddenly there's a glockenspiel to emphasise just how well suggestive parts of her body bounce. There can't be too many B pictures of this era where you can close your eyes and have the soundtrack suggest to you just how her tush jiggles.
For a mad scientist flick, there's really not a heck of lot of mad science and that's a bad thing when the eye candy doesn't seem to have the slightest clue how to engage us in their bonding and inept attempts at escape. All the memories I have of this film from watching it six years ago revolve around Dr Frank's bizarre transplants which got more bizarre over the passage of time. Viewing afresh I realise that while they may be bizarre, they're really not given much attention and they're not particularly worthy of the memory. Sure, he transplants the brain of his favourite cat into the body of Anita Gonzalez, for reasons that escape me, and he proves the success of the operation by having her catch and eat a mouse in front of Miss March, though she doesn't play with it for a single moment. Lisa Lang bizarrely plays a better cat than she does a Mexican, but there are so many opportunities for the character that are woefully ignored.

In fact the whole film plays out like a woefully ignored set of opportunities. Even when events get interesting, they're not followed up on. The one thing Anita does as a cat, except fall off a roof, is to scratch out one of Bea's eyes from the top of a gazebo, but all the great possibilities that spring from that are lost in the fact that the film was shot in a mere ten days and there's almost no budget for effects. If I wasn't hallucinating by the time the film reached its climax, Bea may just have been electrocuted by her own eyeball, but if that's the case it was hardly dwelt upon with the appropriate level of gruesome exploitation. I won't spoil what happens to Hetty March except to say that it's an appropriate irony but, as always, it's underexploited and badly phrased and so another really cool concept ends up almost boring in its exposition. It's really sad to say that a film with this much promise ends up boring, but it's God's honest truth.

We don't even spend much time in Dr Frank's mad scientist lab, which is insane because his cyclotron is a pretty cool device as B movie lab equipment goes. It whirrs and mists up and feels vaguely important, even if he forgot to build in a safety release handle or an emergency exit in case the door shuts on him while he's inside. He does let early experiments wander around the lab like zombies so it could hardly have escaped his mind as a possibility. Then again, he's so bizarrely inconsistent with his scientific genius that he builds a nuclear bomb into the cyclotron in case anyone comes poking around. He mentions this to Hetty March to make her feel better about the possibility of police tracking his body snatching exploits to her house. 'Close the circut breaker,' he points out, 'and in a matter of minutes this house and any evidence it might contain becomes a radioactive hole in the ground.' Wow! Vaporisation as a way to avoid suspicion!

In fact, come to think of it, is that what really happened in the Gulf of Mexico? Someone came snooping around the Deepwater Horizon and a scientist with a guilty conscience closed the circuit breaker to trigger a nuclear explosion and turn it into a radioactive hole in the Gulf? Suddenly everything becomes clear! Talk about learning the wrong things from movies. In all seriousness though, it's hard to imagine what anyone could learn from this movie except how to magically turn something that is inherently sleazy and exploitative into something boring. The first seven minutes alone are precisely what the doctor ordered, with naked corpses, gibberish gadgetry and outlandish experiments, but perhaps Dr Frank left the real script behind that statue at Greenhaven cemetery to replace the night watchman's bottle. Maybe the first seven minutes was written by the only writer who had a clue, even though he forgot to add speech.

The next chunk of the film is the exposition of Miss March's devious plan and it's certainly one that's worthy of a movie. Marjorie Eaton throws out snipes and barbs like they're going out of fashion and ventures well over the creepy line with her attention to her new servants' vital statistics. At one point she has Bea dressed in a towel and starts lowering it to look down her crack. At another she complains when Bea walks up one of the many flights of stairs in the vast March mansion, because she doesn't want her to develop any of those ugly muscles in her legs. Somehow Bea doesn't trigger to any of these hints that something creepy is going on inside the skull of her new employer and just giggles like an idiot. Maybe she's just following the blonde stereotype or maybe those Marilyn measurements have gone to her head. Whatever the reason, all the glorious creepiness that could have exuded from every pore of these scenes just doesn't.

For a while we watch various laws of physics and internal consistency broken into pieces. Miss March gets out of her wheelchair and descends the endless staircase to the basement and the two remaining girls follow without their high heels making a single sound. Then again this house has bizarre acoustics given that nobody hears Anita scream indoors but everyone hears the dog man attack one of the walking corpses outside. When we realise that all bets are off and open ourselves up to the potential for aliens to beam down and take over, we get all serious again and start looking at ways to scupper the villain's dastardly plot. Even here we get bones instead of flesh and have to console ourselves with a rapid fire finalé that leaves us wondering just how much this quartet of writers cared about telling a story and how much they just wanted it to all be over. When four writers apparently just don't care, you can't help but wonder why you should.

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