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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Corpse Grinders (1971)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Sean Kenney, Monika Kelly, Sanford Mitchell and J Byron Foster
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.

Eight years after Blood Feast, along comes The Corpse Grinders with one of the most memorably awesome titles in all of exploitation cinema. Then again, it was made by Ted V Mikels, who had a talent for such things: how can any exploitation fan resist titles like Blood Orgy of the She Devils, The Black Klansman or The Astro-Zombies? The latter film stars John Carradine and Tura Satana, took thirteen months of Mikels' life and features everything but the kitchen sink. In comparison, The Corpse Grinders has a couple of cats and a corpse grinding machine that cost $17 to make. The most experienced actor in the cast was Vincent Barbi, an Italian ex-prize fighter who played Al Capone as far back as 1955 and proceeded to rack up small roles in films from War and Peace to Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, via The Blob and even Adam West's Batman. Yet this is the film that has gone down as Mikels' most remembered in a long career of filmmaking.

While the quality of his pictures is more than open to debate, Mikels is fascinating, as a man and as a filmmaker. He's an old time exploitation maestro, someone happy to make anything that will sell in the market at the time, whether it's a spy movie, a horror movie or just a movie about a bevy of violent women. Yet he's passionate about everything he does and is obviously a fan of his own material and the people who feature in it. He's totally in control of his pictures, as writer, director, producer, editor, you name it. He usually even supplies the equipment and sets, most obviously his castle in Glendale, CA, the gates of which serve as those of the Farewell Acres cemetery here. He's also business savvy and came up with one of the most astute things ever said about the movie industry. 'The easiest thing is making the film,' he suggests. 'The toughest thing is getting the money. The second toughest is getting it back.' Fortunately he found ways.

The Corpse Grinders actually sets itself up pretty well. We watch a cat violently attack her owner as she lets it in out of the rain. Over at the Farewell Acres cemetery, complete with convenient fog machines, Caleb bickers with Cleo over a grave. He's big and burly and looks like a mountain man. She's small and completely nuts, as evidenced by the fact that she coos over a little doll just like a baby, while Caleb tries to concentrate on how much Landau owes him for meat. Landau is a partner in Lotus Cat Food, so cheap a company that the sign is a poster on the wall in the main office and the employees appear to be escapees from an insane asylum. I'm sure it won't be too much of a stretch for you to put this three piece jigsaw puzzle together, with or without the help of the rather descriptive title. Yes, Caleb sells Landau corpses for him to grind up into cat food, only for the cats that eat it to turn on their owners. This isn't rocket science.

Where the joy lies is partly in this setup which is ludicrous but also, frankly, exploitation genius, and partly in the characters. Even when unsympathetic, they're all interesting. Caleb would be a textbook backwoods hick if only he wasn't sharing the screen with a lunatic redhead; Landau is as sleazy a businessman as you might imagine runs a company with a gloriously awful pun for a slogan: 'for cats who like people'. He and his partner trust each other so much that Maltby wants to split the cash two ways on a daily basis, so we just know that ruthless Landau is going to take care of weakling Maltby soon enough. While Caleb and Cleo are wild and crazy folk, they're still outdone by the employees at Lotus. Willie is insanely nervous and inquisitive and looks like my wife's ex-husband. Tessie has a shock of red hair and hobbles around on a crutch because she only has one leg. She's also deaf and dumb so Landau talks to her in sign language.

What's more, just as we start to conjure up visions of where these joyously outre characters are going to end up, we cut to a sexy nurse and a drunken doctor. We'd assume the TV had switched over to a daytime soap opera, but Nurse Angie Robinson is feeding her Siamese with Lotus Cat Food, so after Angie and Dr Howard Glass swap tongues and commiserate over his latest failed operation, little Baby Socks naturally attacks him without provocation. If we weren't distracted by the lovely Monika Kelly, who plays Angie, we'd see this as admirable plot progression, but she's just too easy on the eye. She's also something of a mystery: IMDb lists her as being born in 1921 but there's no way she's fifty in this picture. It also suggests that she was working in real estate in Las Vegas in 2003, apparently as a spritely 82 year old. The film's press pack suggests that this was her fifth film but only 1971's Love Minus One is listed anywhere. Who is this woman?
We'll get to see more of Nurse Angie and her inebriated boyfriend Dr Glass later, to discover just what their relationship is. She flirts outrageously with him while seeming to pull away physically. I get the impression that the actors really didn't like each other. First though, we must return to Lotus Cat Food to be treated to one of the greatest examples of PG exploitation in the history of film. Landau and Maltby pick up some bodies from Caleb to put through their corpse grinding machine, but this is far from the gorefest you might expect. We don't see anything bad, except Maltby lustily eyeing the corpse, but our minds fill in every gap. The grain goes into the hopper, but the corpses go onto a conveyor belt to be run through the huge machine, bizarrely in their underwear. I don't know what's worse to end up in catfood: a human body or its underwear! The room is bathed in red and green light, and the pureed corpse is brown. It's glorious misdirection.

In fact the entire film is glorious misdirection. The title indicates graphic violence and yet there's really nothing on screen that's inappropriate. Everything we see follows the same logic as this textbook corpse grinding scene: we see things like bodies, spinning steel and puree, but only our minds provide the connection between the three because none of it is actually shown on screen. The central storyline is about food for cats not people, but there are constant connections drawn between corpses and food to keep a cannibalistic thought in our brains. Cleo pours soup for her doll while Caleb counts the proceeds of his bodysnatching business; while his assistant cackles insanely, a mortician explains that the money Landau pays him for corpses will send him back to school to become a chef; once the heroes work out what's happening, they throw out man-eating tiger analogies. Yet we see more of the corpse grinding machine in the trailer than in the film.

There's no nudity, various ladies only disrobing down to their underwear. There's no swearing at all. There's really no gore either. The worst we get is probably a cat autopsy, which sees Dr Glass picking up fake intestines off the belly of a stuffed cat to examine. Sure, there's blood dabbed around the throat of Annie, the tomcat's owner, but we don't see the creature gnawing on her jugular and we certainly don't see spouts of blood afterwards. We just see a crazy lady on a bed and a wild wino with a big beard rushing up the stairs to rescue her when she screams. It's hardly X rated stuff. In fact once he takes Annie to Dr Glass and the now sober and manly doctor does some lab work, thus actually setting up the rest of the story, we can get ready for the most adult part of the film. When Angie and Howard go to the Food Adulteration Agency, we're treated to a bizarre picture on the wall, some sort of bondage fantasy that disappears in a later shot.

It seems strange to focus on inconsistencies when the underlying structure is so sound, every scene moving the story forward another inch, but this film is full of them. The FAA hasn't heard of Lotus Cat Food, but Angie explains that it's the most expensive on the market. Landau kills off characters who know too much, only to bury them instead of feed them into his corpse grinder. There's a scene at Lotus where dismembered bodies are scattered all over the place for effect but surely they'd grind those up too. They kill people without taking their clothes off first, so why would they remove legs and arms? Best of all is when Donna, the FAA secretary, goes home. She enters her apartment through the balcony, places a can of Lotus on the kitchen counter for her Siamese to lick but forgets to open it. Yet five minutes after she strips down to her underwear to pose on the couch, I mean relax with the TV and a Budweiser, the cat attacks her anyway.

Of course I can hardly fail to mention the change in Dr Howard Glass. When we meet him, he's a surgeon who gets drunk at work because of 'hazards of the trade' and whose girlfriend doesn't seem to want to touch him, but without any background change he suddenly becomes a capable scientist able to make wild but needed intuitive leaps, a full on 70s movie star prototype: strong and capable, with a knitted sweater and a moustache. He's more than happy to follow his sexy nurse around town investigating, presumably because she's so fond of her little Baby Socks that she can't accept that it doesn't like her boyfriend. She changes too, daring and determined like many Mikels leading ladies for most of the film, only to go all screamy and girly when in real danger. Landau is sane all the way through the picture, just a particularly ruthless businessman, but when it all falls apart he goes completely wacko. There must be something in the air.
In fact there must have been something in the air back in 1971 for the screenwriters to go this wild with. Mikels wrote many of his scripts, but he bought this one, settling instead for producing, directing and editing, along with handling all the sound and music, presumably from his large stock library. One writer was Arch Hall Sr, earning his final credit after a magic decade writing and producing many bizarre gems aimed at making his son, Arch Hall Jr, into a bona fide star, including Eegah and Wild Guitar. He also co-produced The Thrill Killers with Ray Dennis Steckler. Hall's partner was Joseph Cranston, who had produced Trauma in 1962 (not the later film by Dario Argento) and co-written the original story for The Crawling Hand in 1963. Whether Hall and Cranston conjured up the wild and wonderful characters or whether Mikels did, I wished they all had more screen time and some could even have been spun off into other stories.

I'm guessing that many of them weren't designed until the actors showed up. Mikels didn't have a lot of money for this film so all the salaries were deferred, thus ensuring that the actors hired were generally the ones who were willing to work for no money. Many volunteered to be corpses though not all of them were ground. Charles 'Foxy' Fox wandered in and Mikels knew he had to be in the picture, even though he hadn't acted since The Undertaker and His Pals in 1966, that film coincidentally reissued as part of a triple bill with The Corpse Grinders and an Italian picture called The Embalmer. I'd love to see him in more films but I'd like to see Ann Noble and Drucilla Hoy even more. Noble is the joyously insane Cleo, but she only made one more picture, Sins of Rachel, though as both writer and lead actor. Drucilla Hoy, so memorable here as Tessie the deaf mute cripple, also only made one other film, 1969's Sinner's Blood.

Beyond the characters, who often either come to a gruesome demise or just wander off screen not to return, there's not too much to sustain this film. It's surprisingly capable, a solid though obviously very low budget, B movie with plenty of cheesy acting, but if it wasn't for the tone of taboo that permeates the film because of the very subject matter, it would actually be a little boring. It unfolds slowly but surely, without too much fuss or surprise. The camerawork is very traditional, hardly surprising given that Mikels had to teach first time cameraman Bill Anneman how to operate the camera during the shoot. It's surprisingly capable but hardly jazzy. The only time anything gets jazzy is when the red and green spots are hauled in or when Mikels does a sort of fast cut editing. This begins during the credits as we flash forward to things we haven't seen yet and gets strange during Cleo's death scene as it makes her look like a blow up doll.

Somehow The Corpse Grinders made a lot of money, which probably surprised all the actors who weren't really expecting to be paid. Mikels had even talked a studio rental company into letting him film there on a deferred payment, against the owner's better judgement. He's explained in a number of interviews that after the film did so well, grossing $190,000 in a single week in the greater Los Angeles area alone, he delivered a cheque to the studio owner, who pointed out that it was the first time he'd ever allowed shooting on deferment and still got paid. I wonder what audiences at the time found so engaging. It can't have been the trailer, because there's nothing gruesome in the picture that isn't also in the trailer. It certainly isn't the acting, because that's hardly outstanding, ranging from capable at very best to outrageous. Sean Kenney has moments as Dr Glass but little charisma. Only Monika Kelly really has that and she can't carry the film.

I think what makes The Corpse Grinders so special is that it has heart. It's an exploitation picture that thrives on its outrageously vile theme, men buying corpses and killing homeless guys just to make catfood, but the way it goes about telling this story is so nice. Horror movies had generally been relatively polite affairs for decades but that was changing. Gore movies had been thriving since Blood Feast and the increasing freedom given filmmakers in the early seventies allowed them to get really explicit. Yet here was a film that suggested everything but ended up mild and homely, more reminiscent of old black and white flicks than a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest. Nurse Angie is textbook classic Hollywood, just a little stronger than usual as Mikels loves strong women. So while I should be disappointed at how little this film delivers, I think I see it more like a fifties movie with a serious edge. It's gruesome fun, exquisite bad taste at 20 cents a pound.

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