Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

Director: Ferenc Leroget
Stars: Harrison Pebbles, Deborah Spray and Sally Parfait
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.

Is there any better location in which to set a monster movie than a naturist colony? A Nazi death camp would provide opportunity for fetishistic sleaze in black leather, but using a nudist camp preserves all the innocence of the old school monsters while gifting us with copious quantities of naked female flesh. The Monster of Camp Sunshine is a terrible movie, make no mistake about that, but it's also a truly surreal, bizarre and unique picture that deserves all those adjectives and more. Unlike most of the Z grade movies I've reviewed for Cinematic Hell, this is one I'd truly recommend you see, just for the experience. Apparently sincere in its message about naturism, its tongue is nonetheless firmly in its cheek when it comes to the monster and it goes full out holy batshit insane when it feels like it. The last fifteen minutes is sheer outsider genius and it takes something truly special nowadays to make this reviewer exclaim, 'What just happened?'

I'm still trying to fathom what just happened and I've let this film soak into my brain for a couple of days. It's inept but it's inept in a strangely talented way and it still doesn't seem real to me. I've come to the tentative conclusion that it was made by a set of highly talented people, merely ones whose talents aren't in moviemaking. Nothing is easily explained and everything generates questions. For a start, it has an obvious joy in the past, half of the film set up as a silent movie, complete with histrionic intertitles; but it's inherently forward looking, with its social commentary about animal rights, environmental horror and the freeing power of naturism. It's also feminist in having two liberated female leads who work in the big city and share a flat after being matched up by IBM cards. Claire is a progressive model, daring enough to pose for photos in a topless swimsuit. Marta is a nurse and research assistant at an animal experimentation laboratory.

They're also both naturists, as is suggested by an introductory text that might have been written by Oscar Wilde's ghost. 'The motion picture that follows is a fable,' it says. 'In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.' Confucious, he say strip. This pair spend their naked time at Camp Sunshine, which is run by a friend of theirs called Susannah York. No, not that one. It's a low key affair with a surprisingly dodgy gate, so low key that it's probably the real house of one of the cast members. It takes us a while to get there, as we're treated to a number of background stories first that are as admirable in their attempts to flesh out a real plot as they are completely inept in their denouement. I don't know whether to hold this up as a classic example of how even the worst movies should at least try to make sense or as a classic example of why most of them should never even bother.

So we watch Claire and Marta waking up in the morning, so addicted to nicotine that they have an ashtray hanging from the ceiling to raise up and down between their bunk beds. Marta's up and at 'em even though she had a bad night after watching Monster from the Hairy Planet and Dracula Meets the Beatles the night before. Those ghastly horror movies give her the creeps, though I'd pay to see that double bill. She doesn't like Claire's spooky music either, even though the girls call themselves peas in a pod. Continuity is not this film's strong suit, trust me. It took me a lot of rewinding to realise that the entire plot didn't unfold a year earlier in flashback after being set into motion in the present. It's about to be triggered by Marta dropping a mirror, thus prompting 'an adventure that came as close to costing us our lives as a hound dog comes to a treed coon.' So says Claire, who is our narrator when the intertitles don't do better.

The girls' reaction to seven years bad luck is more akin to being told about impending nuclear apocalypse and next thing you know Claire gets scratched by a cat. It's just one of those days, but they head off to work anyway. Marta goes to her animal research lab, full of thousands of rats and mice and 'half crazy animals with sharp little teeth'. Apparently the girls think it's a freaky place, full of stuff that 'upset the delicate balance of nature', but hey, it's a paycheck, right? Claire goes to a studio high up in one of New York's skyscrapers but it's just a tiny room with a wooden chair and a couch and a secretary outside, just enough space to strip off as soon as she arrives so she can wander out onto the patio to be photographed. Mostly this unfolds without sound, just Claire's overdubbed narration and inappropriately sexy jazz music, with hints of action that we aren't going to get. There's lots of nudism but no sex in this movie.

A different sort of action arrives, just as we aren't expecting it. 'Marta is about to go through the worst experience of her life,' warns the narration as she takes a cage of white mice out of the racks and puts it on a desk, accidentally turning on some sort of toxic water cooler overhead. 'Their killer instincts are unleashed,' reads the intertitle. Yes, this thoroughly liberated woman is afraid of white mice, and I mean really afraid, though to be fair someone off screen does actively throw the things at her. She climbs screaming out of the window to hang from the ledge by her fingernails, many storeys above ground. Now, I understand that some women are afraid of white mice, however stereotypical that may seem, but how many of them really choose to work in animal experimentation labs? It would hardly seem to be the best career choice given the circumstances, even more inappropriate than appearing in a movie that doesn't get released.

It's here that we finally get to visit Camp Sunshine, in a flashback prompted by Claire trying to calm Marta down from the shocking events of her day. Yes, we get a flashback in a nudie cutie monster movie, one to show how Claire stumbled onto Marta's stash of Urban Nudist mags and became initiated into the scene. Mostly it's just an excuse to finally show us naked bodies, given that we've got twenty minutes in without a hint of a naked girl or a monster. Even then we see male butt first, as some guy is apparently playing croquet with himself in what may be a crime in more than one southern state. By the time Claire finally strips off in her room we realise why she waited this long though. Those aren't nipples, they're dangerous weapons and she's liable to poke someone's eyes out with them. I should add here that we only see breasts and butts, no full frontal nudity, hardly surprising for 1964 but somehow still a little quaint for a naturist movie.

Camp Sunshine also seems to offer a clothing optional environment rather than require nudism by mandate. Susannah, the owner, struts around in a pair of jeans, and her halfwit half brother fortunately stays clothed throughout. He's Hugo, a rather large sweaty gentleman, who takes care of the gardening. 'There was something about his looks that gave me a chill,' says Claire, though she's told there isn't a mean streak in him anywhere. Apparently nobody notices how threateningly he waves his secateurs at people. Guess who the monster of Camp Sunshine is going to be. For now he's just the halfwit half brother as the naked folks frolic around with box kites and go swimming in the river. I'm all for naked girls in movies but this flashback just goes on and on, so much so that we start to wonder about the plot and that really can't be good. By now writer Ferenc Leroget is getting a little sloppy though, so we'll be back naked before long.

It's plot convenience time and do we have a doozy for you. Dr Harrison, who talks far more like a pulp villain than a doctor, rants on to Marta about 'a million to one shot', 'some combination of vicious substances' and how he thanks 'the great surgeon in the sky that it happened to rats and didn't happen to human beings.' He even tells her how thankful he is that they have scientific techniques to get rid of such 'vile, vicious substances'. You know, like taking a sniff of the vial and then running over the road to hurl it into the Hudson river, that sort of scientific technique. Sure enough, it's promptly fished back out by some yokel with a straw hat and a pipe who likes catching hot water bottles and bicycle tyres and vials of foul smelling liquid. This moron puts it in a bucket on the tailgate of his truck so he can drive a couple of hours to his next stop and knock it into the stream, conveniently right next door to Camp Sunshine. Wow, who'da thunk it?

Thus far it's been technically flawed, to say the least, especially with regards to the sound. Some parts are louder than others. The lipsynching is terrible. One line is overlaid with feedback so we can't even understand the words. Yet just as the plot is rapidly falling apart from a carefully set up character based monster story to an overly convenient mess of a parody, the sound takes a turn for the crazier too. Of course Hugo the halfwit half brother goes fishing in the stream and Susannah arrives just in time for him to start gibbering like a chimp. I swear this is audio footage from a jungle movie and given where we're going to end up, that wouldn't surprise me at all. We only have to watch Claire model an awful topless bathing suit for Ken, her photographer, before we can get down to the true insanity. She does model it on the roof against the New York skyline where we wonder how strange it is to miss the World Trade Center before it was ever built.
I know far too little about nudie cuties, a short lived genre spearheaded by Russ Meyer with The Immoral Mr Teas in 1959. Exploitation filmmakers working outside the major studio system were not subject to the restrictions of the Production Code, so could happily throw naked bodies into their pictures; but they were subject to local obscenity laws, so had to be very careful about how they did so or they might just end up in a small town jail for exhibiting 'pornography'. Films with invented educational intent went a long way, fake documentaries about naturist camps or jungle natives went further, but not until The Immoral Mr Teas was there really a widely seen film with both naked women and a plot. Needless to say, it was a huge hit and directors like Bob Creese, Doris Wishman and Herschell Gordon Lewis churned out films full of people John Waters called 'happy, healthy idiots on pogo sticks with airbrushed crotches.' By 1964 the genre was dead.

Nudie cuties died for various reasons. Most obviously, the roughie came along, the sort of violent and often explicit sexploitation film that set the stage for the unique excesses of the seventies. Compared to Nazi abuse movies, women in prison films and rape revenge flicks, nudie cuties are as tame as they come. While some contained innocence and a naughty charm, most contained nothing but average looking naked bodies playing volleyball, intrinsically indistinguishable from each other. Also, perhaps they were inherently doomed to failure. I've never been to a naturist camp but I've read enough to know that they thrive through avoiding sexuality. If you introduce sex into the picture then you have a whole new ballgame, pun not intended, and that's what nudie cuties really were: a reminder of sex in an intrinsically non-sexual environment. So they became a short lived quaint genre that raises an eyebrow and reminds of a more innocent time.

The Monster of Camp Sunshine came along just as the nudie cutie was becoming extinct, which may be one reason why it disappeared so quickly itself. Apparently the folks at Something Weird found the 35mm negative on the top shelf of an old film vault, where it had possibly sat since it had been made, never having previously seen the light of day. Unfortunately a gap of 29 years between production and release means that it's nigh on impossible to discover anything about the film and the people who made it. Most, if not all, are credited under pseudonyms. Harrison Pebbles? Sally Parfait? How about Ron Cheney Jr? Nobody seems to have made another picture, only producer Gene Kearney earning any other credits, like for writing Night of the Lepus. What's more, if anyone involved had ever exhibited the slightest curiosity about this bizarre chapter of their past, they've apparently chosen not to speak up and claim their place in the spotlight.

In fact there's such a wall of silence surrounding this film that it's hard not to start conjuring up conspiracy theories. Making a movie, whatever its quality, is such an event that you don't just forget it for the rest of your life. It's hard to believe that, with Google to aid nostalgic yearnings, nobody ever searched for this and left a comment on IMDb about how it really wasn't all that bad or how it was funded by a Baptist church or how Camp Sunshine is real. Even if the cast all died young, possibly from lung cancer given how much they smoke, surely someone kept a diary to pique the interest of relatives who can rave on Facebook about some strange film that Aunt Alice was in that's on sale at Amazon. After all, Harold Warren put on his Manos cape every Halloween because he was so proud of his 'masterpiece', Don Barton attends screenings of Zaat. Even after becoming famous, Shirley Mills talked about the positive change that Child Bride had brought.

So how come there's nothing at all about The Monster of Camp Sunshine? Sure, it was released 29 years late but it's still been in the marketplace for 17 years and it stands alone as an artistic statement, terrible but fascinating in ways that most Z grade movies aren't. It may have been a late nudie cutie but it was groundbreaking in other regards. As a monster movie set in a nudist camp it anticipates slasher movies and other future sexploitation genres, standing alongside a select few titles like House on Bare Mountain, Kiss Me Quick! and The Beast That Killed Women. It opens with Terry Gilliam-esque animated title credits, five years before Monty Python's Flying Circus came along and shook up everything. It has a subtitle, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature, which is a dig at Kubrick's film adaptation of Dr Strangelove the same year which preserved the subtitle of the novel, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Another topical connection makes me wonder all the more just who was involved. The topless bathing suit was invented the summer this film was made by Rudy Gernreich, an avowed nudist. His muse was a model named Peggy Moffitt, who looks a little like Claire, down to the prominent nipples she displays in the famous photograph of Gernreich's monokini. Moffitt was married to photographer William Claxton, who looks a little like Ken and who had a tendency to shoot his wife or other subjects, like actress Natalie Wood, on rooftops against the New York City skyline. Claxton was also noted for his work with jazz musicians, who provide most of the film's score. I spent some time comparing photos of these people with stills from the film and I don't believe that Deborah Spray and Ron Cheney Jr are really Moffitt and Claxton, but I have no doubt that they play characters based on them. Spray is also obviously a model rather than an actress.

The credited writer and director is Ferenc Leroget, maybe a real name given that it doesn't seem to translate to anything but maybe not given that he seems to be the only Leroget in existence. Perhaps it's an anagram. If Ray Dennis Steckler hadn't been so honest about all his pseudonyms I'd wonder if he was Leroget, as the timing is right and this feels like his sort of inconsistency. It's technically vastly inconsistent, half a silent movie with intertitles and half a regular sound film with dialogue, and it has a flavour of the DIY filmmaking of today, with highly opportunistic use of amateur actors, stock footage and whatever sets or locations became available at any point in time. Also, I can't help but believe that, like many Steckler pictures, this one had a script that evolved wildly over the duration of the shoot, possibly because it was shot mostly in order. And so to the ending, which is truly something out of Ed Wood's wet dreams.

We end up back at Camp Sunshine, of course, where halfwit Hugo is now chained up in a chalet. Claire and Marta wander around, strip naked and wonder where everyone else is, as the music turns into a Tom and Jerry soundtrack (or Foghorn Leghorn when we get to Oh! Susanna). They party with Ken and his girlfriend Laurie, who they brought along with them because it might do her good. She's the secretary at the studio Claire works at, who couldn't dream of taking her clothes off in front of anyone. She stays shy while the rest of them find ever more innovative ways to hide their genitals (why use a straw hat when you can use an autoharp) and eventually wanders off down to the river to strip off in solitude and get stalked by the monster. Yes, Hugo has escaped, and only the broken sound could explain why Laurie doesn't hear this 300 pound zombie chimp monster clad in loose chains stomping around behind her with an axe.

Eventually Susannah turns up to explain that 'mah brahther's a mahnster' and prompt all hell to break loose. Trust me, that isn't much of an understatement. The monster shows up as they're celebrating Claire's birthday, naked with sparklers, and all the girls break bottles over his head. Ken turns into Rambo, complete with machine gun, sticks of dynamite and an insanely large pair of underpants. Dr Harrison arrives by parachute, landing on a van like Captain Chaos. They call the authorities, which means one guy in fatigues and a nametag reading Bat Guano, plus every branch of the armed forces the filmmakers could find in stock footage. 'A monster?' he cries, 'In a nudist camp?' In rush the cavalry, literally, men on horses with sabres, though it's hardly the place for horses given that this is now a true warzone, complete with barbed wire, anti aircraft guns, amphibious vehicles, cannon, air raid sirens, the works. Blink and you'll miss a war.

It becomes something akin to Saving Private Ryan with bouncing breasts, which is far from a bad thing in itself, but it comes out of nowhere and refuses to quit. A nudie cutie monster movie suddenly turns into the mother of all war movie mashups because, well, because it could. Day becomes night, night becomes day, nobody really knows what's going on but they all take their opportunity to flounce around topless in front of the camera as the military folks strut their stock footage stuff. 'And that's all that's left of the monster of Camp Sunshine,' Harrison somehow manages to say entirely deadpan, as the armed forces vanish into the mist and he locates the monster's tiny brain, the only bit remaining to kick dirt over. Anyone watching this will want to leave their seat for the first boring hour, but if they make it to the end, they'll be stuck there for ten minutes after the film finishes, still seated in sheer shock. What just happened, indeed.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Chained for Life (1951)

Directors: Harry L Fraser
Stars: The Hilton Sisters
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.

We're here to be entertained and take our minds off things, says Judge Mitchell, but I wish I could take my mind off this. It's a unique story full of fascinating moral and legal questions that centre around a pair of Siamese twins committing murder and matrimony. Some are posed on the wild publicity material. 'What happens in their intimate moments?' the posters ask us. 'Is it legal to marry a Siamese twin?' 'Can they have a normal love life?' You'd think it was a porn film from all this salacious hype but it's far from that. It's a low budget exploitation picture from 1951, loosely based on real events in the lives of the Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet. Yes, long before Paris and Nicky there were Daisy and Violet, and they were as unlike the modern Hiltons as you could comfortably imagine. By all accounts they were pleasant, intelligent, talented ladies who simply happened to share a circulatory system. They're the Siamese twins from Tod Browning's Freaks.

Unfortunately, even a full day after I subjected myself to this film I'm at a loss to fully explain how utterly wrong it goes. Even if it was made by idiots who couldn't work out how to point a camera, turn on a microphone or write in coherent sentences, it should still have something to keep us intrigued. How it could have ended up this wasted, I can't quite fathom. After all, it has a pair of Siamese twins playing a pair of Siamese twins. How can anyone go wrong with that? They even play themselves, at least sort of. Daisy and Violet Hilton play Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, but the events that take place are mostly their events, the pair having lived a rather amazing life together, one that would be well worth a real biopic. Yet somehow writer Nat Tanchuck and director Harry L Fraser systematically removed every fascinating snippet, every salacious situation, every cult moment of their entire lives and showed us all the boring bits in between.

Needless to say Chained for Life was a huge failure. It flopped horribly, even a widespread ban not helping the publicity machine that should have thrived on it. Amazingly it was banned for its lurid nature, even though there isn't a single lurid moment anywhere to be found. In fact it feels like it was deliberately shorn of every hint of such a thing, as if it was an exploitation flick utterly ashamed to be an exploitation flick. It isn't that it doesn't live up to the hype. Exploitation flicks aren't supposed to live up to the hype, that's why they're called exploitation flicks. But surely there should be something! There's a scene where the twins sit up in bed to talk about their lives and how a hypothetical separation would change them. If the crew had left the room while they talked to each other, the camera quietly capturing it, it would have been gripping and poignant. Instead an overblown script murders it all. These Siamese twins aren't even allowed to be real.

The whole thing unfolds in flashback, from Judge Mitchell's courtroom, where Vivian sits accused of murder. This is an awesome setup: just think about it. One Siamese twin is apparently guilty of cold blooded murder but the other is as innocent as a lamb. If that's the court's judgement, then what happens next? They can't only lock one twin up. They can't only fry one in the electric chair. Blackstone's formulation suggests that it's 'better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,' but how do you apply that here? Unless both twins are found guilty of the very same crime, one has to be assumed innocent before the trial even begins. What's the point of having a trial if a guilty verdict can't be acted upon? What if the guilty twin took out a twelve gauge shotgun and killed the judge in his courtroom with the lawyers and the jury all witnesses to the act? They still couldn't sentence her to any punishment without an innocent suffering.

There are so many permutations to this that it sends the mind reeling, but how many do you think Chained for Life decides to explore? That's right. None. Not a sausage. In the minds of the filmmakers, why would anyone care about legal loopholes to organised massacre when they can watch a man riding around a stage backwards on a bicycle for five minutes instead. No, I'm not kidding. There's enough substance to the Hilton Sisters' lives for this to be a three hour movie but no, we break off for a trick cycling stuntman. We see Whitey Roberts too, who tap dances and juggles, all at the same time, and Tony Lovello, a man who plays classical tunes like the William Tell Overture at breakneck speed on a button accordion. They're all mildly amusing but they have as much to do with the story at hand as the stock footage audience. I can understand the sappy love songs Daisy and Violet duet on, but they aren't even given decent songs to sing.
The only man with any connection to the so called plot is Andre Pariseau, a sharpshooter who performs basic feats for us to be underwhelmed by. He's literally the least interesting character on the bill but he looks a little like Jeremy Irons and he thinks he has some Latin charm, so when the sisters' manager decides to set up a publicity marriage, he's apparently the man who can. Hinkley is a run of the mill sleazy manager, suitably played by Allen Jenkins, who was one of my favourite Warner Brothers supporting actors in the thirties. He looks tired here, not because he's too old for he had a quarter of a century left in him and wouldn't even become Officer Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons for another decade yet, but because he knows just how bad this material is. He served as able support to Cagney, Robinson and Bogart, but here he was stuck under Mario Laval who never acted again. He must have really needed a payday. I hope it worked out.

Of course, we're supposed to believe that Andre really falls in love with Dorothy, not just to play along with the scam Hinkley sets up but because that's amore, and we're supposed to believe that Dorothy falls for him right back. We may buy that these two actors share the same screen on occasion but we don't buy them sharing anything else, least of all chemistry. Worse, Vivian has to get upset at her sister for being a sap over him. That doesn't work at all, not just because they're obviously good people who don't want to get upset with anyone, least of all each other, but because they're real Siamese twins. I'd think that if Mother Nature attached you to someone else by the butt cheek, from birth to death, so that you even had to share the same toilet bowl, you'd get over the whole upset thing really quick too. The Hilton Sisters couldn't take time outs. They were stuck with each other, for better or worse, and better was the only realistic option.

By the way, here's where the lurid and sensational story turns out to be a damp squib compared to the truth. In real life Daisy and Violet were socialites, albeit nothing like Paris and Nicky. Violet had an eye for the celebrities, working through musicians and boxers before becoming engaged to Maurice Lambert, who was a bandleader. The legal shenanigans that Dorothy and Andre have to go through In Chained for Life are a fictionalised version of what Violet and Maurice got stuck with in real life: refusals from 21 states to issue a marriage license. Some thought it was bigamy, others refused because Daisy wasn't engaged too. Two years later, long after that relationship was over, the sisters' agent found a way to make it happen, so Violet married a long term friend, Jim Moore, on the 50 yard line of the Cotton Bowl at the Texas Centennial Exposition. Daisy got married a few years later. None of the marriages lasted, but they didn't actually shoot anyone.

Where exploitation flicks usually play up the sensational, this one tries to hide it. The Vivian and Andre marriage scam is a combination of Violet and Maurice, Violet and Jim and maybe even Daisy and bandleader Jack Lewis or dancer Harold Estep, but it's boring. The stage of the Bijou Theatre isn't quite the 50 yard line of the Cotton Bowl, after all. There's no fortune and fame, no Bob Hope or Harry Houdini, no mention of the twins both being named as co-respondents in a divorce case because they may have been playing around with their married advance agent. We get a vague idea that Hinkley's publicity stunt worked because the Bijou is soon in its third week of standing room only shows, and we get a love triangle. Yes, Andre serenades Dorothy over the phone then gets up close and personal with his stage assistant, the supposedly lovely Renée, who tries to be exotic even though she's Patricia Wright from Spokane, WA, and Andre's a cad.
There's such a lack of romance in this film it's sometimes surprising to realise we're supposed to be moved. The whole relationship starts as an angle, a fraud to generate publicity, and fails to heat up from there. I blinked when Andre proposed so had to rewind to work out what he'd done. 'I love you. Will you marry me.' he asks her, at a restaurant table, almost as an aside while we're not paying attention. Why does she accept? 'I'm not a machine,' she tells her twin. 'I'm a woman. I want to live like one.' Yes, we run through all the standard clichés. 'How much can love demand from us?' the sisters ask each other as we groan into our seats. There's even a dream sequence where Dorothy pretends she isn't a Siamese twin any more by magically turning into someone who only dances in the distance because she's six inches taller and doesn't look remotely like her. For the close ups she stands behind a tree wondering why there isn't an effects budget.

At least we're going to get a wedding night, right? We get a wedding, on stage at the Bijou with a host of uncomfortable looking vaudevillians and audience members, so we must get a wedding night. Well, no. We get a fade to black and Andre's gone. He couldn't do it after all. It's all over. Why did he do it, the vaudevillians wonder. 'I'll tell you why: because he never loved her.' quips Renée, because that's quite literally the best she can come up with. Dorothy's heart is broken but Andre and Renée stay on the same bill to molest each other in the wings, because the show must go on. Why it has to go on with the twins centre stage singing Never Say You'll Fall in Love, I really don't know, because that's just tacky, but I didn't write the script. It's cruel and unusual punishment and the only good thing that it brings is a stunning memory of the twins' last film, made two full decades earlier: Freaks, the most outlandish film classic Hollywood ever released.

Anyone who's seen Freaks knows what happens when normal folks disrespect the freaks: they get their vengeance in truly spectacular style. One of my favourite films of all time, Freaks is everything this film isn't, the Hilton sisters being the only commonality between them, but maybe my joyous memories of Freaks are the reason why there seems to be one well framed shot in Chained for Life. Andre has an intriguing trick, you see, where he can shoot a rifle at an organ and make it play, even though he has a rhythm and the organ doesn't. The twins stand in the wings watching as we remember his prophetic words. 'Accidents can happen,' he threatened Renée before the show. 'Don't forget I use live bullets.' It's no accident when Vivian shoots him dead with his gun. She appears to stand on the other side of a stage flat to her sister, framed head on, their hair colour making them seem like yin and yang. It's a good shot, in both senses.

It took seventy minutes for a good shot and we don't get another one. If you must watch this, do yourself a real favour and quit at this point. Don't go back to the courtroom, where everything is even stagier than it was on the stage. There are no tap dancing jugglers or trick cyclists in the courtroom to distract you with a moment's entertainment. You just have to sit through the inanity of it all as you close in on the worst ending in cinematic history. I don't like spoilers but I'm going to give you this one, in the vain hope that you don't have to be slapped in the face with it after eighty minutes of torture. You see, everything thus far has built up to this moment, this moral dilemma. The lawyers are idiots but they don't matter. Only what the judge does matters, how he rules in this unique case. It's what it's all about. And how does he rule? He doesn't. He cops out at the very last minute and asks you to come up with a ruling instead!

I've watched thousands of films, good ones and bad ones, the best of Cinematic Heaven and the worst of Cinematic Hell, but I can't remember another ending that annoyed me like this one. It feels like the filmmakers, through the proxy of actor Norval Mitchell, look directly at us through the fourth wall and say, hey viewer, you watched our movie. You stayed through the bad acting and the bad writing, the clichéd dialogue and the ponderous narrative. You didn't leave when we mangled the careers of the lovely Hilton twins into this unholy mess of a picture. In gratitude, we should give you our answer to the key moral question that we posed. Not the answer, mind you, just our answer, how we saw it. But no. We can't be bothered. You work it out. It's your problem. Stay up all night if you want. This entire frickin' movie is a waste of your time. It is one long 81 minute question that we can't be frickin' bothered to answer because you suck and we hate you. Have a nice day.

Friday 16 July 2010

Housewife (1934)

Director: Alfred E Green
Stars: George Brent, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and John Halliday

Bette Davis tended to look back on her Warner Brothers years with both a despair at the films she'd been given to star in and a relief that she didn't have to make such tosh any more. This is a perfect example of what she was talking about, the worst of her films I've seen thus far, even after I've worked through 47 of them. With typical candour, she disregarded it utterly, allotting it only five words in her memoir, Mother Goddam. 'Dear God!' she said. 'What a horror!' She's right too, not only because it's a horrible film but because her part is even worse. She was second billed after George Brent, an eleven time co-star, but by the halfway point she only managed to appear in three scenes and one of those was as mere background. Unfortunately it continues downhill from there because the second half is even more unbelievable than the first and the first was unbelievable enough to begin with. There are no saving graces, not even Bette.

The title refers to Nan Reynolds, who is 'just a housewife', the sort who hires a maid and does all the work herself, partly because the maid is useless and partly because her husband doesn't want to be bothered by all the little details. He just earns the money and expects her to run the place, including the broken faucets, the refrigerator payments and the door to door salesmen. He earns $175 a month and it doesn't go very far, especially when you have the troubles Nan has. The maid may be Mexican, retarded or both, but she certainly has butterfingers. There's also Buddy, an annoyingly cute and almost intelligible son with a strangely different accent to his parents. We suffer these scenes in silence because we hope things will improve but sadly they turn out to be the best of the film. Ann Dvorak is nice and politely imposed upon as Nan. George Brent is nice and politely sexist as her husband Bill, but the light in his eyes is missing.

He works at a Chicago advertising firm called Samuel Blake & Company, but while he's risen as high as office manager, he hasn't had a raise in five years and you can tell that's a subtle hint from the management that he should be looking for somewhere else to be. The hints get less subtle as time goes by, one idea Bill pitches to the boss being rudely dismissed with indignation that he even tried. 'Just another clerk who thinks that he's an executive,' Blake mutters under his breath as Bill leaves the room. Bill has got himself stuck in a rut though, unable to even think about a change, even when his brother-in-law, who works for the same firm, manages to one up him by doing precisely that. George Wilson has been turning up late every morning in what appears to be a half drunken stupor but he's really been looking for something better and he's found it too, earning more than Bill even though he apparently only has a tenth of his brains.

Also earning more than Bill is Patricia Berkeley, a new copywriter Blake hires from New York at a crazy salary: $25,000 a year. The moment she arrives, in the ambitious form of a young Bette Davis, we realise just how convenient the story is going to become. It only takes two hammering the point home scenes to tell us everything. She was brought up in Chicago, where she was two years behind Bill at the Hyde Park High School. She had such a serious crush on him that she moved to New York when he got married, just to get away from her lost dreams. She initially dismisses the thought that Blake's office manager could be the same Bill Reynolds, because the one she knew was 'born to live a glamorous life', 'running guns in South America or hunting emeralds in Siam.' Of course it's the same Bill Reynolds, because otherwise we wouldn't have a plot, and Pat Berkeley promptly forgets copywriting and starts seducing her old crush in earnest.

There is a vague pretence at something else here but it's notably weak. Nan, who is, as has been emphasised, 'just a housewife' is the only character who really seems to do anything. She makes an offhand comment that a jar of cream Pat bought for her must be good stuff because Duprey charge five bucks for it. This triggers the concept that you can cheat the public out of their hard earned money by selling the same thing for double the price and slapping 'double strength' on it. So Nan surprises her husband with $1,700 she's saved by serving nothing but roast lamb every Sunday night and she finances him into business for himself. After he gets nowhere after six months, she sparks his first client by ringing him from outside the office pretending to be the competitor of the man he's wooing. Somehow he manages to make this unexpected gimmick work even by telling his imaginary potential investor of $50,000 that he's too busy to talk to him.

That was bad but it gets worse because Nan comes up with the worst idea in the world. The best way to make the business a success is to get her husband drunk and send him over to the Savoy to talk to Paul Duprey, the man behind a million dollars of advertising for Blake's company every year, but whose contract is conveniently up this month. So Bill stalks him all night, everywhere he goes, even bribing a chambermaid to get him into Duprey's suite. The most amazing thing is that it works and he gets a two year contract out of it. He has to sign Pat too because Duprey wants her, but even though the salary he steals her away from Blake with counts for over half the agency's cut from Duprey and even though Buddy doesn't seem to age a day, suddenly the Reynolds agency is running from two continents, he has cigars made specially for him in Cuba and he takes lunch all afternoon. All because he learns the lesson that he doesn't drink enough!

At this point we have very little sympathy for anyone. As you can imagine from the title, this is supposed to be all about Nan, and Ann Dvorak is by far the best thing about the film, excepting a couple of brief scenes stolen by a suitably arrogant Ruth Donnelly. She's only in the movie to give George Wilson a wife but Donnelly was an incorrigible actress who could make us enjoy her work even in the most steaming piles of horse manure. She raises her eyebrows a few times and sweeps her ever bigger fake furs over her shoulders and we remember other films, better films. Dvorak was a capable actress but she can't do much with Nan Reynolds, even though she's the only character in the film who has even the slightest depth. At least she gets emotional at some points and level headed at others. Everyone else is just who they are, as transparent at the end as they were to begin with, and without even a hint of a potential for development.

What this descends to is a love quadrangle that beggars belief. The tired old cliché about Nan believing that Bill works late because the company needs him rather than because he's out on the town with Pat is almost acceptable, but that's the most cohesive part. Soon Bill is snuggling up with Pat on one side of his large front room, apparently oblivious to the fact that his wife and the rich man who has come to love her are the only other two people there. They wouldn't think anything was up, no siree, Bob. Good grief! Bette Davis does get some catty scenes towards the end, and there aren't too many actresses who could be better at catty than Miss Bette, but she's utterly wasted as a bit on the side. She isn't even a good bit on the side, because we don't see a hint at why she's worth $25,000. She could be a girl Bill picked up on the street. Doing films like this to get films like Of Human Bondage is why Bette's epitaph is 'She did it the hard way'.

George Brent is wasted too because he doesn't get anything to do, except try not to laugh when the material gets even more outrageously awful. There's one moment when his eyes flare at his wife but that's it, and he was an actor worth a lot more than that. John Halliday is reliable as Paul Duprey, the man Bill successfully stalks into becoming his best friend, his biggest client and his wife's confidant, but he has to let the story kick him in the teeth too. Not a single actor comes out of this picture unscathed and I'm amazed that they all stayed as professional as they did throughout. The biggest problem is the script, which is beyond awful, but it didn't benefit from a particularly unfortunate timing. All films released after 1st July, 1934, were required to obtain approval from the Production Code Administration. Housewife was released on 11th August and would certainly have benefited from being a precode, at least to the point of being watchable.

Shutter Island (2010)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams

I've never been a huge undying fan of Martin Scorsese's work the way many film fans and critics seem to be, but he's one of the directors I most admire. Part of this is because he's very good at what he does, but perhaps more of it is because he's a fan himself, first and foremost, a student of the craft of making films who learns and grows and remains humble throughout, as is obvious when watching his documentaries. While his early films sprang out of some sort of yearning to tell personal stories as catharsis or outreach, ones that I'm gradually coming to understand, it's his later ones that seem more interesting to me precisely because they're not his stories. While I usually prefer material that pours out of a filmmaker's head without outside influence, Scorsese is different. I prefer watching him exercise his talent using cinematic tools he's collected from long decades of absorbing his craft, often ones that most serious filmmakers ignore.

I've never been a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio's either but that's probably because I first encountered him in Titanic and so have naturally hated him ever since. Over time he's won me over through sheer emphasis, each role impressing me despite Titanic until finally I can leave that behind and just enjoy his work. He scrunches his face a little too often here but he still gives another fine performance that underlines why the great directors want him so badly and keep him so close. He earns more respect in my book for beginning this film throwing up, as this is the sort of behaviour you might expect from a character actor rather than a star, but he seems to be happy to avoid that accolade. This time out he's a US marshal named Teddy Daniels, some sort of legend in the eyes of Chuck Aule, a new deputy who he first meets on the boat to Shutter Island, but a seasick legend who really doesn't like the water in Boston Harbor.

It's an effective way to begin, even though these scenes have that very recognisable look that screams greenscreen even though they're well enough shot that we can't see the seams. There are a number of these shots in this film and I can only hope that filmmakers will get better over time at fixing it. Scorsese and his crew are better at it than most but they're not quite as good as they need to get yet. Fortunately there's a thoroughly engaging story to make up for it, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from Dennis Lehane's bestselling follow up novel to Mystic River, and there's a seriously talented cast to instil it with fascinating life. On the face of it it's a missing persons case, though Rachel Solando is hardly your average missing person, given that she's a patient at Ashecliffe, a federal institution for the criminally insane that's housed on Shutter Island. She doesn't know she's there, just as she doesn't know that she drowned her three children in a lake.
Initially the story advances through standard lines, as the US marshals struggle to get their investigation started against what seems like organised resistance from the very people who apparently invited them. The staff don't know how she got out, given that her cell was locked and the window was barred, but they're uncomfortable answering questions about it. They have no idea where she could be, given that there's nothing but eleven freezing miles of sea between the island and its nearest neighbour. Even though the place is in lockdown, Rachel's primary physician left the next morning on the ferry for a long overdue holiday. The doctors in charge refuse to let the feds look at the files. When they interview some of the patients, they find that they've been obviously coached into giving very specific answers. It isn't difficult to conjure up conspiracy theories even before we discover a hidden note and a secret message.

Dr John Cawley, who runs the place, sees the people in his care as patients rather than prisoners. It's 1954 and psychiatric care is going through something of a sea change, with people like him at the forefront. He doesn't favour traditional approaches like lobotomies and pharmacology, preferring even with extreme patients to try to reach them and help them face the realities of what they've done. Or at least so he says. He's played by Ben Kingsley, hardly a minor name to flesh out an apparently sincere but potentially sinister authority figure. He soon makes himself memorable with a couple of odd comments, but his assistant does that from moment one. He's Dr Naehling, played by no less a name than Max von Sydow, and he appears to us in a rather opulent setting for a hospital for the criminally insane, which along with his European accent reminds Daniels of Dachau, which, as a World War II veteran, he helped to liberate.

You see, Daniels has issues too, which manifest themselves as visions and memories, ones that over the course of the film gradually become more and more apparent. These are stylishly shot visions, often with something falling. One has him talk with his dead wife, who burned to death in a fire, in a room that is gradually becoming drenched in ash. Yet this is not an effects movie, as evidenced by the effective storm Scorsese whips up, which has a visual component but even more of an atmosphere. Even the scenes at Dachau are less intense than we might expect but have a notably freaky air about them. It's less about what was done there and more about the uncertainty of what would happen next. The storm builds into a hurricane which permeates the film, keeping water everywhere and the light from ever being consistent. Scenes in the high security Ward C are superly done, all naked men, whispers and undefinable danger.

The suspense is aided by our many questions, though it's notable that they're often more about where Scorsese is taking us than what Marshal Daniels is going through. There's a tiny but very important delineation there, because we learn about where Scorsese is taking us through what Marshal Daniels is going through, but often we're paying attention to the men behind the film rather than the ones in it, even when the conspiracy theories build. Daniels is there on false pretenses because he's been looking into the place from the outside, learning from a former patient called George Noyce that they're experimenting on people. The doctors in charge consult with secret intelligence agencies. They're funded by HUAC. Maybe Daniels didn't find his way to them through his own choice; maybe while he was looking at them, they were looking at him and set him up to think it was his idea to turn up. Maybe they want to commit him to keep him quiet.
It's DiCaprio's show all the way, but there's a great cast of character actors to support him. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are the big names, but you'll recognise far more than them. Mark Ruffalo gets the most screen time as Daniels's deputy Chuck, but I know him the least. The ever quirky Elias Koteas is as memorable as he always is, this time in a small role as a firebug with a missing eye and a horrific slice across his face. Jackie Earle Haley gets another freaky role, this time as a lunatic with a strangely shaped face who may have the key to Daniels's investigations. While his recent films often have serious problems, he's becoming truly magnetic to watch. The underrated Patricia Clarkson is defiantly sane, perhaps, as the missing patient who is so difficult to find. Ted Levine is a bizarrely psychotic warden and John Carroll Lynch is ever suspicious as his deputy. Michelle Williams gets a lot of scenes as Daniels's wife, even though she's dead.

Visually Shutter Island is a treat, courtesy of some memorable settings, though the island itself is a construct of various farflung places stitched together with CGI. There's far less Val Lewton influence here than I was expecting, as this seemed like a logical project for Scorsese after his documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, this influence being most obvious in Ward C. It was impossible not to notice the motion of the camera. There are so many tracking shots that the camera seems to always be in motion, only for odd scenes to arrive where it stays static. Pattern recognition forces us to analyse the reasons why. Yet at the end of the day this ends up being all about the story, which is slick and solid, never obvious but always accessible, though apparently a little more action oriented than the source novel, which Dennis Lehane wrote as a hybrid of the Brontë sisters and the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It's obvious from moment one that there are twists coming, but we still have to put those jigsaw pieces together to get the full picture. Unfortunately, as with The Sixth Sense, I concentrated on looking for a big twist only to discover that I'd assumed the reality of it from the beginning and there wasn't another one for me to find. Unlike The Sixth Sense, though, I wasn't disappointed because I constantly questioned myself here about whether I was right rather than whether that was all there was. While it held no real revelations for me, it was fascinating to watch the story grow anyway and enjoy the careful unfolding of the jigsaw's picture with hints that point in different directions but remain consistent. And in the end there was a little twist anyway, a subtle and appropriate one, that has us thinking all over again, not about the story any more but about its ramifications. This gave Scorsese his best opening weekend ever and he deserved it.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

Directors: Herbert Tevos & Ron Ormond
Stars: Jackie Coogan, Allan Nixon and Richard Travis
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.

Mesa of Lost Women is two films in one but that's two too many. It started out under the working title of Tarantula, which would have been original at the time as Jack Arnold's movie of the same name didn't arrive until 1955, but this one didn't arrive at all, partly because the funds started to run out but mostly because writer/director Herbert Tevos was a little too good at driving the cast and crew into quitting. A couple of years later, his replacement was one of the more fascinating names in exploitation cinema, Ron Ormond, who wasn't just a writer, producer and director of low budget movies, but also a vaudeville performer, magician and Air Force colonel. At this point he was known mostly for his Lash LaRue westerns, but this mess proved to be his ticket into an ever more eclectic world that soon included gorilla sleaze, frigid wife sexploitation and Nashville musicals. Eventually he would turn to Jesus and become the foremost name in Christploitation.

Perhaps we can disregard those hour long westerns for PRC because they were too easy. From Mesa of Lost Women on, Ormond had to innovate, to turn out completed pictures by making do with whatever he could piece together from existing footage, networking and showmanship, but he ended up with a stunningly varied set of exploitation pictures that perhaps are only outshone by those of Jack Hill. He cobbled Untamed Mistress together by hacking apart Law of the Jungle, a Sabu picture he could do anything he liked with as long as he didn't use any footage of Sabu. So he added travelogue footage, a leading lady and a guy in a gorilla suit, then marketed it with heavy suggestion of nonexistent interspecies sex. Forty Acre Feud featured half the Grand Old Opry at $250 a song. The Monster and the Stripper was an attempt to make a Russ Meyer movie and a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie at the same time, starring rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef.

If he hadn't made a name for himself in psychotronic cinema thus far, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? put it beyond doubt. This film, based around the sermonising of Southern Baptist preacher Estus W Pirkle and financed through church donations, suggests that mini skirts and dancing are a gateway drug to Communist invasion and descent into Hell, making its point clear through graphic rape, torture and indoctrination. And this was just the first of his religious films! Mesa of Lost Women seems tame in comparison, but it's still a patchwork of Z grade nonsense that is fascinating to watch for all the wrong reasons. Apparently Ormond hated it, which may explain why his footage is by far the cheesiest, adding an understated Jackie Coogan as mad scientist Dr Araña, conveniently meaning 'spider' in Spanish, and a wild narration by Lyle Talbot that sounds like a cross between Orson Welles and Vincent Price reading Ed Wood's writing.

Coogan isn't in the film for long, as Tevos apparently shot enough footage that Ormond didn't have to add too much, but he's still credited as the star. The real star is either Harmon Stevens as Dr Leland J Masterson, who is the driving force of much of the plot even though he's almost catatonic throughout, or Robert Knapp as Grant Phillips, the stereotypical rough but romantic hero. Yet Coogan shares top billing with Allan Nixon and Richard Travis. Who are they? Just more friends of Ormond's, it seems, brought in to shoot the framing footage to Tevos's story. Both of them leave the film after a few minutes as we slip into flashback mode, only to return just ahead of the ending. Even when they're in the film, we're just looking at Pepe, one of the most blatantly stereotypical Mexican characters I've ever seen in a movie, with his bug eyes, soft voice and ample belly, not to mention checked shirt and sombrero. '¡Ay, caramba!' he cries and we agree.

His appearance is not the first problem with the film, which has already suffered through three interminable minutes of Lyle Talbot's hyperbolic narration, full of purple prose so grounded in reality that it thinks spiders have six legs. Out in 'the Muerto Desert, the Desert of Death', two souls 'cross the threshold of the limited intellect' to 'a seared wasteland where the vultures wait for the other vultures to die'. They're real, Grant Phillips and Doreen Culbertson by name, not just 'elusive images produced by roasting the optic nerves', and they soon end up at the Amer-Exico Field Hospital. Just as their saviours give them no chance of recovery, Phillips wakes up, itching to tell his story in flashback. 'It all started on the border, a few days back,' he begins but then Ormond must have realised that he only has half the story so we switch to Pepe instead, who has none of it. Yes, this is a flashback in a flashback, told by someone who wasn't there.

If I'm reading the screen correctly, this young couple were in the original film, which seems to have been a melodramatic love triangle with giant spiders. Initially Grant is just a pilot, to the immensely rich Jan van Croft, so guess who Doreen is about to marry for security? To celebrate their wedding night, they fly off somewhere but plane trouble means that they end up at the Berkins Frontier Cantina instead to watch the freaky spider woman Tarantella strut her stuff on the dancefloor. They're immediately given the best table, because van Croft exudes the sort of money that the local peasantry can only dream of, but it doesn't help because their life of bliss is soon turned upside down. Not only is their Chinese valet Wu in secret cahoots with the dancer but also in the bar is Leland J Masterson, who has escaped from Dr Harrison's Sanitarium with a gun and proceeds to fall in lust with Doreen and lead them all on a merry dance.
Masterson is the most amazing character to build a film around and I truly wish I could see the original Tarantula just to work out what his original back story was. In Mesa of Lost Women, he's a doctor who visits Dr Araña's secret underground lab in Zarpa Mesa to interview for the role of assistant number one. Why a respectable doctor would choose to do this, I have no idea. Sure, Dr Araña has published important papers, but he has a frickin' secret underground lab right in the middle of the frickin' Desert of Death. Hasn't Masterson ever watched a Bond movie? Well, he's about as dumb as promising assistant mad scientists get. If the location wasn't enough, he progresses through the freaky lab with its freaky midgets and freaky but beautiful women, lets the freaky mad scientist explain all his freaky mad science, only to rant and rave when the giant spider shows up. We're entirely on Dr Araña's side when Tarantella drugs Masterson into silence.

Now that's all Mesa of Lost Women. In Tarantula I think he enters the film here, completely out of his gourd from moment one, as he walks up to the bar with his collapsible cup that collapses while the bartender is filling it. He sits at a table and grins like a zombie who died during the sex act. When he sees young Doreen he can't help but wander over and ignore her husband to be. 'You're very beautiful,' he says. 'And good.' You'd think he was chatting her up except he promptly sits down and turns into the best human statue I've ever seen on film. He's vaguely reminiscent of Dennis Price but without a single drop of the depth. He's more like W C Fields, if W C Fields was a blissfully happy zombie who could sit at a bar room table for two long scenes without taking a drink. He doesn't move, he doesn't even blink. I actually rewound three times to see if he'd died during production and so had to be replaced by a cardboard cutout.

He's obviously insane, so when George, his nurse, arrives in a car with 'Dr Harrison's Sanitarium' written all over it, our only surprise is that Ormond's footage told us that he was locked up in the Muerto State Asylum. He's apparently waiting for Tarantella to start dancing her freaky spider dance so that he can announce to his companions that she's evil and shoot her to death. 'I only did what had to be done,' he says and promptly turns his back on the dying dancer, so that we can start a drinking game built around the number of times that George and the other people he kidnaps and takes for a plane ride completely fail to take the most obvious opportunities to steal his gun away from him. Masterson is the single most unthreatening gunman that I've ever seen, so mild mannered that if you asked nicely he'd hand over the gun. He sleepwalks through the rest of the film and yet everyone seems happy to have him in charge, just because he has a gun.

This was the last role Harmon Stevens would ever play on film and it's certainly the largest. He'd made seven previous films, only one of which garnered a credit: as Real Estate Agent in a Rock Hudson movie called Has Anybody Seen My Gal. I don't think I'll ever get his inane grin out of my head because it dominates the film by doing precisely nothing. Every line of his dialogue seems to be wasted but somehow they stick anyway. 'I want to fly. Thou shalt obey!' he commands van Croft's pilot, even though the plane isn't fixed. 'Birds fly without motors and so will we.' While he's lulling us into a hypnotic trance, we vaguely remember that Phillips, the pilot, is the man at the beginning of the film who gets plucked out of the desert to safety. This is his flashback, sort of, and he's finally had the common decency to show up in it, taking advantage of that fact by trying to steal attention through proclamations that everything's OK even when it patently isn't.

'Nothing seriously wrong so far,' he announces after realising that they've been flying a hundred degrees off course and the left engine is on fire. I can't remember what he says when he decides to crash land on the next convenient mesa but they manage it, only for us to realise, get this, that it's Zarpa Mesa! Holy plot convenience, Batman! If only Jackie Coogan could have put on a Bogart impersonation and announced, 'Of all the gin joints in all the world you had to walk into mine,' but no, he just has his minions run around the forest instead. It just isn't the same, even if they're played by most of the interesting people in the film. The two midgets are John George and Angelo Rossitto, two of the most recognisable little people in the business. The blonde is Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood's girlfriend, the one with the angora sweater. Another is Mona McKinnon, who made three of her five films for Wood; she was Paula Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Unfortunately this is where the film gets boring, though how anyone can make people being eaten by a giant jumping spider boring I really don't know. We aren't even woken up when Phillips fires a flare gun right behind Masterson's head, and neither is he, amazingly enough. Is that a textbook way to deal with a lunatic, even a lunatic human statue? If only George Barrows, who plays the nurse, would have had his gorilla suit with him. He could have dressed up like the other genre character he played in 1953, Ro-Man in Robot Monster, and given us all a show. He could have used his calcinator beam on the giant jumping spider and had the Great One conjure up some random dinosaur battle to make us feel like we were in The Lost World instead of Mesa of Lost Women. I was surprised to see Barrows not be fat, merely well built and very possibly through muscle rather than fat. It just goes to show how bulky gorilla suits must be.

Fortunately we get to meet Dr Araña again because we missed him and wondered if he'd ended up like Lyle Talbot, who presumably rants on for so long at the beginning only as a reason to make it worth his while to turn up to record, given that he wasn't going to be in the rest of the film. Jackie Coogan has got a lot of flak for his acting here, but I think that's unfair. It's hardly his greatest role but he merely chose to underplay it as much as he overplayed Uncle Fester. He's freaky subdued, with a lab coat, a huge mole and one eye that is completely closed, so he has an opaque lens to draw attention to it. He has the most outrageous receding hairline I've seen this side of a Klingon, as it recedes so far down the back of his neck that it turns into the precise opposite of a mohawk. He also hasn't a shred of enthusiasm at all about anything, even though he lives in a secret underground lab surrounded by a bevy of beauties and a mob of midgets.

Of course, none of them are really human, because they're the products of Araña's experiments to combine spiders with women. Apparently in the spider world, the females are beautiful while the men are puny and unimportant, so that's how it turns out when they become people too. Given that I'm sure Ormond didn't allow many retakes, if any, I'm stunned at how deliriously deadpan Coogan remained while spouting Z grade gibberish. And that's 'gibberish' with a hard G not a J. He says so. 'The tarantulas began to yield amazing results,' Araña explains to Masterson, 'they grew as large as human beings, began developing new reasoning powers and I found I had the telepathic power to communicate with them.' If you hadn't guessed, Araña is a couple of legs short of a spider. 'If we are successful, I shall have a super female spider, with a thinking and reasoning brain, a creature that someday may control the world, subject to my will.'

I enjoyed Coogan's portrayal, like a heavily sedated Vincent Price, and I can see where he was coming from. He's beyond morality to the point where everything is just another experiment. While Masterson rants and raves at him. 'You're evil!' he cries. 'You must be destroyed!' Araña takes it all utterly in stride as if he was being told the football scores. 'Regrettable,' he says, as calm as a cucumber. 'I was hoping for a colleague but at least we have another experimental subject.' You have to give the mad doctor props too, because he created a whole slew of lovely young ladies to work in his secret lab. They're all silent and they wear strange wigs that look like they have cobwebs on them, except for one who's more like Morticia Addams with curlicues. Only Tarantella is scary, as much so as her dance, as we discovered the moment the film began, when she wrapped her long fingernails around a man and kissed him, only for him to drop dead.

So what does that leave us? There's a scary woman who's supposed to be sexy. There's a banal and underplayed mad scientist who's supposed to be the star of the show. There's a lunatic who manages to hold everyone under his power even though he spends most of the film dead on his feet. There's a love triangle that springs out of nowhere and can go back there for all we care. There's a nurse who only stops people disarming his mad murderer of a patient. There's a giant jumping spider who manages to be boring. There's a narrator who rants on and on and then just disappears. Oh, and there's a soundtrack comprised entirely of flamenco guitar and piano, which is about as inappropriate as could be. Perhaps they thought they were shooting on Zorba Mesa as Anthony Quinn was Mexican, after all. It's so inappropriate that Ed Wood stole it for Jail Bait, another connection that suggests that this should be an honorary Ed Wood film. It's bad enough.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Robot Monster (1953)

Director: Phil Tucker
Stars: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royale, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Paela Paulson and George Barrows
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.

For a bad movie, and this is a really bad movie, it's a quintessential low budget fifties scifi romp, perhaps even more fun to watch than Plan 9 from Outer Space. If it had been released half a century later it would still be in movie theaters today with cult audiences heckling the screen on a monthly basis with producer/director Phil Tucker kept busy flying from screening to screening to sign autographs. I'm sure he would have plenty to talk about during a Q&A too, given that he shot the film for a measly $16,000 in only four days without any sets, and somehow managed to make it in 3D and with stereophonic sound too, the first time that had been done on a scifi film. If Tucker was alive today, I'd try to introduce him to James Cameron. Avatar may have earned two billion dollars on the basis of its 3D ticket prices but that's only eight times its cost. Robot Monster grossed a million bucks and that meant more than 62 times what Tucker spent on it.

Even the credits are fun, for a whole slew of reasons, not least that they unfold over a gorgeous display of pulp magazine covers that I'd love to own: Another World, Space Cadet, Worlds of Fear, Terror Tales, Strange Suspense Stories and, inevitably, Robot Monster. The cutting edge technology is listed as the Tru-Stereo Three Dimension Process and there's even a credit for N A Fisher Chemical Products for providing an Automatic Billion Bubble Machine. One of the stars, and when the cast is only eight names long everyone's a star, has her name misspelled and hey, there's Elmer Bernstein owning up to the score. Yes, that Elmer Bernstein, a few years before he'd compose scores for such other grade Z scifi drive in movies as The Man with the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments and Sweet Smell of Success. Over his career, he racked up 14 Oscar nominations and won once, but no, not for Robot Monster, love theme notwithstanding.

The most important character in the film is little Johnny, which may explain a lot. He's a pretty transparent character: we first spy him climbing out of the ditch to disintegrate his sister Carla and blow bubbles all over her, so in other words he's just like any other ten year old boy. She just wants to play house but she's a girl so she doesn't count. 'These woods are full of spacemen and it's either them or us,' says imaginative Johnny and so off they go to wander around Bronson Canyon and find a couple of archaeologists hacking apart the entrance to the Batcave, the one from the sixties TV show with Adam West. They're minding their own business, chipping away an ancient cave painting to take to a museum, you know, like archaeologists do, but this little brat tells them he wants them to die. Such a nice boy, Johnny. He and Carla are there for a picnic with their mother, credited simply as Mother, and his young, free and single elder sister named Alice.

They take a nap after lunch because Mother says so, but when Johnny gets up and wanders back over to the cave, all hell breaks loose, and I'm almost not kidding. Lightning flashes, the ground explodes, there's a bright light in the sky and dinosaurs start fighting each other and throwing each other off cliffs. No, there's no Rod Serling to point out that we've stumbled into the Twilight Zone, but after Johnny starts playing with the machinery that's magically appeared in the cave entrance, out comes Ro-Man! Actually he's not called Ro-Man, it's more of a species like we are Hu-Man. All of his kind are called Ro-Man and they come from the planet Ro-Man too, so you can tell how much imagination they don't have. Apparently it was all used up on character design because Ro-Mans (yes, Ro-Mans not Ro-Men) are fat guys in gorilla suits. With diving helmets on their heads. And antennae. If there were TVs in their bellies too, they'd be teletubbies.

The Ro-Man in the cave is Extension Ro-Man XJ2 and he reports back to Great Guidance Ro-Man via some sort of intergalactic videoconferencing. We'll call them Ro-Man and Great One just to be clear. They're looking for intelligent life so that they can destroy it, because hey, that's how they roll and it's here that a rare treat begins because Ro-Mans are humourless aliens with a penchant for overstatement and scientific gobbledegook, which are always the best kind. 'No life has been discovered on other planets,' offers Great One. 'Earth is our only rival.' Now, it isn't much of a rival any more because Ro-Man started a nuclear war by waving his calcinator beam around and now everyone's dead. 'My energiser has scan checked by square feet,' he reports. 'No life above lepidoptera level exists.' So he thinks, but Great One apparently has a tiny penis. 'My computator is more accurate. In the 22nd category there is an error of sixteen billionths.'

What this translates to is that there are eight people left alive on the planet Earth, and you can be sure it's not me and seven hot Japanese schoolgirls with kilt fetishes and mad martial arts skills. Yeah, it's Johnny and his family, who are now comprised of all the people we've met thus far. He's forgotten about his dead dad entirely and substituted the Professor in his place as his mother's partner of 23 years and father of all three kids. Roy the studly archaeologist is naturally Alice's fiancé, but then who else was she going to pick with no other humans left on the planet? I should point out that the final two are never seen and soon get vaporised by Great One as they attempt to fly a rocket to the space platform to inject the garrison there with serum to immunise them against Ro-Man's deadly calcinator beam. Did you blink? Sorry, they're all dead. Great One blows them out of the sky with a cosmic blast after counting down from ten to eight. The cad!
So there are six of them left and they live in a hole in the ground that used to be the basement of a house. They don't have a roof or a bathroom but they do have a videoconferencing screen, which is useful because it means Ro-Man can chime in once in a while and threaten them some more. It doesn't get TV though, because they forgot to buy a converter box. There's electrified wiring strung around to deflect Ro-Man's scans because every member of this family is a genius at thwarting Ro-Man. Well, except for little Carla, but we don't want to be rude about her. She's still traumatised by the near obliteration of the human race through nuclear holocaust and the ensuing search and destroy mission run by a robot monster in a gorilla suit, so she's just waiting for it to all be over so she can go over to Janey's house and borrow her dolls. Actress Pamela Paulson never acted again and, judging from her performance here, that didn't upset her one bit.

I can't believe I've gone a couple of paragraphs without some stunning Robot Monster dialogue so I'll use some to introduce the biggest star of the movie: good old 1950s sexism. Johnny knows the whole family are geniuses, so he suggests to his dad that maybe they should, I dunno, kill Ro-Man. 'No, Johnny,' he replies, 'The armies of the entire world have tried and failed. We have thrown everything we had at him but he's impervious.' But wait! I have to compose myself as the next line has me in stitches every time. Alice chimes in with, wait for it, 'Unless we find his weak spot!' Wow, what a girl! Could she be any less understanding of war and defeat and nuclear frickin' annihilation? Well, no, but she is an electronics genius which is why they have a working videophone when the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and there's nobody to call. They don't have a bubble machine though, unlike Ro-Man. Every cave should have a bubble machine.

And in chimes Ro-Man, as if on queue. 'Hu-mans, listen to me! Due to an error in calculation there are still a few of you left! You escaped destruction because I did not know you existed! Now I know you are watching! I see five of you who have not been destroyed! Show yourselves, and I promise you a painless death!' It's impossible not to use exclamation marks when Ro-Man is in threatening mode, even though we get distracted by trying to work out how he can count five of them when only four are standing there or wondering why the few remaining Hu-Mans keep introducing themselves. 'Do you wonder what happened to your fellows?' asks Ro-Man, as he triggers some truly astonishing stock footage of explosions that completely fail to touch the ground. 'Watch them! My calcinator beam wiped out your last sages, your last scientists in their deepest shelters! Everyone but you few! There is no escape from me!'

Every moment in Robot Monster is good for something sexist, so Mother decides to give peace a chance. You know, at this point they think there are only five people left alive, all from the same family so there's no way to repopulate the world beyond inbreeding, and she wants to appeal to Ro-Man's better nature. Maybe he's a nice guy when you get to know him. Maybe he's merely allergic to bubbles. Fortunately Roy turns back up to restore any hope of saving the human race from a fate of becoming retarded banjo players sitting on porches and explains why they're still alive. Apparently dad invented 'an anti-biotic serum to cure all diseases, even the common cold,' promptly used his own family as test subjects and entirely coincidentally managed to immunise them all against Ro-Man's calcinator beam. We're not supposed to notice coincidences in this film, like the one that has the only six Hu-Mans left living a stone's throw from Ro-Man's HQ.

Roy also elevates the sexism to startling heights by reacquainting himself with his fiancée with words of romance and tenderness like, 'You're so bossy you ought to be milked before you come home at night!' Don't try that one at home, folks. He tries to suck up after that with lines such as 'You're either too beautiful to be so smart, or too smart to be so beautiful,' and 'Do you realize what you tried to do was impossible, yet you almost did it?' It doesn't help though, especially when Ro-Man suddenly decides he likes the look of Al-Iss so wants to rendezvous with her at the ruin in the area of the fork of the two dry rivers. He has no idea where on the planet she is but he asks if she knows the fork of the two dry rivers. Talk about optimistic! Anyway, Roy won't let her go to attempt to save the world with her feminine wiles and he even picks her up to stop her doing it anyway, just for emphasis. He's apparently He-Man and she's Wo-Man, not for Ro-Man.
Actually He-Man makes sense, given that he soon strips off his fashionably torn shirt to wander around topless for the rest of the movie, demonstrating his best beefcake poses. Actor George Nader, who bizarrely won a Golden Globe in 1954 as the most promising male newcomer of the year, something we can only hope was utterly unrelated to his work in Robot Monster, was gay and had his screen career ruined after sex scandals threatened big star Rock Hudson. Nader's long term companion, Mark Miller, was Hudson's personal secretary and the two actors often covered for each other to help preserve their straight images. Apparently Robot Monster, very possibly the worst film Nader appeared in, stuck in his mind because after a career revival in a series of West German movies, he turned to writing, including a 1978 science fiction thriller called Chrome about a bunch of gay robots. I honestly can't say if it had a bubble machine too.

Because Nader's image was straight he could be irresistible to the ladies and yes, whatever sexist shenanigans he pulls on Alice can be forgiven with a smile. Then again, she can't exactly wait around for a better man, given that the only other male left on the planet is her dad, so one romp in the bush later and they're asking daddy to join their hands in marriage. Inevitably they find a veil for Alice but can't be bothered to find a shirt for Roy but then again, we know Phil Tucker didn't splurge on costumes because Alice and Mother both wear the exact same white backless number, which is very likely the single most unbelievable plot hole in this entire film. Of course Alice is desirable to an alien robot gorilla in a diving helmet. Of course robots would have a copy of the same serum the Professor made to cure all human diseases. Of course cosmic Q rays create dinosaur battles. But the last two living women wearing the same outfit? Come on!

There's much more to come. The wedding is a hit and the whole town shows up, which may well count as seven people if you include Carla's doll. Ro-Man crashes the honeymoon, beats up He-Man and carries Wo-Man away, because she's such a girly girl that she tries some patticake patticake 'you're such a brute' defensive blows, turns round to run away and promptly falls over. She's so unwilling that she even ties herself up in Ro-Man's cave when he can't work out how to tie a knot while wearing a gorilla suit. That's after he tries to molest her so maybe she's just into inter-species bestiality. Luckily little Carla doesn't see this because she's already been strangled to death for being dumb enough to walk up to the robot monster who's happily destroying the human race and tell him that her daddy won't let him hurt her. So much for that bright idea. And in the end, Johnny wakes up to refresh our memory that this entire movie is a dream sequence.

Initially I felt that this was a saving grace, because it does feel like something an imaginative ten year old scifi addict would conjure up: old school pulp adventure with no pretensions of grandeur in sight. Yet the more I thought about what his dream really contains, the more I can't help but realise little Johnny is a little pervert. He imagines that the Professor is his father, even though he's met him precisely once and he speaks in a Bela Lugosi accent, something of a kick in the teeth for his recently deceased dad. The accent is because actor John Mylong is Austrian, though at least he's not Korean or he'd be My-long John. Johnny has his little sister strangled to death, though he has the decency to bury her. He watches his elder sister get deflowered by another strange man, get kidnapped on her honeymoon then molested by an alien ape with a bondage fetish. He sees himself murdered. Oh, and the world is destroyed by cyclotronic vibrations.

In other words, little Johnny needs a psychiatrist snappy, before he gets to advertise Kool-Aid and have The Mickey Mouse Club reject him as a Mousketeer for not being able to sing or dance well enough. Then again actor Gregory Moffett retired at twelve, which is way cool. His screen mother was forced to retire after one more film, not for tarnishing her reputation with this little gem but because she got tangled up in the communist witchhunts, even though she'd become much loved for organising the Stage Door Canteen that served free meals to servicemen passing through New York heading to or returning from World War II. She's Selena Royle and she had an interesting response: rather than testify in front of HUAC she sued the American Legion, who had listed her name in Red Channels and won, clearing her name. Her career was dead though so she got married, moved to Mexico and wrote books like The Gringa's Guide to Mexican Cooking.

Somehow that's a better story than director Phil Tucker had to tell. You'd think he would be over the moon making a picture for $16,000 and grossing a million bucks, but the distributor screwed him out of his share and he attempted suicide. He survived and lived long enough to find his film listed in the Medveds' book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which his cheap attempt at the title character was pronounced 'The Most Ridiculous Monster in Screen History'. He did mount a mild response, saying that 'for the budget and for the time, I felt I had achieved greatness,' and he has a point. He knew people with robot suits but couldn't afford them, so made do with what he could get: George Barrows, who owned a gorilla suit and was willing to work for free. Barrows plays both Ro-Mans, though English actor John Brown provided the voices. What Tucker ended up with is a cult hit, truly terrible but joyous and engaging, the most watchable bad movie ever.