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.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Blood Feast (1963)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Stars: Thomas Wood, Mal Arnold and Connie Mason
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.

The tagline on the poster cries, 'Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!' but unfortunately it was referencing to the quality of this 1963 shocker rather than its contents. The film's director, exploitation maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis, likened it to a Walt Whitman poem: 'It's no good,' he said, 'but it's the first,' and he's right. While Japanese films like 1960's Jigoku may technically predate it, this is the original gore movie, arguably the most influential horror film since the days of the classic Universal monster movies. Details vary depending on the reports but it was shot in around a week on a budget of less than $25,000 and became an instant hit at drive-ins across America, grossing over $4m for Lewis and his business partner, legendary exploitation producer David Friedman. Given that it's truly inept on every front, why was it so massively popular? The answer is simple: it delivered exactly what it promised, unlike anything that went before it.

In fact that's exactly why the film came about. In the early sixties, Lewis and Friedman were known for nudie cuties, movies like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Nature's Playmates that mixed gratuitous scenes shot in naturist camps with a modicum of plot and a dash of humour. It was a winning combination but an inevitably short lived one, so even as they shot Bell, Bare and Beautiful in Miami in early 1963 they knew that they needed to find new subject matter. Both men were canny promoters, Lewis eventually retiring to make millions as a direct marketer, so they compiled lists of what the major studios either couldn't or wouldn't do, to ensure a niche audience. Lewis saw a movie in Miami that saw each of many instances of violence ending in peaceful death, all tiny bullet holes and closed eyes. On returning to the Suez Hotel, their HQ in southern Florida, he came face to face with a statue of the Sphinx and Blood Feast was born.

The story is a simple one, as befits something made from a fifteen page script, because this was never about the story. It was about the gore, oodles of it, that began at the very beginning of the film and continued through to the very end, literally shocking the audience into reaction. While it may be hard to imagine today, in a world where the major studios churn out endless sequels to torture porn films like Saw and Hostel, in 1963 nobody had seen this sort of blood and gore on a movie screen. It debuted on a Friday night at a drive-in theatre in Peoria, IL, and both Lewis and Friedman kept away, not having a clue if they'd be successful or not. They drove to the theatre on the Saturday night, unable to resist the temptation any longer, and found themselves in a ten mile traffic jam all the way to the screen. Blood Feast made half its budget back in one week at one drive-in theatre and there were 5,000 drive-in theatres in America in those days.

Today, we have to have that background to understand why this film was so successful, because it literally has nothing going for it but the sheer guts of two men to do something that had never been done before. Even during its theatrical run it started to be banned, though that was partly publicity, Friedman even getting an injunction against his own film in Sarasota to generate yet more interest in it. Generally, local authorities had to be creative as the film simply didn't break any rules: it wasn't obscene, according to the definitions then laid down, it didn't contain foul language and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. The rules said it was fine but by the time Two Thousand Maniacs!, the thematic follow up, was released, some towns had enacted new laws that actually applied. By Color Me Blood Red in 1965, it was harder to find places to show the film, so Lewis and Friedman parted company and moved on to new genres, at least for a while.

The story follows Fuad Ramses, an Egyptian who runs an exotic catering business out of what looks like a regular grocery store. We know he's the villain because the first scene shows him killing Pat Tracey in her bathtub even before we know who he is. She looks like a Hitchcockian heroine, fitting for a bathroom murder, though the slowly beating drum that accompanies her strip isn't anything like Bernard Herrmann's shrieking strings. She conveniently switches on the radio so we can hear about another murder in the park and the police ask women to stay inside. Pat just cosies up in her bubbles with a copy of Ancient Weird Religious Rites, required bathtime reading for all lovely young ladies in 1963. It looks like a bible with a fake cover and given that the film was shot mostly in the Suez Hotel, this suggests that the Gideons inadvertently provided a pivotal horror movie prop. Next thing, Fuad Ramses is outdoing Psycho with gleeful abandon.

There's a reason Lewis is known as 'the Godfather of Gore' and this is it. One stab and Pat Tracey is missing an eye, gloriously red Eastmancolor blood pooling on her face and bloody body parts skewered on her killer's knife like a kebab. Some hacking and slashing later and her severed leg goes slowly into his sack, the bloody stump sticking out of the water to be lovingly lingered on by the voyeuristic camera. Only three years earlier the censors were getting upset at Hitchcock for what they believed were knife wounds and nudity in the shower scene of Psycho. Here Lewis was showing everything Hitch couldn't and wouldn't even before the credits that saw the words of the title dripped onto the screen with blood. No wonder Lewis and Friedman had nurses distributing vomit bags in theatre lobbies. No wonder Blood Feast became the oldest film on the list of so called video nasties compiled in the UK by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Pat Tracey's murder turns out to be the seventh in two weeks. 'I don't know what to make of it,' says the inept police captain. 'We're just working with a homicidal maniac,' says inept Det Pete Thornton, who seems somehow surprised that the media are interested in such a thing. They're not the sharpest tools in the shed but that's why we have a full hour of gore time to go. If they could actually detect, this story would have ended before it began. Ramses is no master criminal and clues are continually dangled in vain in front of Det Thornton's eyes, but he's busy falling for the lead female character, Suzette Fremont. This romantic subplot isn't remotely believable as he was a decade older and she was about to be a Playboy Playmate of the Month, but it was real as actors William Kerwin and Connie Mason were married a year later. She promptly retired to be a wife and mother, giving him two children and they remained married until his death in 1989.

Her character is a student of Egyptian culture, even though she's as dumb as a post, so when her mother wants 'something unusual', 'something totally different' to be served as a surprise at her birthday party, she goes to Fuad Ramses Exotic Catering. This scene is a real gem for Z grade movie nuts and I could just see Ed Wood mouthing the lines in awe. 'Have you ever had an Egyptian feast?' Ramses asks slowly as actor Mal Arnold leans for effect and Lewis struggles to keep him in frame. 'It has not been served in five thousand years!' He's trying to be Bela Lugosi, from the staring eyes to the exotic accent which Lewis plays up even more in interviews, but he sounds more like Adrian Paul. He walks with a shuffling limp and he hypnotises Mrs Fremont into submission even though she's sold from moment one anyway. For an exotic caterer he's a pretty good grocer, so maybe he just wants to guarantee a use for all the limbs he's been collecting.
The rest of the film is just as camp but not quite as fun, though I can't resist Ramses shuffling off downstairs to demean himself before the gilt store mannequin dressed up in jewels that he's set up in effigy. She's his 'divine and wondrous woman of the pale light', 'his lady of the dark moon'. She's the goddess Ishtar, who was really a Babylonian deity rather than an Egyptian one, thus rendering the entire script meaningless in a single touch. The story, thought up by Lewis and Friedman, was scripted by Lewis's second wife Allison, credited as A Louise Downe but better known as Bunny, the star of a number of his and other nudie cuties. As plot was hardly the most important factor in those nudie cuties, it's not surprising to find so many inconsistencies here, so many bad motivations and so much that seems destined for an exploitation trailer. Criticising on aesthetic grounds is insane but we can relish in how definitive this is as 'so bad it's good'.

It isn't just one plot hole, everything seems to be wrong, right down to the most remembered scene in the film. This is the tongue scene, where Ramses rips out the tongue of an unwitting victim with his bare hands. It's delightfully gross, but he holds the thing up for us to see and it's huge! In reality it was a lamb's tongue, far too big to even fit into a woman's mouth folded in half, let alone alongside all the strawberry jam that substituted for blood. My favourite insanity is Ancient Weird Religious Rites, the book that links all these Miami cuties together. Det Thornton knows it's a clue. The father of Marcy Franklin, scalped on the beach for her brain, tells him that she was on a book club list run by Fuad Ramses. The killer takes a different body part from each victim. Yet even after conveniently attending a lecture with Suzette all about the blood feast of Ishtar that explains absolutely everything, he just can't figure out the book's significance.

Nobody seems able to figure out anything, even reality, and that includes the scriptwriter. Every scene seems to contain another leap of logic, so that they stack up to unwieldy levels. The local police force is so overwhelmed by these murders that Det Thornton is a 24 hour cop, but he has time to attend this lecture on Egyptian cults. Oh, and he's the boyfriend of Suzette Fremont, the intended recipient of the blood feast, who wants him to be her date to the party. But she has to ring her mom to come get her afterwards because it's late. Except it's daytime outside and her boyfriend wants to take her home via a smooching spot overlooking the beach. That's where he hears the radio tell that the latest murder victim survived her attack, because the cops wouldn't call in the lead detective for something like that, right? He gets back to the station so the chief can begin an explanation with the words, 'Well, that's it, the whole story.'

Just as the characters seem confused by the entire film being a vaguely linked collection of plot conveniences, none of which make any sense whatsoever, so the actors follow suit. I use the term 'actors' loosely here because some of them are truly stunning in their ineptitude. Worst is Gene Courtier in his only film appearance as Tony, the frustrated boyfriend of the beach victim, Marcy Franklin, who won't put out even though they've been going steady for a year. Just when she might be willing, she gets scalped to death and he falls to pieces. 'She wanted to leave,' he sobs to the cops. 'It's all my fault.' He's so emotional he makes Tommy Wiseau seem like Marlon Brando as he hysterically repeats, 'I can't remember!' Yet the rest of the cast aren't much better, perhaps as many of them were nudie cutie regulars who simply didn't go home when Bell, Bare and Beautiful wrapped so they could begin shooting Blood Feast a single day later.

William Kerwin was the most experienced, with credits dating back to River Goddesses in 1951, but that was just a nature excursion for five models, hardly high art. He racked up bit parts until Lewis gave him a lead role in 1961's Living Venus and they became regular collaborators, Kerwin appearing in everything he made, and even issuing all the warnings on the trailers. He's more like a cheap car salesman but he's by far the best actor in the film. Connie Mason, his future wife, is as great an actress as you might expect a Playmate of the Month to be. She was better in Two Thousand Maniacs! but even there Lewis had to remove about two thirds of her dialogue as she was never able to remember her lines. 'I often felt if one took the key out of Connie's back,' he told John Waters in an interview, 'she'd simply stand in place.' She's like a living Barbie doll but she's only there to look like a victim and at that she's capable because her limbs move.

Mal Arnold is a memorable Fuad Ramses, with artificially greyed hair and thick eyebrows. He's no worse a ham than any of the many horror icons who he channelled for the part and his loping run was paid tribute by Peter Jackson, who channelled it himself as the alien Robert in Bad Taste. In fact Arnold is surprisingly good, given that this was only his second picture, bookended by simple roles as a nudist in nudie cuties. After five films in four years for Lewis or Kerwin, he only came back for one more, 1990's Vampire Cop. Al Golden plays Dr Flanders, the expert on Ishtar and the blood feast, as sensationally as the headlines of the Daily Chronicle we see early in the film that read, 'Teenage Girl Found Slaughtered! Legs Cut Off!' He never acted again. Scott Hall, the police captain, would only return to the screen for Color Me Blood Red; Lyn Bolton, a daffy Mrs Fremont, only for a late nudie cutie from the Kerwins, 1970's Sweet Bird of Aquarius.

But nobody watched Blood Feast for the acting, they watched it for the gore, which is as graphic as you could imagine without ever being realistic. Even the victim who doesn't die at the scene lies in her hospital bed with blood seeping through the bandages that cover her head. Suzette's friend Trudy Sanders is whipped raw so Ramses can collect the blood dripping from her back in a cup. This takes place in his basement, which by this time looks like an abattoir, with corpses and bits of corpses left everywhere. Most of them aren't even recognisable as anything except slabs of meat because Ramses is apparently rather wasteful of his ingredients and rather sloppy at cleaning anything up. We get an illustrative flashback sequence during Dr Flanders's lecture, where a toga clad girl has her heart carved out to be held glistening above her bloody flesh by a high priest, even though the wound is just a mass of gore without a single cut to the skin.

The gore travels well down the years, not in the sense that it's well done because it isn't, but in the sense that it's gloriously exploitative and has precisely the same effect today as it did when the film was first released. Viewers nowadays will surely hate this movie, make no mistake about that, but if you can keep them in front of the screen they'll cringe and shudder and bury their faces in their arms just like they were teenagers at a drive-in in 1963. Unlike most drive-in films, this was one that people watched. Sure, it was mostly in disbelief at what they were seeing but they watched anyway, because it was new and groundbreaking and they couldn't get enough, however ineptly it was all done. Their kids grew up with the extremes of the 1970s and today's audiences can find worse things on the internet without even trying, so today it's hard to see past the ineptitude. Those who can are probably filmmakers who owe Blood Feast big time.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Tournament (2009)

Director: Scott Mann
Stars: Robert Carlyle, Kelly Hu, Ian Somerhalder, Liam Cunningham and Ving Rhames

I discovered The Tournament while reading up on parkour after watching Luc Besson's District B13 and its sequel. It's a British film that seemed to have been done very American style like a video game. I recognised a number of the actors and, to be honest, I recognised the story too given that it's far from original, but it was always going to be worth picking up on Netflix. I wasn't expecting it to be intelligent, but was it going to be fun? That was the question I was looking to have answered, though of course with Kelly Hu in the cast it has to be at least a little fun. 'Every seven years in an ordinary town an extraordinary event takes place,' we're told. 'You won't know it, you won't see it, but it happens.' What is it? Well, it's the tournament, of course. Didn't you pay attention to the stupidly generic title? The tournament is the old last man standing concept, which has been done to death, no pun intended, but it adds a few new quirks beyond the usual.

One is that it takes place in public, the deaths explained away as acts of terrorism, car crashes or natural disasters. The other is that it takes place in the least romantic cities in the world, like Middlesbrough, a deliberate comment on the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the UK. OK, that's not a heck of a lot of social commentary but it is a little at least and that's more than usual for a film like this. It doesn't hold much pretense to value though, because it knows that at heart it's all about a bunch of people killing a bunch of other people in incredibly violent ways. This game only has one rule, kill or die, and if you're the last man (or woman) standing then you collect a neat ten million bucks. We come in at the of the last tournament, seven years earlier, in Shirao, Brazil, where the gore is plentiful and the dialogue is awful. 'Are you out of bullets?' some moron asks Joshua Harlow. 'Well, have some of mine!' he cries, letting rip with his machine gun.

Harlow is the good guy, in as much as any professional killer is the good guy. He has a code of honour at least, lighting a cigarette for the last opponent left alive before shooting him in the head. Then again we know he's going to win in Brazil because he's played by Ving Rhames and you don't kill Ving Rhames in the first five minutes of your movie, not if you want him to be the big draw in the Middlesbrough tournament, as both an actor and a character. He returns not for the prize but for revenge, given that his wife was murdered four months earlier by one of this year's players. Of course they don't tell us which one to begin with, but we don't really care that much. What matters is that he has a death wish and that's about the only way in which Joshua's insanely cool slow motion entrances could remotely make sense. It's a really slight excuse and it isn't anywhere near enough and that makes Joshua one of the least of the characters.

We spend more time watching Lai Lai Zhen, an assassin for the triads played by Kelly Hu, from the time she arrives in Middlesbrough to the end of the tournament. She's sent to the Ivy House Hotel, where she finds a briefcase, containing a gun and a small cup of liquid with a note reading 9pm. That's when she takes it and shortly afterwards is when the organisers of the tournament implant a tracking device. The contestants each get an electronic gizmo to track their prey, you see, so ensuring plenty of action, and the tracker doubles as a explosive in case the time limit runs out. If 24 hours expires with more than one contestant left alive, all the trackers explode. There are thirty contestants and they're as varied as their reasons for turning up. Powers, the man running the show, introduces us and the assembled high stakes gamblers to a few of the choice favourites before they start slaughtering each other wholesale.
Anton Bogart is a French parkour expert, appropriately portrayed by Sébastien Foucan, who co-founded the Yamakasi group with David Belle from District B13 and others. Scott Adkins plays a former member of the Russian special forces called Yuri Petrov. Ian Somerhalder is the wildest of the bunch, a Texan who is completely off his rocker, thus providing plenty of entertainment for those watching. How crazy? The first time we meet him he shoots a dog in the head and yawns. He cuts off the trigger fingers of his victims with a cigar cutter for his trophy cabinet. He's a loon. The most unexpected contestant is one who never signed up for the tournament to begin with, a profane and alcoholic priest called Father MacAvoy. Played by Robert Carlyle as a pitiful wreck of a man who has lost his faith, he joins by accident when he swallows Bogart's tracker with a cup of coffee, after the Frenchman extracted it and dumped it into a café percolator.

It's a decent setup as setups go, varied and busy, though notably less fascinating than Battle Royale, the freaky Japanese film that ran through a very similar plot in 2000 with a class of high school students as the contestants. Like Battle Royale, the large number of players means that there's plenty of opportunity for gruesome death and the filmmakers don't skimp, even though the budget was as tight as £3.6m or just over $5.5m. First blood goes to Lai Lai Zhen in a brutal one on one with Steve Tomko, but we soon escalate. Father MacAvoy is oblivious to the first few attempts on his life but, after begging for hope at his altar from the Blessed Virgin Mary, while surreptitiously dipping into a bottle of spirits, he can't ignore the explosive battle between Zhen and Petrov that wipes out most of his church. He was pitiful when we met him, puking onto a bartender's feet, and he remains pitiful throughout. Zhen should have killed him to shut him up.

There's much attention spent on the choreography, not just the fight moves but the logistics in which they take place. This is a dumb action movie, make no mistake, but a lot of thought was put into how each of the action scenes is set up and how they unfold. It's never boring and it's not always predictable. There are points where it gets a little out there, like the concept that the lunatic Texan would stop off at a strip club during the tournament, that eight other killers would soon follow and turn it into a bloodbath, and that the cops steadfastly fail to investigate. I was much more impressed with Foucan's parkour moves, not just his rooftop antics but a great chase scene in which he free runs after Zhen and MacAvoy, who are reversing down an alley in a police car. The grand finalé is a peach too, a high speed motorway duel between a chemical tanker and the 192 bus to Easingwold. I loved the speed camera taking a snap of a car speeding in midair.

What I didn't love were the missed opportunities. There's no attempt to provide background to any of the characters, which ought to have been fascinating. The only real motivation ties to the reasons Joshua Harlow is even there and it's a pretty basic motivation that Ving Rhames takes to truly scary degrees of overacting. The few hints at Zhen's background are mangled attempts at introducing morality. For a tournament that unfolds in public, there's surprisingly little attempt to engage the actual people of the town. Sure, they're not supposed to know it's going on but most of it just isn't avoidable. Beyond Father MacAvoy, the best use of a civilian is the service station attendant who looks a little like William Petersen and his reactions are funny mostly because they're almost non-reactions. There are passengers on the bus when it sets off on its high speed chase but none of them are used, even as props. It's a fun ride but not an essential one.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

Director: Nathan Hertz
Stars: John Agar, Joyce Meadows and Robert Fuller
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.

Beyond sporting a title as outrageously inviting as The Brain from Planet Arous, surely a gift to any pornographic spoofer, this film opens with what appears to be Tinkerbell dancing around the Mesa of Lost Women. No wonder director Nathan Juran insisted on having his credit changed to Nathan Hertz, though Hertz is his middle name rather than a description of the reaction his own brain had to the finished picture. It can't be good when the director is embarrassed of a feature he made, even one that kicks off with an explosion and has make up by Jack Pierce, Universal's monster maker. We soon see why: we're about to be subjected to John Agar, who married Shirley Temple and debuted opposite John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache, but went consistently downhill from there. This is a bad film and yet it's only partway down the ski slope of quality that ended with him in Larry Buchanan movies like Zontar: The Thing from Venus.

He's Steve March and he's saddled with opening dialogue that nobody could really do anything with. 'I don't understand it,' he says. 'It doesn't make any sense.' He sounds like he's trying not to trip over his tongue, even when it isn't attempting words like 'nucleometer'. He's a nuclear scientist, you see, though any credibility he and his Geiger counter might have is unfortunately soon lost. The intermittent blasts of gamma radiation he's trying to figure out are coming from the base of a mountain, or perhaps inside the mountain itself. It's not just its name, it's the way Steve tells his friend and colleague Dan Murphy. 'Something going on over at Mystery Mountain,' he suggests and if anyone watching today doesn't immediately get a strong visual of Scooby Doo and the gang, I'll buy them a five foot tall sandwich. 'Got to be spooks,' replies Dan. Don't they realise it's always the janitor who'd have got away with it too if it wasn't for you pesky kids?

Mystery Mountain is the most godforsaken spot on the desert, Steve tells us. By the way, I should reiterate that Steve is John Agar's character, just in case you'd forgotten. Apparently the people who made this film were in fear of you forgetting his name because everyone keeps calling him Steve, over and over. If we had to take a shot of something every time someone mentions the name Steve, we'd be soused before we ever got to Ro-Man's cave from Robot Monster. Yes, this film was shot in Bronson Canyon, like an amazing number of others, so Mystery Mountain turns out to be the most recognisable heap of rock in California that doesn't have a Hollywood sign on it. Everyone who's seen a B movie knows Bronson Canyon, but here we're supposed to believe that nobody goes there. 'Hasn't seen a human being since 1900, when the prospectors gave it up,' Dan tells Steve's fiancée, Sally Fallon, who's only in the picture to make everyone lunch.

Unfortunately nobody checked the script for consistency because it turns out that everyone and their dog hangs out at Mystery Mountain. Even Steve finds Ro-Man's cave because he notices a stack of rocks that wasn't there last winter. How would he know? To recognise heaps of rocks in the middle of a desert he must spend half his life at Mystery Mountain, taking pictures of heaps of rocks. Steve and Dan wander into this new cave to take a look around. Steve has a flashlight and a hairdryer. Dan has a flashlight and a Geiger counter. And a rifle. He'll need that when they notice a strange radioactive light. 'We don't want any trouble but we're armed in case you are,' warns Steve as the pair promptly trap themselves down one of the passages. No, the light isn't Ro-Man's bubble machine, it's a huge transparent floating brain with languorous eyes, so they shoot it. Then they drop their guns and fall to the ground in pain while the brain looks at them.

Given that Steve is an utterly generic all American man masquerading as a nuclear scientist, the brain gets to be both the film's character and comic relief by descending into Steve's body. Yes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers had been made the year before and scriptwriter Ray Buffum was paying attention, but he went to uninentional comic lengths with his version. The brain turns out to be Gor, not just an extra-terrestrial but also a criminal, a terrorist and a lecherous lunatic. Why a disembodied alien intelligence lusts after a human female the moment it acquires testicles, I have no clue, but once Steve's body gets back to Sally's house, he slaps a kiss on her like she's never experienced before. A few more of those and he starts ripping off her clothes. We'd be in for a rape scene if this wasn't 1957 and Sally's dog didn't interrupt. If this was Japanese, it would be called Alien Brain Rape Complex and we'd have cute Gor action figures to play with.
Fortunately Sally is played by Canadian actress Joyce Meadows, because she combines Lauren Bacall's set jaw with Elizabeth Montgomery's pixie nose and so can appear at once rather happy with the new vigorous Steve but indignant when she feels he's gone too far. Unfortunately Steve is still played by John Agar so we're not surprised when he bends over with stomach cramps and pretends it's a toothache. He storms indoors because he's been home for five minutes but hasn't got any, and Gor promptly emerges from his body for no apparent reason other than to explain his character motivation, because you know, disembodied intelligences can pout and gloat just like any James Bond supervillain. He wants Steve because he's a nuclear scientist and so can go to the places Gor wants to go and do the things Gor wants to do. But enough of that. Who cares about global domination when you can hold a man powerless while you lech after his girl?

'I chose your body very carefully,' he tells Steve, even though we remember a choice of precisely two guys in a cave, adding, 'even before I knew about Sally, a very exciting female.' Gor sounds like Cleveland in Family Guy, as played by Patrick MacNee, but with words more suited to Glenn Quagmire. I waited for a 'giggety giggety' but it never came. 'Why?' he leches. 'She appeals to me.' He calls Steve 'savage' like it's the Arous equivalent of 'boy' and relishes tormenting him. 'It is you who were touching her!' he reminds him. 'She'll do very nicely!' Now, while Gor is wasting time like a twelve year old bully, Sally and her father have decided to do something about the situation. They head out to Mystery Mountain, quickly finding Ro-Man's cave because even Sally knows this godforsaken place that hasn't seen a human being since 1900. 'I've been out here with Steve before and I know that cave wasn't here,' she tells her dad. Vol wasn't there either.

Vol is another brain, who looks precisely like Gor, probably because it's exactly the same footage but the Fallons don't feel afraid when he materialises, even though they've just discovered the radiation scarred corpse of Dan Murphy in the cave. 'Do not be afraid. I am a friend.' says Vol. He's a mild mannered cop who's chased Gor all the way to Earth to bring him to extra-terrestrial justice, but apparently chose to do so by hanging around in the middle of the desert until the Fallons showed up. He's so in tune with human nature that he expects them to keep quiet about the Earth becoming a battleground for two disembodied alien intelligences. Of course nobody would tell anyone that they talked with a floating brain. Nobody would invite Geraldo Rivera to film the thing when it arrives as promised back at their house the next night. Nobody would let The Weekly World News know about it possessing Sally's dog, George. Nah, Vol's a nice guy.

Gor isn't nice in the slightest. 'I will enjoy being you tonight,' Gor tells Steve, because he can't resist leaving his body just to gloat at him all the time. 'She gives me a very strange, very new elation,' he raves about Sally because such is the mindset of one of the greatest intellects in a world where intelligence is all. Never mind the fact that he can blow up planes with his magic eyes, which are suitably freaky through Agar wearing contact lenses lined with metal foil. Ouch. Never mind Gor's ability to travel to other planets and possessing bodies, let's concentrate on how much he can lech after the Earth women and laugh at their boyfriends. What is this? Wish fulfilment fantasies of ten year old boys? Next he'll be promising untold power for collaboration. Yep, that's next on Gor's checklist. 'Through me you shall have powers such as no man has even seen before in the history of your planet,' he promises, 'the power of pure intellect.'

Vol has already explained that Gor is insane for power and sure enough, he soon demonstrates how he's going to get it. Steve finagles his way into some atomic tests at Indian Springs and sets off a nuclear blast without using any of the bombs they have on site. He just pops in his metal foil contacts and looks out of the window. They shoot him when he gets overtly megalomaniacal but he just carries on regardless, decreeing that he wants representatives there in person that evening from each of the major countries. Anyone who doesn't show up will forfeit their capital city, he tells them, and so everyone naturally gets there in time. There's some serious trust here, because this sort of thing didn't work in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Klaatu didn't escalate the way Gor does. It works here because we're already in the last fifteen minutes and we need to find out his demands and then work out how Vol is going to save the day.
The demands are utterly outrageous. I've always wondered about the demands of supervillains because there has to be a line across which nobody will cross. A million dollars? Sure. A billion dollars? Maybe. It's only money, right? Sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads? I could even believe something that wild over what we get in this picture! Gor wants everything. All the world's supplies of uranium and plutonium. All the factories and industrial facilities. The railroads and shipping. The workers too to build the most powerful invasion force ever gathered anywhere in the universe. He even wants the UN Building. He wants to build interplanetary rockets so that he can invade Arous and become the master of the universe. He's He-Man! Somehow he forgot to ask for Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Bettie Page or maybe the Playboy Mansion, given how lecherous he's supposed to be in human form, but time is short in a 70 minute picture.

We do at least get some megalomaniacal laughter, which is long overdue, but John Agar really isn't one of the great megalomaniacs of the screen and his laughter is pretty pathetic. Gor's is a little better because his laugh doesn't belong to Agar, it belongs to Dale Tate. Tate was one of the producers on the film but he also provided the voices of both Gor and Vol as well as briefly playing a professor who carries his name. Agar is far better pretending he's Orson Welles in The Third Man, because he's pretty good at that. At one point the local sheriff arrives with news that he's discovered Dan Murphy's body in Ro-Man's cave, even though it hasn't seen a human being since 1900, and Gor, in Steve's body, just plays with him, exuding that self-satisfied confidence that Welles was so iconically good at. In fact these are the best scenes Agar gets, except maybe an odd shot where he stands up behind a huge jar so he looks like a circus freak.

For some reason The Brain from Planet Arous has become a popular reference point, probably because of the finalé which pops out of nowhere with astonishing convenience to combine a whole movie's worth of bad all in one blistering scene. Steve's flailing axework on Gor's fissure of Rolando even got sampled into the opening credits of Malcolm in the Middle. It even throws in an outrageously sexist last line just so the few women in the audience can look daggers at their boyfriends. Perhaps the only actual positive note to the ending is that it's so jarring that the rest of the film almost vanishes from our memory in shock and with it all the gaping plot holes that we've been wondering about all along. My favourite was how nobody has any problem with the whole extra-terrestrial concept. No, the downed plane with its strange metal couldn't be secret Russian technology two years after the signing of the Warsaw Pact. Nah, alien brains, of course.

Maybe its initial success came through a coincidence almost as large as the one that generates the film's finalé. The Brain from Planet Arous, with its distinctly good guy and bad guy brains and villainous demands for infrastructure to build interplanetary rockets, was released to cinemas on 1st October, 1957. Three days later, the Russians launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite that would go on to orbit the planet 1,440 times. To Americans this was a punch to the gut and to the sort of Americans who were thriving on pulp scifi movies it must have seemed like the end of the world, unavoidable proof of Russian dominance at the worst possible time. In his horror memoir, Danse Macabre, Stephen King revealed that he was in a movie theater watching Earth vs the Flying Saucers when the manager stopped the film to announce that Sputnik 1 was in orbit. Given that that film was a year old, he could easily have been watching this instead.

Today, there's no context unless we look for it. We could enthuse about the very idea of a cop chasing a crook, who both just happen to be disembodied alien brains, but it's no action piece. Gor is more of a pulp supervillain than a crook and Vol really doesn't do anything. He doesn't even get to make George do tricks. We could comment on yet another awful film in John Agar's outrageously bad filmography, but however bad it gets it's a few layers of quality over anything he made for Larry Buchanan. Beyond Agar, nobody is really worthy of mention, as they aren't given any opportunity either to shine or to earn undying ridicule. They're just the other guys in the movie. The real stars are the brains, but they're just visual effects all the way through to that overly convenient finale where Gor bounces around Steve's lab as if he's a brain balloon on a brain stem string and Vol just disappears. It's hardly the sort of iconic memory it really needs.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)

Director: Jerry Warren
Stars: Katherine Victor, George Mitchell and Steve Brodie
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.

Apparently to become a batgirl you have to be initiated under Article 21 Paragraph 6. You know, the one about wrist radios with direct lines to Batwoman herself and cups of honey, mint, cherry and strawberry yogurt masquerading as blood. These batgirls are fake vampires but they're hip, you dig? At least, that's what I think the point of this opening scene is. Who knows? Jerry Warren doesn't and he wrote and directed the thing. This completed a decade of insane movies for him that included The Incredible Petrified World, Teenage Zombies and Attack of the Mayan Mummy. He returned to the directors chair only one more time after this, for Frankenstein Island in 1981 which reunited the three stars of this film and added John Carradine. All his movies are bad, but they're more misguided than inept. As the title suggests, this is his most wildly misguided movie of all. A rip off of the successful new hit TV series, Batman, it has no idea what it wants to be.

Once we have the obligatory vampire reference out of the way, these batgirls can get down to serious go go dancing and crimefighting, though I'm entirely unsure of the priority. How serious, you ask? Well, it takes no time at all for a man to get mugged by a couple of thugs, while Batgirl 14 and her batgirl sidekick are conveniently crouched down behind a couple of trashcans, their big hair sticking up for the world to see. As the thugs demand the man's wallet, they do precisely nothing. As he decides to go all macho and cry, 'You want it, you'll just have to come and get it,' they crouch back and watch. As one thug shoots him dead, then runs away, apparently in sheer amazement that there was a bullet in his gun, they call it in over the wrist radio waves. The next batgirl is actively dumb, getting picked up in a bar, drugged into a stupor and kidnapped by a pair of bad guys called Tiger and Bruno while everyone else ignores it all and boogies on down.

The only thing these batgirls seem to be able to do is use their wrist radios, They're not crime stoppers, they're crime reporters, but they only report to Batwoman. Ah yes, Batwoman. The most amazing thing about Batwoman is that Katherine Victor plays the part straight. She wears an outlandish costume for the entire film as if it's the most natural look in the world. Most of it is black, including the leotard, tights, fox fur draped over one arm and masquerade mask. There's some sort of feathery headgear but I'm not sure where the hair ends and the hat begins. When she leaves her lair she adds a skimpy black cape to the mix. Perhaps it feels so natural because the actress created it all herself, as Warren was too cheap to hire a costume designer. She even created the bat insignia that decorates her cleavage, by cutting the shape out of cardboard, outlining it on her chest in pencil and filling it in with black eyeliner. Talk about dedication!

It's easy to feel sorry for Katherine Victor. She wasn't really a bad actress but she'll forever be associated with grade Z cinema because almost all her films were made for Jerry Warren, seven out of eleven if you count Invasion of the Animal People which he imported from Sweden and added additional footage to. When she managed to escape his clutches and film for someone else, she had the bad judgement to pick people like Ron Ormond or Phil Tucker. Films like Mesa of Lost Women and The Cape Canaveral Monsters are so bad she might as well have just stayed with Warren. Hardly expecting much after five films for him, he persuaded her into this one by promising big production values but naturally didn't follow through in the slightest. He didn't even design his monsters, instead just pinching footage from The Mole People and passing it off as new. The batgirls were even cast from a local strip club after it got raided and closed down.

So here she is dressed up to the freakish nines as a mother hen for a bunch of idiot strippers. I'd suggest that she gives the impression that she's the only one of the entire bunch that has any clue how to do anything, except that she switches channels on her wrist radio by looking at it. If she can't handle the technology, how can she expect her minions to? When they relax, they sit around looking bored while she plays the organ like the least hip sorority mother in history. At busy times, like when one of their number has been kidnapped, they flounce around the pool partying, while pretending that it's an exercise regimen, waiting for their leader to arrive for a super secret meeting. Code 331 means that attendance is mandatory, time is of the essence and everyone has to recite their pledge of allegiance in bikinis. 'We the girls who are dedicated to Batwoman, take our oath with all sincerity. We the girls who are dedicated...' And so on.
The urgent plan of action is to sit around on couches and wait for the bad guy to contact them by using the kidnapped batgirl's wrist radio, which naturally he does. He's Rat Fink, though not the one from Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, another 1966 movie even more insanely awful than this one. This Rat Fink wears a cape, balaclava, hat and gloves, as if he's the Phantom dressing up as Zorro for Hallowe'en. Even though he lurks around his own facilities, peeking in to see that everything is going as ineptly as he expects, he talks to his own minions only through big screen TV. Fortunately for him, Batwoman is willing to stoop to any depth to get her batgirl back. Sure, she'll break into a certain place to retrieve a certain item. She'll even meet at twelve noon at the top of Hangman's Bluff, a strange name for the laboratory of Prof G Octavius Neon, but Rat Fink is certainly not all there. Neither is Neon and Heathcliff, his assistant, is worse.

When Batwoman arrives, walking fearlessly into the enemy's lair on her own, she discovers just how not all there they are. Neon has a lazy accent, somehow Punjabi even though it's meant to be eastern European, I'm sure. He's a great scientist, or at least that's what he says. 'I have no doubt that the name of G Octavius Neon will go down in history,' he adds, 'as one of the absolute giants of civilised science. Do you like monsters?' He has a monster as an assistant, or a lunatic. It's hard to tell. This is Heathcliff, who hops around in a badly torn sweater like Torgo in Manos: The Hands of Fate. He makes faces like Burgess Meredith but comes across more as Harpo Marx playing Torgo, which is too scary to even contemplate. This gruesome twosome feel like they're characters in MST3K, which of course hosted this movie, but it's hard to spoof someone who is an over the top spoof to begin with. At least the batgirl is safe, jiving in the cage they put her in.

While they sit down to chocolate milk and macaroons, Rat Fink calls in on his big screen TV and lays out his demands. The Ayjax Development Corp has invented an atomic hearing aid. Yes, an atomic hearing aid. Should I just give up now on the basis that this film is too ridiculous to even allow a coherent synopsis? No, I'll persevere as long as you keep the macaroons coming. But no happy pills, leave those to Prof Neon: he dances better than I do. Anyway, Batwoman is to steal this atomic hearing aid before it's destroyed on orders from the government. Apparently it only takes a few certain modifications for it to allow anyone to listen to any telephone call, which is bad, or at least it was in 1966. Nowadays the government would finance it and call it the Echelon Project but Watergate wouldn't arrive for a few years yet and Nixon wouldn't resign in the face of impeachment until 1974. This point was that strange one when governments were good guys.

Of course it's hard to concentrate on the ethics of government destruction when the batgirl is go go dancing in her cell. Neon joins in because Batwoman reverses his attempts to drug her with a happy pill and Heathcliff makes it three because, well, just because he can. I don't remember rescue scenes being this surreal, even on The Monkees, but hey, there's an atomic hearing aid at stake and that's where the next batch of insanity erupts. Ayjax hires Batwoman and her entire bevy of batgirls to protect the thing, not realising that Rat Fink's minions can defeat them by wearing the most obviously fake facial hair you've ever seen and, through happy pill dosed soup, turning Ayjax into one huge party. They dance in the commissary. They dance in the vault. They'd be dancing in the aisles if there were any. There's more fancy footwork in this film than in any random episode of Dancing with the Stars, because it has no judges or commercial breaks.

As if to give all these dancing fools the chance to rest their thighs, we switch to a seance. Does this film lack anything? Thus far we've had murder, kidnapping and theft; the doping of an entire company, a hip organ number and a plentiful supply of leopardskin. Now it's seance time, down at Batwoman's place with J B Christians, the head of Ayjax, in person. Somehow she's persuaded him not only to resist suing her for failing to protect his prize possession from being stolen under her nose on the one day she was given the responsibility to keep it safe, but she's also managed to get him to show up to a seance so she can plead the spirits for its return. He must be truly in lust with her fancy costume or he's a devoted spiritualist. 'We must concentrate ourselves fully,' she pronounces, 'and thusly penetrate into the realms of etheric existence.' The dialogue goes south from there, to the degree of someone shouting Chinese gibberish. No less than four times.
It's a testament to Katherine Victor's dedication to her art that she doesn't crack up during this scene, which mostly unfolds through a single take that remains unbroken for an astounding three minutes and change. The camera doesn't even move, just sits there relentlessly waiting for her to break into laughter but she steadfastly refuses to do so, carrying on regardless however far beyond sanity the scene descends. Her performance here could easily have been used as an audition tape to turn her into the straight man for any comedian on the face of the planet. She's even better than Margaret Dumont and come to think of it, that does sound rather like Groucho hurling out fake Chinese. Somehow she stays polite throughout. 'I have to inform you that no-one here is familiar with Oriental languages,' she prompts. 'Speak to us only in English.' Richard Banks bites his tongue throughout and Bruno VeSota looks more like David Hayes than usual.

Where can we go from here? Set up a beach party with a host of bored onlookers shouting at the wacky folks filming a movie? Have the entire bevy of batgirls kidnapped but then reveal it all as Batwoman's plan to discover Rat Fink's hidden lab? Let Tiger fall in love with one of them and have her teach him to go go like a stripper from inside her cage? Splice in some scenes from The Mole People just to have monsters in the picture? Allow Batwoman to track the girls through oscillation and free them with her magnetic electron device? Obviously there needs to be lots of scientific gibberish, so Rat Fink can threaten to blow everyone up by mixing cobalt 40 with the atomic hearing aid and thus destroy the neighbourhood. He should even be able to duplicate himself four times so that everyone can run around the lab like Keystone Kops before the grand Scooby Doo unmasking scene. How about all the above? Because that's what we get and more.

It's really easy to diss Jerry Warren. Sure, his movies are visually clear so we can always see what's going on. We can even hear what's going on because the sound is solid, except for a few scenes where the fifties music makes a valiant attempt to drown out the dialogue. If only he'd followed the lead of other grade Z filmmakers who couldn't master such things so we wouldn't have to see and hear the idiocy he conjures up. There's a scene here where Bruno steals the show by standing in the background trying not to laugh while Neon and Rat Fink talk. That's the level this picture works at. There's another where Heathcliff sticks things in his ears and bites Neon's fingers, though that's really not supposed to be the focus. You just know it's horrendous when whatever Warren chooses to put into a scene is invariably far less interesting than whatever his supporting cast get up to in the background while he isn't looking.

I despair at what he felt he was accomplishing here. Obviously it was set up as a Batman rip off but it doesn't actually rip off anything except the name, Steckler's Rat Pfink a Boo Boo being far more blatant in its parody but managing to not get sued in the process. Apparently it's fine to dress up like Batman and run around with a little sidekick acting like morons and deliberately defiling the idea behind the character, but it isn't fine to put Batwoman in the title of your movie because it's just too close to Batman or Batgirl. Steckler got away with his film but Warren got sued. He won out but chose to re-release his film under a new title anyway, deciding on the utterly irrelevant She Was a Hippy Vampire. I wonder what Katherine Victor thought of that. I'm still amazed he managed to get her to play along with any of it. Perhaps he had pictures of her murdering Jimmy Hoffa or having sex with the Pope or something similarly newsworthy.

Reminiscing about the film, she suggested that she stayed on Warren's good side because he cut the parts of anyone who rubbed him the wrong way. 'The pretty brunette who was kidnapped in the beginning of the picture was supposed to be the lead girl,' she said, 'but for some reason Jerry thought she was getting too big for her britches and gave all her lines to the girl in the leopard tights.' That's a shame because the brunette whose name I can't provide was far more appealing than Lucki Winn, who plays the leopard girl, even though both of them dance hard enough to dislocate a hip. At lesst the brunette gets a chance at love, falling for Tiger even though he had drugged and kidnapped her. She even manages to induct him into the bevy as a batgirl, which is something we need happy pills to cope with. Would you like some soup? I promise it's laced with Neon's happy pills. I wouldn't offer otherwise. You need them, trust me.