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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just started watching Mystery Science 3000 when WW of Batwoman was on and couldn't believe my eyes. I'd like to say it was the worst movie I ever saw but it would be tied with,"Manos, Hands of Fate." Watching these movies is like driving by a horrible accident. You don't want to look, but you can't help it. If it weren't for the guys from Mystery Science 3000 with their running hilarious commentary, I would go screaming into the night but I never laughed so hard. I'm new to Mystery Science 3000. Thank god for ME TV for bringing it back.

Mr. Astell did an excellent job on the movie so I can't add anything else except great critique. I'm looking to the next piece of crap Mystery Science shows and the witty banner of the guys on the show.