A grindhouse trilogy

What common link can be found between yetis and Home Improvement?  The answer is Michael Findlay.

Findlay was a film director and actor who made a series of extremely low-budget movies in the 1960s and 1970s.  My first experience with him was a few years ago when I saw Shriek of the Mutilated, a wonderfully cheesy movie in the Bigfoot/Sasquatch genre.

Shriek is the tale of a professor who invites his students to his isolated cabin where they hope to spot a yeti.  There’s something more sinister afoot, however, then the obviously fake yeti.  Yes, the yeti is a fake, a man in a costume that is part of a ruse that intends to make some of the students the main course for dinner.  This movie, along with such films as Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Terror at Red Wolf Inn, serve as cautionary tales about eating special meat dishes which have origins the food preparers are rather sketchy about.

When I read about Findlay and his wife Roberta (who often worked with him) in Sleazoid Express by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, I decided I had to check out their most well-known movies, the Flesh trilogy (of course, with grindhouse directors, even the well-known movies might be rather obscure).

Like many of these types of movies, this trilogy was designed to be seen in the rinky-dink grindhouse theaters most notably found on 42nd Street around Times Square (back before it was cleaned up and Disneyfied).  I don’t think I’d call these movies porn, but there is a lot of gratuitous nudity.  In fact, you get the feeling that about what type of movies these will be with the very first image of the first film, The Touch of Her Flesh:  the opening credits are projected onto a woman’s naked body.

So yes, these three movies do have lots of nudity – notably female nudity – as well as plenty of sex scenes, most of which are not very erotic (which is why I don’t think of these as porn films), but are also quickly tedious (and up to the last movie, very tame also).  The entertainment value of these movies comes from their rather silly stories involving a serial killer.

Touch opens with Richard Jennings (played by Findlay) going off on a business trip.  He is barely out the door when his wife Claudia invites in her lover.  When Jennings returns unexpectedly, he sees them and goes off the deep end, running into the street and getting hit by a car.  This leaves him temporarily wheelchair-bound and without an eye (though occasionally through the other movies, he loses the eye patch and seems to be doing okay).

The betrayed Jennings decides to declare war on all women, leading to all sorts of creative killings.  In the first movie, this will include death by poisoned flower, blowdart and for Claudia, buzzsaw.  Although it appears he is killed at the end of this movie, he will be back for the next two films, The Curse of Her Flesh and The Kiss of Her Flesh.

In Curse, the production values are noticeably better, particularly in the sound department.  The killings are more creative here as Jennings seeks revenge on his late wife’s lover:  murders will include poisoned underwear and a sex toy with an unexpected blade inside.  I should note that these killings are not graphic at all; in fact, Findlay seems to shy away so much from really showing the killings, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s going on.

The Kiss of Her Flesh rounds out the trilogy with some more interesting murders, including electrocution, blowtorch, acid-laced feminine wash and poisoned semen.  The plot this time focuses on Claudia’s sister trying to get revenge and eventually setting up a rather clever trap for Jennings.  The sister’s lover is played by Leo Heinz.  Of course, as is common in these types of films, everyone acts under an alias (even the Findlays used other names); Heinz was actually Earl Hindman in his film debut:  many years later, he would be kindly neighbor Wilson on Home Improvement.  Thus, the yeti-to-Home Improvement chain is completed.

It’s easy enough to dismiss these movies as pure schlock exploitation films, but they are a little (not a lot) better than that.  All three movies rate between 5/10 and 6/10 on IMDB based on a good sampling of ratings; that’s usually an indication of a so-so movie, not a complete cheese fest (in contrast, Shriek of the Mutilated gets a 2.6, which is in Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory).  Furthermore, based on when they came out, they may have had an influence on later slasher flicks, though the genre probably owes more to Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve.

On the other hand, these films definitely reflect their low-budget origins (although the DVD transfers are pretty clean).  The acting and the writing is often silly and bare-bones.  In short, the trilogy is far from classic, but it does have its entertaining moments.

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Euro-horror triple play!

Is it Eurohorror, Euro Horror or Euro-horror?  Sources vary, so I’ll stick with the hyphenated version for the moment (though I reserve the right to change my mind later).  What is Euro-horror?  Exactly what’d you think, horror films from Europe, particularly non-English fare.

Of course, if you take English out of the equation, you know that few of these films are going to hit it big in the U.S., where for most viewers, dubbing is considered bad and subtitles to be avoided at all costs (“if I wanted to read, I wouldn’t have gone to the movies!”).  Too bad, because among all the Euro-horror schlock (not helped by low (by U.S. standards) budgets), there are some gems.

Not that I got any of the gems recently.  I guess I shouldn’t have expected much when the director of two of these three movies was Jesus (aka Jess) Franco, the prolific and consistently mediocre director from Spain.  I’ve seen other Franco movies:  the Orloff boxed set consisted of four movies, each weaker than the last.  His Fu Manchu movies are little better, though like his Count Dracula, he is blessed with Christopher Lee to make at least a rayon purse out of a sow’s ear. 

What to expect when watching a Franco movie?  Minimal special effects and so-so writing.  The biggest strength seems to be his location shooting.  A big advantage that Euro-horror has is that it’s shot in a region with a long history, therefore plenty of creepy old buildings.  First of my recent Franco viewings was The Rites of Frankenstein.  Like many Euro-horror flicks, this one has multiple titles, but this was the one on my DVD.

The movie starts with one of the Frankenstein family energizing the familiar monster.  He is hardly able to relish his triumph when he is attacked by a half-woman, half-bird who is also a vampire.  She works for the wizard Cagliostro who has his own plan to take over the world with the help of his zombie army.  He is using Frankenstein’s machinery to create the perfect woman, who will mate with the monster to create a new race to replace humans.  Frankenstein’s daughter and a local doctor try and stop him.  Meanwhile, a gypsy girl hears Cagliostro calling to her, but she does little in the movie other than walk around and bemoan her fate.  Plotwise, this movie is almost okay, but Franco is adept at making the movie muddled and rather boring.

Rites of Frankenstein is what I think of as a Kitchen Sink movie, in the sense that Franco throws in everything but the kitchen sink and hopes it will somehow turn into a good movie.  He fails.  My version, admittedly, was clearly edited, as the gratuitous nudity that Franco typically throws in appeared to be missing; the DVD extra did show alternate, poorly preserved takes that showed that Franco did indeed have the nudity in a different version.    Quality 3/10, Fun 3/10

The other Franco film, Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is so muddled that it makes Rites seem clear and intelligent in comparison.  From what I can gather, Frankenstein enslaves Dracula, the easier to create other vampires.  Another vampire – a blond woman – also wanders around drinking blood but not really contributing to the story.  The Frankenstein monster is around causing trouble, and in the last reel, a mangy wolfman appears for some inexplicable reason to fight for the good guys. Quality 2/10, Fun 3/10.

Finally, there was The Vampires Night Orgy, a movie that certainly didn’t live up to its title.  Another apparently Spanish film, this has a busload of people getting stuck in a small out-of-the-way town which happens to be filled with vampires.  It is very reminiscent of 2000 Maniacs, even to the final scene.   There is little blood and certainly no orgy, but the movie does have a couple decent moments.  Refreshingly, the little girl, who in most movies would get herself into trouble and endanger everyone else when she needs to be rescued, doesn’t play to the cliché.  Instead, when she gets into danger, no one rescues her.  Quality 3/10, Fun 4/10.

In short, Euro-horror is neither better or worse than American horror, merely different.  For all the knocking I do of these three movies, there are some real gems of Euro-horror.  In particular, the works of Mario Bava are typically brilliant.  I especially recommend Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve.  Dario Argento has his successes too, most notably Suspiria.