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.


The horrors continue

With six more horror-related movies under my belt, I’m up to 22 for the month.  Making the full 31 is possible though iffy.

I started out with a pair of Christopher Lee’s Dracula movies through Hammer.  Having watchedHorror of Dracula last week, I felt like working my way through the rest of the sequence.

The actual sequel to Horror is Brides of Dracula in which Peter Cushing reprises his role as Van Helsing, but Lee (and Dracula) are actually never seen.  For Cushing, this would be the last Van Helsing role for a while.  My viewing started with the next movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness.  In this film, four English tourists wind up in the Carpathian countryside and through a combination of accident and bad judgment, wind up at Dracula’s castle.  For the older couple, this is bad news indeed:  he is sacrificed to raise Dracula from his ashes, and she becomes a vampire.  It is the younger couple who must contend with the resurrected Dracula. 

This is a decent enough movie except for one thing:  Dracula never speaks.  With no lines, Lee still does a good job, but it’s hard to tell if Dracula is anything other than a feral bloodsucking beast.  As with most of these movies, the virtues of Christianity are always promoted, with crosses being used as protection.  Quality: 6/10, Fun 6/10.

Since you can’t keep a good vampire down, Lee is back in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.  Raised again by accident (or is it?), Dracula seeks revenge against the priest who has locked him out of his own castle.  Of course, the priest has a beautiful niece to be victimized along with a barmaid (generally, redheads get the worst of it in these movies, while blondes tend to survive).  It’s up to the boyfriend of the niece to try and set things right; will he be able to overcome his atheism and find the faith necessary to defeat Dracula?  Quality: 6/10, Fun: 6/10.

Since I was on a vampire kick, I went with some other vampire movies I had picked up on a combo pack.  First up, Vampire Wars: Battle for the Universe.  This clunker of a movie is really sci-fi, not horror.  Sometime in the future, humanity has expanded beyond Earth, only to find that every other alien race is a type of vampire.  Battling the vamps are a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries (is there any other sort) who don’t speak English as much as cliche.   The story is utterly formulaic and with little star-power (Michael Ironside is easily the biggest name, followed by one of the lesser Deluises), this should be avoided.  Quality 2/10, Fun 2/10.

The first hint that The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire may not be very horrific comes with the opening words “Hallmark Presents”.  Sure enough, this is actually a Sherlock Holmes story with Matt Frewer as the detective piecing together the clues in a murder mystery supposedly perpetrated by a vampire.  This is actually a Scooby Doo mystery with someone disguised as a vampire for his own nefarious goals.  This one is too talky and with action as tame as a kitten, though not gratingly bad.  Quality 4/10, Fun 3/10.

After these two disappointments, it was nice to come upon a more interesting movie:  Nadja.  Produced by David Lynch, this daughter-of-Dracula story has a definite Lynchian weirdness to it.  Dracula’s daughter Nadja learns of her father’s death and seeks out her twin brother.  In the process, she seduces a woman who happens to be married to Van Helsing’s nephew.  The nephew’s sister is meanwhile acting as nurse to Nadja’s brother.  As with Lynch’s films, this one is strange enough that you have a hard time telling if it’s any good.  I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt:  Quality: 5/10, Fun 6/10.

I ended the string of movies with a non-vampire tale, the classic B-movie Carnival of Souls.  This movie follows a young woman who survives a car accident only to be haunted by mysterious figures.  It is essentially a reworking of the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker” but done better.  There are minimal special effects, but they aren’t needed.  Throughout the movie, there is an element of mystery that leaves a lot to the imagination.  Are the figures ghosts or demons?  Are they evil, merely mischievous or actually somehow benevolent (probably not the last one)?  Add to that the fact that the main character is too icy to be likeable and you have a horror film that breaks out of some of the early 1960s genre cliches.  Quality: 6/10, Fun: 8/10.  (By the way, my DVD version has a commentary by MST3K’s Mike Nelson.  If you have it too, save it till after you watch it unadorned, or you’ll have a hard time enjoying the creepy qualities.  Also, watch it in black & white, not the colorized version.)


A Swarm of B’s

The B movie doesn’t really exist anymore; probably its closest equivalent today is the direct-to-video film.  In its heyday, the B movie had its own pantheon of film directors, some good and some pretty awful.  Among the top of the B directors (and producers) would have to be Roger Corman.  Corman’s creative peak came with his series of Poe movies, all loosely based on stories by Poe.  The best featured Vincent Price and the writing of Richard Matheson (among others) and included The Masque of the Red Death (my favorite), The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven, among others.

Corman had an eye for talent as well.  Among the big names who owe their success, at least in part, to Corman, are Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard.  But early in Corman’s career, his movies were not as ambitious and though fun, not that high quality.  A couple days ago, I got to watch a pair of his early movies:  Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of this Earth.

Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of those giant radioactive monster movies, in this case giant crabs.  These are no ordinary giant crabs, however:  they absorb the mental powers of any person they consume.  A group of scientists go to a remote island to check out the effects of radioactivity on the local flora and fauna.  They are the second group to do so, the first having disappeared months earlier.  Of course, it’s the crab monsters that are responsible and they want to get another helping.  Since they aren’t all that quick, they start to wear away the island, giving the people less and less space to run around in.

This isn’t really a very good movie; the effects in particular are unimpressive and the writing leaves a bit to be desired.  There’s really only one actor of note, a pre-Gilligan’s Island Russell Johnson, playing a Professor-like character who can fix almost anything.  It does, however, weigh in at just over an hour, so it suffices as a pleasant diversion.  Quality: 3/10, Fun: 5/10.

Not of this Earth, on the other hand, is a good movie (it would actually be remade twice, although I’m not positive this is an indicator of quality).  A human-looking alien comes to Earth, seeking to use humanity’s blood to save his nuclear-war-ravaged race.  He does have telepathic abilities and a literally killer gaze.  His plot involves a lot of blood transfusions, and he gets the assistance of Beverly Garland to do the blood work.  With less of an emphasis on special effects (though there is one cheesy monster), the focus shifts to writing and characters and it pays off.  Quality: 6/10, Fun: 7/10.

Along with this pair of Corman movies, I watched a triple-feature on a Something Weird Video DVD that showed that Corman was indeed one of the better B movie directors.  This triple-feature began with The Atomic Brain (also parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000).  This is the tale of an old lady who finances a mad scientist to perfect brain transplants.  Now all she needs is a new body, and she intends to get it by hiring some maids from overseas, the idea being that they could be easily disposed of without alerting the authorities.  This doesn’t quite work as planned, of course.  It really isn’t that bad of a movie (though it ain’t good either), but it suffers from too much narration and an utterly formulaic story.  On the other hand, it is notable for not having a male hero who has to save the female lead.  In fact, no one really saves the day; the heroine survives only because the villains turn on each other.  Quality: 3/10.  Fun: 4/10.

Love After Death, the second feature, makes the first movie seem better in comparison.  It is a poorly dubbed foreign film about a wealthy man who is buried alive (he was actually in a cataleptic state), allowing his wife and his doctor to be together.  After rising from the grave, the man seeks revenge, but first he tries having sex with various women.  This leads to a lot of gratuitous nudity and some actual sex, but I think there’s too much plot for this to be a true porn film.  Whatever the true genre, this film is a bore to watch, even if all you’re looking for is naked women.  Quality: 2/10, Fun: 2/10.

Love After Death may be a bore, but The Incredible Petrified World is an utter bore.  John Carradine plays a scientist who recruits three scientists and a reporter (two men, two women, of course) to go underwater in a diving bell.  An accident strands them underwater, but soon they find a vast cave system with air and fresh water.  What else is in this cave?  Well, we do see a komodo dragon briefly, but if this a bad effects version of dinosaur or just a lizard, we can’t tell:  it never appears again.  In fact, the cave is pretty much as lifeless as the movie itself.  There is a caveman of sorts who has amorous intent towards one of the women.  And there is a volcano that has been dormant for a long time but will conveniently go off just as the heroes arrive.  Did I mention this film is boring?  It’s only an hour long, but even then, you can see all the padding, with long establishing shots that just drag the story down further.  After these last two films, The Atomic Brain is almost Citizen Kane.  Quality: 3/10, Fun: 1/10.

Holy giant turtles, Batman!

No movies to comment on today, but I got a treat in the mail today:  MST3K vs. Gamera.  Unlike the typical 4-DVD set, this one has 5 DVDs, all featuring Gamera movies:  Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Gamera vs, Gaos, Gamera vs. Guiron and Gamera vs. Zigra.

Having gone through most of the Godzilla movies in 2010, this will be an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise.  Gamera came from a different studio (Daiei) than Godzilla (Toho), making an all-out battle between the two impossible.  Also, Gamera (like Toho’s Mothra) was a benevolent monster (the “friend of all children”) and aimed for a younger audience than Godzilla, whose attitude towards humanity often fluctuated.  I think it is safe to say that Godzilla does have the stronger “family” of monsters, including Mothra, Rodan, a version of King Kong and, of course, King Ghidorah.  Unfortunately, Godzilla is the only one saddled with a feeble America version (aka Fraudzilla).

I’m sure more Gamera discussions will follow in future posts.

Bad sci-fi Monday

Around 20 years ago, I was flipping through channels and came across some old science fiction movie in which, for some reason, there were silhouettes of a guy and a couple puppets who’d be talking over the film.  That would be my first exposure to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and admittedly, it didn’t last long. I changed the station again, moved somewhere where I didn’t have cable and had to wait a couple years before I once again saw MST3K.  I’ve seen many episodes since then, on TV, cable and DVD, but never saw that first old sci-fi movie again.  Until yesterday.

MST3K:  Project Moonbase features a clunky science fiction movie written, amazingly enough, by Robert Heinlein.  An astronaut is sent off on a mission to orbit the moon.  His commanding officer:  the beautiful woman who got promoted over him (possible romance?  what do you think?).  Also aboard:  a saboteur, whose attempts at evil force a moon landing, where the saboteur will be foiled and killed and the man and woman will be married, partly out of love, and partly because if a man and woman are to be stranded alone on a distant world in 1950s film, they’d better be married.  The special effects are pretty shabby, but this was a Lippert Picture, from a Poverty Row studio that actually produced some decent B-movies, though they were all very low budget.  The woman (Donna Martell) looks pretty nice in that early ’50s sort of way; of course, she’s 83 now.  I’ll leave it to others to say whether the man (Ross Ford) also looks nice.

Of course, one doesn’t watch an MST3K episode for the movie plot, which is why I have no problem with spoilers.  I will also have spoilers for the other movies in this posting, principally because the ends need to be discussed.  But before I get to those, I just want to say that this MST3K episode is a good one, though since it’s from the first season, it still has points of unevenness.  For the episode (not the movie), I give it a quality rating of 6 and a fun rating of 8.  I won’t rate the movie because the version I saw may have been edited.

On to the sci-fi double feature I watched.  First up was The Day Time Ended, one of those movies that bring up a question that always bugs me:  how can a movie have a guest star?  It makes sense for a TV series, where the guest appears in only one episode, but in a movie, aren’t they all guest stars?

The film stars Jim Davis (Jock Ewing from Dallas) as the patriarch of a family with a house out in the middle of the desert.  Also staying with him is his wife, his teenage son and his daughter and granddaughter.  His son-in-law (Chris Mitchum, Robert’s deservedly less-than-famous son) is out of town on business.  A “triple supernova” has caused havoc throughout the world, but especially at their house, where they spend an evening being terrorized by UFOs, dinosaur-like creatures, aliens and earthquakes.  As Davis says to his son, more-or-less:  “You know what we’re dealing with here, son.  A time-space warp.”  The granddaughter, meanwhile, seems to have some sort of mental issues, as she talks to inanimate objects (like lights and faucets) as if they were alive.  Being a little kid in a sci-fi movie, she has to wander into trouble, which she does repeatedly.

What is going on is never really explained, but somehow the whole family gets reunited though trapped in the far future or another planet.  They seem all happy as they wander to some alien city, but I have to wonder, what happens next?  If they’re the only folks left, who will the teenage son eventually get together with?  His niece?  She doesn’t seem very bright to begin with:  who knows what her in-bred kids will be like?  Here I go again, overthinking a movie where not much thinking went into it in the first place.  Quality:  3/10.  Fun:  4/10.

The Doomsday Machine may be the title of the other movie, but it really only has a secondary role in the film itself.  The title implement is apparently Chairman Mao’s special world-destroying bomb.  It’s in a poorly guarded facility somewhere in China in which a spy breaks in easily (with the assistance of a cat).  She takes a few pictures of the bomb and then runs off to report to the U.S., where the first manned mission to Venus is about to take place.  With the threat of oblivion hanging over the Earth, three of the male astronauts are replaced with women, the intent being that the spaceship will be a Noah’s ark, without the animals.  There are four men, but one is old, so it’s obvious he’s not supposed to pair up with a woman.  Strictly speaking, if the goal is to restart the human race on Venus, is a one-to-one ratio of men to women really the best?  Shouldn’t there be several women to each man?  It ain’t monogamous, but we’re talking about the human race!  (I guess there’s just more tension in a smaller ratio, or where the men outnumber the women, which is more common in apocalyptic movies.)

Sure enough, the Earth blows up and the seven bicker and cry as they head toward Venus.  Adding to their problems, the use of fuel while avoiding Earth chunks has forced them to cull out some of the people to conserve what fuel they have left.  Only three can live.  Fortunately, Grant Williams (of Incredible Shrinking Man fame) and the girl he’s trying to rape have accidentally ejected themselves out of the airlock.  Two more will have to leave the ship to fix it and will be marooned, but  in the vastness of space, they happen to find just a few hundred yards away, a derelict space probe which they will enter and restart.  As both ships descend, they are confronted with the vast hive intelligence of Venus, which casts them off to the edge of the universe.  The end.

The Doomsday Machine, according to my IMDB research is apparently one of those cobbled together movies, which could explain the general badness of it (even the spaceship seems to change form a lot).  If the ending seems abrupt, it’s because the producers ran out of money.  But hey, they shot the thing, it’d be a shame if no one saw all their hard work.  Quality:  2/10.  Fun:  5/10.

Whatever happened to juvenile delinquents?

I made a rare trip to the movie theater today and saw X-Men: First Class.  It was worth the excursion.  It was well-made and entertaining, with a story that serves as a prequel to the other X-Men movies, but is not truly more of a reboot.  It isn’t very difficult to find all sorts of contradictions when comparing to the other movies, but who cares?  This was a fun flick (enhanced by some clever cameos):  it gets an 8 out of 10 for both quality and fun.

Now as to the title of my blog.  Among my many weekend movies, I saw a double-feature from Something Weird Video:  Teen-Age Strangler and Teenage Gang Debs.  This pair of flicks came from the mid-1960s, towards the end of the juvenile delinquent movie era (soon to be succeeded by the new threat of hippies). 

I’d seen Teen-Age Strangler before, as it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it is well worth all the jibes a man and two robots can throw at it.  Clocking in at just over an hour, it’s the story of a mysterious killer preying on teenage girls.  Could it be one of the boys in the local drag-racing gang?  Since this is supposed to be a teen movie, you gotta have a song and this one features “Yipes Stripes”, a tune about the virtues of wearing stripes.  The singer performs in a coffee shop with her guitarist partner, and he is good:  when he plays, you not only hear a guitar but a complete band.  I don’t know how he did it.  Teen-Age Strangler also has the whiniest character ever put on film, a kid brother who is ready to burst into tears all the time!  This gets a 2/10 for quality but 6/10 for fun.

There are actually very few delinquents in Teen-Age Strangler, but Teenage Gang Debs has almost nothing but delinquents.  This is the saga of scheming Manhattan girl Terry who moves to Brooklyn and starts taking over a gang.  She hooks up with the club president, and then arranges to have his second-in-command, Nico, take over.  She replaces Nico’s girl and makes sure her predecessor is gang-raped before being kicked out the door.  Of course, anyone this bad will eventually get her comeuppance.  There are rumbles and fights and just general nastiness in this movie.  It gets 4/10 for quality, 5/10 for fun.

As stated above, by the end of the ’60s, the juvenile delinquent seemed to have disappeared, replaced by new teenage perils.  So maybe they aren’t called  j.d.s today, but as shown in Harry Brown, they still exist.  This British film from a couple years ago as Michael Caine as an ex-soldier taking on the local hoodlums after they kill his only friend.  It’s essentially Death Wish for seniors, but Caine makes it more than a vigilante exploitation flick.  The bad guys are so nasty and the overall feel is so bleak that it’s kind of uncomfortable:  hence this gets a quality score of 8/10, but only a fun score of 6/10.