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.

Another house of horror

There are lots of Houses in moviedom.  In the Fox Film Noir collection alone, there are three:  The House on 92nd Street, The House on Telegraph Hill and House of Secrets.  In the horror genre, we have the House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, The House on Haunted Hill, Hell House, The House That Dripped Blood, The House by the Cemetery and Horror House on Highway 5.  There’s even just plain old House (plus its sequels).  There are many others too, I’m sure, but they don’t come to mind immediately.

Now I can add House of the Living Dead to the mix.  Also known as Curse of the Dead, this is a bit of a let-down from the get-go, with a title that hints of zombies or some other power from beyond the grave.  Instead, we get a non-supernatural thriller that is at least unusual in its setting:  a plantation in 19th Century southern Africa where the Brattling family lives.  Michael Brattling is the lord of the manor, and as the movie begins, he is awaiting the appearance of his fiancée from England.  She arrives and despite her love for Michael, can’t help but notice some odd things about the family.  Her future mother-in-law keeps trying to get rid of her and Michael’s brother Breckinridge is living in the attic, apparently insane and doing some sort of strange experiments.   People start dying, allegedly due to a ghost horse.

Now come the spoilers:  for most savvy viewers, the fact that we never really see Michael’s brother is a good clue that he either doesn’t exist or at least isn’t alive.  The muddled ending seems to imply that it’s Michael that’s dead and Breckinridge is impersonating him.  This never really makes sense, as his fiancée doesn’t catch on, nor does the doctor who went to school with Breckinridge:  wouldn’t he have noticed something when he met Michael?  Maybe there is something I missed, but I was trying not to nod off during this film.  Quality 3/10, Fun 3/10.

You don’t have to even be really savvy to guess the secret in Terror at Red Wolf Inn, the movie that came with House of the Living Dead on my DVD.  Unfortunately, the movie’s heroine Regina is not very bright.  As the movie opens, her college semester is just ending; based on what follows, my assumption is that she went to college either as a legacy or the school had very loose entrance requirements.  She gets back to her apartment and finds a letter telling her she’s won a contest (which she didn’t even enter) and she won a free trip to the title location, a remote bed-and-breakfast.  Regina is told she must leave immediately, and she goes off without telling anyone.  She is given a chartered flight to some unknown destination, where she is picked up by the grandson of the Red Wolf Inn’s owners.

Is something fishy going on?  You bet.  Does Regina question why the phones never work?  Or why there are all sorts of special meat dishes that the owners are very sketchy about?  Why do the other guests disappear in the middle of the night, and why are the owners so secretive about their walk-in refrigerator?  Even the rather dense Regina eventually catches on that something is amiss and that she may be the next main course.  She’s not bright enough to work out a real escape plan, but she does have one advantage:  the grandson, who’s even more slow-witted than Regina, has a thing for her.

Fortunately, much of this movie is played humorously and I think the viewers are meant to catch on even before the secret is revealed.  The old couple that runs the place are the source of much of the humor with their combination of dottiness and malice.  The fact that they’re wealthy explains the obviously wasteful way they go about getting their meals.  For Regina alone, they have to find her and fly her out to their place.  The way they kill off a person every night makes you think that they are not really getting their money’s worth, but it could be that the victims are all just in cold storage.  Does the humor always work?  Not really, but this is a bit better than the first movie.  Quality 4/10.  Fun 5/10.