Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Identical (2014), by Dustin Marcellino


*

This is one of those..."hint movies." They have the perpetual hint of trash about them, but they're consistently circling the trash drain, never quite dipping too deep down below the waters. Eventually, there is a moment of release--in many of these films, there are sometimes several such moments--but the whole affair feels too solid, too well-disguised, for the distinct traces be properly identifiable. My first true Christsploitation movie on the site (Noah didn't count) is The Identical, a movie about the story of Elvis with a Christian spin--and man, does it make some weird decisions.

Based loosely on the possibilities of the fact that Elvis Presley had a miscarried twin brother, we follow the Hemsleys, a Depression-era couple whose child turns out to be twins. They can take care of one child, but not the other, and so when William Hemsley goes to a tent sermon led by Reverend Wade, he hears the words "It is better to give than to receive" and takes them perhaps a bit too literally. You see, Mrs. Wade has miscarried multiple times and it seems unlikely that the Wades will ever have a child. This is going where you think it's going--yes, William wants to give one of the babies to the Reverend and his wife. His own wife resists as first but fortunately they resolve it offscreen, and little Dexter Hemsley becomes Ryan Wade. The Hemsleys hold a funeral for their child (...why?) and we cut away to instead follow Ryan Wade as he grows up. His father wants him to be a preacher, but Ryan is much more interested in music, particularly the nascent genre of rock and roll. His father continually punishes him for sneaking out to rock clubs (or "honky-tonks" as he calls them) and eventually makes him join the Army...hey, just like that Elvis guy! (Except Elvis was drafted, not pushed in by his dad.) Ryan eventually hears about rock legend Drexel "The Dream" Hemsley, who maintains the same level of fame in this universe as Elvis; after marrying his girlfriend Janey, Ryan decides to enter a Drexel Impersonator contest which the King himself is judging. He's so good that he gets a deal as "the Identical," a Drexel cover artist who gets paid as much as Drexel himself (!!!). Eventually however Drexel dies in a plane crash (just like Elvis?) and Ryan retires, aiming to make peace with himself and his father, as well as his birth family when he learns of them. He decides to return to music in the end, so that his brother's dream can live on.

This movie is actually pretty sweet, even though I don't share its religious values, and even though it twists history to do what it yearns to do. The acting is good, the sentiment seems real, the filmmakers obviously adore and respect Elvis, the direction is pretty solid, it's pretty-looking, and it actually lands quite a few of its jokes. Of course, I may speak from a position of relief that this movie is never truly uncomfortable (except for one possible moment explored below); still, Stockholm Syndrome is better than what I can usually hope for in a movie like this, so I'll take it.

That having been said. It's still a movie about an Elvis impersonator who is as successful as Elvis himself. It's still about a movie put in that situation by a couple faking their child's death to cover up a simple adoption situation. (Did they seriously think adoption wasn't a thing during the Depression?) It's still a movie where a husband tells his wife to her face, "Maybe we can just give up the one?" It's still a movie where the first dialogue that isn't narration is some incredibly jarring yelling. But that's not the full depth of it. For one thing...Elvis exists in this universe. I have seen this commented on by everyone who's ever reviewed it, but it bears repeating time and time again: Elvis Presley is mentioned to exist and have the same career as he did in real life in this universe. Meaning this is a movie about a hugely successful Elvis impersonator who is himself impersonating an Elvis impersonator. A single line that includes Elvis in this universe undoes the whole dynamic, but that's really only the biggest problem.

Janey is originally seeing someone else when she re-enters Ryan's life, working as a nurse. However, he keeps creeping on her, calling her from work over and over, and sending her flowers. Worse, he uses the fact that she accidentally revealed the identity of one of her patients--Drexel Hemsley's dying mother--to creep on, well, a stranger's mother, because when Ryan decides to creep into the room of the hospital where Janey works to see Mrs. Hemsley, he doesn't know they're related. He explains to her, "I'm a big fan of your son's music and I just wanted to offer you a little prayer," but if someone came into my hospital room when I was sleeping and that was their explanation I would say something along the lines of, "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!" Admittedly, the conclusion to this creepiness results in the pretty-funny scene where Ryan and his boss from the auto shop show up to serenade Janey, getting arrested in the process--he convinces her to get a single cup of coffee with him, and we Gilligan Cut from his arrest to their getting married. Again, this movie does do some things right.

It's interesting because while the movie insinuates that rock and roll was invented by two white guys playing black guys' instruments (actually, from a metaphorical statement, that's...well I mean the white guys don't steal the instruments in this case...), it takes a strong stand against traditional conservative authority. Reverend Wade's treatment of Ryan is shown to be, if not abusive, then sincerely troubling, for both of them, especially when it results in the elder man's heart attack. The movie seems to say that that old way of yelling at your kids, making them follow in your footsteps whether they want to or not, telling them to "be a man," shipping them off to the Army for misbehaving...that hurts both of them, and only in letting it go do the old priest and his son find peace. When the cop shows up to bust the "honky-tonk" that Ryan sings at (with the term itself being a racially-charged phrase), he says to the mostly-black crowd the place is "dark and stinky" and that it's full of "reefers and devil music." Ryan tells him there's nothing wrong with the people there and gets a punch to the gut. Racism and intolerance towards certain types of music are condemned just as surely as that '50s household lifestyle is. Where I was perhaps a bit uncomfortable was where the movie had a scene set during the Six-Day War which was likely intended as an analogy for a modern-day pro-Israel message. It feels out of place with the rest of the movie, but, chemical weapons aside, the scene is framed to be more of a pro-Judaism message, which I support (though I know that associating modern Israel with Judaism can be uncomfortable for some). For a Southern white church in the '60s to include a Menorah in their church and to declare foreign Jewish folk to be God's Chosen People seems pretty progressive to me. This is sort of a setup to when Ryan finds out later that Mrs. Hemsley was Jewish, making him Jewish as well--a fact which seems to delight him. For once, I feel I can presume innocence, and feel comfortable believing that this movie is just pro-Jewish, which is much-needed in movies in the 2010s.

I have so much difficulty digging into the strangeness of this movie, and why they might have done it the way they did. I'm glad that its quirks exist, though, and I can be distracted by such gems as the confirmation that Drexel Hemsley did in fact star in a series of increasingly-shitty beach movies before his untimely demise, just like his real-life counterpart (err...impersonatee?). I can notice little bits like the fact that Ryan's adopted mom never ages even while Pastor Wade shrivels into an old mummy. I can look forward to the bizarre Tarzan yodel Reverend Wade lets out when he finds out Ryan knows the truth about his parentage. Yes, this is a "bad movie." And, it's part of a genre which I normally otherwise find to be really upsetting. But it largely avoids offense and thus carries enough of that elusive hint, that seductive trashy odor, to make it a classic for me.

* Call me crazy, but I looked over my copy a few different times and for the life of me, I swear this movie has no title card. My DVD actually stopped working after my last look-through, and appears to have died permanently! That's why I've used the poster instead, which, incidentally, is from IMDB.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Zodiac Killer (1971), by Tom Hanson



Most of us at this point are familiar with the story of the Zodiac Killer. In the late '60s through the early '70s, an as-yet-unidentified murderer killed at least five people in the San Francisco area, leaving behind mysterious ciphers which remain as unsolved as the case they belong to. Many theories have emerged citing a number of suspects, and similarly quite a few films have been made on the subject of the murders. Like the theories, some of these movies are sound, while others are not. The 1971 film The Zodiac Killer, made by Tom Hanson as part of a harebrained, probably-bogus scheme to catch the Killer in the theater it showed at, is decidedly not one of the sound Zodiac case adaptations, being instead a fascinating portrait of ugly people thrown into a classic exploitation backdrop.

The film is a relatively disconnected series of vignettes. We first follow the Zodiac Killer without knowing who he is, and two suspects emerge for us to consider: the meek, rabbit-keeping vegan mailman Jerry, and the violently misogynistic, drug-addicted, alimony-dodging Grover. The police begin to close in on Grover, seeing as he's the more readily obvious suspect, but he's shot down after trying to kidnap his daughter with a Ultimate Weapon, a handsaw. Jerry is the actual Zodiac, believing that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife (which the Zodiac Killer claimed to believe), after Atlantis rises from the ocean (which is horseshit concocted by the director). He keeps on killing and, as in real life, he is never caught.

Tom Hanson here takes the Ed Wood route of exploitation and tries to make a movie that teaches us something. At first, the movie is rather cynical--it flat-out calls the audience stupid for not being more paranoid about serial killers, for not suspecting the un-suspicious. This is a rather uncomfortable view to take, especially in an age where kids are now being told that their shy classmates are potential school shooters in the making just because they're quiet. Jerry being the killer fits in with this mentality; he is the very "guy next door" that he warns us about at the beginning. Grover's arc exists to demonstrate that sometimes the most vulgar and openly-violent and Trump-esque of us are just bad people, and despite their loudness and brashness they shouldn't be the only ones we look at when it comes to looking for murderers. Of course, that sort of seems to normalize people like Grover, but the subversion, I think, goes deeper than that.

Grover is violently misogynistic, true, but grotesque sexism is a running theme of the whole movie--almost as if Hanson wanted to demonstrate, at least subliminally, that the Zodiac Killer could not exist without a confining culture that encourages men to be violent. Jerry is not as sexist as Grover, but only barely. He shares a conversation with his hideous pimple of a neighbor Doc, who opines that "once women are over 20, they're no good...Chinese have a term for it, it's called the Year of the Dog. [That's...not what that is, but 'kay.] Or as I like to call it, the Birth of the Bitch!" Following this Doc adds, "if you get any leftovers, though, send 'em my way...remember, I like 'em plump 'n' juicy...and DUMB!" Jerry is generally on Doc's side during this, and the rest of the movie will show him throw sexist remarks out of his own volition. Jerry and many other characters also sling around the word f*ggot, and Jerry himself takes deep offense at being called such. This latter incident takes place in a bar scene where we get glimpses of various relationship dynamics, nearly all of them portrayed negatively. Bad sexual dynamics, negative gender roles, and institutionalized homophobia are all major parts of the world that makes the Zodiac Killer who he is.

Actually, this movie in some ways is all about subversions. After Jerry is shown to us as the Killer, we see him first share some hotdogs with some beachgoers, where he doesn't kill them--then he goes to a park full of vulnerable children, where he doesn't kill anyone. But then we get the biggest and most infamous murder scene of the whole movie, where he first claims to be a crook escaping from a prison in Montana, and that he just needs to steal his victims' keys and money to get to Mexico. But after he ties them up, he chuckles casually, "I'm gonna have to stab you people." This sort of sadistic joking-around follows as he plays games with the police. He takes genuine pleasure in shutting down the power of those who can stop him. At the end, this is played with, where it's briefly put forth that maybe if the police didn't need to get so many fuckin' permits and warrants and whatnot they'd just be able to arrest/kill all those dirty crooks all the time like we want. It's uncomfortable (because time shows that cops perform worse and commit more crimes without those regulations), but it's presented alongside the suggestion (put forth, admittedly, by the Zodiac himself) that the Killer may in fact be a sane person, which means there are other reasons for his killings aside from simple "mental illness." While it is the Zodiac Killer himself putting forth this view, it also obviously stands in for the sentiments of the filmmakers, so this is a point they're interested in exploring. It's interesting. It's almost like unscientific views of mental health and biased explanations/solutions for crime are excuses for the violence of the patriarchy or something. 

Of course, this movie is also ridiculous. Grover is absolutely disgusting inside and out, which becomes kind of comedic after a while. ("Suspect proceeded to urinate in customers' drinks, proclaiming...'The Fountain of Youth lives'?") The Zodiac Killer wears a Paul McCartney wig and a beaglepuss. The police consult a psychic, Mr. Koslow, who has some Mysterious Foreigners in his apartment for no reason. It's a weird movie, and I may have understated that, despite the fact that this is a fictionalization of a series of murders that was released while those murders were still happening. To say nothing of the fact that for all the hard facts about the case Hanson gets right, there are plenty he just makes the fuck up.

This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's not an easy watch, for quite a few reasons, but every time I pop it into I'm completely engrossed in its world for 87 minutes. Like, I will actually forget about outside reality when I throw it on. That's another way it's weird. Watch it.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars (1992), by John Carr


It is finished. What began in 1980 with The Nightmare Never Ends and led into Gretta in 1984 and Night Train to Terror the year after comes to a stunning finale twelve years after it commenced with Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. Originally set for production in 1982 under the title Scream Your Head Off, Marilyn was only partially made, and it took ten years for the scrapped footage to be turned around into a full movie. I suspect that the movie we would've gotten with Scream Your Head Off would have been more similar to "The Case of Harry Billings" from Night Train to Terror, but sometime in the decade between its start and finish director John Carr and writer Philip Yordan developed an obsession with actress Marilyn Monroe, and decided to work that angle into the affair. The success of the result means that this whole quartet is amazing all the way through: Marilyn doesn't drop the prestigious ball passed to it by its predecessors.

Harry Billings accidentally kills his wife in a drunken accident on the first day of their marriage, and shortly afterwards, tries to commit suicide. For this, the hospital that retrieves him follows what is clearly real-life procedure and sends him to a mental hospital for indefinite, nonconsensual treatment with no notification to his surviving family. The hospital is run by Dr. Brewer and Dr. Fargo, and they use the hospital to harvest women to sell to Middle Eastern oil sheikhs using hypnotically-controlled patients. Considerably odder than just kidnapping the women for body parts, no? While being used for this purpose Harry also encounters a patient who claims to be Marilyn Monroe, who speaks of a powerful conspiracy to imprison her in this place. Due to the meds they give her she frequently reverts to the mental age of 12, desiring a handsome prince to come save her. Curious to bring up her age, given that Marilyn hasn't, y'know, aged in the last thirty years since her ostensible death. Eventually Dr. Fargo lobotomizes Brewer, but this will bring about her downfall when she seeks to have Harry, the hospital, and all the money to herself.

Not too far a deviation from Night Train, I'd say, but the introduction of the Marilyn plot, and the screentime it consumes, cannot be understated. This is significant for one big reason: this movie is edited drunkenly, trying desperately to stitch on the newer Marilyn bits to the older Scream Your Head Off bits. Making the whole mess hopeless is that the older parts of the movie were shot on film, while the newer Marilyn chunks are very obviously shot on video. This makes the whole affair seem less like A Night to Dismember and more like Run Coyote Run, the pseudo-remake/sequel to Lady Street Fighter. It's a patchwork monster but I always love when one of those makes itself at home in my house.

The film bits feature the same sort of artistic scripting and direction that made Gretta seems so self-contradictory. There's a scene where Dr. Brewer gives someone the "Roman thumb" and it actually feels like something from a real movie. Then the video comes along and it's stiff, hurried, and over-focused on making cheesecake out of Marilyn Monroe. There is no sense of quality in the script. This fits John Carr's filmmaking very well, though; even the good bits that are continuous with one another are still largely suspended in seas of Just Not Getting It. Carr knows how good movies look, but he doesn't know how they work. As ever, this quality works entirely to our benefit.

The mental hospital is still unbelievable medieval, though that might be partially to blame on Fargo and Brewer's crooked natures. However, I don't understand why an ordinary hospital chooses to send someone to a psychiatric facility against their will, rather than, y'know, offering them treatment at the actual hospital and discharging them with recommendations for a therapist. Harry hasn't even regained consciousness when they choose, via shitty dub work, to send him off to Brewer's "care." This must be a weird alternate universe in several ways besides that unusual detail, though, since one of Harry's victims is only mildly put off by a "cab driver" who drives an unmarked cab, is oddly insistent on driving her, waives the fare, and also buys her coffee which he does not allow her to refuse. Sometimes movies just do this. I don't why. They just keep doing it.

I'm running out of things to say, but I'm going to spoil something before I wrap it all up. In the end, the twist seems to be that Harry's friend is actually Marilyn Monroe. That's why I made a note how she hasn't aged since 1962; it's not because she's someone who believes she's Marilyn Monroe, it's because she actually is her. That means the conspiracy against her was real and is probably still out there with no one really investigating it. That's a big slug in the jaw from a movie which already has the audacity to not print a colon in its title. But the movie does have a happy ending, a non-ableist one at that, with the various patients all getting what they want without judgment.

I can't possibly hope to conjure words for my feelings about the journey these four movies have taken me through. So I'll simply end here with the knowledge that these were not the only movies John Carr and Philip Yordan worked on. Those that survive are in my scopes. The party lives on. And if you want to join the party, you should check out Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. Just don't take the complimentary coffee.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965), by Bert Williams


2010 was probably when I first starting keeping the prototype form of the list that would become the A-List. I could no longer count my favorite trash movies on two hands, much less ten hands, so in order to make sure I didn't forget something in the long course of time, I started writing shit down. There was a secondary list to this, of course, which is the list we all make, the list of movies we want to see when we have a chance. Beneath this second list, though, was yet another list, which not everyone keeps. This was the list of Lost Films for whose return I would wait eternity. This included movies so rare that they might as well be lost.

In eight years, I've found some of those movies: Death Brings Roses is the one that comes to mind the quickest. I'm still looking for The Weird Ones, Sasqua, Amanita Pestilens, and many others. But out of all of them, I never expected The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds to be found. It was lost; as in, all-copies-incinerated lost, London After Midnight lost, not-a-single-frame-remains lost. And yet fate, or something greater, finds a way, and a complete copy of Bert Williams' 1965 exploitation epic was found in an abandoned movie theater just last year and streamed on MUBI. Response has been limited--after all, most people reading this review will have never heard of the film before, and it's just an exploitation movie. But I'm baffled by the few reviews that do exist that say that the film is "nothing special" or "forgettable." On the contrary: I believe that Nest deserves to be enshrined among one of the inner circles of the Trash Pantheon, demonstrating attributes that make it akin to films like Sledgehammer and Manos: The Hands of Fate.

A Liquor Control Department agent named Johnson--no first name--is dispatched to take out a nest of crummy bootleggers, led by the rather unpleasant-looking "Doc." His father was killed by bootleggers, but through sheer dopiness Johnson will prevail. He only regrets having to leave behind Pat, his notably-younger, notably-hotter wife who apparently can't have sex for reasons that are never explained. Eventually Johnson's cover among the bootleggers is blown and he's forced to go on the run into the swamps. Here, he witnesses a strange naked blonde girl who dances around in the swamps wearing a plastic see-through mask very much like the one the killer wears in Sledgehammer. She tries to kill him in a VERY jarring sequence, but he escapes and is taken it by Harold, the groundskeeper of the remote Cuckoo Bird Inn, who honestly does look like Torgo's cousin. The Cuckoo Bird Inn is run by the tyrannical Mrs. Pratt, who, like most people in this movie, CAN ONLY COMMUNICATE WITH YELLING. She also abuses her daughter Lisa in a style much in the same way as Carrie's mom, but Johnson is stuck there until he's done recovering. Oh, but did I mention that Lisa almost perfectly resembles the nude girl who tried to murder Johnson earlier?

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds makes a lot of wrongheaded decision that lead to it being a very strange watch. I want to start with the fact that our main protagonist is an idiot--but a debonair idiot. Like, his entire character is that he's some kind of ill-mannered bumpkin, but at the same time, he's played up as if this is really charming somehow. He tells Mrs. Pratt, "You're a real attractive woman..." (she isn't) "...just like my sister!" (?!?). Then there's the fact that Pat, his wife, who vanishes without a solitary trace by the film's second half, isn't interested in sex with him, but she takes the blame for this without explanation. There's also a recurring gag of sorts where Johnson keeps crushing Harold's thumb, and it's never really clear if he's deliberately trying to provoke him or if he's just an imbecile.

Johnson also sweats a lot, but so does everyone else. Seriously, there may be more sweat in this than in the Ms. Blandish remake. It is a dour, sour-slick movie, Apocalypse Now-like at times, with lots of high, grungy shadows and claustrophobic grimy indoors. That's before we get to some of the film's more gruesome surprises. The grindhouse has arrived, hallowed be it's name--if this movie came later it would be an appropriate bridge between Manos and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but for now it instead forms a sort of link between Manos and Spider Baby; or, the Maddest Story Ever Told. It's still pretty tame by modern standards, but all these films are cousins to each other--distant echoes probably of the shitty, unnecessarily-praised 1932 Old Dark House (which incidentally starred William "Boris Karloff" Pratt), yet still more powerful in the end than that drab, stupid film could ever be. The initial scenes with Lisa in her plastic mask are legitimately scary, and caught me completely off guard the first time I saw them. They feature plenty of boosted shrieks and sped up footage, which hints at the garbled talent director Williams frequently but inconsistently portrays.

The film starts huffing and puffing when it reaches its final revelations, which include such wonders as Harold's gory secret, the reason why Mrs. Pratt abuses Lisa, and the nature of the "Chapel" the ultra-religious Mrs. Pratt keeps on the Inn property. In all my viewings I've zoned out a lot while watching it. However, the film's multiple climaxes are totally bananas, and frankly, middle chunks aside, so is most of the rest of the film. It's not only scripted off-kilter, making it a strange story no matter how it could end up directed, but it's directed bizarrely as well, with lots of uncomfortable angles and an insistence on having characters face away from each other as they talk. Part art drama, part exploitation gore flick, Nest of the Cuckoo Birds actually is an unsung micro-classic, though it achieves such status entirely in trash terms. Its blend of humorous lapses of judgment and legitimately heart-rending horror sequences makes it something every trash film fan should track down immediately.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Club of Desolation #23: Powers of Darkness (1900-1901), by Valdimar Asmundsson and Bram Stoker (?)



In 2014, Icelandic scholar Hans Corneel de Roos was looking over a manuscript from the turn of the 20th Century that at first seemed to merely be an Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, penned by writer Valdimar Asmundsson. However, he started to notice that the manuscript, entitled Makt Myrkranna or Powers of Darkness, made some substantial deviations from Stoker's original text, and it didn't take long to realize that the book was something new entirely, although it was based on Dracula. The resultant text was made available in English with notes by both de Roos and Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker. Makt Myrkranna is simultaneously an awesome part of horror fiction history, a superior novel to Stoker's tale, and a suggestion of a possibility I've thought about for a long time: what if there are more books like this one, which serve as alternate versions of more famous works?

The story of Powers of Darkness roughly follows that of Dracula, but it bears repeating for the sake of this review. Jonathan--or excuse me, Thomas Harker is an English real estate agent called out to Transylvania by a mysterious noble named Count Dracula, who is interested in buying property in London. Harker is warned by everyone he encounters along the way that Dracula is pure evil, but he must carry on with his job. You see, Harker is kind of an idiot--even moreso than in Stoker's novel. Dracula is an amiable enough fellow but his castle looks like no one's lived in it properly for centuries. He also gets a hungry look in his eye when he sees Harker cut himself. Pretty standard Stoker stuff so far, but Stoker never mentioned Dracula's triumphant pride in the incestuous of his family, which produces short-lived, stumpy freaks. Nor did he mention Dracula's underground chamber where he and his gorilla-man army sacrifice villagers to Satan. Nor did he mention that Dracula and said gorilla-man army are in league with a conspiracy of noblemen who want to destroy the democratic processes of England to create a world where the serfs serve the nobles again! (I guess Dracula never heard of Wall Street, then.) Will Harker be able to escape Dracula's horrifying fortress to warn his beloved Wilma, or will he be food for Dracula's vampire brides?

"But wait!" you ask. "What about Holmwood and Quincy Morris and Lucy and van Helsing? What about, y'know, the other three-quarters of the novel?" Well, that's the thing about Powers of Darkness: most of the book is Harker trying to survive his weeks in Dracula's castle. There is a second part which features most of the same events as Dracula--the arrival of van Helsing, the vampirism and staking of Lucy/Lucia, the menace hanging over Mina/Wilma, and finally the battle against Dracula and his servants in the shadow of the vampire's castle. Where the end changes is that Dracula's castle crumbles upon his death, and then the nobles who allied themselves with him commit suicide or are murdered, ending his conspiracy. As the introduction and notes posit, this part was likely meant as an outline for what Asmundsson would write later, suggesting that Powers of Darkness in its complete form (assuming that we have today isn't the complete form) would have dwarfed Dracula in length and complexity. As it stands already, Asmundsson's text succeeds at being far scarier than Dracula, perhaps because of its choice to frontload.

Asmundsson understood the Harker parts had the best potential for horror. Dracula's wild, rambling structure gives it the feeling more of an adventure novel than a Gothic piece, which is awkward because it's told, as Powers of Darkness is, through letters and diary entries. It's weird to hear the tale of a frantic carriage chase recounted post-facto in a journal. But the bulk of Powers of Darkness reads like something someone found in Dracula's castle next to Thomas Harker's emaciated corpse--you never know which entry is going to be the last. This is broken only somewhat by the fact that, again, Harker is a massive idiot, as he pointedly does not try to leave the castle until it's nearly too late, even after witnessing Satanic rituals in progress! He is remarkably tolerant of many horrifying supernatural incidents. Sometimes, though, justifying logic breaks through. After all, it's probably more than Harker feels he can't leave the castle, as it's on a high rocky pass in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wolves and God knows what else. There's also the fact that he came here to do a job, and at least at the beginning, much of his response to the ghoulish things he encountered is a very natural sort of confusion--perhaps he's imagining things, or maybe this is some local custom he as a privileged Londoner doesn't understand. Even if he trusts his instincts when he is sure the supernatural is afoot, he can't exactly return to his boss in England emptyhanded and tell him, "Sorry, the client was a Satanic vampire with a gorilla-man army which he was gonna use to tear down the government, no sale."

Now, this book would not be complete without the introduction and notes it provides. Dacre Stoker's introduction was interesting in its argument that Makt Myrkranna was based on Bram Stoker's private notes, and that Stoker and Asmundsson collaborated in the latter's penning of Powers. He brings up the fact that it was popular for Victorian authors to travel to Iceland, as they admired Iceland's astonishing poetic tradition; he also points out that several details from Powers match with unused story bits from Stoker's notes, such as the "hidden red room" where Dracula performs his evil magic, and the blind-mute woman who serves the vampire. However, I would caution against assuming that works such as these are made with the collaboration of the original author, because certain tropes are universal, and there are such things as coincidences. Respect the fanfic, I guess is what I'm saying. On my first read-through of the introduction I was disappointed that Dacre Stoker generally abstained from praising Asmundsson's individual creativity in the parts of Powers that weren't seemingly based on his great-granduncle's work, but a closer look-through on my part shows the integrity of his investigation. Similarly, I found de Roos' footnotes to be cluttery and intrusive at times, but they form a log of the challenges he ran into in translating early 20th Century Icelandic into English. When I studied linguistics I found the bond between Icelandic and English one of the most fascinating my professors discussed: modern Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar. In fact one of my professors told me that if an Anglo-Saxon time-traveler from pre-Norman England landed in today's Iceland they'd probably be able to have a reasonable conversation with someone there.

Overall, this new edition of Makt Myrkranna is an awesome look at vampire fiction history, and one of what I hope will be many discoveries of other pseudo-classics cloned from books that history remembered better. And, similarly, it's better than the original Dracula. Horror fans can't afford to miss out.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Night Train to Terror (1985), by John Carr, Philip Marsak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Gregg G. Tallas


With this review, I have now reviewed this movie three times over--and we're not done yet. When I was talking about Gretta and The Nightmare Never Ends, I may have alluded to the fact that the third piece of this anthology was never finished or released. Well, I was wrong. When I made that statement I knew that third movie as Scream Your Head Off, with a 1981 production date. A meager amount of research on my part would have unearthed that Scream Your Head Off was released eleven years after it began production, under the rather odd title of Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars. But that movie is for another day; we're here to talk about Night Train to Terror, the primary reason why any of the three movies it was slashed out from are remembered.

God, Satan, and a mysterious third party who may be Death, are aboard a train. Also aboard is a REALLY shitty '80s pop band, whose lives are on the line: the train is due to crash at midnight, and God and Satan are here to debate the nature of humanity in order to determine whether the band will go to Heaven or Hell when they die. In order to convince God that humanity isn't worth saving, Satan tells God three stories, each of which supposedly prove humanity's evil. In "The Case of Harry Billings" (aka Scream Your Head Off), the titular Harry Billings kills his wife with drunk driving and ends up in a weird mental institution which chains up naked women for the purposes of rape (I think?) and organ harvesting. The main doctor there turns Harry into his drugged/hypnotic agent to abduct women for this purpose. The head nurse is also banging Harry and plans to have him help her lobotomize the head doctor so she can take over the hospital. It's pretty fucking weird.

Next is "The Case of Gretta Connors," aka Gretta. Things are kept pretty much the same, but they try to make Gretta seem more like a victim and George seem more evil; the primary focus is on the Death Wish Club. The main oddity of this segment is that they never explain why Gretta becomes Charlie White--she just suddenly looks like a guy for some reason. While they prominently feature the beetle scene, they also add on new footage of the beetle (rendered with claymation) escaping the room and killing a random makeout couple in a scene that totally doesn't have different video quality. By kill them, I mean it stings them, and this makes their faces explode.

Finally, we have "The Case of Claire Hansen," cleaved from the meat of The Nightmare Never Ends. I saw very few differences here and it actually told the story much more efficiently than the original film did. However, there are some scenes which appear to be of the same type of tacked-on claymation gore as that which appeared in the Gretta segment. I suspect similar sequences were added to the Scream Your Head Off bits, but we'll find out when I finally get around to Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to watch Night Train to Terror without context, aside from the obvious fact that it would be a headrush of unparalleled vertigo. Even with context, Night Train is a heady brew of Doris Wishman-esque cuts, unexplained plot threads, and hidden surprises. Every segment is discombobulated, with traces of subplots floating here and there and yet meaning nothing. This includes the new footage shot for the film. They try to make the pop band on the train into actual characters, despite the fact that all they do is sing the same songs over and over and over again; there's a mention of, "Oh, man, it's too bad our van broke down and we had to take this train!"--as if we could possibly care. How does that even make sense? Trains have to go to very specific places, and even if one was going to where I was headed I'd still worry about leaving my van behind to jump one! To me, that's like saying, "Shit, my motorcycle is out of gas. Might as well charter a cruise ship home then." It's ditching one line of vehicle for another. But I'm getting off-track: again, we're supposed to believe that there's an actual story to this frame story besides the God-Satan thing, and one line is supposed to cover the whole depth of that story. That's a perfect synecdoche for the entire movie. That line is patchwork and so is the rest of the film.

Perhaps I'll have more of a chance in the future to delve into this genre of patchwork remakes, which has existed since forever. For now, both Night Train to Terror and The White Gorilla are fine additions to my A-List, and I'll be returning to their uniquely Burroughsian madness time and time again. In regards to Night Train specifically, I will be returning to it in a stranger sense, when at last the time comes to review the third movie from its twisted catalogue.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The White Gorilla (1945), by Harry L. Fraser and Jack Nelson



Just. One. More. Gorilla film.

Okay, technically two gorilla films. The Intruder was weird in that the gorillas just sort of interrupted the murder mystery we were already investigating. The Monster and the Girl had something of the same problem, but wholeheartedly attempted to tackle a fusion of the gorilla picture with film noir. Human Gorilla and The Gorilla Man weren't even gorilla movies, and House of Mystery was probably ripping off the silent incarnations of The Gorilla, aka the worst comedy ever written. Then we have The White Gorilla--a movie which was praised for its accidental experimental qualities by none other than William K. Everson himself. The White Gorilla in itself isn't really a movie--it's a shambles of a narrative cobbled together from tiny portions of original footage, stapled onto large chunks of footage stolen from the 1927 serial Perils of the Jungle, all held together in turn by shockingly lame narrations and "looking out from the bushes" inserts. It makes an appropriate pairing with this week's second film, also a mess of editing posing as a "movie." If the jaw-droppingly dumb spectacle of that wasn't enough, the footage from Perils of the Jungle is also really, really bizarre--its presence provides the only way at present to see what that serial might have looked like, as it's not in distribution, despite surviving in at least one archive.

The "plot" of The White Gorilla is as follows: Steve Collins, jungle guide, has just returned to Morgan's Trading Post in some part of Africa after escorting an explorer named Bradford on a quest for...something. At present, Collins is badly injured from a brawl with a white gorilla--something his comrade's at the post don't believe in. He has to tell the story of the White Gorilla, however, and thus we enter his flashback. We first Bradford and his assistant Hanley captured by some of the natives but freed by the authority of a five-year-old white boy who can apparently talk to animals. Collins follows Bradford as Bradford follows the jungle boy, leading him to a jungle girl, who is threatened by lions. (These lions are the reason why Collins can't interact with the silent film footage--they have trapped in a tree!) The jungle girl is the daughter (perhaps interracial?) of another explorer who was forced to set up permanent camp in the jungle after he went blind. Hanley ends up killing the old man and causing trouble for the group. This leads to their discovering the Cave of the Cyclops, which is inhabited by the Tiger-Men: Africans dressed as tigers ('cause, y'know, tigers live in Africa) such as those they keep in a pit under the cave ('cause, y'know, tigers live in Africa), who worship a pair of cyclops idols (!). The Cave is full of treasure but is guarded by the Tiger-Men, who are only barely held at bay by the jungle boy's mother, who is feigning insanity to set herself up as the Tiger-Men's priestess, as the tribe believes that insane people are sacred. God, this movie is weird. Anyway, in course of spying on the party as they entered the Cave, Collins was attacked by the White Gorilla and only barely escaped. While Morgan and the others go out in search of Bradford and his companions, the White Gorilla returns, kidnapping first a native child and later a girl who is of significance to the frame story bits (Collins' love interest?). Collins, despite his wounds, goes out after her, and manages to finally kill the gorilla. As for Bradford, Hanley, the jungle boy, the jungle girl, the Tiger-Men, and the priestess lady: "All we found in the tiger pit were the bones." Wow, "how fucking depressing" doesn't even cover how downer of an ending that is.

Whew, that's a lot for 60 minutes. In case you can't tell, there's not a plausible bone in this movie's body. Everything is just ridiculous. I suspect these were the "best cuts" of Perils of the Jungle, but if things were as crazy there as they were here, I really hope one of those archives restores and releases that serial to a wider audience. This is yet another movie where I could really just stop after the synopsis, but I haven't touched on some of the other things, like how they dub dialogue over the silent footage, and how the White Gorilla makes farting/kazoo sounds for some ungodly reason. Collins' narration continues even after he's done telling his story; the inhabitants of Morgan's Trading Post laughingly mock a badly injured man for believing in such a thing as a White Gorilla--and I know people knew what albinism was in 1945. The thing is, there were a fucking lot of these types of movies back in the '30s and '40s, with the infamous 1946 Devil Monster being a recut version of 1936's The Sea Fiend--in term an English-language remake of 1935's El Diablo del Mar! It's important to bring up remakes here because Remake Fever was as much a thing then as it is in our era. Keep in mind that there were two versions of The Unholy Three made within five years of each other, featuring virtually the same cast and virtually the same direction. That instance was part of the movement, however, that saw to the remaking of silent films into more relevant talkie versions...with mixed results at times. It is the same trend that The White Gorilla is a dubiously respectable participator in; at heart, The White Gorilla serves as a pure remake of Perils of the Jungle, which director Harry Fraser wrote after all. But by a combination of a hilariously dated "modernizing" methods (by which I mean they would have seemed horribly dated even by 1945's standards) as well as the sheer strangeness of the original content of Perils of the Jungle, we end up with a movie considerably more like A Night to Dismember than the talkie Unholy Three.

I think that's basically all I can say about this one, besides making the by-now obligatory reference to the fact that the White Gorilla costume was reused that same year for minor B-movie fan favorite White Pongo, of which The White Gorilla is sort of a bizarro version. I definitely cannot recommend The White Gorilla in a traditional sense, but at the same time, it really has to be seen to be believed. A new classic for me.

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