Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Vampires' Night Orgy (1973), by Leon Klimovsky



This movie does not contain orgies. I mean, it contains night activity that could potentially be interpreted as possibly fulfilling the old, sexless definition of the word "orgy," but to say the vampires of this film have a night orgy is pretty misleading--in two languages, nonetheless! One vampire possibly has sex with a man in this movie, and even then, said man still has his mankini on when he's out of bed moments later, so it's possible the deed went undone. Despite the filthy lies of the title, The Vampires' Night Orgy is a great little trash film, a tremendous improvement over Leon Klimovsky's previous appearance on the site. 

A group of rather unpleasant people are going through the countryside to meet their new employer at their mansion. They clumsily exposit that they are each here to work as gardeners, maids, math tutors, etc. However the bus driver has a rather hilarious heart attack and they are forced to stop in another town, Tonia. Wait, did I say, they're "forced" to stop? I mean they choose to drive 10 kilometers to Tonia rather than make the full trek to their destination because they're, uh, tired. Yeah, much of what happens to the victims of this movie is due primarily to their own laziness (and other faults) rather than legitimate mistakes or circumstances beyond their control. Anyway, Tonia turns out to be pretty creepy--the local inn is obviously prepared for somebody, but the entire town seems abandoned. Doesn't stop the visitors from helping themselves to their booze, though! Eventually the people of Tonia do arrive and prove to be most cordial hosts, though that's after they descend upon poor Ernest in the middle of the night and drink him dry of blood. The mayor of the town, a man named Boris, explains that the entire village was absent last night because they were gathered in the cemetery. He says this presumably to creep his guests out, but fortunately for him, they don't find that suspicious at all, not even when he adds the detail that the town is formally ruled by a "Countess," nor when he produces a roast for them of suspiciously unique flavor when there are no livestock of any kind for miles. (We the audience get to see what happens to the poor bastard who provided said roast, from the meat of his bum leg.) Slowly, the travelers are whittled down, until only two remain--will they escape the den of the vampires before the orgy can begin?

This film is a mess, touching on all the fine ways in which a European horror film can be a mess short of just calling in Jess Franco or Bruno Mattei to direct. The soundtrack, a combination of atmospheric pieces, '70s groove tunes, and porno music, never fits a single scene. The dubbing, script, and editing are all horrible. If you have seen an especially bad Jess Franco you know just what you're getting with this--though it does contain considerably more dialogue than the usual Franco outing.

The scripting is really what makes the cast seem like such shitbags. Again, they end up in the vampires' lair just because they don't want to drive, after spending the late bus driver's last moments bitching to him that he was making them late. As soon as they arrive in town, one of them asks, "What do we do with the body?" The man closest to him shrugs and murmurs out a little, "Eh?" That's probably why the vampires go out of their way to do all but straight up tell their guests that they're vampires--they saw them abandon a dead body to go steal and drink instead. (Does that bus driver have a family, by the way?) Throughout the rest of the movie the characters will continue to stumble onto incredibly obvious signs of vampirism, like Boris drinking a thick red wine which he refuses to serve to anyone else, as they continuously do things which expose them as awful people, like watching each other undress through peepholes.

The peephole thing actually does get a bit of payoff--there's a scene later in the movie where we see an eye watching the characters through the people, and the actor on the other end has their lower eyelid pulled down, so it's just an eye swirling about in a sea of red flesh. Ughhh.

So, yes, this movie does have creepiness. There's also the subplot about Violet, the little girl of the group, who befriends a child who seems to be a vampire at first. But I guess he isn't a vampire, as he tries to hide Violet from the ghouls during a tense scene in the cemetery wherein he accidentally smothers her to death, or possibly breaks her neck. Yep--a kid kills another kid in this movie while trying to help her. That's some real Adult Fear right there. I just wish I knew if that kid was part of the village or not, because that definitely changes the context if he is.

Actually, there are a few characters whose vampire status is unclear. A lot of the villager extras don't have fangs (many of them don't even have teeth) but that's not what I mean. What's the deal with the millers who the big guy who shows up "on behalf of the Countess" keeps butchering for meat? Are they vampires? Is the big guy a vampire, even? If they aren't vampires, do they get paid for this? This isn't an unrealistic possibility because we learn the Countess is pretty free with her money--but how much money does she have if she's willing to keep around a bunch of employees who have to give up their meat (and, presumably, blood) to the local cause? I really like the idea of a vampire city like this having vampire tiers, an internal class structure, where some vampires--possibly those who were poorer in life, before the village underwent its transformation--are seen as more expendable than others, leading to a small society of disfigured vampires left to slowly regain their limbs over the course of centuries, perhaps trapped in one of the city's darker quarters...obviously I'm making up a bit of that idea but in all the "vampire city" stories I've seen, all the vampires seem to be socially equal just by merit of being vampires. This movie tinkers with that a little bit, assuming that everyone in Tonia is meant to be of the undead.

Really, if you've never delved into proper Eurohorror before, this is a good introduction. It has some actual atmospheric creepiness, but is largely a farce of badly-translated and rushed production, which actually has the audacity to try to get its badly-dubbed actors to recite Shakespeare at some point. In that sense it tries to be "artsy," without the necessary self-awareness of art, to magnificent results. Plus, there's a little nudity to give you a taste for what European bodies had to offer in the '70s and '80s. It's beautifully, primally riffable, while also presenting a strange blend of Old World charms that will delight you if you're used to American films exclusively. Even for someone like me who's seen many of these films, it's like being back at the happy start all over again, to see the tropes and accidents played out so perfectly here. Give this movie a shot, whether you're green or a vet--it's a pretty great time.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Monster and the Girl (1941), by Stuart Heisler



Okay, I've been mean to you guys. I can't say I'm gonna look at some old-school gorilla movies and then exclusively show you the ones that don't actually have gorillas in them. Of the gorilla movies I watched last year, The Monster and the Girl is probably the best of them in terms of sheer entertainment--it's a double feature all in itself, being punchy noir in its first half, and a sci-fi horror thriller in the second. That makes it pretty bizarre and thus a good fit for the A-List. After this, we'll get back to some of the more usual stuff we do around here, but not before I draw attention to what is surely the most valuable derivation of this exercise in gorilla films: of the four we've looked over, three of them all use the same "hairy" font that this movie does. Interesting...

Young Scot Webster is on trial for the murder of a man named Wade Stanton. We learn from Scot's testimony that he was framed--he was trying to track down a man named Larry Reed, and the trail brought him to an apartment where someone shot Stanton and forced the gun into Scot's hands. Scot's sister Susan gives the full story. She came to the city to "be somebody" and met Larry Reed, whom she quickly fell in love with and married. Except it turns out her beau wasn't planning on footing the bill for their wedding, and indeed there are now several men in Susan's life trying to convince her Reed never existed, who similarly want to be paid for their wedding accommodations. These men are gangsters under the employ of W.S. Bruhl, and it's apparently a recurring scheme of theirs to have "Larry" marry women, rack up high bills in their names, and then vanish, leaving them with a sizable debt, which can only be worked off in one way... (This being a Paramount movie from 1941 they never call it prostitution but you figure out how to read these things at some point.) Scot of course wanted revenge, but the case against him is too stacked, and he's sentenced to death. In jail he's approached by the mysterious Dr. Parry (George Zucco) who wants to extract Scot's brain after his execution. Scot consents to the strange request, having nothing to lose. But then, at exactly the halfway mark, we are in Parry's operating room. A sheet is pulled back. There is a gorilla underneath. Zucco looks down at his brain-in-a-jar and gets ready for the operation...

Ahh. It's sweet, isn't it? This one of those movies that Gets Me. There are quite a few ways in which I use that phrase, when I do use it: sometimes it means a horror film actually scared me, or a shock film actually shocked me. Other times I mean it in a less traumatic sense--it Gets my funny bone, is what I mean. This movie is halfway between. The sudden revelation of the gorilla, and the implicit future which lies in wait for Scot, which swiftly becomes explicit over the next half-hour, is one of the great movie moments of all time for me. After all, it makes sense for the noir film that this movie is to be called The Monster and the Girl for the first half-hour. There is obviously a girl surrounded by several individuals who could easily be called monsters, with either Larry or Bruhl being the biggest contenders for carrying the title's definite article. George Zucco's appearance early on in Scot's trial could potentially help foreshadow the movie's next direction, but one has to think about context. Zucco's primary appearances as a mad scientist--The Mad Monster, Dr. Renault's Secret, The Mad Ghoul, and The Flying Serpent--all postdate The Monster and the Girl. The only prior role which would have contextualized Zucco's appearance for audiences would have been as Andoheb in The Mummy's Hand a year prior. So this would have been a nowhere-twist for its native audience just as it is for those who watch it today.

I realized, while rewatching the film for this review, that the reason why I like these movies is that they are actually extremely pure jokes. Humor arises from a mental gap in expectation, with the expectations in question often relating to learned logic or social norms. That's why comedy is so fucking hard--if you abuse those gaps, it just pisses people off, and you have to avoid abusing those gaps over and over. But in trash movies, people manipulate expectation by accident, and it reveals what I think is a sympathetic sort of worldview. We all have our eccentricities, and in American society at least, we are told to restrain those eccentricities because taking the time to address them stands in the way of makin' money, y'see. (Also a continuously-embarrassed population is easier to manipulate but that's another story.) In trash, people expose those eccentricities--those weird, sideways beliefs about details of life (sometimes mundane, sometimes grandiose) that make them who they are. For better or worse. Trash speaks to a sensibility of individuality, and to a subversion of social norms that is as revolutionary and serious as it is funny. If nothing else, movies like these free up one's imagination. Someone got away with turning this into a gorilla movie halfway through--so why shouldn't your half-baked idea see the light of day? As long as it entertains people?

(I mean it's more complicated than that, but it always is.)

Anyway. I like this movie not only because it suddenly turns into a weirdo sci-fi horror movie (Death Wish with a gorilla is maybe a way of putting it), but because the noir elements on display throughout are actually really well done. It's hard not to love a movie where a gangster tells a lady about to fall out a window: "Watch that first step. It could spoil your makeup." The noir stuff keeps on until the end, including some psychological scenes with the gangsters as they slowly come undone when they realize a huge, strong guy is running around killing their gang in particular, but it's a little hard to take it seriously when there's a man in a gorilla suit lurking around.

The thing is, though, it's not a bad gorilla suit. A lot of other reviews noticed this too: the mask they have for it is strangely emotive, and it helps us hang onto the idea that this is a man in a gorilla's body. Plus the man in the suit is really good at acting like a real gorilla--isn't it nice when you can presume someone watched nature reels at some point to prep up for one of these? Because it's difficult for me to be serious about a man in a gorilla suit, however, I do have to say that watching a gorilla drop down on a man from a tree in a suburban neighborhood is a truly magical sight to behold. It's awesome that the gorilla of this movie is both "good" and hilarious. To have a funny-awful gorilla movie is one thing; to have one that's good but too serious is another; and now I just feel like a glutton.

The Monster and the Girl is a Janus of a movie but at least both faces are nice. I've seen some weird noir fusions now at this point and this is one of the weirdest and best of all of them. If you have a chance to give it a watch, don't miss it.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Human Gorilla (1948), by Budd Boetticher



You may be noticing around now that I am a bit of a sucker for gorilla movies. There's something fascinating to me, in ways both good and bad, about the obsession movies had with gorillas over the first half of the 20th Century, in a way which I feel is unequaled today. Gorillas were an easy symbol of the exotic and the unknown, and for a while it seemed like it was almost a goddamn requirement to have a gorilla in your movie if it fit anywhere within the horror and mystery genres. People just couldn't get enough fucking gorillas.

Now, there are some relatively clear issues in this: using the gorilla as a shortcut for "the exotic" usually brings up complicated racial issues. In this case "the exotic" usually refers to Africa (though as we'll see in the decidedly odd House of Mystery Southern Asia was not immune), and there's a long history of black people being associated with apes and other subhuman hominids. Consider the fact that King Kong, the most famous "gorilla picture" of all time, wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the release of Ingagi two years prior in 1931. Ingagi, as I've said often on this site, is a "documentary" about the mating habits of gorillas and...Africans. Yeppp, I still have...issues with that. Of course, King Kong isn't immune to racial criticism either--Kong kidnapping and sexually threatening a beautiful white woman, anyone? (To say nothing of the trampled villagers.) You'd better believe that some hideous thoughts were had in the heads of moviegoers when they saw these gorilla movies.

But by the early 1940s, it had gotten to the point where, as we've seen in The Gorilla Man, movies that didn't even have gorillas in them were trying to get in on the gig--mercifully freeing them from the uncomfortable racial elements in the process while also creating hilarious surprises for the unaware viewer. That failed setup is what makes this second category of "gorilla pictures" fun for me, just as the increasingly bizarre dalliances into Shitty Science in the actual gorilla pictures brings me to laughter. Human Gorilla was originally released under the title Behind Locked Doors, but the title card above indicates it must have seen release under the better title pretty early on. The film is not about any sort of actual gorilla, instead being a film noir about corruption in a local mental hospital.

Reporter Kathy Lawrence seeks out PI Ross Stewart to help her claim a $10,000 bounty put out on crooked Judge Finlay Drake. The caveat is that Drake is presently hiding out at a medical facility run by his friend Dr. Clifford Porter: La Siesta Mental Hospital. Stewart will have to disguise him as manic-depressive ex-salesman Harry Horton to get in, with Kathy playing his wife. It isn't long before he finds out that La Siesta is more like a prison, and a bad one at that--one with torture and abusive staff. Of course, when it's time for patients to disappear permanently, they're taken to the "Human Gorilla," a man named Champ--a crazed ex-prizefighter played by none other than a weirdly-young Tor Johnson! It isn't long before it's Stewart's time to face the Champ. With our plucky investigator escape the madhouse, or will he be caught in Tor's wheels of progress...?

One thing that I'm noticing fast in these film noir PI things is that a lot of them feature similar central leads--I've not read or watched my Hammett or Chandler, so I don't know the proper archetypes here, but I've seen quite a few movies where the PI is a happy-go-lucky obscure first-timer who has a lot of comic relief before he gets real serious on the case. And, of course, he usually ends up dating his female client at the end. This is the sort of stuff that the noir parodies I watched in my childhood took on. It's quite ripe for ripping apart.

I know I still haven't gotten around to Find the Blackmailer, but Ross Stewart is no D.L. Trees. When he's in "comic" "relief" mode, he's really, really creepy. Not even the fact that he's a pretty solid detective can make up for the fact that he is basically a step away from being a rapist. When Kathy proposes (no pun intended) to pose as husband and wife, after telling Ross about what the plan is, he backs her up against the wall and says, "Yes, and I'm always kissing you...publicly, privately, just all over the place." Seeing that written out gives it a double meaning that I really don't like. Then he goes on to add, "You could say I'm manic-depressive--beating you one minute and kissing you madly the next." They've known each other for less than thirty minutes. Add on the fact that Ross is so green that Kathy watches his name get painted on his office door, and there's no reason why she shouldn't just seek out some other detective. One thing that does bug me about these private eye movies is that they always say that they can't hire a detective whose face is known, but surely an experienced detective would a) know how to disguise themselves, and b) keep their identity on the down-low on a consistent basis to avoid this exact situation. I realize that's not perfect logic on my behalf, but I feel bad for these ladies who have to keep shelling out good money for idiots just because Dick Tracy keeps plastering his face everywhere.

Anyway. This movie has a lot of creepiness besides Ross Stewart, as manifested in Larson, Dr. Porter's abusive assistant. Larson takes care of most of the physical punishment around La Siesta, even though Porter gives him a limp admonishment not to harass the patients. Larson beats a man for screaming from nightmares, subjects the patients to long hours of hard unpaid labor, and make loud noises outside Tor Johnson's cell to make him have PTSD episodes. Worse, there's a third man around the hospital, Fred Hopps, who meekly accepts his place under Larson and Porter because his son is a patient at the institute, and Larson abuses the kid when Hopps misbehaves.

There are a lot of intriguing parallels and deviations between this movie and The Gorilla Man. In The Gorilla Man, suspense arises because we the audience know what Craig Killian is in for before he does; in Human Gorilla, we get our suspense from the fact that Stewart knows he should brace for the worst but we the audience don't know what's in that hospital. Both movies feature a bespectacled, psychopathically violent second banana to the main villain; both movies feature another servant of the main villain who is only working for them because they're holding their children hostage, who ends up helping the hero in the end. Both movies also feature the threat of gristly punishment for the imprisoned protagonist--in Human Gorilla transgressions are dealt with by Tor Johnson, while in Gorilla Man the threat is ending up in the operating theatre of Dr. Ferris.

In sum, Human Gorilla is a surprisingly wild ride in its 61-minute runtime, even if its "hero" is a despicable scumbag. It's great to see an early "performance" by Tor Johnson, and what's more is that it has a pretty good double feature to go with it if you can get your hands on a copy of Gorilla Man. It's a piece of solid noir, with a lot of fun twists along the way. Try it!

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Gorilla Man (1943), by D. Ross Lederman



Oh, right, like I'm going to ignore a movie called The Gorilla Man. This movie is tough to track down, as it is often confused with Bela Lugosi's The Ape Man, also released in '43--but sure enough, I found it. Let's just say there are some substantial differences between this film and the similarly-named account of Professor James Brewster's misadventures in gorilla-human hybridization.

Captain Craig Killian is coming back from a raid with vital intelligence on the next big Nazi push. He is intercepted by an outfit led by Nazi agent Dr. Dorn, and his psychopathic surgeon Dr. Ferris, who make him their prisoner in an attempt to find out what he's learned. The whole time they pose as British doctors, and keep on giving him too much morphine. Doesn't help that our introduction to Dr. Ferris is him experimenting on a dude's brain without anesthetic... Then the gaslighting begins. After learning the intel, the Nazis work to frame Killian for murder and convince his superiors that his information is the product of a disturbed brain. Fortunately, Killian has a stouthearted love of England, and he's a legendary climber, which saved his life on the front more than once--it's for that climbing skill that they call him "the Gorilla Man." All's well that ends well, but you'll be on the edge of your seat until then.

A lot of the suspense of this movie arises from the horrifying character of Dr. Ferris. Seriously, the makers of this film didn't want to fuck around when it came to showing off the sort of sick fucks the Nazi echelons attracted (and continue to attract, unfortunately). Again, his first appearance is him operating on someone's brain with no anesthesia...and then it's mentioned that several of his other patients have died of "heart failure" after visiting his operating theater. He also wears these glasses that quadruple the size of his eyes and make him look like some sort of fucking fish monster. He's specifically mentioned to be a "psychopathic killer" and when Dorn slaps around Nurse Kruger (whose family he's holding hostage, by the way), those freaky eyes glaze over and he has to be restrained before he can kill her. And yes, he does get to murder at least one person in the movie...and he sends a child to be the first to find the body. Brrrr.

Oh, did I mention that Ferris is played by John Abbott? Yeah, Mowgli's Wolf dad from The Jungle Book. Have fun recognizing his voice and seeing your childhood crash and burn before your very eyes.

There's also an interesting twist of sorts, where Killian's excuse to escape the hospital, that he needs to deliver a message from one of his dead men to said man's widow, turns out to actually be true. This is where we need to consider this as a propaganda film, as many of these wartime thrillers were. The focus on the actual war effort arguably makes it a war film that strays deep in mystery territory, rather than the usual reverse; consider films like Black Dragons, which clearly began life as horror or mystery films until war references were inserted by mandate by studio heads. By choosing to pursue an actual narrative outside of just shouting at the viewer that the Nazis are bad, we get to see how bad the Nazis are in person. The movie never gets much further thematically than "Nazis are devious," but it's still a comparatively complicated story that's well-written, well-shot, and well-acted.

Of course, there's another message, too: Nazis are stupid. (They are.) In attempting to get Killian back into their clutches, Dr. Ferris poses as a cab driver, but does nothing to disguise himself save for a shitty Cockney accent. He deserves to get ambushed and decked in the face by Killian. A single glance in the rearview mirror would find him out at once and I assume that's how Killian spotted him.

But there's also the fact that Killian's ex-girlfriend gets killed...that's a little brutal for a '40s movie, and, again, unexpected. Man, this movie has some tone issues. Thankfully, there is not a trace of comic relief, showing that at least someone in this era of movies had a brain in their head for once.

I think it's great that they named this movie The Gorilla Man so that they could convince people it was a monster movie--there's even a poster that shows a gorilla-like monster hand reaching for a screaming woman. Yeah, that never happens in this. Frankly, throwing in a monster or, Gods forbid, a man in a gorilla suit, would slaughter this movie. And because there's a good head at the wheel it never comes to that. I found out that the director, D. Ross Lederman, also made Find the Blackmailer, a surprisingly well-made mystery caper released the same year--expect that up here sooner or later. If you can find yourself a copy of The Gorilla Man you'll be in good hands, if you like mysteries, horror, war movies, or any combination of the above. Check it out!

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Intruder (1933), by Albert Ray



Why are movies so weird? Well, I suppose because people made them that way. With movies like The Intruder I can get back into the psychosis of trash cinema--the strange neural lapses, the personality tics, that made people make these...things. The Intruder is a screwed-up little movie, a possible relic of that bizarre, magical era where filmmakers didn't really know the new medium they were working with, leading to clunky mismatches of genre that leave the whole affair just downright odd. Trying all at once to be a zany comedy, a mystery movie, and a horror thriller, The Intruder ends up being both implicitly and explicitly disturbing, hard to put into words and yet all the while, shockingly mundane.

We open in the middle of a Godzilla movie, by which I mean we open with a hilariously fake-looking toy ship that looks like it belongs, at best, in the third Blind Dead film, The Ghost Galleon. This ship is the titular Intruder, and not only is there a man aboard with half a million dollars in stolen diamonds, but a murder has been committed as well. It seems like an ordinary stagey '30s mystery, with the detective lining up and interrogating the suspects...and then the weirdness happens. A fire breaks out on the ship and the passengers are lost at sea. Here, they end up on a desert island (?) where they are threatened by a gorilla who makes horrible screeching noises (!) and a wild man with a Tarzan yodel (!!!). (The actual shipwreck scene is surprisingly harrowing, with dozens shown drowning, despite the apparent plethora of lifeboats.) Said wildman lives in a ruined cabin with the bones of his (wife? girlfriend? victim?) "Mary" and "Joe," the man who apparently stood between them. This movie features a wild man wrestling with an inanimate skeleton, screaming angrily. This is all treated very casually up until they get off the island and wrap up the murder/theft.

I'm sure the reasons behind this movie are much more ordinary than I'm imagining. I suspect that this began life as an ordinary mystery B-programmer, but a studio mandate told director Ray to throw in a jungle segment, with a wild man and a guy in a gorilla suit, and so that just had to happen. It all worked to Ray's benefit anyway, as the lengthy divergences we delve into on the island help pad out what would otherwise be a duller-than-cardboard mystery film. It still ends up just under 54 minutes. With the release of Ingagi two years prior, gorilla films and jungle films in general started their vogue. My Gods, this movie was probably trying to cash in on an exploitation movie that said that Africans have children with gorillas.

It was also still pretty popular at the time to have comedy be part of your mystery, and to cross over into horror wasn't unexpected either. That's why we get things like the comic relief drunk uncle, because alcoholism is so fucking funny. This is also why there are lines like, "Now I know why Robinson Crusoe called his Man Friday--they ate fish everyday," in the same context as a murderous caveman and a shitton of people fucking drowning. (Gotta love the shots of the people drowning intercut with several of our main characters standing on the most spacious lifeboat ever. Seriously, you could fit at least four more people into that thing!) This is where another old friend comes out to play: the fact that They Just Didn't Care.

Let's talk about our murderous caveman for a bit. There are several possibilities present in his little story, each more disturbing than the last. It seems pretty obvious that he murdered "Joe," but we don't know Joe's role in things. He could have threatened the Wild Man and "Mary," or maybe Mary originally dated Joe and the Wild Man wanted a different arrangement. The review for this movie on Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings puts forth the possibility that if the Wild Man still stabs Joe's skeleton like he's alive, what does he do with Mary's remains...? Ewww! Add in the fact that we don't know if Mary herself died a natural death and you have an entire secret horror movie packed away on this island.

I just really don't know what to say about this one. Aside from the sheer oddity of how far the script diverges from its original premise, there isn't much to write home about--it's clunky and stage-like, as I said, and the actor's voices sometimes barely rise above the set's sound effects due to the cheap, primitive recording equipment. It never perfectly holds my attention and really likes spinning its wheels, when already most of it is padding. But it's so unique and peerless even beyond its native era by sheer concept alone that it's worth at least one watch. At 53 minutes, how can you refuse?

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Black Raven (1943), by Sam Newfield



...and we're back!

After I was done writing up the reviews for 2017 I actually had a chance to (gasp!) watch movies for pleasure--that is to say I got to watch the movies I usually watch but without the need to write about them. During this time I continued my exploration of the trash of the 1930s and '40s, eventually stumbling onto the horror-mystery filmography of George Zucco. I previously had only known Zucco for his small role in Voodoo Man and those boring Mummy movies, but I found him to be a hauntingly charismatic actor and every late night after coming home from my day job, I would make a habit of throwing on one of his little hour-long thrillers while my sleeping meds kicked in. I'll be dealing with some of my favorites from the bunch slowly over the course of 2018, and I knew when I made the decision to spotlight some of Zucco's flicks, I would start with The Black Raven.

Amos Bradford is the Black Raven, who runs an inn by the same name. Under that criminal alias, Bradford helps smuggle crooks like mobster Mike Baroni across the border into Canada. Late one night he's attacked by Whitey Cole, an old member of his racket, but he subdues him with the aid of his groundskeeper Andy. Around this time, however, the border bridge washes out, resulting a flock of guests suddenly arriving at the Raven: Horace Weatherby, a suspicious banker with an equally-suspicious suitcase; Lee Winfield, daughter of Mike Baroni's political rival Tim Winfield; Lee's fiance Allen; and finally Tim Winfield himself. There's also a prowling Sheriff, played by Charles (excuse me, "Charlie") Middleton, aka Ming the Merciless. Allen and Winfield clash rather harshly, and Winfield discovers that Weatherby has embezzled $50,000 from the bank he worked for--he steals this money off Weatherby for himself. Is it really that much of a surprise when the old politician winds up murdered when he's so unlikable? Of course, Allen is the prime suspect--after all, Winfield was calling the police to report Allen for kidnapping his daughter just before he was murdered! The Raven, however, is sure the kid didn't do it, and despite his own nature as a crook, he wants to make sure young Allen doesn't get punished for a crime he didn't commit.

Like any good mystery, it's the cast that matters. Zucco is infinitely charming as Bradford, nailing simultaneously the role of a hardened criminal and the heart of gold which lurks within said crook. You can believe he's a good man who was nonetheless willing to sell out Whitey Cole when it suited him. Contrariwise there's little to the engaged couple short of the typical stuff we see in young couples from '40s horror films, but they are plot devices in what is ultimately Zucco's movie. Weatherby, until we find out his dark secret, is kind of a minor hero for retail workers, putting in a speech about how cloying and awful his bank-desk job really was ("I couldn't stand that awful subway with its thick stench of sweat and garlic..."). Baroni does a good job as an anxious but cocky gangster, and Tim Winfield is pure, uncut asshole--robbing a desperate man, and threatening his daughter's fiance to the fullest extent possible. "Lee isn't quite 21," he says, "and kidnapping's a crime. I'll make sure you get the limit!" In 1943, kidnapping meant the chair...yep, that's right! This guy isn't just a crooked politician and a thief, he's willing to have his daughter's boyfriends executed when he doesn't get his way!

Not all the cast is that great. Charles Middleton doesn't get nearly enough screentime, even if his Sheriff does have an interesting rivalry with Bradford. Glenn Strange, the former Frankenstein's Monster himself, is our ostensible comic relief, and while I've seen Strange act outside the Franky makeup before...he's much better hidden in it. His "humor" is so bad it actually took me a few viewings to even recognize that he was supposed to be our comic relief. He's that bad.

But most significantly, there is a road patrolman who is played by none other than Jimmy "Ptomaine Pete" Aubrey. He's only there briefly and he's not that funny, but he's loads better than Glenn Strange. Recognizing Aubrey in things is always a treat, even if they decided not to give him a credit for this one.

There's something right at the beginning which marks this as a PRC movie: it uses the same stock music that PRC, Monogram, and every other Poverty Row studio harvested back in the day. Listening to this movie, you can almost get it mixed up with The Devil Bat and Invisible Ghost and all the rest. Despite its Poverty Row status, it doesn't do dare to do much outside the Hayes Code--even though Amos is essentially a good guy, he still has to die because he committed crimes at some point and such folk must not be suffered to live. There is some blood, though! It's always fun seeing blood in a '40s horror movie. It's like thinking you've forgotten to order a topping on a pizza and you open up the box and see that they gave you extra of that topping.

The Black Raven is a tightly-paced thriller with plenty of great scripting and a genuine mystery. It's a great first George Zucco movie, and it's a great movie for me to come back to as well. I'm glad to be back. Let Zucco blaze the trail into what will be a year of awesome films.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Primal Essence: The Mudman's Top Ten New Views of 2017

2017 saw a lot of growth for the A-List! I found a comfortable schedule wherein I could squeeze in three reviews a week, and I intend to hang onto that schedule for as long as I can. I opened a Patreon, which has been an exciting experience so far. I posted a bad movie sci-fi novella. I was able to find nine weird books to talk about--not as many as I'd hoped, but that's what next year is for. It was a marvelous time and I can't tell you how glad I was to have this site to go back to whenever the real world came down too hard on me. The fact that so many of you kept showing up week after week made it all the better. I may curate its entries, but it's really you guys who build my A-List...you're all on my A-List of People. You are the finest souls I know.

The movies on this list are the cream of the crop. They tore my heart from my chest and shook up my soul. I hope you track them down if you haven't already because they will reshape your life for the better. Well, actually, it's for the worse. But in a good way. Capiche?

FROM BEST TO BESTEST:


#10 - I AM HERE...NOW, by Neil Breen

It is only out of a stubborn respect for the later entries of this list that Mr. Breen ended up at the number ten spot...otherwise this one would be much higher. I Am Here...Now was the best possible introduction to Breen I could(n't)'ve hoped for. I've seen some pretty bizarre Ancient Alien stories over the years, but this one takes the cake--Breen is a sign that Weird Film is far from dead, even as the Intentional Bad Movies try to take their cut from the legacy spawned by the people whom Breen now succeeds. May self-awareness never touch you, Neil, ol' buddy. I'm so glad I have the rest of your filmography to discover.


#9 - THE PHANTOM COWBOY, by Robert J. Horner / SMOKING GUNS, by Alan James

A dirty stinkin' tie! I knew I had to have one B-Western on here and no matter how much boiling down I did I couldn't pick one of these over the other. Smoking Guns is definitely the "better" movie, but the sheer shittiness of The Phantom Cowboy makes it feel truly alien. I'm starting to doubt I'll find Westerns weirder than these two, but if these are the best there are I'm in good company. I've definitely raised a lot of eyebrows in my time talking about the movies I watch with the people I know in Real Life. They've never been raised higher than when I tried to describe these two.


#8 - DRUMS O' VOODOO, by Arthur Hoerl

'Cause the drums make me happy...drums make me happy...my feelings on the so-called "race pictures" have shifted somewhat since I wrote this review due to some things I've learned about them (i.e. creative control was not in the hands of the actual black performers as much as I thought), but there's no taking away the talent from Drums O' Voodoo's cast. Aunt Hagar is still one of my favorite movie characters of all time, and to my dying day I won't forget the time she fucking sassed off Jesus. At this point, I feel I've seen every voodoo movies there is, but there's something deeply special about this one. I'm (ideally) getting a new copy soon, which may be from a different print...I may have to write something up if it turns out the lost footage is in this version.


#7 - JUNGLE TRAP, by James Bryan

I don't like getting hyped for movies because it's so easy for those sorts of hopes to get dashed. But not when James Bryan and Renee Harmon are at the helm. My heart nearly exploded when I learned this was a thing and it was a tough sweat waiting for it to come out. But it was worth it. Farewell to a pair of great careers...you guys made my life, one last time. Oh, how I wish you still had one left in you.


#6 - SWEET TRASH, by John Hayes

Now we're slipping into the New Weird. For me, that is. I spent so much of my life thinking I'd seen all the greats, but then this year came along and I started to see some trippy fucking shit. Sweet Trash is apparently not overly beloved even among trashsters, which is saddening. This movie dips into territory both grim and hilarious, often without warning, in the best of ways. As far as boggy-surreal nightmares go, this one just barely beat out Disconnected and Euridice BA 2037, which would make a great triple feature with this.


#5 - NIGHTMARE ALLEY, by Edmund Goulding

Gotta have at least one legitimately good movie on here. I guess this Ty Power guy is hot stuff, huh? Well, even if I had known that at the time, I would've been swept off my feet by this movie. A clammy, greasy, disconcerting expose of circus life, this one fits in perfectly with some of my other favorites from this year like The Unknown and The Amazing Mr. X, but this one is the best of all of them. I've been watching a lot of Hollywood dramas from the '40s now in the wake of sitting down for this three times in a row. I hope they won't make me sick.


#4 - BLOODY WEDNESDAY, by Mark G. Gilhuis

When I was writing the list I kept putting this on here for some reason. I'd take it off, asking myself, "Wha...really?" Then I would rewatch it and remember everything. For a while I would just quote that goddamn teddy bear, voice and everything, and sometimes people would hear me and worry about my health. Simultaneously the most depressing and hilarious movie about mental illness I've seen, Bloody Wednesday is so unsure of what the heck it's supposed to be that it becomes a psychedelic trance. I've found for myself a new classic of the slasher (?) genre, which isn't an easy feat these days.


#3 - INFRASEXUM, by Carlos Tobalina

Yes, I like this one more than Flesh and Bullets, because I'm a sucker. It's almost unbelievable to me that this was Tobalina's debut. This is a ballsy film to make under any circumstances, and yet porn is a weird thing, and thus he built a whole career out of this. I wasn't expecting to get a Pseudo-Philosophical Voiceover-Journal Inner-Quest Movie that also had a disembowelment scene, but at this point, I should know better. Art and trash go well together and this is a great example of how they pulled that off in the late '60s.


#2 - GRETTA, by John Carr

No explanation. It's not even based off the book--it just exists. It's like 35 movies got stuck in a blender and the director drank the result, and the camera implanted in his brain recorded everything he saw afterward. Or, alternatively, it was originally an 8-hour mega-epic like von Stroheim's Greed and they cut out too many reels. Why should we care about this occasionally-creepy romance when there are killer beetles...and vice versa? Better yet, it has a "sequel." If you count movies that recut other movies to make them even more confusing as "sequels," that is.


#1 - THE TELEPHONE BOOK, by Nelson Lyon

The best. The Holy Grail. This is why I got into reviewing movies. I laughed, I screamed. I could go on forever but The Telephone Book is really good, okay? Every new scene brought fresh surprises that I could never have expected--which is really what cinematic media is meant to be about. For a movie about sex, it felt like sex...it kept building, and building, and building, and then there was that ending and there was such joy. A vulgar, mind-boggling cartoon brought to life, I'll never see anything like it again; but then, I was lucky enough to see it in the first place. 

AND THE BOOK OF THE YEAR IS... *DRUMROLL PLEASE*
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THE UNHOLY THREE, by Tod Robbins

Man, I sure read a lot of bullshit this year. How could the Book of the Year be anything but this when the competition was Space Jason and voodoo sharks? The Unholy Three is a weirdly kinetic pulp pseudo-masterpiece, whose presence on this list means I can live with myself for not including The Unknown. Lon Chaney is a powerful figure even when he's not directly involved; and besides all that Tod Robbins is an accomplished enough writer to keep me hooked. Next year I'm gonna grab a copy of Robbins' "Spurs" to take a look back at the origin of Freaks, and this book will get a mention, as I've said, when I get to touching on Todd Browning's The Devil-Doll. Robbins also wrote a book called Mysterious Mr. Martin, which looks like a delight. More to follow!

So that's 2017! See you next year! I loved all the time we spend together and I can't wait to start again soon. In the meantime, you can check out the $1 tier on my Patreon to hear some of my Movie Thoughts. Otherwise...keeping dreaming, true believers!