Monday, September 25, 2017

The Amazing Mr. X (1948), by Bernard Vorhaus

For a while, I began to notice a pattern in movies that featured the word "Amazing" in their title. Namely, these movies would be about as far from Amazing as one could get. The Amazing Transparent Man, for instance, is one of the most forgettable cash-ins of The Invisible Man out there. The Amazing Colossal Man is Bert I. Gordon's best movie, but it's still not Amazing. And I'll never forget the time, in the process of tracking down obscure James Bond parodies, that I found an Italian film called The Amazing Dr. G, aka Goldginger (yes, you read that right), which ended with a blackface gag. Decidedly not Amazing. And yet, there are doubtlessly hundreds of films that had chosen that adjective for themselves, and as such I just happen to have really bad luck. Until today. The Amazing Mr. X is legitimately amazing, a compact and punchy little film noir that once more scratches my Nightmare Alley itch for phony psychics and carnival magic.

Christine is a wealthy woman who misses her two-years-dead husband Paul. She sometimes envisions his voice coming out of the sea when she walks the beaches near her house. Her younger sister, Janet, encourages her to marry Martin, the awkward nerd whom she's been dating recently. While headed out on a date with Martin, Christine is caught up in her Paul hallucinations and runs into a mysterious man named Alexis. Alexis reveals himself to be a psychic, and he tells Chris things about herself and Paul which he would have no way of knowing. Captivated, Christine enjoys her date with Paul, but has a nightmare about the pressures of a new marriage. She vows to see Alexis again, and when she does, she's hooked. Janet and Martin, of course, suspect that Alexis is a swindler, but when Janet goes to investigate, he sweeps her off her feet as well. And in a rather more literal sense, too, as Janet falls in love with the medium. Naturally, Alexis is a trickster, as we the audience see in great detail--he's a very good one, though, lacking the weaknesses that stopped that the Great Stanton from making it to the big time. He even manages to make a good show out of making Paul's apparition appear, while seemingly tied up in another room.

There's just one hitch. Paul is still alive. And he wants Chris's fortune.

So how's that? I'm really starting to find I love film noir. So akin to psychological horror--and such a variable style. If you keep shoveling me spooky movies about wicked showpeople that love will only deepen. Of course, like B-Westerns, or '30s plane thrillers, or '50s sailing movies, one must pan through much shit to get the gold. In turn, there is salvation, as hipsters looove them some noir, and as such, there's a lot of light shined into where some of the gems may lie. I can't watch too many of these things, because they look to all end mighty unhappily, but I think I finally understand that which I was looking for when I first saw Daughter of Horror.

Film noir is all about the writing--well, the actors need to carry it, too, but there are types I'm starting to see which could be played well by someone who's just seen enough of the right movies. But the writing in these films is tremendous. Set the right combination of believable circumstances, and make them exploitative. Lock the characters in something that'll make 'em sweat. I know those things can be said about any sort of narrative, but noir is written in a way that makes you feel the keys of the keyboard. It's sort of meta, in a way--because it uses quick-cut conventions and language, with its believable circumstances, it can tell a lot of story in a hurry with using speech. That's why you need a "tight" script, and "tight" directing. It uses horror logic--visceral sign language--to help pile on the exploitation elements to its greasy, gritty characters. Flawed protagonists are scattered out here lie autumn leaves, never fully good, rarely fully bad. Am I getting it yet? Am I cool?

But seriously, there are a lot of tips here and there that make this a really good script, and it's so relieving to see Turhan Bey come up after being kicked around in the Mummy movies. He's amazingly suave here and I want to see him in other things. He portrays Alexis beautifully as a convincing criminal genius, but also as a romantic who is willing to recognize true evil in the world, who probably also regrets his past time in prison. He leaks a little bit of cynicism here and there, as in one of the film's best moments, where Janet is cuddled up to him. Once Janet gets on the psychic train she goes full Fluffy Bunny Pagan. "Do you think I would make a good Celestial Companion, Alexis? Would you travel with me and love me for all eternity?" Alexis blinks and replies, "Oh...even longer, my dear." And the efficiency of that script carries into the revelation of how Alexis pulls his stunts--all of it seems plausible for a man of means given the technological limitations of the era. It doesn't have to delve into sci-fi (which would require some explanation) to show us what all this gadgetry is, and therefore the film's momentum is maintained. Comedy props to the moment when Alexis shows how he Batmans up behind people, all mysterious-like...he just walks very quickly, and very quietly.

From the opening fakeout scare to the twisty ending, The Amazing Mr. X is a vast smorgasbord of rich, full characters, knockout performances, genuine creeps, and marvelous dialogue. It's nice when the adjectives of a title aren't used meaninglessly, eh?

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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Black Alley Cats (1973), by Henning Schellerup

A group of schoolgirls are going through the city at night. A group of doughy, presumably drunk douchebags are sitting outside a bar. When the girls pass, they chase them down, corner them in a warehouse, and gangrape them. As the girls dress themselves in the wake of this horrific act, displaying about as much concern in doing so as they did when they were being assaulted (i.e. surprisingly little), they swear an oath to fight back against rapists everywhere. After some training in the arts of kung fu and guns, they go out on the streets to kick people in the dick and/or tear their genitals off. Thus our series of random events begins. They get revenge on their rapists, and break up a group of white guys conspiring to keep minorities out of their neighborhoods. Then, they recruit a sixth member in the form of a new student at their school by seeing how well she fights when someone is trying to pull her panties off in the shower. We find out that the dean of the school, plus the couple one of the Alley Cats babysits for, are all rapists, and they'll get the babysitting girl thrown out of school if she exposes them. But all's well that ends well, as the Cats eventually go after the rapist couple and administer to them a fatal dose of aphrodisiacs. How does one die from aphrodisiacs, exactly? do you think?

The Black Alley Cats is simultaneously alarming, hilarious, tasteless, and progressive. It is a movie which has beguiled me for years now due to the fact I keep watching it, even though it deals with something I actually have a hard time processing. I have to be real careful not to set off my PTSD when it comes to movie with sexual assault in them, but this was one of the movies I stumbled across before I picked up my trigger, so I know what to expect well enough to keep myself safe. The opening rape scene is distressing, but at the same time, the dudes keep their pants on, and the actresses, while generally good throughout the movie, are pretty wooden when it comes to delivering the concept of traumatizing horror. The stuff later in the movie, involving the couple Pam works for, is decidedly grosser, but the ending to everything helps redeem it. Nothing helps a movie like watching two people uncontrollably fuck while two cops try to make them stop.

It's sort of like a weird R-rated cartoon, really, in terms of both situation and consequence. This is another rape-revenge movie I've seen where no one ends up pregnant or with an STD--which, thank God, because there wouldn't be a chance in hell of that movie being entertaining afterward (least to me). What's more, however, there is relatively little notation of trauma, per se, at least as far as the girls who aren't Pam go. She ends up a little more beaten up because she is attacked several times, but at the end of it all, the girls really tend to laugh a lot of stuff off. At least the movie never frames it in a way that shows they're overly upset--it glorifies things like making a bunch of ladies molest a dude for being at a sleazy business meeting. Another take, I suppose, could show the girls' turn towards vigilantism as a symptom of their troubled minds, but I'm glad we got--as much as we could, at least--an optimistic rape-revenge film. It's a film where if you're assaulted, as too many people are, you can channel that rage and fear and pain and sorrow into improving the world, and yes, taking revenge on your attackers, without getting in trouble. Of course, it's also rather suspect that the police were apparently missing from existence both during and after the rapes at the film's inception, but no screenplay is perfect.

I haven't done a really good job of describing the strangeness of this film, but it involves things like: 1) the fact that the thing with the rapist lesbian headmistress is never resolved; 2) the girls call one of their victims "pink toes"; 3) I wasn't kidding about genital-ripping. At one point in their training montage, their instructor teaches them how to "rip the groin away." It's marvelous.

And yet, accurate. I never took self-defense courses in college but I knew other ladies who did. From them I learned that yes, a lot of self-defense programs for women do involve how to properly and safely injure the tender balls of the male rapist. It makes sense. A lot of people say that if you attack someone's crotch when they're trying to kill/molest you, they'll just get madder and treat you worse, but I can't imagine a man alive who would want to rape or even chase someone after even just one blow to the crotch, especially if that blow is meant to cause some hospital-level damage. I've known people, too, who condemn this level of violence, but again, I apparently have to remind people of when they are defending one of the most atrocious crimes a person can commit. If a rapist gets their balls torn off, or, hell, gets a stiff punch to the ovaries, in the course of trying to rape someone, I don't have pity for them. That's how serious this is.

The Black Alley Cats, however, raises important questions without being overly serious. That sense of frivolity in the face of its subject matter, plus its strangeness and weird cheapo charms, make it worth your while, if this is something you feel you could watch. It's a rough sit, and yet it always seem to hit its final reel before I'm ready for the madness to end. Odd.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Infrasexum (1969), by Carlos Tobalina

Carlos Tobalina was a sage. He was The Man. He was the big kahuna, the primus unus, the Alpha and the Omega. I didn't think that I could ever get enough of Flesh and Bullets, and then, when all hope was lost, I found that for once I lived in a kind world. Fifteen years or so before Flesh and Bullets, the Neil Breen of the 20th Century turned out Infrasexum, his first movie, an ostensible look into the horrors of male impotence. And yet the resultant film was more, much more. You are not ready.

Peter Allison is a man with a unique problem despite his unique situation in life. He's a very successful businessman, and he has a stunningly attractive wife, and yet for some reason, he can't, uh, prime the old motor as it were. He can't loose his juice--can't sharpen his pencil. He has trouble making his dick hard is what I'm saying. So he decides to cut himself off from his business and family and go on a road trip in search of self-discovery. He ends making a small fortune in Vegas, then returns to Los Angeles, where he meets Carlos (played by Carlos Tobalina), who "turns [him] on to marijuana, LSD, and the hippie world." But still Peter can't find relief from his limpness, even as Carlos introduces him to the world of lesbian threeways. He becomes a painter, but his world is briefly shredded when two crooks learn of his wealth and kidnap one of his hippie girlfriends to try to rob him. When he refuses to comply, one of them tries to rape the girl, and when she resists, he stabs her and starts removing her intestines. Peter is able to escape the two and kills them in self-defense. Then, he goes to a park where he watches ducks have sex. After yet another failed attempt to bang a girl, Peter attempts to bang Carlos Tobalina. This doesn't work either--he's not into men, though not for a want of trying. At the end of it all, as in Psyched by the 4D Witch and other sexploitation movies, a psychiatrist shows up and magics it all better, suggesting that Peter have sex with someone who resembles the best sex partner he ever had. He also suggests he rejects the negative standards placed on him by his father, which we didn't know he had until this point. When this happens, Peter is finally free. The end.

It took a suitably demented eye to frame and photograph Infrasexum. This relatively straightforward tale zigs and zags in ways I wasn't prepared for. When it suddenly turns into a hostage/murder movie, for example, completely H.G. Lewis-esque gore, I am never ready. And, like Ogroff, this movie is always full of stuff which I never noticed on previous viewings. For example, it wasn't until the viewing which spawned this review that I figured out that Carlos was played by the director. That makes the stunningly tender scene where male-on-male sex almost happens even better than it was before. I also didn't notice that Peter visits the bisexual couple at Apartment 420; that the hippie fest he and Carlos go to features a stoned girl with a third eye painted on her forehead; or that said hippie festival also features a guy carrying around an adorable baby fox. These are all miraculous sights to see, glimpses back into another time.

This whole movie, in a sense, is a meditation on the hippie movement. In all likelihood, Carlos was just trying to make money off the hippies, just as many exploitation films at the time were, but that doesn't mean this film lacks time-capsule value. I'm pretty cynical about the hippies these days but little 18-year-old Mudman would have loved this. I can still feel a bit of the groove--while I no longer consider that white guys with embarrassing hair-clips bobbing their heads drunkenly with absolutely no understanding of where they are to be a symbol of freedom, it is still fascinating to watch people who have a seeming dearth of judgment for their peers acting like children and doing nothing productive in particular. In a sense I wish we still had that lack of judgment; but I also don't think that doing cartwheels through parks for hours is a particularly great use of time and energy when you're 25 years old, either. What I appreciate is that, for the most part, people are very nice in this film, and the movie tries to make a point that we--as in humanity--are not as bad as we seem. Peter is free with his money, Carlos is free with his drugs, the girls are free with their sex. And most of the judgment Peter faces for his impotence comes from himself, not from his partners. It would have been too easy to make yet another impotence-themed sexploitation movie where the person spends most of the movie being screamed at, but generally, Peter gets off pretty easy, his pain being more realistically internal than would be shown in a lot of similar films.

And I do really appreciate how the hippie free-spiritisms appear in the style of the film. Bloated with voiceovers, the movie really does play out like Peter's traveling journal, which makes it one of them road trip flicks I love so much. The light classical music sampled throughout the film gives it an artsy sentimental feel that makes me get all fuzzy inside. This really does help build the story of a man who is struggling to find freedom from a prison he's built for himself. It makes it seem tenderly psychological. I love it.

Of course, there is also the lovely trash.

Bad edits, cuts in the soundtrack, and incomprehensible dialogue all wrack the movie, pushing it straight into the Technicolor world of one of Doris Wishman's '70s movies (which I'll get to soon enough!). Peter dresses like a gay bullfighter for a startling percentage of the runtime. And, as Jess Franco will tell you, nothing says classy like a slow zoom towards the vagina of a corpse. Rest assured, we are absolutely still dealing with the director of Flesh and Bullets here. But this is him at his rawest. Gone is the drama of murdering another man's wife; instead, we are gazing into the id of a director/actor on his own personal trip into hedonism. It's almost like a documentary. Yet, still confined to the magically unrealistic world of fiction.

In case you can't tell, I really, really like this movie. Boobs and butts galore, plus a little blood, and a strange journey into a strange mind. Don't miss it.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Nightmare Alley (1947), by Edmund Goulding

This is yet another movie which is probably too good and too well-received for me to be talking about here, but which I knew immediately I had to review after watching. Nightmare Alley has such a wonderful tone to it, by which I mean it has an utterly ghastly tone to it, making it yet another movie adding to the trend of this site being largely a journal of my night-terrors. I've gotten PTSD from movies before, but some films will leave stains on my psyche in a way that keeps me warm from the cold, fed in the face of hunger. Stop by the box office to get your ticket of admission into Nightmare Alley's carnival of souls.

Stanton "Stan" Carlisle is a barker at a low-rent carnival, which offers many of the usual acts, including a geek and a medium. Stan is fascinated by the geek, at first buying the mythos that they are the Missing Link, but he slowly learns that they are actually alcoholics who are forced to do what they do--i.e. bite the heads off of chickens--by the managers controlling their booze access. Stan strikes up a friendship--and more--with Mademoiselle Zeena, the medium. Years ago, Zeena and her ex-lover Pete were a top-tier magic act in vaudeville, drawing in crowds of thousands. However, due to circumstances Zeena blames herself for, Pete became an alcoholic, and now is reduced to her assistant in her psychic act. Stan at once desires to obtain the secret code Zeena and Pete used in their act, but it's not until he accidentally poisons Pete with wood alcohol that he gets a chance. Stan proves to be a fine mentalist, even waylaying a sheriff who wants to shut down the show for exploiting the geek. This act in particular proves to be so impressive he finally breaks the sexual tension with his long-time crush Molly the Electric Girl--an act witnessed by her boyfriend, Bruno the strongman. When Bruno reveals this to Zeena, the carnival immediately turns on the pair, forcing them into a shotgun marriage just at the dawn of their romance.

Thus begins the next stage of Stan's life. He and Molly have the code, so they swiftly become wealthy top-billers as Zeena and Pete once were. But the ambition of "the Great Stanton," as Stan now calls himself, doesn't stop there. At one of his shows he runs into a psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter, who has a particularly aristocratic patient by the totally-not-miserly name of Mr. Grindle. Stan is interested by the fact that she records all of her therapy sessions on vinyl, and believes he could use those records to learn everything about his clients. Then, he could break into the spiritualism business, where he can start breaking bread with the top 1%. But there's another dimension to this as well--Stan legitimately starts believing he's doing God's work. He's able to convince Molly to help Mr. Grindle make the final crossing into religion by appearing as the ghost of his dead lady-love, but she has a pang of conscience and blows the gig. Stan still has some of his money, though, and tries to skip town with Molly. Except, Lilith has cheated him--she gives him a paltry $150, takes the rest for herself, and makes it clear to Stan that if he tries to stop her or implicate her in the crime, she has a vinyl record explaining he once had something to do with the death of a certain alcoholic former mentalist. Stan is left wandering around, reduced to drinking, until at last he finds a chance to fit back in with carny life. "Of course, it's only temporary," says the man hiring him. "Till we can get a real geek..."

This has been a good year for carnival movies, I feel. This is the same year I revisited The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, and when I first witnessed the relentless brutality of The Unknown. I'm starting to sense a thing here--it's like creators enjoy telling stories about the dark secrets of sources of mirth and wonder or something. This continues today, with the tradition of celebrity gossip mags and Disneyworld creepypastas--if something makes us happy, there must be something wrong with it. And this is not oversaturated at all, no sir, nor is it simply done occasionally just for the sake of pure cynicism. But sarcasm aside, there is something thrilling about looking into a point of entertainment and seeing it goes colossally wrong. And when that sort of logic is applied to something as seedy as a carnival, it produces results like Nightmare Alley. The movie and the book it was based on don't shy away from the problems of carny life, like addiction and forced labor. It doesn't quite step into the plight of the freaks, but the plight of the geek is highlighted as I've never seen it before. As far as I know, this is historically accurate; shows would take in bums and ply them with booze to do crap shows, in some sense relying on the embarrassment of geekdom to ensure that they never escaped their addiction. It's hard to avoid a cynical, nihilistic message when faced with the reality of that.

So, the primary theme of Nightmare Alley is, "Don't tamper in God's domain." This is hammered in a little roughly but it certainly takes. The movie allows its two-hour runtime to really dig into Stan's journey from barker to showman to wannabe messiah, to chicken-biting lunatic, so we walk through his journey to touch the hand of God with him in great detail. This is film noir, in case I didn't say so, and as such it's really, really good at telling its story through implication and conversation. We learn briefly that Stan grew up an orphan, where he took in "the scripture they fed us Sunday, after beating us black and blue all week." He tried to escape the orphanage but they sent him to reform school, where he faked spirituality to get parole. This is a great way of explaining Stan's wanderings into Christianity as well as his sociopathic tendencies. Interesting that this film, while attempting to be sincere about religion, also portrays it cynically, just as it does the carnival. Perhaps it's that the movie believes that God is good, but religion can be abused by "ministers" like Stan. It's tough to tell, what with the conformist '50s on the way. If this movie was made six years later, it may not have been so quick to condemn Stan's corporal punishment at the hands of the nuns at the orphanage.

Returning, then, to the telling of character by implication: this movie's structure roughly follows Stan's life as a traditional tragedy, detailing how he obtains glory and loses it. But the simple fact of it is that Stan had prosperity before his journey began. He specifies to Zeena at the film's beginning that he quite enjoys being a barker, finding it the first job he ever truly enjoyed. It wasn't great, but it was a steady paycheck and a roof, and maybe he could have worked his way up to a management position at some point (hey, it was the '40s--I'm told the American Dream actually sorta worked then, least as long as you were white, straight, cis, abled, and a man). And yet, whether it was by his upbringing or something else, he couldn't get enough. See, I can say this with honesty! This is a tampered-in-God's-domain story that actually works!

Of course, there's a lot going for it stylistically--I can't describe it all fully but there are tons of neat noir tricks, and if you are a diehard noir junkie, yes, there are plenty of shadows and cig-smoke clouds to go around. One thing I really liked is how, as Stan runs into his obstacles one by one, we begin to hear a faint sound behind the music. When this sound appears near the end of the movie, we can tell it's the screams of the geek that Stan heard at the beginning--the screams which will soon become his own. And yet, there is an ending added to the movie which is not present in the novel, which makes things happier...while also making the parallel structures between Pete and Stan, and Zeena and Molly, all the more terrifyingly adamant. This movie has one of the best uses of this cruel irony that I love seeing in films so much. And while this isn't a stylistic comment, I do have to say something how much this film benefits from casting Coleen Gray as Molly. Gray is one of the most attractive actresses I've seen in a while, and I don't know why. She hasn't been in too much else that I recognize, but my crush on her is rather an irony in itself, due to the fact that the other big I do recognize her for is the titular character of The Leech Woman! So I have found myself attracted to a woman whose other big role for me is "vampiric hag." C'est la vie...

There are some things I could criticize, such as the fact that Stan and Zeena's code is perhaps a bit too complicated for me to believe, and that Lilith's turn from horror at Stan's idea of using her records to swindle her patients to being totally onboard with the idea is never explained. But almost every other frame of the movie is pure gold, and I challenge you to lose yourself in the tangled knots of this one. It's a real treat.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984), by David Markey

So a lot of my fellow trash-movie fans, I've noticed, are usually big punk fans as well, with a sort of dedication that I feel a certain distance from. Punk is probably one of my favorite music genres, but its presence in my life, as with most music genres I like, will likely be eclipsed forever by my love of metal. Now I realize I'm burning the fires of war here. Punk and metal have a tendency, at least as far as I've observed, to be a bit like Capulets and Montagues. Metal views punk as unstructured and overly political, while punk fans seem to believe that metal is reactionary, patriarchal, and irrelevant. If you think there's a winner in this debate then you are the true loser. In any case, both punk and metal have contributed much to the world of trash cinema over the years, and strangely, despite my tastes outside of the world of film, I've almost always ended up enjoying the punk movies more than the metal ones. Maybe it's just that punk has aged better than metal, generally speaking--I find a lot of early metal almost impossible to listen to, while classic punk is still pretty awesome. And a lot of that is perhaps due to the fact that a lot of punk is about seeking relevance, while metal is a lot about seeking thrills. While there is absolutely political metal, punk has tied itself to significant social movements and become a social movement in itself. Punk is one of the big musical faces of liberalism. And it stands to reason that a bunch of people who grew up in the same era where the VHS tape made home media infinitely more possible than it previously had been would be punk fans as well, as the '80s needed the genre's particular brand of cynicism. I'm just a wee bab, a product of the Internet, and as such my music interests are whatever they happen to be on a given week. But nonetheless, I found a lot of punkish joy to be found in David Markey's miniature opus, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls.

The titular Lovedolls are an up-and-coming teen punk band that, at the film's outset, has faced the minor setback of one of their members being sent to a mental institution after a drug-induced breakdown. While in this place poor Alexandria is chained to a bed and forced to watch a video loop of a man standing in front of an American flag chanting, "Have my kid," in a scene that plays like a weird '50s domestic version of Clockwork Orange. Alexandria escapes the hospital with the aid of her trademark guitar and the Lovedolls are back in business. After getting back on amphetamines, Alexandria helps her fellow Lovedoll Kitty kill her abusive mom, who is, natch, played by a man in drag. They are approached by a sleazy agent who promises to help them make it big. He does, but the price is rape. So they dose him with a shitton of LSD in what is probably one of the most amusing tripout sequences I've seen in a while. Then, there is but one last menace to face: their immortal enemies, the She-Devils. Things get heavy when Kitty accidentally kills one of the She-Devils in a brawl. All things come to a head. And then...sequel?

Desperate Teenage Lovedolls best sets its punk atmosphere by refusing to lean in too heavy with its jokes. The movie's bulk is comprised of what are best described as "punk montages"; scenes of music, drugs, and youthful liberty standing in contrast to an opposing and opposite society. It indulges itself, certainly, especially with its naive earnestness in depicting drugs (life sucks so let's all do speed!), but overall it stays level-headed. The satire in the film ranges from authentic to cursory, and it all works. It's hard not to love a movie that features both the aforementioned TV loop, and the line, "I think I see Led Zep in you--I can do for you girls what God did for mankind!" (So, uh, subject them plagues and floods?) Stylistically and tonally, it bears some resemblance to I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but I feel this movie is better made. It's subtler in its spoofs, and there's less "oh, this is just a movie"-type editing. Lovedolls is much more immersive, even if it meanders somewhat in viciousness and meaning.

There's a lot to laugh at in this movie, as I may have implied above, and for once it's something of a relief for the laughs to be intentional. The music exec who molests the girls mentions "making the Beatles do a reunion," and his shocking lack of familiarity with psychedelic drugs contrasts his position as a manager/agent, which I doubt is unintentional even if it's not lampshaded. And indeed, I really can't understate how amazing this trip sequence is, as it hasn't been since The Weird World of LSD that I've seen a cinematic freakout incorporate marionettes. Finally there's also a scene where a DJ places a record, sleeve and all, on the wrong part of a turntable. The music starts playing before the record starts spinning. Again, almost surely intentional.

As for the soundtrack, it's handled in a very unique way: it features plenty of punk, yes (admittedly not the best I've heard but still pretty good), but also a broad selection of public domain classical cues. I don't know what it is about Super 8 movies that attract these libraries cues, besides the obvious cheapness, but there's a certain rustic class added to the film by its employment of the same sort of music you'd hear in Weasels Rip My Flesh. Your ears will assuredly have a good time.

If I had one complaint, it's that the movie has one moment where it tries to make it seem cool to call someone a fag. Way to drop the Third Wave there, ladies. This is the unfortunate peril that queers like me must face looking back into the films of the 20th Century. Our suffering was considered "edgy"; our mockery, "radical." And it's still considered to be such. So fuck this movie for its casual homophobia. Thankfully it's just one line, and the movie is relatively inoffensive otherwise--as far as punk movies go, that is. If you want a look at punk rebellion circa the Reaganian tyrannies, then this is a perfect movie to go with. It's only 50 minutes long, but you're in luck, 'cause Lovedolls Superstar is a motherfuckin' 70, ya fuckin' bitch.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sweet Trash (1970), by John Hayes

What a fitting title. (I've been getting a lot of those lately.) In the end, I'm not sure it's about anything--that title or the movie attached to it. The title is referenced in the film's tagline: "Some women are born to be sweet trash." And guess what, that tagline has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Women are the opposite of sweet trash in Sweet Trash. They are usually the only good people in the entire movie. I assume then that the filmmakers were being self-aware. But really, in the end, it's the style, not the substance.

A mobster named Dan shows a beautiful redhead a good time in the sack. She extols his virtues as a lover, and then he shoots her, explaining that "the new computer" determined she knew too much, and talked too much. Then, one of the other members of his mob, Mr. Rizo, has sex with a woman who comes to his mansion. This somehow reveals to him she has information on a certain man "the computer" has them looking for. They need the services of a longshoreman of a particular personality, and the one they've found is Michael Joseph Donovan, who may as well mark down on his resume that he works a second full-time position as an alcoholic. Mike is a pretty jovial guy, but he's also got a skeezy side to him--he spends too much time staring at women, and his pits are perpetually sweaty. Presently he owes $4,000 to the mob, the same mob Dan and Rizo belong to, and he has a chance to win it at a card game. He just needs another two Gs to break out, but at the critical moment he blows it and sets himself back that extra 2,000 as well. The only thing left for him to do is to make a run for it...and his quest for freedom will take him to places and feelings he never could have expected. Meanwhile, the computer is hunting him.

Another (?) movie which is similar to Gretta. I never thought I'd say that, but I never thought I'd see a movie that tries so hard to seem like it's not deliberate. There are so many weird things going on in this movie that it becomes inscrutable at times. It is simultaneously a sexploitation movie, a surrealist art film, a mobster thriller, and a sci-fi speculation exercise. It asks too many questions at once and slathers everything over with increasingly-bizarre sex scenes, as if the real interest is meant to be all the boobers that are on screen. And yet...and yet...oh, hell, I'll just tell you some of the shit that goes down here.

So there are just some little nods here and there--that's the first layer. These are incidents that don't really lead to anything. When there's talk of breaking Mike's fingers, for instance, there happens to be a topless stripper nearby, and the mobster sets the hand he's set to break on her boob: "One last feel," he muses quietly. Then, later on, Mike is speaking to a possibly-illusory Puerto Rican woman when he suddenly imagines that his hands are full of bloody strips of flesh. These things will then form their little strings of pearls that make the movie's private architecture twisted and uncanny. Mr. Rizo keeps having sex with ladies and it keeps getting darker and darker, until we're actually freaking out when two girls are closing in on him with fake vampire teeth, chanting over and over again, "Here we come to suck the blood from your neck." The human mind doesn't function well in the surrealosphere. And it keeps getting bigger and badder.

The movie makes its transition from sleazy exploitation to pure drunken horror both slowly and starkly. There's a moment where Mike is wandering around wasted in an abandoned part of town, and the happy but overly-nostalgic music that keeps haunting him throughout the film suddenly turns into something right out of Jay Chattaway's soundtrack for Maniac. And this leads into the scene where the Puerto Rican lady and Mike walk back through Mike's timeline, visiting his earliest memories, including when he was molested by a neighborhood woman when he was ten. This quick insight back into the source of Mike's alcoholism (presumably, at least) is portrayed entirely for black comedy, like a lot of the film, actually. Mike laughs hysterically as he recounts what happened, and when the woman tries to say it wasn't his fault, he says, "Oh, I'd sinned, mama. But I had such an innocent face that they never knew it."

This is pretty some tough shit to watch, but there's enough counter-negative tone to keep things going. And all those contrasting tones never overlap each other in a way that makes it a painful sit. I don't really know what the themes of this movie are. The angle where the mobsters are helpless to obey their mostly-offscreen computer may be a comment on authority, but it may also be to help explain the corners the plot cuts on its road to surrealism (i.e. there's no reason for the characters to act this way besides the writers making them, and the computer plotline is a cover for that). The whole movie may also be a remark on alcoholism, and indeed this is probably the most realistic depiction of alcoholism I've seen based on what I've heard from former alcoholics--it can be the angry or sorrowful ruts but there's also the boisterous and embarrassing joyousness of drunkenness. Alcoholism can be quite the happy thing even if it's also agony, and that happiness is usually why the drinker stays an alcoholic. And then there is delirium tremens.

This movie is basically Delirium Tremens: The Movie. For all the depression inherent in that, that's a movie I've always wanted to see. I like being taken on a rough ride in my trash, without having to dip into the roughie flicks that the '70s would go on to produce. Sweet Trash may not have art, or even direction, but it has heart, and I can dig that. There's a lot of imagery that will haunt you long after, which coming from me is, once again, nothing short of a recommendation.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

Smoking Guns (1934), by Alan James

How much of this "joke" is predicated on prejudice? How much of my amusement is derived from the simple fact that, even after dedicating a quite a lot of words to talking about them, I'm still not used to B-Westerns completely and utterly blowing me out of the water? 2017 is a year for walking against the wind in many things--so it's healthy for me to go on insisting that these movies have some sort of value. I've encountered few fellow trashsters who have found the same sort of passion I have for digging through the tedious and repetitious tides of old '30s cowboy flicks in search of gold. But I'm gonna do my part to make it a thing, damnit! Why should '80s slashers, '70s roughies, and '60s sexploiters have all the fun? At this point I've cast aside my old superstitions. Smoking Guns cements, now and forever, that Westerns can contain the same levels of perverse oddity that afflict the weirdest movies I've featured on this site.

Ken Masters is a young man who has been accused of the murder of Hank Stone's father Silas--however, Ken knows that Hank himself is the killer. When he confronts Stone with that knowledge, he is driven out of town, and he hides himself out in the Amazon rainforest (as you do). A ranger by the name of Dick Evans tracks Ken out to the jungle and arrests him--Ken is only too happy to return to civilization, as he wanted to stay back in town and face Stone far and square. As Evans takes Ken back through the jungle, however, he contracts malaria, and is forced to let Ken shoot their handcuffs off to go find help after it transpires that he's lost the key. Fortunately, Ken is an honorable man, and not only gives the ranger his gun back, but returns with a canoe as promised. Not so fortunately, their voyage down the Amazon becomes sheer horror when Evans decides to open fire into a horde of crocodiles, which sends them after the two. Evans is bitten on the leg, leading to gangrene; Ken knows how to operate but rather than face the knife, Evans kills himself.

Then the movie gets really weird...yeah, it actually gets weirder. Somehow, Ken gets it in his head that he and the dead ranger are dead ringers for each other, despite the fact that their actors have zero resemblance. He returns to civilization disguised as Evans, and runs into the awkward fact that Evans had a girlfriend, the somewhat improbably-named Alice Adams. It doesn't take long before "Dick" reveals that he's rather ill-suited for impersonating a dead man in front of his loved ones, as he's forgotten Alice's nickname of "Kitten," and praises music the real Dick hated while disliking that which he liked. Still, she takes the truth, when he comes forth with it, surprisingly well. From there on out, Ken uses every advantage he gets to close in on his man.

Much to my dismay, the majority of Smoking Guns' goodness is packed into its first half. The second half of the film is a typical B-Western, and not one of the very good ones...long shots of people creeping around in the dark, broken up by protracted, foot-dragging gunfights--and that's saying nothing of the obligatory square dancing scene. Oh, and the racism. I really don't want to dwell on this, so I'll just say that there is a black butler named "Cinders" who Mantan Morelands the hell out of every scene he's in. And because he's in so many scenes, you'll probably want to skip most of this second half with the assurance that it's a '30s Western, and good triumphs in the end. In-universe. In out-universe terms, good did not triumph, because they forced an actor to completely demean himself for the mild amusement of the white audience. So don't be afraid to ditch the second half if you want.

But man, that first half. Was there really so much demand for movies set in the Amazon in 1934 that they needed to spend a good chunk of the story there? Was it impossible, in the days of the Old West, to contract malaria and gangrene within the confines of the United States? Maybe it's not the Amazon...maybe it's just Florida. But I'm pretty positive it is meant to be somewhere in South America. I am absolutely not complaining about any of this. The South America sequence is entirely contingent on a hilarious amount of improbably bad luck for our characters stacked on top of some of the weirdest passes of the Idiot Ball I've ever seen. Keep in mind, we go straight from Dick Evans confidently arresting Ken to his decline into malaria, with the swiftness of the dissolve implying very little time has passed. Evans spends part of this scene laughing insanely as the disease drives him out of his mind. It's an arresting composition, giving us the impression that he was able to make it all the way out here by himself just fine, but the second he joins up with Ken, he starts going insane. This is built up by the fact that he trusts Ken, a fucking outlaw, enough to hand him his gun! It's not like he really needs much persuading to go all buddy-buddy with Ken, as they speak amiably to each other upon first meeting, and he eats Ken's food, even though Ken could've easily rubbed an Amazonian frog on that meat with the intent of prying the handcuff keys off the ranger's cold corpse. Evans' fate is ultimately his own fault as he shows not a single shred of spine in the face of animals who were gonna leave him alone if he didn't fucking shoot them. It's almost impossible to believe this man was a cop. He must have traveled to the Amazon in a goddamn air-conditioned rickshaw.

Then, Ken seriously overestimates his ability to impersonate a man he barely knew. What's more, the deception generally works! People believe that he is Evans, despite having no beard, a different hairstyle, and, let's just face it, a completely different face. And poor Dick Evans, for all the suffering he went through in the course of just doing his job (well, and being an idiot), is completely forgotten, as Ken steals his identity, his horse, and, ultimately, his girlfriend. If there's a theme to Smoking Guns, it's that if you are noble, you will have a good ending, unless your name is Dick Evans. There's such a strange passion and intensity to the direction and action of all these improbabilities that it feels deliberate--almost wholly detached from the absurd cheapness that affected many of the big studios during the Great Depression. This movie was made by Universal, meaning it was one of the better Westerns out there.

And that shows. Contrast that with The Phantom Cowboy or The Irish Gringo and you'll see that there was at least a little money behind Smoking Guns. And yet, the movie had to be on the market fast, damnit. I don't what they were thinking. I just feel, somehow, that they were thinking. Consequentially, Smoking Guns is an essential B-Western, second only to The Phantom Cowboy by the depressing anti-merit of replacing Ptomaine Pete with racism. Fast-forward when you feel like it and keep your eyes peeled for the good bits.

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