Friday, 26 December 2014

TEENAGE DOLL












d. Roger Corman (1957) 

I was going to start by saying what a strange little film this is but, of course, everything on here is a strange little film, that's sort of the point. So, instead, I will say that Teenage Doll is singular, odd, unusual, unsettling, whatever other synonyms I can dredge up to try and convey the fact that the film contains five minutes of plot and sixty five minutes of social commentary, and manages to be both as camp as a row of tents and depressing as hell. 

The story starts with the back door of a restaurant opening and a man throwing a bowl of dirty water out into the yard. He doesn't realise it, but the waste water splashes over the body of a young girl lying in an ignominious heap, dead as straw. We never see her face, just her blond, curled hair and a flash of thigh through a torn skirt. She was a member of teen girl gang the Black Widows (there's one in every city), and the rest of the gang are pretty sure that she was murdered by a nice middle class girl called Barbara Bonney. The motive: they were both in love with the same boy, the leader of a gang called The Vandals. The Black Widows decide to track Barbara down, and the rest of the film details their search. 

Teenage delinquency is described as a disease at the beginning of the film, and we are shown both the symptoms and the cause. We go to each of the Black Widows’ homes and see a little of the upbringings that have shaped their young minds, the circumstances that the girls are running from or rebelling against. 

Leader Helen's Dad is a lazy drunk with a penchant for prostitutes; Janet has a baby sister who takes up all her mother's time, and cop Dad is too busy fighting crime to notice that his daughter is a criminal; Eva's immigrant family are working and arguing themselves to early graves to make ends meet; May is so stifled by her dead end life and non-existent prospects that she no longer cares about anything but mindless kicks. In the most disturbing vignette, we go to the filthy shack where Lori lives. There, in the dark, is her five year old sister, chewing on a cardboard box because she is hungry. Lori gives her a packet of stale crackers and leaves, pausing only to switch the light off again. It's extraordinarily grim. 

Then there's Barbara, the pretty, polite girl with a nice house and a nice family who has just killed a love rival and is covered in her blood. Her home life is more subtly rendered, but no less horrible: a repressed, passive aggressive father, so distant that he might as well not be there; a mentally disturbed mother who wears her hair in pig tails and is stuck in the past, still obsessed with her own bad boy, a criminal she loved who died twenty years ago. 

All of this psychodrama builds to a meeting of the gangs and a rumble in a scrap yard, before the climax proper in which Barbara has to decide whether to leave everything, including her identity, behind, to turn herself in and potentially face the gas chamber, or to go out fighting, torn apart by the Black Widows. I won't reveal what she chooses to do, but her fate breaks up the gang. Those sad, mixed up girls who still have a chance opt to go home and stay there; the hopeless, angry ones go for a late beer and to plot more mayhem. 

 A quick word on Roger Corman. Simultaneously admired and despised for his quick, cheap, brazen exploitative films, I think he's an occasionally great director who gets a bad rap, even now. A sniffy article about him in The New Yorker last year was titled 'Surface, Not Depth'. They clearly haven't seen Teenage Doll, a film where all the characters are drowning. I'll come back to Roger. To be honest, this really wouldn't be much of a psychotronic film blog if I didn't.

Friday, 19 December 2014

TERRIFIED











d. Lew Landers (1963)


Pretty teenager Marge hasn't had much luck of late: her father was murdered by an unknown assailant; her mother was killed in a mysterious car crash, and her older brother was turned into a 'dribbling oyster' by a man in a black silk mask who threw him screaming into a grave at the local ghost town and then filled it with wet concrete until the boy's mind snapped at the prospect of being simultaneously drowned and buried alive. 

What Marge doesn't know is that the kinky killer is a man who is horribly fixated on her, and is systematically eliminating the people she loves in order to facilitate possessing her. This is also bad news for the two callow youths* who are wooing her, one of whom ends up being tormented and tortured and, yes, terrified to death.

It's pretty sick, especially at the climax when the unmasked killer says he first noticed Marge when she was ten years old, then whispers excitedly about her 'bare little feet' and 'torn dress' and promises to look after her always as she lies rigid with fear in his arms. At this point, my skin crawled off and hid behind the sofa.  

Terrified examines the notion of the cheerful small town where everything is gingham and gee willikers on the surface but, underneath, is sick and corrupt and rotten and dirty. It's a particularly American obsession: King's Row, Peyton Place and Twin Peaks all attest to that. America has a tragic, terrible history: a vast, wild, deadly landscape colonised by force, seeded by sacrifice, watered by blood, built on death. 

If the English are always bemoaning the fact that life used to be better, that the best of our country has come and gone, then perhaps the American psyche works in reverse, and the people are haunted by a folk memory of when things were infinitely worse. Is it any wonder that they are scared of what's out there in the dark?**

*  Technically only one callow youth: the other one is thirty three and looks every month of it, especially as he is painted, coloured and styled like a cheap whore in order to try and look 18.

**  According to the FBI, between 35 and 50 active serial killers at any one time, for a start.

Friday, 12 December 2014

THE CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN



d. Edward L. Cahn (1958)


'Where's the dividing line between yesterday and today, between the past and the present, even between life and death?'  

Essentially a Mummy film, The Curse of the Faceless Man is, as you might expect, obsessed with death and forbidden love, reincarnation and revenge. Set in Italy, the monster here isn’t a long dead Egyptian swathed in bandages but rather an Etruscan gladiator contained in a carapace of volcanic ash, having been engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii some two thousand years previously.

Discovered in a hole by an incredulous workman and taken to a museum in Naples, his scabby white body mostly lies around on its back with its arms and legs in the air, like a stunned beetle. At key moments, however, the ‘fantastic dead man’ drags himself to his feet and starts stomping stiffly around: ruthless, relentless, chopping people to death with the rock hard side of his horny hand.

Like most angry monsters, he’s all Id, operating purely on pre-set instructions. His mission is two-fold: to murder nominal authority figures like Policemen and Museum staff, and to be reunited with his lost love, who just so happens to have been reincarnated as a visiting American artist: an astonishingly fortuitous break for him, extremely bad luck for her.

It’s a shame that he is so preoccupied, really. Think of what he could have added to our knowledge of the ancient world if he hadn’t been a psychotic killing machine.

Friday, 5 December 2014

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS











d. John Sherwood (1957)


After a marvellously solemn monologue about the nature of comets and the daily threat they pose to the Earth, The Monolith Monsters starts with a chunk of obsidian black space rock smashing into a Californian salt flat, spreading debris all over the desert. When the rock gets wet, it grows, forming vast towers which then topple over and smash, with each broken piece growing again to form a new tower. For the people of the small community of San Angelo this presents two problems: firstly, their little town is directly in the path of the rampaging rocks and, secondly, anyone who gets too close to the space debris has all the silicone sucked from their bodies and subsequently turns to stone. It’s a hell of a concept (sci fi film genius Jack Arnold was one of the men behind it) and it’s well executed, too.

The shots of the black monoliths growing, falling, then springing up again, in particular, are startling, especially when you realise that, with nothing to stop them, they could, with time and rain, crush the whole world. There’s no question of the rock being intelligent, it just does what it does, over and over, unthinking, unfeeling, and unaware of any consequence. It’s rather chilling, but then nature, regardless of its point of origin, often is.


The main characters in the film are Geologists* and Doctors, so the focus is on finding a logical, scientific solution rather than simply screaming and hoping for a lucky break or an act of God. I’m not sure if a sentence like ‘Chert, Feldspar, Pyroxene, almost all of the Olivine group, Flint, almost solid Silica' makes any sense to someone with a BSc, but it sounds right to someone who hasn't, and that’s half the battle.


* The chief scientist is Grant Williams, perhaps best known as The Incredible Shrinking Man, another Jack Arnold master work.

Friday, 28 November 2014

THE MAZE











d. William Cameron Menzies  (1953)

Sir Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) doesn’t have any trace of a Scottish (or even recognisably British) accent, even though he is heir to a Baronetcy and a large, gloomy castle in the Highlands. When he receives an urgent telegram (is there any other type?) he drops everything (including his pretty fiancée)to hurry  home – and doesn’t come back. After a few weeks, his wife in waiting and her Aunt decide to investigate, only to find themselves embroiled in a terrifying world of shadows, secrets and slime.

You can tell that The Maze was originally shown in 3D by the sheer amount of things that get shoved towards the viewer: the animate (a lithe lady dancer); the inanimate (a telegram), and the somewhere in-between (a rubber bat on a piece of string). Like the rest of the film, however, this is all window dressing for the genuinely surprising finale, in which an enormous frog looms into three dimensional view before throwing itself out of a window.
This shock climax is concluded with a long scene in which the Sir Gerald tells us what the hell just happened. I’m not going to give it away but it involves Teratology. At first his explanation sounds absolutely ridiculous but, because he perseveres with it, his story ultimately achieves some degree of pathos, if not verisimilitude. It’s still absolutely ridiculous, though*.  

* Director William Cameron Menzies isn't at his best here, unfortunately: perhaps he was still thinking about his other 3D film of 1953, the extraordinary anti-Communist fever dream Invaders From Mars.

Friday, 21 November 2014

THE FIEND OF DOPE ISLAND




d. Nate Watt (1961)

The Fiend of Dope Island is about a love triangle between a marijuana farmer and gun runner called Charlie, a heavily accented showgirl called Glory La Verne and an undercover narcotics agent (I didn't catch his name). It is not, as far as I know, based on a true story. 


The semi-psychopathic and possibly brain damaged Charlie (he has two prominent scars on his head) is played by Bruce Bennett. Bennett used to be an Olympian called Herman Brix, and was lined up to play in the first MGM Tarzan film until he broke his shoulder and Johnny Weissmuller took his place. Brix soon returned reborn as Bennett and played Tarzan in a cheap serial overseen by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. His Tarzan was a gentleman: educated and articulate, but he was no match for Weissmuller and soon went back to character roles. Bennett’s performance here is pretty wild, but not particularly good, which is great, especially if you like ham. 

The film is relieved from being tedious by little studs of excitement like fist fights, shark attacks, bongo music, some surprising nudity and lots of corporal punishment. A well-oiled bull whip is the weapon of choice, if you don't count 'The Yugoslavian Bombshell' Tania Velia, who cha cha cha's into the midst of the male dominated island like a sex grenade with the pin out.  

The credits claim that this delightful trash flavoured trifle introduces Tania, but she’d already been in Hollywood for a few years at this point. Soon after this film was released she went home to Belgrade. Draw your own conclusions. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

SHE DEMONS



d. Richard E. Cuhna (1958)

She Demons is a pulp magazine brought to life, you know, the sort with a cover that has a statuesque blonde in her scanties being tortured by a Nazi with a lascivious expression on his face.  Chuck in a hurricane, some horribly scarred women, a live volcano, some mild bondage, lots of flagellation and a bongo number and you have any number of reasons to enjoy this fun little feature that was clearly made on a shoestring and in someone’s back garden but, nevertheless, is stupidly entertaining.

Irish McKenna plays the statuesque blond, a spoiled little rich kid who finds herself stranded on an uncharted desert island after her Daddy’s yacht sinks in a hurricane (she admonishes her rescuer for not salvaging the essentials: ‘you might at least have picked me up a pair of toreador pants’). The island, as you might expect, is populated by a savage she cult of mutated women and a gang of nasty Nazis, led by a scientist who is trying to restore his wife’s lost beauty (some lava fell on her face) by experimenting on the natives. It’s a bad scene, especially when the head German takes a shine to Irish and decides that SHE will be his Queen from now on.
Totally preposterous, extremely enjoyable, She Demons is some sort of classic, and comes highly recommended for anyone with an interest in sensation, shock science and interpretive dance which has got to be everybody, surely? 

Friday, 7 November 2014

TARZAN TRIUMPHS












d. Wilhelm Thiele (1943)

I’ll start by saying that I love Tarzan films. I also hate Nazis, so Tarzan Triumphs, where Tarzan kills Nazis, is my sort of movie.
When the German army invade the sub-Saharan city of Palandrya it takes Tarzan a long time to intervene, despite the entreaties of an exotic Princess (Jane is away in England nursing wounded soldiers). Tarzan, played with implacable practicality by Johnny Weissmuller, doesn’t understand what it has to do with him – he fights as a last resort, and only to survive – this isn’t any of his business. When the Nazis impinge on his escarpment, however, and try to kill his son and his monkey, Tarzan, rather like the United States after Pearl Harbour, finally understands that tyrants don’t just stay in other people’s backyards, instead having a nasty habit of spreading out if unchecked. In perhaps the single most dramatic moment of the cycle, Tarzan’s face darkens and he grabs his knife, uttering the immortal line: ‘Now Tarzan make WAR!’ and, by Christ, he does.
We needn’t go into extensive detail about how he systematically wipes out the Germans other than to say he employs both his in-built talent for death (Tarzan is a good man, but he kills pretty much everything that he disagrees with) and the deadly natural accoutrements of his jungle home: crocodiles, rampaging elephants, some geographically misplaced piranhas. For all their arrogance and advanced ordnance, The Nazis have no effective answer to Tarzan’s primal savagery and so, accordingly, die, one by one, screaming in horror and incomprehension at how this could happen to a member of the master race. Aficionados of the series will be familiar with the relentless horror and violence of Tarzan films, and although this is relatively tame in comparison to, say, Tarzan Escapes, it is still strangely satisfying to see so many nasty National Socialists get their bloody comeuppance.
The pay off, in which almost psychotically naughty chimp Cheeta talks to Berlin on the radio and is mistaken for Hitler, is brilliant, propaganda at its best, although, even in her role as an agent of chaos and misrule, Cheeta consistently demonstrates more humanity and compassion than the fucking Fuhrer ever did.   

There are clips of this fantastically entertaining film all over the internet, including one which comes with a very 21st century proviso: 
*WARNING* Johnny Sheffield ('Boy') is only 12 in these clips. If you prefer to see older people in peril then please do not view.

Incidentally, if you are interested in Tarzan films AND what I have to say on the matter, I am currently working on a short book called Tarzanetics which will include far more analysis and graphs and things. It will be published via The British Esperantist, i.e. my own private vanity press.

Friday, 31 October 2014

TORMENTED












d. Bert I. Gordon (1960)

Craggy middle aged Tom Stewart (craggy middle aged Richard Carlson) has it all: a beautiful young fiancée, a great career playing somewhat prosaic jazz piano, a cool pad, tight swimming trunks. The only insect in his unguent is Vi (Julie Reding), an old flame who loves him so much she’s prepared to wreck his life. Vi is pretty attractive in all sorts of ways (most of them sexual), and is quite obviously a bad lot as it's 1960 and her dress is so low cut that we can see her brassiere and several acres of her extensive bosom.  
They meet, as secret ex-lovers do, at the top of an abandoned lighthouse. It’s poorly maintained (bloody Council!), so a section of the guard rail gives way and leaves Vi hanging precariously over the raging sea. Stewart doesn’t kill her, but neither does he help her and so she falls screaming to her death: end of problem; start of story.

From here on in, despite being dead, Vi makes an awful nuisance of herself. Her ghostly footprints appear in the sand, bits of her jewellery keeping washing ashore, she covers her rivals wedding dress in seaweed and steals her engagement ring, and her disembodied head keeps appearing to Stewart to conduct increasingly bitter arguments with him. Some of these beyond the grave shenanigans are seen by others, some are not, so it’s hard to tell what is supernatural and what is psychological, whatever the difference is, although, either way, Stewart unravels pretty quickly.
In any event, by the end of the film an unhinged Stewart has killed a blackmailing beatnik (the great Joseph Turkel, one of Kubrick’s favourite actors) and is just about to murder a seven year old girl when Vi’s ghost swoops in and pushes him from the top of the lighthouse. The Council should have fixed that guard rail, or at least put some tape across the gap.

In a memorable coda, rescuers pull both Stewart's and Vi’s bodies from the sea and place them next to each other on the beach. Vi’s dead arm somehow flops onto Stewart’s corpse, revealing the stolen ring on her hand. It’s going to be a very long engagement.  

Friday, 24 October 2014

THE CRAWLING HAND












d. Herbert L. Strock (1963)

The Crawling Hand is a low budget film which uses the space race to colour a fairly traditional horror story. In it, a moon shoot ends in disaster when, on the return journey,  the rocket goes haywire. Despite having run out of oxygen some twenty minutes previously, the Astronaut's frightened (and frightening) face appears on the mission control monitors, alternately hissing ‘kill!’ and ‘press the red’, i.e. the button that will destroy him and his ship. As the ship is about to crash into a populated area, mission control press the button and the ship explodes, showering debris all over the coastline including, on a secluded beach, the Astronaut’s arm, sheared off at the elbow, but still wearing its glove and spacesuit sleeve (I was reminded of J.G Ballard at this stage, almost certainly not the film makers intention).
A brilliant but brooding young science student (‘I’m going to the top – and I’m making it on my own!’) wraps the severed arm in a shower curtain and takes it back to his digs where it promptly strangles his landlady and then takes him over: forcing him to do bad things until he gets flu and his high temperature weakens the arm to the extent that he can break the link and stab the severed limb repeatedly with a broken bottle. Hungry junkyard cats finish the job. Or do they? No, not really. The uncanny is not so easily disposed of.     
The Crawling Hand has a sliver of science behind the narrative, the reasoning being that mixing Earth molecules (pronounced ‘mole-ecules’ by the Chief Scientist) with space matter might possibly result in a hybrid life form that grows incredibly quickly and wants to kill everything. Yes, it’s tenuous, but this isn’t the sort of film that has to try and justify itself, so the vague attempt is actually rather charming. 

The best scenes feature the creepy hand crawling around, using its burned and degraded fingers to pull itself towards the next throat it wants to throttle. Full of filler and filmed on the hoof (the actors don't stop when they make mistakes) the concept of a parasitic virus from space owes a  lot to Quatermass, but mainly resembles a slightly wonky ghost train ride. Tellingly, the protagonists are attractive teenagers, hopped up on soda pop, young love and The Bird Is The Word by The Rivingtons, which features heavily throughout.


There is probably a monograph to be written about crawling hands in the movies, from The Beast With Five Fingers through to The Evil Dead and beyond. They're mainly horror films, of course, severed hands don't normally creep around in anything else. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

THE DEVIL'S HAND












d. William J. Hole, Junior (1961)

Robert Alda plays Rick Turner, a somewhat feckless electronics engineer with a penchant for panelled cardigans and lots and lots of pomade. Rick is disturbed by dreams of a beautiful, exotic woman, something that his less beautiful and less exotic fiancée is surprisingly sanguine about.

The story gets interesting when it is revealed that the beautiful dream woman is actually astrally projecting herself into Rick’s life by talking to a doll that has his face. It’s all part of the recruitment process for a cult run by creepy doll maker Neil Hamilton (perhaps best known as genial Commissioner Gordon from the Adam West Batman series)*. The cult is ostensibly about voodoo (hence the dolls), as personified by Gamba, ‘the Devil-God of Evil’, but it’s a somewhat ramshackle group, seemingly having no real purpose outside of being a cult, i.e. they sit around on bean bags listening to bongo music and watching interpretive dance.

Every now and again someone is killed for revealing the dark secrets of the cult, i.e. that they sit around on bean bags listening to bongo music and watching interpretive dance. It’s not the greatest film in the history of cinema (there are no monkeys in it for a start) but it has momentum, its own crazy logic and occasional flashes of style, as well as ticking four of my (multitudinous) boxes: it begins with a dream sequence; it ends in a fire; there is slinky ethnic music, and the ending hints at a sequel that is never, ever, ever going to happen.

* The dolls are creepy, and so is Hamilton, so that sentence works in all sorts of ways. I particularly like the scene where the creepy creepy doll maker, surrounded by his hideous homunculi, is interrupted mid rant by a ringing telephone: 'hello', he purrs, 'doll shop'

Friday, 10 October 2014

ATONAL CINEMA FOR ZOMBIES












I think one of the most influential books that I ever read was The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film by Michael Weldon: hundreds of capsule reviews of films that I never ever thought I'd see, most of which are now available at the press of a few keys and a couple of clicks. 

Weldon's book didn't need a lot of pictures, and it predated the readily accessible internet and its cavalcade of hyperlinks, .gifs and embedded video clips, so I'm not going to bother with them either. If you're reading this then you are almost certainly computer literate enough to find all that for yourself, which sounds a bit stroppy but isn't intended to be.  

I reserve the right to write about what I want here, but can confirm the focus will mainly be strange black and white American films from, say, 1930s-odd to 1960s-ish, most of which will be psychotronic, i.e. bizarre, obscure, wonderful.