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.