Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Atomic Brain (Monstrosity; Joseph Mascelli and Jack Pollexfen, 1963)

Dr. Otto Frank (Killers from Space's Frank Gerstle) is a scientist working on brain transplantation using atomic fission, testing his process on corpses, although all that results are mindless zombies. He steals a woman's body from the local cemetery with the aid of Hans, a dog's brain in the body of a car crash victim. Dr. Frank's elderly employer, Hetty March (Night Tide's Marjorie Eaton), "one of the richest women in the world, wants him to use this process to put her brain into the body of a beautiful young woman, and therefore advertises for a foreign domestic. Three women are accepted: Viennese Nina Rhodes (Mr. Sardonicus' Judy Peters), buxom Englishwoman Beatrice "Bea" Mullins (A Bucket of Blood's Judy Bamber), and demure, somewhat plain Mexican Anita Gonzales (Gentlemen Prefers Blondes' Lisa Lang). Mrs. March's aging gigolo Victor (Frank Fowler) picks them up at the airport. Dr. Frank examines each woman for physical imperfections. Mrs. March declares Anita, who has a prominent birthmark on her back, "hideous" and "useless." Nina, finding Mrs. March and her house understandably creepy, attempts to give notice, but the old woman dismisses her desire. Soon after, Anita hears a knock on the door of her room, and screams upon opening it. Nina and Bea attempt to escape the house, but to no avail, while Anita gets a new brain of her own.

Most people who know me well are aware that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of my all-time favorite shows. A lot of film buffs hate the show, but I'm not one of them. That said, I will admit that not every movie they riffed is completely terrible. My unironic love for Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik knows no bounds, and I find a lot to enjoy in some of the Roger Corman films they did, to name two prominent examples. Therefore, if I review a movie on here that the Best Brains crew gave the razz, I promise to give it a fair shake. Bava or Corman this isn't, though, sadly. It was filmed in ten days, and it shows. For one thing, the science is dodgy even by early '60s horror film standards. How exactly does one use atomic fission and a cyclotron to switch brains? We never see Dr. Frank performing surgery, so perhaps he's actually switching minds somehow...except we see him holding Mrs. March's brain at one point! Also, how does having a dog's brain in a human's body give the resulting individual a beetle brow and fangs? Early in the film, the actor playing Hans seems to be wearing a furry mask in a few shots, rather than the makeup he wears throughout most of the film. The soundtrack seems oddly whimsical and light-hearted during some of the scenes that are supposed to be dramatic. The accents of the three "foreign" domestics are all over the place: Peters doesn't even bother; Lang recites her lines flatly with the occasional bit of Spanish, and answers a knock on the door with "Quien es? Who ees eet?"; and Bamber sports one of the most pitiful attempts at a British accent I have ever heard in any film. Seriously, she makes Keira Knightley's Russian accent in A Dangerous Method seem subtle by comparison. She also chews the scenery big time in the scene where she realizes something horrible has happened to her. Gerstle is definitely the best actor in the whole film, and has a great monologue about how he has been ostracized for his work, while Dr. Alexis Carrel, the real-life transplant pioneer, received a Nobel Prize. I choose to believe, and may make it official in a short story or novel someday, that Dr. Otto Frank, the mad scientist who revives corpses and was scorned by his peers, shortened his last name because of the stigma attached to the name Frankenstein and many of his relatives. It's hard not to read a lesbian subtext into the way Marjorie Eaton paws at and ogles her potential new bodies, especially Bamber. Frank Fowler's Victor delivers the charming line, "She doesn't have a brain. There might be advantages!" The voiceover narration by co-screenwriter Dean Dillman, Jr.'s better-known brother Bradford is even worse, containing such lines as "Making love to an 80-year-old woman in the body of a 20-year-old girl is insanity!", "She was quite harmless, and at times even amusing", and "So nicely rounded in places men like." Keep in mind two of the other screenwriters, Sue Russell and Vy Dwiggins, were women themselves. This is also the second movie in a row I've covered that lists an animal in the closing credits, in this case Xerxes(!!!) the Cat. Those expecting more than cheese will be disappointed, and I wouldn't blame any feminists for hating it, but it's prime riffing material, even if you're just playing MST3K: The Home Version.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Blood Shack ("Wolfgang Schmidt" [Ray Dennis Steckler], 1971)

A young woman named Connie is planning to spend a night in an old house, to see if the legends of a  being called "the Chooper" who kills those who enter it is true. When her husband Charlie and a friend of theirs chicken out, she decides to go it alone, despite the vehement protests of foreman Daniel. Sure enough, Connie falls victim to the Chooper. Daniel disposes of the body and steals Connie's money. Soon after, Carol Brown (Carolyn Brandt, then Mrs. Steckler) arrives at the house. Her uncle, Mr. Craig, owned the land on which the house sits. He has been dead for a year, and Carol is unwilling to sell the land, although Tim Foster (Ron Haydock) is insistent on buying it. The land originally belonged to the Fosters, but Tim's great-grandfather lost it in a poker game, and challenged Carol's great-grandfather to a duel, one he lost. Carol befriends her neighbor's young daughters, Margie and Barbra Potts (Steckler and Brandt's daughters Linda and Laura), taking them to the rodeo. When Charlie comes to the house looking for his absent wife, he falls victim to the Chooper as well. Tim's obsession with possessing the land finally brings matters to a head.

If I used a phrase to describe Ray Dennis Steckler, that phrase would be "trash cinema auteur." He clearly had art house aspirations and a reach that did not always exceed his means. His The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!, besides possessing the greatest film title of all time, is a bizarre and grimy film that nevertheless has impressive cinematography and some real drama. The Thrill Killers is a surprisingly gripping story of diner patrons falling victim to escaped mental patients. It also boasts a cameo by Arch Hall, Sr. of Eegah! fame playing himself. Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is probably my favorite of Steckler's films that I've seen, combining superhero parody and rock 'n' roll to often hilarious effect. Blood Shack is definitely prime Steckler. The oddly-named Chooper only kills three people in the course of the film, but the scenes are memorable when they do happen. Ol' Choop is never really explained, and the ending leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the murders we've seen. Carolyn Brandt, as she was in The Incredibly Strange Creatures and Rat Pfink, is a charming and talented star. Carolyn also provides echoey narration, filling us in on many details of the story. Rat Pfink himself, Ron Haydock, plays Tim with a certain amount of intensity. Jason Wayne as Daniel is kind of a shit, given the way he covers up the Chooper's killings and takes his victims' money. It doesn't help that throughout the film he is either shirtless or wears a shirt that's a size too small for him, exposing his midriff. The younger Stecklers aren't great, but frankly I've seen lots of child actors worse at their craft. The girls' pet pony Peanuts is listed in the credits, but sadly their cute puppy is not. There's also a cool rockabilly song playing over the closing credits about the Chooper. Ray Dennis was a director with real potential that was not always realized, and this film shows how cool he could be.

If you have a Fandor account, check it out. You'll be glad you did!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Son of Godzilla (Kaijûtô no kessen: Gojira no musuko; Jun Fukuda, 1967)

On a tropical island, a group of scientists led by Doctor Kusumi are working on a device that will control the weather and make some of the Earth's more barren areas habitable. A determined reporter, Goro Maki, comes to the island in search of a story, and Kusumi reluctantly allows him to stay in return for Goro cooking and cleaning for the men. A mysterious signal causes the test of a radioactive balloon to fail, the radiation released resulting in giant mantises called "Kamacuras," which dig up an egg that they break open. The egg, as it turns out, contains a baby Godzilla, whose telepathic cries caused the signal that wrecked the balloon. Soon, Godzilla himself comes to the island seeking his offspring.

Son of Godzilla, introducing the title character, later dubbed Minya, is regarded by some as a shark-jumping moment for the franchise, representing the absolute nadir of the series, especially in comparison to the 1954 original, a surprisingly deep film in contrast to some of the ones that followed, which got increasingly more outlandish. However, this is an unfair assessment. Yes, it's more kiddie-oriented than the original, but it's still entertaining. Minya is much less annoying than Godzooky from the American animated Godzilla series of a few years later, and it's hard not to feel bad for the little guy who puts up with a lot of abuse from the Kamacuras, and even to a lesser extent from his own father, who tries to teach him his ways with some tough love. Godzilla's design is altered beginning with this film to make him less scary-looking, but frankly I think he still looks pretty damn cool. The special effects are awesome, with not only adult and baby Godzillas and the Kamacuras, but also a giant spider called Kumonga. The human characters are generally pretty well-developed, including Goro the reporter and his love interest Seiko, who grew up on the island after the death of her parents. It may not be the best the series has to offer, but it's pretty darn entertaining.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Blood Thirst (Newt Arnold, 1965)

The body of Maria Cortez, a dancer at Mr. Calderon's Barrio nightclub in Manila, is found hanging upside down from a tree, her forearms slashed and her blood drained. Inspector Miguel Ramos, believing the murder to be a sex crime, asks his friend Adam Rourke (no relation), who literally wrote the book on the subject of sex murders, to come to the Philippines to crack the case. Adam's wisecracking manner does not ingratiate him to Sylvia, Ramos' British adopted sister. There are rumors of the murder being occult in nature, though Adam is skeptical. Visiting the Barrio to find information, Adam sees sexy belly dancer Serena do her act, then tries to speak to Calderon, who rebuffs him until Serena convinces him otherwise. Soon after, an assassin tries to kill Adam with a machete while he sleeps, but the writer tricks him with Harvey, a mannequin he keeps in his suitcase.

I talked briefly about Filipino exploitation cinema in my review of For Y'ur Height Only, so I won't recap here. This particular entry, directed by Newt Arnold, who was an assistant director on such diverse films as In the Heat of the Night, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, was released in the Philippines in 1965, but for unclear reasons not brought over to the U.S. until 1971. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that it's not very graphic, considering the title. Most of the killings happen offscreen, and there are lots of scenes in between of people talking, though thankfully it picks up toward the end. Vic Diaz, who was as much of a standby in Filipino trash flix as Fernando Sancho was in Spaghetti Westerns, turns in his usual solid work. Adam Rourke is played by Robert Winston, whom MSTies such as myself will know as Lt. Lyons in the Air Force "epic" The Starfighters, a movie which prompted Mike Nelson to declare, "I really think there's more nothing in this movie than any movie we've seen!" Those who've watched the episode would be hard-pressed to disagree with that statement. Adam's wisecracks are more obnoxious than funny, and frankly he's kind of a douche. Sylvia starts the movie hating him (and who can blame her, really?) but winds up falling for him. I always love a little weirdness in my exploitation fare, so Harvey the decoy mannequin was welcome, as is Herrera, a one-legged officer undercover as a beggar, who carries an artificial leg in a bundle. The movie isn't really scary, but it is somewhat moody. Our monstrous killer, unfortunately, looks like his head was made of chewed gum. The ending leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The killings are part of a ritual that is Aztec or Inca in nature, but it's never stated which. I get the sense Arnold thought, "Well, it's the occult, so we don't need to explain things that clearly." Still, I had fun, and I imagine watching it with a few friends would be even more entertaining.

Starting now, I'm gonna share links to where you can view some of these movies on (LEGAL) streaming services. This little beauty can be found on Amazon Prime.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (Kommissar X - Jagd auf Unbekannt; "Frank Kramer" [Gianfranco Parolini], 1966)

Suave, charming private eye Jo Louis Walker (Django Against Sartana's Tony Kendall) and Police Captain Tom Rowland (The Mutations' Brad Harris) battle Oberon (Nikola Popovic), a high-tech-wielding arms dealer who is killing off his former partners and has a plan involving uranium and gold.

This film was the first in a series based on "Bert F. Island's" (Paul Alfred Mueller) Kommissar X novel series, of which there were 620(!) books, though Jo Walker is never called by his nom de guerre in the dubbed print I watch. The film is a German-Italian-Yugoslavian co-production, and was directed by Gianfranco Parolini under his frequent pseudonym of "Frank Kramer." You may recognize Parolini's name as the director of the three Spaghetti Westerns featuring the character Sabata, as well as If You Meet Sartana, Pray for your Death, the debut of another iconic gunslinger. Parolini brings the same flamboyancy and flair for spectacle to this film as he does to his Westerns. Kendall is a handsome and likable leading man who the ladies can't get enough of. According to his theme song, "I love you, Jo Walker, just as all the women love you," and indeed, they certainly seem to. The film has more than its share of lovely ladies, including Oberon's purple-wigged henchgirl Joan (The Castle of Fu Manchu's Maria Perschy) and admiral's daughter Pamela Hudson (Day of Anger's Christa Linder), not to mention Oberon's army of robotlike minions clad in black and sporting blonde bouffants. Brawny Brad Harris provides admirable support as Captain Rowland, though he seems to be considerably more competent than the officers under him, who twice fall for Jo's ruses. Serbian Nikola Popovic is entertaining as the awesomely-named Oberon, even though his scheme is clearly influenced by Goldfinger. Those who've seen the Sabata films will not be surprised that Parolini has lots of cool gadgets in the film. Jo has a transmitter hidden in a ring that allegedly was his mother's, as well as a radar detector screen in his car, while Oberon's gear includes a tape player that can be turned into a gun and a groovy island headquarters, complete with henchmen wearing radiation suits that look like someone dipped the A.I.M. agents' uniforms in bleach. I got a real kick out of this film, and will be searching for the rest of the series.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hell Up in Harlem (Larry Cohen, 1973)

This film recaps the end of its predecessor, Black Caesar, with Harlem gangster Tommy Gibbs (blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson) being betrayed by his ex-wife Helen Bradley (Black Belt Jones' Gloria Hendry) to the corrupt district attorney, DiAngelo (The Doctors' Gerald Gordon), who has him shot. After a high speed chase to evade more of DiAngelo's men, Tommy retrieves ledgers he has compiled on corrupt cops and calls his estranged father, Thomas Gibbs Sr. (Super Fly's Julius W. Harris) to help him. The elder Gibbs and some of Tommy's men take him to the hospital, where they take the staff and patients hostage, having a doctor extract the bullet from Tommy's chest and arranging with DiAngelo for safe passage out. As he recovers, Tommy makes his father his partner in the "business," to the chagrin of his ambitious underling Zach (Cannibal Holocaust's Tony King). Seeking revenge for his shooting, Tommy has Helen's children from a previous marriage taken from her to raise as his own, and goes after his rivals with a vengeance, finally getting DiAngelo to drop all charges against him. He also reconnects with Reverend Rufus (Dolemite's D'Urville Martin), a former pimp in his employ who is now leading a crusade against his criminal activities, and becomes attracted to his disciple Sister Jennifer (The Color Purple's Margaret Avery). Three years later, Tommy's operation is thriving, he is engaged to Jennifer, and he is very close to Helen's son Jason. Unfortunately, Zach strangles Helen, who has been reduced to prostitution. DiAngelo, working with Zach to take over Tommy's territory convinces Tommy his father killed her, driving a rift between Gibbs Sr. and Jr., who moves to California with his family, leaving his father in charge of operations. While Gibbs Sr. ("Big Poppa") takes to being a mob boss with gusto, he finds himself in a confrontation with DiAngelo and Zach that leads to Tommy seeking vengeance.

Larry Cohen's Black Caesar is one of my all-time favorite blaxploitation films, and its sequel is just as excellent. Director Larry Cohen's script manages to inject the occasional bit of humor into a fairly heavy plot, like when Tommy has some Mafia guys he's holding hostage served soul food, including pork butts, collard greens, and for dessert, watermelon. There's also the amazing scene where Tommy kills one of DiAngelo's men at the beach by ramming a sharpened umbrella stick through his chest, although considering he was lying on a towel with the Confederate flag on it at the time, it's hard for me to feel bad for the guy. Fred Williamson, as ever, is the definition of cool, and wears some truly stylish outfits. Julius W. Harris does pretty well in that department as well, and his struggle to reconnect with his son is touching in a way, making his final fate all the more tragic. Gloria Hendry's Helen is not the asskicker Sydney in Black Belt Jones was, but she is a well-rounded character, torn between her feelings for Tommy and her disgust with his actions and the way he treats her, even wanting to die. DiAngelo is another of the genre's many slimy racist white politicians (art imitating life?), and Gerald Gordon does a great job conveying what a piece of shit he is. Tony King portrays the power-hungry and arrogant Zach with aplomb. The soundtrack by Edwin Starr of "War" fame for Motown is awesome, in its own way even better than James Brown's work on the first film in my opinion, and that's no small praise. And of course there's also lots of great action scenes and bloodshed, from Tommy's gunshot to his ironic punishment for DiAngelo. A must-view!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Hot Skin, Cold Cash (Barry Mahon, 1965)

Shelly's husband is in prison, and to pay his lawyer Mr. Stone to get him out, she turns to prostitution, sending her son away and spending her nights walking through Times Square looking for clients. After sleeping with Stone, she encounters a variety of Johns, including a young Japanese photographer, a hepcat whose wife wants to have an affair with a woman but gets cold feet because Shelly is being paid to do it rather than actually wanting to, a priest who only wants to talk her out of her life of sin (as he sees it), a virgin who's put up to it by his potential frat brothers, and a guy who wants her to pose as his girlfriend at an orgy.

Barry Mahon is a director of odd dichotomies. Besides sexploitation fare like this, he also did a few kid's movies, including Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, an utterly insane piece of garbage that makes Santa Claus Conquers the Martians look like A Christmas Story. His voodoo flick Blood of the Zombie is also extremely entertaining in an incompetent way. This movie has its share of odd moments, but is way more depressing than either of the two aforementioned Mahon films I've seen, which is saying something. Shelly (played by Victoria Astor, whose only other credit is Mahon's short Naked Moonshine) seems resigned to her fate, and says that men have been trying to get into her pants since she was 14. Despite this, most of her clients (with the exception of Mr. Stone and the virgin) never seem to actually have sex with her, so it's amazing she manages to make any money at all. The black and white film and minimal soundtrack only drive home how cold and harsh Shelly's world is. Despite this, it is still a Barry Mahon film, so there are a few moments that will make you go "What the fuck?" Shelly has a pet parakeet named Orpheus, which I would think was symbolic, but Shelly is trying to save her husband, not vice versa. Or it could be a cinematic in-joke, only I can't see Mahon being a Jean Cocteau fan. There's also Shelly telling the hepcat, "No ticky, no washy" (I wonder how Yoshi the photographer would've reacted to that), which causes him to tap-dance before giving her money. He also offers her a joint, which he refers to as "gin johnson," a term I've never heard, and for which Google doesn't seem to turn up many relevant results. During her conversation with the priest, we hear what sounds like a squeeze toy, but neither character remarks on it. At the orgy, Shelly's client has sex with a French girl (though both keep their undies on, as this movie is short on actual nudity), but the sound of buzzing coming from a closet leads him to discover a girl using a vibrator, who briefly comes out of the closet with another girl (more possible symbolism?). The two sniff the air and then go back in. Most of the actors had little-to-no experience, and it shows. Astor is surprisingly decent, but even better is Allen Joseph as the priest who tries to save her. Joseph had the most extensive career of anyone in the cast, and cult film fans will most likely recognize him as Henry Spencer's girlfriend's dad in Eraserhead. The cinematography by Joseph Mangine (whose other work includes The Naughty Victorians: An Erotic Tale of a Maiden's Revenge and 13 episodes of the Judy Blume adaptation Fudge) captures Times Square back in its grittier, pre-gentrification days, including a theater marquee with a title that, though partially obscured, end in "Pussy." A good movie this isn't, but it is an interesting time capsule for its time and place.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Shock (Schock; Mario Bava, 1977)

Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi, best known for her appearances in the films of Dario Argento, which led to an 11-year relationship that resulted in their daughter, actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, who recently has been in the news as one of the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault), her second husband Bruno (John Steiner, who appeared with Nicolodi in Argento's Tenebre), and her young son Marco (David Colin Jr.) move into the house where Dora used to live with her first husband Carlo, a drug addict who committed suicide and Marco's father. Marco begins acting out, frequently going down into the cobwebbed cellar, tearing up a pair of his mother's underwear, and cutting his stepfather's image out of a picture of Bruno and Dora. To make matters worse, Dora, who was treated by Dr. Aldo Spidini (Man from Deep River's Ivan Rassimov) for a nervous breakdown after Carlo's death, begins noticing strange things happening in the house. Some appear to be hallucinations, while others are harder to write off. Bruno, frequently away from home in his capacity as an airline pilot, is not much help. Finally,  Dora becomes convinced Marco is under the influence of Carlo's spirit.

It's hard to think of an Italian filmmaker who made a wider range of great films than Mario Bava. From gialli (Blood and Black Lace) to Gothic horror (Black Sunday) to anthologies (Black Sabbath, from which the iconic metal band took its name) to crime thrillers (Rabid Dogs) to comic book adaptations (Danger: Diabolik, which this Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan considers the best movie they ever riffed, and therefore a poor choice for the otherwise-entertaining last episode of the show's original run). Shock was Bava's last film, three years before his death, and he was reportedly not happy with it. It probably didn't help that the American distributors changed the title to Beyond the Door II, despite being unrelated to Ovidio G. Assonitis' and Robert Barrett's 1974 tale of demonic possession apart from David Colin Jr.'s presence in both films. Such a practice was not uncommon in overseas releases of Italian cinema, as shown by the number of Spaghetti Westerns that were retitled and marketed as Django or Sartana or Trinity pictures in order to cash in on the prestige of the more successful examples of the genre. While it is true that this film is not up to the level of the ones listed above, it's still quite enjoyable. Nicolodi turns in a typically excellent performance, chewing the scenery with aplomb in the latter half of the film as she begins to unravel. Steiner plays the concerned but skeptical husband well. Colin may, like many child actors in horror films (see Bob in Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery, which like this film was co-written by Dardano Sacchetti) be the victim of bad dubbing. The cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli and an uncredited Bava is very effective, managing to somehow make a Slinky going down a flight of stairs genuinely creepy. Walter Rizzati's score includes playful childlike tunes and piano and electronic bits. The cellar contains a secret that was likely inspired by Poe's "The Black Cat." Bava had no reason to be ashamed of this more than respectable capper to a brilliant career.