Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

The Death Curse of Tartu was made in 1966 by Florida film-maker William Grefé and while it’s not one of the all-time great horror movies it is quite impressive for a production with the incredibly minuscule budget of $27,000. And it does entertain.

Archeologist Sam Gunter is heading off into the swamps of the Everglades to excavate an ancient Indian burial mound. Guide Ed Tison (Fred Pinero) and his wife Julie (Babbette Sherrill) have arranged to take a group of Gunter’s students (two guys and two girls) out to meet up with Gunter to assist in the excavation. Sam had set off alone in a canoe but the students have a couple of airboats.

There is a local legend that 400 years earlier a witch-doctor named Tartu had placed a curse on anyone who disturbed his burial place but of course no-one takes the legend seriously. It remains a joke until Tartu claims his first victim. His first victim, but not his last.

Tartu claimed to have the power to transform himself into wild animals and it is this power that will be awakened if the curse is invoked. This was a clever move by writer-director Grefé. It allowed him to have a supernatural monster but without having to do special effects. He could just use real wild animals, which was no problem since he had a friend who was accustomed to dealing with everything from anacondas to alligators.

The realisation soon dawns on the party of students that Tartu’s curse is a reality and to make matters worse their airboats have been wrecked and they’re stuck in the middle of the Everglades with the nearest help at least twenty-five miles away.

It’s a nice simple uncomplicated plot which Grefé happily admits was based on the legend of the curse of Tutankhamun. It allows for lots of action and terror.

The movie’s biggest asset is the setting. Being pursued by savage supernaturally empowered wild beats is not a good thing at any time but when you’re stuck in a swamp it’s a whole lot worse. Grefé uses the Everglades pretty effectively to heighten the apparent hopelessness of the situation and the swamp itself seems to be consciously malevolent.

The wild animal scenes vary in quality but considering the tiny budget most of these scenes work pretty well. They work because, as Grefé explains in the commentary track, they were all done for real. That’s no rubber snake that is supposedly squeezing the life out of one hapless character, that’s a real and very large anaconda and it’s very much alive. And the alligator chasing young Cindy (Mayra Gomez) is a real alligator and it’s not even a tame one and it really is a couple of feet behind her. How Grefé managed to persuade his performers, especially the actresses, to do such scenes is a mystery that not even Grefé can explain. Apart from being menaced by incredibly dangerous wild animals these lucky actresses also got to be tossed into stinking swamps (infested with deadly snakes) which must have been great fun for them given that they had no luxurious dressing trailers to head for afterwards - the nearest showers were miles away. These gals had plenty of pluck.

The Tartu makeup is pretty creepy as well, and the burial cave (created on a makeshift set in as storeroom) doesn’t look too bad.

There’s also a fun MacGyver moment.

Grefé wanted to introduce some movement and excitement by employing some tracking shots so he came up with his own technique - using canoes as dollies. It works very well.

A major highlight comes when in the middle of the swamp the students suddenly decide to have a beach party. Luckily these intrepid girl archaeologists remembered to pack their bikinis. You can’t do proper go-go dancing without your bikini. These youngsters can’t seem to decide which activity would be most fun - toasting marshmallows, go-go dancing or making out. Toasting marshmallows wins out. I’d have thought the two (rather pretty) girls might have been a bit miffed that their physical charms weren’t sufficient to keep their boyfriends amused.

The acting is variable but good enough for the kind of film this is. 

Something Weird’s DVD includes another Grefé horror movie made a year earlier, Sting of Death. Both movies are accompanied by commentary tracks in which Frank Henenlotter joins Grefé. The commentary track for The Death Curse of Tartu is as much fun as the movie. Extras include a couple of bizarre shorts as well. The Death Curse of Tartu was, surprisingly, shot in colour. The transfer is OK and quite acceptable given the rarity and obscurity of the movie.

The Death Curse of Tartu is enjoyable low-budget schlock. Recommended.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Defilers (1965)

The Defilers, written and produced by David Friedman in 1965, is one of the better-known of the early roughies. The mainstay of the exploitation movie business had for several years been the nudie-cutie and Friedman and his partner Herschell Gordon Lewis had milked that genre for all it was worth. It was becoming clear that exploitation movies would have to move in a new direction. Lewis thought the answer was gore and he certainly had a great deal of success with movies like Two Thousand Maniacs! Friedman had his own ideas, for movies that would combine nudity and (mostly implied) sex with violence. 

Russ Meyer had already moved in that direction with his southern gothic melodramas Lorna and Mudhoney. Friedman wanted to push things a bit further. The sex and the violence would be intertwined, the sex would be kinky and the violence would be kinky and perverse. The Defilers was Friedman’s first serious attempt at the new sexploitation genre (which would become known as the roughie).

Nudie-cuties had almost always been made in colour. Roughies would almost all be shot in black-and-white. This was a deliberate choice, being intended to give the grungiest and sleaziest feel possible. The Defilers is most certainly one sleazy little film.

Carl (Byron Mabe) and Jameison Marsh (Jerome Eden) are two young men who devote themselves to pleasure. They seem to have an unlimited supply of women. But women are no longer enough for Carl. Even drugs are not enough. Carl wants kicks. Real kicks. He’s not sure at first exactly what he means by this but we do get some early hints that it’s likely to involved violence and the violence is likely to be directed at women.

Carl’s father is wealthy but he’s completely unreasonable - he actually expects Carl to work. Carl is of course shocked and appalled but really it’s only to be expected. His father is a square, and Carl hates squares. It’s also pretty obvious that Carl feels helpless and humiliated by his dependence on his father. Carl gets ordered about by his dad so he likes the idea of ordering other people about, he likes the idea of humiliating other people. 

Carl has set up a secret little hideaway in one of his father’s warehouses. It has a bed and a bathroom and that’s about it. It’s rather sad really but Carl is very excited about it. He has plans for it. He manages to persuade one of his girlfriends, Kathy, to check out his hideaway. She is clearly unimpressed, and quite mocking, and she then starts to lay down the law to him in a thoroughly humiliating manner. At this point Carl snaps. He decides the girl needs some discipline and he proceeds to administer a good spanking. It turns out that the girl enjoys the spanking even more than he does! He’s certainly not going to date her again but he has discovered how to get those kicks that he craves.

His next plan is more ambitions. He and Jamie will kidnap aspiring actress Jane Collins (Mai Jansson) whom they encountered a few days before. She’s from Minnesota, nobody in LA knows her, nobody will even notice her disappearance. Keeping her as a slave should provide lots of kicks. Carl is thoroughly pleased with the whole setup but Jamie is not so sure it’s a good idea after all. He’d agreed because he thought it was kind of like a prank, that Jane wasn’t really going to be hurt, that they’d release her after a day or so and everybody would agree it was just a bit of light-hearted fun. The trouble is that Carl doesn’t see things this way and he seems like he’s crazy enough to keep the girl captive indefinitely.

Well, I did tell you it was a very sleazy movie. It’s not that the violence is all that graphic but it’s the nastiness behind it that is disturbing. In fact it’s very disturbing at times. 

This is also an incredibly politically incorrect film. Of course if you’re into political correctness you’re probably not the sort of person who’s going to be attracted by the weird and delightfully twisted world of 60s sexploitation cinema.

Byron Mabe is genuinely worrying and creepy as Carl. He manages to persuade us that Carl is capable of pushing things way too far. It’s not a subtle performance but this is not a subtle movie. Mabe was hired as a grip but when the lead actor froze up on camera on the first day Mabe volunteered to play the part. It proved to be a stroke of good luck. He inhabits the role in an effectively scary way.

Jerome Eden as Jamie gets to do some actual acting. Jamie is accustomed to going along with whatever Carl wants to do. Jamie likes kicks as well but he does have limits and Carl is starting to worry him. Eden’s performance is actually quite effective. Jamie isn’t an overly sympathetic character but he’s not all bad. The various girls were obviously cast to some extent for their willingness to shed their clothes but they’re all quite competent.

The most surprising thing about this movie is that it’s rather well-made. It has a coherent plot. Friedman’s script provides some real drama and director Lee Frost translates that script into a fairly professional looking film. The pacing is good, with a low-key early phase before the craziness and the tension start to build. The sexual material might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s handled skillfully and it’s certainly erotic in its own twisted way. The two lead actors are not only solid they also play off each other extremely well. The girls are attractive and their acting skills are quite adequate. For a movie shot in five days on a budget of $11,000 it’s pretty impressive!

Something Weird’s DVD release pairs this movie with an earlier Dave Friedman offering, Scum of the Earth. There are plentiful extras, the highlight being Friedman’s audio commentary. Friedman was always wonderfully entertaining to listen to. The extent of his knowledge of the exploitation movie business was positively terrifying.

The Defilers works rather well as a movie. It largely defined the direction in which the roughie would go for the next few years. If you’re in the mood for a good old wallow in sleaze it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

It took, incredibly, five years for Universal to come up with a sequel to their 1931 mega-hit Dracula. By the time Dracula's Daughter was ready for release in 1936, after seemingly endless script rewrites and production delays, Universal’s financial woes had come to a head and the Laemmles had lost control of the studio. Dracula's Daughter came in well over budget and well behind schedule. It was a very very expensive film (by Universal’s standards) and unfortunately much of the budget was wasted due to production delays and bad decisions. 

Dracula's Daughter was not a particularly lucky movie for Universal but it is an exceptionally intriguing sequel. This is not just a rehash of the original Dracula story. There are some original and provocative ideas. In some ways it can even be regarded as a more interesting film than Dracula.

The movie opens with Dracula having just been staked by Von Helsing (for some unknown reason the Van got changed to Von for the sequel). Von Helsing is still on the scene when the police arrive and he is duly charged with the murder of Count Dracula. 

Sir Basil Humphrey at Scotland Yard would prefer not to proceed with the charges against the mild-mannered professor but he has little choice. Advised to retain a good KC Von Helsing instead asks to be defended by his former student, eminent psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). The case against Von Helsing pretty much collapses when Dracula’s body disappears.

Dracula’s body had been stolen by the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She is the Dracula's daughter of the film’s title and she is referred to as such but it’s fairly clear that she is not the Count’s biological daughter (and there’s a further clue later in the movie that supports the theory that she’s not literally his daughter). While it’s not quite explicitly stated it’s obvious that she was one of the “brides” of Dracula. We are told that Dracula turned some of his victims into vampires by giving them his own blood to drink and presumably that was the case with Marya Zaleska.

What’s interesting is that the Countess is a very reluctant vampire. She hoped that Dracula’s death would free her from the curse of vampirism. She now hopes that perhaps psychiatry may be able to help her by giving her the strength and willpower to break the hold that Dracula still exerts over her from beyond the grave. This is the first movie to play with the idea that vampirism might perhaps be a form of psychiatric disorder, or possibly even a type of addiction, or that the link between a vampire and his “brides” might be more a matter of will than blood. These are ideas that have been explored countless times since in both literary and cinematic vampire tales but Dracula’s Daughter deserves credit for being the first to do so.

Garth suggests to the Countess that a person can often defeat a psychological craving by deliberately exposing himself to it. An alcoholic can learn to overcome his craving by surrounding himself with liquor. This suggestion by Garth turns out to be disastrously poor advice and has tragic consequences when the Countess tries it for herself.

The Countess is increasingly desperate to escape her vampiric destiny and she grows more and more convinced that only Garth can help her. If he won’t do so willingly then she knows how to force him to do her bidding. She will force him to follow her back to Transylvania. The stage is set for a dramatic climactic confrontation but unfortunately the ending is rather rushed.

Gloria Holden looks strange and exotic and in fact she looks exactly how one might imagine a lady vampire would look. She’s slightly and subtly strange in behaviour as well as appearance. Her performance is crucial and it works.

Irving Pichel is nicely creepy as her faithful manservant Sandor, who seems to understand the Countess’s predicament (and its hopelessness) more fully than she does. Otto Kruger is very professorial. Marguerite Churchill has fun as his spirited aristocratic assistant Janet. Edward Van Sloan is much too bland and much too dull as Von Helsing.

The movie’s visual style is impressive. Director Lambert Hillyer and cinematographer George Robinson don’t go overboard with the gothic trappings. This is a movie that moves back and forth (very effectively) between the gothic world of vampires and the modern world of science and technology.

The idea of vampirism being linked to sexuality, or more specifically to unhealthy or dangerous sexuality, had been around for as long as vampire tales had been around and it had been a central feature of most stories dealing with female vampires. The idea is there in Johann Ludwig Tieck’s 1800 story Wake Not the Dead, it’s there in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem Christabel and it’s there in a big way in Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1871 novel Carmilla

Which of course brings us to the most notorious scene in Dracula's Daughter, in which a young woman is lured to the Countess’s studio to pose for a painting and is drained of blood almost to the point of death. The scene certainly does have the feel of a seduction, enhanced by the fact that the girl has partially undressed in order to pose. 

So is Dracula's Daughter the first lesbian vampire movie? Well, there’s there is that one notorious scene (and perhaps one other scene), but those scene certainly can be interpreted in that way without stretching things too far. There is however another possible interpretation. The Countess longs to escape from her unnatural existence and to live as a normal woman. As a result she might well feel considerable jealousy and hatred for other women who can live normal lives, and experience love in a normal non-vampiric way. Her attitude towards Janet tends to support the idea that she might be motivated by hatred of women rather than by lesbian passions.

It’s also obvious that when the Countess attacks a male victim the attack is to some extent a seduction.

My copy of this movie comes from the old Dracula Legacy Collection DVD set. It’s an excellent transfer. 

Dracula's Daughter is an intelligent, ambitious and somewhat complex horror film and is perhaps the most fascinating of Universal’s vampire movies. Highly recommended. 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Help Wanted: Female (1968)

One of the joys of exploring the bizarre world of 1960s American sexploitation films is the discovery of truly strange little movies like Help Wanted: Female.

Oddities like this were possible because of the nature of the exploitation movie business. The distributors wanted films with sex and nudity. If a film had those ingredients they were happy.They knew how to promote such movies and they could always make a buck out of them. The actual content of the movies was of no interest to the distributors. This gave the makers of these films a degree of creative freedom that mainstream film-makers could only dream about. As long as you were happy to make films on ridiculously low budgets, and you remembered to include sex and nudity, you could indulge yourself. And Help Wanted: Female was the kind of delightfully warped but weirdly fascinating movie to which this industry occasionally gave birth.

The action starts with the glamorous Jo-Jo picking up some poor schmuck of a salesman, bedding him and then making off with his wallet. At least that’s the plan but it nearly comes unstuck when the mark wakes up at a very inopportune moment. Luckily Jo-Jo just happens to be a kung fu expert!

Jo-Jo goes home to her live-in gal pal Luana. Luana is setting off for her regular monthly session with Mr Gregory. Luana is a hooker, but her technique is a little unusual (and also involves robbing her clients when the opportunity arises). Mr Gregory is a wealthy sophisticate who may perhaps be a little dangerous. He likes to imply that he has some sort of military background and possibly even some links to the more murky intelligence agencies. Perhaps he’s some kind of spy, or perhaps he’s just an ordinary common and garden variety degenerate.

In the 60s there were still very definite limits as to how far sexual content could go. Any kind of even moderately graphic sex was out and full frontal nudity was rare until the end of the decade. Given these constraints how could film-makers give their movies the right erotic charge? The answer was to add lots of hints of kinkiness. Luana does not actually go to bed with Mr Gregory. She gives him three hours of her own distinctive strip-tease style. Her approach to strip-tease is rather unusual. At least I assume that taking off your panties right at the start of your routine was somewhat unusual. She then slowly sheds the rest of her clothing.

Adding to the kinky (and in fact rather depraved) feel is Luana’s open contempt for her client and her obvious detachment from the proceedings in hand. She also demonstrates her ability to do some rather impressive things with her posterior.

Mr Gregory likes to watch girls taking off their clothes and he likes to heighten the atmosphere with a judicious dosing of LSD. And he likes to tell stories to the girls. The story he tells Luana is certainly startling. This story is then shown to us in a lengthy flashback. Mr Gregory and his girlfriend Barbara, having exhausted all the routine methods of sexually gratifying each had moved on to more exotic pleasures, such as the pleasure of inflicting pain. Even that fails to satisfy them, but perhaps murder will do the trick. They persuade the naïve Tina to go back to their apartment for a photo shoot. The photos are just standard girlie magazine stuff (although they do provide an excuse for including some more nudity). The photography stuff is however intended to be merely the bait. Tina is to be the subject for their first experiment in the erotic possibilities of murder.

Of course one murder often leads to another and in this case it leads us to a truly bizarre and surreal sequence that is the film’s disturbing highlight (or depending on your tastes it might be the film’s low point in depravity). Barbara’s trip to the beach is truly jaw-droppingly bizarre.

Mr Gregory’s story disturbs Luana a great deal but now the plot twists start to come thick and fast. And it has to be said that these twists really are unexpected and remarkably effective. There is actual suspense here. Mr Gregory seems to be a very dangerous psychotic killer. 

The acting on the whole is bad but it’s bad in a good way. The guy who plays Mr Gregory is the exception. He gets to attempt some real acting. The results are mixed but he does succeed in keeping us uncertain as to exactly what makes this character tick and to that extent it has to be considered to be an effective performance. And he certainly manages to be creepy.

I have no intention of revealing anything about those plot twists. This is a rare case in which a sexploitation roughie deserves not to have its surprises ruined by the revelation of spoilers.

The style of the movie is as strange as its content. As is the case with so many 60s sexploitation flicks it’s the weirdness that is the attraction rather than the erotic impact and it’s hard to say if the nude scenes are erotic or perverse or totally non-erotic or just simply disturbing.

Any discussion of sexploitation movies has to eventually touch on the subject of the women themselves. These are not women who conform in any way to modern notions of what pornstars, or actresses, should look like. They look like women. Some are extremely pretty, some not so pretty, but the not so pretty ones are not so pretty in interesting ways. I still can’t decide if the actress who pays Luana is ugly, or ugly in an oddly appealing way, or pretty in a strangely ugly way. She does however have that rather talented derriere I alluded to earlier.

Help Wanted: Female is the sort of buried treasure that the folks at Something Weird unearth from time to time. They’ve included it on a great value three-movie disc along Rent-a-Girl and Aroused, neither of which I’ve had time to watch yet. Help Wanted: Female is a must-see for devotees of 60s sexploitation at its most outré. Highly recommended.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Malibu High (1979)

When you watch a movie made in the 70s with a title like Malibu High you know what to expect. In this case your expectations are going to prove to be dead wrong. This is not a teen comedy, or a sex comedy. It’s not a teen melodrama. Deciding what it actually is presents a bit of a problem. There is teen melodrama here and the central character is a high school senior but mainly this is a crime thriller - although you won’t know that until about halfway through the picture. 

Kim Bentley (Jill Lansing) is just your average high school student but things are starting to go wrong for her. This is 1979 and the American Dream is still alive and this is southern California, the very epicentre of the American Dream. If you’re a bright, pretty high school student and you have rich parents the world is your oyster. Unfortunately Kim is not exactly a bright student. She’s flunking every class. And her parents are not rich. Her father killed himself and her mother struggles to keep things afloat financially. Worst of all her boyfriend Kevin (Stuart Taylor) has dumped her. To rub salt into the wound he’s dumped her for spoilt rich girl Annette Ingersoll (Tammy Taylor).

Everything Kim wanted seems like it’s being taken away from her. She had desperately wanted to graduate from high school, and she is still madly in love with Kevin. Kim decides that something has to be done and she’s going to do it. The first thing is to do something about her grade point average. That’s not too difficult. If her teachers won’t listen to her she’ll just sleep with them and then blackmail them.

Kim also decides she needs to earn some money. For a girl with her modest accomplishments being a hooker seems like the best bet. Tony (Al Mannino) is a sleazebag dope dealer who operates from a van which also serves as a kind of mobile mini-brothel. Kim is soon the star attraction. In fact she’s the only attraction but she’s a major drawcard.

Soon Kim has attracted the attention of a big time pimp, Lance (Garth Howard). This is a chance to earn real money and to show up that snooty bitch Annette. It’s not quite as simple as that however. Kim has taken a step into another world, the world of organised crime. At this point the movie changes gears and Kim starts to change as well, discovering a side of herself that she might have been better off not discovering. Lots of good girls go bad but very few do so quite as spectacularly as young Kim.

It’s hard to say just how seriously we’re supposed to take this picture. It’s not played for laughs at any stage but the plot is utterly outrageous. In some ways it’s more like a 1950s juvenile delinquent movie than a 70s teen exploitation movie. Everybody’s playing it straight but the content is totally off-the-wall.

This was the last of the handful of films directed by Irvin Berwick and while his approach is straightforward and conventional it’s effective enough. The scenes of violence in the latter part of the movie are handled well. He also knows how to pace a movie.

The acting is pretty average for the most part (sometimes below average) which is not surprising for a low-budget movie released by Crown International and destined for the drive-in circuit. The one exception, and it’s a major exception, is Jill Lansing as Kim. She gives the character real depth. Kim is not exactly a sympathetic character but at least we can understand how she got to where she is and we can see that her emotional wounds are very real and very raw. This was Jill Lansing’s only movie role and she then dropped out of sight never to be heard of again. Which is a pity since this performance should have landed her parts in more prestigious movies.

As an added bonus we get to see a very great deal of Miss Lansing’s naked breasts and rather lovely they are too. For the late 70s this is a movie that (despite the subject matter) is fairly restrained on the sleaze front. Apart from a brief glimpse of pubic hair early on all we see is breasts (admittedly with great frequency) and the sex scenes are positively coy. Miss Lansing’s breasts were however presumably enough to keep the attention of young male viewers at drive-in screenings and they also get a fair amount of violence. Unusually though for this type of movie there’s also enough to keep female viewers interested with Kim’s romantic woes and her vendetta with the self-satisfied rich girl Annette.

Kim’s confrontation with the headmaster is the film’s most bizarre episode. It’s bizarre in a good way. I think. It’s definitely bizarre in an interesting way.

A very pleasant surprise is the extremely good anamorphic transfer included in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics: 32 Movie Collection. I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release!

Malibu High is a strange one. I can’t decide if it’s a bad movie with a good movie inside it struggling to get out or if it’s a good movie with a bad movie inside struggling to get out. It is original and it is entertaining. It’s perhaps too dark in tone to qualify for camp status, but much too outlandish for the arty crowd. And probably too weird for mainstream audiences at the time. It was popular enough with its intended audience. If the story is too over-the-top for you you can always just wait for yet another topless scene from Jill Lansing. 

Movies like this are the reason why it’s worth delving into the strange and often murky world of drive-in fodder. Every now and then you come across a classic of the genre such as this. Highly recommended.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Teenage Bride (1974)

Teenage Bride is one of those movies that should not be judged by its title, given that there are no teenagers in the movie and no brides! It’s a softcore sex comedy with its main drawcard being its star Sharon Kelly, one of the legendary stars of adult movies in the 70s and 80s.

The mention of the term sex comedy might well scare off some viewers. 70s sex comedies  can be among the most dire movies ever made. Teenage Bride however has several things going for it. There’s an enormous amount of pretty intense sex. There’s a lot of comedy and quite a bit of it is genuinely amusing. And it has Sharon Kelly.

Charlie (Don Summerfield) is a loser. He can’t hold down a job for more than a few weeks and his latest position, as a typewriter salesman, is already hanging by a thread. As his boss points out to him, after two weeks on the job he’s already three weeks behind on his work.

Charlie’s marriage is also in trouble. His wife Sandy (Cyndee Summers) despises him and she has taken to being rather generous with her sexual favours - not to Charlie but to other men. Now Charlie’s stepbrother Dennis (Ron Presson) has arrived to stay for a few days. Dennis is a straight arrow bur Charlie is convinced that Sandy will seduce him in short order. And he’s right.

Meanwhile Charlie is having an affair with Marie (Sharon Kelly). Marie in fact is the woman he really loves. He made the biggest blunder of his life in marrying Sandy instead of Marie.

Charlie might be a schmuck but he has some cunning. If he hires a private detective to prove that Sandy is bedding Dennis he could get a divorce and marry Marie. Unfortunately the PI he hires (played by Elmer Klump) is a drunk whose main interest in life, apart from booze, is having sex with his glamorous secretary Abigail (Cheri Mann). Nonetheless the PI assures him that he can get the photos Charlie needs, no problem.

Of course hiring an alcoholic to do a job is always a bit of a risk and the PI makes a mess of things while the erotic tangle of Charlie, Sandy, Marie and Dennis gets more and more tangled, complicated even further by Charlie having sex with his secretary (played by Jane Tsentas).

The plot summary is necessary because there is an actual plot and while it’s not fantastically deep it does provide a rationale for the sex scenes. It even does a little more than that. There is a certain poignancy to the story. Sandy might not be a model wife but she did really love Charlie once. Charlie and Marie are genuinely in love. These are not bad people, just weak people who made poor decisions. They do have emotions and we do get at least the occasional hint of those emotions. The intensity of the first sex scene between Charlie and Marie does have a point to it - they do want each other desperately.

This is also, for a softcore sex movie, surprisingly wholesome in some ways. There are no orgies or threesomes, not even the usually obligatory lesbian encounters. This is a very heterosexual movie. All of the sex is clearly completely consensual. Most of the sex has at least some slight emotional charge to it (even the PI and his secretary have some weird bond between them).

The acting isn’t too bad. There are, interspersed between the constant couplings, scenes in which a couple of them are required to do at least a modicum of acting. Apart from Dennis, the only dull character in the movie (admittedly he’s supposed to be a bit dull) they all prove to be reasonable capable at comedy. Sharon Kelly has considerable presence. The combination of her stupendously voluptuous body with her rather angelic face is pretty enchanting. She would get the chance to display her comic talents more fully in The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, made at about the same time.

Cyndee Summers is able to give Sandy a bit of depth. When we’re told that Sandy really did try to make her marriage a success Summers manages to make us believe her. Charlie is a loser but Don Summerfield makes him an amusing loser. Elmer Klump as the PI gets many of the best lines and his comic timing is quite adroit.

Director Gary Troy isn’t called on to do much other than to make the sex scenes sexy, which he does, and to vary them a bit, which he also does. The PI and his secretary having sex on the desk in his office is a minor triumph in the sex comedy genre - it’s fairly hot sex combined with some actually amusing funny lines. The sex scenes featuring Sharon Kelly steam up the screen, as you would expect. This is softcore porn but as softcore goes it’s pretty hard.

The screenplay has the odd witty moment.

Of course this is the 1970s. Being voluptuous was considered to be an asset. And of course they have pubic hair. They don’t all have the same body type. Jane Tsentas and Cheri Mann are kind of skinny while the charms of Sharon Kelly and Cyndee Summers are rather more ample. In other words they all look kind of like actual women.

Something Weird paired this one with The Dirty Mind of Young Sally in a Sharon Kelly double-header. The transfer is OK. There’s a tiny amount of print damage but these types of films haven’t exactly been preserved like national treasures and we’re lucky Something Weird found surviving prints in pretty good condition. As usual there are various extras.

Teenage Bride isn’t a great movie but it delivers what it promises to deliver - lots of steamy sex and some comedy that provides some actual laughs. It’s obviously a type of movie that won’t be to everyone’s taste but if this is the sort of thing you enjoy then it’s a very good movie of its type. Recommended.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Love Merchant (1966)

The Love Merchant, which came out in 1966, is a fairly early Joe Sarno sexploitation outing. It’s been released on DVD by Something Weird, paired with a 1969 Sarno film, The Layout.

Sarno has been described as the Ingmar Bergman of sexploitation films. That might be hyperbole but Sarno certainly did approach the genre in a surprisingly thoughtful way. 

Sarno’s career falls into two distinct periods, the early black-and-white sexploitation films made between  1961 and 1969 and the later glossy colour softcore films of the 70s. His 1970s movies have their virtues but personally I think his 1960s output is more interesting. 1960s Sarno is more about the price of decadence than the glories of free love.

Sarno approached sex as something that went far beyond the soulless mechanical couplings that characterise so much of so-called erotic cinema. Sarno was interested in the emotions unleashed by sex, and in the effects on personal relationships. Despite the ultra low budgets and the often rather dodgy acting there’s always a certain intelligence to Sarno’s work. People in his movies have reasons for doing the things they do.

The Love Merchant introduces us to Bobbi (Joanna Mills), a small-town girl who has transformed herself into a bohemian New York artist. She’s not a major artist but she makes a living. Her old school friend Peggy (Patricia McNair) comes to visit and to show off her new advertising executive husband Roger (George Wolfe). Bobbi’s boyfriend Click (Louis Waldon) is a far cry from the ultra respectable Roger. The leather-clad Click is a grifter with ambitions.

Click sees his big chance when he meets Kendall Harvey III (Judson Todd) in a night club. Kendall Harvey III is very very rich. He likes exquisite things. When he sees something exquisite that he likes he buys it. This includes women. Now Click does some thing. Bobbi paints lots of nudes and she has a reputation for finding exceptionally beautiful models. She has a whole roster of these beautiful models. By making use of this convenient fact Click should be able to supply Kendall Harvey II with all the feminine pulchritude he could possibly desire. Click might be able to turn this opportunity into a full-time job supplying the millionaire playboy with pliant bed companions (and Bobbi’s models are mostly very broad-minded girls).

All goes well until Harvey decides he’d like Peggy as one of his bed companions. Peggy and Roger are rather old-fashioned. They believe in marriage. Peggy is not to be bought. Kendall Harvey III however firmly believes that everybody can be bought and he’s sure he can take certain steps that will persuade Peggy to see reason. Harvey’s passion for Peggy will have momentous consequences.

Harvey’s private secretary Polly (Patti Paget) has her own problems, involving her obsession with the statuesque blonde Dixie (Penni Peyton). Polly will discover that her willing participation in Harvey’s woman-collecting will have consequences for her as well.

The performers in a Sarno movie had to do more than take their clothes off. They were required to act as well, and this they attempted to do (with varying degrees of success). In this case Patricia McNair does a pretty fair job. Judson Todd as Kendall Harvey III has the most demanding role in the film and he gives a very creditable performance. Harvey is superficially a bit of a monster but there’s an edge of despair to his character. He’s a man who thinks that everything can be bought - sex, beauty, happiness, fulfillment. There is a part of him though that has its doubts about whether life can really be so simple. There’s a key scene in which he has just spent the night with a luscious young ballet dancer but in the morning, instead of triumph, he feels only emptiness. Todd really proves himself to be quite a capable actor.

One of the joys of 60s sexploitation cinema is the women. They don’t look like models or pornstars. They look like real women. They don’t look like they’re more silicon than woman. They’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could actually meet in the real world. 

This is by later standards very mild stuff. The sex scenes are brief and very very tame and there’s not much nudity, just the occasional topless shot. Today the film would have no difficulty getting a PG rating at most. What it does have is emotional intensity. Buying and selling women has emotional consequences, both for the woman who is being bought and for the man who is doing the buying. 

The movie has intelligence and emotional depth but it has one other major asset - it has go-go dancing! Lots of go-go dancing. Bliss!

Something Weird have demonstrated their usual uncanny ability to find excellent prints of obscure 60s sexploitation titles. The Love Merchant looks pretty good. It’s fullframe but it’s probable that the movie was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Love Merchant is most certainly not a softcore porn film. It’s all about sex but it’s really a psychological melodrama and a fairly effective one. The low budget is very much in evidence but Sarno’s characters are complex enough that the viewer is unlikely to be bothered by this. On the whole this is a fine Joe Sarno film. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of an outlier among the classic Universal monster movies. It came out in 1954, some years after Universal’s monster cycle had ended. It’s also in some ways a typical 50s sci-fi horror offering but it still has some features that link it to the great Universal horror films. It has a sympathetic (or at least partly sympathetic) monster, there’s an emphasis on atmosphere and there’s an emphasis on achieving an impressive visual impact. It’s a movie that looks classier than most 50s sci-fi/horror flicks.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually shot in 3D. 3D is a silly idea that Hollywood periodically gets obsessed with. I watched this movie in good old 2D and it looked just fine.

The movie opens with an odd but mercifully brief prologue about the creation of the Earth which is purely an excuse to show off some gimmicky 3D photography.

The actual story begins in the Amazon Basin with the discovery by middle-aged scientist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) of an exciting fossil. His former student David Reed is excited as well. Perhaps he might persuade Mark Williams to fund an expedition to look for more such fossils. Mark Williams is David’s employer. Mark is always willing to fund research if the results are likely to attract plenty of public attention and enhance his own reputation. Mark is keen and an expedition is soon assembled.

A decrepit river steamer, the Rita, is hired and they set off. They are not dismayed by a disturbing tragedy involving a couple of Carl’s Indian assistants. The expedition initially seems like it is going to be a washout until someone suggests that they might find something if they’re prepared to push on into the unexplored reaches of the river to find the so-called Black Lagoon. 

What they find is not quite what they expected. Fossils are one thing, but finding a previously unknown ancient life-form is something else when it’s very much alive. The gill man is not just alive but he’s going to be quite a challenge to deal with. He’s probably not going to take kindly to any attempts to capture him and that of course is exactly what the scientists are hoping to do. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Director Jack Arnold would go on to helm some of the more entertaining science fiction movies of the 1950s including the excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The characters are what you expect in a sci-fi B-movie but the relationships between them are slightly more complex than you might expect. There’s professional tension between the ruthless Mark and the more ethical David but there’s also tension between them over Kay. David and Kay are very much a couple but it’s obvious that Mark isn’t entirely happy about this and that he some interest in Kay himself. Kay seems quite happy to have two hunky young men both lusting after her.

The acting is just a little better than standard B-picture level as well. Richard Denning makes Mark an interesting character, a wealthy successful man who is still driven by uncontrolled ambition and whose ethics are somewhat flexible. Richard Carlson as David is a perfectly adequate hero. Julie Adams plays Kay as mostly a nice respectable girl but also as a girl who is aware of the effect upon men of her sexual charms and gets a certain amount of enjoyment from this.

Of course the great thing about a movie in which scuba diving plays a major role is that it provides plenty of opportunities for the leading lady to cavort about in a bathing suit (and Julie Adams fills a bathing suit more than adequately). And of course the two leading men get to spend much of the movie with their shirts off so there’s eye candy for the ladies in the audience as well as for the men.

The key scene in the movie has Kay going for a swim. Unbeknownst to her the gill man is just below her, following her every move. While he tries to kill every man he encounters he does not appear to be interested in killing her. It’s reasonable to assume that he sees her swim as some kind of mating signal and it’s a signal he’s eager to respond to her. There are some obvious parallels here to King Kong of course. There also seems to be only one creature, obviously male, which further suggests that he is desperate to find a mate and he knows Kay is female and would therefore be (from his point of view) the most suitable mate he can find. The instinct to perpetuate the species cannot be denied, although Kay was hoping to perpetuate the species with someone other than an amphibian swamp monster.

The gill man of this movie inspired countless guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters over the next couple of decades but at the time he was a striking enough monster and he still looks rather impressive in the underwater scenes especially.

The underwater sequences (credited to James C. Havens) were the movie’s big selling point and they are exceptionally well done. On the whole the special effects stand up well.

The pacing might seem a bit leisurely but Jack Arnold knows what he’s doing. He shows us the monster early on because he’s in the happy position (for a B-film director) of having a monster that looks impressive and it makes us sense to give us a look at the said monster as early as possible. We’ve seen the creature but nothing much of a menacing nature happens for quite a while. The creature is there and sooner or later it’s going to come into collision with the expedition members but Arnold builds the suspense slowly.

Having the expedition run from a decaying but picturesque old steamer rather than a modern research vessel is a nice touch.

Creature from the Black Lagoon looks rather splendid on Blu-Ray. It’s a well-paced and quite exciting monster movie with a bit more substance than most and better made than most. Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe was released in 1964, some months after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and it's basically the exact same story but treated with deadly seriousness rather than black comedy.

Lumet's movie is definitely the lesser of the two films but it is intriguing to compare it to Kubrick's masterpiece and it's worth seeing if you're fascinated by the Cold War.

Here's the link to my review of Fail-Safe.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Dr Strangelove (1964)

In the early 1960s Stanley Kubrick had become obsessed by the subject of nuclear war. He had been particularly impressed by a novel called Red Alert by Peter George. The idea of a nuclear war breaking out by accident seemed like a horribly real possibility. Kubrick’s original intention was to film the novel as a straight thriller. In 1964 he changed his mind and decided to treat the subject as comedy. This represented an enormous risk and there were those who thought he was about to throw away his career. In the event of course Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a huge hit when it was released by Columbia in January 1964.

The basic idea is that the commander of a Strategic Air Command airbase, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), decides that he can no longer stand by and watch communists steal the nation’s precious bodily fluids so he launches his own personal nuclear strike. He orders the thirty-four B-52 bombers under his command to attack targets in the Soviet Union. Ripper believes that once the president realises the bombers cannot be recalled he will have no choice other than to launch an all-out nuclear war. The Soviets will launch their missiles and bombers in a retaliatory strike so the US might as well get in the first strike.

Due to a series of blunders and misfortunes there seems to be no way to prevent General Ripper’s B-52s from going ahead with their strike.

The President, played by Pete Sellers, is appalled. He’s even more appalled when his scientific adviser, Dr Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), conforms that the Soviets have a doomsday device. If General Ripper’s bombers reach their targets the doomsday device will be triggered and it will be the end of life on Earth. 

Sellers also plays the stuffy Group Commander Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer on secondment to the Strategic Air Command and acting as Ripper’s executive officer, is horrified also and quickly realises that Ripper is quite mad. Unfortunately Ripper is smart as well as mad and he’s seemingly thought of every counter-move that could be made to stop the bombers from launching their attack.

General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is horrified but also oddly excited by the prospects. He knows Ripper is mad but Ripper’s twisted logic makes sense to him. Why not take the opportunity to start a nuclear war? He’s confident that US casualties can be limited to only ten or twenty million dead which seems to him to be perfectly acceptable.

The decision to play this as a mixture of satire and black comedy mostly works. It works because the performances mostly work. George C. Scott is an absolute delight as the excitable Buck Turgidson, swinging wildly between sanity and his own kind of madness. Sterling Hayden is a joy as the terrifyingly insane Ripper. Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano (who is ordered to attack Ripper’s airbase and capture the mad general) and Slim Pickens as Major Kong, the pilot of one of the B-52s and a man who treats war as if it’s a rodeo event, are both wonderful.

Now we come to Peter Sellers. I’ve always had serious reservations about Sellers as a comic actor. He’s not bad here although his performance as Dr Strangelove seems to me to be too over-the-top and threatens to nudge the film over the line into mere silliness. 

One  can only be thankful that Kubrick was prevailed upon to drop the pie fight scene. Treating this kind of subject matter as comedy was risky but apart from that mercifully cut aberration it succeeds.

The first time I saw this movie I wasn’t overly impressed. The Cold War was still going on and the movie seemed to me to be a bit silly. The idea of people in a position to start a world war being maniacs or bumbling fools (or both) seemed implausible. Today it all seems very plausible indeed.

It’s also undeniably very funny. The gamble of playing it as comedy not only pays off, in retrospect it’s hard to see how it could have achieved its impact in any other way.                       

The highlight is undoubtedly George C. Scott’s inspired performance. And whatever misgivings I have about Peter Sellers he is very funny here (and apparently improvised most of his dialogue).

Mention must  also be made of the superb War Room set designed by Ken Adams. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning and the social effects still hold up pretty well.

While Dr Strangelove was in production Columbia was also making Fail-Safe, a straight thriller with an eerily similar plot. So similar that Kubrick promptly sued. Dr Strangelove beat Fail-Safe into the theatres and was a huge hit while Fail-Safe did only modest  business at the box office. Which was hardly unjust since Dr Strangelove is by far the better film.

Dr Strangelove is a rare political film that manages to be wonderfully entertaining as well. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Quatermass II (1957)

Hammer had spent the early 1950s making a large number of reasonable enjoyable B-movies. These were mostly crime movies but they included a few science fiction films. All of these films were very low-budget productions. The big change in Hammer’s fortunes came with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. This was Hammer’s first genuine box office hit. The formula was perfect for the times, combining science fiction and horror. Quatermass II followed in 1957 and Hammer were now a force to be reckoned with.

Both Quatermass films were adapted from BBC television serials. 

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is head of the ambitious British rocket program. Their objective is not merely to launch a rocket into space but to send dozens of rockets to the Moon and to establish a permanent base there. He has constructed a scale model of the proposed base. Unfortunately he faces two major obstacles. The first is that his rocket’s atomic engine is disastrously unstable. That can of course be rectified in time. The second problem is more serious - the government does not want to give him the money to make his scientific dream into a reality.

Quatermass is therefore understandably under considerable stress. He does not need another drama to cope with but he’s stumbled onto something that could be a drama of literally cosmic dimensions.

It starts when he almost has a collision with a car. The passenger in the other car is suffering from some strange burns which he apparently got from handling some rocks. The story doesn’t make much sense but Quatermass does take some samples. When he gets back to his project headquarters he finds that his chief subordinate has been tracking some strange objects that are falling out of the heavens. They don’t behave like meteorites and their nature is a complete mystery. They appear to be coming to earth in the same area in which Quatermass had his near-collision with that other car.

Quatermass, being a scientist, is naturally very curious and decides to have a closer look at the area. What he and his assistant find is both extraordinary and shocking - it’s Professor Quatermass’s proposed lunar colony, complete with gigantic metal domes, sitting in the English countryside.

Quatermass is now not only intrigued but worried. The whole area is sealed off with armed guards and all his enquiries on the subject of the base run into brick walls. Quatermass is starting to suspect that there’s something sinister going on but even though he has top-level connections in Whitehall he just keeps running into those brick walls. Quatermass is however not your usual polite self-effacing British boffin - he’s a fast-talking American and when he’s set on something he goes at it like a bulldozer. The more obstacles he encounters the more determined he gets. 

There’s more than a hint of paranoia to this story. The atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which had been released a year earlier). There’s also a bit of an X-Files feel with suggestions of government cover-ups and conspiracies. 

Not everyone likes Brian Donlevy as Quatermass but I think he does a great job. He plays him as the kind of cantankerous single-minded totally obsessive visionary who gets things done because he never takes no for an answer. He’s bad-tempered and often rude but he’s aware of his faults and on occasions even apologises for them. He’s a hero who commands respect and you can’t help developing a certain affection for him.

Look out for Hammer favourite Michael Ripper - and yes he plays an innkeeper! There’s also Sid James as a drunken but courageous newspaper reporter.

The special effects are not particularly elaborate but this is a story that relies on atmosphere and suspense rather than special effects. The lunar colony scenes were obviously shot at a chemical plant but they work. On the whole it’s a movie that achieves the necessary visual impact without spending a huge amount of money. 

Val Guest was always a competent director and he gives this film the right sense of both urgency and menace.

Both the 1950s Hammer Quatermass movies were shot in black-and-white. Hammer were not yet in a position to be able to afford the risk of incurring the costs of filming in colour but the success of the Quatermass films would change that. I think the black-and-white cinematography is quite effective and meshes well with the rather stark production design.

Quatermass II provides some thrills and some chills, a great deal of action and plenty of old-fashioned entertainment. Highly recommended.