Monday 29 January 2018

The Atomic Brain (1963)

The Atomic Brain (the original theatrical release title was Monstrosity) is classic Z-grade sci-fi horror schlock.

This is a mad scientist movie and it has all the right ingredients. Of course having the right ingredients doesn’t guarantee a good movie.

The mad scientist in question is Dr Otto Frank (Frank Gerstle) and he is on the verge of perfecting the technique of brain transplantation. He’s transplanted animal brains into humans and now he’s ready to take the next step - human brain transplants.

His experiments are financed by a rich old lady named Mrs March (Marjorie Eaton). She wants to be young again and she wants Dr Frank to transplant her brain into the body of a beautiful young woman. Of course not many young women are likely to volunteer to donate their bodies and for the operation to succeed the body has to be fresh. Mrs March and her boyfriend (gigolo might be a more accurate description) Victor (Frank Fowler) come up with the idea of obtaining a young female companion from a domestic employment agency. They get three applicants, all from overseas (obviously they don’t want nosy families sniffing about if the girls happen to vanish).

The three girls are Bea (Judy Bamber), Nina (Erika Peters) and Anita (Lisa Lang). Bea is English (and Judy Bamber’s attempt at an English accent has to be heard to be believed), Nina is German (luckily Erika Peters is German so she sounds convincing enough) and Anita is Mexican (with another not wholly convincing accent). Mrs Match quickly decides that Bea is the prettiest and so it’s Bea’s body she wants, although for complicated reasons that decision changes later.

There are a couple of Dr Frank’s earlier experiments wandering about and they’re pretty much zombies, plus the telephone wires have been cut and the girls are locked in they don’t take too long to figure out that something bad is going on here. They figure that leaving might be an excellent idea but that’s easier said than done.

You might be wondering where the atomic element comes in. Atomic energy is what Dr Frank uses to re-activate his transplanted brains.

The Atomic Brain is one of those movies that pops up on worst movies of all time lists. It is pretty bad but it’s certainly not bad in the way Ed Wood’s movies are bad. There’s a certain basic level of film-making competence at work here. There’s even the occasional shot that is moderately well composed. And it has a coherent plot. I’m not suggesting it’s a good plot but it is coherent. It’s very silly, but since when has silliness been a problem in science fiction or horror movies?

The mad scientist laboratory is not too bad for a very low-budget film. There are no attempts at elaborate special effects, and that was probably a very wise decision.

The main problem here is that it’s all rather stodgy. It just doesn’t quite have that spark that makes for great low-budget schlock.

It does have its moments though. The scene in which Mrs March has Nina modelling clothes is pretty creepy when you consider that Mrs March is more interested in checking out Nina’s body (which is soon to be hers) than the clothes.

These sorts of movies tend to have very predictable endings (you know that the mad scientist is not going to get away with his evil plans) but this one does throw in a couple of decent little twists.

Something Weird released this one on a triple-feature disc along with a real obscurity called Love After Death (which I have yet to watch)  and The Incredible Petrified World (a bad sci-fi movie that is unfortunately very dull indeed). The Atomic Brain gets a pretty good transfer.

If you’re in the mood for enjoyable sci-fi silliness then you could do worse than watch The Atomic Brain, although it has to be said that there are better movies (including low-budget movies) dealing with much the same themes. Recommended, as long as you don’t get your hopes up too high.

Friday 19 January 2018

Blacksnake (1973)

Blacksnake is the one Russ Meyer film that nobody seems to like, not even hardcore Meyer fans. It’s nowhere near as bad as it’s usually made out to be but it’s easy enough to see why so many people disliked it.

After his brief and less than happy experience trying to make big-budget Hollywood movies Meyer wisely decided to return to independent productions. He also decided to try a dramatic change of genres. This was understandable enough. Once hardcore porn appeared on the scene it was clearly going to be more difficult for Meyer to find an audience for the sorts of movies he liked to make. And Meyer was adamant that he was going to have nothing whatsoever to do with hardcore porn. His solution was to concentrate on violence rather than sex.

Blacksnake was however a departure from the usual Meyer territory in lots of other ways as well. It was his first period picture, and his first foray into the world of blaxploitation. Blacksnake was to be a savage indictment of slavery.

The setting is the West Indian island of San Cristobal in 1835. The British had by this time abolished slavery but somehow Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel) is still getting away with running her plantation with slave labour. To protect her position she has a private army of French-speaking blacks led by Captain Raymond Daladier (Bernard Boston).

Sir Charles Walker (David Warbeck) is intensely interested in Lady Susan’s activities. One of her many husbands was his brother Jonathan who mysteriously vanished and is presumed to be dead. Sir Charles is convinced that Lady Susan murdered him. He manages to get himself a position as Lady Susan’s book-keeper and sets off for the West Indies to discover the truth about his brother.

He soon discovers that San Cristobal is suffering a reign of terror at the hands of Lady Susan and her henchmen, especially the sadistic white overseer Joxer Tierney (Percy Herbert). A slave revolt is in the offing although no-one on San Cristobal can see it coming. Sir Charles uncovers the horrifying truth about his brother and he is also caught up in Lady Susan’s dangerous sexual games. The violence is pretty much non-stop and builds to a frightening crescendo.

One of the major problems with this film is that Meyer seemed to want to make a sincere and serious anti-slavery film but at the same time he was trying to make an exploitation film (which is after all what he was good at). There’s violence in most of Meyer’s movies but it’s always very stylised and very cartoonish and mostly played for laughs. The violence in Blacksnake is the exception to this rule - it’s over-the-top but it’s also horrifyingly realistic. This was obviously a conscious decision by Meyer but it can be a bit jarring since there’s also (as always in Meyer’s films) a fair amount of comedy.

An even bigger problem is that I’m not sure exactly what kind of audience he expected to reach. Fans of his earlier films were not going to like the combination of realistic violence and virtually no sex and nudity. Earnest white liberals who liked message movies such as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and To Kill a Mockingbird were not going to deal with the sadistic violence. Blaxploitation fans were not going to like it because there’s no black hero to relate to. The one memorable black character is Captain Raymond Daladier, an effeminate French-speaking homosexual. Art-house audiences were not going to go to see a movie by a disreputable exploitation film-maker (Meyer would eventually gain a following among the film school crowd but that was some years in the future). Mainstream audiences were going to be shocked and mystified. So the danger was that it would end up finding no audience at all, which was in fact what happened.

The biggest problem of all is the acting. Percy Herbert gives the sort of performance that would have been perfect in a typical Meyer movie but it doesn’t quite work in this one. David Warbeck is atrocious. He’s both bland and irritating and comes across as a pompous do-gooder. Bernard Boston’s performance is an absolute delight but it’s as if the the major male characters are all characters in entirely different movies.

And then there’s Anouska Hempel. Nobody has a good word for her performance. Personally I don’t think she’s all that bad but again there’s the problem of the movie being unable to decide if it’s going to be serious or campy. Hempel is slightly too over-the-top for her character to be taken seriously but she’s not excessive enough or sufficiently larger-than-life to make Lady Susan work as a cartoon villainess.

Yet another problem is that there is zero sexual heat in this movie. The most successful of all movies in this slavesploitation sub-genre was Mandingo and it was successful because it had lots and lots of sexual heat which made the violence and sadism easier to endure. With all its other faults Blacksnake could have worked if it had had that kind of overheated perverse sexual tension. Anouska Hempel’s performance is however entirely sexless. Even the brief moments of nudity manage to be sexless. I don’t think it was entirely her fault - with a leading man like David Warbeck giving the impression he didn’t even want to touch a woman she had nothing whatever to work with. Many Meyer fans feel that the problem was that she did not have the kinds of physical attributes that one expects from a leading lady in a Russ Meyer film. That may have been a problem in that Meyer thought she was too flat-chested to be sexy and I guess it’s a bit difficult to motivate yourself to convey sexiness if your director thinks you have zero sex appeal. I don’t really think this was the real problem though. She may not have had the bust measurements of a typical Meyer starlet but Anouska Hempel was still a very attractive young woman.

What it comes down to is that for the story to work we have to believe that Lady Susan is the sort of woman who can drive men crazy with lust and the sort of woman who has insatiable lusts of her own and we just don’t believe it. So we have a Russ Meyer movie totally lacking in sexiness and largely lacking in fun.

It’s not a total loss. Blacksnake was shot on location in Barbados and it looks sensational. It’s also very stylish. It’s not quite Meyer’s usual style (there’s not so much emphasis on lightning-fast editing) but it works and he does come up with some very striking (and occasionally very powerful) images.

The best thing about Blacksnake is that its failure finally convinced Meyer to forget mainstream audiences and mainstream critics altogether and go back to making the kinds of movies he liked making. It also seems to have convinced him to go back to doing his own cinematography and his own editing. His next movie would be the wonderful Supervixens, which is just about the archetypal Russ Meyer movie. Blacksnake is a failure, although it’s an interesting failure and worth a look if you’re a dedicated Meyer fan.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Love Is a Four-Letter Word (1966)

Love Is a Four-Letter Word (AKA The Love Girls) is a 1966 sexploitation movie believed to have been a lost film until the discovery of a print a few years back. It was written and produced by Bob Cresse and directed by Lee Frost, both key figures in the west coast sexploitation business.

Jerry is a pleasant if rather quiet young man. Life should be pretty good for him. He’s attending university. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Sheila. It’s Sheila that is the problem. While she’s happy to parade around in front of him wearing nothing but a towel she reacts with shock and horror if he tries to lay a finger on her.

Jerry has the feeling that everyone is having lots of sex. Everyone except him. His frustrations are increased by the fact that when he looks out the window he has a clear view into a neighbouring building and every window of that neighbouring building reveals the same thing - beautiful young ladies getting dressed or getting undressed or taking showers or just cavorting about in their birthday suits.

Jerry is starting to get seriously obsessed and seriously worried, especially when his psychology lecturer is droning on about sex offenders. It naturally occurs to Jerry that he might be a sex offender himself.

For Jerry the problem is not just his voyeurism. It’s the dreams. He’s starting to have trouble distinguishing between the dreams and reality. Naturally the dreams are always about attractive young ladies and naturally they’re always naked, or in the process of getting naked.

Frost handles this confusion between reality and fantasy rather well, with a couple of quite surreal scenes. The scene in the brothel is particularly disturbing. The movie was shot with synchronised sound but suddenly in this scene there’s no synchronised sound but we hear the two girls’ voices. But are they really saying the things we hear, or does Jerry just think they’re saying those things?

Equally disturbing is the scene in which Jerry is watching a nudie short in one of those old-fashioned coin-operated peep shows. The girl in the movie stares straight at the camera, and clearly Jerry has the feeling she really is looking at him. This idea crops up again when Jerry is watching a girl stripping at a party and he imagines that they’re at home in the kitchen and she’s doing the strip-tease just for him.

At times we are not quite sure if what we’re seeing is real or if it’s just happening in Jerry’s fevered mind. This kind of approach is fairly ambitious (and rather arty) for a sexploitation move but Frost is confident enough and competent enough to pull it off.

There are lots of lovely women in this movie and none of them spend more than a few brief moments fully clothed. As a sexploitation movie it therefore works very well but the great thing about this genre is that if you felt like making more than just a sex film there was nothing to stop you. You could add some arty touches or even attempt a bit of psychological insight. Most of the people seeing the movie at the time weren’t going to notice but if it gave you some satisfaction to feel like you were making a real movie you went ahead and did it. The results could be surprisingly interesting which is one of the reason the genre has gained a cult following. You just never know when a sexploitation movie is going to deliver a bit more than just naked flesh.

Love Is a Four-Letter Word does offer a little more, it does have those intriguingly surreal touches and with Lee Frost at the helm it’s executed with a certain panache.

I should also mention that there’s some fantastic surf music on the soundtrack.

Love Is a Four-Letter Word was released (under the title The Love Girls) on DVD a few years back by Cinema Epoch. There’s a very brief moment halfway through when there’s severe print damage but taken overall this is an excellent transfer. There’s not much in the way of extras but the brief essay by Bill Gibron does offer a few worthwhile snippets of information.

This movie turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

The Wild Women of Wongo (1958)

It has to be admitted that The Wild Women of Wongo, released in 1958, is a pretty terrible movie. It’s the sort of Z-grade cinematic shlock that will either bore you to tears or delight you depending on taste.

The opening voiceover is provided by Mother Nature herself. She explains that while overall she thinks she’s done a pretty good job she has made one or two mistakes and she proceeds to tell us about one of her bigger errors of judgment. Ten thousand years ago she tried an experiment with two tribes, the Wongo and the Goona. She made all the Wongo women gorgeous and the men ugly and dorky, while she made all the Goona men handsome studs and all the Goona women rather less than beautiful. In fact much less than beautiful.

At first things went OK since the two villages were unaware of each other’s existence, until one fateful day Engor, the son of the Goona king, arrived with a warning about a marauding tribe of ape-men. The women of Wongo are stunned when they see Engor. They have never seen such a hunky guy. They get really excited when he tells them that in Goona he’s nothing special - all the guys are equally good-looking. Omoo (Jean Harkshaw), the daughter of the Wongo king, is determined to have Engor as her husband. The men of Wongo might be ugly brutes but they’re not stupid. They figure out that they’re going to have a real problem with their women so they decide to kill Engor.

Omoo and the other Wongo gals foil this dastardly plan and for this they are punished by being offered as sacrifices to the dragon god.

Meanwhile Engor returns to Goona and now the studly men of Goona know that Wongo is full of hot babes. As you can imagine they’re extremely excited by this piece of news.

There’s really not enough plot for the film’s 71-minute running time. That’s the main weakness here. Trimmed to an hour or so it would have been much more fun. The plot also tends to wander at times. The ape-men seem like they’re going to be a major threat but then they just sort of get forgotten.

The acting is generally atrocious. In my view that’s a plus. Good acting would have sunk a movie like this. There’s some horrendous dialogue and it sounds better when it’s delivered with such spectacular ineptitude.

Whatever its other deficiencies The Wild Women of Wongo does have some nice visual elements. The various locations (all in Florida) look quite good. There’s a reasonably impressive underwater sequence. What makes that sequence really fun is that it includes a fight to the death between Omoo and an alligator. He’s not exactly the most fearsome of alligators and he’s no match for a strong healthy girl.

Naturally given all the sexual tensions there’s going to be a cat-fight scene. It’s between Omoo and her deadly rival Ahtee and it’s rather amusing. There’s also some very weird dancing by the Wongo women. They might be beautiful but their dancing skills are somewhat questionable.

There’s one moment that is quite gruesome by 1958 standards, a guy getting chomped by a gator, or at least it would be gruesome had it not been so ludicrously (and delightfully) fake.

There are plenty of very attractive women in skimpy costumes but there’s no nudity, which gives it a kind of innocent charm. There’s ample eye candy for the ladies as well, provided by the hot guys of Goona.

The ending is not totally unexpected and it’s probably the only way the film could have ended. This is after all a light-hearted fun movie.

This movie has had several DVD releases, most notably in a jungle triple-feature from Something Weird (the other movies on that DVD being Bowanga Bowanga and Virgin Sacrifice) and as a double-feature from VCI paired with Jungle Girl and the Slaver as Volume 4 in their Psychotronica series. I’m told the VCI release offers the better transfer but not having seen it I can’t confirm that. The Something Weird version isn’t too bad. Image quality is generally OK but the colours are definitely faded.

The Wild Women of Wongo won’t please everybody and perhaps you have to be in the right mood to appreciate it. I happened to be in just the right mood. I found it to be both engagingly goofy and funny and and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can certainly recommend it for fans of jungle movies and prehistoric women movies.