Thursday, November 27, 2014

Want guac with your....Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death

Long before Bill Maher became the Rush Limbaugh of the left, he was a comedian and an actor... and I always thought a pretty good one.  I had seen him previously in D.C. Cab and House II: The Second Story.
Then one evening, looking for a tape to rent I discovered Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.  In full disclosure, my interest in all things Adrienne Barbeau was my real reason for renting this particular picture - Shannon Tweed and Bill Maher were just a bonus.

The film, written and directed by J.F. Lawton (but directed under the pseudonym J.D. Athens), is a clever and biting parody of 1980s machismo and hard-core feminism, which ultimately takes a blunt turn near the end to take a jab at the conservative politics of the time.  Because of this, it is a film best enjoyed by children of the 70s and 80s. The average millennial probably will not get the joke about a tribe of woman-fearing men called the Donahues or their chant of  "Donahue, Alan Alda, Walter Mondale...." - which I found funny in 1989, and even funnier 25 years later.

Shannon Tweed, whose IMDB page is really very impressive and shows more range than I think some film (and television) watchers realize she has, plays Dr. Margo Hunt - an ethno-historian with the Feminist Studies department.
 She is approached by agents of the military and the federal government to help eliminate the "Avocado Gap" the United States has with the Soviet Union (Remember them? No? Well, they'll be back soon enough) as many of the Avocado producing nations of the world have fallen to communism, leaving the United States the last "Free" nation to provide the world's Avocado needs.

After some coercion, Dr. Hunt agrees to go, and ends up saddled with one of her students named Bunny (Karen Mistal) who has changed majors from Home Economics to Feminist Studies. Together they head for San Bernardino (the outer edge of the Avocado Jungle) to find a guide.  As a former resident of San Bernardino, and as I still reside near the city, I couldn't help but enjoy this little bit of dialog, suggesting Berdoo's rep was none the better in 1989 than it is now (but at least they weren't bankrupt at the time.)

Dr. Hunt: San Bernardino, a rough speck of civilization on the edge of the Avocado belt.
Bunny: I've never been to San Bernardino before.
Dr. Hunt: (revealing a large revolver) Don't worry Bunny, it will be alright.

Once in San Bernardino, they stop at a local watering hole to find a guide in a bit meant to spoof the cantina scene from Star Wars. There, they find Jim (Bill Maher), a one night stand of Dr. Hunt's. Although Jim insists they were "in love" and when she left him, he climbed into a whiskey bottle and never came out.

From that point, they brave the jungle - the Donahues, The Barracuda Women and....of course, The Piranha Women.

Obviously in some ways the film is dated. But, that dated quality is almost quaint.  Mentions of the Soviet Union,  Fawn Hall, Jessica Hahn - all topical at the time, are interesting artifacts of a country when there was only a single 24 hour news channel, no iPhones, Twitter, Facebook (or blogs for that matter) all stoking the flames and trying to convince us what is important (or, sometimes what isn't important at all).

Also, for those in the Inland Empire; especially those who work at, attend, live near or went to UCR, keep an eye out for the clock tower and the arches and think about that next time you're heading to The Barn for lunch.

There are a number of places to see this film - I own the DVD, but, if you don't have a copy of the DVD handy, why not head over to and check it out.

Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death

Saturday, November 22, 2014

There is always time for a little....Lust In the Dust

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. Remember - ART IS ART! 

From time to time the film gods unite and this miraculous union brings together giants - film giants.

Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust is one such picture.

In 1985, the drive-in as the harbinger of all things classic, was nearing it's end. But, in it's stead was the VHS tape. For a moment in time in my small hometown, you could wander into a local Ma and Pa video store and walk out with glorious, beautiful magic.

One such magical event was Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust - a gender bending parody of the "Man with no name" films of Clint Eastwood. Written by Philip John Taylor, who would go on to write
episodes of Knight Rider and Murder, She Wrote and directed by the singularly brilliant Paul Bartel, Lust in the Dust has a cast like none ever assembled for a film. Only this film can boast a cast thing includes...


Tab Hunter

Henry Silva

The original Joker himself - Cesar Romero

Woody Strode

Geoffrey Lewis

Courtney Gains

The film follows a cast a characters, all residing in the small village of Chili Verde, which seems to exists only to support the search for ..."The Gold of Chili Verde". 50's beefcake heartthrob Tab Hunter plays the Clint Eastwood inspired role of Abel Wood, who stumbles upon the town of Chili Verde while escorting/being followed by Rosie Velez, played brilliantly by the amazing Divine (doing the Madea shtick better and long before Tyler Perry). Throw in revelations, maps on butts, the amazing Henry Silva and you have one of the greatest westerns of the 80s - and one of the greatest little gems I discovered the Schunuck's in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It shouldn't shock anyone that I spent my Friday nights alone - but at least I was spending it in good company with films like this classic.

Luckily the number has been small, but I have met those who thought Divine was simply a gimmick, an aborhation created by John Waters, that could only survive in that world; that Divine had no place in the cinema worlds of other directors.  But, the combination of Divine and the genius of Paul Bartel, went on to show that, had Divine not left the stage far too soon, that s/he would have continued to be an ever growing and impressive force in mainstream cinema.

But, in some ways, the most interesting aspect of this film is that of Tab Hunter, who not only stars in the film, but was also one of the producers. I'm not certain if he had come out of the closet at this point or not (really doesn't matter), but in the mid-80s, Tab Hunter was still remembered by people like my mother for being a bare-chested heart throb in the 50s. I respect the hell out of Tab Hunter for
being comfortable enough with himself to play against type in films like this and his first film with Divine, the Water's classic Polyester. Oh sure, Tom Cruise did his little shtick, under a ton of makeup, in Tropic Thunder, but that wasn't nearly as ballsy a move as what Tab Hunter did.

Finally, I have fond memories of this film because I discovered at a time, that, while the Drive-In was dying, small video stores were popping up all over (even in the one horse town I lived in) and some Friday nights you could walk out of the store with absolute VHS gold - titles like The Toxic Avenger, The Beyond, Re-Animator, Jake Speed, The Treasure of the Moon-Goddess; and even more intellectual fare like Bagdad Cafe.

Looking back - I spent a lot of Friday nights alone with a pizza and VCR...and I don't think I'd change a thing.  Be Who You Be.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Welcome to....The Big Doll House

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. Remember - ART IS ART!  
Originally posted December 5, 2012

It is sad but true that growing up in my small, midwestern home town, where the rare trip to St. Louis or Nashville was tantamount to seeing the lights of Paris, my overall impression of the world was generally derived from movies. Of course, the movies I enjoyed watching were drive-in movies (thanks to those weekly trips to the Star-Vue with my parents).

Thus, I was convinced that any country that wasn't the United States was a “banana republic”, I was confident every state southeast of my little hamlet was something out of Deliverance or Gator, and was entirely certain the American southwest was completely and accurately portrayed in Billy Jack. In fact, some of these “certainties” were so ingrained in me that I was a father before I was able to cast aside many of those concepts.

So, it can come as little surprise that when I saw the Big Doll House as pre-teen, I was both convinced of my heterosexuality and that if American woman went anywhere outside the boundaries of the United States they would almost certainly end up in a crowded jail cell.

The Big Doll House was one of the first features shot in the Philippine Islands by Roger Corman's recently established New World Pictures. By this time, Corman had given up the lighter fare of killer plants and giant crabs and was now working the grittier side of life. Written by Don Spencer and well directed by Jack Hill, this film sports a pedigree like few drive-in pictures. The film features both Sid Haig AND Pam Grier (and their scenes together amply display the talent that has kept them working in the film industry for decades.

The film also stars drive-in vets the late (and great) Roberta Collins and Judy Brown.

The plot, somewhat fresh at the time, dealt with both the struggle to survive inside the prison, and the eventual plot to break-out that a film of this nature requires. How the plot comes together is firmly juxtaposed with the warden who, at first seems good-hearted (and keen on the new prison doctor) and cruel bitch with a dramatic secret.

Other films of this nature are often overlooked as little more than softcore porn (which was certainly part of the appeal of this film and others for me when the video revolution blossomed). But, I can think of other titles/women in prison movies that fall in that category to a larger degree than this film. Because of the cast, the excellent direction and the general look of the film (some inspired cinematography for the exotic locations by Fred Conde) this film delivers far more than just random titillation. The characters are more fully developed than some big budget pictures of today, and the trials of each of the ladies has substantive impact.

Ultimately, New World Pictures milked all they could out of the Women in Prison motif, and by the early 80s had stopped shooting films in the Philippines. But, as long as Corman, Grier and Haig live, perhaps we will see a reboot/remake/reimagining of this film. Perhaps with Grier as the Warden and Haig in the same role or perhaps the doctor....just a thought.

And don't forget to turn up the theme song “Long Time Woman” sung by Pam Grier herself!

Wikipedia Article about The Big Doll House

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Just when you thought it was safe to watch Netflix...Barracuda

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. Remember - ART IS ART!  

Thanks to Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, the mid to late 70's provided us with a vast number of knock-off, "There is something under the water" based films; Piranha, Tentacles, Up From the Depths, Jaws 2 (let's face it - this is a knock off too),  and the subject of this essay.... Barracuda AKA The Lucifer Project.

Say what you will about the 70s - yes, having lived through that decade I can confirm it was tacky, garish, disco fueled and weird.  And maybe that is why I love that decade so much. Making a film then was work...trying to make a statement while you made a film, well, that was the bonus.

Of course, the titular creature of this film is no's in the title. But, because it was the 70s, when people only feared the government because of Watergate and The Warren Commission, the monster is also the victim in this film.

The film is based in the fictional (I assume) hamlet of Palm Cove (Florida's Lobster Capital according to the welcome sign leading into town), where a chemical company run by Papa Jack (portrayed by Bert Freed who played Posner in Billy Jack), is dumping chemicals into the nearby ocean.
A group from a local University, lead by Mike Canfield (portrayed by Wayne David Crawford, who also shares writing and producing credits on this show) decide they will get water samples from the pipe stealthily hidden under water, leading from the chemical company to the ocean.

Once the group is apprehended by Papa Jack's mentally deficient son, Mike is taken to jail where we meet the local sheriff, his deputy and the sheriff's daughter, who is home for the summer from college and spends her time "cruising the jail."  The plot picks up quickly after the initial character introductions as people begin to go missing, and the townsfolk begin to act contrary to the idyllic small town environment.

Where some smaller budget films fail is character development. I believe, thanks to the writing of Crawford, who went on to co-write Valley Girl and star in one of my all time favorite films, Jake Speed, the individual characters are well developed and well acted (see the cast list below).  Even smaller characters are written and performed in such a way as to provide some real connection to them. Sure, this was a Jaws knock off, but, done with some thought, and carried out with artistic ability -  check out Piranha as another example of good writing and outstanding performances.  Even the town itself is shot and represented in such a way to feel as if it not simply fictional entity, but a real small town with a lot of other stories to tell.

I can't go into much more detail without giving away major spoilers.

In all honesty, I'm a bit surprised it has taken me this long to re-watch this film. I remember distinctly watching this flick in 1979 on CBS late on a Friday night. Before the Letterman years, CBS would show The Avengers (the good version - you know the one with Diana Rigg) and a flick. In fact, first time I ever saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail was thanks to CBS on a Friday night.

While this film clearly saw some theater/Drive-In play (see the newspaper advert)
, the aspect ratio gives away the fact this film was meant for television viewing. Also, when it comes to viewing, be picky about where you watch it. Last night I checked it out on NetFlix - however, this morning, while I write this, I'm watching it on Amazon and it is gorgeous. I have to imagine it is the same source material, but, better encoding by Amazon. In fact, the quality is so good on Amazon it almost belays the budget of this film.

By the way, I've include a the trailer for the picture Jake Speed - another little nugget I rented one night from Schnucks - a small but glorious collection of videos back in the late 80s.  It's star and writer is Crawford - and it is an amazing film. I'll be writing about it soon.

Wayne Crawford ... Mike Canfield
Jason Evers         ... Dr. Elliot Snow
Roberta Leighton    ... Liza Williams
Cliff Emmich         ... Deputy Lester
William Kerwin ... Sheriff Ben Williams
Bert Freed         ... Papa Jack

Friday, November 14, 2014

A little soul searching...for what it's worth.

Originally posted on Saturday, January 26, 2013

I love movies!

Good Movies.
Bad Movies.
B-Movies, A-Movies, Classics both new and old.

Looking back on my life I can see that I've let film define me and my experiences. From not going to film school at SIU, to good times that were cemented with a classic flick to bad times made better by 90 minutes spent with characters who provided me an explanation for the things I was dealing with - when friends were few or far between, when misunderstood or under-appreciated...there was always film. I remember weekends at the drive-in with my Dad with almost psychotic giddiness and I recall fondly going by myself to see Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead or Day of the Dead - that way I didn't have to try to explain the appeal of the films to those who wouldn't understand in any case.

But, lately I've had this endless pinging bouncing around in my brain. And, even while I write this I can't entirely explain it. I'm partially hoping the act of writing alone will generate an explanation in my head. So, here goes - this post will be a little different than the others and I hope you will indulge me. First let me say - I have no interest in telling anyone what they should enjoy; whose work they should admire; what films, music, books should make them feel good, angry, inspired. Few things ruffle my feathers than when someone tries to convince me, although I'm in my mid-forties, that Woody Allen is a genius.

Anyway - I guess what I'm trying to say is this piece might call out or say less than glowing things about a few films or filmmakers, but, if you enjoy those films and artists - that's fine with me. This post, and every post, is just my opinion. If you agree - great. If not, that's fine too.

I work in the IT field, so there is always reading and studying to be done. But, I like to watch a film (or two) early on Saturday mornings when the house is quiet. Sometimes I will watch the film that will be my next post, or just maybe something I've put off watching for a while and want to see (still mad at myself for putting off watching Harold and Maude for so long - truly beautiful film).  I've always considered myself a fan of horror films having cut my teeth on TCM, Friday the 13th, Halloween...etc.  So, in the last couple of weeks I've attempted to watch two different films...and couldn't finish them. Simply turned them off and moved on.  V/H/S and The Poughkeepsie Tapes.

I've heard and read good things about both films - and I went into both knowing full well they would be hard to watch. No one who liked the film ever wrote "Hey, check out this film it made me feel great."
Those who enjoyed those films were honest. They are hard to watch. Brutal, with moments of sheer sadism.  So, in my quiet office on a pre-dawn Saturday I've tried to watch them. But, I'll stop trying. Those films ARE horror for some film fans. That is their choice - they aren't making me watch them. But, I do wonder what changed? When did torture porn leave Times Square ala "Cannibal Holocaust" which I had to watch in four parts even years ago when I bought a copy at a Fango Con, and enter the mainstream?

Has it been the advent of digital technology? Is it too easy to make a film? Is it too easy to make a film about little more than human suffering?  I don't want to believe it's too easy to make art. Growing up in the days of Super 8,  I would have given years of my life to have the equipment people have now. But, even with the equipment that is available from a standard Best Buy - there still needs to be drive, vision, and desire. So, no, I reject the concept it is too easy.

What about human suffering?

Some of the greatest films, novels, biographies, photographs....ART...document human suffering. From the Bible, to Cervantes, Gogol, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Walker, Kafka to countless film makers, painters; human suffering and the attempts to understand it, its causes, its results, its effects on the human race have driven art.  But - what did I learn about human suffering from the Saw films (wrapped conveniently in a morality play nonetheless), Final Destination, Hostel?  Shouldn't my viewing of that suffering make me want to help end it, not make me feel dirty for seeing it? Maybe not

This isn't meant to be an indictment of the film makers, or at least not of V/H/S or The Poughkeepsie Tapes. I can see the talent and artistic qualities in both of them. The moment Mike Moakes, played by one of my Planet of the Apes TV series idols, Ron Harper, discusses how he lost his little sister, and how he failed to learn how to leave the work - it's powerful.
It’s well written, directed and acted. And yet - I got very little further than that scene...and probably never will.

Will I learn some secret about human suffering by finishing the film?

The final "pinging" is my hypocrisy - I have a soft spot for Fulci, Argento, Romero, Raimi, Carpenter. These artists, especially Fulci and Argento, never have shied away from the presentation of violence. How is it that I can gleefully watch Demons and feel entertained...but, I run away from V/H/S?  I see the flaw in my logic - I truly do - and I have no good answer at all. None...accept one. I’ve just gotten old.

...and there are so many classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s at whose altar I can worship at and get lost in. And, if you'll indulge an old man – I think that is what I'm going to do. If you stuck out this far - thank you. And if you are John Erick Dowdle or any of the 10 directors and writes of V/H/S - don't take it personally. I truly don't doubt your talent - in fact, I hail it because if you weren't effective at what you do...what I did see of your films wouldn't have affected me so greatly. I'm really not trying to malign your talent. find that copy of The Creature Walks Among Us.

Vincent Price is...The Last Man on Earth

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. Remember - ART IS ART!

I'm not certain why, being an admirer of Vincent Price, I've never gotten around to watching The Last Man on Earth. I suppose in a pinch, when I've been in a Price frame of mind, I have always found myself revisiting The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler or the Dr. Phibes films.  Over the years I've managed to read a great deal about the film. Set in the United States but filmed in Italy, it was the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.  Of the three versions of this story, I won't lie - Omega Man is still my favorite (combine the 70's with Chuck Heston...that's a no brainer).  However, this film, shot in stark black and white, with a limited budget and the brilliance of Vincent Price, is emotional and haunting.

Of course, the pedigree of this film is impeccable. Not only does it star Vincent Price, but, as mentioned previously, it is based on a novel by Richard Matheson. That is a name that every Science Fiction or Horror fan should know.  From the sixties through the eighties, Matheson either wrote directly, or wrote the source material for a number of genre classics such as The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock hour, The Night Stalker, Night Gallery, What Dreams May Come and even the screenplay for Jaws 3-D.

Set in 1969, Vincent Price plays scientist Robert Morgan, a doting husband and father. However,
when a heretofore unknown disease begins to sweep through Europe, Morgan, his best friend Ben Cortland, work endlessly to find a cure. The disease takes on an even more ominous tone when the dead begin to rise from the dead and exhibit signs of vampirism.

In reading various articles and posts about this film after my viewing I found that it seems to be common knowledge the classic Night of the Living Dead was heavily influenced by this film.  Of course, as a lover and admirer of genre films I have nothing but the deepest respect for Night of the Living Dead.  If not for that classic film, I'm certain my own film collection would be quite sparse. Night of the Living Dead has gone on to inspire so many other film makers. Nevertheless, The Last Man on Earth has an emotional depth that is missing in NOTLD. Certainly that is, in part, due to the powerful performance of Vincent Price. Only Duane Jones was able to bring that kind of emotional impact to NOTLD.

Watching Price's Morgan try to protect his wife and child while the world is falling apart around him
made me wonder how I would handle such an event. His stoic demeanor changes drastically at the death of his daughter (hardly a spoiler given the title of the film).  Perhaps that is what I enjoyed most about this picture. Price's Morgan has the chance to be action hero, tormented soul, wanna be savior as well as loving husband and father. This might be the only feature Price starred in where he was allowed such range and it's a performance that shouldn't be missed...although I managed to miss it for years (I'm actually quite embarrassed about it.)

Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype..... will see you now

Originally posted April 5, 2013

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

From time to time you can find a brilliant, obscure gem on NetFlix. How did I stumble upon the 1980 Oliver Reed film Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype? Not certain anymore. What truly amazes me is how I managed to have never heard of the film. It boasts a b-movie pedigree almost second to none.

The film is directed by the legendary Charles B. Griffith whose collected works are some of the most revered and amazing works of the b-movie genre. Working for some time with the giant Roger Corman (to whom he was introduced by actor Jonathan Haze), Griffith worked on such 1950's classics as "It Conquered the World" (In which he also had an acting role), "The Undead", "Not of This Earth" and "Attack of the Crab Monsters". For those films alone he should be remembered, but, it was 1960's "The Little Shop of Horrors" and 1975's "Death Race 2000" that solidified his status among the drive-in greats. He also directed the 1979 Jaws inspired film "Up from the Depths" which boasts an early appearance by the now famous R. Lee Ermey.

 I can say, however, having seen (multiple times in some cases) every film Griffith either wrote, directed or both, my personal favorite is Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype. The story follows fiendishly ugly Dr. Hecklyl, a podiatrist who is planning to commit suicide. Heckyl's only bright spot in his tormented life is the beautiful and kind Coral Careen, played by the late Sunny Johnson. He rushes each morning to watch her board the bus outside his office and is both pleased and concerned when she arrives one day for an appointment.

Heckyl's colleagues include Dr. Lew Hoo (played brilliantly by Kedric Wolfe who had just worked with Griffith on Up from the Depths) and Dr. Vince Hinkle ( Mel Welles - Mr. Gravis Mushnick himself from the original The Little Shop of Horrors). Dr. Hinkle has developed a drug to create virtually instant weight loss..but he cautions, only a single drop to the tongue, otherwise all the cells might be destroyed leaving nothing ("Well, maybe a kidney...I don't know" Hinkle says in the film). As Heckyl is planning suicide and is in possession of the drug, since Hinkle feared his patients might break in and steal it, Heckyl downs the entire vial hoping to disappear from the world which has tormented him for his appearance.

Unfortunately for Heckyl, he does not disappear into the ether, but, later that evening is transformed into a dashing, handsome gentleman with an insane inferiority complex.
When the now handsome alter-ego decides his looks have been insulted by his lover of 45 seconds he is driven to murder. In short order, detective Lt. Mack Druck (played by the late Virgil Frye also in Griffith's Up From The Depths and looking a lot like Russell Crowe in this picture) is on his trail.

I can describe most any film, but this one genuinely has me stumped. At moments a truly touching film that indicates the skill Griffith had, (and far too often opted to ignore) and in the very next scene the film can be utterly surreal. I have found little written up on this film. I can only imagine the shifts in style indicate possible rewrites while the film was being produced. But, ultimately it doesn't matter - in fact, I find these shifts yet another reason to find the film endearing.

Additionally, if one can look beyond the bizarre aspects of the film, it is a telling statement on narcissism. Early in the film, the still deformed Heckyl says a handsome man can "get away with murder". And so it is in this film as only the deformed Heckyl understood love while the handsome Mr Hype knew only ego and sex. It also speaks to the desire (or need) to keep part of ourselves hidden away.

Can I recommend this film? To my friends who love the obscure, the small diamonds in the rough that have gone under appreciated through the decades - yes! The film offers an amazing performances by the late Oliver Reed and late
Sunny Johnson (who tragically passed away in 1984 just as her career was truly taking off). It also features (if you can believe it) Dick Miller, Jackie Coogan, a young Tony Cox, in addition to Mel Welles and Virgil Frye. Charles B. Griffith passed away in 2007, never truly appreciated for the work he had given the world - but, far too often, that is the weighty fate of the artist.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Giants Among Men

This Post was originally published on March 1st, 2013

The list of writers and directors whose work I've admired in the horror/exploitation genre is long and no doubt very similar to other fans.  I can remember vividly the first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Phantasm and The Evil Dead; and I can say, honestly and without hyperbole, that Hooper, Coscarelli and Raimi are true artisans who have provided me with countless hours of enjoyment.  When I graduated from High School in 1985 I was accepted to the school of cinematography at SIU Carbondale and I was utterly convinced my calling was NOT to be next Scorsese or Spielberg, but to be the next Raimi or George Romero.  Of course, as it turned out I had neither the finances nor the backbone for film school (turns out history was more my speed).

And although my dream of drive-in movie fame faded like the drive-in itself, I have come to realize there are three giants among men who managed to keep that spark of love for exploitation cinema alive in me.  So, even as the 80s found me writing about Eugene Debs and the Pullman strike, and not my zombie trilogy, I managed to indulge in my drive-in fantasies with the help of Commander USA and his Groovie Movies! 

Commander USA (member of the Legion of Decency –Retired), and his cigar ash sidekick Lefty, allowed viewers into the inner sanctum deep below a shopping mall in New Jersey.  These were the days when the Soviets were our enemies, VCRs cost 400 bucks and I was convinced if I could have only a single cable channel it would be USA Network. 
The network was, at the time, bold and brash much like the USA itself in the days of the Gipper.  Because I wasn’t “cool” like my friends, I spent many a Friday night at home (shocking I know) watching Night Flight on USA.  What brilliance it was – videos from Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, Church of the Sub-genius, the uncut version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax and Barnes and Barnes Fish Heads.  Influential stuff for me at the time.  I’d stay up until the wee hours with Night Flight.  By the time I’d awake Saturday morning my Dad would be in the kitchen carefully crafting his signature chili so it would be ready in time for Commander USA.

Inframan, The Crawling Eye and War of the Colossal Beast, as well as countless Mexican wresting movies, were just some of the classics the good Commander exposed me to.  The comedy was great, the movies beautiful and I realized…I wasn't alone.  Others loved these films as much I did.  I can thank the Commander for being the catalyst for Basement Duck’s only real video – their version of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. 
The Commander held a contest and asked viewers to submit films (converted to video) or simply videos themselves – the one’s that passed muster would be broadcast on the show.  Sadly – our video didn't make the cut, but, I did get in the mail a Commander USA fan club membership card (currently hidden away safely in the Jake Banzai archives).

The Commander began by showing double-features (which meant most of the chili was consumed with the standard after effects).  Near the end of the run I seem to recall the show started earlier and was reduced to a single feature.  And then one day….the Commander was gone.  The USA Network was still better than 99 percent of the networks at the time.  But – a sage had been silenced, and the world became just little bit darker.

Of course, I'd heard of Zacherley and Elvira – there was even an Elvira knock off that would host horror movies on KBSI in my home town of Cape Girardeau. It was a nice attempt, but, it didn't capture the brilliance of the Commander. She didn't have any respect for the films and so it was not worth staying up late to see a set of knockers. 

However, I began to hear about a gentleman by the name of Joe Bob Briggs who had a show on the cable movie network The Movie Channel called Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater.  Being a poor college student, I found myself spending my money on beer and not cable television.
By the time I had a neighbor I could “borrow” cable from his show had been cancelled.  In the interim, however, I had purchased Joe Bob’s books and even found a copy of H.G. Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs that Mr. Briggs did an introduction for.

The books and video were desperately needed.  I had, to some degree, started to slip from the grasp of my first love…the Drive-In.  School, girls….beer, had all taken their toll.  Then, as if by divine intervention, TNT brought Joe Bob Briggs to basic cable with the show MonsterVision!  Finally, someone to fill the Commander’s shoes for me.  The chili was replaced by even more disastrous gastrointestinal fare.  Sunkist soda was replaced by beer (or something stronger) and I now had the internet which allowed me to chat with other fans online while the show was on.  Suddenly I was now back in the loving arms of the once proud drive-in theater.

Joe Bob Briggs didn't just bring a kick ass persona to the table. Oh no. Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Irving Bloom) was a true renaissance man.  He not only knew more about exploitation film then any living human being, he knew when to show the film respect and when it needed a gentle ribbing.  Not only that, Briggs/Bloom was a writer of pieces for Rolling Stone and National Review and even wrote theological articles for The Wittenburg Door.  In short, Joe Bob Briggs was everything I had ever wanted to be, but didn’t have the looks, IQ or wherewithal to accomplish.  

Not long ago, at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in LA, I finally got to shake the hand of one of America’s few living geniuses.  I didn't have the nerve to ask to have my picture taken with him (well, I almost worked up the nerve, but every time I’d almost ask Jewel Shepard would start talking to him, and well, I guess if your option is to speak to Jewel Shepard or me, the average heterosexual male is going to speak to Ms. Shepard. 
I did, however, work up the nerve to tell him, that, on the evening he showed Megaforce (a guilty pleasure of mine from the 1980s) my wife went into labor with our son prematurely and I missed the show because, well, my son was being born.  I explained that, because of that, I inexplicably linked him and my son together.  Mr. Briggs seem to ponder this for a moment, and then, while handing me a beautifully signed copy of Samurai Cop, he said “Well, if there was ever an episode to miss, I can assure you…that was the one.”  I shook his hand, and didn't wash mine for about 98 days.

Thanks to the Internet, the ability to view, love, and honor the great drive-in and grindhouse movies of the past has gotten easier.  Additionally, NetFlix has provided me the ability to explore and find movies I’d never even heard of, including the amazing documentary American Scary, directed by John E. Hudgens. American Scary explores the glorious tradition of the “Horror Host” and includes, Joe Bob Briggs, Commander USA himself, Mr. John Hendricks and the gentleman I think currently embodies the rich tradition of showmanship, humor, and artistry of the classic hosts like Commander USA and Joe Bob Briggs – Mr. Lobo.

However, not long after I watched the documentary things like work (and school…again – damn that unfished MBA) once again caused me to drift again from the hallowed parking lot of the drive-in.  Only in the last year have I once again returned, having found, I hope, the fine line between family, career and love affair with all things exploitation cinema.  And so, a year ago I began to catch up with the artistry of Mr. Lobo.

Mr. Lobo, the host of Cinema Insomnia, has inducted a great many Knights of Insomnia into his world. Mr. Lobo and his lovely bride seem to understand the delicate balance between homage, humor and performance art.  His show is not only brilliantly funny, but, with old commercials, classic movie trailers and drive-in intermission spots, you begin to feel, if you'll let yourself wander a bit, as if you have been teleported to another time and place…a better time and place.

Recently working out of Sacramento, Mr. Lobo has left the Golden State for richer prospects back East.  I have every confidence that Mr. Lobo will continue to make a greater and greater mark as both a “Horror Host” and performer at large. 

I don't mean to disparage the other hosts presented in American Scary. I have no doubt that Count Gore DeVol and Dr. Gangrene are doing yeoman’s work in the name of B-Movies worldwide.  But, they just don't seem to capture Mr. Lobo’s Cinema Insomnia.

And so, there you have it. The holy trinity of the Drive-In.  The world owes a debt to these men – these soldiers of the drive-in, warriors of the forgotten films.  Mr. Lobo says it best “open your mind to the possibility that they're not bad movies….just misunderstood.”
Well said Mr. Lobo…well said.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Manitou......or three.

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

This post was originally published November 24, 2012

A long, long time those fabled years when Saturday Night Live was funny, cars were constructed from steel and collars were so wide, the one on the right had a different zip code than the one on the left, I saw an amazing double feature at the Star-Vue Drive-In in a sleepy little mid-West town; The Manitou and Phantasm.

Time has gone on to treat Phantasm very well, and deservedly so. However, it was the first feature I saw that night which has not always gotten the respect it has so richly earned  - William Girdler's The Manitou.

The film, released in 1978, is based on the 1976 novel The Manitou by Graham Masterson. The picture was written and directed by one of the hardest working men in film for several years in the 1970s; William Girdler. The Manitou was, tragically, Girdler's last film as he died scouting locations in the Philippines shortly before the film's release.

Looking back at Girdler's body of work it should be painfully apparent what a loss his death has been
to genre enthusiasts. Some people ignore Girdler's work as several of his films are considered little more than knock-offs (Grizzly is obviously a land-based version of Jaws and Abby is a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist), nevertheless, the films are very good. There were a number of films released in the 70s that were clearly rip-offs of The Exorcist, but Abby is exceptional in that it is actually entertaining.

I could go on for some time about Girdler – If I should ever win the lottery I think I'd write a book about him. Please take the time to pick up and enjoy some of his work.

The Manitou, set in late 70s San Francisco, follows Tony Curtis as wanna be medium Harry Erskine (I suggest he is a wanna be because I don't feel it is ever established – I believe on purpose – whether Harry even fully believes in the occult, as he says late in the film, “I'm a buyer, not a seller.”). An old flame of Harry's, Karen Tandy (Susan Strassberg), has an unusual growth on her neck at the base of her skull, and it is increasing in size very quickly. Concern for her rekindles their relationship, and after the first attempt to remove the growth ends with the surgeon harming himself, Harry undertakes a mission to determine what is, in fact, growing on Karen's neck.

In Harry's search for answers he consults an old friend, Ameilia Crusoe, played by a very tan Stella Stevens. It is during a séance at which a spirit  makes an appearance that Harry begins to understand they are dealing with other-worldly forces. In Harry's search for answers he encounters anthropologist Dr. Snow, played to sheer perfection by Burgess Meredith, who suggests it may be an ancient medicine man attempting to be reborn (although he suggests all stories of such things are just folk-lore).

By Act Three, Harry has convinced South Dakotan medicine man, John Singing Rock, to help defeat the ever growing Manitou and save Karen Tandy's life.  As a kid I remember being blown away by the conclusion of the film – watching it again after 34 years, the ending, and the film as a whole, is amazing both as a work of cinema, and a time capsule in to the decade of the 70's – a time when innocence and harsh reality began their collision course.

William Girdler Website

IMDB Link to The Manitou