Saturday, February 22, 2020

Revisiting Charles B. Griffith’s Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype




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!
 
I’ve recently been holding my nose and reading some of my earlier blog posts and realizing I was shortchanging many of the movies I’d written about.  When I first started, I’d knock out the post on a Friday night – usually while watching the film I was discussing.



There was one film, however, that I wanted to revisit and show significantly more love to than my original post provided – both because of the quality of the film and my immense respect for the creative genius that brought the film to fruition – Charles B. Griffith; the wonderfully inventive Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.



Before we get started, I want to discuss Griffith. I found while compiling my research for this essay some believe the Roger Corman we all know and love was only as successful as he was due to the many talents of Griffith.  Tom Weaver is quoted in the October 3rd, 2007 LA Times obituary for Griffith as saying “Griffith’s scripts were very imaginative and often quirky and kind of subversive, and when you look at any list of Roger Corman’s early pictures, those were the ones that put Corman on the map”. (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-oct-03-me-griffith3-story.html). Ronald Bergan’s obit in The Guardian said it better by referencing The Little Shop of Horrors when he wrote “In a way, Corman kept screaming "Feed Me!" to Griffith, who supplied his producer-director with a flow of more than 25 witty, bizarre, fast-paced and often subversive screenplays between 1956 and 1980..." (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/nov/09/guardianobituaries.obituaries2)




I honestly believe I can take it a step further.  I genuinely believe if not for the amazing depth and breadth of Griffith’s work we might have missed out on Sam Raimi, Fred Olen Ray, Jackie Kong and, perhaps, even Andy Milligan. I don’t mean to suggest the talent of those artists were reliant on Griffith, but, I do believe the early films of Griffith both laid the foundation for the works of the other greats who followed as well as showing that irony, horror, comedy and tragedy could all co-exist in the same brilliant film.



Griffith was born in Chicago on September 23rd, 1930 into a show business family.  Early in his career he began writing radio scripts for the program Myrt and Marge, a show which also featured Griffith’s mother and grandmother. He would go on to note his ability to write screenplays so quickly came from his days in radio where program scripts had to be produced on a fast turnaround schedule.



Eventually Griffith befriended Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelborn from the Griffith scripted The Little Shop of Horrors) who showed some of Griffith’s work to Roger Corman. This would lead to a decades long collaboration with Corman which neared its conclusion with the classic Jaws inspired Up from the Depths. Griffith was not the writer of the film but had been contracted to direct the picture and Griffith would note the film was a terrible experience and said “I think Roger did it to punish me, to send me out to The Philippines where I didn't know what I was getting into.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_from_the_Depths)  Griffith would direct the Corman produced Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II as his final Corman collaboration.





A year after the trauma that was Up from the Depths, Griffith would move on to Cannon films to write and direct the woefully under-appreciated Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.   Regarding this picture, I have found over the years since I first wrote about this film, there are three types of people. 1) Those who have never seen the movie…but don’t like it, 2) Those who have seen it…and for some reason don’t like it 3) Those who have seen it…and love it. Obviously, count me in group three.


Not content to simply rehash the famous Stevenson novel, Griffith turns the story on its head by telling the story of a kind-hearted, but physically malformed Dr. Heckyl who becomes a cruel monster when he is the debonair Mr. Hype ala The Nutty Professor. He then proceeds to take the human obsession with beauty and the superficiality and tear it shreds.  One can only imagine what Griffith would think of the “Social Influencer” and Instragram society we live in forty years after the film’s completion.



Oliver Reed plays the dual role of Heckyl and Hype, but, in a 2004 interview Griffith noted “Oliver Reed used to get me drunk but I liked him. I didn’t want him originally. I had wanted Dick Van Dyke, but he was out on the road doing a play. Menahem hired Oliver because he was there. I had to redo the entire picture in my head when he was cast, because it was a zany slapstick comedy and I got Oliver Reed – with that face and that voice! So I made it more lyrical.” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/conversations-with-filmmakers/charles_b_griffith/)   

This was a fascinating revelation for me.  In retrospect, I can see Van Dyke in the role, but, the transformation of the soft spoken and caring Heckyl with his interesting accent and hunchback into the suave Oliver Reed seems an ideal juxtaposition of characters.  We meet Dr. Heckyl in the opening scene of the film with these sentiments as he walks up a flight of steps and into frame – “I don't have to see the fear in their eyes, I can feel them cringing. I can feel them shrinking from my face.  My one and only old, unfortunate face. What they never see is the beauty behind my eyes.”  During the opening sequence, where we see the regrettable doctor shunned by both a blind man (well, a man posing as blind in any event) as well as the daily commuters at a bus stop, we find he waits every day to watch the beautiful Coral Careen (portrayed by the late and talented Sunny Johnson) board the bus.




After the opening sequence where we meet the ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside Dr. Heckyl the scene shifts gears a bit as the good Doctor, a podiatrist, arrives at an office which also houses Dr. Hinkle (Mel Wells) and Dr. Lew Hoo (Kedrick Wolf). The ability of Griffith to deftly shift from somber and moving angst to almost surreal comedy is clearly on display here. In our introduction to Dr. Lew Hoo we find he is experimenting with acutickling.  Why? Well “acupuncture and acupressure are fine as far as they go, but how far can one go with needles and thumbs? Acutickling uses the body’s own vibrations to reach the very marrow of the body’s bones!” We also find that Dr. Hinkle is testing “Dr. Hinkle’s Instant Diet Paste”. When Heckyl asks if the paste is safe, Hinkle replies “Are you kidding? One whole drop you could give a baby.  Two whole drops, unfortunately, would kill a horse." We meet Police Lt. Mack Druck (Virgil Frye), a flat foot cop that insists on proving that he doesn’t feel pain in possibly one of the oddest scenes in the film. Finally, as the sequence draws to a close, Coral Careen walks into the office.  The very woman Heckyl watches board the bus every day as arrived for an appointment…with him.



As I mentioned earlier, Coral Careen was portrayed by Sunny Johnson. Griffith mentioned in an interview that Johnson “was cast in the middle of the night before shooting started the next day, but she turned in a stellar performance. A few weeks later, she died of a brain hemorrhage. She was beautiful and a great actress. She would have went on to greater stuff.” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/conversations-with-filmmakers/charles_b_griffith/)   

Johnson was born in Bakersfield, California in September 1953 (although her IMDB page indicates San Bernardino county, which seems more likely as she is buried in San Bernardino). I first remember seeing her early one morning in the fall of 1981. In the pre-VCR (or at least affordable VCR) and pre-DVR days, I would go to bed early on “school nights” and get up in the middle of the night if there was a movie I wanted to see on HBO.  One night/morning I got up at 2:00 AM to watch Where the Buffalo Roam.  At the time, I assumed the character of Hunter S. Thompson was a fictional one and only got up because I loved Bill Murray (I would later get my hands on a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and my life would be forever changed.).  Johnson has only a small role as the nurse with Thompson as he is holed up in a hospital room using an IV stand to hold his bottle of Wild Turkey. But, her visage stuck with me throughout the years.





Her portrayal of sheer purity in this picture is amazing and a perfect foil for the diabolical Mr. Hype. Although she was, according to Griffith, a last-minute hire, I am sure he knew how fortunate he was as her portrayal of Coral provides moral center around which orbit the superficial creatures of the universe. This is never more evident than in a conversation Coral and Heckyl near the end of the second act of the picture as she discusses being almost assaulted by Heckyl’s alter ego Mr. Hype.



Coral - "He was physically attractive as far as that goes. But he acts as if he owned the world"



Hekyl – “Beautiful people are always forgiven, always given everything."



Coral – “Can I tell you a secret Doc?  Beauty's boring. I mean, I'm only skin deep. You're beautiful inside.”



Tragically, the actress that so perfectly brought Coral Careen to life in this film was discovered unconscious the evening of June 18th, 1984 in a home she shared with actor Archie Hahn. She had suffered a stroke and was declared brain dead. With no hope of recovery, she was taken off life support and died on June 19th at the age of 30.



She is buried just minutes from where I sit right now.



Charles B. Griffith would die on September 28th, 2007 just five days after his 77th birthday.  Earlier that year, Quentin Tarantino would dedicate his portion of the film Grindhouse (Death Proof) to Griffith and call him a significant influence on his career.



Film lovers are fortunate that Griffith and Johnson left us the gift of Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype and for that I’m am forever grateful.  Perhaps the only person who should be more thankful that Charles B. Griffith existed is Roger Corman.




Saturday, February 1, 2020

A Rose by any other name would still be The Swinging Barmaids


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!

"It's like déjà vu all over again." – Yogi Berra




In the 1996 book Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of "adults Only" Cinema by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris the authors discuss the practice, prominent at one time, of films to circulate, almost like a revival meeting, each spring and summer. A large tent erected, or a theater rented out for an exclusive one or two-night event, and a film regaling the evils of some modern horror from unwed pregnancy to drug addiction screened. These films, while purporting to shock people into avoiding drugs or premarital sex, were really what would become Grindhouse fodder two decades later.

No doubt, some people walking out of tents or theaters must have thought to themselves, “Gee, the movie seemed awfully familiar.” Of course, it seemed familiar because it was the same film they’d seen the one or two years prior. Only the title and promotional materials for the film were different.

Renaming films is a practice that survived well into my lifetime. For instance, in 1983, I went to the drive-in to see The Dorm that Dripped Blood, and 12 months later, I went to see Pranks…the same film, just a different title 12 months later.

Why do I bring this up? Well, because the film The Swinging Barmaids has at least three different titles (and it seems I discover more every week). And only one of those titles even remotely captures the essence of the film. The most accurate and concise title for this film was used in Australia where it was released as Killer. In the US, in addition to the title The Swinging Barmaids, it as been known as Room Service Sex and the title I saw it under in 1979, Eager Beavers.


First, yes, my Dad took a 12-year-old to the Star-Vue drive-in to see a film called Eager Beavers because my Dad was fucking awesome. These were the post-Animal House, pre-Porky’s days. So, second, given the title and the R rating, my Dad and I were expecting some raunchy sex comedy.

What we got was a well-done Slasher/Thriller.

The film boasts an amazing Grindhouse pedigree across the board.

The painfully underappreciated Charles B. Griffith wrote the screenplay. Griffith was a cinema workhorse. Chicago born in 1930 to a show business family, Griffith was a writer, director and an actor, doing much of his work with Roger Corman. To this day, probably his best-known work is Corman’s original 1959 classic The Little Shop of Horrors. A film Griffith not only wrote, but also managed to act in and provide the voice for the flesh-hungry and ever-growing Audrey Junior. Few of Corman’s films have had legs like Little Shop and so as Griffith’s obituary in The Guardian indicates “In 1982 - when The Little Shop of Horrors was turned into a Broadway musical, subsequently adapted into a film in 1986 - Griffith, who had received $800 from Corman for the original screenplay, and had no rights agreement, tried to sue the theatre producers and then Warner Bros. He eventually got "one-fourth of one per cent".”

Griffith’s screenplay for The Swinging Barmaids is better than the title would suggest. And with Griffith’s standard aplomb he begins building character from the first lines of his script.

Gus Trikonis directed the picture with great skill. Trikonis is a fascinating character with a career that  moved between genres and from film to television. Born in New York City, Trikonis started out in the theater as a dancer, working for some time on the original West Side Story. Once he made his way to Hollywood, he worked as an actor with roles in such films as The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Sand Pebbles. In 1966 he met Goldie Hawn and the two were married from 1969 until 1976. I think Brian Albright’s introductory paragraph from his 2007 interview with Gus Trikonis in Shock Magazine best summarizes his career – “Although not as well known as many of his contemporaries, Gus Trikonis was one of the more inventive exploitation directors to emerge during the 1970s. With credits that include the proto-slasher THE SWINGING BARMAIDS (1975), the hillbilly opus MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS (1977) and the haunted house flick THE EVIL (1978), Trikonis made a string of memorable low-budget action and horror films before becoming a prolific television director.”

The Swinging Barmaids also featured a pre-Ilsa Dyanne Thorne. Barmaids was released in the Summer of 1975, by October of the same year, Thorne would be known as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. Thorne would go on to star in Ilsa, Haram Keeper of the Oil Sheiks in 1976 and Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia in 1977. Thorne worked consistently throughout the 70s and 80s, but in 2013 she began working a bit again.

Although the entire cast of the film is great, there is one more cast member I want to single out, and that is Columbia, Missouri, born William Smith. Smith, an opposing figure of a man in every film he is in, plays LAPD Lieutenant Harry White. Smith’s portrayal is more subdued than many of his performances during this time period, and it is perfect for this picture. Smith himself is a fascinating man – check out his IMDB biography “William Smith is probably best known for his portrayal as "Falconetti" in Rich Man, Poor Man. He first came to the screen as a child actor in films such as Going My Way and The Song of Bernadette, before entering the service during the Korean War. There, his fluency in five languages landed him in the N.S.A. Security Squadron 6907. While working towards his doctorate, he landed a contract with MGM and never looked back.” At a convention in 2008 I tried to work up the nerve to speak to him and get an autograph…but I chickened out.

 
As mentioned earlier, The Swinging Barmaids is a slasher/thriller film. Our antagonist is Tom, portrayed by the late Bruce Watson. In the opening scenes of the film Tom murders one of the barmaids. However, as he is leaving the scene of the crime, he is spotted by some of the other ladies who work at the club. Will Lt. White track him down? Will the other ladies survive?

Although the killer hides in plain sight, I honestly don’t feel as though I can go into much more detail about the plot without giving away some of the twists and turns that Griffith and Trikonis provide.

When it comes to grindhouse cinema, you can always count on Quentin Tarantino to have his finger on the pulse of the genre. In 2007, QT featured this film during a festival he programmed in Austin, Texas. It must be noted that Tarantino is also a huge fan of Charles B. Griffith and dedicated his film Death Proof to Griffith, calling Griffith one of his main influences and “the father of redneck cinema.” Griffith lived long enough to realize the impact he’d had on some filmmakers but died only a few months after the release of the Rodriguez and Tarantino Grindhouse double-feature which also included Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

In 2018, the always reliable Code Red DVD released a special edition Blu-ray of The Swinging Barmaids however, when I went to the site I couldn’t find it. But, you can find copies on eBay…but I’d advise you be sitting down when you see what a copy will set you back.

Feels like the best way to wrap up this little essay is with a quote from Joe Bob Briggs during Jacob Knight’s 2018 interview with 
Briggs (aka John Bloom) from birthdeathmovies.com – “Sometimes you weren't even sure if what you were seeing were "new" movies, because they might be a movie you saw last year, just with a new title. I got to know these distributors, and became friends with them. There was this one guy named Leo Kerr, in Marina Del Rey, California, and he ran a company called Motion Picture Marketing. I'd call him up and say "OK Leo...Swinging Barmaids ('75)...is that the same movie as Swinging Waitresses?" And he'd go, "yep, you got me. How'd you know that?" And I'd say: "because you only changed one word in the title! C'mon Leo!" - https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2018/07/13/joe-bob-briggs-talks-horror-movie-marathons-the-history-of-trash-cinema-cri