All posts by Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival (which can be downloaded from DownloadHorror.com here), and the feature W the Movie. He writes the column "Alfred Eaker's Fringe Cinema" for this site, covering the world of underground film, as well as regularly contributing essays on other subjects.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of  when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.” 1)All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”

Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.

Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”

Poster for The Strange Woman (1946)Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.

Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her Continue reading EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

References   [ + ]

1. All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

DREAMCHILD (1985)

Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of ‘s most impressive work in his renditions of ‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.

That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is ‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.

Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.

Still from Dreamchild (1985)Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!

Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.

Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.

Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of  that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.

Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.

The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.

A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).

NUDE ON THE MOON (1962)

It’s 1962. You are a producer/director who, admittedly, makes films for the primary purpose of turning a profit. Now, you only have a budget of about fifty bucks. So, what’s the best way to turn a profit? Skin, of course. There is, however, a bit of an obstacle. The obscenity laws prohibit nudity. Of course, that is hardly an obstacle if your name is . Doris was well aware of THE BIG LOOPHOLE. Nudity on film was permissible IF it was confined to a nudist colony, because we all know there is, indeed, educational value in filming naturists. And if you really want to double your potential profit, you take that nudist colony and put it on the moon for the sic-fi kids. Amazing, but true!

Our space adventure begins with a 7th grader’s lame drawing of outer space accompanied by an endlessly lame theme song sung by an equally lame crooner. Jeff (Lester Brown) wants to go to the moon. But, poor Jeff does not have the funding. Even worse, Jeff can’t seem to get aroused by his horny , buxom secretary, Cathy. The Professor (William Mayer) is also in a predicament. In addition to having about five gallons of shellac in his hair, he is stuck listening to Jeff’s money problems and to Cathy’s confessions about her pent-up desires. Time to smoke a pipe.

Lo and behold, Jeff’s uncle dies and leaves Jeff three million bucks. To heck with the government, we are going to the moon ourselves! Come on professor. Let’s go! Space makes the boys a tad sleepy, and somehow they wake up after having landed somewhere. Maybe it’s the moon. Maybe it’s not.

Nude on the Moon posterOur dynamic duo jump into their red and green power ranger suits and discover, you guessed it, a nudist colony. But, this is not just any nudist colony. Actually, it’s just a topless colony. Oh, and the topless Martians all have antenna through which they communicate. This, of course, makes dubbing a heck of a lot easier. Jeff and the professor, being hu-mans, do have to chat, so there are plenty of shots from behind so we won’t see their lip movements are out of sync with the sound.

This must be the dark side of the moon, with plenty of lush vegetation and a volley ball court. The Queen (Marietta) looks an awful lot like Cathy (Marietta), except Queenie’s allergic to blouses. There are a few moon men too, pulled from the list of rejects from Tarzan casting calls.

A few light taps on the head from a moon chick’s abracadabra viagra stick and suddenly Jeff’s noticing boobs. Now Jeff’s happy! For the first time in his life, Jeff is as giddy as a school boy. But, gosh darn it, Jeff’s gonna run outta oxygen. Goodbye boobs. Back in the space ship, back home, and, hey Cathy looks just like the Queen! I’ll bet Cathy has boobs too, thinks Jeff. After an excessively long panning back and forth between Cathy clothed and Jeff’s eyes trying hard to bug out, Cathy loses her blouse and, yes, she has boobs just like the Queen! Jeff is happy again, despite having received a call from the government. They don’t believe Jeff and the professor went to the moon! Who cares? Jeff now knows that, to find boobs, he need not look any further than his own back yard.

There’s no place like home.

LET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978)

In a round table meeting with a couple of editors, I was discussing a proposed documentary (which we abandoned). As we were dialoguing, I mentioned a scene which would require green screen. One of the editors stopped me short and said: “This is a documentary. You do not do green screen shots in a documentary.” When I explained that the scene was meant to be poetic and dream-like, which did pertain to the subject at hand, my editor persisted: “You still cannot do that. That’s against all the rules of documentary filmmaking.” I ended that with: “So who made these rules?” If I had thought that argument through, I probably would have tied the editor down and shown him two documentary films, which break “THE rules.” One would be Guy Maddin‘s My Winnipeg (2007) and the other would be ‘s Let Me Die A Woman (1978).

Doris Wishman’s documentary about sex change is cinema’s closest cousin to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). Like Wood, Wishman cannot refrain from coating the subject at hand with her own idiosyncratic sheen. So much the better, because like the Wood film, personality is the most salvageable quality of Let Me Die A Woman. Ed Wood was supposed to make a film about a sex change but he turned his opus into a delightfully desperate, personal plea for acceptance of transvestism. Narratively (ahem) Wishman’s film does not divert quite so far from the topic. Visually, now that’s a different story altogether.

Shots of monstrously thick, red shag carpet (which would look so at home on the set of Trinity Broadcast Network), a “what the hell is that doing there?” Siamese cat and the standard Wishman shots of feet scurrying across a dark red floor are among the countless surreal cut-aways. If Wishman’s wandering camera frequently provokes dumbfound amazement, here the cut-aways interrupt poor Leslie with callous abandon. Leslie methodically applies her lipstick, straps on her garter, looks directly at the camera and tells us: “Last year, I was a man!” Cue in cheesy music. Leslie is the attractive, post-op transsexual star who introduces the viewer into the world of “gender dysphoria.” She is candid, expressive, and the only genuine human in the entire film. Unfortunately, whenever Leslie begins to hook us into her personal story, Wishman swings her goddamned camera into WTF land!

Still from Let Me Die a Woman (1977)No one familiar with Wishman’s body of work would be naive enough to expect a sympathetic treatment of the subject. Pornographic actors Harry Reems and Vanessa Del Rio provide cameos, just to make sure we know it’s a freak show. Like we need the proof. Gratuitous sex scenes, the lamest drag queens ever captured on celluloid, and Dr. Leo Wollman each have their own tent on the carnival grounds. Wollman  serves as the downright creepy ringmaster, acting as if he belongs in one of those wretched Faces of Death videos. He lectures us from a hideously decorated office. It is blatantly obvious Wollman is reading off cue cards when he gives us details aplenty about the SEX CHANGE OPERATION! Whether we want the details or not is a moot point. Actual surgical footage, brought to you in all the ghastly glory of 1978 color, accompanies Wollman’s monotone narration. Where are the horror horn and fear flasher when you need them?

Flopping penises, dildos galore, and Dr. Wollman’s fingers probing a vagina are the visual highlights (!) brought to you by Madame Wishman. Do you really have to ask why  is in love with this mondo trash mutant of a film?

Regardless, Wishman does it her way, God bless her!  Next week, we will wrap up our series on the films of Doris Wishman with Nude On the Moon (1961)

THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970)

Of course, , the self-taught, innovative grand dame of sexploitation and grindhouse films, personally stamped everything she did. Wishman’s repeated focus on inanimate objects is her most infamous trademark. Hideous wallpaper, repeated shots of feet, and dirty floor tiles were favorite concentrations in some of the most outrageous compositions ever filtered through a lens. All of those abound in The Amazing Transplant (1970), but there is an additional focal point here: a giant moose head hanging on the wall. I have no idea what the hell it means, if anything. It is tempting to say that, perhaps, it’s a symbolic joke at the expense of male testosterone, except that this may also be Wishman’s most misogynistic film—which is saying quite a lot.

The Hands of Orlac (1924), Mad Love (1935), The Beast With Five Fingers (1946) and The Hand (1981), all dealt with with hand transplants resulting in murderous hands. Most of these films at least had an iota of style, and two of them starred the iconic character actor Peter Lorre. In this film, Doris Wishman gives us her take on a transplanted member. Naturally, no Wishman film would dare to tackle something so acceptable as a hand. No, Wishman’s raving lunatic has a newly-grafted penis. Lest one be tempted to conjure up the image of David Cronenberg’s vampire phallus growing from the armpit of the late porn star Marilyn Chambers (Rabid-1977), I lament to report that The Amazing Transplant is nowhere near as anatomically outrageous. That is simply because we never see the Edward Hyde anaconda of poor Arthur (Juan Fernandez)—which is probably a good thing. Perhaps the hanging moose head is a sufficient avatar for all things phallic after all.

Still from The Amazing Transplant (1970)Wishman usually dubbed her films, which led her to focus the camera on anything but the actor speaking. Here, Wishman did her audience a commendable service, despite the fact that the dubbing is atrocious. The acting here is possibly the worst found in any Doris Wishman film, and not seeing her amateur thespians mouth their dialogue may actually make the film more bearable.

Arthur was never too adept with women, at least not until his late bosom bud Felix, a Casanova Continue reading THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (1970)