Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA AND JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1966)

In 1966, William “One-Shot” Beaudine produced two western-horror hybrids, which were rare for the period. True to Beaudine’s M.O., they were also two of the year’s worst movies.

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is the better known of the two, primarily because it stars as the vampire. Carradine had a pragmatic approach to film acting: if you paid him a good salary, he gave a good performance. If you gave him a cheap salary, he gave a cheap performance. What meager budget this film had must have all gone to paying Carradine, because he’s easily the best thing about it—which is not to say he’s good. He’s not, but he’s entertaining, giving what looks like a fifty-dollar, bug-eyed, ham performance that hardly compares to his work in The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, etc.

Still from Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)Dracula has left Transylvania and is traveling out West via stagecoach. He puts the bite on Folgers Coffee lady Virginian Christine and an Indian girl, turns into a bat (with clearly visible strings), and then takes on the identity of Jack Underhill so he can vampirize pretty Betty (Melinda Plowman). Unfortunately for Drac, Betty is engaged to wholesome hombre (?!) Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney).

Christine, under Drac’s control, is no Dwight Frye, but she’s almost as much fun here as she was selling coffee. Plowman is pure decor, and she doesn’t seem to affect Courtney, who’s a dreadfully neutered Billy. Without Carradine’s repeated barking, hypnotizing, and wired bat flights to liven up the many dull stretches, the film wouldn’t even qualify in a bad lover movie list. Well into alcoholism, Carradine looks flamboyantly dead already. His showdown with Billy is in a silver mine, and although bullets pass right through Drac, he gets conked out by the butt of a pistol. Of course, he doesn’t get to actually slaughter anyone.

Baron Frankenstein’s granddaughter, Maria (Narda Onyx) lives out West, too, in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. She has a lab and wants to make a new monster.

Meanwhile Jesse James (John Lupton) and his wounded henchman Hank (Cal Bolder) need a doctor. The local Mexican girl Juanita (Estelita, milking all the south-of-the-border cliches ) warns them against taking Hank to Lady Frankenstein: “These Frankensteins are bad people. My people will return when the last Frankenstein is gone.” The law on his heels, Jesse doesn’t listen, but wonders if Juanita is onto something when Maria takes him into a library with no books. Hmmm. Jesse kisses Juanita. Juanita is now in love and runs to the sheriff to save Jesse from those Frankensteins, even thought she knows Jesse is wanted and will be hung—but Juanita will wait for him (?!?) Lo and behold, Maria, wearing  what looks like a pride flag motorcycle helmet, transforms Hank into Igor, shouting “I am in command. You will obey! Kill, kill!” Well, apparently he could have used a better brain, or a touch of tenderness, because he kills Maria.

Still from Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966)Onyx is a campy hoot, and again a bad performance enlivens Beaudine’s listless direction and a moronic script by Carl Hittleman. Although neither film is trashy or charming enough, the titles, and a couple of cheez whiz performances, may be enough to convince you to add it to a seasonal party playlist. Or, perhaps not.

MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

I think “jaw-dropping” is the only apt description for movies like and Herbert Tevos’ Mesa of Lost Women (1952) or ‘s The Wild World of Batwoman (1966): categories like camp, cult, et. al. simply cannot do them justice. 366 readers are, of course, familiar with Ormond and Warren as two z-grade (cough) filmmakers; that category fits for virtually everything the two produced.

While Mesa of Lost Women may lack the feverish WTF element of Ormond’s later , it is, as per the norm with this filmmaker, mind-numbingly godawful. How godawful is it? It’s so godawful that the first time I saw it, I immediately wondered whether those endlessly annoying Medved boys ever saw it. How could little Ed‘s sweet little opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, even compete with Ormond’s Mesa for title of worst film of all time? Of course, as the Medveds fancy themselves Christian critics, they might have been biased in not granting the title of “worst director of all time” to fellow fanatic Ormond; giving that award to our favorite transvestite director, to be frank, turned out to be an unintentional blessing for St. Edward D. Wood, Jr. (and to us).

Still, every weird movie lover owes it to himself or herself to see these masterstrokes of trash. While only Mesa is considered  “horror” per se, both are possessed with the zany queerness of the season and should perfectly serve any Halloween gathering.

Still from Mesa of Lost Women (1966)Mesa of Lost Women stars , somewhere between the golden locks of ‘s Kid and the chrome dome of Uncle Fester. Herbert Tevos’ script is narrated by , and the opening is priceless: “Strange is the monstrous assurance of this race of puny bipeds with overblown egos; the creature who calls himself ‘Man.’ He believes he owns the earth and every living thing on it exists only for his benefit. Yet, how foolish he is. In the continuing war for survival between man and the hexapods, only an utter fool would bet against the insect.” Talbot’s narration is utterly pointless, except for that fact that occasionally, and weirdly, he seems to be speaking directly to the actors—who then strain to hear what he is saying.

There is no actual mesa of lost women, only Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) and Coogan as stock mad scientist Dr. Aranya (that’s Spanish for spider, someone tells us) seeking to create a “super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain; a creature that may someday control the world—subject to my will.” Yes, Dr. Aranya is creating spider women, spider dwarves, and spider puppets. Naturally, Bland Hero objects (“It’s monstrous!”) Apparently, the production ran out Continue reading MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Read the introduction to the Monogram Nine.

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by , is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by ‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep zombies in the basement (?!?) Despite its muddled narrative, this, along with Black Dragons, may be the strangest of the Monogram Nine. It has pacing issues, but Lugosi’s performance and the ending, which is still jolting even today, almost make up for the film’s numerous flaws. It has quite a cult reputation, which is perhaps why fans have a trio of options to purchase superior editions from Roan, Troma, or the Retromedia Blu-Ray edition.

Still from The Ape Man (1943)Those who think Bela Lugosi reached the nadir of dignity working with may want to check him out with glued-on whiskers, hunched over, grunting like a monkey, and scratching his arm pit in 1943’s The Ape Man. It’s directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine who got his name because—you guessed it—he almost never did a second take. The plot rips off an earlier Monogram property, 1940’s The Ape (with ). That one at least had a decent central performance, despite its ludicrous plot. Ape Man, however, may be Lugosi’s most humiliating hour, with the actor looking more like an Amish preacher than an ape man, whining about his condition as he scrunches in a corner, needing spinal fluid. It’s poorly lit and, despite its obvious intent to be a parody, its dreadfully dull. It’s so bad that the white-bread heroes ( and Louise Curry) are actually a relief from the tedium. If they, and the film’s strained humor, are enough to interest you, it’s in the public domain, so there’s YouTube or some inexpensive DVD editions (none of which are remastered).

Ghosts on the Loose (1943, directed by Beaudine) is Lugosi’s second—and thankfully final—team-up with the Bowery Boys. As in The Ape Man, the film is poorly lit. Beaudine seems to have stuck the camera in the middle of room, yelled “action,” and left for lunch. The (very) minimal charm and energy of Spooks Run Wild is completely absent here, and Lugosi has nothing to do. He was lucky. Ava Gardner (of all people) embarrasses herself far more in this utterly dismal excrement. This is easily the worst of the lot, something even the most forgiving defenders of the Monogram Nine unanimously agree on. The Roan Group did what they could with the DVD.

By contrast, Voodoo Man (1944, again directed by Beaudine) is a hoot, with a trio of horror stars in Lugosi, George Zucco, and . Girls are disappearing from Zucco’s gas station. Yes, you read that right. Carradine is the imbecile abductor working for Dr. Lugosi, whose wife has been a zombie for 22 years. His scientific skills having failed him, Lugosi becomes a Voodoo Man, abducting pretty girls in an effort to transfer their souls into his wife. Darn it, none of the girls have worked so far. Yes, its a ludicrous reworking of The Corpse Vanishes, only this time we have a horror writer (Todd Andrews) whose bride-to-be gets abducted. A clearly stoned Carradine beats a drum, Lugosi and Zucco sport wacky robes, and Andrews wonders if the shenanigans would make a good movie starring Bela Lugosi. Its tongue firmly in cheek, Voodoo Man sizzles in its ridiculousness. Lugosi is good here, leading a colorful cast who seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s contagious. We should be grateful to Olive Films for not subscribing to the film’s reputation as bad cinema, because they remaster it like it’s a neglected masterpiece. This is my personal favorite of the Nine.

Return of the Ape Man (1944, directed by ) is not a sequel to The Ape Man. According to the credits, it also stars Lugosi, Zucco, and Carradine, but Zucco became ill and was replaced by Frank Moran. Lugosi and Carradine thaw out a Neanderthal  man and want to give him a brain transplant. Lugosi intends to use a wino, but things do not go right, and Carradine is toast. The result is a murdering caveman who plays the piano. Oh, and he hates blow torches, too. Lugosi echoes the film in being goofy and entertaining as hell. Some, probably people who used to pull the wings off butterflies, cite this as the worst of the Nine. Ignore them. Olive films did. My advice: buy the Blu-Ray of this and Voodoo Man and throw one hell of a bad movie party.

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, ’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in ‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late . Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to . Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. With that, and his personal life in shambles (wife #3 left him, and four years later he married wife #4 and abused her too until she left him as well), Lugosi zig-zagged between big budget productions and slumming in Poverty Row productions.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) was one of the first of those Z-Grade chillers. It was made for Monogram studios, directed by William Nigh, and produced by George Yohalem. It has a wretched reputation as embarrassingly racist, cheap pulp, with Lugosi as a Chinese villain with a Hungarian accent. Clocking in at barely an hour, it still manages to be poorly paced, with long stretches of dullness. It’s halfway over before Lugosi even dons the menacing Fu Manchu attitude and silk robe, torturing the hell out of the white heroes, including the obnoxious wisecracking . Although we desperately hope that Lugosi will get to slaughter Ford, it’s the 1930s, and we’re going to be disappointed. Still, Lugosi delivers in a hammily animated performance and Lotus Long, in a criminally small role, almost steals every scene she’s in. It’s been remastered for DVD by the esteemed Roan Group and released on Blu-ray by Retromedia. The Mysterious Mr. Wong reportedly made a good profit for the studio; enough for Monogram producer Sam Katzman to remember, and offer a nine-picture deal to a down-on-his luck Lugosi in 1941.

Still from The Invisible Ghost (1941)
The Invisible Ghost (1941)

“The Monogram Nine,” as the series has come to be known, is the stuff of infamy. They are perhaps “topped” only by Lugosi’s later work with —although we could argue that the Monogram opuses are still better than Lugosi’s entire1950s output. Alas, as dreadful as they all are, none of the Nine approach the zany nadir of the Wood trilogy. Even bad movie lovers, coming to these movies for the first time, may be disappointed after sampling such delightful morsels as Glen or Glenda (1953). With one very slight exception, the direction in all of the Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

REPRINT: KEN’S RUSSEL’S MAHLER

Alfred Eaker has the week off. Here’s a reprint of a classic column, first published on Sep. 16, 2010.

This is Ken Russell‘s most personal film, and he admirably does Gustav Mahler proud by refusing to treat the composer with phony reverence. Mahler is no plaster saint here. Instead, he is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, a hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from the flesh.

Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s composing is clearly an immense struggle, as are his relationships with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Russell pays Mahler homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a “fan.” Julie Taymor‘s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).

Still from Mahler (1974)Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into his highly personal interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which she embraces and kisses. A terminally ill Mahler explains his dream to Alma, who is not amused, and misinterprets it as symbolic of a marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets it as signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler’s final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.

Mahler is returning home to Vienna after a disastrous season in at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The conductor was ousted for his unorthodox ways by a Big Apple accustomed to the literalism of a Toscanini. Mahler, however, is not about to publicly go into the reasons for his return home, especially with a meddlesome reporter who takes the composer’s answers strictly at face value. “Why is everyone so literal these days?” Mahler retorts, dismissing the hack interviewer.

Instead of focusing on documentary points, Russell probes the visions and a past idiosyncratically filtered through Mahlerian hues Continue reading REPRINT: KEN’S RUSSEL’S MAHLER

REPRINT: SHANTY TRAMP (1967)

Alfred Eaker has the week off. Here’s a reprint of a classic column, first published on Jun 14, 2012.

Elmer Gantry (1960) with a dose of The Intruder (1962) on a 75 cent budget.”

There is the one-sentence synopsis for Shanty Tramp (1967), written and directed by Joseph P. Mawra. Mawra was a lesser-known director of numerous grindhouse films (such as 1964-1965’s Olga trilogy, produced by Glen or Glenda‘s George Weiss). Movies from this sadosexual school of filmmaking were often referred to as “roughies,” and here the lighting alone justifies that moniker.

After watching Shanty Tramp, you’ll never think of the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” quite the same way. The film opens with a worm’s eye-view of the Shanty Tramp herself (Lee Holland, in her only film role), barely squeezed into a tight white dress and pumps from hell as she shakes, jiggles, and marches her tramp way into a tent revival, choreographed to a gospel tune.

The little succubus-Eve is bound and determined to distract Preacher Man and every other male with red blood, which includes Daniel, a young African American male whose Ma warns him about the wiles of evil Shanty Tramps.

There’s a gleam in Shanty Tramp’s eyes when she spies the tithing basket. There’s a gleam in Preacher Man’s eyes when he spies Shanty Tramp’s popping cleavage. They promise to rendezvous later for a “spiritual lesson,” but Shanty Tramps get easily distracted.

The local rock-n-roll bar is man meat magnet for our heroine. Shanty Tramp grinds. Shanty Tramp flirts. Shanty Tramp gets fought over and the winner is… Savage, the leader of a biker gang! “Come on big man! You promised me a fin! I wanna see it!” She tells Savage. “Shut up and put out, babe!” Put out she does, and darn it, Savage actually lives up to his name and frolics rough.

Meanwhile Daniel’s Ma is still warning her son: “Tain’t good for black folk to be out at night! You get that Shanty Tramp outta your mind! ” “Oh come on Ma!” “Them whites in this town, they’re the same ones who strung up your Pa!”

Still from Shanty Tramp (1967)Daniel’s not listening. He’s hearing the call of that succubus Shanty Tramp. The wise words of Ma can only fall on deaf ears when Shanty Tramp does her mating call. Daniel’s just in time to hear Savage yodel, “You teasing’ little bitch!” Poor Shanty Tramp has lost her top. It’s the exploitation version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) with Daniel and Savage substituting for and , They crash into a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Daniel proves the better man and our heroine rewards him with some interracial action. Unfortunately, Shanty’s drunken Pa stumbles in to see Shanty and Daniel sharing a sweaty cigarette.

The redneck villagers, torch in hands, are in full pursuit of the black monster while his Ma has to pay the ultimate sacrifice for her little Cain. Shanty’s Pa gets sober enough to realize his little girl was engaging in consensual interracial sex. Pa grabs the old testament whip and … off with her top again!

Thrown in patricide, exploding cars, racial revenge, and bed-hopping that goes full circle back to Preacher Man, who don’t mind sloppy seconds so long as he gets to save a soul from the Devil’s lair. The sacrifices poor Preacher Man has to make doin’ the Lawd’s work!

Enjoy it with friends, but after shuffling your guests out the door, a tub full of Calgon is strongly advised to take you away from all that Shanty Tramp residue.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE MEG (2018)

Every year that 366 Weird movie readers have been sending  me to the Summer blockbusters, I’ve managed to actually see one good or at least remotely passable movie picked from the poll. Not so in 2018. All three picks, including this week’s, The Meg, scraped the barrel’s bottom.  366 readers found the summer goldmine of  blockbuster feces, but didn’t even bother to spot me for a pack of peanut butter M&Ms to alleviate their sadism in sending me to both Slender Man and The Meg in one weekend. As this may be (or not) our last Summer Blockbuster together, I’ll thank you for not sending me out with a bang, but rather feeling like barely getting through a trilogy of embarrassments. Actually, neither movie was as fun as a Wood opus. If only he were still around to inject some inspired lunacy. That’s the problem with The Meg; it neither realizes its dumbness, nor is it dumb enough. It’s not hard to imagine the boardroom scenario: “We’re going to do a shark movie. Jaws made a ton of money.”

“The last few Jaws movies were flops.”

“Yeah, so we’re going to change the name to The Meg.”

“‘The Meg’?”

“Yeah, like the Megalodon. So, see instead of it being a 25 foot great white, it’ll be a 75 foot prehistoric shark.”

“So, kind of like Jurassic Park meets Jaws?”

“Exactly. We throw in a good looking cast and we’ll make a killing.”

And it is making a killing, because as long as something is marketed right, Americans will consume anything that is fed to them. In his TV and film career, spanning 25 years,  director John Turteltaub has been consistent in never once having an original thought or producing an original work. In short, he’s a hack, and if he has anything resembling a style, it is his derivativeness.

In a recent interview with Collider, Turteltaub defends his excrement with “I didn’t set out to win any awards,” which is the paint-by-numbers auto-response for something embarrassingly bad. Although he did admit that he wanted it to be “R” rated (it might have helped) and hinted at a lot of studio interference, he also had the chutzpah to claim he didn’t pander to audiences, before then talking about the ways in which he did pander to audiences. I wouldn’t doubt studio interference, but I doubt it would have been much better had the studio left him alone to craft his masterpiece.

Usually, the legitimate complaint about Jaws ripoffs is that they take Stephen Spielberg’s reworking of Melville about three men, one of whom is an Ahab-like character, facing a community terror, and turn it into a slasher film focused on a shark who is a replacement for Michael Meyers. Still, with as little as Turteltaub had to work with from the screenplay (Jan and Eric Hoeber and Dean Georgaris adapting the “reportedly” superior novel by Steve Alten), it might have been smarter to focus more on the beast. Instead, he makes the movie a star vehicle for stud muffin Jason Statham as Jonas (you know; the Bible guy in the belly of the whale). While Statham is no Robert Shaw, he does have adolescent charisma that would do, if only the movie supplied him plenty of shark ass to kick.

There’s an early nod to submarine-in-peril melodramas (e.g. Gray Lady Down) that requires an expert rescuer. Of course that would be Jonas, but he has a haunted past. The portrayal of inner torment, however, is a mere sketch that can’t offer the pathos of a U.S.S Indianapolis experience or anything in the way of Old Testament lessons. Then, the movie makes a fatal mistake. It spends the next half on… nothing.  Instead of offering anything in the way of characters, there’s a lot of techno mumbo jumbo, mixed with occasionally cheesy dialogue, including about a half minute of a half-baked sermon about the immorality of hunting whales, etc.

Cliched archetypes abound; the shady billionaire financier, the joker sidekick, and a potential romance with a marine biologist (Bingbing Li) who, despite being smart-as-a-whip, needs rescued a lot by he-man Jonas.

Still from The MEG (2018)Then, there’s the shark, which is a complete CGI failure. Spielberg’s mechanical shark Bruce, for all its off-screen malfunctioning, felt threatening. That is not the case with the Meg, which looks like a souped-up version of “Jabberjaw.”  She whizzes by, and we never actually sense her there.

The late-in-the-film big set piece is a blatant ripoff of the beach scene in Jaws. For a moment, it looks like it’s either going to full-out one-up the original source, with an ocean-full of primary colored balloons and lifejackets and a poor tyke about to prove that the world is one big restaurant; either that, or U.S.S Indianapolis-meets- Godzilla. But, it’s too late in the game, and the movie chickens out of going either direction. The scene, like the film itself, evaporates.

I vividly remember seeing Jaws on its opening weekend in 1975. Dad took us to see it, and the theater employees were busy cleaning up from the previous audience where someone had vomited. Everything in Jaws—from the two guys on the pier complaining about a wife’s roast, to Scheider’s improvised sweaty line, the interplay between Dreyfuss and Shaw (most people don’t get the beer can image today since beer cans in 1975 were made of a harder aluminum, not tin)—all of it seemed intimate, which heightened the horror.

Comparatively, The Meg is an a adolescent cartoon, and not even a fun one at that.