Tag Archives: Christopher Lee

PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon in Man in the Iron Mask (1939), but it wasn’t until ‘s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to those of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Hammer’s Horror Of Dracula (1958), opposite his long-time onscreen foil . These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

still from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors and , Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends (1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and ). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an Continue reading PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

After the success of 1968’s The Conqueror Worm (AKA The Witchfinder General, with a deliciously evil ), director was assigned dual films: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production work on The Oblong Box , Reeves died at the age of 25 from an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and barbiturates, putting an end to a promising career. The film must have seemed cursed, because scripter Lawrence Huntington also died. Gordon Hessler replaced Reeves and Christopher Wicking replaced Huntington. Given Reeves’ high critical standing, Hessler was immediately criticized as being unable to fill the late director’s shoes. While there’s little doubt that Reeves’  idiosyncratic style would be impossible to imitate, he was unenthusiastic about the assignment to begin with. Thus, whether he could have made a better film is pure speculation. Despite starring Vincent Price and The Oblong Box can hardly compete with ‘s AIP Poe series, but it does have an ambitious, somber, gothic style of its own and is well photographed by John Coquillon.

Of more interest is a genuine oddity in the AIP canon: Scream and Scream Again, which also starred both Price and Lee along with (in what amounts to a cameo) and the same writing/directing team of Wicking and Hessler. Released in the U.K in 1969 and stateside 1970, Scream and Scream Again is one of the queerest horror science fiction extravaganzas committed to celluloid, which may explain why proclaimed it among his favorite films. Wicking’s screenplay is an ambitiously brazen adaptation of Peter Saxon’s “The Disoriented Man.” Given that Hessler is a minor cult filmmaker, Scream and Scream Again is, likewise, a film with a minor cult reputation, one that deserves a broader audience. Although imperfect, it is creepy and perverse enough to be of interest to weird movie lovers who crave a challenge.

Still fromScream and Scream Again (1969)The fragmented plot (one of several) opens with a jogger in the park, keeling over from what appears to be a heart attack. He wakes up in a hospital bed to a nurse who won’t speak to him. After she leaves, the jogger finds that his leg has been amputated. He screams.

The corpse of a rape victim is discovered with two puncture wounds on her wrist.

In an unnamed European totalitarian state, a humanoid Gestapo soldier (a lurid Marshall Jones) murders his superior by squeezing his shoulder.

The jogger wakes up to find his second leg amputated. He screams again.

Inspector Bellever (Alfred Marks) of Scotland Yard sets up a sting to Continue reading 1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s also the year that made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while and made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of  Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was ‘s Kill, Baby Kill. It was and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.

officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, with and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and , but directed with little enthusiasm.

Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides of Dracula (1960), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).

Still from Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)The leftover sets from Prince of Darkness must have affected Lee because he delivers one of his best performance as Rasputin. He is perfectly cast. The film  opens moodily in a pub with a local doctor departing after having dismissed any chances of survival for the innkeeper’s wife. Moments later, Rasputin enters, put his hands on the ill woman and, through the intensity of his look alone, immediately heals her. Now a hero of sorts, Rasputin engages in drunken song and dance with the locals and takes off to have his way with the innkeeper’s daughter in the barn. Interrupted by the girl’s fiancée, Rasputin cuts off the poor man’s hand. When the locals turn into an angry mob, Rasputin escapes via horseback and returns to his monastery. Shocked to discover that Rasputin is a monk, the locals take their grievances to the bishop. As defiant as ever, Continue reading 1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

1963 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE SADIST, BLOOD FEAST, & THE WHIP AND THE BODY

1963 was such a productive year for horror/exploitation that even was involved in a better than normal effort. The Sadist is the film Hall Jr. will most likely be remembered for (if he is remembered at all). Here, Junior pivots away from the low-rent Elvis Presley persona that daddy  was crafting for him to instead play a cartoon psychopath inspired by the real-life sadist Charles Starkweather (in the first of several films loosely based on Starkweather’s infamous 1958 killing spree—to make sure we get the reference, writer/director James Landis names the antagonist “Charlie”). The Sadist is easily the best film of both this actor and this director, which is not to say that it’s great cinema. Surprisingly, the best thing about it is Hall’s energetic performance. Away from daddy, Junior bounces through the entire film with a near-perfect trash performance.

Still from The Sadist (1963)While Landis wasn’t quite the hack that was, he still hampers the production with rusty pacing and ill-conceived narration (supplied by Hall, Sr). The headlines of murderous mayhem proved to be the inspiration for the Landis/Hall Jr. team. They worked together in two additional features: 1964’s The Nasty Rabbit, about Russian spies smuggling killer bunnies into the U.S.A., and 1965’s Deadwood 76, which features Junior as a singing Billy the Kid. Both were written by Daddy Hall and again reveal a lead who clearly wants to be elsewhere. Junior seemed to reserve all of his enthusiasm and hammy tricks for The Sadist. He giggles. He slaughters. Once The Sadist locates Hall as its steam, it transforms into a model of creaky relentlessness. The small cast is exceptional, with Helen Hovey  memorable as Doris, who is pushed to the verge of victimization and fights back. Mother Nature serves Charlie his sentence.

At one end of the 1963 genre pendulum were productions from class directors, such as (The Birds) and (The Haunting). got his feet wet directing Dementia 13 for , and second-tier director Don Sharp helmed one of Hammer’s better non- opuses, Kiss of the Vampire. At the opposite end of the taste and quality spectrum was Blood Feast. Alternately (and arguably) dubbed the first splatter film and the first notable example of torture porn, Blood Feast catapulted horror into the art form for America’s white trash masses. Not surprisingly, is among the filmmakers who Continue reading 1963 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE SADIST, BLOOD FEAST, & THE WHIP AND THE BODY

1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

is practically American cinema’s masochistic patron saint of Juvenile Delinquent exploitation garbage. Guided by daddy Arch Sr. (who penned the script and produced) The Choppers was Junior’s first film in a mercifully brief career (he retired in 1965 to become a musician and aviator—daddy was ex-Air Force).

To most contemporary viewers, Hall, Jr. is possibly best known for his second film, Eegah (1962), after it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000—although to the cult crowd, his crowning achievement is 1963’s The Sadist. Both of these will be covered here, along with Wild Guitar (1962), in upcoming exploitation collections from their respective years.

In Leigh Jason’s The Choppers, Hall is cast as Jack “Cruiser Bryan, the greasy-haired rockabilly leader of a gang of car-part thievin’ JDs. After stripping down cars, the Choppers take their loot to junkyard dog Moose (Z-movie veteran Bruno VeSota, familiar from Attack of the Giant Leeches, Wasp Woman and Bucket of Blood), who gives them ten cents on every buck!

Still from The Choppers (1961)Working out of their chicken coop truck, the Choppers also siphon gas out of unsuspecting vehicles, with Cruiser taking the role of the lookout guy who taps the steering wheel to the radio music he loves (which, the credits reveal, is Hall’s own song). For most of the film, the Choppers remain one step ahead of bland coppers and insurance suits. Later, we actually get to see Hall strum his guitar and sing “Monkeys in my hat band, I can do a handstand.” The jaw-dropping scene alone makes the entire film worthwhile. With rhyming genius like that, we can totally understand how Cruiser is a chick magnet who attracts a 1959 Playboy centerfold!

The yawn-inducing plot requires a comeuppance, which seems a tad harsh for the Choppers stealing car parts, but the producers probably realized a minute or so of something resembling excitement was necessary.

Mario Bava‘s Hercules In The Haunted World stars with apocalyptic hair. Bava and Lee, together with a bulging pair of male mammary glands in a loincloth (Reg Park), overcome laughably bad dialogue, near-fatal comic relief, echo boxes informing us that “these are gods!”, a prosaic plot, shrill dubbing, a green monster who must have been an ancestor of Sigmund the Sea Monster, and a bulimic budget to produce one of the most psychedelic sword and sandal fantasy flicks of the early 60s.

Still from Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)With painted sets and sky, diaphanous tints, swirling ink vapors, and transcendent camerawork, Bava’s cardboard Hades is the quintessence of orgasmic psychedelia masquerading as Continue reading 1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

1960 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: BEAT GIRL, HIGH SCHOOL CEASAR & DATE BAIT (1960)

America in the 1960s and 1970s hardly had exclusive rights to juvenile delinquent exploitation trash films. With Beat Girl (1960), the U.K. delivered the goods in one of the sleaziest examples of the genre. Having a cast including Christopher Lee and certainly helps, as does a John Barry score (his first).

“This could be your daughter,” screamed the ads; rather hypocritically, one might add, since the movie’s ambition is to titillate and to exploit its Beat Girl Jennifer (Gillian Hills, who would show up later in Blow-up and A Clockwork Orange). Or, perhaps the ad was meant for Donald “If she wasn’t my daughter, perhaps I might…” Trump.

Ignored by constipated architect daddy Paul (David Farrar) and hating his twenty-something French floozy wife Nicole (Noelle Adam), Beat Girl decides to get revenge by going to the local coffee shop to cruise for beatnik-styled man meat. She sucks on a popsicle, dances to jazz music (!), smokes cigarettes, and gets drawn into the dark side of caffeinated pheromones by Daddy-O J.D. (a young Reed, in full ham mode) and a strip club manager with sordid eyebrows ( Lee, of course).

Still from Beat Girl (1960)We learn that our favorite Hammer Horror Count, being the perpetual predator that he is, had previously sampled Nicole, turned her into a stripper, and now plans to repeat his pattern of debauchery on poor Beat Girl. Chris’ Dracula comparatively seems like a misunderstood, chaste monk.

Beat Girl is dank and grimy enough to have originally earned an X certification. Predictably, the family melodrama and obligatory reformation scene are secondary to Hills and Adam strutting their stuff and shaking their go-go assets. Although tame today, it’s still an entertaining hoot, stylishly directed by veteran Edmond T. Greville.

As close to a “star” as the drive-in circuit had, John Ashley shows suitable angst as Matt Stevens, the High School Caesar, which means (as it should) that he’s the bad guy. Helpful hint for next time you’re watching Bill Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: Brutus and Cassius are the protagonists. Director O’ Dale Ireland gets it right. Channeling the old Bard himself, his High School Caesar is a bit of a soap opera: it’s more about rise-to-power than fast cars, fisticuffs, or shootouts (although this being trash cinema, there are, of course ingredients of all the above).

Still from High School Caesar (1960)Unlike most of cinema’s juvenile delinquents, Matt comes from a well-to-do family, albeit a dysfunctional one that paves the path for some spoiled rich kid thuggery. (No, it’s not about Trump). High School Caesar rules the student body through fear, intimidation, and demonization of every person and demographic that he imagines his enemy. (No, it’s not about Trump).

After a rigged class election and plenty of strong-arming, things begin to go south as we head to Matt’s comeuppance. Ashley, giving a suave performance, makes it work, as well in his own tacky way as Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte (AKA “Scarface”).

Still from Date Bait (1960)If there wasn’t enough premarital sex and drugs in Caesar, Ireland more than makes up for it in his Date Bait, which could just as easily been titled Date Rape. This one’s the epitome of JD flicks, opening with the rock-n-roll lyrics “she’s my date bait baby, and I don’t mean maybe.” When the local dopehead Danny (Gary Clarke) gets outta rehab and hooks up with date bait Sue (Marlo Ryan), you know that switchblade-wielding beatniks, drag racing, testosterone-overdosed males clashing over breasts (squeezed into tight white sweaters), and run-ins with the law are not far behind. Of these three features, only Date Bait keeps intact all the trash genre stereotypes, which unsurprisingly means it was also the most successful of the trio on the drive-in circuit.

It’s not as well acted as Caesar (Sue’s parents, reading their lines, never rise above lethargy, even when lecturing her about her white trash boyfriend), and (per the norm) all the teens are played by twenty-somethings (it shows). On a pure entertainment level it’s probably more accessible to those who prefer their JD diet to be campy and cheap.

In the next week’s triple feature, we’ll zoom ahead a full year to… choppers, psychos, and damaged goods.

Bring your own pizza.

R.I.P. CHRISTOPER LEE (27 MAY 1922 – 7 JUNE 2015)

In honor of the late Christopher Lee, we are pushing our scheduled post of The Babadook back to next Thursday.

Christopher Lee ( 27 May 1922-7 June 2015) was the last surviving male horror icon. is now the sole remaining star of “golden age” horror.

Lee’s incredible career spanned seventy years and more than one hundred films. Although his stardom was secured in ‘s Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), made for Hammer studios, Lee’s film debut came eleven years earlier in Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948).

Playing a strikingly different Frankenstein’s monster than Karloff’s iconic interpretation catapulted Lee into stardom as the new half of horror’s dynamic duo (together with his beloved friend ). Essentially, the two were the new and . Lee even had the opportunity to act opposite Karloff in Corridors of Blood (1958) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968, also starring Steele).

Despite playing familiar monsters, Lee was no mere imitator and, with Cushing, imprinted his own individual stamp on a genre that desperately needed him. His film work has been featured frequently here at 366 Weird Movies.  The following are highlights of “Christopher Lee at 366 Weird Movies.”

Christoper Lee Horror of DraculaIn The Horror Of Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancée is lovely. I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word.

Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.

The Gorgon (1964) is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Carla ( Barbara Shelley, who gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl).

Paul (Richard Prasco) is a student of Professor Karl Meister (Lee) in a rare, and quite good, turn as a sympathetic character). Mesiter, who has arrived to assist Paul, knows that it is Carla who is possessed by Megaera, but Paul passionately rejects his professor’s conclusion Continue reading R.I.P. CHRISTOPER LEE (27 MAY 1922 – 7 JUNE 2015)

CAPSULE: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Freddie Highmore, David Kelly,  Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, ,

PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…

Still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.

COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?

Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away… Before the trip is over, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

"Elm Road Drive-In Theatre" by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA
Elm Road Drive-In Theatre” by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA – Elm Road Drive-In Theatre. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre  western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).

The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.

The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in cinema. Even when our family started going, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, outdoor cinemas were Continue reading CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A billionaire adopts a bum, then uses his fortune to pull outrageous pranks designed to show how far people will debase themselves for money.

Still from The Magic Christian (1969)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The spirit of 1969 lives on in this wild and wicked kitchen sink satire that owes a lot to easy access to fine Moroccan hashish. While it’s uneven and at times repetitive, when it’s at its best it’s got a reckless, swinging psychedelic sensibility that’s intoxicating.

COMMENTS: You may notice that there are five different writers listed in the credits of The Magic Christian, including director McGrath,  (who write the original novel), star Peter Sellers, and and  of (which was just kicking off its first year on television in 1969—both actors also play small roles in the film). This may help explain why the ramshackle satire on display here has a little bit of a “too-many-cooks”/revue show feel. The story arc is flat; it’s a series of pranks/sketches that don’t build on each other. They could be reshuffled in almost any order. In the first segment, billionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo hippie (Starr), but Starr has no real character; he’s only there to lend an ear so that Sellers doesn’t have to explain his bizarre behavior via monologues. The sketches are sometimes satirical, but just as often, they’re plain goofy, as when Grand takes a tank brigade with him on a pheasant hunt. It’s not clear whether we should admire Grand for exposing the hypocrisy of money-grubbing society, or revile him for exploiting people’s weaknesses for his own amusement. “Some days it’s not enough merely to teach,” he muses, “you must punish as well.” That sounds fine when he’s trolling the upper-crust, using a suitcase full of money to fix the Oxford/Cambridge rowing race, but when he abuses a hotdog vendor or bribes a lowly beat cop to eat a parking ticket, he’s acting like a bully. And when he destroys a Rembrandt, he’s a straight-up sadistic Philistine. The first hour is uneven, but things get manic in the last half hour, when Grand pitches a cruise aboard the “Magic Christian” as the event of the season for the stiff-upper-lip crowd. Once aboard, the dandies find the trip a bourgeois nightmare populated by male exotic dancers, pot-puffing ship physicians, transvestites, a galley full of slave girls, a guy running around in a monkey suit, and a vampire. The Badfinger soundtrack, featuring the Beatlesesque hit “Come and Get It” (composed by Paul McCartney), is a major asset, and cameos by Raquel Welch, , and Yul Brynner (among others) liven things up considerably. Christian arrives as a little bit of a disappointment, partially because this prodigious an assembly of talent—seriously, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers, and a third of Monty Python working together on one project?—promises more comedy goodness than any single movie could possibly deliver. But it’s still a time capsule of psychedelic gags from an age in which satirists viewed restraint and good taste as the enemy, but without making stupidity and vulgarity their allies.

Much of the cast and crew of The Magic Christian overlaps with that of 1967’s Casino Royale: director McGraff, writer Southern, and star Sellers all worked together on the shambolic 60s spy spoof. In a further similarity, where Frankenstein’s monster made an appearance in Royale, Dracula shows up in Christian.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kengo, who suggested it’s “not really that weird a movie by late sixties/early seventies standards, with all the disjointed dreamlike narrative, broad satire and surreal imagery that seemed to be standard at the time, but has some good bits.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)