All posts by Pete Trbovich

CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

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DIRECTED BY: Hollingsworth Morse

FEATURING: Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, , ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot,

PLOT: Stranded with his magic flute on Living Island, young Jimmy must team up with the isle’s magical minions to defeat a witch who will do anything to get the instrument.

Still from Pufnstuf (1970)

COMMENTS: Beloved and recognized by millions, the characters of ‘s signature TV series H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) get their proper due in this feature film. Not only do we have many of the same core cast members from the series, but the TV series director helms the film; it was even shot on some of the same sets from the series. So we would expect this film to just be an extended episode, and it sort of is. It’s more of an encapsulation of the series, complete with beginning backstory and with several songs crammed in. This film’s release date (June 1969) is only a few months older than your humble author (September). It is therefore fitting that a Generation X native is here to guide you through the wild wacky Krofft universe, filled with sapient sea monsters, flying saucers, talking hats, mad scientists, and families lost in the Jurassic Era. In Pufnstuf‘s case, we get a whole magical island called “Living Island” populated by the titular Mayor dragon (voiced by Roberto Gamonet, a departure from series regular Lennie Weinrib) and besieged by a wicked witch named Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes). The primary departure from the series the introduction of members of Witchiepoo’s, ah, coven, the “Witch’s Council,” with the flabbergasting casting combo of Cass Elliot and Martha Raye. Apparently witches have an authoritarian political structure, which might well have been a nod to Samantha Stephens’ supernatural lodge in the TV series Bewitched.

But leaving aside the matter of occult sorority organization, the plot is still formulaic, within its universe. Jimmy (the late Jack Wild) is kicked out of his school band in the first few minutes of the movie, which is the only interaction we see him have with the normal world. Next thing you know, his flute talks, a boat talks, and Jimmy sails to Living Island where everything else talks too. Suddenly Witchiepoo, cruising on a curiously steampunk broom that is prone to run out of gas and stall in the sky, appears, wanting Jimmy’s magic flute in the worst way. She attacks, Mayor Pufnstuf valiantly comes to the rescue despite never having seen this kid before in his life, and the whole plot becomes talking-flute MacGuffin. The Boss Witch calls on the “hot line,” a phone stored within a pot-belly stove so that it fries the hands of whoever answers it, to announce that the annual witches’ convention is to be hosted by our gal. So Witchiepoo is under pressure to do her union proud.

Show-stopper moments include: Team Living Island raiding Team Witchiepoo’s castle dressed as sham firefighters on pretense of extinguishing a fire (because that’s the first idea that popped into Continue reading CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

CAPSULE: THX 1138 (1971)

“You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy!” — automated life coach booth in THX 1138

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Lucas

FEATURING: , Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie,

PLOT: A citizen of a future dystopia rebels against his society and must flee the consequences, hobbled by the people he genuinely cares about.

Still from THX 1138 (1971)

COMMENTS: The first thing we must do is firmly separate the subject of THX 1138‘s creator from the discussion of THX 1138. That alone makes this a challenging movie to view objectively. We’re here today to decide whether THX 1138 is a weird movie. Would the discussion be the same if its famous director wasn’t also the guy who made Star Wars?

George Lucas sows creative seeds here which will later bear fruit in Star Wars. The legions of android cops who chase the title character and company around brings to mind future Stormtroopers; their shiny metallic faces would later update into the countenance of C-3PO. The society is that of a hivemind of stoic drones, like many worlds in the Star Wars universe. Lucas, the world’s champion in the Second-Guessing-Yourself Olympics, would re-release new cuts of THX 1138; new versions opened with a brief trailer for the classic serial Buck Rogers series, which Lucas indicated was a huge influence on Star Wars (as if we couldn’t guess).

When it comes to THX 1138, Buck Rogers is far from its main influence. THX 1138 is about a futuristic dystopian society where one citizen rebels and tries to either escape the system or bring it all crashing down. Other movies in this genre using this exact same story template include (*deep breath!*): Metropolis, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. TAlphaville, Fantastic Planet, Brazil, Akira, Zardoz, The Apple, Snowpiercer, High-Rise, The Platform, and Greatland, just to mention a few already reviewed here. Now consider the literature: “1984,” “Brave New World,” and the never-adapted, shamefully underrated Ira Levin novel This Perfect Day.” These literary works share a ton of DNA with THX 1138.

The dystopian genre produces both some of mainstream cinema’s most beloved masterpieces and some titles from the crème de la crème of the List. But it’s been done. Every kind of batty off-the-wall dystopia idea has been done ten times.

So THX 1138 fails at originality. However, it is strong in execution. Like all the great sci-fi classics from the mid-20th century, it has a distinct look and feel all its own. The movie’s entire society is housed underground, so it has a claustrophobic mentality from start to finish. Even though it’s a color film, the palette is, pathologically, a glaring white with gray and black accents. Everyone is shaved skinhead-bald, regardless of gender, which together with the pure white pajamas they wear makes them all appear like laboratory rats frantically Continue reading CAPSULE: THX 1138 (1971)

CAPSULE: THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967)

AKA Castle of the Walking Dead

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DIRECTED BY: Harald Reinl

FEATURING: Christopher Lee, Lex Barker, Karin Dor

PLOT: Count Frederick Regula sought eternal life by sacrificing thirteen virgins, but he only made it up to twelve before the authorities nabbed and executed him; years later, descendants are haunted by his spirit, contrived by a sinister inheritance.

Still from The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (1967)

COMMENTS: First, let’s get Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” out of the way. It’s a very short story serving as an exercise in building suspense through dread. There’s no plot to it; it is literally a stranger in a cell menaced by various torments until he’s rescued by a deux-ex-army at the end. Take note, lest you think I disrespect the Master of the Macabre, that Poe himself would go on to mock his own story with the satirical A Predicament, about a curious woman getting slowly decapitated by the sharp minute hand of a clock. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a man getting slowly sliced up by a descending blade. If you want to blow this up into a whole movie, you’re going to have to pad it out. Well, Poe does mention (“Nobody expects… !”) the Spanish Inquisition, so there’s our padding right there.

So now that we’ve dialed our expectations back from Eurotrash to Euroschlock, we can start with the pleasant surprises. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is actually a stylish (but very outdated) Gothic-period horror flick of the kind that Hammer Films, Amicus Productions, and Tigon were cranking out at the time. In fact, it is exhaustively derivative of the European 1960s horror genre, to the point where you could assemble this movie out of pieces of other movies and get the same result. There’s a mad scientist’s alchemist workbench with bubbling beakers of vegetable glycerin, there’s a carriage ride through the woods with wolves howling in the background, there’s a castle full of deadly booby traps and no OSHA compliance, yada yada. And boy howdy, do they ever love skulls as a decorative element! This movie could serve as a shopping list for a trip to a Spirit Halloween store.

Christopher Lee is Count Frederick Regula, the gluten-free equivalent to Count Chocula. The evil Count is executed for murdering twelve virgins—but this was decades ago, and we switch to the movie time frame proper where Roger Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Brabant (Karin Dor) receive mysterious letters inviting them to a castle. One is to receive an inheritance, and the other is just a “find out the secrets of your past” deal. Turns out they each have a connection to the castle’s former owner; Roger is a son of one of the executioners, while the Baroness is the descendant of Regula’s intended 13th victim. You see, the whole murdering-virgins bit was so the Count could achieve immortality by brewing blood into an elixir. Not that Count Drac-oops Regula is a vampire (Christopher Lee playing a vampire? Preposterous!), but because he just dabbles in the black arts that way. Well, he did before he got executed, but never mind all that, because a member of the Count’s loyal staff has sworn to finalize his resurrection plans, and has a whole castle dungeon full of diabolical weapons at their disposal.

Before we get to the castle, there’s a whole half-movie worth of set-up to plow through. First, they have to ask directions, because the letters didn’t include a Google Maps link. All the townspeople have to scowl about the sinister rumors around the castle. Then they have to have a not-quite-trusted monk along for the ride to act as a guide. Then they get waylaid by a gang of bandits on the road, since locking doors for horse-drawn carriages hadn’t been invented yet. We also tour the most haunted woods ever, populated by trees that sprout corpses and skeletons willy-nilly. After all this, the castle turns out to be subterranean, entered via a spiked iron door. Minutes later, we hear the line “I knew it! We’ve fallen into some sort of trap!” Darn it, if only there had been any ominous events and signs along the way to warn us.

On the plus side, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is filled with gorgeous sets and atmospheric practical effects. The performances are capable and even though the whole story is one big Gothic formula, they do the genre proud. One downside is the music, which is way too whimsically “spooky” and lighthearted for the intended tone. The soundtrack becomes a sarcastic commentary punctuating every major scene, like if you had Frank Zappa score a Batman episode. You will also need to rub some liniment oil on your jawbone so you don’t hurt yourself yawning at the dragging pace, despite its 79 minute run-time. This is the part where we’d normally call it a vintage Euro-horror treasure, but let’s be honest: there are so many movies exactly like it that we’d like to sign some kind of Pittman Act where we opt to melt a bunch of them down to reclaim the celluloid. The weirdest thing about The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism is its ridiculously misleading title. The promotional art for this film hypes this image, setting you up for an Ilsa She Wolf of the SS exploitation boob-bath. What you get is a hum-drum, if stylish, West German Edgar Allan Poe “adaptation.” We already have so much Poe around here that we have to scrape the raven crap off the index periodically.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an odd one; the basic plot is very familiar indeed, but it has bizarre and decidedly eccentric touches to it.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

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“The most dangerous film ever made.”–Roar promotional materials

“Never work with children or animals.”–

DIRECTED BY: Noel Marshall

FEATURING: Noel Marshall, , , Kyalo Mativo

PLOT: A family runs a wildlife conservation habitat for lions, tigers, leopards, and various exotic wildlife, struggling to coexist peacefully with the animals while maintaining a funding grant.

Still from Roar (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Roar is a movie that breaks all the rules, including our standards here. The movie itself, on paper, isn’t weird at all. What’s bizarre is the extraordinary circumstances of its making. With a cast of dozens of untrained and barely-half-tamed big cats, unscripted scenes with actors actually getting attacked and bleeding real blood, and the shocking commitment of the crew beyond all limits of sanity, Roar earns its place next to vérité oddities like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Nobody will be crazy enough to make another movie like this again, so there will always be exactly one Roar.

COMMENTS: Roar is the story of a wildlife refuge for exotic animals, particularly those from the African plains, tended by a family with a heavy “live in harmony with nature” message. If that was all we told you, you might expect this to be a specimen from the mid-1970s slew of mediocre G-rated theater spam of the same ilk, family pictures like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (from Sunn Classic Pictures and Pacific International Enterprises, respectively). And that is probably the original intent behind Roar (1981), but then things went… wrong.

As the opening titles proudly remind us, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But seventy members of the cast and crew were. This only counts the injuries requiring hospital treatment; Hedren later admitted in interviews that the injury total was closer to a hundred or more. Highlights include cinematographer Jan de Bont (lion attack, 220 stitches to the scalp), Tippi Hedren (elephant attack, fractured leg and head injuries), Noel Marshall ( multiple feline attacks, numerous injuries, hospitalized with blood poisoning and gangrene), and John Marshall (lion attack, 56 stitches). Injuries or not, most of the takes with an attack in them ended up in the final film cut. Understandably, staff turnover was brisk, including one incident where twenty members of the production crew walked off the set all at once. Melanie Griffith also left at one point, telling her mother Hedren “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” She had a change of heart and returned to complete her role, whereupon she promptly almost lost half her face (lion attack, 100+ stitches and facial reconstructive surgery).

On paper, the story is a big yawn. Patriarch Hank (Noel Marshall) Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)

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DIRECTED BY: , , , , , (uncredited)

FEATURING: , David Niven, Ursula Andress, , , , Joanna Pettet, Deborah Kerr

PLOT: The “real” James Bond is recalled from retirement to fight agents of SMERSH. To help his cover, MI6 decides to re-name all their agents “James Bond.” The story loosely follows the maneuvers and misadventures of these various Bonds.

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • This movie is based on author Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel of the same title. The rights were originally sold to producer Gregory Ratoff, then resold to agent/producer Charles K. Feldman upon Ratoff’s passing.
  • Eon Productions was the chief source of the James Bond franchise, but deals between Eon and Feldman to adapt Casino Royale fell through. After several false starts at producing a straight version of the Bond story (with both Cary Grant and Sean Connery considered for the starring role), Feldman struck a deal with Columbia Pictures, opting to make his Bond movie a spoof of the genre instead.
  • Amid an already-troubled production, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles famously quarreled, resulting in the former storming off the set, which required some re-shoots using body doubles.
  • It is alleged that Peter Sellers was eager to play James Bond for real and was disappointed to find out this was a spoof.
  • Dusty Springfield’s rendition of “The Look of Love” got an Oscar nomination. Later versions of the song made the Billboard Hot 100 at #22 in November of 1967, and cover versions have since appeared in everything from Catch Me If You Can (2002) to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) (which was partly inspired by Casino Royale).
  • Despite this movie’s reputation as a flop, it still made $41.7 million back on a $12 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eenie meenie miney moe: we’ll pick the scene where Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) has taken Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) hostage, Bond-villain style. As Andress is restrained naked under barely-concealing metal bands, Allen menaces her in his groovy ’60s dungeon by playing a piano, socking a punching bag with the “real” James Bond’s face on it, and riding on a mechanical bull.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Duck decoy missiles; bagpipe machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In the same vein as Skidoo (1968) and North (1994), Casino Royale is a star-studded parable teaching us that shoveling big-name talent and money into a movie won’t necessarily make it any better. Before you even approach the jaw-dropping cast, you already have too many cooks (six directors and a veritable army of writers) spoiling the stew. The 131 minute run-time is overstuffed with everything the producers could cram in, whether it works or not. Saturated with weirdness, viewers will be burned out from the endless blathering nonsense long before this silly excess ends.

Original trailer for Casino Royale (1967)

COMMENTS: “What were they thinking?” That’s a query repeated Continue reading 15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)

CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

Im Schloß der Blutigen Begierde, AKA In the Castle of Bloody Desires

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DIRECTED BY: Adrian Hoven

FEATURING: , , Janine Reynaud, Elvira Berndorff

PLOT: The Earl of Saxxon presides in his castle brooding over his deceased daughter; fortunately, he’s a doctor, and a bunch of drunk aristocrats are about to stumble into his clutches.

Still from Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)

COMMENTS: While contemplating the genre of German horror films, it occurred to me that I don’t often have the opportunity to see a German horror film. I checked and it seems others out there have noticed this too. German horror is a rare bird, says the author of the linked listicle, because Germany lived through so many real-life horrors in the 20th century that they lost their taste for theatrical scares. Wikipedia concurs, noting that German film ratings board clamps down on horror and drives it underground. I can support these claims.

But what does exist of mid-20th-century German horror—from what I’ve seen so far—seems to be tamer than the contemporaneous international horror standards. Film scholars will beat me over the head with their cassettes of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, berating me for my blindness to German culture’s tremendous contributions to horror. That’s not what I mean. I mean “tamer” as in “less scary.” There seems to be no German kaiju, xenomorphs, or hockey-masked slashers. You know that bit where Freddy Krueger rips into somebody’s guts and jumps rope with their intestines? You can’t find that in German horror.

The promotional posters  for Castle of the Creeping Flesh promise to break the mold of German horror restraint, looking as intense as any other Eurotrash gore-fest. Indeed, Jess Franco (peace be upon the name of the prophet) appears in the writing credits, while actors from his staple troupe appear in the cast.

It’s hard to reconcile this promising setup with the resulting movie, to put it gently. Castle opens with a jazzy mondo theme over a swanky party that evokes a wingding at a EuroPlayboy mansion, without a scare in sight. The carefree ladies doffing their duds in the powder room provide the flesh already, even if it isn’t creeping yet. At least this movie readily adopts the sleazy side of European exploitation cinema: gore taboo, boobies fine. As the upper class folk break up the party, only to travel via horseback to reconvene at another nearby mansion, the partying keeps up. The host, Baron Black (Michel Lemoine) regales the crowd with tales of the Earl of Saxxon, keeper of a nearby castle with an ISO-standard Gothic history. As one guest, Eleanor (Elvira Berndorff), impulsively rides off to go see for herself, and the rest of the party is obliged to search for her, we Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)