All posts by Pete Trbovich

CAPSULE: SATANICO PANDEMONIUM: LA SEXORCISTA (1975)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gilberto Martínez Solares

FEATURING: Cecilia Pezet, Enrique Rocha, Delia Magaña

PLOT: Sister Maria is a nun at a convent whose tranquil life of devotion is disrupted by a seductive male stalker who claims to be Lucifer.

Still from Satanico Pandemonium (1975)

COMMENTS: Boy, where to start? Satanico Pandemonium is a Mexican mid-70s nunsploitation flick which exemplifies the very heart of grindhouse cinema. Once you see it, you know why named s one-scene character in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) after this movie. Add to that one more credential: director Solares is said to have been inspired by s The Devils (1971), so at least he had some taste. For one more point in this movie’s favor, it came out two years after The Exorcist and did NOT try to copy it! Resisting the Devil’s temptations is peanuts compared to that kind of restraint.

Next, I have to say that this is an unexpectedly pretty movie! Filming in Eastmancolor brings out the baby blue nun outfits, the green foliage of the countryside of Mexico, and of course the cherry-red blood that will be spilled. The filming locations, several convents around Mexico including World Heritage site Dominico de la Natividad in Tepoztlán, are also a treat. The casting even has a visible plan, even if the acting lets it down. With her syrupy brown eyes and pouty face, Cecilia Pezet (Sister Maria) is very nearly the Winona Rider of her day, while Enrique Rocha (Luzbel) is just the right roguish kind of handsome rake for his role. If any face can melt the knickers off a nun, it’s Rocha’s. I’m so busy enjoying the eye candy in this film that it’s a shame to pay attention to the plot.

Oh yes, the plot. Sister Maria is a devout nun in a Mexican convent who is not only a spiritual leader second to Mother Superior, but the convent’s resident veterinarian and doctor, too. Seemingly everybody comes to her with their problems. Between a sick cow one minute or a sister coming to her to confess carnal desires for another woman the next, it’s all a gal can do to get in some topless self-flagellation kneeling at her prayer bench in her room. Bless her heart, she tries. But she has a problem of her own: a sinister man appears to her out of nowhere, symbolic offering of an apple in hand, insistently introducing himself as Luzbel/Lucifer/Mephisto. See, that’s the problem with the Devil, he can’t just pick one name and stick to it. Luzbel is trying to seduce Maria into sin through temptations of the flesh, and Maria’s gotta fight hard to stay in the Jesus club.

The film leaves us wondering how much of all this is real, whether it’s an actual Satanic manifestation, a symbolic telling of the real-life sexual tension between ordinary mortals, or something going on entirely in Maria’s head. We see almost the entire story from her point of view, which tends to be interrupted by visions, dreams, freak-outs, etc. We can be certain of two things: 1) the experience is corrupting Maria at a rapid pace, and 2) life at this convent is steadily going to Hell in a handbasket with every passing minute. Maria’s problems become everybody’s problems. Without spoiling it, let’s just say, “prepare to be jolted.” Especially in a cheap way.

Even the jolts don’t qualify Satanico Pandemonium as a weird movie. It is first of all a nunsploitation flick, with plenty of boob-fondling to make sure you don’t forget it. The one thing you learn from this movie is how to take off a nun outfit and put it back on and take it off again. It goes out of its way to be shocking in places, but as a grindhouse movie filmed in Mexico in the 1970s, the shocks come mostly from viewing it across a cultural divide over the border and a few decades’ time. Even though Satanico Pandemonium is well-crafted in visual appeal and pacing, it’s a fast and sloppy budget production that will leave many a plot hole uncorked if you think about it too hard. Except for a couple of brilliant scenes, weirdophiles won’t find much here, but it’s still a delight for its vintage grindhouse charm. Just remember, you could have watched another Ken Russel freakfest by now.

Mondo Macabro’s 2020 Blu-ray release is an upgrade of their 2005 DVD and comes with a surprising amount of extras, including audio commentary from film historians Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger and a featurette on the history of nunsploitation films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has everything a good nunsploitation film should have and then some… All of this weirdness is wrapped up in a very attractive package in terms of the film’s cinematography.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (DVD)

CAPSULE: SPOOKIES (1986)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Genie Joseph, Thomas Doran, Brendan Faulkner

FEATURING: Felix Ward, Maria Pechukas, Alec Nemser, Dan Scott

PLOT: A mad warlock with his would-be bride in a coffin needs human blood to bring her back to life, so he sets up a mansion full of monsters to slaughter hapless travelers; the plan almost works.

Still from Spookies (1986)

COMMENTS: Bear with me this time, because Spookies takes some explaining. It’s well-established as a bad movie, and yet has a cult following. That cult, contrary to the norm, loves Spookies not in a so-bad-it’s-good ironic way, but for being a certain kind of niche “good.” The limited appeal of Spookies depends upon one’s appetite for carnival dark rides, AKA ghost trains, the horror-themed indoor track ride you find at every state fair and boardwalk. These rides are chock full of random scary props, rubber suit monsters, blaring air horns, blasts of compressed air, strobe lights, hairpin turns leading from mad scientist’s laboratories into mummy’s crypts and whatnot, and—attend carefully here—no logic. Here’s dark ride YouTuber Carpetbagger with a tour of one. The point of a dark ride is not to experience an enriching story. The point is to make your girlfriend scream and cling to you when the rubber bats swoosh overhead.

I have just perfectly described the experience of watching Spookies, right down to the “no logic” part. It is unrelentingly stupid. But if you’re the kind of person who never passes up a tour through those haunted house attractions that pop up around Halloween, this is your Citizen Kane. Come and get your monsters, we got all your monsters here! We got your vampire monsters, your zombie monsters, your eight-limbed spider-woman monsters, your possessed demon monsters, your green goblin monsters, a werecat monster, a skeleton monster, any monster you want! Grim Reaper fans, yes, you too, we got a Grim Reaper attack just a little after the 1:00 hour mark. It’s never a dull moment here at Mad Marvin’s Mansion o’ Monsters, come on over for Witching Hour when all our curses are half-price!

Just leave your brain at home. This movie was also allegedly produced in sections: either two half-finished movies nailed together or an unfinished movie that later got footage added, depending on who you ask. I’m going to try telling it in alleged filming order, not movie order, because this will help it make what little sense it can.

We have two carloads of teenagers, plus older people hanging out with them for some reason, who are driving around lost at night looking for someplace to party. They find the big spooky mansion located in a cemetery surrounded by foam headstones. “What a silly place for a house!” they titter as they stagger inside. Doors slam, lights go out, monsters attack for about an hour and fifteen minutes. This is all triggered when one member of the party finds a Ouija board in the house—she obviously missed her OSHA class on “Never Use A Ouija Board In An Abandoned Mansion In A Cemetery” day. This part of the movie was supposed to be a horror-comedy called Twisted Souls, but it was never finished.

In the tacked-on part, we have a “warlock” Kreon (Felix Ward) brooding in a secluded sanctum, far from the action, as he laments his late, pretty bride in a coffin, Isabelle (Maria Pechukas). To bring Isabelle back to life, he needs human sacrifices, so, it turns out, he is the one controlling the monsters. Earlier a young boy, Billy (Alec Nemser), ran afoul of one of Kreon’s monsters while running away from home because his parents forgot his 13th birthday. He got buried alive and resurrected as a vampire boy in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit, who plays candle-lit chess while Kreon discusses his plans in his Transylvanian Baron Von Hissing-Lisp accent. With all those people he slaughters to bring Isabelle back to life, is she going to be grateful? What do you want to bet? Ah, posthumous love, thy name be treachery!

So like I say, this is a stupid mess. Nobody can act, the scripts for both film fragments suck hot vacuum hose, and everyone on Team Carload of Teenagers is an idiot who obligingly stumbles right into the claws/fangs/tentacles of Team Monster. Team Monster, however, brings its A-game of practical effects at the cutting edge of 1986 technology (but sadly not a minute later). Although at one point even Team Monster has a setback, with a gang of sludge monsters (made of mud?) who fart when they walk. In a group, every step, “Prrt! Prt! Prrrrt! Prrt!” But for the most part, we keep to that dark ride pace, a fresh monster attack in a fresh room every ten minutes, whether you were ready for the next one or not. Which, once again I have to point out, makes it braindead, but never boring for a second.

As confounding as Spookies is, I still can’t recommend it specifically for our list.  We have haunted house movies, and when it comes to monster-per-minute low-budget horror, Turn in your Grave‘s weirdness-factor flush beats Spookies‘ bigger-budget straight. By sheer nose (snout) count, The Cabin in the Woods has more monsters. In fact, B-movie monster-mashes aren’t that uncommon; it’s just that Spookies did it in peak ’80s style, when rubber masks with pulsating goop were in their prime.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[The later additions] made an already kooky movie even weirder, creating a disjointed plot no matter how hard they tried to shoehorn in the sorcerer. Yet, it also made it even more memorable at the same time, because it’s so nonsensical.”–Meagan Navarro, Bloody Disgusting

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The story behind making-of Spookies

Thorough YouTube review of Vinegar Syndrome’s 2020 Blu-ray

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

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Chi Sie?, AKA The Devil Within Her

DIRECTED BY: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Robert Barrett

FEATURING: Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson

PLOT: Jessica is having a baby; but maybe it’s going to be a little imp?

Still from Beyond the Door (1974)

PRE-COMMENTS DISCLAIMER: If I am to go on reviewing rip-offs of The Exorcist, I need to come out of the closet about something. This may be a shock, but here it goes: I HATE the original Exorcist! If you don’t hate it, that’s because you have “Exorcist syndrome,” which causes you to only remember the final twenty minutes of the movie.

I admit, those last twenty minutes are a good horror movie.

As I time it, the first 1:06:46 running time of the movie is a boring medical sitcom called “What’s the matter with Regan?” We wade through tests, doctors, therapists, prescriptions, brain scans, hypnotists, aromatherapists, dietitians, horoscopes, so on forever. Somebody finally utters the word “exorcist” at the 1:06:46 mark for the very first time, while we’ve been screaming at the screen “it’s demons, you idiots!” all along. It is frustrating and boring because we could see the poster for the movie when we walked in. It said “THE EXORCIST,” not “The Exorcist Who Wasn’t Needed Because It Turned out to Be ADHD.” Then, finally, the movie truly begins at the hour+ mark as we start setting up for the last twenty minutes, which again, are awesome.

So everybody take a minute to get over that. Cry into a pillow if you need to. Go watch the movie again before you respond here. Deep breath together now. At least I made you forget about the coronavirus for a minute, right? Onward with the review:

COMMENTS: Beyond the Door prepares you for a goofy time when you see there’s tag-team directors on board as well as no less than ten, count ’em, writing credits. We have Juliet Mills of Nanny and the Professor fame—in a horror movie? She’s going to play a San Francisco native while making absolutely no effort to hide either her London accent or the fact that she’s completely out of her depth here. It turns out that not only does this movie rip off The Exorcist (1973), but it also helps itself to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for an aperitif. By the opening credits, we’ve encountered Satan himself narrating to us with dialog you’ll swear was lifted from Zardoz‘ opening, complete with cute puns. Satan browbeats a Bearded Trenchcoat Creepy Dude (hereby known as “BTCD” until he gets a name) into taking on his next infernal mission: find a pregnant woman who shall whelp Satan’s spawn (I dunno, it’s a prophecy or something, go along with it). Did I mention the snazzy ’70s funk and experimental jazz soundtrack? This is Eurotrash, but it’s the finest grade Eurotrash, never good but also never boring.

Meet Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills), wife of Robert Barrett (Gabriele Lavia). He’s a music executive, and the pair are parents to two snot-nosed little brats with foul mouths. Minutes in, we find out Jessica’s Continue reading CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Avi Nesher

FEATURING: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Harrison Muller

PLOT: Two brothers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland go off on a quest to rescue their kidnapped sister, meeting a menagerie of mid-grade antagonists along the way as a million flavors of all hell breaks loose.

Still from She (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What a tragedy that She (1984) is so obscure, its title so Google-unfriendly, and its competing versions so better-known. If not for these handicaps it might have squeezed onto the List. It is a gonzo anything-goes claptrap of nonstop action with costumes, sets, and indeed whole scenes made out of whatever the filmmakers had lying around. If weird movies are a flea market, She rolls in Crazy Glue and runs through the bazaar, buying whatever sticks.

COMMENTS: The first rule of She (1984) is that it sets out to break every rule of filmmaking, and the second rule of She is that it circles back to break the first rule again. The goal of all this seems to be to make film reviewers look like fools; so allow me to draw the roadmap for the twists and turns ahead. She starts out bluffing with a trite and cliched approach, then steadily gets friskier along its run-time, until by the end it has become a completely different movie. It’s like the whole crew grew up over the course of shooting, or else they just improvised and got lucky. It starts out as a tired post-apocalyptic action clunker in the same vein as Mad Max and Tank Girl, only way less interesting than either of those. Somewhere between shooting the beginning and the end, the crew must have discovered—I’m guessing—Monty Python, Mel Brooks, something in that vein. It’s like they tried to make a serious Road Warrior-ripoff, but gave up after twenty minutes and decided their budget was better suited to making a campy satire; but, rather than withering away the fun, as you’d expect, they discovered they happened to be really good at comedy. Whatever happened, they sure as hell chucked the source material. This is allegedly an adaptation of “She: A History of Adventure,” but if you’re expecting anything to do with H. Rider Haggard‘s typical Victorian adventure universe of Allan Quatermain and King Solomon, you’re queuing in the wrong line.

After elaborate animated credits which also have nothing to do with the movie, we’re plopped “year 23 after the Cancellation.” Siblings Tom, Dick, and the sister Hari pilot a barge to a post-apocalyptic flea market selling cereal and chess sets, when a warrior tribe of “Norks” (composed of Clockwork Orange droogs, bikers, quarterbacks, Roman centurions, and Nazis) raid the market and haul Hari away screaming. The brothers now have a convenient plot: they have to go rescue Hari! If you liked that fight scene, you’ll look forward to the rest of the movie, which has one noisy brawl after another. The defining characteristics of post-apocalyptic people here are that they’re all Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill

FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine

PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII,  comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Still from Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.

COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.

We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)