Arch Hall Jr. 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!
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 Christopher Lee 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.
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 Oliver Reed 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).
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).
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”).
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.
PLOT: Alien juvenile delinquents are exiled to earth, where they scheme to control a “resurrection suit” that can bring a recently deceased rock and roll star back from the dead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pitched as a juvenile delinquent rock n’ roll sci-fi musical, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is, as the tagline claims, “a truly mad concoction.” In fact, if anything it tries a little too hard to live up to that billing. Better jokes and musical numbers might have put it over the top, but as it is this deliberate, overproduced camp doesn’t have the stuff to make it on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
COMMENTS: The Ghastly Love of Johnny X sports so many cool hepcat influences—it’s like a mashup of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Teenagers from Outer Space and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, full of space-age rumbles, rock and roll zombies, and soda jerks taking teenage femme fatales out to the drive-in—that you really pull for it to work. Unfortunately, the flat musical numbers and lame attempts at comedy ultimately lead to nowheresville, man, but you can still catch a few campy kicks on the way. Musicals are a difficult genre to tackle, especially for a first second time feature director, and especially nowadays when the average actor doesn’t double as a song and dance man. Although there are no hummable hits, Ego Plum’s score isn’t bad—it’s just that the choreography and general staging of the sparse musical numbers fails to impress. For example, the first big song, set in a hash-house trailer that turns into an abstract set when the music begins, is almost purely character exposition, setting up Johnny’s gang as a bunch of hooligans, Mr. X as a brooding James Dean type, and his slinky ex-girlfriend as a scorned woman. The session flips back and forth between musical styles, tries to shoehorn in exposition, and forgets to be tuneful. (The incidental music, which is sometimes Morricone-esque with its wordless female vocals, surf guitars and rattlesnake percussion, can be quite impressive, on the other hand). The black and white Barstow set photography is crisp and beautiful (more on that below), and when Johnny X poses with arcs of electricity shooting from his magic gloves it looks flat-out cool—visually, Ghastly Love does hit the right notes. Casting is pleasingly eccentric. Will Keenan is still playing a teenager six years after Tromeo and Juliet—because the film took six years to complete due to financing issues. He isn’t bad, but as the female lead, but previously unknown De Anna Joy Brooks is a pleasant surprise. She’s a little old for her role, but then again there is that six year filming gap, and her character is supposed to be sexually advanced. She’s slinky, breathy, and looks good in a tight black dress, and you can see why a guy would overlook the scent of danger rising off this dame like a fogbank of Chanel No. 5 and try to play her knight in shining armor. Looking like Dick Cavett would if a wicked witch turned him into a bespectacled, withered gnome with a bad goatee—and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible—Paul Williams has fun playing a very strange, sarcastic and kinky talk show host named “Cousin Quilty.” The big casting coup is “The Office”‘s Creed Bratton as a Roy Orbison lookalike rock and roll superstar. Wearing a long black wig in a silly attempt to hide his age, he’s an absurd choice for a teen sex symbol, and to top off the casting joke he spends most of the movie dead. With closets housing flashbacks, zombie rock concerts, and alien bubble-heads popping out of UFOs, Ghastly Love does have a weirdness beyond its genre-mashing premise. Ghastly Love may not be quite the bee’s knees, but it is light and zippy, and if you’re in the mood for a retro juvenile delinquency flick with aliens and Sharks vs. Jets-style musical numbers, you don’t have many choices besides this.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X probably won’t be remembered for long, but it will be the answer to very obscure trivia questions in the future, because it marks one least and a couple of lasts. For the “least,” some snarky mainstream journalists have picked up on the fact that it only made a ghastly $117 in its one-screen run (opening in Kansas, no less), making it technically the lowest-grossing theatrical release of 2013. As far as “lasts” go, Ghastly features the last on-screen appearance of Kevin (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) McCarthy. This was also the final movie shot on Kodak’s venerable black-and-white Plus-X film stock, which has been discontinued in the digital filmmaking age.
NOTE: After the original review was published, director Paul Bunnel sent these additional comments, which are reprinted with his permission:
JOHNNY X was a real labor of love for me. It was in production for 10 years. I shot some B-roll footage in 2002 and continued to refine the script for another year until I felt it was ready to shoot. In 2004 my wife and I borrowed against our house to begin principal photography (we’re still paying that second mortgage today). I initially thought we could complete the movie for the amount we borrowed, but ran out of money after only 10 days of filming. This created a major dilemma. We had invested over $100K in a partially completed movie. I knocked on every door in Hollywood (and out of Hollywood) to try and get financing, but no luck. The clock was ticking! After a few years the situation became dire. I began to wonder if I would ever find the money to finish the movie, and if I did, would the actors all be available and would they still look the same??? Another few years passed during which I never gave up on my crazy dream of finishing the movie. Pretty much everyone, including the actors, wrote it off. Friends suggested I make a short film from the existing footage or finish it on digital to save money, but I wasn’t about to compromise the high standards I had set for the project. Amazingly, after SIX years (and five nervous breakdowns) — when I was about to throw in the towel — a friend of mine said he would give me the money to finish the movie. It was that simple.
During the six year “hiatus” there were some script changes, which caused me to be locked into certain things while attempting to change (hopefully for the better) other things. Musical numbers were also added during the hiatus to make portions of the script I thought were weak more interesting. If JOHNNY X would have been completed in 2004 it would have been an entirely different movie. But for whatever reason it wasn’t meant to be finished until 2010 with yet another year to do post production (music, visual effects and sound). I wasn’t entirely happy with the film when it was all put together, but I made the best of it.
The only other things I would like to add is that I never set out to make a cult movie, I set out to make a GOOD movie — and that I began making movies way back in 1974 at the age of eleven. It has always been something I have done since that young age. Amazingly I have always shot on film — all 23 of my movies (mostly shorts) but JOHNNY X was the first one shot on 35mm Panavision (aka GhastlyScope). Given its history I like to call it the Citizen Kane of B-Movies.
I appreciate anyone who takes the time to thoroughly review the film. It’s better to have folks talking about it than not. I thought your review was intelligent and well-written. Of course I would have preferred the review to be more favorable, not to make ME look better, but because I really want to make a movie that people like.
At the end of the day it was an amazing experience to see my dream through to completion – and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
*This is the first testament in our Ed Wood Gospel. The second, New Testament, will cover Wood’s late films, including his collaborations with A.C. Stephens.
This month, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) sees its Blu-ray release; posthumously, Ed is thoroughly enjoying his last laugh. He can thank those smug, condescending, hopelessly unimaginative thugs posing as establishment critics, the Medveds, for resurrecting him from the dead and catapulting him into a cult Valhalla. As everyone knows by now, the Medveds infamously awarded Wood the honor of “Worst Director of All Time” in their infamous Golden Turkey Awards. Today, of course, we know that award could go to someone far more deserving, such as Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, or Mark Steven Johnson. Why pick on the genuine tranny auteur of outsider art? But, thank John Waters, the Medveds saw fit to bestow their award on Ed! There is a sense of divine justice after all, because we have rightly canonized him.
Plan 9 was already colorized for DVD a few years ago, and there wasn’t a single complaint about a legendary film being subjected to this much-maligned process. Probably because we all realized Ed simply would have loved the extra attention it gave his magnum opus. According to his biographer, Ed Wood said that while Glen or Glenda? (1953) was his most personal film, Plan 9 was his proudest accomplishment!
Wood’s appeal and fame continues unabated. Yes, he was a trash filmmaker, but he was a trash filmmaker delightfully of his time, simultaneously encased in and fighting against the naiveté of the 1950s. Naturally, that phenomenon is something that cannot be repeated, despite the countless attempts to do so by Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!→
PLOT: Intergenerational relations in Japan have broken down to such an extent that
youngsters are rebelling by committing acts of violence and mass truancy. The situation has deteriorated so badly that the government reacts by passing the “Battle Royale Act”: each year a randomly selected high school class is sent to an isolated, uninhabited island, fitted with remotely detonated explosive collars, given meager supplies and told to fight to the death. One must emerge a victor or three days later everyone will die.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I consider Battle Royale to be a “must see” film, it really can’t go on the list. It’s just not weird. It’s funny, violent, overblown, disturbing, both operatic and banal, but not weird.
COMMENTS: My first review of the film was a little flippant and then, quite randomly, I overheard a man say it was the “sickest” film he had ever seen. He appeared to be quite sincere and I was driven to go back and watch it again, and again, to try and see what he had seen, what had disturbed him so much.
I don’t think that there’s anything in Battle Royale which will upset “366-ers.” Yes, it is a film filled with images of youngsters killing each other and it would not be unnatural to find that disturbing. The violence is so over the top, however, that it’s difficult not to be amused at times. Who would have thought that a saucepan lid could prove to be such an effective weapon in the right hands? It’s not even a very good saucepan lid.
The controversy surrounding Battle Royale on its release centered on the graphic violence and the age of the participants, but there is no connection between the violence in the film and real life violence involving teenagers. The high school class that we follow are being forced against their will to participate in a life or death game, and they have been forced to do so by adults: adults who have stooped so far as to rig the game. Despite having their backs against the wall, some of teenagers behave quite nobly; pleading for peace, setting up Continue reading CAPSULE: BATTLE ROYALE [BATORU ROWAIARU] (2000)→
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