Saturday, May 28, 2016

Could You Survive "The Longest Ride"?

"I'm an old cow hand/from the Rio Grande/and my legs are bowed/and my cheeks are tan...": Bronco buster Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, son of you-know-who) prepares to face Rango the Bucking Bull in Nicholas Sparks' latest romantic cow-pie "The Longest Ride".

Greetings, movie lovers.

In the world according to Nicholas Sparks, opposites attract, messages are found in bottles, couples kiss in the rain, swim in their underwear and lovable old people counsel that "love requires sacrifice, always" right before they kick the bucket.

Considering how successful Mr. Sparks is and how Hollywood never tires of film adaptations of his work, far be it from me, a humble, obscure film historian who specializes in rotten movies, to suggest Nicholas bore a hole in himself and let the sap run out before he attempts another masterpiece, but I will anyway.

 Nick, sweetie: bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out, OK?

Actress Britt Robertson (as college girl Sophia) cringes at some of the lines she must utter in her latest film role.

This advice might have saved 2015's "The Longest Ride", Nicholas' most recent best selling novel turned feature film. After all, this is a movie where an Art History major must choose between an un-paid internship in NYC or retaining the love of a professional bull rider with a plate in his head.

Of course, considering that the cow poke in question ( Luke Collins-- no hero in a Nicholas Sparks movie is ever named Irving Hooper or Homer Stackmouse) is played by Scott Eastwood, son of "Dirty Harry" himself, and the owner of killer cheekbones and washboard abs, this is a conflict that would not bedevil most gals with a pulse. They would simply find a way to work it out, either by telecommuting or sharing the flying between cities or perhaps finding a job with an equally prestigious art gallery somewhere closer to home. Luke could make compromises, too.

Nevertheless, with this as its central conflict, "The Longest Ride" devolves into an unintentional chuckle-fest where miscast actors and under-written characters bump uglies with blatantly contrived "romantic complications" that wouldn't even past muster on "The Young and the Restless"--a soap opera where a determined gal once impregnated herself with a gentleman's stolen sperm only to discover, nine months later, that she had swiped the wrong sperm and instead of having mega-tycoon Victor Newman's baby, as she intended, she birthed his arch-rival Jack Abbott's tot instead. D'oh!

"The Longest Ride" begins by introducing us to Sophia (Britt Robertson), a Wake Forrest sorority gal with straight A's and an internship with a snooty-fruity art gallery in NYC. At the urging of her ditsy friend Sarah, Sophia dons a short skirt and a pair of cowboy boots and joins a gaggle of friends at the local rodeo where, Sarah promises, hot guys will be as plentiful as pig offal and cow pies.

It's during the bull riding competition that our smitten kittens first meet. Luke Collins,um, "mounts" an ornery critter named Rango (who is billed in the credits as "himself") and holds on for dear life as the bull bucks and snorts and kicks up a storm in a fruitless attempt to throw Eastwood out of his saddle. At first it appears that Luke has won the day. While he's acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, Rango, clearly pissed off, charges after Luke. To save himself from being gored in the hinder, Luke scampers up a security fence.

"You want a piece of me?": Rango isn't the only bull to be found in "The Longest Ride."

At that very moment, Luke and Sophia lock eyes in a MEANINGFUL CLOSE-UP so viewers will understand that AN UNDENIABLE SPARK has been struck. However, in his haste to avoid getting rammed by Rango, Luke drop his cowboy hat, which Sophia retrieves.

"You forgot your hat," she calls out.

"You keep it," Luke replies, as he saunters off to the holding area.

Adding even more credence to the fact that Luke and Sophia ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER is the dirty look some bleached-blond tramp in a halter top shoots at Sophia.

The action then moves to a honky-tonk where folks are line dancing up a storm--but not to "Achey Breaky Heart", thank God. Luke and Sophia meet up in the parking lot and she offers to buy him a beer to celebrate his victory in the bull pen. That doesn't sit too well with Luke, who is very "old school" about such things. So Sophia agrees to let him buy her a brew. It's about this time that ditsy Sarah shows up, drunk as a skunk. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, Sarah doesn't toss her cookies on Luke's nice new cowboy boots or wet herself or drunken slur "I love you and I will always love you and I just wanted you to know that", as people deeply stewed often do. Instead, Luke and Sophia quickly exchange numbers and the sorority sisters shuffle off back to the House.

"I'm going to save a horse and ride a cowboy": Sophia's ditsy sorority sister Sarah.

Unlike most men, Luke calls Sophia right away, but she doesn't call him back. Why? Because she's going to be, like, graduating in three months and moving to NYC and she she doesn't need the complication of a hot bull rider messing up her coveted internship, OK? But after Sophia tries on Luke's cowboy hat, she dials his number and they arrange a meeting.

Luke arrives at the sorority house in full cowboy drag and bearing a bouquet of flowers. All of Sophia's sorority sisters are so ga-ga over her gentleman caller that they rush, en masse, to the windows and squeal, "I want a cowboy!" as the duo head off on their date with destiny.

While driving along in Luke's pick-up, our fun couple banter a bit. When Sophia asks Luke if he has any impressions of what life in a sorority house might entail, he pauses for a moment and then muses, "Pillow fights in your underwear?"

"We don't wear underwear," Sophia states with a straight face.

When Luke looks aghast at this bit of info, Sophia declares, "I got you! I got you!"

"You can turn me any which way but loose": Luke and Sophia chat 'n chew.

Viewers are spared more of this witty by-play because the duo finally arrive at the picnic site Luke has especially decked for this occasion: solar lights, a brightly colored table cloth, blue mason jars for mugs and bar-b-que from "Smokin' Amy's". Naturally, Sophia has never been treated so well by a guy and melts like butter on a hot griddle.

Things are going so well between our smitten kittens that the only fly in the (romantic) ointment is a rainstorm on the drive back home. Oh, and that car which has slide off the road and landed in a ditch and is billowing smoke. That's a bummer. Luckily, Luke manages to drag the lone passenger out and Sophia grabs a wooden box from the backseat before the vehicle goes up in flames.

Turns out the driver was Ira (Alan Alda), a grumpy old widower. The wooden box Sophia saved contains the hundreds of letters Ira wrote to his late wife, Ruth (Oona Chaplin, grand-daughter of Charlie and Rob Stark's ill-fated wife on "Game of Thrones"). Ruth arrived with her family in South Carolina from Austria in the early 1940's--and, wouldn't you know it, Ruth was a passionate art lover, just like Sophia!

While Ira recovers in the hospital and complains about every little thing, Sophia begins visiting him. To pass the time, she reads his letters out loud. This allows viewers to tumble into Flashback Land, where we learn all about Ira (played by hunky Jack Houston) and Ruth's romance and marriage. Sure, it seems idyllic, with classic '40's tunes and cars, but WWII is looming and Ruth's relatives in Austria have stopped answering their mail. Then Ira is injured in combat and later learns he cannot have children.

"The Greatest Generation": Cuddlemates Ira and Ruth.

Ruth, who has always wanted to be a mother, is deeply sadden by this news, but she and Ira marry anyway. The couple "try to adopt", but for some illogical and unexplained reason (chosen by the scriptwriters to shamelessly hammer at the viewers' tear ducts), they can't. Ruth, who becomes a teacher, later develops a bond with a young boy named David who is marginally cared for by sleazy hick relatives. The couple tries to adopt this child, but his sleazy hick relatives refuse, basically because that's what sleazy hick relatives do.

This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, the story of Ira and Ruth is meant to be a counter-point to Luke and Sophia's romance. However, while Ira and Ruth faced real (if watered down) issues, Luke and Sophia don't. Their biggest problems are A) Luke refusing to give up bull riding even after he's seriously hurt and B) Sophia wanting to work in a snooty NYC gallery and C) Luke thinking that painting where dogs smoke cigars and play cards is art. Later on, Luke attends a posh event arranged by Sophia's future boss. and he's asked his opinion of the exhibits. After a pause Luke drawls, "I think there's more bull@%&* here than where I work." Incensed, Sophia and Luke have a big fight and break up.

Now, if you experienced whiplash at the end of Nicholas Sparks' movie "Safe Haven", gird your loins, because "The Longest Ride" has a dilly of an ending, too. Needless to say, it involves the death of a beloved old codger (guess who!); the showing of a personal art collection at an invitation-only event; Sophia being hired to help organize the wing-ding; and Luke unexpectedly showing up and buying a picture called "A Portrait of Ruth"--which was painted by David, the child Ira and Ruth had tried to adopt while he was stuck in a group home. How did Ira become the owner of this painting? Well, David's wife gives it to Ira many years later when she read about Ruth's passing in the newspaper. Turns out David never forgot Ruth or that she told him "he could be anything he wanted to be"--so he grew up and became a physics professor and lectured in England. That's how Ira came into possession of "A Portrait of Ruth".

 But, wait, there's still more: by purchasing "A Portrait of Ruth", Luke is given the entire collection which was owned by Ira and Ruth and which includes pieces by Monet, Renoir, Andy Warhol, guys like that. How is Luke allowed to do this? Because Ira's will stipulated that the person who bought "A Portrait of Ruth" would get the whole kit and caboodle because they would understand a young child's picture of his beloved late wife just as valuable--perhaps even more so-- anything from a grand master. And because Luke is now the owner of an art collection worth zillions, well, he can sell one of pieces he doesn't like and save the family farm! Oh, I did I forget to mention that Luke's family is in need of being saved? It is, which is why Luke keeps on bull riding, despite his injuries, so he can save the family farm.

With family farm saved, we next see the reunited Luke and Sophia, they are doing the ultimate Nicholas Sparksian thing, which is swimming in their underwear. All's well that ends well, wouldn't you say?

Slippery when wet: Luke and Sophia swim in their underwear because, well, doesn't everybody?

Not quite. See, while watching "The Longest Ride", I couldn't help thinking that Nicholas Sparks was having trouble pulling this one off. Frankly, you know a movie is in trouble when the smitten kittens are forced to play a "sexy" scene where she hops on his practice bull and he, um, "rocks" it back and forth to simulate the motion of a bucking bronco while you know damn well this is meant to be a precursor to their upcoming sex scene. You also know your movie is in trouble when the cranky old person is played by Alan Alda, the ultimate '70's sensitive guy. Alda is a fine actor, but he's about as cranky as Mr. B Natural.  Robertson and Eastwood are attractive people, but as actors they have no chemistry. It's also interesting to note that "The Longest Ride" may be one of the few movies in recent history where the male half of the equation is treated more as eye candy than the female half. Scott Eastwood is more than up to the challenge of playing a hunky guy, but I'm sure he has greater aspirations for himself than just being scenery.

Therefore, if you choose to partake of "The Longest Ride", don't blame me if you end of saddle sore.

So, until next time, remember that art is a subjective matter, and help me SAVE THE MOVIES!

Film critics weren't the only ones who objected to "The Longest Ride."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

An Extra-Crispy Chicken McNugget Threatens The Universe In "The Phantom Planet"

"Did you bring the dipping sauce?" A giant Chicken McNugget patrols the universe in "The Phantom Planet."

Hi-dee-ho, movie lovers.

Our feature presentation has something--literally--for everyone: cheap cartoon animation; a self-righteous hero with an extreme crew-cut; Richard "Jaws"/"Eegah" Kiel in a pivotal supporting role; silent screen star Francis X. Bushman as the wise elder of a rare space race; a Liz Taylor look-a-like, complete with Cleopatra eyeliner; a group of alien critters that resemble Walt Disney's Goofy; and a free-floating planet that bears an uncanny likeness to an extra crispy Chicken McNugget.

Like I said, something for everyone!

So set yourself down, prop up your feet and prepare to experience "The Phantom Planet" (1961) in all its no-budget, no-brain glory.

Our tale begins "in the future" (actually, 1980) where two nameless astronauts sit in their spaceship--which at certain angles resembles an Easy Glide Tampon--and under go a routine instruments check. Seconds later, they "drift off course" and face a barrage of Honey Bunches of Oats clusters. The camera starts to shake and, sure enough, our two nameless space cadets are soon toast.

They were expendable: Cast members This Guy and That Guy are the first victims of "The Phantom Planet"...after the audience, of course.

Over on the moon (where the USA parks its space program headquarters) the dour, square-headed, deeply crew-cutted Frank Chapman (Dean Fredricks) is informed that he's been chosen to lead a rescue mission to find the missing astronauts--and learn if there is any truth to this "phantom planet" rumor people are whispering about. Frank's superior also tells him that he won't get any "second chances" on this assignment, so he better not screw it up.

Accompanied by Lt. Ray Makonnen (Richard Webber), a fellow jet jockey who's given to spouting flowery peons about the powers of positive thinking ("Every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and the best is to fix our attention on the good and beautiful..."), Chapman blasts off into space. Things seem pretty routine at first, until those deadly Honey Bunches of Oats reappear and begin hammering their spaceship for all its worth. Frank and Ray survive the onslaught ("Now I know why they made us practice those drills so much!" Ray declares), but some obscure part of the ship ends up damaged. This requires our heroes to suit and head outside (armed only with a socket wrench!) to make the needed repairs.

Unfortunately, Frank's air hose (or something) gets unhooked or cut or tangled or gummed-up, I don't know, and Ray has to drag his boss's hinder back into the ship. Frank is saved, but poor Ray takes a fatal hit from a rouge Honey Bunches of Oats cluster and is soon drifting out into space. As he floats to his doom, Ray begins reciting The Lord's Prayer.

Eventually, Chapman comes to and tries to figure out what to do next--and because our main character is not too bright, this is clearly going to take a while. Then a giant extra crispy Chicken McNugget zooms into view and forces Frank's ship to land on its surface via its "tractor beam." Once safely settled, Frank suits up (again) and decides to poke around a bit. No sooner does he take one step onto terra firma than Chapman trips, falls and knocks himself out. D'oh!

While Frank is lying flat on his face, a collection of mini-men dressed in smocks and chinos scamper on screen. Just when you begin to worry that "The Phantom Planet" will turn into an outer space version of Gulliver's Travels, Frank suddenly shrinks down to their size. When confronted by the mini-men, Frank takes a pop at one; however, the tiny aliens quickly over power him and drag him off to face Sesom (silent screen star Francis X. Bushman), the wise elder of their bite-size people.

"Remember, size doesn't matter": Astronaut Frank Chapman is discovered by the tiny inhabitants of "The Phantom Planet" (actually, Rayton).

Turns out the extra crispy Chicken McNugget is actually a planet called Rayton. Frank is found guilty of punching out a Raytonian, yet is given a suspended sentence. The wise elder then announces that Frank is the newest member of the Raytonian family. What's more, after the space cadet settles into his new life and finds a steady job, he will be allowed to select a mate from Rayton's female population (after all, membership has its privileges).

As you can probably guess, Frank is not happy about this turn of events. He wants to return to his normal size, return to his ship and return to the moon. However, the continued safety of Rayton requires as few people as possible know about its existence. See, the Raytonians are the sworn enemies of a group of meanies called Solarites or "fire people". The Solarites want this thing-a-ma-jig the Raytons have invented (don't ask) and if they get their paws on it, well, "they will then attack Earth." Thus, for the sake of everybody, Frank must stay put. It's understandable that this type of news would be hard swallow under any circumstances, but, really, the Ratons are giving Frank a good deal. After all, he has full citizenship and equal rights; he'll be able to have a useful career; he can marry and start a family--it's more like relocating to Denmark than forced captivity. Unlike other alien races, Frank isn't being subjected to anal probes, brain implants, gelding, torture, slavery or organ harvesting. As I noted earlier, this is a fair deal, not perfect, but fair.

But I digress...

Crabby as he is, Frank still manages to attract the attention of Rayton's most eligible bachlorettes: Liana (Colleen Grey) and Zetha (Delores Faith). Liana is Sesom's daughter and she's a bit of a Little Miss Can't Be Wrong. Zetha, who is Rayton's answer to Liz Taylor, is mute. She lost her power of speech when she saw a Solarite. Complicating matters is a chap named Herron (Anthony Dexter), who has long torched for Liana. Naturally, he doesn't appreciate it one bit when Liana starts throwing herself at Frank. In fact, Herron is so determined to to be rid of his rival that he challenges Frank to "a duel."

Unlike on Earth, "a duel" on Rayton isn't pistols at twenty paces at dawn. Instead, it's a shoving match where the aggrieved parties try to push each other into a solar panel or a disintegrater, while all of Rayton watches (since Rayton doesn't appear to have TV and thus its citizens can't watch "Game of Thrones" or "Outlander", these shoving matches/duels constitute a major form or entertainment).

 Which one will Frank propose to? Liana (left) daughter of Sesom or Zetha (right)? Tune in for "The Bachelor: The Final Rose" live from Rayton to find out!

OK, so. Herron and Frank toss each other around for a bit. Then they both come to the conclusion that their "duel" is pretty pointless. After all, Frank has never shown any interest in Liana. What's more, Herron realizes that he really isn't mad at Frank, per se. Rather, he's stewing because Liana is flaunting herself in front of another guy when she knows perfectly well that he (Herron) wants to marry her and Frank is just a scapegoat because Liana is such a drama queen and is apparently never happier than when she's stirring up needless drama--kinda like this one relative of mine (who shall remain nameless) who is a real pill and who just loves to cause needless trouble, especially during the holidays. So the duel abruptly ends and the guys decide to bury the hatchet, in a manner of speaking. Later on, Frank hooks up with Zetha and it appears that the grumpy guy from Earth may finally be beginning to adjust to his new life.

But wait! Remember those Solarites? And remember that thing--a-ma-jig the Raytons created that those "fire people" want? Well, those uppity bad guys are back and they are ready to rumble! That means the Raytonians must man their battle stations and prepare to give their mortal enemies a huge dose of whup-ass in an epic confrontation...that lasts about 30 seconds. Seriously! The Solarites are simply no match for the Raytonians, which makes you wonder why the mini-people were so worried to begin with.

However, trouble brews elsewhere.

You see, in their never-ending clashes with the Solarites, the Raytonians have managed to nab exactly one--one!--Solarite. The poor bastard has been kept imprisoned in some force-field type cell and he hasn't been happy about it. Zetha, you may recall, was so horrified by the sight of this critter that she lost her power of speech. Anyway, during the last epic confrontation between the two enemies, the force field keeping the captive Solarite captive short-circuits. This means the alien baddie is now free to stomp around Rayton and cause all types of havoc.

About this time, you might be wondering what these Solarites look like. Well, brace yourselves. Solarites are tall drinks-of-water with patches of Yak wool stuck to their skin. Their feet are long and flat and their hands looks like lobster claws. Their faces are dominated by huge pop eyes, similar to the ones sported by Goofy. Perched on top of their heads is a pointed cap that resembles those fur hats Cossacks wore. Solarites also favor short grass skirts. They don't speak and they stagger around like a drunk squishing potato bugs. Unlike those dragon-like beasties with acid for blood in "Aliens", the Solarites are more likely to make a person wet their pants from laughing than lose their voice out of fear. Personally, the fact that Richard "Jaws"/"Eegah" Kiel was cast as this Solarite in his first screen credit is what's important here, not the damage any of these flat-footed dorks could cause on Rayton.

Richard Kiel as you've never seen him before...or since.

As is so often the case with rouge critter baddies in low-rent sci-fi cheese, the newly freed Solarite has a thing for the ladies. While stumbling around Rayton, the Solarite finds Zetha asleep in her room. She can't scream, remember, so when she opens her peppers and sees the baddie in all his glory, she faints dead away. The Solarite then scoops her up and staggers off.

"The Phantom Planet" reaches the first of many thrilling (?) climaxes when Frank, Herron, Sesom and Liana all converge on the Solarite and Zetha. The plan is for the guys to duke it out with the alien, pushing him into the disintergrater panels used for "duels" for Rayton. This seems like a fine strategy, except for one thing: the Solarite may have the moves of a drunk Wallaby, but he's not easy to push around. At one point, it looks as if the alien beastie may be pulling out a surprise move on Frank, but have no fear: Zetha finally regains her voice and screams bloody murder, warning Frank and allowing him to shove the Solarite into the disintergrater panels. Once the rouge critter is fried into nothingness, everybody enjoys a group hug and Zetha collapses in Frank's arms.

Rayton is safe at last, the Solarites are defeated, Zetha has regained the power of speech and declares her undying love for Frank ("I've loved you from the moment I first saw you!" she warbles) and Frank appears to have settled into his new home. What's more, Liana seems resigned to marrying Herron and the groom-to-be is thrilled. All that's needed now is to call on the Martha Stewart of Rayton and prepare a double-wedding.

Uh, no. Sorry to burst your romantic bubble movie lovers, but true love will not win out this time. See, the USA's space program has sent a team out to find Frank--against orders, mind you--and guess what? They have found Rayton! They are about to land on the planet's surface! What is Frank to do?

Our hero hims and haws for a minute, then decides he must return to Earth. After all, he can't bring Zetha home to meet the folks because she's the size of a Polly Pocket. Even though she loves Frank to bits, Zetha is a good sport about this and she sends Frank off. Of course, now that she can talk again, Zetha's marriage prospects on Rayton have improved considerably and I have no doubt she'll find happiness soon enough. So, with the help of Herron, Frank scampers back into his flight suit and magically regains his normal size just in time for the away-team to find him and bring him back to Earth...a bittersweet ending to a truly nutty movie.

"Well, I dodged that bullet...": Zetha (Delores Faith) is glad her short-lived engagement to crabby Frank Chapman is off.

In his book Cult Science Fiction Films, author Welch Everman argues that "The Phantom Planet" suffers from what he calls "The Tarzan Syndrome": a white guy stumbling into a foreign land/planet, where he proves himself to be smarter than any of the natives and then winds up the boss of everybody. It's an interesting theory and, yes, it has a sadly racist subtext. Nevertheless, I have to agree with Mr. Everman. Crabby as he is, Frank is presented as smarter and stronger than the typical Raytonian--only Herron comes close to being his equal--just because he's white and from Earth. Wise Sesom drops lots of hints that Frank is on the fast track to succeeding him and our anti-hero hasn't been on Rayton 24 hours! Only his return to Earth (via the moon) prevents Frank from becoming the head cheese on Rayton.

Early in this article I mentioned "The Phantom Planet"s low budget appearance. This wasn't just for snark's sake. During my research into the flick, I learned that all the interior spaceship sets, the space suits and the special effects were pinched from the "Men Into Space" TV series. That clearly means the flick's budget couldn't cover these things, so hat's off to director William Marshall, a former actor and band leader, for economizing and finding these necessities on the the cheap! The thrifty director even saved on cast members by giving his son Mike a small role in the film.

Dean Fredericks, as the crabby Frank Chapman, had just finished 34 episodes of the TV series "Steven Canyon", based on the classic comic strip, when he appeared in this flick. Both roles required him to do nothing more that puff out his chest, cross his arms and glare at people. Dean's other role of note was as the Hindu manservant(!?) on Johnny Weissmuller's "Jungle Jim" TV series (1955-56). Movie fans know, of course, that Johnny Weissmuller was Tarzan in a series of hit movies--and his Jane was Maureen O'Sullivan, a fine actress (and schoolmate of Vivien Leigh's) who was also the mother of Mia Farrow.

Thanks to the wonderful, funderful world of Junk Cinema, we have a movie that personifies "The Tarzan Syndrome" starring a guy who once worked on a series starring moviedom's best known Tarzan, with sets borrowed a short-lived TV series and was then served to the general public on a double with "Assignment Outer Space"--with Richard Kiel in his film debut! Is this a cool world or what?!

Until next time movie lovers, help me SAVE THE MOVIES!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Junk Cinema Remembers Patty Duke

Patty Duke in the role that made her shameless: Neely O'Hara in the ne plus ultra of trashy flicks "Valley of the Dolls".

Greetings, movie lovers.

As you may already know, Oscar-winning actress and mental health advocate Patty Duke has passed away.

Duke first rose to fame as the young Helen Keller in the 1962 film "The Miracle Worker". Both she and Anne Bancroft (who played her teacher Annie Sullivan) won Oscars for their performances. Years later, Duke would play Sullivan in an acclaimed TV-movie version of "The Miracle Worker" opposite Melissa Gilbert as Helen.

Her Oscar win earned Patty her own sitcom. "The Patty Duke Show" which ran from 1963 to 1966 and focused on the high school high-jinks of "identical cousins" Patty and Cathy, both played by Duke. As the show's famous theme song explained, Cathy favored "the minuet, The Ballet Russe and crepe Suzette", while Patty "loved to rock and roll" and "a hot dog (made) her lose control".

Although Duke would assemble a resume of impressive credits in film and TV (winning several Emmy awards in the process), Junk Cinema fans will always remember her for her over-the-top, out of this world, supremely nutty turn as the tortured starlet Neely O'Hara in the ne plus ultra of trashy flicks "Valley of the Dolls" (1967).

"Booze! It's what for dinner! And lunch! And breakfast!": Neely O'Hara pours herself some instant breakfast while Paul Burke looks on.

Based on the runaway best-seller by Jacqueline Suzanne--who supposedly felt her book was a serious work of literature!--"Valley of the Dolls" told the sad, sordid saga of three friends (Duke, Sharon Tate and Barbra Parkins) who dreamed of careers in show business but instead found themselves undone by vicious co-workers, faithless men, nasty in-laws, evil producers and big hair. To cope with all these injustices, our heroines swallow a truck load of "dolls" and wash them down by gulping oceans of alcohol.

Of the three gals, poor Duke had it by far the worst. Neely O'Hara (partially based on Judy Garland) starts out as a sweet Broadway baby who is rehearsing a featured role in a new musical. The star of the show is the roaring, hard-as-nails Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), who believes O'Hara will steal her thunder and the show. "The only hit to come out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson!" Hayward bellows and thus poor Neely is kicked to the curb.

She rebounds by singing on a star-studded TV telethon and staging a night club act. Before long, Hollywood beckons. To keep up with the demands of her film career ("Everybody says 'Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!'") Duke starts popping the dolls and hitting the bottle. Her growing addiction makes Neely uppity and bad tempered and she turns on her long-suffering, nice guy husband Martin Milner (of "Adam-12" fame). 

"I'm not the door man!" Marty complains when faced with his wife's continuous demands.

"You're not the breadwinner either!" wifey spits back.

Another source of friction between the two is Neely's growing dependence on AC/DC hairstylist Ted Casblancas. When hubby fumes, "You're spending more time than necessary with that fag!" Neely screams back, "Ted Casablancas is not a fag! (pause) And I'm just the dame who can prove it!"

Anne Wells (Barbra Parkins) is worried friend Neely is popping more pills than she is.

Then one night a burned-out Neely comes home to find Ted splashing in her pool with a giggling bimbo. Horrified, Neely pours bleach in her pool and staggers off. This leads to her epic nervous break down, where Duke wails, "I can't sleep without a doll!" She's later sent to a nervous hospital to recover. It's there Neely comes upon the terminally ill Tony, the husband of pal and "art film" star Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Experiencing the last stages of an unspecified neurological disorder, the two old friends sing a duet (!) and then the poor Tony keels over and dies.

Finally cured, Neely has a chance to make a come-back in a new musical. Before that happens, however, Duke has a final showdown with the terrifying Helen Lawson--who knows all about O'Hara's personal and career problems.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you came crawling back to Broadway!" Helen sneers. "But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope! Now, get out of my way," Hayward informs Duke, "I've got a man waiting for me!"

Before Helen can flounce off, Neely grabs the legend's wig off her head and flushes it down the john.

Of course, when Neely tries to make her comeback, her nerves get the better of her and she starts using again. Opening night arrives, but Duke is too stoned to go on. Her scheming little understudy, of course, is ready to go and becomes an instant sensation. Poor Neely is out on her ear again. When last seen, the once great star is staggering through a back alley, bumping into garbage cans and screaming the names of everybody who has wronged her--ending, of course, with her own.

"Hair we go again!": Epic enemies Neely O'Hara and Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) battle it out in one of Junk Cinema's most iconic cat-fights.

"Valley of the Dolls" is such a corker of a bad movie that it holds an honored place in The Bad Movie Hall Of Shame. However, without the wonderfully terrible performances of the cast, especially Patty Duke's, the flick would have been just another Show Business Sucks cautionary tale. As the troubled, temperamental Neely, Duke rose to operatic heights to convey her character's torment: screaming, wailing, crying, crawling on the floor, smoking cigarette after cigarette--everything but acting. Only Stephen Boyd as the louse-of-all-louses Frankie Fane in "The Oscar" matches Duke's hysterical histrionics. Without Duke, "Valley of the Dolls" just wouldn't have been as bad.

So, we say a fond farewell to Patty Duke, an actress and activist who gave so many memorable performances over her impressive career. However, as good a Duke could be, she was even better when she was bad. Patty Duke, Junk Cinema salutes you!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

William Castle Invites You To "The House On Haunted Hill"

"And that's how I got into commemorative spoon collecting..." Walter Prichard (Elisha Cook, Jr.) introduces himself to the other guests staying at "The House on Haunted Hill."

Happy Spring, movie lovers.

Say, does this scenario sound kind of familiar to you?

A group of diverse people gather at a house where they will be locked in.

The said people will experience a variety of situations that will (supposedly) test their mettle.

There will be a host to observe and comment on the proceedings.

"And this is your room..." Ingenue Nora (Carolyn Craig) doesn't seem happy with her accommodations. 

If the participants can hang on until the end, they will receive a nice chunk o'change.

If you are thinking to yourself, "Hey! That sounds just like that rancid reality show 'Big Brother'..." you are half right.

For while it is true that the rancid reality show "Big Brother" features a clutch of folks ensconced in a house where they humiliate and/or debase themselves and/or each other for a cash prize, CBS did not cook up this scenario themselves. No way! That honor belongs to director, producer, idea man and all around huckster William Castle and his 1958 cheaper creeper "The House on Haunted Hill."

Velvet voiced eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price with Salvador Dali's 'stache) has invited five people to spend the night in a supposedly "haunted house". If they can last until morning, each guest will get a check for ten grand--quite a bit of money in 1958, even after taxes (in case you're interested, $10,000 in 1958 is $83,283.45 in 2016 values).

The takers are test pilot Lance (Richard Long from "The Big Valley" and "Nanny and the Professor" fame); Dr. Trent (Alan Marshall), a psychiatrist who studies hysteria; ingenue typist Nora (Carolyn Craig); newspaper columnist Ruth (Julie Mitchum); and the very nervous heavy drinker Watson Pritchard (legendary character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.).

"Allow me to introduce myself": Host and Big Brother Frederick Loren (Vincent Price).

Of course, each of these folks have an underlying reason for taking Mr. Loren up on his rather kooky offer. Lance, for example, is just doing it for kicks. Nora needs the money to help her injured parents. Newspaper columnist Ruth has gambling debts she'd like to pay off. However, Pritchard's motivation is rather vague. See, he actually owns the house Loren is renting for his spooky sleep-over. Moreover, Walter's own brother AND sister-in-law were hacked to death in the said house--by the wife's sister, no less. Finally, in the flick's prologue, Walt states that he had previously attempted to spend the night in the haunted house and nearly DIED in the process. So why tag along? To face his fears? To make peace with the past? Considering what a marathon drinker Walter is, I vote for the free hooch.

Anyway, things get off to a suitably scary start when a huge crystal chandelier  nearly crashes down on Nora--who is saved by Lance, naturally. For the rest of the movie, Lance will hit on Nora with varying rates of success. As the guests get acquainted downstairs, viewers are given a peek into Frederick Loren's domestic situation, which is rather spooky itself.

Loren is married to Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), an ice cold blond who wants hubby's money so much she'd kill for it. In fact, Frederick insists Annabelle has already tried to do him in before--with arsenic--although she insists it was merely "something he ate." Later on, Fred offers the Mrs. "one million tax free" if she'd divorce him, but Annabelle sweetly refuses, stating, "I want it all."

Of course, Fred isn't exactly an ideal husband. His first wife ran off and his second and third wives each died of heart attacks, "even though they were in their twenties." Annabelle contends that Fred's jealousy and possessiveness drove away her friends and that Loren is a psychotic, too. When she refuses to participate in hubby's "haunted house party", he yanks her by the hair until she relents. As a parting shot, Frederick tells Annabelle not to fret so much "because it causes wrinkles."

After Frederick welcomes his guests and lays down the ground rules, he suggests Walter give them a tour of the house. Turns out seven people have been offed there in some very icky ways. For instance, a disgruntled husband kicked his wife into a vat of acid for not being enthusiastic enough about his wine making hobby. Skoal!

See, tanning does CAUSE wrinkles!

When the group moves on, Lance and Nora hang back. They banter a bit and decide to check out some of the basement rooms on their own. Suddenly Lance falls into a supposedly locked room and poor Nora is confronted by a horrifying specter. Well, actually, the sight of a shriveled up old granny in a fright wig. Being pulled on a skateboard. Wearing a long black nightie. Not exactly a horrifying specter as horrifying specters go, but a reasonable simulation of one. Or not. You make the call.

Never the less, Nora screams bloody murder and runs off to find the other guests. They are gathered in the formal living room knocking a few back--Walter having knocked back more than a few himself. The hysterical typist pleads with the others to follow her into the basement to locate Lance. They find the jet jockey unconscious with a bump on his head, but the ghostly specter of granny is nowhere to be found. Lance can't remember how he got locked in the room or who conked him on the noggin, but, after all, this is a haunted house and those things do tend to happen.

As the evening (and movie) wears on, it's poor, pitiful Nora who keeps getting freaked out. She finds a disembodied head in her over-night bag, for instance. She's the one who discovers the body of Annabelle dangling from a noose. Later on, the body of Annabelle will float outside the gal's bedroom window. Then Nora runs off to the basement, convinced Frederick is trying to kill her. Naturally, by the time Fred catches up with Nora she's as unglued as a virgin at a prison rodeo--and promptly shoots Loren dead.

After Frederick collapses in a heap, Nora runs off (again), shrieking like a dental drill. Moments later, Dr. Trent appears out of the shadows. Turns out that--gasp!--he and Annabelle are having an affair and-gasp!--conspiring to kill Frederick by--gasp!--driving Nora to the edge so she would--gasp!--shoot Frederick and thus allow them to --gasp!--live happily ever after on the stiff's money.

What a cunning plan! I mean, it's fool-proof! The only way Dr. Trent and Annabelle's plan could possibly fail would be if the gun Nora fires would be filled with blanks...and Fred only pretends to be dead...and Dr. Trent and Frederick duke it out by the acid vat...and the lights go out...and Dr. Trent falls into the acid...and the not dead Fred scares Annabelle into falling into the acid vat..with the help of a skeleton dummy. But unless any of those things happen, it's all systems go for Dr. Trent and Annabelle!

"May I borrow this? I'm kinda cold..." Annabelle is not happy with Dr. Trent's new look.

Unfortunately, everything described above does happen, which is kind of a bummer, especially for Annabelle and Dr. Trent.

In the final moments of "The House on Haunted House", Frederick Loren faces his stunned guests and explains that when he discovered Annabelle and Dr. Trent were conspiring to murder him at his "haunted house party", he decided to "play along", when in fact he was actually conspiring to kill them. He then declares that he's content to let "justice" decide if killing someone who plans on killing you is OK.

A fascinating moral argument, I grant you, but I'm sure all of Loren's guests just wanted to know that they were still getting paid--I know I would.

The interesting thing about "The House on Haunted Hill" is how this low budget, B&W "popcorn eater's movie" later attained the status of a "cult classic." That certainly wasn't the outcome William Castle had in mind when he shot the flick. In fact, Castle saw "The House on Haunted Hill" primarily as a showcase for his latest gimmick, "Emergo".

See, at certain points in the film, large inflatable skeletons were to "emerge" from strategic points in the theater and fly over the heads of unsuspecting patrons, thus adding to the chill factor of the flick.

Movie patrons enjoying the delights of William Castle's latest gimmick "Emergo".

Unfortunately, this novel idea never really panned out the way Castle wanted it to. According to The Golden Turkey Awards (which nominated "Emergo" for "The Most Inane and Unwelcome Technical Advance in Hollywood History" alongside "Percepto" and "Glorious-Smell-O-Vision"), when Will previewed "Emergo" for Allied Artist executives, the skeleton (which weighed 15 pounds) fell off its trolley and smacked chief of studio operation Eugene Arnstein on the head. Later, when "The House on Haunted Hill" was playing in theaters, the skeletons were light weight figures that proved to be irresistible targets for kids with sling-shots. As The Saturday Evening Post  remarked, "Breakage was high."

Mangled plastic skeletons aside, one person watching "The House on Haunted Hill" with great interest was Alfred Hitchcock. After seeing Castle's film get positive reviews and rake in the cash at the box office, "The Master of Suspense" decided to do his own low-budget B&W horror movie, using the crew from his TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". That film was named "Psycho" and the rest is movie history. William Castle, an Alfred Hitchcock fan, was delighted that the director of "Rebecca", "Rear Window", "To Catch a Thief" and "Vertigo" (among other classics) was inspired by his little cheaper creeper to make his own cheaper creeper. It must have made the failure of "Emergo" so much easier to handle.

Therefore movie lovers, remember that inspiration can strike anywhere, and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Let's All Visit The "Carnival Of Souls"!

Actress Candice Hilligoss cringes in horror after watching her feature film debut as Mary in "Carnival of Souls." 

How-dee, movie lovers.

Question: What cost $33,000 bucks to make, was shot in a a couple of weeks, was screened on a double bill with "The Devil's Messenger" AND may be the most influential film EVER lensed (partially) in Lawrence, Kansas?

Give up?

It's the crack-pot creeper "Carnival Of Souls"(1962), the ONLY film to date EVER directed by a guy named Herk.

However, before we delve into the murky depths of the movie, please be aware that "Carnival of Souls" has reached the status of a "cult classic". When it was re-released in 1989, it was met with general critical acclaim. Furthermore, directors David Lynch and George A. Romero have both cited our featured flick as a major influence on their particular oeuvre.

"Anybody got a towel?" The stunned Mary staggers out of the drink.

Which is perfectly fine. Many low budget movies--like "Cat Woman" and "DOA"--have, with the passage of time, proven themselves to be cinematic works of imagination and innovation.

Yet, in my esteemed opinion (and because this is my blog, I can call my opinion "esteemed" if I want to!) "Carnival Of Souls" remains--irregardless of critical re-appraisal-- a goofy, often static, fitfully acted tale about a chick with a bouffant hair-do who staggers around as if she was accidentally injected with a mega dose of elephant tranquilizer.

Set to organ music, I might add.

Things begin thusly: Mary (Candice Hilligoss) and her gal pals foolishly accept a drag racing challenge from some dudes in straw hats. As they trundle across a rickety bridge, the cars bump and the vehicle carrying the girls plunges into to the muddy, sandy river below--don't you hate it when that happens? While the police and assorted old coots in bib over-alls dredge the river to find the downed car, up pops Mary. She's dazed and confused and covered in muck, but she's alive. How did she survive the crash? Don't ask Mary--she's just as perplexed as everyone else.

Three days later, Mary is heading off to her new job as a church organist in the party state of Utah. While driving into town, she she passes by an abandoned carnival site that exerts a strange and strong attraction for her. In a way, that's understandable, because the broken down pavilion is more life-like (and a better performer) than most of the human cast.

"May I help you?" Director Herk Harvey as "The Man".

Mary settles into a rooming house run by an Aunt Bea-ish type spinster (Frances Feist), who seems unusually proud that all her rooms all come with baths. The only other boarder is an oily, creepy rake named John (Sidney Berger), who relentlessly hits on Mary. Oh, and there is this pasty-faced guy in a suite (director Herk Harvey himself) who has a weird habit of sneaking up on Mary and scaring the hell out of her. Wonder what he wants.

As "Carnival of Souls" progresses, poor Mary becomes increasingly unhinged by a series of strange interludes. For example, while shopping for a new dress, it appears people can neither see nor hear her. Next, she loses her accompanist job for freaking out on the organ and playing "profane" music. Prowling around the deserted carnival, Mary finds a bunch of pasty-faced ghouls dancing up a storm. Desperate to get out of town, she hops on a Greyhound bus and finds it crammed with grinning, white-faced ghouls. Speaking to a sympathetic doctor, Mary wonders if these encounters mean "she's not suppose to be here" and if she's trapped between the realm of the living and the dead--a common occurrence to visitors to Utah, I am told.

Finally, our beleaguered heroine goes back to the carnival, where the ghouls are still cutting a rug. Once the music stops, they chase Mary en masse onto a deserted strip of beach and pig pile on top of her. Not good, if you ask me.

"Carnival of Souls" quickly wraps up (it's only 82 minutes long) with rescue workers still trying to locate that downed car. This time, however, they hit pay dirt. As they drag the vehicle out of the water, rescue workers find the bodies of all three passengers, including--gasp!--Mary.

As organ music carries us up and out of "Carnival of Souls", we, the viewers, are left to ponder these questions:

"The Gangs All Here!" Mary encounters some other worldly passengers when she hops a bus out of town.

A) Was Mary trapped between the living and the dead? My guess is yes.

B) Was that pasty-faced guy in the suit meant to guide Mary to the great beyond or was he just scaring her for kicks?

C) Is Mary's fellow boarder John a stalker, a pervert, a criminal or a Ted Cruz supporter?

I can acknowledge that "Carnival of Souls" does boast flourishes of innovative film making. The black and white photography, for example, is excellent. The scenes where the ghouls dance at the abandoned carnival is surreally creepy. Director Herk creates a tone of unease lurking below the surface of ho-hum small town life.

Perhaps most importantly, one can see the influence "Carnival of Souls" had on George A. Romero. The freaky ghouls closing in on the hysterical Mary recalls the ravenous zombies converging on the survivors trapped inside the house in "Night of the Living Dead", which was released in 1969. Also, I wonder if "The Man" character inspired "The Tall Man" character (played by Angus Scrim) in those "Phantasm" movies of the late 1970's.

"Shall We Dance?" The ghouls in the after-life trip the light fantastic.

Which, as I noted earlier, is all find and dandy. Film makers find their inspiration in all sorts of places. But let's not get ahead of our selves. The elements I discussed only hint at what "Carnival of Souls" could have been if director Herk had had more time, money and experience. In final analysis, "Carnival of Souls" is a more ambitious and creative bad movie than, say, "Voodoo Man" (reviewed below), but it's still a bad movie--and that's all right with me.

So, until next time movie lovers, leave the drag racing to the professionals, and SAVE THE MOVIES!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A "Flashdance" In The Pan

"Who's That Girl?": Jennifer Beals (as Alex) flips through Vogue magazine. After what "Flashdance" did for her career (hint: nothing) she'd be better off checking the help-wanted ads.

Hi keebah, movie lovers.

When the movie "Flashdance" was released in 1983, it was a box office and pop-culture sensation. The story of a Philly welder who dreams of attending a famous, snooty dance academy, "Flashdance" was hailed as one of the first films directly influenced by MTV. Indeed, it's success spawned a clutch of musicals (like "Footloose" and "Shout") that employed the quick cuts, montages, smoke and mirrors so beloved by the music videos of the day. That quick editing, fog and strobe lighting also hid the fact that dancing doubles were often employed to cover-up for stars cursed with two left feet.

That was certainly the case for Jennifer Beals, the Ivy League student/part-time model who was cast as the lead, Alex. Most of her dancing was done by the uncredited Marine Jahan, although the flick's original publicity had hinted otherwise.

"Flashdance" also inspired a fashion craze for "designer sweat pants" and torn and/or off-the-shoulder tops for women. Even more incredible, the flick's theme song ("What A Feeling", written and sung by Irene Cara of "Fame" fame) went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. Yeech!

The unexpected success of "Flashdance" blinded a lot of movie goers to the fact the flick was horribly, laughably bad. In fact, certain scenes, played with poker-faced seriousness by the on- screen participants, are so nutty that you could shoot whole popcorn kernels through your nose from laughing.

Scruffy Alex yearns to leave flashdancing behind and become a ballerina.

Therefore, to celebrate "Flashdance"s 33rd anniversary (or birthday, if you prefer), let's take a long, loving look at what made this musical monstrosity the crack-pot classic it is today.

Home Alone--Star/heroine Jennifer Beals is Alex Owens. She lives is a spacious loft apartment and appears to have no family. Her dancing skills appear to be divinely inspired, because she never mentions ever attending a dance class in her life. Even Fred Astaire went to dancing school, for Pete's sake.

Workin' For A Livin'--Our featured film expects us to believe that Alex is a welder in the Philly steel mills. Welding is a very demanding job that requires a specific kind of training and education. Alex, who is suppose to be in her late teens or early 20's, is clearly too young to have acquired this knowledge--unless she was the prize student at Pine City Vo-Tech or something. Furthermore, welding is a union job and should provide Alex with a nice paycheck. So why is she moonlighting as a dancer at Mawbry's, the supposedly "blue collar" bar where she performs?

Gotta Dance!--As noted above, Alex welds by day and dances by night. How is this so? Alex must at least put in an 8-hour shift welding. Therefore, where does she find the time to conceive, choreograph and rehearse her dance numbers? And work out the lighting cues, music and costume requirements? Come to think of it, "Flashdance" never tells us how many days a week Alex dances at Mawby's. Is it just on weekends? Is she required to come up with a new dance every week or every month? Do the bosses at Mawbry's preview her dances before she's allowed to perform before the patrons? And since Alex has apparently never set foot in a dance class, where does she get her ideas and how does she know how to execute them properly?

Gotta Dance! Part 2--The dances that Alex and the gals regularly perform are laughably too complex for the supposedly blue collar crowd they entertain. They are more like Las Vegas set pieces. In her number "He's A Dream", for instance, Alex employs stark lighting, several props, a costume change and a shower of water as part of her routine. How many working class watering holes provide their dancers with such amenities? The hoofers at Mawbry's must totally be dedicated to their art, considering that the beer drinking lugs in the audience would fine if they just shimmied to Def Leopard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and left the artsy stuff to those "Solid Gold" dancers on TV.

Shakin' what her mother gave her: Alex on stage at Mawbry's

"I'm Not A Stripper. I Just Wear Pasties And A G-String."--"Flashdance" wants us to know that Alex may dance at a bar and she may rip off her costume to reveal skimpy attire, but she's not a stripper! She's a dancer! A real dancer!  Never once do we see a gentleman slip a dollar bill into her g-string because, well, Alex is just not that  kind of a girl! Down the street from Mawbry's is another, sleazier bar called Zanzibar where the females bumping and grinding for the male customers are strippers. In fact, when Alex learns that her best gal pal Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) is now "performing" there after her audition for The Ice Capades ends in disaster, she's horrified. How horrified? So horrified that Alex rushes over to the sin pit in question, pulls Jeanie off stage, throws a rain coat over her shoulders and screams, "Do you think that's dancing!?"

However, is there really much difference? If some of the other dancers' costumes at Mawbry's had more material, they's qualify as bikinis. And part of Alex's "allure" (especially for her boss, which we'll get to later) is that she's scruffy at work, but sexy on stage. If Alex spent her weekends dancing "Swan Lake" at the local opera house instead of bumping and grinding at Mawbry's, this "dichotomy" about her public and private selves might have more heft. Instead, "Flashdance" just wants to have it both ways, allowing their film to be both critical and exploitative at the same time.

May I Have This Flashdance?--One night while Alex is dancing away, her hunky boss Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) is in the audience. He's been brought there by another employee to show what one of his scruffy welders gets up to in the evenings. Nick is suitably impressed and asks Alex out for a date. She demures because he is, after all, her boss. However, Nick is not easily put off: "Okay, you're fired," he replies. "Pick you up at eight."

This leads to another uproarious scene, where Alex, dressed in a tuxedo, gobbles a fancy dinner while caressing Nick's crotch with her foot and asking him if he's ever had sex in a phone booth. (Fun Fact: the director of this film, Adrian Lyne, would later give the world "Fatal Attraction". That's the flick where the crazy Glenn Close asks Michael Douglas, "Ever done it in an elevator?" Merely a coincidence or is Mr. Lyne inadvertently revealing a bit of personal info about himself? You decide.) Who should then canter up but Nick's snippy ex-wife, who declares, "You two look cozy", before turning to Alex and asking, "You're not really a welder, are you?" Alex, of course, is not easily put off by bitchy society gals. In fact, she proudly reveals to Nouri's ex that she "f@%!ed (Nick's) brains out" on their first date.

You go, girl?

"Let's face the music and flashdance": Alex and boss Nick (Michael Nouri) get closer.

Of course, despite their differences in age and social status, Alex and Nick FALL MADLY IN LOVE because, well, what else are they going to do? I doubt they get married, but I'm sure they have some fun for a while.

Think Of What It Means To Be A Swan...Alex dreams of studying at the elite Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory and she's encouraged by Hanna Long (Lilia Skala), an elderly Russian ballerina. How did these two meet? How long have they known each other? The movie never tells us. I doubt the elegant Hanna has seen Alex do her thing at Mawbry's and, if she did, the frail European lady would probably have a stroke. Like so many things in this flick, the relationship of Alex and her mentor is never fully explored to a satisfying or realistic degree. No doubt Hanna is just a by-the-numbers plot point inserted to inspire Alex when the chips are down.

If the name Lilia Skala sounds familiar, it should: she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field". She's the only real talent (and touch of class) in the film. And she's Austrian, not Russian.

What A Feeling!--After poor Hanna dies, Alex finally gets up the nerve to audition at the snooty dance academy. But Alex being Alex, she refuses to bend to the common notions of what a ballerina should look or dance like. Thus, our heroine shows up at her all important audition in a short, black get-up and boogies to "What A Feeling". Alex also tosses in some break dancing moves, which appear to be handled by a very skinny boy body double. The auditioners are duly impressed and Alex is in. Hunky Nick meets her outside the academy with a bunch of roses. The rest is box office history.

"Flashdance" made both buckets of cash and Jennifer Beals a star--for a while. Her next film was "The Bride", a quasi-remake of "The Bride of Frankenstein" co-starring Sting. That movie was a flop, but it wasn't Jennifer's fault; Sting was so self-important and hammy, the movie sank under the weight of his ego. From then on, Beals would appear infrequently on TV and in independent movies and has always, to her credit, refused to appear in a "Flashdance" sequel or remake.

Is it Jennifer Beals? Marine Jahan? Or the male body double? You decide.

What is the moral of this story? Only the public can truly make a star.

So, until next time movie lovers, please remember that only Marlon Brando ever looked good in a torn T-shirt, and SAVE THE MOVIES!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's The Walking Dead! It's A Zombie Nightmare! It's "Voodoo Man"!

"The Voodoo That You Do So Well": George Zucco as voodoo priest/practitioner Nicholas in "Voodoo Man".

Hi ho, movie lovers.

Say, do you want to bring a loved one back from the dead?

Sure, we all do!

But are you finding it difficult to accomplish this goal?

After striking a deal with the gods on Mt. Olympus or reanimating the corpse with electricity fails to do the trick, have you considered voodoo?

"And John Carradine sits in on drums...": John Carradine as lab assistant Toby (supposedly his least favorite role ever.)

See, Dr. Richard Marlowe wants to bring his wife Evelyn back from the dead and he swears by voodoo! In fact, with the help of his friend Nicholas and a mystical ceremony that combines pounding drums and rope tricks, Mr. Marlowe has brought his wife back to the land of the living...for about five minutes. Of course, the good doctor's tries have also left three unwilling female motorists in a perpetual zombie stupor...but, hey, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, right?

"Voodoo Man" is a 1944 Monogram Pictures release that has everything EVERYTHING! a hack horror fan could possibly want: a mad scientist; kooky assistants; a creepy old house; a wither up prune for a housekeeper; an inept, cranky sheriff; a dumb-as-dirt deputy; gals in white nighties stumbling around in the dark and Bela Lugosi.

Furthermore, as an added bonus, "Voodoo Man" is directed by the legendary William "One Shot" Beaudine, a man famed for rarely shooting a second take of anything.

Good times ahead!

"Voodoo Man" actually begins in Hollywood, at the famed "Banner Productions" compound. That's where up and coming screen writer Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews) is asked by studio head S.K. if a local item about missing female motorists might have the makings for a good horror picture. Ralph, who is preparing to marry Betty (Wanda McKay) shortly, begs off the assignment. Instead, S.K. considers giving it to that kid Billy Wilder or maybe that Mankowitz fellow.

Honk if you love voodoo! Evil Nicholas (George Zucco) steers maid of honor Stella (Louise Currie) in the direction of Bela Lugosi.

While driving to his fiance' Betty's home, Ralph stops at a gas station for a fill-up. The goofy attendant, however, is so set on checking the air in Ralph's tires and trying to sell him car polish that a miffed Ralph leaves before the fuel is pumped into his gas tank. Naturally, his car conks out. Luckily, another motorist appears on the horizon and offers to give Ralph a lift. This turns out to be Stella (Louise Currie), who is both Betty's cousin and her maid-of-honor. The soon-to-be relatives are driving pleasantly down the road when Stella's car suddenly conks out. How could that be? Possibly because Bela used some futuristic electronic juicer to mess with Louise's car engine, as that Nicholas fellow alerted Bela that Stella might be a good voodoo subject.  With the auto stalled, Ralph hikes up to a nearby house to use their phone while poor Stella is snatched by Bela's goons, Toby and Grego.

Stella is imprisoned at Bela's dark, creepy house, where he introduces her to his wife Evelyn. Bela explains that the Mrs. is "dead", but only in the conventional sense of the term. See, thanks to voodoo, the "life essence" one gal can be transferred into Evelyn and thus bring her back to life. Dr. Marlowe has been on a constant search for the perfect subject to supply this "life essence", which explains A) the kidnappings (nobody would just up and volunteer their "life essence", after all) and B) why there are three gals in a perpetual zombie stupor hanging around Bela's place.

While Nicholas dons a feathered head dress and paints white marks on his face, Toby lights candles and then brings in the zombie girls into Bela's basement. Evelyn and Stella are settled into two arm chairs facing each other. Bela, who wears a robe festooned with numbers, stars and hand prints, begins mumbling some mumbo-jumbo while Toby and Grego pound on some drums. Meanwhile, Nicholas is performing rope tricks you may want to keep an eye on in case you have to entertain your bratty nephew for a couple of hours and you run out of things to do.

Slowly but surely Evelyn comes back to life, but only for about five minutes and then she returns to her zombie state. D'oh! Poor Stella, on the other hand, having had her "life essence" sucked out of her, is now a zombie, too. Oh, well, back to the drawing board!

Eventually Ralph makes it to Betty's house, but he's fit to be tied. He believes Stella ditched him in some sort of pre-wedding prank and he's out for revenge. However, when fiance' Betty informs him that her cousin/maid-of-honor has yet to arrive, Ralph becomes uneasy. Hours pass and there is still no sign of Stella. On the urging of Betty's mom, the cuddlemates visit the sheriff's office to make a missing person's report. Unfortunately, the local sheriff (Henry Hull) is a cranky old coot who spends more time complaining about people and their petty criminal matters than he does solving these petty criminal matters. His dumb-as-dirt deputy Elmer (Don White) is little help: he spends most of his time napping and worrying that his "old lady" will end their marriage if he doesn't come home on time.

Lights, camera, voodoo! Dr. Marlowe (Bela Lugosi, center) tries to revive wife Evelyn (on the right) with the "life essence" of Stella (on the left). It doesn't work.

Because they have nothing better to do, the sheriff and Elmer do go over to Dr. Marlowe's house to poke around a bit. While the doctor and the sheriff are enjoying a glass of sherry and discussing inconsequentials, Stella manages to escape from her zombie prison and wander around the country side. Their discussion having achieved nothing, the good doctor bids the sheriff goodbye. While Elmer and the sheriff are driving home, who should they discover but Stella, dressed in a flowing white nightie, stumbling around in a dead-eyed trance. "Gosh all fish hooks!" the sheriff cries (in one of my favorite catch-phrases of all time). The men stuff Stella in their squad car and cart her back to Betty's house. There the poor gal lays in bed, stiff as a board. confounding her family as to what exactly is wrong with her.

Unfortunately, Stella doesn't stay there for very long. See, that crafty Dr. Marlowe (with the aid of Toby) finds out where Stella has wandered off to. He then bamboozles his way into Betty's house as the doctor sent to check in on the patient. Later that evening, Bela and his voodoo posse pound drums and chant mumbo-jumbo that force Stella to sneak out of her cousin's house and back to Bela's place. What's more, Dr. Marlowe has decided that bride-to-be Betty is the perfect subject to revive wife Evelyn. Thus, he puts Betty under some voodoo trance that forces her to drive over the Bela's creepy house. Once there, Betty will take her place in the arm chair facing Evelyn and have her "life essence" sucked out.

With the tension screws tightening every second, "Voodoo Man" comes to its stirring conclusion. Just when it looks as if poor Betty will never be a bride (and poor Stella will always be a bridesmaid), Ralph and the sheriff burst into Bela's basement and halt the ceremony. Shots are fired and punches are thrown and poor Bela is soon gushing blood. Having disrupted the voodoo proceeding before all of Betty's "life essence" has been transferred to her, Evelyn drops dead, this time for good. Bela soon joins her, crying, "At least now we can be together at last!" Meanwhile, all the gals kidnapped by Bela have finally been freed from their zombie states. With no time to lose, the sheriff arrests all of Dr. Marlowe's evil helpers and Ralph ushers Betty and Stella to the safety of home.

When we next see Ralph and Betty, they are married and preparing to take their honeymoon. However, before they go, hubby Ralph presents studio head S.K. with a treatment for a movie titled "Voodoo Man". When his boss asks who should play the lead, Ralph suggests that Bela Lugosi would be an ideal choice. It's a switcheroo, get it?!

Coming in at just 62 minutes, "Voodoo Man" was Bela Lugosi's last film for Monogram Pictures. He completed nine films for the famous low-budget studio, appearing in stuff like "Return Of The Ape Man." As the refined but evil Mr. Marlowe, Bela actually is in his element and performs much better than in his Ed Wood movies, where the ravages of old age, drug abuse and heart ache had made him a very fragile man indeed.

Evil Dr. Marlowe pinches the cheeks of zombie girl Stella.

Shot over the course of seven days, "Voodoo Man" is a harmless little picture that provides a treasure trove of Junk Cinema goodies. Besides the casting of Lugosi, "Voodoo Man" is an excellent introduction to the directing skills of William "One Shot" Beaudine. A nominee for The Worst Director Of All Time by The Golden Turkey Awards (he lost out to Ed Wood), William was notorious for rarely shooting a second take of  anything. That was evident in our feature presentation, where John Carradine is seen burning his finger with a match during Stella's "life essence" transferring scene. During this pivotal plot point,  you suddenly see Carradine waiving his hand and stomping his foot, like he was having a mild seizure. Any other director would have called "Cut!", but not Beaudine, who kept the camera rolling as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Beaudine began his career in silent films and he never bothered adapt his style to the demands of sound. Therefore, his actors often roll their eyes and flay about like stock characters in some improbable melodrama. Eventually racking up 150 movie credits to his name, Beaudine gave us "The Blonde Comet" (1943), "What A Man!" (1944), "Black Market Babies" (1945) and "Billy The Kid Versus Dracula" (1966), among other titles. Perhaps his most famous picture is "Mom and Dad", the notorious 1944 flick which dared to show a live birth on screen as well as presenting "fearless hygiene commentators" who sold safe-sex manuals during intermission.

Another interesting fact about "Voodoo Man" is the casting of Wanda McKay as bride-to-be-Betty. Born Dorothy Quackenbush in Portland, Oregon, Wanda became a top model and later began appearing in B-movies in the 1940's. While watching the flick, I knew I had seen her before, but I couldn't figure out where. Then it hit me: I had seen a clip of the film "Because Of  Eve" showcased in the under-appreciated documentary "It Came From Hollywood". In the featured snippet, Wanda and her husband visit a kindly doctor who cheerfully informs them they "are as sound as a new dollar bill." He then reveals (unknown to her movie husband) that Wanda has had a baby and the husband (unknown to his movie wife Wanda) has had VD. McKay is so horrified that her screen hubby had VD that she calls off their marriage and announces, "And now I'm going out into the clean, fresh air!" Her jilted husband turns to the doctor and goes, "Well, there goes my happy marriage", to which the kindly doctor says he's sorry.

I love movies like "Voodoo Man" because they are made by earnest but marginally-talented professionals. The acting is bad, the writing is even worse and the sets feature doors that stick and windows that slam shut on their own. Yet everybody on screen is giving it the old college try, doing the best they can. You can question these people's talent, even their sanity, but not their professionalism.

So, until next time, always make sure your gas tank is full, and SAVE THE MOVIES!