Saturday, December 14, 2019

Tor Johnson IS "The Beast Of Yucca Flats"!

Tor Johnson in the role that made him shameless: "The Beast of Yucca Flats".

Hello from near and far, movie lovers.

Ever wonder how a scientist become a beast?

He wanders onto the nuclear testing grounds of scenic Yucca Flats as an A-bomb is being exploded.

Ever wonder what the scientist does after he becomes a beast?

He staggers around Yucca Flats strangling people, threatening lost kids and dragging around the corpse of a female victim.

Beauty and the Beast of Yucca Flats

And that, in a nut shell, is the plot of "The Beast of Yucca Flats" (1961), the first film directed by the one-man cinematic suicide squad known as Coleman Francis.

A hefty bit player who began his career in Poverty Row westerns, Francis turned to directing in the late 1950's. His films were ultra cheap B and W monstrosities that focused obsessively on light planes, skydiving, rabid anti-communism and endless coffee drinking. His directorial style consisted mainly of jump cuts, continuity errors and actors playing multiple roles. Coleman surrounded himself with a stock company of family and friends who possessed even less talent than he did. Tony Cardoza, for instance, who worked with Coleman as an actor and producer, was actually a welder.

Of course, in the realm of Junk Cinema, having talent is both over-rated and not required. I mean, making movies? What could be so hard? Point the camera, turn on the sound, people start talking, right?

 French New Wave great/auteur Jean-Luc Goddard once said all you needed to make a movie was a gun and a girl. However, Coleman Francis did Goddard one better: he proved you could make a movie where the actors kept their backs turned away from the camera 85% of the time AND their lines were actually narration Coleman (and a few of his cast members) dubbed in later so they wouldn't have to worry about sound synchronicity. Plus, Coleman Francis had Tor Johnson for his main character! So who's the real auteur now, tough guy?

Ah, Tor Johnson, the 300-pound Swedish ex-wrestler and Ed Wood cohort. It's quite a feat to be the best thing in a Coleman Francis movie, but Tor pulls it off.

Director Coleman Francis smells something bad. Maybe it's his movie?

Before our actual movie begins, there is a pre-credit sequence where a woman (Mary Torres) finishes a shower and gets ready for bed. She's then suddenly strangled by the unidentified Tor; later he violates her corpse. In some versions of "Beast", this sequence is quite graphic (the MST3K version edits it down). Still, it's ugly and gratuitous; reports indicate Francis liked this kind of thing. Yuck. Fast-forward to avoid this part.

 Our tale begins with the "noted scientist" Joseph Javorsky (Tor) defecting from behind the Iron Curtain to the U. S. of A. He carries with him "secret data" on the "Russian moon shot" that will answer the question currently perplexing our government officials: "Flag on the moon. How did it get there?"

My guess is someone put it there, but that's just me.

Unfortunately, the secret data will have to wait because "two of the Kremlin's most ruthless agents" (one being Tony Cardoza in a felt Fedora) have tracked Javorsky down. Amid a hail of bullets and the screech of tires, the Yanks and the Commies begin a cat and mouse car chase that dead ends at scenic Yucca Flats.

While the agents continue to pick each other off, Tor (brief case in hand) toddles away to safety. More bad news: a nuclear bomb is being tested at that very site and at that very moment. Suddenly, KABOOM! Stock footage of a nuclear mushroom cloud appears and we assume everyone is a goner. However, Tor is neither fried to a crisp or vaporized into mist; instead, he survives the blast and becomes the Beast of Yucca Flats. How? Director Francis is a little vague on the details, verbally shrugging, "Touch a button, things happen. A scientist becomes a beast."

Actor/producer/welder Tony Cardoza as "one of the Kremlin's most ruthless agents."

While Tor stumbles around Yucca Flats as "a prehistoric beast in the nuclear age...killing just to be killing" (more about that later), Coleman announces "vacation time", so we meet up with a "man and wife unaware of scientific progress." Perhaps our couple is unaware of said "scientific progress" because they're dealing with car trouble. As hubby checks under the hood, Tor sneaks up and strangles him. The wife, busy smoking her cigarette, notices nothing until Tor creeps up and strangles her. Then the beast pulls her out of the car and drags her out into the desert.

Since it's still vacation time, we see a family driving up to a gas station skeezier than the one featured in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." If you look closely, however, you'll see director Francis is the proprietor of the place; he's the one lounging in a sun chair, feeding half his sandwich to a chained dog. Francis' cameo is also accompanied by my favorite voice-over in this entire crazy movie: "Nothing bothers some people--not even flying saucers."

Ain't it the truth.

After the family tanks up and their two boys "feed soda pop to thirsty pigs", our travelers hit the road and promptly get a flat tire. While mom and dad are otherwise occupied, the boys (Coleman's own kids Ron and Alan) wander off. Little do the tykes know, they're putting themselves in the path of Tor. They're also putting their father Hank in Tor's field of vision, as he's left their cat-eye glasses wearing ma alone by the roadside to go off and search for them.

But hold on! There is still more plot to be had! Remember the husband unaware of scientific progress that Tor strangled a while back? A concerned motorist has found his body and promptly informs lawman Joe Dobson (Larry Aten). Joe, in turn, contacts his partner Jim Archer (Bing Stafford), who is busy having marital relations with his wife (Marcia Knight, the femme fatal in "Skydivers"). When Joe tells Jim duty calls, Mrs. Archer is miffed: she pulls a sour face and gets back into bed, annoyed that hubby's stupid job has once again played havoc with their sex schedule. Frankly, it's easy to understand Mrs. Archer's dismay--especially after narrator Francis informs us that Jim and Joe toil to keep the public safe "seven days a week"!

Dedicated lawman Jim Archer leaves his long-suffering wife post-coital--again.

When the lawmen reach the crime scene, they're greeted by "a man choked to death, a woman's purse and footprints on the wasteland." They decide to check out the surrounding area, despite the fact that it's "110 degrees in the shade and there is no shade." Eventually the duo stumble upon the dead wife laying in the brush (Tor has gone off somewhere and hasn't left a note saying when he'll return). After checking her pulse, one of the guy's concludes, "Well, doctors can't help her. Angels maybe, but not doctors." Eventually Tor does return and he gets so mad that his property is gone he lets out a loud, ferocious yowl...before quickly bedding down for a nap.

Now, let's see, we have Tor, the lost boys and their father all traipsing around Yucca Flats. But, look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's lawman Joe Dobson in a plane! Joe and Jim have decided the best way to catch their killer is to fly over Yucca Flats and "shoot first and ask questions later." With that philosophy in mind, Joe doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger when he spots an unidentified man on the ground below. Too bad it's innocent dad Hank looking for his sons. Joe repeatedly shoots at him, and Hank keeps falling down for dead, but in the end he evades the bullets. I can just imagine what's going through the dad's mind while all this is happening: "First, I get a flat tire. Next, the boys run off. And now some jerk in a plane is shooting at me! Man! This is the worst vacation ever!"

Joe parachutes into Yucca Flats and is met by Jim. While they continue their search, dad Hank returns to his wife and "rounds up some helpful neighbors" (which includes director Francis) to look for the boys. The boys, meanwhile, stop at a water hole for a quick drink and come face to face with Tor. "AAAH!" Tor screams. The horrified boys easily out run the Beast. However, because these kids aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, they also run straight into the Beast's cave--which is a real bummer, especially after Tor comes back and settles down for another nap. How will they escape without waking Tor? The answer is they don't, of course, but, thank their lucky stars, Joe and Jim have magically arrived on the scene. The lawmen shoot first and ask questions later, which allows the boys to escape unharmed.

That should be the end of the movie, but it isn't. See, being the Beast of Yucca Flats, and weighing 300 pounds, and being an ex-wrestler, Tor still has a lot of fight in him. So he knocks Jim out cold with one slap and puts poor Joe in a deadly headlock. Just when it looks like Joe is a goner, Jim wakes up and plugs Tor with more lead. Now he's dead. Exhausted, hot and covered in dust, Jim and Joe, their work done, stagger off camera, presumably to file their report and (in Jim's case) get back home in order to beg his wife for more sex.

Joseph Javorsky, "a once proud and humble man", is left to rot like a bloated corpse in the sun. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby Jack Rabbit with long ears hops onto the scene. He sniffs Tor and twitches his nose. Then, with his last ounce of strength, Tor wraps his big, beefy hand around the critter's neck. Is it goodbye bunny? No, at that very moment, the Beast of Yucca Flats expires, this time for good. The Jack Rabbit wiggles free and hops away. After surveying the scene for a second, narrator/director Coleman Francis can't help but have the last word, commenting, "Man's inhumanity to man."

I hope that isn't the Easter Bunny...: Tor and a furry friend have brief encounter.

That pretty much sums up the movie, too.

Made for the bargain basement price of $34,000 dollars, "The Beast of Yucca Flats" looks like it was shot through a coffee filter; everything looks black, grainy and gritty. The actors all look as if they were collectively sucking lemons off screen. Naturally, the flick went on to earn terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst science fiction movies ever made. One critic even went so far as to state, "The most enjoyable aspect of the film is it's remarkably short running time." The ponderous, pretentious and often nonsensical narration of Coleman Francis wasn't appreciated, either. Personally, I have always thought Francis intended his narration to be an "ironic" counterpoint to the action on screen. And I think the line "Nothing bothers some people--not even flying flying saucers" is hilarious. It makes no sense in the context of the scene, but it's weirdly perfect. To me, anyway.

The most famous sequence in the film--involving Tor and the rabbit--wasn't planned at all. According to Tony Cardoza, the baby Jack Rabbit just hopped on screen by itself. Tor, making his last film appearance, improvised on the spot. Luckily, the cameras kept rolling and caught it all. Such moments of movie magic are few and far between. Especially in a film like this.

Yet it isn't all bad. Despite its failures as a film, "The Beast of Yucca Flats" would go on to inspire the comic book/graphic novel/TV series/movie "The Incredible Hulk". Fans point out various plot similarities, proving that inspiration can truly strike anywhere.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, plan your vacations very carefully, pay attention to scientific progress and, above all, SAVE THE MOVIES!

Could "The Beast of Yucca Flats" have inspired "The Incredible Hulk"? Hmm...

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Just In Time For Halloween, It's "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies"!

All singing! All dancing! All zombies! Everyone is "Shook Out of Shape" by the world's first  monster musical "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies".

Before there was "Night of the Living Dead", before there was "Zombie Land", before there was "The Walking Dead" and one month before the release of "The Horror of Party Beach", there was "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies", Junk genius Ray Dennis Steckler's 1964 monster musical mess-terpiece where a beatnik slacker runs afoul of a carnival's gypsy fortune teller, her creepy henchman and her closet full of "little pets" (the zombies of the title).

I first saw this movie when I was 13. It was on at something, like, 4 AM on a Sunday and the title was so bizarre, I just had to see it. Besides, the local TV guide insert gave it only one star. It has since become one of my all time favorite Junk Cinema Jewels--a worthy entry in the Pantheon of Cinematic Puke.

Everything you could possibly want in a bad movie is here: bad acting, bad hair, bad writing, bad costumes, bad music, bad singing, bad dancing, bad make-up, bad sets. There is also a co-star who can't speak English, an Ed Grimly look-a-like, the worst open-mic night participants you will ever see, an unsubstantiated rumor that James Woods (!) was a teenage extra--all lovingly whipped up into a fine froth by Ray Dennis Steckler. How can we ever thank him?

"The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" is actually several stories that converge at The Pike, a carnival in Long Beach. Our first story concerns one Madame Estrella (Susan Hayword's long-time stand-in Brett O'Hara), a fizzy haired, oily-faced gypsy fortune teller who looks like Rita Moreno after a bender. After spending an evening "entertaining" a dumpy, drunk traveling salesman, Estrella climbs on his lap, hoping for a little lovin'. Instead, he shoves her away and barks, "I told you to keep your filthy hands off me! You couldn't buy enough booze to make me go for you!" Then he adds between shots, "If it wasn't for that sister of yours, Carmelita, I never would come around this dump!"

Furious, Estrella exclaims, "You dirty, fleethy pig!" Then she screams, "Ortega!" Out pops her cigar puffing second-in-command, a slightly stooped, shambling fellow who resembles Peter Falk. And not in a good way. As Ortega wrestles the poor salesman to the ground, Madame Estrella grabs a bottle of acid. "So I belong with the freaks eh?" she seethes. "I will fix you so the freaks won't even want you!" Then she splashes the poor dope's mug with acid, cackling like an insane Magpie.

Madame Estrella and her wort: a face only a zombie could love.

And a zombie is born.

Next we move to the seedy Hungry Mouse nightclub where dancer Marge (Carolyn Brandt, Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler at the time) is performing her latest routine with her partner (Bill Ward), a Tab Hunter-ish type whose flat top 'do could easily double as a putting green. After the show, Marge staggers into her dressing room and starts hitting the bottle. When the nightclub's manager counsels her to cut back on the liquid encouragement, the dancer agrees to try. Unfortunately, she didn't try very hard, because Marge shows up so soused for her next set, she can barely dance (not that she could dance before). Furious, the manager threatens to fire her. Determined to learn the reason behind her boozing, Marge decides to visit Madame Estrella on the fair ground. Big mistake.

See, after the fortune teller deals out her special cards, poor Marge turns over the Ace of Spades--"the death card." Becoming completely unglued, Marge races out of Estrella's booth (without paying, I believe) and inadvertently opens the door that houses all her zombies. Screaming in horror, Marge runs in another direction, where she crashes into Harold (Atlas King), Jerry (Ray Dennis as Cash Flagg) and Angie (Sharon Walsh), Jerry's girlfriend, who are visiting the carnival for a little weekend fun.

"Vat's wrong vit her?" Harold asks.

 Harold is the roommate of Jerry, an unabashedly unemployed beatnik/slacker. How he managed to hook up with suburban princess Angie (whose fiberglass bouffant barely clears the doorway) is never explained. Her mom ( Joan Howard, who looks like a Q-tip) is rightly horrified that her daughter would spend time with this ferret-faced loser. Even Angie's Ed Grimly-ish brother Madison thinks sis can do better. But Angie won't listen. "Jerry is fun and exciting!" she insists. "He takes me places I never dreamed of!" She even defends Jerry when he picks her up for their date and he honks his horn instead of coming to the front door. When mom points out what bad manners that is, Angie solemnly intones, "He wouldn't be Jerry" if he acted differently. Which is a good thing, I guess?

"Nicholas Cage is my spirit animal": Ray Dennis Steckler as Cash Flagg as Jerry. 

Back to the action.

Although her last customer fled in fear, Jerry, Harold and Angie decide to visit Madame Estrella. When Estrella receives the trio, she inquires, "Do you want your fortunes told?" To which Harold retorts, "Vhat? Deed you tink ve came in here to reed?"

 That gets things off to a testy start--and it only gets testier as the session continues. Although the gypsy fortune teller assures Angie "she will be lucky in love" and marry a rich man (which should comfort her anxious mom), Estrella is miffed when Jerry doubts her psychic abilities and has the nerve to call her crystal ball "a fish bowl." When she can't come up with a fortune for Jerry, he refuses to pay her. That does it. The trio quickly depart for the midway with Estrella steaming.

Seconds later, Jerry locks eyes with "exotic gypsy dancer" Carmelita (Erina Enyo), Estrella's kid sister. He wants to see her show, but Angie doesn't. When Jerry insists, Angie (and her fiberglass hair) flounce off. Jerry tells Harold to follow after Angie, while he slips off to watch Carmelita's act.

Little does Jerry know, Madame Estrella and her stripper sister have some fiendish plans in store for him. But first Jerry has to watch Carmelita's set, where the "exotic gypsy dancer" strips to a number called "The Pied Piper of Love." Alas, as a performer, the exotic Carmelita is a real stiff. My favorite comment about her number comes from Crow on "MST3K", who cracked, "Watch an average housewife get ready for bed!" Still, Jerry is spellbound. Later on, he's lured to Carmelita's dressing room (via a note delivered by Ortega),  where Estrella ambushes and hypnotizes him with a spinning pinwheel. "You will obey!" she repeats endlessly, while her pop-eyed patsy blinks his eyes in response.

Jerry in thrall to Madame Estrella's evil powers...or did he just watch the final episode of "Game of Thrones"?

What does Madame Estrella want Jerry to do? She wants him to murder Marge before the drunk dancer tells everyone about her closet full of zombies. Thus, when Marge and Bill begin their latest dance routine, a shadowy stranger in a hoodie appears from backstage. To the horror of the audience, he stabs Marge and Bill with a long nasty knife and escapes into the night. What a fiend!

Back in the hovel he shares with Harold, Jerry is tormented by a horrible dream. Showgirls with their faces painted a variety of hues call his name and cackle like crows. Poor dead Marge stretches out on a hot dog cart and cries, "Help! Help me!" The images of Madame Estrella, Ortega and Carmelita swirl around him. Then Jerry himself appears, his face painted in exotic shades, his hoodie pulled up, leaping about a la Bob Fosse and trying to escape a maze made up of dancers. As the nightmare builds to its climax, jerk Jerry is hoisted into the air as if he's a virgin sacrifice being carried to the pyre. Whew! No wonder he wakes up sweaty and confused, although I bet Jerry wakes up sweaty and confused a lot.

Staggering around town, trying to piece together what happened, Jerry winds up at Angie's house. She's sunning herself in the backyard and mighty miffed that Jerry ditched her for a carny stripper. While Jerry tries to explain himself, Angie starts twirling a beach umbrella. Oh, no! The umbrella reminds Jerry of Madame Estrella's pin wheel! Suddenly Jerry has his hands around Angie's throat, choking the living daylights out of her! Only when brother Madison leaps to his sister's aid does Jerry snap out of his violent trance.

Horrified that he's capable of such unexplained violence, Jerry races over to Madame Estrella's...where she promptly hypnotizes him again. Turns out the evil Estrella has another dancer she wants him to kill. Why?  Because this hoofer remembered Marge running out of Madame Estrella's booth right before she was murdered. When the fortune teller denies ever having met Marge, the dancer (named Stella) says, "If I didn't know you any better, I'd think you had something to hide." Then she flits off for her date, which ends abruptly, thanks to Jerry and his long knife.

Back at Estrella's  yet again, the zonked out Jerry stands passively as she splashes acid in his face. "It's tooooo bad you remembered soooo much," Estrella  sighs. "Ortega! Put him with the rest of my pets!"

Madame Estrella pours acid on Jerry's face, while henchman Ortega looks on.

While Ortega fumbles with the door, the other zombies decide it's the perfect time to make a break. They over power Ortega, swarm out of the closet and attack their keepers. Now, I must take the time to point out that Estrella only has about three or four zombies at her disposal, so that's not exactly as impressive a number as the movie lead us to believe. Also, if you're use to big, hulking zombies with greenish skin, blood-shot eyes, super-human strength and a taste for cannibalism, you're going to be disappointed. These zombies have misshapen heads, thinning hair and horrible make-up. They also run around in ripped PJs. Not quite up to "The Walking Dead" standard, I grant you, but our bargain-basement zombies are able to off Ortega, Estrella and Carmelita in quick order. Then they decide to head for the midway.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, Harold, Angie and Madison decide to team up and find the missing Jerry. That means heading back to the carnival, naturally, where pandemonium has struck. Estrella's zombies have crashed the flick's latest floor show--a totally bizarre tableaux where white chorus girls in orange costumes with brown fur and head-dresses perform as African "tribal dancers". Disgusted by this tasteless display of cultural misappropriation, the zombies attack the performers and the audience. Amid screaming and stampeding spectators, the police arrive with guns a-blazin'. While the cops battle the zombies, Harold, Angie and Madison arrive, frantically looking for Jerry.

Angie's screams lead the law to Madame Estrella's lair, where the drunk salesman we met at the beginning of the picture is staggering around all the dead bodies and moaning, "Ahhhh!" Although the poor dope's face has puffed up like a pimple ready to pop, his sport-coast and hat are in good repair. As if that wasn't horrifying enough, Jerry suddenly appears, dazed and confused, his face marked with red acid splashes. Angie screams at the sight of him, causing Jerry to bail out through an open window.

Next we see Jerry--staggering, stumbling, running and falling all at the same time!--at the near-by beach. Angie is in hot pursuit, with Harold, Madison and the police close at her heels. Perhaps thinking Jerry is too zombiefied to be saved, the law unleashes a hail of bullets, sealing his fate.

Let us now pause and mourn the passing of an unemployed beatnik/slacker and his beloved hoodie.

"We're free! Let's hit the Karaoke Bar!": The mixed- up zombies make their debut.

Ray Dennis Steckler, the star/producer/director of this monster mash-up, got his start as an army photographer. He later spent a year at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens with the Army Pictorial Service of the Signal Corps. He found work in Hollywood as a camera man, cinematographer and director of photography, earning 20 on-screen credits for his resume. It's been said--but not confirmed--that he was fired from Universal Studios because he almost hit Alfred Hitchcock(!) with an A-frame. He then hooked up with Arch Hall, Sr. and began his ascent as a bad movie legend.

Like so many low rent auteurs, Steckler made his movies by the seat of his pants, often without scripts, money, professional crews or working equipment--and "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" was no exception. Atlas King (Harold) didn't speak English and spoke his lines phonetically. When Steckler became short on funds, King gave him $300 to tide him over. Susan Walsh was cast as Angie after the original actress quit. Jerry's car was Steckler's own vehicle. The scenes at Angie's house were shot at a friend's house. The dance numbers were filmed in one day--and Steckler instructed the gals to chew gum in one number hoping it would distract viewers from the awful choreography! The musical interludes provided by Don Snyder, Carol Kay (who warbled "Shook Out of Shape" decked out in chicken plumage) and Teri Randall (scatting "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") don't advance the story one bit, but, hey, they are diverting--and they pad out the film.

However much I love this movie, I still have a few quibbles to air:

* None of the victims in this movie were "incredibly strange creatures" before Estrella turned them into zombies; they were just salesmen who refused her sexual advances.

"Note to self: My face hurts": The "exotic gypsy dancer" Carmelita.

* What was Estrella going to do with her zombies? Other than storing them in her closet, she didn't have a plan for them to actually do anything. Was she just a zombie hoarder?

* Why didn't Estrella have one of her other zombies kill Marge and Stella? I mean, they were just sitting there in her closet; why did she have to drag Jerry in?

* Did the family/friends/employers of Estrella's zombies ever file missing persons reports about them?

* If Jerry is unemployed, how does he pay for all his dates with Angie? Do they go Dutch?

For a mere $38,000, Ray Dennis Steckler cobbled together a film that featured zombies, an evil fortune teller, a star crossed couple, horrible music and additional footage shot at a Masonic hall co-owned by Rock Hudson. Then he gave the flick the longest title in movie history and bragged that it was filmed in "Bloody-Vision" and "Hallucinogenic Hypnovision". When early screenings weren't encouraging, Ray took his baby out on the road where he (and various movie theater employees)  would don masks and run down the aisles, scaring viewers. Besides "Cash Flagg", Steckler used other surnames through out his career, including "Sven Christian" and "Cindy Lou Sutters"--the latter being his porn name. For all of this and more,  Ray Dennis Steckler, Junk Cinema salutes you!

"Death of a (Zombie) Salesman"?

 "African tribal dancers": No wonder the zombies attacked.

One of the newspaper ads promoting our flick: Who could resist?

The author wishes to extend thanks to Wikipedia and IMBb for additional information.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Watch Elizabeth Taylor And Richard Burton Stuff A Turkey Until It Goes "Boom!"

Elizabeth Taylor in the the role that made her shameless: Flora Goforth in the box-office bust "Boom!"

Hi ho, movie lovers.

The silver screen has given us some great couples over the years: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, Bogie and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

However, the most sensational of them all--at least in terms of tabloid notoriety--has to be Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

They met on the set of "Cleopatra" in 1961. Both were married; Taylor, in fact, was on hubby #4 (Eddie Fisher), whom she "stole" from Debbie Reynolds not long after the death of hubby #3 (Mike Todd) who died in a plane crash.

"I think I'm going to hurl!" Flora Goforth appears for suffer from a nausea attack. The audience, just as queasy, can relate.

"Has anybody ever told you you're a very pretty girl?" Richard asked Liz one day.

Soon enough, the world was shocked shocked! to learn that the co-stars were not only dating, but doing nothing to hide it. As torrid updates about the affair circled the globe almost hourly, the Vatican even got into the act and penned an editorial condemning "the caprices of adult children."

Liz and Richard eventually made it legal in 1964. From then on, they were simply known as "the Burtons". Besides their status as gossip column fixtures, the Burtons were box office. "The VIPs", "The Sandpiper", "Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf?" and "The Taming of the Shrew" may have veered wildly in their quality as films, but they all raked in the bucks. So potent was the Burtons' drawing power, producers naturally assumed the ticket-buying public would see the fabled couple in anything.

Until they didn't.

Which brings us to 1968's "Boom!", a surrealistically nutty "art film" based on a less-then-successful Tennessee Williams play (The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) that Newsweek called "a pompous, pointless nightmare", the Hollywood Reporter derided as "an ordeal in tedium" and Time likened to "a couple of rich amateurs hamming it up at a country club frolic."

"Was it something I said?": Flora has a violent reaction to Chris' awful pseudo-mystical dialog.


"Boom!" was not only the first box office bomb of the Burtons' cinematic association; it was also one of the biggest bombs of the year. In fact, the failure of "Boom!" was credited with a significant dip in Universal's coffers for 1968.

What made "Boom!" go bust?

Lots of reasons, but mainly because it was simply a horribly, undeniably bad movie. From its pretentious dialog to its zany supporting cast to Taylor's whacked-out wardrobe to its bonkers premise, "Boom!" is a golden gobbler from waddle to tail feathers--and a "must see" for any serious bad movie lover.

You know "Boom!" is going to deliver the bad movie goods the second it introduces us to Taylor as Flora "Sissy" Goforth: lying face down in bed, surrounded by servants, receiving a back rub from a hunky guy while a fluffy white yip-yap dog lounges near by. Then a richly robed fellow inquires, "Madame?" and hands her a glass of pineapple juice(?) from a silver tray. After taking a few sips, Flora gags, moans, thrashes about and then punches an intercom button gasping, "Pain! Injection!" When a nurse tries to get Flora to take another sip, she furiously bats the glass away, sending it crashing to the floor.

"I will not be ignored!": Flora in full fury.

Flora, as if you didn't know, is the world's richest, bitchiest woman, a cross between Leona Helmsley, Princess Margaret and my high school gym teacher. Flora does nothing in half measures; she shrieks like a dental drill, throws operatic tantrums, spits out insults--and never in the same out fit twice. We're told she's buried five husbands and is suffering from an unnamed but fatal disease. Flora is also dictating her memoirs. Busy lady.

Home for Mrs. Goforth is a palatial mansion perched high atop a craggy mountain somewhere around Sardinia. She's attended by a fleet of servants, a mealy-mouthed secretary (Joanna Simkus), a flighty doctor ( Romolo Valli), a dwarf head of security (Michael Dunn) and his pack of snarling dogs, a squawking Minah bird, a chained monkey and a couple of sitar players. Hey, it was 1968! Sitar music was very big back then.

Into this cloistered circle crawls (literally) Chris Flanders, played by Richard Burton in a role originally essayed on Broadway by Tab Hunter (!). If you're thinking a Richard Burton performance would easily improve upon a Tab Hunter performance, think again. Despite his obvious talent and charisma, Richard Burton racked up an impressive list of cinematic stinkers that would make Sonny Tufts blanch: "The Wild Geese", "Candy", "Buebeard", "A Circle of Two", "The Assassination of Trotsky", "The Exorcist, Part 2: The Heretic", "Dr. Faustus", "The Medusa Touch" and, yes, our current feature. Burton plays a wandering mystic with the unfortunate habit of showing up at the bedsides of rich ladies before they kick the bucket. This has earned him the nickname "The Angel of Death" among the smart set--but could it be possible that Chris is a real angel? The movie goes back and forth on this issue, sometimes hinting yes, other times hinting no. But, hey, it was 1968! This kind of purposeful ambiguity was very big back then.

While Taylor and Burton duke it out over who can give the most over-the-top performance, the actor/playwright Noel Coward appears on screen as "The Witch of Capri", an old friend of Sissy's she invites over for dinner. After Taylor, Coward has the best entrance in the flick: dressed in a natty tux, Coward sniffs, "The bitch would have me over at high tide so I would look like a piece of sea weed!"... as he's carried into dinner on the shoulders of a hunky deck hand! This bit of showmanship almost steals the movie, until Taylor shows up in a jewel encrusted Kabuki evening gown accentuated with a head piece that resembles a gigantic puffer fish plopped on her noggin. This costume has to be the wackiest get-up in film history--try as you might, you can't take your eyes off it, so much so that you'll have a hard remembering what Sissy and the Witch discussed over the course of their long meal, but it probably doesn't matter anyway.

The Bitch and the Witch compare evening clothes.

As all pretentious, artsy, pseudo-intellectual 1960's nonsense must, "Boom!" ends with Flora succumbing to the very thing she was fighting against--no, not someone showing up at a soiree wearing the same dress as her--but death. While the poor dear is laid out on her bed, deader than a door nail, Chris takes her Krupp diamond ring off her finger and plunks it into a goblet of wine. Then he throws the glass down to ground below, cackling wildly...which means, what, exactly? Beats me. But, hey, it's 1968! Open endings to movies were very big back then.

It took me three tries to watch "Boom!" in its entirety. Just for the record, it took me three tries to pass my driver's test. Watching this movie is a tense, mind-numbing experience, like waiting at the DMV or having to endure a series of blood panels. As Flora Goforth, Elizabeth Taylor screams, insults, coughs and bitches like a drag queen on steroids. "Get your fat ass and sneaky grin off this terrace!" Flora hollers at her doctor. "What's human and inhuman is not for human decision!" she sneers at her long suffering secretary. "You've got more things going for you than your teeth, baby" she hisses under her breath to Chris. "Sissy Goforth is not ready to go forth yet and she will not go forth until she is ready!" our heroine rages at one point. As Roger Ebert would say, Taylor knows the words, but not the music. Her Flora Goforth is suppose to be a force of nature who refuses to succumb to the inevitable; in reality, she's more like a grouchy lady who yells at her neighbors all hours of the night "to turn down that damn stereo" or "shut that dog up before I do."

As for Richard Burton, his mystical, hippy-dippy Chris is merely a self-satisfied jerk, declaiming his lines in that famous voice as if he's getting off on himself. His character isn't as flamboyant as Flora, but he's just as grating.

Of the supporting cast, Michael Dunn appears to be having the most fun as Flora's leather clad, whip cracking chief of security. His best moment is when he knees Burton in crotch--and appears to enjoy immensely. After the audience, Joanna Shimkus endures the most abuse as Flora's put-upon secretary, Miss Black. When Joanna finally quits her job, the dying Goforth instructs her to write herself a check for any amount and she promises to sign it. I hope Joanna wrote herself a big check. As the Witch of Capri, Noel Coward sports a nice tux. I hope he enjoyed the piggy back ride the studly deck hand gave him.

For the Burtons, the failure of "Boom!" marked the beginning of the end of their fabled partnership. I have often thought it was a mistake for them to make movies together. She was truly a product of the studio system, while he always did his best work on stage. It was the scandal of their romance and the tempestuous nature of their relationship that fascinated people, not their on-screen chemistry. But once they joined forces, Liz and Richard seemed to be on a quest to stuff as many turkeys as they could. Considering their track record, they succeeded admirably. I hope wherever they are, they're savoring their triumph.

The famous Burtons have another one of their famous battles.

Until next time, Save the Movies!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Howard Hughes Presents Omar Khayyam, 40 Thieves and the "Son of Sinbad"!

There's more action in the "Son of Sinbad"s movie poster than in the actual movie.

Hi keebah and hello, movie lovers.

Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful characters in 20th century America.

He set speed records as a pilot, created the Spruce Goose, founded TWA, discovered Jane Russell, dated Katherine Hepburn and cataloged his urine.

In between all that, Hughes found time to make movies. Some were good, but most were bad. Very, very bad--like "Son of Sinbad" (1955) which, by sheer coincidence, is the subject of today's article.

Before we dive into the movie itself, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Vincent Price--yes, Vincent Price--is Sinbad's BFF poet Omar Khayyam.

1) The actors are hilariously miscast. Dale Robertson, normally a fixture in cowboy pics, is Sinbad, Jr. Meanwhile, the "Khalif of Baghdad" has a very prominent German accent. Sinbad's best buddy is horror movie mainstay Vincent Price, shamelessly mugging like Urkle on "Family Matters."

2) The film is full-to-bursting with scantily clad starlets who possess the protein acting talents of a dead squid.

3) Although Sinbad's father made his name sailing the seven seas, Sinbad, Jr. spends all his time chasing girls. In fact, the closest he gets to water is when he barges into "royal favorite" Lady Nerissa's bathroom while she's soaking in her tub.

4) Because this movie takes place long, long ago, the dialogue is ornate, flowery vomit delivered so badly it becomes a show within itself.

All of which add vital layers of American Cheese to this supposedly exotic fable.

"Oh, hi! Fancy meeting you here!": Nerissa (Lili St. Cyr) welcomes frequent visitor Sinbad (Dale Robertson) into her boudoir. 

The fun begins in the bustling market place of Baghdad, where Omar Khayyam(!) is wandering around, looking for his BFF Sinbad. Eventually worn out, he sits down to rest and suddenly out pops Sinbad (Dale Robertson, his chest shiny smooth, with just a hint of a spray tan), looking a bit like Robin Thicke.

"Why so dejected my friend?" Sinbad declares. "You should be happy as a poet, not sour like a tent maker!"

Author's Note: Omar makes tents for a living when he can't sell his poetry. Sinbad ribs him about this a lot. However, that's not historically accurate; Omar never worked as a tent maker. He made a comfortable living as a mathematician, astronomer and, yes, a poet.

Sinbad, however, doesn't have time to shoot the breeze with his friend. He plans on scaling the walls of the Khalif's palace so he can "visit the fair Nerissa" (Lili St. Cyr, a famous stripper of the era).

Omar tries to talk him out of it, pleading, "For once, Sinbad, let your brains be where they seldom are!"

                       "Can I scrub your back?": Sinbad hopes to join Nerissa in the bath.                   

Nerissa, meanwhile, has been soaking in her tub for hours anticipating Sinbad's visit. When Sinbad does arrive, Nerissa pretends to be shocked: "How dare you intrude in my private chamber", she says in a flat, nasal monotone (I bet she and Sinbad go through this charade as a kind of weird foreplay thing). Then she asks her maid for a towel and orders Sinbad "to turn around."

"If I only had the good fortune of that towel, just to touch that ivory skin," Sinbad replies.


Seconds later Nerissa is magically dressed and she and Sinbad get busy on a pile of pillows. Little do they know, a palace snitch has sounded the alarm that Sinbad is "visiting". This leads to a swashbuckling/slapstick scene where the royal guards burst into Nerissa's room, Sinbad leaps into a tree to escape and a rotund guard gets kicked into Nerissa's tub--as the "royal favorite" casually stands aside dabbing perfume behind her ears.

Alas, poor Sinbad and Omar end up arrested and dragged before the Khalif of Baghdad, a bejeweled ninny played by Leon Askin of "Hogan's Heroes" fame. Among the other unfortunates waiting to plead their case are an unidentified "unprincipled son of an unchaste she-camel" and Simon Aristides (Raymond Greenleaf) and his daughter Kristina (Mari Blanchard), falsely accused of stealing. By sheer coincidence, Simon was a friend of Sinbad's dad and Kristina and Sinbad frolicked as children. Now that she's all grown up, our hero wastes no time trying to hook up.

"Haven't we met before?": Sinbad puts the moves on Kristina (Mari Blanchard) while her father Simon (Raymond Greenleaf) and Omar look on.

However, more important matters soon take center stage.

"Oh exalted one! Right hand of Allah! Commander of the Faithful! Oh mighty one!" a breathless palace guard exclaims, "Murad the Tartar, ambassador of Tamerlane the Cruel, is at the palace gates demanding admittance!"

Tamerlane the Cruel! Say it isn't so! The news causes everybody on screen to collectively wet their pants. However, this is especially bad news for the Khalif because A) he's basically a coward, B) he fears his army isn't strong enough to defend the city and C) he has a carbuncle on his hinder and "he can't find a cushion soft enough" to sit on--this tidbit coming from harem housekeeper Ameer (Sally Forrest), who also has the hots for Sinbad.

Seconds later Murad (Ian MacDonald) stomps in, sporting a drooping 'stache and a bad attitude. When the palace chamberlain timidly reminds him to show the Khalif the proper respect, Murad barks back, "I am Murad the Tartar, in service to Tamerlane! I bow my head to another!" Then he has the nerve to demand the best palace accommodations for himself and his men, snarling, "I do not plead! I command!" He even hints that Tamerlane might allow the Khalif to "live--as his slave"  provided he's in a good mood when he arrives.

With everyone in such a dither over the approaching Tamerlane, Simon sees his chance. He tells the Khalif that he can rid him of Tamerlane if he agrees to free himself and his daughter. Once he does so, Simon promises to show the mousy monarch the power of "Greek Fire", an early version of gun powder. Because he's all out of options (and suffers from a throbbing carbuncle, remember) the Khalif says yes.

The Khalif of Baghdad (Leon Askin) in one of his more understated ensembles. 

Thus Simon busily sets up an elaborate demonstration reminiscent of those Ronco infomercials which breathlessly hawked "Ginsu Knives" and "Londonaire Hose" back in the day. Simon, a crafty fellow, has nestled the recipe for Greek Fire in the subconscious of Kristina. The only way to retrieve the formula is to put her in a deep trance (using a spinning, bejeweled lava lamp). Once this is done, she tells how to mix the Greek Fire formula using the multi-colored liquids Simon keeps in a locked tackle box. When he has his sample, Simon claps his hands and Kristina wakes up out of her trance, no worse for wear. Simon then hands the lighted mixture to the Khalif, who is so unimpressed, he throws it out the nearest window, claiming in his heavy German accent that he was ripped off. KABOOM! Suddenly the palace is rocked by a huge explosion. The Khalif quickly changes his mind, frees Simon and his daughter and orders up a batch of Greek Fire.

Still following along? Good.

Unbeknownst to the Khalif and Simon, the royal jester Jiddah (Jay Novello) is in cahoots with Murad. The two watched the Greek Fire demo from a secret palace peep-hole and were duly impressed.  "For the secret to conquer the world, our master would give an empire!" Murad exclaims. So the two baddies set out to get their paws on the recipe.

Meanwhile, in another part of the palace, the newly freed Kristina is lolling about her room, thinking about Sinbad. She's convinced they are madly in love and will get married. This doesn't sit well with Ameer, who, as noted earlier, also has the hots for Sinbad. In fact, when Kristina asks Ameer to tell Sinbad he and Omar will be freed at dawn, she balks. "The torturous thoughts of a man facing eternity are far more terrifying than death itself," Kristina reminds her. Unable to argue with such logic, Ameer says OK.

However, when the harem housekeeper returns to Kristina's room, she notices the guards are dead, the chamber is a mess, Simon has a knife in his gut and Kristina is missing. Hmmm, what could that mean? Could Jiddah and Murad have kidnapped Kristina and escaped into the desert, where they plan to meet up with Tamerlane and unlock the secrets of Greek Fire?

The Khlaif's Chamberlain asks Murad (Ian MacDonald), "Do you realize how much you look like James Brolin?"

Plucky Ameer sends a message (via dove or carrier pigeon, I couldn't tell) to her Forty Thieves cohorts--oh, did I forget to mention that Ameer is a member of the Forty Thieves of Ali Baba fame? Well, she is! She even has a tattoo to prove it! Never the less, baddie Jiddah has her arrested and the Khalif has her banished from Baghdad because, hey, nobody wants to mess with the famous Forty Thieves.

Exhausted, the Khalif retires to his harem, where Nerissa tries to soothe his depressed spirit (and throbbing hinder) with a totally gonzo dance of the seven veils. When she's through, Sinbad and Omar burst in, insisting they have a cunning plan to get the Greek Fire back in time to defeat Tamerlane the Cruel. When the Khalif shows little interest, the scantily clad Nerissa (in an outfit Kim Kardasian would die for) pleads, "Oh, Khalif! Listen to Sinbad! If a mortal man can save Baghdad, it is he."

To please his cuddlemate, the Khalif hears Sinbad's plan, which is a rather convoluted. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I will give you the highlights:

1) Sinbad, Omar and an extra horse ride out into the desert and magically pick out the very spot Murad and company will pitch their tents for the night.

2) Sinbad buries himself in the sand using a reed to breathe. He will wait there until everybody goes to sleep and then quietly free Kristina.

"Where's the headliner?!": Murad appears unimpressed with the evening's entertainment (as does the gal sitting next to him).

3) Sinbad's instincts are spot on about everything until Murad's tobacco pipe doesn't work. Then one of his "wives" yanks out Sinbad's breathing reed so Murad can enjoy a smoke.

4) While yet another "wife" performs a dance that looks as if she's being attacked by fire ants, Sinbad, who can't breathe without his reed, rises up out of the sand. This totally freaks out the dancing wife, who runs off screaming. Murad is so miffed, he has his guards go find her so he can whip her.

5) With everyone else otherwise distracted, Sinbad sneaks into Kristina's tent and frees her. There is a minor scuffle with another guard, but that's over PDQ.

6) Once Murad realizes Kristina is gone, he and his troops ride off to find her. While they are gone, the Forty Thieves, who are dressed like a high school drill team, besiege the camp and kick the remaining soldiers in their collective fanny. They also snatch up the Greek Fire chemicals and the bejeweled lava lamp, too.

7) Sinbad, Omar and Kristina arrive at the Forty Thieves' secret hide out. It's there we learn the Khalif of Baghdad had all the male Thieves (including their sons) killed. The remaining wives and daughters of the Forty Thieves thus went into hiding and started their own version of the Forty Thieves. This has worked out surprisingly well, from a financial stand point, anyway. The down side is the Forty Thieves gals must stay hidden because there is a price on their heads, which has put a real crimp in their dating habits.

This is what the fashionable female 40 Thieves are wearing this season.

Eventually, the 40 Thieves agree to help Sinbad defeat Murad (and Tamerlane). The catch? They want the Greek Fire recipe to ensure the Khalif stops harassing them. It's agreed--and none too soon, as Tamerlane's troops are right outside!

This leads us to the obligatory "battle scene" where Tamerlane's troops and the 40 Thieves duke it out for the Greek Fire fixings. Unfortunately, not since the Monty Python skit where the Batley Town Women's Guild reenacted the Battle of Pearl Harbor will you witness such a slap stick hodge podge freak-out. Amid a shower of flaming arrows courtesy of the 40 Thieves, Tamerlane's men scream, grab their chests and fall to the ground with a loud "thunk". Meanwhile, horses rear up, stampede, topple over and run off. The gals then hurl rocks dipped in Greek Fire, causing their targets to literally go up in flames. Of course, a couple of Tamerlane's men have to be kicked or pushed off cliffs so they can yell "Ahhhh!" as they plummet to their deaths. Once the whole free-for-all is complete, the score is Tamerlane 0, the 40 Thieves 15 and everybody heads back to the Thieves' secret hide-out to celebrate.

It's here that Sinbad and Omar learn that they will have to stay with the 40 Thieves indefinitely. That's because the Khalif  has a price on their heads and the gals can't chance it that Sinbad or Omar might rat them out. Sinbad, of course, is more than happy to bed down with the Thieves, but Omar is not. That's because he and Kristina have fallen in love and want to get hitched. So Omar counsels the 40 Thieves that the last thing young ladies in their prime dating (and mating) years should be doing is sitting around without any male company. If Sinbad can promise to end the Khalif's grudge against them, will the 40 Thieves return to Baghdad with them to announce the news that Tamerlane the Cruel is dead and the Greek Fire is safe and sound?

Thus, with the 40 Thieves decked out in their most bedazzling ensemble yet, the whole gang returns to the Khalif''s palace to announce the good news about Tamerlane and unmask Jiddah as the baddie he always was. As a reward, Sinbad becomes the Khalif's second-in-command and Omar becomes the official court scribe/poet-in-residence. The 40 Thieves are duly freed and become Sinbad's personal honor guard. As if that's not enough, Sinbad proposes to Ameer and vows to be a faithful husband. So, with visions of an Omar/Kristina--Sinbad/Ameer double wedding dancing in our heads (with the 40 Thieves as bridesmaids), "The Son of Sinbad" ends on this happy note. Want to wager if Lady Nerissa catches one of the bridal bouquets?

While watching "The Son of Sinbad", I couldn't help but think viewers were getting a glimpse inside producer Howard Hughes' head. Hughes was notorious, after all, for putting dozens of young starlets under personal contract, providing them with acting lessons and a decent salary, all the while promising them important parts in his (someone else's) films--parts that rarely materialized. In short, Howard had his own harem going, not unlike the Khalif in today's picture. Clearly Hughes relished this kind of control over women and the sexism of the day meant he could get away with it. Anywhooo...

Sinbad and Ameer and Omar and Kristina: Happily never after?

The movie. "The Son of Sinbad" is a bright, shiny, over-produced piece of junk. However, it might be your only chance to see Vincent Price in a turban or to hear Sally Forrest as Ameer snarl, "My uncle's prayer rug!" when Sinbad insists he can be a faithful boyfriend. So I say, give it a whirl, but don't forget you've been warned.

So, movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, just because you're a top notch businessman, pilot and "idea guy" doesn't mean you should dabble in films--because the results could be disastrous. "The Outlaw", "The Conqueror" and "Underwater!" are just a few of the golden gobblers Hughes lovingly stuffed over the years. My personal favorite is "Underwater!", which Howie produced for Jane Russell. This "seagoing stinker" (according to the Brothers Medved) was about deep sea diving and, to bring home this point, Howie had "Underwater!" shown underwater to a group of film critics who were kitted out in scuba gear the occasion. Honest! And Save The Movies!

"Idea Guy" Howard Hughes: "I have no idea what I'm doing!"

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Better Dead Than "Red Dawn'!

"Armed and Dangerous": Our young cast packing heat.

Hey, kids! Do you miss the Cold War?

Do you long for the days when the worst insult you could hurl at somebody was "Commie"?

Do you get misty-eyed remembering how politicians use to accuse each other of being "soft on Communism" every other week?

Do you fondly recall how your mom had to repeatedly remind you not to order Russian dressing on your salad because it made your Uncle Larry pop a blood vessel?

If so, do I have a movie for you!

The invading Russians troops order a passel of Happy Meals before returning to duty.

Starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey before her career-ending nose job, 134 acts of violence per hour (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) and the rallying cry of "Wolverines!", I give you "Red Dawn" (1984).

The first movie to receive the new rating of PG-13 (and damn proud of it!), "Red Dawn" begins with a series of ominous title cards that announce Russia has experienced its worst wheat harvest in "55 years"; that NATO has been dissolved; that the Greens swept the West German parliamentary elections and are demanding the removal of all nukes "from European soil" and "the US stands alone."

Scary stuff, but life in small town Calamet, Colorado goes on pretty much the way it always has. Big bro Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops kid bro Matt (Charlie Sheen) and a friend off at school. While the kids listen to their history teacher drone on about Genghis Khan, zillions of Russian and Cuban paratroopers drop out of the sky. As soon as they land, the heartless Commies start spraying bullets everywhere, causing the students to run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Pals Jed, Matt, Darryl, Robert, Danny and kid called "Aardvark" manage to evade the slaughter. They stock up on supplies and head for the hills, encouraged by Robert's dad, who says the invasion will be over in a few days, max.

Of course, it isn't.

"Can you see the girls camp from here?": Jed, Robert and Matt survey the terrain.

See, those pesky Commies have taken over the town, rounded up all gun owners (NRA, take note) and turned the local drive-in into a re-education camp. When Jed, Matt and Robert (the sniveling C. Thomas Howell) sneak into town, they learn to their horror that A) their pa (Harry Dean Stanton) has been carted off to the re-education camp, B) a US/Russian "friendship center" has been set up where the record store use to be ("People of America! Arise and join the revolution!" its new sign declares) and C) all the movie theaters must now play Russian flicks like "Alexander Nevsky" from 1938.

Eventually Jed and Matt locate Mr. Eckert (the detention camp has a very liberal visiting policy). Although he's been roughed up pretty bad, Stanton is unbowed. He orders his sons not to cry. Then he admits he was a hard taskmaster: "I was tough on both of you. I did things that made you... hate me sometimes. You understand now, don't you?" The fight to free the USA is in their hands, pa Stanton tells them. They must make him proud. As the boys stagger away, Mr. Eckert yells, "Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!"

Oh, and mom's dead.

Back at base camp, food is getting scarce and tempers are fraying. Weaselly preppy (and former student body president) Darryl (Darryl Dalton) suggests they turn themselves in. That's no surprise; back in Calamet, Darryl's equally weaselly father (and town mayor) Lane Smith is busy cutting deals with the Soviet big-wigs. Instead, Jed encourages the guys to form a militia and strike back at the Reds. They call themselves the Wolverines after their high school football team and, with a bit of training from Jed and Matt, they are soon a crack fighting force making mincemeat out of their heavily-accented occupiers.

And who are their over lords?

"Do you know where I can get some borscht?" Invaders Col. Bella and Gen. Bratchenko check out the main drag.

First up is Ron O'Neal as Cuban Col. Bella. Although it's been 12 years since his star turn in the Blaxploitation classic "Superfly", O'Neal can still smolder with the best of them. Bella appears to be the brainiest of the Bolsheviks, yet no one really listens to him. For example, when rounding up folks and shooting them proves unpopular with the locals, Bella observes, "Look, I was always on the side of the insurgents. I have no experience in these matters, but it would seem necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people..." His Russian boss blows him off, reminding Bella that such a strategy didn't work in Vietnam. Seconds later, the Russian/American Friendship Center is blown to bits, causing Col. Bella to remark, "You were saying, Comrade?"

 "Shut up!" the testy Red screams.

Bella's frustrations with his Pinko superiors seem inevitable, in retrospect. Strelnikov (William Smith) and Gen. Bratchenko (Valdek Sheyval) appear to be knock-offs of Boris Badenhov and Fearless Leader from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show". Bratchenko, who looks like an evil Smurf  with Groucho Marx eyebrows, is especially fond of goose-stepping around town, hands firmly clenched behind his back, with a permanent sneer on his face. No matter what set-backs he's facing, the general remains steadfastly committed to the revolution. In strategy sessions with his staff, you half expect him to vow, "We are going to make big trouble for moose and squirrel!"

As for Strelnikov, he's fond of  using animal imagery to boost military morale. "If a fox stole your chickens, would you slaughter your pig because he saw the fox?" he yells at his completely baffled troops. "No! You would hunt the fox! You would find where it lives and destroy it! And how do we do this?" Strelnikov asks. When none of his underlings replies, he screams, "Become a fox!"

Will do, comrade general.

After Gen. Strelnikov orders his troops to become foxes, they become foxes.

Taking a break from their counter-insurgency activities, the Wolverines visits kindly Mr. Mason (Ben Johnson) and his wife. After swapping updates about the war, Mr. Mason entrusts Jed with grand-daughters Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson). At first, the guys merely expect the gals to wash their clothes, cook their food and keep the camp tidy. Then one night, Matt hands Erica some dishes and says, "Here, make yourself useful" and she goes ballistic. "Me and her are just as good as any of you!" Erica hollers. Ever the gentleman, Sheen retorts, "Who put the stick up your ass?" Sister Toni defends Erica, snarling at Matt, "What you said was wrong!" Although Matt is still clueless, the other guys quickly realize Erica and Toni want to be Wolverines, too. Soon enough, the sisters are fighting along side the boys with equal gusto.

Although our heroes are giving the Russian army a run for their money, ("I've seen this before," Col. Bella grumbles darkly as he walks past rows of casualties. "Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, Angola, Mexico. But these are my men!" ), it's clear director John Milius and screenwriter Kevin Reynolds felt kids this age shouldn't be totally unsupervised. So in parachutes swaggering jet jockey Col. Andy Tanner (Powers Booth), who Erica takes an immediate shine to. It's he who explains how the Russkies caught the USA with its pants down. A convoluted tale at best, it involves commercial air liners, nuclear weapons and Europe abandoning its Yank allies. When asked why Europe turned it's back on us, Andy muses, "I guess they figured twice in one century was enough." Although the Brits are on our side, the colonel reckons, "They won't last long."

Meanwhile, the twin stresses of hiding and fighting are beginning to take a toll on the Wolverines. As the body count rises, Danny (Brad Savage) repeatedly breaks down, screaming, "They were people!" The sniveling Robert, on the other hand, becomes a lean mean killing machine. "All that hate's gonna burn you up," Andy warns him. "It keeps me warm," Robert replies.

The biggest flame-out, however, is Darryl. Back home, his weaselly dad continues collaborating with the enemy. In one of the zaniest scenes in the flick, Bates Sr. is grilled by Col. Bella. Although I'm sure the filmmakers meant for this scene to have the under tones of menace, it actually plays like a skit on SNL.

Taking a big puff on his Cuban cigar, Bella states, "According to records, your son is a prominent school leader."

Lane Smith (Mayor Bates) and Ron O'Neal (Col. Bella) have different reactions to the bad acting of their teen act.

Sweating bullets, the mayor replies, "Yes, well, he's a leader, but not in a violent or physical way...(Bates laughs nervously) He's a politician, like his father."

Taking another big puff on his Cuban, the unimpressed Bella reminds Bates that Darryl is also "a member of an elite paramilitary organization": the Eagle Scouts!

Practically wetting his pants, Bates Sr. insists that the Eagle Scouts are harmless, like Darryl: "If he's alive, he's scared, he's hungry...anxious to avoid conflicts..."

In other words, he's a twitchy jerk--just like his old man! And he'd be perfectly willing to sell out his friends and his country--just like his old man! So when Darryl is "lost" during a raid, and his dear old dad turns him over to the Russkies, who proceed to brow beat him into swallowing a tracking device, should anyone be surprised? Shedding buckets of tears, Darryl wails that Jed himself said the USA couldn't defeat the Soviets. Besides, "They do things you can't imagine!"

None of this cuts any ice with his fellow Wolverines, who decide Darryl must be shot alongside a Russian captive. This leads to a scene where the principals whip themselves up into an orgy of operatic angst: while Darryl pleads, "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!", the gang bickers about whether they should shoot anybody ("They're people!" Danny screams for the millionth time) and, if so, who should pull the trigger. At the same time, the Soviet prisoner reminds Jed that what he's doing is "against the Geneva Convention", which causes Jed to yell back, "Never heard of it!" This, in turn, makes the Red sputter, "Dog face! I show you how Soviet dies!" Fed up with all the drama, Robert shoots Darryl at point blank range without blinking an eye. Whew!

Jed: "Any last words?"
Darryl: "Yes. I want a better dad in my next life."

Despite their heroic efforts, the Wolverines eventually must face the fact that their number is up. With Robert, Toni, Aardvark, Ivan (?), Darryl and Col Tanner gone, Jed and Matt decide to go out in a blaze of glory--or just in a blaze. Anyway, the bros send Danny and Erica off to "FA" ("Free America"). When they protest, Matt insists that "someone has to live." Too bad that "someone" has to be a whiny, annoying little twerp, but, hey, war is hell. Besides, Erica can handle Danny until they get to "FA" and then she can pawn him off on someone else.

So Jed and Matt strap on their ammo and sneak into town. As usual, the brothers run rings around the Reds, until Matt is killed and Jed is mortally wounded. As he carries his dead sibling to the local park, Jed meets up with Col. Bella. The child of the Revolution and the child of Calamet eye each other for the briefest of seconds. Jed is dying, Bella is disillusioned. The colonel waives him away. With his last ounce of strength, Jed reaches the town park. He and Matt lie together on a bench, as the sounds of war rumble on in the distance...

"I never saw the Eckert brothers again," Erica's voice over tells us. "In time, this war--like every other war--ended. But I never forgot..."

How could she? When a horde of Commies appear out of nowhere, shoot your history teacher, turn the local drive-in into a re-education camp, your grandpa entrusts your safety to Charlie Sheen and your on-screen sister has a nose job that will make her utterly unrecognizable, who in the hell could forget any of that?

After one ingests a cheese ball the size of "Red Dawn", one is often left with a few lingering questions--and a queasy stomach.

Sure, World War lll is raging, but there is still time to snap some pictures for the comrades back home.

For instance, how did the Russkies catch the US with its pants down? Col. Tanner mentions commercial air liners and stuff (as noted earlier), but he also implies the Canadians had something to do with it. Seriously? Canada? I have been to Canada many times and I don't believe the Canadians would just waive the Reds in, even if their only military option consisted of Dudley Do Right. How did scriptwriter Reynolds think he could get away with that, even in 1984?

What's more, Col. Tanner mentions the use of "limited" nuke strikes, as if such things were as harmless as kittens. Apparently these "limited" nuke strikes caused no fallout, no radiation or environmental destruction. Even for a film dubbed a "Reagan-era masturbatory fantasy", this is too much. It also begs the question: who had their head up their hinder the farthest, the screenwriter or the target audience?

Finally, there are scenes in this movie that are simply bonkers. This has made me wonder if  director Milius wasn't as serious about the material as one would think and was secretly having a little fun at the viewers' expense.

For example, when the gang captures a Soviet soldier about their age (symbolism and irony alert!), Erica screams at him, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?!"

"So what if he does!" Matt hollers. "You don't!"

"Wither Canada?": Is this how the Russkies were able to blunder their way into the USA?

Undaunted, Erica then shrieks, "Habla ingles?!"

"Shut up!" Matt yells.

I never though I'd say this, but Charlie Sheen is right! Their captive is Russian! Why ask him if he speaks German or Spanish--especially if you don't speak either? Isn't that a waste of time?

In another scene, Col. Bella is writing his cuddlemate in Cuba a heartfelt letter.

"How did I come to this high, desolate place where there is nothing but loneliness?" he asks. "So much is lost. I want to look into your eyes and forget..." Meanwhile, mere inches away, is a Russian officer checking out a "Playboy" centerfold.

"School is Out Forever"--at least for this guy.

When I saw this scene, I burst out laughing. What was director Milius trying to do here? Was he attempting to juxtaposition "the sacred and the profane"? Did he mean to imply the Russians are pigs and the Cubans are soulful Latin Lovers? The whole thing was just so nutty, I can't believe it was meant to be serious.

Finally, in a cinematic turkey stuffed with every conceivable Cold War cliche, trope and stereotype you can muster, Milius chose NOT to include this bit: a sex scene between Erica and Col. Tanner. The original idea was to have had Erica confide in Tanner that she fears dying a virgin. Ever the gentleman, Col. Tanner was suppose to agree to do the deed with her--although the camera was to pan away "discreetly" to give the couple some privacy.

Now, I can fully understand why a young gal would feel desperate about her future love life if her only choices were crude Matt, psycho Robert, traitor Dalton and the perpetually annoying Danny (Aardvark is dead, Jed is too busy). However, pairing a teenage girl with an adult male for this express purpose is just wrong, despite how "tastefully" it was suppose to be handled. For all the stupidity that abounds in "Red Dawn", excluding this vignette was an uncharacteristically smart thing to do (thanks to IMDb for this information).

So movie lovers, should you ever get nostalgic for the Cold War, please partake of "Red Dawn" and see for yourself how bad things really were. However, if that isn't enough to convince you, then watch the "Red Dawn" remake from 2012. This flick is not only as bad as the original-it's even worse. Proving yet again that bad movies never die, they just get recycled!

Save The Movies, too.

"Hey, at least Charlie Sheen isn't in this movie": Chris Hemsworth consoles a cast member.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

And Now, A Period Piece.

She enjoys being a girl: Molly contemplates the future in "Molly Grows Up"(1953).

Greetings, movie lovers.

I'd like to introduce you to Molly (Betsy Hawkins). She's a chipper, pig-tailed bobby-soxer of the first order. She lives in an idyllic suburban enclave with her perpetually pipe-puffing dad, domestic goddess mom and glamorous older sister Jeannie.

Molly is on the Cusp of Womanhood, which means anytime time now she'll begin to receive monthly visits from her Aunt Flow...along with the accompanying headaches, backaches, cramps, bloating, mood swings, weird cravings, stained panties and/or bed sheets etc., etc, etc.

Yet none of those things worry Molly one bit. That's because she's part of a new generation of gals who view getting their period as a significant step towards entering the world of parties, dances, fluffy formals, boys, dates, going steady and True Love--decidedly not "the Curse" of yesteryear.

And how did our heroine arrive at such an enlightened view of menstruation? Probably from watching "Molly Grows Up"(1953), the Grande Dame of mental hygiene "period pieces" that flourished from the mid-1940's to the mid-1970's.

Students can't wait to watch the latest mental hygiene film.

A collaboration between progressive educators and the magic of cinema, mental hygiene films were short tales meant to address every kind of social issue under the sun to America's children in a safe, non-threatening way. Touchier subjects like sex were thought to be ideal for mental hygiene films; in a darkened classroom, the genders separated to avoid embarrassment, kids could learn about the birds and the bees in safety. Once the youngsters had watched the flick, the subject was covered. No more worries.

Of course, it was never that simple, but during their hey-day, mental hygiene films were considered cutting edge educational resources.

The narrator of "Molly Grows Up" is Miss Jensen, a Miss Hathaway-ish school nurse who boldly informs us that Molly "is just the sort of girl" everyone would like to know. It's Miss Jensen who tells us that Molly and her big sister Jeannie "each have their own room" and get along "about as well as most sisters do." Lately, however, Molly has shown an unnerving interest in "her sister's things"--even trying on her hats and lipsticks on the sly.

"Molly!" Jeannie shrieks, catching her kid sister in the act. "How many times have I told you to stay out of my things?!"

Then Jeannie opens a drawer and pulls out a Modess sanitary napkin the size of a Universal Remote and as thick as a brick. Molly pulls out a napkin too and asks Jeannie, "When do you think I'll start having periods?"

"This is suppose to go where?": Molly is awed by the latest in feminine hygiene technology.

"I don't know," her big sis replies off-handedly. "Everybody is different." Then Jeannie snarks, "But with the way you've been behaving lately, it shouldn't be much longer."

Sure enough, it isn't. Molly arrives home from school one afternoon and proudly announces to her mother, "Guess what! I got my first period today!" Mom is so thrilled, she stops stirring her cup-cake batter and exclaims, "Tell me all about it!" I'll skip those details, but I will tell you that a blinding headache and blood-soaked panties weren't involved.

Later on, Miss Jensen returns to teach a health class where Molly and her school mates learn all about menstruation. There is a diagram of the female reproductive system on the chalkboard and a very concise explanation of the mechanics of menses. While "Molly Grows Up" does admit that a "female egg fertilized by a male sperm" is the first step in making a baby, the flick doesn't explain how the egg and sperm manage this transaction. Do they answer a personal ad? Meet through friends? Hire a lawyer? Is alcohol involved? Does money change hands? We're never told.

To be fair, Molly and her gal pals aren't interested in these type of questions anyway. Instead, they want to know if they can shower and bathe regularly (yes), wash their hair (yes, but be sure and dry it quickly), go swimming (no way) or ride horses (not until the tail end of your cycle). It's also OK to roller skate and square dance, as long as you don't "bounce around a lot."

When "Molly Grows Up" ends it's broadcast day, we see the dolled-up Jeannie going on one of her endless dates. Watching her from afar, a Modess sanitary napkin securely strapped in her panties, Molly looks far away and dreamy-eyed. No doubt she's picturing herself in Jeannie's place, wearing a bell-shaped ball gown, swaying to "I Only Have Eyes for You" and taking short, quick breaths because her pantie griddle is so damn tight...

"Today's lesson was brought to you by the letters P, M and S": Miss Jensen shares the facts of life.

If you think "Molly Grows Up" sounds dated and goofy, that's because it is. Even by the standard's of the day, "Molly Grows Up" is stiffer than a board. However, if you want a more down-to-earth, hip and happenin' look at menstruation, check out 1973's "Naturally...A Girl".

This cheery, up-beat mental hygiene flick interviews a racially diverse group of girls (and a few boys!) who talk about getting their periods--the boys don't talk about getting periods, of course, but instead show a sophisticated understanding of what periods are for. And the guys are very polite, I must say. Not one of them calls menstruation "surfing the crimson tide" or "being on the rag", like the well-honed wits I went to school with. Anyway, none of girls profiled here is really fazed by this biological phenomenon. The gals, who are decked out in the awful hair styles and polyester fashions of the day, understand that menstruation is necessary and natural and needed "so you can have babies." The narrator reassures the audience that you can do all the things you want to during your cycle--even swimming, now that tampons are available. Unlike "Molly Grows Up", "Naturally...A Girl" shows teen girls growing up to be nurses, teachers, stewardesses, secretaries and actresses without their periods getting in their way. As one perky pre-teen quips, being a girl "is a lot better than being a boy!"

Of course, these mental hygiene flicks were made for two reasons only: to demystify menstruation and to sell Modess, Kotex and other assorted feminine hygiene products. Acting, writing and production values? Forget about it. 

And, yes, I understand, that these films were made with the best of intentions. For some kids, this was the only accurate sex education they would ever have.

So why include mental hygiene films in a blog dedicated Junk Cinema?

You can't argue with the logic of this vintage Stayfree ad.

Because who else is going preserve these films for future generations?! Red Box? 

A sick joke, I know, but, hey, observational humor

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, avoid vigorous square dancing when your monthly bill comes due and, of course, help me SAVE THE MOVIES!