Tuesday, June 16, 2020

"The Dead Talk Back"--So Be Sure To Listen!

The opening credits for today's featured flick.

Hi ho, movie lovers.

I have a question for you: What do pearls and bad movies have in common?


See, pearls start their lives as tiny pieces of grit that find their way into an oyster or a clam. To their hosts, this piece of grit is an irritant.

Bad movies, meanwhile, often start their lives as a low budget, quickie film that irritates its production company or studio because they don't think the flick will be profitable.

Pearls and bad movies have many things in common.

As a form of protection, oysters or clams coat that piece of grit with a substance called "narce".

Also as a form of protection, studios and/or production companies often shelve bad or unpromising movies for years, where they get coated with lots of dust.

However, after 2 to 4 years, and multiple coatings of narce, someone can pry open a humble oyster and find a beautiful, shiny pearl where the grit use to be.

Likewise, after many years, someone can pry open a dusty film canister and discover a Junk Cinema Jewel glittering before them.

And that, boys and girls, is how today's featured flick "The Dead Talk Back" came to light.

"The Dead Talk Back" spent over 30 years on shelf like this before Sinister Cinema rescued it.

Written, produced and directed by Merle S. Gould, "The Dead Talk Back" was made in 1957, but was never shown on the big or small screen. Anywhere. However, in 1993, Sinister Cinema purchased the flick from Headliner Productions with hopes of  releasing it on video. Later, in 1994, "The Dead Talk Back" made its way to MST3K (which is where I first saw it) and it's new life as a Junk Cinema Jewel began.

Envisioning itself as neo-noir supernatural murder mystery, "The Dead Talk Back" is so clumsy and stupid, it's easy to understand why it spent 36 years rotting away on a shelf. Simply put, this movie is bad. Very, very bad--and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

The star is one Aldo Farnese as Dr. Henry Krasker.  Mr. Farnese appeared in several children's shows for UHF stations in Philadelphia in the 1960's; how he stumbled into this production, I don't know. How the rest of the cast stumbled into this production, I don't know. Anyhow, playing Dr. Krasker was Aldo's only "straight" acting role and to appear older and more "learned", his hair is spray-painted grey on the sides and he has a fake beard. He also smokes cigars. Because "criminology is my hobby", Dr. Krasker often helps the LAPD with tough cases.

"My philosophy?" he states. "Metaphysics."

Oh, and he doesn't believe people really die when they're pronounced dead.

Dr. Henry Krasker (Aldo Farnese) explains how the dead can talk back.

In fact, Dr. K is so sure about this point that he's busy working on a device (actually, a radio) that will "mechanically speak to the dead."

"Oh, it's true!" he exclaims before anyone dares to doubt him. 

Although Henry admits "the problems of communicating with the departed go way back" (because they're dead, maybe?) and that, yes, his radio-thingy has some kinks to be ironed out, and, yes, he has yet to find "the right frequency" for proper communication, but when he does, watch out!

"Just think: we could find lost articles! Treasures! Gold mines! We could even solve murders (Krasker lowers his voice dramatically) by contacting the murdered."

Jimmy Hoffa, take note!

The soon to be dead Renee Coliveil (Laura Brock), talking back (note MST3K figures).

As luck would have it, Dr. Krasker gets a golden opportunity to try out his theories when a murder occurs at the suburban boarding house he calls home. The victim is Renee Coliveil (Laura Brock), a small time model who spends a lot of time lounging in her slip. She's found pinned to the side of the rooming house, felled by a drive-by crossbow attack.

Who are the suspects?

The widowed Mrs. Corman, who runs the rooming house. Her daughter Sarah ("husband just disappeared one day") and her sons Denny and Ronny (actually, director Gould's kids). There is Harold Younger (Don Harris), "a friendless sort of man", who works in a record store. Next is "Frits Kreuger" (Curtis Roberts), a pasty faced, rubber-lipped chap with a crazy German accent. Local cashier Hope (Janeanna Pritchard) is a bride-to-be and close pal of Renee's. Last but not least are religious fanatic Christy Mattling (Kyle Stanton), who thinks Krasker's experiments are "the work of the devil" and DJ Ray Milburn (Myron Natwick), who hopes on inheriting a big chunk o'change from his uncle soon--provided he's not involved in "any difficulties".

Hmmm...could one of these folks actually be the murderer? Personally, I'd exclude the kindly Mrs. Corman and her daughter Sarah; Sarah's the one who found Renee's body, after all.  Hope was the victim's friend and has a wedding to plan, so that kicks her out. However, "Frits" has a history of ogling Renee. Harold, though friendless, had let Renee money. When nut-job Mr. Mattling declared Mr. Krasker was "the devil himself", Renee screamed, "Oh, shut up, you potentate of righteousness!" Could one of these ninnies have done Renee in? And what about that strange man who ran past Sarah on the porch, shortly before she found Renee? The police found a heel on the Corman's front porch--and before the strange guy tosses his shoes in the river, the camera shows us one of them was missing a heel. Weird.

To solve such a baffling case, top-notch investigators are needed. Too bad Lt. Lewis (Scott Douglas) and his second-in-command Harry (Earl Sands) are assigned the job instead. Brusque and short-tempered, these two don't exactly inspire confidence. When they begin interviewing the suspects, the flick lurches to a pace slower than Great Aunt Ida at the mall.  Remember the interrogation scene in "LA Confidential" with Guy Pierce and Russel Crowe? Or in "The Usual Suspects"? Nothing like that happens here. Instead, when Harold is brought in for questioning, Harry merely snarls, "Cut the innocent act!" Then they grill him over the fact that he's had two failed marriages (which lasted only 3 weeks each!) and that his ex-wives said he was tight with a buck. 

Sarah Sthoil (Betty Ruth) talking back.

What does that have to do with Renee's death? Nothing! But if you think Harold's interview was a dry, stilted affair, the police's encounter with "Frits" is even more of a pain parade.

"Frits" explains he wasn't home when Renee's body was first found because "he was out on a date"(!) However, he had to return home because he had "to retrieve his wallet." Then Lt. Lewis narrows his eyes and says to "Frits", "You look familiar." Turns out "Frits" did a stretch "for bothering a girl--but I no kill anybody!" The rest of their session passes in strained silence, as "Frits" aimlessly looks around the detective's drab office. In fact, "Frits" is so inert, when Lt. Lewis fires the crossbow right in his face, he doesn't even flinch.

Are we done yet? Unfortunately, no. The police still have to interview Ray Millburn and nut-job Christy Mattling. They find Ray at his radio station, where a group is blowing some smooth jazz. He tells the detectives that "the only laughs (Renee) got came from bottles". He also adds, "We put on some dillies." 

Christy Mattling, on the other hand, is dragged off from a park where he was haranguing a guy trying to read his newspaper. After calling Renee "a flip", he reminds the detectives that "he who is without sin can cast the first stone". Totally cheesed off, Harry barks, "We'll cast more than stones, buster, if you don't give us straight answers!"

"Get off cloud 7!" Lt. Lewis chimes in for good measure.

DJ and rich person Ray Millburn talks back to Lt. Lewis and Harry.

Now, I hate to do this to you, since our featured flick is such a slog, but directer Gould finds one more suspect to pester us with. Remember the guy who ran past Sarah on the porch? The fellow who threw his shoes--one minus a heel--into the drink? Well, his name is Tony Pettini (Sammy Ray). He's a short, nerdy guy who also happens to be a photographer. It was he who ran into Sarah on the porch. Could he be the culprit?

Back Lt. Lewis and Harry must trudge to various local businesses to try and find this jerk. At one photo shop, our lawmen are confronted by a bleached blonde receptionist who recognizes Renee's last known photos as being shot by Tony. The corker? While this receptionist is giving Lt. Lewis and Harry the low-down on Tony, she starts disrobing ... to reveal she's wearing a skin-tight red jumpsuit with spaghetti straps! Why did she do this? Beats me. And for the record, Lewis and Harry don't bat an eye. I guess when you work in law enforcement, you get used to that kind of stuff.

Harry and Lt. Lewis head over to Tony's studio, where another receptionist is dealing with an angry, middle-aged customer mad that her glamour shots are not, well, more glamorous: "Young lady, my only complaint is (the pictures) look just like me!" she sniffs before flouncing off.

Tony is found photographing another model. When the police ask that he come down to the station for questioning, Tony agrees, but then runs off. Strangely, both Lt. Lewis and Harry, who are taller, younger and in better shape than Tony, find it hard to catch up with their suspect. They eventually do, of course, but because Tony offers up no new information on Renee's murder, the police can't hold him. Even the fact that Tony has new shoes is immaterial because, as Lt. Lewis barks, "You can't hold a man or convict him because he buys a new pair of shoes!" 

Perhaps realizing that he's hurt Harry's feelings, Lt. Lewis adds, "Look, I didn't say he's not guilty."

Dr. Krasker plans to blind the audience with science.

All right, bear with me, because now "The Dead Talk Back" really start cooking. All our cast members are corralled into Mrs. Corman's living room. With nothing but dead ends to show for all their work, Lt. Lewis and Harry allow Krasker to take a whack at the case. Using a wine glass, a razor, a wire and "a method known as telekenis", Krasker hopes to contact Renee from the great beyond.

"Oh, I remember something like that in school," Hope pipes up. "A student, during a demonstration, moved a salt shaker across the table by merely concentrating on it!"

"That's precisely the same theory that I hope to demonstrate tonight," Krasker says proudly. Adding, "The medium has to reach a certain rate of vibration to contact anyone one the other side."

To reach that, ahem, "certain rate of vibration", Dr. Krasker has the lights dimmed and everybody is told to concentrate. As people squint their eyes and furrow their brows, a faint sound appears to emerge from the silent darkness. Or does it? Before anything interesting happens, Mattling barges into the room, spouting scripture and disrupting the proceedings. While Harry hustles him off, Tony blurts out all he knows about Renee, most importantly that she was already dead when he found her. That frosts Lt. Lewis' perm, causing him to bellow, "You could have saved us a lot of trouble if you'd told us all that in the first place!"

OK, so Tony didn't kill Renee, but she's still dead and all the other suspects have been cleared. Now what? 

Dr. Krasker and Hope talk about the dead.

Believe it or not, the whole gang marches over to Dr. Krasker's lab, where he plans to use his radio-thingy to contact Renee (Bet you didn't know Thomas Edison was working on a such a device himself. Well, he was, according to the flick, anyway. I bet you also didn't know Founding Father Ben Franklin liked to sit around in the buff to cool off. Well, he did; I read that in Mental_Floss Presents Condensed Knowledge. Just thought I'd throw it out there). As the cast settles into their chairs, Dr. Krasker fools around with some dials and flips some switches, all the better to look "science-y". Then Krasker proclaims he needs to reach "18 MOC range" in order to best connect with a person who has "passed over." 

However, unlike the razor blade and the wine glass trick, the radio-thingy appears to be working. A faint, quivering female voice is heard. Then a loud honking noise comes from inside the fish tank/casket that Dr. Krasker has in his lab. See, one of Dr. Krasker's other inventions is a horn embedded in a casket so, if someone is buried alive, they can sound the alarm that they aren't dead yet. Did I forget to mention that? Anyway, after the horn stops honking, the body in the fish tank/casket rises up and the entire cast declares, "It's Renee!"

It's about that time that Ray Millburn (remember him? The DJ who drank with Renee?) Jumps up and screams, "So you're not dead!"

Not so fast! Turns out Renee is dead. The "body" rising from the fish tank/casket is... Hope! Before anybody realizes that, however, Ray confesses that he killed Renee. Why? Because on one of their drunken "dillies", they got hitched in Mexico. Ray was trying to keep the marriage secret until he could get it annulled so he could inherit all that money from his uncle--the one who didn't want his heir involved in any "difficulties." In the mean time, Renee was blackmailing him "for every cent I had." Then, it got even worse: she told Ray she was pregnant! D'oh! So Ray snapped and shot Renee with his crossbow. 

As Ray is lead away to prison, viewers will notice that the dead did not talk back in any way, shape or form. This, in turn, begs the question: if Dr. Krasker suspected Ray was the guilty party, why didn't he share this info with the police? Why the kooky seance? Did he just want to show off his radio-thing-y? In the words of the perpetually exasperated Lt. Lewis, "You could have saved us a lot of trouble if you'd told us all that in the first place!"

Of course, some would argue that if Krakser had, "There wouldn't be a movie!"

"The Dead Talk Back" star Aldo Farnese as Dickory Doc, a local kiddie show he created in the late 1960's.

To which I say, "There's no movie anyway!"

As I mentioned earlier, "The Dead Talk Back" spent 36 years sitting on a store room shelf before it's big debut on "MST3K". However, writer/producer/director Merle S. Gould does have other films to his credit. In 1957, he sought fit to release "The Body is a Shell", where he played someone named "Knobby Garfield". The New York Times had this to say about Mr. Gould's film: "The earthly fact remains that the writing, acting, directing, editing, sound effects and musical score are unfailingly dreadful." The critic ended his piece by stating, "Some customers may derive comfort from 'The Body is a Shell'. Others are going to head straight for the bar."


The Village Voice, meanwhile, called "The Body is a Shell" a "vanity product, made and acted in by total amateurs, at the expense of some poor old (but sufficiently rich) person afraid of a death without life hereafter."

After such withering reviews, it's understandable why Mr. Gould wasn't anxious to release "The Dead Talk Back" and endure another critical smack-down. Needless to say, his other flicks ("Strange Sightings" (1964) and "Mystic Prophecies and Nostradamas" (1961), which starred Basil Rathbone!!) remained safely obscure.

Spell Check: That's Fritz, not "Frits" !

As for star Aldo Farnese? He went on to play "Dickory Doc" for a local Philadelphia TV station from 1966-69. "Dickory Doc" was a kid's show and Farnese also voiced such characters as Choo-Choo, Jingle Jim and Little Jock.  He later went on the play "Adam Android." "Dickory Doc" even released two albums: "Dickory Doc With All His Friends" and "Dickory Doc, Vol. 2."

No doubt, these endeavors were more successful than "The Dead Talk Back"--but then, what wouldn't?!

I think of movies like "The Dead Talk Back" as success stories in reverse; it's their failures we celebrate, not their good points.  After all, when a movie is shot with a no-star, non-professional cast that wasn't even paid, where the leading man has a shoe-polish beard, when reflector lights and boom mikes are clearly visible and where the name Fritz is spelled "Frits" in the opening credits, what's not to love? It may have taken 36 years for "The Dead Talk Back" to acquire its Junk Jewel sheen, but it's been worth the wait.

 Merle S. Gould and Aldo Farnese, Junk Cinema salutes you!


Mike and the'bots salute the Grateful Dead. Check out Crow T. Robot as Captain Trips.