Friday, June 22, 2012

An Invocation for a Benediction So's I can Amscray...

I hereby baptize this vacation. In the name of Kowolski, and of the Super Soul, and of the Open Road. Whoa! Man. With that, Operation: Jack Shit will commence for the next week and a half. Updates will resume in July. Adios, Boils and Ghouls. Stay cool.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The (Red) Apes Have Taken Over :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Edward Dein's Shack Out on 101 (1955)

At a small ocean-side greasy-spoon located well off the beaten path, the owner, George (Wynn), barely ekes out a living. Staffed by a world-wise waitress and a cantankerous short-order cook, what few customers they do get consists of an occasional long haul trucker and the staff of a government research center that's nestled somewhere up the road a piece. But all these customers agree on two things: one, they'd all like a fling with saucy Kotty (Moore), and two, Slob's cooking is awful. But the thick-headed Slob
(Marvin) couldn't care less what they think and Kotty turns them all down. Seems she's currently attached and swapping spit with one of those research scientists, a Professor Sam Baniston (Lovejoy), who's also trying to help her ditch this dead end occupation and shepherd her into a cushier government job through the Civil Service exam.

And as we meet a few more kooky denizens of this diner, including a daffy salesmen (Bissell) and a shifty-eyed fishermen (Lesser), things seem normal enough on the surface, but underneath something far more sinister is happening once the sun goes down and the kitchen closes for the night. Seems several of those government researchers have up and disappeared, without a trace, and they were all last seen eating at this very establishment. And not only that, but there are other transactions going on at the diner. Transactions that are off the menu and take place strictly under the table. And what are these clandestine transactions all about? Secrets. Secrets bought and sold that could bring about the end of the world as we know it...

In August of 1950, after the F.B.I. ferreted out their spy ring, a Federal grand jury indicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 11 counts of conspiracy and espionage for allegedly passing on the secrets of the A-Bomb to the Russians. Later convicted on these charges in March of 1951, despite the couple's protests of innocence, the Rosenberg's, admitted Communists, were sentenced to death for this act of treason; a sentence that was eventually carried out in June, 1953. But that wasn't the end of it. Far from it as this notorious incident only added fuel to Senator Joe McCarthy's Stomp-A-Commie-Crusade; and Hollywood, already stinging from the whipping it took from the House Un-American Activities hearings in 1947, which resulted in the Black List, where countless artists and craftsmen suddenly became persona non grata to the studios, were eager to make nice with a series of Anti-Communist films (Big Jim McClain, I Married a Communist) and shorts (Red Nightmare, What is Communism?) to bolster the perception of Tinsel Town's unwavering patriotism to avert anymore governmental grievances.

Even second tier studios like Allied Artists got in on the act, and Shack Out on 101 (1955) is a prime example of this type of output. An Atomo-Paranoia-Sleaze-Noir, then, where the separate ingredients of Patriotism and Red Scares are clearly definable to your viewing palate as the film digests, but these morsels are essentially overwhelmed by a few more spicier ingredients thrown in with the best of intentions to make it all go down a little easier. For, not only did the married screen-writing tandem of Edward and Mildred Dein throw the kitchen sink into this seamy little potboiler (Edward also directed), but added the stove, the fridge, the cupboards, and all the above's contents into the mix as they tried to subvert this central theme under several layers of steamy romantic intrigue, oddball characters, and laugh-out-loud comedy. Strangely, each element on its own works fairly well but kinda fizzles and sours when baked together. Sticking with the culinary metaphor, then, admittedly, the end result tastes kinda funny. Not bad, mind you. Just funny -- a bit off, maybe -- with each bite either too salty or too sweet or too bland that never reaches any sort of satisfying equilibrium. (Note to self: You are are so talking out of your ass right now.) Anyways...

Yeah, the soapy melodrama just never jives properly with the cloak and dagger stuff. The comedic elements work the best, especially a few throwaway bits with Wynn and Marvin working out, and the resulting pissing contest over whose pecs and legs are in better shape (-- a contest Moore eventually has the last word on), and Wynn and Bissell (in a rare comedy relief stint) swapping tales and testing out some new fishing equipment. Frankly, the whole plot feels like a hyper-condensed season of your garden variety soap opera, where said soap latches onto to the latest headlines or hot-topic and folds it into one of its many subplots, with the viewer plopped down right into the middle of it, beginning with Marvin's initial molestation of Moore on the beach, whose tired reaction says this kinda crap happens all the time, and who only gets indignant when the grab-fanny cook spoils her latest batch of laundry.

Now, with a soap, you would have months and months to work this storyline -- hell, in some cases, years; here, we barely have an hour as a frustrated Moore moves from man to man, looking and longing for love or some kind of stability, eventually sniffing out the nefarious truth behind Lovejoy and Marvin's secret sea-shell swapping sessions but doesn't quite grasp the stakes until it is far too late. For, unlike the Rosenbergs, here, not only are those Commie bastards stealing classified information from the research center through several stooges, they're actually kidnapping scientists and engineers and smuggling them out of the country through Mexico, destination Moscow, to unlock more Atomic secrets for Uncle Nikita.

Discovering her beau (and ticket out of this shack) is one of these stoolies, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, knowing they've killed several people already, Moore's self-righteous snit-fueled tirade nearly gets everyone else killed as the mysterious Mr. Gregory, the man behind this nest of vipers, finally reveals himself, who decides it's time to cut bait on this operation and leave all the witnesses at the bottom of the Pacific. And since everything that brought us to this point, and the climax itself, to the pat happy ending, is all carried out six and half miles over-over the top an argument could be made that Shack Out on 101 should be considered a farce, which kinda makes sense, making it a nice subversive foil for this particular genre that was already fizzling out.

Okay, despite all these complaints and snarky observations, I'm happy to report the cast overachieves and makes all of these disjointed plot elements work. As the Tomato, whom everyone wants to *ahem* sample, Moore is a million miles away from her big screen break as the young ingénue in Mighty Joe Young. She brings a solid been there, done that weariness to Kotty, who once more sees a way out of this funk only to have the door seemingly slammed in her face. The constantly blustering Wynn is great, too, as always, and plays well off the bumbling Bissell. But Marvin steals the movie as the slovenly Slob, who, perhaps, isn't as slovenly and thick-headed as he lets on. It also helps that the film itself looks fantastic. Credit to cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who used the limited sets brilliantly, keeping things nice and dingy and sleazy, and used the cramped and limited space in the diner to his advantage by having the camera ridiculously close to the action at all times, resulting in a seedy documentary type feel that's about [--this--] close to crossing the threshold of cinéma vérité. Seriously. You can almost smell some Pine Sol wafting from the toilets and hear the grease popping on the griddle. This would be one of Crosby's last stops before he hooked up with Roger Corman and the boys from American International, and whose skills are kinda underappreciated in the success of both. One also cannot discount the efforts of editor George White, who also stitched together the similar docu-noir, The Phenix City Story, and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Clock, and the music of Paul Dunlop, whose horn-heavy spazz-jazz riffs only amp up the proceedings even more.

So, basically, despite its haphazard structure and kitchen-sink narrative, Shack Out 101 will surprise you when it's over and done. It shouldn't work, but it does. Sure it tastes funny, but you're still full and (hopefully) satisfied. Apparently, the film's original title was Shack Up on 101 but some muckety-muck at the studio didn't like the euphemistic connation of "shack up" (-- some sources claim the objection came from Moore), and so producer Mort Millman made the change. After finishing up here, the Deins latched onto the wrong bandwagon with Calypso Joe (-- people don't remember but calypso hit big the same time rock-n-roll did, and most predicted calypso would have more staying power while the other fad faded away), but then the couple went to work for Universal and scripted the strangest, but surprisingly effective entry in that studio's resurgent monster movie movement with Curse of the Undead, which throws a vampire into a western, making him an indestructible hired gun for a dubious land baron. You wouldn't think that would work either, but, believe me, it does. It should be noted that Shack Out on 101 is apparently only available to buy through Amazon's streaming services, which I did, and the un-restored print they issued is actually pretty good and well worth the price. Still, both Curse of the Undead and Shack Out on 101 definitely need and deserve a wider audience than that. A problem a legitimate DVD release for both could solve.

Shack Out on 101 (1955) Allied Artists / EP: William F. Broidy / P Mort Millman / D: Edward Dein / W: Edward Dein, Mildred Dein / C: Floyd Crosby / E: George White / M: Paul Dunlap / S: Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Whit Bissell, Len Lesser, Frank De Kova

Monday, June 11, 2012

Favorites :: Inks and Paints :: On the Beach with Frankie and Bridette.

Artist: Damian

Fell down one of those Tumblr Holes last night and came upon this, which is awesome, and which also reminded me I hadn't listened to these guys in (too long) awhile. Engage remedy:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

WARNING! Monsters Run Loose! Sit in Your Lap! Can You Take It! :: On the Midnight Spook Show Road with Joe Karston.

Dr. Evil and His Terrors of the Unknown, Ray Mond's Voodoo Show, and Dr. Draculas Den of Living Nightmares, these were just a few of the traveling Midnight Spook Shows that barnstormed around the country in the 1920's, '30s '40s, '50s and '60s, until this type of roadshow and spectacle withered and died along with the Drive-In in the 1970's. (Thank you, Home Video and cable. Feh...)

Whether featuring wild magic-acts, where mad doctors or their nubile assistants were often transformed into horrible creatures, or showcasing onstage dismemberment and other macabre acts of torture, or maybe the threat of "Real Live Monsters" running loose in the aisles, abducting beautiful women for some nefarious purpose or other -- and sometimes they featured all of the above! -- before the lights went out and the feature began, these things always drew a crowd and were huge moneymakers for those who booked them since theater owners didn't have to send the usual disproportional amount of ticket money made on these things back to the studios and pocketed everything after splitting the take with presenter.

e of the more successful Spook Show entrepreneurs was Joe Karston. Probably best known these days for his Monsters Crash the Pajama Party campaign (-- thanks to Something Weird Video's wonderful DVD), Karston also backed Dr. Macabre's Frightmare of Movie Monsters and Dr. Jekyll and His Weird Show. Karston would also later team up with Ray Dennis Steckler, tweaking a live-act element into both The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and The Thrill-Killers, and took them out on tour as Teenage Psycho meets Bloody Mary and The Maniacs are Loose, respectively.

And it wasn't just one show, there'd be several different road companies touring assigned territories with each
campaign, and sometimes the same show would run for years. And it was right after Dr. Macabre hit big that Karston dreamed up The First Living Creature from Outer Space. Featuring a custom headpiece built by Don Post, the alien sported a clear plastic head with a rubber-brain suspended in a reddish liquid, a pair of black tights, and rubber-boots spray-painted silver.

The show opened in Wichita, Kansas, with Richard Cuhna's Giant from the Unknown as the feature. Alas, though touted as being unlike anything you'd ever seen before, The First Living Creature from Outer Space was a rare flop for Karston, who quickly pulled the plug -- luckily, not before it played in my hometown. But! Turns out the Creature wasn't quite dead yet, as it would go on to fill the title roll in Space Monster, one of American International's cheapest efforts in their brief foray into television production. And Karston would recycle the creature yet again for his own feature film, and perhaps one of the strangest adaptations of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, The Wizard of Mars -- a/k/a Horrors of the Red Planet. So, without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boils and Ghouls, I present to you ...The First Living Creature from Outer Space!


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Trailer Park :: Twice the Tension = Twice the Terror! :: Wicked, Wicked Not as Stupid, Stupid as You'd Think.

When he's unable to track down a trio of guests who vacated without paying their bill, who then apparently fell off the face of the Earth, a hotel detective begins to suspect foul play might be involved. And his investigation kicks into high gear when his old flame hits the lobby, who physically matches the description of the other missing persons -- all female, pretty and blonde. Turns out he's right to be concerned, too, because there's a deranged killer on the loose in this hotel; a killer who's already got his sights locked onto the girl in question as his next victim; a victim just like all the others; a victim who will check in, and then check out -- permanently.

As the legend goes, writer, director, and producer Richard Bare got the idea for Anamorphic DUO-VISION while driving to work one day. Seems as his mind wandered, he noticed the dividing lines on the pavement and how the freeway lanes had two distinct and different perspectives when looked at with just one eye at a time. This resultant mind-blow planted the seeds of an idea to make a movie with two simultaneous images, telling the same story from two different perspectives, for both eyes.

Dusting off an old, unsold script called The Squirrel, Bare tore it apart and then reassembled it to fit his scheme. And after conquering a few logistical obstacles to pound out a new version, he presented the script to his old boss, William T. Orr, with whom Bare had worked on a ton of TV shows for Warner Bros. (Maverick, Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip). Then, together, they took the script and the gimmick to MGM and within 48-hours they had a check and a green-light to proceed.

When filming began, Bare was smart enough not to overload both screens with action as to not confuse the audience. I'm hard pressed to recall a scene that had dialogue happening on both screens at once. Making one frame active and the other passive, DUO-VISION actually kind of works, especially in the scenes where the root cause of the killer's psychosis is revealed via flashback on one screen while he slowly cracks up in the other. The process also works as a lie detector, allowing the audience to see the real truth while characters spin their lies, give false truths, and offer shaky alibis. Bare's film was also one of the first to really utilize Stereo-Sound, allowing the soundtrack to be split down the middle as well, depending on which screen held the dominant action.

Where DUO-VISION starts to break down, however, is when one screen is occupied by obvious filler; most notably some batty organist, who provides the mood music for our psycho-drama by pounding out selected movements from The Phantom of the Opera. Apparently, while trying to edit the film together, Bare realized he was way, way short of coverage to fill both screens and had to go back and shoot more footage to fill those gaps. Even then, it took him almost 8 months to splice a working print together.

For his cast, Bare threw together an actual returning Vietnam veteran making his big-screen debut as the psycho-killer (Bailey), a Mitchum deodorant spokes-model as their hero (Roberts), and a failed singer /1970's Scream Queen Almost Was for their heroine (Bolling). Now, I've always enjoyed Ms. Bolling's work, and though I don't think she's all that good of a singer, by god, she gives it all she's got:

Rounding out the cast is Bare and Orr's old 77 Sunset Strip buddy, Eddie Byrnes, as the lecherous bellhop, Madeline Sherwood as the dotty Gloria Swanson clone, who has plenty of dastardly secrets of her own, and genre veteran Scott Brady as perhaps the world's crankiest detective. And speaking frankly, though I think DUO-VISION does have its perks, and the cast never lacks for enthusiasm, Bare's bare script betrays them and just isn't up to the task to pull it off and fill things out properly.

Bare's film also serves as a time-capsule of earth-tone decor and questionable fashion statements -- and I recall one particular scene where a band member's shirt blended in perfectly with the wallpaper. Seriously, all you could see was his cheesy 'stache and rockin' proto-mullet. Filmed at San Diego's historic Hotel del Coronado, Bare claims his film shouldn't be taken all that seriously and should be treated as the goof he had intended. Half Grand Hotel half Grand Guignol, the director insists, the film is pretty laughable, and downright hysterical in spots, but it also gets surprisingly morbid and twisted, especially when we get into the killer's back-story and the sexual abuse endured by our villain that set him down this homicidal path, which led to his morbid collecting hobby and what he currently has squirreled away in the hotel's attic. And that ending ... Oh, lord, that ending...

parody or not, audiences didn't get the joke and when Wicked, Wicked fizzled at the box-office a planned follow-up film using the same process was quickly scrapped. Bare claims this failure wasn't really the film's fault but due to a lack of publicity, caused by a cost-cutting MGM, who, at the time, was leeching and funneling the majority of its money away from productions and into Las Vegas to build their new mega-casino. And due to it's split-screen gimmick, the film posed a major problem for TV syndication or a home video release; and what limited VHS tapes there were were cropped down to one frame. Thus the film has been off the radar and been wallowing in relative obscurity ever since it's initial release. As of this writing, Wicked, Wicked still hasn't been released on DVD, though it should be, but one can track down some gray-market foreign releases. It's also showed up on TCM's Underground in its proper, split-screen ratio. So, the film is out there, and if you have the chance do take a look. This kooky, one of a kind piece of ... something is well worth your time and effort.

Wicked, Wicked (1973) United National Productions :: MGM / EP: William T. Orr / P: Richard L. Bare / D: Richard L. Bare / W: Richard L. Bare / C: Frederick Gately / E: John F. Schreyer / M: Philip Springer / S: David Bailey, Tiffany Bolling, Randolph Roberts, Scott Brady, Edd Byrnes, Roger Bowen, Madeleine Sherwood, Diane McBain

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Re-Post :: Carl Laemmle's Original Spookshow :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to The Cat and the Canary (1927)

When eccentric millionaire Cyrus West finally kicks the bucket, the kooky recluse stipulates his potential heirs must now wait twenty whole years (!) before his last will and testament can even be read (!!), and leaves specific instructions that nobody gets nothing unless these peculiar demands are met. Seems old Cyrus felt his relatives were like cats, ready to pounce on a helpless canary; the canary in question being him and his money. Which explains why, for the past two decades, with his last will and testament securely locked up in the mansion's wall safe, rumors have been running rampant that stately West manor -- unoccupied those many years, except for the creepy maid, who has, and I quote, "No use for the living" -- has been haunted by the restless spirit of its former paranoid proprietor.

Now, with the fateful day of the big payoff just waiting for the stroke of midnight, the six heirs gather once more in the creepy and cobwebbed and haunted halls, where things get off to a rocky start when Crosby, the lawyer and executor (Marshall), finds some etymological evidence showing the documents might have been tampered with. Breaking the seal anyway, the will stipulates everything goes to one heir, and one heir only: Cyrus's daughter, Annabelle West (La Plante). However, there is a codicil, stipulating a doctor must first diagnose Annabelle and attest that she, unlike her whackadoodle father, isn't completely bug-nuts in the head. And if she is found to be bonkers, the estate will revert to another heir, named in another sealed envelope that Crosby is to safeguard until the diagnosis is completed.

With the doctor not due until morning, the heirs split up into separate corners of the giant house. And things turn sinister when Crosby professes to Annabelle his suspicions as to who was most-probably tampering with the will; but before he can reveal the culprit's identity, a secret passage opens up behind him and a cloaked and clawed figure in a large fedora snatches him into the darkness while the girl's back is turned. Suddenly alone, after the ensuing hysterics subside, the others fear Annabelle might just be a little cracked when the heiress tries to explain how the lawyer disappeared into thin air mid-sentence. And as the night progresses, the same sinister figure continues to use more secret passages to stalk and torment the poor girl; and if Annabelle wasn't crazy before the evening began, then, by morning, she might just be ready for her own personalized straight-jacket.

So who is this dastardly cad putting the screws to our poor heroine? Was it one of her bickering male cousins (-- one of them the hopeless comedy relief)? Her dotty, ghost-obsessed aunt and her even dottier niece? Or maybe the butler did it -- well, in this case, the brooding maid, who's always lurking about (played wonderfully by Mattox). And did I mention the asylum guard prowling around, who's looking for an escaped lunatic who likes to slash his victims to ribbons, just like a cat? *shrug* The bigger question, however, is, as the bodies, red-herrings, and probable suspects keep piling up, will they actually succeed, robbing poor Annabelle of her rightful inheritance, her sanity, and perhaps even her life?

It was the abundant box-office returns on Carl Laemmle's The Cat and the Canary that planted the seeds for Universal Studios' horror boom of the 1930's, that reached first bloom with the producer's own Dracula and Frankenstein. And with talkies firmly establishing a beachhead in Hollywood by late 1927, the film also kinda marked the end of the silent era; and it's a fond farewell. Based on the play by John Willard, the stage version of The Cat and the Canary was more of a black comedy than a mystery driven spook-show. We'll get to the comedy in a sec, but as for the mystery itself, well, it comes off as excessively convoluted -- Wouldn't it be easier to just kill her? -- and over-stacked with subplots and characters crawling out of the woodwork who then just as quickly disappear again. (I mean, Where in the hell did the milkman come from?) Still, the film achieves some genuinely spooky moments, and we need to give some credit where credit is due: the film is actually kinda funny when it's actually trying to be funny -- and for something coming from the stage-bound silent era, I'm sorry, but that's really saying something. (There's even some risqué, Pre-Code buffoonery as Hale clandestinely watches the ladies undress.) 

But the real star of the show is the house itself. With all those secret passages and hidden compartments, and the impossibly long and Escher-esque hallways, to the shadowy layouts of the murky rooms, it truly is a wonder to behold. Director Paul Leni, fresh off the boat from Germany, and who brought all his Teutonic film-making idiosyncrasies with him, together with his art-director, Charles D. Hall, gives us plenty of expressionistic eye-candy to look at. From the opening scenes of Cyrus West trapped behind the super-imposed images of those giant medicine bottles our attention is grabbed by the nose and firmly held until the killer is finally revealed. Sadly, Leni only made two more films, most notably helming Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, before dying unexpectedly of blood poisoning just two short years after this film's release. But his efforts, here, proved so successful Laemmle remade it as a talkie, The Cat Creeps (-- that sadly appears to be lost forever), and it was later adapted again a decade later at Paramount as a full-blown comedic vehicle for Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. 

As a sucker for any kind of old haunted house flick, The Cat and the Canary didn't have to work all that hard to win me over. Like I said before, Leni delivers the goods, the cast is game, and the comedy relief doesn't overstay its welcome. What more could you ask?

Other Points of Interest:

The Cat and the Canary (1927) EP: Carl Laemmle / P: Paul Kohner / D: Paul Leni / W: Robert F. Hill, Alfred A. Cohn, John Willard (play) / C: Gilbert Warrenton / E: Martin G. Cohn / M: Hugo Riesenfeld / S: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Martha Mattox
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