Film #47: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (1964)

film 47 incredibly strange creatures

Rating: 1.5/5

“You dirty, filthy pig! So, I belong with the freaks, huh? I’ll fix you so even the freaks won’t look at you.”

Sadly, because of other commitments, Movie Lottery has taken something of a back seat in recent weeks, and this will be my last post until the middle of September. However, then I will be back with a vengeance! So it is with more than a little regret that the last movie picked before this mini-sabbatical is this one: a film that has gained more notoriety because of its title than because of anything it it. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!? (the unconventional punctuation is officially part of the title) is a bad movie, but an altogether different kind of bad movie to those churned out by the likes of Ed Wood. Whereas his films are deliriously entertaining, this one is boring – if Ed Wood’s films are “so bad they’re good” (or, more accurately, “so bad it’s enjoyable”) then this is “so bad it’s a chore”. Yet for those willing to sit through this 82 minute endurance test, there are a few moments that make it almost worthwhile. Almost, but not quite.

Ray Dennis Steckler’s second feature does undoubtedly have one of the greatest movie titles of all time – although Asylum’s constant SyFy output now threaten to steal his thunder (or should that be Sharkthunder?). Incredibly Strange Creatures even lent its name to an influential early book on cult movies, Incredibly Strange Films, and a substantial interview with the director is included. Unfortunately, there aren’t even enough anecdotes to make this film more interesting, although I did learn that the roller coaster shown (in first person view at some points) is the Cyclone Racer in Long Beach, California – at one time the fastest dual roller coaster in the world.

Steckler is not only the film’s director; using a snazzy alias (Cash Flagg!) he is also the lead – a charisma-free layabout called Jerry. Jerry is, apparently, supposed to be a young, rebellious wild child, as indicated by his refusal to get a job and claims that the world is his university. Yet he comes across less as a free spirit, and more as an arrogant bum. Poor Steckler (or should that be Flagg?) is hardly leading man material – he doesn’t look, act, or even dress the part. Wearing a ratty navy hoodie throughout the film, this does little to add any sense of sex appeal, although it seems to serve the script somewhat by vaguely disguising him when, under hypnosis, he goes on a killing spree in full view of a room of people. It also, however, makes his tiny face look ridiculous as he’s doing it.

So, the plot. It’s probably best to not concern yourselves too much with this, as it makes no sense whatsoever. There’s a fortune teller who likes to throw acid in the faces of men who reject her advances, her sister the showgirl, a hunchback minion called Ortega, and a bevy of young, scantily clad girls. Jerry frequents the carnival with his girlfriend and friend Harold (the equally wonderfully named Atlas King, a handsome Greek actor whose accent is not helped by the film’s muffled sound quality), and they get their fortunes read. Jerry becomes fixated with the fortune teller’s sister, and then is hypnotised and turned into a murderous fiend who kills one of the other showgirls for no apparent reason. The “zombies” are not the undead risen from the grave – they are the aforementioned now-deformed suitors, who seem to have gone feral while locked in their cage (what the fortune teller was keeping them for is unclear). Their subsequent rampage following their escape lasts all of two minutes, which, coincidentally, is at least three minutes shorter than the final scene, in which Jerry is chased across the beach. It’s stupid, mundane, and very basic, filled with continuity problems and strange subplots; the dialogue is sparse (and difficult to hear); the characters fail to engage on any level.

It is, however, just one of a number of films claiming to be the first “horror musical” – it came out a mere month before one of the others, Horror of Party Beach, which, incidentally, is far more entertaining than this film. Party Beach at least attempts to integrate its music into the film; Incredibly Strange Creatures frequently takes on a revue form, with a number of musical interludes performed by ungainly, bored looking dancers and watched by an equally bored looking audience. Until the “zombie” attack, none of these serve any real purpose other than to eat into the screen time.

So, at the beginning of this review, I said there were a few moments worth watching. The main one is a fevered dream sequence following Jerry’s hypnosis. Included to indicate the poor man’s emotional turmoil, it utterly fails in this regard, but it is the strangest sequence in the movie; one that verges on the surreal, with its painted dancers and twirling graphics. In fact, the film frequently becomes almost hallucinatory in style – there are constant cuts to stock scenes of the fairground at night, with the camera dizzyingly following the tilt-a-whirls and carousels. Filmed in colour on a micro-budget (its camera operator, Vilmos Zsigmond, went on to win an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the assistant cameraman, Laslo Kovacs, worked on Easy Rider and numerous big Hollywood productions), the result is a head-spinning, strangely mesmerising movie – perfect for a music video perhaps, but not a narrative film. As soon as the characters reappear, the spell is broken, and once again the tedium sets in.

The final scenes offers no chance of a happy ending. Unlike the similarly low-budget movies of the 1950s, which usually culminate in the handsome man and plucky young woman embracing, here our patience is rewarded with a slowly retreating aerial shot of a group of people mournfully surrounding the body of a man that no one cared about in the first place. It’s a depressing end to an unsatisfying movie that could never even come close to living up to its absurd publicity claims (“Not For Sissies! Don’t Come if you’re Chicken! A Horrifying Movie of Weird Beauties and Shocking Monsters! 1001 Weirdest Scenes Ever!! Most Shocking Thriller of the Century!”). Is it fun to watch? No, but, as much as it pains me to admit it, even as I write I find myself thinking back with an unexpected degree of fondness. How strange. How… incredibly strange, in fact.

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Film #46: Bride of the Monster (1955)

film 46 bride of the monster

Rating: 3/5

“I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honoured me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am all right.”

There will always be a special place in my heart for Bride of the Monster; as “bad” movies go, it’s one of my favourites and, as a Bela Lugosi fan, there is something undeniably special about his performance. Ed Wood’s third feature (following his transvestite exploitation film Glen or Glenda and crime/plastic surgery movie Jail Bait) is arguably his best, although some may prefer to describe it as his “least worst.” It is by no means a good film, though it falls short of being a truly terrible one; as Wood’s most narratively conventional movie, I’d be happy to state that it is generally no worse than any number of Poverty Row pictures and equally low-budget horrors of the time.

After so-called “worst film of all time” Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, this is by far Ed Wood’s best known film. It sees Lugosi reprise his many, many roles as a mad scientist who inevitably gets killed by his henchman (former Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as the mute Lobo), and features the most obviously fake rubber octopus ever shown on screen – stolen from a Republic Studios’ warehouse, it had previously appeared in the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch. Wood, however, forgot to also grab the motor for the tentacles so, when hapless victims are thrown into the monster’s lair, they have to flail around on top of what is clearly an inanimate object. George Becwar, who played Professor Strowski, dies a particularly undignified on-screen death; it’s perhaps no wonder that he complained so much about the sub-standard conditions of Wood’s set.

Bride of the Monster follows a fairly formulaic plot – after a number of people have gone missing near the old house in the swamplands of Lake Marsh, a plucky reporter (Loretta King) and her detective boyfriend (Tony McCoy) decide, separately, to investigate. Unbeknownst to them, Dr Vornoff (Lugosi) is responsible; not content with his gargantuan henchman and his monstrous giant octopus, he’s still trying to perfect an experiment that will transform normal people into a “race of atomic supermen!”

Yet despite the film’s narrative conventionality, Wood still manages to drop in some familiar tropes. Lobo develops an angora fetish when he saves Janet (King) from the swamp’s numerous creatures – it’s this fetish that causes him to eventually turn on his master. Even King’s character’s name is a recurring feature in Wood stories and films. As is now expected of the director whose directorial debut contained roughly 20% recycled footage, there are numerous scenes that are clearly taken from existing footage – most audacious are the scenes featuring a real octopus gliding around a tank, but a harrowing sequence in which Detective Dick Craig (McCoy) nearly becomes crocodile food is almost as memorable. It should be pointed out that the film’s final scene, in which the rubber octopus and Dr Vornoff are inexplicably destroyed by an atomic blast, happens not because of Wood’s incompetence, but because his financier demanded the inclusion.

While most of the acting is substandard, or average at best (despite Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller’s anger that she was edged out of the lead role in favour of King who allegedly pretended that she could offer financial investment to secure her spot, King is, as evidenced by the brief scene between the two, far less wooden than Wood’s previous leading lady), Lugosi is a delight. Physically, he’s a shadow of the man he was during his heyday – he’s gaunt and obviously elderly and infirm, but he displays a joie de vivre and an emotional vitality throughout. It was during the film’s post-production that Lugosi checked himself into rehab for his drug addiction, and Bride of the Monster shows him at his frailest. Yet, accounts of his professionalism are unanimous, and he delivers one of the finest speeches of his career in this film. His impassioned “home? I have no home” monologue is heartbreakingly close to the bone, right until he claims he’s going to conquer the world with his army of atomic supermen. Prior to this, he could be discussing his own life – outcast and abandoned by the people who had once praised him, dismissed as a hack, thrown into the wilderness of increasingly limited options and low-budget productions. Watching Lugosi here is not always easy – Wood makes him not just a mad scientist, but one with psychic and hypnotic powers, so that the man who was once Dracula could repeat motions (hand gestures, the piercing close-up of his eyes) that echo back to a far more lucrative and successful era – but, while reception of his performance may be tinged with a slight sadness at his decline, I can’t help but remain captivated. He dominates the film, even though he barely fills his suit and, among a cast of mediocrity, Lugosi is (metaphorically) heads above the rest.

So Bride of the Monster is conventional, but entertaining – it’s a brief 69 minutes in length, which ensures it finishes before it can become tedious. Bad movie fans can enjoy the many, many gaffes and the stilted dialogue, the failed gags, the sparse laboratory set, the inexplicable partnership between Captain Robbins and his pet bird, Vornoff’s dramatic statement that Janet will become a “Bride of the Atom” (the film’s working title), and the oddly ominous claim that the swamp is both “unnatural” and a “monument to death”. Yet it’s not necessarily as terrible as it’s been made out to be. Claims that Vornoff asserts Lobo is as “harmless as kitchen” when he’s clearly saying he’s as “harmless as a kitten” may have been validated by Wood himself, but he was doing himself an injustice by reinforcing such demeaning statements. Although, there is always the problem of the octopus. Oh, it truly is a thing to behold. Honestly, if Lugosi’s performance is the main reason to watch this film, the octopus comes in at a close second.

Film #45: Thirteen (2003)

film 45 thirteen

Rating: 4/5

“The itsy-bitsy spider dropped acid at the park…”

Growing up is hard, but Thirteen suggests that, despite the chaos and angst, it will eventually get better. What’s refreshing about it is that, while it addresses the many issues that affect teens attempting to prove themselves as young adults, it never really sensationalises them. There are no overly melodramatic twists – no pregnancies, overdoses, or drug-induced rapes to really hammer home the message – and, consequently, Thirteen is powerfully realistic and, despite the rapidity with which Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) succumbs to rebellion, teenhood, and all that that entails, is wholly believable.

Co-written by then-thirteen year old Nikki Reed (who also stars as Tracy’s troubled best friend Evie) and director Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen‘s semi-biographical nature emphasises its authenticity. The delirious hyperactivity of young teens exploring their blossoming sexuality, discovering boys, petty crime, drugs, and the seemingly limitless excitement that comes with suddenly realising you don’t have to be a child any more contrasts well against the emotional impact this new lifestyle has – this new-found freedom is not without consequence. While their actions may seem self-assured, the reality is that Tracy and Evie are still kids, first and foremost. They might play at being adults, but they are still fragile and, in the case of these two teens, both already damaged. The film is, at its heart, a cry for help – on screen both Tracy and Evie are the ones screaming out, living without fear of consequence, deliberately rebelling against their home life, trying to find their own place in the world, while off camera, Nikki Reed based the story on her own experiences after Hardwicke suggested it could be a way of working through problems.

The collaboration between Hardwicke and Reed works perfectly, and the insight provided by Hardwicke as an adult is reflected in the relationship between Tracy and her recovering alcoholic mother Mel (Helen Hunt). This is as much a film about a mother and daughter as it is about two young friends; Evie might be the catalyst, kick-starting Tracy’s new lifestyle, but one gets the distinct feeling that Tracy was looking for any kind of outlet for her inner conflict. Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for her role here, is utterly believable as Mel, a mother who means well but is out of her depth, who can’t help but make her own mistakes, and who struggles as she watches her daughter transform from a quiet, well behaved child, to an angry, explosive teen. Mel lacks the self-awareness to recognise that Tracy’s actions are more than just her developing into an adult; they are her way of expressing her desperation, misery, and anger at the world and, more specifically, her home life. In the film’s final moments, the attention refocuses on their relationship – the friendship between Tracy and Evie may have been intense, but it’s the mother-daughter bond that survives.

Hardwicke does an excellent job of bringing out natural performances from her cast – Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as Tracy. Her explosive outbursts and angst-ridden, attention-seeking ways could easily become irritating and/or laughable, but she plays her role with an unexpected restraint, never slipping into overacting despite her swear-filled ranting and outlandish behaviour. Reed too embodies her role as seemingly mature Evie; her apparently self-assured nature and overt sexuality masks a troubled young girl, whose compulsive lying and flippant attitude barely conceals her internal damage. Yet this is not all grim and miserable – there are plenty of times when the girls share in the joys of new experiences that, while not necessarily healthy, are arguably just marginally more extreme examples of the experiences most teens have on their path to adulthood. Hardwicke captures these moments beautifully, the hand-held camerawork and heady, delirious style dreamily reflecting Evie and Tracy’s happiness during their moments of pure escapism.

Hardwicke’s style is evident throughout and, while it’s not always subtle, it works well. The blue, muted colours that perfectly captured Bella and Edward’s angsty inner turmoil in Twilight are present here, with the film becoming increasingly gritty and washed out as Tracy slips even further into the murky world she’s chosen to inhabit. Less obvious is the gradual defacement of an advertisement that pops up throughout the film; seemingly promoting some kind of high-end beauty product, the image becomes distorted and ugly through graffiti and damage. Yet these stylistic choices are always secondary to the performances within the film; Hardwicke evidently shares some sort of empathy and tolerance that allows her young actors to flourish and, in this and in Twilight, the director embraces the naturally angst-ridden story and creates something that manages to be sympathetic rather than irksome.