Film #113: Monster A-go Go (1965)

monster a go go

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment Rating: 3.5/5

“What you are about to see may not even be possible, within the narrow limits of human understanding.”

Widely considered to be one of the worst films of all time, Monster A-go Go owes much of its reputation to Mystery Science Theater 3000 – before it screened on the cult show, it hadn’t made much of an impact. It’s not mentioned in any of the Medved’s books, gets just a passing mention in Incredibly Strange Films, and in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon claims that “unless you lived in the South in the 60s, you probably… haven’t seen it.” Since its screening on MST3K, however, it is now firmly situated among the most notorious bad movies – I think at one point it occupied top spot on IMDb’s Bottom 100 (it’s currently number 80). It’s one of the most incoherent films I’ve ever seen – and that’s saying quite a bit. It’s only after multiple viewings that I’ve been able to work out some kind of narrative timeline, and even now I still get confused about who all the various characters are. What’s interesting, however, is how many myths and legends follow the film, as viewers try to justify, rationalise, and explain the baffling illogic and ineptitude evident on screen.

It is widely accepted as fact that director Bill Rebane began shooting a low-budget science fiction film called Terror at Half Day in 1961, but ran out of money and was forced to sell the unfinished movie to hack producer Herschell Gordon Lewis (best known for his exploitation pictures 2000 Maniacs and Wizard of Gore) who added in voice-over narration and a number of scenes, and released the movie four years later under a snappy new title designed to cash in on the “go-go” dance craze of the time. From here, the story varies, with the level of Lewis’ involvement remaining in dispute.

The film’s plot is, initially at least, fairly straightforward: a space capsule, has returned to Earth, but Frank Douglas, the astronaut on board, is nowhere to be found. The helicopter pilot who discovers the capsule has been horrifically killed, and there are unusual burns nearby, leading scientists and army personnel to believe that Frank has become radioactive somehow and is now roaming the countryside. Ruth, Frank’s girlfriend/ friend/ wife/ sibling (it’s never quite clear: she has a son and says that Frank has been “like a father” since the death of the boy’s real dad) is concerned, obviously, but disappears about thirty minutes into the film, along with most of the rest of the cast. A brief scene between two new characters explains (badly) that the case has been passed on to them, and the rest of the film follows the scientists and military men as they attempt to track and contain Frank, now a giant, radioactive monster (Seven-feet-six-inch Henry Hite plays Frank and, though he’s tall, he’s never an imposing presence, seeming more bumbling and awkward than intimidating).

While Wikipedia implies that Lewis is responsible for all the scenes involving the new cast, Rebane himself has said (in the film’s commentary) that 80-90% of the picture was already completed before he passed it over. According to Rebane, all Lewis did was add a few brief shots (various people listening to a radio announcement, the girls sunbathing in the park) and the voice-over, which sporadically interjects to offer mostly redundant observations and to destroy any possibility of surprise (it tells us of shocking deaths before they happen, explains major plot points a scene or two before the characters explain the same plot points and, most entertainingly, uses bombastic language to infuse the film with a sense of grandiose self-importance: “the line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin,” it tells us by way of conclusion). Despite denouncing the film as “shit”, Rebane accepts responsibility for the majority of its content. The unexpected change in cast was due to the many problems he had with the unions – indeed, it was union fees, he says, that resulted in him running out of money.

What the truth of the situation is, we might never know – though Rebane’s remarks at least come from an identifiable, reasonably reliable, informed source. Knowing this may explain some of the more confusing elements of the film, but it renders it no more coherent as a result. The changing cast is particularly discomforting – most bizarrely, one of the characters, Dr Logan, dies early on and is replaced by his brother, Dr Conrad Logan (who is also just referred to as Dr Logan), who (legend says) is the same actor, albeit older and with less hair. It’s true that the two bear more than a passing resemblance, but such is the film’s inadequacies that even this remains unverified.

It’s not just the cast that is confusing, however. The film’s narrative makes almost no sense, and it’s not clear whether this is the result of a shoddy screenplay or Lewis’ subsequent interference. Somewhere midway, there’s a pretty massive shift in narrative, relayed by voice-over, which reveals the monster’s whereabouts, but the time line is completely illogical. Scenes are thrown in – the dance sequence is a standard for low-budget, teen-aimed pictures of the time, at least, but a later sequence involving a flirty girl, a car that won’t start, and a travel-weary lorry driver seems to have no relation to anything else. Yet it’s the final scene that truly throws the entire film into disarray. With a bizarre plot twist (when I first watched the movie I was quite impressed, because it’s so unexpected, but I quickly realised that it’s unexpected because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever), the film suddenly stops, leaving a million questions that are never answered: is the sound of the telephone ringing really a person off camera going “brrrp”? Where is Ruth’s front door? Are Conrad and Logan really the same actor? Why did no one think to edit out the dog barking the entire way through the smooching couple scene? Why does the voice-over claim a man was “mangled in a way no one had ever seen before” when there’s not a mark on him? Why does Ruth emphasise that she wants TWO olives in her cocktail? How is Logan allowed to stay on the case, when he’s so obviously incompetent, incapable, unreliable, and downright untrustworthy? And are we really expected to believe that any human could travel anywhere in that space capsule?!

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Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #110: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

film 110 the beast of yucca flats

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“Flag on the moon, how did it get there?”

Time for another bad movie classic, Coleman Francis’ directorial debut, The Beast of Yucca Flats. I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve seen this film, but it never ceases to be anything other than a joy to watch. It’s currently sitting at #89 in IMDb’s Bottom 100, though in the past it’s been among the top (bottom?) ten, and Francis’ other two films (The Skydivers, Night Train to Mundo Fine) have also featured until recently – now it seems there are just too many dodgy, terrible comedies around taking up all the space.

Like The Creeping Terror and Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats was shot without sound. Unlike the aforementioned films, it attempts to conceal this deficiency by almost never showing its characters speaking – in fact, I can think of only one instance where anyone other than the Beast himself is shown talking (and, curiously, the Beast’s grunts were dubbed by the director, not the man on screen, Tor Johnson, meaning that although we see him as he makes noise, the sounds we hear are not his own). Instead, Francis either shoots his cast in long shot or, disconcertingly, only shows the reaction of the listener, while the speaker remains off-camera. In theory it shouldn’t necessarily be as bizarre as it is – there’s an argument that showing a speaker talking makes the image redundant, precisely because we can already hear them – but it is sufficiently unconventional that it just draws attention to the filmmaker’s limitations, rather than hiding them. It doesn’t help, of course, that the dubbed dialogue is minimal, or that the actors are utterly terrible, or that the script doesn’t require even the slightest hint of character development. Some characters aren’t even given names, though they play fairly important roles: the Beast’s first victims are introduced by the voice-over narration simply as “man and wife.”

Whereas the voice-over narration in The Creeping Terror (and in plenty of other films) attempts to infuse the film with sincerity and importance through a literary, solemn style, here the voice-over (uttered by Francis himself) sounds like an abridged version of the film’s production notes. Its phrasing is bizarre, filled with incomplete sentences and strange non-sequiturs like the aforementioned (and frequently repeated) “flag on the moon” quote. “Nothing bothers some people,” the voice-over intones. “Not even flying saucers.” This in a film with no flying saucers or alien threat whatsoever. And, like his voice-over and limited dialogue, the narrative is so meagre that it barely fills the brief 54 minute running time. Tor Johnson plays Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, who escapes from behind the Iron Curtain with a suitcase full of secrets, only to be transformed into an atomic beast after being chased onto an atomic testing site in Yucca Flats by rogue Communist assassins. Following this tragedy, he roams the barren desert killing random people “travelling east, west, north and south” before encountering the Radcliffes, whose two sons are “adventurous boys” who decide to wander off. Meanwhile, Joe and Jim, desert patrolmen, have somehow inexplicably discovered the existence of the Beast and decide to “shoot first, ask questions later,” resulting in a direct North by Northwest homage and a potentially fatal case of mistaken identity, as Hank Radcliffe (the father) gets repeatedly shot at by Jim, high above in a light aircraft.

Although practically nothing happens, and the film is actually rather slow and uneventful, it’s quite mesmerising. Every remark uttered by the voice-over is a classic – in his solemn tone, Francis repeatedly, inexplicably refers to the “wheels of progress,” states the obvious (“a man runs. Somebody shoots at him”), and constantly introduces characters: “Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist.” “Joseph Javorsky, respected scientist, now a fiend.” It’s a necessary addition, really, because the characters are less people than hollow representations of people – indeed, the only person with even the slightest bit of depth is the Beast himself, poor Joseph Javorsky. Yet he is also the most ridiculous – Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler best known for his work with Ed Wood, is the least believable nuclear scientist I’ve ever seen in cinema (yes, even worse than Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough). Obviously hired to play the Beast role, rather than the scientist role (as it turns out, the suitcase full of secrets is nothing more than a massive McGuffin, like most things about the film), the already large man was severely overweight and his struggles are evident at all times – he can barely move. Anthony Cardoza, the film’s producer, has said that the crew had to literally pull Johnson up the cliff for the cave scenes, and Cardoza himself put on enough weight during filming (because Johnson insisted on inviting him around for dinner so often) that he appears in the film twice as two different characters, and is unrecognisable.

The film’s notoriety is undoubtedly helped by the inclusion of Johnson, a cult star in his own right, but it’s a thoroughly strange experience, one verging on surrealism. Despite being shot on location (there are only two interior shots in the whole film, one which opens the movie and is impossible to situate within the rest of the narrative, but does feature female nudity – in fact, Cardoza has claimed that this is the only reason for its inclusion) the editing has rendered the landscape entirely incoherent – the chase between Jim in his airplane and Hank on the ground is a spectacular example of how illogical the whole film is, with the landscape changing drastically from shot to shot.

While I would definitely argue that The Beast of Yucca Flats is a perfect example of “so bad it’s pleasurable,” others have disagreed, and I can understand why. Sections drag, while the narrative is so sparse and irrelevant that in many ways the film could be shown as a silent film. Long passages contain little or no dialogue (although when the voice-over does interrupt, it’s worth the wait) and the music, which, possibly because of the amount of times I’ve seen the film, I now think is fairly effective, transpires to have been taken from another, earlier film, The Astounding She-Monster. Imagine my surprise when I watched that movie yesterday, having discovered it on Youtube, straight after watching Yucca Flats, and was instantly bombarded by the exact same riff! It’s a small world – and an even smaller one when it comes to bad 50s movies, clearly. Regardless, Francis’ film is one that is difficult to forget – it’s a hypnotic, surreal, and downright weird little movie, with characters that look like people but act like robots, where cars drive with their headlights on despite it being daytime, where a scientist is turned into a beast yet none of the people living in the vicinity of the atomic testing site seem affected at all, where husbands abandon their wives in the middle of the desert, where desert patrolmen parachute onto plateaus for no reason, where no one seems to ever die, despite being shot repeatedly, and where an errant wild rabbit provides a final moment of unexpected poignancy.

Bonus: you can watch The Beast of Yucca Flats on Youtube here!

Film #109: The Creeping Terror (1964)

film 109 the creeping terror

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“He slowly asked Bradford what was in store for humanity. Bradford was pessimistic, but implied that maybe all was not lost. After all, he told him, the vastness of the universe was incredible.”

Sometimes I worry that giving a film a low rating will deter people from watching it. Of course, sometimes the low rating should be taken on face value, and he movie should be avoided at all costs. Other times, however, the low rating doesn’t even remotely reflect the sheer enjoyment that can be experienced watching a film that is technically terrible. This is, I suppose, my way of saying that some films are “so bad they’re good,” although I’m loathe to use that phrase because it’s so problematic. More appropriate is to describe such films as “so bad they’re pleasurable” and, as pleasurable experiences go, The Creeping Terror is way up there.

Actor-director-editor-producer Vic Savage’s film is, on the surface at least, a fairly standard 1960s teen-oriented sci-fi picture: a rocket lands, an alien emerges, and chaos ensues. Narratively it’s no more or less interesting than so many of the other low-budget drive-in movies of the times, but aesthetically it’s quite fascinating, and rumours and myths have followed the movie around for years. It gained notoriety when it was included in the Medved’s hugely influential Golden Turkey Awards, nominated for the “most ridiculous monster in screen history” award (eventually losing out to Ro-Man of Robot Monster fame), then featured in their follow-up Son of Golden Turkey Awards, where it won the “most laughable concept for an outer space invader” award. The aliens, which are most frequently described as “carpet monsters”, are a sight to behold – gigantic slug-type creatures with tentacle-covered “faces” and huge mouths for people to helpfully climb into. The Medveds claim that at one point you can see the shoes of one of the students beneath this giant, moth-eaten rug-creature, but I’ve looked pretty carefully and all I’ve ever spotted is a pair of big fluffy monster feet (and the Medveds were not particularly known for their accuracy, preferring to repeat stories that emphasise the wacky regardless of the truth).

One of the stories the Medveds relate regarding The Creeping Terror concerns its strange use of a voice-over narrator and the obviously dubbed dialogue. There are a significant number of films of the time that were shot MOS (without sound) as a cost-cutting measure, with dialogue dubbed in afterwards (Manos: The Hands of Fate does this, though poorly; Beast of Yucca Flats is also clearly shot without a soundtrack; there are plenty of other examples) and, on the surface at least, it seems that The Creeping Terror is no different. Legend has it, however, that the film’s strange (lack of) sound is a mistake, the result of Savage accidentally dropping the sound reel into Lake Tahoe. It’s a great story, one that emphasises incompetence and stupidity, highlighting the conditions by which these older bad movies were made, and it would be great if it was true. However, just a few years later, the Medveds don’t mention this, reporting instead that the style was intentional rather than accidental. Regardless, the myth is still repeated – it’s far more interesting than the mundane truth, after all. While I don’t want to claim that the initial tale is accurate, there is evidence in the film to support such a claim, namely that the film appears to be shot precisely as though it had sound. Characters have long conversations with each other, filmed in classic shot-reverse-shot technique, prioritising the speaker, yet what we hear is the voice-over narrator relating the conversation in distinctly literary tones. As an example: “the sergeant reported seeing an amazingly large creature in the aft section of this strange craft. He further reported that it was secured by a kind of metal harness, but that the creature could still move around somewhat, and for that reason they had not gotten too close to it. There was no trace of either Ben or Jeff. The colonel ordered continuous guard duty around the spaceship, and decided to set up a temporary military headquarters at the sheriff’s office in town.”

It would be quite fascinating to get a lip-reader to watch The Creeping Terror, to see what the characters are actually saying during these scenes – they’re clearly speaking to each other, but we’re rarely privy to their conversations. There are occasional moments of dubbing, and at times it’s clear that what they are saying doesn’t correspond correctly with either the added voice-over or the dubbed dialogue: at one point, a woman (soon to be eaten by a Terror) clearly mouths “there there” to a baby, although we hear her say “poor baby”; later on the voice-over narrator claims that the sergeant tells scientist Bradford to “go to hell,” but this is immediately followed by the sergeant saying “get out of my way!”

So why is the film so enjoyable? Partly it’s because of the visible and aesthetic badness, further emphasised by the voice-over, which speaks in such serious tones, and infuses the film with a bizarre contrast between what is being shown, and what we are being told. There’s plenty more badness on show, of course – the acting is non-descript (and further limited by the voice-over’s insistence of speaking on behalf of the characters, making their appearance on screen frequently redundant), for example. Mostly, however, it’s the Terrors themselves. These creatures are brilliant – physically absurd, technically inept, ludicrously conceived. The people who get devoured (and there are plenty – it’s a pretty impressive death count) have to advance towards the creatures, rather than the other way around, and then either get “swallowed up” by inserting themselves into the conveniently positioned mouth-hole, or the Terror appears to just flop down on top of them. It’s delightfully bonkers, incredibly kitsch when viewed today and, at a short 75 minutes, never gets boring. It might be currently sitting on IMDb as the 30th worst rated film of all time, but for sheer entertainment, surely it would be among the top.

Bonus: You can watch the whole film on Youtube here!

Film #103: Flesh Gordon 2 (1990)

film 103 flesh gordon 2

Rating: 1.5/5

“You thought you’d killed me Gordon, but my drive for lust and power is relentless! Your penis – and MY brain – will be a marriage, made in Hell!”

This is definitely one of the stranger charity shop purchases – bought for about 20p on old VHS years ago, Flesh Gordon 2 (also known by the much niftier title, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders) is, as you might have guessed, a sex comedy rip-off of Flash Gordon. It’s also my first and only experience of either Flesh or Flash, and perhaps seeing the first one – this was made a whopping sixteen years after the first instalment – would have been useful. That being said, plot is generally irrelevant here, but I got the distinct feeling that the final reveal of the true identity of the Evil Presence would have made more sense had I some knowledge of the previous film’s characters.

The film opens with a strangely meta film-within-a-film – Flesh (Vince Murdocco) is travelling in his penis-shaped stop-motion spaceship (yes, it’s a subtle movie, this) with some thong-clad hotties, shooting re-enactments of his (s)exploits for his devoted Earth following. Soon, however, it goes horribly wrong, and poor Flesh is kidnapped by some other thong-clad alien hotties, the cosmic cheerleaders of the title, who intend to copulate with him because an impotence ray has rendered all the boys on their planet (particularly the Cod-Ball team – think a cross between basketball and baseball, but dirty) useless. Naturally, it’s up to Flesh’s Earthling girlfriend Dale (Robyn Kelly) and sex-scientist Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Tony Travis) to save Flesh and, by default, help restore erections to whatever planet the cheerleaders come from.

If the premise and the characters names haven’t already made it obvious, Flesh Gordon 2‘s humour is particularly juvenile, despite the 18-rating. I have no idea who its intended audience is – fourteen year old boys, perhaps? It’s crude and stupid – but largely inoffensive. It’s so tacky that it’s difficult to be insulted by the chicken-sex jokes, for instance. Were it not for the blatant sex themes (in an effort to hide from a gruesomely rampant penis-with-a-face, Flesh and Jerkoff hide in a “cave”, enter the womb and find the whole Cod-Ball team dressed as adult-babies) this would appeal to no one over the age of ten. Oddly, the sex-gags are interspersed with literal toilet humour – following the pair’s journey to the centre of the womb, they end up accidentally saving two trapped turds. The female turd has breasts. That being said, although it’s crude and insidiously stupid, it’s quite entertaining (I say this as a bad movie fan, it should be said) – it plays out like an X-rated Masters of the Universe, complete with doofus leading man.

Flesh himself, rather like He-Man, is utterly bland – reasonably good looking, in a 90s kind of way, he appears to have no personality whatsoever. Despite his name, he seems to be quite prudish (in his defence, he only had sex with that chicken to get the spaceship moving again). Like He-Man, he has about five lines of dialogue and none of them are particularly memorable, but the role is hardly a taxing one. (On a sidenote, since this glittering debut, Murdocco has gone on to become a reasonably successful stuntman, appearing in a number of Marvel films).The rest of the acting is equally nondescript, with the exception of Bruce Scott as the Evil Presence’s mad scientist Master Bator (Scott is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack) – wide-eyed and manic, he’s like a low-rent Christopher Lloyd on Viagra.

In a way, the film’s message is actually quite encouraging – as well as stealing everyone’s mojo, the Evil Presence is evil because he wants to dominate women (he’s just interested in his own pleasure) and, in the… climactic… final fight between him and Flesh, our hero chastises him for this mentality. Yet the progressive message is somewhat lost in the mass of thongs (not just on the females, it should be said – this is an equal-opportunities buttock-flashing movie) and the fact that the good guys routinely grope whatever female is nearby. There’s also something uncomfortable about the fact that the cosmic cheerleaders appear to be schoolkids – they go to classes, have lockers lined along the corridors, and generally act like teenagers, not adults. While this mirrors the general tone of the film, the constant vulgarities and fetish jokes seem more than a little out of place in this context. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, this seems like the wrong kind of film to be reading sex- or gender- politics through – it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously. The acting is wooden, the sets are reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Red Dwarf – deliberately tacky, but also just plain shoddy, and the story is merely a guise to allow the characters to move from one juvenile sex joke to the next. This is not the movie for anyone who gets easily offended, or, to be honest, anyone old enough to actually watch it. Put it this way: if your first instinct when confronted with a calculator is to write 8008 and then giggle, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. (Heh heh, boob.)

Film #97: The Giant Claw (1957)

film 97 the giant claw

Rating: 2.5/5

“Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”

Finally released on DVD as part of a Sam Katzman Collection, The Giant Claw is notorious for its monster, described as a “bird as big as a battleship” in the film, and an “extraterrestrial turkey” by everyone watching it. As a result of this alien invader, the film has made it (rather appropriately) into the Son of Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds’ sequel to their infamous Golden Turkey Awards – unfortunately it doesn’t win the the award it’s been nominated for, the Most Laughable Concept for an Outer Space Invader, with that dubious honour going to the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror instead.

Despite containing some of the classic “bad movie” elements, The Giant Claw is more kitsch than terrible. The voice-over narration that introduces the story is typically emphatic and serious in tone, discussing – as so many of them do – scientific progress and the implications such progress has. Once the world was big, the narrator tells us, but now “the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton.” Fully engaged in scientific development, we are then introduced to our hero, an engineer, Mitch McAfee (Jeff Morrow) who is conducting special radar tests when he encounters a UFO (in the truest sense of the word) that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear on the radar. Needless to say, no one believes him, but as more pilots begin reporting unidentified objects before disappearing off the face of the earth, eventually the officials are forced to take notice.

There is a bit of a paradox at play in The Giant Claw. The UFO itself remains out of view for quite a long time – when it appears, it’s shown in blurry swooshes as it rushes across the screen, too fast to see. This effectively keeps the viewer guessing – like so many movie monsters, the anticipation is often more scary or impressive than the final reveal (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you). The film’s fairly low budget too, so this is an economical and pragmatic decision to make. However, the problem arises when the alien is finally revealed. By not showing it immediately, the anticipation grows and, inevitably, the creature not only fails to live up to expectations (if you’re looking for something genuinely imposing, that is) but shatters those expectations in an instant. After several attacks on buildings, planes, and farmsteads, this UFO, with the strength, speed and appearance of a “battleship” turns out to be a giant turkey-creature – a shoddily-made puppet with the most wonderfully comic Villain expression. Even now, I don’t know who’s got a better static evil expression, this or It from It Conquered the World: both have pantomime eyebrows and manic, unblinking eyes; they’re both a joy to look at, but neither are even remotely scary.

The story itself is fairly generic – along with Mitch, his mathematician girlfriend Sally (Mara Corday) and some other men in uniform attempt to stop the bird, which transpires to have travelled across galaxies somehow to lay its eggs on Earth. The creature is actually quite sympathetic, despite its ridiculous features, primarily because the humans are unpleasantly trigger happy. They take great pleasure in destroying the poor bird’s eggs, and there are no attempts to communicate with it (I know that sounds silly, given its appearance, but perhaps it’s an incredibly intelligent animal – they usually try communicating with the human-shaped aliens). Meanwhile, the bird, in its rage, destroys lots of places with the power of recycled footage taken from far better 50s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) and ends up ripping off King Kong as it tries to turn the Empire State Building into its new home.

The film is, apart from the monster, no better or worse than any of the other movies of the time – and, in truth, many of the beasts in these “creature features” were daft. To be fair, The Giant Claw‘s concept is rather barmy, but it’s a fun movie as a result. There’s a real pleasure to be gained from witnessing that bird, with its comically angry face, swooping down to swallow up some hapless people. Morrow, who had battled far more impressive opponents in other movies (This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) reported that none of the cast knew what they were reacting to during filming – they were just told to look terrified, and were assured that the alien would be an indomitable foe. Unfortunately, the production ran out of money and the result, immortalised forever more on screen, is one of the most entertaining monsters around.

Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”