Film #117: The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

film 117 the monster of camp sunshine

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

“The motion picture that follows is a fable. In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.”

The strange, Gilliam-esque opening credits may hint at the oddity that is The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but even they can’t really prepare you for what’s to come. It’s a nudie cutie with a horror twist and, in our collection, comes as part of a double feature released by Something Weird Video – if there are any other versions of it available, avoid them. Something Weird have created an entire drive-in movie experience, complete with retro adverts for hotdogs, beer, and Vespas, with the added bonus of a whole selection of nudie trailers and short movies (including a particularly entertaining one featuring a large woman and a rather scathing voice-over narrator). The first film in the double feature, The Beast that Killed Women, is reasonably amusing for its badness; The Monster of Camp Sunshine matches that badness with complete and utter deliriousness.

Shot as a silent film with shoddy dubbing in post-production and a ponderous, haphazard voice-over narrator, The Monster of Camp Sunshine has not aged well. It’s delightfully quaint and retro now, of course, but chances are that even when it was first released it looked dated – the swinging 60s fashion is spot-on, and New York looks pretty hip, but the film’s frequent use of intertitles, its uninspiring special effects, and monochrome cinematography make it more like a 40s exploitation movie than a mid-60s nudie flick. The intertitles in particular are a strange addition – the film begins with them, harking back to a far earlier type of cinema, although they are increasingly revealed to be rather tongue-in-cheek. In truth, much of the film is silent – once the leading ladies and their small party leave the Big Apple and arrive at Camp Sunshine upstate, the voice-over is abandoned, the intertitles take precedence, and dialogue is virtually non-existent.

The film opens in New York, in the cluttered apartment of Claire (Deborah Spray) and Marta (Sally Parfait), two young nudists with what is easily the coolest hanging ashtray in existence. Claire narrates the first half of the movie, filling the narrative with flashbacks and events that she couldn’t possibly know about. She’s a fashion model, while Marta works as a nurse in a hospital that appears to have no patients but lots of animal testing. While Claire models topless swimsuits on top of a New York skyscraper (the Empire State Building looming in the background – it’s a dizzying photoshoot, beautifully captured on film), Marta accidentally pours toxic liquid onto some of the lab mice, turning them into vicious monsters who attack her so violently that she ends up precariously hanging out the window, about to plummet to her death. Fortunately, a kindly doctor happens by, and this proactive man quickly disposes of the deadly liquid – by casually chucking it into the Hudson. In a series of highly unlikely events relying entirely on coincidence, the jar ends up contaminating the stream running through nudist retreat Camp Sunshine, transforming the owner’s simpleton brother Hugo into a rabid monster (his dodgy black wig and tissue-paper boils would be the envy of Tor Johnson’s Joseph Javorsky).

As nudie cuties go, The Monster of Camp Sunshine is surprisingly focused on narrative. The film itself is slow – despite the opening intertitles claiming there are many nudists, there really aren’t, and they only feature for a few scenes. That being said, they are proper nudists – whereas films like Nude on the Moon and Orgy of the Dead make sure that their naked beauties resolutely keep their knickers on, here both men and women are fully nude, although modesty is preserved through an assortment of carefully positioned hats, towels, books and musical instruments, while men in particular seem to be constantly walking away from camera. (On a side note, the men’s tan lines are so vividly pronounced that it frequently looks like they’re wearing white shorts.)

Claire’s voice-over disappears once the party – now including Claire’s photographer boss and an inexperienced office assistant who hopes to lose her inhibitions through nudism – leave New York, and after some long, slow scenes in which not much happens, everything kicks off. After fifty minutes or so of fairly generic, mildly entertaining badness, the Hugo-monster escapes his shed-prison and all hell breaks loose, with a quite literal explosion of stock footage. Marta, somehow instantly arriving at the highly improbable yet correct conclusion that the chemicals from the hospital are the cause of Hugo’s new insanity, calls her doctor friend, who races off to the nearest airfield, boards a plane and parachutes into the camp holding a syringe. He may be the “forces of mercy” but somehow the “forces of violence” have also been contacted and, sure enough, soon they also arrive, complete with vast armies. The cavalry arrive. Cannons are let off. There’s a beach invasion! Soldiers from what appears to be the War of Independence drop by, while others peer through the viewfinder of giant missiles. It becomes dark, but Marta, who Hugo ruthlessly attacked with an axe, is still lying in the middle of the field rolling around. The doctor continues making silent pleas from the top of the van, where he expertly landed. More soldiers! Bombs go off, Claire’s boss shoots Hugo with a small pistol, before lobbing a whole load of dynamite (!!) at him. In the midst of the chaos, the small group of naked ladies run amok. It’s deranged, completely unexpected, and quite possibly the most insane, exaggerated, and utterly ludicrous conclusion to a film I’ve ever seen. Nothing quite prepared me for the barrage of lunacy. Badfilm fans will find plenty to love about The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but it’s these five minutes of utter surrealism that really make it.

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?!

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!

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.”

Film #81: The Terror (1963)

film 81 the terror

Rating: 2.5/5

“The crypt! It must be destroyed, and with it the dead.”

Anyone familiar with Roger Corman will know he’s much more than “king of the Bs.” In fact, he hates that term, arguing that he wasn’t (just) a B-movie director, because he always made the accompanying A pictures too. Despite his extensive catalogue – as either director or producer – of mostly schlock, gore, exploitation and drive-in pictures, the low budget filmmaker is hugely important. He had two particular talents: one, his ability to tap into the trends of a predominantly youth market (from his monster movies to his counter-culture pictures, he always gave his audience what they wanted); and two, his willingness to give budding filmmakers a chance to practice their craft. While his movies can be dismissed (by those unwilling to look further) as generic, silly, low-budget, few can deny his influence on some of the most important people in the film industry today: this is the man who gave Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Joe Dante, and Ron Howard – among others – their big break.

I mention this because The Terror, a gothic ghost story, boasts the involvement of a number of these names. Having just filmed The Raven, starring legendary horror icon Boris Karloff and young newcomer Jack Nicholson, Corman saw an opportunity to make/save some money, and shot some scenes using the same sets. Sometimes mistaken as one of the director-producer’s shortest filming schedules (Karloff’s scenes took only four days), The Terror was eventually shot over a period of nine months, making it one of his longest productions. It’s a bit of a jumble: after Karloff’s scenes were filmed, with a script still non-existent, several directors came on board. Nicholson himself took the helm for a while; so too did Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill. The result is, as one might expect, a messy film, yet I was surprised at just how coherent it actually was. By expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised.

Clearly influenced not only by the existing sets, but by Corman’s own interests at the time, The Terror is obviously rooted in gothic horror and the works of classic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and MR James. Nicholson is Lt. Andre Duvalier, a cavalier separated from his regiment in 18th Century France who encounters a mysterious, beautiful woman (an obviously pregnant Sandra Knight, Nicholson’s then-wife) on a desolate beach. Intrigued, Duvalier follows the silent woman into the turbulent seas, and is rescued by a haggard old lady who dabbles in witchcraft. Having returned to health, Duvalier is determined to help the strange woman on the beach, and learns of Baron Victor Von Leppe (Karloff), a reclusive old man living in a vast castle on the cliffs, who apparently is the key to solving the mystery. It’s all fairly straight forward – a tale of lost love, tragedy, and restless spirits – straight forward, that is, until a particularly jumbled, garbled conclusion. It’s such a shame, because until this point, it’s actually not that bad.

There are problems, however. Visually, the film is excessively dark and poorly exposed: with most of the action taking place at night or in the darkness of the candle-lit castle, characters are frequently reduced to pale faces and brief flashes of colour from clothing. While the narrative isn’t as confused as it could be, it lacks direction and, despite being effectively atmospheric is too long and starts to drag. At several points it appears as though scenes were shot without a sense of purpose – which, evidently, is precisely the case. Yet, despite these problems, it’s really not as much of a shambles as it could have been. While Karloff easily steals the film, it’s a great pleasure to see such a young Jack Nicholson; the role doesn’t exert him and it’s a rather understated performance (in contrast to his better known, later parts), but his presence is undeniable, and both he and Karloff bring both charisma and intensity to the meagre, frequently improvised story.

Putting some of the strange narrative quirks to one side, The Terror is hardly the mess it could have been. It’s a testament to Corman that he managed to salvage the film; with so many people at the helm, the most basic of scripts, and recycled sets, it is a good example of why the director-producer has not only endured, but is finally now being recognised as more than just a B-movie maker – in recent years Corman has not only been the focus of a special retrospective at Edinburgh Film Festival and several books, but has finally received an Oscar for his achievements and his influence on some of the finest filmmakers in the business. The Terror is hardly his best work (as much as I love his monster movies, The Intruder remains his most powerful, important film in my eyes), but in the hands of someone less resourceful, it could have been a lot worse.

Films #75 & 76: The Mighty Gorga (1969) & One Million AC/DC (1969)

film 75 76 the mighty gorga one million acdc

Ratings: The Mighty Gorga, 1/5; One Million AC/DC, 1/5

“We’re still just a couple of outsiders in a green hell.”
“I’m off to see the lizard.”

A prehistoric double bill, both are utterly terrible films – The Mighty Gorga has, at least, an actual story. One Million AC/DC (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the rock band), written by Ed Wood using the pseudonym Akdon Telmig, which is one letter away from being Vodka Gimlet in reverse, is basically just a soft-core caveman porno. Both, however, feature quite possibly the greatest dinosaurs ever – and I say both, because it’s the same T-Rex in both movies. I had read about the special effects (ha!), but I can honestly say, no one had really convinced me that they would be as bad as they were. The fact that not one, but two filmmakers had the sheer audacity to include them in their movies is mind-boggling – trust me when I say that a four year old could have created the exact same scenes using their sandbox and some plastic toys.

First up, The Mighty Gorga. A fairly straight-forward, no budget exotic location/ giant ape movie, it stars Anthony Eisley (Dracula Vs Frankenstein) as Mark, a circus owner desperately trying to increase revenue. There’s a brief subplot introduced at the beginning of the movie, in which his brother (or someone) is sabotaging the business, but as soon as Mark arrives in the Congo (which looks suspiciously like a national park in California) any problems “back home” are quickly forgotten. He befriends a feisty female wild animal breeder whose father went missing trying to find a giant ape and, with native “Indian” George in tow, head into the wilderness to find either or both the monkey and the dad.

The film’s low budget is all too obvious, from the frequent day-night issues (just look at the sequence in which the bison’s pen is burned down) to the uninspiring, visibly un-exotic location, to the gorilla itself. Gorga, who apparently protects a local tribe’s village on an isolated plateau, is a man in a gorilla suit – not one of the many gorilla actors working at the time, but the director himself, David L Hewitt. The suit is truly dreadful; the ape’s eyes bulge with a permanently surprised expression (this comes in handy later on, when the beast is apparently completely dumbfounded by a bandage on his giant pinky). Even more bizarre, we never see below the gorilla’s torso – not even when he’s fighting the dinosaurs or leering over the village’s huts. Despite Gorga supposedly being a giant gorilla, somehow Hewitt succeeds in not even making it seem human sized – particularly when it fights the tiny plastic dinosaur, with its snapping mouth and bobbing movements, it is hard to accept that Gorga is anything other than an equally inanimate toy.

Much of the film is dedicated to Eisley and his female companion attempting to convince the audience that they are in peril. Their exploration, which, thanks to the terrible editing, seems like it takes about five minutes, is supposed to last for days. Their ascent of the cliff-face to the plateau above involves them walking slowly along a gentle path. Their beige jungle clothes never get even the slightest hint of dirt on them. Up on the plateau, they discover giant roses and a prehistoric nest with some peach-coloured eggs – Mark says they’re purple. They quickly find the missing father, and plan to escape from the tribe by fleeing down a secret volcanic tunnel that contains, as legend dictates, King Solomon’s treasure. Poor Solomon must have been a truly rubbish king, because the riches consist of a single chest with some Mardi Gras beads scattered around. Eventually the group leave the plateau, arriving out of Ro-Man’s cave in Bronson Canyon and staring upwards at the destruction they’ve left behind – we’re supposed to believe that stock footage lava has somehow destroyed everything, though no one seems even the slightest bit concerned by the whole situation.

There’s little to praise about The Mighty Gorga. Oddly, for a jungle movie, the only animals to feature are all clearly in captivity – the circus/zoo at the beginning provides the most animal spectacle, with the subsequent jungle visibly devoid of any animal life whatsoever. There are a few reasonably clever moments (or one, anyway) in the script, largely revolving around the assumptions of the “outsider” – Mark’s pained attempts to communicate with the black slave-native George (Lee Parrish), only to discover that the local only speaks English, is actually quite funny. I am struggling to think of any other genuinely “good” moments; luckily the bad ones provide more than enough entertainment for the right audience. I stared, open-mouthed at the “epic” fight between the dinosaur and Gorga – it truly is a thing to behold.

While I was certain that One Million AC/DC couldn’t possibly match The Mighty Gorga in terms of shoddy effects, it turned out I was wrong. The same, snapping-mouthed, bobbing dinosaur reappears here to eat a barbie doll! It fights another dinosaur! It peers over an embankment! It’s not in this movie enough. Poor Ed Wood, who was by this time not even on the fringes of Hollywood, had succumbed to alcohol, domestic violence, poverty and pornography – the later years of his life were dominated by shoddy sex stories. There’s little of his distinctive screenwriting style here, although there are hints – the fat man first seen at the beginning of the movie takes on a strange narrator-role, commenting on the events going on around him. Primarily, however, One Million AC/DC has little dialogue – maybe ten minutes in total, and all rather inane. The “plot” revolves around a cave full of orgy-loving, furry-bikini-clad neanderthals. Outside, a dinosaur tries to eat them if they leave. A gorilla kidnaps one of the cave girls, who spends the whole movie trying to escape his clutches (at the end they appear to be a happy couple). And that is it. Like Orgy of the Dead, also written by Ed Wood, the main aim of the movie is titillation. This is more hardcore than Orgy; luckily the virgin’s sacrifice at the beginning of the film remains the most explicit scene. The girls, all stick-thin with protruding rib cages, are pretty enough, but it’s all rather seedy and unpleasant, with rape implications frequent throughout. The actual sex consists of a lot of frenzied writhing and groaning, mainly from the women (although some of the men emit freakishly guttural, animalistic grunts to ensure the viewer cannot possibly find any of it even remotely erotic).

The constant sex is interspersed with shots bad movie fans will find suspiciously familiar. At least some of the footage is taken from One Million Years BC, and at least two different sequences reappear (again!) in Horror of the Blood Monsters. Not to mention the footage ripped from The Mighty Gorga, and the generic volcanic stock footage beneath the opening credits. As this is filmed in colour, the recycled shots have been tinted (like in Horror of the Blood Monsters) – here it’s so badly done that it’s difficult to even see what they’re trying to show.

About ten minutes into One Million AC/DC I was certain that, finally, Children of the Living Dead would no longer be the sole worst-reviewed movie of our collection. At least that movie was supremely entertaining: this is virtually unwatchable. Michael Adams described Ed Wood’s porno as “the tar pit of cinema,” and I was equally ready to dismiss it. Then, out of the blue, came the scene that elevated this dire caveman sexploitation picture to a glorious 1/5: a sing-along. Yes, as the tribe plan to destroy the dinosaur using a newfangled bow and arrow designed by a pervy cave painter, the chief and his woman pause in their sexcapades to sing a song straight to camera. It goes like this: (to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow) “The spear goes into the monster (x3), And the monster loses his mind.” Finally, something other than that darn dinosaur to stare open-mouthed at. It was a moment of sheer surrealism, completely unexpected, entirely out of place, and reassuringly bizarre, making up for the seventy-five minutes of dire copulation that went before it – but only barely.