creature feature saturday: the haunted strangler (robert day, 1958)

Some years ago, Criterion put out a box set titled "Monsters and Madmen" that included four late-50s B-movies of no particular merit: The Atomic SubmarineFirst Man into SpaceCorridors of Blood, and The Haunted Strangler. While none of these movies are stinkers, neither do any of them rise above the level of Saturday afternoon watchability.

The latter two films on the above list star Boris Karloff, who was in his early-70s. He gives an excellent performance in The Haunted Strangler ... he is easily the best thing about the movie, as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. It's fun to see the "Jekyll" side ... you realize it's a rare thing to see Boris Karloff smiling and kindly. He pulls off both sides of his character, and shows a spry physicality that is impressive.

The movie also benefits from solid black-and-white cinematography and the usual B-movie short running time (in this case, 78 minutes). Even at that length, though, The Haunted Strangler is stretched out with mostly unnecessary footage of dance-hall girls doing their routines. The first half of the movie is a bit of a detective story a la Sherlock Holmes, before it moves into horror. It's never scary, but it is a bit gruesome at times.

I only bought this box set because it was a chance to revisit The Atomic Submarine, a favorite from my youth. And I'm glad I got that chance. But other than that nostalgic trip, there is no clear reason why these movies ended up on Criterion. Still, they released a couple of Michael Bay movies, so I suppose anything is possible. 6/10.

 


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


creature feature saturday: the amazing mr. x (bernard vorhaus, 1948)

There was a great SCTV sketch featuring Count Floyd and Monster Chiller Horror Theatre. The movie was one Count Floyd hadn't seen before, Whispers of the Wolf, but he can just tell by the title that we're going to be "scared right out of our pants". It turns out the film is directed by "Ingmar Burgman" and if there's any horror in it, it's of an existential nature.

I can imagine a Creature Features program back in the day running The Amazing Mr. X based solely on the title. Mr. X is Alexis, a psychic who can communicate with dead people. The movie is a hybrid horror/noir, and it seems like the noir aficionados like it more than the horror fans. In truth, there isn't a lot of horror in The Amazing Mr. X, and it is also true that most of its effectiveness comes from the atmospheric setting, which may make it seem more noirish. But other than the look of the film, there isn't much noir in this movie. It's mostly just a well-made B-picture that surprises with decent performances and a plot twist or two. If you caught it late on a Saturday night, you might struggle to stay awake, but if you watch it at a reasonable hour, you'll find a solid little film that gets its work done in 78 minutes.

The excellent cinematography is by John Alton, who won an Oscar a few years later for An American in Paris. Sadly, the movie fell into the public domain, meaning there are a lot of bad prints out there (including the one I watched on Amazon), which does a great disservice to Alton's work.

The cast includes Turhan Bey, once known as "The Turkish Delight", as Alexis, and Lynn Bari, a former WWII pinup girl known as "The Woo Woo Girl", as Christine, the woman he tries to sucker. Cathy O'Donnell, who made They Live by Night the same year, turns up as Christine's younger sister. Toss in 50s sci-fi regulars Richard Carlson and Donald Curtis, and Virginia Gregg, one the great voices of old-time radio who also did the voice of the mother in Psycho, and you have a better-than-average group for a B-movie. 7/10

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.

 


creature feature saturday: genocide/war of the insects (kazui nihonmatsu, 1968)

Ozu. Mizoguchi. Takashi Miike. Takeshi Kitano. Kurosawa. Hou Hsiao-hsien. These are some of the great names in cinema, and all of them had films distributed by the Japanese studio Shochiku. It is no surprise that Criterion released a four-film set called "When Horror Came to Shochiku." What is surprising is that Shochiku actually made four horror films. The Criterion site tells us:

In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment.

I watched Genocide from this set, "Genocide" being the title used by Criterion. That sounds like an art film. The original title translates to War of the Insects, and that sounds like a Creature Feature, which is why it ended up here. I seriously doubt that any Creature Feature show in the 60s would show a film called "Genocide", but "War of the Insects" fits right in.

I give director Kazui Nihonmatsu credit for his kitchen sink approach to his subject matter. The movie features hydrogen bombs (the kind that commonly turned up in Japanese horror of the time), Communists, American military officers presented in the worst possible light, an evil scientist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, a black American soldier who, when he goes crazy, visualizes stock footage of fighting in Vietnam, a hero who is cheating on his pregnant wife, and, of course, killer insects. Nihonmatsu stuffs all of this into 84 minutes (only 5 minutes longer than Booty Call), and "stuffs" is the right word, because there isn't time to delve into any of this in depth. There are general themes that run throughout the picture: Americans are powerful but concerned only for themselves, nuclear bombs are bad, and you probably shouldn't cheat on your wife.

The movie begins and ends with footage of a nuclear weapon exploding. At the start of the film, we are told, "The moment mankind harnessed the power of the atom, he immediately began to fear it." At the end, the Americans have set off another bomb, for the simple reason that they don't want it to fall into the wrong ("Communist") hands. Meanwhile, the evil scientist wants to wipe out humanity with her killer insects because in the camps, she saw what people could do to others.

And let's not forget the psychedelic scene where a man under the spell of the insects says they are singing to him, "The Earth doesn't belong to human beings alone. We don't care if mankind destroys itself with nuclear weapons, but we refuse to let you take us with you. Destroy the human race! Genocide! Exterminate all humans!"

All in 84 minutes.

It's a bit much. The special effects mostly suck, the plot is mostly nonsensical, yet it grabs your attention for those 84 minutes. It's the kind of movie that seems worse when you look back on it, but it was OK as I watched it. 6/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the black cat (edgar g. ulmer, 1934)

Once again, as is often the case with these "Creature Features", the trivia behind the film is as interesting as what is on the screen. The difference here is that The Black Cat is actually a good movie.

I saw it when I was a kid, probably on our own local Creature Features show. All I remembered of it was that someone got skinned alive. Since that didn't happen until the last couple of minutes of the movie, I started wondering if I'd misremembered (I hadn't).

This was the first film to co-star Boris Karloff (here billed simply as "Karloff") and Bela Lugosi (they eventually made eight movies together). They are both good, if you like their acting ... Karloff is ominous but restrained, Lugosi is hammy. Lugosi is nominally the good guy here, as a doctor imprisoned during WWI (or something like that ... the movie isn't clear). Karloff did bad things during that war, and Lugosi has come to make him pay. (The actors' characters have names, but why bother with them? It's Karloff and Lugosi.) David Manners and Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) play American newlyweds, and are properly boring. Both lead actors have odd obsessions with Bishop's wife.

The movie is quite bizarre ... Kael accurately described it as a "nutty, nightmarish mélange of Black Masses and chess games, shadows and dungeons, Satanism and necrophilia." Karloff has a bunch of dead women hanging around in some form of suspended post-lifeness. One of them is Lugosi's former wife. Meanwhile, Karloff has married Bela's daughter.

Lugosi has a deadly fear of cats ... the first time he sees a black cat, he recoils, pulls a knife, and throws it at the cat, killing it instantly. This is about as close as the movie comes to explaining the title, which was used mostly so Universal could say it was "suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe" (the film has nothing to do with Poe's story).

It all sounds silly, and it is, but it gets out of the way in 65 minutes, the two leads are good, and everything is atmospheric in that Edgar G. Ulmer way. Ulmer made a gazillion movies, almost all of them Grade-Z pictures, almost all of them with enough recognizable Ulmer touches that he became a favorite of auteurist film critics. The Black Cat is one of his best, but it was also a curse for Ulmer. During the making of the film, he began an affair with a woman whose husband was the nephew of the studio head at Universal. There was a divorce, and a marriage ... Ulmer and his wife, Shirley, remained married until his death. But he was blackballed, and was resigned to miniscule budgets the rest of his career. His best film was Detour, sometimes called the greatest B-movie of all time. The Black Cat doesn't reach those heights, but it is several notches above the average Creature Feature. And the scene where Karloff gets skinned alive is quite remarkable. 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday

The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958). Long ago (the 70s?), we saw comedian Bobby Slayton open in a club for two different rock acts. The shows were close enough that Bobby's sets mostly contained the same material. One quickie joke was to open his jacket, revealing a big plastic fly on the inside, at which point, he would squeak, "Help me help me" and close the jacket. He was referring, of course, to this, the original Fly movie. Vincent Price tells a story about the filming of the iconic "Help me, help me" scene. "[E]very time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it." The thing is, no matter how much humor can be extracted from the sound of a tiny fly with a man's head begging "help me!" as it is caught in a spider's web while the spider closes in for a meal, everyone who sees The Fly remembers that scene, not just as a joke, but as something truly unsettling. Well, everyone perhaps except David Hedison, who played the man/fly: "[P]eople do an imitation of it all the time: 'Help me!' They had me in the net, and they pasted me white. In the dailies, when I saw that scene it was horrific — the sound of a man who’s gonna be eaten by a spider — I mean, it’s terrible! But they chose to go with that effect — heighten my voice to make it sound like a chipmunk or something — which to me made no sense at all." It takes a special movie to still have a hold on viewers 60 years after it was made, especially when that movie is of the B-variety. There are things that lift The Fly a bit above the competition. Vincent Price helps a lot. Actually, all of the cast are good, consistently treating the material with a straightforward honesty that belies the outrageous plot. While you're watching, it's easy to ignore the multiple implausibilities. Toss in the color Cinemascope picture, and the stereo sound, and The Fly looks and sounds more expensive than the average cheapie. And, for folks who need trivia with their creature features, the script was the first effort by James Clavell, who went on to co-write The Great Escape and to write several novels, including Shogun. 7/10.

 


by request: the thing (john carpenter, 1982)

Given that The Thing is an accepted part of the modern horror canon, it's interesting that it wasn't a success when it was released. It did relatively poorly at the box office (blame for this is usually placed at the hands of E.T., the optimistic film that had opened a few weeks earlier). John Carpenter calls The Thing his favorite of his movies, and he says he was hit hard when the movie didn't perform. The critics didn't like it, either, although again, the film's reputation has improved over time. I've usually found Carpenter an oddly overrated director. I like most of his movies I have seen, but "like" is the operative word ... in my mind, none of the ones I've seen approach classic status. I remember liking Big Trouble in Little China quite a bit when it came out, but after I'd seen some of the HK films that influenced it, I felt Carpenter hadn't really met their standards.

The same can be said of The Thing. Carpenter loves the original ... some of this version is a clear homage to the 1951 Nyby/Hawks film. Carpenter is known as a Hawks fanatic. He doesn't let the homage go too far, though, because for the basic plot, Carpenter returns to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr. The thing changes form, so in any particular moment, it might look just like a person you know. Given the setting (men isolated in Antarctica), the paranoia sets in quickly ... as the title of Campbell's work asks, "Who Goes There?" This is an intriguing premise ... I don't blame Carpenter for wanting to explore it, even though it is unrelated to the Hawks' film, where the alien is just a giant carrot played by James Arness.

But, as I recall, when it came out, The Thing was known for its gore and its special effects. You might talk after the movie about the paranoia angle, but what got you into the theater, what impressed while watching, was the "ooooh" that accompanied the "best" scenes. Nothing wrong with that ... but ultimately, that's all The Thing is about. Alien, which had come out in 1979, had some similar shocks, but Ridley Scott built up to them. And while Alien and The Thing both share the "isolated working group" setting, the characters are much better defined in Scott's movie. In fact, this is the biggest reason the Carpenter remake isn't up to the original. I saw that original a few months ago, and thinking back on the cast of "hey it's that guys", I realize I still remember some of the character names, like "Scotty" the journalist. I saw the remake just last night, and I'm not sure I can remember any of the characters' names. Instead, I remember Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and T.K. Carter and Richard Masur. The Thing is well cast ... Carpenter can use his actors as archetypes because the actors fit the parts ... but any character development would just get in the way of the next gory FX scene.

The Thing works because Carpenter effectively parcels out the scares. But he never lets the audience get beyond that feeling of dread ... what's next? ... and while that's a fine thing to pull off, it mostly stands on its own. The implications of the paranoia angle are only important in the film as a way of increasing the dread.

None of this means I don't like The Thing. It's one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. But over the years, I've decided that John Carpenter movies are never great movies. If you can make a handful of pretty good movies, you've accomplished something. But you aren't Howard Hawks. #314 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (The original doesn't even make the list, which tells you what I think about TSPDT in this case.) 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday double bill

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927). This would never have actually turned up on a 60s Creature Feature show. It's a silent movie, and you didn't see those. Tod Browning was a Creature Feature type of director though ... among others, he did the Bela Lugosi Dracula and Freaks. And this movie stars Lon Chaney, the king of silent horror. It also stars a 21-year-old Joan Crawford, who is almost unrecognizable. The story, which features a "Gift of the Magi" angle", is about an armless circus performer (played by guess who) who lusts after Nanon (Crawford). Nanon has a phobia about being touched by men, so when the circus strongman tries to put the moves on her, she recoils. I won't give away more of the plot, except to note that the armless guy is faking his disability. Chaney is very good, and it's nice to put a movie under the Creature Features label that is actually a decent film. There are various versions of The Unknown, and the version I saw ran 49 minutes, with subtitles that were clearly added more recently than 1927. The Unknown was thought missing for many decades, until a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française. Turns out their archive included hundreds of movies marked "l'inconnu" ("unknown"). Those movies were indeed unidentifiable, and so it was apparently assumed that The Unknown was just another of those films. The subsequent restoration was not complete, but the version that remains is good. 7/10.

The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior, 1964). I want to say "from the sublime to the ridiculous", but in fact The Time Travelers is a decent little movie that takes a low budget and a silly plot and turns it into something watchable. Scientists from the present invent a time machine that takes them far into the future, and, well, what more do you need to know? It has Philip Carey, known to soap opera fans for his decades on One Life to Live and to Baby Boomers for playing Granny Goose in potato chip commercials. There's Preston Foster and the ever-present John Hoyt, and cheesecake from Merry Anders and ex-Playmate Delores Wells. Steve "Chatsworth Osborne, Jr." Franken even has a substantial part. The special effects are pretty bad, although these androids created in the future do have a rather disturbing look to their faces/heads. The cinematography is by future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as "William"), and the movie is better-looking than similar affairs. There's nothing great here, but neither does it stink. 6/10.

I can't stop without another mention of those Granny Goose commercials. Here's one:

Now, as I remember, this was a revision of the original Granny Goose commercial. (All of this is dependent on my faulty memory, of course.) In the first commercial, when he tore off the top of the bag with his teeth and spit it out, it just fell to the ground. Again, as I recall, conservationists complained that Granny Goose was littering. So for this version, they added the shot of the paper landing in the litter basket.

Which is all well and good. But in the meantime, you've got these gross stereotypes of Mexican bandidos. That's OK, at least Goose wasn't littering.

Those of us of a certain age (and location ... I believe Granny Goose was out of Oakland and the commercials were run locally) can quote lines from this commercial to this day. "You may not believe this, but my name is Granny Goose." "What's in the bag, Goose? Money, hey?" "Interesting. Well-seasoned. Provocative." "Are you grown up enough for Granny Goose?"


creature feature saturday double bill

Electronic Lover (Jesse Berger, 1966). Why do I bother? Every once in awhile I get the idea of watching some of the movies I'd seen on Creature Features on Saturday night when I was a kid. The problem is, I don't always pick the good movies from the array of choices (and they do exist). Electronic Lover is a sexploitation "nudie". but when I watched it for free on Amazon Prime, all of the nudity was edited out. (As a sign of how much nudity is in the movie, it runs 79 minutes but the Amazon version only lasts 60 minutes.) A sexploitation movie without the nudity pretty much has no reason for being, and I suppose I shouldn't rate this one too low since I saw an expurgated version. But trust me, it is so abysmal I'm positive the nudity wouldn't have helped. A crazed voyeur sends "Brother" out in the world with a hidden camera and watches the results from home. It is so cheap, it almost feels like an avant-garde film. Purely dreadful. 1/10.

Spies-a-Go-Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit) (James Landis, 1964). Another in the long line of Arch Hall movies. Arch Hall Sr. wanted to make movies, and after a couple of decades on the margins of the industry, in the 1960s Hall started cranking out what Wikipedia gently refers to as "some of the worst films ever made". The peak of his filmmaking was Eegah, in which he also starred alongside his son, Arch Hall Jr., and Richard "Jaws" Kiel in the title role. Junior appeared in many of his dad's movies ... he wanted to be a musician, so he'd play several songs, rather like Ricky Nelson in his family's TV show, except Junior didn't have much talent. Spies-a-Go-Go (titled Nasty Rabbit in the copy I saw) tells of a Soviet plot to release rabbits in the U.S. that have been infected with deadly bacteria. I think. The whole thing is played as a slapstick comedy ... bad slapstick comedy, although that probably wasn't intentional. Junior is a teen-idol rocker who is also an undercover spy. Oh, did I mention the rabbit occasionally talks to the audience ... he even gets the best lines (the IMDB only lists one "Memorable Quote", when the rabbit asks us, "I wonder if John Wayne had to go through this to get his start."). It's nowhere as good as it sounds. Richard Kiel pops in again for a cameo. Award-winning cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) turns up as "The Idiot", while his longtime friend Vilmos Zsigmond takes on the cinematography. (They teamed up more than once in the early days of their career, most "notably" when they were both behind the camera for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.) Finally, the legendary Liz Renay, who played Muffy St. Jacques in John Waters' Desperate Living, has a substantial role. I really wanted this to be "so bad it's good", but instead it's "so bad it's bad". Still, it's better than Electronic Lover, so 2/10.

But stop ... there's more trivia! In this clip from Spies-a-Go-Go, Junior sings a song accompanied by his band, which included Pat and Lolly Vegas, who later formed Redbone.

Here is Redbone's biggest hit:

And finally, for you youngsters who actually made it this far, a brief reminder of where you've heard that song before:

So there you have it: the connection between Spies-a-Go-Go and Guardians of the Galaxy is exposed!