Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

Mesa of Lost Women (1953) movie poster

directors Ron Ormond, Herbert Tevos
viewed: 02/03/2016

What?  “A Howco Production” doesn’t signify quality?

I think that the real key to understanding 1953’s Mesa of Lost Women is simple: the Ed Wood, Jr. connection.  It is threefold (perhaps more).  1. The notorious flamenco riff that repeats throughout the film also shows up in Wood’s Jail Bait (1954) (Howco’s 1st in-house production of the following year.)  2.  One of the mesa’s lost women is none other than Dolores Fuller!  And 3. The narration is wonderfully intoned by Lyle Talbot who among the numerous roles in his long career appeared in both Glen or Glenda?  (1953) and Jail Bait alongside Fuller.

However loose the connection, Mesa of Lost Women is a hysterical disaster of a picture, worthy of Ed Wood, Jr.

You’ve gotta love the science (administered by a mad scientist played by Jackie Coogan) that takes extracts from human pituitary glands and injects them in spiders, resulting in giant spiders, gorgeous and deadly spider-women, and misshapen and physically degenerated men.  All this in the Mexican desert of Muerte!

I also found it particularly funny when another scientist who rejects Coogan’s ideas is enfeebled, put in an asylum, escapes, and then takes a couple hostage with their small plane.

Perhaps the most Woodian thing about the film is the utterly bizarre and comical narration by Talbot.  It’s exactly the style that Wood would later employ in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), bombastic, booming, and insane.

I know a lot of folks have found this movie intolerable, but I found it sublime.

The Devil’s Hand (1962)

The Devil's Hand (1962) movie poster

director William J. Hole Jr.
viewed: 02/03/2016

A remarkably unremarkable horror film, what it lacks in style, it doesn’t really make up for anywhere else.

Robert Alda (Alan’s dad) stars as Rick, a not overly caring beau of Donna (Ariadna Welter); he shows up 20 minutes late for a date in the first scene.  Turns out he’s having weird dreams of another woman, which leads him to a very unusual doll shop in which there are dolls made to look like Donna and his mystery woman.  And further, this mystery woman, Bianca (Linda Christian) turns out to be a witch in a devil cult and she’s been using her devil-given powers to seduce him away.

Frankly, my favorite part of the movie was seeing Neil Hamilton (TV Batman’s very own Commissioner Gordon) as high priest of a devil cult.  He’s not terribly sinister but has a great voice, sounding era-appropriate male authority.

The cult itself is oddly diverse, at least with a token Asian couple and black couple.  They all sit and shift their weight to the sound of a tribal drummer.  Wherever the devil Gamba comes from, it’s not entirely clear.

Directed by William J. Hole, Jr., the film has a sort of bland TV style to it, which may be due in part to the fact that that is what Hole shot mostly.

Interesting tidbit I stumbled on: Linda Christian and Ariadna Welter were sisters in real life.  Not something you would guess at.

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972)

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972) movie poster

director Ted V. Mikels
viewed: 02/02/2016

The general response, it seems, to Ted V. Mikels’s Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is simply one of the lack of “truth in advertising”.  There is little “Blood”, no “Orgy”, and “She-Devils”? Who knows?

After watching a few Mikels films, including Dr. Sex (1964), The Astro-Zombies (1968), and The Corpse Grinders (1971), as well as the somewhat recent documentary on the man behind (and in front of) the camera The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008), I think it’s likely that for all his Exploitation street-cred of his movie titles and posters, his films are decidedly PG affairs, slight on blood, gore, and boobs and pretty disappointing if you think you’re going to get what the title suggests.

After watching the documentary, I felt like catching another of his films, and oddly didn’t really have a great notion which of them was the best one that I hadn’t seen.  I went for Blood Orgy because it was the last of his “horror” type films, as he migrated into spy stories and women’s prison pictures and other stuff.

I can’t tell you what this movie is about.  It’s bizarre and at times laughably terrible.  Laughably terrible in fun ways, that is.  It’s a tremendous amount of incoherent nonsense, light-horror and gore, bad visual FX, goofy acting and dialog, etc. etc. etc.

So, yeah, I can see why people hate it.  Rate it as low on the star system scale as they can.  Feel ripped off.

But for some reason, I think I liked this one as much as any of his films I’ve seen.  It is so confused that it becomes surreal.  One long bad dream (actually it’s only 73 minutes).

I feel like I need to see this again to really say something about it.  So, I’ll leave it at that and take what you can from this.

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008)

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008) dvd cover

director Kevin Sean Michaels
viewed: 02/02/2016

Cult movies are a wondrous thing.  Even before I ever laid eyes on Incredibly Strange Films by Boyd Rice and V. Vale or the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Micheal Weldon, before I ever knew what Cult film was, I was into it.  Even before I ever found on Famous Monsters of Filmland, I knew what I liked.

One of the great things about the present time from the past is the access to information, the interwebs.  You don’t have to live in ignorance (though maybe in misinformation-land at times).  And all the weird things you ever had curiosity about are now essentially at your fingertips.  The loss of obscurity has some downsides (the “coolness” of being into something no one else knew about is radically diminished), overall it’s actually great to know and learn about the backgrounds of things, the people behind them, the stories that were hidden by circumstance.

One of the other things has been the proliferation of documentaries about some of these odd subjects.  Costs of production going down with digital video and new outlets in streaming for marketing and distributing, there have been a number of films about Cult icons capturing them in their late years, recounting their experiences and thoughts.  And lucky so.  A lot of them are getting on in years, if not already passed.

Where Ted V. Mikels sits in regards to the pantheon of Cult cinema, I’ll let others posit.  Though I was familiar with his films, namely The Astro-Zombies (1968) The Corpse Grinders (1971), and to a lesser extent The Doll Squad (1973), I had never seen them until last year when Fandor got a spate of them and I couldn’t have told Ted V. Mikels from a hole in the ground.

The documentary The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels answers a lot of questions.  He’s here, already almost 80 when interviewed, recounting his life from childhood magician to eventual independent filmmaker of 50 years (or even more).  The film recounts in chronological order the more significant of Mikels oeuvre and gives background on them.

John Waters narrates (always a good thing).  And Tura Satana (R.I.P.), Francine York, and Shanti are on hand to give their insights.  It’s telling that Mikels has remained good friends with Satana and others, employing Satana in a number of films even into his more recent digital video efforts (he has continually made films, switching to digital in the 1990’s for cost concerns).  It’s telling because one of the other aspects of his life is his “castle” home into which he moved in the 1970’s after splitting with his wife, where he maintained a rotating harem of 7 beauties with whom he collaborated, both literally and with lots of innuendo there too.

This is the one shortcoming of this film.  It’s hardly an objective one.  It allows Mikels to tell his story as he wants with supporters who share those views.  And it’s all reasonably good fun.  But the stories behind his discreet bragging must be very interesting.  All that may be left to obscurity and speculation.

Which is kind of interesting since his films, bizarre and exploitative as they are, are also extremely tame by other standards of Cult and Exploitation peers of his.  There is a distinct lack of blood, guts, and nudity where you might expect to find them.

It also calls to question what is his most significant film.  Presently, though I have yet to watch it, I might speculate that it’s The Doll Squad which they openly state that Aaron Spelling stole and turned into television’s Charlie’s Angels a few years later.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) movie poster

director Philip Kaufman
viewed: 02/01/2016

Back in 2007, inspired by Andrew Dominik’s great The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I jumped down a rabbit hole of the cinematic Jesse James.  At the time, Netflix only carried so many Jesse James movies, but I pushed through all I could get my hands on, really, just trying to complete it.  I did, at the time, go through what I could find readily.

Since that time, more movies have trickled out of the woodwork.  Some new films, but probably just more complete lists of films.  Everything from the 1939 Herny King classic, Jesse James to the atrociously hilarious William “One-Shot” Beaudine flick Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).

Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist version of the James and Younger gang is quite contrary to most depictions of the famed outlaw.  The story is focused on Cole Younger, played here with great charm by Cliff Robertson.  The Youngers aren’t portrayed as the second fiddles of the gang but the real leaders and more noble hearts of the rebellious raiders.  Jesse James is played by Robert Duvall, and he’s not just a scoundrel but an out-and-out psychopath, killing unnecessarily, taking credit for things he didn’t do, and even shamed as being perhaps not as lustily heterosexual as the others.

This is a real contrast to most depictions, which tend to ennoble the gang, stealing from the banks and railroads that they felt had wronged the common man in their expansion across the States.

Kaufman’s movie is full of weird little things, like a long sequence depicting a baseball game (newfangled fad that it was), the character of the very Scandinavian stock of Northfield, MN, the “wonderments” of a steam plow, and a strange hoodoo treatment by an old lady witch.   These are the elements that give the movie character, and its true charms.

Because overall, the film has a weird character, flipping between PG comedy (those Pinkerton detectives forever on their train car, never catching their prey) and a little more seriousness.  Duvall’s Jesse James is quite unlikable, which I assume is intentional.  Robertson, though, is quite good.

It’s an odd muddle of a film, interesting in context of looking at variant depictions of the historical and yet folkloric characters.

Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha (1980) movie poster

director Akira Kurasawa
viewed: 01/31/2016

Akira Kurasawa’s 1980 film Kagemusha, supported in part by funding from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, ushered in his late career successes after more than a decade of challenges and disappointments.  The film’s success, garnering the Palme D’Or at Cannes, helped get his next film, Ran (1985) made.

In some ways, Kagemusha feels like a bit of a dress rehearsal for Ran, particularly in the massive battle sequence and colorful costuming of the armies.

Set in the 16th century, a thief is saved from execution because of his striking resemblance to the feudal lord of the region, Shingen (both roles, thief and daimyo, are played by Tatsuya Nakadai).  Already Shingen has had his brother standing in as a double for him for many years, but finding this new “kagemusha”, or “shadow warrior”, double proves fortuitous when the lord is struck down.  The thief is then employed to keep up the appearance of the daimyo to stave off assaults from rival clans who would seek to attack in the vacuum of power.

Kagemusha is a fine film, though it could be argued that Ran is perhaps better.  Kagemusha‘s most striking imagery comes from a dream sequence which occurs in a lurid painterly surrealism.  Tremendous and vivid.

The City of the Dead (1960)

The City of the Dead (1960) movie poster

director John Llewellyn Moxey
viewed: 01/30/2016

The City of the Dead (a.k.a. Horror Hotel in the U.S.) is the very unusual British film set in America.  Even more unusual, it’s about a little village (hardly a city) with a history of witchcraft, witch-burning, and devil worship.

Christopher Lee plays a teacher of the history of witchcraft and sends the very game Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to his hometown of Whitewood, MA to dig up some original materials, but unbeknownst to her, she’s really a virgin lamb for ritual slaughter for their annual sacrifice.

The City of the Dead was produced in part by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who would go on to form Amicus Productions, Hammer Film’s lesser known but quite good cousin in British horror.  And the film is a nice production, shot in clean black-and-white, and features a peppy jazz score by Ken Jones through much of it.  It’s quite a likable flick.

I find devil worship films the most unusual of these old horror films.  I think it’s maybe because I never really grew up with any of them.  I speculate that maybe in the Florida of my youth, they were cool with monsters and aliens and what-have-you, but maybe balked at devil worship?  I’m thinking of films like the Val Lewton/Mark Robson The Seventh Victim (1943) and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and maybe even Burn Witch Burn (1962).  I’m tempted to throw in I Married a Witch (1942) for good measure, though that is not exactly the same sort of genre film after all.

Anyways, good stuff.

Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Chimes at Midnight (1966) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 01/30/2016 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Timing, they say, is everything.

A few weeks back, I watched the documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014), a reasonable primer on the man I think of as cinema’s patron saint.  The film gave a good deal of focus to Chimes at Midnight, a heretofore (for me) lesser known work by the creator of Citizen Kane (1934), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Touch of Evil (1958).  Welles considered Chimes at Midnight to be his most fully realized film, his personal favorite, and jokingly mused that if he had to be judged by one work in order to enter Heaven, this would be the film he would choose.

Lo and behold, only a couple weeks out and Chimes at Midnight has emerged from its prison of rights issues, been given a 4K restoration, and is released on screens in theaters.  And for us, it was here at our brand spanking new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the New Mission Theater (opened only just in December after over 20 years of languishing and debate.  The theater is very nice BTW.)

The film is a striking thing, taking a play that Welles had cobbled together from five different Shakespeare plays, centering the narrative on John Falstaff, the obese, cowardly, jocund knight (played winningly by Welles) and his friendship with young Hal, the future Henry V (Keith Baxter).  They gallivant and romp and drink and rob and play, while Hal’s father, Henry IV (John Gielgud) disapproves, and a battle, the Battle of Shrewsbury, comes to a head.

One of the biggest things with this film is the sound quality.  Apparently, it was notoriously bad, and even with restoration, it’s still a right challenge to discern.  I’m not particularly attuned to the Shakespearean language, so concentrating is key, but dialog spills forth fast and furious and often indiscernible.  That said, even that didn’t fully take away from the film, but it does as well.  Perhaps repeated viewings lessen this issue, though at times it was almost like watching a film in a foreign language sans subtitles.

But there is a greatness here as well.  This film was not only Welles’s personal favorite and his last fully realized project, but something that had germinated with him for decades, through iterations of plays, honing in on his Falstaff, a character he identified as Shakespeare’s most profound creation and perhaps identified with as well.  Some have compared Welles to Falstaff, forsaken perhaps by Hollywood, or Welles as Falstaff, but also Falstaff as an emblem of Welles’s own father.  Who knows?

The passion for the character and story shows.  It’s a vastly interesting film, if confounding on the sound front.  We all enjoyed it quite well.

And my kids both wanted to get jobs at the Alamo Drafthouse (which is hiring).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 01/29/2016

Iconic as it is, with Jimmy Stewart filibustering on the floor of the Senate until he passes out, I’d never actually watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington until last Friday, when my daughter and I watched it.

It’s easy to see how this film catapulted Stewart to stardom.  And Jean Arthur is a real peach here, too.  It’s a great movie.

It’s amazingly dark, really.  When bright-eyed Mr. Jefferson Smith gets hand-picked to fill a Senate seat from an unnamed state, sent by the powers that be to fill a spot and vote along the lines of his fellow state Senator (Claude Rains), he’s agog at all the monuments to American heroes, statesmen, the ideals of democracy, that he gets lost in D.C., just starstruck by all its goodness.  But as this good-hearted fellow comes to learn the ways that things get done in the government, who really holds the political power are the rich, ruthless fat cats (who will even run down children to get their way), it’s a point of stark disillusionment that doesn’t even get fully swept away by the end of the film.

In fact, at the end of the film, even though Rains’s villain has capitulated, Mr. Smith is collapsed and unconscious, unaware of success.  Just as the state is never named, there are no political parties in the film either.  The film is polemical, wrapped in the indoctrinating Americana for which Frank Capra was so well-known.  And that keeps its critique still fresh.  This came from Capra’s period of disillusionment, which is interesting and worth contextualizing more in that he was such a notorious conservative overall.

Dr. Sex (1964)

Dr. Sex (1964) movie poster

director Ted V. Mikels
viewed: 01/27/2016

This “nudie cutie” comes from schlockmeister Ted V. Mikels, a sex comedy in where three psychologists meet to discuss their most bizarre cases.  The gags are the types ripped from the lesser brethren of Playboy of the time, certainly not urbane but also not really all that sleazy.  Mostly each story is a set up to gaze at comely young females in the almost altogether (T & A, but no V, as someone has suggested.)

The print available at Fandor is pretty rough, blotchy and choppy at times, but watchable.

As for the stories themselves, I’ll have to admit I even laughed at one of them.  I won’t ruin it for you in case you feel so inclined.