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.

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera (2008)

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera (2008) DVD cover

director Paul von Stoetzel
viewed: 01/20/2016

The investigation of Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera is in part existential.  Do “snuff films” even exist?  And by “snuff film,” as defined by some of the critics and film historians interviewed in the documentary, the definition is specific to a murder committed on camera and then sold or distributed for profit.  Truth or urban legend?

Of the interviewees, only producer (executive producer of this very film) Mark L. Rosen claims to have seen some.  Others believe of disbelieve.  Though with Rosen’s interviews as two key segments of a film told in chapters, we are meant to believe his stories as he tells them.

The documentary is open in many ways and some of the interviewees provide interesting perspectives and knowledge, but the overall creation is amateurish, particularly the chaptering of the thing, referring back to the “table of contents” at each segment.

The film gives particular attention to the 1976 Michael and Rebecca Findlay film Snuff, even featuring its climactic pseudo-killing.  Also the notable notoriety of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is invoked.  And of course, the Faces of Death series.

It also addresses the history of publicly viewed video and film of real deaths, starting with the airing of daily footage during the Vietnam War and extending to the video clips of beheadings and targeted killings in the Middle East of more recent times.

They also do a segment on the potentially innovative (and horribly horrific) murders and tortures made on video by Leonard Lake and Stanley Ng, samples that would classify as “snuff” only if they’d had mind to distribute and profit from it.

Really, “snuff” culture is freakishly rampant on the internet.  You don’t have to delve too far into 4chan (or elsewhere) to find images of gruesomeness all too real.  The atrocities that are “crush videos” and the extremity of not just your normal run of the mill pornography but the far more sinister and awful kinds that certainly exist in the darker recesses of the world, to think that images of people dying in reality are caught on film and pored over, whether profited by or not, I don’t doubt the existence of such terrible things.

The parallel with pornography is apt.  Detached from specificity to anything vaguely erotic, it is depiction in lurid detail of real world sensationalist materials, devoid of something more artistic.

Frankly, it’s an interesting topic.  It’s a shame it’s not a more interesting movie.

The Godfathers of Mondo (2003)

The Godfathers of Mondo (2003) DVD cover

director David Gregory
viewed: 01/13/2015

Not exactly the most probing of documentaries, David Gregory’s The Godfathers of Mondo provides Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the directors of Mondo Cane (1962), Women of the World (1963), Mondo Cane 2  (1963), Africa Addio (1966)
and Addio zio Tom (1971), an opportunity to appraise their work.  Probing or not, it’s an interesting sojourn behind the scenes of some of the most notorious Italian documentaries of all time.

Jacopetti and Prosperi aren’t pressed very hard on the factual aspects of their films or the truths behind them.  Whether it’s the verity of the images Mondo Cane or the far more disturbing suggestions behind Africa Addio, the men are given a pretty softball opportunity to deny wrongdoing or out-and-out fakery.  I won’t try to dive into the issues, since I’m no scholar, though it’s interesting how little the onscreen scholar seems to get.

Neither of the men seems too happy with the genre that they helped popularize and define, turning “mondo” from an Italian noun into a global adjective.  It’s really quite interesting, the story behind Africa Addio, shot over 3 years across the continent, amid massive uprisings and political unrest.  I won’t comment further because it’s one of the films I haven’t seen, but from the shots of brutality to humans and animals alike, it seems like a massively loaded piece of cinema, whatever the truths of the images captured.

It’s also interesting to hear the men discuss Addio zio Tom, which I recently watched, because they openly acknowledge the failure of that endeavor, a radical shift in production style for them, shooting sets rather than capturing documentary footage, the pretend documentary of real life on a slave plantation.  It was made in response to criticism over Africa Addio and the irony of its own inherent racism in its attempt against racism only further suggests how complex it is to unpack their work as a whole.

Challenged or not, it is worth hearing them out.  Not an amazing documentary itself, The Godfathers of Mondo allows its subjects, Jacopetti and Prosperi, to at least speak for themselves.

Killer Nun (1978)

 

Killer Nun (1978) movie poster

director Giulio Berruti
viewed: 09/26/2015

Killer Nun is another of those “video nasties” as they were dubbed in the UK back in the reactionary 1980’s.  While it’s got a middle-aged Anita Ekberg as a mentally-disturbed, heroin-shooting nun, having sex, both hetero and lesbian, and eventual murders, thus living up to its Killer Nun title, I kind of prefer one of its alternates, “Deadly Habits”, but I’m always one for a pun even in “nunsploitation”.

Yeah, it’s got sex and drugs and violence and nuns.  Maybe if you’re Catholic or were raised Catholic, the whole nun thing has a bit more teeth.  But really, this Italian exploitation flick is a jumble of hot topic nonsense.

Actually, I think it hurts my brain to try to pry more out of it regarding this film.

BaadAsssss Cinema (2002)

BaadAsssss Cinema (2002) DVD poster

director Isaac Julien
viewed: 05/20/2015

A really pretty solid primer and overview of Blaxploitation cinema, featuring Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Quentin Tarantino, Gordon Parks, Larry Cohen, Samuel L. Jackson and Melvin Van Peebles and many others.   I don’t know what else to tell you about it other than it’s quite worth the while and a great starting point for delving into the genre, understanding its context and history, and getting a great sense of the stars and the films.  Definitely worthwhile if you are interested.

Pam Grier is such a fox.

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)

 

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) DVD Cover

directors Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon
viewed: 03/01/2015

Since I first read about it back in 2010, I was pretty keen to see Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore.  I’m typically up for documentaries about the more obscure and unusual of filmmakers, especially ones with such significant cult classics to their names, and even more so of ones about whom I only know so much.  I had it hopefully waiting in my Netflix queue, in the section called “Saved” for movies that they didn’t have on DVD and often had not timetable for acquiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it become available on Full Moon Streaming and somehow even more surprised that it was co-directed by Frank Henenlotter.  Or maybe just that it was directed by Henenlotter and that I for some reason hadn’t realized it.

Actually, it’s a predecessor akin to Henenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation! (2013), which makes a lot of sense.  Henenlotter, along with Mike Vraney and others founded Something Weird video back in the 1980’s, collecting tons of cult nudies and other exploitation films, named after one of Lewis’s flicks and featuring Lewis’ oeuvre as part of their core catalog.  Somewhere along the line Henenlotter and crew must have realized that Lewis and one-time partner and produced David F. Friedman weren’t getting any younger and that no one else was interviewing them about their history in the exploitation biz and that they might as well go ahead and make the documentary themselves.

Friedman has since passed away, but shows up both here and in That’s Sexploitation!, talking about the heady days of nudie cuties and the advent of the splatter movie, the concoction of Lewis and Friedman in the form of Blood Feast (1963) and several others.

The Godfather of Gore is a better doc than That’s Sexploitation!, in part because its focus is keener and it’s got Lewis himself talking through the shoots and experiences of making his famous “Gore” series, nudist films, and strange gamut of filmmaking innovations and practices.  You’ve even got John Waters on hand to pay homage to Lewis and field his always witty perspectives on the films.  Henenlotter and Maslon also venture back to some scenes of the crimes, taking Friendman and Lewis to the town where they filmed Lewis’s personal favorite film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) along with cast and crew.

What’s most funny to me is my own sense of Lewis and his movies when I first saw them as a teen.  I didn’t know anything really about them other than their legendary status and cult influence.  They seemed cheap and campy to me (which they are) but I wasn’t able to fully appreciate them for that back then.  I had no idea that they’d been filmed in Florida, where I grew up and lived at the time I first saw them.  And I didn’t know who Lewis really was, the intelligent, funny, free-wheeling character that he is and was.

It’s funny too that this legend of cult splatter horror films is also a legend in the direct marketing business, a world he conquered after leaving movies in the 1970’s.  It’s a testament to his bootstrapping cleverness, if perhaps a far cry from his goriest moments and cinematic perversities.  I’m glad Henenlotter and team had the wherewithal to record these folks while they could, capturing some of the oral histories of the wild days of exploitation and the strange, carnival spirit of the men.

That’s Sexploitation! (2013)

That's Sexploitation (2013) movie poster

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 12/09/2014

When That’s Sexploitation! showed up suddenly on Fandor, I was like “What!  A documentary about sexploitation?! By Frank Henenlotter?!”  I was pretty excited.  I didn’t know he’d even been working on a documentary.

In the documentary, he interviews longtime exploitation producer and longtime friend David F. Friedman, who has since passed away.  Henenlotter hosts and narrates the way through the the history of film and sexploitation from the silent era to the 1970’s when it more or less petered out as hardcore pornography made a lot of the titillation moot.

This could easily have been totally awesome.  Henenlotter and Friedman have keen knowledge and insight to the spectrum of time covered here, Friedman largely pretty firsthand.  But one of the film’s limitations is that it’s largely limited to the scope of Henenlotter’s own Something Weird distribution, which isn’t a major limitation.  If it wasn’t for Something Weird, who knows where all these films would have disappeared to.  Who would have cataloged all these nudist cuties, roughies, and the like?  They could have well been lost to time.  Really, they’ve done a major effort of preservation and history keeping.  So, limited as it is, it’s still a treasure trove.

But the movie ends up being a bit of a greatest hits clip show of Something Weird titles.  Which also has value.  But you kind of wish that there was a fuller picture not just limited to what they have available.

Even so, the film is still over 2 hours long.  Kind of verging on epic.

Henenlotter is entertaining and convivial and Friedman does paint an amusing series of anecdotes.  So, it’s still good and interesting.  I was just wishing for a little more.

Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010)

Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) movie poster

director Mark Hartley
viewed: 09/16/2014

The documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! tells the story of the heyday of American film production in the Philippines, which ran from the 1960’s-1980’s, more or less.  Like a lot of offshore business and production, the Philippines offered cheap labor and unregulated execution.  The results did include some brutal situations for some stunt performers, but it also seemed to open doors and opportunities for others, including directors like Eddie Romero, Cirio H. Santiago, and Gerardo De Leon.

Mostly, if just one person profited, his name was probably Roger Corman, who was always looking for ways to make and stretch a buck in the movie biz.

The most entertaining interviewees include John Landis, Jack Hill, Joe Dante and Allan Arkush.  And there seem to have been a fair amount of truly entertaining craziness especially in the heady days of the  1970’s where anything went.

Film production was not adversely affected by the coup of Ferdinand Marcos.  The films would have possibly outraged the regime if they weren’t bringing in the moolah for the government. A more incisive documentary would have maybe spent more time on the political history that paralleled this time of film production, rather that offering its ironic lip service, but this is more a sit back and laugh kind of take on the crazy times and the exploitation films that they garnered.

American Grindhouse (2010)

American Grindhouse (2010) movie poster

director Elijah Drenner
viewed: 06/11/2014

American Grindhouse is a documentary that focuses on American exploitation cinema.  It’s an entertaining enough affair, giving its way to some historical perspective, interviewing some of the filmmakers dating back to the 1950’s-1980’s and trying to show the thread of exploitation from Edison through to the current century.  It features a bevy of clips and a fair number of tropes.

I found myself queuing up movies that I hadn’t seen while I was watching it.

That said, over the years, I have also seen other films like Schlock!: The Secret History of American Movies (2001) and Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001) both of which benefited from interviews with contributors to the genre who are no longer with us.

It doesn’t necessarily matter where you start when you are poring over the exploitation genre.  I do have to say the focus of American Grindhouse on only American products, even trying to define the genre as uniquely American, certainly is reductive and lacking inclusiveness.

It’s perhaps a slicker production than the earlier films.  And no discredit to it.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

Corman's World (2011) movie poster

director Alex Stapleton
viewed: 04/06/2012

In the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, it’s suggested at one point that young contemporary film makers might not know who Roger Corman is, partially due to his lack of recognition by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (though in the duration of the film, he does receive a “lifetime achievement award” from the Academy in 2009).  If recognition by the Academy was the only arbiter of success in cinema, far more than Roger Corman would be conscripted to obscurity.  Up and coming young film makers should know Roger Corman.  They should know a lot of history, classic films, foreign cinema, silent film, the Golden Age, B-movies, everything.  Corman is a key figure in 20th Century American cinema, the birth of independent production, the rise of the B-movies and exploitation of the 1950’s-1970’s, and he gave the first opportunities to major directors and actors of the latter 20th century.

Corman’s World is a good introduction to who Corman is, showing him working on what was at the time his most recent production.  It features interviews with a myriad of actors and directors who owe often some of their first opportunities to the man whose autobiography was titled “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.”  He is definitely as frugal as he is innovative.  But this straight-laced pragmatist, who worked hands on in the wild world of indie and drive-in cheap thrills was right alongside the hippies and the artists who made the influential and important Hollywood films of the 1970’s.   Jack Nicholson chokes up at one point, remembering Corman for giving him work when no one else would.  Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdonavich and many others thanks Corman for giving them their first shots at directing.  His influence was on the industry, not just in artistry.

Corman made some fine films.  His Edgar Allen Poe series in particular.  He also made some pretty awful films.  And lots and lots of films in between.  What he never perhaps aspired to was “great art”, or something personal and sublime.  Scorsese’s story of how he brought him the script for Mean Streets (1973) and Corman thought it would work as a Blacksploitation film.  Scorsese, of course, realized that this wasn’t a compromise that would work and he would go on to define his own voice in cinema by depicting a very personal world, not one that he thought would be marketable.  I love Roger Corman films, but his commitment to the bottom line perhaps tempers even his best work.

More than anything, though, the low-budget camp and experimentation that color his early work is a lost form of cinema itself.  The rubber monsters and DIY analog effects, the guerilla-style married to the monster movie, is just not something made anymore.  And maybe even the world in which people developed their relationships with these types of films, watching either in drive-ins or on broadcast syndication, or stuck in the video store are all forms no longer for getting into the lower tiers of film, the weirder tiers.  The film also ties Corman to a lot of youth culture content, as well as counter-culture content, from biker gangs to LSD, all quite surprising in seeing the straight, well-spoken gentleman himself.

The film breaks no ground on Corman, it’s all been said before.  But it’s a reasonable primer for those uninitiated.  And I certainly don’t doubt that there are those up and comers who could learn a lot from Corman’s story, style, and filmography.