No Orchids for Miss Blandish

dir. St. John Legh Clowes
1948 / Tudor-Alliance103′
written by St. John Legh Clowes
from the novel by James Hadley Chase
cinematography by
Gerald Gibbs
music by George Melachrino
starring Linden Travers, Jack La Rue, Hugh McDermott, Walter Crisham, MacDonald Park and Lilli Molnar
No Orchids for Miss Blandish is available on DVD through Amazon.com

It looks like a certain thing for a trio of would-be gangsters: grab the incredibly valuable jewellery of millionaire’s daughter Miss “I don’t need no stinking first name” Blandish (Linden Travers) while she and her fiancée are driving through dark country roads on the way to a roadhouse. As it goes with things that are certain, the robbery plan ends with a dead fiancée, two dead would-be gangsters and Miss Blandish kidnapped by the last surviving gangster, a certain Bailey (Leslie Bradley). Oops.

Bailey drives his victim to a country shack, where is planning on, well, shacking up for a while and doing Miss Blandish harm. Just when he is about to rape her, members of the Grisson gang, who learned of Bailey’s plans and whereabouts by ways too complicated to explain, appear like a particularly inappropriate sort of cavalry. Their leader, Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue), decides to kill off Bailey and kidnap Miss Blandish (and her jewellery) for himself.

But a strange thing happens to the hardened gangster once his booty (human and monetary) is safely stashed away at the club he owns. Slim falls in love with his victim, even becoming willing to risk the wrath of his partner/boss Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar) – who doesn’t actually seem to be related to him – for said love. When Slim tells Miss Blandish to take her jewellery and just go on home, it turns out that he’s not the only one who’s in love here. Clearly, that sort of mutual feeling can not end well in a noir.

 
 
 

At the time the British noir No Orchids for Miss Blandish came out, it seems to have caused a minor scandal by flaunting British censorship scandals towards filmic violence (and probably sex) enough to end the career of its director, the excellently named St. John Legh Clowes and its female lead Linden Travers. From my modern perspective, this, like a lot of things causing censors to foam at the mouth, seems more than just a bit overblown. Sure, conceptually the film’s scenes of violence are a bit more directly visceral than was typical for its time, but Clowes execution of those scenes is so unconvincing, with fists that miss bellies by miles and bullets that are so clearly never shot no audience member (many of whom will have lived through various kinds of real violence during World War II) can have been shocked by what’s happening on screen.

I suspect that it’s the sexual content that broke the film’s neck anyhow, seeing as the amount of innuendo and the number of scenes where the film is basically stating “the characters are now going to have premarital sex while the camera’s not looking” reminds of the raunchier Hollywood pre-code films I’ve seen.

But really, it’s not the sex nor the violence that makes No Orchids as interesting a film as it is, it’s the peculiar way it goes about its business of being a British noir. Most of the British noirs I’ve seen were putting their efforts into taking the aesthetics and philosophy of the Hollywood noir and putting them into a decidedly British setting, with decidedly British characters and exploring decidedly British themes. It’s none of that for No Orchids. Like the novels of James Hadley Chase (one of which this is based on), the film tries its damndest to pretend it is an American noir, setting its story in the USA yet still casting – apart from Jack La Rue’s ersatz-Bogart and Walter Crisham’s ersatz-Widmark – British actors for the roles.

This lets No Orchids take place in a particularly strange place – a USA where everyone tries for a different kind of badly done American accent to stiffly utter (often rather weird) dialogue full of off-key americanisms in, frequently while wearing clothes that are clearly supposed to be American-style, but actually look like the clothes people wear in classic gangster films as recreated by a mad tourist. This whole aspect of the movie has a highly alienating effect, putting a distance between a modern viewer and the film that makes emotional involvement near impossible. It’s all much too artificial too be immersive.

 
 
 

This effect is even further heightened by a script that is confusing and difficult to believe even for noir standards, and that oozes so much puppy-like excitement about aping all aspects of American noir it ever put its eyes on that it’s impossible to take it seriously at all. The film makes no attempt to make the sudden love between Slim and Miss believable even in the slightest, and instead puts them into scenes of bizarre domesticity that can’t help but leave one with the feeling that Clowes either had a very peculiar sense of humour and was trying to have the audience on, or is an alien only vaguely familiar with the idea and ideal of love. This sort of thing sure makes for an interesting film, but also left me giggling throughout the “dramatic” climax that – I think – is supposed to jerk a few tears.

So, by the standards of how a “good” film is supposed to be, No Orchids For Miss Blandish is pretty much a total loss. However, as a film that takes a by the time well-developed style of filmmaking and makes it weird through its own sheer wrong-headedness and an insistence on imitation as if it were a broken mirror, it’s absolutely brilliant. As regular readers of this column and my blog know, there’s not much I love better in a movie than the ability to present itself as part of a different world than the one I come from. No Orchids For Miss Blandish achieves that effect effortlessly, while also providing some very pretty pictures to look at (say what you will about Clowes’s direction, but he sure knew how to do “pretty fake”), horrible musical numbers and “comic” interludes to be disturbed by, as well as psychosexual nonsense to shake one’s head about.

For a film that is trying so hard to be like other films, No Orchids sure is very much only like itself.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Blood Feast

Year: 1963  Company: Box Office Spectaculars   Runtime: 67′
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Writers: Allison Louise Downe   Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Music: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Mal Arnold, Lyn Botton, Scott H. Hall
Disc company: Something Weird / Image Entertainment   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: LPCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 09/27/2011   Released as part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy Blu-ray collection, and available for purchase through Amazon.com
This review is just part one of three for the Something Weird / Image Entertainment Blu-ray release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy – coverage of Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red will follow shortly.

Here it is, folks, the film that single-handedly revolutionized the relationship between exploitation filmmaking and gooey, graphic violence and made a mint for production duo David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis in the process.  Produced in Miami for the measly sum of $24,500, word of Blood Feast‘s carnal excesses spread like wildfire upon its release, drawing millions to the flicker of the drive-in screen for their first taste of hard gore.

That’s not to say that violence, occasionally of a graphic variety, had not been seen in film before, as it most certainly had.  In the years leading up to Blood Feast‘s release directors like Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Caltiki the Immortal Monster) and Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face) had treated audiences to a variety of gruesome set-pieces in black and white, while Britain’s Hammer Films (themselves responsible for a choice selection of classic black and white shocks) had upped the gothic horror ante with splashes of blood in brilliant color.  Blood Feast took things several steps further with its over-the-top gore flourishes, but where it really served as a revolutionary was in its intent.  Where earlier films had used violence as a means to tell a story Blood Feast existed solely for the sake of its own violent excesses.  Everything about Blood Feast, from its blood-drenched title card on, is subservient to the gore, and while critics were quick to deride the film as unadulterated trash audiences ate it up.

The sparse narrative for Blood Feast is pure hokum, and played with such delightful earnest that it’s tough not to love it.  Well-to-do Mrs. Fremont is throwing a party for her daughter Suzette (Playmate Connie Mason in her first credited film appearance), but wants to forego the usual fare for something more unusual.  Thusly she crosses paths with Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold, Scum of the Earth), a local caterer with a taste for the bizarre who sells Mrs. Fremont on the notion of holding an ‘Egyptian Feast’ for her daughter.  All seems hunky-dory with the plan save for one minor hitch: Fuad Ramses is actually a modern-day cultist of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Ishtar, and his ‘Egyptian Feast’ is actually a blood offering crafted from mutilated human flesh!  As the day of the feast draws near the bodies start piling up, and detective Pete Thornton (Will Kerwin, Impulse) is at a loss for catching the killer until he happens into a lecture on Egyptology at the local community college…

It’s difficult to impart in writing just how silly and contrived the plot for Blood Feast really is, but if the fact that Miami’s star detective just happens to be taking a community college course on Egyptology (which just happens to be focusing on the blood feast of Ishtar, and whose professor just happens to know a book written on the subject by none other than Fuad Ramses, caterer extraordinaire!) doesn’t give you some inkling of it then I don’t know what will.  Credited to Allison Louise Downe (an actress in some of Lewis and Friedman’s ‘nudie-cuties’) but actually a collaborative effort between Downe, Lewis, Friedman and others, the screenplay here is positively ridiculous stuff from start to finish, and is a big part of what keeps Blood Feast from being so nasty and indigestible as the dreadfully serious or dully self-referential horrors of today.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is just how much intentional humor there is to it, much of it sourced from the broad caricatures (a detective, a matron, a maniac) that dominate it.  Case in point is the upper-crust Mrs. Fremont who, after discovering the near-murder of her daughter and that the feast prepared for her gathering is comprised of human flesh, glibly remarks, “Oh dear – the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight”!


Best. Title card. Ever.

Most memorable among the characters is easily Fuad Ramses himself, thanks to a combination of gross over-acting and the frequent idiocies of the scripting.  Though often cited as the prototype for the blade-wielding cut-up artists who would become the face of the burgeoning slasher subgenre, Ramses has more in common with the mad doctors and maniacs of the ’30s and ’40s than anything modern, with only the graphic nature of his murders really separating him.  Fuad slowly wanders the wastes of Miami with a hysterically overplayed limp and varying degrees of gray hair, toting a machete and his appropriated body parts with him in a sack and speaking with such wide eyes and pronounced Lugosi-ese that even the most magnanimous of Miamians would find it difficult to ignore his psychopath credentials.

Contrary to popular conception not all of the acting in Blood Feast is bad, though the vast majority of it certainly fits the bill (Friedman and Lewis’ associate Scott H. Hall, playing detective Thornton’s superior officer, can often be seen checking his left hand for hints to his dialogue, and he’s far from the worst).  The one constant talent of the show is star William Kerwin, who plays his role believably even when the scripting frequently fails him.  Though by no means a name star Kerwin certainly had experience, having kicked around television, shorts, and feature films since the early ’50s, and his varied acting career (from stuff like this to episodes of Land of the Lost) would continue on until his death in 1989.  Kerwin’s co-star Connie Mason, best known for her appearances in Playboy, was essentially hired as a pretty face, and looks suitably Barbie Doll-esque in her bawdy ’60s fashions.  Mason would go on to make numerous appearances in film and television, many of them uncredited, and would also star in Blood Feast‘s Southern style follow-up Two Thousand Maniacs.

Much like the performances, the other aspects of this poverty-row production are hit or miss.  Blood Feast was filmed both on 35mm and in color, but very economically.  Most dialogue scenes are carry on as uninterrupted master shots, and Lewis and Friedman evidently limited themselves to a 3-take maximum due to the limited amount of film stock available to them.  Much of the cast and crew played multiple roles throughout the production, with no one being more indicative of the trend than director Herschell Gordon Lewis himself.  In addition to serving as director and photographer, Lewis also co-produced, composed and, in part, performed the film’s musical score, devised the numerous special effects, and can even be heard, briefly, as a radio announcer at the beginning of the film!   That most of the footage is in focus and intelligibly framed and that the dialogue and sound effects are all clear is likely as much as Lewis, Friedman and their associates ever asked of Blood Feast, and the dedication to just getting the film finished on-budget and by whatever means necessary overrides the paucity of the production value in my mind, particularly when the end results are such a riot.

The gore effects here are part and parcel with the rest and aren’t likely to shock anyone in a day and age when the average cop drama offers more in the way of realistic carnage, but to hold them up to today’s standards is to completely miss the point.  No, the Kaopectate-laced fake blood syrup doesn’t look real and yes, the bits of mannequin masquerading as dismembered body parts are obvious, but Blood Feast was never about realism to begin with.  It was about filling that drive-in screen with as much goopy, flowing red as could be managed and entertaining an audience in the process.  Sure it’s silly and stupid and about as scary as a pair of wool socks, but it’s also a blast to watch – grand guignol has rarely been such good clean fun.


Who couldn’t trust a face like that?

Something Weird, through distributor Image Entertainment, present Blood Feast for the first time on Blu-ray by way of The Blood Trilogy collection (along with Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red, all housed on a single dual layer BD50).  Though the end results aren’t perfect they are overall positive.  Blood Feast is transferred from a well worn but serviceable positive 35mm source, as evidenced by the considerable print damage on display (including reel change markers and the repaired film tear shown below).  While it’s clear that little to no restorative work was put into the transfer after the telecine process the transfer certainly stays true to the source, and I’m hard pressed to argue with the end results.

Presented in 1080p, the chosen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 may court controversy with fans expecting another open matte 1.33:1 edition a la earlier videos and DVDs.  I can’t say that the choice bothered me in the least.  Lewis obviously photographed Blood Feast with the possibility of widescreen matting in mind, with plenty of headroom all around.  Only a brief shot of a letter stood out for me as being improperly framed (see the 9th capture below), and I suspect it’s appeared much the same way to the film’s theatrical audiences over the past 48 years.  The new transfer also adds a bit to the left and right of the frame, at times substantially.  Another potential sticking point is the fact that Something Weird have packaged Blood Feast with its two HD co-features and a host of extras on a single dual layer disc, limiting the available bitrate and wreaking all manner of theoretical havoc in the process.  The simple fact of the matter, as should be supported by the captures below, is that the technically meager AVC video encode (just 17.6 Mbps on average) appears to support the visuals just fine.  After checking the technical specs I was expecting something akin to The Big Doll House‘s presentation in the recent Women in Cages Blu-ray collection, or worse the unbridled mess of The Beyond, but such disasters thankfully failed to materialize and Blood Feast maintains a respectable film-like appearance throughout.

Depending on the original photography, which varies quite a lot in terms of focus, Blood Feast‘s visual detail can range from the lowly and modest to reasonably impressive (there’s some excellent skin texture to be found in the final close-up below), but always appears accurate to the source print.  Color saturation is at healthy levels, with reds (from the multitude of stage blood to the monotone lighting of Fuad Ramses’ secret shrine) that really pop, and skin tones looked natural to these eyes.  Black levels are the only sore spot, appearing flat and gray, but are hardly a deal breaker.  Overall I’m very pleased with Blood Feast‘s appearance on Blu-ray, and imperfect as it is it more than gets the job done.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  The first image below is a sample of some of the worst print damage this transfer has to offer, and is followed by ten more typical samples.

Whatever you think of the image, I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing controversial about Blood Feast‘s audio presentation.  Something Weird grant the film an uncompressed 16-bit Linear PCM monophonic track in the original English, and it sounds just as everyone should expect – rough.  Like the photography, Blood Feast‘s audio recording can vary quite a bit from scene to scene.  Dialogue is largely intelligible, even if the final mixing of some segments is suspect, but there’s nothing wrong with the track that can’t be blamed squarely on the original recording and Lewis’ original score is even more delightfully rotten than ever.  My only complaint is that there are no accompanying subtitles whatsoever.

Blood Feast comes packaged with a healthy array of film-specific supplements, all of which appear sourced from earlier releases.  The best of the bunch is an excellent feature commentary track with director Herschell Gordon Lewis and the late producer David Friedman, with Something Weird’s Mike Vraney serving as moderator.  Lewis and Friedman are under absolutely no illusions about the quality of their product, but clearly had a blast creating it and are obviously proud of the influence it has since had on exploitation filmmaking as a whole.  Next up is a lengthy run of unedited silent alternate and outtake footage in 4:3 SD, totaling 50 minutes in all!  The only other film-specific supplements are a gallery of ad art (including images from other Friedman / Lewis productions) and the theatrical trailer presented in 1080p.  (Each of the other films in the collection is also accompanied by a feature audio commentary, outtake footage, and an original trailer, with short subjects Carving Magic and Follow That Skirt and a trailer for the Something Weird documentary Godfather of Gore rounding out the disc)

And that’s it, I think.  Something Weird have done better by Blood Feast than I really ever expected of them, and the presentation’s few imperfections do nothing to thwart my overall enthusiasm for it.  I can’t imagine most fans being disappointed (though online chatter has proven that some of you are anyway), and with The Blood Trilogy collection available for less than $12 as of this writing the disc gets an easy recommendation from me.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent (Yes, I mean it!)  Video: Very Good  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Very Good
Harrumphs: Limited video bitrate, with all three films plus extras cohabiting one dual layer BD50, and no subtitles.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

Der Todesrächer von Soho

a.k.a. The Corpse Packs His Bags
Year: 1972   Runtime: 76′  Director: Jess Franco
Writers: Jess Franco, Artur Brauner  Cinematography: Manuel Merino   Music: Rolf Kühn, Jess Franco
Cast: Horst Tappert, Fred Williams, Elisa Montés, Barbara Rütting, Luis Morris, Siegfried Schürenberg

A murderer with a very peculiar modus operandi haunts London. Concentrating on people visiting the fair city, he first packs his victims’ bags, then kills them with an incredibly precise knife throw.

Inspector Ruppert Redford (Fred Williams) – oh, the hilarity! – of Scotland Yard has quite a bit of trouble solving the case. I’m sure his trouble has nothing at all to do with him being a typical early 70s smartass playboy who just loves to let civilians do his job for him, like the (weirdly competent, obviously odious) comic relief photographer Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) or his personal friend, the crime writer Charles Barton (Horst Tappert).

To be fair to Redford, one has to admit that the case is rather complicated, seeing as it not only involves the strange murders, but also a shady doctor (Siegfried Schürenberg) with more than just one secret, his lovely assistant (Elisa Montés) with a secret of her own, a drug ring peddling a drug thrice as potent as heroin, various bombings, one or more revenge plots, and Barton’s secret. Not unlike Redford (who will solve his case by going where Pickwick tells him to, and being obnoxious), I lost track of the plot about halfway through the movie, and never was quite sure what was going on in some of the plot lines, so it’s difficult to blame him.

Say what you will about German producer impresario Artur “Atze” Brauner’s attempts at jumping on the successful Edgar Wallace adaptation wagon by making a contract with Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar Wallace that allowed him to use the younger Wallace’s name and the often very fine titles of the man’s books and make completely unrelated films out of them, but the man did show good taste when it came to the international co-operations late in his film cycle. After having co-produced Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Brauner hired beloved auteur Jess Franco for his next Bryan Wallace movie, Brauner’s second version of Wallace’s Death Packs A Suitcase.

  
  
  

Now, I have gone on record saying that I generally prefer Franco’s more personal films – at least when we’re talking about his work of the 60s and 70s – to his attempts at making more conventional genre movies, but Der Todesrächer von Soho (which translates as “the death-avenger of Soho”, and no, the word “Todesrächer” does exist in German as little as “death-avenger” does in English – it’s just a lovely case of the sort of random composite noun the German language loves so dearly) turns out to be an exception to the rule, and may in fact be one of my personal favourites among Franco’s films. It’s probably because Franco might not have been allowed to indulge himself in his erotic obsessions as heavily is Franco fans are used to – well, beyond a very short nightclub sequence and a lot of women wearing boots, anyway – but does indulge heavily in his love of pulp and a visual and narrative style that have come down through the serials (on the visual side, of course combined with the man’s usual tics and enthusiasms).

While Der Todesrächer doesn’t work at all as a straight pulpy narrative (what with it having a plot so byzantine my first viewing didn’t even leave me with an understanding of the knife-thrower’s motives, even though I guessed his identity without much trouble with his first appearance on screen), it’s a virtual feast of classic pulp, serial, and krimi clichés as seen through the slightly skewed but loving perspective of Franco. The whole film is basically Franco shooting classic poses of the genres he’s working in from his favourite weird perspectives and through glass tables while a pretty hip soundtrack by Rolf Kühn (with some contributions by Franco himself) plays, pretty obviously having a lot of fun with it and for once not even trying to achieve transcendence through boredom. In fact (and genre-appropriate), Der Todesrächer is as fast-paced and sprightly as a Franco movie gets, with nary a minute where nothing exciting or at least interesting is happening on screen, making this one a Franco movie that’s much easier to appreciate than his more self-indulgent films. How could I not appreciate Franco having fun in this way?

As much as I love Franco, I usually do not use the word “exciting” to describe any of his films, but Der Todesrächer von Soho is an exception to that rule too, working as a timely reminder that Franco could be versatile if a given project interested him enough.

German viewers will probably have another reason to look fondly, or even with mild astonishment, at the film, for its use of Horst Tappert is quite an eye-opener. Here in Germany, Tappert is primarily known today as the star of the long-running (I thought about eighty years, Internet sources speak of only twenty-four) cop show Derrick. The show’s complete run of 281 episodes was written by Herbert Reinecker whom you also might know as the writer of Rialto Film’s Edgar Wallace cycle (and yes, Tappert was in some of those too, and quite lively at that). Unfortunately, Reinecker’s attempts at a more psychological crime show only resulted in a show as visually dead, emotionally and intellectually dull, and politically conservative as anything I’d care – or rather not care – to imagine, and drove Tappert to performances that would be cruel to call “wooden”, for even pieces of wood have feelings that can be hurt. Having grown up with Derrick, and somewhat forgotten Tappert’s part in the earlier Wallace movies, it came as a real shock to watch the actor here, about two years before he started on the show that was to make/end him, smiling, acting, even over-acting, and possessing an actual physical presence like, well, an actual human being, outplaying the film’s cops film character with effortless charisma. It’s quite a thing to behold, though not enough for me to ever want to revisit Derrick.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Horrible Sexy Vampire

a.k.a. El Vampiro de la Autopista / Le Mania di Mr. Winninger Omicida Sessuale
Year: 1970   Company: Cinefilms / Fida Cinematografica   Runtime: 90′
Director: Jose Luis Madrid   Writer: Jose Luis Madrid   Cinematography: Francisco J. Madurga
Music: Angel Arteaga   Cast: Val Davis (as Waldemar Wohlfahrt),  Barta Barri, Anastasio Campoy,
Susan Carvasal, Victor Davis, Kurt Esteban, Luis Induni, Patricia Loran, Jose Marco, Luis Marugan
Available in the Undead: The Vampire Collection bargain-bin DVD set from Mill Creek Entertainment.

As a prime example of the boring and under-achieving co-produced European horror cinema of four decades past, 1970′s The Horrible Sexy Vampire is, well, boring and under-achieving.  Funded with pocket change forked forth by Spain’s Cinefilms and Italy’s Fida Cinematografica and filmed in Germany, Vampire is a pulse-free skin flick that tries to excuse itself with a tiresome Gothic horror framework.  The only noteworthy aspect of the production is its own inherent awfulness, for which the title gets things at least partly right – it’s certainly horrible.

The story, credited to director Jose Luis Madrid (7 Murders for Scotland Yard), is as generic as they come.  Bleached Count Oblensky (Val Davis, The Lustful Amazons) inherits a spooky German mansion around which a series of strange murders have been taking place, and begins to suspect that his ancestor Baron Winninger, long thought dead, may be responsible.  A crusty old inspector investigates the murders, badly, while Oblensky tries to save his similarly bleached lover from becoming a footnote in a case file.

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Psychout for Murder

a.k.a.: Salvare la faccia
Year: 1969    Runtime: 89′   Director: Rossano Brazzi
Writers: Rossano Brazzi, Diana Crispo, Piero Regnoli    Cinematography: Luciano Trasatti    Music: Benedetto Ghiglia
Cast: Adrienne Larussa, Rossano Brazzi, Nino Castelnuovo, Paola Pitagora, Alberto De Mendoza

Licia (Adrienne Larussa, in the same year she also appeared in Fulci’s version of Beatrice Cenci), the daughter of a successful – and consequently highly corrupt – businessman (director Rossano Brazzi) is taken out for a nice bit of couple time in a bordello by her boyfriend Mario (Nino Castelnuovo). Alas, the cops are raiding the place and a whole lot of photographers are waiting in front of the door, too. Turns out Mario himself called them in a successful attempt to steer Licia into a compromising situation to get a blackmail handle on Daddy. Personally, I wouldn’t try to do my blackmailing with photos that are already in the hands of the yellow press, but what do I know?

Daddy is paying Mario anyway. He, the rest of the family and their equally disgusting friends in business and church decide that the best way to save his face in front of the public (here’s where the film’s original title comes in) is to declare Licia to be mentally imbalanced and put her into a mental institution for a time.

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King of Snake

film rating:
a.k.a. Daai Yi Wong, Daai Se Wong
(lit. Big Snake King)
company: ??
year: 1982
runtime: 88′
director: Chui Yuk-Lung
cast: Tarcy Su, Leung Sau-Geun,
Ng Fung, Danny Lee,
Paul Chang Chung, Chow Shui-Fong,
David Tong Wai, Unknown Taiwanese Actor (1)
writers: Yiu Hing-Hong
and Ng Man-Leung
special effects director: Chujio Shintaro
cinematographer: Liao Wan-Wen
Not available on home video

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.  Next week things will be different – honest! But every misguided quest must have an end, and the finale to my impromptu monster-palooza is a real snooze.

1982’s grammatically impaired King of Snake is perhaps best known for being purchased by Joseph Lai’s IFD Film and Arts and manipulated by Hong Kong schlock extraordinaire Godfrey Ho into the 1988 oddity Thunder of Gigantic Serpent. That film follows French super-soldier Ted Fast as he hunts down balding white villain Solomon while a girl’s giant pet snake runs amok. King of Snake doesn’t gain much from the exclusion of Ho’s material, and instead offers viewers twice the boring story stuff and half the absurd fun.

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Blood Massacre

company: Don Dohler Entertainment
year: 1988
runtime: 73′
director: Don Dohler
cast: George Stover, Robin London,
James DiAngelo, Lisa Defuso,
Herb Otter Jr., Anne Frith,
Richard Ruxton
writers: Don Dohler,
Dan Buehl and Barry Gold
cinematography: Chris Chrysler
and Jeff Herberger
music: Daniel Linck
Order this film from Amazon.com

Murderously deranged Vietnam vet Rizzo (improbably cast Don Dohler vet George Stover in what just might be the only time in his career in which he’s basically playing Rambo) and three sort-of buddies rob that favourite victim of all such criminal efforts, the local video store. Who would have believed that the video store owner has a handgun and a female employee willing to use it? Welcome to Maryland. Fortunately for them, the gangsters survive the ensuing confrontation and only the needlessly heroic video store employee has to die, but that’s no consolation for our protagonists, who are now being hunted for murder instead of armed robbery as they had expected. Hope the $720 are worth it.

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Blood Orgy of the She Devils

company: Occult See
year: 1972
runtime: 76′
country: USA
director: Ted V. Mikels
cast: Lila Zaborin, Victor Izay,
Tom Pace, Leslie McRae,
William Bagdad
writer: Ted V. Mikels
order this film from Amazon.com

Professional witch Mara (Lila Zaborin) has quite a set-up in her dreamy Californian country palace. Apart from leading a coven of scantily-clad women, a black drummer and her shaggy gift from Satan, Toruke (William Bagdad), in interpretive dance orgies with added human sacrifice, she also works as a medium, helps people experience the deaths of their past incarnations and reads cards. Probably all in the name of finding new female members and male victims for her dance coven, but who really knows what’s going on in her mind (director Ted V. Mikels certainly doesn’t)?

And that’s still not everything the good woman does for a living. Mara also hires her black magical powers out to some shady customers looking for a very special professional killer to get rid of the UN ambassador for Rhodesia. It seems that talking to demons and drowning a photo in a very large cognac glass is all that is needed to make the poor guy croak.

It is a little unfortunate for Mara and Toruke that her clients in crime don’t like the thought of having any living accessories to their crimes and shoot the two (and a random coven member) dead. That’s only a minor set-back for Mara, though. Shortly after being killed, she just turns into a green mist and then into an adorable black cat and revives Toruke (no luck for the poor coven member) by talking to him. It does not take long until her would-be killers get a taste of their own medicine through more entertaining and practical magickal workings.

While all this has been going on, the film has also treated us to the adventures of two very old students, Mark (Tom Pace) and Lorraine (Leslie McRae, or however her name was spelt that week). They are getting quite impressed by the witch, and even the raised eyebrows of their teacher, white magician Dr. Helsford (Victor Izay), can’t keep them away from the witch’s house.


This can only end in a climactic black (dancing) sabbath, an anti-climactic magical duel and the death of a rubber bat.

I had been able to protect myself from the siren song of the films of Ted V. Mikels for quite some time, but – like it happens in the film for Mark and Lorraine – it is now too late to save my soul from Mikels’ (probably diabolical) influence. As is the case with the director’s much more mean-spirited brother in weirdly obsessive and strangely compulsive no-budget film Andy Milligan, followers of mainstream conceptions of palatable filmmaking need not apply when it comes to Mikels’ work; sane people shouldn’t either.

They’d probably be repelled by the absence of narrative logic, the static camera work, the stilted and at times very silly dialogue, and the decidedly non-actorly acting, anyway. It is probably for the better.

Obviously, the less depraved movie fan’s loss is my gain. The acting might be bad, but I found it utterly enjoyable and oh so very enthusiastic. Especially Lila Zaborin as main witch Mara lays it on as thick as her own make-up, which is of course absolutely fitting for someone playing a super witch with the awesome power of incessantly blabbering occult nonsense. When I think about the sort of people active in the guru biz in the real world, I’m not even sure anymore that what Zaborin does here should be called over-acting. After all, cult leaders aren’t usually working their mojo by being subtle.


While it is true that Blood Orgy doesn’t have much internal logic or sensible plot progression (oh, alright, I’ll be honest, the film doesn’t have a plot at all!), there still is a lot of stuff happening on screen. When Mikels isn’t showing us a pop version of a dance-crazy black sabbath as choreographed by Bob Fosse’s acid-loving spiritual twin, he delights us with other occult cheese of the highest quality, with one moment more absurd than the one that came before. The director also shows an excellent hand at filling his film with telling (that is to say, very odd) details, like the Winnetou-like Hollywood-Injun speak Mara’s main spirit guide speaks in with utter disregard of good taste or the poor actors who have to react to her without falling over laughing. These moments of very special early 70s occultism mania are interrupted by “interesting” discussions about witchcraft, all probably taken verbatim from a cheap non-fiction paperback about the subject Mikels bought in a grocery store, and acted out in the puzzled tones of people who haven’t the slightest clue what they are talking about and most assuredly don’t know half of the words they are using.

To make the film even more fantastic, there are also hypnotic regression sequences Mikels cleverly uses to pad his film out to the required running time and add a little bit of the important spice of regular violence to it. Sure, these scenes only derail the plodding narrative further, but how could I complain about a bunch of very white, probably middle-class Californians pretending to be Native Americans and torturing Tom Pace to death?

And as if all this weren’t enough, the movie also features (and I quote) “very special electronic music” composed by Carl Zittrer, the man who is also responsible for the excellent abuse of electronic devices in the films of Bob Clark. His score here consists of random warbling noises of the highest order of random warbliness and is therefore utterly perfect for the film it belongs to.

I suspect that if you have any interest in the products of the late 60s/early 70s obsession with the occult, or have even a little love for cheap-skate weirdo filmmaking (and if not, why are you reading this, unless you’re my mum?), Blood Orgy of the She Devils will be right up your alley. In other words, this damn thing looks like it was made just for me.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

The Night the World Exploded

rating:
company:
Columbia Pictures
and Clover Productions
year: 1957
runtime: 64′
country: United States
director: Fred F. Sears
cast: Kathryn Grant, William Leslie,
Tristram Coffin, Raymond Greenleaf,
Charles Evans, Frank J. Scannell,
Marshall Reed, Fred Coby
writers: Jack Nutteford
and Luci Ward
cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
music: Ross DiMaggio (musical director)
not on home video in the USA

Plot: A newly discovered mineral element that expands and explodes when it is exposed to nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere threatenes to destroy the world.

Prolific producer Sam Katzman’s excursion into the science fiction genre was limited, encompassing only a handful of the nearly 250 pictures he financed between 1933 and 1973.  His assembly-line approach to film production produced a few genre gems – the early Ray Harryhausen / Charles H. Schneer collaborations It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and the underrated sci-fi horror The Werewolf.  Most, however, were little more than lean programmers that relied more on memorable titles and fanciful ad art than content to draw in the necessary business.

1957′s The Night the World Exploded, half of a Columbia double bill featuring the Wtf-Film creature favorite The Giant Claw (another product of Katzman’s Clover Productions directed by Night‘s own Fred F. Sears), will never be remembered as a classic.  But with no video release and only the rarest of representation on modern television, Night is probably lucky to be remembered at all.  Those who grew up on the television late shows of the 60s and 70s (perhaps even more recently, though I never chanced upon it as a kid myself) will recall Night as the picture in which Earth is threatened by exploding rocks pulled from Carlsbad Caverns.

The Night the World Exploded runs along standard contemporary genre lines:  Young scientist David Conway (William Leslie, Hellcats of the Navy) invents a new magical device (a quartz tube “pressurometer” in this case) just in time to predict a major earthquake in Los Angeles.  While the city pieces itself together Conway comes to a startling revelation – immense pressure is building in the Earth’s crust, and the first earthquake is only a warning of more severe disasters to come.  The cause of the pressure reveals itself to be the new Element 112, an explosive mineral that earthquakes worldwide are threatening to expose with cataclysmic results.  From the moment Element 112 is discovered the race is on to find a means of averting a seemingly inevitable apocalypse.

The story may be prototypical sci-fi hokum, but The Night the World Exploded at least manages to toss an interesting idea into its recipe for worldwide carnage.  Like Kronos the same year, Night makes something of an argument for the conservation of natural resources.  The incendiary Element 112 is an entirely natural phenomena, benign in its usual environment.  It’s the pesky meddling of mankind, gung-ho in their coal mining and oil drilling, that have weakened sections of the Earth’s crust enough to allow the Element to expose itself.  The film is careful to point out that it’s not all our fault (natural erosion at the Carlsbad Caverns has exposed the Element as well, for instance), but the message is clear all the same.  “It’s almost as though the Earth were striking back at us for the way we’ve robbed her of her natural resources,” Laura ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (Kathryn Grant, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) says early on.  Erosion be damned, Mother Nature is pissed and all of her stock footage wrath is upon us.  It’s a sentiment that places Night among the very earliest of the ecological disaster films and, in that single sense, well ahead of its time.

Predictably, a solution to the Element 112 crisis is reached before the situation becomes too catastrophic.  Conway discovers that the Element is reverted to a harmless inert state when submerged in water, leading to a poverty row public works project in which library footage from World War II works to flood the areas where the mineral menace has been exposed.  The special effects are of the usual Katzman quality, and new shots are commissioned only when vast libraries of stock shots or earlier bits from old serials were deemed insufficient.  The most impressive moment occurs rather early, when the opening title explodes off the screen – there must have been a few dollars of the budget to spare come time for the titles to be printed.

Dramatically The Night the World Exploded fluctuates between being boringly typical and unintentionally hilarious.  Romantic triangles are normal for pictures of all genres, but I’ve never seen one handled in quite the way it is here.  Scientists Conway and Hutchinson are obviously fond of each other, but Hutchinson intends to marry another man as Conway is too involved in his work.  Night leaves little doubt of which man will get the girl, as Hutch’s intended husband never appears in the film!  We learn his name (Bryant) and of Hutch’s involvement with him, but the character himself never once materializes.  By the time the sun rises over a newly-salvaged world he has been forgotten all together.  Otherwise things are pretty standard issue, with lots of meetings between scientific types and government officials to pad the brief running time.

At just under 64 minutes in length, The Night the World Exploded doesn’t overstay its welcome, and underrated director Fred F. Sears keeps things moving at a reasonable clip while providing narration as well.  Writers Jack Natteford and Luci Ward were seasoned professionals approaching the end of their lengthy careers, just the kind of people Katzman was fond of hiring.  Their work is never as lively as that of the blacklisted Bernard Gordon (who worked for Katzman credited by the name Raymond T. Marcus), but it gets the job done.  Cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline (Before I Hang) keeps everything nicely framed, not that the open matte video masters floating around show it, while music director Ross DiMaggio fills the soundtrack with familiar library cues.

No one will ever mistake The Night the World Exploded for good film making, but there’s a comfort food appeal to it for those of us who grew up on old Columbia programmers.  I certainly enjoyed it.  The studio got more than their money’s worth out of these Katzman productions, re-issuing them in double and triple bill weekend matinees well into the 60s.  It’s a pity more aren’t readily available on DVD, though Sony’s recent collections of deep catalog titles are promising to say the least.  For now Night is a rarity, though it is out there (even without resorting to bootleggers).  I say see it.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

rating:
company:
Columbia and
Clover Productions
year: 1956
runtime: 83′
country: United States
director: Fred F. Sears
cast: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor,
Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum,
John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry,
Grandon Rhodes, Larry J. Blake
writers: Bernad Gordan, Curt Siodmak
and George Worthing Yates
cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.
music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
visual effects: Ray Harryhausen
disc company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
release date: October 7th, 2008
retail price: $107.95
(Blu-ray only available as part of The
Ray Harryhausen Collection 4-film set)
disc details: region free / dual layer BD50
video: 1080p / 1.85:1 / b/w + colorized
audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround (English)
Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (French)
subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish,
Portuguese, French, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese
(Portuguese, French, Spanish, Japanese
for supplemental content)
special features: audio commentary with
Ray Harryhausen, Remembering Earth vs. The
Flying Saucers featurette, The Hollywood Blacklist
and Bernard Gordon featurette, Original screenplay
credits, Interview with Joan Taylor, photo galleries,
Colorization demo, Sneak peak of Flying Saucers
vs. The Earth comic book, trailers (It Came From
Beneath the Sea
, 20 Million Miles to Earth,
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)
order this film from Amazon.com:
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection

Plot: Earth is attacked by a fleet of flying saucers from a disintegrated solar system.

The second collaborative effort between producer Charles H. Schneer, still under contract to Sam Katzman and here working under his Clover Productions banner, and visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen is another formulaic science fiction programmer elevated to near-classic status by its labor-intensive effects production.  The picture was another big success for Columbia and Sam Katzman, who released it on a double bill with the even cheaper The Werewolf (a memorably grim horror noir from director Fred F. Sears).  Earth vs. The Flying Saucers would be Schneer’s final film as a Katzman underling, and 1957 would see the release of his first two independently produced efforts – Hellcats of the Navy starring Arthur Franz and Ronald Reagan and the genre classic 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is well-paced if utterly derivative, and follows newlyweds Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe, the Judas of The Day the Earth Stood Still) and secretary Carol (Joan Taylor, 20 Million Miles to Earth).  Both are employed in the Air Force’s top-secret Operation Sky-hook satellite program, which has encountered an odd problem.  None of the satellites are staying in orbit as they should, all having mysteriously crashed back to Earth shortly after their launch.  A few strange encounters and a full-on ray gun attack later, the culprits in the odd disappearances are revealed: a civilization from a dead solar system has set its sights on the planet Earth, which they hope to conquer through the shear obviousness of their technological superiority alone.  Dr. Marvin and his fellow Earthlings are understandably displeased with the invader’s imperialist intentions, and rush to perfect a new anti-saucer weapon before time runs out.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates and blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon (Hellcats of the Navy, Day of the Triffids, Krakatoa: East of Java – the authors name, originally listed as Raymond T. Marcus, has been restored in the opening credits of Sony’s latest release of this film) is a mish-mash of original and judiciously absorbed ideas from previous efforts strung together with a little drama and a lot of military hearings and scientific exposition.  The notion of intellectually superior and physically frail extraterrestrials invading the less-advanced Earth dates back to Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, while several moments throughout – a General (Morris Ankrum, of course) commenting on the electronic screens protecting the invaders, an examination of some of their optical equipment – are culled from George Pal’s big-budget 1953 adaptation of the same.

A misunderstanding that leads to the death of the alien’s first Earth delegate harkens to Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, as does a mid-picture show of force by the invaders, who cut all manner of Earthly communication in preparation for their final attack.  Then there are the interiors of the saucers themselves, the extraterrestrials’ pontifications of the vast speeds at which they travel, and even the closing lines (“. . . such a nice world.  I’m glad it’s still here.”), all of which are rather reminiscent of Universal’s color spectacle This Island Earth from the previous year.  Derivative as it may be, the film has proven to be quite inspirational as well.  Toho’s Monster Zero follows the same basic plot elements right down to the truck-mounted anti-saucer rays, and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! makes too many direct homages to it for me to even begin to list them here.



Earth vs. The Flying Saucers bypasses the standard romantic arc that dominated so many of its predecessors, beginning with a married couple who have gotten that troublesome love-finding out of the way before the film has even begun.  Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor make a believable couple and solid enough foundation for the rest of the picture to rest upon, though precious little screen time is given to their relationship.  Most of the running time is devoted to military meetings (disbelieving Generals and all) and that 50s genre perspective of the scientific process, complete with the obligatory cost-cutting stock footage montages and a newsreel-style narration (perhaps It Came From Beneath the Sea‘s William Woodson again, though the IMDB lists his credit as “unconfirmed”).  Fred F. Sears does what he always did best, making the most of the meager finances and drama that was handed to him, and fills the screen with his trademark mis-en-scene, with actors stacked deep into shots and almost menacing shadows cast on the walls of mundane locations.  I’ve always been a fan of Sears’ work, visually if not substantively, but his position as one of Katzman’s most prolific work-horse would shuffle him off the mortal coil just a year later – dead of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44.

The film certainly did nothing to hurt Harryhausen’s budding film career, and his carefully animated flying saucers would easily usurp those from The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth to become the most iconic of the decade.  The aliens themselves, stuffed in clunky rounded suits made of “solidified electricity”, may be anemic, but the saucers in which they fly are alive brimming with menace – he can’t seem to resist giving even these inanimate machines a distinct personality.  The animation is a fine example of the classic Harryhausen style, the saucers delicately weaving back and forth, each motion counterbalanced against another to give the illusion of suspended weight.  It all works amazingly well, and count me as one of those who is amazed, even today, at the actual size of the saucer models.  Imperfections are more obvious now some 20 years since I first saw the picture, imperfect matte lines or jitteriness of elements within the frame, but many of the tricks, like the model of the capitol dome inserted above a photo plate of the rest of the building, are seamless.

I continue to find immense satisfaction in Sony’s Blu-ray Ray Harryhausen Collection, which has given me a much-needed excuse to catch up on four of the films I was raised on.  Like the previously reviewed It Came From Beneath the Sea, Sony has opted to make their Blu-ray of Earth vs. The Flyings Saucers available only as a part of their 4-disc Blu-ray collection.  As with that film, a 2-disc special edition SD DVD with the same supplemental content is individually available and has been linked to at the top of this article.



Like the other two black and white features in the Ray Harryhausen Collection, a Harryhausen-endorsed colorized version of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers has been included along with the original black and white.  While technology has obviously improved since digital colorization was introduced in the 80s, the end product still looks very much like what it is.  Some hues still look bad, and reds are rendered particularly poorly here (an American flag looks dull and pastel, while a briefly glimpsed stop sign is nearly pink).  Skin tones continue to be an issue, with one character (the military man standing next to Morris Ankrum as they gaze out of the control tower at an approaching saucer) is cast in a ghastly yellow.  In spite of the Harryhausen endorsement and the preponderance for discussion of the topic in the commentary, the black and white original is clearly the way to see the film.

Transfer-wise, this is another strong effort.  The 1080p 1.85:1 image presents with tremendous detail and beautiful contrast (see the image of Morris Ankrum’s troubled face), with a healthy layer of grain present throughout.  Damage in the original footage of this popular attraction is limited to speckling here and there, with stock shots varying from pristine to battered – just as they were when the film was released.  Harryhausen’s extensive effects work looks fantastic, only improving with the increased scrutiny the HD transfer allows for.  Audio is presented in another excellent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, and the recording sounds like it could have been made yesterday (from Columbia’s canned effects library, of course).  A Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic French dub is available as well.  Subtitling options are extensive on this region-free disc, with additional French, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese translations available for the supplements.

As with It Came From Beneath the Sea, supplements here are stacked.  The package begins with another fun commentary from Harryhausen, this time joined by fellow effects artists Jeffrey Okun and Ken Ralston.  Aside from the frequent “oohs” and “aahs” over how wonderful the colorization job looks, this is a great track – well worth a listen.  Next up are a series of featurettes totaling around 70 minutes, including a retrospective of the film, a piece dedicated to blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, and an interview with co-star Joan Taylor, who seems positively delighted that she’ll be remembered for her performances in two of Harryhausen and Schneer’s effects pictures.  The original opening credits for the film, complete with the Raymond T. Marcus credit, are included here for posterity.  We get another Harryhausen inspired comic preview, this time for Flying Saucers vs. The Earth, as well as a collection of trailers and image galleries.  The trailer for this film is, again, strangely omitted, though it is available on other discs in the set.  A little bothersome is The Colorization Process, which plays a bit too much like a late-night infomercial for Legend Film’s services and is entirely skippable.

While probably the weakest of the four films available in the Ray Harryhausen Collection, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers was none-the-less influential and remains a fun, if dated, science fiction programmer.  Harryhausen’s meticulous one-man effects production makes the upgrade to HD a no-brainer, just one more reason to pick up the full collection.  Earth vs. The Flying Saucers comes recommended.


order this film from Amazon.com:
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection