Saturday, 30 May 2020

Reflections on ... The Grim Reaper (1976)

The Grim Reaper (1976). Tagline: “The explosive motion picture about Satan’s demonic army!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly).

I must admit, this is a new one on me: Grindhouse Gospel, also known as Christploitation or Godsploitation. (Definition: “a sub-genre of exploitation film that uses shock, gore or horror-elements to promote Christianity”). Deranged Baptist propaganda flick The Grim Reaper is by the undisputed maestro of Christploitation, director Ron Ormond (1910 - 1981). Originally, hack-for-hire Ormond made straightforwardly lewd and titillating exploitation cheapies with titles like Mesa of Lost Women (1953), Untamed Mistress (1956), Please Don’t Touch Me (1963) and Monster and The Stripper (1968). Once Ormond and his family became “born again” and embraced evangelical Christianity in the early seventies, he exclusively focused on fear-mongering religious movies (beginning with If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1972)), but still employing the same low budgets and sensational schlocky approach of his earlier work. 

In cautionary tale The Grim Reaper, parents Verne and Ruby fret because their son Frankie is insufficiently pious (in fact, he says things like “This religion thing is your scene, not mine!” and “Religion? Not for this dude. No way!”). Inevitably, when Frankie is killed in a car accident – he goes straight to hell! Tormented by nightmarish visions of their son, the grieving parents embark on a quest to save his soul from beyond the grave, unwisely dabbling in seances, occultism and spirituality before being steered back onto the right course. (Note: the film’s casual trashing of other religions is in shockingly bad taste). 

This scenario barely hints at The Grim Reaper’s lunatic tangents (it’s been correctly described as “naive surrealism”). Ormond was surely the Ed Wood Jr of his genre. Like Wood, he’s inept but also never allowed his considerable budgetary restrictions (in this case, the equivalent of a Sunday school play production) limit his ambitiously twisted vision. There are flashbacks to ancient Biblical reenactments and – best of all – mind-boggling glimpses of fiery hell, where the demons wear dime store Halloween monster masks. Impossible to describe, these latter segments are like delirious, hallucinatory fever dreams and make The Grim Reaper essential viewing for aficionados of Bad Movies We Love. (Warning: this film features a superstar guest appearance by televangelist Reverend Jerry Falwell). 

/ This is what low-budget hell looks like! Via /

I first read about The Grim Reaper in the book High Camp: A Gay Guide to Camp and Cult Films, Vol 2 by Paul Roen (1997) – a sacred religious text in this household. After approvingly citing the outrageous bouffant wig leading lady Viola Walden (who plays Ruby) sports throughout, Rouen concludes, “approximately twenty years too old for her middle-aged role, she exhibits an amateurish enthusiasm which reminded me of the late, great Edith Massey. Ah, what histrionic wonders Walden might have wrought, if only John Waters had discovered her before Ron Ormond did!” (Sadly, Viola Walden is such an obscure figure there are seemingly no decent photos of her on the internet - but here is a screen grab).

Get on your knees, repent and watch The Grim Reaper here ... before it's too late!

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Reflections on ... The Big Cube (1969)

The Big Cube (1969). Tagline: “Poor mama. She stood in the way of the $3,000,000 inheritance. So, they spiked her medicine with the big cube. Poor, poor mama...” 

I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly). One of the running gags in sitcom 30 Rock was that Tracy Jordan once starred in a hit movie entitled Honky Grandma Be Trippin'. That title is essentially the premise of lunatic 1969 exploitation thriller The Big Cube, in which veteran Golden Age Hollywood glamour girl Lana Turner goes full-blast cray-cray when she unwittingly drops LSD. 

Turner portrays glamorous stage diva Adriana Roman. When Adriana weds wealthy-beyond-measure tycoon Charles Winthrop, she earns the resentment of his jealous young socialite daughter Lisa. After Charles dies in a tragic freak yachting accident during their honeymoon, the widowed Adriana and stepdaughter Lisa clash over the conditions of his will … and things soon turn nasty. Especially once Lisa’s reptilian and parasitic fiancé Johnny – a medical student with a sideline in manufacturing LSD – gets involved. Johnny’s twisted solution: have Adriana declared mentally unfit (or persuade her to commit suicide. Or something) by lacing her sedatives with acid, so that they get their hands on all the inheritance themselves. 

/ Check out the wiglet! Via /

This synopsis barely hints at the insanity of The Big Cube, an oddity from the late sixties period when Old Hollywood was in its flailing death throes and struggling to lure the youth market. It’s easy to see why 48-year old Turner was attracted to the film. The Big Cube is reminiscent of her successful earlier Ross Hunter-produced atomic-era melodramas, but with the formula updated with a “youthquake” twist of countercultural psychedelia, complete with drug-taking, orgiastic groovy party scenes and topless go-go dancers! I can imagine Turner reading the script and loving all the big emotional confrontations and juicy demanding nervous breakdown scenes. It must have looked like an opportunity to rejuvenate her image with something edgy, modern and “with it”, with the additional bonus of a youthful “mod” wardrobe of mini-dresses, caftans and go-go boots by Travilla (the costume designer behind Valley of the Dolls), gauzy soft-focus close-ups and an assortment of baroque wedding cake-like hair pieces. (In some shots Turner almost resembles Nancy Sinatra!). 

How could she have anticipated that The Big Cube would be a mortifying fiasco and essentially finish her career? (Turner wouldn’t make another film appearance for six years). George (West Side Story) Chakiris is extremely unappealing as the villainous Johnny, so I guess he's perfect in Cube. (Those turtleneck sweaters and ankh pendants he wears throughout do him no favours). As Lisa, fashion model-turned-untalented actress Karin Mossberg is simply catastrophic. You’ll note that the presumably American Lisa has an inexplicable Swedish accent (the plot tries to cover this by reminding us she attended a Swiss finishing school. That explains it!). But while Mossberg is merely bad (stilted, wooden, affected), old pro Turner is majestically terrible and glorious to watch, especially at her most tormented. And the art-y lighting effects used in Turner’s bad trip freak-outs are worthy of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The definition of “bad movies we love”, The Big Cube is a mind-blowing fun time - for all the wrong reasons! 

Watch The Big Cube here.

Further reading:

My analysis of the 1965 Lana Turner melodrama Love Has Many Faces.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Reflections on ... Tam Lin (1970)

Tam Lin (1970). Also known as: The Ballad of Tam-LinThe Devil's Widow and The Devil's Woman. Tagline: “She drained them of their manhood – and then of their lives!” 

I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly). At the close of the permissive sixties, aging Old Hollywood female stars gamely went Mod and experimental to extend their faltering careers. Think of Elizabeth Taylor in Boom! (1968), Jennifer Jones in the freaky Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969) or Lana Turner buggin’ out in the LSD flick The Big Cube (1969). Veteran screen goddess Ava Gardner’s equivalent is the strange,  unsettling and uncategorizable Tam Lin. 

Deceptively marketed as a lurid exploitation movie, Tam Lin (the sole directorial credit by actor and former child star Roddy McDowell and clearly a deeply-felt personal art statement for him) is actually a dreamlike, deliberately paced, flawed but interesting occult fable set in rural Scotland. In terms of rustic folk horror, Tam Lin anticipates The Wicker Man (1973) and Midsommar (2019). Gardner stars as Michaela Cazaret, a fabulously wealthy, cosmopolitan and mysterious older woman-of-the-world who is in fact the “Queen of the Fairies”, a sorceress who presides over a cult-like entourage of swinging pretty young things of both genders. Her coven is played by a who’s who of future British acting notables, including Ian McShane, Joanna Lumley, Sinaed Cusack and Bruce Robinson. McShane (who is heartbreakingly handsome and gets a very memorable nude scene) is Michaela’s younger male plaything. When he dares to fall in love with the vicar’s virtuous daughter (Stephanie Beacham), the jilted Michaela vows revenge and the tone turns increasingly ominous. (Towards the end, Michaela’s brainwashed coterie even begins to suggest the Manson Family). 

Not all of Tam Lin works - there are some naff “whimsical” moments typical of the era (characters playing Frisbee … in slow motion! JoJo Lumley is unintentionally hilarious when she solemnly declares, “Life is an illusion.  Therefore, nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”). But the cinematography is spectacular, the mood is entrancing, and the soulfully ravaged and mature 47-year old Gardner is simply magnificent striding around imperiously in a series of haute couture brocade robes and chiffon caftans by Balmain. At the zenith of her stardom in the forties and fifties, Gardner didn’t always apply herself onscreen and was frequently content to sleep-walk through her films. I suspect I’m in the minority here, but I’d argue Tam Lin represents Gardner at the height of her powers. She was never better than in a nightclub scene where Gardner and McShane morosely drink brandy, smoke cigarettes and listen to a female blues singer. Using only her eyes, Gardner conveys the dawning painful realization that the romance is over, and she’s already lost him. Her mood swings are mesmerizing to watch, and she becomes genuinely scary as the film proceeds. 

Unfortunately, almost no one saw Gardner’s performance. A seemingly jinxed film, Tam Lin was shelved when the production company went bust. It stayed in the vault until 1972, when it was radically edited without McDowell’s consent and briefly released under the title The Devil’s Widow. The version on YouTube is apparently the closest equivalent to McDowell’s original vision. Tam Lin casts a spell and deserves to be better-known.

Watch Tam Lin here.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Reflections on ... Monster and The Stripper (1968)

Monster and The Stripper (1968). Also known as: The Exotic Ones.  Tagline: “WARNING! Unless you can stand vivid realism … IT MIGHT SNAP YOUR MIND!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly).The title of this dirt-cheap exploitation flick directed by Ron Ormond couldn’t be more gloriously literal. The acme of sixties trash cinema, it heedlessly smashes-together a horror movie with post-Russ Meyer “nudie cutie” sexploitation with idiot glee. The result is vintage sleaze-o-rama at its best / worst and precisely the kind of film that fired the imagination of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps.

/ This is not a guarantee of quality /

As the breathless narrator emphatically establishes in the introduction, Monster is set in New Orleans (“the Paris of America!”) on “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night  Bourbon Street … the jungle of human flesh! Where the high and the low life meet! A street that pulses like a living heartbeat!” (The frantic opening montage of atomic-era New Orleans in all its tawdry glory alone makes Monster worth watching). The premise: Nemo’s Strip Club on Bourbon Street is in dire financial straits. They urgently need a spectacular new nightclub act to lure in the crowds. What if Nemo’s gangster henchmen could capture the elusive Swamp Monster who’s been terrorizing the Louisiana bayous, brutally killing livestock (and people) and display him in chains onstage with their strippers? What could possibly go wrong?

/ A documentary glimpse of Mardi Gras revelry in New Orleans, circa 1968 / 

/ Surely this strip club sign counts as naive outsider folk art? Is that a mutant cat / human with boobs? /

Factors to bear in mind: Monster was the last “dirty movie” hack director Ormond (1910 - 1981) made before he found religion and subsequently devoted himself exclusively to Christian-themed “Grindhouse Gospel” films. In theory, this is a “monster movie” but truthfully that aspect is almost an afterthought. (The swamp monster doesn't make a proper appearance until an hour into the film). Mostly, Monster is an opportunity to watch a seemingly endless procession of strippers, go-go dancers and various low-rent novelty acts (i.e. a father and daughter duet act, a harmonica-playing duo) performing onstage in a vaudeville revue. In this regard, Monster is firmly reminiscent of Russ Meyer’s Mondo Topless (1966), Steven C Apostolof’s Orgy of the Dead (1965) or earlier burlesque showcase films like Varietease (1954) or Teaserama (1955). 

/ A "classy" burlesque performer onstage at Nemo's: I'm entranced by this shocking pink lighting used throughout Monster and The Stripper

/ That harmonica duo! /

/ Above: Nemo's sin-sational star attraction - Titania (Georgette Dante). Doesn't she look like a J H Lynch painting come to life with that beehive hairdo? /

For the Ormond clan, film-making was a nepotistic family affair and they shamelessly cast themselves in lead roles here. To his credit, as well as directing patriarch Ron portrays crime boss and nightclub proprietor Nemo with convincing sleazy menace, disguised in dark glasses, a mustache and a shaggy Beatles moptop (not a wig as sometimes reported - unless it's a wig with a deliberate bald spot). As talent manager Bunny, Ormond’s bouffant-haired wife and producer June Ormond overacts furiously in deliberately kitsch “groovy granny” mode, winking, rolling her eyes and exclaiming “Okie Dokie!” in a baby voice. June also gets her own bizarre fan dance burlesque number (earlier in life, June had trod the boards in vaudeville). Monster also makes a brazenly transparent attempt to turn the Ormond’s twink-y adolescent son Tim into a teen heartthrob. (He even gets to croon his own mercifully brief sappy ballad in the Ricky Nelson tradition. Lyrics: “The hurt goes on and on and on and on …”).

/ The King and Queen of Exploitation Cinema: Ron and June Ormond /

/ "He takes life by the throat and bends it to his own satisfaction!" Ron Ormond as ruthless club owner Nemo /

/ The key players at Nemo's club: Nemo himself, headliner Titania and emcee Gordon (Gordon Taylor) /

/ Bunny and Titania: so much style crammed into one photo /

/ First Lady of Exploitation June Ormond as elderly ex-stripper Bunny /

/ Bunny's fan dance /

/ Teen idol Tim Ormond. Sigh! /

The grunting titular monster is played by hulking 6’5” rockabilly musician Sleepy LaBeef with glue-on werewolf eyebrows, novelty shop teeth, a fright wig and a caveman loincloth. LaBeef had zero acting experience, but he ticked many other of the right boxes: he possessed the towering physique required for the role, he was available, and he was the Ormonds’ neighbour at the time. Note that the rural hillbilly characters call the monster “Swamp Thang.” (An aside: I got to see esteemed Sun Records recording artist LaBeef perform at Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekenders over the years. He died in 2019 aged 84).

/ Swamp Monster Attacks! /

Monster’s subplot concerns the rivalry between the club’s new rhythm and blues singer Mary Jane (Donna Raye) and its temperamental established headliner, fire-eating showgirl Titania (Georgette Dante), which climaxes in a rolling-on-the-floor, hair-pulling catfight in the strippers’ dressing room. Ambitious but naïve chanteuse Mary Jane soon finds herself sucked into Nemo’s corrupt web. Or, as another character brutally concludes, she’s “some idiot dame trying to break into this crazy rat race they call show business.” Not that “corrupting” Mary Jane is terribly difficult. In a #MeToo moment, Nemo seduces her by waving a fat wad of dollar bills in her face and sneering, “All good little girls are bad once in a while …” and she instantly succumbs. Interestingly, pallid Donna Raye as Mary Jane couldn’t be more “white bread” – and yet when she sings, she unexpectedly busts-out a totally incongruous black soul diva voice. And quite an eccentric one at that, in the pinched nasal Little Esther / Lula Reed-style. Is that actually Raye’s voice, or is she miming to a vocal by an uncredited African American bold soul sister? I guess we’ll never know.

/ Donna Raye as Mary Jane. Hairstyle courtesy of Marlo Thomas in That Girl /

/ Blue-eyed soul: Mary Jane belts it out /

/ "Isn't it beautiful?" Bunny escorts Mary Ann into Nemo's private quarters / 

/ Alone in Nemo's swingin' bachelor pad apartment, Mary Jane inexplicably strips-down to black lingerie and luxuriates on his stuffed polar bear rug /

/ Nemo's taste in erotic art: naughty "naked lady" paintings /

/ Mary Jane and Titania instantly clash /

/ The Temptation of Mary Jane /

To complicate matters, tough and idealistic crusading local police inspector Haddaway  (Ronald Drake) is snooping around Nemo’s Club, investigating Nemo’s connections to organized crime. Haddaway also takes a protective and romantic interest in Mary Jane, but the film seems to lose interest in this plot point towards the end.

/ It's got to be said - Haddaway is one suave fuck! It never occurred to me that matching a blue shirt and tie with a brown sharkskin suit would be such a good look! And that hat! /

The other notable male eye candy to mention in Monster is Country & Western musician Gordon Terry as the Nemo Club’s perpetually horny emcee (also called Gordon). Terry is one fine, strapping specimen with a husky “farm boy” almost Lil' Abner-like physique (he's built like a brick shithouse!) and sports a magnificent greased-back quiff. Let’s contemplate his beefy beauty!

/ It's brave for such a big guy to opt for white jeans /

/ This is Gordon's definitive sexy look: a red windbreaker, no shirt underneath, zipped-low for maximum chest exposure /

/ Then there's this powder blue formal Western-style suit worthy of the great Nudie. This is the moment when Gordon introduces a burlesque act with, "She'll twitch it and twatch it and let you watch it!" Filthy! /

All due regards to LaBeef as the monster, but he’s arguably upstaged by sullen young bad girl Georgette Dante - in her sole film credit - as the vicious tassel-twirling Titania. With her hostile Dawn Davenport energy, snarling delivery and striking appearance (drag queen eyebrows, spectacular beehive hairdo), Dante suggests baby Divine-meets-Tura Satana in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (In fact, Dante’s hairstyle and eyebrows here even anticipate Divine as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos). And her semi-naked burlesque routine is fierce! (In real life, Dante bitterly resented being referred to as a “stripper”, and she’s right: her number is more accurately an athletic carnival “strong woman” act). Dante makes an explosive impression in The Monster and The Stripper. Ideally her performance would have made her a b-movie goddess. As an awe-struck observer comments watching Titania rehearse: “Ain’t she somethin’?” I highly recommend you read about the wild, wild life and times of tough cookie Georgette Dante here.

/ Liquid eyeliner! /

/ I don't know about you, but I want to get a better look at that painting! /

Klaxon! Urgent update! Eagle-eyed Ken Anderson of the essential Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For blog just alerted me that the subject of this painting is Ms Gwen Wong - the Playmate featured in the April 1967 issue of Playboy magazine!

/ As you can see, Ms Wong seemingly inspired a lot of naive outsider folk artists! /

Aside from Dante's star turn, other things I love about this movie: its “anything goes” lunacy. The pervasive raunchy strip club vibe. The wall-to-wall soundtrack of tittyshaker instrumentals and ultra lounge cocktail jazz. The reaction shots of lecherous sweaty drunks in the audience watching the female dancers. The sizzling colour scheme of saturated reds and hot pink neon lighting inside Nemo’s Club and the stage’s glittery curtains. The women’s lacquered bouffant “helmet hair” coiffures. The men’s sharkskin suits. The atomic-era décor, especially Nemo’s swanky private quarters above the club, which is pure “brothel chic”, complete with naughty naked lady paintings and an insane leopard-print Tiki cocktail bar.

/ Swamp Monster in chains /

/ More wig action than Valley of the Dolls. This is when Bunny instructs her girls, "You pussycats have got to be out there to purr for the tomcats!" /

/ The simmering tension between Titania and Mary Jane finally explodes - into a cat fight! /

/ A disheveled Mary Jane after getting beaten-up by Titania /

/ Reaction shots of the lecherous drunks in the audience /

/ Mary Jane (looking very Neely O'Hara) singing one of her awful songs in front of the caged Swamp Monster /

Warning: this film is punctuated with splashes of gore (“My god! His guts are torn out!”) and unsimulated animal mutilation. The scene where the Swamp Monster rips off a man’s arm and beats him to death with it is justifiably notorious. As always with any film I recommend – watch at your own risk!

Watch The Monster and The Stripper - if you dare! - here.