Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reflections on ... Shock Treatment (1964)

Recently watched: Shock Treatment (1964). Tagline: “The Nightmare World of the Mad ...” “You won’t be the same … when you come out of Shock Treatment!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

An overlooked black-and-white psychological-exploitation film, Shock Treatment starts on a wonderfully lurid note even before the opening credits roll. A homicidal maniac gardener (played by a bug-eyed Roddy McDowall) sneaks up behind the elderly Beverly Hills millionairess he works for – and in a moment worthy of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, abruptly decapitates her with his gardening shears! 

/ Lauren Bacall, Roddy McDowell and Stuart Whitman in Shock Treatment

McDowell is Martin Ashley, a freshly released psychiatric patient. His ill-fated employer was Mrs Townsend. At the subsequent trial, it’s revealed that Martin - convinced that money is "the root of all evil" - burned one million dollars of Townsend’s fortune after killing her. At least two people doubt Martin’s account. Harley Manning - the executor of Mrs Townsend’s estate - is convinced he’s faking and has hidden the money somewhere. And the icily efficient and untrustworthy Dr Edwina Beighley (Lauren Bacall), who oversees the high security mental institution where Martin is a patient, has her own nefarious designs on the $1 million. 

/ "To hell with conformity!" Gorgeous Stuart Whitman displaying his "chest meat" in Shock Treatment /

Manning’s solution is to hire a struggling actor Dale Nelson (Stuart Whitman) to feign insanity, go undercover as a patient in the asylum to befriend Martin and learn where the $1 million is hidden. There’s an unintentionally campy moment when Dale asks Manning why he picked him for the job. “You’re a convincing actor,” Manning replies. (This is ironic because in terms of acting ability, hunky Whitman mostly coasts on his rugged square-jawed good looks). Anyway, it proves remarkably easy for Dale to get committed. He plays “mad” by smashing a store window in broad daylight, tearing off his shirt, donning a pair of sunglasses and berating the cops in beatnik lingo about conformity (“Why must you gentlemen conform?” he implores, “Why not turn to these peasants, look them in the eye and say, “To hell with conformity?” The disciples of conformity are bleeding from the narrowness of your mind!”). For this little outburst, the judge determines, “His antisocial behavior indicates a disturbed state of mind” and sentences Dale to ninety days. 

Shock Treatment follows the same narrative as Samuel Fuller’s far more highly-regarded and famous Shock Corridor (1963): someone is hired to infiltrate and investigate what’s happening in a sanitarium – and then they can’t get out! Rest assured Shock Treatment won’t win any awards for sensitivity for its sensational representation of mental illness. McDowell plays psycho killer Martin with such sexual ambiguity that his scenes with Dale throb with a homoerotic tension the script probably never intended. Meanwhile, Carol Lynley is a female patient who serves as Dale’s love interest. Her psychiatric condition seems to consist of whiplash mood swings between frigidity and nymphomania. “I just dislike being touched!” she exclaims. “Kissing and touching are sins!” but then moments later, she pleads, “I want you to touch me, Dale! To hold me and touch me – now! Love me, Dale! Love me!” Luckily, Lynley’s problems are easily cured: as the script hints, all she needed was the love of a good man. (Watch also for a fleeting but vivid appearance by eccentric character actor Timothy Carey). 

Shock Treatment may be low-grade schlock, but it’s compelling schlock suffused with genuine tension and paranoia, tightly constructed, wreathed in menacing film noir shadows and genuinely suspenseful.  And it features a magnificent turn by Lauren Bacall as the manipulative Dr Beighley, scheming to test her experimental drugs on a human guinea pig. Bacall made her film debut in 1944. It’s a sign of how far the Hollywood diva’s stock had fallen that twenty years later she was reduced to acting in b-movie fare like Shock Treatment. But the husky-voiced Bacall is utterly mesmeric in a rare villainous role, playing it with a malevolent, steely composure and poised elegance (she makes her white lab coat look like haute-couture). Call me perverse, and I’m probably in a minority of one, but it’s one of my favourite performances by Bacall.

Watch Shock Treatment here:


Saturday, 23 January 2021

Reflections on ... Games (1967)

Recently watched: Games (1967). Tagline: “Passion wears a mask of terror in this strangest of all games!” 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).

In this freaky and claustrophobic psychological thriller, a jaded, wealthy young high society couple Paul (James Caan) and Jennifer Montgomery (Katharine Ross) avert ennui by throwing wild, hedonistic “happening”-style parties, indulging in pranks and dabbling in the occult. (You can easily imagine the thrill-seeking Montgomerys “slumming it” at Andy Warhol’s Factory for low-life kicks). One day an unexpected visitor materializes at the door of their opulent Upper East Side New York townhouse filled with pop art and vintage pinball machines. She’s Lisa Schindler (Simone Signoret), an inscrutable, world-weary Continental woman of indeterminate age, garbed like a black widow (black turban, black cape, the long black leather gloves of an assassin. If you imagine Games to be a fairy tale, Lisa represents the wicked witch). She claims (unconvincingly) to be a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman, promptly collapses from exhaustion and then effortlessly inveigles herself into their household. Anyway, Lisa alleges she possess psychic powers, which amuses them. Paul and Jennifer had imagined themselves to be blasé sophisticates, but the depraved Lisa is in another league entirely. Who is she – and why does she have a pair of loaded pistols in her trunk? Soon the unlikely ménage à trois is playing increasingly perverse and sadistic mind games. How long before someone gets killed? 

Truthfully, the "shock twist" that underpins Games can be easily deduced early on, but director Curtis Harrington maintains such a stylish and sinister mood you won’t really mind. In fact, any film by intriguing and durable maverick Harrington is always worth catching. An associate of Kenneth Anger’s, he graduated from underground avant-garde experimental cinema to low-budget horror movies (Harrington is an essential figure in the hagsploitation genre: in the early seventies he turned Shelley Winters into a scream queen in Who Sloo Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen?) before later diversifying into television, helming episodes of series like Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Dynasty. Everything Harrington touches is imbued with an understanding of camp and an overtly queer sensibility. Maybe that’s why his camera embraces the male leads so appreciatively. (Games is a nice reminder of just how cute Caan was in his early male starlet days. His hair is even styled like a sixties-era Ken doll’s. See also Don Stroud in tight double denim as the horny grocery delivery boy sucked-into the weird rituals. Do yourself a favour and Google Stroud’s 1973 Playgirl pictorial!). 

One of Games’ themes would appear to be the collision between American naivety and European “old world” decadence. Lisa has a powerful monologue where she explains that three times in her life, she had to scale a barbed wire fence to survive: “by the third time, I grew to like it”.  Much as I admire puffy-eyed French actress Simone Signoret's performance as the manipulative woman-of-mystery, Harrington originally conceived Lisa with Marlene Dietrich in mind and it’s fascinating to speculate how she would have interpreted the role. (There's no way Dietrich - who hadn’t made a film in years at this point - would have agreed to doing the part, but still!). My favourite moment in Games: an imperiled Katharine Ross is wandering through the house at night in a long filmy white trailing nightgown and carrying a candelabra, looking like every idealized woman on the cover of a sixties or seventies Gothic romance pulp novel come to life.

Additional reading:

In Games’ opening party sequence, one of the most prominently featured guests is strikingly glamorous Czech actress Florence Marly. Marly, of course, made an unforgettable impression as the titular Queen of Blood (1966) in Curtis Harrington’s earlier science b-movie. Read my analysis of that one here. 

Read Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For's perceptive analysis of Games here.


Sunday, 17 January 2021

Reflections on ... Carnival Story (1954)

Recently watched: Carnival Story (1954). Tagline: “The story of a woman’s shame!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

A traveling American carnival is touring through post-war Germany. In Munich, the carnival barker Joe Hammond (Steve Cochran) encounters desperate local woman-on-the-skids Willi (Anne Baxter) when she pickpockets him. (Baxter instills Willi with an almost Joan Crawford-level lip-twisting intensity, but her German accent falters). Perversely, when Joe catches her, the attraction between them is immediate. Willi’s criminal act charms Joe (“You feel sorry for everything that wears skirts!” another character spits) - probably because Joe is an amoral conman, and he assumes Willi is a soulmate. He impulsively hires the guttersnipe to scrub dishes in the cook tent. Within no time, the circus’ new female arrival catches the eye of dashing high-diving artist Frank Collini (Lyle Bettger), who recruits Willi as his assistant, training her in the death-defying art of high-diving. Soon, Willi has swapped toiling in the cook tent to performing under the big top in a glamorous sequined leotard with the carnival’s headline act. The besotted Frank asks Willi to marry him. He’s thoroughly decent as well as handsome (Lyle Bettger’s butt and thighs look sensational in his one-piece costume), but Willi is conflicted: the suavely duplicitous Joe still exerts a powerful sexual hold over her. And it’s tinged with sadomasochism: Joe alternates between slapping Willi around and hungrily kissing her – which to be fair, seems to excite her. “Until I met you, I never knew how rotten I was!” Willi pants. “We belong together,” Joe growls back. “We’re two of a kind!” Willi is horrified, though, when Joe assures her, “We’re not going to let a little thing like you being married come between us!” With hideous inevitability, things soon spiral into jealousy, violence and tragedy … 

Filmed on location in Germany and set in the tattered milieu of itinerant carnie folk, Carnival Story is an overwrought, amusingly sordid melodrama via RKO Radio Pictures. (We see titillating glimpses of the sideshow acts, including Siamese twins, a bearded woman, a snake handler and a sword swallower – very Diane Arbus. Note Groppo the hulking mute strongman, who observes everything silently and gradually emerges as a significant figure. As Groppo, Ady Berber presages Ed Wood stalwart Tor Johnson from Plan 9 from Outer Space). Kurt Neumann’s direction is creakily old-fashioned (rapturous music crashes and swells on the soundtrack when characters embrace or erupt into fistfights). But with the depravity, homoeroticism and emotional cruelty cranked-up a few more notches, it’s weirdly easy to imagine R W Fassbinder remaking Carnival Story. (The early scenes of Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends (1975) unfold in a low-rent German carnival). And you’ve got to love a film with dialogue this pungent: "If you were starving to death, howling for food, I wouldn't throw you a rotten bone!" “You love to wallow in the mud!” “If you touch me again – I’ll kill you!” “We’re both bad, baby … that’s why we’re good for each other!” 

Many of these lines are snarled by mid-century cinema’s supremely sexy bad boy, Steve Cochran. Carnival Story succeeds best as a “star vehicle” for the alluring Cochran, who specialized in depicting amoral anti-heroes, heels and tough guys you-love-to-hate with surprising complexity, even delicacy. A swarthy charmer with pomaded hair and an impressively lustrous chest pelt, Cochran effortlessly radiates testosterone and animal magnetism. Just try to tear your eyes off him when he’s onscreen. If you keep your expectations low, Carnival Story is the tawdriest of circus-set thrillers until a sixty-something Joan Crawford donned hot pants and top hat to play a ringmistress in Berserk (1967). Note that Carnival Story was filmed in a process called “Agfacolour”. The faded public domain print circulating online looks like it’s been overlaid with a retro Instagram filter.

Watch Carnival Story here:


Further reading: this Poseidon's Underworld blog post features an appreciation of Lyle Bettger's "ass flank."

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Reflections on ... The Girl in the Black Stockings (1957)


Recently watched: The Girl in the Black Stockings (1957). Tagline: “She was every inch a teasing, taunting “come-on” blonde … and she made every inch pay off!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

/ The stars of The Girl in the Black Stockings: Lex Barker, Mamie Van Doren, Anne Bancroft and Marie Windsor /

Look, I don’t mean to overpraise what’s essentially a lurid minor exploitation b-movie. But in terms of low-brow fifties pulp thrills, the addictively trashy Girl in the Black Stockings veritably pulsates with prurience, misogyny, twisted psychology and an almost tangible revulsion towards sex. And it condenses its shock-by-shock twists into a taut 73-minutes. 

While vacationing at The Parry Lodge, a luxe mountain resort in Utah, hunky Los Angeles-based attorney Dave Hewson (Lex Barker) tentatively romances shy Beth Dixon (Anne Bancroft), the hotel’s switchboard operator. We first encounter the couple dancing by moonlight at an outdoor pool party. “Are you breathing this hard because of me or the altitude?” Hewson suavely inquires.  Their tryst is abruptly ruined when he lights a cigarette, and the flame illuminates a brutally slain female corpse in the bushes. The dead woman is Marsha Morgan – the local “good time girl” (prepare for lots of slut-shaming and blame-the-victim talk). Her throat has been slit – and her black stockings are in shreds! Suddenly, every guest and employee at Parry Lodge is a suspect – and what a menagerie of freaks they are! They’re all hiding sordid secrets, and they all seem guilty as hell. One thing’s for sure: as Hewson surmises, “We’re not dealing with an ordinary killer committing an ordinary crime!” 

The hotel’s proprietor is Edmund Parry (Ron Randell), an embittered misanthropic quadriplegic who viscerally loathes women in general and Marsha Morgan in particular. “I must say, the man-eating witch deserved it!” he’s apt to declare. “She was poison. Like a disease! A common creature whose every word, every breath, every gesture, was the show of an empty shallow strumpet. Miss Morgan was an example of a completely justifiable homicide!” Edmund is doted on by Julia (Marie Windsor), his devoted-to-the-point-of-incest sister. Does Edmund’s paralysis eliminate him as the killer? (It’s hinted his disability is psychosomatic). And what about the hotel’s knife-wielding, blood-splattered Native American handyman Joe (Larry Chance)? Due to an alcoholic black-out, he can’t account for his actions on the night of Marsha’s murder. Or bad boy ex-con sawmill employee Frankie (Gerald Frankie), who was sexually entangled with Marsha? Meanwhile, faded matinee idol Norman Grant (John Holland) is staying at Parry Lodge while preparing for a screen comeback, accompanied by his platinum blonde paramour Harriet Ames (Mamie Van Doren). As more dead bodies begin cropping up (cut to newspaper headline exclaiming “Maniac Strikes Again!”), it becomes apparent a serial killer is stalking this remote desert town. Who will be next? 

/ Edmund Parry (Ron Randell) /

/ Sheriff Jess Holmes (John Dehner)/

/ Joe (Larry Chance) /

/ Frankie (Gerald Frank). Who was the actor Gerald Frank? He looks like an escapee from Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild and fills-out a tight white t-shirt and pair of Levis beautifully! /

/ Harriet Ames (Mamie Van Doren) /

/ Dave Hewson (Lex Barker). Screen grabs via

The Girl in the Black Stockings certainly boasts a fun ensemble cast.  By this point, premium fifties beefcake leading man Lex Barker (a former husband of Lana Turner’s) had already portrayed Tarzan and was yet to feature in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Barker’s facial expression is permanently set to “pensive squint”, but we get copious glimpses of his wondrous physique, so who’s complaining? Today we remember Anne Bancroft as a heavy-weight credible “prestige” talent, but before she won her 1962 Best Actress Academy Award for The Miracle Worker, she paid her dues in b-movies like Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Gorilla at Large (1954) and this one. Character actor John Dehner plays local sheriff Jess Holmes as if he’s wandered in from a Western. Tough-as-nails film noir broad Marie Windsor is cast against type in a virtuous “good girl” role. The Girl in the Black Stockings’ poster mischievously hints archetypal fifties bad girl and personification of moist womanly needs Mamie Van Doren is the film’s star (and the titular girl in the black stockings). In fact, her third-billed role as “the stunning blonde who lived for pleasure” is surprisingly small. Ultimately, it’s Ron Randell’s ferocious performance as the twisted-by-hatred Edmund that leaves the most indelible impression. 

/ Marie Windsor, Ron Rendell and Anne Bancroft /

/ Ron Rendell and Lex Barker /

/ John Dehner and Lex Barker /

Because it was made in ’56 (when the Motion Picture Production Code was still enforced), The Girl in the Black Stockings can only imply the violence and kink. All the murders occur off-screen, but the script compensates by having characters describe the mutilations in gruesome detail (“A girl was slaughtered and carved-up like a side of beef tonight!” “Those arms! Cut up like a jigsaw puzzle!”). Some particularly vivid moments: when one of the potential culprits is cornered by the cops at the lumber mill, he panics and falls into a buzz saw! And when a little girl discovers a dead body floating face down in the hotel’s pool, she giggles, “Look at that funny man!” Foreshadowing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964), eighties slasher films and even David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (think of Marsha Morgan as the equivalent of Laura Palmer), The Girl in the Black Stockings offers a tawdry good time.

Watch The Girl in the Black Stockings here: