From the VHS Vault 2: THE VIOLENT YEARS (Headliner Productions 1956)

The drama continues: I received a call from FedEx about the status of my new DirecTV receiver (the old one being fried beyond repair) . The new box is now sitting in a warehouse, undeliverable because DIRECTV GAVE THEM THE WRONG ADDRESS!! You’d think after almost two years they’d have my address, right? Wrong! FedEx told me I have to call DirecTV and have them fix the address or drive an hour out of my way to pick it up myself. So I proceeded to call the corporate beast and was transferred to a woman who barely spoke English, gave her all my information, then was transferred to another woman who spoke even worse English and repeated the process all over again! After a half hour of this nonsense, I was then told I’d have to wait an additional 3-5 days before my new box arrives… hopefully at the right address! ARRRGGGGHH!!!!

Not wanting to keep you all waiting, I went back down into the dusty VHS vault to search for a movie, and came up with something interesting. Not necessarily good, mind you, but interesting. It’s THE VIOLENT YEARS, a 1956 “girl gang” drama in the style of HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS.  The interesting part is this one was written by everyone’s favorite low-budget auteur, the one and only Edward D. Wood, Jr!   Ed isn’t in the director’s chair however, that honor goes to William Morgan, known for… well, not much. This is probably his best-known credit.

My copy of THE VIOLENT YEARS is a 1987 Rhino Video release, part of a series called “Teenage Theater” and hosted by the immortal Mamie Van Doren, who made quite a few of these “girls gone bad” flicks. “Teenage Theater” shed the spotlight on movies about (according to the goofy doo-wop theme song) “wigged out biker babes”, “slick chicks in chains”, “motorcycle madmen”, and “starlets starved for sex”. Mamie gives us some dope on the upcoming movie from a 50’s style soda shoppe, all dolled up in a polka-dot outfit. She was 57 at the time, and still looked pretty hot…

…and she ain’t half-bad today at 87! Anyway, after Mamie does her schtick, we get down to business with THE VIOLENT YEARS. It’s the sordid saga of Paula Parkins (former Playmate Jean Moorhead), whose parents are too busy (dad’s a newspaper editor, mom’s involved with various charities) to figure out 18-year-old Paula is the leader of a Gang of Four female delinquents responsible for a series of robberies in town. We see them in action as, masked with bandanas, they hold up a gas station, then attack a couple on Lover’s Lane, making the girl strip down to her lingerie (exploitation films gotta have a strip scene!), tie her up (exploitation films gotta have a bondage scene!), then take the young man into the woods and (it’s implied) force him to have a gangbang! How that works, I’m not quite sure.

Paula and her pals fence their ill-gotten goods with Sheila, who hires them to trash their school, telling Paula “don’t worry if a few flags get destroyed in the process. Let’s just say it’s part of a well-organized… foreign plan!” Commie bastards! But first, there the obligatory “wild party” scene, consisting of some booze, cigarette smoking, and heavy necking. Reporter Barney Stetson (one of Wood’s best character names!) drops by with Paula’s present, observes the wicked goings-on, and his spidey sense starts tingling. He ends up decking Paula’s date, a greasy reprobate who cleans his fingernails with a switchblade!

It’s now time for the gang to commence on their Commie-funded mission, and they get their kicks wrecking a classroom, but the noise has brought the cops. Paula and the gang then engage in a blazing shootout with the coppers, where two of them wind up dead, and Paula kills a cop! Taking it on the lam, they head to Sheila’s place, and when Paula tells her they offed a cop, Sheila threatens to call the police herself. So Paula, already a murderess, shoots Sheila. But the cops are on Paula’s trail, and a chase ensues in which Paula crashes into a plate-glass window, killing her last remaining friend. Now locked in the jail hospital ward, and pregnant to boot (from the gangbang?), Paula is sentenced to life in prison, and the neglectful parents are denied the right to adopt their granddaughter by Judge Clara, who in typical Wood fashion delivers not one, but two clunky soliloquies as only Ed Wood could write ’em!!

Mamie returns with a coda to end the tape, and we get the cheezy “Teenage Theater” theme once again. THE VIOLENT YEARS doesn’t have much star power, though Wood aficionados will recognize Timothy Farrell from GLEN OR GLENDA and JAIL BAIT. Western buffs will know I. Stanford Jolley as the judge; he usually wore a black hat as a B villain. Barney Stetson is played by Glen Corbett, not to be confused with Glenn Corbett, actor in HOMICIDAL and CHISUM. None of the acting is particularly good, anyway. Truthfully, beside the fact that Ed Wood wrote the script, there’s not a whole lot to recommend here. I pretty much enjoyed watching it backwards while rewinding the tape as I did watching it unfold properly, maybe more so. But hey, a film blogger’s gotta watch something!

From the VHS Vault: The Three Stooges in HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (Columbia 1959)

My DirecTV receiver decided to fry itself the other day. A new one won’t be shipped for another five days – no TCM, no DVR’d movies, no Red Sox, no nothin’! What’s a film blogger to do? Since my DVD player isn’t working either, I thought I’d reach into my collection of VHS tapes and see what I could come up with for viewing. Hmm, let’s see… wait a sec, what’s this? An unopened copy of HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL, the Three Stooges  comeback starring feature! Good Lord, I haven’t seen this movie in years! The Stooges it is!

A little background first: after making shorts for Columbia since 1934, the studio dumped the trio when their contract ended in 1957. Television had killed the short subject market, and the boys were thrown out on their collective keisters. Ironically, it was television that revived their career when the Stooges shorts were released to TV a year later, and a whole new generation fell in love with their physical slapstick brand of humor. Moe Howard and Larry Fine recruited burlesque comic Joe DeRita (who had his own series of Columbia shorts in the 40’s) to replace Joe Besser. DeRita was a better fit than Besser anyway, and his resemblance to Curly Howard (always the most popular Stooge) led to him being dubbed Curly Joe. The reconfigured Stooges toured successfully, and Columbia came crawling back to star them in a feature film titled HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL isn’t vintage Stooges, but it’s not half bad, either. The Stooges are bumbling janitors at the “National Space Foundation” who are accidentally locked in a rocket ship and blast-off for Venus, encountering a giant fire-breathing tarantula, a talking unicorn, and a robot super-computer who shrinks them to mouse-size and makes android clones of them. They return to Earth as heroes, are given a ticker-tape parade and a gala celebration, a distinguished affair that devolves into a slap-happy donnybrook. The whole thing gives them an excuse to trot some of their old schtick like the “plumbing” gag, the “chased through multiple doors” gag, and the “couch-spring-stuck-in-the-rear-end” gag. They even get to exercise their tonsils, breaking into song about halfway through, a ditty called… what else, “Have Rocket, Will Travel”!

The Stooges are a bit more kinder and gentler here, older but definitely not wiser. The familiar eye pokes, hair-pulling, and face slapping are still around, as are the familiar sound effects, and Moe still hurls insults at his partners (at one point calling Curly Joe “ya baby hippopotamus”). Robert Colbert (later of TV’s THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anna-Lisa provide the romance, while veteran character actor Jerome Cowan takes his lumps as the Stooges’ foil, head of the space foundation. HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL was aimed directly at their new juvenile audience and is ultra low-budget, with cheezy special effects and cardboard sets, but fans of the boys will enjoy revisiting their antics. I know I sure did!

Flesh & Blood: Marilyn Chambers in RABID (New World 1977)

Once upon a time, there was a pretty young actress named Marilyn Chambers. She had a fresh, wholesome quality about her, and did some bits parts and modeling gigs. One was as the decent young mom holding her pride and joy baby on the box of Ivory Snow, the detergent that claimed it was 99 1/4% pure. But no acting jobs were forthcoming, so Marilyn found herself in a porn flick called BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, which became a sensation…

… as did young Marilyn, though she longed to be taken as a serious actress in mainstream films.

Around the same time, there was a young Canadian director named David Cronenberg. He was making a name for himself in the horror field with films like CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970) and SHIVERS (1975)…

… but though a few critics admired his work, most dismissed him as just another Grindhouse hack. For young David’s movies were of the “body horror” school, filled with gore, grossness, and a lot of sex, not to mention a very low budget. He had an idea for a movie titled RABID, and wanted to cast Sissy Spacek, fresh off her lead in CARRIE, in the starring role. But the producers balked at casting Sissy and her Texas accent in a Canadian film, so young David searched far and wide, finally choosing young Marilyn as his nominal star. Marilyn was grateful to finally have the lead in a mainstream film, and they lived happily ever after.

Well, not really. Cronenberg went on to THE DEAD ZONE, THE FLY remake, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and a great career, while Marilyn went back to porn with 1980’s INSATIABLE and other hard-and-softcore delights before her way-too-early death in 2009 at age 57. RABID shows she could act, if not on a par with Hepburn or Meryl Streep. Still, she was more than competent in this creepy little thriller as Rose, who’s involved in an horrific motorcycle crash with her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore). Fortunately (or unfortunately, as it turns out), the accident occurs near the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery. Rose is put back together using an experimental method of skin grafting, resulting in her growing a monstrous blood-sucking appendage in her arm pit (which pops out of what suspiciously looks like a certain part of the female anatomy!).

Rose begins infecting people with a mysterious virus that turns it’s victims into mouth-foaming, blood-lusting maniacs. Soon the entire city of Montreal is under siege by the zombie-like creatures, and martial law is declared with orders of shoot to kill. Oh, Canada! Rose continues infecting people, including an iconic scene where she enter a porn theater and is hit on by a leisure-suited perv. Bad idea, perv! (The film playing is called MODELS FOR PLEASURE, and I’m unsure if it’s a real movie or not. I can’t find any info on it… any readers out there heard of it?) When Rose leaves the theater, she walks past another movie palace. The film showing there? CARRIE!

RABID showcases Cronenberg’s trademark black humor, as well as his penchant for gruesomeness. It also features a good turn by character actor Joe Silver as the sympathetic business partner of Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan, who also ends up infected in a wild operating room scene). The film helped put David Cronenberg on the map, due in large part to the novelty of having Marilyn Chambers in a straight role (though she does have her share of topless scenes, praise Jesus!). Any fans of David Cronenberg, the lovely Miss Chambers, or good ol’ 70’s Grindhouse gore will be more than satiated by viewing RABID.

From the Vaults: THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES- CRUCIFIXION & RESURRECTION (Cathedral Films 1951)

Not all religious-based films are Hollywood epics. In 1951, an outfit named Cathedral Films, determined to create inspirational movies for the masses, made a 12-part series titled THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES, each about a half hour in length. Part 12 covers the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, played by Robert Wilson. There are a couple actors you my recognize, but most you won’t. The narrator is Art Gilmore, voice of a thousand classic trailers. In honor of Good Friday, here’s a blast from filmmaking of the past, CRUCIFXION AND RESURRECTION:

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.

 

Jurassic Joke: THE LOST WORLD (20th Century Fox 1960)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel THE LOST WORLD was first filmed in 1925 with special effects by the legendary Willis O’Brien  . O’Brien gets a technical credit in Irwin Allen’s 1960 remake, but his wizardry is nowhere to be found, replaced with dolled-up lizards and iguanas designed to frighten absolutely no one. This one’s strictly for the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd, and though it boasts a high profile cast, it’s ultimately disappointing.

Genre fans will appreciate the presence of The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains , in the role of expedition leader Professor Challenger. The 71 year old Rains is full of ham here, playing to the balcony, and still managing to command the screen with his sheer talent. Challenger claims to have discovered “live dinosaurs” in the remote Amazon rainforest, a claim scoffed at by the scientific community, especially rival Professor Summerlee (the equally hammy Richard Hayden). The crusty Challenger asks for volunteers to accompany him on a return journey, and we meet the rest of the cast: Michael Rennie as big-game hunter Lord Roxton, David Hedison as intrepid reporter Ed Malone, Jill St. John as Roxton’s girl Jennifer Holmes (complete with a teacup poodle), and Ray Strickland as her younger brother David.

The crew fly to South America, where guide Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas) and his partner Costa (Jay Novello) will take them by chopper to the unchartered plateau deep in the wild. We get some breathtaking shots of the Amazonian jungle along the way (presumably by DP Winton Hoch ) before landing, where a giant lizard destroys the helicopter, stranding the expedition. The monsters they encounter are a sorry lot indeed, just blown-up reptiles and (in one scene) a goofy superimposed green spider. I mean, the studio sprung for Cinemascope and DeLuxe Color, and they give us el cheapo special effects! Not to mention they had Willis Freakin’ O’Brien on the payroll!

There’s a love triangle between Rennie, St. John, and Hedison that fails, mostly due to the sexist script by Allen and Charles Bennett. The dialog’s on a par with Allen’s sci-fi shows like LOST IN SPACE, dumbed down to children’s level. Lamas tries to bring some panache to his role, as Gomez holds a dark secret, but he too is doomed by the script. There’s a subplot about the lost city of El Dorado that didn’t amount to much. In fact, the film as a whole doesn’t amount to more than a semi-pleasant diversion.

THE LOST WORLD could’ve been much better, but is sunk by the crummy special effects and ludicrous script. You’d be better off watching the 1925 silent, and you can, if you’re interested. It’s in public domain, so instead of me babbling on about how lousy the newer version is, here’s 1925’s THE LOST WORLD in its entirety: