Off-Brand Spaghetti: MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (United Artists 1969)

It’s hanging day at a remote Arizona prison outpost, and four men are scheduled to swing from the gallows. After they’re executed, the four pine boxes pop open, and outlaw Luke Santee and his gang commence firing, their six-guns blazing, as they try to free Luke’s baby brother. The escape attempt is an epic fail as ‘Killer’ Cain, a prisoner for 18 years now up for parole, stops the brother from leaving his cell and getting slaughtered, with Luke vowing revenge…

That opening scene, a violent, gory bloodbath, makes one think MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE is going to be a Sergio Leone-inspired American Spaghetti Western. It even stars a former TV Western hero named Clint – big Clint (CHEYENNE) Walker ! But the episodic nature of George Schenck’s script kills that idea, as the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Spaghetti or Traditional Western? Character study, comedy, drama? It plays more like an extended pilot episode for a new TV series, thanks to director Robert Sparr, who worked with Clint on CHEYENNE and whose credits include episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE RAT PATROL, STAR TREK, and THE WILD WILD WEST.

Clint does get to encounter some colorful characters along the way. Chief among them is Vincent Price , taking a break from his AIP horrors, as carny spieler Dan Ruffalo, who goads Clint into picking up his gun once again and traveling through the Southwest as part of a Wild West sideshow. Price is worth the price (sorry) of admission, though he can’t help looking somewhat demonic after spending all those years with Roger Corman. Anne Francis plays a pretty artist from back East who meets and falls in love with Clint. Another brawny actor, former NFL star and movie Tarzan (and the future Junior Justice of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT!) Mike Henry is the vengeful Santee. But Paul Hampton, whose claim to fame is as cowriter of the early rock hit “Sea of Heartbreak”, overacts as young psycho sharpshooter Billy, who’s jealous when Clint joins the carny. Some Familiar Faces on the trail include Frank Baxter, Robert Foulk, Emile Meyer , and William Woodson, whose face may not be all that familiar, but you’ll immediately recognize his voice as the narrator of TV’s SUPER FRIENDS and THE ODD COUPLE.

So the question remains, is MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE worth your time? Well, I guess if you’re a Western buff, Clint Walker die-hard, or Vincent Price completist, then you’ll want to view it. I stuck with it til the end (which was quite bizarre and unexpected), but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s one of those kinda, sorta in-the-middle movies that are okay for a late-night-can’t-sleep or rainy-day-let’s-clean-out-the-DVR watch. Don’t run away from it, but don’t go out of your way to see it, either.

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Sex And Drugs And BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Allied Artists/Woolner Brothers 1964)


Welcome to the weirdly wonderful world of giallo, pioneered by the late Italian maestro Mario Bava . Though Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (released stateside as EVIL EYE) is considered by connoisseurs the first, it was BLOOD AND BLACK LACE that defined the genre, with its comingling of crime drama, murder mystery, and horror elements coalescing into something truly unique. I hadn’t seen this film in decades before a recent rewatch, and was again dazzled by Bava’s technique. The film has proved to be highly influential in the decades-later slasher genre, yet has its roots set firmly in the past.

The opening sequence is a stunner, as we see the beautiful model Isabelle walking through a woodsy pathway on a dark and stormy night, stalked and then brutally murdered by a faceless, trenchcoated killer. From there, we’re introduced to the remaining cast, members of the haute couture fashion world run by Countess Christina Cuomo. Police Inspector Silvester is on the case, and he gets more than he bargained for, with all the players holding deep, dark secrets. Isabelle’s diary holds the key to the crime, and more gruesome murders follow, with suspects aplenty…

Bava gives us a compact but compelling shocker, and while rewatching, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the movie resembled the films of Val Lewton and 40’s film noir, with dashes of Hitchcock and Welles thrown in for good measure – only saturated with vibrant colors! Garish reds, blues, greens, and violets make the screen pop, aided by some brilliantly deep shadowplay. While Ubaldo Terzano is credited as cinematographer, Bava himself was no slouch in that department, having worked behind the camera since the early 1940’s, and did much of the work uncredited. Best known for his horror films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, LISA AND THE DEVIL), he worked in every genre, and though he did his share of clunkers (DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, for example), most of his resume contains movies well worth searching out.

Cameron Mitchell  and Eva Bartok are the most recognizable actors here to classic film fans. Mitchell had been around Hollywood since 1945; his best known roles were as Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN (a part he originated on Broadway), Lauren Bacall’s suitor in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, and Jigger in CAROUSEL.  When his career dried up, Mitchell went to Europe to star in peplum films and Spaghetti Westerns before returning to Tinseltown for the TV series THE HIGH CHAPARRAL (1967-71). Bartok was familiar to American audiences for playing opposite Burt Lancaster in THE CRIMSON PIRATE, the early Hammer sci-fi SPACEWAYS, and Dean Martin’s first solo outing TEN THOUSAND BEDROOMS. Those well-versed in Italian cinema will be able to identify Mary Arden (A… FOR ASSASSIN), Franco Ressel (SABATA), Luciano Pigozzi (WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMATORY, CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD), and Enzo Cerusico (HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES) among the cast members.

Most familiar to American audiences would be the voice of Paul Frees, who dubs most of the male cast (including Mitchell, for some strange reason). BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was considered controversial in its day, so much so that even American-International wouldn’t release it! It was up to the Woolner Brothers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN) to bring it across the Atlantic, releasing through Allied Artists. Critics of the time weren’t kind, but the movie has since taken on a cult status, in large part due to the artistry of Mario Bava. It’s pretty tame compared to today’s gore-fests, yet still manages to pack a punch, with one helluva triple twist conclusione.


And on another note… BLODD & BLACK LACE marks Cracked Rear Viewer’s 1,000th post! 

Confessions of a TV Addcit #14: When Worlds Collided – Merv Griffin Meets Andy & Edie

Sometimes, while scrolling through the Internet doing research, I run across some truly bizarre things. Let me set the stage for you: Merv Griffin was a former Big Band singer whose biggest hit was 1950’s “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”. He turned to television, becoming first a game show host, then a successful talk show host (and created both WHEEL OF FORTUNE and JEOPARDY later on). Merv was a nice guy, but the very definition of a ‘square’, though he did present some rather thought-provoking guests over the years (including hippie radical Abbie Hoffman and John & Yoko Lennon).

Edie Sedgwick was an underground legend, a Warhol “Superstar” that epitomized Swingin’ 60’s culture, dubbed the New ‘It Girl’ and a Vogue Magazine ‘Youthquaker’, famous just for being famous before that was even a thing. She modeled, acted in Warhol’s underground films, had songs written about her by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, and became well-known for the posthumous movie CIAO MANHATTAN, released after her death from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1971.

Andy Warhol was… well, Andy Warhol. There was no one quite like him, an avant-garde pop artist whose paintings and films set the straight world on its collective ear. During Merv’s first year hosting his long-running (1965-86) chat fest, he had Andy & Edie on as guests. The following clip of that interview is a treasure of a time capsule indeed, with an engaging and delightful Edie doing all the talking, as Andy refused to answer questions except by whispering in Edie’s ear. Also appearing is actress Renee Taylor (later Fran’s mom on TV’s THE NANNY), and a pair of gentlemen I can’t identify (I think one is Renee’s husband, Joe Bologna). WARNING: at around the seven minute mark, the clip ends, and restarts on a loop):

Strange days indeed, as Lennon once said (John, not Vladimir).

 

Merv Griffin (1925-2007)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Edie Sedgwick (1943-1971)

Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin: CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY (Independent-International 1968)

Today we celebrate the birthday of the immortal Charlie Chaplin , born on this date 130 years ago. Chaplin made his film debut 105 years ago this year, and the world hasn’t stopped laughing since! His silent comedies featuring the endurable character “The Little Tramp” (or as Chaplin called him, “The Little Fellow”) have stood the test of time, and his mix of humor and pathos elevated slapstick comedy to high art. The compilation film CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY highlights Chaplin’s early efforts at Essanay Studios from 1914-15, and contains some of his best work.

The success of Robert Youngson’s 1959 film THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (spotlighting silent luminaries like Laurel & Hardy, Ben Turpin, and others) had spawned a whole host of imitators over the next decade utilizing low-to-no cost silent footage and repackaging it into a new feature film. Some were good, others lackadaisically put together, most just out to make a quick buck. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is more than a few notches above, thanks to the genius that was Charlie Chaplin. The film was put together by Sam Sherman, and if that name sounds familiar, you must be an Exploitation Movie Buff! Sherman was the movie-mad founder of Independent-International Pictures, producing most of low-budget auteur Al Adamson’s output (PSYCHO A-GO-GO, SATAN’S SADISTS, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, GIRLS FOR RENT, BLAZING STEWARDESSES, NURSE SHERRI), and giving work to faded stars like John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Livingston, Kent Taylor, and The Ritz Brothers, among other former luminaries.

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY salutes the art of slapstick comedy, which never really goes out of style. Here we see Chaplin’s Little Tramp coming into his own, with excerpts from nine Essanay classics. THE CHAMPION is a particular favorite, with down-on-his-luck Charlie becoming a sparring partner turned boxing contender. THE BANK casts The Tramp as a janitor who foils a heist (and wins the hand of lovely Edna Purviance, who costars in most of these shorts). Charlie creates mayhem at a movie studio in HIS NEW JOB, A WOMAN features him in drag trying to fool Edna’s disapproving dad, and POLICE has him an ex-con trying to go straight, until he hooks up with his former cellmate (played by future director Wesley Ruggles).

A real treat is A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, a change of pace with Chaplin playing a dual role as a tipsy playboy and a rowdy bum, based on the famous skit “A Night in an English Music Hall”, performed by Chaplin during his days with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, where Charlie got his first break. It’s a rare chance to see what the early fuss was about, not to mention a very funny piece that still holds up well. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is well worth your time, taking a nostalgic trip back to when comedy was king, and Charlie Chaplin was the king of ’em all!

(Oh by the way, Charlie Chaplin shares his birthday with another movie-mad, though much less famous, personality – me!!)

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is available for viewing on The Film Detective , streaming everywhere right now!    

 

Big, Bad Mama Monster!: GORGO (MGM 1961)


When Melanie at The Film Detective offered me the chance to watch and review GORGO for them, I immediately said yes! GORGO was one of my favorites growing up as a little Monster Kid, a Saturday afternoon staple on Boston’s Channel 56, and the opportunity to see it without all that UHF “snow” was too much to resist (and if you don’t know about The Film Detective, I’ll clue you in a bit later).

Producers Frank and Maurice King were a pair of slot machine magnates turned low-budget movie moguls who had success with 40’s films noir like WHEN STRANGES MARRY (with Robert Mitchum), DILLINGER (making a star out of Lawrence Tierney), and the Joseph H. Lewis classic GUN CRAZY . When the stateside release of Japan’s Giant Monster Movie GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS proved a hit, the Kings decided to secure the American rights to another kaiju eiga epic, RODAN! THE FLYING MONSTER . Box offices across the country filled with more coins than any old slot machines, so the Kings set out to make a Giant Monster saga of their own, using the rubber suit and miniature set techniques of kaiju eiga, and throwing a touch of KING KONG into the script for good measure.

Salvage divers Joe Ryan and Sam Slade are searching for sunken treasure off the coast of Ireland when they’re rocked by a volcanic eruption. The upheaval has awakened the dormant Gorgo, a red-eyed, reptilian Prehistoric beast standing 65 feet tall! Joe and Sam hatch a plan to capture the giant, and succeed. Scientists want to study Gorgo, but Joe and Sam have other ideas, namely selling the monster to Durkin’s Circus in London and getting filthy rich! Gorgo is trussed up and hauled to Jolly Old England, where he’s exploited as a freakish main attraction – that is, until Gorgo’s Bigger, Badder Monster Mother emerges from the depths, a 200 foot tall behemoth who tracks ‘baby’ Gorgo to London demanding his return…

GORGO is a simple but effective Monster Movie that’s fast-paced fun for the whole family. The special effects of the pre-CGI era hold up surprisingly well, thanks to some clever editing and camerawork. There are plenty of shots of rampaging destruction (complete with panicked citizens running the streets and futile military retaliation), as London Bridge comes crumbling down, Big Ben gets toppled, and Piccadilly Circus gets blitzed by Mama Gorgo.

Director Eugene Lourie was no stranger to Giant Monsters, having helmed both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  Stars Bill Travers and William Sylvester weren’t exactly household names, but both make fine leads. Travers starred in one of my favorite British comedies, THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH, and later achieved fame opposite wife Virginia McKenna and Elsa the Lioness in BORN FREE, while Sylvester headlined the British noirs HOUSE OF BLACKMAIL and A STRANGER CAME HOME before making his best-known appearance as Dr. Floyd in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Special mention should be made to child actor Vincent Winter as an Irish villager who stows away aboard Joe and Sam’s ship, and has a special bond with Gorgo.

As for The Film Detective , it’s a streaming service founded in 2014 specializing in hard to find films and TV, and can be viewed online, and on the SlingTV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and AppleTV platforms. GORGO can be enjoyed there beginning February 11th, and I highly recommend it to all you Giant Monster Movie Lovers out there. After watching, take a look around… you might discover some other hidden gems on The Film Detective!

 

Creature Double Feature 6: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (Hammer/20th Century-Fox 1967)/FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (Hammer/Warner Bros 1969)


Hammer Horrors were a staple of Boston’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature” (WLVI-TV 56), so today let’s take a look at a demonic duo of Frankenstein fright films starring the immortal Peter Cushing in his signature role as the villainous Baron Frankenstein.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN was the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, made three years after EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Baron is back (after having apparently been blown to smithereens last time around), this time tampering with immortal souls rather than mere brain transplants. The movie features some ahead-of-its-time gender-bending as well, with the soul of an unjustly executed man transmogrified into the body of his freshly dead (via suicide) girlfriend, now out for vengeance!

Young Hans (Robert Morris), who watched his father guillotined as a child, grows up to work for muddle-headed alcoholic Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters , in an amusing performance), who revives the cryogenically frozen Baron Frankenstein. The Baron has changed tactics, and is now interested in trapping souls before they leave the body, to be transplanted in new hosts. Hans is dating the crippled and disfigured Christina (Susan Denberg), daughter of the local innkeeper. A trio of rich, arrogant young pricks harass the pathetic Christina, and Hans defends her honor, until finally restrained by Daddy Innkeeper. The rash Hans demands he be let go, threatening his prospective father-in-law, who isn’t very fond of Hans anyway.

The three jerks break into the inn after hours for some more drinking, and wind up beating the innkeeper to death. Hans is arrested for the murder, but refuses to provide an alibi (he was having a go at Christina at the time). He’s   tried, convicted, and guillotined (like father, like son!), and the distraught Christina kills herself by jumping off a bridge. The Baron takes all this as an opportunity to prove his theories, and transmits Hans’s soul into Christina’s body, then performs surgery to fix her deformities. The now beautiful Christina has no memory of her past life, until the sight of the guillotine triggers her (his?) mind, and she (he?) sets out for revenge on the three young wastrels…

The far-fetched but clever script by John Elder (a pseudonym for Anthony Hinds) is intelligently directed by Hammer’s workhorse Terence Fisher, who began the series with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ended it with 1974’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. Cushing by now had the imperious, cocky Baron down pat, still retaining his enthusiasm for the part. Susan Denberg impresses as Christina, making a remarkable transformation from the shy, deformed barmaid to cold-blooded killer. The former model, who was a Playboy centerfold in August 1966, had a brief acting career that included the interesting but flawed AN AMERICAN DREAM and an episode of STAR TREK as one of “Mudd’s Women”. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is by far her biggest (and best) role, though her thick Austrian accent was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who performed the same task for Ursula Andress in DR. NO and Claudine Auger in THUNDERBALL .

Two years later, the Baron was at it again in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, a gruesome little tale filled with sex and violence. Fisher again directs and Cushing stars, this time staying at a rooming house run by the fetching Anna (Veronica Carlson ). Anna’s fiancé Karl (a pre-stardom Simon Ward) works as an intern at the local insane asylum. Frankenstein’s former colleague Dr. Brandt is locked up there, and the Baron needs to unlock his mind to discover his secret for freezing brains before death sets in (or something like that). Frankenstein finds out Karl’s been selling the asylum’s drugs on the side to help pay for Anna’s mum’s residence there, and the cagey Baron blackmails the young man into helping him kidnap Brandt (the randy Baron also helps himself to Anna, violently raping her when Karl’s away).

The duo abscond with Brandt, who winds up suffering a heart attack, so Frankenstein and Karl abduct asylum director Prof. Richter (Freddie Jones, FIREFOX) and transplant Brandt’s brain into his body. Brandt’s wife (Maxine Audley, PEEPING TOM ) recognizes Frankenstein on the street, and he takes her to see her husband wrapped in bandages (not realizing he’s in Richter’s body now). Brandt awakens later, discovers what horror he’s been put through, and seeks revenge, resulting in a fiery finale ripped straight from a Corman/Poe film!

Cushing is a charmingly chilling Baron in this one, a thoroughly unlikable scoundrel who’s introduced in a pre-credits scene wearing a Michael Myers-looking mask and lopping off a man’s head with a scythe! There are plenty of good frights to be had, including the scene where Brandt’s dead body pops up from the garden when a water main bursts. Thorley Walters once again adds comic relief as an inspector on the wily Baron’s trail. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is my personal favorite of the Hammer Frankensteins, but both of these films are worthy for fans of Hammer Horrors. In fact, together they make a perfect Creature Double Feature!

Attaboy, Luther!: Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (Universal 1966)

When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.

Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.

Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!

The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.

For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old  ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.

Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).

You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!