Familiar Faces #11: When Candy Johnson Got Us All Shook Up!

Candy Johnson, dubbed “The Perpetual Motion Machine” by American-International publicists, shaked, rattled, and rolled her way across the Silver Screen in the first four AIP/Beach Party flicks, then just as quickly disappeared from the scene. But just who was this undulating beach bunny with the amazing ability to send Eric Von Zipper flying through the air with her hip-quaking booty shaking?

‘Candy’ was the childhood nickname of Vicki Jane Husted, born in San Gabriel, California on Feb. 8, 1944. She was the niece of race car driver Jim Rathmann, who won the Indy 500 in 1960. Candy loved dancing (obviously!) and her energetic go-go shimmying landed her a two-year gig as the featured attraction at Palm Springs’ Safari Lounge, backed by The Exciters Band, where she drew sold-out crowds on a nightly basis. The California Girl and her band next hit glittering Las Vegas, where the local press first coined that “Perpetual Motion Machine” nickname. It was there she caught the eyes of American-International Pictures honchos, who were looking for youthquakers to cast in their new film series about frolicking hormonal teenagers at the beach.

BEACH PARTY  was released in the summer of 1963 P.B. (that’s Pre-Beatles) and the low-budget formula of sand, sun, and surf became a smash on the Drive-In circuit. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were the nominal stars (along with “oldsters” Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone), but Candy received a special ‘Introducing’ credit as the vigorously frugging girl with the hips that caused horny surfers to hurl across the beach! Next up was MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (1964) , featuring the great Peter Lorre in his penultimate role as Mr. Strangedour.

BIKINI BEACH (1964)  followed quickly, and this time Candy and The Exciters got to do their own number, a Swingin’ Sixties sax-honking classic titled “Gotcha Where I Wantcha”, which Candy joyously reprises during the end credits accompanied by veteran character actress Renie Riano:

It was during this time The Candy Johnson Show appeared at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, drawing massive crowds to the Bourbon Street Pavilion with their act at the ‘Gay New Orleans Nightclub’. The Pavilion was the Fair’s biggest hit, and attracted the attention of future Studio 54 owner Mark Fleischman, who opened the New York discotheque The Candy Store, headlined by Our Girl Candy and her Exciters. Members of rock band The Strangeloves allegedly saw Candy perform and came up with the perennial rock classic “I Want Candy”, which rose to #11 in 1965:

Candy’s last beach flick was PAJAMA PARTY before being replaced by AIP exec James Nicholson’s new squeeze, starlet Susan Hart. Candy retired from show-biz in 1968 and settled into a quiet life away from the spotlight. She was urged by friends to attend a special 2006 screening of BEACH PARTY in Los Angeles, and when she was introduced to the audience at the film’s conclusion, they surprised her with a thunderous standing ovation! Candy Johnson passed away of brain cancer just six years later at age 68, and her cremated remains were shot into space aboard the Celestis Centennial Memorial Spaceflight… Candy Johnson is now One with the Universe!

Now enjoy Candy along with 13-year old Stevie Wonder as we roll the end credits from MUSCLE BEACH PARTY! Thanks for the summertime memories, Candy:

Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!

Bloody Good Show: Robert Quarry as COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (AIP 1970)

Robert Quarry’s screen career wasn’t really going anywhere by 1970. He had a good part in 1956’s soapy noir A KISS BEFORE DYING , but mostly he was relegated to uncredited bits in movies and guest shots on episodic TV. Quarry kept busy on the stage, until being approached by producer/actor Michael Macready to star in THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, originally envisioned as a soft core porn flick with horror elements. The actor said he would accept the job but only if it were turned into a straight modern-day vampire tale, and thus was born COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, launching Quarry into a new phase as a 70’s horror movie icon.

The plot is an updated version of Stoker’s DRACULA, with a few changes. Here, the Bulgarian-born Count Yorga is a recent transplant to California, and we first meet him conducting a séance on behalf of Donna, whose late mother was involved with the alleged psychic. Boyfriend Mike and pals Paul and Erica  are along for support, disbelievers all, until strange occurrences cause Donna to get hysterical. While Yorga tries to calm her, unbeknownst to the rest, he uses his hypnotic mind powers for future control.

“Mmmm… Tender Vittles!”

Paul and Erica drive the Count back to his eerie estate, where they’re greeted by Brudah, Yorga’s brutish manservant. Their VW microbus gets stuck in mud on the return, so they camp for the night, when Yorga, fangs bared, strikes! Having no memory of what happened, Erica is taken to Dr. Jim Hayes (and his ubiquitous cigarette!), who’s at a loss to explain her severe blood loss. After a transfusion, Paul and Michael check up on Erica, who’s supposed to be resting at home but is found eating her cat!! Blood tests convince Jim that Erica has been bitten by a vampire, and the men travel to Yorga’s abode, trying to keep him awake until the sun rises. But the ancient bloodsucker is far too intelligent for them. When Donna mysteriously disappears, Paul and the doc go vampire hunting, resulting in a carnage-filled slaughterhouse of an ending with a twist!

American-International’s entry into the gore sweepstakes isn’t as bloody as a Herschell Gordon Lewis epic, but it manages to shock the viewer with its brutality. Quarry is both fearsome and sophisticated as Count Yorga, his presence resembling an American Christopher Lee, and after years of toiling at his craft he became a ‘B’ horror star. AIP wanted him to be the next Vincent Price, whose contract was soon to expire, and cast him in THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, another blood-splattered hit. He was teamed with Price for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , playing the immortal Darius Biederbeck, rival of Phibes in his quest for the River of Life. The two didn’t get along; at one point during filming, Quarry burst into song. “Bet you didn’t know I could sing”, said the actor, to which the sarcastic Price retorted, “Well, I knew you couldn’t act”!

Be that as it may, Quarry was again paired with Price (along with Hammer legend Peter Cushing) for MADHOUSE. He starred in DEATHMASTER as the Mansonesque leader of a hippie vampire cult, and played a gangster in the Blaxploitation/voodoo thriller SUGAR HILL . Quarry was riding high when horror film tastes changed, and his career was curtailed once again. A hit-and-run accident in 1980, followed shortly by a street mugging, kept him offscreen for almost ten years, until being rediscovered by cult filmmaker/superfan Fred Olen Ray, who cast Quarry in many of his low-budget, direct-to-video films, with titles like CYCLONE, BEVERLY HILLS VAMP, and TEENAGE EXORCIST. Robert Quarry moved into the Motion Picture and Television Country Home, where he spent much time giving interviews and answering fan mail, until his death in 2009 at age 83.

“Man, I sure could use a cigarette!”

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Murphy (Paul) would go on to do NASHVILLE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, MANHATTAN, and the HBO series TANNER. Roger Perry (smoking Dr. Jim) was a good actor who never quite made it out of the ‘B’ category himself; he did a ton of TV, including regular roles on HARRIGAN AND SON (with Pat O’Brien), THE FACTS OF LIFE, and FALCON CREST. Donna Anders (Donna) appeared in WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . Michael Macready’s father, the great character actor George Macready , provides the chilling opening and closing narration.  Director Bob Kelljan was an AIP mainstay, acting and/or directing in many of their films, followed by a long run as a TV director.

“Ready for some HLA, girls?”

There’s evidence of what COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE could have turned out to be through the film: a scene where Yorga, sitting in his basement throne room, watches his lusty vampire babes engage in some HLA (that’s Hot Lesbian Action!); Donna is attacked by Brudah, and we fade to black just before the rape occurs; Dr. Jim’s busty receptionist’s part was trimmed, but when she pops up in his bed we know they’ve been doing more than working overtime! Thanks to the star, things were cleaned up a bit, and the result was a surprise hit for both AIP and Robert Quarry, last of the great movie vampires, for which genre fans can be forever grateful.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Shadows and Satin , Speakeasy , and Silver Screenings . Check out the other posts and join in on the devilish fun!  

That’s Blaxploitation! 16: Pam Grier is SHEBA, BABY (AIP 1975)

The Blaxploitation Explosion was beginning to wind down by 1975, but genre superstar Pam Grier had a few more aces left up her silky sleeve. One was SHEBA, BABY, a film that doesn’t get much love, probably due to its lower-then-usual budget restrictions, but I found it a more than passable entry, mainly because of Pam’s charisma. She carries the movie on her sexy shoulders and makes it watchable, budget be damned!

In this outing, we have gangsters terrorizing local Louisville, KY businesses, including Andy Shayne. Enter daughter Sheba, a Chicago PI who comes home just in time to help. The cops refuse to get involved, so when Andy’s gunned down by hoods, Sheba’s on the case, and there’s no stopping her from getting revenge on those creepy criminals…

Pam is again one bad sista, decked out in stylish 70’s fashions as she pursues the villains with aplomb. In fact, SHEBA, BABY is a Totally 70’s Time Capsule, from the properly funky score by disco/jazzman Monk Higgins to Sheba’s fire engine red Mustang to a scene set at the local Louisville Burger Chef! Sheba is a Liberated Ass-Kicker who’s not afraid to take matters into her own hands, as we see when she tortures information out of the pimped-suited, jive-talking Walker (a funny Christopher Jay) in a car wash. Another effective scene has Sheba being chased through a carnival by bad guy Pilot (an over-the-top D’Urville Martin ) and his goons, turning the tables so the hunted becomes the hunter. The  climax finds Sheba a One-Woman Aquatic Assault Force, chasing down the smarmy, rich, white, narcissistic main villain Shark (Dick Merrifield) first on a jet ski, then in a speedboat, putting an end to the rotter with a spear gun!

Director/writer William Girdler was no Hitchcock or Welles, and he didn’t pretend to be. Instead, the Louisville native cranked out films that may have had low budgets, but were highly entertaining. His Kentucky-lensed proto-slasher THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) caught the eye of AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff, who signed Girdler up for a series of horror films. ABBY (1974) was a Blaxploitation EXORCIST ripoff featuring Carol Speed and William (BLACULA) Marshall that did big box office, but his most famous flick is 1976’s GRIZZLY, a sort of JAWS-in-the-woods about a 15-foot prehistoric bear on a rampage, with Exploitation stalwarts Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and Richard Jaeckel among the cast members. Girdler only made nine films before his untimely death in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in the Philippines in 1978 at age 31, and though his filmography isn’t exactly Oscar caliber, genre fans may want to look deeper.

Pam Grier starred in one more AIP Blaxploitation flick (FRIDAY FOSTER) before her contract with the studio ended. She spent the next twenty or so years working in lesser roles until Quentin Tarantino reintroduced her to audiences in 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, reviving her career and putting her back in the spotlight, where she belongs. SHEBA, BABY isn’t her best action film, but it puts Pam front and center in a showcase for her talents. And Sheba’s got plenty of talent, Baby!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Southern Fried Slasher: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (AIP 1976)

In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.

Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.

Producer/director/actor Charles B. Pierce

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).

The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.

“Skipper! Gilligan! HELP!!!”

Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.

Proto-slasher: The Phantom Killer

Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system,  did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.

Drive-In Saturday Night 3: MACON COUNTY LINE (AIP 1974)/RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (AIP 1975)


Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a  genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds .  One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.

The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair of fun lovin’ cats on a road trip through the Deep South before heading into the service. They pick up hitchhiking hottie Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) in Louisiana, and the three of them drift along down the highway.

The lighthearted tone ends on the return trip when the brother’s ’49 Chrysler breaks down in Georgia. The hick garage mechanic (Geoffrey Lewis in a funny part that seems almost improvised) tells them they need a fuel pump, but they don’t have enough cash, so he jury-rigs it for them. Gun-loving Macon County Deputy Reed Morgan (Baer) pulls into the garage and hassles the trio, letting them know in no uncertain terms to get out of town when their car’s repaired or be arrested for vagrancy. Morgan heads to pick up his son (Leif Garrett) at military school while the Dixons and Jenny wait for the slow-poke hick to fix the damn car.

While Morgan’s out of town, a pair of home-invading creeps (James Gammon, Timothy Scott) force their way into his house and rape and murder his wife (Joan Blackman ). The creeps also smoke a cop who pulls them over, but end up caught by the cop’s partner (Sam Gilman) after a car crash. Meanwhile, Morgan returns home with his boy to discover the carnage inside, sees the Dixon’s abandoned car near his house (the pump shit the bed again), and all hell breaks loose, as Morgan hunts down the trio into the dark Georgia night. The final portion of MACON COUNTY LINE plays like a horror film, with Chris, Wayne, and Jenny trapped in a nightmare, and a shocking surprise ending that packs a lethal punch!

The camerawork by DP Daniel Lacambre is startlingly good for a low-budget effort like this, and Compton’s direction helps ratchet up the tension. Baer gives a surprisingly effective performance as the ramrod-straight Morgan, shattering his country bumpkin Jethro image forever. Bobbie Gentry sings the closing credits theme song “Another Place, Another Time”, and Baer would later produce and direct the film adaptation of her biggest hit, “Ode to Billy Joe”. MACON COUNTY LINE was the most profitable film of the year, costing $225,000 and raking in over $30 million worldwide, so you just know a sequel was inevitable.

While Jesse and Alan Vint never rose much above low-budget Exploitation fare, the stars of 1975’s RETURN TO MACON COUNTY – Don Johnson and Nick Nolte – certainly did. Baer wasn’t involved in this, so writer/director Compton takes sole responsibility for this 1958-set sequel (despite several anachronisms, like Hamburger Helper on the general store shelves and a 70’s-era Smokey the Bear public service billboard), and guess what – it’s not bad! Compton seems to be going for an AMERICAN GRAFFITI vibe, only with a harder and darker edge. Like it’s predecessor, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY is peppered with classic 50’s rock on the soundtrack (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry , Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson , The Fleetwoods, The Ventures), otherwise it has little to no relationship to the original besides the title.

Since most of the protagonists in MACON COUNTY LINE wound up dead, we’re introduced to Nolte and Johnson as Bo and Luke – umm, that’s Bo and Harley – and their spiffy, fuel-injected ’57 Chevy, which they plan on driving out to California to enter and win the Grand National. Along the way, they pick up wild child waitress Junelle (Robin Mattson) and cruise on down the highway. When Harley gets in a jam with some local JD’s (that’s Juvenile Delinquents) and loses all their money, the trio go back to town to retrieve it, with crazy Junelle pulling a gun on the JD’s! They cause quite a ruckus, and run afoul of Macon County Police Sgt. Wittaker (the always-hissable Robert Viharo). Bo punches the cop out, and the chase is on, with both the JD’s and a pissed off Wittaker out for revenge…

Johnson and Nolte are both likeable in early roles, but it’s Mattson who stands out as the off-center (and obviously disturbed) Junelle. She went on to fame as a Soap Opera Queen on shows like GENERAL HOSPITAL, SANTA BARBARA, and ALL MY CHILDREN (and as an aside to all you film buffs, the Script Supervisor listed in the credits is Shirley Ulmer, widow of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer ). The oddball ending of the film is completely unexpected, but it did  leave me feeling satisfied.  RETURN TO MACON COUNTY didn’t do nearly as well as the first film, but stands on its own as a good example of Southern Fried Exploitation. I’d recommend both of these films, each for different reasons. What do ya’ll think, Burt?…

Burt agrees- both!