Twilight of the Gods: HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (Woolner Brothers 1967)

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Let’s face it, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is a lousy excuse for a movie. The acting is atrocious, the script derivative and juvenile, and the direction nearly non-existent. It’s a scare comedy that’s neither scary nor funny, and if you’re not a fan of 60’s style Country & Western music you’ll absolutely hate it. The only reason this Woolner Brothers drive-in dreck is remembered today is the presence of horror icons Basil Rathbone , John Carradine, and Lon Chaney Jr as the villains. But even this trio of terror can’t save the movie.

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The plot (such as it is) concerns country entertainers Woody Weatherby (Ferlin Husky, a classic country singer who can’t act), Boots Malone (blonde bombshell Joi Lansing), and Jeepers (country comic Don Bowman) forced to spend the night in the eerie Beauregard Mansion. There put through the usual fright paces with ghosts (obvious sheets on strings), a “weird-woof” (as Jeepers calls it), and a gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man of the immortal ROBOT MONSTER). Of course, it’s all a plot by some nefarious spies led by Madame Wong (Linda Ho, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER) and the horror vets. A secret agent from the Master Organization To Halt Enemy Resistance aka MOTHER (Richard Webb, TV’s CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) rescues the singers, and a “real” ghost (a Confederate general, no less) helps in bringing down the bad guys.

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Then we get about half an hour of Ferlin Husky introducing acts at the Nashville Jamboree. If you’re not into twangy 60’s honky tonk country you might as well turn the film off, but if you are, you’ll get to see the late Merle Haggard perform “Closing Time”, lovely Molly Bee singing “Heartbreak USA”, Husky doing “One Bridge I Haven’t Crossed”, Bowman talk/sing a novelty tune about a drunk who can’t find his house, and the sexy Miss Lansing do the upbeat “Part Time Lover”.  I think I enjoyed this part of the movie more than the actual “story”.

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As for the classic heroes of horror, Chaney comes off best as Maximilian. Despite his ragged appearance and bloated body from years of alcohol abuse, Lon gives the most energetic performance here, clowning around with the gorilla, cruelly locking Joi Lansing in an Iron Maiden, and seemingly enjoying himself. Carradine, once a fine actor in films like STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, had been coasting for years now in Grade-Z trash like this. He hadn’t made a prestigious picture since 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and wouldn’t again until 1976’s THE SHOOTIST with old pal John Wayne.

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The fall from grace was even harder for Basil Rathbone. Once hailed as a Great Screen Villain in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Rathbone hit it big portraying master sleuth Sherlock Holmes in a series of films that remain popular even today. He is widely considered THE filmic Sherlock Holmes, and I certainly won’t debate that! But Rathbone tired of being typecast and fled Hollywood to return to the New York stage, causing resentment among certain studio types. When he returned to movies he was cast in smaller supporting roles, and by the 60’s was reduced to low-budget crap like THE MAGIC SWORD and VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE was Rathbone’s last American film (he did one more in Mexico, AUTOPSY OF A GHOST), a sad ending for one of movies greatest actors. Basil Rathbone died later that year at age 75. (This was also the last feature for director Jean Yarbrough, the man who brought you THE DEVIL BAT !)

So there are a few reasons to watch this turkey: (1) if you’re a classic horror buff and want to see these icons one more time (2) if you’re a Country & Western fan and are willing to sit through the bulk of this nonsense to get to the music (3) if you’re into the pneumatic Monroe/Mansfield/Van Doren wannabe Joi Lansing . If you’re not in any one of those three categories, steer clear.

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Halloween Havoc!: GHOST PARADE (1931) Complete Mack Sennett Short!

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Today’s horror comedy short is an oldie but goodie from slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett titled GHOST PARADE. This send-up of “old dark house” chillers stars Andy Clyde, Harry Gribbon, and Marjorie Beebe. A little creaky but still fun to watch, here’s 1931’s GHOST PARADE:

Halloween Havoc!: FIDO (Lionsgate 2007)

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I found this 2007 Canadian horror-comedy hybrid on The Movie Channel and stashed it in my DVR for future reference. After viewing it, I’m on the fence about recommending it. FIDO tells the tale of a 1950s world where a radioactive cloud from space caused the dead to rise. A great Zombie War was waged, and the ghouls were contained by Zomcon, an official government agency. Now the zombies are fitted with collars to control them and used as servants. The more feral ones are banished to “The Wild Zone”, outside the fences of cities.

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The story focuses on young Timmy Robinson (K’Sun Ray), a lonely boy picked on at school by bullies. His mother Helen (Carrie Ann Moss) gets him a zombie companion (Billy Connelly). Timmy names the zombie Fido and the two bond, much to the chagrin of dad Bill (Dylan Baker). When Zomcon Head of Security Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny) moves into the neighborhood and sees Timmy and Helen getting too attached to Fido, he has the zombie hauled off to “The Wild Zone”. But never one to “waste a good zombie”, Bottoms has instead shipped Fido to the Zomcon factory to toil. Timmy gets wind of this through Bottoms’ daughter, and with the aid of neighbor Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson), who has a zombie girlfriend, he sneaks into Zomcon headquarters to try to rescue his undead pal.

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Writer/director Andrew Currie tries, but can’t quite pull off the delicate balance needed for a film like FIDO. The movie is trying to make a statement with its themes of containment and conformity, yet fails in that regard. There’s a few chuckles here and there, and virtually no scares at all. Coming off like a cross between PLEASANTVILLE and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, FIDO comes close to neither. I would love to see what Tim Burton could do with the material; the film is lacking that macabre touch necessary for it to succeed. FIDO does put good use to period songs by Jimmy Witherspoon, Billy Eckstein, Buddy Stewart, and Kay Starr. as well as originals by 60s British Invasion rocker Ian Whitcomb (“You Really Turn Me On”). All in all, FIDO is not bad, but not worth going out of your way to find, either. A game effort, nonetheless.

Halloween Havoc!: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (Realart 1952)

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(if you read my post on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die you knew this was coming. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!)

When it comes to the title of “Worst Film of All Time”, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA has to be considered a top contender. This is the only movie for Martin & Lewis knockoffs Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. It’s easy to see why. Not only are they unfunny, they’re just barely passable as copies of the original duo. Mitchell does have a good crooning voice (more like Elvis than Dino), but Petrillo just flat out stinks! He’s not helped  by a lame script written by comedy veteran Tim Ryan. Ryan was a vaudeville star with his ex-wife, Irene (later Granny on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES). Someone should have told Tim that vaudeville was dead. The jokes were old even in 1952, and have grown a lot of mold since. The only saving grace is the presence of Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi hadn’t made a picture since 1948’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Down on his luck at the time due to poor choices and a growing morphine addiction, the proud actor took anything he could get to stay busy. Realart Productions had been having success rereleasing Lugosi’s (and others) Universal horror classics, and head honcho Jack Broder decided to take a chance on the declining boogeyman. Bela is good in his patented “mad scientist” role, rising above the crappy material. He’s adept at comedy, too, as he’d proved years earlier in films like BROADMINDED and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. Even in his deteriorated state, Bela Lugosi is better than anyone else in this dud.

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The plot is so nonsensical I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. Duke and Sammy are two entertainers who fall out of a plane and land on a South Seas island. They’re found by a native chief (Al Kikune) and his lovely daughter Nona (Charlita). Duke and Nona fall madly in love, while Sammy gets stuck with Nona’s chubby sister Saloma (Muriel Landers), who Sammy calls “Salami” (yuk yuk). Nona understands English (she went to college in America), as do the chief and Saloma, while the rest of the tribe does not. The natives do a dance for their guests, which Sammy gets caught up in (yuk yuk), then Duke croons “Deed I Do”, backed by a full orchestra. This isn’t the last time you’ll hear the song, and you’ll soon be sick of hearing it.

Nona takes the boys to “the other side of the island”, where Dr. Zabor (Lugosi) lives. (In a castle. On a South Seas island.) Sammy gets one look at Zabor and thinks he’s Dracula (“Ain’t that the fellow with the hands and the faces….watch out for bats!” yuk yuk). Zabor is conducting “experiments in evolution”, and gives a long speech on his theories, loaded with scientific jargon. Bela does well with the tongue twisting speech, showing the old master’s still got it. Zabor is in love with Nona, and  jealous of the attention she’s giving Duke. So he gives Duke an injection that turns the crooner into a gorilla. Sammy figures things out when the gorilla starts singing “Deed I Do” (he can’t talk, but he can sing). The pair escape to the tribe’s campground, trailed by Zabor and his henchman Chula. Zabor raise his rifle to kill Duke, but Sammy takes the bullet for his pal and….AND IT’S ALL BEEN A DREAM! Duke wakes Sammy up in their dressing room (“We’re on next”), and Sammy runs into the people he saw in the dream (Nona and the chief have a “gorilla act”, Saloma is a dancer, Zabor the nightclub maitre d’). Sammy gets onstage and tells yet another lame-ass joke, followed by Duke crooning “Deed I Do” for the umpteenth time.

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Jerry Lewis was not amused by all this, and threatened to sue Realart. They released the film anyways, and predictably it bombed. Mitchell and Petrillo never made another film together. Sammy Petrillo hung out on the edges of show biz, eventually opening a nightclub in Pittsburgh. Duke Mitchell continued to croon in lounges. He gained some fame as a cult actor/director in the film MAASACRE MAFIA STYLE (1974). Duke also made GONE WITH THE POPE, another exploitationer in the 70s, which didn’t see the light of day until 2010. BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA was directed by William Beaudine. Nicknamed “One-Shot”, Beaudine was one of the most prolific directors in history, with 177 films made from 1922 to 1966. And that’s not counting his TV episodes! Beaudine wasn’t the greatest, but he was fast. Some of his movies (1932’s MAKE ME A STAR, THE OLD FASHIONED WAY with WC Fields, some of his Bowery Boys efforts) are worthwhile. BELA KUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA is not. If you’re a Lugosi completest and have to see this, see it once. If not, avoid it. I’ve already done the dirty work for you. You’re welcome.

Halloween Havoc!: YOU’RE NEXT -Complete Columbia Short!

Every classic comedian worth his bottle of seltzer water made a “scare comedy” or two back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The following short, YOU’RE NEXT, is a funny 1940 Columbia Pictures effort starring comedy vets Walter Catlett, Monty Collins, Dudley Dickerson, Roscoe Ates and former Keystone Kop Chester Conklin. Directed by Del Lord, here’s YOU’RE NEXT:

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

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A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

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Halloween Havoc!: Lon Chaney Jr in SPIDER BABY (American General 1964)

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SPIDER BABY is probably my favorite horror-comedy ever, and I include ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in that statement. This gruesome tale almost didn’t see the light of day, as the original producers went bankrupt, but independent auteur David L. Hewitt (THE WIZARD OF MARS, MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY) picked it up for his American General distribution company in 1968. Hewitt then used it as the second half of double feature bills. Known variously as CANNIBAL ORGY, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, and THE LIVER EATERS, SPIDER BABY has become a cult classic.

We learn in the beginning that the descendants of Ebeneezer Merrye are dying out due to the dreaded  “Merrye Syndrome”- a rare affliction causing it’s victims to regress to a sub-human, cannibalistic state. The always welcome Mantan Moreland is seen delivering a package to the creepy old Merrye house. Mantan does some of his tried-and-true “scaredy cat” schtick while looking around the deserted joint. He sticks his head in a window….and then the window slams shut, as young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) pops in, brandishing a net and knives. “I got you”, she gleefully yells, then procedes to hack and slash the hapless messenger to death. It’s a jolt, as the viewer expects Mantan to see a ghost or something and do his “feets don’t fail me now” routine. The violence immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, letting us know this isn’t your garden-variety horror spoof.

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Virginia’s sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) enters the scene. “Look what you did!”, she taunts. “You’re bad, bad! Bruno’s gonna hate you!” Just then an ancient Dusenberg pulls up to the house. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) is the family chauffer/caretaker. Elizabeth rats out her sister, telling him Virginia was “playing spider” again. Virginia dashes to the car to greet her brother Ralph (Sid Haig), a bald, mute, drooling man-child. The exasperated Bruno calmly explains to Virginia it’s not nice to “play spider”, people will talk. Ralph discovers the message near Mantan’s corpse, causing Bruno more concern. It’s from a lawyer named Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) stating two distant relatives of the kids are coming, seeking legal guardianship.

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Emily Howe (sexy Carol Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) are Merrye cousins, and greedy Emily is looking to take control of the Merrye fortune. Peter waits in the car while bitchy Emily goes to the house. When she comes face-to-face with Ralph, she hightails it back to her brother! Bruno has picked up Schlocker and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), but they’re delayed by the Highway Department “blasting” their way to a new road. Now everyone gets to meet the children, and Bruno explains about Merrye Syndrome. “It’s a regression of the brain”, he solemnly intones, “The unfortunate result of inbreeding”.

Schlocker tells Bruno the plan is to spend the night, then put these “retarded” Merryes in an instituation. Bruno objects, but is outnumbered. The kids concoct a dinner of bugs, weeds, a dead cat, and possibly poisonous mushrooms. All the guests pass save Peter, who’s pretty oblivious to the bizarre goings-on. Dinner conversation turns to horror films, as Ann and Peter discuss their favorites. “Dracula, Frankenstein..I love The Mummy. Step, scrape, step, scrape”. Chaney as Bruno is hilarious as someone mentions the Wolf Man. Looking out the window, he echoes his Larry Talbot character, warning, “There’s a full moon tonight”.

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Peter and Ann head to a local motel since there aren’t enough beds available. Emily and her lawyer stay, thinking the whole thing is a hoax. Later that evening, Emily strips down to some sexy lingerie and dances alone in her room, unaware that Ralph is spying through the window. Schlocker takes a look around the house and finds a secret passageway to the basement. Things take a definite turn for the worst, as the children commit murder and mayhem. Peter and Ann return, and are placed in danger. They’re allowed to go free as Bruno has scored some dynamite from the construction site, promising the kids they’ll be together “forever and ever”. Bruno’s final solution blows the Merrye mansion and its occupants to smithereens, and the curse of the “Merrye Syndrome” is gone forever. Or is it??

Lon Chaney Jr. gives a poignant performance as Bruno. He’s gentle and kind to the demented children, loyal til the end. Chaney’s funny in the role, too, proving to his critics he wasn’t just a one-note actor. This was his last good film, as the remainder of his career consisted of B Westerns and Grade-Z crap. While Lon was on his way down, director Jack Hill was on his way up. A former UCLA film student, Hill became friends with fellow student Francis Ford Coppola, who introduced him to Roger Corman. Hill directed parts of The Terror  for Corman, then debuted with SPIDER BABY. After shooting four Mexican horror movies with Boris Karloff, Hill ushered in the “Women-in-Prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. His 70s Blaxploitation films with Pam Grier, COFFY and Foxy Brown are classics of the era. spider5

SPIDER BABY is that rare low-budget gem where everything works to perfection. The kids are genuinely scary in their roles, and Hill gets a moving performance from the declining Chaney. The rest of the cast shines as well. It’s unlike any horror comedy before or since, and should be on everybody’s Halloween watch list.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades

I record a LOT of movies. Probably around ten per week, more or less. And since I also have to do little things like work, exercise, cook, clean, breathe,  etc etc, I don’t always have time to watch  them all (never mind write full reviews), so I’ve decided to begin a series of short, capsule reviews for the decades covered here at Cracked Rear Viewer. This will be whenever I find my DVR getting cluttered, which is frequent! I’ll try to make CLEANING OUT THE DVR a bi-weekly series, but there are no guarantees. Monthly is more realistic. Anyway, here are five films from the 1930s to the 1970s for your reading pleasure.

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Unfunny Business: Bela Lugosi in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945)

wally-brown-mainBela Lugosi has always been one of my favorite actors. The master of the macabre sent shivers down my spine in such classics as DRACULA, WHITE ZOMBIE, and THE RAVEN.  But by the 1940s, morphine addicted and desperate for work, Lugosi took acting jobs wherever he could find them. He always gave his best in whatever he did, even in low budget nonsense like THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine). In fact, if it wasn’t for Lugosi’s presence, most of these films wouldn’t be worth watching today. ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is one of them.

Continue reading “Unfunny Business: Bela Lugosi in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945)”