Last of the WOOD-en Soldiers: RIP Conrad Brooks

It was a fateful day in 1948 when 17-year-old Conrad Brooks, trying to break into movies, met a 24-year-old would-be filmmaker named Edward D. Wood, Jr. at a coffee and donut shop. The two men hit it off, both dreaming of Hollywood success, and worked together on an unreleased short “Range Revenge”, beginning a lasting collaboration and friendship. Conrad Brooks, who died today at age 86, will never be remembered as an actor the stature of Olivier or Brando, but his participation in the films of no-budget auteur Ed Wood will always hold a special place in the hearts of lovers of uniquely strange (some would say bad) cinema.

Young Conrad Brooks with horror icon Bela Lugosi

Brooks played several parts in Wood’s first film, 1953’s gender-bending GLEN OR GLENDA, about a man who loved to dress in women’s clothing. The director managed to get veteran horror icon Bela Lugosi , down on his luck and suffering from an opiate addiction, to appear as well, his first of three with Wood. Brooks did double duty in 1954’s JAIL BAIT, playing both a medical attendant and a photographer. His bit in 1955’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was brief and uncredited; the movie, while no DRACULA, gave Lugosi a final chance to strut his thespic stuff onscreen, and in my opinion is Wood’s best film.

Brooks came into his own in Wood’s magnum opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE , as Patrolman Jamie, a bigger role than usual and the one most Wood fans remember him by. He filmed NIGHT OF THE GHOULS that same year, a “sequel” of sorts that sat unreleased for decades because the perennially cash-strapped Wood couldn’t afford to pay the film lab bill! The movie finally saw the light of day in 1984. 1960’s THE SINISTER URGE was Brooks’ last role for Ed, a fight scene that was actually filmed for Wood’s unfinished HELLBORN. Ed Wood slid further down the scale to porn movies after that, while Conrad Brooks disappeared from films entirely after a part in Coleman Francis’ awful THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, starring fellow Wood player Tor Johnson .

Brooks reemerged in the 80’s after a resurgence of interest in Ed Wood’s career, sparked in part by being named “Worst Director” in the Medved Brothers’ 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards”. He appeared in a trio of Mark Pirro’s Crown International flicks: A POLISH VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, DEATHROW GAMESHOW, and CURSE OF THE QUERWOLF. In Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic ED WOOD, Conrad has a cameo as a bartender. He went on to play in Direct-To-Video/DVD epics by Fred Olen Ray and Donald G. Johnson, as well as becoming, like his friend Ed, a writer/director/actor of his own films.

Conrad later became a popular figure on the Horror Film Convention Circuit, signing autographs and reminiscing with fans about his days with Ed Wood. When he died earlier today, he was the last of the Ed Wood Stock Company, and a piece of Hollywood history died with him. The Indie Film Crowd, whether they want to admit it or not, owes a debt of gratitude to men like Conrad Brooks and Ed Wood, who went out and made movies their way, as best they could, for better or worse. Our hats are off to you, Conrad Brooks, may you rest in peace. Say hi to Ed, Bela, Tor, Paul, and the gang in low-budget heaven!

Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)

Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the geezer’s arm.

Steve and Jane go back to where they found said geezer to look for clues, but The Blob engulfs the geezer, a nurse, and the doc, which Steve witnesses in horror. The kids go straight to the cops, who naturally are skeptical. They all head for Doc’s house, finding it in disarray  but with no bodies. The cops think Steve and Jane are pulling a prank, and no one believes he saw “a monster!”. Meanwhile, The Blob oozes its way around town, eating whatever’s in its path, until Steve recruits his hot-rodding buddies to warn the town there’s a Blob on the loose!

The malleable monster is among the coolest of cool 50’s aliens, a living blob of protoplasm that slimes through the streets gobbling up earthlings like Goobers and Raisinets at a drive-in show. This Incredible Bulk was really nothing more than a ball of silicone, made to look massive thanks to the genius of SPFX man Bart Sloane and DP Thomas Spaulding. They replicated some of the films’ locations in miniature and plopped the silicone into the picture, tilting the table it sat on back and forth to give the impression of movement. Red dyes were used to make Blobby seem blood-gorged as it grew larger. Simple and primitive yes, but effective as hell!

Those locations I mentioned were mainly in the small town of Phoenixville, PA, which now holds an annual “Blobfest” every July commemorating the movie. The scene of scared patrons running out of the Colonial Theater is reenacted, Chef’s Diner (where McQueen and company were trapped by Blobby) is open for business, there’s a BLOB screening along with other sci-fi shockers of the era, and special genre guests appear. Sounds like a good time to me, and Pennsylvania’s not THAT far of a drive from Massachusetts! Maybe next year…

Speaking of that iconic Colonial Theater scene, the marquee heralds a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ featuring DAUGHTER OF HORROR and BELA LUGOSI!! The former was a 1955 low budget item producer Jack Harris owned the distribution rights to, a surrealistic little number with no dialog narrated by (of all people) Ed McMahon! Lugosi’s name is up in lights because Harris also owned OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, a 1952 British production teaming the Hungarian legend with cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. The movie was known variously under the titles VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, MY SON THE VAMPIRE, and here as THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. Since there was no poster for it available, Harris simply had the title plastered onto a poster of FORBIDDEN PLANET ! Again, simple but effective.

THE BLOB was made in a simpler era, where teens and cops got along, small town life was cut and dried, and citizens rallied together to confront any enemies… even giant gelatinous aliens! Many have tried to read a bit too much into THE BLOB, but to me it’s just an entertaining drive-in flick, made in a can-do DIY spirit. Enjoy it for what it is, folks, good, clean American low-budget fun!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (The Walter Read Organization1968)

The late, great George A. Romero’s first feature, NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD, was shot in the wilds of Pittsburgh, PA on a budget of $114,000. This unheralded,  gruesome little indie became a landmark in horror, influencing and inspiring generations of moviemakers to come. Better scribes than your humble correspondent have written countless analyses on the film, so I’m going to give you my perspective from my first viewing of the film… at the impressionable age of 13!

My cousin and I, both horror buffs, first saw it as the bottom half of a double feature in 1970. The main attraction was EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Forrest J Ackerman , editor of the Monster Kid’s Bible, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. As we eagerly awaited the main attraction, we sat through the warm-up, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At first, we thought it was an older rerelease, because no one would dare make a black & white film in this modern day and age! But as things unfolded, we were treated to the scariest movie we’d ever seen (and much better than EQUINOX, which was a huge letdown after watching NOTLD!).

The movie opened in a creepily stark white cemetery, always a good sign. Johnny and Barbara are there to put flowers on their dead father’s grave, when Barbara spots a figure approaching from afar. Barbara, who’s already creeped out, is mercilessly teased by her brother, who intones in his best Karloff impression, “There’re coming to get you, Barbara!”. More cool points scored for the Boris reference! But the zombie thing attacks her, and Johnny is forced to defend against it, getting overpowered and cracking his head open on a headstone. Barbara flees for her life, making it to the car, but the zombie catches up, and soon she’s frantically running down a deserted road, her destination a lone farmhouse…

After the unrelenting terror of that first scene, we were hooked, black & white be damned!! More ghouls descend on the house, when suddenly a savior appears. His name is Ben, and he’s a black man! This was unheard of, as blacks in horror were usually relegated to comedy relief a’la Mantan Moreland , or Carribbean-type voodoo priests . But this guy was the star, the main good guy, and the one who keeps his cool amidst all the mayhem. There are other people inside, including the Cooper family, whose daughter has been bitten by one of the zombies, and young couple later shows up, but there’s no doubt Ben’s in charge of keeping this zombie apocalypse at bay.

As if all these shocks to the system weren’t enough, we find out these zombies are flesh-eating ghouls. Not only that, we’re SHOWN the undead terrors chowing down on raw flesh and guts, munching human entrails with gusto! Even Herschell Gordon Lewis was never this gross! Loud, audible cries of “EWWW!” and girlish pre-teen screams (not me, of course!) echoed throughout the theater at the sight of this cannibalistic flesh feast. Then a treat of a different kind… Bill Cardille, the voice of TV’s CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, popped up on the screen playing a reporter! He was the only recognizable actor in the film, and we wondered if Bruno Sammartino would appear next!

The tension and the shocks kept piling higher and higher, and those old theater armrests took a hell of a beating. The final shock came when Ben, hearing shots outside, came up from the basement and was shot in the head, mistaken for a zombie. His dead body, after all he did to avert the carnage, was tossed onto a pile of dead zombies, as a redneck cop quipped, “That’s another one for the fire”. Ben, the hero of the movie, died – again, unheard of in this genre!

You can see why EQUINOX was such a washout with us after viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I could write a whole other post using my critical eye, underscoring Romero’s cinematic influences, from Hitchcock to Corman , from Hawks’ RIO BRAVO to Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES, from the DIY films of Ed Wood to Herk Harvey’s chilling CARNIVAL OF SOULS. But I prefer to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD through the lens of that 13-year-old boy I once was, on the edge of my seat and mesmerized by the ghastly tableaux unfolding before me. My VHS copy of NOTLD is grainy as hell, well worn from repeated viewings, yet still manages to scare the beejeezus out of me. This movie is required viewing for all Cracked Rear Viewers, especially during the Halloween season. Rest in peace, George Romero.

Halloween Havoc!: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (Bryanston Pictures 1974)

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The first time I watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was at a drive-in around 1975. I remember laughing hysterically at the film; of course, I was tripping my brains out on mescaline at the time and laughed at anything! I’ve since viewed the film several times without chemical enhancement and I’m no longer laughing. I like it a lot, it’s a scary little exploitation shocker for sure, but one thing that really irks me is a  certain segment of critics who treat it as some kind of metaphor with deep meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like here. The tension is gripping, the horror relentless, and Tobe Hooper did a terrific job working with a miniscule budget. It’s just that over the years, critics have overanalyzed the thing to death, expounding on the political and cultural ramifications of it’s themes and blah, blah, blah. Whether or not all this blathering about Hooper’s intentions is true or not is irrelevant to me. I appreciate THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for what it is, a grimy fucking nightmare of a movie that does exactly what it’s supposed to do… scare people!

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Okay, rant over. Now let’s look at the film. A van-full of groovy young 70’s types are driving along as the radio reports lots of mysterious grave robbings going on deep in the heart of Texas. They pick up a weird dude hitchhiking who gives them a nice lesson in working at a slaughterhouse and making head cheese (‘It’s really good”). The weirdo cuts himself, then slashes wheelchair-bound Franklin in the arm. The kids kick him out, and he smears blood on the side of the van as they leave.

They make it to a gas station/barbeque joint, looking for “the old Franklin place” (an unedited mistake, as Franklin and sister Sally’s last name is Hardesty, otherwise he’d be Franklin Franklin!). But the station’s out of gas, and the owner warns them away from the property. They go anyway (of course they do!), finding the old homestead in a state of decay. Kirk and Pam (and I love her 70’s halter top… God, I miss those!) come across an old farmhouse and hear machinery. Thinking they might borrow some petrol, Kirk goes inside. He hears strange noises, then suddenly, we get our first glimpse of Leatherface, who bashes Kirk’s head in and drags him into a mysterious room.

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Pam reluctantly searches for Kirk, and stumbles (literally) into this chamber of horrors, with rotted bones, skulls, and teeth strewn everywhere. She flees, but is grabbed by Leatherface and hung on a meathook as the creep revs up his chainsaw and begins slicing and dicing Kirk’s body while she screams in agony.

Sally’s boyfriend Jerry goes to look for the couple, and quickly becomes the next victim. Night falls, leaving Sally and Franklin left. He wants to go for help, but Sally’s determined to find her friends. She pushes her brother through the wooded area, when out pops Leatherface to start carving up the helpless Franklin. Sally bolts, her terror is palpable, and the chase is frightening to the viewer. She runs all the way back to the gas station, only to be captured bythe owner. It seems he’s the proud papa of both Leatherface and the weird dude, and that barbeque they’re serving is human flesh!

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The family of cannibals also includes Grampa, a mummified old man who sucks on Sally’s sliced finger in an incredibly creepy moment. Sally is beaten and tortured before making her escape by jumping through a closed window, bloodied and screaming for her life, as Leatherface and his demented family give chase through the isolated woods…

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Tobe Hooper piled one terror after another on poor Sally with full-throttle intensity. His technical skills behind the camera were noticed by Hollywood, as were the heaps of money the film made, and soon he was an A-lister, directing the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT and producer Steven Speilberg’s big screen POLTERGEIST. The fact that Hooper didn’t remain an A-lister long was more due to his independent streak than his prowess behind the camera. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was one of the most influential films of its era, inspiring a slew of slasher movies and pretty much creating all the genre’s tropes. It made a horror icon out of the late Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, and Marilyn Burns’ Sally is one of the all-time great Scream Queens. It will scare the hell out of you, but please don’t try to read any more than that into the movie. Redeeming social qualities? Forget it! Can’t we all just enjoy a good torturefest without being subjected to endless analytical torture?

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