RIP Sid Haig: A Career Retrospective

Quick, name an actor who’s played villains opposite everyone from Batman to  James Bond, and Captain Kirk to TJ Hooker. Not to mention sharing screen time with stars like Ann-Margret, Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney Jr, Pam Grier, Nancy Kwan, Lee Marvin, and Anthony Quinn, and working with directors as diverse as Robert Aldrich, Jack Hill, Richard Fleischer, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Rob Zombie.  There’s only one, and his name was Sid Haig, one of the last links to Old Hollywood and an Exploitation Icon, who sadly passed away yesterday at age 80.

Young Sidney Moesian, born 7/17/39 in Fresno, was bitten by the show biz bug early, dancing onstage as a child and even scoring a regional rock hit with his teenage band The T-Birds:

Sid got his acting education paying his dues at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, alongside roommate Stuart Margolin (THE ROCKFORD FILES, DEATH WISH, etc). His first feature was Jack Hill’s 1964’s SPIDER BABY , which didn’t get released until about four years later, and didn’t really hit it’s stride until being rediscovered during the VHS boom of the 1980’s.

Spider Baby (with Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Lon Chaney Jr.)

SPIDER BABY concerns the quirky Merrye family, with Sid as the drooling, psychotic Ralph, brother of homicidal sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), watched over by caretaker/chauffeur Bruno, played by horror vet Lon Chaney Jr. in what’s arguably his best latter-day performance. Even Mantan Moreland shows up in this blackest of black comedies, The two old pros are fun to watch, but Sid holds his own in a fine (if bizarre!) debut.

Lobby card for “It’s A Bikini World” (with Deborah Walley)

With his long, lanky frame, bald dome, and scruffy beard, Sid Haig was soon typecast mainly as a bad guy, but not always. In the beach flicks BEACH BALL, you can catch him on his beloved drums backing up The Righteous Brothers, and in IT’S A BIKINI WORLD , Sid plays ‘Daddy’, car customizer and owner of teen hangout The Dungeon. But in mainstream films of the era (POINT BLANK, THE HELL WITH HEROES, CHE!) Sid’s definitely not on the side of the angels.

Henchman of King Tut (Victor Buono) on TV’s BATMAN

He kept really busy on television during the 60’s, making his first TV appearance as ‘Augie the Hood’ on a 1962 episode of THE UNTOUCHABLES. He donned the bandages of his former co-star Chaney to play The Mummy in a 1965 LUCY SHOW episode titled “Lucy Meets The Monsters”, during the Classic Horror Revival of that decade (ahh, the good old days!!). He was one of King Tut’s (Victor Buono) henchmen on a BATMAN two-parter, one of the Lawgivers on the STAR TREK episode “Return of the Archons”, and made the rounds of both TV Westerns (LAREDO, THE IRON HORSE, DANIEL BOONE, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, GUNSMOKE) and spy shows like THE MAN FROM UNCLE, the spoof GET SMART, and nine (count ’em) different episodes of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – as nine different bad guys!

Bond villain Sid in “Diamonds Are Forever”

Sid was one of William Smith’s biker gang, who kidnap Ann-Margret in CC & COMPANY (starring NFL quarterback Joe Namath!). He has a small part as a prisoner in director George Lucas’ debut THX 1138, but his next found him in a higher profile film, as one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s henchmen in 1971’s DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , with Sean Connery returning to his iconic role as James Bond. Other more mainstream film roles followed: one of the hobos in EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, ‘The Arab’ in THE DON IS DEAD, a bouncer in BUSTING. But it was in the world of low budget Exploitation movies that Sid really began to make his mark.

With Pam Grier in “The Big Bird Cage”

Jack Hill’s 1971 THE BIG DOLL HOUSE helped kicked off the popular “Women in Prison” genre, with Sid as a sleazebag opposite Pam Grier, Judy Brown, and Roberta Collins. In Hill’s THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), he’s a revolutionary named Django (!!) and Pam’s his girlfriend Blossom, who leads a prison breakout. BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA (1973) finds Sid as Ruben, enlisted to hunt down escapees Pam and Margaret Markov in this distaff version of THE DEFIANT ONES directed by Eddie Romero. 1974’s SAVAGE SISTERS (aka EBONY, IVORY, AND JADE) casts him as a comic crook alongside Vic Diaz, up against genre stalwarts Gloria Hendry, Cheri Caffaro, and John Ashley in another fun, action-packed Romero epic!

With Pam again 9and Alan Arbus) in “Coffy”

Sid was no stranger to Blaxpolitation either, teaming again with Pam Grier and director Hill for two slam-bang genre entries. In COFFY (1973), he’s once again a henchman,this time to mobster Alan Arbus, with Pam as “the Baddest One-Chick Hit Squad” (according to the lurid movie poster!) out to avenge her brother’s death. FOXY BROWN (1974) has Pam again in vengeance mode, and Sid (you guessed it!) another mean henchman.

Saturday morning sci-fi: JASON OF STAR COMMAND

The oddly endearing Filipino sci-fi flick BEYOND ATLANTIS (1973) casts Sid as one of the treasure hunters who stumble upon a race of half-human, half-amphibians, with a cast that features Patrick Wayne, John Ashley, Filipino vets Vic Diaz and Eddie Garcia, and George (ROBOT MONSTER) Nader. On the small screen, Sid had a recurring role on Norman Lear’s soap opera spoof MARY HARTMAN MARY HARTMAN as Texas, a Fernwood auto factory worker and colleague of Mary’s (Louise Lasser) husband Tom (Greg Mullavey). The Saturday morning kiddie show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, during the height of the original STAR WARS craze, cast him as Dragos, the main villain and antagonist of hero Jason (Craig Littler). (Trivia Note: STAR TREK’s James Doohan was also in the cast during the first season as Jason’s commander!).

A biker bad guy on THE A-TEAM

More TV guest shots followed: THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, GET CHRISTIE LOVE! (the closest thing to a TV version of Blaxploitation!), THE ROCKFORD FILES (with former roomie Stuart Margolin), EMERGENCY!, POLICE STORY, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, HART TO HART, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, TJ HOOKER, THE A-TEAM, THE FALL GUY, HILL STREET BLUES, MCGYVER. But by 1992, Sid had grown tired of Hollywood and quit acting. In a 2004 interview with KAOS2000 Magazine, he explained: “I just didn’t want to play stupid heavies anymore. They just kept giving me the same parts but just putting different clothes on me… I resented it”. He stayed off the screen for almost ten years, popping up only in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997) as a judge, and starring his old friend Pam Grier in the title role. Believe it or not, Sid worked as a licensed hypnotherapist during these years.

Sid’s comeback began with a cameo as a grinning pirate in the Rob Zombie music video “Feel So Numb”:

This led to Zombie casting Sid in his feature film directorial debut, 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, an homage to all those crazy Grindhouse horror movies of the 70’s (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, etc). Sid is the deranged Captain Spaulding, leader of the murderous Firefly brood (all of whom are named after characters in Marx Brothers movies – but all you film buffs already know that!!). The terror is cranked up to 11, and Sid  Haig was introduced to a new audience, and worshipped as a horror icon! Henchman no longer! Captain Spaulding and his’family’ (Bill Mosley, Sherry Moon Zombie) returned for 2005’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, and will be back October 14 for 3 FROM HELL, scaring the crap out of us all at the local multiplex (I know I’ll be there!).

Sid Haig had a long career as a character actor, and I’ve only touched on the highlights of it. He wasn’t a ‘star’, but a solid supporting player who lend his special brand of lunacy to his parts, and fans like myself were delighted when Rob Zombie made him an “overnight horror sensation” after almost 50 years in front of the cameras. Thanks for all the ‘B’ Movie and TV memories, Sid… we won’t forget you!

Farewell, Captain Spaulding

News has reached us that character actor Sid Haig has passed away at age 80. I’ll have a full tribute/career retrospective on Sid later tonight or tomorrow evening. Meanwhile, enjoy this pictorial tribute to the late, great Sid Haig…

Spider Baby (1964; D: Jack Hill)
CC & Company (1970; D: Seymour Robbie)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971; D: Guy Hamilton)
Foxy Brown (1974; D: Jack Hill)
Jackie Brown (1997; D: Quentin Tarantino)

All Star Exploitation: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australian 2010)

Tonight we celebrate baseball with MLB’s 90th annual All-Star Game, and… what’s that you say, Dear Readers? You don’t LIKE baseball?!? (*sighs, shakes head, mutters “must be some kinda Commies”*) Luckily for you, I’ve got an alternative for your viewing pleasure this evening. It’s an All-Star salute to the halcyon days of low-budget Exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that lasted roughly from 1959 (Gerry DeLeon’s TERROR IS A MAN, with Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen) to the early 80’s and the advent both of VHS, which effectively ended the Drive-In/Grindhouse Era, and political upheaval caused in part by Fernando Marcos’s imposition of martial law on the island nation.

1971’s “Beast of the Yellow Night”

This Australian-made documentary by writer/director Mark Hartley covers the wild, wild world of making Exploitation movies in the jungle on a shoestring budget through judicious use of clips, trailers, and interviews with the people who made these crazy things – and lived to tell about it! And you want non-baseball All-Stars? Let’s start with the King of the ‘B’s’ himself, Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures produced, financed (minimally, I might add!), and released many of them stateside, beginning with 1971’s BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT and ending with 1979’s JAWS -ripoff UP FROM THE DEEP. Rapid Roger makes no bones about the fact these little epics were green lit strictly to make money – and boy, did they ever!

Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in “Black Mama White Mama” (1973)

Among the many interviewees are directors Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Jonathan Kaplan , and John Landis , Corman graduates all. Landis is particularly candid and hilarious in his assessment of pretentious, eggheaded critics who saw more into these schlockfests than was intended. Like Corman, he fully admits the only reason they were made was a quick buck! Also on hand are rare interviews with legendary Filipino directors Eddie Romero (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA , THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE) and Cirio Santiago (TNT JACKSON, THE MUTHERS , VAMPIRE HOOKERS).

Pam again, with Sid Haig in “The Big Doll House” (1971)

And talk about All-Stars? How’s this for a power-hitting lineup: Colleen Camp (EBONY, IVORY, & JADE), Marlene Clark (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), Pam Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), Gloria Hendry (SAVAGE SISTERS), Dick Miller (FLY ME), Chris Mitchum (THE ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER), Patrick Wayne (BEYOND ATLANTIS), and Celeste Yarnell (BEAST OF BLOOD) all appear in interview segments. Not only that, but the great Sid Haig , who costarred in just about ALL of these films (many times opposite Grier), shares his own reminiscences about the glory days of Filipino filmmaking.

James Bond Jr?: Weng Weng in “For Y’ur Height Only” (1981)

There’s loads of clips and trailers from classic trash like THE BIG BIRD CAGE, COVER GIRL MODELS (“They’re always overexposed but they’re never underdeveloped!”), DYNAMITE JOHNSON, FIRECRACKER, THE HOT BOX (“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”), THEY CALL HER CLEOPATRA WONG, WOMEN IN CAGES, and FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, starring the immortal 2’9″ Filipino superstar Weng Weng! It’s all here in MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED: mad monsters, women in chains, action, explosions, and most importantly, The 3 B’s – Beasts, Blood, and Breasts! They just don’t make ’em like these flicks anymore, and probably never will again. This is one hell of a fun documentary that Grindhouse/Exploitation/Drive-In fans won’t want to miss! Now excuse me while I go watch some baseball.

from Eddie Romero’s “The Twilight People” (1972)

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post of 2018!

We begin with BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (American-International, 1972), a Philippine-made “Women in Prison” entry by director Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the Philippines. Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier stars as a feisty American hooker who escapes from your typical brutal jungle prison chained to rich white revolutionary Margaret Markov. If you’re expecting something along the lines of 1957’s THE DEFIANT ONES, forget it! Instead, strap yourselves in for lots of nudity (including the obligatory shower scene!), violence, torture, and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Pam and Margaret jump a pair of nuns and steal their habits in order to make their getaway!

Sid Haig, a CRV favorite!

Besides WIP veterans Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, etc) and Markov (THE HOT BOX), the film features the immortal Sid Haig , who’s a riot as a redneck cowboy bounty hunter hired by the local gendarmes to hunt the girls down, dead or alive! I always enjoy Sid in roles large or small, and here he plays this crazy cracker to the hilt! Also in the cast is Vic Diaz, a mainstay of these Filipino exploitation classics, as the ruthless drug lord ripped off by Pam, who’s also hunting our heroines. Lynn Borden is the horny prison matron who peeps on the girls, and wants a piece of Pam pie! BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is a must for genre fans, who’ll love the violent’n’bloody climax!

From the Philippines, we travel to Spain for the Eurowestern THE TEXICAN (Columbia 1966), a strange hybrid of traditional and Spaghetti styles directed by sagebrush veteran Lesley Selander. This was Audie Murphy’s first and only foray into the Spaghetti genre, and his next-to-last film. and though he’s a little more clean-cut than most Spaghetti protagonists, he fits in with the material just fine (as a side note, Murphy was one of many Western stars who turned down Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , for which Clint Eastwood is eternally grateful!).

Audie’s still very youthful looking at age 41; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for costar Broderick Crawford, playing the villain who kills Murphy’s brother and triggers this revenge tale. Crawford, at age 55, looks mighty dissipated due to his years of heavy drinking, though it’s still fun to watch him snarl and growl his way through the role of mean town boss Luke Starr. Spaghetti regular Aldo Sambrell appears as Crawford’s right-hand gunman, adding his own brand of ‘foreign’ menace. Nico Fidenco’s score aids in setting the film’s mood, and the showdown in the swirling sandstorm street, followed by final retribution in Crawford’s saloon, is well staged by Selander. If you’re not an Audie Murphy and/or Spaghetti Western fan, you’ll probably want to pass, but those of you who are (and include me in that  number) will enjoy this minor entry in the genre’s canon.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (Entertainment Pyramid 1972) was a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller I’d never heard of before. It starts in 1940, as two college kids are making out in a cemetery, when a crypt opens and vampire Caleb Croft attacks, killing the boy and raping the girl. This macabre opening sets the stage as the girl later gives birth to a strange little baby who prefers blood over milk! From there, we flash-forward to the 70’s, as the child (now a grown-up William Smith ) seeks to destroy his unholy father, working at the local university under the name Prof. Adam Lockwood. In reality, Croft/Lockwood is Charles Croyden, an 1800’s nobleman whose wife Sarah was burned at the stake in Salem. Lynn Peters plays student Anne, and of course she’s a dead (no pun intended) ringer for Sarah. Michael Pataki makes a pretty fierce vampire, Smith is always fun to watch, and the film even manages to sneak in a Bela Lugosi reference! Creepy and atmospheric, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE should be on any horror buff’s must-watch list.

Another surprise was RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (AIP 1967), one of many Hippiesploitation flicks the studio made during those fabulous 60’s. Aldo Ray stars as Lt. Walt Lorimer, trying to keep the peace between the establishment forces and the kids on the Strip. Walt’s the voice of reason… until his daughter Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is given an LSD-spiked soda at a party and gang-raped by five punks. Mimsy’s interpretive “freak-out” dance is a sight to behold! The movie also features an overacting Anna Mizrahi as Andy’s pink-haired lush of a mom… perhaps she should’ve picked up some acting pointers from husband Lee Strasberg.

Mimsy Farmer freaking out!

The surprise part came for me when some of the great garage bands of the era performed. The Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame) do the title tune, featuring lead singer/drummer/ex-Mouseketeer Dickie Dodd and Russ Tamblyn’s younger brother Larry. There’s The Chocolate Watch Band, who sound like a punk Rolling Stones, and The Enemies, fronted by future Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. The movie has some footage from the actual ’66 riot spliced in, and on the whole is pretty well done for this sort of thing. A psychedelic artifact definitely worth a look.

Last but not least, Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA (AIP 1970) is one of the  onslaught of gangster epics churned out after the success of 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE. This one’s a cut above thanks to Corman and star Shelley Winters , giving a bravura performance as the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker without going over the top… well, not too far, anyway! Ma and her cretinous brood (Don Stroud, Robert DeNiro, Robert Wolders, Clint Kimbrough) rob, murder, rape, and kidnap their way to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list before the carnage-filled finale, with Bruce Dern , Diane Varsi , and Pat Hingle joining them along the way.

Little Bobby DeNiro and “Mama” Shelley Winters

Young Mr. DeNiro plays dope fiend son Lloyd in one of his earliest pictures. In fact, this may very well be his first gangster role! It also marks the feature debut of cinematographer John A. Alonso, who went on to lens VANISHING POINT , LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, SCARFACE, and many other films of note. BLOODY MAMA’s got a lot going for it, and Corman has said it’s his favorite among the many films he’s made.

There are a lot more movies I watched while sidelined, and more Cleaning Out the DVR to come! Next time, we’ll return to the dark world of film noir!

 

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #6: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD (Trans-American 1967)

bikini1

IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is one of the lowest of the low-budget “Beach Party” ripoffs you’ll ever see. Yet it has a certain charm to it, a likeable little “battle of the sexes” soufflé featuring some great 60’s rock acts and the undeniable appeal of beach bunny Deborah Walley.

bikini2

Beach stud Mike Samson goes gaga for knockout new redhead Delilah Dawes (Samson and Delilah, get it?). She thinks he’s an egotistical jerk and gives him the big freeze-out, telling him she prefers the “serious type”, so Mike dons a pair of thick glasses and some nerdy duds, passing himself off as intellectual brother “Herbert”. Herbert takes her to museums and zoos, while Mike competes with her in skateboarding and boat races run by local customizer Daddy, owner of hangout The Dungeon. Delilah discovers Mike’s scam, and they compete in a final Cross Country Race that consists of car racing, motorcycles, swimming, and even riding camels! Mike throws the race, and the two finally get together, as if there were ever any doubt.

bikini3

The extremely loose plot is just an excuse to have a bunch of classic Sixties rocker lipsynch some of their hits. Pat and Lolly Vegas, the Native American brothers who wrote P.J. Proby’s hit “Niki Hoky” and later formed the band Redbone, sing “Walk On”. R&B girl group The Toys perform their minor hit “Attack!”. Memphis garage rockers The Gentrys, featuring future WWF manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart as lead singer, do the frat rocker “Spread It On Thick”. Minnesota’s The Castaways jam out to their smash hit “Liar Liar”. And finally, British Invasion blues rock stars The Animals, with a bored looking Eric Burdon, do the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil classic “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, which is what Burdon looks like he wishes he were doing!

bikini4

Can I get a shout out for the ever-delectable All-American girl Deborah Walley! The cute, perky Miss Walley made her film debut as every surfer’s dream in 1961’s GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN, and quickly became a teen flick favorite. Deborah appeared in several AIP “Beach” movies (BEACH BLANKET BINGO, SKI PARTY, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI) and was married for a spell to “Beach” regular John Ashley. She was a drummer in Elvis Presley’s band in SPINOUT, and co-starred for two seasons as Eve Arden’s daughter on the sitcom THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW. Deborah’s costar here is Tommy Kirk, former Disney star (OLD YELLER, THE SHAGGY DOG, SON OF FLUBBER) who was fired when Disney was informed Kirk was gay. Moving over to AIP, Tommy did PAJAMA PARTY and GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Walley). After getting busted for marijuana, Kirk’s career and life slid downhill. He made MARS NEEDS WOMEN for Larry Buchanan and  BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR for Al Adamson, and developed a vicious drug habit that rendered him unemployable. After getting clean and sober, Tommy Kirk left show business, running a successful carper cleaning business. He returned “home” in 2006 when he was named a ‘Disney Legend’ by the company, and does the occasional fan convention.

bikini5

Kirk’s pal is played by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett, who would’ve been better used lipsynching his hit “Monster Mash “, because he sure can’t act! Daddy is played with gusto by the great Sid Haig , hamming it up and peppering his speech with phrases like “It’s a gas” and “Groovy, man”. Director Stephanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé and one of the only women working in the exploitation field besides Doris Wishman. Corman financed IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, and clips of his ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS are shown when the gang goes to the movies! Rothman and husband Charles Schwartz (who produced and cowrote the screenplay) later left Corman and formed Dimension Films, where she became noted for THE VELVET VAMPIRE and TERMINAL ISLAND. Rothman’s decidedly feminist point of view is evident in this one, pitting Walley against Kirk in physical sporting competitions, something you didn’t see in AIP’s Frankie and Annette features.

bikini6

Let me be honest though: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is cheap, low budget nonsense geared for the teenage drive-in crowd, made to separate kids from their allowances on the weekend. It’s full of corny jokes and dumb slapstick gags, and most of the money spent on it probably went to get the rock’n’rollers to appear. That being said, it’s hard not to like this little time capsule of the Swinging Sixties. It does what it’s supposed to; it keeps you entertained for an hour and a half. Plus, it’s got those classic rock acts in it, and Deborah Walley to look at. Sounds like a win-win to me!!

 

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

spider1

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.

spider2

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.

spider3

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”.

spider4

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.

That’s Blaxploitaion 3: Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN (AIP 1974)

foxy1

Foxy Brown is one bad-ass chick, and FOXY BROWN is one bad-ass movie! Action queen Pam Grier plays Foxy, who’s out to get the bad guys that killed her boyfriend Mike (Terry Carter), an undercover narc. Mike has had plastic surgery to disguise himself from the mob, but Foxy’s weasely brother Linc (Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear of TV’s STARSKY & HUTCH) owes the villians twenty grand for a coke deal, so he drops a dime on Mike. The mob guns Mike down and Foxy is out for revenge!

foxy2

The gang is run by Miss Katherine and her man, Steve Elias. Foxy, as ‘Misty Cotton’, infiltrates their set-up. The dastardly duo run a ‘modeling agency’ as a front, using hookers to ‘persuade’ judges, politicians, and other authorities for protection for their dope racket. Foxy goes on an assignment with another hooker named Claudia (Juanita Brown) to seduce a judge, but the pair end up humiliating him instead! Foxy and  Claudia end up getting in cinema’s first lesbian barroom brawl (that I know of, anyway) and captured by the bad guys. Foxy is then doped up and sent to ‘The Ranch’, run by a couple of horndog redneck drug dealers, who rape and torture her. She escapes of course, being bad-ass and all, then finds out Elias and his crew have killed Linc and his coked out girlfriend. Foxy allies herself with the “Anti-Slavery Committee”, a group of righteous brothers battling dope pushers, and they take down Miss Katherine and her gang in a bloody, action packed climax.

foxy3

This was Grier’s fourth film with writer/director Jack Hill. The two pioneered the “women-in-prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, then scored big with the blaxploitationer COFFY. FOXY BROWN firmly established Grier as the top female action star, and she’s dynamite as always. Miss Katherine is played by Kathryn Loder, who was also a villainess in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. Peter Brown (Elias) is mainly known for TV Westerns (THE LAWMAN and LAREDO), and his appearances on soap operas. The great Sid Haig has a cameo as a dope smuggling pilot, and ex-wrestler H.B. Haggerty is a hoot as one of the rednecks. Motown producer/arranger/songwriter Willie Hutch provides the funky soundtrack.

foxy4

FOXY BROWN is loaded with 70s slang, outrageous fashions, and plenty of sex and violence. Like any good exploitation flick, there’s lots of gratuitous nudity, too. Blaxploitation fans won’t be disappointed, because FOXY BROWN is one of the genre’s best. Like the poster says, “Don’t mess aroun’ with…FOXY BROWN!”

Other righteous That’s Blaxploitaion entries: