Halloween Havoc! Extra: When Strikes Tor Johnson!!

Today we celebrate the birthday of everybody’s favorite wrestler-turned-actor named Johnson… no, not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but the hulking Tor Johnson (1902-1971)! Before he starred in all those Ed Wood epics, Tor was a pro wrestler billed as ‘The Super Swedish Angel’ (a bad guy, of course), and performed in hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bouts around the globe. Each year, Cracked Rear Viewer pays tribute to the 6’3″, 400 lb. behemoth, and this year I’ve unearthed a clip from a 1948 Budd Boetticher-directed noir called BEHIND LOCKED DOORS, in which Tor beats the crap out of another horror/sci-fi icon, Richard Carlson . Happy birthday, O Mighty Tor!:

The Human Orchid: Gorgeous George in ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949)

WWE’s annual “Wrestlemania” extravaganza is scheduled for Sunday night in New Orleans, so I thought I’d dig up something wrestling related for tonight’s post…  

George Raymond Wagner (1915-1963), better known by the nom de guerre Gorgeous George, helped sell more television sets in the late 40’s/early 50’s than anyone this side of ‘Uncle’ Milton Berle . Professional wrestling was on the airwaves six nights a week, on every network, and Americans were clamoring to get a glimpse of the flamboyant antics of the  bleached-blonde, sequin-robed “sissy” who grappled like a wild tiger inside the squared circle. But TV sets were over many an Average Joe’s budget back in those days, so Republic Pictures took the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, signing “The Toast of the Coast” to star in his own movie, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

Gorgeous George in his heyday

The movie itself is nothing to write home about: an East Coast gangster tries to muscle in on the West Coast rasslin’ scene, causing George’s manager to enlist the aid of homicide detective Ron Peterson. Peterson is named the new “czar of wrestling” as Athletic Commissioner, so the shifty racketeer Merlo sics slinky chanteuse Colette on him. George’s rival Slammin’ Sammy Menacker (playing himself) is also sweet on the singer with “ze ‘orribile” French accent, and has a beef with Peterson (“No canary dumps me for a flatfoot!”), as well as George, leading to an epic ring confrontation between the two “grunt-and-groaners”. After one fall apiece, Menacker dies in the ring, and George is arrested for murder! It’s up to Peterson to clear the Gorgeous One and free him to fight another day, plus keep the “Sport of Kings” out of the hands of the unscrupulous syndicate…

Manager Audrey Long holds ‘The Human Orchid’ back from detective Robert Rockwell

The script is below the level of Ed Wood , the direction non-existent, and the budget rock bottom. But wrestling fans won’t care about all that; this is a chance to see the one-and-only “Human Orchid” in action. George was in fact a pretty damn good wrestler, and held his own with the best in the business. The film gives us a complete match with George vs. Bomber Kulkovich (actor/wrestler Henry “Bomber” Kulky), and two-thirds of one against Menacker before the latter’s untimely demise (in the movie, that is! Menacker would go on to become a successful TV wrestling commentator in the Midwest). George’s showmanship can be found in every narcissistic wrestling character to follow, from ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair to ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and his trash-talking was an inspiration to a young boxer named Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), who met the grappler after a 1961 Las Vegas match against  Freddie Blassie.

George battles with Slammin’ Sammy Menacker in “Alias The Champ”

Many other wrestling stars of the era make appearances besides George, Menacker, and Kulky. Legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. and referee Mike Ruby are in the wrestling scenes, as is George’s valet Jackson, doing his own little schtick of carefully folding George’s robe, and spraying the ref’s hands with disinfectant. A scene where a brawl breaks out at the gym between the Gorgeous One and Menacker includes Tor Johnson (billed as “The Super Swedish Angel”), Count Billy Varga, Bobby Managoff, and Sockeye McDonald, battling to the strains of The William Tell Overture!

The Gorgeous One gets groomed as Menacker mans the perfume bottle

Fans of the sport will surely recognize many of the holds and moves still used today: cross-body blocks, arm bars, dropkicks, back elbows, and of course, the dreaded Ref Bump! ALIAS THE CHAMP is a time capsule for wrestling buffs, a look back to when a more grappling-based game was in style, unlike the high-flying acrobatics of today. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film, so don’t expect CASABLANCA! Clocking in at just over an hour, it’s easy enough on the brain to entertain, and gives you a chance to see the one-and-only Gorgeous George in action. That alone makes it worthwhile for fans of rasslin’ history!

Gorgeous George (1915-1963)

Halloween Havoc! Extra: A Brief Interlude with Tor Johnson on His Birthday

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Ed Wood’s favorite ghoul, Tor Johnson was born on this date in 1903. The wrestler-turned-actor (long before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!) began appearing in films in the 1930’s in bit parts before being cast as Bela Lugosi’s henchman Lobo in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, and becoming one of horror’s iconic characters (so iconic, a Halloween mask created by Don Post in Tor’s likeness became Post’s biggest seller ever!).

In 1959, Tor made an appearance on Groucho Marx’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE quiz show. The acerbic Groucho needled the former “Super Swedish Angel”, and as you can see in this clip, TOR NOT LIKE FUNNY LITTLE MAN!:

Happy birthday, Tor!!

 

The Farce Awakens: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (DCA 1959)

 

Plan_9_Alternative_posterI have a confession to make: I’m not a big STAR WARS buff. I enjoyed the original for what it was, an homage to campy serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. I never expected it to take off as it did and become a pop culture phenomenon, though. I also like the two sequels, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. If the entire saga ended right there, I would have been happy. I did not run out to go see the three “prequel” movies, which according to what I’ve read aren’t all that good (I’ve still never watched them, myself). And I definitely won’t be running out to fight the crowds for THE FORCE AWAKENS. No interest whatsoever. If you’re like me, and couldn’t care less about the whole STAR WARS mythos thing, but are still in the mood for some cornball sci-fi this weekend, may I suggest you make some popcorn and watch PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE?

“What?”, you’re thinking, “Is he daffy?? Has the Cracked Rear Viewer completely cracked? PLAN 9? The-worst-movie-of-all-time??” Well, first of all, it’s not nearly as bad as THE CREEPING TERROR or BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (Or Eraserhead,  for that matter). Second, though it is pretty nonsensical, and cheaply made to boot, PLAN 9 is fun to watch, especially if you’ve seen it over and over again (like me). I know what’s coming, and wait for it, then laugh my ass off! I’m sure that’s not what low-budget auteur Ed Wood had in mind when he made it, but the film’s got it’s following and is still loved by many for the sheer lunacy of it all.

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We begin with that prestigious prognosticator and old Hollywood fraud Criswell, seated at a table reading Wood’s incoherent prologue. “We are all interested in the future”, he intones, “for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives”.  No shit, Sherlock! “We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls that survived this terrible ordeal… My friends, can your heart stand the shocking truth about… Grave Robbers from Outer Space!?!?”

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From there, we enter into the mad, mad world of Edward D. Wood, Jr. There are some gravediggers who run in fear of the zombie-like Vampira (though I think she looks pretty hot!), followed by silent footage of Bela Lugosi as an old man who gets hit by a car (offscreen). The great Lugosi had died three years earlier, but Wood had some unused footage and incorporated it into PLAN 9. The dead Hungarian still manages to walk away with the film’s best acting honors!

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The police are called in to investigate the eerie goings-on, and Inspector Clay arrives…wait, IT’S TOR JOHNSON! The hulking ex-wrestler has a speaking role here, and he should’ve stayed mute, tripping over lines like “mellical examiner”. Clay wanders in the cemetery to look things over when he’s attacked by Lugosi. Wait, that’s not Lugosi. It’s Wood’s wife’s chiropractor Dr. Tom Mason, standing in for dearly departed Bela. He hides his face behind his cape, but from the eyes up…he looks NOTHING like Lugosi, not to mention he’s a lot taller. Anyways, the cops find their boss’s body, and in a brilliant deduction state, “Inspector Clay’s dead…murdered…and SOMEBODY’S responsible!”

Let’s switch over to the wild blue yonder, where we meet pilot Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott) and his crew of two. While co-pilot Danny and stewardess Edith banter about “balling it up in Albuquerque”, the plane is swooshed by a mysterious object, bathing the cockpit in white light. It can only be one thing: a flying saucer! “You mean the kind from up there?”, asks Edith. “Yeah”, replies Jeff, “or it’s counterpart!” Jeff returns home to his lovely wife Paula (Mona McKinnon) complaining about being “muzzled by big Army brass”. Something about the way Walcott says “big Army brass” causes me to go into fits of hysterical laughter every time!

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Meanwhile in Washington, the big Army brass is having a debriefing. Well, two of them anyway, General Roberts (down on his luck character actor Lyle Talbot) and Colonel Edwards (former cowboy star Tom Keene). Stock footage of military might is juxtaposed with cheesy model flying saucers on strings, and the cheesy models are winning! Edwards is sent out to search for the truth, while in space, aliens Eros and Tana (Dudley Manlove, Joanna Lee) are meeting with their superior, The Ruler (John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge). Manlove’s pompous, over the top performance is one of PLAN 9’s highlights, while the flamboyantly gay Breckinridge is a hoot! (Miss Lee is apparently just there for window dressing.) The aliens, in what looks like costumes left over from a “Knights of the Round Table” flick, discuss putting Plan 9 into action- the rising of the dead!

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Lugosi comes out of his tomb dressed in full Dracula regalia, and he and Vampira chase Paula though the cemetery. Poor Tor visibly struggles to rise from his  grave, looking like he’s had one too many Swedish meatballs. The zombie trio are brought up to the Ruler, and Tor almost runs amok (or walks amok). Intrepid heroes Jeff, Edwards, and Lt. Moore (Duke Moore) find the saucer (how could anyone miss it?) and encounter Eros and Tanna. Eros gives a clumbsily written but cool speech about how mankind will destroy themselves and take the rest of the galaxy with them, because they’re bound to discover “the solarminite bomb”, which apparently no one but Eros can pronounce correctly. Eros taunts the good guys with “You see! You see! Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”, which gets him a sock on the jaw from Jeff. An epic battle then occurs (well, not so epic), with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes foiling the alien scheme, setting their spaceship afire, which is shown as the flying saucer model on a string set on fire, finally blowing up to high heavens. Then it’s back to Criswell for the final words: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?…God help us in the future!”

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It may seem like I’m ripping this movie apart, but I really love PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Despite the flowery dialogue and miniscule budget, Ed Wood put together an entertaining film. Maybe if he had a co-writer to reign in his propensity for long winded speeches that don’t always make sense, and had more money to work with, his films would be looked at in a different light today. Wood had some good ideas, but didn’t have the means to execute them properly. But you have to admit, he did his best with what he had to work with, and isn’t that all you can ask from anyone? I’d rewatch this, or Ed’s other masterpieces like BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and GLEN OR GLENDA? before paying big bucks to see a bloated, overhyped film like THE FORCE AWAKENS any day.  That may sound like heresy to you true blue STAR WARS fanatics, but that’s just one of the reasons I love movies so much. Everyone’s got their own personal favorites and different tastes. For those of you who’re crazy about STAR WARS, by all means have a good time this weekend. Me, I’ll be in the recliner, bowl of popcorn in my lap, grinning from ear to ear at PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Happy viewing, all!

 

Halloween Havoc!: John Carradine in THE UNEARTHLY (Republic 1957)

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John Carradine hams it up as mad scientist Dr. Charles Conway in THE UNEARTHLY. The actor gave fine performances in first rate productions like THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but by the 1940s,he took anything offered him, mostly B- horror and Western films. One thing you can say about Carradine: he was never boring. The movies might have sucked, but ol’ John put his melodramatic stamp on every one of them.

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Lovely Grace Thomas is brought to Dr. Conway’s sanitarium by her psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. But there’s something fishy going on here! Wright has been bringing patients to Conway so he can conduct his bizarre “glandular experiments”. Conway’s latest victim, Harry Jedloe, has become a zombie-like horror in a catatonic state. The good doctor’s giant servant, Lobo, is another unfortunate result of Conway’s experiments. Lobo is played by Swedish wrestler turned horror icon Tor Johnson. Tor was a 300 lb. bald hulk who couldn’t act, but whose look was perfect for low-grade schlock like this. The character Lobo first appeared in Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER starring Bela Lugosi. Tor also played Inspector Clay in Wood’s messterpiece, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

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Lobo finds a man sneaking around the grounds, and drags him to Dr. Conway. The man calls himself Mark Houston, but Conway has seen a police bulletin on him. He’s really Frank Scott, wanted for murder. Conway offers Houston sanctuary in exchange for becoming a guinea pig in the doctor’s experiments, which involves planting a “17th gland” in the subject, giving him eternal life and youth. Next day we meet the other patients. There’s beautiful Natalie and anxiety-ridden Danny. There’s also Conway’s lab assistant Sharon, who’s jealous of Grace and secretly in love with the doctor. After dinner, Conway regales the patients with his virtuoso organ playing while Lobo abducts Natalie from her room. The deranged medico does his glandular thing, which once again fails, with horrifying results for poor Natalie.

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Houston warns Grace and Danny they’re in danger, and the trio plots an escape. But Conway catches them and throws the men in a cell with Lobo, while Grace is reserved for the gland transplant. The guys outwit dim-witted Lobo, with Danny giving his life. Houston confronts Conway and reveals he’s not a killer, but an undercover cop! Conway eludes him, only to be caught by the thought-dead Jedloe, who sticks a knife in the madman’s gut. The police arrive, and find a cell filled with more of Conway’s mutated monsters.

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Sounds thrilling, no? It’s really not, except for over-the-top Carradine and fans of Tor Johnson. THE UNEARTHLY was the brainchild of one Brooke L. Peters, aka Boris Petroff. Petroff was an exploitation veteran responsible for silliness like ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961) and SHOTGUN WEDDING (1963), a Hillbilly effort with screenplay by none other than Ed Wood himself. Cowriter of this one Geoffrey Dennis was a pseudonym for John D.F. Black, penner of Blaxploitation flicks SHAFT and TROUBLE MAN. The cast features Allison Hayes (Grace), the one-and-only star of ATTACK OF THE 50-FT WOMAN. Myron Healey (Houston) was a good actor who mostly played Western heavies. Marilyn Buferd’s (Sharon) claim to fame was as Miss America 1946. Arthur Batanides (Danny) was a well-regarded character actor known for his role as Mr. Kirkland in the POLICE ACADEMY series. And Sally Todd (Natalie), besides appearing in FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1959), was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for February 1957!

THE UNEARTHLY is harmless 50s fun, with Carradine at his overacting best. And now, I’ll let Tor Johnson have the last word:

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