Monday, October 17, 2016

The Beast Must Die (Great Britain, 1974)

Aka Black Werewolf. Werewolf films have it bad. So few are ever done right. Sure, the classic Universal movie, The Wolf Man (1941 / trailer), got it right, as did The Howling (1981 / trailer), and the Hammer version with Oliver Reed, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961 / trailer), has many plus points, as does Eric Red's far less than perfect Bad Moon (1996), but most miss the mark worse than a dog on acid trying to pee on a fire hydrant. Sometimes they improve somewhat with age (see: the TV flick Moon of the Wolf [1972] and Mike Nichols' Wolf [1994 / trailer]), but in general they seldom work. In regard to The Beast Must Die, the only werewolf movie to come out of England's "second" horror studio, Amicus, the question is whether it simply didn't age well or whether it was never any good in the first place. In all likelihood, both are true: The Beast Must Die is a highly flawed, second-rate werewolf film which, unlike so many movies, has not improved at all with age.
And that despite a cast that includes numerous genre-film-fan faves: Peter Cushing (sporting an entertaining German accent), Charles Gray (as supercilious as always), Anton Diffring, and Marlene Clark. (Less a genre-film-fan fave than unrecognizably young: Michael Gambon, whom everyone now knows as Albus Dumbledore.) The always fun Robert Quarry (of Count Yorga, Vampire [1970 / trailer], The Return of Count Yorga [1971 / trailer], Dr Phibes Rises Again [1972 / trailer], Deathmaster [1972 / trailer] Madhouse [1974 / trailer] and Sugar Hill [1974 / trailer], among many) was also originally meant to be part of the cast, but the then-current Blaxploitation craze resulted in the main character, Tom Newcliffe, of what was originally planned as a typically all-white British horror movie, getting a new skin color.
Based on the short story There Shall Be No Darkness by James Blish (23 May 1921 – 30 July 1975), first published in 1950, the plot involves a millionaire big-game hunter named Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart of Predator 2 [1990 / trailer] and Myra Breckinridge [1970 / trailer]) who gathers a group of people together to his secluded country mansion. He's convinced that one of the group is a werewolf, and plans to add the werewolf to his list of big game kills. It must be noted that for a big game hunter, he turns out to be one of the worst shots in film history: even when he literally machine guns a barn to pieces, he misses his target. In the end, an unassuming and much older man — who never makes mention of ever even having shot a gun — turns out to be a better shot than he.
The opening scene of The Beast Must Die is pretty much a filler and rip-off in that it makes the movie look like an updated version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932 / complete movie, version ad nauseum). But once that misconception is cleared and the true narrative established, things don't get much better. British films often do something rarely done in the movies of most other countries: they not only populate their movies with unsympathetic characters, but make the leading character totally dislikable. And The Beast Must Die is a prime example of this. But for Tom's wife Caroline (Marlene Clark of Night of the Cobra Woman [1972 / trailer], Slaughter [1972 / trailer], Ganja & Hess [1973 / title track], Lord Shango [1975 / trailer], and Switchblade Sisters [1975 / trailer]) and Prof. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), not one of the "suspects" is really in any way sympathetic or worth the viewer's concern.
Tom Newcliffe himself is an asshole times ten: egoistic, choleric, blustery, dictatorial, obnoxious, disagreeable, latently & blatantly violent, and oddly unintelligent — anyone in the world could have thought of a dozen more intelligent ways to find out who's the werewolf than his method (like, for example, simply locking each person in their room for the three days of the full moon or, for some gruesome fun, cooking powdered silver into the food) — the self-made millionaire has the personality of the not-self-made psycho Donald Trump, but without the entertaining verbal idiocy.

In this regard, The Beast Must Die does indeed suffer by the casting of Calvin Lockhart as the hero: although handsome, he is a humorless actor who exudes distance and unavailability, if not eternal anger, and he fails at lending his character the needed suaveness or sense of culture or humor or at least worldly concern needed to make him less obnoxious and unlikeable. His Tom Newcliffe leaves so little to viewers to identify with that even during the movies resolution, when one is obviously meant to feel for him, one doesn't. (James Earl Jones, Moses Gunn, or William Marshall [of Blacula (1972 / trailer), Scream Blacula Scream (1973 / trailer) and Abby (1974 / trailer)] — or even Duane Jones [of Night of the Living Dead (1968)] — would have been much better choices as Blaxploitation options to Robert Quarry. Not to mention Richard "Shaft" Roundtree of Q: The Winged Serpent [1982 / trailer] and Maniac Cop [1988 / trailer]).
As for the werewolf itself, it is indeed a joke: far more so than looking like either a werewolf or even a wolf, the creature is a direct descendent of the killer shrews in the classic so-bad-its-good movie The Killer Shrews (1959). It looks just like what it is: a friendly dog wearing a body wig. How could anyone who took part in the production actually think that would work? Not good. Not scary. And all the less scary due to the near-incompetent cinematography of the badly shot day-for-night scenes. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
In theory, The Beast Must Die is a kind of film version of the classic board game Clue (itself filmed as a comedy in 1985 [trailer]) in that you as the viewer are invited to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. This is the basis behind the movie's famous 30-second "Werewolf Break" towards the end of the movie. The Werewolf Break is oddly endearing, and is kept for the current DVD releases. (It was cut from the AKA release, Black Werewolf.) But to guess who it is, is the best one can do, for there are no real clues to indicate the possible werewolf. True, there seems to be an extremely obvious "clue" when the dishonored diplomat (Charles Gray of The Devil Rides Out [1968], The Legacy [1978 / trailer] and, of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975 / trailer]) is playing chess with Prof. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), but it proves to be little more than a red herring.
To give credit where it is due, the funky title theme by Douglas Gamley (13 Sept 1924 – 5 Feb 1998) is superlative, and while it catches nothing of horror it does have the rhythm and beat of classic Blaxploitation. Although sparingly used, it is the most exciting aspect of the entire movie. In that sense, it also does its part in magnifying the movie's flaws. The drive of the funky soundtrack during the opening of the movie is so effective, so invigorating, that the later dullness that is the movie seems intensified. And make no mistake, The Beast Must Die is indeed a rather boring movie: it simply has way too much talking and shouting, and way too little action. The filmmakers seem to have realized that themselves, for they interject a few unconvincing and poorly shot chase scenes, none of which put the viewer on the edge of their seat in any way and, instead, simply come across as padding.
The Beast Must Die: neither a classic of British horror nor Blaxploitation, nor all that much fun in any way. It does not deserve the viewer's time. Skip it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Motel Hell (USA, 1980)

"Meat's meat, and a man's gotta eat."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

When we went to see this flick way back when it was released — yes, we were old enough to see R-rated movies without adult supervision in 1980 — it wasn't just because we are horror fans and had hoped for a movie corresponding to the trailer above. No, there were two other, primary reasons we wanted to see Motel Hell: Playboy's September 1978 Playmate of the Month Rosanne Katon (36C-23-34, directly below in her prime),* and Playboy's November 1978 Playmate of the Month and 1979 Playmate of the Year Monique St. Pierre (36C-26-36, further below in her prime).** (Or does that count as four other reasons?) Among the many things we disliked about Motel Hell at the time, aside from the fact that it was neither all that gory nor scary, was that in the movie they were both underused and overdressed.

"It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

* Rosanne Katon had a short but successful career in exploitation and much more of her (literally) can be seen in such fun titles like Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976 / scene), The Muthers (1976 / main theme), She Devils in Chains aka Ebony, Ivory & Jade (1976 / trailer, with Playboy's October 1969 Playmate Jean Bell), Lunch Wagon (1981 / trailer), and Bachelor Party (1984 / trailer).

And while we doubt that our latter two quibbles with the flick were shared by many, Motel Hell was anything but a hit when it was released — and that despite the iconic photo on the cover of Fangoria #41 (still further below). Motel Hell only became a cult classic over the years, when time permitted it to be appreciated as it was intended to be appreciated (as a quirky black comedy) and not as a failed and not-so-bloody slasher at a time when blood and not humor was expected of a horror movie. Indeed, that was probably the marketing department's biggest mistake back then: as obvious by its trailer above and the Fangoria cover and spread, Motel Hell was sold as a serious hillbilly horror movie along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 / trailer) — Tobe Hooper was even the movie's originally intended director — when it is arguably more an odd hybrid of hixploitation like HG Lewis's incompetently made but entertaining classic Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964 / trailer) and Bob Balaban's inexplicably forgotten black cannibal comedy Parents (1989 / trailer).

"Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these actions."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

** Monique St. Pierre's career as an actress was miniscule at best; her only other film of note is Cirio H. Santiago's typically lowbrow sci-fi action flick, Stryker (1983 / trailer).

In any event, recently, 36 years after having seen Motel Hell in some long gone grindhouse in downtown San Diego — yes, the city's "Gaslamp Quarter" once had real personality — we caught the film again, uncut, one early evening in Las Vegas. (OK, it was Henderson, but who can tell the difference?) And we liked it a lot more than way back in 1980, though the movie is far from perfect. It is, in a way, a prime example of the individual and oddly personal (if not less than commercial) projects from a time in Hollywood when the studios weren't overly infected with sequelitus and still weren't above releasing an occasionally unusual horror movie that didn't fit in a specific shoebox. (Private Parts [1972 / trailer], Images [1972 / trailer], Tourist Trap [1979], or the continually and unjustly maligned Fear No Evil [1981 / trailer] anyone?) It is easy to see why Motel Hell has developed cult status over the years.

"There's too many people in the world and not enough food.
Now this takes care of both problems at the same time."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

Originally planned as a straight horror film by the producer-screenwriters Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe, Motel Hell got revamped as a satire after Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave [1974 / trailer], The Land That Time Forgot [1975 / trailer], At the Earth's Core [1976 / trailer], The People That Time Forgot [1977 / trailer], Warlords of Atlantis [1979 / trailer] and The House Where Evil Dwells [1982 / trailer]) took over the directorial reins. For the most part, the sex change was successful: Motel Hell garners many a smile, some giggles, and a few all-out guffaws as it entertains. (We particularly liked the head-scratchable hypnosis scene this time around, a humorous example of total inanity that we remember hating way back in 1980.)
It is arguable that the best thing about Motel Hell is its casting of one-time second-echelon Hollywood heartthrob Rory Calhoun (born Francis Timothy McCown, 8 Aug 1922 – 28 Apr 1999) as Vincent Smith (motel owner, butcher, farmer, small-business owner). Calhoun — whose other fun films of note during the twilight of his career include, among others, Night of the Lepus (1972 / trailer); Revenge of Bigfoot (1979 — a "lost" film legendarily featuring a cameo by some guy named Bill Clinton); both Angel (1984 / trailer) and Avenging Angel (1985 / trailer), alongside the great Susan Tyrrell; and Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988 / trailer) — remains laconic, almost unflappable, and likable throughout most of the movie but can, when needed, exude the required menace to be threatening. 
As Vincent, he anchors Motel Hell and manages to make all the flaws in the movie somewhat less noticeable (the biggest being the one-note characterization, occasional lapses in the narrative, tangents that disappear or go nowhere, and some pretty questionable acting by other actors). He also has the best dialogue of the movie, although the brainless oversight of Terry, the blonde final girl (Nina Axelrod of Roller Boogie [1979 / trailer], Time Walker [1982 / trailer] and Critters 3 [1991 / trailer]), does often achieve a humorous irony. But in the end she, much like the hero-by-default Sheriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke of The Baby Maker [1970 / from the soundtrack], Big Bad Mama [1974 / trailer], Moving Violation [1976 / trailer], Space Rage [1985 / trailer], Shrunken Heads [1994 / trailer] and Fallen Angels [2006 / trailer]), often comes across more like an underdeveloped stereotype than a real character, which makes it hard to root for her or Sheriff Smith — at least, that is, until the big final showdown featuring dueling chainsaws and a damsel-in-distress situation straight out of a Dudley Do-Right nightmare.
Perhaps not the most exciting of directors, Connor's well-framed compositions nevertheless manage to give the occasionally ecliptic narrative a determined pace that often dryly but effectively supports the humor. The fact that he fails to imbue the big final attack of the almost zombie-like survivors with much tension probably has less to do with his direction than with the script itself, which literally has the whole kit and caboodle of semi-zombies (but for one) disappear after they attack Vincent's equally deranged sister Ida Smith (Nancy Parsons, 17 Jan 1942 – 5 Jan 2001, of American Raspberry aka Prime Time [1977 / trailer], The Woman in Red [1979 / trailer], the extremely dated Sudden Impact  [1983 / trailer], and Death Falls [1991 / opening], with Roberts Blossom). Parsons' performance is rather uneven and veers between believable and unbearable, but at her best she manages to convey a superciliousness and egotism rivaling that of Shirley Stoler in the Honeymoon Killers (1970 / trailer), but sort of on a Sunday-morning comics level. She isn't at her best very often, it should be noted.

Motel Hell, a comic oddity from the past that is much better now than when it was released. Light on gore and skin, but a fun way to spend a rainy evening.
Trailer to the movie that Sheriff Smith (Paul Linke)
takes Terry (Nina Axelrod) to see,
The Monster that Challenged the World (1957):

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

R.I.P.: Herschell Gordon Lewis – Godfather Of Gore

15 June 1929 - 26 September 2016

"He seen somethin' different. And he done it."

A seminal force in the world of trash filmmaking, he is considered the inventor of the modern gore film. (In theory, a position he holds with David F. Friedman, but when the partnership ended Friedman's true interest proved to be sexploitation.) To use his own, favorite words: "I've often compared Blood Feast (1963) to a Walt Whitman poem; it's no good, but it was the first of its kind." And a truly fun gore film, too — which makes it "good" in our view.
Unlike Blood Feast and his "better movies", many of the projects he worked on are unbearable cinematic experiences; but more than enough of the others are sublime, otherworldly, like the best of Ed Wood, Juan Piquer Simón  or John Waters. Were it not for innovators like him, A Wasted Life probably wouldn't be.
One of the truly great has left the building. A career review will follow — but first, a few films that may or may not have something to do with the Godfather of Gore.

Look to the Land
(1953, prod. John Barnes)
At the Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers, on the page for Haskell Wexler (6 Feb 1922 — 27 Dec 2015), they point out that Wexler had something to do on an Encyclopædia Britannica short documentary entitled Look to the Land (1953), one of the cinematographers of which was a "Gordon Weisenborn", the director of this short, who later went on to direct the HG Lewis production The Prime Time (1960). The IEC states: "Gordon Weisenborn (= Herschell Gordon Lewis)".
If GW were indeed HGL, this Encyclopædia Britannica short would be one of the earliest films that HG Lewis directed.
Over at the Internet Archives, they explain the short: "Presents the viewpoint that America has often unwisely used its land and forest resources, that all people are dependent upon the land and must, therefore, be directly concerned with problems of conservation. Documents the misuse of these resources and the resulting problems, as the Wanderer (narrator) visits a New England farm auction, the Connecticut Valley, an Alabama cotton farmer, a Dakota farmer, a Wyoming cattleman, and a timberland region. Illustrates the interdependence of all the people in a river basin. Includes folk songs as background music."
Look to the Land (full short):
But you know what?! "Gordon Weisenborn (= Herschell Gordon Lewis)" is wrong! Gordon Weisenborn (20 Mar 1923 — 4 Oct 1987) was real person of his own, not a pseudonym.

Halloween Party
(1953, prod. Gordon Weisenborn)
Another Encyclopædia Britannica short directed by Gordon Weisenborn, not Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Full Short:

The Naked Eye
(1956, writ. & dir. Louis Clyde Stoumen)
A documentary about photography narrated by Raymond Massey. According to imdb, and various websites that parrot imdb, HG Lewis was an associate producer on this project — something we could not confirm. But if everyone thinks it, it can't be wrong, right?
The Naked Eye was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957 as Best Documentary Feature; it lost out to Jacques-Yves Cousteau's The Silent World (trailer).
The First 9.38 Minutes of
The Naked Eye:

Carving Magic
(1959, dir. HG Lewis [?])
Sponsored film from Swift and Company about how to accurately carve meat. According to Rick Prelinger's The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, this 21-minute or 13-minute film (it was released in two versions) was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, making this the earliest film we could find that he directed.
Recognize the men? It's Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles [1974 / trailer] and Munchies [1987 / trailer] and more) and HG Lewis film regular William Kerwin. Among Kerwin's non-Lewis movies of note are the trash classics Six She's and a He (1963 / half the movie), Sting of Death (1965 / scene), Playgirl Killer (1967 / trailer), Flesh Feast (1970 / trailer, with Veronica Lake), Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971 / credits), Dear Dead Delilah (1972 / Off with her Head), The Single Girls (1974 / trailer), Whiskey Mountain (1977 / trailer), Barracuda (1978 / trailer) and more, more, more.
Carving Magic for 21 minutes:

The Prime Time
(1960, prod. H.G. Lewis; dir. Gordon Weisenborn)
Plot, at Mubi: "A bored young girl (Jo Ann LeCompte) looking for excitement gets involved with nude modeling, drugs and a rock band." Also features the unknowns: Frank Roche, Ray Gronwold, and Maria Pavelle.
Mildly famous for being the film debut of Karen Black: blink and you miss her role as "Betty - Painted Woman". That's her to your left, below.
The Gordon Weisenborn page says, "[...] the first feature shot in Chicago in over 40 years  The Prime Time — with sequences that included skinny dipping, catfights and rockabilly. The film was produced and funded by adman, radio and TV producer, and part-time professor Herschel Gordon Lewis. The directing of the film has been erroneously credited Lewis, who would eventually go on to direct erotica and horror films."
Going by the full plot at TCM, it's a soap opera bad gal trash. Regrettably, we couldn't find a trailer online. But Jo Ann LeCompte (below) does look good. "A jumpin' rock combo plays "Teenage Tiger" (lyrics by Lewis, performed by "The Dodos")" [The Exploding Kinetoscope].
You can get the flick at good ol' Something Weird, where they say: "The Prime Time contains all the makings of a great j.d. grinder. The beat slang and a rock combo belting out the non-hit tune "Teenage Tiger" are alone worth the price of admission. [...] The Prime Time marks the first association of Lewis with David F. Friedman, billed as 'Production Supervisor in charge of Advertising, Publicity, and Exploitation'. Together they would collaborate on eleven more features and change the face of exploitation film history. A.k.a. Hell Kitten."

More to follow ... eventually.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Short Film: Ghost Burger (Great Britain, 2013)

Here at A Wasted Life, we love claymation. And claymation plus gore, even better. Way back in Aug 2009, as our "Short Film of the Month" we presented a bloody masterpiece entitled Bloody Date by the Japanese Takena Nagao. Among Nagao's many other claymation gore shorts is another (we thought) unsung gore-mation classic, Chainsaw Maid (2007 / short film). And that short, in a convoluted way, has led us to our "Short Film of the Month" for this month, September 2016, Lee Hardcastle's Ghost Burger.
See, a few weeks ago we noticed Chainsaw Made II (2010 / short film) [and, actually its sequel Chainsaw Babe 3D (2012 / censored film)] floating around the web, both of which use characters from Nagao's short, but are made by Westerner named Lee Hardcastle. (Dunno how much one filmmaker knows of the other, but as they say in German, "That's not our beer.") Personally, we don't find CM II as good as CM I, but it did lead us to searching out other shorts by Hardcastle, and we eventually reached Ghost Burger, perhaps one of Hardcastle's most ambitious projects to date, complete with rounded-out characterization, plot development, and lots of claymation and gore and sick humor. We loved it!
Oddly enough, Ghost Burger is actually a sequel! In 2012, Hardcastle participated in the "independent anthology horror comedy film" The ABCs of Death (trailer), contributing one of the most popular of the 26 shorts, T Is for Toilets (film), about "A little boy [who] is afraid of the bathroom toilet." Ghost Burger — or at least parts of it — are of a sequalistic nature, showing the further "adventures" of the boy, who survived his toilet experience ...
Be what it may, Ghost Burger also stands well on its own as a damn fine piece of goremation. Enjoy!

According to Wiki, "Lee Hardcastle (born January 21, 1985) is a British animator who specialises in stop-motion techniques. He is famous for his handmade independent animations. His work includes original remakes of emblematic 1980s action and horror films as well as parodies of animated series and video clips. His work is known for its violent and gory content." Gory is perhaps an understatement. You can watch more of his shorts at his YouTube page.
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